Half the Man
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.
Warnings: AU-ish, General Spoilers
AN: For AtLA Land's bingo card writing challenge. Prompt was "The Dead Man's Answer."
His father was supposed to be the Fire Lord. That was the plan. After Ba Sing Se was conquered, Azulon was going to step down, retire to Ember Island, and Fire Lord Iroh would lead in his place.
His father was supposed to lead them to victory. He was supposed to bring peace to the nations. He was going to bring unity and create a world in balance that didn't need or want an Avatar. And Lu Ten was supposed to help him on this path. To maybe, one day be worthy of following in his footsteps. To be worth the love and praise his father gave so freely.
His father was supposed to do all of that. They were supposed to do this.
His father is dead, however.
Dead. Gone. Lost.
Supposedly to the wall. To Ba Sing Se and her earthbenders. Lu Ten has his doubts. He doesn't risk saying them out loud.
Lu Ten returns with only the clothes on his back, a lotus pai sho tile, and his father's body just in enough time to attend his grandfather's funeral. He isn't surprised. Not really. Especially not when his uncle is crowned Fire Lord according to Azulon's will. Lu Ten says nothing though and just holds Zuko's hand tighter. He doesn't like the way his uncle looks at either of them as he stares out from his new throne. Even less, he doesn't like the way Azula smiles.
It takes him a few days to realize his aunt's missing; Zuko cries for hours the one time Lu Ten dares question him. He doesn't ask again. He doesn't ask about a lot of things; he wonders if he already knows the answers.
His father would be so disappointed. Would know what to do. But Iroh isn't here. Only Lu Ten and he already knows that he's half the man his father was. That he isn't as strong or as smart. That he's doing the best he can, and it still isn't good enough.
The entire palace is solemn and full of hushed silence. The servants won't meet his eyes and seem to tremble whenever the new Fire Lord is near. The turtle-ducks from the pond are missing, and Lu Ten finds their scorched remains next to child-sized footprints. Zuko won't leave his side for more than an hour at a time, but whenever he comes back, Lu Ten sees bruises and marks on him that can't be entirely explained away by sparring.
Months pass. The tension in the palace keeps rising. Lu Ten learns to sleep with his eyes open and a knife underneath his pillow, something he didn't even do in the Earth Kingdom. He takes food only from people he trusts personally and avoids the dining hall like the plague. His room has been gone through so many times that Lu Ten keeps his most prized things on his person at all times. He overhears whispers in the hallways. Murmurs of disappearances. Of dissenters and other undesirables missing from their own homes. Of entire families gone in the night.
Lu Ten begins to think that he'll be next. And if not, then soon. The only thing that saves him is that he's still a prince, a member of the royal family. Ozai is many things, but stupid isn't one of them. Too many people will notice if Lu Ten suddenly vanishes. He's safe for now without being secure. A tenuous truce he knows won't last.
But he doesn't know where to go. Who to trust. Where to turn. Who can help them. His father was well-liked and almost universally beloved by their nation. But many of his friends are gone. Evaporated like smoke in the wind. Either by their own means or due to the Fire Lord. There's no one left, seemingly no one to care what happens to Lu Ten, much less to Zuko.
All he can do is wait and watch. Stay out of Ozai's way. Hold the lotus tile in his hand during the dead of night. Train his cousin as best he can.
Then, a year's gone. He finds Zuko curled up in the farthest corner of the garden one day. He's eyes are red-rimmed but dry, and there's a burn mark on his chest that's shaped like a hand of a man. Lu Ten feels his blood go cold when he hears what happened, and the only reason he doesn't go for Ozai then and there is because he knows that he'll lose and there'll be no one left to save his cousin.
Finally, Lu Ten's had enough. They leave the next day for Ember Island. His excuse is feeble at best, but Ozai is just glad to be rid of them, and Azula's smirk is burned into his mind as they sail away. Zuko spends the entire journey glued to his side and listens to his lessons on bending with a single-minded intensity that's frightening.
Lu Ten knew things were bad, but he wonders if he still missed the worst of it.
They remain on the island for a month; Lu Ten figures that's long enough for Ozai to be convinced they'll stay but not long enough for him to have much time to plot. The day they leave, Zuko shows him a lotus tile that he found on his bedside table. Lu Ten doesn't know what it means, but something pulls at his memory. He recalls watching his father play various people over the years, and somehow, that tile always seemed to be the center piece.
It takes them over a week to reach the Earth Kingdom, and the trip is taken in complete secrecy. He dismisses the crew afterwards, but he knows few if any of them will be heading back to the Fire Nation. He and Zuko are quick to disappear into the wilds on a search for something and someone he can't even name. Lu Ten doesn't even know where to look, who he's supposed to be looking for.
Fortunately, they find him.
