A/N: So, apparently my muse is on a one-shot spree at the moment, probably because that's about all I have time to work on right now. If anybody reading this is a reader of the Heart of Erebor then I apologize for the delay in updates. I am still working on that story (the next chapter is about 25% done), but it's a finicky one and I just haven't had the time to devote to it that I need to iron out the kinks. As for this story - it's shameless self indulgence. Don't mind me, just destroying canon for my own enjoyment all over again, and, as usual, years behind everyone else in discovering this particular fandom.
Summary: Because understanding is the first step towards forgiveness. Set post 'The Boiling Rock'. AU to 'The Southern Raiders'.
Warnings: For potential (probable) OOCness, AU factors, etc, etc.
Her father was here.
For the longest time, that was all she could focus on. The warmth of his presence, the comfort of his arm across her shoulder, of seeing Sokka on his other side, wrapped in the same half embrace. It was happiness unlooked for, their family reunited when she had despaired of it ever happening before the war ended, and euphoria carried her right up to the moment when Sokka began to cheerfully and exaggeratedly recount the daring rescue he had pulled off with the most unlikely of partners.
Zuko. The prince's name fell easily off her brother's lips, time and time again throughout his tale, without the slightest trace of suspicion or unease. She listened in angry disbelief at the way Sokka had relied on their enemyto guard his back, and the fact they had fought side by side against the sister Zuko had betrayed her to aid back when his help could have saved Aang's life. Her fury left a bitter taste in her mouth, acid on her tongue waiting to be unleashed, but when she turned to direct a diatribe at the object of her wrath it was to find his place in their circle empty.
Suspicion had her bolting to her feet, slipping unnoticed from the warmth and light of their campfire to follow the path of his retreat. Instinct told her he had not sought shelter inside the temple, so she turned instead to the narrow trail that would take her beneath the balcony Team Avatar had selected as their own. The track was steep, footing made all the more treacherous by the absence of both sunlight and moonlight, and she kept a careful hand on the wall and an equally cautious eye on her feet until she had reached level ground again.
Standing on the natural shelf concealed beneath that which had been deliberately carved she narrowed her eyes at the dark silhouette standing near the cliff-edge, back turned to her and gaze pointed away into the distance. He wasn't doing anything that she could see. Nothing, at least, that would justify the suspicions that had drawn her to follow, but that did little to dampen the ire rippling through her like a vehement tide crashing on the shoreline.
"What are doing down here in the dark?" she snapped out, watching his back stiffen as she stalked towards him. "Fire too warm for you?"
If he heard the venom in her voice he didn't acknowledge it, his shoulders rising and falling in a weary shrug. "I needed to think."
"About what?" She halted a few feet away, her eyes narrowed as she watched his shadowed figure. He was back in his own clothes again, and she felt another spike of anger at the sight. Suki and her father were trapped in raiment that marked them, the clothes of prisoners. They didn't have the luxury of royal fabric to retreat into. "How easy it's been for you to lie and bluff your way into everyone's good graces? Or how you plan to take advantage of that the first chance you get?"
He might have sighed, his shoulders twisting ever so slightly away from her as he tilted his head aside. "I won't betray you like that. Any of you."
You already have, she screamed silently. Have you forgotten Ba Sing Se? Aloud, her words were different. "Oh, really? So tell me, then. Tell me what you're doing down here. Tell me what dark, terrible secret you're hiding. Tell me what really happened the day of the eclipse. Tell me why you came to us."
"You already know…"
"Liar! You turned on us once already, why should I believe now is any different?"
"Because I've changed."
"You said that before, right before you tried to kill us!"
"I never meant to hurt you! I just…"
He bit the words off before he could pronounce them, his stance bowed and defensive. She refused to let it lie.
"Just what? Did you think we would come quietly? Did you think being imprisoned would be pleasant, or that we would be treated fairly by your sister? Your father?"
"I wasn't thinking, okay? I wasn't thinking, it was reflex, instinct. I just... I wanted to go home."
"That's not an excuse!"
"You're right. It's not, I know it's not, but it's the reason I did what I did and I want you to understand…"
"Understand? Oh, I understand. I understand that you are a liar, a traitor, a monster who doesn't care who or what he tramples to get what he wants. We should have left you to die in that blizzard. It's what you deserved!"
