I'm crazy for starting another chaptered story, but I have been itching to write this for weeks, so here we go with a new Gaang fic. You have Lia (chromeknickers) to thank for this idea. She came up with the concept of Zuko being stuck in a time loop à la Groundhog Day; I just accepted the plot bunny and decided to tweak a few things for my own purposes.
Also, if you haven't watched Groundhog Day, watch it! It's a hilarious, hilarious movie, and I highly recommend it. ^_^
Zuko had been so hopeful when he had woken up that morning in the jungle, serenaded by the sound of a badger frog croaking. He had renounced his father, his old way of life, and now he was about to join the Avatar. Or, at least, that had been the plan.
He had overtaken the group during the night when their bison had slowed right down out of what must have been sheer exhaustion (and let it be known that it was not easy to navigate a vibrant red war balloon and not be seen), but that was okay; Zuko had known that he would find the Avatar at the Western Air Temple the next morning, and he had been right. Plus, he had wanted time to prepare. Giving speeches—especially apologies—was not his forte, so he had made use of the badger frog that had taken up residence near his camp and had rehearsed what he wanted to say to the croaky amphibian. Over and over. He even tried imitating his uncle and Azula, knowing both to be very persuasive with words, but no matter what Zuko did, his speech just seemed to deteriorate into some big mess of awkward nonsense soup.
No one liked awkward nonsense soup.
So Zuko had decided to just suck it up and go make his case, regardless of his nerves. He had comforted himself with the knowledge that the Avatar had offered him friendship once, and the rest of the group had all seemed like a forgiving bunch. Surely he couldn't botch things up too much, even if he did fumble through his words.
Oh, how wrong he had been.
If his rehearsals with the badger frog had been a big mess of tongue-tied nonsense soup, the real deal had turned out to be a whole buffet of awkward. There had been bison slobber, there had been reminders of all the nasty things he had done in his past (and there were plenty), and then he had got defensive and mentioned that damned assassin, and everything had turned to custard. And, no, it wasn't the tasty kind of custard—just the awful kind that made all his hopes wobble, fall and go splat.
Zuko had tried to plead; he had even offered to be their prisoner, but nothing could budge the group. An attack from the waterbender had left him dripping in an undignified heap on the ground, and then he had been told in no uncertain terms to leave and never return.
"There's no way we can trust you after everything you've done. We'll never let you join us."
The Avatar's words continued to ring in his ears, and it was all Zuko could do not to scream in frustration. He had been trying so hard to be good and do the right thing, but how was he supposed to do that if no one wanted to believe that he had changed?
A second chance presented itself when the little earthbender girl came to visit him at his campsite later that night. Except he had been asleep when she had arrived, and then she had startled him, and then her feet had got burnt. It was like he was just swimming in failure custard now. A rejected apology, a rejected request to let him help, and then he was alone on the jungle floor with sore ribs from where the earthbender had attacked him, miserable with the knowledge that he had really, really messed things up.
"Why am I so bad at being good?" he groaned, collapsing back against the dirt and grabbing fistfuls of his hair.
There was a croak, and Zuko glanced up from his starfish-in-despair pose to see the same badger frog staring down at him. It blinked its bulbous eyes and then let out another croak; the sound was distinctly unimpressed, as if it thought he was pathetic. Zuko glowered and pushed himself to his knees.
"Don't you even start," he muttered.
"Hey, I tried!" Zuko retorted defensively. "I told them I was sorry; I told them I was good; I—"
He swallowed as the badger frog stared at him pointedly. Okay, so maybe he had lost his temper when they had refused to believe him, and he had been stupid to mention the assassin (really, why hadn't he just said that Azula had sent the guy?). And, yes, he had burnt the earthbender girl's feet when she had come to offer him a truce, but it was an accident!
"That one really wasn't my fault," he told the frog. "I asked who was there and the girl said nothing. For all I knew she could have been a jaguar-sloth coming to eat me. It was just a warning shot; I didn't know she was going to step back into the flames!"
