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Appa and Momo Screwed the Timeline

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Momo wasn’t surprised to be here again.

Sure, in the beginning he was incredibly shocked to be back at the Southern Air Temple again, the origin of his home. But that was after he recovered from the shellshock of being violently flung back. After seeing three of his young conspiracy of tall weird lemurs die from the big-scary-metal-floating thing-that-should-not-have-been-able-to-fly.

And after the very air, filled with oppressive red overpowering the soft soothing blue, sent Momo into an agitated panic, overriding his pain at seeing his family all die again leaving him alone.

The panic didn’t fade when he caught a flash of multiple people that all felt like Aang, glowing and muttering amongst themselves. Just when he was about to fling himself at the other-Aangs in distress, to make sure that at least one of his family member was okay, he was violently flung backwards into the void.

And woke with a shriek and nearly fell off the cliff… next to a familiar gray building and his family peach tree.

He frantically looked around for his tall fumbling conspiracy-that-can’t-fly-except-for-Appa-and-sometimes-Aang, warbling and shrieking in equal measure. He searched through all of the rooms, all of the buildings, every single mountain peak within 20 miles. And when he came back to his origin, he was quiet.

He slumped next to the peach tree he woke from and softly chirred to himself, resigned. If only he could cry like his biped family.

He caught the scent of an even older member of his family – the family he had before he met his wonderful humans-who-were-his-giant-lemurs.

He sniffed, ears raised in curiosity, and found his father curled at the base of the tree, the brown marking on his face grayed with age and completely still. His familiar scent was tinged with the smell of the decay that was starting to set in despite the thin air and the cold.

That’s right. There had been one other flying lemur besides Momo. But Momo hadn’t seen any other after his father went back to the earth, his time in the air done. And that was nearly ten seasons before he saw Aang, Katara, and Sokka at the Temple.

At that thought, the lemur’s ears fell flat again in distress and he chirred quietly, trying to soothe himself. He didn’t want to be alone again.

He left his father’s corpse by the tree without a second thought. He had already mourned for him years ago and he would not go through that again. He had another conspiracy of tall lemurs to mourn.

He headed inside the Temple, slowly walking to the cracks that he easily squeezed through. The joy of flying escaped him. His tail dragged on the floor of the room full of what he now realized were stone Aangs.

He looked up at the face of a wizened old man, gentle but stern. He tilted his head, still chirring to himself for comfort, and crawled up the base of the statue. He curled up into a tight ball and fell asleep. Maybe this was a nightmare and he would wake up to see his family all together again. Appa, the gentle wall that guarded their group. Aang with his flighty happiness and freedom. Sokka with his humor and smarts, Katara with her matriarchal care, Suki with her fierce protection, Toph with her solid but crass presence, and Zuko with his warm fingers, sneaking in extra treats.

---

The days passed in a blur. Most of the time Momo slept deeply. Nothing roused him or caught his attention. He still slept right at the feet of old-man-Aang-that-didn’t-have-arrows. Other times, when he actually felt hungry enough to lethargically pick some moon peaches from the trees, he would chirr to himself and chitter subduedly to the statue that became his sole living spot.

The one-sided conversation would be brief, describing the bugs he saw that he had no energy to catch, telling the statue the peaches were good for him to eat, or that he hadn't flown today again during the brief time he was awake.

Momo ignored the uneaten peach that he placed on the statue’s shoulder, closest to the stern stone mouth.

Still, Momo slept curled in the nook between the previous Avatar’s feet.

---

“The balance is gone. Avatar Aang has died and the cycle is broken.” Old-man-Aang-without-the-arrows. Momo screeched, desperately trying to reach him before the dream forced him away and he woke up.

“The other bonds are gone. His bending masters and friends have also perished during this war.” Tall-and-fierce-face-painted-Aang murmured, looking resigned and less fierce.

Female-Aang-with-arrows flashed her eyes, blue shimmering to gray, at the frantic Momo, with a calm, shrewd look in her gaze that reminded Momo of Sokka. “Not all of the Avatar’s bonds have perished.”

Dark-skinned-with-wolf-fur-Aang barked a laugh, “Well, this will be interesting. I can’t believe we’re going to use a lemur and a–” Momo shrieked again, still not getting closer to them despite his frantic flying, “–to save the world.”

Momo wailed, not wanting to wake up before he reached his Aangs-that-were-not-Aang but as always, the four-plus-incomprehensible-number of gazes flashed–!

And Momo woke frantically, flapping in an ungraceful tumble off of Old-man-Aang’s foot. Momo hissed in agitation at the old man and the three statues right next to him, angry that they sent him away, and stomped out of the room to get more fruits for him to eat. He wasn't hungry, but he knew that he needed to eat to be able to survive the mourning, without his family to pull him out of his fugue.

He lost more weight. This time the loss hit him so much harder than losing his father had. The mourning lasted much longer. He had had so many more members in his conspiracy than just his father. From eight members down to just one. Not much of a conspiracy any more. Just a lonely little lemur.

Momo looked at the fruit tree bearing his namesake and slumped, anger leaving him like a slippery eel-beetle slithering out of his paws. His ears drooped like a limp blanket and his tail dragged on the floor like a lifeless rope, gathering dirt and mud when he crawled over the slushy puddle.

He curled up at the base of the tree, any desire to eat just to live leaving him, and slept.

---

There was a clatter of noise that Momo was vaguely aware of. It took a long time for him to wake – so long, in fact, that a metal foot nudged him none-too-gently. He blinked awake.

If he had the energy, he would have screeched in alarm at seeing the red-helmet-with-a-white-skull face, but since he had none, he only slumped further into his weary little ball. A deep voice called out something. He was about to go deeper into sleep, without any hope that he would wake from this potentially fatal encounter, but a scent entered his nose and tickled his memory.

Zuko.

He blinked his half-lidded eyes at the approaching gold. The human was younger, his angry-burn-scar much fresher-looking, and with that patch of long fur at the back of his otherwise bald head, but it was one of the members of his conspiracy of tall lemurs.

He was alive!

Momo chirred softly at him, trying to lift his ears in happiness.

The angry gold eyes softened a bit before hardening and the younger – younger? – younger Zuko bit out a command to the other human and the soldier walked away.

Once Momo was alone with his human, Zuko knelt down right next to him. He looked him over, in what must be a sorry sight. Weak, covered-in-dirt-and-dried-mud, fur matted from weeks of self neglect.

Momo didn’t care. His family was back! Sometimes he wished he could express human joy by crying, but now he made do with soft delighted chirring, and he reached out to Zuko with weak arms, his head cocked to the side.

Zuko murmured something and leant down to pick him up, and cuddled him into the crook of his arm. Momo snuggled in happily.

Finally, he felt warm.

---

Zuko had been banished for six months now, and had spent four of those chasing a mythical legend. First he searched the Western Air Temple.

It was a disaster.

Seeing a bunch of skeletons, most of them little children younger than himself, younger than even Azula, made him lose his lunch. It didn’t take much of a master detective to know that this was not a fight. It was a wholesale slaughter, plain and simple. The air benders had no chance of survival here.

It was a dishonorable kill.

Zuko quietly kept that treasonous thought to himself and grimly buried the dead. If they were Fire Nation, they would have been burned and Zuko would have held a light for them to find their way to Agni. But the idea of firebending made him queasy. Even the thought of holding a candle with a small flickering flame sent cold chills running down his back, making him stumble in weakness.

His uncle hovered by his side with worry when Zuko insisted that he was fine, stop bothering him! But the hovering did not abate as Zuko knocked his shoulder into doorways. Or stumbled because he misjudged a step or missed a crack in the floor.

His uncle got particularly close whenever Zuko was standing or walking close to the edge of the cliff. It didn't help that Zuko sometimes suffered from vertigo from his damaged ear, or that his field of vision was limited to his right side. The unevenness of his hearing also did not help with his balance. Neither did the sudden intense ringing that sometimes dragged out for hours on his left side, leaving him distracted and bumping into walls.

Aside from some snapping and a few angry diatribes, the rest of the exploration of the Western Air Temple went by without incident. Only a few scrolls were found.

While en route to the Southern Air Temple, the bandages came off.

“Give me a mirror,” Zuko said nervously. Iroh sighed deeply, his face anguished at the sight of the deep scar marring the face of the Banished Prince, and Zuko almost didn't want to see how bad it looked.

Kangfu the healer just grabbed the mirror and handed it to Zuko.

He took a deep, bracing breath and peered into it.

It looked bad.

It was bad. The scar was horrible and it spanned the left side of his face, his eyebrow permanently burned off, his lids melted nearly shut to an eternal scowl, and his ear like wax that had been under the blistering sun for too long.

The large scar was shaped like a hand.

Bile rose up in Zuko’s throat and he gagged, dropping the mirror. A waste basket was shoved into his hands just in time for him to vomit into. After finishing with a few painful dry heaves, he sat up straighter on the infirmary bed shaky and pale, but he set his jaw to show his determination.

“Sir, I need to check the state of your eye and hearing.” The healer spoke after giving Zuko a moment to get a handle on himself.

Determination fled, leaving behind the barely concealed fear. He nodded in consent and steeled himself.

“Follow this finger,” Kangfu commanded, moving his index to the left. Zuko had no problem moving his eyes to follow the finger to his own right. Then the doctor moved to his right, and Zuko lost sight of the finger moving to his left field of vision all too soon.

His heart stuttered.

“Cover your left eye and tell me when you can see the finger, and let me know when you stop seeing it.” Zuko immediately let the healer know he could see the finger and told him when it left his vision.

“Now cover your right eye.”

Zuko covered his right eye and immediately dropped his hand and breathed in deep.

“Prince Zuko…”

“I can't see.” Zuko's tone was flat. “Just...light and darkness.” He closed his eyes and breathed deeply again. Even now, when trying to meditate to stop himself from freaking out, the candle flames remained steady, just flickering slightly in the natural drafts.

There was a pause and with a strain that Zuko barely noticed, his uncle turned to Kangfu with a genial smile. “Perhaps we should try the hearing?”

Without further ado, Kangfu started the hearing test. Zuko's hearing on his right was exceptional, as always, but the left…?

“Now for the left: tell me if you can hear it. Cover your right ear and let me know if you can hear the clicking.” Kangfu held up the clicker. It was normally used to train the komodo rhinos – the closest thing to a hearing test device they had in this sorry excuse of a ship.

Zuko plugged his right ear and the world devolved into a muffled whooshing noise. His heart sped up at the unusual sound, nothing like the clear crispness of his usual hearing. He saw Kangfu move the clicker out of his view on the left side and forced himself not to flinch on instinct. He stared at the healer and waited.

If only he could stop hearing the whooshing noise, he could concentrate on the hearing test.

Kangfu's lip twitched downward.

There! There was a barely muffled click, it sounded really off, but a click. “I hear one click.”

He saw Kangfu bring his arm down and motioned him to uncover his ear, “Sir, that was Prince Iroh's loud clap. I've been clicking for a minute straight.”

Zuko's stomach dropped and he breathed again.

A warm hand landed on his right shoulder. “Prince Zuko…”

“Some sight and hearing may come back, but I will not give you hope that you will regain full use of them. I’m sorry sir,” Kangfu interjected when Iroh trailed off. Sounding neither sad, sympathetic, or encouraging. Just a matter of fact.

Zuko appreciated that.

“I’m going to my cabin,” he whispered through gritted teeth. “Do not disturb me.” He shrugged the comforting hand off his shoulder and stormed off. Fortunately, his uncle didn't follow.

Deep inside, though, Zuko wished that his uncle would follow him.

---

In the days and weeks that followed, journeying towards the Southern Air Temple, Zuko’s mood took a darker turn. He snarled, he shouted, he postured, and he abused the little power he had left as the Banished Prince on the sad little ragtag group on board the Wani.

What little sympathy the crew had for their Prince evaporated faster than a summer dew drop in the Si Wong Desert. Their only respite came on the rare days they docked at Earth Kingdom colonies to resupply – and to gather any information Zuko could find relating to the Avatar and the Air Nomads.

What little scrolls they had managed to retrieve from the Western Air Temple, Zuko read fervently, over and over until every word was committed to memory. Including the parts about Flying Bison and Flying Lemur care.

Then there was a longer stretch of empty ocean before they reached Whaletail Island, the final stop before they reached the Southern Temple.

Now Zuko religiously trained himself to compensate for his shot equilibrium. First he found the lower ranked soldiers. Much to his humiliation, he got knocked down over and over again until he finally started beating Pikeman Kazuto.

Under Uncle Iroh and Healer Kangfu’s careful watch, Zuko started getting better at lessening his stumbles, compensating for his blind spot, building up his basics again.

Soon the Wani docked at the base of the Southern Air Temple, where there once had been a small village full of nonbenders. The Air Nomads used to come down here to trade, according to the old maps, because only the airbenders could reach the Temple itself.

“I would recommend taking a small team with you, Prince Zuko. It is a treacherous climb up to the Temple.”

“I managed with the Western Temple!” Zuko snapped and Iroh gave him a wry look.

“I don't know how my poor heart survived the encounter, dear Nephew. Your balance was worse than it was now and you climbed down on a rope. No, if the vertigo should strike again, you would leave this poor old man without his loving nephew to play Pai Sho and drink tea with?”

Zuko scowled at the guilt trip but relented, allowing a small team of soldiers to come along, even though it would slow him down. Two firebenders and two nonbenders came with Zuko and they all bore with mutinous glares Zuko's sharp commands and shouts for them to hurry up. Among them was Lieutenant Jee, huffing and mumbling about impertinent brats under his breath.

Aside from a twitch of his head towards to the right, Zuko made no indication that he had heard the angry mutterings.

This time, when they reached the top, they found more Fire Nation skeletons scattered among the Air Nomads. It was a more equal death on both sides than the senseless slaughter of the Western Temple. But Zuko now knew that there was no Air Military. The monks and nuns practiced pacifism.

They didn't eat meat for Agni's sake!

Zuko shoved the treasonous thoughts away and they spent their time burying the dead Nomads, where Zuko helped, and burning the Fire Nation skeletons, which he took no part in.

He still couldn't stomach the thought of being near intentional Firebending just yet. He was getting better, he could hold a candle in his hand while meditating, but he was still unable to connect with it.

Besides, should they receive a proper funeral rite? They murdered all of the Air Nomads, a voice hissed in his mind.

Zuko scowled and violently shoved that unwanted voice away.

After finding every single body they could for now, they scoured the Temple for the elusive Avatar, Air Benders, or even just scrolls and relics. Anything at all.

Zuko was glaring at a door that could only unlock with air bending when he heard a shout for his attention.

Giving one lost glare at the door, he turned away to see what Han Shu had to show him. As soon as he stepped outside, he saw the soldier nudging a dirty brown matted rag with his foot.

Only, the rag opened its eyes and dull green met his gold.

Strange. It felt like a tingle going through his very being, his spirit.

His spirit knew this pitiful creature.

It was a second or two before he realized that this was a flying lemur, dirty and matted and pathetic as it was. And he didn't like that Han Shu just... nudged it, like a child poking at it with a stick.

“Han Shu, go investigate the rest of this Temple. I'll take care of this lemur.”

“I thought those things went extinct.”

“Well, there's one left at the very least.” Zuko deadpanned. “Now get back to work!” he finished, snapping at the soldier.

The man gave him a crisp salute that simmered with something close to pure loathing and did an abrupt about face, walking away without actually stomping as Zuko would.

Once Han Shu was out of earshot and sight, and Zuko had made sure that he was truly alone, he crouched down to the lemur. It had not moved at all from its spot at the base of the peach tree. The dull green eyes brightened a bit and the creature softly chirred at him.

“What a sad creature you look,” he murmured. Whether it was to himself or to the lemur, he wasn’t sure.

Then it reached its little arm to Zuko.

And Zuko was an animal lover at heart. He couldn't deny what it was plainly asking for. Zuko gently picked it up.

It was…. alarmingly light. Zuko could feel the individual fragile bones under the matted fur. The lemur practically melted into a purring ball in his arm.

He walked around the tree to see a corpse of another lemur, half decayed and half mummified, on the other side of the tree and looked down at the living one in his arms. “Miss your family?” he asked the creature softly.

Big green eyes bored into his soul and the lemur chirred, lifting its arm weakly to place its paw on his chest.

"Yeah, me too buddy. I… I miss my home.”

He looked out at the cloud covering the mountains with distant eyes, absent-mindedly petting through the matted fur. The lemur's purr grew louder in contentment.

“Let’s…. let's just go. I don't think anyone is here. They wouldn't have let you starve nearly to death in mourning if there was anyone here,” Zuko murmured, clutching his precious bundle in his arms more securely. He looked down at the corpse again and added, “After we bury your… family. It's the least I can do after–” After my family probably drove your kind to near extinction.

He swallowed. There was no ‘probably’ about this. This was a fact. If his people, if his family hadn't decided to attack the Air Nomads, the Flying Lemurs most likely wouldn't be down to just one member of an entire species. What an incredibly lonely and heavy burden that was to carry.

He wondered if the lemur knew about that. Knew that it was most likely the very last of its kind.

He buried the dead lemur right at the base of the peach tree, with the other lemur watching from inside Zuko's bag. When he had packed it he had thought that he would be spending more than a couple of nights in the Temple. But the very presence of the weak lemur had convinced Zuko that there was no one here. At least, no one living.

Zuko decided to name the lemur Momo, because he found him under the peach tree.

---

No Momo! I don't want to eat your peach, you need to eat it first, and eat as much as you can!” Prince Zuko fussed over the chirruping lemur, who kept offering him a fuzzy fruit with bite marks in it. Momo was insistent that the boy eat something as well.

The others, besides Jee, took to wearing their face mask nearly constantly to hide the amused grins that they would have been yelled at for showing. Jee stared at the flames of the campfire, but he was unable to hide the tiniest of smirks at the sight even though he refused to look directly at it.

After Han Shu stomped towards Lieutenant Jee to snarl about the uptight Prince, they had looked around the Temple some more. But they were only able to gather a couple more scrolls and journals before they were abruptly told to head back to the ship.

After respectively burying and burning the dead of course.

Jee interrupted the order. “We still have more ground to cover, sir. We were expected to stay up here for at least a week.” He braced himself, fully expecting to have flames spat at him, figuratively if not literally.

But to his surprise, Zuko clutched his bag to himself tightly but with more gentle care that the older man had never seen from the teen. “There is no one here. And…” – and Jee had to blink here, for the Prince actually shuffled his feet – “Well–” His face colored and he snapped, “I got a sick lemur here, so we're going back to the ship!”

Jee blinked in mute shock and nodded. Zuko nodded and turned sharply, heading back to their little makeshift camp to pack up more of their supplies.

For a moment there, Jee was painfully reminded that Prince Zuko was just a thirteen-year-old boy.

And they only went a couple of hours down the mountain before they had to stop and make camp, but Jee could see that the addition of the lemur drastically changed the dynamic of Prince Zuko with the rest of this small crew. Grudgingly, they saw the awkward teenager under the biting snarls – the kid was a huge mother hen to the sickly animal.

And they saw that the kid was actually using the lemur as a barrier between himself and the crew members. And suddenly it was obvious that the kid held himself away from the group not because he believed himself above the others, but because he was still so fucking terrified of the fire – and the lemur was a distraction to keep his mind off it.

The kid was still a giant royal pain in the butt, but Jee was starting to see the child under the mask. He had had several hours to observe him, and more and more of the Angry Prince had cracked with each chirrup of the lemur – named Momo, of all things.

“You said that was a Flying Lemur, right?” Li asked. “I can't say I can see how it can fly.”

Zuko glared at the older man but scratched Momo's back and side, the lemur weakly raising his arms for Zuko to get that itch. Then the teen gently helped Momo lift his arms higher to softly pinch the membrane and pulled it out, showing the rest of the crew that the lemur was, indeed, sporting wings that would allow him to fly.

Han Shu snorted. “Then why didn't it fly away as soon as it saw me?”

Prince Zuko didn't stop scratching the lemur, whose eyes were closed in bliss, as he answered. “Flying Lemurs are social animals. They're always with someone, if not with each other then with another companion. That's how I knew there's no one else alive in the Temple. Momo was in deep mourning after the last of his conspiracy of –”

“Wait, conspiracy?” Kazuto blurted but then ducked his head, his mask not quite hiding a definite blush.

Zuko sharply huffed out a sparkless breath. “A group of lemurs is called a conspiracy. Now shut up!”

There was the brat again. Even if the volume was reduced to a hiss because the Prince didn't want to risk scaring off the poor animal.

Prince Zuko scratched under the matted fur, more flakes of dried mud falling out. That lemur probably needed to get spot shaved to remove the matting. It would look embarrassing wandering around with a few bald patches, but the fur would grow back. Eventually he continued. “I saw the last member of Momo's conspiracy dead right next to him. He was most likely mourning the loss of his family member and fell into deep depression. The problem is, there was no one left to pull him out of it or take care of him. The Air Nomads’ core Philosophy is Freedom, that all Life is Sacred, and they practice Pacifism.” His breath hitched at the last part, like he immediately regretted saying it.

Jee nodded and didn’t call out the words that sounded incredibly close to treason. It made sense. He had seen the bodies too. “So what are you going to do with it?”

“Him,” Prince Zuko answered, looking pale but relieved. “Momo's a boy.” He stopped preening it and tried to get it to eat more of the fruit, but the lemur just shivered. The Prince looked at the cold animal helplessly, and at the crackling flame of their campfire with trepidation.

He sighed, took off his collar guard and chest plates and belt, and stuffed the grateful lemur right into his shirt.

Loud purrs erupted from the bulge on his stomach. The Prince blushed and scowled and once again the rest of the crew were intensely glad that they were wearing their masks.

Jee, however, smirked broadly and unrepentantly directly at the embarrassed boy in front of him.

---

The water had turned a murky brown and yet the lemur still relaxed further into it, only the eyes and upper face showing.

It was a shame, but Zuko had ended up cutting the matting out of Momo's fur. Despite the bald spots, however, Momo was purring in contentment. Zuko couldn’t help but smile – in the privacy of his cabin – at the soothing noise. Smiling pulled on his scars, but the pain was worth it, seeing the lemur absolutely living the life right now, after the hardship he had experienced. He picked up the lemur from the bucket of dirty water and gently transferred him into another bucket full of fresh water, lightly steaming with glorious heat.

After fifteen more minutes of luxurious hot bath, Zuko pulled the relaxed lemur out of the tub and toweled him dry. Momo sleepily raised his arms to Zuko, telling him that he did not want to sleep alone, and Zuko lifted the lemur to his shoulders, where the skinny, fluffy, and slightly damp body curled around his neck, the tail curling protectively and possessively around his collarbone.

Zuko looked down at the sleeping lemur, still softly purring, and then at the candles at the meditation table. The flames flickered softly.

Zuko sighed and sat down. He thought… he thought he was ready to try to connect with the flames. The calm purring was his constant companion as he breathed with it, and he smiled when he felt himself connect with the flames without any further panic.

Thank you, Momo, Zuko thought, and settled deeper into meditation.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks showed a remarkable improvement in Zuko’s attitude. He was still snappish, still avoided playing Pai Sho whenever he could, and was still generally as prickly as ever, but the addition of the lemur made Zuko seem more approachable to the rest of the crew.

It was hard, now, to see the Prince as anything other than a traumatized kid trying to heal himself by taking care of a sickly lemur. Somehow, Momo had become a therapy animal for their Prince.

The Prince moderated his temper whenever the lemur was nearby, which was why they made sure that the lemur was on the Prince at all times. Not that either of them protested. Momo seemed especially keen to not let the Prince out of his sight.

In fact, the lemur threw the biggest racket possible any time Prince Zuko tried to forcibly separate himself from Momo and leave the critter in his room while he tried to train out on deck. Eventually Zuko resigned himself to letting the lemur trot after him. It was content to rest on General Iroh's shoulder, or another crew member’s, as long as they stayed within sight of Prince Zuko.

Zuko, along with everyone else, thought the behavior highly unusual for an animal, but he shrugged, figuring it was because his kin had died and he had been left alone for such a long time.

Zuko was correct, in a way, but oh so wrong at the same time.

The lemur was also helping Zuko progress with overcoming his fear of fire faster than Iroh had ever done alone. Zuko was now able to shoot small puffs of smoke during his kata. The first time this happened, Iroh expected Zuko to flinch violently at the first sign of his own bending, but Zuko only paused, took a deep breath, and finished his kata.

Momo chittered in congratulation and handed him the silverfish roach he’d been eating. Zuko made a face at the half-eaten water bug and declined the offer. Momo just shrugged and popped the bug into his mouth with a loud crunch. Zuko’s face screwed up further in disgust.

(Momo had flourished in health in the weeks he had been under Zuko's care. His fur had grown back and he had gained enough strength to start flying on his own.)

The lemur tried to offer his big friend another silverfish roach, this one whole.

Zuko deadpanned, "No."

Iroh had to bite his lips to stop his chuckle.

It was a great improvement in Zuko's firebending, and Iroh tried to tell Zuko that, but Zuko still remained frustrated with his own seeming lack of progress.

Iroh also noticed that Momo’s presence started to change something in Zuko. He seemed more conflicted. But it wasn’t until eight months after his banishment that he confided to his uncle, “The Air Nomads had no standing military.”

“No. They did not.” Iroh agreed.

“Then…” Zuko swallowed, his right hand immediately reaching up to pet Momo, who had flown to his shoulders at the first sign of his human’s distress, “Then we were in the wrong.”

Iroh’s sad but proud smile told Zuko everything.

Zuko continued, “It was dishonorable,” he murmured under his breath.

"It was," Iroh agreed carefully.

---

They docked near the Eastern Air Temple with plans to climb up before Agni’s first rays in the morning. Zuko looked down with guilt at the lemur sleeping on his chest and whispered, “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry Momo.”

He choked, and Momo woke with a chirrup and climbed up closer to his face so he could rest his paws on Zuko’s cheeks. He chattered, as if to say that it wasn’t not his fault.

Maybe Zuko was just projecting here, but sometimes it seemed like Momo could understand Zuko. Other times, Zuko felt stupid talking to the animal like he was another person.

Momo chattered some more, scolding him as if to say ‘go to sleep you big pup’ and curled right back into a ball on his chest. A warm comforting weight right above his heartbeat.

Zuko smiled through his tears, glad that it was just him and Momo in his moment of weakness, and went to sleep.

---

The Western Temple was horrible. The Southern Temple was bad.

The Eastern Temple was terrible. No bodies this time, but the structural damage was far worse. Scorch marks marred the stone walls; towers had fallen and walls collapsed.

The worst, in Zuko’s opinion, were the empty stables made for the flying bison. The flying bison were extinct and were never coming home.

He’d seen the paintings in his scrolls and he wished he could meet one. They looked like their fur would be fluffy. He wondered what it would have been like to fly on one. He wondered what it would have been like to just sink face first into their fur and warmth.

He swallowed his guilt and continued on.

Zuko still had a team with him, but he’d managed to negotiate with his uncle to bring it down to just two escorts instead of four. After all, his balance had improved, and his sight in his left eye had improved from only light and darkness to general shapes and a blur of colors.

OK, so his hearing had not changed. He still suffered from severe ringing that sometimes left him cringing and unable to concentrate.

Still, the point was that he’d improved and he really didn’t need constant babysitters to make sure that he wouldn’t fall off the cliff.

“Then how about assistance in burial?” Uncle countered, for some reason unwilling to let him go alone. “In fact, I shall be going along with you. I didn’t go with you during the last one, and I will not stand by and let my nephew wander off without me this time.”

Zuko could not argue with that. Not with Momo chittering and grooming Iroh’s beard, messing up his meticulous styling on the left side until it looked like a bush that had been whacked by a rug one too many times.

So, two escorts plus Uncle.

Luckily, there was no need for burial.

Even more luckily, there was a living person, sitting in lotus position at the edge of a cliff. Before Zuko could demand if the old man was the Avatar, the old man spoke.

“I’ve been waiting for you!”

Zuko blinked and Uncle hummed, amused.

Momo, the ever-constant presence on Zuko’s shoulders, tilted his head in curiosity.

“And your spiritual companion as well,” the old man added with a twinkle in his green eyes.

“My what?” Zuko was dumbfounded, and flushed in anger. “What are you talking about, you old wind bag?!” Even Uncle blinked in confusion.

“Your spirit companion. Your little friend has a spiritual connection with you and I suspect that he will have more connections in the future. If I may…?”

Zuko eyed him with mistrust and his two guards tensed behind him, “What are you going to– wait! You never said if you were the Avatar! Don’t distract me!” Zuko settled into stance, preparing himself to fight the potential legendary bender of all four elements.

Even if all he could do was shoot out pathetic puffs of smoke.

Azula would die laughing if she could see him.

The old man laughed, but not like Azula would have. “The Avatar? Oh no, my young friend! I am the spiritual brother of the Air Nomads, but I am not an Air Nomad myself. I am not the fabled Avatar you seek.” There was a knowing glint in his eyes that made Zuko grit his teeth, but he stood down when Momo flew to the old man in greeting.

Zuko felt a little betrayed by Momo leaving him like that.

“Hello my little friend. I see that you have found one of your spiritual companions.” The old man greeted the small lemur’s face then gently touched his forehead. Both closed their eyes for a second before opening them again.

The old man sighed and stared at the lemur with an indefinable look that Zuko didn't like. "You have suffered a great deal, and the spirits have given you a grand task. Oh yes, a grand task indeed." Momo tilted his head and then turned to Zuko, pointing to the old man and chattering to say that this man had his seal of approval.

Zuko sighed and relaxed from his stance, annoyed but entirely trusting his friend. “Fine. You’re not the Avatar. So why did you say that you were waiting for me?” And why would he say those things to Momo?

“My name is Guru Pathik. I had a vision several months ago that a scarred boy would come to me, and that I must help him with his destiny.”

Zuko’s hand immediately went to his face but he stopped short of touching, and brought it down, clenching it into a fist.

“I think you should talk to him, Nephew, and hear what he has to say.” Uncle Iroh walked up to Zuko’s right. Zuko just knew that the two guards were sharing a look behind his back.

Zuko glared at Guru Pathik and called for Momo, holding his arm out for him to come. To his immense relief, the lemur immediately flew to Zuko's outstretched arm.

Zuko ignored Guru Pathik's knowing look and turned to Jee and Kazuto. “You are dismissed. I’ll see you back at camp.”

Both bowed with proper respect and not a hint of grudging anger in their forms, and both left. Uncle Iroh held back for another minute, looking at Guru Pathik intently, and Pathik gazing back with a serene expression. The staring competition lasted for a minute before Iroh smiled, gave him a small bow, and left.

“So what did you want to talk about?” Zuko grunted rudely, crossing his arms.

Guru Pathik remained sitting lotus-style. He grinned at the surly teen and gestured to the ground in front of him. “Come! Sit! We have several things to talk about!”

Reluctantly, Zuko sat cross legged and Momo hopped off his shoulder to explore the grounds around him. “First, I would like to know your name,” Guru Pathik began.

“I thought you said you were waiting for me,” he demanded, narrowing his eyes at him.

Guru Pathik beamed at him. “I said I saw you in a vision. That does not mean I was told your name!”

Zuko mumbled under his breath before he answered, “Prince Zuko. Son of Firelord Ozai and Lady Ursa, heir to the Fire Nation Throne.”

“Well met, Prince Zuko,” said Guru Pathik with another huge smile. “Now, may I read your chi?”

“Why do you need to do that?” he asked, and Guru Pathik met his suspicious glare with a tranquil look of his own.

“So I can help you with your destiny!”

“What do you know of my destiny? Are you going to help me find the Avatar?”

“In a way, I surely will. But that is not my main objective. My task is to help you.”

Zuko didn’t see how else the old man could help him, but he had kind of said he would help him find the Avatar, and after so long with no leads he’d take what he could get. “Fine!” he snapped. “Go ahead and read my spiritual energy or whatever.”

Guru Pathik smiled and then gently touched a hand to Zuko’s forehead. Zuko involuntarily closed his eyes along with him. Soon – not soon enough, in Zuko’s opinion – Guru Pathik withdrew and hummed, “You have blocked chakras, and that is something I can help you with.”

“You can? How will you help me?” His suspicion began to be overtaken by curiosity and hope. “Could this help me with my block on my firebending?”

“Perhaps it may make you a stronger bender, but I cannot guarantee you that. First, drink this!” Guru Pathik shoved a bowl full of liquid right under Zuko’s nose and he crossed his eyes trying to see it.

“What is this?” he sneered, grabbing the drink.

“Banana and onion juice! It will help with cleansing your spirit.”

Zuko turned a little green at the smell. “No thanks. I’ll pass.”

“Oh, but you must! We cannot get started on your Chakra unblocking without it. I admit that it is an acquired taste, but I find that it is delicious.” He drained his own drink in one go and sighed in contentment.

Zuko gagged a little and stared at the drink.

Drink it. It’s to help you get stronger, Zuko told himself.

Momo curiously peered into the bowl and sniffed. Then he promptly turned up his nose and looked at Zuko with a skeptical chirp and wide green eyes: you sure you want to drink this?

Zuko did not like his chances. This drink was going to be nasty.

Well. Nothing for it. Zuko downed it quickly and immediately smacked his hand over his mouth to prevent himself from gagging. If he gagged he'd throw up. He took a deep breath and did a full body shudder. “That’s nasty! You drink that every day?!”

“Of course! Like I said, it has cleansing properties that help your spiritual energy!”

“Ugh!”

---

“I must warn you; once we start on this, you must not stop until you have opened all of the Chakras. Otherwise it will be extremely difficult for you to continue later.”

“Let’s just get going.”

“Excellent! Now drink this.”

“Are you serious?!”

---

“The Earth Chakra starts at the base of the spine. It deals with survival and is blocked by fear. What is it that you fear, my boy?”

“M’not your boy.” Zuko grumbled before sighing and settled deeper into his meditation pose. He closed his eyes and breathed, thinking about his fear-

Warm air. Stone floor. ”Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!” Fire. Fire, fire, fire, fire. Pain!

Zuko screamed and gasped, struggling to bring his breathing under control. He realized he was curled in a fetal position on the ground, hands covering his left eye and his heart palpitating like a scared rabbiroo.

It took another few moments to realize that Momo had shoved himself under his arm to pat Zuko’s chest and give the loudest purr he could. Zuko’s breath hitched in his still-panicked breathing – he looked frantically around.

He was still in the dark, cold cave. It was early winter.

Nowhere near the bright humid heat of the Agni Kai room during spring.

Zuko hugged Momo and started focusing on breathing deeply. In the beginning his breath kept stuttering and wheezing, little whines coming out involuntarily, but soon enough it became deeper and steadier. Momo kept up the steady purring, and the small beats of paws patting his chest helped ground him further to reality.

Guru Pathik remained still and calm and did not acknowledge Zuko’s moment of severe weakness. Zuko’s face burned in shame and anger, but he swallowed it and sat up, Momo leaping out of his arms so Zuko could get into his meditation pose. He wasn’t going to address his lapse if the old man wasn’t.

One glare at the old man showed Guru Pathik smiling at him encouragingly. Zuko sighed and closed his eyes to try again.

Fire. Pain. Rejection. “By the order of Firelord Ozai, you are hereby banished from Fire Nation lands and her colonies…” Being a failure. ”You’ll never catch up Zuzu!” Never being good enough. “Lucky to be born…”

“Acknowledge those fears and let it drain down the river.”

Zuko acknowledged that the fire did hurt him terribly. That his fath- that the Firelord hurt him for his own good. F-father knows best. He survived and he learned his lesson. He acknowledged that the fire did hurt, but he is still alive. He has always been a failure but he always kept going. It’s what he does. It doesn’t matter if he’s never good enough. He will just have to out stubborn his own ineptitude.

He thought fondly of his Uncle's dagger. Never give up without a fight.

He made a tiny smile when he found his resolve but dropped it quickly when Guru Pathik congratulated him.

"Good! You opened up the first Chakra."

"I'm not drinking the stupid banana and onion juice," he said flatly.

---

He drank the stupid banana and onion juice. It was just as awful as the previous times he had drunk it.

---

“I’m guessing that this is the Water Chakra.” Zuko snarked, staring at the loud waterfall with a dry look.

“You would guess correctly, my young friend.”

Zuko’s glare had less bite to it and more exasperation. “I’m not your friend!”

“Of course! Now, the Water Chakra is located at the sacrum. It deals with pleasure and is blocked by guilt. What do you feel guilty about?”

That one was something Zuko had been dealing with ever since he met Momo. Since the Western Air Temple, really, but it had grown so much greater since Momo had slotted into his life. He felt guilty that the Air Nomads were extinct. That the flying bisons no longer roamed the skies and taught airbending. And the dragons, too. The original teachers for Air and Fire were gone. Momo was completely alone and once he passed, there would be no more flying lemurs either.

He was the descendant of Sozin, who had commanded the assault on the Temples and begun the purge of the Air Nomads. It was his people who had done this. And he had believed it right and just, until he saw the remains for himself.

The guilt intensified.

It wasn’t just his people’s offences.

He had been horrible to his Uncle and to his crew. He’d snapped and raged and shouted and driven them far harder than was right or fair. He’d known he was doing it and had tried to tell himself he didn’t care.

He didn’t know how his uncle hadn’t just up and left him already, abandoning him in some safe port and going home. He knew that his crew were close to mutiny due to his behavior.

He’d made so many mistakes.

“I don’t… I don’t know how to get past this.” Zuko struggled to speak through his tears. “I've been… so horrible to my Uncle… to my crew. And… my Nation… we’ve lost our honor.”

“What can you do about your guilt? What is past may not be completely gone. Do what you can do and go from there. The first step to do that is to forgive yourself.” Guru Pathik smiled. “Then you can do better, for yourself and others.”

The Air Nomads and their bisons may be gone, but, Zuko realized, their history was not. Perhaps some of it could be brought back.

Perhaps Zuko could help bring it back.

Yes. Somehow, some way, Zuko would help restore the four temples. He would dismantle the propaganda surrounding the Air Nomads and teach the people of the Fire Nation the truth.

For himself, he resolved to be better to his Uncle and his crew. Just because he had to push himself didn’t mean he had to push them so hard too.

He breathed out. He felt lighter than he had since before he was burned and cast out.

“Good! That’s the second Chakra that you unblocked.”

“Do. NOT. Give me the disgusting–!”

“It cleanses the soul!”

“You are inhumane,” the Prince growled, and downed the drink. He burped, barely managing to keep himself from turning it into barfing.

“Come. To the next Chakra!” The Guru leaned out of the way of the bowl that Zuko threw, and didn’t even watch it as it sailed by and down the cliff by the waterfall.

“Oh Agni. It tastes like pickles now,” Zuko complained, a little green around the gills, and he grudgingly followed the Guru. Momo flew after, refusing, even now, to let Zuko out of his direct line of sight.

---

Zuko closed his eyes and faced the sun, feeling at peace as he soaked up the sun's rays. Momo chased after a bug, but once it darted out of view he stopped and returned to Zuko.

“Now, the Fire Chakra is right here at the stomach.” The Guru patted his own belly with a slightly hollow sounding smack. “It deals with willpower and is blocked by shame.”

Immediately, Zuko thought of his own family. He was disgraced. He was incompetent. He was lesser. He had shamed himself in front of his fath– in front of the Fire Lord. His family was responsible for the genocide of the Air Nomads. What else would be destroyed?

Who else will die out?

He realized that the war was wrong. The war needs to be stopped. Without the Avatar, he didn’t know how he could go home. He needed the Avatar to be able to get home. He needed to get home to stop the war.

He was ashamed. Of himself, of his family history, of his nation filled with murderers. Honorless murderers. The taste of the banana and onion juice rose to the back of his throat and he felt like throwing up. He didn’t know how he would fix this, but he would find a way.

He couldn’t let his own incompetence get in the way of what needed to be done. He needed to stop this… this war and return the Fire Nation’s honor. And to do that he had to get home.

To do that, he had to find the Avatar.

“Hmm. Close enough. It got your Chakra unblocked at least.”

“Give me that onion and banana juice so I can barf on you!” Zuko demanded.

---

Zuko did not barf on Guru Pathik. Momo chittered in laughter.

---

“The fourth Chakra is the Wind Chakra, located at the heart.” Guru Pathik tapped two fingers at his chest. “It deals with love and it is blocked by grief.”

Zuko’s face fell, as images of his mother, father, sister, cousin, and uncle swarmed immediately into his mind's eye.

“Zuko, please, my love, listen to me. Everything I've done, I've done to protect you.” Mother’s retreating form faded into wispy smoke.

It was replaced by his father’s face, the one and only time he remembered him smiling at him, when they were at their Ember Island home. The soft smile turned cruel as the Ember Island beach morphed into the Agni Kai arena, flaming hands heading towards his face...

Azula’s cherubic face and high-pitched giggling as they chased each other dissolved into smirks and harmful words.

Lu Ten’s easy presence and warm smiles, hands ruffling his phoenix plume, shattered like stone, dust swirling to reveal Uncle.

Uncle stayed. Then Momo flew to Uncle’s shoulders and both looked to Zuko. Iroh smiled and Momo chittered.

Zuko smiled through his streaming tears, his eyes still closed as he looked at the two in his mind’s eye.

“You see? You have love, and you are loved even if it does not feel like it. You lose something, you keep something, and you also gain something. You feel love, deeply, and that is something you must accept as a part of yourself.”

Zuko pursed his lips in irritation but the emotion was fleeting. He took a deep breath and tentatively allowed himself to feel the grief, held onto it tightly, and then exhaled, letting go of the feeling. He could feel the grief slipping away, floating away with his breath.

On his next inhale, softer this time, he allowed his love to stretch its wings. It was scary, to let the emotion free again. Uncle and Momo. He loved them. He wanted to see them happy, was glad they were with him.

“Good. Good.” Guru Pathik spoke softly, and Zuko took a shuddering breath. He felt slightly ashamed to let anyone see his tears, but he let that go too.

