“Guess you just don’t have what it takes, Zuzu,” Azula says, and she laughs. Her laugh is heavy and deep, like a cough. When Zuko tries laughing, it always comes out wrong.
He does have what it takes, he does, he does. He pushes at the boulder, and it doesn’t budge. His feet hurt. His wrists are sore, and he feels like the sun has dried him out.
He’s ten years old today, and he can’t keep shirking his duties to the family. He tries another stance, and another. When the moon rises, the boulder still hasn’t moved at all.
Father wants the best for him, Zuko has to believe that.
“You just need to want it enough,” Father says. “You’re spoiled, lazy, that’s what your problem is. We never gave you cause to strengthen your will.”
“No,” Uncle says, and he’s always so cheerful. “The boy just needs time to understand the harmonies of the earth.”
Father frowns, and Zuko can tell he already made up his mind.
Zuko doesn’t know how to strengthen himself. He feels like he’s already made of nothing but will and dirt. He dreams about earth, he tastes it in his meals. He feels like grit has got under his nails, inside his blood stream. Maybe he’s turning into a rock himself.
Family tradition says it’s fine to do anything to your apprentices, so long as it’s for the good of the Kingdom.
Father aims the boulder at Zuko’s left side, and it comes slowly. Zuko’s feet are locked in by the ground, but if only he could focus, he could -
he shouldn’t get away, trying to get away is the problem, but if he was good enough, he could -
the boulder slides over, and crushes his left hand just as slowly.
The Avatar wants him. The Avatar saw in a vision that Zuko would teach him earthbending.
“Someone in the spirit world wants you to fail,” Zuko concludes. “Or it’s a prank.”
“It’s not a prank!” says the Avatar, and his voice is so shrill. Father would never approve. “Sure, there’s some real jokesters over there! But this was real, I can feel it.”
“Maybe you were sick with swamp gas,” Zuko tells him, and then he sighs. It’s not like he has a choice here. His duty is to fight the Fire Nation. He’s the disgraced son of a war hero, the nephew of the Savior of Ba Sing Se. Father says war isn’t coming, but the Avatar came here anyway, in secret. Zuko has to serve him, even if he’s going to be useless at it, even if he’s just going to end up wasting the Avatar’s time.
“Okay, so, pretend I’ve got two good hands and then take a stance kind of like this.”
It’s a hopeless, endless grind. Zuko can still move small rocks, like when he was a kid. The Avatar can’t even manage that.
“We have to move on, Aang,” says the Water Tribe girl. She’s a lot gentler than anyone in Zuko’s family, but she’s disappointed. Disappointment is familiar to Zuko, like the beat of his own heart.
“You can keep the books,” Zuko says. He might get in trouble for giving books away - he will not tell anyone about the Avatar, he won’t, he won’t - but everyone avoids the library these days. It’s where Zuko likes to be, and no-one likes seeing him.
“We can keep the books?” repeats the Water Tribe boy, jubilant. He slips a small rope-tying manual out of his pocket, puts it back into the Avatar’s book pile.
“Why don’t you come with us?” asks the Water Tribe girl.
“Of course he’s coming with us!” The Avatar smiles at him, like a kid begging for a double helping of pudding. “Right? Sifu Zuko? You are, right?”
The Avatar is mocking him, and Zuko wants to scream at him, wants to split the sky open, and just end it all.
Dry earth cracks beneath his heel, and just for a moment, everything shakes.
“Whoah,” says the girl, Katara, she told him to just call her Katara. “Do that again.”
“I can’t - I don’t want to do that again,” Zuko snaps. “I didn’t mean to lose control like that, Avatar. I’m sorry. You can make fun of me if you want to.”
“I wasn’t,” the Avatar insists. “I think you’re awesome even when you’re not making earthquakes! I want you to come with us, as a friend.”
“I want help carrying these books,” says the boy. Sokka. “And you can help up set up camp and you can stay with Appa if you don’t want to fight, and -”
“Please?” Aang says it like he means it, and Zuko has to nod.
The blind Firebender girl is advancing on Zuko, and she’s not accurate, but her firebolts are just everywhere. Zuko’s hair is singed, and he has to unclasp his cloak.
“Listen!” he says, desperate. “It doesn’t have to be like this, just -”
He ducks a firebolt, and falls on his bad hand. The burst of pain makes him furious, for a moment, furious enough to lift her against the cliffside and - no. Zuko is Team Avatar. He doesn’t do that kind of thing.
He grabs a small rock, tumbles it over to her feet. She trips and she falls, and Zuko jumps over. He won’t be able to hold her down for long, but she’s exhausted. Her arm muscles are trembling under Zuko’s hands.
“Listen,” he says. “You want to duel the Avatar, right?”
She nods silently.
“I can take you to his tent,” Zuko says. He hopes the guys will understand, hopes he’s doing the right thing. “Just stop attacking me, okay?” She nods, and he decides to trust it.
It will take three days to get to Aang. Zuko can take that time to tell her she can change things. He has changed so many things already.
“Life is full of twists and turns,” Uncle had once said. Had he known?
Father is taken away, hands and feet trapped in rock. Azula’s shackles are made from ice. She can bend any metal now.
“For your family’s treachery,” says the Earth King, “I sentence you to - nothing, obviously, as long as you disown them. Do you disown them?”
Toph sends him a thumb-up, with a tiny flame dancing above her finger. Sokka nods fervently, and Katara just looks sad.
“I disown my family, my title, and my inheritance,” Zuko says. Aang squeezes his shoulder, and matches Zuko’s sigh.