Chapter 1: The New Neighbor
It’s been a week. Zuko is pretty sure it’s been a week. It’s harder to sense the sun from the heart of a mountain, and harder to sense the passage of time when meals are delivered with the consistency of a sundial under an umbrella. He hoards the rolls and cups of water he’s given, ingesting small portions over time to ensure they last. He tries to keep up with his meditations, though hunger and exhaustion have kept him from practicing his katas. He mostly spends his time wondering how he could be this level of irresponsible, this degree of foolish. When even this line of thinking wanders into tedious, he wonders instead whether Uncle is looking for him.
He pictures the Avatar leaping away from him into the treetops.
Sometimes, he imagines chasing after him. The ending of this story always fizzles away because he is always unsure why he’s chasing. It begins with an intent to capture, certainly, the start of an idealistic daydream about going home. But then the Avatar’s words ring through his hunger-drained head, his childish offer of friendship, and rechaining those wrists feels cruel.
He scowls, rolls onto his side, wonders why it should matter. He’s the one in chains now. He’d let the opportunity go- had betrayed his nation for selfish reasons and then failed - and now has the gall to wish he’d committed further treason?
If he ever has another chance- is this the third or the fourth chance his father would have to give him?- he promises himself over and over again that he’d take it. Who cares that the Avatar happens to be a twelve-year-old with pacifist Air Nomad delusions? It just makes it easier. It would make it easier, anyway, if Zuko weren’t constantly messing things up.
Zhao has no proof Zuko did it, he reminds himself.
This entire thing- his imprisonment, the lack of a trial, the lack of contact - is proof of that. Zhao is hoping that he’ll admit to something. He’s betting that Zuko is so weak that in the face of mild adversity he’ll roll over and show his belly.
He’s destined to be disappointed.
Zuko closes his eyes. When Father finds out- and surely Father will find out-
If Uncle figured out it was Zhao that made Zuko disappear in the port. He’d been on his own (foolish ) buying some stupid tchotchke (stupider). The clerk had seen. He would have told Uncle, wouldn’t he? Banished or not, Zuko was a Prince. That mattered. People would talk.
Uncle would ask.
Zuko was sure he’d ask.
Yes, he tells himself for perhaps the millionth time this week (had it only been a week?). Uncle would find out. Uncle would write Father. Father would-
He swallows, focuses on breathing.
Of course Father would care. He was his only son. He had almost captured the Avatar. Agni wanted him to catch the Avatar- why else had the boy appeared merely three years after Zuko began his search, after being missing for a hundred years? Agni had blessed his quest. This was his destiny. Zuko almost had his honor back. Father had to see that.
Surely he would punish the man who dared step in Agni’s way- in his way.
“In you go,” he hears.
Zuko stiffens, perks his good ear towards the noise. The soldiers don’t usually talk. They had on the first day, littering him with insults and sarcastic honorifics, but now they say nothing. They're waiting for Zuko to beg, maybe, or waiting until he's too weak to fight back. Zuko hasn’t heard a voice other than his own in days.
“Hey, careful-!” Shouts another voice, and then there’s a crash.
Someone else, Zuko thinks as a metal door slams shut. Someone else is here.
“Yeah, you better run!”
Zuko shifts towards the wall where a small metal ventilation shaft connects the cells. He calls into it, hesitantly, “Hello?” His voice cracks. He doesn’t even sound like himself. There’s no response- of course, these walls are so thick - so he raises his voice just a little more. “Hello?”
“Huh? Who said that?”
“Hi,” Zuko says awkwardly. “I’m- next door?”
“What, like, in another cell?” The voice turns suspicious. “Or are you a guard?”
“You probably wouldn’t tell me if you were a guard,” decides the voice.
“Probably not,” Zuko allows, approaching annoyed fast. What kind of a response was that? “Why would I be a guard? That makes no sense.”
“Okay, okay,” pacifies the voice. “So who are you?”
Zuko pauses for a very long time before he answers. “Lee.”
“Lee,” repeats the stranger.
“Yes,” Zuko confirms flatly. “Who are you?”
“Sir Walrus-Hare,” says the voice. “Sir Walrus-Hare the Third. ”
Zuko scowls and demands, “What kind of name is that?"
"My cool Fire Nation Prison nickname? Was that not apparent? I thought we were doing a thing."
"What are you talking about? I told you my name was Lee."
“Lee?” The voice scoffs. “Lee is the most fakey fake name I’ve ever heard. You didn’t even sound like you believed it. If you can’t even convince your self , why should I believe you?”
Zuko bristles defensively. It is a lie, but still. “Lots of people are named Lee.”
“And none of them are you.”
Nobody ever calls Azula out on her lies. Zuko relents, “My name might not be Lee.”
The man snorts. “And my name might not be Sir Walrus-Hare the Third, but hey. We’re prisoners. If we can’t not trust each other, who can we not trust?”
Zuko fiddles with a loose string on his shirt, unsure how to forward the interaction. Now that he’s been caught lying, would Sir Walrus-Hare the Third (and he knows that isn’t his name, but what else can he call him?) still want to talk? It isn’t as though Zuko is by nature all that social, but it’s been days since anyone has spoken to him. He has the sudden urge to share his real name, if only just to hear someone say it, to remember who he is- that he doesn’t belong in this dank prison that smells of mold and must and fear. This is no place for Ursa’s son.
“Are you still there?”
“Where else would I be?”
Their tone drifts hopeful. “The escape tunnel you’re digging?”
“It’s stone. There’s metal. How could I dig through that?”
“Patiently,” answers the voice, unperturbed. “So...what are you in for?”
Zuko frowns. Sir Walrus-Hare has been here five minutes and is already as hard up for socializing as the banished prince. He shifts before answering. “You first.”
“I saved a town. Single-handedly, very brave.”
Probably a lie, too, Zuko thinks. “Are they throwing people in prison for that now?”
“It was an Earth Kingdom town,” the other man says. “Believe it or not, the Fire Nation is surprisingly against that sorta thing.”
“What town?” Zuko asks, closing his eyes. He pictures his room on the ship, the small desk layered in scrolls. A map of the Earth Kingdom forms in his mind’s eye and he hopes that he can figure out where he is. There’s no way the information can help, but just knowing would settle something deep in his gut. Having some minor control.
It’s vaguely familiar. One of the dozens of small towns scattered along the western coast of this impossibly large nation. There are a few mountain ranges nearby that could conceal their cells. “How-” Zuko hesitates, then goes for it. “How long did it take to get here?”
“I’m sorry,” Sir Walrus-Hare replies, sounding sincere. “I was unconscious. I don’t know how long we traveled.” He pauses for only a moment. “How about you?”
“We’d just sailed in off the coast of the Mo Ce Sea. It was...a while ago.”
Impossibly, this information seems to excite Zuko’s companion. “You sail?”
“Yes,” he says hesitantly. “Sort of . ”
“Explain,” Sir Walrus-Hare demands. He sounds like he’s frowning.
“I’ve sailed. For the last three years, actually. But I don’t do much of the-” He gestures for an audience that can’t see him, “hands-on stuff.”
“Still technically sailing. I’ll award you exactly half the credit, and even offer you lessons from a bonafide survived-a-hurricane-in-a-fishing-boat warrior. I did also capsize a canoe in the middle of pack ice, but that's less important.” Sir Walrus-Hare hesitates before wondering, tone a little more serious, “Three years. You served?”
Zuko snorts. “That’s one way of saying it.”
“What’s another way?”
Zuko doesn’t answer.
“Why are you in here, Lee?”
Zuko frowns down at his hands and swallows thickly. He’s already been caught lying once. He doesn’t want to alienate the only human contact he has. “They said I committed treason.”
“That’s a hefty charge,” Sir Walrus-Hare comments carefully.
Zuko bobs his head in silent agreement.
Sir Walrus-Hare isn’t deterred by the lack of a response. “You’re Fire Nation, then?”
Zuko tips his head back, rests it on the stone. “Yes.”
“Colonies, or far from home?”
“Far from home.”
“Me, too,” says Sir Walrus-Hare. “It’s kinda terrible here.”
Zuko smiles at that. “It kinda is.” He thinks. Pack ice. “You’re Water Nation?”
“From the South,” he concurs. “Where the temperature is reasonable and everyone isn’t obsessed with mud and the color green. And the food-! Spirits , do I miss the food. Have you ever had seal jerky?”
“No,” Zuko says. “But it sounds terrible.”
“You’re missing out, pal,” dismisses the voice. “But I don’t care, more for me. Crunchy on the edges, chewy in the middle, fat that melts right in your mouth. You can’t oversalt it- never oversalt it- but if you do it just right-!” He makes a kissing noise and Zuko can’t help but smile. “What about the Fire Nation?”
“The Fire Nation?”
“I’ve never been, but I figure even the most evil nation in the world has to have some decent food.”
“The Fire Nation is not evil,” Zuko retorts heatedly, scowling. “It’s the greatest Nation in the world. They may call me a traitor, but I’m not. I love my Nation.”
“And if they would just listen , they would know that. I would never do anything to disrespect my- my people-!”
“Okay! Sorry! I didn’t realize you were such a patriot.”
Zuko slumps, mellowing. It’s easier to do when he’s so hungry he can’t even stand to shout. It works better than Uncle’s calming tea, anyway. He closes his eyes. “Fire flakes.”
“I’m sorry, did you sneeze?”
“Fire flakes,” Zuko repeats. “They serve them during festivals. They’re sweet and spicy and pop like fireworks in your mouth.” His stomach rumbles at the very thought. At this point, he’d take seal jerky, but the thought of just one fiery flake brings a strange combination of homesick and seasick. “I haven’t had them right in years.”
“Well,” says Sir Walrus-Hare, and he manages to stretch the one-syllable word into two. “Now that we know each other, how’s about we start planning the great escape?”
“There’s no escape from here,” Zuko mutters bitterly. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“I doubt you’ve tried with an escape mastermind around, no offense.”
“It’s a mountain,” Zuko stresses. “With metal. An Earthbender couldn’t break out of here.”
“It’s a prison,” Sir Walrus-Hare replies. “Those are made to escape.”
“You don’t understand the concept of prison, do you? ”
“Look, Lee, I’ve done a lot in these last few months that should have been impossible. Breaking out of a mountain is honestly child’s play by comparison. Besides, my friends are gonna break me out either way. I’d rather I do it myself and ask them what took so long.”
“They’re not going to come for you,” Zuko says, just loud enough for the other man to hear. He tries to keep his voice soft despite the frustration coiling around in his chest. “I’m sorry, but they’re not. It’s better to understand that early.”
Sir Walrus-Hare is quiet. Then, “How long have you been in here?”
“I don’t know,” Zuko admits. “They switch up meal deliveries, and I can’t feel the sun.”
“Feel the sun-? God, Firebenders are so creepy , what does that even mean- !”
“It’s not creepy!” Zuko shouts, and he feels a little of his inner fire flare. It’s weak, but it’s there. Agni hasn’t given up on him yet. “It’s in our blood! It’s Agni himself watching over us!”
“Okay,” says Walrus-Hare. “Shouting about gods and blood definitely helped you sound less creepy.”
Zuko snarls. “This is ridiculous. I’m done.”
“Look, hey, you want to feel the sun again, right? Me, too.”
Zuko crosses his arms and fumes quietly.
“We can do that,” Walrus-Hare insists. His tone turns an awkward sort of sympathetic. “Look, I’m sorry I called Firebending creepy.” He hesitates. “But you don’t support the Fire Nation army, right? That’s why you did...whatever you did?”
“I didn’t commit treason!” Zuko snaps, bunching up his shoulders and scowling until his last bite of bread begins to burn. He hastily blows the small embers black, annoyed with himself for the lack of control. So much for the involuntary hours of meditation helping. “I just-” He suddenly thinks: a prisoner out of nowhere. A chatty treasonous prisoner that just happens to be right next door. He stiffens in horror. “Who are you!?”
He’ll lie, he thinks, feeling stupid. Why wouldn’t he lie? He’ll have a whole story planned if Zhao ordered him to talk the Prince in circles. Zuko should have just played it cool, kept tight-lipped, just like every other time someone manipulated him. What was wrong with him? Why didn’t he ever learn from the lessons he kept learning?
“Who am I?” The interrogator repeats quizzically. “Didn’t we just go over this? I’m Sir Walrus-Owl the fifth, distinguished planner of heists and escapes.”
“It was Sir Walrus-Hare the third a minute ago,” Zuko comments icily.
“Okay, I’ll take either as my fun Fire Nation Prison nickname. You are aware we had a whole conversation about that not being my real name?”
Zuko decides to cut to the chase. “Zhao sent you. Why?”
“Admiral Zhao? Zhao with the impressive but evil sideburns?”
“Answer me!” Zuko roars, leaping to his feet. He slams his fists against the stone. His vision swims and his knuckles sting, but it feels good to feel anything other than despair and frustration. “I know he sent you! I’m not talking, I’m innocent, do you hear me?!”
“Yes,” assures the liar. “Volume is not the issue here. Why would I be working for Zhao?”
“Stop lying!” Zuko shouts. “I’ve figured out the truth!”
“You’ve figured maybe the opposite of the truth out,” says the liar exasperatedly. His tone turns gratingly calm. “I promise I’m not working for Zhao. I was arrested this afternoon in Douxing after Fire Nation troops tried to detain a toddler for moving some rocks. I was separated from- from my family, and I tried taking on five soldiers by myself. Am I stupid? Sure, sometimes, to great heroic effect. Am I an evil Fire Nation soldier trying to learn all of your secrets? No.” There’s a brief pause in which Zuko has no idea what to say. “Here,” continues the voice, “new rule: I don’t care about your secrets. Don’t even try to tell me. I’m not interested.”
“You’re lying,” Zuko tries again, less certain.
“Still not lying,” says the possibly-not-an-interrogator.
“No more questions?” He confirms just to be safe, sliding down the wall into a sprawl. His head is ringing. He probably shouldn’t have jumped up like that.
“No more questions,” says Sir Walrus-Hare-Owl the Thirty Fifth.
Zuko frowns down at his sore knuckles, feeling foolish. There’s still a chance the voice belongs to one of Zhao’s soldiers, in it for the long haul, but it’s unlikely. Zhao has never been much for subtlety. “Fine.”
“Alright then. Good.” The voice does sound relieved. “Look, my friends-”
“-are still not going to come for you,” Zuko interrupts. “My- my people, I know they would have come for me, if they could. This place is a fortress. No one could get in here.” Perhaps the Blue Spirit, he thinks with wry bitterness, but he’s a little indisposed.
“All the more reason we start planning ourselves,” says the voice firmly. “Hope for the best, plan for the absolute worst. I mostly focus on the second part. Tell me what you know.”
Zuko thinks. What could possibly be useful to know? “They bring food once every two days or so. Just enough to keep you alive.”
“Not ideal,” says the voice. “I’m a fan of eating daily. Any routine to it?”
“I don’t know,” Zuko admits. “I can’t tell the time of day.”
Sir Walrus thinks. “I was arrested during the afternoon. If we assume today, it’s probably around midnight. Do you…” He hesitates. “Feel anything about that? If you feel the sun, can you feel its absence?”
“I do feel a little weaker than normal,” he offers hesitantly. “But that might just be the-”
“Starvation, sure,” says the voice genially when he falters. “That adds up.”
“There are noises when I sleep,” Zuko adds as fair warning. “I don’t know if it’s the mountain or the soldiers, but you won’t get enough sleep to use as a metric.”
“We’ll see about that,” replies Sir Walrus gamely. “I once slept through an avalanche.”
Zuko furrows his brows. “What.”
“I woke up covered in snow,” he continues, and he sounds proud about it. “I was sick for a solid week.”
“...and you’re the mastermind?”
“Just think what that says about you. ”
Zuko would normally bristle at such a comment, but he finds himself more amused than offended. "I'm not sure either of us are qualified, then."
“Look, I'm what you've got. You don't like my secret escape plan, make your own secret escape plan. We can try both. But my secret escape plan already has a plan for timing figured out, so we're doing mine first. It'll definitely work. Probably." He pauses. "Tell me about the guards.”
“They rotate. And they keep their helmets on. And,” he adds, “they don’t talk.”
“Oh, that’s why you’re acting like this.”
This time, Zuko does bristle. “Acting like what.”
“Like you’ve never spoken to a human before. I thought you were just, y’know, awkward.” Zuko doesn’t reply, simultaneously offended and embarrassed. “Wait,” says the voice. “Are you just like this all the time?”
“No!” Zuko snaps seconds before he realizes this answer suggests there’s something wrong with the way he’s behaving. “Just go on with the plan,” he grumbles.
“Okay, okay, sorry. I need a day or two to get the lay of the land and figure something out. We have to act fast. Whatever we decide, it’s probably going to involve tackling an armored soldier, and I’d rather do that before I’m starving.”
“That isn’t going to work,” Zuko retorts, and it’s more practicality than bruised pride. “I tried that.” He considers. “Are you a bender?” Not that they have much water to work with, but at least it’d be something in their favor.
“No,” answers the man, of course. “That would have helped, though. Are you?”
Zuko closes his eyes and considers the glowing ember in his chest. “Yes,” he says, because there is only so much Zhao can take away. “I am.”
"Well," says sir Walrus. He sounds more hopeful than uneasy, but it's a precarious balance. "That's something."
There were a few times during their conversation that Zuko was ready to stop talking. Now that silence has settled, however, he feels desperate for the voice to return. The dull light-headed pain in his temples intensifies in the silence. The bread is tempting, but he wants to save it for when he really needs it. What he needs now is a reminder that he’s not alone.
Thankfully, before he can scrounge together enough words for a sentence, he hears, “You still awake?”
“I was wondering: how’d they catch you, anyway?”
Zuko flushes, embarrassed.
“I’m here.” He shifts. “We’d stopped at a small port. I wanted to get my uncle a present.”
“That’s nice,” says the voice encouragingly. “Was it his birthday?”
“No, I just- I can be difficult, and I wanted to show that-” He leans forward and wraps his arms around his knees. A familiar guilt winds its way through his empty stomach. This is a topic to which he’s given a lot of thought these past few however-many-days. “He’s given up a lot for me. Too much. I don’t always show my appreciation well. I...get impatient. I know this isn’t easy for him. I’m keeping him from his life and his home, and it’s different for him. He could go back, if he wanted to. He likes stupid trinkets so I decided to get him one. I didn’t tell him where I was going, and Zhao’s men followed me inside the shop. I took down six of them-”
“But they just kept coming, and I was already hurt from-” Committing treason. “-a previous mission. It was hardly even a fight. ”
“I woke up here,” he finishes, frowning down. “Uncle might think I snuck away, ran away, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t give up, and I wouldn’t leave him like that. Or he thinks…” His headache intensifies. “...thinks that I’m dead. And he’s already gone home.” He isn’t sure what he’d rather: Uncle searching the Earth Kingdom for his wayward nephew, wasting more time on a lost cause, or accepting his death and going home. The options hurt in different ways.
Uncle would search for him. He’d stayed with him three years. He had to be looking.
“I forgot to mention,” says Sir Walrus. “When I was saving that little girl, I actually beat up seven guys.”
For the first time in a week- no, more than that, months maybe, Zuko laughs.
Chapter 2: The New-ish Neighbor
There will be a time when there are things in this story other than gratuitous talking. This is not that time.
Zuko has been on the verge of sleep for maybe an hour when he hears,
“Hey, Lee? You awake?”
He rolls onto his side and stares at the metal vent. “What?”
“Is it always this cold in here?”
Zuko frowns. “Aren’t you from a Southern Water Tribe?”
“It’s freezing there,” Zuko points out. “Nothing but snow and ice.”
“And also blankets and coats and fire,” Walrus counters. “Here I have…”
Zuko waits patiently as the other man catalogs his belongings.
Zuko shifts. “I don’t have a rock.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to brag.”
“It’s always this cold,” Zuko answers finally.
“How do you sleep? "
Zuko shrugs. “I’m a Firebender. I run hot.”
“Hm. That doesn’t help me.” Walrus thinks. “You don’t suppose they’ll drop off blankets soon, do you?”
“I wouldn’t hold your breath.” Walrus groans and mutters something in reply, but Zuko is too busy thinking to bother listening. Breath. “We could try something,” he says slowly. “-if you’re really that cold.”
“The vent,” Zuko says awkwardly, rapping against the side of the metal. “My Uncle taught me a way to, uh- to breathe heat.”
Walrus is quiet.
Zuko glares. “What!?”
“I didn’t say anything. I carefully didn’t say anything.”
“Whatever, it was just a stupid idea. Suit yourself.” Zuko wraps his arms around himself, settling in his own heat. What does he care if some Water Tribe peasant shivers?
“It’s not a stupid idea,” Walrus hurries to say. “Just one I never would have thought of, which is saying something. Go on. What do you mean breathe heat? I don’t want to be set on fire.”
“It’s not like that,” Zuko tries to explain. “It’s something my Uncle taught me. A way to survive in actually cold places, like your glaciers. It’s just warm air.”
“That you breathe. Like a dragon. ”
“Like a firebender. It’s not even real firebending, it’s just a trick.”
“That actually makes it sound more appealing,” Walrus admits. He hesitates. “And it won’t, like...tire you out, will it? My sister is a bender- I know it takes effort.”
“I’m fine!” Zuko snaps immediately, bristling, even though Walrus knows just how not fine he is. The idea of admitting breathing warm air might actually exhaust him is- it’s not something he wants to do. “You won’t be able to sleep if you’re freezing and if you can’t sleep, you can’t plan the escape. I can do this.”
“...so you believe in the escape now, huh?”
“I believe in letting you try so you’ll shut up about it.”
Walrus hums thoughtfully then says, “Okay, let’s try it. What do I do?”
Zuko thinks. “Sit near the vent.”
“Uh, doing that already.”
“Well then, just- I don’t know, wait for it.” He leans down beside the small metal inlet, thankful for the complete blackness and thick walls; no one can see how ridiculous he’s being for the sake of one cold moron. He holds onto this frustration and shame, the boiling rage at being caged like an animal, and lets the air simmer in his lungs. His breaths slow. His fingers begin to shake. He inhales deep, then lightly exhales steam from his nostrils. When he feels ready, he breathes into the vent. He quickly shifts against the hole to try and trap the heat.
Zuko jerks back, horrified. “Did I burn you?! What ha-?!”
“Lee, this feels amazing. ”
Zuko sags, exhausted. The peasant is fine. “Okay.”
“I mean it. This is- this is firebending?”
“This is what they should teach your soldiers. If Zuko had shown up at my village with a built-in sauna, maybe we would have surrendered immediately.”
Zuko stiffens. “Prince Zuko? He- he went to your village?”
“Yep. Threatened everyone and shouted a lot. Charming guy.”
Zuko’s cheeks flush and the minor pride at having helped Walrus dissolves into a more familiar shame. Of course he’d threatened Walrus’ home. Why not? He’d been to dozens of frozen little villages, had screamed in hundreds of snow-numbed faces, had crashed into walls and buildings and sacred fishing pools.
“Lee? You okay?”
Zuko closes his eyes and glares at the lids. Stupid. So stupid.
“Lee?” The tone turns urgent. “Talk to me, buddy. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he grunts.
“It wasn’t too much, was it?”
“I said I could do it!” Zuko snaps. “I’m not weak! I can handle a parlor trick!”
“...okay. Just making sure. Don’t wanna lose my escape partner, y’know?”
Zuko crosses his arms and leans back against the stone. It presses jagged into the small of his back, and he feels like shouting. Not words, exactly, just shouts.
“And for what it’s worth," Walrus continues tentatively. "I thought it was pretty impressive. Obviously.”
“You’re not a bender,” Zuko scoffs. “Just some traitor from the South. Do you think I care what you think?”
Walrus is stunned into silence, but it doesn’t last long. “Okay, cranky, does firebending just up your anger levels? Because that would explain a lot.”
“Stop saying stuff like that!” Zuko snarls. “Like your people are so perfect? I’ve seen what your crews do to our soldiers, what they do to the colonies!”
“What is that supposed to mean!?”
“The noble watertribe savages that attack in the night and leave empty ships behind, without a single flame to shepherd the spirits home!”
“That’s war,” Walrus counters, unimpressed. “Your Prince gets off on threatening old women and children.”
“He didn’t care about them, he was looking for the Avatar. ”
“Oh, right, he was just trying to crush the world’s last hope, a twelve-year old who floats. Real noble.”
Do you think we could have been friends?
“It isn’t like that,” Zuko tries again, beginning to tremble. He can’t tell whether it’s the exertion of mild firebending, or the exertion of yelling, or maybe just the fear that Walrus will suddenly recognize who he is and just- just stop talking to him. Escape, somehow, and leave him behind. “I’m not evil. ”
Walrus is quiet. “Thank you, Lee,” he says finally, firmly. “For the firebending.”
Zuko shifts. “I told you, it’s not-”
“It’s the best firebending I’ve ever seen,” Walrus interrupts testily. “And if you don’t care what I think, then I don’t care what you think.”
“I’m-” sorry. Zuko bites the word down, because he isn’t. He doesn’t care what Walrus thinks, except he does a little, because Walrus is the only ally he has. An ally that would cast him aside if he knew who Zuko really was. “Let me know if you need more,” he offers lamely.
“I’m good,” Walrus says, but Zuko can hear the lie. He just doesn’t think Zuko can do it. He isn’t wrong, and the thought galls. “Get some sleep, Lee. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Good night,” Zuko mutters awkwardly. He lays back down on the ground, pillowing his arms beneath his head. As long as Walrus doesn’t know who he is, as long as ‘Lee’ can just not ruin it, Zuko can have an ally. An enemy given time, but that’s nothing new. Zuko will take it.
“Are you kidding me?!”
Zuko’s eyes flutter open.
“This wouldn’t feed a plankton-shrimp. Hey-! Hey, come back here! Where’s the meat?!”
Zuko sits forward, light-headed from the motion. The familiar blackness of his cell welcomes him and his stomach rumbles. He tilts his head to the side, waiting for the door to open. If they’re feeding Walrus, surely…
The steps fall away as Walrus continues shouting.
They’re not going to feed him today.
He lets out a shaky breath. That’s okay. He still has a bite of bread. He doesn’t need it badly enough to eat it right now, so he’s okay. As long as he has that, he’s okay.
"Lee, you up?"
"How could I be asleep with you shouting like that?"
“Is this seriously all you’ve been eating?" Walrus wonders, ignoring the question. "This soup tastes like nothing.”
Zuko frowns. “You got soup?”
“That and a roll smaller than the size of my fist-” Walrus cuts himself off. “Wait. What’d they give you?”
Zuko shifts. “They’re not going to feed me today.”
“What? Why would they do that? Don’t they need you alive for a confession or information or whatever?”
“Barely,” Zuko answers, echoing what Zhao had told him the moment he’d first arrived. “They want me docile, unable to fight. They haven’t even tried questioning me since that first day. I took down three of them before they even got me out of the cell...”
Walrus whistles appreciatively.
“They’ll try again once I’m not able to fight back,” Zuko continues, then corrects, “When they think I’m not able to fight back.”
"So, what, they don't think I'm worth starving?"
"I'm not even sure why you're here," Zuko admits. "This is a stronghold for off-the-books traitors. Alleged traitors. All you did was start a brawl. You're not even a bender."
“Man, if I were a bender," says Walrus, showcasing an impressively short attention span. "-I could send this soup right through the vent.”
“You need it more than I do,” Zuko responds. “You’re our first line of offense, remember?”
“Right,” Walrus agrees. He doesn’t sound as sure as he should. “Hey. You said you took down three soldiers before...how many deliver your food?”
Zuko thinks. “Five?”
“They only sent two for me,” says Walrus thoughtfully. “They don’t think I’m much of a risk.”
Zuko smiles a little. “Is that a mistake?”
“A big one,” Walrus concurs, and he sounds like he’s smiling, too.
“Okay, here’s one. What do you call a corrupt Earthbending sheriff?”
Zuko thinks maybe he should reveal his identity. Cold silence might be better than this.
“Lee. Lee, are you thinking?”
“You should think. It’s a thinker.”
“None of these are thinkers. They’re stupid. You’re stupid. All of this is stupid.”
“Ah, I understand your frustration. It’s a challenging joke.” Walrus pauses for a beat. “A dirty cop, Lee. A dirty cop.”
Zuko groans and covers his face.
“Your turn, Lee.”
“How is this helping ? Aren’t you supposed to be working on some genius escape plan?”
“I’m improving morale,” Walrus replies indignantly. “Humor is the best medicine, other than medicine. It’s your turn.”
“I’m not making up jokes. That’s stupid.”
“Fine, but I’ve done Air, Water, and Earth. There’s only one option left. Do you want me to make jokes about the Fire Nation?”
“Just do another one about the Water Tribes.”
“It doesn’t work that way, buddy.”
“It doesn’t work like anything. This isn’t a thing.”
“Okay, what does the Fire Lord say when-”
“Fine. Fine!” Zuko crosses his arms and scowls. Thinks. “What does…” He hesitates. “What did one flame say to the other...flame?”
“What did one flame say to the other flame?”
“Uh, Lee? What did one flame say to the other flame?”
“You didn’t have an answer?”
“I’m thinking! ” He scowls around the dark cell looking for inspiration. It’s unhelpful. Finally he snaps, “Why so blue!”
“...why so blue?”
“Like- like blue fire! And- sadness?”
“There’s blue fire?”
“The hottest fire is blue,” Zuko tries to explain, glaring and blushing. His entire face must be red. “I don’t know, you didn’t give me any time. I didn’t even want to do this. This is stupid. I’m not funny. ”
“Lee..." Walrus bursts into laughter. “That is definitely not true.”
Even though Zuko knows he’s being teased, he can’t help the slightest smile.
“Fine,” he grumbles, grudgingly playing into the role. “You do better.”
“That’s official permission to mock your cultural heritage?”
“See how long it lasts,” Zuko challenges, crossing his arms.
“I’m here to tinder my resignation-!”
“-more like Soz-out! ”
“Buddy, you’re fired-! ”
“Okay,” says Zuko. “That’s enough.”
“But I’m just getting warmed up!”
Zuko reconsiders the possibility that Walrus is one of Zhao’s agents.
“Are you almost done?”
“Almost,” Zuko replies, not bothering to open his eyes. “You could meditate, too. It helps.”
“I’m good,” Walrus dismisses. “I’d rather spend my time thinking about escaping instead of counting breaths.”
Zuko peeks one eye open. “Have you got any ideas?”
“One or two,” Walrus says vaguely. “You meditate a lot. ”
“When no one else was around, there wasn’t much else to do.”
“Have you found enlightenment yet?”
“I’d settle for a torch,” Zuko mutters.
Walrus snorts. “Yeah, I hear you. That and a mirror. I’m starting to forget what I look like. I know the basics: handsome, strong jaw, thoughtful brow. But my mustache is going to grow way out if I don’t get a razor soon.”
“You have a mustache?” Zuko wonders, adjusting his mental picture. It’s now a walrus-hare with an extremely bushy mustache. He isn’t very creative.
“I- yes,” says Walrus, but he has that high-pitched tone that suggests deceit. “The start of one. It’s growing. But if we’re in here much longer, it’ll be way too much. You want the girl to be able to find your lips, y’know?”
“Sure,” agrees Zuko blandly.
“Do you have a mustache?”
“Not even a little one?”
“Huh. Does your dad?”
Zuko jolts, surprised. “Uh, no. Goatee. Does...yours?”
“No,” Walrus says. “Just a beard.”
“I’d look good in a mustache, I think.”
“I thought you had a mustache?”
“The start of one,” Walrus corrects. He pauses for a moment. “When you said that thing- about the Water Tribe warriors…”
Zuko frowns. “What about it?”
He doesn’t push the point. Walrus had sounded perturbed and oddly serious, and that implies a conversation Zuko has no interest in pursuing. The more their conversation revolves around the war, the more likely it is that his identity will be discovered and this precarious peace will vanish. It will end eventually, of course; Zuko is loyal to the Fire Nation and Walrus is unashamedly anti -Fire Nation. Theirs is a partnership of opportunity based on the slim chance of escape.
Still. Zuko doesn't want to invite its end any sooner than need be, even if his ally happens to be the most annoying Water Tribe peasant in the world.
Except maybe the Avatar’s lackey that had hit him in the head with a boomerang. Multiple times.
Somewhere behind the wall, Walrus begins thinking up new puns.
Okay, Zuko admits. It’s a close call.
Zuko gasps forward, sucking in thin breaths. There’s no fire. The air smells old and wet and earthy, like the caves he’d searched years ago, full of murals and skeletons and burnt stone. His father isn’t here. Father isn’t coming. Father isn’t coming and he’s going to spend the rest of his life in cold blackness until even his inner fire has grown cold-
“Lee? Lee, are you okay?”
He swallows shakily. There’s a lump in his throat that won’t go away and his heart is beating like a zebra-goat’s hooves and the darkness seems to permeate every inch of air. He closes his eyes to a calmer, more familiar black. He tries to focus his breathing. He tries to relax his muscles. He tries to imagine he’s holding a freshly brewed cup of jasmine tea, something he’ll never admit to liking and something he can’t imagine missing more. His cheeks are wet and he can’t tell whether he’s crying or sweating, but either way he feels ashamed and hollow.
“Lee?” Repeats the voice with greater urgency, and this time he really hears it.
“I’m okay,” he assures raspily, swallowing back the taste of bile. “I’m fine.” He shifts forward. His head is ringing. He’s so hungry and phantom terror is still chasing along his nerves, urging him to run as if he isn’t locked in a small box miles and miles from home. “Sorry,” he grunts when he can almost control his voice.
“Uh, why are you apologizing?”
Zuko shifts. “I woke you.”
“Please,” says the voice, shaky in its bravado. “I slept through an avalanche, remember? A little screaming can’t beat that.”
“...I was screaming?” That explains why his throat feels as if it were ripped to shreds. He wishes he had water. He thinks of Uncle’s tea again and squeezes his eyes shut. So stupid. He’s so stupid. Not even just getting arrested or committing treason, but all of this. Why hadn’t he just kept his mouth shut during that war meeting? What was wrong with him?
“...Lee? You still with me?”
Zuko tries to focus. “What did you say?”
“I asked whether you were okay.” He pauses. “Do you wanna talk about it?”
“Not really,” Zuko mutters, pulling his knees to his chest.
“...do you wanna hear about my dream?”
He rests his forehead on cool skin. “Okay.”
“I dreamt,” says Sir Walrus-Hare the Third. “-that I was sledding down a mountain of seal jerky. It sounds great, but who actually wants to eat seal jerky other people have been sledding all over? I spent the whole dream wandering around looking for one piece I could actually eat.”
Zuko’s breathing begins to smooth. “Did you find it?”
“I did,” comes the answer. “A flying lemur ate it.”
“Aren’t those herbivores?”
“Not dream ones, apparently.”
There’s a long silence. It settles like a warm blanket and if Zuko wasn’t so buzzed, he might even be able to sleep. It must be an hour before he murmurs, “I dreamt I was at home.”
He doesn’t expect an answer- surely Walrus has fallen asleep- but the reply comes immediately. “Where is home for you?”
It’s a soft question and Zuko is thankful. He wants to talk but he doesn’t really, and this seems like neutral territory to conquer. “Caldera.”
“Caldera,” repeats the voice. “That sounds familiar.”
“It’s the capital of the Fire Nation,” Zuko explains. “It’s beautiful. It was built in the crater of a volcano that erupted generations ago. It has the softest beaches in the world.” He considers, gaze distant. “Except Ember Island, maybe.” He closes his eyes and lets himself picture home. It’s a luxury he hasn’t afforded himself much in this prison, a dream he let wither for a much simpler one: freedom. “It’s unlike any place in the world. And it’s always hot, even in the middle of winter.”
“That sounds terrible,” says Walrus without any real heat. “Does it ever snow?”
“No,” says Zuko, smiling. “It hardly even rains. It’s paradise.”
“Can I ask the obvious question then?”
Zuko’s smile slips. His breathing remains steady, but his hands tremble.
“Why does dreaming of paradise give you nightmares?”
“I had to leave.”
The voice hesitates before wondering, “Why don’t you go back?”
Zuko scowls. “I’m in prison.”
“Before that, Lee. You said you were sailing for three years. Don’t you have breaks ? How long does Fire Nation conscription last anyway?”
Zuko chuckles darkly. “In my case? Longer than three years.” He picks up the empty ceramic cup and taps at its rim absentmindedly. His fingers appreciate the distraction. “I did something wrong. Treasonous. I’m not allowed to go home until I’ve set things right.”
“That ‘treason’- that’s why you’re here?”
“No,” Zuko admits. “That was a different treason.”
“Out of curiosity- and honestly, no shame- but exactly how much treason have you committed?”
Zuko thinks. Technically he’s snuck onto Fire Nation soil a lot. He’s lied to Zhao about the Avatar’s whereabouts. And his thoughts- especially of late- have been anything but loyal.
“That shouldn’t be a hard question.”
“I’m loyal to the Fire Nation,” he says instead of giving a number. Maybe it’s the hunger, maybe it’s the bone-deep weariness that seems to go beyond nightmare filled nights, maybe it’s just that someone is finally listening, but Zuko’s next words are honest. “I may have done questionable things, but my loyalty has always been with my nation. All I want is to go home, but I have to prove to the Fire Lord that I’m loyal, that I’m worth the trouble, that I can regain my honor. I know it’s my destiny, but it’s getting to the point where- I don’t know how. ”
“The Fire Lord, huh?” The voice is a little strained. “Have you met him?”
“Of course,” Zuko dismisses before realizing it’s a fair question.
“Huh. What’s he like?”
Zuko considers. “Strong. Powerful. Loyal to Agni’s will no matter how it might affect him personally. He does what’s best for his nation.” His fingers brush the scar. “Always.”
“So you’re all about that destiny stuff, are you?”
Zuko squints. “You aren’t?”
He scoffs. “No offense, but if I had a destiny, it wouldn’t be sitting here with you in a grimy prison cell. It’d be sitting on Kyoshi Island sharing a plate of meat with a beautiful warrior.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Zuko counters. “You don’t get to pick and choose randomly. There are paths set out for you, and you decide which route you take. There are- there has to be a plan.” He pauses, thinks this over, then adds, “Finding your destiny isn’t easy, and those who affect the world most are bound to be affected back.” His face warms self-consciously. “That’s what Uncle says, anyway.”
“So you’re saying my destiny is sitting here talking to you?”
Zuko shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe. You’re here, aren’t you?”
“I’m just saying,” he replies, giving up. “Relying on a king that says he can talk to god is like relying on a fortune teller who says the clouds decide whether volcanoes erupt. Not wise, Lee.”
“That’s a specific comparison,” Zuko notes lightly, trying to steer the conversation away from his father. The nightmare still lingers in his periphery, and he doesn’t feel like screaming in front of Walrus again.
“You’re not wrong,” Walrus confirms, eagerly taking the bait. “Mount Makapu blew a couple days ago and if I hadn’t been there, everyone would have been burnt to a crisp. Ask Aunt Wu, though, and she was never wrong, because I was always going to save everyone.”
“A couple days ago?” Zuko repeats, frowning. “Mount Makapu is miles from Duoxing.”
“I’m a sailor,” Sir Walrus reminds him. “-and I have a very unique ship.”
"You get into a lot of heroics."
"Believe me, it's all very much against my will. It just happens."
Zuko shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t understand a lot of the spirits stuff-”
“Hear hear,” cheers Sir Walrus supportively.
“But I know the universe has plans for me. Everything I’ve been through, it has to. It just doesn’t know which it’s going to follow. Maybe I just haven’t proven myself yet. Maybe it’s indecisive?” Maybe it’s as confused as I am. He frowns at the cup in his hands, thumb brushing the crack steadily working its way up the fragile ceramic. “I’m worried I’ve wasted the last second chance it can offer.”
“I wish I hadn’t said I didn’t care about your secrets,” Walrus bemoans. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I keep getting more curious.”
“I can tell you what I’m accused of,” Zuko offers after a moment. “It’s not true, so telling you doesn’t really matter, I guess.”
“Makes sense to me,” comes the ready reply.
“According to Admiral Zhao,” Zuko begins, taking a slow breath. “I disguised myself as a Spirit and rescued the Avatar from the Pohuai Stronghold.”
Walrus chokes. “What?”
