Zuko didn’t know how they figured it out. He certainly hadn’t told them.
He’d been at the Western Air Temple for two and a half weeks now, and most of the people there finally trusted him. Aang and Toph had been on his side almost since he arrived, and Sokka really came around after Zuko accompanied him to the Boiling Rock. Even Suki was fine with him being there, and he burned down her village. The only person who still seemed slightly bothered was Katara, and she was gradually warming up to him.
That still didn’t explain why the Avatar and his friends did what they did.
The day began normally, with Zuko waking up at sunrise and leaving his room to practice his forms. He had received some invitations to join the others in the main room to sleep, but he politely turned them down. Best not to rock the boat too much.
His favorite spot to practice was outside, directly in the growing sunlight. There, he could close his eyes and let the warmth wash over his skin. He could feel the sun strengthening the fire inside him, breathing life through his veins. It was intoxicating, and he never grew tired of it.
That morning, he went through his forms methodically, giving each one proper attention. It was a habit he got into back on his ship, and he never wanted to fall out of it. If he tried hard enough, he could imagine what his uncle would say. Iroh used to always be by his side, offering advice and correcting his bending.
Slower, Prince Zuko. You must not rush your breathing, or your fire will go out too quickly. Yes, that is better. You are improving.
Zuko swallowed and closed out the last string of forms. He missed his uncle more than he could say. The guilt he felt over what transpired at Ba Sing Se still haunted him, and sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night after suffering from a nightmare where Iroh’s fate was more… definite.
Yes, Zuko was teaching Aang because it was the right thing to do, but he was also doing it because he hoped that someday, maybe, he could gain his uncle’s forgiveness and make him proud.
An hour had passed since Zuko woke up. He expected some of the others to be awake by then. Pulling his shirt back over his head, he returned to the main temple, his mind already planning out that day’s lesson plan.
“There he is!”
Zuko looked up and stopped walking. All of the temple’s current occupants were gathered around the fire (Zuko distantly wondered if Aang was able to start it on his own), watching him expectantly.
Zuko blinked. “Um. Hi?”
Aang rushed over to him and, to Zuko’s utter shock, hugged him.
“Happy birthday!” said Aang. Zuko’s stomach dropped to his feet.
Zuko had known the day was coming. It was hard to forget, considering there was once a time when a great, city-wide celebration was held every year in his honor. The past few years, however, his birthday was commemorated only by Uncle Iroh making him his favorite tea and having dinner with him on the deck of their ship. Zuko wasn’t even sure his crew had known when his birthday was.
Toph walked up and punched his arm. He grunted and glared at her, despite knowing she couldn’t see him.
“Happy birthday, Sparky,” she said. “We don’t have any candles, but we sort of figured you could set anything on fire and make it count.”
“Um,” was all Zuko could say.
“We’ve got it all planned out,” Sokka announced, completely oblivious to Zuko’s intense befuddlement. “No lessons for today. We’re gonna go swimming at that pond that’s nearby, and later we’re having a nice dinner. We even got those berries you like.”
Katara rolled her eyes at her brother. “Sokka almost ate them all, but we stopped him.”
“I wasn’t going to eat all of them!”
“You totally were, Snoozles.”
“Yeah, I saw you sneak a few!”
“Shut up, Aang!”
“Everyone,” Hakoda said, effectively silencing the squabbling group without raising his voice. “I think Zuko is a bit confused.”
Zuko squirmed a little. He still wasn’t used to Hakoda’s presence at the temple, and there was something about him that put Zuko on edge. Hakoda had been kind to him, but Zuko was still uneasy.
“What’s confusing you?” asked Aang. His excitement dimmed a little, his brows furrowing.
Zuko didn’t know where to start. “How did you know it’s my birthday?”
"Oh, that’s on me,” Sokka said. He looked rather smug about it. “We went to this library, and I was looking for stuff that we could use to defeat the Fire Nation – that’s actually how I learned solar eclipses turn off firebending, you know – and I found a list of birthdays for the Fire Nation royal family.”
Zuko stared at him. “And you just… remembered it?”
"Hey, I have a good memory!”
Katara mumbled something that sounded rather unflattering. Sokka scowled at her.
“There you go!” Aang brightened again, looking to Zuko like he expected the older boy to suddenly become enthused. Zuko was still at a loss.
