Learning a New Skill
Summary: After he has thrown himself upon the Avatar's mercy, Zuko and Katara have a conversation about musical instruments.
Spoilers: I haven't actually seen the end of Season 2. I have only heard rumors. This was written partly in response to those rumors.
Special Thanks: Misora no Miko, for her beta talents!
Notes: I wrote this story before learning that Mako would be replaced as Iroh's voice actor. As such, I may write a parallel version of this story later on using much the same premise.
His sister lay in a puddle of her own blood, two criss-crossed slashes where her abdomen used to be. Her face, pale and sweaty, stared up at him from the floor. She shook her head to one side, and a damp lock of hair moved unstuck from her forehead. A bubble of blood popped between her teeth as she smiled.
"Oh, Zu-Zu," she said, "I really do love you."
Zuko startled awake with a sharply indrawn breath. First he smelled Appa, and three breaths later he allowed himself to relax. They haven't thrown you overboard yet. He absolutely hated air travel. It gave him a crawly, nervous feeling. He rarely moved far from the rim of Appa's saddle where he could quickly grab a hold of one of its handles in the event of a sudden turn. It's like the sea, he tried telling himself. The sea is just as deep as the drop is long. Only there's no swimming the air. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about the empty, gaping distance between the bison and solid ground. Instead, he rolled over and examined the rest of the party.
The Avatar sat in his usual place, reins in his hands, head up and moving as he surveyed the afternoon sky. Sokka and the Kyoshi customs agent were talking to each other with barely a handspan's distance between them -- he silently praised his fortune that Suki had chosen her friends over her duties; otherwise Sokka's needling glare would have been unbearable. The blind girl lay snoring with the lemur in her lap, her mouth yawing open then shut, open then shut, with occasional gasps and gurgles. It was a miracle she didn't catch flies in there.
Katara sat just out of the reach of his feet. She dangled a jeweled circlet between two fingers. It seemed woven of fine gold wire and tiny violet crystals. At its center was a large purple cabochon. It swung slightly in the breeze. Its reflection glittered across her face.
"It's almost too pretty to sell," she said.
"Then don't," he said. "Hold it in reserve." She turned, the jewel still swinging from her fingers. Her head tilted. "You may have need of it later," he said, no longer certain that they were talking about valuables to pawn off for quick cash.
She smiled with one side of her mouth. "I think my days of dressing up are over," she said.
"Let it become an heirloom, then."
Again, she looked at the purple stone. Really, it was more of a deep lilac, the sort of clear stone under which he knew he'd be able to see her skin, should she risk wearing it. "Was that what it was to your sister?" she asked. "Was it an heirloom?"
He shrugged and willed himself to remain nonchalant. "Azula never wore it, as far as I know. She wore nothing but Fire Nation colors." He watched her watching the stone. "It's yours now. Do with it what you want."
She frowned. "It seems awfully stiff for a necklace."
"It's for your hair," he said.
Katara's lips made an "O" of understanding. She nodded. Wistfully, she let the circlet make a pile in her other hand before slipping it into a black silk string bag, and tucking the bag into the group knapsack. Inside were his other gifts: the soap, the needles and thread, the maps of the Fire Nation and the firebending scrolls, the nuts and dried fruit and smoked fish, medicines, the new weapons, the rather obscene amounts of money and jewels with which he had purchased their loyalty.
"That's a very nice teapot you gave us," Katara said.
And the teapot, he reminded himself. "There aren't enough cups," he said.
She shrugged. "That's okay. There aren't many tea drinkers among us, anyway." One less than expected, she seemed to say, but didn't. For a moment there was a terrible wrenching twist inside his gut. He held his breath until numbness slowly sealed over the hurt, and he could be the nearly-silent person he'd been since throwing himself on the Avatar's mercy.
Toph sat up suddenly, like an undead creature in a campfire story. "Hey, Twinkletoes!" Her index finger pointed in the utterly wrong direction. "It's time to make camp."
Aang turned. "Really? Because we could cover more ground-"
"Now, Twinkletoes," Toph said. "Your earthbending could still use some work, and I want some time before you burn this guy to a crisp." She nodded over at what she must have thought was Zuko, but was really Katara.
