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Zuko sensed Jet before he saw him.

Jet approached from his bad side. Zuko wondered if the choice had been a deliberate one. He wouldn’t put it past Jet, but then what little he knew of the guy told him that Jet was less stealthy intimidation, more straightforward threats.

Kind of like Zuko himself.

“Hey, bud.” Sokka, who had been trading jibes with Toph earlier, casually moved into the spot just within Zuko’s left, from where Jet approached.  “Trouble coming. Jerkass wheat guy approaching.”

“I can tell,” Zuko murmured. He had hated it, for someone to know his weakness like this. It might have put him on guard, wary for that time when it might one day be exploited. But the trust between Zuko and this little group of people had been a slow but steady buildup. The Boiling Rock breakout specifically had been the bonding experience and turning point for him and Sokka, where they got used to guarding and covering for each other. 

“Do we want to go elsewhere?” Sokka asked casually. Zuko could sense the tension in the Water Tribe boy, the way the gloved hand strayed casually to the boomerang on his back. It still surprised him, the way he had people who were apparently ready to throw hands for his sake now. 

“No, it’s fine. I’ll face him, just straighten things out.”

Deep blue eyes searched Zuko’s face, then dropped to Zuko’s still-healing hands. “Let’s not get into any fights, yeah?” Sokka murmured softly. “Katara says you’re still not at full form.” Zuko knew what he was  thinking of - the freezer at the Boiling Rock had affected Zuko’s inner fire more than he’d liked to admit.

“It’ll be fine. He’s not a threat,” Zuko answered, purposely raising his voice just as Jet came into hearing range. He was a jerkbender, after all. Sokka gave him a half-exasperated, half-amused look.

Jet’s coal eyes flickered with the same anger and intensity Zuko remembered. As irritating as the other teen was, it was good to know he hadn’t lost his fire. 

“So, I was right. Prince Zuko , huh?” Jet drawled. “Not Lee from the tea shop?”

“Just Zuko. I’m not a Prince anymore.” In some ways, Zuko never was.

“Hmph. Fallen from grace? Come to lick your wounds?” Jet sniped. 

Zuko wanted to laugh. “In a way.” The utter disdain in the other boy’s eyes was nothing he wasn’t used to seeing, from the very person Jet was angry at him over. It was ironic how Ozai had almost desensitized him to such scorn.

(Little lies. Fake it until it became the truth. Princes had no use and the battlefield was no place for a soft heart. )

It was tiring to constantly be hated, but Zuko didn’t allow himself to flinch or back down. There was a time to carry the guilt, crumble under the weight of the sins of his ancestors, grovel and apologise until he had no more breath to give... and then there was a time to stand his ground, to gain credibility and earn respect.

And that time was now.

“What’s the Prince of Fire Nation doing in a rebellion camp?” Jet sneered.

“The same thing you are,” Zuko replied calmly. “Plotting to overthrow the Fire Lord and end this war.” Agni, did that feel liberating to say.

The other boy laughed. “Your dearest father,” he sneered, “is the reason this war is here in the first place.”

“Exactly. So it’s befitting that I, his son, help to end it.”

“How do we know you’re not just a spy who’s going to turn around and stab everyone here in the back,” Jet challenged, making it more a statement than a question.

Because I’ve already made that mistake, and I’d die before I do it again. “I don’t have to prove anything to you,” Zuko replied. “I don’t owe you anything.” He ignored the sharp twang, the pain that always came with rejection and being hated, pain that was familiar from too young an age - he had done his best to fix his mistakes, more importantly he was still doing his best , more importantly the people who mattered trusted him now.

More importantly, at the end of the day, it was Zuko’s own judging eyes in the mirror, not someone else’s.

Jet’s eyes flared with anger, anger that Zuko was far too familiar with because it stemmed from grief and loss. No wonder Jet had been alluring the first time they’d met - his rage was similar to Zuko’s, two sides of the same coin. Zuko almost felt sorry. “You’re really asking for it, Fire Nation. Be careful, or my hand might... slip at night some time.”

“Hey,” Sokka started, but Zuko didn’t back down. He’d faced far worse threats - Jet’s bluster was nothing . “You’ll have to get in line to do it,” Zuko answered. “There’s a long list of people out for my blood, and most of them are far more capable and lethal than a teenager blind with vengeance.”

