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Dysfunctional (a.k.a How the Gaang Adopted Zuko two Books Early)

Chapter Text

Zuko knew going into Fire Nation waters was risky. Even more so with Zhao in his way. But he needed the Avatar. He needed to return home.

Hopefully with Uncle leading a diversion, Zuko would be able to grab him.

He’d have to keep an eye on the Avatar’s friends, though. They might be peasants, and children, but he had no idea what either of them were capable of yet. And the Avatar wouldn’t keep them around if they weren’t strong.

Sneaking into the temple was easy enough. He had been there a few times in the past, most visits before his banishment.

He remembered coming to the temple once after his banishment. It was on the ship’s way out of the Fire Nation. His punishment had still been fresh enough that the pain was nearly unbearable. Still, he had ordered Uncle to dock the ship and gather as much information on the Avatar from the Sages as he could.

It was much easier to move around there now that his pain no longer weakened him.

The Avatar Sanctuary was on the top floor, and if the new Avatar came here, that’s what he’s here for.

There were very few people maintaining the temple. Just the Sages, guards and a handful of servants. All of which were too busy attempting to capture the Avatar to pay attention to him. Good.

Commotion on the top floor encouraged him to speed up. It was only a matter of time before Zhao figured out his ruse -if he hadn’t already- and Zuko wanted to be out of the temple before he arrived. He couldn’t have the Sages getting in the way of his destiny.

On his way, Zuko passed one of the windows facing the docks and happened to look through it.

Zhao’s ship had arrived. Zuko needed to end this. Quickly.

The sound of the Sanctuary doors opening covers his arrival. Zuko spots the Avatar hiding behind a pillar –the coward- while the sages Firebended. The Avatar was just about to run into the Sanctuary when Zuko managed to grab hold of him.

 From the other side of the pillar, Zuko heard one of the Sages call out the Avatar’s name –he’ll pay for his treachery, for his disrespect, he’ll burn- with the water girl’s voice following close behind. Zuko took that as his que to walk out from behind the pillar, Avatar in hand. He needed to end this.

“The Avatar’s coming with me!” The loyal Sages used this chance to free themselves from the binds the Avatar’s friends had them in.

He turns around, keeping his grip on the Avatar tight.

“Close the doors! Quickly!” He walks the Avatar towards the steps. The Avatar twists in his arms, turning to look behind him. Zuko relaxed his grip slightly. If the Avatar wanted to view his friends one more time before he was taken to the Firelord, Zuko would grant him that.

The Avatar must have noticed his weakness, because he suddenly sent a blast of air into Zuko. The Prince tumbled down the stairs while the Avatar ran for the Sanctuary.

Zuko couldn’t let that happen. Once Zhao had reached the top, Zuko had no chance. He was alone, whereas Zhao had an entire fleet. No matter how strong Zuko was –or wasn’t-, Zhao’s men would overpower him.

Zuko makes a grab at the Avatar, who only just managed to fly into the Sanctuary before the doors slammed shut. A bright light shone from beneath the door. One Zuko recognized from his first meeting with the Avatar.

There was something different about it though. Familiar. It reminded him of his mother.

Zuko cast his thoughts aside whatever he felt about that light didn’t matter. He needed to get the Avatar.

Zuko and three of the Sages threw a blast of fire at the ports. Nothing happened.

“Why isn’t it working?”

“It must have been the light. Avatar Roku doesn’t want us inside.” Great. Now two of the Avatar’s incarnations were his enemy.

At least Zhao wouldn’t be able to get in either. Zuko would just have to be the one at the door when the Avatar exited.

It didn’t matter now. What did matter, was the traitor Fire Sage.

Zuko spun around to face the traitor. Two of the guards were holding him.

“Why did you help the Avatar?” Zuko could understand loyalty to Avatar Roku. But this new Avatar was not Roku.

“Because it was once the sages’ duty. It is still our duty.”

As much as Zuko hated it, the traitor was right. The Fire Sages operate outside the regular rule of the Fire Nation. Except for when given a direct order from the Firelord. Zuko’s father had not ordered the Sages to capture the Avatar if he ever arrived.

The man was doing his duty. Zuko couldn’t fault him for that.

Zuko opened his mouth to order the guards to free the man when he was interrupted by a slow clap.

Zhao.

“What a moving and heartfelt performance. I’m certain the Firelord will understand, when you explain why you betrayed him.”

Zuko bristled. The man didn’t betray anyone. He hadn’t disobeyed a direct order. He hadn’t been disrespectful to anyone. He was doing what he believed was right.

The Great Sage greeted Zhao as he walked in. Zhao turned to Zuko. He thinks he’ll never meet someone he’ll want to punch as much as Zhao.

“And Prince Zuko. It was a noble effort, but your little smokescreen didn’t work.” Obviously.

Two of Zhao’s men seized Zuko from behind. Four more moved to take the Avatar’s water friends.

“Two traitors in one day, the Firelord will be pleased.” How dare he! Zuko was no traitor. He was following his father’s orders. He was regaining his honour. Zhao had no right to speak of him that way!

He struggled against the soldiers. Behind him, he could sense the Avatar’s friends doing the same.

“You’re too late Zhao! The Avatar’s inside and the doors are sealed.”

Zhao grinned at him. Zuko hated that grin more than anything else in the world.

“No matter. Sooner or later, he has to come out.” He turned to face the door. Waving offhandedly at the soldiers holding Zuko and the Avatar’s friends. “Take them to a cell somewhere. And keep guard.”

Zuko continued to struggle as the soldiers took them down the stairs. One of the fire sages walked ahead of them, opening passages in the walls to use as shortcuts. Zuko took note of them. They’d be useful once he escaped –if he escaped-.

Eventually, they stopped in front of a large cell made of stone and metal. The soldiers pushed the three of them into the cell. Zuko was about to protest when he realized something.

The punishment for banished stepping back into the Fire Nation was death. Father was going to kill him.

Chapter Text

Being captured by the Fire Nation was not on Sokka’s agenda for that day, but he couldn’t say he was surprised.

What he was surprised about, was Zuko being thrown in a prison cell with them. He was a prince. It just didn’t make sense.

Sokka and Katara shifted to one side of the cell. Zuko took the other side.

The prince had gotten up and was now pacing his side of the cell, muttering under his breath. Probably about how ‘peasants shouldn’t treat royalty this way’.

Although… Zhao had said two traitors. One of them was Shyu obviously. Could Zuko have been the other one?

That was crazy. Zuko was a prince. And Fire Nation. Sokka doubted he could do anything that would make him a traitor. He could probably do anything he wanted.

But then why was he in a cell?

Eventually, Sokka grew fed up with the mumbling.

“Hey, Zuko.” The prince whirled around to face them, usual angry sneer on his face. Or maybe that was just what his face always looked like. “What are you so worried about?”

Zuko stared at them incredulously. Like he thought they were idiots. Which was just plain rude.

“Why aren’t you worried? Father will not hesitate to have us killed when he finds out we’re here.”

‘Us’. His father would kill ‘us’. Zuko had included himself in that. Did he honestly think his dad would kill him? Or did he just mean he’d get grounded or something? He seemed honestly worried. Sokka didn’t know how good at acting Zuko was, but he could recognise the look of (maybe genuine) fear on the prince’s face.

Evidently, Katara was confused to, because she spoke up.

“Me and Sokka, I understand, but why would your dad kill you?” Zuko gave them that look again. Like they were missing something obvious. Maybe they were.

“I am banished. The punishment for crossing into Fire Nation waters is death.” What in the world was he banished for?

That didn’t matter right Now. What did matter was the fact that Zuko genuinely seemed to think his dad would kill him.

“You’re the prince. Your dad wouldn’t kill you for breaking a few rules. Back home, I broke the rules all the time, and my Dad never really punished me for it. Except for grounding me.”

“Father has never hesitated to punish me for disrespect before. He has never batted an eye at people threatening to kill me. He was prepared to do it himself when I was nine, and again when I was thirteen. Not that I didn’t deserve it.”

And, okay, wow. There were so many things wrong with what Zuko just said. For one thing, the way he pronounced disrespect was weird. It was like he hated the word with every fibre of his being. How do you even hate a word?

Also, his dad is okay with people threatening to kill his son? He was prepared to kill his son when he was nine? What could Zuko have possibly done at thirteen that he deserved to be killed? The whole thing was just messed up.

“What did you do to deserve getting killed?” Katara was asking the right questions.

Zuko sighed and sat back down. He leaned against the wall, scarred side facing them and clear side facing the cell door. At least he wasn’t pacing anymore.

“I spoke out of turn during my first war meeting. For my disrespect I was ordered to fight an Agni Kai.” Sokka didn’t know what an Agni Kai was, but he felt like it was important. He’d ask Aang about it after they’d gotten out.

“On the day of the Agni Kai, I refused to fight my father. I was weak, pathetic, and disgraceful. So Father taught me a lesson.” Zuko reached one hand up to brush at his scar. Hang on… WHAT?

“Your dad set your face on fire because you spoke out of turn?” There was that look again. Was the Fire Nation really so messed up that massively disfiguring your child was commonplace?

“I was disrespectful during the meeting. The Firelord is never wrong, to even suggest so is treason. In the arena, my refusal to fight my Father was proof of my weakness. I begged him to spare me. Told him I was loyal to him. It was disgusting, pathetic and disgraceful of me, and Father made sure I knew that. When I woke up, I was already banished.”

Tui and La that was messed up. It also conjured up an image in Sokka’s mind that he’d rather he didn’t have.

What must it have looked like, to see a boy, thirteen years old, begging his father not to kill him, and to have that father set his own child’s face on fire.

What was worse was the complete sincerity in Zuko’s voice when he spoke. He honestly believed that he deserved it. That speaking out of turn was enough to get you scarred and banished. Had he been brainwashed or something?

‘The Firelord is never wrong, to even suggest so is treason’. If Zuko had spent his entire life with things like that pushed into his head, no wonder he was so messed up. And Zuko lived with the man himself. He probably wasn’t allowed to even think his own thoughts around the guy, if voicing them got half his face burned off.

