I don't own ATLA.
One night, a young waterbender and her brother sat awake amongst the others that were asleep. Badgerfrogs croaked in the distance, echoing off the cliff face.
"You need to lighten up, Katara. He's not going to kidnap Aang in the middle of the night or anything," Sokka assured his sister with a wave of his hand.
Katara looked at the subject of their conversation across the campfire; Zuko's back was a canvas for the shadows of the flames behind him. The slight movement of his deep breathing was the only indication that he was still alive. His arms were curled near his head and his legs were splayed. Despite looking ridiculous, Katara still viewed him as a threatening presence.
"I don't trust him." That was all she needed to say. Was she the only one still wary of him or did the others consider him a trustworthy member of the group? After helping Sokka save her dad and Suki, everyone else seemed to trust him. While she slightly understood why they would deem him as so, Katara knew better. One good thing that firebender did didn't make up for all the suffering he had caused them.
Sokka sighed as he flopped down in his sleeping skins, "Fine. Think what you want," he paused before flippantly adding, "You guys are gonna be around each other for a while. You might as well learn to tolerate him."
Although Katara's brother's words were said kindly, they still managed to spark a bit of anger in her chest. Even as Sokka's breathing evened out and mingled with everyone else's around them, Katara continued to glare at Zuko's back.
Katara heard a whimper from the firebender as he gave a little twitch.
She turned around and fell asleep.
The next night, Katara was washing the dishes after dinner.
"Do you need a hand?" rasped a deep voice from behind.
She halted her dishwashing and whirled around to face Zuko, "With what?" Katara asked coldly.
"Uh, the dishes?" he asked, suddenly seeming unsure of himself.
"Why would I need help with such an easy task? Especially from a spoiled prince like you," she responded with a biting tone.
"Look, I'm just trying to help out around here!"
Staring into his burning gold eyes with her icy blue ones, Katara replied, "You're only here to train Aang. Just stay out of my way and there won't be a problem."
"There already is a problem," Zuko countered.
She responded with a water-whip to his face, making a cut at the bottom of his scar. Staring in horror as it dripped blood, Katara watched as Zuko raised a hand to it. How had she lost control like that? She was surprised to see that the fight had drained from Zuko's eyes, and he left without another word.
She was only slightly guilty.
That same night, everyone but Katara and Toph was asleep around the campfire.
"So...any idea how Zuko got that scratch, Sugar Queen?" Toph asked with her hands behind her head.
Assuming someone had told the blind earthbender, Katara considered her options. She could try to lie to Toph— who could tell if she was lying. Or she could tell Toph what happened with a plausible excuse for doing so. "I kinda did it."
Toph looked at her with sightless eyes, "You only did it partially?"
"Well, it was his fault," Katara clarified.
Toph waited for Katara to say more, but nothing followed. "How?"
"He was getting on my nerves, okay?"
"Sooo...he didn't actually do anything?"
"No," Katara all but spat. No, Zuko didn't do anything to provoke her when she injured him. However, his past actions were what drove her to wounding him. How dare he waltz over and ask to help? Zuko— that traitorous, malicious, immoral, double-crossing worm of a Fire Nation prince asking to help clean dishes? Surely he was trying to regain the trust she had heedlessly given to him in the Crystal Catacombs. No, he wasn't going to trick her. Never again.
Katara and Toph's awkward conversation stopped when the campfire grew, the heat in the air increasing. Someone cried out hoarsely and it took Katara a moment before she realized that it came from Zuko. Katara watched as the firebender stirred restlessly on the ground, his hands clawing at his face. It took Katara several more moments before noticing he was scoring marks on his scar with his nails. She faintly heard Toph exclaim something before bolting to Zuko's side.
Katara couldn't move. She continued to stare at the writhing firebender as everyone around the camp woke to his hoarse shouts. It was very strange, to say the least. Seeing the guy that used to chase them around the world helplessly squirm and shiver on the ground was a little unsettling. A seemingly unstoppable force reduced to... No, Katara thought to herself. Someone like Zuko didn't deserve her sympathy. He betrayed her; he betrayed them all. She watched, conflicted, as her father and Toph knelt beside him. Why was Toph being so kind to the guy that burned her feet?
