“Once,” said a warm, rumbly voice from somewhere to the left, “there was a Prince born in a beautiful garden. He was good-hearted and very brave.”
Zuko didn’t reply. His head felt fuzzy, like the tail feathers on a turtleduck chick, and the room swam around him. He felt very far from where he was, but not far enough.
"He was raised in a golden palace,” the voice continued, even though Zuko had insisted he didn’t need stories. He wasn’t a child and he wasn’t scared. “And every servant was young and beautiful. His Father the King ensured he did not see the old, the sick, the dead, or the spiritual, for he wished for his son to grow up happy, and never face the struggles of life.”
Zuko closed his eyes. He’d been in and out of consciousness for the last several hours- days? An aftershock of the injury, Healer Gǔ Tou said, a fever that would break soon. He’d hoped, in his delirium, that they would turn back and deliver him to the familiar palace Healer and everyone would just forget this happened. But he was more awake than asleep now and he knew better.
"But no father, no matter how they may wish to, can truly spare their sons from pain, for that is what life is, sometimes.” There was a pause and it took a moment for the story to continue. “Our Prince left his golden palace and saw, for the first time, an old man. A sick woman. A dying child. And he understood that there was much of life he did not understand. Though he was young, he knew that these truths would forever alter his destiny, and that he had to act.”
" ...what did he do?” Zuko managed to ask. His voice was hoarse and low and he wasn’t even certain he’d spoken, but the storyteller had heard him anyway. He’d been listening.
“The only thing a wise man can do when he hears the truth,” the Dragon of the West replied, squeezing Zuko’s small hand in his own. “Face it.”
Zuko drops from the tree, backlit by fire and blood boiling. He rips the bandage from his face as he stalks forward, and the fabric burns fast as it unravels. When he speaks, his voice doesn’t tremble and it doesn’t break. It is red-hot steel. “You lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie,” Sokka tries. His tone is light and teasing, but his shoulders are taut. “I just-”
The Water Tribesman winces. “Zuko,” he begins again, more seriously this time but still trying to talk his way out. “I tried to explain. You weren’t listening. I knew I needed to show you. I knew-”
“You knew I’d be too foolish to question anything as long as you dangled the Avatar in front of me!” Zuko interrupts furiously, slicing a hand through the air. Fire follows, and it has never come easier. “You knew, because I was in a place where I couldn’t refuse, I would follow you. You thought you could manipulate the Crown Prince into becoming an enemy of his own Nation!”
“All those times you mocked me for my honesty,” Zuko half-laughs, throat clogged. “I should have seen it...You were never once willing to compromise on your beliefs; you only wanted to change mine- !”
“Zuko, please,” Katara says, stepping forward. Her expression is soft and sympathetic, but she’d been ‘too sincere’ before, hadn’t she? All while they’d lied, as they watched him struggle to deliver argument after argument, out of his depth but trying, as they dismissed every one out of hand. He’d thought it was his own inadequacy that kept them from understanding, but it was because they were never willing to understand. “Sokka was only trying to help. We all were. The Fire Nation-”
“Is my home!" He snaps. She falters at the sheer anger in his voice. “They’re my people!”
Sokka scowls at the interaction and demands, “The same people that want you dead? That banished you and captured you and put out wanted posters of you and tortured you- !”
"They were doing what they needed to!”
“So are we!” Sokka retorts furiously. “Because you can’t see what’s right in front of you!”
“Zuko,” Katara says calmly, taking the reins back from her frustrated brother. She steps towards the banished Prince gradually, open palms displayed, as if he’s the one that’s supposed to be scared. An untrained peasant versus a Royal Bender, who does she think is really in danger? “Please. Just think about what you’ve seen the last few days. Think about what you’ve seen since you left the Fire Nation. You have a good heart. I know-”
“You don’t know me,” he hisses.
“Maybe not,” she allows tactfully. “But I know that what the Fire Nation did to you is wrong. ” She hesitates for the briefest flash of a moment, and then she’s determined. “What your father did to you was wrong.”
“How dare you even mention him, you filthy little peasant!” He snarls, heart pounding. Her face flickers, and it’s either genuine hurt or she’s manipulating him again, and he refuses to care which.
“You’re mad at me, Zuko,” Sokka reminds him, frowning. “Not her. Let’s just calm down and talk.”
“I’m done talking!” Zuko roars, and he spits embers.
Sokka jolts back, surprised, and Zuko feels a cold burst of satisfaction.
“Sokka-!” Katara cries, rushing forward to help, but her brother holds up a hand.
“It’s fine, Katara,” he says. “He won’t hurt me.”
“Yes, I will!” Zuko counters furiously.
“You agreed to peace for a week,” Sokka replies, irritatingly calm, “and I don’t think you’re going to go against your word. And I really don’t think you’d hurt someone who isn’t defending themselves.”
“Then fight!” Zuko insists, fists coming aflame as he storms closer to the siblings. “Stop being a coward, stop talking, and fight me!”
“I’m not going to fight you, Zuko,” Sokka denies evenly. “You’re my friend.”
“You’re a liar!” Zuko snarls, and the campfire flares.
Sokka doesn’t flinch. He just shakes his head. “Not about this.” The flames cast him in flickering reds and oranges, as if he were already burning, and the shadows whip around his features like angry spirits, and he still doesn’t make a move. If anything, he just stands taller. He’s really not going to fight, Zuko realizes. He trusts Zuko too much.
How can he trust Zuko and still be lying to him?
How can he call Zuko a friend and still want him to give up everything?
Zuko grits his teeth. He’s just being manipulated again. It’s not trust. It’s just that even Zuko has enough honor to not strike down a defenseless enemy.
Sokka relaxes ever so slightly when Zuko doesn’t actually attack. And then he starts talking again, as if Zuko cares what he has to say. “We never meant to hurt you, Zuko,” he lies easily, “but you needed to see what the Fire Nation is really doing. They’re taking away their benders, just like they took ours, and locking them up in floating metal prisons miles from home. Children, and old ladies, and objectively attractive teens. Anyone. And if the towns fight back, or just cause too much trouble? They destroy whatever is left. They burn down towns, and forests, and-” He notices Zuko’s unimpressed glare and hurries to continue, almost desperately, “and today, in that town! You think that was an accident? The theater? They burned it down, Zuko, that’s what they do. And you know it, you have to know it, even if you won’t admit it to yourself-!”
“Enough,” Zuko hisses, snuffing every lick of flame. The moonlight casts everything in sickly silver highlights, rendering the campsite alien and surreal. He needs to go. He doesn’t know where, but he needs to go. “I’m leaving. The next time I see you- the next time I see any of you- I’m going to fight. I don’t care if you don’t fight back, I don’t care if you think you’re right, I don’t care if you think you know me. Get in my way again, and I won’t hesitate. Understand?”
Sokka, of course, immediately begins to argue. “Zuko-”
“I asked whether you understood.”
