Crossroads in Time
The cave scene in Crossroads of Destiny from Zuko's POV
I don't own A:TLA, Zuko, Katara, or the words from the episode itself. They all belong to their creators.
Ignore the idiot waterbender Zuko thought as Katara ranted at his turned back. She had been yelling at and insulting him almost nonstop ever since the Dai Li had dumped him in with her, after Azula had captured him.
With the waterbender's nonstop taunts ringing in his ears, Zuko attempted to ignore her, preferring to castigate himself for his own stupidity earlier that day than listen to the ignorant peasant he was stuck with. It wasn't as if she was saying anything new. Neither were his own mistakes. His first mistake had been to stay behind rather than run with Uncle. He'd known that he stood no chance against Azula, that his sister had never stooped to fighting fair, but he'd been so tired of running, so utterly sick of setbacks, that his temper had overwhelmed his common sense. He should have known that Azula would never lower herself to fight him in an Agni Kai, so why had he bothered to challenge her? Why?
But he knew the answer. Knew it deep in his bones. An Agni Kai was more than a duel, more than a one-on-one clash of firebenders. In the Fire Nation, traditional dress for an Agni Kai was stripped to essentials, nothing more than the bare minimum. It was where two firebenders met each other as equals, where nothing more than bending skills mattered. If Azula had accepted his challenge, it would be the same as admitting that he could match her, even for just an instant. His sister would never do that; she was far too much his superior to so much as contemplate granting him even the appearance of equality. He was a fool to even try.
"You're a terrible person, you know that? Always trying to capture the Avatar, trying to capture the world's only hope for peace!" Katara's voice broke into his thoughts. He was my only hope as well, you stupid peasant, Zuko mentally growled while he tried to block her voice out again. "But what do you care." More than you'll ever know. "You're the Fire Lord's Son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood."
That Zuko couldn't allow to stand unchallenged. He reflexively turned half around, his eyes glaring daggers through the waterbender standing over him, daring her to contradict him. "You don't know what you're talking about!"
It was true. She knew nothing of his banishment, nothing of the terms he was required to fulfill before he could return home, didn't even know that he'd tried his best to avoid the war during his hunt for the Avatar. Didn't she know how the Water Tribe fleets that periodically combed the oceans attacked everything of the Fire Nation they could find; even when all a ship was doing was turning tail and running after spotting blue sails? Did she know that he'd have been perfectly justified in exterminating her pitiful little village after the Avatar broke his word not to try and escape his ship? All she really had to accuse him of was his bloodline, and that was something no one could change, no matter how much his father had tried to do just that.
Reasons aside, it looked as if his reply had set her temper to blazing. "I don't? How dare you! You have no idea what this war's put me through! Me personally!!" He braced himself for a torrent of curses, a hailstorm of justifications for her condemnation, maybe even physical blows, given that her waterskin had been stripped from her. Instead, she turned away from him and sunk to her knees. "The Fire Nation took my mother away from me."
For a moment, he simply blinked, the sheer unexpected nature of her words discomforting him. He turned more fully around to get a better look at her. Was this some kind of trick? Then he saw her shoulders shake, heard the faint sounds of sobs.
She was crying. For an instant, he steeled himself to ignore the sobs as if they didn't exist, then her words hit him. Against his will, his thoughts flashed to his own mother, to the way she's cared for him, the way she'd loved him. The way she'd disappeared nearly six years ago, gone without a trace. If only he'd been awake enough to comprehend that she'd been saying goodbye…
He was facing her before he fully realized what was happening. The words slipped out of him, "I'm sorry…that's something that we have in common."
He saw the instant she froze, saw her head come up as her brain began to process the words he'd thoughtlessly uttered, and mentally unleashed some of the choicer words his crews had taught him over the long years of exile on himself. Why had he told her that? She was Water Tribe, an enemy; he'd chased her around the world long enough for that fact to become cemented in both their minds. She'd just accused him of taking pleasure in killing people as if he were someone like, like Zhao, for Agni's sake.
But he couldn't take the words back. The same way he hadn't been able to take back his outburst in that fateful war meeting, all those years ago. And…he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to. Because as stupid and pathetic as his words had been, it looked as if the waterbender was finally listening to him. As if she'd finally realized that other people had also been hurt by the war, that the losses hadn't only afflicted the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes, that the Fire Nation was just as sick of the war as everyone else.
It must have been some sort of stupid illusion, but he found himself abruptly wanting to tell her everything, from his mother's disappearance, to his banishment, to the long years fruitlessly searching for something everyone said was gone forever, about all the times he wished that he could just go home, but was prevented from doing so by his own father's decree…things he hadn't even shared with Uncle, that he couldn't tell Uncle, because he wanted to have at least one member of his family not to regard him as a weakling and a failure and a disgrace.
