Rage was something Zuko was familiar with. It normally only clouded his mind when he had to defend what was his. Fighting assassins that were going after Azula brought out rage the easiest. How dare the assassins threaten to harm his sister.
But now, sitting in his father’s war room, he felt rage unlike anything he had before even when facing down the assassins. All around him was smug pride for their idea that would be the death of loyal fire nation soldiers.
The general was planning the death of an entire division. Two hundred soldiers, to be slaughtered for one battle. And the others were acting like it was a good idea!
He was on his feet in an instant, he barely took notice of Uncle Iroh trying to hold him back but he was livid.
“How dare you! Those are soldiers of the Fire Nation! Proud citizens who are serving this Nation! How can you dare send them to slaughter for one battle! It’s insanity!”
Those were his people. His soldiers and this general was going to have them killed off for nothing!
Silence. Silence echoed in the war room. Even the crackle of the flames was muted as Zuko panted in rage and glared, daring the general to say something that would give him cause to attack. Zuko felt a glee in his chest when the general recoiled slightly. He was scared and Zuko could feel it, the air of fear was brief but potent. Good.
“You can't sacrifice an entire division like that! Those soldiers love and defend our nation! How can you betray them?”
Still no one else spoke. The forty-first was all new recruits, barely out in the field for three months. He remembered Azula talking about the troop inspection she did for them the day before the last assassin attack.
Indignant shouts from the generals started and Zuko snarled at them until Father shouted.
“Enough!” Zuko looked at the raised platform his father sat on. “Zuko your insolence is an insult. You will fight to resolve this. Two hours at noon in the central arena. Now leave!”
Zuko glared at the general before leaving after a too short bow to Father.
Uncle Iroh tried to catch up but Zuko ran and left him behind. He had to get to Azula, she would know the best way for him to win.
He found her in the middle of her lessons. Normally he would have waited at the door but there was no time. Instead he pushed the door open with a harsh shove.
“Zuko? What are you doing here?” Azula was seated at a table with her private tutors sat on the other side.
“I need to speak with you.” There must have been something in his tone because she narrowed her eyes and stood up immediately.
“Let’s go to my room.” He nodded and they left without a backwards glance at the tutors.
Once Azula closed the door Zuko growled and punched at the wall. He was still enraged at the general and even the prospect of facing the man in an Agni Kai couldn’t deter the rage and injustice he felt at what the general had planned.
“Zuko! Breathe!” The commands were short and sharp, but they cleaved through the rage in his mind and made him think. He inhaled deeply, held, and then exhaled sharply. He could taste the fire on his tongue but he didn’t let the fire escape.
“What happened? Aren’t you supposed to be in the war room?”
Zuko growled again but started to tell Azula what happened. Her emotions changed with the story, confusion, anxiety, brief fear. But al those emotions were carefully hidden behind a mask. But he knew they were there.
“You’ve been challenged to an Agni Kai.” Her tone was like she was stating a boring fact.
“I just said that!”
Zuko looked up. At some point he had ended up on the floor with his back pressed against the wall.
Azula was pacing a few feet away. Her hand was on her chin and he could see the calculating gleam in her eyes and could feel the sensation that accompanied her plotting.
“You said it was General Buijing. He’s old, hasn’t seen combat in years. You can beat him.”
Zuko looked at her sharply. “I know I can. What else is there?”
“You insulted one of Father’s top generals. He’s not going to forget this even if you win. You have to know that Zuko.” Azula stopped pacing and looked at him. “You do understand how much Father dislikes you?” The tone was again dismissive, like it was an irrelevant fact to be thrown out, but he could read her worry.
That didn’t stop the growl of anger from leaving his throat. “I know! But if I do this and win it will show him I’m not weak! I’ve beaten assassins! Throwing away soldiers like that is wrong and if I do this then they will be spared!”
