"OK, OK stop bragging, Katara!" Sokka whined, swatting at her hand as she tried to steal his tea via waterbending. "Just ask your question already!"
"OK, OK, the tea isn't even that good anyway," she said, glancing over at Zuko.
"I think your tea is great, Zuko. Considering the materials," Aang said, patting him on the shoulder.
"Yeah, Katara, your tea isn't much better."Toph said."Sparky has experience making tea. Now ask your question so I can go to bed." Zuko knew Toph actually really liked when they went around the circle and told stories, but she refuses to admit it.
"Whats the most embarrassing thing you've ever had happen to you?" Katara asked after a moments pause.
Everyone around the fire chuckled nervously, including Suki. Zuko didn't think Suki could be embarrassed.
"Oh, um," Aang looked like he was debating between two memories before finally settling." I sprained both my wrists right over there. Infront of a bunch of monks I didn't really know. Many of which were girls."
"How'd you manage that?" Toph asked incredulously.
"Well it was my first week with a glider, and I was the youngest monk there, so they let me go first. But I obviously wasn't very good at it, so i crashed immediately. And one of the girls came over to help me, and I kinda played dead because I was so embarrassed, and she started freaking out and it felt wrong to just get up and humiliate her so I just pretended i was unconscious while they fixed my arms up. I hadn't even hit my head."
Sokka and Toph laughed the hardest at him while Katara tried to stifle her laughter. Zuko wasn't allowed to laugh very much in front if Katara.
"Yeah, Toph, I bet you don't even have an embarrassing story cause your just so cool, right?" Aang said in a desperate attempt to get attention off of him.
"Well you are right about the being cool thing, but no, I have a story. When you threw me out of the ring at the rumble. I'd been champion for months and in waltzes Twinkle Toes, who didn't even have a fighting name, and knocks me off in under a minute!" Toph said, picking at her feet. Suki and Zuko had yet to get used to that.
"Well, I cheated so you're still a champ in my eyes." Aang reassured her.
"Thats the thing! I always caught cheaters!" Toph said crossing her arms.
"Wait, I'm confused," Suki said.
"Yeah, what on earth is a 'rumble'?" Zuko asked Toph, who excitedly explained the concept. Earthbending + Fight Club = Earth Rumble 6.
"Wait, aren't you like, eleven?"
"I'm twelve but during the rumbles I was eleven. Why?"
"So you're telling me that this underground earthbending fight club with professional adult earthbending masters let an elven year old compete? And they had no idea who you really were?"
"That would correct," Toph said, somewhat smugly. "And I beat them all with in months."
"Toph can handle herself, Zuko. She could destroy you in a fight." Katara said, glaring at him. Everyone suppressed the urge to roll their eyes.
"No, I know that, but what if she had gotten hurt? Would they just put her on the side of the road with a sign that says 'hey, is this your rude, blind kid?' Did they have doctors on sight?"
"Doctors are for cowards," Toph said as she flicked dirt at him. Katara looked like she was used to this by now. "And yeah if they just dumped by the side of the road I wouldn't be surprised. But enough about the questionable morals and safety of Rumbles, more embarrassing stories," She said, rubbing her hands together.
"Uh, can you come back to me?" Zuko asked.
"What, too cool to get embarrassed, Zuko?" Sokka asked, leaning back on his hands.
"Well, I didn't really get many opportunities to embarrass my self until recently."
"What do you mean?" Suki asked, sipping her tea.
"Well when I was at the palace I pretty much had to just sit still and not talk, and on the ship i sorta just... Forgot how to experience shame. I had a pretty one-track mind,"
"Yeah, that sounds like you." Katara said shortly. Zuko sighed quietly.
Suki stared at Katara a moment before rolling her eyes and leaning forward on her knees.
"Well one time, me and my friend Jihu found this plant and he told me it came over from the seeds on Fire Nation ships. He also told me we could uh, get high off of it." Suki said, chuckling nervously.
"What'd it look like?" Zuko asked, already knowing the answer.
"Three dark purple leaves, triangle shaped, weird berry looking thing in the middle." Suki answered as Zuko laughed.
"Oh, Agni." Zuko snickered. "You used Smoking Summer, Suki."
Then Aang started laughing. Everyone just looked at him.
"No please, just keep going, just..." He waved his hand vaguely as he laughed.
"OK... So we used it, but then I had to go to practise with the Kyoshi warriors, stumbling and giggly. Which was very humiliating,"
"Why is it called Smoking Summer?" Toph asked when she was done laughing at her.
