It happened so fast. Unbelievably fast.
One second, Azula was standing in front of them, trapped and outnumbered, raising her hands in defeat. They’d beaten her; they’d won. It should’ve been over. Then, with a single sweep of her arm, a bolt of lightning shot from her fingertips, zipping toward Iroh too quickly, too close range for him to react in time to redirect it.
She had been aiming at him. It should’ve been him getting hit, him doubling over, him collapsing lifelessly to the ground. So why was his nephew suddenly flying in front of him? Why did the lightning strike him instead? How could he have predicted what was about to happen, let alone moved in time to take the blow?
Why did the world dip into slow motion as the electricity coursed through his body? Flashing, cracking, sizzling—coiling like neon blue snakes? Why couldn’t he move as he watched Zuko fall? Why didn’t he reach out and catch him? Why did his screams sound distant even though he was right there, convulsing at his feet?
Why did the stench of burning flesh have to smell so familiar?
The avatar and his gang threw everything they had at the princess. But in a flash of blue flame, heat and smoke exploded across the battlefield. When the air cleared, she was gone. Zuko lied where he’d fallen, motionless and silent.
Iroh dropped to his knees. “No—Zuko— no.” A large hole was seared through the fabric on the upper left side of his chest. The skin that was visible was red and raw. His eyes were closed and his muscles were slack. He looked asleep—peaceful, even.
It was too similar. Too real. His last day in Ba Sing Se roared back to the present with a ferocious vengeance. With trembling hands, Iroh cradled the boy’s head.
“Nephew...can you hear me? Zuko…please...”
Once they’d determined the threat was gone, the group gazed upon the gut-wrenching scene, stunned. A cold knot formed in Aang’s belly. Zuko had been hurt— bad. Zuko was their enemy. They’d been fighting each other not even thirty seconds ago. But the old general he called his uncle had always seemed strangely neutral. He’d never actively fought against any of them. Back in the Northern Water Tribe, he’d helped them save the moon spirit—and in turn, the entire world.
However evil Zuko was, Aang didn’t want him to die. The old man clearly cared about him. And the sound of his sobs…
He looked to Katara. The war raging in her soul gleamed in the whites of her eyes. She caught his gaze, grimacing bitterly, her hands balled into fists at her sides.
“Katara,” Toph said, the weight of the situation heavy in her voice. The others held their breath, glancing between Zuko and the waterbender. Slowly, the anger drained from her expression.
She stepped toward the old man, extending her hand. “I—I can help,” she said. “I can heal him, if you’ll let me.”
“Katara!” Sokka protested. She ignored him. Iroh looked at her over his shoulder, eyes red and pleading.
That was all the confirmation she needed. Katara rushed to Zuko’s other side, kneeling opposite of Iroh. She streamed a line of water from her pouch and cloaked it around her hands.
“What are you doing?” Sokka snapped. “He’s our enemy!”
“He’s hurt,” Katara retorted coldly. “He needs my help.”
“I d-don’t think he’s breathing,” Iroh stammered, clutching the teenager like he’d disintegrate if he let him go. “Is he—is his heart—I c-can’t tell if he’s—”
“He’s breathing,” Toph assured him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “I can feel it. His heart’s beating, too.” She closed her eyes. “But...they’re both very weak.”
It tore her up, feeling Iroh shiver against the ground, hearing his voice quake with fear. She’d only spoken to him once, but in their short conversation, he’d proved himself to be a wise, kind person who would do anything for his troubled nephew. They couldn’t let him die, if only for Iroh’s sake.
Katara held her hands over the injury, the water following its path through his body. The damage was deep and gruesome. Streams of burnt flesh fanned out from the entry wound across the majority of his torso, snaked down his left leg, then re-concentrated at the bottom of his foot, where the lightning must have exited.
“This is bad,” she admitted, her gaze shifting to Zuko’s face. He’d never looked so fragile to her before—so small. His weird bald ponytail look was gone; he’d chopped it off and let his hair start growing out. It was short, fuzzy, and—dare she say— cute , comparatively. It also aged him down, making him look less like a scary Fire Nation soldier and more like a teenager.
“It’s going to take me awhile. We should find somewhere safe to move him.”
Iroh sniffled and wiped his eyes, holding Zuko’s head in his lap and running a hand through his hair. “Okay,” he said. “Yes, let’s—yes. Okay.”
It took him a minute to stand. He kept his palm cupped under Zuko’s head, never letting it touch the ground. Once he was on his feet, Katara and Aang helped lift his nephew into his arms.
“Thank you,” the old man whimpered. “Thank you all s-so much...” Tears flowed freely from his eyes as he held Zuko close to his chest. Aang offered him a small smile.
“Let’s head back toward the river,” Katara said, returning the water to her pouch. “Appa should be waiting for us there. We can set up camp in the surrounding forest.”
As she walked past Sokka, he gave her a what is wrong with you look. She shot back with a glare of her own, which shut him up for the time being.
That lasted about two minutes. As Katara led the way, Sokka jogged to catch up with her, keeping his voice low.
“You do realize how crazy this is, don’t you?”
Katara narrowed her eyes but didn’t respond.
“We’re helping Zuko . You know, royal Fire Nation psycho freak? Ozai’s devil spawn? The guy who's been chasing us around and terrorizing us since we first met Aang? The dude who wants nothing more than to kill us all and drag our friend back to the Fire Nation like a prized turkey pig?”
“You think I want to help him?” Katara snapped, holding her shoulders tight as she walked. “He’ll die if I don’t heal him. Are you saying we should just let him die?”
Sokka swallowed and stared at his feet. “I...no. I don’t know. I just...don’t see any version of this ending well.”
“I know it’s weird,” Aang concurred, glancing back at Iroh nervously. “But...we have to help him. It’s the right thing to do.”
“What if one of us got shot full of lightning?” Sokka retorted. “You think Prince Jerkbender would do anything to help us? Of course not. He would exploit the situation to try to capture Aang.”
“His uncle would help,” Toph said.
Aang smiled solemnly. “Exactly. Don’t think of it as helping Zuko. Think of it as helping Iroh not be sad.” He blinked, his eyes darkening. “He seems...really scared and shaken.”
“It boggles my mind that he cares about him so much. That old man’s kindness is completely wasted on a selfish moron like Zuko.”
Iroh moaned suddenly, causing the group to freeze in place and turn around. The Fire Nation general was trailing far behind them, flushed and sweaty. His knees were wobbling under the burden of Zuko’s weight.
“I’m so sorry,” he grated out. “S’my old joints. Please...could someone…”
Slowly, all eyes swiveled to Sokka. It took him a moment to notice the sudden onslaught of attention. He glanced between his friends, spluttering.
“What?” he exclaimed. “Why me?”
Aang shrugged. “Out of all of us, you’re probably the strongest.”
“But I don’t want to carry the angry jerk!” he whined, stamping his feet.
Katara placed her hands on her hips. “You don’t want to, or you’re not strong enough to?” she retorted smugly.
Sokka knew she was baiting him, but with a huff, he decided to bite. All of them were exhausted; Azula and her tank of dangerous ladies had made sure of that. The sooner they got to camp, the sooner they could rest.
“Fine,” he grumbled. He marched back toward Iroh, griping sourly under his breath. “Here—gimme.”
Sokka knelt down and let Iroh drape Zuko over his back. Sokka wrapped his arms under his knees and hoisted his weight forward, bundling the unconscious prince into the world’s most unhappy piggyback ride.
Once he was secure, Sokka rose upright and stomped after Katara, face gnarled with irritation. “Happy now?” he said. “If he wakes up and roasts me alive, I’m blaming you.”
“Please be careful with him,” Iroh said nervously, tailing Sokka with his hands out like he was going to drop his nephew at any moment.
Sokka rolled his eyes but held Zuko a little tighter. “Yeah, yeah,” he murmured.
Ten minutes later, they reached the river. Appa was snoring peacefully beneath a tree with Momo nestled in his fur. The sun poked above the horizon line, casting blood red beams across the water.
As Aang gathered their blankets and sleeping bags from Appa’s saddle, Katara yawned and pointed at an alcove between two evergreens. “Toph, could you make us an earth tent? One big enough for all of us to fit.”
Toph jabbed her fists out then up, forming a large, triangle-shaped structure. The gang staggered inside, blinking and rubbing their sleepy eyes, with Iroh close behind.
“Lay him down here,” Katara instructed. Aang spread their spare blanket across the ground while Sokka unraveled himself from the lifeless firebender.
“You know, you’re a lot heavier than you look, your highness,” Sokka scoffed. “Might want to lay off the fire gummies. And your obsessive rage-fueled quest of evil against me and my friends.”
Iroh hurried to Sokka’s aid. The two of them worked together to gently guide Zuko to the ground. Aang tucked Sokka’s Water Tribe jacket under his head as a pillow.
“But that’s…!” Sokka began, then sunk in defeat. “Oh, whatever.”
“He looks so still,” Iroh breathed. He petted Zuko’s hair and ran his thumb along his cheek, tears glistening in his eyes. “Oh, nephew. How could I let this happen…?”
Katara re-soaked her hands in water and sat on Zuko’s left. “I’ll help him as much as I can,” she said, expression steely. She stifled another yawn, then got to work.
The moon was high in the sky by the time she was done. The wound was still bad, but edging away from life-threatening. Her friends had fallen asleep long ago; she and Iroh were the only one’s left awake. She would’ve kept going, but at this point, she could barely keep her eyes open.
“He’ll need a few more sessions to heal properly,” she said, streaming the water back into her pouch and rising to her feet, “and a lot of rest. I’ll start again in the morning.”
“Thank you, young lady,” Iroh said, bowing his head. “I owe you and your friends an insurmountable debt. I know how you all must feel about my nephew, but…” He swallowed, voice wavering. “He—he’s very important to me. I know he is capable of great good, he’s just...been through a lot.”
Katara wasn’t sure how to respond. She didn’t want to entertain the possibility that Zuko was or ever could be an actual human being with feelings—not after all the pain and trouble he’d put them through. Regardless of how his uncle saw him, he was still their enemy: a Fire Nation scumbag determined to capture their friend and rid the world of its last emblem of hope. Healing him was a reflection of her own kindness, and a courtesy to Iroh; it had nothing to do with Zuko himself. Having the capacity for good wasn’t enough; he’d never acted on it, which rendered it meaningless.
Katara glared at the ground. “If he wakes up…” she began.
“He will be no trouble to you,” Iroh assured her. “You have my word.”
She trusted him, though she wasn’t sure why. He was just as much Fire Nation as Zuko, but his aura and levelness reminded her of her father. Someone inclined to protect the wellbeing of others, and who never broke their promises. Still, she wasn’t letting her guard down.
She eyed the large red splotch on Zuko’s chest. “Even if I can fully heal him, he’ll probably still be left with a scar.”
Iroh blanched, but kept his expression stony. “I see,” he said. His somber gaze shifted to his nephew’s face. “That is okay. He can handle it.” His fingers carded through Zuko’s hair, lingering around his left eye. “It won’t be his first time being scarred by a family member.”
Something cold coiled around Katara’s heart. Her eyes flickered toward the dark, leathery burn marring half of the prince’s face before quickly jerking away. Someone in his family did that to him? She’d never thought much about Zuko’s scar—just that it marked him as an individual, distinguished him as their enemy, and made him all the more scary-looking for it. She hadn’t really considered how he’d gotten it, or what significance that might carry.
Her curiosity was officially piqued, but she knew better than to ask. She turned away indignantly. What does it matter, anyway? A bad home life doesn’t warrant a lifetime of evil.
No amount of sob stories would ever make Zuko deserving of her sympathy.
“Goodnight,” she said, curling up beside her friends.
“Goodnight,” he replied. He scooted behind Zuko and lifted his head into his lap, periodically checking his pulse as he petted his hair. It didn’t look like he was planning to go to sleep anytime soon.
The world that Zuko woke to was bright and painful. A beam of sunlight was shining directly into his eyes, making him squint and blink. He tried to shift to escape the harsh glow, but he couldn’t seem to move.
Maybe it had something to do with the bone-deep agony radiating through his entire body.
It started underneath his left shoulder and pulsed out from there, feverish and nauseating. His foot surged with a similar ache, but to a less heated degree. Every feeble attempt to move made it a hundred times worse. Even breathing was excruciating.
Ugh, he thought, gritting his teeth. His mind was hazy; his skull felt like it was full of stones. Wha…?
He blinked, and a blinding blue flash exploded behind his eyelids. He jolted as the memory returned, his hand flying to his shoulder.
Azula. Outnumbered. Defeated. But...she attacked. Uncle. Had to protect him. Jumped between them. Then…
A cataclysmic thrum of unimaginable pain. After that, everything had clapped to darkness.
Grimacing, Zuko slid one hand underneath his body and pushed against the ground. The effort left him dizzy and gasping, but he managed to lift himself off the floor and into a sitting position, his bare back resting against the stone wall behind him. He sat that way for a while, panting and moaning, gripping his chest where the pain throbbed like a second heartbeat.
Azula had done this to him. Figured. Had she captured the avatar and dragged him home to Father while he was out, taking away his only chance of ever redeeming his honor?
He looked down at his shoulder, lifting his hand away from the skin. A large, red scar lied underneath, blistered and swollen and still relatively fresh. The splotchy, scarlet circle was the only visible evidence left by Azula’s attack, although he could feel its harrowing effect in every muscle of his body. It looked slightly different than the mark on his face—felt different, too. But not different enough.
Another burn. Another scar. At least this one he could hide.
But man , did it hurt.
He tore his gaze away from the wound and scanned his surroundings, blinking the sleepy sheen from his eyes. He was in some kind of tall, tent-like structure made of earth. The ground around him was littered with blankets, bags, and other miscellaneous items. Not Uncle’s belongings, he realized. Zuko’s throat tightened.
He’d have to worry about dealing with Azula later. For now…
Where in the world am I?
Voices reached his ears, making him perk up in alarm. Someone calling from afar, followed by a cheerful laugh.
“Hold on—let me grab my staff!”
Footsteps approached, quick but light. A few moments later, a figure jogged into the tent, silhouetted by sunshine. Zuko squinted against the harsh brightness, his eyes still bleary with exhaustion.
The individual moved out of the doorway to rummage through a bag on the floor. Only when he stood upright, glider in hand, backlit by the sun but no longer blown out, did his bald head, blue tattoos, and chipper smile become distinguishable.
“Found it!” the avatar cried. Then his gaze fell upon the injured firebender, who was now sitting upright and visibly conscious, and his eyes bugged out of his skull.
“Ah!” he gasped, flinching back and dropping his staff. Before Zuko had time to react, let alone process what was going on, Aang darted out of the tent, shouting: “He’s awake! Guys! Zuko’s awake!”
Zuko blinked. And suddenly, four people were looming over him, their outlines and features fuzzy-looking. Time seemed to be flying by at double the speed while he was trapped in slow motion. His brain felt like a mushy bowl of jook. Fortunately, he managed to identify the individuals surrounding him.
Unfortunately, they were the last four people he wanted to see right now.
“What the—?” he exclaimed, panic blooming in his chest. He tried to sit up a little straighter, but the movement made his chest flare with pain. He clutched it with a groan, slumping limply against the wall.
“Don’t move,” the small earthbending girl said. “You’re hurt really bad.”
Zuko forced his eyes open, leering between the avatar and his gang, sweating bullets and shivering all over. Why was he shivering so much? Why couldn’t he make it stop? He didn’t just feel hurt; he felt sick. The wound was hot and sticky against his palm.
“W-what are you doing here?” he growled.
“Saving you, that’s what,” Aang retorted. The Water Tribe boy—Sokka, if his memory served—stood beside him, holding his boomerang at the ready.
“Azula attacked you,” he explained. “She shot you full of lightning. You’d be dead if Katara hadn’t helped you.”
Zuko’s stomach turned icy. His eyes wandered to the waterbender, who frowned at him with her hand hovering over her pouch. All of them looked ready to kill him the second he made the wrong move.
Meanwhile, he felt ready to puke.
Why would they save me? That meant they needed him for something. Information? Intel on the Fire Nation? A ransom hostage? Fat chance he’d be helpful on any of those accounts. They could turn him over to his father, maybe—he was a fugitive of the Fire Nation. Then again, so were they.
Or they were lying about saving him. Maybe they’d kidnapped him after Azula’s attack just so they got to watch him suffer a slow, grisly death. Maybe this was building toward some elaborate form of payback for all the times he’d tried to capture the avatar. His injury wasn’t even bandaged—no medicine in sight, either. What exactly had they done to help him?
“I’ll go get Iroh,” Aang said, jogging out of the tent. Zuko’s fear-fueled fantasies veered into confusion.
What? Uncle’s here? Why? Was he hurt, too? Had the avatar and his friends captured them both? What was going on?
“His fever’s gotten worse,” the earthbender said. It took Zuko a second to realize she was talking about him, and a second longer to realize she had somehow come to this conclusion without even touching him. It made no sense. None of this did. It felt like he was trapped inside some crazy, lucid nightmare.
Katara studied him for a while, her eyes dark and searching. Then she sighed, coating her hands in water. She walked toward him suddenly, making Zuko tense.
“Stay back!” he shouted, gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering. He kept one palm glued to his wound while the other stayed flat against the ground to prevent him from toppling over.
To his disbelief, the waterbender ignored him, sitting by his side with a level expression. Katara stared at Zuko coldly. She’d never realized how golden his irises were. She’d never been this close to see—not while he was awake. When they caught the sunlight, they glinted and shimmered in an almost supernatural way. The eyes of a hunter.
Zuko glared back with his usual scowl. Brows furrowed, teeth bared. He’d always reminded her of a predator. Something wild and ferocious that prowled after the innocent. But today, something was different. Today, Zuko was the prey: trembling, injured, trapped, and scared. His typically scalding gaze was clouded with fear.
Katara held up her hands as she stared him down. The water encasing them glowed a soft blue. “I’m going to help lower your fever,” she stated. “Either you sit still and let me do it, or Toph pins you down and makes you stay still.”
“And if you try firebending, Boomerang is coming for your head,” Sokka added.
Zuko’s skin bristled with goosebumps as chills shuddered up his spine. After the Agni Kai against his father, he recalled contracting an intense fever in response to the terrible burn. It hadn’t lasted long, but it wasn’t pleasant. Uncle had worked diligently to bring it down and comfort him while the physicians tended to his scorched face. It wasn’t a time he liked to remember, but he wondered if that’s what was happening now—if Azula’s burn was afflicting him just like Father’s had.
“I don’t w-want your help,” Zuko hissed. He had no idea what she was planning to do to him, and he wasn’t interested in finding out. Whatever the end goal to all of this was, their intentions were clearly hostile.