“Zuko, please,” Katara entreats, one hand raised beseechingly. “Don’t go. Give us a chance to explain-”
“Where would you even go?” Sokka demands to know, frustrated, his words overlapping with hers. “At least stay until you have a plan- ”
Zuko ignores them both and storms away, fists clenched tight. With a twist of the wrist, a wall of fire rushes up behind him, ensuring they won’t follow. They call after him, but the shouts can’t penetrate the ringing in his ears. It’s for the best. Given half a chance, Sokka would come up with the exact right series of words and Zuko would just stay.
He stomps through the blanketed darkness of the forest, heart pounding as he dissects the past week over and over again. Sokka knew exactly how to manipulate him and, even after a lifetime of manipulation, Zuko didn’t see it coming.
How was he so stupid?
And now- now look at him! He’s just running away!
He should, for once in his life, do what he’s supposed to do. He should go back. He should fight even if they don’t fight back. He should hurt Sokka even if he calls himself Zuko’s friend. He should kill him even if he saved Zuko’s life and smiled at him and joked with him and acted like he wasn’t worthless- he was lying, how much of it was a lie-?
He staggers as a wave of rage screams under his skin, boiling hot, and barely manages to catch his balance. His pockets are full of half-eaten fish and dumplings and bread, but it won’t be enough and he only has 23 copper pieces left and he’s in the middle of nowhere and
and he’s so stupid.
...should he have stayed?
He could have lied, couldn’t he? He could have told them he forgives them or agrees with them and they’d have accepted it. He could have captured Aan- the Avatar - and Appa- maybe Momo- and then just flown back to the Fire Nation.
The Fire Nation that’s attacking old men and children in the streets. The Fire Nation that’s burning down libraries and theaters. The Fire Nation that takes away mothers.
The Fire Nation that doesn’t want him.
Zuko growls and punches the nearest tree. It’s not as satisfying as it should be when the entire thing springs effortlessly into flames. He’s never felt so angry in his life. It’s more than anger. It’s a strange echo of the way he felt after his Mother disappeared. It’s grief and it’s betrayal and-
He collapses to his knees, anger subsiding as he feels a desperate ache in his chest, and an overwhelming surge of simple hurt.
Sokka lied, but the Fire Nation lied first.
They weren’t helping. They were destroying. They were destroying so much, and maybe he’d known that, a little, somewhere deep down, but they were still his people, weren’t they? He needs them to be.
Who else does he have?
He clambers to his feet, a fire dagger in each fist.
It’s the Avatar. Alone. They’d sent him alone. Spirits, what is wrong with them-?
“They sent you?”
The Avatar shakes his head. “They told me what happened. I wanted to check on you.”
“I’m fine,” Zuko tells him, despite being in the middle of a mental breakdown next to a burning tree. “And I’m leaving.”
The Avatar steps closer and doesn’t seem to care when the daggers flare. “Mind if I walk with you for a little bit?”
Why would he risk that? “Whatever.”
There’s no particular direction Zuko is interested in going, and even if there were, the forest is too thick here to navigate using the stars. So he just starts marching in the first direction his feet point, and the Avatar follows.
Neither of them speak for a very long time. It’s tense, but it’s also an opportunity to pull himself together, to slow his racing pulse, to blink back the burning in his eyes until his vision is no longer blurred. The leaves crunch underfoot in a rhythmic pattern, and it’s a calming metronome to which he sets his breaths.
“We used to come through this forest when we visited the Northern Air Temple,” the Avatar mentions suddenly. It doesn’t seem like he’s trying to fill the air with words to distract from tension, like Sokka sometimes does. It feels more like he only just recognized the trees around them. “A hundred years ago, the Sky Bisons would migrate here every Spring." There's a smile in his voice. "There used to be these red berries growing everywhere and my friends and I would pick as many as we could. If you were quiet enough, the calves would eat them right out of your hand. It was their favorite! I ate some once and got sick for a week." He shrugs. "I guess I don’t have enough stomachs. When we finally got to the Northern Air Temple, I moved my bed over by the window so I could watch them play until I got better. They’d fly up to visit me and I'd give them fruit and tell them stories and one even came inside, once, during a really bad thunderstorm.”
The story sounds like a faded memory, something equally cherished and cobwebbed. The lively forest the Airbender describes is quiet now. Zuko hasn't spotted or heard a single firefly-cricket. His stomach lurches as his thoughts drift from the silent forest to the shadows of those children who’d hunted for berries amongst its trees. Zuko wonders, for a brief and terrible moment, whether Fire Lord Sozin was ever truly threatened by the Air Nomads. He marches forward with a scowl, fuming at his doubt, and tries to ignore the dense silence sticking to his skin like sweat.
They reach the edge of the forest. There’s a small patch of yellowed grass and then a jutting overhang that stretches several feet forward. The drop to the valley below is steep. If Zuko intends to cross this way, he’ll either need to backtrack or exercise extreme caution. He refuses to hobble back to Katara for help.
“Wanna sit down for a minute?” Aang asks, glancing at him.
It’s not as if he has anywhere in particular to go. “Fine.”
They sit on the very edge of the overhang. The Airbender lets his legs dangle over the side, kicking back and forth like the child he is. Zuko glares out over the expanse, searching for pinpricks of civilization and finding nothing. The only real town within fifty miles might be the one where he’s already attacked law enforcement. He can’t go back there.
Where can he go?
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Zuko scowls. “I said I was.”
"You’re allowed to not be okay.”
He bristles. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’re allowed to be angry,” the Avatar says. He shifts. “You’re allowed to be hurt.”
“I’m not hurt,” Zuko growls, glowering, and he feels the familiar embers start to burn beneath his skin. “I’m not even angry. I’m furious. Sokka lied to me. You all did. You- you manipulated me! You never once considered joining the Fire Nation-!”
“That’s not true.”
That startles Zuko out of his growing tirade. “What-?”
The Avatar shrugs. “It’s like you said. Every day that this war continues, innocent people die. I don’t want that any more than you do. If there’s a solution that doesn’t involve me fighting your dad, I’m all for it.” He meets Zuko’s gaze. “I was listening to you, Zuko. I promise.”
Zuko stares back at him, his good eye wide.
“I was listening,” Aang repeats, “but given what I’ve seen, I don’t think I agree.”
Zuko swallows, then falls back on his righteous indignation. “They weren’t listening.”
Aang shrugs and looks like a child again. “They never knew the Fire Nation I did.”
Zuko has the sudden urge to say that Fire Nation would have killed you. “Growing up,” he says instead, drawing his knees up to his chest and hunching over them, “I mostly stayed in Caldera. The places I visited were- were places royalty visits.” He hates himself for even asking, but he still does. “Our towns- the towns we occupy-” He thinks of the old man again and lets himself think of him as only an old man. Lets himself remember burned theatres, hidden shows, citizens in green with their gazes held low and their words carefully measured. Lets himself remember Aang, twelve-year old vegetarian pacifist they-didn’t-even-know-he-was-the-Avatar Aang, dodging fireballs aimed to kill. “Are they...are they all like that?”