Silently, he held out his hand and Guru Pathik beamed, handing him more of that horrible concoction that Zuko silently vowed to make illegal throughout the Fire Nation once he was home again.

---

Zuko stared at the giant statue of Avatar Yangchen with tired eyes. He knew he was on the fifth Chakra. Three more to go before he could say he was finished. Guru Pathik was sitting on his bad side, so he turned his head to look directly at the old man so he could hear him better.

“...the Sound Chakra. Located in the throat, it deals with the truth and is blocked by lies–”

“No,” Zuko said, interrupting the old man. He pushed himself up and turned to leave.

“Prince Zuko.” Guru Pathik spoke his name seriously for the first time. Zuko paused in his step. “I implore you to stay and finish this. I know it is hard, but I believe you can do it. You are far stronger than you give yourself credit for.”

“I– I… I'm sorry,” he rasped, and continued walking when silence was the only reply. Just as he was about to step over the threshold of the room, Momo chirred in concern and leaped onto his back.

Once again, Zuko paused, and looked at the lemur settling onto his right shoulder. Momo grabbed his cheeks with his paws and large green eyes peered into his tired gold, one more hazy and paler than the other. Then he chattered animatedly, reaching down to pat Zuko’s chest, right above his heart. The lemur's tail tightened around his shoulder and neck to keep balance before he reached up to pat his neck.

Then he looked at Zuko again with those large green eyes and tilted his head.

Zuko wanted to think that Momo was telling him he could do this. He wasn’t too sure. But at least there was one person here he trusted that could tell him to be strong.

Zuko sighed and turned sharply back, sitting down again in front of the Guru. Momo hopped off his shoulder, leaving his friend to finish his spiritual quest.

Guru Pathik continued as if Zuko had not almost abandoned his Chakra unblocking. But Zuko thought he saw relief on his face. “You must seek the lies you have told yourself and find the truth.”

Zuko looked away from the old Spiritual Master for a moment, steeling himself. Then he faced straight ahead and closed his eyes.

“Dad's going to kill you. Really, he will!”

Azula always lies, Azula always lies, Azula always lies.

...Unless the truth hurts so much more.

“She wasn't lying that day.” Zuko finally acknowledged softly. His whisper was more of a rasp, as it had been ever since he damaged his throat from smoke inhalation and screaming. "She told me, right there, that Fa–” he stopped himself.

"That Ozai was going to kill me to become the Heir to the Throne," he finished flatly. “And my mom… she must have made a deal with him because she… she assassinated my grandfather, the previous Fire Lord.”

Guru Pathik's steady presence was quiet, letting Zuko work through the lies he told himself. “My mother would have never done anything like that…. But… but she did.” He didn’t know why he was telling this to a virtual stranger. He had never told anyone this, ever.

Not even Uncle knew what had happened that day, when everything really did fall apart. Or at least the precursor, the inception, of his life’s spiral out into roaring flame.

“Mom assassinated Grandfather Azulon.” Fresh tears lined his eyes and his face twisted in anguish. “All to protect me from Ozai, who would have happily murdered me as ordered by the previous Fire Lord.”

Momo climbed up Zuko back as his human hunched over, face in his hands and a muffled voice continued, “I think… I think he would have just as happily killed me at the Agni K-kai stand. He– he was…”

The sentence broke off with muffled sobs and Momo draped over Zuko's hunched shoulders and chirred into his right ear.

---

Guru Pathik's heart broke for the boy, and he met the lemur’s eyes again. Already Momo had altered the course of the timeline Pathik had glimpsed briefly. He just hoped that this spiritual journey for Prince Zuko would help him further along.

Several minutes passed and the sobs quietened to sniffles, yet the young Prince refused to look up, apparently not ready to face the world yet. His right hand left his face to pet Momo's large ears and Momo reciprocated by patting his ear.

The boy gave a quiet huff that was not quite a laugh but he lifted his head.

Guru Pathik offered a kind smile, even if the young Prince refused to make eye contact. "You have unblocked your Sound Chakra."

Prince Zuko closed his eyes as Guru Pathik’s words sank in. He looked more peaceful than he had since he arrived, but so terribly wrung out. He had worked through so much, and there was still more to do.

He was still petting Momo’s soft ears.

“I believe that was the hardest part of your trial,” Guru Pathik informed him gently but candidly. “It still will not be easy, no, but I sincerely believe that this was the hardest chakra for you and you have successfully made it past it."

All three of them sat silently, letting the moments pass them by. Pathik was not going to push the boy any further than necessary. The spiritual and mental journey to unlock all seven chakras was no light thing. Some could manage more easily than others. But for some who had suffered great spiritual damage, such as the young boy in front of him, it was a monumentally difficult task.

Momo hopped off Zuko’s back and skittered behind Pathik, only to reappear hopping sideways on his two hind paws, carrying a bowl, large in his small arms, full of the awful banana and onion juice.

Zuko snorted in dismay when Momo presented it to him. Pathik brayed in laughter, clutching his stomach with one hand and smacking his crossed leg with the other.

---

“The Light Chakra” – Guru Pathik tapped Zuko’s forehead once – “deals with insight and is blocked by illusion.”

“What illusion, that we are all the same?” Zuko asked sarcastically, albeit in a subdued voice.

“No. It is the exact opposite,” the old man gently corrected, and indicated with his hand that Zuko should close his eyes. “The illusion is that we are all separate. Nation, class, people, animals, death, and even time.”

Zuko scrunched his nose at the weird emphasis on time.

“The barrier of separation is what is the illusion. We are all connected; through class, through life or death, through nation, through time,” – there was the weird emphasis again – “even through the elements themselves.”

His memories of his people mingled with images of the Earth Kingdom. In his thoughts he considered the idea that life and death are connected. Kings, Lords, workers, soldiers, peasants, babes, adults, sick, strong, women, men, are all humans.

Humans, lemurs, hawks, bugs, plants. All are living beings.

All living things die.

But not necessarily their memories. “Oh.” Zuko breathed.

All things die, but they go back into the cycle of life and death. And there is the Spirit world, and there are memories. People pay the dead and the Spirits their respects, and some Spirits help in turn.

Earth is connected to fire with firmness of stance, fire to air with free mobility, air to water with shifting fluidity, and water to earth with firm calmness.

A flash of Lu Ten’s picture flitted across his mind.

“I think I get it.” He breathed, looking at the old man in wonder, feeling a rush of chi flowing from his mind down to the rest of his body.

“Very good!” the old man praised, then held out the Agni-forsaken juice. Momo, the little traitor, chittered from above on the cliff wall.

Zuko sighed and drank it while holding his breath.

---

“This is it?” Zuko asked, looking up at the night sky. The stars seemed so much more intense. Like he could just reach up and touch one of Agni’s disciples.

“This is it,” Pathik agreed, also looking up at the heavens.

Zuko never really took the moment to ‘smell the orchid-roses’ as Uncle would say, but right now, he felt he could get lost in the vastness of the twinkling stars suspended in the dark indigo sky, just becoming one of the little balls of gas.

Today had been an incredibly difficult day, but not the worst day of his life. Just… difficult. He felt empty, wrung out, but also rejuvenated. Cleansed. Like that sore but good feeling after intense exercise. Or the feeling of an infection being drained and finally healing.

Yeah, he thought. It’s most likely the last one.

“The Thought Chakra, located at the crown of the head.” There was a pause as both of them still looked at the night sky before Guru Pathik continued, “It is Pure Cosmic Energy and is blocked by Earthly Attachment.”

Finally, Zuko could feel Pathik’s eyes on him and he looked up to meet them. “What attaches you to this Earth, Prince Zuko?”

“What do you mean?” he asked with some trepidation.

“What keeps you going,” Pathik tried again.

“...My home. My people. My nation. The turtleduck pond. My sister. My f-father. My uncle.” Zuko closed his eyes, but then it snapped wide open at the old man’s next word –

“You must let them go.”

“What?! You just told me that I must embrace my love!” He shouted, outraged, “Now you’re telling me that I have to forget them?!” Momo shrieked and flew in circles around the two, but landed on Zuko’s shoulder. Momo stared wide-eyed at Guru Pathik, pupils blown wide in the dark, but he had a sense that he was being judged by the lemur. Harshly.

Cowed by a little lemur, Pathik raised both of his hands in an appeasing gesture, “I never said to forget them. Strong attachment is good. But what happens when you have a chokehold over your loved ones?”

Zuko's shouting simmered into a glower, calming down as he thought about it. He couldn’t see it.

Until, suddenly, he could.

Azula used to have a pet lizard dog called Jin Jin. Ozai loved her best and she wanted a pet to outshine Zuko’s turtleducks. It was a beautiful pet. Red, orange, with shimmers of iridescent greens and blues swirling across its lithe body. Azula loved it.

The lizard dog wanted to leave the painful burning hands. Azula did not like that.

The lizard dog left, but not in body. Azula hated anything trying to leave her.

Then he saw the opposite. He saw his uncle. He saw that his uncle wanted to be with him every step of the way, hovering like a worried parent. But he pulled back when Zuko needed his space.

The love was there, but Uncle let go when needed and he always came back when he was wanted.

Finally Zuko calmed down and the rage vanished, “I can let go and still love them?”

“Precisely. Your family and nation is still there even if you let them go. Your love is unquestionable, I am not doubting you on that, but obsession is what ‘love’ is when you don’t let go. It won’t be love anymore. It just harms and destroys.”

Zuko flashed back to the burnt husk of what used to be Jin Jin the little lizard dog. Zuko sincerely hoped that the turtleducks did the smart thing and fled during his banishment. He didn’t want to think that they might have joined Jin Jin in the Spirit World.

Zuko nodded to show that he understood, and closed his eyes in meditation.

Slowly, one by one, all the things that he loved fell away like smoke. He had the most difficult time with Uncle and Momo, but they, too, passed like mist.

Zuko looked to the left and saw that he could see out of his left eye, could hear out of his left ear. He saw an aurora trail leading up into the stars. He walked.

The Earth behind him looked so small and he was surprised to see how different it looked compared to the flat maps. He looked forward and saw a spectre of himself. Dark body with soft golden flare of light outlining his form. His eyes shone a brilliant gold, with a dense cluster of stars where his scar would be on his left face.

Behind his head shone the sun, coronal flares of white gold surrounding his head like a large crown.

Cupped in his spectre-self’s hand, a calm orange-gold bonfire, warm and comforting.

Still, Zuko hesitated, his fear flaring up in his chest and stopping him cold.

He breathed and forced his arm to reach out to the fire before his body could freeze again.

---

Lieutenant Jee, Prince Iroh, and Pikeman Kazuto all looked up when Prince Zuko stumbled into view of their campfire. Jee frowned at the state of the kid.

Even through the warm jacket, the kid looked like he'd been through hell.

But to his pleasant surprise, the kid just walked closer to the large fire he had ever before with only a slight tensing of his frame, and dragged the sleeping bag closer to his Uncle where he sat close to the flame.

Without a word, Zuko shoved himself into the bedding and lay still. Momo crawled on top of the unconscious child, staring with intense green eyes at the older Prince to tell him to keep watch. Iroh nodded solemnly, returning the lemur’s gaze, and only then did Momo curl into a ball and close his eyes.

All three exchanged a glance. Three of them wondered what happened, Prince Iroh had a small gentle smile, and tears gathering in his eyes.

Chapter Text

Zuko breathed. The little golden flame grew in his cupped palms, lighting the sleeping bodies of his little crew in their camp.

He exhaled and the flame shrunk but held steady, like a constant little companion. He smiled, trying his best to remain calm about finally bending fire again since… Since the Agni Kai.

He sunk deeper into his meditation, into his connection with the flame. It felt like a steady heartbeat; consistent, warm, comforting. A metronome of beats to keep him grounded.

A slight weight landed on his shoulders in the predawn hours and Zuko turned his head slightly to the right to look at Momo. “Hey Momo,” he murmured, still more focused on keeping the little flame going.

It was… comforting, to finally bend fire again. It was still night when he’d awoken, so he’d taken the opportunity to relieve Kazuto of his watch duty so he would be able to practice bending on his own. It took several tries to get the flame in his hand to light up, still feeling the panicky adrenaline surge through his veins at the sight of the fire, but each try took less and less effort to get the flame started and to keep going. At the forefront of his mind, once he had started to get used to holding fire again, he couldn’t help but question the color. He knew that Azula was starting to master blue fire, lauded as the most difficult fire a master could wield, but he had never heard of golden fire.

Sometimes it was more orange. Sometimes it was paler, like straw. Sometimes it had a mix of all three colors.

He was tired, but he could not sleep further. He’d had a dream of seeing his spectre self, just like he’d seen earlier with Guru Pathik, holding a bonfire of golden flame. The same color that he now wielded as a calm little lick of fire in his cupped hands.

He should ask Uncle about the color.

Momo chirruped and reached out to touch the flame – and Zuko panicked, jerking his hand out of the curious lemur’s reach. The little flame snuffed out.

His heart still thudding in his chest, he snapped, “No, Momo!” Momo’s ears went flat against his head at the fear-fueled chastisement. But then they perked up again as a snort interrupted the loud snores.

“Zuko? Nephew?” Uncle called with a heavy sleep laden voice and Zuko heard his uncle’s groan as he got up.

Zuko looked down. “Sorry to wake you, Uncle.”

Iroh only waved off his apologies with a wide and loud yawn that got Jee and Kazuto grumbling under their covers.

Kazuto popped his head from under his cover, his hair in disarray, not unlike Momo’s nest of blankets.

In other words, a mess.

Jee sat up and blinked, rubbing his eyes with his forefinger and thumb to clear away the grogginess. He looked over at Zuko and nodded to him “Morning, Sir.”

Kazuto stared blankly at nothing for a second before his brain seemed to catch on that, oh yeah, he should be waking up. Then he looked up at the sky where it was just starting to lighten up to a dreary gray, and muttered unflattering things under his breath about the craziness of firebenders and their rising with the sun and other ostrich horse dung.

It was then that Zuko suddenly realized that his crew, at least these two members, were not holding themselves so stiffly around him. They were not showing any hint of loathing or disgust in having as their captain the scarred, Banished Prince, whose every order they had to follow.

They were completely and utterly comfortable around him.

He wondered when that had changed. Or had it been like that for a while, and he only noticed it now after unlocking his Chakras?

He didn’t know and frankly? He didn’t want to look the gift ostrich-horse in the beak.

“Prince Zuko? Are you alright, Nephew?”

Zuko’s hand went up to pet the softly chirring Momo, staring mutely at his uncle without seeing him, almost looking through his uncle. He was unaware of the look of increasing concern on his uncle’s face. Nor did he realize that his quietness had caused Jee and Kazuto to halt their morning rituals and look at their young Prince in perturbation.

He was thinking about why his crew had been so uncomfortable around him. He was thinking about how appallingly he had treated them. He was thinking about how he had pushed his Uncle away, all those times he had just been trying to help him. He was thinking about how he needed to talk to Guru Pathik about a few more confusing things, such as his comment to Momo about a grand task. He was thinking about –

Momo chirped in warning and Zuko saw his uncle reach to touch his arms in time to stop his flinch. Instead he stilled his petting and blinked at his uncle.

“Something on your mind, my nephew?” Iroh asked kindly, and the other two quietly started to resume their dressing, subtly keeping their ears on the conversation without actually looking like they were eavesdropping.

Zuko knew though. They weren’t being that subtle.

He sighed and knelt down before his uncle, hands on the ground. “Uncle,” he started, not seeing his uncle’s eyes widen in surprise, nor seeing Jee and Kazuto giving up pretense of grooming or putting on their armor just to stare, “I wish to apologize for my behavior for the past year. I was difficult and I understand if you don’t want to forgive–”

Momo squawked and hopped off of Zuko’s back and flew onto an astonished Jee’s shoulder, and chittered with annoyance at Iroh for knocking him from his favorite perch. Iroh had pulled Zuko into a fierce hug. He almost backed off when Zuko tensed with a sharp inhalation but steadfastly held on. “Oh Zuko. There is nothing to forgive” – Zuko’s breath hitched in the beginnings of panic – “for I was never angry at you. I was sad. I was so sad for you and angry at what he did to you.” It was only with those words that Zuko relaxed into his hug.

Uncle Iroh eventually pulled away, not caring that they had a rapt audience of two watching this surreal and slightly horrifying view, and spoke softer, voice deeper with emotions, “If anything, my dear Nephew, it is I who should beg for forgiveness. I looked away and I will never forgive myself for that.”

He grabbed his nephew's face with a gentleness that brought a fresh wave of tears from his eyes – the maimed left still struggling to tear up properly – “Can you find it within yourself to forgive a foolish old man like me?”

Zuko hesitated and licked his lips, “…It hurt.” He spoke haltingly, testing the water on speaking his mind, and oh so dearly hoping that he would not get hurt again, “When you did that. Looked away, I mean.”

Iroh’s face crumbled. Jee and Kazuto desperately wanted to leave and let them have their intensely private moment, but they both stood rooted to the spot like the Jackalope under the Vulture-eagle’s gaze. It was a horrifying thing to watch and they couldn’t look away, and yet they felt that if they did make an effort to move, they would meet the ire of two Princes of the Fire Nation, the banishment of Prince Zuko notwithstanding.

The implications that they were both hearing also left them pale and shaky. ‘He’? Prince Iroh looking away? Did it have to do with the scar on Prince Zuko’s face that Prince Iroh was softly, gently caressing with his right thumb?

If so, then there was only one person in this world who could harm the Prince with Iroh looking away and without killing the person on the spot.

Lieutenant Jee went green, then pale, then red as fury set in, but he held his tongue. He did not want to immediately jump to conclusions, but the thought would not leave his mind.

One thing he did know for sure, though, was that he needed to speak with Prince Iroh.

Zuko did not notice any of that, his eyes only on his silently crying uncle and felt his heart clench at the sight of seeing him in pain. “I do forgive you, though. Please, please don’t cry.” He finished plaintively and he was once again crushed into a hug that Zuko instantly melted into.

He heard his uncle’s fierce whisper, “You are too young to deal with this. Too young to have suffered so.”

---

After being in his uncle's hold for another long minute, feeling safe in the soft but firm hug, Zuko seemed to realize that they had an audience. He almost cursed them out but remembered his fresh resolution and stopped himself in time.

He pulled away from his uncle's embrace and stood, and announced that he would go talk to Guru Pathik once more before they departed the Temple.

Before he left, however, he stopped to face both Lieutenant Jee and Pikeman Kazuto and bowed to both of them with the symbol of the flame. “I also want to apologize for my abhorrent behavior this past year. I will tell this to the rest of the crew too, when we get back.”

Both stood at attention and bowed back. Jee responded, “It’s an honor to serve under you Prince Zuko.”

Zuko looked like he wanted to argue but snapped his mouth shut and speed-marched out of the clearing, Momo flying after him.

As soon as Jee knew Zuko was out of earshot, and counting an extra five seconds to make sure – because the kid’s one good ear had exceptional hearing – he turned to Prince Iroh who was vacantly staring at the morning tea as the Jasmine tea leaves steeped. He stood at attention, back ramrod straight, and looked ahead, but the creak of his armor was loudly catching Iroh’s attention at how angry it sounded.

Iroh looked up and Jee relaxed into an at ease position, “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

Iroh gave Jee an intense look that bordered on exhaustion. Jee may tower over Iroh’s sitting form, but he still felt sweat form at the back of his neck. Prince Iroh may look old with a jovial face and a plump figure that looked like he had never fought a day in his life, but the man was the Dragon of the West.

Retired or not, the kindly looking old man was dangerous.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Iroh sighed. “Granted.”

“It was Firelord Ozai, wasn’t it?” he asked bluntly, ignoring the sensation of nervous sweat dripping down his temple, “He burnt half of his son’s face off, didn’t he?” Kazuto inhaled sharply in surprise and started coughing.

Iroh seemed to have aged another 20 years at that but he nodded, picking up the teapot to pour a cup for himself before bringing out two more cups.

Jee relaxed more at that. He would have been more worried about his continued living status if he wasn’t going to be offered a cup of tea.

Both of them sat down at Iroh’s invitation and Iroh poured tea into their cups. “Yes, he did,” he said simply.

Kazuto sipped the tea and hesitantly asked, “…Why?”

Jee muttered under his breath, “I thought it was a training accident.”

Iroh placed the teapot down a little more forcefully, subtly showing his rage through the loud clink. “My esteemed brother decided that Prince Zuko needed to be taught a lesson for speaking out against a tactic to use new recruits as fatal bait. ‘You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher,’” he quoted, mouth twisted into a scowl. The memory of that day was still far too close, too sharp, and the emotional morning they had had before the sun even came up left him unable to maintain his normal calm. “He did that in full view of the noble court.”

Jee had a flash of imagery, of his own hand burning his own son’s face at 13 years old, and had to set the teacup down lest he throw it in a fit of apoplectic fury. He stood up to walk away to clear his head.

Kazuto stared at his own teacup, pale and vacant. “That… that’s…” He was unable to finish his thought.

Iroh took a sip, closed his eyes and breathed when he felt the first rays of sunlight hit his face. “I trust you to be discreet with this information. Do not use this against my Nephew, but if anyone has questions I trust that you will direct them to me.” It wasn’t a question.

Lieutenant Jee stopped his pacing to nod at the Prince, “Understood, Sir,” and went back to packing their things. Kazuto shakily took a breath and bowed low to Iroh, and finished getting dressed to help Jee with packing.

---

Zuko sat in front of Guru Pathik, sleepy Momo draped over his shoulders with an occasional caress of the tail on his neck and collarbone, both of them meditating to the rising sun.

When the sunbeams touched their faces, Zuko sighed and opened his eyes to look at the green of his…mentor? Spiritual Mentor?

Sounds about right, at least for today, "I have a few questions to ask of you," he said calmly, a far cry from the snappish tone from yesterday's first meeting.

The Guru inclined his head in consent.

Zuko held out his one palm and a golden flame burst into view. "Do you know what this means? Why did my fire color change?"

The old man's eyes gleamed in curiosity and he stroke his beard as he leaned closer. "Hmm. I cannot say that I have ever seen a firebender's flame color turn gold in all my one hundred and fifty years of life."

Zuko's fire shot up in surprise, "A– a hundred and fifty?!" Momo only sleepily chirred in response, not at all concerned that he would get burned from the golden flame.

"It's the banana and onion juice!"

"That's not how it–! You know what, no, I'm not getting into that." The Banished Prince huffed and snuffed out his flame before Momo could get the idea to try to grab it again.

"I cannot help you with definitive answers, but I can tell you for sure that it is spiritual in nature. If I were to take a guess, I would say that a Spirit or two has blessed you."

Zuko let out an annoyed huff, "That's helpful. Not like the spirits ever gave me a break."

Guru's jovial look fell into a serious look that made Zuko sit up straighter. Even Momo perked up, "I understand that you have been through much, but Destiny is at play despite the ever changing course of Time. The spirits do not just bless anyone, but they most certainly do for those who are intricately tied to the Balance."

Momo's ears fell flat and he chirred in reluctance, huddling closer to Zuko's neck. Zuko looked at Momo in confusion before looking back at Guru Pathik, "That's another thing! What does a flying lemur have to do with Destiny?"

"Animals normally are not tied to Destiny," Guru Pathik agreed in answer to Zuko's unspoken question. "But this one was especially blessed to help you and Six others with their Destiny. That is why I say that he is your Spiritual companion. There are six other bonds that are reaching out into the distance. All I can say is that four of those bonds are reaching towards the South.” He pointed. “One is reaching East-Southeast. And the final one is reaching directly East."

"Can you tell me the destination of any of them?"

"No, it is as I said, they reach out into nothingness."

"Again, that really tells me nothing.” Zuko gritted his teeth as he bit back a more vitriolic reply. He calmed himself and began to think it through for himself. “The South I can reason to be the Southern Water Tribe. But the East and the Southeast one could either be the one giant landmass of the Earth Kingdom or the chain Island of Fire Nation.”

See? He's already making progress in trying to not become Prince Shouty. Then he frowned, looking at Momo who still had his ears lying flat against his head.

He couldn’t believe that his lemur had a Destiny to fulfil. He almost wanted to giggle at the ridiculous thought, but instead of laughing, he just reached up to comfort Momo with pets.

Momo perked up and stared at him with wide green eyes. The lemur's face didn’t translate really well to human expression, but he knew without a doubt that Momo was thankful.

There was one more question he wanted to ask now that he knew how old this man was, but he hesitated, aware of its sensitive nature.

Guru Pathik seemed to know what he's about to ask and smiled kindly at him, a small soft smile that barely twitched his beard. "Go ahead, young Prince, ask me your question."

 

"Were you… were you there when it happened?" he asked in a small voice.

The kind look became impossibly sad, "No." He answered, "I was mid route between the Northern and the Eastern Air Temple when it happened. I was almost back home, traveling through the sea from the Earth Kingdom. By the time I made it back home here, it was too late."

He sighed, eyes dry but vacant as if lost in memories, "Giving them the Sky Burial was the longest two weeks of my hundred and fifty years of living."

Zuko swallowed and turned away from the silently grieving old man to look at Momo staring at Pathik.

He picked up Momo and deposited him on the surprised Guru Pathik's lap. “You can, uh, pet him. It helps,” he mumbled, blush staining his cheeks.

The old man laughed softly and started petting the purring Momo. He picked him up in his arms as he stood. “Come, my young friend. I have something to show you.”

Zuko didn't even protest the friend title this time, only quirked his lip in a half smile as he followed behind, watching Momo chittered at Guru Pathiks face and the old man responding as in a full intelligent conversation.

---

“Are– are you sure?” Zuko stuttered, looking at the Airbending scrolls, scrolls about Air Nomad Culture, Air Nomad recipes including bakery, vegetarian meals, and – Agni forbid Uncle get wind of this – tea, and an Air Bison brush. There was even a small booklet of children's stories.

“I’m giving this to you because the Air Spirits are grateful to you,” Guru Pathik explained, back to his jovial beaming self, Momo grooming his beard.

“Why would they be grateful to me?” I'm Fire Nation. My family massacred the Air Nomads!

“The Spirits, both great and small, are grateful that you buried their dead.”

Zuko sighed in relief, a weight he didn't know he was carrying eased. “Burying them was okay?”

The old man bowed. “It was more than enough.” He straightened and looked the boy in the eyes to stress the seriousness of this conversation. “They have been stuck to the ground for almost a hundred years. Your effort to give them a funeral rite released them to the Autumn Lord's care. Prince Zuko, it was enough and they are grateful. The Winds will be in your favor.”

Zuko took a deep breath and sighed again, relaxing a little at the thought that he had done some good. But he still didn't quite fully grasp what Guru Pathik had said. He didn’t realize that when Guru Pathik said that the Winds would be in his favor, he meant that quite literally.

So he just bowed. “Thank you for the gifts. I will take care of them and treasure them.”

---

Even though Zuko knew the ends of his bonds were all located South and East, he still ordered the crew to head North, to check the last temple. This would be his longest stretch of seafaring yet. He ignored that he was scared to face his bonds, not knowing what they would mean for his Destiny. He had to find the Avatar.

It was also at this time, soon after they left the Eastern Air Temple, that he celebrated his 14th birthday, cradling the golden flame in the privacy of his cabin.

A knock sounded out as Momo tried his best to catch the golden flame and Zuko scowled, immediately snuffing out the flame with a murmur of “You trying to get hurt on purpose, Momo?”

“Prince Zuko? May I come in?”

Uncle.

“Come in!” he called out, pushing the lemur away when he grabbed his hand and chittered at him to light the flame up again.

Uncle Iroh came in, holding a tray full of tea and a couple of the butter cookies that Zuko was fond of. “Happy Birthday, Nephew.”

Zuko felt the warmth glow in his chest, even as Momo at first refused to let go of his hand. Then the lemur let go of his hands for a less than innocent reason.

“MOMO!”

The lemur chittered, scampering away with his ill-gotten cookie. The lemur waved the cookie at Zuko's scowling face and Iroh chuckled. Momo tilted his head and chittered, gesturing the cookie to Zuko's hand but when Zuko tried to snatch the cookie back, Momo screeched, hopping back out of reach again before coming back to repeat the gesture.

“It seems our little friend is up to some mischief,” Iroh noted.

Zuko exploded.

“Fine! If you want to burn yourself so badly!” He lit up fire on his palm – and Iroh almost dropped the teapot he was pouring.

Momo screeched in delight and landed on his shoulder, dropping the cookie. Zuko was half distracted by trying to catch the cookie and half shouting at Momo to not burn himself. But he stopped when Momo swiped his paw at the flame and brought it out with perfectly intact fur and skin.

“Wha–?” The flame snuffed out again and Momo chirred sadly.

“Oh,” Iroh breathed in awe.

“What?” Zuko blinked, frazzled. He looked at his stunned uncle, who was still staring at Zuko's hand in breathless awe, tea overflowing from the teacup.

Iroh realized the travesty he was committing. He tilted the teapot back up again and moved the tray aside, careful to not tip the already spilled tea from the tray. Luckily, the butter cookies were in their own plate, and were safe from becoming soggy.

“Uncle? You know what this flame color means?”

“I do,” he responded. “I had thought it to be a legend…” He trailed off, holding out his hands in a ‘may I see’ gesture.

Zuko obliged and once again a small lick of golden flame appeared on his palm, and Iroh hovered his hand over it.

Zuko was ready to snuff the little flame out at the first instance of discomfort, but despite being unnervingly close directly over the flame, Iroh didn't show any hint of pain. Instead –

"It feels alive. It feels like love, and – hmm, a small bit of fear. It feels like you, Nephew."

“It doesn't hurt?” He was highly unnerved now, for multiple reasons. Not only was his flame not burning Uncle, it was also broadcasting his emotions?

Uncle Iroh smiled, eyes still on the little flame, “Do not fear this, Nephew, but perhaps you should not show this flame, especially to those who have no wish to see you on the Throne.”

“What?” What did his flame have to do with the Throne?

“What did you see during your Chakra unlocking to gain this?” he asked instead of answering, and Zuko had to bite back a growl. Finally, Uncle Iroh moved his hand out of the way of the flame with a murmur of “testiness feels like boarcupine prickles”.

Zuko snorted out a sigh and explained all that he saw, including his spectral self during the Cosmic Energy unblocking.

“Explain to me exactly what you saw. Describe to me what it looked like.”

And he did. He described how his giant body was at the end of the aurora bridge, the body was dark with a halo of light, his eyes were glowing gold, the scarred side of his face a dense cluster of white stars, and his crown outlined with intense light like the sun was directly behind it. He also described the bonfire of flame changing colors of golden intensity from pale straw yellow to orange gold.

He wondered why there was so much gold.

“These golden flames have not been seen since the first Firelord was chosen.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Wait, what?” Zuko was floored. Uncle Iroh elaborated.

“There was a legend that during the Summer Solstice, thousands of years ago, when the barrier between the mortal and the Spirit world blurred, Agni himself came down to bless one man to be the leader of the lands and islands before they became the Fire Nation. To unite them, when the the people of Fire were embroiled in endless war. His blessing was marked by the golden flames. It was after he united the peoples to create the Fire Nation that he became the first Firelord.”

Uncle Iroh looked up at Zuko and gave him a grave look. “So I must stress that you do not show your flames to anyone, not unless you are prepared for that person to try to kill you.”

Zuko swallowed, feeling chilled as the implications were finally setting in, “You mean that Agni chose me, specifically me, to be the rightful Firelord? And that my f-fa–” he stopped, then resumed with a more steady tone, “And that Ozai would kill me?”

“Or his supporters would,” Iroh agreed, hating that he couldn't shield his nephew from this. There was more to it than just that, but he didn’t want to overwhelm the poor boy
Zuko just ducked his head and chuckled, a note of hysteria tainting it. The chuckle slowly morphed into uncontrollable laughter, “I finally get my fire back, only to have it as a death sentence to me from my own father!”

Momo chirped and snuggled into Zuko, a slight but firm weight, and started tapping Zuko's chest. Zuko breathed until he got his laughter under control, and started petting Momo. “How do I stop bending golden flames?” he asked his uncle with a desperate tone, “I can't do this! I can't go around never firebending, I will mess up and the fire will come out and–!”

“Zuko, breathe,” Iroh instructed, taking a deep breath in and exhaling. As Iroh continued to breathe deliberately deeply, Zuko followed suit, still petting Momo and feeling the gentle tapping on his chest.

“You have me, and I suspect that you have most of the crew as well,” Iroh gently reminded him.

“Most?” He grumbled, looking at his uncle warily.

Iroh sighed. “Unfortunately, I cannot be entirely certain of a few members, but Kazuto, Jee, and Kangfu are at your side, of that I have no doubt.”

“What can I do about not being able to bend without the… the– this!” He gestured helplessly to the small pale flame that sprouted out of his cupped hand accusingly.

Uncle had a pensive look on his face as he hummed and stared at the innocent little flame.

"Perhaps," he started after a moment, “you should try to firebend with anger and rage as you have been taught?”

Zuko stared at his uncle. “Firebend with ang– UNCLE!” he shouted, and some part of Iroh relaxed at hearing his nephew yawp. Some part of the universe was back to normal. Zuko gestured at the pale flame again with an angry face, letting Iroh know that his nephew was currently very peeved.

“Not my finest advice,” Iroh allowed, and he sat back again with a hum, trying to think of another way to keep Zuko's spiritual secret a secret. Zuko watched him as he stroked his beard pensively.

Iroh's eyes lit up. “Ah! How about you study some waterbending?”

Zuko closed his eyes, and there was a resounding smack as a palm met with the forehead of a very exasperated teen.

“Nephew, a mimic catopus can steal the shell of a fuzzy hermit crab and wear it, but it is still a mimic catopus.”

Zuko stared at his uncle again, but this time in a withering look that conveyed his absolute lack of appreciation of the proverb.

Iroh’s lips twitched, but he steadfastly did not chuckle. “You can take lessons from waterbending to strengthen your own firebending. It is the same with Earthbending and Airbending.” He threw a meaningful look at some open scrolls on Zuko’s desk, where he had been thinking of trying a few evasive airbending moves without fire. “When you take lessons and philosophies from only one source, it becomes stale and rigid. Tell me, what makes Firebending so different from the rest of the elements?”

Zuko hated questions that he had no idea how to answer. He could feel the phantom of bamboo sticks striking his hands, or the occasional sting of fire lashes that never left a permanent mark.

“Firebenders can make their own element….?” He hazarded a guess and sighed with relief when his Uncle beamed at him with a proud smile.

“Correct! Now, the reason why I said you should study waterbending is that waterbenders are famous for turning defense into their offense. Very often they take other waterbenders' attacks and redirect it, making the offense into their own defense. It's how I developed my own technique!” He finished proudly.

Now Zuko looked intrigued. “What technique?”

“I will tell you that, but first, you should figure out a way to bend with fires outside of your own source. Like this–” Iroh got up and picked up one meditation candle, lighting it up and placing it about five feet away from Zuko.

“Try to grab the flame and make it yours.”

Zuko sighed and looked at the flame. It was easy to connect with it. He had had nothing but connection practice for months. But when he tried to yank it to himself, it snuffed out.

Momo chittered in curiosity while Zuko glared at the offending candle. He tried it again after his uncle lit the candle. At the third try Zuko growled in frustration and looked up at his uncle with an irritated glare.

“Hence, waterbending lesson.” Uncle Iroh smiled. “And I have several scrolls for you.”

---

The next two months, while traveling to the Northern Air Temple, were spent vigorously studying the various waterbending scrolls and trying to make an outside source of flames into his own. The toughest hurdle was actually turning a simple meditation flame into his own combat-worthy fire.

That took a solid month.

Uncle Iroh’s help didn’t work. It didn’t click until one day he tried after he felt the calmest he could be, after a cuddle session with Momo. Then the waterbending katas finally fell into place after a solid month of stubbornly not giving up, when he figured out that he needed to be more fluid but still firm and entirely calm. And it was easier to do the waterbending katas when he practised more of the airbending moves.

He felt so embarrassed that he hadn’t got it earlier. He locked himself into his cabin so he would avoid shouting at his crew members out of embarrassment. He had already made the connection when he unlocked his sixth Chakra! The elements are connected!

He tried the ‘push and pull’ that the scrolls always harped on about. His movements began to become more fluid.

At the beginning of his second month, little candle flames finally came to his hands when he had a good mix of fluid motions and firm stance for control.

Then, as the movements became more natural to him, it became easier to take bigger flames as his own. Even taking other firebenders’ flame from their lax hands, wresting control by adding his willpower over it. He also found out that by adding his chi to the small flame, he could make it grow bigger while still keeping it the color of a normal flame.

---

During the months of traveling towards the Northern Air Temple, Zuko donned his Blue Spirit disguise several times to get hold of new reports on Fire Nation Navy deployments, movements of the Army, which territories were still Earth Kingdom and which territories had been taken over by Fire Nation. News and orders from the Capital were also highly important.

The first time he tried to leave incognito did not end well. Momo still refused to let his human leave his sight. Zuko could not allow Momo to come, but he could not leave the ship without Momo caterwauling and hissing and threatening to wake the rest of the ship up.

So he left the ship with Momo under his shirt, looking like he had a more ‘feminine’ asset on his chest.

The second time, he fashioned a small bag with a body hugging strap so that the bag didn’t bounce and jostle poor Momo around when he did his acrobatics on rooftops.

The third time, Zuko had the idea to temporarily coat Momo’s white fur in soot mixed with hair oil so he would blend in with the darkness better.

The fourth time, Zuko was actually starting to like the idea of espionage and infiltrator Momo. Especially when Momo crawled through small windows and between bars to retrieve important documents, or keys from unsuspecting guards. Momo was smart enough to stay quiet when Zuko was being quiet, never using their voices when Zuko wore the Blue Spirit mask or when Momo was coated in black.

Thus a partnership was born.

---

The Northern Air Temple was a lot more lively than the other Temples. There were people living in it, for one.

But none of them were Airbenders. All of them were Earth Kingdom refugees, displaced when their home was destroyed by a flood. According to Jiànzào the Mechanist, the strange and distractible man who seemed to be in charge there.

But despite knowing they needed to make their home at the Northern Air Temple, Zuko couldn’t control his temper when he saw the Mechanist driving pipes into the walls, destroying the ancient stonework and old paintings.

“What are you doing?!”

“We need to place the pipes for running water,” Jiànzào answered with a smile, pointing grandly at the pipes being laid inside the gouges running right through the paintings.

“What you are doing is destroying history!” Zuko roared. Momo chittered, looking between his human, dressed oddly in greens and browns, and the Mechanist whom he was happy to see again. They had been having this same argument since the moment Zuko first saw the careless damage being done.

“History doesn’t matter much when one is trying to survive,” Jiànzào said with a dismissive wave. He unfurled his blueprint, which was snatched down by an incensed teenager.

“No,” Zuko said seriously, his tone low and his rasp more evident, “No. You are acting like them, like the Fire Nation.” Jiànzào stiffened and inhaled sharply. Zuko continued, “You are destroying the home of the extinct Airbenders. You are taking without any respect! You are taking and taking, destroying their home and history! Just like the Fire Nation is doing to the rest of the world! You are completely disregarding their culture and you’re making the Spirits upset! You’re – you’re – ugh!”

Zuko swept past him, so full of things to say that he couldn’t get any of them out But he stopped at the door as something more occurred to him. “Have you even thanked the Spirits for this? For giving you a home, a shelter?”

There was no reply. Zuko scoffed and walked out.

Momo flew onto Zuko’s shoulder with a quiet chirr and wrapped his tail around the shoulders, nudging the tip to his collarbone. Jee followed, tugging irritably on his brown tunic. “That could have gone better, Sir.”

“Yes, that could have,” he agreed grimly. He sighed. “The Avatar is not going to be here. Even if he was hiding here for the last hundred years, there is no way he would have allowed them to desecrate his people’s temple.”

Momo chirred, wide green eyes looking at Zuko, and began petting his hat. Jee quirked a smile at the sight. The winds brushed against Zuko, gentle and wispy.

They left the Temple, not realizing that Prince Zuko's passionate yet cutting words had changed something in the Mechanist.

---

It was getting on for winter in the Northern hemisphere, and the days were getting colder and shorter. It was a unanimous decision not to visit the Northern Water Tribe.

They moved on.

---

Zuko's fifteenth birthday was marked by a kidnapping attempt.

Zuko was at another Earth Kingdom Port, inside a bustling pub, trying to listen in on rumors that could be related to anything about the Air Nomads. Instead, a hushed whisper caught his good ear, amidst the loud drunken talk and cheers and general ruckus. And the whisper was about him.

"The boy's pretty if you ignore the scar on his face."

It was bad luck that he was alone this time. He’d sent his crew to shop for supplies in disguise. They had found that if they didn’t look too Fire Nation, they were less likely to get ripped off.

"Give him a veil or wrap him up in some pretty scarves and he would fetch a good price in the market."

A cold chill went down his spine. Sensing his mood, Momo hunkered down on his shoulder under the cloak, pressing more solidly against his neck.

Zuko pulled his hood down further to hide his face. He took a couple more bites of his meal and left.

Zuko cursed quietly when he heard footsteps following him through the quiet streets. He was never leaving without his dao swords again.

It wasn't quite dark enough yet for the lamps to be lit. There were no flames nearby that he could steal. With dawning dread, he realised that the five men had cornered and surrounded him.

Zuko inhaled tensely. He could take them. It wouldn’t be easy, but he could take them. Maybe.

"Hey kid. Why don't you come with us?” one cooed. “Just make it nice and easy and we won't have to mess with your face any more than what you have suffered." He shifted into an earthbending stance and Zuko knew that he would need help if there was more than one earthbender in the group. He didn’t know what they wanted to sell him for, but he knew that he wouldn’t like it. At all.

Momo shifted under the cover of the cloak again, and he was abruptly reminded that he was not alone.

