Appa landed with a great whoosh, flattening the grass and sending ripples across the pond. The small garden was empty - Zuko (Fire Lord Zuko, which still sounded so funny to say) had set it aside for the Avatar’s exclusive use. Stone walls gave Appa privacy as he slept, and the flowerbeds at their base filled the afternoon with their perfume.
This garden had the added benefit of being near the guest quarters where the Gaang slept during their visits. They had entirely taken over one large suite, with multiple bedchambers and a luxurious bathroom branching off the main sitting area. Like the garden, it was always ready for them any time they came to visit.
Which was not as often as any of them would have liked, but they all did what they could.
This visit was special, in that the whole group had arrived together. Suki and Sokka came from Kyoshi Island, where they were training new warriors - some of whom were to become Zuko’s elite guards. Katara and Aang were returning from their most recent visit to the North Pole, where they had been hard at work restoring the city and reopening trade routes between the two great Water Tribes. Toph had been with Uncle Iroh at the Jasmine Dragon, recuperating after another visit with her parents. (They seemed to finally be accepting her independence - well, not accepting, Toph didn’t really have hope for that any time soon, but at least they weren’t sending anyone to kidnap her anymore.)
But now, finally, they were all back together. Zuko was holding a peace summit (the first of many, with the hosting nation to rotate between the countries) and they had all been asked to attend. Their original plan was to arrive tomorrow, but they had made a last minute change. Even one extra day with everyone together was worth the effort.
They hadn’t informed Zuko of this yet, but that was all right. This way it would be a happy surprise. Spirits knew the firebender needed some extra happiness - leading a nation out of one hundred years of propoganda-driven war in the face of worldwide rage and mistrust was not an easy task. He was doing well, and they were all doing their parts to bring peace, but Zuko had always been too hard on himself and had a tendency to push himself too far. An extra day meant a little more time to force him to relax.
They only had a few moments to stretch and start unloading Appa before a trio of servants bustled into the courtyard and dropped into low bows. Two of them stepped forward, gathering the group’s belongings and whisking them away to their rooms. The Gaang knew better than to protest at this point - their first assurances that they were happy to carry their own packs had been met with such baffled chagrin that they hadn’t had the heart to push the matter.
The third servant they recognized as Fusa, a middle-aged woman with a no-nonsense aspect. She was one of the heads of guest services and seemed to have been assigned to them specifically. At this point she was as familiar as their suite, on the surface at least. Most of the servants stayed carefully distant from not only them, but all palace guests - sometimes with an air of fearfulness that made them all uncomfortable. Though, since Zuko’s coronation that seemed to have lessened somewhat.
“Welcome back to the palace,” Fusa said. She covered it up well, but it was clear she was a little flustered. “We were not expecting you till tomorrow.”
“Yup!” Aang said brightly. “It’s a surprise for Zuko.” The servant pursed her lips - whether at the unexpected change of plans or the informality of Aang’s announcement, they could not tell.
Still, how could she really object to the Avatar? In any case, Zuko had made it abundantly clear that his friends were welcome at any time and were to be treated with utmost respect, so there wasn’t anything she could do besides offer to have refreshments sent up.
“We were really hoping to see Zuko first,” Katara answered, cutting Sokka off before he even had a chance to open his mouth. “Is he busy?”
“I’m afraid the Fire Lord is meeting with his generals in the Council Room,” she replied. The Council Room had been the War Room not that long ago. “Shall I announce you?”
“No, no, that’s okay,” Aang shrugged. “We’ll wait.”
“Why?” Sokka demanded. “We’re way more important than some stuffy meeting.” This time it was Suki’s turn to roll her eyes.
Aang turned to the Water Tribe warrior with a slight frown. “Sokka, you know we can’t interrupt him unless it’s really important.”
“Yeah, unless you want to risk starting another international incident,” Katara teased.
“Aww, come on, Twinkletoes." Toph was leaning against Appa, toes curling in the soft grass. "You know he’d love an opportunity to escape his generals for a minute.”
Fusa cleared her throat lightly. “Since you will have to wait a while, shall I send up refreshments after all?”
“Yes, please!” This time Sokka managed to reply first. “Hey, it’s a long flight!” he said, brushing off their raised eyebrows before leading the way to their suite.
It didn’t take long for platters of food and pitchers of watermelon juice to arrive, and Fusa assured them she would send word as soon as Zuko was available before bowing herself out. The five of them (six, including Momo) tucked in eagerly, grateful for a chance to rest after their long journey.
Still, once they had finished they quickly grew restless. “What’s taking him so long?” Toph pouted. “Longest meeting ever!”
“It hasn’t been that long.” Katara was lounging on one of the couches, idly bending the water from the pitchers into various designs, and despite her words her boredom was evident.
“Maybe it just started when we arrived?” Suki suggested.
Sokka climbed to his feet. “Well, I say we go look for him.”
“I don’t know,” Aang said with a doubtful expression. “If he’s in a meeting we shouldn’t interrupt.”
“I’m not saying we crash his party, I’m just saying we can, you know. Wait outside for him. We’ve all been to the Council Room, it’s not hard to find.”
