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What You're Seeing On That Stage

Chapter Text


  

Listen, friends. It's obvious that the playwright did his research. I know it must hurt, but what you're seeing up there on that stage is the truth. 

 – Toph Beifong, The Ember Island Players

 


 

This wasn’t going to end well. On the stage, the actor-versions of himself and Azula were preparing to fight, and any version of events that even hinted at the traitor prince or the Avatar winning would be sedition. He should have warned Aang, but he hadn’t realised the play might carry on to a final battle. The others would guess where this was going, but Aang could be really naive.

 

‘You are no longer my brother,’ Azula’s actress was saying on stage. ‘You are an enemy.’ It was strange, watching this, thinking of all the times they’d fought since the Avatar’s return. The play might be terrible, the acting was definitely awful, but right now this dialogue might have come straight from their mouths.

 

‘No - I am the rightful heir to the throne!’ his double said.

 

Azula laughed. ‘Not after your banishment. You can never regain your honour, or your place in the succession - or have you forgotten how you got that scar?’

 

Zuko stiffened, fingers curling in on themselves, resisting the urge to reach up to his face. He could feel the others’ curiosity and tried to ignore it. The play wasn’t going into any more detail, was it? It had to be a throwaway line. Everyone here would know the story. They wouldn’t bother talking about it.

 

On stage, the actor Zuko turned to stare dramatically out over the audience. ‘I will never forget.’

 

A screen lowered in front of the two actors, leaving a few feet of the stage visible; the screen was painted with a mural of an ornate room, filled with fire. Like the inside of the war room might be imagined by someone who had never seen it. The actor playing his uncle walked on from the left, accompanied by a child dressed in ornate robes with hair pulled back in a phoenix tail, and Zuko’s breath left his body.

 

‘I demand to join the war council!’ the young Zuko said, stomping across the stage to where black-clad stagehands were setting down a table and cushions.

 

‘Of course!’ said Uncle, grinning as he followed. ‘But make sure not to interrupt when we’re talking!’

 

Ozai and a general entered from the far side of the stage, as Zuko said, ‘You should be grateful if I interrupt! I could win this war in a year if I was in charge!’

 

It hadn’t happened like that. But it didn’t matter, did it? It only mattered what people believed. Of course they’d do this, of course they’d remind people; he should have expected it. He may not have been as politically clever as Azula, but he knew all about propaganda. And splashing his shame and humiliation across the stage for everyone to see was perfect propaganda.

 

The general handed out copies of his plan in sealed scrolls; the young Zuko barely looked at it before he was on his feet. ‘This is a terrible plan! You should be ashamed of yourself for presenting this to my father!’ The others were whispering behind him, and he clearly heard Suki saying his name but ignored it. He should walk out of the theatre. Should make everyone else walk out with him, because he didn’t want them to know what had happened - but he was pinned to his seat as if Toph had bound him there with rock. He couldn’t move; he could hardly breathe.

 

His father told him off for disrespect, told him he had to fight an Agni Kai, and in the back of his mind Zuko heard the real words echoing from years past. Except he definitely hadn’t been as arrogant as the version of himself on stage. And then they were taking away the props, clearing space for an Agni Kai arena, the child Zuko kneeling on the stage ready for action. There was scattered laughter as Ozai silently put up a hand to stop the general, dismissed him, took his place.

 

He sensed a sick anticipation from the crowd that turned his stomach, and nearer, an anxious and uncertain buzz from around him. He tried to ignore both, tried to ignore what was happening on the stage, just focused on keeping his breathing steady. It would be over quickly. It had been over quickly.

 

The child Zuko fell to his knees, cowering, as soon as he saw who he was facing. ‘I’m sorry!’ he cried.

 

‘Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!’ Ozai said, advancing towards him; Zuko scrambled backwards, whimpering. The audience was starting to jeer.

 

‘I can’t fight you! You’re too powerful!’

 

‘Then you will learn respect. And suffering will be your teacher!’

 

Red streamers burst from Ozai’s sleeves, and the child screamed - but all Zuko heard was the memory of his own scream. His scar flared with pain, and he could swear he smelt the stink of flesh burning. The audience applauded, the audience cheered, but all Zuko saw was his child self falling to the stage, holding the red streamers to his face.

