Be Soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place. ~ Iain Thomas
“Prince Zuko,” Father spoke in that slow, clipped tone he used when he was displeased. “Why did you leave your firebending lesson early?”
“I saw something,” Zuko muttered, overcome with shame and embarrassment.
“And what did you see that was so important that you felt the need to disrespect the teacher I pay good money to tutor you?” Father continued with a sneer.
“A-Azula left early too, even earlier than I did,” he defended, pointing at his sister who gave an indifferent shrug. Everyone knew who the favorite was, who would come out on top.
“Azula is a prodigy and does not require the lessons you so desperately need to even call yourself a bender much less my son,” Zuko squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head so his father couldn’t see the tars stinging in the corners of his eyes at the cruel words. It would only make him angrier.
“So tell me, Prince Zuko, what did you see?” Father asked again, this time almost managing to sound genuine but Zuko knew he was at the end of the man’s patience.
“I uh saw one of the recently hatched turtleducks being followed by the garden master’s cathawk and I was worried that it would get eaten. So I um,” He saw his father frown in disapproval. “I uh chased off the cathawk and carried the turtleduck back to the pond. It’s mother snapped at me but the baby was safe at least.” He all but murmured the last part. Beside him, Azula laughed quietly into her hand.
“So you abandoned your lesson to chase away an animal from doing what nature intended it to do,” Father huffed and smoke billowed out of his nose. He stood up abruptly and grabbed Zuko by the front of his tunic before he could move. “This is why you are so inadequate as a prince. No one cares about tiny mewling creatures in a pond, all that matters is the power you hold and how you use it. You may have stopped that cathawk today but what about tomorrow? Either it will feed on your precious turtleducks or it will die. You need to learn to do the same or a similar fate may befall you.” He let go and walked out of the room without another look at Zuko.
“I told ya Dad would be mad,” Azula gloated from next to him.
“Shut up,” Zuko mumbled from the ground.
“Both of you, stop that,” Mom said, bustling into the room with a pinched look on her face she stooped down to his level which soon melted into concern. “Are you okay Zuko?” Azula rolled her eyes at the display and stalked out of the room with her head held high. But Zuko didn’t notice, didn’t care, with his mother’s arms now around him.
“Yeah,” he said into the sleeve of her robes, trying to wipe his tears away as discreetly as possible but Mom probably noticed anyway. “Am I, am I a bad prince because I didn’t want the baby turtleduck to get eaten?”
“Oh Zuko,” she said into his hair, “no, my love. You’re a good prince and you know why?” She pulled back and wiped her thumb across some wetness staining his cheeks. “It’s because you care about living things, even when it’s hard. You’re hardworking and brilliant and you use it all for the sake of others. I would want to live in a nation knowing my Fire Lord did everything he could to protect me and my family. That is the mark of a true leader, using your power for the betterment of the world.”
“Do you think I could be that kind of a person?” Zuko asked meekly.
“Oh my dear boy,” she said with a kiss, “of course you will. You’ll be the kindest Fire Lord the world has ever known.”
“Oh Agni which one of these do I answer first,” Zuko asked himself picking one of the literal dozens of scrolls littered on his desk. He’d felt on top of the world a week ago when the Fire Sages had crowned him Fire Lord but now he wonders if he’ll really be able to fix his broken nation, this broken world. The scrolls contained everything from demands of reparations from the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes, generals at the front asking for orders, Fire Nation dignitaries disagreeing with his ideas for a new, brighter Fire Nation. Basically everyone wanted a piece of him and he just didn’t know if he was enough.
He stalked over to the wall on the other side of room and stared at a painting Sokka had given him before they’d left. It depicted Zuko with his swords doing some sort of firebending, or at least that was how Sokka described it. It pretty hard to tell but it had been made for him by his friend, a fact that still took him off guard. Who would have thought he’d ever be nostalgic for the War? Simpler times now that he thought on it, stop the Fire Lord and save the world but now he’s Fire Lord and he doesn’t know how to fix things. He doesn’t know if anyone could. He was tired from too many late nights, worn down by the physical and emotional stress of the last few weeks and aching from the inside out at the thought of being exactly what his father said he was: nothing.
