He hadn’t slept through the night in weeks.
He dreamed of his father and sister, pulling one of his arms; his sister’s fingernails cutting into his wrist while his father’s grip burned with a familiar flame. Behind them stood mother and uncle, smiling gently, lovingly, beckoning him back to them, to a façade of safety.
On his other side, Jet held his hand, his warm palm firm like iron. He didn’t tug, unlike his family, but Zuko found himself stuck fast. Smellerbee had her arms wrapped around his waist, the highest that she could reach, while Longshot stood steadfast behind Jet, solemn eyes softened with quiet affection. They all had their weapons, which only made him feel safe. They wore them to protect him, just as he wore his to protect them. It never occurred him to fear their weapons.
Behind their love for Li, however, was a dark hatred for Zuko. He hid himself from them (guilt clawing at his stomach) and basked in their mistaken love.
Both sides tugged at him, one steady and comforting, trying to convince him to trust them; while the other insistent, manipulative. His arms strained; his heart ached; it was only growing worse as time went on without choosing a side.
He had to make a choice. One or the other. There was no way to have both of them. Father had always demanded nothing but obedience and loyalty, and as the leader of his group, Jet would surely expect the same from all of his followers.
Zuko didn’t necessarily need to choose just yet – Jet didn’t know he already belonged to someone else, someone he couldn’t simply run away from like the Freedom Fighters. (Sometimes his blood itched with the feeling of them running through it and he wanted to tear his skin off just to get his Father out. But he couldn’t.)
He knew he’d have to choose eventually, and the sooner the better, right? If he wants Jet to keep him, he needs to prove he’ll be loyal, and that he’ll stay with him and carve out the people he used to belong to so he could give him his full loyalty.
He needed to do it quickly, too; before Jet changed his mind or realised that Li was not someone he wanted to own. He’d been thrown away before (His scar prickled at the thought.). He couldn’t let it happen again. All he had to do was become who they wanted him to be. And Jet wanted him to be Earth Kingdom, and loyal.
He could do that, but once he’d done that, he wouldn’t be able to go back to who he was. He had to be sure.
In his dreams, Father and Azula and Jet and the gang glare at each other when they think Zuko isn’t looking.
But while Father and Azula looked at Jet like they wanted nothing more than to wipe him off the face of the earth – a sentiment Jet assuredly returned – they almost looked at Zuko the same way, with a little possessive smile thrown into the mix. They’d thrown him away in the past, wanted nothing to do with him, but now that someone else wanted him they wanted him back, just to take him away. They wanted to own him.
Jet wanted the same thing, in a way, but, equally, it was completely different. He wanted Li to be one of his people, he wanted to take care of him, to give him loyalty and have it returned. He looked after the people he kept. When he glared at his family, it was with hatred for the Fire Nation, but not only that.
“You’ll get them back for it,” Jet had promised on the cold nights when his scar still burned, voice tight as his grip on his swords, “and if you can’t, we’ll do it for you.”
Li didn’t deserve his loyalty. He didn’t deserve the emotion Jet felt on his behalf, not for one of the few things he did deserve. He was disrespectful, and he’d earned his scar and everything that came with it. Otherwise, Father would never have given it to him. He seemed harsh at times, but Father always had his best interests at heart. Deep, deep, down.
But father wasn’t here. Neither was Azula, at least as long as Zuko was cautious about covering up his tracks (his desperate fear of her had only grown since he’d gained something she could take away. He didn’t want to lose his new family).
He didn’t want to lose his old family either, but he’d barely had them to begin with, while the Freedom Fighters were right here, in his hands, begging him to join them. Zuko liked to think he wasn’t a fool.
The choice was obvious, as much as he wished the other side would have at least put up a fight. But if he was going to make this choice, he was going to do it properly. Make it so he can’t take it back, or at least make it difficult to.
He was going to have to let them go.
He took a deep breath and thought of his mother. She’d been gone for so long he’d near given up on her already. Hopefully, this was the easiest place to start.
