Zuko trails well behind the Avatar and his friends as they flee the failed invasion on the capital. He's careful to keep well out of range to avoid being seen, although it probably helps that the kids are expecting a full-scale Fire Nation airship at their heels, and not a tiny, one-man war balloon.
Exile has taught him he's a much better thief than he ever was a prince.
By the time the bison finally descends to rest, Zuko has more or less predicted where the Avatar is going and continues on ahead. He maintains a steady altitude for the rest of the journey, making only the occasional drop below the clouds to pick out landmarks and waterways.
Zuko can no more afford to be spotted than the Avatar and his companions. He won't betray the Avatar before he even has a chance to side with him.
"You're a full-blown traitor now."
Zuko shakes his head, as if it could somehow dispel the condemnation of his father's voice echoing back at him. He closes his eyes and silently gives thanks to his Uncle for having the foresight to teach him how to redirect lightning when he did. Though, he might have mentioned some of the after effects, like the nauseating metallic taste in his mouth or the buzz lingering in his temples, rattling the enamel of his teeth. Guess it beats the alternative.
Disrespect and weakness got him banished and disfigured, but standing up to his father was far a worse crime, one that nearly got him killed on the spot. The first sparks of lightning at his father's fingertips left little doubt as to how his father felt about him.
For the longest time Zuko thought if he could just be the son his father wanted, he would be loved and accepted. But that meant lying to everyone including himself and Zuko has always been a terrible liar.
Three years ago he never would have believed he would someday renounce the fire Lord to throw his lot in with a couple of water tribe brats, a blind Earth bender, an extinct sky bison and a twelve-year-old Air Nomad who's supposed to be the Avatar. But Uncle warned him about destiny being a funny thing.
Zuko turns his head into the sunlight filtering through the clouds and smiles.
He really is going to help the Avatar restore balance to the world, or at least Zuko's going to try. Because as the water bender, Katara, had once told him, his was the face of the enemy. Zuko doesn't expect to win any popularity contests and it won't be easy convincing them he's on their side, but when has anything ever been easy for him?
Navigating his way back to the Western Air Temple is a task made easier having done it once before, although admittedly not from above. Fortunately, there is much of the topography below committed to his memory; that trip etched into his mind's eye with disturbing clarity only days following his banishment. Marked and shunned, he clung desperately to his mission and its breadcrumb trail, letting his pain and humiliation propel him into blind pursuit of the Avatar; the perfect distraction with which to shield himself from any careful examination of his life. Perhaps deep down he'd always known his father had sent him away with the intention of never returning. But then he hadn't wanted to see.
His forefathers, older and more experienced when they'd been sent on the quest, (and armed with far better resources, he thinks bitterly) had attempted and failed. But only when he accomplished the impossible would his honor be restored and welcomed home. Redemption was a thin wisp of smoke, but it was all he had. Searching for the Avatar had become a traditional right of passage among his lineage, but for Zuko it was nothing more than a convenient way to dispose of a disgraced son. He didn't need Zhao's brutal honesty to tell him what he already suspected.
Hurt, betrayed, and cast aside, anger sustained him the way few other things could. And though a poor trade for his loss, it proved unyielding in the months and years to come. Zuko had been angry for so long, he'd begun to think that's who he really was.
Only Uncle would prove as stubborn a companion as his anger, patiently guiding him in spite of his foul temperament and many abuses. The only man who stood between him and certain mutiny on more than one occasion, who willingly put up with his shit, time and time again, and Zuko thanks him by getting him arrested and leaving him in prison.
He is such an enormous prick. It's no wonder Uncle wouldn't speak to him.
Recriminations battered him from all sides since Ba Sing Se. Zuko rationalized his actions, thinking that if he did what was expected of him, he would regain everything he had lost, including his sense of loyalty to his father; that everything would neatly fall into place the way he imagined it would all those long years at sea.
At first, going home seemed like a dream come true. Zuko was embraced as a hero by his people and by his father, a man. The praise he heard in his father's voice was real.
It should have been sweet, something to be savored and cherished. He should have been happy, but he wasn't. He was home and more lost than ever.
His mind swam with guilt, though at the time he refused to acknowledge the feeling for what it was. Pushing one emotion aside let another slip into its place and the old anger resurfaced, worse than ever, refusing to be ignored.
Azula had been the one to bring the Avatar down, but he can't acquit himself, can't wash the blood off his hands after betraying both Katara and his Uncle. Shamed on one hand, but redeemed on the other for slaying the Avatar, a naïve twelve-year-old boy who had once tried to be his friend. He was being pulled in two completely different directions and it was tearing him apart.
Zuko tried to ignore the shame he felt, told himself he was being a good son by honoring his father's wishes, doing his duty, and regaining his honor. He let himself sink into the warm bosom of palace life and all its comforts, luxuries he could only dream of during his exile, when he was too lonely, too anxious, or too hungry to sleep.
Mai was chief among his distractions, one he happily indulged in at every possible moment - that is, when he didn't manage to piss her off. Zuko had alot of catching up to do where girls were concerned, but like everything else in his life, he took to it like a challenge - stealing kisses under the shade of her parasol, drawing on the pleasant burn of her smoky voice in his ear.
Their families indulged their courtship by turning a blind eye to it, letting old affections rekindle in the hopes of securing a future heir to the throne. Neither Zuko nor Mai cared about future alliances, but the freedom to explore one another was not wasted. Even Azula gave them margin to do as they pleased together, and for that alone he should have been more wary. But a teenage boy stuck for years with a ship full of sea grizzled men blinded him to anything but the feel of Mai's creamy, white skin, the press of her narrow hips against his and the sweet flavor of fruit tarts on her lips. He tripped over himself just to see one of Mai's secretive smiles. There was no humiliation too great to hear her laughter.
He took his place at his father's side with his sister before the war ministers and generals. No one dared scowl at him as they had when he'd been disgraced. Now they lowered their eyes and bowed their heads.
