(Avatar: the Last Airbender one-shot, rated: T, 2,015 words)
cn: for implied/referenced child abuse
He’s not explicitly invited to the Agni Kai, but no one attempts to hide it from him—though in retrospect, long after, once he finally has time to process, this fact will strike him as odd. Wouldn’t someone have expected him to protest, had he known? But then only Azula knew the depths of his ambivalence in Ba Sing Se, and had apparently elected to keep it hidden in her sleeves like so many of her plots, no doubt to brandish as a secret weapon should the need present itself.
In any case, when Zuko does hear of the duel, he must convince himself to attend. All the royals—(all the free royals)—will be there, after all. It’s an honor. The nobles in his father’s court would be suspicious if he weren’t present. And besides, though he hasn’t seen the inside of the arena since before his banishment, since he was a child, since...since he—since his father…since the day he got his scar, it’s not as though he’ll be fighting this time. (For that matter, he doesn’t yet know who is involved in this Agni Kai—just that one or both of the combatants is notable enough within Court for this to be an event.)
He manages to calm his trembling knees in time to enter the arena before the proceedings began, but just barely. Zuko wafts in, hands clenched at his sides, trying and failing not to think about what it looks like, how his uncle’s reputation for tardiness might have rubbed off on him—all the times Uncle had lingered behind at a port-of-call, delaying Zuko’s carefully crafted schedules, (you worry too much Prince Zuko, you should rest, a man needs his rest). But when he finds his seat in the section designated for the royal family, only Azula is there waiting for him.
Azula smirks. “Well, hello to you too, Zuzu. Here for the show?”
“Where is he?!”
Azula steadily moves her gaze to the platform in the center of the arena, and when Zuko follows it there, his hand finds the branded skin on his face, stomach tumbling out from within him, blood flushing like he imagines it would if the sun were to disappear from the sky.
Ozai stands there, elevated, ceremonial Agni Kai garnet draped around his bare shoulders, just as it had been three years ago.
Zuko inhales. “Who…?”
“Just watch, Dum-dum.”
But he doesn’t have to watch long. After a moment, two members of the Royal Guard appear, dragging a lump of a third person up onto the stage. They drop him there, bare-chested, clad only in ragged dueling pants because the Agni Kai sash falls from his shoulders as he hits the tile floor, and though he’s conscious, he doesn’t seem to have the strength to readjust his position.
Zuko cries out, leaping to his feet. “What’d they do to him?!”
“Really, Zuko, you’re causing a scene.”
If anyone turns toward him at his outburst, Zuko doesn’t see it. His focus is singularly on the platform. The guards seem to laugh as they retreat from the stage and leave the man there—Zuko can tell even beneath their masks, people have been looking at him that body language for years: the way their chests rise and fall, how they tilt their heads back like they don’t have a care in the Agni-forsaken world. They’re looking at him and laughing, like they don’t care that this is what’s become of the Dragon of the West, who used to be their Crown Prince, their general, their hero, like they think it’s funny...
“Azula!” he demands.
“Perhaps he was simply always feebler than you remember.”
“He was not! The only reason he didn’t destroy us in Ba Sing Se is because he wanted to give the Avatar time to get away—”
Azula raises an eyebrow. “I thought the Avatar was dead.”
“—they did something to him! Drugged him, or beat him, or something—don’t you care?!”
She shrugs. “He’s a traitor.”
“He’s our uncle!”
“I guess I’m just not as sentimental as you are, Zuzu.”
“But why—” On the stage below, Ozai looms over his brother, burying him in a dark shadow. “Why is he...Is Father going to duel him?”
“It’s not going to be much of a duel, if you ask me.” A pause, and then she continues. “You didn’t think Father would let treachery like Uncle’s go unpunished, did you?”
“But…” But he’s his brother. The words die on Zuko’s lips. Yes, Uncle’s his brother. And Ursa was his wife, and what did that matter? And…
Blood rushes to his face, and it burns—it burns—like it’s on fire.
Uncle is on his knees, and it looks almost like a prostration.
And I was his son.
Ozai doesn’t even bother moving to the starting position, just shrugs the ceremonial garnet off his shoulders to signal his intent to begin. “Well, brother,” he smirks in a voice loud enough for the entire arena to hear. “You have betrayed your Nation and your Fire Lord. Will you fight for your honor?”
Uncle just barely manages to lift his head. If he says anything, it’s too faint for Zuko to hear.
“Sad,” Ozai continues, projecting, raising his hands with his voice. “That this is what has become of the famed Dragon of the West. And to think that this country once thought that you would be their ruler.”
Something in Zuko’s chest lurches, like it’s trying to escape, to run from the fire it knows is coming, that lives in its muscle memory. Family sticks together, Uncle had told Zuko once, had shown him patiently, over-and over-again every day for three long years, even when Zuko screamed that he didn’t want to see it.
