Oneshot written at the request of SylverEyes. Hope you like it, Sylver!
Beta-read by the awesome and talented LayDownMyPride. Thanks so much, LDMP!
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender, nor any of the characters mentioned in the following story.
There he was.
The short girl, petite for her age, squinted her eyes in hatred. Not many thought it was possible for such a young girl to feel so strong an emotion. She had the uncanny ability to appear innocent and naïve; not at all like she truly was.
But looks were deceiving, indeed.
And in more cases than one… she thought as she eyed the old man.
Of all the people in the Fire Nation, of all the people in the world, it seemed, he was the only one who dared stand up to her. She might be able to bend fire, but his will was not to be persuaded. She might be able to scare everyone younger than her, and several who were older than her, but age seemed not to be an issue when it came to Iroh. His niece crossed her arms over her chest in scorn of her uncle, the great war general. He strode across the lawn, wearing the crimson armor and robes that he always wore.
A soft smile crossed his face when he saw Azula standing in the shadows of the trees. He slowly approached her. With every step he took, she felt a little more hatred boil up in her chest until it spilled over and washed her entire body with revulsion.
"Hello, Azula," he said, bending down to make his face equal with hers. "What are you doing out here in the garden all alone?"
"What are you doing?" she spat, turning her head so she didn't have to look into his gentle eyes.
"I was taking a walk," he responded, deciding to ignore her rancorous tone.
"Well," she said. "I was practicing my firebending. Perhaps you wanted a demonstration?" she asked, mocking sincerity. She only scoffed when he said he would love to see it.
Spacing herself from him, she prepared her body for the experience. The executions were flawless, the performance awe-worthy. She added some excitement to the demonstration by showing off her newly acquired skill; producing blue fire. Barely even ten, she had perfected that which took years for other firebenders to achieve. She ended the performance impeccably, waiting for Iroh to start gushing with praise. He would have to, after a demonstration like that.
"I see you've been practicing," Iroh merely said, nodding. "Keep working hard, my niece."
Her eyes spiraled with disbelief. How could he? How dare he? Not even a "wonderful job"? Not a pat on the back, not a smile of approval? She … she was the princess! Her face turned red as she called after him, watching him start to leave.
"I am working hard! And by the time I'm half your age, I'll be twice as good as you!"
Iroh paused in mid-stride, waiting a second or two before turning around to face her. When he did so, his gaze was steady, his voice unfaltering.
"Keep working hard, my niece," He repeated, apparently not too deeply affected by her words.
"I will," she responded, raising one eyebrow to appear intimidating. "Even someone like you, Uncle, owes a princess respect. I expect you'll work hard on that."
No response came from the wise man. He continued walking, entered the palace, and left her staring in disbelief long after his exit. She sat underneath a nearby tree to fume.
Some people… she thought with an icy stare. Looking up from her intense glare, the corners of her mouth curled downwards in disgust.
One day, Uncle…
At eight years old, he was supposed to have friends, buddies, companions -- whatever one wanted to call them. At eight years old, he was supposed to be leading a happy, childish life full of wonder and glee, not constantly watching over his baby sister as she strutted about with her 'Magical powers'.
She was the only one of 'Those' left in the tribe. She was a waterbender, as he first heard their father call her one night so many years ago. It was a gift, she was told by many of the elders. A gift that only few members of the Water Tribe are blessed with nowadays. A gift that, frankly, Sokka wanted nothing to do with.
"Katara, come on. We're going penguin sledding, remember?" The young boy said one day as he trudged through the ankle-deep snow.
"Later, Sokka," a six-year-old Katara answered.
"But you promised!" he said, his voice growing slightly louder, and taking on a whiny tone.
"I moved it a couple times," she said, ignoring what he said. He watched for a second as she slowly moved her hands back and forth across the water she had sitting in a large basin in front of her.
"Look, I did it!" She said excitedly. He glanced at the bowl, hating to admit that there was now a ripple that wasn't there before. Frowning, he crossed his arms over his tiny chest.
"Katara, let's go. You promised you'd come. And besides, dad said I need to keep an eye on you."
"But Sokka, I'm bending!" she said, her eyes glowing. She continued to wave her arms in motions that looked ridiculous to Sokka. He waited and watched for a second or two.
"Nothing's happening," he said dryly.
