The first time someone notices that something is wrong, is on the first anniversary of the ending of the war. The palace is filled with decorations, and even the servants seemed to hold a certain calmness that the world hadn’t seen in over one hundred years.
It’s Sokka, instead, who finds Zuko sitting beside the small pond in one of the several gardens (seriously, how many gardens does a palace need?)— and he watches the water ripple with the movement of the ducks.
Sokka, ever the nice guy, picks up a rock and absolutely flings it over Zuko’s head with a cheeky grin. Zuko flinches, and Sokka’s smile falls.
“Sorry,” Zuko’s voice is more hoarse than someone who is celebrating a year of passing time since the end of the war should allow their voice to be. “You threw it past my left side. It startled me.”
Oh, Sokka considers, feeling like a dick for the action.
“No,” he says instead, “that’s my bad. I’m sorry, man. What’s up?”
He falls into the grass, tossing his boomerang to the side as he flops down on his back with a heavy sigh.
“A lot.” Zuko admits after a moments hesitation, and in truth, this should’ve been the first sign that something was terribly wrong. “I’ve just... got a lot going on. It feels....” (suffocating? unsafe? horrible?)
His words die in his throat, and instead of elaborating, he simply closes his mouth, shaking his head in an attempt of brushing it off. Sokka’s first mistake is not asking more, his second is not asking Zuko what he needs.
But, in the scheme of things, neither of them know what he would’ve said had he been offered the opportunity to speak.
Zuko thinks he’ll never make it to eighteen. And he doesn’t know how to say that— he doesn’t know how to look his best friend in the eyes and tell him that his father, his sister, Zhao, the war— all the things that tried to kill him hadn’t succeeded.
They couldn’t, not when Zuko knows what he is— not when he had known that he couldn’t die without any honour— he couldn’t die when he had hope.
Because Zuko has never been enough, never perfect, never adequate, and never ever enough. He is cantankerous at best, his soul a cacophony of screams created by the people he’s been— the people they never got a chance to grow.
Because Zuko is seventeen, and they’ve won the war but the world still crumbles around him— he still falls apart, and he wonders if he’ll ever be able to pull himself together again.
Because Zuko is seventeen, and he’s fought in more Agni Kais than years he’s lived. Because Zuko is seventeen and has more scars than he has wisdom, because Zuko is seventeen, and he doesn’t know how much longer he wants to exist.
Because Zuko is seventeen, and the first people he’s trusted since his mother and uncle live across the world. Because he’s seventeen and he doesn’t have a crew, or his friends, or his uncle.
Because Zuko is seventeen, and he’s so alone. He’s left to fight for himself, and to right his wrongs but he’s still a kid and he’s trying to be enough but being enough is so fucking hard when he’s never been anything but.... there.
Because Zuko is not a leader, and Zuko has had to fight for every inadequacy he’s ever been called, every shortcoming he’s ever accomplished, and everything he has never been.
Because now the hope has run dry— because the thing with feathers that perched in his chest is beginning to fade, and Zuko could never be a Phoenix. He could never be a thing of legends.
Sokka finally inquires, “do you need help?
And Zuko— well, Zuko lies through his teeth.
“No. Everything’s fine. Thank you.”
Zuko first decides that he hates his life when a washed up member of his council makes a cheap shot at the left side of his face during an Agni Kai over the removal of the fire nation from a colony near Ba Sing Se.
He decides he hates his life when the part of him, that he’s been working to suppress since joining Aang, rears it’s ugly head, anger and the urge to mortify building in his stomach until the flower blooms. He becomes his old self for a moment, and when he stops seeing red he’s holding the general to the floor— an arm broken behind his back.
The crowd has gone silent, and the man beneath him begs for mercy.
Zuko decides then that he is not his father, that he is not his sister, and he cannot be reduced to the urges of his bloodline and those who came before him.
He rises, looking down at the man for a long moment— disgust wells in his stomach as the general weeps, but whether the emotions is directed at himself of the pitiful excuse for a man— he’s unsure.
