I don't know where I've been, what I've done
I am the once now irreplaceable son
I'm antichrist in your home
I'll come around this time to let you suck from my soul
—"April Fool" by Manchester Orchestra
The wind brings with it the smell of fresh cherry blossoms.
Mother takes Zuko and Azula to these special gardens every once in awhile. They reside just north of the palace, reserved especially for the enjoyment of the royal family and nobles who are deemed worthy enough.
Mother is sitting on a blanket, lunch dishes spread out before her. Zuko watches as she offers Azula a dumpling, and his younger sister shakes her head, mouth thin.
Like Azula could ever appreciate something as lovely as a picnic in a beautiful garden.
Zuko pushes himself up onto the ball of his right foot, twisting and coming down into a mock firebending stance. His balance wavers, though, and he hears his sister scoff.
She makes to stand up, but Mother places a hand onto her knee and gives her a sharp look. "I said no bending, Azula."
Zuko's sister narrows her golden eyes at Ursa, before sharply turning her head away. "But you're letting him bend!"
"Because Zuko is older and more responsible."
"But I'm the better bender!" Azula points out, eyebrows furrowed with irritation. "Everyone knows that."
"It's fine." Zuko shakes his head, cutting off whatever his mother had been about to say. A harsher breeze ruffles his hair and pulls blossoms away from the cherry trees. They tumble and blow along with the wind.
Azula laughs when one smacks him in the eye.
Grumbling, Zuko slumps down next to his mother on the picnic blanket, glowering at the prepared food that he has no intention of eating. He listens as his mother talks about family, and their schoolwork and how Azula will need a new dress made for some upcoming banquet.
Azula crosses her arms at that. Both siblings know that nothing Azula says will change their mother's opinion of what she should be, as a princess.
This is great for Zuko; it keeps his sister out of his way. But something darkens in Azula's eyes whenever Ursa mentions what is expected of her—such as what she'll study and who she might have to marry.
Right now Zuko almost feels sorry for Azula.
The sky overhead is growing gray with promised rain and the breeze grows even stronger.
A blossom brushes up against Zuko's shoe and he plucks it from the ground, feeling its velvety texture between his fingertips.
He sees the stony look on Azula's face as their mother talks of court politics amongst the noblewomen and their daughters, and before Zuko can realize what he's doing, he hands the blossom to his sister.
She looks surprised for a moment, shocked even, before she quickly masks it with a look of disgust. She snatches it from his hand, her palm leaving a stinging sensation against his own.
"Azula, your brother was just trying to do something nice for you—"
"It's just a silly flower," Azula snaps, and Zuko cannot bring himself to feel hurt. This is their routine; this is their relationship.
On the walk back to the waiting palanquin, he notices something clutched in Azula's hand.
It is a crushed up cherry blossom. Zuko watches out of the corner of his eye as she subtly brings her hand to her nose and inhales.
He is still a child, and doesn't yet wonder why someone so young should feel like smelling a flower is a weakness.
The palanquin comes into sight and their mother mentions something about getting back to the palace quickly in order to beat the storm.
Azula doubles over, clutching at her bruising neck. When her skin breaks out in burning, red blisters, Zuko doesn't bat an eye.
Zuko doesn't feel well.
He suspects it's because he doesn't eat much, and drinks almost nothing but whiskey.
But this afternoon he is neither hungry nor drunk.
He's just very, very irritated.
Sokka was annoying enough when it was just him and Zuko.
Now it's Sokka and Toph and Katara and Zuko.
And everyone else's ongoing party banter is starting to get on his hungover nerves.
"Here's an idea," he begins, and the rest of the party turn their heads back to watch him with already irritated gazes. "Why don't we all be quiet? And whoever manages to stay quiet the longest won't get punched in the face."
Sokka rolls his eyes and turns his head to face the front. "Why did we bring him along, again?"
"I don't know." Toph shrugs and smirks, her typical combo. "I think he adds some melancholy to the mix. Too much cheerfulness is bad for you, I hear. Everyone needs that miserable friend to make them feel better about themselves!"
