The tattoos of the Fire Nation are bright and sprawling, encompassing the entirety of backs and chests and arms. The oldest of their ranks - the fiercest and most practiced warriors - have full bodysuits of bright reds and blues and greens, of dragons and wyrms and spirits whose names have been forgotten but whose forms will never be.
Azula got her first tattoo when she was six, when she proved herself as the firebending genius everyone always knew she was. Zuko was livid with envy as he watched his Uncle Iroh - who was, at this time, the most accomplished and respected General in the Fire Nation - burn the ink into Azula’s skin with all the care he could manage. Azula smiled through the pain, like she couldn’t even feel it. Year after year, as she kept getting more and more tattoos, her smile faded.
Soon, Azula’s arms and legs were covered in dragons - they slid up and down her limbs like they were living, breathing beings of fire, teasing at the skin of her chest, of her back, and sliding down her wrists and hands and ankles and feet, towards her fingers and toes; there were the reds of those who had mastered the basic katas, the greens of those who had mastered the masters, the blues of those who had mastered lightning , they all stood proud and stark against the backdrop of Azula’s pale skin, bold against the colours of the robes that were made just for this purpose, just for people like Azula.
(Zuko always assumed that any pain she felt faded over the years, alongside her smile.
Slowly, she became a shadow of the joyful person Zuko had once played with in the gardens of the palace. Ozai’s lessons started to take up more room in her day, and righteous fury and pride started to take up more room in her heart. They shaped her, molded her in their corruptive fire, and no one noticed until it was too late to save her.
In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that she became the monster she did. As much as he wishes otherwise, Zuko felt nothing but detached relief when he and Katara finally took her down.)
Zuko’s very first tattoo was burned into him by his father at the Agni Kai.
He thinks he can say, with no amount of uncertainty, that his father did not take the same gentle care with him that his Uncle Iroh did with his sister’s first tattoo all those years ago.
(It wasn’t until three months later, when the red of the scar tissue around his eye still refused to fade into the shiny pink it should have, that Iroh took him aside and explained the extent of the punishment that his father had seen fit to give him. On top of the banishment, on top of the fruitless quest, his father had said, You want to be an adult, a ‘Master’? Then take your tattoo. Wear it on your face, let everyone see the man you think you are.)
Zuko gave his first tattoo when Aang mastered the basic katas of firebending.
He spent days and hours agonizing over the decision; tattoos had never been anything but pain to him. There was the pain of what his sister had and he didn’t; the pain of seeing her succeed where he had only failed; the pain of disapproval and rage literally burning into his face, so he could never forget the insult he had done unto his king. (Not his father, never his father. Ozai had always been a king first - he made that clear the day he forced Zuko into a rigged Agni Kai.)
But Zuko had the chance to make it different for Aang. Zuko had the chance to share his culture, the good parts of it, to make it something new and worth celebrating again.
Aang was no stranger to tattoos, obviously. He had the airbending one on his head , after all, and had only gotten it last year (a hundred years ago), not to mention the thin waterbending lines Katara had given him a couple months ago.
Aang didn’t so much as flinch as Zuko burned the matching red dragons onto his back, curling over his shoulders, resting their heads on his biceps.
He didn’t so much as flinch as Zuko apologized and said that the pain of healing was as much part of the process as the pain of getting the tattoo itself.
He did flinch when Zuko said that because Aang wasn’t of the Fire Nation, wasn’t entrenched in their culture like Zuko, he shouldn’t have to follow that part of the ritual if he didn’t want to.
“I’m the Avatar ,” was Aang’s answer to that, eyes fierce and face determined, “I’m a part of everyone’s culture, and if I can’t take the pain of this, how can I expect to understand the pain of any of the people in the Fire Nation? How can they trust me with themselves, with their wellbeing, with the preservation of everything that they are , when I can’t even respect their traditions enough to follow through with this? No, I am the Avatar. I am Fire Nation. I am every nation.”
(As impressive as that speech was, Zuko laughed when, only a week later, Aang’s healing tattoos were so itchy he was trying to scratch in his sleep. He never took it back, though, and rode out the whole healing process with impressive stoicness for a thirteen-year-old.)
In true Gaang fashion, they came together and apart multiple times over their odyssey around the world. Seeing each other was inconsistent but always joy-filled, full of stories and new scars and tattoos.
