Old Scarred Zuko
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender
A/N: My first Avatar fanfic, a oneshot set two hundred years after the end of the series, in which Zuko gets what he deserves.
The Fire cadets' barracks were unusually rowdy, and out in the street there were children running, firecrackers snapping and all the sounds of a festival getting underway.
'Ridiculous occasion,' Captain Lau muttered. He was leaning on a trestle table in the officers' mess, drinking morosely.
'Cheer up,' his fellow officer Captain Yeung said, clapping him on the shoulder. 'It will be over soon. Besides, it keeps the men in good spirits.'
'Encourages them to be cheeky, more like,' Lau said.
'Leave the rituals to me. I'll let them have their fun, and you can lash them back into line tomorrow.'
'Thanks. I've seen how bold those boys can get when they think they have tradition and a spirit on their side.'
'Sit still, Zau,' one of the young soldiers scolded, pushing his fellow cadet down in a chair. He scraped Zau's hair up to the top of his head and held it in a horse-tail while another boy waved a mirror in front of his face.'
'There you go! A little work and you'll be the spitting image! Now hand me that razor –'
'What are you doing?' Zau protested, half-rising once more as the cadet brandished a gleaming shaving blade above his head.
'You have to shave around the topknot.'
Zau slapped his friend's hand away. 'No! Don't you dare! I'll look ridiculous.'
'Don't you want to be authentic? That's how the old Fire nobles wore their hair.'
'Yes, but I'm only an old Fire noble for one day. Then I'd like to look normal, if you don't mind!'
One of the cadets crouched down in front of Zau and began to fill in his left eye-socket with a stick of red face-paint.
'No, no!' another shouted. 'You can't just slap it on like that, you've got to blend it!'
'Well you do it then, since you're such an ar-tiste…'
Zau closed his eyes so that they could rub the paint in, laughing at their squabbling and banter but letting himself slip away from it, just a little, as he thought about the role he was about to take on. It didn't matter much whether he did it well or badly – it was just a silly bit of playacting, after all – but he thought that the story, behind the fun and games, was important. He wanted to get it right.
By noon all the cadets in the barracks were assembled on the parade-ground, smartly lined up but with shuffling and chatter that would have been forbidden on an ordinary day. Though he enjoyed Zuko's Day himself, Captain Yeung could see why Lau found the whole think tiresome when he contemplated keeping control of all these young men in a state of high spirits. But in the end they all needed a good dose of fun from time to time. He stepped out into the sunshine and shouted,
The cadets all snapped to the salute. Lip-twitchings and little snorts escaped the more brazen ones. Captain Yeung paced slowly down the front row.
'Stand up straight!' he snapped at one trainee. He glowered along the line, trying to look fearsome. 'And you, boy; find something funny?'
'No, Sir!' the cadet answered, biting his lip.
'Are you being disrespectful towards me, young man?'
'Oh, no Sir!'
'Sniggering! Why, I ought to have you severely punished!'
'I wasn't sniggering, sir. I've done nothing wrong.'
'Hmph!' Yeung's eyebrows bristled. 'I might have you punished anyway.'
The cadet stuck out his chin. He did look a little frightened. Yeung felt quite pleased with his performance.
'If you did,' the cadet said in a high voice, 'I think Fire Lord Zuko would have something to say about it.'
'He most certainly would!' said a ringing voice from across the parade ground.
The ranks of cadets parted, and Zau strode forward through the path they left. He was dressed in full Fire Nation regalia, with spiked shoulder guards, armour enamelled in red and black and his hair oiled and bound on the top of his head. His left eye was painted livid red, so well-shaded as to look almost like a real scar, and he moved magnificently. As soon as he opened his mouth, of course, he began to ham it up, but for a moment the illusion was nearly perfect.
'Greetings, brave Fire Nation soldiers-in-training. Your Prince has returned from the Spirit world to speak to you, and he wishes to be sure that your officers are treating you properly!'
'Hurrah!' the men cheered. 'Zuko! Zuko! Old Scarred Zuko!'
'So,' Zau-Zuko said, lifting his cloak in one hand and swirling down the ranks to where Yeung stood, 'what is this I hear about arbitrary punishment?'
'He started picking on me, Lord Zuko!' the cadet cried. 'Just because he saw me smiling.'
'Smiling? Punished over a little joke?' Zau-Zuko exclaimed. 'Shame on you, Captain!'
He climbed up the podium from which officers usually addressed the assembled soldiers, and called out across the courtyard:
'And what of the rest of you? Does anyone else have anything to say about the officers?'
A confused clamour of shouting and laughter rose up from the cadets.
'About Captain Lau?' Zau-Zuko prompted.
'Terrible! Drills at six o'clock!'