Family sticks together. Family does not raise hands to each other with the sort of glint that is currently in his father’s eyes and speak gleefully about it. Family does not orchestrate public duels and give whatever orders are necessary to ensure that those duels are just for show.
This is wrong. Even if—if—Uncle is a traitor, this is wrong. Uncle is Father’s brother. Uncle is on his knees. This is Uncle. And Ozai looms over him, flames growing in his palms, and Zuko’s fingers clench in his lap, his head, his chest buzz...This is wrong.
(And if this is wrong…)
(Zuko had been on his knees once. Ozai had towered, fire growing in his hands…)
(If this is wrong…)
“My Nation is fortunate,” Ozai smiles, angling his hands toward his brother. “That I am here to purge it of such weakness.”
And then whatever it is that had been screaming in Zuko’s chest bursts forth, mingles with all the lingering doubts that have been living in his mind the past several weeks since his return home. And Zuko doesn’t know what he is about to do until he does it, springs to his feet in the most honored seats of the arena, and yells in a voice as loud as Ozai’s so that there is no one in the entire stadium who will not be able to hear: “Stop!”
This time, when all eyes turn to him, Zuko feels them. But he doesn’t move his own gaze from his father—who has turned toward him, smile fading from his face, flames flaring in his hands—and it’s just enough to make the man hesitate. But the flame is still growing, and Ozai has a history of venting his red-hot anger onto any in the vicinity. (Not anyonein the vicinity, Zuko will think later—much later, after he has time to process, not only this moment but everything else too—Ozai has a history of unleashing his anger on the most vulnerable target. Once, that was Zuko. Now, it’s Iroh.)
In the present, Zuko doesn’t waste the opportunity. He propels himself forward into the air and toward the stage with Firebending, and it’s not until he’s halfway there that he feels the fear sink in his stomach, not until he lands in front of Uncle that he feels the tremble behind his knees. But he remains upright, and whatever he feels, he wills his face to be the same level of impassive as it was behind the Blue Spirit mask before he’d cast it away.
“Zuko...no…” Uncle’s voice is a murmur behind him, but there are resonances of a moment of when it was much stronger. You never think these things through!
And it’s true, he knows now, no matter what he’d yelled under that lake. But sometimes you can’t think things through, or you’ll be paralyzed, and sometimes there’s no time, you just have to act…
He clenches his fist.
“Why does it not come as a surprise that you’re a traitor too?” Ozai snarls. “I should have killed you three years ago and spared myself the embarrassment!”
“Maybe,” Zuko hears himself say, and to his surprise his voice is steady. “But you didn’t.” A pause, and then: “Leave my uncle alone.”
“Treachery must be punished. He will fight for his honor!”
“This isn't a fight! It's a show! You know you can’t beat him for real, so you staged this whole thing just so the country will think you look stronger than you are!”
“Zuko…” Uncle’s whispers grow desperate, but Zuko doesn’t turn.
Ozai’s nostrils flare. “How dare—”
“It’s just another lie! Like all the lies you told us about how the Fire Nation is the greatest civilization in the world! Like the lies you were willing to tell to all those young soldiers you’ve sent to die…”
“You will pay for this insolence—”
“But the truth is that we’re not the greatest country in the world! And the truth is that Uncle Iroh is better than you are! He’s stronger, he’s a better father, and he would have been a better Fire Lord!”
It’s not a surprise when the lightning comes barreling toward him from his father’s fingers. And even though Zuko knows the technique in theory, executing it in practice brings him precariously close to reckoning with his own mortality. He catches the blast with his fingers, and it pushes him backward. He just manages to dig his heels into the floor and stop himself before he ploughs into Uncle and spills the electricity onto him—which would defeat the entire purpose of this whole charade—but it festers in his own arm, like it’s singeing it from the inside, and it’s going to kill him, it’s going to kill him, Agni, he’s going to die, and he didn’t think he’d care, or that that would scare him, not after everything, but he...he doesn’t want…
Uncle’s voice is nothing more than a rasp, but it grounds him nonetheless. Zuko inhales, then releases, lightning still festering at his fingertips.
Another breath, and then Zuko obeys, just like Uncle taught him in the ruins of forgotten that Earth Kingdom town, a lifetime ago now, it seems. And when he lets the lightning fly out of his other arm, he angles it upward, toward the roof of the arena, where it explodes on contact in a fiery burst.
Later, Zuko will think with a wry irony that he ought to make an offering in gratitude to Agni that things always seem to blow up in his face, because it’s that fact that ultimately seems to save him. The center of the ceiling of the stadium collapses as it detonates, and for the second time in minutes, Zuko doesn’t waste the opportunity that presents itself. In the chaos that ensues as chunks of tile and plaster falls to the stage between him and Ozai, as all the Royal Guard is occupied with protecting their monarch from falling debris, Zuko hauls Uncle onto his shoulders and flees.
It’s not until they’re well beyond not only the palace, but indeed the very walls of the city itself that he brings himself to look back.
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