So, this is my first fanfiction... I've written stories before but this is new for me. Especially the slash. This is my first slash ever, so any comments/recommendations you have, please let me know.
This is AU, Zukaang. Ways in which it is AU: 1) There is no Avatar. Aang is just an airbender. 2) There is no Sozin's Comet. 3) This is AU in other ways, but those will mostly reveal themselves as the story goes on.
Zuko is 19, Aang is 15
Enjoy Chapter 1!
Zuko tapped his fingers impatiently on his knee, silently cursing his father. So the Firelord wanted his children out of the palace for the day so he could meet with the war generals. Fine. But had it really been necessary to force him to accompany his sister to a circus of freaks?
As much as Azula hated being forced out of the palace as well, hearing about a circus of freaks performing at the edge of the city had cheered her up instantly. Well... not that Azula was cheery, but she always liked the prospect of laughing at and tormenting others. Zuko's seen her do it plenty of times at Ty Lee's performances. The fact that this was literally a freak show would only make it more entertaining for her.
Zuko let out a frustrated sigh and laid back in the palanquin. He was not looking forward to this. Not just because he was going to have to spend the day with his sister (and that was bad enough), but because he hated freak shows. He hated the idea of them. The concept of showcasing poor, deformed beings as something less than human for the entertainment of others made his stomach churn.
He's only ever been to one in his entire life, back when his family was still in one piece. He remembered watching the benders with strange abilities perform, the people with strange deformities being marched out to do their own little performances. It was interesting to watch, but Zuko couldn't get over the fact that they all looked so miserable. His sister and father were commenting and laughing at them, as though they were telling hilarious jokes. He didn't understand what was so funny, but he laughed along with them, seeking the approval of his father.
But when he turned to his mother, his stopped laughing. She sat in silence, her expression a mixture of pity and sympathy. When she looked at him, she looked sad, but didn't say anything. Zuko looked back and forth between his mother and the performers and fell into a state of shame. As much as he wanted his father's approval, he knew it was wrong, dishonorable even, to take mirth from others' suffering.
Now, however, he lived in different circumstances. His mother having disappeared years ago, he no longer had her support against his father's judgement and wrath. And after disrespecting his father in his own war room (for which he paid for with half his face), his father's confidence in him was hanging by a thread. At this point in the game, if Ozai thought he had done anything that could be construed as dishonorable or shameful, Zuko would not only lose his right to the throne, he was sure to be banished.
This meant that he had to play the part as the ruthless prince of the Fire Nation, especially around his sister. He couldn't give Azula any ammunition to use to steal the throne.
The palanquin stopped and was lowered to the ground. Zuko pushed one of the curtains aside to see that they were at the edge of the city. Bracing himself for a miserable afternoon, he took in a deep breath and stepped out.
"Oh, this should be absolutely marvelous." Zuko turned to see his sister walking towards him from her own palanquin. When she saw his somber face, she frowned in annoyance. "Oh, lighten up, Zuzu. So Dad wanted us out of the palace today. You'll live."
"Don't call me that," Zuko growled.
Azula ignored him. "Besides, this gives us the chance to watch some realentertainment!" She indicated the giant red and yellow tent. "And if it's not to your liking, I'm sure we can find some ways to spice things up."
Zuko gave a half-smile, the best he could muster under the circumstances. "I'm sure," he said dryly.
"Your highnesses!" The ringmaster walked up and bowed to them. "I heard rumours that you would attend. You honor me with your presence."
"Yes, yes, we know," Azula said tiredly. "I just hope your circus meets our expectations."
"Of course, my princess. And if there is anything I can do to make your time more enjoyable, just ask."
Zuko internally rolled his eyes. Oh, she will.
They sat by themselves on an elevated platform. Azula was leaning forward, watching the performances with a calculating stare. Zuko could tell that she was trying to come up with creative ways to 'spice up' the performances. While he laughed along with his sister and offered (less nefarious) twists of his own, he was becoming increasingly nauseous as the show went on. The fact that the ringleader seemed to take just as much enjoyment as Azula from the sadistic twists made him feel even worse.
