The days following Sozin's Comet are nothing if not tense and confusing. Nobles and delegates from the three remaining nations swarm the Caldera, along with White Lotus members and generals, and one dude who tries to storm the castle with nothing but a rusty sword.
He… doesn't get past the front gate.
Even still, tension fills the castle grounds like a thick smog. Not just because of the one idiot with the sword. Political tensions were already higher than the sun itself, and the sudden reminder that ‘oh yeah, assassination attempts are a thing’, really isn’t helping.
Especially when it seems like everyone is against Zuko in these meetings. The foreign delegates treat him either like an idiot child or like he’s personally responsible for every awful thing that’s happened during this war. Zuko’s not quite sure which is worse.
His own advisors speak to him with thinly veiled disdain, and he struggles to keep his own dislike for them veiled. They’ll be gone soon, Zuko refuses to work with the people who helped his father try to burn the world. Unfortunately they seem to realize that, so it’s quite awkward to say the least.
Somehow or another Zuko ends up always having at least three guards- one from each remaining nation- tailing him at all times. He’s not sure if it’s actually supposed to make him feel safer- considering some of his own people are actually trying to kill him- or if it’s meant to be a threat. He’s never really been good with stuff like this.
So. Zuko’s a little stressed.
Uncle attempts to keep him from the front lines of the political battlefield they’ve just unleashed, but Zuko won’t hear it. He can’t just stay in bed and let someone else do it for him. Uncle may say he needs rest, but Zuko’s being crowned in only a few days. What he needs is to be prepared to rule his nation.
The only real reprieve he has are his daily healing sessions with Katara. Even though he refuses to be stuck in bed all day, he’ll sacrifice an hour a day to heal the massive burn in the middle of his chest.
Technically a session shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes, but healing tends to take longer when four other teenagers decide to follow your healer into your room and distract her. Zuko would complain, but what’s he supposed to do? Tell the Avatar, two of his Masters, and two war heroes to hurry up? Of course not, he doesn't want to start another war!
(And maybe he just misses them, but he won’t ever admit it. Nor will he admit to nearly crying from relief when they said they’d be staying for a while.)
Today, like usual, they’re all camped out in his room for the daily healing session. Zuko is lying on his bed, propped up by pillows so Katara can work easier. She’s sitting in a chair to his right, with two half-full bowls of water set out on the table beside her.
Aang’s somewhere to Zuko’s left, slowly sinking into a massive pile of pillows and rambling a story Zuko’s struggling to follow. Toph has somehow managed to contort herself into a strange position where her feet are on the stone floor but her head is using Zuko’s legs as a pillow. He asked if she wanted a chair, but she insisted this was comfortable.
Suki and Sokka are the only ones sitting semi normally, though Sokka’s legs are thrown over Zuko’s lap. Suki has yet to go that far- Katara still needs room to work after all- but from previous experience Zuko knows she’ll most likely gently drape her own legs over his stomach once Katara is finished. The first time she did it was to keep him from running off to a meeting and re-opening his wound, but now it’s just comfortable.
All six of them don’t even take up a third of the bed. They could spread out, but they prefer not too.
Katara’s concentrated expression relaxes, and the light from her water fades. She transfers the slightly murky water from Zuko’s chest to one of the bowls.
“It’s healing really well.” Katara tells him with a smile, before her lips quirk down into a frown. “Though it’ll still scar pretty bad.”
Zuko shrugs, pulling his robe back up, and cracks a slight smile. “It’s ok. I doubt people will really focus on it anyway… the one on my face is a bit more prominent.” He jokes, with a slightly self-deprecating laugh.
Katara makes a face, like she’s not quite sure if she should laugh or frown, when Toph speaks up.
“You have a scar on your face?” Toph asks, sitting up so she’s sitting by his legs rather than lying on them. Her tone is surprisingly tense and serious.
Zuko blinks. He never quite forgets that Toph is blind- he gets it better than the others- but the fact that she can’t see his scar never really occurred to him. It’s just… a part of him, in the same way his hair is black and skin is pale.
“Oh, yeah.” Zuko looks down at his lap, picking at the hem of his shirt. “My father burned like, half my face off before I was banished.” He says it a little too casually, and probably not bitterly enough.
A crash next to him makes him look up, to see Katara's horrified expression, and a shattered bowl of water at her feet. His own eyes widen in confusion, and he glances around to see the other’s expressions.