The badger frog continued to stare at him through those unwavering, bulbous eyes. Zuko's shoulders slumped in defeat.
"Fine," he sighed. "Maybe it was my fault. I could have waited to see who was there before I attacked, but what difference does it make now? I've already ruined everything, and now they'll never accept me into their group!"
His companion croaked, as if to agree with this statement.
"You don't need to rub it in," Zuko snapped.
Another croak was all he got in response.
Sighing, the prince flopped back against the ground and gazed up at the stars peeping through the jungle foliage. He really had reached a whole new low. Alone and homeless, banished by a peace-loving airbender, and now he was talking to a frog. Not a very nice one either.
"I just wish this day had never happened," Zuko murmured, closing his eyes. "I wish I could wake up tomorrow and start again, with no mistakes, no accidental burns. I'd be able to convince them to listen then, and—"
The frog leapt onto his stomach. Zuko raised himself up on his elbows in surprise, blinking as he met the amphibian's unnerving gaze. As if on cue, the moon slipped out from behind a veil of clouds and shone so brightly that even the frog seemed to glow.
"Okay, now you're beginning to creep me out," Zuko muttered.
He went to flick the creature off, but his slimy companion just croaked and then jumped on his face ("Ugh, get off!" Zuko cried) before it gave one final croak and then disappeared into the night. Scowling, the prince rubbed any trace of frog feet from his skin and then settled back down by the campfire. Today just really hadn't turned out to be his day. Unfortunately, he also knew that his life was not going to get any better tomorrow, for he had come too far to turn back now. Somehow, he was going to have to persuade the Avatar to let him join their group. Somehow, he was going to have to do the impossible.
Zuko sighed and closed his eyes. This was going to be a nightmare.
A badger frog was croaking. Zuko groaned and sat up, then paused as he realised he was back under the tarp that he had set up like a make-shift tent, with his tunic splayed on top of his legs for a blanket. Strange. He could have sworn he had fallen asleep next to the campfire last night.
Frowning, he clambered out from under the tarp and slipped on his tunic, fastening the tie at his waist while he surveyed the clearing. The badger frog had resumed its perch on the fallen tree, but there seemed to be no sign of the scuffle he'd had with the earthbender the previous night. If he had been more alert, he might have found this lack of disarray a little odd. As it was, he just gave a jaw-cracking yawn and then walked off into the jungle to go rummage for some breakfast. It wasn't like it mattered what the ground looked like either way. Besides, he had other matters to occupy his mind, like how he was ever going to convince the Avatar that he was on their side.
"There has to be a way," Zuko muttered.
But even after hours of pondering, he was still feeling at a loss. Coming up with solid plans had never been his strong point; he just liked to do things in the impulse of the moment and worry about the consequences later. That was why he decided that there really was nothing for it; he would just have to take the risk of confronting the group again, banished from their presence or not, and this time he would make sure that they listened. It would all work out somehow. It had to, because Zuko was not leaving this jungle unless it was by the Avatar's side. He would not give up—not ever.
Cheered by this rush of new determination, the prince wasted no time in making his way back to the upside-down temple. He didn't bother to be stealthy as he walked through the ancient corridors, yet he still found himself making his way to the same stone balcony where they had all gathered the previous day. Even the bison was resting in the same spot, looking like a big bundle of white fluff with eyes.
"Okay, we can do that while I show you the giant Pai Sho table," Aang was saying, racing forward with the lemur. "Oh, you're going to love the all-day echo chamber."
"I think that'll have to wait," the earthbender responded, looking remarkably well for someone whose feet had got burnt.
Zuko didn't have time to wonder about how familiar the whole situation seemed, because just then the bison moved and three faces turned to stare at him in shock, which was quickly replaced with anger. Of course, a second after that he was covered in bison slobber again. Well, at least one of them seemed happy to see him.