“They’re usually worse,” Aang answers quietly.
Zuko shifts as a wave of shame runs through him. This conversation is wrong, and if he’s having it, maybe he is every inch the traitor Zhao has branded him. “I love my nation,” he snarls.
Aang bobs his head. “Of course you do.”
Zuko scowls out across the valley. There’s little to see, even illuminated with moonbeams and starlight, but it’s better than Aang’s face. “Then you can’t actually think I’d betray it for you.”
“We’re not asking you to betray the Fire Nation, Zuko,” replies the Airbender gently.
“You are,” he rejoins forcefully. “You’re asking me to turn my back on my people for your cause, to fight my own soldiers, to act as if my Nation is evil. I won’t do it.”
Aang is quiet for a moment. Then, out of nowhere, “Have you ever had a toy?”
Zuko blinks, teetering between confusion and irritation. “A toy?”
“Yeah,” he says with a nod. “One that mattered to you. A lot.” When Zuko just stares at him, he leans forward and continues, “When I was little, the monks showed me a huge chest full of toys. They let me pick any of them that I wanted to play with.”
“It was a test,” Zuko says, looking away again. “That’s how they discovered you were the Avatar.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, tone wistful. “I didn’t know that. I just thought they looked fun! We didn’t really do material possessions. Having those toys meant a lot, even before I knew what they represented.”
Zuko waits for precisely three seconds before pressing, “So?”
“So I loved them,” Aang answers simply. “And because I loved them, I carried them everywhere and played with them all the time. My favorite was the wooden hog monkey. I used to go to the top of the temple and throw it off the tallest spire and then I’d jump and try to catch it before it hit the rocks.” He smiles distantly. “It was really fun.”
Zuko thinks that sounds like a miserable game, but doesn’t say so.
“But one day- not even doing something stupid and fun!- it broke.” Aang slumps. “I was sure the monks would be furious. I knew how old it was. But even though it was broken, I didn’t want to lose it. I hid it under my bed and didn’t tell anyone. But Monk Gyatso figured it out.” His smile is bittersweet. “He always did.
“He was waiting for me in my room, holding the hog monkey’s head in one hand and the rest of him in the other. He wanted to know why I hadn’t asked for help. I admitted that I was scared he’d be angry, and I explained that I still loved the toy even though it was broken. I didn’t want anyone to throw it away.
“And he said, when the things we love are broken, it doesn’t mean we have to love them any less. It just means that we need to put in the effort to help them. If we ignore the problems, or try to hide them from the world, it means those broken things will never be fixed.
“And I know that a wooden hog monkey isn’t really like a country,” Aang continues, glancing self-consciously at Zuko. “I know that having a nation and a family is a lot different. But I haven’t really had either of those in a long time.” He hesitates. “I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I do know that it’s possible to love something and still recognize its flaws. Monk Gyatso taught me that the truest love in the world is the kind that helps.” He brightens. “Like Appa! I love Appa, but his breath stinks, and if I fed him bushels of mint, I could help with that!” He slaps his forehead. “Ugh! That’s such a better metaphor! I should have used that one.”
“No,” Zuko says quietly. “Your first one was fine.”
“It was!?” Aang grins, then quickly sobers. “I mean, it was. Good.” He shifts. ”I’m glad you understand what I meant. I know I’m supposed to be all wise, but I don’t think I’m really good at dispensing wisdom yet.”
“That story made a lot more sense than the proverbs I’ve heard,” Zuko replies honestly. He frowns down at his fingers and wonders how to put into words feelings he’s tried to suppress for three years. “When I was a child, I worked with Firebending tutors every day. I was told over and over again that for me to be great, I had to push my limits. That the minute I stopped trying to improve, I would backslide.” He pauses, thinking. “It’s like that, isn’t it? Loving your nation doesn’t mean blindly accepting it for what it is- it means fighting for it to be better, constantly.”
Aang smiles at him. “That sounds pretty wise to me.”
Zuko thinks back to General Hageshi at the war meeting, willing to senselessly sacrifice hundreds of new recruits for one battle, a battle that wouldn’t even matter in the long run, especially with Sozin’s comet set to return so soon. He claimed to be a patriot, they all did, but that wasn’t patriotism. “Knowing where the lines are,” he continues quietly, “and keeping your people from crossing them.” He stares out into the dark. “I tried doing that once.”
Aang waits quietly for him to continue.
“I said that what they were doing was wrong. I- I was disrespectful, and I spoke out of turn, but I still tried.” His heart pounds. “They said I was a traitor for speaking against the Fire Lord, and I was- disciplined.” He’s shaking. Why is he shaking? He amends, quickly, “And they were right, of course. I shouldn't have questioned the plan, not then, not there. Disrespecting the Fire Lord is disrespecting Agni. ”
“I haven’t talked to Agni personally,” Aang admits. “At least, not in this lifetime. But I think he would say that the mark of a strong leader is that when you question them, you get answers, not punishments.” He considers Zuko. “It’s brave to stand up for what you believe in, and it’s really brave to stand up to those you care about.”
Zuko shakes his head. “It wasn’t brave, it was disrespectful. A mistake. It wasn’t my place.”
“It doesn’t sound like anyone else was willing to do what you did,” Aang replies, “or willing to face the consequences you faced.” He turns back to the valley and says, much too casually, “You’re an honorable man, Zuko.”
Zuko is too shocked to argue. He’s too shocked to even reply.
So he doesn’t. He just sits.
For a long time, it’s quiet.
Zuko keeps expecting Aang to leave, or to try to convince Zuko to come back, but he doesn’t. He seems content to just exist, to be there whether or not the conversation resumes. Zuko feels calmer than before, less likely to burst into flames, but it’s a double-edged sword. His anger has receded, but now he has a mind clear enough to just hurt.
“What did he tell you?” He asks.
Aang turns, puzzled. “Huh?”
“Sokka. This was his plan all along, right? Make it seem like I was convincing you to switch sides, while you three convinced me?”
Zuko swallows. He’d figured as much, but a part of him had hoped, somehow, that he’d misheard. Misunderstood. Overreacted. That things could go back to how they’d been only hours before. “Right. Then- how did he convince you?”
Aang blinks. “He...said you wanted to come along?”
Zuko rolls his eyes, frustrated. “Yes, but how did he convince you to let me?”
“I never wanted to fight you,” Aang responds, almost offended. “I know you said you didn’t want to be friends- well, not with words, exactly, more with fire, but I understood what you meant- but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to be friends.”
Zuko frowns. There had to be more than that. “That’s all it took?”
Aang nods, then allows, “Well, for me. It took a little more convincing for Katara.”
Ah. “And how’d he convince her?”
“He didn’t really,” Aang answers honestly. “She was outvoted.”
“How did he try?”