“But for how long Zuko! You killed the assassins but that was with your swords! You haven’t won with firebending ever! You can beat Buijing but what happens the next time a different general proposes the same or a similar plan! You can’t beat all of them! You don’t have the skill! And Father won’t keep letting this disrespect slide! You insulted his top general right in front of him in his war room! There will be consequences even if you win!” The hint of desperate hysteria was not something he had ever felt from Azula before. She never let her emotions get away from her like he did. She kept everything contained. Sometimes Zuko was convinced that the way he felt emotions wasn’t natural. And now he was angry, angry at everything besides Azula, but she was there and she wasn’t helping the matter.
"I can't back out now! And I can't let them die! What else can I do Azula!" Zuko was up on his feet again. Hands smoking and throat raw with shouting and something else.
"Win!" She shouted at him and then let her shoulder's fall. "Win and then hope you become Fire Lord fast enough to save the others."
Zuko hated that look on her face. There wasn't any of her normal scheming and planning. Only bare bones desperate Azula. It wasn't right to see her like this, her desperation was normally hidden behind a blank face and sharp words.
He looked at her. Knowing that his own desperation was plain in his eyes. "I can't let that happen."
She pursed her lips. "Fine. First you need to win. We'll deal with the rest after."
He nodded solemnly. That second there was a knock at Azula's door. "Prince Zuko? Are you in there?"
It was Uncle Iroh. They shared a quick glance and Zuko shook his head. Azula frowned but nodded.
"No Uncle. He left a few minutes ago."
"Ah. Do you know where he went?" They could both hear that Iroh didn't really believe her.
"No. Why would I know where he went? He's not my problem." The sarcasm and annoyance was thick and fake and Zuko almost chuckled. Azula treating adults like the children people thought that the Prince and Princess should be was always funny.
"Okay then. Please tell him to find me if he returns. There are preparations he must make." They waited for Iroh to be far enough away from the door before Zuko spoke.
"Can you help me get ready?"
Azula rolled her eyes. "Why else would I let you still be in here Dumdum."
He gave her a small smile.
They were in the antechamber of the arena. Zuko was on the floor stretching. Uncle Iroh had shown up earlier but Zuko had dismissed him. It was just him and Azula. And Azula had to leave soon to be in her seat when the match started. The sun was inching closer to noon and closer to the start of the Agni Kai.
"You ready Dumdum?" She asked, knowing that the question was redundant.
Zuko stood up. "Ready as I can be."
She looked him up and down. He was shirtless with the ceremonial shawl laying on the table to the side. When she left a servant would enter, place the shawl around his shoulders, and lead Zuko to the arena.
She met his eyes. There was determination there but there was also a hint of worry and fear.
"Don't lose." Zuko startled slightly. He hadn't been expecting her to say anything. "If you lose that means I'm the heir. And if I'm the heir I'll have to do all your stupid publicity stunts and get proverb lessons from Uncle." She glared. "I don't play Pai Sho."
Zuko smiled softly and twitched slightly forward. He wanted to hug her. But now wasn't the time for hugs. There hadn't been time for hugs since Mother disappeared.
They were solemn again. It was time for her to leave. She met his gaze once again and nodded before turning. She walked away but she paused at the door.
"Good luck." It was whispered and she was out of the door before he could say any reply. The door closed and she turned to the servant. "He's ready."
She straightened her shoulders and walked away. She couldn't appear bothered by what was happening. She was the edge to sword of their pair. Zuko was not the heir their father wanted.
But she was not the one their Nation needed.
She had to keep Father's favor if only so Zuko stayed out of his attention long enough for him to get strong enough to withstand it. She thrived in the harsh training. Her mind saw the war as a whole. She saw the merit in General Buijing's plan. She was the heir Ozai wanted.
But she was also the sister Zuko needed.
She knew why Buijing's plan was also wrong. She knew that the crushing defeat of the 41st would have a rippling effect of lowered moral among the citizens and other new troops who would fear if they would face the same fate.
She also knew that even if Zuko won, he would fall farther out of Father's favor and she would be elevated.
Part of her wanted that. Wanted to be the heir and wanted their Father's approval.