Decision made, he bolted, jumping over the crate, hurtling past the startled would-be kidnappers – large grasping fingers barely grazing his cloak – and dashing around the corner. He reached into his cloak and pulled Momo out – “Get help Momo!” Momo screeched in displeasure but took off into the sky. Zuko allowed himself a quick sigh of relief.

Zuko scaled the walls with a few well-executed jumps, pulling himself up onto the roof, and scrambled up and over the ridge, leaping across an empty alley to the next roof, hoping to lose his pursuers through there. Based on the curses, he would.

Until the clay tiles broke and slid like a minor avalanche off the roof, tripping him and bringing him down with it. With a yelp, he landed on the ground and scrambled to get on his feet, bringing out his uncle's dagger and holding it in front of him.

“Cute that you thought you could get away from us, kid,” a large man chuckled. Zuko glared and tightened his grip on the weapon. Don’t firebend. Don’t firebend. Maybe no-one from the Earth Kingdom would understand the significance of gold flames, but he wasn’t going to chance it. Not if he could help it.

He relaxed his stance and lightened his foot. He started to listen to the wind. He was a Firebender, but fire needs air to live.

His old habit of sneaking around the palace and being quiet had helped lay the foundation of this effort to be an Airbender in body, light and swift on his feet. He bounced out of the way of fists, whirled away from hurtling rocks, and jumped when the ground erupted to trap him. Soon, he spun closer to the large man and dove behind him. Then it became a game of staying behind him.

The man whirled and snarled, trying to catch the elusive and slippery kid. But he stopped when he felt the cold bite of steel on his throat.

“What do you want with me?” Zuko howled, pressing the blade closer to the man’s throat. Normally he would have tried to knock him out with the handle of the blade, but this man was an earthbender – more physically robust and able to handle blunt trauma better than anyone else. At most he would daze the man.

The man huffed, then smirked, “What do any traders want, kid? You would be just another merchandise to sell.”

“Slave traders.” The blade pressed closer and a line of blood trailed down.

“A little more specialized than that, but yes.” The man sounded too calm. It was putting Zuko on high alert.

Then he heard a short muffled yelp and he looked for the source. His eyes widened when he saw a little Earth Kingdom girl, tied and gagged and trapped in the crook of the large man’s arm There was a knife against her throat.

Zuko’s grip slackened, and the earthbender made his move, grabbing the arm that held the dagger and violently shoving backwards, slamming Zuko into the wall and knocking the wind out of him. Even if he wanted to firebend at the moment, he wouldn’t have been able to.

Then he saw a rock hurtling towards his face, and the world went black.

---

He woke to a pounding headache and his head felt oddly unbalanced. There was no wind to comfort him.

There were sniffles and whimpering around him and he slowly sat up – as much as he could inside the wooden crate.

Wood. He could work with that.

Wincing, he gingerly touched his head and felt the tackiness of congealed blood. So he hadn’t been out for too long. Then his hand moved up higher and he felt his shorn scalp.

No phoenix tail.

It was gone.

His breath hitched. He’d lost his hair. They’d chopped it off and it was gone and he –

He recognised the beginnings of a panic attack and shakily started tapping two fingers on his chest. Slowly, the tides of mindless terror ebbed away.

Getting his breathing under control, he turned his head to the side and peered between his crate’s wooden bars. There was another crate next to him, with a sniffling girl in it. It was the same girl that had been there, tied up, when he’d fought the five men. He turned to look through the other side of the crate. It was dark, almost too dark to see clearly, but it looked like he was inside some sort of dockside warehouse. There were more crates – a row of them on the wall opposite him – and more children stuffed inside them. It was hard to see into the crates, but it looked like the oldest of them was probably around sixteen or seventeen years old. The smallest child could have been as young as eight.

Bile rose at the back of Zuko’s throat and he swallowed it down. He looked around the best he could in his position to see if there were any more kidnappers in the building, but there was a lot he could not see. He locked eyes with the oldest boy from across the room, lithe and with bright eyes gleaming through the wooden bars.

“Hey, can you tell me what happened here?” he whisper-shouted across the room. A couple of kids flinched. The older boy’s narrowed eyes sharpened and he leaned forward. He looked even more uncomfortable than Zuko, huddled with his knees to his chest with only a few inches of wiggle room for him.

“You must live a sheltered life if you don’t recognize a child sex trafficking ring,” he said calmly, but Zuko could see that there was fear in the hazel eyes. He was terrified, but keeping a brave face to not scare the younger children.

The cold chill went down Zuko’s back again, this time accompanied by disgust.

“Are any of you benders?” he asked, looking around at the crates full of children. All but the youngest, the little girl, shook their heads.

“’m not really good at it,” she whimpered, tears soaking her knees as she huddled into a tighter ball.

Okay then. Nothing else to it.

“Do you see anyone here?” he whispered again to the older kid, whose eyes flickered to look out of Zuko’s view. It was almost too dark but he met his gaze again and held out one finger he was able to see the other mouthed ‘sleeping’ under the moonlight.

Zuko took a deep breath and decided that he needed to get these kids out of here.

"Okay, here's what's going to happen. I'm going to get everyone out of here." Some kids gave him an incredulous look, but the oldest gave him an appraising look.

"Just… .just promise me you won't freak out."

There was silence. Zuko clenched his fist and extended two fingers. A small jet of golden flame burst into life at his fingertips and started burning away the wood. He ignored the gasp of surprise but, thankfully, apart from that they remained silent. Periodically he looked up to see the older boy to check on their guard, but he just shook his head and mouthed ‘sleeping’ every time.

He had to go slow and concentrate so that the flame did not go out of his control from the burn site, but he didn’t account for the burning smell waking the man. He also did not see the older kid frantically waving from within his tiny little caged space to get his attention.

Until a yell caught his attention: “The kid is a firebender!”

Cursing loudly, Zuko punched the wooden frame twice before he broke out, charging at the man, throwing a flaming punch to the man’s chest that blew him backwards and knocked him out.

Any sense of subtlety was lost and the possibility of backup coming urged Zuko to hurry. He patted around the man, looking for the keys to the padlocks keeping the children locked up, and found them.

He ran to the cages and unlocked the oldest first so he would help with keeping the children safe if it came to it.

Just as he was unlocking the third crate out of ten, the older kid’s eyes widened and he shouted, “Look out!” and pushed them both out of the way of a flying brick that would have knocked Zuko out again.

“Well, well! Looks like the scarred pretty boy is a firebender!” The original earthbender laughed, showing the fresh cut on his neck. Zuko saw that they were surrounded and from what he could deduce, four of them were earthbenders. The other five were non-benders.

Zuko looked around and saw that the warehouse was made of wood.

Chuckles, Zuko decided to name him in his mind, noticed and smiled. “Nowhere to go, boy. You can’t firebend in here without also burning the rest of us” – his gaze turned to the scared children still locked up behind Zuko and the older kid, who was keeping one of the smaller children behind him – “especially them.”

The earthbenders shifted and more bricks came flying out of a pile from the corner of the room that Zuko could not see. Zuko ducked and yelled at the older kid behind him, “Trust me!”

“Not like I got a choice, Golden Boy!” he snapped, dragging the kid into behind an empty crate, and Zuko started throwing flames wildly, hoping to Agni that the flames that did not burn Momo would not burn the children. He was going on a half baked idea and a dangerous hope that his fire was a lot closer to his will. He wanted to burn the slave traders and the building, but to save the children and himself.

The fire roared, the men shouted, and children screamed.

The night sky glowed like daylight under the fire consuming the building until it looked like another sun was rising from the horizon.

---

“You didn’t burn us.” The older kid, Hiro, spoke. It wasn’t accusing or disgusted, even now they knew Zuko was a firebender.

Zuko didn’t say anything. He felt numb as the fact that he just took ten lives settled into his mind. Horrible men, but lives nonetheless. The eleven kids looked at the burning warehouse by the docks some twenty minutes’ walk away from Zuko’s ship. It might have been an abandoned storage warehouse, but it was being used as a stop for child trafficking.

Hiro hesitated, then placed a hand on his shoulder, “For what it’s worth, thank you for saving us.”

There was a shout from the distance, light coming into view. The rest of the villagers were coming.

A hug wrapped around Zuko’s middle and the little girl, Ming, looked up to him, “Thank you for saving us. Your fire is pretty. And it was warm and protective.” He said nothing, just stared. Gold met green and some of the numbness thawed, and he returned the hug with one arm.

The crowd got closer and he could hear his uncle shouting. A small shape slammed onto Zuko’s chest and Momo chittered angrily at him for making him leave. Finally Zuko spoke. “Sorry for leaving you Momo.” He held him tight and petted him. The little girl stepped away and sat down tiredly next to another boy.

Uncle Iroh made his way through, his face tense with worry and relief, and threw his arms around Zuko in a tight hug. Momo screeched in protest and got out of the way of the hug, “We couldn’t find you. We heard reports of other children being snatched tonight when we asked around and we tried to gather people for a search.”

He pulled away, “But then it was like Agni led us to you.” He finished, but his eyes were questioning.

Zuko opened his mouth to answer but then a delighted shout caught his attention.

“He saved us!” The little girl announced under the attention of her parents. And the other children cheered in agreement. One of the villagers broke away and approached Zuko.

“Young man, I can’t thank you enough for saving our children.” He bowed, “How did you do it?”

“Oh, uh…” Zuko stuttered, looking at his uncle pleadingly.

“Does it matter?” Hiro asked loudly, standing next to his elderly grandmother, “He saved us and got rid of the slavers.”

The original man looked at Zuko, a suspicious gleam entering his eyes, and turned to stare at the flaming warehouse. “…What an unusual color the fire has…”

He looked back at the bald kid with a shorn hair patch and a large burn scar on his left face. He saw a lemur curling his tail around the kid and the kid leaning into the touch of his uncle. He saw a rather nasty bruise blooming around the still sluggishly bleeding head wound.

The suspicious look went away, and he answered calmly, “No, I suppose not. I am Nori, the leader of this port town. I thank you for saving our children, regardless of what nationality you are.” He gave him one last bow and walked away.

Jee and Kazuto stepped in closer, “You are not allowed without an escort for now on, Sir.” Jee announced, his frown deep on his face.

Zuko was too tired to argue at this point. He had a nasty headache, his hair had been shorn off, it was the shittiest birthday he had ever had in his life. He wanted to go to his cabin and sleep.

But.

But.

Looking at the little girl talking animatedly to her parents and other children hugging weeping family members, it wasn’t a bad end.

---

The rumors of a man wielding golden flames spread, first from town to town. Then from cities to cities. Then it crossed the waters to the other lands.

Firelord Ozai sneered outwardly and fumed inwardly. Already the Fire Nation were stirring, hushed whispers of a man being blessed to take the throne.

It wouldn’t do. He needed to find out who wielded the golden flame and he needed to take them out of the picture. Captured alive for now. If he could get the secret of the golden flame before he killed him, it would cement his rule.

He wrote a letter to Zhao.

Chapter Text

Zuko delayed going south as much as he could, stopping in more Earth Kingdom ports and even taking days or weeks on foot, or ostrich horse, into towns further inland. Zuko bought an ostrich horse he named Mina, after the little earthbender girl he saved.

He loves his komodo rhinos inside his ship, but they are distinctly Fire Nation that he could not bring them with him.

Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, Jee would follow with his own ostrich horse, “You didn’t have to follow me.” He grumbled.

“I disagree, Sir.” He said simply. His armor creaked in a subtle smug tone that Zuko almost didn’t tolerate but he really could fault that man. It was a good thing he came along.

Uncle Iroh’s eyes gleamed in amusement but said nothing.

While Iroh had been talking to some old men and playing the honest to Agni boring game of Pai Sho, Zuko had gotten himself into another bout of trouble that he ran headfirst into at a bar brawl. He would have been wailed on if not for Jee picking up a random pipa off the bar table and starting strumming, playing the bawdiest and raunchiest bar songs he had ever heard to distract the men, who all fell for it and started jeering and singing along.

Jee gave Zuko a look and pointedly jerked his head at the miraculously placed tsungi horn like it was the divine power that placed it there to taunt Zuko.

He nearly screamed in frustration but picked it up and played along, picking up the melody easily enough much to the crowd’s delight and more men joined in with their own instruments.

Once the music got momentum and the impromptu party was in full swing that they both could stop their music without notice, both Zuko and Jee snuck out of the building.

Somehow, somehow, Uncle Iroh got the wind of it. He was equal parts amused and equal parts furious.

One, that the musical trick actually work and this gave uncle even more ammunition to cajole Zuko into playing the tsungi horn for music night. On the other hand…

“We’re going to speak more about the choice of music around impressionable ears, Lieutenant Jee.” Iroh said mildly and Jee swallowed and Zuko couldn’t help the smug grin this time. Jee side eyed a glare at the brat and Momo chittered that he swore is laughter.

“Yes, Sir.” He said, resigned.

“Why did you get in the middle of the bar fight, Prince Zuko?” Jee’s smug look came back, but this time it was a hint of a proud smile and Zuko’s bratty look dropped into an embarrassed scowl and he mumbled.

“I’m sorry, would you care to say that again but louder? I’m getting along with my age and I’m afraid my ears are not as they used to be.” Iroh said in an even more milder tone.

Zuko hissed and scratched his scalp in agitation, his short hair flying in every direction and stubbornly sticking straight up on his forehead, “I said they were saying lewd things to the barmaid.” He flushed when his uncle roared in laughter.

Jee looked at the teenager fondly. Somehow the short hair made him really look like a young teenager.

It felt like a setback on Zuko’s mental and emotional state after the Burning of the Slavers, as Zuko calls it in his numb voice. He withdrew on himself and Jee knew that the kid was suffering nightmares. The fact that he killed 10 men with fire only compounded his own burn trauma at the hand of his own father.

The rest of the crew was clued into that fact and the fact that the kid is traumatized and had been since the start of their journey.

Prince Iroh helped as much as he could, but there was only so much he could do when the kid refused to open up.

Finally, after days of trying and close to giving up, Iroh firmly told his nephew to talk to Momo about his experience, but just don’t bottle it up.

Once again, the Jee thanked Agni for Prince Zuko finding the Flying Lemur. Slowly, bit by bit, Prince Zuko was coming out of his mute shell and there were fewer screams ringing out of his cabin.

It didn’t mean that Prince Zuko didn’t lose sleep. He wandered around the ship with deep bruising under his eyelids from the lack of sleep, just like the beginning of their voyage when Zuko was screaming from his nightmare caused by his own father.

Jee’s lip curled in loathing. He may not have a son anymore, the war took care of that, but to burn your own son’s face off? Even when he was prostate and begging for forgiveness?

That took a special type of monster that he wanted no part of following.

It became more evident to the rest of the crew that Zuko is traumatized and it had made itself known when there was an argument between two members,, where one carelessly sharply rose his arm with wild gesticulation and did not notice Zuko was walking past them in an exhausted fugue. The raised arm on Zuko’s left side, despite it having no fire, sent the kid into a full blown panic attack, falling to the floor screaming and pleading for forgiveness. His form was huddled and both of his hands were covering his scar.

Momo showed his viciousness for the first time that day as well. Before the man who raised his hand in an empathic gesture during an argument with another crew member could say anything to Zuko or even process what just happened, a flying ball of pure shrieking fury slammed into his head and bit the man’s ear, drawing blood.

The man shouted in pain and Momo flew off to land on Zuko’s huddling form on his hind paws, arms raised with wings fully extended and hissing in aggressive warning to back off.

The blood showing on the lemur's fangs should not have made the normally cute animal that scary, but it did. Once the man jumped backwards far enough, nearly tripping twice, Momo relaxed from his aggressive stance, he crouched down and curled on Zuko’s side, making loud purring noise and tapping hard on his shoulders.

It was that night, after Shi got his ear cleaned and bandaged, did the rest of the crew find out what exactly happened to Zuko from Iroh.

Needless to say, not one single person was pleased with their Firelord.

So if Zuko started hearing stories of how the crew coped with their trauma of their first kill, well, it was purely coincidence.

The crew rotated as much as they could to be the boy’s personal guard when they went ashore to shop for supplies, each of them fighting for the honor or just pulling the short straw.

The one constant is Lieutenant Jee, he’s always at Zuko’s side. It was a source of grumbling amusement that General Iroh better watch out, Jee will steal his nephew as his new son.

Jee raised a brow but did not dissuade the jokes.

Jee blinked back to the present when Uncle Iroh started talking, “Ah, to be young. I remember all the ladies being swept off their feet when you stand up for them!”

“Uncle, I don’t want to hear about your womanizing days.”

“What womanizing days? I just simply find them beautiful and I treat them with respect! They love it when you do that!”

“You’re a massive flirt and I honestly would rather drink banana and onion juice than watch you flirt.” Zuko blinked then proceeded to gag to what Jee imaging must have been the memory of the banana and onion juice.

“I imagine the barmaid was swooning at your heroics, Nephew.”

“She was certainly...charmed.” Jee couldn’t help but add, straight faced and met Zuko’s glare head on.

“See! My nephew will be leaving a trail of broken hearts wherever he goes!” Iroh chuckled and Jee saw at the corner of his eyes that the kid touched his scar self consciously, like he couldn’t believe that anyone would look at him in that way, much less a girl.

Jee frowned. That won’t do. He turned to Iroh and found that Iroh also saw. Both shared a look, “I guess I’m going to have to assign more escorts, Sir.”

“You may be right Lieutenant Jee. I can’t have too many ladies or even some men trying to have their way with my precious nephew, no matter how handsome he is.” Iroh mused and both saw Zuko blush brilliantly red but a small smile showed itself. Momo chirred.

Both Jee and Iroh looked at each other. Mission accomplished.

---

Zuko wasn’t just stalling in going to the South, he had also been doing a lot more Blue Spirit escapades with his little shadow. But this time, not just stealing Fire Nation secrets, but also used to liberate small concentration camps full of captured Earth Kingdom soldiers.

It was also the second time that he used his golden flames.

Zuko was breaking into a Captain’s tent to steal information when he came across an order to sacrifice a group of captured soldiers and use them as a trap. They were going to dress them up as Fire Nation soldiers and set them loose on the battlefield heading towards the Earth Kingdom Army.

It would have been a massacre, Zuko realized, and promptly signaled Momo to steal a key off the Captain who was in the next room over, looking over more documents. The man did not feel anything when tiny little paws nabbed the ring of keys and silently made off with it.

Momo crawled into the side bag with the keys and he grabbed a few scrolls, stuffing them folded into a different pocket of the bag and snuck out, looking for anything that resembled a cage or a short term prison.

Actually, there wasn't a prison. It was a chain link of bound and gagged Earth Kingdom soldiers all sitting in a group with a circle of firebenders keeping watch.

Good thing it was dark.

Zuko prowled around the area until he could find a blind spot so he could sneak past the guard to at least talk to the nearest soldier.

Well. 'Talk' being the relative term. He trusts Momo, but he's not quite sure if Momo will keep silent if he speaks. At least Momo is always silent when in the bag.

Finding a spot to sneak in, he took his chance when eyes roamed past his hiding spot and crouched low.

---

Shang kept up his glaring at the Fire Nation scum as long as he could, but eventually it was running out of steam with the presence of despair overtaking the famous earthen stubbornness.

He and his men are going to die. Tonight or tomorrow is up for debate.

Maybe a little bit of interrogation and torture thrown in as a side dish to this whole ostrich horse dung. He and his men had been gagged when they refused to stop with their vitriol cursing to the 7th degree of their enemies' ancestors.

Just as he was about to rev up his glare at the back of one of their guards, a pebble landed next to him.

He looked.

And bit back a scream even with the gag on. There was an honest to Spirits scary visage looking right at him from a distance and the figure held a finger up to the blue and white mask in a gesture for silence.

Shang looked at the Fire Nation soldiers. None took notice of the disturbance.

He looked back again. The figure in a blue mask, the Blue Spirit he realized with a jolt, held up a set of keys in a ring. He realized with growing hope that the Blue Spirit is here to save them.

He looked back at their guards again. Still no change.

The Blue Spirit made a motion and something black darted out from the shadows, quickly crawling low and melting into the dark ground like Koh decided to grow small and visit the mortal realm in all his creepy skittering glory.

There was a flash of green reflective eyes and Shang had to repress his reflexive urge to shudder and squeal like a girl.

He nudged his soldier next to him and gave him a look of stay calm. The soldier was confused but soon relayed the information as subtly as he could. Soon the silent message was spread to the rest of the group.

They waited, Shang looked back at the Blue Spirit but he silently melted back into the dark beyond the range of the torches.

He was starting to think that this was not a man in a mask but, Oma and Shu, an actual spirit.

The fires on the torch flickered weirdly and one of the Fire Nation soldiers furthest from Shang yelped and his pants fell.

The Earth Kingdom soldiers snickered behind their gag.

"Jun Lee! What the Spirits are you doing!" The one closest to him barked and he had to blink at the femimine voice.

Jun Lee yelped again, shrieking, "There's something creepy near me!" He tried to move out of the way but fell flat on his ass.

The bound soldiers went right past snickering to muffled guffaw, some even leaning on each other for support.

The firebender closest to Shang snarled and she stormed away and marched toward the man freaking out and dancing like he saw an army of skittering spider wasps, trying to keep his pants up.

Shang felt his hands being touched and keys slotting into the keyhole of his cuff behind his back.

Ooooh. Shang smirked.

The Blue Spirit once again signaled for silence and pointed to the sky and extended a pointer finger.

1 hour.

Shang nodded to show he understood and then the Blue Spirit melted back to the dark after handing him the keys..

The fires flickered erratically again and the dark shadow creature skittered off, making the rest of the Fire Nation men that were gathering around Jun Lee squeal like noble ladies seeing a naked hamster mole rat, including the snarling woman.

The rest of the bound men continued to laugh hard, some even with tears streaming and nothing could stop their laughter even when their jailers snarled at them to shut up.

Shang shuddered at how the whole operation felt unnatural. He's leaning into the Spirit theory. He went to work discreetly unlocking his fellow men and friends' bound hands and passed the keys along.

Soon, hands were being unbound and keys were passed under the cover of darkness and no one had indicated that such actions were taking place.

Almost an hour has passed in tense silence and Shang was wondering when something was going to happen. He was almost ready to call for attack to get out but then the Blue Spirit showed up again, melting out of the shadow into the fire light of the torches.

He held up a finger for a moment, then spread out five. Then four. Then three.

He realized it's a countdown!

Shang held his breath in anticipation, still not showing anything with his face to alert his jailers.

A massive explosion sounded off from the edge of the Fire Nation camp and the sun showed itself rather abruptly.

No, not the sun. Gold Fire. Shang looked at the Blue Spirit in shock and noted that the man, it has to be a man, waved at them to follow him. He then noted that their guards left to contain the golden fire and left them.

They're alone.

Shang quickly pulled down his gag and quietly called his men to follow, they were getting out of here but stay quiet!

They followed the Blue Spirit and he led them to the pen full of their ostrich horses and he could help but let out a sharp grin.

He didn't know who the Blue Spirit was, but he thinks he's the man who wielded the Golden Flame that he heard only as rumors.

Their General is going to need to know this. There is a vigilante in a Blue Spirit mask wielding Golden Flames going against Fire Nation. He must be an ally.

As a matter of fact, it's imperative to bring this man back with them.

"I don't know how to thank you, but I think you should come with-" Shang stopped once he realized that the Blue Spirit was gone.

“Where did he go?” One man asked in quiet alarm but Shang shook his head. They should be gone too before any of the ashmakers realize that they're missing.

The Blue Spirit may have disappeared, but he'll show up again. And when he does, the Earth Army will be ready and willing to try to get him as their ally.

Hopefully he'll be a willing ally.

---

The Golden Firebender rumor grew on two fronts. The Earth Kingdom sees a potential ally and there is a call to get the identity of the man wearing a Blue Spirit mask with a shadow creature.

The notice went from army to army, city to city, until it finally reached the hands of Long Feng in Ba Sing Se.

He looked at the painting of the grinning mask and read the description. Wielder of Golden Fire.

He frowned. Something about that information tickled his memory.

"Chen." One of the Dai Li stepped up.

"Find me information on this Golden Fire from the library."

"In the restricted Library, sir? It's possibly Fire Nation related." Chen asked and Long Feng nodded.

"Anything. It may be in the public library of Ba Sing Se, but yes, check the restricted one as well."

The Dai Li bowed and melted into the dark.

Long Feng once more looked at the picture of the grinning and snarling mask and narrowed his eyes at it, trying to coax the memory to the forefront but nothing more happened.

He rolled up the picture and placed it in the drawer, already dismissed as anything important.

---

On the Fire Nation front however, Zhao smiled when he heard new information. Because he now has a solid proof of golden fire witnessed by Fire Nation soldiers and set out to meet the Captain who saw the phenomenon.

It wasn't until he saw the new notice on Earth Kingdom soil did he laugh. He finally has a face to place on the Golden Firebender. So the traitor peasant is wearing the Fire Nation's water spirit mask, huh?

He's getting closer to finding him.

---

On the other branch of the Fire Nation rumor mill, the citizens were getting quietly fired up because what they saw as Agni's proof he chose someone to lead Fire Nation to a new height of glory. Whether it was to win the war or to save them, it was up to debate. What was contested amidst the furious whispering was that the Fire was Agni's voice.

"My brother said that he could feel the cold fury and disappointment directly from the flames. He said that every single person who were trying and failing to douse the flame felt Angi's ire at them!" One hushed to her companion.

"That's komodo rhino dung, and you know it." Another snapped back with an irritated eye roll.

"No, I also heard that. And when she said that they were failing to get rid of the flame, she meant that literally. The fire was still going, but not moving past the initial explosion site and burned everything down at that spot, leaving barely any ashes. No one else was hurt. Nothing else was harmed. The fire didn't even burn anyone who went near the flame. It just….spewed out rage and disappointment and everyone near it could feel it like Agni himself is laying down on them for injustice!" The thirds voice started rising, nearly shouting at the end, "Maybe this war is wrong!"

The first two hissed at him to shut up, "Do you want to be brought in for treason?!"

All three looked around and paled when they had several attentive patrons looking at them, but they sighed in relief when the rest casually went back to eating like they hadn't just heard something treasonous. Something that is already laying down a line that would lead to the keg of blasting jelly.

It's in the beginning, but the line is being placed inch by inch before someone lights it.

---

Zuko wasn't purposely avoiding going to the South Pole, honest!

He was just doing his duty in now busting slave rings and stealing vital information from Fire Nation post and now Earth Kingdom forts.

Apparently Earth Kingdom is looking for him.

He's not...sure what to make of that. He's not going to go to them, not when he's the Prince of Fire Nation.

If he were anyone else, anyone not Royalty, he might be willing to talk. But no, not when he runs the risk of getting his hands crushed or even possibly killed.

It didn't help that Earth Kingdom all hated the Dragon of the West for his near success in bringing down the walls of Ba Sing Se.

Who is traveling with him.

No, best to stay away from Earth Kingdom soldiers.

On the other hand, his sneaking around in secure Fire Nation fortresses gave him a boon: information that Zhao is now looking for him. Or rather the Golden Firebender he is now being called.

Zuko groaned and dropped the missive onto the table and placed his head into his hand. He could feel his stress level skyrocketing. Momo purred, draped like a scarf on his broad shoulders.

No one on the ship, barring Uncle and Lieutenant Jee, knows that Zuko can wield the Golden Fire. He felt guilty, keeping this vital information from them, but this information is dangerous as evident to more and more people looking for him.

He needed to decide if he wanted to keep the Dao swords as the Blue Spirit or as Zuko.

That's...something to revisit later. But in the meantime, he needs to start practicing the waterbending and airbending katas.

And pester Kai for lessons on throwing knives. Either one of his persona needs it to offset the inability to use it on the other identity.

It's hard enough to keep remembering to only steal fire when he's Zuko, he now needs to remember to only use Golden Fire as the Blue Spirit if he absolutely has to use firebending.

He felt a migraine developing at the nightmare in logistics his two identities are giving him.

Easy enough though. He feels like a completely different person as the Blue Spirit compared to being just Zuko. He just has to train the habit of stealing fire vs using Golden Fire, shouting vs being silent, to using his Dao swords vs the future throwing knives.

Speaking of throwing knives. Since he doesn't have access to Mai he got up to find Kai somewhere in the bowels of his ship. He really needs to expand his skills set.

---

Kai cursed when his name was shouted with a familiar voice. He glared at the dagger slightly off center of his target.

Might as well see what the brat wants now. Though, the mental word brat was said in a more aggressively affectionate manner than outright hostility.

Once he found out that the Prince wanted to learn how to wield throwing weapons, Kai let out a tiger shark grin and jumped at the opportunity.

---

Kai's bragging about mentoring the kid on his art in weaponry sparked a competition on board the Wani.

---

"Sir, would you like to learn how to read maps? It would be highly beneficial should you ever need to take helm yourself if you ever find yourself without a crew."

"Wh- um. Sure."

---

"Prince Zuko. You should learn how to cook food if you ever find yourself without your favorite cook. Here, I'll show you the quick meal of jook whenever you are in a pinch. Just find these herbs and it'll spice up the bland food."

"Makes sense."

---

"Sir, cooking is good, but what you really need to learn is how to hunt and forage."

"I don't think that's necessary."

"My Prince, I insist. Only the best for you in order to survive."

"Chie! Unhand me this instant!"

"Sorry sir, your uncle and your other dad approved."

"My uncle and other d- UNCLE! JEE!"

“I love the fact that you didn’t even deny that.”

“CHIE!”

---

"How was the hunting and foraging experience Nephew?"

"....I had to kill the Jackalope."

"...Sir, are you crying?"

"NO LIEUTENANT JEE! Spar! Now!"

“But I need to teach you the breath of fire, nephew.”

“AFTER- After the spar, uncle.”

“I’ll wait in your room with tea then.”

---

"You are going to learn the basics and a more advanced set of first aid and emergency care. And no, you must learn it. It would be highly beneficial for you just in case yourself or your crew needs it."

"...Yes Kangfu."

---

"Uncle." Zuko spoke without looking at his uncle, staring warily at the crew in the mess hall.

Iroh hummed, sipping his tea while his roast duck cooled down from being freshly served from the oven.

"Is it me, or is my crew…?" He trailed off, subtly gesturing to the laughing men and women sitting on the dining table.

Iroh smiled, endlessly amused, "I believe it is them showing that they care about you."

The skeptical look Zuko sent him nearly made him laugh but he stamped it down. Instead he just smiled that annoying old person smile that said they know a lot of things and they will be irritatingly vague about it and speak in proverbs.

Zuko quickly left after that. He did not want to be subjected to another proverb today.

Iroh’s genial old man smile dropped and he turned to look at Jee with a hard look, who is doing his absolute best to keep his Pai Sho face, “...Now. What’s this I’m hearing about you being Prince Zuko’s father?”

Jee resolutely did not show any emotions and moved a tile. If he’s focusing a little too hard on the game and not on the conversation, then that’s between them.

Iroh stared at Jee for another few tense minutes.

Finally, Iroh smiled beatifically, “You certainly would be a much better choice for a father than his actual father.”

“Here, here!” The crew cheered then laughed roariously when Jee sagged in relief.

---

Zuko had to admit that he was stalling going to the South Pole when even the Winds were not so subtly sending powerful but non violent gusts towards South, and only South. Even if it took him a while to make the connection.

He sighed but relented. When the Spirits speak, you do your best to listen.

He just didn't want to go South because he was scared. He would never admit it to anyone, but he's scared of what his supposed bonds mean in relation to his Destiny. He never heard of anyone having spiritual bonds before.

He heard of soulmates, but he only ever heard of that during plays. Never in real life historical context.

He’s going on completely uncharted territory here. But…

It never really stopped Zuko, did it? He clenched his jaw and steeled his resolve, “Lieutenant Jee.”

“Yes, Sir?” Jee responded, at his side as always.

“Set course for the Southern Water Tribe.”

---

Zuko’s 16th birthday is spent in the frigid South Pole. The only respite is that the sun is up nearly every hour of the day soaking up the rays and what little warmth it offers.

It was highly disconcerting to have the sun up so much, not a blip of the night sky. He felt jittery, feeling like he has too much energy in his veins but he’s so conditioned to not firebend outside of the mask that he’s practically crawling up the walls until he could safely firebend in the privacy of his cabin.

Momo purred in languid contentment inside his poofy fur jacket, the inside of his coat like a literal sauna with trapped heat.

Zuko huffed in wry amusement and muttered, “You’re so spoiled, Momo.” He received no other answer except continued purring.

“Prince Zuko, why don’t you join me for tea and roast duck?” Uncle called out and Zuko sighed from his spot at the bow of the ship, looking at the endless blue waters, blue sky, and white ice floating around. They have to move a little slower in the water else they run the risk of damage due to the large unseen ice under the water.

Hot steam came out of his nose but no fire. He has a tight hold on his firebending even if the midnight sun is testing his limits. He would need to step off somewhere to let out a lot of juice until he doesn’t feel like he’s vibrating out of his skin with too much energy.

Without a word he turned around and joined his uncle and Momo popped his head out of the front of the coat with a chirp, looking to see if there was anything on the menu for him to steal or beg with his big green eyes.

Momo eyed the preserved peach slices and Iroh gave a wry grin when he promptly crawled out of his warm nest and stole it.

Zuko rolled his eyes and grabbed a plate of potato chokes and rice, leaving the roast duck behind.

While in the middle of idle chat, both carefully avoiding the topic of his birthday, there was a pillar of light shooting in the sky.

Zuko coughed on his potato choke and scrambled to his feet, running to the bow of the ship, heart leaping to his throat, “Uncle, uncle! Do you know what this means!?”

Uncle Iroh stepped up behind him, an unreadable look in his eyes as he stared at the light.

“It means that my search is over.” Zuko breathed, ecstatic but also panicking because this was it. His search for the last 3 years is finally over. It means that he could go home. It means that he’s closer to bringing his father down, kicking him off the Throne.

It means that Uncle could take his rightful place as the Firelord.

---

Appa dreamed.

He dreamed of a nightmare that was his reality.

He saw two of his members killed by the lightning predator. The woman killed two members of his herd. His friends. His family.

Appa roared, a cry so terrible there was a note of wailing keen as he swooped from the sky downward.

He saw Zuko, loud, angry, and so, so terrified, jumping in front of Katara to take the bolt of lightning for himself. He spasmed and jerked, trying to hang on to life just a bit longer but when he rolled to his stomach, all signs of life left with a final twitch before going still. Hand reaching out to Katara who was fighting a doomed battle.

Appa didn’t see Katara under the roof, but a flash of blue and the sharp smell of ozone told him enough if the hysterical laughter of the lightning predator didn’t tell him that Katara fell.

Appa dreamed.

He remembered a terrible ripping sensation in his very soul proceeding the red light dominating the sky and he fell from the sky with a shriek of pain not heard in 100 years. A Sky Bison's death knell.

He dreamed of a nightmare.

Appa was still clinging to life just for long enough to land harshly on the ground, the stone floor cracking under the full force of a 10 ton weight, the ground ripping out in a spider wasp's web and turned, flapping his tail down hard and knocking the Fire Nation Princess back into the building. He roared and slammed his tail again and the building blew apart from the angry gale-force of wind from the original master of the element, collapsing around the princess.

Appa dreamed when he wished to rest.

He saw the past incarnations of his Spirit Bond, his rider, the first of his herd that he chose for himself, his first human.

He dreamed.

”The balance is gone. Avatar Aang has died and the cycle is broken.” Avatar Roku sighed in resignation.

“The other bonds are gone. His bending masters and friends have also perished during this war.” Avatar Kyoshi looked no better, she had already given up.

He remembered seeing Avatar Yangchen looking straight at something else then looked straight at him, “Not all of the Avatar’s bond has perished.”

Avatar Kuruk barked a laugh, “Well, this will be interesting. I can’t believe we’re going to use a lemur and a Sky Bison to save the world.”

Appa remembered them but paid no attention to their words. They are not Aang.

They are not Aang. They are NOT AANG!

Appa was stuck in a nightmare.

Until he wasn’t.

His lids were so heavy but the most beautiful sound reached his ears. Aang called out for him and told him to wake up. His voice was free of the burden that the last year had brought him.

Appa opened his eyes and saw the grinning face of his companion. He lowed and got up as quickly his tired limbs could carry him and bowled his young human over, giving enthusiastic licks and hearing peals of giggling.

The laughter slowed to a stop however once he took note of Appa's hitched breathing. Appa couldn't help it. He was crying.

He was crying in sadness that two of his herd died but so, so relieved that his brother in all but blood and species is here with him. He knew that he would have not lived if Aang had died.

He's so tired.

He's so tired, but then he heard another voice over Aang's increasingly concerned questions.

Katara.

Big soulful brown eyes met concerned ocean blue. Appa's breathing hitched more, distressed, whining note tainting it because…

Because, besides the very brief initial flash, Katara's eyes had no recognition.

---

Aang woke to see the eyes of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen and immediately wanted to go penguin sledding with her. The first few seconds he saw her he knew that she had a kind heart. And pretty.

When he tried to wake Appa up, he grew concerned when he wouldn't move for several long moments. Calling Appa again yielded better results but Appa was still acting strange, lethargic and depressed.

But when Appa woke up, Aang's worries were dashed away when Appa lowed and enthusiastically greeted him with large slobbering licks, but Aang couldn't help but hear Appa's distressed noise in the middle of licks.

Aang's laughter slowed, "Appa, buddy, what's wrong?"

Appa continued to lick him, his crying getting louder that even Katara and Sokka could hear. Both siblings looked at each other in concern, though Sokka's looks still held suspicion.

Katara hesitantly stepped closer, "Is he okay?"

That seemed like it snapped Appa out of his state but it only seemed to make things worse. Appa stared at Katara for a second then lowed again, louder with a high pitch keen and that made Aang scared. Appa rose on his back four legs and abruptly dragged the yelping girl into the lick pile along with Aang.

Sokka was torn between yelling at the massive fluffy monster to let his sister go and laughing hysterically that she’s getting slobbered good. A few seconds of watching and a cry of disgust from Katara got him to start laughing, but the laugh stopped cold when he heard Aang calling for Appa in distress.

“Appa, Appa! What’s wrong buddy, what’s going on, please, what’s wrong?” The poor kid begged under the incessant licks with tears in his voice.

“Oh.” Sokka sighed and walked up cautiously to the bison, trying to see if he could figure a way to calm the creature down but then he was dragged down into the lick pile.

“Ugh!” Sokka cried out, feeling the hot slime across his face that was rapidly cooling down into a smelly morning breath smell. Appa had all three children pinned under his ten ton weight but the bison was being extremely careful to not let his full weight on them.

Katara and Sokka were starting to feel incredibly caged under the six limbs though.

Both siblings winced when they heard Aang burst into tears, but at least that stopped Appa’s near obsessive licking though. Sokka sighed, glad to finally breathe without the threat of bison saliva getting into his nostrils.

And tried to wiggle out of place.

Appa tightened his hold.

“Oh man.” The teen complained and sighed when Katara glared at him and hissed at him to shut up. The bald kid is still sobbing but quietly this time. He settled into a more comfortable position that he could while still being pinned under the bison like a baby otter penguin under the father’s pouch and decided that he’s going to take a nap.

Hopefully this is just midnight sun madness.

---

It was almost half a day later that the three children plus the giant sky bison made it to the small village. Kanna had a severe frown on her face as she looked at the children. They were extremely late. Everyone is asleep.

But her ire cooled when she looked at the despondent look on the airbender’s face, and he’s an airbender Kanna has no doubt, and the worried looks that her grandchildren keep shooting at the nomad and the sky bison that was dragging all six of his feet.

She frowned, this time in worry. What happened?

Chapter Text

Sokka wiped his face with a thick towel soaked with hot water to get rid of the dried drool. His hair is out of the wolf-tail and he reached into that next after dipping the fabric into the hot water to, again, wipe the saliva off. Turns out thick bison saliva makes a good hair gel, it's just nasty and smelly.

Both he and Katara came back to their little igloo with both of their hairs sticking straight up, gummed and iced in equal measure.

Kanna said nothing to them except, "Clean up. You smell like morning breath," then went to bed. The bald kid, Aang, went to sleep quickly, worn to the bone from waking up from the ice and crying because the giant fluff monster was crying.

Katara was sitting opposite of the pit holding the simmer water, wiping her own face free of the gummed saliva but then paused, "Sokka…? Did you feel something when you saw Appa or when you saw Aang?"

"Nope. Except worry that the thing would eat you." He scrubbed his hair, "Or the fact that he might be a Fire Nation spy."

"Liar." She shot back softly, not willing to wake the occupants in their home, "You were laughing hysterically at me. And be honest, can he really be a spy? Those big gray eyes?"

He shrugged, not bothering to deny the accurate accusation and not bothering to try to explain himself. He might have jumped the gun in accusing the kid as a spy but it's better to be safe than sorry. Then he snickered when she huffed at trying to untie her hair loopies from their frozen gummed up mess.

He felt so vindicated that she got the worst brunt of the slobbery licking mess. The heat of her glare did nothing to dissuade his smudge grin.

"I'm going to freeze your undies." She hissed and the grin quickly fled and he focused more on cleaning himself. Once the hair was done, he chucked off the parka for another, cleaner parka.

It was while he was hand combing his hair did Katara speak again, "I felt like there was a tingle going through my soul when I made eye contact with Appa, or with Aang...after making eye contact with Appa." She trailed off, feeling a bit disturbed.

Sokka's hand brushing paused and he had a weird look on his face. He did feel something when he made eye contact, but he shrugged it off as continued suspicion and manly terror in being dragged under the bison's six legs.

"That's just magic woo woo stuff, like your water magic." He said instead and stood up to walk towards his bed. He blithely ignored her exasperated glare and went under the fur covers.