Sokka couldn’t imagine not being allowed to voice his opinions. He had never had the fear that one wrong word would get him killed.

Sokka knew his Dad was flawed. Everyone was flawed. But if he had been told his entire life that his Dad was practically a God, he’d probably believe it. That sounded like how Zuko had been raised.

That was messed up.

They fell into an uncomfortable silence before Katara broke it.

“Why are you so determined to catch Aang?” Honestly, now that she’d brought it up, Sokka was wondering too. Aang didn’t seem to fit anywhere in Zuko’s story, and what was the point in capturing him for the Fire Nation if Zuko couldn’t even return to the Fire Nation.

“Father ordered me to capture the Avatar. He said that I could only return with the Avatar in chains. That is the only way for me to regain my honour. My only hope of going home. I can never disobey Father. It’s been nearly three years since my banishment, and I’ve finally found him.”

So that was why he was so determined. He wanted to go home.

He’d said he was banished nearly three years ago, so he was about fifteen or sixteen now. Spirits he was Sokka’s age. Sokka couldn’t even imagine what this guy’s life has been like.

One thing was for certain. Sokka was definitely not going to let him go back to that man.

Chapter Text

Katara wasn’t sure what to think. Zuko was supposed to be evil. Everyone in the Fire Nation was evil. That’s just how they were.

But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe any good in them was destroyed the second it showed itself.

After all, children can’t be born evil. It just didn’t work like that.

That went against everything she believed until now. Sure, Shyu had helped them, but as a Fire Sage, he worked for the Avatar, not the Fire Nation.

But that she thought about it though, a lot of the things about Zuko –things that she thought were just Fire Nation- suddenly made sense.

Of course he was angry, he’d been cast out of his home. Of course he was stubborn, he was a teenage boy (maybe even Sokka’s age). He was aggressive because that’s what happens when you suppress your emotions - and from what little Zuko had told them, it seemed like he was punished for even having his own thoughts.

He’d also done things that didn’t match up with her idea of Fire Nation.

He stayed true to his word when he said he wouldn’t attack their village if Aang went with him. And he still didn’t attack after Aang escaped. Katara knew that much. They’d gone back to the village for proper supplies once they were sure Zuko wouldn’t follow them.

He let Kyoshi Island go after Aang put the fires out. Zhao would have re-lit the fires. He would have made sure the village was burned to the ground. Zhao would have made sure that everyone knew that was what you got for harbouring the Avatar. Zuko let them go, and he didn't cause any more destruction than what he'd done trying to get to Aang.

The Fire Nation killed her mother, and Katara would never forgive them for that. But Zuko had nothing to do with that attack, he probably didn’t even know her mother was dead.

Next to her, Sokka sighed. She knew that sigh. He’d almost come to a decision on something. One more question and he’d make up his mind. And he wouldn’t change it, no matter what anyone said. Katara only hoped she would agree with whatever Sokka had on his mind.

“Why did you speak out of turn anyway? It must have been something important for you to risk punishment for it.” So he was confirming whether or not Zuko was actually a good person, or if he was just an abused spoiled brat.

“One of the generals wanted to sacrifice a division of new recruits. His plan was to use them as a distraction against the Earth Kingdom’s army, and while they were being massacred, more advance divisions would sneak through to attack from behind. I told him that he would be betraying those people. They loved and protected our nation and it was wrong to treat them like that. I should have known better.”

So he was a good person. He cared about people –his people, but people- and he stood up for them.

His own father, the ruler of the people Zuko was defending, punished him for it. Katara couldn’t understand how he could possibly remain loyal after that.

Well… Sokka had been loyal to his beliefs, because –as much as Katara hated it- he’d been raised to believe that women were less than men. If Zuko had been raised to believe that everything his father said was absolute law, that he was practically a God, then of course Zuko would be loyal to him.

And he was family. Katara missed her Mum and Dad every day. Zuko probably missed his family too, even if they were awful. Maybe he couldn’t even see how awful his father was. Katara didn’t realise how sexist Sokka was until she was on the same level as him. She thought the things he –and the other tribesmen- did were normal, because it had been like that all her life.

Maybe if he’d had a different father, one who actually care about his son, one who didn’t mutilate his child for having an opinion, then they wouldn’t be enemies.

It was too late to change the past, but Katara could do something now. She could do everything she could to make sure Zuko saw what kind of person his father was. She could make sure he never had to go back to that place.

Just then, a massive rumble sounded from above them. Then, the cell door smashed open and a burst of wind blew through the cell.

Aang.

“Guys, we need to get out! The temple’s collapsing!” everyone jumped to their feet. Aang barely even acknowledged Zuko as he lead them through the tunnels. At one point, Zuko called for them to stop, telling them they were going the wrong way. Katara was hesitant to trust him, but Aang and Sokka ran to follow Zuko, so she didn’t have much of a choice.

He was right. Several minutes of running and narrowly avoiding lava and they finally emerged from the temple. Coincidentally, it was right where Appa was resting.

As Aang tried to get to Appa, Zuko grabbed his shoulder.

“Not so fast Avatar. I’m taking you with me.” Aang, to his credit, only looked slightly nervous. Katara decided to step in.

“Where do you plan on taking him? Zhao’s ship is at the docks. Do you want him to catch you both?” Zuko stammered.

“I’d have figured something out. Uncle will come for me.”

“He doesn’t even know where you are. Are you going to wait for him at the docks? With Zhao? While this entire island collapses?” too prove her point, the earth gives another shake beneath them.

Katara didn’t know what Zuko’s uncle was like, but if the man was anything like Zuko’s father, Katara wouldn’t let him anywhere near Zuko.

Sokka stepped forward and held his arm out. Zuko regarded him warily.

“Let’s make a deal. We get you off this island, and you stay with us and don’t attack us until we find your uncle. How does that sound.” Zuko growled.

“So you want me to be your prisoner.” Sokka shrugged.

“I guess, if you want to think of it that way.” Zuko stiffened. Maybe Sokka shouldn’t have said that. Katara had no idea how the Fire Nation treated their prisoners, but she doubted it was in any way humane, if the way they treated their princes was anything to go by.

Katara stepped in. hopefully she could calm Zuko down.

“It wouldn’t be permanent. You’d just have to stay with us while we travel until we run into your uncle again. If he keeps following us like you have been, I’m sure we’ll find him eventually.”

Zuko paused, clearly considering. Then, the ground broke behind them, cutting off the path to the temple and spewing lava.

Seeing that he no longer had a clear way to get to the docks, Zuko nodded briskly and let go of Aang’s shoulder.

“Very well. I will travel with you and the Avatar. I will not attack any of you. But only until we find Uncle. Then I will do as I please.”

Katara breathed a sigh of relief as they climbed onto Appa’s back. Hopefully, by the time they find Zuko’s uncle, he’ll have realised how terrible his father was, and will stay with them instead of going back.

Chapter Text

Aang wasn’t sure why Sokka and Katara wanted Zuko to come with them, but he wasn’t going to complain. He had wanted to know what had changed in the Fire Nation after he was frozen, and Zuko might answer his questions.

They flew all day, looking for a place to land and make camp.

Occasionally, Aang would glance back into the saddle to see how Katara, Sokka and Zuko were doing.

At the beginning of their flight, Zuko had practically glued himself to the side handholds, while still managing to stay as far away from the rest of them as possible. it was kind of impressive.

Eventually, Zuko had stopped looking like he was about to throw up, and had relaxed his grip.

After about an hour, Sokka had become too bored and announced that they were playing a game. The first game had been ‘I spy’. Most of Sokka’s ‘spy’s were either the sky or the ocean, but they were all bored, so they played along. Every time Sokka said he saw something blue, Aang and Katara would pretend to think hard about it, before guessing something that was definitely not blue.

The rules were whoever guessed the thing would be the next ‘spyer’. Since Katara and Aang never guessed correctly, Sokka would tell them which one it was and then repeat his spy. As the game went on, Aang saw Zuko get more and more annoyed.

“I spy with my little eye, something bl-“

“The sky! You see the sky! Or the ocean, just shut up!” he finally cracked. Sokka grinned deviously.

“Zuko guessed correctly, so it’s his turn to spy.” Zuko spluttered confusedly. Did he not even know how to play ‘I spy’?

Aang let the ensuing argument wash over him while he concentrated on looking for land. It was about mid-day, so if they hurried, they’d reach the mainland just after nightfall.

After almost ten minutes of arguing, Zuko gave up and, grudgingly, spied.

“I spy som-“

“You’ve gotta say the whole thing.” Sokka’s smile had not fallen throughout the entire conversation. Had he planned this? Zuko sighed dramatically and growled, before leaning his head on the saddle edge, pointedly facing away from the rest of them.

“I spy, with my little eye,” from where he was sitting, Aang could see the twitch Zuko’s hand made as he spoke, “something… white.” The shear glee on Sokka’s face was unmatchable.

They continued to play, taking more seriously as Zuko became more involved in the game, until the sunset.

Once the moon was out, Katara perked up, even being noticeably tired. She’d always loved night more than day. Aang remembered the monks saying something about the moon being related to Waterbending. He hadn’t payed attention though, so he didn’t really know how they were related.

Zuko, on the other hand, seemed to drop as the sun finally disappeared over the horizon. His grip on the saddle relaxed and his eyes drooped. It was clear he was fighting tiredness.

Every time his eye’s closed for more than a second, he’d force them open again and glared around at them, as if waiting for something.

At some point, Momo had moved to Zuko’s lap, and the prince was absentmindedly petting him. Aang wasn’t sure Zuko even knew he was doing it, and it made his glare a lot less frightening.

Their trip continued like this until Aang finally spotted land. He shouted in joy, waking everyone up from where they had started dozing off.

Appa landed, and Aang and Katara jumped off the saddle. Zuko stayed where he was and watched while Sokka threw supplies down to them. When the tents, sleeping bags, and food were out of the saddle, Sokka jumped down to join them on the ground.

