“I can’t believe Toph’s Runaway poster is still up,” Katara mused quietly, hefting the basket filled with food up her arm. Toph was supposed to accompany her on this market run, but when Suki saw this the last time she and Sokka were in town—
“Not that I’m surprised that Toph has a wanted poster, but…” Zuko pushed his hood up a bit to better read the poster in the shade, “How did this happen?”
“Well, Toph got carried away with scamming people, and long story short, we both ended up in prison. Funnily enough, it was when you sent Sparky Sparky Boom Boom Man after us, and we had to save Sokka and Aang from getting blown up,” Katara grinned and shook her head, turning away from the poster. Zuko had the grace to look ashamed as he followed her to the beach.
“Yeah, sorry about that—” he stumbled slightly as the paved road changed to sand, a couple of moon peaches tumbling from one of the baskets he was carrying— “I don’t think I fully apologized for sending him after you.”
“Zuko. It’s fine.” Katara amusedly picked up the moon peaches— which were, thankfully, not that bruised. “You don’t have to keep apologizing for everything, you know.”
“I’m sor—” he snapped his mouth shut, blushing, and she laughed, giving him a knowing glance. They walked in silence for a while, the shifting of the sand beneath their feet and the rush of the waves the only sounds around them.
“Hey, for what it’s worth,” Katara said quietly, eyes fixed on her basket, “I’m sorry, too.”
Zuko turned sharply in her direction, his face shadowed by his hooded cloak. “Katara, you don’t have to—”
“Yeah, I do,” replied Katara fiercely, stopping in her tracks. Zuko stopped as well, an arm’s length away. Katara sighed and hugged her basket closer to her chest.
“I was really hurt, after… you know,” after Ba Sing Se passed between them in perfect clarity, “And I really thought I was justified in distrusting you, like I was being responsible by looking out for us like I was with Toph when she was The Runaway, but…”
Zuko waited as she struggled with her apology, and it struck him that maybe she wasn’t used to giving them.
“I was unfair. You didn’t shoot Aang with lightning. You didn’t kill my mother. All you wanted to do was go home.” She played sheepishly with the ends of her hair. “I just wanted to hate you because, well, I was wrong about you, and I don’t really like being wrong.”
Zuko let out a bark of laughter at that and shrugged one shoulder uncomfortably. “To be fair, you weren’t completely wrong. You— you offered to heal my scar, and I betrayed your trust. You were right. I was the enemy.”
“No, Zuko,” Katara frowned thoughtfully and shook her head. “I meant… that time when you came to us. To the Western Air Temple. I was so, so sure you were the bad guy, that you never changed, but…”
She averted her gaze to the ocean behind him— not that she could see his expression if she wanted to, silhouetted as he was against the dying sun.
Zuko started walking back to the beach house in contemplative silence, and when he broke it, he spoke so low that she wouldn’t have heard him speak if she wasn’t actively listening for his voice.
“You weren’t wrong. Not really,” he said, still forging ahead. “All I wanted back then was to go home.”
His voice was so pained and filled with regret that Katara set her basket down on the sand and tugged on his arm— she wasn’t sure if she did it to comfort this strange, sullen boy who’d somehow become her friend, or to stop him from leaving her again.
Although he never actually left her, didn’t he? She was the one who left him in the Crystal Catacombs. She still felt the need to apologize for that, but the expression on Zuko’s face told her an apology wasn’t what he needed.
“I know it’s hard, being so far from home. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must’ve been for you.” Her grip tightened on his sleeve, remembering bits and pieces of who he was and trying to reconcile them with who he is. She sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t forgive you sooner, Zuko. Of course you chose your sister in Ba Sing Se. It’s what you wanted for years— to go home.”
He turned to face her, golden eyes downcast, mournful expression in his face tinged with the deep orange of the sunset.
“It wasn’t home, though ,” he said, voice somehow strong yet breaking, “I should’ve realized it sooner. It hadn’t been home for a long time, I think. Not since my mom left, not since my father turned into the monster that he is. Everything was just so… empty, and quiet. Like a graveyard of memories. Everything reminded me that I should be happy, but I wasn’t. And I just knew none of it was right.