“It’d probably be a relief to see us,” Katara nodded. “The meetings with the generals seem to be the roughest on him.”
“I guess it couldn’t hurt to wait for him outside.” Aang airbended himself to his feet. Momo chittered and jumped down to a cushion, helping himself to more lychee nuts.
“Oh, I can do you one better than that.” Toph climbed to her feet and cracked her knuckles, a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Oh no.” Suki pretended to groan, but she couldn’t hide her smile.
“Oh yes!” Sokka cut in, with no such illusions of protest. “Toph the Troublemaker has another scheme!”
“What exactly are you suggesting?” Katara asked, eyebrow raised.
“Did you guys know there’s a secret passage into the Council Room?" She flashed her signature shark-like grin. "Imagine the look on Sparky’s face if we ambush him after his meeting!”
“Toph, that sounds like a good way to get us attacked as intruders.”
“Come on, Sugar Queen, it’s not like they could really do any damage to us. Besides, the guards always wait outside the room, it would just be us and him. Imagine the look on his face!”
Sokka looked positively delighted. It would be brilliant payback for the all the times Zuko had (mostly unintentionally) startled him half to death. “Toph, you’re a genius.”
“I know,” she replied, crossing her arms and looking extremely pleased with herself.
“It could be pretty funny.” Aang grinned at Katara, who still seemed a bit apprehensive.
“I suppose… but what if he leaves the room before the rest of the people at the meeting? Or if they stay behind with him?”
“Zuko’s always the last one out of those meetings,” Suki replied. They’d attended enough of them with him to know this was true. “And even if he’s not, then we just sneak back out and ambush him in one of the other hallways.”
“If nothing else, we’d get to see a secret passage,” suggested Aang.
“Oh, all right.” Katara finally relented, her grin matching their own. “Let’s go sneak up on the Fire Lord!”
- - -
“Here it is,” Toph whispered, leading the group to an apparent section of blank wall. “There’s some sort of mechanism to open it, I think over there?”
Sokka investigated where she was pointing and soon enough - “Ahah! This looks just like - “
“The opening to the secret passage in the Fire Temple!” Aang finished. Flame flared from his fingers and the door slid open.
“Hey, I was supposed to do the reveal!”
“Yes, yes, congratulations, Master Sleuth,” quipped Katara. Aang and Toph giggled as Sokka sputtered, though he was quickly mollified when Suki kissed his cheek as she walked past.
The group crowded inside and the door slid closed behind them. It was narrow and very dark, so Aang conjured up a small flame for them all to huddle around while Suki scouted ahead. She returned quickly, and they listened to her debrief.
“The passage isn’t too long. It turns a few corners and then stops after another twenty feet. There’s a grate - it’s really clever, I've never even noticed it from the inside - and we can see the whole meeting table from there. Perfect place to wait for the ambush.”
“Should we really be spying on Zuko’s meeting?”
“What’s the harm? As long as we’re quiet no one will know, and Zuko’d tell us anything important about it anyway.”
“I guess so.”
Silently the group made their way down the passageway. Aang extinguished his light before they turned the last corner, and they crept the final distance as quietly as they could manage (which, to Sokka’s ears, was pretty darn quiet). There they huddled close to the grate, peering out into the next room - except for Toph, who leaned against the wall and listened.
The secret passageway was set near the back of the room, on the platform on which the Fire Lord sat. They couldn’t quite see Zuko’s seat, but did have a mostly clear view of the table where the generals sat. No one in the Gaang made a sound as they focused on the meeting.
The generals were deep in discussion about the best ways to organize the continued withdrawal of Fire Nation forces from across the world. Many of the troops had already been recalled, but there were areas that were more remote, or where the soldiers were more deeply entangled in local politics, to have been extracted easily. Not to mention, there were still groups of rebels who either hadn’t received, or simply didn’t believe, the message that the war was over. Peacefully withdrawing from outposts all across the world, it turned out, was quite a delicate operation.
The meeting seemed a bit tense. There were clearly differences of opinion among those in attendance. Some of them discussed the matter with careful consideration, pointing out potential troubles but quick to offer and acknowledge reasonable solutions. Others only seemed to have objections, scoffing and scornful. Sokka felt his hackles rise as the argument grew ever more heated. He and Suki exchanged glances. This was what Zuko was having to deal with?
“If these so-called ‘freedom fighters’ are too foolish to acknowledge our withdrawal then it is only right we put them in their place!” A hard-faced man thumped his hand on the table, drawing a chorus of agreements.
Others shook their heads - some even rolled their eyes. It was good to see some of the officers were on Zuko’s side. One of these retorted, “Like it or not, they are already in their place, hence the need for us to withdraw in the first place - “
She was interrupted by a voice from down the table.“That contingent has been stationed there longer than some of those villagers have been alive. They should be shown respect!”
Several other generals nodded, then another added, “And how do you expect that region to take care of itself once our forces leave? Our government is the only thing keeping those simpletons from being overrun by raiders!”
“Those raiders wouldn’t even exist if our forces hadn’t destabilized the area in the first place!”
