It's been a while, but I'm back at it. On Ao3, I was asked if this was ever going to be finished and I'll tell you what I told them. No matter how long a story that I write takes, it'll be finished. I really don't like not-finishing something I start. So no matter the length of time it takes me to write and post, it'll be finished eventually.
I also received a comment on this site that caught my attention. They were incredibly kind and encouraging and told me to not be put-down by the fact that this story doesn't have many reviews or followers and the like. As much as I appreciate the comment, I really do, I don't write stories for reviews or likes. I write what I want and share it because I'd like to share what I love with people that may have the same interests :)
He was used to being stared at and analyzed, especially with the Avatar's group, considering what he'd done to them over the last months and what he'd intended to do from the start until not all that long ago. But this… was different, or at least the heat behind it felt different.
The morning had been normal enough save for the Earthbenders false announcement of a Firebenders attack. He'd joined them for breakfast, cautiously drank some water and ate with them. He'd stopped and petted the Bison after the creature made a sound of need, clearly out for some attention. If he hadn't known the Avatar as well as he did, he'd assume that he rarely gave the beast attention.
He helped in clearing up the space, bagging what he could and their belongings while Jet and Sokka were scavenging for snacks and maybe even a meal for later. They didn't have a lot of time left and they weren't that far from Ba Sing Se. Only a few more hours and he could see his uncle again.
Though, as he was tying the sheets and tents to the back of the Bison, that was where the 'norm' stopped.
The Prince had just finished tying the sturdy knot when he felt the movements behind him, not really thinking any different about his… companions? He hadn't bothered getting buddy-buddy with them other than the Avatar and maybe the Earthbender, though the former was more of a one-sided thing that appeared to draw him from his defensive shell. Zuko was far more neutral than friendly.
"Tents are tied," he mentioned softly before letting the ropes go and making his way towards the edge of the saddle-.
"Zuko, wait," he abruptly paused, slightly surprised to realize which one of them was there before he glanced around and saw the Water tribe girl sitting there, looking more than a little hesitant and reluctant. She had this look on her face that made him falter just slightly, something akin to guilt. He had to be wrong. None of them had shown any sign of guilt towards him from the start, nor did he expect it.
"I'm sorry," Or he wasn't wrong… Zuko furrowed his brow, eyeing her with a tad more hesitance evident in his posture. She could see it, he knew she could, "About the poisoned water. I didn't know and… I guess it made me look pretty bad, like I would actually do something like that," she'd sugar-coated it, but his accusations, as heatless as they had been, had been fuelled by Jet's anger, "What I'm saying, is that I'm sorry you got poisoned because you were with us,"
"It was an accident," the Prince shrugged, noting her immediate surprise that followed his words, "You didn't know," he added as he turned back towards the saddle edge and climbed over it before dropping gracefully, landing in a crouch.
"But…" her voice followed as he stood, a 'thump' sound landing beside him. Glancing around, he saw her at his side again, still surprised, "You were poisoned. I filled your water sac!" it almost sounded as if she wanted him to blame her somehow, if only to make up for it in some way.
"I don't blame you. I blame the vender that poisoned the water," he clarified, blinking neutrally at her, "Besides, they were trying to kill you, not me," he shrugged again before turning away and heading back towards where they'd laid out camp, eyeing the surroundings to be sure that they hadn't forgotten anything.
"You could've died and it would've been my fault," her voice rose slightly, the Prince still going about searching for anything that they might have missed. So far, it hadn't seemed like it. He tried being thorough.
"But I didn't die and you had no idea-," he was soon cut off, stopping in his tracks when she was suddenly in front of him, looking stern and very… Mom -like. Her hands were on her hips and her posture was strong, a 'don't mess with me' look on her face.
"Can you just take the apology? You're making this complicated!" Zuko blinked at her in surprise, unsure of what to do or say. The situation wasn't that cut and dry and he had no idea how to reply to this version of the girl.
"No! I'm the one who's supposed to be apologizing! Not you!" the Prince flinched slightly, feeling her finger jab his chest. She really felt strongly about this apparently. He shrunk back slightly, not used to deal with this type of interaction. Honestly, he'd never had anyone be this forward with him on this type of matter.
