The force of the blast sends the prince flying backwards across the arena. His head hits the ground with a crack, cutting off his scream, and both sounds seem to reverberate through the chamber as the flame fades away. The Fire Lord stands down from his striking pose and turns to leave without a second look at his son while the audience sits in shocked silence, staring at the unmoving prince.
General Iroh is the first of the spectators to move. He kneels by Prince Zuko’s side and everyone can tell what he sees by the slump of his shoulders and the way his fists clench against the ground. He gets to his feet quickly, haltingly, and walks deliberately out of the room after The Fire Lord.
The two attending healers come forward and take in the sight of the prince. Half of his face is burned almost beyond recognition; his remaining eye and his mouth are open in shock. Together they pick him up and take him through to the antechamber while the rest of the audience watches in silent horror.
“Ozai.” Iroh fights to keep his voice steady, though the burn of rage and grief in his throat is familiar. He sees his brother’s silhouette pause down the hallway. “The Crown Prince—your son—is dead.”
The Fire Lord half turns, but Iroh cannot see his face in the gloom.
“Make the arrangements.”
He turns and strides out of sight, the torches flickering as he passes them.
Iroh holds himself steady until his brother is gone and then slumps, one clenched fist braced against a column. He cannot fathom what Ozai has done, how he acts this way.
He knows what it is to lose a son, and he wonders, not for the first time, if Ozai knows what it is to be a father.
Zuko is changed, and his hair washed, before Iroh can force himself to enter the room where his nephew lays. He bids the attendants to leave and thanks them for their care.
His nephew looks somewhat more peaceful; the attendants did their duty with mindfulness, but they did not cover his burn. Iroh forces himself to look, committing Zuko’s face to memory alongside his son's.
He had hoped to never again perform a vigil over one he loved, but he steels himself to wait through the night. Zuko’s body will be burned before the dawn, his spirit will be released with Angi’s blessing, and Iroh will stay with him in the dark.
Zuko knows he is dead. He knows when he finds himself staring at his uncle across his own body, but he does not remember how. He’s wearing red armor, which doesn’t seem right. He tries to think back. He can’t, and the effort makes him feel tired.
For a disorienting moment, the world around him wavers and the room fades out like water blurring ink on parchment. Memories slide over him like dreams, pushed together and out of order. Watching a play beside his mother, tagging along behind his cousin, running after Azula in the courtyard. It feels like all these things happened to someone else and he fears, suddenly, that they are only dreams, that he has always been this—intangible and alone. And then the moment passes, the fear and the memories wash out of him, and he simply feels empty.
And he recalls he has never been alone.
Uncle Iroh looks up, and his face crumples like he’s hurt. But the pain Uncle shows fills Zuko with relief—he was alive, not a dream. He feels selfish.
“Uncle,” Zuko says again. He sounds young and scared to his own ears. He doesn’t want to know, but he asks anyways. “What happened?"
“Oh, my nephew,” Uncle says, but it’s like he can’t say anything more. He closes his eyes and bows his head. Tears drip off of his bearded chin.
“Don’t cry, Uncle. It’s alright. I’m—” Zuko wants to go to him, but his body is on the table between them and it doesn’t feel right to pass by it. “I’m alright."
Looking at himself lying on the table makes the world blur again, and he feels once more that he’s nothing. He is fading away. He looks up at his uncle, whose eyes are clenched tightly shut where he stands.
Absently, Zuko wonders why Uncle didn't seem more surprised to see him. He watches and waits, but when his uncle only stands very still, he drifts slowly out of the room and through the halls.
He finds himself in Azula’s room where a servant is running a brush through her hair. Her white funeral clothes are neatly folded on the bench beside her, but she sits formally in her robe. He simply watches the brush move through her hair until he looks in the mirror and sees that she’s watching him back.
Like uncle, she doesn’t look surprised, but she sends her attendants away and takes hold of the brush herself, eyes focused on her own reflection.
“What do you want, Zuko?"
He watches the rhythmic strokes of the brush and thinks.
