“And that’s the story of how I broke my first bone,” Sokka finished dramatically.
Crackling firewood and utter silence followed the statement. A cricket chirped in the distance. Someone cleared their throat surreptitiously.
Sokka’s left eye twitched.
“Okay, fine, so it’s not the most interesting of tales, but I dare anyone else to do better than being chased around by an angry Arctic hippo!”
“Actually, Sokka just didn’t notice it lumbering up behind him,” Katara sotto-whispered to Aang, deliberately loud enough that everyone around the campfire heard, “and when he did, he shrieked like a five-year-old and slipped on an ice patch while trying to run away. It didn’t even chase him. I think it licked him when he started crying.”
“Hey!” Sokka pointed angrily at Katara, trying to ignore Toph and Suki’s snickering. “That is not what happened, that hippo was clearly out for my blood! Take that back!”
Aang turned to Suki. “What about you, Suki,” he said, cheerfully loud over the siblings bickering in the background, “how’d you-”
“Never broke one.” Her smile was smug.
The bickering stopped abruptly.
“But, you’re-” Sokka flapped his hands vaguely in Suki’s direction. “You’re a Kyoshi Warrior! You’ve probably been in tons of fights. You’re telling me that you’ve never-”
“Nope,” she dragged out the word, “not even once.” She flipped her hair and blinked demurely, a picture of effortless grace. “Guess I’m just that good.”
“She’s telling the truth,” Toph offered, “unlike some people. Cough cough, Sokka, cough.”
Sokka’s eye twitched again. “Okay, first of all, you can’t just say the word ‘cough’; you have to actually cough for that to work. Secondly,” and here his voice was rising in both volume and pitch, “I wasn’t lying.”
Toph stared him down. Well, stared in his general direction. “Cough.”
Before Sokka could do something drastic, like fling himself across the campfire and get killed while trying, and failing, to strangle the Earthbender (because they all knew who’d win that particular fight), Aang brandished his bowl like a weapon.
“Who wants seconds!” he said brightly.
Katara tugged a spluttering Sokka back down next to her. “I’m good.”
Sokka sniffed, shooting another glare at Toph’s smirking face. “I’m good, too.” He rubbed his belly appreciatively. “Man, much as I hate the Fire Nation, you have to admit they really know their food.” His eyes widened and he sat up straight. “Um, not that I hate everything about the Fire Nation, obviously, haha, there has to be some good in the place if it produced people like you, Zuko, am I right?”
His nervous laughter died off as he realised the person in question wasn’t there to roll his eyes at Sokka’s panicked ramblings. He looked around the campfire.
“Hey, where’s Zuko?”
Aang dropped his bowl back down next to him, startling Momo, who had been slumped bonelessly next to the fire, fed and content. Momo chirped fussily at Aang and bounded off somewhere in the dark.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “but he disappeared around this time yesterday too.” Aang shrugged. “I figured he wanted to be alone, so I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, you guys can get a little…overwhelming,” Suki supplied helpfully. She didn’t even blink at the affronted glares the others shot her way. “Sorry, but it’s true. From what I know of Zuko so far, it seems like he’s a pretty quiet guy.”
Katara sighed. “Yeah, he’s a lot quieter now that he’s stopped yelling about wanting to capture the Avatar and regain his honour every other minute.”
“I still don’t really know what his honour had to do with capturing me, to be honest,” Aang said distractedly, running a hand over his bald head. He needed a shave soon. “I never really got a chance to ask.”
Sokka shrugged. “Who knows? The Fire Nation’s never made much sense in their actions. Bunch of crazy dunderheads,” he muttered that last bit, even though Zuko wasn’t there to protest his nation’s alleged innocence. Toph elbowed him anyway.
“What?” he squawked.
“I can hear Sparky shuffling around over there,” she said, waving a hand near the trees at the edge of the beach and ignoring Sokka’s grumblings as he pitifully rubbed his chest. Toph’s elbows were so pointy. “He’s near Appa, I think. Not too sure what he’s doing; I can’t sense that far.”
Aang bounded to his feet. “Maybe he’s feeding Appa! That reminds me, I picked a bunch of apples from one of the trees earlier. I’ll go give them to Appa now.”
Katara raised an eyebrow as she too stood up, brushing sand off her tunic. “Zuko? Voluntarily feeding Appa? This I gotta see.” Though she’d begun getting close to the Firebender since their shared adventure, she still couldn’t imagine him willingly subjecting himself to Appa’s rough lickings.
