Title: Airbender's Child: Earth
Summary: Zuko's friends know and trust him. Do they know him well enough, though? Does he know himself well enough? AU.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything in this story, in fact a lot of the dialogue will probably be cadged straight from the show itself, which means I own even less.
Author's Notes: Please see Airbender's Child: Water if you haven't yet before reading this. You won't track this story so well otherwise. For everyone who's coming over from the first 'book', hiya, enjoy the prologue. Yes, there's a prologue here. No, I didn't really need it, except that 'Fire' is going to need one, and I hate to be inconsistent on format things like that. Yes, I totally skimmed past Fong. I'm sorry, but what happened there isn't important to what I'm doing.
There were a few things Zuko had found consistently true ever since he started travelling with the Avatar. The first, was that Katara and Aang were crazy optimists and could be relied on to get everyone into trouble because they just couldn't help themselves. The second was that these three teenagers were better friends than any he'd ever had, and all were closer to him than anyone in his family had ever been, save maybe his uncle. The third was that maybe he wasn't an incompetent, or evil. Maybe it was just that he was normal. That was an amazingly freeing feeling.
They had taken a boat part of the way to the Earth kingdom. Sokka was not quite himself yet again, but they were joking and sparring and wrestling the way they had done almost right since he'd joined Aang's quest. For the first time in his life, he didn't feel lonely, he didn't feel lost and he didn't feel a sense of desperation to prove himself to someone. He didn't have to be better than everyone else, he just had to try.
It never mattered to his friend that they didn't share exactly the same opinions about things and they could talk about all kinds of things he'd never been able to talk about. Silly things. Frivolous things. Girls and food and whether topknots were sillier than a warrior's wolf tail. Even when they fought, it didn't mean the friendship was over, they could both apologise and either one would admit he was wrong, or they would agree to disagree and never talk about it again.
Katara was different, but she was the same in that he couldn't alienate her with a single fight. He could still outbend her, but she was a prodigy and learning rapidly. Her mastery was a sort of technical rite of passage in the Water Tribes, rather than what he would have understood as a master. Among the tribes, there was a certain set of tests you had to pass to be declared a journeyman or a master. Within mastery there were levels of seniority, but Katara had passed enough to reach a junior master's level of competence. She'd assured him that, from what she'd seen of his bending, he was also a master by that definition. It was different from the style of the Fire Nation, where a small convocation of masters had to vote on the matter of a student's apparent mastery. It was a much harder rank to achieve there.
When he said as much, she didn't take offense, just admitted that Pakku had told her it was something she could bludgeon Aang with when he tried to get out of learning his bending. Zuko had snickered along with her. She never took it hard that she lost to him consistently in a fight and he learned from her by taking his knocks in their sparring. She was improving rapidly, however, and soon enough he was going to be outclassed unless he improved a lot himself. Katara's charming insistence that he was her stuffed tiger-seal had returned the moment they'd gotten off the boat as well.
His friendship with Aang was something else again. The young airbender often came to him for advice about people, history and understanding the war that was ravaging the world. When he asked Aang why he was asking Zuko and not Katara or Sokka, the airbender explained that Zuko had grown up in the Fire Nation, he'd lived with the last of the Air Nomads and he'd travelled all over the Earth Kingdom during his exile. Zuko knew the world and knew the people in it, Katara and Sokka had never left the South Pole until Aang had brought them with him.
He thought Zuko was the wisest member of their little group.
That alone made the former prince want to do well by his young friend. Aang trusted his wisdom and knowledge of the world and he had every intention of never letting him down. The trust, the caring and the friendship he'd found were worth everything.
It was aggravating when Aang refused to listen to him and Katara when General Fong started pushing Aang to simply magically master the Avatar State. It was as though neither could see that there were high odds mastery of that state was closely tied to a mastery of the elements. Katara eventually gave up, unable to continue watching Aang risk destroying himself in the dangerous, yet ridiculous, quest. Zuko had stuck by him, more to watch and protect, than because he agreed.
In the end, Fong turned out to be a madman, and the four teens had left on their own for Omashu. Zuko had alternately shared Shuga's saddle with Katara and Sokka on their way there. They took their time, since Aang needed to still master water, but better to do it on the move towards the city where King Bumi awaited in all his madness, than to complete the training with the Northern Tribe and then have to add in the travel time to the earthbender.
On the nights when he was alone, Zuko privately admitted that Katara's training wear of nothing but the wraps she wore under her clothes were distracting, but he firmly controlled his imagination. She was Sokka's younger sister, and besides, he knew she was completely crazy, as evidenced by half the adventures she'd dragged them into on the way up to the North Pole. He'd had quite enough of crazy in his life with his sister, thanks.
They were following the waterways on their way up to Omashu, and had stopped for an afternoon of training before making the final push to where Aang could begin his mastery of the element of earth.
This is where the next chapter of their lives truly started.