The first time Zuko sees his mother firebend, she has her hands clenched around the collar of his royal robes, flames licking at her lips, and she’s spitting—
Just like your father.
There’s hate in her eyes, like Zuko has never seen before, and Zuko knows that it’s Azula’s fault without even thinking.
(He just doesn’t know how, yet.)
He had been hoping she had died.
(He wishes he’d had the guts to kill her in her sleep.)
(Like she would have done to him, had their situations been reversed.)
Her flames do not touch him.
They flicker just this side of blue, and rage all around her—but they very carefully avoid him.
(Part of him hopes that it is because she still loves him—)
(But rest of him knows that it is substantially more complicated than that.)
Iroh is not so lucky.
(Iroh has not trained in over a decade—)
(He doesn’t stand a chance.)
Viewing his mother throw his uncle up against the wall, Zuko wonders if, perhaps, the reason Ursa never liked Azula was not because Azula was too much like Ozai—but if it was because Azula was too much like herself.
(It doesn’t matter—Azula has apparently already been forgiven for her every transgression.)
Iroh’s robes are Fire Nation (a present from Zuko), but it doesn’t matter.
Beneath Ursa’s fingers, they catch flame all the same.
(Zuko does not move.)
(He isn’t convinced he could stop her without killing her.)
Her flames stop being just this side of blue, and he is no longer convinced he could stop her at all.
Ursa’s screams are only barely intelligible.
You were supposed to protect her—
How could you—
Her features are twisted with rage and hatred like Zuko has never seen before (like Zuko has never imagined they could ever be), and Zuko cannot help but wonder, once more, at his sister’s ability to poison everything she touches.
(Ty Lee, Zuko, Ursa—)
Ursa leaves Iroh alive—if only barely.
(He doesn’t burn because he is the dragon of the west, and even with ten years of doing nothing under his sizeable belt, he is still among the five greatest firebenders in the world.)
(Among the ten greatest firebenders to ever live.)
The servants and the guards make no move to intervene.
(Only Zuko holds greater authority than Ursa—and he has not given the order to stop her.)
The young ones watch with confusion, and horror.
The old ones (the ones old enough for Zuko to remember them from his childhood) watch with small expressions of understanding.
(Zuko begins to realize that something is terribly wrong.)
As Ursa sweeps through the hallways as if she has not been absent from these halls for over three decades, he follows closely at her heels—
(Oh Zuzu, you always were such a mommy’s boy.)
And does not stop her.
(Sparks are jumping off of Ursa’s fingers, and setting the tapestries she passes on fire.)
(Zuko suppresses them as he passes—because Ursa clearly has no interest in keeping the entire palace from going aflame.)
He realizes where they are going when they are halfway there.
(Although he does not quite know why—he is certain what his mother is planning to do there.)
He considers stopping her, but does not.
(Can’t disobey Mommy, can you, Zuzu?)
(And you like pretend that you’re Fire Lord.)
(Don’t make me laugh.)
He tells himself that it is because he trusts her judgement.
(And he almost believes it himself—)
(But not quite.)
Ursa does not bother waiting for the guard to open Ozai’s cell.
She tears it open with her bare hands, and when Ozai sneers and takes to his feet to greet her—
She spits a fireball into his face, and he collapses in agony.
(It is just weak enough, Zuko notices, to leave him aflame but not kill him.)
You bastard, he can hear her whisper.
She rolls him onto his back, slips her hand down the front of his robes, and—
He turns away an instant before his father releases a gut-churning wail of agony.
Beneath it, he can just barely hear—
You laid your hands on my daughter, you fucking bastard.
(He doesn’t stop for a very, very long time, but Zuko doesn’t notice because his mother’s words are running through his head over—and over—and over again.)
(You laid your hands on my daughter—)
(You laid your hands on my daughter—)
(You laid your hands on my daughter.)
I know what you’re going to say—she’s my sister and I should try to get along with her.
No, she’s crazy, she needs to go down.
When he opens his eyes, Iroh is grey and green in front of him, and the air all around them is thick with the heavy scent of burned flesh.
(Zuko feels a twinge of phantom pain in the half of his face that will never feel anything, ever again.)
Then Zuko blinks, and Iroh is gone.
Zuko never sees him again.
(Apparently, Azula doesn’t even need to be present to almost destroy everything he has ever loved.)
When the guards ask him what to do with the body, he tells them to bury it.
(There isn’t a funeral.)
(He doesn’t even bother with an announcement.)