Katara silently fumed but let it go. She looked at the wall of their igloo, staring right past it to where Aang is resting. Then she visualized the flying bison sleeping right in between their abode, keeping guard. She had no idea what was going on with Appa, but whatever it was, it was not normal.

When they showed the distraught Aang his igloo he was going to sleep in, Appa was docile. But the very second Katara tried to move away to get to her own igloo, Appa groaned and followed her, seemingly almost ready to block her from leaving.

Katara had to go out on a limb and verbally tell Appa that she was going to sleep in her home. Pointing to the igloo right next to Aang and Appa. Appa seemed to have bought it, because he relented with a mournful groan but settled down between the igloos. She ignored Sokka’s incredulous look of ‘Really? for the moment and cautiously ducked under the pelt acting as their door, keeping an eye on the bison the whole time to make sure that he wouldn’t just suddenly freak out and try to drag her under his arms again.

She really wondered why Appa was more concerned about her leaving than he was about her brother walking away. Not that Sokka was let off easily, but it just seemed like a more extreme case for her.

She was only happy that no one was being terribly loud to wake their little village.

"Something to ask Aang about tomorrow." She sighed to herself and changed into a cleaner pair of pants and parka. Katara had been...thoroughly soaked with bison saliva.

More laundry. Yay. She mentally huffed before settling down under her covers.

---

The next day brought the whole village curiously and cautiously eyeing the bison standing guard in between two igloos. One occupied by the acting Chieftess and her two grandchildren, the other that had been left empty since a father son duo had left nearly 3 years ago to war.

Tentatively, the children approached the bison and the creature just yawned and stared at the little ones with calm soulful brown eyes. The mothers tried to keep the curious children from approaching, but one did manage to slip through and bravely pet the bison's nose.

The giant animal closed its eyes and gently leaned into the touch. The little boy giggled and soon that was the floodgates that had the other swarming around the bison.

This was the view that Aang saw when he exited his borrowed igloo.

He really didn't know what happened yesterday. Only that something big had happened to his best friend when they woke from their icy sleep.

Did the storm terrify Appa?

If so then why did he react that way to Katara and Sokka? They never met them. But why did he feel like he should know them?

Appa's reaction terrified Aang so much and he really didn't know what to do except cry. There was no way that Aang could remain dry eyed when he heard his friend’s crying. Appa didn't let the children go from under his belly for hours. It was like he needed to keep them with him to make sure that they were okay.

Okay from what was the question.

Usually Aang can understand his animal companion just fine, but it was like there was a sudden disconnect from before they went to sleep to after they woke up. It was almost like...as if Appa had lived a lifetime without Aang and Aang is suddenly left behind, stuck at stage one while Appa is at the near end of the story.

Aang shook his head. This was too out there and philosophical even for him. Not that he had much spiritual training to begin with.

Aang steeled himself. He's determined to stay with Appa, no matter what has happened. He's always going to be there for his friend.

He giggled when he saw several little children climbing Appa like he’s their personal jungle gym. Appa looked at Aang with one visible eye and he lowed in greeting, not willing to move now that he had fragile little humans climbing all over him.

Something in Aang eased, hearing his friend’s greeting. He felt a lot better seeing his friend looking less burdened, but Aang was still troubled.

He stuffed it to the back of his mind to examine later and joined in the fun, “Hi!” He greeted with a bright smile, no hint of his previous day’s trouble. The children and some adults looked over, almost looking startled at his sudden appearance.

Aang mentally smiled ruefully. It’s not like he really blended in the environment very well. He rather stood out starkly from the white and blues with his bright saffron yellow and blinding orange. But, to be fair, Appa has a rather large presence.

“That’s Appa, my flying Bison! He’s really great!” Aang chirped, then blew air around himself to vault over Appa and float down on his head. The children ooh and aah at the sight of airbending. Then got excited and demanded more airbending.

Aang grinned with a sparkle in his eyes, “I’ll show you my most impressive airbending I have. Check this out!”

He whipped out three marbles and they spun in circles between his hands. The children giggled and some women smiled, seeing that he’s as harmless as the bison was and went to their morning chores.

“So you are an Air Nomad.” An older voice asked and Aang looked to see an elder woman standing next to the igloo right next to his borrowed one.

“Yup.” He answered easily, petting Appa’s head before hopping off to greet the woman closer, “My name’s Aang.”

“I am Kanna. It is very nice to meet you, young Aang.” She looked at him curiously, “Where did you come from, if I may ask.”

“I’m from the Southern Air Temple. I came here to see if I could go otter penguin sledding and make some friends.” He smiled but noted that there was a funny look crossing the older woman’s eyes.

Before he could ask what’s wrong, he was interrupted by Katara exiting the igloo and calling out his name in joy with slight concern, “Aang! There you are. How are you doing?”

Aang sheepishly smiled at the memory of all of them being trapped under Appa for hours, “I’m okay! And it looks like Appa is doing better as well.” They both looked at the bison, endlessly patient under the horde of children playing. Appa noticed them looking at him and he lowed again in greeting, but the tone is a little more forceful.

Aang frowned and looked at Katara, “I think he wants you to greet him closer.”

“What do you mean?” She asked warily, still looking at Appa but with trepidation. She’s not entirely sure she wants to get closer to him and get licked almost to death again, but then she made the mistake of looking at Aang.

He had his gray eyes wide and earnest, but also concerned and confused, “Please? I don’t think he’ll do what he did yesterday. Mostly he just wants to smell you.” The look on his face screamed I hope that did not inspire confidence but the polar bear puppy look on his face made her resolve crumble, “Fine.”

She walked up to Appa and he nudged his nose to her side once she was close enough. She giggled and started petting him and he rumbled in content, eyes closing. Discreetly Aang sighed in relief. No impromptu forced lick session.

Then perked up, “Katara, do you want to go penguin sledding?”

Katara responded while she’s still petting the calm bison on his head, “You still want to do that? I don’t know, I haven't done that since I was a kid.”

“You’re still a kid, just as how I’m still a kid.” Aang refuted cheerily, “Come on! It’ll be fun! And we can leave Appa to play with the children.” Before Katara could respond Appa groaned loudly in protest but still didn’t move lest he knock the crawling children all over him. Aang frowned in concern, “It’s okay buddy, I’m still here. We’re just going to play with the otter penguins.”

Appa rumbled in discontent but didn’t say anything more. Instead he just stared at them intently as they both left.

Katara and Aang walked out of the wall of the little village for a few minutes before Katara hesitantly broached the large elephippo in the room, “Aang...What happened to Appa? Were you both attacked by Fire Nation while flying here?”

“Why would the Fire Nation attack me?” Aang asked, confused and Katara had an alarmed and confused look in turn.

“Wait, how long do you think you've been in that ice for?”

Aang shrugged, “Couple days, maybe?”

“Aang…” Katara bit her lips but then suddenly changed her mind when she saw the black dots in the horizon, “Look! There they are!”

Suitably distracted, Aang laughed and darted off in a burst of speed that surprised Katara. After patting down her hair to some semblance of order, she darted off, though considerably slower. Both fed a fish to one otter penguin each and got ready to slide down.

She felt guilty about not telling him that he had been iced for 100 years. All of the Air Nomads are gone, completely extinct. But she didn’t want to add more to his plate.

“Ready?” Aang called on her left and Katara’s mind went back to the present and replied, “Ready!”

Both kicked off on the entirely tolerant otter penguin’s back and they hollered in glee as they raced into the tunnels. Once they exited and leveled off on even ground, both were laughing from the adrenaline and fun.

Soon the laughter subsided and Aang looked past her to see something, “What is that?”

Katara turned around, already knowing without having to look to see what it is, “That? That’s a Fire Nation ship. They like to come here occasionally to raid our numbers.” She answered bitterly.

Aang’s slightly horrified look calmed her bitterness, he’s just a kid she told herself, “That’s horrible, Katara! How long have they been doing that to your tribe?”

Only nearly 100 years. She thought but spoke, “A while. Come on, let’s head back.”

“We should take a look.” He answered back, already walking towards the derelict ship.

“Aang, wait! I don’t think we should go there. It’s trapped.”

“It looks old, maybe all the traps are defunct by now.” He mused out loud.

“We’re not allowed in there.” Katara tried again and Aang gave her another earnest look that she quickly realized is a prime weapon against her, “Just a quick look! I have never been inside a ship before.”

Katara relented and they both ducked inside the metal ship, “So how did you find me and Appa?” Aang asked, walking through the hallway and looking at each room they came across.

Katara blushed, “Actually...I accidentally bent water in my anger. Sokka was just being so-!” She grunted her sheer frustration at her brother but then continued, “My anger cracked the iceberg and then you popped out of the water. It almost capsized us from the ice floe we were standing on.”

“Huh. You’re a waterbender?” He asked, excitement gleaming in his gray eyes.

“I’m only self taught.” She answered in a ‘what can you do’ gesture, “I’m the only waterbender left in the Southern Water Tribe.”

The excited gleam dulled to concern and Aang tentatively poked the sleeping polar bear dog, “What happened…?”

“The Fire Nation happened.” She answered curtly but then sighed, “Sorry. It’s just….they killed our mom. They are also the reason why you don’t see grown men in our village. They went to war against the Fire Nation two years ago.”

Aang slowed down his walking and Katara continued ahead, unknowing that she left him behind. He frowned and thought to himself That doesn’t sound right. But he quickly caught up and smiled, “Well, why don’t you go to the Northern Water Tribe? They must have some waterbenders to teach you.”

Katara looked at him with a wide smile but then it dimmed, “I don’t know. I can’t leave my people.”

“It’s okay Katara. It’s your choice.” He said as they walked into the helm’s room. Soon they found themselves trapped inside, metal bars slammed shut and flares went up.

Both only had one thing to say, “Whoops.”

Then Katara groaned, “Sokka and Gran Gran are going to kill me.”

---

It was the view of the whole village being outside the wall and Sokka’s angry look and Gran Gran’s severe disapproval that met Katara and Aang.

Both winced but trudged on to face their judgement.

---

Sokka woke to the outside bustling and Appa frantically lowing at him. Sokka could see that the bison was covered in squirming children and sighed. Time to rescue Appa from the clutches of too curious children. He clapped his hands, “Okay warriors! Get ready for the day, up and center!”

The kids groaned but dutifully climbed off and haphazardly filed to the large open space near the front of the village. Sokka moved to follow and Appa got up and followed behind.

Sokka looked back at the bison soulfully staring at him from two feet away and eyed him warily, “....You’re not going to lick me to death again, are you?”

Appa only groaned and Sokka felt a little stupid for talking to the bison like he could understand him. He stared at the animal again and made a shooing motion. He turned to walk towards the training center.

Appa followed.

Sokka stopped and bit his tongue to prevent him from yelping because Appa is now one feet away from him.

“....Please don’t lick me to death. Or smother me to death. Or just anything that leads me to dying.” Sokka then started walking backwards, keeping a steady eye on the bison like his eyes would root the animal to his spot.

It does not work. Appa followed with a low moan at the back of his throat.

The children started giggling, immensely entertained by the show. One, the little traitor thought Sokka unkindly, shouted, “Show no fear!”

Sokka snapped back defensively, looking back at the little ruffian, “I’m not afraid!”

That was a mistake, Sokka yelped as his torso was grabbed and he was dragged under the bison’s leg again and he felt a long slurp on his face, prompting him to yell out in disgust. The children burst out in laughter.

“Why is it everytime I try to save you, you do this to me?” Sokka whined, frantically wiggling under Appa’s arms like a slippery eel fish.

Appa grumbled, feeling better and Sokka tried to wiggle his way out again. But it was a failed endeavor and Sokka loudly groaned in defeat.

A pair of mukluks entered his limited vision and he looked up to see Gran Gran looking at him in amusement. He gave her a pleading look.

She quirked a brow at him, “I’m an old woman Sokka. I don’t think I’ll be able to physically move the flying bison myself.” She looked upward to see Appa snuggling her grandson and pursed her lips.

She had not had much practice with the Spiritual Arts for decades, but she could swear that there is a….thread connecting to her grandson. She felt sorrow.

She knows that she would have to let her grandson and granddaughter go to the greater world. She wished fiercely to protect them, but this is their destiny to follow the Air Nomad. A destiny to what, she has no idea.

“Gran Gran, you can’t really believe that this big creature could fly?!” He squacked, flailing as much as he could under Appa, and she smiled indulgently at him. Oh, he’ll see it soon. She could feel it.

The amusement abruptly fled however when they both saw the flare shooting into the sky from the location of the wrecked Fire Nation ship.

“Oh Katara.” Gran Gran breathed, both furious and sad. Angry because she wandered into a strictly forbidden area, but sad because this is Destiny at play, rolling the small snowball down the hill. The hill will grow into mountains and the ball would only gain size and momentum, growing big enough that nothing can stop it.

She’s scared to lose her only grandchildren. She prays to the Spirits everyday that her son remains safe as one could be as an active participant of war, now she must pray for the health and safety of her Sokka and Katara. She could only pray that when Destiny is finished with them, they would be alive and be able to come home to her.

She held her stance behind her grandson as he yelled at them, accused Air Nomad of being a spy, and promptly banished him from their little village. Katara, the strong young woman she is, shouted back, "You can't do that!"

"Yes I can, and I did! You put us all in danger and we can't afford that. Dad left me in charge to protect you and the village. I made my call, he has to go." He finished with a glare at Aang. Appa groaned loudly in protest.

He did NOT want anyone to be separated from each other. The Herd stays together!

Sokka kept his glare steady on Aang as he dejectedly approached Appa and climbed on, "Come on, let’s go buddy. Yip yip!"

Appa groaned, bordered on a growl and shook his head in a snort, standing his ground. Aang's heart thudded, he’s never done this before. Appa never refused him before, "Appa, we need to leave."

"No! I'm coming with you!"

"Katara no!" Kanna barked.

"Aang said there are waterbenders in the North Pole! I'm tired of waiting for dad to win the unwinnable war. It's been going on for a century-" Aang's eyes widened and he gasped,"-and I'm going there to get trained!" Katara finished with a jerky stomp that cracked the ice under her.

Quickly she cooled off, but stood her ground, staring at her brother and her grandmother.

"Katara, don't." Aang said softly she whirled towards him with pleading eyes, "They're your family. You can't just leave them like that." He finished, "Come on Appa."

Appa stayed until a soft plea from his rider finally moved him. Appa gave one last long look at Sokka and Katara with a mournful groan before finally moving. Sokka turned his head away to avoid the look but Katara met his gaze with fresh tears misting her eyes.

When they both disappeared over the horizon, Katara sent Sokka a truly heated glare and she snarled, "Thanks Sokka. My one chance to get trained by a master and you just sent them away."

She stomped away into their igloo, leaving behind Hanna and Sokka. Kanna approached her grandson and placed a guiding hand on his back, "Come, let's head back into the village."

Sokka took a deep breath and let it out. Then allowed her to guide him back to the training center where he could train his future warriors that this little village could have. But he decided to not train them. He veered into his igloo to get dressed in his ceremonial warriors outfit and war paint.

His instinct tells him that something will come to the flare. Something is going to happen today.

---

"Lieutenant Jee." Zuko called out, staring at the horizon where they corrected their course to head straight towards the light. Now they're just nearly skimming the edge of the ice landmass, trying to find land with civilization but the heavy ice fog was making it difficult to see.

Sailing only slowed from there with eyes out to keep track of dangerous icebergs.

Zuko petted his little companion who had his head sticking out of the thick parka. He's anxious. Three years of searching and this is the closest he's ever been in finding the elusive Avatar.

He's anxious because he and his men can Finally go home. His anxiety was not help by the fact that he has too much energy in his system with almost no way to completely let loose without exposing himself as the Golden Firebender that he knows Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation is looking for. For good or ill will he has no desire to find out.

At least he can trust that Zhao would be a malicious finder.

He was starting to slowly give up finding the Avatar and he was considering committing treason in trying to find allies to help his uncle take the Throne.

See? He could make plans, Uncle. He thinks things through.

Sometimes. It's rare though.

"Yes Sir?" Jee was also staring at the horizon, but more calm.

"Do you have anyone to get back home to?" He asked, refusing to look the man straight in the eyes.

Jee only sighed and closed his eyes in a slow blink, "No Sir. Had a wife. She died of childbirth. I had a son. He was 23 when he was KIA."

Zuko winced. He swallowed before turning to face Jee, "I will bring us home. And I will do everything I can to end this war and make sure that Uncle takes his rightful place as Firelord."

Jee started at that. Not because of the first sentence or the second, but the last bit. Zuko will not take the Throne?

He straightened and gazed at the younger golden eyes seriously, "Sir, I follow you. You are my Lord that I would gladly give my life up for."

Zuko spluttered and he was going to hotly deny Jee's words but they were interrupted by a call of "I see land!"

"Stop the ship!" Zuko called and the ship's already slow speed crawled to a stop, dead in the water.

Iroh walked up to Zuko, warm air puffing out as he spoke, "I don't like the fact that you are going without a squadron," He began sternly but then relaxed at seeing Zuko's mullish expression, he continued before he nephew could argue, "...but...I am very proud of you. You have come a long way since the impulsive boy I have known for three years."

Zuko's jaw clenched and he couldn't help but think back to the time where he impulsively spoke out against the General in the War Room. It was where everything really started. He could have stayed quiet like Azula would have done. He could have spoken to his father in private on how bad the tactic was.

He could have, he could have, he could have…

In the end, though, he couldn’t find it within himself to regret speaking out passionately against the General. He would not regret standing up to the 41st Division but he did regret not being able to save them

Iroh seems to have realized the minefield he just stepped in and brought his boy into a tight hug, Jee looked away, his face nostalgic and a flash of longing that was missed by everyone, “I’m sorry Zuko. That was thoughtless of-”

“I’m not.” Zuko interrupted, voice muffled due to his face being pressed into Iroh’s shoulder. There was a loud chitter as Momo protested in being squished between two human bodies.

Both older men blinked at that and Zuko elaborated, pushing himself away just a bit to give Momo breathing room. The lemur crawled out of the parka to sit on Zuko’s shoulder, “I’m not. I think....I think banishing me was the best thing he’s ever done to me.”

After the worst thing he’s done to you. Both men thought darkly before brightening up. Jee had a smirk on, a proud look barely legible on his face. Iroh only beamed, “I do not regret following you nephew.”

“Neither do I, Sir. Which, speaking of following you, I will be accompanying you to ground.” Zuko only rolled his eyes. This was a fight that he lost every single time he tried to order Lieutenant Jee to remain behind, or any of his crew members as a matter of fact.

“Fine. I’m leaving on the steamer boat at five. Be there or I’m leaving.”

Jee had a look on his face that said No, you won’t. But walked off to collect Kazuto and get ready.

Zuko realized something with a jolt as he walked to his cabin to collect more of his throwing knives. Not once, since being banished, has he been alone. Uncle stayed with him from his bedside while recovering from the severe burn and from the Western Air Temple. Momo had been attached to his side since the Southern Air Temple. And from there it just ballooned to include Jee, Kazuto, Kangfu, and his crew members.

Not even when he went out as the Blue Spirit had he been alone because Momo was a stubborn Lemur.

He placed the gifted dagger into his right boot before straightening up and called Momo over with his arm raised. Momo flew over without hesitation and settled inside the parka with a content chirr.

He took a deep breath and spewed out golden fire from his nose and mouth to relieve his near unbearable jitter. The room, which was cool, immediately became toasty and he could feel the anxiousness literally in the air before it too dissipated.

Now all it remains is just the warm cabin. No lingering emotions that can be felt by anyone walking by.

He found that, when his emotions leave via fire, he feels better. It’s like taking the metaphorical concept of taking the anger and putting it in a mental chest and throwing away the key in a literal way, only instead of trying to lock it away, it’s like he’s draining it out of himself so he wouldn’t be so overwhelmed with his emotions.

His anxious jitters are still there, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Now if only the sun would actually set, he would feel more calm.

Mentally he apologized to Agni, but Spirits, having the sun on a Firebender 24/7 is like giving him a steady stream of caffeine and he’s unable to work the extra energy off like he needs to.

Five minutes is almost up. He left and prayed that the Avatar was truly there. He doesn’t know how much he could take this without doing something drastic just to move past this state of purgatory. Of seeing the damage and unable to do anything for it.

---

Kazuto and Jee were two seconds over five minutes.

Of course Zuko did not even move to depart without them.

---

They had been moving along the coast in search for a place to dock when they saw a speck of flare from the far distance.

The three exchanged glances and without a word they steered the steamer towards the fading light barely piercing through dense icy fog. Luckily the fog is being burnt away due to the rising sun reaching its zenith.

Trying to peer through the telescope, Zuko could barely make out a flash of red and yellow hopping away from the wrecked Fire Nation Ship with something blue along with him.

It's him. Something deep in Zuko's gut is certain. "He's real spry for an old man." Zuko spoke to himself but Jee heard him.

"Are you thinking that we may encounter trouble?"

"I really hope not. We desperately need his help to overthrow my father and to end this war."

He's NOT your father. Jee viciously thought but stamped the urge to growl down. He can only stay behind his Prince and support him in this outrageously treasonous endeavor.

"Sir. If that is him-"

"It's him." Zuko interrupted. Jee's brow rose at the Prince’s complete confidence in his answer and corrected himself, "When we meet him, what are your plans if the Avatar does not want to join you?"

"I'll challenge him to an Agni Kai." Zuko's words escape his mouth seemingly without the boy's brain having any input because Jee just could not believe his ears.

There was a tense silence before Kazuto barked an incredulous laugh and Jee sighed, strained, "Prince Zuko, the master of Four Elements?"

"What other options do I have??" Zuko finally dropped the telescope and whirled aggressively to face the two older men, "I can't go home without him. I can't stop the war without him! Without him, I'M STUCK! He's the best option I have to ending the war without more and horrific casualties!" Zuko's eyes pricked with tears of frustration but he refused to let them fall. Momo popped out of the parka with a loud chirr and climbed to his shoulders to preen his shaggy hair.

Both men watched Zuko deflate and murmur, "I don't know what to do after this."

There was silence for a while as the steamer chugged along, closer and closer to where they could see a small port in the distance.

Kazuto interrupted the silence, "We'll figure something out, Captain. You're not alone."

Jee nodded and Zuko sighed in resignation, "Not like I could go anywhere without one of you."

They docked and walked towards the small wall surrounding the equally tiny village. Momo tilted his head and chirped, inquiring at the lone figure standing at the tiny little watch tower that looked structurally unsound. The figure shouted and ducked out of view.

All three exchanged glances and Momo's ears perked and rose on his hindlegs, completely alert. Zuko spared a quick glance at his little companion on his shoulder but looked straight at the door opening at the wall and a figure came charging out with a spear.

Both men tensed on either side of Zuko but before either one of them could think about doing preemptive retaliation Zuko charged forward, Momo flying off to land on Jee's shoulder. Zuko grabbed the spear and twisted, throwing the warrior screaming over his shoulder and landing face first into the snow.

Zuko twirled the spear and tossed it aside and raised his hands, "I'm not here to fight! I'm just looking for someone."

"We don't have any waterbenders you Fire Nation scum!" The young man, as young as Zuko, if not younger, scowled furiously and wiped the melting snow off his face, the warriors paint running off.

"I'm not-" looking for waterbenders, I'm looking for the Avatar! he almost said but was startled from a jubilant screech from Momo as he launched himself from Jee and smacked his whole body into the warrior's face, knocking him back on his ass with an 'oomf!'

"Momo! What are you-"

Momo screeched even louder, frantically pointing to the warrior as the said warrior frantically tried to pry the clingy lemur off his face, "What is with all of the animals' reaction to me today?!" The warrior and Momo made eye contact and the warrior stilled in shock, which allowed Momo to wrap himself even tighter, limbs, wings and tail, all of it.

"Momo!" Zuko barked and Jee smirked to keep himself from guffawing and Kazuto full on laughed, holding his stomach. Agni the crew loves Momo.

Zuko stomped over, "Momo, let him go!" And stepped back in surprise when Momo hissed at him, clinging tighter around the face of the warrior, who sighed, sounding muffled, "Welp. My pride is officially gone. Beaten by a flying rat."

"It's a flying lemur." Zuko corrected automatically then winced, "Uh...sorry about that. He's not usually….like this. Maybe we should just…" Zuko stopped before the awkwardness could get any more painful. The laughter behind him turned into wheezing and Zuko blushed heavily, turning to glare at the incapacitated Kazuto kneeling forward like he has to hold in his pee.

He scowled and stalked over and made a low arching kick that knocked Kazuto on his back. The wheezing turned silent as the man continued to laugh. Zuko shouted, "Get a hold of yourself!" before the man finally started getting a hold of himself.

Zuko turned to glare at Jee, just daring the man to laugh. Jee did not, but the trembling lips betrayed that he really, really wanted to.

"Thanks for trying to salvage my pride, but it's gone now." The warrior spoke, finally having a gloved hand between his face and Momo, trying again to pry the critter off.

Zuko sighed, trying his best to not let the fire burst out to give him away as a firebender and walked over. His face burned in humiliation but still tried to get Momo off, "Momo, I'll let you go inside the preserved peach jar if you get off the Water Tribe ph- uh…"

"Sokka." He supplied helpfully, completely deadpanned.

"If you get off Sokka, you can get the whole jar of peaches." His voice listed upward like he was questioning instead of saying a statement.

"You have to be firm when you train someone." Sokka added, unhelpfully.

Zuko hissed a 'shut up' when Momo tilted his head in thought, wide green eyes boring into Zuko's soul. Seeing the truth that the bribe will be given, Momo detached himself from Sokka and flew onto Zuko's shoulder and started chattering a mile a minute. He had a distinct feeling that Momo was telling him that this warrior is a friend, now promptly part of his conspiracy.

Zuko sighed again, but this time in resignation and dread.

"Here." He grunted, holding out his hand for Sokka to take who smacked the proffered hand out of the way and got up himself. Zuko bite his lip to keep the indignant shout back.

Their eyes connected. Blue and gold. A strong tingle down their soul.

Nope!

Nope, nope, nope, nope. Both looked away and pretended to not notice anything, both deciding not to call out each other surprised looks.

"We're….just looking for the Avatar." Zuko finally said and Sokka snorted an incredulous laugh, "Seriously, man?"

Seeing that Zuko is not pulling his leg, Sokka snorted again, "Yeah, we don't have the Avatar. He hadn't been seen in a hundred years." He shrugged, leaning more heavily on one leg and crossing his arms.

Zuko wasn't going to take this without giving up and pursued, "Don't take me for a fool! We all saw that light go up in the sky!"

"What, the flare?" Sokka replied contemptuously.

"No! The white beam!" That rendered the Water Tribe teen silent and externally Zuko smirked, "Now, where is he?" He looked up to see an old woman watching from the wall, "He should be as old or older than her!" He pointed and Sokka's face grew angry.

"You keep Gran Gran out of this! There is no Avatar! There are no waterbenders! There is nothing here because your people made sure of that!" Sokka shouted and gripped his boomerangs from its holster. Zuko got into his stance, it was loose and light.

However, before either boys can erupt into a vicious fight, an orange and red blur on top of something black and white blindsided Zuko and he was knocked into his face with a yelp. Momo screeched again, flying in the air in tight circles before slamming into the bald kid’s shoulder, chattering loudly with excitement.

---

More and more residents of the village started coming out of the border of the wall, curiously watching the circus show.

Aang looked at Momo’s bright green eyes and suddenly, that disconnected feeling since Appa snapped back into the correct place. Dazely he stared at the chittering flying lemur, not feeling the patting on his cheek. He also didn’t hear Sokka laugh at the cursing teen, but he did snap back into reality when the older teen got to his feet and took a light stance that Aang blinked at.

It looks like an Airbending stance, only slightly modified.

Aang took the same stance and they circled each other, the lemur flying off to land on the shoulder of an older man with gray hair and beard. The glare on the scarred teens face slowly dropped to a look of angry confusion, looking at his arrow on his forehead, “Wait...You’re the Avatar?! But you’re just a kid!”

Aang winced, then blinked, “Well you’re just a teenager.”

“I’m not joking! How old are you?” He barked and there was something wild in his golden eyes, like he was barely holding back a panic attack. Aang felt that curious tingle going down his soul and knew that the other felt the same sensation as well when his eyes widened in shock.

“I’m twelve, what does it have to do with anything?”

At that answer, every single person looking at the scarred teen could see him pale to ashen gray then swayed. The two older men that had been holding back surged forward to keep the teen upright. The teen was mumbling something before he abruptly started gagging, hands going to the scar on the left side of the face. The two men holding him both paled, pained sorrowful grimac painting their faces.

Suddenly, he stopped gagging and shouted, “I’m not bringing a kid into this! Move out!”

“Captain…?” The younger man called out, letting him go as the teen walked away unsteadily but was regaining his balance.

The Captain fixed him an intense glare, “I’m not bringing a twelve year old kid to him.

Kazuto looked away in shame and nodded. The two men followed after the teen.

Momo screeched, calling out for his conspiracy to stay together. He flew on Zuko’s shoulder, frantically chittering and trying to yank his hair to steer him back to Aang.

Aang was so confused. What is going on? The lemur only stopped when the teen responded, softly in a defeated tone, “I can’t Momo…” His voice cracked with something close to grief, “I just can’t…”

Momo’s ears flattened against his head before perking up, looking straight at Aang. Then he flew, spoke a few chittering sentences, staring straight at his eyes with those big enormous green eyes as if trying to tell him something then flew off to land on the retreating teen, heavily draping himself over the shoulder like a shawl.

Watching him walk away, Aang felt a sharp pang of fear that he should not let the teen go. Still, he stayed rooted in his spot, staring at the teen.

“Good riddance.” Sokka spoke, though there was no heat in his tone, more like he was disturbed and unsure as well.

They both walked in, somehow forgetting that Aang was banished.

Or maybe not forgetting, but letting it go for now due to recent development of their Fire Nation visitors. Walking by Gran Gran, they both noticed that she had a very curious and screwed look in her eyes, looking at both of them, squinting her eyes like she's trying to see beyond the material realm and into the mystical. She hummed curiously looking between the two of them and then towards the docks where the scarred teen and two older men left.

She said nothing but stepped inside the border of the wall.

Sokka and Aang exchanged a glance, unsure of what to make of it.

Soon, Gran Gran disappeared into the igloo and Katara flew out with worry, "Are you okay?"

"Oh, I'm perfectly okay." Sokka responded, stretching like he kicked butt no problem.

Aang answered more simply, "I'm fine. He didn't attack us."

Then not so simply, "...As a matter of fact, he took one look at me, and when he heard my age, he left, saying that he wanted nothing to with me." Katara frowned in confusion.

"Wait, there's another thing he said. He said that you're the Avatar. How whacked in the head is he, to think that you're the Avatar?" Sokka laughed but then quieted in apprehension when Aang didn't laugh with him. Dawning comprehension came quick as lightning and he breathed, "Tui and La."

"What?!" Katara gasped, clueing in her brother's understanding and looked to the sheepish and guilty Aang, "Why didn't you tell us?" She asked softly.

Aang looked away, gripping his staff harder in a hug, "....Because I didn't want to be the Avatar."

Chapter Text

Zuko ran to the nearest bucket on the ship and vomited in it, much to the confusion and concern of the rest of the crew. Momo remained on his back, patting his neck but had to take off when the stench got too much.

Uncle Iroh took his place instead and hauled him up, knowing that Zuko hates appearing weak in front of his crew. Zuko pulled away from his uncle once he's on his feet, perhaps a bit too harshly but spoke under his breath, "I need to speak with you." And noticed that he's feeling that he's still far too keyed up and emotional, where he would start spewing fire from his mouth in anger, he amended, "Later."

A short bark of command to find the nearest large icey landmass to anchor near, Zuko stomped to his room with Momo chirring his greeting to Iroh as they both disappeared behind the door. Iroh figured it's to rest for the 'night'.

Iroh watched him go silently and looked to pale Kazuto and resigned Jee.

"What happened?" Iroh asked, and Jee sighed and stood more at attention, "We have good news and bad news." He started.

"The good news is that we found the Avatar." The crew who lingered abruptly spoke in hushed whispers to each other.

"I’m guessing the bad news is that he does not want to join us." Iroh completed to himself, sagging under the weight of disappointment and pain for Zuko.

"The Avatar was never given the option to join, Sir. He's twelve."

There was silence as the implications dawned on everyone and some of them winced in sympathy and pain for the all around Agni awful bad luck that seems to follow Prince Zuko.

Iroh looked at Jee speculatively, then looked at the door where Zuko disappeared behind with a hint of grief.

But there was also a hint of pride. He's proud of his nephew. So, so completely proud of him. Jee noticed the others staring curiously at the two of them, Kazuto absent since he already scampered off to the crew cabin to drink some contraband. Lucky bastard.

Jee felt that he could really use a drink as well for this messed up situation. Instead of giving into the temptation to pinch the bridge if his nose, he side eyed the rest of the crew a glare and shifted. The angry creak of his armor sent the rest of the crew skittering to complete their chores.

"Sir," Lieutenant Jee started as both Iroh and he walked inside to head to the helm, making sure to keep his voice low so others would not hear, "What are your plans now that the Avatar will not be helping us?"

"I would not discount his help, even with his young age. As much as I am also against children joining the war, the war would not be so kind as to keep him out." He pointed out mildly as they stepped into the helm. They both looked outside the window to see the ship heading towards a large ice shelf, the wall looming over their tiny ship.

Kim Ri carefully maneuvered the ship parallel to the shelf, parking as close to the wall, uncomfortably close, before shutting down the active motors into idle standbys. The anchor was dropped.

At the two's questioning glance, Kim spoke, "The Prince requested that we dock close to the wall so he can vent his frustration on land." She nodded towards the deck below them to see Zuko running towards the wall and, very much giving Iroh and Jee a heart attack, jumped and body slammed into the wall. Just as everyone on deck was about to lose their minds at the possibility of needing to fish their Prince from the cold water, he proceeded to climb up the sheer and brittle wall like a little squirrel-rat with long daggers on both of his hands.

Jee was going to kill the kid.

Iroh gave the helmswoman a mild look with a small smile that did nothing to tell her she's not in trouble and everything to tell her that he's very close to breathing fire on her. Kim Ri shivered and bowed, "Sorry sir. Prince Zuko ordered us to keep silent." Some of the men keeping silent in the helm tensed like they just been tossed under the rampaging komodo rhino.

Iroh's smile changed a tiny bit, just a sliver, but Kim subtly took a deep breath because she knows that she's not going to get a face full of fire.

Whoa. Bad analogy. Mentally, she apologized to Prince Zuko, but outwardly she showed no change in expression. Iroh continued, "I suppose even I cannot account for every brash decision my nephew makes."

"Doesn't he realize that those ice shelves can collapse at any moment?" Jee murmured out loud, pale faced, more to himself but everyone in the helm heard. He was staring up at the wall where Zuko disappeared over the edge, "And he just decides to climb up on one with a pair of daggers. Unbelievable."

"I'm sure he believes that it's a risk he was willing to take to truly be alone." If he even thought about the risk was left unsaid.

"Well, it's a highly effective way to make sure no one follows-" Kim spoke but then wilted under an unforgiving glare of the Prince's real dad "-shutting up now, Sir."

Jee finally gave into the impulse to pinch the bridge of his nose to try to help stem the massive headache that spiked just now.

It did not help.

"Why don't we all have some nice calming tea while we wait for my nephew to come back." Iroh smiled but the jovial hand that clapped on Kim's shoulder clamped down like a vice, an unspoken command to a disguised request for her to join.

Jee answered for her, "Sounds good."

The rest of the crewmen inside the helm didn't move lest they draw the Dragon of the West's attention on them and invite them out for tea. They kept their heads down and made themselves very quietly busy. Kim mentally glared at them but she was not enough of a sore loser to drag them all with her. She can take one for the team.

But she will give them hell for it later.

---

Zuko ran on the flat ice away from the edge of the ice cliff to where he could be sure that, when he bends, he would not fall to his grave. Momo exited out of the parka to fly alongside his running form and chirped in curiosity.

Zuko continued to run, sprinting really, because he’s just...done. Done trying to do what his father asks in a very loose term. Capture the Avatar has been changed to Find the Avatar.

Now? It’s Avoid the Avatar because the Avatar is honest to Agni a child. He’s a twelve year old kid.

Zuko stopped suddenly, sliding several feet across the ice, “He’s twelve Momo!” He suddenly shouted and Momo chirred, landing on an elevated ice. His wide green eyes looked at his human with zero judgement and Zuko spoke again, breathing heavily, “He’s twelve, he’s younger than I was when father-”

He stopped, his voice trembled at the last word. There was silence as he tried to get ahold of his erratic breathing, then-

He screamed, golden fire billowing out of mouth like a towering beacon into the sky, twin jets of fire shooting out his outstretched hands to his sides. Under the long stream of fire, the ice melted shallow trenches, warm water streaming up under the fire.

Momo still stared at Zuko with not a single hint of fear in his body language. He knows that Zuko would never hurt him.

“It’s, It’s done!” Zuko shouted, throwing a fireball punch, the fire blistering hot. The snow under melted into slush, “I’m done! I’m banished with no way home and I can’t bring a f-” a large plume of fire roared out of his kick, drowning out the curse, “-kid to my father and watch him suffer a worse fate!”

The area around Zuko was really becoming a warm sauna with the ice keeping it’s form under the thin layer of warm water. Soon those patches of warm water slowly solidified into clear ice while the rest of the warm water evaporated into icy steam. But no matter where he kicked, punched, and screamed, Momo and the area around himself remained free of any firebending action.

Momo chirped to let him know that he’s listening.

Zuko glared at Momo but Momo knows that his human is not angry at him. His conspiracy is upset and venting.

Zuko stopped and his breathing stuttered and Momo perked up in alarm. His human’s eyes narrowed into pinpricks and he looked to be mentally elsewhere. His human was having bad memory attacks. The very air reeked of anger, pain, and terror.

Zuko barely felt Momo land on his shoulders and wound himself around Zuko’s neck firmly, a tiny paw patting his chest with steady thud, thud, thud.

He was having a horrible thought, his flashback changing from his own perception of being burned to suddenly being a spectator, watching his own father burn the bald kid’s left face, those guileless gray eyes squeezing shut and shrieking in pain.

Zuko stumbled, feeling lightheaded and feeling spots invading his vision. He suddenly sat down heavily with zero grace and closed his eyes, taking shallow breaths.

Slowly he became more aware of the steady beating on his chest. Slowly, but surely, he took longer and deeper breaths. He also became aware of the wind gently caressing him, winding in soothing circles around him that could not be reasonably explained as anything other than the Wind Spirit doing their best to comfort him.

Zuko looked to his right and saw Momo looking right at him, large green eyes unblinking and he chirped inquisitively. He reached up and petted Momo’s large ears. The lemur closed his eyes half way and purred in contentment, “Sorry for that Momo.”

Momo chirped and he got the sense of Not a problem before he flew off to land on his spot.

The wind was still dancing around him and Zuko sighed. He got off and his wet form started steaming slightly as he danced in what little airbending moves he knows. He closed his eyes and just...let himself go. He breathed with the wind and let the worries melt off of him until he could feel unburdened while dancing with the light and airy wind.

Momo hunkered down, curling into a ball to watch the show.

Zuko moved his hands while dancing slowly in a circle, the wind following. Golden fire gently erupted out of his hands, no heat. The previous air of misery and pain was blown away only to be replaced by acceptance. The fire mingled with the air and formed a patchwork of fire circling around Zuko, gently towering along with the upward spiraling draft. The ground under Zuko’s feet is smooth as solid glass and a beautiful teal color.

Zuko’s brows creased and his lips turned down in a determined frown. His slow dancing sped up and the wind gust harder, “I’m not done.” He said to himself.

He spun, fire following around his form like ribbons from his hands, “I’m not done. It’ll be harder, but I can do this. I can do this without the Avatar.”

The wind slowed, gave one last soothing caress then the Spirit disappeared.

Normal wind greeted him when he opened his eyes and he also saw Momo loafing on the ground. Zuko smiled.

Momo looked up and screeched happily and shot off the ground like a firework.

His smile dropped and he looked up, gapped uselessly for a split second then bolted towards his ship. Zuko shouted as hard as he could, hoping to Agni that someone on his ship could hear his impressive set of lungs screaming out orders to start the ship and get ready to leave.

He shouted a few more times before he saw the edge of the cliff where he knows the ship is anchored by. A shadow, which at first started out tiny dot then steadily grew larger, surrounding his frantically sprinting form.

---

There was a tense awkward air inside their igloo. Katara looked at Aang with sympathetic eyes. Sokka glared at him with disbelieving eyes. Kanna looked at him then to her two grandchildren.

Aang avoided everyone’s gaze and twiddled his thumbs in a nervous habit.

Gran Gran looked between her grandchildren and back to Aang again, squinting through them. Then sighed and got up.

She puttered around the igloo. Packing things.

Both siblings and Aang took no notice of this. The siblings are still looking at Aang and Aang is still avoiding making eye contact with everyone.

Sokka sighed and rubbed his temple, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure. You’re the Avatar?”

Aang bit his lips but nodded.

“And how long ago did you know?”

“A couple weeks ago?”

“...Is that a question or an answer?” Sokka asked shrewdly and Aang swallowed and finally looked up to meet Sokka’s gaze. A tingle went down both of their souls and Sokka’s gaze narrowed even more, “Okay, scratch that. Why do I keep feeling this tingle?!”

Katara whipped to look at her brother with a triumphant gaze, “HAH! I knew you felt it too!”

Aang’s eyes widened, “Wait, you guys felt the tingle?”

“Like it went down your soul?” Katara responded, still smugly grinning at her brother who scowled at her, “Yup. I felt that with you and Appa.”

“Fine, Katara, you were right.” Sokka crossed his arms in irritation, “I felt that, but I also felt it with the flying rat and the Fire kid.”

