Author's Notes: After this fic became super popular on both livejournal and , I decided to put it here as well.
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender or the characters.
This chapter takes place directly after the episode "Western Air Temple"
Memories from the Western Air Temple
Zuko really did not feel like going to dinner. He was no fool; he knew very well what would be waiting for him if he went. In addition to the waterbender girl's hate-filled gazes everyone else would be looking at him with varying degrees of distrust and anger. But if he did not go to dinner then he would still need to face the same thing at breakfast. It would probably be for the best if he simply went out and faced his new situation sooner rather than later.
Even though he had made up his mind, it was still with a great mental struggle still going on in his mind that Zuko stepped out of the room assigned to him and made his way towards the sounds of cheerful chatter that came from right outside the hallway.
Pausing in the doorway Zuko hesitated once more as he watched the Avatar's friends gathered around the campfire. He felt a lot better in the shadows that he currently inhabited. It was where he felt safe for a while longer.
"Oi, Firecracker!" a voice suddenly called and Zuko jumped in surprise at the loud volume. He turned his head towards the direction of the person who had called and saw a pair of pale green eyes staring as much at him as a blind person could. The earthbender girl grinned crookedly at him as she spoke again: "Finally decided to join us then?"
And with those words everyone was looking right at Zuko, robbing the prince of his refuge. Seeing no reason to pretend that he had not heard the call the boy sighed and made his way towards the fire with everyone watching him intently, not counting the blind girl who patted the ground beside her and said: "There's free space right here."
Not seeing any plausible reason for declining the offer Zuko scuffled to the spot indicated for him and sat down, deep inside feeling immensely grateful for a chance to sit next to someone who did not hate him with a passion. Another child, one even smaller than the earthbender girl, was sitting on Zuko's left side, peering at him with curious black eyes from underneath a helmet far too big for him. Not sure about how he should feel about the other studying him Zuko glanced around the circle once before focusing his gaze on the comforting flames of the campfire. There was one thing that would not betray him, fire.
"There you go," came the girl's voice from Zuko's right and the prince turned his head to meet a bowl of some kind of soup. With hesitant hands Zuko reached over and took a hold of the bowl, mumbling as strong of a 'thank you' as he dared to. He felt the water tribe girl study him intently and maliciously as he began to eat slowly and Zuko guessed that the brunette must have been the one to make dinner and was keeping an eye out for any action from Zuko that could be interpreted as an insult to her cooking.
"You're really a prince?" a quiet voice questioned and Zuko shot a startled look at the small boy on his other side. The black eyes were wide and the boy's mouth gaped slightly in awe. Zuko's own eyes went back to the bowl in his hands and he muttered in embarrassment: "I don't think I'm considered much of a prince after knocking the Fire Lord into a wall."
What Zuko had intended to be a line to put an end to the discussion seemed to only capture the small boy's interest more as the child gasped out: "You knocked him into a wall? How did you manage that?"
As Zuko frowned at the memory of his confrontation with his father he became aware of how the only sounds within the group were the crackles of the fire and the firebender realized that everyone was now listening very intently indeed. Trying to ignore that new revelation Zuko turned his eyes to the sincerely curious face in front of him and started to speak: "Ozai threw lightning at me when I was leaving and I simply redirected it back at him. It wasn't really a fight or anything."
"Now wait just a moment," came that voice Zuko had started to dread ever since that threat on his life some time prior. The raven-haired teen's eyelids lowered in resignation and Zuko turned his face to the waterbender as the girl spoke: "Are you telling me that you could have ended this war and you didn't? What is wrong with you?"
There was no way Zuko could even consider trying to act civil with the girl after a question like that. Having lost his appetite Zuko placed his bowl down with a bit more force than was necessary before snarling at the girl: "I think there would be something wrong with me if I had attacked him. Unless you forgot, he is my father!" And with that Zuko had stood up and stormed away from the firelight, into the darkness of the night.
He had really lost his temper back there and Zuko knew that it would be likely to cause him even more problems with adapting to this situation than he had had before. There was no way that people who were already suspicious of him would accept him any easier if he allowed his temper to flare like that.
"Yo, Firecracker," a voice came and Zuko groaned as he heard the soft pats of bare foot walking along the ground. Refusing to face the earthbender the boy leaned on a stone railing in front of him and kept his eyes focused on the darkness that spread out below.