“So, what do we do with Prince Ponytail?” They ignored Zuko’s indignant shout at the nickname. “It’s not like we have cuffs or anything. How do we make sure he won’t attack us or run away?” Zuko visibly bristled; it reminded Aang of a pygmy-puma. Honestly, it was kind of cute.

“I am a man of my word. I swore I wouldn’t run or attack, so I wont.” The three on the ground nodded. That did match up with Zuko’s character. He was honourable; one of the most honourable people Aang had met since coming out of the ice. Of that, he was certain.

Katara clapped her hands together.

“So, sleeping arrangements. We only have three of everything, so Zuko will have to share a tent with someone and one of us will have to go without a sleeping bag.” She paused for a moment. “I’m not sure about the sleeping bags, but I think Zuko should stay in Sokka’s tent for now.” Sokka, who had been setting up the tents, spluttered.

“Wha- Why?”

“Because no matter what he says, we probably can’t trust him with Aang. And since he’s a boy, he can’t share with me. You’re the only option left.” Zuko straightened his back and looked down at them.

“I do not need your pity. I am fine to sleep out here. I do not need any sleeping bag either.”

“What, don’t want to share a tent with me?” Zuko growled and Aang resisted the urge to giggle.

“Okay, how about this,” he stepped in to end the conversation before it became an argument, “Zuko shares the tent with Sokka, but doesn’t get a sleeping bag.” He continued before Zuko could protest. “If it rains, we’re not going to leave you out here. And it’ll be easier to keep an eye on you if you’re with one of us.”

Aang had absolutely no idea why Katara and Sokka were being so trusting right now, but he was going to take advantage of it. If Aang could figure out exactly why Zuko seemed so dead set on capturing him, maybe he could do something about it. It was the Avatar’s job to help people after all.

Aang, Sokka and Katara finished setting up the camp. Zuko stayed on top of Appa, scowling at them as they worked. When they were done, they tried coaxing Zuko down from the saddle. It took Momo pushing him off the edge for him to agree to join them.

It was late, so Katara said she’d make something small and quick with the supplies they had. Then, she turned to Zuko.

“What?” She gestured to the unlit fire. “Seriously?” She nodded.

Zuko eyed Sokka and Aang. Was he asking for permission? Aang nodded and Sokka told him to hurry up. Zuko sighed but lit the fire in a short thrust.

Aang wowed at the Bending while Sokka clapped. Katara was already working on cooking.

Zuko stared bewilderedly at the two of them and they grinned in response. Zuko shook his head and sat down as far away from them as possible while still feeling the warmth from the fire.

The ate in silence. At first, Zuko had seemed confused when Katara gave him the same portion as everyone else, but Aang hadn’t asked about it and Zuko ate what was given to him.

Usually, Aang would talk about the monks or Katara and Sokka would talk about their village. But with Zuko here, Aang had no idea what to do.

Eventually, Sokka broke the silence.

“Hey, Aang,” he hummed to show he was listening while attempting to pick up a particularly slippery vegetable with his spoon. “What’s an Agni Kai?”

Chapter Text

Zuko was confused. They had said he was their prisoner, and he’d agreed to get off the island. He had nowhere to go until he knew where he was –and more importantly, where Uncle was- and could escape.

The strange thing was, they weren’t treating him like a prisoner. They didn’t tie him up, or leave him to sleep outside, even when he told them he wanted to. They applauded him when he Firebent, they acted like they’d never seen Firebending before. The water girl give him the same portion of food as she gave the rest of them. Why?

Zuko knew they were children, but surely they knew how to treat a prisoner. They acted like they trusted him. Zuko was honestly surprised when they believed him when he swore to behave (he was genuine about it, but he also had no other choice).

They were likely trying to get him to put his guard down. They may be children, but this was a war. One they were actively fighting. Zuko wouldn’t be surprised if they’d killed other members of the Fire Nation like this. He wouldn’t let that happen to him. He wouldn’t let his guard down, even for a second. He was nearly finished his meal when the water boy spoke.

“Hey, Aang.” The Avatar hummed distractedly. “What’s an Agni Kai?”

Zuko went stiff. Why was the boy asking that? Did he want to rub Zuko’s failure in his face? Or did he genuinely not know?

Zuko had no idea why he even told those kids about it.

The Avatar’s face squished into a thoughtful expression. Surely, he at least knew what they were.

“I don’t know how they work these days, but a hundred years ago they were duels between Firebenders.” Had the Avatar really lived for over a hundred years? He looked like a kid. Maybe that was just a disguise. Zuko had once heard that the Avatar could shapeshift. Maybe that was true.

The Avatar continued speaking.

“Usually, if a Firebender insulted another Firebender’s honour or pride, then that Bender could challenge them to a duel. The duel isn’t won until either someone forfeits, or one of then becomes too injured to continue fighting.” The Avatar turned to face Zuko. “Are they still like that?”

Zuko huffed and glared into his dinner. They were obviously mocking him.

“Forfeit is dishonourable. You fight or you die.” The water children made strange noises in the back of their throats. The Avatar looked horrified.

“That’s horrible! You’d kill each other?” Was he really pretending to be that innocent?

“Yes, though incapacitating your opponent is usually enough. Stopping there is rare, though, unless the person you’re fighting is important, like a senior military general.”

The Avatar nodded, but still appeared distraught. If he was faking it to make fun of Zuko, he was incredibly good at it. Maybe even as good as Azula.

Zuko watched the Avatar’s expression change to curious as he turned to the water boy.

“Where did you hear about Agni Kai?”

The water boy lifted his bowl to his lips and took several big gulps. When he lowered the bowl, he burped. Loudly. The water girl smacked him lightly over the head and the Avatar snickered.

Agni, peasants were uncivilised.

“Zuko said he fought in one when he was thirteen.” The Avatar’s head whipped around to face where Zuko was sitting.

“What happened?” Zuko sighed. Apparently, he was telling them about his mistakes twice in the same day. At least it was him saying how it happened, and not one of the Water Tribe kids. Who knew how they would warp it to make him seem more pathetic and disgraceful than he already was.

“I defended a group of new recruits during the war council. I spoke out of turn, and for my disrespect, Father ordered me to fight an Agni Kai. On the day of the fight, I attempted to forfeit. I refused to fight my Father. Agni Kai are public, and my refusal to fight disgraced him in front of almost every noble in Caldera. He punished me accordingly. I am grateful to him that he was so merciful.”

“He burned half your face off!” Zuko couldn’t understand why the water boy seemed so worked up about that part. He was like that back in the cell as well.

The Avatar gasped and brought a hand to his mouth, which was probably overdoing it. Zuko deserved what he got. He deserved more than what he got. There was no point in pretending otherwise.

“That’s horrible! How could he do that to you?” This was getting ridiculous! Did they want him to label all his flaws? Were they going to use them as some weak excuse to kill him? Fine! If they wanted it, they could have it!

“I deserved it!” The other three appeared shocked at his outburst, and even a bit scared. Good.

“I deserved everything he’s ever done to me. I’m weak. I’m pathetic. I can barely bend. I’m practically useless. Practically worthless. I’m grateful for everything Father has done for me.  He’s kept me alive all this time. He always made sure I was punished accordingly when I made a mistake.” To prove his point, Zuko pulled up his sleeves, revealing faint burn scars of various sizes. He ignored the others’ gasps.

“He should have killed me that day. I deserved it for behaving the way I did. Instead, he showed mercy. I was only banished. And I finally have a chance to prove I’m worth something to him. When I complete the task he has given me, he will welcome me back with honour. All I have to do is deliver the Avatar to him.” Zuko sat back down. There. They had what they wanted.

Except… it didn’t look like they did. The water girl seemed to be holding back tears. Was he really so pathetic it brought peasants to tears? The water boy was looking down into his bowl, clenching the wood so tightly Zuko was almost surprised it didn’t break. The Avatar was staring at him. The horrified expression never left his face.

Finally, the Avatar spoke, voice quiet and shaking.

“No one deserves that. No matter what they’ve done, no one deserved to be treated like that. To be made to think-” The Avatar cut himself off with a restrained sob.

Zuko raised his eyebrow. If this was an act, they were going very far to convince him of it.

“Made to think what?” Nothing he had said was wrong. He was grateful to Father. He was trying to prove his worth. The only thing he didn’t say was that Father would only love him if he was useful. Zuko wanted Father to love him, but admitting that aloud would be an act of weakness that Zuko wouldn’t lower himself enough to commit.

When no one spoke, Zuko sighed.

“Well, then. If no one is going to tell me anything, and we’re all finished eating, let’s go to bed. Whatever you’re acting so strongly about, we can talk about in the morning.”

The Avatar shared looks with his friends. Zuko had no idea what they were thinking. But if they were planning on killing him, they’d do it soon.

Chapter Text

Holy Spirits. Holy Spirits. Holy SPIRITS.

What had the Fire Nation done to Zuko? What had the Firelord done to Zuko? How can you be so bad at parenting, that your own child thinks they’re worthless?

And Zuko didn’t even see it! He honestly though that his dad was right to hurt him. That was messed up. That was so messed up.

Sokka wanted to scream. To grab Zuko and tell him that even if Zuko had done some bad things, his life was important. He wasn’t worthless, or useless! He was one of the strongest fighters Sokka had ever met!

He, Katara and Aang all shared a look. This conversation wasn’t over, but they wouldn’t get anywhere with everyone so tired. It would be best to go to bed and continue this discussion in the morning.

Katara cleaned the bowls with her Bending while Aang put the fire out with his. Sokka put any extra food back into the bags before saying goodnight and heading to his tent.

He had just reached the tent when he remembered that he was sharing with Zuko. He looked around the campsite. Zuko was sitting where he had been during dinner, watching everyone with very strong suspicion on his face.

“Zuko.” The prince snapped to attention at his name. “Come on, you’re with me tonight.”

Honestly, Sokka wasn’t thrilled with having to spend the night with angry-face, but if that’s what it took to make sure Zuko stayed with them and didn’t go running back to his elbow-leech of a father, then Sokka would deal with it.