When Zuko saw Aang again - after the Avatar (not Aang, the Avatar) had defeated Ozai, after he and Katara had killed his sister, after the battle was won and the war had ended, but before the beginning of the rest of their lives - he wept .
Blue dragons - lightning dragons - wound themselves down Aang’s forearms from elbow to wrist, the surrounding skin still wounded and irritated. Those were the dragons of his sister, of his uncle, of his father and country . Those dragons, in a blue so close to the one favoured by the waterbenders, were the highest honor that could be bestowed upon anyone in the Fire Nation.
He knew that Aang was deserving, and that he would honor the spirits and make the Fire Nation proud.
(Later - much later - Zuko would have a thought, and go to the libraries. He would study the books and the drawings and he would wonder about Aang’s lightning mastery tattoos. It’s not like the designs were entirely disparate, but Aang’s had harsh lines and fractals that were impossible to imitate with ink and fire. He never asked Aang where he got his mastery tattoos, never asked after the artist or the process, but… he wondered.)
(He wondered about the dragons.)
Zuko’s only tattoo for a very long time was the scar that Ozai had given him. His nation wondered and whispered, but the reasoning was simple: he had not yet proven mastery over firebending. He could understand their concern; the Fire Lord is meant to be the strongest in the Nation, the protector, the first line of defense. All Fire Lords before him have had symbols of that strength etched upon their skin as a testament to that duty.
Zuko can think of three Fire Lords, Ozai included, who could actually prove their competency in all masteries they had accepted tattoos from.
He would not lie to his country like that, no matter how much they might want him to.
So, Zuko was twenty-seven years old when he finally accepted the red dragons that symbolized his mastery over the basic katas; fourteen years older than the oldest recorded bender to get their basic mastery tattoos, and twenty years older than any Fire Lord to receive any tattoo.
(Getting that tattoo had been the most terrifying moment of Zuko’s entire life, including the battle where he attempted to take down his own sister.
Iroh - blessed Uncle Iroh - was the one to burn the ink into his skin, just as he had burned the ink into Azula’s skin all those years ago.
The process was slow, and long, and overwhelming, but Zuko came out of it only a little worse for wear, and that can be attributed entirely to Iroh’s calming and conciliatory nature throughout the entire process. They took breaks for tea when Zuko started to choke on his own panic and the smell of burning flesh - sometimes it took minutes to calm down, sometimes it took hours. No matter what, Iroh praised him with sweet smiles and soft words, and it was only when Zuko was ready to let him burn the ink into his skin again that they continued.
Zuko doesn’t think he ever could handle getting any more tattoos, but that’s okay. This is enough to honor himself and his people.)
His red dragons sit, calm and sleeping, curled around his wrists. They are no larger than a gecko-bat: by far the smallest mastery tattoos a Fire Lord has ever had.
(It seems to be a theme, with him, this refusal to participate in the grandeur of the Fire Lords who came before him. Katara comments on it sometimes, and laughs when he sputters and stutters over it. It’s a good thing , she says , it means all that time you spent on the run with us hasn’t gone to waste .)
Some in his council liken his dragons to cuffs, others to shackles. They say that they tie him to his reign as Fire Lord, that they are a reminder of his responsibility, his burden . And sure, they are, in a way, because he will always feel a heavy weight on his soul.
(The weight of the bloody legacy his father and sister left behind. The weight of his missing mother, the one he never had time to search for. The weight of the entire Fire Nation, struggling with the idea that everything they had been taught, everything they had known, was wrong.)
But to Zuko they are also a reminder of hope: of the things that came before, of the fire in Aang’s eyes, of the ways in which you can overcome your fears and the ways it’s okay if you can’t.
( The smell of burning flesh, the world spiralling into a pinpoint of agony, the rush of fire, the gasp of the Agni Kai crowd, replayed every time he uses his bending, every time someone lights a lamp, every time -)
Sometimes, in the middle of the day, when the sun is high and hot in the sky, when he is alone in that hidden garden on the rooftops of the palace, Zuko swears he feels his dragons wake. He feels them move and stretch their wings across his skin, feels them explore the length of his arms and chest and back, feels them twine about his fingers and tickle about his bellybutton.
When they do, he closes his eyes, lays his skin bare against the hot sun, and moves through his basic katas. He never looks to see if the dragons are actually moving, doesn’t know if he’ll ever look.
It feels a little like it would be a betrayal, and also a little like it’s too good to be true.
But he feels, in that moment, like the possibility is enough.