 

‘Zuko?’ came a voice from close to him, a hand on his shoulder making him jump. It was Aang, eyes wide and horrified, an expression mirrored on all the other faces staring at him. He swallowed, turned his face away, and did the only thing he could; he got to his feet and fled.

Chapter Text

‘Okay,’ Toph said, breaking the silence that had fallen over the group, ‘Did what I think just happened actually happen?’ Her feet couldn’t see a thing from up here, and the dialogue hadn’t explicitly said what was going on, but the scream at the end hadn’t left much room for interpretation.

‘If you mean the Fire Lord burned Zuko’s face,’ said Aang, and his voice sounded like loose pebbles felt underfoot, trembling into a landslide, ‘then yeah. It did.’

‘How bad is it?’ Toph asked. She knew Zuko’s left eye didn’t open properly and that the skin around it was damaged, but she hadn’t asked any more than that. She didn’t care if he had a scar, so she’d never asked about it - until now. And the silence stretching on told her everything.

‘It’s bad,’ said Sokka at last.

‘Someone needs to go after him,’ Katara said, getting to her feet, and how did she think that was in any way a good idea?

Toph grabbed for the back of Katara’s skirt, keeping her from haring off. ‘Hold on, Sugar Queen. You’ll smother him.’

‘What? No I won’t! We can’t just leave him alone after that.’

It would probably be better to give him some space, but Toph was never going to persuade Katara of that. Besides, Zuko didn’t have the best decision making when he was upset. So someone had to go, but Katara would be overwhelming. Sokka would say something stupid, Suki didn’t know Zuko well enough, and Aang sounded way too upset. Which left herself, whoop-de-do. At least she’d escape having to sit through the end of this play.

‘I’ll go after Sparky,’ she told Katara. ‘You stay here with Twinkletoes.’

As she’d hoped, distracting her with Aang worked, and let Toph slip out into the muggy Fire Nation evening. Now the only problem was finding the firebending idiot. She flexed her feet against the wooden floor, wishing the Fire Nation had the sense to build things out of good strong stone (seriously, they were a nation of firebenders: wood burnt) and headed for where she thought he’d most likely be; the spot on the balcony where they talked earlier. Unless he’d headed backstage to set the playwright on fire, but she figured if that’d happened she’d hear it soon enough.

Fortunately, Sparky was sitting right where she expected he’d be, breathing a little too hard and irregularly. She dropped down next to him, right up against his side so she could pick things up through the contact, and gave a disgusted scoff. ‘You were right, these guys are terrible,’ she said. ‘I mean, apart from when they picked that guy to play me, because that was awesome. But the dialogue’s painful. And they didn’t even try to pretend it wasn’t one big propaganda piece. We’re never listening to Sokka again.’

Zuko was still breathing a little too sharply, and his upper arm was tense where it bumped against hers. She wasn’t the right person for this, but the right person was probably his uncle, and he wasn’t here right now. ‘If this play is the best the Fire Nation can do, I’m seriously disappointed, Sparky. You know this is the first time I’ve been to a proper theatre? My parents never took me, because I couldn’t see the play and I had to stay home where it was safe. And it wasn’t like I had time to sneak into one between fighting in the Earth Rumbles. All I’ve seen is street theatre, and all of it was better than this. But they stuck to the classics. Classics, and some comedies with really dirty jokes. Those were my favourites.’

She recounted a few of the better performances, complete with the funniest jokes and some scathing comparisons to the Ember Island Players, until Zuko calmed down and started making a few terse replies to her rambling. Then she switched topic. ‘Do you think Aang would let me tag along when he goes to face down Ozai?’

‘Why would you want to? You’ve seen what he’ll do. He won’t hold back because you’re blind and a kid.’

‘Because I want to punch him in the face.’ She smacked one fist into the palm of the other emphatically, grinning in the way Katara kept telling her was really unnerving.

Zuko was quiet for a moment. ‘I thought punching people was how you showed affection.’

‘It is how I show affection,’ she said, doing it again to Zuko to demonstrate. He yelped, but didn’t protest. ‘But I don’t usually punch people I like in the face. Maybe I’ll just throw rocks at him, make sure no one gets confused.’

‘Yeah,’ Zuko said, softer and calmer this time, and she grinned in satisfaction at a job well done as the crowd started to rumble out of the theatre.