"Every summer they release these clouds of dark purple smoke, and they grow in fields so its just these huge clouds that you get high off of." Zuko explained while Aang started giggling again. "Aang, what did you do?"
"My friend Kuzon and I went down into the field one time before it started and we just laid down in it," he broke off into giggles, "and we couldn't even walk to get out and we just had to lay there until some noticed us. Which was several hours."
After a couple moments of giggling, Suki nudged Sokka for his story.
"OK, so one time when I was like, seven, I was out hunting with my dad, Bato and the other men, and they were giving me tips on like how to hunt, do's and don't's, all the good stuff. And they were like 'you need to be careful around these hills, because there's a bunch of snowdrifts around here' and I was seven, and an idiot so I was like 'I'm not gonna fall in a snow drift' and I ran forward to prove my point and I immediately vanished in a snow drift."
"I don't remember this story," Katara said, crossing her arms in front of her.
"You were just an itty bitty three year old Katara and dad didn't tell Gran Gran or mom because he knew they'd get mad at him and Bato." Sokka said, poking her in the arm and reminding Zuko of his remarkably messed up relationship with his own sister. It had been even weirder to watch them interact with their father.
"Anyways, I fall in and I cant see and everyone is shouting instructions at me of how to get out and there's snow in my parka and it is very cold. And I finally figure out what's going on and i finally get out like ten minutes later and I just humiliated myself in some of the coolest men in the village. I didn't even realize how easily I could have froze to death until way later."
All eyes turned to Zuko. He sighed.
"I'm gonna be honest with you guys," He started as Sokka leaned forward on his knees to listen. "When I first got here I didn't know any of your names."
Toph inhaled some of her tea and Zuko and Aang patted her on the back until she was breathing normally again.
"Excuse me??" She choked out.
"Well you were new, and I never really asked for your names in the time I chased you."
"How'd you figure out our names?" Sokka asked.
"Well, I figured Toph out first, because it's obviously Earth Kingdom, and Katara is always yelling at you." Zuko explained, cautiously looking over at Katara.
"I do not yell at Toph!" Katara yelled, followed by a chorus of contradictory noises.
"You kinda do," Toph said, sprawling back against the ground.
"It's because I love you," Katara said, huffing.
"I know," Toph said, effectively weirding out Zuko at their open affection. He waited a moment before continuing.
"And I didn't know any Water Tribe names, so I don't know what's typically masculine and feminine, and there's a name that sounds a lot like Sokka in the Fire Nation that's feminine, so I thought you were Sokka," He said, motioning to Katara.
"Ouch," The siblings said together.
"And I thought you were Aang," he said to Sokka.
"Hell yeah, man." Sokka laughed.
"But I, uh, I figured out I had them mixed up pretty fast after Katara told 'Aang' show her some firebending."
"I thought your story would be about your scar." Katara said, glaring at him.
The whole circle stilled. No one asked about his scar, except Toph, and even then it was a short answer.
"It must have been pretty embarrassing to mess up in bending practice enough to do that." Katara said, raising a brow. Zuko blinked at her.
"You...think I did this?" He asked, pointing at his scar.
"How else would you have got it?" Katara deadpanned. "Just something wrong with your stance that sends the fireball back at you."
"Firebenders don't burn that easy."
"What?" She cocked her head.
Zuko rolled up his sleeve and stuck his hand in the fire to the dismay of the group. He didn't break eye contact with Katara as he held it there for several moments. He finally removed it after what felt like several minutes. The circle breathed a sigh of relief. Minus Zuko and Katara. He showed off his unburnt hand.
"Firebenders don't burn easy."
"So, how did you get it?" She asked.
"I don't owe you that story."
"Don't you, though?" Sokka elbowed her in the side.
"I ask absolutely nothing of you and you demand to know the story of the worst day of my life?"
"How bad could it be?"
"You saw me stick my hand if the fire, right? Half my face was on fire," Zuko said coldly. "This wasn't an accident."
Katara closed her mouth soon after it fell open.
"You probably deserved it. I'm sure the person who did it has great judgement." She snarked.
"I didn't know you were pro-Ozai, Katara," He snarked back.
The circle took a moment to take in the information.
"Firelord Ozai?" Suki repeated darkly. Zuko nodded. He was used to people pitying him. Even getting mad for him.
"How old were you?" Sokka asked quietly. Zuko met his gaze before he looked down at the fire Aang had proudly made. So different than Ozai's flames; warm and comforting.
There was a long moment of silence. Aang's age.
"You want us to believe that your own father did that to his son."
"We're talking about the same person, right?" Zuko asked. "Firelord Ozai? Leader of the Fire Nation?"