He growled, pulling away from the wall and going back to his desk where the scrolls were still lying, just as accusing and disbelieving and unanswered as they were a moment ago. There’s a quiet little knock at the door and a hesitant little “My Lord?”
“What?” Zuko snapped, spilling some scrolls from the desk in his anger. As quickly as his frustration bubbled, it fizzled out and he chased after the frightened servant who had staggered back out into the hallway. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, you startled me and I’m just so frustrated and I didn’t mean to scare you, really.” He was about ready to get down on his knees when the servant, an older woman he remembers seeing on the periphery of his childhood, kind of stopped and stared at him as if she didn’t know what to make of him.
“Are you alright, my Lord?” She said finally as he kind of awkwardly staggered to his feet deciding he probably looked ridiculous going for a bow with this woman. He swayed a little bit, pushing some of the hair out of his face.
“Yes, obviously, do I not look alright?” He asked and she pointedly took an extra telling few moments before nodding her head. “Yeah, I thought so.” He sighed leaning against the wall. “I’m sorry again for earlier, that was inappropriate of me. Can I make you some tea to make up for it?”
“I,” she said before shaking her head as if to clear it. “No I was coming to ask if you wanted tea.”
“I do but I’d like to make it, need to do something with my hands. Here, come inside, we can talk for a moment,” he said, leading the woman into the room and setting her on the plush royal stool. “What’s your name? Is green tea alright? It’s all I have in here.” He babbled as concentrated on measuring the tea out just so while he lit a flame for the ever present pot of water. The action was comforting in its familiarity and he could almost pretend he was still a banished Prince working in an worn down tea shop in the Lower Ring.
“I am Maki,” she said softly, “and yes, my Lord. Is this what troubles you?” She asked, gesturing to the scrolls sill covered his desk and now the floor. He grunted, playing with the water’s flame.
“I don’t know how to answer them in a way that will make them listen to me, I need them to respect me, to take a chance with me on peace but I don’t know how,” he sighed watching the leaves steep in the water.
“If I may my Lord,” she began hesitantly. “I would be honest; you have done more than most to end the war. They cannot doubt your motives, explain yourself as you have to me and I believe they will listen. Mistakes are made freely but so few are willing to extend the hand out in repentance and understanding.”
“Huh,” He said, mulling over the words before pouring the tea for the two of them. “That just might work.”
Zuko had faced many monsters in his life both in spiritual and human form but it never got any easier. The trails punishing the war crimes of those from all four nations during the war went on years after Ozai was taken down. As Fire Lord, he was responsible for those charged within the Fire Nation and it anguished him to see how many of his people were guilty of crimes against humanity.
He knelt down in front of a row of liberated prisoners from a camp, mostly deserters or war criminals or rebels who couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They were clearly underfed, overworked, their bodies strained and exhausted beyond measure. Their suffering was imbedded in every lines along their skin and their fear gleaming in their eyes like candle flames. It made him want to turn away in disgust and anger but instead he held out a hand.
“Your cases will be reviewed, some of you may still face prison time but it won’t be like this,” he said, emphatically, trying to put as much honesty into his words as he could. If his voice broke a little at the end and his hand shook a bit then all the better to convince them. “The rest of you will be allowed to return to your lives and your families, all we ask in return is that you give our peace a chance. Are these terms acceptable?”
“You would really let us go?” A young woman, probably around Azula’s age asked with a sneer. His father’s years on the throne showed very little sympathy towards disagreement, no one was free from punishment. No wonder she didn’t believe him.
“Guard, release their manacles. While the records are reviewed they don’t need to be chained, once they’re off, get rid of them. They’ll never be put on anyone ever again,” Zuko ordered.