He was the Fire Nation prince once again. Celebrated. Respected. Everything Zuko ever wanted. And none of it helped. He thought he returned to claim what was his, but the truth was he'd already lost everything that mattered.
"The kind of redemption she offers is not for you!"
His father did not love him, only valued how Zuko might serve his ends. People were merely tools, discarded the moment they ceased to be useful. Zuko's wasted so much trying to be what someone else wanted. He can't do that anymore.
It wasn't until he stepped out into the world, out from under the Fire Nation's influence that he understood his life was truly his own, that his destiny was - as his Uncle had tried so many times to tell him - up to him. Zuko wants to be Fire Lord someday, but not if it means being hated and feared. He intends to show the world there's a better way to rule. That's his destiny. He had to resolve the conflict inside before he could summon the courage to confront his father, to shout his convictions and defend his choices.
"Your Uncle has gotten to you, hasn't he?"
"Yes. He has."
The only way he can hope to make amends now is to be true to his own destiny - the one he's carving out for himself, not the one he grudgingly accepted. He thinks Uncle would approve of what he is trying to do. And maybe one day, if he's very lucky, Zuko will get the chance to tell him how sorry he is for everything he put him through.
Zuko is not the person he thought he was. That boy died in the crystal catacombs of Ba Sing Se and he's done grieving over him.
Zuko lands his war balloon in the forest and then camouflages the basket and burner beneath a network of slender tree branches and underbrush. He strips the canvas to use for a temporary shelter, taking care to conceal Fire Nation red underneath the thickest parts of the forest canopy, scattering debris from the floor along its topside.
Recent months have taught him how to travel light, and though the bag slung over his shoulder feels heavy enough, Zuko knows how quickly his supplies will dwindle. There's some currency pilfered from the royal coffers that he took enormous pleasure in taking, his maps, some clothing and a bedroll, a full canteen, strips of dried meat, a small satchel of rice, and a weather-beaten cooking pot. His fingers fumble over the medical supplies; a jar of burn salve and clean linen for bandages. The tea leaves however, are a luxury, Oolong, if he had to guess. He doesn't have his Uncle's flair for brewing tea, but he's become accustomed to drinking the stuff after all this time and the ritual reminds him of the old man.
It's a good enough start, and alot more than he had during his wanderings through the Earth kingdom. His thirteen-year-old self would have been horrified at these meager rations; little money, no ship, no crew, only himself to rely upon, but he's learned a great deal since then about the world and how to move in it. Which is why leaving his broadswords goes against his better judgment. They've served him in plenty of situations where he couldn't risk bending, but going in armed isn't going to put the Avatar or his gang at ease, so he's better off without them.
The winds that brought him to the temple have calmed, making it safe enough to rappel down to the temple. After serving years on the sea, his knots are up to the task and the time he'll save avoiding winding, overgrown footpaths is more than worth it.
The hanging pagodas come into view off to his right while in front, the imposing gallery of Air Nomads emerges to greet him. As Zuko glides downward, the ancient stone relief of Avatar Yangchen looms overhead, her weathered edifice creeping with vines and delicate flora. He steps onto the broken tiles, breathing the place in, letting the memories of his first pilgrimage rush back.
"The only view I'm interested in is seeing the Avatar in chains."
Zuko hangs his head and pinches the bridge of his nose, futile efforts to allay his shame. The past feels as though it's ready to drag him down, but then he's saved - by the Avatar's bison as it soars overhead. Zuko's moving before he knows what hit him; ducking and taking cover behind a stone pillar. His heart is beating wildly against his chest and his hands are shaking.
Zuko weighed his words with careful deliberation, meditating extensively before confronting the Fire Lord. And when it came time to abandon his life at the palace, he tried to write the kind of letter that Mai deserved.
It was terrible of course, and more of a note than a letter, really, but he tried. That has to count for something, right?
But he hasn't devoted a single, coherent thought to how he plans to convince the Avatar he's switched sides. Capturing the little air bender is no longer his goal, so he'd better get his head out of his ass and start thinking that way. Because if he's not very careful his water bender is going to murder him the moment she lays eyes on him. Zuko wouldn't really blame her, (Katara, his mind supplies) but he needs to be breathing if he's going to help.
Zuko knows who's responsible for getting him off that glacier at the North Pole and it sure as hell wasn't Katara. It's the same person who could have left him outside the fortress for Zhao, but didn't, dragging him to safety instead.
The Air Nomads were a bunch of monks; a peaceful people. The Avatar is a pacifist. He'll at least hear Zuko out. He can't say the same for the rest of his gang. They've got an axe to grind thanks in part to him, so what can he possibly say that's going to persuade them he's changed, and that he's not here to seize the Avatar for the Fire Lord? Can he expect anything other than hostility?
Until Zuko can come up with a reasonable answer to his first question, the second is most certainly 'no'.
Zuko quickly abandons his line and vaults up the twisted, crumbling stairway, hoping the answers will come to him once he's pulled his head together.
He keeps going, not stopping until he reaches the shelter in the forest, scratched from the bramble bushes, panting from the climb. He can hear the bison's deep bass rumble, far off in the distance.
Zuko did that - set the great beast free, with Uncle's help, of course. He remembers the dank cell deep beneath Lake Laogai where Appa's breath was warm and humid at his back, the light chinking sound the chains made as they scraped the stone floor.
There are a few precious times Zuko has managed to provoke his Uncle to anger and the memory of it is still fresh, still sharp after all these months, resonating through his consciousness like a landslide.
"You never think these things through!"
Damn that old man for always being right.
"Hello, Zuko here. But I guess you probably already know me...sort of. Uh...so, the thing is, I have a lot of firebending experience, and I'm considered to be pretty good at it. Well, you've seen me...you know, when I was attacking you? Uh, yeah...I guess I should apologize for that. But anyway, I'm good now. I mean, I thought I was good before, but now I realize I was bad. Ugh, but anyway...I think it's time I joined your group, and taught the Avatar fire bending."