He takes a deep breath, closing his eyes before reaching out a quiet hand to help the man up.
The crowd goes silent, and Zuko realises that this is a new dawn, a new day, and a new chance to change the horrors that have been written in the history books.
The sobbing man bows, rising to his feet and Zuko turns to the crowd declaring, “I, Fire Lord Zuko, son of Ursa and Ozai, affirm that the troops will be removed from the colonies and in their place, supplies and necessary funding for any and all ramifications. There will be no more objections on the matter.”
It’s the first of many that will take place within the next year. He will fight over land, over education reformation, over the punishment of loyalists— he will fight for everything he knows to be right— and he will still be threatened by those who have not had to beg for food at any point in their life.
Because Zuko has never really been the royalty they expect him to be— and he thinks maybe that’s what gives him the ability to be a decent leader.
But then again, Zuko’s always been known to fall well below expectations— because Zuko has never been told he is allowed to reach for the stars.
At seventeen, he visits his uncle— he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s gone, or what he’s doing— he just tells the head guards and disappears into the night with new mask. For a for a week, he allows himself to become someone else.
He’s always run from his problems, and it seems that adding regalia and a palace to the equation, hasn’t provided him with a different answer to his question.
Suki and Ty Lee tell him he’s stupid for insisting he goes unprotected— he tells them he knows.
Zuko has never really been known to adhere to formalities, nor has he been known to travel without his dual dao swords— so here he stands, heckling with a merchant over some fresh tea leaves for his uncle when a commotion to his left catches his attention.
“You little pest!” A voice hisses, “give it back! You cannot steal in this town, and especially not from me.”
Zuko’s blood curdles beneath his skin as he catches a glimpse of the child standing with a bag of jianbing— he couldn’t be much older than eight, but the look in his eyes speaks of pain and hardship.
He doesn’t speak, throwing a weak puff of flame towards the stand which the merchant easily deflects, eyes growing narrow and dark.
The child should be— well, not safe, but protected. Recently, Zuko and his semi-decent (not really) council had ratified a law stating that anyone who challenges a child to an Agni Kai must duel the Fire Lord instead.
He realises he’s dreadfully wrong, very quickly.
“I, Kenta Sato, challenge you to an Agni Kai.”
Zuko doesn’t give the child a chance to answers, steeping in front of the child with fire in his eyes. “That’s illegal. This is a child.”
“I don’t see the Fire Lord,” the man snarks, lips curling into a smug smirk. “Oh, that’s right, the brat is too busy playing a role he was never made to portray.”
Zuko knows that he doesn’t not belong in a place of noble standing— Zuko knows that he is not the leader the nation needs. He doesn’t back down.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Zuko asks, hood and mask still obscuring the view of his face, hair pulled back from falling in his eyes. “I’ll accept your challenge for him, and I won’t make you beg for mercy.”
He’s not sure why he says it— he’s not sure he even wants to fight— he wonders, distantly, if maybe that’s the answer.
“Then stand and fight, tough guy,” He snarls. “If I win, I turn the kid into the police and you owe me money for all of the dough he’s stolen over the years.”
Zuko casts a glance at the child beneath him, still clenching a piece of the jianbing between his teeth. He remembers when he was starving in the streets— and he promises himself that he’ll work on making sure everyone has food on their tables in the colonies.
He crouches quietly, slipping a pouch of coins into the child’s hand— the young boy’s deep brown eyes light up as he processes who’s fighting for him.
“Fire Lord Zuko!” The surrounding faces down with recognition, but it seems as though the muscle sack in the corner doesn’t process the revelation. “You came to fight for me!”
Zuko doesn’t comment, instead he whispers. “I want you to go hide behind something, and when this is over, come back to me. You and I will find a way to feed your family, okay?”
The child throws his arms around Zuko, before sprinting away and Zuko rises to his feet pulling his cloak further over his mask.
The man is showy, and he always takes an extra step before throwing flames— its not until Zuko narrowly avoids a twin flame that he decides that this fight has drawn on for far too long.