“Nothing,” he says finally. Truthfully. “I’m dead.”
“I know." She laughs. Sharp and high. "Everyone knows. But it doesn’t matter.”
Zuko thinks on this for a moment. It sounds like one of the things she says just to be mean.
“I was supposed to be Fire Lord."
“And now I get to be Fire Lord.” He watches her fingers tighten on the brush. “I think everyone's probably relieved.”
Zuko scowls. Like so many times before, he wishes his mother were here to make Azula be nicer to him. He doesn’t want to talk to his sister anymore, but he doesn’t feel like he can leave yet. There’s something in him pulling taut, and he simply watches the brush while he waits for whatever it is to pull tight enough to snap.
"I always knew you were dim, Zuzu,” she says after a minute, "but even now you’re the last person to figure it out.”
“Figure what out?”
“That it doesn’t matter that you’re dead. You were weak, and it doesn’t matter because I’m heir to the throne now. And I'm stronger than you.”
Zuko feels like he should be angry, but he can’t quite grasp it. It’s what she wants, anyways, to make him angry all the time. And, he thinks without much bitterness, he’s already given her enough today.
He looks at his own hazy reflection and puts his hand to his face as she talks.
“Do you even know how much of a disgrace you are? You knelt before your challenger without even putting up a hand to defend yourself.” Her voice catches, and Zuko looks down in surprise to see she’s crying, just a little. It looks like maybe she doesn’t even know it. “It’s shameful.”
Then, quieter, "He killed you so easily.”
Zuko remembers, then, with the clarity of a note plucked on a harp string, what happened. He remembers kneeling, and begging for forgiveness. He remembers fear when his father moved to strike. And pain. He remembers screaming.
He opens his mouth to defend himself. He feels very small and very uncertain when he can only think of one real reason to give.
“He’s my father."
Azula’s brush stops halfway through a stroke. Her face does something very strange and then she whips around and shouts: “Why was it so easy?”
Her anger buffets him like a gale, and he can feel himself fade again. Like a string, the thing that drew taught within him breaks suddenly.
He waits a little longer, but she composes herself as quickly as she lost control and goes back to brushing her hair.
He’s about to leave when he hears her murmur to the air.
“Shut up, mother.”
He turns quickly, but he sees only Azula, still brushing her hair with precision.
“I’ll apologize when I see him again. Will that make you happy?”
Zuko leaves confused. If there’s one thing he’s sure about, it’s that his mother is not in that room.
He feels a tangled knot of memories—of connections—inside him. He latches on to the next string and finds himself in Mai’s room.
She’s sitting curled in an armchair, staring into a fire which burns high in the grate.
She turns quickly and stands, her hands going to her sleeves. When she sees him, she freezes.
She doesn’t quite look scared. But close. She’s been crying.
Zuko remembers her father was at the Agni-Kai. Most people of the court were.
“They told you what happened.”
“I—I think they told everyone. You’re—you were—the crown prince. They can’t hide it."
“Yeah, I guess not,” he says, and he sinks into the chair across from her. She hesitates and then sits back down stiffly.
He stares into the fire, not sure what to say. The understanding that something very, very wrong happened tonight washes over him slowly.
“Did it hurt?” she asks suddenly.
He puts a hand to his face and considers lying to her. He thinks of his shock, that last feeling of his head hitting the ground.
“Yeah,” he says at last. His hand drops and he shrugs. “But it doesn’t any more. So it’s okay, I guess.”
She leans forward and puts out a hand like she wants to touch him. He doesn’t move, not sure what would happen if she did. After a moment she pulls back.
“I can’t believe he did that to you. You’re sitting here, and I still can’t believe...”
Rage bubbles up in him suddenly. He clenches his fists against the arms of the chair and maybe the flame burns higher in the grate, or maybe it’s his imagination. And maybe he lied to her a second ago because it does hurt, deep in his chest, because it’s not fair.
