They always changed when they realized he was a firebender, and it was worse still when they realized he was a prince - heir to a throne that had no use for him and didn’t want him - a disowned little boy lost at sea. He’d been cast aside - deformed - by his own father - and honestly, if that didn’t spark some kind of something in people, what would?
Zuko had always been a man of action. Actions got things done. Feelings offered nothing but distractions and inadequacy. Feelings were something Zuko shoved down into the depths of his soul - ignored them and blanketed them with his fury. After all, he quickly found that no matter his actions, they didn’t seem to exist when it came down to it.
The boy - Lee, of course he remembered his name - he had saved him, he had given him a gift (he had used his name as cover). But when he tried to return it, he was struck by the anger, though he didn’t show it. Lee said he hated him. The boy who had just saved his life. His actions had been inconsequential. He had left that village with a heavy heart.
The same with the Freedom Fighters - Jet especially. He had helped him steal food for the entire boat, but those actions had been tossed aside when he learned Zuko was a firebender. The guy had attacked him, and even when Zuko had fought him without bending, Jet was insistent that he was a plague. Jet had wanted a show and Zuko had given him one.
He wasn’t wrong. Zuko had realized the truth about his so-called nation and his disgraced father once Azula had betrayed him. His father would never want him and would never restore his honor. Zuko realized that even if he had captured the Avatar, Ozai would have done nothing. He was never meant to succeed in his hunt. So Zuko found his honor in a better place - surrounded by people that cared whether he lived or died.
If anyone had told him he’d join up with the very boy - no, the Avatar - he’d been hunting, he’d have sent them home. He’d have deemed them unfit for service. Yet, here he was.
Granted, he had to do a lot to be accepted. Starting with the Combustion Man that he himself had sent to kill Aang.
Katara held a grudge, which was justified in a mostly roundabout way. Because while he hadn’t personally come to the Southern Water Tribe, he hadn’t personally destroyed her way of life, her home, her mother; he had personally tormented them all for months - disrupting their way of life once again. He had been a child - same as them when his nation had laid siege to their lands. He still was a child and so were they. Yet, there he was.
So of course it had come as a surprise when the boy - the Avatar - had welcomed him. Aang never poked fun at him, never said anything hurtful despite Katara’s hostility. Aang had called him smart. Aang had wanted Zuko to teach him firebending.
Zuko had seen these moments of kindness from Aang before. After he’d first put on the Blue Spirit mask and “rescued” him from Zhao’s imprisonment. Instead of leaving the prince to die, he had taken him with him. He had stayed (why did he stay? Zuko had never understood why the boy - the Avatar - had stayed with him until he woke). He had asked if they could’ve been friends in some other time. And Zuko had no idea how to thaw the ice in his heart so he’d thrown a blast of fire at him. What else was there to do?
And again, when he’d bested Katara and stole Aang’s body while the Avatar wandered the Spirit Realm. Aang had taken Zuko with him so he wouldn’t freeze to death. Even after everything Zuko had done to capture him - to kill him even.
And again, when his uncle was injured. Aang had a chance to end it - to defeat him. And he didn’t take it. Aang had left him to care for Iroh.
Zuko had always been a man of action, but the Avatar blurred the line between action and feeling far too often. The Avatar offered Zuko grace when he deserved it least of all. So really, it shouldn’t have surprised Zuko when Aang had welcomed him.
And when they’d visited the dragons it was something else altogether. Aang had a gentleness about him that Zuko found himself envying. Aang had a heart that was eager to learn and Zuko found himself hot with jealousy. Aang had eyes full of wonder and joy no matter how hard things got and Zuko despised him for it.
Different ways of life had brought out the best in Aang, and the worst in Zuko. The disgraced prince had no idea how to offer grace when people deserved it least. He held grudges, he raged and yelled and attacked. His bending was fueled by the anger rooted deep in his heart and so he had no idea how to even restore his powers when he’d finally released his fury.
With Aang, his actions mattered, though not in the same sense Zuko had thought of. Zuko had hunted this boy - the Avatar - to the ends of the earth for a man that had never wanted him. But Aang saw past that. Aang saw only that Zuko’s actions matched his words.
And despite who he was, despite his inherent right to the throne, Aang ignored it. Despite his ability to bend fire to his will, Aang ignored it. Aang didn’t change.
