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half in the shadows, half burned in flames

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i.

Zuko is thirteen when his uncle dies.

He watches from the dock as fragments of metal fall through the night sky, lit by the flames consuming what’s left of the ship.

Knees aching from kneeling on the hard stone (how long? too long, move), he takes a single, shuddering breath.

He is fourteen when he finally stands.

Azula’s voice echoes through his mind, bouncing against the bones of his skull.

Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.

He doesn’t look down at the body when he leaves.

He can’t.

ii.

“Did you hear about the prince?”

“The exiled prince?”

“Yes, and the general, the Dragon of the West!”

Zuko shoves his way through the crowd, hood pulled low, and thanks Agni his portrait was never circulated this far out. Or maybe just that he doesn’t look much like it anymore.

His scalp itches, the hood tickling the newly shorn hair.

He hasn’t looked in a mirror since he cut off the tail. He doesn’t know if he ever will again.

Azula, he reasons one day.

Father, he reasons the next.

He haggles a farmer for cabbage, he steals a wide-brimmed hat.

The prince is dead, he hears. The rocks are singing it, the waves shouting it, the wind crying to the heavens.

Long live the princess.

Both, he decides one night, curled up under an ostrich-horse trough, rain falling on the ground around him, seeping into his thin clothes.

Both.

He doesn’t cry.

iii.

He steals the swords from a Fire Nation fort on the outskirts of the colonies just before he leaves them, unable to resist the pure steel he grew up admiring, unsure whether he’ll find it in the Earth

Kingdom.

He is glad that he looks old enough to not raise too many questions.

He is not glad he looks old enough to recruit.

Sliding in and out of towns, catching sleep in the branches of trees and the depths of caves, he hardens and softens at the same time.

His dao flash like the fire he hasn’t called upon in months, the sunlight dancing over their length.

“Where did you learn?” a young boy asks him. “Who taught you?”

“I did,” he says. “I taught myself.” And it’s only half a lie.

The firebending forms he tripped and stumbled over as a child, once stripped of their fire, once gifted with a blade, are more, are less, are different. They fit better in his hands, in his soul. He is better with them, deadlier, than he ever has been.

He wonders if it’s the changed forms.

He wonders if it’s him that’s changed.

He wonders what it would be to bend with the swords, to see real fire dance along the steel.

He dreams about it at night.

iv.

He is fifteen and Kyoshi Island is burning.

There is a child on his back, another on his hip. He drops them by the water’s edge and runs back for more.

The fire touches him but it does not burn. His swords carve a path through the firebenders, through the burning timber, through the screams and the smell of burnt flesh.

“Lee,” he says shortly, when the girl, the warrior, asks his name. She smiles, and he sees his sister’s teeth.

Hours later, he crouches behind a tree and shakes and shakes, he doesn’t know for how long.

(until he stops seeing Azula’s face, until he stops hearing her laugh, until the smell of burning flesh clears from his nose)

He leaves the island in the dead of night, his footsteps silent and sure.

v.

An admiral stands on the deck of his flagship and strokes his beard. Listens to the reports of a golden-eyed swordsman with an unusual burn scar.

vi.

He is fifteen when he finds himself running in earnest, still fifteen when Azula catches up.

The pursuit has carved a bloody, blackened path through the Earth Kingdom.

Zuko doesn’t have to wonder anymore what flames look like dancing along his blades.

He sleeps in stolen minutes, catches an hour if he’s lucky.

He stares at a wanted poster and wonders if it’s an accurate portrait. He’d forgotten how big the scar looked, how angry.

He decides he likes his hair loose and long (he’s certain it isn’t as long as the poster claims)

His name is not on the posters. He wonders.

He lives by his sword and his flames. He walks through broken ribs. He fights through concussions. He runs and runs and runs.

They are hemming him in.

They are cutting him off.

He wonders if he should kill himself before they catch him.

He doesn’t.

vii.

His father is waiting in the throne room.

Zuko is almost delirious with pain, he is sick with it, has been sick with it.

I am going to die .

His father looks down on him with disgust.

Zuko is very, very afraid.