He bit his tongue, getting to his feet in order to break the mood that had abruptly settled over the two of them, this strange sense of…of…he didn't know what it was. Whatever it was, it didn't matter. When they both got out of here, and they would, eventually, Azula would want to collect him at some point, even if it was only to bring him back to the Fire Nation in chains for his execution, and Katara was valuable to the Avatar, which meant that if Azula were smart… What exactly his sister did with them didn't really matter at this point. What mattered, that however they got out of here, they would leave as enemies. He'd studied the Water Tribes as part of his education as Crown Prince. He knew well that they held grudges longer than the most determined firebender, and could almost be more stubborn in their chosen stance than earthbenders. Once a member of the Tribes decided you were their enemy, they would never give up, never weaken their position, and it would take an act of the Spirits themselves to get them to change their minds.
They could never be friends. Could never be allies. Could never be more than cordial enemies, able to deal honestly with each other, but unable to fully trust the other. He knew that, knew that as well as he knew the terms of his exile, terms that he would now never be able to fulfill.
Katara got to her feet as well, looking everywhere but at him, in a way that seemed too familiar to Zuko. He'd looked at, or around, as the case might be, his father whenever his father had caught his son in some shameful act of weakness. Embarrassment, unsure of how exactly the other person would react, feeling strangely naked under their eyes, oh yes, he remembered that feeling quite well. He'd felt it often enough during his childhood, felt it every time his father's eyes had measured him and found him wanting. As he felt it now, unsure of how exactly this strange energy between the two of them, himself and Katara, would resolve itself.
"I'm…I'm sorry I yelled at you before." Katara said softly, not looking at him. Startled, Zuko glanced at her. Why was she apologizing to him? He could count the number of times people had apologized to him in his life on one hand. Why was she doing it? Hadn't she made it clear that they were enemies? She seemed to be sincere, but he'd been fooled before.
He had to say something. "It doesn't matter." Really, it didn't. She hadn't said anything he hadn't heard before, from his father, from Zhao, from people he'd encountered during his exile. Maybe not the exact words, but the gist was the same. He was a failure, pathetic. Unworthy to be around normal people.
For some reason, Katara wasn't finished. "It's just that…for so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy…it was your face."
For a long instant, Zuko felt his spirits droop. Then he recovered himself. He knew exactly what she was referring to. The mark of shame his father had branded onto his skin, showing everyone he met just how worthless he was. He would never be able to escape the consequences of that fateful Agni Kai; no matter how hard he tried. "My face. I see." Unable to help himself, he turned away from her, one hand coming up on reflex to touch his scar.
"No, no, that's not what I meant!"
"It's ok," he assured her, sure that she couldn't hurt him any more than she already had. "I used to think this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. " He said bitterly. "But lately, I've realized that I'm free to determine my own destiny, even if I'll never be free of my mark." He refused to look at her, refused to let her see just how much talking so casually about his scar had hurt him. It he had learned one lesson growing up, learned anything during his exile, it was never to let them see just how much they'd hurt you. It only gave them an opening to hurt you more.
Katara's voice was soft. "Maybe you can be rid of it."
Zuko couldn't stop himself from turning around, couldn't keep the hope out of his voice, cursing himself for it all the time. "What...?"
The waterbender gave a self-conscious smile. "I have healing abilities."
Disappointment was a physical weight in his chest. He should have known better than to hope. When had his hopes ever come true? His voice was bitter as he said, "It's a scar. It can't be healed."
She fished under her dress, coming out with a small vial decorated with the emblem of the Northern Water Tribe. She held it out to him. "This is water from the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole. It has special properties, so I've been saving it for something important." she paused for a moment, then continued. "I don't know if it would work, but…" she trailed off, showing him the vial for a second time, allowing him to make the decision.
For a long moment, he hesitated. He wanted what she offered him, wanted it more than he'd wanted anything in his life. The only reason he was holding back was because he was terrified that if he accepted her gift, she would take it away, and laugh at his eagerness. It was what Azula would do, what his sister had done when he'd nearly walked right into a trap because he had so wanted to believe that his father had rescinded his banishment, that his father wanted him home again, that his father had forgiven him. He'd been stupid, and he'd yelled at Uncle when the older man had tried to caution him that Azula's offer might not be everything it seemed.
And yet…Katara wasn't his sister. And it looked like she was in earnest. And if it were true, that she could really remove his scar, wasn't the chance that he could be without the badge of shame, that he could disappear into a crowd and no longer be recognized at a glance for the failure he was, worth a risk? Not to mention, she wasn't asking him for anything in return, wasn't asking him to betray anything he held dear (which he would if she'd asked him, he'd have done anything she asked for the gift of removing his scar), she was offering it because she could, and because she wanted to.