He whirled on her at last, and her heart thudded at having garnered a reaction. Anger. She needed him to be angry. To fight the fire of her words with his own fire, to prove her right. Except the words that spilled from his lips were more of desperation than anger, and his expression was all wrong. Torn and hurting and he had no right to look like that.
"What do you want from me?" His voice broke on that one word as he opened his arms wide, making himself a target. "What do you want me to say? That I was wrong? Fine. I was wrong to betray you. I was wrong to betray uncle. I was wrong to chase you all those months. I was wrong to try and kidnap Aang. I was wrong to take your mother's necklace. I was wrong to try and use you. I was wrong to attack your village. Wrong to spend years chasing a damn shadow. Wrong to believe my father would ever care or had ever cared for me. It was all one giant mistake that has cost far too many people far too much, and all because I was too stupid to figure out that a man who burned half my face off for being disrespectful wasn't worth the love and loyalty I gave him!"
He hadn't meant to say it, she was certain. But she had pushed and pushed and kept pushing until something snapped and he got angry. Only, instead of being angry at her, as she had desired, he was lashing out at himself, at his own actions, leaving her breathless and unsure and… his own father?
"Zuko…" His eyes widened at the tremulously soft quality of her voice, or maybe he was just now realising how much he had given away. "Ozai didn't…"
It couldn't be true. His father? It couldn't.
Zuko's gaze shuttered again as he turned away, dropping to sit upon the cliff edge as he drew his knees up to his chest and muffled his voice in the safety of fabric. "It doesn't matter."
"It doesn't matter?" Her voice came out strangled this time, her emotions awhirl, so that she did not at first realise that righteous anger had turned to absolute outrage. "Of course it matters!"
"Why?" He tilted his head to glance up at her, the night's shadows and the fall of his hair almost hiding the mangled skin from her sight. "It doesn't change what I've done."
He was right. It didn't change anything. Anything except everything.
"I don't understand." Her legs felt weak beneath her, so she sat down, staring over the edge and paying no heed to the drop. "Why?"
"I wasn't the son he wanted. Or the heir he favoured."
"No, that's not what I meant." She didn't want to try and understand the sort of man who would do something so terrible. Ozai was a monster, of that she was now absolutely certain, but Zuko… Zuko looked tired, exhausted and drained in a way that had nothing to do with his excursion with her brother. "I mean why did you do it, any of it, for him? After what he did to you…"
"He was still my father," he whispered numbly. "He was still the Fire Lord, and every child raised in the Fire Nation knows the Fire Lord is always right."
"He hurt you!"
"I disrespected him, and I was punished."
"Zuko, he branded you. That's not punishment, it's cruelty!"
"I know that," he exhaled in a huff, elaborating. "Now. It wasn't so obvious before. You don't understand. None of you do. It's what we're taught from the day we're born. The Fire Nation is superior, its goals are just, and my fa - the Fire Lord is right, beyond any and all doubt. I thought I was in the wrong. I thought I'd lost my honour, that by doing as my father demanded I could get it back. That I could go home. I thought... I believed that was what I wanted, because everything I'd ever been taught told me it should be. But when it finally happened I realised that nothing had changed." Bitterness infused his next words, harsh and biting. "That the only difference between then and now was that I'd lost the courage to stand up for what was right. I just sat there and listened, complicit, because I knew what would happen if I said anything, and I was too much of a coward to risk it. That was what it took for me to figure it out. To realise I didn't want to be the prince my father wanted me to be. That I couldn't pay the price he put on his love, and that in trying to prove myself to him I'd lost the only person who ever cared about me unconditionally."
She didn't know what to say to that, besides the obvious. "General Iroh?"
"Yeah." He closed his eyes, pained. "I let them put him in chains. Behind bars. I let it happen even after everything he... And now he's just another person who should have known better than to put his faith in someone like me."
A part of her, embittered and vengeful, wanted to take that knife he had plunged into his own heart and give it a violent twist. This was exactly what he had done in Ba Sing Se, crafting his words like the sly, loyal son he was so that she would trust him - feel sorry for him - just long enough for him to get what he wanted. The other half was still reeling, though, still grappling with the thought of any father being so cruel, and wondering at the devotion of the son who had followed him anyway.
