H is for Home and its Promises

Evil and good are always at war inside you, Zuko. It is your nature, your legacy. But there is a bright side. What happened generations ago can be resolved now, by you. Because of your legacy, you alone can cleanse the sins of our family, and the Fire Nation. Born in you along with all the strife is the power to restore balance to the world

Promise me you will do this.

Sunset.
Fire Nation.
100 ASC.

The beginning of a 67 year reign of Fire Lord Zuko

“I promise,” said the Avatar. “I promise.”

The young fire lord gave one final look at his friend’s eyes and noticed a strange sadness in those pools of grey. He turned away before the grey eyed boy could see the sour expression forming on the new Fire Lords face. Pity was something he was so tired of.

However, he did not want to ruin the happiness of tonight. The war was finally over and seeing the tired smiles on his friends’ faces was like a breath of fresh air. And yet, his own lips failed to turn up.

Uncle would laugh if he saw me like this.

He could almost hear his old wise voice whispering in his ear.

Only you, have the power, to frown, when the rest of the world, is rejoicing.

Maybe it was because he was not rejoicing with them? Maybe it was because every time he was so close to achieving his own happiness, a terrible twist of fate occurs and he is left with the remnants of a broken heart. Of broken honor.

He would have snorted at that irony of it all, had it not been the pounding sound of fireworks and the shrills of laughter from his companions. He had spent enough of his life questioning fate. It was time to face it as destiny.

“Come over here, Sparky! There’s enough room for all of us..”

The young fire lord scowled at his earth bending friend, he didn’t even know which was less appealing, the nickname or the vacant spot in the midst of the group hug. He stared at the expectant eyes of the rest of eager group and groaned as his heart finally gave in.

Who would have thought? The crown prince of the fire nation to form a companionship with a bunch of nomadic peasants with a mission to save the world, or in other words destroy the ruthless firelord who happened to be his father. Ha. Even his crazed sister would have laughed at that.

He looked up at the faces of his friends as begrudgingly joined them in a tight squeeze. The long hard ache in his shoulders he never knew he had lifted and it was then he felt the world off his shoulders. It was then he felt the war was truly over. Tears stung his eyes. He bowed his head. This was the last thing he wanted to do in front of his friends.

It was just, they had been through so much. He had been through so much. And the momentum he felt when their chests heaved together for a final long sigh after what felt like forever formed a warm feeling in his heart. It stayed and it hardened and it settled and it grew.

He looked up at the familiar faces he had grown to love. Each with their own special moments. Each having grown an invisible something through his eyes. Something only a true friend could recognize. A friend who spent day and night camping on the ground they have, eating the same cooked meals, laughing at the same jokes and crying at the same fate.

He remembered the night as clear as day.

Lightning was an art only a true fire bender could perform. And the trials and tribulations he had gone through surged through his veins like liquid lava. It hurt like hell and the tears that stung his eyes only reminded him of the other that could barely blink.

” You’ve always thrown everything you could at me! Well I can take it! And now I can give it back! Come on! Strike me! You’ve never held back before!” he shouted at the black stormy sky. Thick heavy raindrops blinded his vision and traced the burnt flesh that ran across his left eye and down his face.

“Most kids my age complain about their skin and appearance. Well, I don’t have that luxury! My father decided to teach a permanent lesson on my face!” he had admitted angrily. In fact, angry seemed to be a popular adjective to describe him throughout his teenage life.

It served a purpose.

The memory of his father marring his flesh as a boy never left him.

“Let it be a reminder of the honor you have lost for speaking out of turn. You had no right. You have disgraced me so you are no son of mine. Not until you capture the Avatar and bring him to me. Only then will you return to the Fire nation from exile and have your honor finally restored,” said his father, the former Fire Lord, putting an iron vice on the harsh ultimatum.

3 years he scoured the seas in search of his key back home. 3 years he pursued his last chance. Until he realized the side he was fighting on. The side he was born and bred to remain faithful to kept turning more and more into a living nightmare. His father, the man that he spent his entire childhood looking up to as a hero, now shaped a monster in his eyes.

