This is an AU, but it ends at the same place that the real episode ends. It also includes some direct quotes from the show, so any dialogue you recognize doesn't belong to me.
This fic is in two parts; part two will be posted next Friday.
Title comes from this quote (allegedly) said by Buddha: "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path."
"If you won't accept me as a friend, then maybe you'll take me as a prisoner."
Every single one of Zuko's nerves is screaming at him not to do this, not to kneel in front of people who probably want him dead and offer them his hands and freedom. But he needs to join the Avatar, he knows it, and this is the only way.
The waterbender - Katara, he thinks; if he's going to stay with them, he'll need to call them by their names - opens the skin of water that she wears at her hip. Zuko knows when a blow is coming and braces for it. "No," she snaps, "we-"
It's the little earthbender girl, Toph. She puts a hand on Katara's arm, stilling her motion. "Say that again."
Katara blinks. "Um. No?"
"Not you," Toph replies derisively. She points at Zuko. "You. Say that again."
Zuko is about as confused as the others look, but if this is a chance, he'll take it. "If you won't accept me as a friend, then maybe you'll take me as a prisoner," he dutifully repeats.
Toph looks at the others. "He's being sincere," she says. "I can feel it."
"So what?" Katara demands. "We still don't want him anywhere near us!"
"Aang needs a firebending teacher," Toph counters.
"I don't really want him to teach me firebending," the Avatar (Zuko can't quite think of him as Aang) says, shooting Zuko a hesitant look. Zuko supposes that's more than fair.
"He might be too dangerous for us to let him go," the Water Tribe boy - it takes Zuko a moment to remember his name, but he's pretty sure it's Sokka - puts in. "Maybe it would be a good idea to take him as a prisoner."
The Avatar looks uncomfortable. "But-"
"Maybe we should talk about this more quietly," Katara snaps. She glares at Zuko, but in the grand scheme of glares he's gotten in his life, it doesn't rank too high.
The little group turns away from Zuko, whispering together. Zuko tentatively lowers his arms, settling them in his lap, but other than that, he doesn't dare move. This isn't going as well as he hoped - he shouldn't have told them that he was the one who sent the assassin after them - but honestly, it's going better than he expected. The fact that they haven't sent him flying off the edge of the cliff yet is a bit surprising. He wouldn't blame them if they did.
Finally, after a few minutes that seem like an eternity, the Avatar and his little group turn around. "We've decided to take you as our prisoner," the Avatar says, although Zuko doesn't think he's particularly fond of the idea. "So, um…" He looks at the others. "Wait, how are we going to hold him? We can't really tie him up, he'll just burn through the ropes."
"No problem, Twinkletoes," Toph says, stamping one foot. Rock rises around Zuko, encasing his legs and forearms in stone. "Can't use his hands and feet, can't firebend."
That's not entirely true, but Zuko decides not to mention that his uncle has taught him the Breath of Fire. He's not going to use it to escape, so it's not really important information. Even if he did want to use it to escape, he doesn't think it would do much good, not with his arms and legs trapped.
"So now what?" Sokka asks after a moment. "Do we ask him questions about the Fire Nation defenses or something? Is it time for an interrogation?"
"I can tell you whatever you want to know," Zuko offers, seizing the chance. Maybe this will help him to earn their trust.
"How can we be sure he's not lying?" Katara counters.
"Um, hello?" Toph points to herself. "Human lie detector here."
"No offense, Toph, but your whole 'human lie detector' thing didn't work so well on Azula," Sokka replies. Zuko bites down on the insane urge to say Azula always lies. "How do we know it'll work on Zuko?"
Toph turns on Zuko. "Say a lie."
"Say a lie."
Zuko scrambles for something to say. "Um, I'm a waterbender."
Toph nods. "Say something true."
Zuko decides to stick with the same theme. "I'm a firebender."
"He's not a very good liar at all," Toph announces, turning to the others. "Not like Azula. I can tell when he's lying."
