Title: Airbender's Child: Fire
Disclaimer: I own nothing, and any and all dialogue and plot (which is a lot) cadged from the actual show makes it even less mine.
Summary: Life can be very hard when you don't know who you can trust, and you have to include yourself as untrustworthy.
Notes: Here is the prologue to the third, and last, 'book' of the Airbender's Child trilogy. I warn you now; I'm now working two part-time jobs, so my free time is much more limited than it used to be. For anyone coming to this series for the very first time, you'll want to read the first two 'books', Airbender's Child: Water, and Airbender's Child: Earth, otherwise you may well have some trouble following the story. To everyone else, we now enter the final 'book'. May the gods of fanfic have mercy on me and keep my muse from running off to penguin sled at the South Pole.
There had been a few constants throughout Zuko's childhood. The first was that his sister was always better than him at everything. The second was that his uncle Iroh and his mother were the only adults who thought anything of him, and they'd nearly ruined him according to his father and sister. The third had become mantra over the years. Azula's always right.
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 a reasonable level of skill for a member of the royal family.
Azula was another matter. She was perfect. That was all there was to it. While he was proud to be the brother of such a bastion of perfection as his sister, Zuko often wished his father would accept, at least a little, that his son was trying. He tried to shake that off, however. Whining about trying wouldn't get him anywhere and only proved the weakness that had been inculcated in him by his uncle and mother. His mother had petted him, made much of him, and ignored how wonderful her daughter was, and Zuko couldn't blame Azula for being a little bitter about it. After all, he was the weaker, really pathetic, of the pair of siblings. How his mother had chosen to encourage that remained a mystery.
Over the years, Zuko had allowed himself to be pushed from the position of Crown Prince, realising that he would never make an adequate Fire Lord, and relinquishing his position to Azula without a fight. He was perfectly happy to be used as a bargaining chip by the Fire Lord in creating a strengthened alliance within the nobility; he just hoped the alliance would be with his girlfriend's family.
They'd been dating since he was fourteen, and although he didn't always get her, she was just about the only person he had regular contact with who didn't look down on him automatically. It felt really nice, and for that alone, Zuko was absolutely devoted to her.
Several weeks before, while he'd been effectively alone at the palace and missing Mai for her affection and Azula for always being able to help him figure out new ways to try to impress their father, a letter had arrived from Azula. She'd been requesting that he join her to help with the final capture of the Avatar, Iroh and Ba Sing Se. Zuko had eagerly accepted, happy to have the chance to prove himself.
He had, it felt, but the whole thing had turned into a debacle of exceeding strangeness. Ever since he'd woken up after the illness he'd caught on the trip over, he'd felt strange. Whenever Azula said something, he'd wanted to debate the point. To argue with her. Only by reminding himself sharply that Azula was always right had he kept himself from saying anything untoward. His feelings for Mai had felt off as well. He knew he loved her. He had clear memories of telling her that, as well as feeling love for her. For some reason, however, they were both very uncomfortable with each other, and Zuko wondered if she'd had some harrowing experience chasing the Avatar that had changed her. That was probably it, and he was just being an insensitive clod.
It was what Azula had suggested, and Azula was always right.
There was also his odd degree of comfort with giving orders. For some reason, when Azula had fallen, he hadn't panicked, as was his wont, but had kept his head and managed to get everyone cleared out and moving, completing the overtaking of the city. Mai, at least, had been impressed, and Zuko had been rather handsomely rewarded for it in affection. So, despite Azula's warnings that he shouldn't get cocky, he'd decided to keep that outer confidence up. It was a risk, but the feeling it gave him was worth it.
Now that they were on their way back to the Fire Nation, he was also giving himself time to contemplate the things that were making him feel truly strange. The first was the woman who looked exactly like Azula, but was an airbender. He'd talked to her, and she'd first been all vitriol, then had started shouting the most incredible nonsense about fighting things and telling him he was better than . . . something, and not to prove their mother right. It all made him feel deeply uncomfortable, as though he'd done something wrong by supporting his sister's plan and trying to make their father proud.
After that he avoided her cell entirely, leaving the interrogation up to Azula.
The second thing was his dreams. He was having the strangest dreams about fur and the Water Tribes, flying and tea, fighting and dirt (of all things), and dreams of a girl pressed close to him that wasn't Mai. The last one made him feel particularly guilty, and perhaps contributed to her discomfort with their relationship, since Zuko kept overcompensating for his dreams about this other girl by being far more openly affectionate than Mai was comfortable with.
The third thing was the hallucinations he was sure he was having. Just one day after their ship pulled out of port for the Fire Nation, he'd started seeing something large, white and furry out of the corner of his eye. Sometimes from behind a cloud, sometimes vanishing behind a hill or outcropping as they passed islands and peninsulas. He felt like there was something very big intently following him, and he didn't dare tell anyone, lest they think he was paranoid and crazy. Equally disturbing? Every time he saw the whatever-it-was in the corner of his eye, it made him feel better.
Eventually they reached the Fire Nation and Zuko found himself home again. It felt completely alien, and he had to wonder what else had happened while he was sick.
It was then that he truly discovered how much he'd changed.