Part of her whispered in the dark corner of her mind that her success should not come only because of Zuko's failure. If she was going to overtake Zuko it should only be because of her skill and her skill alone, not because her brother put their people before their Father.
She took her seat. Uncle was next to her and was watching the arena closely. His face was serious and missing any of its normal joy and old man mystery. Iroh was twenty years older than Ozai and it showed. Lu Ten had been eighteen years older than Zuko. Iroh had married relatively young and Lu Ten had been raised a Capital's darling. Raised under a war hero had led her cousin to following his father into the feild at a young age where he served for twelve years before his death at Ba Sing Se.
Azula knew that Uncle Iroh had transferred his feelings for Lu Ten onto her brother. The old man's feelings were likely clouding his judgement of Zuko's abilities. Zuko could win against Buijing. It wouldn't be easy but Azula knew Zuko could do it.
A gong sounded across the arena. She straightened in her seat and layered a sneer on her face. Father would be watching for her reaction.
Zuko entered from his side of the arena. Shawl over his shoulders and chest bare. He walked up to the arena with his head held high. He looked over the crowd and Azula felt his gaze catch hers for a split moment before he kneeled with his back to the center of the arena.
The gong sounded again and someone walked out of the other room on the opposite side of the arena. Azula's eyes narrowed. She had met General Buijing before and he wasn't that tall.
The figure stepped out of the shadows and Azula's heart stopped.
Fire Lord Ozai stood, bare chested with a shawl hanging from his shoulders.
The gong was struck a second time and the arena fell deadly silent. Something was wrong. His appearance had prompted a rush of whispers. Now the arena was dead.
The gong rang again. Zuko stood and turned.
He felt the shawl drop from his shoulders. He felt Agni looking down upon him. He looked at his opponent.
And his blood froze.
It wasn’t the general. It was the farthest thing from the general. Standing across the arena was Fire Lord Ozai.
Zuko’s thoughts raced a thousand in a moment but when he realized what was happening, he felt his knees go weak. Azula was right. He had disrespected Father and this was the price he had to pay.
He remembered what Azula had said. All he had to do was win.
He wasn’t going to win.
His knees collapsed and he fell to the ground and bowed. Mercy was his only chance. His father would kill him as was his right to do in an Agni Kai.
Zuko knew that his father resented him and wished that Azula had been born the eldest. Yet he still craved that approval. He had wanted to make his father proud and show him that he could lead his people.
Zuko knew emotions. He felt them in the air. He knew when ill will threatened what was his. He felt the cloud of resentment and anger that accompanied an approaching assassin. He felt the strange mix of affection and annoyance that came from Azula whenever he showed up in her room, even if it was tinged with a hint of fear. But he knew that fear was for the unknown threat that she couldn’t sense approaching. He had felt his mother’s love as a child and had felt her desperation the last time he saw her. He felt Uncle Iroh’s sadness and longing and the brief moments of affection directed towards him that were always followed by a wave of sadness.
He felt the disdain that bordered on hate that came from his father whenever he was a disappointment.
So he fell to his face and begged.
“Please, Father. I only had the Fire Nation's best interest at heart. I'm sorry I spoke out of turn!” The pleas were bitter on his tongue, but it was his only chance. Begging for forgiveness and he might be allowed to live.
“You will fight for your honor.”
Honor? This was about honor?! This was about Zuko trying to save the lives of innocent soldiers and now trying to keep himself alive. He would fight if it was anyone else but he had no chance of beating Ozai. None.
Rage started to boil inside him, he wanted to fight, wanted to fight tooth, nail, and claw, in a desperate attempt to save himself but his mind won out and instead he stayed on the ground and begged.
“I meant you no disrespect. I am your loyal son.”
He looked up. Rage pushed down as far as he could to only beg for his life to be spared.
“Rise and fight, Prince Zuko.”
Zuko wanted to. He wanted to stand. His body burned with eh need to face the enemy and fight, but he couldn’t. He would never win.
“I can’t fight you.”