Zuko stood up warily and crossed over to where Sokka was standing. Sokka gestured for Zuko to go in first. If he was going to run, it would wake Sokka up. Zuko entered the tent, Sokka followed closely.

The tent was barely big enough for just one of them, but somehow it manage to fit them both just fine. Sokka lay down in his sleeping bag, raising an eyebrow at Zuko when he just sat down, cross-legged, on the other side of the tent.

“Aren’t you gonna lay down, or at least take off your armour.” Zuko growled.

“I will not make it easy for you.” Sokka was too tire to try to understand what Zuko meant by that, so he just shrugged and lay down, back to Zuko. Hopefully, the mix between a snub and a display of trust would calm Zuko down a bit.

-

The next thing Sokka knew, the sun was shining through the tent walls. He yawned and stretched as far as the tent would let him. He rolled on to his back to see Zuko sitting in exactly the same position Sokka had last seen him in. Had he moved at all?

The large bag under Zuko’s unscarred eye suggested that no, he hadn’t moved. Sokka sighed, drawing Zuko’s attention to him. Sokka raised an eyebrow, Zuko raised one in return.

They stared at each other like that until Aang’s voice broke the silence.

“Sokka, Zuko! Breakfast is ready!” If it was fruit and nuts again, Sokka was going to scream.

Sokka raised himself to his feet and exited the tent, beckoning Zuko to follow.

It was fruit and nuts, but Zuko was right behind him and Sokka didn’t want to spook him, so he settled for groaning dramatically.

Katara snorted and Aang chuckled apologetically.

Everyone took their bowls from Aang and took their places from the night before.

Well, now was as good a time as any to restart last night’s conversation.

“You know, Zuko.” The other three brought their eyes away from their food to look at Sokka. “Your dad is a horrible person.”

Katara smacked her head and Aang made a strange face. Maybe he was a bit too blunt.

Zuko growled. Well, Sokka had just insulted his dad, who he clearly loves and respects very much.

“What do you mean by that?” Sokka finished his last nut and put the bowl by his feet.

“Well, for one thing, he burned your face off.”

“I deserved that.”

“You really didn’t. he’s also clearly hurt you before, for things you also didn’t deserve. If my dad did anything like that to Katara or me, he’d be kicked out of the Southern Water Tribe, and he runs the Southern Water Tribe!”

“If he’s in charge of the Southern Water Tribe, why were you in that village instead of at the capitol?”

“…That village is the capitol.” How could he not have known that? As a prince, the prince of the most powerful Nation, shouldn’t he have had at least some knowledge of the Southern Tribe? Even Aang seemed shocked that the village had been the entire Tribe.

Katara finished her bowl and decided to elaborate.

“Our tribe used to be huge. As big as the Northern Tribe. But we were the first ones the Fire Nation attacked after the Air Nomads. They destroyed our city, killing every Waterbender they could find. Eventually, almost everyone died. That tiny village you saw was the last of the entire Southern Water Tribe.”

Sokka looked sown at his feet. He had heard this story hundreds of times, and it never failed to fill him with rage. This was what had driven him to hate the Fire Nation, before it became personal. If the war had never happened, their Tribe would have been prosperous. They wouldn’t have had to live every day with the fear that it would be their last.

Zuko shifted and Sokka’s gaze snapped to him. The prince looked surprised, and a little alarmed. Had he really not known? It was his Nation’s history as well as theirs.

“Didn’t you know about that?” Zuko shook his head.

“My tutors told me that when we could not find the Avatar among the Air Nomads, we checked the Southern Water Tribe. They said that the savages rebelled against our search and that when we could not find what we were looking for, we taught them a lesson before leaving them to their own devices.” Katara’s entire body started vibrating when Zuko called them savages. Sokka agreed with whatever she was about to say.

“Savages! How dare you!” The air around them grew colder as Katara expressed her fury. “You’re the savages! You attacked us, completely unprovoked! You slaughtered every Waterbender you could get your hands on, as well as many of the Non-benders! You-“ Aang stood up and rested a hand on Katara’s shoulder, stopping her tirade. Sokka looked over to see how Zuko was doing.

The prince had pressed himself against one of the trees on the edge of the clearing. One of his hands were up in defence. This really was not how Sokka planned on having this conversation go.

“Let’s all calm down.” At least they had Aang. “How about we pack up and get moving. It’s a long way to the Northern Tribe. And I would prefer we didn’t waste any time.” There was something about the way he spoke that Sokka found strange. He seemed jittery, more so than could have been brought on by their conversation. Was it about something Roku told him?

Katara sighed and nodded. Wow, he needed to hire Aang as their permanent Katara Handler. He was good at it. They packed up in tension-filled silence. Zuko was the last to jump into the saddle. Taking the very back while Aang and Katara stayed at the front and Sokka took the reins.

Having Zuko around was going to be a lot harder than he thought it would be.

Chapter Text

Savages, ridiculous! If anything, the Fire Nation were the savages.

Katara glared over at where Zuko was sitting. He was curled up against the back of the saddle, pouting. He’d probably say it was scowling, but it was definitely pouting.

Momo was chittering around the prince’s head. He really seemed to like Zuko. Katara had honestly no clue why.

She turned away, took a deep breath, and looked back at Zuko. His pout was confused, and he kept glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. He had been honestly confused when she told him what happened to her and Sokka’s tribe. When he called them savages, he was parroting what his tutors said.

History wasn’t his fault. How he was taught and raised wasn’t his fault. Taking it out on him would only confuse and frighten him, which was the last thing Katara wanted.

Tui and La the Fire Nation was messed up.

How had their conversation ended up like that anyway?

... Oh yeah.

So much for making Zuko realise that his father sucked. So much for getting him to trust them, there was definitely fear in his eyes when she got mad at him. So much for getting Zuko to understand that he’d be better off with them than with his father.

Looked like they’d have to start again, and take it slower this time.

Aang, who had been shifting nervously the whole time suddenly stood up and started pacing around the saddle. Katara and Zuko took a break from plotting and pouting respectively to watch.

When Aang started to hyperventilate, Sokka spoke up.

“Would you sit down? If we hit a bump, you’ll go flying off” that wasn’t really a major problem though, since Aang could fly.

When Aang sat, Sokka continued.

“What’s bugging you anyway?” Aang groaned nervously.

“It’s about what Avatar Roku said, back at the Temple.” He stooped to grip the sides of his head. “There’s this comet coming next summer, and if I don’t master all the elements before then, the Fire Nation will win the war.”

What comet? Why would a comet mean the Fire Nation win?

“What comet are you talking about? And why do you have to defeat the Firelord before then?” Katara was glad that when he wasn’t being an idiot, Sokka’s train of thought ran very close to hers.

“I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s going to make the Fire Nation extremely powerful. Completely unstoppable. If I can’t defeat the Firelord before it arrives, they’ll use that power to win the war.” Katara was just about to comfort Aang when she heard Zuko mumble something.

Aang, being closer to Zuko, also heard.

“What did you say?” Zuko hesitated, then turned to face them.

“You’re talking about Sozin’s Comet. It comes every one-hundred years. The last time it came, the Fire Nation used its power to begin the war.”

“To kill the Air Nomads.” Zuko and Aang made eye contact. They stared at each other before Zuko mumbled ‘yes’ and looked away. At least he realised that what his Nation had done affected people. Whether he was actually apologetic or was just acting like it, Katara didn’t know.

How could she cheer Aang up? It would be a while before they got to the North Pole, so they’d have to wait until then to learn water bending. Wait, that was it!

“Aang.” When Aang stopped his pacing to look at her, she continued. “If you want, I could teach you some of the stuff I know.” Aang grins broadly at her.

“You’d do that?” Katara nodded. She had offered, after all.

“We’ll just need to find a good source of water first.”

“Maybe we can find a puddle for you to splash in.” Sokka’s back was to them, but Katara could perfectly picture the sarcastic grin on his face.

“Well…” Aang perked up when Zuko decided to join the conversation.

“What is it Zuko?” Zuko shifted in his seat and breathed out slowly. He appeared to be debating with himself over something. Eventually, he sighed and pointed to a hill to their left.

“There’s a waterfall over there. We passed it when the Avatar started talking.”

Katara and Aang grinned at each other ecstatically, and Sokka pulled on the reins to turn Appa around.

When they landed, Aang and Katara ran to the water’s edge. They grinned over the large river the waterfall landed in. from somewhere behind them, Sokka sighed.

“Nice puddle.”

Appa, saddle-less thanks to Sokka, jumped into the river, splashing them all with water. Katara and Aang shrieked excitedly, Sokka groaned and Zuko looked like he was seconds from either killing Appa or having a panic attack. It would probably be best not to let him near the bison.

They boys would need something to do while she and Aang practiced. One of them could watch their things while the other gave Appa a bath. He needed one. Katara had already decided not to let Zuko near Appa, so he could watch their things.

“Zuko.” The boy turned to look at her, steam rising off his completely dry clothes. That was a nice trick to have. He also really needed to get out of that armour. It must have been weighing him down.

“Since you’re dry, can you watch our stuff?” She would keep an eye on him in case he ran off. Zuko hesitated before nodding stiffly. Katara nodded back. “Thank you.” She turned around to Sokka before she could fully comprehend Zuko’s change in expression, but it looked like confusion.

“Sokka, can you give Appa a bath. Before you complain, you’re already wet and he needs one.” Sokka closed his mouth with a groan but walked off to do what she asked.

When Katara looked back at Aang, he had run into the water, his monks’ robes lying on the shoreline. She sighed.

“Aang, don’t forget why where here!” Aang grinned sheepishly at her from where he had climbed onto Appa’s tail.

“Right, time to practice Waterbending.” He patted Appa’s tail and swam back over to them. There was no point in putting his clothes back on. He was already wet.

They moved to a pointed further down the shoreline and started.