When Zuko had first wanted to join them, the earthbender (her name started with a T and that’s all Zuko could remember) had trusted him. She could sense his sincerity (though he wasn’t supposed to know that, but he had eavesdropped a little longer than necessary). But, Zuko knew that wasn’t enough. The earthbender had no history with him - she had never seen his destruction firsthand and had never witnessed his brutality toward the other three.
But she learned. She quickly realized just how dangerous fire could be and how easy it was to lose control of such a volatile element. It was an accident, he hadn’t meant to hurt her.
And Aang still wanted to learn. He overlooked the mistake - the accident - because Zuko had apologized and the Avatar granted him grace when he deserved it least.
And then they’d gone to see the dragons. And Zuko realized so many things about Aang that had him reeling and longing for a different outcome. If he’d been raised as an Air Nomad, would Zuko have that same gentleness about him? Would Zuko have a heart willing to learn? Would Zuko have eyes full of wonder and joy no matter how hard things got?
Zuko could easily recall the fever dream he had in which he’d found himself an Air Nomad, his face unscarred.
Nothing more than well wishing. Zuko didn’t deserve those things. If he hadn’t been born in the Fire Nation, he wouldn’t be where he was now. He certainly wouldn’t be teaching the Avatar firebending.
It was on their journey back from the dragons that Zuko finally worked up the courage to ask what had been on his mind for far too long.
“Why did you stay?”
And really, he should’ve elaborated because the confusion on Aang’s face was painful.
“When Zhao had you trapped and I got you out. I was unconscious. You could have left me in the forest, but you waited until I woke. Why did you stay?” Zuko was starting hard at the ground, as if it offered the answer.
Aang was silent for awhile, his staff clicking where it skittered across the rocks and gravel. Zuko feared he would have to repeat the question. Finally, the boy - the Avatar - let out a soft sigh and shrugged.
“I don’t know. Something in my mind told me to stay, so I did,” said Aang, so matter of fact.
Zuko scowled at the response. Had he hoped for something more?
It seemed though, that Aang wasn’t finished. “I guess I thought it could be different. I told you about my old friend from the Fire Nation, Kuzon. I wanted so badly to believe that you rescued me with no ulterior motives. But, I knew it was because you wanted that honor instead of Zhao.”
Zuko hadn’t expected that. Again, the Avatar surprised him. Aang was always so quick to see the good in others. But back then, Zuko had no goodness in his heart. “You know, when I captured you in that ice cave... I compared you to my sister.” He said it through a sardonic laugh and it twisted wildly in the air between them. “Everything always came so easy for her - and for you. My father said she was born lucky and I was lucky to be born. I always thought that struggle equaled strength, because it’s all I’ve done my entire life.”
Silence followed his words, which was fine because he wasn’t finished. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be finished when it came to explaining the chaos caused by his stoney heart.
Zuko shook his head then, looking up at the sky for the proper words. “I was jealous,” he admitted, which was a huge step for him. He had never confessed those words aloud to anyone, including himself. “I spent my whole life fighting for everything. I fought to become a better firebender. I fought for my nation. I fought for my beliefs. One of my father’s generals wanted to sacrifice an entire division of new recruits as bait to take the Earth Kingdom.”
Aang looked over at him then, something unreadable in his eyes. Perhaps he knew what story Zuko was about to reveal. The prince had never told any of them. But Aang offered him grace when he deserved it least, so maybe he could at least offer this in return. And he knew Aang would not pity him for it like the others would. He knew Aang would see him the same despite the truth.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in there, but my uncle allowed me inside so I could watch. I wasn’t supposed to speak, but I did. I spoke against him, ‘those soldiers love and defend their nation! How can you betray them?’” Zuko raised his voice to imitate his 13-year-old self, earning a chuckle from Aang despite the topic. He cracked a smile that nearly instantly faded.
“My outburst was seen as an insult and a dishonor to the nation. So my father ordered me to take part in an Agni Kai - a duel to restore one’s honor.” Zuko paused to drop his head back and stare at the dirt beneath his feet. “I accepted, of course. I thought I would be dueling the general I had spoken against. I was wrong.”
Aang’s eyes widened and he stopped walking, already realizing the outcome. His hand was tight around his staff, knuckles bone white. Zuko stopped as well, keeping his back to the Avatar.