“I couldn’t fight him,” he says. He’s not sure if ghosts can cry, but he wants to. “I thought—I begged him, Mai. And I thought. I didn’t think he…”
He stops and lets out a bitter laugh. “I guess I don’t believe it either."
“Zuko,” she sounds hesitant. “Why are you here?”
“I—I think I’m saying goodbye,” he says uncertainly. "I saw Azula a bit ago. She called me weak."
“Azula always lies.” Mai’s voice is firm and for a second Zuko just stops, hanging on her words. “This wasn’t your fault. Your father killed you, Zuko. Not because you were weak, but because you were strong enough not to fight him. He’s a coward.”
Zuko looks at her in shock. People don’t talk about the Fire Lord like that.
She gives him a sad smile. Once again, something in him pulls tight. Snaps.
"Think about it,” she says. "You're thirteen. And he's The Fire Lord.”
He just nods. She’s right, and he thinks about how his father’s treated him, especially since his mother left. He wonders what makes a Fire Lord afraid.
“Zuko?” Mai’s looking through him, and then glancing around the room.
Mai looks down at her hands, clenched in her lap.
Zuko follows the next thread and is surprised to find he’s floating over water under a dark sky, staring at a gently glowing wall of ice. He leans forward, hand outstretched, and stops just short of touching it.
“It’s not your time yet,” he says, though he has no idea where the words come from. “But the world still needs you.”
He leaves, but he doesn’t go far.
He sits down next to the embers of a dying fire and looks around him at the strange walls of snow. Three water tribe people sleep nearby.
The girl wakes up first.
“Who are you?” she asks, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “Oh! You’re a ghost!”
She sounds more interested than afraid.
Her brother stirs, but the old lady nearby keeps snoring.
“Katara? Why are you awka—get away from her!” The boy grabs a club out of nowhere and brandishes it.
Zuko knows they can tell what he is. A ghost. Fire Nation. The enemy. He stares into the embers for a moment longer, hoping to gain strength from their lingering warmth.
“My name is Zuko. I’m not here to hurt you.” The boy doesn’t look convinced. "I know where The Avatar is.”
“What? The Avatar?” The girl asks, her eyes lighting up. “I thought he died or disappeared years ago.”
“Why should we trust you?” her brother quickly follows. “You’re Fire Nation.”
Zuko doesn’t know how to answer that. But the embers catch Zuko's attention, and he sees a strange scene in them.
He serves tea in a sunlit room. These two kids, Mai, Uncle—everyone important is there, together. He’s going to be Fire Lord. And...they won.
The glow of the last ember fades, and the scene disappears as quickly as it appeared. But he understands, now, what these people would have meant to him.
“I was the crown prince,” he begins. His voice sounds distant. “My father is the Fire Lord. He challenged me to a duel—an Agni Kai. He…he killed me.” He looks at the siblings in turn and sees who they will become. “You will find The Avatar and help him defeat my father. Help him bring peace. I was—“ he pauses and considers, “I was supposed to help, too.”
Katara shifts closer, wonder and sorrow in her gaze. Sokka takes hold of her arm to hold her back, but he looks upset.
“I’m sorry, Zuko,” Katara says.
“How will we find the Avatar?” Sokka, ever practical, asks.
“He's in the ice. You'll find him when you’re supposed to.”
Zuko's world shifts suddenly and he is torn between two places at once. He can see the siblings lean in closer; they’re speaking to him. But he can also see the room in the palace where everyone is gathered. Part of the ceiling has been removed, and for a moment he sees two different night skies. His uncle lights a ceremonial torch and brings it forward.
“I have to go,” Zuko says, standing. He focuses on Uncle and feels a pull, but then a thought stops him. He turns back to the siblings in the ice hut and says, “My Uncle’s name is Iroh. I’ll try to get him to help you, too.”
“Is that…the Fire Lord’s brother?” Katara asks, incredulous.
“He is honorable. He—“ Zuko wavers. “He loved me. And he will help you end the war.”
He turns to leave, pulls two of the few remaining strings tighter.
Sokka and Katara exchange a glance.