He says: “Did you kill mom, too?”

Ozai laughs and descends from the throne. “You grew balls.” Then: “Yes.”

Zuko waits for him to get close. His heart thuds in his chest, so hard and so fast he thinks it will burst. He shifts his wrists, locked behind him in thin metal cuffs.

In one smooth movement, the cuffs are broken, edges molten and dripping onto his ankles. The knife his uncle gave him is in his hand and it’s arching through the air, straight towards Ozai’s neck— his mother’s killer’s neck, uncle’s killer’s neck.

And then he’s on his back, his father’s knee on his broken ribs, one hand on his shoulder, holding him down, and one on his neck.

The knife is out of reach.

Spots dance across the palace walls.

A drop of blood falls from the Firelord’s throat and hits Zuko’s bare chest and the boy laughs.

Breathlessly, hopelessly, desperately.

His father snarls and digs both hands into Zuko’s shoulders—hot, too hot.

He smells his own skin burning for the second time in his life and he focusses on breathing.

He pants, grits his teeth, feels the handprints burning into his flesh and screams.

viii.

He surprises himself when he wakes up. He is not dead.

He is still in the throne room, but it is empty.

He feels the handprints, freshly seared into the skin of his shoulders.

He can’t move.

When he wakes again it is to his father’s face over his own.

At some point, he loses the energy to scream and just cries, the tears flowing down his face, stinging when they hit an open wound.

He breaks. Over and over and over he breaks.

“Dad, please,” he begs as Ozai slides the Earth Kingdom knife into the meat of his arm. “Please—please end it.”

Ozai pauses, looks at him. “You want to die?”

Zuko feels the tears flowing down his face and he closes his eyes. “ Please.”

Ozai laughs and laughs and laughs.

He twists the knife.

ix.

Eventually, Ozai grows tired of him.

He wakes in a cell instead of the foot of his father’s throne, cold and alone.

He closes his eyes and he cannot feel Ozai’s presence, his burning flame.

But he can feel others. Dozens of others all around him. Lava.

Boiling Rock, he decides, and falls back asleep.

When he wakes again, he drags himself to the wall and draws a line in blood, feeling the sun rise outside the walls of his prison.

x.

There are twenty-four marks on the wall and Zuko thinks he is dying.

He lies on the stone floor and shakes from the cold.

His breath puffs with short bursts of flame, too small, too cool.

He can’t remember the last time he ate. Two days ago? Three?

He reaches up and marks the wall, lets his arm drop limply to the floor.

Closing his eyes, he imagines the sun on his skin. The heat of it, the colors of a sunrise, Agni’s face smiling down on him.

He breathes.

He doesn’t die.

xi.

There are one hundred and eighty-two marks on the wall and Zuko is seizing on the floor of his cell.

He wonders vaguely if the fever will kill him, this time.

He thinks of the knife, he thinks of his father, the thinks of Azula.

And when he stops shaking, there is a man leaning over him.

Never give up without a fight .

So he fights.

xii.

Zuko eyes the man carefully. “One of your people helped me out of a bind, once,” he said, having released his hold on the man’s throat as soon as he’d seen the blue beads in his hair. “Consider the debt repaid.”

The man looks at him, surprised, his eyes lingering over the handprints burned into each shoulder, the bloom of red that spills across his face, the mangled remains of his ear.

“How old are you?” the man asks.

And Zuko has to think. “Fif--sixteen. I don’t—” he frowns. “I don’t know.”

He doesn’t know how long he was in the palace. It felt like years. It might have been only days.

“I have a son your age,” the man says.

Zuko flinches.

xiii.

“My name is Hakoda,” the man says, the next time he appears in his cell without warning.

Zuko doesn’t get up. He doesn’t even look at him.

The man kneels next to him and hisses in sympathy. “Do you want me to set them?”

Zuko grunts noncommittally.

Hakoda sets three fingers, his nose, and worries over his ribs. Zuko bats his hand away.

“They’ll heal,” he assures the older man.

Hakoda lets it go.

“What are the marks on the wall?” he asks after a moment.

“Sunrises,” Zuko replies. “I can—I can feel the sun rise. I like to keep track.”