“Because we were in my father’s war room, it was him I had disrespected. And it was him I would have to fight. But I refused to fight and I - I begged for forgiveness.”
The Fire Nation insignia surround him at all sides as he turned to face - his father. Zuko’s eyes went wide as realization shocked him into fear. His fighting stance was lost immediately
He fell to his knees begging for forgiveness even as his father stepped closer, eyes as cold and cruel as the floor Zuko was bowing on.
The air was still and silent, no one dared say a word as Ozai lifted a hand -
“...suffering will be your teacher.”
Warmth spread over him for a charged moment before it was too much and he could hear someone screaming and he found it was himself. He didn’t know someone could scream like that. His throat was raw in an instant, vision blurring from the sharp lick of flames on his skin.
He could distinctly smell the acrid tang of burning flesh and hair and - agony encompassing his entire body despite only having the one injury. The murmurs of the others could not rise above his wails - his heart was stuttering definitively in his chest and Zuko was choking back tears because their salt only added to his torture.
Ozai was chuckling, dark and low and evil and in the back of his throat like a feral animal. No compassion entered those eyes even as his own flesh and blood writhed on the floor and sobbed - shrieked - for relief.
Zuko couldn’t even see - his eye had clamped shut to shield from the heat and it still wasn’t enough because his eyelid was only a thin layer that was quickly disintegrated. It was so hot it was cold - icy and sweltering.
Skin blistered and peeled and suddenly Iroh was calling his name and lifting the poor thirteen-year-old into his arms because no one else even cared as they all filed out of the arena. The whole way back to his room, Iroh simply spoke to him about random things to keep the boy conscious - Zuko squirming in his arms as small groans of misery escaped his floundering mouth.
Zuko squeezed his eyes shut as if that would discard the vicious memory from his mind. “He saw my refusal to fight as another disrespect and said as much. I don’t really recall the pain,” he said, fists clenched (and really it was only partly a lie). “I think - I think it was so awful that I completely erased the memory. All I can remember is a bright light and then waking up in my uncle’s arms, having been stripped of my right to the throne and exiled. My father claimed the only way to restore my honor was to find the Avatar.”
Zuko looked up and was shocked by the tears falling from Aang’s face.
“I’m sorry. I - I never knew,” Aang claimed, swiping roughly at his tears. His hand ached from the grip on his staff and he actually dropped it just to find relief. The sound of it clattering to the ground never came though. Zuko had caught it, eyes wide.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “It’s getting better,” he added, motioning to the scar. “I mean, I can see shapes now at least.”
“What?” Aang looked at him with surprise. His tears had mostly stopped, though his eyes were red. “You’re blind in that eye?”
Zuko nodded. “Yeah, of course,” he said, as if it made all the sense in the world.
Aang hated how dismissive he was about this.
“My uncle told me how close my father was when he burned me. He didn’t hold back. You don’t just get burned at close range like that and not have damage.” Zuko handed over his staff, but Aang refused to take it.
The boy - the Avatar - was shaking with rage. “That’s disgusting!” Aang’s voice was cold. “Ozai is a monster! How could he do that to you? His own son?”
Zuko stepped back as the wind picked up, pulled to Aang’s airbending. The shawl that Aang had loosened to allow one arm freedom billowed, one of his pant legs actually coming untucked from his boot from the force of the air. His feet lifted from the ground and he floated up.
And there - his tattoos sparked to life as his eyes opened wide to reveal the white glow of his Avatar State. Zuko fell back, still hanging on to the staff as he stared up at him. He had seen this before, though he’d never really been on the receiving end of the raw power. He was in awe - Aang was truly a sight to behold.
When he spoke, his voice was filled with countless others, though Zuko couldn’t make out the words with the wind whistling past his ears. Aang didn’t look like he was going to calm down anytime soon.
Zuko stood, scrambling to his feet and lurching forward against the air that bubbled around the Avatar. A shield, almost. Still, he was able to reach through the wind and latch onto Aang’s arm. “Aang, it’s all right!”
Aang’s fury turned on him and he swept his arm up sharply, blowing him back with a fierce wave of air. Zuko yelled as he flew and landed hard on his back with the breath knocked from his body. His right knee knocked harshly against a pointed rock and he felt the pop of his kneecap. He barely had time to dodge the slash of air that raced at him, but he jumped out of the way just in time.
