Zuko made them all tea.
Sokka wanted to wait for him to drink it first. Katara had half a mind to do just that, but Iroh thanked the Fire Prince and sipped the steaming cup before any of them could say otherwise. The old man, in preparation for travel, was sitting upright against a tree, his bandages covering the weeping mess that was his burn. His expression showed nothing of the agony Katara knew was festering behind the cotton.
‘Excellent tea,’ he sighed, shivering slightly in the chill of dawn.
Katara recalled the old man’s words from the night before, when she and her friends had returned after Zuko’s argument with his uncle. ‘You must be a very good teacher,’ the retired general had told her thoughtfully, a knowing light in his eyes. ‘To teach my nephew so well. Thank you for your patience.’
She considered the drink cupped between her hands now; steam curled delicately from the water’s surface. It’s just tea…
‘Wow,’ Aang said in clear surprise. ‘It is good, Zuko.’
The fire bender had his back to them, packing up the teapot and the pan he’d used to heat their breakfast. He’d been up earlier than any of them and hadn’t even claimed his generosity was for his injured uncle. His shoulders stiffened at Aang’s words, but Katara noticed he relaxed once the others went back to talking. Once he could blend into the background. Once he didn’t have to meet their—
Golden eyes caught her, they held her and accused her. She swallowed and glanced back at Sokka, who was now claiming there was a suspicious aftertaste to the tea.
‘I don’t know… it’s sweet… like too sweet, you know?’
Katara smiled, a beat behind her friend’s laughter; her heart was pounding as though she’d teetered precariously on a high cliff edge.
It wasn’t until the five teens, the old general, the chittering lemur, and the groaning sky-bison had been airborne for over an hour that Katara got up the courage to go sit by the lone figure at the rear of the saddle.
He’d drawn his hood low over his brow, hiding his scar and the long stubble that was his slowly regrowing hair. She clutched the rim of the saddle as she lowered herself beside him, clearing her throat uncomfortably. He glanced at her and away, his mouth twisting as though he’d tasted something unpleasant.
‘What do you want?’ After so many days in such close quarters with the banished prince, she had come to recognise his “gentle” tone. She wondered at what kind of life he must have lived to harden him so bitterly against the world.
‘Nothing, really,’ she replied kindly, hugging her knees to her chest and smiling placatingly at her brother’s incredulous look. ‘I just thought you could use the company.’
She felt, rather than saw, his brow furrow. ‘I don’t need your pity.’
‘I know you don’t.’
A pause. ‘Then why are you sitting with me?’
Some part of her did pity him; what had happened to make him so suspicious of friendly gestures? ‘I’ve been feeling too cheerful,’ she said with a straight face. ‘Thought I’d temper it with some surliness.’ He glowered at her. ‘Oh, cheer up, Zuko, I’m only joking.’
He harrumphed, turning his head away, but didn’t fly into a rage. She took this as a good sign and peered at him inquisitively. Perhaps Iroh had been right, perhaps there was more to the Fire Prince than the scowling figure astride the metal ship.
‘You’re staring at me, waterbender.’
Perhaps not. ‘I was thinking.’
He turned back to her. ‘Thinking what?’
She shrugged and crossed her knees beneath her. ‘Just about something your uncle told me,’ she replied, squinting as the wind buffered her. ‘He really cares for you, you know?’
The exiled prince eyed her strangely, as though she were speaking some foreign language. ‘I know he does,’ he said tersely.
‘I just mean, it must be a comfort for you. To have your uncle with you while you’re away from home. I imagine it would be pretty lonely otherwise.’ She rested her chin against her knuckles, wistfully. ‘I would be so homesick if I didn’t have Sokka, and Aang and Toph are almost like family too.’
The hardness around his mouth had relaxed somewhat when he turned back to her. ‘You’re lucky to have people around you like that.’ His words were so quiet, she wasn’t sure she’d even heard him correctly.
‘I am,’ she agreed, smiling encouragingly. ‘Just like you are to have your uncle. He’s wonderful!’
A rueful smile teased at the corner of the prince’s mouth. ‘You let him get away with too much,’ he muttered, his gaze resting on his uncle, deep in conversation with Aang, Toph, and Sokka. ‘He’s well enough to make himself tea. I’ve never seen him sick enough that he can’t make tea.’
‘I don’t mind. He’s suffered a lot these last few days.’
Zuko turned to her, his guarded expression somewhat eased. ‘Thank you,’ he said with a formal bow, or as formal as he could whilst seated on a sky-bison. ‘Thank you for helping us when you had no cause to.’
Katara could feel the shock etched across her face. ‘You don’t have to thank me,’ she muttered, unable to hold his stare.
‘I do,’ he insisted, leaning back against the saddle’s lip. ‘You had no reason to help us, so thank you. For my uncle.’
Silence followed his words, and Katara wondered if he knew how that sounded. To admit his dogged pursuit had been in any way erroneous was something she’d never thought to hear from the prince. What was he saying? Did he acknowledge his actions against them were wrong? Was he, in some small way, seeking forgiveness?