With a single, thunderous clap— flames of several colours swirl around the prideful man until the air has run out. As he crumples to his knees, Zuko hovers over him.
“Do you yield?”
The man’s entire frame quivers, limbs shaking from the lack of air, and eyes filled with the type of fear that Zuko feels in his soul. “Who are you?”
“Do you yield?” Zuko repeats, voice more firm as he stares into man’s heartless eyes.
“He bent multicoloured flames.” a voice chokes from behind him. “I’ve never— Princess Azula was the only—“
It seems that this time the meathead withering beneath Zuko’s gaze hears the crowd this time, eyes widening as he realises he’d insulted the Fire Lord to his face— that he’d gone against the law before the Fire Lord himself.
“I yield, Fire Lord Zuko.”
But Zuko’s never been one for titles, so instead he turns his back to the man, leaving him lying on the cool cobblestone beneath— and thinks that’s he’s not his father, and that he’ll never bend a blue flame.
The child feeds his family, and rumours of the Fire Lord spread into the night. Zuko thinks, it’s still not enough. He will never be enough.
Later that year, Zuko runs into Lee while he watches over the heart of the Jasmine Dragon— he holds his breath, and keeps his head down as Lee orders a tea and stares at him with an accusatory glare on his face.
It’s been a year, and Zuko knows he has done things that will take a lifetime to forgive. Zuko knows many will never forgive, and none will ever forget.
“I’m sorry.” A voice speaks suddenly from behind, and Zuko recognises it. Behind him, Lee and his father stand with clean, new clothes on— both looking far better off than they had ever before. “I don’t hate you. You saved me that day— and you’ve saved us with your reformation acts.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Zuko responds, not looking up from the table he cleans. “I’m just a waiter. I don’t know who you think I am, but I’m not him.”
“You’re Prince Zuko— well, the Fire Lord, now.”
Zuko shakes his head, keeping his eyes focused on the floor as he turns his back on innocent people once again. As he, once again, betrays the people who try to help him see whatever good they see in him.
A hand grasps his, whirling him around easily. Zuko doesn’t fight it— because there’s no point in fighting the inevitable anymore. He wonders what Gansu sees in his tense frame, because the light in his eyes darkens to the degree of emptiness that Zuko feels every waking moment.
Instead of hissing insults or plaintiffs with the world, Gansu murmurs, “you have been broken by more than we can pretend to know.”
Zuko almost agrees— hot tears prick at the eyes, and pressure builds against the thick leathery hand shaped patch on the left side of his face.
Instead he looks between Gansu and Lee— who’s not so small and defenceless anymore, and offers instead. “I don’t know who you’re looking for, but I’m not him.”
Zuko hasn’t been him for a long time— he’s not sure he’s ever really been himself at all.
Not long after the Agni Kai challengers, came the assassination attempts; first at dawn and dusk— soon at all times of the day.
Because his nation wants him dead, and who is he to blame them? Zuko decides one night, as he sews up his side, that he died first in the Agni Kai against Ozai, and again during his battle with Azula.
He ponders that Azula gets better everyday, and his mother could take the throne still— his uncle could stand in as regent still. He realises the nation doesn’t need him, so should they destroy him in the ways he has yet to destroy himself— maybe, they deserve a different leader.
He learned young that if he plays with dangerous things, if he makes certain decisions— he gets hurt. It is a simple truth of life. He does not confuse duty and obligation with decision making— he is meant to do what he believes to be right.
The battle of Ba Sing Se taught him that he is rarely right— that he is nothing if not insubordinate and fickle.
Zuko has been alone for years, and he will continue to be alone— he will die the way he nearly did all those years ago, and when he falls no one will be there for him.
But Zuko’s okay with that— he’s always pushed away the people he’s cared about, and now, he thinks, maybe it’s what he deserves.
He hasn’t slept in days— his limbs feel heavy and his eyes threaten to fall like sandbags hanging off the back walls of an ember island production.