Jet scoffed. “Isn’t that what you are?”

Zuko raised an eyebrow. “I’m not here for revenge.” 

“No? I heard some interesting stories while I was at the Boiling Rock, Prince . Sure this isn't about getting payback for that pretty little scar on your face?”

Zuko’s heart squeezed. Of course the inmates would gossip about him being such a high profile prisoner...

Sokka had gone still beside Zuko. “Oh, Jet,” Zuko sweetened his voice the way he’d observed Azula do it, knowing just how much it unnerved people, “you’re thinking too small a scale.” 

Eugh, that didn’t feel right. Azula had many faces, Zuko had just the one. He gave up the pretense and spoke normally, voice sharpening. “First you accuse me of spying, then you accuse me of plotting revenge. Make up your mind.” 

Jet opened his mouth, but Sokka beat him to it. “Lay off,” Sokka snapped. “He literally bust you and everyone else out from the Fire Nation’s most terrifying prison. What more do you need? Go away.”

“Hm.” Jet gave him an appraising look. “I’ve got my eye on you, Firebender scum.”

I’ve got my eye on things that actually matter, Zuko barely bit back. “It’s mutual,” he said instead. Jet sauntered off, presumably to create more trouble. 

The moment he was far enough away, Zuko exhaled. Sokka seemed to be waiting for something.

Please, please don’t ask , Zuko prayed, because as much as he trusted their little Team Avatar, some things he wasn’t ready to talk about, not yet.

But all Sokka said was: “Tui and La, he’s even more of a jerk than you are,” and okay, that called for verbal sparring.

“Hey! That’s an insulting comparison- I’m way better at being a jerk than he is,” Zuko sniped back.

And if Sokka noticed how his shoulders loosened, he didn’t comment on it, something which Zuko was incredibly grateful for.

***

On the day of Sozin’s comet, team Avatar stood on the cliffs at the edge of where chaos and calm diverged.

The world was burning.

Zuko breathed in, feeling the power of a thousand suns running through his veins. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. 

He wondered if, further away in the borders of Ba Sing Se, Uncle Iroh was experiencing the same electrifying thrill.

“It’s time,” Aang said quietly. Zuko met his gray eyes: one child forced to grow up too fast to another forced to bear the sins of the world and save it from its own mistakes.

Zuko wouldn’t allow the kid to do it alone.

(Because that’s what Aang was really at the crux of it, despite everything he’d seen and suffered as the Avatar:  just a kid with his innocence intact. Unlike Zuko, who was tainted and ruined just as his father had wanted-)

A warm hand landed on his shoulder. Sokka’s eyes are a deep ocean blue, a stark contrast to the fiery hues exploding into hell around them.

“Hey, you okay? You seemed far away there.”

“Fine.” 

“I know when you’re lying, Sparky,” Toph reminded him.

“Just strange, feeling the comet come alive,” Zuko answered.

“Still lying,” Toph sing-songed, but her tone lacked its usual teasing lilt. They were all aware of the weight of this moment - the next time they met, the war would have reached its end, one way or another.

Zuko tried very hard not to think about the fact that the next time they met, some of them might be missing.

His heart clenched protectively. No. Not this team, not this little family he’d managed to find, against all odds.

(The night before, Sokka, as the de facto leader of the group, had feverishly ran through their plans yet another time. The plans boiled down to: ‘split up and make sure not too many people die while the Avatar defeats the power hungry pyromaniac.’

Aang looked desperate. “I don’t have to kill him to defeat him!”

“Hate to break it to you, bud, but Jerklord Ozai won’t rest until he either wins or he’s dead,” Sokka said bluntly. Katara made a soft noise of agreement, but her eyes were sympathetic as she gazed at Aang. “You know that.”

Zuko had been thinking a long, long time. Finally, he spoke up. “When the fight with Ozai begins,” Zuko said, “I want everyone to stay back, no matter what happens. I will handle Ozai.”

There were various protests around him, but it was Aang’s wide eyes Zuko focused on. “Wait, Zuko-”

“Aang. I know you’re struggling.” Zuko didn’t elaborate. He had been to the Air Nomads temple, after all. Had read all the scrolls on their pacifist way of life. Knew Aang’s soft heart, how his hands were unsullied by purposeful murder, unlike Zuko’s own. 

