A/N: So, I've been suffering from some Avatar withdrawal and frustration with the lack of new episodes. So I've been watching reruns and coming up with endless ideas for how the season will continue once they start airing episodes again. Here's what came out of that…
Fueling the Flames
"I'm not a bad person you know…"
A damp wind swirled through the empty fire temple courtyard, carrying with it the scent of ash and soot. Katara glanced at her companion through sweaty fallen bangs, eyebrows clenched and icy eyes glaring in a way that screamed How did I get stuck with you for this mission? The heat of the Fire Nation sun bore on her like a vice grip, causing her skin to flare up several shades of red as she wiped at her brow for what must have been the millionth time in the past hour.
The stiff silence that had accompanied their stake-out since initiating it only hours ago prevailed as she pointedly squared her shoulders in the other direction. A dramatic sigh escaped her lips, just to let her accomplice know without a doubt how irritated she was with the entire situation.
Golden eyes rolled crossly before refocusing on the distant hillside that they had been trained on for hours, "I don't know what it takes to convince you of that…"
She snapped, "Considering I've lost count of how many times you've tried to kill us or capture Aang in the past year…" she paused to cast an icy glare over her shoulder before continuing with a vindictive sneer in her words, "… you tell me."
Zuko found himself, once again, speechless in the young waterbender's verbal scorn. He shifted his eyes nervously and ran a distracted hand through his shaggy bangs.
"That's what I thought…" Katara huffed in response before standing up and placing as much distance as possible between the banished prince and herself. She sighed with exasperation as she leaned against the railing surrounding the cliff-side courtyard, her eyes directed to the distant horizon.
It'd been nearly a month since the young prince had joined the ranks of Team Avatar, and Katara hadn't spent once second letting her guard – or her suspicions – down when it came to the trustworthiness of their "redeemed" newcomer. Much to Zuko's demise, a watchful eye followed his every move, though little protest ever made it past the prince's lips before Katara was at his throat like a hawk.
Weeks of determined silence and intentional distance had inevitably led to this morning… This morning so bright and beautiful with the warmth of the Fire Nation sun streaking the sky in colors of red and yellow… This morning that ended the stakeout Aang had sent them on as they did recognizance on the mountainous prison that held their adult allies… This morning that now awaited Aang's return and the end of their mission…
"I'm risking my neck teaching him Firebending," Zuko replied suddenly to a still silent Katara – who'd inevitably taken to ignoring her counterpart by staring pointedly in the opposite direction, arms crossed derisively and glare set permanently. "I'd be killed if my father knew that I was in cohorts with the Avatar. There's no telling what he'd-"
"Look," Katara suddenly spun on her heels, icy daggers shooting from her unrelenting glower. "The only reason I agreed to sit through the past twelve hours with you on this mission is because Aang asked me to. If it's any difference to you, I'd rather not hear another my mother was killed and my father hates me story. You've already fooled me once with that tactic," she sneered. "You're going to have to come up with some new material before you get any undue sympathy from me again."
Zuko frowned, and for a split second he looked as if he'd argue.
Katara was rather surprised when he receded to only throwing his hands up in an I give up gesture, a slight sigh of frustration his only response. The young waterbender smirked triumphantly when he turned the other direction, arms crossed to show he was equally fed up with her as she with him.
"Let's just make things clear, Zuko," she retaliated as she turned towards the prince fully. Zuko responded by throwing a wary glance over his shoulder, his gaze falling in line with the straight finger she pointed at him accusingly. "I don't like you. I don't trust you. And if it means keeping Aang out of your sneaky little clutches, I'll make sure that never changes."
Zuko actually winced at her harsh words, despite his stoicism. He really didn't know why he cared so much about what this Watertribe peasant thought about him…
The silence that followed rang unusually loud in the prince's ears as Katara turned back towards the opposite horizon, a hot air of discomfort lying thick between them.
"You can't always protect him, you know…" Zuko found himself voicing his thoughts without intention, but once the words had been said, he couldn't argue that he regretted saying them…
Katara only grunted in reply and tightened the cross of her arms across her chest.
Zuko found her lack of reply – or perhaps retort would be a better word – rather intriguing. He narrowed his eyes interestingly as he continued, "I'm sure he's perfectly capable of taking care of himself. I doubt he needs you worrying about him all the time."
"What would you know about taking care of someone," Katara muttered. "That would require you to actually care about someone in the first place." She paused, "Tell me, Zuko…" her words became hotter as she glanced over her shoulder haphazardly, "… do you even have a heart? Or did it shrivel up and burn along with your face?"