For the first time, Aang looks a little uncertain, but he doesn’t avoid the question. “He said that you’d been captured, like him, and that you saved his life and that you were a good person, just confused, and that if we talked to you, showed you what the Fire Nation was really doing, you’d come around and start ‘committing treason on purpose.’”
Zuko scowls. That does sound like Sokka, but there has to be more. “Anything else?”
Sure enough, Aang shifts uncomfortably. “He told us that your Dad is a bad person.”
Zuko huffs out a laugh.
Aang frowns, confused. “What?”
“I know how he feels about the Fire Lord," Zuko explains. “You didn’t need to worry about telling me that. ”
“Oh.” Aang’s feet kick some more.
“That’s it?” Zuko insists.
Aang glances at him. “What did you expect?”
“Easy-to-manipulate?” Zuko offers miserably. “Naïve? A puppet prince?”
Aang furrows his brow. “...puppets?”
“Not-” Zuko falters. “Not the kind you’re thinking of.”
“You can be mad at Sokka for as long as you need to be,” Aang says after a moment. “And me, and Katara. We shouldn’t have lied to you. But please know that none of us ever meant to hurt you. We were just trying to help.” He smiles a little. “And I really did like having you in the group.”
“What would have happened at the end of the week?” Zuko asks flatly, refusing to acknowledge the way his pulse flutters. Aang’s sincerity seems less questionable than Katara’s, or even Sokka’s. They’ve spent their lifetimes immersed in war. Aang spent his feeding bison calves. “If I never changed my mind?”
Aang considers. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I honestly thought talking would fix everything.” He cocks his head. “What would you have done?”
Zuko isn’t sure, either. Before this evening, he might have just- let them go? Accepted that the Peace Talks had failed? ...Requested more time? “I don’t know. But I think Sokka might have tried to actually kidnap me.”
Aang...does not disagree immediately.
“Really?” Zuko snaps.
“Well, it’s a possibility.” Aang shrugs. “He really didn’t want you to go back.”
Aang shrugs again.
“You think I should talk to him,” Zuko surmises sourly, crossing his arms.
“I think everyone should talk to each other,” Aang says, bobbing his head. His expression turns serious. “I’d still be willing to talk to Fire Lord Ozai, if you want.” He pauses deliberately. “If you think he’d honor peaceful terms.”
Zuko ignores any attempts at conversation on the walk back to camp. He just tries to replace his hurt with anger.
The Water Tribe siblings are huddled around a burgeoning fire, speaking in low, troubled tones. They turn in unison as they hear Aang and Zuko approach.
Sokka’s shoulders ease their tension, his relief obvious. “You came back.”
“We talked,” Zuko explains without explaining. He sits in the patch of dirt furthest from anyone else. Aang sits down directly beside him, smiling.
Sokka glances between them. “...good.”
“I’m not back.”
Everyone stares at him.
“I’m back,” he corrects, flushing a little, “but I’m not back back.”
“...I’m glad,” Katara says. “We were worried about you.”
“Were you?” He wonders acidically. She flinches, and her fingers twitch in her lap as if she’d been struck. Zuko feels inexplicably guilty.
For a moment, everyone is quiet. The only sound is the crackling of the fire and Appa’s low snores. Aang glances around at the various uneasy faces, smiling whenever someone accidentally meets his eyes.
Sokka opens his mouth to start spouting more explanations and defenses, and Zuko heads him off. “You lied to me," he accuses sharply, biting down his urge to shout. "Manipulated me. These were never real peace talks. This was all just--” He scoffs, “what, an abduction and a show?”
When Sokka gleans that it’s not a rhetorical question, he shifts. “More like a field trip. We were never going to actually tie you up and yell at you, Zuko, no matter how much I might have wanted to. We just wanted a chance to-”
He stops the second Zuko holds up his hand.
“I want to do it for real.”
Sokka frowns, puzzled. “...do what?”
“Negotiations. Tonight. I want to do it right. No more lies.”
“...you’re asking us to try to convince you?” Katara clarifies unsurely.
“You have to listen to me, too,” he reminds them forcefully. “Actually listen.”
Sokka considers. “And what happens then?”
“Exactly what was going to happen before,” Zuko answers. “Either you’re convinced, or I’m convinced, or we fight. Honorably.”
“And if we beat you?” Sokka wonders. “Like we do every single time?”
“You leave me behind,” Zuko answers firmly. “I’ll capture the Avatar eventually. It doesn’t have to be tonight.”
“Does any of this have to be tonight?” Aang asks. Zuko assumes it’s sarcastic, but when he turns to glare, the boy just looks exhausted. “It’s been a long day.”
Training with Katara as the sun rose feels like lifetimes ago. He’s hollow-boned and numb. If he fights them right now, the chance that he’d win is slim. “We can start tomorrow morning,” he allows grudgingly, “but you have to give your word you won’t just run.”
Aang presses a fist below his open palm and bows ever so slightly. “You have my word,” he promises.
Zuko nods, and doesn’t bother asking Katara or Sokka to give theirs. “We’ll begin at dawn,” he decides, “and finish at noon.” That early, Sokka will be too exhausted to be clever, and might accidentally be honest about his intentions. And when it’s over, Zuko will have the high-noon sun at his back, and the best chance of winning a fight. He’ll also have enough daylight to reach town if he doesn’t win. He’s actually thought this out. Uncle would be proud. Sokka, too, maybe, in another life.
So of course someone has to argue.
“We should fly a little further in the morning,” Aang recommends.
Zuko glares. “Why would I agree to that?”
“Just in case talking doesn’t work,” he explains, only a little awkward about planning for Zuko’s failure. “You should be near a neutral town. Or at least one where they won’t be looking for you.”
“They’re looking for the Blue Spirit,” Katara points out. “Not Lee. ”
“Yeah,” Aang allows, “but he fought them when he was in disguise.”
Her brows furrow. “Fought who?”
“Soldiers?” Sokka repeats.
“The Fire Nation soldiers,” Aang concurs, nodding as if it were obvious.
Sokka glances between them. “Fire Nation soldiers? When did he fight Fire Nation soldiers? You guys weren’t even gone two hours!”
“It was complicated,” Zuko defends, feeling a little wrong-footed.
“They were attacking an old man,” Aang explains. “Zuko saved his life!”
“They were interrogating a suspect,” he corrects snappishly.
Katara frowns, confused. “So you didn’t fight the soldiers?”
“Of course I did, they were threatening Aang!” Everyone stares at him. “The Avatar,” he amends quickly, realizing his mistake. He barrels on. “The point is I had to step in then, just like I had to when he tried to fight the Stone Slayer!”
“You went to buy a teapot,” Sokka summarizes slowly, “and you fought soldiers and Stone Slayers and came back with no teapot.”
“I didn’t even get to fight the Stone Slayer,” Aang grumbles.
