Being part of a group that he had chased across several kingdoms was… weird.
Zuko isn’t sure he’d thought very far beyond joining the Avatar and offering to teach him. He hadn’t thought about what it would feel like to actually be with them, a group that had little reason to trust him, and even less to like him.
In fact, they didn’t trust him. He doesn’t blame them, he wouldn’t trust himself in their position, but he’s surprised that it… stings, a little. He’d given up so much to be here, betrayed everything he had ever valued or cared about, and once he’d done so, he was met with not gratitude, but disdain. It’s what I deserve, he thinks, resigned, as Katara sends him a harsh look from across the temple.
He’s managed to coerce Aang into training early, something he hadn’t been eager to agree to. He’d relented, however, when Zuko had explained to him the importance of learning tradition, rising alongside the sun an essential part of the culture and history of firebending.
Threatening a day’s worth of hotsquats might also have had something to do with it.
“Okay Sifu Hotman, what will my lesson be today?”
At least Aang had warmed to him after their trip to see the Sun Warriors. Zuko would be hopeful at the change, if only Aang would stop referring to him as Sifu Hotman.
Seriously, what was with that?
“Call me that one more time and there won’t be a lesson,” he says.
“Sorry Sifu, uh, Sifu Zuko,” Zuko rolls his eyes. Close enough.
He leads Aang through a few of the forms, hoping his critiques sound encouraging. He doesn’t have much practice with being encouraging. Or being nice. Or with teaching, in general.
It’s especially hard to see Aang adapt so easily to forms he had struggled over for months, been burned and reprimanded into learning. He isn’t sure he’s even the best person for this, heart sitting heavy in his chest as he considers how long it took him to get to being even a passable bender. Aang calls him Sifu, but he isn’t a master. Not even close.
He wishes Uncle were here. He’d know how train Aang far better than Zuko ever could. He isn’t though, so Zuko will just have to do his best, as poor of a substitution as it might be.
He calls out to Aang. “Stop! That was good. I think you’re ready for something different.” Aang brings his hands down, looks at him questioningly.
Zuko paces. “Firebending isn’t just about casting flames into the air. You’re going to need to learn to attack, and to be able to defend yourself too.” He shifts into an offensive stance. “I’m going to try attacking you. Focus on manipulating my fire to your advantage. You’re an airbender, so feel the flow of the flame, let it work for you like you would an air current.”
Aang straightens, rubbing the back of his neck. “Uh, I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet,” he says, suddenly nervous.
“Don’t worry. You’re learning fast, and we need to teach you to how to fight. You’ll do fine.” He breathes in, spins, and sends a tongue of flame in Aang’s direction. Aang fumbles, splitting it to either side the second before it reaches him. He sends back his own flame, which Zuko counters.
They exchange fire blasts, Aang gaining in confidence. He incorporates one of the more difficult forms Zuko had taught him, grinning when it’s successful.
That’s when his concentration breaks. Excited at his progress, his stance falters, and Zuko’s next arc of fire catches him by surprise. Aang panics and reverts to airbending, his most familiar discipline, flinging a wave of air outwards forcefully.
Zuko, expecting fire, is caught off guard and thrown backwards, crashing against the stone pillar behind him.
“Ugnh!” he cries out, and collapses forward, catching himself on his hands.
His lungs seize when he tries to bring air in, and he coughs. From the undignified position, he sees Aangs face fall in dismay.
“Zuko!” He runs over, and Zuko rocks back against the pillar he’d been thrown into.
“I said to think like an airbender, not to actually airbend,” he wheezes, trying to recover his breath. He can’t quite inhale right, and his ribs ache from the impact. Bruised, most likely. He groans. He’s been training the Avatar for less than a week, and he’s already fucked up.
“Are you okay!?” Aang’s eyes are wide with worry. Zuko remembers what Aang had told him about his reluctance to firebend, about his fear of hurting others. He’d hurt Zuko with airbending, but they can’t afford another setback, no matter what had caused it. He stands, containing a wince as he tries to play off how much it had hurt to be flung into solid rock.
“I’m good,” He supports himself discreetly, leaning into the pillar in a way that he hopes looks casual and not like he needs it to stay upright.
“Are you sure? I threw you really hard. We should have you see Katara just in case.” Zuko contains another wince. Somehow he doesn’t think that will go over too well, and opens his mouth to say so, but Aang takes hold of his arm and is already tugging Zuko in the direction of the healer.
“Katara! Katara we need your help!” Katara responds ridiculously quickly, not bothering to hide the fact that she’d been hovering nearby.
“What is it Aang? Are you hurt?” Her hand hovers over her waterskin, scanning him for injuries.
“It’s not me! Zuko was trying to teach me how to fight, and I maybe… accidentally airbended at him instead of using fire. Can you look at him? I want to make sure I didn’t hurt him.”
Katara looks at him coolly. “He looks okay to me, Aang. I’m sure he’s just fine.” There’s a challenge in her voice, as if he’d better be uninjured if he knew what was good for him. Zuko, who has pushed through worse, isn’t going to disappoint.
