. . .
seven years of bad luck
. . .
All he can do is watch quietly, quietly as she closes in like a huntress closing in on her prey. His hands – strong enough to snap her wrists like brittle firewood, to smash her against the stone walls, to hurl her from his presence before she utters the words that will break him – hang limply at his sides, shackled by self-loathing. Her footsteps reverberate deliberately across the floor and gods, how maddeningly easy it would be to outrun them, leave everything far, far behind, and never look back.
He wonders why he doesn't.
Maybe, he doesn't because he has finally learned that running isn't the way. Or, maybe, he doesn't because he can't, because there is already nowhere left for him to escape the cold looks and colder words for traitors. But just maybe – absolutely, his treacherous mind whispers – he simply doesn't have the strength to run anymore.
Her voice is colder than he anticipated, and it catches him off guard like a spear of ice through the heart. Five sharp syllables later, he realizes that this will be the voice she reserves only for him, chill and beautiful and deadly, like the gleaming edge of a shard of glass.
'Because I'll end you, right then and there, permanently.'
He barely hears.
It's her eyes that slowly murder him – they are bright, bright blue, shimmering like water. But he has seen enough to recognize what he sees in hers; hatred runs through those otherwise perfect eyes like a splintering crack running across the mirror's surface, reflecting how shattered he has become. Perhaps, it is what keeps her from seeing clearly. Then again, maybe she sees the most clearly of them all.
The door slams behind her. The room is quiet once more.
Bitterly, he wonders why the breaking heart makes no sound.
. . .
Music. Courtiers. His knees are sore from sitting stiffly and his throat is sorer from repeating the same meaningless platitudes over and over and over to people who throw artificial words and paper-thin smiles in his face.
But he is the most despicable of them all. He shudders each time 'Crown Prince' is mentioned before his name, even though it is his uncle's title, he feels filthy, like a heathen caught smashing urns, and in his mind, the silken cushions under him are stained crimson with Lu Ten's blood. The knife Uncle Iroh sent him digs into his ribs viciously like an accusation, but ceremony keeps him from adjusting the sheath to a more comfortable position.
Mother smiles warmly on his left, Azula smiles chillingly on his right, and Father wouldn't celebrate something as paltry as his birthday anyway, not when arranging a family meeting with Honored Grandfather Azulon, may he reign forever, was so much more important.
Something inside him splinters quietly as he looks at Father's empty cushion, so he stares downwards instead, at the gaudy, useless mirror – an heirloom, no doubt, with a superstitious story attached – that some distant relative or another presented him. A pale and lonely boy stares back, too old and too young to be ten.
. . .
The world is on fire.
There is no time to wonder what he has done to find himself in hell. He is too busy screaming and clawing at the smooth, indifferent surface of the Agni Kai dais that offers his raw fingers no purchase. A fiery shadow looms above him, cold golden eyes inscrutable as they stare down at him as he writhes in pain like a worm to be crushed.
It cannot be his father. It cannot, it cannot, it – 'but why, father? FATHER!'
Perhaps, it is a small mercy that his own anguish and his gut-wrenching screams drown out everything else, because then he cannot hear the mocking laughter of the stands. Even then, the quiet, tiny voice in his head pleads, 'but it was cruel…and it was wrong…'
The weak words crash against the perfect white tiles of the Agni Kai dais and are heard no more.
. . .
'Azula always lies. Azula always lies. Azula always lies. Azula always - '
No good. Already, he remembers Father's deep frown and smoldering eyes during his miserable firebending performance in front of Fire Lord Azulon. Mother doesn't understand; Mother didn't see the fleeting look of disdain and disregard that coolly said, 'that is not my son.'
He imagines the fire bearing down on him, the flames swallowing him as he falls down, down into nothingness, his father watching calmly as he crumbles into ash. A shudder runs through his core because it is so real, and the image burns into his mind like some macabre omen, driving him towards his inevitable fate. 'Dad's going to kill you…'
A spark of fear snares his parched heart and bursts into a flash of fiery rage.
His throat is too small to contain the roar of frustration as he hurls his suffocating blankets to the floor. The nearest cushions and pillows are quick to follow it, but they land softly, weakly, without breaking and his fury doesn't abate.
Then he spots the useless, worthless mirror gleaming from his bedside table, and before he can stop himself, he has already hurled it with a silent scream at the far wall.