Katara shared a look with her brother, then wrinkled her brow. Wordlessly, she reached forward, placing her palm against Zuko’s forehead.
“Hey! What’re you—?” He squirmed away and made a grab for her wrist, but she caught his first, pinning his arm against the wall without moving the hand on his head. He didn’t realize how weak he was until he tried and failed to wriggle free of her hold. The effort it took just to try left him woozy.
“Just— wait,” she instructed sharply. “It’ll make you feel better. I promise.”
He considered frying her hand to force her to release him, but Sokka was right there, and he knew how much that boomerang could hurt—even with a helmet on. Plus, he was tired, lightheaded, and now that she mentioned it…
He stopped fighting for a moment, panting. The watery glove around her hand felt like it was seeping through his skull and into his brain, sucking all the heat and pain with it. The pulsing ache in his head eased to a small hum. His feverish chills eased away. Slowly, his muscles relaxed. He blinked, stunned by the sudden and extraordinary relief.
Once she realized he wasn’t trying to escape anymore, she let go of his wrist and pressed both palms to his temples. The assuage increased even more, making Zuko release a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
“This should bring your fever down temporarily,” she said. This was not normal waterbending; he knew that much. It was cool, tingly, soothing, almost spiritual in nature. When she took her hands away, he was left feeling exponentially better, though the wound on his shoulder continued to throb. Zuko met her gaze for an instant, pressing a finger to his brow.
“What...what’d you just do?” he asked. Katara stood and stepped back, her expression sour.
“Reduced your pain, even if you deserve every bit of it.”
Anger resurfaced in the prince’s chest. Even though he was still reeling with relief, his eyes cut daggers through hers.
“Then why do it?” he remarked. He gripped his injury tighter. “Why am I here? What do you want from me?”
“I’ll see if Iroh has any herbal remedies he could give you for a more permanent solution,” Katara continued, ignoring his abrasive inquiry. “But you’ll need plenty of rest to recover completely.”
“Answer my questions!” Zuko yelled, making Sokka and Toph wince. “Why are you keeping me here? What are you planning?”
The shouting roused his wound, making him fall back against the wall with a strained whimper. At that moment, the avatar skipped back into the tent with Iroh on his tail. Zuko glanced up along with the others. As soon as Uncle’s eyes found his, the old man melted.
“See? He’s awake! Told you he’d be all right!”
Iroh didn’t wait for him to finish. He rushed toward his nephew, tripping over sleeping bags and pushing past Sokka with his arms outstretched. “Zuko!” he cried.
“Uncle?” the young prince answered, looking puzzled. He yelped in surprise when Iroh practically tackled him, wrapping him into the biggest platypus bear hug any of them had ever seen.
“Oh, my beautiful nephew!” Iroh blubbered, squeezing the air from his lungs. “I’m so happy you’re all right!”
Zuko squirmed uncomfortably, inexperienced in dealing with such blatant physical affection. “Uncle! What’re you— ouch! Quit it! You’re—crushing me!”
A few giggles slipped from Aang and Toph’s lips. It was an amusing scene—watching the grumpy Fire Nation prince get smothered by his overbearing uncle. Even the Water Tribe siblings hinted smug grins. Aang swore he saw a touch of pink flush across the firebender’s cheeks.
Despite his nephew’s wriggly protests, Iroh clung on to him a little while longer, one hand wrapped around Zuko’s torso while the other cradled the back of his head. Zuko eventually gave up trying to escape and just sat there awkwardly, squished and pouting as he waited for his uncle to get his fill. The gang was relieved to see Iroh happy after so many hours of anxiety.
Once he finally released Zuko from his hold, Iroh’s attention honed in on his nephew’s wound, his hands hovering around the bright red scar. “How bad does it hurt? Are you in terrible pain?”
More like excruciating, Zuko thought. His muscles felt like burnt noodles, his bones like over-roasted komodo chicken legs. But he didn’t need to tell Iroh that—he was already an erratic pyre of stress as it was. He rolled his eyes and shrugged, trying to evoke nonchalance, realizing his mistake too late. A stabbing ache tore through his shoulder and shot down his arm, making him to wince sharply and hiss through his teeth. He grabbed his chest, groaning wearily.
“Stay still, Prince Zuko,” Iroh said, laying the back of his hand against his cheek. “Your body is very weak, and you’re still warmer than usual. I’ll brew you some ginger root tea to reduce the fever.”
Zuko scrunched up his brow and knocked his hand away. “Stop fussing, Uncle,” he grumbled bitterly. “M’fine.”
“Fine?” Iroh repeated. A beat passed where the old man just stared at him, jaw tight, his lower lip trembling. Then, out of nowhere, Uncle seized Zuko by his uninjured shoulder, his eyes flashing with an uncharacteristic rage. “Are you insane? You call this ‘fine?’ What on earth were you thinking?”
Zuko blinked, looking just as surprised as everyone else in the room. He was still recovering from Iroh’s crushing embrace, followed by the sudden burst of pain. Now he was yelling at him?
“What?” Zuko said, startled.
“Why would you throw yourself in between me and Azula like that?” he shouted. “That lightning should have hit me , not you!”
It wasn’t like Uncle to shout. Uncle only shouted when it was for a very specific and important purpose. He wasn’t like the Fire Lord—or Zuko, for that matter.
“You’d rather I just sat there and let you take the hit?” Zuko scoffed in disbelief. “Azula was trying to kill you!”
“And she very nearly killed you!” Iroh retorted, making Zuko shrink back a little. “If it wasn’t for the kindness of these children, you’d be dead right now! First in the North Pole, and again today!”
Zuko grimaced and turned away, avoiding everyone’s eyes. “I never asked for their help.”
Iroh gave him a quick shake, making the young prince tense. “You shouldn’t even be needing it! You have to stop putting yourself in danger like this!”
Zuko didn’t understand why he was so angry with him. He huffed toward the ground. “This is exactly why I didn’t want us traveling together anymore. You worry too much.”
“Because you don’t worry enough!” Iroh roared. “You seem perfectly fine with throwing your life away over nothing!”
“I was trying to protect you, Uncle!” Zuko exclaimed, shoving his hand off his shoulder. “Is your life nothing?”
“Yes!” Iroh snarled. He cupped his nephew’s face in his hands, his eyes like fire. “Compared to yours, yes! My life is nothing, Prince Zuko.”
Zuko’s scowl fell, replaced by a look of sickly confusion. The tent plunged into sudden silence. Aang and his friends felt like they were intruding on a very private moment, but now they were too intrigued not to see how this ended.
“Why...would you say that?” Zuko asked uneasily. He pulled Iroh’s hands away from his face. “That’s not—”
“I’ve lived my life, nephew,” Uncle insisted. “If I died today, I’d die a happy, fulfilled old man. But you are just a boy, my prince, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. You have so much life left to live. If you died…”
Uncle shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut, bowing low to ground, as if the thought physically hurt him. Zuko didn’t know what to say. Tears started slipping down Iroh’s cheeks and dripping into the grass.
“Uncle…” Zuko began softly. A moment later, his eyes lurched up to the four others occupying the room and grew wide, as if he’d forgotten they were there. He leered at them with a mixture of loathing and embarrassment, feeling strange and exposed by their prying gazes, until Uncle listed forward, burying his face into his chest.
“Don’t m-make me endure it again, Zuko,” Iroh wept, hugging the prince with all the love and pain in the universe. “Don’t make me watch another son die...”
Guilt and sorrow surged into Zuko’s throat. He knew Iroh cared for him—knew he liked to pretend that he was his own now that Lu Ten was gone. But to this day, he didn’t understand why . Zuko had done nothing to earn Iroh’s love; he actively pushed him away and treated him like garbage just to prove it, testing how much it would take to get it to break. But no matter what he tried, Iroh’s love persisted: unbending and unconditional. It was perplexing, illogical, infuriating —and wonderful.
Uncle’s love wasn’t like Ozai’s. Uncle’s love wasn’t something he had to beg and fight and compete for. It was just...there. Always. And he had no idea how to deal with it.
As Iroh cried into his shoulder, Zuko placed an awkward hand on his arm in attempt to calm him, wincing at the anguish in his sobs. “I wasn’t—I didn’t—” he stammered, grappling for the words to make him stop.
“It would’ve killed me, Zuko,” Iroh wept, holding him close. “If you d-died saving me, I would have died anyway. I couldn’t bear it. Not again…”
Zuko watched his Uncle sniffle and shake, a lump forming in his throat. He didn’t understand it. He doubted he ever would. He swallowed thickly and closed his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. He cursed the wobble that snuck into his voice.
“I think we should go,” Toph whispered, jerking her thumb toward the exit. The group nodded in agreement. None of them had ever seen Zuko so vulnerable before—physically, emotionally, or otherwise. He obviously reciprocated Iroh’s love, even if he wasn’t as good at expressing it as him. It was obnoxiously heartwarming.
“No,” Iroh said, sitting up suddenly, running the heels of his hands under his puffy eyes. “No, please stay.” He turned to Zuko, placing a palm against his back. “My nephew has something he’d like to say to you.”
Zuko’s soft expression twisted into a look of disgust. “What?”
“These people saved your life on two different occasions, Prince Zuko—despite all the trouble we’ve caused them. The least you can do is thank them for their generosity.”
The firebender’s golden gaze bore ferociously into his uncle’s, then swept across the four kids standing around them. His signature scowl returned with a vengeance.
“There’s a reason besides generosity that they did it,” Zuko hissed, flinching and grabbing his wounded shoulder. “I just haven’t figured out what it is yet.”
Katara placed her hands on her hips. “We did it because we’re not monsters,” she shot back. “And because your uncle cares about you. Why , I have no idea—but we didn’t want him to lose his nephew.”
Zuko lunged toward her with a growl, but Iroh held him back, which did not take much effort.
“Enough, Zuko,” he scolded him. “The reason they helped you does not matter. The fact is, they helped you. And that alone warrants your gratitude.”
The injured prince glowered at them, gritting his teeth. Iroh was kidding himself if he thought he was going to get a ‘thank you’ to cross his insufferable nephew’s lips.
“Trust me, Prince Zuko—it is far more honorable to thank your rival for sparing your life than to hold your tongue out of senseless pride.” He placed a hand on his head and ruffled his hair. “Go on.”
Zuko ducked out of his reach and scratched his scalp irritably. The group waited for him to blow up, to spit fire and fury and tell all of them to go jump in the river. His glare alone could sear clean through stone.
But to everyone’s disbelief, the flames in his eyes were gradually superseded by something else. A lifetime of exhaustion, misery, and defeat. His golden irises suddenly looked dull; his expression grew heavy with sadness. He grimaced at the wall, still trembling a little from his fever.
“This doesn’t change anything,” he spat, squeezing his eyes shut. “But...thank you.”
A moment later, Zuko did a quick motion, placing the heel of his left palm on top of his right fist and dipping his head toward the ground. If someone blinked, they would’ve missed it—but the gang recognized the rapid gesture as a Fire Nation bow, done as a sign of respect and humility. It was fast and awkward, but it was genuine. Then Zuko turned his back to them, frowning at the corner of the tent, hunching his shoulders and kneading his wound with his thumb.
Katara, Sokka, and Toph walked outside, but Aang stayed behind, smiling wide. Even though he wasn’t looking, Aang repeated the movement back to Zuko. Iroh beamed at him delightedly, then patted his nephew’s arm.
“Get some rest, Prince Zuko. I’ll be back soon with the tea and some soup.”
Zuko didn’t acknowledge him as he got up and left with the others. He just stared at the wall, feeling small, broken, and weak.
While Iroh prepared the meal, the avatar and his crew sat around the fire in a misshapen semi-circle, each occupied with their own projects. Aang polished his staff, Sokka sharpened his boomerang, Katara sewed a tear in her dress, and Toph played with Momo, making little pegs of earth pop up from the ground for him to chase.
The silence was suffocating.
Sokka kept shooting looks at his friends, as if to say is no one going to acknowledge how strange this is? They had two Fire Nation royalty with them, one of which was making them dinner, while the other (who had tried to kill them on many, many occasions) was sleeping hardly twenty feet away. When he couldn’t bear it any longer, he cleared his throat, painting an awkward grin on his face.
“So...uh...Iroh. General Iroh? Or—Prince Iroh? Or—?”
The old man chuckled. “Just Iroh is fine.” He swirled a ladle through the steaming broth. The aroma was thick and spicy. “Would anyone care for some ginseng soup?”
Everyone raised their hand, bringing a smile to his face. He filled four bowls to the brim and handed one to each of the kids. Once the group had been served, Iroh sat among them, sipping his own meal while monitoring the tea.
“Wow, this is great!” Sokka said, slurping noisily. He wiped his mouth and eyed the old man with a frown. “Not to be rude or anything, but...you seem like a pretty okay guy. Why do you waste your time trying to help your evil nephew?”
“Sokka!” Katara rebuked him, making him wince.
“What? It’s a valid question! He’s so polite and nice, even if he is Fire Nation. Zuko , on the other hand...”
Iroh rested his bowl in his lap, watching the soup wobble and glint in the sunlight. He sighed softly. “I know you all dislike my nephew. And after everything he’s done, you have every right to. He is a conflicted person who has made many mistakes.” He lifted his gaze. “But I’ve known Zuko since the day he was born, and I know the goodness that lies within him.”
Katara huffed dubiously, sipping her dinner in short bouts. Sokka frowned behind his soup mustache. Meanwhile, Aang and Toph listened curiously, spooning heaps of broth into their bellies. Momo leaned over Aang’s shoulder and lapped up a few mouthfuls from his bowl.
“I was on a path not dissimilar from his for most of my life. Obsessed with honor and power, as well as my place in the Fire Nation. It took immense pain and suffering for me to realize the error of my ways and to start on a new journey. One focused on restoring balance to the world and protecting peace.”
His words struck Katara like an arrow through the heart. “Your son?” she said hesitantly, remembering his words from before. Iroh closed his eyes and nodded his head.
“Yes. Lu Ten.”
“But how is helping Zuko capture Aang protecting peace?” Sokka asked bluntly. “You’d be destroying it.”
Iroh chuckled. “I haven’t exactly been helpful in my nephew’s pursuit of the avatar. That has never been my goal. I travel with him because I’m all he has left.” He lowered his gaze. “Now that he and I have been declared fugitives of the Fire Nation, I suppose he’s all I have, too.”
Aang gawked. “Fugitives? You mean the Fire Nation considers Zuko a criminal?”
He recalled that it had been Zuko who busted him out of the Fire Nation prison Zhao had locked him up in. Zuko, wielding dual swords and wearing a blue mask, had helped him escape. To this day, he never understood why he’d risked his life to free him. Was it really all because he wanted to capture the avatar himself?
Had the Fire Nation found out what he did that night, and branded him a traitor?
“Zuko was banished from the Fire Nation when he was thirteen, and has been living in exile ever since. But only recently has the Fire Lord labeled him fugitive.” Iroh stroked his beard. “Why, I’m not entirely sure—though I have my suspicions.”
Katara and Sokka exchanged a startled glance. Zuko was banished from his own country? At thirteen?
“Why was he banished in the first place?” Toph asked, voicing the question in everyone’s mind.
Iroh finished off his soup and placed his bowl to the side, his eyes dark. He knew Zuko wouldn’t approve of him sharing his life story with his so-called enemies. But perhaps if they knew how he ended up in the place he was today, they could begin to understand the why, and maybe even aid him on his journey to see the light. Iroh heaved a lofty sigh.
“It is my fault, I am afraid. I let him attend a war meeting even though I knew the risks. It is one of my greatest regrets.” He bowed his head. “The Fire Nation is very strict about knowing one’s place and staying quiet in certain social situations. When I granted him permission to join us, I warned him not to speak. But when one of the generals suggested we use a group of new recruits as bait for our next attack against the Earth Kingdom, that we send a bunch of kids into what would very likely wind up a suicide mission—Zuko denounced him in front of the highest ranking war authorities in the Fire Nation.”
His nephew’s words echoed hollowly in his skull. You can’t sacrifice an entire battalion like that! Those soldiers love and defend our nation. How could you betray them?
The four friends stared at him in tense silence. Iroh poured himself a cup of tea as the fire cracked and fizzled.
“Zuko was right, of course. But his actions were considered extraordinarily disrespectful. He was forced to fight an Agni Kai—a fire duel—in front of the entire royal court. He thought it would be against the elderly general he’d interrupted. Instead, when he turned around, he found himself standing face-to-face with Ozai, his father.”
The icy claw from before seized Katara’s heart with a newfound frigidness. She had a feeling she already knew where this was leading, but the thought still chilled her to her core.
“His dad... wanted to fight him?” Sokka inquired. “Or he was forced to?”
“Ozai is the Fire Lord—the supreme leader of the country. He could have easily pardoned Zuko and moved on. My brother chose to fight his own thirteen-year-old son willingly and zealously.” Iroh grimaced. “Ozai has detested Zuko since he was a child, always favoring his sister Azula above him. He’s been searching for a way to revoke Zuko’s birthright to the throne since Azula began to overshadow him in firebending prowess. Speaking out in a war meeting granted him the perfect excuse to do just that.”
The air was still. Toph suddenly felt guilty for once believing her parents were the worst the universe could bestow. Momo trilled and pawed at Aang’s ear. The avatar leaned toward Iroh anxiously.
“What happened next?”
The old man sipped his steaming cup, his expression sad and distant. “I thought by this point, the whole world knew what happened that day. Fire Nation parents tell the story to their children to scare them into obedience and allegiance to their country.”
None of the kids spoke up. They just stared at him, wide-eyed. So Iroh continued.
“Zuko threw himself to the ground, begging for his father’s forgiveness. Ozai commanded him to fight, but he refused to attack his own father.”
The cup was suddenly trembling in his hands. His knuckles were stiff and white. “I...I should have stopped him. I should have protected Zuko. He was just a child, you know? And he was so afraid...”
Iroh gazed at the grass between his feet. Tiny flowers shuddered and danced in the breeze.
“Ozai...did not show him mercy,” he said, voice ominous. “After the duel, Zuko’s refusal to fight was pronounced weak and disgraceful—behaviors unfit for a prince of the Fire Nation. And so, the Fire Lord banished him. He was tasked with capturing the avatar,” he noted grimly, turning to Aang. “A purposely impossible mission at the time, since you had been missing for over a hundred years with no sign of returning. It was meant to keep Zuko from ever coming back to the Fire Nation. But Ozai claimed that if Zuko found you and brought you to him, he would restore his son’s honor and welcome him home with open arms.” He looked away, face solemn. “And that is what he’s been trying to do ever since.”