Aang had removed himself from his pillow pile when Zuko wasn’t paying attention, so Zuko has a clear view of the pure devastation on his face. Suki looks pissed, fists clenched and body tightened like a coil. Sokka somehow manages to run from confused to dismayed to enraged back to dismayed, all in under three seconds.
Toph reaches out to squeeze Zuko’s ankle, head tilted and brows furrowed. He’s not quite sure who the action’s for.
No one says anything for a long moment.
“Zuko… it- your dad?” Katara finally manages to gasp out. Zuko blinks at her, his brain moving slowly.
“You didn’t know?” He asks in genuine surprise. He’d thought the Agni Kai was common knowledge; he just assumed that Toph didn’t realize quite how bad it was.
“No.” Sokka wheezes.
Zuko blinks at him. “Oh.” Is all he can manage to say.
Sokka stares at him for a long moment, eyes wide and almost haunted, before he buries his face in his hands, repeating ‘Tui and La what the fuck' under his breath repeatedly. Katara stares at Zuko in stunned horror.
“What the fuck.” Toph breathes, sounding horrified and young in a way Zuko’s not used too. It terrifies him for a moment, but then Toph’s face scrunches up in pure rage. “What the fuck.” She hisses.
Suki turns to Zuko. Her expression is deceptively calm, a mask hiding her internal rage.
“Did he do it on purpose?” She asks like she already knows the answer. Katara looks up sharply at the question, glancing between the two of them with something unreadable in her eyes.
His silence, and the way he looks away is all she needs to confirm. Sokka’s cussing returns with gusto, and Toph’s fingers tighten around Zuko’s ankle.
“I’m gonna kill him.” Suki declares, deadly calm in her anger. “I’m going down to his cell tonight and I swear to Kyoshi herself I’m going to slit his throat.” Anger smoothes her face into a deceptively calm mask, and she’d look almost serene if it weren't for her words. Katara’s eyes flash sharp blue, and Zuko knows she’s considering tagging along.
Part of Zuko wants to tell her to go ahead, while another screeches about political ramifications. (And a third that sounds too much like the posible murder victem pipes up about betrayal and honer, but Zuko crushes it before it can guilt him.)
But a muffled sob catches Zuko’s attention before he can give in to any of the feelings warring in his head.
Aang wipes at his eyes, and they’re left red and wide and brimming with fresh tears. He looks devastated, and for the second time Zuko is hit how young his friends are. He hates the world for ever making him forget.
“I-I always thought it was a training accident.” Aang manages to say past his tears. He’s clearly trying to quell them, rubbing harshly at his face, but they won’t stop coming.
Zuko’s throat is dry. His voice doesn't feel like it’s really working, but it’s somehow still clear when he says:
“Firebenders don’t burn easily.”
Aang freezes and turns white as a sheet. Zuko internally kicks himself.
“Zuko thats- thats awful.” Aang’s voice cracks, and then he chokes back a sob, and oh shit he’s really crying now.
Zuko pats Aang’s arm in an attempt to comfort him, praying to Agni his internal panic doesn't show on his face.
“D-don’t worry about it! It was a long time ago.”
Apparently it’s the wrong thing to say, since Aang just starts crying harder.
Zuko scrambles to pull Aang into a hug, knowing the younger boy responds well to physical contact and not really knowing what else to do. Aang comes willingly, instinctively wrapping himself around Zuko and burying his face in the older boy’s neck. Zuko rubs small circles into his back, as Aang cries and apologizes for making it all about him. Zuko hushes him and holds him closer.
Eventually Aang’s muffled sobs drift off, but he doesn't move. Zuko knows he’s not asleep, Aang’s clinging to him as tight as possible without hurting him, but he doubts he’ll get Aang to move within the next few days.
“Back up a second.” Katara demands, breaking the tense silence, scowl firmly in place and eyebrows furrowed. Her previous horror seems to have been replaced by anger. “You said you got it before you were banished. But you had it way before the eclipse.”
Zuko blinks at her. “I was banished when I was 13, then-”
A booming crunch from outside cuts him off, followed by a series of smaller- but still loud- crackling noises.
Zuko looks out the window to the courtyard to see a rather large part of the patway ripped up, cracked and squished together into an aggressive looking lump in the middle of the road. It reminds him of how he’d rip and crumple scrolls as a child when he was frustrated with his calligraphy.
“Sorry.” Toph huffs, and stomps her foot. Zuko’s pretty sure there are cracks in the floor near her, but the path outside smooths out, and he doesn't really care. Nor does he care about how her fingers dig into his ankle from how tightly she’s gripping it.
