Chapter 1: Meeting
Zuko watched the group warily. The avatar and five others were seated around a small fire in the middle of a clearing. He had been following them the whole day and had nearly lost them when they had descended into a cloud bank as the sun set. He knew his destiny was to help the avatar, but taking the final step and approaching them was the hardest. He took a deep breath and was about to step from the tree line into the clearing when the earth suddenly swallowed him to his neck.
"Well, well, what do we have here?" a voice said from his right. It was young, feminine, and almost sarcastic.
He turned his head as much as he could and saw a young girl of about 12 in green looking at him. She had black hair held by a headband. Bangs covered most of her face, and she had her hands out, as if holding him down. What startled Zuko was her eyes. They were ghostly, milky green, and stared at him, but never focused.
"I asked you a question," she said, her tone getting irritated.
"I'm here to help," he said.
"I'm not here to fight," he said, getting irritated at the girl. "I'm here to join the avatar."
She lifted her hands and the earth rose up around him, so that he was normal height again, but still encased in earth to his neck.
"They told me all about you, and what you did at Ba Sing Sae, everything about you. I won't let you hurt them again."
She was getting angry and the ground around him was starting to constrict. Every breath he took was shorter than the last.
"I made mistakes…I'm trying…to make….a….difference."
Suddenly the earth around him disappeared and he fell to his knees, gasping for breath. He looked up as feeling flowed back into his limbs and air came back into his lungs. The girl was still staring at him, but a smile tugged at the end of her mouth.
"Hey, Twinkletoes!" she shouted over her shoulder. "I wanna show you something."
Zuko heard footsteps from behind him and stood and turned to see the avatar approach him warily.
"What are you doing here?" Aang asked him, his eyes narrowed as he stood in a fighting stance with his staff pointed at Zuko's chest.
Zuko sighed. "I'm here to join you."
"Why should I believe you? After what you did in Ba Sing Sae?!"
The avatar was getting angry and Zuko didn't blame him. How could he trust Zuko, prince of the fire nation, the son of the Fire Lord he was trying to defeat? Zuko had been chasing him for the past year, and had ensured his defeat in the Earth Kingdom capitol. Zuko kneeled in front of the avatar, his head bowed.
"I'm sorry…about everything. I made mistakes, and I realize now that they were just that. Mistakes. I'm trying to make up for past sins, to help overthrow my father, and help the world. Can you forgive me?"
He looked into the avatar's grey eyes when he finished and noticed that he had grown since they had first met. They had both grown, in many ways.
Aang's eyes softened and he lowered his staff slightly, but kept it pointed at Zuko. He looked at the girl in green. "Is it the truth?"
Zuko was shocked. How could the avatar ask that?! And why would he ask the girl that question?
"Yep, every word," she said. Zuko noticed she was smiling, almost grinning.
"Are you sure? Remember Azula."
Zuko looked from avatar to girl and back again. What had happened? Why was his sister relevant to his joining the avatar?
The girls grin widened even further, into a Cheshire grin as she kept her misty gaze on Zuko.
"She was calm, even, and a great liar. His heartbeat is all over the place. He's scared, but sure of himself. He's telling the truth."
"You don't have to talk over me, I'm right here!" Zuko yelled at the two. They stopped and stared at him before breaking into giggles.
"You're right, twinkletoes, he does get angry easy," the girl said between giggles. "Come on, Hothead.
Let's get you introduced." She waved at him to follow her, and started into the clearing.
Zuko stared after her. She was bold and to the point. He looked at the avatar, but the boy only grinned and followed the girl. He looked back at Zuko and motioned him forward as he joined the group by the fire.
Zuko took a deep breath and walked into the clearing. He saw eyes narrow as he entered the circle of light.
The waterbenders' eyes hardened the most, narrowing to slits as she looked at him with a look of hatred on her face. Her brother's expression almost mirrored the girls. A young man about Zuko's age with an odd mustache looked from the waterbender to Zuko with curiosity while two other boys just sat back and watched, waiting to see what would happen.
"Everyone," the avatar started as Zuko stopped just outside the ring of seated people. "This is Zuko. Zuko, you know Katara and Sokka. This is Toph." He pointed to the girl in green who grinned at Zuko. "Haru," he said, waving his hand to the boy Zuko's age. "Teo and The Duke." He waved to the older of the two other boys before waving his hand to the youngest.
"Aang, why is he here? What's going on?" the waterbender asked the avatar.
Zuko sighed again, but waited as she shot him an angry glare.
"He's here to join us," the avatar replied as he sat down, leaving an empty spot between himself and Toph.