"What are you doing here?" Sokka demanded, taking a step forward.
"Look," Zuko said, holding his hands out in a placating gesture, "I know you guys don't want to see me right now—"
Sokka let out a derisive snort. "That's an understatement."
"But you've got to listen to me," the prince continued, undeterred by this interjection. "I meant what I said yesterday. I really have changed, and—"
"Yesterday?" Aang queried, tilting his head in confusion.
Zuko opened his mouth to respond, but Katara got there before him.
"Don't listen to him, Aang," she said coldly. "Zuko's good at telling people he's changed, but we all know you can't trust a guy like him. He'll turn on you the first chance he gets, just like what he did at Ba Sing Se."
The prince's shoulders slumped. Spirits, this was so impossible. Perhaps sensing his dejected mood, the bison chose that moment to give him another slobbery lick to his cheek. Oddly, it wasn't so disgusting that time. Kind of comforting, actually—in a wet, rather sticky way. It also seemed to have quite the effect on his audience.
"Wow, Appa seems to really like you," the earthbender remarked.
"I was thinking that myself," Sokka observed, and then his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What did you do to Appa?"
Zuko rubbed the base of his neck. "I already told you that I freed the Avatar's bison back in Ba Sing Se." He cringed as he got another face full of slobbery lick. "I guess this is how he says thank you."
Aang lowered his staff. "Wait, you freed Appa from the Dai Li?"
"Uh, yeah. I told you guys that yesterday, remember?"
They all stared at him blankly.
"What?" Zuko said, when the awkward silence continued.
Sokka rubbed his chin. "I remember a lot of things from yesterday, and you weren't one of them. This is the first time we've seen you since Ba Sing Se."
"And not a welcome sight either," Katara put in for good measure.
Zuko blinked. "But—but I was here." He pointed at the stone beneath his feet. "I stood right here and said that I wanted to join you and that I would teach the Avatar firebending, and then you—"
"You want to what now?" the earthbender exclaimed, glassy eyes widening in shock.
"I told you!" Zuko retorted with barely restrained impatience. "I'm on your side now, and—"
Katara let out a peal of harsh laughter. "Your lies just get more and more elaborate. You can't possibly think that any of us would trust you, can you? I mean, how stupid do you think we are?"
"Yeah!" Sokka said, jumping in to back up his sister. "All you've ever done is try to hunt us down and capture Aang."
Zuko paled and stepped back, overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. There was just no way. He could have sworn that they had told him the exact same things yesterday, yet here they all were repeating the same conversation as if nothing had happened. What the hell was going on?
"Well?" Katara demanded. "What have you got to say for yourself?"
"I don't understand what you're all playing at," he began, shaking his head, "but—"
"What we're playing at?" Sokka retorted. "You're the one who keeps making up weird lies about how you saw us yesterday and want to join our group." He folded his arms across his chest. "If this is some freaky Fire Nation mind tactic to confuse us and make us believe that you're really on our side, I hate to break it to you, buddy, but it's not working. We're not going to let you take Aang."
Zuko growled in frustration. "I don't want to capture the Avatar anymore! I'm just trying to do what's right." His hands balled into fists. "Besides, if anyone here is playing mind tactics, it's all of you!"
"Yes, really!" the prince snapped. "Maybe you all want to pretend that you've developed temporary amnesia, but I remember pretty vividly what happened when I said that I had sent that Fire Nation assassin after you, and—"
Sokka's eyes bulged. "Wait, you sent Combustion Man after us?"
Zuko smacked his palm against his forehead. "Oh, for the love of—"
But he never got to finish that sentence either, because he was already getting drowned out by the different voices telling him what 'Combustion Man' had done to them, and then everything just spiralled out of his control again. Defences went ignored, pleas went unheard, and it was with resignation that he found himself dripping wet on the ground in the same position as last time, having just been knocked over by the waterbender. A weary sigh escaped his lips as he stared up at the stony-faced group.
