My first Avatar fic. *insert plug about how utterly awesome the writing is for this show*
I wrote this show off in the first few minutes of the premiere episode as Nick's wanna-be attempt at anime. Then I caught a few eps from the middle of the second season and I was enchanted by the deep storyline and fleshed-out characters. I now own the first two seasons in box-set DVDs and the third season is even better. What little het there is in the show is sweetly done and there's rival!slash for those who like that thing and choose to see it that way. It's a treasure to watch and this week's episode totally begged for preslash fic. As such, what follows probably makes no sense to those who aren't following the series. And, considering the length of my other stories, this is more of a ficlet than a full-blown fic. (Also, considering its short length, it's actually complete. *gasp* Meanwhile, I've been working on "Dark Masquerade," a sequel to my Gravitation fic, and a very long Harry/Draco story.)
Title comes from a line in the episode:
Aang: Well, what do you think we should do?
Zuko: ...Think about our place in the universe?
Title: His Place In the Universe
Length: 1,700 words
Spoilers: Through episode 3x13
Summary: The things Aang and Zuko talk about when stuck. Missing scene from 3x13. Preslash.
Zuko had been bound by his honor. He'd been imprisoned in a cell. He'd been held captive in chains. Being stuck to an ironwork grill with green goo, however, was definitely new. And he really only had himself to blame for this one.
He had the Avatar to thank for being alive, too.
As afternoon turned to dusk, Aang's upbeat chatter tapered off into a comfortable silence. They couldn't really see each other, fixed in place as their heads were. The sticky goo pulled painfully at Zuko's hair every time he shifted his weight and he was slowly growing envious of the Avatar's baldness.
Aang spotted the first star of the night. His childish glee was infectious and Zuko triumphantly announced the appearance of the second star of the evening. As more stars appeared, one-by-one, they kept up a friendly battle of observation until night had fully arrived and the sky was splashed with pinpricks of fire.
"Thank you," Zuko said into the quiet. "For saving my life back there."
"Huh?" the Avatar replied with all the eloquence he possessed. "I didn't..."
Zuko chuckled. "Unless the ancients left a ceiling fan in there, it was your blast of air that flipped me over. If you hadn't done that, I would've suffocated a long time ago."
"Oh. Right. You're welcome." Aang's dismissal was casual. "You would've done the same if you were in a position to help me."
It was true. Now. But Zuko's track record didn't prove it. "So sure about that, are you?" he asked bitterly.
"You know," Aang said, "you're never going to win them over with an attitude like that."
"I'm trying the best I can," Zuko said, then bit his tongue. He was the outsider here. It might never be enough.
Aang sighed. "I know. I can tell you are."
Zuko swallowed hard. Aang continued, unaware of how much it meant to hear those words spoken. "And it makes it seem like this whole crazy thing just might be possible. Most of folks in the Fire Nation that we met while we traveled were decent people. They have families and lives just like anyone else in the four lands. The fire benders in the army, though, it's like they think differently. Their anger towards us is so focused and constant. And the fact you've changed makes me hopeful that, when this is all over, we can live peacefully again."
"We'll make it right," Zuko said, feeling it with a certainty he'd felt for nothing else. "We'll bring balance to the world." But then his mind wandered back to how Katara had treated him yesterday, and the day before, and again this morning as they prepared to leave.
"But it's not just a matter of getting the Fire Nation to treat others with more respect," Zuko said soberly. "My people wiped out the Air Nomads, we decimated the Water Tribe, and we've invaded and occupied the Earth Kingdom. Our misdeeds aren't just going to be forgotten. And even if some people can find a way to forgive the individuals for what the Nation did, it's a long step from not wishing us dead to coexisting peacefully."
"You're thinking about Katara, aren't you?" Aang asked, a touch of sadness in his voice.
"It's hard not to. I don't remember her acting like that before. She's..." It wasn't the nicest thing to say, but he said it anyway. They were both stuck here and he didn't have much to lose. "She's really ugly when she's cruel."
The Avatar absorbed the words in silence, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. "I think you used up one too many chances with her. After the fight with your sister... I think I died, or came closer to it than most people could survive. Katara healed me and brought me back."
"With that sacred water she carried?" He knew she'd had it.
"Yeah. And it wasn't quick. She just watched over a limp body for days and days. I think she hates you for making her hate herself."
That wasn't what Zuko expected him to say. "What? How?"
"She let herself trust you, and then you went against Iroh and helped your sister try to destroy me."
And what could he say to that? He'd been raised to think the same way, to take the blame onto himself for failing and being weak. And Zuko had put her into that position. Katara was right to hate him.
"I understand why you did it," Aang said.
"Really?" Zuko wasn't sure he understood it entirely, himself.