Chapter Text

It was a cool morning, for a Fire Nation summer, which meant that Katara still felt horribly sticky as she wandered down to the beach. The heat - and the knowledge that they were in the middle of the Fire Nation - was making her long for home, for icebergs and cold salt air and Gran Gran’s cooking. The weather was beyond her control, but she could at least do something about the food. She’d seen crabs in the marketplace that morning; she hadn’t had crab since she’d been a child, on the rare occasions when the fishing expeditions had gone out far enough to pick up a few from warmer waters. She’d wanted to buy some, but it had been so expensive, and they couldn’t waste the money. Then Sokka had said he’d seen one on the beach, so she might as well try to catch one.

She hadn’t been walking for more than a minute when a glow at the water’s edge caught her eye. A fire, judging by the way it dimmed and brightened. Katara hesitated - a stranger was a risk, but she was dressed like any Fire Nation woman out for a stroll. And if something did go wrong, she had a whole shoreline to bend.

Her caution turned out to be unnecessary as she got closer and recognised the shaggy-haired shape sitting cross-legged on the ground, staring into the flames. She hadn’t known he’d gone out - which was probably how he wanted it, coming out here to brood after what’d happened at the play last night. He shouldn’t be alone out here like this; he should be with his friends. Except he was awkward and prickly and didn’t talk about things - and after last night she had a much better idea of why.

‘You’re up early,’ she said, once she got close enough to actually speak to him.

He gestured towards the newly risen sun, still casting pink on the clouds. ‘Firebender.’

She sat down next to him. It felt awkward, and she hated it. Ever since she’d forgiven him for what he’d done in Ba Sing Se, they’d started to become good friends. He was part of the group now, and suddenly having this discomfort between them felt like a huge step back. ‘I wanted to say-’

‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

Couldn’t he just hear her out? She wrapped her arms around her knees; this wasn’t the time to get annoyed. ‘Okay,’ she said, even though it wasn’t. She wanted to get Zuko to talk; it couldn’t help to keep all those feelings locked up inside him while he brooded over fires. But she also knew that trying to make him wouldn’t help if he wasn’t ready. Even if it was really frustrating just letting it go.

So she would have left it at that, except that something had been bothering her all night. ‘Okay,’ she repeated. ‘If you want to talk, you can, but I won’t make you. Except… there’s one thing I really want to ask.’

‘That doesn’t sound much like not making me talk about it.’

‘It’s not directly about what happened, and you don’t have to answer. And this is something I want to know, not something I think you should talk about for your own sake.’ He didn’t answer, and she took that as a cue to go ahead and ask. ‘In Ba Sing Se… you could have joined our side then. I know you thought about it. But instead you went back to the Fire Nation. To your father. After what he did to you… I don’t understand why you’d go back to that. I don’t understand why you’d even want to.’

He stared into the fire, not speaking. She’d sat on his left, so while he wasn’t looking at her she could only see his scarred profile, and the permanent glare gave nothing of his thoughts away. Sitting so close to him, it was like she was seeing the burn for the first time. The sheer size of it, the savage, thick twists of scar tissue left behind where the fire had cut through his skin - and he’d gone loyally back to the man who did this to him.

‘He’s my father.’

She waited for him to continue, but Zuko seemed to think that was enough explanation. ‘He’s a monster.’

‘That, too.’ He sighed, nudging a piece of driftwood closer to the fire with one foot. ‘It took me a long time to realise that. I thought I deserved what he did. Because I spoke out of turn, because I wasn’t a good enough bender. I thought if I proved myself by bringing him the Avatar, he’d finally be proud of me. I was too stupid to realise nothing would make him proud of me, and he was never worth the effort anyway.’

Katara couldn’t imagine anyone ever thinking they deserved to be burnt, no matter what they’d done - actual criminals didn’t get treated like that. Even growing up as Fire Nation royalty with Ozai for a father, being brought up to think this terrible war was right, how did your understanding of right and wrong get so warped that you’d accept that kind of pain?

She must have been silent too long, or Zuko realised how much he’d said, because he stood up abruptly. ‘I’m going back to the house to do some training,’ he muttered.

‘Wait,’ Katara called after him before he’d taken more than a few steps, then had to think of something to say when he turned around. ‘Do you know where to find crabs?’