“It’s a lie,” Zuko reminds him. “Why would I do that?”
“Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t,” Zuko insists. “I was on my ship. We just happened to be stationed nearby.”
“Why does he think you did?”
“Because he hates me,” Zuko answers sourly, crossing his arms. “He’s lying to the Fire Lord. He wants me to be condemned as a traitor- a complete traitor, not just a banished one.”
“Well, if the Fire Lord talks to Agni, he’ll let him know you’re innocent, right?”
It’s probably a joke, but Zuko shakes his head anyway. “Zhao won’t tell the Fire Lord I’m here until he’s forced a confession out of me. Which he won’t be able to do.”
“What about your crew?” Walrus asks, and Zuko can hear the frown in his voice. “Wouldn’t they report your capture to- I don’t know, some other admiral or Prince Zuko or something?”
“They don’t know what happened,” Zuko reminds him, biting down a breathy laugh. The idea that Prince Zuko could influence the Fire Lord. “They don’t even know I’m alive.”
Walrus is quiet for a very long time. Finally, he offers, “That’s rough, buddy.”
“Well, after we escape, you can get back to your crew and send word to the Fire Lord that his Admirals are running around imprisoning people without his say so. Hey, maybe he doesn’t even know there’s a war- it’s just a bunch of wayward war-mongers with crazy hair. We let him know, it’s all over by lunch.”
“Sure,” Zuko agrees, snorting. “As soon as we escape.”
“We’re going to escape,” Walrus says firmly. “Rest your treasonous little brain. I’ll cook up some plans.” He hesitates. “And if you need anything, Lee, I’m right behind this really thick stone wall.” He bangs on the metal grate for emphasis and Zuko laughs.
Too exhausted to put up any sort of token argument, the prince settles back down and closes his eyes.
Zuko gives up on meditating. It was going nowhere, anyway. He keeps thinking about escape as if it’s a viable option, as if it could really happen. It’s a strange hope to have; he knows how futile the idea of escape is. He blames the hunger. “What?”
“You said you were banished before,” Walrus begins.
Zuko frowns. “Yeah?”
“I thought you were part of their army. How does that work if you’re banished?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, in the Water Tribe, if you’re banished, it means-” Walrus hesitates again, obviously trying to choose words that won’t offend his target audience. It’s the same sort of pause Uncle often employs.
Zuko scowls. “What. ”
“-that they’re not a part of the tribe anymore,” Walrus finishes, sounding uncomfortable. “It’s different, I guess, it only happens for really heinous crimes, but if someone’s banished, why would they fight with our warriors? They’re not a part of the tribe anymore.”
Zuko feels cold. “It isn’t like that,” he says, voice stilted. “I was given a chance. If I serve my nation admirably, I can regain my honor.”
“Honor is big for you guys, huh,” Walrus mutters wryly, more a sentence than a question.
“Does honor not matter in the Water Tribes?” Zuko counters, scowling.
Walrus doesn’t respond to the snipe. “So if you serve enough years, you’re unbanished?”
“If I complete my mission,” Zuko corrects vaguely. Everyone knows the story of Prince Zuko’s banishment. He isn’t interested in throwing down too many bread crumbs and losing an ally. “Yes. Then I can go home again.”
“That’s why you’ve been gone for so long,” Walrus realizes.
Zuko nods, not bothering to reply.
“What- can I ask what happened?”
Zuko shivers and sinks into his knees. They’re so sharp and knobby. He wonders at the pathetic picture he must make. If Father did know he was here, why would he even bother freeing him? This was just one more failed opportunity to prove himself. Azula would have escaped; Azula wouldn’t have been caught. “I offended the Fire Lord. I insulted him.”
Walrus chokes. “Personally ?”
“I didn’t intend to."
“So treason is just a thing that happens to you.”
Zuko scowls. “It’s not funny.”
“Right,” says Walrus. “Sorry. Just- that’s a little unusual.” He coughs. “So you were banished by him personally. Okay. But he didn’t kill you.” He hums thoughtfully. “That’s actually way more reasonable than I expected.”
“He was merciful,” Zuko agrees.
“And he sent you out with a mission to complete, and if you complete it, bam!, back to paradise?”
“That’s right,” says Zuko.
“Huh,” Walrus says again. “Weird.”
“It’s not weird,” Zuko retorts, bunching up his shoulders defensively.
“Okay, fine. It’s just our banishment is a lot more permanent. Like, 'hop on a cracked glacier and float away' style. I’ve never really heard of a banishment where you’re expected to come back eventually.”
“He wants me back!” Zuko snaps.
“...uh. Right. Okay.”
“I’m loyal to the Fire Nation,” Zuko says for perhaps the hundredth time this week, easing back into his meditative pose. “And I’m going to prove it. The second we escape, I’m going to succeed. I’m going to make my people proud. I’m going to make him proud.”
“Cool,” says Walrus, tone strained. “Let’s focus on escaping first, and decide about making Fire Lords proud second.”
Zuko gasps as cold water rushes over his head.
“Time to go,” he’s told as too-tight shackles bind his wrists. He’s jerked to his feet; when he nearly falls, the soldier holds him in a half-slump.
“Go?” He repeats, forcing his bleary eyes to focus. The door to his cell is open. There are only five guards. He should be fighting, but he can hardly even stand. The soldier supporting him cocks their head, regarding him past the impersonal gray and red faceplate. Zuko can almost imagine it’s his soldiers, his people, coming to save him. But he’s not that far gone. “I order you to tell me where we’re going!”
They don’t. They just hoist him out into the tunnel, where there’s hardly any light but it’s still brighter than anything he’s seen in days, and drag him forward.
“Lee!” Shouts the voice from the cell they’re passing.
Zuko wants to apologize- he should have been ready. He’d known they would come for him eventually. But even when he was at his best, barely bruised and wide awake, when he could bend and slash and properly hit, he couldn’t take them. What hope does he have now?
At least he can do this, he thinks, as he memorizes the route to the interrogator’s office.
When they finally arrive, Zuko's eyes sweep over the interrogator, ruddy-faced and plump, over the table and the tools and the shelves- to the window.
There’s a window, the first patch of sky he’s seen in lifetimes, and it’s blue. It’s daylight, he realizes, bewildered. It’s daylight and he’d been fast asleep. This close, he can feel the sun.
He doesn’t say a word.
“What did they want?”
“To talk,” Zuko says, brushing a bit of crusted blood from his lower lip.
There’s a small pause. Then, “Good man.”
The praise shouldn’t warm Zuko up like a glowing hearth, but it does. “Now that I’m not able to fight,” he says, hating the words as they come but needing to get the point across. “-they’ll probably interrogate me more often. They think I’m going to break.”
“What do you have in there?”
“A tea cup,” Zuko replies, holding it carefully. Its spider-web fracture grows every day beneath his fingers, nearly reaching the lip, but it hasn’t shattered yet. “But they’re in full armor and I can’t even stand. I don’t think it’d be much of a fight.”
“Did they blindfold you?”
“No. I know the way.” He swallows. “There’s a window.”
Walrus thinks. “Can you firebend?”
Zuko closes his eyes. “I- no. Not really. A little. Not enough to fight.”
“Lee,” says Walrus, and Zuko can hear the grin. “I only need a spark.”
Waiting to be tortured is... bizarre. Having a plan in place, no matter how shaky or mediocre it is, means that Zuko is almost eager for the guards to show. He spends most of his time staring at the patch of blackness hiding the cell door, certain that it will be thrown open any moment.
Many years ago, when Uncle was still the Dragon of the West and the Siege of Ba Sing Se seemed eminently winnable, he’d often write home. He’d send gifts from the territories he’d conquered, foods and dolls and knives. He’d included, once, a proverbial expression popular in the Earth Kingdom: a watched pot never boils.
I am beginning to think they do not know what fire benders do , Uncle had written, amused, and then he’d been stalled at Ba Sing Se for six hundred days.
Zuko thinks of this phrase now and wonders whether the door might open faster if he just stopped thinking about it.
It’s getting colder in here. His hands are shaking.
“Do you want to go over it again?”
“No,” he dismisses, frustrated. “We’ve gone over it a hundred times. If there are guards in the hall, they’ve got it memorized.” It’s mostly a joke- the metal boots are loud enough to hear a mile away- but it’s also something Zuko can’t stop worrying about. What if they know everything? What if this stupid escape attempt is doomed from the start? He shifts anxiously. “You remember the way? Just in case?”
“Two left turns, one right,” Walrus recites.
“I didn’t see anyone else in the hall before,” Zuko says. It’s not new information, but he finds himself rambling. He’s never been a rambler. “You shouldn’t run into any trouble-”
“Lee, I’ll be fine. And I'm not leaving without you, okay? We’re getting out together.”
And if this fails, Zuko thinks, they’re going to be locked in cells far away from each other, and it will be back to silence and darkness. His only breaks will be torture and if he slips- if he slips for a second- he could admit to everything.
He’d never even know what happened to Walrus.
“Look, just stick to the plan and don’t worry,” says Walrus, as if it’s that easy.
“It relies on nothing but dumb luck,” Zuko charges. “It’s stupid. We need a new plan.”
“It doesn’t just rely on dumb luck,” Walrus denies. “It also relies on your ability to lie!” He pauses, maybe for a laugh or a jocular rebuke, but forges on when Zuko refuses to play along. “And we don’t need a new plan, because if this one fails they won’t even know we were trying to escape. That’s the beauty of the plan. It’s a beautiful plan!”
“It’s a stupid plan,” Zuko snaps for maybe the tenth time in the past hour.
“Oh? What’s your plan again, Lee?”
Zuko bunches up his shoulders and scowls, his skin nearly steaming. It would be heartening if he weren’t so- frustrated. He’s just frustrated.
“...it’s alright to be nervous,” Walrus says. “But this’ll work. And if it doesn’t work, no problem, we’re just back to square one. Sure, square one is a dark prison cell where we’re slowly being starved to death by a psychopath with mutton chops, but hey , that’s just good motivation.”
“I’m not nervous,” Zuko says, frowning.
“No, I get it,” Walrus assures, probably aiming for supportive or comforting but hitting much nearer the mark of infuriating. “It’s dangerous.”
“I’ve done plenty of dangerous things,” Zuko replies shortly. “More dangerous than this. But this isn’t just dangerous, it’s stupid. ”
“...more dangerous things, huh?”
“Yes,” Zuko confirms, seething. “I’m not some backwater Water Tribe peasant. I’m not scared. ”
“I said nervous ,” Walrus drawls. “And has anyone ever mentioned you have a very slight air of elitism to you when you’re nervous?”
“I’m not nervous, and I am elite,” Zuko snaps. “I may not be a firebending master, but I’m still-” He fumbles, because Prince is not what he wants to say here. “I’m still-” What is he? “I’m still a swordsman. I trained with Master Piandao for years. ”
“Who is that?”
Zuko scowls, frustrated. “Are you kidding? The greatest swordsman in the world .”
“And he taught you?”
“He taught you how to swing a sword around and it took years ?”
“He taught me to master the art of the dual doa-” Zuko cuts himself off.
“He taught you to master the art of...duo dough? What is that, like two loaves at once?”
“No,” says Zuko, quietly panicking. “I don’t- I don’t know how to use swords.”
“I’ve never used swords,” Zuko adds.
“I only have a pair of antique ones,” Zuko continues a little too loudly. “I’ve never used them.”
“Lee, why are you lying? No, why are you lying so badly? You should be practicing. Is this what you’re going to sound like when we’re arguing?”
“I don’t know how to use dual dao swords,” Zuko sums up fervently.
“Okay?” Walrus sounds hopelessly confused. It’s better than gleefully accusative.
The Blue Spirit can wield those swords; Prince Zuko definitely can’t.
Still, even if Walrus isn’t a spy- and he probably isn’t but maybe he is- there could always be guards lurking just outside the door. Zuko pinches the bridge of his nose. It’s the exhaustion. It’s the hunger. It’s the thirst, already growing despite the water in the interrogation chamber. It’s the weird way he hasn’t been watching his words around Walrus as carefully as he should.
“Anyway,” says Walrus, drawing the word out. “Great that you’re either amazing at swords or you’ve never seen one before, but I said elitism. Not elite.”
“Oh.” Zuko tugs at the loose string of his stitching; it’s getting longer, slowly unraveling. He wonders, idly, at what point it turns from shirt to string, from something that matters to something that doesn’t.
“And,” Walrus continues, in the face of his nonreaction. “I asked about your dangerous past.”
“My dangerous past?” Zuko repeats dumbly.
“You said you’ve done more dangerous things than breaking out of a high-security Fire Nation prison where you’re being illegally held and tor- talking to me. I need details.”
Zuko’s lips thin. No matter what people think- everyone thinks- he’s not stupid. “You’re trying to distract me,” he charges sourly. “-because you think I’m scared.”
“I’m trying to get answers,” Walrus counters. “-because I honestly can’t think of a more dangerous situation. C’mon,” he prods, when Zuko takes too long to respond. “We have nothing to do except wait for them to come back, and it could be days. No offense, but I’m accustomed to a certain level of entertainment.”
“Sorry I can’t live up to your beaver-seals.”
“Don’t be- they’re dam stiff competition. Now on with the juicy stories.”
Zuko sighs, giving up. He’s learned- over and over because it takes a while for lessons to sink in- that when Walrus gets an idea, he’s intent on seeing it through, no matter logic or reason or fervent refusals. “Fine. Dangerous.” He thinks. He can’t tell that story, definitely can’t tell that story, probably shouldn’t tell that one considering the inherent treason…
“Are you still thinking?”
“...how about now?”
“I’m thinking! ”
“Have you considered thinking a little faster? I don’t have much to do to pass the time over here, you know.”
“I have to narrow it down,” Zuko replies, frustrated. “I’m not about to share Fire Nation secrets with the enemy.”
“I’m not your enemy,” Walrus tries. “And since when would an amiable scamp like me be interested in Fire Nation army intelligence?”
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Right .” He thinks. “You know Admiral Zhao?"
Despite the stone wall, Walrus manages to sound as if he looks unimpressed.
“Of course you do,” Zuko mutters. “Obviously. Well, we have a history.”
“As evidenced by his framing you for saving the Avatar,” Walrus recalls, blasé.
Zuko nods. “Exactly.”
“Which you didn’t do.”
“ Yes. ”
“But you’ll tell me whether you actually did after we escape.”
“Do you want to hear the story or not?”
“Yes, that’s what I just said.”
“Technically he’s in both of them…”
“Ugh-! If you’re going to keep interrupting-”
“Sorry,” Walrus interrupts. “-go on. You were making a powerful enemy.”
Zuko scowls, then breathes out and relents. “We were docked at the same port. It shouldn’t happen as often as it does, but he has a way of getting in the way. We got into an argument and his soldiers wouldn’t let me leave-”
“Okay, so this guy has tried to capture you multiple times-”
“-and he said he was going to- to complete the mission that I have to complete. In order to complete my mission.” When Walrus doesn’t make fun of him for such an impressively bad sentence, Zuko knows he understands. “And so I challenged him to an Agni Kai.”
“Sorry, who’s Auntie Kai?”
“Agni ,” Zuko corrects.
“Okay, who’s that then?”
“It’s a fight,” he explains irritably. Everyone knows what an Agni Kai is. “A duel.”
“You challenged Zhao to a duel ?” Walrus’ tone shifts uncertainly. “What is the endgame for a Fire Nation duel? A gentlemanly handshake over impressive fire dancing, or…?”
Zuko’s hands are shaking again. Why is it so cold in this spirits-damned mountain?! “They’re usually to the death,” he confirms.
“I can’t help but notice both of you are still alive,” Walrus says carefully. “Did he...decline the challenge?”
“No.” Zuko picks up the tea cup and rolls it in his palm. It’s small, it can hardly hold five sips of water, but it’s still- if he holds it just right, he can imagine it’s a different one, warmed with tea brewed just for him. The thought hurts as much as it helps. He wants to ask, suddenly, if Walrus gets his water in a chipped ceramic tea cup, too, but he thinks he knows what the answer would be.
Zhao’s hatred for him has always been so weirdly personal . He doesn’t know what he did to the man, other than exist in the same sphere of sea in the same shade of red.
“We fought,” Zuko answers. “After I beat him-”
“You beat Zhao?! ”
Zuko scowls. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just- look, I can’t see you, and I’m sure you’re really buff and impressive or whatever, but Zhao is next-level. He’s better than Zuko. ”
“No, he’s not,” Zuko denies quickly, furious. His next words are fueled by a strange mix of defensiveness and pride. “Prince Zuko beat him in an Agni Kai. Too.”
“Man, he survived an Agni Kai with you and Prince Zuko? Is he fireproof? Why was Zuko even fighting his own Admiral? The Fire Nation is so weird -”
“It’s not -”
“It’snotweird, yes, I get it. Do these duels happen all the time, then?”
“No,” Zuko says, shifting and feeling a little stupid. Why had he said that? “Zhao just- seems to invite them.”
“I can see that,” Walrus allows lightly. “But,” he continues, tone inching into confusion. “-if you beat him, how is he alive to be putting us in mountain jail?”
“I-” Zuko’s cheeks warm.
“You’re expected to kill your opponent,” he explains. “You don’t have to. And, I don’t know. I didn’t want to-” smell burning flesh. Watch Zhao crumple in the dirt. Hear him make noises Zuko still makes in his sleep.
Whatever grudge Zhao has, it isn’t reciprocated to the same blistering degree. Zuko hates him, but not that much.
“You didn’t want to kill him.”
“Of course I did!” Zuko exclaims defensively. If Zhao had done what he’d done to Azula, to Father, to anyone else , he would’ve been a pile of ashes. “I just- he’s still an admiral. Despite our personal differences, he is still doing what’s best for the Fire Nation.”
“Is capturing you included in that?”
“He’s- look, I don’t like him, but that doesn’t mean-” He fumbles in the dark for words to explain. Beating Zhao was enough. They were allies, at the end of the day, and once Zuko regained his crown, Zhao would show him his due respect. There was no need for more death.
“Okay,” says Walrus. “I get it.”
Zuko doesn’t think he does, because how could he if Zuko were still so confused by it all, but he shrugs. “So anyway-”
“The story isn’t over? The story doesn’t end with you beating an Admiral?”
“-after I beat him, I turned my back. The Agni Kai was over, and I guess I wasn’t thinking-”
“He took a cheap shot, didn’t he?”
Zuko can still hear it, the building whir of flame over his shoulder. He can still feel it. He wouldn’t have been able to dodge. “My Uncle deflected the hit and he let us go. But, yes.”
Walrus whistles. “You know, I’m starting to think this Zhao guy is a bad apple.”
Zuko snorts. “What about you?”
“Good apple. Well, maybe crabapple, but it’s part of my appeal. Apple peel?”
“No, I mean- you fight soldiers, you save towns from volcanoes. What’s your more dangerous story?”
“Hmm,” Walrus thinks. “There was that one time my sister almost got me killed trying to help some hunky Earthbender, the time she almost got me killed by a less-hunky more wheat-chewing tree-teen, and the time she almost got me killed by pirates.” Zuko listens with growing incredulity. Before he can say a word, however, Walrus continues, “You know, I’m sensing a pattern: all the dangerous moments in my life are directly preceded by me telling my sister not to do something and then her doing that something. It’s a cycle.”
Zuko offers, hesitant but sympathetic, “Sisters can be difficult.”
“Yeah, they’re the worst.” Walrus sighs. “I hope she’s okay.”
“She was in town with you?”
“We got separated,” Walrus confirms. “There was this riot over Earthbending rights, and of course she had to get involved.”
“You got involved, too.”
“Against my will ,” Walrus stresses.
Zuko is about to assert that it’s impossible to commit treason against one’s will, but the argument falls flat before he can even make it. Besides, if Walrus is telling the truth, it had been a toddler the soldiers were trying to subdue. When Zuko gets out of here, Father will hear of the injustices being carried out in his name.
“What were you even doing there?” Zuko asks. “Douxing is Fire Nation territory. Your crew must have been outnumbered.”
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Your ship. Your Water Tribe warriors?”
“What? No. I just said my sister was there.”
If Zuko had enough energy to properly shout, he would. “What is your point !?”
“I wasn’t with the warriors, I was just with- with my family.”
“What,” Zuko snarks. “-just taking a holiday in warzones?”
“I wouldn’t really call it a holiday - ”
“Why would you start a fight if you were so outnumbered?”
“Were you not listening? I didn’t. My sister did.”
“Why would she do that?!”
“I don’t know !”
Zuko groans and throws his face into his hands. “Is your entire family made up of idiots?”
“She’s not an idiot ,” Walrus retorts defensively. “She just acts that way when she sees an entire people being dehumanized and imprisoned.”
Zuko scowls. “It isn’t like that.”
“Oh? You been to Douxing lately?”
Zuko wants to shout a very angry yes , but of course the answer is no. He hasn’t stepped foot in Duoxing since it was annexed and became Fire Nation soil. He scowls and simmers quietly, his silence an obvious answer.
“It’s bad out there,” says Walrus, tone softening.
Zuko swallows. “I know,” he admits. “But- it’s war. It’ll get better.”
“You really believe that?”
“The Fire Lord knows what he’s doing,” he insists, quietly but fervently. He runs his thumb over the growing crack in the teacup. “If people would just surrender , none of this would be necessary. The Fire Nation has thrived for generations, and there are people who need our help. What’s happening right now may seem cruel, but inaction would be crueler. They’ll- they’ll understand one day, and they’ll be grateful.”
“And this help,” Walrus repeats dubiously. “The only method of delivering it is violence and subjugation? There’s no other technique your all-knowing Fire Lord can devise?”
“I- it’s what has to happen. The other Nations are too stubborn, too proud to accept any other way.”
Walrus is quiet for a moment. “Do you really see me as your enemy?”
“Earlier,” he reminds him softly. “You called me your enemy.”
“Not my enemy,” Zuko corrects awkwardly. “ The enemy. You’re loyal to the Water Tribe. I’m loyal to-”
“The Fire Nation, got it.”
Zuko shifts uncomfortably. “Just because we’re working together to get out of this place- it doesn’t mean our loyalties will shift. When we escape, we’ll go our separate ways- you to your rebellion, me to my crew.”
“See, that seems weird to me,” Walrus declares flatly. “You’re going to break out of a Fire Nation prison and then- what? Go right back to fighting for the Fire Nation?”
Zuko frowns. “Yes.”
“And this is after you were banished from the Fire Nation and then went right back to fighting for the Fire Nation. ”
The frown slinks into a full-blown scowl. “So?”
“So take the hint!”
Zuko glares down at the metal vent and hopes the expression somehow sneaks through. “They want me back!”
“Ozai might as well have sent you a signed scroll saying, ‘Stay Away!’”
“He wants me back!”
“Being an enemy of the Fire Nation isn’t a bad thing, Lee,” Walrus insists. “It means that, even though you can make little sparks with your fingers, you’re not evil. If you’re at the point where you commit so much treason you’ve stopped counting- to the point where Zhao thinks you’d rescue the number one enemy of your nation and no one cares that you’ve been imprisoned without a trial - maybe stop risking your life over and over for the country that keeps sending you to die!”
Zuko roars, furious and hurt, hurling the teacup as hard as he can into the dark.
It shatters loudly.
Zuko’s chest rises and falls with fast, ragged breaths, fury building through his abdomen, fire licking under his skin. His heart pounds feverishly, too warm and too fast. He collapses forward, breaths thinning until they’re reedy, wispy things, like whistling through a blade of grass.
He gasps against the stone floor of his cell. It’s cold and hard beneath his calloused fingers and he focuses on this sensation, squeezing his eyes shut and forcing his lungs to expand. He needs Jasmine tea, he thinks absurdly, but he’s broken his only teacup.
“Lee, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
He tries to answer but it comes out as an undignified croak. He’s going to burn alive, he realizes. Burned inside and out.
“Hey, hey, stay with me. Breathe. I can breathe with you.” Walrus takes a few exaggerated breaths, loud enough to hear through the vent. Feeling stupid but not alone, Zuko matches the rhythm.
“I’m fine,” he says when he can almost breathe normally.
“What happened in there?” Walrus demands, as breathless as Zuko feels.
“I think my body just tried to Firebend,” Zuko answers wryly, stretching out his fingers and wincing. “And realized the reserves were depleted.”
“I- I got angry and when I’m angry I firebend and firebending needs energy and since I haven’t eaten in days, it just-”
“-started eating away at you. ”
Zuko lays down on his back. He feels exhausted and a little worse than he had before, which was already impressively bad.
“I’m sorry,” Walrus says finally. “I shouldn’t have- you’re right. We’re just in this to escape together. But I’m not- I wasn’t trying to make you betray your nation for the Water Tribe. You aren’t the moon; you’re not about to change the tides of war. But, from an outsider’s perspective, you have to know how this looks.”
“I know,” says Zuko. “From an outsider’s perspective.”
“And I know we don’t really know each other. I know you’re not Lee. But I don’t want you dying for no reason, even if you are-” His tone turns theatrically ominous. “- The Enemy .”
Zuko stares up into the black.
“I don’t want you to die for no reason either,” Zuko admits.
“Heart-warming,” Walrus deadpans.
Zuko doesn't reply. He's had enough heart-warming for today.
It seems strange, Zuko thinks, that his nightmares haven’t adjusted. Shouldn’t he be dreaming about this place? Shouldn’t he be dreaming about the room down the hall?
No is the apparent answer. When he’d woken, he was transported abruptly from the heat of a Caldera stadium to the chill of a mountain cell.
It’s cooler than it was when he fell asleep.
“And I tried to pay the ferryman, but he said that he doesn’t take Water Tribe money. And I asked why and he said it melts. And when I looked in my palm, all my coins had turned into puddles. Do you think that means something? Not like an omen, I mean psychologically. ”
The natural warmth of his body is receding. He’s colder now than he was for all those grueling months he’d chased a rumor through glaciers and snow. He hopes he can still complete the plan. There are a few variations, depending on how the guards respond, but all of them require some degree of firebending. Zuko needs to rest if they're going to pull this off.
But now, even as Walrus tries to distract him, Zuko finds his mind wandering through corridors he'd rather remain unexplored.
“So I snuck onto the boat anyway , but then realized I’d forgotten my pants and my boo-”
“He’s a child, you know.”
“The Avatar. He acts like a child. ”
“...yeah? I told you, he’s twelve.”
Zuko remembers twelve. The Avatar is- is much younger than twelve, somehow, no matter what age he actually is. “An actual child,” he explains.
“Yes? Twelve?” Walrus hesitates. “...did you dream about the Avatar? Did he say anything?”
“Avatars can travel in dreams, probably. Maybe he’s sending us a message.”
“Why would he send us a message?”
“I don’t know," Walrus grumbles. “It was just a thought.”
“We’ve got a plan,” Zuko reminds him flatly, ignoring how little faith he has in the plan. “We don’t need the Avatar.”
“Fair enough. Then why are we talking about him?”
Zuko shifts. “I don’t know.”
“So you've met him, then? The Avatar?”
“What? I didn’t-”
“I didn’t say have you freed him. I asked whether you’d met him. You’re a soldier, right? Plenty of soldiers have met the Avatar. It usually ends with them being thrown off a boat or covered in water, but it’s still meeting .”
Zuko thinks over how this could be a trap, then admits, “Yes. I’ve met him.”
“And you saw that he’s a kid.”
Zuko doesn’t reply.
“And maybe you’re wondering why your Prince is hunting him down like an animal?”
“He’s hunting him down like he’s an enemy of the Fire Nation ,” Zuko snaps. “It doesn’t matter that he’s a kid. Of course Prince Zuko is trying to capture him.”
“You started this conversation,” Walrus replies lightly.
“Well, that’s not what I meant. ”
“Then tell me what you meant.”
Zuko feels heat in his chest as his anger grows; he swallows slowly, unwilling to let his temper (and his temperature) rise. “I don’t know,” he mumbles. He frowns. “Have you met him?”
“Yes,” says Walrus. “He saved my life. Multiple times.”
Zuko frowns down at his hands. If Walrus recognizes him when they escape-
The other man sighs a little, then says, “Get some sleep, Lee. I’ll keep watch a little longer.”
“I can do it-”
“Just- get some rest. It’s fine.”
Zuko lays back down on the stone. He expects it to be difficult. He’s cold and uncomfortable. He’s- he’s nervous , and right now he also feels guilty, and he feels guilty for feeling guilty, and he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
But he still falls asleep immediately.
The whisper seems to come immediately, too.
“Lee,” says Walrus, just loud enough to wake him. “They’re coming.”
Zuko’s eyes snap open.
“I said shut your mouth!” he roars, slamming his hand against the metal vent. He uses the wall to help him stand. “You pathetic- snowball! Or I’ll- melt you!”
“Oh, yeah, Jerkbender? Why don’t you come over and try?”
“I’ll make you slush!” Zuko shouts, and he’d practiced this in his head, why was it coming out so badly?
“Big words behind a big wall,” sneers Walrus loudly.
The door to Zuko’s cell creaks open, and he twists his face into an expression of rage as light spills into the darkness. This isn’t hard to fake.
“Having a little spat?” Laughs the soldier, too amused to play intimidating.
Zuko blinks. There are only three guards.
He’s been underestimated his entire life; this time, it might actually pay off.
“This peasant insulted me for the last time!” He shouts, keeping his articulation clear and his tone pompous. They’ll want to see him knocked down a peg. He knows they will.
“Oh, have I insulted Ser Fancy Pants?” Walrus sing-songs from the other room. “Oh, no! I’m so scared!”
“You should be!”
“You gonna challenge the kid to an Agni Kai, your highness ?” Jeers Guard Number One as they grab Zuko by the wrist. The bones grind together, and it hurts , but he just snarls,
“Maybe I will! ”
“Hey, Water Tribe boy isn’t a bender,” remarks Guard Number Two. “Prince might actually have a shot.”
“If he decides to fight this time…” Replies Number One, and Zuko can hear the sneer through the faceplate.
“I’d fight!” He shouts, struggling against the hold even as he relies on it to keep himself upright. “I’ll kill him!”
“He serious? He can’t even stand.”
The guards glance among themselves as Zuko tries vainly to escape.
Then Guard Number One and Guard Number Two turn to Guard Number Three.
“I don’t know ,” they hem, hesitant with their newfound authority. “Zhao wants that one kept safe until he can personally question him and put him on the hook.”
“Aw, c’mon Jee, like he’ll do any damage. Look at him!”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Zuko fumes, playing into it.
“Yeah, let Water Lily get a few licks in. We’ll pull his royal highness out before he gets scalped.” The guard pats Zuko too familiarly, and Zuko doesn’t have to fake flinching.
“Allllright. Fine. But quickly, okay? Yu is waiting.”
“Ah, let him wait.”
Zuko watches with baited breath as they open the door, then gasps as he’s flung into the unfamiliar blackness. He slams into the ground.
“Hey, Jerkbender,” says a voice somewhere to the left, and the door slams shut.
Fighting in the dark is hard. Fake fighting in the dark while jamming the door shut with a pair of hungry bodies is harder. They grunt loudly and dramatically, trading insults and pained shouts, as the guards pound at the door.
“That little Wet Rot sealed the door!”
“Did he freeze it? Can he bend? They said he couldn’t bend!”
“Damn it, help me with this spirits-damned thing-! If they kill each other, we’re gonna-”
Walrus and Zuko wait for the third strike to move back from the door. Two guards barrel over each other into the black. As the third steps into the doorway, puzzled but not yet defensive, Walrus kicks the back of their knees. The moment they sway off balance, he slams their helmet with a fist-sized rock. Guard Number Three crashes down to the stone with a solid thunk!
Zuko dashes into the hall, Walrus at his heels. They pull the cell door shut together, and Zuko focuses on its metal frame, putting every last bit of energy he has into melting it and then stealing back the heat. They secure the door tightly as the iron cools, their breaths ragged and uneven, as those on the other side shout and begin to pound against the metal.
This should hold long enough for a decent head start. No alarms were raised; the interrogator won't be expecting anything. Zuko might be exhausted and his vision might be tunneling and his knees might feel like melting wax, but the hard part is over.
Zuko turns, expecting a grin and bragging and maybe a bad pun.
He gets a dirty water tribe peasant with a too-familiar face.
“...your name is definitely not Lee.”
Any plan Sokka devises to escape fire nation prisons will always involve fake-fighting Zuko. It just will.
Zuko’s eyes widen. Less than a foot away, Walrus shares his expression of horror.
It’s him. It’s definitely him. His cheekbones are a little more prominent than the last time they’d crossed paths, his hair is greasy and wild rather than tied up in its ersatz phoenix plume, and his clothing is, even for a peasant, bedraggled. But it’s him.
The Avatar’s accomplice. The one who’d stood against Zuko when he entered the Avatar’s Water Tribe hideout, who’d stood between Zuko and his destiny- who’d hit Zuko in the head with a boomerang. Multiple times.
Zuko stares. The Water Tribesman stares back. His hold on the rock is white-knuckled. He looks, as Zuko feels, as if he’d very much like to shout something impolite.
“No,” Zuko agrees slowly, weighing up his odds. “I’m not.”
The peasant has been here fewer days. The peasant has eaten more recently. The peasant hasn’t been tortured. The peasant hasn’t just wasted the last of his energy melting a metal door, and the peasant has a weapon . It’s only a rock, Zuko decides derisively, and ignores that the peasant doesn’t really need anything more.
He shifts his stance into something more stable and raises his fists.
The peasant, in return, just raises his eyebrows. He looks at Zuko, really looks, and the banished Prince doesn’t flinch, doesn’t let himself feel ashamed of the scars and bruises. He can still fight. Those guards underestimated him because they saw an emaciated prisoner- let Water Tribe make the same mistake.
Sokka- steps back?
“I vote we deal with this later,” he declares, tone only a little strained. He gestures to the sealed door, but never takes his eyes off Zuko. “They’re gonna break out of there way sooner than I want them to, so how about we run now and you can try to kill me later?”
Zuko glares, but eases out of his stance. “Fine.”
“Lead the way,” Sokka says, nodding forward.
Zuko very pointedly does not turn his back on his enemy. He crosses his arms and waits. The peasant knows the route. Zuko had forced him to memorize it in case only one of them managed to escape.
Sokka huffs out a long-suffering sigh. “Fine. I’ll lead the way. You can just follow along like a little lemming-pup.” He begins walking then frowns over his shoulder, a little less frustrated and a little more wary. “Just remember that we’re not out yet, and we’re in this together, so don’t punch fire at my back.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Zuko hisses, scowling.
“Oh, I know, I know,” Sokka assures. “Just wanted to, y’know, confirm. ”
Zuko rolls his eyes, annoyed, but follows as the Water Tribesman leads. The tunnels are high-walled but narrow, sconces suspended every few feet, the torches casting everything in a flickering orange. The darkness of Zuko’s cell had been almost compassionately deceptive; though he knew it was small, it was easy to ignore when he couldn’t see the walls buckling in around him. As they make their way through the corridor, however, the claustrophobic nature of the fortress is undeniable, and Zuko’s breaths come thinner.
He doesn’t want to go back. He can’t go back.
“I’m fine,” he grunts in reply, forcing his breaths to smooth. He can’t afford panic; he can’t even afford the comfort of rage. Phantom flame still lingers in his blood, ready to ignite if he loses control.
He just needs to ignore that he’s about to collapse, that he’s surrounded by stone that seems to be closing in, that his only ally is his enemy. The firelight glints off of the stone in Sokka’s hand, and Zuko swallows. He just needs to make it out. If he can make it out, then he can handle whatever comes next.
Uncle might say that isn’t a plan. Uncle isn’t here.
They come to a fork and Sokka glances back at him. “Left, right?”
“Left,” Zuko answers.
“Right,” Sokka says, and turns left.
Zuko follows, barely keeping up with the peasant’s pace. He feels as he did when racing Azula on the beaches outside their summer home on Ember Island. The solid stone beneath him is shifting sand. His steps are beginning to wobble.
“Left?” Sokka confirms at the next fork, and Zuko just nods, mouth too dry to reply. His chest is rising and falling rapidly, as if he’s actually been running. Sokka begins to move, then frowns back at him. “Still okay?”
“I said I’m fine,” Zuko snaps immediately, stalking forward.
Sokka doesn’t ask again. At the next fork, he doesn’t even bother confirming what he knows to be the correct route, turning without a single glance back at his Fire Nation shadow.
Zuko is grateful when they finally arrive at the familiar door; any more running, and he might have collapsed. He’s also grateful that there have been no shouts or bells of alarm. The guards are likely still trapped in Sokka’s cell, banging frantically against the metal door. Zuko guesses they’ll be able to escape relatively quickly once they begin to think rather than flounder.
But they’ll be too late. He and Sokka are almost to the window- they’re almost out.
“This is it,” he says. “We need to hurry.”
Sokka glances at him. “He was alone last time?”
The Water Tribesman’s expression turns contemplative. “You know what escapees don’t do?”
"Knock,” Sokka answers, smiling, before rapping on the door three times.
“Come in, come in!” Shouts a voice from inside. “It’s unlocked!”
Sokka knocks again.
“What, are you deaf? I said-” The door swings open, revealing an agitated face that quickly turns confused. “-it’s open?”
“Hello,” says Sokka much too cheerily. “You must be Yu.”
Before the interrogator can say a word, Sokka tackles him to the ground. The man recovers from the surprise attack quickly and manages to get a few good hits in, but Sokka has a rock, which turns out to be more helpful. As the two men continue to grapple, Zuko frowns around the room, searching for something helpful.
There are a series of tools neatly laid out beside the interrogator’s desk, some pointed and some blunt and some familiar. Zuko grabs the rope. As Sokka holds Yu down, Zuko ties the man’s ankles and wrists together.
He’s gotten much better at knots ever since his captives kept escaping.
“There,” says Sokka, brushing his hands off triumphantly. “That takes care of Yu.”
“I knew it,” Yu growls, spitting up blood. Even though Sokka is the one that’s just broken his nose, he glares at Zuko. “I knew you were a dirty traitor.”
Zuko's fists clench tighter and he roars, “I am not a- !”
“Hey,” Sokka interrupts, raising an open palm and slipping his way between Zuko and the interrogator. “Keep it down. We’re trying not to attract attention, right?”
Sokka...doesn’t glare. Just sort of looks.
“Right,” Zuko agrees finally, tensely.
“Taking orders from the enemy now?” Yu sneers. “What would your father think?”
“Probably something obnoxiously evil,” Sokka replies idly. He walks to the window, a perfect circle of bright, tempting azure. “You know, nothing too out of the ordi-” He freezes.
Zuko frowns at the abrupt halt, storming over to see what has caused such a reaction. The moment he looks through the window, his heart sinks.
It’s a sheer drop. Nothing but umber sandstone stretching down further than he can see, the base of the mountain swallowed whole by opaque fog. The cliffside is smooth. No handholds.
No way out.
When Sokka speaks, his voice is high-pitched and strained. “We… are high up.”
“What,” scoffs Yu. “You thought you could just jump out of here like some sort of Airbender? This is a prison. Why would the interrogation chamber have a way out ? Oh, when Admiral Zhao hears about this -!”
Zuko continues to stare, his heart pounding. He feels foolish and ridiculous and guilty and- and this was all a huge waste of time, and even if he wasn’t a traitor before, now they’ve got proof of his colluding with a Fire Nation Enemy and-
“Hey,” says Sokka, right in front of him. Rather than dismayed, he looks determined. “We’re still way better off than we were an hour ago. Take a look around for something that can help. I’m gonna go stuff a week-old sock in that guy’s mouth.”
For the first time, Yu sounds disturbed. “...what?”
Zuko echoes the sentiment.
“So he doesn’t scream for help,” Sokka explains. “Be right back.”
As he gags their prisoner, Zuko considers the room.
Like everywhere else in this damn mountain, it’s a cramped space. While its primary purpose is advanced interrogation, it seems to double as the Interrogator’s office, including a single wooden chair and a short, narrow desk. The surface of the desk is plain: a small portrait of Fire Lord Ozai, a clean ink bowl, a fresh sheet of parchment, and a single quill. If the man has any keys or maps, Zuko thinks, they’re probably inside. The first drawer he opens is full of additional tools. He slams it shut quickly, feeling queasy.
Sokka approaches the desk, ignoring the muffled complaints behind him. “Find anything?”
“What am I even supposed to be looking for?” Zuko demands, disappointment and impatience melding with already formidable frustration.
