“No father please, I’m sorry! I meant no disrespect, I was only thinking about the good of our people!”
“You shall learn respect and suffering shall be your teacher”
Zuko woke up with a racing heart and clothes drenched in sweat. A quiet scream died somewhere in his throat and he needed a couple of seconds to realize that he is not in the fire nations palace but in the air temple. It had been a week since he joined the Avatar and they asked him if he wanted to sleep with them by the fire but he still preferred to sleep in one of the temple’s many rooms. His room was quite far in to the temple, remote and cold, but it was because of nights like this that he didn’t want to join them. He didn’t want them to see how weak, how scared he could be of something as silly as a dream.
His hand subconsciously wandered up to his scared face as if he wanted to check if maybe his father scaring his face was nothing but a bad dream and not the bitter truth. But soon his fingers slid over his rough skin, proof of a badly healed burn.
He took a couple of deep breaths, reminding himself of his Uncles teachings…
“Remember prince Zuko. Peace comes from within, if you can control your breathing you can control yourself.”
He couldn’t help but flinch at the thought of his uncle. The man was like a father to him and he stabbed him in the back. The one-time Uncle needed him he wasn’t there for him and that is something he will never be able to forgive himself for. Hell he doubted that Uncle would forgive him either.
Soon he managed to calm down enough for his heart to return to a normal beat and his breathing to be slow and shallow. He knew that he would not be able to fall back asleep and even if he would, the nightmares would just hunt him again. He changed out of his sweaty clothes and threw on some training clothes he borrowed from the boy named Haru a few days ago. He took a glance at the small, narrow window and saw that the sun hadn’t rise yet. It must have been around 4 in the morning, but it was not dark as the moon shined bright that night … He would have no problem seeing, if he went out on the training field. He could easily go and train with his swords and not use his bending.
He couldn’t help but yawn as he realized that he probably only slept for a couple hours – 4 at the most. This was nothing new to him, he didn’t sleep well ever since his mother disappeared – it only got worse after the Agni Kai. It still made him feel like shit tho …
After a short while of lingering and thinking about trying to sleep some more he grabbed his swords and headed to the upper training platform. He was sure that the “Avatar gang” was still asleep, so he would not he disturbed. Sword training was something he always did by himself as the fire nation did not deem it to be a “hobby” worthy of their attention. It was something non-benders did to make themselves feel as if they had some kind of power.
“Why do you waste your time on such a silly thing! It would be better if you would train your fire bending more! You are light years behind Azula and she is only 5! You are such a disappointment!”
Zuko clench his jaw as the memory of his father’s harsh words. The man always knew how to tear Zuko down, make him feel even more worthless then he already felt. Zuko still continued studying the art of sword fighting thought. His mother (and later his uncle) encouraged him as it made him more flexible and confident. He even got to train under a high master named Piandao once, if only for a week that is (that was how long his mother could convince Ozai that Zuko went to a new fire bending teacher and not to a swords master).
It was something he now did to relax and to feel close to his mother and Uncle. It also helped him with his fire bending training as he still needed to exercise restrain with the swords, just as with his fire.
He wandered down to the first platform where the Avatar (Aang was still to strange to Zuko) and his friends were sleeping. The fire among them was little, barely warming, but Zuko let a bit of his energy slip in to the dying flame and soon enough it was burning bright again. He could see how the avatar moved closer to the fire, clearly enjoying the new giant warmth. He smiled to himself and quietly continued his way to the training area in the upper floor.
He was already half way up the stairs to the training area when he heard grunting sounds from above. He froze in his step and listened more carefully. Someone was definitely up there and it sounded as if they were fighting – or dying. A million and one questions went thru Zukos head: Did someone infiltrate their camp? Was it Azula?
He slowly reached for his swords and unsheathed them. As quietly as he could he went up the last couple of steps and prepared himself for a fight. If it was Azula he could not beat her in a full blown battle but he could make enough noise for the team to wake up and notice the danger. He could buy them enough time to get away … or he could die trying at least.
He took one last deep breath and charged forward. His swords were an extension of his arms, his moves were elegant, yet swift. If he managed to surprise her he could maybe take her out in one swing. Just before his swords sank in to flash he managed to stop himself.