“Flying Lemur.” Aang automatically corrected him and ignored Sokka’s quelling look of is this really the time? He was too busy thinking about his experiences, “I felt it with you Katara, but then I felt disconnected with Appa. Then a reconnection with the flying lemur, felt another with the firebender, and now with you Sokka.” Aang finished, counting with his fingers before closing into a fist with a single finger pointing at the water tribe boy.

“Wait, so he is a firebender!” Sokka only had to focus on that one fact.

Aang stared at him weirdly, “Yessss?”

Sokka rubbed his chin like he had a beard when, in fact, he didn't have a single wispy whisker, “Huh. I guess he really wasn’t aiming to attack.”

“Are you sure about that Sokka?” Katara asked, highly skeptical of her brother’s deduction.

He quirked his shoulder, “I’m sure. Looking back at it now, his body language was purely defensive, evasive, and redirective.”

“I didn’t see the redirection, but I saw the defensive. I also saw his stance when we were about to fight. It’s evasive, he knows airbending moves.” Aang supplied and Sokka had to blink.

He opened his mouth to respond but then heard a bellow. Aang popped out of his sitting pose like the fire was lit under his backside and bolted outside.

Appa finally caught up.

Both siblings followed, though with more caution. They pulled aside the pelt to see Aang rubbing Appa’s head as he tried to sniff the tiny airbender who was cooing to his animal companion that everything was alright.

Appa looked up and eyes Sokka unerringly. Sokka narrowed his eyes in suspicion, starting to slowly back away to at least hide behind Katara. Katara glared at him and stepped away. She was not going back into the lick zone.

Before Sokka could reach out to her to bring her in front of him as a shield, Appa lumbered right up to Sokka’s face far too quickly than what a giant animal his size should have been able to do. Sokka yelped but Appa only sniffed Sokka’s head. Then sniffed again Harder.

Then shoved his head closer to Sokka's face and sniffed more frantically and Appa groaned, stepping back. Appa made a shuffling motion with all six of his feet and slapped his flat tail downward in agitation.

"What is he doing?" Katara asked, moving slightly away from Sokka and Aang frowned, "I think he wants to go somewhere."

"Well he's free to go." Sokka waved his hand, still slightly confused. Appa groaned louder and shook his head in a negatory manner, slapping his tail downward again, looking at the three of them very pointedly then looking up to the sky. He slapped his tail on the ground the third time with a slight growl and Sokka just about lost his mind when he saw the bison floating off the ground, "Katara! Katara look! He's floating! He can actually fly!" He was grabbing on Katara's sleeve and shook it in his excitement but let go of it like he was burned when he glanced over to see Katara's smug and amused grin. He cleared his throat and shrugged, "Yeah, sure. He can fly. It's not a big deal."

He was not fooling anyone.

Suddenly Gran Gran marched out of the igloo with two bags in her hands, handed one each to her grandkids and continued to march along towards Appa and the concerned Aang.

Aang looked up from where he was petting Appa's face to face the older woman, "Appa doesn't want to go without-"

"Without Katara and Sokka." She interrupted, not unkindly. At Aang's guilty flush, she smiled at him only vaguely paying attention to Sokka's surprised squawk and Katara's delighted gasp, a sad smile that tells him that however she wished she does not let go of her grandchildren, they need to accompany the young Avatar on this journey.

She looked at Appa, who calmed down once he got confirmation from the elder of the village that his herd was coming with him, "Now, you take care of my family, you hear Appa? Bring them home to me, both of you." Aang nodded solemnly and Appa gave the old woman a lick on her hand when she gave him a pat.

"Gran Gran, what-" Sokka began, though it was half hearted at best and Katara dragged him back into the igloo to fetch the rest of their packed belongings that Gran Gran had the foresight to pack. When they exited carrying more bags full of clothes, provisions, and what little money Kanna had managed to save.

Katara gave a tight hug to her grandmother first, "Thank you, Gran Gran! I'll master waterbending and I'll come back." She said, though she looked back at Aang helping Sokka load their bags on the saddle with a contemplative look.

Kanna sighed and squeezed her granddaughter before parting, "I know you are a brave, kind soul Katara. If you find that you need to help him, then do so." Katara nodded seriously then went to join Aang on the saddle. Sokka went up to Kanna and she smiled, bringing him into her arms, "My brave warrior, come here and give your grandmother a hug." Sokka sighed out the age-old I'm a warrior Gran Gran not a little kid but willingly fell into her arms, "Look after them. And you must come home safe."

"I will Gran Gran." He responded hugging tight, voice cracking just a bit before he let go. He had just a bit more trouble climbing onto the saddle but he made it.

The rest of the village all stood outside of their igloos to watch them depart. Some of the children were crying, "Kick their butts out there Sokka!" One yelled, the same brat that yelled 'show no fear' earlier. Sokka smiled and waved goodbye. He's going to miss the little demons.

---

"Soooooo. Wanna tell us what's going on with the big fluffy monster?" Sokka drawled, longing on the back of the saddle after having a brief fit of geeking out at the fact that they're actually flying!

They were flying rather fast over the ocean speckled with large ice floes and icebergs. Aang seemingly had no power over the direction as Appa took the reins in flying.

Giving up the pretense of actually being in control of steering, Aang hopped from Appa's head to join them at the saddle. The boy shrugged helplessly, "I don't know."

"What do you mean?" Katara asked gently and Aang frowned in frustration, "I mean, I don't know. One day Appa was fine, then we got swallowed up by the storm, then we woke up to see you two."

"Maybe the storm could have changed him, terrified him?" Sokka mused but then continued before Aang could refute the theory, "But it wouldn't explain his reaction to Katara and me."

Aang nodded, "See? I don't know."

Katara was silent through the exchange before she hesitantly spoke, "You don't think it has to do with the...bond we seem to share?"

Aang perked up, "The spiritual bond? Maybe. I think we should go to the Southern Air Temple! Maybe the monks can help us there."

There was an air of awkward silence and Aang picked up on it, "What?"

"Aang...it's been a hundred years…I don't think-" the boy's shoulders hunched and tensed further with each word Katara said before he brightly interrupted her, "The monks will be there! I haven't heard of anything like this before but then again I didn't get that much spiritual training."

Sokka side eyed Katara and she bit her lips. They had a silent conversation that Aang willfully turned a blind eye to and went back to pretending to steer Appa.

No one spoke for ten minutes.

The silence was broken by an awed ‘whoa’ that prompted Katara and Sokka to lean over the side of the saddle to see what was interesting.

“Is that a fire twister?”

“And is the fire honest to Tui and La gold?”

All three yelped when Appa suddenly dived towards the fire and Aang tried to pull the reigns up to slow Appa’s sharp descent. Appa groaned but leveled off the decline into a more steady one instead of heart attack inducing one.

Aang could see the flying lemur darting up from the ground with a cheerful cry and Appa replied with a loud low. Then Aang saw the same Fire Nation teen he met bolting away and Appa just….wasn’t having it.

“Not again!” Aang lamented loudly and the two behind him screamed as Appa pursued. Sokka had to marvel at how fast he’s booking it to the edge of the cliff but he also had to scream over wind when he saw the kid not slowing down, “HE’S CRAZY! He’s going to get himself killed by the cold water if the fall doesn’t do it first!”

“Aang! Pull up! Pull up pull up pullup!” Katara screamed, wrapping her whole arm through the holes of the saddle to make sure she didn't go flying off. The previously relatively peaceful flying had been a dream. This is just honestly terrifying.

Aang yelped and jumped off of Appa’s head to dive after the suicidal fire kid who jumped off the cliff with no hesitation, but pulled up sharply when he felt wind cushioning the teen right before landing on the deck of a metal ship.

He heard the teen yell out, “GO-” before he had to tackle someone out of the way of a falling ice broken from Appa’s heavy landing. More ice fell with loud cracks and Appa jumped again to avoid falling along with the ice shelf. Aang landed on the middle of the ship and used his partially opened staff to knock away the largest ice with a yell, powerful gust of wind knocking it back. What would have been a large gouge on the side of the ship, if not completely break it in half, only made a mighty splash and nearly capsized the ship. Luckily no one was thrown overboard into the water.

What was not so lucky was an extremely agitated Flying Bison landing on the middle of the deck and quickly stalking towards the teen. The teen’s one good eye widened and he scrambled backwards. He had a look of delighted awe at seeing a living Flying Bison and sheer terror at being the target of the Avatars Flying Bison. Aang heard him bark out, “Hold your fire! Don’t burn the bison!”

The men and women backed away while the teen still did his valiant best to scramble backwards faster.

However, Appa snatched the teen and took off into the air and Aang wanted to groan. Instead he looked at the shocked faces looking up and then back at him.

Aang sheepishly grinned at their befuddled looks, opened his staff, and took off with a loud, “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” trailing after.

Jee opened mouth closed with a click and started barking out orders, “Get the ice off the ship and follow them!” Prince Iroh blinked at seeing the Avatar and could viscerally understand now why his nephew decided to drop the idea of using the kid for war against his own father fast like one would have handling a red hot rock barehanded.

He really was a child.

He sighed and ruefully commented to no one in particular, “You really have a funny thing about Destiny, do you Spirits? You really don’t make this easy.” And calmly walked to the nearest ice to melt it off the ship.

---

The Fire Nation teen is screaming. He’s screaming in both giddy awe and terrified horror.

“AVATAR! GET YOUR BISON TO PUT ME ON THE GROUND!”

“Oh Agni! It’s a Flying Bison!!”

“MOMO, STOP LAUGHING!”

Appa only tightened his hold on the squirmy young bull while Aang flitted nervously around Appa and Zuko on he glider like a particularly hyperactive calf apologizing to the teen on the behalf of Appa. Sokka and Katara took equal turns screaming in disbelief and hysterically laughing at the sheer unbelievable reality that is their lives.

Momo happily hung on one of Appa’s horns. His conspiracy is almost complete.

---

Finally they landed on the nearest barren rocky island with large patches of snow and a crowd of puffin seals. They squawked indignantly and bounded away to find another spot to sleep in.

Appa briefly let go of Zuko to land and he tried to take this opportunity to make his escape but large blunt fingers snapped him under a large warm furry body and Zuko yelped in disgust when he felt large wet meaty tongue slide from his shoulders, up to the fur lined hood that wrapped around his neck, to his unscarred cheek, and finally to his semi long hair. The saliva immediately gelled up in the cold and stuck his hair straight up.

“It’s a Flying Bison.” He said numbly and maybe he giggled hysterically a little.

“Yes, we heard you say that only a hundred times.” The water tribe warrior- Sokka- snarked, hopping down off of the Bison and quickly backing away.

As a matter of fact, all three of them backed away when they reached solid land.

“A little help here?!” Zuko snapped, getting another round of slobbering lick. Zuko squirmed onto his stomach and tried to crawl away, but fingers uselessly grabbed loose sharp rocks as the bison gently, very gently, laid down to pin Zuko in place.

“I think you’re doing fine right there!” The girl replied this time, seemingly soothing and encouraging, but living with his sister for eleven years allowed him to spot the smug amusement.

“Yeah, sorry man. You’re on your own on this. I’m not getting in between Appa and his object of affection.” There was definitely a smirk in the warrior's voice. Zuko looked up and glared at him.

Then grimaced when a fat tongue wider than the width of his torso lapped him up again. The back of his hair is now sticking straight up.

He directed his glare to the sheepish Avatar and gritted, “Get. Him. Off. OF. Me.”

“Sorry. I really don’t know what happened to him, but uh….just relax?” He offered, “Don’t worry, he’ll let you go!”

The water tribe duo's smiles widened a touch too far for Zuko to feel safe about the kid’s words.

---

The licking session lasted six hours. The water tribe siblings grew hungry but wisely chose not to go near Appa when he was in his licking mood to get their provision.

“I smell like morning breath.” Zuko complained and very carefully did not think about the squishiness of the cold saliva seeping underneath the fur parka. Katara, he learned during his cuddling imprisonment, merely hummed as she tried to practice bending a fish from the water, managing a wobbly ball for a few precious seconds before it finally popped.

Sokka lunged for the flopping fish with a yell of “Food!” and caught it.

“You need to flow more, adjust the arms and the wrist more loosely.” Zuko said and deliberately dissociated from the feeling of giant tongue and congealing saliva.

“What do you know of waterbending, Zuko?” She asked acidly and he blinked in surprise at her tone.

“I have scrolls. It helps me with-” He stops.

“With what? Your waterbending? You're a waterbender?” She turned to him fully, hands on her hips. Their eyes met and the tingle went down both of their souls. She turned to the other two boys and gapped at them, “Him, too?!” Both Sokka and the Avatar winced.

“...With my firebending.” He finished lamely, utterly resigned.

That’s four of four of his bonds in the South that Guru Pathik mentioned a couple years ago. There was really no escaping from this, huh. He ruefully thought. The third being the one now currently licking him to death. He didn’t really get to take much notice of the tingle feeling while feeling terrified and awe while being menacingly advanced by the growling bison, but he could feel a…connection. If you could say a connection. It was weird, more like a bright dot in his feelings or in his inner fire. He had a connection to Momo for nearly three years. And now?

All of a sudden he has four more connections. One of them he wanted nothing to do with.

And one of them he desperately wished would let him go so he could go jump in the freezing ocean water to rinse the saliva off. Salt water crust is much more preferable than salivary goo.

Then his eyes widened as a thought just came to him, “I’ll give you my waterbending scrolls if you let me go!”

Katara jerked back in surprise along with Sokka whose fish slipped out of his lax hands and frantically plopped into freedom.

“Wait, I don’t think so! This could be a trap to lure us into your clutches! The last waterbender in the South and the Avatar.” Sokka accused him, giving up on the fish for now.

Zuko gave them the flattest glare he could muster, “I already told you! I don’t want any waterbender and I want nothing to do with the Avatar!”

“It’s Aang.” The Avatar- now Aang spoke, “That’s my name.”

Great. Now a name to the turtleduck cute gray eyes that he wants to stay far away from his father's fiery hands. His nightmares is going to feature more of a kid with cute turtleduck gray eyes named Aang getting burned.

Zuko groaned and cursed his life. It’s not like it could get any worse than this. Appa grumbled happily as he licked the teen cuddled under his six legs.

---

It did get worse.

“Wait! If you firebend, that was you firebending the gold fire?” Sokka exclaimed while roasting the fish that Katara successfully caught with her improved bending. They managed to find dry driftwood to make their little fire.

The slobber soaked teen cursed. Then hotly yelled at the water tribe teen, “Do. Not. Tell anyone else about that!” The teen started to literally steam and Zuko shivered in disgust as the salivary evaporated to leave behind a smelly crusty feeling on his parka and skin.

“Why is it a secret?” Aang asked and Katara caught another fish swimming in sharp circles in a much more steady globe of water.

“Either imprisonment and death from my nation or hand crushing, imprisonment, and possible death from the Earth Kingdom. Take your pick.” Zuko snapped.

“Okay, sheesh. We’ll keep your secret. Wouldn’t want to let the only marginally decent firebender we ever met die.” Sokka relented, holding his hands up, one holding a stick of roasted fish.

There was silence for a few minutes as the fire crackled and popped merrily intersped with sounds of slobbering licks and splashes of a waterbender at work.

“Though…” Sokka continued, chewing on the unseasoned fish thoughtfully and ignoring the truly voracious glare Zuko was giving him, “I’m curious as to why your nation wants to kill you just for the color of your fire alone.”

Zuko only glared and stubbornly said nothing.

---

It was eight hours before Appa was satisfied with his licks and cuddling enough to let Zuko go.

The teen wasted no time bolting to the water and dived right in, face first, parka and all, into the frigid waters.

Sokka leaned towards his sister, “Is it me, or is he a little reckless?”

She sighed, “I’ll get a change of clothes and a blanket so the idiot doesn’t freeze to death.”

“I don't think he’ll freeze to death.” Aang mused and petted Appa on the nose when he walked up to greet his human companion. At the siblings questioning glance, he nodded towards Zuko and suddenly they could see why he said that. Zuko violently shivered for a brief moment before spewing out golden flames from his mouth and all the sudden he steamed. Water evaporated off of him in billowing waves and he looked to be unfailingly toasty.

Sokka pouted at the unfair use of firebending.

He sat down by the fire, warily eyeing them and swiping off salt from his dry parka and roughly shaking his hair, small flecks of salt flying out.

Katara offered him a roasted fish without a word, eyed him just as warily.

"I'm good." He bluntly said and Momo chose this moment to shove himself into the toasty, if a bit salty, parka. Sokka felt an inexplicable jealousy over the flying rat, sorry, flying lemur.

"It's not poisoned." Katara replied in an affronted tone.

Aang was eating a couple winter berries from the siblings pack, watching the interaction with rapt attention.

Zuko grabbed the fish and eyed it with suspicion and Sokka sighed loudly and got up. He grabbed the stick from the other teens hand and took a bite out of it, "Mmm, unsalted, unseasoned, unpoisoned fish." And handed it back to him.

Zuko still hesitates and gulps, looking at the eye of the dead fish staring at him accusingly, a moderately sized bite out if it's side. There was a loud groan from one of the kids and all three voice chimed in with varying levels of irritation, "Eat Zuko."

Finally he took a bite out of the fish sullenly. Mentally he apologized to the lightly charred fish and thanked it for giving him sustenance.

---

There was Zuko's ship at a distance, limping along the waters.

And Sokka had to tackle the teen before he could jump into the waters, "Are you insane?! The water is cold and you want to-" Sokka complained and made an oof sound when Zuko smoothly flipped them around so that Zuko is the one pinning Sokka to the ground. Momo chittered at the interesting play fighting that was going from his perch on Appa's horn.

The Fire teen jumped, which Aang realized was another airbending move to move out of the way of Katara's water attack that accidentally iced her brother in the spot.

A yelp, "Katara!"

"Look!" Zuko started, frustrated, "Let me go and I'll give you waterbending scrolls."

"Deal." Katara said simply and Appa groaned in protest.

Appa shifted his weight in agitation and started mournfully lowing at Zuko as he walked away. Zuko looked back awkwardly and apologetically but refused to come back closer to Appa. Momo screeched in displeasure but chittered at Appa in condolence. My oldest conspiracy is a stubborn one. Don’t worry, he'll come back again.

Appa growled back at Momo, asking him how long he has been with Zuko?

Almost three years now, Momo chirped.

Then you can shut up, Appa groaned in anxiety, I saw Zuko die no more than two days ago, maybe three. Would you leave him out of your sight?

Momo chirred apologetically, No, I still have trouble letting them out of my sight, but sometimes things don’t work that way. But don’t worry! Chirped Momo, The Conspiracy will be whole again, just wait.

Appa gave one last mournful groan but relented with extreme reluctance.

The entire conversation was missed by everyone who were all crowding around Zuko, “You better get me those waterbending scrolls, Zuko.” Katara narrowed her eyes then crossed her arms, “And I don’t care if you can take care of yourself in the cold water, stop jumping in frigid arctic water.

A gray steamer boat approached with more speed than the battered retired war ship. Zuko nodded seriously at her, “Fine. I won’t willingly jump into cold waters unless I have no other choice.”

“Eh, close enough Katara.” Sokka interrupted before she could go into another health safety rant about the dangers of cold water.

The same two men eyed the three teens and the bison warily but gratefully allowed Zuko to jump onto the boat and Sokka had to admire that large leap the teen did. There was an old man on the ship as well and he looked at the three shrewdly the same way Gran Gran did. Squinting his eyes as if trying to see beyond the material world. Then blinked in astonishment and shook his head in wry amusement. Sokka had no idea what that meant.

“Think he could teach me how to fight the way he did?” Sokka mused out loud. This was twice that the Fire Nation teen soundly trounced him in less than two moves.

“Wait, that reminded me of something.” Aang starts blinking rapidly, “Zuko! Did you just airbend? When you leaped off the ice cliff?”

The men blinked in confusion at his seemingly out of the blue question. Zuko looked back and the steamer boat started retreating. He blinked before comprehension dawned on him, “Oh...No. I can’t airbend. That was the Wind Spirit. He sometimes helps.”

The two of the older men looked at the back of Zuko’s head with looks that said There will be a discussion to be had. The younger one just sighed and walked away as if he’s finally seen enough the world had to offer.

Zuko is completely oblivious to the bombshell that he just dropped and Sokka would have laughed at the trouble that waited when Zuko returned to the ship if he had any less respect for the Spirits. Instead, he gaped at the retreating ship, “He can’t just drop that kind of information like that and not follow up with even further explanation.” Sokka whined and Aang…?

Poor kid looked gobsmacked, “Does he mean the Autumn Lord?!"

---

There was a Fire Nation Hawk and Momo staring at the three kids. Both of them carrying a scroll marked with blue borders.

Katara smiled and gently untied the scrolls from both flying creatures. She hugged the scrolls to her chest and allowed Momo to land on her shoulders to say goodbye in her own way before taking off into the air with the hawk.

"You know...he's not so bad." She mused, hugging her new precious possessions.

"Nope. He's still a jerkbender though."

Aang stared at the direction of the disappearing ship that the two flying animals landed in. He still felt like it's a mistake to let him go, anxiety thrusting through him.

But one thing is clear, "I don't think this will be the last time we'll see him." He declared and both of the water tribe siblings had a strange look on their face like they agreed but they didn't really want to say it.

---

Zuko was grounded, as much as a Banished Prince of the Fire Nation who outranks both his Uncle and Lieutenant could be grounded.

By the rest of the crew aggressively teaching him more things to keep him busy so he would not do more reckless things.

But the true punishment was the proverbs. So many proverbs.

---

“Prince Zuko, the swiftest ostrich horse can't overtake a word once spoken.”

“Uncle, I don’t know what that means.”

---

Jee and Zuko were sparing and suddenly Jee spoke, “Nurture the plant one year--ten days of flowers.”

Zuko’s butt was promptly and soundly beaten when he tried to figure out the stupid proverb.

---

Kai smirked at the passing by Zuko and spoke, “Stare at the profit and step in the pitfall.”

Zuko bit his lips to keep from spewing fire and walked by faster.

Kai’s shark grin widened.

---

“O eggs, don't fight with rocks!” Both the chef Ren and Chie chorused out of nowhere as they both taught Zuko how to make egg noodles from scratch.

The fire under the wok ready to receive stir fry flared. It was a good thing no food was in the wok as it would have flash fried the food into brunt crisp.

Zuko furiously cuts the noodles faster, the clack, clack, clack of an angry teenager being skillful with knives being music to the chef and hunter’s ears.

---

“We can study until old age. . . and still not finish.”

Fire was yanked from the sconce and there was an impromptu fire sparring match where the fire was tossed back and forth multiple times between Jee and Zuko with increasing speed.

---

“Goodnight Prince Zuko. We will need to speak about the fact that you and the Autumn Lord are friends tomorrow. Along with what you wished to discuss with me.” Uncle spoke dryly.

Zuko eyed him cautiously. There was a manic gleam in his one clear golden eyes that screamed that he’s holding on to the last dredge of sanity, “....No more proverbs?”

“I certainly do have more!” Iroh gave a full belly laugh and the door to Zuko’s room slammed shut. There was a muffled chattering and Zuko yelled at Momo to stop laughing at him.

Iroh was still chuckling, "Easier to rule a nation than a child."

His revenge was beautifully delivered.

Chapter Text

The Wani limped to find the nearest dock that could fix up the ship.

The bad news is that not only is there a portion of Zhao's Navy Fleet there, Zhao's Navy ship itself is docked at the harbor.

Zuko glowered at the large ship in the distance but they had no choice if they could dock or not. The Wani would not be able to make the voyage into the open sea, especially since the storm season would be upon them soon. The damages made his ship much slower, the hull brittle and liable to crack at any moment.

The ship is held together by tar glue and, like Zuko, by spite.

But those will not be enough compared to actual mechanical fixes.

"Now, remember Prince Zuko; be careful not to bring any unwanted attention to yourself. Your father would have no doubt sent for someone to find the Golden Firebender and Zhao is enough of an opportunistic viper-rat to catch you for his own gains." Iroh started, giving him a stern but concerned look.

Zuko was still glowering but sighed, pulling his hair up in a tight phoenix tail. The hair is not as long as it was before his first kidnapping in Earth Kingdom and he’s no longer mostly bald, but it's long enough to feel the weight of the tail swishing in the air behind his head. The areas on his scarred skin that are not numb prickled at feeling air for the first time in almost a year.

He would not do the topknot, Zhao would only tear into the symbolism by gleefully reminding him that he's a Banished Prince and most likely would take it upon himself to cut it off.

He rather likes his hair getting longer, thank you very much.

Some short strands stubbornly fell, cutting the otherwise perfect hairline. And for the first time in a long while, Zuko took out the Fire Nation ensemble from his chest. This particular set of clothes and armor had not been worn since it had been commissioned for his still growing stature. He had been taking to wearing black and neutral brown clothing. Some fire nation clothing he wears on a daily basis are a shade of red that could be passed off of brown should he ever make portside to resupply.

But he had not worn armor in at least a year so he had forgotten what they felt like.

He felt a little constricted as his uncle helped him into the armor. Momo hesitated, staring at his armor and Zuko immediately felt a flash of shame. Momo probably didn’t like seeing the reminder of dead soldiers back in the Southern Air Temple but then squashed his shame down. He stood up straighter, chin up and he started wearing his Banished Angry Prince armor like an ill-fitting glove.

Momo seemed to have gotten over his trepidation quickly since he jumped onto Zuko’s shoulder like he always belonged there. Zuko felt a tight something in his chest unwind and he’s able to breathe easier.

Momo has never left him. He has never hurt him. If he can trust anyone unequivocally, it’ll be Momo.

"I will do my best to not agitate him." Zuko finally answered and Momo chirped at Iroh in agreement. Iroh's lips thinned but he relented. It's not the promise that he was looking for but it’s the most he'll get out of Zuko.

"Prepare for the worst but hope for the best." He murmured to himself, tying the last knot. Zuko ignored that. They both know that Zuko could not stay out of trouble; whether he looks for it or, by the grace of the Spirits, trouble goes looking for him.

Zuko walked to the table that held his collection of throwing knives and started packing them away in his outfit, under his armor, in his sleeves, and in the strap of his ankle, inside the boots. As he does this, he mentally begs the Spirits for Zhao to suddenly have the case of selective blindness. Maybe Zhao is not actually at the port.

---

Zhao’s at the port.

“So what brings the Firelord’s brother and son to my harbor?” Zhao walked up to Zuko and Iroh speaking to mechanics on the logistics in fixing their ship. Zhao noticed a brown and white animal on Zuko’s shoulder arching its back and hissing at him and he frowned at it.

He also did not like the fact that Prince Zuko murmured, “Good boy. Extra peaches for you.” Before turning to glower at him, head tilted up in arrogance, “Captain Zhao.”

“It’s Commander now.” He corrected mildly, then turned to General Iroh with a more pleasant tone, “And General Iroh, great hero of our Nation.”

“Retired General.” Prince Iroh said genially and Zhao inclined his head in acquiescence.

“I’ll ask again, what brings you both to this port.”

“The new title got to your head, Commander. We’re here to fix our ship.” Zuko snapped and the creature's big green eyes stared at him intently and Zhao has an inkling notion that the creature is just waiting for a moment for where it can launch itself to his face.

He kept his distance just in case and looked up at their comparably tiny ship just in time to miss Iroh nudging Zuko in the side with a pointed and reproachful look and to miss the scowl that the Prince shot back before both schooled their feature back to a genial look and a haughty but sullen look respectively, “That’s quite a damage. May I ask what had happened?”

“Er, yes! It was something. It was nothing. It was ice.” The creature trilled and Prince Zuko had a tick on his shoulder in an effort to get the creature to shut up and Iroh jumped in, “Yes! We had sailed a little too close to an ice shelf and it suddenly collapsed without warning.”

Zhao smiled, “While the esteemed royalties are waiting for their ships to be fixed, they are welcomed guests to my harbor at any time. Why don’t we have some tea while you wait?” He was going to kneel close to Zuko again, but the intense green stare from the creature stopped him from doing that.

Instead, he smiled and bowed to them in invitation. Zuko walked off, “I don’t have time for tea.”

Only to be stopped by a warm hand on his shoulder not occupied by the animal, “Prince Zuko, show some respect for the Commander.” The retired General turned to Zhao and smiled, “We would love to have some tea with you. Do you have ginseng? They are my favorite.”

As both the older men walked off, Zuko looked at Momo who looked back, “He’s a creep.” He announced and Momo agreed with a chirp. He grumbled as he stomped after them.

---

“...And by the year's end, the Earth Kingdom stronghold shall be under Fire Nation rule.” Zhao gloated, looking at the map hanging from the wall, marked by Fire Nation conquest and Earth Kingdom territories yet to fall.

Zuko scoffed but held his tongue.

Zhao noticed and smirked widely, “Nearly three years at the sea and it has done well to temper your tongue.”

It wasn’t the sea that tempered his tongue. It was the full scale treasonous thoughts that he had yet to speak to Uncle about. It was ideas zipping by, reviewed, considered, and discarded, on how to remove his father from the throne.

Assassination, coupe, political manuevering and deposition, invasion, or back to where it all started, Agni Kai.

That is, if he could legally reach inside the Caldera without being arrested for breaking the terms of his banishment.

Iroh was looking at the stacks of spears when Zhao asked his next question with a smudge tone, “So, how goes your search for the Avatar?” And nudged closer to Zuko on his seat but leaned back when the Momo hissed at him.

Internally, Zuko smirked. Good boy, Momo. You’re really racking up the peach treat. I’m going to need to get more preserved peaches at the next port.

There was a loud clatter as the spear was knocked to the floor, and Iroh had a sheepish look on his face, “Uh...My fault entirely.” And backed away from the mess on the floor.

Zuko looked away, “It’s going well. I’m still looking for him.”

Zhao was frowning at the lemur, “Do you really expect to find the Avatar? He’s been dead for a hundred years. He died along with the rest of the Air Nomads during the massacre.”

Zuko’s fist clenched and his eyes darted away. He brought his hand up to pet Momo who was pressing his body against the scared side of his face, looking over his head to keep Commander Zhao within his large green, never blinking sight.

Zhao narrowed his eyes, “Unless you found evidence on the contrary.”

Zuko looked at him, “No. It’s like you said, he died a long time ago.” His eyes were daring him to call out his lie.

And Zhao did, “Prince Zuko, the Avatar is one of the two who poses a significant obstacle to the Fire Nation, if you have an ounce loyalty left, you will tell me the information.”

“I have found. Nothing.” Zuko stressed, still petting Momo before getting up, “Come on, Uncle. We need to go.”

He was stopped by the guards blocking his way out of the tent, “I also wanted to ask; have you also come across any information on the Blue Spirit? The one who wields the Gold Fire? He’s also the one to pose a threat to the Dragon Throne.” He asked idly.

Zuko very carefully did not tense. He only blinked and automatically started his breathing control, “No. I have not come across him.”

Zuko still stared past the guards blocking his way while another soldier squeezed inside, “Sir. We interrogated the crew per your instruction. Some confirmed that the Prince went to meet with the Avatar and returned empty handed then was….kidnapped by the Avatar’s Flying Bison?” He trailed off, unsure, “They have no reports of any sightings of the Blue Spirit or any Golden Firebender, Sir.” And Zuko just...wanted to laugh bitterly.

It was a good thing that he never practiced his true flame in front of his crew because if he had, he would have been in a world of trouble.

“So, remind me again, how exactly was your ship damaged?” The smudge voice spoke behind him and Momo hissed in a warning for him to back off, “And control that creature.” He murmured, more amused than irritated.

Zuko breathed and closed his eyes in frustration.

---

"There it is! The Southern Air Temple." Aang announced with a flourish, sounding incredibly pleased. Sokka gave another meaningful look to his sister and she helplessly shrugged her shoulders, telling him What more do you want me to say?

Sokka grimaced, they had been trying to gently tell Aang that he had been asleep for a hundred years and that his home most likely will not be the same. But the kid just kept smiling and talking over their efforts with anecdotes of his past.

Sokka wasn't going to be a huge jerk in grabbing the kids shoulders and screaming in his face 'Your people are dead! Dead, D E A D, dead!' while shaking him like a rattler toy.

That would have made him the worst human being on the planet next to the Firelord, but being gentle wasn't getting through to the kid.

It also didn't help that Katara was extremely reluctant to press the issue to make Aang see, see that he's most likely, literally, the last Airbender alive.

"It looks beautiful, Aang!" Katara said instead with forced cheer and Sokka threw his hands into the air.

Really, the only thing that will get through the kid's for him to see it for himself. Sokka's really, really not looking forward to it. At all.

Appa gave a deep rumble that was almost too deep for him to hear, but it was more than enough for Sokka to feel it in his bones. Both of the water tribe siblings turned to give the bison a wary look and started walking faster to get out of Appa's range.

Appa sped up to follow closer to Katara. She walked faster with a mildly alarmed look that screamed Please don't lick me, please don't lick me, please Tui and La don't lick me for half a day again.

Appa lumbered faster with a protesting moan.

Sokka felt equal parts amused and wary at this.

---

The place is suspiciously clean at the entrance. Like someone has come here and moved the bodies.

As a matter of fact, Sokka would bet his boomerang that is exactly what happened. How long ago that happened remains to be seen. Sokka saw a troubled look starting to form on Aang's face and Sokka decided to distract the kid, "So where do I get something to eat?" He complained loudly, holding his stomach with a grumpy frown.

Katara looked at him with a Really, Sokka? "We're the first people to come here in a hundred years and all you can think about is food?"

Sokka gave her an exasperated look Not the point, pick up the clue! and gave a pointed look at Aang, "I'm just a simple guy with simple needs."

Katara's mouth went open with a silent 'o'. Aang overlooked the edge of the cliff trail and started pointing out the Airball field then the bison stables. At first he sounded excited but then trailed off.

"Aang…" Katara started but was unable to continue. Looking at the kid now, they both could see that he really did not want to accept the reality.

"This place used to be filled with monks and bison and lemurs…" And doesn't that kicked polar bear puppy look absolutely tear into Sokka, "Now all I see are just weeds."

Sokka looked at the field and casually asked, "So, that airball game, how do you play it?" The brilliant smile he got in turn made the unsettled feeling in his gut churn. The kid's going to face it, sooner rather than later, but it doesn't mean that he has to be heartless about it.

---

"The things I do to make someone feel better…" Sokka wheezed from his spot on the ground. He's not an airbender. He's a simple meat and sarcasm guy. Aang was laughing his little airbending butt off from the distance at the other end of the field.

Katara gave him a sympathetic smile but ultimately did nothing else.

Some sister.

---

There was a lone Fire Nation helmet on the ground.

“Katara,” He hissed under his breath, “You really should tell him.”

Both komodo chickened out. Katara buried the helmet in snow and Sokka, besides a token protest, did nothing else.

---

They also found old pyres. Multiples of them. Large ones sitting at the edge of the square facing towards the setting sun, staining the ground black with remnants of ash.

---

"There is someone I need to meet. Or at least someone the monks told me I was supposed to meet when the time is right." Aang started.

"And that someone is here?" Katara asked skeptically while trying to subtly move herself behind Sokka.

Sokka shifted out of the way again so Appa could have a direct line of sight to his sister rather than him.

They have been having a silent war on who stands the closest to the neurotic bison, unknowing that the bison is suffering PTSD and was not having it, not allowing them out of his sight

"They're over there." He said, pointing to a set of impressive doors, "The doors only unlock with airbending."

“Aang, no one could have survived here for a hundred years.” Katara tried again and was refused with a guileless smile, “It’s not impossible. I survived a hundred years in the ice.”

Sokka silently threw his hands in the air again in frustration and Aang opened the door with a continuous blast of air.

Inside showed a long continuous row of statues. Closer inspections showed the statues to be of the past Avatars.

All of the statues were clean, if not dusty, except for the last one, a statue of one Avatar Roku.

At the foot of the statue was browned with dirt and small wisps of cream fur. Scattered around the base of the statue were left over peach pits.

At the shoulder, sat a single dried mummified peach. Like someone tried to get the statue to eat something but was unable to.

For some reason, this made Sokka incredibly sad. Based on Aang’s and Katara’s expressions, they didn’t feel much better. Aang knelt down and picked up a single strand of fur, “....This was a flying lemur’s fur…”

Sokka frowned. That scared teen had a flying lemur.

They moved on after Aang had the understandably creepy knowledge that he just...knows people without actually ever meeting or hearing of them. The statues didn’t even have any writing on them!

---

The sun was starting to set when Aang found a graveyard full of rocky tombstones. Most of them were unadorned. One, in the very front, had a necklace.

The very same necklace that adorned the statue of Monk Gyasto.

“Oh man.” Sokka breathed and Katara sighed sadly. Aang stumbled towards the necklace that was gently placed on the stone marking the grave. He collapsed onto his knees and hunched forward, an arm reaching out as if to grab it, but it pulled back before actually touching.

Aang covered his face with his hands.

“Aang. I’m so sorry.” Katara breathed, sitting next to him. Sokka walked closer to the duo and didn’t even mind Appa shuffling up closer with a mournful groan.

The next thing Sokka knew, he was under Appa’s legs and there was a maelstrom of intense wind. If Appa wasn’t caging him in under his legs, Sokka probably would have been blown off the mountain. Katara wiggled out of Appa and moved to Aang, calling out for him to snap out of it. To tell him that his family may be gone, but she and Sokka are his family,

"You're not alone, Aang!" She yelled out, gripping stone that jut out of the ground to keep from flying off the edge of the cliff. Appa groaned loudly, keeping his position to protect Sokka.

It took a bit, but Aang finally came to himself and he collapsed onto the ground in exhaustion, “Thanks Katara.” He murmured then passed out.

Before his head landed on the ground that could have given him an impressive bump, Katara slid under to catch his head.

Sokka’s heart was pounding, but he’s so incredibly glad that the fluffy monster seems to have taken up hovering near them. Because the bison saved his and his sister’s life especially from the initial blast of furious wind.

“Appa.” He started, looking up through the furry legs, “I love you.

Appa rumbled in agreement.

Sokka looked back at the wreckage that Aang caused. In the center of the destruction, lay a single stone with the necklace, completely unharmed and undisturbed.

---

“At first you let the twelve year old go and that same twelve year old and his pet bison managed to kidnap you.” Commander Zhao drawled, walking in circles around Zuko. Zuko stared straight ahead, refusing to look at the prowling Commander. At least he has Momo to keep an eye on the older man for him.

And that’s what Momo did, keeping his two green eyes on the man, turning his head as far as he could until he could go no further, then he just simply turned his head to the other way to stare intensely at Zhao.

Other than a few hisses aimed at the man, Momo has been strangely silent throughout the entire interrogation.

Zuko narrowed his eyes, staring ahead, “It won’t happen again.”

“It won’t happen again, ever, because I will be taking over your duty in catching the Avatar. You will remain here until I set out. After that, you may leave at your leisure.”

It was like someone dunked iced water down his back. He can’t have this creep after Aan- The Avatar. He jumped to his feet and Momo tightened his paws on his shoulders to keep steady, “What? You can’t do that! I spent almost three years chasing him! He’s mine to catch!”

“And you failed to do that when he kidnapped you via a bison.” Zhao smirked, “What an embarrassment. I will be taking over your duty and save you from further embarrassment to yourself and to your country. Most of all, save your Firelord from the embarrassment of having you as a son. Maybe you can find a place in Earth Kingdom to settle down." The smirk turned into a full blown schadenfreude grin.

Zuko glared but still had a tight hold on his inner fire, “Agni Kai, at sundown.” He snapped once he was sure that no flame would burst from his mouth.

The Commander burst out into laughter, "Eager to get a matching scar on the other side of your face? Very well, at sundown." Zuko snarled at him and, for some inane reason, he saw a flash of disappointment crossing the Commander's eyes before it disappeared and he adopted that smug superiority look that never failed to make Zuko irritated and creeped out.

Iroh finally spoke when Zhao left the tent, "Zuko. Do you remember the last time you fought an Agni Kai with a Master?"

Momo chattered quietly, leaning his whole body on Zuko's left face, as if to protect him from the harsh world. Despite Momo's effort, his scar twinge in remembrance, "I can't ever forget it Uncle."

He resisted the temptation to touch his scar. Momo is covering it for him anyways.

---

“Remember Prince Zuko, keep your breathing even and measured-” Iroh started but then lowered his tone so that no one could overhear, “-and keep your muscles relaxed and your movement fluid.” He did not need to mention not to use his own firebending.

Zuko was kneeling on the floor with a ceremonial cloth draped over his shoulders, “Yes, Uncle.” The good thing about a Fire Nation post is that they love their fire. It’s lit on every wall, by every entrance. There is even a ceremonial pit, it’s golden metal gleaming under the bonfire that is readily available for Zuko to use.

But the best source of fire will be from Zhao himself.

Oh, Zuko absolutely could not wait to surprise him.

But first…”Uncle,” He started, under his breath, still looking down on the ground, “Is it Zhao behind me?”

Uncle Iroh had a smile on his face, pinched with sadness and understanding. Momo chittered on Iroh’s shoulders. He had been expressly told, under any circumstances, not to fly in between Zuko and Zhao. Stay on Uncle Iroh, Momo, or no treats!, “He is.”

Zuko breathed a sigh of relief. Then steeled himself for, hopefully, a quick duel.

Zuko overheard Zhao saying This will be over quickly and almost wanted to laugh and agree with him, just not on Zhao’s victory, but of the many proverbs that Iroh imparted on Zuko, the one about not thinking he won before he actually does managed to stick. Something about counting komodo chicken eggs and hatching.

Zuko is not allowing himself to feel the victory until he actually wins, “I refuse to allow him to win.”

He can’t allow him to win, then he would be helpless in helping Aang, stuck here in this harbor until the grace of Commander Zhao in letting him go.

At the gong, both turned around. Zhao was in his traditional Imperial Fire Kata.

Zuko, however, settled into a more loose stance that, if older Generals or any veterans of the Southern Raiders were present, they would have realized it was a waterbender’s stance.