In his mind’s eye he saw her, tall and gentle and strong and safe, and felt a phantom hand carding through his hair, shorter now, heard a soothing, cooing voice. It was almost like the was here, a ghost standing before him. The fire before him became a perfectly clear pond, still except for the ripples of the turtleducks; the musty forest smell became the flowers she had lovingly tended to. The air was clean. He felt a protective presence at his back, could remember the peace of knowing someone loved him and would protect him with everything they had.
He didn’t need her for that anymore. He had new people to protect him.
It was too easy to let her go; time had done most of the job already - his calm was long gone, and her protections stripped away. Only memory remained, near useless.
He let out the breath he’d been holding, the fire barely stirring at it, and blew away the spectre of her, watched her drift away like ash in the breeze. Goodbye, Mother.
As she disappeared, she almost seemed to smile.
With the ghost of his mother gone, his longing for her faded into acceptance of what could no longer be, and his heart was freed to love anew. Long-carried grief lifted from his shoulders. He finally felt some of the calm she’d tried to give him. Yes, his new sense of peace spurred him on, This was the right thing to do.
The rest of his family, however, weren’t mere spectres, but real people. He couldn’t simply banish them from his heart, not when they were trying to claw their way back in. He needed to burn them, give them a pyre, have them gone as if they were dead.
He picked up a branch from the forest floor, pulling his knife from his belt and carving the sigil for ‘father’ into the rough bark. His work was haphazard, in part due to a lack of care, but mostly due to a lack of skill, reluctant as he was to admit it. He didn’t have much experience in carving - he was mostly just glad he hadn’t cut his hand.
When the sigil was complete, he stared at the carving for a moment, trying to think of any happy memories he needed to let go of. He felt his desperate longing for his father’s approval, and remembered the cold fear in his gut whenever he had failed him. He managed to stop himself before he thought about the consequences for those failures, tamping down on the urge to rub his scar, as if that could remove it from his face.
He glanced up at his new friends. There was only one thing he could do (one thing he could be) to make them hate him enough to hurt him the same as his father had, and he was cutting off the parts of him they hated. Soon, he will be what they want him to be. He didn’t have to fear them. He would never again have to fear someone he loved.
His desperation for Ozai’s love was suddenly replaced with something resembling hatred, with a bitterness he hadn’t realised was festering beneath the surface. What kind of man would burn his son?
Zuko shivered, remembering that hand coming towards him. No, he did not need his love, not anymore.
He threw the stick onto the fire, harder than he needed to, but had little room to feel satisfaction at watching his father burning there. He could only think of how his father would never touch him again, he would never feel that way again, he could rely on the people around him to protect him from him. Relief soothed his squirrel-rabbit heartbeat as he watched his father splinter and blacken on the fire before him. He was finally safe.
(At least, he was safe from one person, in one respect.)
Azula was easier after to let go of in some respects – he was emboldened by his results so far and knew this was right for him, and he found that making the carving was far easier the second time around. He let his hands work and focused on what he was leaving behind.
Idly, he noticed the others’ eyes on him, but wasn’t bothered. He was doing this for them, after all. He did wonder for a moment if they were going to ask what he was up to, but realised he hadn’t offered, so they wouldn’t ask. They knew where his boundaries were, as much as they tried to push them sometimes - to gain entry to his heart. He could tell them in his own time. Or not at all, if he wanted.
Detached from his need for his father’s affection (he had to remind himself that he was, but it worked, and he knew it would become second nature in time), he was no longer angry at Azula for being his favourite. Looking at her with new eyes, he could see her more clearly than he ever had before - she just wanted
their fath- (not his father anymore) she wanted her father’s love, the same as Zuko once had. Pity swelled within him, but he knew there was no hope for her - father had sunk his teeth into her and made her like him. The sweetness of her youth was long gone, wishing otherwise wouldn’t change that. Trying to reach her would only threaten the new life he had found.
If she could change, he decided, she would have to do it on her own. He would not help her. He couldn’t, not when he wasn’t her big brother anymore. Not when he had other people to protect, now.
He pulled his thoughts from her and to the carving on the wood. ‘Sister’, said the choppy letters. He placed it onto the fire with a silent apology, and found himself looking away as she burned.
He swallowed the guilt he knew he had no reason to feel. She had abandoned him years ago. Nowadays, it was a choice between her and his new family, and he knew who he had to choose.