‘Crabs?’

‘I wanted to catch some to eat, if there are any. There were some at the marketplace, but they’re expensive.’

Zuko looked along the beach, frowning. ‘There’s a tide pool about ten minutes away,’ he offered. ‘Azula and I used to try and catch them when we were kids, so they stopped coming after a while. They might have come back now.’

‘Great! Will you show me?’ Katara asked. ‘You could help me catch some, if you wanted.’

She thought he was going to refuse and go back to brooding over his fire; then he glanced down the beach and gave a small smile. ‘Sure,’ he said, and they set off for the tide pool together.

Chapter Text

On the way back from the play Aang had kept trying to talk to Zuko, even though he had no idea what to say. And every time he’d spoken Toph had thrown rocks at him and shaken her head until he went quiet again. After they got back, she’d pointed out that Zuko wouldn’t want to talk about what had happened, so the best thing to do was to act like everything was normal and not say anything unless Zuko brought it up first. And she was probably right, given that Zuko had ignored him every time Aang spoke.

He managed to act normal all through breakfast. After, when it was time for firebending practice, he did his best to concentrate on what Zuko was trying to teach him instead of staring at that scar. He’d never paid much attention to it before. When Zuko had been chasing them across the world, it’d just been something that made him look more scary, a huge red scar that left half his face permanently scowling. And since Zuko was scary back then, it never seemed strange or out of place. By the time they’d become friends, Aang didn’t really see it any more.

Now it seemed twice as big as before and Aang couldn’t keep himself from looking at it, thinking of Fire Lord Ozai doing that to his own son - and then he had to shake the thoughts out of his head and focus on his katas. Fortunately he was distracted all the time during training, so Zuko didn’t notice he wasn’t acting completely normal.

Then Zuko said they should move on to sparring, and that was where the plan fell apart. They bowed, and Aang waited for Zuko to attack first like he usually did. He blocked the attack with a burst of fire from one hand, already moving to counter with the other, feet sliding into position and focusing on his breathing like Zuko had taught him - except at the last moment, his eyes fell on Zuko’s face and he flinched. The fire shot out barely an arm’s length from the end of Aang’s punch before fizzling into nothing.

Zuko looked surprised for a second, then scowled before letting off another attack. Aang gave an apologetic half-smile as he dodged it, preparing himself to make another attack - a proper one, this time. They’d sparred dozens of times and Aang knew Zuko could hold his own, and even if one of them did get a little burnt Katara was less than a minute away. He’d just looked at Zuko’s face and remembered watching those red ribbons fly out from the actor’s hands and the way everyone had cheered, and he’d felt so sick that he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

He took a deep breath and shoved all those thoughts as far away from him as possible, and tried to focus on the physical movements, on feeling his chi flow and not on who was standing there ready to deflect the attack. It didn’t work; as soon as he saw the flame leave his fist he thought of fire hitting skin again, and lost the attack.

‘Stop holding back!’ Zuko shouted, sending a barrage of fire punches Aang’s way. He knocked them aside with fire of his own and focused; he really was going to attack properly this time. He did mean to, but the flames barely left his fingers, and he gave up, letting his hands drop to his sides. ‘You don’t have time to start being afraid of fire again!’ Zuko came closer, and he actually looked angry. ‘Start fighting me properly!’

‘I can’t,’ Aang admitted. All the horror he’d felt watching that play was rising up inside him again. Pretending nothing was wrong hadn’t worked, so he gave up completely and rushed forward to hug Zuko, like he’d wanted to ever since his friend ran away from the scene on stage, from the audience cheering at the worst thing to ever happen to him. Or at least Aang hoped there wasn’t anything worse.

Zuko was way more startled than he ought to be from a hug. His shoulders were stiff, and even though he hugged Aang back it was hesitant. ‘I’m sorry. I just can’t stop thinking about it,’ Aang said into the slightly clammy skin of Zuko’s shoulder. ‘Every time I try to attack I keep thinking about, about how much it must have hurt and how horrible it must have been. And I can’t stop imagining it happening, I can’t understand how anyone could do something like that. I know Ozai’s done terrible things, that’s why I’ve got to defeat him, but seeing him do that even if it was only in a play… somehow it makes it more real what a bad person he is. And how much he’s hurt you.’

