If someone had told him two months ago that he'd be lounging on a riverbank next to a blind earthbender, watching his Uncle train the Avatar while his two most avid protectors splashed in the water nearby, Zuko would've thought the person raving mad then have put them out of their misery with a well placed fireball. And yet, here he was, toes in the water, languidly stretched out on the grassy bank, propped up on his elbows, the sun warming him, observing Aang while he learned firebending from the Dragon of the West.
It was an odd world.
Toph sat beside him, leaning against a rock, idly bending earth as she fanned her toes. Pulling out a wad of mud from in between, she idly flung it and Zuko had to duck to keep from being splattered by the repulsive gunk.
"Watch it!" he growled.
Toph gave him a wide grin. "Sorry Princey, didn't see you there."
It had taken him a while to become accustomed to her brand of joking but now he was well schooled in the art of Toph. He returned her smile with a smirk. "Funny," he deadpanned.
She laughed out loud, throwing her head back and punching him hard in the arm. "That's what I like most about you, your sense of humor."
Despite her disgusting habits and her biting, sharp sarcasm, Zuko imagined that Toph was what a little sister was supposed to be like; teasing yet tough with a veiled compassion that was stronger than any rock.
"So Princey," the earthbender said, leaning back and wriggling her now clean toes, "why aren't you in the water with them?" She jerked her thumb to where Sokka lay sprawled out, barely dressed, floating in the calm river while Katara practiced her waterbending, waist deep in her element.
She was beautiful; dark skin glowing in the sun as she bent and swayed with the water, pushing and pulling it around her, manipulating it with flowing, entrancing movements. It was hard for him to even believe that something so fluid could turn into something so destructive and painful, but he had experienced that first hand.
Despite the acceptance from the others, Katara was sill wary and still harbored resentment over his past actions. He couldn't blame her. At least she tolerated him and he was certain that was the best he could ever ask for, but it didn't stop him from wondering if one day she would trust him, consider him a part of the group as the others had.
"Earthbender to Zuko," Toph called into the silence, turning toward his general direction. "Are you ok?"
Zuko let out a weary sigh. "I'm.."
"Hey Zuko!" Aang shouted and waved from downstream, "watch this!"
Zuko watched with narrowed eyes, drinking in the details as the Avatar, the boy on which all their hopes rested, preformed an intermediate set of firebending moves, producing mediocre, flickering flames and ending with an unneeded flourish and a plume of fire.
Aang looked expectantly at Zuko with wide gray eyes, awaiting his response with child like anticipation and the prince was at a loss. It had been done poorly, his stance was all wrong, his form sloppy. If Zuko had preformed that badly at half of Aang's age, he would've been forced to train to exhaustion until he had gotten it perfect. But, as Iroh reminded Zuko on many occasions over the past two months, Aang was an airbender at heart and was trying to master all four elements at a much faster pace than any Avatar had been asked to do before.
For the second time that day, Zuko let out a long sigh and for the thousandth time since Sokka had persuaded him to join the group; he wondered how Aang could possibly fulfill the destiny that was laid out before him. Yes he was the avatar, but he was also a boy, albeit a determined one and Zuko couldn't help but have respect for him in that vein.
Standing, he made his way downstream to where Aang and Iroh stood. He shared a quick glance with his uncle, who only gave him an enigmatic smile in return.
"Your posture was horrendous," he started as he grabbed Aang's shoulder and straightened him to his full height. "Firebending comes from the breath and you can't breathe hunched over. Your form was careless and your movements were tentative. Each action must be deliberate and fierce. Furthermore," he continued but stopped when he saw the Avatar's crushed expression. He remembered something else Iroh had told him. For some inexplicable reason, Aang looked up to him.
Zuko released Aang's shoulder and stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest, feeling slightly guilty for being so harsh but also knowing that if anyone was going to survive the day of Black Sun, Aang would have to be at his best.
"Just do it again."
Aang nodded then set his stance, concentrating on his movements as he went through the series again. Brow furrowed, tongue sticking out the side of his set mouth, he focused on the teenage firebender's comments and executed the series with purposeful action creating forceful fiery blasts.
When he finished, he again looked eagerly between his two teachers.
Zuko nodded. "Much better but you have a long way to go." He turned and began walking back to his spot by the river, but he managed to hear a snippet of the conversation behind him.
"You have done well today, Aang. You should take a break, relax with your friends," Iroh said gently.
"No. Zuko is right I have a long way to go if I'm going to defeat the Fire Lord. I'll keep practicing."
Zuko smiled. Maybe there was hope after all.