“Those savages were unstable long before - “
“Enough.” The Gaang’s ears perked up when they heard their friend’s voice cut through the argument with a tone of authority they were not used to hearing. “We’ve been intruders in these people’s lands for far too long to throw around such insults. They are right to want us to leave, and it is our responsibility to do so as peacefully as possible, regardless of the difficulty.”
Silence settled on the table after this statement. Still, the friends didn’t miss the expressions of dissent on several faces, and they knew Zuko couldn’t have missed them either.
“Keeping open lines of communication will be absolutely essential if we are to succeed in that, my Lord,” one of them remarked. “We need to send more diplomats -
“I thought the point of withdrawing troops was to get our people out,” sneered the man from the end of the table.
“You know full well - “
“Perhaps,” interjected the general who had spoken previously, “people will be better able to believe in our intentions once the first reparations are sent.”
“I hope so,” Zuko sighed. “In the meantime, it is essential that word get out to all our forces that they are not to engage if at all possible. If confronted, they need to deescalate, and surrender if need be.”
“This is outrageous.”
Everyone in the room fell silent, heads turning to the man who had spoken. He was an iron-faced admiral, who was currently glaring down at his clenched fists, his voice tight with rage.
“I take it you have something to say, Admiral Rosu?” Zuko said. Katara and Sokka exchanged a quick glance. They knew that tone - it was the one Zuko used when he was preparing for a fight.
“It was bad enough,” the admiral continued, “to withdraw from the war. But telling our troops to surrender? To meekly submit to defeat?” He spat out a bitter laugh. “Reparations!? It’s disgraceful! I am ashamed to even speak of the possibility!”
No one else at the table dared breath as the admiral glowered, and how Sokka wished he could see Zuko’s face. Actually, what he wanted to do was break the admiral’s face, but it had occurred to all of them by now that revealing themselves would be disastrous for Zuko - who still, somehow, hadn’t said anything. Which only made Sokka more nervous.
So nervous he almost missed the admiral’s next words, spoken as the man glared up at the throne. “But perhaps I should have expected this from you. Of course this is the kind of Fire Lord you’d turn out to be. You showed us what you were made of a long time ago.”
The room filled with audible gasps. Several of the officers at the table visibly paled. Others, to the Gaang’s alarm, looked vindicated. For their part, Zuko’s friends were quivering with rage; by the look on Aang’s face, he was doing all he could to not enter the Avatar state right then and there. But then -
The silence that fell on the room at that moment was suffocating and deadly still. The Gaang looked at each other, rage forgotten, because they had never heard Zuko speak like that, and from the looks of it, neither had anyone at the table.
Only Admiral Rosu seemed immune. His glare turned into a sneer as he looked up at Zuko. “I was there that day,” he jeered. “I saw you grovel. I saw you beg.”
“I see.” There it was again, that tone. It was quiet, level - on the surface, almost detached. But it also seemed charged with an energy that was searing and white-hot. Like lightning, Aang thought, and he almost expected to hear a roll of thunder.
Instead he heard the rustling of robes. Zuko was standing, slowly, and the eyes of those at the table rose with him. Around the room, the torches flared in their sconces. More than a few people flinched. Now no one, not even the admiral, dared speak.
“Did you cheer, Admiral?” Footsteps echoed across the floor as Zuko descended, his tread slow and measured. “Did you congratulate my father after he was done? Did you celebrate his glorious victory, his wise teaching?”
They could see Zuko now. His back was to them, ramrod straight, and though he spoke with great calm it was obvious - to his friends at least - the tension that was coiled in his body. The fury. Suddenly Sokka was glad he couldn’t see his friend’s face.
“Did you think it was justified?”
He asked this as though daring the admiral to speak again. The man held his tongue, but he did not drop his gaze. Meanwhile, Suki was looking between her friends. What are they talking about? she mouthed. Sokka shook his head. Katara mouthed back, I don’t know! Toph’s hand was pressed flat against the wall, her face tight as she concentrated. Aang, for his part, never looked away from Zuko.
“Do you have children, Admiral?”
It was as if an electric current passed around the table. Generals shifted in their seats, and some stared up at Zuko with unmistakable alarm.
An indiscernible expression flickered across the admiral’s face. “Yes.” Zuko waited for him to elaborate, and he grudgingly added, “A daughter.”
“How old is she?”
That same expression rose again in the admiral’s eyes. It looked somehow both defiant and ashamed. “Thirteen.”
“Thirteen.” Zuko was shaking, and his rage seemed tempered with something else - something that sounded like grief. “If your daughter spoke out, like I had, would you teach her the same lesson? Would you look down on her and teach her respect? Would that be justified?”
Zuko bowed his head for a moment and clasped his hands behind his back. His friends could all see just how tightly his fingers clenched.
“You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher. That’s what he said to me.” Zuko spoke quietly, but no one missed a single syllable.
Finally, the Fire Lord looked up again. “You have spoken out of turn, Admiral Rosu. You have insulted your Fire Lord - questioned my honor. You have disrespected this entire council, and you have disrespected me.”