“Zuko, wait. We have questions.”
“You’ll figure it out,” he says, smiling. He feels thin again, almost intangible. He bows to them in turn.
“Goodbye, Sokka. Goodbye, Katara. It was an honor to meet you.”
He drifts out the door, breaks two more strings, and scatters with the wind.
A few threads remain to guide him, and he travels across the world breaking ties with people he will never meet. The flame of his burial is ever-present in the back of his mind.
He drifts through homes and villages and sees...a very small earth kingdom girl in a house of finery; then a young warrior on an island whose costume lies nearby; a few members of the fire nation navy; and kids sleeping in homes Zuko knows will be torn apart in the next few years. All of them will fight long and hard for the world they want to see. He mourns what they could have been to him.
Finally, he finds Ty Lee in a small tent in the middle of circus grounds. She is still awake, taking off the makeup from her performance. He stays only long enough to get the feeling that she’ll be alright after the war. The pull from the gathering in the palace is growing stronger, and he doesn’t want to trouble her before the news travels to her on its own.
After all, not even the Fire Lord can stop the wild spread of rumors.
He’s not sure how long he wandered, but he finds himself back in the palace, in the throne room. His father is alone, sitting behind the wall of flames.
Zuko goes forward and sits in the place where he knelt so many times. He feels like he’s waiting for something, but Ozai looks through the flames, through him.
When he feels dawn approaching, he gets up to leave, but he somehow knows something must pass between them, before he goes.
“Azula told me I was weak,” he says, “because I didn’t want to fight you.”
He waits. Ozai sits.
“You killed me, and now you won’t even face what you’ve done. I’m dead, father, but I don’t think I’m the weak one.”
Ozai says nothing, but as Zuko leaves, the wall of flame flickers and dies.
Zuko watches as his body burns. Azula and his uncle stand on the stairs, Mai stands off to the side with her family, and other courtiers stand in lines along the walls. They all wear white funeral robes.
Zuko watches from the shadows behind them. He feels like he’s floating with very few things left to tether him. The longer the fire burns, the more thin he feels.
Movement from the far side of the room draws his attention. Ozai strides in. It is disrespectful to arrive late and he wears his normal clothes, but Zuko can imagine the rumors if he failed to show up at all. No one will ask him about his impropriety, however. Zuko doubts anyone will ask him about this night at all. But, Zuko thinks with a small smile, they will remember it.
Even so, he wonders if they’ll all completely forget him once he’s finally gone. He supposes it isn’t impossible. History will not remember the disgraced lesser son of a tyrant, even if, for a while, the people remember what Ozai has done. Ozai and Azula will be quick to fill in the gap he leaves. But Uncle will remember him, and maybe those two water tribe kids, and maybe that’s enough.
The room slowly empties. It is the people’s duty to witness the flames, but the family’s duty to see him off as they burn low. Ozai leaves after the last of the courtiers, and Azula quickly follows. Only Mai and Uncle are left. Zuko comes forward out of the shadows, but he knows they cannot see him. They watch the flames together, and when Mai finally leaves he can’t even find the strength to say a final goodbye.
Zuko moves closer to Uncle Iroh, skirting the room so he can watch the sky through the window. It is nearly dawn, and the final string draws tight. Zuko is reluctant for it to break, so he stays silent.
“Zuko.” Uncle Iroh’s voice is rough, and Zuko turns to see his uncle looking straight at him.
Their time is short, so he says what he needs to.
“Uncle, I know where The Avatar is.”
This statement stops Uncle Iroh short and whatever he was going to say next dies on his tongue.
“I found the two Southern Water Tribe children who will find him and help him bring balance to the world. I told them to wait for you, that you would help, too.” Zuko pauses. He has to glance away from his Uncle’s earnest gaze. “My destiny has changed, but I know you will do what I cannot.”
A beat of silence stretches on.
“I will do what I can, Pince Zuko. I am—“ Zuko looks up to see that his uncle is crying. “I am sorry.”