Appa grunted from his shady spot by the river. The air between the four friends suddenly felt cold. It was a lot to process. It explained a few of the things many of them had always been confused about when it came to Zuko, but gave rise to multiple entirely new questions they’d never even thought to consider. Katara lifted her hand toward her left eye.
“Is that…” she began reluctantly. “You said a family member gave that to him—the scar on his face.”
Iroh blinked slowly, miserably. “Yes,” he replied. “His father did that to him. He burned his own son while he lay prostrate before him, pleading for mercy.” His eyebrows furrowed together. “Out of all the horrors I’ve witnessed throughout this war, watching my brother scar and banish that boy is among the cruelest. I doubt the memory will ever leave my mind.”
Shocked silence gripped the group. So that was where Zuko’s scar had come from. Not a training misfire, not some careless childhood mistake—but an intentional brand from his father to mark him as an unwanted outsider. A couple more seconds passed before Sokka scoffed, throwing his hands in the air.
“This is insane! If Ozai really did do all these terrible things to him, then why is he so obsessed with capturing Aang and returning home? If I was Zuko, I’d be relieved to be banished and away from that psycho. The guy’s a total monster!”
Iroh released a slow breath. “It is hard to understand my nephew’s logic from the outside. But please, try to put yourself in his position. He was cast out—renounced and rebuked by his home and his people, those he had been taught to depend on. His own father disowned him. One tiny mistake cost him everything: the crown, his honor, and his family. Now, exiled from his country, where else can he hope to go? The entire world despises the Fire Nation for the atrocities they have committed. As the banished son of the Fire Lord, no nation is safe for Zuko. He believes his only choice is to bring his father the avatar. That only he can restore everything he lost. That if he can complete the mission Ozai bestowed upon him, their relationship will somehow be different. He thinks he is capable of winning the Fire Lord’s love by delivering you to him. It gives him hope.”
The old man withered. “I don’t have the heart to tell him the truth, to take that hope away. Even if I did, it wouldn’t change his mind. He would continue this poisonous path without me, searching and fighting until he destroyed himself. I’m doing what I can to support him until he discovers the truth on his own.”
Iroh’s anecdote hung over their heads like storm clouds. Katara narrowed her eyes in thought, drumming her fingers against her bowl.
“What if he never comes to that conclusion?” she said coldly. “How many more people does he have to hurt or villages does he have to burn down for you to decide he isn’t worth it?”
Iroh met her gaze, his jaw tight. She thought he was going to snarl or shout, like he had in the tent with Zuko. Instead, he relaxed into a smile.
“He will change. I know it. I’ve seen what he’s capable of. He was such a sweet and happy child before my brother got ahold of him and twisted him up.” He grinned at Aang. “He was a lot like you, actually. Bright and joyful and kind. I wish you all could have seen him then. Perhaps you’d understand why I haven’t given up on him yet.”
“Really?” Aang said, beaming. “Wow. I’m having a hard time imagining that.”
The old man chuckled, then stared across the circle of young faces. “I’m not asking any of you to forgive my nephew for what he’s done. I’m not asking you to make excuses for him or to pity him. I just wanted to grant you some insight into the person he is, and why he acts the way he does today. You’ve already been more kind to him than I ever could have anticipated, which shows what honorable individuals you are. I am forever grateful to each of you.” His expression softened. “Zuko is too, even if he doesn’t seem it. Because of the way he was raised, he can’t comprehend the idea that others would show him compassion without it being earned, or without some sinister ulterior motive in mind. Your kindness is entirely foreign to him, so don’t take his aversion to it personally.”
This was exactly what Katara had been afraid of. That if they learned more about Zuko’s past, they’d start to realize he wasn’t the sick, totally irredeemable person they believed him to be. She wanted to hate him—wanted to see him as nothing but an obstacle in their path, a soulless enemy to defeat. But it was hard to do after hearing his life’s story.
“If only Zuko had been surrounded by people like you growing up,” Iroh continued wistfully. “You all have such good hearts.”
Sokka swirled his boomerang in the air. “Yeah—too bad we all couldn’t live it up in the Fire Nation palace together, celebrating global tyranny and singing kumbaya around the fire.”
Iroh hinted a somber smile, then rose to his feet. “I’m going to see if I can get my nephew to eat something,” he said, ladling another helping of soup into his bowl and pouring a second cup of tea. “Have a delightful afternoon, all of you.”
With that, he strolled back into the earth tent, humming a quiet tune to himself. The group was left to wallow in the tsunami of information they now knew about their arch nemesis.
Eventually, Sokka huffed. “Well, if there’s anything we’ve learned from this bizarre little misadventure, it’s that the Fire Lord is literally the worst in every way imaginable, and deserves everything he’s got coming his way.”
“No kidding,” Toph agreed, cracking her toes.
Aang pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but...I kinda feel bad for Zuko.”
“Don’t,” Katara snapped, scowling at the fire. “We’ve all had hard lives. We’ve all been hurt and lost things we cared about. You don’t see any of us attacking towns or terrorizing innocent people.”
“But we were raised by good people,” Aang pointed out. “Even when we disagreed with them or fought with them, we never doubted that they loved us.” He rested his chin on his knees. “Zuko didn’t have that. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of change.”
“A lot of people are capable of a lot of things,” Katara retorted. “That doesn’t mean they’re ever going to do the right thing and actually commit to being better.”
Aang blinked at her, then gazed into the flickering flames. “Not if you don’t give them the chance...”
He considered telling them the truth about that day in the Earth Kingdom. When Zuko had broken him out of Zhao’s prison, saving his life—and, unknowingly, Sokka and Katara’s. If Aang hadn’t escaped and gotten those frogs to them, they could have died. The only reason the three of them were sitting together today, alive and well, was because of Zuko’s help.
But before Aang had the chance to speak, Katara scoffed and stood, marching toward the river.
“Katara?” he called. “Where are you going?”
“Swimming,” she answered without looking back. “After today, I seriously need a bath.”
He watched her stomp away, then exhaled defeatedly. Maybe he was being naive. Maybe Zuko wouldn’t change. But while the Fire Nation prince was stuck here with them, he’d try his best to be patient and kind to him—perhaps to the point where it no longer felt so foreign.
Iroh went back into the woods to forage for more tea leaves and herbs before the sun went down, leaving Zuko alone in the stone tent. While the others were off busying themselves around their campsite, Aang crept into the dark structure. He intended to pop in for only a moment to grab some nuts from his bag, but froze in the doorway at the sight he stumbled upon.
Zuko was facing the back wall of the tent, sitting with his legs crossed and his spine straight. Four small candles were arranged in front of him, their flames rising and falling in sync with Zuko’s steady breathing. Aang immediately recognized the familiar scene.
“You’re meditating!” he exclaimed. Zuko flinched in surprise, the candlelight flaring and rippling, casting wild shadows across the walls. He turned on him lividly.
“Don’t scare me like that!” he shouted. “I almost torched you alive!”
“Sorry!” Aang said, grinning shyly as he stepped closer. “But you are meditating, right?”
Zuko huffed and turned back toward the wall, rubbing his wounded shoulder. “I’m trying to,” he said pointedly, re-assuming his sturdy position.
“That’s awesome!” Aang said, bounding to stand by his side. “I never would’ve pegged you as someone who meditates.”
Aang thought he remembered Zuko mentioning meditation back in the South Pole, but it seemed so out of character for him. He never expected to actually witness the hotheaded prince putting it into practice.
Zuko looked uncomfortable and irritated by Aang’s presence. He tried to ignore him, but the avatar wasn’t making it easy. The twelve-year-old stood over him, smiling from ear to ear.
“I meditate too. Every day, in fact! Meditation is a sacred tradition among Air Nomads. The monks always said it’s a great way to strengthen one’s discipline, inner peace, and spirituality.”
The flames danced and flickered, mirroring Zuko’s aggravation. “Then you should know how important it is to be quiet when someone’s trying to concentrate!” He jabbed his finger toward the exit. “Get out of here!”
Aang was beginning to realize that Zuko yelled a lot, but there wasn’t any real bite behind it. At least, not in his current condition. So for now, he wasn’t going to let it faze him.
Ignoring Zuko’s demands, he plopped down beside him, making the royal teenager start. “Can I meditate with you?”
Zuko blinked, looking appalled. “What?” he gawked. “No!”
“Why not?” Aang asked, settling into his own meditation position with his fists pressed together and his eyes closed.
“Because—because you’re going to distract me!” he cried. “There’s a million other places for you to do it besides here! Why don’t you go meditate with one of your obnoxious friends?”
“None of them practice meditation,” he explained simply. “Back at the Western Air Temple, me and the other monks used to meditate in a group, all of us sitting and breathing together in perfect harmony. I haven’t meditated with someone else for over a hundred years.” He opened one eye and hinted a sad smile. “I miss it a lot. I think it’d be nice.”
Zuko scowled at him, but it seemed more thoughtful than angry. Scowling also appeared to be a thing he did by default, not as an intentional expression of aggression. He could see him searching for a motive, a scheme, some kind of backhanded revenge plot in the avatar’s innocent request. He really did second guess every gesture of kindness offered to him.
The firebender looked ready to blow a gasket, or snag his quartet of candles and stomp out the door. Instead, he exhaled forcefully, growling under his breath like a komodo rhino with a headache.
“If you’re quiet enough that I forget you’re here, I don’t care what you do,” he grumbled.
Aang beamed, flinging his hands in the air. “Hooray!” he cheered. He leaned forward with a grin. “I like your hair, by the way.”
Zuko’s eyes popped open and flitted towards him bewilderedly. “W-what?” he stammered, as if that was the most absurd thing anyone had ever said to him.
“Your new hair! It looks nice. A lot better than the bald ponytail thing you had going on before. It’s so cute and fuzzy now. I like it!”
Again, Aang watched the wheels in Zuko’s head turn, trying to find some convoluted ploy masquerading behind his friendly words. He couldn’t even take a tiny compliment without drowning in doubt and suspicion? It was as heartbreaking as it was endearing.
Once the prince deduced the avatar’s nice comment posed no immediate threat, but was simply a genuine approval of his change in appearance, his expression softened. “Oh,” he said. He stared at the wall, warmth rising in his cheeks. “Well, um...thanks. I guess.”
“Of course!” Aang chirped. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Zuko sweeping a timid hand through his hair, and felt pretty proud of himself.
“I like your hair, too,” Zuko said after an awkward pause. “Did you...do something new with it?”
Aang stared at him blankly. His delivery was so bland and clumsy, it took the avatar a full five seconds to realize that Zuko was attempting to make a joke . Immediately, he busted out laughing—not because the joke was good, necessarily, but because Zuko had actually tried to make one, and his effort was so hysterically ungraceful.
“Ehahaha!” Aang cackled, hugging himself around the middle. “Good one, Zuko! I didn’t know you could be funny!”
The tiniest of smiles lifted one corner of Zuko’s mouth before vanishing without a trace. He made an oval with his hands, pressing his thumbs and middle fingers together, then straightened his spine. “Now be quiet,” he ordered bluntly, inhaling and releasing a slow, centering breath.
Aang grinned and reflected his pose. Zuko was still a little shivery and sweaty from his fever, but both were growing less severe as Uncle’s tea worked its magic. The room fell silent except for the soft flickering of the fire and their synchronous breathing, and stayed that way for the next hour.
The avatar was the first one to break their vigil, floating to his feet and bounding out of the tent like a miniature whirlwind. “Thanks for letting me join you, Zuko!” he called cheerfully, then darted outside.
Zuko...didn’t know what to make of their interaction. He and the avatar were adversaries. He’d told him he wasn’t going to stop hunting him. As soon as he was healed, their little game of cat owl and spider mouse would pick right back up from where it had left off.
So what had compelled him to come in here and meditate by his side?
Not only that—he’d opened up to him about his past, his culture, the society that raised him. The very people Zuko’s forefathers were responsible for wiping out. Was he trying to appeal to his humanity, guilt him into abandoning his mission to capture the avatar?
And what was with the whole complimenting his hair thing?
The whole exchange left Zuko feeling off. He didn’t want to think about what would become of that peppy little kid once he delivered him into the hands of his father. Avatar or not, he was so agonizingly young.
But tricky, as well. And conniving, all of them. Just like Azula. He wouldn’t let them get in his head. For however long he was trapped here, he’d avoid interacting with them unless it was absolutely necessary. He couldn’t afford any more distractions.
“How are you feeling, Prince Zuko?” Uncle’s voice asked from behind him. “Have you managed to eat or sleep at all? I found some basil and turmeric to add to your tea. I know you don’t care for either, but they should help settle your stomach.”
Zuko turned toward him, grimacing as the movement sent little sparks of pain zipping through his muscles. “I’m going to sleep outside tonight.”
Iroh raised an eyebrow as he prepared the ingredients for the brew. “I don’t know if the avatar and his friends will approve. They wish to keep you contained and in sight, understandably, and—”
“I don’t care what they want!” he interjected. “I’m not sleeping in here with all of them. I won’t be able to.”
Uncle sighed exasperatedly. “Prince Zuko. They are already being very considerate. They’ve given you space and leave you to your business unrestrained.” He wafted the fumes from the pot toward his nose and breathed deeply. “If I were them, I would have chained both of us up. We aren't exactly trustworthy company.”
“I’m not sitting in this stupid tent anymore,” he growled. He braced one hand against the wall and tried to push himself upright, groaning and straining with effort.
Uncle rushed to his aid, wrapping an arm around his waist and hoisting him to his feet. Zuko wanted to push him away, but there was no way he could stay standing without his help.
“All right—easy now, nephew.”
He took one step forward, and almost immediately collapsed. Pain bloomed across the bottom of his foot and shot up his leg like an explosion going off in his bones. He listed forward, dizzy and nauseous, gasping for breath.
“Do not put any weight on your left side,” Iroh insisted. “Let me support you.”
“Th-this is...infuriating,” he hissed, panting. “Why am I still so weak?”
“It has only been a day, my prince. You must give yourself time to heal.” He slung his nephew’s arm over his shoulder and bore him forward. “Come on. We’ll go slow.”
Any progress toward the exit basically required Zuko to hop on his good leg. The violent motion still jarred him, but he managed to keep going, pausing in between to let the pain subside to a manageable level. Iroh would rather he let one of kids carry him out of the tent, but Zuko would sooner hop himself to death than allow that.
Once they breached the doorway, their little limping routine turned the heads of everyone outside. Katara stood up, hands balled into fists at her side.
“What’s going on?” she said.
“Zuko needed some fresh air,” Iroh explained, grunting beneath his nephew’s weight. He was basically doing all the work required to move him away from the tent. The prince hung off him loosely, grimacing in pain, a line of sweat glistening along his forehead. His face was abnormally pale and blanching whiter and whiter with every cloddish hop forward.
“Do you need…help?” Sokka asked hesitantly.
Iroh forced a smile. “No, we—” he began, but Zuko was sagging lower and lower, a quiet moan rising from his lips. “—Zuko? Are you all right?”
The teen’s head was suddenly spinning like a top. Gravity was pulling on him two times stronger than usual. His wounds throbbed and ached in protest. He’d barely walked two steps away from the tent, but apparently that was all his stupid body could tolerate right now.
“Ugh…can’t…l-lemme...down…” he whimpered.
Alarm pricked Iroh’s heart. “Okay, okay. Here.”
He eased him carefully to the ground. Zuko slumped against the outer wall of the tent, panting harshly, gripping his leg with one hand and his chest with the other.
“What’s wrong?” Iroh asked, kneeling in front of him and cupping his palm against his pallid face.
“He doesn’t look good,” Aang noted uneasily.
Once she realized he wasn’t going to be doing anything threatening in his current state, Katara’s muscles uncoiled. “He shouldn’t be moving,” she said, stepping closer. “Especially if he hasn’t been able to eat anything today.”
“He’s been too nauseous to,” the old man said, fear creeping into his voice. He gave his cheek a few light pats. “Zuko—hey! Talk to me! Tell me what’s going on.”
His eyelids fluttered sluggishly as he fought to stay conscious and slow his rapid breathing. “Just...lightheaded,” he slurred, squeezing his shoulder and gritting his teeth. “Ugh...h-hurts…”
Iroh turned to Sokka. “I’ve prepared some tea for him inside the tent. Please—if you could—”
“Right,” Sokka said, hurrying into the stone structure. He reappeared a few moments later with the kettle and cup in hand.
“Thank you,” Iroh breathed. He filled the cup and held it to Zuko’s lips. “Here, nephew. Drink. It will help you feel better.”
Zuko wrinkled his nose but did as he was told. He abhorred the fact that he was acting so pathetic and weak—and in front of his enemies , no less—but he was so woozy, and everything hurt, and he just wanted it to stop . The tea was hot on his tongue and left a sour aftertaste in the back of his throat. He made a face and found himself missing Uncle’s classic jasmine brew.
“Blech,” he said.
“I know,” Iroh conceded sympathetically. Katara offered him a bowl, and he lifted the edge to Zuko’s mouth. “Have some water.”
Zuko braved a few small sips then pushed it away. He was still queasy and didn’t want to risk overwhelming his upset stomach. The black fuzz pressing into his peripheral vision was slowly beginning to retreat, and the world was no longer dipping and tilting around him. But he was still so tired . He rested his head against the tent, struggling to keep his eyes open, inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth.
“You must try to eat something,” Uncle insisted. “A couple bites of bread, soup—anything.”
Zuko recoiled at the thought of food. It was the last thing he was in the mood for right now. “I’m fine,” he grumbled breathlessly, sweat slipping down his face. “Just...lemme sit for a...a minute…”
“You will never recover your strength unless you eat,” Iroh said softly. He tore a piece of bread in half, took his nephew’s hand, and placed it in his palm. “Please, Prince Zuko.”
The firebender stared at the bread miserably. He looked so ill and weak—even Katara was nicked with pity at the sight. He must’ve been desperate to feel better if he was letting his uncle order him around without throwing a fit.
Zuko wished there weren’t so many eyes on him right now, watching him lie half-conscious against the tent, barely able to hold his head up, shivering with pain and sickness as he nibbled defeatedly on the bread in his hands. Azula’s mocking voice echoed in his ears— weak, pathetic, miserable failure. Father’s piercing glare bore down on him, radiating disgust and disappointment.
But Uncle was with him, pressed against his side, telling him everything was going to be okay as he gently guided his head to his shoulder.
“Don’t...wait...” Zuko whined. But once he was leaned against him, he felt himself starting to drift. Sleepiness curled around him like a warm blanket. Iroh pulled the bread from his limp fingers and ran his thumb along his cheek.