Behind the wall, Toph clung to Aang’s arm, and Katara to his other hand. All of them watched the scene unfold with bated breath. None of them were afraid - they knew Zuko, they knew his heart and how good it was. Still, they had never heard him quite like this. He almost sounded like he had when he’d first found Aang, Katara, and Sokka in the South Pole - back when he was still chasing them, when his temper flared out of control.
There was nothing out of control about the rage emanating from him now. But that was almost worse.
It reminded them how scary he could actually be, and it was alarming to see that fear reflected on all those stranger’s faces.
“Tell me, Admiral. If I taught you respect, as my father taught me…” the room drew in a collective gasp - “would I be justified?”
It seemed to take longer for those words to sink into the admiral than it had the rest of those around the table, but the moment they did was painfully obvious. The man’s face blanched as he gaped up at the Fire Lord.
“Come here, Admiral.”
Was that really Zuko’s voice? He had never sounded so cold.
Admiral Rosu stood, slowly, and walked forward. He stopped in front of Zuko, and though he was much taller than the teenager, whatever he saw in Zuko’s face must have been terrible, and he immediately fell to his knees and prostrated himself at the Fire Lord’s feet.
“My Lord - “ he said. But apparently those were the only words he could find.
Zuko stared down at the admiral for a moment that seemed to stretch on for hours. His friends couldn’t see his face, but they could see that if his hands tightened any further he would surely leave bruises on his own wrists. But when he finally spoke, his voice was steady.
“There is no place at this table for anyone who would condone such an act of cruelty.”
When it became apparent that Zuko was not going to do…whatever it was they thought he might do, the room released its collective breath. The admiral raised his face, opened his mouth as if to express gratitude. But Zuko hadn’t finished.
“Rosu, you are hereby stripped of your rank and dishonorably discharged from my service. Guards!” At once the doors opened as the guards entered and stood at attention. “Escort this man out of the palace. He is no longer welcome.”
“What! But my Lord - “ The admiral - former admiral - spluttered, but no one said a word in his defense. The guards simply dragged him to his feet and marched him away, leaving the doors to shut behind him with a low boom.
“This meeting is adjourned.” Zuko’s tone was uncompromising. “I expect your extraction proposals by tomorrow evening, to discuss at our next gathering.”
No one said a word as they rose and bowed before heading for the door. Not all of them looked at Zuko as they left, but there was a great deal of respect in the eyes of those that did. Was it because of the demonstration of authority, or the act of mercy? It was impossible to say.
Zuko didn’t move until the room had emptied. As soon as it had, though, his straight-backed composure finally cracked. His hands dropped down to his sides, still clenched into tight fists, and he lowered his head. Fine tremors started to wrack his body, and it was unclear to his friends if he was fighting back a sob or a scream.
But after a few more moments he straightened up again, breathing deeply as he did so. On his exhale, fine jets of flame shot out of his mouth and fists, but that was all. He then turned and climbed the steps, back to his throne and out of their sight.
As one, the group turned to look at each other, and in their eyes was the unspoken agreement that it was now time to leave because as much as they wanted to go to their friend, doing so by jumping out behind him from a secret passage was not the right way to do it. Retreating now had the added benefit of giving them the chance to discuss what the hell had just happened before they caught up with him.
Suddenly they heard a fwoosh, and the passage entrance opened up, spilling them unceremoniously onto the floor of the Council Room.
“Ugh,” Sokka groaned, trying to untangle himself from the mess of limbs. “Thanks a lot, jerkbender.”
Zuko was sitting on the top step, leaning forward, his forearms resting on his knees. He looked on their tumbled pile with a smile, somehow managing to look fond, smug, and incredibly tired all at once.
“Sorry. Couldn’t resist.”
“Zuko!” Toph whined. “We were supposed to ambush you!”
“I figured as much.”
“How did you even know we were there?” Sokka squawked indignantly.
With a sigh, Zuko explained, “That secret passage is meant as an emergency escape route, of course I know about it.”
“Yeah, but how did you know we were there?” The firebender only shrugged.
“Huh. It is really clever,” Sokka admitted, looking back at the door. It had melded back into the intricate stonework - even up this close he couldn’t tell where it was, if he hadn’t just tumbled out of it. “How does it open from this side?”
“Up there,” Zuko gestured. “There’s a trigger. Only firebenders can open it.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s real great, Sparky. Now get over here and help me up.” Zuko rolled his eyes before crossing over to his friends and extending a hand.
Toph took it and grinned, before giving it a little jerk. As she did, the stone under Zuko’s feet surged up, sending the teen sprawling forward. He landed on top of the pile with a muffled “Oof!”
“Toph! What’d you do that for!” moaned Aang. He, apparently, had taken the brunt of Zuko’s fall. Well, him and Sokka, who was now rubbing his head and muttering furiously under his breath.
“Sorry,” she grinned, not sounding sorry at all. “I couldn’t resist either.”
It took a few moments and not a few grumbles before everyone managed to extricate themselves from the pile, but soon they were sitting in a rumpled circle. Zuko looked between them all, golden eyes shining. “You came early. I - I’m really glad you’re here.” He looked strangely vulnerable, like he was stopping himself from initiating a hug, and it was so incongruous with what they’d just seen that Katara nearly had whiplash. Instead of saying anything, she just pulled the young Fire Lord into an embrace.