Sokka and Suki shared a look and stood up as well.
“Hey, if everyone’s going then I’m coming too!” Toph reached out a hand imperiously and waited. Sokka rolled his eyes and grabbed it, hauling her up.
They followed Aang to where he was standing, coming to a stop behind him. He stood stock-still at the boundary of where the beach met the forest, clutching a sack of apples to his chest. Glancing at them, he raised a finger to his lips and shushed their quiet mutterings. When they all quietened down, he pointed to where Appa was sitting in the distance. Sokka felt his jaw drop.
The bison was rumbling contentedly as Zuko gently brushed out one leg’s fur with a brush. Zuko’s hair was sticking up on one side; clearly, Appa had already expressed his joy at being groomed through vigorous lickings.
“What’s going on,” Toph hissed, “I can hear Sokka practically having an aneurysm next to me. What’s Zuko doing?”
Katara blinked. “He’s…um. Grooming? Appa? And. Erm. Smiling?”
Though they were standing far enough not to be able to hear what Zuko was saying to Appa, he really was clearly smiling. A rare sight already, made even more so by how shy and soft it seemed.
It was oddly endearing, watching Zuko continue his ministrations on the bison. None of them could remember seeing Zuko as relaxed as he currently was. His shoulders had lost the tension they seemed to perpetually carry, and his movements were languid and gentle. As they watched, Appa grumbled loudly and nudged another leg towards Zuko, who laughed quietly and began brushing it.
“Can we get any closer,” Sokka heard himself say, as if from a distance. He’d never seen Zuko outright laughing before, and was finding himself with a sudden burning desire to hear the other boy’s one-sided conversation with Appa.
Aang shook his head. “He’ll hear us coming.” He turned to look at the odd pair once again- the surly Firebender with the semi-permanent scowl on his face, who was now fighting back a grin as Appa’s tongue nearly swept him off his feet.
Sokka knew that if they interrupted Zuko, that grin would fade and he’d go back to his sullen self, as if ashamed to have been caught smiling like a normal person for once.
Struck with a sudden thought, Aang’s eyes gleamed. “But I know another way to hear what’s going on.”
He took a step back and gently rolled his arm in the air in Appa’s direction, creating an invisible air tunnel. “It’s a trick I learned at the Temple when I was younger,” he explained to the others, “when me and the younger monks wanted to eavesdrop on Gyatso and the other adults without getting caught.” He rolled his arm one last time, and suddenly they could hear as well as see Zuko chuckling gently as he finger-brushed Appa’s slobber out of his hair, trying to tame it back down from where it was standing upright.
Toph grinned and nudged Aang on a job well done, who smiled proudly like a happy turtle-duckling.
“…and after I’ve brushed out these knots, I can wipe down your horns if you’d like,” Zuko was saying as he finished sorting his own hair out. “If that’s okay with you, Mr Appa.”
Appa rumbled his consent, but the rest of them almost didn’t hear the bison over their own sudden and frantically choked-down laughter. Sokka couldn’t breathe, he was wheezing so hard. Toph was doubled over, shoulders shaking as she slapped silently at her knees.
Mr Appa, mouthed Katara with a snort, and Sokka’s laughter was nearly set off again as he met his sister’s eyes. He finished wiping the tears from his eyes and looked back over to the bison.
Zuko had picked the brush back up, running the bristles through Appa’s downy fur once more. Sokka struggled to reconcile the image of this Zuko, painfully awkward and incredibly gentle, with the angry boy-soldier sporting the ridiculous ponytail they had first come across. Was that really just a few months ago? Judging from the looks on the others’ faces, he wasn’t the only one thinking such thoughts. Only Toph looked appreciative as she tilted her head in Zuko’s direction, listening intently.
“Your fur is so soft,” Zuko said, sounding almost awed as he ran his fingers through Appa’s fur. “How is it so soft? If we used it to stuff pillows, I bet they’d be softer than even the most expensive pillows back at the palace.” He smiled wistfully, eyes glazing as his mind clearly wandered to somewhere that wasn’t here.
Appa snorted, making Zuko jump. He dropped the brush in the foliage and cursed softly.
“Sorry, Mr Appa,” he said, whether for dropping the brush or cursing, Sokka didn’t know. Zuko fumbled around in the grass, but it was clear he couldn’t spot the brush in the growing darkness. He sighed and conjured a small flame in his hand, peering into the undergrowth.
