Zuko was used to pain. Pain was just another part of being Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. Whether it was pain from grueling training exercises, or pain from the pranks Azula played, or pain from the frequent beatings from his father, he was no stranger to bruises, burns, and bleeding.
When he was banished, for a short time, Zuko almost felt relief. He wasn’t afraid of being hurt every day. He wasn’t constantly worried about being a failure or a disappointment. He knew he already was. The relief was quickly replaced with shame. Zuko was ashamed of the course his life had taken. He knew it was what he deserved, but he couldn’t shake the feeling like there was a fist squeezing on his very soul. He felt ashamed that he had never won his father’s approval, felt ashamed that he may never be able to.
The shame slowly blossomed into anger and sadness, so frustrated with being stuck on this god-forsaken boat. The turmoil within him grew, twisting and crippling his inner fire. It was so consuming that he could barely speak, when he did it often came out as screams of anguish or fury. His bending released itself in spurts of scalding rage that left him exhausted and weary.
All the while, Uncle Iroh looked on, eyes filled with concern and compassion. Zuko often had to turn away, his own amber eyes filled with tears. He knew, most of all, that he did not deserve the love Iroh gave him. He knew that he was too rough and damaged to ever be worthy, and he knew that he would never be able to replace Lu Ten. He did not try to. Instead, he directed his anger at his uncle and at the crew of the ship, isolating himself from all of them, but it only made him feel worse.
The first time it happened, he was practicing in his quarters with his twin broadswords. Never the most natural of benders to begin with, Zuko’s inner fire had been weak since he was banished a few months ago. He had turned to mastering broadswords as an outlet, and as another way to defend himself should the occasion arise. It calmed him when he woke in a sweat at night, the leering and distorted face of Ozai fresh in his mind, to be able to reach for the sword under his pillow.
But Zuko always pushed himself too far, too fast, too eager to prove himself. He attempted a complicated trick that involved moving the swords quickly to each side and caught his hip with a blade in the process. The swords quickly fell from his grasp, clanging loudly on the iron floor. His breath hitched as his hands instantly went to his hip, touching the wound and immediately releasing from the stinging pain that rippled up his spine. He grabbed his over-shirt that he had cast aside and held it to his bleeding torso, biting his lip to keep from crying out. The golden fabric tinged a deep shade of maroon as he fell back on his bed, sighing and trying to calm his nerves.
He knew that he should seek medical attention, that he might even need stitches. He thought perhaps, that someone may have heard the swords hit the ground and come around to see what had happened. But he realized as the moments passed, that either no one had heard, or no one had cared. He suspected a bit of both. He wiped his eyes, dripping with tears from the pain, and decided that it didn’t matter. The shame was too powerful, he would not let them know that he had failed again. He bandaged himself to the best of his ability and burned the bloody tunic to hide the evidence. He knew the wound would scar, but he felt that was better than showing more weakness than he already had.
In the following days his hip stung with every movement. Going through his daily katas on the deck of the ship left him breathless and aching, but he would not let anyone know what had happened. He dressed and treated the wound in the dead of night. When he sat on deck attempting to eat dinner and saw the crew of the ship whispering and staring at him as they always did, he self-consciously touched his hip and felt the warm sting blossom up his side. He found that the pain distracted him somehow, it was suddenly much more difficult to focus on the stares when pain was prickling through his veins. His inner fire rekindled itself ever so slightly, and he felt like he could breathe again. This pain was different from the pain he had grown used to when living at the palace, this pain he could control.
Over the next week any time he felt self-conscious or disheartened, he would gently press on his still-healing hip. The pain would re-awaken him, and his anger would burn out the depression. He practiced his bending and his broadswords, wincing through the routines, but saw improvement in both. Uncle Iroh smiled at him as he completed his first successful bending routine in months, and Zuko felt his cheeks flush with both pride and shame.