Everyday, he looked at his reflection, in a mirror, in still water or even in the eyes of others, noticing the undeniable reminder of his father’s wrath on his face. It had almost blinded him. And yet, his own stubbornness and selfishness only blinded him more from the true nature of his father’s exile upon him. Indeed, The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

His father didn’t love him. He never loved him. Love was something unfamiliar to him except when it came to himself. He always loved himself. And that reality never failed to haunt Zuko until now.

What if I become the man my father was? Because deep inside we all know it is bound to happen. I feel it in my bones. The shaking and the anger. Sometimes, its happening, like its waiting to break free. I’m so afraid. I’m so afraid that I’ll never be able to turn back this time. Never. And when that happens. You must know. And you must do it before it is too late. I don’t want to make mistakes anymore. I’m tired of failure. And I won’t fail my nation and my friends anymore.

It was time for change. It was time to step up and speak. Even though that had cost him his honor and his face the first time. He did it again, defying every law that was set upon stone in his blood. He was no longer the crown prince, he was the blood traitor. To the family who had banished him.

And yet, he learnt from the last time he stood at the crossroads and took the wrong path. He wasn’t making the same mistake, for this time, he had a map – a direction and he was going to follow it.

“My whole life I strugged to gain my father’s love and acceptance. But once I had it, I realized I lost myself getting there. I’d forgotten who I was.”

The words etched themselves deeper into his scalp as his friends embraced him. They were firm and sure to leave a mark.

The assurance the Avatar had given hours before reentered his mind before he could stop it.

“I promise, I promise.”

“Zuko.”

His head snapped up at the small voice, almost invisible under the loud noise of firecrackers.

He was surprised it had come from the mouth of the happy go lucky Avatar.
Aang noticed the wary look on his friends face. He knew what he was thinking. He was thinking it too. But there was no time for that. No time for the past and it’s pains. He wanted to see a smile on his fire bending master’s face.

“Zuko, you will make a great fire lord. Someone I’ll be telling my grandchildren about. The first fire lord, to change the world and from it’s ashes bring one of peace and harmony. The best fire lord. One who has been through so much to know the sufferings of those below him. One who has earned a space in all our hearts. Our best friend. You will be great. Never worry. The greatest fire lord in the history of the world.”

Zuko’s good eye widened and eased gently. A sharp tug pulled his heart.
That’s what uncle said. That’s what uncle said, was all he could think as his lips tugged up to a genuine smile.

Everyone joined along, this time taking step back and kneeling before him. Their smiling faces all looking at his. They were looking up at his.
“All hail fire lord Zuko.”

After that, it happened so quickly that this time, Zuko was sure he issued the hug. He held them there for a long time, unwilling to let go.

The tightness of the people who love and love you back holding you close as if they were never going to leave. The firmness of their grip in that one simple gesture showed the strength of trust among them. The warmth of their closeness reminded him of home. Always.

And he realized then, that home isn’t just a place where your heart is, or maybe where your honor is constantly at stake. Home is the feeling keeping you rooted to the ground. It is the joy of knowing that someone is always waiting for you, no matter how far, or how lost you are. Home doesn’t always mean family, just as family doesn’t always mean love and happiness.

Home is the memories of those tired smiles and worn out faces. Home is the glimmer of hope on the fringe of despair. Home isn’t the crown on a kings head but the valiant faces of the friends by the kings side. Home is the tears in a little boys eyes when he see’s his long lost mother for the first time.

Home is the beginning and the end of a journey. Sometimes it is the journey when there are people you trust by your side. People who you would be willing to die for and who will do the same for you.

These people. He thought as he let go. These people are the ones that are going to stick with me to the end and beyond that.

Many hours earlier,
The Royal Fire nation Palace
Ceremonial front balcony.

“Prince Zuko, your coronation awaits you.”