"Why what?” Toph asked.
“Why do you want to celebrate… me?”
Silence fell over the group. They all looked at him with expressions ranging from confused to sympathetic. Zuko wished Toph would open a hole beneath his feet.
“You’re my firebending teacher,” Aang said. “You’re one of us now.”
“And I think we could all use a bit of a celebration right now,” Suki added, speaking up for the first time. The others nodded in agreement.
Zuko scratched the back of his neck. There was still a part of him that did not understand, that told him this was all some prank, or a dream. There was no way they all wanted to take the time to celebrate the day he was born, since his very existence had caused them a lot of headaches in the past. It was ridiculous. Katara didn’t even like him all that much.
But there was another part of him, one that was much bigger, that wanted to cry at this sweet gesture. He wanted to grab it with both hands and actually enjoy his birthday for the first time in many, many years.
It might be nice to not curse his existence for once.
“Okay,” he said softly. “We can celebrate.”
Once Zuko got over the intense feeling that they shouldn’t be doing this because they had a big battle to plan for, he enjoyed himself. There was a small waterfall overlooking the pond, and as soon as they got there, Sokka shouted that he was going to do a perfect dive off it. It turned into a belly flop, and he had to endure everyone laughing at him. Toph followed with an explosive cannonball. Aang did some fancy airbending move off the top.
“I think it’s your turn,” Katara said, gesturing Zuko forward. Zuko raised his good eyebrow.
“I think I’m good watching for a bit,” he said. He hadn’t even taken his tunic off.
"You know Aang will just pester you until you do it.”
“Is that supposed to scare me?”
Katara stretched her arm out and curled her fingers upward. A stream of water rose from the pool and hovered above Zuko’s head. She raised her eyebrows challengingly.
Zuko’s mouth fell open. “That’s not fair!”
He swore her eyes were sparkling with amusement. “Life’s not fair, Prince Zuko. Get in the water.”
Swearing under his breath, Zuko yanked his tunic over his head and kicked his boots off. He mumbled, “You just like finding excuses to splash me with water.”
“But this time it’s for a good cause!” Katara called, a little too sweetly. Zuko rolled his eyes and kept walking.
"Yay, Zuko’s jumping!” Aang cheered from the pond. Sokka and Toph whooped in support. Katara and Suki had waded in to join them. Hakoda had stayed back at the temple with Haru and the others. Zuko wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed.
He stepped up to the edge of the cliff, his toes curling over it. Over the years, he’d jumped off of many precipices onto surfaces of varying comfort. He had to get over any fear he once had of heights in order to protect himself and become the perfect soldier.
This just might have been the first time in ages that he’d jumped off of something because it was fun.
Taking a deep breath, Zuko launched himself off the cliff and plummeted down to the water. Refreshing coolness encased his body immediately, and, for a moment, he let himself float there beneath the surface. Something settled within him before he kicked his legs out and broke through the still-churning waters.
“That was awesome!” yelled Aang. “You made the biggest splash out of all of us!”
Zuko smiled self-consciously and pushed his soaking hair back. Aang and Toph hurried out of the water to take another leap. Not long after, Sokka challenged Zuko to a wrestling match, which Sokka swiftly lost. As well as all the ones that followed.
They stayed at the pond for hours, swimming around and splashing each other until they were too exhausted to do anything else. They barely had enough energy to pull themselves out of the water and shuffle back to the temple.
And yet, Zuko couldn’t stop smiling.
Dinner was nothing close to the grand feasts Zuko once attended in his youth, but it left him just as satisfied. While they were out at the pond, Hakoda and Chit Sang went hunting and managed to catch enough meat for everyone (minus Aang). With the rice they had left over from previous meals, plus the berries Zuko had a soft spot for, they managed to concoct a bigger meal than anything they’d had recently.
Everyone gathered around the fire and traded random stories about past adventures. Zuko stayed quiet, preferring to listen to everyone with his knees tucked up against his chest. Normally, it made his heart ache, hearing everyone talk about the good times they experienced together, but that night, he felt strangely at peace.
“Hey,” Sokka said, getting everyone’s attention. “I think we should go around and share stories about the birthday boy.”
Zuko stilled, his cheeks turning pink at the sudden attention being laid upon him. The group fell silent, everyone deep in thought.