"And now...!" the ringleader announced, "... for our final act! We have for you, a genuine, one-of-a-kind artifact! Discovered frozen in a block of ice in the south seas, this boy managed to escape the wrath of the Fire Nation for a hundred years!"
Zuko frowned in confusion. What is the guy on about? He turned to Azula to see a small frown mar her face as well.
"I present to you... the last airbender!"
Zuko's jaw dropped. What? For a moment, he wasn't sure he heard right. But when he saw his shocked expression reflected on his sister's face, he knew he had.
A curtain lifted to reveal a smallish boy. He had blue arrows on his head, hands, and feet; trademark tattoos for those who had mastered airbending. Every inch of bare skin on his face and head was covered in brown tribal markings. He was dressed in overly flamboyant, airbender-styled robes. He stood with one foot on a large ball, his arms spread in presentation.
He looked exotic and ridiculous at the same time.
"He can't be an actual airbender," Zuko said, turning to Azula. "Firelord Sozin wiped them all out at the beginning of the war..."
He was immediately proven wrong as the boy jumped twenty feet into the air, spirals of wind hitting the whole audience and making the tent momentarily billow outward.
Azula's look of shock turned to one of excited hunger. "Looks like he missed one..." she breathed.
Zuko watched in fascination as the boy easily leapt through rings of fire, landing with a swirl of air on every platform. Sweeping out his arms and legs, slices of air cut through balloons, releasing red confetti over the audience. As he flew through his routine, he sent out gusts of air to make the confetti dance around the tent in various patterns. Everyone in the audience was captivated. Azula didn't even interrupt to add her own flare.
Finally, he jumped down to the ground, creating a ball of air and landing on it with a single finger.
The audience exploded in applause. For a moment, Zuko was applauding as well, but as the ball of air dissipated and the boy was back on his feet, the airbender's shoulders slumped and he bowed his head down. Zuko stopped clapping as the boy started to wring his hands together. Upon closer inspection, Zuko also noticed a slight tremor in the boy's body.
He seemed... almost terrified.
Azula muttered something, breaking Zuko out of his reverie. "What?" he asked.
She had a predatory gleam in her eyes as she leered at the airbender boy. "I said, I want him." She turned to her brother with a smile. "I'm in need of a pet."
Zuko's stomach clenched as Azula returned her attention to the boy. He wanted to protest, knowing that even his worst enemies wouldn't deserve to be thrown into Azula's den. But he couldn't think of a single outcome from such an act that wouldn't end badly for him. He returned his own gaze back to the boy, feeling as helpless as the boy looked. I'm so sorry...
The ringleader was obviously upset to hear about Azula's wishes. Zuko wasn't surprised, certain that the airbender brought in a lot of money to his circus. However, Zuko knew that there was absolutely no way to successfully deny Azula anything. The ringleader seemed to also know this, as he wisely said that it was his pleasure to give the princess anything she wanted and led them to where the airbender was kept.
Zuko was struggling to keep his expression neutral as they walked through the 'backstage' of the show. Most of the members of the show seemed to live in squalor. Many were chained and being escorted by stagehands. The stagehands in general, who seemed to be either earth or waterbenders, didn't seem to have any qualms about mistreating the 'freaks' as they stuffed them into their cages. Many gave the freaks a swift blow as they stuffed them into too-small cages. The ringleader didn't even seem to notice. Or just didn't care.
"Here he is," the ringleader said. "It looks like my assistants are cleaning him up, now."
The airbender's feet and hands were chained to the ground as a waterbender hosed him down to get the tribal markings off. His flamboyant outfit was gone, leaving him in a thin pair of old pants. Zuko involuntarily winced as he heard the airbender whimpering under the harsh deluge. It wasn't until the waterbender stopped that Zuko also noticed the metal gag wrapped around the boy's head.
"The gag is precautionary," the ringleader preemptively explained. "Like firebenders, airbenders can bend with their breath. When we first found him a few years ago, he was a troublemaker, constantly trying to run away and making a general mess of things. Even though I've long since broken him, I don't like to take chances."