“Fine,” Zuko snaps, standing. “Fine! We’ll fly further North in the morning.” The conversation is veering dangerously close to casual, and he can’t risk falling into the same trap. He has to be ready to actually fight. Maybe there are things wrong with the Fire Nation, things his father needs to know, but their refusal to surrender the war is exactly what’s forcing it to continue. “I’m going to sleep,” he announces, storming towards Appa before they can start telling stories. He doesn’t need to hear about all of the Avatar's friends who were killed before they got their tattoos, or about Sokka's brave but doting Father. He just needs to think.
“You’re sleeping in the saddle?” Katara wonders uncertainly.
“We promised we wouldn’t fly off in the middle of the night,” Sokka reminds him, annoyed.
“I won’t be relying on your word any more than I have to,” Zuko snaps back at them. He clambers up into the saddle and lies flat, feeling angry and miserable. The makeshift bed rises and falls with every massive breath the bison takes, and he joins the animal’s sleepy rhythm until he feels less combustible. The others murmur a little while longer. He only catches snatches of the conversation:
“-happened out there?”
“-on’t think he hates you-”
“-not gonna change his mind-”
None of it sounds like conspiring, but Zuko still stays wide awake until they mumble their good nights. Sokka is already snoring by the time Momo crafts his perfect spot on Aang’s chest. Zuko watches over the edge of the saddle as Katara douses the fire. She glances his way, and he quickly ducks to avoid her notice. When he dares peek again, she’s fast asleep in her bed roll, one hand lingering at her throat.
Her necklace, he remembers suddenly. Lifetimes ago, tied to a tree and in immeasurable danger, that’s what she had focused on. Her mother’s necklace.
Spirits, he’d mocked her with her dead mother’s necklace.
He collapses back onto the saddle, stifling a frustrated groan. After everything he’d done to them, how had he ever convinced himself that they liked him? Or that they would actually consider what he had to say? True, he’d been desperate, but desperation doesn’t have to mean stupid. In his place, Azula would have known their intentions from the beginning. She probably would have played along.
Oh, yes, Avatar, she’d have said, I agree with you completely. The Fire Nation has lost its way. You and I will set it back on its rightful course.
Aang would have believed her. If Katara spoke against her during Peace Talks, she would have broken down every argument to its core parts and dismissed them all. Ty Lee may know physical pressure points, but Azula knows the mind’s, and she can disable a foe as easily in conversation as through violence. Katara would have either been convinced or her influence grievously diminished. Any of Sokka’s manipulations would be ham-fisted compared to hers. She would see him groping in the darkness for light and happily pretend to be the sort of person he naively wished she was.
She’d deliver all three of them to the Fire Lord, kneel humbly, and say, I don’t know why Zuzu makes things so difficult for himself. It’s almost as if he’s trying to fail.
Zuko jerks forward with an aborted gasp, freezing cold with a pit in his stomach. The idle line of thinking had at some point dissolved into a dream. He can still see the fire of his Father’s throne mere feet away, the three rebels unconscious and in chains, Azula’s sharp smile.
She hadn’t always smiled like that. She used to giggle at his impressions and name the turtleducks after servants. That was before she knew they were flammable, of course.
Zuko shifts to the back of the saddle and buries one hand deep in the downy fur. Appa rumbles appreciatively in his sleep. Momo, sensing that someone somewhere is getting more attention than he is, scurries off of Aang’s chest and bolts towards the bison. He settles, warm and soft, in the Firebender’s lap. Zuko scratches where the tail sprouts, and the little puddle of fur purrs contentedly.
His head dips, and he shakes the weariness off. Dawn is only a few hours away.
They can’t kill him if he’s awake, they can’t leave without him if he’s awake, and they can’t hear him scream if he’s awake.
So he just won’t sleep.
When he wakes up, he’s in the sky.
He jolts in surprise. Momo chitters indignantly, then drags his arm back down, curling up around his hand in a tight little knot.
“Morning, Zuko,” Katara says, and it seems as much a warning for the others as an actual greeting.
He scrubs his free hand against his eyes, furious with the world for being like this and furious with himself for sleeping through it. They could have just left. “Where are we?”
“Almost there,” Aang answers. “I figured we’d stop at the base of the mountain range?”
There are a series of towns near the Northern Air Temple, Zuko remembers. Worst case scenario, he can find shelter, food, and communications. He’d still have an uphill climb from there, but at least he won’t be wandering unfamiliar woods. When he realizes he’s already expecting to fail, Zuko hunches down and flatly replies, “Fine.”
Sokka shifts towards him, and Katara shifts obligingly in the opposite direction. Zuko isn’t sure why they bothered. The saddle isn’t that big, and the illusion of privacy is just that: an illusion. “I wanted to talk,” Sokka says anyway, “just you and me.”
Zuko sneers. “Sure you want to be alone with me?”
“I meant what I said,” the man insists. “I trust you.”
“Zuko, you’re my friend- ”
“We’re not friends,” he interrupts coldly.
Sokka rolls his eyes. “See, you keep saying that, but-”
“Maybe we were,” Zuko allows abruptly, feeling strangely vulnerable at the admission, “or maybe we could have been. But that was before.” For once, there’s no smile hidden in the corner of Sokka’s mouth. He looks as dejected as Zuko feels. “That was when I thought you were someone else.” Zuko shakes his head and lets his hurt alchemize to fury. “But you’re nothing but a liar. A manipulator. I’m not as stupid as you think I am, and I’m not going to make the same mistakes again. I’m not here to listen to your stupid puns, or to splash around in water, or to teach a grown man how to breathe. I’m here because my nation needs me to be.” He waits for this to settle before he leans forward and continues, “So stop thinking of me as weak. Stop thinking of me as a friend. Because the second this is done, the second the Avatar says he won’t be joining the Fire Nation-” With his sharpest Azula look, he promises, “I won’t hesitate.”
Sokka glares. It’s an expression Zuko hasn’t seen in weeks, not since they were just opponents in a clear-cut, simple fight. Zuko tries to feel satisfied. It’s good they’re clearing the air. Good that Sokka won’t pretend to like him anymore. He expects reciprocal threatening, but the Water Tribesman just scowls, crosses his arms, and turns away.
“What play did you get that from?”
“Okay,” says Aang nervously, grinning way too much, “let’s get peaceful!” He glances around the empty clearing. “Should we make tea? Don’t peace talks normally have tea ceremonies?” He claps once. “Okay, I’ll unpack cups, and between Katara’s Waterbending and Zuko’s Firebending and Sokka’s Herb Gathering-”
“We don’t need tea,” Zuko says.
“And I’m bad at herb gathering,” Sokka adds flatly. “So unless we all want to be poisoned, let’s just sit down and get this over with.”
Zuko removes his knife and stabs it hilt deep into the soil. He then scorches a thin line of black several inches to the side. “When the dagger's shadow reaches the ash,” he says, indicating the burned line, “the opportunity for peace is over.”
“You don’t actually have to be this dramatic,” Sokka mutters sourly. “You have to know that.”