"Sor-," Zuko shut himself up in an instant when he saw her expression deepen expectedly. Instead, he decided to appease her, no matter the fact that it really wasn't her fault, "Okay," the Prince sighed softly, resigning to her and watching the relief ease into her posture, a heavier sigh leaving her.
"I'm sorry that I poisoned you," she spoke slowly and calmly, the Prince eyeing her again after the words she'd used, still blaming herself by the sounds of it.
"But you-," again, he shut himself up with the look of warning on her face, Zuko clearing his throat a tad sheepishly, "... Thank… you?" he offered instead, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly from having to hold off from voicing his own opinion on the matter. He didn't blame her in the least, nor any of the others. From what he could tell, they'd never had the twisted want to purposely kill anyone.
Zuko had left it there as everyone returned and gathered upon the Bisons back, taking her apology despite his feelings and common sense telling him that it wasn't anyone's fault save for the one that poisoned the water. It wasn't as if she had the mind for murder, none of them did. They had the capability, sure, but not the mind. Jet… maybe, very likely, but none of the others.
Quirking a brow as a sudden realization came to mind. The Prince hadn't really heard about the brunette's past. Aang had mentioned once that Jet had been against them at one point and had been willing to do something that the Avatar hadn't wanted to explain. But that was generally it. Other than that, Zuko didn't know that much about him.
He glanced to his side where the Freedom Fighter was sat, an arm on the Bisons saddle rim directly behind the princes' back, his side pressed to the Firebenders, thighs against each other. Even the blindest or most oblivious could see that there was something between the two. Zuko hadn't bothered making the usual distance to avoid any suspicion this time, especially with how stubborn the brunette had appeared that morning about cuddling or general contact.
He wasn't entirely sure as to what brought it on, but Jet had been oddly needy with physical contact after they woke up. Had it been something he had done? … They were… cuddling that morning… It could have been that. Zuko wasn't exactly the cuddle-buddy type, so it was rare when he hugged anyone.
"Hey," the Prince whispered, trying to catch the other's attention. The brunette hummed softly and glanced towards him, blinking blankly, "Why're you all cuddly today?" he asked just as quietly, as straight-faced as ever, but Jet...
The Freedom Fighter scoffed and started laughing, shoulders bouncing. One look across the saddle and he could see the others staring between them, brows quirked, confused and questioning.
"It's not funny," Zuko growled, elbowing Jet in the side and shifting away. He didn't plan on having to deal with the idiot when he didn't take the situation seriously. It was a question, not a joke. What was so funny about it?!
"C'mon, sorry. I'm sorry," he brunette chuckled softly, voice a tad gritty from laughing. He felt the hand on his shoulder, the Prince huffing softly and still keeping his gaze away from him. He crossed his arms and continued looking over the side of the Bison, the hand shaking his shoulder lightly with a soft 'C'mon' leaving the other boy.
"Wasn't funny," the Prince muttered quietly, not wanting the others to hear and thankfully, they all seemed to be going about their own business and chatting up front. Fortunately, everyone appeared to give the two the back of the saddle and left them to their own devices.
"Hearing you say 'cuddly' was the funny part," Jet replied, getting all cuddly again and sitting about as close as before. With the way they were positioned, the brunette had only needed to place an arm around his shoulder and slip again the rim of the saddle and they were half-lying there, looking all relaxed with the Prince involuntarily hugged up to the other's side. He silently promised to bruise his ribs before disembarking the Bison in Ba Sing Se.
"My god, get another Bison saddle," immediately Zuko gave the water tribe boy a stormy glare, a smirk drawing at the other boy's lips the moment he got a reaction. The moment he did, a few soft chuckles left the others on the saddle.
"What d'you mean? Why should they get another saddle? Appa's one isn't damaged, right?" the Avatar spoke from the head of the beast, appearing surprised and worried as he crawled over and checked the saddle itself. Was he really that innocent? He hadn't noticed the … Mood? Could he call this a mood? They were cuddling, Sokka was being an idiot, the others were giggling .