“More rope, man-sized kite, incredibly long ladder?”
Zuko shakes his head, scowling. “There’s nothing.”
Sokka’s gaze flickers just past Zuko’s shoulder. “Hey,” he says, grinning. “Not nothing. Check it out!” He beelines around the desk, kneeling beside a trough of water. “He has water!” He glances at the Interrogator. “Do you keep all of your water like this?” Yu glares unhelpfully over his gag, and Sokka turns back to Zuko. “Is this a Fire Nation thing? Is it poisoned?”
“It’s not poisoned,” Zuko says tightly, resuming his search of the desk. Wanted posters, letters, notes. “It’s just water.”
Sokka hesitates for all of two seconds before cupping his hands and drinking greedily. When he’s had a few sips, he sighs, satisfied. “You should probably have some of this,” he recommends.
Zuko continues rummaging. Ink, quills, a bad poem. “I’m fine.”
“I know you’re not,” Sokka counters flatly. He frowns. “It’s really not poisoned, right?”
“It’s just water,” Zuko snarls, heart thumping rapidly. He jerks open the final drawer with a little too much force. His eyes widen as steel clatters noisily against wood. “My knife-!”
Sokka frowns up from his inspection of the water. “Knife?”
Zuko lifts the weapon, unsheathing it slowly. Sunlight glints off of the metal, and for a moment he can see his own distorted reflection. “My knife was here,” he says. “-this entire time.” Five feet away from where he needed it.
“A knife is good,” Sokka allows. “But we still need a way out of here.” His eyes flicker to Yu. “Of course, he probably knows the way out. If we interrogate an interrogator, what does that make us?”
“Free,” Zuko answers, standing, fingers digging into the metal. He feels that familiar heat rising in his gut, and he breathes to temper it. He can’t fail when he’s so close.
Azula wouldn’t fail. So what would she do?
Zuko crouches down beside Yu and tangles his fingers in his hair. He pulls just enough to tilt Yu’s head back and expose his bare throat. He meets the man's furious eyes and tries to look intimidating. It’s easier than it was before the scar. He rips out the gag. “The exit.”
Yu struggles against his binds, stubborn as an Earthbender. “I would never betray the Fire Lord.”
“Neither would I,” Zuko promises, holding the blade scant centimeters from the man’s throat.
Yu stills, the fire of his glare doused to a fearful uncertainty.
Sokka stands. “Uh, Zuko?”
“My Father and Agni himself have willed me to capture the Avatar,” Zuko continues, ignoring the interruption. He brings the knife closer, lets the cold metal skim skin, though he keeps his grasp loose enough that he won't accidentally hurt Yu if the older man bucks. “If killing you is the only way to escape and fulfill this destiny, I will do my duty.”
“The exit,” Zuko repeats firmly, his right hand tightening in Yu’s sweaty hair. He can feel the man tremble, and can only hope his own trembles aren’t felt in return. “Tell me.”
“-is not your Prince,” Zuko finishes. “The exit. I won’t ask again.”
Yu stares up at him, his tawny eyes wide and his breathing fast. His gaze flickers uncertainly to Sokka, the man who’d beaten him and somehow become his last hope for mercy.
“Don’t look at me,” insists Sokka with strained indifference, raising his open palms. “This seems like real Fire Nation business right here. I’m all Water Tribe.”
“They’ll catch you,” Yu hisses.
“Maybe,” Zuko agrees. He doesn’t remove the knife. “Will you be around to see it happen?”
“You’re bluffing,” Yu charges. “You’re no son of Agni, you're a coward.”
Zuko doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t even blink. He just waits.
For a hardened interrogator, Yu breaks quickly. Zuko wonders absently whether it’s because he knows of all the things that could be done to him in the name of answers. The tools are right there, after all, and Yu has seen them all put to good use. “You’re close,” he admits finally, looking away. “Down the hall, first right, then first left. Go until you see the door.”
“You wouldn’t lie, would you?” Zuko wonders with casual maliciousness, mimicking the cadence of Azula’s words when she played with the servants.
“No, Your Highness,” Yu breathes, and Zuko nods.
“Good.” He presses the sock back in place, then stands. When he wobbles, Sokka catches him by the elbow. Zuko quickly shakes him off, scowling. “Let’s go,” he snaps.
Instead of heading to the door, Sokka considers him. “That was a bluff, right?”
Zuko meets his gaze evenly, refusing to give up this advantage. If Sokka fears him, sees him as capable and willing to do whatever it takes, maybe he’ll be too scared to-
“Where was that when we were arguing in front of the guards? You said you were going to turn me into slush! ”
Zuko’s eyes widen, then promptly narrow to slits. “I wasn’t bluffing.”
“See, you’ve lost it,” Sokka says, shaking his head. “But for a minute there, I bought it. I mean, I almost bought it; you didn't even scratch him.”
“I’m not bluffing,” Zuko repeats, scowling.
“So you were gonna slit his throat just now?”
Zuko shifts. “Yes.”
“All tied up like that, after some jerk stuck a sock in his mouth?”
Zuko glares. He has no idea how he lost control of the situation. Azula wouldn’t have. “Can we just go?”
“Yeah, yeah, one more second,” Sokka insists, not sounding very intimidated. “I need to trade out my rock.” He lifts a large mallet from the table. “Not really my style,” he admits as he taps it experimentally against the meat of his palm. “-but when one’s boomerang doesn’t come back, one must adapt.”
Zuko considers. While it will probably come back to bite him the moment they escape, he would rather get to that moment. The Water Tribesman needs a weapon he can competently handle. “Bottom drawer.”
Sokka glances up, brow quirked. “Excuse me?”
“Bottom drawer,” Zuko repeats, glaring. “Right side.” Rationale aside, he doesn’t have to like giving his enemy a weapon to use against him.
Looking torn between curiosity and bemusement, Sokka opens the bottom drawer. His eyes light up. “Boomerang!” He scoops the weapon up, clutching it to his chest as if it were an infant. “I knew you would come back,” he whispers melodramatically.
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Are you done?”
“Were you just going to let me walk out of here without it?” Sokka demands, but he sounds more teasing than angry. He sounds like he had when he thought Zuko was Lee.
“Yes,” Zuko replies flatly, already moving to the door.
Sokka considers the slight wobble of Zuko’s walk and says, “Hey, get some water before we go. You collapsing in the middle of our escape makes the whole escape plan seem less impressive, and that reflects on me.”
Zuko glares back at him. “We don’t have time for this,” he hisses, refusing to let his head get near that water, no matter how thirsty he may be. “-and I don’t take orders from peasants. We’re leaving.”
Sokka rolls his eyes, annoyed. “What is up with you? You obviously need it. It’s not like it’s going to bite y-” He breaks off, attention shifting abruptly from Zuko to the bucket to Yu. He doesn’t look frustrated or amused anymore. Zuko isn’t sure what to call this expression. Without another word, Sokka walks to the desk, grabbing the unused ink bowl and dipping it to its rim in the trough. He holds it out to Zuko. “Drink.”
Zuko stares, baffled.
"Drink,” Sokka repeats, brooking no denial, not forcing the bowl into Zuko’s hands but very nearly at that point.
Zuko takes it hesitantly. The moment he takes his first slow sip, he can’t help but gulp down the rest. It tastes as it had when he was thrashing just below the surface, like stagnant pondwater, but it might be the best thing he’s ever had. Sokka refills the bowl without being asked or asking anything in return. Zuko accepts it.
When he finishes his second bowl of water, feeling only a little nauseous from drinking so much at once, he places it back on Yu’s desk. He doesn’t meet Sokka’s eyes and refuses to even glance in the direction of the interrogator. “We need to go,” he mutters, face warm. “We’ve wasted too much time.”
Sokka nods without replying. As he walks to the door, he glances at Yu. The interrogator looks miserable, maybe because he’d betrayed his duty and maybe because he’d betrayed his duty for a bluff from a notoriously bad liar. Sokka’s eyes are narrow; his grip on the boomerang is tight.
Zuko frowns at the delay, beyond impatient. “We need to go.”
“Right,” Sokka says, tone subdued. He turns away from Yu. “Let’s get out of here.”
Sokka is silent as they move through the hall. Zuko takes advantage of this uncharacteristic blessing, his good ear perked for any sort of noise. He mostly hears the water slosh in his empty stomach. He feels ashamed for the way he’d behaved in the interrogation room, but if Sokka thinks he’s a coward, Zuko will prove him wrong. This promise buzzes in his mind, urging him along despite how exhaustion begs his surrender.
Sokka keeps to Zuko’s pace, but it’s clear he'd prefer going faster. Zuko forces his legs to pump, running until all he can hear is the rhythm of his steps against the stone and his own heavy breathing. The world around him feels distant and his vision speckles with static, but he doesn’t slow. He refuses to be dead weight.
It's just after the second turn that they hear the distant crash of metal slamming against stone. Shouts echo through the labyrinthine corridors, equal parts jubilant and furious.
Sokka frowns over his shoulder at the commotion. “I think they might have escaped. Any chance you can run faster?”
Zuko doesn’t think so, but he grunts and propels forward anyway. His ears are ringing, his mind is foggy, but they’re almost out. He can do this, he knows he can.
“The door shouldn’t be too much further,” says the Water Tribesman, squinting. “If Yu was telling the truth, we’re almost out.”
Zuko keeps going but the tunnel seems endless, the torches spanning on and on into oblivion and somehow the hall still seems darker with every foot forward, every step reverberating through him from head to toe, vibrating like the strings on a pipa. Even running as fast as he can, he realizes suddenly, he’s holding Walrus back. His rhythm falters and he stumbles.
The other man skids to a stop, twisting to backtrack. “Zuko-!”
“I’m fine,” he growls immediately, shoving him away. “Just-” He tries to stand, fails, then uses the wall to clamber back to his feet. “Just keep going. I’ll keep them busy.”
“Zuko, come on,” he insists exasperatedly. “You can barely stand; you can’t fight.”
“I’m not a coward.” Zuko raises the knife and turns his back. “I can always fight.”
“No offense, but the only way that tiny knife is going to save the day is if they all fall down laughing and accidentally stab each other.” Walrus shifts anxiously. “We need to go.”
Zuko shakes his head. He swears he can hear the metal footfalls approaching.
“There’s too many of them, Zuko,” Walrus insists. “We need to go.”
“Go, then. I won’t run.” The inscription on the knife glints: Never give up without a fight. His hold on the pearl handle tightens. It feels secure. The rest of him might well be floating.
Walrus rolls his eyes and backs up, holding his hands aloft dismissively. “Fine. Go don’t be a coward and immediately get captured, this time without a mastermind to set you free.”
Zuko grits his teeth.
“I’m sure your Uncle would be thrilled,” Walrus adds, still not leaving him behind.
Zuko falters, finally glancing back. The peasant watches him flatly, and he still isn’t running, even though Zuko told him to do so. Zuko’s blood rushes. He can’t hear the soldiers anymore past its roar. He can’t hear his own thoughts.
“Come on,” Walrus says then, grabbing Zuko’s wrist. “You can always come back later if you decide you want to be murdered today.”
Zuko allows himself to be dragged down the hall. He feels lighter than air, as if his limbs were balloons connected by thin strings. He wonders, absentmindedly, whether this is how air nomads feel. He remembers there aren’t any air nomads left and feels inexplicably sad. The tunnels seem much darker than before.
“You okay?” Walrus asks.
“I don’t know,” Zuko admits honestly. “I don’t think I can run much more. You- you need to keep going without me, Walrus. They can’t get both of us. “
“...you’re right,” says Walrus. “They can’t.”
Zuko prepares to be dropped, but isn’t. Walrus just keeps going, accepting more and more weight as Zuko’s legs begin to give out. “What are you doing?!”
“Just stay with me,” Walrus says. “Only a little further, then you can rest.”
“I don’t need rest,” Zuko grumbles.
“Right,” says Walrus. “Of course you don’t. My mistake.”
They slow down and Zuko glares blearily at the door in front of them.
Walrus hesitates. “This is either a way out,” he says. “-or it’s a fight.”
“I’m ready to fight,” Zuko promises, halfway on the ground and catching his breath.
“Obviously,” Walrus agrees. “And we don’t have much of a choice. Just trying to think of a better plan than walk in.”
Zuko thinks. “Give me fire,” he says.
“Buddy, I appreciate the input, but you’re a little less lucid than I need you to be.”
“The torch,” Zuko clarifies, closing his eyes. The rest, minor as it is, is clearing his mind a little. “I can’t make fire right now, but I can hold it and I can use it. I can distract them.”
Sokka shifts, then nods. “Okay.” He rests Zuko awkwardly against the wall, then retrieves a torch from the nearest sconce.
Zuko dips his fingers into the orange-red flames and lets a small portion pool in his hands. It's not at all like his inner fire, a desperate hungry scrap. This is real fire, fire that glows happily and spreads warmth into his skin, steady as a sleeping heartbeat. He swallows, then nods. “Open it.”
Yu had not lied, but his truth wasn’t quite complete. This is a way out- Zuko smells fresh mountain air and sees a steep path down and hears the distant cawing of nesting grouse-falcons- but it is also a guarded way out.
Two soldiers cock their helmets as the door opens; both stand as Zuko and Sokka step out.
“Stand down,” Zuko orders, firmly if a little raspily. “I am your Prince. ”
His answer, rather predictably, is a pair of fireballs.
“Worth a shot,” Sokka offers supportively, throwing his boomerang and watching as it sails over the ducking soldiers. “They might have gone for it.” It comes sailing right back in a perfect arc, ringing against the first soldier’s helmet and knocking them down.
Zuko winces sympathetically even as he blasts the second soldier with his borrowed fire. As they stumble back, Sokka chasing after with his freshly recovered boomerang raised like a club, Zuko clambers to ensure the first soldier is unconscious. He removes her helmet and delivers one swift hit to her temple. When he looks back, Sokka is just finishing up with the other soldier, shirt a little burned but expression thrilled.
“I just beat up two benders,” he says with a grin.
Zuko shrugs, trying not to seem too impressed. “The boomerang did most of the work.”
Sokka snorts as he begins to rifle around the soldier’s armor.
Zuko frowns. “What are you doing?”
“These are guards,” Sokka replies, continuing to search. “They sit out here for hours at a time doing nothing but keeping watch.”
Zuko raises an eyebrow. “So?”
“So I did the same thing back in my village. And the number one thing you need when keeping guard-” He removes a small bag from the soldier’s pocket. “-is snacks.”
Zuko’s eyes widen, and he quickly moves back to his soldier. He’s elated to find a small bag of jerky. He stuffs a few pieces in his mouth as he stands, then follows Sokka down the narrow path leading away from the cave entrance.
It’s a steep decline- and an even steeper drop with one misstep- so Zuko keeps his left hand on the cliffside for balance. He breathes steadily, lets the sunlight warm his skin, and breathes the freshest air he’s ever tasted. Every once in a while, even though he knows he should save it, he takes another bite of jerky.
Though they’re out of the prison, they’re not out of danger. Zuko needs to figure out where this leaves their tentative alliance. “We made it out,” he notes.
Though Sokka is facing forward, Zuko can hear his grin. “Told you my plan was great.”
“Your plan didn’t even work. We couldn’t use the window.”
“Eh, plans are made to be adjusted.”
“I don’t think you know what a plan is,” Zuko mutters, smiling a little. He can’t see Sokka’s face, only his back, and that makes it easy to fall into old patterns. His smile lessens. He needs to remember that this isn’t Walrus. Well, it is, but Walrus isn’t- he’s- Zuko needs to know where they stand, is all. If the plan is over…
“The path is widening out,” Sokka says. “Keep an eye out, but I think we’re almost in the clear.”
“Then…” Zuko hesitates, then nods decisively. “Then it’s time we split up.”
Sokka frowns over his shoulder. “What?”
“The plan was to work together until we escaped. We escaped.”
Sokka’s frown deepens. “Zuko, they’re going to come after us. In the state you’re in-”
“We said we would split up, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Zuko interrupts angrily, unwilling to hear the rest of that sentence. “I don’t need your help and I don’t want your pity.”
Sokka’s lips thin and he turns away. They continue their awkward march in silence, trying to keep a good pace while also avoiding a much faster, windier descent. Eventually, the path smooths into a small clearing. Bright green grass tickles Zuko’s exposed ankles. Just ahead, a small waterfall overflows into a river. It twists down a steep slope into the fog, its current fast and churning.
Both men rush to its banks, cupping their hands and taking a few sips. It tastes clean and fresh and it’s so cold Zuko nearly shivers. He’s so focused on this he hardly even hears Sokka’s next words:
“The path ends here.”
Zuko looks up, frowning as he discovers Sokka is right. The path led here and no further.
“The only way down,” continues the Water Tribesman, considering the water thoughtfully. “-is the river.”
Zuko nods and stands. “Fine.” As he takes his first step into the fast-flowing river, Sokka catches his arm and pulls him back.
“What are you doing ?” He demands, flabbergasted.
“I’m not afraid of water,” Zuko snaps.
Sokka’s expression flickers between irritated and irritatingly knowing. “I didn’t say you were.”
“You said this was the only way down.”
“Down where, Zuko? Where does it go?”
“I’ll figure that out when I get there!”
“Okay,” drawls Sokka, rolling his eyes. “You could do that, Mr. I-Don’t-Like-Thinking-Things-Through, but there’s a pretty good chance you’re just going to break a whole bunch of limbs or drown. We have no idea where that goes.”
Zuko glares. “It’s the only way down!”
“Yes,” Sokka agrees, like he’s stupid. “So they’ll assume we went that way.”
Zuko continues to glare. “So what?”
“The only way down,” Sokka repeats meaningfully, waggling his eyebrows.
Zuko is too surprised to keep up the glare. “You want to climb up?”
“Take it from a guy who travels with an Airbender: people don’t look up as often as they should.” He points across the river. "Just look."
Zuko does, frowning. There are cracks in the bedrock, he notices reluctantly, handholds to climb up towards where the water overflows. It would be a hard climb, but he’s climbed harder. “And when do we get down?”
“We wait until the heat dies down,” Sokka replies. He waits a beat. “Heat. Heat, Zuko.” Zuko has recovered his power to glare. “Look, we’d have ready access to water. You’d have the sun, which is a thing you apparently need. You- we could get back our strength. We could see if there’s a better way down somewhere else. We could-”
From somewhere too close, metal boots on stone interrupt his pitch.
“Time to decide,” Sokka says, already walking down the shore into the water.
Zuko shifts, glancing over his shoulder. “Fine,” he snaps finally, following. “But it’s a stupid plan.”
“As long as it’s as good as my last stupid plan, we’ll be fine.” Sokka cuts through to the other side of the river, stepping carefully on the rocky bed and not the mud. “Don’t leave footprints,” he advises.
Zuko nods, carefully choosing his steps.
Up close, the wall seems taller, but Zuko has gone through too much today to let that stop him. He climbs slower than Sokka, of course, but he still climbs, even when his limbs beg him to just let go. When he has nearly reached the jagged top, Sokka hoists him up the rest of the way. Zuko collapses on the stone, chest heaving.
He closes his eyes and focuses on breathing. When he opens them again, he is fairly certain he has begun to hallucinate.
The peasant is taking off his shirt.
“What are you doing?” He growls.
“Selling it,” Sokka answers, throwing the bundle of fabric into the river.
Both men stare as it is caught by angry currents, pulled down and almost out of sight. Zuko is about to demand what the hell that was about when he hears-
“I saw him! I saw the Waterbender!”
“Where is he?”
“They went down the river-!”
“Well- well, go after him!”
“You serious, Jee? The only way I’d survive is if I were a Waterbender. We- we’ve gotta get a hawk down there fast!”
“We need to send a missive to Admiral Zhao-!”
“-where the hell is Yu-?!”
There is a great deal of cursing and frantic yelling, but Sokka was right. No one looks up. No one even thinks to look up. The next time he chases the Avatar, Zuko decides, he is going to look up every damn chance he gets.
The voices slowly drift away, metal boots stomping up the cliffside, and then the only noise is the roaring waterfall.
“I can’t believe that worked,” Zuko breathes, resting back against the stone. The late afternoon sun warms his skin. His thirst is quenched, his hunger is lessened, and his exhaustion is complete. If he weren't sitting a foot from a man who hated him, he might even sleep.
“I can,” Sokka replies pompously. He removes his bag of jerky. “My plans are beautiful. Now we just relax and leave whenever we feel like it.” He takes a bite of the meat. “You know, seal jerky is better- obviously- but this isn’t half bad. What kind of meat is this?”
Zuko slumps. “Turtleduck.”
Sokka frowns at the negative reaction, looking back at the jerky with concern. “What, are they super gross or something?” He stares warily for a moment longer before shrugging and eating it anyway.
“No,” Zuko replies tiredly. “They’re just cute.”
For a moment, it’s quiet.
Then Sokka begins laughing, loud and clear and with no apparent interest in keeping their location secret.
“Shut up-!” Zuko demands, properly offended, cheeks burning with embarrassment. What was wrong with him? Why had he said that? They are cute, but you don’t just say that-
“No, no,” Sokka manages. “It’s just-” He takes a break from cackling just long enough to exclaim: "Aang is gonna love you!”
Zuko watches his enemy rolling with laughter and wonders if, maybe, he would have been better off braving the river.
Now that they're out and other people aren't trying to kill them, how long until they try to kill each other? Zuko votes one hour, Sokka is making best friend bracelets.
Chapter 5: The Second Escape
This chapter works best if you listen to Benny Hill music on a loop.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko is exhausted.
He’s definitely been more exhausted in his life- he’s just not sure when.
Above them stretches an impossibly vast lilac sky, interrupted only by thin clouds and the occasional over-eager star. Zuko stares up at it, searching for constellations in the lingering twilight, but it’s too early for any real identifications to be made. Still, after weeks locked away in a small stone cell, these few lonesome stars may be the most satisfying things he’s ever seen.
While freedom may be satisfying, it’s also cold. He draws his knees to his chest and wraps his arms around them, desperate to ward off the encroaching chill. He doesn’t dare try to make a campfire, both because it could attract attention and because it would waste energy he doesn’t have to give. His inner fire feels more like a neighboring ember. He shifts. The cold might be a blessing. If it were warmer, he might actually fall asleep.
He blinks very slowly.
Several feet away, Sokka blinks very slowly, too.
The Water Tribesman had offered to take the first watch. Zuko had politely declined, and offered to take it himself. Sokka had also declined.
Sooner or later, Zuko thinks, one of them will fall asleep.
It will not be him.
“So,” says Sokka, as ever at odds with peace and quiet. “You’re Prince Zuko.”
Zuko glares over his knees. “Obviously.”
“Not as obvious as you’d think,” Sokka replies matter-of-factly.
The Water Tribesman is laid out on his side as if eager to tempt his palpable exhaustion. Zuko has chosen a much more sensible position: sitting upright against the stone so that the uneven rock digs into the small of his back, a constant reminder to keep his eyes open. Both men have carefully selected positions as far away from the other as possible, a difficult task on a ledge half the size of Zuko’s chamber on the Wani. The slightest breeze might knock the peasant down into the clearing below.
“Although,” Sokka drawls when Zuko doesn’t respond. “-looking back, it should have been obvious: fancy fire fighter with an honor-obsession and an abiding passion for shouting. Can’t be too many of those running around.” He shudders dramatically. “Spirits, I hope there aren’t.”
Zuko increases the intensity of his glare, but it’s in vain. Sokka is in the midst of a very long blink. Just when the Prince begins to relax, certain he’s outlasted the enemy, those blue eyes ease open once more.
“You know,” he says. “I have questions.”
Zuko scowls at the sheer impertinence of the implied request. “I don’t care.”
“-and,” Sokka continues loudly, sitting up and pointing. “-I bet you have some, too.”
“Why would I have questions?” Zuko scoffs. “What does a peasant know that I don’t?”
Sokka shrugs idly. “Information about the Avatar?”
Zuko stills. “You wouldn’t tell me that,” he accuses carefully.
“I don’t know,” Sokka replies, digging into the cracks of his teeth with his pinky fingernail. He wrestles for a moment, then flicks away a small shred of turtleduck. “I might.”
“I’m not giving you Fire Nation intelligence,” Zuko says immediately, ignoring the way his heart skips a beat at the very possibility of a lead. “-and I don’t need your help tracking down the Avatar. I’ve found him before and I’ll find him again.”
“Sounds time-consuming,” Sokka decides, his tone still deceptively light. “Besides, maybe I don’t want Fire Nation intelligence.”
That steals the air from Zuko’s next retort. He hesitates, trying to find the trick. There must be one. Sokka may be a moron, but he’s not stupid. “What would you want?”
“Simple stuff,” Sokka assures. “No need to tell me troop formations or battle plans or the Firelord’s allergies.” He grins. “Unless you really want to.”
Zuko thinks. This must be why Sokka hadn’t just killed him when he had the chance. With Zuko out of the way, the Avatar and his little band of fugitives would have had one fewer enemy at their heels. Whatever information he wants from Zuko must be important.
...But what could he possibly know worth the trouble of dragging his dead weight around during the escape? It’s not as though Father keeps him apprised of anything crucial to the war effort. He doesn’t even respond to letters. He- he understands Zuko needs to focus on the Avatar, after all.
But Sokka doesn’t know that. He thinks Zuko has information he needs, and if he were really willing to offer information on the Avatar… Zuko could use that.
Zuko has been locked in a Fire Nation prison for weeks for a crime he’d committed and then lied about committing. Not only that, he’d escaped- helped the Avatar’s ally escape. But if he succeeded in this, the entire thing could be excused. Who would care about a few small treasons if he sailed into Caldera with the Avatar in chains?
Father wouldn’t listen to Zhao, wouldn’t even ask about the Blue Spirit. He would- he’d-
The mental image flickers into a strange static. How would Father behave if he were proud of his eldest child? Zuko isn’t sure. All he knows is that he wants to know.
“Look,” Sokka says, and Zuko is suddenly aware he’s been quiet too long. He’d begun to slump. “How about you sleep on it?”
“It’s your turn to sleep,” Zuko counters promptly, glaring his way out of the mild doze.
“Uh, no. You need to sleep, bud.” Zuko opens his mouth to argue, but the Water Tribesman raises a hand. “You do, Zuko. The only thing keeping you conscious right now is stubborn spite, and while I get that that’s your thing, maybe consider branching out. I promise you can shout more in the morning. I’ll even get my ears ready,” he adds, wiggling them obnoxiously.
Zuko glares, unamused. “I’m fine,” he insists stonily. “I’ll keep watch.”
Sokka groans, exasperated. “Honestly, hearing that you’ll watch me while I sleep is horrifying.”
“Keep watch,” Zuko snaps, embarrassed despite himself. “I wouldn’t watch you.”
“Still a horrifying prospect,” Sokka retorts indignantly.
Zuko glares, but understands. If Sokka wanted him dead, he could have ensured it this afternoon. He needs answers and won’t want to kill Zuko until he has them. Zuko hadn’t had a chance to kill him this afternoon, and has been clear that he wants their partnership to end.
He should probably feel proud that he’s intimidated one of the Avatar’s lackeys, but he doesn’t. Zuko wouldn’t kill his worst enemy in such a dishonorable way, and Sokka is far from that. Sokka saved his life. Sokka was Walrus.
“I-” Zuko falters. “If you’re worried,” he tries again, looking anywhere but at the peasant. “I wouldn’t. Hurt you, I mean. In your sleep?”
“You sound so unsure of that,” Sokka observes, wincing.
“I’m not unsure!” He snaps. “I wouldn’t do that! I’m not like that. I’m-” He thinks of a better way to do this, then continues, calmer, “On my honor, as the son of Lady Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, I will not harm you while you sleep, Sokka of the Southern Watertribe.”
Sokka raises an eyebrow. “What, is that some fancy oath of honor?”
Zuko grinds his teeth. “Yes.”
“That’s so cool,” Sokka sighs. “We don’t have anything like that. We just...shake hands. ”
Zuko blinks, a little surprised. He’d assumed Sokka was mocking the practice. “You can...borrow it?”
Sokka glances up, amused. “Borrow it?”
“If you have a pledge to make,” Zuko explains, feeling stupid. Why had he said that? Before Sokka can even consider replying, Zuko crosses his arms and scowls away. “Whatever, if you don’t believe me-”
“I believe you,” Sokka interrupts. “But I can wait. You need-”
“You’re tired and it’s your turn,” Zuko asserts flatly. “I’ll keep-” watch. “-an eye out.” He glares, challenging the Water Tribesman to doubt his oath of honor.
He doesn’t. Sokka just nods. With no further complaint, he lays down, pillows his arms beneath his head, and begins snoring.
He cannot possibly be asleep already.
Zuko stares, halfway tempted to poke him for confirmation. He resists the urge and turns his attention back up to the sky. It’s finally dark enough to see the stars. The constellations are familiar, but tell him no more than he’d already guessed. It seems they’re still on the Western coast of the Earth Kingdom. A day or two walk from the port where he’d been captured, he decides, if they’re in the mountains he thinks they’re in.
He wonders, suddenly, how he will find Uncle.
The ship won’t still be there. Why would it be? He can’t ask anyone where it might be stationed without risking his freedom. Until he clears up this misunderstanding, he’ll be a target. And for all he knows, Uncle has already headed back to the Fire Nation anyway.
Escape seemed so impossible that he’d never thought beyond getting outside. He’d never wondered about how he would find his ship or how he could explain away his choices. At least Uncle would understand. He hides it better, but he doesn’t like Zhao any more than Zuko does, and he knows that the Admiral had been out to get him. He would talk to Father, if it became necessary. He would say Zuko wasn’t the Blue Spirit.
Would he lie, if they asked whether Zuko were on the ship that night?
It would be demanding more from a man who’d already given up everything for his failure of a nephew. He can’t expect Uncle Iroh to lie to the Fire Lord.
Zuko swallows. There’s only one way all of this is forgiven.
And if Sokka is really offering intelligence that could help, Zuko would be a fool to turn him away. There’s going to be a trick of course, there always is, but Zuko can handle himself.
He will capture the Avatar and deliver him to the Fire Lord. He’ll regain his honor and his home and his life.
Decision made, Zuko lets his mind wander somewhere pleasant. He imagines Zhao’s face the moment he realizes his prisoners have escaped.
The picture is more satisfying than the infinite sky.
Dawn trickles in a lifetime later. Zuko’s eyes keep slipping shut, and his chin keeps dipping down. If it weren’t for his bony knees, he probably would have succumbed completely. Sokka has continued to sleep soundly, his snores rivaling the volume of the churning waterfall. He’s also flopped around a lot; there were several times Zuko was prepared to catch him before he rolled right off the ledge.
When he’s abruptly silent and not flailing like a dying fish, Zuko knows he’s awake. He tries not to react, but can’t help it; his shoulders stiffen and his breaths slow.
Sokka turns his head, regarding Zuko sleepily. “You’re still here.”
Zuko frowns. “Was I supposed to leave?”
“No,” Sokka says, slowly sitting up. He drags his palms against his eyes, yawning wide like a hippo-cat. “Just wasn’t sure.” He squints towards the Western mountains. The view is mostly obscured by rolling pink-and-yellow fog, but a few peaks pierce through. “Is it dawn ? I haven’t woken up at dawn since-” He breaks off to consider. “Never,” he decides, stunned. “I thought dawn was a myth.”
Zuko can’t tell whether he’s joking or if this is some strange way of breaking the tension, but he doesn’t care either way. His response to such an inane comment can only be a glare.
“I see you’ve gotten a headstart on being cranky,” Sokka observes under his breath. He shivers. “Spirits, why is it so cold.”
“You threw your shirt away,” Zuko answers with little sympathy.
“In order to save the day,” Sokka replies promptly. “You’re welcome.” He shivers again and wraps his lanky arms around his abdomen. “Well, it’s your turn to get some sleep.”
“You said you would tell me where the Avatar was,” Zuko reminds him, unwilling to get side-tracked with another pointless argument.
Sokka considers. “I said I might,” he says finally. “-if you answered my questions.”
“So ask,” Zuko insists, rising to the challenge.
Sokka opens his mouth as if that’s just what he intends to do, but then he closes it again. He hesitates. “Food. We should get food.”
“Is that all you think about?” Zuko snipes.
“Sometimes I diversify,” Sokka assures. “That’s when I drink.”
“Where do you expect to find anything to eat? We’re not exactly in a marketplace.”
“Not one I’d recommend,” Sokka admits. “Honestly, not sure there’s much around here. We may have to get going as soon as you’ve slept.”
“We can leave now,” Zuko says immediately. “I’m fine.”
“You are not -”
“I’ve rested all night,” Zuko counters. “I’ve eaten. I’ve had water. I’m ready.”
“Zuko-” Sokka breaks off and pinches the bridge of his nose. “How are you alive? Who made you sleep before I came along?”
“Uncle,” Zuko answers before realizing it was probably a rhetorical question. He sneers to cover up the stupid answer. “And I don’t need any more of your plans. You may be too scared to leave, but I’m not.” He stands. “I don’t need a peasant to-”
“Yes, yes, you’re so royal and fancy,” Sokka assures, still lazily sprawled on the stone. “I’m incredibly impressed.”
“You should be,” Zuko snaps, simmering and already a little light-headed.
“I am,” Sokka promises, a lot like someone who wasn’t all that impressed with Zuko’s royal heritage would sound. The peasant considers. “How about this: on my honor, as the son of Lady Kya and Chief Hakoda, I will not harm you while you sleep, Zuko of the Fire-”
“Stop there,” Zuko interrupts, ears burning.
Sokka frowns. “What, did I get it wrong? Do I not say that part?”
“You said it fine. I get it.” Zuko may collapse more than sit, but he is successfully on the ground. He says, for the record, “I wasn’t scared that you’d attack.”
“I didn’t say you were. I was just offering peace of mind.”
“I don’t need peace of mind,” Zuko snarls. Sokka raises his hands in surrender. He doesn’t say anything, perhaps sensing Zuko’s wavering opposition. It’s just- he’s so tired. And it’s probably better that he be fully rested when Sokka no longer needs him alive. “We’ll leave as soon as I sleep? And you’ll tell me about the Avatar?”
“If that’s what you want,” Sokka agrees easily.
Zuko lays back very uncomfortably. His heart is pounding. He knows Sokka won’t hurt him, probably, not yet, but- he might dream. “Fine. Whatever.”
“Thank you,” offers Sokka amiably.
Zuko stares straight up. He can feel the sun slowly rising up in the East, and it’s soothing despite everything. He remains ramrod stiff.
“Hey,” says Sokka. “I’m gonna go down to the clearing.”
Zuko frowns at him. “What? Why?”
“See if there’s any food. You know, plants. Like...meat eats. Don’t worry, I’ll shout if I’m being brutally murdered.” Without waiting for a reply, he disappears over the ledge.
Zuko settles back down and lets his breaths slow. He observes the sky through half-lidded eyes, the currents of wispy white on blue. It reminds him of Uncle. A lifetime ago, they’d sat together on some quiet Caldera beach, watching as the clouds rolled slowly overhead. He’d commented, stupid and garrulous with youth, that it reminded him of the sea. That is the sea, Uncle had replied. The clouds that play in your sky once swam in your grandfather’s ocean. While it is all the same water, it changes into many different shapes. That, for instance, is a hog-monkey.
Zuko had burst into surprised laughter. Lu Ten had snorted like a hog-monkey and made him laugh even harder.
This is the last thing Zuko remembers before he slips into dreamless oblivion.
Zuko wakes up to conversation. It twists his stomach agitatedly, and he’s not sure why until he starts to ask and a hand presses against his lips. He shifts forward, prepared to fight, when it clicks. He’s not at home. He’s not on the ship.
He’s nowhere conversation should be.
Sokka must see the understanding in his expression, for he slowly withdraws his hand.
“How many?” Zuko asks, voice low enough to be drowned in the roar of the waterfall.
“Three,” Sokka whispers. “Still want to leave?”
“I have a plan. This one is actually stupid. Want to try it?”
“They’re all actually stupid,” Zuko whispers back.
“Fine,” he hisses. “Yes.”
It is a stupid plan, but Zuko is slowly gaining faith in stupidity.
There are three soldiers eating their lunch beside the river, two of whom seem about the right size. Once he and Zuko are disguised, they can march right through the tunnels to find a better way out, not to mention whatever they’re eating smells great-
“-wait, wait,” Zuko interrupts. “How do we make sure they won’t follow us? If they tell anyone we stole their armor, they’ll question every guard they find. They’d find us.”
Sokka stares at him. “Are you kidding? There’s a river. We toss them in.”
Zuko crosses his arms. “No.”
“They’d die. ”
“We don’t know that,” Sokka tries.
“New plan,” Zuko insists.
“Seriously? They’ve held you prisoner for weeks. They hurt you!”
Zuko doesn’t back down. They’re Fire Nation citizens, and he is their Prince. He won’t hold them responsible for his mistakes. “ We are not killing them.”
“Zuko -” Sokka sighs. “I was really hoping you were going to be the rational okay-with-killing member of the group. But no, just another turtleduck-loving pacifist.”
“I’m fine with killing,” he defends, glaring. “I’m a soldier and Prince of the Fire Nation and I would proudly kill if it became necessary. Happily. I love k-”
“I get it, I get it,” Sokka interrupts exasperatedly, rolling his eyes. “You’re bloodthirsty. You’re killing me right now. ”
“It’s not necessary here,” Zuko asserts earnestly.
“Have you got any bright non-lethal ideas?”
Zuko shrugs. “I’m not the mastermind.”
“Fair point,” Sokka allows, mildly appeased. He cups his chin, index finger tapping rhythmically against his cheek.
“What if we kept climbing?” Zuko poses after a moment. “There might be another way.”
“I took a look around while you were sleeping,” Sokka replies. “It’s a steep climb up with no guarantee of a safe way down the other side. Maybe if we had rope, or a giant trampoline, or a handy Airbender...As it is, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
“Even if we go back into the prison, we don’t know the way out,” Zuko points out. “The tunnels run for miles. If they know we’re impersonating soldiers and there are two soldiers wandering in circles, they’ll figure it out.”
Sokka bobs his head. “If they know we’re impersonating soldiers." Then, beseechingly, “They could be really good swimmers.”
“I said no-!” Zuko roars before slapping a hand over his mouth, horrified.
“What was that?” Wonders an unfamiliar voice a dozen feet down.
Zuko and Sokka exchange panicked looks.
“You hear that?” The voice insists unhelpfully. “Sounded like a shout.”
“Nah, it’s those damn grouse-falcons. Mating season.”
“If that was a bird, I’m the Avatar.”
“Hey, we finally got him!”
“Yeah, funny stuff. You gonna keep laughing when Zhao roasts us all for losing his bait?”
“Eh, you might be deep-fried, there, Wenti.”
“Will you both keep quiet ?! I’m telling you, it was a person. It could be-”
The soldiers startle backwards as their Prince drops from the sky into a perfect fighting stance. “Surrender,” he orders.
For a moment, the only noise is the churning water and the distant sound of a palm smacking a forehead.
Then they attack.
Feeling more rested than he has in weeks, Zuko easily dodges the barrage of fireballs. Only two of them seem to be benders and, while they’re trained well, they don’t hold a candle to his sparring partners on the Wani. Zuko hurls a flaming arc towards their heads, then sweeps their feet as they sway off balance. Both collapse into the grass with loud grunts.
Behind him, Sokka attacks the largest of the three soldiers. His tactic revolves primarily around shouting insults while trying and failing to hit his opponent with a boomerang. Zuko doesn’t bother with concern; Sokka can handle them. And, if he can’t, he can at least play distraction until Zuko can help.
As one of Zuko’s opponents toddle awkwardly back to their feet, the other rushes forward. They leap to perform a flawless spinning hook kick, a whoosh! of red-hot flame chasing their heel. It would probably be impressive if Zuko hadn’t drilled this exact scenario a dozen times. He jabs his hand through the flames, parting the fire like a curtain, and grabs the soldier’s ankle. He jerks it forward, knocking them off balance and back to the ground. He slams the helmet against the dirt for good measure, then quickly dodges a blast of fire from his left.
The second soldier is just as easy to put down. They seem more panicked and a little less experienced. Zuko lets himself feel amused as fire sails past him and through him. Zhao has certainly downgraded since he was in charge of the Yuyan Archers.They would have been prepared for battle, lunch break or not.
