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It was the muffled groan that woke him, in the thin light before dawn.

Enemies? Surrounded? Ambush?

Zuko breathed in silently, deeply, ready to unleash a deadly surprise on anyone who might have succeeded in sneaking up on them-

No one. The Earth Kingdom night was quiet. Just their bare camp out of sight of the road, the annoyingly cheerful chirps of birds, the odd grassy smell of air with no coal smoke or salt in it….

And another sleepy grumble of complaint from Uncle's bedroll.

Zuko let his breath sigh out, flameless, wincing in sympathy. It'd been weeks since Zhao's hired pirates had blown him out of his own ship, and some of his deeper wounds still ached, despite all his uncle's efforts to clean them and keep them from getting infected. Work that had only gotten harder while they were drifting in the ocean without supplies. Fish caught under the raft and water chipped out of stray icebergs only went so far.

And now they were fugitives, sleeping in a brushy hollow without even a fire. If he was aching, Uncle was probably dreaming of a long, relaxing soak in a hot spring.

Right. Like the last time turned out so well.

Groaning, Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to blot out the memory of carting his all-but-naked uncle back to their ship, pulverized earthbenders eating their dust. If he never had to see that again, it'd be too soon.

…I'm not getting back to sleep today. Damn it.

He'd never been a heavy sleeper. Not since-

Sleep, and people disappear. Sleep, and the world falls apart, and nothing you do can make it right again, ever….

-Not for a long time. It hadn't been a problem on their ship. Much. Here on the run, though….

A pained grunt. Zuko froze. "Uncle?"

Silence. A sigh. "Old bones, my nephew. Do not worry. I'm sure in the next town, we will find a nice, soft bed." A chuckle. "Or at least a stable. Hay isn't so bad, if it is well-kept."

Uh-huh. The way his luck ran? The next town would be full of Fire Nation soldiers, or rabid Earth Kingdom thugs, or Azula. And if the spirits were in a particularly snippy mood, it'd be all three. "First we have to get to the next town," Zuko said shortly. "Turn over." He wasn't as good as Uncle - no one was, besides Azula and the Fire Lord himself - but he should be able to manage this.

Or at least, if he couldn't, Uncle would just end up with singed clothes. They could deal with that.

Slowly, he rubbed his hands together, palm just brushing palm in a tingling, circular flow. He built the heat carefully; kept it steady as he moved his hands apart, never quite reaching flame….

Fire was good. But sometimes - say, when you were trapped underwater, under ice - heat was better.

Air shimmering around his fingers, Zuko started kneading sore muscles.

"Hmm." Uncle sounded surprised, but not displeased. "Nephew?"

"Tricky," Zuko managed, holding hot-but-not-burning as he searched out knots and strains. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he saw them; muted copper where the body's natural flow of fire should be molten gold. "Not real good at this."

"Ah. Well. Higher, then."

A few minutes, and he had to stop. No breakfast and not enough sleep were making his concentration fray at the edges, and he didn't want to set his uncle on fire.

…Well, not unless that stupid lotus tile went missing again.

Uncle Iroh sat up as he moved away, face thoughtful. "An interesting adaptation of wound treatment, Prince Zuko."

"…It wasn't an adaptation. Much." Zuko stared into the dawn, trying to match the road they were on to memories of Earth Kingdom maps. Maps now lost with his ship, and damn Zhao-

"Take my hand!"

Zuko shook his head, trying not to see the anger and horror in those eyes. Who needed any more proof the spirits had it in for him? He couldn't even save an enemy….

"Nephew?"

"Just - something Mom would do," he got out. "When I'd try to keep up with Azula, and - it didn't work." When I failed again. Painfully. "Hadn't really thought about it in a while… can we go, already?"

"Ah, so we will eat on the road? Young people, so hasty…." At his glare, Iroh only smiled. "I will be fine, nephew. You did an old man's back a great deal of good."

Nothing else. Thank Agni. Relieved, Zuko started striking camp. Mentioning Ursa was always a risk. Mention her, and Uncle might want to talk about her. And that just… hurt.

Iroh followed more slowly, breathing a lick of flame at their battered camp pot for a bit of morning tea. Staring into steam, as if it would part like mist to reveal the future. Or the past.

But then again, that was Iroh and tea. Always.

------

We should have spoken more before my father's death, Ursa. Letting his nephew take the lead, Iroh walked, lost in thought. Keeping pace with far more ease than he had any right to expect, after yet another night sleeping rough. It could simply have been the lingering wellbeing of deep heat; Agni knew, it soothed a multitude of hurts. And yet….

We should have talked, indeed.

But it had never seemed to be the right time. Even from the beginning.

"Prince Iroh, you have to come…."

He'd rolled out of bed on the darkest watch of the night, awakened by one of Lady Ursa's braver attendants. The story had poured out of the maid like storm-water off a roof. Ozai's heir, finally born not at fortunate noon, but at the accursed hour of midnight. Infant and mother both exhausted by the struggle, abandoned by the father-to-be when physicians decreed the child was unlikely to see dawn. Lady Ursa's sudden blaze of temper, throwing out useless so-called healers, demanding enough wood brought in to set half the palace ablaze, and then ordering everyone away….

He couldn't blame the staff for their caution. Ozai's marriage, like his own, had been to a daughter of a family known for firebending prowess, the better to ensure strong heirs to Sozin's legacy. And fire drew strength from passion. Lady Ursa might ordinarily be a gentle soul, but if she were… upset….

The door was locked, but he knew ways around that. He entered quietly, wary as if he were sneaking into an enemy fortress.

At least nothing is on fire.

Though considerable ashes had been shoved to one side of the hearth. A small, steady fire still burned on the other, flames bending away to-

Iroh held still, scarcely daring to breathe.

Ursa was seated directly on the stones bordering the fire, heedless of soot and smoke staining her loose robe. Her eyes were closed in utmost concentration, and her hands….

Her hands were wreathed in flames.

Gold. Green. Violet. Like sunlight through spring woods.

Flames she ran first over herself, briefly, breathing in strength. Then, slow and lingering, over the tiny form curled in her lap. Every wash of fire chased a bit more blue from the child's skin, eased his breathing from fitful efforts to more healthy hiccups.

Carefully, fervently glad he was alone, Iroh sank down beside her. If he were fortunate, if this were indeed what it appeared, she would be too deep in the healing trance to notice.

But how can it be? I have seen waterbenders heal, but fire?

At last, a full-throated cry. Ursa opened her eyes, sagging-

He caught them both. "If the crisis has passed, my sister, perhaps you should both be in bed?"

Ursa went white. "You saw…."

"A mother caring for her son," Iroh said firmly. And smiled. "So. This is my nephew?"

"Zuko." Her chin lifted, a little color returning to her face. "His name is Zuko."

"Zuko," Iroh nodded. "Lu Ten will be glad to meet his cousin, in the morning." He glanced down into half-closed eyes of bright, true Fire Nation gold-

Gold?

He'd held Lu Ten weeks after his own son's birth, looking into eyes of still-undecided infant blue. Only months later, with growth and time, should any child show what element they were born to.

"I was born like this, too."

Startled, he looked up at his brother's wife.

"My family wouldn't have mentioned it. Not with Fire Lord Azulon making the arrangements… my mother said it was like trying to hatch a stone." Ursa smiled at her son, bittersweet. "But I was strong enough to live. And so is he."

"So I see." Iroh raised an inquiring brow. "But how?"

"It's an old legend." She glanced up. "He can't know."

No need to ask who he was. His brother did not take kindly to secrets. Or to things he had not predicted, and could not control.

"As I will tell my brother," Iroh said firmly, "I have only seen a mother, sitting with her son where a warm fire could do them most good." He gave her his most endearing look. "Yet I cannot deny, it is a technique I would most dearly like to learn."

"I suppose we can try…."

They had, Iroh reflected now, trudging through the dust. Several times. He'd learned to use heat to prevent infection, and help the body heal itself; skills that had become crucial thirteen years later, when royal physicians were certain Zuko would lose his eye and hearing, if not his life.