Zhao did not recognize the stance, however, and gave a smirk, “Oh this will be easy. Too bad your father is not here to witness your humiliating defeat and a new set of scars. But I suppose your Uncle will do.”

They waited.

And waited.

Zhao’s smile slowly dropped, “Not going to attack, are you. It is unusual for a firebender to practice Neutral Jing. Well then, if you won’t attack, then I’ll just have to pick up the slack!” He roared, punching a fireball straight at Zuko and Zuko knocked the fire to the side.

Zuko continued to keep even breathing, seemingly unaffected and knocking away fireballs as easy as if he was swatting away an annoying buzzard gnat.

Zhao stopped and narrowed his eyes.

Zuko closed his eyes, meditating and Zhao’s eyebrow twitched in anger. Zhao didn’t notice the wind shifting directions in a subtle way, but Iroh certainly did since his eyes widened in surprise. Zhao only saw a teenager not taking the fight seriously and he was getting steamed.

With another shout, he threw a wave of fire at the motionless and relaxed teen.

The winds shifted.

Zuko reached out, chi grabbing ahold of the stream of fire, and yanked. The stream of fire whipped around the boy’s body and returned as a low arch towards Zhao’s feet. He stumbled, both in shock and to avoid scorching his feet.

Zuko turned around and the whip of fire followed, lashing another scorch on the ground where Zhao’s feet previously were a second before. Zhao’s root has been broken.

Finally, in the third and final spin, the fire whip connected Zhao’s ankle and tripped him. Zhao screamed in pain and he landed on his back.

When Zhao blinked, he was on his back and Zuko was over his face, holding a steady fire stream curling in midair. The two end points of the fire hovered closely to the teen’s hands like he was ready to snap his face with a wet towel. A deadly, fiery hot towel.

“Do it!” He growled and Zuko snorted contemptuously.

“I already burned you.”

“And so you did.” He replied lowly, hatred in his eyes.

“The Avatar is mine. Stay out of my way.” Prince Zuko finished, letting go of the fire and it disappeared with a faint whuff. He started walking away with his head held high.

Zhao saw red. There was a screeched and the wind shifted again, more violently. Before Iroh could move to intercept, Zuko was already ducking below the fireball, grabbing something under the fabric of his pants leg and before Zhao realized it, he felt hands on his topknot yanking him backwards.

With a strangled shout at the sudden crick in his neck and pain blooming from his scalp, Zhao found himself on his knee and one hand on the floor to prevent himself from falling on his back again. Zuko had a knife on his throat and Zhao did not breathe when he felt the cold bite of steel.

The fist that held his hair tightened and his eyes tightened in pain, “You were defeated. The fact that you just tried to assault me behind my back after the Agni Kai has concluded shows me how well you handle defeat.” The Prince hissed, bringing the blade closer to his throat.

Zhao snarled, “You wouldn’t dare. You’re too weak to kill me.”

The fist tightened even more and Zhao winced at the throbbing pain on his scalp, “...You’re right. I wouldn’t kill you.”

Zhao almost smirked, until…”But I will do this.”

The blade left his throat, it’s a beautiful dagger some small part of Zhao thought and he heard the dagger slicing something. Suddenly the pressure on his scalp was released, almost dizzyingly fast and he blinked in stunned silence at the near weightless feeling on his head, “I am Prince Zuko, even banished I am still the Heir to the Throne!” Zuko announced to the rest of the stunned audience, “By my authority, I proclaimed Commander Zhao to be shamed on the account of losing the Agni Kai and then trying to assault the winner, a Royalty, after the conclusion of the said Agni Kai.”

Iroh's face was severe as he looked at the stupefied Commander, "I stand as a Royal Witness. So this is how the great Commander Zhao acts in defeat. Shameful. Even in exile my nephew has more honor than you. Be grateful he also has a heart. He could have killed you as his right."

"Come on Uncle. Let's go." Zuko said quietly, much more subdued but still holding himself proudly. He dropped the shorn topknot on the ground in front of the kneeling Zhao.

Iroh looked serene as he walked with Zuko and more than one officer bowed low to them both. Iroh could see right past the Princely facade though. Zuko's shellshock at what just happened.

Iroh kept his serene face as they walked out of the encampment and, finally coming back to himself, Zuko hesitantly asked, "Did you mean that Uncle?"

Momo hopped from Uncle Iroh's shoulder to Zuko's and Uncle didn't speak at first. Zuko petted Momo as the lemur chattered about the fight.

Finally, the older man spoke, "I won't say that I am not angry." He started mildly and Zuko gulped, "But I will say that I was not telling any lies. You have so much Honor, Prince Zuko, and so much heart that I sometimes weep for you. But...I am also very proud of you, my son."

Zuko stumbled slightly, looking at him with open shock and vulnerability that Prince Iroh could not help but bring the taller teen into his arms.

They hugged in silence right in front of their ship which was nice.

Finally, "We will be talking about this along with the other pending discussion." Iroh's tone was right back to being mild again and Zuko winced. They were still hugging which is not so nice anymore. Momo chirred, and Zuko heard that as You had that coming, pup.

Zuko could only hope that there will be no proverbs this time.

Zuko should know better than that.

---

“When you fight fire with fire, do not add oil to those flames, Prince Zuko.”

Uncle was being unusually lenient this time, and Zuko actually understood this one. He had a flash of happiness at the huge accomplishment but then flushed when the deeper meaning of Uncle Iroh’s sayings hit him.

Uncle continued in the same vein of thought, “Do you want to tell me what you were thinking when you did that?”

Zuko sighed, preening Momo on his lap just to keep his hands busy, “I want to speak of this with Lieutenant Jee present.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I already sent a word for him.” Uncle said calmly, sipping his tea. Luckily, Zuko’s own cup has been poured, so Zuko knows his Uncle wasn’t as angry at him as he feared.

In no time at all, there was a knock on the door to Zuko’s cabin. Zuko bade the person to come in and Lieutenant Jee stepped inside and closed the door, “You sent for me, Prince Iroh?”

“Please, sit.” Zuko sighed when Iroh did not speak, sipping more of his ginseng tea. Jee sat down on the cushion, forgoing his own tea that sat in front of him to look at Zuko with a neutral face. But the confused creak in his armor betrayed his true thoughts.

Momo was half asleep, purring at the preening Zuko was giving him, unaware of the serious air that permeated the room.

“I want to dethrone my fath- Firel- Ozai. I want to dethrone Ozai and I need help doing that.” Zuko finally blurted when both sets of adult eyes looked at him for a long moment.

There was a pause, expectant and heavy. Momo chittered in protest, grabbing Zuko’s stilled hands and pointedly dragging it onto his body to continue with the preening.

“I need allies.” He continued

The expectant air pressed harder on Zuko as neither men said anything. Zuko took a chance to look up from his preening and saw Jee's carefully neutral look and Iroh’s encouraging grin.

He licked his lips nervously, “The war is wrong. I don’t...I don’t know what we had before the war started, but I know that it has corrupted us to the point where....Where they laugh at the sight of a kid’s face being burned off.” He finished softly.

This time Momo didn’t protest when Zuko stopped scratching him, instead he just chirred and climbed up on Zuko’s shoulders, plopping himself over the broad shoulders and wrapping his tail around the neck. Zuko took comfort from the warm weight on his shoulders.

“We started the war on a genocide.” He continued, now seemingly not present but deep within his mind, “The Air Nomads never had a standing army and great grandfather just...massacred them all. Now all we have is Momo, the Flying Bison, and a single Airbender who is also the Avatar.”

He came back to himself and looked at Iroh and Jee, “And he’s twelve, uncle. Twelve. I can’t….I can’t ask that of him, I can’t ask him to join me to ki-”

He suddenly cut himself off from there, finding himself unable to say that.

Iroh sighed, “What is your plan, Prince Zuko? Did it have anything to do with what you did today at the Agni Kai?” Jee threw a sharp look at Iroh in alarm then turned to look at Zuko like he’s trying to appraise the kid for any new burns.

Zuko sheepishly smiled, “Kind of.”

“Was this before or after you put a knife to the Commander’s neck?”

“Uh...after.”

The candles started pulsing in a deliberate breathing pattern and the source was from Jee. When Lieutenant Jee was sure he had a firm hold on his emotions, he spoke, “Okay, mind telling me what happened today?”

“Commander Zhao was going to go after Aan- the Avatar, and I had to find a way to keep him off the kid’s back, so I challenged him to an Agni Kai for my right to ‘catch the Avatar.’” He replied and there was a proverbial air quotation in his tone, “We fought. I won. Without a scratch.” He added for Jee’s benefit rather than his own. He noticed that Jee had been a little more concerned for his health lately and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

No, that was a lie. It felt good. But he didn’t want to think too hard about it if only to spare himself the disappointment. Disappointed of what, he wasn’t sure.

“Then he, uh, tried to burn me when my back was turned.”

“After the Agni Kai was concluded with Zuko as victor.” Iroh added mildly because Uncle Iroh was still a little steamed that it had happened at all. Both Zuko and Jee knew he wasn’t angry at them, rather he was incensed at Zhao for daring to do such a bold dishonorable move.

“Yeah.” Zuko nodded, “The wind and Momo alerted me and I got behind Zhao with the knife on his neck. Then…” He trailed off, looking sheepish again, “I cut his topknot off and declared him shamed.”

“Good.” Jee grunted, “I never liked Zhao.”

“Point is,” Iroh started, giving a stern look at Jee, “Is that now Commander Zhao would be after you with extreme prejudice.”

“That’s my intention.” The teen replied and both adults had to blink in astonishment and the teen scowled with a blush, “Zhao would be after me to the point he would ignore Aang.” Then blushed harder, “And, uh, I’m trying to start a rebellion maybe…?”

His face was stained red and he looked away with a nervous tension.

Uncle Iroh chuckled in bafflement. He wanted to be so angry at Zuko for putting himself in danger, but Zuko seems to have actually made a plan after jumping into a dangerous situation.

Not to say that declaring himself still the Heir to the Throne as a reminder wouldn’t incite riots right away, no, but it would be a start. It’s a start that people would notice that, just because he’s banished, does not mean that he’s out of the line of succession.

In a way, it was a brilliant opening tactic to start the road of rebellion. If Zuko knew about the small pockets of protest going on because of the Golden Firebender being openly opposed to the war, which Iroh suspects he does due to that nightly escapede that Zuko thinks he doesn’t know about, then yes, the tactic is brilliant indeed.

Add the Golden Firebender on Zuko’s status, then suddenly Zuko went from the Knotweed tile to the White Lotus tile and the White Dragon tile at the same time.

He stopped chuckling and stroked his beard with a thoughtful hum, “Are you sure Prince Zuko? Once you start on this road, you will not be able to back out. You will be significantly in more danger than you have ever been.”

Zuko took a moment to breathe, the flames now responding to his own breathing. He went over his options. He can’t use the Avatar, it’s not fair on the kid to bring him to war. He can’t remain as he is, aimless and frustrated. He will not entertain the thought of giving up, living his life in obscurity in some unnamed Earth Kigdom town.

So, yes, there’s really only one choice, if he ever wants to go home and still keep his honor intact. If he ever wants to end the war and bring honor back to his Nation that it had lost during the hundred year war.

He looked up to stare straight at his Uncle’s eyes, just a shade darker than Zuko’s own brilliant gold eyes, “Yes, Uncle. I’m sure.”

“I will be with you every step of the way, my Prince.” Jee bowed and Iroh had a proud smile on his face.

“Now, before we start planning, you were going to tell me how you were friends with the Wind Spirit?”

Zuko blinked. And Momo chattered in laughter.

---

“So the Wind Spirit follows you because you buried his people after they had been wandering lost for nearly one hundred years?”

“Yes Uncle. And they had been with me since the Western Air Temple. But they didn’t really show themselves until after the Eastern Air Temple.”

“One of the Great Spirits, the Autumn Lord, just….followed you home?” Jee asked incredulously.

“I just said that, did I not?” Zuko snapped, feeling highly defensive for some reason.

Lieutenant Jee smiled, like he had no idea how to react to that because it was so far out of the realm of possibility and only Zuko could have this happen to him. So he was just smiling to unnerve Zuko.

It was working.

---

“So how did you know that he was going to catch you when you jumped from the- may I add- a really high ice shelf?

“Lieutenant Jee, I just know.”

“How.” Jee wasn’t asking.

“Nothing...I just...know…” Zuko was lying so badly Jee was questioning whether he should call him out on it.

Iroh narrowed his eyes at Zuko’s shifty look. He wondered if it had something to do with the Blue Spirit outings.

---

It absolutely had something to do with the Blue Spirit shenanigans.

---

They were discussing more of plans on how to get more people to support Zuko for his bid for the throne, “...and once we get there, once we remove my father from the throne-” Jee frowned severely at the word father, “-we’ll finally have you declared Firelord, Uncle.”

Zuko looked up when he felt an awkward air. Momo sleepily chirred from his spot around Zuko’s shoulders.

Both Iroh and Jee looked at each other then Iroh looked at Zuko, “Nephew…”

“What?” Zuko asked. He was starting to get a creeping feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.

“I will not be taking the throne.”

“What.” He asked flatly, “Why?"

Iroh sighed and Jee decided to stay silent on this, "Prince Zuko. I am the Dragon of the West. The title is not just because I killed the last dragon or my famous ability to literally breath fire. It has so many negative things association with it, especially to the whole of Earth Kingdom."

Zuko stayed silent, listening to his uncle speak as he started petting the sleepy Momo.

"I have committed many actrocious acts during the seige of Ba Sing Se that the residence will never forgive. No, Prince Zuko, it will not be me who will take the Throne. In the eyes of the rest of the world, I am no better than Firelord Sozin, Firelord Azulon, and Firelord Ozai."

Zuko's jaw ticked as he chewed on what he was told before asking, "Then who? Who would take the Throne?"

Certainly not Azula. She's fourteen and, being with Ozai alone all this years would have only made her more cruel.

Both Iroh and Jee looked at Zuko meaningfully. It took him an embarrassingly long moment to get what the look meant.

Oh.

Oh!

“Me?!” Zuko yelped and Momo popped his head sleepily and chattered at him for rudely waking him up, please go back to being a considerate warm bed and settled back asleep.

“It needs someone young to be the new face of the Fire Nation, for them to be redeemed in the eyes of the rest of the world.” Iroh said simply and took a long look at the dao sword hanging on the wall.

Zuko flushed. Of course Uncle knows about the Blue Spirit and what he had been up to. He just had been turning his head away whenever Zuko and Momo went out to do vigilante work.

So far the people seems to have loved the Blue Spirit for saving them from pirates, slave traders, and bandits among others.

“I…” Zuko started but was unable to continue. He didn’t know what to think. Him. On the throne.

Well, he did announce himself the Heir to the Throne in a very impactful way at the Agni Kai. Beaten Zhao so soundly that it was embarrassing, shamed him so badly for dishonorable conduct. It was how he introduced himself to the others in the Army that would set the tone on how the word would spread.

So far, Zuko is a Banished Prince on a quest to capture the Avatar, but soon he will turn that into a quest to change the Fire Nation from outside and within and bring back the honor they lost.

Capturing the Avatar was not the end goal. Bringing honor back to his people and his nation is.

Jee, once again, spoke, “I will be with you every step of the way, My Prince. There is no one else I would call Firelord.” Zuko looked sharply at Iroh to see his reaction to the proclamation but relaxed when he saw Iroh nodding in agreement.

Fine. He really doesn’t want to do this. He’s not sure he’s ready to accept it but he will.

“Okay. I can do this. I’ll...be the Firelord. But I can’t do this without you Uncle.”

“And you will have me.” Iroh promised him.

“Okay, um.” Zuko floundered for a second then sighed, “Okay. First thing though, I want to flush out the one who snitched to Zhao's soldiers.”

Suddenly the warm air turned cold, “Yes. I would like to find out who told Commander Zhao’s soldiers about the Avatar.” Iroh spoke frostily and Jee narrowed his eyes.

“Were there any mentions of the Golden Firebender?” Jee asked and Iroh shook his head, “Only that they did not have any sighting of him.”

“So it’s a good thing that Zuko did not reveal his firebending status.” Jee mused, feeling glad that they were all collectively paranoid about Zuko’s safety. Being the first golden Firebender since the very first Firelord thousands of years ago is no small matter. It is a literal sign of Divine Right to Rule.

There were no rules about the Golden Firebender. No rules on Banishment, no rules on whether the Golden Firebender could be struck from the succession or not. Just no rules whatsoever in relation to who ever would wield the Gold Fire because there was never another one. The Golden Firebender was chosen by Agni and he had led all of Fire Nation together in the midst of a bloody civil war and brought them to a new age of prosperity.

They are meant to be the ruler of the Fire Nation. The Fire Sages have probably gone ballistic on the emergence of a Golden Firebender. How would people react when the Golden Firebender works against the will of the current Firelord and against the war as a whole?

“I have an idea.” Zuko started, bringing both Jee and Iroh from their reverie, “But I need help.”

“Go on, Prince Zuko.” Iroh nodded, bringing the cup of tea to his mouth and grimaced at the cool temperature. Subtly he warmed it with his firebending and sipped it again when it was adequately steaming.

Zuko did and suddenly both Iroh and Jee wished they had something stronger to drink.

---

Zhao stared at the mirror and he couldn’t help but focus his entire being on the lack of his prideful topknot.

That….little….shit.

The Banished Prince tore down his pride. He took his honor. He may have his status in the military, but now there were dissents in the rank. Soldiers refused to look at him with the previous respect that he used to have. They still look at him with fear, sure, but now there are more quiet rumblings in the barracks.

Zhao could see it in their eyes, the dimmed respect. Zhao had to quickly issue orders to keep quiet but a letter had already been sent to the Firelord.

The returned scroll had been sent back, sitting omniously on the table off to the side as he looked at the mirror. It’s presence hung like a noose around his neck.

Commander Zhao, Shamed Commander of the Fire Nation Naval Fleet,

That’s it. That’s his new title. The noose tightened further on his neck.

I must say that I am disappointed in you. You have allowed yourself to not only break conduct of the Agni Kai, but you had also been publicly beaten without even landing a single hit to your opponent.

While I can forgive the swiftness of the defeat of my Commander from an opponent from the Royal Family, even if the said Royal Family is in Exile, I cannot forgive the means of which you have decided to attack after the Agni Kai has concluded.

I am forced to do this since Prince Zuko was within his Rights to Publicly Shame you, my favored Commander.

You will keep your rank, but on the Order of Firelord Ozai, I hereby banished you until you have completed this task. Since you have lost the Agni Kai on the subject of capturing the Avatar which had not been your order, I will task you with your already pending orders as given top priority; find the Golden Firebender.

He is now the most wanted in the Fire Nation and I have increased the bounty for his capture alive. I cannot allow the continued dissent and rioting in the Fire Nation Capital. He is a legend made alive and people are growing bold to go against my rightful rule. He is also helping the Earth Kingdom and causing fracturing ranks among the ground troops.

Capture him alive, bring him to the Capital and your banishment will be lifted and your honor restored. I will give you help in your task if you can give me solid reasonings and proof for your needs.

Do take care not to disappoint me again.

Firelord Ozai of the Dragon Throne, First of His Name, The Ever Merciful.

Him. The great Commander Zhao. Banished. All because of one Banished Prince himself. The Firelord didn’t even bother to pen the scroll himself. Instead, one of the scribes did it for him.

Zhao’s eyes looked its reflection, the burnished umber eyes glazed with numbness. The world felt like he was under water, sounds were far away.

Then the numbness slowly disappeared and the impending roiling, red hot rage took over.

He looked at the mirror again, seeing the absence of his topknot. Suddenly the slow anger swiftly overtook him with its blistering white hot fury and he roared, punching the mirror.

The sharp pain pulled the fury back enough for him to breath heavily and look at his bleeding hands, small shards of glass granting him clarity.

Oh, he’ll find the Golden Firebender. He had a suspicion that Prince Zuko and the legendary wielder of the famed Agni’s Fire are more connected than anyone thinks.

The kid's refusal to even show his own fire even once cemented his suspicion even further.

“Jin.” Zhao spoke once he got his breathing under control and the attending soldier stood straighter at attention, “Be prepared to set out tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

The crew on board the Wani muttered to themselves, wondering why they had been called on deck for a meeting. The crew of twenty, minus Seaman Kim Ri, who was at the helm, all stood in semi-orderly rows, quietly discussing what the big topic could be.

Some were gossiping about Prince Zuko and Zhao. Some were theorizing that it could be about being interrogated on the ship while they were docked for several days for repair.

Some wondered why they were about to have an all-hands meeting right out in the middle of the ocean, where they were days away from any nearest port of land.

Jee watched with his trademark expression, neutral bordering on severe. Some of the crewmen gave the Lieutenant furtive looks in hopes of gleaning some answers on what the meeting would be about. Maybe it’s a reprimand from Prince Zuko, muttered some crewmembers. Just because the Prince has gotten better lately doesn’t mean he doesn’t still occasionally shout at us.

Jee told them nothing, not verbally nor by armor creak.

The muttering stopped when both Princes opened the door and stepped outside. Prince Zuko shut the door behind him and stepped up to stand in front of the crowd, who all formed ranks and stood at attention.

There was no podium that Prince Zuko could stand on to overlook the small crowd, but his strong presence was enough. Prince Iroh stood behind him, on his right.

The faithful and ever-present lemur was perched on Zuko’s left shoulder.

“I called everyone here to make an announcement,” Zuko started, standing tall, every bit of Royal Blood showing through in his bearing.

No one said anything. The only noises were the grumble of the engines, the crash of the bow against the water, and the gusts of chilly wind.

“Several days ago, I fought in an Agni Kai with Commander Zhao. And I won.”

Despite the relaxed decorum the Prince had allowed in the recent year, not a single person broke out of their stance, and Jee quietly approved. He kept his eyes facing towards the group from his position off to the side, where he could look at the whole crew of the Wani and the two Royals.

The crew did not move, but there was an air of anticipation and quiet cheer for their Prince winning his second ever Agni Kai.

“I challenged Zhao to the Agni Kai, for the right to pursue the Avatar. Zhao was trying to take my task away from me. My task to capture the Avatar.” He paused, scanning the crowd again.

“I won. The task remains mine and mine alone. If I captured the Avatar, I would go home.” So that they all would go home.

However, there were some frowns in confusion at the Prince’s key word: if.

Jee could understand their confusion. It would be cleared up very soon, which is why he was keeping an eye out for a specific reaction.

“However,” Zuko paused at this, scanning the crowd with a frown and the men and women tensed, “I will not be doing that.”

There were some confused faces, some who held their neutral expressions. The ones holding the confused expressions are written off as possible snitches.

As the Prince spoke, Jee kept a particularly close eye on Ensign Minuko, who guarded her privacy more than most and rarely joined the crew for drinks, and Petty Officer Chie, who had said some very disrespectful things about the Prince from time to time. Pikeman Kiken, who had only come on board a few months ago, was another one he was watching.

There. There were flashes of anger in some faces. Jee took careful note of those faces. Chie and Kiken were among them.

It was not proof of a guilty party, but it was a start. A red flag to tag them as potential suspects.

The Prince must have seen his expression, since he started prowling around the rows of men and women, briefly passing by Jee with a tiny nod then spoke again, “The reason why Commander Zhao knew about the Avatar, the reason why I had to invoke an Agni Kai to keep him from taking my task away from me. Is that someone. Here. Has spoken.”

The words started softly, but by the end, clear anger was seeping into the tone.

Some tensed in displeasure. Or it could be anxiety. Jee wasn’t sure.

Some of them had a really great gambling face and were not showing anything. Ensign Minuko revealed nothing at all. If Jee was being honest, he wouldn't have been able to do as well. Especially if his superior officer was judging him for unfair slights.

That was the reason he had been demoted multiple times since his son's death, and eventually had been stationed at the Wani, a ship full of rejects and bad soldiers. He just could not take unfair punishments without fighting back.

“However, what is done is done.” Zuko sighed like it was no big deal, and Jee had to applaud the kid for his great theatrical performance. Who knew that the kid was not only a theater nerd but could actually act? Because Jee knew for a fact that the kid was angry, and anxious about committing treason.

Now even the Prince’s body language took a smooth turn, from a prowling predator to languid and placid.

“If it was you, please come to the helm and we can talk. Please do so before the sun sets,” he finished calmly. “Dismissed.”

When Prince Zuko had first presented the plan for identifying the traitor, he had presented it in multiple ways for multiple scenarios. If it was someone who meant well, then they would not be in trouble. They would just be dropped off at the nearest neutral port with enough money to head back home.

This part had to be voluntary.

One person arrived at the helm and he bowed low on the ground, “My Prince, I am deeply ashamed that my confession to the interrogation has caused you strife. I am ready to accept any punishment.”

“Why did you talk about the Avatar to Zhao?” Zuko asked and the man bowed lower in shame. Zuko looked uncomfortable at the low bow.

“I did not realize that it was meant to be a secret.”

Zuko sighed and nodded at Pikeman Kazuto to escort Seaman Chitose to his bunk, with instructions to pack everything he owned so he could be dropped off at the nearest port. That looked to be Kyoshi Island, which was entirely neutral territory.

That could either be a good thing or it could be a bad thing.

Jee was hoping for the former.

Zuko murmured under his breath as he walked by Jee, “Zhao’s men said several of the crew told them about the Avatar.”

No one else came by to confess to speaking during the interrogation that night.

---

The next morning was when Jee got really worried. And he wasn't alone. Prince Zuko looked like he hadn't slept, but he was pretending admirably well.

Lieutenant Jee and Prince Iroh exchanged lightning-quick glances as they arrived back on deck. Prince Zuko was going to make another announcement.

Everyone, except for Chitose, who was waiting in the mess hall with his things to be dropped off, and Kim Ri, who was steering the ship, was present on the deck.

This was the part where Zuko had struggled the most. Not with the speech itself necessarily, but over what to do when they caught the snitch.

At this point, the snitch was not a person messing up with good intentions, even if the results were near catastrophic. This was a person who had to be effectively treated as a planted viper-mole.

Most of the crew could be trusted, but there was always that niggling feeling at the back of the heads of Jee, Prince Iroh, and Prince Zuko that some were not trustworthy.

And that niggling feeling became validated because they did not know Zuko was the Golden Firebender, so Zhao had no new information that could have potentially harmed their Prince. Their caution was well warranted since Zuko was still with them, safe for now.

But this announcement would not be about Zuko's status as the Golden Firebender.

"I have everyone here right now to give you the option to leave this ship before I give my speech. If you want to leave, leave this deck right now and wait in the mess hall until it is okay to come out. And before I give my speech, I will warn you that once you hear this, you will not be able to back out unless I have your word and honor for secrecy." Zuko started, holding his head high, his normally loose semi long hair now tied back into a high phoenix plume to display the image of his royal status before his subjects.

"After you have heard this, I must ask for your word to keep quiet about it. If you feel you cannot handle this, please leave this deck and go to your cabin and pack your belongings. You will be dropped off at the nearest port."

There was a snort and one soldier relaxed his stance and gave Zuko a familiar shark grin, "Sorry Prince, you ain't getting rid of me so easily. Whatever you have planned, we can handle it."

"Thank you Kai." Zuko said dryly then went silent, giving the rest of the group their chance to leave.

But he didn't need to. Some were nodding in agreement, others relaxed just a tiny amount with almost a hint of a smile trying to break through their neutral faces.

But the ones that still held onto their neutral faces with an iron grip, still standing rigidly since the beginning, were the ones that Jee took careful note of.

He cross referenced those ones and compared them to the soldiers that he tagged yesterday: Chie, Bao, Kiken, Kai, Chen, Han Shu, and Minuko. Bao and Kai were written off as suspects today. Chitose was waiting in the mess hall, staying out of the way of the meeting. He was now down to five and he had a feeling some were actual viper-moles.

In other words, possible Ozai-loyalists who were playing the long game.

Jee narrowed his eyes in thought and theories crossed his mind. They could be reporting to Ozai's court any time they stopped at a harbor to resupply. Or they could be on board to make sure that Zuko failed at 'capturing the Avatar' long enough for Azula to reach majority. It was no secret that Ozai wanted his daughter to be the legitimate Heir to the Throne.

Never mind the fact that the Avatar was just a fairytale before their excursion to the South Pole. Ozai was probably taking no chances in making sure that his son stayed banished so he would lose his place as Heir to the Throne.

Jee blinked back to the present when Prince Zuko started speaking again, and he kept an eye on the five remaining suspects.

"I'm going to say this simply; I'm going to overthrow my father and depose him from the Throne."

There were many shocked faces at the simple proclamation and suddenly Kai cackled hysterically.

With tears in his eyes, Kai hooted, "So that's what you were warning us about? I'm game! The guy's an asshole… Your Highness." He finished his sentence as if he were apologizing for insulting his father but the tone held no such apologetic tone. He then started chuckling under his breath in order to get a hold of himself.

Kangfu hummed. "It's about time. I can't stand to follow a person who would burn and mutilate their own child just for speaking out of turn, especially when they gave up and refused to fight. Never mind allowing senseless slaughter of new recruits."

Jee noted two people with uncomfortable and angry, pinched looks on their face, despite them trying hard to keep neutral.

At this point, attempting to stay neutral was now more suspicious than freely breaking rank and chattering among themselves.

Got you, Jee grimly thought.

---

That night, Jee hung out at the aviary which was connected to the komodo rhino and ostrich horse stalls by a single door, hiding in the dark corner of the room. The hawks slept, undisturbed by the swaying of the ship rocking with the waves.

One would have to go to the very back of the stable to reach the aviary, past the ostrich horses and komodo rhinos, through the door. This room had a large porthole to be able to send hawks directly outside or allow hawks to fly around a bit for exercise before they fly back inside.

The porthole window is closed at the moment and Jee made sure it was locked before he hid himself.

And he was glad to be down here because there was a man silently opening the door into the aviary and just as quietly shutting it. Then he went to the wall full of hawk harnesses and gear, grabbing one harness to carry a scroll.

Quickly he located their one trained hawk and gently woke the bird to strap it in a harness.

Jee wasn’t going to allow it to go further than that.

But he had to make sure that this man was one of the ones he had tagged as suspicious.

Silently getting out from behind crates full of feed and dried meat, he positioned himself behind the interloper and spoke, “What are you doing.”

The man whirled around, wide eyed and Jee had looked at the man’s face just quick enough to get a confirmation and threw a punch.

---

“Are you okay, Lieutenant Jee?” Iroh asked and Jee grimaced as Kangfu wiped the blood off his face, the poultice stinging the cuts.

“I’m fine. The punch just startled the hawk and they didn’t take too kindly to being rudely woken up like that.”

“Another inch to the left and you’d be singing a different tune.” Kangfu said wryly, wiping the cut on Jee’s right temple and brow bone.

Jee was a little embarrassed to say that the cut was made by a Tiercel who had squawked angrily for being woken up, and then shown his displeasure by giving Jee a long swipe with his wickedly sharp claws. The wound may or may not scar, Kangfu had said, and Jee could almost hear the note of I hope it does. Jee glared at him, because although the scar would look impressive, the story behind it was not.

Bao, the resident animal trainer and now promoted hawker who was headed down to calm the animals, took one look at Jee and laughed, long and hard. Once he had his breath back, he asked what had happened to get the hawk to nearly claw his eye out.

Jee did not dignify him with a response and, instead, he just stared at the other man with dead eyes.

After a moment of staring, he finally spoke. “Keep an eye on the hawks, make sure that no one, other than Prince Zuko, Prince Iroh, and me, is allowed inside. We're on a communication lock down. No scrolls or letters can leave this ship.”

With that, he nearly stomped towards the brig where Zuko was glaring at Kiken, arms crossed, “I won't ask again. Why are you on my ship?”

Kiken sneered, “Just like anyone else on this ship full of rejects.”

Zuko's eyes narrowed, the blind one making him seem more ferocious, “My sister was a better liar than you at nine years old. So try that again! I want the truth this time.”

The traitor glared and there was a flash of apprehension, the expression distorting the impressive swollen shiner on his right eye. The expression disappeared and he faux casually leaned back on the wall at the back of the brig, “You can't even bend, Your Highness. What makes you think that you would be fit to take the Throne and rule the entire Fire Nation when your sister is a much better option than you. She can bend blue fire. The first to do it in hundreds of years.”

It took everything in Jee's repertoire to keep his face steady and not laugh.

Zuko, however, was not remotely close to laughing as Jee was. Instead he tightened his fingers around his crossed arms and bared his teeth. “Start. Talking.”

“Or what?” Kiken snapped back tauntingly, “You'll burn me? I'm not loyal to you. Ozai is the rightful ruler and there is nothing you can do while you are banished out here.”

“So that's your game.” Jee spoke up suddenly and both eyes snapped to look up at him. “Your plan was to keep Zuko banished until Azula could take over the title of Heir to the Throne when she turns eighteen.”

The widening of Kiken's eyes felt like vindication to Jee. It was nice to have his suspicion confirmed. It was almost pure guesswork that would have made him look stupid if he was wrong.

Kiken back-tracked and laughed snarkily, but the tremor in his tone betrayed him, “Wha– no! That's preposterous. Th–that wasn't our plan.” Jee narrowed his focus on Kiken’s words and Kiken winced when he realized his fatal error.

The traitor pinched his lips together, opting to remain silent.

Zuko said nothing for a moment, just stared at the man until the man grew red in anger. He bolted to his feet and charged towards the cell door and jammed his arms in between the metal bars to swipe at Zuko who was just far enough to be out of reach.

However, Zuko didn't flinch; he just stared past the jerking arm to look the incensed man in the eyes, “Thank you, Lieutenant Jee. I have enough.”

The Prince turned to leave but paused when he heard the man start yelling, “You will not live long enough to see the throne! Long live Firelord Ozai!”

Jee smiled internally. That proclamation had just sealed the man’s fate. He was not leaving this ship alive.

Prince Zuko said nothing, only turned his scarred side more towards the man. The deaf side. Then continued out of the brig.

Jee turned to look at the man, who sneered at him. “Who else on this ship is against Prince Zuko?” Jee demanded.

“I'm not talking,” Kiken responded bitterly, stepping back to sit down on his previous spot.

“I wasn't asking. Unlike Prince Zuko, I can firebend.” Kiken looked up in surprise then blinked with dawning dread as Jee advanced towards the cell door. “And unlike Prince Zuko, I have no qualms in using it to get you to talk.”

---

“Did the man talk?” Iroh asked as he let Jee into the Prince's cabin, arguably the most secured room in the entire ship.

The golden flames on the meditation candles flickered at the question. This was the topic that the teen liked the least; the intimidation, along with the topic of what should be done to the traitors to keep their mouth shut.

Jee knew that the Prince really didn't want to resort to torture, since he told Jee to keep it to purely intimidation tactics. The Prince was honestly hoping that intimidation tactic would be enough. Jee thought otherwise.

“Only enough to let me know that there is only one other of Ozai’s viper-moles. Other than that, I could not go any further,” Jee answered tiredly. “The man understands that he will not be leaving this ship alive. I tried to offer him life in exchange for information on the other person, to stay in the brig as a prisoner, and yet he still would not talk.”

The golden flames flickered again and the teen gulped. Momo chittered and immediately climbed on Zuko's shoulder while he took a deep steadying breath.

“I spoke to one of the remaining suspects while you were interrogating Kiken. We can eliminate Chie from the list.” Iroh spoke, allowing the time for Zuko to gather his nerves.

Prince Zuko looked agonized at the thought of killing someone again, but this time it would be full-on execution. It needed to be done. Otherwise Zuko's life would be in so much more danger before he was ready to reveal to the rest of the world that he was planning to remove Ozai from the Throne.

There was silence as both older men looked at Zuko, who was still facing away from them towards the three meditation candles. The flames gently surged and shrank, in synchrony with the deliberate breathing patterns that firebenders used to stay calm in a tense situation.

“Prince Zuko. You do not need to do this.” Jee said, softly.

“It's my plan.” The teen rasped, “What kind of person would I be if I can't look at the person I sentenced to die? – if I don't do it myself.”

Iroh frowned, “Prince Zuko, I understand that this will be hard. It's okay to ask for help. Do not tear yourself apart in doing this yourself. Let us help.”

“It will tear me apart more if it's by my words but not by my hands.”

Iroh and Jee gave each other a resigned look. Sometimes…

Sometimes Jee wished that the kid had a little less honor and would just let him do the deed himself.

---

Iroh and Jee watched Zuko approach the man sitting in the cell, with Jee standing guard at the door to make sure no one enters the brig.

Kangfu stood off to the side as a medical witness to the execution.

Jee noted the pale face that the Prince sported but the squared, firm position of his back showed that he was willing to do this. The deep bags under his eyes showed evidence of lack of sleep for the last several days.

He stepped next to the cell door and peered down through the bars at the subdued and restrained man. He looked up past the bars with a glare from his one opened eye, the bruise on the right eye now swollen shut.

Zuko seemed to be thinking hard on something, staring past the defiant traitor.

Finally, after a long moment, he sighed and withdrew a beautiful dagger and walked into the cell. Kiken tensed and fear flashed across his eyes but he still held his head high.

And, to everyone's shock, Zuko sliced through the bindings holding the man down. Kiken stared dumbfounded at the pooling ropes around him and looked back up at Zuko, silently asking him what was going on.

“I’m not going to execute you on your knees,” he said curtly, and stepped back. “Get up. We're going up on the deck and we will fight.”

This was not part of the plan, Jee thought with a resignation.

Kiken slowly stood up, “But I'm not a firebender.”

“And according to you, I can't even bend.” Zuko shot back and walked away. He then paused, looked back, and spoke, “Well? Get moving!” He snapped.

That gave Kiken more energy, but he looked at the teen’s back in confusion.

Jee couldn't handle it.

“He's giving you too many chances.” Jee said under his breath, just loud enough for Kiken to hear him as the traitor passed by him. He made sure that Zuko was well out of earshot when he spoke this.

Kiken looked back at Jee, confusion still warring in his dark amber eyes. Jee was just as confused, but he had an inkling that Prince Zuko was praying for some sort of miracle, an answer as an alternative to execution.

They followed.

Zuko was waiting with a scowl, his form tense, and he avoided looking at the curious spectators' eyes. Then the Prince saw Kiken walking into the light of dawn, Agni showing himself in the bright new day.

It almost seemed inappropriate for the sun to shine this brightly in the morning, since what was about to occur was so grim.

Zuko took this moment to speak. “Whatever happens here, no one shall interfere. Including you, Momo.” There was a grudging chatter from the lemur, and he flew up to the top part of the lookout deck.

“I will not bend. The only weapons I will use are my fist and my dagger.” Zuko continued and walked up to the quiet Kiken who was silently appraising the teen. The Prince handed him a plain dagger, handle first and he slowly took it.

Zuko nodded and stepped back a dueling distance and moved into his own mixed martial kata that was not the traditional Imperial Fire, but instead it was a starting Kata that Zuko invented to be a good starting point for all three elements.

Jee saw when Kiken realized what this was about. Prince Zuko was giving Kiken a choice on how to go out. And if he wins? Well, Kiken wins by killing the Prince and he lives.

Kiken looked at the blade again and slowly got into a brawler stance, the blade held tightly in a reverse grip. They both started circling each other, like pygmy pumas sizing each other.

And Jee could see respect growing in Kiken's eyes.

But then, those eyes darted to the left and Jee looked to the right to see another man charging into the makeshift arena, blade ready to cut Zuko down. Kiken charged forward.

Prince Iroh shouted, Momo screeched, and there was a deafening rushing sound drowning all other noises because Jee's heart pounded in fear for Zuko.

Kiken slammed into the rushing man and both struggled, while Zuko ducked out of the danger zone.

Suddenly, the bigger man shouted and pushed Kiken away who stumbled dangerously close to the railing but managed to stop himself from toppling over. The bigger man turned sharply and charged at Zuko again and this time Jee was ready.

But before his, Iroh’s, and multiple other firebenders’ flames left their fist, a throwing knife flew into the air and connected, and Ma Tao let out a horrific choke.

He stumbled, hands dropping his short sword and reaching up to the blade that was lodged into his throat, but another blade came out of nowhere and connected to the carotid.

The man finally fell like a puppet with his strings cut.

The crowd looked at the pale-faced Zuko who was the source of the first knife then to the scowling Kai, whose hand was still extended. “No one messes with my pupil.”

Jee was just happy that his kid wasn’t dead.

He needed a drink.

---

“Why did you save me?” Zuko asked tiredly. So much had happened in the last two days. He hadn’t slept when they planned to catch the snitch, then he hadn’t slept through the day because of the anxiety and because firebenders always had more difficulties sleeping when the sun was up, hadn’t slept through the last night because they caught Kiken.

And now it was past midday.

He was alone in Kiken’s cell this time, with the exception of Momo who absolutely refused to let him out of his sight after another near assassination.

The lemur heavily scolded Zuko for putting himself in danger and Zuko just took it. He also took to Iroh fussing passive aggressively, letting him hug him tightly and check him for any injuries with a look over and a question on his health while Kiken was escorted to the brig.

The man didn’t even fight this time.

What really surprised Zuko however, was Lieutenant Jee stopping Zuko to look him over even though Uncle had just checked him for injuries, and quietly fussed over him in his professional way that almost skirted into personal territory.

Zuko could have sworn that the man wanted to bring him into a tight hug as well but refrained.

He was actually disappointed that Jee didn't do that, much to his surprise.

After many hours of arguing with both men, Zuko finally found himself alone to speak with Kiken.

Kiken looked at him with one good eye, the other now showing a variety of blues, purples, and black around the swollen eye. Then shrugged, “You showed me a lot more consideration than anyone else ever had. You gave me a choice on how I would die.”

He was silent then added, “You have a lot more honor than your Banished status would ever indicate. I don’t think even Firelord Ozai would ever show me this kind of consideration, to a normal everyday man like me. Firelord Ozai would have me tortured to get what he wants.”