“So are we,” she replied, smiling as the rest of the group crowded in around them, until they were a messy jumble once again.
Finally, Zuko wriggled underneath them, and the group took that as their cue to sit back. He rubbed the back of his neck, not really meeting anyone’s eyes, before saying, “I’m sorry you had to see that, though.”
The atmosphere became much more serious. “Yeah, that was…something else,” Sokka offered feebly.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you that mad before,” Aang said, examining his friend with wide eyes.
“Well…yeah. I’m afraid I might have… overdone it a little,” he answered, looking chagrined. “I just - really needed to make myself clear.”
“About what, exactly?” Suki prompted, after a moment.
Zuko looked at her with some confusion. “That a man like that has no place here,” he said, as if explaining something obvious. Then he looked down as his face darkened, both sides wearing the same expression for once, and added, “That the Fire Nation will no longer tolerate that kind of abuse.” Then he sighed and climbed to his feet.
“I wish I could stay with you,” he apologized, smoothing out his robes. “But I’m about to be late for a meeting with some Earth Kingdom dignitaries.” His hands then fumbled up to his crown, making sure it was still set on straight. With his attention elsewhere, he missed the mounting confusion on their faces. “I’ll, um, find you after, okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Aang watched Zuko with increasing concern.
“We’ll be around,” Sokka offered.
“Zuko, are you sure you’re all right?” Katara asked softly. “What that guy said…”
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” Zuko shrugged. “I’ve heard worse.” And with that baffling statement, Zuko strode out of the room, waving his hand over his shoulder. “I’ll find you for dinner!” he called, and the doors shut behind him.
The Gaang sat on the ground in stunned silence, staring after him.
“What the fuck?!”
For once, Katara didn’t have anything to say about the earthbender’s expletive. “I didn’t know Zuko could sound like that.” Her eyes were wide and troubled.
“Yeah,” Aang shuddered. “I’ve seen him mad, but I’ve never seen him…not yell, when he’s mad.”
“I think I prefer the yelling.”
“And what was that guy talking about, seeing him beg? I literally cannot imagine Zuko begging for anything,” Sokka added.
“I don’t want to imagine it,” Aang muttered, looking like he might cry - whether from sadness or anger was hard to say. Probably both. Katara took his hand and squeezed it gently.
“Something clearly happened to him.”
“Something didn’t happen to him,” Toph spat. “It sounds like his father did something to him. What I want to know is what.”
Silence followed this pronouncement, until finally Suki whispered, “Whatever it was, they thought Zuko was going to do it too.”
“I’ve never seen a room of high-ranking officials look so scared before. What kind of punishment would make an admiral react like that?”
“Do you think…” Sokka’s insides squirmed at the idea that was forming in his mind, in the form of a hand-shaped scar. He quashed it quickly.
“Uncle Iroh is supposed to be here, right?” Katara suggested. “We should ask him.”
They nodded their agreement and rose as one, making their way out the door. None of them had the heart to use the secret passage again, its intrigue quite broken by what they had witnessed.
The guards must have gone with Zuko; the hall outside the room was empty. Aang was glad. He didn’t want to have to answer any questions about what they were doing there, or get chided for revealing a security breach, or whatever Zuko’s stuffy advisers might say.
The airbender couldn’t get his mind off his friend. The desperation in his clenched fists, the trembling that had overcome him - it made a lump rise in Aang’s throat. He hoped they found Iroh soon. They needed answers. He didn’t want them, especially - nothing that horrible could be good - but he needed them nonetheless.
What especially baffled Aang was how Zuko hadn’t seemed to understand what they were so concerned about. How could he expect them to listen on a conversation like that and not see fit to offer an explanation?
It took them a while to find Iroh. They wandered the palace for some time before starting to ask passing servants. One of them escorted the Gaang to the head of household, who directed them back to Fusa, who finally told them that Iroh had not yet arrived, but that she could alert them when he did. They told her that would be fine, and immediately opted to make their way to Iroh’s quarters right then and just wait for him there.
After what seemed like an age, they heard the familiar sound of Iroh’s voice drifting down the hall. He was singing to himself as he approached - “and a mountain divides them apart! Built a path to be…”
The old man opened the door and saw the children waiting for him. “…Together,” he finished softly, and it was evident from his expression that he realized this was not a light-hearted visit. He closed the door before giving them a short bow. “Hello, my young friends.”
“Hello, Uncle Iroh. We… need to ask you something.”
“I thought as much,” Iroh replied. “Can I make you some tea?”
“It’s about Zuko,” Sokka interjected.
At this Iroh’s brow creased in a frown, and he asked, “Is something wrong?”
“Yeah. We…accidentally overhead one of his meetings, and he - it was - “ Sokka seemed at a loss for words.
“Zuko said something about his father punishing him and we need to know what it means.” Toph’s blunt interjection was met with scandalized glares from the others.
“There’s no point beating around the bush,” the metalbender shrugged.