"It's not damaged. Sokka's just jealous," Jet spoke up, yet to move from their current position and not seeming as though he'd move any time soon. He seemed pretty comfortable tangled up with Zuko. He'd say tangled because the brunette's arm was around his shoulders and a leg had sneakily slipped under his own. They looked like the Lemur after it got caught up in the Avatars tent ropes.
"Am not!" Sokka argued, the smirk completely gone and replaced with a comical glare directed at the Firebenders cuddle-persistent pillow.
"Why's he jealous?" the Avatar asked, ignoring the others' outburst and denial, which only served to irritate the water tribe boy more and amused Zuko. Funnily enough, a loud groan left the other boy, hands reaching for his face with a loud 'I'm not!' leaving him.
"Sokka?" Jet directed smoothly to Aang's question, as if Sokka should answer that question.
It went on like that for a while, Aang trying hard to find out why Sokka was jealous, the two girls laughing at both the Avatar's innocence and the water boys' exasperation and denial. Even the Prince found it funny enough to let out a laugh here and there. And through most of it, he hadn't noticed the way Jet was watching him, a soft look on his face that meant far more than he could say.
The Firebender gradually sat up from his position, stretching and arching his back until the tension and stiffness crawled from his muscles. The moment he went lax against the saddle again, now sitting, he took a glance around the saddle, noticing that everyone was asleep save for himself and Aang, who was sat facing them on the Bison's head. They shared a look, both shrugging in unison.
They'd been flying for a while, and carefully, Zuko eased his way to the front of the saddle and then over it to relax by the Avatar, his back pressed against the furry hump of the beats front-shoulder blades. The wind was different there, heavier, but smoother, nothing blocking it.
"Maybe they didn't get a good night's sleep," Aang theorized quietly, leaving them all be as he turned back around and faced the wind ahead, "They could have been worried about us the entire night. I know Katara and Sokka wouldn't sleep if something happened to me," he continued. The Prince eyed him, listening. He wasn't entirely sure whether they'd all lose sleep over Zuko, though maybe Jet. It was debatable, but still possible.
"You and Jet seem really close now," the Avatar added after a while of silence, Zuko flinching softly and snapping his gaze away, hiding his face as he felt a fleck of warmth reach his cheeks, "It's great. I understand why the others were so… against you when you showed up, but everything's smoothed over, right?"
"Yeah," he answered a tad too quickly, the Prince's jaw clenching. He swallowed and thought for a moment, blinking, "Sokka's still… not trusting. The Earthbender and I seem fine. Katara apologized for the poisoned water," the moment he heard the soft and rhetorical 'huh…?', he nodded exasperatedly, "Yeah, I know, but she wouldn't let me 'not' take her apology," he sighed.
"And Jet…" Zuko blinked, glancing away again. They were in a relationship, or at least he assumed as much. They were incredibly close, closer than he'd been with anyone else and what they did and how Jet gave him attention, and that kind of attention, there was no chance that they weren't in some form of physical relationship. And… he'd admit to himself that he enjoyed him, he liked the time they spent together and the talking and mornings… He liked the… cuddling.
"I've seen that kind of face before," Zuko jerked out of his momentary stupor and glanced towards the Avatar with a surprised expression, "I'm glad you found it. You deserve it," the Prince was shocked, genuinely shaken by the immense innocence and kindness, the soft and genuinely happy expression he was being given by the Avatar.
With everything that he'd been through with Zuko chasing him, capturing him, treating him like a golden ticket back into his fathers' graces and the Princely title… and he'd thought that Zuko deserved his happiness. That… it… It felt like he was just punched full force by a man with a rock-bull's strength.
"Thank you," he squeaked out, eyes unfocused for the longest time.
More silence had followed, no awkwardness to be felt in the air and finally, FINALLY, Zuko saw the walls of Serpent's pass, the long and jagged wall stretching for miles upon miles with Fire Nation ships along the outside, not willing to move and in all honesty, he'd wondered why until he saw the massive shadow of a serpent on their side of the wall, slithering beneath the water along the wall. It was huge.
"We're here," he heard Aang breathe, his expression somewhat neutral… forewarning to Zuko. He wasn't happy about something and he'd have to assume it was the fact that the Fire Nation was there.