“No. Even just speaking out of turn would get your face burned off.” He said bluntly and Kiken looked away.

The silence was so tense that Zuko was tempted to breathe fire to burn it off and make it lighter, but he did not.

Just when Zuko thought Kiken would not speak anymore, he spoke up, “I was...wrong. I was trying to keep true to Firelord Ozai’s orders but lately it has been extremely hard to do that. I was supposed to give updates to him at the same time you did.”

“He reads my letters?” Zuko asked faintly and Kiken shrugged.

“I have no idea, Your Highness. He never responded to my updates. Honestly, it was sheer stubbornness and fear that kept me doing this.”

“What were his orders to you, exactly?” Zuko asked and finally, finally Kiken answered truthfully.

“Proceed as normal when the Avatar is not found. If the Avatar is ever located, stall. If Prince Zuko should ever think about treason or doing anything other than trying to locate the Avatar, kill him.” He stopped, then snorted, “I think those last two were just a throwaway joke.” Kiken looked away again, thinking hard before sighing.

He got up and bowed deeply on all fours and Zuko had a sudden flashback to when he was thirteen, bowed to his father and pleaded, right before being burned. “I wish to express my sincerest apology, Your Highness. There are no excuses or forgiveness for my actions. I will accept any punishment you deemed fit to give me with grace.”

Zuko breathed, uncomfortable at the man’s position for multiple reasons. “Get up.”

Once he did, Zuko asked, “Will you report to Ozai if I let you go?” Before Zuko finished his sentence, Kiken was already shaking his head.

“No, Your Highness. I will not get in the way of your plans. I will not speak of this or your plans to anyone. I will give you my word and what is left of my honor that I will hold this as a secret to take to my grave.” Kiken vowed solemnly.

---

Zuko didn’t see Jee frown as they saw both banished men walk towards the merchant ship with enough money to go wherever they wished to.

But he did hear him. “He shouldn’t have gotten off that lightly.”

They were docked on the crowded side of Kyoshi Island, bustling with merchant ships and traders. Most were Earth Kingdom merchant ships, but some were Southern Water Tribes ships manned by women trading furs and trinkets for wood and produce preserves.

The Kyoshi Islanders seem to have a good working relationship with the Southern Water Tribe women as they traded to gather supplies to trade between the multiple tribes in the south pole.

Zuko vaguely remembered that all of the men of the tribes had left for war, so it would make sense to see only the women doing what the men must have always done in order to keep their villages alive.

The residents, including the Kyoshi Warriors, offered a less warm but no less professional reception to Earth Kingdom merchants.

However, they were downright chilly at seeing an old retired Fire Nation Naval ship.

The only reason the Kyoshi Warriors did not attack was that Zuko made sure they docked at the most crowded port, bustling with trades of the week. It also helped that he ordered everyone on the ship to not firebend and, for the love of Agni, do not start a fight.

It also helped that he produced documents stating that they are not military, that the ship is literally a retired vessel that should have been decommissioned into scraps, and he also promised that they are not Fire Nation spies, honest!

They still watched him with clear hostility.

“He saved my life even if I would have been fine.” Zuko ignored the doubtful look that crossed Jee’s face. “He gave me his word that he would keep quiet. I will not speak of this again, Lieutenant Jee.”

Jee frowned but did not question his orders again.

They were wearing their Earth Kingdom clothing again with their thick coat over it to keep warm in the still, cold air. Momo took to snuggling inside of Zuko’s parka again.

“Lieutenant Jee, buy what we need to stock up.” Zuko looked over and scowled. “And make sure Uncle doesn’t go crazy on his shopping.”

Zuko waited until Jee groaned and stalked off to Uncle Iroh and tried to do Zuko’s old job of Uncle wrangling before he took this moment to disappear into the crowd.

He just...needed a moment to himself. Even if a Kyoshi Warrior was following him at a distance.

The last two, almost three days, were catching up to him and he desperately needed a moment to rest. But still, he could not actually get comfortable enough to sleep.

He spoke out loud to his escort, “I’m just going to find a place to rest.”

Unfriendly silence met his words.

He wandered near the coastline until he found a tree tall enough, its branches wide enough, for him to hide in. He climbed up, being mindful of the sleepy Momo in his parka, and balanced on the highest branch he could rest on without risk of it snapping under his weight.

He took a moment to situate himself comfortably and sighed.

He’d take a few hours of rest. Just a few hours. He hoped his escort wouldn't do anything like pushing him off the tree.

---

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Sokka asked bluntly, lowering the map down to stare at Aang, who was actually directing Appa this time.

“Sure I do!” He replied cheerfully, “We're going where we can ride the Giant Kois, which is by some island."

“Well, we're sure close." Sokka responded sarcastically, rolling up the map.

“Giant Kois?" Katara repeated absently, more focused on sewing and Aang beamed.

“Yeah! Before we head to the North, we have some serious business to do, which includes visiting the hopping lamas and riding the back of the Giant Kois."

“And these are important, how?" Sokka asked, leaning back on the saddle.

“It's fun! It's one of those things I wanted to do for a long time." Then Aang dropped the reins to see that Katara was still busily sewing Sokka's pants.

He pouted. Then rummaged through his clothing to look for something and his expression lit up once he found it, “Hey Katara! Look at this awesome airbending trick I know. Spinning marbles!" He flourished the spinning marble trick with a goofy grin.

There was silence and Sokka shot him a pitying look. Katara sewed on, looking intensely at the especially difficult hole and she grumbled at it.

“Katara," he started and tried to keep the bummed-out whine out of his tone, “You didn't look."

“That's nice, Aang," she said absent-mindedly again.

He frowned and sighed. “You're still not looking."

She looked up and smiled. “That looks nice, Aang."

He frowned harder, feeling dejected that his crush wasn't paying attention enough to see that he wasn't doing the awesome airbending tricks, “But I'm not doing it."

“Ah, leave her alone, kid. Let her do her girly stuff." Sokka waved him off and suddenly he got a gimlet stare from his sister. “Girly stuff?" she asked mildly.

Aang smiled nervously and Sokka continued, blissfully ignorant of Mt. Katara, “Yeah, sewing is a girl's job along with cleaning and cooking. While the men hunt and fish. It's the natural order of things."

Mt. Katara steamed, “Oh look at that! I'm done sewing! Look at what a good job I did!" And tossed him the pants and tossed a small water whip to smack Sokka's bare leg as he was flailing.

Sokka yelped and scowled, “I'm gonna have to give the Salt-Lick my warm thanks for giving you those waterbending scrolls."

Katara smirked at him and Aang wondered if he should retreat back to steering Appa.

But Appa took the matter out of his hand and with a loud groan suddenly started descending.

Aang took the reins and smiled. “Hey look! That's the island with the Elephant Kois!"

Sokka complained to Katara about the giant hole still in his pants and Aang frowned down at Appa's head. It still bothered him at how much Appa changed.

---

A fun moment of Giant Koi riding was interrupted by a near miss at being a giant sea creature breakfast.

“What was that?!” Katara yelped in shock and Aang blew air around himself to dry off and then proceeded to put his clothes back on.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s not stick around to find out. Time to hit the road,” Sokka said brusquely, wiping his hands to get the dirt off and Aang winced in apology for slamming into him when he was escaping the giant sea creature.

Aang noticed Appa shifting on his feet, his doleful brown eyes darting around like he was looking for something.

Then that moment was interrupted by an ambush.

---

Aang couldn’t see but there were a lot of hushed conversations as he, Katara, and Sokka were being dragged somewhere. All of the speakers sounded feminine.

“Um, Suki? What do we do with the… bison?”

“Leave him.”

There was silence.

“...Um?”

“Stay right there, it’s okay big guy. But please don’t follow us.” Aang assumed this to be Suki.

There walked some more.

There was a sound of light giggling and Suki spoke again, this time with wary caution, “Okay big guy, don’t come any closer and I’ll give you some fruits.”

There was a loud, delighted groan and Suki yelped. The rest of the women tittered and Suki moaned in disgust.

There was a sigh from an older man.

Aang then felt ropes being wrapped out his torso, tying him to a wooden pole and the blindfold finally came off. He blinked at the sudden brightness and looked over.

There, he saw a single solitary woman in heavy green garb, half of her makeup licked off and she was trying to gently hold off Appa’s loving advancement.

He winced again, “Sorry! I don’t know what’s going on with Appa, but I think he really likes you.”

“Alright, alright. Putting that aside for now.” An old man spoke, and looked at Aang, Katara, and Sokka, “You three have some explaining to do.”

“And if you don’t –unf!” Appa moaned again, nudging his nose against her and gave her another lick and Suki sighed, giving up her intimidation and tried to push his nose away but it was like a little mouse-finch trying to shove a sloth-tortoise. Appa licked her hand and she withdrew it.

“Just… answer our questions,” she finished lamely.

Aang laughed sheepishly, but Sokka had to open his mouth, “Who are you people? And where are the men that ambushed us?”

Suki stalked towards him and pointed straight at his chest, “There were no men, we ambushed you. Now, tell us–” Appa nudged her back and she stumbled towards Sokka’s chest. She pushed away with an incredulous glare at the bison and Aang had to look up because he just…

Felt so embarrassed. He wanted to whistle like some guilty kid who got caught sneaking into the fruit pie before it was ready to be served, but refrained, because he didn’t want the attention right now.

Suki met Sokka’s eyes and both stiffened in shock. Aang had a sinking feeling he knew what that was about.

Suki pushed away from him and huffed, “Tell us who you are and what are you doing here.”

Katara must have seen the glint in the other woman’s eye because she sharply kicked her brother when he spoke again, “What? There’s no way a bunch of girls could have brought us down like that.”

Katara finally spoke up, “Shut up Sokka! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, my brother can be an idiot. Please don’t hurt him.” Katara met Suki’s eyes next and Suki looked poleaxed. Katara smiled.

It looked a little strained.

Sokka looked so offended that Aang preemptively kicked him to shut him up before he could open his mouth. Something in the universe felt weird that he, the younger kid, had to be the impulse control of a teenager.

Sokka looked at him with irritation and Aang’s entire facial expression screamed Be quiet!. The water tribe teen looked away mulishly, then sighed, slumping.

Aang sighed then spoke, “I’m sorry. This is my fault. I wanted to come here to ride on the Elephant Koi.”

The old man barked a laugh, “How do we know you are not Fire Nation spies? Kyoshi Island has stayed out of this war for a hundred years.”

Aang brightened up, “This island was named for Kyoshi? I know her!”

Aang’s statement was met with disbelief. “Impossible! Kyoshi was born here four hundred years ago. She had been dead for centuries.”

“I know her because I’m the Avatar.” He said seriously.

The old man snorted. “Kyoshi Warriors, feed them to the Unagi.”

“Aang, do some airbending,” Katara said urgently under her breath and Aang leapt into the air with a blast of wind.

Suddenly, things were alright.

Aang also intentionally looked at Suki straight in the eyes because he had to make sure. The tingle running down his spirit confirmed his suspicion.

---

The villagers were a lot warmer to the visitors and Aang’s hero worship got to his head, but when Aang tried to get Appa to fly around with his new fan club, Appa snorted in reproach and sat down, making sure that his herd was within his sight.

Aang deflated pretty quickly after that, and reevaluated his actions, and winced. He had been getting too much hot air in his head. “Sorry Appa,” he said to his best friend quietly and Appa softly groaned, licking his hand in acceptance.

Aang turned to the crowd of girls behind him. “Sorry ladies. But Appa is not feeling up to it.”

“Aaaw, come on Aangy!” one pouted and Aang smiled sheepishly in apology. The fan club all left with a few disappointed grumbles and Aang sighed.

He walked up to the market, which turned out to be on the other side of the island. No wonder the Kyoshi Warriors were hostile to them at first! They essentially landed on their island like a burglar arriving on someone’s backyard with no warning. And with their firm neutral stance in war, there was a protocol to follow when visiting a neutral port.

Go through the public route. If anyone went through the back door, they would have no choice but to assume the inconsiderate party is spying. Ergo Aang, Katara, and Sokka were treated as possible spies until Aang proved to them that he was the Avatar.

As he was walking, with Appa following behind, he saw Katara shopping for more supplies and felt a little guilty for brushing her off like he had earlier in the day.

He also noted that Appa was more calm when he was near all three of them. The only one missing now was Sokka and he had been getting trained with Suki.

“Hey, Katara?”

“Yeah, Aang?” she responded coolly, looking at the jug squash in her hand, and Aang twiddled his thumb. “I, uh, I want to apologize for my behavior lately.”

Katara looked at him this time and her blue eyes softened. “Thanks Aang.”

Aang then saw Sokka approaching them, dressed in full Kyoshi uniform and Aang beamed at him, “You look fierce Sokka!”

Katara bit her lip to prevent herself from laughing but giggled when Sokka perked up. “Yeah? I know a few moves too! I think I look awesome with the battle fan!”

“A few more lessons and you might start posing a challenge to me, Sokka,” Suki teased, her makeup back to being impeccable like Appa did not lick half of it off in one swipe of his tongue.

Appa rumbled in happy greeting at Suki and she looked at him warily, lightly stepping behind Sokka to use him as a meat shield.

Aang was also surprised to see another familiar face on this island. “Zuko?”

All three whirled their heads to where Aang was looking at; Katara, Sokka, and amusingly enough, Appa.

Aang shouted gleefully, “Zuko!”

The teen hunched his back like he was holding back a flinch. He refused to look back.

He did a full body flinch at Appa’s loud roar in greeting, dropping his basket of produce with a curse, and dived under the market stall, much to the amusement of the Kyoshi Warrior next to him and the merchant manning the stall.

Suki asked Sokka wryly, “Friend of yours?”

Sokka hedged, waving his hand in a so-and-so motion, “Long story, but he got a much worse Appa greeting than you in terms of sheer enthusiasm. The fluffy monster decided he’s a friend, as much as the guy denies it,” Sokka finished, watching with intense fascination with the others. They were all enthralled at the sight in front of them.

Appa lumbered towards the market stall, seeing Zuko hiding underneath, refusing to come out. The bison then took a large inhaling gulp.

With a loud sucking sound, Zuko popped out from under the stall with a yelp and was immediately in range of Appa’s licks.

The poor frazzled teen looked around and glared intensely at the airbender. “Aang!”

“Sorry Zuko! But say hi to him! He missed you.”

Zuko grumbled a greeting and something popped out from Zuko’s parka. Aang blinked. It was the lemur again, and both animals greeted each other. Momo, he believed, chittered something to Appa and the bison groaned but let go of Zuko, who immediately back flipped out of the way and power walked towards Aang and the rest, immediately shoving himself behind the group.

He hissed, “Keep him away from me. I can’t take another eight hours of licking!”

Suki suddenly spoke with a wide smile. “I suddenly feel a lot better with my own greeting.”

Zuko looked up to retort but there was an excited screech as the lemur launched from Appa to Suki who froze, not wanting to suplex a little lemur. Or maybe it was because the brief eye contact with a flying lemur gave her the spirit tingles.

Suddenly, Zuko looked so tired, figuratively and literally. “Momo, no!” And he snatched the flying lemur right before he could body slam into her face like Sokka had experienced.

Finally, he looked up to speak to Suki, but both froze.

It was like the hay that broke the camel-lion’s back. Suki narrowed her eyes in a glare, looked at everyone in the group, and hissed to herself.

Fast as lightning, both Sokka and Zuko’s ears were caught in her grip and she dragged their protesting forms to a small building. Katara and Aang looked at each other and helplessly shrugged.

They took that as a silent cue for them to follow.

As soon as Aang and Katara stepped into the building, the door slammed shut and Suki growled at them, “Okay, start talking. What is going on? Why do I keep feeling this weird feeling?”

“Like a tingle down your soul?” Sokka asked dryly, rubbing his still smarting ear and she glared at him for his smartass tone.

Aang could see Zuko slumping at Sokka’s words and he frowned. It looked like Zuko knew something about this.

Aang couldn’t find anything in the library at the Southern Air Temple, even the ones behind the airbending lock. The unlocked library was picked clean, almost nothing was left behind. And the few behind the locked door had nothing about this phenomenon.

“Yes, now start talking.”

“We don’t know. It started when we met each other’s eyes, the first one was with Aang.” Katara said, “Then it included Appa, the lemur, and Zuko for me. Sokka felt them as well.”

Aang had his eyes on Zuko the entire time with a thoughtful frown. The teen rubbed his face, the deep bruising under his eyes made him look stressed and tired, like he hadn’t slept in days.

“Zuko, are you okay?” He asked hesitantly and the conversation got derailed for a brief moment.

“No, not really.” He answered and paused. Suddenly he scowled at himself, angry for answering the question that bluntly.

Aang wanted to probe that can of worms more but Sokka interjected, bringing them back to the original topic, “What do you know about what’s going on with this whole…” He waved his hand vaguely, “Spirit tingle thing?”

Zuko groaned faintly and decided to just lay on his back, Momo chittering and climbing on his stomach with a purr. “Some. I met this guru and he explained to me that I have seven bonds. So far, it includes Momo, you, Katara, Sokka, the licking monster –” Appa moaned at him through the window “– and now you.” He pointed at the thoughtfully frowning Suki.

“Now there's just one more left.” He let out a jaw cracking yawn and Sokka had a gleam in his eyes that spoke of a weakness he had sniffed out and he was going to take advantage of it.

He cast a quick look at Suki and then asked in a faux casual tone that none of them believed, “Would it have anything to do with the gold –”

Zuko hissed at him, “Shut up!” But the damage was done. Suki narrowed her eyes again, her makeup making her look incredibly fierce and dangerous, “What? You better tell me what I need to know.”

Zuko glared fiercely at Sokka who looked a little contrite. In an effort to avoid the topic, he looked around their meeting place. Aang looked around as well and saw that the place was a tiny museum of sorts, holding everything relating to Avatar Kyoshi. There were fans, a painting, and a giant pair of boots.

Then Zuko opened his mouth and Sokka lunged forward to stop him. “No trades this time! Come on, tell us what you know about this bond thing!”

Momo chittered in laughter from the windowsill.

Zuko snarled, flipped him over smoothly – ignoring the way Katara put her hands on the newly purchased water pouch – pinned him to the ground, and looked up at Suki. “I have some letters from Avatar Kyoshi to some woman named Rangi on my ship. I’ll give them to you if you let me leave.”

“DEAL!” Suki yelped, her fierce countenance flipping to awe before she demanded incredulously, “How did you get those?!”

“I was Avatar hunting and I stole it from a governor’s stronghold as– you know what? No! I’m too tired, stop asking me questions!” Zuko snapped, jumping off from Sokka, who complained – how on Tui and La did he beat him that fast when he looked like he hadn’t slept in two days?

“Three. I haven’t slept in almost three days!” Zuko snapped. He opened the door, saw Appa groaning a greeting, and slammed the door shut.

Hastily, he retreated from the door and started pacing around the room, looking for another exit. But other than the door and the tiny window right next to the door obstructed by the giant bison, Zuko was trapped. Aang was starting to get a little worried for Zuko. He had a manic look in his eyes, made all the more pronounced by the deep bag under the unscarred one, puffing out like a stark bruise against the pale skin.

Aang piped up, “You know, you made a deal with Suki, but you haven’t made a deal with us. Why were you Avatar hunting?”

He glared in confusion. “I gave you the waterbending scrolls.”

“One time deal, bud,” Sokka drawled. “Which, thanks, thank you so very much. My sister has become even more of a menace thanks to your trade.” Katara scowled at him, but she was too pleased with the rate of progress on her bending to be truly angry.

Zuko glared daggers at the face-painted boy. “I was Avatar hunting because I was hoping you would help me stop this war and dethrone my f–” Zuko stopped and almost looked spitting mad. He brought his hands up to his mouth and firmly covered them, a physical sign that he would not speak more.

“Dethrone your Firelord? Oh, that’s treason my man,” Sokka cooed, utterly delighted and Aang felt uncomfortable with this topic, “Very delicious. I can get behind that.”

“He’s twelve. I’m not going to bring a twelve-year-old into war,” Zuko snarled, forgetting that he was supposed to be keeping silent, and Sokka frowned.

“Yeah, well, newsflash Salt-Lick; we’re all at war.” Zuko twisted his face at the nickname and opened his mouth to shout.

Suki took this moment to interject, looking straight at Zuko, who blinked wide-eyed at the young warrior, “Okay, explain to me fully what is going on. I promise I and Kyoshi Island will let you go without harm to you or your crew. I’ll even throw in an inn for you to sleep in without harassment.”

Zuko actually looked more tempted by the sleeping deal than anything but he thought about the deal. He looked at Suki with a tried appraising glance before he finally responded. “Fine,” he said surlily, “This hundred year war is wrong and I’m going to dethrone Firelord Ozai. This guru told me that my bonds will help me and they're tied to my Destiny or something.” Zuko rubbed his tired face, then scowled. “But I’m not bringing a twelve-year-old peaceful monk against my father.”

“What, your father?” Katara interrupted, incredulous and Aang had to agree. Are they speaking to the Prince of the Fire Nation right now?

Zuko, completely missing the point, jerked a finger to his scarred face. “He gave me this scar when I was thirteen just for speaking out of turn. I’m not bringing a twelve year old monk to my father.”

Everyone present, including Zuko, all flinched at what he just said. Finally Zuko looked at them all pleadingly, “Can we just hold the interrogation off? I don’t have a brain mouth filter when I'm as tired as this and I don’t want to say anything else stupid.”

Even under the white face paint Sokka looked pale and nodded, “Uh, yeah man. Let’s take you to the inn.”

Sokka and Katara both led the possible Prince of Fire Nation towards their inn. Aang and Suki both looked at each other.

For some reason, with everyone that Aang had met that made him feel this bond as Zuko called it, he felt that he could trust them with his life. Even though he just met Suki this morning, he felt as if he had known her for a lot longer.

With a jolt, he realized that she seemed to feel the same. “Come on Aang. Let’s go with them.”

---

Jee was irritated. He looked away for one minute and the kid decided to take off.

Oh, he could understand why the kid did it. He needed his privacy and space away from the ship, but Jee was still irritated that he wasn’t there to make sure the Prince was safe. The fact that a crew member had almost assassinated him had got him twisted up with guilt. He should have been able to sniff the traitor out, but he managed to slip by just enough to almost bring a blade into Prince Zuko’s back.

So for the majority of the day, he had been looking around the island for the Prince, with another of the Kyoshi Warriors not so inconspicuously tailing him and he knew the warrior was laughing at him. After a while he finally gave up and stalked towards the main house in the center of the island. If Zuko was not wandering around, then he might have been planning to talk about the war effort with the Leader of Kyoshi Island.

It was a long shot, but Jee was tired. He hadn’t slept since the night before he punched Kiken in the face, which was last night. If his Prince was not in there, Jee would continue looking around the island until the Kyoshi Warriors boots him off.

He politely knocked on the wide front door and did a double-take upon seeing the large sleeping flying bison at the side of the large house.

Before Jee could curse at the sight, Oyaji opened the door and eyed him warily. Jee bowed, “Good evening sir. I am looking for the Captain of our ship. I’m wondering if you have seen him?”

The wary, tense look melted just a smidge and there was now a bemused expression on his face, “As a matter of fact, your Captain is using one of our rooms to sleep.”

Jee blinked in astonishment. Prince Zuko, sleeping before the sun has fully set? In a place he was not familiar with? With suspicion he did not let color his voice, he asked calmly, “May I check on him, Sir? I would feel better if I could see with my own eyes that the Captain is safe.”

When he saw that Oyaji was going to politely refuse, he added in, “He recently survived an assassination attempt, so unless I check in with the Captain, the crew will not be so compliant.”

Oyaji eyed him for a moment before sighing and opening the door wider to permit Jee entry, “They are all upstairs.”

They? Jee frowned and followed the old man up the stairs and quietly opened the door.

Jee peered in and sharply looked back at the man, who was looking at him with full-blown amusement now.

Jee looked inside just to be sure he was seeing what he saw correctly and, yep. Zuko was sleeping in the middle of a large mat, snug under the two water tribe children and the air nomad. The lemur was sleeping on Zuko’s chest, curled up into a ball.

The three children were snuggling up to him like pygmy pumas right next to a warm hearth.

There was another Kyoshi Warrior inside, sitting cross-legged in a deceptively relaxed pose near the cuddle pile. She looked at him with a warning glare, daring him to make a noise. She politely nodded at Oyaji as Jee silently held out his hand to her in a peaceful gesture and slowly closed the door, making sure that it was silent.

Jee looked at Oyaji and sighed, “I’ll be right back after I make a report to the crew.”

The old man quirked a brow at that, but nodded in consent.

He stepped out of the building and spoke out loud to his shadow, “I’m going to go back to my ship and report this to the crew, and I will be back to guard my Captain. If you join me, I’m sure the Captain’s Uncle would love to give you some tea.”

There was silence for a moment before intentional noise alerted him that she was stepping out into the fading light. She shrugged as she walked up to him, side by side as they both walked down to the harbor, “Sure. Got any Oolong?”

Jee gave her a wry smile. “I’m sure he does. He’s a… connoisseur of tea.”

The Kyoshi Warrior gave him a small smile, “I’m looking forward to it. The name’s Aki.”

“Lieutenant Jee, but call me Jee.”

“Still in the Navy?” She cocked her head but the tone was a little more chilly, and Jee smiled wider.

“No. It’s just a title that stuck with me.” The Kyoshi Warrior relaxed some more and she had more spring in her step.

---

Prince Iroh did indeed have some Oolong for Aki to drink. After Jee made his report that Captain Zuko was safe, both said their goodnights to the kindly old man before making their way back to the inn.

“I’m going to stand guard right outside this door. I have a duty to make sure our Captain is safe,” he told her, and she smiled again.

“Then I’ll stand guard with you,” she announced simply, standing on the other side of the door frame that led to a sleeping pile of children and a Kyoshi Warrior already standing guard.

Jee had to admit that the kid probably felt safe with them in the room, though Agni only knows why when the kids had kidnapped him before. With two Kyoshi Warriors, a firebending Lieutenant, two water tribe siblings, and the Avatar, Prince Zuko was probably the safest he could be right at that moment.

Jee moved to settle down in his guarding position, his armor’s creaking getting him a side-eye from the young warrior next to him. He sighed, and prepared himself to lose another night of sleep.

Chapter Text

Zuko felt incredibly warm and comfortable. He was in deep sleep, so deep he felt nothing and floaty at the same time. But even now, the sun was starting to tickle against his senses. Urging his natural inclination as a firebender to wake up with the sun.

Zuko didn’t want to leave this dark warm comfort, the feeling of utter safety that he hadn't felt in years. He didn't want to answer Agni's call.

He snuggled deeper into sleep.

His pillow snuggled back.

There were several stifled giggles.

Golden eyes snapped open and he tensed. He looked slightly down and saw that he had been snuggling with the water tribe warrior. His first instinct was to yelp and launch himself away but he stopped himself in time – the other boy was still deeply asleep even at this hour of the morning. He was snoring, drool trailing down on his cheek onto the sleeve of Zuko’s left arm.

Zuko made a disgusted face at that. Seriously? Getting soaked by the Avatar's bison wasn't enough of a slobbery punishment? Now he has to contend with sleepy human spit?

He heard another round of hushed giggles and he looked over the water tribe boy to see the source: the Avatar and the Kyoshi Warrior, sitting on the mat, looking at him with amusement.

Zuko scowled at them, blushing pink.

“Morning Zuko!” Aang greeted with a hushed tone, taking care to not wake the siblings. “Did you know that you make a good heater?”

The pink on his cheek burned darker, and the Prince started to gently lift Sokka's head with his right hand to try to wiggle his way out. But then another blue arm plopped on his midsection. Katara was behind him, wriggling further onto to him with a murmur of “Stop moving heater”. As soon as she had him trapped, she went back to sleep.

Suki's tired smile grew wider. “I don't know what is it about firebenders – and you are a firebender, don't deny it,” she interrupted when he opened his mouth, “but I can see the allure of snuggling up to someone who always runs hot. Especially on a cold night.”

Zuko bared his teeth at her like some feral being, but it had no heat behind it. Her smile widened and Aang giggled some more, hand covering his mouth to muffle it.

Zuko stealthily wiggled his way out of the water tribe siblings’ iron hold. Once he was free, he stood up and tried to sneak out of the door, glaring at the other two to keep quiet as he slowly and quietly opened it. But both of them had a strange, puzzled-sad look on their faces, like they didn't want Zuko to leave them and they didn't know why.

Zuko hastened his escape attempt before they decided to act on that feeling, or perhaps before it tempted him. With just as much care as in opening the door, he closed it behind him. Then he turned to leave.

And nearly tripped over a sleeping Jee, leaning on the wall beside the door, arms crossed, legs sticking out into the corridor.

His foot hovered in indecision – should he wake his Lieutenant or not? – but the other Kyoshi Warrior cleared her throat, deciding that for him. Jee jolted awake with a murmur of “Ami?” and saw his Prince hovering awkwardly over him.

With a start, he jumped to his feet and cleared his throat. “Back to the ship, P– Captain Zuko?”

Zuko placed a finger on his mouth to indicate silence because he really wanted to use this time to escape while he could. The looks on Aang and Suki's face didn't bode well for letting him leave without resorting to even more bribery trades.

Not that Kyoshi's letters to Rangi meant much to him. They were literally just love letters with a smattering of tactical discussions.

Speaking of…

Zuko turned to the other Warrior, who was looking at them with interest. “I have a couple things I promised Suki. Can you follow me so I can give them to you for you to give to her?"

Ami quirked a brow but sighed and shrugged, nodding in acquiescence.

Zuko nodded and walked off, doing his best to be as silent as possible.

Somehow this sneaking off felt like it would end up in a failure.

And his gut feeling was right.

Zuko's brow twitched at the scene in front of him on the deck of the Wani. Aang was talking animatedly to his Uncle, who was serving tea to both Katara and Sokka, who looked like they had been abruptly dragged out of their deep sleep. Suki was sipping on her own steaming tea, somehow looking entirely prim and proper while exuding a smug and amused aura, intentionally ignoring Zuko's shocked and angry face.

The Warrior besides him opened her fan to hide her smile and Jee only sighed.

---

“How did you –?!”

Zuko looked ready to start yelling again and Aang didn't even feel guilty this time. He was really feeling like he should not let Zuko go. Or at least see what else Zuko would trade for his ‘freedom’. It had started with Zuko trading his freedom to Katara, but now he thought he could turn it into a game.

“Your Uncle can make some of the best tea out there! Actually, there is this tea that Monk Gyasto used to make with his fruit tart –” Aang started, and was about to get more animated with his story when he was interrupted by Zuko.

“I'll give you the scroll for the Southern Air Temple pastry recipe and a bison comb if you all just leave this island as quick as you can and leave me behind.” The tone Zuko used was blunt, with a small hint of wary desperation.

Aang blinked and there was a bolt of grief at remembering the fruit tarts Monk Gyasto used to make and then promptly use as prank material. He hadn't even eaten them in months before he ran away.

When the silence stretched longer than was comfortable, when both Sokka and Katara blearily blinked awake with more concerned alertness, Zuko started blushing and fidgeting in discomfort.

The possible Prince sighed with a pinched look on his face and he opened his mouth. “Look, I'm sorr–”

“I'll take it.” Aang smiled, though the smile was a little tumultuous but it was a genuine smile.

Zuko nodded sharply and started walking towards the door to enter inside the ship. There was a muffled barking of, “Get some sleep Lieutenant!”

The second Kyoshi Warrior nodded at Suki, “I was here to help him deliver something for you, but since you are here, I will take my leave.”

"Thank you Ami. Get some rest, I know you did not sleep at all last night.” Suki smiled over her cup of tea, which… Aang was not kidding when he said that Uncle's tea was one of the best he had ever had.

"If you would also do the same for yourself,” Ami replied dryly, and Suki titled her head in agreement. Ami nodded and took her leave, walking down the gangplank towards the residential area of the island. The market was just starting to wake up again, with more and more people milling about with the rising sun.

It was hilarious to see Zuko's angry face once he realized that Aang and Suki beat him there with plenty of time to quickly greet Uncle and get started on drinking his tea. Appa was a huge help with the speedy travel.

Sokka yawned and drank some more tea to help him wake up. “So, what's with Angry Salt-Lick?”

Uncle's jolly serene face twitched a bit, like he wanted to laugh loudly. “Salt-Lick?”

“Yeah, animals love to lick a block of salt and it's great to use as bait when you're hunting. Appa licked him for eight hours. Ergo, Zuko is Salt-Lick.” Suki ducked her head at Sokka's answer to hide her smile behind her cup of tea. Aang looked at him like he was being a hypocrite. Barring Suki, they all had been held under Appa and licked for several hours.

Sokka met his gaze with a challenging look and Aang had to give it to him. It was nowhere close to the eight straight hours that Zuko had suffered from.

Suki escaped with the lightest licking. Really, just a lick or two.

Sokka smiled a smile that said See? I'm right.

"You would need to explain your question to me, young Sokka. There are many things that go on with my nephew.”

"Why did he just tell us to leave this island?” Katara’s brain had finally decided to boot up with the caffeine in the tea that was provided.

Aang frowned at that. He too was curious as to why Zuko was so particularly eager to get them to leave.

Uncle sighed, his jolly expression dropping to a grimmer look, staring straight at Aang. “You must understand this: There is a particularly vicious Commander of the Fire Nation Navy after you now. He held our ship back when we needed to do repairs.”

Aang smiled sheepishly. Appa had had a hand in damaging their ship, and the look Uncle sent his way showed a brief You're forgiven before he continued, “And interrogated our crew without our knowledge. Someone spoke of you. Zuko did what he had to do at his own risk to keep the Commander's attention off of you.”

Aang's eyes widened while Suki's sharpened. “‘At his own risk?’ What do you mean by that?”

Uncle Iroh sighed, frowning severely. “I mean that his plan to keep Commander Zhao's attention off of the young Airbender might have worked a little too well for my comfort, instead placing Zuko in even more danger.”

Now Sokka and Katara's eyes widened. “What did he do?” Sokka breathed.

"He challenged him to a duel and won, then stripped him of his pride,” Uncle answered. “By cutting off his topknot.”

Aang winced.

There was a time when he and Kuzon were discussing idle things when it turned into hair. Kuzon asked Aang why he had his hair shorn off all the time, not allowing any hair to grow in. Aang had explained that having his hair shaved was a sign of devotion to his Air Nomad roots, to his religion. It was a sign of simplicity and detachment from materialism and materialistic possessions.

In turn, Kuzon said that in the Fire Nation, having their hair unaltered means that they show honor to their parents and to their nation. Long hair shows loyalty to their parents and hair in the topknot shows honor to their nation. Having the hair cut off by another party is an extreme punishment not taken lightly.

"Some would rather commit suicide than bare the shame,” Kuzon had once said solemnly under the stars where they hung out. “Honor means a lot in our Nation. When we make promises with our Honor, we do everything we can to hold that. So when one person has their topknot shorn off, it’s because the shearer has been wronged and the shorn has committed a grave sin that means they have to have their Honor taken away.”

"What did Commander Zhao do?” Aang breathed, and Uncle looked surprised to see that Aang understood the significance of cutting off another person's topknot.

Before he could answer, however, Zuko came back to the deck with an angry stomping sound and thrust a small bag to Suki and a scroll with a wrapped parcel to Aang. “Here. Now get off my ship and leave already!”

“Nephew, show a little more respect,” Uncle admonished mildly. Zuko twisted his face and turned to the bemused group.

“Avatar Aang, it would do me a great honor if you would get off my ship and leave already.” Zuko bowed, then after a beat, he tacked on, “Please.”

Sokka snorted, “I still got more –”

"Okay,” Aang agreed reluctantly. Sokka spluttered indignantly. “Come on guys. We need to leave anyway."

Appa was not going to be happy about this, Aang could just tell.

---

Everyone was treated to the amusing and slightly concerning sight of Appa pitching an almighty fit about leaving Zuko and, to the surprise of some, Suki. The bison was calmed down eventually with a few chittering words from Momo and gentle urging from Aang, and the group finally left.

But Iroh saw a dark promise in Sokka. He had a feeling that his nephew would need to make a trade with Sokka to get out of that interrogation.

"So. Do you make it a habit in trading valuable objects with everyone?” Suki asked, and Zuko glowered.

"No. It was just Katara, you, and Aang.”

A glance showed Iroh that Suki was curious. It looked like she was no longer suspicious of him, but she still needed answers on a few things. “What did you trade with Katara?”

"A couple of waterbending scrolls I have.”

Suki hummed to herself before she smirked. “I think you could get Sokka if you trade something to do with weapons. Some training, perhaps?” she offered.

Off to the side, shopping while discreetly eavesdropping on them, Iroh had to marvel at the ease that they were talking to each other. He had to wonder how they became friends overnight, to the point where there was no hostility underlining their tone.

And with Suki’s unvoiced seal of approval of Zuko, the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors backed off from their intense surveillance on the crew of Wani. If Iroh had to be honest, it made the rest of the crew breathe a sigh of relief. It had been an intense few days for all of them.

And, Iroh mused to himself, picking out some more parcels of tea, he didn’t think that Suki or Zuko even realized it. It was interesting: the more he looked, the more he realized that there was a… bond between them.

A near-physical, metaphysical bond. A spiritual bond.

He squinted his eyes a little harder at Zuko, trying to see the other bonds. It was hard. He couldn’t really see them yet, but each day it got easier and easier.

And he realized, with a slow dawning comprehension, that the Winter Solstice was nearing. In just a few short weeks, the boundary between the Spirit World and the Material World would be at its thinnest.

Iroh shook his head with a thoughtful frown. What this could mean, he didn't know, but he has a feeling that the bonds that are attached to Zuko could only mean positive things for the boy.

Perhaps, Iroh hummed to himself, it was time to play Pai Sho with the head man of this island.

---

“I have some questions about why you’re so determined to get Aang to leave.” Suki finally dropped the question that Zuko was waiting for her to ask but was hoping that she wouldn’t. “And who you really are. You said some things last night from your sleep deprived state. I have some concerns, and you promised me some answers."

Zuko honestly didn’t remember half of the things he said the night before. He was lucky he had remembered about the trade.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “What did I promise to tell you?”

“About how you were going to depose your father, overthrow him from the Throne?”

"Wh-what? Monkey feathers!” Zuko cursed, grabbing his face and groaned loudly in his hands. Suki had taken a gamble, relying on him not remembering exactly what he’d said, and his panicked reaction confirmed her suspicions.

Suki breathed out a wow before she got a hold of herself. Then she smiled sharply and leaned in close to him, causing him to lean backwards with wariness. “Okay, Prince Zuko, tell me your plan, and I might just help you.”

---

“So your plan is to gather allies, both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom.”

“Water tribe as well if I can, both Southern and Northern.”

Suki gave him a bland look that, with her makeup, she knew made her look like she wanted to smack him. Of course she didn’t, but she knew the effect of her makeup. It made her fierce and she was well aware of it. When Zuko scowled at her in challenge, she continued.

“The Southern Water Tribe are on their ships everywhere, actively killing and sabotaging any Fire Nation Naval ships they come across. Only their contacts in the Earth Kingdom Army know where they are at any given time. Maybe. And the Northerners have been closed off for at least eighty years and they are worse than we are about greeting strangers. How are you going to contact either of them without being killed?”

The Prince swallowed. “I’ll figure that out. Somehow.”

“...I’m starting to feel a little concerned for you. You know that, right?"

“I can handle myself!” Zuko snapped defensively. Momo chittered sleepily from the corner of the room at his tone before curling up into a tighter ball and going back to sleep again.

“So your plan is to gather allies; Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribes, right? Zuko, I need a better plan than ‘I’ll figure that out. Somehow.’ This is a dangerous game you are playing. I would like to help you but I can’t do that with only vague” – she waggled her fingers to indicate a quote – “‘I’ll figure that out’.”

“Why did you decide you want to help me? Why did you volunteer your Kyoshi Warriors to help?” he pressed back, hackles rising with defense.

“I haven’t volunteered yet. I only said I would like to help you. You need to convince me. So.” She raised her hands to the side in clear invitation. “Convince me.

Zuko stared at her, and she sighed. “Look. The reason I even considered helping you instead of remaining neutral in this war is that there is a literal Prince of the Fire Nation sitting right in front of me and he wants to overthrow his father from the Throne and end the war. That’s a lot more than what all of us had in a hundred years. And coming along with the Avatar’s return…” She paused, staring at him with intent then continued with a softer tone, “And for some unfathomable reason, I trust you."

Zuko looked away, thinking hard. That presented his scar to her, and she frowned, remembering what he revealed to them last night.

His own father did that.

Not even the Royal Children were safe from their Firelord’s cruelty. She wanted to ask him exactly how he got that scar but she refrained. Now was not the time.

She also knew that him showing her his scarred side was some measure of unspoken trust. She knew he was blind on the left side: his left eyelid was twisted half-shut and the eye itself was clouded pale yellow, while the right eye was a sharp crisp golden hue that tracked everything with unerring accuracy.

She wondered if he was deaf on that side, too.

A quick look of the mangled ear suggested that that was a strong possibility.

It seemed like Zuko came to a decision. He looked back at her, anxious but with firm resolve in his eyes as they met her calm blue. “Yeah…” he started slowly, “I feel this… trust, too.”

He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “What do you know about the Golden Firebender?"

She frowned. “Nothing much, just occasional gossip of sightings from when the merchant comes to the harbor to trade.” And she blinked as a thought just came to her, “Oh! And a really high bounty from both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom for his capture, alive. And he’s masked up as the Blue Spirit?”

“I’m the Blue Spirit,” he said and she blinked, nonplussed, “and I can wield the Golden Fire.”

“Okay?”

“The Earth Kingdom Army wanted my capture alive because they know I’m the Blue Spirit – the one who’s been liberating their captured soldiers, and saving small Earth Kingdom towns from Fire soldiers, bandits, and slavers."