Zuko felt like vomiting at the ringleader's words. He expected his father and sister to treat other humans like objects, but to see people outside his twisted family do the same made him literally sick to his stomach.
The airbender's fearful eyes followed Azula as she slowly walked around the trembling boy with an appraising eye. She gave him an almost coy smile before kneeling next to him. The boy's breathing hitched as Azula tightly gripped his chin, turning his head so that wide, grey eyes met cold, golden ones. "I'm going to be your new master," Azula said with authority. "If you're good, I'll make sure you have a content life in the palace. If you're not..." She pointed a finger towards him, a blue flame flickering at the tip. The boy's breathing quickened as his eyes fixated on the blue flame. Azula let her threat hang in the air for a few moments, slowly waving the small flame in front of his eyes.
It wasn't until the boy let out a small whimper that she smiled and extinguished the flame. "I think we have an understanding." She turned to the ringleader. "Deliver him to the palace. I'll inform the guards to let you in. They'll tell you where to put him."
"Very well, your highness," he responded with a bow.
As they started to walk back to their palanquins, Zuko spared one last glance at the airbender boy. His heart ached as he imagined the new hell this boy was about to enter. He silently cursed the spirits for allowing the world to torment an innocent like this.
If he was anybody else, he would stop this right then and there. But he was the prince of the Fire Nation. Beholden to his duties to his country and desperate for his father's approval. He couldn't forsake the nation, allow himself to be banished, for the sake of a single insignificant boy. He cursed his circumstances.
"I can't wait to tell father," Azula said. "I imagine he'll want a piece of the fun as well."
Zuko almost misstepped. "What?"
Azula stopped walking and sighed, as if put out. "Fine... if you want to join in the fun, I suppose I can let you play with the airbender, too." She turned to him with a knowing smile. "You could use the stress relief. I swear, you never relax."
"Right," Zuko managed to say around the lump in his throat. "Should be fun..."
As his palanquin was lifted and carried back to the palace, Zuko tried to think of a way to mentally survive his sister's unintentional new torment.
Four days later
Zuko was in a neutral stance in the middle of the practice arena, eyes closed, breathing deeply. The power of fire comes from the breath, so Zuko always made sure that his breathing was in complete control before practicing his firebending. He was fully aware of his... anger issues and knew that if he didn't have his breathing completely under control before doing advanced sets, his firebending was weak, at best. Out of control, at worst.
"I think you're supposed to practice in the practice arena, Zuzu."
Zuko's eyes snapped open. He spun around and growled, "Stop calling me that!"
Azula was leaning against the entrance, a cocky smile plastered on her face. "Oh, so angry, Zuko. You really need to get that under control."
He rolled his eyes at the irony. Recognizing when his sister was baiting him, he grit his teeth together and marched out of the arena. He grabbed the spare towel he brought with him and headed back to his room. So much for blowing off some steam.
It's been four days since they went to the circus of freaks. Four days since his sister got her new 'pet'. Four days since he's seen the airbender. Azula had told their father about the airbender, but beyond a vague fascination as to how the airbender managed to survive so long, Ozai didn't seem to have any opinion on the matter. The airbender would neither help nor impede the war, so what did he care?
Zuko had avoided the stables, Azula's room, and everything in between like the plague. He knew that the airbender was being kept under lock and key in the stables and knew that Azula had had several 'play' sessions with him already. Zuko wanted to keep the chances of contact with the boy to a bare minimum. He didn't want to have those grey eyes haunting him any more than they already were.
So he spent most of his spare time in the practice arena, going through the routines his uncle used to put him through. He's tried doing some of his father's techniques as well, but he could never seem to get through them without something blowing up in his face; literally and figuratively.
He stormed into his room and threw his towel to the side. He undid his top knot, letting his hair fall to his shoulders. His hair was still relatively short compared to most Fire Nation citizens, but that was because his hair was still growing out from when the medics shaved his head in order to properly treat his burn.
Zuko allowed himself to fall onto his bed with a sigh. Closing his eyes, he rolled onto his side, wrapping a pillow around his head.