“Okay,” says Aang, smile strained but broad. “Then allow me to offer you a formal invitation to join Team Avatar. You could visit the North Pole with us!”
“What a gambit."
Zuko ignores the sarcastic aside and answers politely, “No, thank you.”
“Shocking,” Sokka deadpans. “Not to nitpick, Aang, but ‘Team Avatar ?’ He might’ve joined if you’d said Gaang.”
Katara lightly elbows her brother. “Can you be serious?”
“Why should I?” He demands, his palpable frustration boiling over. “This whole thing is a joke. We’ve already explained what the Fire Nation is doing. We’ve got evidence, first-hand experiences, and common sense on our side. The truth is out there! Zuko is just too busy believing lies and the lying liars who tell them to believe us."
“I believe you.”
“See?” He exclaims, gesticulating wildly. “He refuses to skip the propaganda party! They aren't even inviting him anymore, he just keeps RSV- um, I’m sorry, can you repeat that back for the record, please?”
“I believe you,” Zuko repeats firmly. “I’ve seen enough these last few weeks- these last few years - to know that the Fire Nation has to change.” The siblings’ eyes widen, and Zuko feels emboldened by their surprise. “Instead of capturing the hearts of our enemies, we captured their towns and encouraged their rebellion. Instead of spreading prosperity, we’ve spread destruction and- death.” He swallows, refusing to let a hint of doubt enter his mind. “These aren’t the honorable acts of a nation at war, and these aren't outliers. This disgrace has become the norm. I am heir to the Fire Nation. He is the Avatar. Together, we can stop these atrocities from ever happening again."
Aang nods along supportively, and even Katara seems hopeful.
Sokka leans forward, eyes narrow. “How, exactly?”
“Someone,” he replies seriously, “has to inform my father.”
“I understand you don’t like him,” Zuko says, irritated, “but he’s the only one who can deliver the Fire Nation onto a new path.”
Sokka pinches the bridge of his nose. “And talking to him. That’s your big plan?”
“When he understands what’s happening, he’ll want to stop it.”
“He knows what’s happened. He ordered what’s happening!”
“He’s surrounded by politicians with their own interests,” Zuko counters reasonably. “Maybe they’ve convinced him these displays of power are warranted, or maybe they’re keeping the truth from him, but if I explain there’s a better way for the Fire Nation to gain control, I know he’ll-”
“Oh, so we’re just signing away the whole world now? No muss, no fuss, the key to Omashu is under the rock?”
“You’re already losing!” Zuko snaps. “So just make it easy on yourselves and surrender! Negotiate with me and get better terms! My father is an honorable man, he’ll-
“How can you say that with a straight face? He banished you!”
“For the good of the country!” Zuko shouts back.
Aang’s expression flickers. “Wait-”
“The Fire Lord is a monster,” Sokka insists coldly, “and I’m not letting Aang get anywhere near him until he can beat him up with all four elements. No, five! And if you really think we’re going to surrender to make it easy for ourselves, you obviously haven’t been paying attention. We do things the complicated way! ”
Zuko meets his volume. “If you really cared about peace-!”
“You know what, maybe I don’t!” Sokka shouts. “Maybe I don’t care about world peace or freaky bending or the spiritual balance of the infinite cosmos! Maybe the infinite cosmos can balance itself for once! The world's been at war since way before I was born, and maybe it’ll still be at war long after I’m gone. So what. All I care about is making sure the people in my tiny little corner of existence don’t get hurt! And if you bring Aang to your Father, you know what he’ll do!”
“He’ll listen to him!” Zuko roars, and he’s not sure when they both stood, but they both have.
“Please!” Sokka scoffs. “He doesn’t care that Aang is a kid, he doesn’t care that his troops are destroying the world, and he doesn’t care that you do! He doesn’t care about you, Zuko!”
“You don’t know my Father!”
“I know enough!”
“Guys- the shadow hasn’t hit the ash yet or whatever,” Aang says, hopping to his feet and buzzing with nervous energy. Katara stands, too. She’s lingering on the sidelines of the argument, but Zuko isn’t blind. She’s already popped the cap from her waterskin.
“I don’t care about the time-knife, Aang!” Sokka snaps. He turns back to Zuko, furious and frustrated. “I just want to help you, Zuko, but it’s like you’re in a loop. Every time I think you get it, you just- don’t! You beat up corrupt Fire Nation soldiers, get captured by creepy Fire Nation Admirals, hear all about the Fire Nation’s not-even-exaggerating evil hobbies-”
“That’s not my father!”
“Plenty of people get to compartmentalize between family and politics,” Sokka counters flippantly, “but not you. If the Fire Nation is doing evil stuff, guess what! Your dad -”
“Shut up! ” Zuko roars, storming forward until the Water Tribesman is only inches away. His heart is pounding and his blood is boiling and he feels like he’s about to explode. “What do you know about Fire Nation politics? You’re nothing but a snow savage!”
“Gonna turn me into slush?” Sokka wonders mockingly.
“Don’t tempt me,” Zuko hisses back.
Despite the threats, neither of them actually make a move. Zuko isn’t going to go back on his word of peace, and Sokka presumably has exactly enough sense to not actually fight a trained Firebender. That said, neither of them are willing to back off, either.
“You stay on this path,” Sokka says finally, tone stilted, “you’re going to regret it.”
“It’s my destiny,” Zuko hisses back. “And I’m going to fulfill it, one way or another.”
“If your destiny is being a kidnapper with a blind spot the size of the Great Divide, maybe trade in for a new one.”
“I told you before: that’s not how destiny works.” He narrows his eyes. “And I may have a blind spot, but I can see you just fine.”
Sokka winces. “Okay, just to be clear, I meant a figurative blind spot, not a literal- ”
“I get it!” Zuko snaps, glaring.
“Good!” Sokka snaps right back.
“...can we get back to the negotiations?” Aang asks uncomfortably.
“How about this, Zuko,” Sokka offers breezily. “You stay with us a little longer. You write your dad. You tell him all about your plan to save the world through Peace Talks and, if he agrees, we choose a nice, neutral spot for negotiations, like the North Pole.”
Zuko's father hasn’t replied to a single letter in three years. He's not sure he even reads them anymore. Besides, if Zuko were to write such a letter, it would seem as if he were hiding behind a quill instead of taking on the Avatar. He'd be seen as nothing more than the weak, incompetent little coward he was at the Agni Kai. No, if this is to work, he needs to bring Aang to the Fire Nation and explain the situation to his father in person. “No.”
“C’mon,” Sokka groans. “That’s a compromise!”
“It’s a trick,” Zuko retorts, because he's not stupid. “You’re still trying to capture me!”
“You’re the one trying to capture us!”
“Just the Avatar! You two can go home!”
“Aang is our friend, Zuko,” Katara says, calm like the smooth water over a riptide. “He’s family. Where he goes, we go.”
“Fine,” he accepts coldly, tightening his fists. “Then I’ll just capture all of you.”
