And then they saw it. The statue. Right smack dab in the middle of the town. It was a wonder they hadn't noticed before.
It was a statue of a man. Tall and imposing, wearing Fire Nation armor, similar to Zuko's old outfit. He wore his long hair in a half up topknot, with a hairpiece in the shape of a flame on top. The crown of the Fire Lord. They looked up at the face of the enemy. Fire Lord Ozai. The man Aang would have to battle to the death in about three months time.
They had all had their own little visions in their heads about what he looked like. They had all had their own nightmares concerning him, but even though they would have to face him, he had never seemed real to any of them. Like the monster under a child's bed. Something you feared, but wasn't really real. But looking at the stone face of the statue, they realized that Fire Lord Ozai was very much a real monster.
Then, as if it had registered for the first time in their brains, they looked from the statue to Zuko, and back. Katara let out a small gasp. The resemblance was shocking. From the shape of the face to the tall muscular body, to the scowl on their faces, Zuko and Ozai looked very much alike. Sokka was the first one to speak up.
"Holy shit. Zuko, you're the spitting image!" he exclaimed. But Zuko didn't seem to hear. He was staring at the statue, his face drawn. His eyes were staring straight at the face of the statue, but they were glazed over as if he was looking at something beyond the stone face of the man whom he had once called father. Toph couldn't see the statue or Zuko, but she could feel everyone else's vibrations tense up when they stopped at what she could assume was the statue. And Zuko. His vibrations were off the charts. His heart was racing and she could feel him tremble, even though to everyone else, he appeared perfectly still. And then Toph realized something. He was afraid. Prince Zuko was afraid of his father.
The moment Zuko saw the statue, he became oblivious to everything around him. He stood at the foot of the likeness of the man he had once called dad. He stood there in his shadow… alone. He was vaguely aware of the fact that the others were staring at him, but for once, he didn't care. He was no longer standing in the town square of some village in the middle of nowhere. No. He was far away, reliving the last time he saw that face in person.
He was thirteen again, standing on the Agni Kai platform. The crowd jeered at him, and Zuko felt nervous. What if the general wasn't as old and feeble as he looked? And then, Zuko turned around, letting the silk towel slide off his shoulders. And then he saw his opponent, It was not the general, oh no. It was his father. Zuko's eyes widened in shock and horror, No! It couldn't be! How could he fight his own father? Even though Zuko knew that he never really cared for him, and sometimes was downright abusive, he had still idolized his father. He was so powerful… so all-knowing. He was everything Zuko wanted to be. How could he be expected to fight him? He just couldn't do it.
"Please, Father…I only had the Fire Nation's best interests at heart. I'm sorry I spoke out of turn!" he pleaded.
"You will fight for your honor." Ozai's voice was cold and indifferent, Dad! Dad! Please don't kill me! I'll do anything! Please… don't hurt me again… not with everyone watching… Dad… Dad… Zuko dropped to his knees and bowed down to his father.
"I meant you no disrespect… I am your loyal son!"
"Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!" Ozai was becoming angry. Dad… Don't you see? Don't you remember? It's me... your only son…your own flesh and blood! Please don't hurt me again… please don't kill me… I can't fight you, you know that!
"I won't fight you." The crowd grew silent. After all, how could I? I love you. You're my dad, I am your son… don't you love me too? Ozai walked over to his son, his eyes filled with rage and hatred, as he spoke in an eerily calm voice.
"You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher." Zuko looked up at his father, tears spilling down his face. His eyes pleading, searching for hope… one small trace of affection for his only son… a glimmer of compassion. There was nothing. Zuko knew his fate. He looked his father straight in the eye as the flaming fist came hurtling towards the left side of his handsome face. The fist made contact and Zuko screamed in agony. He could smell it…. He could feel his own flesh melting off his face. His own hair burning, being consumed by the ever hungry flame. The pain was indescribable. It was worse than death. The last thing Zuko saw before slipping into a black abyss was his father's face, smiling. His ruby red eyes glinting with sick pleasure as he watched his son suffer before collapsing onto the cold stone floor…
Katara looked at Zuko with concern in her eyes as he stared up at the statue. There was something about Zuko's eyes that told her something was wrong. They looked almost… hollow. She slowly reached out and touched his arm. Zuko suddenly jerked back from the contact. "Don't touch me!" he snapped, his eyes blazing. She flinched back as Zuko blew smoke out of his nostrils. The others stepped back as well as Zuko's fists burst into flames. Then all of a sudden, as if he just realized what he was doing, Zuko looked down at his flaming hands in horror.
"Shit," he muttered under his breath as he put his hands out. "Shit…..shit…." Zuko slowly backed away from them, looking from his hands to the statue and back.
"Zuko?" asked Katara cautiously, taking a tentative step towards him. Sokka put a hand on her shoulder, silently warning her to keep away. Katara brushed it away.
"Are you okay?" she asked quietly.
"No." said Zuko.
Later that night, while the others sat by the campfire, Zuko sat alone away from everyone else. It dawned on Katara that Zuko's even more taciturn than usual mood was due to what happened at the statue. Ignoring the death glares from Sokka, she walked over to where Zuko was sitting. "Zuko?" The prince in question looked up, surprised to see someone was actually talking to him after his "episode". "Do you want to talk about it?" Zuko stared at her. Why is she asking me this? Why is she even talking to me after I came so close to hurting her like that?
"Why do you care" asked Zuko bitterly.
"Because… whether you like it or not, you're one of us now. Part of our little family. And that means that we I care about you. Now do you want to talk about it or not?" Zuko's hard expression softened a little. Family… That word… that concept… the last time Zuko could remember being part of that was before his mother died. Should he tell this waterbender? This girl who he had hurt so much over the past year and a half? Could she really understand him? Could she actually forgive him? Zuko wanted it to be true… could it? The thing that had so eluded him for the past three and a half years… so close now, he could almost taste it. Forgiveness… redemption… connection… For the first time in years, Zuko decided to reach out. He took a deep breath… and he told her.