"Well, it doesn't always work," she admitted. "I don't know how to make it move every time. But sometimes it does, and --"
"Katara, I don't care about your dumb old bending!" he screamed, throwing his hands into the air in an exasperated gesture. He immediately covered his mouth with his gloved hands, though, when he saw Katara's lip start to quiver, and the glow exit her eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said, taking a step closer to her younger sister. "I didn't mean it." She remained quiet. "Katara--" he said, reaching his hand out to rest on her shoulder.
"Don't touch me," she said despondently, casting her eyes on the snowy ground. "I'm going home."
He followed her as she took on a fast walk. "I didn't mean it, I told you!" He said, desperately trying to cheer her up. "You're not going to tell dad, are you?" He asked, starting to get worried.
She didn't answer. She merely started running, and Sokka refrained from following. A frown crossed his face, and he turned back around and headed in the direction he came from. Stopping at a snow bank that was particularly isolated from the rest of the village, he sat down and stared at the sky. Sighing to himself, he questioned things that an eight-year-old shouldn't have to question.
Why was Katara so much better than him? It seemed everyone liked her. She could bend. She was special. She had an extraordinary gift given to her with her birth, a gift that no one else in the South Pole possessed. And what was he?
Just like everybody else, he concluded, slumping his shoulders.
"Can I join you?" A familiar voice asked. His head shot up and he rested his eyes on a towering figure.
"Sure, dad." he said, still sounding dejected. His father sat next to him, making the already short boy appear even smaller.
"Looking at the sunset?" he asked casually, and Sokka nodded, observing the splashes of purple, pink, and crimson that graced the sky.
"It's pretty," Hakoda said, readjusting his position to make the sit more comfortable. "You know what it means?"
Sokka paused for a second. "What what means, dad?" he asked, confused.
"The colors in the sky," he responded. "Red particularly sends a message so that all those planning to go out to sea know what to expect. There's a little rhyme to help you remember."
"What is it?" he asked, looking at his father with a new curiosity overtaking his features.
"Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor's delight," Hakoda recited, turning to smile softly at his son. "A red sky in the morning means a storm is coming," he explained. "And a red sky at night, like right now, means that tomorrow the weather will be nice."
"Nice enough to go penguin sledding?" Sokka asked hopefully.
Hakoda laughed joyously. He clapped his hand on his son's back. "Of course," he answered. "I thought you were going with Katara today, though."
Sokka's expression darkened. "No. She was too busy waterbending," he said, placing a bitter emphasis on the word he had grown to dislike.
Hakoda frowned and addressed his son. "Sokka…" he said, looking at the boy. "Katara has been given a great gift."
"That's what everyone says, dad."
"But…" Hakoda said, holding up a finger and pointing to Sokka. "that doesn't mean you don't have special gifts of your own."
Sokka eyed his dad with a questioning look. His father merely smiled back at him.
"When you're older, I think you'll come to find that a warrior can make his way in the world even if he doesn't have the gift of bending."
"How do you know?" Sokka asked.
Hakoda smiled. "Take my word for it." He stood up and left his son to contemplate on his own.
Sokka stared out at the sky, remembering the rhyme his father had taught him, and recalling the advice he had just received. Maybe he wasn't special like Katara. But he had gifts of his own, and one day, he'd figure out what they were and use them to their fullest potential.
One day, I'm going to be a great warrior, he thought as he stared out at the horizon.
"Toph," the teacher's kind voice asked as she addressed her new student. "Can you please tell us the answer to number seven?"
"I'm sorry, I'll read the question aloud for her," her personal tutor said to the teacher with a piteous tone, as if Toph were just an infant. He continued with a whisper, "She's blind."
Nine-year-old Toph could just imagine the way the teacher would nod sympathetically, a pained expression across her face. The young girl didn't understand why her parents tried sending her to a normal school with normal kids. She wasn't normal. She never would be normal. Couldn't she have just stuck it out with her personal tutor?
"Toph, who was the enemy general that led a 600-day siege on the great city of Ba Sing Se?" her tutor asked, reading aloud from the book.
"General Iroh," Toph answered bitterly. "The Dragon of the West."
"Very good, Toph," the teacher said. "Now class, the general was unsuccessful in bringing down the city. You must understand that…"
Toph tuned out the teacher's all-too-cheery voice as she slumped down even further in her chair. After today, she decided she never wanted to come back to school again.
It will be a good experience, Toph, her father had said.
Yes, just try it. Please? her mother had wheedled.
Fine, fine, I'll go, Toph had said, giving in. But I won't like it.