“Just rest here a moment. I will help you move once you have the energy to stand.”
But Zuko made the mistake of closing his eyes. It was meant to be for only a moment, but after they slipped shut, he couldn’t get them to open again. As Iroh anticipated, his nephew was soon asleep. He pulled a rag from his pocket and mopped the fever sweat from his forehead.
“Did he just...pass out?” Toph asked.
“He hasn’t slept since last night,” Iroh said, watching his nephew snooze against his shoulder with a tender fondness in his eyes. “He’s always been so stubborn, never resting until he’s completely burnt out or unless it is forced upon him—even when his body desperately needs it.”
Aang found the sight endearing. Katara thought the old man’s concern for his nephew was misplaced but sweet. Sokka narrowed his eyes, opening the tea pot and gingerly sniffing its contents. His jaw dropped.
“Did you drug him?”
Iroh chuckled lightly, his eyes glinting with mischief. “An old trick his mother used to use when he couldn’t get to sleep as a child. Add a tiny dash of dragon thistle root to his tea, and he is out like a light.”
While the others reeled over the old man’s well-intentioned but semi-conniving actions, Katara’s mind honed in on one word: mother. During Iroh’s entire soapbox about Zuko’s past, he’d never once mentioned his mom. What did she think about her son? Was she like Ozai? Cold and heartless, happy to exile her own child in favor of her more powerful daughter? Or was she different? What part did she play in the strange, tragic menagerie of Zuko’s life?
Iroh smiled at the children. “Would one of you please grab a blanket for me, if you don’t mind?”
“Sure!” Aang said, darting past him. Katara stared at Zuko’s sleeping face and decided not to ask about his mother. She already knew more about him than she wanted to as it was. And the more she learned, the harder it was to hate him.
Aang returned with the linens. Iroh gathered his nephew into his arms and carefully laid him down, tossing the blanket over his body and pulling it up to his chin.
“Hopefully he sleeps through the night,” he said. It was funny to watch the person they fought and feared as an enemy be treated like a precious little baby by his uncle.
“I’ll heal him again tomorrow morning,” Katara said, then stalked into the tent without another word.
Her friends hesitated, then followed her inside. Iroh stayed beside his nephew, matching his breathing to his.
Zuko woke up screaming.
He’d suffered from night terrors since Mom had disappeared without a trace, and they’d only gotten worse since his banishment. He dreamed of her face being swallowed up in flames, of the ground turning to tar beneath him and dragging him into suffocating darkness, of his father scorching his eye again and again and again, the smell and the pain all too real.
And now, he was dreaming of Azula. Eyes dark and remorseless as she shot lighting into the hearts of those he loved, sending Mom and Uncle toppling to the ground in smoking heaps before turning on him. He was lucky if he got through the night without shooting awake in a cold sweat at least one.
When the lightning struck him, Zuko bolted upright, a terrified shout leaping from his throat. But something clapped over his mouth to stop it from escaping. Whatever it was was shaped like a hand, but it had the texture of rock. Panicked, fire flared from his fingertips. He made a grab for the stranger’s arm, but something caught his hands before they reached it, trapping them at his sides. He squirmed and cursed, voice muffled, heart racing.
“It’s okay,” a girl’s voice said. “Shh. It’s me.”
A young face took shape in the darkness. Black hair and pale, faded eyes. It was the tiny earthbender that had showed up at the fight between Azula, the avatar, and himself. She must have joined their group while they were traveling through the Earth Kingdom. So far, the two of them had avoided direct confrontation—or rather, any interaction whatsoever.
“I heard you. From the tent. And, uh, felt you shaking. I didn’t want you to wake anyone else up.”
Zuko stopped struggling, his breathing quick and his eyes blinking. Slowly, she took her palm away from his mouth. It was shrouded in rock, perhaps in case he tried any breath-related firebending moves. With a flick of her wrist, the earth restraints fell away from his hands.
“Sorry for scaring you. I just figured you wouldn’t want anyone else hearing that, and I didn’t wanna get fried in the process of shutting you up.”
Zuko studied her in a fuzzy, flustered haze, panting quietly. “Oh,” he stammered. “Uh, r-right.” His bones were quaking under his skin. His heartbeat was pounding in his ears. He scrubbed a hand across his face and started when it came away wet. He touched under his eyes and realized his cheeks were damp with tears. Shame burned up his throat as he dried them frantically and turned away. “Um, s-sorry for waking you.”
She stared at him in silence. Well, not exactly stared—not with her eyes, at least. But he could feel her feeling him, gauging his movements, his voice. She probably knew he’d been crying. She barely looked a day older than the avatar, but exuded the power and poise of a master bender, all while retaining the appearance and quirkiness of a child.
Which was weird. Because as far as he could tell, she was totally blind.
“Well...goodnight,” he said, voice brittle. But she didn’t move. And he didn’t lay back down.
“They have them too, you know.”
He glanced at her bemusedly. “What?”
“Nightmares. They get them too. Aang, Katara, Sokka.”
He scoffed lightly, rubbing his eyes. “And you don’t?”
She grimaced at the ground. “Not like they do. I had a difficult home life, but...it’s different.”
He gripped his arms at the elbows and stared off to the side. He wasn’t sure what she was looking to get out of this conversation.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
Zuko wrinkled his brow. “About what?” he said.
Heat flushed across Zuko’s skin. “No,” he said sharply, glaring between his feet.
Toph shrugged. “That’s fine. Just thought I’d extend the offer. I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener.”
The girl grinned. Zuko narrowed his eyes. Was that supposed to be a joke? He kneaded gingerly at his shoulder.
“I’m fine,” he growled, wincing when he touched a particularly sore spot. “You can go away now.”
“I’m Toph,” she said, ignoring him enthusiastically. “I don’t think we’ve formally met.”
Why don’t any of these people ever listen to a word I say? he thought bitterly. Also, I’ve never formally met any of you. He heaved a small sigh.
“Hello,” he deadpanned. “Now get lost.”
“My friends don’t seem to like you, but I judge people for myself.” She flexed her feet in the grass absentmindedly. “And yeah, hunting Aang isn’t cool, but I don’t think you’re as bad as they make you out to be.”
Zuko was caught off guard by her blunt but oddly nice statement. He tried not to let it show, masking his surprise behind a scowl.
“I don’t care what you or your friends think of me,” he snapped, bunching the blanket in his fists. “Just leave me alone!”
“See, you put on this scary, tough facade, but I don’t think that’s really you,” she continued. “It's a defense mechanism.”
Zuko fumed. “Are you blind and deaf? Go away! You don’t know me. Stop pretending like you do!”
“But I do know you,” she insisted. “You try to push others away so they can never get close enough to hurt you. You think by being mean and abrasive and keeping them at a distance, you’re protecting yourself. But really, you’re just making yourself more lonely.”
The firebender’s heart skipped a beat. Toph could tell she’d struck a chord. He opened and closed his mouth like a fish stranded on land, her words bouncing around in his head, freakishly insightful for someone who barely looked ten.
“I know you because you’re like me,” she explained. “We’re not good at feelings and all that dumb mushy crap. We think doing everything on our own makes us stronger than accepting help from others. But I’m starting to learn that’s not always true.”
Was she baiting him? Trying to rile him up to the point that he attacked, granting her an excuse to kill him? Or was she truly speaking from the heart? Her observation stung a bit too deep to not be genuine, and sounded a little too familiar for his taste.
But he refused to dwell on it. He wouldn’t; he couldn’t . Stunned confusion was quickly superseded by prickling irritation. He scoffed indignantly.
“You’re crazy,” he spat. “You’re a child. You don’t know anything.”
Toph crossed her arms and smirked. “Then that makes two of us.”
Flames roiled in Zuko’s belly. “What?”
“Hey!” a voice called from the tent. Zuko turned and spotted Sokka peeking out from the darkness, an angry line twitching between his eyebrows. “Some of us around here are trying to sleep! Why are you guys yelling?” He stepped through the doorway with his boomerang cocked behind his head, glaring sleepily at Zuko. “Is Prince Angry Jerk here causing trouble?”
“I’m not doing anything ,” he snarled, gesturing to Toph. “Your obnoxious little friend won’t leave me alone.”
“We’re fine,” she assured him. “I was just informing Zuko that his whole ‘bad guy’ charade is stupid, along with his entire mindset about everything.”
Smoke hissed from his nostrils and coiled from his fists. “Why, you little—”
“Ah-ah!” Sokka interjected, waving his boomerang threateningly. “Don’t even think about it.”
Zuko threw his hands in the air. “What, I’m just supposed to sit here while she calls me stupid to my face?”
“Precisely,” Sokka said, sitting beside Toph. His hair was out of its usual ponytail and hanging in his eyes, forcing him to tuck it behind his ears every now and then. Zuko had never seen the Water Tribe boy with hair down before. It was a lot longer than he expected.
Sokka bumped his shoulder against the earthbender’s. “Is this late night insult Zuko hour or something? Because I’m totally in, and very upset I didn’t receive an invitation.”
“I’m not trying to insult him,” Toph insisted. “I’m just telling him the truth.”
“What you’re doing is asking to get fried beyond recognition,” he spat viciously. Sokka leaned toward him and squinted.
“Why are your eyes red?” he asked. His brows shot toward his hairline. “Have you been crying?”
Zuko’s scowl dissolved into a look of panic. He’d tried to push the horrific nightmare from his mind, but the damage it had reaped was evidently still lingering. Drenched in milky moonlight, Sokka had never seen the Fire Nation prince look so scared and distraught before. Humiliation sawed at Zuko’s insides. He grappled for something to say—a quick and scathing retort. But his throat was seizing up, and a fresh bout of tears welled in his eyes.
“I…” he began, voice shivery. Toph punched Sokka in the arm.
“Lay off,” she scolded him. “He startled me when I came out here to take a whizz, so I kicked dirt in his eyes. That’s all.”
Zuko turned to her in disbelief, blinking. She hinted a small smile that disappeared just as quickly. Relief drizzled over his heart.
“Oh,” Sokka said, rubbing his shoulder, glancing between them skeptically. “Right.” He recognized immediately that they weren’t telling him what was really going on, but decided not to press the matter. If Toph thought it important to keep under wraps, he trusted her.
Zuko kneaded his eyes with the heels of his hands and avoided his gaze, feeling sticky and exposed. Why would she lie for me? he wondered. How does that benefit her? Wouldn’t she want to humiliate her enemy every chance she got? To show her friends how weak and pathetic he really was? Maybe she wanted him indebted to her. Or to have something over him to use as blackmail.
Whatever the reason, he was relieved. For now, at least. A part of him wanted to thank her. He stared into her foggy eyes for a moment, hoping she understood.
Toph responded by crossing her arms and grinning wide. “Anyway, back to you being stupid,” she said spiritedly.
The prince deflated with a groan. So much for being grateful. “Seriously?” he exclaimed, his rage blossoming back to life.
“You make no sense to me,” she continued unperturbed. “You're trying to capture Aang and bring him home to your dad so he’ll love and accept you, right?”
Zuko was off-put by the direct address. So was Sokka. The firebender huffed irately. “I’m not talking to you about this.”
“But it sorta seems like he’s been awful to you even before you were banished.”
The prince wasn’t sure how much she or others knew about his situation, but already it sounded like more than he was comfortable with. He gritted his teeth.
“Be quiet!” he barked. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You want a father who cares about you and understands you,” Toph said with a snort. “Trust me: I get it. My parents still think I’m some helpless little blind girl, not a butt-kicking, earthbending champion.”
Zuko glared daggers through Toph. “Our situations aren’t the same. My father does care about me. Once I bring him the avatar, he’ll accept me as his son, and my honor will be restored.”
Toph blew a tuft of hair out of her face and dropped her chin into her hand. Sokka rolled his eyes.
“No offense, Prince Jerkbender, but your dad is kind of the worst.”
Zuko turned away from them, hissing with pain and frustration. “This is why I’m not talking to you about this! None of you could ever understand!”
“What we don’t understand is why you’re set on getting your terrible father to like you when you already have someone who loves and accepts you right now!” Sokka cried, exasperated.
A shock went through Zuko’s system. He swallowed, gripping his wound and hunching his shoulders.
“What...w-what are you talking about?” he murmured.
Toph scoffed. “Um...your uncle?” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the universe. “You know, the guy who left the Fire Nation to help you? Who travels around the world with you and supports you no matter how badly you treat him? The man who makes you tea and comforts you when you’re sick and tucks you into bed at night?”
“And who convinced us to help you even though we really didn’t want to?” Sokka added.
Zuko’s chest tightened. Anxiety and confusion and an avalanche of other emotions churned inside his gut. He grimaced at the ground.
“He cares about you. Like, openly, aggressively cares about you. It’s as annoying as it is sweet.” Toph tilted her head to the side. “Why are you so determined to earn your dad’s love, when your uncle already loves you as you are?”
The prince didn’t look at them. He watched a beetle crawl over a rock, his fingers shivering against his aching shoulder. He inhaled sharply, then laid across the ground, yanking the blanket over his head and curling into himself.
Sokka glanced at Toph, then back at Zuko, then sighed. It looked like there was no getting through to him. The earthbender rose to her feet.
“Drink some more of your uncle’s tea,” she demanded, then strode back into the tent. “G’night.”
Sokka was quick to follow her, yawning as he stepped into the darkness, shooting one last look over his shoulder.
Zuko shuddered alone beneath the stars, blinking back tears. A few restless minutes later, he heated up Uncle’s teapot, choked down another cup of boiling, bitter liquid, then nestled against the grass, praying that the rest of his night would be dreamless. That is, if he ever managed to fall asleep again.
“Is it just me, or is Zuko...kind of awkward?”
Katara stopped fixing her hair mid-braid, scoffing. “What? What do you mean?”
Aang stretched and smiled, the morning sunlight pouring in through the doorway gilding his limbs in a golden halo. “Yesterday, while we were meditating, I told him I liked his new hair. And he totally didn’t know how to respond—as if he’s never been complimented by anyone besides his uncle before. It was hilarious!”
Sokka shot upright, mouth hanging agape. “Wait— ‘we?’” he exclaimed. “As in, you were meditating together?”
“Yeah! Zuko practices meditation just like me! Isn’t that cool?”
Katara frowned. “That’s...weird. He’s the last person I’d expect to see meditating. Especially with you.”
“I know, right?” Aang giggled. “The best part was, when I told him I liked his hair, he said he liked mine, too. Like, as a joke! Because I’m bald!” He laughed brightly. “It was so bad, but that only made it funnier!”
Katara huffed, tying off the end of her braid. “Well I’m glad you had fun with the guy who’s going to try imprisoning you the moment he can walk again.”
Aang winced at her coldness. “I’m just saying, Katara. If you’re patient and give him the chance, you’ll see there’s more to him than ‘angry scary firebender prince.’ He’s more human than you might think.”
When Katara simply rolled her eyes, Toph decided to speak up.
“So, don’t tell him I told you guys this, but...I had a chat with him last night. He had a really bad nightmare, and the sound of his cries woke me up.”
Sokka hopped to his feet. “Ha! I knew you were lying! I may not have lie-detecting feet, but I know a fib when I hear one.” His excitement was short lived, however. He backtracked with a troubled look, eyeing the doorway. “Oh...does that mean I was right before? You know...about him crying?”
Aang’s eyes bulged out of his head. “Wait—Zuko was crying?”
Everyone’s gazes veered toward Toph. The tiny earthbender nodded solemnly, her expression grim. “He was screaming in his sleep. I had to cover his mouth to stop him from waking all of you up.” She scratched the back of her neck. “He was...calling for his mom. Begging her to come back. I don’t know what happened to her, or what their relationship is like, but…” she shook her head. “It was really sad.”
Silence veiled the room. Again, Katara felt torn in half by her usual eagerness to help those in pain and her hatred toward Zuko. Sokka put his hair up and placed his hands on his hips.
“The guy’s got a lot of issues, that’s for sure. Do I feel bad for him? Maybe, a little. Does it make me trust him any more than I did before? Absolutely not.”
“Exactly,” Katara said, glad she had her brother were back on the same page. Aang crossed his arms against his chest.
“But he has shown us he has more than one side. You guys saw more of his vulnerable side, and I got to see part of his calm and awkward side.” He snickered into his hand. “Man, you should’ve seen his face! He has no idea how to take a compliment. I don’t think anyone’s ever called him cute before.”
Katara stuck out her tongue. “Who would ever have a reason to?”
“Oh, come on! You have to admit his new haircut is better than his old one!”
Sokka snorted. “I think anything is better compared to that disaster, so you’re setting the bar pretty low.”
Aang beamed between his friends. “You all should try complimenting him sometime, if only to see his response. It catches him completely off guard.”
Sokka blew a raspberry and walked outside, stretching his arms over his head. Katara wrinkled her nose at Aang’s chipper attitude toward all of this. How many times did she have to remind him that Zuko was their enemy who wanted nothing more than to see him in chains . Even if she liked his new look, and had maybe had to stop herself from touching his hair while he was unconscious and no one else was around to see (it just looked so fuzzy!), no way would she ever say so out loud.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass,” she snapped. “Under no circumstances would I ever consider that monster cute.”
At that moment, Sokka popped back into the tent, looking both shocked and delighted at the same time. “Guys, you have got to come see this,” he said.
Katara and Aang exchanged a glance before following him. Toph came along too, although she had a feeling she already knew what he was referring to, based on the cluster of mismatched vibrations her feet were picking up.
The three friends tailed Sokka outside and stopped when they discovered a giant fluffy mountain resting in the sunrise. Appa had moved from his spot by the river and was now lying beside the earth tent. His ears perked up as they approached, but he didn’t raise his head. Aang didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, until Sokka coaxed him forward.
“Look,” he snickered.
Katara and the avatar peered over Appa’s large foot to find a very bizarre sight. A bunch of animals were gathered between Appa’s front legs—a skink quail, a prickle snake, a pair of dragonflies, and a family of turtle ducks, which was strange in itself. But underneath the zoo of wildlife was Zuko , curled up and sleeping peacefully with all the animals snuggled against him, as if they were his babies and he was their teenage firebending mama. Even Momo was there, nestled in the crook of Zuko’s neck and shoulder, purring contently.
“What the…?” Aang said, blinking.
“Right?” Sokka giggled.
“What exactly am I looking at right now?” Katara asked, her hands flying to her mouth in horror. “Oh no. He’s not—they’re not— eating him, are they?”
“He’s not dead, if that’s what you're asking,” Toph assured her. “His breathing and heartbeat actually feel better than they did yesterday.”
“They look like they’re just...cuddling him,” Aang said. He cupped his palms over his heart, melting with endearment. “Awww! That’s so sweet!”