One of Zuko’s hands patted Aang’s shoulderblade. ‘I don’t have any other scars. Not from him,’ he said, voice so quiet Aang wouldn’t have heard it if they hadn’t been hugging. He hadn’t been talking about physical hurt, but maybe it was better not to get into that. Zuko pulled back and Aang let him, looking up into the firebender’s solemn face. ‘You don’t have to be worried about fighting my father. You’re the Avatar, and as long as you master firebending you’ll defeat him. And it’s not like you’re not going to make the mistake of asking him for mercy.’

He definitely wasn’t going to try that. But he wasn’t so sure about taking the Fire Lord out, as Zuko put it. Ozai was a terrible person and he had to be stopped for the sake of the whole world. Aang knew everyone was expecting him to do that by killing Ozai, but killing was wrong no matter what someone had done. He’d always thought that when the time came he could defeat the Fire Lord, take him prisoner, and that would be the end of it. But the more he learnt about what kind of person Ozai was, the more he doubted whether that would be enough. If Ozai would burn his own son’s face when Zuko was begging for mercy, he wouldn’t stop just because Aang defeated him, wouldn’t accept being fought to a standstill. He would be fighting to the death, his own or Aang’s, and even if he was defeated and imprisoned Aang didn’t think that would be an end of it.

But he didn’t want to burden Zuko with his own worries right now, so he nodded and said, ‘I know.’

‘And that’s exactly why you need to learn to firebend - so you can face my father,’ Zuko said, expression hardening. ‘And that means you have to spar with me. You’re not going to hurt me. You’re skilled enough that you’re not going to lose control, and it’s not like you’re going to do it on purpose.’ Aang shuddered at the idea. ‘I can take whatever you throw at me. I’ve been training a lot longer than you. I know how not to get hurt; if I’d tried, I could even have blocked-’

He cut himself off suddenly, his right eye wide like he was surprised at what’d almost come out of his mouth, and Aang’s heart twisted in his chest because he guessed what the end of that sentence was going to be. The idea that Zuko hadn’t even tried to avoid it, had just accepted it… Zuko looked lost, so Aang darted forwards and hugged him again, tight. ‘… you don’t have to keep hugging me,’ Zuko said.

‘I know,’ Aang replied. closing his eyes and taking a moment to centre himself. He needed to learn firebending to stop Ozai - however he did it - and that meant sparring with Zuko. Who would be fine, because Ozai and anyone else who might want to hurt him was a long way away, and Zuko was surrounded by friends. ‘Okay. Let’s try again.’

Chapter Text

Zuko’s Ember Island vacation home was a really nice place to live - although compared to living in abandoned ruins, and before that in the Boiling Rock, anywhere would have seemed nice. However, it had been abandoned for a while and was lacking some everyday basics like soap, or towels, or pots large enough to cook dinner for six. There was a market, but the more they went there the more they risked getting noticed, and they didn’t want to spend money they didn’t have to. So Suki had decided to search the storage rooms and the attic to see if there was anything useful.

As she went past the kitchen, a splash of red caught her eye, and she paused. Zuko was sitting in the windowseat with one of his swords in his lap, running his fingers light and sure over the blade as he examined it carefully - checking for rust or damage, she supposed. Well, she’d had something to say to him, and now was as good a time as any. ‘Hey,’ she said, leaning against the doorway.

He glanced up, unsurprised by her presence, and said, ‘Hey.’

‘I just wanted to say that I forgive you. For setting my village on fire, that is,’ Suki said. ‘I realised I hadn’t told you that yet. I know we’ve not talked much since the prison, but I hope we can be friends.’

It didn’t have the effect she’d been expecting. Zuko’s good eye narrowed; he gave one brief nod and bent over his sword again, muttering, ‘Thanks.’

‘Well, you don’t sound very thankful,’ Suki said, crossing her arms.

‘You’re only saying that because you pity me,’ Zuko said. ‘I don’t need anyone’s pity.’

Oh, right. She could see how he’d take it that way. ‘I don’t pity you, Zuko. That’s not why I wanted to say that.’

‘Why did you, then?’