"Get out of here and don't come back, right?" he muttered, pushing the wet hair out of his eyes and standing back to his feet.
Apparently, this hadn't been the right thing to say, for the waterbender gave him another taste of her water whip before they all demanded he leave. Zuko knew better than to argue and retreated back to his campsite with his mind in a whirl—a very bitter one, of course, but a whirl nonetheless. He was not surprised to find the badger frog waiting for him on its log.
"I think I'm going crazy," Zuko said, sitting down on the dirt beside the frog. "Either that or they really have developed amnesia and have no idea what happened yesterday."
His companion just stared at him.
"Right," Zuko muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm talking to a frog."
He got a croak for that, and he tried not to think about how it sounded as if he was being scolded for daring to question the frog's ability to understand him. He felt unhinged enough as it was in that moment. The whole day had just been strange and alarming, and he really, really didn't want to think about what it meant for his sanity. In fact, he wished he could just stop thinking altogether, because there was no way that he was ever going to be able to salvage this mess.
"But I still have to try," Zuko said with a sigh.
That was the most frustrating part of all. It didn't matter that they thought he was evil or crazy or using freaky Fire Nation mind tactics. He had to join their group; he could feel it in his bones. This was his destiny …
But he was still alone in a jungle with a frog.
Zuko exhaled noisily and flopped onto his back, covering his face with his hands. He didn't know how long he stayed like that, but at some point he must have dropped off to sleep, for suddenly he was sitting up with a jerk to discover that the sky was black and something was rummaging around in the bushes.
"Who's there?" Zuko called, summoning a ball of flames. "Stay back!"
Of course, it was only after he had released the arc of fire that he realised what he had done. Because that was when he heard the earthbender girl's voice, followed by her cry of pain. Zuko smacked his palm against his forehead. Just brilliant. He'd burned the girl's feet again.
"You burned my feet!" she cried.
Yep. There it was.
"I'm sorry!" Zuko said, scrambling over to help her. "It was a mistake."
But even as he tried to come to her aid, he knew it was useless. She would throw her rocks and tell him to get away from her, and he would be left by his campsite with sore ribs once again with only the frog for company. And that was exactly what happened.
Zuko tugged at his hair in frustration. "What the hell is going on?" he exclaimed for what seemed like the hundredth time that day.
The frog only croaked. It sounded like it was laughing.
Needless to say, when Zuko woke up the next morning to the sound of a badger frog and discovered that he was back under the tarp with his tunic covering his legs like a blanket, his heart pounded in a funny rhythm of unease. When he walked outside and saw that, once again, there were no scorch marks or any signs of upraised earth in the clearing, he placed his hands against his cheeks and shook his head in slowly dawning dismay. Then he saw the badger frog on its fallen tree and all colour drained from his face.
"No," he gasped.
A mad dash to the Western Air Temple followed, and he got there just in time to see the Avatar and his little group dismounting from the bison, which was wearing some kind of battle armour.
"Hey, guys, we've got company," the earthbender stated, pointing in Zuko's direction.
"No!" Zuko groaned again, looking paler than ever.
His voice attracted the attention of the Water Tribe boy, and suddenly a boomerang was being pointed his way.
"Zuko!" Sokka growled. "What are you doing here?"
No one ever did hear his response. One moment the firebender was standing there with his mouth open in horror as he stared at these people who seemed so surprised (and angry) to see him, and then there was a loud thump of a body hitting the ground.
Prince Zuko had fainted.
Note: Certain sections from this chapter have been based on scenes from the episode 'The Western Air Temple'. Some of the dialogue has also been paraphrased and directly quoted from this episode.
And now that we've got the disclaimer stuff out of the way, I do hope you enjoyed this chapter. I haven't decided how long I will make this story yet, but I can assure you that I will not repeat the same scenarios over and over. Zuko might be trapped on the same day, but that doesn't mean everything has to literally repeat itself. ^_~