Bitterness floods over Zuko for a second, because of course this is just one more thing that Azula's better at than he is, and even the Avatar and his little gang know it, but he forces the bitterness aside. Azula might be the better firebender, and she might be the better liar, but he's the one who's trying to help the Avatar save the world, and that has to count for something.
"Yeah, but what if he's not really trying?" Sokka counters. "Maybe he wants us to think he's a bad liar so he can lie to us later without us figuring it out."
"You're really paranoid, Sokka."
"Hey, it's not paranoia if Zuko really is out to get us!"
"I'm not," Zuko protests. "I want to help you. I know I've done bad things in the past, but I'm good now."
"Truth," Toph sing-songs.
"As far as you know," Sokka mutters.
"Look," the Avatar cuts in, "we've had a really long morning, okay. Why don't we, I don't know, explore the Temple a little or something?"
"And leave Zuko here?"
"Katara, he's encased in rock."
"I'll stay with him," Toph offers. The others, Zuko included, all look at her in surprise. "Okay, I can't see it, but I'm guessing you're all staring at me."
"I thought you wanted to explore the Temple," Katara says warily.
"I do," Toph replies. "But you three are super tense, and I don't mind watching Sparky for a bit."
"Sparky?" both Zuko and Sokka ask in unison. Sokka glares at Zuko, like he's done something wrong by asking the same question Sokka had.
"Okay," the Avatar says after a moment. "Thanks, Toph."
"No problem," Toph dismisses, waving a nonchalant hand. "Go have fun." She stomps her foot again and a stone seat rises out of the floor. She sits down, crossing her legs and looking, in Zuko's opinion, oddly at ease for someone who's supposed to guard a prisoner.
The Avatar shoots her one more look, then turns to the others. "So… do you want to see that all-day echo chamber?"
Sokka and Katara shoot Zuko one last glare each, both filled with hatred and anger, then they follow the Avatar off, leaving Zuko alone with Toph.
"Um." Zuko tries to think of something to say. "I'm, uh, sorry that the assassin I hired tried to blow you up. And that he locked you in jail."
"Yeah, you should be," Toph replies.
"And I'm sorry I fought you guys in Ba Sing Se."
"You should be sorry about that too." Toph leans forward a little, settling her elbows on her knees and resting her chin in her hands. "Why'd you do it?"
Zuko blinks. Perhaps he should have expected this question, but he didn't. "My sister promised me something I thought I wanted," he finally says. He doesn't want to get into the whole story about his banishment. He's never told it before; everyone on his ship knew, and no one else needed to. It might get the Avatar and his friends to pity him, which might help get them to trust him, but Zuko doesn't want their pity, and he doesn't want to tell the story.
Toph just nods, accepting the explanation, as pathetic as it is. "So why do you want to join us now?"
"It's the right thing to do," Zuko replies. "My father- The Fire Lord will destroy everything if he has the chance. The Avatar is the only one who can stop him."
I knew this before, Zuko doesn't say. I knew it after my time in the Earth Kingdom, but I didn't let myself believe it. I wanted to make my father proud. I thought that mattered. I could have helped, could have fought for the right side in Ba Sing Se, could have protected Uncle, if I just figured it out sooner. It's all my fault.
Toph looks a bit worried. "Aang is supposed to be able to take him down, sure," she replies slowly. "But he can't do that if he doesn't learn firebending."
No one but a fully-realized Avatar could even hope to take down Ozai, especially if he were using the extra strength from the comet. "I guess I could try to find my uncle," Zuko offers uncertainly. "He escaped from prison during the eclipse. But I don't know where he is or how to find him."
"We don't have time for that. Aang needs a firebending teacher, now. I don't know if I really trust you yet, but I think you're the best option we have."
Zuko blinks. "Really?"
Toph shrugs. "Hey, considering how your dad and sister turned out, you could have been a lot worse."
It isn't, perhaps, the nicest thing to say, but Zuko understands what she means. "Uh, thanks."
"No problem," Toph replies. "So now we just have to convince the others that you're not gonna, you know, kill us all in our sleep or something."
"My father would prefer the Avatar be brought to him alive," Zuko corrects automatically.