If Zuko could spare the kid that, he would. 

“I’ll fight Ozai,” he repeated.

“It’s supposed to be the Avatar’s destiny to save the world, Sparky,” Toph said. “That goes with fighting the Fire Lord.”

“This is not about the battle but the war.” Zuko looked up at Sokka, their strategic head. If Sokka agreed, most likely everyone in the team would in time. “When Ozai falls, the Fire Nation will look for a new leader. I need legitimacy, and I won’t have it unless I win this fairly.”

“‘Fire Nation’ fairly isn’t ‘fair’ fairly,” Sokka had protested. 

“This way, no one else has to get hurt,” was Zuko’s reply.

“And I know what you’re doing, Zuko, you’re trying to make what’s completely unreasonable sound reasonable.”

Zuko just looked at him. Liquid gold eyes dancing from the light of the fire flickered to Aang’s miserable little face, then back to Sokka’s own. Between the play of the flames and the shadows, he looked ethereal.

Sokka recognized the fierce protectiveness in those eyes, because it was the same as his own in the mirror. Aang was the Avatar, but he was also their younger brother.

Tui and La, when had awkward turtleduck Zuko learnt to use silences to say so many things, the jerk? 

Sokka huffed out a sigh. Never had he felt the burdens of a leader’s choice more than that moment.

This jerk across him - the boy to lead a lost, burning nation - could probably understand this heaviness.)

“Be careful, okay,” Sokka said softly, like he rarely was. If they survived this, he resolved, he was going to find Zuko and speak to him about this new thing that had steadily been building between them. 

***

Toph watched ( feet as reliable and steady as ever, the burning earth less so ) as battle erupted and people began to die.

Watched as her brother, her favourite, her Sparky jumped straight into the fray.

Because Zuko always lurked in the background, and brooded, and kept quiet unless he was being spoken to- 

Because he always tiptoed on the edges of their group,  careful not to invoke wrath or attention- 

-it was so very easy to forget that Zuko was also the Fire Prince. The same fierce adversary who had apparently chased Team Avatar halfway across the world with relentlessness that had to be seen to be believed, according to Sokka. The formidable foe who they were lucky not to have on the opposite side.

Well, Toph thought, everyone on team Avatar was being forcibly reminded now.

She brought one foot down, raising a wall the size of Ba Sing Se’s fortress around him.

Toph was a might and power in her own right. If her brother was going to commit to a suicide gamble, she was going to be right up at the front there with him, causing all sorts of trouble.

***

When Zuko launched himself from the airship, leaving the team behind, trusting them to do what was needed -one thought rang clear in his mind: 

This will end today. This could only end today.

He landed on soft feet and came up fighting. Not enough to kill - not yet - just enough to incapacitate. 

Caldera - the beautiful capital his child self had dreamt of and romanticised as home - was bathed in crimson and fire, in more ways than color and symbols.

The crown sitting heavy on Zuko’s head caught the light from flickering flames. How long had it been? Minutes, hours? Zuko had to end this quickly.

“Ozai, come out!” Zuko shouted into the burning world. “I, Crown Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, challenge you to an Agni Kai!”  He waited. 

No answer came. 

Was that something on his left? Zuko tensed, wishing he had the trusted presence by his side.

“Come on, Ozai! Come out and face me with honour!” Zuko shouted.

Unbidden, he heard Sokka’s fond voice ribbing him. You drama queen, Sokka’s voice seemed to say.

Shut up, Zuko told him, unable to help the upward tilt to his lips. 

“Come on, Ozai!” Zuko called out again, words reckless but heart calm. “Don’t tell me you’re scared?! The world is watching! The Nation is waiting!”

Those words were a trigger enough, it seemed. “You think I fear you?” Ozai’s voice boomed back at them, though his physical presence was still untraceable amid the smoke and the flames. “You are not worth my time, little boy.

Little boy?” Zuko laughed right back. He knew exactly how to play upon  Ozai’s pride. How he himself could have been played in the past. “When I was thirteen and cowering at your feet, helpless, pleading,  you had no problems burning half my face off. I was worth your time then, yet I was a child,” he hissed.