Still, he could only encourage the body. He'd never been able to mend it, as Ursa had; shaping the very essence of flame into the energy of life itself. And she never had told him what legend had led her teachers to such a rare technique. Though given his travels, and what he had seen, he could guess.

Gold and green and violet, Iroh thought, side-stepping a passing hornet. Dragon's fire.

A flame he'd thought Zuko, like himself, had simply proved incapable of using. Or had never had time to learn; his bending had bloomed late - he was such a small child - and Ursa had been gone when he was only ten.

You assumed, Iroh scolded himself. You never asked. You know your brother. Zuko is impulsive, and too quick to anger, but he is not a fool. A healer, as the Fire Lord's heir? Unforgivable.

Yes. It would be, wouldn't it?

And it was most interesting, how Zuko had reacted to that young healer's apprentice, Song. Thinking, for once, even if he'd needed a nudge to get started….

We can't go home. Azula lies like she breathes, but even she would never dare imprison us if it were not the Fire Lord's will.

And once in Azula's hands, his nephew would die. She longed to be the heir; thirsted for it, and Ozai's approval, like travelers thirsting in the desert. Only Zuko's exile - Zuko's life - stood between her and all she desired.

He'd seen them battle. Zuko would hesitate. Azula would not.

We cannot go home. But my nephew must realize that for himself.

Of course, what kind of uncle would he be, if he didn't help?

"Uncle?" Under the sedge hat, Zuko was eyeing him with deep, deep suspicion.

Iroh smoothed any hint of plotting into innocent surprise. "I was only considering how we might gain that bed, nephew. And perhaps some supplies as well."

"We're royalty. They should give us what we want!"

…This may take longer than I thought. Though part of that was simply pain and injured pride; his nephew had always been reasonable dealing with their suppliers. If a bit inclined to argue prices down to the bone. Which, given many of those willing to deal with them inflated their demands simply because Zuko was exiled, seemed only fair. "To their sworn enemies, Prince Zuko? They may be Earth Kingdom peasants, but they are not fools."

Zuko's fists clenched, daggers of fire blazing before he started, and furtively quenched them.

"But there are ways to ask," Iroh went on easily, as if the slip were unimportant. They were safely unseen, after all… and he knew full well one could only deny the spirits' gifts so long without pain. "And if we have something to barter with, we may fare very well, indeed." He scanned the roadside. "Now, if we can only find some nice, polished rocks…."

"Are you insane?"

Hmm. And sometimes his nephew was a little too quick to catch on.

"I can't - they'll catch me - we'll be exposed as Fire Nation and - nobody's going to barter for us to use hot rocks on them-!"

"We can't know until we try," Iroh shrugged. "I found it most worthwhile. And you should know, people see what they wish to see." He brightened. "Ah! I think I see a good one."

"…Please let there not be any poisonous rocks."

Pocketing the innocuous quartz pebble, Iroh chuckled ruefully. His nephew had every right to be worried. The fine points of hunting and foraging might not be among their skills, but a crown prince learned of everything Fire Nation mines produced. Including, of necessity, the lovely and lethal ruby arsenic, so horribly known as dragons' blood. "Don't worry. I do know what I am doing, this time."

"I hope so." Quiet; much quieter than he was used to hearing from his impulsive nephew. "You frightened me, Uncle." Zuko swallowed. "Don't do that again. Please."

Longer than I thought, Iroh reflected. But perhaps, not as long as I had feared. "I will be careful," he reassured the young prince. "Look! This must be a stream of some kind, when the winter snows melt…."

Stifling a sigh, Zuko left the road to help him hunt pebbles.

Spying another candidate, Iroh smiled as he crouched, listening to grumbled complaints like quiet music. "Rocks… crazy… never going to work…."

Yet he hadn't said no. And Zuko would have, if he weren't at least willing to try.

One step at a time.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Zuko thought, even the most boring schoolwork paid off.

The Fire Nation usually used coal for fuel. The Earth Kingdom used everything from wood to coal to odd gases that seeped up in rock-salt pits. Given he'd been trained in preparation for conquering more of it, he'd had to know a little about them all.

Which was how he'd noticed a persistent scent of wood smoke, and followed it to a charcoal-burner's mound. Part of which he'd just carefully dug out, constructing a small but thick cup of not-yet-charred wood against the mound's side.

"Really, Prince Zuko, this is unnecessary…."

"I don't use equipment I haven't tested, Uncle." He held out a hand. "Rocks. Now."

"We could heat them by hand. You didn't have to undo a poor woodcutter's hard-"

"Yes, I did!" But he didn't move. Didn't attack. No matter how much he wanted to break something, just to loosen some of the knots in his gut. "Uncle, will you just trust me on this?"

Uncle Iroh frowned, but handed over the bag of pebbles.

Finally. Zuko dumped them unceremoniously into his makeshift kiln, punched down flames, and stood back. Waiting.

"The smoke will draw attention," Uncle warned, as flames blazed in the nest of wood. "Whatever you are up to, nephew, it cannot be as crucial as avoiding the notice of-"

Crack.

Zuko let out a breath, suspicions confirmed as more explosive cracks shuddered through smoking wood. A relief, actually. Maybe the universe would settle for this as bad luck, and leave them alone for a while.

Uncle didn't say a word.

He waited until the fire was quiet, and a few minutes more. Damped flames with a push of his hands, and started digging for surviving rocks.

Uncle was still quiet, watching over his shoulder. Unreal.

Finally he had the survivors, still hot to the touch. And two half-charred logs, studded with shards of stone like Mai's little knives. "You said that was a stream sometimes," Zuko said bluntly. "I couldn't trust them."

"Water in the rocks," Uncle said slowly, staring at glittering edges. "Yes, of course." He glanced at Zuko. "How did you know?"

"Zuzu, can you heat these up for me? I want to play a game…."

"Oh look, Zuzu's an earthbender! And he can't even get that right!"

"How do I learn anything?" Zuko said grimly, blowing on pebbles to cool them, before he dropped them back into Uncle's bag. "The hard way."

------

Don't laugh, Iroh told himself firmly, deliberately ignoring Zuko's trembling hands as they placed warm stones on a cranky blacksmith's back. Most people wouldn't have noticed even a twitch. Indeed, the small crowd of onlookers taking part of their midday break in this inn had seen nothing; they were too curious of strangers, and too incautious, to have held their tongues if they had. But he knew his nephew. More, he'd led men in war for many years. He knew, even if the boy himself did not know, when a young man was heart-wrenchingly afraid. Afraid, and ready to run. Or attack, burying the shame of fear in action.

Don't laugh. This is a battle - not of the body, but of the soul. Remember the general you once were, and lead.

So far, his story to the local innkeeper - that they were healer and apprentice, there'd been a Fire Nation raid, how unfortunate, not even time to grab supplies - seemed to be holding up. They'd treated a few other men already; apparently the village healer was up to her elbows in caring for three difficult pregnancies, and these were but simple injuries, left to wait. Though perhaps their patients were also taking advantage of the fact that the strangers were refugees, and so all but forced to charge less for any business at all.

It didn't matter. He knew enough battlefield care to pass, as did Zuko. It should suffice, so long as no one asked them anything too complicated.

Or anything at all, at the moment. Fortunately, the blacksmith was lying on an inn bench, unable to see Zuko lower his head and breathe, slow and deliberately even. If there were candles about, Iroh was uncomfortably sure they would have been blazing in time to that rhythm. It was a wonder the inn's hearth wasn't flaring.

Well, perhaps not quite a wonder. Zuko knew they were watched. The young man was careful. Sometimes.

But why is he afraid? Iroh wondered, setting to work on muscles knotted by a long morning pounding iron. There is no danger here, nothing to fight. We are here to help this man, as we have helped his neighbors-

Hmm. Aside from his uncle, when was the last time Zuko had helped anyone, without suffering for it?

Our helmsman, in the storm. The Avatar.

Heh. His nephew might think Iroh knew nothing of that little escapade, but he was old, not blind. One day despairing, certain Zhao would take everything he longed for - and the next, simply going to bed? With a great many bruises, no less.

Ah, but I wish I could have seen the look on Zhao's face.