It shatters with a soft sparkle that sounds strangely like a gasp of pain. The gleaming shards spiral hopelessly in the air before shattering into fine, fine powder on the ground below with a diamond-dust sigh as the mirror dies.
. . .
As another boulder slams into his stomach – his churning, empty stomach – his vision bursts and reams of blackness bloom before of his eyes. The rock drives the breath from his gut, and he heaves dry spit and parched gasps because there simply isn't anything else for him to throw up.
He feels their bulging, beady eyes fall on him as he lays there, the strength bleeding away from his limbs, hunger and fatigue and weakness gnawing at his bones as his heart turns to lead.
Everything slips through his fingers like ashes. Lying in the trail dust of a nameless Earth Kingdom village, a starved and ragged refugee who can protect nothing. A failure, not a hero, not a prince. He tries to find the strength to stand again, strength that isn't there, and his leaden heart sinks against his broken ribs.
The heavy shadow falls across as the soldier looms over him, and he remembers another fiery shadow looming above him, cold golden eyes inscrutable as they stare down at him like a worm to be crushed; something deep inside snaps with all the hatred and madness of wildfire.
Not again, never, ever will he make that mistake again.
Cold steel becomes searing fire in his hands as the heat and anger rip out of his skin like a whirlwind as he roars, and the whole world is pushed back in his defiance.
He stands, breathing in the scent of ash, wreathed in fire like someone who has clawed his way out of hell.
He won't stop fighting while the fire still blazes just under the surface of his skin.
. . .
When the bandage comes off, it's not as bad as he thought. And that makes it much, much worse.
He doesn't know how long he stands and stares at the boy in the mirror staring back, one eye gold and bright and blank, the other buried deep in angry red and seared into a permanent scowl. After a moment, he lifts a shaky hand to trace the rough, unfamiliar skin and tries to convince himself that it isn't really his face, but someone else's, and it wasn't his father who made such a gruesome scar.
Gruesome. Disgusting. Hideous. And he is stuck with it forever. Father had done this to him, and it couldn't be healed; he'd have it until the day he died. Even as he tries and tries to rearrange his hair to cover it, the angry, slit eye always peers out through his bangs, accusing, ugly, and his forever.
For the umpteenth time, the tears blur the vision in his good eye, and he feels another choking sob tear its way out of his throat. But the unscarred eye remains angry, and his sight is surprisingly clear from that eye as he watches half of his face in the mirror crumple into a pathetic, sniveling boy. The other side – the hideous, scarred side – remains as red and rived and rage-filled as ever.
In a heartbeat, the sobs dissolve and a sense of fury and injustice grips him as he focuses on his brand new scar. Why should he hide it? So the world won't stare, wouldn't feel disgusted at his face? Well, let them stare. He'll prove them all wrong and take back everything he lost. No matter who. No matter what.
Hands firm he draws his knife, and with a deep breath, he cuts away the hair in front of his scar. The strands flutter away, lock by lock, until almost all of it is gone, a mere memory of childhood. The boy – no, the man staring back in the mirror is angry, strong, and driven, even as the shining tracks of tears dry slowly against the fire burning beneath the surface.
. . .
One hand clockwise. One hand counter-clockwise. Draw the energies together. And channel –
The explosion hurls him backwards again, just like the previous attempt, and the attempt before, and before, and before, and before.
His uncle offers him some meaningless words, and tries to teach him a different move instead, but he knows in his heart that he has failed once again.
. . .
"No, I hate you!"
It's a familiar feeling, something splintering inside him as it sinks to the pit of his stomach. The young Earth Kingdom boy's expression reflects those words all too clearly – he has seen that piercing, hard look in too many eyes too many times to mistake it; he wonders, instead, why it matters so much to him this time when he never cared before.
He swallows dryly and licks his parched lips before standing and tucking the dagger back into his belt. There's no need to look to see the hard, hateful glares freezing his blood, and he keeps his expression carefully contained as he stands and walks away. His entire body aches, and he's fairly sure that at least one or two ribs are broken, but the throbbing in his chest is deeper, heavier than a rib injury should feel.
No one says a word as he mounts his ostrich-horse. In a way, he is glad that for the silence, because he doesn't know what he'd do if there were colder words to go with those cold glares.
The entire world seems to watch in silence as he slowly spurs his mount out of town. Clop, clop, clop, a throb for every time he jars his wounds, a throb for every heartbeat pounding against his chest.