Zuko is already playing back the awkward speech in his head when his stand-in audience croaks. The badger frog is seated across from him on a felled, rotten log, rays of sunlight stippling through the rustling leaves.
"Well, what's your answer?"
Zuko's shout is loud over the quiet of the forest and sounds every bit as anxious and impatient as he feels. Suddenly, the creature leaps at Zuko from its perch, landing neatly on the top of his head. Zuko's shoulders hunch under its surprising weight before the creature hops again, using him like a shabby lily pad and then vanishing from sight.
Zuko doesn't take it as a good sign.
He considers approaching the situation as if he were Uncle, but only ends up babbling, mixing and matching proverbs like a halfwit, managing to sound more foolish than he already feels.
Azula would resort to fear and intimidation to get what she wants. It might work for her sure, but threats are part of his problem, not the solution. He's not going to get very far trying to sound like someone else. And his impersonations suck, anyway.
Zuko sighs and squats down close to the ground, resting his arms over his bent knees. The badger frog returns, landing before him in one smooth, long hop. Its wide, dull eyes stare forward, as if waiting for him to try again.
Talking to a frog may seem silly, but it beats talking to himself, which he figures, he'll be doing alot more of unless he can somehow persuade the Avatar and his friends he's genuine.
Later, Zuko's feet are especially heavy trudging back to his campsite. His clothing and hair are wet and his cheek stings from where Katara's water struck him. His pride hurts worse.
It hadn't gone all that badly until he mentioned that assassin he hired, a spectacularly bad decision followed by an equally bad slip of the tongue. There's no taking it back now.
The bison seemed to remember him, even seemed to like him, if getting licked is any sort of indication. The water tribe kid accused him of covering himself in honey. Now that he thinks about it, it's not a terrible idea. He wishes he had thought of it first, though it hadn't been necessary. Appa's approval might have kept them from attacking, but that's as far as it went. He guesses he should count himself as grateful.
But they didn't want him. They wouldn't risk him. Thing is, if their places were reversed neither would he. He can't even convince himself, so what did he expect?
Although, he had been sure they would take him seriously when he offered himself up as their prisoner. Surely they couldn't refuse the (former) prince of the Fire Nation down on his knees?, He'd been so sincere, like his life depended on it. They don't realize he's sacrificed everything to help the Avatar.
Maybe they do and they just don't care and Zuko only has himself to blame.
There had been a brief moment though, where he caught the water tribe kid hesitating, like he was maybe considering his offer. He probably imagined it. Katara all but shot that possibility down when she tossed him on his ass, wet and defeated.
Zuko isn't giving up, but he can't go back just yet; not without being attacked. The gang made that abundantly clear. He'll come up with something, he just hasn't figured what.
The rejection still stings.
He hangs his clothing by the fire to dry, eating the strips of dried, spiced meat while taking careful sips from his canteen. When the moon drifts further into the night sky and the campfire has burned down to a small pile of embers, it's the image of the water tribe boy's curious face that steals him off to sleep.
That night Zuko dreams of the eclipse.
It was the single thing standing between him and his father, the buffer between Zuko and his formidable anger. There was no way to challenge the Fire Lord and actually live to tell about it, not without a little help on his side.
When the moon passes directly over the sun, his inner fire is snuffed out like a candle flame. The distant sound of a girl's laughter follows him deep under the earth, curling over his skin like kisses, only fading away when he reaches the Fire Lord's door.
Zuko closes his eyes and only sees the moon.
His father goads him into lingering with talk of his mother, knowing all too well there was no way Zuko could resist that temptation. It had been worth it just to hear the possibility that his mother might be alive, but it cost him precious time.
Zuko senses the return of the sun, a warm tingling that travels up from the base of his spine and he knows it's a matter of seconds until his father strikes out, swift and merciless. Zuko is a traitor in his father's eyes, and the Fire Lord does not tolerate traitors to live.
He's not quick enough - not good enough when the first bolt hits him.
The fluid surrounding his brain boils.
This is what father would have done to him had he not fallen to his knees and begged forgiveness at the Agni Kai, his life spared by the gossamer threads of ancient code and the testimony of the nobility.
There is no code nor witnesses that will save him now.
"Dad's going to kill you. Really, he is."
He never lives to help the Avatar defeat Ozai.
He never sees Uncle again.
Father kills him...and never regrets.
Zuko senses a presence, something distant pricking at his awareness until it finally forces him to surface from his nightmare, confused but awake. Self-defense kicks in like a reflex.
He jolts up, half-sitting when the fire leaves his fingertips, eyes wild but not yet registering. The embers within the circle of stones roar to life, throwing off heat and light, feeding off Zuko's whipcord discharge of emotion. His brain is still disoriented and sleep-stupid as he tries to get his eyes to focus.
The Avatar's gang is fanned out along the edges of the campsite and they're glaring daggers, but it's the water tribe boy that really has his attention. He's got the little Earth bender protectively hefted into his arms and she looks terrified. He spots the scorch marks on the ground where her feet had just been, a charred line of earth leading back to...oh, him.
Who else could fuck this situation up any worse, and in his sleep no less?
Zuko knows her clothing is singed, can taste the acrid scent of it over the smoke. He's tempted to think all of this is still a part of his nightmare, that is, until the shouting begins.
"Did you see that? He almost burned Toph! I told you this was a bad idea!"
Katara's voice is shrill with anger, like a cold blast of hate dumped over Zuko's head. The water is already out of her pouch and swirling, tentative energy poised to strike at him in retribution.
"Wait!" He cries, throwing his hands out defensively. "Wait! I didn't mean it. It was an accident!"
Zuko knows his face is frantic, but he doesn't care. He wants to know why they're here. "You woke me, I didn't know it was you!"
The Avatar is there, Aang. The kid has a name, after all. The water bender, Katara, is standing beside him. The blind Earth bender girl's name is Toph, he thinks as she steps forward. She was scared a moment ago, a quick flash of fear and vulnerability that all but vanishes beneath the new emotion shuttering across her features. Now...she's just plain pissed. Really fucking pissed.