“I am fine,” he says, trying to extricate himself from Aang’s grip. “Accidents happen. Sorry to disturb you.” Aang just clings tighter, looking at Katara pleadingly, as if Zuko is an injured woodland creature he’d found and decided to rescue.
“Please Katara?” he implores. She looks at Zuko without enthusiasm, and heaves a sigh.
“Fine. Sit here and take your shirt off,” she says, gesturing at him impatiently. He does as requested, acknowledging that neither of them are going to deny Aang something he’d asked for so earnestly. He peels off his top layers, letting them settle around his waist. He cringes at the sight of his flank, already mottled with blue and beginning to swell. It looks worse than he’d anticipated.
“Zuko I’m so sorry!” Aang apologizes as he sees the damage, eyes filling with regret. Zuko flinches as Katara’s fingers make contact with his skin, probing at the injury. He holds himself still as she inspects it.
“It’s fine Aang.” Katara gives his ribcage a firm prod.
“I think you bruised your ribs. What did you do to make Aang react so strongly? He wouldn’t use this much force unless he felt unsafe.” Her voice is accusing, her touch harder than it needs to be against his side. He tries not to bristle. He was the one who got hurt, and she was blaming him?
“It wasn’t like that Katara! I was just surprised. Zuko didn’t do anything wrong.” Katara hums at this, not looking like she believes him, but she pulls water over his skin anyways. When the water retreats, he’s still bruised, but the sharpness of the pain has faded to a dull throb.
“That’s the best I can do for now.” She threads her water back into the waterskin. He’s seen her heal better than that in a single session, but he isn’t about to argue. He can work with this.
“Thank you,” he keeps his voice soft, nonthreatening. She nods back at him. He looks over at Aang, gestures.
“Come on. We aren’t done until you learn to defend yourself with actual fire.” Aang tries to use the pleading look again, but it’s far less effective a second time.
When he’s not training Aang, Zuko tries not to be too much in the way. He knows they’ve accepted him, however reluctantly, but some small part of him still braces for the misstep that will have this favor revoked. So, he tries to keep to himself.
He’d found a far terrace in the temple to practice his own firebending, remote enough that he doesn’t think anyone will stumble across him accidently, but still in range to be able to tell if they’re attacked.
He finishes going through some of his more advanced forms when a question forms in his mind, a curiosity he can’t quite stifle.
He centers himself and tries to sharpen his focus, bringing his arms out to either side of a firm stance. He feels the charge in the air, teases some of it out to form two polarities. They’re volatile and humming with energy, barely containable as the sparks become visible, crackling out at the edges of his fingertips. His whole world narrows to the two opposing forces he shapes with his hands, with his own energy. He starts to extend one arm, feels a surge, and then–
He jumps and the buzzing energy races to connect, meeting at the point between his separated hands and exploding in front of him with an almighty crash. He’s flying backward for the second time in two days, landing on his nearly healed side with an oomf.
Well, what was previously his nearly healed side.
Toph is standing, nonplussed, at where the terrace meets the edge of the temple.
“Whoops. That seems dangerous.” He rights himself, trying not to favor his ribcage too heavily.
“Toph! What are you doing here?” She doesn’t react to his tone, just shrugs her shoulders.
“I was bored. Katara keeps hogging Aang, even though his waterbending is almost as good as his airbending now.” She flicks a clump of dirt off of one arm. “Personally, I think she’s jealous. He has three bending instructors now, she’s not his special teacher anymore.”
Zuko stretches out his side surreptitiously. “I don’t know, I think she’s just protective.”
Toph’s face wrinkles in confusion for a moment, before it smooths out as she understands. “What is she protecting him from, you?” She snorts. “Please.”
Zuko is glad she doesn’t seem to be afraid of him, especially after he’d burned her, but he’s also wondering if he should be offended.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He’s relieved it doesn’t come out sounding too indignant. Toph stamps a foot and the rock under his feet jolts upward, knocking him over. He yells and windmills, losing his balance and tipping into a seated position. She sits next to him, casually, as if they were having a friendly discussion.
“You’re not scary. I don’t see why they all treat you like you are.” She pokes him suspiciously. “Do you look intimidating? Hmm, you’re not that big. Do you give people scary looks?” She feels him heat under her fingertips, not from bending, but a flush that feels almost like… shame? He pulls away from her.
“I have a scar, on my face. The skin around it doesn’t move very much.” She ponders this for a moment.
“Well, I can’t see, so that doesn’t make a difference to me.” Suddenly her hand is on his face and he yelps.
“Toph, what?” he sputters, knocking the arm away. It returns and he closes his eyes and exhales sharply.
“How can I tell what people are seeing if I don’t feel it? This is a practical consideration.” She spreads her fingers, makes a contemplative noise. “I can’t feel anything. Were you just being dramatic?” She moves her hand in a small stroking motion, and – is she petting him?
“Your skin is very soft,” Toph declares appreciatively. He exhales again, and this time it’s tinged with smoke.
