Hello my fellow Avatar: TLA fans! So this is my first fic. Ever. Please be kind. This is AU after Day of Blak Sun and in my universe Sparky-Boom-Boom-I –Blow-Shit-Up-With-My-Forehead was never in the picture. Zuko never hired him and he's never attacked the gaang nor shall he ever. I've taken some liberties with Zuko's past, but this *is* fan fiction which is clearly labeled AU. Really I don't even know that they can be called liberties as they're technically just nightmares right now… but I digress.

I apologize ahead of time for my atrocious use of commas, this is unbeta'd.

Disclaimer: If I owned ATLA, I wouldn't have hired M. Night Shamalyn to direct the movie. *shudder*


Round One – Bone vs. Boulder

Toph stomped along the ground above the temple sending out feelers to gauge the proximity of obstacles. Such was her anger that rather than go around, she plowed right through them bending boulders left and right. She sent a vicious wave of stone flying before her, wiping out a small stand of saplings as she continued her heated stalking. Aang would have been appalled at her actions. She smirked bitterly. Good.

Why did no one listen to her? She might have been one of the youngest in the group but sometimes she had to wonder if she was the only one that had any damn common sense! Aang *needed* a firebending teacher! If he didn't learn to wait and listen, he was never gonna improve as an earthbender. She had fought to bury the desire to pound her pupil's head into the dust when the idiot had tuned Zuko down. She had been even angrier with Katara's actions. She, as much as Toph, should have seen the blessing it was to have Zuko show up. If he wasn't the spirits' answer to their prayers she would eat her headband.

She knew the spirits didn't deal straight. Ever. They didn't need to - they were already dead. There was no one but the Avatar to hold them to their side of a bargain if they made one and he hadn't been around for a hundred years. In this case, though, Toph had to admit that the spirits had delivered precisely what they had been asking for – a firebending teacher.

Guess we should have been a little more specific Toph thought wryly. It was the pressing need for Aang to complete his education that had her tramping around up here in the woods above the Western Air Temple at this spirits forsaken hour. She had to find Zuko and talk to him. Perhaps if she got a better feel for him, she would be able to assuage Katara's and the rest of the gang's misgivings and convince the light-footed young man to come back with her.

Toph could tell she was getting close. She could feel the vibrations of someone moving around on the ground and hear the muted crackle of a campfire. Was Zuko awake? He sure was moving a lot for someone asleep. Maybe he's dreaming…

Zuko was in fact asleep, though just barely. After his return from the disastrous attempt at friendly contact he had sat staring moodily into the flames of his small fire for hours. He had finally given up replaying the unpleasant encounter in his head near midnight and had been dozing fitfully for the last hour. Being outside and alone had put his body in the state of alertness learned on the long journey of exile with Uncle and truly restful sleep was eluding him as nightmares plagued him as they had for many nights past.

Tonight's seemed to have taken him on a path they hadn't trod in quite a while. He hadn't dreamt like this since he had begun traveling as Lee. These had nothing to do with capturing the Avatar, or being banished or his mother. No, tonight his mind took him back to…

"Dad's gonna kill you! Really, he is."

His mind slipped forward to the slight scuff of a heel against the floor and cruel smile in the dark as a pillow clamped to his face. Fighting to breathe, pushing, clawing until he heard his mother's voice and felt the pillow fly away. The same cruel smile reflected on his father's face when he looked at his daughter at the breakfast table the next morning.

A time when he was fifteen in a small port town, searching for the Avatar. Men in masks descended from the rooftops and emerged from the alleys, a desperate battle that left half the buildings in the town in flames and Uncle carrying him back to the ship muttering about imperial assassins.

The Agni Kai with Zhao, and the thought that even his own crew wanted him to lose as badly as Zhao's did.

Sleeping in his cabin on the ship and hearing the boot scuff, so reminiscent of the bare heel on the floor all those years ago. Waking in terror to find the nightmare become flesh as one of his own crewmen held a glittering blade about to plunge it into his chest. The fight was fierce but brief. The man had broken Zuko's arm but Zuko had broken his neck. A fair trade for the new scars the man had bequeathed upon his bare torso with the near miss of the knife's initial swing. He hadn't been able to get a full night's sleep on that ship for the remainder of his time on it.