She immediately regretted her choice of words once they stumbled out of her mouth, but she didn't let it show as she awaited his retaliation – her fingers at the waterskin on her hip as she anticipated a rather fiery display of his displeasure.
Zuko tried his best to ignore her verbal attack as an image of Mai's face flashed through his mind before being replaced by his mother's. Katara's harsh statement that would normally have left him angry and enraged in months past only left him defeated and tired. His dull lifeless tone of voice revealed it perfectly, "You don't know anything about me or my heart," he muttered before turning back around, letting his face soften and his guard down. "So don't pretend like you know what you're talking about."
Katara was taken back by Zuko's unusually soft tone of voice and drooped shoulders. The Zuko she knew would have burst into flames – literally – at such a low blow. Her questions revealed themselves in the permanent worry lines that etched her forehead, her remorse setting heavy in the pit of her stomach for such a cruel attack…
He sighed in a What now? response as he cast his gaze across his shoulder. But his eyes automatically focused past her silhouette to the profile of a familiar sky bison breaking the eastern horizon. Katara was unable to finish whatever it was she had started before the familiar sound of a certain chattering lemur sounded behind her.
Zuko was relieved when she followed his line of sight, an instant smile replacing her – was that sorrowful? – expression the second she recognized the flying beast and the bald monk sitting behind the reigns. Every cell in the prince's body seemed to lighten at the thought of finally ending the awkwardness that had accompanied the past few hours while being left alone with the temperamental waterbender.
"Finally," he muttered with a tired sigh as Appa landed several feet away with unexpected grace and swiftness for a ten ton flying bison.
Aang airbended himself to the ground, Sokka and Haru following close behind. Katara grinned as she captured the young Avatar in a friendly hug, seemingly taking him a little off guard – judging by the lopsided smile and surprised look in his eyes.
"You're back!" Katara exclaimed as she pulled out of the embrace before Aang seemed to even realize what had happened.
The young airbender laughed as he regained his bearings, "You're surprised to see us?"
"No, just relieved," Katara answered quickly with a hesitant look in the Fire Prince's direction. "It was a long night."
"I know," Aang answered as he directed his gaze over to Zuko. "Sorry you guys got stuck on guard patrol. So how'd things go? See anything worth our time?"
Katara followed Aang's gaze as Zuko shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing really," he answered as he bent down to collect some of his gear, every hint of defeat gone from his voice as if the words had never been said – though his posture remained rather tragic. "From what we could tell, there's a regime of soldiers that borders the eastern rim of the mountain. The prison guards patrol up to the crater, and from there it's anyone's guess how many of them watch the underground shafts."
"Judging by the number on the cliff-side, my guess is… a lot," Katara added softly. "They switch shifts at sunset and sunrise like you expected, Aang."
Aang nodded, "Well, there's a small port on the north side where they exchange prisoners. It's got tons of guards, but with the terrain of the land it gives us perfect cover for an underground approach…"
"I still think aerial has the better advantage," Zuko interrupted.
"No way," Sokka piped up from his satchel of dried meat. "That leaves us way too open to an attack. I'm with Aang on this one… Underground gives us the element of surprise. Toph spent all night plotting a perfect route right to the prison cells."
Zuko shrugged his shoulders, "I'm just saying… We would have a much quicker route for a retreat if things went wrong."
Katara retaliated before she really knew what she was saying, "Well, Aang's the Avatar… if he says we go underground, then we go underground."
Zuko sent an irritated glare towards the young waterbender, and just like that their uneasy scorn towards one another resurfaced, "I wasn't asking your opinion on the matter…"
Aang made a pacifist gesture, "Easy guys, I know it's been a long night and everyone's really tired. Let's just get back to camp so we can sort out a plan," he reasoned as he motioned towards Appa's saddle. "You guys ready to go?" he asked, directing his question to both Katara and Zuko.
"I was ready to go when we got here," Katara muttered tirelessly under her breath as she turned towards the flying bison.
Aang furrowed his brow, "Something wrong Katara?"
Zuko went on ahead of them silently as Katara followed him with her eyes. Aang gave her a questioning look before she replied, "Let's just get back to camp, Aang," she answered softly as she met his eyes, "It's been a really long night and I'm exhausted."
Aang nodded quietly and bent down to grab Katara's gear and bedroll as she climbed into Appa's saddle. A funny feeling had seeped into the pit of the young Avatar's stomach at the concerned look Katara had given Zuko, and Aang couldn't shake the suspicion that something had happened between the Waterbender and the Prince during their stakeout…
Since joining the Avatar and his friends only a few weeks prior, Zuko had kept himself distant from the group – whether by intention or mere happening, he wasn't quite sure… The Avatar himself and the blind Earthbender were the only ones who really gave him any type of interaction that could be deemed friendly, but he found it not too unlike his life in Fire Nation royalty. He'd never been one for keeping social contacts, and his quick temper made sure that anyone who crossed his path did so with hesitancy and tongue-in-cheek respect.