Once he was back lounging next to Toph, he heard his uncle settle beside him. "You were too hard on him." Iroh said softly.
Zuko opened his mouth to reply but was interrupted.
"Too hard?" Toph asked incredulously. "He was too easy on him. Watch this." She cracked her knuckles then slammed her fist hard into the ground creating a ripple of earth headed straight toward Aang. "Think fast, Twinkletoes!" she yelled.
They heard Aang's cry of dismay and watched as he fell onto his backside in a heap.
"Toph! I'm firebending now! Earthbending later!"
The blind girl shrugged. "Suit yourself."
"I wasn't too hard on him," Zuko defended looking at Iroh. "And I wasn't too easy on him," he said turning to Toph. "He has to learn and if…"
The shock of the cool water hitting his skin made Zuko jump to his feet. Pushing his now soaked hair out of his eyes, he glared murderously at his assailant.
Sokka stood in the water, clutching his sides, laughing and pointing at the utterly drenched Fire Prince.
"Oh man! You should've seen your face!" Sokka wiped a tear from his eye. "It was priceless."
Zuko growled and took a step forward, steam rising from his skin as he burned off the water. He wondered, not for the first time, how he ever allowed this idiot to become not only his first friend but his best friend. A quick glance at the other boy's exposed chest, the angry red scar that stood out against his skin, and the vivid memories of their adventures reminded Zuko in a flash and his anger slipped away.
He pointed a teasingly threatening finger at Sokka. "Don't you even think about…"
And he was soaked again. Sokka laughed uproariously, falling back into the water.
"I warned you!"
"Oh yeah! What are you going to do about it, Zuko?" Sokka taunted.
The older boy stripped off his shirt, tossed it on the bank and dove in. The coolness of the water stole his breath for a moment as he slid elegantly beneath the surface, scanning for his prey. Upon finding Sokka's legs, he wrapped his arms around them and pulled.
Sokka let out a yelp as he fell backwards, propelled into the water by his friend.
Zuko popped up and grinned. "That's what I'm going to do!"
"That was unfair!" Sokka responded, sputtering and pulling himself to his feet.
"You know what else is unfair?" Aang's voice called from the bank from where he had joined Iroh and Toph. "This!" he yelled.
Zuko and Sokka suddenly felt the river bottom shift and explode upwards sending them both flying. They landed gracelessly in a heap with a giant splash that accidentally caught Toph.
"Hey!" she shrieked, shaking the cold water from her hair. "This means war!" She dropped into an earthbending stance and began flinging mud using the vibrations from the river bed to discern their locations.
Katara watched from a safe distance, absently bending water around her and biting her tongue to keep from laughing. Aang had shed his tunic and now was immersed with the other two boys, splashing while Toph stayed on the bank, tossing mud. Iroh had retreated but still sat nearby, watching with a smile on his lips and brewing a pot of tea.
She never thought she'd see the day when Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation and all around annoying pain would be laughing while her brother rubbed mud into his hair. Of course, she never thought she'd see him helping Sokka out with chores, mentoring Aang or exchanging sarcastic quips with Toph either. But he did without complaint even when she was openly antagonistic.
The others had accepted him so willingly and yet, here she was, on the outside looking in as they played in the water and mud like teenagers were supposed to and she was busy worrying over his allegiance. Hadn't he proved it already by saving her brother and risking his own life to do so?
Toph trusted him and didn't detect any deceit on his part. Aang trusted him. Sokka trusted him. Why couldn't she?
She sighed and physically deflated, lowering herself into the water, feeling slightly ashamed.
Maybe, it was time to get over whatever feelings were keeping her from just accepting him. Maybe, it was time to apologize for her rude, sometimes hostile, behavior towards him. Maybe it was time…
"Katara! Look out!"
Sokka's voice had sliced into her musings but she didn't move in time and the mud hit her square in the face with a loud whack!
Everyone stopped and sucked in a breath.
Wiping the gooey earth from around her eyes, she opened them and leveled the possible perpetrators with a hard stare. They all looked guiltily back at her, covered in mud from head to toe and dripping wet.
"Who threw it?" she demanded, trying very hard to keep a straight face.
Sokka, Aang and Toph all pointed at Zuko. She eyed him, his usually smooth pale skin spotted with mud, his black hair wet, dripping and plastered to his face, hanging into his eyes. She noticed he reddened under her scrutiny and turned his head away.
"I'm sorry," he offered softly. "Sokka ducked."
"Well," she said crossing her arms, "you know what this means don't you?"
"Katara," Sokka interrupted, "it was an accident."