Zuko looks at his uncle, past his uncle, and knows the journey they would have taken together. It will never happen, but he finds he is grateful for it anyways. He isn’t sure what to say, so he gives Uncle his most sincere smile. It feels a little lopsided.
“I wonder,” Zuko says with that same smile, “if you would say that if you knew the hell I would have put you through.”
His uncle does not smile. If anything, he looks sadder.
“Of course, nephew,” he says, and his earnest tone steals Zuko’s humor. "I would give anything if it would, in turn, give you the life you were meant to have.”
Zuko glances out at the lightening sky, and feels older in that moment than he will ever be.
“Thank you, Uncle.” He tries to smile again, for his uncle’s sake. “I—I think I have done what I was meant to do. I put things into motion and I will do more if I can.” He pauses, then adds, "I will say hello—if I see him.”
Uncle Iroh smiles then, sadly, through his tears. They bow to each other in the proper fashion.
“Goodbye, Uncle Iroh. I wish you fortune enough for a good cup of tea whenever you want it.”
The final thread breaks, and as the first ray of sunlight hits Zuko through the window, he vanishes.
Zuko is gone, but the fire still burns and Iroh stays until the last embers cool.
A small Earth Kingdom ship appears the day they find the Avatar. An old man gets off, and he kneels in the snow as the tribe gathers around.
"I am Iroh of the Fire Nation,” he says, and the village draws in a collective breath. "I laid siege to Ba Sing Se as the Dragon of the West. I am a son of Fire Lord Azulon and brother to Fire Lord Ozai.” He scans the crowd for the two oldest children and sees them standing with another child who wears air nomad yellow. “I am uncle to Prince Zuko and I am here to help.”
They journey north together, and they leave him with Bumi in Omashu before going further north to the pole.
On the day of the solstice, Roku holds off Zhao and the firesages while a young firebender frees the water tribe children. They thank him by name, and he disappears with a smile.
On the day Sozin’s Comet returns to light the world on fire, Phoenix King Ozai wakes with whispers in his ears. His dead son follows him most of the day. One minute he is small, like when they were happy; and the next he is older than he ever got to be, with shaggy hair and a self-satisfied smirk.
“All they needed was a push,” he says while Ozai eats breakfast. "When you killed me, I put things into motion that you have no hope of stopping. They are coming, and your fall will be no one’s fault but your own.”
He’s silent again until Ozai departs the palace for the airships. His dead son, young again and dressed in ceremonial armor, kneels opposite him in the palanquin and watches.
“You still don’t understand why I knelt before you and begged, that day, do you?” He laughs in seeming disbelief, shaking his head. His traditional headpiece seems to catch the light. "You don’t see how cowardly it was to deny me mercy. To ignore peace.”
As always, Ozai pretends he is not there.
“If nothing else, try and understand why I kneel before you here today. Do not ignore the chance for peace, and you might survive the day.”
Ozai reacts for the first time, slashing through the air with a small dagger of flame.
His dead son’s ghost just looks at him with a small frown and disappears.
On the day Princess Azula is to become Fire Lord Azula, her brother appears next to her mother in the mirror. When she breaks the glass, her mother is gone but he’s still there. He looks at her with pity for a moment, and then speaks.
“Emotion is not a weakness, Azula. You need to accept that, and then you need to let me go.”
“What about dear mother? You both insist on haunting me. Maybe it’s you who needs to let me go.” She sways a little as she speaks.
“I haven’t seen you since the night I died,” he replies. “And our mother isn’t dead.”
He leaves then, but when the water tribe peasant finishes chaining Azula, screaming, to the grate, she watches him frown for just a moment before he vanishes again.
On the evening when they gather together in a tea room in Ba Sing Se, Iroh pours a cup of tea and proposes a toast.
“To my nephew, who brought us together.”
Everyone, even those who never saw the famed ghost, raises their cups to drink.
There’s a flash of red among all that earth kingdom green and the avatar’s air nomad yellow, and the barest hint of a self-satisfied smirk.