Sokka laughs and Zuko frowns, but Katara slows her pace until she and Zuko are waling shoulder to shoulder.
"You could smile," she points out. "Or smirk. Or whatever it is that you do with your face."
Zuko shakes his head, black bangs falling into his eyes. He jerks his head, flinging them away in a sharp movement and Katara covers her mouth and laughs.
"Nothing. You just…look funny when you do that."
Zuko says nothing in reply and watches the leaves and green grass as they crunch underneath his feet. They're still in the Earth Kingdom, but they grow closer and closer to the outskirts of the Fire Nation with every step. And now that word has probably gotten out about the fact that he isn't dead, Zuko has even more things to be wary about.
"And you know where we're going?" He's asked Katara this every day since they left the hotel a week ago.
Usually Katara scoffs at him, or smacks his shoulder. This time she stops walking all together.
"Do you really think that I can't do this? Do you really think that I won't be able to find the dragons?" Her voice has gone slightly shrill with her anger.
"Considering that dragons are extinct, no I don't think you can actually find the dragons."
The look she gives him is so severe that he wishes he'd just kept quiet.
But keeping his mouth shut is not a talent that Zuko possesses.
"I thought you came along because you wanted to utilize these weapons! I thought that you actually might've wanted to—I—"
"That's what you thought? I assumed he came along because you both still want to fuck each other," Toph offers up, pressing her feet into the earth in obvious boredom. "So can we move it along? Or are you two not done yet?"
Katara's scarred face has turned burgundy. Zuko isn't used to seeing her entire face blush. Usually half of it is curtained with hair.
Katara huffs and presses her lips together, shoving past Zuko in obvious annoyance and taking the lead again.
A moment later and it is Toph that falls into step next to him.
"Seriously though," she says, voice low so the others won't overhear, "what's up with you?"
Zuko swallows but says nothing, and soon Toph nods, taking his silence as her answer.
They are surrounded by cherry trees.
Dinner is tense that night.
Zuko spoons white rice into his mouth and chews without really tasting anything. His mind is on other things, things like dragons, and whiskey, and scarred waterbenders.
He swallows and his stomach twists.
There is a quiet conversation going on between Sokka and Toph, and every once in awhile the young man will snort and shake his head at whatever joke the earthbender has cracked.
Katara, however, is fuming. Just like Zuko.
When Zuko finally finishes his meal he sets the bowl aside and stands up and makes his way into the tall grass. The moon is out, but the heat and humidity is oppressing. They'll be in the Fire Nation within a couple of days.
And keeping his identity under wraps will become impossible.
He hears soft footsteps padding behind him and he sighs, crossing his arms and turning around.
Katara looks irritated and put out and Zuko wonders how someone so slight and annoying could have consumed so much of his life.
"If you're so unhappy here, you could just go." Her voice doesn't waver, and her expression is nearly unreadable, but Zuko can see the way her eyes won't meet his.
"Do you want me to leave?" he asks simply, already knowing the answer.
Katara balks, sliding back a step. "That's not what I meant. I just… I just thought that maybe, traveling together and—and going on this journey, that maybe things—"
"Would go back to the way they were?"
She presses her lips together and shifts her weight from foot to foot. Then she shakes her head and makes eye contact. "Things will never be the way they were. I'm starting to get that."
The former prince stands still for a moment, mind feeling clear and steady for the first time all evening. He shakes his head, giving her an answer that neither of them likes.
Katara nods in acceptance and opens her mouth to say something else—
There's a flash of movement and Zuko reaches for his daggers a moment too late. He sees the large shadow move to envelop Katara, and before he can properly think, he rushes forward, knocking Katara to the ground and shielding her with his own body.
A sharp pain tears along his right arm and soon he feels hot blood running down to his elbow.
He grabs for his knife and raises his hand, intent to strike down whatever is preying on them.
Until he sees Cuddles.
And he hates Sokka for giving the cat that stupid name.
"What the fuck!" he shouts, lifting himself up so that Katara can roll out from underneath him. She gets to her feet quickly, arms jutting forward. A moment later water swirls around them protectively.