Katara shifts into a defensive stance as Sokka removes his boomerang. Aang lingers behind them anxiously. “We really don’t need to do this, guys,” he tries. “No one here actually wants to fight.”
Sokka quickly contradicts him. “I am going to bonk you on the head so hard,” he threatens, “and then I’m going to drag your unconscious body to a day spa where you’ll learn about a little thing called self-care."
Zuko glares. He doesn’t know what the threat means, exactly, but there’s probably cultural nuance involved, and that cultural nuance probably makes it devastating. “Try it,” he hisses. The moment they attack, he can fight back. And he will.
Before Sokka can make his move, however, they hear a horn blaring from the forest. Birds flee the sound as a crash of komodo rhinos march into the clearing. Zuko counts at least a dozen Fire Nation soldiers on their backs, armed to the teeth and outfitted in the latest armor. The leader, a short but meaty man with a face like a rotting gourd, regards the scene. His eyes dart from the huddled fighters, to the giant flying bison, to the boy in bright orange and yellow clothes. And, yes, the tell-tale tattoos.
“I am Erzhu of the Northern Riders,” he declares without missing a beat, “and under the Authority of Fire Lord Ozai, I demand you surrender the Avatar or be destroyed!”
“Stand down!” Zuko orders, annoyed, stomping towards him. “You’re interrupting Peace Negotiations held under the gaze of Agni!”
“Peace negotiations?” Erzhu echoes, frowning at the very angry children still in their fighting stances.
The soldier behind him regards Zuko doubtfully. “And who are you supposed to be?”
He stands tall. “I am Prince Zuko,” he spits, “of the Fire Nation, and I order you to stand down until the negotiations are finished!” And when those fail, they can capture the Avatar under his orders, honorably.
Erzhu scoffs. “You swindlers should stay a little more informed.” He slides out of his saddle, removing his shortspear the moment his boots hit packed dirt. “Prince Zuko died weeks ago.”
Zuko falters. “What-? No, that’s-”
The second soldier dismounts. “He cheated some pirates,” she explains pleasantly, “and they finally finished what the Fire Lord couldn’t.” Her smile is slimier than the bottom of the Wani. “So you’re either a cheat, a madman, or just a loose end. I don’t think Admiral Zhao cares one way or another, but I doubt he wants you around to cause trouble.”
“-Zhao?” Zuko repeats dumbly. She throws her first attack before he can even blink, and he barely manages to avoid a new scar. As the remaining soldiers leap into battle against the Avatar's team, his mind reels.
Zhao actually wanted him dead? Zhao told people he was dead?
Had they held a traditional funeral for him, despite his banishment? Had Father mourned? Had Uncle? Had anyone helped Azula? Had anyone known to help her? If she cared, that is, if any of them cared-
The soldier leaps towards him, trails of fire at the heels of her boots. As she kicks, the element follows, and Zuko smells singed hair even as he avoids her next hit. He’s heard of the Northern Riders and had once even relished the idea of meeting them, but he’d always imagined leading them, not fighting them.
The Riders’ skills weren’t exaggerated; she’s fast and brutal.
She’s also outmatched.
He doesn’t evade. He’s too angry to run. He defuses the few blasts that manage to hit him, redirects any that don’t, and shoots streams of red-hot fire until she’s forced into a defensive stance, hands raised to sustain her blazing shield. With Agni at his back, he tears forward. She shifts out of her stance as he draws near, thoughtlessly telegraphing her next move, and he twists his wrist. A brilliant burst of fire explodes in front of her and she cries out in surprise. He slides beneath her frantic, blinded attacks and knocks her off balance. When she sways, he elbows the back of her head and watches with muted satisfaction as she collapses to the ground.
He looks up.
As expected, the Avatar’s team is holding its own. Katara and Aang are doing most of the heavy-hitting, while Sokka operates as a long-distance fighter relying primarily on speed and luck. Only six of the Northern Riders are still fighting. Erzhu is in a heap on the sidelines, but he’s beginning to stir. Zuko heads towards him, determined to nip the burgeoning threat in the bud, but is accosted before he can reach the cavalry leader.
It’s a quick fight, comparatively. They’re not a Bender, though they certainly wield their weapon like one. Zuko has just knocked them unconscious when steel glints in his peripheral vision. The shortspear is already soaring from Erzhu’s fingers, spiralling too-fast towards Sokka's back.
“Sokka!” Someone shouts, too late to matter. It might have been him.
Zuko leaps. It’s a long-shot, but he still throws a frantic fire jab, hoping to knock the weapon from its trajectory. Predictably, the spear sails effortlessly through.
He doesn’t really understand what’s happened until he’s on the ground and sees Sokka rushing over to him, conspicuously unstabbed. Comprehension clicks into place, alongside relief and a fair bit of discomfort.
“What is wrong with you!” The Water Tribesman shouts furiously. He positions himself with his back to Zuko, defending against any incoming attacks. “Why would you do that? You’re supposed to avoid sharp things! Do you need a mnemonic?!”
“You were about to get stabbed!” Zuko hisses back at him, clutching his side as he awkwardly forces himself to stand. It's not the worst pain he's ever been in, not by a longshot, but it's not pleasant.
“I’ve had practice! I'm great at it!" When Sokka finds that the remaining riders are distracted, he turns back to Zuko, torn between outrage and concern. “Why would you even do that?! You just did a whole speech about how we’re enemies!”
“We are!” Zuko insists raggedly. He rips the weapon from his side, then staggers, abruptly remembering an important and rather obvious piece of advice: Leave the weapon in, if possible. Always leave the weapon in.
“Leave that in!” Sokka squeaks, horrified, though it’s obviously too late. He’s nearly as pale as Zuko. “Why would you do that?”
Because Zuko has no good answer, he doesn’t reply; he just grits his teeth, presses his hand against his side, and begins to burn.
Sokka yanks his hand off. “Now what are you doing!? Can you stop doing insane things for, like, three seconds?!”
“I’m cauterizing it!”
“Cauterizing is the worst! Just let Katara heal you!”
“I don’t need her hel- behind you-!” Zuko warns raspily, and Sokka barely manages to turn in time to deflect the attack. Zuko stumbles away from the fight and towards the edge of the clearing. He sags against the first tree he finds, relying on its support as he resumes cauterizing the wound. It’s a painful process, but graciously brief. His vision swims, and when he can see again, he’s sunk down to the base of the tree, his legs splayed out in front of him. He scrambles to his feet and charges back into the fray.
Katara is currently fighting two soldiers at once, tendrils of water whipping out at the experienced fighters. They weave through her attacks with ease, flinging long-bladed knives as they do so. She bats these away as best she can, though one knife skims past her Waterbending and nearly strikes her. It’s a formidable challenge, and enough of a distraction that she doesn’t notice the soldier creeping up behind her with a sharpened battle axe. Zuko releases a barrage of fireballs towards the rider. While they manage to avoid the brunt of the damage, they’re still pushed back several feet.