For a moment, Toph is perfectly still. Zuko curses himself for being such an idiot. If he's alienated the only ally he has…
"How about we not say stuff like that?" Toph suggests after a moment.
Zuko lets out a sigh of relief. "Yeah, probably a good idea."
There are three others at the Western Air Temple, none of whom Zuko recognizes. There's a boy in a wheelchair named Teo, an earthbender named Haru, and a young kid who insistently calls himself the Duke. At one point, the Duke mentions something about Jet, and Zuko remembers fighting him in Ba Sing Se before he was taken away. He realizes he doesn't know what happened to Jet after that. He doesn't ask.
The three of them keep an awkward distance. None of them seem particularly comfortable getting too close to the Fire Nation prince, but Zuko hasn't personally wronged any of them, as far as he knows. Their anger towards him isn't as strong as the anger that Katara, Sokka, and the Avatar have.
Or, at least, the anger that Katara and Sokka have. The Avatar has been shooting Zuko looks all day, always wearing the same twisted expression of guilt on his face. Zuko's also seen Toph and the Avatar talking a few times, and he wonders if Toph is trying to convince the Avatar to let Zuko teach him firebending. Honestly, Zuko doesn't understand why she's helping him, but he appreciates it nonetheless. The Avatar needs to learn firebending to defeat Ozai, and Zuko wants to do his part to help.
As the sun reaches higher in the sky, Zuko sees the others all sit down for lunch. His stomach rumbles, but he ignores it. He has no reason to expect them to feed him, after all. He hasn't eaten since the night before, but he's gone longer without food before. He'll be fine.
And then, to his surprise, after everyone finishes lunch, the Avatar and Toph pick up a bowl and head over to him.
"Promise you're not going to attack us, Sparky?" Toph asks. Apparently, that little nickname is going to stick.
"I swear it," Zuko replies. "On my uncle's life."
The Avatar and Toph look at each other. "Sounds good to me," Toph says. She stamps her foot and the stone around Zuko's arms melts back into the ground. His legs are still held in place - they're starting to cramp, but Zuko isn't about to complain - but his hands are free.
"We figured this would be the easiest way for you to eat," the Avatar explains. "No one really wanted to spoon feed you."
"Thank you, Avatar," Zuko replies, taking the bowl he's offered.
The Avatar offers him an awkward smile. "You can call me Aang, if you want."
He's really very young, Zuko notices. Even younger than Zuko was when he was banished. He's never really let himself notice that before.
"Aang," he repeats. The name feels a bit uncomfortable in his mouth. He can deal with it. "Thank you, Aang."
Aang's smile brightens, although it's still hesitant. Zuko ducks his head and starts eating. It's surprisingly not bad.
"Toph thinks I should let you teach me firebending," Aang says after a moment.
"Toph thinks there's no other choice and we shouldn't dismiss the only option we have," Toph mutters.
"But…" Aang shrugs, not looking Zuko in the eye. "That time when I asked if we could be friends, you shot fire at me."
Zuko studies his food. It's not his proudest moment. It seems like there are very few moments he can be proud of in the past few months.
"I'm sorry," he offers, as if that makes up for anything. "I- I was wrong, back then. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I… wasn't." As far as excuses go, it's almost amazingly pathetic. "But I've changed. I want to help in any way I can."
Aang fixes him with an unnervingly piercing stare. "Can you teach me the basics of firebending without actually doing any firebending yourself?" he finally asks.
Zuko blinks. "Um. Yes? The basics of firebending are all about breathing."
Aang makes a face. "Yeah, Jeong Jeong taught me all about that."
"Wait, Admiral Jeong Jeong?"
"So this is the Jeong Jeong person you were talking about before," Toph muses.
Aang frowns. "Um, I think he said he used to be an admiral. He deserted from the Fire Nation Navy, I know that."
"You met him? He's still alive?"
"Yup, still alive," Aang agrees. "He taught me some firebending breathing exercises, but…" Aang looks down. "I kinda burned Katara. It was an accident, but…"
Zuko knows all about having a fear of flames. It took him months to feel comfortable firebending again after Ozai burned his face. "Can you show me the breathing exercises you know?"