"I don't blame you, you know." He was looking at her, she could sense his gaze on the top of her head, but was too unsure of her own feelings yet to raise it. "After what I did... I guess I'm more surprised you let me anywhere near Aang at all."
"You didn't kill him." It was a terrible memory, and one she did not like to dwell on, but that one fact could not be denied. Zuko had never tried to kill Aang. Capture had been his aim and, even if the end result may not have differed once all was said and done, his intentions had not been the same.
"No." Fact or not, it was no more absolving in his eyes than in her's, it seemed. "I let Azula do that. I almost let her destroy everything all for some misguided idea that I could win back my honour from a man who has none." She could imagine his lip curling with the same distaste that flooded his voice. "Ironic, really. I wasted three years of my life failing to accomplish anything, and then the first victory I could claim a part in I didn't even want."
It occurred to her then that, no matter how much hate and rage she conjured for the boy beside her, she would never be able to loathe him with the same intensity with which he loathed himself. She was furious at him for what he had done in the past, but she had never stopped to consider what it must feel like to be the one who had done those deeds. There were things she regretted. Things that had the power to carve an empty hollow in her stomach and leave her pale and shaking. So what must he feel?
She didn't really need to ask, though. It was eloquently painted in the dejected slump to his shoulders, the grief in his voice whenever he spoke of his uncle, as if Iroh was dead and gone already and not just elsewhere, in the way he wasn't quite meeting her eyes. In all the tiny things she had missed in her anger, more obvious than a snowball to the face now she had been shocked out of her hatred long enough to just see.
Drawing in a deep breath she moved slowly, to give herself time to change her mind, and to be sure she didn't startle him as she gently laid her hand over his shoulder. He flinched reflexively, then froze, stiff as stone in her grasp, trembling ever so slightly, an unspoken question hanging in the air between them.
"I'm sorry." It wasn't an apology. "I'm sorry that Ozai had a son he didn't deserve. I'm sorry that he was your father. I'm sorry that you were loyal enough to keep caring even when you shouldn't have. I'm sorry that you wanted to go back to a home that nearly destroyed you instead of finding a new one. I'm sorry that your uncle's kindness wasn't enough. I'm sorry that you buried your own kindness in anger. I'm sorry you are so good at lying to yourself that it took irrefutable proof to change your mind. But I'm not sorry that you're here, Zuko."
"You're not?" He sounded dubious, still tense, waiting for her gentle touch to morph into the attack he was braced for.
"No," she reaffirmed. "I'm not. How could I be?"
He shook his head. "I betrayed you."
Anger flared briefly, doused by the cooling waters of too many new revelations. "Yes. Yes, you did. Me and Iroh both. But, Zuko, don't you see? You betrayed yourself as well. You let that man, who has no right to call himself your father, dictate your life for years. You let him hurt you. You let him control you. Change you. You went back to him despite knowing full well he would do it all again given the right provocation. You put yourself right in harms' way to prove to yourself you were doing the right thing, only to realise it was wrong."
"Because I was too stupid to figure it out before…"
"There's nothing stupid about wanting your father to love you."
"Maybe. But expecting Ozai to?"
"You shouldn't have had to expect anything. He's your father. He's supposed to care."
"Except he doesn't."
"But you thought he did."
"Stupid. I know."
"You've been stupid about a lot of things," she agreed easily. "But this isn't one of them. Who told you that... that this." She touched his left cheek, feather light, but he still flinched away. "Was just punishment for not being respectful enough?"
He frowned, not at her, then shrugged. "Nobody told me it wasn't."
"Not even Iroh?"
"He probably knew I wouldn't listen."
"Or maybe he didn't want to explain why he did nothing about your father maiming you."
She was angry again, and he was defensive.
"There was nothing Uncle could have done! It was an Agni Kai. Nobody is supposed to interfere until its over."
Shock rippled through her, a lasting cold. "Wait. He was there?"
She had imagined it a private punishment. An act committed in the dark corners of the Fire Nation palace, without witnesses until the time to intervene had already passed. But for Iroh to have been present as it happened without doing a single thing to stop it...
He barked a humourless laugh, shattering her spiralling thoughts. "I'm pretty sure most of the court was there."