Iroh channeled that amusement into an approving smile as Zuko stepped in and began to work. Careful to make it seem as if the shimmer of heat were from the stones fished in and out of their camp pot on the inn's hearth, and not his hands. "Gently," Iroh instructed, matter of fact as any master to an apprentice. Act as if this is ordinary, and everyone will believe that it is. "Always ease the muscles first, to be sure they are not strained further."

"Ha!" their patient rumbled, not quite dislodging smooth stones. "Think I can't take it, old man?"

"You are a veritable wellspring of yang chi, Master Blacksmith," Iroh said cheerfully, waving Zuko back to work when the young man hesitated. "But healing requires balance. So some gentleness is called for."

Advice he would do well to remember himself. That demonstration, with the pebbles-

He could have told me. I would have believed him.

Yet, it seemed Zuko didn't believe that.

No. It is more than that. Iroh considered Zuko's actions, and their result. By not explaining, he gained the freedom to act, and so remove the danger to both of us.

Which meant Zuko had expected to have his concerns dismissed. Though why his nephew would believe anyone would deny the crown prince his right to protect himself-

I am a fool.

Learned the hard way, had he?

Ozai. Or Azula.

The girl, most likely. His brother's cruelty was more likely to be words and fire than tricking a young boy into harming himself. River rocks to explode in an innocent's face - oh yes. That was definitely Azula.

Which meant that he'd set his nephew to work in an inn full of strangers with the memory of Azula's mockery ringing in his head. Oh dear.

Well. At least he has not run yet. Or set anyone on fire.

Still. It would be wise to draw this to a close, while his nephew's nerve still held. Pain and danger, Zuko would face without flinching. The demons of his own mind….

Three years, and I thought I had at least scouted them all. But those years were without Ozai, and without Azula.

My enemy's forces are more deeply entrenched than I ever knew. And far stronger than I had imagined.

As they had been, at Ba Sing Se….

No. I will not lose another son-

"Uncle!" Zuko hissed, elbow jabbing him.

Ah, yes. Better to focus, if he did not wish to lose his nephew right now. "I would advise you take it easy for a few days," he informed the blacksmith as Zuko started packing up. "Or at least, no more ostrich-horse lifting contests for a while, hmm?" he chuckled. "Better to let them carry you."

A snort of laughter. "Where's the fun in that?"

The hearty backslap that accompanied it was enough to drive most men to their knees; Iroh let himself shift with it, only staggering enough to confirm their watchers' image of him as a lucky, harmless old man. Still smiling, he mentally held his breath; Zuko was twitching, within a heartbeat of attacking the man-

Wrestled down the rage, and stayed still. Though Iroh suspected the rocks in their pot were much, much hotter than they should be.

"I thank you for the use of your hearth, madam," Iroh bowed to the openly eavesdropping innkeeper. "But if there is no one else for now, I just remembered some supplies my nephew and I will need for our journey."

"You can come in again before the dinner crowd, cutie," the elderly woman dimpled at him.

"Ah, but you are too kind." Another bow, and he subtly dragged his disbelieving nephew out, pot and all.

A left, two rights, and they were behind the solid wall of a bakery. No houses too close, due to the risk of fire - and no one would be surprised at a few stray drifts of smoke. "Nephew. Breathe."

"Breathe? I don't need to breathe, Uncle! If we've got enough, let's get our supplies and get out-"

"Lee," Iroh said, very deliberately. "I believe, as your master, when I tell you to breathe - you breathe."

Shock, painted on Zuko's face. Betrayal. Anger-

Shoulders slumped in resignation, and Zuko breathed.

That won't hold long, Iroh reflected. Attack, and he will fight. It's what he does. What he knows. But if I maneuver elsewhere…. "When I was a younger man, I dealt with soldiers who had once been captured by our enemies. Who had not been… treated well." He grimaced, recalling how he had been then; proud and fierce and not nearly as kind as Zuko likely imagined. "And I did not treat them well. I had not lost what they had lost, and I did not understand."

"Uncle," Zuko said stiffly, "soldiers in the past aren't important. Not compared to soldiers who might be here, right now-"

"They are important," Iroh interrupted. "You are important, nephew."

Zuko eyed him warily. "I'm not a soldier, Uncle."

"Not in name," Iroh admitted. "But you were confined, and harmed by those you had no choice but to obey, and unable to free yourself, without aid-"

"Don't talk about my father like that!"

"And when you thought you had won your freedom," Iroh bore brutally on, "your nightmare returned, and threatened you with new chains. I have seen this fear, nephew! I knew it in their hearts. I know it in yours!"

"I'm not afraid of her!"

Quick as a striking snake, Iroh moved. "I am."

Wrapped in his arms, Zuko sputtered incoherently.

"She is skilled, and she is deadly," Iroh said, voice low. "She haunts your mind, and you cannot rest. But you must, nephew. Remember when we visited the Northern Air Temple, years ago." Zuko had vowed to search every Air Temple for traces of the Avatar, and his nephew never spoke lightly. But even a scarred, angry teenager had seen the wisdom in keeping Ji the Mechanist's work for the Fire Nation a secret. This was not the first time the pair of them had traveled in Earth Kingdom brown.

Yet that was only hours, to search quietly, Iroh knew. This has been days.

But he could not falter. Zuko needed his confidence, now more than ever. Exile was crushing to the soul; exile with the threat of agonizing death, far more terrifying.

"Lee and Mushi are but simple refugees," he said, voice deliberately steady. "To be always on watch, always searching for an enemy in the shadows - it marks us. And we must be as two leaves in the forest. It is the only way to survive." He held on tight, rubbing at too-thin shoulders. "I am here. I will not abandon you to her again."

"…I'm not afraid of her." A low, bitter whisper.

No, Iroh thought wryly. Not so much as you are of everyone, my nephew.

Not a fear of injury, or death. On the battlefield, his nephew could face any enemy-

Save two.

But to walk among those who might not be your enemies… he'd never had the chance to teach Zuko that. He'd never realized he had to.

That ends. Now.

"You should know, nephew," Iroh said matter-of-factly, voice still low, "that what we are doing is one of the most difficult and dangerous tasks in this world. To survive in a nation not your own, among ways and customs foreign to all you know - it is hard. Very hard. I do not believe Azula could do it." He pulled back enough to smile. "But I know you can."

Gold eyes blinked, incredulous and disbelieving. But Zuko did not pull away. "…How?"

"Have you not heard the proverb of the dragon and the mountain? The mountain is strong. It seems invincible. And to many things, it is. But if a fierce enough blow strikes it, it is only rocks and dust." He gripped Zuko's shoulder, light but firm. "The dragon seems weaker. It is mortal; if struck, it bleeds. But the dragon can move, and avoid the blow, and choose its own time to strike."

Good, Iroh thought, feeling Zuko's breathing even out under his hands. The fear is far from dead, but we have weakened it. He is thinking-

"The dragons are dead, Uncle."

Ah. Well. That was an honest objection, given what Zuko knew.

Do I dare? He still loves my brother, and fears him. The risk, if I am wrong….

The cost could be high. But the cost to his nephew, to the world, if he let Zuko fall back into that pit of awful doubt-

Mentally crossing his fingers, Iroh prayed. "So they said of the Avatar."

Now Zuko did struggle free, shaken. "You lied to Grandfather?"

Carefully. Carefully. "The Moon Spirit taught waterbenders, my nephew. Would you have followed Zhao's path, and drawn its blood?"

"No!" Zuko recoiled, horrified. "Is that why he came - and I…." He jerked away, fists clenched.

Iroh stiffened, recognizing the huddled shame, the way Zuko had turned so his scar shrouded any expression. He never cries. Not since Lady Ursa….

"Is it my fault she's dead?"

Yue. He'd told his nephew everything, those endless days drifting on the raft. The princess had had a rare courage, to give up her life for her people. It deserved to be remembered. "No," Iroh said firmly. "You did not know Zhao's plan. I did not know. I could not stop him in time. Her death was brave, and her own choice. It is not your fault."

"But I'm the one who took the Avatar away." Zuko swallowed dryly. "If he'd been there… if that waterbender hadn't followed me, she would have been there, and - if I'd known, I would have…."