“How many are there?”

“Hundred eighty-six.”

Hakoda inhales sharply, then says: “I didn’t know firebenders could do that.”

“I don’t know if I could, before. I don’t know if others can.” He hesitates before adding: “We’re underground?”

Hakoda nods. “Lowest level.”

“Thought so,” Zuko breathes.

“It hurts you,” Hakoda guesses. “To be out of the sun, in the cold.”

“It’s what we do to those unworthy of death.”

Hakoda is silent for a long while.

“What’s your name?” he asks, not for the first time.

Zuko doesn’t answer, not for the last.

xiv.

The days drag on and Hakoda doesn’t return. Zuko isn’t surprised that it hurts.

He’s always been weak. You’d think he’d have toughened up by now.

But one day he wakes, and Hakoda is there. Fretting over his injuries like he used to, the way his eyes can’t focus on the older man’s face, the blood pooled on the floor under his back.

“Do I want to see your back?” he asks and Zuko laughs quietly, achingly, ears ringing with the sound of a cracking whip.

“No,” he says honestly.

Hakoda is quiet for a beat. Then: “You’re steaming.”

Zuko closes his eyes and hums noncommittally. He already knew that. His temperature’s been rising all week. He’ll start seizing again soon. He starts to fall back asleep and wonders if the fever will kill him. Wonders if he wants it to.

“They say you tried to kill the Firelord,” Hakoda says and Zuko’s eyes fly open.

He exhales. Takes another breath. Shoves down panic. Shoves down the image of his father’s face above his, the sound of his voice, the feeling of hands digging into his shoulders.

He reels in his breath, feels his hands shake, the steam rise off his skin.

He doesn’t answer.

Hakoda just nods and says: “I have the key to your cell. Can you walk?”

Zuko breathes. “If you can find me a pair of swords, I can do more than walk.”

xv.

Zuko is leaning heavily against the wall when Hakoda opens the door, a young woman a half-step behind him.

“New recruit,” the man says, and shoves swords into the boy’s hands before kneeling to unlock the chain.

“Didn’t know we were recruiting,” Zuko responds, strapping the swords to his bare, bloody back.

“We weren’t.”

“I’m Suki, I—” the girl stops dead as Zuko steps into the light. “ Lee?

Zuko frowns, cocks his head. “You’re from Kyoshi.”

“You stole my waterskin.”

“Did I?”

“Catch up later, escape now,” Hakoda grunted, throwing a man’s unconscious body over his shoulder.

“Is that the warden?”

xvi.

Zuko drops, jumps, pants, yells, laughs.

His new swords dance through the air, fire swirls around him, flickering, weak, but there.

His eyes burn in the harsh sunlight, unused to the glare.

“He’s a firebender?!” Suki shouts.

He is so, so alive.

xvii.

He is so, so stupid.

He slumps against a tree hours later and groans.

Hakoda laughs. “Maybe the backflip was a little much?”

“I’ll kill you,” Zuko vows, his eyes fluttering shut. “Slowly.”

xviii.

They walk. And walk. And walk.

Zuko steals naps in the sunlight whenever he can, basks in the warmth of it on his skin.

Suki laughs and says he eats enough for three men, Hakoda says he needs it.

He does.

He tries to light the campfire one night but his flames just sputter out.

xix.

Two weeks in, Hakoda sits him down and repeats: “They say you tried to kill the Firelord.”

Zuko swallows and admits to: “Tried.”

Hakoda hums in agreement. Then asks: “Why?”

Zuko doesn’t know how to answer. Because I hate him. Because I love him. Because he wants to see the world burn. Because he knotted one hand in my hair and cupped flames against my face with the other.

Because my mother is dead.

Because my uncle is dead.

Instead, he shrugs tiredly and says: “Someone has to.”

Hakoda considers his answer for a moment. “The Avatar is alive,” he states. “He’s been found.”

Zuko feels like all the air’s been sucked out of his lungs. “What?”

Hakoda smiles. “He needs a firebending teacher.”

“Agni above,” Zuko breathes. Then: “Yes, of course, fuck, where is he?”

xx.