He turns from his fallen opponents just in time to watch as Sokka’s boomerang finally makes contact with his enemy. He and Zuko watch in tandem as the soldier belly-flops into the river. “Accident,” Sokka squeaks as Zuko barrels past him.
He groans as he drags the unconscious body free of the current and back onto the shore, sweating profusely and suddenly aware of his own exhaustion. He hasn’t moved like that in weeks. It was exhilarating in the moment, but now…
They stare at the three bodies. Zuko shifts, feeling less than thrilled with the success.
There isn’t even any food left. It’s all been trampled.
Sokka glances at him. “Now what?”
“Now we-” Zuko has no idea. “We change. Put on the armor.”
“Then comes later,” Zuko says as he stomps over to one of the unconscious benders. He quickly and grumpily begins tearing off the armor.
Sokka sighs but follows his lead. “They’re going to wake up.”
“I know that.”
“I know that! ” Zuko hisses, furiously squeezing into the slightly-too-small under-armour. “Don’t you have any ideas?”
“Obviously. I was just curious where this whole thing was going. I mean, there's no way you just jumped off a cliff with no plan?...Right?” Zuko fumes quietly and focuses on adjusting his chestpiece. “Is this how you chased us?” Sokka wonders, sounding honestly baffled. “How have you almost captured us so much?"
“I did capture you!” Zuko snaps. “Multiple times!”
“Not me,” Sokka denies, raising his hands. “My extremely naive companions. A gilnet could capture them.”
“Well.” Zuko falters. He pulls on the helmet. It severely limits his vision, something that may prove problematic in the low-lit tunnels, especially if they need to fight. For now, he flips up the visor. “I never wanted to capture you, did I?”
“Don’t see why not.” Sokka flips up his visor, too, revealing a flat expression. “I am a delight.” Before Zuko can reply, he begins walking. “If you insist they don't go swimming today, we have to hurry and get to the guardpost.”
Zuko follows, loud and heavy. “The guardpost?”
“Just let me do the talking,” Sokka instructs as they maneuver up the narrow path. “And don’t attack before I tell you to. The plan before was stupid. This one?” He taps down his visor. “Idiotic.”
As before, there are two guards when they reach the guardpost. They’re leaning back on the wall and absentmindedly tossing a small ball of flame back and forth. As Zuko and Sokka come around the bend, the ball twists to fling towards them.
It remains more playful than offensive, so Zuko merely throws it back, resisting the urge to turn it into an attack.
The ball fizzles in the first Guard’s palm. “Weren't there three of you?”
“Wenti is still eating,” Sokka replies readily.
“Lucky him,” they grumble. “I’m starved. We’ve been out here all damn morning.”
“Go grab some lunch,” Sokka suggests. “We can cover.”
The soldiers hesitate, glancing at each other. “You’re sure?”
Sokka nods. “Yeah, we should probably wait for him anyway. And you know him- that’ll be ages.”
The guards laugh and enter the fortress, chatting idly as they go about what foods might be available, any potential suspicion allayed by their empty stomachs.
Zuko furrows his brow. “What is this? Why didn’t we fight them? What are we doing?”
“We’re going to cover for them. Your job,” says Sokka firmly. “-is to remain silent. You understand?”
Zuko bristles. “I will not be ordered around by some-”
“Zuko, I will not bet my freedom on your ability to improvise. Turn me into slush? ”
Zuko crosses his arms. “Fine. But this is stupid. ”
“Stupid like an owl-fox,” Sokka preens, flipping up his visor just to wink.
They’ve been inexplicably standing guard for less than five minutes when they hear shouting. Three guards scramble into view, the two half-dressed soldiers leading the way.
“They’re still on the mountain!” Shouts the scrawnier of the two, tearing towards the guardpost. “They’re still here-!”
Sokka cocks his helmet at the outburst. “What’re you doing down here? Didn’t you just go in?”
“That wasn’t us!” He exclaims furiously. “That was them! Prince Zuko and the Waterbender! They never left- they attacked us and stole our armor! They’re still here! ”
Sokka gasps. Zuko does, too, a second late.
The second soldier appears horrified. “They came this way? They’re inside?!”
“They- they just walked by us! We thought they were you!” Sokka gasps again, loudly and a little too dramatically in Zuko’s opinion. “They must be headed for the main exit!”
“We gotta stop them!” Roars Wenti, barreling through the door.
Zuko and Sokka follow at his heels, storming through the tunnels they’d once fled. As per his promise, Zuko remains quiet. He does not mention, even a little bit, that his soldiers would not have been fooled by a ruse this stupid.
Impossibly, the guards do lead the way to the main exit, a dozen turns and twists away from the guardpost. When they come to the massive doors, flanked on either side by six elite guards, they quickly explain the problem.
“They haven’t come this way,” says the lead guard unsurely. “I mean, we had some supplies dropped off a little while ago, but they’re the only ones that came through this way.”
“We’ll check in with them,” Sokka says authoritatively. “Just to be sure. They stole armor-” He gestures to the shivering half-dressed men hovering behind him. “-so they may have snuck out with our soldiers.” He stalks forward and the doors open for him. Zuko and a few others follow at his heels. “Don’t let anyone else through here!” Sokka orders over his shoulder.
“Yes, sir!” Shouts the Fire Nation guard to the Water Tribe peasant.
The road is initially steep and well worn stone but, after a couple miles, it becomes less of a road and more of a large dirt path. It leaves behind rocky terrain and winds its way into thick forest; while the shade is a blessing, the path is perilously uneven. Zuko stares at his boots, trying his best to avoid raised roots and small holes even as he keeps his ears perked for conversation. There are four additional soldiers here, unknowns who could be suspicious, and he needs to be ready if one decides to act on those suspicions. Given their current pace, they should catch up to the supply cart soon. Zuko has no idea what Sokka plans to do then. They're already dangerously outnumbered.
From far away, thunder rolls loud and low like a Pasi Gong.
A soldier drifts uncomfortably close. “Hey there.”
Zuko stares at his feet. “Hi.”
“Yes,” says Zuko stiffly, glancing up, relief that it’s Sokka battling annoyance that it’s Sokka. “Obviously.”
“Lee who likes turtleducks?”
Zuko stalks forward.
Sokka adjusts his own pace, remaining directly at his side. “If you’re Lee who likes turtleducks, you have to tell me. Everyone looks the same in this armor.”
“Yes,” Zuko hisses. “It’s me. What do you want?”
“Honestly?” The armored figure shrugs. “Just wanted to say, real quick, ‘Can you believe that worked?’ Because I can’t believe it worked.”
Zuko scowls. “You didn’t think your own plan would work?”
“I mean, that flawlessly? Not really. That said, I think it’s about time we lose these guys. I’d rather not have to fight off an entire supply guard.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” he admits.
Sokka pauses. “So, we can definitely beat them up, right? It’d be almost boringly easy?”
“Of course," Zuko says with more confidence than he really feels.
“Want to try one more stupid plan? Just for fun? If it fails, we’ll just hit them.”
Zuko hesitates, reluctantly intrigued. They should just attack, but... “What is it?”
Sokka stops suddenly. “Did you hear that?” He asks loudly.
The other soldiers slow, glancing out into the dark forest. “...hear what?”
“Shh,” Sokka orders, holding up a hand. “They’re here. I know it.”
“Obviously the Prince,” hisses one of the other soldiers.
Thunder rolls again, loud and ominous.
Sokka steps towards the edge of the forest. “Did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear anything,” says someone nervously.
“I think I heard it,” Zuko offers. He can’t believe this is working.
“I think I heard it, too,” adds someone else.
“They’re here,” Sokka says surely. “We need to split up, two to a team. Don’t get separated and send a flare if you find them. Admiral Zhao wants them alive and he wants them yesterday, understand? Do it!”
Zuko trots to Sokka’s side as the others quickly split into teams themselves. They march into the woods, each in a different direction.
Sokka’s helmet regards him. “...Lee?”
“Yes,” Zuko hisses.
“...I can not believe that worked.”
Okay, they're out of the mountain range and officially free. All that's left are a few casual not-at-all-anger-inducing questions and then it's right back to Avatar Hunting Season (Sokka maintains it's Fire Lord Season).
Getting from Point A to Point B took wayyy longer than I initially expected, so I chopped this chapter in half (it was getting to be a behemoth). The next part is already written and will probably be up pretty soon.
Thank you so much to everyone who left comments/kudos!!
They walk in silence.
It’s harder to walk in the woods than on the main road, but Zuko refuses to lift the visor. One glimpse of his true face would ruin everything. He swears he can still hear the occasional crack of twigs or distant conversation, and he’s not willing to risk it.
Sokka doesn’t speak, and Zuko can’t tell whether it’s caution or discomfort. Now that they’re really out, the only thing left to do is exchange information and part ways. Zuko still isn’t sure what he’ll do after that, but he’s anxious to get to it anyway. The last few days have been... confusing.
In the cell, Walrus wasn’t just an ally, despite what Zuko might have told himself. He was a source of comfort. He was a friend. Always a temporary friend, Zuko always knew he’d hate Zuko if he really knew who he was, but- he was still a friend. He didn’t mock Zuko for being weak, or despise him for being on the other side of the war.
But now they’re out, and Walrus is Sokka, and so Walrus hates him.
It’s not as if he cares what Sokka thinks of him, of course, because the man is just some peasant, an enemy of the Fire Nation, an ally of the Avatar, someone who’d- who’d carried Zuko through the mountain, fought alongside him, kept watch as he’d slept, even knowing his identity. When Zuko wanted mercy for Fire Nation soldiers who didn’t deserve to die, when he’d spoken out with no real right to do so...Sokka had listened.
He was his enemy. Why had he done that? Why had he done that when-
He trips over a large root and pitches face-forward into the ground. When Sokka moves to help him, Zuko quickly shoves him back. “Get off!”
“Geez, sorry. Didn’t realize you meant to fall on your face.”
Zuko clambers to his feet, marching forward a little faster. He needs to stop thinking like this. Sokka is the enemy. Walrus was always an enemy. He is not out here to commit further treason. He isn’t. He’s learned the damn lesson.
Thunder rolls, closer now than before.
“I’m fine,” he snaps. “Why do you keep asking that?”
“You keep getting injured,” Sokka answers, shrugging.
“There should be a town up ahead,” Zuko says instead of responding. “If we’re where I think we are, we can get there in a few hours.”
“Good,” he replies evenly. For a few moments, the only sound is the crunching of leaves and sticks underfoot. Sokka can’t let the quiet last. “What are you going to do after that?”
“I’m going to find my ship,” Zuko says. “I’m going to find my Uncle, and I’m going to find the Avatar.” He glares at his companion, daring him to challenge the goal, but Sokka can’t see his glare through the mask and he can’t see Sokka’s reaction through his.
“Hm.” He doesn’t sound intimidated. “And you call my plans stupid.”
“It’s not stupid,” Zuko snarls. “Do you honestly think my Father will care about any of this if I return with the Avatar?”
“Hm,” Sokka hums again, unimpressed. “And you’re going to find your ship how exactly?”
“I’m going to figure that out,” Zuko says, scowling down at his boots.
“Oh, good. As long as you have a plan.”
“This was a misunderstanding,” he insists, annoyed with himself for getting caught up in another pointless argument but also unwilling to lose another pointless argument. “Once it’s cleared up, I’ll get my ship and the Avatar.”
“Oh, right, the misunderstanding. Because you’re not the Blue Spirit.”
“Of course I’m not,” Zuko agrees angrily.
“Hm,” hums Sokka a third time.
“Will you stop that?” Zuko snaps, turning from the ground to glare. He remembers it’s pointless seconds before he trips over a rock; Sokka catches him before he even hits the ground.
“Are you having trouble seeing through the mask?”
Zuko’s face flushes as he frantically pulls free. “I can see fine. I don’t need your help.”
“We’re far enough from the others. You can flip it up.”
“I can see.”
“Fine,” Sokka says. “I’m doing mine, though. Way too humid.” He flips up his visor and makes a big show of breathing deep. “Ahh, the sweet smell of freedom.”
Zuko ignores him and focuses on not falling a third time.
“You know,” Sokka says after a few minutes have passed. “You helped me first.”
“You said you didn't want my help,” Sokka elaborates, staring straight forward. His expression is contemplative, serious, like it had been in Yu’s chamber. “But the thing is, in the cave, you helped me first. All you knew about me was that I was an enemy and that I was cold. And you helped.”
Zuko falters. “I didn’t- that wasn’t anything. ”
“You firebent when you could barely stand,” Sokka replies crossly. “It hurt you to help, and you helped anyway.”
“So what?” Zuko snaps, feeling defensive. “I didn’t even know who you were. It doesn’t matter. It’s not like I would do it again.”
“Right.” Thunder cracks close, and the air tastes like fresh ozone. Sokka squints up at the treetops. The sky is only visible in patches through the thick foliage, but what sneaks past is a foreboding gray. “We should find some shelter pretty soon.”
Zuko sneers. “You’re going to let a little rain stop you?”
“Do you wanna march in wet metal boots? I’m down a sock! We should stop, at least until it passes.”
Lightning flashes, drenching everything in a split-second sheen of pure light, including Sokka’s hopeful expression.
“Fine,” Zuko grumbles. His slightly-too-tight shoes are already miserable, anyway.
They eventually find a mammoth tree on its side, hollowed by rot and age. Dark green moss climbs up its shattered bark, soft and already moist. It’s only drizzling now, but there’s a tension in the air which suggests it will be a brutal storm. They sit within the deteriorating sanctuary and listen as the rain picks up its pace, from a meandering patter to a ferocious roar.
Sokka removes his upper armor, complaining as he does so about its unnecessarily pointed shoulders and cumbersome chest plates. He then leans forward, holding out his helmet to collect rainwater. He takes a sip and grimaces. “Ugh, tastes like Firebender dandruff. Fire flakes. ”
Zuko rolls his eyes as he removes his own chestplate, but carefully rinses his helmet before letting it fill. When he drinks, it’s cold and fresh.
“On the bright side,” Sokka remarks, settling back against the bark. “This probably sucks for everyone chasing us, too. Plus they think I’m a waterbender, so they’re probably terrified.”
Zuko ignores him, sick of talking. Sick of being confused. That’s all he’s been since the Stronghold. He fiddles with the loose string of his shirt, annoyed to find it further frayed.
“Keep pulling that thread, it’s going to unravel,” Sokka warns, noticing the movement. “And then you’ll be shirtless and cold and no one will give you any sympathy.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zuko replies flatly. “It’s already ruined.”
“Well, you could always turn it into something else, then.”
Zuko frowns up. “Something else?”
“Sure, no sense wasting good material. You could weave it into something new. Like... rope. Who doesn’t need rope? As long as, y’know, you’ve got the patience to make it into rope. Hm, is that silk?” He considers. “Probably better to just buy new rope, actually. And a new shirt. You’re rich, aren’t you?”
No longer listening, Zuko just stares at the unraveling thread. At the possibilities.
“You said you had questions,” he notes slowly.
Sokka sips his water. “I did.”
“And that if I answered them, you would offer information on the Avatar.”
“I said that, too.”
“We’re stuck here.”
“All of this is true,” Sokka mutters. “Okay. I- uh. I have a lot of questions.”
Sokka shifts uneasily. Zuko hadn’t even noticed how at ease he’d been before. “I- okay. So- everything you said. Up in the mountain. Was it true?”
Zuko frowns. “My name isn’t Lee.”
“Other than that,” Sokka scoffs, rolling his eyes. He looks more amused than anxious which is somehow gratifying. “I mean-” His tone drifts serious again. “Everything else. ”
“I’m not a liar."
“I know. I just want- clarification. I want to understand.”
“Understand what ?”
Sokka hesitates one second longer before blurting out, “You’re banished, right? That wasn’t a lie?”
Zuko bristles. “Why would I lie about that?!”
Sokka raises his hand placatingly. “Just confirming! I mean, I didn’t know that.” When Zuko doesn’t start yelling and throwing fire around their small wooden shelter, Sokka relaxes incrementally. “It’s like- you want to know about the Avatar, right? The kid who thinks floating marbles might be the greatest entertainment of our generation?”
Zuko doesn’t answer; he just glares. Sokka knows he does.
“Well, I wanna know about the guy who thinks every conversation is just an opportunity to shout Fire Nation propaganda. It didn’t make much sense when I thought you were some random banished soldier; it makes less sense when you’re a literal Prince. How does a Prince even get banished?”
“I told you,” Zuko replies shortly.
“You insulted your dad and so he threw you out?”
“I wasn’t trying to insult him,” Zuko hastens to defend himself, hating that he’s even trying to defend himself. “It was a mistake. One I regret and will make right.”
“Had to be one heck of a mistake to be worth banishing your own son,” Sokka notes.
“It was,” he admits, glancing away. “I was arrogant and I was naive.” He shouldn’t have shouted during the war meeting. He could have approached Father later, in a more respectful way, to discuss his concerns. Father would have listened, then. Of course he would have. Or maybe rectifying his mistake would mean going back to the Agni Kai, choosing to fight instead of beg. Father would have respected him if he’d fought instead of cowering in the dirt like a child. Either way: “I should have behaved more honorably.”
“And this was three years ago? You haven’t been back since?” When Zuko nods, Sokka doesn’t say anything else. He just squints out at the rain, thinking.
Zuko waits stiffly. He doesn’t understand why Sokka asked about the banishment, but it’s important somehow. Sokka thinks differently, sees opportunities where Zuko sees walls. He needs to be wary of offering useless information that Sokka will somehow alchemize to actionable intelligence. Still, if Sokka says he’ll give information on the Avatar, he probably will. Zuko can be careful with his words, for once in his life, if it means getting to go home.
“Your mission,” says Sokka. “-the one your Father gave you. What is it?”
“Are you serious-?”
“Understanding,” Sokka repeats genially. “Clarification.”
Zuko rolls his eyes but answers. Everyone knows this; it’s not dangerous information. “The Avatar. I need to capture him and bring him to the Fire Lord.”
“And that was always the mission?”
“Obviously,” Zuko replies, irritated.
“Obviously," Sokka repeats. He pauses thoughtfully. "Next question. What do you think of Aang?”
Zuko blinks. That’s- unexpected? “The...Avatar?”
“Aang,” Sokka says.
Zuko furrows his brow. “Yes. The Avatar. What about him?”
“You mentioned that he’s a kid,” Sokka says. “Before.”
Zuko nods. He senses that he’s on thin ice, but he’s from the equator. He doesn’t really understand thin ice. “...yes?”
Sokka pauses, then nods decisively. “Okay. Let me reframe. What happens to Aang when you capture him?”
Zuko blinks. “I...bring him to the Fire Nation.”
“...keep him secure?”
Sokka points at him. “Follow that thought. Describe keep him secure. Like Zhao kept Aang secure at the Pohuai Stronghold?”
“No,” Zuko denies instantly, remembering the boy chained in that large empty room, nervous and exhausted and small. Young. He’s the Avatar, he reminds himself fiercely. The most powerful Bender in the world. He’s not just some child. “We’ll hold him however is necessary,” he amends, scowling away. A few drops of rain fizzle to steam.
Sokka raises his eyebrows. “So, to clarify, you’re fine with what they did to Aang there?”
“Of course I am,” Zuko snaps, glowering. “And I wasn’t there, anyway.”
“Right. And you’re fine with Aang being locked away like that? For life?”
Zuko glares straight ahead. “He’s an enemy of the Fire Nation.” It sounds weak even to his own ears.
“So am I. Is that how you think enemies should be treated? How we were, up in the mountain? Starved and isolated, locked up without a trial? Do you think what Yu did was okay?”
“I didn’t do that!” He snaps, eyes widening as guilt chews at his stomach. “I wouldn’t do-”
“Yu,” Sokka interrupts lightly. “The interrogator.”
Zuko swallows, feeling foolish and miserable. “Oh.”
“You wouldn’t have what?”
Zuko looks away. He feels as if the ice has broken somehow, and he’s swimming in cold and uncharted waters. “We wouldn’t do that to him. I wouldn’t let them.”
“Aang is a kid, Zuko,” Sokka says quietly. “Do you...trust your father with kids?”
“What kind of question is that?! ”
“One I’m asking,” Sokka replies calmly, watching him.
It feels like he’s being careful, like he’s choosing his words the way Walrus had after a nightmare. It’s infuriating. “The Avatar is an enemy of the Fire Nation, standing between my Father and unified peace,” he hisses furiously. “I will stop him however I can, no matter what some peasant thinks. And I’m done answering questions. It’s my turn.”
Sokka raises his hands, playing placating again, and rests back. “Okay, go for it. Ask away. I’m an unfurled scroll.”
Zuko doesn’t mince words. “Where is the Avatar?”
“Aang?” Sokka shrugs. “No idea.”
“How should I know where he is? I’ve been in prison, remember? Aang has a short attention span and a giant flying bison. He could be anywhere. ”
“But-” Zuko falters, feeling oddly betrayed. “You said you had information on him.”
“I do,” Sokka says. He begins to count off his fingers. “How he likes his tofu, what giant animals he likes to pester, how weird his super-old friends are-”
“I don’t care about any of that!” Zuko snaps. “That’s just- just-”
“Information,” Sokka finishes for him. “About Aang.”
“It's useless!” Zuko charges, leaping to his feet. “You lied to me!”
Sokka watches him calmly. “I didn’t lie."
“You lied,” he insists, fists clenched. “You don’t know anything. You’re just trying to protect him. It won’t work! I’m going to catch him and I won’t let you distract me!”
“I’m done listening to you!” Zuko shouts, feeling foolish and furious. “You’ve done nothing but waste my time! And- and try to manipulate me! I’m not going to fall for whatever it is you’re doing, understand me? I am loyal to my nation and I am going to capture the Avatar and I am done with you!”
“Fine,” Sokka accepts tiredly. He rests his head back against the moss and closes his eyes.
Zuko just screamed at him- and Zuko is Zuko- and Sokka had just- closed his eyes.
“What are you doing?!” He demands furiously.
“Resting my eyes,” Sokka says without opening them.
“Well- stop,” Zuko orders, feeling wrong-footed at the lack of caution. “What is wrong with you? I’m right here. You don’t just- close your eyes on your enemy!”
“You do if you’ve got sleepy eyes,” Sokka counters, keeping his eyes closed but failing to hide the smirk.
“I could attack you!”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” he replies, unperturbed.
Zuko glares. As before, not being seen glaring makes glaring far less rewarding. When Sokka doesn’t appear anything other than calm, Zuko slides back down.
“I’m not going to let you stop me,” he seethes. “The minute this storm is over, I’m going to find my ship and the Avatar. And if you get in my way, I’ll stop you, too, understand? This little alliance is over. ”
“I’ll treasure the memories,” Sokka deadpans.
Zuko crosses his arms and glares out at the rain.
It seems about as intimidated as Sokka.
When the rain finally slows, the men exit their shelter, squishing down into the mud with twin expressions of distaste. When Zuko begins marching, moist footsteps follow, but neither say a word. They may be headed in the same direction, but as far as Zuko is concerned, that's it. No more questions, no more talking, no more alliance.
Sokka is an enemy and that’s all he’s ever been. He was only interested in making Zuko appear foolish, a task at which Zuko is plenty good without help.
The town shouldn’t be too far and, without the hefty armor, it'll be a fast walk. Zuko reminds himself of this over and over as he stalks through the mud, fuming. He’ll be rid of Sokka. He’ll get a ship, somehow, and find Uncle, somehow, and he’ll get home, somehow. This will all just be a frustrating memory.
After nearly an hour of silence, they come across a small road and follow it gratefully. Even better is the sign indicating that the next town is less than two miles away.
For one naive moment, Zuko begins to feel hopeful.
That’s probably why the Universe delivers into their path three Fire Nation soldiers, armed with swords and strong situational awareness. They freeze the moment he and Sokka come into view, taking in the dark gray under armour, the distinctive red boots and, yes, of course, Zuko’s scar, which is as damning as a giant sign reading TRAITOR.
“Follow my lead,” Sokka whispers without missing a beat. He slips his arm around Zuko’s, holding him loosely. “Hello there!” He shouts towards the soldiers. “Great news! I’ve captured Prince Zuko!”
The center soldier steps forward, raising their sword aloft. “On your knees,” they order. “Both of you.”
“Now, now, fellow Fire Nation soldier,” Sokka tries. “No need for that- ”
"Shut it, Water Tribe," they snap. "On your knees."
Sokka hesitates, then nods. He lets go of Zuko’s arm. "Fine." Instead of surrendering, he lunges forward to throw his boomerang. It sails over the guards and back again; every single soldier ducks. "Okay," he says, frowning. "You guys are really taking the fun out of this."
Ignoring him, Zuko sprints towards the largest of the three, throwing up a wall of fire and then immediately regretting it. He hasn't eaten since yesterday, and that was just a pocketful of jerky. He needs to get a sword and fight smart, the way Master Piandao had taught him. He evades a few swipes from the slightly smoking soldier, then sends a careful blast of fire towards the metal gauntlet of their dominant hand. The soldier drops their weapon in pained surprise; Zuko catches it before it even hits the ground.
The soldier, facing an armed royal Firebender, flees.
Zuko stares at their fast-retreating back, mouth agape. He was running?
There's little time to yell anything about honor or cowardice. The second soldier rages forward with a bloodthirsty roar, slashing frantically. Zuko sidesteps the hits he can, and bats away the ones he can't. He settles into a familiar rhythm, heartbeat steady and steps smooth, and he can feel his opponent's anger grow at the display of insouciance. Swordplay is satisfying in a way Firebending never has been. Bending has always been Azula's. But this, trivial as it should be for a bender much less a Prince, is his. He feels light and fast on his feet, a needle instead of a battering ram, capable instead of deficient. When his opponent begins to falter, taking the opportunity feels as natural as breathing. Zuko makes his first attack. He hits hard at the hilt of the blade, batting the soldier's grasp loose, then twists. The sword goes sailing into the underbrush.
Zuko can't see his opponent's face through the visor, but he hears the panicked curse.
And then- yes, that's two of Father's soldiers practicing dereliction of duty.
Zuko collects the second sword, then turns back to the final soldier. Surely Sokka has made quick work of-
Sokka is staggering off of the road, hand clutching his side and pain smeared across his features. The third soldier follows him off of the verge, stride smooth and steady, a terrible contrast to the way Sokka’s steps falter.
Zuko doesn't think. He just propels forward, a sword in each hand. They are not dual dao and were never meant to be used together. In this moment, however, they are twin blades, ones that easily disarm and assail the other man until he is on his knees before his Prince, helmet knocked aside and gasping for breath. He's young- almost as young as Zuko- with sweaty dark hair and merigold eyes wide as saucers. Zuko's swords cross at his throat, a hair's breadth from execution.
He'd hurt Sokka. He was going to kill Sokka.
Zuko swallows, then slams the hilt of his right blade against the boy’s head. He collapses in a loud metallic slump. Zuko bends, melting together his gauntlets to act as ersatz handcuffs, then does the same to his boots to hobble movement. It’s easy to muster the heat; rage hums under his skin like a buzzard wasp.
When he looks up, Sokka stares back at him, swaying, hands pressed against the wound. Red is already staining his borrowed shirt a darker gray. He’s bleeding fast.
Zuko stands. A small flame hovers in his palm and he urges it to burn hotter, even as his legs begin to tremble.
Sokka steps back. He asks, very nearly nervously, “What are you doing?”
“Hold still,” Zuko instructs, walking towards him. “You’re going to bleed out if you panic.”
This doesn’t seem to help. Sokka scrabbles backwards until the moment his back hits a tree. “Well, excuse me for panicking, there’s a Fire Bender about to throw fire at me!”
“At your stab wound,” Zuko snaps, and Sokka scoffs at that, too. Zuko stalks towards him, insisting, “I’m trying to help!”
“Fire doesn't help,” Sokka retorts, shaky but furious. “It destroys. ”
Zuko hesitates. Sokka looks- scared. Actually scared. Of him. “I-” He very reluctantly steps back. He should just pin Sokka in place and cauterize the wound, with or without the peasant’s permission. Sokka might even thank him later. Instead, he lets the flame die down. He tries to sound reasonable and not as impatient as he feels. “It’ll seal the wound, keep you alive until we can find a healer. I- I’m not trying to hurt you.”
Sokka stares at him, the stain growing larger beneath his fingers. He's clearly weighing his options. Zuko can't risk that. He knows how little reason there is to trust him.
“I swear,” he tries, the words coming fast as he begins to panic himself. How long until too much blood is lost? “On my honor, as son of-”
“Fine, fine, I don’t need the whole thing,” Sokka decides, squeezing his eyes shut. “Just do it.”
Zuko needs no further encouragement. Sokka’s compliance, however, offers a chance to clean the wound before sealing it. He scurries back to the unconscious guard, hoping that- yes! A canteen. He pours the last of the water over the cut, watching as it runs pink. “I need your boomerang holster.”
Sokka hands it over warily. “Why?”
Zuko answers by shoving the leather strap into the other man’s mouth. “Bite down,” he orders. “This will hurt.” Sokka meets his eyes, then nods once. Zuko lowers his hand over the wound, pinches the skin together, and burns.
Sokka bravely doesn’t faint. Zuko bravely waits until he’s finished.
Zuko’s eyes open slowly. There’s an extremely sweaty Water Tribe peasant shaking him.
Sokka slumps, relieved. “Oh, good. I kinda thought I’d killed you. We need to go.”
Zuko blinks, sitting forward slowly. “Your side-?”
“Doesn’t feel great,” Sokka admits, helping him up. “But I have a theory it’ll feel worse if it gets stabbed again. Can you walk?”
“Can you walk?”
Sokka huffs out a tired laugh. “Okay, whoever walks best helps the other. Deal?”
Zuko offers up a thin smirk. “Deal.” They waddle back onto the path, each of them relying on the other’s weight. It probably shouldn’t work, but because neither of them are willing to fall first, neither of them fall at all.
They must make quite the picture, Zuko thinks, as they make their way down the path. His left arm is wrapped around Sokka’s shoulders, grip tight on the other man’s bicep. Sokka mirrors the arrangement, though his hold is a little tighter. His breaths come unevenly, and his expression is tight. He doesn’t complain, but Zuko still tries to support more than weigh down.
Despite being stabbed, Sokka seems determined to talk. Zuko isn't sure whether he's trying to stay conscious or if he's just like that. Evidence suggests the latter. “So,” drawls the peasant. “Two swords at once.”
“Uh,” replies Zuko.
“Impressive,” Sokka continues through his next ragged breath. “-especially considering you don’t know a thing about swords.”
Zuko chooses a new topic. “We’re almost there. I can see a roof.”
“Good,” says Sokka. “I’d like to be under one of those.” He's quiet for a moment. Then, “Have you decided what you’re going to do when we get there?”
“I’m dropping you at a healer’s,” Zuko replies. “And then I’m finding my ship.”
“You’re just gonna go back to chasing us around? Really?"
“It’s not as if I have another option,” Zuko snaps, annoyed. “-since you have no idea where he is.”
“I mean, I don't know where Aang is, but I know where he’ll be.”
Zuko stumbles to a stop, aghast. The sword he's been using as a make-shift walking stick drags a small trench through the muddy road. “What?”
“I’m his friend,” Sokka says, stopping, too. He leans a little more on his sword now, and a little less on Zuko. “And being friends with Aang is a lot like being friends with a polar dog. He might have a short attention span, but he will track me down, tackle me, and, honestly, be covered in fur.” Sokka meets Zuko’s eyes, expression serious. “They’ll find me, Zuko. I know they’re looking.”
“That’s why Zhao captured you. He was going to use you as bait to draw him out.”
“And now,” Sokka says. “ -you have an opportunity to do the same thing.”
Zuko stares at him, not understanding. “What are you talking about?”
“Follow me around long enough, and you can skip trying to find Aang. He’ll find you.”
That's logical, Zuko thinks, in the instant before he realizes it isn't. He shakes his head. “This doesn’t make any sense. Why would you give me a plan to catch him?”
“I’ve been giving you plans all week. It’s a hobby.”
“I mean it,” Zuko insists. “I don’t understand.”
Sokka considers him. “You want the Avatar, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he answers immediately.
“Then does it really matter why I’m leading you straight to him?”
“Yes!” Zuko exclaims. “Because there is a why, and I don’t know what the why is! People don’t just help! And they definitely don’t help their enemy capture their friend! There’s a reason you want me to follow you-” He breaks off with a sudden burst of clarity. “You want to capture me yourself,” he accuses furiously.
“Capture you,” Sokka scoffs, rolling his eyes.
Zuko snarls, “I will not be held ransom by a trio of children.”
“Why would we even ransom a banished prince?” Sokka demands, exasperated. “If they banished you, why would they pay me to bring you back?”
“He wants me back!”
“He doesn’t !” Sokka snaps. “How do you not get that?!”
They stare at each other, heaving heavy breaths, both furious and yet unable to let go. Every fiber of Zuko wants to reel away, to stomp and shout and throw fire he shouldn’t be throwing, but Sokka is too pale and sweating and his grip is white-knuckled on the hilt of his support sword; Zuko doubts he could stand on his own.
So he settles for volume. “You don’t know anything!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zuko insists angrily. “So stop acting like you do!”
Sokka scoffs. “Believe me, the second I get you and Katara in the same room, I will. But for now, I’m what you’ve got.”
“What is that supposed to mean?!"
“It means I don’t know what I’m doing here!” Sokka shouts. “It means I’m not the one who gives speeches about hope and love and how people shouldn’t banish twelve-year-olds for being bratty!”
“I was thirteen!” Zuko roars.
“That’s not a good argument! ”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Zuko demands. “I have my mission and I’m going to complete it. I’m going back, and no one- not you, not Zhao, not the Avatar- is going to stop me. You understand? I'm going to do this!”
“Look-” Sokka sighs and glances down, fury draining into something tired. “Look. If you’re that determined, the why doesn’t matter. All that matters is that if you come with me, you will find the Avatar.”
Zuko continues to glare but reluctantly wonders, “...and then?”
“Then maybe you can convince him to join the Fire Nation,” Sokka declares, rolling his eyes. “Make him realize the error of his ways, show him the true path to peace. He can be annoying, but he’s not a bad kid. Maybe if you really have a good argument and take the time to give it, he'll listen.”
“You’re saying he might be willing to switch sides,” he clarifies stiltedly.
Do you think we could have been friends?
“I’m saying I think it’s worth trying, instead of just fighting each other over and over again. I can tell you Aang responds to talking more than he does to firebolts.” He looks back at Zuko pointedly. “You’d have to listen, too. That’s part of talking.”
Zuko shifts. He could bring Father a powerful ally rather than an enemy in chains. A child in chains. Having the Avatar on their side would end the war- it would change everything- it... “It wouldn't work.”
“Probably not,” Sokka admits dejectedly. “It’s a really stupid plan.”
Zuko frowns down at his boots. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it? And if he can’t convince him, he’ll just capture him. Back to square one. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll try it.”
Sokka smiles weakly. “Thought you might.”
They resume their awkward stride. As the town slowly rises up to meet them, Zuko wonders, hesitatingly, almost afraid the offer will go away if he questions it: “Why are you doing this? You hate the Fire Nation. You think we’re weird and evil.”
“You’re definitely weird,” Sokka assures confidently. “But I’m having some serious doubts about evil.”
Zuko blinks, surprised. Those guards weren't exactly an example of the Fire Nation at its finest. “The prison changed your mind?”
Sokka shrugs as best he can with Zuko's arm tight around his shoulders. "What can I say? At the risk of sounding like my sister, the past few days have given me some hope."
Zuko doesn't reply the way his sister would.
It isn't hard to find a healer. The townspeople take one look at the blood-covered soldiers using swords and each other to stay upright and voluntarily offer the information. Passionately.
The Healing House smells like lavender and greenery when they finally enter. While it's a small building, it feels cozy rather than cramped. There are a few beds near the back of the room, surrounded by potted plants and wide windows, but the majority of the space is occupied by shelves filled with books and bottles. An old man dozes on the floor, an open scroll spilling over his lap and a long-gone-cold cup of tea left abandoned on the nearest windowsill. He jerks awake when they barrel through the door, quickly scrambling up to lead them to a bed, bushy brows high but otherwise the picture of professional composure.
"There you go," he says as he gently guides Sokka down. "Sit on down. What's the problem here?"
Zuko wants to yell because the problem seems pretty clear, but he resists the urge. It's never a good idea to yell at healers. "He's been stabbed."
The man lifts Sokka's shirt carefully, whistling low. "And burned?"
"To manage blood loss," Zuko explains, cheeks burning. Had that been the wrong move? Had he acted too impulsi-
"Impressive," remarks the Healer, wandering off towards the plants. "Very skillfully done. I'll still have to take a look to make sure it didn't nick anything important, of course, and keep it from getting infected. Name's Jin."
Sokka replies first, breathless and clearly in pain and still so obnoxious. "I'm Lee."
Zuko glares, but swallows the expression down as the healer wanders his way back with a small kit and a freshly plucked twig.
"Chew the leaves," he advises. He glances at Zuko, gaze lingering predictably on the scar. "And you are?"
Zuko freezes. Over Jin's shoulder, Sokka chews with a self-satisfied grin. "Iroh," he says finally.
"Good to meet you both. You're in a pretty sorry state, if you don't mind my saying. They treating you boys that bad?"
"We got separated from our troop," Sokka explains, mouth full of tacky green paste.
"Well, that's alright. They pass through here all the time." The words are only casually bitter. "Stay the night, they'll find you in the morning."
"Cool," says Sokka, meeting Zuko's concerned expression with a concerned expression of his own. "Cool cool cool. That's great news."
In the end, the sword had missed anything vital and Jin only has to give Sokka some stitches. He works quickly with hands as steady as stone, and keeps idle conversation flowing throughout the entire procedure. When he finishes, he leans back in his chair with a tired little huff.
"All done. You should eat something, though. I'm hungry just looking at you."
"We will," Sokka promises, stomach rumbling loudly to support his words. "But we need to send a message. Is there any way to do that?"
"They'll be by tomorrow," Jin reminds him. "You can have beds for the night and update them then. You boys need rest."
"It's urgent," Sokka insists.
"I don't know what to tell you," Jin replies, standing. "Not like we have any hawks around here. Let me see if I've got anything to eat. That’s what you really need.” He walks back to the plants and shelves, rifling through for something edible.
Zuko watches him go. "I don't trust him," he whispers.
Sokka frowns. "Why?"
"Why would he help us? He's Earth Nation." Zuko shakes his head. "That kindly old man act won't work on me. He's up to something."
"All he’s done is helped," Sokka retorts. "He stitched me up, he gave us water, he gave me gross leaves. He’s getting us food right now. ”
“Healers know poisons,” Zuko insists.
Sokka rolls his eyes. “If he wanted us dead, he would have attacked by now. Or just waited- we aren't exactly in great shape. I’m telling you, all we have to worry about right now is contacting Aang."
"If he kills us," Zuko hisses. "-we'll never be able to contact the Avatar!"
Jin drops his bulb of garlic.
Zuko might have hissed too loudly.
“The Avatar?” Jin repeats, squinting between them in the uncomfortable silence. “You know the Avatar?”
“No,” says Zuko, just as Sokka says,
“Well,” he says. “Which is it?”
The teens glance at each other.
Sokka shrugs. “Mine. It’s a maybe. Why?”
“The Avatar came through here,” Jin explains as he walks towards them, garlic left forgotten on the floor. "A few days ago." He sits back in his chair and considers them idly, fingers laced across his belly. “He was looking for someone.”
“He already came this way?" Sokka slumps. "Of course he did. Did he say where he was headed? Was there a girl with him? Blue dress, hair loopies, tendency to splash?”
Zuko elbows him on his uninjured side, annoyed. He was giving too much information away for no discernible reason. While that would be great for Zuko as a Fire Nation Prince eager for information, it’s less helpful as his temporary accomplice uninterested in being recaptured.
“He was just looking for the one someone,” comments Jin as his eyes flicker between the two guests.
“Maybe it got lonely out there,” Sokka replies lightly. "-just being one someone."
“Hm. Lee your real name?”
Sokka regards him thoughtfully. “No.”
Zuko hits him again and wonders if maybe he should be directing these attacks to the injured side. It might offer more results.
“Then your name is really…?”