She almost refused to answer, since he was being so prickly and defensive. Except he’d probably had the others fussing about what they’d found out at the theatre all day - Aang had been really upset about it, and Katara liked to mother people - so she supposed she understood him being sore. ‘That’s… complicated,’ she said. She wasn’t even sure she knew the answer herself, and paused for a moment to marshal her thoughts before stepping into the room and taking a seat on one of the carved wooden chairs they’d pulled in from the main dining room.

‘Back on Kyoshi Island, when you attacked us - you were the enemy. A Fire Nation prince setting a peaceful village on fire and trying to capture the Avatar,’ she began, watching his expression, which stiffened but gave nothing away. He didn’t want pity, and she wasn’t going to make it sound prettier than it was; he knew what mistakes he’d made. ‘And then Sokka comes to the Boiling Rock and you’re there too, only you’ve completely changed; you’re on our side, you’re Sokka’s friend, you’re training the Avatar and fighting to save the world. And you almost got yourself killed to break me and Sokka’s dad out of there. I really didn’t think you were going to make that jump, you know.’

Zuko shrugged. ‘I’m good at that sort of thing.’

Right. She’d heard the Blue Spirit story from Aang last night. She had no idea where a prince got the stealth skills to sneak into a fortress and rescue the Fire Nation’s most important prisoner, but she respected them. ‘I figured if you’d done all that and Sokka trusted you, I should give you a second chance. But… it was like you were two completely different people. There was Zuko the enemy and Zuko who was on our side,’ she said, holding out first one hand and then the other as though to weight the two Zukos against each other. ‘So I could never really forgive Zuko the enemy because I couldn’t reconcile that you and him were the same person. That’s why I’ve not talked to you much. I’m sorry.’

Zuko shook his head. ‘It’s fine,’ he said, fingers toying with the hilt of his sword. ‘So what changed?’

‘I got more of an idea of who you were, I guess,’ she said. ‘Finding out what happened to you, back then - why you did some of the things you did - it helped me see how you’d changed. How one Zuko turned into the other. Seeing some of the things that happened in between helped, too.’

‘You know that play was full of lies, right?’

‘Of course - Sokka cleared up some of the details. But that’s why I wanted to come and say that. Because I realised I hadn’t forgiven you properly yet, and I really should.’

He seemed a little more relaxed after that explanation - not meeting her eyes much, but it was progress. ‘Okay. That makes sense. I really am sorry, for what I did on Kyoshi Island. It was wrong, and selfish. I probably hurt a lot of innocent people.’

‘Aang put the fires out pretty quick. There weren’t any serious injuries,’ Suki said, glad to give him that much reassurance. If she hadn’t already forgiven him, his expression when he said that would have given her a serious reason to. The right side of his face was twisted up in guilt that eased off slowly as she spoke - the left side was frozen, as always. It was strange, now the play had made her so aware of his scar, realising how how much she had to focus on that side of his face to read his expression, how very little came through on the left.

‘Good. I’m glad. Thank you, then, for forgiving me - and, um, sorry for being angry at you before. I don’t like people thinking I’m weak.’

‘You’re not weak,’ Suki said, with such conviction he looked momentarily surprised, and she wondered if she should explain. ‘Not at all. The Kyoshi Warriors - we’re not just there for war and defending the island from outsiders. Sometimes being a Kyoshi Warrior means your neighbour sneaking in late at night to learn how to defend herself because her husband gets violent but she can’t leave him. Or having kids Toph’s age sleeping in the training hall until we can find someone to take them in, because their homes aren’t safe. And a surprising number of those people end up joining us, when they can. My second-in-command among them. And none of them are any weaker than the rest of us.’

Zuko nodded and glanced away, saying nothing, but she knew he’d understood her. With a smile, she got up to leave, feeling satisfied with the conversation even though it hadn’t been at all how she’d planned. She just wished there’d been something like the Kyoshi Warriors in the Fire Nation palace a few years ago. Maybe things would have turned out differently, if there’d been somewhere for Zuko to run.

Chapter Text

Sokka laced his fingers and stretched his arms out in front of him, feeling his muscles loosen and warm, and glanced over to Zuko, who was already making a few practice sweeps of his swords. ‘So,’ Sokka said, ‘that whole thing with your dad and, well, your face.’ One of the swords twitched in Zuko’s hand, and he looked over to Sokka with an expression that belonged under a ponytail and a severe shave. Before Zuko could say anything, Sokka fixed his most solemn expression on his face and added, ‘That’s rough, buddy.’