Before him was not Azula, or some other fire bander or head-hunter, no … It was Sokka.
“Zuko? What – What are you doing here?” Asked the smaller boy with Zukos swords only an inch away from his face.
“What am I doing here!? It’s the middle of the night! I thought you were Azula. I could have killed you!” replied Zuko angrily and removed his sword from the other boys face. His heart was still racing from the adrenaline that was running in his body.
“I couldn’t sleep so I went and trained a bit. Aang needs this place during the day for his banding training so I decided to use the opportunity and train here for once. It so nice and open, so much easier to train here then downstairs in the small training hall.”
That was when Zuko noticed Sokkas black sword, limply hanging in the boys hand. He had seen it a couple of times but never asked Sokka about it. He never seen him train either … Zuko took a deep breath and put his swords back in to its sheath. This could have ended badly had he not managed to stop himself - then he really would have lost all his new gained good credit with the Aang team. Damn! Now Sokka will think that he is some kind of psycho, walking around at night with swords trying to kill people. Good work Zuko, you fucking idiot. You really are great at scaring people who are trying to trust you. He wanted to face palm so hard but refrained from it. Best to just apologize and leave. Yes, that would be best.
“What are you doing up thought? Don’t you jerk benders rise with the sun or is this just another lie the fire nation tells people?”
Auch … calling him a jerk and a liar, wow great way to start of the day. Zuko looked away at that and started to head back to the stairs. He didn’t know why but he wanted to run way from this conversation.
“Hey wait… ok, sorry, I don’t mean to hurt you. Was it because of jerk bender?” Sokka caught up to him and put his hand on Zuko’s shoulder. On his left shoulder. The young man flinched at that, but managed to play it off. He brushed the other boys hand of himself and just murmured:
“No, it ok. Like I said, I thought you were an enemy that’s why I attacked. I will leave you to your training now. If I could sneak up on you like that it means you still need a lot of it.”
“Auch, that was a burn buddy. I am pretty good with the sword I let you know. I was trained by a master!”
“Sure, dud.” Said Zuko unimpressed and started walking again.
“No, I mean it, for real! But it had been a while since I could train with anyone. You know… everyone has to train with Aang, that doesn’t leave much room for training with me.”
Ah yes, the prodigy gets all the attention… Zuko knows that just too well.
“Hey why don’t you train with me? I mean you are awake and so am I. We have at least 2 more hours before everyone else wakes up and you have to train with Aang.”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea Sokka. I could kill you with my fire.”
“Well then use those shiny swords of yours. You seemed confident enough with them just a second ago. While we are at it … amm why do you have swords? Do you know how to use them properly? I thought they were just something you lifted from the palace to piss off your father” said Sokka and chucked a bit.
“No, they are mine. I mean I lifted them off an arrogant guy in an earth village, but yea.”
“Haha I expected nothing else from you!”
“Ow so you think I am a thief. Thank you Sokka.” Technically he did steal quite a lot when he was on the run from the fire nation half a year ago but still … its rude to assume.
“No no that’s not what I meant! I just meant that you are emmm … I don’t know what I meant by it. Sorry … Anyway, what do you say? Are you up for a round with me? I will go easy on you promise. I just miss fighting with someone. Please!” Sokka made his stupid puppy eyes at Zuko.
“Aren’t you afraid that I will hurt you?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. I kind of trust you. you and Aang went on a long ass trip a few days ago to learn your little fire dance and you didn’t do anything to him. Not that Aang mention at least. Plus if you were to hurt me Katara will probably throw you off the cliff and that is if she will be in a good mood. Nah, you smart enough not to try anything. Double plus: you need to beat me to be able to hurt me and lets be serious –I will wipe the floor with you jerk bender.” Said the small boy and gave Zuko a cocky smile.
“Ok, just one round” said Zuko at that, slightly pissed that Sokka was so disrespectful towards him. The boy needed to be taught a lesson, and Zuko was just too willing to do so.
Sokka almost screamed in excitement. He really must have missed the practical combat. Zuko made a few training moves to warm himself up and soon there after he and Sokka were standing opposite each other, getting ready for a battle.