"Don't ignore me," the girl snapped and the stone railing rose suddenly, knocking Zuko back with enough force to bring the prince falling on his bottom on the ground. It was in this new position that Zuko found himself face to face with icy blue eyes that did not really see him. It was oddly symbolic, and ironic too, how this girl who was the only one willing to come after him twice now was the only one who actually saw the Zuko underneath the role of the Fire Nation prince. The rest were too hurt to even try to look.
"What do you want?" Zuko asked after releasing a deep sigh of resignation. The girl gave him a crooked grin before speaking out: "I came here to make sure that your temper didn't literally explode but now it's obvious that you did not came here to rage, but to bawl."
"I am not crying!" Zuko snapped in indignation as he glared at the earthbender in front of him, only just now noticing that the girl's skin tone was unusually light for a citizen of the Earth Kingdom. It was almost like she had grown up underground. The thought caused Zuko to scoff but the girl ignored the sound as she uttered: "But you feel like you would want to, right?"
It took Zuko a moment to remember what they had been talking about and when he did, he frowned deeply and turned his glare to the ground in front of him. He was lonely, so what? That did not mean that he wanted to curl up in a corner somewhere and cry. No, he wanted to simply hide from the accusing glares until he was strong enough to take them.
There was a frustrated sigh from the earthbender before the raven-haired girl spoke out again: "Did you once even think about really attacking your father?"
"Of course I did," Zuko muttered darkly and quietly, wondering why he was so reluctant to admit that. It was not like that waterbending witch was anywhere close by to give him grief about the admission.
The younger party in their group of two clicked her tongue before asking: "Why did you decide against it?"
Zuko snorted, the answer so obvious to him, but replied nonetheless: "It was not my place to strike him down."
"Ah," came the girl's voice and she sat down next to Zuko with her knees drawn to her chest and feet planted firmly on the ground. "This is that destiny stuff, isn't it?" Before Zuko could give an answer she continued: "You still believe that we are all placed here for a specific purpose?"
"There has been nothing else for me to believe in," Zuko replied simply as his eyes moved to his hands placed on his lap. "All my life I have been struggling to find my destiny and this has to be it. It is to help the Avatar reach his destiny."
"He is much more than just the Avatar, you know," the prince's companion spoke and Zuko looked at her in curiosity, wondering what could possibly be more important than being the Avatar. His question got a, to him, very surprising answer when the girl said: "He is a child and his name is Aang. We all have names and you are going to have to learn to use them." That last bit was spoken in a stern tone of voice and then the girl poked a thumb at her chest. "I, for one, am Toph."
Zuko scoffed in disgust at the irresponsible view, his eyes once again leaving the girl's face as he muttered: "His position as the Avatar should come first. He has a duty to the world."
A surprisingly strong hand landed on Zuko's arm, giving it a firm squeeze before the earthbender spoke in a tone of voice that was very similar to the element she commanded, unrelenting: "You are wrong. He is Aang first and foremost. He's a frightened child."
"And what about me, then?" Zuko snarled as he whirled his head back to the girl, his hair whipping his face at the suddenness of the action. His whole being was now the embodiment of his own element, feeble at the face of darkness and cold and unable to hold on without anything to aid him, and he breathed out a broken whisper: "I have been nothing but scared for years on end and now I'm more scared than ever before."
"There we have it," Toph spoke gently and released her bruising grip on Zuko's arm, patting the appendage in a friendly manner instead. "Raw and honest, perfect. Now we can head back and see if there is still enough food for you since Sokka probably ate the remains of your previous plate." And with that the girl stood up, her hand slipping to wrap around Zuko's thin wrist and forcing the older teen to follow after her. Zuko struggled to stand up before the girl started to drag him like a rug sack and, as they neared the campfire, Zuko felt a lot less apprehensive as he had had before. It might have had something to do with the fact that he was not arriving alone this time or it could have been because he could now see that all the faces lit by the flames were those of children. It might have also been because of those both factors combined, however, and Zuko became aware of the fact that he actually knew the names of the Water Tribe siblings without having ever realized it before.
To be continued...
Ending Notes: Zuko-angst ahoy! The part I am most satisfied with is the third last and second last paragraphs. I love it how the characters can be so much like their elements. Like, for example, Katara can display both unrelenting anger and unmatched kindness, in the same way water can also display extreme opposites.