Katara notices the attack first, the attacker second. “Zuko?”
Sokka, after twisting Erzhu's helmet around backwards and clanging! his boomerang against the metal as if it were a bell, notices next. “Zuko, just sit down and avoid being crazy! Let us handle this!”
Aang, fresh from Airbending two soldiers to the top of a tree and leaving them there, notices last. “Uh, is Zuko okay?”
He ignores them all and charges onward, never slowing down his assault, fireball after fireball and then a few flameless hits to keep Katara’s attacker off balance- and then he throws every last ounce of rage he has as a torrential wave of fire. They collapse back into the shrubberies, the weeds around them catching fast.
Zuko stumbles, but he still twists to face the remaining few soldiers, continues to fight until every inch of him burns hot, until the fire is as easy as breathing, until he’s suddenly on his knees and his vision is blurring black-
He blinks and there are a pair of bolas right in front of his eyes, encased in ice, and he blinks, and there are no soldiers left, and he blinks, and he’s surrounded by frazzled faces, and he blinks, and he’s being hoisted up into the saddle.
One moment he’s fighting in a clearing, and the next he’s shivering beneath gray clouds.
“-nd Zuko had both beat Zhao,” Sokka is saying somewhere to his left. Someone in that general direction is also holding his hand. “Which, looking back, honestly makes me feel a little stupid.”
“Stupid means amazing,” Zuko slurs sleepily, because he’s heard that somewhere, and suddenly he’s being crushed on all sides- he can hardly breathe- and it doesn’t hurt exactly, but it’s a lot-
“What was that?” He manages to wonder, blinking blearily around at the relieved faces.
“That was a you-almost-died-saving-my-brother hug,” Katara explains, smiling wetly.
“You should know grateful hugs are gateway hugs,” Sokka notes. “She won’t stop.”
“Sokka,” she chides. She smiles at Zuko unapologetically. “He’s not wrong.” She holds his right hand in her own. He has no free hands left, he thinks dumbly. “We’re so glad you’re okay, Zuko.”
“I don’t understand,” he mumbles. His head feels so thick, his thoughts as slow and clumsy as a baby snail sloth. “What’s happening?”
“You’re on Appa,” she tells him, beginning, apparently, with the only obvious part. “You were stabbed. Do you remember that?” She waits, so he nods. “You cauterized the wound and kept fighting, so healing it has been a little complicated, but you’ll be okay once we arrive.”
“Not too much longer,” Aang adds, waving towards something Zuko can’t see from his prone position. “Appa is flying as fast as he can. According to Sokka's map, we should be there any minute now!”
“Be where?” Zuko demands, trying to sit up. “We had a deal. I didn’t convince you or defeat you, so you were supposed to leave me by-” the mountains. He stares at his surroundings, horrified. There’s nothing. Nothing for miles. Nothing but the ocean, and the occasional “-iceberg?” He manages. Is he dreaming again? Did he die? Is this the spirit world?
“We’re almost to the North Pole,” Katara explains, gently pushing him back down. “You need to rest.”
He squirms free of her light hold, scrambling to the edge of the saddle. “You really did it,” he breathes, aghast. He can’t even see a hint of the Earth Kingdom coastline, no matter what direction he checks. “You’re actually trying to kidnap me.”
“A),” says Sokka, “we’re succeeding in kidnapping you. B), we're not kidnapping you.”
“You were seriously hurt, Zuko,” Katara says, nodding down to his side. “I'm doing as much as I can now, but it was obvious you needed an experienced healer. We couldn't leave you behind. And you said yourself the best healers in the world are Waterbenders!”
“No one in the North Pole will heal me,” Zuko snaps at her, furious and inching towards terrified. Are they morons? Or do they actually want him dead and they’re just taking the most convoluted path they can? “They want to kill me.”
“They won’t hurt you,” Sokka promises, “and if they try, we’ll hurt them.”
Katara nods. “That’s what friends do.”
“We are not friends!” Zuko snaps, beyond impatient with this game. “I will not -”
“Look,” Sokka interrupts breezily, “if you want, we can all listen to your very intimidating monologue about how much you hate us and want to fight us and how you don't even like my puns. We’ll nod along and maybe even clap if it’s an inspired performance, or if you do a cool accent. But you almost died saving my life, so excuse us if we don’t believe a word of it.”
“I-” Zuko falters. “I tripped.”
“Feel free to try again,” Sokka offers.
Zuko does. “I wanted to kill you myself.”
Sokka tents his fingers, nods thoughtfully, then shakes his head, “Nope, sorry, not buying it.”
“It was an accident! I wasn’t thinking!”
“See, this? This adds up. Because I am a strong, independent Water Tribe Warrior, and I don’t need any Fire Nation Prince to save me!”
“Yes, you did,” Zuko argues, bristling. “You would’ve died!”
“I would’ve swerved.”
“Right into a spear,” Zuko agrees flatly, crossing his arms and refusing to wince when it sends fractals of pain cascading.
“So you were worried.”
“No, I wasn’t! Jin told me not to let you get stabbed again!”
“Worried,” Sokka continues, as if he hadn’t said a word, “for your dear friend and beloved older brother-”
“You’re not my older brother!” Zuko shouts, and this time Katara notices the wince.
“You, lay back down,” she orders Zuko. “And you,” she scolds Sokka, “stop baiting him. You know he gets worked up.”
“I do not!”
“Sorry,” she tells him, flashing a brief smile. “My mistake.” She presses soothing hands against his side, and he relaxes involuntarily as the pain recedes to a cool, tingly numbness. He realizes he’s half asleep just in time to avoid falling fully asleep. “You can rest,” she tells him, noticing the struggle. “We’ll wake you if anything happens.”
“’m not tired,” he grumbles, and then his eyes are closed.
“I know,” she assures. Then, hours later or maybe only seconds, “I think he’s asleep again.”
“See what I mean? He’ll save your life and then call you a dirty rotten liar if you mention it. What a jerk.” He sighs. “Anyway. He said he’d been in more than one. And, later, when we escaped, I overheard the guards trying to get a rise out of him, saying he hadn’t fought.”
“With Zhao?” Katara clarifies, and her hands are back at Zuko’s side, lulling him deeper into the pleasant purgatory. “Why would he lie about that?”
“Not Zhao,” the other voice dismisses, melding with the first. Zuko can’t understand the words anymore, only hears them, and even then the voices wander in and out as he toes the thin line between wakefulness and sleep.
“-zon said they only happen once in a lifetime,” someone says, at some point.
“-don’t actually think,” worries another voice.
“-ust seems like someone wants him dea-”
“-ose soldiers said. It’s not just Zhao. It’s his-”
The words dissolve into meaningless sounds and syllables, nothing but a bedtime story. He’s too old for stories, he wants to complain, but the voices carry on and on anyway, soft and distant and warm, and so his breathing slows and his head grows heavy and he falls deep asleep, the best sleep he’s had in years.