I know this has been done before, but I wanted to give a shot at it because it is the one thing I think the show missed. This is dedicated to my bestest bud, Soph, who always tries to get my butt in gear despite my addiction to ;)
This is set right after The Ember Island Players. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: ATLA does not belong to me.
Scars in Embers
Katara wandered around the eerily empty halls of the beach house. It still felt odd that they were hiding in the Fire Lord's own home. Wouldn't the Fire Nation keep tabs on this place? Still, maybe this was an opportunity; maybe she could find out more about the elusive Fire Lord and his family… and more about his son. Even after accepting Zuko into their little gang, it didn't take long for Katara to realize that the banished Fire Prince was just as much an enigma as his father. Perhaps even more so.
Sure, she had found out a lot about him over the last months, more than most people, but there was still so much they didn't know… and Katara had an insatiable curiosity, which is why she had ended up exploring the beach house, looking through the place as if it held the most valuable treasure (which, in retrospect, it probably did, come on, this was the house of royalty).
But Katara was doing this out of sheer curiosity, and, though it was hard to admit, part of her wanted to know who Zuko was and maybe looking into his past may help that…
A voice suddenly broke into her thoughts as she rounded a corner, walking into the stone courtyard.
"Well, well, I never thought I'd see the day where Princess began snooping." The voice made the Water Tribe girl freeze. "Oh wait, I can't!" Katara breathed a sigh of relief.
"Toph." She said, happy to realize it wasn't a certain Fire Nation boy that had found her in this… awkward situation.
"Let me guess, you want to find out more about Sparky." The younger crossed her arms, stating it as if it was fact.
"No!" Katara immediately replied, sputtering.
"Liar!" Toph sing-songed mischievously. The Water Tribe girl's shoulders slumped; sometimes Toph's seeing feet could be such an annoyance. "I have no problem with you joining the dark side." The earthbender shrugged. "Just tell me what you find… You're not the only one who's curious, Princess." Then, just as suddenly as she appeared, the girl turned around and left, leaving a confused but pleased Katara in her wake.
She renewed her search with added enthusiasm.
Katara hadn't been sure what she would find on her little expedition, she hadn't been sure at all. She had traipsed through every room, searching, finding nothing. She had almost given up completely, in fact. But then she found what looked to be an office, the Fire Lord's office. Well, summer office. Still, it looked to be promising.
And it was. Oh it was.
The waterbender felt her stomach coil as she continued to read through the documents, slowly becoming a bundle of nerves and anger. The first document she had found she had actually almost ignored, after all, what use was an official decree to her? It was only when she saw Zuko's name, or rather, title that she turned back to look at it. It was the terms of his banishment, a sort of announcement to the Fire Nation that their prince had brought dishonor to his country and was therefore permanently exiled, only to return if he caught the Avatar.
It was the word 'dishonor' that really caught Katara's eye, it reminded her of the 'The Boy in the Iceberg'… perhaps there was more to the play that she had thought?
Still, this one document made her realize something essential; Zuko had been after Aang so he could return home. This revelation stunned Katara. She had always thought… she had always thought that Zuko only had nefarious reasons for his wanting to capture 'the Avatar'. And now? Now it came to her realization that the world was not as black and white as that.
It felt as if her whole world had shifted.
She soon continued through the papers she discovered on the Fire Lord's desk. Most of it was, for lack of a better word, garbage. Then, as turned to the next page, she once again found something interesting. It seemed to be a letter to the Fire Lord, by one of his generals, detailing Zuko's departure.
The prince was brought on the ship as soon as the medical personnel allowed him to be moved. As fitting of his unworthy status, he was shipped off without the respect and protocol belonging to any Fire Nation Royalty... due to his injuries, the boy may not survive… he was given a crew of twenty sailors… the council believes this punishment to be fit for his treachery, we commend you, esteemed Lord Ozai… the utter disrespect and disregard for his superiors came as no surprise… your daughter, the honored Princess Azula on the other hand…
It went on and on until Katara could no longer tear her eyes away.
The letter, it was crude, cruel. Did… did Zuko truly do something so awful that the entire Fire Nation High Council agreed to have him banished? Katara definitely didn't hold the Fire Nation, or any of its councils in high regard… but, could there be any truth in the words?
The world shifted again.
It made her angry, the whole thing made her so angry. She was angry that the Fire Nation was so cruel. She was angry for the Fire Prince's banishment. But above all, she was angry at Zuko; she was angry for him doing something so wrong he was kicked out of his own home, she was angry he went after Aang to return to that home, she was angry at him for never telling them why. She was angry for the anger he had made her feel, and for the worry that began eating at her.