Sokka charged in to an attack, head first of course, and Zuko swiftly avoided him, but as he was about to trip Sokka up from behind the water tribe boy managed to avoid his move by moving his balance to his other leg and swing around to hit Zuko in the side. Zuko just managed to avoid the hit, jumping high in the air and lending about a foot away from the water boy. He couldn’t help the surprised look on his face and Sokka just smirked at him.
“Told ya! No chance you can beat me when it comes to swords. I am the weapons guy of the group I have you know!” Zuko huffed at that and a small smile settled on his own face. Sokka didn’t lie when he said he trained under a master. This move just now would have send even a well-trained fire solder to the ground.
“Then I won’t hold back anymore.” He said and parted his sword in to two. This could be fun.
After about an hour and a half both boys were sweaty and breathing hard. Sokka tried his best but there was just no way that he could take Zuko down. The prince was just too damn good!
Sokka was fighting aggressive and attacked all the time. Zuko on the other hand mostly just deflected and played it smart, using Sokka’s strength against him, so that when Zuko did attack it was a killer strike (or it would have been if he wouldn’t stop himself).
“Again! This time I will get you on the floor!” screamed Sokka at Zuko again and picked himself up of the floor.
“No you won’t” replied Zuko and returned in to his fighting position.
Sokka charged at him, again leaving his stance wide open which Zuko shamelessly used. He dogged the sword, hoked his foot in between Sokkas feet, making him trip and fall to the ground. Just as Sokka hit the ground Zuko jumped on him putting his sword on the water tribe boys throat. Sokka looked at him in shock and Zuko couldn’t help but to lean in on his face and confidently snare:
“What was it again about getting me on the floor?” Sokka blinked a couple of times before he smirked again.
“But I have you exactly where I want you”
“What?-“ before Zuko could finish his question, Sokka leaned forward, pressing his lips on top of Zukos. The fire boy flinched away, loosening his grip on the water boy and before he realized what happened he was pressed to the ground and Sokka was on top of him.
“Told ya I would get you there.”
“You cheated!” Zukos cheeks were flushed in a cute pink color. Sokka had to fight back a giggle.
“I wouldn’t call it cheating. I would call it being clever.” Said Sokka with a big smile as he stood up from the ground. He extended his hand out to Zuko to help him stand up and after a long glare from the fire boy he excepted.
“Still cheating.” said Zuko back grumpily. Sokka rolled his eyes at that and headed to the little fountain that was in the far corner of the training platform. Zuko put his swords back together and into his sheath. Soon thereafter he followed Sokka to the fountain.
“You are really good with swords! I didn’t know that the fire nation showed interest in anything else but fire bending.” Said Sokka when Zuko came close enough to hear him.
“They don’t. My mother and uncle introduced me to it. They wanted to help me develop my skills... I got to train under a master once for a week before my father found out and called me back. After that I pretty much tough myself.”
“Well you did damn well. My master would have loved to train you. Ow you got to teach me how to make that leg move that you did earlier. That was just dope!”
“Sure, it really isn’t that hard once you try it. I have to say some of your moves aren’t half as bad either.” Said the fire boy back and this time it was Sokkas turn to go red.
Sokka offered Zuko his drinking pouch and Zuko excepted with a nod. As he was drinking he could feel the water boys eyes on himself. It made him nerves for some reason.
Once he finished drinking he gave the pouch back to the other boy and walked back in to the training area. He unsheathed his sword again and signaled Sokka to come and join him.
“What? You want to go another round? I am sure that the others will wake up soon, shouldn’t we …”
“I know, I just want to show you how to get out of the grip I had on you earlier on the ground. You know, without having to kiss your enemy.”
“Ow Zuko you flit you are no enemy. Well not anymore at least.”
Zuko rolled his eyes again and took a deep breath. Sokka was about to grab his fancy out of this world sword when Zuko handed him his own sword.
“It will be easier if I show you first. So you will be pining me to the ground like I did you earlier.” Sokka looked at him suspiciously but still grabbed the sword from the others hands. It was quite light compered to his sword and the handles were worn out – obvious proof of all the training that they had to endure.
The fire boy lay down on the stone ground and Sokka positioned himself on top of him. With one hand he held down Zukos dominant arm and with the other one he pressed the sword gently on the princes’ neck. The young water boy couldn’t help but to swallow hard. Even if this was just training, it was still scary.