“You will learn respect.” Something in the emotions hanging heavily in the air like a lead weight around his neck shifted and he felt it. A twisted glee that made him look up in fear. He wanted to run away. Run as far away as he could.
“And suffering, will be your teacher.”
Zuko looked up at the hand of fire reaching towards his face and wanted to scream, wanted to roar. But instead he was frozen in desperation until the flames touched his skin and everything changed in an instant.
He felt the heat. He felt the flames. He felt the ash that was his skin. He felt it all. He felt the way his skin melted under the flames. But it wanted more. He felt the need to take the flames that burned his skin and wrap himself in them. To take this fire offered by another and make it his. Use the flame to become true.
True to what?
That seemed right. Fire was life. If he gave himself to the fire, he would be in true life. He felt the fire one his skin and started to reach for more until a gentle hand pushed him back.
“No, young one. Now is not the time.”
And suddenly Zuko was not in time. He was somewhere strange yet comforting. There was nothing around him but the sense of a crushing void was missing. He looked around as much as one could when there was nothing to be seen.
“Where am I?”
The voice chuckled. “A mind scape young one. A place normally only accessible through meditation and a strong spiritual connection. I guided you here so that we may speak.”
“Who are you?” There was nothing and no one around Zuko but he wasn’t scared. Just curious.
“I’ve had many names. But you know me as Agni, Dragon of the Sun.”
Zuko’s heart raced suddenly and he tried to bow but he had no form here, only a consciousness. His heart wasn’t even beating, that he could feel, but his emotions said that he should be near a heart attack. He needed to bow, disrespecting the Great Spirit would only add to his misfortune.
“Do not bother young one. One such as yourself has no need to bow in such manner.”
“Someone like me?” Zuko was aching to know what was going on.
“Surely you’ve notice. The things you can do that no human can. The things that set you apart from your sister.”
Zuko felt like his heart should be pounding rapidly again. He tried to keep thoughts of his differences buried. Azula regularly told him that he was weird. But they didn’t talk about the weird things because if they did that would mean acknowledging that the weird things existed. He knew he was weird, but he had chosen to believe that his weird was like Azula’s. Azula didn’t understand people. Didn’t understand emotion and relationships. Zuko had too much emotion. He acted on his emotions constantly. They were a balanced pair. Her too little and him too much.
But it went beyond that and he knew it, but he didn’t accept it. He had kept those parts buried and hidden from Azula. How when he killed the first assassin, he hadn’t thrown up because of the guilt or horror. But because his mind was warring on two sides. One side cried for more blood, for the body to be torn to pieces and never given a proper funeral so that the soul of the one who dared to threaten what was his would never know peace. The other side called for blood too, but it called for the blood of the incompetent guards who had been so useless that he had had to defend his himself. That side cried that such failure only deserved death.
The sides had only quieted when protecting Azula, because protecting his was the most important. When Mother had broken him out of the trance the need to protect Azula had created, his head had felt like it was split in two and the reignition of the argument when he saw the body had caused him such great pain that he had thrown up.
It went beyond that. After meeting Ty Lee as children, he realized later that it wasn’t normal for him to be so flexible. He could do it all. There was a twist to his body that wasn’t something anyone else had. He always felt comfortable curled up in ridiculous positions. One time. He had snuck away from his lessons and had gotten up into eh rafters above Azula’s lessons. He had draped himself over the rafter in a comfortable manner. It took Azula ten minutes to see him up there. She later told him that he looked like a wet towel with how he had hung so completely off the rafter.
His possessive nature was also something that had concerned his mother when he was young. What was his was his and no one could take what was his. It had started with his toys as a child, for a while it had been his mother’s attention, then his swords, then the main thing had become Azula. She was his to protect. His mother couldn’t be his, she was a grownup and his mother, if anything he was supposed to be hers. But then Mother was gone and all he had was Azula. Uncle Iroh helped but he was an adult and wasn’t in the palace very often. When he was, he was always trying to teach Zuko something through proverbs. Zuko hated proverbs. What was the purpose of twisting a message so badly that no one understood it? If there was a message to be shared, say it plainly.