Closing his eyes in surrender, he tried not to flinch at the faint touch of alien fingers on his scar. Ever since the bandages had come off for good, no one else, not even Uncle, had ever touched his scar. That Earth Kingdom healer had tried to, but his reflexes had intercepted her hand before it could make contact. It felt…strange, to have someone else touch it, to feel the pressure of fingers rest on the mass of dead flesh that disfigured his face. Her touch was so light, so soothing, as if her fingers were made of the same cool water she commanded. Imperceptively, he leaned into that light touch, the touch that would make everything better, that would erase his shame; that maybe even could free him from the dreadful burden of his quest, even if they could never lift his banishment.
He would never know. Abruptly a crash sounded, and the gentle fingers were ripped away from his cheek, leaving them bleeding for want of that touch. He opened his eyes to see that the Avatar had found them, they were getting out of here, Uncle was here…and all he wanted right then was for those fingers to return, for the promise that they'd held to be fulfilled. He wanted Uncle to go away, for the Avatar to leave them and not come back…
But the vial had disappeared back around her neck, and she was hugging the Avatar as if she would never let him go. And even Uncle's presence couldn't keep him hating the boy then, from wanting to rend the airbender limb from limb, a sentiment that the Avatar evidently shared, from the uncharacteristic glare in grey eyes. Mine those eyes seemed to say, and Zuko glared right back, hating him for the loss of the opportunity, resenting him for destroying the fragile peace of the cavern. He even hated Uncle right then for coming with the Avatar, hated the joyful hug that trapped him where he stood as securely as iron bars.
"Uncle, I don't understand!" Zuko burst out, trying to keep his anger and disappointment under control. Didn't Uncle realize what he'd just destroyed? No, of course not. But that didn't stop the tidal wave of emotion from drowning him. He struggled to express himself. "What are you doing with the Avatar?"
"Saving you, that's what." the spiteful airbending brat spat out. Zuko snarled at the insult and lunged for the airbender, only to have Uncle grab him and hold him in place. He subsided when he realized that it was useless. Uncle may have been retired, but he was still the Dragon of the West, and a firebender to be reckoned with. Not to mention, that even if by some small chance he did manage to break free and kill the Avatar, Katara would never heal his scar if he did that.
Not that she was going to heal his scar as it was. He barely heard Uncle telling him that they had to talk, barely heard him tell the Avatar and the waterbender to go catch up with their other friends, all his attention was on Katara passing him, turning to leave with only a single backward glance before following the Avatar out the tunnel. He turned his face away then, turned it so that his scar, his hated scar, shielded his expression from Uncle's probing gaze. It hurt. It hurt more than anything he could think of at the moment, even including Mom's disappearance, and the Agni Kai, and Azula's endless lies, to have his hopes first raised, and then burned to ashes and trodden underfoot.
He didn't want to think about anything, he didn't want to do anything. He didn't want to listen to his uncle exhorting him to choose "good", whatever that was. He didn't care that he was at a crossroads of his destiny, or some other such mumbo-jumbo that his uncle was constantly nattering at him about. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out his misery, trying to block out the crushing disappointment he didn't deserve to feel. He should have known better. He never learned. His father had told him that suffering would be his teacher, but he never seemed to learn the lesson well enough to prevent the next loss from carving its way into his spirit.
The ground shook beneath him. As he settled into a reflexive stance, he saw that green crystals, similar to the ones that lined the cavern and provided light, grow up around his uncle, trapping him where he stood. Knowing Uncle was defenseless, Zuko prepared to attack whoever was coming toward them, knowing that both their lives depended on him.
It was Azula, followed by two members of the Dai Li. As his sister approached, he tensed, waiting for her to attack. He knew he couldn't beat his sister alone, and definitely not when she had Dai Li agents as backup. He'd learned that the hard way.
Azula smirked. "I expected this kind of treachery from Uncle, but you Zuko, Prince Zuko, you're a lot of things, but you're not a traitor, are you?"
"Release him immediately!" he told his sister, trying to buy time to understand her statement. Or threat, as the case might well be.
Azula's smirk disappeared. "It's not too late for you Zuko," she coaxed. "You can still redeem yourself."
"The redemption she offers is not for you!" Uncle called out from where he was trapped. Zuko felt, and quickly suppressed a sudden flare of irritation at Uncle's highhanded decision. Hadn't he done enough damage for today? Hadn't his uncle ruined enough opportunities for him already? Then he squashed that thought. This was just like a few months ago when Azula had tempted him with the possibility of going home. He hadn't listened to Uncle then, and had very nearly ended up in chains for it. He wasn't going to make that mistake again.