"I'm sure he'll tell us why and what's happened to change his mind."
Katara glared at Zuko again as the avatar said the word 'change'. Zuko sat between the avatar and the green girl, but stayed back, almost behind them. The reception was cold, but he had expected that. Toph handed him a bowl of soup, but he set it down. He needed to explain himself to them if they were ever to accept him. He kept his eyes on the fire as he started.
"I made a lot of mistakes, and I'm trying to make the right choice now. I always thought I wanted my honor back after I was banished, but I recently realized that what I wanted was…something I would never have.
After the North Pole, my sister tried to kill me, and my uncle and I fled. We were no longer welcome anywhere. The fire nation labeled us as traitors and the earth kingdom would try and possibly kill us if they caught us.
We experienced a lot of things as refugees, both together and separate. We finally ended up in Ba Sing Sae as refugees and my uncle eventually got his own tea shop. I had given up on returning home when I saw a poster that showed a missing flying bison."
Zuko noticed the avatars, as well as the water tribe siblings' heads popped up as they listened more attentively.
"I followed a Dai Li agent to an underground lake fortress and found him, chained to the floor. My uncle had followed me and told me to choose my own destiny. I did, and freed the bison. I had chosen and was happy with my choice, content with my life working in a tea shop.
At least I was until I met my sister again. I tried to fight her, but the Dai Li agents captured me and I was thrown into a dungeon deep underground, where Katara was. We came to an understanding, and then the avatar showed up with my uncle. My uncle had joined up with the avatar to rescue me. My sister then showed up and tried to convince me to join her."
Zuko took a moment to glance at the faces looking intently at him. The water tribe siblings had been listening with rapt attention, but their gazes narrowed as he told of his sister trying to convince him. They knew what happened next and they didn't like that part.
"I chose wrongly, and fought alongside her. She shot the avatar down with lightning, and my uncle stepped in and they got away. I returned home a hero, my honor restored, but I just continued to be angry.
Not angry with my father, or my uncle, but myself. At summer solstice, my uncle sent me a message to learn about my great grandfather and I learned more about myself and why I was so angry.
Everything was so perfect, I had everything I had always wanted, but it wasn't me, the real me. I told my father all this during the eclipse, after I had made my decision to join you.
He tried to kill me as the eclipse ended, but I was able to deflect the blast and escape. I was going to free my uncle, but he had already freed himself. I followed you to ask forgiveness and to join you."
Zuko waited, picked up his soup and started on it.
"So why are you so angry?" Katara asked after he had finished the meal.
Zuko looked into her blue eyes. She was still hurt, angry and wary, but curiosity and some compassion had returned to their depths. She had the same look in her eyes now that she had had in the crystal caverns.
"My uncle told me that the struggle between good and evil are always going on within me because of the strife between my two great grandfathers. Fire Lord Sozun and…Avatar Roku."
He kept his gaze on Katara as he told her what only he and his uncle knew and was surprised as everyone stared at him in shock and started talking.
"Roku?!" "You're the avatar's great grandson?" "Does that mean you're related to Aang?" "What's going on?" "How did that happen?" "Roku never mentioned that."
Zuko stared at Aang as he said the last remark. "What do you mean, 'Roku never mentioned it'? How could he? He's dead."
Aang looked down at his hands before meeting Zuko's gaze. "I can communicate with Roku, in the spirit world. On the summer solstice, I went to his island and he showed me his life, and what happened between him and Sozun."
Aang suddenly brightened and broke out into a huge grin. "This is why he showed me that! For you!"
Zuko was confused, and the looks from the people around him showed him he wasn't the only one. "I don't understand."
Aang only grinned more, which Zuko wouldn't have thought possible. "He showed me his life so that perhaps I could find an answer to end the war. I realized both he and Sozun were both fire nation, and he gave his old friend another chance. I had to give you another chance, and here you are!"
"Aang, are you sure?" Katara asked, worry on her face as she looked at the avatar. "He's betrayed us before."
Zuko frowned. "I won't. I've already left everything behind, and I've probably been labeled a traitor by now. The avatar is all I have now."
"See?" Aang said, smiling. "C'mon Katara, don't worry. I'll keep an eye on him."
Zuko frowned again. Why did they have to talk over him as if he wasn't there? He kept his gaze on his soup bowl, and thankfully Katara let the topic of his loyalty go.
"C'mon Zuko," Aang said as he got up after a few minutes of silence around the fire. "You can help me unload Appa."
Zuko rose and followed the avatar, noticing the questioning looks that followed them.
He followed Aangs' directions as they took the armor and supplies off the flying bison.