He had thought, perhaps, that this was a one-time event. Just something he needed to spur him in the right direction. But as his hip healed and the pain faded, he found the need to replicate the feeling overwhelming. He knew that he needed to be careful if he was going to continue keeping this a secret. He could not use the broadsword again, it was too unwieldy when facing himself for something that needed to be precise. He refused to use the ceremonial knife Uncle Iroh had sent him many years ago, he would not taint that with his own blood. Instead he chose to use an ordinary, unassuming hunting knife. It was small, with a curved silver blade on a sleek wooden handle. Zuko’s hands trembled slightly as he prepared himself.
He stood beside his bed, wearing his under clothes, the blade in his right hand. He gently slid the fabric of his undergarments up his thigh, exposing the milky flesh beneath. He knew this place was the least likely to be discovered, as it was nearly always hidden. He gripped the blade more tightly as he held it against the outside of his upper-thigh. Taking a breath, he dug the knife in. He was careful not to go too deep, but he hissed in pain regardless. He glanced at the door to check that he had secured the lock, before looking down at his handiwork.
It was a relatively small cut, maybe two or three inches across. His blood bubbled up through the line in his skin, quickly spilling over and trailing down the hairs of his leg. Zuko’s blood was a bright wine-red, glistening in the torch-light as it dripped onto the floor below. Zuko stared for another moment, mind blissfully blank except for the slight stinging pain. Then he grabbed a rag, dabbing up the drops on the floor, folding the linen over, and then holding it against the cut. The wound stung again in earnest, and Zuko’s vision blurred slightly as tears prickled. But he wanted this. He felt himself smile, and the movement felt foreign on his face. This was what he deserved, he thought to himself.
Time passed and Zuko’s little habit continued. He tried to keep in under control, tried to keep the amount of lines cluttering his thighs orderly. But there was one that stood out, harsh and jagged, larger than the rest. One for the Western Air Temple. Zuko had been losing hope, he felt sure that this mission to find the Avatar was impossible. Yet when they managed to visit an Air Temple he felt his hope begin to rise. As they scoured the temple, he felt sure they would find the Avatar, or something that would lead them to him. Every time he turned a corner he held his breath, half-expecting to run directly into the Airbender. But the search turned up nothing. Nothing but bones of long-dead Air Nomads, that made Zuko’s excited breaths catch in his throat, made his stomach twist.
He returned to his cabin quickly, feeling sick, guilty, and hopeless. He pulled out the knife he had hidden in a compartment in his desk and haphazardly removed his over-clothes. He sat heavily on the bed, hands shaking and immediately cut into his thigh, not caring that this slice went diagonally across several others, ripping through several months’ worth of scar tissue. He pressed just a little harder than he intended to, thoughts so consumed by guilt and fear of failure that he wasn’t really aware of what he had done until the pain hit him. Blood pooled in the gaping cut and quickly spilled over. Zuko held the linen cloth to his thigh but it started to bleed through. This is bad, Zuko thought, this is really bad.
He thought that if he bandaged it quickly it might be okay. He could wrap it tightly with several layers. It might be awkward, but maybe that would stop the bleeding. He got up from the bed, intending to go to his desk where he kept bandages for this purpose. But the sudden movement made him cry out as his thigh burned, the change in equilibrium made his head swim. He tried to take a step and immediately went crashing down, head hitting the metal floor with a harsh thunk. As he lay there the room spun before him, and he squeezed his eyes shut in an effort to quell the nausea. When he opened them again the room was still spinning slowly, and black spots were starting to eat at his vision. He realized vaguely, that he might die right here and now.
Outside his room, Uncle Iroh stood with a pot of tea. He had seen the way Prince Zuko ran from the Air Temple, clearly upset and disappointed. He had hoped that sharing some tea with his old uncle might help. He was about to knock on the door when he heard Zuko cry out in pain from inside his quarters, and then he heard the sickening thunk as something hit the floor.
“Prince Zuko? Are you alright in there?” Iroh yelled through the door.
Inside, Zuko was fighting to remain conscious. He had lost his grip on the cloth for his thigh, and blood spilled freely on the floor. He thought he heard his uncle, but he couldn’t be sure, everything was starting to go black, and there was a whooshing sound in his ears. He groaned, realizing this was not the way he wanted to die, and tried to say, “help me...”