He suddenly found himself in a different part of the ship. It was the wheelhouse; he stiffened as he heard a shrill squawk. He turned to see a familiar lizard-bird fly out the window. He followed it shortly as a blast rocked the ship to its core and flung him through the glass pane and into the unforgiving waters below. His frenetic struggles brought his aching body to the surface…

A branch snapped. Zuko was moving before he registered his surroundings. Sounds like that always meant that someone was there that shouldn't be and that they were going to hurt him. Running on pure instinct and adrenaline he lashed out at the shape moving in the dim glow of the firelight, his mind still lost in the throes of the nightmare.

The slight figure in the darkness was not Toph, but Azula come back to finish what she and his father had started all those years ago.

His fire leapt from his hands and feet. He was jolted out the past and into the present by the indignant shriek behind the earthbent barrier- earthbent? Azula was a prodigy but even she could only bend one element, which meant…

"You burned my FEET!" Oh, Freeze it! The little earthbending girl! What had he done? He hadn't meant to hurt her…

Zuko leapt towards her shouting his apologies, but she turned away from him and began to crawl into the darkness. He begged her to let him help, kept trying to apologize as she bent boulders the size of his head towards him. He dodged, still trying to get through to her.

"I'm sorry! Please -"

But sorry wasn't going to cut it this time, just as it hadn't the last time he had acted out of turn. So intent was he on dodging the flying rocks that he didn't even see the spike she bent that hit his chest with the force of a battering ram. His apologies abruptly cut off as his breathing ceased and he was sent flying backwards with the sickening wet crunch of snapped bone.

He would have cried out as he hit the ground but it was all he could do to try and pull air into his starving lungs. A slight sob escaped as the smaller form disappeared into the brush, unseen. He lay on the hard ground frowning at the stars as his eyes filled with unshed tears as he finally got his breath back. The frustration and disappointment of the last few days finally boiled over.

"Why am I so bad at being good?" he screamed into the night. He gasped as his ill-thought out action spread flames of agony down his side. Toph's element was as tough as she was, and in a contest of bone vs. boulder, the rock would win every time.

Zuko lay still for a moment, gasping for breath. As he got his breathing back under control, he took inventory. His self evaluation turned up some minor injuries healing from The Day of Black Sun. Nothing he considered overly serious. He catalogued and filed away the stiff wrist and fresh burns that were hardly noticeable next to the demanding throb in his side.

Well, there was nothing for it. There was only one way to find out how much damage the wretched rock spike had done. He moved his good arm behind him and tried to lever himself into a sitting position. He recognized the unmistakable stab of agony as he felt bone grate against bone. At least two ribs were broken he decided as his breath hissed out between clenched teeth. With his non-existent luck there were probably some cracked ones as well but it was the broken ones that caused him the most concern.

These were not the first. The pirates' little parting gift had left similar injuries but this time there would be no Uncle here to wrap him in bandages and tell him to rest. He snorted to himself. When do I have the sense to listen to Uncle anyway? he thought, bitterly. His inability to see good advice for what it was what had gotten him in this situation anyway. Thinking of Uncle brought Zuko back to the altercation he had just had with Toph. Iroh had told him once, "If you slight someone, ask forgiveness a thousand times and then a thousand times more. It is far better to swallow one's pride than to allow things to turn to hate and bitterness over something two words could have fixed had you said them just one more time."

With that thought, Zuko lay himself carefully back down. He was too weak right now to wrap his ribs and he didn't have the material anyway. He hurt too much to even crawl over to get his blanket but the night was warm. He resolved to find Toph in the morning and apologize yet again. Zuko closed his eyes and as he drifted off to sleep, he whispered to the silent wood the words he wished more than anything he could have said before he left.

"I'm sorry Uncle."

So what did you think? If you think others would like it, remember to review. If others see that you thought this was worth saying something about they're far more likely to have a look themselves. Any constructive criticism, helpful hints etc would be much appreciated! Flames shall be used to roast marshmallows in order to make s'mores for nice reviewers!

galimeril ;D