“Now I’m seventeen - a legal age to the throne- I am challenging you to fight, and you hide like a  coward. Are you going to step up? Or is the big Fire Lord self proclaimed Phoenix King afraid of losing to his half blind and half deaf son?” Zuko took a step forward, sending out his heat senses. 

He threw the words out like a challenge, mimicking the same words that Ozai said to all those years ago.  “Will you fight for your honor?”

You insolent boy! You have not learnt the slightest bit of respect !”

“Suffering was a bad teacher,” Zuko quipped, and in a moment of lucidity wished that one of the team would have been able to hear it, would have been able to understand its context.

Out of the smoke and the red lit sky,  a figure dropped in front of him. Zuko’s hands immediately lit up-

-but the figure in front of him was smaller, more lithe than the one he expected, her long hair drawn into an uncharacteristically messy top knot-

Zuko fisted his palms and lowered them halfway, because raised hands were a declaration of aggressive intent in the Fire Nation, and he did not come today for this particular fight. Not against his little sister. “Get out of the way, Azula.”

Azula’s all teeth smile still caused his heart to ache, despite it being years and years since he received a proper smile. “Make me.”

“My fight is not with you today.”

Oh, how dare he. Azula was a might within her own right, the Crown Princess that carried the power of the nation. She would not be sidestepped, she would not be treated like a side to the main course. 

“Aww, is that so? Should I be fighting your friends, then? Oh wait-“ She held up the white bone necklace she had nicked from the Water tribe peasant boy earlier in their scuffle dangling it far from her brother’s reach. “-been there, done that.”

Zuko’s eyes widened. Oooh, interesting. That fear was delicioussssss. 

What did you do to him? !”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Azula cooed. “I have grand plans for him once we win and slaughter every last one of your rebellion, brother.”

Golden eyes narrowed in a familiarity that was almost unnerving. Azula had always hated those golden eyes, hated that they were the same colour and shape as Father’s, while she had to settle for Mother’s poor imitation amber ones and think of the pathetic woman every time she looked into a mirror. At least Father had damaged one of them.

(Zuzu’s scream back then still rang clear in her mind, a reminder of what was to happen should she be less than perfect, like Zuzu was.)

“Azula. Don’t -” Zuko took a deep breath, and when he exhaled, flames edged in color flickered out in warning, telltale signs of his temper fraying. Azula watched with interest.“-push me today. I will push back.” 

Azula’s predatory smirk widened. “Oh, Zuzu,” she cooed. “You always push back. It’s never managed to do any good.”

Something blazed in her brother’s eyes then, the same steel she recognized from their childhood. Azula had just enough time to shift her stance into a more defensive one before Zuko launched himself at her, fire dancing from his knuckles.

Heh, Azula thought, ducking around the ring of fire. He was still the same Zuzu, far too easy to play up, to make him lose his focus.

Except… something was different this time. 

Zuko’s strikes were as sharp and precise as ever, but there was less-fury and more purpose behind them. It was almost like her brother had found a way to channel his rage to something less destructive and more useful-

Azula barely managed to duck around the next fireball. She was just cognizant enough to understand that that particular strike wasn’t something she would have been able to block - when, how did hopeless Zuzu learn to control the heat of his attacks to this point?

“Azula, I don’t want to hurt you,” Zuzu had the nerve to call out. What an idiot. Some things never change.

“Well, I very much want to kill you,” Azula sang out. Lightning danced through her fingers, waking every nerve ending alive and thrumming with excitement. This was it, the moment she’d been waiting for since she'd heard Zuko was alive, that Zuko had turned his back on her, on the glory of their family… “Goodbye, brother!”

“Zuko, no!”

“Sparky, watch out!”

Zuko caught her lightning dead on.

Azula’s smile widened. 

Somewhere, someone was screaming.

...

It wasn’t Zuko.

Faster than the eye could see, the pure, electrical  lightning tore back at her and struck just at the spot before her feet. An ear splitting crack followed, and Azula was thrown back with the sheer force of it.

For a wild moment she lay dazed, thinking she’d been struck - but no, that was a wide arc. The lightning hit somewhere far behind her.