‘You know,’ she began, trying to gauge his reaction from the corner of her eye. ‘I’ve been teaching Aang waterbending, and Toph’s just started teaching him earthbending… Pretty soon he’s going to need a firebending teacher. I know your uncle would be a great teacher, and who better to train with the Avatar than the Fire Lord’s son?’ He looked at her as though she’d said the ocean was pink and Momo was the Earth King. ‘Really! Think about it! This war has thrown the world out of balance. You’re going to be the next Fire Lord, right? So what better way for the Fire Nation to work with the world than for you to help bring balance by helping Aang?’
He frowned incredulously. ‘You have no idea what you’re asking me to do,’ he said finally, rubbing his brow. ‘Do even you hear yourself?’
She knelt up and clutched his arm. ‘You could do it,’ she said brightly, carried away by the idea. ‘You’d be making right a hundred years of war and suffering.’
‘And betraying my father,’ he said sharply, wrenching his arm from her grasp. ‘Did you forget that?’
Her brow crinkled in confusion as his hand hovered over his scar. ‘He did that to you, didn’t he?’
The look he shot her was boiling with discord. ‘It’s none of your business!’ he hissed, pulling at his hood and angling his head away. Katara considered critically; disappointed. Disappointment stung.
Preparing to leave him be, she was startled by his sudden closeness, glowering right into her face. ‘Did my uncle tell you?’ he demanded in a low growl.
She shrunk from his proximity. ‘No…’
‘I’m not lying!’ She shoved him back, hoping he didn’t notice her hands’ shaking.
‘You don’t know anything about my father,’ he snapped sitting back and crossing his arms over his chest. ‘You don’t know anything about my life.’
She swallowed her anger and turned away from him, suddenly cold. She made to stand, wanting to be as far from him as she could get. ‘I know more than you think.’
‘Why won’t you leave me alone?’ She’s desperate now. She knows too much, feels too confused. He’s given her small parcels of himself and it’s impossible to go back. She knows about his mother’s love for the theatre, she knows the woman’s favourite theatre troupe, she knows he bought tickets for his mother every time the troupe visits the Fire Nation capitol.
She is about to know about his scar.
Zuko squares his shoulders and passes before her through a canopy of vines. ‘It was you who made understand the difference between loyalty to my nation and loyalty to my father.’ The words stop her in her tracks; he turns to peer at her, eyes playful and light. ‘You didn’t know?’
She clenches her fists. ‘I’ve barely spoken to you.’
He shrugs and Katara’s heart leaps into her throat; her apparition hasn’t answered her before. ‘This might have healed and scarred over, but when you started working on the pain behind how I got this… that’s when I started to realise what my father had done…’ His eyes tighten somewhat. ‘That what he’d done to me was wrong, and that I was wrong to believe capturing Aang would somehow make him love me again.’
She barely understands what he’s saying. ‘Your father was the reason you got that?’
His hand drifts over the old scar almost absentmindedly. ‘There was a plan, a battle strategy, to send new recruits up against one of the strongest earthbending battalions in the Earth Kingdom. I spoke out against the general who suggested it.’ His lip curls, and the shadow of the angry boy Katara is familiar with hovers over this older spectre. ‘The old man proposed we use the untrained men as bait, all so we could swoop in from the sides and finish them while they’re distracted.
‘I was outraged at the general’s plan and spoke out against it. I couldn’t believe this man would exploit our soldier’s love for their country so cruelly. But my idealism wasn’t taken in the patriotic way it was intended. I was to fight an Agni Kai to defend my position against those I had wronged.’ Katara could see it. The bright-eyed boy, striving to do right by his nation, to make his father proud.
‘And he burned you for it,’ she whispered, her eyes welling in disgust for the Fire Lord and compassion for his son.
‘I never fought back,’ Zuko whispers, his eyes glazing as he watches the scene unfold. ‘Not once I saw who it was who had come to fight me. I was on my knees, begging for forgiveness, and he held his burning hand to my face and set me on fire…’
Katara shakes her head violently, too repulsed to listen to anymore. ‘Stop,’ she gasps, turning from the apparition, and stumbling away. ‘Aang!’ she calls hoarsely, yelping as a branch rakes across her face. ‘Sokka!’
But he keeps pace, of course he keeps pace. ‘It was terrible, and the following years were just one hardship after another. It was you, Katara. You made me realise I hadn’t lost my honour by betraying my nation. I wanted to save my nation from itself, even if that meant facing my father in battle again.’
She felt cold, but not from the wind. The memory of the swamp curled and rolled through her thoughts like smoke, impossible to dispel until she faced the true cause of her discomfit.
After all, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
The truly terrifying part of the whole situation was not the monstrous cruelty of the Fire Lord, nor the severely scarred (in more ways than one) son he had banished to chase at phantoms. The most frightening part about Zuko’s confirmation of what his spectre had said in the swamp was that it proved the vision had told her something true. Something she didn’t know.
And if the vision of Zuko had been telling the truth about how he got his scar… what did that mean for the hundred other things he’d told her in the dank humidity of the Foggy Swamp?