“It’s on the other side,” he says, and wonders why he’s letting her do this at all. She makes an oh sound at the correction, and moves her hand across the bridge of his nose before stopping once she encounters the damaged tissue.
His hands clench next to him, scraping in the dust, but she doesn’t pull away, doesn’t do anything to indicate the revulsion he’s sure she must feel. She continues her exploration, mapping out the ridges and boundaries of the mark.
“This must have hurt.” For once she sounds serious.
He twitches, and tries to ignore the screaming, the smell of burning that invade his senses. “It did.”
She takes her hand away, and asks the question. “How did it happen?”
He stiffens, muscles tightening involuntarily, and doesn’t say anything. The echoes of pleading resound in his ears and he swears he can feel the cold bite of tile under his feet.
Toph stretches her legs out in front of her and crosses one over the other. “Nevermind. What were you doing before I interrupted?” Zuko‘s thoughts spin to catch up with the change in subject.
“It’s, um, lighting bending? Or, it was about to be, I guess. I haven’t actually bent it before. I can redirect it though.”
“You can redirect lighting?”
“Have you done it before?”
“When?” His shoulders come up self-consciously.
“Uh, on the day of the eclipse,” she looks confused so he elaborates. “My father – Fire Lord, um, he wasn’t super happy when I told him I was changing sides.”
“You told him?”
“Damn. Respect, Fire-Face.” She’s getting an appalled-ish feeling from him and she scrunches her face apologetically. “Sorry. Was that too on the nose?”
The laugh that’s startled from him is well worth it.
“I still don’t see what’s preventing him from just running back to his father and telling him where we are!”
Katara is fuming.
Zuko isn’t quite sure how it started this time, only that Aang had been gushing about the firebending move Zuko had taught him that morning, and before he knew it, they were arguing about him again. Lately, when firebending or the Fire Nation was brought up, Katara would steer the discussion towards him and his inevitable betrayal.
Sokka tries to placate her. “Listen, the jerk – I mean, Zuko said he’s different now, and – “
“Oh! Right, I forgot, let’s just listen to him, because he’s never deceived us before!” She throws her hands in the air, and everyone shrinks back just a little. They all know how scary she is when she’s angry, and none of them are willing to get in the way when she’s like this. Not for him, at least.
With Aang and the others now avoiding her eyes, she turns her ire on Zuko. “I guess you think we’re all supposed to trust you now, just because you went on a trip with Aang and learned some stupid dance. Well I’m not buying it! You’ll betray us again, like you did before, and go back and join the Fire Lord while the Fire Nation burns everything to the ground, and –“ That’s what does it.
“I can’t just go back!” He finally turns to yell.
Katara stops mid rant, looks at him as if he’s the dumbest idiot she’s ever seen. “What are you talking about? You’re the crown prince of the Fire Nation–”
“Was. I was the crown prince. You think after leaving to join the Avatar, they’d welcome me back with open arms? That my father would?”
Katara seems almost lost for words. “You’re his son,” she eventually says.
“That’s never mattered to him before!”
Zuko snaps the words out, and regrets it as soon as he sees the looks on everyone’s faces. Katara’s face does a funny twitch, like she never considered the idea that some parents couldn’t care less about their children. Maybe she hadn’t.
It doesn’t sink in until the next town they visit.
Low on food and supplies, the group agrees it’s worth the risk to venture from the relative safety of the Temple to the nearest settlement, despite it being a Fire Nation colony. They leave Teo, Haru, and the Duke enough supplies to last for the day or two they’ll be gone.
They’d been walking for about half an hour. Aang had wanted to leave Appa far away from the town for fear of him accidently being stumbled upon, the last thing they needed to have happen on a simple supply run.
They’re still on the outskirts, but it looks like some type of notice is plastered all over the entrance to the market. A solitary page swirls through the air, floats downward… and smacks Sokka directly in the face. He makes a disgruntled noise as it hits him. “What the –“ he peels the page back, and everyone but Toph stares down at it. It would be hard to mistake the image on the paper.
“It’s a wanted poster. For Zuko.”
Now that they’re closer, Zuko can see that all of the posters are of him, plastered over layers of older notices. Under his face, in bold characters, it reads “Former Crown Prince Zuko, Wanted Dead or Alive, by Royal Decree of Fire Lord Ozai."
Wanted dead or alive. Zuko had expected this. He knew it would happen as soon as he gazed up at his father, unafraid, during the eclipse. He knew it as soon as he heard his father in the war chamber, and for the first time thought him a monster.
That doesn’t explain the tight feeling in his throat, or the way his hands form fists by his side when he sees it.
Sokka reads the poster aloud for Toph. There are other words too, words like treasonous, and traitor. Enemy of the Fire Nation, it proclaims. Even on paper, his scar looks vivid, like a brand.
“Well this isn’t great.” Toph declares this casually, like one might declare water to be wet.
They stand around the notice board for another minute.
Aang looks at Zuko a little guiltily. “Zuko, maybe it would be better if you were, y’know, to go wait by Appa? Uh, just while we get supplies, and stuff.”