“But even then, I still wanted to hold onto it, you know? I was so stupid. I was willing to live in that empty place with empty titles just because I wanted my father to love me like he loves Azula. I was willing to do everything just to make sure I never had to leave again. I was willing to subject myself through all their sick scheming just so I could be with them. My family, who tried to kill me more times than I could count. I betrayed the only person who actually cared about me, just to have something I thought I lost.”
Katara regarded him silently through all this, and Zuko reddened and pulled away, suddenly remembering that she didn’t ask him for his whole life story, but then Katara took the baskets from his arms and placed them on the sand beside hers.
“Sh-shouldn’t we be heading back?” He asked, still worried that he might have ruined something with his rambling. “The others might think I tied you to a tree again or something.”
“Oh, please. You and I both know I can take you down now.” Katara’s blue, blue eyes gleamed softly in the gathering dusk as she smiled up at him earnestly. “Besides, I know you have changed.”
He swallowed against the lump in his throat, memories of their fight in those caverns resurfacing in his mind. She seemed to sense the direction of his thoughts, because she reached up and cupped his scarred cheek in her hand.
Just like then, he found himself leaning into her touch, but he kept his eyes open, wary of anything that might make her turn away again.
But only concerned blue eyes met his, no walls crumbling down aside from his own. Her thumb brushed lightly over his rough skin, and this time, he allowed himself to close his eyes and breathe.
“You don’t have to work so hard to earn our trust anymore, Zuko,” she said, her tone unreadable. She took a deep breath, and her fingers trembled against his cheek. He placed his own hand over hers, and she spoke, quietly but with such conviction, “We’re your family now, and in this family, we actually care about each other.”
“I have no idea how that works,” he admitted, his murmur ghosting over her palm. She pulled away and he let go, opening his eyes and expecting her gone.
She wasn’t. She was still miraculously here, holding out her hand for him to take.
He still couldn’t take her hand, though. Everything still felt too fragile… but she seemed to understand.
“How it works, Zuko, is if you need to stay out of the beach house and forget all the memories for a while, or if you want to talk about it some more and stare at the ocean for a bit, we’ll do it. Even if it means dinner will be a little late.” She beamed, hand still outstretched. “Come on.”
When she took his hands in hers and gently tugged him to sit near the waves, he decided that this time, he wasn’t going to run away from her touch, no matter how scared or scarred he was. Never again.
“And that’s how it’s done!” Toph shot an exhausted Aang into the air with an earth column before plopping down gracelessly on the porch. She felt another presence near her, just hidden around the corner, and she grinned to herself.
“I’m starving,” she announced loudly as the Avatar flew back down and collapsed beside her with a huff. “Go get me some mangoes, Twinkletoes.”
Aang barely looked up from where his face pressed against the wood, his whine muffled. “Go get them yourself, Toph.”
“Consider it part of your training.”
“How is getting fruit part of earthbending? C’mon, I’m so tired!”
“Ya think the Fire Lord will care how tired you are when you fight him, Oh All-Powerful Wuss?”
Aang pushed himself off the floor trudged into the Fire Lord’s house, either too tired— or too nice— to do anything other than grumble half-heartedly.
Toph counted ten seconds before she felt Suki’s light vibrations a few feet near her. She held out her hand expectantly and the older girl slapped Toph’s folded wanted poster in her open palm. Toph tucked it safely away in her tunic.
“I still don’t get why you’d endanger yourself just to run away from your chores,” the Kyoshi Warrior said exasperatedly, although Toph was pleased to detect a hint of jealousy and awe in her tone.
“I’m The Runaway, Fan Girl. It’s kinda what I do.” Although Toph, being Toph, did have an ulterior motive.
Everything was so chaotic between Sparky and Sweetness since the firebender showed up at the Western Air Temple— all the yelling and the stomping was enough to give Toph a headache. Their Life-Changing Field Trip improved much between them, except now Toph had to listen to weird, erratic heartbeats that gave her secondhand nerves.
She smirked triumphantly as she felt two people heading up the stone path to the beach house, walking closer together than when they left. Their vibrations calmed down, hearts almost in sync in their slow, steady beats— ha! Mission accomplished.
Satisfied, Toph tucked her hands behind her head. Now, all she had to do was find a way to mute those stupidly obscene noises coming from Sokka and Suki’s room at night.