“Okay, Sokka,” says Jin, hand dipping into his pocket. “Thought it might be you. Well, here you go.” He removes a small hunk of wood carved to vaguely resemble...Zuko isn’t sure. A weird rock? “He and that sister of yours had a whole bag of ‘em, freshly carved.” He frowns disapprovingly. “They were awfully worried.”
Sokka takes the item. His eyes narrow as he inspects it, then widen in understanding.
“What is it?” Zuko asks, eyes flickering between the healer and the peasant.
“A whistle,” Sokka breathes, grinning. He presses his lips around the narrow end of the so-called whistle and blows.
For some reason, almost definitely blood loss, Sokka whoops with glee.
A commenter on the last chapter rightly observed that Sokka is playing a high-Charisma game of D&D. See above: A critical fail.
Chapter 7: The Reunion
Thank you so much for all of your comments!! Reading them has got me jazzed for some future plot points.
A special thanks to IsolatedPhenomenon who included the phrase "force-fed friendship" in their comment, which is now a tag because that is basically an alternate title.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After Sokka chews some more brightly colored leaves and Zuko finishes his second cup of water, Jin offers them two beds near the back of the Healing House. He then insists on procuring them a warm meal and bustles off. Zuko watches him go distrustfully then tests the nearest window. It opens with the futile reluctance of an irregularly opened window, and Zuko slumps back, relieved. If Jin comes back with anything more menacing than subpar congee, they have a way out.
“I get Zhao wants to capture you,” Sokka remarks, flat on his back one bed over, abdomen wrapped in a fresh white bandage. “But that doesn’t mean everyone wants to capture you. There’s no need to be this level of paranoid.”
“I’m not being paranoid,” Zuko retorts. “I’m being cautious.”
Sokka lolls his head back to get a better view. “Oh? When did that start?”
Zuko ignores the comment. “Your whistle doesn’t make any sound.”
“You can’t hear it? That must mean the spirits don’t favor you.” Whatever look Zuko gives is enough to make Sokka cackle. “Kidding, kidding! If we’re going to be traveling together, you really need to work on appreciating my frankly amazing sense of humor.”
“I don’t have time for humor,” Zuko replies, crossing his arms. “And I won’t be traveling with you long. I’ll either convince the Avatar to join me or I’ll capture him.”
“You’re a very honest person,” Sokka remarks, moving to grab his boomerang.
“It’s not like you don’t know that that’s what I’m planning,” Zuko responds plainly.
The Water Tribesman doesn’t seem to hear him, too busy trying to balance the weapon on his nose. When it clatters to the ground, just out of comfortable reach, he stares at it forlornly.
Zuko rolls his eyes and dutifully hands it over.
Sokka goes back to the balancing act, like a tiger-seal at the traveling circus. “You know,” he says, “getting stabbed really stops feeling so bad after a while.” The boomerang falls down again and his eyes widen in deluded realization. “Wait, am I great at being stabbed? Am I invulnerable?”
“No,” Zuko says, bending to hand it back over. “You’re just drugged.”
“The medicine he gave you,” Zuko reminds him. “It has a numbing effect for pain, but it also makes you feel-”
“Amazing? " Sokka offers, thrusting up one wobbly arm. "Incredible? Kinda floppy? ”
“-out of sorts,” Zuko finishes politely.
“Out of sorts,” Sokka repeats, tasting the phrase. “Outofsorts. I feel pretty in sorts, actually.” He tilts his head back to better regard the banished Prince, and doesn’t seem to notice when his boomerang loses its balance again. His arm flaps back down to hang limp over the side of the bed. “How do you feel?”
Zuko frowns. “What?”
“Shouldn’t you have some leaves, too? You had a hard day.”
“I’m fine,” Zuko assures stiffly.
“You always say that. C’mon, have some freaky lettuce.”
“You were stabbed,” Zuko stresses.
“And you saved my life,” Sokka replies, grinning wide. “‘Cause you like me.”
Zuko huffs. “I don’t like you.”
“We’re at love already?” Sokka draws his hand to his chest and affects an overly dramatic expression of surprise. “Wow. That means so mu-”
“I don’t anything you!” Zuko snaps, irritated. “I'm just using you to get to the Avatar, so stop talking.”
Sokka does. For almost ten seconds. “Zuko. Hey, Zuko? Zuko. ”
Zuko pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling every ounce of exhaustion he’d worked through these last few days. “You need to sleep. Shut up and sleep.”
“Your bedside manner needs work,” Sokka criticizes.
Zuko ignores him and lies back down. Sokka is alive. There's a plan to find the Avatar. Food is on its way. He can rest, can't he? Just for a moment? He closes his eyes and lets Sokka’s rambling wash over him. He'll have one chance when they track down the Avatar. One chance to explain why the Airbender should join forces with the same Nation that had ended his people. One chance-
He jerks forward. “Sokka.”
“-and he’d just said double pay-- what?”
“Do you really think the Avatar would switch sides?”
Sokka snorts. "Aang?" He laughs boisterously and then assures, too seriously, “Maybe. ”
Zuko considers. The Water Tribesman may be drugged, but he’s still smart. “How would you convince him?”
“You’re good with people,” Zuko tries to explain. It feels uncomfortable. “I- I don’t-”
Sokka sits up, only wincing a little as he does so. “...have the social skills of your new and immensely charismatic Water Tribe big brother?”
“You’re not my- that doesn't even- I’m older than you!” Zuko bites his tongue on further arguments. Drugged, he reminds himself. “How would you do it, then?" He demands.
Sokka makes a big show of looking thoughtful. “Well. What do you like about the Fire Nation?”
Zuko frowns. “It’s my home.”
“That’s not a reason, is it? That’s just-” his hand flops around dismissively, “-geography. Are you saying that if you were born in the Water Tribe you wouldn’t have a single reason to support the Fire Nation? Because if that’s the case-”
“Of course I would,” Zuko interrupts quickly.
“Then tell me why Aang should join you.”
“The Fire Nation is strong,” Zuko asserts. “We’re going to win the war anyway, so he should just join us now.”
“Yes,” Sokka agrees blandly. “That will appeal to the pacifist monk.”
Zuko acknowledges the point and glances away. He thinks back to his tutelage. “We’re- we’re generous. We help the places we colonize.”
“By burning down the towns that were already there?”
“By providing food and protection and education,” Zuko counters tightly.
“Re- education, maybe.”
Zuko scowls. “Are you trying to help or not?”
Sokka groans loudly. “How am I supposed to think when I’m so hungry ?”
“Jin is getting food," Zuko tells him, crossing his arms and ignoring his own hunger. "Just be patient.”
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday and I’ve got half the blood I had this morning,” Sokka retorts. “I get to be impatient. It’s the one good part of this.”
“You have plenty of blood,” Zuko dismisses, refusing to acknowledge the twinge of concern. “Just wait.”
Sokka squints over Zuko’s shoulder. “Pass me that garlic.”
Zuko follows his gaze to the abandoned garlic bulb. He turns back to Sokka, unimpressed. “You’re not eating the floor garlic.”
“It’s floor garlic, and not a real meal, and Jin will be back soon with actual food, and I have to sleep three feet from you!”
Sokka shrugs. “So?”
“So you’d smell like garlic all night!” Zuko exclaims, annoyed.
“So? Garlic smells great. Gran Gran swears by it. Makes food taste better, heals bunions, keeps dangerous spirits at bay-”
“It would keep anyone at bay if you ate an entire bulb of garlic!” Zuko half groans and half shouts and wholeheartedly wants to be done talking about garlic. “Are you going to help or not?”
“What, I’m supposed to brainstorm on how the Fire Nation is great? It’s not like I’ve ever even been there. I know two things about the Fire Nation: they love destroying my cool snow walls, they’ve been attacking since before I was born, and they captured every Bender we had.” He frowns. “Three things. That’s three things. All bad.”
“We didn't capture all of your benders,” Zuko retorts, annoyed by the hyperbole. “I’ve fought your sister, remember?”
Sokka goes quiet. He doesn’t even mention eating holistic remedies.
Zuko frowns, deterred by the odd silence. “...Sokka?”
“They didn’t take her because our mother stopped them,” Sokka tells him quietly. “She lied. She said she was the last Bender.”
Zuko hesitates, caught off guard by the change in Sokka’s demeanor. “If this works out,” he begins unsurely, “ I can- I can requisition the names of those captured from your tribe. I can help you find your Mo-”
“They killed her.”
Zuko’s heart stutters. “What?”
“The soldiers,” Sokka elaborates, slumping over his knees. His eyes are glazed, and he’s sweaty, and Zuko suddenly feels guilty. Would Sokka be telling him any of this if he weren’t drugged? Before he can say a word, however, Sokka continues, “They weren’t taking prisoners that day. Mom lied and told Katara to run...she was little, then. By the time Dad and I got back…” He shakes his head and looks away.
Zuko swallows thickly. He doesn’t even know how to reply to that. His soldiers had killed a mother defending her daughter. His soldiers had done that, and then he’d crashed into the snowbanks, demanding more from this village that had already lost so much.
He’s never seen Sokka look this hurt, and he’d literally seen him stabbed.
Sokka smiles weakly, but doesn’t meet his eyes. He replies, almost nonchalantly, “Not your fault. It’s war.”
Zuko frowns down at his hands. “That isn’t war,” he counters bitterly. “That’s-” evil. “Wrong.”
“War makes it easy to do wrong things,” Sokka replies quietly. He squints, obviously trying to focus more on his words than his foggy mind would like. “You knowing that those things are happening, wanting to stop them- that’s... important .”
“When I get back,” Zuko promises, “I’ll make sure my Father knows. He- he can’t know these things are happening. He wouldn’t allow it.”
“I thought he knew everything,” Sokka comments evenly.
Zuko doesn’t answer. He’s thinking. This is just further proof, isn’t it? That the war needs to end as quickly as possible? So that people like Sokka, people like Zuko, don’t need to grow up without their mother. But that thread runs parallel with another. Sokka and his sister lost their mother and their heritage. The Avatar’s entire people were systematically killed. And- and of course Fire Lord Sozin had his reasons for doing so, and Sokka’s mother- she must have been an oversight, a mistake, or maybe it was an accident- but how do you convince people like Sokka that your nation isn’t evil? Fire Nation soldiers may have done those things, but those actions don’t represent everything that the Fire Nation is. They can’t.
“This isn’t going to work,” he realizes.
“...talking to your father?”
“Talking to the Avatar,” Zuko corrects, pinching the bridge of his nose. “How am I supposed to convince him that we’re not evil when- when that’s all he knows? The bad stuff? There are bad people, but we’re not all like that.” He glances at Sokka unsurely, guilt squirming in his stomach. “We aren’t.”
“It only takes a little bad and a lot of apathy,” the other man says quietly. “If you don’t stand against it, you’re letting it spread. You’re helping it spread. The Fire Nation has been doing stuff like this for a hundred years, Zuko. Do you think my Mom is the only one the Fire Nation has killed?”
Zuko squeezes his fists tight until he can feel the little crescent moons dig into his palm. “Sokka-” He hesitates, then continues, “why are you helping me find the Avatar? After-” The words die on his tongue. He’s not even sure what they would have been.
“This war has taken enough good people,” Sokka answers, looking at him strangely. “I don’t think it should get to take any more.”
Zuko thinks of his mother, thinks of Lu Ten, thinks of the 41st division. “Do you think he could be convinced? Really?”
Sokka tries to shrug nonchalantly and almost falls off of the bed in the process. His tone, unlike his balance, is even. “I mean, what else can we do but try?”
“If my sister were here, she’d just capture you,” Zuko replies honestly. “Like Zhao did. Except you’re wounded and drugged, so it would be easier. And then…” He thinks. “Wait for the Avatar? And then capture him by threatening you. ”
“Okay,” Sokka says. “That’s one option.”
Before he can say anything else, the door opens and Jin strides in carrying two bowls that smell heavenly. It’s a simple but hearty soup, with warm mushroom flavoured broth, thick egg noodles, and a healthy sampling of pork, tofu and chicken. The spice is mild, but every few bites bring a juicy crunch of chili-encrusted ginger. Zuko sips slowly, letting the flavor settle on his tongue before swallowing, and has only finished half of the bowl when his stomach feels full enough to burst. He sets it aside, a little nauseous and beyond exhausted.
Sokka, impossibly, moves to finish Zuko’s bowl after finishing his own.
“Don’t make yourself sick,” Jin orders sternly.
Sokka gives a thumbs up to acknowledge the words and continues slurping.
Jin leaves them for the night after checking Sokka’s stitches and, after a telling wince, providing more medicine. Sokka relaxes quickly after the second dose, boneless and floppy again. Zuko tenses, expecting more of their interrupted conversation, but the Water Tribesman seems to have little interest in resuming such serious talk.
“Did you know,” he says, “that your hair looks ridiculous?”
Zuko’s cheeks burn. “What?”
“It’s like-” Sokka runs his fingers through his own incredibly messy hair. “Normally you look like an egg with a tail, right? And now you look like- like-”
Zuko waits. He’d be annoyed, usually, but a little teasing at his expense is better than their earlier topic. He doesn’t mind listening to Sokka ramble about nonsense right now.
“-like a person.”
Zuko crosses his arms. “I am a person.”
“A hairy person,” Sokka tries to explain. “With a lot more hair in exactly one part of your hair. Like a little hair mountain. A hair hill. ”
Zuko scowls, then glances around the room for a mirror. While he doesn’t necessarily trust Sokka’s assessment, he would rather look presentable before finding the Avatar. His eyes light up as he spots a large reflective cooking pan on one of the shelves.
Sokka was...not exaggerating.
“I haven’t been able to shave in weeks,” Zuko defends, blushing. He has about an inch of hair across his scalp, except for a strange added mane where his phoenix plume had been. The scar is more noticeable, somehow. He looks ridiculous, and he refuses to begin peace talks looking this way. “I need a ribbon and a razor.”
“You’re not gonna try and give yourself a haircut right now ?”
“Of course I am,” Zuko confirms snappishly, glaring around the room for something better suited to the task than his knife.
“You don’t even have a real mirror.”
“I have you. You can tell me how it looks.”
Sokka stares at him, then sighs heavily. “Zuko, Zuko, Zuko. ”
Zuko scowls as he digs through a kit of tools. “What.”
“You should not trust me with that.”
Zuko scoffs. “Even you couldn’t mess this up. Just tell me if it’s even, or if I miss a spot.”
"Zuko.” Sokka tents his fingers. “I tell you this in the pursuit of honesty and peace: do not give me this responsibility.”
Zuko hesitates, a sharp-edged razor clutched in his right hand. “...why?”
The peasant sighs. “This might ruin everything, but it might also be worth it. Sit and trust in your wise older brother.”
Zuko doesn’t argue with the nonsensical rambling. He just sits and begins shaving.
“Good morni- great Shu’s top-knot,” Jin breathes, horrified. “What did you do to your head?!”
When Zuko sees the back of his head in an actual mirror, Sokka cackles.
When Jin hesitantly offers to shave it even, clearly disturbed by the steaming skin, Zuko just snatches the mirror and does it himself.
Sokka continues snickering, so he’s likely missed a patch or two, but no one actually says anything.
Zuko ties his phoenix plume high and tries very hard to feel like he knows what he's doing.
They spend most of their day on the roof of the Healing House, hiding and whistling.
The complete absence of any actual whistling means that Zuko can meditate unbothered, something he’s sorely needed since their initial escape. Now that he and Sokka have an understanding, he feels more or less comfortable closing his eyes and relaxing into his meditative pose. Sokka may be an enemy, technically , but he’s not the sort of enemy who would randomly stab Zuko in the back. Zuko is at least eighty percent confident in this.
That would be far too simple and reasonable a plan.
“Are you done sitting perfectly still yet?”
Zuko doesn’t react.
“Zuko, you’re not in the spirit world. I know you can hear me.”
His left eyebrow twitches.
“I can sense you getting annoyed. I can actually see you wanting to throw fireballs at me.” The peasant clicks his tongue. “That doesn’t seem very meditative.”
Zuko finally pries open his eyes and glares. “What do you want! ?”
“I’m bored,” Sokka explains, looking the part. “And I’ve been blowing on this whistle for hours. It’s your turn.”
“It’s not even noon,” Zuko counters reasonably, “and it’s your whistle.”
“You’re in the gaang now. It’s our whistle.”
“I,” Zuko insists firmly, “am meditating.”
“Meditating is all about breathing. Consider this next level meditation: breathing into a whistle.”
Zuko glares, then pointedly closes his eyes and smooths his breaths.
“If I weren’t the one vouching for you,” Sokka grumbles, “I’d kick you out. I ask you, where is the team spirit?”
“Probably with your sister,” Zuko replies flatly, “so get back to whistling.”
“We’re on the roof, Zuko. They can’t see us.”
“Do you want to have to escape? Again?! Get down. ”
Sokka rolls his eyes, but obediently lies flat. They stay like that long after they hear the percussive metal boots of the Fire Nation soldiers subside.
When Sokka tries whistling, Zuko steals the instrument just in case it suddenly starts working.
“Okay, now you do one.”
“Come on. I give you permission!”
“Okay, but that means I get to do one about-”
“Fine. Fine!” Zuko squints, thinking it through this time. “What did the glacier...say...to the ocean.”
“Tell me,” requests Sokka in between bursts of silent whistles, “what did the glacier say to the ocean?”
“Ice to sea you.”
“You’re a prodigy, Zuko.” He sniffs dramatically. “I am so proud.”
Zuko rolls his eyes and hopes it distracts from the smile he couldn’t quite swallow down.
“It’s late,” Jin says. “You boys can try again tomorrow.”
Sokka climbs down the ladder slowly but falls asleep in seconds.
Zuko lies on his back and stares at the ceiling.
He thinks about Sokka for a little while. About how he should hate Zuko, but doesn’t seem to. About the weird way he laughs at Zuko but not at Zuko, exactly. About how he seems to inexplicably trust Zuko, and how he in turn almost trusts Sokka back, despite everything. About Sokka’s mother. His mother.
He avoids thinking of Sokka as he was in the forest, frightened and blood-soaked. He avoids thinking of the way his heart had skipped a beat- or seven- at the sight of his wounded enemy, or the ugly way he’d felt when Sokka had reared back from his attempts to help. The very memory of it makes him feel small and clumsy and awkward. It reminds him, strangely, of a lifetime ago, rescuing turtle crabs from hawks in the rock pools on Ember Island. Realizing that without the turtle crab, the hawk would starve. Realizing he’d have to choose a side.
He only thinks about the Avatar a little, because thinking too hard about how unprepared he is for that conversation makes him feel too anxious to sleep, and he’s so tired.
So, mostly, he thinks about Uncle. What he would think if he knew what Zuko was planning. What he would do if he were here. Would he just sit around, eating dumplings, chatting idly, watching a Water Tribe peasant go red in the face from whistling?
Everyone else would be disappointed in him, he thinks, but Uncle would probably enjoy it.
He rolls onto his side and tries to ignore Sokka’s snoring.
"Do you boys want tea while you're up there?" Jin asks. "It's a little chilly this morning."
Sokka waits for his cup of jasmine. Zuko just climbs the ladder.
"...is that a dumpling in your pocket or are you just, um. Huh. No idea how to finish that. Why do you have a dumpling in your pocket, Zuko?"
"In case I get hungry later," he explains defensively, shoving the food out of view.
"But now it's covered in your gross pocket dirt!"
"My pockets aren't dirty!"
"That dumpling seasoned in lint and sand begs to differ...!"
Zuko wants to save food, just in case something happens, but he still wastes it. He still throws the dumpling directly at the peasant's face.
And the peasant catches it with his teeth. And proceeds to chew. Loudly.
“What is the matter with you!?"
Sokka just chews louder.
There’s too much shouting for the villagers to even pretend they don’t know they’re there.
They call up good mornings, and have a nice nights, and the occasional warnings of Fire Nation scouts.
Someone tosses a pastry once. When Zuko warns him about poison, Sokka just assures him he doesn't have to have any if he doesn't want any.
When Sokka hasn't keeled over thirty minutes later, Zuko quietly takes the other half.
On the third day, Jin leaves before dawn to drop off medical supplies to a nearby town.
“In case we’re gone when you come back,” Sokka says, “thank you. For everything.”
“Show your appreciation by avoiding the sword next time,” Jin replies grumpily as he clambers onto his ostrich horse. He glances at Zuko. “Try not to let him get stabbed again, eh, Iroh?” The creature pecks once at Zuko's pocket, then sets a quick pace towards the outskirts of town. They pause just long enough for Jin to shout over his shoulder, "And good luck fixing that whistle!"
And then they're gone.
“...and that if he just swears loyalty to my father, the war would be over by the end of summer.”
Sokka whistles once, then confirms, “And that’s your pitch?”
“We all want this war to end,” Zuko stresses. “This is the fastest way. With the Avatar on our side, we would be the most powerful force in the world. No one would dare stand against us.” He winces. “I shouldn’t say it like that.”
“Developing self-awareness is a crucial step in not sounding like a monologuing bad guy from an even worse play,” Sokka says proudly. “I’m very impressed.”
“Wait- is that…?”
Sokka scrambles down the ladder before Zuko even comprehends what he’s seeing. When he finally registers what that distant floating shape means, he ignores the rungs and slides straight down, the soles of his borrowed boots smacking into the hard earth. As Sokka rushes forward, chasing the shadow of the beast as it descends, Zuko lingers by the healing house, heart pounding fast.
He watches as the bison sails down into the center of town, the Avatar perched on the massive horned head, the Water Tribe girl already sliding down the incredibly furry tail. She bolts towards Sokka, arms outstretched, as he frantically tries to wave her down. It’s in vain. She embraces him, and Zuko can see even from here the way Sokka winces at the too-tight contact on his fresh wound. Despite the grimace, he hugs back, just as tight.
Then the Avatar tackles them with a childish burst of laughter and all three collapse to the ground, grinning like morons. The bison lumbers over to lap a giant tongue across Sokka, mindless of his dramatic cries of disgust. Despite being covered in spit and sporting an involuntary pompadour, Sokka still pats the beast’s giant nose fondly.
The Water Tribesman then transitions into a cross-legged position, chatting energetically as his sister and the Avatar nod along, bright-eyed. After a moment, he pauses to review his surroundings. When he finds Zuko, his smile is tenser than it had been, and Zuko feels inexplicably disheartened by the change.
The Avatar and Sokka’s sister turn, following his gaze.
Zuko can tell the moment they recognize him in the gathering crowd. They stiffen simultaneously, eyes going wide. The girl reaches for her brother while the Avatar leaps to his feet, standing just in front of his friends with an expression that dares Zuko to do something.
So he does.
He marches towards them, chin tapped up defiantly and hands fists at his side. He isn’t sure what he’s going to say yet, and he isn’t sure what he’s going to do when whatever he says fails. He doubts the Avatar will be persuaded, and he doubts he could beat him in a fight at the moment. But he’s still going to try .
One victory and he’d have everything.
“Guys,” says Sokka, when he’s come close enough to hear. “You remember Zuko.”
“Avatar,” Zuko greets, nodding. His gaze slides to the girl. “Hello.”
Her eyes flash as she stands, shifting in front of Sokka just as the Avatar had. “What are you doing here?!”
Zuko’s nostrils flare, but he stays calm. He’s being persuasive. “I’m here to talk.”
“Talk?” She repeats furiously. “You kidnapped my brother! Do you think we care what you have to say?”
“I didn’t-!” Zuko interrupts himself and tries again, calmer. “I didn’t kidnap your brother.”
“Oh,” she scoffs, “that was a different Fire Nation creep after Aang?”
“Yes, actually,” says Sokka, still on the ground. “Can someone help me up before things get all bend- y?”
The girl’s brows furrow even as she moves to assist him. “Are you hurt?”
“Only a little stabbed,” Sokka assures, wincing as she helps him to his feet.
“Stabbed?” She repeats, horrified. She twists towards Zuko. “Why is he stabbed?"
“I didn’t do it!” Zuko tells her impatiently. “I can bend. If I wanted to hurt him, I’d just burn him!” He stutters, because in the name of honesty, “I mean, I did burn him, but it was for his own good.”
Sokka digs his fingers into the girl’s forearm, restraining her from attacking through sheer pity. Even then, it’s a close thing. “Katara, wait. I know how that sounds, but that’s just because he’s bad at talking.”
“I am not bad at talking!” Zuko snaps, threadbare patience wearing thinner.
“You are,” Sokka says, “hands down the worst talker I’ve ever met. It’s honestly impressive.”
The Avatar still hasn’t said a word. He’s relaxed his stance and appears less like a combatant and more like an audience member at the Ember Island Theater who’d walked into the play late. His eyes flicker from speaker to speaker.
“Do you need a healer?”
“I’ve seen a healer,” Sokka assures her. “I’m okay-”
“-I just need to rest. ”
“You’ve been stabbed. ”
“Barely. ” He nods at Zuko. “Zuko got me out of there and brought me to a healer.”
That brings the girl up short. She glances between them. “Why would he do that?”
“He was stabbed,” Zuko says, crossing his arms. “Where was I supposed to bring him?”
“Zuko didn’t kidnap me,” Sokka explains. “Zhao did. When I was arrested, the soldiers realized I looked a lot like one of my wanted posters. I said I wasn’t that handsome fugitive; they called my bluff and brought me to high-security mountain jail.”
“Mountain jail?” The Avatar repeats dubiously.
“Not as cool as it sounds,” Sokka assures.
“...and you escaped?” His sister asks hesitantly.
Sokka nods. “With help from-”
“No way! You broke Sokka out of jail, too?!” The Avatar interrupts, staring at Zuko as if he’s grown a second head. A second head that he is thrilled to see.
“Too?" The girl squeaks.
The Avatar brushes the back of his neck. “Do you remember that one time you and Sokka got really sick and I had to go get frogs for you to suck and Zhao captured me-”
“This is not an exclusive club,” Sokka mutters.
“-and someone rescued me?”
The girl waits for the punchline.
The Avatar grins.
“That’s not-” Zuko hesitates. “Can we not talk about that? Too loudly?” He needs to capitalize on this goodwill, but he doesn’t need this entire crowd of people to know he really was the Blue Spirit. If this doesn’t work, he needs reasonable doubt.
The Avatar seems genuinely puzzled. “Why?”
“He’s concerned that his many many innumerable treasons might make people think he’s some kind of traitor,” Sokka explains.
“I am not a-!”
“Let me handle this, Zuko,” Sokka interrupts, raising a hand. “How about this: you go pet Appa, I’ll explain our plan. It’s probably better if they hear it from me, anyway.”
Zuko stares. There was an option where this whole thing didn’t rely on his ability to explain himself?
...he can pet the bison?
“Fine,” he grumbles, stalking forward. When he glances over his shoulder, they’re all three staring after him: Sokka with a somewhat strained grin and a thumbs up, the girl with obvious distrust, and the Avatar...thoughtfully. Zuko looks away and keeps walking.
The bison has wandered slightly off towards the edge of town, where the grass is just beginning to fade yellow. The bison chomps contentedly. The bison...is large .
He’d known that, logically, because the creature had flown over his ship a half dozen times- had nearly destroyed his ship.
But up close?
Big. Very big.
And so soft-looking. He steps forward hesitantly, keeping an eye on the animal’s face in case they panic at his approach. He’s shot fire in their general direction, after all.
“Hi,” he greets under his breath. What had Sokka called them? “Appa?”
The creature watches him placidly, mid-bite, weeds hanging over their blunt, square teeth.
“...I’m going to pet you.”
A low rumble, like a hungry stomach.
Taking this as permission, Zuko takes the plunge and presses his left hand into the fur. It’s coarser than he expected- and a little greasy- but there’s so much. The fur is nearly to his elbow before he reaches actual bison. The creature is large, but not as big as they seem. They’re mostly just...fluff.
He stands perfectly still, resisting the urge to tip forward and sink face-first into the fur.
After a few moments, he glances over his shoulder again. The three are in a tight huddle. The Avatar has his back turned, but Zuko can see both Sokka and his sister. Sokka’s expression is uncharacteristically serious. His sister’s face is drawn tight, lips pursed as if she’s tasted something sour. She reaches a hand up, fingers lingering for a moment in the hollow of her throat, as she responds to something Sokka has said.
Sokka might be telling them they should hear Zuko out. He might also be saying any number of other things. Zuko inches closer towards them, scratching behind Appa’s ear as an alibi in case he’s accused of eavesdropping. He still can’t hear them , but Appa makes a happy rumbly noise.
The girl frowns. Sokka says something Zuko still can’t hear and the expression of concern crumbles into amused annoyance. She swats her brother lightly and he reacts with exaggerated offense.
Zuko looks away.
It’s funny the moments he misses Azula. They’d never been like that. There’s no reason an interaction like that should make him think of her. He probably shouldn’t even miss her, considering everything. But it does and he does. The chasm between here and home suddenly seems insurmountable.
He focuses on the fur, fingers carefully combing the snarls loose and smoothing the flyaways.
If this works, he’ll be home soon. He’ll see Azula, and Father, and Uncle- Mai and Ty Lee and all the old servants- and he’d come home a hero. They’d be happy to see him-
He turns to see Sokka waving him over. Behind him, the girl and the Avatar continue speaking. While the girl maintains a serious expression, the Avatar is grinning wide in between bites of a pastry. Where had he even gotten that?
Zuko stops a foot away, just as the girl begins to tense. “So,” she says with forced cheer, hands clasped over one another at her waist. “You’re Prince Zuko.”
He regards her evenly. “And you’re the watertribe peasant.”
“Yes,” she says, forced cheer a lot more forced. “That is... what they call me.”
“Technically there are two watertribe peasants here,” Sokka notes. “So probably better to use names, like a human would.” He points at the girl: “Katara.” He points at the Avatar: “Aang.”
Zuko shifts. What is he supposed to say to that? “...I’m Prince Zuko.”
Everyone stares at him.
While the girl- Katara- chokes on a laugh and Sokka looks vaguely redeemed, the Avatar steps forward. “It’s good to formally meet you, Prince Zuko,” he says, bowing respectfully. “I look forward to talking to you about how we can end this war.”
From an old monk, this would probably sound impressive. From a child with spun sugar stuck to his cheek, less so. Zuko still bows back.
“For now,” says Sokka as he leads towards Appa, “I think we should probably get going. Soldiers come through here all the time, and while the majority of Fire Nation citizens are surprisingly gullible, the ones that aren’t get stabby. Everyone onboard!”
Zuko follows him slowly, each step feeling heavier than the last. Should he really be trusting them? Sokka must be planning something- he always is. And Zuko is about to willingly hop on a huge flying bison, one that will carry him thousands of feet high in the company of only his enemies.
This is stupid, isn’t it?
If Azula were here, she would already be fighting.
If Uncle were here…
Sokka leans over the edge of the saddle and stretches down a hand. “On my honor,” he says, “as the son of Lady Kya and Chief Hakoda, I am only trying to help you, Zuko.”
Zuko hesitates one moment longer, then nods, grabbing Sokka’s hand. As he’s hoisted onto the bison’s back, the breeze picks up behind him, smelling like distant ash and fresh rain.
He can do this.
“So,” says the Avatar, twisting around the moment Zuko is settled, “Sokka says you’re going to teach me firebending!”
Oh, Zuko realizes fifty feet too high to change his mind. This is a mistake.
Deleted line: Have some leaves. They’ll heal you! They’re the heal-iest!
I got a lot of people asking about the state of Zuko’s hair, so made sure to include that all-important update. For visualization purposes, I’d say picture the most awkward looking mullet you can: very short and business-like in the front, with a party in the back that abides by social distancing regulations. Post haircut, there are one or two patches that he somehow just doesn’t notice, which means every time he turns his head, Sokka is in a silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) battle against straight-up guffawing. He is, after all, trying to secure world peace, here.
Chapter 8: The Plan Begins
I finally figured out what was missing from this fic: more talking.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko is sure that there was a shatterpoint moment in his life, some choice he made or some destined mission he failed, that caused everything to fall apart. While the war meeting was bad, it wasn’t the beginning. Maybe it was that he failed his kata the morning they found out about Lu Ten. Maybe it was that he showed Azula the trick to her first Firebending lesson and she was suddenly amazing. Maybe it was just that he was born.
The point is- he’d done something to deserve this.
He wishes he could take it back.
The Avatar is grinning.
“Firebending,” repeats the Greatest Enemy of the Fire Nation, leaping to his feet. He flings a few gusts of wind out at the surrounding clouds, and they cannonball through the mist. “Fire balls! Fire sword! Fire jets! You could show me how to fly with fire!”
“You already fly with air,” Katara points out reasonably.
“Yeah,” agrees the Avatar, “air. I wanna do it with fire!”
“I’m not teaching you Firebending,” Zuko snaps. He scowls over his shoulder at the Water Tribe Peasant. The male Water Tribe Peasant. The- Sokka. “I don’t care what he told you. I’m here to teach you about the Fire Nation and this war.”
“Aang understands this war fine,” Katara asserts sharply, “and he understands the Fire Nation.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard,” Zuko counters, glaring back.
Sokka leans forward, snuffing the argument before it can begin. “Look. Zuko. Firebending is a huge part of the Fire Nation, isn’t it?”
Zuko glares, because obviously. “So?”
“So if you’re trying to help Aang understand the Fire Nation, shouldn’t he understand Firebending? If it’s anything like the Water Tribe and our bending, there’s a rich tapestry of heritage and culture involved. To us, the water is sacred.”
“You make me wash your dirty socks with my sacred water,” Katara comments acidically, looking as unimpressed as Zuko feels.
“Shh,” Sokka hushes, “I’m securing world peace.” He turns back to Zuko. “You told me you have an ‘inner fire’ and you can feel the sun rising. That that’s Acne watching over you-”
“Agni,” Zuko and the Avatar correct simultaneously.
“My point is,” Sokka continues steadfastly, “Firebending is a big part of who you are, and what the Fire Nation is. I’d think that’s important for the Avatar to understand. But if you disagree...” He trails off meaningfully.
Everyone stares at Zuko.
Even the Avatar, who should probably be looking where the gigantic flying bison is going.
“Fine,” he grinds out finally. “But,” he continues, just as Sokka and the Avatar begin to cheer, “I’m only showing him the basics. I’m not going to teach him how to fight just so he can turn around and kill me.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” the Avatar insists, looking painfully sincere.
“Of course he wouldn’t,” Katara agrees snappishly. Her eyes flicker to Sokka, and she softens the slightest bit. “We may not agree on everything, Zuko, but you’re safe here.”
Zuko shifts uneasily and in so doing jostles the formless bundle of fur beside the food supplies. The fur- which is apparently a small bony screeching creature previously sleeping and now extremely alarmed- instantly leaps at Zuko’s face.
Zuko yelps in surprise, scrambling backwards and nearly off of the bison.
“Momo!” Katara chides, and this is all she does to help.
It’s still more than the Avatar or Sokka do. They just laugh as he’s mauled to death.
...or rather as the creature paws at his phoenix plume in between high-pitched chirps.
This probably isn’t a coordinated attack.
Zuko lifts a hand towards where the creature- the Momo- is perched on top of his head. When he finds fur, he pets once, and the animal trills happily. They continue to box his hair.
“Momo?” He repeats.
Zuko vaguely remembers a winged lemur during their fights, and feels foolish for his overreaction. He’d visited all of the known Air Temples during his search for the Avatar, and had come upon dozens of these animals. They mostly just ate fruit and watched as he grew frustrated and kicked ancient ruins. They were harmless, and he’d screamed.
“I think he likes you,” the Avatar observes gleefully from Appa’s head.
“I don’t care if he likes me!” He snaps, scowling.
He sends a general glare around the bison saddle, daring anyone to doubt him.
“...You can take him off your head,” Katara offers after a moment. “He won’t bite you or anything.”
Zuko hesitates, then reaches for the creature.
“You don’t have to,” Sokka tells him. “It can get cold up here. We’ll all understand if you want a toasty lemur hat.”
Zuko stops reaching up and crosses his arms instead. “Whatever.”
Katara stares at him.
“He should know I’m not a threat!” He shouts at her.
Momo screeches at the noise and leaps. Zuko watches with a glower as Sokka wrestles with the screaming beast pulling on his hair.
“Yes, yes! I’m back! Okay! I missed you, too!”
Katara and the Avatar laugh at the undignified display as Zuko takes the momentary distraction to fix his hair. He should have stolen Jin’s mirror.
“Avatar,” he says, eager to reclaim at least a vague sense of sanity or control, “I am here to-”
“Not now,” Sokka interrupts, grabbing a peach as Momo tugs at his ear lobe.
“Not now?” Zuko repeats furiously. “Then when?”
The Water Tribesman throws the fruit onto the saddle, and the lemur lets out a delighted squeal before diving after it. Sokka smooths out the wrinkles and fur on his shirt as he replies, “Remember when I said I don’t want you to die for no reason? That still stands.” He gestures towards their immediate surroundings. That is, endless sky. “We are thousands of feet high, and if the conversation goes sour, the only way off the bison is down.”
Katara frowns. “You’re not suggesting Aang would actually try to hurt him?”
Sokka scoffs. “Aang? He wouldn’t knock a bird off Appa.”
“It’s true!” The Avatar adds supportively. “I watched that turkey duck eat all the fish you had!”
“Yes,” Sokka agrees brightly. “You were very unhelpful!“ He turns back to Katara. “I’m saying if Zuko decides he wants off, he’ll jump first and realize gravity still exists second.”
“I’m not stupid!” Zuko snarls.
“You’re not,” Sokka agrees with surprising ease. “But you’re a little hot-blooded.” He pauses. “Hot-blooded, Zuko.”
Zuko scowls and hunches, refusing to acknowledge the pun olive branch. “I wouldn’t just jump off.”
“That is good to hear-”
“I would never abandon my mission to capture the Avatar.”
“Sokka is right,” Katara decides, turning to Zuko. “Not about you jumping off Appa,” she amends quickly at his expression. “I mean about waiting. If you and Aang are going to have peace talks, they should be held on safe, neutral territory. And we need ground rules.”
“Ground rules?” Zuko repeats dubiously.
“...Yes." She glances at her brother.
“Yes,” he echoes. “Ground rules. Like. If peace talks don’t end in immediate peace, let’s not jump straight to kidnapping Aang.”
The Avatar perks. “I like that rule!”
Zuko scowls. “I’m not going to waste my time. If the Avatar doesn’t see reason, I’m going to capture him.”
The three exchange a look Zuko can’t possibly decipher.
“We appreciate you being so honest,” Katara says finally, “but how can you expect Aang to agree to this if you don’t give him a fair chance?”
Zuko groans. “What are you talking about? I’m trying to talk first! I haven’t tried to capture him all morning! I’m not capturing him right now.”
“And you’re doing a great job,” Sokka hastens to say. “Really! I haven’t seen you light anything on fire!”
Zuko doesn't mention that he’s still too exhausted to actually fight. The days of rest have helped, but he still feels weak. He glares instead of replying and no one seems surprised.
Katara considers. “How about this? You give Aang a week.”
Both Zuko and Sokka startle. “A week?”
“If he hasn’t changed his mind by then,” she says, her gaze sliding from Zuko to Sokka, ‘“we accept that it’s over.”
“That’s not fair,” Sokka says immediately.
It’s more fair than any deal Zuko has ever heard of in his life. “After the week, I can try to capture him?”
“No, no, we’re not doing a week,” Sokka denies, shaking his head. “That’s stupid. He needs more time.”
“It’s logical,” she counters. “We were supposed to be in the North Pole in a week, Sokka. Aang needs a Waterbending Master- and so do I. And you can’t actually think, after everything, this is worth-” She cuts herself off and shakes her head. “Look. Aang and I agreed to give this a try, and I think a week is more than fair.”
"I agree,” Zuko affirms before Sokka can argue. “There’s no sense in dragging this out if it doesn’t work.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Katara says almost pleasantly
Sokka groans. “Really great that you guys agree on something, but does it have to be the opposite of what I want?” He sighs. “Fine. But today doesn’t count.”
“It’s barely noon!”
“Exactly! I will not let you rob us of breakfast peace talks!”
“Breakfast peace talks are the most important peace talks of the day,” offers the Avatar.
Katara rolls her eyes. “Fine. Starting tomorrow, one week.”
Most of the day is spent flying, and most of the conversation is provided by Sokka and the Avatar. Katara spends the majority of her time staring at Zuko, only looking away if he starts to smoke. If her white-knuckled fists are any indication, she doesn’t trust Zuko any more than he trusts her. It’s a relief knowing Sokka has someone like her around to stem some of his stupider impulses.