“B-but my Lord!” One guard stuttered, “the prisoners will riot, they need to be contained.”
“Unless they want to risk their chance of going home, I believe they deserve the chance to feel like humans again,” Zuko side-eyed the guard. “Unless things were happening in this camp that you fear retaliation for.” Several guards looked away and Zuko knew he’d be investigating their records, as well as speaking to the prisoners themselves.
“Sir, I must protest. It’s not safe for you and, to be honest, it is beneath a man of your status to kneel before peasants and miscreants. Every one of them is here because of crimes they knowingly committed against the state. Everything that happened here, to them, was justified.” The head guard said with a face that looked as if he had never smiled before. A few of the prisoners bowed their heads or shrunk away from the man’s very presence. He’s sure he’ll find that every heinous act in this camp was committed or authorized by this man.
It’s times like these he most understands his father, how easy and good it would feel to lash out this man with both his fire and his privilege. But he stays his hand, if only for the people behind him. He needs to show them that he means what he says, that he believes in pretty words like peace and justice. They were worth something, a long time ago, he hope to bring those words to life again.
“Justified,” he hisses, “or not, I want them set free. And we will decide what or what not is beneath me when I’m reviewing the records of everyone at this facility.” He stood tall, putting as much confidence as could into his posture. He would save these people and he would do it the right way. “Let’s begin, shall we?”
"Izumi!" Zuko choked out, his whole body trembling with too many emotions he couldn't name them. All he could focus on was his beautiful, precious, safe daughter in front of him, night clothes dirtied and tears in her eyes but safe none the less. He fell to his knees and wrapped his girl in his arms, holding her close so she could not be lost again.
"Daddy," she stuttered out into his robe, clutching onto him with little fingers. Oh Agni, if things had gone even a little bit differently he might have never seen her again. He forced his shaking to stop and lifted Izumi into his arms and glared down at the men being restrained before him. Animals, men who'd remained loyal to his father and the terrible vision Ozai had. They had thought taking the young Fire Princess from her bed would give them some measure of bargaining. Zuko's vision narrowed in on the three wan faces before him as they realized just who they were dealing with.
"My Lord," one of the guards said softly. "Fire Lady Mai is on the other end of the palace looking for the other strike team. I can ensure the Princess is delivered safely to her arms." And leave you alone with these traitors, goes unsaid. This is far from the first kidnapping or assassination attempt Zuko has been a part of. He and Azula had several attacks on their life when they were small. In his minds eye, he can see the light of the flames and hear the screams of the would be assassins as his father dealt with them to make sure everyone knew what happened to those who struck against the royal family.
It was so tempting. Izumi may be safe now but how can he guarantee they'll make it the next time around? No one here would question him for striking these men down, he would probably be praised for such swift justice. But all those parts of him whispering for revenge and violence sound very similar to the last Fire Lord. He turned away from the kidnappers and looked at his daughter's little heart shaped face.
"I'll be taking the Princess in, when my wife catches the remaining intruders, please inform her that Izumi is with me. She will stay with us for the rest of the night and tomorrow we will work on increasing security." Izumi leaned onto his shoulder and he adjusted her more comfortably. As much as he wanted to give into his rage, he wasn't a teenager with a hair-trigger temper anymore, he was a leader and a father who needed to set an example of mercy.
"And these men here?" The same guard questioned.
"The Capital dungeon, far, far away from my father's cell. They will be dealt with the proper way, in front of a crowd of witnesses and a collection of evidence. I'll call in Master Bei Fong in the morning so we can ensure they're not lying in their testimony." He locked eyes with one of the men, staring up at him with wide eyes, knowing full well that he only breathed because of Zuko's kindness. Deluded or not, they had to know the last Fire Lord would not have given them the same courtesy.
