"I still don't trust him" Katara whispered loudly to Aang, who just looks back at me apologetically. I know she wants me to hear it; she reminds me every day in so many words how truly evil I had been, unforgiveably and undoubtedly evil. The scarred Prince chasing her and her Avatar all over the world... the boogeyman.
I'm walking behind them as we move through the forest, looking for a suitable camp site for the night. The sky is lit up in orange hues blending through a violet and blue. The sun is going down slowly and as Katara pointed out mere moments ago; as the sun goes down and the moon rises-my element's fuel dropping and hers strengthening. She was most talented at subtle warnings…
"You're falling behind, your highness" She yells and I hear Aang groan in disapproval.
"She takes a while to warm up to people" Toph murmurs, slowing down so I can walk besides her, throwing a smooth rock casually in the air and with skilled precision.
"She can take her time… I deserve the treatment, understandably" I reply her, snatching the rock when she throws it up again.
"You'd think with you being hot she'd have warmed up to you already" Toph snickers, kicking at the ground, a jagged rock popping from the earth and catching it smoothly in her small dirty hands.
"You're a fire bender… fires hot?"
"Right" I say softly, throwing the rock in the surrounding forest. "That was a joke"
"You're humour sucks" she grumbles.
"Yours is in too much abundance" I reply, scowling at the Avatar and his Petulant Water Bender up ahead.
"Here" Katara snaps, plonking a small dollop of water-weed rice in my bowl. She smiles too sweetly before serving Sokka next, a portion six times the size of my own. I look over to Toph's bowl-her rice is twice my own.
I eat it slowly, imagining that it increases with each spoon-full I take up into my mouth instead of decreasing. In a minute, Sokka has finished his food and is grumbling about seconds.
"Sokka… don't be so greedy" Toph murmurs. "His royal highness here had a mouse-kittens share and he hasn't gobbled it down like you"
Katara looks up from her bowl and blushes when she meets Toph's unseeing gaze.
"You can't know that" Katara blurts, eyes wide and her spoon hovering over her mouth
"I heard the difference in the weight when the rice hit the bottom of that deep bowl" Toph murmurs indifferent. "Actually, I barely heard it!"
Katara refuses to look at me even though I'm busying myself with the few spoons of rice in my bowl, muttering about 'Blind Brat's' and 'Fire Nation Treachery'.
"Here" Katara mumbles, handing me her bowl, her gaze directed at the fire.
"Now you're giving his royal highness your left overs?"Toph snickers.
"Shut up Toph" Katara grumbles.
"If you're still hungry…" I begin, holding Katara's bowl in my extended hand unsure.
"Take the bowl Zuko" Sokka says sulking "Before she changes her mind and demands you spit up what you've eaten so far"
I take the bowl and glance quickly at Katara. Her cocoa skin is tinged red at her cheeks and she is looking at the ground with ruthless concentration.
"Katara…" Aang says, looking up at the starry sky contemplatively. "Is….."
"Complex" I finish. I really don't want to discuss his crush when all I want to do is get into bed-or more appropriately the cloth on the hard ground-and shut my eyes and forget that I have betrayed my family and may never set foot peacefully in the fire nation.
"I guess…"he mumbles, drifting swiftly from the boulder he was perched on to the ground. "Zuko… with everything that has happened, I am the one who has every reason to hate you…"
"Katara's mother was killed because of the fire nation" I say softly.
"I was killed by your sister once" Aang says, grinning like it was the funniest thing. "Zuko, I trust you… because once, in another life time… you and I were possibly friends and we can be friends now."
"You're good" he says softly, his grey eyes filled with childish trust and ancient knowledge. "You just found yourself doing bad things"
"Goodnight Zuko" he finishes, turning around to look at the night sky. "We practice first thing in the morning?"
"Uh, that's the plan" I say. "Goodnight… Aang"
Its funny how for almost a year I had only though of him as the avatar. Not a boy lost in a world that wasn't of his time who just wanted to have friends and be normal. I wanted to be normal but that option was long gone when I was born as the fire prince.