And sure, he had fought against Aang before but this was something far different and way out of his league. Aang had never actually fought him while in the Avatar State. It was terrifying.
Zuko could feel his heart pounding. Before he could open his mouth to call to him, Aang was sending a rock hurtling at him, his mouth curled into an enraged snarl as his fist drove forward. Zuko dived beneath it, heaving. “Aang, please, calm down!” His knee was screaming at him now.
He dodged another rock and broke the blast of air charging at him with a wave of fire that had him stumbling as he landed on his injured leg. Still, he was trying to survive against the Avatar and that put him at an instant disadvantage. Zuko swung Aang’s stuff to block the grit that flew at him and was knocked back onto the ground again by another blast of air.
Yet another wave of air buffeted him, forcing him to stay down. He had to close his eyes against the force of it as it sent dust into them. Zuko felt the heat before he saw it.
His eyes went wide at the arch of fire swinging down toward him, like a whip, with Aang latched onto the fire as its master. Zuko rolled aside in the nick of time and stumbled to his feet once more. He was knocked onto his stomach by a sweep of air that Aang swung his arm low to create. Aang’s staff clattered to the ground and Zuko feared it would break. Aang’s bending was so fluid, Zuko feared he may not be able to last long enough to break the spell.
And now water was splashing over him and Zuko hadn’t even known there was any water nearby. Looking closer, he could see it seeping up from the ground, likely an underground aqueduct that Aang could somehow sense. Aang’s arms rose above his head and then shoved down like a wave and the water followed. Zuko scrabbled away to avoid it.
The prince snatched up Aang’s staff once more and used it to bat away a few of the rocks soaring toward him, Aang’s arm swinging up from his side to his head like a broom. A few of them still hit him, cutting any flesh he had exposed.
Zuko jumped and shot a blast of fire with his feet, twisting in midair to land back on them as the heat turned the incoming water into steam. “Aang, listen to me! This isn’t you! Please, I’m your friend!”
The cut of air speeding toward him died to a gentle breeze in an instant, ruffling his hair rather than sending him careening toward the ground. Aang’s body floated back to the ground as the glow of his tattoos dulled to nothing.
Zuko rushed over to him and caught him before his head could crack against the ground. His back ached where he had struck the rocks and his leg protested at the crouched position he was in, but he ignored them both as Aang’s eyes fluttered open.
“Zuko? What happened?” Aang sat up, wincing. And he noticed the carnage around them; the divots in the earth where he’d thrown boulders, the battered plants where he’d slashed air, the scorched ground, Zuko’s hair and clothes dripping wet, and the shallow nicks on Zuko’s skin that had blood welling to the surface. He used his airbending to jump lightly to his feet and stepped away from Zuko in fear. “I am so sorry, Zuko! I didn’t - I didn’t mean to do that! Are you alright? Did I - did I hurt you?”
And, despite the soreness of his back and anger in his leg and the wild beating of his heart, Zuko shook his head. “I’m fine.” He stood, though he had to use Aang’s staff as a support because his leg nearly gave out.
“I’m so sorry, Zuko. I just got so angry and I couldn’t control myself,” said Aang with a downcast expression. He moved his arms back in a gentle pull again and again, waterbending the liquid away from Zuko’s clothes and hair until he was dry once more and then let the water simply splash to the ground as his arms fall limp at his sides.
“Aang,” Zuko said, forcing the boy - the Avatar - to look at him. “It’s alright. I’m fine.”
Zuko paused as he realized Aang was right, but he shook his head. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”
Aang fell into step beside him. He wouldn’t look at him, opting to keep his head down instead. “I am so sorry.”
“I know,” Zuko said shortly.
“But, thank you for telling me. I’m glad you trust me,” Aang said then, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly.
A silence fell between them once again, though it was far more uncomfortable than before. Aang’s staff struck the rocks harder with every step Zuko limped, until finally he had to stop the throb was so bad.
Aang turned to him with worry. “I did this. I’m sorry, Zuko, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he said, lip trembling and eyes full of guilt and anger. “I wish I could use water to heal like Katara.”
“It’s fine,” said Zuko. “Just a little sore. Let’s just rest for a moment and then we can continue.”