“But why are they doing it?” Katara asked. The prickle snake was coiled into a spiral and resting on top of his belly. The four turtle ducks were pressed against his back, their tails tucked underneath his side. While the dragonflies occupied both of his arms, the skink quail burrowed itself in the bend of his knees. Appa had his nose against his shoulder blades and his toes under his head and feet, his deep breaths stirring Zuko’s hair.
Okay, it was cute. Sue her. It still made no sense.
“Maybe he...smells good?” Sokka suggested dubiously. “From something in his uncle’s tea?”
Aang sprung on top of Appa’s head and petted his fur. “Whatcha doing with Zuko, buddy? Do you like him? Does he smell nice?”
“Maybe it’s because of his fever,” Toph suggested, pressing one hand against the ground. “He still feels a lot warmer than the rest of you.”
“So they’re snuggling him to sap his fever heat?” Katara said, fighting back a smile. It was oddly endearing—watching the prince sleep, his wiry shape buried in woodland creatures. He looked like a spoiled little kid surrounded by toys, or some kind of mystical forest spirit communing with nature.
“Here Momo,” Aang called, hanging off Appa’s horn to try to scoop him up. Momo growled and hissed in protest, pressing closer to Zuko. His squirmy movements roused the slumbering firebender, making him wrinkle his brow and release a quiet moan.
Zuko blinked sluggishly, the grass and the flowers poking up from the earth gradually coming into focus. He yawned and rubbed his eyes, feeling clusters of tiny bodies shift with his movements. Oh, great, he thought. Not again. He pushed himself upright, grimacing from a sudden jolt of pain, careful not to squish any of the little creatures around him. When he lifted his bleary gaze, he was surprised to find four pairs of eyes gazing back, wide with confusion.
“Ah!” Zuko yelped, flinching backwards sharply. The turtle ducks and the dragonflies sprung away from him for a moment, then quickly reconvened, nuzzling against his limbs. Momo hopped on to his scalp, pawing at his messy bedhead, but Zuko barely seemed to notice. His shock shifted to puzzled anger. “What on earth? Why are all of you watching me sleep? Don’t you know how creepy that is?”
Sokka shrugged dramatically. “Huh, gee, I don’t know. Maybe because we walked out here to find you having a giant cuddly slumber party with an entire petting zoo’s worth of animals.”
“Which for some reason doesn’t seem to be weirding you out,” Katara added, watching Momo growl at the dragonflies from on top of Zuko’s head.
Aang and Toph giggled at the peculiar scene. Zuko glared between them lazily, stifling another yawn.
“It happens sometimes when I sleep out in the open,” he mumbled. “I don’t know why.” He winced when Appa nudged him in the back with his nose, as if he hadn’t noticed the enormous flying bison looming over him until now. Momo leapt from his head to his shoulder and licked his cheek.
“Wait—you mean this is a regular thing for you?” Aang floated to the ground in front of him, beaming. “Waking up and being surrounded by a bunch of animals?”
Zuko shrugged, scratching at his disheveled hair. “Sorta.”
The four friends just stared at him. He began to realize how strange this probably looked to people who didn’t have to deal with it on the regular. He cringed when Appa’s giant tongue lapped across the entirety of his back, plastering him in sticky saliva.
“Ugh! Gross!” Zuko shoved the bison’s enormous nose in disgust. “Get your slobbery pets away from me!”
“They like you!” Aang insisted, eyes sparkling. “Wow! You’re like an animal whisperer! Look at you, surrounded by cuddly wildlife! You’re so cute!”
To everyone’s delight, Zuko’s cheeks turned pink. Aang hadn’t been joking about the whole ‘can’t take a compliment’ thing.
“I’m not—it’s not— cute,” he grumbled. “It’s annoying.”
Frowning, he scooped the family of turtle ducks in his arms and placed them to the side, trying to look careless and angry while also being noticeably gentle. As soon as their feet touched the ground, they scurried back up his legs and into his lap with a chorus of quacks and chirps. His look of surprise made all four of them burst out laughing. Sokka grinned smugly.
“Face it, Zuko. You’re a prissy little prince whose angry royal yelling attracts flocks of baby animals to snuggle you to sleep. If that’s not cute, I don’t know what is.”
Zuko’s cheeks went from pink to red. Until now, none of them had ever seen the firebender full-on blush before. Couple that with the dragonflies flanking his sides, the skink quail fluffed against his knee, the prickle snake slithering toward his neck, and the turtle ducks quacking incessantly at Momo, it was a scene all of them wanted painted and framed to treasure forever. One of the dragonflies prodded at his hand, asking to be pet, and he begrudgingly obliged.
“Whatever,” he muttered shyly. “It’s not like I try to make them come. They just show up.”
Toph hummed in thought. “I figured they were snuggling you because of your fever, but if this happens pretty often, then I don’t know what’s causing it.”
“I’m telling you, it’s a royalty thing. Wild animals just really like aristocrats. Especially ones that sing.” Sokka leaned toward Zuko suspiciously. “Can you sing? Come on—belt out a tune for me.”
Ignoring him, Zuko lifted Momo off his shoulder and placed him on the ground. “I don’t feel like I have a fever anymore,” he said. “I think it broke last night.” The lemur warbled in disappointment and scampered away.
His chills were gone, along with the skull-splitting migraine. Now he only had the aches and pains of his lightning wound to worry about. It wasn’t much of an improvement, but it was better than no progress at all.
“You still feel warm to me,” Toph said skeptically. Katara reached forward and held her hand against his forehead, making him wince in surprise.
“Definitely warm,” Katara agreed. Zuko pulled away from her touch sourly.
“I don’t have a fever,” Zuko snapped. “I’m just naturally hot.”
Katara blinked at him. Sokka snorted behind his hand.
“Oh, is that so?” he snickered.
Zuko narrowed his eyes bemusedly. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s a firebender thing. We tend to run hotter than regular people.” He pushed at the dragonfly that was nibbling his ear. “But I’m unusually hot for some reason. Like, more so than normal firebenders.”
Now everyone was giggling. Zuko glanced between them with a puzzled frown, the double-sidedness of his words clearly not registering.
Sokka waved dismissively, clutching his stomach. “Oh, nothing,” he chuckled. “That’s just a pretty bold statement to make about yourself.”
One of the turtle ducklings scuttled on top of Zuko’s leg. He stroked its tiny head with his thumb unconsciously, scowling.
“No it’s not,” he insisted. “It’s the truth. My uncle said so.”
Now the four kids were howling . Zuko started, eyes wide, then scoffed, balling his hands at his sides.
“What is so funny?”
“Are you sure your uncle’s not just saying that because he’s obligated to?” Katara giggled.
Toph cackled with her arms crossed. “Personally, I trust Iroh’s opinion. If he says Zuko’s hot, then I’ll take his word for it.”
Aang and Sokka doubled over with laughter, hugging their bellies as their shoulders bounced up and down. Zuko’s face burned as the realization gradually dawned on him.
“No, wait, th-that’s not what I…!” he began, but no one was listening to him. They were all too busy giggling like children at his simple slip-up. He sighed irritably, plucking the prickle snake from his shoulder and placing it in his palm. “You’re all so immature. You know I was talking about temperature...”
“Whatever you say, Prince Hotman,” Aang chuckled, bowing extravagantly. Zuko blushed and avoided their gazes, petting the snake bitterly.
“Aren’t you scared it’s going to bite you?” Toph asked, pointing to the serpent in his hand. “Prickle snakes are venomous.”
Zuko looked down at the small reptile. “They never have before,” he said casually, letting it curl and slither around his wrist.
“I think they like how warm you are,” she said. “That’s why they cuddle up to you to sleep. I guess it was pretty chilly last night.”
Without warning, Aang hopped over Appa’s leg and wrapped Zuko in a hug, making the prince recoil uncomfortably.
“Hey! W-what are you—?” he stammered.
“You’re right, Toph! He is really warm!” Aang nuzzled his head into Zuko’s shoulder, closing his eyes and grinning wide. “No wonder all the animals want to snuggle you! You’re like a big, cozy space heater!”
“Get off me!” he snapped, squirming and pushing the clingy airbender. The dragonflies hissed in protest, the turtle ducks squawked furiously, and the skink quail puffed into an angry little ball, cuing Appa to let out a guttural roar.
Feathers exploded from the skink quail as it took flight, flapping and fluttering in terror. The dragonflies screeched and zipped into the sky as the prickle snake sprung out of his hand and slithered into the brush. Quacking frantically, the turtle ducks scurried out of the prince’s lap, gunning for the river. In a matter of moments, all of the wildlife had fled the scene. Zuko blinked in surprise as Appa licked his hair, satisfied with his work.
“Appa! How rude!” Aang scolded the bison, his arms still curled around the wriggly firebender. “Space heaters are meant to be shared!”
“I am not a space heater!” Zuko retorted, shoving Aang’s face away with both hands. The others weren’t sure whether they should be concerned or amused. It was a pretty funny sight, watching the two diametrically opposed benders squabble like little kids.
To add to the humor of the situation, it was at that moment that Zuko’s stomach decided to release a long, loud growl. He and Aang both froze, startled by the sudden noise. Then the avatar laughed brightly.
“It sounds like the space heater needs some fuel!” he giggled, releasing Zuko from his hold and flitting on top of Appa’s foot. Zuko stared sideways sheepishly, gripping his belly, still rattled by the random cuddle attack. His stomach continued to rumble against his fingertips, pleading for anything besides tea. He’d forgotten that he’d hardly eaten yesterday. Now that he was no longer nauseous, he was really beginning to feel the effects.
“Do you have an appetite at all?” Katara asked. “We have fish and berries and a little bit of bread. You need to get some food in your system if you can.”
Zuko shrugged, trying to look casual. “I guess,” he mumbled. A second later, his tummy practically roared , causing heat to rush to his ears.
“I think the monster in your stomach speaks for itself,” Sokka snickered. His friends chuckled alongside him. Zuko squeezed his belly tighter, as if he could smother it into silence.
Katara tugged on the avatar’s sleeve. “Aang, why don’t you go grab him some breakfast while Sokka and I move him into the tent?”
Aang brightened. “Okay!” He formed a ball of air underneath his body and sprung onto it, balancing on top with one foot and zipping away like some kind of crazy performer in a freaky circus act. Toph followed after him, yawning and stretching.
Zuko looked uneasy as the two Water Tribe siblings approached. Appa nuzzled his back with his nose in an almost encouraging manner.
“Can you walk at all, or do you want us to carry you?”
The prince glowered. “I’m not going back in the tent,” he hissed. “And you’re not carrying me.”
“You need another healing session. I figured you’d want some privacy.” Katara rolled her eyes. “But if you want to do it out here, grouchy pants , we can.”
Zuko thought on it for a moment. He supposed he’d prefer not having eight eyes watching as the Water Tribe girl put her weird glowy healing hands all over him. He looked up at the bison, who had angled his head toward him in an oddly convenient manner.
“Fine,” he mumbled. He grabbed hold of Appa’s horn and used it to lift his body off the ground, straining and sputtering. Once he was upright, he sagged against the fluffy monster, sweat beading across his brow, face flushed with effort. Appa stayed still for him, perfectly content being a two-ton support stand for the tiny, warm human.
Katara and Sokka shared a look before flanking Zuko on either side, wrapping their arms under his and bearing the majority of his weight. They walked him toward the tent, letting his feet touch the ground so he didn’t feel like he was being carried even though that was essentially what was happening.
“Wow, Aang was right,” Sokka observed. “You are really warm. Just like a—”
“If you say space heater, I’m lighting your hair on fire,” Zuko grated out.
Katara gaped. “If you even think about lighting my brother’s hair on fire, your ungrateful butt is going in the river.”
“Yeah,” Sokka chuckled. “The fishies need a turn cuddling Prince Hothead.”
Zuko grumbled something under his breath, but didn’t have the energy to banter. He hated having to be cared for and escorted around by his stupid enemies. The Water Tribe siblings in particular both annoyed and puzzled him. He’d never seen a brother and sister get along so well, let alone be protective of each other. Azula would never in a million years defend him if he were in trouble; she’d be watching from the front row with a bowl of fire flakes, cheering for his demise, if not trying to kill him herself. Similarly, for as long as he’d known them, Ozai and Iroh had always been rivals first, relatives second. Being dual heirs to the Fire Nation throne just gave you another person to compete with, to fear, to suspect of plotting your assassination. Royal Fire Nation siblings were never allies, and certainly not friends.
He and Azula had been playmates when they were kids, of course. As a child, Zuko had protected his little sister whenever and however he could. But that only lasted until they began to understand who they were— what they were. Until Azula no longer needed his protection. Until he needed protection from her .
If it came down to it, if it was life or death, would he still defend her? Or would he let her get what she deserved?
Even after getting zapped into oblivion by his sister, it was hard to say.
“Where’s my uncle?” Zuko asked through his teeth as they led him into the tent.
“He went to a nearby town to get supplies,” Sokka replied. “He said he was looking for ingredients for some kind of burn balm for you.”
Sokka eyed him in a way that screamed you know, because he actually cares about you, unlike a certain son-banishing Fire Lord I know?
Zuko turned away from his gaze and glared at the ground. He hoped Uncle would find what he needed and get back here soon. Whatever medicine he’d put on his eye in the infirmary three years ago had significantly sped up his recovery.
“How are you feeling right now, overall?” Katara asked. She and her brother helped him sit against the wall. He held his shoulder and panted softly, his face gnarled with pain.
“Like I got struck by lightning two days ago,” he muttered.
Sokka barked out a laugh. Katara frowned at him. He withered beneath her glare. “What?” he said defensively. “It was funny! Wasn’t that supposed to be funny?”
“Why don’t you go harvest some nuts or something?” Katara said, pushing him toward the exit. Sokka dug his heels into the ground, narrowing his eyes at the injured prince.
“You’re okay being alone with him?” Sokka asked. “What if he firebends at you?”
Katara scoffed in Zuko’s direction. “Don’t worry,” she insisted. “I’m more than capable of handling him myself.”
Zuko scowled, even though he knew she was right. Sure, he could get a surprise attack in—two, if he was lucky. But she’d easily counter with a lash of frozen water, rendering him immobile (and possibly eating the floor) in seconds, if not dead. She had gotten obnoxiously better at fighting since visiting the Northern Water Tribe. She was now one of the biggest threats he encountered when confronting their team, even when he wasn’t half-fried and barely able to walk. In his current state, he didn’t stand a chance.
It wasn’t like he was planning to attack her—not right now, at least. Still. These were the anxieties constantly seething through his mind. In the event he needed to overpower her, it was scary to realize he probably couldn’t. Why did Uncle think it was okay to leave him all by himself with these people? The old man was far too trusting.
Sokka wrinkled his nose. “Okay,” he relented, giving Katara a quick hug. Then he jabbed a finger at Zuko. “Don’t try anything funny or fiery with my sister, or you’ll be sorry. Got it?”
Zuko stared between them bemusedly, then offered a short nod. Sokka puffed up his chest and marched out of the tent, leaving the waterbender and the firebender alone inside.
Once her brother’s footsteps had faded out of earshot, Katara turned to the prince with sharp eyes and an expression he couldn’t quite read. She popped open her pouch and streamed the water around her hands, cycling a slow breath through her lungs.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said, and kneeled beside him. She pressed both palms to the wound on his chest and let the water flow over and into the burnt flesh, tracking the damage as it traveled through his body. Zuko tensed at first, the strange, cold feeling taking him by surprise. But as the pain began to ebb away—the stings, the aches, the twinges, all of it—he allowed himself to relax. Well, as much as he could relax with a Water Tribe girl who hated his guts sitting uncomfortably close to him with her hands on his chest.
As the two sat in awkward silence, Zuko considered the possibility that choosing to be alone with Katara while she healed him was worse than being out in the open.
“How long is this going to take?” he asked, shooting brief glances at her hands, but mostly just staring at the ground.
“About twenty minutes, if you stay still,” she answered. Hardly a minute had passed, and already Katara knew she preferred healing an unconscious Zuko over an awake one. When he was asleep, she didn’t have to worry about breaking the tension, or tip-toeing around his injury, or those deadly golden eyes watching her every move. She didn’t even have to acknowledge that he was Zuko , their nemesis. He was just a body that needed to be healed. A broken pile of muscle and skin for her to mend with waterbending. It was like working with one of those dummies the Northern Water Tribe women had practiced and demonstrated their healing abilities on. Treating him while he was unconscious was easier because she didn’t have to think of him as a person. It was more like fixing a machine.
Zuko’s piercing stare lingered on her hands a little longer than she liked. Maybe she should get him to drink more of his uncle’s knock-out tea. Anything to escape the growing balloon of discomfort suffocating the air between them.
“How...are you doing that?” he inquired carefully, the glow from her waterbending glinting in his eyes. She weighed the question in her mind before choosing her reply.
“Some waterbenders have healing abilities,” she said. “Lucky for you, I’m one of them.”
Zuko studied her for a second before looking away. “I’ve never heard of that before.”
“Maybe you would have, if the Fire Nation hadn’t killed nearly every last waterbender in the South Pole.”
Zuko’s eyes flitted wide for a moment before dropping to the floor. He swallowed, his hands fidgeting in his lap.
Katara’s steady hand movements wavered. She lifted her gaze to his. Now that she knew the story behind his scar—the malevolent forces and people who had allowed the prince to be permanently branded so cruelly—she found it difficult to tear her eyes away from it. She’d never noticed how painful it looked. How the scorched, leathery skin stood out so drastically against the rest of his young, unblemished face. He could be two totally different people, depending on which side of him you were looking at. Staring at him now made her stomach clench. It felt like she was seeing him— truly seeing him—for the very first time.
The apology had caught her off guard. So much so, she didn’t realize how long she’d been gazing at him until he turned toward her. A flash of realization crossed his face.
“My—my sister didn’t give me this one too, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Katara glanced away quickly, feeling rude. “N-no, that’s not…” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Sorry.”
Zuko gave a small shrug. “It’s fine,” he said, although his expression told a different story.
She went back to healing his shoulder. Now she was purposely not looking at his face, which somehow felt just as awkward. A full minute passed before either of them spoke again.
“Does it still hurt?” she asked quietly.
Zuko blinked at her. “What?”
“Your eye. Does it still hurt sometimes?”
A line formed between his brows. “It’s a scar,” he said.
“Is that a no?”
He shifted in place, looking thoughtful and uneasy. He reached up and grazed the burned skin with his fingertips. “I guess I sometimes think it’s hurting, but...I don’t think it’s real.”