Katara was about to yell at her father to stop prying Zuko's hands from his face, but the loud sob that escaped the Fire prince's lips made her stop cold; a heavy weight settled in her stomach and her heart twisted. That pity-inducing sound should never come from Zuko; it was so out of character. But everyone has a vulnerable side, she supposed— Zuko included.
She dreaded the outcome of her father carefully cradling the firebender. Bad idea, bad! He's a firebender! But Zuko finally let his arm drop from his scar after the persuading of her dad. Katara's eyes widened at the sight of bleeding scratches left behind. The campfire was dying down again, the strong heat diminishing with it. Everyone watched with apprehension as Zuko began stirring. He blinked up at Hakoda for a second before pushing against his chest with strong arms. Everyone in the camp stared in shock as Zuko lurched to his feet and scrambled away from everyone and up the stone stairs into the temple, disappearing from view as his form was shrouded in shadows.
A long silence spread over them like a blanket.
"...What just happened?" Sokka asked, dumbstruck.
The faces of everyone present held concern for the typically stoic firebender, and Katara tried to smother the sympathy that was starting to overtake her heart. Zuko deserved it; all he had ever done was cause pain for their group. What would a spoiled prince know about suffering? About seeing the murder of your own mother? Sure, his mom was gone too, but Katara's was killed by the Fire Nation— his country. Zuko was the son of the most evil man on the planet and, therefore, was just as evil. So why would someone like him have a night terror?
"Okay, everyone," Hakoda said, "go on to bed. I'm sure Zuko doesn't want to talk right now, so let's give him some space."
After a moment of hesitation, the Duke, Huru, and Teo got into their sleepingbags. (Chit Sang hadn't even woken up. How was that possible?) However, the others remaining all started towards the stone stairs.
Her dad looked at them all, scowling, "I said to give the young man some space."
Toph put her fists on her hips, "Look, I get that Sokka and Katara are your kids, but I'm not. I felt Sparky's heartbeat going a mile a minute, and it's not slowing down anytime soon. I might seem heartless, but I'm not. Now if you'll excuse me." She walked past Hakoda to go find Zuko.
Wanting to avoid more drama, Katara opened her mouth, "Toph's just like that, dad. Don't get mad at her. "
"I'm not mad," her father assured her. "I'm worried about that firebender hurting her."
Katara almost jumped for joy; her dad agreed with her! At least he's not crazy, unlike everyone else. Until—
"But I'm also worried about Zuko," he stated. "Although I'm not sure I quite trust him yet, he's still a child."
"A child?!" Katara repeated in shock. Surely her dad didn't view him like that.
"He's sixteen or seventeen, right? He's about the same age as Sokka," he told her with a raised eyebrow. "Is Sokka an adult to you?
"What?" Aang asked, surprised. "He seems so much older than Sokka! Are you sure?"
Hakoda nodded an affirmative, ignoring the indignant huff from his son and the giggle of Suki. "Unless I've lost track of the year," he chuckled slightly before quickly transitioning to a more solemn mood. "Katara, you should go find Zuko."
Katara balked, "What?! I thought you said for everyone to go to bed!"
"I was going to ask you once everyone was asleep. He needs those wounds on his face healed," he told her seriously.
Resisting the urge to stomp her feet, Katara glowered, "He's a big boy; he can handle a few self-inflicted scratches."
"Katara," her dad looked disappointed. How did he manage to make her feel ashamed?
She lowered her eyes in defeat, "Fine," Katara grumbled.
After brushing past them and marching up the stairs, she heard Sokka and Suki say something. Whatever was said was lost on her. She realized that she had no idea where to look for Zuko and Toph in the temple, and Katara considered turning back and telling her father that she couldn't find them. Knowing her dad, that wouldn't be a valid excuse given the small amount of time that she had been looking. Old walls of stone stretched out around her, small cracks spanning across the rock surface. A gust of wind blew through the temple that was considerably colder than the air. And along with it came a voice. Toph's voice. Sighing, she followed it. Toph was sitting next to a quite despondent looking firebender on a ledge outside, illuminated by the moon.