Zuko’s voice was quiet, barely above a whisper, but Iroh had an ear pressed to the door, deeply worried. That was all he needed. He dropped the tray, the ceramic teapot shattering at his feet. He tried to yank open the door, but it was locked from the inside. Not to be deterred, he kicked aside the broken tray and readied a fire blast. Its power ripped the door from the lock, sent it reeling back, hanging from one hinge. Looking inside, Iroh sucked in a breath as he hurried to Zuko’s side.
“Oh nephew, what have you done?” Zuko blinked at him for a moment before his eyes rolled back in his head and his body went slack.
He awoke later, laying on his bed with a dull headache and a dry mouth. He licked his lips and attempted to sit up. The world spun slightly and his thigh ached something fierce. He fell back to the bed with a groan, his arm covering his eyes as the memories flooded back.
“You lost a lot of blood nephew, you need to rest to regain your strength.” Zuko opened his eyes and peered out from behind his wrist at his uncle sitting in his desk chair. He looked haggard, tired and filled with worry, and Zuko felt guilt pool deep within his stomach. He opened his mouth to try to say something, but no words came out and he closed it again. He gingerly attempted to roll on his good side, away from the uncle so he would not have to face him. The movement made tears spring to his eyes, but he swallowed and tried to will them away.
He heard Iroh rise from the chair and come to sit on the side of his bed. He felt a hand card through his hair, which had fallen out of its ponytail, and rub his scalp. Then the tears really came. Despite everything he had been through, Zuko was not one to sob. A few frustrated tears here and there may leak out, but this was different.
Zuko wept and it surprised even his uncle, who gripped his shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry, nephew. I’m so sorry.” A few tears of his own slid down his face, getting lost in his grey beard.
Zuko rolled over to look at his uncle. Grabbing his hand and gasping for air he asked, “why are you s-sorry?” He choked on his tears for a moment before continuing, “I-I’m the one who-who should be sorry. I’ve n-never b-been good enough! I just k-keep failing, and-and I drag you down w-with me.”
Iroh knelt on the floor beside his nephew, so that he could be at eye level. He took a deep breath and said, “No, Prince Zuko, you are everything you need to be. You are more than enough. I love you, I’m sorry if you have not known that.”
Zuko cried more, eyes slipping closed as he held his uncle’s hand. He had never felt so weak and undeserving in his life. Somehow, in this moment, he felt even weaker than when his father had burned and banished him at the Agni Kai. “I’m sorry,” Zuko whispered.
Iroh squeezed his hand, “It is okay, nephew. I know that these have been trying times for you, but you must know that hurting yourself is not the answer.” Zuko nodded meekly, unsure he fully believed him. This was what he deserved, after all. Wasn’t it?
“Tell me you’ll stop, Prince Zuko. Please, tell me you won’t continue doing this to yourself.”
Zuko opened his eyes and nodded, swallowing hard. “I’ll stop,” he said, voice gravelly, “I promise.”
Iroh nodded and got up. “You need to rest, nephew. I will bring you some tea later.” He quietly left the room, Zuko heard the click of the iron door behind him. He glanced at the door, realizing it had been fixed already, and wondered minutely, how long he had been out. He groaned, rolling over once more, eyes closing. He was truly exhausted. His fingers found the bandages on his thigh, and he realized that Uncle Iroh must have stitched him back together. A fresh wave a shame overcame him as he realized how much of the damage he must have seen. He let sleep take him, so he would not have to process the emotions he was feeling right now.
When he had promised Uncle Iroh, he had meant it. He knew that hurting himself was probably not the best way to deal with the turmoil he felt. Over the following weeks his thigh healed, and he did not add any new marks. His hands shook slightly, but Iroh smiled at him, and Zuko tried to keep his promise. The played pai sho and drank tea, and Zuko resumed his training slowly.
It lasted until they came to the next Air Temple. Uncle Iroh hovered near Zuko at all times, aware that today might trigger him into a relapse. They searched the temple and came up with nothing. When they returned to the ship Zuko could feel the fist tightening around his soul. He knew he had failed again. He knew what he had to do.
