“I know it may not be possible,” Zuko said, frowning, “but if we want-” he broke off awkwardly, ducking his head.
“Your people to accept you as their new Fire Lord?” Toph filled in bluntly.
Zuko winced, but nodded slightly. “It will go more smoothly with- with everything if it’s seen by the people as my rightful place.” He couldn’t keep his lip from curling as he said it.
“But isn’t it your rightful place?” Katara asked, frowning, her chin dipping a touch lower.
Zuko smiled wanly at her. “Not any more. Not exactly. I was a banished prince, and while I may have been welcomed back . . . somewhat, if- if my father has been allowing the assumption that my sister will succeed him in my place, even without an official declaration making her his heir my taking that from her. . .”
“What would make it a smoother transition, if that’s the case?” Sokka asked, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “We need you to be able to step in. It sounds like you have something in mind.”
Zuko took a shallow breath. “An Agni Kai would.” he said softly, fighting not to cringe at the memories it brought up.
“. . .what’s an Agni Kai?”
Zuko opened his eyes, startled. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to him that they might not know. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, his throat painfully tight.
“Zuko?” Sokka prompted curiously.
“A ritual challenge.” Zuko said thinly. “A firebending duel. They are never to be undertaken lightly, and-” He shook his head. “Often only finished by death or an injury too severe to allow the loser to continue fighting.”
Katara muttered something that sounded uncomplimentary.
“It is accepted as showing the stronger . . . and the rightful of two challengers.” Zuko said, his voice a little strained. “The one favoured by Agni.”
Sokka nodded, looking thoughtful.
“You’d really be ready to do that, facing your sister?” Suki asked, eyeing him.
Katara murmured agreement. “It sounds like no small thing.” she said softly. “We’re a team, facing her alone is not something you have to do.” She met Zuko’s gaze firmly.
“I wouldn’t look forward to it, but I know what I’d be doing. I’ve taken part in an Agni Kai before. Twice.” Zuko said, swallowing. “I understand the risks, I assure you.” He resisted the urge to flinch as a phantom twinge flared through his scar. “And if she’ll take it . . . it’s the best way to take my place as Fire Lord. It’s one of the few legitimate ways to settle disputes over the throne, historically.”
“You’ve . . . fought one before?” Sokka asked tentatively.
Zuko nodded, swallowing thickly. “When- When I was banished, it was . . . for my behaviour, and because . . . I refused to fight in the Agni Kai regarding my,” his voice hitched, “my insolence.” He closed his eyes, sagging in place. “Though I had accepted it before. . . I refused to fight my father, even though I knew he was wrong.” He realised his voice was going a little raspy. “So I lost, and I’ll . . . always bear the mark of that failure.” He raised one hand, fingertips just brushing the bottom of his scar.
“Oh my- Zuko. . .” Katara shifted towards him, then hesitated, one hand outstretched. He cringed, turning his face away. “Your father?” She looked even more horrified than she had the first time they spoke of his scar, in the catacombs under Ba Sing Se.
Zuko squeezed his eyes closed, and he was surprised when a gentle hand slid over his shoulder from the other side a moment later. He jumped at the touch and looked up to find Sokka settling at his side, arm wrapping snugly around his shoulders, pulling him into a half-hug. Sokka gave him an almost pained, oddly understanding look.
“Zuko that’s awful, how could-!” Aang’s horrified face was even worse than Katara’s, and Zuko ducked his head so he wouldn’t have to see it, biting his lip. Aang darted forwards and flung his arms around Zuko, hugging him with none of the companionable restraint Sokka was showing and almost sprawling across his lap. Zuko shifted awkwardly, but between Aang and Sokka he couldn’t move much anyway. He let one hand rest on Aang’s side and didn’t try to push him away.
“That, uh. That sucks.” Toph said, with a slightly stiff pat to his shoulder, and Zuko almost laughed despite the nauseating twist in his stomach at talking about this.
Katara glared at her and Zuko bit his lip again, this time to stifle an amazed burble of amusement at Katara being defensive on his behalf. Her expression softened as she turned back towards him, fingertips brushing his cheek lightly.
Zuko fought not to flinch, but as Katara’s eyes darkened he guessed he’d failed. She rested her hand on his shoulder instead. “I’m sorry, Zuko.” she said softly, squeezing firmly. “All the more reason to ask, though. . . Are you sure you want to face Azula like that?” she asked, meeting his eyes squarely.
Zuko swallowed. “I don’t want to do it,” he admitted, slightly pained, “but . . . I’m prepared for it, and it may be the only way to. . .”
“We don’t want the Fire Nation to drop into civil war while still trying to end this one.” Sokka said, his arm tightening around Zuko. “Zuko knows his people best. If you think you can do this, and it’s the best way to ensure you can take your place. . .”
Zuko nodded, though the thought of succeeding his father still filled him with a shuddering panic.
“Then we’ll include it in the plan. If Azula will take it.” Sokka said, frowning thoughtfully. “Make sure to have a contingency plan, and if she won’t fight your Agni Kai don’t hold to that plan.”
Zuko smiled crookedly. “I’ll be careful.” he promised. “I know better,” he added with pained regret, “than to expect Azula to make anything easy.” Aang hugged him a little tighter and Zuko patted him absently.
“You won’t be going alone, either.” Katara said firmly.
Zuko looked up at her, surprised.
“You may have to fight the Agni Kai alone,” Katara said, her eyes icy, “but I don’t trust Azula to take that option so easily, or to stick to it if she does. I’m going with you.”
“Katara?” Sokka said, his voice shaded with concern.
“Someone needs to go with Zuko.” Katara said, and Zuko opened his mouth to protest, then got a better look at her expression and stayed silent. “You won’t need me to deal with the airships . . . and even if Azula agrees to fight Zuko one on one someone needs to be at his back.”
“. . .right.” Sokka agreed, and Katara squeezed Zuko’s shoulder before releasing it. “You look out for each other.” he said, rubbing Zuko’s side with one hand and looking up at his sister.
“All right, thank you, but get off me.” Zuko said, nudging at Aang’s shoulder. He couldn’t quite bring himself to shove. He cleared his throat, looking away. “We have a war to end and a world to get back to saving.”