Hopefully now, if it came down to it, the visions of a cherubic smile on a tiny body wouldn’t plague him when he fought her, and he would be able to protect his family from her.
He met their eyes over the fire. They were still watching him, but didn’t question his actions, even though they would have been able to tell from his expression that it was important. He was glad; he would explain when he was finished and committed to them.
He glanced at where his ex-sister burned on the fire, and saw her crumble to ash. Goodbye, Azula. I loved you as much as I could. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.
His next move was almost unconscious. As Azula burned upon the fire, his hands found the next bit of wood, warmed and charred from where it had been on the fire before it fell out, and began carving. His thoughts drifted to his quest, the Avatar, a tiny twelve-year-old boy who had lost all of his people, who had asked him once if they could be friends. Guilt curled around his gut. He decided to apologise to him one day, if he could. There was so much he needed to make up to him, and to his friends, but there was little limit to what he could do to help them. Only a limit to what he would do.
He thought of his home, of his birthrights, then pushed them away. He didn’t need them. Had no means of getting them, now. What need did Li have of a throne anyway? Why would Li want to command vessels or rule countries? Li was a simple peasant. He was happier with nothing.
He glanced absentmindedly to his hands, and was almost surprised (though he knew he shouldn’t be) to find ‘Zuko’ carved there, half of the lettering smudged black by ash.
He placed it on the fire without a second thought, and felt nothing. He hadn’t wanted to be Zuko, angry and longing and unhappy, ever since he’d realised there was another option. He didn’t bother to say goodbye as he put the worst parts of himself to rest, just allowed a sense of peace to flow through him as he began to wash away his past crimes, and vowed to make up for them properly, as Li. He could be a good person now. He could be anyone he wanted to.
There was only one person left to do. Uncle.
The peace he’d built within himself seemed to evaporate. He had to let go of everyone, and that had to include Uncle. Half-heartedly, he scanned the ground looking for the perfect branch for him. If he had to say goodbye to him, too, he was going to do it well, with lots of thought and a decent carving. (Uncle deserved far more than that, but he had nothing else to offer him.) However, he found that none of the branches were satisfactory.
With a quiet sigh, he gave up quickly, easily, vowing to keep an eye out the next day so find the perfect branch for uncle. Maybe he’d need to find a few, so he could practise his carving. He might end up having to wait a few days before letting go of Uncle.
He was okay with that.
His gut unclenched, and he finally relaxed. He was finally rid of his family (sans Uncle) and becoming the person his friends wanted him to be. He felt freer than he had in years, maybe ever.
“Have you finished?” Jet finally asked, tone casual, but not dismissive. Not pushing, more offering to talk, only if Li wanted to. If he decided he never wanted to explain, they wouldn’t force him.
Across from Li, Smellerbee’s eyes glowed in the firelight. She feigned disinterest, glancing down to sharpen her knives, but her head was tilted towards him, listening to anything he wanted to say. Next to her, Longshot’s expression was almost unreadable, but Li could see the small smile in his eyes. Neither of them asked, or even pushed with their looks. They respected him, even with his anger and secrets and little eccentricities.
It was because of that that he answered, even though he wasn’t quite ready. “Not yet,” he said, “I’ve got one still to do. But aren’t any good branches here to work with.”
Jet simply nodded, pointedly not mentioning the branches littering the ground, easily suited to Li’s needs. “Can you tell me what you're doing?”
Another thing Li loved about working with Jet: even though he was accustomed to being a commander, he never ordered Li to do anything, or even phrased his questions like orders – not unless the situation was life or death, at least (not exactly uncommon, but Li accepted it when it happened). Jet saw that Li was uncomfortable with being ordered, and respected that.
Well, unless he was teasing him, but he always had such a soft smile (invisible to those who didn’t know him) when he did so that Li knew and trusted he didn’t mean it. That didn’t stop him from flushing in embarrassment or anger, but he knew Jet acted out of affection, not malice.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Li promised easily, glancing at the others to include them, but mostly addressing Jet, “When I’ve finished.”
Jet didn’t bother to remind him that he didn’t have to tell him; that he would accept it if Li kept it secret, even after he’d promised to explain.
They both knew.