What- he- actually did it.

Zuko had deflected her lightning.

Azula let out a single sharp wail, because she’d failed. She’d failed, and she knew what was going to happen, because Father wouldn’t tolerate imperfection of any kind-

(Zuko’s scream as his face burned away-

Mother fading into the night-

Azula could NOT fail, she was the perfect heiress, the perfect princess

-

But she’d failed-)

Maybe she was dreaming, because she never failed. Azula wasn’t sure. Something hurt. Something  spiralled. Was it time? Was it her? Was it the world?

But then-

***

“DON’T YOU TOUCH HER!”

Zuko stood between Father and his little sister, livid and fierce as the fire that surrounded the three of them, the last members of the Royal family. 

(-but then, were they ever really such?)

“She’s yours!” Zuko shouted.“How could you even think to- how could you -”

“You’ve always been soft, boy.” Ozai sneered.  “She failed, she’s weak like you-”

From the smoke emerged a boy with glowing arrows, and Zuko had just enough coherence to recognize Aang in the Avatar state.

 But this was Zuko’s fight too, not just the various Avatars’, not just Aang’s. They both could not walk away from this.

(“It’s not about taking sides. Not about proving myself. Not about - revenge, or winning,” Zuko had told Sokka that night, after Jet’s confrontation, when nightmares left him screaming and hurting himself awake. “It’s just - I need to- it doesn’t feel right-” 

Argh, Zuko had never been good with words, but this was even worse-

Sokka’s fingers, interlaced with his, were soothing like cooling water in heated skin. “Hey, you don’t have to explain,” Sokka said. “I’m here too, aren’t I? If you asked me why, I can’t explain it in words. But I am fighting until the end.”

“Sokka-” Zuko swallowed, afraid he would say the wrong thing, afraid the dreams would emerge again. “Please- don’t die.” We haven’t had enough time, he didn’t say. People need you, he didn’t say.

Sokka tugged him forward so that their foreheads touched. This, Zuko would later learn, was a Water Tribe gesture of promise and protection, for someone dearly beloved. For right then, it was just - comfort and healing and something that patched up all the pieces Zuko had shaken into that night. 

“Right back at cha,” Sokka whispered.)

***

First it was all on fire, and the ground cracked from the heat, and the air suffocated every inhale, and Zuko no longer knew when he burned and when he got burned. All he knew was that for every step the Avatar made, the Fire Prince matched foot for foot, strike for strike, against this man Agni had blessed to rule but utterly abused his blessing-

-and then it was all over, and Zuko was left staring at his -powerless, benderless - Father. 

(Where was Toph, Zuko wondered vaguely. They needed her sure hands, for his rock of a prison - that was the plan -)

(Did Azula get to her, one sister for another? Please, Agni, spare Zuko from the pain-)

(Toph can take care of herself, Sokka had whispered that night, but I’ll look after our sister, don’t you worry- focus on the fight-)

But somehow it didn't matter right then that Ozai’s limbs were still free. Because he was powerless in a way non-benders rarely were, in a way Sokka and Mai and Ty Lee never had been. Because being a non-bending Royal was a disgrace worthy of death and Ozai had never seen weaponry as something that warranted his time.

“What are you waiting for?” Ozai spat, regal, hateful, scathing as always. He was powerless, but somehow, his voice still had the power to make Zuko’s knees shake. “Finish me.”

Zuko cupped his father’s chin almost tenderly. Tender like Ozai had been tender, before he melted half of Zuko’s face. Zuko wanted to laugh at the role reversal, but then something inside him also felt like it was splintering apart the way Azula’s lightning had, the way his little sister’s sanity had.

(“He made sure we were always at each other’s throats because he knew we’d be unstoppable if we ever joined forces. You know that, don’t you Azula?”)

“I could do it,” Zuko breathed, voice soft but a hint of danger curling under every word. “You are as helpless as I was back then. Even more than I was, because you can’t even bend. I could do exactly as you did to me.”

He could feel the tension from his friends behind him. He wondered what they thought. He’d never told them. He wondered who knew. He wondered if he cared.

 It was like the world was holding its breath.