Aang sat beside him in a meditative stance, fists pushed together and his eyes closed. Zuko stayed silent despite wondering what exactly he was doing. He wished his uncle was here. Iroh would have some wisdom to offer the two, something that could dissolve this sudden tension that blanketed them.
Zuko stretched his right leg out and leaned back into the rock wall, letting his eyes fall closed. Aang’s staff rested against his shoulder, one of his arms cradling it like a lifeline.
When Aang opened his eyes again, Zuko was nearly asleep. The fight - struggle - had taken a lot out of him and he was exhausted. “How does your leg feel?” Aang asked, startling Zuko from his light slumber.
It actually did feel a bit better. “Fine. Better,” Zuko said, standing with the help of Aang’s staff. “I was angry, too. For a long time. At my father and at myself for not realizing sooner how cruel and manipulative he was. I hurt people because of my anger.“ He glanced over at Aang to see him smiling slightly. “It’s alright to be angry.”
They walked back to Appa in companionable silence, Zuko handing Aang back his staff even as he limped slightly. The cuts on his skin were already sealing with clots, and would soon be nothing more than scabs. He felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Despite his name, Aang ignored it. Despite his ability to bend fire to his will, Aang ignored it. He’d been brought in - welcomed - by his new friends - and honestly, if that didn’t spark some kind of something in people, what would?
Zuko could get used to this. Aang was a good person, and a better friend. Truthfully, he was glad the Avatar had been an airbender this time around. He doubted a bender from any other nation would be so forgiving of their enemy, even if they did need a firebending teacher.
“I’m sorry you had to face that alone,” Aang suddenly said. He had stopped walking when he noticed Zuko falling behind again.
Zuko looked up at him, his good eye focused on Aang in his orange and yellow robes. “I wasn’t alone. Uncle Iroh was always there. I just - I didn’t realize that until recently. I miss him.” That was another admission he’d never spoken aloud. His uncle had been a steadfast rock during Zuko’s hunt, and was constantly teaching him about the world.
Zuko really fucking missed him. It almost felt like a piece of himself was missing. Aang handed over his staff once again, wordlessly. And Zuko took it gratefully because his knee was starting to throb again.
“You know, I’m really glad you came with me,” Aang admitted softly. “When you showed up at our camp, I was pretty surprised when you said you wanted to help us. And a bit more surprised when Toph said you were telling the truth.”
Toph, that was the blind earthbender’s name. Zuko stored that in his mind for later.
“But even after everything, I knew you were telling the truth too. That’s why I finally agreed to let you join,” Aang said. He turned to Zuko and put his fist against his other open palm and bowed. “I look forward to working with you, Sifu Zuko.”
Zuko felt his heart swell for the first time in his life with happiness rather than inferiority or rage. He returned the bow in kind. “I look forward to teaching you, Avatar Aang.”
And they continued on their journey feeling lighter than they had in awhile. When they reached Appa, the sky bison joined them. Until it was Aang’s turn to speak and he just had to ask the worst question.
“Hey, back in Ba Sing Se, why did you attack us? I heard Katara - she said she thought you had changed. And your Uncle Iroh - he saved us, didn’t he? Why would he do that if -“
“I was stupid, that’s why,” Zuko said through a harsh lump in his throat. “Azula - my stupid sister - she’s too good with words,” he stopped and sighed.
“That doesn’t really answer my question,” Aang said gently.
Zuko glanced over at him. “Yeah, I guess it doesn’t,” he said, reaching up to rub at the back of his neck. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I guess a part of me still wanted my father’s approval. You know, I overheard him talking to my grandfather a long time ago. The only way for him to take the throne was to know the pain of losing a firstborn son. Before that, Uncle Iroh was meant to be Firelord. But his son, Lu Ten, was killed in combat.
“Uncle left Ba Sing Se and his siege when he found out. That’s when my father tried to take his right to the throne. And I know that’s why he did what he did. But now I know he felt no pain or regret for what he did, and he never will.” Zuko dropped his head and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Azula told my father that I had killed you instead of her. But I knew you weren’t dead. When Katara and I were trapped in that cave together, she offered to heal me. Heal my scar. With this special water she had. When I betrayed her, I knew she would use it on you. And I’m glad she did. I - I don’t think I’d be here now if it weren’t for you surviving that.” Zuko patted Aang on the shoulder and offered him a friendly smile.
“But, why would your uncle turn against you?” Aang wondered, pulling away from Zuko’s touch.
