They were all anxious.
Zuko could almost see the tension radiating off of each of his friends, like hot air off of a fire in summer. They were all mostly quiet as they gathered together their dinner and sat down on the beach to eat. Even Sokka and Toph, normally ready at any given moment to jump in with a joke or a jab, began eating without a word. Aang didn’t even seem to notice they were supposed to be eating; lost in worried thought, he stared into the campfire, ignoring his full plate.
And Zuko felt it too. Only four more nights until Sozin’s Comet. Four nights until ultimately, one way or another, they would all fulfill their destinies. Four nights until Aang faced his father, and either ended this horrible war or…
Zuko didn’t let himself think of the alternative. Whether they would succeed or not… well, the stress of that looming question was palpable.
They ate for a while in a bloated silence, like everything they weren’t saying was occupying the very air between them.
Eventually, Katara—ever the problem solver—spoke, startling her friends out of their personal reveries.
“Okay. Guys. I know we’re all scared right now. But we can’t spend the next four days just constantly training and then silently freaking out.”
“Seriously, guys, worrying about this isn’t going to make us anymore prepared. I think we need to talk about this. Or not about it. We just need to talk. I can’t stand the silence anymore.”
“Katara’s right,” said Aang, sighing. “I’m driving myself crazy right now. Maybe we do need a distraction.”
“We could play truth or dare,” offered Suki.
“What’s that?” questioned Sokka.
Suki looked around.
“Oh come on, seriously? None of you have ever heard of truth or dare?”
“I never really had any friends before you guys,” said Toph, matter-of-factly.
“I’m over a hundred years old,” said Aang.
“My sister usually preferred games that were more… destructive,” Zuko replied.
“Okay, well, it’s very simple. We take turns asking each other ‘Truth, or Dare?’. If you get dared to do something, you have to do it, and if you say truth, you have to answer the question. Easy!”
“Ooh!! I wanna go first!” Sokka exclaimed. “Suki! I dare you to kiss me!”
Everyone laughed for what felt like the first time in days. A little bit of the tightness that had been sitting in Zuko’s chest loosened.
“You’re supposed to ask her ‘Truth or Dare?’ first, Sokka,” Katara chastised.
“It’s okay, I was gonna say dare anyway,” Suki said as she leaned in and pecked his lips.
“Ugh, gross, you guys,” teased Toph. “Me next!”
“Ok, Toph, truth or dare?” Suki asked.
“Okay… I dare you to show us your best dance moves,” Suki challenged with a grin.
“What? No! Who do you think I am, Twinkletoes??”
“Yeah, come on Toph, show us your best Camelephant Strut!” Aang said, jumping up in typical airbender fashion and grabbing her arm to pull her to her feet.
The group watched, giggling as the pair performed their own approximations of the traditional Fire Nation dance. Zuko was positive he’d never seen anything close to this at any of the royal balls and events he’d attended growing up. Eventually, the two sank back into their spots around the fire, out of breath, their cheeks pink and flushed, with huge grins spread across their faces.
“Katara, truth or dare?” Toph asked, still laughing.
“Did you have a secret thing with Haru? And don’t forget… I’ll be able to tell if you’re lying,” Toph smirked, pressing both feet firmly into the sand.
“No! I did not!” said Katara, indignant, but blushing. “Stop bringing that up all the time!”
“Alright, calm down Sugar Queen,” Toph laughed.
“Okay, my turn. Zuko,” Katara faced him. “Truth or dare?”
“I guess… truth,” he answered, already feeling quite awkward. He’d been enjoying watching the group play but had been dreading his turn. He still wasn’t used to how they all so easily let down their guards for each other; this dynamic had nothing in common with the way Mai, Ty Lee, and himself had walked on eggshells around Azula.
“How did you get your scar?”
Everyone stiffened. Katara gasped and covered her own mouth, seemingly in shock that the question had slipped out. Zuko felt a nervous twang in his heart, and stood up, turning away from the group. He knew they must be curious—most people in the Fire Nation didn’t even know the full story, instead they assumed it had been some kind of training accident. A jolt of anger ran through Zuko at the thought—an accident, if only.
No, his friends would know the truth.
“Zuko, I’m sorry! You really don’t have to answer that—I wasn’t thinking—”
“No, it’s okay,” he cut her off. “I want to.”
Still not facing his friends, he took a shaking breath. It suddenly occurred to him that he had never told this story before.
“You have to understand… growing up, I just wanted to be like my father. I know that sounds horrible, but it’s true. He’d always favored Azula, and I tried to be like them. It felt like the only way.
I was thirteen and really trying to show my father that I was ready for more responsibility. I wanted him to trust me to eventually take over the throne, when the time came. He was having an important war meeting with some top Fire Nation generals, and I begged my uncle to let me sit in.”
His throat felt tight, and he could hear how his voice sounded strained and far away. The pain of these memories would never fully go away, he knew, and reliving that fateful day was still hard for him. But the words were spilling out now, fast and thick and heavy.
“During the meeting, an old general unveiled a plan that would mean sacrificing an entire troop of young soldiers. He wanted to use them as a distraction. Offer them up as bait.
I couldn’t remain quiet—I spoke up, pleading that we couldn’t let all those people die like that.
And that was my big mistake.
In my nation, honor and respect are very important. And it wasn’t my place to speak in that meeting. I had disrespected the general, and so I was challenged to an Agni Kai. A firebending duel.
I agreed. I was cocky, and knew that I could defeat the old general.
But when I turned around to face my opponent, it was not him I saw, but my father. The Fire Lord.