His camp is small. Just himself, his cousin, and three soldiers he's known since before he could talk. The waterbender takes them out first. He freezes them in place with the water from their own canteens and the stream nearby. It's only later that Lu Ten realizes that they're frozen but not dead, and in the heat of battle, his first instinct is to launch onto the offensive. The waterbender is driven back before he can get any unfortunate ideas about the proximity of Lu Ten's younger and less-experienced cousin.
He shoots out a line of flames that chase after the waterbender, but a wall of fire springs up to intersect his blast, and it fizzles as it's overcome. Lu Ten lets out another strike, and Zuko jumps in with attacks of his own. But all of them meet the same fate. He doesn't even know where the fire's coming from. Where the other bender is. Much less why he's defending someone from the Water Tribe.
It doesn't make any sense. Even less so when the earth beneath his feet gives and rumble, and he's only saved when Zuko all but tackles him to the side. Both of them roll to their feet in just enough time to see the spot they were just standing turn to sand. They dodge the following rocks, and if the situation weren't so dire, Lu Ten would be almost impressed by the mixture of fire and earth sent their way. But he has his priorities, and right now, that focuses on surviving.
He doesn't know how long the fight lasts. Probably minutes at most. He and his cousin – brave but so painfully young – are being driven back. He doesn't want to admit it, but Lu Ten already knows they won't win this fight.
Lu Ten is a good firebender, maybe even great. He survived combat and Ba Sing Se where the best of his comrades didn't. His lightning isn't anything to laugh at, and when he truly tries, he can even make his fire burn blue.
But he isn't a master. Not yet. Not for years.
He'll lose and lose badly. And that will be the end. For both of them.
His fire flickers and dies then, and his stance becomes something of defiant surrender. Zuko beside him looks up for guidance, but Lu Ten can only frown and wait tensely as a man appears in the clearing. His hair is white, and there are two scars that trace his golden eyes. The man's face is solemn and unreadable, but something about him is very familiar. Like Lu Ten knows him or should.
"Well, now," he says. "This isn't something you see every day. Two princes of the Fire Nation come all but knocking at my door."
Lu Ten stiffens and fights the urge to shove his cousin behind him, but Zuko's hand is on his arm. Whether it's for comfort or in support though, he can't tell.
"How do you know us?" Lu Ten asks then before he can help himself, and Zuko's fingers on his wrist tighten painfully.
The old man lets out a sound like a bark. "I was friends with your father."
Lu Ten feels something in his spirit tremble, and it's still trembling as there's a rustle and more men emerge. He sees them then. All gathering around in a half circle. The waterbender from earlier alongside what has to be an earthbender. Two men of the Fire Nation, the old man in front of Lu Ten and another with a sword at his side.
Water, earth, and fire. All that's missing is air.
Something prickles in the back of his mind then. Vague thoughts on stories his father used to tell him when he was even younger than Zuko. Something about friendships and flowers and tea.
His gold eyes lift to study them and be studied in return. The waterbender is reserved and a step farther away than the rest of them. The old firebender is directly in front of him, and his swordsman friend is just to his left, watching with eyes that miss nothing.
But it's the crazy looking earthbender who really draws Lu Ten's attention. The old man is grinning and even lets out a cackle as their gazes meet. He reaches for a bag at his side, and sweat trickles down the back of Lu Ten's neck. But all the earthbender does is pull out some rock candy and offer it to his cousin. Zuko blinks, shoots Lu Ten a look, and reluctantly reaches forward.
They smile then. Lu Ten tries to keep his mouth from dropping open as the earthbender ruffles Zuko's hair. The firebender in front of him gives a little snort, and his friend with the sword rolls his eyes. The waterbender just lifts a brow.
Lu Ten is sure this is the weirdest prisoner situation ever. He's not in shackles, and his enemies give his cousin candy. They know his father. Or at least, they say that they do.
All of the nations. Water working with earth helped by fire. Lu Ten doesn't know what it means, but he should. Had Iroh lived, he probably would. But it isn't too late. There's still time. There's still hope.
Lu Ten thinks about the pai sho tile in his pocket and dares a step forward.
"Who are you? What do you want from us?"
It's isn't quite a demand but not quite polite either.
It earns him something like a smirk.
"You have Iroh's fire, boy," the old firebender comments. His eyes go to Zuko, who is eating the candy but watching everyone very carefully. "And so does the little warrior there. Good, you'll both need it."
Then, the old man laughs. All of them do, and somehow, they've gone from tense to almost friendly. Lu Ten feels his head swim as the old man claps his shoulder hard enough to make him stumble.
"You'll do, boy," he says in a voice like still burning embers. "You'll do."
His smirk is wicked like Iroh at his worst. When he knows he's already won the game and his opponent has yet to realize it. For all that it's worrisome, it's also somehow comforting.
"Welcome to the White Lotus."