Only when he is far away does he feel thankful that his lips are parched and his throat is dry, because he has no water to spare for tears.
. . .
He breaks with a choked scream as the twin swords slip from his fingers and clatter to the ground, the scrape of metal against stone echoing against the chamber like the a death knell. A death knell for all of his dreams, his struggles – all of what defined who he was and why he lived – buried in this silent, watery prison as he kills 'Prince Zuko' with his own two hands.
He screams and claws from inside, because Zuko has never given up without a fight, not like he has. But as he watches the Avatar's bison soar away, undoubtedly to an ecstatic boy and his little followers, he feels himself die a little.
He throws the grinning demon mask into the water, he watches it sink, swallowed up by the dark water, and dies a little more.
His uncle stays uncharacteristically silent the entire trip home. He wishes, for once, that the old man would blabber on about tea and pointless adages like always, because the silence crushes him, drowns him. The screaming inside him is weaker now, fading away into nothing.
Seeing their dingy apartment – his home now, the jail that will trap him as 'Lee' forever – drives the final nail in the coffin. He is only Lee now, the teashop boy, the refugee, without a future or a destiny or any reason to keep fighting.
Prince Zuko dies. The screaming stops, and the emptiness rushes from his stomach and courses through his veins like poison.
"I don't…feel right…"
Lee doesn't fight the blackness that swallows him as the world falls apart under his feet.
. . .
"Strike me! You've always thrown everything you had at me, and I can take it! But now, I can give it BACK!"
His throat burns as he roars at the storm, but he still can't hear himself over the thunder and rain. He is soaked to the bone, and the wind seems intent on tearing him from the mountaintop, but he doesn't care anymore, he doesn't care about anything anymore.
The sky flashes brilliant white, and for a single terrifying, exhilarating moment, he doesn't know if he is alive or dead, if the sky accepted his challenge.
But then the lightning streaks away, miles and miles away, hopelessly out of reach. The rain is the only thing beating him down; he can do nothing against water. The lightning does not come again.
Alone, he cries out incoherently into the storm again, wishing for something to break him, because then, at least, he will know why he is broken.
. . .
The light silk and heavy armor weigh upon his shoulders again, but they are strangely unfamiliar, so different from the rough homespun cotton of Earth Kingdom clothes. He looks upon the finery of his homeland, of his home through the eyes of a stranger who doesn't belong.
"I see your travels have changed you."
His father's words make him tense, but not from fear; they set alight a certain madness deep inside, and he feels the ridiculous urge to give into crazed laughter and scream to his father's face, 'You see nothing, YOU KNOW NOTHING!' His father, sitting on a cushioned throne, while he shivered and gasped and struggled in the icy waters of the North, while he starved and begged and bled among the Earth Kingdom peasants, while he looked into the eyes of the betrayed, accusing and hateful and cold.
But he keeps his gaze down, stays silent and respectful, because his father's acknowledgement and love is all he ever wanted, even as he feels like a stranger in his own skin.
'I am home, where I belong,' he tells himself, and yet, the words ring false even in his head. He looks up into his father's golden eyes, and he sees nothing, not the warm gold of his Uncle, or the chilling steel of his sister's. Nothing, as if his father sees right through him, like he isn't really there.
And, staring into Father's gaze, he knows that he was never home, will never be home in these unfamiliar silks and unfamiliar words. Prince Zuko is gone; he doesn't know who he is anymore.
. . .
He watches the Avatar fall with a strange numbness.
Somehow, it never struck him until now how young the boy is, and how strange it is that this little kid is the Fire Nation's greatest fear, the one he has hinged his destiny upon, the single hope of the rest of the world.
But it doesn't matter anymore; Azula killed the Avatar, and while part of his mind reels in inexplicable horror, most of him watches numbly as the water tribe girl – the one who had offered to heal his scar – cries what he thinks is the Avatar's name and charges over in a torrent of fury and flood. She cradles the fallen Avatar like some kind of guardian angel.
It feels wrong, ominous, like shattered mirrors heralding seven years of bad luck. Like his decision is wrong, like Azula is wrong – the entire Fire Nation is wrong, but all he wants is to go home. Azula smiles; he looks to his uncle instead, trying to explain that he just wants to go home, and that his decision for the best, for both of them.