He peers up at Zuko like he’s afraid of how he might react, but Zuko understands. They’re wearing disguises, but it’s not like there’s anything that can hide his scar. Not when it covers nearly half his face.
“Dead or alive? Really?” Toph says. Sokka watches Zuko’s retreating back, a little worriedly. He tries to imagine his dad putting out an order like that on him or Katara.
“Maybe Ozai realized his son is a backstabbing liar who can’t be trusted.” Sokka’s mouth almost falls open.
“Katara!” Aang admonishes. Even she looks a little surprised at the vitriol that had escaped her mouth.
“Sorry,” she mutters. Sokka isn’t sure that she is. He doesn’t trust Zuko yet, none of them do – well, except maybe Aang, and Toph, for some reason – but he can’t help but feel for the guy. At least a little bit.
Things are awkward later, as they sit around the fire. Katara makes dinner with the rice and vegetables they’d bought at the market once Zuko had left. It’s good, but once their exclamations of appreciation die down the circle is left in a tense silence. Zuko is staring into his bowl with a hard look, as though it had wronged him. Maybe it stole his honor, Sokka thinks, and shoves more food in his mouth to avoid a snort of laughter.
“So, did your dad ever love you or has he always just been an asshole?” Sokka chokes on the rice he’d just started to chew. Toph is picking delicately through the grains in her bowl, an innocent look adorning her face. No one needs to ask who she’s talking to.
Zuko looks as though she’d hit him. Sokka thinks he probably would have preferred it. He’s wearing a startled expression, like someone had just throttled a turtle duck in front of him. Although, maybe they go for that sort of thing in the Fire Nation. Sokka wouldn’t put it past them.
“Uh, I… don’t know how to answer that?” He’s surprised Zuko is answering Toph’s question at all.
“How do you not know something like that?” Its Aang, because of course it is. Sokka wonders if anything is beyond the reaches of his boundless idealism. Zuko has a pinched look to his face now, and Sokka anticipates that he’ll shut down the conversation any second.
“I mean, I know he didn’t love my mother.” Or not. Sokka really needs to stop eating, or someone’s going to need to resuscitate him after he asphyxiates.
“I’m not sure why he would have loved me. Especially because I was kind of useless… at doing things. That he wanted, I mean. So, I guess… he probably didn’t?” Zuko finishes in the most stilted way possible.
“You’re not useless.” The words are out before Sokka can draw them back in. He didn’t mean to say it, but… “Have you seen yourself? You’re practically unstoppable.” He thinks of all the times Zuko had chased after them, like he was driven by some kind of unrelenting force.
Zuko snorts. Sokka feels slightly indignant that this is the response he gets to one of the first sincere things he’s said to the firebender. He shifts on the rock he sits on, opens his mouth for a quip before Zuko beats him to it.
“You’re kidding me, right? Nothing I’ve done in my life has ever been good enough for – ah, for him.” He shakes his head, stabs his chopsticks into his bowl and shoves it to the side. “Azula was always the perfect heir. I think I was only ever a mistake.” Zuko had been staring down the entire time he’s been talking, and only now does he look up, into the fire. His expression is almost unreadable, which is unusual for him. For a firebender, especially a royal one, Zuko isn’t particularly good at hiding his feelings.
Sokka figures that this trait would have served him poorly, with a family like the one he has. He thinks of Azula, how she’d lied so flawlessly even Toph couldn’t detect it, and a twisting feeling takes up residence in his stomach alongside his dinner.
Zuko’s shoulders nudge up just a little, creeping toward his ears. He’s embarrassed, Sokka realizes. It’s hard to reconcile the insecure, awkward guy in front of him with the fierce, unyielding one that had chased them halfway across the world. The absence of the stupid ponytail doesn’t help make up the difference.
“You shouldn’t have to be good at everything to deserve love,” Aang says sadly. “That’s just an unreasonable expectation.”
Toph snorts. “Have you ever met a noble family? That’s kind of the whole point.” Zuko just looks uncomfortable. She continues. “At least my dad didn’t try and kill me.”
Zuko freezes, eyes widening. She must sense his reaction, because she tilts her head. “What? Did they not know?”
Aang is wearing one of his patented, sad-eyed expressions. “Your dad tried to kill you?” Zuko groans, hair lacing through his fingers as he buries his head in his hands.
He doesn’t look like he plans on responding, so Toph answers for him. “Yeah, apparently his dad shot lightning at him when he told him he was leaving.” Sokka abandons his bowl entirely.
“Are you crazy? Why would you tell him that!” Zuko looks frustrated.
“I wanted to confront him! I needed to prove myself, to stand up to him so he’d know that this time, I was leaving by choice!” Something about the way he words that is odd, but Sokka ignores it in favor of the more pressing issue.
“So, you told him and his response was to fry you do death? That sounds reasonable. Very normal, dad-like behavior.”