"It's all right," Zuko grumbles, stumbling to his feet and cradling his arm. "This stupid cat is—Wait, you followed me?"
Cuddles tilts her head and sits down on her haunches, feline eyes nearly glowing under the moon.
"You have a pet puma?" Katara's blue eyes have gone wide and she steps forward, letting the water crash to the earth.
Seconds later Toph and Sokka rush into the tiny clearing.
"Oh look, Cuddles! Yay!"
"Shut up, Captain Boomerang."
"She looks hungry," Katara observes, crouching down a couple of feet away from the great cat. "Sokka, give her some of your dried meat."
And Sokka's entire body stiffens. "But it's the last that I have."
"What do you mean it's the last that you have?! That dried meat was supposed to last us another two days!"
Sokka taps his fingertips together and gives Katara his most diplomatic look. "I was not under that impression, and since I need the protein more than anyone else in this rag tag group of—"
"Just give the damn cat your meat, idiot," demands the earthbender.
And since Toph seems to be the only person Sokka will properly listen to, the Water Tribesman lets out a forlorn sigh and reaches into his pack. He pulls out the jerky and tosses it quickly to the ground before he can change his mind.
Cuddles leaps onto it.
"Poor thing," Katara crones, hesitantly reaching out and running a finger along the cat's clearly visible ribs. "How did you find her?"
Zuko shrugs. "Started following me. Thought we'd lost her, actually."
"So, does this make her like, our pet?" Sokka asks, eyeing the half eaten jerky with clear longing. "Are we going to have to feed her?"
"She'll probably eat less then you do, which is a plus," Zuko points out, causing Toph to snort.
"Oh, ha ha. Let's mock a guy and his appetite."
"You do eat more than the average human being, Snozzles."
"That's open to debate and don't call me that—"
Zuko turns his complete attention onto the cat and shuts out the rest of the noise. He watches her finish her small meal before running his hand along her back. Cuddles arches into his touch before lowering her weight onto the ground, eyes closed in contentment.
Zuko can feel the burning of Katara's blue eyes as they watch him. He wishes he knew what was going on in her head.
And more than anything, he wishes that things were different.
"This village is the last Earth Kingdom village that we'll see before crossing Fire Nation borders." Katara's eyes are narrowed as she watches the comings and goings of the village people as they go about their daily routines. "We should be able to pick up a few supplies here, maybe get a decent night's sleep."
Sokka is staring at his sister with open admiration. "Where in La's name did you learn all this?"
Katara shrugs in what's supposed to be nonchalance, but Zuko can tell from the slight upper tilt of her mouth that she's pleased by the intended compliment.
"I picked up a lot when I was with Jun, that's all."
A silence descends on the four of them, as no one wants to mention what might've become of Jun. Not that Zuko particularly frets over what happened to her, aggravating bitch.
But he intelligently decides not to mention this.
"So, what are we hiding in these bushes for?" Toph asks, entertaining herself by molding clumps of earth between her hands.
Katara's eyebrows furrow in concentration. "Well, with the Fire Nation military now aware that Zuko is technically alive, we have to be careful. We don't know what they might do to him."
Zuko rolls his eyes. They'll probably capture him and drag him in front of his father. Whether or not Ozai will pretend to be happy to see him is a mystery that Zuko doesn't want to solve.
"Let's just go in," he says, voice low. "It's better than sitting out here and doing nothing."
Katara nods and Sokka gives him a funny look, and a moment later everyone is maneuvering out of the bushes and heading toward the village.
Reassuringly enough, none of the villagers look at them twice as the walk down the main street. Sokka immediately excuses himself as soon as he spots the village butcher, and Toph follows along in order to "keep an eye on him."
Leaving Zuko and Katara properly alone.
They stand together awkwardly for a moment before Katara gestures toward a fruit stand, mentioning something about finally getting tropical fruits in this climate.
But the hair on the back of Zuko's neck has stood up. He wishes that he hadn't left Cuddles on the outskirts of the village. Her presence would be comforting right now, if eye drawing.
And then multiple things happen at once. He spots red and black uniforms forming along the entire street, and before he can blink a swirling fireball comes barreling towards his face.