The last time he slept, a hitman tried to assassinate him via stoning execution— so he’s avoided it since, hiding in his office.
They’ve tried to flood him, burn him, and stone him and sometimes it feels like he’ll never die— like the boy who never had any self-preservation is suddenly impervious to death.
If he tried to drown, he’s pretty sure the ocean would evaporate at once. And now, as a sword chokes him from behind— he doesn’t fight it. The day has come where he allows his body to be slammed to the ground of his office by an assassin.
The assassin pauses— Zuko sees the confusion in his eyes clear as day. The look that says his body is too pliant, his face is too placid, and his eyes too removed for someone about to be killed.
He’s not sure what’s finally snapped in him, but it seems to make even the trained assassin a bit uneasy. It makes sense, he supposes, his family is known for never giving up— for never surrendering.
“Any last words?” The man asks, grey eyes meeting amber as he trails a small dagger down Zuko’s jaw.
“Look me in the eyes while you do it.” Zuko speaks, so easily that the assassin’s dangerous tracing stops. Zuko continues. “I don’t care. Kill me, but look into my eyes while you drain the life from me.”
Zuko is tired of fighting, he is tired of living, and he is tired of trying. A small smile curls onto his lips, and distantly he thinks he’s beginning to sound like his sister.
Again, he whispers, “nothing will change.”
The assassin rocks back on his heels and Zuko lies still, his arms have been freed but he has no will to move forward. “You could kill me and be gone before anyone realises.”
“Oh, Agni.” the assassin mutters to himself, “You really live like this?”
Zuko just stares at him with empty eyes— blood trailing down his neck from the earlier commotion.
And then, Suki opens the door and the assassin goes sprawling to the floor with Ty Lee’s hands tying his hands behind his back.
“Zuko.” Suki hisses suddenly, hauling him to sit with a hand behind his back. “What just happened?”
Zuko opens his mouth, and closes it again.
It’s a long moment before he speaks again, “I don’t want to live like this anymore, Suki. I cant. I wish Aang had just killed me.”
“You’re nothing like your father, Zuko.”
Zuko smiles grimly. “I know.”
He sees the moment that recognition dawns in her eyes, and before he can get anything remotely similar to a word can get out his face is buried in the crook of her neck and she’s crying against the fabric of his shirt.
Zuko doesn’t say a word, nor does he cry. His arms lie limp at his sides, and over Suki’s should he watches as Ty Lee sends out messenger hawks— enough to reach each of the people he holds dear.
It is Aiko who is sent to wake the Fire Lord, and it is Aiko who first sees the trail of blood that leads into the garden. It is Aiko who finds two bodies splayed out, charred to the bone and a third whose blood mingles with the grass to turn in a muddy brown.
It is Aiko who realises the third body is Zuko, and it is Aiko who finds Lieutenant Jee, the head guard, the medic, and the Kiyoshi Warriors.
It is Jee who presses his fingers to the pulse point of the Fire Lord’s neck and breathes a sigh of relief when he finds a steady pulse thrumming beneath.
“Zuko.” he mutters, hands taking either side of the boy’s face. Suddenly, he realises he hasn’t called the teenager by his name in many years. He calls Zuko what he is, a pain in the ass. “Zuko, wake up.”
Aureus irises crack open, a muddled groan escaping the the battered teens lips as he lets out a noise of pain that nearly makes Jee cry.
Suki is at his side quickly, murder in her eyes as she glowers at him— a direct contrast to how softly she takes his hand in her own.
“I fought back.” He offers nonsensically, and Jee nearly questions why he wouldn’t before realising there must be more behind it. “I couldn’t... I didn’t want you to find me like this.”
Something in Jee breaks— in a way that he didn’t know an old general’s cold heart could.
“You’re such a fucking imbecile.” her teeth are gritted, and tears are welling up in her big blue eyes again. “I hate you so much. You can’t leave us. Not now. Not like this.”
“M’not,” he offers, and as unconvincing as it is— it means something that Jee doesn’t quite understand to her.