"Hey, Sweetness," the earthbender greeted instantly. "You're not here to bitch are you?"
"I do not bitch!" Katara exclaimed indignantly. "Actually, I came to heal Zuko."
She saw him stiffen and felt slightly offended. "What, is my healing scary?"
"I thought you weren't going to bitch," Toph said, irritated.
"I am not bitching!" Katara practically screeched.
"Do you want me to heal you or not?" She asked the firebender directly. That probably wasn't a fair question. It sounded more like 'you better say you want me to heal, Zuko. Or I will kill you.' Oh well.
Instead he responded with, "Uhh..." Almost possessively, Zuko brought a hand up to his bleeding scar. "I, uh, I guess." He lowered his hand as Katara made her way over to his injured side.
From Zuko's other side, Toph asked, "You sure about this, Sparky?"
He pressed his lips together and gave a curt nod. Katara knelt beside him and took a moment to really observe Zuko's scar for the first time. Not that she had never noticed, but it was a great deal darker than his pale skin. The rippled surface stared back at her. He couldn't even open his eye properly. Come to think of it, the scar was darkest around his eye. Could he see out of it?
"Can you see out of it?" Whoops, that wasn't supposed to be said out loud. Katara quickly drew water from her water skin, making a glove around her hand. She placed it on his face and began healing the shallows scratches; along with the deeper one she herself had created.
"Yes," Zuko snapped.
"See out of it? What do you mean?" Toph inquired.
Toph doesn't even know about his scar, Katara realized. It wasn't like it was a secret, so the others had never thought to inform Toph.
Katara was thoroughly surprised when Zuko said, "I have a scar." He paused, "A big one. On my face."
Well, Katara thought, he certainly isn't beating around the bush. She pulled her hand away and bent the water back into her water skin once she was finishing healing him.
"Really?" Toph's hand shot out towards Zuko's face, and he jerked away, knocking into Katara.
"Come on, Sparky. I'm blind. Let me feel it! It's probably really badass," she assured him.
Hesitantly, Zuko leaned closer to the twelve year old. Toph smiled brightly and placed her left hand on his right cheek, "Really. A big one? I can't even—"
Zuko gently took her small hand in his big one and placed it on his other cheek. Her smile dimmed and her brows drew together as she moved her fingers along the edge of the scar. She pressed her palm against the scar and moved it upwards, her touch growing softer as she neared his eye. Toph traced his closed eye with one finger and added the others as she continued up his temple and to his hairline.
"What happened?" Her normally strong voice had grown quiet and her sightless eyes looked sad.
Katara watched with bated breath as she searched Zuko's face; his expression was indecipherable. She always wondered what had marred his face. Who wouldn't wonder? His face was handsome and the scar made it look like someone had aimed to dim the attractiveness that the Fire prince possessed in spite. Zuko heaved a sigh and Toph pulled her hand away from his face. He looked away for several seconds, finally responding when the girls shifted awkwardly in the uncomfortable silence.
Zuko was cut off by the voice of a certain young Water Tribe male, "Hey, guys! Just makin' sure nobody, you know, died or anything."
"And may I ask why you thought anyone would be dead?" Zuko asked furiously, his mood taking a one-eighty.
"No reason," Sokka waved a hand at him breezily, "Just a precaution."
"Precaution?!" Zuko all but screeched— albeit in a manly way, of course. He stood up and faced the young Water Tribesman.
Katara rubbed her temples. Great job, Sokka. Her brother and the Fire Nation prince continued bickering until Aang, Suki, and her dad came up, telling them to knock it off.
"Stop it, you guys!" Aang shouted. "Stop!"