Aang closes his eyes and takes a deep, smooth breath. Zuko watches his breathing for a minute. "Okay," he finally says. "Jeong Jeong taught you well."
"But I can't actually do anything with fire," Aang protests. "I mean, I guess I can breathe right, but I can't firebend at all."
"Not even a bit?" Zuko asks, his heart sinking. "Can you make sparks or anything?" In the Fire Nation, firebending children start throwing sparks at a young age. The Avatar might be different, but Zuko can't help but feel a bit worried.
Aang narrows his eyes. "If I really concentrate, I can-" A tiny flame pops into existence in his hand, then disappears. Aang looks absurdly proud of himself.
"Okay," Zuko says. He could do better than that when he was about half Aang's visible age, but he gets the feeling that admonishing Aang for his lack of firebending prowess isn't the best way to teach him. Zuko's own teachers were harsh, the harshest being his father. He's not going to teach Aang the same way. "That's a good start."
Aang's face falls. "I know it's not much-"
"It's better than nothing," Zuko says. It sounded more encouraging in his head. He hopes Aang doesn't take it badly. "But there's only so much I can teach you without firebending. For now, you should probably work on your breathing a bit more. You'll need to be able to control it, no matter what." Zuko's instructors had burned him every time his breathing faltered, lightly enough that it wouldn't cause permanent damage but strongly enough to hurt. As his training continued, they tested him by doing everything they could think of to distract him from breathing properly, fire at the ready if he slipped up. It didn't take long before regulating his breathing was second nature to Zuko.
He gets the feeling that's not the best way to teach Aang, not in the least because the others will probably kill him if he tries. Looking back on it, that was probably a horrible way to teach anyone. It seemed normal at the time, but now he can't imagine ever doing it himself. The thought of burning Aang - of burning a child - every time he gets distracted…
No, Zuko's not going to teach Aang the way he was taught.
"Try to keep your breathing regulated for the rest of the day," Zuko says. Aang's face falls. "Or at least for the next hour or so," Zuko adds, although a part of him is screaming that they don't have time for him to go easy on Aang. "No matter what happens, I want you to stay in control of your breathing. When you're in a fight, you have to keep your breathing steady or your firebending will suffer for it. It needs to be second nature for you, so nothing can distract you."
"I can throw a couple of rocks at you, to see if you get distracted," Toph offers, sounding far too excited about the idea. "And maybe Katara can waterbend at you."
"I don't know if we need to do that yet," Zuko cuts in quickly. "We can worry about breathing in combat situations later. For now, just see how you do for the next hour."
Aang beams. "Okay, Sifu Hotman!"
Zuko blinks once, twice, three times. Toph cackles. "Sifu Hotman?" he finally repeats.
Aang shrugs. "Well, sifu means master-"
"I know what sifu means," Zuko interrupts. "But… Hotman?"
"It used to be Fire Nation slang, back when I was younger," Aang replies. "You don't use it anymore?"
"No," Zuko replies. A lot of weird things have happened to him in his life, but being called "hotman" by the Avatar is definitely up there. "No, we don't."
"Huh," Aang replies. "That's a shame. I like it!"
Zuko gets the feeling he's going to be called "Sifu Hotman" from now on.
"What's taking you so long?" a new voice asks as Katara comes over. "You're just supposed to be feeding him, not talking with him."
"And what's wrong with doing both, Sugar Queen?" Toph counters.
"It's okay," Zuko says quickly, not wanting to make trouble. "I'm done."
Katara glares at him, snatching away the empty bowl like he's going to use it as a weapon if given the chance. "Come on, Aang," she says sharply. "You were supposed to practice waterbending with me after lunch."
"Oh, right." Aang gets up and shoots Zuko one last look before following Katara off.
"Make sure you trap his arms again!" Katara calls over her shoulder.
"Sorry, Sparky," Toph says, softly enough that Katara can't hear it. Zuko lays his hands down in the most comfortable position he can manage, and then Toph pulls the rock up over them.