"Okay, if you say so," Aang said. "Everybody hold on!"
As Appa made a wide downward spiral, Zuko tried to think of what sickened him more: the flight, or the fact that the Avatar, the legendary figure he had chased for so long, was so very submissive.
"Princess Azula, I do not know what you are talking about," Uncle said. He shrugged -- an awkward movement, as his hands were tied behind his back. "If there is a thief aboard, he is probably among the new recruits. Young men are often caught up in such foolishness."
Azula's gimlet stare slid over to her brother. "Young men indeed."
"Surely you do not believe that a fat old man such as myself was nimble enough to escape his cell and pilfer your belongings, Princess Azula. After all, where would I hide them? My cell is terribly small for a man of my size."
"Oh shut up, Uncle." With a flick of her wrist, Azula sent a bolt of sizzling white lightning straight for his chest. He toppled backward, head smacking the high-gloss floorboards with a dull crack. The Dragon of the West's last sound was a slow groan of pain. His left arm spasmed, then went still.
"I always thought his death would be more dramatic, didn't you?" Azula smiled. "But that's what he gets for trying to outwit me, Zu-Zu."
Zuko did not answer. His blades were already drawn.
"I'm trying!" Aang insisted.
"No, you're not," Zuko said. "You're afraid, and you're holding back."
"I am not!"
Rather than call the little boy a liar, Zuko took a deep breath. He stared out over the wide, shallow creek where they had camped. Small, jagged rocks poked up at odd intervals, interrupting the water's flow. Trees flanked the opposite shore. In the firelight, their shadows lengthened and jumped. "Is it the scar?" he asked.
"Huh?" Aang stared up at him, and in the periphery of his vision, Zuko saw Katara go still. Suki and Sokka had crept off for their nightly "perimeter check," and Zuko was glad of their absence. He had no desire for Katara's brother to hear what he knew needed saying.
"Do you think this was an accident?" Zuko asked, looking at Aang and pointing at the scar. He saw the monk working up the courage to stare at the wound directly. "Do you think that I made a beginner's mistake and burned myself?"
Aang looked at a loss for words. "I don't know…"
"Because it wasn't," he said. "My father gave this to me." Behind him, he thought he heard Katara's quick gasp of surprise. "It's actually a very precise wound. In lesser hands, I might have lost the eye entirely."
"You mean he did it just to scar you?"
Aang took a step away. "But…"
"I disagreed with him, Aang. He had to punish me." He leaned down so that he faced Aang directly. Aang's eyes widened and he took another step back. "I was one of the lucky ones." It was so easy to say these things now, when he had nothing left to lose. Zuko didn't have to worry about pride with this group. They already thought so poorly of him. "My mother and grandfather both disagreed with him, and they wound up dead."
For a moment, there was only the sound of rushing water. Aang's mouth worked, but no sound came. Even the lemur made no noise. And then from behind him: "Is that true?"
He turned to Katara. She stood with a wok in one hand and a towel in the other. "Of course it's true." His gaze returned to Aang. The Avatar looked so much smaller than he had in months past, when he was the object of Zuko's long hunt. His delicate bones and tiny ears all seemed to slump suddenly as Aang stared at the ground. The arrows all pointed downward.
"Aang." The Avatar looked up. Again, Zuko pointed to his eye. "What is your plan for defeating the Fire Lord?"
Aang blinked. "Plan?"
Zuko stifled a hot burst of frustration, and said: "You mean you don't have one?"
Aang shrugged. "All the plans we make never seem to go right. Maybe a plan isn't what we need."
"And blind faith is?"
Aang frowned. "That's not what I said! You make it sound like-"
Zuko sent a blast of flame skipping across the water. For a moment the creek sparkled and there was a smell of steam. Zuko watched it fizzle out on the opposite shore before saying in a heavy voice: "He's going to destroy, you Aang. You and everyone you care about." Zuko took hold of the little boy's shoulders. "Firebending isn't a defensive art. That's what hand-to-hand combat is for. If you want to firebend, you have to know what's involved."
"What do you-"
"You have to kill him, Aang."
Aang shook his head. Zuko squeezed his shoulders. They felt warm and far too soft. "It won't be enough to wound him or humiliate him. You can't shame him into good behavior. You have to kill him." He squatted on his haunches so that they were eye to eye, then glanced at Katara. "Do you want her to look like me, Aang?"