“Ok so let’s say that the enemy has you pinned down. You lost your sword when you fell or something so that is no help. You are not a bender so all you have is your wit and your body strength.”
Sokka didn’t say a word. He just kept on looking at the older boy, listening to every word he said. He could feel the warmth of his body underneath his skin, his breath upon his cheeks. He was blushing again, he knew that much, but Zuko did not mention it.
“You are still growing so your upper body strength is not fully developed. But you don’t need it for what I will show you. So when the enemy is pining you down like you are right now, their center of gravity is in their chest. You can use that. Thrust your hips up to make them fall forward. At the same time move your head to the side or he will hit you with his falling body. Once you feel him starting to fall swiftly move your arms down so that he has to let you go. Once your hands are free you can use them to push him off you or to make a counter attack”
“Really? That’s it? That doesn’t sound like it would actually work. It to easy-“ And before Sokka knew it he was on his back again pressed in to the ground with Zuko on top of him.
“You were saying?” said Zuko all cocky.
“Shit, it really worked. Can I try this time?” Sokka was beaming with excitement. This was awesome, strange but awesome.
Zuko nodded and went to fetch his sword before he settled on top of Sokka again. The blade was carefully position on top of the boys throat and a strong grip pinned Sokkas arm to the ground.
“Now use your hips. Try to push me forward so that I will have to let you go to catch myself and not face-palm on the floor”
Sokka nodded and tried to imagine this for real. He tried to imagine Zuko as the enemy again, as the blood thirsty fire bander who hunted them half way across the world. But now that he looked in the others boys eyes he just didn’t see it. He didn’t see the monster he thought he was. The golden eyes that looked back at him were so soft, so gentle, yet at the same time the scar around one of them was rough reminder of what fire could do.
“Sokka! Are you listening? If I wanted to I could have killed you by now. You have to –“
Just as Sokka was about to apologize Zukos eyes widened and his hands shot up to his side to cover his face. Sokka didn’t even realize what really happened in that split second as Zuko was knocked off of him with a blast of water. There was a little flame from when Zuko tried to block some of the force with his bending, but it wasn’t nearly enough as he was knock in to the wall on the other side of the platform. A scream escaped from the benders as his back hit the stone wall. As soon as gravity made him fall to the floor the water at his side rose again, engulfing him in an ice.
“Don’t you dare touch my brother, you traitorous snake! I knew we couldn’t trust you!”
Sokka blinked a couple of times before his mind caught up to the situation.
“The fuck Katara!? Let him go, now!” screamed Sokka at his sister as he was picking himself off the floor.
“He attacked you, I saw it! He was holding a blade to your throat!”
“Ow for fucks sake Katara … We were training. He was showing me how to get out of such a grip! Now let him go!” Sokka’s eyes were shining with fury now. He knew that Katara didn’t trust Zuko but to jump at every opportunity to hurt the man was just too much.
The water bender looked at her brother for a long moment before she huffed annoyed and turned the ice around Zuko back to water.
Zuko fell to the ground ungracefully and another noise of pain could be heard from his direction. Katara just turned around and left down the stairs back to the others, without even apologizing to Zuko. Sokka wanted to say something but he decided to do so later. Now he needed to check up on Zuko.
When he reached the boy he had just managed to move his body in to a sitting position.
“Shit man are you alright? That looked like quite a blow.” Said Sokka and kneeled down to the other boy. Zuko was pale and his breathing sounded heavy with pain.
“I think I dislocated my shoulder.” Zukos voice was even quieter than usual and small drops of sweat started to mix with the water on his face. Sokka looked at the prince’s right shoulder and now that he really looked at it he could see how it was loosely handing in an odd way. When he fell to the ground he must have fallen on it, dislocating it in the process. Or maybe when he hit the wall? This must have hurt like a bitch.
“Shit, I will go get Katara. She will know what to do.”
“Like she would be willing to help me, she hates me. I can fix it myself, just help me stand up.”