Iroh kept his voice level, feeling the precipice his nephew stood on. "What would you have done?"

"…I would have waited."

Do not yell at him, Iroh told himself, unable to hide a sigh. He has been lost a very long time. You cannot expect him to recognize the path in an instant. "And if you had been there, and Zhao had overpowered them? What would you have done?"

"I'm not a traitor!"

"No, you are not," Iroh nodded. "I do not believe you ever could be. No matter what you chose."

Zuko was shaking his head, as if to drive away pain. "It doesn't matter now. She's gone."

Something in Iroh's heart eased, recognizing the truth. "You would have helped the Moon."

"I wouldn't have helped the Avatar!"

"I said nothing of the airbender, nephew," Iroh said deliberately. "Two who fight for the same cause are not always allies." He shrugged, as if it were of no importance. "I will admit, I am curious why you would choose so. It would have been a noble effort, but you are not usually the first to approve of dealing with spirits."

"They don't exactly approve of me, or none of this would have happened," Zuko said venomously. Closed his eyes, and gripped the bridge of his nose, fighting back frustration. "Uncle. In case you didn't notice, we've been living on a ship the past three years. If we didn't pay attention to the moon, we'd be dead." An explosive sigh, with only a hint of steam. "We need supplies, and we need to get moving."

Nodding, Iroh followed his nephew toward the market. Still a bit sore of foot, but much lighter of heart.

His spirit is wounded, but it still fights. He needs only time. And a little… encouragement.

"Well, if it isn't a little deserter," a smug voice drawled. "Front lines too hot for you?"

Spirits, Iroh thought darkly, eyeing the massive Earth Kingdom swordsman smirking their way, you are not helping.

------

Patience. Patience, and shadows.

"Who do you think you're fooling, old man? That boy's no healer."

Wait. For the right time to strike.

"Did his family pay you to take him, or did you just pick up a stray?"

Breathe. Crouch. There.

"Who's there?"

Swordsman, yes. Good one, no. Grab, pull, use the solid wall against the almost as solid skull-

The man was out. And the swords were….

Spin, and cut the air. Feel their movement; not as separate blades, but two halves of a whole.

Not bad. Not the best, but not bad.

How a bragging lowlife like this had ended up with master-quality swords, he'd never know. Bastard hadn't been taking care of them properly, that was certain.

Dao sheathed, he melted into the night. No real town watch here, but there was always the chance of wandering drunks, especially with such a full moon.

He made it back to their shelter in a stable's hayloft; the innkeeper hadn't been at all averse to arranging that instead of a paid room, once Uncle worked her over with hot stones and flattery. Which he really didn't want to think about. Ever.

The mask, Zuko tucked under the pile of supplies Uncle would have him pack in the morning. He should do the same for the dao….

No. I won them. They deserve better.

He hadn't weighted himself down with swords to raid the North Pole, not when he'd all but planned on going swimming. But he'd always carried the cleaning kit, ever since he first started learning blades. Through the invasion, the raft, their mad flight from Azula - always.

Unsheathing twin blades, Zuko peered along the edge of one for nicks and scratches, and set to work.

"I wondered if you would find him."

Sharpening stone in hand, Zuko hesitated, then kept working. "You don't want me to give them back."

"No, I do not," Uncle Iroh said thoughtfully, seated cross-legged in his bedding. "Our chances will be better if you are armed. Though it is just as well we are leaving early." He stroked his beard. "And since our men have never spoken of your extra training, even when Zhao asked - and believe me, he did ask, when he conscripted our men for the fleet - no one should connect this theft with us."

Zuko tried not to wince. "Theft? We're at war!"

"The Fire Nation may be. We are not." Iroh regarded him sternly. "You have always kept your honor, Prince Zuko. Do not lose it to despair. A leader of men does not allow his soldiers to pillage. That way lies hatred for the Fire Nation, and not a future of harmonious rule, but a bloody conquest that will never be satisfied." The stern look softened. "And a wise leader first commands himself."

Steel seemed to burn in his hands. Zuko swallowed, and laid it down. "…He called you a liar."

"There will always be those who believe the worst of men," Iroh said easily. "You are not a deserter, Prince Zuko. That, we both know."

Do we? "I'm not fooling anyone as a healer!" Hold the temper. Hold it. Hay and fire were a bad mix. "Uncle, this is crazy, I'll never - real healing takes years to learn, it's going to be obvious I - I can't do it!"

A sigh. But it didn't sound resigned, or disappointed. More… decided. "Nephew," Iroh said quietly. "Come here."

Biting his lip, Zuko did.

"Sit," Iroh instructed, lighting a small flame in the palm of his hand. "Fire and healing are more closely entwined than most will ever know. Fire is not only destruction; it is passion, will, and life itself. And that life can affect other lives." He held the flame in front of Zuko. "Your mother may have shown you this."

My mother?

"The motions are like what you use to raise warmth in your hands. Only instead of the heat of your body, you use the flame. Gently… do not pull, but coax it to you… blend the energy of the flame with your own…."

It was like ice giving way underfoot. One moment it was flame. The next-

Lighter. Different.

The circular motions fell into place, reminding him of the Avatar's sweep of calm air to storm, the waterbender's shove that froze waves into ice. The fire was more than flame, but it had to be coaxed there, held, persuaded….

"Good," Uncle said softly. "Now, let us see what you can do for an old man's sore feet."

Blinking - since when did his fire have bits of green? - it took a moment for his uncle's meaning to sink in. He can't be serious.

"Try," Iroh urged. "Only try. If it does not work - then yes, you may call your old uncle a fool, and we will find another way."

"Don't say things like that!" Zuko snapped, heartsick. I said that. Because I wanted to believe it. Because otherwise Azula was lying, again, and I wanted to go home so much…. "You're not a fool, and you're not a liar, and he had no right!"

No one should say that to Uncle again. Ever.

Green. Bright as moonlight. Not hot, but warm as summer noon.

I can't hold this long….

Near, but not touching skin. Palms both turned outward now; he moved them over road-strained ankles, feeling strength leeched out of him as it fed frayed energies. In his mind's eye, hints of copper warmed to antique gold.

"Enough," Uncle said firmly, wriggling his toes. "Reach back, and allow me to redirect what I can."

A wash of warmth, and sparks of pain burned away like dead leaves. Zuko lost the motion, flames falling apart into smoke. "…I couldn't hold it." He was not going to cry. Even if he was - tired. So tired of failing.

"That you could summon it at all, is more than I have ever been able to do."

Zuko stared at him.

Iroh gave him a wry smile. "Your mother showed me the kata many times, yet I could never master it. She said it had been passed down in her family. A technique based on legends. A secret, and a gift, from Kuzon of Byakko."

"Kuzon?" Zuko blanched.

"Your mother's grandfather. A powerful firebender, with quite the sense of humor, from his letters." Iroh raised curious brows. "You have heard the name?"

Zuko swallowed. "The Avatar… I overheard him say it." Kind of. "Someone he knew, a hundred years ago."

"Kuzon would have been fifteen," Iroh said thoughtfully. "It is possible. And perhaps that is why I could never master it. I have studied the waterbenders, but never have I held my own against an airbender."

Held my own. For all of two minutes. "Why would you study waterbenders?"

"Wisdom can be found in many places, Prince Zuko. Have you not studied the waterbender who bested you?"

Zuko tried not to snarl. "…Yes." And she'd better have some new tricks, next time. He was not going to be crushed under a column of ice again.

"Study her not only to defeat her, but to learn what may be useful for your own form," Iroh advised, running a careful hand over his nephew's back. "Does that hurt?"

Zuko frowned. "No." Which didn't make sense.

His uncle smiled. "Then it would seem, Prince Zuko, that we are not lying."

Realization sank in, and Zuko buried his head in his hands to muffle a disbelieving groan. Oh, Agni. I'm going to have to go through with this….

"Rest now." Iroh ruffled his short hair. "We will finish with your blades in the morning."