The monk's eyes had watered, and he shook his head. Zuko took Aang's hand in his own and made him touch the scar. Aang flinched away. "He'll do this and worse to her, before the end. He'll do it to all of them. He'll start with me, and when I'm dead he'll kill Katara next so that she can't heal you or anyone else."
If possible, Aang's eyes widened even further. He squirmed, but Zuko held him fast. "No…" he said. Tears fell away when he shook his head.
"Then he'll roast Toph's feet, so she can't see to earthbend-"
"No!" And as he said it, Aang's hands caught fire. He stared down in horror at the twin flames sprouting from each palm before quickly waving them away. His tearstained face rose up to look at Zuko.
"Good boy," Zuko said. Then something surged up from the beach, and he was flat on the ground struggling for air. Toph loomed over him.
"Nobody bullies the Avatar like that but me," she said, jerking a thumb at herself. "You got that?"
Mutely he nodded before remembering that she couldn't see him. "Fine."
"C'mon, Aang," Toph said, grabbing the Avatar's wrist and tugging it. "It's time for more earthbending."
Zuko waited a moment before rising. He brushed himself off and watched the pair pick their way down the beach, Toph leading the Avatar in the dark. "The blind leading the blind," he muttered. "Literally."
"That's not funny," Katara said.
Zuko turned. Katara's hands were on her hips and her feet were widely spread. You're near a creek, facing an angry waterbender, a voice within him said. Don't be stupid.
"You're right," he said. "It's not."
With that he strode over to the pack and fished out an unmarked bottle of milky liquid. He carried it by the neck and made for the woods. "What is that?" Katara asked. "When were you going to show it to us?"
He gave no answer, and continued walking. Her voice stopped him: "You're just going to leave me alone?"
"You're a big girl," he said without turning around. "You can handle yourself."
"Strong spirits are plentiful in the Fire Nation," Uncle said. "It's said that one cannot walk ten paces there without stumbling on a ghost."
Zuko took the hint. His uncle wanted him to procure alcohol next. Although why they should need it to earn the Avatar's trust, he had no clue. Did the old man plan to drink the Avatar under the table? "Uncle, that's-"
The old man silenced him with a glare, his eyes flicking to the guard positioned at the door. Zuko sighed. If his uncle wanted liquor, so be it. He only hoped there would be room in the saddle bags. That teapot took up a lot of space, and he had hoped to surprise the old man with it. It was a fitting token of Zuko's appreciation for all that he had endured during this mad scheme of theirs.
"Zuko!" Katara's voice sounded especially loud and shrill, and Zuko winced. "Zuko!"
"A little louder," he said. "I think some elephant koi near Kyoshi didn't hear you."
Katara flopped down beside him. "Couldn't you have brought a lantern? Do you have any idea how hard it is to search for you in the dark?"
"No," Zuko said, opening his palm and showing her a little ball of flame.
"You're not funny," she said, but her half-smile had returned.
"So I've been told." He waved the fire away, and they were back to sitting in the dark.
Katara hugged her knees. She seemed to deliberate before speaking. In the interim, she peered at the stars peeking through the trees. The summer insects were a little quieter than they had been earlier on. He could hear her little sighs much better now.
"Sokka wanted to leave you behind," she said. "He said it was your problem if you decided to wander off and get drunk."
Zuko didn't answer. He secretly suspected that Sokka was right, but would never admit to it. With the amount of alcohol in his system, he reasoned that staying silent was the best course. Otherwise he might say something more incriminating than what he had revealed to the Avatar earlier.
"Aren't you going to thank me?" Katara asked. "I could have just left you behind."
"Thank you," he said.
"Damn it, Zuko, what's the matter with you?" Katara squirmed to face him, and grabbed the half-empty bottle from his hand. The liquid inside sloshed violently. "What happened to you? Why are you like this?"
"Not yourself!" She jabbed a finger into his chest. "Where's the Zuko who used to chase us? Where is the arrogant, smug Zuko?" She poked him. "Where did all your pride go?"
If he weren't profoundly intoxicated, he would have felt insulted or even ashamed. Instead, he felt liberated enough to say the things he wanted to: "I lost it all."