Katara nodded solemnly. “Sokka has a scar on his back like that. He fell out of a canoe as a kid and landed on a sharp patch of ice. It really rattled him, and he says it still stings from time to time. But he thinks it’s all in his head.”
Zuko looked down at her hands again. “Do you think it’s all in his head?”
The waterbender pursed her lips in thought. Then she lifted her shoulders somberly. “Does it matter? It still hurts him. Except there’s nothing I can do to make it better.”
The prince had a curious expression on his face, like he wanted to understand what she was saying while also knowing he never would. This was the longest she’d ever seen him go without boasting his signature scowl.
“You and your brother care a lot about each other,” he said warily. Not as a question, but a stated fact. An observation.
“Of course we do,” she said, almost laughing. Zuko eyed his shoulder wound dismally.
“Must be nice,” he murmured.
Katara followed his gaze and grimaced. “Oh,” she said. She’d almost forgotten it was his sister who had nearly electrocuted him to death.
“I guess not all siblings were meant to get along like you two.”
Katara couldn’t imagine not being friends with her brother. Sure, they’d had their fair share of spats and squabbles, as all siblings were bound to have. But to honestly, genuinely hate each other? To see him as an enemy rather than her most trusted companion? To not have each other’s backs through thick and thin, in every trial they’d faced together?
And to actually try to kill each other…the absurdity of the concept blew her mind.
But she and Sokka weren’t Zuko and Azula.
“I guess not,” she said softly. Her hands moved to hover directly over the gruesome injury. “Still...I can’t believe your own sister did this to you.”
“Have you met Azula?” Zuko scoffed.
Katara narrowed her eyes. “If you had the chance, would you kill her?”
Zuko lifted his gaze and blinked. A flicker of uncertainty touched his irises—one that scared both of them. Then his expression clouded over.
“No,” he said adamantly, swallowing. “But if she was in danger dying, I don’t know if I’d save her.”
Silence shrouded the room. In that moment, it occurred to Katara that she was doing the exact thing she’d promised herself she wouldn’t do. She was interacting with Zuko like he was a normal human being, not their sworn enemy. Not the person who had tried to imprison her friend over and over. Not the prince of the most bloodthirsty nation on the planet. She cursed herself for so carelessly letting him in, for actually feeling bad for him.
She set her jaw and refocused her attention on his wound. She wouldn’t let herself slip again.
“We saved you,” she pointed out coldly. “Because unlike you and Azula, we’re actually good people.”
She felt Zuko tense and saw his hand curl into a fist out of the corner of her eye, but she didn’t react. She continued to begrudgingly heal his injury, moving her palms along his collarbone.
Unbeknownst to her, Zuko was actually glad she’d decided to insult him the same moment her hands changed position on his body. The feeling of the water healing his wound fanned outwards from wherever her palms touched, strange and cool and tingly—perfectly fine when it was just over his shoulder. But as she inched toward his neck, the tingly sensation started crawling up the sensitive skin, spreading underneath his chin. In an instant, the feeling went from soothing and mystical to tickling him like a feather. Zuko soon found himself clenching his teeth and coiling his muscles in attempt not to laugh, a position he had not anticipated being in. When it grew too much to handle, he jerked away, gripping his throat.
Katara winced in surprise, her water-coated hands hanging in the air. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
Zuko blinked. “Um.” His face suddenly felt warm. How was he going to explain this? He rubbed his tingling skin nervously. “It just—hurt. I’m sore there.”
“Where? On your neck?” She reached toward his throat, but he flinched back from her touch. A line formed between her eyes. “Let me see. I might be able to help.”
“It’s fine,” he snapped. “I just tweaked it. It doesn’t need your freaky magic hands.” If that tingly feeling was pressed directly against his neck, he was certain he’d fall to pieces in seconds. He was embarrassingly sensitive, as Uncle had recently (and obnoxiously) discovered, and he had no desire for anyone else to find out— especially his enemies. He’d sooner let Azula fry his other shoulder than let that happen.
Fortunately for him, Katara didn’t press the issue. “Fine,” she said, letting her hands fall to her sides. “I’m done with the wound on your chest for now anyway.”
Zuko breathed a sigh of relief. Bullet: dodged .
“Now I can start on your foot.”
A spark of alarm shot up Zuko’s spine. His eyes popped open as she moved to sit by his feet.
“W-what?” he exclaimed.
Katara gave him a questioning look. “Your foot,” she said, pointing. “It needs to be healed, too. You know, the one you can hardly put any weight on?” She gave his sole a light tap, causing dread to rise in his belly. “The lightning entered your chest, traveled down your left side, and exited out of the bottom of your left foot. The scar on it matches the one on your chest—it’s just smaller.”
Just the thought of that tingling sensation spreading across his sole was enough to make him twitchy. Zuko swallowed, worrying his thumbs in his lap. “Do you… have to heal it?” he asked timidly.
Katara frowned at him. “I mean, yeah. If you ever want to walk normally again.”
It took a moment for the change in his demeanor to catch her attention. He looked shy and fidgety all of sudden, as if he was about to give a speech but had forgotten his notes, and he was doing absolutely everything he could to avoid her gaze. His face also had a slight pink tint to it, like he’d been holding his breath.
“Is something wrong?” she finally asked him. Zuko hesitated before shaking his head. He was doomed either way, but he refused to confess what was really going on. If he kept his mouth shut, at least there was a chance he could find the strength to stay composed—perhaps enough for her not to notice.
Katara studied him for a few more puzzled seconds before shrugging it off and getting to work. She used one hand to hold his ankle steady while the other brought the water to his sole. The scar was in the center of the ball of his foot, just above his arch and right below his toes, which was why Zuko was having so much trouble walking on it. His leg would probably be stiff for a while, but she could heal it enough for him to at least start putting some weight on it again.
But barely two seconds into the healing session, Zuko yanked his foot out of her grip. She flinched and looked up at him, narrowing his eyes.
“What are you doing?” she asked irritably. “I told you, you have to stay still.”
Zuko had his hands shoved under his armpits and his lips pursed tight. “Oh, r-right,” he said. His voice was pitched slightly higher than normal. When he didn’t return his foot to her, she grabbed his ankle and dragged it back to its original position.
“Don’t move,” she demanded, and pressed her glowing palm against his sole again.
Easy for you to say! Zuko thought miserably. The tingly sensation revved back to life, sprawling down his heel and between his toes. It felt like his entire foot was being brushed with tiny, magical feathers. Even worse, it hurt to curl his arch or scrunch up his toes, so he really couldn’t move other than ripping his foot away or kicking her in the face, which he was seriously considering.
A flood giggles started building behind his lips. He twitched and snorted and slapped a palm over his mouth before tearing his foot away from her tingly touch. Katara huffed exasperatedly, balling her hands into fists.
“What is your problem?” she shouted. “What part of ‘don't move’ and ‘stay still’ do you not understand?”
Zuko’s ears felt like they were on fire. He hugged his knee skittishly, grappling for an excuse. “I don’t—I’m not trying to,” he stammered, rubbing his heel against the ground.
“Then why do you keep doing it?”
The prince crossed his arms close to his chest. “Because—” he said, biting his lip. “I just—I don’t...like how it feels.”
Katara raised an eyebrow. “You don’t like how it feels?” she parroted mockingly. “You didn’t mind how it felt when I was healing your chest. Why is this any different?”
Zuko didn’t answer. The firebender was noticeably flustered—hands restless, shoulders hunched. Clearly there was something bothering him that he wasn’t letting on about. Katara’s expression softened.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she said, changing her tone. Zuko was in a pretty vulnerable position. Even if he was evil, he still felt pain the same way she and all her friends did. As a healer, she had to acknowledge that. She sighed levelly. “But you need to stay still so I can heal you properly.” The waterbender nodded towards his foot. “Is it hurting when I heal you? Is that why you keep jumping away?”
Zuko shook his head. “N-no, it’s not...” he mumbled, scratching his forearm nervously. His eyes stayed locked on the ground, as if it would disappear from underneath him if he dared look away. “It’s just...weird.”
“Weird?” she said.
“You know... weird.”
Katara scoffed. “You’re not making any sense.”
“Forget it,” Zuko growled, scowling between his feet. “I’ll let it heal naturally.”
“You’ll have a limp for the rest of your life if you do that.”
A grimace crawled across his face. Zuko shifted uncomfortably, weighing the two evils in his mind.
“Just tell me why you can’t keep still,” Katara insisted. “Use your words , your highness. Does it sting? Does it burn? Is it making your skin pruny? What?”
“It doesn’t matter , okay?” he snapped. “It feels weird, so I’m not staying still.” He turned away bitterly. “Why don’t you learn how to heal in a way that doesn’t feel weird?”
The waterbender stared at him with a mixture of annoyance and amusement. She placed her hands on her hips. “You’re being a spoiled little brat right now, you know that?”
Zuko continued glaring at the wall, his stomach rumbling quietly. Katara sighed.
“Fine,” she said. She stood and walked out of the tent, disappearing into the sunshine. Zuko watched her go, blinking. Had she given up? Maybe she had another way to heal him that didn’t require tingly waterbending magic. He exhaled slowly and stretched out his legs, allowing himself to relax a little.
The moment he did, two bands of earth rose up from the ground and wrapped around his ankles, trapping his feet in place. At the same time, the wall opened up behind him and swallowed his arms from the elbows down, pinning his hands behind his back. Zuko yelped in surprise, straining against the newly formed bonds as Katara re-entered the tent, tailed by Toph.
“Hey! W-what are you doing?” He tugged and pulled to try to free his arms, grunting with effort.
Katara smirked. “Making you stay still so I can heal you, of course.”
Zuko gawked. Uh oh . Trying not to laugh when he could pull away from the tickling sensation anytime it grew too intense was already hard enough as it was. But trying not to laugh when he couldn’t escape it at all? Not good.
“Now I can make sure you’re up and walking again in no time.” Katara grinned at the earthbender. “Thanks, Toph.”
“Sure,” Toph replied, looming over the trapped firebender smugly. Zuko blanched, squirming even more.
“Th-this is absurd! Let me go!” The prince wrenched and fought with all his might, but it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere. He was thoroughly, entirely pinned. Even at his full strength, he doubted he’d be able to escape Toph’s rock-cuffs.
“Relax, Squirmy,” Toph chuckled. “You’re in good hands. Katara knows what she’s doing.”
She most certainly does not, he thought skittishly. Not yet, at least. And I’d really prefer to keep it that way! He twisted and turned as the Water Tribe girl sat by his feet again, reaching for his now defenseless sole. Anxiety leapt into Zuko’s throat.
“Wait!” he cried. “I’ll—I’ll be still. I promise.” He fidgeted sheepishly. “Just...let me out of this.”
Katara had no idea what was causing him to act so strange and frantic. She’d never had anyone respond to her healing sessions this way. But as entertaining as it was, she’d had enough of it.
“I’m sure you would, Zuko,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But this guarantees it.”
With that, she pressed her palm to his foot and willed the water to mend the damaged flesh. It was a lot easier to do now that he wasn’t pulling away every two seconds.
Once she got into her usual healing rhythm, she looked up at Zuko, expecting the assuage to calm his bizarre uneasiness. Instead, she found him with his face buried in his shoulder as his cheeks burned bright red.
“Zuko?” she said, startled. “What’s wrong?”
The prince shook his head, his body shivering like his fever had returned. He was trying his best to hide his face, but she could see enough to notice he was smiling, although it looked like he was fighting it with every ounce of his being.
“Why are you smiling?” she asked, the corners of her own lips lifting in puzzled amusement. She didn’t think she’d ever seen the grumpy firebender actually, genuinely smile before. It was a nice look on him, even when he was trying desperately to conceal it. He was also making a bunch of funny little noises—stifled squeaks and snorts he was struggling to keep at bay. At the same time, he was twitching and wriggling sporadically, as if his pants were crawling with centibeetles.
“He’s smiling?” Toph asked, mirroring Katara’s grin. Curiously, Katara’s gaze dropped to his foot. She moved her hand down his sole and gently fluttered her fingers against the center of his arch. Zuko’s wild reaction confirmed her hilarious hypothesis.
“Ahack!” the prince yelped, his entire body going rigid. He whirled on her bewilderedly. “Dohon’t do that!”
Katara’s face lit up with delight. “No way. You’re ticklish? ” She scribbled her nails toward his heel, making Zuko squeak and writhe. “Oh man! You are! That’s why you’re being so weird and squirmy!”
“S-stohop it!” Zuko giggled, a giant smile overtaking his features. Meanwhile, he was absolutely dying on the inside. This was too humiliating for words. His whole body smoldered with embarrassment while his toes twitched in protest.
“Is my waterbending tickling you?” she wondered aloud, swirling one finger against his sole in thought, fiercely enjoying his erratic response. If there were ever a time she’d consider calling Zuko cute, it was now, when he was squealing and squirming beneath her delicate touch, flashing one of his rare (and surprisingly radiant) smiles, his face rosy with shame. She chuckled softly. “Hm. That’s new. No one’s ever told me it tickled them before. You must be really sensitive, huh?”
Thankfully, Katara did stop tickling him, but the evil smirk she drilled him with rendered him no less flustered. The damage was done, and there was no taking it back. Toph placed her fists on her hips and grinned smugly.
“Aw! No wonder he didn’t want to tell you why he couldn’t stay still. The little Fire Princey is embarrassed! How cute!”
For the second time that day, Zuko’s face turned as red as a lychee nut. He pouted timidly.
“Sh-shut up!” he snarled. “It’s not cute!” He didn’t seem to understand the fact that the more he denied it, the less he was helping his case.
“What’s not cute?” Aang’s chipper voice called, causing dread to shudder up Zuko’s skeleton. He and Sokka stepped through the doorway, holding bags of provisions.
Katara giggled into her hand. “Yeah, Zuko,” she said pointedly. “ What’s not cute?”
The firebender shrunk into himself shyly. Aang tilted his head to the side.
“Why is Zuko all bound up?” he asked. “Did he attack one of you?”
“He wouldn’t stay still for Katara’s healing session,” Toph explained, a mischievous glint in her faded eyes.
Katara pressed her water-cloaked palm to his foot again, boasting a bright grin. “But we don’t have to worry about that anymore! Right, Zuko?”
If Zuko were able, he’d definitely kick her in the face right now. Unfortunately for him, all he could do was cringe and bite the inside of his cheek, battling back a wall of bubbly giggles while squirming against his restraints.
“Why does he look like he’s about to explode?” Sokka asked, frowning.
“But like...happy explode!” Aang observed.
Toph chuckled, unable to keep quiet any longer. “Because Katara’s water healing technique is tickling him,” she explained, feeling Zuko’s heart leap in despair. “She has to heal the exit wound on his foot, but apparently his feet are super ticklish.”
To Zuko’s dismay, two more pairs of eyes turned on his blushing, smiley self with stunned delight. Other than the Agni Kai with his father, Zuko couldn’t remember another moment in his life where he so desperately wanted to be invisible.
“Zuko is ticklish?” Aang exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. “Aw! That’s adorable!”
Zuko considered retaliating, but if he opened his mouth, laughter was the only thing coming out. Sokka snickered.
“First we discover you sleep with a traveling petting zoo, and now we find out you’re ticklish?” The Water Tribe boy tsked disappointedly. “Man. Your bad guy aesthetic has taken a major hit today, buddy.”
Aang hopped to Zuko’s left side, leaning in close to his flushed face. “If you’re tickling him, how come he’s not laughing?” he inquired.
Katara chuckled softly. “I think he’s putting all his effort into keeping himself from laughing,” she said. “He seems determined not to let us hear it.”
A steady stream of whimpers and squeaks were escaping the flustered firebender, but he was somehow managing to stave off the tsunami of giggles. If somebody wasn’t intentionally tickling him, it seemed he was able to stay quiet, so long as all his focus was honed in on that goal.
Before Aang had a chance to remedy this injustice, Iroh appeared in the doorway of the tent, beaming with excitement.
“Zuko, look what I found!” he exclaimed, holding up his fist. “Feathers from the rare blue skink quail! Legend says if you add them to your tea, they can cure any ailment!” He eyed the long quills suspiciously. “Unless I am mistaken, and they are actually normal skink quail feathers, which are known to cause uncontrollable dysentery if consumed…”
He glanced up from his dilemma to find his nephew pinned down with shackles made of earth, looking extremely red in the face. He was surrounded by the avatar and his friends, who appeared amused by the prince’s pitiful squirming.
“Hey Iroh, did you know Zuko is ticklish?” Aang giggled.
Iroh blinked, taken back by the sight and the question. “What are you doing to my nephew?” he asked bemusedly.
“I’m just healing him,” Katara insisted, pointing to the glowing hand on his sole. “But I guess the feeling on his foot tickles, so we had to restrain him to keep him still.”
Iroh stared at Zuko’s twitchy toes, then at his smiling, blushing face. A stroke of endearment touched his heart. He loved seeing Zuko smile, even if the reason at the moment wasn’t to his liking. Unfortunately, the only way to get his hotheaded nephew to smile nowadays was through convoluted and unconventional methods like tickling. He tried not to use his adorable sensitivity against him too often, knowing it embarrassed the prince tremendously, but sometimes he felt he had to do it just to remind himself that Zuko was capable of joy and laughter, no matter how hard he tried to convince both of them he wasn’t. It was especially nice to see him smiling now, after nearly losing him to Azula’s attack. The thought of never seeing his nephew’s happy face again was too painful to dwell on.
“I see,” he said, the corners of his mouth turning upward. “He’s probably not pleased you found out about his little weakness.”
“Uncle!” Zuko squeaked out before shutting back up again, clenching his teeth behind his lips. The children chuckled in delight. He was really struggling now, snickering and sputtering with his eyes squeezed shut. Not even Katara was immune to the endearing scene. She offered him a sympathetic smile.
“You know you can laugh if you want,” she said earnestly. “I imagine it’s not easy to fight it for this long. It might actually be good for you.”
“Yeah!” Aang chirped. “It’s just like the monks always said: laughter is the best medicine.” He sat down beside him, beaming brilliantly. “Don’t be shy! Go ahead!”
Zuko shook his head adamantly, shoving his face into his shoulder as his whole body trembled and quaked. He had already been humiliated beyond all reason—he would not grant them any more satisfaction at his expense. A wry grin curled along Sokka’s lips.
“Perhaps the stubborn prince needs a little more encouragement,” he suggested. He plucked one of the large feathers from Iroh’s fist. “Could I borrow one of these?”
“Sure,” Iroh said knowingly. “I probably won’t be using them anyway. I don’t have a great track record with concocting teas from strange things I found in the wilderness.”
