Thanks to Thistle_Chaser who suggested the prompt and everyone else who had great suggestions on the natures of everyone's daemons. (Although I had my own silly ideas most of the time.) Also the ending line is totally ganked from The Golden Compass.
~ O ~
"We should join them."
Zuko scowled. "They don't want me over there. I—She'll think I'm just going to hurt the Avatar." He took another bite of rice — so coarsely milled and plain, lacking all of the spices he had grown used too in his short weeks at the palace.
A sharply pointed rat-like face scowled up at him from somewhere near the vicinity of his right knee. Of course, Chihiro had read his mind. She was his mind. "You know it tastes better than anything in the Palace. It tastes better because it feels better to be here, even if you do insist on sulking."
"I am the Avatar's firebending teacher. I am not here to make friends," he said.
"Uncle was right. You just like being miserable."
The mention of Uncle struck like a barb to his heart. "What is your problem?!" Zuko snapped, and it came out louder than he intended. He saw a couple of glances thrown in his direction from across the temple common area, and Zuko looked away, his cheeks hot.
His daemon couldn't have been less concerned. She sat up, cleaning her whiskers. "I thought the idea for us to come here was to join the good side."
"None of them trust me."
"They will. We will just have to prove ourselves."
Zuko gave a long suffering sigh, but there was no getting around it; his daemon was correct. When had they ever given up this easily? He stood to his feet, rice bowl in one hand and scooping up Chihiro with the other. She scuttled to his shoulder and in another moment she was a messenger hawk; regal and glaring around with sharp eyes and a sharper beak.
The Avatar and his friends were sitting in a semi-circle around a fire across the large opened air room. Sokka was chatting animatedly, and a couple of the others were laughing — laughter that stopped the moment Zuko sat himself down in an unoccupied spot.
There was a moment or two of awkward silence where Zuko knew, knew he shouldn't have listened to Chihiro. This was ridiculous. He should just go back and eat in peace—
But then Aang smiled in his gentle sort of way and chirped out, "Hey Zuko, there's plenty more rice if you want seconds."
"Thank you, Avatar."
"His name is Aang." Katara's voice cut from the other side of the fire. Her daemon, a large elegant Sea-Swan puffed out his feathers and rearranged his wings with an angry flick. Chihiro glared back coldly. And instantly there was a frozen tension in the air — as if all the kids were holding their breath to see what the firebender would do to the challenge.
Zuko met Katara's fierce blue eyes, and nodded. "Okay Aang, then." His voice was carefully measured, and in a moment the girl's daemon's feathers were down. Pacified, the Sea-Swan started to peck at the small blades of grass that had started to grow between the dirty flagstones.
Aang, ever cheerful, turned to Sokka and asked him to continue the story he had been telling.
Zuko listened politely, although as he had been come into the middle of it, he didn't quite understand all the details. But as the Water Tribe boy talked, the tension slowly faded from the group and he began to relax, and eat.
Chihiro leaned over and whispered in his ear. "You know, this is already better than Ember Island."
He knew exactly what she meant. He wasn't trusted by the Avatar's group, but already only a few hours after they'd given him his chance he found himself more comfortable here than he had at any time with his sister and her friend. Katara's earlier death threat had rattled him, but now his confidence was returning. Was that all she had? He'd had worse as a child in the palace."
His daemon was right. They would find a way to prove themselves.
The drinking water was sickly warm and flavored with briny minerals. Zuko set his cup down and got to his feet; surely they could do a little better than this. The kitchen area was nothing more than a collection of odd pots and pans, but he quickly found a kettle and filled it with water.
He was some ways away from the others, but the tightening of Chihiro's claws on his shoulder warned him of approaching company. Zuko turned to face an annoyed Waterbender. She glared at him with arms crossed over her chest. "What do you think you're doing?"
He held up the kettle. "Making tea?"
"What?" A look of confusion crossed her face before she gave a disgusted sigh. "That's right. You were working in that tea-shop in Ba Sing Se, weren't you?"
Zuko gaped at her. "My Uncle's shop. How-how did—"
But he never to finish. Katara whipped around, momentarily incensed by something other than the untrustworthy firebender. "Sokka!" she snapped. "You've had enough sweetsauce… and use a spoon!"
Her brother was greedily dipping a finger into a small pot of sugar sauce, used for flavoring the rice. He had been caught, literally red handed. Katara's daemon flew after her brother's — a slyly grinning arctic fox-coyote — beating her about the head with his powerful wings and driving him away from the kitchen while Katara bickered with Sokka.
Toph and Aang stood by the fire, not alarmed, talking softly between themselves as if this was an every day occurrence.
"You may want to steep the jasmine," Chihiro said as they looked on. "Uncle always said jasmine tea was calming."
~ O ~
Zuko didn't call for a break until just after high noon in the very heat of the day. Taking a towel, he wiped out his shaggy hair while Aang groaned and sprawled himself down on the cool flagstones groaning in relief. Maybe Zuko could have been easier on the kid… but they didn't have time. They only had a little more than a month until the arrival of Sozin's comet.