"It's okay," Zuko replies, his voice equally quiet. "Katara has every reason not to trust me."
Toph frowns. She opens her mouth like she's going to say something, but she's cut off by Haru yelling her name across the courtyard.
"What?" she bellows back.
Haru comes over, but Zuko notices he doesn't get too close. "You said you were going to try to teach me how to see with earthbending," he reminds Toph. "If you don't want to, I can just go off with Teo and the Duke again, but-"
To Zuko's shock, Toph turns towards him. "Do you mind if I go?"
Zuko blinks. "No."
It comes out a little blunter than he intends, but Toph doesn't seem to care. "'Kay. See you later, Sparky." She gets up and starts walking over towards Haru. "Now," Zuko hears her begin, "you've got more practice at earthbending than Twinkletoes did when I started teaching him, so you'd better be better at this than he was."
"Better than the Avatar?" Haru demands, his voice sounding a little too high.
Toph probably says something in response, but they've wandered too far off for Zuko to catch it. He finds, to his surprise, that there's a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.
He catches a glimpse of Sokka glaring at him, and any hint of a smile immediately falls. Sokka has no reason to trust him, no more than Katara, but Zuko wants to prove himself. He wants to make them trust him, wants to figure out how to be a part of their little group.
Zuko's never been very good at getting what he wants, but that never stops him from trying.
Zuko expects to be ignored as long as Toph and Aang are practicing their bending, but to his surprise, Teo and the Duke come over to him before too long. At first, the two of them remain a good distance away, hissing something at each other that's just too quiet for Zuko to hear. He has an idea of what it might be anyway. He waits, surprised to find that he's actually amused, for one of them to come over.
It's Teo who does, rolling over in his wheelchair. Zuko notices he has a bandage wrapped around his head and wonders why. "So," Teo says, looking behind him at the Duke and then turning back to Zuko. "You're the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation."
"I'm pretty sure my father's declared me a traitor and removed me from the line of succession by now," Zuko replies. "But yeah, I was the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation."
"Jet always said we could never trust Fire Nation scum," the Duke says, but he edges a bit closer as he says it. Zuko figures that, to these kids, he's probably interesting and exotic. He's not the biggest fan of people gawping at him like he's an animal in a zoo - he gets too much of that because of his scar - but at least these kids don't seem to mean anything harmful by it.
"Yeah, I know," Zuko replies.
The Duke's eyes go wide. "You met Jet?"
Zuko wishes he could remember to keep his mouth shut. "Yeah," he says. He's not a good liar, and he doesn't really want to lie to the Duke anyway. "In Ba Sing Se. My uncle and I went there as refugees, when we were on the run from the Fire Nation."
"You were on the run from the Fire Nation?" Teo asks. "But you're the Crown Prince!"
He says it like that should be the solution to all of Zuko's problems instead of the cause of most of them. Zuko tries not to let his expression get too bitter. "My father blamed me and my uncle for the Fire Nation Navy's defeat at the North Pole."
"You've been to the North Pole?" the Duke asks, wide-eyed.
Zuko blinks. "Um, yeah?"
"Can you tell us about it?" Teo demands.
"The others have been to the North Pole too," Zuko points out. Why would these kids want him, the enemy, tell them about the North Pole when they could ask the Avatar himself?
"They're all busy," Teo dismisses, which is true. Aang and Katara are practicing waterbending, and Sokka left not long after lunch to go hunting. Haru and Toph are practicing earthbending, and neither of them have probably been to the North Pole anyway.
Which, somehow, leaves Zuko to do the storytelling.
Which, as everyone who knows him is very aware, he is notoriously terrible at.
"Um." Stories normally start with "once upon a time," don't they? But this isn't really a story, more of a description of a place. So starting with "once upon a time" doesn't make sense. So how should he start? "Um, the North Pole is really cold."
Both Teo and the Duke look supremely unimpressed.
"Yeah, but what's it like?" the Duke asks, sitting cross-legged next to Teo's wheelchair. Apparently, he's given up on the whole "never trust Fire Nation scum" thing. "Is everything made of snow and ice?"