"Clearly," she said. "Where did you lose it?"
"I think Azula has it on a pike, next to my uncle's head."
Katara's mouth fell open. She blinked. Even in the dark, her eyes were a powerful blue, and seemed even brighter thanks to the tears rapidly filling them. As usual, he felt compelled to stare. With the alcohol, he was uninhibited enough to indulge his compulsion.
"Zuko… I didn't know…"
"Please don't cry," he said, feeling a warm prickling behind his eyes. "If you do, I won't… I can't…"
But she had already slid her arms around him, her body stretched diagonally across his chest in an awkward hug so that he had to hold her just to keep their balance. "Please forgive me," she said in a tiny voice. "All this time, I suspected you. We all did, but we thought that you had information…"
He nodded into her hair. "Of course you did."
"I wanted to believe that we could trust you." She squeezed him tighter, and the air caught in his throat had nothing to do with the strength of her arms. "I…I had a big fight with Sokka about it, just now."
"He has every reason not to trust me, Katara. So do you."
She sat up abruptly. "He didn't see you with Aang, earlier! He doesn't know! Your face, when you told him those things…" She reached for him, but faltered. "You've never lied to us, ever. Even when you were chasing us, you were at least honest about what you wanted."
A dry, hollow seed pod had stuck itself in her hair. Zuko reached out and plucked it free. His fingers lingered near her scalp longer than was strictly necessary. "You want me to be honest about the things that I want?"
She gulped. "It would help…"
His right hand came up. His thumb traced the space near her left eye where his own scar was. He tried imagining it lumpy and disfigured instead of smooth and young, pink and meaty rather than the color of sweet, milky tea.
"I want you to run the moment you see Ozai," he said. "In fact, I don't want you to come to the palace at all."
Her lips firmed. "I won't let your father hurt you again. And I won't let Aang do this alone."
"Don't," he said. His voice was barely above a whisper. "Please don't."
The face under his hand shifted into a tentative smile. "Didn't you say I was a big girl who could handle herself?"
"That was before you encouraged me to be honest."
"So really you think I'm a little weakling who can't-"
"I think he killed my mother, Katara," Zuko said. His fingers tightened in her hair. She felt fever-warm under his hand. His mouth had gone sticky inside. "He's so much stronger than I am, and when he hurts you I won't be able to stop him…" To his disgust, he realized that his voice had shrunk to something small and shaky.
"Shh…" She squeezed his hand. "Don't say that. You don't know that it will come to that."
He pulled his hands away and folded his arms. "Yes, I do. He's going to kill us all unless Aang stops him."
"Why does it have to be Aang? Why can't it be all of us together?"
"You want his blood on your hands too?"
Her head tilted. "You're pretty articulate for someone who's drunk."
"Spend two years with sailors. It helps."
She arched an eyebrow. "Sailors, huh? What else did they teach you? Can you give us tattoos?"
"Can you navigate by the stars?"
"That's what navigators are for."
A pause, then in a low, sly voice: "Did you have a girl in every port?"
He blinked. A moment ago, we were discussing my father's assassination. Now we've moved on to girls. How did that happen? Slowly, Katara's face registered confusion. Her brows knit. "I'm sorry… It was just a joke…" She slapped her forehead. "I was just trying to cheer you up…"
"There was a girl in Ba Sing Se." Katara froze, her hand shading her eyes. She peered between the fingers. "I immediately suspected she was a spy. I met her once and never again."
Why are you telling her these things? "It was awful."
A tiny snort of laughter escaped her lips. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't know why I'm laughing."
"You think it's funny that the person who gave you such trouble has no luck with girls. Go ahead. Laugh."
Giggles continued bubbling forth. She tried holding them behind her hand, but her shoulders trembled. "No, that's not it, really-"
"I'm also afraid of heights. And my sister calls me Zu-Zu."
Katara emitted an actual shriek of laughter. "Zu-Zu?" She sagged against his shoulder, gripping his sleeve. "Don't…ever…tell that to Sokka," she said between gasps.
"I hadn't planned to."
"In the Southern Water Tribe, we have a musical instrument called a zu-zu." She peeked up at him, her lips twitching as she bit out the words. "It's, um, very long and tubular."