“For my dad it is,” Sokka almost misses the response entirely, Zuko says it so low. “I’ll clean,” he continues, gathering up the dirty bowls and stalking off. It’s an excuse to end the conversation, but none of them call him out on it, not even Toph.
“Well that sucks,” Sokka says. “If he treats his own kid like that, I can’t imagine what he’d do to you Aang.”
Aang looks anything but comforted by the thought.
The atmosphere seems to lighten after Sokka and Zuko’s trip to Boiling Rock.
“And then Sokka fell into the water! He was completely soaked through. If it hadn’t been the warm season, I’m not sure what we would have done.” Hakoda shakes his head in mock consternation. “At least I had one child with enough sense not to pick a fight with a tiger seal.” Katara laughs, while Sokka grouses good-naturedly. Everyone seems to be in high spirits after Suki and Hakoda’s rescue.
Everyone but one person, that is.
Toph can feel Zuko sitting apart from the group. There’s something off about him tonight, but she can’t quite identify what it is. He’s quieter than usual, not that he’s ever especially talkative. Toph thinks it might have something to do with how easily Sokka and Katara get along with their father, smiling and comfortable with one another.
Toph doesn’t know much about his family or childhood, only what little he’d revealed to them on the night they’d discovered the wanted posters with his face on them. If there’s one thing Toph understands, it’s having a family that can’t appreciate who you really are.
It isn’t just that though. She’s sure of it. He’d been weird for most of the day. She doesn’t think anyone else has noticed with all that’s been going on, but the wrongness niggles at the edges of her senses. She nudges her toes at the cool rock of the temple floor, but before she can identify it, the fire is being snuffed out and the group is dispersing for the night. She sighs and dismisses it from her thoughts, for now.
The next morning the feeling is back, only this time she knows what it is.
Zuko is sick.
His heart rate and blood pressure are higher than they should be. Zuko is consistently anxious, she’s discovered, and his physiology fluctuates more than the average person regardless, but this is more than just nervousness. His pulse is steady, but slightly too fast, like something was putting stress on the organ. Earlier, when she had passed him on the way to the cooking pot for breakfast, she’d felt heat radiating from his skin. Well fuck, she thinks.
Despite being clearly ill, he hasn’t said a thing about it. He and Aang have already left for Aang’s morning training. Zuko is stubborn, and she doesn’t think he’ll alert anyone to his being less-than-spectacular unless he’s forced into it. Toph thinks that might happen sooner rather than later, if the temperature she’d felt has anything to do with it.
They’re at lunch, and this is getting ridiculous.
Toph doesn’t think she’s heard Zuko take more than two bites so far, and he hadn’t eaten anything at all for breakfast. She sets her food aside, the clay bowl making a definitive sounding thunk. Toph has never been one to keep the things she’s thinking to herself, and she doesn’t see any reason to start now.
“Has anyone else noticed that Smokeshow here is hiding something?” For all her trouble, all she gets is bemused silence.
Sokka speaks first. “Is he planning on killing us right now, or am I gonna be able to finish my lunch?” There’s a sigh from where Zuko sits, but given his usual response to joking murder accusations, this is a tame response. He must be even worse off than she thought.
“No, idiot. He’s sick, and he’s too dumb to give anyone a heads up before he falls over.”
The response from Zuko is immediate. “I’m not sick.” He protests. “And I wouldn’t fall over.” As if this is at all the point.
“How do you know, Toph?” Even Katara can’t prevent some concern from infiltrating her voice.
“He’s had a fever all day, and his heart rate has been high since yesterday.”
“You do seem pale. You kind of look like shit, actually,” Sokka muses, in a succinct style Toph can’t help but appreciate. Chit Sang nods solemnly.
Attention now on Zuko, he tries to deny what now seems obvious. “I’m a firebender, we run warm.”
Toph doesn’t need to see to feel the disbelieving looks they’re giving him. “Not that warm.” She would probably take some delight in his sputtering denials if she couldn’t tell how much worse he’d gotten since morning.
Apparently having run out of patience for their prodding, Zuko stands to leave, only to waver, swaying just a little.
He makes as if it hadn’t happened, snatching his bowl of uneaten food from the ground to bring to the wash station. His blood pressure shifts, and Toph can feel what’s about to happen a moment before it does.
“Someone catch him! He’s gonna –“
With a crash, the dish tumbles from suddenly limp fingers, and Zuko crumples to the ground.
“…faint,” Toph finishes. They stare at the now limp body in varying amounts of shock. He hadn’t made it more than a step, and was now splayed out on his side, the fine silk of his clothes puddled around him.
Hakoda is the first person to make it over to the unconscious firebender, turning him onto his back and feeling his forehead with a large hand.
“He’s too warm,” Hakoda mutters. “Katara can you…?” Before he can finish the request, Katara freezes water from the fountain and wraps the ice chunks in a small wash towel. Years of helping to care for sick members of the village had shaped an instinct which had not dulled even after a year of travel.
Before she can place the ice, Zuko’s eyelids begin to flutter. Sokka taps his face from the side not occupied by Hakoda. “Wake up fire idiot!”