He doesn’t ask.
The morning they are set to arrive, Sokka comes early— he finds Zuko’s office and chambers empty— and it’s only as he nears the gardens that he finds blood trailing down the halls and the garden doors wide open.
In the centre of the grass, two bodies lie covered in cloth and Sokka finds himself rooted it place— Sokka finds himself strangely empty, and his body unwilling to learn anything more.
“It’s not—“ Sokka jumps, hand flying to his boomerang was a young man comes up behind him. He relaxes when the dude in question bows, and continues. “Fire Lord Zuko is in the infirmary. There was another attempt on his life.”
“Anoth— what?” Sokka’s hand drops to his sided and he immediately follows the guy— who he now realises is wearing the uniform of the palace.
Zuko, as it turns out, is alive— or well, as alive as he’s been in a while. Distantly, Sokka thinks that he hasn’t seen Zuko in a long time— a light in his eyes in even longer.
He does see, instead, Kiyi curled under his arm— both sleeping in a way that reminds Sokka with a painful blow that they are so similar sometimes. Both sleep with their mouths ajar, Kiyi drooling slightly onto the little Kiyi doll clutched in her arms.
Dark bruises envelope Zuko’s neck— he was choked— and more wrap around his body. Deep lacerations puncture his arms all around, and beyond the physical wounds it’s obvious that he’s been taking a mental toll as well.
Crescents shade his under eyes fully, his cheeks hallow and ribs prominent beneath the wrapping of his of his freshly sewn fissures.
Distantly, Sokka thinks he should’ve asked more on that day nearly a year ago— he should’ve pressed Zuko to tell him the things that plague him.
His feet carry him to Zuko’s side, and for a moment he can’t help but think that the only time that his best friend ever looks his age is when he’s asleep— when he finally rests from the horrors of the life around him.
His friends doesn’t stir, and it’s truly a testament to how tired Zuko must be. It’s becoming more and more evident that he feels as though he needs to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders— and it’s something Sokka hates.
He’s heard the stories of Agni Kai challenges, and of assignation attempts— he’s heard the story of the masked bender with rainbow flames standing up for children around the Earth kingdom until the law was finally enacted and taken seriously.
He knows a lot of what Zuko does— but there’s parts of him that still never really believe that Zuko had been capable of so much change— of doing so much good.
But it’s evident that even good deeds take their toll in the end— so, as Sokka reaches down to push away the sloppily chopped fringe around Zuko’s face— his former enemy turned ally, and soon friend simply looks.
And for a moment it’s like they’ve made contact over the crackling fire at midnight during the days before the comet.
“Hey.” Sokka greets quietly, suddenly finding it a lot more difficult to shove his sadness deep within himself. “I see they tried to kill you again. How’d that go?”
Just like that, the old times are gone and the eighteen year old monarch rises to sit, careful to mind Kiyi’s sleeping head as he looks around. One after another, he pulls his hands across his face pushing the hair from his eyes.
“Suki’s gonna kill me.” he mumbles plainly, eyes flickering to the door where Suki and Katara stand— wearing twin expressions of chaotic good mingled with the super sexy flavour of disappointment fit for idiocy of a royal degree.
He knows that look well, and can Sokka just say he’s absolutely relieved it’s not directed at him.
Zuko scowls at them, and Kiyi stirs at his side just as Ursa enters the room to take her out for their late breakfast. Once she’s gone, Zuko quickly realises that Aang, Ty Lee, and Toph have joined the equation and— oh, it’s an intervention.
Katara heals his wounds, while Suki and Ty Lee break down the past month of Zuko’s reign, and even a bit before that— at some point, none of them can really meet his eyes anymore.
“You didn’t fight the last assassin?” Toph looks at him with a scary amount of precision, a crestfallen look plastered across her features. “Not even— Zuko—“
He considers lying, but instead drags a hand over his face and lets out a quiet sigh. “No— I just let him. He had a blade to my neck and I told him to look in my eyes when he did it.”