"How was fire practice with twinkle toes?"
"Toph…" I grumble, exasperated from trying to get Aang to have confidence in fire and not fear it so much. "What's with the nicknames?"
"What's with the huffing and sighing" she counters. "Where you born brooding or is that a side effect of having no sense of humour?"
"Do you ever stop?"
"Do you ever smile?" she says, smiling a little and her opaque eyes crinkling a little, her nose scrunching up.
"You wouldn't know if I did" I grumble, sitting beside her on the boulder.
"That translates as 'no' in Brooding Humourless tongue"
"What's it like not seeing?" I ask abruptly. She sits still for a second; her small feet tucked under her on the rough boulder and then she bursts out laughing.
"Tell me that question hasn't been one of your brooding topics" she snickers. When she laughs, she shakes in an odd manner, her body moving away from people and hair hiding her face.
"Don't answer, I didn't mean to say that out loud"
"It's like seeing" she answers anyway. "I was born this way… it's all I know. But you know I 'see' through my feet anyway"
"Yes, I know" I whisper. "I just… don't you ever wonder what people 'look' like? Or if their frowning or smiling at you"
"I know your staring at me right now" she says softly.
"You can't know that" I tell her, my voice suddenly low and rough. My eyes are on her face in wonder; I don't know if it makes me cruel that I find her milky green eyes fascinating and revel in the fact that I can look at them without fear of her seeing into my own eyes.
"I… feel your eyes" she says and looks away from me. "This conversation topic sucks. You're turning me into a brooding humourless female version of you!"
She jumps of the boulder and walks quickly away, muttering to herself.
"Can we take a break" Aang whines. His brow has a thin sheen of sweat on it and he is bracing himself on his knees, heaving and huffing.
All we are practicing today is forming a flame-a flame no bigger or intense as a flame on a candle. His fear of burning someone-Katara to be more precise-is making the simple task torturous.
"Don't say 'fine' like that, Zuko" he complains, drawing my short name out so it sounds like it has twenty letters instead of four.
"I didn't say it any way…. Aang"
"You rolled your eyes" he says, pointing at me accusingly, his lower lip jutting out.
"You're imagining things" I say, sitting on the grass and trying desperately not to roll my eyes again.
"No I'm not!" he insists. He can be so…
"Aang, pinch yourself…you may have entered the avatar state" I mutter.
He is silent for a moment and I rise panicked; have I offended him? His face is blank for a second before a ridiculously wide grin spreads slowly across it.
"You said a joke" he says softly, like I paid him a compliment. "That means you like me"
How he drew that conclusion is beside me but I return his smile slowly. It's hard being angry or disgruntled with Aang I soon realise; he always means well.
Toph has stopped teasing me for two days. She doesn't say more than four letters in one word to me. 'Zuko' is her answer for everything I have tried to say to her. She may have been offended by my curiosity with her blindness. She is definitely offended with my curiosity…
I should not bother her so much. She is the youngest and probably misses her family. I miss Mai sometimes. She reminds me of Mai in an odd way-their sarcasm is thrown out in greatly different tones.
"Oh, dear heavens and after life!" Sokka shrieks, throwing his hands over his head exaggeratedly. "Do you ever not brood?"
"I'm not brooding"
"You're sitting in a dark corner, brow knitted intolerantly and lips a thin line" he says, eyes large and unbelieving. "Definitely brooding"
"What's on your mind, highness?" he asks, sitting beside me and pulling his legs up similarly to how I'm seated on the hard ground.
"I may have offended Toph" I say softly. I was already on thin ice with everyone; trying to gain their trust-this little development may see Katara giving me a teaspoon of rice for supper.
"You offended Toph and you're still living?" he asks, grinning at me. "look, Toph may be in a mood of late… but that's just because we are expecting Suki to join us soon"
"I don't understand?"
"Toph had a thing for me and well, I'm with Suki" Sokka says conspiratorially. "She's kind of young… or was kind of young at the time, if you catch my drift"
He nudges me and wiggles his eyebrows.
"I don't understand?" I say again, his words sound jumbled and unrelated in my mind.