Zuko knew his differences and the things that made him weird and wrong in Father’s eyes. But knowing that Agni, Dragon of the Sun, knew his faults, the idea wasn’t as terrifying as it should have been.
Agni chuckled again. “I sense the great turmoil you are in Zuko. Let me ease some of the confusion for you.”
And suddenly there was a surrounding to the mind scape. A forest unlike any Zuko had ever seen before. Zuko was seated on the ground but his body felt strange, but it also felt right. He was about to look down to see what was different when suddenly there was dragon in front of him!
He felt his body move away but the movement wasn’t right and he didn’t get far before the dragon laughed. It was Agni. The great Dragon of the Sun was sitting in front of him in some strange forest.
“Young One, did you know that when you were born, you were born cold?”
Zuko gulped and nodded. Mother had told him the story a few times.
“You were born with weak cries and cold skin, every sign of a sickly non-bending child. But that was not case and I can tell you why.” Agni looked at Zuko, met his eyes and stared into his soul. “Dragons need fire to hatch.” Zuko couldn’t breathe. “Your mother saved you by pure chance, by using a technique that was passed down her family from Avatar Roku, she used fire to burn away the weakness in your body and strengthen it. But by doing this she also provided the fire for you to truly hatch. Your dragon soul lived and when dawn came you screamed in my face that you had survived the first of many challenges.”
Zuko took a gasping breath and finally looked down.
Black obsidian scales greeted his eyes. He traced the patterns down the body he instinctively knew was his. Long and lean but full of powerful muscles he wasn’t sure how to use. His arms were legs and his fingers claws, sharp and deadly as his swords. He felt the weight on his back that had to be wings. Wings that sought out a phantom breeze in the mindscape’s still air. He felt the heat of Agni’s presence and saw the red and gold glow that shone off each scale.
He looked up. He saw Agni’s face but also saw a mirror of his own. Scales black as midnight with a mane of dark blood red. He saw and felt the distortion around his left eye and knew that the skin of his human face had been permanently scarred and that the scar would forever reflect on his scales.
“How is this possible?” The words fell from his lips in a gasping rush.
Agni chuckled once again. “You have a destiny Zuko. The Great Spirits have grown restless. War and the absence of balance has caused great strife and pain. The dragons have been lost for many years now, not all gone, but your birth was the start of their true revival. You are human. But you are also dragon. You are the bridge of understanding to fix the wrongs that Sozin started. In more ways than one. Each Great Spirit of each element has found a champion to guide the world back to order. The others will not know their destiny as you do, but I found that you deserved more warning than the others for the hardship you will face.”
“And, being a dragon, that will fix things? Restore the balance?” Zuko wanted more answers and more information but when a Great Spirit speared and gave you a mission you did not ignore them.
Agni nodded. “You could have succeeded as a human, but the path will be shorter flown than walked. We Spirits cannot touch the world as you humans do, and humans cannot touch the world as dragons do. So, you are both. You are my champion of Fire. A human born dragon to help bring the world back into balance.”
Zuko bowed. His front legs on the ground and his head lowered. He was scared, scared of what the possibilities meant but he knew that this was right. He felt it inside that this was the right path. Things from his childhood took a new meaning now that he knew and understood. He had always been different. Had always been weird. But those differences now served a purpose.
“I accept, Lord Agni.”
“Rise Zuko.” Zuko looked up and pulled himself up to rest in what was the equivalent of sitting respectfully. “There are few things I can tell you now and much that you will have to learn on your own or from the few dragons left in the world. They are not all gone, but they are few and hidden. One thing I can tell you now is that when you return to the arena, do not let the fire take you. Feel it and its power but do not let it consume you. It is not the time for the Dragon Prince to stand before the court. You will be scarred from it, as you can likely already tell, but fire will never be your enemy Zuko. When the time is right and you are among safe company, let the fire wash over your skin and burn away the human flesh. From the ash does your dragon rise and to return to human flesh so must the dragon burn. Your own fire will be your greatest ally, but it will never burn you.”