"You startled me, I'm sorry!" Zuko shouts. He's already trying to get his feet under him, to get up and just go talk to them, but clearly it's the wrong move. A massive clump of earth and rocks comes hurtling straight for his head. It's duck or lose his front teeth.
His right foot is full of pins and needles and the rest of him isn't awake enough to compensate for his clumsiness. He scrambles to the side, dodging the worst of the hit, but not quick enough to evade it completely. His ribs take the brunt of the impact, so hard it drops him right to his knees. It's like getting kicked in the gut by and ostrich horse, which he knows all too well.
He falls over and braces himself on all fours to catch his breath. But the moment he goes down the ground opens up to swallow him. He shouts as his ankles and knees lock together, the bones knocking against each other. In front of him the earth snaps up around his wrists, yanking him forward and down, until he's prostrate on the forest floor. His heart is beating fast in his ears when a set of worn boots cross into his field of vision.
"Sokka get back!"
Zuko raises his eyes to the water tribe boy. That blasted boomerang is out so fast all he manages to see is a flash of steel before he feels it nudge under his chin, tilting his face up. The edge feels sharper than he imagined, sharp enough to slit his throat if that's Sokka's intent. Sokka would probably slit his throat with a rusty spoon if he gave him an excuse.
"I didn't mean to hurt anyone," He says, keeping his voice soft and even, swallowing hard against the uncomfortable press of steel. "It's not like I was expecting company. You guys told me to get lost."
Zuko's eyes dart around to the others. The shadows created by the firelight deepen the contours of their faces, making them look cruel and the stares he's getting are just as cold and assessing.
"Why are you here?" He asks, the suspicion bleeding into his voice unchecked and with good reason. He's bound and outnumbered, surrounded by bending masters and the instinct to break free is clawing at him like a rabid wolf-hound. It looks like they've changed their minds about allowing him to walk away, which tells him they're not nearly as stupid as he sometimes likes to believe. Rejection might be all the excuse Zuko needs to send him running back to the Fire Nation - the way he's done once before. He's severed his ties for good, but it's not enough. They have to believe it.
He's pretty sure Aang won't allow the others to kill him, at least Zuko doesn't think so. He pushes down the self-defense instinct to lash out and escape and closes his eyes for a few precious seconds to think past all-consuming impulse.
He caught them off guard earlier today. Maybe the key here is letting the Avatar and his friends think they have the advantage. Turnabout is fair play, he supposes.
Of course, right now they do have the advantage, though Zuko assures himself he could escape if he wanted to; summon the breath of fire or heat the earth enough to loosen his bonds. Zuko doesn't really believe they'll hurt him. Much. Getting captured might be his only way in.
The humiliation of his position doesn't make things any easier; on his knees with his ass in the air, hands bound low in front of him. It rankles him, like it was probably meant to, but he can't afford to show it. He's endured worse and besides, this isn't anything he hasn't done of his own volition only hours ago. There are wrongs he needs to atone for and his gesture of supplication is as sincere now as it was when he first hit his knees.
He flexes his wrists against the rock manacles and considers how perfectly they are bent to contain him. Toph could easily crush his bones if she chose to, could make this as painful an experience he's ever endured, but he's not being hurt, only restrained. They came to him. If being taken prisoner is the first fragile step toward acceptance, then so be it. He's had worse ideas. Like pirates.
Zuko opens his eyes and exhales, releasing a deep, cleansing breath. "You have something you want to ask me?"
He tries to keep his eyes lowered so his glance isn't misinterpreted as a challenge, but Sokka has other ideas. He taps insistently on the boomerang until it nudges his face up at a sharp angle. Zuko's first instinct is always resistance, so yielding to another is a conscious effort.
He's only ever been this close to Katara and Aang and Sokka looks like a masculine version of his sister. The family resemblance is impossible to ignore from arm's length, especially now that his hair has been released from its wolftail, wisps of it loosely framing his face. They could be the same age. Sokka smells like the bison, the same musky animal scent that's filled Zuko's nostrils since the bath Appa gave him.
Sokka is studying him as well, and not bothering at all to hide the way he's looking at his scar. It makes him want to snarl back at the other boy, but he settles down once he notices the lack of disgust in Sokka's face. He knows how awful it is, but Sokka just seems...well, curious. He doesn't mean to shudder, Zuko's not used to anyone wanting to look at him and it just kind of happens. Sokka looks a little self-conscious for it and seems to take that as his cue to stop gawking like an over-sized badger frog.
"Yeah. You say you want to help us."
"Good. Then you won't mind answering some questions."
The Earth bender, Toph, steps up beside Sokka and fortunately all traces of her anger are gone.
"See, the son of the Fire Lord shows up and says he wants to help defeat daddy and teach the Avatar fire bending. You can't blame us for being a wee bit suspicious."
"Uh, yeah, I mean...yes, I understand why you would be cautious. Go ahead, fire away. Oh, uh, I mean...you know, ask me anything."
"This is a waste of time, Toph. He's a liar."
Zuko's head whips over to Katara at the accusation, ignoring the way Sokka's boomerang pushes even further into the soft underside of his jaw. He's not trying to draw blood, but Zuko hisses when he feels the delicate sting of it opening to the cinders and smoke in the air around him.
"That's for me to judge, Sugar Queen."
Behind them, Aang is quiet and solemn and hasn't said a single word. His eyes never leave Zuko. The Avatar's lemur is resting on his shoulders, its body coiled around the back of his neck while its furry face peers at him from beneath Aang's chin. It's tiny eyes glint reflectively in the darkness, looking as solemn as its young master.
"You know what the worst part about being born over a hundred years ago is? I miss all the friends I used to hang out with. Before the war started, I used to always with my friend Kuzan. The two of us, we'd get in and out of so much trouble together. He was one of the best friends I ever had and he was from the Fire Nation, just like you. If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends too?"