Azula cast a dismissive glance toward their uncle. "Why don't you let him decide, Uncle, hmmm?" she turned back to Zuko. Her golden eyes fairly glowed with sincerity. "I need you Zuko. I've plotted every move this day. This glorious day in Fire Nation history. And the only way we can win is together." She sweetened the pot. "At the end of this day, you will have your honor back. You will have Father's love. You will have everything you want."
He wanted to believe her. He wanted to. He could hear Uncle pleading with him, begging him not to believe his sister. He didn't know where to turn, or what to choose. He didn't know.
"You are free to choose." Azula said matter-of-factly, walking off. Vaguely, he realized that the Dai Li agents had left, that he and Uncle were alone again.
"Zuko…"his uncle whispered.
Zuko couldn't think. Couldn't think, couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't choose. He sat down, ignoring his uncle, trying to move past the roaring in his ears long enough to think. Uncle was always telling him to think things through before he acted, wasn't he?
On one hand, there was Azula. Who lied to him and misled him so often that it was better to assume she lied about everything than to accept anything she said as truth. He knew that.
On the other hand, there was the prospect of returning home. Of seeing the Fire Nation again. Of tasting all the foods he'd missed during his exile, of having his father actually appreciate him for once. If he took Azula's offer, he could have all of that, all of that and more.
If he didn't… well, he'd grown up at Court. He knew how to read between the lines. What wasn't said was often more important that what was. And what Azula hadn't said was that if he didn't help her now then he could say goodbye to ever seeing the Fire Nation again, even if he did by some miracle manage to capture the Avatar. If he didn't aid his sister now, then all his efforts during those long years of exile would have been in vain.
Suddenly stiflingly hot, he ripped off his over robe, tossing the material into a corner like so much trash. That was when the sound of fighting reached him, the crash of fire blasts, the rumble of earthbending, and the roar of water being flash-boiled away. He didn't have any more time to choose. He raced down the tunnel, deaf to his Uncle's pleas for him to stop.
It was a standoff. Katara and the Avatar stood on either side of Azula, poised to strike. From where he stood, he could see his sister's eyes dart back and forth, trying to figure out who would strike first.
A blast of fire roared out of him, landing right between his sister and the Avatar, abruptly shifting the focus of the standoff to himself. He paced forward, arms at the ready to deliver another blast.
First he looked at his sister. She looked more nervous than he'd ever seen her, doubtless aware that even with his meager skills, when added to Katara and the Avatar's efforts, he would defeat and maybe even kill her.
Then he looked at the Avatar. Looked at the focus of three, long, fruitless years of searching, looked at the person responsible for making sure he would never be free of his scar. Looked at the one person destined to stop the war.
Father's love against the living symbol of all his collective failures.
The choice was easy.
While I don't necessarily approve of Zuko's choice in Crossroads of Destiny, I completely understand it. All those fics that have Zuko choosing differently without changing the circumstances, as well as all the ones that have him groveling for Katara's forgiveness at the Western Air Temple, are missing the point, to my way of thinking. What did Katara do for him? How exactly did he betray her? Answer. She did nothing for him, except destroy his hopes and smash his self-esteem deeper into the toilet. She yelled at him for who knows how long. She very kindly offered to heal his scar, but then she walked away without speaking to him.
Zuko is someone who is very well acquainted with betrayal. His grandfather, his sister, his father, Zhao, even his mother all betrayed him at one time or another. His grandfather ordered his death, his sister lied to him more often than she told the truth, and his father burned his face for speaking out of turn. Zhao tried to kill him after their duel, then tried to kill him on multiple occasions. His mother abandoned him in the custody of a parent who had already demonstrated that he had little to no concern for Zuko's well being.
All that combined means that when Katara walked away from him, that hurt, especially since he had opened himself up to the possibility of her healing. Right on the heels of that wound, along comes Azula offering Zuko everything he thought he ever wanted. Sure, later he realizes differently, but he doesn't know that at this point.
To my mind, Zuko feels as if he is under no obligation to help Katara at all after what she did, or rather didn't do. Not to mention, Zuko has already proved that he is unable to resist when Azula offers him the chance to go home (go see The Avatar State if you haven't already).
Aang is nothing to him but someone who has ripped redemption from Zuko's grasp in one way or another, again and again. Every time Aang escaped his grasp, every time the Gaang got away, Zuko felt like he failed again. Take all that frustration, anger, and despair, add it to the crushing disappointment and betrayal he felt when Katara turned her back on him, and balance it against the hope of finally being able to redeem himself in his father's eyes.
What do you think he would do?