As much as he tried to not think about the airbender, he just couldn't seem to keep the boy out of his thoughts. His imagination constantly tortured him with possible images of what Azula was doing to 'have fun' with the boy. These self-created images mixed with the memory of the airbender chained to the ground, whimpering under the harsh treatment of his keepers, making them a little too real.
Zuko groaned. This wasn't fair. He wasn't tormenting the boy, he hadn't kidnapped or mistreated him... why did he have to feel so wretched about the whole affair?
Because you can do something about it. Or, at the very least, make sure the boy has contact with someone other than Azula and cold stagehands. Maybe you would be able to give the boy some hope. But instead, you sit in the palace, doing absolutely nothing to alleviate the boy's suffering.
Zuko hit the side of his head in frustration. Why did his conscience have to sound so much like his mother? Sometimes I wish I could be as cold and calculating as Azula. My life would be so much easier...
"Have you been getting enough sleep?" Azula's voice taunted from the entrance of his room. "You don't look so good..."
Zuko sat up with a growl. "Get out of my room, Azula."
The princess rolled her eyes. "Look, I just wanted to see if you wanted to celebrate the good news..." She started to walk away.
Zuko frowned. He knew she was leading him on. He wasn't allowed to go to war meetings anymore, and Azula liked to shove this in his face whenever she could. Regardless, he decided to take the bait. "What news?"
Azula paused in her steps and turned with a smile. "What? You haven't heard?"
Zuko jumped off his bed. "Cut the crap, Azula. What are you talking about?"
His sister turned to fully face him, her smile turning into one of almost twisted glee. "The war generals have informed our father that they have found the White Lotus headquarters. They plan on taking it by the end of the week."
Zuko's eyes widened, but quickly went back to his neutral expression. "Is that so..."
A couple years ago... in fact, not long after Zuko's fateful Agni Kai with his father... his uncle, General Iroh, had disappeared. No one knew why. There had been rumours that his uncle had gathered members of the White Lotus in order to try and fight against the Fire Nation, but none of these had ever been confirmed.
To this day, Zuko was the only person in the entire Fire Nation to know for certain that these rumours were true. But Azula and their father had always been good guessers.
"C'mon, brother..." Azula teased. "We should celebrate!" She wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Zuko had to force himself to not shrug her off. "The White Lotus is the only serious threat to the success of this war. If the war generals don't mess this up, this single threat could be gone for good. And the war could be over by the end of summer."
Zuko forced himself to smile. "It'd be nice to finally see an end to the fighting..."
Seeing her brother's reluctance, she feigned disappointment. "If you don't want to celebrate with me, that's fine. I can go see what Mai is doing... make it a girls' night out..."
Zuko gave her a look of surprise. "You're... you're going out?"
Azula huffed. "Well, if you're not going to celebrate with me, then I obviously need to find someone else."
For a moment, Zuko just stared at his sister's back as she walked away. If Azula was going to be out for the night, that meant that the airbender would be left alone. Zuko could... maybe... visit the airbender in the stables. But that would raise suspicions in anyone who saw him. There was no reason for a prince to be in the stables at any time. If a member of royalty wanted something, one of their servants can retrieve it for them. And, of course, if word of such a thing ever reached Azula... No, it would be too much of a risk.
"Does the offer to play with your pet still stand?" Zuko asked. "I'd like to... borrow him for the night."
Azula stopped when she reached the end of the hall. There was silence as she turned and considered him for a moment. "Of course, dear brother," she said finally. "I'll have him sent up to your room later."
"Thanks..." When Azula disappeared around the corner, Zuko went back to his room, slowly thinking through the decision he just made. This could be the perfect chance for him to be able to talk to the airbender. Maybe he could help in some small way... let him know that he's not totally alone. On the other hand, it could also be totally possible that the airbender was already too far gone to be able to recognize any friendly act... Either way, Zuko had to try. It was the only way he was going to be able to sleep with some semblance of peace at night.
I hope I don't regret this...
So that's the first chapter! Please review with any comments or criticisms!