Sokka skipped between his friends to sit on the firebender’s right side, opposite of Aang. “This oughta do the trick,” he said. Grinning eagerly, he held the soft end of the feather above Zuko’s torso, wiggling it threateningly. “Hey Fire Lord Spawn,” he teased him, “is your upper body ticklish too?”
Something lithe and fuzzy started brushing against his side, causing Zuko’s eyes to fly open. Horror sprawled across his face as goosebumps bubbled up from his skin.
“Ah! W-wahait! Don’t—!” He clamped his mouth shut and tried to angle his body out of the feather’s reach, but Sokka made sure the tickly bristles stayed glued to his side, gliding in the space between his hips and ribs.
Zuko’s steely resolve was snuffed out in seconds. The sensation tickled far too much for the poor prince to take. Add that to the tingly tickles on his foot, and he knew he was done for. In real time, the four kids and the old man watched Zuko’s willpower rapidly crumble away: from whimpering to snorting to thrashing in place, until finally—
“Ehahaha!” he belted out, his cheeks glowing bright pink. He bucked and writhed, bursting with uncontrollable giggles. “Nohoheehee! Stahap!”
“Aww! There ya go!” Aang cheered.
“No way,” Toph gasped. “That’s Zuko?”
Sokka smirked triumphantly as he swooped the feather up and down the full length of the firebender’s side, drawing airy, nervous giggles from his lips. It was a softer kind of laughter compared to the time Iroh had attacked his tummy in the cave, but just as endearing—if not more so. Plus, in his current state, gentler tickling was definitely more appropriate.
“Q-quihit it! Gehet awahay!” His eyes darted around the room, searching feverishly for a way out of this ticklish nightmare. Among the unfriendly faces, he spotted Iroh, who was watching the scene play out from the back, chuckling softly.
“Uhuncle!” Zuko bubbled, his wide smile and bright laughter melting Iroh’s heart. He squirmed helplessly, burning from head to toe. “Mahake them stohop!”
Iroh grinned, stroking his beard. “I think the avatar is right, Prince Zuko. Laughter is a wonderful remedy for a broken body and a troubled soul. Indulging yourself in it for a little while may benefit your condition, especially right now.”
Zuko stopped listening six words in, when it was clear he wasn’t going to help him. His mind was too occupied by the feeling of the feather delicately tracing the right side of his ribcage, causing light but frantic giggles to spill from his throat. Sokka lingered in the spot just below his underarm, teasing and stroking the exceptionally sensitive skin, then dragged the feather back down his side, fluttering the tip right above his hip bone.
Katara chuckled along with the giggly prince, still grappling with the notion that the shrill, happy noise ringing in her ears was coming from Zuko . The typically grumpy firebender had a laugh that was both joyful and shy, like every second longer he heard himself doing it was making him all the more ashamed of it. He continued to try to muffle his giggling but was failing at every turn. The fact he was so mortified by the sound of his own laughter almost made her sad.
“I think Prince Grouchy Butt is embarrassed of his laugh,” she observed amusedly. “Is that why you don’t do it very often?”
The blush in Zuko’s face bled down into his neck. Iroh chortled.
“He has a strict image of hostility and toughness he likes to maintain,” the old man explained. “I don’t think giggling like a child fits into that criteria.”
Sokka cooed, brushing the feather all over his belly. “Poor little Zuko, trying so hard to act tough. Too bad all it takes to shatter that facade is one wiggly feather!” He painted figure eights across his abs, noticing the sharp leap in the prince’s voice. “Hate to break it to you, but I don’t think tough guys typically have such ticklish tummies.”
“Stahap patronizing me!” Zuko demanded between giggles, doubling over as much as his restraints would allow. “Youhou’re all gonna—p-payhay for this!”
“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” Iroh assured him, unfazed by his nephew’s squeaky threats.
“Yeah,” Katara agreed, grinning fiendishly. “Your laugh is super cute.”
The way he looked at her, you’d think she just told him he would never walk again. Katara couldn’t help but snicker, which only made his face heat up more. Zuko fought once again to stem the waterfall of laughter from breaching his lips, but it was hopeless. The feeling of the feather teasing his bare skin was driving him mad with giggles.
“Nohot—it’s nohohot— eheeheehahahagh!”
He was so focused on the soft bristles mercilessly exploring his right side, he didn’t even notice the avatar nabbing a feather from his uncle and floating down on his left until he started swirling the soft end inside his belly button.
“Katara’s right, Zuko! Your laugh is super cute. Now I just wanna hear more of it!”
Zuko threw his weight around and arched his spine. “Nohohahaha!” he squealed, the sensation sending shocks across his ticklish tummy. “Ahagh— s-stahap! Thahat feels so weeheeheird!”
The room buzzed with laughter. “He means it tickles,” Katara translated with a snort. “Weird is his word for when something tickles.”
His hysterical response only seemed to goad Aang’s tickling fervor. The airbender drew slow ‘Xs’ over his navel, skimming the side of the feather along the edges as he stroked the tip back and forth, all while asking in a playfully mocking voice, “Does this feel weird, Zuko? Or this? How about this?”
Meanwhile, Sokka started scratching his midriff with the quill part of the feather, which Zuko didn’t expect to tickle beyond human comprehension. But it did, making him shiver and squirm and peal into shrill, sheepish laughter.
He didn’t even know what he was trying to say at this point. Every ticklish inch of him wanted to beg for mercy, but that would require sacrificing his last leg of dignity, and he was resolved not to degrade himself any further. Unfortunately, that meant he just had to endure their torment until they got bored with it, and who knew how long that would take.
Sokka and Aang could sense the firebender was reaching his limits. They exchanged a look and eased back on their tickle attack, switching to the fuzzy sides of their feathers and giving him longer breaks between strokes. He was still wounded, after all. If this was how he reacted to being tickled by two gentle, innocuous feathers, Aang could only imagine how much he’d lose it if they started using their hands.
The prince’s laughter returned to nervous, airy giggles—the kind that made Iroh want to pinch his rosy cheeks. He twitched and flinched every time the feathers made contact with his skin, which Sokka and Aang were brushing higher and higher up his body.
“Do you think his armpits are ticklish?” Aang wondered, stroking his feather dangerously close to his underarm, making Zuko cringe.
“Good question! Why don’t we ask him?” Sokka did the same, drawing a yelp from the firebender’s lips. “Hey Zuko, are your armpits ticklish?”
Poor Zuko was doing everything possible to guard himself, pulling his arms as close to his sides as he could, but the way he was pinned didn’t allow him to protect them completely. The remaining gaps were the perfect size for two silky feathers to slip right into and destroy him.
“Youhou’re both soho dehead,” he giggled helplessly, straining against his bonds.
“I can confirm his armpits are quite ticklish!” Iroh exclaimed. “In fact, they may be his worst spot.”
Zuko bared his teeth at his uncle in what he hoped resembled a snarl. “Youhou’re dead too!” he snapped, his arm muscles trembling with effort. “Traihaihaitor!”
“How ‘bout, on the count of three, we both go for his pits?” Aang proposed to Sokka with a wink.
Sokka grinned, winking back. “Ready when you are.”
Aang held his feather toward his underarm. “One....”
Sokka mirrored him, swirling the quill tauntingly. “Two…”
Zuko went pink with anticipation. He shut his eyes, squirming anxiously. “Ihi’m gonna—k-kill all of you!”
The two boys giggled at the flustered prince, drawing out the last count just for good measure. Aang smirked in delight.
Both of them lunged toward the firebender without making contact. As expected, Zuko busted out laughing anyway, nervous giggles pouring from his lips.
“What’s the matter? We’re not even touching you!” Sokka teased him.
“We’re not tickling you, so why are you laughing?” Aang concurred. They wiggled their feathers an inch away from his skin, inflicting him with phantom tickling sensations.
Zuko was at his wit’s end with this entire humiliating affair. He continued to writhe restlessly, snickering into his shoulder.
“You jerherks ! You’re insane! Ahall of you!” He squeaked as Katara’s hand crept toward his toes, shooting tingly, tickly snakes between them. “Come on! Lehet me go already!”
Sokka cocked his head to the side. “We’re jerks? For not tickling you?”
“Sounds to me like you’re mad that we aren’t actually tickling you,” Aang mused.
Zuko stiffened. “W-what?”
“We were just messing with you with the whole countdown thing,” Sokka continued.
“But if you’re going to call us jerks for not tickling you…”
“Then I guess we better give the guy what he wants.”
The whole scheme was so well-rehearsed, Zuko was almost impressed. But he didn’t get to marvel at it long. A second later, two fuzzy feathers were swishing against his underarms, setting off every nerve ending in his body.
“Ahahaheehee!” He threw his head back, cackling wildly, twisting from side to side. “N-noho! Pfftahahack! Cuhut it ahouhahahaaa!”
Hiccups began punching through Zuko’s giggle fit. It didn’t look like Iroh had been kidding. Aang drew circles in the hollow of his pit while Sokka skated his feather up and down the underside of his upper arm, rendering the prince a wriggly, squealing mess. None of them could get over just how silly and adorable their nemesis was when he was laughing like crazy and squirming away from their tickle attack. He went from angry, scary firebender to giggly little teenager with one stroke of a feather. The happy expression on his face reminded Aang of his old friend Kuzon.
“What was it that I heard Azula’s call you?” Aang said, bopping him playfully on the nose. “Zu-Zu, right?”
“Zu-Zu?” Katara repeated, laughing out loud. “That’s so cute!”
At that point, Zuko’s entire body had turned a rosy red color. The feathers wisping against his underarms were driving him ballistic—not to mention their incessant efforts to make him blush.
“Dohon’t cahall me thahahat!” he giggled shrilly.
“How come?” Sokka asked, fluttering his feather in the hollow of his pit. “Does Prince Zu-Zu not like his adorable little nickname?”
Iroh chuckled lightly to himself, both adoring and pitying his poor nephew. “Are you going to join the fun?” he asked Toph, offering her the last feather.
“You’re terrible,” she snorted. “I love it.”
She snatched the quill from his hand and sat beside Katara. When the earthbender began whisking the soft bristles across his uninjured sole, Zuko’s whole leg jolted violently.
“Whaha— nohoho!” he cried. He curled his toes and flexed his foot, but it did nothing to deter Toph’s delicate and meticulous destruction of the ticklish firebender. She tickled the entirety of his sole, gauging his reactions to see which places and methods made him squirm the most. Sawing the feather between his toes ended up being her deadliest technique, leaving Zuko in writhing, squeaky stitches.
Now all four of them were teamed up on him, and Zuko was starting to lose it. The fuzzy feeling of three wiggly feathers and one tingly hand all tickling the most sensitive areas of his body at the same time was making his brain go haywire . It seemed the longer they teased his ticklish skin, the more sensitive it became to their touch, rendering him more desperate and more giggly with each passing second.
“Thihis—ihis—ehevil!” he gasped. Every word was either punctuated by hiccups, or followed by a stretch of silent laughter—where he was giggling so much, he could hardly make a sound.
Katara scoffed. “Did Zuko just call us evil? That’s hilarious.” She watched her friends tickle the helpless firebender to bits and chuckled at his hysterical flailing. She could hardly believe the cruel soldier she’d fought in the North Pole and the laughing teen wriggling in front of her were one and the same. It was crazy to think she actually used to be afraid of him. She could probably sit here and watch him squirm all day long and never get tired of it.
When Aang realized Toph had joined the fray, he switched to gently tickling Zuko’s neck to give him a breather. Sokka did the same, brushing his feather in the gap of his collarbone every now and then, sending spikes of chills across the prince’s skin.
Zuko’s giggling calmed down a tiny bit, but not as much as they expected. Aang laughed when he stroked the feather towards his ear and Zuko scrunched his head to his shoulder with a squeak.
“You might be the most ticklish person I’ve ever met,” Aang said cheerfully. “And I’m a hundred and twelve years old!”
“You’re definitely the squirmiest person I’ve ever met,” Sokka agreed, copying the movement on Zuko’s right side, making the prince yelp and hike that shoulder to his ear.
“Stahahap it!” he giggled. He didn’t know how much more of this he could bear. His flesh tingled all over, shuddering beneath the soft, silky touch of the three fuzzy feathers, which stroked and brushed and teased his bare skin without mercy. He’d breathe fire at them if he could, but it was impossible to gather enough air in his lungs to attempt the technique when he was laughing this hard.
The Water Tribe boy and the avatar started working in tandem to tickle whichever side of his neck was left exposed while Zuko struggled to guard himself, turning it into a fun little game of back and forth. He fought so hard not to shrink up every time they switched sides. Unsurprisingly, he failed every time.
“You’re so cute when you try not to squirm!” Sokka laughed, stroking the feather against the back of his ear. “Go ahead, keep fighting it. I’m sure it’ll work eventually.”
“Eheehee!” Zuko squeaked helplessly, jerking away and making Sokka smirk. “Y-you—rahat vihiper!”
The prince was spiraling. Just when he figured things couldn’t get any worse, Aang and Sokka jumped back down to his ribs and belly, gliding the feathers all over his torso and making him want to disintegrate.
“I think this is the most fun I’ve ever had with a firebender,” Toph said, poking the quill between his toes.
“Me too,” Katara agreed. “Look how smiley and blushy he is! It’ll be hard to ever take you seriously again after I’ve seen you like this.”
Zuko shook his head feebly. It was bad enough they were tickling him to humiliating extremes, making him erupt with high-pitched laughter that he was powerless to quell no matter how much he tried to shut up. Did they really have to make fun of him as well? He couldn’t even move , let alone cover his stupid, blushing face! Talk about fighting dirty. All he could do was wriggle and squeal as they tickled him senseless, his smile as wide and bright as the sun.
“Ahahaha! Guhuhuys!” he howled. What he would give to be an earthbender right now—or to temporarily have one on his side.
“Based on his heart rate, he gets even more flustered when you tease him while you tickle him,” Toph observed with a grin. She stroked the feather from the bottom of his heel to the ball of his foot, wiggling it for extra effect. “Coochie-coochie-coo, Zu-Zu! Doesn’t that tickle so much? It’s okay—laugh all you want! It’s not like you can make yourself stop.”
Aang snickered as Zuko’s ears turned a shade pinker. “Wait ‘til the whole world finds out how adorable the Fire Nation prince is when you tickle him!” he said, flitting the feather below his belly button, tickling the skin along his waistline. Based on the way bucked and yelped, he was exploring an extremely sensitive spot. But to be fair, there didn’t seem to be a lot of places on Zuko that weren't extremely sensitive.
The kids giggled in unison with the hapless prince, the joy on their faces making Iroh’s heart soft. As he watched his helpless nephew get teased and tickled out of his mind, he wished he could snapshot this moment in his memories and save it forever. Seeing the five of them laughing and goofing off together just seemed right , even if it was at Zuko’s expense. How he hoped Zuko’s time with these selfless children had changed him in some way, however small, for the better—offering him the chance to seize a new outlook on his life and his destiny. Iroh sensed the prince’s future was intertwined with the avatar’s, just not in the way he’d always imagined. Perhaps this could be his first step toward that realization.
Meanwhile, Zuko was in giggly shambles. He couldn’t handle another second of this teasy, feathery torment. He’d sworn they wouldn’t get him to beg, but that was the only way out of this he had left in his arsenal. He doubted it would work; it would probably just give them more fuel for their ‘let’s humiliate Zuko’ party. But he was out of options, and his head was starting to spin, and Uncle obviously wasn’t going to save him. He had to try.
“Ohokay!” he cried, breathless and defeated. He barely had the energy to twitch anymore; he was basically just lying there and taking it, tears glinting in the corners of his eyes. “Pleehease—please stahap! I cahan’t… m’g-gehetting…dihizzy…”
Iroh stepped forward to say something, but thankfully, he didn’t have to. All of them immediately stopped tickling Zuko, dropping their arms to their sides and watching the firebender sag with relief, airy giggles still slipping from lips as he fought to catch his breath.
“Gah...heh...uhugh…” He hung his head low, panting lightly. Even though the feathers were no longer tickling him, his skin itched and tingled in all the places they’d perused, and bubbly butterflies continued to dance in his belly. He was also mortified to his core, and probably would be for the rest of his existence, which wasn’t great. He couldn’t wipe the goofy smile off his face just yet. “Myhy…sihides…” he whined.
“See? All you had to do was ask nicely,” Toph said, grinning.
“Poor Zuko,” Sokka cooed, poking one of his bright red cheeks. “I’ve never seen anyone blush so much for so long before.”
He lolled out of his reach skittishly, fuming with embarrassment. “Stohop,” he whimpered. “Y-you’re all...psyhychos…”
Aang giggled with his hands on his hips. “We really got you good, huh? It was nice to see you look so happy for once. Maybe all that laughing will help you recover faster!”
“If the laughing doesn’t help, hopefully my healing will,” Katara said, holding up her glowing palm. Zuko winced.
“Ugh...pleehease tell me you’re done with that,” he said weakly. Katara chuckled.
“What, healing your foot?” she asked. She dragged one finger up the side of his arch. “Oh, yeah. I finished that, like, eight minutes ago.”
A startled giggle leapt from Zuko’s throat, making the four friends cackle and the prince’s ears burn. The moment they settled down, Zuko's stomach let loose a pitiful roar, causing them to crack up all over again.
“Oh man! You still haven’t eaten yet, have you?” Aang poked at his rumbling belly, making Zuko squirm and squeak. “Aw! You’ve got to be totally wiped! That was mean of us. We should’ve fed you first.”
“Quihit messing with me!” Zuko snapped, twitching and snickering beneath the avatar’s tasering fingertips. “Just...lehet me go already!”
“Are you going to attack us if we do?” Sokka asked dubiously. “You did say you were going to kill us before. Like, a lot.”
“Ihi’m seriously considering it!” he growled between giggles. “It’s whahat you deserve!”
Aang clicked his tongue in disapproval. “You might want to rethink your answer on that, your highness.” He sat beside the fettered prince and reached around his back, curling his hands around his tummy, grinning mischievously. “Because if you don’t promise you aren’t gonna hurt any of us after we let you go, I’m not going to stop doing this.”
To Zuko’s horror, the avatar started squeezing both sides of his bare torso, drilling his fingers deep into his flesh, jumping between his hips, his belly, his ribs, his pits, holding absolutely nothing back. Zuko jolted and shrieked, twisting and bucking uselessly, his laughter shooting to an entirely new octave of hysterical.
“AHAHAHAHAAA!” he screeched. “GAHA—S-STAHAHAHAP! IHIHEEHEEHAHAHAGH!”
“Whoa,” Toph whistled. “That’s new.”