(He burns his father’s name from every history book, his face from every tapestry, and spits on his unmarked grave.)
(It doesn’t stop the nightmares that wake his wife every night.)
He doesn’t realize why his mother stays in the palace, at first.
Then he sees her crouched in front of Izumi, Izumi’s face twisted in confusion and fear, and—
Get the fuck out of my palace, mother.
(He comes by his temper honestly—directly inherited from Roku and Sozin—and his mother does not push him.)
(It is not the last time he sees her—but she never tries to talk to Izumi like that again.)
(She goes to the servants, instead.)
(Just like your father.)
Izumi stumbles over to him and he picks her up, and lets her cry into his shoulder.
(She does not flinch at his touch, and he is unimaginably grateful.)
Zuko doubles the guard around his wife and his daughter, and waits for Azula to come.
(Because Zuko knows Azula better than anyone—and he knows that she did not mean for Ursa to kill their father.)
She doesn’t come, and he wonders when she managed to change so much.
(He prefers the devil he does know, to the devil he doesn’t, and he never reduces the guard around his wife and daughter.)
(Never trusts Azula not to come back, and try to destroy the other half of everything he loves.)
She never does come back.
(He is a good Fire Lord, and he hopes that even though she won their Agni Kai, the Fire Nation would still choose him over her.)
(He’s never sure, though, and never stops looking.)
An inordinate amount of time later, Aang dies, and the world gets just a little bit darker.
(A heart attack, of all things.)
(No signs of foul play.)
(He suspects Azula, but knows that it is nothing more than mere paranoia.)
And then the avatar is found in the Southern Water Tribe born to a woman named Senna (nobody from the Water Tribe mentions that the name is unusual, and nobody in the Fire Nation mentions that it is the name of the first female Fire Lord), and a man named Tonraq.
(Zuko does not go to visit her, because he knows he would not see her and only see Aang, and that is a trial he does not yet wish to endure.)
(He is an old man, now, and he can be forgiven for such selfishness.)
He is not expecting to see Azula’s body when he arrives at the site of the new avatar’s attempted kidnapping.
But, looking at her, wrapped in colors he is sure she still despised, he feels a flash of pleasure flow through him.
(He has won.)
(Finally, after sixty years—)
(He has won.)
It does not occur to him to wonder why she is here of all places, and he almost takes a spike of ice to the throat for his absent-mindedness.
(With her lips drawn back over teeth and her eyes mad with rage, hate, and murder, Senna is the very vision of Azula, and the mystery of Senna’s name finally comes together.)
I challenge you to an Agni Kai.
You have dishonored my mother, and I demand recompense.
I was wrong.
I don’t want to fight.
He is. It’s not even a lie.
(He does not want to have to kill her.)
And family doesn’t—
(He is a fool for believing Azula’s daughter would ever enter into an Agni Kai she did not know she could win.)
His daughter becomes Fire Lord.
Katara heals away his burns.
(She has grown even more powerful with age, and it does not even leave a mark.)
He becomes an “ambassador of peace,” and does his best to do what he believes Iroh would have done.
(He drinks an awful lot of tea.)
The first time he (properly) meets the new avatar, he is surprised to find that in her eyes he does not see Aang, but Azula.
(Whether she recognizes him or not, he cannot say—but if she does, then she clearly does not hold her mother’s—her grandmother’s—grudge.)
Then his advice gets her tortured and almost killed, and he spends the next six months with his daughter (who tolerates him spoiling her incredibly young second child into complete obnoxiousness), reminding himself that she, at the very least, is still alive and whole.
When his daughter pardons Azula, and in the same breath shames him, he visits the Southern Water Tribe for the first time since he left it, sixteen years before.
He spends the weekend with Katara, and they sit and reminisce about people who are not named Azula.
(He goes out, the last night, to the ice shelf where Azula died, and asks the air—)
(Are you happy, now?)
(The next day, he sees Senna kissing her husband in the market, and suspects that she is.)
He survives just long enough to outlive almost everyone.
(Mai, Ty Lee, Azula, Katara, Sokka, Suki, Aang, Toph—)
(His wife, his mother, his father.)
(Not his daughter, or his grandchildren.)
He hears of Toph’s passing three days before he feels death’s hand upon him, and he cannot help but feel a burning pride—
(He will need to rub it in her face, if he ever sees her again.)
(He’s certain it bothers her.)
He closes his eyes, hears—
Took you long enough.
And passes away.