Besides, there was something satisfying — deeply satisfying — about working with the new moves he had learned from Ran and Shaw. The Dancing Dragon were a simple set of forms, yet the more he and Aang worked on them, the more he began to see how they could be applied to what he had learned before. In a way The Dancing Dragon was simple; rooted in the more popular Firebending forms allowing hidden connections between the styles.
It was… engrossing. Zuko had forgotten the time more than once.
There was a slight breeze floating through the air temple; hot air from the canyon below, but still welcome against Zuko's sweaty back. He sat on an up thrust bolder, and faced the fountain. Chihiro and Aang's daemon were in the water — Chihiro as a bobbing turtleduck and Aang's Payma as a playing koala-otter.
"Zuko, can I ask you something?"
Aang had come to his side, propping himself up on one elbow was watching the scene along with him. He bit his lip when Zuko nodded. "Your daemon… she hasn't settled?"
Something about the way he asked it, the way the little monk wouldn't quite meet his eyes, made Zuko think that his had been a topic of conversation before; most likely while he was out of hearing range. Well, it was odd.
Zuko didn't answer for a long minute. When Katara had tracked him down the first night, now a week past, and told him, "We both know you've struggled with doing the right thing in the past. So let me tell you something right now. You make one slip up, one more change, one backwards step and you won't have to worry about your destiny any longer. Because I will end it. Permanently." she had been talking not about him, but Chihiro. He had heard it before, in whispered comments, and from his crew on the ship. How they trust a man whose inner nature still changed?
"I used to ask my daemon about it," Zuko said at last, meeting Aang's gaze. "We used to get in fights. I just wanted to grow up and have her settle already. My father would talk about it all the time — he would call me weak, a child. Then....When I was banished," his hand brushed past his scarred left eye, although the gesture was involuntary. "I never hid the scar. I wore it as a symbol of shame, of the banished prince… but I never hid from it. I would never hide what my daemon is, either. Or what she isn't."
Aang looked thoughtful. "Sometimes I wonder what Payma is going to be. I've asked her a few times, but she doesn't know."
"Don't all airbender's daemon's settle into birds?"
"Yeah." He grinned. "It would be horrible to have an ostrich-horse or something. I could never leave the ground!"
While the two boys talked, their daemons had grown tired of the water and had changed into a pair of cat-puma's and were licking the water off their paws and carefully arranging their fur. Apparently both Zuko and Aang had a neat-streak in them.
"You know," Aang said. "Monk Gyasto used to tell me that a daemon didn't just settle when you grew up. It was more about when you knew who you were."
Zuko thought to Katara's daemon — elegant, powerful and ready to henpeck at a moment's notice. Sokka's was snow white coyote-fox, so full of sly intelligence and ready to pounce and rend and laugh all at the same time. Even Toph's; hers had apparently settled only a few months ago (the proper age for such a thing) into a rabbit-hedgehog, a form that loved and understood the earth just as much as she did.
"But… for the first time, I feel like I'm really truly doing the right thing." Zuko glanced at Aang, frowning. Every time he thought Chihiro would settle; when he was banished, when he found the Avatar, when he finally came back to the Fire Nation, and now… she hadn't. "For the first time I'm being true to myself, but she's still changing."
"Maybe you're being true to yourself, but I bet you still haven't found yourself." Aang grinned at Zuko's raised eyebrow, but got up and extended a hand down before he could puzzle over those words for very long. "C'mon, Sifu Hotman. You want to get something to eat?"
~ O ~
Zuko could hear the crowd, just behind the thick curtain. His promise to Aang, spoken just moments ago rang in his head, and he paused there letting the wonder of the moment fill him with joy.
"We will build it together."
Yes. That was the way. The only true way. He was filled with certainty now… his rule would be a long, hard one. But at the end of it, he will have returned his nation's honor.
And since when had he ever backed down from a challenge?
He felt a gentle squeeze of claws on his shoulder, and glanced over. Chihiro had changed into something he had never seen from her; a large bird with breathtaking red plumage fading to colors of orange and yellow at the tip of each feather along her long tail and elegant wings. Her beak was sharp, curved forward wickedly like a raptor; but this was no ordinary bird.
"Isn't being a fire phoenix a little flashy for the occasion?" he asked, ignoring the fact that it was his coronation. They were coming from the end of a hundred year war, after all.
His daemon clicked her beak. "The phoenix is a sign of rebirth and hope. I want everyone to see that we may be knocked down, we may be banished, but we will just be reborn into something new and brighter." She paused. "I don't think I'll be changing anymore."
Zuko gave a start. But there was a… finished quality about his daemon he had never seen before. As if she were a brilliant painting with all the details finally drawn in.
He reached out and pulled the curtains aside, and Zuko and his daemon walked into the sunlit courtyard and to the waiting crowd.