Comprehension rose with the blush in his face. "You're joking."
"And among the women of the tribe, well…it's sort of slang…"
"Stop." He hung his head. "Let me guess. It's played with the mouth."
"And the hands," she said.
He was acutely aware of the heat in his unscarred ear. He attributed what he said next to the alcohol. "And are you proficient with this particular instrument?"
She shook her head, and her hair tickled his chin. Her scalp smelled of summer storms and long nights spent awake waiting for something he didn't understand. "No… I never had much chance to practice." He watched her idly twining a stray thread from his sleeve around one finger. It would have been simple work to catch her hand with his and keep it there. "I wanted to find a good teacher, first."
"Surely there was no end of them at home."
Again, she shook her head. "Not really. They had all gone to join the war."
He winced. "At the North Pole, then?"
He reached up and let one fingertip follow the length of her braid. She shivered, but didn't move away. "Not in any of your travels?"
"I suppose there must be something about me that suggests I'd be a bad student," she said. "Normally I'm a fast learner, but with this… I think it would take time."
"You're shy," he said.
"And you're very busy saving the world." He played with the clasp of her necklace, sliding one finger under the ribbon. "Perhaps you don't have time to learn a new skill."
"Everyone else seems to have no trouble," Katara said. "Maybe I'm just jealous…"
He slid another finger under the ribbon, and let them fall down her shoulder. There was something very tranquil about touching her -- perhaps it was the drink, but he had a feeling that as long as he kept up the aimless motion of his fingers, nothing could go wrong. "Maybe you want something you don't have to share," he said.
"Do you think that's selfish?"
His fingers reached around and toyed with the pendant. He remembered dangling it in front of her, whispering in her ear. He leaned down, repeating that earlier moment. "Not at all," he said, and his lips grazed her ear.
Her breath came light and quick. "I'll bet you're no good at sharing, are you?"
"Terrible," he said. "I'm a spoiled prince, remember?"
Mention of his status seemed to break the spell. Katara sat forward, and looked at his face. "Maybe I should go," she said, "before I spoil you any further."
"Maybe you should re-braid your hair first," he said, pointing. "It's a little messy."
Katara's palm met her forehead. "I'm really going to catch it from Sokka tonight," she said before sitting down and unbinding her hair. Zuko barely restrained a purr of pleasure as she shook it out and teased it free between her fingers. She had no idea that ladies of the Fire court never allowed themselves to be seen with hair uncoiffed, save for in the company of their husbands. For just a brief moment he imagined that hair curtained around him, Katara's face inches above his, her weight settled against him the way it had been only a moment ago…
"Hey, you're smiling," Katara said. "I didn't know that was even physically possible."
"Now you know all my secrets."
"Yeah, right." She tied the last knot and stood up, then outstretched one hand. "Come on. We're going back."
He took her hand and rose. She didn't let it go, and he felt a momentary wave of panic that they would stride back into camp this way, and he would have to deal with the fallout. (Not that Sokka didn't have it coming, traipsing along as he was with his little Kyoshi tramp when he could have been helping make camp, prepare dinner, or clean up afterward.) Carefully, he let go and stooped to pick up the discarded bottle.
"What kind of liquor is that, anyway?" Katara began walking.
"Chuhai," he said. "It's a girl's drink."
She turned, walking backwards now. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"It's sweeter," he said. "It goes to your head faster."
"Did the sailors teach you that one, too?"
"They were too busy following my orders, Katara."
"Right." She turned, rolling her eyes, and marched straight into camp. The others were all awake, even Appa, and they stared at Zuko and Katara. Zuko had the oddest sense that he had walked onto a stage without a script.
"You two were gone a while," Sokka said.
Katara's finger jabbed the air. "I don't have to take that from the guy who sneaks out with his girlfriend every night," she said. "And furthermore, I don't like your tone, especially since you know I know better."
Sokka leaned around his sister. "Hear that Zuko? She knows better!"
"Of course I do! Unlike you, Mister I-Faint-During-Childbirth, I've actually delivered a few babies. If that isn't a lesson in abstinence, I don't know what is." She huffed, and strode directly for her sleeping bag. "Goodnight, everyone."