Chapter Text

The days began to fall into a pattern. Walk. Find someone - anyone - moderately friendly. Offer assistance, and keep asking, until they reached someone who needed them; to heal, or just help carry firewood, or who knew what. Bargain for something in return; sometimes coin, sometimes food, and sometimes… odder things.

"Fish hooks?" Uncle Iroh murmured under his breath, as a grateful farmer beamed at his cow-pig.

"Ask him to throw in some cord, and it's worth it," Zuko murmured back. Spear-fishing like a Water Tribe brat might not be up his alley, but with a hook and line, he could get somewhere. Doing something useful, keeping out of trouble… people left you alone on the ship if you were fishing. "That's Fire Nation steel. The hooks should last a while." Not like Earth Kingdom iron. Lousy stuff. Swordsmiths forged their own steel; either with some of the better local ores, or sometimes from ingots imported from the Fire Nation. Outside of that, local iron… well, there was a reason he could shatter it with a good heel-strike.

Uncle eyed him, curious, but set to bargaining the man out of a roll of cord as well. And was delighted to accept a small round of cheese, pressed on them by a relieved farmwife who'd been looking at short milk rations with her oldest daughter's first baby on the way.

It ought to keep while we travel, Zuko thought, making his farewell bows with Uncle and heading down the road. And some fish will go after anything-

"I'm surprised you agreed, nephew."

Zuko rolled his eyes. "Uncle, do you even know how much fish hooks cost?"

"Er…."

"I've been paying attention to what you charge. We weren't cheated."

"Really?"

"Really." Zuko hated shopping, at least as much as his uncle seemed to love it. Hated being where people could see, and stare, and whisper. But he hated being cheated more. Which meant if he wanted to get it over with, he had to know exactly what he needed, and how much it was worth.

The walk was quiet for a while. Zuko focused on breathing, trying not to think of what they would do next. In and out. In. And out-

"I did not expect you would be so willing to work with simple animals."

…Of course it couldn't last. "It's easier to hide what we're doing," Zuko said shortly. Which was worth cleaning off his boots. Mostly.

They'd found out the hard way that if he wanted to do anything more than just ease pain, he needed a fire to draw from. Using hot rocks, or even just his own fire, would work - but it left him dizzy and staggering, on his feet only through sheer will to keep moving until Uncle found a spot for him to collapse for the night.

No. If they wanted to keep this up - if they wanted to keep moving, keep alert - he had to have fire. And as long as their little pot of fire stayed out of sight of curious eyes… animals didn't ask questions.

"True," Uncle allowed. "But you were also kind to the creature. Even when she tried to bite."

"She didn't like me. She didn't lie about it." Zuko shrugged, unwilling to look at that thought too closely. "People are crazy."

"Some are, yes." Iroh frowned. "I wonder if that is the case where we are going."

Oh no. Oh, no. "We're not just going farther down the road."

"Well, we are."

Zuko winced, waiting for the other boulder to drop.

"It seems our last client believes the source of his cow-pig's illness is on our way. The Lu Yu ranch. They appear to have been having trouble, since the night the moon was eclipsed." Iroh frowned more deeply. "I wonder…."

Definitely a boulder. Of the cliff-sized variety. "Uncle. I don't want anything more to do with spirits."

"That does not mean they will have nothing to do with you, Prince Zuko."

Right. Like the universe would ever be kind enough to just leave him alone. "I don't have to go looking for them."

"That may be," Iroh allowed. "Yet in this case, it may be better to find them before they find us. If Zhao unleashed more than he knew, those moments the world was out of balance… spirits do not always distinguish between mortals well. Simply being of the Fire Nation may be enough to rouse their wrath."

"Which is an even better reason to go the other way."

"Well, it could be nothing but a sickness," Iroh said easily. "Indulge an old man's curiosity. Who knows," he chuckled, patting his stomach, "we may get dinner out of it!"

Zuko sighed, trying to ignore his own rumbling hunger. They'd been getting by, but not exactly well. "This is a bad idea."

Not that it really mattered. He knew how the world worked. Turn his back on whatever this was, it'd be sneaking up on him in the middle of the night. Better to face it head on. And hope he could improvise better than he had at the North Pole.

------

"And nothing has changed in their food or water?" Iroh tried not to scowl. He'd dealt with enough mounts in his time as a general to have a fair understanding of their afflictions. These black sores encrusting hooves of the ranch's few cow-pigs, and claws and legs of their ostrich-horses, seemed… unnatural. "Have you brought in any new stock in the past months? Perhaps from river bottoms, in a moister territory?"

"First thing I thought of," rancher Sho Lu Yu grumbled. "No. There's been nothing. Unless it was just hanging around for three months waiting, after those Fire Nation bastards-" Grim lips pressed together, cutting off his words.

"There was a raid?" Iroh inquired, careful not to keep too close an eye on his nephew as the young man moved along the corral, letting the herd take his scent. Ironic, that the blow Ozai had meant to shame his son forever shielded him here. So long as no one looked too closely. "If they knew their beasts were ill, it would explain why they sought yours."

"Nothing explains that filth-!"

Iroh did not react, watching out of the corner of his eyes as Zuko stiffened - then walked on, heading into the stables to check on sicker beasts.

"But it makes a lot more sense than a kamuiy," the rancher allowed, healed welts visible across corded muscles as he crossed his arms. "I swear, as if our family would ever allow ourselves to be dishonored enough to lead to that…. Well? What do you think?"

A malevolent kamuiy? A plague-spirit would explain this. All too well. And the healed marks of fingernails on the burly rancher's arms…. Zuko was right. This was a bad idea. "I can promise nothing," Iroh said reluctantly. "We may be able to help those who are less ill. And after that, if it is possible, I would like to walk the land they have been pastured on. Perhaps we may find something-"

"Uncle."

Not strident. Not demanding. He hurried into the stables anyway, somehow all the more worried. And winced, seeing the poor wreck of a creature his nephew was dribbling water into, one beak-full at a time. Black feathers, tattered and molted in the straw, ravaged legs and body…. "Nephew."

"She's still alive."

"Don't waste your time!" Sho's fist struck one of the stable's supporting beams, raising dust. The rancher drew in a snarling breath, limping slightly. "That's Asahi. She was - she's Ping's favorite. My daughter. If she could stand, she'd be trying to rip your throat out, boy. She's been crazy ever since the girl went missing. Ever since the moon went crazy."

"Our hopes for your daughter's safe return," Iroh said courteously. Really, what else could one say, in the face of that glare? "Is she the most ill?"

"Worst that's still alive. Tough bloodline; I'll say that much for Yonaguni stock. Too small for hard work and a lousy temper, just like the damn firebenders… but they don't give up." A muscle in his jaw jumped, and dark eyes smoldered.

Iroh regarded his handful of facts, and liked none of them. "So if she was one of the first to fall ill, where has she been?"

Spirits. That glare didn't look promising at all….

------

"Just over here." Huan pointed down the slope before them, where lush greenery and a liquid chuckle betrayed a hidden spring. One of Sho's older sons, he was almost as tall and burly, with a sour look on his face as he stamped his feet on the ground, obviously disgusted at actually having to walk somewhere. "Hope this isn't the source. Some of the best water on the place, here."

"Is that why Asahi was here?" Zuko asked, all too aware of time slipping away like grains of sand. If they could just get back soon, then maybe… he stomped on hope, trying not to think about it. "Looking for water?"

"…Yeah. Yeah, that's right."

Liar. He wasn't even any good at it. Zuko glanced at his uncle.

"Do not let us keep you from your work," Iroh said generously. "We can surely find our own way back."

"You do that," Huan said shortly. "There should be something left for you."

"We are much obliged," Iroh smiled. Which lasted only until the rancher was out of sight, and out of earshot. "Something is wrong here. Very wrong."

Zuko frowned, unwilling to go any closer to what should be inviting water. "It… does feel wrong." Like the spirits' oasis, a little. But swampy.

"The energy of the world has been disrupted here." Iroh shook his head. "Yet nothing seems tainted by human carelessness." He waved a hand. "Let us spread out and search. If the spirits are disturbed, something should be visible."

Search, Zuko fumed, after long minutes of fruitless efforts. I don't even know what I'm looking for-

Rocks turned under his feet.

