The question is unexpected and random.
He's always known that the day would come – though he didn't expect it to come so soon. And it isn't day when the question is asked; it's night, and the room is pitch black when she voices her question softly.
"Zuko? Can I ask you how you got your scar?"
Zuko's sharp intake of breath is enough for Katara to start apologising. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. If it makes you uncomfortable, please forget I asked anything."
Even though there's no light, Zuko knows that everybody is staring at him – well, except Toph, maybe. But he's certain that she felt his heartbeat speed up.
He settles into the lotus position and forces himself to straighten his back. "It's alright," he says quietly, and his fingers spark as he reaches for the candle on the windowsill. "You guys deserve to know."
"I've got it!" Aang's voice rings out in the dark, and suddenly the room is illuminated by the kerosene lamp on the wall.
Zuko blinks and glances around the room, almost amused by the sight of everyone huddled together in one big pile of blankets. "It's a little pathetic."
"We're used to pathetic stories, Sparky." Toph waves her hand through the air. "Just get on with it."
He focuses on his hands. "You know my dad is kind of the worst dad in the history of dads, right?" Murmurs of agreement fly around the room. "Well, he really didn't like me.
Azula had always been better than me. She was earlier in walking, in talking, and had started to firebend before me – even though I'm older by a little over a year. She was- is his little prodigy, and in his eyes, I was always a failure.
It was not like I was a slow learner. I was still above average, my mentors always said so. But Azula was quicker. By the time she was eleven, she had mastered almost all kata's, and I still had ten to go. It also didn't help that I took a preference to non-bending fighting."
"Your Dao swords." Aang whispers.
Zuko nods. "Yes. Master Piandao taught me how to handle them." He stops speaking for a little while, desperately trying to gather his courage. "My mother always protected me from my father's wrath. But when she disappeared… he became even crueller. My grandfather died the night she left – at her hands, I heard. Azulon had apparently deemed my uncle too weak to rule in his will, and my father became Fire Lord.
Since I was the oldest I became the crown prince. When I was thirteen, there was a war meeting I wanted to join to see what it was like. My uncle let me." Zuko bites his lip. "He shouldn't have. One of the generals had a plan. He was willing to sacrifice a whole division of new recruits, a whole division of sixteen-year-old boys, to a bunch of Earth Kingdom soldiers, so that his troops could pass without a scratch. I disagreed. I allowed my anger to control me and spoke out against the plan, and so, insulted the old general.
My father was angry. Very angry. He thought that, since I had insulted the general, I should fight in an Agni-Ki to regain my respect. I noted that the general was old and accepted, thinking it would be an easy fight.
But I had misunderstood. Since the general was under my father's command, it was my father whom I had insulted. I was supposed to duel him."
Their stares burn holes into his skin.
"I refused to fight him. I respected him too much for that. I couldn't fight him. I had trained my whole life to prove my worth to him – but not like that. My father saw my refusal to fight as cowardice. And cowardice, he believes, should not go unpunished." He points at the scar, tries to keep his face expressionless. "So, as punishment, he burned my face off, then proceeded to banish me. I was sent away and could only return home and redeem my honour if I found Aang and turned him in. It's also the reason why I was such an asshole."
When he finishes, everybody is staring. Zuko averts his eyes and plays with his fingers.
"Well, that wasn't pathetic at all. Just sad." Toph is the one who speaks up first. Her milky eyes focus on his face, and it's as if she's observing him – but that's bullshit, because she can't see. "You're pretty strong, Sparky."
"He's crazy. Absolutely crazy." Aang murmurs. The disbelief clear in his voice and he frowns, upset.
"Runs in the family." Zuko wants to say, but his voice is nowhere to be found. Instead, he clears his throat and nods silently.
"How about I slap him across the face with my fans?" Suki offers.
Katara looks at him with those huge, pretty eyes, and he feels like he's turning red.
"Does it still hurt?" she asks, staring at him like he's a fragile turtle-duckling and she's his mother. But the question doesn't annoy him, and his hearts swells because she cares. They all care. And he wants to say "of course it doesn't" but he doesn't, because he'd be lying if he did. It'll always hurt, he knows, though probably not physically.
So instead he smiles carefully and says: "Sometimes."
And then he's engulfed in hugs.
Aang is slung across his back, though a little half-assed, like some kind of weird monkey; Katara has her face buried into his shoulder and it actually feels nice; Sokka and Suki are basically straddling him; and Toph is wrapped somewhere in that equation too – though he can't really imagine Toph being squished between her friends.
No, scratch that. He can totally imagine it.
"Okay, okay, I'm fine, really – you can get off me now."
They pull back and Zuko is left flustered, a little dishevelled, and a little happy.
"We all love you, Sparky." Toph punches his arm with slightly less force than she would usually do. "No need to worry about angry dads, crazy sisters, and absent mothers anymore. We're your family now."
The corners of his mouth curl up into a smile. "I wouldn't want it any other way."
Aang extinguishes the light, and the whole room is left in darkness. Zuko lays back on his pillow, adjusts his blanket, and listens to everybody getting into a comfortable position. The whole group is silent, and the sound of steady breathing relaxes him. He feels weirdly content inside, as if telling his teammates – no, his friends his backstory lifted a burden.
It's Sokka who breaks the silence.
"You know Zuko, really. With an asshole dad like that, you deserve the not-as-much-of-a-jerk-you-could've-been-award." He says, playfulness clear in his voice.