Everything around them faded away. Father and son held each other’s gaze. Zuko looked into Ozai’s golden eyes, the exact same shade of his own, and let his palms flare. He saw the exact moment terror lit, when he knew Ozai would feel the heat melting into his eye socket, melting the skin…

Instead of relishing in the look, Zuko felt strangely drained, even vaguely sick. How could someone have held a flame to another human’s eye and melted half of their face away? Much less a crying, unresisting child, the child Zuko had been?

With every second that passed by, Zuko understood his father even less. He understood Aang a little more.

He dropped his hand away. 

“But I’m not you, and I never want to be.” Zuko finished. 

The next breath he took felt lighter than any he’d had in years.

Ozai spat at him. “I raised a coward.”

Zuko smiled bitterly. “You didn't raise me.” He turned away. “Goodbye, Ozai.”

He didn’t see the hand that raised toward his back.

***

Azula had always been a lucky child. She’d been born lucky. Father had told her that, and Father was always right. Azula always believed luck was on her side, that Agni smiled down upon her. Even other elements blessed her path. The tides parted their way for her. The winds followed her will. Earth trembled around her. Lightning flowed where she wanted it to go. 

Azula was lucky, born the chosen heiress, born the chosen of Agni… until Father seized her by the throat, and his fingers began to burn.

For one terrifying moment, she’d thought: this was it, her luck had run out. She didn’t know what she had done, but Agni wasn’t smiling down upon her anymore-

Words drowned out in a roar of sound, because Azula, Crown Princess of Fire Nation, daughter to Phoenix King Ozai, had failed, and Father had, was going to, punish her for it-

And then Zuko, stupid soft idiot Zuko, had slammed into Father with the force of a comet. Azula nearly jumped when Zuko shouted, because she’d seen her brother in various pathetically raging states, but she had never seen her brother this angry before-Azula watched dumbstruck as he challenged Father to an Agni Kai. Over her.

(Was he still Father? After he tried to kill her, like Azula had always known he would? She didn't know.)

She watched as flames erupted around them, colors of the likes she’d never seen before. Fire was always powerful and dangerous, but Zuko’s colorful flames were warm rather than searing, protective rather than destructive, purposeful rather than raging. 

When had Zuko learnt that?

She watched as luck turned over to her brother.

She watched as Zuko won. Watched as he threatened Father eye for an eye.

For a moment, it looked like Zuko was going to do it. Going to burn Father as she watched Father did to him all those years ago.

(Azula wanted him to do it. Wanted to smile as she had back then, this time the perpetrator burnt by the victim.)

Azula didn’t love the stupid arts like Mother and Zuko had, but she could recognize poetic justice when she saw it.

She watched as Zuko dropped his hand away, because of course, Zuko was the same too-soft, too-naive idiot of a brother he’d always been. 

Now she watched as her stupid brother turned his back on the enemy, once again, and she wanted to scream.

Ozai was moving. Going for Zuko’s unprotected back, while the idiot Azula had for a brother didn’t even move to cover it.

Azula had always been a lucky child. She was a power and might in her own right. She didn’t need saving from anyone, least of all her stupid, soft, idiot brother.

She could not let him save her and be in his debt.

She called upon lightning. Lightning, steadfast as always even with her splintering mind, answered her.

Two fingers extended. Blinding light arched in a lethally beautiful path, down to where Ozai stood.

***

“Zuko! Watch out!”

An electric tang filled the air, one Zuko was all too familiar with. He turned around, ready to direct, but It was a second too long, a second too late, and-

Ozai started screaming- not in anger for once, but in agony, utter agony - and it was a sound Zuko was so unfamiliar with it sent him stumbling back. 

For a moment, he was back on that stage, back where the audience laughed and jeered while his skin burnt and his throat became raw- 

And then the blinding light cleared, and a charred figure was left where Ozai had been standing moments earlier. Even as Zuko watched, the charred remains collapsed upon itself. 

The next gust of wind took some of it away. Burial by fire and ash.

Zuko’s knees gave out.

His eyes found Azula, standing with her fingers extended in the graceful form of lightning bending.

She looked as shocked as he felt. Amber eyes met gold.

“Azula,” Zuko breathed out. 

For the first time since they had been children, Azula’s whole face crumbled.

***

Things were a bit of a blur after that.