"He's your father."
"Have you met my sister?"
"That's different. He's your father."
"He isn't really like Chief Hadoka."
"Don't compare Ozai to my father!"
"If you hate him so much why can't you believe he did it?"
"Because he is your father! He didn't mean to hurt you!"
To everyone's horror, Zuko began to laugh.
"This isn't a joke, Zuko." Katara spat.
"Oh, because your taking it so seriously."
Katara just glared, looking about ready to attack him.
"Toph! He's lying! You can tell!"
"Yes, Toph, tell the circle this is the perfect lie to get them to treat me like an equal," He said softly.
Every one looked at Toph expectantly.
"He hasn't lied all night." She said quietly.
Katara cried out in frustration.
"Why'd you even tell us?" She yelled.
"Katara, you asked him how he got it." Sokka said. She just glared and stalked off, dumping her tea on the fire.
Zuko sighed and finished his tea.
"I'm gonna go to bed." He said, tired.
Katara couldn't do it. She didn't kill him. Then again, Zuko hadn't really expect her to.
"I'm not over it." She stated, staring into the fire.
They were stopped in a cave on their way back to the others. Katara was leaning against Appa, sipping tea. Zuko liked making tea, apparently. It reminded him of his Uncle or something.
"I thought I would...be over it?"
"I don't think you should be over it,"
"It was a long time ago. Sokka's over it."
"No, he's not. He just moved on."
"Why cant I move on, then?"
"You saw it, right?" Zuko asked after a minute.
Katara stared into the fire, that haunted look in her eyes becoming more prominent.
"You're gonna take longer to heal from watching it."
There was a long moment of silence and Zuko thought that was the end of the conversation.
"I didn't really give myself time to grieve. I felt like had to be okay for everyone else. The village took it so hard when she died. I wanted to fill the hole it left, but I didn't really deal with it. With seeing...her."
Zuko nodded. It seemed to him like they were doing a speed run version of what he did with the others. Teamwork, accidental bonding through scarring event, talk about feelings.
"What happened to your mother?" She asked after a long time.
Zuko looked up at her her and sighed.
"I thought my dad killed her, for a long time. But he said he banished her."
Zuko was quiet for a moment.
"My dad was planning on having me killed. My mom found out and went to stop him. I guess. Somewhere in there my grandfather died or was killed. I don't really know the full story."
"Was... That after or before he burned you?"
"Why'd he do it?"
Zuko huffed a laugh.
"I begged my uncle to let me into a war meeting with him. He caved, and he helped me get it. There was some general that had a plan to use the 41st division to face a battalion of earthbending masters. The 41st was made entirely of new recruits, barely older than us. He knew they'd all be killed. They were a distraction so they could take them down from behind. 'What better to use as bait than fresh meat'"he said sourly.
The fire grew with his anger, their shadows dancing against the walls of the cave.
"I spoke out, saying he was betraying them. I wasn't even supposed to be in the meeting, let alone talk. My father said I was disrespectful, and I'd have to back my words in an Agni Kai. I accepted,"Katara blinked at him.
"Whats an Agni Kai?"
"Its a duel for honor between two firebenders. To the death or until the other can't fight. Or surrenders, but that doesn't really happen."
Katara nods, adding Agni Kai to the very long list of immoral things the Fire Nation does.
"It was very public. Agni Kai's, especially ones with the Crown Prince participating, are big deals. All of Caldera Island was there, probably," Zuko takes a sip of his tea. "I thought I would be facing the general. I turned around and it was my father."
Katara blinked at how easily he said that.
"I refused to fight, obviously," Zuko hunched his shoulders, making himself smaller. "I told him I was sorry. I begged him for forgiveness on my hands and knees. I said I was his loyal son,"
" 'You will learn respect and suffering will be your teacher.' "
He looked up to meet Katara's gaze. He lifted his hand, cupping an invisible face--so young--and lit his hand on fire. Katara flinched, but he let it burn infront of him for a moment before he let it go out. She just stared at him.
"Why didn't you fight back?" She asked darkly.
"Fight against Ozai? In a hea--"
"Against your own father," Zuko interrupted. Katara looked at him carefully.
"My father wouldn't do that."
"I know. But if he did."
Katara thought for a long moment. She stared into her tea. If her father raised a hand against her, would she fight back? Would Sokka fight back? Would Azula have fought back? She shook her head. Zuko didn't respond. He might not have even seen.
She sighed and finished her tea. Setting the cup aside, she rolled over and let the fluff of Appa consume her.
Zuko finished his tea and set his cup in hers, and leaned his head against the wall of the cave to sleep.