He tells them his name before they reach the Air Temple, impulsively, starved for the sound of it.

“Haven’t I heard that before?” Suki says.

Zuko breathes and carefully replies: “The Firelord’s son had the same name. The one that died.”

xxi.

Aang is overjoyed, returning the bow easily, his hands curved into a perfect flame.

The waterbender—Hakoda’s daughter finds him once the sun has set.

Zuko is sure it’s deliberate.

“I don’t trust you, I don’t like you, and the only reason I’m tolerating you being here is that Aang needs to learn firebending. Other than that, stay away from him, and everyone else. I will not hesitate if you so much as breathe wrong near him.”

Zuko blinks and she’s gone.

He keeps one eye on the door until sunrise, never even lying down.

xxii.

Zuko’s bending is still choppy, out of rhythm, often failing entirely.

“Don’t worry,” he says to the monk. “I can still teach you.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Aang says impatiently. “I’m worried about you. Why are you hurt? What happened?”

Zuko sighs and sits down in the middle of the training area. “It’s not important. I don’t think it’s something that could hurt you.”

“It’s something that hurt you.” Aang settles across from him, folding his legs. “That makes it important.”

Zuko frowns, considering, then shakes his head and explains. “If a bender is kept away from their element, it hurts them.”

“Like the Fire Nation did with the waterbenders they captured!”

Zuko flinches. “They what?”

“They kept them in cages, away from water. We met one that got away,” Aang gulps. “She wasn’t very nice.”

“Okay. Well, that’s what happened to me. They kept me underground, in a prison, in the dark and cold. For…a long time.”

“And they hurt you,” Aang says quietly, reaching out to touch one of the marks on his shoulder, childlike. Zuko lets him, his small hands tracing the marks made by bigger, infinitely crueler ones. “Fire hurt you.”

And Zuko’s breath stutters. He stares at the boy, the truth of what he said ringing in his ears.

“That’s why your bending is off.” Aang lights a flame in his hand and Zuko flinches hard, proving the little monk’s point. “You’re afraid.”

xxiii.

The dragons aren’t dead.

The dragons aren’t dead.

The dragons aren’t dead.

xxiv.

He doesn’t hear Katara coming, just her sudden intake of air.

He breathes.

Then: “Do you need something?”

“No—no, I was just looking for Aang,” the waterbender says, voice shaky.

Zuko sits up, grabbing his shirt. “I think he went with Toph, do you want—”

“Stop,” she says, stepping closer.

Zuko stops, his shirt still in his hands.

“Who—why—can I?”

Zuko swallows, shrugs. “Go ahead.”

The water feels good against his skin. It doesn’t heal the scars.

Katara is crying.

“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s fine—”

“No, it’s not okay,” Katara practically yells.

“It’s—” he repeats, weakly. “It’s okay, Katara.”

The waterbender settles down next to him, moving the glowing water across his chest and back.

“I made him bleed,” he says quietly. “It was worth it.”

“If he was this angry, why didn’t he kill you?” Katara asks, voice shaky.

“Because I asked him to,” he breathes. “I begged him to—Agni, I don’t know how long I—” And then there are tears running down his face, and Katara is crying again and he says: “He killed my mom.”

“Mine, too.”

xxv.

It's a few days before Sokka asks him, and Zuko is surprised when he does.

“You fight with a sword?”

“Yeah, sometimes,” Sokka answers defensively.

“Where'd you learn that?”

“Master Piandao, in the Fire Nation. Great guy, opposes the Fire Lord... I think.”

“I've heard of him. I didn't know he was against Ozai, though.” Zuko thinks hard, and it's a moment before he accepts.

When Sokka finally wins, he flops down onto the floor, panting.

“Where... Did you... learn...? THAT?”

Zuko sheaths his sword and shrugs, wiping sweat from his brow and breathing heavily. “I don’t know... Just kind of taught... myself, mostly.”

Sokka thumps his head against the floor. “I hate you.”

They look at each other for a moment and just start laughing.

xxvi.