"Uh, yeah, I think so," Zuko replies. "I mean, I wasn't paying that much attention to architecture when I was there." He brightens slightly as he remembers something that the kids will probably find interesting. "But there was this one spot that had grass. It had trees and a garden and everything too. It's where the Moon and Ocean Spirits live."
Teo and the Duke's eyes go gratifyingly wide. "The Moon and Ocean Spirits?" Teo breathes. "Did you meet them?"
"Well, the Ocean Spirit grabbed the guy I was fighting, after he stopped destroying the Fire Nation Navy," Zuko offers. "Cause the guy I was fighting killed the Moon Spirit, so-"
"He killed the Moon Spirit?" Teo and the Duke both gasp in horror.
"How do you kill a spirit?" the Duke demands. "Are you making this up?"
"No!" Zuko replies quickly. "You can ask the others. Aang and Katara and Sokka. They were there too. There was this Fire Nation admiral named Zhao, and he thought that if he destroyed the moon then he could take the North Pole because the waterbenders wouldn't be able to use their bending."
"But the moon is still there," Teo says, sounding a little uncertain. "I mean, we saw it last night. But if he killed the Moon Spirit…"
Zuko blinks. "You know, I'm not actually sure how the moon came back," he admits. "I, uh, kinda wasn't there for that part. I was fighting Zhao. And Aang and the Ocean Spirit were taking down the boats. My uncle and the others got the spirit back somehow."
"Cool," the Duke breathes reverently. "I wish I could go to the North Pole."
"Sokka said you used to chase Aang all over the world," Teo says eagerly. "Have you seen a lot of cool places?"
"Yeah, I guess," Zuko replies, starting to wonder why these kids are so eager to spend time with him. The others have been all over the world too. Still, if it can help get them to trust him… "I've been to the South Pole too. And a lot of places in the Earth Kingdom. And I used to go all over the Fire Kingdom with my family when I was little."
"You said you went to Ba Sing Se, right?" Teo demands. Zuko nods. "Was it super cool? I want to see the walls of Ba Sing Se someday."
"They're the strongest walls in the world," the Duke says authoritatively. "They've gotta be. The Dragon of the West sieged them for six hundred days and still didn't get in."
"He did get in eventually," Zuko jokes.
The Duke frowns. "No he didn't. I thought it was the princess who took Ba Sing Se."
"Yeah, but the Dragon of the West is my uncle," Zuko explains. "And we went to Ba Sing Se together as refugees. So he did get in. You know, not with an army. And he didn't conquer it. But he did get in."
Neither the Duke nor Teo look like they really get it. "Never mind," Zuko mutters. No one ever likes his jokes.
"What was Ba Sing Se like?" Teo asks eagerly.
Zuko thinks back. "Well, my uncle and I started in the Lower Ring, working at a tea shop. It wasn't too bad, I guess." After the time Zuko and Iroh spent wandering the Earth Kingdom, even the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se had been downright lovely. "But then my uncle got his own tea shop in the Upper Ring, and that was pretty nice."
"You met Jet there, right?" the Duke asks.
"Well, technically I met him on the ferry to Ba Sing Se." Zuko doesn't mention that he fought Jet once they were actually in the city. "But I didn't know him well."
"Do you know if he's still there?"
Zuko shakes his head. "No." Thinking that was perhaps a bit harsh, he adds, "I'm sorry."
"Oh." The Duke hangs his head. Teo reaches out and lays a soft hand on his shoulder.
"Did you know Jet?" Zuko asks. Realizing that's a stupid question - of course the kid knew Jet - he modifies it: "Were you one of his little group? The, uh, Freedom Fighters?"
The Duke's eyes light up. "Were there others there?"
Zuko nods. "Yeah, Jet was with two other kids. A boy named Longshot, and a girl named… something-bee?"
"Smellerbee!" the Duke cries. "How were they? Do you know where they are now?"
"They seemed fine," Zuko replies. "But I don't know where they are either. I'm sorry."
