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The Hottest Days

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He could’ve ratted me out right then and there when he saw me trying to sneak away on Appa. But he didn’t. He’s been doing a lot of that lately, stuff he doesn’t need to.

He didn’t have to seek forgiveness from the group.

He didn’t have to offer to teach Aang jerkbending.

And he sure as hell didn’t have to understand my need for redemption today, but he did, and I don’t know why. These past few months have been so full of fighting that someone doing something as “small” as sharing a cramped war balloon with me, or taking the time to understand me, it’s…

Maybe it’s because it’s the new hair style, or the lame jokes he makes over the fire at night. Maybe it’s the fact that he made us tea or saved Appa (twice now). Maybe it’s the altitude, or the lighting, or the fact that it’s been so long since I’ve just been alone with someone. Anyone other than my sister or the gang.

I don’t know, but Zuko just seems so different to me.

“You’ve changed,” I mutter under my breath.

I don’t expect him to say anything back, until he does. “I’m sorry. Did you say something?”

I freeze. “Uh,” I look away from him, stuttering. “Um, nothing… I just.” I look up at the clouds. “Pretty clouds,” I say quickly. Safe.

He follows my gaze, giving a Zuko-smile. “Yeah.” It isn’t really a smile at all. It’s just a softer frown. “... Fluffy.”

Okay this is awkward. I rub the back of my neck, pressing my back against the side of the balloon. We small talk. I whistle occasionally to fill the void whenever I say something stupid. How much longer could this ride be? I’m dying here.

After I make a sarcastic comment about war running in his family (brilliant idea Sokka), he gives me a pointed look.

I flinch.

He turns towards me, all the way this time. The balloon feels ten times smaller. “Not everyone in my family is like that,” he enunciates every syllable, jet black hair shifting with the motion.

I put my hands up in defense. “I know. You’ve changed,” I try to play it off, but he’s not having it. He goes into a speech about how the old, round, tea-loving man Iroh was more of a father figure to him than his own dad. That gets me thinking of my own father who’s rotting in prison because of me.

I want to tell Zuko that I get it, but I don’t know how. It doesn’t feel like the right time to, because he looks hurt in a way I can’t keep up with. Before, he was just anger, anger, anger. Every time we saw him he had a big, fat “fuck you” expression written all over his face. But now he gets sad. He gets defensive. He gets angry too. Seeing the hot-headed “prince” like this… Confused and frustrated and lost even though we know exactly where we’re going, it just doesn’t sit right with me.

I clear my throat, thinking about my own decision to give up everything I knew to follow Aang. “Hey. I think your uncle would be proud of you.” That’s what I have to tell myself about Gran Gran and the other villagers I left defenseless. “Leaving your home to come help us? That's hard.” I look at him.

But he shakes his head. “It wasn’t that hard.”

I don’t buy that for a second. “Really? You didn’t leave anyone behind?”

“Well,” he starts.

There we go, point proven. I expect him to say his uncle again, or maybe even his crazy sister—as messed up as there relationship is. But he smiles in a way that takes up his face, saying, “I did have a girlfriend. Mai.”

Mai? Something in me… Drops? Shifts? ...Snaps? Oh. “That gloomy girl who sighs a lot?” I ask.

He smiles even harder. “Yeah.” Then his face falls a bit. “Everyone in the Fire Nation thinks I’m a traitor. I couldn’t drag her into it.”

How sweet. I nod even though it feels tired, strained. I roll my shoulders out, trying to figure out what that is in my chest. I’d say it was disappointment, but I don’t have a reason to be jealous of Zuko being in love with Mai. I’m in love too, right? With Suki? I shake my head at the thought of the girl. I don’t wanna worry about where she could be. Or if she’s still… alive.

My mind goes to Yue. “My first girlfriend turned into the moon,” I say.

His eyes widen. He looks up at the sky as if the moon were out now. As if he could see her. Then he glances at me. “That’s rough, buddy.”

Tell me about it.

The conversation dies there. He continues to throw fire into the tank. I try to remind myself that those same strong arms I’ve been staring at ever since he arrived at the temple (maybe even since he came to my village that first time), that same flawless form, that technique [queue spongebob screaming technique xD] that’s keeping this balloon afloat is the same technique he used to try to kill us. To tear my village down, burn Suki’s to ashes, and terrorize countless other towns and families.

I remind myself of these things not because I want to hate Zuko again. But because… I don’t know.

I remind myself of these things so that the thoughts running through my mind can go on and die already. The trip’s too long. The balloon’s too cramped. And whatever’s causing these feelings in my chest is too persistent.