Chapter Text

They started with creating small waves. Katara said it took her months to get it. Aang got it on his first try. It was clear she was I little upset by it, so Aang tried to comfort her.

Then they moved on to what Katara had decided to call streaming the water. Aang wanted to know what it was really called, because, no offense to Katara, streaming the water was I bit boring and also took a long time to say.

Aang tried it out. He recognised the move from somewhere. Somewhere that he couldn’t place. He had probably done this thousands of times in his past lives, so he decided to follow his instinct.

It worked, the water did exactly what he wanted it to do. Katara praised him for it, though Aang could tell she wasn’t happy. That was probably because he was picking things up so quickly. Maybe he should try to dial it down.

“Don’t stop now, keep ‘em coming!” It was probably a little insensitive to say, but he was really excited to learn more.

Katara looked up at him sadly. Did she not know any other moves? When she saw his expression, her face became thoughtful.

“Well, I kind of know this one other move, but it’s pretty hard. I haven’t even totally figured it out yet.” She began moving her hands, the water moving with her. “The idea is to create a powerful wave.” She brought her hands up, the water followed into the air before shaking and falling down. Katara sighed sadly.

Aang decided to try to cheer her up. Maybe, if he could get it, she would be happier. Then they could practice together.

He brought his hands up to mirror Katara’s. The familiarity washed over him again. He’d done this a thousand times, and he’d do it a thousand more times.

Before he knew it, there was a wave towering over their heads.

“Like this?” The wave continued after Aang stopped paying attention to it, rushing forwards and soaking Sokka and Appa. Momo and Zuko were on the tree line with their things, so they were safe.

Aang looked over to see Katara’s reaction. She was frowning. Maybe more practice would cheer her up. He smiled at her.

“Looks like I got the hang of that move. What else have you got?” Katara only looked more angry.

“That’s enough practicing for today.” She stormed off, to where Zuko and Momo were having what looked like a tickle fight. Zuko stopped and sat straight the second he saw her, Momo hiding behind him.

What had Aang done wrong? Was she angry he was better at Waterbending than her? That wasn’t his fault!

He turned back to the water angrily. If Katara was only going to show him those moves, then he’d practice them until they were perfect, then Katara would have no reason not to teach him more.

He was practicing for about half-an-hour before Sokka walked up to him.

“We’re having lunch now. Are you gonna come over, or are you gonna keep sulking.”

“I’m not sulking!” Sokka raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. Instead, he walked back over to where they had set up their things. Aang grumbled but followed.

They sat in a circle around a bowl of fruit. Sokka complained about the lack of meat and Katara complained about Sokka. Zuko, just as he did before, had pushed himself as far away from the group while still being able to hear and see everything they did.

After they finished, the group sat in silence. Usually, the three of them would keep the conversation going, but Katara was staring at her bowl and Sokka was staring at Zuko, so there wasn’t much Aang could do.

Eventually, Katara sighed and looked at him.

“Aang, I’m sorry for snapping at you earlier. It’s just that you were so good at Waterbending without really trying, and it made me angry, seeing you do things that took me months to learn.” Aang was just about to respond when Zuko scoffed. It was quiet enough that Zuko probably thought no one else would hear it, but with the group as silent as they were, everyone heard it.

Katara’s head snapped to him.

“Have something to say?” Zuko gulped, avoiding eye contact. Sokka leant over to nudge him. Zuko jumped at the contact and straightened. Katara raised an eyebrow and Aang gestured for him to talk.

“Of course the Avatar is better than you.” Aang managed to hold Katara back before she decided to do something like pick a fight with Zuko over her pride. “He’s mastered all four elements in hundreds of lifetimes. Bending is instinctual, once you’ve done it enough times, you can do it without even thinking.” Katara sighed and sat back down. Aang stopped gripping her and moved his hand to her shoulder.

“Zuko’s right.” Aang ignored the way Zuko looked at him when he said that. “When you were showing me those moves. They were familiar to me. I did them so well because I knew I’d done them before. If that makes sense.” Katara Sighed again.

“It did make sense. I’m sorry again for getting mad, I should have realised.”

Zuko was shuffling nervously, as if he wanted to ask something. He’d been doing that ever since Katara suggested teaching Aang Waterbending. Aang agreeing with him seemed to burst his confidence, because he decided to speak up.

“Why haven’t you mastered the other elements yet? You said you were alive a hundred years ago, surely that would be enough time to learn the other elements. You also destroyed my ship using Waterbending in the South Pole”

Oh yeah. Zuko didn’t know that Aang had been frozen. Had he thought that he was travelling with a one-hundred-year-old who only looked like a kid? It made sense that he didn’t know about the Avatar State, though.

“I was frozen in ice. A hundred years ago, I was flying with Appa when we were caught in a storm. To save us, I activated the Avatar State and froze us in a block of ice. We stayed frozen until Katara and Sokka freed us.”

“What’s the Avatar State?” Aang didn’t really know how to explain it. He looked to Katara and Sokka for help. They both shrugged in response.

“Well, I don’t really know much about it, but it’s kind of a defence mechanism. When my body thinks I’m about to die, I suddenly become a master of all four elements. I don’t actually remember what happens when I’m in the Avatar State, and I don’t know how to get into or out of it.” Zuko nodded and looked back down to his bowl.

Trying to bring the conversation up, Aang turned to Katara.

“Do you have any more moves you can teach me?”

Chapter Text

Zuko just didn’t get it.

They’d had several chances to attack him, to kill him, to leave him for dead. However, they didn’t.

The water girl had trusted him with their things. Had taught the Avatar Waterbending right in front of him.

The whole group was strange. None of them was ashamed of their weaknesses. The water girl had even apologised.

And the Avatar had said that Zuko, his enemy, was right. He had also answered Zuko’s questions without being forced or mocking him.

The way they held themselves –around both Zuko and each other- was odd as well.

The Avatar was soft around the water girl. It was clear that he looked up to her. That her opinion mattered very much to him. Around the water boy, he was cheeky. It reminded Zuko of when he would spend time with Ty-Lee, before Azula had mastered her Bending. The Avatar and water boy were clearly close friends, though not quite as close as the Avatar was with the water girl.

Around Zuko, the Avatar was cautious, but not scared. He respected Zuko, but there was always something else in his eyes after Zuko told them what Father did. He almost compared it to the way Mother would look at him when he talked about the things Azula would do it him when they were younger. He could never place that emotion either.

The Avatar did not like to fight, that was obvious from the moment Zuko met him. Was that why he was holding out on killing him?

The water girl was stronger around the Avatar. She was what Cousin would call a mother-hen, someone who got their strength from protecting others. She treated the Avatar kindly, excluding when she snapped at him earlier that day. She was extremely close with the water boy. She seemed to know him inside out. That made sense, considering they were from the same Tribe.

Were they siblings? Zuko remembered the water boy implying something like that in the morning. They didn’t act anything like what Zuko knew of siblings. Then again, Azula wasn’t normal. He would compare the two of them to Ty-Lee and her sisters, but she almost never talked about them.

Around Zuko, the water girl was more of what he was expecting. She was angered easily, and Zuko was sure she would have had no problem killing him that morning if the Avatar had not stopped her (why had he done that, had he wanted to kill Zuko himself?). She always gave him the same attention she gave the other two. Sometimes, when she wasn’t angry at him (He really was sorry for implying she was a savage, she was more intelligent than many generals he knew) she treated him kindly. It felt like she was patronising him. She probably was. Except that her eyes were always genuine, always open.

For all the emotion he could see in her, he never saw hatred. Anger or frustration, yes, but never hatred. He must have just been missing something. The only person who didn’t hate him was Uncle.

The water boy was very protective, of both the Avatar and the water girl (his sister?). around the Avatar, he treated the boy like what Zuko thinks a friend should be. He was dry in a way that Zuko appreciated, and he never shied away from telling the other what he thought. Around the water girl, he was even more dry, likely because he knew it would rile her up. He clearly knew her just as well as she knew him.

Around Zuko, the water boy seemed more hesitant. He never used his sarcasm or dryness to hurt Zuko, unlike Azula. In fact, it almost seemed like he was doing it to cheer him up. That was ridiculous, though.

They were comfortable with each other. Less so around Zuko, but there was a level of trust that he barely even got from his crew. It was new and strange. Did they actually trust him? Were they just naïve children? or were they just trying to get him to let his guard down?

If they wanted to kill him, they would have. They had had many opportunities to end his life, but they didn’t.

Were they going to use him as a bargaining chip? They had said he was going to be their prisoner. Would they have told him if that was the case?

It just didn’t make sense.

He needed things clarified. He would do it that evening, when his and the Waterbender’s powers were equal, and she and the Avatar were tired from training. The water boy had finished giving the bison a bath and was now playing with the animal in the deepest part of the river. He would tire himself out, giving Zuko even better chances of escaping if they attacked.

The lemur, who had occupied its time by attacking Zuko’s sides earlier that day, curled up in Zuko’s lap. Zuko didn’t have the heart to move it, even if it was a pest, so he just petted it instead.

As the day passed, Zuko watched the water girl and the Avatar practice, committing their moves to memory. He could use that knowledge to fight them, or to incorporate the moves into his own style. The water boy was splashed a lot, but he never got truly angry. He only grouched about it before the three of them shared a laugh. It really was unlike anything Zuko had ever seen.

He felt like Uncle would like them. That fact made it slightly easier to trust them (but only slightly). He hoped Uncle was okay, wherever he was. Zuko would get back to him, if it were the last thing he ever did. He would never leave Uncle.

He needed to catch the Avatar for Father. Then, he and Uncle could go home. When he knew exactly what the Avatar wanted with him, then he could figure out what to do next.

Chapter Text

Swimming was more fun in the Earth Kingdom than it ever was back at the South Pole. Probably because at the South Pole, you had to be careful of frostbite. It was easy to get distracted by the fish swimming around his feet or Appa floating lazily.

Eventually, Sokka grew bored of just splashing around (and being splashed by the other two, there was no way they weren’t doing that on purpose) and decided to try catching some of the fish.