“Not to bring the party down,” Toph said, “but we don’t really have a lot of happy stories about him.”
Guilt slid down Zuko’s spine. He looked down at his knees. “It’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to.”
Aang brightened. “Wait, I’ve actually got a good one. I don’t think I’ve told you guys about the time Zuko saved me from Admiral Zhao.”
“He once saved you from Zhao?” Katara looked surprised. She eyed Zuko in that same calculating manner she often looked at him with.
“It wasn’t… my intentions weren’t great…” Zuko said lamely. Aang shrugged it off. His enthusiasm was not to be deterred.
Quickly gaining everyone’s rapt attention, Aang unraveled the tale of how Zuko, hidden behind a Blue Spirit mask, broke into Zhao’s high-security base and freed Aang. Hearing it from Aang’s perspective made Zuko feel strange. For once, he was being framed as the hero. Sokka cheered at the part where Zuko extinguished the guard’s firebending with water. Toph grunted her approval when Zuko used his dual swords to fight off multiple guards at once. Even Katara smiled at him. It was unsettling.
It was also really nice.
“See, Zuko?” Aang grinned at him from across the fire. “That wasn’t so bad.”
Zuko rubbed the back of his neck, both uncomfortable and pleased. “Thanks, Aang.”
"You were looking out for him before you even joined the group,” Hakoda noted. Zuko shrank a little, his ease lessening.
“I only saved him because if Zhao took him, I wouldn’t get my honor back,” he confessed, feeling compelled to say so.
Sokka made a ‘pfft’ sound. “You and your honor. I’ve never met a guy who was that focused on honor.”
Zuko barely refrained from replying that Sokka hadn’t met that many people. “It’s important in the Fire Nation. Without your honor, you have nothing.”
Aang cocked his head. “But what made you lose it in the first place?”
The left side of Zuko’s face itched. He clasped his hands together so he wouldn’t scratch it. “I disrespected my father.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment. Aang opened his mouth, clearly wanting to know more, but Katara stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Zuko knew they were all curious, but he wasn’t ready to share that part of himself yet. Only a few minutes ago, they were looking at him like a hero. He didn’t want those looks to turn pitying so soon.
"Well,” started Hakoda, breaking the silence. Zuko instinctively winced. Hakoda noticed and gentled his voice. “If your father doesn’t realize what a great son he has, he doesn’t deserve you.”
Zuko’s heart lifted, and he looked at Hakoda with wide eyes. Hakoda smiled gently at him. The realization that Zuko had no reason to feel wary around the man settled on Zuko’s shoulders like a comforting blanket. He blushed and nodded his thanks.
“Okay,” said Sokka, breaking the respectful hush that had fallen over the group. “One last thing for Zuko’s birthday. We couldn’t really go shopping for gifts, but we do have something for you.” He stood up and walked towards Appa.
“You got me a present?” Zuko asked.
"Well, obviously,” Toph said. “It would be a sucky birthday if you didn’t get any presents.”
Sokka returned with something wrapped in one of their blankets. He handed it to Zuko, who held it in his lap like it was something on the verge of an explosion.
“Well?” Katara nodded toward the gift. “Open it.”
With shaky hands, Zuko unraveled the blanket and looked down at a bison whistle. He’d seen Aang use his before and knew it would summon Appa from a good distance away.
“Appa really likes you,” Aang explained. “And since you’re one of us now, we wanted you to have a way of getting back to us if you ever got lost.”
“This doesn’t mean you can just get captured all the time,” Sokka interjected. “We don’t want to save you over and over. And it doesn’t work for, like, super long distances.”
“But you get the picture,” Toph finished.
Zuko was speechless. He wrapped his fingers around the whistle. It was cool to the touch and felt impossibly fragile.
He couldn’t believe a whistle of all things was making him emotional, and yet…
“Zuko?” Aang sounded worried. “Do you like it?”
Zuko blinked, trying to clear away the moisture before anyone noticed. He looked around at the ragtag group of kids and the two adults. There was only one person he wished was there, but he believed his uncle was thinking of him. Other than Iroh, Zuko believed everyone who cared about him was currently sitting right in front of him.
“I love it,” he whispered. Louder, he said, “Thank you. Really. I’m honored.”
Aang beamed at that. Zuko found himself smiling back.
That night, he joined the others in the main room when it was time to sleep.
He was done with being alone.