Tired, hungry, and frustrated enough to spit sparks, he still had his balance. A skip back, and he avoided the unstable stones, if not the waft of decay that rolled out in their wake. Decay, and-

Iroh was there, holding him back. "Come away, nephew. Come away."

Zuko swallowed, unable to not look. "It's Ping, isn't it."

"I am afraid that it may be." Iroh's face was grave. "We cannot be found here, nephew."

No. That would be… not good. Especially since- "She hasn't been dead long enough for it to be the raid, has she?"

"A month and a half, perhaps. Let us go." Iroh sighed. "Well. Now I know why there is an evil kamuiy."

"A what?"

"A plague-spirit." Iroh led them away from the lonely cairn. "They are drawn by many things, but the most certain way to attract them is the murder of one with child."

"But why would anyone-?"

"I fear I know, nephew. I fear I know."

------

I will have to thank Madam Lin again later, for the coal, Iroh thought, taking a moment away from his careful arrangement of salt-dipped cut thorn branches to watch his nephew work. The first few times Zuko had tried to heal had been… well, not quite disasters. His nephew had discipline, when he was calm; even if it was shaken by disbelief that fire could ever heal, and stark terror that he could mend instead of destroy.

He'd improved since, yes. But Iroh had still had doubts anything could be done for Asahi. Such deep-rooted illness….

I underestimated my nephew's stubbornness. Iroh chuckled at himself. I should know better.

"They will notice, if you succeed," he'd warned his nephew earlier, voice light with a grim amusement he hadn't felt in a very long time. Once a general, always a general, it seems.

"Let them," Zuko had snarled. "She bit him, Uncle. She was there."

Iroh had nodded then, acknowledging that likely truth. And set to work in this fallow pasture, away from the main ranch, setting his kamuiy trap. And watching.

Discipline, anger, and compassion. Iroh smiled to himself, watching his nephew call out veil after veil of fire, green flecked with warm gold. A leader needs them all.

Asahi lay quiet and mostly calm, black feathers only ruffling now and again to show her dislike of open flames. Weak as she had been, Iroh had still had to hold her down for the first pass; yet now she lay relaxed and still, peering curiously at the boy who was taking the pain away.

Thank you, little one, Iroh thought gratefully. You help him more than you know.

Last thorns and stones in place, the old general straightened, looking over the outline of the spirit-maze for any gaps not part of the pattern. It may not even come.

Perhaps. But then again, his nephew was currently stealing one of its most stubborn victims right out from under its repulsive nose. It should at least be interested.

Which will not make my nephew pleased.

On the other hand, something the young man could fight might do him a world of good. And kamuiy could be fought. They could be beaten.

Whether there was a spirit or not, his nephew seemed to be expecting trouble. Zuko had already packed their gear for a midnight evacuation. Which was likely wise, no matter what the night might bring. Iroh didn't think the Lu Yu family knew they had noticed, but as they'd made their way back to the ranch, Zuko had spied Huan riding off to town. At twilight.

It could be innocent. An important errand. A girlfriend. A request for a squad of soldiers.

…Hmm. Perhaps Zuko's dire outlook on the world was contagious.

Or perhaps, Iroh thought, seeing a shadow move toward them from the stables, it was simply his belated recognition that he couldn't depend on Zuko's younger ears in the midst of healing. "Nephew. Someone is coming."

"Almost done." Another wash of fire, and Zuko let the flames fade, reaching out so Asahi could sniff still-warm hands. He glanced toward the approaching woman, but kept his focus on the uncertain steed as she gained her feet. "How's that, girl? Shh. It's just me and Uncle, nothing to worry about."

"Madam Lin," Iroh nodded, as the rancher's wife came toward them with a lidded basket and wide eyes. "Is that perhaps breakfast, that we need not trouble you when we take our leave?"

She looked at his careful piles of thorns and stone, and Iroh knew she understood. "No," she said in a worn, worried voice. Opened the lid, and drew out dark clothing.

"Fire-thorns," Iroh observed, catching the glint of wild silk embroidered in protective patterns; glossy wood brown along edges of a fine green scarf, ruby-rust on hems and sleeve-seams of a pine-dark robe. "You must have been working on these for quite some time."

"They were for Ping," Lin admitted. "We'd been having so much ill luck, since the raid, I just wanted to…." She swallowed, and looked away. "I finished them a few days after she disappeared. If you're going to face the kamuiy… please. They might help."

"They may, indeed," Iroh said graciously, draping the scarf about his neck before he took Asahi's reins. Just as well for them that Earth Kingdom women tended to take after their men; taller and more solid than most in the Fire Nation.

Hands on the robe, Zuko hesitated, obviously uneasy. "If you made this for your daughter…."

"Ping is beyond its aid, now," Iroh said with quiet compassion. "You are not."

Lin's gaze whipped to him, wide and wild and-

Broken, with a terrible wonder, as she finally recognized the fine black steed alive and well beside him. "Oh, Asahi.…" She pressed a fist to her lips, eyes closed, voice thick with tears. "Are you spirits, come to take your vengeance?"

Agni, let Zuko keep his head for once, Iroh prayed. "If we are, you know what you have done." He shook his head. "You knew she was not missing."

"You don't understand!" The break in her voice was awful to hear. "The town knew. They knew! It wasn't enough that we had to rebuild what burned, but my daughter…."

"Yes! She was your daughter!" Zuko said angrily. Clenched his fists, and shifted swords and sheath from hip to back, where the robe wouldn't interfere with his draw. "Who cares what the town knew? You should have protected her!"

"I tried!" A desperate wail. "We thought it would pass, and then… the rumors, and the whispers, and no one would give us fair prices anymore, and Huan's marriage contract was going to fall through, and… we were going to send her away! Where she'd be safe. Where no one would know! It was all arranged, she would have left in just a few days…."

"When the moon became as blood, and your husband decided he had no more use for pity," Iroh said sternly.

"I didn't know!" She fell to her knees, dripping tears. "I swear, I didn't know!"

"You didn't not know," Zuko started, disgusted-

Paused, glancing warily into the night.

It is near. "Build up the fire," Iroh ordered, grabbing a stem of thorns. "Do not let it touch you-"

Tear-soaked ground erupted, and he threw.

"Ahh! Salt! Salt!"

A high, chittering voice, like the mole-rat it resembled. If mole-rats ever grew to the size of a man. Its fur was sleek and glossy gray, as if in perfect health - yet eaten away with the same sores that afflicted the ranch.

"Stay back, and protect Madam Lin!" Iroh warned Zuko. "I will deal with this creature."

"Ohhh, will you, old fire?" Eyes like Azula's flames sneered at them all, one by one. "Old smoke, all your hope burned to ashes. Rotted willow, breaking in grief's storm; oh, so tasty. And-" A hissing laugh. "Little dragon, just barely hatched! And no wings to protect you."

"I can protect myself!" Zuko flared.

But he held back, even without Iroh's raised hand to stop him. Lin was whimpering, too pale to scream, and Zuko would never be so heartless as to leave her unprotected.

An Earth Kingdom woman. A peasant, and at least reluctant accomplice to murder. And the prince of the Fire Nation offered her mercy.

I have won, brother, Iroh knew, quiet pride warming him. The battle will be long and dark, and he may doubt himself - but he will never be yours again.

"Leave," he warned the spirit in his next breath. "You have no more place here. Ping's murder is known, to those who will see justice done. Lin Lu Yu will denounce her husband to the law, and that poor girl will have the proper rites. Begone!"

"Lin Lu Yu?" Another hiss of a laugh. "Old smoke. Old fool! Why would she, when it's her word against theirs?"

"No!" Lin gasped. "My sons would never-"

"Oh, they will, broken willow. Your little plan meant they'd have to live with their shame. A dead sister is nothing; hidden away, forgotten. A living child of fire to call them uncle- Augh! Salt! You dare!"

Iroh dipped thorny branches back into his pot of salted water, ready to sprinkle the beast again. "We know the truth," he said grimly, "and there will be a reckoning. You have served your purpose. Your time in this world is past!"

"Silly smoke!" Teeth gleamed at him. "You're no earthbender! Your maze only touches the surface!"