"Dude, you're all brooding and super ninja fit… you got to know about girls!"
"Well, I have a… I had a girlfriend" I mutter.
"There you go!" he says, rising from the ground and dusting his backside. "Hold on to that memory before you end up a monk like Aang"
"Aang likes Katara and I think Katara likes Aang-that's not monk like don't you think?"
"Why are you reminding me" he mumbles, walking off.
I seem to offend everyone in some way-except for Aang. It's relatively hard to offend Aang; he tries a little too much to prove to me that we can be friends...or were friends once; it's hard to differentiate sometimes. He tries extra hard to compensate for Katara who has warmed up to me only in the sense that my dinner portions have improved and she ignores me now instead of reducing me to a quivering mess with her steely cobalt gaze.
I miss my banter with Toph. It's different from what she does with Sokka and after he told me she liked him once, I get it. I still miss it and envy Sokka the many easy relationships around him. I envy Sokka-the water tribe peasant with a black hole for a stomach
"I'm never going to forgive you…. You're a murderer" Katara hisses at me.
"Katara… I had no control over that!" I beg her, I'm on my knees in the dust and her blue garment is flowing and whipping ruthlessly in the wind.
"Sins of the father…" she murmurs, her form becoming hazy and losing solidity-the blue blur she is reduced to blending into oranges and reds.
"Traitor" Azula hisses, her form solidifying in Katara's place, her gown whipping and flowing in a similar manner.
Mai is by her side, filing her nails despondently. "Traitor"
"Traitor" they hiss together.
"What?" I grumble, fighting of the thin blanket and reaching for my sword.
"It's Toph" she murmurs, her hand stilling my own in it's frenzied search. "You not looking to burn me again?"
"Never" I hiss, rubbing my good eye violently. "What… are we moving already?"
"No… it's still late" she says softly, kneeling by my sleeping mat.
We remain like this for a second, her cloudy eyes staring into the darkness and face an uncomfortable mask of…. Something.
"Toph?" I say, pulling her from her reverie. "It's late… you're by my mat…?"
"I share my room with Suki" she says softly.
"Sokka and her are playing hanky panky" she says, tilting her head to the side.
"You wanted to play with them or…?"
She grins, beside her melancholy mood and shakes her head. "Hanky Panky is kissing Zuko"
"Right. They are so loud" she says, pulling my blanket of me.
"What are you doing?" I demand, trying to reach for my blanket, but her tiny hands are deceptively strong.
"I'm getting into bed so I can get some shut eye before we head down to the Fire Nation in a torturous journey" she says, slipping under the blanket.
"I'm only in my undergarment!"
"I can't see remember" she snickers.
"But I can, and you're in your undergarment too"
"So… I'm just a kid… remember"
"You heard…?" I ask, mortified as she pulls my bundled clothes-that I had been using as a pillow-and lays her head on them.
"Mm hmm" she mumbles.
"I'm sorry" I say softly.
"For what?" she asks. "Me being a kid or me hearing it?"
"You are not a kid, just younger than everyone here" I state "And I'm sorry for how… callous Sokka had been. It was just his ego"
"Boys and their ego's, huh"
"I don't understand?"
"You never do, Zuko, now Goodnight" she says, turning too her side, her back facing me.
"Why not go into Katara's bed?" I ask her.
"She is having a one on one, deep meaningful conversation with Aang" she grumbles sleepily. "And even then, I wouldn't. She's the ice princess remember? I don't want to wake up with frost bites on my toes…"
"And I'm the fire prince…" I whisper, more to my self than her. "So I burn"
I burn up inside, a fire that is never quiet.
"You're warmer, is all I'm saying. No need to go into masochistic brooding mode..." she finishes, yawning and then in three seconds she starts snoring… loudly.
I don't sleep with her tossing and turning combined with strangely masculine snores. I lay awake, contemplating the destiny in front of me, my betrayal and allegiance with the avatar. Well, at least Uncle Iroh would be proud of me… and I think my mother too. I don't know how Mai would feel-probably indifferent…