Appa suddenly reared back from the flame, making the rest of them jump where they had been standing under cover of the trees. Zuko immediately extinguished the flame and stood with his hands up, hunching his shoulders and making himself look as non-threatening as possible.
“It’s okay, I won’t hurt you!” He waved his flame-less hands in Appa’s direction, wriggling his fingers. “See, Mr Appa, no fire!”
Appa slowly floated back down to where Zuko was standing. Something in Sokka’s chest tugged when he saw how panicked Zuko looked at having accidentally scared Appa. The Firebender looked seconds away from having a stress-induced heart attack. Appa clearly thought the same, because he shuffled closer to Zuko and gave him a tentative lick.
Zuko heaved a relieved sigh, hands slowly backing down towards Appa’s face. He gave a bison’s snout a soft stroke. “Not a fan of fire, are you?” he said ruefully, scratching at his shaggy hair. “I wasn’t either, for a long while.”
He sighed and knelt down in front of Appa, conjuring an apple from somewhere upon his person. Appa swallowed it down in a single gulp, grumbling contentedly.
“I know what it’s like, to be afraid of fire,” Zuko said. “It wasn’t very long ago when I was still flinching every time I tried to bend.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “Isn’t that funny? A Firebender afraid of his own flames?”
Under the trees, Aang looked suddenly unsure. “Um, guys, I don’t think we should be listening to this.” He glanced at the others nervously. “It seems kind of private, y’know?”
Toph poked him. “Quiet, Twinkle Toes, I want to hear this. Sparky never talks about himself- the only thing I know about the guy is that he’s the world’s most awkward royal, makes passable tea, and loves dunking on bad theatre productions.”
Katara nodded. “Maybe if we knew more about Zuko, we’d be able to help him out. It’s almost like he doesn’t really know how to talk to people- maybe this is the best way to find out what makes him tick.”
Sokka was unsure about this, but he kept quiet. Maybe Katara was right- Zuko was notoriously secretive about his past, and Sokka was an inherently curious creature. Even so, he felt a little uneasy about eavesdropping on the guy. Next to him, Suki seemed almost as hesitant, but she kept her thoughts to herself.
Aang sighed, clearly giving in, and turned back to the scene.
Zuko was still kneeling on the grass. He’d sat quietly for the last few minutes, gently stroking Appa. To those watching, it looked almost like it was Zuko and not the bison who was gaining comfort from the touch.
Zuko looked back up into Appa’s eyes. “I don’t really know if you understand what I’m saying,” he said, “but I really am sorry I scared you.”
Appa nudged him, as if encouraging him to speak.
It was like the small, gentle action caused a dam to break in Zuko. The words began spilling out.
“When I was a kid, I- well I wasn’t a kid, really, I was thirteen, which is older than Aang and Toph are now, but I guess I was never as mature as they are,” he rambled. “I spoke out of turn in front of my fa- the Fire Lord and his generals. I was only trying to help, I just didn’t-” he broke off, choking down the words.
“The generals didn’t take it well, and one of them challenged me to a firebending duel. An Agni Kai. I guess you don’t really have an equivalent of it in the other nations, which makes sense,” he choked out a laugh. “No other nation is as cruel as ours, to use their bending against their own.”
Aang was staring just as wide-eyed as the others at Zuko. None of them knew where this was going, but they all had a growing inkling that it wasn’t going anywhere good.
Zuko shuddered out a breath, and continued. “I was cocky, and arrogant, and foolish. I accepted, because I thought I could win. I thought I could prove myself worthy. Prove my honour.” He was shaking now, subtle tremors going through his frame. “I didn’t know how wrong I was. Because it wasn’t the general standing at the other end.” His voice dropped to a guttural whisper. “It was my father.”
Katara gasped. Toph blinked slowly, as if she couldn’t comprehend what she was hearing.
Sokka felt the rising creep of dread in his stomach, crawling up to his throat.
“I didn’t- I didn’t want to fight him. I begged him, in front of half the nobility standing there watching, in front of all the servants. I sank to my knees, his pathetic son, and I begged for mercy,” Zuko gasped out, forehead pressed against Appa’s snout. The bison stood stock-still, breathing gently over the kneeling boy.
“He’d hit me before,” Zuko said, oblivious to where Aang’s hands gathered into shaking fists at his side, to where Suki breathed out a harsh breath. “But that was only in private, and it wasn’t- I understood those beatings, I’d needed the discipline. But this- I thought he’d forgive me. He was still my father.” A half-choked sob escaped his lips, his shaking growing more pronounced. Appa lowed gently over him, breathing out a calming huff.