He pulled himself out of the water and walked over to where Zuko was sitting with their stuff. The prince was watching Aang and Katara practice, so he didn’t notice Sokka come up behind him.

Katara would probably try to kill him if he got their things wet, so Sokka stopped about a metre away and called to Zuko.

The prince jumped at his name. Something squeaked in his lap and it took Sokka a second to realise it was Momo. The tiny menace had made a bed out of the prince’s legs. One of Zuko’s hands reached down to pat him, Sokka wasn’t sure Zuko even realised he was doing it. It would have been kind of sweet, if Momo wasn’t a menace and Zuko wasn’t trying to be evil.

“Can you get the fishing rod and bait from my stuff? Oh, and a bucket.” Zuko stared at him for a moment, and then nodded. He reached for Sokka’s bag, somehow managing not to jostle Momo, and pulled it over to him so he could open it. He found the bait easily enough, but Sokka had to tell him that the rod was foldable and wrapped in string for Zuko to be able to see it. The bucket was right next to his bag.

Sokka thanked him and went to look for a rock he could sit on.

-

Sokka wasn’t quite sure how long he was sitting there, but when Katara called him over to the group, the sun was touching the horizon.

He looked over at his bucket at the few measly fish he had managed to catch. It was at least better than nothing, and more than he had caught last time. They were finally going to have meat with dinner again.

Everyone had dried off by now (aside from Appa, who lay down behind Aang), so it was safe to touch their things. They moved their stuff to make a circle and set up a campfire in the middle. They managed to get Zuko to light the fire again, much more easily than the night before.

There was something off about Zuko, it seemed like he wanted to say something, but was waiting for the right time. Whatever. Sokka wouldn’t rush him. He knew how well that would turn out from that morning.

They sat in silence while Katara cooked. It was only a few minutes before she dished out their meals to them (Aang’s without the fish, obviously). As they ate, Sokka couldn’t resist glancing at Zuko, waiting for the other boy to speak up about what was bothering him.

Eventually, Zuko set his bowl down and took a deep breath. Sensing a conversation, the others also put their bowls on the ground. Zuko raised his head to look Aang in the eyes.

“What are you planning to do with me?” it took Sokka a minute to understand what Zuko was asking. Aang, it seemed, couldn’t quite figure it out.

“What do you mean?” Zuko sighed, obviously frustrated. Sokka sympathised. That was how he often felt around Aang and Katara.

“It’s clear at this point that you don’t want to kill me. If you did, you’d have done so by now. So, what are you keeping me around for? You’ve stated that I’m your prisoner. Using me as a bargaining chip won’t work. Father won’t pay for my return and Uncle doesn’t have much money.”

Hang on, had he really been thinking that they’d been planning to kill him? Wait…

“Is that why you were awake all night last night? To make sure we didn’t attack you?” Zuko nodded.

“When none of you did so, I began to wonder what you were planning to do. You even slept next to me, that isn’t a normal thing to do to your prisoners.” Aang took this moment to finally realise what Zuko had been saying. He erupted into a flurry of movement.

“We don’t want to kill you! We want to be your friend!” Zuko’s face went blank. Did he even know what a friend was?

“…You want to be my… Friend?” Aang nodded fervently. Sokka and Katara also nodded when Zuko turned his gaze to them. “…Why?”

“Because your dad sucks.” Katara slapped Sokka’s arm. “What? I’m right!” Zuko’s face went red.

“How dare you insult Father like that!” Aang put his arms out to settle everyone down.

“What Sokka means, is that Ozai is a cruel man, and that we think you’d be better off with us than with him.” Zuko bristled, the angry expression not leaving his face.

“What makes you say that Avatar?” Aang flinched at Zuko’s tone and Sokka had to hold Katara back from throwing a punch. Aang took a moments pause before speaking again.

“Like I said, Ozai is cruel. I can tell that you know that too. You fear him.” He continued before Zuko could angrily protest. “We said you were our prisoner because that was the fastest way to get you off the island. We don’t want to hurt you. At all. We can tell you’re a good person, but you’re on the wrong side of the war.” Katara continued for him.

“The Fire Nation has done so many horrible things. They destroyed our Tribe, almost all of the Earth Kingdom is in ruin, and Aang’s people are gone.” Sokka could see Zuko’s change in expression. It was a mix between disbelieving, apologetic, and guilty. Sokka wasn’t sure how anyone could pull that off, but somehow, Zuko managed it.

“We know you want to help people. You told us that yourself last night. You didn’t deserve to be punished for being a good person. You could never deserve to be hurt like that. No one could.” Sokka couldn’t help his mumbled ‘except Ozai’. Thankfully, Katara didn’t hit him and Aang and Zuko couldn’t hear. Zuko looked like he still didn’t believe them, so Sokka finished them off.

“Just give spending time with us a go. You won’t be our prisoner, you’ll be one of us. Just until we find your uncle. When we see him again, you can choose to turn around and keep chasing the Avatar, or you can keep travelling with us. What do you think?”

Zuko still looked suspicious, but he seemed more accepting this time around. He was clearly thinking hard about it, but he kept sending cautious glances in their direction.

Considering what Sokka knew of Zuko’s thought process, he probably thought they would attack him if he said no. Aang seemed to realise this as well, because he reassured Zuko.

“You don’t have to decide right now. We don’t even know where we are right now, so you probably have until we find a town or landmark to make your decision.”

Zuko gave a firm nod. Sokka and the others nodded back before Sokka stood up with an exaggerated yawn.

“It’s late, we should all set up camp and go to bed.” The other four spoke or nodded their agreement and stood up to set up their tents. Zuko looked like he wasn’t sure whether or not to help, so Katara made the decision for him.

“Zuko, can you help Sokka set up your tent? He always has trouble with it.” Sokka protested, but allowed Zuko to help him. The prince didn’t know very much about setting up Water Tribe-style tents, obviously, so Sokka taught him how to tie the ropes and set up the poles.

Sokka couldn’t help but smile at the genuine curiosity on the prince’s face when he explained something to him. Unfortunately, Zuko did everything he could to hide the expression, which was a shame. They’d have to work on that, let Zuko know he was allowed to be curious and ask questions.

They ended up finishing last, because of Sokka stopping to explain all the parts and steps. He chose to ignore the pointed look his sister sent him just before she ducked inside her own tent.

Zuko went in first again, sitting up against the side once more. Sokka had been confused about that the night before, but he understood it now.

“If you still don’t really feel safe enough to sleep, that’s okay. I’m not gonna force you to do anything you don’t want. You can take off the armour though, it must be uncomfortable.” Zuko didn’t respond. Sokka turned onto his side, back to Zuko. “Anyway, Goodnight.”

Right before he fell asleep, Sokka could just barely hear a ‘night’ in response and he couldn’t help but smile.

Progress.

Chapter Text

Katara woke up to screaming. Prepared for a fight, she ran outside.

The first thing she noticed was that Aang was laughing. She followed his gaze and couldn’t help joining him.

Sokka was running around the camp, waving his arms around. Attached to one arm, was Momo. The lemur was chittering wildly, teeth sunk into the skin of Sokka’s wrist. Zuko was off to the side, without his armour. Instead, he wore a long-sleeved shirt and pants. His sleeves fell around his wrists, not tucked in to his arm-guards. He was looking slightly guilty.

What had happened?

Aang stopped his giggling and walked over to pull Momo off Sokka’s arm. It took several tries, but eventually the boy and lemur were separated. Momo ran up Zuko’s legs, coming to a rest on the prince’s shoulder. From his perch, he hissed at Sokka. The boy made a face back.

Katara shook her head in exasperation and started making breakfast.

“Any of you boys want to tell me what just happened.” The three of them shared a sheepish look, though Zuko scowled the second he realised he was doing it. Aang gestures to the other two.

“Don’t ask me, it started in their tent.” Katara settled her gaze on the two standing in front of their tent. Sokka chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. Zuko glared stubbornly, petting a now-purring Momo. Sokka spoke first.

“Momo woke me up by jumping on me. I accidentally hit him, so he attacked me.” Katara sighed. She wasn’t sure what it was, but something about Sokka just seemed to make animals hate him. It would be funny, if Katara didn’t have to deal with him complaining about it.

She passed around the bowls of nuts –ignoring Sokka’s groan- and sat down next to Aang, against Appa’s side.

They ate in relative silence. Mostly Sokka grumbled about the lack of meant in his diet and about ‘stupid lemurs’. Occasionally, Katara or Aang would interrupt him to make fun of him. Zuko stayed out of the conversation, but he was sitting closer to them than he had been the night before. Hopefully that meant he was beginning to trust them a bit more.

It was when they were packing everything up that Katara realised something.

“We’re going to have to give Zuko a disguise.” Aang looked up from where he was fighting with Momo over the food bag.

“Why?”

“Because we’re in the Earth Kingdom. Zuko can’t just walk around in Fire Nation armour, or have a Fire Nation name.” She turned to Zuko, who was now holding Momo away from the food bag. “What you’re wearing now is fine, but you probably should bend, and we’ll have to think about your name.” Zuko nodded, putting Momo down. The lemur immediately scampered around everyone’s feet, coming to a rest in front of Appa’s face.

It only took a couple of minutes to pack everything up, and soon, they were in the air.

Inside Appa’s saddle, Katara, Sokka and Zuko passed the time by playing ‘Never Have I Ever’. They had to explain the game to Zuko, and he was a little hesitant, so Katara and Sokka played the first round on their own to show him how the game worked. Aang demanded to be included, but he couldn’t take his hands off the reins. Instead, they decided that he would be the one to say what he hadn’t done, and the rest of them would put their fingers down.

It took several rounds before they managed to convince Zuko to play with them, and once he did, Katara noticed Aang only said things that Zuko likely would have been comfortable doing if he did do them. They didn’t pry whenever he put his finger down, and Katara saw him relax slightly every time it happened. She shared a small, hidden smile with Aang and Sokka.

At midday, they stopped inside what Aang said was probably Gaipan Forest. They each took a handful of nuts and sat down against Appa’s side. When they were finished, they decided to rest in the shade for a bit.

