Not Part of the Plan
Zuko was surrounded by a sea of hostile faces. They glared at him, poised for battle, utmost hatred gleaming in their eyes. And all Zuko could do was glare back pinned under their intense gazes. His palms were slick with sweat and his knees trembled with anxiety. He licked his lip nervously. What had he been thinking waltzing into their camp like a naïve child prancing into a dragon's lair? Why did he think it would be as simple as to telling them that he was here to help? He thought he had thought it through. He really did. He thought he had planned everything down to the last detail. Apparently, he had not. He didn't know what to say. He didn't think there would be that many of them either. And he definitely didn't think that they would be that cold.
The Avatar pointed his staff accusingly at Zuko. The boy's whole stance rippled with disgust and every face around him mirrored the air of loathing.
"Avata-," Zuko began, his voice catching pathetically in his throat. The boy's eyebrows knitted together. Zuko wanted desperately to say that he didn't want to cause any harm; that he just wanted to help set things right. Nevertheless, even saying something like that seemed like a goliath effort. Instead, he reached across for his swords intending to disarm to show the people before him that he meant peace. But like everything else in Zuko's life, it didn't go according to plan.
As soon as he had moved his hand just a fraction, the Avatar and his friends reacted like lightning. With an infuriated cry from the children before Zuko, water, earth and air surged towards him in a fearsome wave. Instinct kicked in. Zuko ducked the water whip and twisted around the pillars of rock. But the crushing blast of air caught him in the chest tearing him off his feet. He landed heavily on his back, slamming his head on a rock and didn't even have time to comprehend the pain before cuffs of rock clamped around his hands, feet and torso, binding him onto the ground. His head pounded like an ostrich-horse had just sat on him and his world was spinning in a tangled mess of colours. Grunting in frustration, he bucked wildly against his restraints. This definitely was not part of his plan.
'Wait' he told himself. 'Just wait a second. Don't let them see you fighting back. Don't give them a reason to think you're still the enemy.' Zuko forced himself to relax which was not easy seeing as the ground was extremely uncomfortable and there was a sharp rock digging uncomfortably into his backside. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he vaguely made out a few faces above him. He tasted dirt in his mouth. Dirt was something Zuko decided, that he hated very much. It smelt bad, tasted awful and had the tendency to get everywhere like in his mouth, in his eyes and up his nose.
Faces swarmed above him and he was certain it was the waterbending peasant who had just crushed his fingers under her foot. The water tribe boy loomed over him, his face still looking like a blurry mass to Zuko who couldn't quite manage to clear his head. A very sharp something seemed to come out of nowhere and was pressed dangerously against Zuko's neck. Every sense apart from sight seemed to have magnified at once. It wasn't that Zuko was afraid of having his neck sliced open. No. Zuko was never afraid. He just really, really, really didn't want to die. His heart pounded in his chest as if it was bursting to escape and adrenaline was racing around his body. The acrid stench of loathing was almost suffocating. Hatred crackled in the air and everyone was still.
"You wouldn't dare," Zuko rasped. He never thought the Avatar and his friends were capable of killing. He never realized how much the failed siege on the Fire Nation had matured them. They didn't seem like mere children anymore. They were warriors. Who were prepared to fight, die and kill.
"Why shouldn't I?" the Water Tribe boy hissed back, hiss eyes glazed with what could be tears. The boy pressed the sword deeper. No-one moved forward to stop him. Zuko felt blood trickle down his neck, warm and sticky.
"Because the Avatar wouldn't have a firebending master," Zuko snarled.
The crowd froze.
"Because you wouldn't have me as an ally against the Fire Lord," he continued.
A little girl with bare feet stepped forward who Zuko remember vaguely seeing with the Avatar before. She knelt down placing a callused hand on the ground, millimeters from him
"He's not lying," she said.
Muttering broke out and the pressure of the blade was released slightly.
"Why should we trust you after you've already betrayed us?" the waterbending peasant spoke, her voice seething with anger and emotion. Her sapphire eyes pierced into his like shards of steely ice.
"You have to," Zuko replied simply. He couldn't think of a reason why they should trust him that they could understand.
"What made you change?"
"I… I can't…" Zuko looked away in shame. He couldn't bare telling a group of ragtag strangers about the torment of making the wrong choices again and again. It was too humiliating. "I don't want to say."
"We can't trust him! He betrayed me in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se. He betrayed his Uncle. His people tore our families apart!" She shrieked. A water whip hammered into him mercilessly leaving an angry gash that tore from his right cheek across his chest. Zuko roared and writhed in agony. He saw her raise the water once more and squeezed his eyes shut, bracing himself.
Something warm and furry landed on him.