“No, I suppose there isn’t,” sighed Iroh. He looked deeply saddened, staring down at his hands folded in front of his belly. Toph felt that they were shaking, ever so slightly. Finally he looked back up at the Gaang, meeting their eyes one by one.
“I will make us some tea,” he said, “as you tell me what happened. Then I will do my best to explain.”
- - -
Zuko was not, in fact, late to his meeting. The people in charge of his schedule were always careful about leaving a suitable buffer between appointments, because they knew Zuko had a tendency to run over, determined as he was to get as much done as possible. So after leaving his friends in the Council Room, the Fire Lord arrived at the parlor where his guests were waiting just in time. His adviser was even able to spare a minute fussing over Zuko’s crown, which he had apparently not straightened as well as he thought, before announcing him to the room.
The dignitaries were here for the summit, of course. Similar groups had been arriving all day. These first meetings were mostly a formality, a chance for any necessary introductions to be made and for Zuko to officially welcome the visitors as honored guests and partners in a shared vision of peace.
Of course, it didn’t always go so smoothly. There were still plenty of people who did not trust the work that Zuko was doing, and he often found himself frustrated in the face of unreasonable requests - or worse, completely reasonable requests that he was not always able to accommodate. Still, slowly but surely, things were improving.
Zuko really wished he could postpone the meeting till tomorrow, and he might have done so if it hadn’t been his last for the day anyway. The meeting with the generals had rattled him, and the surprise of seeing his friends a day early had done little to soothe his nerves. Maybe it would have, if he hadn’t caught them eavesdropping - not that he begrudged them that, really. He just wish it had not been that meeting.
In a way, he had been expecting this to happen. Dreading it, more accurately. There were plenty of officials who had attended that fateful Agni Kai, many of whom thought his father right to act as he had. Admiral Zhao had been proof enough of that. Sooner or later, someone was bound to bring up.
So yes, Zuko had been waiting for a day like today. Still, he hadn’t been prepared for how he would feel when it finally came, or how he might react. He wondered if he had gone too far.
It didn’t matter right now - the dignitaries were waiting, and he had to focus on that. So he took a deep breath and pushed the knot of emotions back down into his stomach until he had time to deal with them. Only then did he go through the doors to greet his guests.
- - -
It was a mercifully short meeting. After the Earth Kingdom officials had been led to their quarters and his aides had given him the day’s last debriefing, Zuko could finally relax.
Well, not really. Relaxing was not something Zuko had ever been good at, and now it felt especially impossible. The knot was beginning to fight its way back into his throat and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
He could find his friends, of course. Zuko was truly glad they had come early, and most of him wanted nothing more than join whatever antics they were surely up to right now. But the other part was still back in the Council Room, and the things he’d been pushing back were finally catching up.
So instead of finding his friends he retreated to his room, changed out of his official robes, and grabbed his dao, because the closer those emotions got to him the more he feared he would vibrate out of his skin.
It had taken Zuko a long time to come to terms with what his father had done to him. He had believed for so long that he deserved his punishment, and even now he sometimes found himself looking in the mirror and hearing Ozai’s voice.
Weak. Pathetic. Coward.
He didn’t believe it anymore, he reminded himself. It was cruel and it was wrong. But knowing that didn’t always keep the thoughts from resurfacing. Especially on difficult days, when he felt that he was failing his people, when the weight of the crown became so heavy, and he wondered how Uncle had ever been crazy enough to think that he, Zuko, banished traitor prince, could ever hope to carry it.
Zuko was far too stubborn to let those thoughts keep him from trudging forward, but some days…
His blades flashed in the sunlight, whistling in the air as he drilled. He would have liked to bend instead - vent his anger out in great clouds of fire and burn down anything that got in the way. But he had promised himself that he would no longer fuel his firebending with rage, so dao it would have to be. Perhaps, if he worked his body hard enough, he could keep the images crowding into his mind at bay.
Images of Admiral Rosu, gloating in front of the whole council, using his father’s cruelty against him. Or of Toph and Aang, barely younger than he had been at the time - of the admiral’s daughter, herself only thirteen… of himself, a child, kneeling in front of his father before a jeering crowd and begging, uselessly, for mercy.
Zuko stumbled to his knees and struggled for breath.
It was all pushing in on him now - the smell of burning flesh, the crackling as his hair burned to ash, the feel of his skin literally melting under his father’s hand. The scream that tore out of his throat - how many days had it been before he could make any sound at all, after that? Zuko desperately tried not to imagine Aang, or Toph, or that nameless girl, screaming like he had screamed, but it echoed in his mind nonetheless.
His swords clattered to the floor. He wanted to vomit.
It had happened so long ago - but not that long, not really, so maybe it wasn’t so surprising how vivid the memory still remained, how fresh it sometimes felt. How many times would he have to relive it?
But this was worse than other times, because now he also saw the admiral’s face, jeering at him for not being as good a ruler as the man who had maimed him.
Or the way they had stared when he had asked the age of Rosu’s daughter, as if they realized that she was no older than he had been, and had they really been afraid of what he might do to her?
Zuko saw himself standing above the prostrate admiral, knowing full well that everyone in that room was steeling themselves against imminent screams.