Zuko turned his head away from Aang to hide the snarl on his face. “Because unlike me, my uncle isn’t an idiot. He tried so hard to set me on the right path, and I betrayed him again and again. He was thrown in prison for betraying the Fire Nation. The first few times I went to see him in his cell, he didn’t speak to me. He wouldn’t even look at me, Aang.”
Aang raised his hand to offer comfort, but Zuko smacked it away easily. “Zuko, I’m sorry. I know how it feels to not have anyone on your side. I know how it feels to be angry at everything and everyone.”
“No, you don’t,” Zuko said, face closed off as he practically threw Aang’s staff at him. “You’re the Avatar. Everything always goes your way. I remember going to that stupid island and all those stupid things I said. I was just so angry and I couldn’t figure out why.”
“What?” Aang was confused now. He stepped away from the fury radiating off of the firebender. He wouldn’t tell Zuko what he wanted, he would save that for another day. Right now, Zuko needed someone to scream at. He needed someone to blame for something and Aang was all right with being that person.
“Ember Island. I went with Azula and Ty Lee and Mai. And we were all sitting around a campfire talking about how shitty our lives were,” Zuko growled. Still, he wouldn’t face the Avatar. His fists were clenched at his sides and Aang could feel heat pouring from them.
Suddenly, Aang was so thankful that Zuko had returned his staff. He wasn’t sure it would survive this sudden rage.
“And they just kept asking over and over who I was angry at. And I didn’t want to tell them because - well, it was Azula, first off. I knew she’d never let me live it down if I admitted the truth. But they just kept goading me so I finally told them it was me. I was angry with myself.
“Because I was confused. I didn’t know the truth anymore. But I knew that I was so angry at myself.”
Aang knew it was the truth. He could tell by the way the man held himself. Aang could tell in the way Zuko was terrified to let anyone get too close to him. He could tell because his bending had been fueled by that anger, and when the prince had finally accepted himself in whatever way, he had lost his ability. Aang could tell in the way that Zuko refused himself forgiveness. As if he didn’t deserve it simply because of his actions. Well, that decision was for Aang to make.
“The Day of Black Sun made me realize so many things. That’s when I decided to join you. And after I faced my father and told him what a piece of shit he was, I went to find my uncle so we could join you. But he had already busted himself out by the time I got there, and I had no idea what to do or where he was.” Zuko finally sat down on the ground in defeat.
Aang joined him, at his side with a grim smile. He set his staff on the ground between them and set his arms on his knees. Appa growled softly and laid down in front of them, his eyes full of knowledge that an animal shouldn’t have.
“So I took a balloon and I followed your sky bison to the Western Air Temple. And now we’re here,” Zuko said as he pointed at Appa. “It’s funny, you know. The Western Air Temple was the first place I went after I was banished. It had only been a week. I still had my eye bandaged, actually.” He chuckled suddenly, pressing his thumb and forefinger into the corners of his eyes and shaking his head. “I rehearsed what I was going to say to a frog. And then did awful impersonations of my uncle and Azula.”
“You know, I was actually really shocked when Appa licked you.” Aang laughed as Zuko shuddered from the memory. “But the speech you gave was really good. I was actually really moved.”
“Then why did you send me away?” Zuko looked over at him then.
Aang grimaced uncomfortably and dropped his head.
“You know - uh - T-Toph showed up that same night?”
Aang just gave a short nod, still silent.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Zuko asked, scowling. He hated getting so angry about stupid things, but sometimes he couldn’t help it. “Why did you let me leave if you were so moved?”
“I thought everyone would hate me, all right?” Aang said sharply, pushing himself up to stand, startling the sky bison nearby. “I thought if I agreed to let you join that the others would hate me. So I said what they wanted to hear.”
Zuko scoffed at him.
“You saw how they reacted when I asked them if they were ok with you joining. Other than Toph, I mean. And that was even after you saved our lives.” Aang was pacing now, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Yeah, no kidding. Katara threatened to kill me,” Zuko said.
“She what!?” Aang whirled on him so fast that Zuko’s hair flew back. “Ah, sorry.” Aang ruffled Zuko’s hair back with a cheeky smile.
Zuko frowned and pushed him away so he could stand. “It doesn’t matter. I know you guys will have a hard time trusting me. All I can say is that I’m sorry and do my best to prove that to you. All of you.”