“He- he came towards me. He told me that I would learn respect, and that suffering would be my teacher. I thought he’d just shake me, or throw me off the stage, or-or strip away my title. But then he reached out both hands, and he cupped my face so gently.” Zuko’s voice had grown flat, losing all its emotion. He sounded dead inside.
“And then he gripped my hair with one hand, and used the other to set half my face on fire.”
Suki’s hands shot to her mouth, eyes wide in horror.
Sokka felt his breath fail him. For a second, everything grew distant- numb. He’d never thought- Sokka didn’t know what he’d thought. The scar was as intrinsic a part of Zuko as his royal title- maybe even more so. Sokka had never known the prince without his facial disfiguration, and between running for their lives from Zuko and everything else that had happened he had never really given a second thought to where the scar had come from. He’d assumed it had been a training accident of some sort, the sort that Firebenders must have been used to when practicing their bending, and Zuko had seemed brash enough to make careless mistakes. But this? For such an injury to have been inflicted deliberately?
By his own father?
The sack of apples tumbled from Aang’s hands.
Zuko didn’t seem to hear it- he was too busy choking back sobs against Appa’s face. Sokka’s heart shattered in his chest. Even now, thinking himself alone, Zuko still wouldn’t let himself mourn freely. He had bottled up his anguish and thrown it deep inside himself to be buried, repressing it under waves of determined, focused rage. And now the bottle was cracking under the pressure, yet he was still trying to push down his emotions.
Sokka recognised the pain. It was the same hurt he had spent years quashing down his gullet when he lingered on thoughts of his mother for more than a passing second. It was the same agony he sometimes still felt when he lay on his back in the dead of night, after the others had gone to sleep, and gazed up at the full moon.
From the corner of his eyes, Sokka saw Katara make an aborted motion towards Zuko, tears running freely down her face. Toph’s arm shot out and stopped her. The younger girl was deathly pale, the rest of her face as empty and lost as her eyes, but her hand had a death-grip on Katara’s arm. Slowly, she shook her head. Her other hand landed gently on Aang’s shoulder, where he had sunk to his knees- a mirror of Zuko, who knelt a few dozen yards away. Aang flinched, then sagged under Toph’s touch. His shoulders began shaking under her hand, a silent earthquake of misery.
Even after all they knew about the Fire Nation’s atrocities, none of them could have imagined this.
In the clearing, under Yue’s bright light, Zuko had managed to gain control of his breathing. He was completely slumped against Appa, as if he had lost the strength to keep holding himself upright. His face was as blank as a mask, apart from his scar, which stretched out in a mockery of a grimace across his face. When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse, as if he had been screaming.
“You know,” he said conversationally, like he was discussing the weather instead of unspeakable childhood trauma. “Father always said that Azula was born lucky, and I was lucky to be born.” Sokka flinched. “But that was the day I found out that my sheer existence was my own worst luck. I sometimes wish Agni had taken me at birth. At least then I wouldn’t have turned out to be such a- such a disappointment.”
Zuko shuddered out a breath, and Sokka’s palms itched with the need to stride out across the clearing and shake the other boy’s shoulders. How can you say that, he wanted to scream, how can you let yourself think this was your fault, when the one who was supposed to protect you failed you so intrinsically?
How can you consider yourself a disappointment when the only disappointment was the monster you still call your father?
It was almost as if Zuko heard him from across the clearing. He seemed to come back to himself, shaking his head. “No, it was cruel and wrong, it was cruel and wrong, I didn’t deserve that, it was cruel and wrong.” The mantra seemed to be helping him gain his strength back. Zuko sat back on his heels, wiping his face clean of his tears.
“It was cruel,” he said to Appa, who almost seemed to nod solemnly, “and it was wrong. And it was wrong for the generals to stand back and watch, like it was wrong of them to discuss sending the battalion of soldiers to be sacrificed in the first place. I know what happened to the 41st division,” here, he clenched his hands tight against his side. Sokka saw blood drip out of his fists, and ached. “I know none of them survived. I know they were children,” he spat, “barely older than I am now, and I know none of them should have been thrown to the wolves like cannon fodder.”
He looked Appa in the eyes. “I know Ozai has to be stopped.”
His voice was steady. “I know he has to die.”
Zuko let out a breath, finally back in control. He smiled grimly.
“And if I die trying to make that happen, so be it.”