Zuko moans and shifts his head a little on the ground. Overly bright eyes blink up at them, a sheen overlaying the usual gold.
For a moment he just stares, before his eyes widen and he turns onto his side, vomiting over his propped elbow. He’s eaten so little in the past day or so that the only thing that comes up is bile and water, but Sokka still jumps out of the way with a cry of disgust.
“Warn a guy!” Sokka yells, checking his shoes to ensure that they’re clean.
Zuko continues to dry heave, involuntary tears springing to his eyes with the effort. He collapses back onto his side and rubs discreetly at his streaming eyes.
Done for the moment, Zuko seems to notice at this point that he’s surrounded by people who just watched him faint, then throw up all over the stone floor. Blood rushes to his face, and he shrinks a little, as if expecting to be berated for the display.
“So… still want to argue that you’re not sick?” Katara asks, eyebrows raised.
Aang snatches the forgotten ice wrap from her hand, pressing it eagerly to Zuko’s face before easing up when he winces. “Why wouldn’t you say anything?” Aang sounds hurt.
Zuko’s lucidity appears to have receded a little, since the eyes that settle on his face are hazy. “You’re not… mad?” He mumbles.
Sokka radiates disbelief. “Mad? Why would we be mad at something you can’t control?” Toph has a sinking feeling that she might know the answer.
Zuko struggles to put a sentence together. His face scrunches, deliberating. “I… Aang, need to train…”
“You can take time off when you’re sick!” Sokka looks aghast. “What, did you think we were gonna throw you out of the group if you took a day to rest?”
Looking at Zuko’s face, Sokka isn’t sure that any of this is reaching him. Zuko’s pushing against the restraining hand that Hakoda has placed on his chest. “I tell you what,” Sokka says. “If you can make it across the room, you can finish teaching Aang the forms he’s learning today.”
“Sokka!” Katara hisses. Sokka raises a hand to quell the protest. If there’s anything Zuko will respond to, it’s a challenge, and he pushes himself to his feet with a steadying breath. He takes two steps before swaying, hard. The color drains from his face, and Sokka, who had stood up to follow, supports him by the elbow, easing an arm behind the sick firebender so he can catch and lower him to the ground before he passes out again.
“See,” he says. “You’re not going anywhere like this.” Zuko doesn’t seem to hear him, breathing shallowly and closing his eyes against a swell of nausea. Sokka pats a pale shoulder reassuringly.
“Okay,” Hakoda says. “Now that we’re done with whatever that was, Aang, can you drag over his bedroll?” Aang pulls it over, and in a swift motion, Hakoda lifts Zuko and drapes him over top of it, pulling off his shoes. “We might need to watch him,” he says. “Whatever this is came on quickly, and we need to make sure his fever stays under control.”
“I’ll help,” Katara offers.
They all look at her, surprised, and she feels a twinge of annoyance. She’s not heartless. She may not trust Zuko yet, but he rescued her father from prison, and she doesn’t wish pain upon him anymore, regardless. She settles next to her father and glares until the group separates and leaves them with muttered excuses.
The sun is setting when Zuko begins to stir.
Aang is in the corner, meditating over a candle flame to control his breath, like Zuko had taught him. Katara has enlisted a reluctant Sokka in helping with dinner preparations. She’s making a broth with the leftover scraps of vegetables, light enough for Zuko to tolerate when he wakes up. She isn’t sure what Toph has been doing for most of the day, but for once she’s quiet, sitting by Aang as he meditates. She looks thoughtful, and her eyes settle over the area where Zuko’s laying, even if she can’t see him.
He looks even sicker, if anything. A rosy flush has spread across the ridges of his fine features, and he’s turned over to curl on his side. Katara doesn’t quite permit herself to worry – it is still Zuko, after all – but only by strength of will does she manage it.
Zuko’s started to murmur to himself. Hakoda bends over to feel for his temperature again, when it happens. His eyes crack open and he flinches away from Hakoda’s hand, which had been descending towards his face.
“I’m sorry, father.” He curls in on himself more tightly. “I’ll try harder – I’ll be – I’ll be a better son! Please, you don’t need to.”
Hakoda stops, eyes filled with concern. “Don’t need to what?” He asks.
Zuko shudders. “I’ll try harder,” he gasps. “Don’t banish me again. I’ll bring you the Avatar, I will!” His tone melts from fear to melancholy.
“I just want… I want to come home. Please, father.”
Katara’s spoon stops in the pot she’s stirring. The hall is silent, broken only by Zuko’s ragged breathing.
Across the room, the candle has gone out, spent wax puddled around the base. Aang looks startled and unsure.
“What is he talking about?” he asks, voice small. Katara isn’t sure how to answer him.
“Is that why he was chasing you for so long?” Hakoda is frowning.
Sokka shakes his head. “I guess we never asked? I assumed it was because he wanted to.”