The Avatar rattles on about what Sokka missed during his absence, mostly boring conversations with peasants and accidental heroics. He tries to engage Zuko several times, but gets the message pretty quickly when his only answers are stony looks and stilted monosyllables. If they can’t actually talk, Zuko refuses to sit around nattering. For one, it’s pointless. For another, he’s always been bad at it and would probably manage to say something stupid enough to make even a pacifist throw him overboard.
The afternoon passes mostly in awkward silences, uncomfortable looks, and way too much of Sokka talking.
It’s basically the last week of Zuko’s life, just a thousand feet higher.
“-weird cave cells, so I didn’t even know it was Zuko-”
“What!” The Avatar interrupts the harrowing and highly-edited tale of their imprisonment and turns to Zuko, delighted. “I didn’t know who you were during our jailbreak, either!” He cocks his head. “Is hiding that you’re a good guy, like, your thing?”
“Yes,” says Sokka, just as Zuko snaps,
“Wait, let me get this straight,” Katara says, sitting forward. “You want us to trust Zuko because he acted nice while you two were lying to each other?”
“They say we show our truest selves behind a mask,” chirps the Avatar.
“Exactly!” Sokka exclaims. “Top-shelf Avatar wisdom right there! Also, A), it doesn’t really count as lying when he does it, B) he didn’t act nice, and C) we didn’t lie, we just omitted one or two things.”
Katara turns to Zuko, unconvinced. “So you really didn’t think, even a little bit, about whether the imprisoned Water Tribe boy next door named Sokka was Sokka?’
Sokka scoffs. “Well, we didn’t give our real names.”
“It’s adjusting syllables!”
“You used fake names?” The Avatar glances at Zuko curiously. “What did you say your name was?”
“Lee,” Zuko answers flatly.
He deflates, clearly unimpressed. “...that’s a nice name.”
Sokka preens. “My name was Sir Walrus-Rabbit the Sixth.”
“Sir Walrus-Hare the Third,” Zuko corrects, scowling.
Katara chokes on a laugh. “And you believed that?”
“No!” Zuko growls. “I knew he was only giving a fake name because I had!”
“You said your name was Lee,” points out the Avatar. “How’d he know that was fake?”
“Are you not listening!?” Sokka demands. “This boy may bend fire, but he cannot bend the truth!”
Eventually, Zuko settles into his own skin. He rests on the edge of the saddle, watching the world below slowly drift by. Appa’s legs kick in a gentle rhythm, fluffy white fur melding with the clouds.
This might be the most amazing and peaceful experience of his life, even looking over his shoulder every few seconds to confirm no one is about to push.
Despite his para- despite his caution, he still doesn’t notice Sokka approaching until he’s right there.
“Neat, isn’t it?”
Zuko jolts, then forces himself to relax. It’s only Sokka. Sokka could have killed him a dozen times over and hadn’t. Sokka was Walrus. “I’ve never been this high,” he admits, letting his gaze fall back down. From up here, the towering trees look like blades of grass.
“I’ve been higher,” Sokka reveals conversationally, sitting beside him to appreciate the view.
Despite himself, Zuko is curious. “Really? When?’
Zuko tries to turn the bubble of laughter into a derisive scoff, but Sokka looks too proud to have been fooled.
They still haven’t come upon another town when the shadows below begin to grow long. The others talk about possible landing areas while Zuko remains quiet. He’s spent most of the last few hours- in the spare moments he had to himself without the Avatar or Sokka interrupting- considering how he would approach the peace talks.
He wonders what Sokka has already told them.
He wonders why the Avatar keeps smiling at him instead of glaring.
He wonders if there’s a way to make Katara stop glaring.
Zuko doesn’t have a plan, but it’s a familiar problem. Sitting on a flying bison surrounded by enemies, miles from home, friends, or family, it’s almost nice that something hasn’t changed.
They finally land in a small forest clearing. The Avatar hops off while they’re still at a dizzying height and spins his way to the dirt with a delighted cheer. The moment Zuko has solid ground beneath his feet, Sokka loops his arm around him and declares, “We’re gonna go get firewood!”
Katara watches them go with a furrowed brow, but doesn’t outright veto the idea.
“How are you doing?” Sokka asks the moment they’re out of earshot.
“What? I’m fine.” Zuko frowns. “Why are you asking that? I didn’t even get hurt.”
“No, but you are in a new social situation, which I’m guessing is worse for you than getting stabbed.”
Zuko scowls, but can’t disagree, even as he wonders what ulterior motive Sokka has for pretending to care. He kicks a rock as he walks and it ricochets off the bark of an old oak. “I don’t know why I thought I could do this.”
“Because you can,” he replies cheerily as he bends to collect some sticks. “Just talk to him.” He considers Zuko’s expression. “What?”
“This is politics.” Sokka raises an eyebrow and Zuko lets the floodgates of frustration open. “I’m bad at politics! I always have been! I’ve had classes on diplomacy and politics, and I still don’t get it! People never say what they mean, and they always have ulterior motives, and I always manage to make a fool of myself!” His volume dips as self-loathing gnaws at his stomach. “This is too important for me to screw it up. I shouldn’t even be here-”
“You’re not going to screw anything up, Zuko,” Sokka interrupts firmly. “All you’re doing is talking. Even if the outcome isn’t exactly what you’re hoping it will be, understanding another person’s perspective is never a bad thing.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Remember Kyoshi Island? You lit it on fire?”
Zuko crosses his arms guiltily. “Rings a bell.”
“When I was there, I assumed I knew better than their warriors. They beat me up. A lot.”
“That doesn’t sound like talking.”
“Eh, I earned it. Trust me, if I thought beating you up would help, I would. The point is, they took me out of my comfort zone and made me realize there was stuff outside of that comfort zone worth knowing. Also really pretty girls with swords.”
“...is this still about me?”
“You being here means you’re going to have a perspective on the Avatar no other Fire Nation soldier has,” Sokka insists. “So talk. Learn. Besides, Katara and Aang are almost too sincere. They’ll say what they mean. And they want to like you. Exploit that!”
Zuko scoffs. “I don’t think your sister wants to like me. She hates me.”
“You did kidnap her,” Sokka points out, “with pirates.”
Zuko rips a dying branch from its tree, furious with himself and the world and pirates. “Exactly!”
“You could try apologizing.”
“She wouldn’t buy it,” Zuko dismisses, “and I’m not sorry. I’d do it again if I thought it would work.”
“Yeah, maybe don’t tell her that part.” Sokka considers. “Just treat her with respect. Don’t call her a peasant, or a traitor, or really any of your favorite words. Treat her the way you’d treat yourse- the way you’d treat another royal.”
Zuko thinks this over. “You are the children of a Chief. I know the tribe was pathetic, but-”
“Oh, and don’t forget to not call her tribe pathetic.”
Zuko winces. “I- not pathetic. Small. Coz-”
“You had classes on diplomacy, you say?”
When they get back to the campsite, the Avatar and Katara are talking. They look up in unison as the two teens tromp back into sight. The Avatar smiles.
“Thanks for helping Sokka collect firewood,” he says genially.
Zuko glances at Sokka.
You’re welcome, he mouths.
Zuko drops the wood onto the ground. “I’m not here for manual labor,” he declares. “I’m here to end the war. We need to begin the peace talks.”
Sokka sighs way too heavily for it to be sincere. Zuko suspects it’s sincere anyway.
“Okay!” Says the Avatar. “Um, you go first.”
Zuko blinks. “You-” He coughs into his hand. “You should join the Fire Nation.”
“Okay!” Says the Avatar just as cheerily, and for a moment Zuko thinks it was that easy? Then, “Why?”
“Because,” Zuko begins, shoulders squared, “we’re a strong nation doing what’s best for the world. If you join us, we can do that together.” He swallows. “And if you join us, you’ll have Fire Lord Ozai’s ear. He’d...consider your concerns. Regarding.”
Everyone is staring at him.
“Um. Your concerns.”
“You’re right, Sokka,” says Katara coldly. “He is bad at lying.” She turns to the Avatar. “The Fire Lord isn’t interested in hearing your opinions, Aang. If you went, he’d just capture you, just like Zhao did and just like Zuko tried to do.”
“I succeeded!” Zuko snaps. “He went back on his deal!”
“And now you want to go back on yours?” She challenges, glaring. “I’m not letting you capture Aang by lying to him about peace!”
“I’m not lying!”
“You’re either lying to Aang or you’re lying to yourself. The Fire Nation is evil, Zuko- the things they’ve done to Aang, to us- the things you personally have done to us! Why should we believe you’ve changed?!”
“I haven’t!” He shouts.
“Then why should we listen?!”
“Because your stupid brother told you to!”
“Don’t call him stupid!”
“Guys!” Sokka is suddenly between them, and Zuko realizes both he and Katara have slipped into fighting stances. His heart is still pounding furiously. He’d almost ruined things completely. On day zero. “That’s it for the peace talks tonight. I’m very impressed. Really peaceful.” He turns to Zuko. “Set up the fire, will ya?”
Zuko scowls but does so, scooping up the tinder and arranging it just so before urging the wood to catch. He keeps his good ear perked as Sokka walks to his sister’s side. “You don’t have to trust him yet,” he tells her quietly. “Just trust me.”
It’s the yet that keeps Zuko company as he lies awake hours later, refusing to sleep so close to enemies that might just slip out of his grasp if he gives them the chance. It’s the yet that makes him wonder if maybe Sokka doesn’t have some ulterior motive. If he just…
It doesn’t make any sense but, then, neither does Sokka.
When Zuko feels the sun beginning to rise, he marches over to the Avatar’s bedroll and orders, “Get up.”
The Avatar makes a small, muffled noise that roughly translates to no.
“I said get up,” Zuko insists, scowling.
The Avatar squints awake. “...Zuko?” He rubs at his eyes sleepily as he sits forward. “What are you doing? It’s the middle of the night.”
Have none of them ever heard of dawn? “It’s the morning,” Zuko corrects. “You’re a Firebender. You wake with the sun.”
“It’s hottest at noon,” the Avatar points out. “Shouldn’t I wake up then instead?”
Zuko glares, unimpressed.
Unfortunately, the Avatar takes this as permission to curl back up into a ball. Zuko fumes and resists the urge to kick him in the ribs. “Wake up, Avatar!”
“Aang,” groans Sokka. “Just do what he says. Quietly. Some of us aren’t Firebenders and want to sleep.”
The Avatar reluctantly drags himself up out of the blankets, shivering in the early morning chill. “I’m just saying,” he mutters, “the sun is up all day.”
Zuko ignores him and leads to the center of the clearing. “Sit down.”
The Avatar plops down obediently. “Okay, I’m sitting. Now what?”
“Breathe,” Zuko orders, sitting opposite him.
He groans. “You woke me up just to breathe? I could’ve done that in my sleep!”
“Firebending is about breath control,” Zuko tells him, echoing Uncle. “So sit up straight and breathe. Feel the sun.”
“...and then I’ll get to throw fireballs?”
“And then you’ll be tan,” Sokka corrects from twenty feet away. “Seriously, guys, whisper.”
“Ignore him,” Zuko orders flatly.
The Avatar nods and smooths his breaths, eyes closing as he focuses on the feeling of the rising sun on his skin.
Zuko relaxes into his own meditative pose, reluctantly impressed at the Avatar’s show of discipline.
It takes him thirty minutes to realize the kid is just asleep.
“Feet further apart. Squat lower. Chin up.”
“How much of this is real?” Sokka wonders from the sidelines, munching on something distractingly crunchy. “And how much of this is you getting back at him for denting your ship?”
The Avatar obediently squats lower even as he shifts his feet apart. “Like this?”
“Chin up,” Zuko repeats firmly. “Feel the sun on your forehead.”
The Avatar does so. “I feel it,” he says. “Now do I throw fireballs?”
“No,” Zuko denies. “Now you breathe.”
Sokka laughs so hard he chokes on his snack. Katara hits his back three times before it dislodges.
The Avatar is too distracted by his friend’s inability to breathe to practice breathing himself.
Zuko would like to nap.
“Where to next?” Katara asks, peering over Sokka’s shoulders.
“There are a bunch of colonies nearby we can visit to restock,” he replies, poring over the map, “but I’d rather get a little further before we stop anywhere. Less chance we’ll be recognized.”
Zuko frowns. The territory Sokka is considering is incredibly red, and while he knows his Father will understand once he brings home the Avatar, he would rather not disobey him needlessly. He hasn’t set foot on Fire Nation soil-- not as himself-- since he was banished. “We should stick to the Earth Kingdom,” he says. They both glance up at him and he adds, defensively, “Fewer chances to run into Fire Nation soldiers.”
Sokka considers him, then nods. “Okay,” he says, “we can do that.” His finger traces over the map, finding a mountain range in the far North. “The old Northern Air Temple,” he observes, tapping the inked image. “I’d say that’s a pretty good spot to train and lay low. We could get there in a couple of days.”
Zuko shakes his head. “It’s occupied.”
Katara frowns. “By the Fire Nation?”
“No,” he replies. “Just people. They glide around, but they’re not actually Airbenders. Trust me.”
Sokka squints. “...did you try to capture a bunch of random Earth Kingdom citizens?”
Yes. “It’s too busy there,” he insists, “but there are other mountains.”
Sokka accepts this. “That’s only a day or two from the North Pole,” he notes, glancing at his sister. "We could probably get a third of the way there by tonight."
Katara nods her agreement. She turns to the Avatar who is amusing himself by Airbending berries in circles around Momo’s head. The lemur seems delighted and frustrated. Zuko is only frustrated. The Avatar was supposed to be focused on his breathing exercises. “Aang! We’re heading out!”
“Great!” He shouts, then leaps the thirty feet onto Appa’s saddle, the back of his shirt flapping as he descends. He turns to them expectantly. “Where are we going?”
“-our colonists introduce new agricultural techniques-”
Katara is glaring at him over the Avatar’s shoulder.
“-as well as new technologies like steam-”
“-and Earth Kingdom towns benefit from our superior education system.”
If she were a Firebender, he’d be on fire.
“But we understand they have their own cultures, and we’re mindful of that. Having the Avatar on our side would help to smooth these tensions.”
He’d practiced this speech in the woods for ten minutes before delivering it, not to mention for hours in his head on Appa's saddle, and he refuses to be distracted by one incredibly angry peasant girl.
Said incredibly angry peasant girl sits forward. “So you’d never, I don’t know, capture a bunch of Earthbenders and put them in an ocean prison miles from their homes and families?”
“If you’re referring to the prison escape you orchestrated-”
“Don’t be so judge-y,” Sokka chastises, “you do that all the time.”
“-those were Fire Nation enemies who fought against our troops. We were only trying to help. They forced violence.”
“It sure is easy to force violence out of the Fire Nation,” Katara remarks contemptuously.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone,” Zuko insists, “but the Fire Lord understands that a little sacrifice is sometimes necessary for the greater good.”
Katara scoffs, clearly disgusted. Even Sokka is frowning. Only the Avatar watches without any outward display of bitterness or resentment.
Zuko resumes his speech steadfastly, strolling back and forth in front of his audience. “We would also use our economic advantages to assist poverty-stricken Earth-”
“I can’t even listen to this anymore,” Katara snaps, leaping to her feet. “How dare you rob the culture of these communities and call it goodwill! I don't care how you frame it. What you're describing is horrible!”
"I am describing a way for the stagnant, stubborn Earth Kingdom to progress! Why shouldn't we try to help? The Fire Nation is thriving!"
"What it is is completely evil!"
“There is good in the Fire Nation,” says the Avatar, apparently having deemed the conversation buck-hogwild enough to require balancing.
“Yeah, right,” she mutters dismissively.
“It’s true,” he insists, hopping up onto his feet so that he can address them both. “A hundred years ago, I used to go to the Fire Lily Festival every summer! They had all these amazing foods and games. My friends and I won first place in the Phoenix Fire Gauntlet! It sounds intimidating, but mostly they just threw fireballs at your feet while you ran. I won a wooden jellyfish-duck!”
Zuko scowls. “The Fire Nation has more to offer than childish games and toys.”
“Oh.” The Avatar considers him. “Do they still have dance parties?”
“You’re not taking this seriously!” Zuko snaps.
“Of course he is,” Katara counters before the Avatar can say a word. “Aang is dedicated to restoring balance. Maybe he’s having trouble seeing it from your perspective because your perspective is wrong.”
Sokka winces. “Okay, let’s not-”
“My perspective is that the Fire Nation is winning this war, and every day that the Avatar fights his losing battle, innocent people who don’t need to die do!” Zuko shouts back. “If you can’t see that, then I don’t need a week.” He shifts into his fighting stance, left hand raised in a tight fist.
“Good,” she replies, the cap popping off of her waterskin as a stream of water leaps to attention between her hands. “Neither do I.”
“My Father and Agni himself have willed me to capture the Avatar,” he tells her intimidatingly, refusing to allow a single tremble in his voice. “If defeating some peasant is the only way to fulfill this destiny, I will do my duty.”
The Avatar frowns, eyebrows furrowed. He looks more puzzled than threatened, but at least he isn’t talking about dance parties.
Katara, on the other hand, just narrows her eyes. “Try it,” she suggests icily.
Zuko’s fist comes aflame and he refuses to wince. He isn’t weak. He can do this.
“Guys,” Sokka groans, awkwardly pulling himself to his feet, “can we not immediately start fighting? It’s day one.”
“He started it,” Katara asserts. “I’m just going to finish it.”
Zuko sneers. “Have you learned nothing from our previous fights? By threatening me-”
“-you invite your own doom!” The Avatar shouts.
Katara doesn’t stop facing Zuko, but her gaze slides quizzically to her companion. “...what?”
“That’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it?” The Avatar is grinning and bouncing up and down in place and he is back to obnoxiously gleeful and this is bad-
“...no,” Zuko says.
“Yes, it was!" He begins to pace. "What you said before sounded familiar, but I didn’t recognize it at first. That was the Dragon Empress, right? Except she says-” He affects a dramatic accent that doesn’t sound anything like a Fire Nation accent, not even a colonial one, “'My Mother and Agni himself have willed me to prove my devotion. If following him into the ashes is the only way to fulfill this destiny, I will do my duty!' And what you just said- that was the final battle! The Dark Water spirit!” He grins smugly. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
“No,” Zuko says again. He has no other words.
“I knew it!” The Avatar hops, and the air carries him at least a dozen feet high before he twirls back down. “That’s from Love Amongst the Dragons!”
“It isn’t,” Zuko assures, glancing from him to Sokka to Katara. “I don’t- I’ve never even heard of that. I don’t know what that is.”
“That was Kuzon’s favorite play!” The Avatar continues happily. “He made me watch it, like, a hundred times!”
“I don’t know it,” Zuko stresses.
“It was terrible!”
“We used to make fun of it the whole time!”
“It was so over-the-top! Everyone kept monologuing about dreams and flowers! They never even showed Noren in his dragon form!”
“That was a purposeful choice!” Zuko snaps. “It’s supposed to feel surreal, and his dragon form was a metaphor!” His chest heaves and his skin is steaming and he suddenly realizes Katara and Sokka are staring at him, and he’s so stupid, what is wrong with him?
“...you were doing a monologue?” Katara clarifies. At some point, she has let the water soak into the dirt beneath her boots. “While you were attacking me?”
“I-” Zuko swallows. “Technically, it was a soliloquy.”
“Okay,” says Sokka, clapping once. He doesn’t even look surprised. “Are we all done trying to kill each other for the night?”
Katara nods numbly.
Zuko is too embarrassed to argue, so he just crosses his arms and looks anywhere else.
“Great! Let’s get some sleep, and we can all murder some more in the morning. I’m gonna set up the tent.”
He promptly begins wrestling with fabric and tentpoles. Though the inanimate objects should be at a steep disadvantage, the battle seems one sided in their favor. Zuko turns away from the almost impressive incompetence-
...and the Avatar is right there.
“A metaphor?” He repeats curiously, as if there hadn’t been any threatening or impending violence. “For what?”
Zuko scowls. “I don’t know, who cares?”
“C’mon,” insists the Avatar, sitting and patting the dirt beside him. “If it’s a good play, I should know, right? That’s Fire Nation culture right there!”
Zuko wants to explain. Zuko could explain, for hours. He hadn’t gotten it at first either- metaphors are weird- and his mother had spent hours of her time explaining everything. She was always so happy when she talked about that play. Happier than he’d ever seen her.
Zuko had kept asking questions just to see her smile as she answered.
“...I’m going to find some more firewood,” he mutters to no one in particular, and stalks into the woods.
When he gets back, carrying an armful of spindly twigs he’d quickly collected after ranting for a half hour at a large oak tree, they’re still there. Zuko had half expected them to leave. He swallows a relieved sigh. The idea that his short temper could ruin everything again made him want to scream. This is, of course, counter productive.
He dumps the sticks in front of Sokka and sits on a patch of dirt on the opposite side of the fire, as far as he can get from everyone else while still near to the flames.
He breathes, and the fire breathes with him.
“Wow,” says the Avatar, perking. “How do you do that?”
Zuko is about to snap, because he’d already told him breathing was important, but reminds himself how far snapping had gotten him last time. “Get in your stance,” he says instead.
The Avatar hops immediately into place. His feet are a little too far apart and his face screwed up into a grimace better suited to Zhao, but it’s passable.
“Breathe in through your nose,” Zuko orders, “and out through your mouth. Deeply.” The Avatar does, way too loudly. “Calmer,” Zuko urges. “It’s not about power. It’s breathing. Just breathe.”
The Avatar relaxes slowly until he resembles himself more than a constipated porcupine-badger.
“Keep breathing,” Zuko continues, wondering how to put into words something so innate. “And...reach out?”
He glances around for inspiration and finds Katara. She’s sitting stiffly, but she doesn’t look as angry as she had before. She almost looks curious.
“You’re learning Waterbending, right? Think about the push and pull of the waves.” He hesitates. “You can feel that, can’t you?”
The Avatar nods.
“Try sensing that in the fire, then. There's a tide to it, too- the way the flame washes up like waves on a beach. Fire and water are the same, just,” Zuko struggles, “different.”
It’s not very good advice, a butchering of a concept Uncle had once tried and failed to explain, but the Avatar seems calmer in his next breath.
The fire is no longer attuned to Zuko’s breaths, or its own. It follows every exhale of the Avatar, growing larger and larger as he discovers his control.
“I feel it!” He crows delightedly, breaking from his stance.
The fire licks higher.
“Good. Now let go.” Zuko frowns when he doesn’t. “Right now, Avatar, let go.”
“I can feel it,” repeats the Avatar, ignoring the order. He reaches out, grin broadening as the fire reaches back towards him in a spiraling flurry of flame, and it’s already spreading, spanning out-
Zuko slashes his arm through the flames, snuffing the entire campfire. “What is wrong with you?!” He demands furiously.
The Avatar scurries back at his tone, clearly startled and inching towards scared. “W-what?”
“I told you to stop!”
“Back off!” Katara shouts, suddenly between him and the Avatar, her arms outstretched. “He didn’t do anything wrong!”
“You don’t just play with fire!” Zuko snaps at her, his earlier irritation returning tenfold. “And if you keep protecting him from the lessons he should be learning, he’ll never be the Avatar you want him to be!”
“He already is!” She retorts furiously. She stalks forward and he stays rigidly in place, even when her face is only inches away. “You may be a Prince, but that doesn’t mean you get to bully Aang. If you’re so good at Firebending, you should be able to teach him without yelling at him!”
That doesn’t make any sense, and Zuko is about to scream that fact when there's suddenly another Water Tribe peasant standing in his way. “Hey, we’re done with the shout-y portion of the evening, remember? Check the itinerary.” He glances between them. “Just- calm down. Zuko, light the campfire.”
“Light the campfire,” Sokka repeats firmly.
Zuko wants to continue arguing, because arguing makes sense, fighting makes sense, lazing around a campfire with his enemies doesn’t, but he refuses to be the reason this plan fails.
He marches back to the extinguished firepit and sets it ablaze, letting his frustration turn the tinder to ash.
He scowls as he watches them talk, their backs turned and their voices hushed. Sokka and Katara are silent but animated, and more than one finger points angrily in his direction. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the conversation ends. The Avatar approaches slowly. Zuko tenses, ready for anger and excuses and-
“I’m sorry,” says the Avatar.
Zuko blinks. “What?”
“You agreed to be my Firebending Master,” continues the boy contritely, “and I didn’t give you the respect you deserve. I was excited, but I should have listened when you told me to stop. I’m sorry.” He looks up, reviewing Zuko’s expression. “Zuko?”
Zuko is staring. He knows he is, but he can’t help it.
“He’s fine,” Sokka says, walking up and crossing his arms. “Just give him a minute.”
“See? Totally fine. I’m gonna go roast some meat. You three, talk about your emotions.” He stalks towards their supplies, and Zuko watches him go with some distress.
The Avatar turns back to Zuko, clearly worried. “...Will you still teach me?”
Zuko frowns but relents, "I said I would."
The Avatar grins. “Really?!”
“You’ll listen, from now on," Zuko asserts, turning back to the fire. The amount of joy on that face is difficult to process. “If I tell you to stop, you stop.” He hesitates. His tutors growing up rarely explained why he was being scolded, but Uncle always had. In his own proverb-laden way, at least. Still. Zuko likes reasons, so presumably the Avatar does, too. And this is something he’ll need to understand viscerally if he’s going to become a Firebender. “Do you understand why I stopped you?”
The Avatar nods solemnly. “I’m not powerful enough for that move yet.”
It catches everyone- even Sokka, ten feet away with a half-staked fish- by surprise.
“No,” he says, swallowing his last shred of amusement. “That’s not it.” He looks down at his own hands. “That’s the first time you’ve ever bent Fire?” The Avatar nods in his periphery. “You’re a prodigy,” he says to the dirt, so he doesn’t have to say it to his enemy. “It took me-” months. “-a long time to master consistent breathing with fire.”
The Avatar’s eyes widen. Just as he begins to grin, Zuko continues,
“Your problem isn’t power. It’s discipline.”
The Avatar frowns. “I’m disciplined. I practice with Katara every day.” He turns to her for support. “Tell him!”
She shifts. “You’re a lot of things, Aang. Amazing, sweet, and so brave, but-” she winces, “I don’t think disciplined is how I’d describe you.”
The Avatar gapes, clearly betrayed.
“In case you wanted my opinion,” calls Sokka, “I wouldn’t describe you as disciplined, either. Or sweet.”
“I am sweet!” The Avatar declares, puffing out his chest a little.
Katara laughs behind her hand, but stops abruptly when the Avatar notices.
“My point,” says Zuko slowly, because he senses he’s losing his last shred of control, “is that fire isn’t like water or air. If you lose control of those elements, they just splash. Or-” He falters.
“Whoosh,” suggests Sokka helpfully.
“Left unattended,” Zuko continues, reluctantly grateful for the assistance, ”fire consumes everything.”
The Avatar shifts. “You make it sound...evil.”
“Wonder why,” Katara snarks under her breath.
“It’s not evil,” Zuko corrects, refusing to let himself become frustrated, because this is the important thing. Regardless of whose side he takes in the war, the Avatar needs to understand both the bad and the good. “Fire is more than destruction. Used correctly, it’s warmth. It’s food. It’s life.” He swallows. “But it’s fragile. You need to be careful.”
The Avatar nods slowly, absorbing the information.
Even Katara seems momentarily open to the possibility that fire is not inherently evil.
“Every element can be destructive or helpful,” Zuko continues, feeling a little as if he were on a roll. “Fire may not be able to heal like water does, but it can-”
There goes the roll. Zuko turns to Katara impatiently. “What?”
“What did you just say?” She asks, eyes wide. She doesn’t look angry, which is almost as startling as how intensely she’s watching him.
“...Fire is good?”
“You said water can heal,” Katara insists.
Zuko glances between his companions, at a loss. “...yes?”
Zuko waits for more, but that seems to be it. “...yes.”
Katara turns to Sokka, then to the Avatar, then back to Zuko. “How?”
“I don’t know,” Zuko replies, nonplussed. “I’m a Firebender.”
“Is that true, Aang?” Katara asks, turning to the Avatar eagerly.
He rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t know. I never met one, but I guess I’ve heard Water Tribe healers are pretty good?”
Katara considers, then pulls out her waterskin. “Sokka, come over here. Let me see your side.”
“Katara, I’m not letting you splash my stab wound with freaky water.”
“Sacred water,” she corrects, already moving towards him.
“That either,” Sokka agrees stubbornly.
“I don’t think just anyone can do it,” Zuko offers. “It’s like lightning bending. You have to be a master.”
“I can do it,” Katara says confidently, even as Sokka demands,
She crouches by her brother’s side, hands laminated in thin layers of water. Despite his protests, Sokka still pulls up his shirt to reveal the stitches. Both the Avatar and Katara wince, clearly having expected a smaller injury.
She glances at Zuko, hands an inch from the wound. “Like this?”
“I don’t know,” he insists, irritated.
She doesn’t seem to register his annoyance. She presses her hands against the skin and furrows her brow.
“Wow,” Sokka deadpans. “I feel so much better.”
She frowns. “Aang, come over here.”
The Avatar hops effortlessly over the fire to join her.
Sokka meets Zuko’s eyes, crowded on either side by good intention. “This is your fault,” he accuses.
He doesn’t actually sound angry, but Zuko still defends himself. “I was just trying to keep him from setting the whole forest on fire!”
“Well, next time, just let him do it.”
“Quiet,” Katara orders. “We need to concentrate.”
“On getting my stitches wet?”
“On-” She falters. “Something. Probably. Just sit still.”
“We could try freezing it?”
“Don’t freeze it!” Sokka snaps, glaring at the Avatar. “Why would you suggest that?!”
The Avatar shrugs. This seems to be the process behind most of his choices.
Sokka shakes free of their hold. “Look, Zuko said you have to be a master and you clearly have no idea what you’re doing. If you could heal, don’t you think it would have come up already?”
Katara isn’t deterred. “I just haven’t tried before, that’s all.”
“You sure didn’t,” Sokka agrees. “Not when I fell into the greasebeary bramble, not when that mink snake bit me, and not that time I had two fishhooks in my thumb!”
The Avatar cocks his head. “Two?”
“He tried to get the first fish hook out with another fish hook,” Katara explains confidentially.
“It would’ve worked if it’d been sharper!”
“Maybe a third fish hook would have done the trick.”
“The point is I had to go to Gran Gran and you did nothing.”
“That’s not true,” Katara says indignantly. “I watched and I laughed.”
The two siblings continue to bicker as the Avatar laughs along, neither of them truly angry and none of them aware of Zuko’s growing incredulity.
Two fish hooks?
Sokka was the mastermind.
He shakes his head and resumes breathing with the fire.
“Zuko, you have to sleep.”
Zuko frowns. The Avatar and Katara are already fast asleep. He’d thought Sokka was, too, but obviously not. “I will,” he says without looking away from the fire.
“See, I have doubts about that.” Sokka sits beside him, ignoring any semblance of personal space. “Seeing as how you didn’t sleep last night.”
Zuko hadn’t realized he’d noticed. He shrugs one shoulder. “I wasn’t tired.”
Sokka sighs a little. “You’re such a bad liar. Why do you even try?”
“If I gave up at everything I was bad at,” Zuko says wryly, “I’d never have anything to do.”
“Open schedule might be nice,” Sokka remarks. He grabs a nearby stick and cracks it in half, using the slightly longer piece to gently nudge a bit of firewood closer to the flames. “You could take a vacation.”
“I’m bad at vacations,” Zuko counters. “Uncle tried to make me take one. Once."
“How can someone be bad at vacations?”
“Last time you were ‘holidaying,’” Zuko replies, putting an appropriate level of derision into the phrase, “you started a rebellion in Douxing and were arrested.”
Sokka acknowledges the point. Then, apropos of nothing, “You were good with Aang.”
“You were patient,” Sokka elaborates, shrugging. “Well, patient for you. More patient than most people would be with the pre-pubescent spiritual powerhouse that is the Avatar. He doesn’t always listen, but you got him to- for almost an entire ten seconds. Some of it might even stick.” He prods the fire again and it flares at the attention. “You’ll be a good teacher.”
“I-” Zuko swallows. “I’m not a good bender, Sokka.”
The Water Tribesman frowns. “What?”
Zuko glances away, uninterested in seeing the disappointment. He’s not sure when he started caring what Sokka thought about him, but he realizes with startling certainty that he does. “You should know that. I’m not a Master. I’m not even as good as my little sister. If the Avatar wants a real teacher, he’ll find one in the Fire Nation. I can even help him find one. But...it shouldn’t be me.”
“You could have just taught him how to throw fireballs,” Sokka says. Zuko doesn’t see the connection, but the Water Tribesman continues before he can wonder. “You know how to do that, and he’s talented enough to do it, and it’s what he wanted to learn. But you didn’t. Instead, you tried to make him understand discipline, and patience.” He turns to Zuko. “Believe it or not, I’m not a Firebending Master, either. But I know you didn’t go the easy route. You’re actually trying to teach, and you’re trying to teach him the important stuff.” He shrugs. “None of us know what we’re doing, Zuko. It’s alright that you don’t either.” He claps Zuko’s back, and Zuko is too startled by his response to bristle. “Go to sleep. We’re not going to fly away in the middle of the night, and we’re not going to attack you. And if you’re worried about other people attacking, I can keep watch.”
Zuko has no arguments left. He nods, exhausted and finally feeling capable of giving into it. “Fine.”
He lies down and stares straight up.
“...Sokka?” He hesitates. He doesn’t want to ask, but he’d rather ask now than have Katara and the Avatar hear him. “If I- if I scream-”
“I’ll wake you up,” Sokka says smoothly, “and explain to them that we narrowly avoided a sabertooth moose attack.”
Zuko smiles a little. “...Thanks, Sokka.”
Zuko wakes up last.
When he jerks forward, suddenly aware of where and when he is, he sees that the others have already picked up the campsite. The Avatar and Katara are standing on the river bank, calmly trading a long stream of water.
Zuko has never woken up this late before.
It’s past dawn.
“Morning, sleepyhead!” Sokka calls down from Appa’s saddle. ”Breakfast is by your head.”
Zuko turns and, disconcerted, notes that there is half a roasted fish waiting for him. It’s unnerving to know someone was so close to him and he hadn’t woken up. It’s not unnerving enough that he doesn’t eat. He finishes most of the portion and pockets a few bites for later.
As he walks towards the river, the Avatar spots him and bows deeply. “Good morning, Sifu Hotman!”
“Morning, Zuko,” Katara offers as the water they’d been trading splashes down.
Zuko nods at them politely, not yet awake enough to even approach the title he's been given, before crouching to sip the cool river water.
“We were just finishing up our morning training,” explains the Avatar, trotting over. “Should I start Firebending practice?”
Zuko considers, then nods. “Get into your stance,” he says, “and breathe.”
The Avatar does, without question.
Zuko walks past him towards Katara. “What is your brother doing up there?”
She glances at Appa. “Just looking over the map.”
“Why? We figured out the route yesterday. ”
Katara hesitates before answering. “He wants to visit some towns,” she says finally.
Zuko frowns. “Why?”
“We need supplies.”
Zuko’s frown deepens, because he may not always know when someone is lying to him, but Katara is almost as bad at lying as he is. “No, you don’t.”
“Yes, we do,” she asserts, glancing wildly around her. “We need...firestarter supplies.”
Zuko arches a brow. “Is that a joke?”
“You need clothes,” explains Sokka as he approaches, the map tucked under his armpit. “Unless you’d rather keep looking like a super suspicious half-dressed Fire Nation soldier.”
Zuko glowers, because that’s a good answer even if it’s not the real one. It also presents other problems. “I don’t have money,” he says. “Zhao took everything I had when he captured me.”
“Why?” Wonders the Avatar, still in his stance and facing the wrong direction.
“Keep breathing,” Zuko orders, crossing his arms.
“Was it because you helped me?”
“It’s because Zhao doesn’t like me,” Zuko replies sourly, reluctant despite himself to let the boy feel guilty over Zuko’s stupid decisions.
Katara furrows her brows. “He’s your Admiral, isn’t he? Why would he do that?”
Zuko’s gaze flickers to Sokka. “You didn’t tell them?”
“I figure details are up to you,” Sokka replies. “And don’t worry, we have money. And if we run out, I’m sure you can perform a monologue for tips!”
“Soliloquy,” Katara corrects sternly, one hand on her hip.
Sokka cackles. Zuko angrily blushes his way to the beach.
After breathing for a solid hour, the Avatar approaches Zuko with a solemn expression.
“I’m ready for the next lesson,” he announces.
“I know I can do this!” The Avatar argues, quickly dropping any hint of formality. “We only have a week, Zuko, and I know how to breathe. You said yourself I’m a prodigy!”
Zuko scowls at the reminder, but takes it under consideration. When they were young, Azula often got bored during her easier lessons. Maybe the Avatar’s tendency to wander off and play with Momo was the Pacifist Prodigy equivalent of melting the soles of tutors’ shoes. Maybe he, like Azula, needed the challenge.
And how often had Zuko demanded harder tasks himself while Uncle just dismissed him as not being ready?
“...Fine,” he relents finally. “We can work with fire.”
“Oh, yeah!” The Avatar leaps into the air, cheering, then quickly sobers under Zuko’s withering look. He bows slightly. “I mean, let us begin.”
Zuko scours the ground before finally finding a leaf wide enough for a beginner. He holds it out to the Avatar, his thumb burning a small hole in its center. “Concentrate on the fire,” he instructs. “Try to keep it from spreading for as long as you can.”
The Avatar accepts the leaf unsurely. “...there will be fireballs eventually, won’t there?”
Zuko doesn’t even bother replying.
“Hey, Zuko. Got a minute?”
Zuko glances at the Avatar, currently glaring at his leaf. As expected, he’s done an impressive job at keeping the fire contained. He seems capable enough to be left alone for a minute. “Keep concentrating,” Zuko orders, following Sokka into the woods. It’s the first small bastion of privacy he’s had all morning. “What is it?”
“There’s a town less than a mile away,” Sokka explains, “but it’s Fire Nation controlled.”
Zuko shakes his head. “I can’t do that, Sokka.”
“What if you wore a disguise? Maybe something less theatrical than the Blue Spirit mask?”
“I never admitted that was me,” Zuko notes pointedly. He thinks. “I’ll just wait with Appa, then. The bison, I mean.”
“...I know who Appa is,” Sokka assures, smirking. It fizzles to a considering frown. “You haven’t been to Fire Nation-controlled territory since you were banished, right? Wouldn’t it be nice to...visit?”
Zuko shakes his head. “It would be betraying my nation.”
“To buy pants and eat Fire Flakes?"
Zuko’s mouth waters at the very idea. The Wani cook always did his best, but the fare remained more Navy Food than Human Food, much less Fire Nation Food. “No,” he says finally, refusing to let himself consider it. “It would be treason.”
“What’s one more treason?”
“I’m recognizable,” Zuko insists. “I don’t want my Father hearing about me traveling around with the Avatar! Not until- not until I can explain.”
“Fine. You wait with Appa then. Appa the bison, I mean.” They head back towards the camp. “Just tell us what you want us to bring back.”
“Food,” Zuko answers, raising an eyebrow, “and clothes.”
“Okay, but I’m assuming you have some taste,” Sokka replies, rolling his eyes. “If you don’t, then I’m buying you and Aang matching outfits and you’ll be eating nothing but tofu. You’ll be an adorable pair of turtleduck-loving vegetarians Firebending your way through the mountains.”
Zuko rolls his eyes but smiles.
When they reach the campsite again, it’s just in time to watch the fire spread from the Avatar’s outstretched hands, to watch as Katara staggers backwards, to watch as his face flickers from glee to terror.
The Avatar reaches for her as the flames die away. “Katara!”
She bolts, but Zuko can already see the fresh burns on her hands. His stomach clenches.
“What did you do?!” Sokka demands, storming towards the Avatar.
The boy turns to him, horrified and clearly in shock. “It was an accident-!”
Sokka tackles him into the dirt, angrier than Zuko has ever seen him. “You burned my sister!”
“I’m sorry-!” He cries into the sand, not even fighting back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!”