When I saw it was him, I immediately began begging for mercy. I told him I that I was his loyal son and I would not fight him.
But he said I was weak, and that I needed to learn respect. And that suffering would be my teacher.
He grabbed my face. I blacked out from the pain.
When I woke up, I was told of my banishment and the condition: only if I found the Avatar and captured him, would I regain my honor, and be allowed to return home.”
He stopped there. His breath had become shallow and rushed, his palms were sweating.
He turned back to face his friends, who were sitting in a stunned silence. Sokka was looking down at the sand, and Zuko thought he saw Toph quickly wiping her eyes.
“Sorry… I think I ruined our game,” he feebly joked. It wasn’t funny, but the quiet was worse.
“Zuko…” whispered Katara. “Your father did that to you?” She sounded horrified. Zuko couldn’t meet her eyes, let alone reply. He sat back down, staring into the fire and trying to calm down.
“I always knew there had to be a good reason,” said Aang, after a while. “You were always so determined, almost desperate. It makes sense now. You didn’t deserve that, Zuko. I’m sorry.”
Zuko lifted his gaze to meet his, and nodded once, hoping Aang was able to read in his eyes how much that had been exactly what Zuko needed to hear.
Later that night, after everyone had fallen asleep, Zuko sat awake on the beach, once again lost in thought as he watched the tide endlessly roll in and out. He breathed in the fresh, salty air. The smell of the ocean had once been mingled for him with oil and metal and sleepless nights spent desperately praying that he would soon find the Avatar. He’d spent many nights looking out at the ocean throughout his exile; it had mocked him then. Only now, here, had it become a source of comfort, of peace.
He couldn’t stop replaying that fateful Agni Kai, and he hated himself for it; couldn’t stop remembering the moments right after he’d woken up with gauze covering the entire left side of his face, the stench of burnt skin and hair nearly causing him to be sick; couldn’t shake that horrible feeling of shame and anguish. This is why he usually tried as hard as he could to not think of it. This is why he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in over three years. Though he knew now that confronting his father and joining Aang had been the right thing to do, there was still a small, annoying part of him that longed for what was. For those times here, on Ember Island, when Azula had still been too young to fully torment him and his mother had still smiled. A thirteen year-old still hung up on rose-tinted childhood memories. A child who wished desperately that those few moments of familial happiness had defined them, rather than been rare anomalies that don’t make much sense now. A boy whose heart ached because it missed the lies he used to tell himself.
He missed his mother, and with a twinge of guilt so powerful it almost made him nauseous, his uncle.
Uncle. How would he ever face him again?
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there when he heard soft footsteps approaching from behind. Wordlessly, Katara sat next to him in the sand, just close enough that their shoulders bumped.
For a while they watched the ocean together, not speaking. Zuko thought how strange it really was, to feel so comfortable and secure around her, when not even a few months ago, they were on opposite sides of this war. Maybe that was just Katara—her openness and kindness could make anyone feel at home. And the way that she was just so unapologetically Katara—it made you feel a bit safer being yourself, too.
Eventually, she spoke, her words a soft murmur above the crashing waves.
“I’ve noticed you don’t really… sleep.” Her tone was teasing, light, but Zuko could sense the quiet concern laced between her words.
“I get nightmares, sometimes,” he confessed. “It’s hard being back here.”
Katara hummed softly, nodding.
“The memories I have here… they are happy ones… maybe ‘happy’ isn’t exactly the right word… but I had my mother here, at least.” He trailed off. He wasn’t really sure why he was saying all this, except that Katara had sat down and suddenly he felt like he needed to tell her everything.
“It hurts to think about,” he says, and Katara placed her hand tentatively over his, finally turning to face him.
“Zuko, I really am sorry for putting you on the spot like that earlier. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking, but…I am really glad you shared that with us.”
Zuko met her eyes. She was tearing up, but not looking at him with pity, like he’d expected, rather with compassion. The same open, unabashed compassion she had shown him in Ba Sing Se when she’d almost healed his scar. And then he’d betrayed her and her empathy. And somehow she’d still found it within her to forgive him.
“I am too,” he said, turning back to the ocean with something like a smile forming on his lips. “I feel… a bit lighter, like it was important for you all to know, because…”
“Because we’re friends.”
Something swelled in Zuko’s chest.
“Yeah. We are.”
“And Zuko? I’m really sorry that happened to you.”
There was suddenly a very large lump in Zuko’s throat, so in lieu of saying thank you, he gave a gentle squeeze to the hand that was already holding his.
They lapsed once more into a comfortable silence. He still felt a bit of that ache, but was considerably more relaxed in Katara’s presence. The tide was further out now, and Zuko watched with wonder how the large waves would crest and then crash, the water swelling up together and then falling back apart again.
He had never fully appreciated the beauty here, on Ember Island, until just now. Now, when he was sitting on the sand, holding hands with the waterbender he had once fought against at the North Pole, in Ba Sing Se, all over the world.
So much had changed. He had changed; he had learned.
“I’ve been thinking, Katara.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Ba Sing Se.”
She turned to look at him.
“I’m glad you didn’t end up healing my scar,” he said, to her but facing the sea. “I am who I am today because of it.”
He let out a heavy breath, and turned to meet Katara’s eyes.
She smiled gently, passing back a squeeze to his hand. “I think so too, Zuko.”
She was a lot to take in. He turned back to watch the water.
She kissed his cheek, just under his scar.
A bit startled, he turned back to face her, praying that it was dark enough to hide his blushing cheeks and a smile that he couldn’t control.
“What was that for?” he asked.
She just smiled.