"Wait!" the Avatar cried.
For a moment, Zuko thought for some miraculous reason, the Avatar had chosen to spare him. Then he was aware of the weight that had been deposited on his stomach. It clicked and growled in a frenzy bouncing about winding him slightly with each enraged bounce. Zuko cracked an eye open slowly and to his surprise saw the Avatar's lemur with its arms outstretched flapping around frantically trying it seemed, to protect him.
A deafening roar from a giant beast boomed through the area and the ground beneath Zuko shuddered as each one of his colossal paws slammed against the ground as it thundered towards them. Terror engulfed Zuko in an icy cocoon as he saw the Avatar's bison looming closer and closer. Zuko swore loudly the animal's paw lifted almost directly above him and came crashing down. A great shadow fell over Zuko and he could almost feel the sensation of being crushed under the bison's foot. The paw landed with a sickening crunch, barely inches from crushing Zuko's head. The ground quaked with terror. Zuko's eardrums felt as if the had been burst open. The bison was so close that he could see every crease and in its thick dark skin.
It roared again. The Avatar's friends took a cautious step back. The bison bellowed once more and they retreated further which cries of confusion among them. The Avatar stayed still, a look of betrayal hunching his figure.
"What are you doing?" The monk asked quietly to the animals, reaching an arm out towards them. He looked like he had been stuck when they did not return to him. Zuko was suppressing the urge to gloat at the Avatar. For once, someone had remembered that Zuko had saved them and was returning the good deed. For once, something seemed to be going in favour of him. He had the saved the bison in Lake Laogai and now, it was protecting him.
"Look's like your bison remembers me," Zuko smirked weakly. His heart was still racing and his breath was coming in short gasps. Almost being crushed by a ten-ton bison was a lot more terrifying than he would have assumed.
"What do you mean?" the Avatar replied wearily.
"I released it from Lake Laogai." Zuko look questioningly at the bison. It looked back and Zuko could see warmth and acknowledgement in its eyes that he wouldn't have expected an animal was capable of. "It remembers me."
The lemur had clambered off Zuko and was now hacking with a pebble fruitlessly at the rock cuffs binding Zuko down. The situation would have been funny if Zuko had not faced death a less than a few minutes ago. The lemur squawked in frustration and started jabbing at the cuffs clicking shrilly.
"Alright, if you guys trust him, I'll give him a chance," the Avatar said albeit a bit reluctantly. With a few complicated wrist movements, Zuko was free. He sat up slowly, and raised himself to his feet aware that every move he made was being scrutinized. He couldn't afford to make another false move. Very deliberately, he reached to the strap of his Dao swords and undid the clasp letting them fall to the ground with a dull clank.
Zuko faced the Avatar, letting the boy's grey eyes probe into his for the truth.
"Avatar," Zuko began speaking loudly and clearly so the entire group could hear him. "I'm sorry." He bowed to the Avatar, his hands forming the traditional salute. He knelt down, just as he had done just a few weeks ago in front of his father. His head bent low, he continued to speak. "I know nothing I can do now will change what I've done, but I'm willing to set things right. I'll fight with you- No, for you, Avatar. If you accept me."
The lemur scampered onto Zuko's shoulder and hooked its tail comfortably around his neck. It gazed imploringly at Aang and cocked its head to one side in an effort to look even more pathetic. The bison plodded next to Zuko and let out a low pitch whine that could have been translated into 'Can we keep him?'
"Alright Zuko. We'll give you a chance. But only because Appa and Momo trust you."
The lemur leapt into the air and did a few loop-the-loops in triumph and the bison leapt forward and licked Aang in gratitude. Zuko let out a long sigh of relief. Suddenly a monstrous pink thing that Zuko managed to comprehend was the Bison's tongue licked him knocking him back off his feet and covering him in a thick pungent slime. He heard of few hoots of mocking laughter but right now, he couldn't care less. So his plan had not quite turned out how he wanted it to but at least he wasn't dead. Furthermore, he had been accepted properly as a friend into the group (even if it was just by the flying bison and the lemur).
AN – Anyone who has read previous one-shots by me will know that everything I said about Zuko not joining the Avatar was just thrown back into my face and now I feel like a right idiot :P. Even still, I can find things to complain about in fanfiction like how Zuko always ends up throwing himself in front of Aang and groveling and telling a stupid sob story for sympathy. PLEASE people, let Zuko keep some dignity. ; ) Plus, he needs to save some back up story when the find out about Combustion Man.
I was trying to keep some balance between Zuko IC and the natural fear of death that most people have. I hope Zuko didn't come across as too OOC. One more thing, Sokka was almost crying because he was angry about the loss of Suki and the failed Siege of the Fire Nation.