"Don't worry about them," Aang finally said as Zuko handed him another strap of armor. "They'll come around. They're probably just waiting to see you in action."
Zuko remained silent and concentrated on removing the armor and supplies off of the giant bison. As they finished, Aang waited and watched Zuko fold and neatly place the last piece of armor onto the pile.
"So…I know you're good with swords, and pretty good at firebending. I just have one question."
Zuko looked up at the avatar. He seemed serious, though he could see a smile trying to tug at the boys' mouth.
"I also heard you had a girlfriend"
"So?" Zuko started to get irritated. What was the avatar up to?
"Could you teach me…about girls?"
All irritation left Zuko immediately. He stared in shock at the avatar. The most powerful bender in the world, who had led an invasion into the heart of the fire nation and had almost succeeded, was asking him about…girls?
"I really haven't had much experience…why can't you ask one of the other guys? Like that water tribe guy?"
Zuko was surprised when the avatar blushed and looked at his feet. "I can't."
Understanding came to Zuko and he smiled at Aang. The avatar looked up and was surprised to see Zuko smiling.
"Just tell her how you feel, that's all I can tell you." Zuko turned and walked off into the darkness. He turned back to Aang for a second.
"And don't forget, fire training starts tomorrow." He saw the avatar smile weakly back at him before he turned back and went to the edge of the clearing. He sat on a log and stared up at the stars. He thought about everything that had happened in the past year, especially the past two days. He was glad of his decision, and that he had told his father of his plans. The information his father had given him about his mother haunted him, but it also gave him hope. She was alive and somewhere out there.
"What're you doing out here?"
The voice startled him out of his thoughts and he looked up to see the girl in green, Toph, he reminded himself, sit down next to him.
Zuko studied the earthbender sitting next to him. She slid to the ground and leaned back against the log he was sitting on and had a piece of grass in her mouth. She seemed uninterested until she turned her sightless gaze to him. Her gaze never focused, but her face softened and her features changed to one of open curiosity before turning into irritation.
"Hello, Hothead? You there? I know you haven't fallen asleep on me."
"The past year. Everything that's happened to me, and my final decision to come here."
Toph turned her gaze back to the sky and was silent for a while.
"Did your dad and sister really try and kill you?"
Zuko studied the earthbender. She kept her gaze straight ahead, but her shoulders were stiff.
"Yeah," he whispered, more to himself then to her.
Her shoulders sagged, and her body relaxed a bit.
"And I thought my family was bad."
"Why, what did they do?" Zuko looked at her, curious.
"They imprisoned me. They thought I was frail, weak, a disgrace. So much of a disgrace, they never told the world they even had a daughter."
He noticed her hands curl into fists and her knuckles turned white as she talked more.
"When I ran away with Twinkle toes, they even sent two men to chase me and bring me back!"
She slammed her fists into the ground, creating small craters. She relaxed and leaned back against the log. Zuko saw the edge of her mouth curve upwards.
"But I showed them," she said triumphantly.
"At least your parents cared for you, only my mother and my uncle cared for me, and now I don't know where they are."
"You'll find them, or they'll find you."
She finally stood up and turned her milky green eyes to him again, a wry grin on her face.
"C'mon Hothead, it's late."
"My name is Zuko," he replied, irritated at the earthbender.
"Too late, you can't get out of a nickname that easy."
She walked back to the dwindling fire and the boy with the odd mustache, Haru, got up to help her create two earth tents. Zuko wondered how she did it. She was obviously blind, but she walked around as if she could see.
He got up and headed to join the others. He noticed the water tribe boy give him a dirty look as he entered the larger of the two tents. The other boys followed Sokka, not glancing back at Zuko. He sat next to the fire and saw the avatar approach him.
"They just don't know what to make of you yet," he said as he sat down next Zuko.
Zuko remained silent and continued to stare at the fire.
"I can make you a tent if you like…"
Zuko looked at Aang and the look alone stopped the Avatar.
"I'll be fine," he told the boy.
Aang rubbed his head with one hand, looking uneasy.
"Are you sure?"
"I said I'll be fine," Zuko told him again.
He watched Aang get up and walk slowly to the boys' tent. He turned back to Zuko once more before starting to duck into the earth tent.
"Thank you, avatar," Zuko said softly.
Aang turned his head back and grinned at Zuko before going into the tent.
Zuko grabbed his pack and pulled out his robe to use as a pillow and laid his swords next to him before lying down, facing the fire. He closed his eyes and fell asleep thinking about the day.
A/N: I know I made Zuko a little long-winded, but if they seem OOC, please let me know, and how to fix that. Please review, I need input!!!