“Sokka!” Zuko shouts, his heart pounding and his skin cold. “Stop!” He wrenches him off of the child, forcing himself between them. “It’s not his fault- it’s mine!”
“Not everything gets to be your fault, Zuko!” Sokka snaps.
“This is,” Zuko insists, refusing to budge. “It was my duty to teach him discipline. I won’t let you hurt him for my failure. Go check on Katara.”
“I’m sorry,” mumbles the boy on a loop, still curled up on the ground. “Sokka, I’m so sorry-”
“Check on Katara,” Zuko repeats, tone softer.
Sokka swallows, then chases the way Katara had gone, leaving Zuko alone with the Avatar.
Zuko isn’t a complete idiot.
There is an opportunity here.
He could just grab him. He could just run.
He’s never been good at talking and this was never going to work in the first place and maybe this three-year nightmare could just be over-
...The Avatar made a mistake. The Avatar doesn’t know what he’s doing any more than Zuko does, and the Avatar is a twelve-year-old boy who accidentally hurt his friend.
Zuko swallows and sits down. “She’s going to be okay,” he says quietly. “It’ll take a while, and she’ll have scars, but she’ll be okay.”
“I burned her,” he whispers, sounding hollow.
“Yes,” Zuko agrees, “but it was an accident. You didn’t mean to hurt her, and she knows that.”
The boy sits up slowly, a look of determination slowly replacing the terror. “I’m never going to Firebend again,” he declares.
“Yes, you will,” Zuko retorts. “This is just a lesson you needed to learn. You’ll be more careful in the future.”
“I- you told me to be careful, and I wasn’t, and now Katara is hurt, and she's going to hate me-”
Zuko thinks of what he knows of the Waterbender. “Why does Katara hate me?”
The boy screws his face up. “She doesn’t hate you. She just- she’s still mad.”
“Do you think she could forgive me?”
“Of course she will,” he promises, smiling at Zuko weakly.
“I hurt her on purpose. You hurt her by accident. She’ll forgive you. She won’t hate you.”
The boy fumbles for a response, seeming startled by the logic, then begins, “Sokka-”
“If he doesn’t hate me after what I did, he won’t hate you. You’re young. You’re learning. Training accidents happen. He’ll understand that.”
Aang swallows, then glances up at him. “Was that a training accident, too?”
It takes Zuko a moment, a strange moment in which he forgets he even has a scar, before he understands to what he’s referring. “No,” he answers. “This was...a different lesson.”
Aang frowns, puzzled, but the expression transforms into concern as he leaps to his feet. “Katara! I’m so so sorry, I’ll never do it again, are you okay? I-”
“It’s fine, Aang,” she interrupts as she and Sokka make their way towards the campsite. She’s smiling. Zuko remembers what it feels like to be burned, even little burns that barely leave a real mark. She shouldn’t be smiling.
Sokka follows her, arms crossed. He isn't smiling, but he doesn't seem as angry as before.
“What do you mean it’s fine? I burned your hands!”
She holds them up, showcasing the flawless skin proudly. “And I healed them!”
Aang’s eyes go wide. “No way! How?”
Katara beams. “As soon as I put my hands in the water, I realized exactly what we were doing wrong before. I could feel it. The water wants to heal. I just needed to let it instead of trying to force it! Sokka, show them your side!”
Sokka dutifully lifts his shirt. The fresh wound looks more like an old scar.
Zuko frowns. “Did you take the stitches out first?”
The siblings glance at each other. “...we’ll handle that later,” Katara decides as she turns back to Aang. Her eyes crease sympathetically. “Are you okay?”
He glances between the three of them, then nods. “I’m glad you were able to heal yourself, Katara, but that never should have happened. I should have listened to Zuko. I should have been more careful. I care about you, and I would never want to hurt you, and I did.”
“It was an accident,” she tells him, holding his hand in her freshly healed ones, “and I forgive you. So forgive yourself, okay?”
His smile is wobbly. “Thank you, Katara.” He hesitates, then turns to Sokka. “Sokka-”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Just don’t throw any more fire at my sister, and we’re good.”
Aang’s smile- his palpable relief- is almost overwhelming.
Katara turns to Zuko. “Sokka told me you stopped him from hurting Aang.”
Zuko falters. “I- he didn’t mean to-”
“Thank you,” she interrupts, smiling. She steps towards him, arms outstretched in what is either a bizarre Water Tribe ritual or a very slow attack.
Zuko steps backwards, brows furrowed. “What are you doing?”
She stops. “Oh,” she says then, sounding as if she’s just realized the complicated puzzle she was chewing over is actually only three pieces. “Sokka was right.”
Zuko frowns. “About what?”
She takes a moment before replying. “...he said you’d be a good teacher, is all.” She smiles. “I’m glad you’re here, Zuko.”
Zuko isn’t sure anyone has ever said that to him before.
...he wonders what she means by it.
Aaand Katara is now making friendship necklaces that match Sokka's bracelets. Aang is preparing a Best Friend Squad dance party. Zuko will eventually figure out that BFF doesn't stand for a 'Banished-Forever Failure'.
Thank you so much for all of your comments!! I loved reading them and really enjoyed seeing what you guys are expecting from future chapters. Now that everyone has a better idea of who Zuko is and what the problem is, there's going to be a lot of well-intentioned gaanging up on him. Next chapter, he'll get to visit some Fire Nation controlled territories and see how well his Dad is handling things. My guess is that everyone will be super impressed and immediately join the Fire Nation.
Chapter 9: The Plan Continues
Thank you so much for all of your comments, predictions, and many pleas for Zuko to one day be hugged! I reread them every time I need a boost.
I figured this story has had enough drama, so this chapter is just mindless fluff and gratuitous bonding. Hope you like it!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Zuko was a child, the air often felt heavy, too thick to breathe. Not in a humid way, exactly, although it was often humid. More like shuffling across a carpet until little sparks of static electricity flash blue when you brush metal. Like there was always something about to happen given one wrong word or one wrong look or one wrong something. Zuko was always very good at finding that exact wrong thing to do, and the static electricity in the air would shatter around him like lightning.
They gather up the campsite in relative silence. Sokka and Aang, normally the chatterboxes of the group, are reserved, and Zuko is not equipped to pick up the slack. Katara spends most of her time staring at him, but she doesn’t actually say anything.
After a few hours on Appa, however, the tension eases. This is probably because Sokka has something to complain about.
“It’s so hot,” he groans, not for the first time, fanning himself with his boomerang holster.
“I thought the North was supposed to be cooler,” Katara agrees miserably.
Zuko doesn’t mind it. He just rests on the edge of the saddle and stares as the world beneath blurs by. He wonders idly if this is what riding a dragon felt like. While he understands dragon-hunting was a noble sport, he’d always preferred the idea of one as a pet rather than a trophy on the wall. The day he’d learned the creatures were all gone, he’d been disappointed. Uncle, misinterpreting the mood, had smiled and assured, “If there are any that slipped by me, Nephew, I am certain you will find them some day.”
Zuko glances at Sokka, suddenly aware that the Water Tribesman could probably come up with good dragon names. Not that it will ever come up, but-
“Look!” Aang shouts, interrupting Zuko’s train of thought and Sokka’s most recent complaint. “A lake!”
Katara looks up at him, puzzled. “...So?”
“...Beach Party!” Aang leaps off of Appa when they’re still thirty feet high, and he cheers his way into a powerful splash. The bison descends straight into the water after him. He makes a happy rumbly noise as his face sinks into the water, bubbles gurgling their way to the surface.
Zuko sits on the beach as Katara, Sokka and even Momo join in. He doesn’t have time for beach parties. He needs to be prepared for the next round of peace talks. While they hadn’t responded well to any of his best arguments, Aang had expressed an interest in Fire Nation festivals. He could use that. Sokka might be more amenable to switching sides if he knew about fried pork-duck dumplings. Katara- well, he has no idea what to do about Katara. She's stopped glaring, but she hasn't stopped staring, and he doesn't know what she's thinking. He's never been very talented when it comes to reading expressions or reading the room, but nothing these people do makes any sense. Who throws a beach party in the middle of Peace Talks? Have they already given up? Maybe there's nothing he can say that will change their minds and this entire thing is pointless and he’s wasting his-
He is suddenly covered in water.
He scrambles to his feet, furious. “You splashed me!”
“You were getting in your head,” Sokka replies, idly backstroking through the water. His hair floats around him like a messy halo. “And if you have a problem with getting splashed, how about you do something about it.”
Zuko frowns, because that was- that was a threat, wasn’t it? Did Sokka want to fight him? Why? What had changed? Was this because of Katara? Because he’d stopped him from hurting Aang? Because of-
Sokka splashes him. “You’re doing it again.”
“I’m not going to fight you!” Zuko snaps furiously.
Sokka stares for a moment and then laughs so hard he sinks into the water. When he pops back up again, he’s still laughing. “Fight me?” He repeats, snorting lakewater out of his nose.
Zuko reassesses the situation and flushes. He and his sister played on beaches often as children, but had quickly grown bored with mere splashing. The moment Azula could bend, they played that way. She was always better at throwing fire, but he was always better at dodging it.
He hesitates. Had Sokka and Katara played this way when they were kids? She was a Waterbender- that wasn’t fair, he wasn’t a bender-
“Zuko, I don’t want to start another war so I won’t splash you again, but maybe you should take a break. You’re stressing me out, and I’m relaxing as hard as I can.”
Aside from being shoved into various bodies of water by a monk and a 14-year-old Waterbender, Zuko hasn’t gone swimming in years. Now is not the moment to start. “I don’t have time to splash around,” he contends sharply.
“It’s fun,” Sokka insists. “You need fun.”
“I’m not a child, ” Zuko snaps. “I don’t need fun. I need results. I need to think. ”
“Huh,” mulls the Water Tribesman, floating away. “A real think or swim situation.”
Zuko ignores him.
“Be prepared,” Sokka says, perched on the edge of the overhang, “for the best jump the world has ever known.” He does a few stretches as his audience watches, unimpressed. “This is called-”
Katara cups her hands over her mouth: “Get on with it!”
“-the Kyoshi Warrior!” He finishes loudly. He leaps off of the cliff, striking a strange but dramatic pose as he descends, a series of long leaves splayed in each hand like a common fan. He smacks hard into the water. When he resurfaces, his stomach is red and his voice is strained. “Ta- da .”
“That was great, Sokka!” Aang cheers. “Let me try!” He leaps out of the lake, bounding his way merrily up the cliffside. When he reaches the top, he shouts, “This is called...um.” He furrows his brow, then brightens. “The Avatar!”
“That’s not creative,” Sokka notes, still floating in his agony.
Aang ignores him. He leaps from the cliff with a delighted whoop, the wind around him picking up its speed as he dives deep into the lake. He spins his way out, laughing like mad in a towering twister of water, then abruptly stops bending and cannonballs back down.
“That was amazing, Aang!” Katara cheers.
“Mine was all about the fundamentals,” Sokka dismisses. “That’s just showing off.”
“Wait ‘til I’ve mastered all four elements,” Aang declares, arms pillowed beneath his head as he bobs back to the surface. “I’ll be the greatest cliffdiver ever!”
“Please,” scoffs Katara, already climbing out of the lake. “Diving is about the water. I’ll show you how a real Waterbender does it.”
“Go, Katara!” Aang shouts supportively.
“You need a name,” Sokka reminds her.
She reaches the top of the cliff and squints down at them, hands on her hips. “Fine. This move is called…” She smirks. “The water slide!”
She raises her hands, brow furrowed in intense concentration. Zuko watches, reluctantly curious, as the water rises up to meet her in a long, wobbly incline. Her wrists twist, and it freezes. Grinning wildly, she leaps off of the cliff and skates her way down the slide. When it curves back up, she sails off of the ice, curls into a ball, and bellows, “Snowball!”
The splash is impressive, but only Aang applauds.
“Not really a dive,” Sokka criticizes. Without a word, Katara sends a wave rolling over his head, washing his hair right over his face. He parts the curtain of his bangs and, unperturbed, turns to the beach. “Your turn, Zuko!”
Zuko glares. “I don’t do that.”
“You haven’t done that,” Sokka corrects, “yet. ”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Katara says, wringing out her hair. She’s still bright-eyed from her dive, but her smile is sympathetic.
Zuko bristles. He doesn’t need her pity. “I’m not scared.”
“We’ve all seen you do way more reckless stuff, Zuko. I’m not saying you’re scared,” she assures. “I’m saying you don’t have anything to prove. You’re allowed to ignore Sokka if he’s being obnoxious.”
Zuko searches her expression for anything duplicitous, but Sokka was right. She almost seems too sincere. He hesitates, then lets his defensiveness fade. “How can peace talks proceed if I never talk to Sokka again?”
“Wow!” Sokka exclaims. “That was almost a joke! Zuko, your training is yielding results!”
“....training?” Katara wonders, exchanging a puzzled look with Aang.
“Oh,” Sokka says with a self-satisfied grin. “You’re gonna love this.”
“C’mon, Zuko. Just one. ”
They decide to stay the night. It’s a chance to practice Firebending near a stable water source, and a chance for Sokka to catch dinner. He lazes shirtless on a boulder in the center of the lake, fishing pole held loosely as he wavers between napping and relaxing.
Katara and Aang sit on the beach, hands dipped in the shallow water as Aang repeats glow over and over as if that will be the catalyst. It’s clear the process is more spiritual than mechanical, a factor which makes describing it difficult and learning it even harder.
Katara frowns up from the uncooperative water. “Hey, Zuko. Can we borrow you?”
Zuko obligingly shifts out of his meditative stance and joins them. “What is it?”
“It turns out it’s really hard to explain how to heal,” Katara tells him, charmingly self-effacing. “But I was thinking that maybe if Aang had a body to focus on, like I did, he could figure it out.”
Zuko nods in understanding. After the disaster earlier, he needs to prove his usefulness. “I have a knife.”
She blinks at him. “...okay?”
“I'll make a small cut here-” He indicates the back of his forearm.
“Uh,” Katara says.
“-and he can practice healing it.”
“Katara!” Shouts Sokka, flat on his back on his fishing rock. “Don’t let him stab himself!”
“I wasn’t going to!” She snaps over her shoulder. She turns back to Zuko. “I meant,” she says, forceful but kindly, “that it might help if we had a body we could both look at. There are these flows of energy, these streams, that-” She falters and sighs, more to herself than Zuko, “that are impossible to describe.” She looks up at him again. “If you do have any bruises or scratches, maybe we could take a look at them. You’d get healed, Aang would get practice, and no one needs to be stabbed.”
Aang bobs his head. “I like that plan a lot more.”
“Sokka approved!” adds the fisherman, lifting a lazy thumbs up.
“Fine,” Zuko grumbles. How was he supposed to know that?
Katara stands and Aang follows her lead. “Okay. Just- um. Stick your arms out. Perfect!” She cocks her head. “Do you have any injuries?”
Though it’s been days since he and Sokka escaped, Zuko still feels weak and perpetually hungry. Most of his bruises have healed, however, and his ribs are only a little sore. “No.”
“Just having a body to work on will help,” she assures. She smiles at Aang encouragingly. “Okay, dip your hands in the water and then lay them against Zuko’s…” She considers. “Arm?”
“...Arm is fine,” Zuko says, because it seems as if she’s asking permission.
Aang nods and water bends gloves around his hands. He hesitates only briefly before wrapping his fingers around the Firebender’s forearm. His touch against the naturally warm skin is cool, almost startlingly so, but Zuko manages not to flinch.
Aang closes his eyes. After a few moments of steady breathing, he offers, “...I think I feel something?”
“After I healed Sokka,” Katara says, “it felt like a river running freely. Does it feel like that?”
“Not really,” Aang says. “It feels...off.”
Katara’s brow furrows. “Off?”
“Like…” Aang looks as if he’s trying to squint with his eyes closed. “Wrong?”
“How can I be doing it wrong?!” Zuko demands furiously, pulling away. “I’m just standing here!”
“You’re not doing anything wrong,” Katara promises. She turns to Aang and smiles. “Neither are you. You felt something. That’s progress!”
“Can I try again?” Aang asks.
Zuko reluctantly offers his arm.
“You don’t have to,” Katara hurries to say. She hesitates. “How about we take a break? There’s no reason Aang has to master healing today. When we get to the North Pole, I’m sure we’ll both get plenty of practice.”
“...Fine,” Zuko says, stiffly withdrawing his arm.
The team is more interested in peace talks than fighting right now, but if they understood how weak he is, maybe they wouldn’t bother. The strong survive. The weak either get strong or get left behind. He’s not sure why Katara didn’t force the situation, but he’s not about to argue.
They don’t have peace talks. The three of them are far too exhausted for diplomacy after their day of drama and relaxation. Having thought of no new arguments anyway, Zuko doesn’t offer a dissenting vote. He just scans the constellations as the others fall asleep. Only when Sokka’s snoring outshines Appa’s does he close his eyes and rest.
When Zuko was banished and traveled on the Wani, the static-filled air followed him. He felt the way the crew looked at him, heard their grumblings of discontent, knew he was the reason they were here instead of home or on a real ship. The day the storm nearly stole the Wani to the depths of the sea, that tension had eased, but it never truly left.
In the morning, they fly until they can see the roofs of Shí lù. Zuko, reluctantly curious, agrees to come with them to the edge of town. It’s a chance to see what he’s missing, a chance to be close, a chance, maybe, for Sokka to convince him it’s okay to go further. As it is, he almost makes it past the first building.
Zuko stares in horror at the wanted poster.
It's him. It's definitely him. But it's nothing like a royal portrait, where he's painted to look serene and dignified. He looks like a common criminal here, scrawny and scarred, with messy hair- way too messy, it had never looked that bad, had it?- and a furious expression. It's him, but he can hardly recognize himself in it.
“It says you’re wanted for treason,” Katara reads, peeling the page off of the wall. “That you helped the Avatar and his accomplice escape in two separate instances.”
“That- that’s not what happened!”
“It says,” she adds, “that there are witnesses.”
Zuko groans, then manages to wonder, “Anything else?” Because of course there must be, judging by the last month of his life.
She hesitates before continuing. “It says there’s a reward for your capture, or-” She swallows, exchanging a worried look with her companions.
“Or,” Zuko repeats flatly.
“Or proof of death,” Sokka finishes for her, reading over her shoulder.
“That- that has to be a mistake,” Aang rushes to assure him, stealing the wanted poster and squinting at it. “A mistake in translation.” He flips it upside down, as though that might help. “Or the printing office got it messed up. That happens all the time!”
“Sure,” Sokka agrees doubtfully. “But maybe let’s assume it’s not a mistake and lay low for once.” He snatches the wanted poster from Aang and scrutinizes it. “I don’t want every village we visit to attack us for a frankly over-generous ransom.” He glances at Zuko. “Even if we had ransomed you, we wouldn’t have asked for this much. I could’ve gotten a lot more jerky than I thought.”
“Reconsidering?” Zuko asks dryly, stomach turning at the thought.
Before Sokka can reply, Aang wonders, “What’s the big deal? People have been trying to catch me since I came out of the iceberg. Some of them are our friends now.”
Zuko makes a polite noise of disagreement.
Aang ignores him. “How does one extra wanted poster make a difference?”
Katara frowns down at her hands. Even Sokka looks as though he’s edging towards a diplomatic response. Zuko is not about to abide misplaced pity. He knows what he looks like. “I’m recognizable, Avatar.”
Aang stares at him, confused. Zuko can pinpoint the moment he understands; his eyes grow wide and he looks at the poster with renewed concern.
Sokka squints at the description. “Does it seem weird to anyone else that your name isn’t on here?”
Zuko frowns. “What?”
Sokka taps the page. “It just calls you the Blue Spirit. No mention of you being, y’know, Prince of the Fire Nation. ”
Zuko skims the poster again, troubled to find that Sokka is right. “We’re in the colonies,” he says slowly. “People know the story here, but they don’t know what I look like.”
Sokka nods, following the logic. “They don’t want anyone knowing Prince Zuko is a fugitive.”
“That...that makes sense,” Zuko decides. “They don’t know what I’m actually doing. If they think I’m blindly aiding the Avatar, they think I’ve abandoned my people. It’s better for the Royal Family to seem united.”
Katara blinks at him owlishly. “They want you dead, Zuko.”
“Or alive,” he reminds her snappishly, stealing the poster back from Sokka and crumpling it into a tight ball. “It doesn’t matter either way. I’m not risking this entire stupid plan for a visit to some two ostrich horse town. I’m staying with the bison.”
Katara and Aang turn to Sokka, the apparent royal wrangler, for confirmation. It’s vexing, but Sokka is already agreeing before he can complain. “He’s right,” he says. “For now, it’s too dangerous.”
Zuko swallows the disappointment down. It would have been treason anyway. He shouldn’t have even wanted to go in the first place.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” Sokka says, smiling over his shoulder as they leave. “I’ve got a plan.”
Less than an hour later, they return with bandages and new clothes.
After another day of flying, they make their next campsite. Sokka announces they're only a couple days from the Northern Mountain range, and that there are a few colonies along the way they can visit. Zuko tries the outfit on, then, seeing no logic in procrastinating further. They fit, mostly, but they’re also ugly and scratchy and green instead of red.
Katara stares. He expects something mocking, but she just says, “You look so young. ”
“I look ridiculous,” he spits back.
“You look like your average extremely angry Earth Kingdom teenager,” Sokka corrects. “Once you put the bandages on, you’ll just be another random traveler, and you’ll be able to walk around without anyone being suspicious.”
Zuko doesn’t want to dress up like some traveler. He doesn’t want to have to pretend he’s a peasant just to walk around his own country’s territory. He wants his Father to understand he’s helping him, not betraying him. He doesn’t say any of this. He just sits in front of the fire and glares at it.
Aang joins him. “Should I practice breathing with the fire?”
“I don’t care,” he snaps. He swallows, reminding himself that the whole point of this exercise is diplomacy. Ruining it just because he doesn't like wearing green is foolish even for him. He swallows and forces his tone to soften. “Yes. Just...be careful.”
Aang smiles. “Of course, Sifu Hotman.” Despite his breezy answer, his form is perfect and his breathing even. He takes it seriously, Zuko thinks. He just doesn’t do so seriously.
“So,” says Katara pleasantly. “What does Zuko the Earth Kingdom Traveler do for fun?”
“Lee,” Sokka corrects. “Zuko isn’t exactly a common name around here.”
“Okay,” Katara allows, rolling her eyes. “What does Lee do, then?”
Zuko frowns. “What do you mean?”
“Your cover,” she explains.
“I’m...a traveler.” She nods along, bright-eyed and expectant, and he scowls. “What else is there? I’m not going to talk to anyone. Why do I need a cover story?”
“Just try,” she insists. “It’s a chance to be whoever you want to be! Whoever you really are.”
“Katara-” Sokka begins, sounding exhausted.
“Let him answer,” she orders shortly.
Zuko hesitates, because this is obviously important for some reason. He supposes it doesn’t hurt to have some sort of backstory planned out. He doesn’t thrive in improvisation. “Fine. My name is Lee. I travel.”
Katara nods vigorously. Sokka’s face is in his hands. Aang pretends to meditate.
“I like…” He squints, eyes catching on the woods behind them. “... trees. ”
“...Trees?” Katara repeats unsurely. “Like...botany?”
“Yes,” he says blankly.
She blinks, then smiles kindly. “So you like trees? That’s interesting! I didn't know that. What’s your favorite?”
“What? No. I don’t care about trees. You asked me for a cover story.”
Sokka snickers. Katara struggles.
She wonders, faltering, “Your cover story is going to be ‘I like trees?’”
“You didn’t give me time to think of a better one!” Zuko snaps, crossing his arms.
Sokka is starting to wheeze. Aang’s breathing doesn’t match the fire's anymore.
“It might help,” she says slowly, “if you’re already familiar with your backstory. Maybe a good starting point is to think about what’s important to you.”
“...the Fire Nation?”
Sokka rolls his eyes. “Do you think that Lee the Earth Kingdom Traveler loves the Fire Nation, Zuko?”
Zuko glares. “Maybe, if he knows what’s good for him!”
“Zuko,” Katara presses, “what do you enjoy doing? Outside of the war and being a Prince and hunting the Avatar? Hobbies. ”
“Hobbies,” he repeats doubtfully.
“Like the theater,” she says, bobbing her head. “You enjoy plays, don’t you?”
“I haven’t actually been to one in years,” Zuko replies slowly. She doesn't sound as if she's mocking him, exactly, but he's not sure where else this could be going. “Not since I was a kid.”
“You’re not a grizzled old man, Zuko,” Katara comments, equal parts amused and exasperated. “That couldn’t have been that long ago.” He shrugs. “Well, what else did you do?”
Zuko shifts. “I trained?”
Katara seems stumped. “Hm.”
“When I was bored, we would invent new games,” says Aang, twisting around to face them and no longer bothering to pretend he’s meditating. “Do you know how many ways there are to launch fruit pies with Airbending? Because I know eleven!”
Zuko ignores him and focuses on Katara. “What did you do?”
“Me?” She blinks. “I guess I spent my time training, too.”
“By training she means: look at me hover this ball of water, Sokka! Whoops, I lost control over your head, Sokka! In the middle of the winter solstice, Sokka!" The teen glares. "My nose had icicles, Katara. I looked like an upside down elephant walrus!”
“That was one time,” she dismisses, before continuing defensively, “and I did try to train. I just didn’t have anyone to help me. I had to figure it out on my own.”
“Soon we’ll get a real master,” Aang assures her, “and you’ll only give Sokka nose icicles on purpose.”
“Or we could not!” Sokka offers emphatically.
“No one could help you?” Zuko clarifies.
She shakes her head, eyes downcast. “I’m the only Waterbender in the whole South Pole.” Zuko remembers his conversation with Sokka and swallows uneasily. That hadn’t been a lie, then. “I tried figuring it out on my own,” she continues, “but until we found that scroll-”
Sokka tsks. “I think you mean stole."
“Pirates,” she shoots back, as if that means something. “Until then, I’d never seen real Waterbending forms before.”
Zuko can’t help but be impressed. While she’s not the most consistent Bender he’s ever seen, it’s astonishing that she’s this good without formal training. Even with the best Firebending tutors around, he still managed to be inadequate. He can’t help but wonder how good she could be with real training.
“What about you?” Aang asks Sokka. “What did you do for fun?”
Katara snorts. “Sokka? Sokka ‘hunted.’ ”
Her brother bristles at the teasing tone. “I am a great hunter. If it weren’t for me, you and everyone else would be relying on polar bear dogs being messy eaters.”
“He got better,” Katara allows diplomatically. She glances at Aang. “You should have seen him when he was little. All he wanted to do was hunt like Dad.”
“I did hunt like Dad,” Sokka asserts grumpily.
“Oh, like that one time?”
“That time doesn’t count,” he denies quickly.
Aang glances between them curiously. “What one time?”
“We really don’t need to go over this,” Sokka groans.
Katara grins. “One time, Dad was getting ready to leave for his summer hunting trip. Sokka begged to come along but Dad refused. He said he wasn’t ready, and would only get himself hurt. Everyone in the camp agreed, too, even Bato. But Sokka swore he was ready.” She glances at her brother, and he sighs heavily but accepts the story baton.
“I decided to prove I could hunt. That night, when everyone was still asleep, I snuck out.”
“Quietly,” Katara adds, grinning.
“Really quietly,” Sokka agrees. It sounds like an old, shared joke.
“I got my spear, a bag for game, and marched out.” He pauses a beat. “I got about a mile before I heard the crunch. ”
“It was a warm summer, but there’d been a storm a few nights before,” Katara explains. “The fresh snow covered up the thinning ice.”
“I fell through,” Sokka confirms. “I was underwater for ten minutes. ”
“Not even ten seconds,” Katara corrects, rolling her eyes.
“Turns out Dad had been following me the entire time,” Sokka explains. “He got me out and carried me back to the village. I was blue,” he adds, pulling on his shirt. “This blue.”
“Not that blue,” Katara says with a steadfast dedication to the truth. She shifts a single shoulder. “But honestly, pretty close.”
“He made me sit by the fire all night," Sokka continues miserably, "wrapped in every blanket in the village, and forced me to drink an entire pot of blubber tea.”
“...blubber tea?” Aang repeats, wincing.
“It is exactly as bad as it sounds. Melted tiger seal blubber in hot water. Gran Gran swears it warms you up from the inside, but I think everyone just says they’re warm so she won’t make them drink anymore.” Sokka gags at the memory, and even Katara offers up an empathetic shudder.
“When he could finally talk again without his teeth chattering, Dad demanded to know what he was thinking, going out hunting after he’d told him explicitly not to.” Katara glances at her brother as she sets up the next line with practiced ease. “And he said…”
“Hunting? I just wanted to go swimming!”
All three of them burst into laughter.
“And then what happened?” He asks.
Sokka, still half-laughing, wonders, “What?”
“After you disobeyed?”
Sokka’s expression flickers, but Katara doesn’t seem to notice. She just snorts as she answers, “Sokka spent the rest of summer known as the Great Hunter. Dad never let him live it down.”
“...that’s it? That’s all he did? You disrespected him in front of the entire tribe, and he just- didn’t care?”
Sokka frowns as he replies, “He cared. That’s why he followed in the first place. That’s why he made me drink blubber. And like Katara said, he made fun of me for ages. ”
“That’s not a punishment,” Zuko counters, annoyed and not sure why. “You disobeyed him. You lied! He should have-have-”
“Should have what?” Sokka presses when Zuko falters. Aang and Katara glance between them unsurely.
“He should have-” Zuko falters, “done something !”
“What, flogged me in front of the neighbors?” Sokka wonders sarcastically, and he sounds frustrated, too. “Dunked me back under? Banished me? ”
“You disrespected him!” Zuko snaps, and the fire leaps. “He had to make a point, for the good of the tribe! He had to teach you a lesson!”
“He did,” Sokka asserts firmly. “I made a mistake, and he forgave me.”
“Why would he do that?!”
“...because he loves us, Zuko,” Katara answers. Aang is silent beside her, watching.
Zuko’s heart pounds and he feels cold even though the fire is right there and he feels so much shame he can hardly breathe. What had he done wrong? Why did Sokka get that, and he didn’t? “You disrespected him,” he says again, voice shaky. “And he just- forgave you?”
“...that’s what family does, buddy."
Zuko shakes his head, frustrated. Children represent their parents. Their failure dishonors the whole family. Maybe it’s different in the Water Tribe, or maybe it’s different if you’re only the son of a chief, not a Fire Lord, but Sokka is wrong.
“I felt so bad after I hurt Katara,” Aang says when Zuko remains silent. “You reminded me that when mistakes happen, the best you can do is learn from them and try to do better. Everyone makes mistakes.”
“I’ve made more than my fair share,” Zuko dismisses, glaring down at the fire.
Aang considers. “Well, do you regret what you did? Did you apologize?”
Zuko frowns. “Of course. I would take it all back if I could. But I can’t-”
“Then you deserve forgiveness,” Aang interrupts simply.
“People don’t just- forgive, ” Zuko scoffs, reminded again that the all-powerful Avatar is at heart just a naive monk. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Take it from someone you tied to a tree,” teases Katara, smiling slightly. “It works like that.”
Zuko frowns at her, startled. “I didn’t apologize. You can’t forgive me for that.”
She huffs. “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do. Sorry, Zuko, but you’re forgiven.”
“No, I’m not,” he argues.
“I forgive you, too,” Aang adds.
The boy shrugs. “For trying to capture me?”
“I’m still trying to capture you!”
Aang nods solemnly. “I forgive you for that, too.”
“I forgive you,” Sokka adds and Zuko only barely refrains from setting them all on fire.
“What did I do to you? ” Zuko demands. “I didn’t even capture you!”
“Exactly!” Sokka crows. “I forgive you for deeming me not worth capturing.”
Zuko groans and plunges his face into his hands. “This is so stupid.”
“Don’t mind him,” Sokka advises. “Stupid is just his word for amazing. ”
Even with Uncle, the air sometimes felt thick. Zuko was only allowed into the War Room because of him. Uncle was the reason he was banished, and the reason he wasn’t banished alone. Uncle had seen him at his weakest, and he had seen him at his weakest and stayed. Uncle was the kindest person Zuko knew, and Uncle was an infamous failure. He was everything Zuko could or shouldn’t be.
Zuko can hardly look at him without wanting to shout or beg for forgiveness.
The bandages are scratchy. Zuko’s left eye doesn’t have the greatest vision, but not being able to see from it at all is disorientating, as is the added deafening effect from his wrapped ear. Sokka, perhaps having expected this, walks at his left, and occasionally makes too-casual remarks about upcoming trees or ditches.
Zuko’s heart pounds as the town comes into view. Zhàn Shì is clearly an Earth town, but there are red flags draped across its walls, and there are Fire Nation soldiers walking its streets, and even red-wearing colonists chatting idly as they stroll.
He’s snuck into Fire Nation territory before, but always for a reason, like updated maps or intelligence, and always as the Blue Spirit. This feels...different.
“You good?” Sokka asks under his breath.
“Obviously,” Zuko snaps.
Sokka hums. “Want some fire flakes?”
Spirits help him. He does.
They’re mild. They’re not crispy enough. They use too much cinnamon and not enough pepper. It tastes more like dessert than real fire flakes.
“It’s fine,” he says, and keeps his voice from cracking. Barely.
It’s just Sokka here- Katara and Aang have wandered off- but he doesn’t want anyone to know that mediocre festival food nearly brought him to tears.
Sokka steals a piece from the top, chews exactly twice, and immediately begins coughing. “Oh spirits.”
“It’s normally crispier,” Zuko notes.
“It’s fire, ” Sokka gasps, already sweating.
“I should have known,” Sokka groans, fanning his tongue. “Anything from the Fire Nation exists only to cause me pain.”
“I’m from the Fire Nation,” he points out, trying to swallow down his smile and failing.
“Yes,” Sokka agrees, “and look what you’ve done to me!”
Aang approaches, no doubt drawn by Sokka’s melodramatic moaning. “What happened?”
“He had a fire flake,” Zuko answers, rolling his eyes.
Predictably, Aang steals a piece for himself. For a moment, he seems fine. Then his face slowly but surely turns beet red. “Wow,” he says, wincing. “That’s... spicy.”
Sokka, only just recovering, nods fervently.
“Zuko!” Katara rushes towards them, buzzing with enthusiasm. “Guess what!”
The last time someone was this excited to tell him something, Azula explained he’d be murdered by his own grandfather. He tenses, preparing himself for whatever news Sokka’s sister is bringing him. He can handle it.
“There’s a play!”
He blinks. “...A play?”
“The Agate Prop theater troupe is putting it on, one block over!” She fans her fingers out, revealing four thin sheets of paper. “I got us tickets!”
“C’mon, Zuko,” she cajoles, smiling. “You know you want to go.”
He does. He’s read some Earth Kingdom plays, and they’re so different from what he’d grown up watching. Their storylines glorify individualism and stubbornness, their humor is mostly derived from crass double entendres, and he’s heard their female characters are all played by men. Still… “We don’t have time to waste on plays. I’m trying to end this war.”
Sokka rolls his eyes. “Zuko, do you really think you’re going to convince Aang in the next three hours?”
Zuko scowls. “Maybe.”
“Aang, do you think you’re going to be convinced in the next three hours?”
“My tongue hurts too much to have peace talks,” Aang reveals, still red-faced. “Do you think they have ice at the theater?”
Katara rolls her eyes fondly as she bends water from her canteen. It crystallizes to ice in the air and Aang pops it into his mouth.
“Thanks, Katara,” he says, breathing a sigh of relief. He glances at Zuko. “I still need time to recover. Emotionally.”
Sokka claps. “There you go! Peace for our time can wait until after. A day at the theater is exactly the wacky time-wasting nonsense we’ve been missing! You need a break.”
Zuko bristles. “No, I don’t. ”
“You’ve been working non-stop since you joined us,” Sokka counters. “And before that, you were a VIP at Zhao’s health club. You need a second to breathe.”
“He knows how to breathe,” Aang assures as he steals another fire flake. “Trust me.”
Katara takes the package from him, frowning. “Why are you still eating those?”
“They’re so good,” Aang explains as tears stream down his cheeks. “But so hot. ”
“They’re mild, actually,” Zuko says, tossing several pieces into his mouth at once. He enjoys the slack-jawed looks as he doesn’t spontaneously combust, and it is in this moment of satisfaction that he relents. “If we go, we can’t draw attention to ourselves.”
“Don’t worry,” Aang says, popping his collar with a smug grin. “We’re great at undercover work.”
He sneezes on a chili pepper and flies five feet.
Zuko regrets everything.
The theater is different from any Zuko has ever seen before. The audience wraps around the center stage, made of stone for easy set dressing, and so there’s not necessarily a good or bad section. It’s a sparse crowd, mostly red-wearing colonists, but Zuko doesn’t pay that much mind as he and the others file into their seats. He’s busy trying not to seem too excited.
The pasi gong rings once and the low thrum of conversation vanishes.
The play is...different than he expected. The raunchy humor has been downplayed, though much of the comedy remains slapstick and lowbrow. The lead, a young man in green garb who goes from peasant to soldier to rallyer of the people in less than three hours, breaks the fourth wall regularly, remarking to his audience on the incompetence of the Earth Kingdom and the impressiveness of the Fire Nation.
A series of Kings march across the stage, each adorned in more gaudy jewels than the last, their robes dragging longer and longer. Finally, they all trip over each other as the narrator, gobsmacked, turns to the audience and laughs, “So many Kings and not a leader among them! They may not steal the scene, but boy can they steal our taxes!”
The audience roars with laughter.
Depending on the plot’s requirements, the Earth Kingdom is either conniving or stupid, excessively cowardly or willing to perish for its ignoble cause. The Avatar, in his brief but popular cameos, is similarly flighty. The Fire Nation, on the other hand, is consistently portrayed as strong and level-headed. When he is spared at the climax of the play by Fire Nation soldiers, the protagonist wonders in an uncharacteristic bout of schmaltz, “Who is to blame for our empty bellies and rising taxes? Who steals our sons as we lose a war we should never have fought? Certainly not Fire Lord Ozai!”
While Earth Kingdom plays generally end with the main character’s stubbornness and self-reliance being rewarded, the conclusion here is instead a call for cooperation. The lead defects from the Earth Kingdom, declares his loyalty to the Fire Nation, and quickly finds himself in a prosperous and happy family. “Now that those pesky Earth Kings are finished,” he muses, “only the coward Avatar is left!” He leans forward and, with theatrical relief, declares, “Boy, I’d hate to be him right about now!”
The audience cheers with approval and amusement.
Aang pulls his hood a little lower and slumps.
“Well,” says Sokka as they exit the theater house. “That sure was technically a play.”
“It wasn’t an Earth Kingdom original,” Zuko mutters, crossing his arms. He doesn’t want to appear ungrateful, but he’s disappointed. It was basically the same show he’d seen a dozen times in his youth.
“You don’t say,” Katara mutters. “What was your first clue?”
“The women were played by women,” Zuko answers.
“And the meter was all off,” he continues, irritated.
“This is your main takeaway?” Sokka asks, wincing.
Zuko frowns back at him, puzzled. “Yes?”
“That’s…” Sokka glances at Aang for help. The Airbender shrugs and he droops. “Okay.”
“As you saw today,” Zuko says, pacing in front of his audience, “the Fire Nation offers food, cultural expansion, and security.”
“Security?” Katara repeats dubiously.
“It was safe, wasn’t it? There were plenty of soldiers there to secure the colony.”
Katara levels him with a challenging look. “From who? They weren’t patrolling the perimeter, Zuko.”
“Ugh,” Zuko groans, pacing a little faster. “I’m explaining this all wrong.”
“You’re not,” Katara assures, softening. “You’re doing a good job. And you really are helping me realize that the Fire Nation isn’t all evil.”
He waits for the punchline, then encourages, “But…”
“But I still think they’re wrong,” she finishes. “Think about it. How many actual Earth Kingdom citizens did we see today? They were all hiding or staying quiet, and none of them were Earthbending. They’re scared. ”
“It’s wartime,” he scoffs. “Of course they’re scared .”
“No one should live in fear in their own home,” she asserts firmly.
Zuko swallows. “Well, you’re not the one I’m trying to convince,” he decides, turning to Aang. “What do you think, Avatar?”
“I think," he answers, "that you and Katara have both made good points."