With depressing insight, he'd realized years ago that his sister and her two loyal associates were the closest thing Zuko ever had to "friends". With Azula's freakish pleasure in torture and death, Mai's depressing monotonous apathy, and Ty Lee's bubbling blindness to the world around her, this realization seemed to only prove the point that he was far better off without so called "friends"…
As he sat in his small dormitory room, the dust of a hundred years of solitude thick in the air around him, he found it rather difficult to convince himself that he didn't care what that Watertribe peasant had said about him that morning…
Did everyone really think he was that much of a monster?
Sure, he'd done horrible things… to good people… for selfish reasons… But was there no way to convince that girl that he truly was sorry for what he had done to them? The Avatar had apparently forgiven him, and it was his hide Zuko had hunted for so long… So why did that stubborn friend of his and her obnoxious brother have such a hard time leaving the past behind them?
Sure that "warrior" – as he called himself – did try to make jokes with him (though most of them were directed at Zuko rather than with Zuko…). But, he found his humor rather annoying and always appearing at the most inopportune times. And he remained unsure of his intentions when it came to such stunts.
But that girl…
Her loyalty to the Avatar astounded him, and he found himself – despite his best efforts of denial – jealous of the devotion she showed for that bald kid. In the past, Zuko had always been able to put such jealousies aside, as they never proved beneficial in any way and almost always a waste of time. More than once they'd gotten him into trouble when he'd confront Mai with accusations of flirtatious encounters with any man who was not himself…
But this jealousy was different. He despised that Watertribe girl, and every smirk and vindictive sneer she sent him only deepened his resentment for the time he had to spend with her. However, he couldn't help but wish that Mai had shown the undying devotion towards him that the Watertribe girl showed the Avatar. On that note, he wished that Mai would show any type of affection whatsoever…
He sighed in a How'd I get myself in this mess kind of sigh. Outside his door, he could hear footsteps and faint laughter that he instantly recognized as the Avatar's. Instantly, he crept to his door, pressing his ear against the hard wood and using all his energy to hear through to the hallway.
"Aang, it's not that easy." Zuko grimaced at the sound of the Watertribe girl's voice light with laughter. Though when she wasn't being vindictive, her voice did seem much more pleasant…
Zuko shook himself of his thoughts and continued to listen.
"Of course it is," the Avatar's voice said. "It's just dancing, what's so hard about that?"
"It's not the dancing part I'm worried about," came the response, "I'm just not too keen on the everyone-watching me part."
"Come on Katara, it's like I told you before. Just pretend like no one else is there and it's just you and me."
The Avatar must have said something that made her laugh, because the nervous giggle he heard come from her was enough to make him sick.
"Aang, how can you be so confident all the time?"
The Avatar laughed again, "It's just dancing Katara."
What was it with this kid and dancing? Zuko had heard enough. He rolled his eyes and returned to his bed by the window sill, deep in his previous thoughts of self pity – er insight...
He was startled by a knock on his door, though before he could open his mouth to inform his guest he wasn't in the mood for company, it swung open wide on its hinges.
The visage of a short raven-haired girl in a green jumper appeared in the empty doorway, and Zuko couldn't deny that he wasn't surprised by her presence. The knowing smirk lacing her grin made him wonder what it was she was smiling about when she crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe.
She didn't say anything and he was quickly getting annoyed by her presence. "What?" he asked simply. "Do you need something?"
The girl chuckled, "I didn't know you were an eavesdropper."
Zuko rolled his eyes, "I don't know what you're talking about." He found it rather unnerving that this particular Earthbender seemed so in tune to events going on around her. For weeks he'd been meaning to ask the Avatar how it was she could know so much about what people around her were doing…
The blind girl shook her head, still smiling that knowing grin, "Whatever. I just came to let you know that Katara finished dinner. I figured she'd rather let you starve than tell you herself, so, you know…" she trailed off, as if unsure how to finish her sentence. "Dinner's ready."
With that she slammed the door shut behind her and her footsteps quickly became muffled pitter patters. Zuko sighed, glanced out the window at the setting sun and then made his way down the hall towards the smell of stewing vegetables.
A/N: So, I've tried my hand at writing Zuko, and I'm not sure I caught his character very well. I can't say where this story is going, but I'm kind of liking it so far. Katara and Aang in the next chap! Stay tuned!