"Now get them out of my sight, I'll deal with them tomorrow but for now, it's been a long night for me and my family," He said, bouncing his girl lightly in his arms. She cuddled closer, still scared but also so brave. She was the future of this nation, an open mind who had never known the horrors of the Hundred Year War. But the Fire Nation would never progress unless their leader believed in love as much as they did progress and it was moments like these, he knew, that would best educate his daughter. "Come my little turtleduck, lets find your mother and get back to bed."
Forty Eight was still too young, he decides wearily. He’d been Fire Lord for three decades, fought and lost many battles, won a few in-between, and put his heart and soul into restoring the Fire Nation. And yet here he knelt, feeling as fragile and helpless as a child. Forty Eight was far too young to lose a father.
“Uncle,” he croaked, “can I get you some more tea?”
“Not now,” Uncle said with great effort. “Your tea making has much improved over the years, nephew but I fear my stomach cannot handle it.” Zuko looked down at his worn hands and wrestled with them anxiously. There were people outside waiting for him, his wife and daughter, his friends, his nation, all grieving the impending loss of one of its finest heroes. But in this moment, nothing existed but him and his uncle.
“What troubles you, my Lord?” Uncle whispered, almost a sigh.
“You know,” Zuko said back just as quietly.
“Death is another part of life,” that weathered, weary hand reached for his own and Zuko held on as tightly as he could allow. “I have lived a spectacular life, made mistakes, redeemed myself, raised a boy into a man,” Zuko suppressed a sob, “helped save the world, ran a shop. I have done what I was meant to do and now it is time for me to depart. My body is failing and my spirit longs for peace.”
“I know,” Zuko admitted, thinking of the slow progression the years had worn on the man who had always seemed larger than life. “And I thank you for staying with me for as long as you could, for being my family when I had none. I,” he bowed his head and brought Uncle's hand up to his forehead. “As your Lord, I give you permission to have your rest. You have served your nation honorably General Iroh, you go with honor and-and with love.” He said with as much composition as he could muster, shoving the pain he felt letting his uncle go in favor of relieving the pain the man had felt at being forced to stay for his sake.
“Zuko, my Zuko,” Uncle said warmly removing his hand from Zuko’s forehead to rest it along his cheek. His hand was cold and thin but Zuko cupped it anyway. “I know this is difficult but your words me so much to me. The blessing is nice, but the true blessing is watching you bloom like a cherry blossom, beautiful and kind, is the greatest gift of all.”
“I tried Uncle,” Zuko said, some of his grief abating in the face of Uncle’s proverbs. “I’ve done my best to be a be a good leader, to not be like my father. It’s been hard Uncle, it’s been so hard,” he nuzzled his Uncle’s hand. “Sometimes I get so frustrated and angry and it hurts but I tried to be what this nation needed.”
“My Prince, my Lord, my dear Nephew,” Uncle said, “you are. It is precisely because it has been so hard that makes your accomplishments shine even more brightly. Watching you grow, seeing your light, it has been the pleasure of my life, Zuko.” Zuko smiled into his uncle palm, still feeling small and afraid and so terribly sad. But his Uncle was ready and Zuko thinks he’s finally ready too.
“Go in peace,” He said, gently resting Uncle’s hand on his harshly rattling chest, “go with my love.”
“I must share it with every living creature,” Uncle said, “and I am all the more glad for it.” Uncle closed his eyes and Zuko knew that everything they had to say had passed. This time is for his Uncle and him alone. He leaned down and kissed his brow one last time before sweeping out of the room. He wanted to stay but the man had wanted his privacy and Zuko could not deny him. Still, he thought, standing outside with the others, leaning heavily on Aang’s shoulder as the inevitable came and went.
It was hard to be gentle, to let the softest part of him out for everyone to see. But he was raised with both cruelty and kindness and he knew which he wanted for his country, for his family. For his Uncle’s memory and for all the people he hoped to save, he could only go forward and hope it was enough.