“Are you sure? Really I can go get her. She will help you if she sees that you really are hurt because of her. She acts cold but she does care.” Tried Sokka again
“Shut up and help me stand up.” Said the prince back thru gridded teeth. Sokka hesitated but in the end he helped Zuko stand up and move to one of the stone pillars.
“Now you give me my sword.”
“Why do you need your sword for this?” Asked Sokka before he handed Zuko the weapon. The prince took it and placed the handle sideways in to his mouth, biting down on it. Then he leaned his hurt shoulder up against the pillar and pushed himself upon it with all the strength he could master. A muffed scream escaped from between his lips and soon thereafter a pop sound could be heard before Zuko fell to the ground. The sword dropped out of his mouth, hitting the ground close to him.
“To keep myself from screaming” he said eyes half closed as he was still in a lot of pain. Subconsciously he put his other arm on his hurt shoulder, hoping that it would somehow help but it didn’t. He focused on his breathing, tried to calm it and distract himself from the pain.
Sokka just stared at the other boy, not sure if he should be amazed at the display of courage of if he should be terrified at the brutality.
“Where did you learn that?”
“I am the son of the fire lord. ‘Accidents’ happened all the time and it was faster to just mend it myself and not go to the healers. Plus, I lived on a ship for 3 years – we had no doctor there. If you got hurt or sick, you better hope you could deal with it yourself.” Said Zuko between breaths.
“Why didn’t you have doctors on your ship? That seems like something every crew should have” Sokka wanted to ask about the accidents part but decided to leave that for another time.
“My father denied me one once he banished me. Guess he hoped that I would just die out in the sea.” Sokka wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He stared at the other boy with a mouth open wide and eyes filled with pity the creature before him. What the hell did the prince do to be banished and not even be given the right to a doctor? There was still so much they didn’t know about Zuko. How he grew up, how he got his scar, why he got banished, why he hunted Aang for all this time. They never stopped to ask themselves that. They always just saw his as this evil, crazy guy who was extremely good at finding them.
“Stop looking at me like that. I did not ask for your pity. I don’t need it,” said Zuko, ripping Sokka out of his train of thought. The boy was now trying to stand up and Sokka reached out to help him, but Zuko slapped his hand away.
“I don’t need help, I can handle myself!” Zuko snapped at the water boy. He did not mean to sound so harsh, but it annoyed him. He didn’t need help, he was always alone. Alone was what protected him. If he started to rely on people he could get hurt, or worse they could get hurt. He was here to teach the Avatar fire bending, that was it. He did not come to make friends, he didn’t come here to get attached. Become companions? Sure but nothing more. They didn’t need to like him, no one ever did. If they just tolerate him, that will be enough for him.
“But Zuko… you don’t have to do it by yourself. You have us now. You have Toph, Aang, Haru and everyone else of the Avatar team. You have me. Hell, even Appa likes you. You are part of us now, so let me help you.”
The fire prince was almost frozen at the words of the water tribe boy. His words were so different from those of his imagination. Was this a trap? It’ had to be a trap, he was lying. Just like Azula, just like his mother who told him that she would always keep him safe. He could trust no one, but his Uncle. His Uncle who probably hated him now for betraying him. That stings. He felt sick now.
“As I said, I’m fine. I have to go prepare for the training with Aang.“
“You can’t be serious! You can’t train like that, you are in pain.”
“I can push thru it. It’s not that bad. I had worse,” he said with clenched teeth. It was true that he was used to pain, but a dislocated shoulder always a pain in the ass. The pain was stabbing and it stayed for days.
“Zuko, don’t be stupid. Take a rest for just one day, it will not –“
“I can’t! I have to teach the Avatar how to fire bend or he has no chance of defeating my Father! And if that happens then … then the whole world will burn to nothing but dust.” He didn’t even notice when his grip on his shoulder got stronger or when his body started to shake. He got too worked up again, he needed to breath and calm down.
“What did your father do to you?” Sokkas voice was faint, yet it carried such weight. Sokka wanted to reach out to Zuko, to wrap him in his arms and tell him that everything was going to be ok. That Aang will win no matter what but Sokka was no fool. He knew their situation too well to lie like that.
“What didn’t he do to me.” Said the fire prince as he turned away from the water tribe boy and started to walk down the stairs.
Sokka didn’t try to stop him this time.