Katara had thought so too. “He was always talking about about restoring his honor, or whatever.” She doesn’t think she’s ever considered what he’d done to lose it in the first place. He had already been at the South Pole, before anyone had known the Avatar was back, after a hundred years where no one had seen him. Why would his father banish him, ask him to do something he couldn’t hope to achieve?
Sokka crosses his arms. “Why he was doing it didn’t really matter so much when it seemed like he was gonna roast us to death.”
Toph looks almost upset. “So this whole time, you thought he was obsessed with catching Aang as a trophy, when it was really the only way he could go home?”
“Well… yeah. I guess.” He’s struck by a thought, and Sokka remembers what Zuko had said to them on their supply run, about why he’d confronted Ozai during the eclipse. So he’d know that this time, I was leaving by choice.
So that was what he’d meant. Zuko wasn’t chasing them as part of some royal, coming-of-age mission. He chased them because if he didn’t, he’d never see home again.
Zuko has started to turn fitfully between them while they discuss what he’s said. His whole face is flushed now, rays of the reddened, setting sun illuminating him like light from a flame. He begs his father for something again, murmuring about burning with a distressed look on his face.
After what they had just discovered, Katara doesn’t think too hard on the implications of that. It’s a grating feeling to hear him beg his father for mercy, for care, especially when less than a week ago he had confessed that he didn’t think his father loved him at all.
Her spoon resumes its stirring, motions fast and irritable. A splash of liquid falls over the edge of the pot, hissing when it hits the flames. She doesn’t want to feel anything resembling sympathy for him. Not after what he’d done.
Still. Her eyes drift over to where he lays, moving restlessly. He looks younger like this. The lines he arranges his face into while awake, wary and guarded, have eased. His features are softer than she’d pictured in her mind, all those months they’d spent fleeing from him and his sister. He stops moving so much and exhales with a quiet huff, the air displacing some of the hair that had fallen over his eyes. It's hard to look at the sight and summon the anger that had been fueling her.
After dinner, they settle down for bed, agreeing that Zuko should be fine with where he is with everyone so close by. He seems to be resting peacefully enough, the rise and fall of his form indicating a steady breath.
Reassured, they go to sleep.
Aang wakes a few hours later, startled by a noise. He looks over to find Zuko twisting restlessly, blankets thrown off him entirely. He cries out, hoarsely, and Aang sees movement from the other bedrolls, everyone startled awake by the shouting. He rolls and kicks one of his feet, turning into his arms as though to shield his face from something.
“Whassit?” Sokka rubs his hair, already in disarray, and squints over scattered bedding at the distraught firebender. He’s sweaty and panting, face flushed down to his collar. Suki is lying closest to him, and as her head pokes out, Zuko almost kicks her full in the face.
Sokka’s awake now.
He pulls Suki away, yanking her bedroll toward himself while she’s still on it. His dad approaches Zuko from the other side. He’s still flinging his limbs about, his hands hitting the rough-cut stone of the floor. Hakoda pulls Zuko partway up, pins his arms against his sides to prevent him from hurting himself in his delirium. That’s when he really starts moving, squirming and kicking his feet. Trying to get away.
“Stop,” he gasps, eyes still closed. Hakoda doesn’t pay attention, squeezing the firebender tighter before he’s able to extract an arm. Zuko keeps making desperate, trapped noises, and they all wish they could cover their ears, because the sounds are awful. Teo and the Duke are staring with wide eyes, unsure of how to process the scene in front of them.
Eventually, Zuko seems to tire himself out, chest heaving. Hakoda lays him back down, and continues to peer down at him, a conflicted look on his face. Zuko pulls his knees up to his chest, shuddering. His bare feet are the only things jutting out from his form, tightly curled on his side. No light is creeping in from the night sky, dawn still hours away.
When Zuko wakes up, he feels worse than the time he’d drunk a full bottle of Umeshu liqueur. There’s a brief spike of anxiety as he wonders if Uncle had caught him this time, before he remembers. Uncle isn’t here, and he isn’t on his ship.
Zuko blinks his eyes open, trying to focus past the blurriness. The sun has long since risen, and his confusion increases. He can’t remember the last time he slept past sunrise.
“Well look who decided to wake up and join us!” Sokka’s voice is overly bright and far, far too loud.
Zuko groans as his head throbs in retribution. He feels weak and wrung out, like he had after three weeks of floating through the ocean on a raft made of driftwood. The events of the last day and a half start to come back to him, and he jerks upright.
“Whoa,” Sokka says, narrowly avoiding a headbutt to the face. He’d come over once Zuko had started to show signs of life, hoping to avoid a repeat of last night, but it seems like the firebender is lucid. Zuko squints at him. He looks rough, still pale, his hair an unholy mess.
Sokka shoves tea at him.
Zuko takes it, looks around. “What…?” He trails off. Katara and Toph are still finishing breakfast. Aang seems to have been waiting for him to wake up, because he bounds over when he sees that Zuko is sitting up.
“Zuko! You’re awake!” Aang stops in front of him. “Do you feel okay? We were so worried!”
Zuko still feels terrible, actually, but he isn’t about to tell Aang that. “I feel better,” he says instead.