Zuko internally groans. “Okay,” he says. “Anything more...specific?”
Aang thinks for a moment, then nods. “I don’t like the way I was portrayed in that play.”
“It was just a dumb comedy, ” he points out, a little surprised by the critique. “No one actually thinks you’re some idiot coward bent on destroying the world.”
“Except," Katara notes, "everyone that watches the play who hasn’t met Aang.”
“No one would take it seriously,” Zuko insists. “It’s over-the-top on purpose. And it was so off- it almost seemed like a satire of Earth Kingdom plays.”
“So the part about surrendering to the Fire Lord. That was satire, too?”
“Of course not,” he snaps. “That was- I mean, of course they’re going to exaggerate the Avatar’s faults. You’re the enemy.”
“If I’m really on the wrong side of this war,” Aang wonders slowly, “why can’t they portray me honestly?”
“Because-” Zuko interrupts himself, annoyed. “It’s just a stupid play, okay? Who cares! If you join me, I’ll get the playwrights to give you a better role, how about that?!”
Aang’s gaze is thoughtful for a moment. Then he grins. “I’d like that!”
“I have some notes on my character, too,” Sokka says.
Zuko frowns. “What character? You weren’t even in the play!”
“Exactly,” the Water Tribesman agrees with a sharp nod.
Even though they’re in the middle of a war, even though they disagree, even though they’re enemies, they spend the rest of the night talking and telling stories and laughing. Aang builds a fire from his breath. Katara cooks a meal with Fire Nation spices as Zuko hovers behind her, pointing out which ones work well together and which ones don’t. Sokka makes jokes at everyone’s expense, and doesn’t actually contribute much in terms of manual labor.
Zuko falls asleep first.
Aang is the Avatar, the most powerful bender in the world and the only person alive who could threaten Fire Lord Ozai’s strength. He also happens to listen to Zuko’s advice and criticisms with wide eyes and respectful bows. He grins perpetually, and the expression doesn’t waver when he’s talking to Zuko instead of his friends.
Katara is the last Waterbender of her tribe, untrained yet brimming with destructive potential. She vehemently disagrees with every belief he holds sacred. She also says kind things when she has nothing to gain by saying them, and offers forgiveness for things he doesn’t dare offer apologies.
And then there’s Sokka, who inexplicably trusts Zuko, even though he’s only here under the thinnest of truces. Sokka, who doesn’t care about his bending limitations or his mistakes or his temper. Sokka, who just acts as if Zuko belongs.
Zuko knows he’ll mess it up eventually, knows they must have some ulterior motive he isn’t smart enough to see, but it just feels as if the air isn’t as heavy as it always has been.
It feels like he can breathe.
Zuko wakes up before dawn to practice his katas. He hasn’t been able to perform them regularly since he was captured, and he’s unsure he even has the energy now. But Aang needs to know them, and so Zuko needs to know he can teach them. He walks down by the water and begins moving through the familiar forms. He’s weak, but that helps. His own incompetence encourages the fire in his blood to boil, and he forces this rage to spill out into flame.
It’s not much, but he manages to adequately perform the basic set.
Someone… is applauding.
He falters, glancing over his shoulder.
Katara, sitting cross-legged by the treeline, waves jauntily. “That was amazing, Zuko!”
How long has she been watching? “A child could do that,” he informs her flatly.
“That's some kid,” she remarks teasingly, standing. “Learn to take compliments, Zuko. We’re going to give you a lot of them.”
His eyes narrow. “Is that a threat?”
She raises her eyebrows. “I...guess?” Before he can reply, she bends water from the river, letting it wind around her wrists like ribbon. “Can you show me how to do that?”
He frowns. “You’re not a Firebender.”
“Well, no,” she allows. “But I barely know any Waterbending forms, and some of those moves you did looked like they might translate. Maybe we can learn from each other?”
He hesitates, then nods. She’s the one that engages most with him during the Peace Talks, and he’d rather be on her good side. He's also a little curious to see if it could work. He goes through the first forms awkwardly, then gives her space to try herself. It’s slow-going, but it doesn’t seem as unnatural as he expected. The water follows her as the fire had followed him, and he quietly borrows some of her adjustments for smoother control.
By the time the sun rises, Zuko feels properly awake. He kneels beside the riverbed for one last drink as purples and yellows spill out over the distant mountains.
“I should wake the Avatar,” he says as he stands. “It’s dawn.”
"Wait, Zuko-" She wavers, and he obligingly sits back down. "What you said the other day...about forgiveness." Her thumb smooths its way across her palm absentmindedly. "It's good to seek forgiveness from the ones you've wronged, but you do know the most important forgiveness, don't you?"
He hesitates, then nods. "Of course. And once I bring back the Avatar, I know he'll-"
"Not your dad, Zuko," she interrupts, sounding genuinely frustrated. "You. Whatever happened to you, whatever you did, you can forgive yourself without anyone else's permission." She hesitates. "You're a good person. No matter what happens at the end of this week, we know that, and you should know it, too."
He stares at her, heart pounding. "I don't-"
"And I don't need permission to say nice things about you," she adds primly, cutting him off.
“You don’t agree with me, though,” he says. "About the war."
She doesn’t deny it. “Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean they're bad people.”
"You don't know me," he stresses. "I- I know myself. I know I'll get my honor back some day, but-"
"You have honor now," she insists.
"You can't just say things like that!" He exclaims, frustrated.
"You just- don't. Acting like that, it's- it's encouraging people to take advantage of you. I'm your enemy, Katara. This isn't some spirits tale. You aren't going to defeat anyone with the power of forgiveness and compassion. Showing kindness is showing weakness, how do you all not get that?!"
She swallows before replying, as if she wants her words to be perfect. "Look: Sokka can tell you I’ve got a temper. And everyone knows that holding a grudge is easier than forgiving, sometimes. But people are more than the ways they can hurt us." She trails off for a moment and lingers in thought. When she speaks again, her voice is soft. "We don't always have as much time as we want with the people around us. I never want to feel as if I lost the opportunity to say something nice to someone who needed to hear it. No matter who they are, even if they could use it to hurt me. Vulnerability is a risk, but how else can we grow? Forgiveness, kindness- they don't make you weak, Zuko. They make you strong."
He stares at her and wonders if she memorized that from a play, too.
“Now come on…” She stands. “Let’s go through them one more time.”
“-won’t mind sleeping in for once,” she assures. “And if he’s mad, it's okay." She grins. "I know he’ll forgive me."
They fly on Appa for several hours before they spot the next town. Zuko spends some of his time thinking about strength and weakness. He spends the rest of his time regretting waking up so early.
“Well. What do we want to do?”
Everyone turns to Zuko, as if he gets a vote.
He blinks and says the first thing that comes to mind. “...The theater?”
The theater is smaller than the one they’d gone to the day before. It also happens to have less seating, less stage, and less walls. It does, however, offer a lot more ash.
Zuko stares at the ruins in dismay. “It burned down?” There’s no smell at all; this likely happened days ago, if not weeks. Why hadn’t they cleaned it up?
“How strange and suspicious,” Sokka says blandly. “Sure does raise questions, amiright?”
Before Zuko can wonder what questions it raises, a voice comes from the shadowy alleyway beside the burned theater. “You kids looking for entertainment?”
“No,” Zuko says, even as Sokka wonders,
“We don’t want their entertainment,” Zuko tells him flatly. “Trust me.”
“I could go for some entertainment,” Aang maintains brightly, striding towards the shadows before Zuko can stop him. “What kind of entertainment?”
A lanky man steps forward to reveal himself, twitchy and mottled in bruises. He glances over each shoulder twice before leaning down towards the Airbender. “Yer not some kinda narc, are you?”
Aang blinks. “I don’t think so.”
“We’re travelers,” Katara explains, joining Aang with a warm smile. “You have a lovely town.”
Everyone ignores Zuko’s frustrated groan.
“Any of you benders?”
Katara and Aang nod eagerly. Zuko and Sokka don’t, for different reasons.
“Then yer gonna love this. You ever heard of….” He leans in and rasps, “Earth Rumble?”
Aang frowns unsurely. “Like an earthquake?”
“Like underground fightin’ .” His smile is as greasy as his slicked back hair. “Bloody brutal. Best Earthbenders you’ll ever see, crackin’ ground right under the Ashmakers’ noses.”
Aang’s eyes widen. “Earthbenders?” He turns, delighted, to Katara. “I could find a master!”
“I don’t know, Aang,” she hems. “It sounds a little dangerous.”
“Yer darn right it is!” Bellows the man. “And the best entertainment you’ll ever see in yer pathetic lives. Next round is tonight at sundown, right here. I’ll see you kids there…!” He tips an imaginary hat and slinks back into the shadows.
“Is it just me,” Sokka wonders, “or was that guy super weird?”
“Who cares!” Aang exclaims, excited. “I could find an Earthbending master tonight! With Zuko and the Masters in the North Pole, I could master all the elements by next month!” He pauses, momentarily diverted by the idea. “Wow, I’ll have so much free time-!”
“No, Katara is right,” Sokka denies. “First of all, it’s an underground fighting ring. Second of all, it’s an underground fighting ring in a Fire Nation controlled town. Knowing our luck, tonight is the night they get raided. It’s not worth the risk.”
“But Earthbending-!” Aang whines.
“You’re still figuring out Waterbending and Firebending,” Katara consoles reasonably. “You shouldn’t overwork yourself.”
Aang turns to Zuko. “What do you think?”
Zuko blinks. “Me? It’s none of my business.”
“Of course it is,” Sokka dismisses. “You’re a part of the team, aren’t you?” When Zuko opens his mouth to argue, he adds, “Temporarily, I mean, of course. Besides, I’m assuming you’re on my side.”
Zuko blinks as everyone waits for his opinion. Katara and Sokka smile encouragingly. Aang is clearly begging for a tying vote. He should be ingratiating himself to the Avatar however he can, but... “They’re right,” Zuko says finally. “Focus on mastering the elements you’re already learning, and don’t put yourself at risk unnecessarily.”
Aang groans as the siblings grin. “Wise stuff, Sifu Hotman,” says Sokka.
Zuko rolls his eyes and tries to look more annoyed by the nickname than he really is.
He doubts anyone is fooled.
They split up, and Zuko doesn’t even think to worry that they’ll leave without him.
Instead, he just wanders from storefront to storefront, regarding the things that these peasants consider worth gawking at, from fruits to clothing to carved woodsmen. What stops him in his tracks, however, is a display in the window of a cramped antiques shop, remarkably out of place.
It’s a silver tea set.
Simple, nothing like the extravagant sets they’d had in the palace, but dignified. Zuko stares at it without blinking, as if it might vanish if he looks away.
“Let me guess,” says a voice over his shoulder. “You’re secretly a tea aficionado, too.”
Zuko snorts. “No.”
Sokka steps up to be in line with him, looking at the tea set with a raised brow. “Any reason you’re staring at this tea set with a passion you normally reserve for talking about honor?”
“My Uncle,” Zuko explains. “He likes it.”
“Right,” Sokka says. He coughs under his breath. “Your Uncle. That’s...on your mother’s side?”
“My father’s older brother,” Zuko corrects, remembering again how shockingly ignorant Sokka is when it comes to Fire Nation royalty. It’s a little refreshing. “The Dragon of the West. He nearly conquered Ba Sing Se.”
“Wow,” croaks Sokka. “That...sounds impressive.”
“It is,” Zuko assures, heart panging as he remembers how he’d treated the man the last time they spoke. He’d gotten impatient, like he always did, and he’d yelled and insulted and ruined any chance of a dignified goodbye. He wonders whether that’s how Uncle remembers him. He has no reason to think Zuko had eventually cooled off, no reason to think he’d searched for a gift that would substitute for an apology he didn’t have the words to give. He’d just remember Zuko how he had been: disrespectful and angry. He blinks, trying to swallow down the stone in his throat. He reminds himself that he’s closer to bringing home the Avatar than ever before, using a method Uncle would probably appreciate. “If this works, he’ll be proud.”
“I’m sure,” Sokka drawls, sounding anything but.
Zuko continues staring at the tea set long after Sokka is distracted by meat and weapons.
“You bought a sword?” Katara demands.
Sokka swings the weapon in a few wild arcs, making his own sound effects as he goes. “I did! Doesn’t it look amazing?”
“It looks expensive.”
Sokka scoffs. “It’s an investment. You’re about to get a Waterbending Master and Aang is learning Firebending. I think it’s about time I up my melee game.”
“And what, you’re going to teach yourself?”
“Please,” he dismisses. “Zuko is going to teach me.”
Zuko blinks his way out of meditation and frowns over his shoulder. “What?”
“You studied with that pinecone guy, right?”
“Piandao,” Zuko corrects, unimpressed.
“Yeah, him! Show me what he showed you!”
Zuko’s eyebrow twitches. “I studied with him for years, Sokka.”
“Well, give me the accelerated course, then. I’ve fought with fans before, you know.”
Zuko glares, then turns back to the Airbender. “Meditate, Avatar.”
Aang snaps his eyes closed guiltily. “I am.”
“No, you’re listening to Sokka.”
“He’s being loud. ”
“Accept that he’s being loud,” Zuko instructs in his best Wise Uncle voice. “Accept his voice as another part of the forest and let it wash over you. Don’t listen to what he’s actually saying. ”
“That’s just good life advice,” Katara remarks.
“C’mon,” Sokka insists, marching over to them. “I saw how you took out those guys before. You’re good at sword fighting.”
Aang perks. “You should’ve seen him at Pouhai-”
His face shutters in an unconvincing facsimile of inner peace. “I mean, ommmmmm. ”
Zuko considers. He remembers with disturbing clarity the other man stumbling off of the road, abdomen red as the enemy pursued. In close quarters, a boomerang isn’t much help. Learning swordplay might really be the difference between a breathing Sokka and a dead one. “Fine,” he relents miserably.
Sokka grins as if his answer had never been in doubt. “Great! What should I do first?”
“Sit down,” Zuko instructs, “and focus on your breathing.”
Sokka’s face falls. It’s Aang’s turn to laugh.
“That’s some pretty fancy fighting,” Aang comments as Zuko and Sokka circle one another, their make-shift training blades clashing.
“Thanks!” Sokka says brightly. “I think I’m getting the hang of it!”
Zuko raps him in the shoulder to nip the overconfidence in the bud. “Concentrate,” he orders, just as he’d had to over a dozen times during their brief meditation session.
Sokka scowls but resumes his careful footwork.
“Real fancy fighting,” Aang continues, circling them. He nods and whistles appreciatively and makes a variety of other distracting noises. “Don’t you think Katara?”
“I think it looks like two boys batting each other with sticks,” she answers dryly, idly bending the night’s vegetable stew in lieu of stirring.
“Hmm, good point,” Aang says, nodding some more. “If we want to see real fighting-”
“We’re not going to that sketchy underground fight,” Sokka interrupts, yelping as he avoids a sudden thrust. He does have good reflexes, Zuko thinks, that if honed could make him a formidable swordsman. He doesn’t say it out loud.
“Why not?” Aang demands petulantly.
“Democracy,” Sokka answers.
“Democracy-shemocracky,” Aang dismisses. “I’m the Avatar. What if Roku wants me to go?”
Sokka and Zuko slow, both of them sending him unimpressed looks. “Okay,” says Sokka. “Aang. Did Avatar Roku appear to you in a vision and ask you to go to this Earthbending fight?”
Aang squints like a suspicious cat monkey. “... maybe. ”
Sokka turns to Zuko. “For future reference, this is exactly as convincing as you are.”
Zuko raps him again, too fast to dodge.
The soup isn’t as spicy as the cooks used to make, and it’s meatless, and it’s Waterbended into his bowl instead of ladled. It’s different. But it’s good, too.
Zuko isn't sure how he became Aang’s Firebending teacher, Sokka’s swordmaster and Katara’s Waterbending tutor all within a week. Uncle used to say one’s enemy is often the best teacher. Zuko doubts he meant it so literally.
He wonders, for perhaps the millionth time, what Uncle would think of all this. Whether he would approve. Whether he knows Zuko is alive. Whether he cares.
“What’s on your mind?”
He jolts, then swallows thickly. “Nothing.”
“I’ve been staring at Appa for a half hour trying to figure out how he flies,” Sokka reveals. “By all accounts, it shouldn’t work. He’s huge. He’s slow. I don’t personally think things should float in general, but him especially -”
“What are you talking about?” Zuko interrupts impatiently.
“I’m telling you what’s on my mind,” Sokka explains. “That doesn’t mean you have to tell me what’s on yours, but sometimes sharing the mental load can help. Just talking to you, for instance, has made me think: what if Appa has hollow bones? Like a gigantic, fluffy bird."
Zuko hesitates, then says, “He only looks huge. He’s mostly fur. He's probably not that heavy.”
“Hmm, good point." Sokka considers. "Do you think if I got Aang to do that little leg-kick thing he could float, no glider required?”
Zuko conjures and summarily dismisses the mental image. “I don’t think you should.”
Sokka bobs his head. “Yeah. You probably need six legs, anyway.”
Zuko swallows. Sokka shared first, and even though it was nonsense, it was honest. “I’m thinking about my Uncle.”
“Ah.” Sokka sips from his canteen, then just sits there. No rushing, or prodding, or judging. Listening.
“...you kinda remind me of him,” Zuko admits, staring at the fire.
Sokka stiffens. “I remind you of the War Mongering tea lover? That...raises questions, mostly. I mean, I like tea, but-”
“You’re patient,” Zuko interrupts, not prepared for whatever that rambling was going to be. Katara said it isn’t weak to be nice, to be open. She said it’s strong. Zuko can be strong. “With me. I mean.”
Sokka stops talking. He stops moving. It’s as if he thinks any response at all will keep Zuko from continuing. He’s probably right.
Zuko just focuses on the flames and continues, “You both act like there's more to me than my mistakes. And you're both... wise? But in a weird way. And ridiculous. And I never know what either of you are ever talking about-”
“Is this what all your compliments are going to sound like?” Sokka wonders, but he’s grinning.
“See if I ever compliment you again, then,” Zuko mutters with a scowl.
Sokka’s shoulder bumps against his. “So it was supposed to be a compliment?”
Sokka is still smiling like a complete idiot, but he lets it go. “You were getting a present for him, right? When you got arrested?”
Zuko nods slightly. “It was stupid. He never even cared about catching the Avatar. He only came along because- I don’t know.” Uncle had just been there when he woke up, patient and fond despite his nephew’s rage. Zuko treasured the affection even while testing its limits. “I don’t know why he did it. He could have stayed in the Fire Nation. It’s not as if he were banished.”
“You said he was your dad’s older brother, right?” When Zuko nods, Sokka continues unsurely, “Why isn’t he Fire Lord then?”
Zuko shifts uncomfortably. “My Father says it's because he's weak.”
“And what do you think?”
It’s not a question Zuko has really dared to consider. Lu Ten died, and Father said Uncle was too weak to take the throne. Grandfather died, and Father took it, and Uncle didn’t fight back, and that meant Father was right. It made sense because it was how life had gone. Uncle had transformed from the finest General in the Fire Nation to a lazy spirits-obsessed Pai Sho player, watching over his failure of a nephew, even...even following him into the dishonored unknown. That took strength, didn’t it? Katara's kind of strength. “I don’t think he’s weak,” he admits, and it feels like lèse-majesté.
Sokka is quiet for a moment. “How much was it?”
“The teapot. How much?”
Zuko's brow furrows. “25 copper pieces. Why?”
Sokka answers by digging into his rucksack.
“What are you doing?” Zuko demands. “It’s not important. I’m not even- I’m not a part of your team, Sokka, I’m not going to spend your money.”
Sokka snickers as he pulls out his coin purse. “Gaang membership isn’t mandatory, but unfortunately the friendship thing is. And I always lend friends money. I mean, I would, probably, if I’d had friends or money back home.” He passes the coin purse to Zuko before the banished Prince can even understand enough to be baffled. “Go and get it.”
Zuko blinks, the word friendship swimming around behind his eyes. “Right now?”
“Why not? Aang wants to go back anyway. You can keep an eye on him and keep him out of trouble.”
“I am the trouble," Zuko reminds him in disbelief.
“Well, then, it’s more convenient to go together anyway. Saves time for everyone.” He turns. “Hey, Aang! Shopping spree!”
They ride Appa to the outskirts of the village, then go the rest of the way on foot. Aang rambles on about what Earthbending techniques he’d like to see. Zuko absentmindedly nods along, more baffled than comprehending. Sokka had given him money and the Avatar.
It’s more trust than he should logically extend, and Zuko feels a strange sort of pride in that. So many have doubted his honor over the years- including himself- but Sokka doesn’t. None of them do. Aang had agreed immediately. Katara hadn’t even batted an eye at the idea that he and Aang should go alone.
Zuko doesn’t even consider betraying that trust.
He listens as Aang chatters on about a friend who’d managed to Earthbend candy, amusement growing. Aang notices and beams.
Zuko forgets not to smile back.
“You coming?” Zuko asks from the doorway of the antique shop.
Aang shakes his head. “I’m gonna grab some more Fire Flakes before the show.”
Zuko raises an eyebrow.
“I can handle it this time,” Aang promises.
“Fine,” Zuko allows. “But be here when I get out.”
“Of course, Sifu Hotman,” Aang promises, bowing deeply before he sprints towards the food cart.
When Zuko enters the shop, he sees the teapot right away. It’s been moved behind the counter and it looks freshly polished. He hesitates. This is probably stupid, isn’t it? Uncle already has tea sets.
“Good evening, young man,” says a voice from somewhere to his left, and he jolts. The shopkeep raises her hands, smiling benignly. She’s gray-haired and green-eyed and older than Uncle. Her long robes trail behind her as she walks to the counter. “Apologies. Didn’t mean to startle you.” She looks at the bandages first, of course, and then her eyes wash over the rest of him. “Can I help you?”
“I want to see the tea set.”
She nods. “Of course.” As she turns to retrieve it, however, Zuko spots a box of pai sho tiles just behind the counter. It’s a mishmash assortment from various sets, but he’s pretty sure there’s a White Lotus tile in the bottom corner. It’s older than the other pieces, and chipped, and a little faded, but it has character. Uncle would appreciate that. He would also appreciate having a replacement for the one Zuko had thrown into a river.
“Never mind about the tea set,” he decides. “Can I see the Pai Sho tiles?”
“Of course,” she accepts, turning. She lifts the box to give him a closer look. “This White Jade tile was carved over a hundred years ago. Red rosewood, inset with ivory, lovingly kept. It’s a truly beautiful piece-”
“I don’t care about that,” Zuko dismisses. “I just want the lotus tile.”
She raises her eyebrows, considering him anew. “Just the lotus tile?”
“It’s the most important piece,” he informs her, crossing his arms. He may not know a lot about the game, but he knows that much.
“Not many still cling to the ancient ways,” she intones.
He scowls and quietly doubts she has many repeat customers.
Her brows furrow and they spend several uncomfortable seconds staring at each other, each seeming equally puzzled by the other’s behavior.
“Are you going to sell it to me, or not?” He demands impatiently.
“I- yes, of course. Two copper pieces.”
Zuko nods and says, firmly but politely, “Thank you.” He recalls his conversation with Katara and wonders, “Is there a bookshop around here? Or a library?” If the lotus tile is that inexpensive, maybe he can spend a little on a book about Waterbending. If that one stolen scroll had helped as much as it had, imagine what she could do with something substantial. Maybe he could learn from it, too.
“The library?” The shopkeep swallows. “It burned down, I’m afraid.”
“The library and the theater burned down?” Zuko clarifies, surprised. “That seems…” He remembers Sokka’s earlier phrasing. “...strange.”
Her smile is tense. “Tragic accidents.”
He frowns. “Was anyone hurt?”
“Everyone,” she tells him. “As is the case whenever books are burned.” She presses the tile into his palm. “Free of charge.”
She shrugs. "Maybe I just like knowing there are still people in this world with the sense to appreciate a good game of Pai Sho. Think of me next time you play."
“I don’t play,” he tells her flatly.
Her eyes crinkle with amusement. “One day, you might.”
Aang is sucking on ice when Zuko comes back out. “Did you get the tea set?”
“No,” says Zuko, slipping the tile into his pocket. “Is it just me, or is everyone in this town weird?”
Aang shrugs. “I like it. Someone gave me a gold piece earlier just because Momo did a trick!”
Zuko is momentarily surprised, but then wonders why. Aang just does stuff like that. “What trick?”
“He found the food in his pocket,” Aang explains. “And the gold coin!”
Zuko frowns. “Did he tip you or did Momo rob him?”
Aang’s grin wavers. “Ohh,” he says. “That explains the shouting. I thought he was just enthusiastic.”
“It’s fine,” Zuko decides, leading onward. “We’re fugitives anyway.”
When they find the dilapidated theater, Zuko thinks, for a moment, that they’ve been duped. Maybe it was an elaborate ruse to try and mug them. Maybe that grifter recognized him, or recognized Aang, and had actually turned them in. Maybe-
“Well, well. You decided to come. Maybe you’ve got some stone in your spine after all.” The peddler from earlier steps towards them. “Entrance fee is two coppers. Each. ”
“You didn’t mention an entrance fee before,” Zuko comments acidically.
“Didn’t I? Must’ve slipped my mind.”
At Aang’s beseeching look, Zuko dutifully pulls out Sokka’s coin purse.
After biting each coin, the man smiles. “Take a deep breath.”
Before Zuko can say another word, the dirt beneath his feet begins to spin, suddenly more liquid than stone, sucking him down into the Earth. It’s a strange sensation and he can’t help but think of the countless Fire Nation soldiers that had no doubt died this way, entombed eternally in the soil of a land far from their own. It’s terrifying, for the brief seconds of utter blackness, but then he’s spat back out, breathless and dizzy.
“Wow!” Aang sways beside him, just as dizzy but far more delighted. “I have got to learn that!”
They’re in a narrow, craggy cave. The air is filled with energetic chatter and the mixed scents of sweat and fried food. They follow the sounds and smells and are delivered into a large cavern, wide-walled and well-lit. Throngs of loud spectators crowd around the raised platform in its center, holding up money and shouting at no one in particular.
Aang weaves his way around the crowd, ducking under meaty arms and leaping over anyone short enough, as Zuko shoulders his way through. Eventually, they’re close enough to the stage to see the bloodstains and- is that a tooth? Zuko glances at Aang, unsurprised to find him beaming.
“You better be Benders, standing this close to the stage,” remarks the broad-chested man to Aang’s left, observing the over-eager child dubiously.
“I am a Bender,” Aang assures him. “I just haven’t learned Earthbending yet.” He blinks, suddenly registering the comment. “Wait, why?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of the Smash Zone, kid? ‘Cause you’re in it.” He chuckles. “You’re lucky I’m here. I’ll catch anything coming your way, how about that?”
Aang smiles. “You’re an Earthbender?”
“Sure am. I've fought all over, even in the real Earth Rumble out in Gaoling.”
“Best fighter you’ll ever see!” Adds the scrawny man beside him, butting into the conversation with glee. “You’re talking to The Monolith. ” He jabs a thumb against his own chest. “I’m Zhang Wei, his manager.”
“Wow!” Aang looks at The Monolith with starry eyes. “You’re that good?”
“Sure am,” he confirms proudly. “Never been beaten.”
“Bah,” scoffs an eavesdropper. “Quit lying to the kid.”
“The Blind Bandit doesn’t count,” Zhang Wei snaps. “Nobody can beat him.”
“The Blind Bandit?” Aang repeats. “Who’s that?”
“The reigning champ in Gaoling,” answers Zhang Wei, sounding miserable about it. “He's huge."
“And old!” The Monolith adds.
His manager nods emphatically. “A full-grown adult man, yes he is!”
“And he can see, too!”
“It’s just a name,” concurs Zhang Wei.
“And he cheats.”
“And so he doesn't count. Take it from me, kid, the Monolith is the best Earthbender alive!”
“Bah,” scoffs the eavesdropper. “You couldn’t skip a flat stone.”
Aang and Zuko back away as the argument continues. Zuko absentmindedly wonders whether he could beat the Blind Bandit. A shame he’ll never know.
After all the hype, the Earth Rumble is disappointing. Few of the fighters are creative, or even very talented. They just- well, they just chuck rocks. And while that delights the crowd and Aang, Zuko is tremendously bored.
As the battle royale nears its end, the crowd is louder and drunker than ever. The stage shifts to an incline and the latest loser tumbles into the waiting arms of his disappointed manager. The ringleader strolls across the platform as it resettles.
“Well!?” He shouts. “Is that all you’ve got!?”
The crowd roars, but the words all overlap, and Zuko can’t quite tell what’s happening.
“Come on,” he insists, sneering at his audience. “Someone here must be brave enough to face our champion! You all know the prize…!” He tosses a small coin purse up into the air, then snatches it back with relish. “Does no one dare face the Stone Slayer!?”
Zuko is too busy internally mocking the name to notice the determination spread across Aang’s face.
“I dare!” He declares, leaping onto the stage.
Zuko pulls him right back off by the collar of his shirt. “He doesn’t dare,” he announces to the room at large. He then drags Aang through the crowd, ignoring the laughter as they pass.
“What are you doing?” Aang demands. “I totally could have taken that guy!”
“Sokka told me to keep you out of trouble,” Zuko counters. “Do you think he’d let you join an underground Earthbending competition?”
“He might,” Aang tries. “If he were here and saw how amazing it is!”
“Well, he isn’t here and I’m in charge. You shouldn’t draw attention to yourself, especially not in a town where you’re already a wanted fugitive.”
“You’re already a wanted fugitive,” Aang grumbles.
“Then don’t put me at risk,” Zuko orders, counting on Aang’s inherent goodness.
As expected, the Airbender slumps under the low blow. “Fine. But maybe we could stay just a little longer? My Earthbending Master could be here, Zuko!”
“Take a look around,” Zuko responds, slowing as he lets go of the collar. He gestures to the violence-hungry drunkards cheering as some new combatant is pummeled to the ground. “Are any of these people really who you want to teach you?”
Aang shifts a single shoulder. “They could just give me some pointers.”
Zuko softens. It’s easy to sympathize with impatience. “You’ll find your Earthbending Master. But I really doubt it’ll be in an underground fighting league.”
“Yeah,” Aang allows miserably. “I guess not.”
When they reach the end of the cave, a teen with one black eye and two missing teeth smiles cheerily and sends them spinning up to the surface. Zuko swallows deeply the second that he can, thankful to once again breathe air that doesn’t taste like grease and testosterone.
They begin the walk back towards Appa.
“Are there fire tournaments like that?” Aang wonders, slowly recovering from his disappointment.
Zuko nods. “One is held every spring in Caldera. Fighters even come from the colonies.”
“Wow! What is it like?”
“Warm,” Zuko says, trying to remember the last time he’d gone, “and huge- ”
“I’m sorry, please- stop! Please!”
Aang and Zuko turn as one towards the terrified voice, brows furrowed.
At the end of the road, they see three figures: one is a short narrow silhouette, while the other two have the sharp edges of Fire Nation armor. The smaller figure collapses to the ground with a weak cry of pain. There is the blurred glow of distant fire, and the man wails.
“Hey!” Aang shouts, dashing towards them. “Leave him alone!”
“Aan-” Zuko cuts himself off, frustrated, then follows. Aang is going to get himself arrested over some dangerous insurgent. Zuko is supposed to be keeping him out of trouble, and he refuses to have to have Sokka break him out of jail again. He'd never hear the end of it. “Come back here!”
When they reach the soldiers, they get a better view of the situation. There is an old man curled up on the ground, a cane smoldering at his side. His breathing is thin and reedy, but he’s alive. Zuko hesitates. He couldn’t have been that much of a threat, could he?
“What do you think you’re doing?” Aang demands. “Leave him alone!”
The soldier chuckles. “You serious, kid? Do yourself a favor and walk away.”
Aang straightens to his full height. It’s not very tall. “No.”
They glance at Zuko, unimpressed. “You gonna take care of your little brother before you two are wearing matching bandages?”
Zuko stiffens, blood running hot. “What?”
“You heard her. Get going before we roast the both of you.”
Zuko steps forward, fists tight. “Walk away,” he orders. “Before we make you.”
“I swear,” laughs the soldier as she slides into a fighting stance, “some people just want to be ash.”
They don’t use warning shots. They see Aang, a twelve-year-old boy defending an old man, and they attack to kill. Aang dodges the flames easily, because of course he does, but- but what if he hadn't?
The soldiers are reckless with their flames, and the buildings around them catch fire quickly. Zuko thinks- briefly, in the seconds between dodging fireballs- about the many accidents this town has had. Then he just focuses on the fight, and the fire, and staying alive.
Aang blasts one soldier back with a gust of air as Zuko fights the other with hand-to-hand combat, careful not to use his flames except for subtle deflections. He doesn’t attack like Prince Zuko or the Blue Spirit, but rather as a strange mix of the two, with rage fuelling every move.
It’s a short fight.
As Aang checks on the old man, babbling about how if he had water he could try to heal his bruises, Zuko quietly douses the remaining flames. He’s too late, of course.
The town is already scarred.
Much later, long after the old man has said his thanks and they’ve rushed their way back to Appa, Aang is still brimming with excitement.
“Zuko, you were amazing!”
Zuko scowls. “I can’t believe they would just attack us like that.”
“Eh, you get used to it,” Aang says. “I am the Avatar.”
“But they didn’t know that!” Zuko snaps, frustrated. The old man must have done something terrible. Maybe they thought he and Aang were in league with him. Maybe they really thought they were threats.
(They’d threatened to burn Aang’s face. )
“I think they figured it out by the end,” Aang replies, smiling. “Did you see that tornado I made?” He pauses thoughtfully. “Do you think I could do that with Fire? A firenado?” His brows furrow. “Zuko. Could I make a lava tornado?”
Zuko glares sullenly at Appa’s kicking feet, uninterested in any childish rambling. He goes over the interaction in his head again. Maybe the cane hadn’t been a cane. Maybe it had been a weapon. A fake cane with a poisoned sword inside-
“You should feel proud,” Aang tells him, smiling back at him from his perch on Appa’s head. “You saved that old man’s life!”
“He was a traitor,” Zuko snaps, shoulders hunched. “He deserved it.”
Aang shakes his head, expression sobering. “Nobody deserves being treated that way.”
“This isn’t an Air Temple!” Zuko snaps. He feels guilty almost immediately. “It just doesn’t work that way,” he continues, tone tense but less accusative. It’s not Aang’s fault he keeps attacking his own soldiers. Well, it was this time, but still. “Violence is the only answer for traitors.”
“Maybe,” Aang says. “But I don’t believe that, and I don’t think you really believe that, or else you wouldn’t have helped back there.” Zuko scowls, but doesn’t argue. The Airbender considers him for a moment. Then a slow smile spreads across his face. “I know what’ll cheer you up.”
Zuko frowns. “What are you talking about?”
Aang leaps onto the edge of the saddle, twirling his glider around his index finger. He grins. “Let’s jump.”
Zuko squints. “I was explicitly told not to jump off the bison.”
“Sometimes you have to let Sokka’s voice wash over you,” Aang intones wisely, “and not listen to the actual words.”
Zuko smirks in grudging amusement. “And how is jumping off a bison going to help?”
He holds out a hand. “Because it’s fun! ”
Zuko will regret this. He knows he will.
He still takes his hand.
Aang pulls him up onto the edge. “Hold on tight,” he says, and leaps. For a moment, it’s nothing but fast wind. It stops feeling like falling, at a certain point, and it just feels like flying. And then they really are flying as Aang’s glider expands and they swoop over the treetops. Aang’s laughter rings merrily and Zuko grins, unable to help it. Flying on Appa is peaceful, but this is freeing and fast and exhilarating. No wonder Aang is always so happy.
The Airbender descends in tight little circles, and when they finally hit the ground, it takes a moment for the world to stop spinning.
“See?” Aang says. “Fun!”
“Maybe a little,” Zuko admits. The amusement fades, however, when he realizes they’re far from the camp. “Now what?” He demands. “Appa is gone and we’re in the middle of nowhere! This was your plan for cheering me up?”
“Yep!” Aang grins and juts a thumb over his shoulder. “We’re going to race to camp!”
“What? Why would I want to do that?”
“Your whole deal is chasing the Avatar!”
Zuko scoffs. “I wouldn’t be chasing you. You’d be chasing me. And we’re not racing.”
“I get it, I get it.” Aang grins. “You’re scared. ”
“I’m not scared.”
“I’ll give you a five-minute head start,” the Airbender adds graciously.
“You’re acting like a kid,” Zuko charges.
Aang shrugs. “I am a kid.” His grin grows. “And I’m faster than you.”
Zuko narrows his eyes. Aang had pointed South, while anyone with eyes could see the North star was the other way. That meant the Airbender would spend at least five minutes going the wrong way. With an added five minute head start, there’s no way Zuko can lose. He can be quiet when he wants to be- the guards at the Pohuai stronghold could attest to that- and he can be fast.
“If I win,” he says, ignoring the way Aang brightens at his obvious agreement, “you do an extra thirty hot squats tomorrow. And never call me Sifu Hotman again.”
“When I win,” Aang replies with that casual self-assurance that manages to be confident but never cruel, “you have to give Appa a bath. Including between his toes.”
They meet each other’s eyes, a silent and intense battle of wills waging.
Strangely, it’s a battle to keep looking serious instead of laughing.
“I accept these terms,” he says finally.
Aang begins stretching against a nearby oak tree. “Five minutes,” he reminds Zuko, holding up a hand with five splayed fingers.
“I’ll try to stay awake until you get there,” Zuko assures evenly.
“ -one .”
Zuko dashes into the trees, heart pounding wildly without a hint of anxiety, a bubble of laughter barely restrained at the back of his throat, feeling younger than he ever has in his life.
At least he’ll be able to say he beat the Avatar at something.
After tromping loudly South, Zuko quietly backtracks, keeping to the treetops to avoid making a sound below. The Blue Spirit was always stealthier than Prince Zuko, and it’s strange to leap from limb to limb without the comfort of anonymity. It’s also immensely satisfying. For the first time in his life, no one seems to care that he’s not a great Firebender, or that he’s weak, or that he’s perpetually confused. They asked him for his advice. They asked for his opinions. They forgave him for no reason. Spirits, they found out he liked theater and brought him to a play.
It's ridiculous, but they just seem to... like him. No ulterior motive. No manipulations.
It’s strange, and it’s unlikely, but it...it feels good.
It feels fun.
Zuko reaches the campsite just as he hears, from very far away, a disappointed wail.
He grins. He’s about to drop down and feign impatience when he hears Sokka insist,
“He’ll change his mind.”
“I don’t know, Sokka,” Katara replies, and Zuko makes the split-second decision to listen. He doesn’t know Aang well enough to know whether he’s getting through to him, but Sokka and Katara do. Their insight, ill-gotten though it may be, could help.
It reminds him, for a here-and-gone moment, of eavesdropping a lifetime ago on his father and grandfather, of hearing something he wasn’t meant to hear that would change everything. He ignores the passing thought and focuses on what Katara is saying.
“-been days. I’m not sure he’s ready.”
Sokka scoffs, frustrated. “Just because you don’t trust him-”
“I trust him to do what he thinks is right,” Katara interrupts. “And right now, he defines what’s right by what his father thinks is right.”
“It’s not his fault his dad is evil incarnate,” Sokka says grumpily, and Zuko’s brow furrows. What?
“I know that,” Katara assures. “I like him, too, Sokka, but-” She shifts. “We only have a couple days left until he figures out we were never going to switch sides. What do we do if he doesn’t realize the Fire Nation is wrong?”
“I’ll make him realize,” Sokka asserts, unaware of how her words have robbed Zuko of his breath. “Even if it means tying him up with the good rope and forcing him into group ther-”
He doesn’t finish his sentence.
The fire blazes, bright as Agni’s fury, and both siblings scuttle back in surprise.
“Oh,” squeaks Sokka, turning. He finds Zuko in the treetops easily. He's illuminated by a lot of fire. “...you’re back.” He swallows. “Well, how was the shopping spree?”
the plan is going great
Chapter 10: The Plan Hits a Snag
This chapter is a bit of a bummer for everyone. Except for Momo, maybe? He seems fine.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“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.
The subtle kidnapping has turned less subtle. Next chapter: interventions, tragic backstories, and a lot of angry yelling from people who aren't Zuko (although, okay, he does his fair share).