In that moment all Zuko could feel was rage - at his father, for what he had done not only to him, but to Azula, his nation, and the whole world - at Rosu, for looking him in the eye and calling him a coward, because apparently a man who would commit such an atrocity was a preferable ruler to the child who had endured it - at the generals, for standing by as they waiting for him, Zuko, to commit a similar act of barbarism -
At himself, for letting them think, even for a moment, that he would ever do such a thing.
Zuko did not want to rule through fear like Ozai had done, like Azula learned to do. Too late for that, apparently.
What did his friends think of him now?
Zuko crumpled in on himself, face buried in his hands, and wept.
- - -
It took a long time for Zuko to calm himself. Grief, rage, fear, shame, all spilled out in hot tears, and he had bit into his wrist to keep his sobs to himself. But eventually it ran its course, and now that it was over he felt exhausted and hollow. He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, feeling like a child instead of the monarch he was meant to be.
With a heavy sigh, Zuko climbed to his feet, grabbing his dao as he did and sliding them back into their sheath. It was dinner time by now, right? His friends must be wondering where he was.
Zuko returned to his own chambers, slipping out of his training clothes and into one of his more casual outfits. Then he set out to find his friends.
First he made his way to the Gaang’s suite of rooms, figuring that would be the first logical place to look for a group that was surely tired from traveling all day. He did not find them there, though. Nor were they in the courtyard - though Appa did low at Zuko when the teen came out to check. He rubbed the bison’s muzzle before going back inside.
He might have guessed they would come to his rooms, but clearly that hadn’t been the case. Where else would they have gone? After a moment he remembered that Uncle was due to arrive this afternoon. Perhaps they had gone to visit him. Zuko hoped so - if they weren’t there then he didn’t know where in the palace he’d look next. The kitchens, maybe? Or had they gone into the city to eat? No, they wouldn’t have left him behind at the palace the day they arrived.
Zuko was no longer worried about what his friends would think of his behavior in the Council Room, not really. In the midst of his breakdown he had feared that they would think less of him. Logically he realized that he had done far worse to all of them than anything that had happened today, and if they had forgiven him those actions then surely they would not judge him too harshly for scaring a bunch of generals.
That did not alleviate his anxiety about hearing what they had to say about it. Nor did it quell his uneasiness with how the meeting played out. He was haunted by the collective gasp that had followed his question - do you have any children? - by the way the admiral’s face had drained of blood when Zuko bade him approach.
Zuko put those thoughts out of his mind and headed to Uncle’s quarters.
There were voices, but not directly inside. It seemed he’d found his friends, and knowing Uncle, he was busy serving them tea in one of the side rooms. Zuko smiled and slipped inside.
It was them, all right, and Zuko started to cross the room, already feeling like a weight was being lifted off his chest, until -
“I can’t believe it.”
Zuko stopped in his tracks, halted by the tone in Suki’s voice sifting through a somber silence. What exactly had he walked into?
“I-I can’t believe…his own father - “
“I can totally believe it,” Sokka cut in. “I don’t want to, but I can.”
“How could anyone do that?! He was just a child!”
Zuko took a slow, measured breath before padding to the doorway. It was open, though he couldn’t see any of his friends - just the small tea cabinet under a painting of Lu Ten. The sitting area was out of his line of sight, and the young firebender couldn’t bring himself to go in, not yet. He leaned against the wall, hoping that they wouldn’t notice him. The problem was Toph; with her earthbending she was extremely difficult to sneak up on.
“How could he get away with it - Fire Lord or no, someone should have stepped in!” Toph’s voice was loud and indignant, and Zuko winced. At least she hadn’t detected him. “Why didn’t you do something!?”
This, apparently, was directed at Uncle - Zuko could hear his deep and sorrowful sigh. You can’t blame him, it wasn’t his fault! The words were almost out of his mouth, but Uncle spoke first.
“I was afraid that if I spoke out against my brother, Zuko and I would both be killed. I couldn’t risk losing him.” In a smaller voice, Uncle added, “But it still haunts me.”
Silence fell on the room then. Zuko had thought his tears were spent, but no, they were gathering in his eyes again, because it had not been Uncle’s fault that Ozai had done that to Zuko, there was nothing anyone could have done for him in that moment and Uncle had been there every day thereafter, in a way no one else had ever been, and Zuko couldn’t bear the thought of Uncle blaming himself for any of it and he had to know that, didn’t he? Zuko covered his face in his hands and drew in a slow breath, trying to compose himself so he could go in and make sure Uncle understood.
Before he could step into the room, Aang’s voice broke the silence. “All this time, I looked at his scar and thought it was just - an accident, or - why didn’t he tell us all this?”
“I thought you knew.”
The effect of his sudden appearance would have been funny in any other circumstance. Everyone in the room jumped and turned to gape at him, Sokka spilling tea all over his lap in the process.
“Zuko!” Katara somehow managed to look both guilty and incensed. “How long have you been out there?”
”What did we say about sneaking around, Sparky?” Toph glared in his general direction.
But any objections they might have added fell apart when they looked at his red-rimmed eyes.
“Zuko… how could we possibly have known about something like - like that?” Try as she might, Katara couldn’t keep her eyes from flicking to the scar.