When Aang asked him that question he'd seemed so innocent, so trusting. He's lost some of that trust, like a turtle duck shedding its first downy coat, soft and vulnerable until its leathery shell hardens with age. Zuko knows he's played a part in hardening Aang, and he's sorry for that, for being the source of more disappointment in someone who needed it the least.
"Listen guys, he's Fire Nation royalty and he's practically begging to talk to us. Do you think we can afford to pass on an opportunity to question the enemy?"
"I'm not your enemy," Zuko insists. "Anymore."
Toph squats down level with him. The scent of burnt cloth mixes with the richness of the soil, pressing into his nostrils the way she presses into his space. Her smile reminds him too much of Azula's.
"That's what I'm here to find out, Sparky."
She clears her throat, loud and messy and crude sounding, the way his Uncle sometimes does in the mornings. After another moment or two Sokka finally takes the obvious hint and drops the boomerang, taking a step out of their shared space and out of the firelight.
Why exactly should Zuko suddenly feel less at ease with Sokka further away? Perhaps because there is an obnoxious twelve-year-old Earth bending master leering at him like he's she's about open a sinkhole and bury him up to his neck.
But with Sokka out of the way, Zuko is able to get a better look at her; the Avatar's Earth bending teacher. Her clothes were once fine, but now they're filthy, just like her and she wears it like a badge, proud in her element. He can't help but notice that she is undeniably pretty underneath all that dirt. Her milky eyes are almost too big, framed by thick black lashes. Her nose is tiny, her skin porcelain-fine, like a baby's. Twelve might be pushing it.
Zuko's eyes travel the length of her arm down to the ground. Her palm is flat and the fingers are spread wide. He thinks of how much it reminds him of the trees and their roots anchoring into the soil and Zuko suddenly feels much smaller next to her. She's only a child and yet she exudes power. Another prodigy, just like his sister. The corners of her tiny mouth lift up as his heart beats faster.
"Azula lied and you couldn't tell," Aang finally says, sounding impossibly young and timid for someone who's supposed to be the all-powerful Avatar.
"When did you speak to Azula?" Zuko blurts out.
Aang's face is not unkind when he speaks. "During the invasion, in the tunnels beneath the Fire Nation palace."
"You were there looking for my father."
"But we got your crazy sister instead!" Sokka shrieks startling him, throwing his long arms out from his sides for emphasis. "By the way, she's scarier than you. Really."
"Please. She scares everyone. It's what she's good at."
"And she's a very good liar." Toph says it like it's a compliment. "Better than anybody I've ever come across."
"Yeah, I could've told you that, too."
"Guess lying runs in the family."
Katara looks like she's splitting hairs over smacking him with a water whip, but Aang is keeping a restraining hand on hers. One wrong word and Aang's temperance won't matter. The lemur chitters excitedly and Aang strokes it absently.
"You're the Fire Lord's son and Azula's brother. You're no different than either of them."
Zuko wants to glare at her, but thinks better of it and lowers his eyes. He wants to shout that he's nothing like his father or his sister and yes, he's done bad things, but he wants to change all that. He's more than just the sum of his family's sins and he could prove that if they would just. Give. Him. A. Chance. He won't respond to Katara's bait, but it's becoming more and more apparent she won't believe anything he says.
His eyes fly open when warm fingers slip on the artery of his throat, abruptly tossing him out of his head. The Earth bender, Toph, is touching him, breaching that last margin of personal space. She doesn't ask permission. She doesn't need to.
Zuko shouts stupidly, jerking back and pulling on his muscles painfully, scraping his wrists inside the rock manacles. He shudders the full length of his body and feels ridiculous for it. Mai was the last person to touch him gently. Toph doesn't seem to care how gentle her fingers are.
Getting pelted with rocks or water is something he expects, not whatever this is. Toph's face is intent, her touch deliberate and the absence of mouthy remarks from the group make him painfully aware of her focus and naked contact. When she speaks, her voice transmits through his skin.
"Actually Katara, he's nothing like his sister. When she lied she was cold, rigid like steel. Nothing rattled that girl. This one's as skittish as a wild ostrich-horse, aren't ya, boy? He couldn't lie for shit right now."
What the fuck? He might be nervous (and okay, he is otherwise he would curse right back at the little chit), but if this girl starts petting him he's going to unleash the breath of fire into the sky and the hell with all this.
And how in blazes could she know whether he's lying or not?
It's a relief Toph doesn't stroke him in any way that might make him feel like her pet, but the relief is short-lived. She doesn't so much as move and the cool concentration of her face feels like she's looking right through him, establishing a skin to skin connection, more piercing than a blade. The feathery hairs on the back of his neck are standing on end.
"When people lie, their bodies respond with subtle changes in breathing and the beat of their hearts. My Earth bending helps me to see. I can sense those vibrations through touch."
Oh. Well. Zuko's never even heard of anyone doing anything even remotely like that. A talent like hers would be really useful around the Fire Nation court. Prodigy doesn't begin to encompass what this girl is capable of. So, if the Avatar's Earth bending teacher can truly detect lies, then Toph, the Earth, and Zuko, together complete a circuit. He's become part of her sensory array, like an extension of her hand. It is a frightening and acute form of perception that fascinates as much as it scares him.
And he understands a little why Toph wouldn't be able to tell Azula wasn't lying. Zuko may not be a prodigal Earth bender, but even he knows Azula doesn't so much as bat an eyelash when she lies. It's as natural to her as breathing or fire bending. Though, he can't imagine how Toph got her hands on Azula without getting them burnt. He'll have to ask her about that later, provided he makes it through this interrogation.
Toph leans in closer to his ear and drops her voice to a whisper. "Stick to the truth, Sparky, and you might just convince these guys to let you in to the group. Twinkletoes needs a fire bending teacher and my bet's on you, so don't make me look bad. Deal?"