Well, Katara, Sokka and Aang rested in the shade. Zuko found the biggest patch of sunlight and lay down right in the middle of it. If Katara didn’t know better, she could have sworn Zuko was glowing in the light.

“Where’s Momo?” Aang’s question broke the silence. Katara and Sokka didn’t bother moving, but Zuko sat up and looked around the clearing.

Suddenly, they heard a screech. Katara had heard Momo screaming enough times to recognise the sound. The four of them leapt to their feet. Just before running out of the clearing, Aang turned to Zuko.

“Can you stay here with Appa while we go find Momo?” Katara saw Zuko nod before Aang grabbed her and Sokka’s arms, pulling them in the direction of Momo’s screech.

It didn’t take long before Aang spotted Momo and a couple of hog-monkeys hanging from traps.

“Hang on Momo!” Aang jumped from tree to tree, coming to a stop at the branch holding Momo’s cage. He did something that Katara couldn’t see and the cage fell.

Katara and Sokka forced the cage open and Momo ran out. He stopped at their feet and ate the lychee-nuts in his hands as if he hadn’t just been saved from a trap. Ungrateful animal.

Aang lands on the ground next to them before jumping back up to help the other animals. On her left, Sokka groaned.

“This is gonna take forever.” He took his boomerang out of its sheath, throwing it at the ropes holding up the other traps. The cages fall to the ground. Katara and Sokka each force one open and the hog-monkeys run up a tree and disappear. Katara and Aang watch them while Sokka kneels down to examine the traps.

“These are Fire Nation traps. You can tell from the metal work. We better pack up and keep moving.” Katara and Aang nodded. Aang picked Momo up, Sokka collected the fallen lychee-nuts and they walked back.

They found Zuko and Appa in a one-sided heated debate. Zuko was leaning against Appa’s side, speaking quickly in a language Katara didn’t know. Aang snorted and said something back in the same language. Zuko jumped at the sound of his voice but relaxed when he realised it was just them.

Aang moved to jump onto Appa but Sokka held an arm out.

“Nah uh. No flying this time.” Aang relaxed his grip on Appa’s reins.

“What, why not?”

“Think about it; Zuko and the Fire Nation keep finding us. It’s because they spot Appa. He’s just too noticeable.” He turned to Zuko, who was listening to the conversation with a confused expression. “Right?” Zuko hesitated a second before nodding.

“I did use a lot of bison sightings to track you. People also tend to talk when the Avatar’s in their town.” Sokka gave Aang and Katara a pointed look. Katara sighed.

“Fine.” Zuko spoke up before Sokka could say something arrogant.

“Um… why does this matter now?” Aang walked over, letting Momo jump from his shoulders to Zuko’s

“We found some Fire Nation traps. Sokka wants us to walk so whoever’s here won’t see us.” Zuko nodded and they started walking.

Chapter Text

It took about ten minutes for Aang to decide walking sucked. How did anyone do this for so long? His feet hurt and he was hungry. He was just walking, how did it make him so hungry? He didn’t hesitate to complain to the rest of the group. They mostly ignored him, so he just complained even louder. Eventually, Sokka cracked.

“Okay, look Aang, we’re all tired. Zuko hasn’t slept in at least three days.” Aang couldn’t help glancing at Zuko, who had gone stiff. He’d have to talk to him about that. “The important thing is that were safe from the Fire…” Aang followed the groups gaze to see a group of Fire Nation soldiers sitting around a campsite. Not great.

“Run!” The group turned to run but were stopped when the soldiers sent a wave of fire around them, separating them from Zuko and Appa, who were still hidden in the tree.

Aang used his bending to tell Zuko to get Appa and Momo to safety; they would meet up at the clearing they were in before. It was a technique he invented to make plans with Bumi and Kuzon while the adults were talking. Zuko nodded, grabbed Appa’s reins, and ran.

Sokka’s shirt caught fire, but Katara managed to put the fire out before he could burn. She then brought the water back to her, holding it at the ready. Aang got into his own stance while Sokka pulled out his boomerang. Sokka stepped in front of the other two.

“If you let us pass, we promise not to hurt you.” The soldiers around them laughed condescendingly.

You promise not to hurt us?” Suddenly, the lead soldier collapsed, unconscious. Cool!

“Nice work, Sokka! How’d you do that?” Everyone stared at the fallen soldier.

“Uh… I didn’t?” Then, a group of people descended from the trees, knocking out the soldiers one-by-one.

Aang was amazed, but he didn’t have time to say so. The three of them joined the fray, helping the tree-people until all of the Fire Nation soldiers were on the ground.

When he was sure there weren’t any more soldiers, Aang ran over to the boy with a wheat stick in his mouth. He had been the one to jump in first.

“You just took out a whole army almost single-handed!” he ignored Sokka’s dry comment on the number of soldiers, instead looking around the camp, where the kids –most, if not all of them were kids, now that Aang was looking- were tying up the soldiers.

The wheat-boy smirked.

“My name is Jet, and these are my Freedom fighters.” He gestured to the other kids when he introduced them. “Sneers, Longshot, Smellerbee, The Duke, and Pipsqueak.” Aang couldn’t help but laugh at the last name, walking over to the two Jet had introduced as Duke and Pipsqueak. He wasn’t sure which was which, so he addressed both of them.

“Pipsqueak’s a funny name.” The large one loomed over Aang, frown on his face

“You think my name is funny?” Question answered! Aang grinned back at him.

“It’s hilarious.” Pipsqueak scowled at him for another second before bursting into laughter. Aang and Duke quickly join in. Pipsqueak hit Aang’s shoulder hard enough to send him sprawling in the dirt. Aang was shocked, before raising his head and laughing even harder.

When they finished laughing, Aang looked around to see the Freedom Fighters going through the camp supplies. Pipsqueak and Duke left to help while Aang joined Katara, Sokka and Jet in the middle of the clearing.

From somewhere behind him, Aang heard something about a hideout.

“You guys have a hideout?” Jet smirked.

“You wanna see it?” Aang was about to nod when he remembered Zuko waiting for them. He rubbed the back of his head.

“Maybe later. We have a friend waiting for us.” Jet’s eyes narrowed.

“Where, in the village nearby?” Katara walked up to Aang, putting a hand on his shoulder. He continued.

“No. He’s a short walk behind us. I told him to get our pets to safety when the soldiers surrounded us.” Jet nodded. Aang wondered how he managed to talk without the wheat falling out.

“We’re not quite done here. We can wait here while you go get your friend.” That seemed like a good plan. Aang nodded.

“Katara, Sokka, you guys stay here. I’ll be back in a bit.” The other two nodded and Aang took off.

He could move much faster if he was on his own. Mostly because of his bending. It was easy to fly through the forest. The trees were widespread enough that he had no trouble dodging them.

After about two minutes of flying, Aang arrived back in the clearing they had been in for lunch. Zuko was sitting against Appa’s side, Momo in his lap. Aang shouted his name as he came into Zuko’s line of sight.

“Zuko! We took out the soldiers, with some help.” Zuko stood up and Momo climbed onto his head.

“What help?”

“There’s this group of kids that live in this forest. They helped us take the soldiers down. They want to take us to their hideout.” Zuko narrowed his eyes (eye? Aang wasn’t sure whether the left one could even move) suspiciously.

“Are you sure you can trust them?”

It was true that he had just met Jet, and that something about the boy put him on edge. But he had seemed genuine enough. He didn’t even try to hide the hatred and disgust he looked at the downed soldiers with.

Honestly, Aang wasn’t a fan of when anyone looked at anyone that way, but in the middle of a war, it was unavoidable.

It was also an issue when it came to Zuko. He wasn’t wearing his armour, so he didn’t look like a soldier. His name was too recognisable, though. His hairstyle was also traditionally Fire Nation. They couldn’t do much about his skin and eye colour, so Aang just had to hope no one picked up on them.

“We’re gonna have to introduce you with a different name. We’ll have to change your hairstyle too. It that okay?” Zuko had gone stiff at the mention of his hair. Aang had heard from Kuzon that losers of important Agni Kais had to shave their head and wear their hair a certain way, was that why he was hesitant?

“The hair-change won’t be permanent, just while we’re in this forest.” Zuko nodded after a few seconds. Aang smiled.

“I know how to braid hair, is that okay with you?” Zuko gave another nod, sitting down in front of Aang so the other boy could reach his head.

While Aang worked, they began coming up with names for Zuko to use. Eventually, they settled on ‘Li’. He looked like a ‘Li’.

When Aang was finished, Zuko stood up and grabbed Appa’s reins. Aang grinned.

“Let’s Go! I’ll lead the way.”

Chapter Text

As they walked, the Avatar filled Zuko in on how the fight went. About the ‘Freedom Fighters’ and how they had managed to take down the entire squad in a couple of minutes. That was rather impressive for a group of what were clearly non-Benders.

Zuko couldn’t help but perk up when the Avatar mentioned the leader’s -Jet’s- impressive swordsmanship. At the moment, Uncle (as well as Master Piandao, who had trained him) was the only one who knew about his own skill in swordsmanship. He hadn’t practiced in a while, though. It would be useless to go against a master of all four elements with a sword.

(It would also be essentially useless to go against a master of all four elements with just one, but Zuko didn’t dare to think about that. Father entrusted him with the mission, Zuko wouldn’t let him down)

From the way it sounded, Jet’s style was one Zuko had not studied. Hooked swords were also something he had never heard of before. He couldn’t wait to watch him fight.

Also…

“How do you know the Fire Nation’s native language, well, the one that every Fire Nation citizen has to learn?” The Avatar looked up at Zuko, then down at his feet.

“My friend Kuzon was from the Fire Nation. He taught me. And the monks thought it would be a good idea for the Avatar to know as many languages as possible.”

That made sense. Zuko was fairly certain he’d heard the Avatar talk about his past friends before. Zuko wondered where Kuzon’s family were now. If they had been publicly close with the Avatar, they were probably dead.