With that, he stood up. Appa gently nudged him to sit back down, but Zuko just shook his head, his smile losing its sharp edges until it was back to the soft, broken thing it had been earlier. “I have to go practice now. I’ll come back tomorrow to brush the rest of your fur, Mr Appa.”
He wiped his bloody hands on his shirt, and gave one final gentle stroke to Appa’s fur with the back of one hand. Then he turned and walked deeper into the forest. Distantly, they heard the sharp whoosh of air being displaced as firebending began to take place.
Appa sank down to sit on the ground and began lowing, the sound haunted and mournful. Anguished.
For a few minutes, none of the others spoke. Sokka leaned back against a tree trunk and sank down slowly, the rough texture of the bark scraping his back doing nothing to clear his head. The others, the ones still standing, took that as a cue to sink down next to him and Aang, as if the strings holding him upright had been cut.
For the first time in a long time, Aang looked even younger than his age. He looked lost.
“Why didn’t he ever tell us,” he breathed, clutching his knees to himself.
Sokka shook his head, tried to speak. Failed, cleared his throat roughly, tried again. “You know how fiercely private he is about anything he thinks is a weakness. All that yelling about his honour… he thinks he lost his honour when he- when he was- at his banishment,” he choked out.
Toph aggressively punched a tree, startling them all. “That’s why his heart was going crazy anytime your dad came near him, Sokka. I thought it was just because Hakoda was the Chief of the Water Tribe.” Her voice shook. “I didn’t know that- that-”
“None of us did,” said Katara. Her face had grown newly anguished at Toph’s words, but now she wiped her face clean of both emotions and tears, though her eyes remained wet and guilty. “And I don’t think he’s in the right headspace to ever have told us this right now. Finding out like this was wrong.”
“She’s right,” Suki said firmly. “We can’t tell him we know- he’ll never look at us the same way if he thinks we pity him.”
“But how are we supposed to look at him, now that we do know?” Sokka was furiously ripping out grass from the ground with his fingers, twisting it around and around. His hands were still shaking. “How are we supposed to act like we don’t know he’s got a death wish to go against his fath- against Ozai? Do we just let him get himself killed?”
“He won’t go against Ozai.” There was steel in Aang’s eyes as he finally looked up. He took in a deep breath, fortifying himself. “We won’t let him. On the day of the comet, we’ll send him somewhere where Ozai isn’t. We’ll lock him up if we have to, but Ozai won’t lay another hand on Zuko.”
For a brief second, Aang’s eyes shone an immortal blue. “Not while I’m around.”
And so, Zuko’s friends sat in the trees next to a beach in the dark, slowly coming to terms with horrors they all should have been too young to encounter, and vowed to save their friend from himself if they had to. When they finally trudged back to the campsite, Momo chirping cheerfully at them from across Zuko’s shoulders, who looked at them with red-rimmed eyes and a weak smile, they all vowed to help his smile gain strength, and to push back the pain that still lingered in his gaze.
And so, when Zuko absentmindedly mumbled good morning Mr Appa the next day, Sokka teased his friend gently yet delightedly about it for hours afterwards (and later, when Zuko snapped at him and stomped off while failing to suppress a grin, Sokka absolutely didn’t fight to keep the ache in his throat and the burn behind his eyes hidden from view).
And so, when Aang finally faced the Fire Lord, and the man’s cruel gold eyes (so much like Zuko’s, yet so different at the same time) glinted blue with the lightning that escaped his fingertips, Aang remembered the agony of his own heart breaking when he had heard Zuko’s first choked sob, and struggled to redirect the lightning somewhere other than Ozai’s pathetically shocked face (if it took him a hair-breath of a second longer to do so, well, Ozai still lived, and none were the wiser).
And so, when Zuko finally stood in front of his nation, crown glinting in his hair and smile more golden than his eyes, more golden than even Agni himself shining bright upon the new Fire Lord and his future reign, no one in the crowd cheered louder or for longer than his friends (and if there were tears streaming down their faces from the sheer relief in their hearts, well, Zuko was too far away to see).
And if, in a few years, on the tenth anniversary of Zuko’s banishment, Zuko’s friends gathered around him across from the turtle-duck pond where he sat shaking, and he opened up and told them the tale of his banishment, shaking into his hands as his friends- no, his family- gathered him gently into their arms and held him as he sobbed (finally free of the pain that he had kept buried in his soul for so long; the weight he had carried alone for so far), then that was between them and the gentle light of Yue that shone down upon them.