The attack takes them all by surprise. The chi-blockers slide out of the woods around the campsite in silence, and the next thing they know, Sokka, Suki, and Zuko are the only ones who can do anything. Then Sokka and Suki go down in the space of a single heartbeat, and Zuko's fighting alone. He can only defend the group for a few moments, but he goes down fighting, his swords shining in the moonlight, his fire stolen. He sees the sword hilt come towards his head.

He can’t do a damn thing about it.

When he wakes, it's to the inside of a prison cell. Zuko sits in the corner with his knees pulled to his chest and doesn't respond to anything the others say. He withdraws deep inside himself, tries to forget where he is.

His hair is matted with blood.

Guards come and shackle them all, and a chi-blocker takes turns on each of them before the last round wears off. They're led out of the cell and through the halls of the palace.

Zuko walks with his head down, shying away from every torch they pass. He doesn’t speak.

He freezes and digs in his heels before being dragged past the threshold of the throne room doors.

They're forced to their knees in front of Ozai's throne and chained to metal rings imbedded in the stone floor. The Fire Lord starts to say something, then stops.

"You," he snarls. "Look at me!" Every muscle in Zuko’s body is taut. He stares at the floor, his breath wild, his heart pounding.

A guard forces his head up, exposing his face, his throat bared.

He sees his father.

He chokes on air. He can’t breathe.

And then the Firelord is striding down the steps and grabbing Zuko's hair, wrenching his head upward so he can see his face more clearly, the scars his hands made lit by firelight.

Ozai backhands him so hard he's thrown onto his own bound hands.

"Take them away! And bring me the warden of Boiling Rock."

xxvii.

Zuko sits in their cell and panics.

Katara is crying.

Sokka is begging him to breathe.

Zuko just shakes and waits for his father to play again.

He is so, so afraid.

xxviii.

And then Azula is there.

“Hey, Zuzu. Freaking out?”

Zuko barely registers her words.

“You used to be so afraid of me. You’re not anymore, are you? Just of him.”

A hand presses against his heart, a forehead against his own.

“Breathe with me, come on.”

Slowly, the world starts to clear, to sharpen.

“Zula,” he breathes. “What are you doing?”

“Saving your life,” she replies.

Zuko looks at her carefully, drawing in his scattered attention like a net, trying to pull himself together. “Why?”

“He killed mom,” she says plainly.

“I didn’t know you cared,” he says.

She just shrugs. “I didn’t either.”

xxix.

The Firelord holds him by his hair, sends electricity coursing through his body.

“Dad,” he chokes out, his teeth clashing together.

He wonders if this was a game. If Azula, standing in the corner behind their father, is going to let him die anyway.

She was right, though. He’s not afraid of her anymore. He doesn’t have any room left.

Ozai steps back, releasing his hold on Zuko for a moment to gather more lightning, and then he is dead.

Zuko collapses, exhausted, and relieved, and delirious with it’s over it’s over it’s over.

“Zuko?” Azula asks, and he wonders if that is concern in her voice.

The air smells of ozone and burnt hair and Zuko is alive.

xxx.

Azula is Firelord and, surprisingly, the world doesn’t burn.

Zuko traverses the nations, building new bridges and repairing the ones his sister singes, rebuilding the ones his father—grandfather—great-grandfather burned to ash.

Sometimes it’s Aang at his side, sometimes Sokka, sometimes Katara. Often, it’s Toph.

“You’ll scare the shit out of them, if Sokka isn’t exaggerating,” the little earthbender says before they run into her parents for the first time. She introduces him as Prince Zuko, ambassador for the Fire Nation, chief advisor of Firelord Azula, firebending master of Avatar Aang, ex-con, badass extraordinaire.

Zuko bares his teeth in the way he knows would make him look off-kilter and dangerous even without his most prominent scar’s angry red, his other ones turning the grin sharp and crooked.

Toph cackles about the way her parents’ heartbeats spiked for weeks. Zuko laughs with her, vows to pull out his ‘scary motherfucker face’ whenever she needs it.

The world isn’t burning, the dragons aren’t dead, the Avatar is alive.

Zuko turns seventeen against all odds and, against all odds, he is happy.