Her breath tickles the shell of his ear and he shudders again, but just because it tickles, not because he's nervous. Well, not that nervous. He has nothing to fear as long as he's truthful and it's fine. He didn't come here to lie. Zuko swallows hard and meets her eyes. She must be satisfied with whatever she senses because her little bow-shaped mouth curves into a grin.
Sokka's eyes weigh heavily on him before it occurs to Zuko he's staring just where Toph's hand rests on his throat. He would swear that look is something between curious, worried and possessive, but Toph doesn't seem to take notice. It's not as though she could see he rationalizes, but Zuko has to wonder where her limits are - if she even understands boundaries, or if she does, he doubts obeying them would ever occur to her.
Sokka's eyes narrow at him, and Zuko actually does glare back this time. As if he has any choice where Toph puts her hands when he's pinned like this. Sokka turns away from them both and the next time he speaks, Zuko has to strain to hear him from behind his back.
"Listen, if we're gonna do this I think we need a test question first, like a control."
"Excuse me, Snoozles, but who's the expert here?"
"You are, Toph." The way Sokka says it, Zuko would bet the guy is rolling his eyes in his head.
"Damn straight I am."
Sokka pivots back in a lazy movement of too-long arms and legs, his face neutral but tired. For the first time Zuko gauges the moon's position in the night sky and notes how late it really is.
"I just think this is a sensitive situation and we need to be sure, that's all."
"I get one freak who lies smooth as silk and suddenly everybody's a fucking critic."
"C'mon, Toph. Humor me." Sokka might be tired, but his voice is warm and fond for the Earth bender.
"Oh, fine." Toph turns back to him looking thoroughly annoyed. She's clearly not used to people questioning her abilities. "Are you now or have you ever been a 400-foot tall purple platypus bear with pink horns and silver wings?"
Bewildered, Zuko answers, "Uh, no?"
"Not lying. Happy now?"
"Hey, works for me," The idiot water tribe says. Sokka goes to sheathe his weapon and stops when he notices the dark smear of Zuko's blood. He doesn't trip over himself to apologize but Zuko thinks he looks suddenly uncomfortable.
"Let's uh, get down to business." He mumbles and quickly swipes the boomerang clean using the open palm of his hand before clenching it into a closed fist.
"How'd you follow us this time, jerkbender?"
Now Zuko is the one suppressing his urge to roll his eyes at the jab. "In a war balloon," nodding toward his makeshift tent. "I hid the burner a few yards from here."
Sokka's eyes glitter excitedly at the mention of the war balloon and Zuko's glad he doesn't have to offer more explanation about his little airship, but he's got a suspicion his ride's about to be claimed by new masters.
"And you hid it because you wanted to sneak up on us, right?"
"No. I hid it so the Fire Nation couldn't find it."
Sokka turns back to the others. "Katara, why don't you take a look through Zuko's things." He smiles at Zuko. "Make sure there aren't any nasty surprises. I'm sure his highness won't mind since he's on our side now." Sokka's sarcasm is as thick as the smoke wafting over the fire and Katara's all too happy to indulge her brother's whim.
"Go ahead." Zuko offers. "There's just some food and water and a little money. I have nothing to hide."
He watches as Katara disappears inside the darkness under the canopy and Zuko can hear her retrieving his rucksack. She reappears in the circle of firelight and empties the contents disdainfully in a sprawling mess. "This is everything."
Aang stands over her and watches, curious as she begins rifling through his belongings. Sokka grins cheerfully at the chinking sound of gold coin. And he's not exaggerating thinking the big oaf practically salivates at the sight of his broad swords. Zuko doesn't care if they confiscate all of it. It's theirs for the taking, just as long as they accept him, too.
A moment later he changes his mind. His breath catches, a quick blossoming pain in his chest when he recognizes the picture Katara's holding in her hands. In his haste to escape the palace Zuko had completely forgotten he'd taken it at all, but seeing it suddenly makes him feel even more alone. Katara recognizes his Uncle's likeness too, but thankfully says nothing about it and places the possession back inside his rucksack, taking one final look at Zuko as she does.
"Now why would Prince angry jerk want to hide from the Fire Nation?"
So it would appear the idiot water tribe boy is going to lead this mockery of an interrogation, after all. Zuko desperately hopes he doesn't drag this out all night.
"I can no more afford to be spotted than any of you. Traitors face the penalty of death and helping the Avatar pretty much makes me a traitor in my father's eyes."
"Traitor?" Katara says, forgetting his belongings, pushing past her brother with hands on her hips, face full of righteous rage.
"Oh, you're a traitor, all right, Zuko, to anyone who's stupid enough to trust you. Until the invasion, everyone thought the Avatar was dead. But now suddenly here you are, telling us you you've turned against your father and want to join us, and you're even going to pass yourself off as Aang's fire bending teacher. And you seriously expect us to ignore how convenient all of this is, right?"
"I know given what I've done it's hard to trust me..."
"Try impossible!" Katara cuts him off, cold and harsh. "The last time I felt sorry for you and you turned on us and Aang nearly died!"
"I'm sorry. I was confused and I made the wrong choice. But I know that now."
"And we're supposed to take you on your word this time?"
There's anger in her voice but somewhere hiding behind it is a kind of brokenness that he acknowledges putting there. Images of his mistakes shutter through his mind, of pirates and betrothal necklaces, of crude threats and insults, defeat on a glacier and a lost opportunity for absolution. To her he's still the Prince of the Fire Nation, representative of all the wrongs inflicted on her people. She would have left him for dead half buried in the snow and never looked back.
"What's to stop you from running back to the Fire Lord?" She shouts.
"It's different this time."
"How?" Katara demands. Her hands are clenched into fists and she's so, so fiercely angry with him she might be trembling with it. If he didn't know better he could swear his blood is running cold with her hate.
"How is it different?"
"Because before I was a failure, an outcast. My only hope of ever going home again hinged on retrieving the Avatar for the Fire Lord. I had nothing to lose by helping Azula and everything to gain. But now, helping you means I stand to lose everything and gain nothing."
Wait. That didn't sound right, even to him. "Oh, hold on. That's not what I..."