 A month ago, Zuko wouldn’t have been bothered by that, so why was he filled with sadness at the thought? He was going soft.

(He refused to think about a twelve-year-old being killed because he had friends. Refused to wonder how many children the Fire Nation had killed)

Zuko was on top of the bison, with the Avatar leading them, so they arrived at the squad camp after about five minutes.

There were barrels of what were probably blasting jelly stacked next to boxes of something Zuko didn’t know. Most likely food. A group of about six children from very young to late teen were sitting in a circle with the water boy and girl.

If Zuko was going to be staying with the group for a while, he was going to need better names for them than water boy and water girl. Not their real names of course, that would imply emotional attachment and he couldn’t allow that, even in the privacy of his own mind.

A rather good looking boy –or he would be good looking, if there weren’t a stick of wheat in his mouth- looked up at their arrival. He smirked in a way Zuko wasn’t sure whether to trust and stood up.

“Aang, there you are. Who’s your friend?” Zuko resisted snapping at mouth-wheat. He and the Avatar weren’t friends (although, Zuko was wondering if he wanted to take up the Avatar’s offer). The Avatar grinned.

“This is Li. Li, this is Jet.” So mouth-wheat was in charge. He wasn’t a very good role model. Having a stalk of wheat in your mouth was unhygienic, unhealthy and unsafe. Mouth-wheat, Jet, walked over and held a hand out to shake.

“Nice to meet you, Li.” Zuko didn’t trust the look on his face. He was also uncomfortable with the way the boy looked at his scar, though Zuko was used to that by now. He was honestly surprised that the Avatar and his friends barely payed attention to it after that first night. It was freeing.

“That’s a bad scar.” Zuko resisted the urge to growl but couldn’t help scowling and ducking that side of his face away from mouth-wheat’s sight. Mouth-wheat sighed and stepped back, looking at the other children in the group.

“The Fire Nation took everything from us. Our families, our homes, our childhoods.” By now, everyone was listening to what mouth-wheat was saying. He seemed to have that kind of effect on people. Like Azula. Zuko didn’t trust him, even if he seemed genuine. “That’s why we do what we do. We’re fighting to make a difference.” The water girl -hair-loops sounded alright- walked up and placed a hand on mouth-wheat’s shoulder.

“Sokka and I lost our mother to the Fire Nation.” Zuko didn’t know that. Had they really attacked that recently? Zuko would have thought that when it became clear the Water Tribe didn’t have the Avatar, the Fire Nation left them alone. The sincerity in hair-loop’s face and voice, and the sadness in the water boy’s –he was going to be boomerang- expression, told him he was wrong.

Thinking about it, it made sense if the ones who attacked were like Zhao. Many of the higher-ranking soldiers were like Zhao. Zuko had seen them destroy entire towns when they didn’t get what they wanted. Zuko had never liked when they killed innocents.

He needed to stop thinking like that. They were traitor thoughts. Anyone who didn’t see the Fire Nation’s greatness deserved what they got.

But… children didn’t deserve to die. Civilians shouldn’t have to pay for their military’s decisions. He had seen children’s skeletons in every Air Temple he visited. At the time he had thought it was necessary, to make sure the Avatar wouldn’t return. But the Avatar was right next to him, and there were hundreds of people who didn’t deserve to be killed now nothing more than bone.

The Avatar was a child. He laughed at Boomerang’s terrible jokes. He refused to eat meat. Zuko isn’t sure what made an entire Nation so scared that they committed genocide (because that’s what it was, not a tactical victory, genocide) to make sure this child would never have the chance to grow up.

He was thinking traitor thoughts, but he wasn’t in the Fire Nation. He was in the middle of a group of children who had lost everything to his people. Maybe it was okay to start thinking traitor thoughts here. Maybe, if he did, things would start to make more sense.

Chapter Text

Sokka didn’t know if he liked Jet. He liked his ability and their shared hatred of the Fire Nation. He didn’t like the way Jet had leered at Katara or the way he had zeroed in on Zuko the second he entered the clearing.

Zuko had seemed a bit out of it, so Sokka decided to stick to his side and scrutinise Jet from there. Katara and Aang didn’t seem to mind him, but something about him seemed off, like he was just on the wrong side of crazy.

They continued to walk through the forest. The whole time, Jet was talking to Katara in a way that made Sokka uncomfortable. He attempted to talk to Zuko the same way, but Sokka managed to come between them in time. He didn’t miss Zuko’s relieved sigh when Jet stopped trying.

By the time they stopped moving, Sokka had decided that he didn’t like Jet. He was annoying and persistent. He was arrogant and seemed convinced that that he was right about everything he talked about.

He was like a racoon-rat. He belonged in the trash. He was a trash-boy.

They had stopped in front of several tall trees. There was nothing separating them from the rest of the forest except for a few markings, obviously made by a sword or knife.

Jet turned to face them.

“We’re here.”

“Where? There’s nothing here.”

Jet handed Sokka a rope. Sokka stared at it, confused, for several seconds. He was just about to ask what it was when a hand grabbed his shirt and he was roughly pulled back. at the same time, the rope he was holding, shot up ward, just barely missing taking Sokka with it.

Sokka looked behind himself to see Zuko with a hand lightly on his back. The other teen was glaring at Jet.

“What the hell was that, Mouth-wheat?” The growling undertone would have surprised Sokka if he weren’t used to it.

Jet, however, was surprised. Sokka took delight in the way the boy stepped back. eventually, Jet seemed to realise Zuko wouldn’t attack and straightened up.

“The ropes lead up to our hideout. The other freedom fighters are up top controlling the pullies.” As Jet spoke, more ropes dropped down from the branches.

Jet was the first to grab one, followed by the other Freedom Fighters. The younger kids went up first. Jet held a rope to Aang, who refused and used his Bending to fly up. Katara took the rope Aang left. Sokka found great satisfaction in Jet’s face when she passed by him.

Jet and Katara went up at the same time, leaving Sokka and Zuko with the final two ropes. Zuko growled when Sokka held one of the ropes out to him.

“I don’t trust them.” Sokka sighed. Why did Zuko have to make things so hard?

Sokka understood that he was a victim of abuse, and that that can give you trust issues. Not to mention he’s been practically on his own since he was Katara’s age. Plus he only just joined the group that had been his enemy for the past month.

He understood all that. That didn’t mean that Zuko wasn’t irritating sometimes.

“Well, if you don’t use it, how are you going to get up?” Zuko huffed.

“Can’t I stay down here with the Bison?”

“Appa can take care of himself.” Zuko groaned before beginning to crouch, then thinking better of it. He had probably planned on using his Bending to shoot him up before remembering he wasn’t allowed to use it.

Instead, he made his way to Appa’s saddle, ignoring Sokka’s ‘hey, what did I just say’. He ruffled around in one of the packs. The one holding his armour. He withdrew his hand, holding four throwing knives.

Sokka let out a strangled sound as Zuko attached two of the knives to… something on the bottom of his boot. Zuko straightened up, walked to a tree, and stabbed one of his boots into the trunk.

Sokka watched as Zuko climbed up the tree, stabbing the knives in his hand and boots into the trunk. About five metres up, Zuko stopped and looked back down at Sokka.

“Are you coming or not?” Sokka hesitated, watching Zuko climb several more metres before grabbing the string next to him and pulling. The Freedom Fighters pulled him right to the top, where the others were waiting.

They all looked over the edge to watch Zuko climb the trunk. Jet spoke first.

“You sure you trust that guy.” Aang hummed.

“Yeah, why?” There was a few second of silence before Jet responded.

“His eyes are gold.” Fear shot through Sokka. How could they have missed that? Of course Jet would recognise him.

He and Katara shared a look. Just before Sokka opened his mouth, Aang laughed sheepishly.

“Li’s half Fire Nation. His village was taken over and his mother was given to his father as a war prize. He was part of a rebellion when his father found out and scarred him. You probably shouldn’t mention it to him though. Li doesn’t like when people talk about his parents.”

It took Sokka a moment to remember that Li was the name they were using to hide Zuko’s identity.

Jet and the Freedom Fighters shared looks among themselves before agreeing that Aang was telling the truth. Sokka, Katara and Aang shared a silent sigh of relief.

Zuko made it to the top much faster than Sokka expected. He reached over the edge to help the other teen onto the platform. When Zuko was standing, Jet smirked.

“Well, Li, you’re pretty good with those knives. Where’d you learn?” There was a pause where Zuko and Jet stared at each other. Jet was the first to look away.

Zuko didn’t remove the knives from his boots, instead standing next to Sokka.

“Nice place you’ve got.” Sokka couldn’t tell whether Zuko was being sarcastic or not. Jet clearly couldn’t either. Instead of picking a fight, Jet responded like Zuko’s statement had been genuine.

“It’s nice, and more importantly, the Fire Nation can’t find us.” One of the younger Fighters, Smellerbee or something, cackled.

“They’d love to find you, wouldn’t they Jet.” Jet smiled confidently.

“Not gonna happen.”

“Why does the Fire Nation want to find you?” Sokka would have thought it was obvious, considering they just took out a whole camp of soldiers. Clearly Katara hadn’t.

“We’ve been causing them a bit of trouble. See, they took over a nearby town a few year back.” Sokka didn’t miss the way Jet eyed Zuko as he spoke. He shifted slightly so he was in front of Zuko. One of the other Fighters, the really big one, Pipsqueak maybe, continued Jet’s story.

“We’ve been ambushing their troops, cutting their supply lines, doing anything we can to mess with them.” Beside Sokka, Zuko stiffened.

“Why?” Jet stepped forward, putting a hand on Katara’s shoulder. To Sokka’s displeasure, she did not brush him off.

“Even if it’s just a little, if we can stop these guys, we can stop at least one person from getting hurt.” Zuko frowned slightly. Sokka was grateful for Aang’s story. Because of it, Jet thought that Zuko was frowning in memory of pain at his father’s hand, instead of, whatever was going on in his head.

With the conversation done, they started walking.