“Let’s try again,” Aang said, feigning innocence. “Are you going to attack us once we release you, Prince Zuko?” He needled between each individual rib bone with deadly precision, then burrowed into the dips of the firebender’s hips.
Zuko thrashed and hiccuped, frantically trying to get the words out between bouts of wild cackling. “NOHOHAHAHAY—I WOHON’T! AHAHAHAY PRAHAHAMISE!” He didn’t think anything could ever tickle as badly as Aang’s ten fingers digging into his upper body did at that moment. The fact he couldn’t do anything to guard himself or wiggle away made it so unimaginably worse than any other time he’d been tickled. As carefree and goofy the twelve-year-old avatar could be, this was downright cruel . He was certain he would die if he didn’t stop. Laughter erupted from the teen like adorable, desperate lava. “PLEEHEEHEASE—NOHO— MOHOHOREHAHA!”
“That’s more like it!” Aang said jubilantly. He lifted his hands off the prince’s tummy and floated to his feet, grinning with triumph. “You can let him go now, Toph.”
Toph punched her fists toward the ground, and the rock restraints retracted from his ankles. A second later, she pounded her heel against the earth, freeing his arms from the wall. Zuko celebrated his newfound freedom by immediately shrinking into a tiny ball, hugging himself around the middle with his knees pulled to his chest, giggling dazedly as he fought to tame his breathing. The others watched him with smiles on their faces. They couldn’t help but be endeared.
“Are you all right, Prince Zuko?” Iroh eventually asked, crossing the room to kneel beside him. He laid a hand on his shoulder, which was beginning to bounce less and less.
“Myhy everything hurts…” he wheezed, but the smile refused to leave lips. He looked up at Iroh, woozy and flushed. “Why didn’t you...hehelp me…?”
Iroh smiled and wrapped him into a hug. Zuko groaned into his shirt but didn’t have the strength to pull away.
“I’m sorry,” Uncle said, rubbing his back. “But you know how much I love hearing you laugh. When Azula’s struck you, I thought I might never get to hear it again.” He squeezed him a little tighter. “Seeing you happy fills me with so much joy. I try to soak it in every time I get the chance.”
“I’m nohot happy,” he grumbled, voice muffled by the fabric. Iroh chuckled.
“I know you’re not,” he said, giving his side a gentle pinch. “But I hope one day you will be, so I can hear you laugh without resorting to this.”
Zuko flinched and squeaked, shoving him away with as much muscle as he could muster. “Ahack! Uncle!” He clamped his palms over his sides, blushing furiously. “Ehenough! I am so done with all of you!” He pouted at the ground, shoulders hunched, ears pink with embarrassment. “Just...leave me alone...”
“Sorry, Zuko,” Katara giggled. “We may have gone a little overboard. We’ve just never seen that side of you before. It was sweet.”
Zuko didn’t feel like acknowledging or interacting with any of them right now—maybe for the rest of time. He was too flustered and humiliated by what had just transpired to even begin to decide how to handle it. The sound of his laughter blared shrilly in the back of his mind, mortifying him to no end. Even after being tickled by Uncle not too long ago, he could still hardly believe how loud and hysterical his own laughter could get—that that silly, squeaky noise he was hearing was somehow coming from his own body. It was as if he was possessed by some girly-voiced ghost every time someone tickled him. It was relentlessly embarrassing.
“Don’t feel bad,” Toph said, swiping her arms toward her feet. Two hands made of earth stretched down from the roof and grabbed hold of Sokka and Aang’s wrists, hoisting them over their heads.
“Hey!” Aang cried.
Toph stepped between the boys and tickled their exposed sides, making both of them squirm and laugh shrilly. “They act all high and mighty now, but they’re just as ticklish as you are.”
“Ehahaha! Tohoph!” Aang squealed.
“GAHAHASTAHAHAPIT!” Sokka shrieked, flailing around like a beached elephant coy.
“Or perhaps even more so,” Toph corrected herself smugly. She released them from her hold and shoved them both aside. They staggered in opposite directions, blushing deeply and thoroughly chagrined.
Zuko stared between the avatar and the Water Tribe boy. He had to admit, seeing them flustered did make him feel slightly better about this entire nightmarish affair. It also helped that he’d finally caught his breath and was no longer bubbling with giggles. He decided if he had to pick someone in their group to hate the least, it was Toph. Even if she kind of terrified him.
She scooped one of their bags of provisions off the floor and tossed it into Zuko’s lap. “Here—eat,” Toph said. “The sound of your stomach growling is driving me insane.”
Zuko flinched in surprise and eyed the offering warily. He dug around inside and found some bread, a couple strips of salmon jerky, and a weird, round fruit he didn’t recognize. His mouth watered at the prospect of finally getting to eat without yesterday's queasiness holding him back.
“What’s this?” he asked, holding up the fruit skeptically.
“Honey plum,” Toph answered. “Have you never had one before? They only grow in the southern Earth Kingdom.”
Zuko shook his head. Iroh plucked it out of his hand with a grin.
“A honey plum! What a treat! These are delicious, Prince Zuko. You must try it.”
He handed it back to him excitedly. Zuko frowned at the bluish-purple fruit before taking a hesitant bite. As he chewed, a sparkle of surprise touched his golden eyes.
“Wow,” he said, swallowing. “That is really good.” He bit into it again, this time with far less reluctance, munching eagerly to qualm his ravenous hunger. It was sweet and juicy, the swirl of bright flavors bursting like firecrackers on his tongue. He was so focused on feeding the monster in his gut, he didn’t look up for a while. But when he did, he was startled to find everyone staring at him.
“Why are all of you...watching me?” he mumbled over his mouthful, shrinking uncomfortably. “I feel like some kind of zoo animal.”
“No reason,” Aang said, grinning. “We’re just happy you like it!”
“You eat like Sokka at the Glacial Spirits Festival,” Katara giggled. “I expected the Fire Nation prince’s manners to be a tad more dignified.”
Warmth rushed back into the firebender’s cheeks. “I’m hungry!” he retorted defensively. “I haven’t eaten in almost a day and a half! What do you want me to do—stick out my pinky and curtsy with every bite?”
“Yes,” Sokka said enthusiastically. “Absolutely yes.”
Zuko huffed, nibbling at the plum self-consciously. “Why do you people insist on making me feel weird about everything I do?”
“Cuz it’s fun,” Toph snickered. “You’re so easy to fluster.”
Zuko bristled. “No I’m not!”
Katara tapped her chin in thought. “When you say ‘weird,’ do you mean the normal definition of weird, or do you mean your definition of weird, which is that something tickles?”
The prince reddened and avoided their gazes, knowing there was no answer to that question that worked in his favor.
“See? Like that,” Toph laughed, noting the spike in his heart rate. Zuko crossed his arms and stared sideways, hating having all their attention focused on his blushing self for so long.
“Don’t feel weird,” Aang insisted, cramming a handful of berries in his mouth. “Eat as much as you like—and as messily as you like! You deserve to porcupig out a little.”
“I’m sure he’s just tickled by our kindness and hospitality,” Sokka said, wiggling his feather at him teasingly.
Zuko grimaced and jabbed two fingers forward. In a puff of flame, Sokka’s feather disintegrated in his hand, making him gawk.
“Hey! No fair!”
Katara watched her brother mourn the loss of his new weapon amusedly, then stepped toward the skittish firebender. “Come on,” she said, offering him a hand. “Let’s see if you can walk any better after your healing session.”
Zuko glanced between her palm and her face uncertainly before accepting her help, letting the waterbender pull him to his feet. Iroh stood with him, holding out his hands in case he fell.
The prince wobbled a little once he was upright but didn’t need anyone’s support to stay that way. He flexed and stamped his left foot, delighted by the lack of pain that followed.
“It’s better,” he said, pleasantly surprised. “A lot better.” He braved a couple steps forward. He still had a limp, but he could finally walk on his own again, if only for a little while.
“Good,” Katara said. “I can heal you again if anything starts hurting badly, but you mostly need lots of rest.”
He met her gaze gingerly. He didn’t want to say it, but he felt like he had to. “Thank you,” he murmured, the words grating his throat as they left his lips.
The girl smiled and nodded. Toph pounded her foot into the ground, making the tent collapse around them and sink back into the earth, startling Zuko tremendously.
“I’m hungry too now,” she announced, lifting their campfire off the ground and placing it in the center of their group with earthbending. She snatched the bag of berries from Aang and gobbled down the rest. “Iroh, would you mind making us some more of that jasmine tea?”
Iroh beamed. “Yes! Of course!” He ran and grabbed his pot and the leaves. “Tea always tastes better when it is brewed and shared with others.”
While Zuko watched his uncle enter his tea-making trance, Toph grabbed the honey plum from his hand and shoved it in his mouth, making the firebender grunt in muffled surprise. “Eat , Princey,” she snapped. “Food doesn’t last long around here. Take what you can get before someone else horks it down.”
Zuko pulled the plum out of his mouth and chewed sourly. He hadn’t realized just how tiny the earthbender was until now, when he was standing over her, practically craning his neck to look her in the eye.
And suddenly, everyone was settling down around the fire, taking and eating and acting like this whole bizarre situation was perfectly normal. At least he wasn’t the center of attention anymore, though it felt like he should be; they were being far too trusting, letting him stand so close so freely now that he had some of his strength back. He swept his gaze around the circle with a puzzled frown. Hesitantly, Zuko sat among them, listening to the criss-crossing conversations as he finished off the honey plum and started in on the bread.
“When do we start my earthbending training?”
“You sure you’re ready, Twinkle Toes? Being an earthbender takes guts and grit like you’ve never seen.”
“Pass me some of that sun melon, Sokka. Momo’s getting fussy.”
“Sure. Here, Zuko—have some too.”
Sokka casually handed Zuko a slice before giving the rest to Katara. Zuko took it reluctantly, gave it a sniff, then munched on the fruit, glancing warily between the others, feeling odd and out of place, like an unacknowledged elephant rhino in the room.
But also...strangely content.
As he tended to the tea, Iroh watched his nephew with a small smile. He wished Zuko could see how well he fit with these kids rather than in a toxic palace in the Fire Nation capital. He wished he could see how relaxed he looked here versus how tense he was beneath the scrutinizing gazes of Azula and his father. He wished he could stay with them, reject the false path Ozai had set him on, and find his own destiny with these kind, goofy children.
“You must leave tonight—all of you.”
The four friends stood before the old man in disbelief, the setting sun reflecting in their wide eyes. Behind them, Zuko slept by the fire, his back rising and falling steadily.
“Leave?” Aang said, blinking. “What for?”
“What’s going on?” Toph asked.
Iroh bowed his head, his voice grim. “Now that he is getting better, there’s a possibility my nephew may try to pull something unfavorable against you and your friends. I want you all gone before he gets the chance.”
Katara took a step back, her eyes clouding over with rage. “What? Did he tell you he was planning something?”
“No,” Iroh insisted. “He hasn’t mentioned anything like that.” A grimace gnarled his features. “But I know my nephew. He needs more time before he is ready to fully realize his destiny. He is still extremely lost, hurt, and confused, and I do not want any of you to suffer because of it.” He sighed softly. “I don’t believe he will try anything, but...I’m not willing to risk it. Not after everything you’ve done for us.”
Sokka eyed Zuko’s slumbering form, then turned back to Iroh. “So...we should just... go? Right now?”
The old man nodded somberly. “I think that would be best.”
“But what if he needs more healing sessions?” Katara asked. “He’s still really weak.”
“I can take care of him,” Iroh said, his expression softening. “I’ve done it before. I am more than capable of doing it again.”
Toph shifted her weight between her feet. “He’ll be upset when he finds out we’re gone.”
Perhaps in more ways than one, she considered. They had only just begun to peel back the layers of the person they knew as Zuko, peering into the heart of the troubled but not entirely unsalvageable individual he was. Leaving now felt like dumping all of that progress down the drain, reverting back to their old shtick of pursuer and prey. Oddly enough, it almost felt...treacherous.
The old man hinted a smile. “He will be okay. Do not worry yourselves for my nephew’s sake. You have all already helped both of us more than we deserve.” He bowed respectfully, his hands clasped inside his sleeves. “Good luck on your journey, young avatar. May the spirits guide you and your friends. I sincerely hope we meet again soon, under more desirable circumstances.”
Aang hesitated for a moment before bowing back. He didn’t know how Zuko would react if they told him beforehand that they were leaving. Probably not favorably. Still, it felt strange, abandoning the two of them without a proper goodbye.
“I hope so too,” he said. He raised his head and met Iroh’s gaze. “He’s lucky to have you.”
Iroh glanced over his shoulder. “I’m lucky to have him, too,” he said. Icy sadness tugged at his chest. He fought not to let it bleed across his face.
“Keep trying to, I don’t know, ‘lead him into the light’ or whatever.” Sokka shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I have way more faith in him than I do Azula.”
The old man shuddered. “Me too,” he breathed.
Katara stared at her feet. “I hope...he changes,” she managed to say, looking awkward and conflicted.
Iroh nodded once, his expression warm. “He will,” he said. Then he exhaled slowly. “Go. I wish each of you the best this world has to offer.”
The four kids smiled sullenly, then dispersed to pack their things. They left on Appa thirty minutes later, the two firebenders shrinking smaller and smaller before vanishing behind the horizon, a collective ache hanging over them.
“You let them go?”
Iroh sat by the edge of the river, legs crossed with a cup of tea in his hand. Zuko stood over him, boiling with anger.
“I did not ‘let them go,’ Iroh assured him, breathing in the dewey morning aromas. “They were here when I went to bed. When I woke up, they were gone.”
It wasn’t lying, technically. Just strategic withholding of information. Zuko groaned in frustration.
“I can’t believe this!” he yelled, stomping in circles. “Why would they just leave like that?”
Uncle sipped his tea calmly. “Why wouldn’t they? They healed you, fed you, gave you a place to sleep. Now that you are doing better, there was no reason for them to stick around.”
Zuko buried his face in his hands. “The avatar was sleeping right next to us! We could’ve captured him and dragged him off without any of them noticing!”
“Another valid reason for them to leave,” Iroh pointed out. “I’m sure they feared you would try something like that, even after they saved your life.” He sighed contently. “We’re lucky they simply left us in peace, rather than taking us prisoner.”
He hated how well his uncle was taking all of this—and how accurate all of his rebuttals were. Zuko kicked a pine cone into the river.
“It could take weeks to track them down again! Ugh!” He sunk to the ground, griping and grumbling incoherently.
“I am surprised you are so shocked that they left,” Iroh said, raising an eyebrow. “We are still their enemies, after all. They never had an obligation to help us in the first place. What reason would they have to stay with us after they healed you?”
To be honest, Zuko wasn’t sure why he was so stunned by it, either. Of course they had left. That was the smart thing to do. If he were in their position, he wouldn’t have stayed, either. Now that he could walk, he was capable of committing all kinds of malicious crimes against them—as he’d done many, many times in the past.
But the weird thing was, he hadn’t planned to do anything like that.
At first, sure, maybe. When he was hurting all over and seething with anger and resentment. But after speaking with each of them, forming those little connections he never thought possible, things had changed. His usual appetite for causing them pain had gradually dwindled away. Capturing the avatar and hauling him back to his father was starting to sound more like an unsavory obligation rather than something he actually wanted to do.
He was still mad at them for that mortifying stunt they pulled in the tent yesterday, but not in the way he expected. It was beginning to feel more like a “you got me, now I’ve got to get you back” kind of mad—the innocent, playful kind he and Azula had for each other whenever they pranked one another as kids. Now, he would never get the chance.
“I guess there is no reason,” Zuko admitted bitterly, hugging his knees. “I’m just...frustrated.”
“It’s okay to be angry,” Uncle said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “But it’s important that you recognize why you’re angry, because I don’t think the reason is what you believe it to be.”
Zuko eyed him suspiciously. “What are you talking about?”
Uncle’s hand moved to his back, steadying him in the comforting way it had done a thousand times. “Why are you upset they left, Prince Zuko?”
The young firebender frowned. He didn’t know why Uncle was asking him this—the answer was obvious.
“Because now I have to find them again to capture the avatar,” he said, although it sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
Iroh hummed thoughtfully. “That’s it? No other reason?”
“What other reason would there be?” Zuko shot back.
Uncle stirred his tea, the spoon clinking against the sides of the cup. “They were kind to you. Rather than ignoring you or berating you, they chose to interact with you in a warm, friendly manner. They didn’t treat you like a dangerous Fire Nation soldier; they saw you as a person who needed their help. They are all very good people.”
Zuko scoffed. “They were not kind to me. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You have rarely ever been around kids your age outside of the Fire Nation—especially ones that care so openly about one another.” He sipped his drink and stared across the river. “You fit in well among them.”
“What are you trying to say?” Zuko snapped, feeling hot and nervous and furious all at once. “That I miss them? That I want to be friends with the avatar and his obnoxious cronies? You’re insane , Uncle. I—I hate them! They’re the most insufferable people in the entire world! And my enemies!”
Iroh didn’t react to his tirade. He simply laid his hand on his nephew’s head, scratching at his short, fuzzy hair. Zuko went stiff, startled by the affectionate contact, debating whether or not to jerk away. He hated to admit it, but it felt...nice.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to befriend good people, regardless of your past or theirs. Not everything is as rigid and definite as you might think.”
Zuko blinked. His entrails felt like a bundle of knots. His throat grew sore and tight. The ache inside him was sickening familiar, and he hated himself for feeling it in this situation. He tried to will it away, to loathe it out of existence. But it was there, cold and stinging.
The pain of being left .
He hadn’t had a head of hair to pet since he was thirteen. All Zuko wanted was to lean into Uncle’s touch and let him scratch his scalp forever. Instead, he ducked out of Iroh’s reach, clambering to his feet.
“You’ve officially lost your mind,” he growled, running his fingers through his hair irritably. Uncle stood by his side, a somber smile on his face. His nephew’s walls held strong, but they were weakening every day. He still needed more time, more patience, but the old man had hope.
“Come, Prince Zuko,” he said. “Now that you’re feeling better, it is time to resume your firebending training.”
Zuko turned to face him, his scowl melting into a look of excitement. “Wait—really?”
Iroh nodded. “It is time you moved on to the advanced set, and learned how to defend yourself against people like Azula.” He assumed a steady stance and pointed two fingers toward the sky. “Do this motion with me.”
The prince stepped in front of him and mirrored his movements. He still couldn’t fully extend his left arm, but he tried his best to copy Uncle’s form. “What are you going to show me?” he asked eagerly.
Iroh grinned. “A firebending technique that I developed by studying waterbenders, one that neither Azula, Ozai, or any other firebender except me can do.” His eyes twinkled defiantly. “How to redirect lightning.”