"Y'know," she said, nabbing another clump of rice and putting it in her mouth, "this has always been a problem with you, Zuzu."
Zuko groaned at the nickname, but decided it best not to waterbend at the people he was asking for help. "What," he said in the best controlled tone he could manage, "has always been a problem with me?"
"You hate looking weak. I mean, really hate it. What exactly would've happened if you would've just… y'know, kept your firebending powers from the start?"
He groaned. "What do you think would've happened? I would've looked--" He cut off his own words, searching for some synonym. When it didn't come fast enough, Ty Lee got a gleeful look of triumph on her face.
"Uh-huh. That's what I thought."
Zuko scowled and rubbed his forehead, mostly to break eye contact with Ty Lee. Suki was a little more sympathetic. "I think I understand where you were coming from," she said gently. "It's natural that you wanted to look strong as a new leader. And you couldn't have known that all this would happen. But now that it has… have you considered leveling with everyone?"
He only grunted in reply. Of course he'd considered it. Did she think he was an idiot? But the problem was that every time he thought about, he didn't see any other option than to admit everything. The fact was, all the palace staff now thought he was a traitor to their country. Anytime Azula wanted to spread that message farther, she had the perfect crowd of witnesses to do it with. And of course, all he had to do was show his face in the Fire Nation again and it would confirm her story. Surely giving them the truth couldn't make him seem worse than that.
"Hey, don't look so down," one of the other Kyoshi warriors piped up. "We can help you get back into the palace, no problem."
Again, Zuko did not reply. Then, Katara's hand was on his shoulder. "We'll all help," she whispered. "Let's do this together."
The group stayed out in the woods that night. Only Zuko couldn't sleep. The night air was filled with the sounds of crickets, scampering animals, and Katara's slow and rhythmic exhales. They weren't in the same little tent, of course. That would've just been uncomfortable. But still, he knew her breathing. She snored.
Zuko sat up and rubbed his face. He'd suffered insomnia enough times to know when sleep was a lost cause. Besides that, the moon was only making movement easier. It would be a good use of time to get up and practice. Carefully, he tiptoed outside and headed for the creek beside their campsite. He watched the water's surface rippling like liquid metal under the moon's watchful eye. Well, the best way to practice was to get his hands dirty. He walked up to the bank and stepped in. The creek was shallow, only coming up to his ankles. He imagined, if he had any sensation in his feet, the cold would be biting into his skin. But the most feedback the bloodbending would give him was the sluggish way his muscles moved when they had to step through liquid instead of air. He briefly wondered if wading out far enough could give him hypothermia without his notice. But then he felt the night wind blow warm and comfortable on his face and decided that last thought was really stupid.
At first, Zuko just stood, lifted up a blob of water and let it float from one hand to another. Then, as he grew bored of that, he started moving the water in larger quanities. At some point (he had no clue how long he'd been out here), Suki walked up and sat down on a rock several yards away from him. At first, she rested there soundlessly, watching as he pulled and pushed the water in rhythmic waves. The sound was comforting, drawing him into his few pleasant childhood memories. He thought of the smell of salt as he stood looking over the beaches of Ember Island with his mother.
"A little late night waterbending?" He'd almost forgotten Suki was there when she spoke up again and surprised him. She then slipped off the rock and walked over. Classic Kyoshi style. If he hadn't seen her approach, she could've snuck up on him without a sound. "Kind of a big day tomorrow, invading the palace and all. Don't you think you should be getting some rest?"
Zuko nodded. "Oh, I know I should be getting some rest. I just… wanted to take the time to do this, that's all." He let out a long sigh and pushed a decent wave across the lake, startling some animals that were taking a drink on the opposite side. "Can I tell you something in confidence?" he asked. Suki nodded. In truth, Zuko wasn't sure he wanted to tell anyone what he was thinking right now. On the other hand, if he didn't tell someone, he might cower out. "I've put a lot of thought into it. And I've reached the decision that… that I think the leader of the Fire Nation should be a firebender. When I return to the throne, I'm going to ask Aang to switch our powers back again."
Suki nodded thoughtfully. "And you're not telling Katara this?"
"I want to. But I know she'll tell me not to do it. She might even refuse to do it. I'm hoping if I can put her on the spot, she won't have any choice." He groaned and shoved a wave of water away. "Arg, I can't believe how much I'm plotting against her."
"Well, it wouldn't be the first time." Suki cracked a smile, but when Zuko didn't return it, her face fell serious again. "But I don't understand. Without the bloodbending, you can't move, can you?"
"I can a small amount. It's how I get the hand movements to control the rest of my body now." He twitched his fingers and lifted his arm to rest his hand in front of his face. The skin was rough, especially on the palms where he frequently gripped his swords. It looked like the hand of an adult. "And maybe with some time…" He shook his head and lowered his hand once again. "It's not my comfort that matters here. Please promise me you mention any of this to Katara."
"Zuko, I really think you should--"
"Promise me." Even if everything else in his world had turned upside down lately, at least he still knew how to give an order.
Suki sighed and shook her head. "Fine. I promise."