"Stop what, Avatar Aang?" Zuko stopped arguing with Sokka to abruptly turn to glare at the airbender, "Fighting? Guess what," he stepped closer to the young monk, "This world we live in is consumed with hatred, and violence, and death. If you can't handle this 'fighting,' what are you going to do when you face my father?" His expression was a picture of fury and his eyes were lit like golden flames.
Aang's face twitched in a way that Katara could only read as surprise. "What do you mean?" Was all he could come up with.
"Do you plan to have a talk with him?" Zuko sneered, "Because I can assure you he won't listen."
"Maybe he will listen. I'm the Avatar—"
"He doesn't care!" Zuko roared, his voice echoing around the temple. "He doesn't care that you're the Avatar, and he doesn't care that I'm his son!" He shocked himself as well as the others at his outburst.
Katara suddenly realized that the conversation wasn't just about war.
"Sorry for asking, but what does being his son have to do with anything?" Sokka asked.
"Nothing. Forget I even said that." Zuko looked distinctly ashamed of himself.
"Well," Aang said, "maybe if you told me why you resent your father so much, I could understand better."
"There's nothing to understand! My father is an evil man and he won't listen to you and your attempts at peace. Trust me— I've tried."
Silence ensued; whether it was tense or surprised was a mystery. Zuko? Peace?
"If he won't listen to me," Aang hesitantly began with a woeful expression, "what do you think I should do?"
"Finish him off, Aang!" Sokka exploded with dramatic arm motions. "Why is that so hard for you to grasp?!"
"I can't kill him because killing is wrong!"
"Now, Sokka," Hakoda put a hand on his son's shoulder, "Aang's culture is different than ours. You know that."
"But killing the Fire Lord seems like the best option right now," Suki added.
Aang groaned in exasperation, "Why do you all think I need to kill him?" He rubbed the back of his neck, "I mean, why not just put him in jail or something? He doesn't deserve death."
"Do you hear yourself!? Stop defending him!" Zuko shouted with smoke coming from his nose, causing everyone to stiffen.
"Hate to break it to you, buddy," Sokka started, "but you were the one that always wanted to return home to your dad with 'the Avatar,'" he mimicked Zuko's raspy voice.
Zuko stared at the Water Tribe boy, his hands in tight fists at his side. He opened his mouth again quickly but shut it again, the anger in his eyes dying. Everyone watched carefully as the firebender turned away from everyone, his arms crossed like a petulant child. "You don't know how lucky you are," Zuko mumbled.
"Huh?" Sokka inquired oh so intelligently.
"I thought that if I brought my father the Avatar," he paused, still looking away, "maybe he'd finally be something like...your father." It was obvious that Zuko regretted admitting that much already; he closed his mouth quickly, teeth clicking.
Katara's brows drew together in confusion. However, she knew that she had to tread lightly on a subject like this; Zuko wasn't one for gushing about his feelings. If she said something wrong, he would clam up. "What do you mean?" Katara asked carefully.
Zuko backtracked hastily, "Well, uh, not specifically yours. Just, well, I thought he'd realize..." He stopped again and looked at anything but the people around him, the moonlight highlighting the blush on his good side.
Perhaps capturing Aang was compensation for something? Of course the evilest man on the planet would want the Avatar, she thought. The Avatar is the embodiment of peace and balance after all, so Fire Lord Ozai would want to get rid of anything that could thwart his plans of world domination. That didn't explain why Zuko, of all people, would be sent to capture Aang. The crown prince of the Fire Nation instead of hiring professionals? Zuko said he thought his father would realize something—
but what? She couldn't ask so directly because he wouldn't answer by that method of inquisition.
"Say, Zuko," Sokka suddenly blurted after the tense quiet, "how long were you looking for Aang?"
Katara could sense the prince's hesitation at the random question. "...A little over three years. Why?"
Three years? Zuko was sixteen, so that meant he started searching at thirteen. Why on earth was a thirteen-year-old prince searching for the Avatar? Not only was he the heir to the Fire Nation, but a mere child as well? The idea of it was not only completely absurd but cruel as well. Was it a form of...punishment, maybe? Katara suddenly remembered she was supposed to hate him and tried to block out any sympathy.