“You were thirteen when you were banished?” Sokka asks, sounding ill. Aang squeezes Zuko tighter at the reminder, and Zuko instinctively squeezes back without realizing.
“The first time. I was unbanished after Ba Sing Se, and then technically banished again after I betrayed my father.”
“Yeah, but… thirteen?” Sokka repeats, like he’s struggling to process. “Why?”
Zuko feels his face heat, he’s never really had to explain this before. Most of the people he knows were there.
“Not that you have to tell us!” Sokka backpedals frantically. “It’s your life and shit, like, fuck dude thats awful, but you don’t need to tell us if you don’t want to. Not that we don’t want to hear, I mean okay I shouldn’t speak for everyone and I don’t like hearing about you being hurt but if you wanna tell us you can! I just don’t want-”
Katara cuts off Sokka’s rambling by clapping a hand over his mouth. She shoots him a cool look, before turning back to Zuko. Her gaze still has some of the cold anger of before, but enough warmth towards him that he knows the anger is for him not at him.
“What he means is that we’re here for you Zuko. You don’t have to tell us any more, but if you want to you can.” She smiles a little sadly. “I probably should have said before. I hope you didn’t feel pressured to talk. I was just… confused.”
For a second Zuko feels choked with love for them all. Sokka and Katara are going out of their way to make sure he’s comfortable, and though Suki nor Toph say anything the quiet support on their faces makes him know they care just as much. Aang mumbles something that sounds like ‘you don’t owe us anything’ and Zuko’s chest hurts with all the love in it.
It may seem like a weird time to be hit with it, but it means so much to him. Noone but Uncle has ever really cared about him like this, has just… been there for him. Cared about him in the little ways, worried about something so insignificant as his comfort.
He takes a deep, grounding breath.
“I… I think I want to tell you. Properly.”
Katara nods, smile tense. “Then tell us.”
He matches her strained smile with his own. Then, with another, shaker breath, he starts.
“There was a war meeting. One of the generals wanted to sacrifice a whole unit of new recruits, and I spoke out against him out of turn. That’s like… hugely disrespectful in the fire nation.“ Zuko shifts, restless.
“My father was angry, and said I needed to fight an Agni Kai for my disrespect. I thought it’d be against the general… so I agreed.” He takes a deep breath. Everyone's eyes are on him, but they don’t say anything. They wait for him, let him take his time. Toph rubs circles into his ankle with her thumb.
“When I turned around my father was there, not the general." No one comments on how his voice cracks on the word 'father'. "Since it was his war room, I had disrespected him. I- I wouldn’t fight him. He said that only made me more pathetic. So..." Zuko swallows, and pauses. The memory of a caress, deceptively kind, before pure agony, bubbles to the surface.
"He burned me."
Zuko barely manages to force the words through the barrier blocking his throat. They come out whispered and rough. He clears his throat.
"I woke up a month later on a ship in the middle of the ocean. My father had said I wasn’t allowed back until the day I brought him the Avatar.”
Zuko finishes the story with a breathy exhale. He meets Katara’s eyes, and sees the ice that has re-solidified in them. He can’t hold her gaze very long.
“That's… so fucked.” Sokka grits out. Suki grits her teeth so tight next to him Zuko's sure he can hear them creak.
“How could he do that to you…?” Aang asks, voice broken, and fuck he’s crying again. Zuko starts rubbing his back again, and struggles to speak past the lump in his throat.
“He- he’s just an awful person. But he can’t hurt anyone now.” Zuko says softly. He’s not sure who he’s comforting. Honestly it might be all of them.
There's a long silence.
Then, Toph moves from her seat at the foot of the bed and walks over so she’s beside him at it's head.
“Move over.” She insists. Zuko does so willingly, practically carrying Aang with him. The second there’s room Toph climbs into the bed next to them, presses up against Zuko’s side, and squeezes as hard as she can without hurting him
“Can I touch it?” She asks, voice quiet.
Zuko nods, so slightly he’s not even really sure he did it. He turns his head all the way to the side, because Aang is pressed against his left and Toph is on his right and it’s a little awkward.
Her fingers are rough and calloused, but her touch is gentle. She feels his face with methodical tenderness, mapping out each part of his scar. Then she continues to feel the undamaged part of her face, before finally pulling away and settling against his side.