Most of the… Her thoughts stopped, her mind tearing itself apart in an effort to grasp this truth as her stomach twisted itself into knots. She tried to imagine the same thing happening in her own tribe, but she couldn't even picture her father laying a hand on her and Sokka, let alone the rest of the village standing by and doing nothing as he did.
"And nobody did anything?" She couldn't believe it. "Nobody tried to stop him?"
"It was a duel. They couldn't intervene."
Fact and fact. She thought she might be sick.
"Couldn't, or wouldn't?"
"Both, probably. Nobody cared about me more than they feared my father. The only person foolish enough to argue with him was the person in the ring with him; Me."
"That's terrible!" Aghast, she stared at him. "I can't believe that no one... That Iroh just stood there and watched."
"Actually, I'm told he closed his eyes."
"Stop that!" She smacked him on the arm. "Stop acting like it's okay! That what happened to you wasn't wrong and cruel and evil! That it's alright that a court full of people who govern a country thought it was okay to watch a father wound his own child as they stood by and did nothing to stop him."
She stopped, out of words, feeling him shudder beneath the palm still resting against his forearm. Then it hit her afresh, because he had said 'years' and she couldn't believe that...
"How old were you?" He shook his head, but she persisted. "Zuko, how old were you?"
"Thirteen," he admitted after a moment, and she sucked in a sharp breath. "It's probably the best thing that could have happened to me."
"The best…" She choked, feeling the world spin around her, but he simply shrugged.
"It got me away from him, didn't it? And if it hadn't happened then it would have happened later." Reflectively, he added, "Later could have been so much worse, if I'd lived that long."
The casualness with which he spoke of his own demise was utterly disconcerting, at the hands of his own family no less. Sadder still, though, was the fact it didn't surprise her at all. She had met Azula and she had heard enough of Ozai to leave a lasting impression without even laying eyes on the man. Truly, the only surprising thing was how long it had taken Zuko - despite all evidence pointing to the truth - to realise how little he mattered to them. It was the blind loyalty of a child combined with stubbornness that would put any earthbender to shame, a combination that would not have been so harmful, perhaps, if his family had been anything but what they were.
"Your father seems nice."
She blinked, thrown by the change of subject. At least, until it sunk in that this was the answer to her first question. The reason he had pulled away and fled their company. Because what was it, save for the greatest cruelty, for him to see her and Sokka with their father, happy, knowing all the while he could never have the gift that was their family? His father was a monster, his sister wanted him dead, and his uncle -who hadn't done anything - he believed lost to him now, driven away by his own flaws and failings.
"He is," she answered slowly, turning her light touch on his arm to a firm squeeze. "Thank you for bringing him back to me. Him and Sokka both."
"I owed you," he said, deflecting.
He hadn't. Not really. What was a few words, a brief connection, and an offer of healing never followed through in actuality when stacked against years of lies and deceptions crammed into a child's head? Ozai had come incredibly close to having the son he desired through the simple and yet abominable act of making Zuko believe he wanted to be that person. He had left his son scarred, and the largest of those was not that which stood, plainly visible, upon his face.
You're a healer, a small voice she had all but buried when it came to the prince raised its head in the silence she had provided. So heal.
"Sokka likes you," she said suddenly, earning herself a quizzical look. "He's always wanted a brother."
"Uh… I…" He floundered, and she smiled.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he challenged you to a spar soon, actually." She rolled her eyes, knowing the gesture probably wasn't all that visible. "Swordbending, as he calls it."
"Well, I don't… Swordbending?"
"Yeah, he's an idiot. But, then, you can be an idiot too."
He was silent in the face of that accusation, and a comfortable silence enshrouded them both for several moments before he went and ruined it again.
"Shouldn't you be... Why aren't you angry? I thought…"
There was no easy answer to that. No way to express the emotions she had cycled through over the course of their conversation. Without words, she settled instead on a Toph-like response, punching him in the arm… hard.
"Ow!" Indignantly, he jerked away from her, lifting a hand to rub at the spot she had probably bruised. "What was that for?"
She paused, swallowing, facing the horrid memory. Because Aang had died, another person she cared about ripped away by the Fire Nation, and Zuko had helped it happen. The boy she had offered to heal despite everything, who she truly believed had changed only to realise she had been trusting in an illusion all along, a mask to hide his true face. Only now did she realise she had misunderstood. The Zuko she had seen echoing her own grief in those catacombs wasn't a lie any more than the guilt-torn, yet oddly resolved, young man before her was. This was his true self. The self his father had nearly destroyed through cruelty and malice. The self Iroh had believed in all along. The self she hadn't known - hadn't done - enough to reach before Azula stormed in with sweet lies and promises Zuko wanted too badly to disbelieve.