"Uh, Zuko, buddy, that's so not helping your case."
"No, wait! Please. I'm terrible at explaining all this." Zuko stares down at the ground, shaking his head in frustration as he forces himself to slow down, putting every effort into finding the right words.
"Everything I thought I wanted meant nothing. But I had to go back home to figure that out. What I'm trying to tell you is that I had it all and I threw it away and I don't regret it for a second, not if it means I can help put a stop to this war! Do you understand now?"
"I think I do." Aang says. Of course, Zuko would be more reassured if Aang didn't look so hesitant, but it's something.
"So...the Fire Lord knows you've switched sides?"
Zuko nods at Sokka, each breath embarrassingly difficult. "I told him the war was wrong and I was leaving to help the Avatar."
The group look amongst themselves for a few long moments and then back at him. "How'd he take that news?"
"Oh, I guess a little worse than the last time I spoke out against him."
"And what happened the last time?"
He stares so hard at the gnarled roots and loose soil under his trapped hands that they begin blur in and out of focus.
"Well, I...I didn't always look like this."
His voice sounds brittle at the admission. Zuko thinks it was a mistake to say it like that, especially when he looks up in time to see everyone's faces strip down to blank comprehension simultaneously, but it's just one more thing he's done and can't undo.
"Look like what?" Toph asks softly, with something that sounds strangely like uncertainty.
Zuko had completely forgotten. Toph has never seen his face.
"My face...it's...uh, hard to look at."
How do you explain something like this to someone who can't see, he wonders.
"Not for me it isn't."
"Oh, right. Sorry, I forgot."
Zuko suddenly knows what she means to do and he's powerless to stop her. He still gasps when her hands cup his face. Protests of "No," and "Don't do that," fall from his mouth, all of which she blatantly ignores. Katara has the nerve to look wounded.
It's not as though Toph's hurting him, except she is, especially when her fingertips find the outer edges of scar tissue on his cheek. No one's touched it save Uncle, and that had been when he was in too much pain to change the dressings himself. It feels like she's reaching into his chest and squeezing his heart, wringing the blood and muscle and sinew from it like it was nothing, like she didn't just cripple its former rhythm.
She carefully traces the live, healthy skin, comparing it with the taut, scarred surfaces, barely pausing at the wetness at the corner of his eye. By the time one of her tiny hands has curled around his burned ear, he realizes the other is bracing his shoulder, digging in like an anchor.
"Zuko, we kind of assumed...ah, I mean..."
Sokka's voice is a little softer now, too, even a little awkward. It should feel satisfying, but instead it's somehow worse. The shame he's been battling with courses through him, a stubborn, hateful thing that won't die. He didn't deserve his brand. He shouldn't hate himself, but it took too long to sort through his feelings and now it's just more scar tissue.
"You mean...it wasn't some sort of...accident?"
Is that what everyone thought? An accident? What do these foreigners really know about fire benders? Sages, they don't even know how old he is. The only things they understand is what he's shown them; rage and fight and fire.
"It was no accident."
Zuko speaks so low it feels like the dejected sound doesn't make it past his own ears. Wished it didn't. Meanwhile, the camp fire blazes brighter, hotter, the flames licking outward in every direction before shrinking back down.
"It's big." Toph says, and she's not talking about the fire.
"Can you see out of that eye?"
The gentleness of her tone coupled with her careful exploration of his scar is almost too much to take. Not even Mai touches him this way.
"I can now. " His breath hitches when her fingers ghost over the burnt lid. "Though it's not like it was before. I've learned to compensate for it, mostly. If it weren't for Uncle, I would have lost the eye to infection."
"So, your own father burned you?"
He thinks distantly that was Aang, but his brain can't make it clear, suddenly can't distinguish his voice from the others, as if he's been plunged into a dark tunnel filled with echoes.
"There are consequences for speaking out of turn in the Fire Lord's war room. I learned the hard way."
It's a little more complicated than that, but it's all he's willing to give them right now, maybe all he's capable of giving them as they stand judging him.
When Toph finally pulls her hand away from his face he's stunned to realize his body is leaning in after to chase her touch.
"So, wait. He melts half your face off just for speaking out? And here I thought my parents were bad listeners."
"I told you his family was twisted. Sorry, Sparky."
He almost laughs at Toph's crude appraisal, the way she tosses things off. It's kind of refreshing in it's own way and it helps to push down the dark emotion choking him. It's still there, but he can breathe past it and doesn't fault himself too badly for using the ground as a focal point, despite the sets of eyes boring through the back of his head. But then Zuko suddenly forces his eyes to lock with Aang's because what he needs to say next is important.
"I've learned better than to expect mercy from my father. And if you want to defeat the Fire Lord, you'd better do the same. I confronted him on the day of the eclipse and even then, he tried to kill me. I can tell you everything I know about the Fire Nation. I can show you how I survived, if you'll let me."
If he's going to be labeled a traitor, then he's going to be the best that ever drew breath.
"What about that Uncle of yours? Where's he at?" Toph asks, hopeful.
Aang still hasn't said a thing and he doesn't know what to make of Katara's expression. Could it be sympathy? Doubtful.
"Uncle is...I don't know. I tried to break him out of prison right after the eclipse, but he'd gotten himself out somehow. I don't know where he is now."
"Good for him. I mean...I'm sorry. It sounds like you miss the guy."
"Yeah. I do."
"I'm sorry, everyone. I need to think about this for a while."
Zuko has never seen a more forlorn, troubled look on Aang's young face. The lemur chitters and snakes nimbly around Aang's body in a quick flurry of motion, the stripes of the black and white tail catching his eye in the dimness before it spreads its tiny webbed arms and swoops off into the forest. Katara narrows her blue eyes at him one last time, still fierce, still unforgiving as she clasps the Avatar's hand and leads him mutely away after the little beast.
'I need to think about this for a while' is an improvement over 'we'd better not ever ever see your face again,' or 'we'll never trust you'. So why does he feel more wounded than before?