Katara was just angry. So in her anger, she grabbed the letter and the other document and strode out of the office, knowing there was only one person who held the key to her anger.
It seemed to be pure coincidence that it was in the moment of Katara's new determination that Zuko entered his former summer home, Aang following close behind. They had just finished some of the more advanced firebending techniques and both boys were short of breath as they walked up the steps of the palace-like home. They made their way into the large living room, knowing that it would soon be dark. Sokka, Suki, and Toph had already congregated inside, all three of them making use of the armchairs. Sokka was busily sharpening his beloved space sword, Suki by his side, whilst Toph seemed to be simply lounging.
"So Twinkletoes any better with his dancing?" Toph asked wryly, referring to their training.
"It's firebending!" Both Zuko and Aang answered, indignant.
"Ha! Good one!" Sokka snorted from beside the earthbender. Soon an all out joke war started and Zuko couldn't help the sigh that escaped his mouth. Didn't they realize what a lie this carefree atmosphere was? Didn't they know what would face them soon?
He watched as Sokka, in his enthusiastic explanation of something or other, fell from his perch and hit the floor face-first, causing laughs to break out all around.
No, they clearly didn't know. And Zuko doubted they ever would. He may have grown up in a palace, living the life of luxury, but the cruelty that was his nation did not spare even him.
They didn't understand.
Suddenly, the door to the living room burst open and in stomped Katara. It was probably not a good sign that she looked frightfully angry. Her burning eyes were glaring ferociously and, Zuko realized dumbfounded, they were looking straight at him.
And then she thrust some papers into his hands and said one word.
The scarred teen glanced back down at the papers and quickly skimmed through them, wondering what was going on. What did I do wrong this time? As he read on, however, his gaze lost its confused light and instead it became something much darker. Narrowing his eyes, he looked back to Katara.
"Where did you find these?" He asked lowly. The others watched on nervously, flinching a bit at his tone. When the girl didn't answer him right away, he repeated his question, punctuating his words. "Where. Did. You. Find. These?"
"His office." She didn't need to specify whose. "Is it true? Did you really do something so awful the Fire Nation banished you?" Katara demanded, her anger making its presence known. Zuko barked out a bitter laugh.
"Why does it matter? The Fire Nation is all evil to you anyways, besides, seems like you already made up your mind about my crimes." His tone went from bitter to seething as the prince stood, his eyes boring into Katara's. For a moment he forgot about their audience, focusing only on the girl across from him. He was sure she once again thought the worst of him; the letter certainly painted him in a very bad light, after all.
"That's not fair. I may be angry at you, Zuko, but I am asking you to explain this to me, because I really don't get it." She replied, finally having calmed some, though the undertone of anger had not completely disappeared. Still, she did not back down.
"You want me to explain? Fine! Maybe then you will finally see what the Fire Nation is really like..." Zuko looked at each of his companions, wondering if he really could do it... He had never before told someone of what happened on that day, what was done to him. What was done to him by his own father.
He glanced at the papers in his hands, cursing them with his entire being. There was no way they allow him to let this slide now. He suddenly held the documents back out to Katara, his amber eyes meeting her blue ones.
"I will tell you everything, but I will tell you on my own terms. These papers are not my memories." As she pulled the sheets out of his hands, Zuko took a deep breath to prepare himself and then he began his story, his voice oddly monotone. He spoke as if this was someone else's story, not his own.
"As you all know I am... was the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. As Crown Prince, things were expected of me. I was supposed to the most talented firebender, only Azula was the prodigy, not me. I was supposed to be able to hide my emotions; only I never could, not successfully. I was expected to be a great strategist... There was so much I was supposed to be, but never could be..." He trailed off for a moment, before clearing his throat and starting his tale once again.
"I was a disappointment to my nation... My father... I had to prove myself, that much I knew. One day, soon after I had turned thirteen, the Fire Lord was to host a large war meeting with the most prominent generals of our army. My uncle told me about it and I begged him, I begged him to take me with him. I had thought that maybe this was my chance to finally prove my worth; a prince needs to know about their nation, after all... Uncle never could refuse me anything, so he agreed but he told that I had to keep quiet, it was not my place to speak to the council." He took a breath.
"I told him I would do what he asked." Zuko paused. He needed to finish his story, he could no longer go back. With a sigh, he straightened, meeting each of their eyes for a moment.
"During the meeting, one general suggested a plan, one in which an entire regiment of our newest recruits would be sacrificed unnecessarily, just for the sake of an 'easy' victory. I just couldn't let that happen... Father always said I was much too weak, too soft of heart... I broke my promise to my uncle and I spoke out against the general.