Why did she even listen to them in the first place? She wondered. She knew this was a horrible idea from the start. No amount of fake promises or gentle nudging from her parents would change that. They always thought of her as fragile and weak. But they knew it wouldn't do her any good to have no friends at all. That's where the idea of school came in. Admittedly, Toph wanted friends. But school was just too awkward a situation to put up with in any circumstance. She'd rather be home, practicing her earthbending.
Toph tuned back into the teacher's lecture just in time to hear her say, "Alright children, a quick break for a snack and then we'll start working on our calligraphy."
The blind girl stayed seated at her desk as she felt several children run past her and out of the room to retrieve their packed lunches. Toph merely held out her hand to receive an apple from her personal tutor, who stayed seated next to her.
She bit into the apple, feeling the cool texture against her mouth and tasting the sweet juice. Crimson, she thought as she swallowed. This is what crimson tastes like. She couldn't see colors, but her mother had told her that each object had its own shade. Crimson was how she described apples. The word sounded funny to Toph and felt strange in her mouth. She liked to think about colors as she ate particular foods, feeling the shades and tones as they slid down her throat.
Big deal, I can't see colors, she thought bitterly as she took another bite. But it doesn't mean I'm completely helpless! Why didn't anyone understand that about her? Just because she didn't see the world the same way everyone else did, that was no reason to say she was helpless and weak.
I'm just as strong as anyone out there! Toph wanted to scream on occasion. Stronger than some, even. I can do it on my own, and I don't need your help or sympathy! But did anyone listen?
If she was blind, then the rest of the world must have been deaf, because no one ever heard a word she said.
"One day, I'm going to be the greatest earthbender ever," she said to her tutor, who sat next to her in silence. He merely nodded, saying, "Yes, of course Toph."
I rest my case, she thought as she crossed her arms. No one ever listened to her.
But one day they would. And one day, she would be the greatest earthbender ever.
"Please, Father," he said hoarsely as sweat dripped down the back of his neck. "I only had the Fire Nation's best interest at heart! I'm sorry I spoke out of turn!" He kneeled on the hard floor, his limbs stiff with pain. So intent was his gaze into the stony face of his father that he didn't pay any heed to the crowd surrounding them.
"You will fight for your honor," was all his father said.
"I meant you no disrespect," the boy insisted. "I am your loyal son!"
"Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!" the boy cringed slightly at his harsh words and tone, but refused.
"I won't fight you."
"You will learn respect," the chilling voice answered. "And suffering will be your teacher!"
He knew his father wouldn't back down. He knew something was about to happen. But he remained in his humble position on the floor, no doubt a frightened expression strewn across his face.
It all happened so fast. A quick jab of his father's arm, a blast of heat and light coming toward him -- he involuntarily closed his eyes, but it did nothing to protect him. The next thing he knew he was lying on the ground, an immense pain searing through the left side of his face. He automatically reached up to touch his face where it hurt, but immediately pulled back with a hiss of pain when his fingers pressed against the soft, pink skin of the wound. His entire body ached as a new pain throbbed in his face. He became aware of his furiously beating heart and shallow breath as he squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to block out the rest of the world around him.
Untreated wounds went on to have scars. It was inevitable. Even a year later, as the young teenager scoured the earth in search of the Avatar, the mark on his face was clearly noticeable. Not so obvious was the scar on his soul.
His father had hurt him in more ways than one. He was marked once on the face, and a thousand times over on the inside. His heart was like a steely metal that was shaped into a strong, unyielding form with the flames of time. He didn't let anything into his soul after the Agni Kai; nothing ever penetrated that outer wall he had built up around himself. But nothing ever got out, either, and the pain his father placed there a year ago was left to simmer and fester until it became even more of a burden.
Honor would come to him again. He would capture the Avatar and return him to his father; then his rightful claim to the throne would once again be in his grasp, where it belonged. He would be back at the palace in the Fire Nation, where he belonged. And he could finally tear down the wall that separated him from the rest of the world; though he was sure its remnants would still remain. There were some wounds that time itself could not heal, even with her tender and loving hands that treated blemishes with utmost care. Scars remained, memories remained, and with memories came pain.
The young teenager walked from his position on the deck of the ship to his cabin. Curtly sitting down on the edge of his bed, he picked up a hand mirror that lay on his nightstand. He stared at his reflection, the crimson marks of his scar seeming to taunt him. A permanent scowl rested on his face. He slammed the mirror back onto the small table face down.
"One day, I'm going to go back home with the Avatar and restore my honor," he whispered to himself. He silently added, and one day, Father will accept me back with loving arms. One day he'll appreciate me for what I really am, and not hate me for what I'm not.