Zuko took this all in and committed every word to memory. Understanding the words was instinctive, he knew how the transformation worked. And right now, his body was on fire in the arena, being burned by his father. He could take that fire, become the dragon, and fight. But that was not what he was to do. He had a different purpose.
He bowed to Agni again, not a full bow but low enough to convey his understanding and acceptance of the guidance given to him by the Great Spirit.
“You will return to the arena now. But remember this Zuko, you are the one who carries my favor, my favor will not protect you from everything, but it gives you power to know that you stand above those who have disgraced my name. Let these truths carry you forward into the destiny that lies before you.” Agni lifted a claw and pushed against his forehead, Zuko felt the way the ridges of his scales bent to the great power of the Spirit. “Go now and meet your destiny.”
It happened in an instant. Father walked forward and Zuko fell down. She watched as he begged and pleaded, and she couldn’t breathe. This was worse than anything she could have imagined. She could see what could happen and the possibilities with every step forward that Ozai took.
Zuko dead was the result of all of them.
She wanted to move, wanted to interfere but she knew that any chance Zuko had on surviving was left solely to him and the actions in the ring. If she interfered the only fate that awaited her was joining Zuko in punishment.
“You will learn respect.” Father’s tone was cold as ice. It stung her ears to hear and her eyes bled with need to not see what was happening in front of her.
“And suffering, will be your teacher.” Father’s hand was wreathed in fire as he placed it on Zuko’s face.
For a long terrible moment Zuko made no sound. He did nothing but burn.
Then he screamed.
It was raw and agonizing. It tore from his throat and made all who heard it quake at the raw pain that was conveyed. Azula flinched but did not dare look away. To look away would be to dishonor what Zuko was doing and the pain he was suffering.
The scream took on a new edge that came more like a roar of an injured and enraged animal and Zuko fell back and Father removed his hand. The scream ended and was replaced with endless panting and screaming sobs. Zuko was curled on the ground, face hidden from anyone who dared look.
“You have disgraced yourself.” Azula could see as clearly as she heard the sneer on Father’s face.
“You are hereby banished from all Fire Nation lands. Three days’ time shall see you off Fire Nation soil and a week more out of the waters. Terms of your return shall be served before your departure.”
And he left. Leaving behind his burned son and former heir.
No one spoke until Uncle was suddenly up and moving. He reached Zuko and picked him up. Zuko thrashed and screamed but he was weak with pain and it took only a moment before Uncle had left. But she still managed to catch a glimpse. The burn took half his face. Red and angry with blackened edges of skin turned ash.
She remained seated until the roar of whispers all around her broke through her stupor and she felt her own rage build and break. She stood on her chair and swung wings of blue fire over the heads of the crowd.
All attention was on her in an instant.
She held it. Held them in tense silence fearing her next outburst. She had to decide. Did she align herself with Zuko or with Father. Part of her whispered that defending her brother who had defended her on so many occasions was the obvious path. Another sneered at the first and said that the only way to survive now was to follow the Fire Lord. If he had already burned one child what was to stop him from burning the other?
She held her head high and spoke clearly to her hostage audience.
“My brother has been banished. His misfortune and the disrespect he has brought to the palace shall be purged and removed for the glory of the Fire Nation. Spread the word of what has occurred here. Any who oppose the Fire Lord will be punished. No one is exempt. Not even his son.” Not even his daughter. The last four words went unsaid but she could see it in the eyes of the more intelligent nobles assembled. They saw what she needed them to see. The second child, the spare heir, they saw the child that needed to defend herself from what had just happened, and standing by the man who had just maimed her brother was the only way she could assure that.
Zuko had held the hearts of the Capital, and there would be consequences of this, but if she could contain the spread, change their outrage on Zuko’s behalf to wariness and a need to defend the remaining child, she could keep the riots contained and minimal.
Save the people. That was what Zuko wanted.
That was what she would do.