"If I had a family? I'd fight for them. And I wouldn't hold anything back." The rush of strength in the Avatar's voice was almost frightening, but after a self-conscious laugh, he reverted to speaking softly. "I fight for my friends. They're my family now. But it's not exactly the same. We haven't known each other for very long, yet they support me without ever expecting anything in return. Being raised in a family is different from that, isn't it? That's why the monks were raising the potential avatars communally. So we would be tied to our people, have the support of our elders, and the friendship of our peers, but we wouldn't hold allegiance to any one person or small group that could severely influence our judgment."
Judgment. He'd spent so many years seeking approval, doing what was expected. If his mother had lived... no, Father had taunted him with the fact she might be alive. But, if she had stayed... Still, no. He'd been exiled. It wouldn't have mattered. It was his foolish pride that had brought him here.
Weary, he let his head rest back against the goo cradling him. "I'm never going to be able to apologize enough to you for what I've done."
"Hey. You've said enough for me. If it's Katara you're worried about... You're right. This isn't really like her. I'll bet if you just get a move on teaching me fire bending -- without burning me to a crisp -- she'll come around eventually."
Somehow, Zuko doubted that. There was something building up between him and the girl from the Southern Water Tribe. She hadn't yet reached a breaking point, but when it happened, he hoped he could remain calm enough to avoid injuring her. If he managed to survive the green goo and get his bending back, somehow.
"Besides," Aang continued. "I may care a lot about Katara, but she's not my entire family. Toph doesn't seem to mind having you around and Sokka, well, he just loves having someone new to joke around with, I think."
"Oh, is that what it's called in your group?" Jerkbending, indeed.
Aang ignored the wry observation. "He's learned the same thing that I have, to judge people as individuals."
"He must be a really bad judge of character."
"Surprisingly not, actually," Aang said in amusement. "He may have his own, slightly wacky, view of the world and may come across a little strong sometimes, but his gut feeling's been right more times than I can count."
"Yeah," Zuko conceded. "I can see why you keep him around despite the bad jokes." He paused for a beat, then teased, "Almost."
Aang laughed. "What else can I say? Sokka grows on you. He's loyal, and a good friend... They all are."
"It must be nice to have friends like that," Zuko murmured, mostly to himself.
He almost thought the Avatar hadn't heard him, but then the boy asked tentatively, "You... don't?"
Zuko sighed. "Not really." It made him sound weak and self-pitying, but it was the truth. "There's Uncle Iroh and there's Mai, sort of. But commiserating with me on how much the world sucks seems to be her main selling point. It's definitely nice in certain moments, and she can actually laugh, but it's nothing like what you have with them." He tried to shake his head and ended up wincing as the goo pulled his hair. "And Uncle, he's my real family now. I really disappointed him that day. He wouldn't speak to me for months. It felt... He disappeared during the attack. I'm sure he's fine, but... I don't know where he is. We're family, but I wouldn't call us friends now."
The Avatar laughed out loud.
Zuko stiffened. "What?" He'd just bared his soul, talked about his feelings, and the Avatar just laughed?
"You're really lucky I'm stuck here right now."
The muscles in his arms tensed, the impulse to bend fire growing. "How do you figure that?" Zuko asked, trying to remain calm.
Aang chuckled again. "If I'd been loose, I probably would've hugged you just now. And then you would've gotten all huffy and angry and would've roasted me... and I like this. It's nice. Us, just talking."
Zuko let out a relieved breath and smiled ruefully into the night. "I've certainly had worse days. And," he admitted softly, "I wouldn't roast you for that. That is, I wouldn't roast you at all now. Even if I, well, could. But, I wouldn't be angry if you did. That. Hugged me, I mean."
Great. Now the Avatar thought he was weird. Zuko tried to explain with less rambling and stumbling. "We're something like friends now, right? And that's what friends do? Hug?"
"Something like friends?" Aang repeated.
The disbelief in his voice hurt and Zuko backpedaled quickly. "Well, allies now, at least. Right?" He sounded much more pathetically hopeful than he had any right to be. He'd devoted years of his life to trying to kill the Avatar. Being considered his friend now was too much to ask.
"Zuko. We're not 'something like' friends. We are friends now."
Aang's conviction as he spoke was a spot of warmth in the chill night air. It made Zuko's heart beat just a little bit faster. "Oh." He smiled up at the stars. "Okay." And he didn't need to say any more than that.
Aang's stomach growled loudly and he groaned. "You haaad to pick up the glowing egg, didn't you?"
If this quiet warmth in his heart was the result?
Given a choice, Zuko would do it all over again.
ETA: Broomball? So. Much. Fun. (Wikipedia article on Broomball)