Uncle meets his gaze for only a brief instant. The man looks tired, and more than anything, deeply sad and disappointed. Then his uncle turns away, no longer willing to look at him.
He knows, then, that he has made the worst mistake of his life. He knows what he is now.
'But I just want to go home.'
. . .
The electricity courses through every vein in his body, and his mind goes blank from the sheer power and terror crashing together inside of him.
When he comes back to himself again, he is already tearing down the tunnel leading back to the capital, covered in sweat and panting like a steam engine, his fingertips still twitching from the kiss of lightning.
Only then does he realize that his father has truly tried to kill him. No reservation, no hesitation – if he hadn't redirected the lightning, it would have reduced him to ash in an instant. The realization slams into him like a punch to the gut, and he stops running and leans heavily against the wall of the tunnel, trying to steady his shaking limbs and get his wild heartbeat back under control.
There's a strange feeling welling up inside, of something filling his heart to the point of bursting even as his chest feels empty enough to collapse. It makes breathing difficult as he sees blackness curl around the edges of his vision, and he feels dizzy and sick and exhilarated all at once. It makes him want to lash out, do something completely insane, something that would make his most recent encounter with his father seem tame in comparison.
'So this is freedom,' he realizes, and it is strangely hollow.
The chains have been broken; he has finally shattered through the bars that caged him and drinks in the taste of freedom. It tastes like rancid spirits and bitter honey, addictive and intoxicating and horrible – the type of freedom gained at the price of everything. The freedom of a man who has nothing at all, nothing to fear, to lose, to believe.
Somehow, he can't find it in himself to smile.
. . .
She knows him best. She alone knows how despicable he can be, how heartless, how manipulative, how well he can lie and how easily he can deceive.
So she watches him, with narrowed eyes and bated breath, waiting for the betrayal that will inevitably come. This time, though, she will be ready. This time, she will destroy him before he can destroy them all.
She follows him secretly when he leaves while no one is watching. Poisoning their food, abducting a hostage, sending out a secret message – her mind torments itself with possibilities, each more horrible than the last, as she uncorks her water cask and prepares to attack the moment he makes his intentions clear. So she is mystified when he walks to an empty ledge that leads nowhere but the yawning maw of the chasm below. No messenger hawk, no stolen airship. He just stares into the abyss as it stares back at him.
His back is to her; she is still suspicious, because she cannot see the look in his eyes. But he turns away from the edge, and she does – it is a look that will haunt her dreams for many nights afterward, and she will not be able to look him in the eye for many more nights even after.
She knows what he is going to do a split second before he does it. She almost screams, and her base instinct is to stop, to save, to rescue. But he is her enemy, the traitor, the one whom no one wants and no one needs. In his gaze, she sees that he knows this too.
He is already running, throwing himself at the emptiness below, where he will fall and fall and shatter upon the rocks below, where no one will ever find him –
Because she has done what the entire Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom combined could not. She has broken his spirit, with cold eyes and colder words. As the realization dawns upon her, crystallizes into horror in her heart, the world goes awry, because upon this scene of abject grief, the Avatar – the symbol of hope, laughing and smiling in the sunlight, playing tag in the clear blue skies – swoops past on a sky bison and inadvertently blows everything back, away from the edge, a split second before all is too late.
He is thrown backwards and lands heavily, skidding along the rough stone to a stop just in front of her hiding place.
He does not get up.
Instead, his entire frame shakes as he covers his face with his hand, and low, hoarse laughter claws its way out of his throat. His voice is as broken as he is, as he laughs harder and harder, laughter that breaks her heart because this is something that she definitely isn't supposed to see. Even as Aang and Duke and Teo laugh and frolic through the mists above, she can only hear his trembling, hollow laughs, laughs of a boy who has only ever tried to do what was right, to do what was honorable, to find his way back home…whom Fate has stripped of everything – his home, his face, his fire, his honor, and even his choice to die.
When he comes to dinner, no one notices anything wrong. He is quiet; nonresponsive to Sokka's jibing, eating in silence just beyond the light of the fire. But she can see it in the lowering of his head and the shadows of his eyes – a broken, self-hating laughter that will stay with her for a long time yet.
. . .
Just seeing how emo and depressing I could make Zuko's life. It's strangely therapeutic. In case you couldn't tell, all the scenes are taken from canon, albeit in mish-mashed order.
Hope you enjoyed!