His mother smiles as she watches him play in her private gardens He is collecting flowers for her, a fistful of lilies that'd blossomed that morning.
"You are such a good boy, my child," his mother says as she accepts the gift, placing a soft hand on his shoulder.
…shakes away the stranger's grasp.
"No wonder he was exiled," a girl's voice pipes up. Not Azula, though the words could be hers. "They must have gotten tired of waiting on him on hands and feet."
The servants had liked him. His mother had never needed to ask them to bring his favorite dishes when he visited her apartments. Even if serving the future Fire Lord hadn't been an honor, Zuko is sure that they still would have liked him.
His hand fists and he thinks of sending a blast of fire in the girl's direction. His mother isn't here to frown at the show of temper.
"Katara…." A boy's voice, and this is a voice he recognizes from too many dreams where he brought the small boy in chains before his father, and was allowed to finally - oh finally - stay at home. The Avatar. "He is awake."
"I am," Zuko confirms, sitting up.
"Good!" He follows the sarcasm to its source. A little to the side, the other Water tribe child is glaring at him. "We decided it's your turn to collect firewood, seeing that you'll be having breakfast with us and all."
Angry words rush into Zuko's head. Denial. Anger. Show the boy some respect for those above him in power and station. His eye catches a flash of rock above head, and he is reminded that he climbed down those rocks to help the Avatar on his own will. He will share all meals with this group or he'll go hungry, and after the months wandering the Earth Kingdom, the sheer pride and stubbornness necessary to follow the second option has been melted away. "Whatever," he snaps anyway, because most of him resists the thought that anyone (much less an untaught boy from the weakest people under the Fire Nation's control) has the right to assign his chores.
"I'll go with you," the Avatar offers.
Zuko wants to send him away, protest that he can do such a mindless task by himself. He's done it so many times, in fact, that Uncle Iroh had once remarked with a booming laugh that if they couldn't manage to open a tea house, at least they'd be able to make a living out of selling wood. "Suit yourself," he says instead, rising to his feet and gliding past the long-haired girl with the white blob of fluff on her shoulder. The blob eyes him warily, and jumps down and onto a shorter girl's lap - the Earthbender, if he isn't mistaken - when Zuko looks in its direction.
"Don't be afraid, Momo." The girl is blind, and yet she finds the spot between the pointy furry ears without a beat. "That mean boy is acting like a bully only because that's what he knows better."
It shouldn't be possible that the girl would fix him with a glare; but that's what it feels like as she raises her head and turns toward him. "You're on enemy camp, Sparky." Only the Avatar looks close to an objection; the other girl nods as her hand closes over her water pouch and her brother's smile sharpens. The blind girl taps the blob's (Momo's - he must learn their proper names now) nose, and Zuko has learned enough of body language to know that she isn't finished. She is too young for the expression she is wearing, and he has to hide a surprised reaction when the answer comes in his uncle's voice, Aren't you all? "You should play with our good will as much as you were taught to play with fire," she says.
Not at all, then. A second later, Zuko wonders that this girl would know about the teachings of Firebending. It is knowledge reserved for those with the talent, and preserved in writings and scrolls too expensive for a commoner. Where would an Earth Kingdom girl hear about it?
A feminine scoff returns him to the matter at hand.
"Don't bother, Toph," the Avatar's girlfriend grumbles. "I still don't know why we do." She looks ready to continue, but a pleading glance from the little boy stops her.
"Because we're desperate," the brother says.
A very good summary of their situation, Zuko thinks, not without a hint of humor. Not even the Avatar, kind-hearted as he is, can deny that.
"We're hungry, too." The girl - Toph, Zuko amends to himself - rubs her belly. Momo mimics her and the sight would be enough to make him smile if he didn't feel the Water Tribe youngsters glaring at him, looking for an excuse to berate him again.
He is tired of people berating him. If only he could remind these children that he is a Master Bender, too. A quick flame, and….
"Hold your horses, Sparky." Toph looks at him knowingly.
The Waterbender's brother chuckles, and Zuko hears him whisper the nickname under his name, injecting it with as much mockery as possible. It will stick, then. At least, and never say that his life hasn't taught him that any small consolation is still a consolation, it's better than 'Zuzu'. Azula will thank him for leaving the heir's post to her, but that won't save him from her thunder. She is ruthless as he will never be, and she'll defend the selfish interests of the Fire Nation because somewhere since their childhood years, they became her interests as well. Azula won't show any mercy, and he shudders at the thought of their next encounter.
He forces himself to concentrate on the present. One hurdle at a time. It will do him no good to worry about his sister's wrath if the Avatar's friends send him away now. "I thought you wanted breakfast."
Little Toph smirks. "I was thinking that some early morning fun was better. And since Sokka has been twitching to beat you since you woke up, I'll propose a bet."
His eyebrow raises at the acuity of her senses, and he is sure that she's picked on his amazement because her grin widens.
"A bet?" The Waterbender throws the other girl a skeptical glance.
"Yep!" Toph points between him and the dark-skinned boy with one hand. With the other, she keeps petting the lemur's back as if she didn't have a care in the world. The Earth Kingdom hasn't lost the war (yet?). Unlike the Water Tribes, especially the Southern ones, they retain their pride, along with most of their territory. Zuko can see how this affects the people from both lands as Toph smiles in his direction while the other girl won't even talk to him unless she must. "I say that the dispossessed royalty over there collects more firewood than you, Sokka."
"As if!" the boy - Sokka - protests, standing straight and puffing his chest. "I bet he gets lost if he goes on his own."
Zuko smirks. He was reading maps when most kids were learning how to write their names. For years, he charted the course of their hunt for the Avatar with Uncle Iroh as his sole counselor. "Want to put some coins behind your words?"
The boy flushes.
Right. Their funds must be low, with three kids and two animals to feed. "Or maybe you'll be willing to work it off," he adds before they can make a huge deal about how his people have forced them into poverty. "Say, a week doing my chores if I bring more branches?"
Sokka peers at him, trying to see if he's serious about following Toph's whim. "And you'll do mine if you lose?" he asks, an edge to his voice.
Zuko knows what the edge means. He learned all cadences of it while growing up with Azula, and he knows it only came up when she was trying to set a trap for him. "I will," he tells the boy, curious about his plan.
The Avatar bites his lip; but doesn't intervene. Zuko understands. If Mai was wearing the Waterbender's expression (it's not bloodthirsty, but it's the closest word he can think of), then he wouldn't think of stepping in and interrupting her fun either.
"Two weeks, then," Sokka cries out, winking at his sister. The siblings nod at each other, sure of his defeat.
Zuko almost laughs aloud. If that is their idea of a devious plan, then it's no wonder that the Water Tribes succumbed after so little battle.
Immediately, he regrets the uncharitable thought. "One week only," he insists. Let them think that he's afraid; it's better than having to bear their complaints when he comes out the winner. 'You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,' Uncle Iroh used to say. These flies wouldn't come a mile around him if he was covered in honey, but maybe he can start by withholding the vinegar they've come to expect of him. "Ready?"
"Steady!" Sokka shouts.
Toph claps and jumps to her feet. "GO!"
Zuko knows that the other boy has dashed into the forest. He counts to three before following suit.
Let them think that he is too confident, too foolish, too soft-hearted. (Too much her mother's son.)
He'll prove them wrong.
He'll prove them all wrong.