Suki scoffs, though it’s mirthless and slightly pained, “we interrogated him and he told us he was hired. Zuko, why don’t you tell them what he said.”
“He asked if I really live like this, and then Ty Lee tackled him,” he looks to Sokka, hoping to wedge a laugh out of him— but the tribesman just looks upset.
He looks at Katara next, but she won’t meet his eyes— he knows if she does he’ll he met with the eyes of a woman who feels empathy in a way few people do— he knows part of her will blame herself for not seeing it.
He looks to Aang, who wears a similar look— eyes sad and lips trying to form a sentence but unable to come up with anything.
He looks to Suki— who looks guilty, and Ty Lee’s not much better off.
But how does he begin to explain that he doesn’t know what he’s doing— that he was just finding who he was when he took the crown— and now his life is threatened weekly for who he’s not.
Because all Zuko knows— is that he’s not his father— and he’s not the person Azula once was.
He pauses, fidgeting with his hands before exhaling heavily. He says instead, “I turn nineteen in two months— and for a long time, I never thought I’d make it to eighteen.”
He can feel eyes back on him, and his cheeks flush deeply with heat and discomfort. He says, “A year ago— Sokka asked me what was on my mind and I didn’t know how to answer— I still don’t.”
But once the words start, they don’t stop. Like a downpour after a drought, Zuko’s words flood the silence between his breaths.
He tells them, “I just know that I never feel like I’m doing enough— I feel like like I will never be enough. I will never be what my nation needs, and I will never be what the world needs.
He tells them, “I haven’t felt hope in so long— and it feels like I’ve been alone for so much longer. Everyone leaves, my uncle no longer lives here— I am alone and I know all of my employees but i don’t know how to approach them.”
He tells them, “I don’t know who I am. I’m scared I don’t remember myself before the crown— I’m scared I’ve lost my way.”
He tells them, “I’m not a leader— I’m not a traitor. I’m just me. And I’m just so tired. I’m so tired and I don’t want to be here sometimes and I know that’s awful of me. But I’m trying my best.”
He’s gone white knuckled, fingers gripping the sheets beneath his palms as a three year old sob finally bubbles up in his throat. It claws it’s way out, and fills the air— and Sokka’s arms are around him before he can even begin to reach for it.
And then, he finally blurts, “they’ve tried to kill me so many times. And sometimes it feels like I just can’t die.”
More arms wrap around him, and his body wracks with sobs, shaking every pair around him as he fails to pull himself together.
But he can’t, and Katara, who is strewn over the right side of his body murmurs, “Just cry, it’s okay. We’re here. We love you. We’re so sorry.”
And so Zuko cries more than he has since he was burned. He cries until there is nothing left and even after.
When he finally falls silent, Sokka’s shirt is covered in tears and Zuko starts to apologise only for for his friend to immediately wave it off.
Instead, Sokka guides a cup of water to his hands— one that Katara kindly bends some ice into, and they sit with him as he drinks it slowly. After some time passes, he feels that same bone-deep weariness that got him in this predicament and sinks back down against the infirmary bed.
Aang and Sokka make work to push a few cots together and Toph breeches the distance first; snuggling under Zuko’s arms just as his eyes begin to close.
Soon, they’re all stacked as if trying to keep warm on a cold winters night— and suddenly, Zuko realises that no matter how much time has passed, no matter how much they’ve been through— this is still his family. They still love him.
When he wakes, Sokka makes him pinky promise that he’ll never lie about needing help again and Toph, in her normal fashion, puts a threat on his life.
The feeling doesn’t go away— not for a long time (and it’s never completely gone). He does find, however, that it eases a bit with time and with the people he surrounds himself with.
It’s not until he holds Izumi for the first time that the feeling comes back at full force, but also seems to fade into the background.
They never leave him alone for long after that— Sokka stays to help him organise a reliable cabinet, and even says on what he refers to as official Water Tribe Business.
And suddenly, Zuko thinks, maybe not everything is as bad as it had seemed.