A blast of dust, and the beast had burrowed out of sight.

That, I did not expect, Iroh thought worriedly. Where could it have-

The kamuiy erupted under Zuko's feet, but the young prince was already moving; a leaping spin of steel that took him away from unstable ground and cost the swift little monster half its whiskers and one ulcerated toe.

The scream knifed through the night, a caterwaul of rage and revenge.

If the Lu Yus did not know something was amiss before, they know it now.

Iroh blinked, catching a glint of fire. Zuko knew they had to stay hidden, he'd agreed not to bend unless the need was dire-

He didn't.

Spirit-fire, invisible to ordinary sight. It glimmered around his nephew from sheer force of will, glinting off blades, blazing high on protective fire-thorns. The sickly-gray power of the kamuiy tried to cling to steel, to climb and rot tempting flesh-

And was burned away. Vanquished.

Hissing, the beast turned on Iroh. Charged him, teeth and claws and flailing naked tail-

Vanished into the earth, just ahead of salt water.

"Where'd it go?" Zuko demanded, scanning the ground for movement.

"It wishes to cause pain," Iroh said grimly, backing up to his nephew and the trembling woman. "But it is at heart a coward, and we can defend ourselves- nephew, no!"

Too late. Zuko had already swung onto Asahi's bare back, and was racing for the ranch, just behind mocking laughter.

------

Don't know why I'm doing this. Thought my family was messed up, but these guys! They deserve whatever the kamuiy's going to do.

Only it wouldn't stop there. Zuko knew it. Already, the animal-plague was starting to spread off this ranch to innocents. If it got into people….

Not going to happen.

Asahi moved like a dark wind. Ping must have loved her.

You tried to get away, didn't you, Ping? You fought him. Your own father.

I wish I was that brave….

The ranchers were out and angry, lanterns and spears in hand. "You!" Sho growled. "What are you doing on one of my mounts? Thief!"

"The kamuiy, you moron!" Zuko snapped, racing to track that telltale ripple of dirt. There!

In front of them. Too far for swords. The ground erupted-

Sorry, Uncle.

Zuko slashed air, fire blazing out to smash the spirit away from its target. Asahi squawked in protest, hopping sideways-

Which was just as well, as Sho's spear sliced through where they'd just been. "Firebender!"

"Plague-spirit, you rock-headed idiot!" Zuko twisted off Asahi, blades sweeping out to intercept screaming teeth. "Do you really want to fight me instead of this?"

From the number of spears jabbing his way, they really did.

Time to stop being subtle.

Earth was solid, rooted, stubborn. That's how they came at him, spear-points bristling like thorns, eyes wide and glazed as if they could ignore the malevolent spirit by sheer will.

Solid. Stubborn. Predictable. He could see exactly how to slice, leaving them all defenseless-

A sway of a waterbender's body, trapping his spearmen in ice….

Zuko echoed that flow of memory, twisting away from jabs with inches to spare. Spears struck unnatural fur-

Bounced off, as if the spirit were made of steel.

What the-?

"Die, little dragon!"

The kamuiy leapt for him, a whirlwind of teeth and claws and hate-

But he'd fought the wind before. He'd fought the Avatar. This creature wasn't even close.

Don't let it touch you.

One blade slashed fire at it to knock it back. Its twin cut behind him, spearheads falling like iron hail. He somersaulted over the porch rail and brought a heel down blazing fire onto dry wooden planks, searing through to intercept the spirit as it burrowed.

Amazing, how such an awful screech was music to his ears.

A more human howl, followed by blistering curses. "-Damn bitch hen!"

Aww. Asahi had bitten the bastard again. Shame she'd missed his throat.

Earth writhed under the hole ringed by blazing timbers. The kamuiy, trying to burrow away-

No. You. Don't!

Zuko yanked his arms up, feeding rage and pain and betrayal into flames already blazing. Fire roared, consuming wood like flash paper, whirling as he swept his arms across into a firestorm drilling down-

Burning into the soil itself. Consuming it, in white-hot rage.

This maze isn't just on the surface, spirit!

The kamuiy's screech rose higher and higher, itching at his ears like the calls of cricket-mice-

Cut off, with a sudden sense of absence. Filmy gray vapors rose from the flames, and shredded away.

"It is over, nephew."

Zuko staggered, painfully glad of the firm hand gripping his shoulder. Everything ached, and the world had an unsettling tendency to gray out at odd moments. "Uncle? Are you all-"

Groaning ranchers were scattered on the ground behind them, like so many fallen leaves. At least one beheaded spear had been further shattered by an annoyed blade-hand strike. And Asahi was standing over Sho, hissing.

Hungry and exhausted, Zuko grinned.

Uncle coughed into his fist, eyes ruefully amused. "I think, perhaps, it is best we go."

"My house!"

"Swiftly," Iroh added dryly.

Zuko stepped back, finally taking in the blazing building. The ranch-house was already crumbling into itself; flames vining out along attached fences, the very ground smoldering as fire crept through it. Wincing, Zuko lifted a hand-

"Let it burn."

Zuko swallowed, sheathing his dao. "Uncle?"

"Fire cleanses. If the town will not exact justice - I believe this should suffice."

Zuko grimaced, glancing down the road. Lanterns, torches, the glint of iron and steel…. "They may not agree with you."

"Oh dear," Uncle Iroh murmured.

They're armed, Zuko thought. They're fresh - fresher than we are, anyway. And we don't want to hurt anyone.

Decided, he whistled.

Asahi perked up her head, and stalked over to them.

Catching her reins, Zuko glanced at his uncle.

Iroh eyed the ostrich-horse. Glanced at the semiconscious ranchers, and the aghast Madam Lin. Looked at the roaring flames, and sighed.

Leaving his uncle to raid the stable for tack, Zuko ran for their supplies.

Asahi saddled, Iroh wasn't far behind. "Where are we going, nephew?"

"Anywhere but here."

------

I should have been a little more specific.

He should have known better. Really. They had hooks, line, bait - of course they'd end up in a dry waste where water was scarce and fish even scarcer. Not to mention a town full of scared civilians and a bunch of thugs masquerading as a home guard.

At least Sela's stew had been filling. Though he really wasn't sure about the job he'd done on their barn roof. Didn't match the other shingles at all.

But even Uncle had admitted it might be better to drop the traveling healer act for a few towns. Just in case the Lu Yus had spread the word. No matter how hungry it left them.

The robe was still wrapped up tightly in one of their saddlebags. Uncle insisted he hang onto it. For luck.

I hate luck.

"Why, Uncle?" Zuko asked now, as they rested in the grass to work out their next move. Not that there were that many directions to go from here that didn't end up in a desert. "We all hit it. But they couldn't cut it. It doesn't make sense."

Lying back, Iroh laughed softly. "I thought you did not wish to know more of the spirits, Prince Zuko."

"I don't," Zuko insisted. "And why are you calling me that? We're in the middle of nowhere."

"Because it is important." Iroh tapped his fingers together, choosing his words. "Many believe strong benders run in families. To a certain extent, this is true. Bending is a gift of the spirits, and those with strong spirits often raise strong children."

Zuko frowned, and sat up. "If that's true - why wipe out the Air Nomads? What was the point?"

"The point was to destroy the Avatar, and remove the knowledge of airbending from the world, so the cycle would remain broken," Iroh said gravely, rising to look him in the eye. "Unless a few sky bison have hidden themselves in the farthest mountains, they are gone. Any who might be born with the gift have no one to teach them." He chuckled. "Though I have heard interesting stories, of the Earth Kingdom refugees we saw at the Northern Air Temple-"

"I don't want to know."

Iroh raised an eyebrow. Zuko glared, and tried not to think. "We saw them gliding. Using the wind. That's all."

If I know anything else, if Father knows, I might have to - no. Not my problem. The Avatar is my problem. That's all.

He let his gaze slide aside, feeling oddly guilty. "So what does bending have to do with swords?"

"It was not your swords that cut him, young prince. It was the strength of your technique. And of your will." Iroh smiled at him. "I would not have risked dealing with a spirit bent on malice, if I did not know we both had the strength to survive the encounter."