He redirects it with a quick swipe of his hand, effectively bending in front of all these people.
He groans and someone shouts, "It's Fire Prince Zuko!"
Zuko barely has a moment to swear and reach for his daggers before Katara is grabbing the hem of his tunic and yanking him behind the fruit stand. As they turn the corner she kicks at a wooden peg holding up the cart with her foot, sending the fruit scattering across the street and causing soldiers to trip over their own feet.
Zuko half expects her to send a "Sorry!" over her shoulder at the merchant. She doesn't.
They bolt through the marketplace, villagers leaping to the side in order to get out of their way. Zuko sticks out two fingers behind him and focuses, producing a small stream of flame at the soldiers who are nipping at their heels.
"Got a plan?" Katara says, chest heaving with the exertion, before gracefully hopping over a puddle.
Zuko just sloshes through it.
There are shouts and then soldiers appear directly in front of them, content to cut off their path. Zuko grabs Katara's wrist and yanks her to the right—
Effectively trapping them in a back alley.
"Shit." He whirls around and swiftly steps in front of Katara, although she's kicked over two barrels of rain water and is using the liquid to form long, sharp shards of ice.
Ozai's soldiers immediately spot them and slow their pace, as if knowing that their prey aren't going anywhere.
"Why does your father want you captured so badly?" Katara hisses, arms raised in front of her face protectively. "I thought the two of you got along?"
"Yeah, well, that was before I murdered my sister and partially burned down the palace."
"Fire Prince Zuko!" A young man who is broader and taller than all the rest step forward. He holds no fire in his hands, nor a weapon, and Zuko instantly recognizes him as the leader.
The man smirks. "Your father has been searching for you for quite some time."
Zuko furrows his eyebrows in confusion. "Quite some time?"
The man's smirk deepens. "That would be correct."
"And you expect me to come quietly, then?"
"I would expect nothing of the sort from the likes of you."
And Zuko…Zuko smiles. "Good."
He goes for his daggers, twirling them with his fingers with practiced ease as he prepares his body for combat. The other soldiers laugh under the breaths and Zuko knows exactly what they're thinking. Why would he fight with weapons when he could just bend?
With barely a thought and a flick of concentration, flames soon lick along the steel of his blades and, grinning, Zuko ducks and dodges the first phase of attacks with fire embraced daggers. And then he throws, hands going through the motions smoothly. One dagger lands in a soldier's neck, the other a chest.
Then he pivots around another attack before throwing all of his weight onto one hand, scissoring fire with his legs. He hears screams, smells burning flesh, and he shouldn't relish killing like this. But he does.
Katara seems to be faring well. He hears the rush of water every now and again, but he doesn't stop. It's been ages since he's allowed himself to bend like this, allowed himself to move like this, and he hadn't realized how much he's missed his own fire.
He slips on blood, and as he moves to steady himself someone jumps on his temporary weakness. They quickly pin him to the ground and press a blade forcefully against his throat. It's the smirking young man from just moments before. Up close, Zuko notices that one of his eyebrows has been burned off.
"You little shit," he growls, pressing against Zuko even harder. "Your father stipulated that you were to be brought back alive." His expression grows sadistic. "You don't have to be whole to be alive."
A small shadow falls over them and then the young soldier in command stiffens. His eyes bulge and then he gags, yellow bile spurting from his mouth.
And then he screams, screams, before the bile turns into blood.
Zuko takes the opportunity to slam his fist against his jaw and swiftly maneuver his way out from underneath him. A grumbling sound comes from inside the young man's gut and he lets out a wimpy groan before falling to the side, dead.
Zuko looks at the body with wide golden eyes before turning his gaze onto Katara.
She looks physically ill as she stares down at her clean hands.
But Zuko bets that to her they're soaked with red.
"What did you do?" he breathes, stupefied as he takes in this Katara that he barely knows, this Katara who kills.
She is like him and it is horrifying and comforting all at once.
