5

Title: Night Terrors

Author: Ergo_Awesome (Maria Lee)

Characters: Zuko, plus ensemble

Rating: T (please note warnings)

Word Count: 3,084

Warnings: Deals with themes of child abuse, specifically sexual abuse, between a father and son. While nothing is graphic, please be warned. Also contains general spoilers for all of the original A:tlA

Disclaimer: I own nothing. Please do not sue. Etc.

Summary: What if Ozai's abuse of Zuko went beyond harsh words and a burned face? What if the abuse occurred every night, with atrocities committed beneath the cover of darkness? Zuko's tale of anger, fear, frustration, and perhaps even moving beyond.

A/N: While I tried to follow canon events, I don't see this fic as canon. However, I can imagine it happening if Avatar was an adult series on a network of HBO. I'll blame this fic on watching a lot of Game of Thrones.

It starts the year after Ursa leaves. Ozai has spent the year berating Zuko and listing each of the boy's inadequacies before the entire court, never missing an opportunity to remind his son that there is nobody left to protect him. A true prince, Ozai states, faces challenges unflinchingly and needs no protector. Zuko listens and tries to obey because he wants nothing more than to please his father. When Ozai begins visiting Zuko nightly the boy is surprised, but he quickly learns to enjoy the added attention. These visits are the only time that Ozai utters more than threats and insults. He even dares to tell his son that there is something special about the boy. One night, Ozai even allows Zuko to fall asleep in his arms. Zuko dreams of the love in his mother's eyes, daring to hope that his father finally accepts him. Things can return to the happy days of Ember Island when family meant love, not anger and disappointment. But that dream is shattered when Zuko wakes-up to feel his father's hand slip inside the front of his robes. Strong fingers touch the boy in a way that churns his stomach and sends goose-pimples of fear across his skin.

Zuko jerks his body away, a sharp whimper of fear escaping his throat as he furiously attempt to push his father's hands off his flesh. Short nails dig into flesh as the boy desperately attempts to pry his father's fingers from his most private parts. He yelps so loudly his voice echoes through the empty chamber of his bedroom, but the sound is immediately muffled by the sharp crack of Ozai's hand connecting with his son's mouth. Zuko's lip splits open, and he crouches at the edge of his bed, trembling silently as his hand cups the blood already spilling from the wound. Ozai laughs, calling him weak and useless. A prince, the Fire Lord claims, accepts every challenge presented. That type of son, he explains, would make a father proud. And so Zuko submits that night, and the next night, and the next. He wants his father to be proud.

Someone in the place must notice. They must see the young prince becoming more withdrawn as dark circles shadow his eyes from lack of sleep. Someone must see the way he shies from being touched, even as he submits to his father's every touch in the darkness. Even as he is forced to touch back, to taste, to leave himself open to violations and humiliations worse than any insults Ozai utters in the daytime. Someone notices the limp Zuko develops between sunset and sunrise, the mysterious bruises that mar his eyes and face on the rare nights that he resists his father's advances. At least one person knows that, on the nights that Ozai is detained on formal business, Zuko sleeps in the corner of his room hidden behind a tapestry. Someone must notice, but nobody saves Zuko.

Zuko claims he doesn't know why he challenges his father's general. It is a moment of sympathy, of shameful weakness. A moment in which he sympathizes with someone else being used and abused by those above them. He forms a silent understand with someone else whose trust is being shattered by betrayal, blood, and pain. The prince doesn't think about the year of abuse he's endured as he lashes out, but his anger towards it burns deep in his chest and along the bruises that decorate his hips. For a moment, his father's face replaces the general's as the young prince vents his outrage. He accepts the challenge of Agni Kai because, for once, he refuses to be the victim. Zuko knows exactly why he challenges the general, but he will never admit it.

The spectators all believe that the arrogant young Prince has never before surrendered to his father, never before lay prostrate at the Fire Lord's feet. Nobody tells them this is a nightly experience for Zuko, that he regularly lays motionless in fear as he accepts his father's cruelty. The only difference is that now he gives voice to his pleas for mercy, rather than letting the tears fall silently down his face. As he lays awaiting punishment Zuko prays for death, though he knows his father will never be that merciful. He also knows that the punishment Ozai subjects him to in the public spotlight will be mild compared to what the man devises tonight, hidden from prying eyes by darkness.

Zuko always locks the door to his cabin. At first he doesn't sleep much on the ship, only dozing in fitful bursts as he keeps watch on the door. He believes his father will return at night, eyes flashing with lust. Banishment seems more like a respite than a punishment, providing relief from hands that grasp and force and bruise like steel vices. But a dark part of Zuko wonders if he could have prevented his fate, if he could have used that final night to prove himself an irreplaceable lover. What if, as his father pressed against his back and hissed in his ear that the Fire Lord would miss their nightly visits, Zuko had responded invitingly rather than curling away and suppressing a retch of disgust? The former prince knows he sealed his own fate, but it wasn't during the duel. He accepts this fact after those first weeks, even as he sleeps with his back pressed against the cold metal wall of the ship. At his uncle's urging, he begins to unlock the door because a leader is always available to aid his men. Zuko wants to be a good leader, just to prove that he can do something right. But that hope is shattered when his nightmares begin, his screams echoing throughout the ship from his unlocked and opened door.