'Firebending in the pouring rain! What kind of trainee is supposed to deal with that!'
'He's always scowling!'
'He has a face like a grumpy fish!'
The last comment landed in a moment of silence, and fetched an uproarious laugh. Behind his makeup, Zau winced. He betted whichever cadet had said that was regretting it now.
'Sergeant Chan?' he asked.
'Makes us eat mushy peas!'
'And the drill officers?'
'They're tyrants! Dictators! Worse than the War-time Fire Lords. Save us from them, Zuko!'
'This is most shocking,' Zau said sternly, frowning around at all the officers in turn. He felt half-terrified, half-exhilarated. It felt beyond forbidden to be looking his superiors in the eye and calling them to account in this way, but at the same time he could sense that the other cadets were loving it. They were frightened on his behalf and living through him.
'Remember,' he announced, 'that it is not only the soldier who has a duty to his officer, but the other way round. Remember that you must honour your ranks by treating your trainees with dignity and fairness. If I come back next year and don't find things much improved, I shall be…disappointed.'
The cadets laughed.
'I hope I will hear at least one thing this year to make me impressed!' Zau looked sidelong at the crowd. 'What about…Captain Yeung?'
'Woohoo!' one of the boys whooped. A second later a cheer went up from the rest as well.
'He's a sport!'
'Decent man! Good man!'
'Kicked my butt in Pai Sho, but I won't hold a grudge!'
Zau raised his hand for quiet.
'Don't forget he ticked me off!' the cadet whom Yeung had reprimanded yelled as the shouting tailed off. There was another eruption of laughter.
'Thank you, lads; thank you all very much!' Yeung laughed, coming forward. Then his smile faded slowly, and Zau felt the whole mood of the courtyard quieten and change. He also felt his own power fading back to what it had been. The Captain was the kind of man who could bring a whole crowd with him, just with a gesture.
Yeung knelt in the dust before the podium and raised his hands to the sun.
'Fire Lord Zuko, patron of cadets and warriors-in-training, you guard your young soldiers and remind us of the duty of a leader to his people. While others accepted injustice in silence, you knew that true honour lay not in blind obedience but in the defence of what is right. You were not afraid to speak. May we, like you, always speak in the defence of those without a voice, and may our faces, like yours, bear the mark of honour and courage throughout our lives.'
The voices of the cadets and officers rose together, murmuring an ascent to the prayer, and three hundred hands moved like white wings, toughing their middle and index fingers first to the skin below the left eye, and then to the heart.
After the ceremony the cadets were allowed to spend the rest of the day free about the town. Zau had a girl to meet, and he walked into the marketplace still decked out in his festival getup. He was never afraid to risk his dignity for a laugh.
His girlfriend arrived with a crowd of friends, who exclaimed over his clothing and giggled at the makeup round his eye. Then the two of them wended their way hand in hand through the streets and out of the town walls, to a quiet place by a pool that they knew.
Everyone was in the festival mood, and many boys that they had passed had had their left eyes painted in imitation of Old Scarred Zuko, so Zau's makeup didn't look out of place, but when he sat down the first thing he did was to bend over the mirrored water and begin rubbing at it.
'Don't take it off!' his girlfriend said, still lighthearted.
'You like laughing at me,' he said absent-mindedly, licking his fingers to wipe the paint off better.
'No, I really think it suits you.'
'Maybe.' Zau stared pensively into the water, then took a sudden breath. 'I hope it suits me. But I don't think I'm quite ready to wear it yet.'
He stared deep into the water. It was surprising what a difference some red paint and an unusual way of wearing your hair could make. He barely recognised his face. And the expression wasn't normal for him either. It was almost like staring at another person.
'I don't have the right,' he said.
A breath of wind in the branches of the tree above. Zau looked up sharply. Had the spirit just touched him on the shoulder? Across from where they were sitting, the late afternoon sun was bathing the mountain peaks in rosy flame.
'I think you do,' his girlfriend said. She was always quick to understand.
'Maybe so.' Zau smiled and rolled back from the water, pulling her into his side. 'Time will tell.'
A/N: As a history student, you see a lot of how perspectives on events change over the years. I think that in this fic they have changed for the better, but that's a matter of opinion. It just sucks so much for Zuko that he's standing up for low-ranking soldiers' rights and gets completely dishonoured for it, and so I'd love for him to see future generations seeing what he did as something incredibly brave and noble (which it was). So he became sort of the patron saint of cadets, in case you didn't get it.
I was also inspired by the traditions in various cultures (don't ask me to actually name any specific cultures. I'm not that smart) of having days where masters and slaves, teachers and students, parents and children switch places for the lulz. The way serious things evolve into festivals is also quite interesting.
Also: yay! New fandom! *carves notch in laptop*