Listen, friends. It's obvious that the playwright did his research. I know it must hurt, but what you're seeing up there on that stage is the truth.
– Toph Beifong, The Ember Island Players
This wasn’t going to end well. On the stage, the actor-versions of himself and Azula were preparing to fight, and any version of events that even hinted at the traitor prince or the Avatar winning would be sedition. He should have warned Aang, but he hadn’t realised the play might carry on to a final battle. The others would guess where this was going, but Aang could be really naive.
‘You are no longer my brother,’ Azula’s actress was saying on stage. ‘You are an enemy.’ It was strange, watching this, thinking of all the times they’d fought since the Avatar’s return. The play might be terrible, the acting was definitely awful, but right now this dialogue might have come straight from their mouths.
‘No - I am the rightful heir to the throne!’ his double said.
Azula laughed. ‘Not after your banishment. You can never regain your honour, or your place in the succession - or have you forgotten how you got that scar?’
Zuko stiffened, fingers curling in on themselves, resisting the urge to reach up to his face. He could feel the others’ curiosity and tried to ignore it. The play wasn’t going into any more detail, was it? It had to be a throwaway line. Everyone here would know the story. They wouldn’t bother talking about it.
On stage, the actor Zuko turned to stare dramatically out over the audience. ‘I will never forget.’
A screen lowered in front of the two actors, leaving a few feet of the stage visible; the screen was painted with a mural of an ornate room, filled with fire. Like the inside of the war room might be imagined by someone who had never seen it. The actor playing his uncle walked on from the left, accompanied by a child dressed in ornate robes with hair pulled back in a phoenix tail, and Zuko’s breath left his body.
‘I demand to join the war council!’ the young Zuko said, stomping across the stage to where black-clad stagehands were setting down a table and cushions.
‘Of course!’ said Uncle, grinning as he followed. ‘But make sure not to interrupt when we’re talking!’
Ozai and a general entered from the far side of the stage, as Zuko said, ‘You should be grateful if I interrupt! I could win this war in a year if I was in charge!’
It hadn’t happened like that. But it didn’t matter, did it? It only mattered what people believed. Of course they’d do this, of course they’d remind people; he should have expected it. He may not have been as politically clever as Azula, but he knew all about propaganda. And splashing his shame and humiliation across the stage for everyone to see was perfect propaganda.
The general handed out copies of his plan in sealed scrolls; the young Zuko barely looked at it before he was on his feet. ‘This is a terrible plan! You should be ashamed of yourself for presenting this to my father!’ The others were whispering behind him, and he clearly heard Suki saying his name but ignored it. He should walk out of the theatre. Should make everyone else walk out with him, because he didn’t want them to know what had happened - but he was pinned to his seat as if Toph had bound him there with rock. He couldn’t move; he could hardly breathe.
His father told him off for disrespect, told him he had to fight an Agni Kai, and in the back of his mind Zuko heard the real words echoing from years past. Except he definitely hadn’t been as arrogant as the version of himself on stage. And then they were taking away the props, clearing space for an Agni Kai arena, the child Zuko kneeling on the stage ready for action. There was scattered laughter as Ozai silently put up a hand to stop the general, dismissed him, took his place.
He sensed a sick anticipation from the crowd that turned his stomach, and nearer, an anxious and uncertain buzz from around him. He tried to ignore both, tried to ignore what was happening on the stage, just focused on keeping his breathing steady. It would be over quickly. It had been over quickly.
The child Zuko fell to his knees, cowering, as soon as he saw who he was facing. ‘I’m sorry!’ he cried.
‘Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!’ Ozai said, advancing towards him; Zuko scrambled backwards, whimpering. The audience was starting to jeer.
‘I can’t fight you! You’re too powerful!’
‘Then you will learn respect. And suffering will be your teacher!’
Red streamers burst from Ozai’s sleeves, and the child screamed - but all Zuko heard was the memory of his own scream. His scar flared with pain, and he could swear he smelt the stink of flesh burning. The audience applauded, the audience cheered, but all Zuko saw was his child self falling to the stage, holding the red streamers to his face.
‘Zuko?’ came a voice from close to him, a hand on his shoulder making him jump. It was Aang, eyes wide and horrified, an expression mirrored on all the other faces staring at him. He swallowed, turned his face away, and did the only thing he could; he got to his feet and fled.