But he knew that Iroh was watching. So, he stayed on deck. He drank tea with his uncle and ate dinner as best he could and listened to his uncle try to play music for the crew. When Iroh finally retired for the night, Zuko slipped through the crew’s quarters on the way to his own and pocketed a spare hunting knife that he was sure would not be missed. Iroh had taken his old one. He had taken the broadswords and ceremonial knife for a time as well, but those had been returned weeks ago. Still, Zuko would not taint them with his own blood.
He quietly undressed in his quarters and, hands shaking, held the knife against his bare skin. It had been months since he had last done this, but he could feel the darkness like a vice around his heart, he knew this was the only thing that would help. He sliced the knife into a bit of unmarred skin and felt like he could finally breathe as the blood bubbled over. He instantly felt guilty, having broken a promise to his uncle. He added one more line, one for his failure to find the Avatar, one for his failure to keep his promise. He breathed again. He deserved this. He let the blood run for another moment, enjoying the sight of the glossy red against his pale skin. He cleaned and bandaged himself and went to bed. The following morning Iroh kept an eye on Zuko, but he seemed to be none-the-wiser.
Zuko continued his habit in secret. He felt guilty for lying to his uncle, but he knew that he needed this. He never lost control again. He had cuts for all of his failures and his lowest moments. He had cuts for when he woke unable to breathe, remembering the feeling of his father’s hands around his throat. When they finally discovered that the Avatar was alive, and then lost him, Zuko very nearly lost control again. Instead of making a deep cut, he lost count of how many smaller ones he made. He was running out of space on his thighs but he didn’t know where else to cut. He would occasionally reopen the first scars he had made.
Time passed. Things changed. Seeing Zhao and Azula left Zuko shaken, but he continued on. They were forced to leave the ship and live as refugees. Then they lived in the kingdom that Iroh had tried to destroy. It was ironic, and Zuko felt guilty, but he tried to adapt to his new life anyway. Sometimes he would go weeks without adding a new scar, sometimes he would cut every day. When he betrayed his uncle and returned home with Azula, things got worse. Seeing Ozai in person still left Zuko shaking. The cuts were more frequent, yet the guilt was still consuming. He turned against his family and finally felt some release on the pressure around his heart. His inner flame burned brighter than it had in months. He joined the Avatar and his friends.
Despite everything, Zuko had earned their trust. He knew he didn’t deserve it. He knew that helping them didn’t make up for his past sins. He cut less frequently now, but sometimes he still felt so overwhelmed by all the grief he had caused them, that he couldn’t bear it. Sometimes he still had nightmares.
Tonight, was one of those nights. They were staying on Ember Island, preparing to fight his father, Firelord Ozai. Zuko knew that Aang would have to kill his father, that it was the only way he would defeat the Fire Nation, but he knew that Aang was reluctant to do it. Talk of Ozai had increased in recent days, and Zuko had to fight to keep his hands from shaking, or the campfire from blowing out of control. The whole island reminded him of his family, and the play they watched had left him uneasy. They still didn’t know much about his life, and he intended to keep it that way.
Zuko went to bed that night thinking about seeing his father’s face again. Thinking about the rage and fury that he would unleash on them. Thinking that they still might not be able to beat him. He slept fitfully, tossing and turning and mumbling in his sleep. In his mind’s eye he saw Ozai, a giant compared to an ant-sized Zuko. Zuko raced away, trying to avoid being stepped on. Ozai had a demonic face, a twisted smile, with eyes like a snake. But then the dream morphed into something else.
Zuko had nightmares about the Agni Kai for months after it happened. He had woken up screaming, felt his face still burning even though it had mostly healed. His uncle came in to see if he was okay one night and Zuko had nearly stabbed him with a broadsword, so terrified he couldn’t separate reality from his dreams. When he had briefly returned to the palace he dreamt of the Agni Kai almost every night. But since then the dreams had faded, or only come in pieces.