Sokka opened his big mouth again, "Well, it's just that we found Aang less than a year ago. And you were looking for him before that. Why?"
Leave it to Sokka to voice his thoughts without any consideration. However, Katara was curious as well. The more she thought about Zuko, the more questions she had. Looking around, she took notice of everyone staring at the former prince. Minus Toph, that is.
"This is ridiculous. Can we drop this?" Zuko snapped.
"Hey, you're the one that chased us around the world! We let you join our group anyways, so you at least owe us some answers." Sokka closed his eyes like some old philosopher and threw out a hand for emphasis.
Everyone waited for Zuko's response with slight apprehension. Zuko had a very short fuse, so it was only natural to draw back a bit; Zuko's shouting voice could damage anyone's ears if in close enough range. It was impossible to know which topics set Zuko off, but the one Sokka brought up was obviously something to be wary of. Not that Katara cared. She loved throwing as many jabs at him as she could— he deserved it after all.
Zuko just stood quietly, as if he was trying to think of a worthy excuse for his misdeeds. However, he never got a chance to answer.
"Enough with those stupid questions. I want to know how you got your scar," Toph exclaimed with her usual bluntness.
Eyes widened and jaws dropped. Even Aang looked nervous.
"What? It's a valid question. I mean, we all know each other's backstories. What's yours, Zuko?" Toph asked it in a way that put everyone else at ease, Zuko included.
Of course, the earthbender hadn't known him before he "changed", Katara thought with slight irritation. If anyone had asked him that when he still had his ponytail and traveled on that stupid ship, they would have found themselves face to face with an absolutely livid firebender. But when Toph asked, Zuko only looked away with a slight slump of his shoulders. It was obvious how sensitive he was about the matter— probably due to pride. Training accident, probably.
Looking back at them with his arms crossed, Zuko muttered just loud enough for everyone to hear, "I guess I owe it to you, considering how kind you all have been."
Kind? Katara briefly doubted his sanity before remembering that she was the only one outright malicious towards him. Everyone was surprised about his sudden willingness to answer their questions; not that anyone was complaining.
"I wanted to attend the war meeting in the Fire Lord's throne room when I was thirteen," Zuko began hesitantly. "My uncle told me I could enter if I kept quiet...and I agreed."
Katara wondered where his story was heading. At first, she thought he had changed the subject like a complete idiot. When she saw Zuko's eyes glaze over in the light of the moon, she realized that he hadn't.
"One general suggested a plan that I didn't agree with," Zuko heaved a sigh, "and I said so." He gulped audibly, "The Father L—
I mean Fire Lord demanded I participate in an Agni Kai." At everyone's bewildered expression, he elaborated, "A fire duel."
"What happens exactly in an Agni Kai?" Aang asked innocently, "Kuzon mentioned it before, but he never really explained it to me."
Zuko rubbed tiredly at his face with his left hand, "It's a fight for one's honor."
Things started clicking into place. Zuko. Honor.
Aang wasn't satisfied with his answer. "But that—"
"Do you want me to finish this story or not?" Zuko abruptly snapped.
"I'm sorry! Go on!" Aang waved his arms in front of him to express his regret.
"I accepted the challenge," Zuko continued, "thinking I would be going up against the general. When I stood up to fight in front of hundreds of people, I realized that it wasn't him I had to fight."
His audience was leaning forward, captivated by his husky voice and his suspenseful story. It was almost as if it was a fictional story he was telling— like a ghost story. Listening to Zuko talk in a way other than temperamental was strangely entrancing, even to Katara.
"It was my father." Zuko paused at the collective intake of breath. He then began looking pained as he forced himself to continue, "I...got down on my knees. And begged for forgiveness. He told me to fight for my honor. I refused."
Katara noticed that his once fluent descriptions of his memories were deteriorating into blunt facts. She looked at Toph, and if her expression was anything to go by, Zuko was telling the unadulterated truth. The way Zuko cleared his throat after a long pause made her heart sink to her stomach like a stone.