Aang shrugged and bent to pick up his staff. “Well, you know, if the dragons deem you worthy to learn the truth of firebending after all your family has done to them, I think you’re alright, Zuko.”
Zuko gave him a smile and walked over to Appa, giving him a pet on his furry head. The sky bison lowed at him and pushed his head further into the touch. “Let’s head back before they start to worry about you.”
“About us, you mean?” Aang asked, innocent as always. He floated up to the top of Appa’s head and settled in with the reins while Zuko scrambled into the saddle.
“No. I don’t,” Zuko shortly said. He crossed his arms and legs and got comfortable for the long flight back. He could see how tense Aang was from his comment, but he wasn’t good at easing feelings like that. So Zuko stayed silent.
“I have a feeling everything will turn out in the end.”
“How do you know?” Zuko asked him, eyes narrowing.
“I can feel it in my bones, Zuko. I can feel it,” Aang told him instantly - not a moments hesitation in his voice. “Some friendships are so strong they can even transcend lifetimes.”
“That sounds like something my uncle would say,” Zuko said with a sad smile. He really did miss his uncle so much right now. His wisdom could help him so much, especially when he was trying to join the Avatar. They would’ve welcomed Iroh with open arms, he was sure.
“It’s something a past life told me,” Aang said cryptically. Zuko probably had no idea that Sozin and Avatar Roku knew each other, and he was alright with keeping it that way. “I’ve been trying to keep that in mind in my journey.”
“You know, I’m really glad Uncle Iroh lied about the dragons. I’m really glad they survived. I’m so glad they found me worthy,” Zuko said, watching the clouds float by them as Appa soared high above the water. “I was so worried that they’d kill me.”
Aang dropped the reins and turned around to jump into the saddle. “Of course you’re worthy, Zuko. The dragons obviously saw something inside your heart that was good. Everyone has good inside them.”
“Can I tell you something, Aang?”
Aang crossed his legs into a meditative pose and nodded. “Of course. We’re learning all kinds of things about each other. Why stop now?”
Zuko clicked his tongue in annoyance but didn’t say anything against it. “I don’t know if you know this, but my great grandfather - Sozin - he knew Avatar Roku,” he said.
“You know about that!?” Aang scooted closer to him in excitement, leaning forward with a huge smile on his face. “Avatar Roku told me about Sozin!”
Zuko blinked in surprise, his mouth wide open. He snapped it shut and sighed. “Of course you knew. He’s your past life. Forget I said anything.”
“Wait, how did you know?” Aang asked, suddenly suspicious. “Can you spy on me while I’m in the Spirit World?” He stood and paced, completely unfazed by the wind buffeting him. “Would that be possible? Woah! Wouldn’t that be so cool if you could do that!?”
“No, Aang, focus! I don’t think that’s even possible. I have no connection with the Spirit World,” Zuko said, incredulous. “I found out from Sozin’s personal writings. About everything. Even how he betrayed his best friend and left him to die.” Zuko frowned so deeply his scar stretched a bit uncomfortably.
Aang stopped pacing and turned to face him.
“I mean, are we fated to the same destiny?” Zuko asked then, shaking his head. He shifted to pick at his fingernails.
“What?” Aang glared at him. “No way, Zuko! You are not Sozin. You’re better than that. Sozin was nothing more than a coward,” he said angrily. “You’re way stronger than him. I know that when the time comes, everything will work out.”
“You can’t possibly know that,” Zuko argued.
“Maybe not,” Aang conceded as he sat back down beside Zuko. “But I believe in you. And I believe that you’ve changed. I know you have. I’ve witnessed that change firsthand. You think those dragons would’ve given you the truth before you broke from the Fire Nation?” Aang nudged him with an elbow, offering a kind smile when Zuko met his gaze.
“Probably not. But - my past and the things I’ve done? Will they ever stop haunting me? Will I ever be seen as something other than a disgraced son?” Zuko turned from Aang once more, closing his eyes.
“Your past doesn’t define you. I disappeared for 100 years, but when I came back people still found hope in me. Even after leaving them to... to die for so long. They still believed in me,” Aang told him, voice low. “I know you’ll be able to make a new name for yourself. And for the Fire Nation. You’ll be a great Firelord.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so.”