Zuko didn’t know what they were going to do with Azula. His little sister needed help, that was for certain. His people needed guidance. His Nation and the rest of the world needed healing. 

Zuko, exhausted, battered and broken (ruined, a regal voice that should have been gone with the wind whispered) as he was, could not imagine being the one to lead them right now. 

But that bloody legacy of his ancestors, and the weight of the crown, and the journey that came with it.

Warm arms circled him. Zuko’s head tipped forward until it was resting against Sokka’s sternum. He let out a little laugh, one that sounded amused and weary and broken all at once. “We’re quite the messed up pair, aren’t we,” he murmured, presumably to Azula.

Sokka stared at him. The urge to wrap this little turtleduck and tuck him safely away from the world was getting a little overwhelming. Katara looked like she was considering similar things.

Sokka hugged Zuko tighter just in case he decided to look around. A world in need of healing. A boy who had his own healing to do. They all did.

I won’t be letting you do this alone, Sokka vowed to the precious bundle in his arms.

***

Sokka watched as Uncle Iroh poured tea for them all (and if it was much deeper flavor than Zuko’s admittedly kinda sorta horrible tea, Sokka wasn’t going to be the one to tell him that.) 

The next day, the White Lotus and Team Avatar were to part ways to prepare for the comet. Already, Sokka could sense a certain nervous energy in the way the two firebenders present interacted, like the steadily-growing proximity of the comet was seeping into them already.

So, tea. Uncle Iroh. Sokka was proud of his solution.

He wasn’t paying full attention to the conversation, but it got to the point where Zuko’s voice turned all raspy and tight the way it did when he was trying not to let strong emotions get to him.

“What do you want, Prince Zuko?” Uncle Iroh asked, tone grave like it rarely was.

An inhale. “I want,” Zuko said, “For the war to end. With as little loss of life as possible.” He did raise his eyes then, flecks of gold narrowed in determination, and Iroh was struck with how two sets of eyes could look so similar but so different. “I also,” he hesitated, “want Azula on our side.”

“What.” Toph said flatly. “She’s evil.”

Zuko’s eyes flashed, a glint of the fierce antagonist they used to know, and shook his head. “She’s confused, just like I was. There’s a difference.”

“Nephew, Azula never had your kindness growing up. She’s never cared as you did about other people-”

“She’s never had anyone to show her how.” 

“... Some things aren’t shown but felt, Zuko. She watched and laughed when Ozai-“

Zuko shook his head minutely. Uncle Iroh’s lips pressed into a tight line. Sokka pretended not to have noticed.

Zuko set his teacup down. “I’m not saying she’s an angel. Just that she can be better than she is. Mother favored me as Father favored her. In some ways, I was the lucky one.”

Sokka opened his mouth to comment - clearly “luck” in the dictionary of Zuko meant something completely different to the rest of them - but gold eyes glared at him with vicious promise, and Sokka snapped his mouth shut.

“Sokka, if Katara went evil, would you give up on her?” Zuko asked.

Sokka shot him a sharp look, because of course Zuko knew the answer to that, and if Zuko was trying to pick a fight, he was going to get one. “My sister’s not homicidal,” he said pointedly, then softened his voice when Zuko flinched. “Zuko. I’m not telling you to kill your sister. But it might not be realistic to… expect her to survive if we win. Just like your fath- Ozai.”

Zuko looked well and truly miserable, so Sokka did what any human being would do when confronted with those eyes and hugged him hard. Uncle Iroh who had reached out to do the same looked both grateful and thoughtful at him, but Sokka didn’t think much of it. “Why does our family have to be so messed up?” he whispered, and it’s not clear to Sokka if he meant to ask Iroh, Sokka, himself or the universe in general because yeah, Zuko did draw the worst cards in the family. “If we win-”

“-when-”

“-how can a nation born in blood obtain peace?”

“With your soft heart and guidance, nephew,” Uncle Iroh said, “I believe it can.”

Sokka didn’t think that was a fair thing to put to just one person, so he nudged Zuko on his uninjured side and said - “We’ll do it together, one thing at a time. We’ve got a war to win first, remember?”

***

Sokka watched warily as Zuko approached Azula. Zuko moved steady, like he was uninjured, but Sokka knew better.