“Liar,” Toph says, as she and Katara walk over.
Katara’s face is missing the hostile expression she usually wears when she looks at him. Her expression is almost… appraising, and the change makes him nervous.
Zuko sips his tea in leiu of a response. The hand holding the cup trembles, and he sets it down before he drops it. A chill runs through him and he shivers, tugging his blanket up around his shoulders. As he does, he realizes that they’re all looking at him strangely.
“Why are you all looking at me like that?” He feels off balance, like he’s missing something that should be obvious. He feels vulnerable like this, still ill and huddled on the floor.
“You said some things while you were out,” Sokka says, which is just confusing, and he’s sure his face reflects his lack of understanding.
Toph rolls her eyes and clarifies when it’s clear no one else is going to. “What Snoozles means is that you freaked out, thought his dad was your dad, and told him you’d try to be a better son. Then you begged him to let you come home and not banish you again.” She’s blunt, and Zuko looks mortified. The trembling in his hands grows so strong that he tucks them away in his lap.
“Uh, I didn’t – I don’t–,”
“What I don’t get,” Toph continues, “is why you wouldn’t tell us the reason you wanted to catch Aang so badly in the first place. Are you stupid?”
“That isn’t – that’s not,” Zuko is still trying and failing to put together a response. “You don’t understand,” he finishes.
Katara jumps in, anger just now beginning to show through. “What did we get wrong Zuko? Are you trying to tell us you were hunting Aang for fun? That you could quit whenever you wanted?”
“No! I didn’t want you to think I was making excuses!”
“When did you even start looking? You were already at the South Pole when Sokka and I found Aang!”
“I’d like to know too.” It’s Hakoda, standing by the fountain. With the focus on the exchange between Katara and Zuko, his entrance had gone unnoticed. Zuko sees him and pales further, undoubtedly remembering what Toph had told him.
“I never had a chance to ask you in that Fire Nation prison, but I’d like to know what compelled you to pursue my children to the ends of the earth.” His voice isn’t accusatory, but Zuko cringes back into himself, regardless.
He looks pale and tired, only a thin blanket between him and their inquisition. His scar is stark in the early morning light, contrasting against skin made translucent by illness.
“I was thirteen,” he says, looking down at his abandoned tea. “I disrespected him, didn’t do what he asked. He exiled me, said I couldn’t come back unless I brought the Avatar with me. I’d been looking for you for almost three years before you reappeared,” he says, looking at Aang. No one interrupts, waiting for him to finish.
“Now that I think about it, everyone must have thought it was hilarious. I thought he was being merciful, that he was giving me a chance, but what could be funnier than sending me after someone who hadn’t been seen in a hundred years?” He huffs a laugh.
None of them smile. Hakoda’s face is grave. “Nothing about that is funny.”
Zuko’s mouth twists before flattening, a grim line set in a wan face.
“Yeah, I know,” he says. “I know that now.” He sighs. “I didn’t let myself realize. For three years I ignored what was obvious to everyone except me.” He fidgets with a fraying thread in the blanket. One side slips, sliding off his shoulder.
“It was easier to believe that I deserved it, because he was my father. The Fire Lord’s always right, after all.” He doesn’t look up, doesn’t see the sentence strike them.
“But he was wrong, and I was wrong, and I couldn’t tell the difference until I’d betrayed Uncle and gotten him thrown in prison. I didn’t want my father to restore my honor, I wanted him to love me, and I didn’t realize how impossible that was until after I’d already made the biggest mistake of my life.” He lets out a breath. “Was that what you were looking for?”
“Yes,” Hakoda says, simply.
He kneels down on Zuko’s level, who finally looks up, startled by the proximity. When Hakoda speaks, he does so slowly, deliberately, like he wants his words to be understood. Zuko listens, and doesn’t look away.
“I’m sorry you have a father so unworthy of such a brave, honorable son. And I’m glad you were finally able to listen to what your heart has to tell you, and find where you belong.”
He rests a hand over Zuko’s. “Thank you. We are fortunate to have you on our side.” Zuko looks at him, eyes wide and shining, and he looks grateful.
Sokka watches the exchange, and is not emotional, because he is a warrior, the guardian of his village, and he refuses to be moved by such heartfelt displays. He clears his throat.
“You still swooned into my arms. I’m never letting you forget that.” Finally, he sees the Zuko he knows glaring back at him, gold eyes bright and angry.
“I did not,” he argues.
Toph backs him up, and she’s his favorite, has he ever said? “You totally did, Fire-flake.” Zuko’s mouth opens, closes.
“We’re not going to talk about it,” he says.
“We SO are!” Sokka yells gleefully.
“Careful Sokka, or I’ll tell them about the mink snake incident,” Katara warns. Zuko meets her eyes in shock, and is startled to find a teasing twinkle within them.
“I would and you know it!”
Zuko coughs a laugh, and before he knows it, he’s surrounded by laughing faces of the Avatar and his friends.
He smiles, and for once, it comes easily.