The Duke looks disappointed, but Zuko doesn't think he let himself get his hopes up as much this time. "How did you meet Jet?" he asks.
Zuko's almost done with his retelling of his escapade with Jet on the ferry when Haru comes over. Toph, he notices, has joined Aang and Katara and seems to be deriving great joy from throwing rocks at Aang, who does his best to dodge them and also the water that Katara keeps attacking him with. For a twelve year old kid, he's not that bad. Considering he's the Avatar and the world's only hope when it comes to stopping Ozai, Zuko is letting himself despair a little bit.
"What are you guys talking about?" Haru asks. His gaze is understandably wary when it falls on Zuko. He looks older than Teo and the Duke, probably about Zuko's own age, and Zuko doesn't think he's going to earn his trust by telling a few stories.
"Zuko met Jet!" the Duke tells Haru eagerly. "He was just telling us how."
"Did you know Jet?" Zuko asks.
Haru shakes his head. "I never met him."
"How did you meet Aang and the others?"
"The Fire Nation was taking away all of the earthbenders in my village. They found out that I was an earthbender and took me away to this ship in the middle of the ocean, and then Katara got herself imprisoned so she could incite a rebellion and we could all escape."
Zuko frowns. Something about that sounds vaguely familiar. He could swear he heard about an escape like that while he was still on his ship. He remembers being particularly amused because the escaped prisoners had been guarded by a warden whom he found incredibly obnoxious.
"Were you one of the prisoners who escaped from Warden Sulu?" Zuko asks.
Haru blinks. "Yeah. How'd you know?"
Zuko shrugs the best he can with his lower arms encased in stone. "I heard about the escape, back when it happened. I never liked Warden Sulu much."
Haru frowns. "We didn't like him either, but…"
"But you thought people from the Fire Nation would?" Zuko asks, translating the silence into the worlds Haru wouldn't say. "I thought he was obnoxious."
"He was," Haru agrees. "What did he do to you?"
Not quite sure how this has become his life, Zuko tells Haru the story of the time when he met Warden Sulu, which they figure out was a little more than two years before Haru and the others had their rebellion. He'd heard that Sulu was increasing the taxes he took from the people but still sending the same amount of money back to the Fire Nation as he always had. Zuko, hotheaded and fourteen, less than a year into his banishment and torn between anger at the world and homesickness so potent it hurt, went to confront Sulu about it, which went about as well as could be expected. They'd gotten dangerously close to an Agni Kai before Iroh had managed to smooth things over.
Haru is just starting to tell the story of how the newly-freed earthbenders managed to overthrow the Fire Nation presence in his village when Katara stalks over. "Don't you all have something better to do?" she demands.
The Duke looks up at her with confusion on his face. He's just a child, probably seven or eight, and Zuko is filled with a wave of guilt at the thought that his nation forced this child into a war. "Zuko was just telling us about the places he's been. And Haru was talking about getting rid of the Fire Nation in his village."
"Zuko," Katara says with enough vitriol in her voice that Zuko flinches, his mind automatically flying back to times his father or Azula said his name like that and the consequences that followed, "is our enemy. He's dangerous. We can't trust him."
"We were just talking," Teo protests.
Haru gives Zuko a long look that Zuko can't quite decipher, then he stands. "Come on, let's go explore the Temple some more. Maybe we can find that giant Pai Sho table Aang mentioned."
Teo and the Duke both look a little confused, but they follow Haru away. "We were just talking," Zuko says, his voice a little hoarse. Talking back never makes things better, but he's never been very good at stopping himself from doing it anyway.
"I know how you work," Katara spits. "You get people to trust you, and then they let their guard down, and that's when you strike. Just like in Ba Sing Se."
"I was wrong in Ba Sing Se. I'm sorry."
Katara scoffs. "You're going to have to try a lot harder than that if you want to fool me again."
Zuko lowers his head, staring at the ground. On his knees, he feels like a penitent seeking absolution, a criminal seeking forgiveness, a loyal son seeking mercy. Katara leaves and gives him nothing.