Tonight, he couldn’t even call this a dream. This was a memory. He recalled rising from the stone floor to face the General who he was to duel. He remembers seeing Firelord Ozai and immediately being filled with confusion, and heart-pounding terror. Ozai had hurt him before. But he was always careful to make sure that nothing would ever show over the clothes Zuko wore, so no one would ever know. But here, in this arena, Ozai did not care what the onlookers saw, and Zuko feared that his father might kill him then and there. He tried to beg, kneeling on the floor, tears streaming from his face as he refused to fight. The words his father said still tingled in his bones, “You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.” When he looked up a blast of fire hit him squarely in the face, the mark of a banished prince. He screamed and cried out, the pain so great that he fell back and lost consciousness.
Zuko woke with a start, a scream dying in his throat as he hyperventilated. He stumbled out of bed, trembling with fear like he had not done in years. He crossed his bed chamber, falling to his knees as he found the knife in his bag. He quickly pushed the fabric on his thigh away and dug the knife in. He breathed deeply and hung his head forward, closing his eyes as the pain drowned out the memories.
When he opened his eyes again he realized he had fallen forwards, now splayed out on the ground. He looked down at his thigh and saw that there was a small pool of blood forming around it. He had lost control again, he had cut too deeply. He panicked, breathing hard, but that only made the world start to spin. He squeezed his eyes shut and when he opened them the world seemed to have mostly right itself. He gently picked himself up by his elbows, feeling weaker by the minute. He pulled a spare tunic from his bag and pressed it against the cut, hissing in pain.
He couldn’t die here. He needed to help Aang defeat the Firelord. Images of Ozai sprang from the back on his mind but he shoved them away, attempting to get to his knees. Nearly falling forwards again he braced himself with one arm against the wall. He needed to do this quickly, he wasn’t going to last long. He took a deep breath and got to his feet, immediately pitching forward. He stuck out his foot and used the momentum to carry him forward. He needed to get to Katara, she’s the only one who could help.
He leaned heavily against the wall as he made his way down the corridor. Reaching her bed chamber, he raised his fist to knock and found himself falling into the door. It opened, smacking against the wall as he crumbled forward. Katara nearly jumped out of bed at the sound of an intruder. Peering down at the heap on the floor she instantly got up and knelt over him.
“Zuko! Zuko what’s wrong? What happened?” She gripped his shoulder, staring into his glassy eyes as they struggled to focus on her.
“Please...” he whispered, “Please help...” he moved his arm which was holding the sodden shirt against his leg. Katara sucked in a breath as she caught sight of the massive gash on his thigh. In the dim lighting she could barely make out the other scars on his legs, but she knew something was off.
“Did you do this to yourself?” She asked, reaching for her water skin. He would not meet her eyes, looking away at the wall as she bended the water around her hands. It started to glow and out of the corner of her eyes she could see tears on Zuko’s face. She reached down to gently touch the marred skin and willed it to heal. His thigh knitted itself back together, but a thick line still blossomed where the cut had been, dozens of older scars littered the rest of his thigh. It will have to do, she thought. She looked up at Zuko again and saw that the tension had faded from his face, his eyes were closed. Assuming he had fainted, she started to stand up, but his hand shot out and caught her wrist.
Cracking his eyes open, he turned his head to face her. “Thank you,” he said, so quietly she almost couldn’t hear it. Her cheeks flushed, and she smiled slightly despite herself.
“Let’s get you up, okay? Do you think you can walk?” She asked. He thought for a moment before grimacing and shaking his head, no. She sighed. “Okay. But I need you to help me.” He nodded, and she positioned herself behind his head, pushing his shoulders so that he was in a sitting position. When she let go he leaned to the side dangerously, but braced himself with one hand. “We have to get you all the way up now, okay? So, I need you to push with your left leg and lean on me, and I’m going to pull you up.” He nodded, preparing himself. She pulled him up by his torso. He was heavier than he looked, but lighter than Sokka. Once standing his face turned an ashen white and he looked like he might pass out. “Whoah, whoah, I need you to stay with me.” She touched his face with her hand and his eyes flickered, a little color coming back into his cheeks. “Okay, just two steps the bed alright? Two steps.” He nodded, and they stepped forward quickly, Zuko toppled after the second step. She guided him to the bed, helped him get his legs up.