Zuko blinked. ‘Did you just…?’ he said, and Sokka definitely saw the corner of his mouth slip upwards before he smoothed it out. Ha! Score one for Sokka. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ he said, falling into a ready position. Raising his sword, Sokka mirrored him, and with a flash of Zuko’s blades - he was impatient, today - their sparring match was on.

‘Were the others bothering you about it?’ Sokka asked, as soon as there was a lull in the fight. He didn’t like admitting it, but Zuko was way better than he was. Of course, Zuko had years of practice and training, so Sokka had decided that just holding his own against Zuko for a bit was impressive. And meant he was going to equal and then best him very, very soon.

‘All. Day,’ Zuko said, punctuating it with two quick swipes that sent Sokka jumping out of the way. ‘First your sister, then Aang, then Suki… It took me ages just to get Aang to firebend at me properly! I didn’t want any of you to know.’ Sokka got the impression Zuko was taking his frustrations out through his swords, because he definitely wasn’t normally this fierce; an unexpected swipe and Sokka went down on his back. Zuko’s sword hovered a few inches above his throat for a second before the firebender pushed his hair out of his face and offered Sokka a hand up, ready for another go.

Well, at least Zuko was letting his feelings loose somehow, even if Sokka was going to get a little more bruised than normal. ‘We’d have found out sooner or later,’ he said, once they were a few steps into the next round. ‘At least, no one in the audience seemed surprised. So I assume it’s something everyone knows in the Fire Nation.’ Everyone knew, and apparently didn’t care. It took real effort to hide his disgust at remembering that. Hearing all those people cheer at a thirteen year old getting burnt… it really made him reconsider the whole “actually the Fire Nation aren’t all terrible” thing.

Zuko didn’t answer, just shrugged and came at him with a slash from the left; Sokka was proud of himself for blocking it as neatly as he did. ‘But even if it was going to happen, that wasn’t the best way to find out, was it?’ He’d thought Zuko was going to be sick, or pass out. Sokka couldn’t imagine having something like that happen and then seeing it acted out in front of him, made into a joke for everyone to laugh at. And in that moment of distraction, Zuko tapped him with the flat of his sword; Sokka held up a hand in acknowledgement and resolved not to lose focus again. Zuko wouldn’t be happy if he realised why.

‘I don’t think there was a good way,’ Zuko said. Except for if Zuko had told them himself, Sokka thought, and wondered what else Zuko might not be telling them that would come out badly. He made the first attack, throwing Zuko off balance for a moment.

‘Sorry for dragging everyone to it, anyway.’

Zuko frowned. ‘It wasn’t like you knew what would happen. Just - stop apologising. It was nothing to do with you. And I said I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t get why you all-’ he paused while Sokka nearly scored a hit ‘-have to make such a big deal out of it.’

‘Well, you’d better get used to that kind of thing now Katara’s forgiven you. You’ve probably noticed, she tends to mother everyone. Especially if people get hurt - or were hurt. The only way Toph stopped her coming straight after you last night was by distracting her with Aang. The rest of us, well, I know it happened years ago but…’ There was no good way to say you’re still obviously really messed up, so he went for, ‘We want to be sure you’re okay. It’s human nature. And-’ And then he managed, somehow, to send Zuko toppling to the ground, smack down on his back. ‘Ha!’ he cheered, punching the air. ‘Got you!’

Zuko’s soft frown did not look like his usual expression of irritation when Sokka beat him, and Sokka’s gut instinct had a good idea as to why. He’d been distracted by the conversation, like Sokka had been earlier; he looked like he didn’t quite understand something, and Sokka mentally ran over his last few sentences to work out what had the firebender so confused, in case it was something he could use again later… Oh. Right. Because of course someone who’d grown up with a father who thought it was okay to set his kid’s face on fire might be a little behind when it came to figuring out that people cared for him.

Sokka offered him a hand up. ‘You’re part of our family now,’ he said, as casual as possible while still being firm enough to make the words count. ‘You’re just going to have to put up with us being concerned for you.’

Zuko swallowed. ‘Right,’ he said, and took Sokka’s hand.