“It’s not exactly like my father did it privately!” Zuko snapped before he could stop himself. No one would meet his eyes, and he drooped, pinching the bridge of his nose with a shaky sigh. He hoped they wouldn’t notice how he was trembling. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have - “
“Nephew.” Uncle was across the room in an instant, folding Zuko into his arms. The teen leaned into the embrace, clutching the back of his uncle’s robes.
After a few moments, Uncle relaxed his hug, but he kept his hands on his nephew’s shoulders. At first Zuko just stood with his head hanging, but when he finally dared to look up, his uncle’s smiling face was there to reassure him.
Zuko allowed himself to be guided to the seat next to Uncle, who pressed a cup of tea into his hand. He smiled at the familiarity of it. Finally, he looked back up at his friends, who were watching him with expressions of unbearable gentleness.
“I just - it was all that defined my life for so long, it didn’t occur to me that anyone wouldn’t know,” he said. “Which is absurd, now that I think about it.” Now he couldn’t meet their eyes.
“Yeah, you’re the picture of narcissism,” Sokka deadpanned. Zuko gave a startled laugh.
“It’s just, we gave you such a hard time when you first tried to join us. Me especially.” Katara shifted in her seat, looking somewhat uncomfortable. “If you’d told us back then, maybe…”
“It wouldn’t have excused anything.”
“No,” she agreed. “But it might have helped explain.”
Zuko could only shrug in response. He knew that their initial reactions to him trying to join their group, after spending so long trying to hunt them down, had been perfectly justified. Knowing the origin of his scar wouldn’t have made any difference.
“Would you have told us, if you knew we didn’t know?” Toph asked. Her voice was uncharacteristically small.
“I don’t know,” Zuko replied. “It just never seemed that important. Besides - “ he plowed through their sputtered objections - “I don’t especially like talking about one of the worst days of my life.”
“One of the worst?” Sokka’s face was incredulous. “What could possibly be worse than your own dad burning your face off?”
“Ba Sing Se.” He didn’t elaborate, but he didn’t have to. They all knew how ashamed he still was over his decision that day.
Finally, Aang heaved a sigh. “No wonder you were so frazzled after the meeting. I can’t imagine what I’d do if someone threw something like that in my face.”
Zuko shook his head. “It wasn’t that. I mean it was, but. Not really.”
“Uh huh. Thanks for clearing that up, Sparky.”
“I mean,” Zuko frowned. “I’ve kind of been waiting for someone to bring it up. It was harder seeing how they reacted to me reacting.” He thought of the pallid faces of his generals and shuddered. “I am so sorry you had to see that,” he said in a rush. “I was just so angry, but I shouldn’t have - “
“Of course you were angry!” exclaimed Katara. “You had every right to be angry!”
“Yeah, I don’t think I would have controlled myself so well if someone talked to me like that,” Toph added.
“Aang looked like he was gonna go full Avatar on them just listening to it.”
Zuko shook his head. “But they were so afraid of me.”
“No one exactly likes being yelled at by their nation’s ruler, Zuko, can you blame them?”
“He wasn’t really yelling,” Suki corrected.
“Yeah, but the point is he was clearly mad, but like Katara said, it was completely justified, so if anything it was a good thing they took it seriously - “
“They were afraid because they thought I was going to hurt them!”
An uncomfortable silence followed this outburst, and Zuko stared down at his teacup.
When a gentle hand came to rest on his shoulder, the firebender tried to shrug it off at first. After a moment, though, he quieted, comforted by his uncle’s reassuring touch. Zuko hung his head, anger draining away as suddenly as it had flared.
“I can’t rule like my father did,” he finally said. “I can’t let my people think I would hurt them.”
“But you didn’t hurt them,” Aang said suddenly. Zuko looked up, startled, his golden eyes meeting the avatar’s grey ones. “They may have been worried you would, but you didn’t.” Aang shrugged, his eyes shining in a smile. “So now they know you won’t.”
Huh. Zuko wasn’t sure how sound that logic was, but maybe the kid had a point.
Out of nowhere, Toph’s fist collided with his arm. “Ow!” he exclaimed, rubbing his arm and glaring at her in indignation.
“You worry too much, Sparky,” Toph told him. “You’re doing a great job, and if a few fuddy-duddy generals insist on giving you trouble then I’d be happy to go give them a real scare.” The rest of the Gaang nodded in agreement.
“If only they’d known you were all there,” Uncle mused. “You really could have had them running!”
Zuko looked around at his friends, full of jokes and understanding as they rallied around him, and finally felt some of his tension drain away. “Thanks,” he smiled, looking down at his tea.
“Aww, someone needs a hug!” Sokka crowed.
“Spare me,” groaned Zuko, rolling his eyes. This did not dissuade Sokka in the slightest, or indeed the rest of the group, who clambered over to surround him in an encompassing embrace.
“Do not resist the healing power of the group hug, Nephew,” Uncle teased, but his arms were the first to wrap around Zuko and he leaned into them, leaned into them all, and felt so lucky to be able to call these goofy, infuriating, wonderful people his family.