"He, uh, told me that suffering would be my teacher," he struggled a little to say. Zuko then gestured to his face vaguely, "You can see what...happened. He then stripped me of my birthright and banished me. I could only regain my honor and return home by capturing the Avatar."
Zuko's crazy obsession about capturing Aang...was because he wanted to go home? And Zuko's own father gave him that scar?! Just how messed up was that man? The others around her were just as shocked as she was— so shocked that nobody could speak.
"I realize now that he didn't even want me back. The Avatar had been gone for a hundred years; it was just a wild goose chase. He must've thought I was a complete idiot."
Katara felt sick.
Zuko turned to the ashen Aang, "I hope now you realize that my father isn't open to suggestions when he doesn't want to hear them." He jabbed a finger into the airbender's chest, "He won't listen. And he won't hesitate to kill you. Not at all."
And with that, the conversation was over.
Katara stayed after everyone else left to go back to the camp. Zuko sat back down on the ledge, swinging his legs over the side and lied down face up with his arms behind his head. Hanging back, Katara tried to decide whether or not to talk to him. And if so, about what? She just felt wrong leaving him alone after such a revelation— her anger at him had diminished to almost nothing, and in its place was empathy. She hated it.
"What do you want?" Zuko called back to her without looking.
Flushing, Katara strode over to stand next to the lounging firebender. "I just wanted to thank you for telling us about your past," she looked down at his neutral expression. "Not that it excuses anything," she added hotly.
"I know," he replied, closing his eyes.
Katara felt like that was some sort of dismissal, but things still didn't feel right. Slightly reluctant, she seated herself next to him, crossing her legs. Awkward silence. "I'm sorry your dad's a nutcase."
Zuko turned his head to look at her for a second, a bit perplexed. He looked away again. "Me too."
"So...were you dreaming about him?"
The Fire Nation prince flinched; he removed his arms from behind his head and crossed his arms. He looked slightly hilarious lying horizontal like that. "No."
"Oh... Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Am I going to be answering personal questions all night?" Zuko asked, anger tinting his words.
"I don't believe you," Katara ignored him, "I hurt your face, and then you had a nightmare."
"Stop it, Katara."
The fact that he had used her name, along with the multiple emotions in those three words, made her stop talking.
"For all you know, I have nightmares all the time," Zuko said to her.
Zuko sat up and fixed her with a fierce expression, "I grew up around mind games. I know what you're doing and I hate it."
Katara drew back at the ferocity in his eyes that went along with yet another revelation. "Mind games?"
"It's Azula. What else did you expect?" Zuko brought his legs up from over the ledge to cross them like Katara's.
She looked away. What was it like growing up with someone like her? She was an evil mastermind, like her father. Apparently, she liked messing with Zuko's head for fun. Katara wasn't like that at all, and she intended to let Zuko know that. "For the record, I wasn't playing any mind games on you," she told him earnestly.
"Yeah, it wasn't as creepy as Azula's. That's a good thing, of course," he added hastily. "I just don't like it when people try to trick me into answering things I don't want to."
Wow. Way to make a girl feel bad, Zuko. Why did Katara feel bad about it? She shouldn't. However, Zuko opening up about his past did manage to make her heart soften. How could it not? He just told them his father burned his face. Katara looked at his scar again, and for the first time, she could make out the shape of a hand. The Fire Lord's hand was forever imprinted on his son's face. Suddenly, it was so easy to see why Zuko was always so bitter.
"To answer you question, though...yes. I was dreaming about him." Zuko abruptly seemed shy as he looked down at his lap. A small silence passed between them.
"You know," Katara paused, "it's hard for a person with no honor to take someone else's away."
Looking back up and turning his head to meet Katara's eyes, he softly smiled the most sincere smile she had ever witnessed upon his face. With a jolt, she realized she was happy to be the one who put it there.
Maybe, Katara thought as she looked into Zuko's golden eyes, he's not such a bad person after all.