Sokka remained in one place, his eyebrow twitching. Toph snorted from her earth-tent. "Katara used 'furthermore' in a sentence."
"And 'abstinence,'" Aang said, from his place behind Appa's ear. He had affixed Zuko with the oddest look, as though he had finally understood the pun in a very old joke.
"More earthbending tomorrow, Twinkletoes. Go to sleep."
"Toph is right," Suki said, lightly taking hold of Sokka's stiff shoulder. "It's time for sleep."
"Sleep," Sokka said. "Sure."
Suki winked at Zuko before tugging Sokka in the other direction. Katara's brother watched him until doing so became a comical exercise in neck-craning, at which point he muttered something in Suki's ear and trudged on ahead. He promptly dove inside his sleeping bag and turned over with a heavy, dramatic sigh.
At least that's over. Suddenly weary, Zuko walked in Appa's direction and lay down against the beast's stomach. He was too tired to go looking for his blankets, now, and Appa was very good at providing heat. You'll be covered in his fur by tomorrow, if he doesn't roll over and crush you in your sleep. Zuko silenced the voice of pragmatism inside with thoughts of Katara as he went to sleep: the silky skin of her ear, the warm, steady strength of her hand as it held his. And that hair…
"Uncle, this is insane. It will never work."
"Don't be such a pessimist. It will work. You still think that we have to beat your sister at her own game. The opposite is true. Azula never fights fair and neither should we." The old man pointed at the cave surrounding them. "This cave is very strong, but it has a few key structural weaknesses. Your sister is the same. It's true that she is a better firebender than you. But she is not as physically strong as you are. If it came down to brute force, you would defeat her."
Zuko had his doubts about that, but let his uncle go on: "Another of Azula's weaknesses is her need to humiliate others. Being a Fire Nation princess probably did nothing to curtail her arrogance, and that has led to a blind spot in her thinking. Azula never lets the prospect of losing to enter her mind. On the one hand, this is probably the secret to her many successes. On the other, it makes her vulnerable to exactly the kind of double-cross we have in mind."
"But how do we even know that the Avatar will take us in? Or that he can be bought with trinkets? His goodwill costs more than a saddlebag of supplies."
The Dragon of the West traced an outcropping of crystals within the cave. "Things are coming to a head," he said. "In a very short time, two celestial events will decide the fate of the Fire Nation. One of the factors involved is whether the Avatar knows firebending."
For a moment, Zuko knew a flash of sudden, irrational jealousy. "And you plan on teaching him."
Uncle coughed a laugh. "Oh, my. Me teaching the Avatar. That would be something, wouldn't it?" He grinned. "And I thought I had my hands full with you!"
Dawn had just tinged the sky a faint blue when Zuko's eyes opened. His neck had twisted oddly in sleep, and when he turned his head a crunching sound reverberated down his spine. His mouth tasted of cherry blossom sugar. The memory of the previous night attacked him from all sides: the Avatar's stricken face and his puny little flames, the drinking, Katara's arms closing around him, the skin of her neck under his uncertain fingers, their conversation… His heart threatened to burst out of his chest just thinking about the latter three, and he sighed shakily. What were you thinking? How could you be so stupid? How drunk were you?
His head ached, and an urge to relieve himself had made itself apparent. He focused on these things as he stumbled out of camp. When he returned, Katara was awake, still inside her sleeping bag but with her eyes open. She gestured for him to come over, and he tried to make it there as silently as possible.
"Were you sick?" she whispered.
When he shook his head, his vision swam. "No."
She blinked slowly. "That's good." She squinted and seemed about to move. "I should get up. It'll be light soon, and everyone will be hungry."
"Go back to sleep."
"Hey," she said, her eyelids already falling, "I'm not some Fire Nation soldier you can just order around…" She pointed vaguely in the direction of their luggage. "There's ginger tea, in case you get sick…"
"I know. Close your eyes."
"Bossy…" she whispered, closing them.
He reached over and covered her left eye. The eyelid fluttered under his hand before stilling. He thumbed the eyebrow before tracing an oblong shape from there to the shell of her ear and back again. "I'll die before I let him touch you."
Her mouth opened and he had to lean down just to hear. "That's what I'm afraid of."