This was a sign of great disrespect to the general, it was intolerable and so I was challenged to an Agni Kai, a fire duel, to solve the 'atrocious' matter. I foolishly accepted, thinking it was the old general that I would fight. Only, it was in the Fire Lord's chamber that I committed my crime, therefore it was the Fire Lord I disrespected... And the Fire Lord I would duel." Zuko ignored the gasps and continued, his voice tight.
"I didn't realize until I stepped out into the crowd; it was only until I turned, ready to fight, that I saw who would fight me. I immediately fell to my knees and begged for his mercy and forgiveness, I told him that such a thing would never happen again. The Fire Lord would have none of it, he told me to get up and fight, that he would not have a weakling for a son. But I couldn't. He was my father! And for that refusal, I paid the price."
Zuko's throat suddenly clogged as he recalled what happened next and the pain, the utter agony that came with it. That tortured burning that would never cease to plague his mind.
"He then gave me a lesson I will never forget. 'You will learn respect' he said 'and suffering will be your teacher.' He then... My father then..." Zuko swallowed, wondering when all this emotion had bubbled up. "H-He burned me, my father burned me, set my face on fire... It was agony, pure agony, and he did it anyways. My only consolation is that I passed out soon thereafter."
Zuko was unaware of the looks on the others' faces. He was unaware of the uncharacteristic seriousness Sokka was displaying, the way Suki held on tightly to the boy, a hand to her mouth. He was unaware of the sadness in Toph's unseeing eyes and the grief-stricken look in Aang's. He was unaware of the tear slowly making its way down Katara's cheek.
"That was not enough for the Fire Lord, however, and when I woke up, I was in a ship, banished and tasked with finding the Avatar, my only hope for returning home." Zuko's voice was gruff. "So I did what I thought I had to do to regain my honor… and my father's love. I didn't know at the time that I already had a father's love; Uncle had been by side the entire time and I once again broke a promise to him. I hope he will be able to forgive me for it." Then Zuko stopped, an odd pain in his chest. He glanced to his companions, his friends, expecting them to say something.
Silence. Complete silence.
Maybe… maybe they could understand. Maybe they could see just what his beloved nation was but Zuko would not stay to find out. He needed to get out of this room fast. It was suffocating him. He turned and made his way to the door, ready to leave, only, once there, he decided he had one more thing to say.
He glanced back and looked directly at Aang.
"I know you do not like the idea of taking a life but there are some people in the world that have done more cruel things that you could possibly imagine. I want you to think on that."
With that, Zuko turned and left, fighting his will to run the entire way.
Katara stared at the floor as he left, her heart pounding guiltily. Why couldn't she just learn to keep her mouth shut?
"I-I can't believe- but why?" She stuttered, her voice cracking.
"None of us can believe it." Sukie muttered, her eyes clouded. Across from her Aang seemed deep in thought, his face unnaturally serious, looking like he had aged several years.
"Well done, Katara." Sokka said, his voice sarcastic. Katara glanced up at him in surprise; her brother hardly ever got mad. Immediately, Sokka's face softened already losing his anger towards his only sibling as he saw the tear rolling down her cheek. He came up to her, placing a hand on her arm. "Sometimes, you have to respect a guy's privacy." He told her, smiling down at her sympathetically for a brief second. He patted her shoulder once before making his way to the door, Suki in hand. For a moment Katara expected Aang to say something, some wise words that should not be coming out of a twelve-year-old's mouth, but instead he shut his mouth and the younger boy left too.
Toph stood by Katara for a second, before facing her.
"Well, I guess that answered some of our questions." She stated, taking everything on brashly, just as she always did. Without another word, the blind girl went after the others.
Katara followed her silently, thinking only of one person, one broken boy.
Zuko stared at himself in the mirror, looking at his scar, once again remembering that day all those years ago. As he thought on it, he could not help the sudden disgust bubbling in his stomach. This was him? A coward that ran away when faced with a tough situation. What happened to his princely manner? Was he ever really royalty at all?
And then a thought came to him. He had been the Fire Prince before his life had completely shifted. He had been expected to be the most talented firebender, hide his emotions, a great strategist…
Now, after his banishment, when he became just Zuko, horrifying scar or not, he was no longer expected to be any of those things.
And yet he was. The burn had made him the man who his father had wanted as a son, a tool, but also the man his uncle wanted him to be. He was no longer under the influence of Fire Lord Ozai. He was his own person.
The thought made him smile. He was still looking in the mirror, with his face was half stuck in a permanent scowl and the other half smiling but, for the first time in a long time, it didn't bother him.
He was Zuko and he was who he was meant to be.
That's it! I was actually thinking of adding some more so I may make this a two-shot…
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think :)