"That," she repeated softly. Firmly. "Was for Ba Sing Se."
"Oh." He blinked. "Shouldn't you be pushing me off the cliff for that or something?"
"I think I'd rather do that to your father," she answered before her mind could catch up with her mouth. "And maybe the rest of the Fire Nation court while I'm at it."
He was staring at her now, his expression indecipherable, an odd mixture of so many emotions she couldn't name a single one. She waited, wondering if he would choose to question her or not, but he didn't. Instead he turned back to the abyss spread below them, and she realised with a start he had shifted slightly to leave his legs dangling over the edge, his heels drumming an erratic beat against the jagged stone.
Silence spread between them, a blanket to hide all thoughts and feelings, one which neither of them seemed inclined to break. Katara found her mind drifting over what had been said between them, examining both her words and his. Looking for treachery? Or just wondering what sort of twisted world had led to either of them living the lives they had?
"What did you say?" Curiosity prompted her to ask. She needed to know the whole of it, now that she understood part. "To make him do… what he did?"
"Something I shouldn't have." He shrugged, the movement weary and resigned. "Something that didn't save anyone in the end."
Scowling, she poked him in the shoulder. "That's not an answer."
"There was this war meeting," he started haltingly. "I wasn't even supposed to be there, but Uncle never did know how to say 'no' back then. One of the generals put forward a plan that would have seen hundreds of green soldiers used as bait, sentenced to die for the greater good. I was horrified, and I kept waiting for someone to speak up. For my father to tell the general he was wrong, and we couldn't treat our own people like weapons."
"He didn't, though," Katara said softly. "Did he?"
"No." That bitter curl of his lip was back. "So I did. I spoke out in a war room I wasn't supposed to be in against a plan put forward by one of my father's best men. I achieved absolutely nothing, saved no one, and turned disrespect into cowardice when I faced my father on the battlefield and refused to fight."
"But you tried." It seemed important that he hold onto that much, at least. "You tried to save them. When no one else cared you put yourself on the line to be the one person who did."
"Does it matter? I didn't change anything. I didn't save anyone."
"I think the soldiers you tried to save would say it mattered." She wondered if any of them had known, before they marched to their deaths, that someone had cared. "And their families."
Because there was always somebody left behind. Somebody whose grief wouldn't be eased, but who might find some small solace in the thought such an atrocity had not gone wholly unchallenged. Idly, she wondered if anyone had spoken out against the brutality that had been unleashed on her mother. If the man responsible had any more of a conscience than Zuko's father. How many other soldiers silenced their doubts and hid their reservations because they knew what happened to those who didn't.
As an afterthought, a confession, she added, "It matters to me."
Questioningly, he turned to her. "Why?"
"You cared," she offered simply.
Doubtfully, he argued, "Not enough."
"Or too much."
"That… doesn't make any sense."
"Neither do you," she countered. "And I was right. We should have given you a Not-As-Big-Of-A-Jerk-As-You-Could-Have-Been Award."
"I… what?" There was something altogether amusing about the look of sheer bewilderment on his face, without making mention of the way his eyes narrowed in suspicion afterwards. "I don't want to know, do I?"
"Probably not," she agreed, leaning her weight back on her hands she tilted her head back to stare at the stars glimmering above them.
It was peaceful here on the cliff edge, away from the cheerful rowdiness of the campfire, the haunted feeling of the empty temple. Away from her own anger, a weight on her shoulders she hadn't realised was there until it was gone. It wasn't forgiveness, exactly. She hadn't spoken the words, she wasn't even sure if she would mean them if she did, but she understood now. What had happened then, what was happening now, and why. Zuko still had amends to make for the mistakes of the past, and he knew that, she did not need to tell him, or even remind him, he'd known all along. The change was not in him, it was in her, because she was ready to let him try now, with every confidence he would succeed.
And when this was all over maybe she would talk to Toph about fashioning that medal. It would be worth all the inevitable 'I-told-you-so' moments just to see Zuko's face when they presented it him.