Sometimes Zuko wonders if he allows the Avatar to escape. Capturing the boys will restore his title, and the former prince wants nothing more than to regain that honor. But retaking his place as the crowned prince of the Fire Nation will bring Zuko home to his country, and to his father. The thought makes long-healed bruises ache anew, and the bile rises sharply in his throat. He wants his honor, but honor means submitting to Ozai's nightly demands. It means kneeling quietly and touching and tasting, all while swallowing sobs and hiding screams with moans. Each time that memory resurfaces, Zuko feels his firebending miss the Avatar by mere inches, or his feet slip just enough to ruin his pursuit. He wants honor, but there seems to be no honor in what he'll return home to.

The fever grips Zuko in its white-hot grasp. Nothing seems real, and the walls of the humble Earth Kingdom apartment warp into the rich red tapestries of the Fire Palace. Iroh's touch, gentle and cooling, transforms into hands much crueler and harder. Zuko knows that he screams and fights, resisting the touch that haunts his nightmares and hides around every dark corner at night. He knows he screams at his father to stop, expecting the blows to fall and beat him back into submission. But they never come. Instead, the touch retreats and Zuko is left to sweat and suffer in peace. It's only when the fever breaks that he recognizes his uncle, dimly realizing his mistake. Shakily he mutters an apology, barely able to sit up as his eyes stare blankly at the rough floor. When he dares to look up, he sees tears in Iroh's eyes. Suddenly, Zuko is wrapped in a firm, gentle embrace as the old man weeps against him, softly murmuring that he didn't know. The former prince remains silent, body rigid in his uncle's arms. He refuses to respond to the gesture, and any further attempts to broach the subject are met with stoic silence.

Mai knows something is wrong. She finds Zuko vomiting over the side of the ship as it sails silently through the night towards the Fire Nation. There is doubt in her eyes when he laughs dryly, blaming the incident on sea sickness. She decides not to mention that the exiled prince has spent a majority of the last three years at sea. Much later on Ember Island, Mai kisses Zuko deeply and presses her body against his. He hesitates at first but she persists, gradually feeling him relent as returns her kiss with increased passion. Her hands, usually so nimble when handling blades, slide forward and fumble awkwardly with the front of his robes. The reaction is as instantaneous as it is surprising. Zuko recoils back as though stung, pushing Mai away with one hand as the other struggles to draw his robes tighter. She sees his frame begin to shake. He mutters quick apologies, stuttering things about wanting to wait and not being ready. She nods slowly, calmly biting back fears that she is actually ugly and undesirable. She wants to understand, but doesn't know how.

Quiet, polite, unobtrusive girls who are friends with the Princess are allowed to wander the palace at night. They're allowed to slip into the royal wing and pad softly towards the bedchamber of the crowned prince. If they're silent enough, they can witness the Fire Lord sweeping out of his son's chamber, robes rustling and casting added shadows that hide a slender figure pressed tightly behind a pillar. Mai is polite enough to know that she should slip back to her room, but she's already forgone her manners by sneaking out to see her boyfriend in the middle of the night. So she presses forward, needing answers to more questions than she can voice. She finds them all in Zuko's huddled form, naked in a corner and partially hidden behind a tapestry. Their eyes meet for a moment, and Mai is paralyzed by the fear and shame she finds in the prince's golden gaze. She waits for the flames and insults she expects him to hurl, but nothing comes. For a rare instant Zuko is helpless, left damaged and exposed to the world. Mai says nothing, instead heading towards the bathing room. She returns with a basin of hot water, a soft cloth, and a robe draped over her arm. She leaves the items on the floor, an arm's-length from the prince's still form. He offers her a single nod of thanks and she smiles back weakly, before sweeping wordlessly from the room.

Nothing is said about the incident, both Zuko and Mai reaching a silent understanding. Mai's actions say what her words cannot. She helps Zuko escape the Boiling Rock because she loves him, because her love truly is stronger than her fear of Azula. But she is afraid. She's afraid of what will happen to Zuko if he goes back to the Fire Nation as a traitor in chains. It's not his honor she worries for – He has more honor than anyone she knows. It's the passion in his eyes, the life sparking within them that she hasn't seen since his mother disappeared. She can't imagine that vitality again being replaced by by shame. The fear she saw in Zuko's eyes haunts her dreams. Mai helps Zuko escape because nothing the Fire Nation does to her will be as terrible as the fate Ozai must have planned for his traitor son. Torture me, she thinks silently as Azula rages at her. Mai is tortured every night by the weight of her own knowledge.

It's supposed to be a joke. Later, everyone will blame Sokka because he's the "plan guy," but really it's nobody's fault. They just want to scare Zuko a little, to pay him back for chasing them halfway around the world and betraying them beneath Ba Sing Se. It should be hilarious. Toph is going to make the ground shake and Aang will create a cold breeze. And Sokka, he makes a puppet that he can control from around the corner, ensuring he'll be safe even if Zuko firebends. It's a great joke, no matter how childish Katara claims it seems. Sokka's seen her smiling when she listens to their planning sessions. Zuko, they assume, will never live-down his reaction to the 6-foot vampire bat-vulture swooping down on him in the middle of the night. They're mostly right, because nobody will forget Zuko's reaction.