His face was as expressionless as a block of wood but his hands were sweating enough water to fill buckets. He caught sight of an orange clad figure approaching.

“Aang,” Zuko said to his friend before the coronation ceremony began, his golden eyes hard and unyielding.

The young Avatar smiled and settled at the side of the future king. He watched the young man take a long deep breath. He could almost see all the things being calculated, thought through, processed and packed in his mind.
Zuko had never learnt the art of enjoying the moment.

“Aang,” he said again, his voice softer this time. “This is important.”
The orange robed monk nodded as he put his full attention to the man in front of him.

“His blood still runs in my veins, some of the words I speak used to belong to him. This crown on my head used to be on his. I feel it in my bones. The shaking and the anger. Sometimes, it’s happening, like it’s waiting to break free. I’m so afraid. I’m so afraid that I’ll never be able to turn back this time. Never. And when that happens. You must know. And you must do it before it is too late. I don’t want to make mistakes anymore. I’m tired of failure. And I won’t fail my nation and my friends anymore. If I ever turn into my father. Do not hesitate to end me. You must, at all costs, end me. Please.”

The Avatar looked up at his friend who was no more than half a decade older to him. And yet, the authority in his tone ensured him the son of a king or rather, a king himself. Yet, there was the sweat on his brow and the look in his eyes and the slight trembling in his hands that reminded him that he was still the young man he was. A boy, no different from any other, afraid of his future.

Avatar Aang stared hard into the eyes of his long ago arch enemy, now his closest friend.

“I promise.”

With a long pause and a somewhat hesitant nod, the young firelord turned to the curtained door in front of him, preparing himself for a speech he never in his lifetime imagined himself to make…until a small hand on his shoulder stopped him short.

“A long time ago, I would never have pictured this day to come.”

“Me neither.” Zuko quickly said, how long had he been thinking that?

“A long time ago, we were enemies. Even then, I always knew we could be friends. I always knew there was good in you. We were enemies, but you learnt the right path. You were brave and true and strong, more the man your father will ever be in any lifetime. Everyone fears destiny. And I know you feared yours the most. But today, Zuko, destiny is our friend. I know it.”

The fire lord smiled. “A moment there, you sounded like uncle.”

“He would be proud. Of you. Of us. Of everyone.”

The boy reached up and pulled the other for a hug. Zuko smiled as he watched the curtains being drawn.

“Today destiny is our friend,” he said again. The feeling of those words in his mouth making him feel stronger than he was before.

And as he stepped forward, the bright light of the sun that never used to shine touched his face and he heard the endless sound of crowds cheering on the other side. The sound of change. The sound of freedom. The sound of home.

“I promised my uncle that I would restore the honor of the Fire Nation. And I will. The road ahead of us is challenging, a hundred years of fighting has left the world scarred and divided. But with the Avatar’s help, we can get it back on the right path, and begin a new era of love and peace. ”

~ * ~******************~******************~*~

Iroh laid a hand on his nephew’s shoulder and made him look at him square in the eye.

“Even if I did defeat Ozai, and I don’t know if I could, it would be the wrong way to end the war. History would see it as just more senseless violence. A brother killing a brother to grab power. The only way for this was to end peacefully is for the Avatar to defeat the Fire Lord.”

Wary eyes met wise ones. ” And then… then would you come back and take your rightful place on the throne.”

Uncle shook his head, a small smile forming on his face. “No. Someone new must take the throne. An idealist with a pure heart, and unquestionable honor. It has to be you, Prince Zuko.”

Zuko snorted. His head dropped as he started to stare at his calloused pale hands – noticing all the numerous little scars he had gained throughout the 3 years of wandering, surviving.” Unquestionable honor? But I’ve made so many mistakes.”

“Yes, you have. You struggled. You suffered. But you have always followed your own path. You’ve restored your own honor. And only you can restore the honor of the Fire Nation.”

– Uncle Iroh from Avatar the last Airbender finale – Sozin’s Comet, moments before the great battle.

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