She doesn’t say anything, though her face is scrunched in anger. She just wraps an arm around him on one side and huffs.
(He’ll find out later she noticed ages ago how he struggled to see or hear on that side. How he always turned his head to get a better view, or if a noise came from the left. She just hadn’t quite known why until she’d felt the scar.
Later he’ll answer her questions, explain how he can still see a bit, smudges of shadows and color. He’ll explain how his ear rings though it doesn't pick up sound, how the fire took his vision but the infection took his hearing.
Later he’ll tell her, and be glad she didn’t ask then, because he’s pretty sure if she did his father would not have lived to see another sunrise.)
Zuko shivers, though it has nothing to do with his scar. He belatedly realizes that the room is growing colder, that it probably has been for a while and he just hadn't noticed. (Which is mildly concerning, considering the frost on his bed frame.)
He turns to Katara in surprise. The girl’s face is screwed up in anger, hugging herself so tightly that her knuckles are white where her fingers dig into her arms.
“Katara?” Zuko calls out quietly.
She looks up at him, eyes so stony and cold they seem to burn. Zuko would flinch, if not for the weeks of getting to know each other he’d shared with the group. He’s not scared of them like he used to be.
“He banished you when you were thirteen. Years before Aang returned.” She hisses. “He- he did that to you, and then kicked you out. Basically forever. He had no idea the avatar would come back, and he-” She cuts herself off, looking so angry.
She’s as pissed as he’s ever seen her, and it’s enough to throw Zuko. The only time he’s seen anything even close was when they faced her mother’s killer, and she looks even more mad now.
He doesn't understand it.
(He’s still learning what it’s like to be loved. He knows they love him, and don’t want to see him be hurt, but this was before. Why do they care now?)
“It- it’s not a big deal. Really.” Zuko says, trying to calm her, but Katara only looks more upset.
“Zuko,” Sokka’s pained voice draws his attention. He looks heartbroken. “How can you say that?”
Zuko flushes. He doesn't really know how to respond, so he just shrugs. Toph hugs him tighter. It starting to hurt but he’s not gonna complain.
Aang moves to gently headbutt Zuko’s chest from where he’s still cuddling against it.
“It is a big deal.” Aang says, sounding sad and painfully young. “It’s awful that he did that to you and it's a really big deal Zuko.”
Zuko’s throat feels impossibly dry.
“I-I guess it is.” He agrees.
It’s quiet for another moment.
“I want to kill him even more now.” Suki growls, cracking her knuckles in what would be a nervous habit if she were anyone else. If he weren't buried under two twelve year olds Zuko would grab her hand.
“Me too.” Sokka agrees. At another time it’d be a joke, but the dark undertone in his voice makes it clear that it’s not.
And, ok Zuko really shouldn’t be touched by his friends considering murder for him. But he kinda is.
Unfortunately, he needs to put a stop to this, because the contemplative look on Katara’s face and the surprisingly grim consideration on Toph’s is concerning him.
“Guys I really don’t wanna explain how my father mysteriously died of frostbite in the fire nation.” He says, only half-joking. The others look at him, and their anger starts to fade at his obvious discomfort.
“I wouldn’t be that obvious.” Katara pouts. The humor in her voice and expression are a little forced but Zuko’s grateful that she’s trying.
“Can’t we have a little murder? As a treat?” Suki asks. Sokka forces a chuckle next to her, and Zuko gives them both a grateful smile.
“Sorry, no. All life is sacred, right Aang?”
“Most life is sacred.” Aang mumbles, face still muffled into Zuko’s neck and holding on like a baby tiger-monkey. Zuko sighs, though his mouth quirks into a slight smile.
“I’m not convinced Ozai can be considered alive. I mean, are you really alive if your soul has rotted away?” Sokka strokes his chin in mock consideration. Zuko snorts.
“What if I collapsed his prison?” Toph asks. “It would look like an accident, so then you wouldn’t need to explain anything.”
Zuko huffs a laugh. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
They joke for a little while longer, but the conversation changes sooner rather than later to more light-hearted topics. Eventually Katara remembers to clean the water she spilled, and Zuko tries to leave for a meeting. Of course he’s stopped by a number of protests, and the servants are fed a half-truth about his injury requiring him to take a day to rest.
They spend the rest of the day in his quarters, hanging and joking and playing like friends. They even eat there, which is considered “highly inappropriate”, but Uncle is around to chase off any obnoxious disapproving nobles.
In the end, it’s a pretty nice day.