Sokka and Toph are still with him. Maybe they're going to stay and keep watch over him, to make certain he doesn't escape. But then something odd happens.
Sokka gets down on one knee on his other side and carefully touches the wound on his neck. He doesn't freak the way he did when Toph first touched him, but it is startling and he makes shit effort to hide it. Sokka mostly ignores it.
It stings when the boy dabs at it awkwardly with a piece of cloth. It's probably filthy, will probably do more harm than good and cause the cut to fester and rot, but it does feel...well, nice. He never thought being fussed over - if that's what you could call this - was anything to welcome, especially from a former enemy, but the gesture warms him from the inside. Not that he'd ever admit it.
"Sorry about that. I didn't mean to cut you."
Stupid peasant. Stupid Sokka. But he says neither.
"It's okay. Not a big deal," He rasps and seeing as they've tried to kill each other in combat before this, he's surprised to realize it's true.
Then it occurs to him that both Sokka and Toph are on either side of him, touching him at the same time. Each has a hand on his throat, deliberately cautious and careful and the awareness of them hits him like a physical blow.
He quickly turns his face away from Sokka...and right into Toph and his mouth so impossibly close to hers he could easily kiss her. He wouldn't of course. She's too young and he's not even sure he wants to, despite the pleasant feeling in his belly and his chest that he can't - doesn't want to explain. That pulls him up even more abruptly and the way he draws the next breath is so sharp it hurts. There's a flush creeping along his neck and face and he desperately hopes it's just the heat from the camp fire.
"Not bad, Sparky."
Despite her approval he avoids her face, looking up somewhere past the thick mop of her black hair, until he realizes it's where Aang was just standing.
"Really? Because it didn't feel like that went particularly well."
"Well, my sister didn't freeze off any of your body parts, so I'd say that's a plus. I mean, for you, because it's not like I care if we have to start calling you 'Stumpy 'or anything."
Toph's giggles send a shudder down his whole body. Of course, talk of dismembering him would make her laugh.
"The group needs to see you as a person, not just some evil guy that's been chasing them. It's alot harder to dismiss you once they understand a little more about where you're coming from. That was hard for you back there, I know. You opened up to them, knowing they were judging you. That kind of thing takes guts."
Suddenly it feels like Toph has in fact opened a sinkhole beneath him. He's not sure if it's the unexpected wash of praise from her or the idea that the source of so of his much pain and shame could have provided a way to reach these people.
He's still struggling with the concept when Sokka's hand feels like it wants to creep upward towards the damaged side of his face, as if there's some truth there that will only reveal itself through touch. Maybe, Zuko thinks, it was true for him as well. His father's cruelty and indifference towards the world would never have been evident to him had he not experienced it for himself.
Sokka's eyes look cobalt in the dim light, clear and intelligent and just as blindingly perceptive as Toph.
The prodding at his throat stops, like Sokka only just noticed he's still doing it. He stands up abruptly and Zuko can see the open expression as it closes off and turns away.
"You like swords?"
Sokka moves and picks his broad swords up in a sweeping arc, steel glinting off the moon's milky glow, crescent shapes ghosting in the dark.
"I didn't know benders used swords," He says, looking over his shoulder at him. Sokka's hands wrap around the hilt of his weapons naturally, an easy fit.
"It's a good skill to have."
Sokka's smile is broad and generous and Zuko can tell he's spinning his wheels with spirits knows what.
"Yeah, well you two sweethearts can bond over your swords tomorrow." She puts emphasis on the word swords, and finishes with a dirty inflection he's trying to un-hear.
"Sweethearts!" He and Sokka sputter together and he all but drops his swords. Sokka's still looking indignant when Zuko adds, sounding not a little dazed, "Wait...tomorrow?"
Toph stands and dusts herself off. "Snoozles said it before. Katara didn't waste you and she could've. She's more protective than a saber-toothed moose-lion, but you prove yourself to the team and she'll back off. Twinkletoes will come around. You'll see."
"What about you two? Do you trust me?"
Sokka's one eyebrow does an odd twitchy thing. "Oh, hell no! But...you do seem sincere and honestly...we could use the help. Aang needs to learn fire bending if he's gonna defeat the Fire Lord."
"I," Toph emphasizes, "Don't have to trust you. I just have to know when you're lying, and so far, you've been honest. Until you give me a reason not to trust you, I'm good. But...just in case you get any ideas about pulling anything funny.."
Toph twists her one hand and the rock manacles press uncomfortably tight, until he's wincing from the relentless pressure. Then he's drawn even farther down, earth rumbling until he's laid out flat at Toph's feet. His cheeks heat embarrassingly when he feels the ground pushing up around his thighs, nudging him between.
"What are you?...Ngh."
That might be him making that keening sound because Sokka is just shaking his head.
"Toph," Sokka tisks. "She's such a kidder."
"Just so we're clear who's in charge, hot pants. And we are clear, right?"
She toes his spread fingers playfully, like he's sand at the beach. That's not the only thing she's playing with and c'mon...she's twelve for crying out loud! Prodigies. He gets a good solid press of rock on his balls for his hesitation. He nods to her hurriedly, biting his lip as he does. She twists her hand again, and he exhales in a rush as the pressure finally releases.
They start to walk away and just when he's convinced they're going to leave him like this all night, bound and alone, the ground falls away from him and he's free.
Toph glances back over her shoulder at him at the very edge of the clearing.
"And I don't think you're hard to look at. Not at all." She smiles sweetly at him and then follows Sokka back into the woods, out of his sight.
Zuko moves his limbs because he can, shaking out the tension he's harbored since he arrived. He's free and alive and tomorrow he might be helping the Avatar. He didn't have to beg for it, but he had to share a part of himself with the group; a raw, bleeding part of himself, yes, but at least it wasn't for nothing. He might have a shot at this 'good' thing yet.
The badger frog hops back into his campsite and Zuko flops down on his back, staring up into the night sky before falling into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.