It was a real fight not to give in to the urge to pull Zuko back and shield him from his crazy homicidal family, but Sokka managed. Because he wasn’t blind- he realised the way Azula was acting now - incendiary and hostile, was very much how Zuko himself had been in the early parts of their acquaintance. Like a cornered animal fighting to stay alive, turning to violence because that was the only thing it was familiar with.

Still. Sokka hovered very close by Zuko’s elbow, and if Katara looked at them both weirdly for it, well, this had been a long time coming, anyway.

“So what happens now?” Azula asked idly, twisting her hands even as they were encased in rock. “What will you do with me?” Her eyes narrowed suddenly, something feral in her gaze. “I’m not a damsel who needs saving.”

“I don’t think you need saving. You can take care of yourself.” Zuko smiled wryly. “I think you’re misguided and you didn’t have anyone to show you something better, like how I had Uncle. I hope one day, you’ll see things from my eyes.”

“From your one good eye, you mean?” Azula smiled, almost sweetly, and the likeness between the two siblings was striking. Of course she had to twist that the completely wrong way. “Is that a euphemism? Oh, I don’t know, are you’re going to burn me like Father burnt you?”

Sokka’s heart stopped.

He’d long had his suspicions, but to have it confirmed like this was heartbreaking.

Zuko drew in a breath. His eyes flickered towards Sokka, and then the rest of their little group. Of course Azula picked up on it like the shark she was.

“Ooh, they don’t know, do they?” Azula's eyes lit up, clearly delighted at finding a sore point for Zuko. 

Zuko let out a breath. “I didn’t tell them, no.”

“Aww, Zuzu.” She flicked a hand at him, and something slithered deep in satisfaction when he flinched away. It was a tiny, minute movement, but they all saw it. Azula grinned, knowing exactly what to sink her teeth into. “Clearly you’ve not gotten over it… are you ashamed? Worried these little friends of yours would find out and realise how weak you were, how you grovelled and begged at Father’s feet as he - ? ”

“Enough.” 

All eyes turned to Sokka. Something raged inside him, and he wished Ozai was still around just so that Sokka could kick his ass, but there would be time to address it later. Right now, rage wasn’t what Zuko needed. “It doesn’t matter and we’re not interested. Because what matters is now , and Zuko’s done more than anyone expected of him, overturned everyone and everything and I’m so proud of him and I know I’m not the only one so you can stay quiet in your corner because your brother is easily the best among any and all of us. ” 

Okay, so maybe that was being a bit dramatic and over the top. Maybe Zuko was rubbing off on him.

Said person was currently flushing red and okay, that was precious, Sokka immediately decided he was going to do everything he could to make Zuko look like that as often as possible.

“I only have one request.” Azula waited for it. Would he ask her to bow down to him? Perhaps grovel at his feet a little? ”Please don’t hurt anyone else here. I need to take care of the fires, I need to start settling the Nation. And I can’t do it while I’m wondering if I’m going to have you hurting anyone else.”

Zuko’s voice grew insistent. “Can I trust you, Azula, on your honour, not to hurt the people here?”

Azula idly watched the sparks in front of her ravage a little panda lily. Good, she never liked that flower much. “You’ve always put much more stock in your honor than any of the rest of us, brother. Pity that you had the least of it.”

Zuko shifted so that she was no longer eye to eye with him. “Thanks, Azula.”

***

In the days to come, every step felt like pulling teeth, but it wasn’t like Zuko wasn’t familiar with struggle.

“It’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.”

The crown and its duties whispered at him. But right then, Zuko wasn’t a Fire Lord, wasn’ a Fire Prince. Just a friend, just a brother. Just someone who knew what it was like to be hurt and hated and confused.

Just Zuko.

“Start with sincerity,” they said.

“Never give up without a fight,” they said.

“We’ll do it together,” they said.

One thing at a time,” he said.

Ocean blue eyes, warm hands on his.

Love and respect rather than fear and hate.

And so, Zuko - banished prince turned spirit turned traitor turned Fire Lord - begins to heal a wounded nation. 

Zuko begins again.

***

Zuko with his small little real smile because his two favourite things in the world is there: a baby turtleduck and Sokka