He paused for a second, trying to find the words on why this was connected to gathering allies. Suki had a feeling she already knew.

Finally he continued, “I broke into some of their strongholds after their orders for my capture. There was talk about wanting to use me for their war effort against my people.” He huffed in clear disgust. “They think I'm against my nation.”

“Aren’t you?” she asked intently, and he reared back in surprise.

“Wha–?”

“Are you, Prince Zuko, against your nation?”

“No!” He yelped, appalled and angry that she would dare ask that. She glared at him.

“Your people have done horrendous things. Burned villages down. Burned crops and inducing famine. There is evidence of war children everywhere,” she pressed with a hard tone, her eyes never leaving his. “Entire cultures are dying out. An entire civilization of Air Nomads – gone.”

He bore her harsh accusation with a tense posture, gritting his teeth the entire time. Then he snapped, unable to take more of her verbal lashing without fighting back, “YES! I know! But I will not turn my back on my people! We're hurting from this war, too! Yes, my family, my ancestors did all of that, but most soldiers are conscripts! They are young soldiers, no older than sixteen! And they are forced from their homes or risk facing criminal charges or death from the top!” He let out a shuddering gasp. “At least I tried for my people! I spoke out against a cruel plan to use a regiment of new recruits as bait – a wholesale slaughter! – and I got” – he gestured wildly at his face – “this!

She leant back, wide eyed, allowing him to spit his fervent speech. It seemed like he had needed to scream all this for a long while. And he wasn't done. “So yes! It was my family that did that, but I'm never against my nation!"

He stopped, breathing heavily and face flushed with righteous fury, and she was still stuck on the fact that his father burned him for being a decent human being with compassion for his people. “I’m against my father who is continuing this cycle. Just him. And the rest of the top brass and nobility that have supported him and benefited from this war."

“Okay, I can see how you could possibly gain an alliance with the Earth Kingdom. You'll need political maneuvering with them though.” Suki nodded in confirmation as she spoke, getting back to the previous topic. “But how do you plan to get an alliance with the Fire Nation and Water Tribes?"

He took several more breaths and continued in a more subdued tone. “The Fire Nation one is already happening, I think. There’s a reason why my father put out such a large bounty on me and it’s because being a Golden Firebender is backed by a legend that is thousands of years old. It was supposed to be literally the sign of Agni’s Blessing and…” he hesitated, and finished sourly, “...our first ever Firelord was a Golden Firebender."

“...Oh,” she said simply, and hunched forward to think. “So I’m guessing the Firelord doesn’t know you’re the legend?"

“No. If he knew, he would kill me. So would the other Ozai-Loyalists. Which is why I’m trusting you to keep this a secret,” he said seriously, and she nodded. She was not too keen on letting their only good Fire Nation Royal get killed before they could end the war.

“So being the Golden Firebender will be your key to getting the Water Tribes’ alliance?” she asked.

He scratched his head in agitation. “That, I still have no idea about. The Southern, maybe, since they are working with Earth, so if I have Earth then I may have the Southern. But the Northern… I don't know.”

She sighed.

Honestly, she didn’t know why she was surprised that he had a lot planned already. For some reason she had a feeling that he was incredibly brilliant, but usually more impulsive, making plans ‘in the moment’ rather than in the long term. But here he was, with the beginnings of a full campaign.

And there was a tiny little voice at the back of her head that said He changed. When did that happen?

“It’s better than nothing,” she said softly, then continued, louder, “Alright. I'll help you. My Kyoshi Warriors and I will go to the Earth Kingdom and spread some propaganda about the Blue Spirit's intentions."

She paused, looking at him, “I’m guessing that's what you want since you don't want to connect the Blue Spirit to Zuko just yet?” At his nod she went on, “I’ll need to speak with Oyaji before my Warriors and I can leave, but we’ll leave with you until we can get to the mainland.”

Zuko nodded again. “I’ll drop you off at Chin Village. It’s the nearest land–”

“No.”

“Bu–”

“No. Anywhere but Chin Village. I’ll even take a village overrun with Fire Nation soldiers rather than step one foot in that village.” Suki was firm. Zuko… blinked at her, incredulous.

“Are you serious?”

“As serious as you committing treason against your father,” she replied, crossing her arms at him.

Wisely, Zuko didn’t ask. “I'll alert my crew about the supernumeraries. You’ll be added to the roster for a short while until we figure out where to drop you off at where you can get started. Lieutenant Jee and Uncle will need to speak to you as well with further planning.”

Without further comment, they went their separate ways.

---

It was later that afternoon that trouble arrived in the form of a single, large Fire Nation Naval battleship. It was two, maybe three, times the size of the Wani, dwarfing the tiny little clunker when it smashed into the wooden pier and the gangplank lowered onto the harbor wall with a thunderous crash.

The sentries stationed at the harbor were warned of potential trouble had seen the large ship while it was still far off, and the Kyoshi Warriors were ready.

Zuko was ready.

Or – she tensed as the man on top of the grunting komodo rhino smiled viciously at Zuko with a glint of dark sadism in his burnt copper eyes – Zuko thought he was ready.

The man had shorn hair, cut close to his scalp in an effort to groom his hair.

She held her fans ready, some of her Warriors taking a stance at her side. “What business do you have with Kyoshi Island? We are neutral in this war.”

“I'm looking for someone,” the man replied, staring intently at Zuko with that same predatory smile that screamed a promise of pain. Her muscles wound up tighter at that smile. She felt a little protective of Zuko because the man was honestly ringing every alarm bell in her head and she felt the need to keep him away from him.

“I told you already.” Zuko walked up from his ship's dock and glared hotly, his hands clenched behind his back to keep his reaction to a minimum, “The Avatar is mine to hunt.”

Oh she wanted so badly to look at him in shock. This would have been useful information to know.

Taking a split second gamble, she chose to remain in her ready position and not look at Zuko.

But she must have not hidden her reaction well enough since Commander Zhao's smile morphed into a smoother one, sly and cunning, “Oh, did I say I was looking for the Avatar? I did not. It is nice to know that our Banished Prince,” he sneered bitterly at the term, “is hard at work to catch the Avatar so he can go home.”

The Commander dismounted smoothly from his komodo rhino and stalked up to Zuko, looming over him. “No. Since your action in the Agni Kai took my honor away, I have been… instructed to return to my previous role.”

"I haven't taken away your honor. You had none to begin with.” The Commander reared back like he had been physically slapped, and his stunned look swiftly changed to an incensed scowl, like he wanted to strike him. Some of the soldiers behind the apoplectic Commander started shaking minutely. One even had a shuddering breath like they were trying not to giggle.

And Suki had to hand it to Zuko, that comment must have stung, for it was a good one to get the man angry enough to pay more attention to him. She was starting to get the feeling that Zuko didn't operate on easy level in any sense of the word. It was full tilt, sprinting towards danger, ever since he was born.

She suddenly felt more empathy for Uncle.

Luckily for the Commander, he managed to hold himself back from that unwise action while Suki and her Warriors were watching his every move. He took a few deep breaths and continued. “I have been tasked to find the Golden Firebender.”

She saw Zuko's fist behind his back twitch in nervousness, and she spoke up. “We have not seen any firebending here in several years.”

The Commander did not even look away from Zuko, staring intently into his face as if he was trying to find something. Anything. His right hand smoked in idle threat, but Zuko remained firm, staring right back at him without flinching.

Softly, he spoke, and she had to strain her ears to understand what he was saying. “It's funny how you have not used your own fire, Prince Zuko. Not once during our Agni Kai.”

Zuko’s fist went white, he was clenching it so hard, and she wouldn't have been surprised if the nails were biting into the flesh. “You heard her, Zhao. They haven't seen any firebending, much less a gold colored flame. Now leave.”

Zhao's eyes narrowed at the wording and she didn't like that.

"I would do as your Prince has commanded, Commander Zhao, and leave,” a normally jovial voice cut in with a hard tone, and Iroh walked sedately into the tense standoff with a severe look on his face. Lieutenant Jee was with him, eyeing the rest of the soldiers on their own komodo rhinos waiting behind Zhao.

Zhao sneered but bowed low to both Iroh and Zuko. But his bow to Zuko looked more like a mockery: it was just a touch more sloppy, and he held Zuko’s eye in challenge.

Zuko did not say anything about it. He just stared at Zhao with a watchful eye, not trusting him enough to turn his back on him.

Zhao stood up and walked away, barking orders to get back to the ship and leave.

Once the ship was only a speck in the distance, Suki finally spoke.

“Hunting the Avatar.” It wasn't really a question.

Zuko grunted and shot her a slightly sheepish look while he took off the tie that held his hair up in his Phoenix plume. He looked down at the tie in his hands, not daring to meet her eyes, as he explained, “After my father… burned me, he banished me with a task: find the Avatar and bring him to the Fire Nation in order to restore my honor and come home.”

She waited. Waited to see if he would add more.

The waiting paid off, “I will not. He’s a kid. I'll just have to do this myself, stop the war. And to do that I need to stop my father.”

She smiled, but it felt like there was more to the story, something he wasn’t saying. But she could get more answers out of him later. “Well, let’s get started by actually leaving this island.”

Zuko looked at her with an expression of open relief.

---

Suki took the time on the Wani to pay off her sleep debt along with Zuko, since his was worse. She found out that when he said he hadn’t slept for three days, he hadn’t been kidding.

When the reason he’d accrued such a large debt came to light during the voyage to the nearest port that wasn’t Chin Village, somewhere along the Western part of Earth Kingdom, she was shocked.

Lies, subterfuge, attempted assassination… all because the Firelord didn't want him to come home. Jee explained it all one day while she and her Warriors were eating their dinner in the mess. Zuko had left for his bed the moment the sun started sinking below the horizon.

The Lieutenant looked stern as they talked about the Wani's plans to spread the word that Prince Zuko is still Heir To the Throne as the Kyoshi Warriors spread the word that the Blue Spirit is against the war in the Earth Kingdom and that he has the backing of the Kyoshi Warriors.

And, Iroh interjected, the Fire Nation was a barrel of blasting jelly, ready to go off at any hint of a spark. There was talk that the Blue Spirit, known more to the citizens of Fire as the Golden Firebender, was aiming for the Throne.

She wondered where he was getting his information about his home country. He had been sailing for three years.

Perhaps it was an old people thing. Maybe from playing Pai Sho? Oyaji had seemed a little quick to agree that most of the Kyoshi Warriors should go out and implement the plan of spreading chaos for the sole purpose of stopping this war, after he’d played several games with Iroh.

Oyaji and Suki both agreed that, one way or another, Kyoshi Island was not going to be able to remain neutral for much longer. Either because the war would come knocking on their door with a fiery fist, or because Suki herself wouldn't be able to stand by and allow their one good Fire Nation Royal to fall, guaranteeing that the war would continue.

In fact, as soon as she had that thought, she recoiled from it in horror, because she felt inexplicably close to Zuko. Like they were old friends, long missed, instead of just meeting each other for the first time less than a few days ago.

Surprisingly, it didn't bother her as much as it should have. The other Warriors gave her a side eye for that but none of them said anything about it. Instead they collectively shrugged, and then proceeded to help around the small ship.

And help they did. They were all of them quickly put to work to earn their passage: chopping vegetables, painting endless swathes of deck in thick grey paint, chipping rust off twisted metal cables, holding broken ladders up to walls to be welded back on. There were so many things to do that she wondered how this crew managed when they didn’t have a supplement of willing volunteers. And because none of them actually knew how to operate a ship like this, even with all her girls working, it was clear that the ship was still woefully understaffed.

It was the little things.

Like the guy she saw tying a new cable into the trebuchet in the afternoon was the same one who’d yelled at her to ‘Get the hell out of here!’ when she’d curiously opened the hatch to the engine room that morning.

Or a woman who manned the wheel in the evening was helping out with the animals in the morning.

They were always moving, always busy with something. With the exception of Iroh, who did due diligence playing pai sho and serving tea to everyone who walked by, there was not a single person ever lazing about on the ship. Even Zuko – especially Zuko, who as the Prince could surely get away with as much lazing about as Iroh, was constantly in motion. One hour he would be sparring, the next he would be helping to oil hinges, muck out animal pens, or mend lanterns. Not even a (half-hearted, to be fair) attempt from Iroh to get him to relax could slow Zuko down.

“Who's Brat?” Suki asked on the second day of traveling, looking at the work roster pinned to the wall in the mess hall. She was proud to see her girls listed up there with all the crew, but that one name confused her.

Zuko, quickly eating his breakfast stir fry, blushed and scowled over at Chie, who was eating just as quickly two tables over with Suki’s girls Umi and Aka, who had latched on to her when she’d started talking about hunting antelope-hares.

He swallowed. “Just… a nickname that Chie and Kai started." And he yelled across the room, “I told you to stop naming me that!”

“No can do, Your Brattiness!” she yelled back, just as loudly, to Umi's apparent shock.

A tall man with a wild, fierce face in the other corner of the room started laughing at her words and Zuko slammed his fist on the table with a fierce scowl, slurping up the last bits of his noodles and immediately launching himself over the table to start an impromptu spar in the middle of the mess with both of them.

When the spar moved outside to the deck above, Suki and Ami exchanged bemused looks.

But ultimately she got her answer when she finally caught Zuko in the boiler room and asked him just why he was always working.

“Everyone has a job to do,” he said shortly, dipping his cup again into the bucket of drinking water she’d brought from the distillery. He was stripped to the waist and sweating hard. “We are just” – he took a big gulp – “short-handed.” He wiped his hand over his face, smearing soot and sweat over it, and returned to shovelling coal into the firebox. “You shouldn’t stay in here,” he added. “Especially dressed in” – he waved a sooty hand at her heavy wool under-robe – “that.”

He was right. The air in the boiler room was sweltering even for a firebender, hotter even than the distillery room she’d just come from, and Suki had been wilting there, even with most of her layers stripped off. She picked up the previous, empty, bucket and left the room before she suffered a stroke. The cool air in the passageway outside was a wave of relief.

Zuko was not an engineer, but he could work things out in a pinch. He cooked relatively well. He could navigate, plot a course, and steer the ship when needed. He took great delight in taking care of the animals, and the animals just adored him. One ostrich horse in particular got jealous when any animal received more attention from him than she deemed appropriate – with the exception of the lemur. Mina and Momo seemed to have agreed to share custody of Zuko, with Momo getting 100% of the custody.

It looked like they were short on money too, though she tactfully didn’t ask. She heard stories from Chie and others about hunting trips ashore for big game to stock the larder. Kaori told her, one time when they were bunked down on the mix of mismatched mats and mattresses in the room they’d been given to share, that the crew had the technique of smoking to cure their meat down to an art form. And from what they were saying, their dockside purchases tended to be limited to water, fresh and preserved produce, and spices.

Oh did they love their spices.

And the real kicker to that?

It wasn’t spicy enough, according to Zuko.

No condiments of the Earth Kingdom could match up to the craving of the Fire Nation natives for spice that could burn your nose hairs off. Suki was horrified to discover that she had eaten the mild version of Fire Spice.

And there was no mentioning the Water Tribes. The only flavoring they had was more of a preservative – salt.

There was good-natured ribbing on the ship when her Warriors all subtly tried – and failed – to hide their coughing and tears. Laughter and hollering followed them but, after powering through the burn on her tongue, she found that the food was rich in flavor different from her culture’s fusion of South Earth Kingdom and Southern Water Tribe cuisine.

When their voyage ended at a sheltered bay close to a small mining town, where they left on a small steamer boat, Suki and her Warriors all agreed that they would miss Zuko and his crew.

---

Suki would have laughed if she didn't need to be quiet.

When she’d said that she would prefer to be dropped off in a place overrun with Fire Nation soldiers rather than take a single step into Chin Village, she meant that.

She still stood by her decision, because Chin Village was a horrible place, but somehow, she knew, she needed to learn not to tempt the spirits.

She looked at Zuko, who was wearing his Blue Spirit mask and carrying his dao swords.

Once they’d realized that this sleepy little mining town was under the control of the Fire Nation, who’d sent all of their Earthbenders to an coal rig out in the middle of the ocean, Zuko had disembarked, and ordered his ship to sail on to the next port of interest, only taking out Mina and tying her to a tree somewhere out of sight so Zuko could use her to reach the rendezvous point later.

Jee had highly disliked leaving Zuko behind, but he did not have the skills for stealth that Zuko did. Instead, he looked at Suki and ordered her, “Take care of our Prince.”

She had nodded solemnly in promise.

“Okay, we will drive out the soldiers from this town.” Zuko spoke, shifting his mask up over his head, and the Warriors crowded around him in a circle. An oily soot-stained Momo hung half out of the bag tightly strapped around Zuko’s waist and torso. “And this is how we can do it…”

After a few moments, all of the girls leaned back and smirked at each other with sharp grins.

Chapter Text

Jade sighed, anxiously pacing in her room. She was close to tears, muttering under her breath and trying not to outright bawl.

Her son was gone.

Her husband had been gone from her life for years.

Five years since her little town had been taken by Fire Nation. Five years since her husband had been taken prisoner.

Being without her husband was not the only hardship she and her town had endured. They had been taxed to near destitution. She’d made only just enough money to feed herself and her son, and that was with tight budgeting. And without Tyro, there was one less source of income to feed their little family.

It was hard, without Tyro being there as a great pillar of support, firm and calm.

She also worried about her son. She’d ordered him not to earthbend, but she knew that that was a fool's hope. She couldn't prove it, but she had a feeling that Haru had been practicing behind her back. And now her son had been taken away by firebenders.

They had stormed into her shop, led by an old man with few teeth.

(She would always remember that old man with seething fury, selling out her kid after he had saved him from a mine collapse. The honorless gall for throwing the life debt he owed at Haru's face. She would make sure that the old man was no longer welcomed into their little mining town.)

One really cannot prevent a bender from using their elements without some physical, psychological, and spiritual harm.

They took her son to the coal rig and she had no hope of ever getting her son back herself.

She also had no faith that a group of three children would get her son back, no matter if one of them was an airbender. Not against what felt like a small army of fire-wielding soldiers.

Jade dropped her face down into her hands, with only a single candle illuminating the room she was in, wallowing in her tears, her fears running rampant at the idea that she would most likely never see her son again.

But the hope remained, a stubborn thing. Tiny, just like the single candle right next to her.

She looked up and sighed, not really focusing on anything, and then saw a flash of golden light.

Like a flicker of the sun.

Then it came again and again.

Then shouting and a single solitary scream that abruptly cut off.

A cold chill traveled down Jade’s spine and she discreetly shut the blinds to her window. It was best that she didn’t get involved in that.

---

They started off really well. The Kyoshi Warriors managed to knock out more than half of the occupying forces in the main town before they were noticed.

Luckily the Fire Nation presence was smaller than what it could have been. They obviously felt confident that they had the town under control with the Earthbenders gone. They were just there to keep order and shake things a little once in a while, enforce colonial taxes and make sure the people knew their place.

With an unspoken signal, they took down the rest of the soldiers with brutal efficiency, Zuko throwing his fire at the surprised men with all the feeling of the righteous anger of a Great Sun Spirit – just to mess with their superstition – with none of the harmful heat.

If Ami and the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors hadn’t been warned of the… empathetic nature of the fire, she would have been caught off guard in feeling emotions in such a very tangible way.

In any case, it worked to their advantage and they took down the rest of the soldiers before they could get their bearings.

Ami did notice something interesting about their resident firebender.

He never talked when wearing the mask. And since he didn’t talk while wearing the mask, Momo also didn’t make a peep.

Momo lithely jumped onto the Blue Spirit and skittered into the side bag and the Blue Spirit motioned for them to follow to the docks.

When they tied up the unconscious soldiers, they were accosted by grateful residents and told that a couple of soldiers just took their last earthbender to the coal rig in the middle of the ocean.

Suki thanked them and told them, on behalf of the Blue Spirit, that they would rescue them along with the rest of the earthbenders.

“You're the Kyoshi Warriors! You’re working for the Blue Spirit?” One asked in awe, a young boy barely out of his tweens and Ami saw Suki pausing at that.

The Blue Spirit shook his head and Suki pursed her lips in contemplation, not looking at the silent teen behind her, still staring at the boy in front of her.

There was a moment of silence before a gleam entered her blue eyes that Ami was all too familiar with. It spoke of scheming that would either be brilliant or get them in trouble.

Like the one time when Suki threw small pouches of dung at the merchant who was a pirate in disguise, humiliating him enough to leave. Suki may present herself as a stoic wall, confident and powerful, but she did have her moments of vicious creativity that were let out every once in a while. Though those moments had not happened in a long time since Suki settled more into her role as the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors.

“Do you have any gold colored fabric, or anything similar, like yellow?” Suki asked and the Blue Spirit twitched like he wanted to look at her but he did not, not willing to act like he didn’t know what was going on in front of strangers.

The mother frowned in confusion but she went inside her shop. She then came back out and handed Suki a slightly faded straw colored fabric.“Keep it, please. It’s the least we can do for what you have done for us.”

Suki nodded, pleased. Then she proceeded to tear off long strips of the fabric and tied the cloth around her wrist guard, leaving a short trail of loose end dangling, just long enough to touch the second knuckle of her pinkie fingers on her right hand.

It took a minute for Ami to realize what Suki was going with this and Ami smiled. To show her support, Ami handed out her hand to Suki and the leader handed her the fabric, which Ami then ripped a piece of fabric for herself and tied it around her right wrist. With this, Suki and Ami were loudly proclaiming their partnership to the Blue Spirit, the rest of the Warriors following suit.

“No,” Suki finally answered, “We’re working together.”

---

The Blue Spirit led the group from the town down to the docks.

“Your lemur can be terrifying in the dark,” Ami commented under her breath, just loud enough for Zuko to hear. He slightly turned his head to face her and, though she couldn’t see his face due to the mask, his body language told her that he was smirking proudly.

Momo tilted his head at Ami and she had to repress a giggle of her own because that was cute… and honestly a little bit terrifying with the solid green reflection off his eyes. She knew it was due to the nightvision, but the large bulbous gleam off the black body made the lemur look like a shadow demon, all spindly-limbed, skittering across the ground.

They hid behind a row of bushes overlooking the dock for several minutes. Ami looked up and saw why they were waiting, most likely trying to think on how to get through the pier. It was guarded by several firebenders in armor, idly chatting with each other to stave off boredom. One, further into the dock, right next to the steam boat, was squinting at the scroll in his hand, trying to read in the relatively dim light under the torch.

“Now seems like a good time as any,” Umi said, and Ami nodded.

The Blue Spirit shifted and all of the girls turned to look at him. He pointed to the air twice, one right next to the other, and then pointed at the two sentries closest to them. Then, holding the finger in place, he traced the air around from the left then straight at the two imaginary dot in the air with his other hand, pointing to Ami and Umi right after. Then he did the same motion to the left but went beyond the two dots, pointing to Suki and Aka.

Then he pointed to himself and traced a direct path to the two dots.

Suki translated haphazardly, “You want Ami and Umi to go from the left and target the two sentries, Aka and me to charge into the ship behind them towards the steam boat, and you will charge directly ahead, startling them while Ami and Umi take them down, going straight to the ones behind the two sentries?”

Blue nodded, and Ami had to wonder if he was really that into character or if he was compartmentalizing to the point he’s two different people.

She was actually a little worried about that. It sounded like a recipe for disaster if he needed to use his fire when he was not wearing his mask. Could he use his own fire outside the mask? In public?

“Come on,” Umi nudged, bringing Ami out of her reverie. She sighed, a little irritated at herself for being lost in thought lately.

They both snuck into place, just beyond the edge of firelight from several torches lining the dock. The left side had a shorter reach into the dark. But it was long enough that the men would react two seeing two Kyoshi Warriors sneaking towards them from the left side.

One spoke and Ami had to strain a little to hear them. “Are you sure we don’t need to be up there? I’m certain I heard a scream.”

“It didn’t sound like a scream. Sounds more like a bird shriek.”

“Like a bird of prey?”

“Yeah.”

There was silence. Then the first, younger looking man turned to the older man, who sighed like he knew the topic wasn’t dropped. “Are you sure we don’t need to be up there? I just have a bad feeling about this.”

The elder of the two sighed again, this time in irritation, “Kiba, look, if there were any problem we would be called. We weren't, so we need to stay here and guard this boat.”

The younger of the two grumbled too lowly for either Ami and Umi to hear, but they both heard the older man scoff, “Kiba, really? It’s not like the Golden Firebender himself will show up here in his spiritual glory, in that blue mask of his, steal this ship to the coal rig, and free all of the earthbenders.”

The younger looked at the older askance and…

Ami and Umi looked at each other in utter delight.

Umi stifled her laughter as Ami moaned breathily into the air like a spirit of the dead trying to contact the living through the Spirit World. That caught the two’s attention, the third beyond them still squinting at the scroll, oblivious to what was happening further in towards land.

The younger hissed at the older, “If something comes out of the dark, turns out to be a spirit, I’m blaming you.”

The older glared, “It won’t be a spirit.”

Umi ducked her head to hold the snort of laughter back and Ami bit her lip before moaning louder with a bit of scraggily sound at the back of her throat.

The two men shifted closer towards each other and the younger pushed the older man, “Well? Go check it out.”

“I outrank you!” the older protested, to which the younger responded like a whip, “Yeah, by one rank.”

The older was about to protest again. But then he looked out to the front where Blue was still hiding in. Momo prowled back and forth just beyond the barrier of the firelight, like the light itself was keeping him back. Both the Kyoshi Warriors grinned widely. A near formless black mass, shifting and undulating in the trick of the dim flickering light, prowled low on the ground. The form moved from left to right and back to left again, the only clear features a pair of reflective green glows from his eyes.

The two men didn’t realize it but they started hugging each other in mute fright.

For the grand finale, Ami let out a low, hoarse cackle and the two men whipped their heads to their right.

The younger squeaked, “Oni!”

That’s when the Blue Spirit burst out of the dark and both men screamed shrilly, causing the third man behind them close to the boat to yelp and throw the scroll into the air. Ami and Umi took their chance to charge straight at the two sentries and knocked them on the wooden dock and their helmet went flying out, allowing Blue to jump over them straight to the third man, Aka and Suki following right at his footstep.

The two sentries were knocked out in short order with a hard thump on their heads with their battle fans.

The third man recovered his wits and threw a fireball right at Blue. The Royal-in-hiding blocked it with a hard swipe of his dao swords and lit it up with his paler fire. Blue ducked under the still extended arm and swung himself behind the soldier, hooking his foot under the other’s feet and jerked forward. The soldier grunted when he very nearly went down into a split and his arm windmilled, trying to keep himself from falling. Suki and Aka continued past them straight into the boat.

Blue twisted, landing on one hand, palms splayed out flat over the half dao sword that clanged onto the wooden pier, and kicked the man on his chest. The man fell on his back with a wheeze. Before he could get his breath back and try to regain his footing, his neck was suddenly pinned in place by two dao blades crossed over him, the pale golden fire exuding a very clear warning to not move if the sharp blade on either side of his neck wasn’t an enough warning already.

Some smacking noise and a yelp came from the steam boat before a head popped out from the ramp and Aka cheerily called, “All clear!”

Ami walked up to Blue and directed a sharp grin to the pinned man on the floor, “We’ll be taking over your ship.”

---

“This is your fault.”

“Kiba.”

“You literally invoked the Great Spirit’s wrath by saying this.”

Kiba…

Word for word.” Ami smirked while Umi giggled as they hauled another bucket full of rocks into the steamer boat and tossed the contents into a large pile in the middle of the deck. Blue didn’t say anything but the tilt of his head suggested he found this just as funny as they did.

“What was it you said? Oh yeah,” Kiba started then cleared his throat to emulate the older man, “‘Kiba, really? It’s not like the Golden Firebender himself will show up here in all his spiritual glory, in that blue mask of his, steal this ship to the coal rig, and free all of the earthbenders.’

This caused the other two bound soldiers to glare at the older man who sighed. All four of them were thoroughly tied, hands behind their back, stripped to their undershirts and pants to preserve modesty and relieved of any weapons or tools for any potential escape. Blue had been more thorough in his frisk for even the tiniest hair pin than the sole female soldier had, for which she glowered at him.

At one point Blue had paused and held out his hand expectantly. The rest of the Kyoshi warriors were bemused when the captain of the steam boat grumbled and spat out a lock pick from between her teeth.

When Blue was satisfied that the Fire Nation Soldiers were at their lowest risk for escape, that’s when they started to stock up on what an earthbender needs. Dirt.

Lots and lots of dirt and rocks.

Aka chucked a bag full of fresh dirt – as much as she could carry at a time – with a grunt towards the pile. “You couldn’t have set that up better even if you tried.”

“We thank you for that opportunity. It will stay with me as a fond memory for the rest of my life.” Umi added in, just to rub it in. Just a little.

Blue gagged them before they could voice their complaints and they finally set out to liberate the earthbenders from their prison.

---

It was the middle of the night.

Almost a whole day since he’d been sent to this rig to spend the rest of his life on. On one hand, it was terrible, facing the possibility of never getting out here, of dying in a labor camp.

On the other hand, it was really nice to see his father again after being taken away years ago.

And if he had a third hand, he would count it right in the middle, with Katara off to the side. Despondent that her passionate speech did nothing to rouse them to revolt against their prison guards.

He looked at her sleeping form and sighed, turning around to turn his back on her. He felt bad, really, but there was no way off the rig. He’d woken up far too early for his taste but he couldn’t help it. He was upset, at her for following him in a fool’s hope of a rescue, at himself for landing himself in this position to get caught in the first place (though he would never regret saving a person), at the Fire Nation for stealing him away, his father, and the rest of the earthbenders.

Sighing, he tossed again and blinked.

Because there was a black creature with wide green eyes right in front of his face, holding a rock in its paws and Katara's wide-eyed look, staring straight at the creature with a glint of familiarity. She quickly looked up at him and held up a finger to her hand for silence.

Haru nodded, utterly confused, but there was a sense of anticipation in the air, his heart thundering in his chest. The creature insistently shoved the rock into his hand and then took off, stopping to look at them as if to say Are you following or not?

Katara grabbed his hand and they both quietly followed the little creature to the edge of the rig, trying to keep their guards from noticing them. They both looked down to see...four Kyoshi Warriors and the Blue Spirit?!

They cheerily waved at the two and Haru can see a rather large pile of dirt and rock in the middle of the small steam boat, making it sink uncomfortably close to the edge of the water – it looked almost like a single pebble more would cause it to sink.

Haru and Katara looked at each other and he noted the ecstatic recognition making her brilliant blue eyes sparkle and she smiled triumphantly, “Now’s your chance, Haru!” She whispered.

Haru tentatively smiled, slow at first, then it gained strength when he realized that, yes, this was his chance and he really did not want to spend the rest of his life doing slave labor in a labor rig.

“Yeah,” he started, gaining the steely determination, “yeah, you’re right, Katara.”

---

It was a quick fight.

Haru climbed down to the steam boat and catapulted the mounds of dirt and rocks into the air while the Kyoshi Warriors and the Blue Spirit climbed up to start the fight.

Katara hollered for the earthbenders to wake up and Fight! Don’t let this chance go to waste!. If the sound of raining dirt and rocks startled them awake, the sound of Katara’s battle cry galvanized them into attacking, if only to keep the kid from getting fried.

They didn’t need to worry though. A waterbender in the middle of the ocean did not need to worry too much about a lack a resources like the earthbenders had before and despite the lack of experience, Katara was incredibly intuitive with her bending. She was milking what little moves she’d learned so far from the scrolls that Zuko had given her, and it made her all that more scarily competent.

The Kyoshi Warriors, nonbenders, were scary in their own right, knocking down the firebenders in the middle of the chaotic battle.

The addition of the Blue Spirit, fighting with his dao swords on fire like pieces of flame directly from the Sun Spirit himself was guiding the swords, devolved the chaotic fight.

When a boomerang, a flying bison, and the Airbender joined the fight out of nowhere, the chaotic fight lost all meaning in the midst of screaming, battle roars, and childish laughter while guards and wardens were blown off the rig.

It was a quick fight.

---

Zuko shook his head while he was looking at his lemur talking to the Bison. Both of the animals gave a confused earthbender an enthusiastic greeting before going on their merry way.

Somehow, both of the animals were radiating smug accomplishment. Come to think of it, it was a little suspicious how quickly Appa and the others showed up as soon as the fight started.

Zuko squinted his eyes at the long haired kid, suspicious.

“Hey Zu- OW!” Sokka yelped when Suki smacked his head and he whined at her, “What was that for?!”

“That’s the Blue Spirit.” Suki answered primly and he pouted, rubbing his arm where she had slugged him.

The Prince was glad that Suki prevented the kid from blurting out his name in public because he was not ready for that. Zuko turned to Suki and Sokka, waving his hand to get their attention.

When he had both of their eyes on him, he pointed to his eyes through the mask, shivered exaggeratedly running his finger down his own back, then pointed to the earthbender. Then he waved his hands side to side with his palms up and his head tilted in a question.

Sokka was confused but then understanding dawned on him a split second after Suki looked at the kid with a suspicious hmm.

“Haru? Are you asking if there is any of that weird connection hoo ha with him?”

Zuko nodded, then sighed in relief and a slight bit of disappointment when Sokka shook his head, “No, there was none of that.”

Zuko nodded to let him know that he understood and then started walking away, hoping to get away before there was another demand for a trade. He didn’t have anything to trade with right now. He sped up a little more and caught Momo’s attention, who then skittered on the ground and crawled up his leg into the side bag.

There was a glint on the ground that caught his eye. Walking up to it, he saw that it was a necklace, the clasp broken and the edges of the fabric frayed. He bent down to pick it up and looked at it, noting the smooth flat stone pendant.

Sodalite? Lapis? He wasn’t too well versed on rocks and minerals. What he did know was that he should return this to Katara. He bit back a groan, shoulders slumping in resignation, and he trudged back to the main group. Aang caught sight of him and he tensed when Aang opened his mouth. Don't say my name! he mentally pleaded.

Luckily Sokka nudged Aang and with a quick exchange Aang changed his greeting, “Blue! Good to see you again!”

Sokka must have updated him on what name he wished to be called by.

Haru ambled towards the group with his father, “You know each other?” And looked at each other with curiosity and no small bit of awe and jealousy.

Sokka noted the jealousy and smirked, “Oh yeah! We’re really good friends.” He swung his arm around Zuko’s shoulders and Zuko sharply poked Sokka’s side. Sokka let out a strangled yip and jumped away.

Oh…?

Zuko let out an evil grin behind his mask at this precious new information – Sokka was ticklish.

“That sounds great!” Haru inadvertently interrupted, “I’ve been hearing so much about you Blue Spirit! Thank you for coming to save us!” Katara frowned severely at that, utterly unimpressed with being unacknowledged but the smile was then directed to her, earnestly, “Thank you for inspiring us to take a stand.”

"Oh!" Katara blushed and ducked her head a little, pleased as she habitually reached to touch her necklace. The smile dropped as panic crossed her feature, “My mother’s necklace!”

Before she could turn her head to frantically look around for her lost necklace, Zuko nearly shoved the necklace right in front of her face, causing her to go crossed eyed. She reflexively snatched it, and he turned on his heels and stormed out, passing Appa with a wave and a wide berth.

“Wait!” Zuko cringed when he heard her voice, “We can give you a ride back to the mainland,” Katara finished, running up behind him and standing in front of him with a peace offering, “Just a ride.” We’re not going to kidnap you, she didn’t say, her earnest face open and just a slight bit pleading.

Zuko looked at her and found himself believing her. He then turned to look at Sokka who looked at him with Come on, come with us!

Aang had a pleading look on his face, the begging turtleduckling look absolutely crushing Zuko’s resolve.

To avoid giving in, he looked away and straight into Appa’s soulful brown eyes who ambled forward closer to Zuko to nudged his hands with his nose.

Zuko’s strength and will ran away and he slumped. Suki came up to him and patted his back in consolidation, “You had no chance.”

---

They left the steam boat behind for the rest of the earthbenders so they could systematically destroy the rig while boating the people, a few at a time, to land. It would take several hours.

But that wasn’t on Zuko’s mind at the moment.

He was thinking. Before, he liberated people from various bad situations like concentration or labor camps, war prisons, slavers, pirates, and now, just recently, liberating a small town from Fire Nation presence.

All were something he believed in, but that was before he considered doing this as a political ploy to ultimately usurp his father from the throne.

He didn’t leave immediately, helping the returning earthbenders scare off the fleeing soldiers at the light of the new day because he refused to allow his people to be killed when they had been defeated. That was a tense conversation in itself. Zuko, silent in his Blue Spirit mask, standing in front of the earthbenders who were about to kill the pale, terrified, incaptiacated soldiers.

Who were his people.

It made it easier when Aang stood by him with a determined look on his youthful face. “I won’t allow you to kill them when they are down.”

“They will come back and kill us all!” one spat, and the Kyoshi Warriors came and stood in front of Aang and Zuko, a solid wall between them. Then the water tribe siblings joined up, though Sokka was much more reluctant than Zuko was comfortable with.

Unable to stand the tense stand off, Zuko turned around to face the pale, shaky soldiers and took out his dao swords with a menacing flourish. The soldiers whimpered and shrieked when Zuko charged at them and sliced downward, cutting their bonds at their hands and feet. He then pointed his sword at them.

Suddenly the sword tip leveled at the nearest man's face burst into pale gold fire and Zuko poured into a sense of justice, warning, anger, protection, protection, protection. and he poured all of his thoughts into Leave and don't come back! Hoping, praying that his men in front of him understood what he was trying to say.

When they didn’t move despite feeling his emotions, Zuko advanced menacingly and instilled a sense of danger into the air and sliced the air diagonally, a streak of angry gold fire slashing right at the soldiers who screamed and bolted. He knew that they suffered no burns, it was just a scare tactic to get them to move.

Setting his swords together and sliding them into the sheath, he turned back around and bit back the urge to bristle defensively. He felt uncomfortable being the center of the stares. But he kept his back rigidly straight, walked to an unlit torch in the light of the new day and took it off the handle.

He walked back to the earthbender standing at the forefront, Haru’s father, and lit the fire with his own flame and bowed to Tyro with the symbol of the flame, the torch in the fist and the palm flat against the handle.

Tyro’s eyes widened at the respect. “You’re Fire Nation.”

It wasn’t a question but Zuko nodded anyways.

"I would have thought you were a mix born of Fire and Earth."

Zuko shook his head even before Tyro finished his sentence. No.

Suki spoke for him, “He’s here to help. He’s going to remove the Firelord from the Throne.”

“It’s true.” Katara responded and Sokka sighed but nodded, “He’s actually a very honorable person and I want him on the Throne rather than the one who is continuing the decimation of my people. Do you want to keep that monster on the throne?”

“I’d rather the whole nation was grounded into dirt!” another earthbender shouted and there were some grumbling agreements. Tyro said nothing, still staring at the Blue Spirit.

Aang shouted over the rising volume, “Then you would be no better than them, who killed my entire culture!” Some reared back in shock at the response, Zuko’s shoulder tensed but did not break eye contact with Tyro, still holding the torch with the golden fire as an offering.

“I’m the Avatar and I will not allow another genocide to be the response to this war. Two elements do not make the world balanced.”

There were some surprised mutterings at that declaration. The Avatar came back?

The surrounding area around the fire felt of draining tension as Zuko relaxed his shoulders, opening his body language, and breathed out his anxiety. There was a heavy blanket of protection-thankfulness-apprehension and Zuko prayed to Agni that this would work.

Aang continued, his voice somehow sounding a lot more older than his twelve year old visage would suggest, “The only way to achieve that Balance is if we all work together in harmony.”

Like that was the cue, Zuko extended the torch halfway to Tyro’s hand, waiting for him to take it in acceptance.

The tension outside of the empathetic field of the gold fire was tense. Finally, Tyro took the torch from Zuko’s hand and bowed.

There were a few grumblings but everyone seemed to have accepted Tyro’s decision.

Katara, Zuko, Aang, and the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors beamed. Sokka grumbled under his breath, but sighed again when Aang shot him a look.

Zuko wondered what he said.

---

Zuko hefted himself onto Mina and looked down at the Kyoshi Warriors: Suki, Ami, Aka, and Umi. He took off his mask and Momo popped his head out of the bag with a chirp.

He smiled at them gratefully, “I… I want to thank you for that. For– for everything.”

Suki smiled. “Just don’t get killed. I’ll have to go to the Spirit World and bring you back myself for leaving us.” Then the smile softened, “In all fairness, Your Highness” – she teased the title with an amused grin – “I found myself growing attached to you. We’ll see each other again. All of us,” she added knowingly, looking at the direction of the town where the Avatar and the two water tribe siblings were.

He grimaced. He would really rather not. But deep within his gut, he knew that her statement was true.

“I’ll see you later then,” he responded as a promise, and clicked his tongue to urge Mina forward. Momo chattered, displeased to be leaving Suki behind, but he preened some small bits of dirt off of Zuko’s shoulder.

---

Long after the Blue Spirit left, the single torch was placed back onto its hook by the door frame of a small shop. The residents found it warm to the touch. Some curious earthbenders and children would touch the fire and draw their hands back in awe at seeing their hands whole and unharmed. Days would pass and the residents would find that the fire had not guttered out, the oil reserve inside the torch untouched.

Soon the torch was placed in a stand, planted at the entrance of the town as a statement that the Blue Spirit was in town and he offered his protection to the town, warning off any invaders with ill intent.

Unknown to the Earth Kingdom residents, the Fire Nation citizens viewed the eternally burning golden fire as Agni’s blessing to the town. Most soldiers, seeing the fire, refused to invade the small town again.

When ordered to invade, the majority of the small company of firebenders mutinied.

(The citizens of the small mining town were confused by the sudden infighting but suddenly so much more grateful that the Blue Spirit offered them his fire.)