Her hands fall to her sides and she sways on her own feet. "They were going to take you," she justifies. And then she tips forward and Zuko moves to steady her shoulders with his hands. Katara is shaking violently and her fingers immediately dig into the fabric of his clothes. He twists a hand into her cropped hair and holds her close, even though he knows that he cannot protect her from herself.
Although, maybe he should be thinking about how to protect himself from her.
More shouting comes from the main street and Zuko gives Katara a gentle shake. "This building is only one story. Here, I'll give you a leg up."
She nods her head listlessly before allowing him to propel her onto the roof. Zuko then reaches for her offered hand and she helps haul him up after her.
There's a sudden shrill scream that sounds a lot like Toph. The both of them bound for the edge of the roof, careful to keep as low as possible.
The earthbender is being restrained by no more than six burly men and Sokka is surrounded by even more Fire Nation soldiers. Zuko notices that his boomerang is stained with blood.
Three soldiers leap onto him and a moment later Sokka is unconscious and being handcuffed and dragged away. Katara parts her lips to scream, but Zuko clamps his hand over her mouth.
He watches Sokka get arrested, and even though Sokka is Sokka, no one deserves to be rescued on Zuko's behalf. The former Fire Prince remembers going into the skirmish that fateful day, and how protecting Sokka was almost like protecting Katara, because they're blood.
Oh, he's so going to regret doing this.
"I'm going after your brother," he states firmly, already moving to jump down from the roof.
Katara's iron grip on his arm forces him to stop. "Zuko, you can't—"
"I'll be back. Get Toph and Cuddles and find a place to lay low, got it?" And then, before he can over think it, he presses a hasty kiss to her forehead.
Katara's hand slips away from his arm. "Fine," she snaps. "But if either of you get yourselves killed I'll—"
He leaps away before he can hear the rest of her statement.
The soldiers manage to pounce on him pretty quickly when he doesn't fight back. Zuko can't help but frown at the way that none of them seem suspicious in the least. How intelligent is his father's army anyway?
He's conscious for just a moment, just long enough to see Toph rolling her eyes at him.
"You fucking idiot."
That's what Zuko wakes up to.
"Don't get captured, that's all you had to do. You had one job, Zuko, one fucking job, and you failed."
Zuko sits up slowly and gently runs his fingers through his hair before locating the pulsating bump on his temple. "I got captured on purpose in order to—"
"You got captured on purpose? What kind of sense does that make? Gee, I'll help you out buddy and give you the answer. None! It makes no sense."
If Zuko had a needle and some thread he'd sew Sokka's mouth shut. The other man opens his mouth to say something else before muffled grunts of pain make him turn his head toward their cell door.
Finally he shakes his head. "See? They've probably figured out that you're awake and have come to beat us."
There are more shouts, and then everything goes quiet. Someone makes their way downstairs and into the makeshift prison, their steps light and cheerful. "Evening, rebels!" he shouts out happily.
"Great. We're gonna get the crazy one. Zuko, I hate you."
A handsome young man with brown hair steps in front of their cell door. "Personally, I can't stand the thought of rebels stuck in prison cells," he drawls. He pulls a key out of his pocket and opens up the cell door. They all listen as it swings open noisily before the young stranger steps aside and gestures for them to come out.
"Who the hell are you?" Sokka questions, slowly and warily getting to his feet.
"I'll tell you later," the man says smoothly. Then he pulls something else out of his pocket—a piece of straw. He pops it into his mouth and offers the both of them a shiny smile. "Shall we?"
Everyone's favorite rebel freedom fighter! I'm excited; he always brings something thrilling to the table.
I'm actually fairly satisfied with this chapter, although I feel like you guys might not be. I can see why this could be interpreted as filler but…I wrote action! And action is so not my forte you guys don't even know.
I'm sorry that updates have basically slowed down to once a month. I wish I had the time and patience to write more, and I know that sometimes it's irritating to wait so long for what's only a fanfiction update. Just know that I hold out until I feel like I can provide my best possible writing. I wouldn't want to give you guys anything less than excellence, especially with a story that I feel is so important for me to get right. I hope you guys can bear with me.
I leave for Disney World in…four hours. I have not packed yet. Or slept. So, I'm gonna go do that.