"Stay out of this, Sokka! This is between me and Zuko!" she snapped.
Zuko remained silent but slowly shook his head.
"It means," she started, giving the group a mischievous grin, "you are so going to get it!"
Zuko's head snapped up and immediately relaxed when he saw Katara's wide grin and at that moment, he realized that she had finally forgiven him. He couldn't stop the smile that spread across his features as she splashed toward the group, laughing and the fight resumed.
Standing on a ridge, overlooking the wide expanse of field where the invasion army prepared for its imminent assault, Zuko looked across to the high red towers of the palace and his heart hammered against his chest. He hadn't thought this day would come so quickly, but it had, and here he was, standing on the precipice of either victory over his father or soul crushing defeat and all he could think about was how he'd miss them.
Whether the day ended with the joyful cries of triumph or ended with the sorrowful wailing of defeat, the adventure would be over and his family- his true family- would end up scattered.
His amber eyes narrowed as he watched the shadow of the moon slowly inch its way to engulf the sun and though the eclipse had not yet started, he could feel his connection to Agni weakening. He gripped the hilts of his dual swords at his hip to comfort himself as he thought about the agonizing minutes that he would not be able to call forth flame.
It scared him.
He felt more than saw Sokka amble up beside him. The Water Tribe boy let out a low whistle at the view of the invasion forces and then squinted as he looked up at the sky. For a few moments, he didn't speak, just stood next to his friend, observing the chaos below, trying to pick out Iroh or Rin in the mass of people and could only imagine at what the Fire Prince was thinking.
"I didn't think this day would ever get here," he finally said into the companionable silence.
"Me neither," Zuko replied. "I knew it was coming but I never knew it would feel like this."
"Your firebending?" Sokka asked.
The prince nodded. "Among other things."
"Your father?" Sokka questioned.
There was a moment of tense silence before Zuko sighed. "Ozai," he corrected. 'And Azula. They will be difficult to beat even incapacitated," he finished, looking back to the sky.
Sokka clapped his friend hard on the back and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry. I've got your back."
Zuko couldn't help but shake his head and smirk. "That's what worries me."
Smiling and glad to see that his friend's mood had lifted, Sokka shoved Zuko. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked playfully.
"I've seen how you improvise, or must I remind you about the paddle, the blanket, the walking stick, the vegetables…"
"Ok! Ok! This is what I get for trying to be a friend."
Zuko laughed and shoved Sokka back. "Brother," he corrected.
"Yeah, brother, because only family is allowed to be that mean."
"Sokka! Zuko!" Katara's voice sliced through their merriment and brought them back to the situation at hand. She stood on the back of Appa and pointed to the sky. "We have to get going to the palace!"
Sokka glanced at his brother. "You ready?"
Zuko took a breath and watched as Aang took the bison reigns, Katara finished packing, and Toph scurried up Appa's side. He had never once thought that a blind earth girl, a fierce beautiful waterbender, an intelligent water tribesman and a child avatar would come to mean more to him than his honor or his throne. Yet, they had, and they were waiting on him.
"As I'll ever be," he answered. And he was because for today, his family was whole and ready and willing to fight at his side.
A/N: And that is truly the end my friends. Thanks.
Brothers in Arms Trivia
Zuko does not smile through the whole fic except at the very end (though he does smirk an awful lot), in the scene with Sokka convincing him to stay
Sokka never uses the same weapon twice
There is a direct quote from Star Wars in Chapter 18
There is a scene heavily inspired by a scene from Joss Whedon's Firefly from the episode The Train Job in Chapter 20
If you add "as he rosined up his bow," to the end of a line concerning Azula in Chapter 20 you have a line from Charlie Daniels' The Devil Went Down to Georgia
Sokka quotes himself from the series in Chapter 17
Rin paraphrases Nietzsche in Chapter 16
The names of the guards from the dungeon and one of Zuko's assailants in the town are all named from characters from Mulan
Ming Zhu's name is actually the Chinese name of my friend's little girl. It means "bright pearl." The first character "Ming" (bright) is a combination of the characters for sun and moon. And Ming Zhu's appearance coincides with Zuko's realization and Sokka's realization that they could be friends. Thus the sun and moon reference.
Mei Gui is Chinese for pig.
Rin is Japanese for companion.
Every time there is a night time scene involving Sokka, the moon is out except at the end when he is reunited with the gang and the moon's work is done alluding to the fact that Yue was indeed watching over him.
Zuko is unable to meditate for the beginning of the fic and only when he comes to terms with his choices is he able to do so