Everything goes as planned, in the sense that Zuko is terrified. But he doesn't firebend like everyone expects, nor does he yell and attack the puppet with his swords. As the sharp winds startle him awake, the former prince gazes sleepily up at the dark shadow looming overhead. Panic enters his sleep-clouded eyes, mingling with an expression of familiar dread. Limbs still heavy with exhaustion, he struggles to scramble backwards, hands and feet scrabbling uncharacteristically against the hard stone ground. The word "no" repeatedly slips from his lips, body trembling uncontrollably as his eyes struggle to focus on the shadow that drifts closer with each passing second. As the ominous figure glides closer, wind rippling and earth trembling, Zuko curls into a protective ball, arms shielding his face from the blow he knows is coming. As the dark figure reaches him he cries out to his father to stop. The figure does, and that's why Zuko awakens completely.

The children stare silently at Zuko for a moment. Sokka attempts to force a laugh, but it's aborted the instant he sees the haunted look in the former prince's eyes. He can's laugh when he remembers the unadulterated terror that weighed down each of the other teen's motions. Zuko's anger finally cuts the heavily silence, as he demands to know what everyone is staring at. For once there's no smart rebuttal to his outburst, only genuine remorse. They all know that they've tread upon forbidden ground and opened a wound deeper than the scar on the boy's face. But nobody knows how to fix this transgression since nobody can explain exactly why everything feels so wrong. Restoring balance to the world suddenly seems easier than repairing whatever cruelty they've witnessed. It's Katara who tries to make amends the next day. She sits down next to Zuko, not close enough to touch him, but just close enough that they can hear each other's breath. She opens her mouth to ask a question, but the older boy silences her with a single glare, years of pain flickering within his gaze. The pair falls silent and remain that way for over an hour. Zuko appreciates the gesture.

Iroh's warm embrace feels foreign for an instant, and Zuko instinctively recoils. But his uncle continues to hold him, and gradually the tears flow with the apologies. Zuko is sorry for betraying his uncle, for abandoning the older man and every kindness shown during their exile. Iroh is sorry for so much more, for not realizing what Ozai was doing, for not rescuing Zuko long ago. They remain alone in Iroh's tent, secluded in quiet conversation long into the night. At first, Zuko is reluctant to answer any questions, eyes downcast and lips pressed firmly shut. His initial answers are stoic, monosyllabic grunts combined with shakes or nods of his head. But eventually the truth stumbles from his lips, his voice cracking and shaking as he admits everything Ozai has done. By the end, Zuko's entire body is trembling with rage and shame, even as Iroh holds him close and reassures him, for the hundredth time this night, that he has done nothing wrong. As the words gradually penetrate Zuko's mind, they become a soothing balm for his soul.

Ozai sits, powerless, in his cell. Stripped of his title and bending abilities, the man who crowned himself Phoenix King has no more power than a common prisoner. Yet, Zuko's hands tremble as he approaches the barred door, and he balls them into fists to hide their motion. Jaw clenched, he asks the one question that has been burning in his mind since he battled his sister. The madness in her eyes was as hurtful as it was frightening, and the potential answer has lead to sleepless nights. He needs to know if Ozai ever touched Azula, ever forced her to do the things Zuko was subjected to. Ozai laughs. The sound cuts through Zuko and his mind is flooded with memories of lying on the cold tile floor of his room as his father stood over his damaged body with mocking laughter. It takes all of Zuko's strength not to recoil as the laughter seems to stretch into eternity. Finally, Ozai smirks at his son and nonchalantly replies that he's never touched Azula, as she's not a slut like Zuko. The shock of the words is the only thing that keeps the newly-crowned Fire Lord's expression completely neutral as he nods once to his father, calmly turning around and striding out of the jail. It's only when the warm breeze of the outside world touches his cheek that he crumbles, emptying the contents of his stomach into the earth by the door. Zuko's mind replays his uncle's words as he tries to reassure himself yet again that he's done nothing wrong.

On their wedding night, Zuko and Mai simply hold each other. It's the first time Zuko has willingly let another human touch his naked body, and he still initially recoils. Mai is patient, never asking for more than he can give. In the following weeks, he learns to trust her touch, to lean into her hand and savor the subtle brush of her fingers against his skin. The first time they make love and she gasps in pain, blood flowing forth, Zuko immediately withdrawals. He's afraid to touch her next day, afraid to break her and become his father. But the next night she kisses him with such passion that his fear gradually diminishes. When he looks into her eyes he sees nothing but love, with no trace of the fear that he harbored for so many years. The next time they make love, he gazes into her eyes and senses the unspoken permission pass between them. As she calls out "yes" he understands that the word is more than an exclamation of pleasure. Eventually, the awkwardness fades. The only things Zuko is left with are mourning for everything taken from him as a child, and the love that is finally soothing the loss.

Zuko savors the love. He knows that, so long as it overshadows all of his pain, his father can never win.