They were both breathless but Zuko was still conscious and he turned to her. “Thank you,” he said.
“You already said that.” He shrugged and closed his eyes, laying and arm across his face as he tried to breathe. “Zuko...” he peered out at her, feeling much like that 14-year-old that Iroh had found all those years ago. “What happened?” She asked.
Zuko sighed. He supposed she deserved to know after healing him. “I had a nightmare.”
She was kneeling beside the bed now, arms propped up on the mattress, head resting on her hands. She looked at him without judgement, he only saw curiosity and concern in her eyes. “And that caused you to hurt yourself?”
“It’s more complicated than that.” He pointed to the scar on his face, “do you know how I got this?”
She blinked at him. “No, I always just assumed it was some sort of accident.”
“A lot of people do I suppose. But no, my father gave it to me.” Katara looked shocked. Before she could say anything else he explained that his nightmare was remembering how he received the disfiguring scar. He told her about the meeting in the war room, speaking out of turn, and how he agreed to the Agni Kai because he thought he would be facing the old General. When he discovered that it was his father he would have to face, he knew he never had a chance. He told her how Ozai branded Zuko and then banished him, only to return once he had completed an impossible mission. He was shaking slightly when he finished recounting the story, but he looked at Katara with clear eyes.
“I always wondered why you were so intent on finding Aang. I just assumed that you were trying to help the fire nation. I never imagined how personal it was for you,” she said once he had finished explaining. “I’m sorry by the way. No father should ever hurt his child.”
He looked away from her. “No,” he whispered. “I deserved it. And these,” he gestured to his scarred thighs, “I deserve all these and more.”
“What? How could you possibly think that?” She exclaimed.
He looked at her again. Shouldn’t she understand? She should hate him. “After everything I’ve done to you and your friends... you know I deserve this.” His voice had a steel edge to it that made her shiver.
Katara grasped his trembling hand tightly, her palm warm. “Zuko listen to me. You and I may not always see eye-to-eye, but that does that mean you deserve to be hurting like this. You have made mistakes in the past, that’s true, but you’re here now. You’ve earned our trust and respect. Even our friendship. Does that count for nothing?”
“It cannot possibly make up for everything I’ve done to you. I’ve been helping you for a few months, I’ve been hunting you for years. I can’t make up for that. Nothing I do could ever wash that away.”
“Zuko, the world is not good or bad, black or white. There is no cosmic equation that says that one good deed cancels out one bad deed, or vice versa. There is just what you try to do. You are trying to be good, but you’ve made mistakes in the past. We all have. We are all made from yin and yang, we have a light and darkness. It does not make you a bad person. It does not make you deserve this.” She gently touched his thigh. He flinched slightly but let her hand stay.
He looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully before whispering, “I just feel so guilty. I feel like I can never make it right.”
She moved her hand to touch his cheek, tilting his face towards hers. “You already have.” A tear leaked out of his eye, and before he knew it he was sobbing, squeezing her hand, hoping, hoping that she was right. Katara shushed him and leaned over, hugging him close. He clung to her. He knew he looked weak, but he found that he didn’t really care. He felt safe here. They stayed like that until sunrise, Zuko slipping in and out of consciousness as Katara ran her hands through his hair. She calmed him in a way he had not known since he was a child, and he began to feel at peace.
He felt his inner fire burn brightly, in a way that had nothing to do with pain or anger. He felt something shift, deep within himself. He realized that the sense of purpose and peace he found here, with Katara and with this group of friends, were perhaps the greatest source of strength. He smiled faintly in the early morning rays, because he believed for the first time, that this group of people stood a chance. Thinking about their friendship and acceptance of him despite everything, made his heart swell a bit. He felt the vice grip that was usually around it slacken. He knew the battle ahead would not be easy, but he had hope. He could feel the painful chapters of his life closing, and he longed for what was on the other side.
As the sun peeked over the horizon he squeezed Katara‘s hand and smiled at her. She blinked at him sleepily and smiled back, and he knew things were going to be okay.