Zuko swallowed. "I'm not strong." Not like you.

"We must teach you more history," Iroh mused. "Though finding the scrolls I seek outside the Fire Nation may be difficult… even before Fire Lord Sozin, the Avatar could not be everywhere at once. People had to deal with some spirits on their own. And those benders with the strongest will, who could defend their people from evil - they often became great leaders, and their children after them. That is your heritage, Prince Zuko. And mine. No banishment, no decree, no shame-" he reached out.

Zuko stiffened.

With a sigh, Iroh let his hand fall. "None of that can change who you are, my nephew. You are strong. Here." He tapped gently over his own heart. "Never forget that."

Never forget who you are. His mother's face, disappearing into the night after - after Azula had said those horrible lies. "But Azula's stronger."

"Azula is more skilled," Iroh said bluntly. "The two are not the same. Azula could not even attempt what you are beginning to master."

Zuko glanced at Asahi, happily cropping grass, shrubs, and the occasional cricket-mouse. Looked away. "Like that's really going to impress my father."

"The Fire Lord would not be pleased," Iroh admitted. "My brother is a suspicious man. I understand why your mother did not bring her skill to his attention. You may not have time for my proverbs, nephew, but I think Ozai learned one too well: all medicines can be poisons-"

The world crumbled.

Mother could heal.

Grandfather died.

"Everything I've done, I've done to protect you."

"Zuko. Zuko!" Uncle's hands were on his shoulders, shaking him. "Agni, you are pale as death… what is it?"

No. No, it can't be. "Azula always lies," Zuko whispered.

"It is best to assume so." Iroh studied his face, eyes grave. "Nephew. Tell me what is wrong?"

Zuko swallowed. "Grandfather was old, wasn't he?"

"Almost a hundred," Iroh acknowledged. "Though that is not always old, for a strong bender; King Bumi of Omashu is at least a decade older, and still an earthbender to be reckoned with. Sozin himself lived over a century and a half, vibrant to the end. And my father seemed well, before I left. But much can change in two years." He frowned. "Zuko. Tell me."

Zuko shook his head. No. She wouldn't. But… she said… and I'm like her, I'm like her and I- "Don't hate her. Please." Don't hate me.

Paling, Iroh let him go.

I'm going to be alone again. Like after Mom… I don't care if I deserve it, it hurts….

"Zuko." Iroh's voice was calm, the sea before a storm. "Why would you believe your mother could do such a thing?"

"…It's my fault."

"You were ten." Still that same ominous calm. "How could it ever be your fault?"

"He was going to kill me." Zuko swallowed hard, closing his eyes. If he didn't look, he wouldn't see. If he didn't look, he could pretend his uncle didn't hate him. Just for a little longer. "That's what Azula said. But she always lies."

"Please." And there was a tremor in Iroh's voice that made him want to curl up and hide. "Start from the beginning."

Tell the truth. That's what Ping needed, wasn't it? Uncle's always looked after me. He should know.

He shouldn't have to stay with a monster.

Eyes shut, fists clenched, Zuko looked back into memory. "It started after we - heard about Lu Ten. Father went to meet the Fire Lord…. Azula wanted to hear what they said, so she pulled me behind a curtain to listen. Father… he said your line was ended, and he had heirs, he should be the next Fire Lord." Zuko swallowed. "I don't know what happened next. Grandfather was mad. I was scared. I ran away."

Iroh sighed. "But Azula did not."

"She - she came into my bedroom later. She said-"

"Dad's going to kill you. Really, he is."

"-She said Fire Lord Azulon was angry. That… that he told our father he should know the pain of losing a firstborn…."

"Oh, Agni," Iroh whispered.

"And - and then Mom came in, and took her away - and she woke me up in the middle of the night and I didn't even know to say goodbye, and - she was gone. And Grandfather was dead." He wasn't going to cry. He wasn't. "Mom said - she did it to protect me, it's my fault…."

"Zuko-"

A wagon's rumble; Zuko shot to his feet, reaching for his blades-

Sela. Face taut with an all too familiar fear. "You have to help!"

Who, us? You've got a whole town full of real Earth Kingdom neighbors to ask, lady. We're leaving.

"It's Li…."

Of course it was. And of course, they were the only other armed so-called citizens for miles, what was wrong with these people? Didn't they realize that if you sent men off to war, you made damn sure the women knew how to defend themselves? How to defend their children?

Like Mother fought for me.

Argh. How did he keep getting into these things?

------

You are a kind and gracious woman, Madam Sela, Iroh thought, calmly absconding with a length of chain from the blacksmith's forge while his nephew provided a distracting spectacle to the watching townsfolk. But I do wish you had come along just a few minutes later.

His nephew might have buried his pain under his determination to rescue the boy, but he still believed Iroh should hate him. And there had been no time to correct those awful fears.

Now, Zuko fought well, but he fought alone. And while Iroh had no fear for the young prince against any number of ordinary thugs, to face both numbers and an earthbender, without giving himself away… well, it might be difficult.

But he is not alone.

The earthbender's hammer lifted for a mighty blow-

Chain twirling over his head, Iroh threw, and yanked.

It never ceases to amaze me, how many benders fail to train with anything more than their arms.

Zuko's spinning kick caught the earthbender under the chin, and the man crumpled like a wilted flower.

Smiling in satisfaction, Iroh cut that troublemaking young scamp Li free-

"Boo! Cheater!"

Delivering one gap-toothed boy into Sela's anxious arms, Iroh turned toward the mob, incredulous. Surely, these people were not about to turn on his nephew simply because-

"What do you think you'd do against our guards in a fair fight, pretty-boy?"

Ah. The closest thing this town had to a village elder. Who'd been all too quick to bow to the Guard, while they were standing. For an instant, Iroh admired his nephew's self-control. Not a flicker of flame or breath of steam to be seen. Amazing, given he himself felt more than inclined to turn back the wheel of time a decade and start setting strategic points on fire.

Enough of that. "If you are depending on warriors who can only win a fair fight," Iroh declared, pitching his voice to carry, "then you are all doomed. The Fire Nation has no interest in fighting fair." No good general was. A fair fight meant a chance that you would lose. And then all your dead haunted you for nothing….

Reaching his nephew's side, Iroh smiled ruefully. "Some days," he said, voice low, "one can only make a strategic retreat."

Zuko stared at him, stunned. Disbelief, incredulity-

Hope, flickering in gold eyes like the embers of burning joss sticks.

Mounted double, they left the catcalls and anger behind.

"I do not hate Lady Ursa."

Reins in hand, Zuko stiffened. Forced himself to relax. "He was your father."

"True," Iroh allowed, heartsick. "But no father should ask what he asked of his son. And no son should ever grant such a horrible request." He sighed. "I hope my father meant only a line adoption; to give you to me as an heir in Lu Ten's place. But it would seem your father, at least, thought… otherwise."

That, or Ozai simply could not live with the insult of being passed over as heir for a boy he thought weak and useless. And had decided to rid himself of the shame. Directly.

Suddenly, that horrible Agni Kai made far too much sense.

How long have you wished him dead, brother? How long?

But past was past, and Zuko already carried enough pain. "I think of what I would have done, had the Fire Lord asked me to harm Lu Ten," Iroh said soberly. "And though I feel pain, and grief… I do not blame your mother. Your death, or Fire Lord Azulon's, or her flight; those were her choices. And brave and cunning as she was, I do not think she would have survived fleeing the very heart of the Fire Nation with you at her side. Ozai would have hunted you down. Both of you." Iroh swallowed the anger, if he could not hide the grief. "I do not hate her, nephew. And I do not hate you."

Zuko glanced behind them, checking for any pursuit. So far, there was none; the villagers content to have merely run trouble out of town. "Azula…."

"Yes?"

"…Never mind."

"Such poisonous words are like knives in the dark, nephew," Iroh stated gravely. "Force them into the light, and they have lost the advantage."

Zuko swallowed, and drew Asahi to a halt. Dismounted, checking her feet quickly, and started walking, leading the black hen. "She'd… quote that proverb. A lot. And look at me."

All medicines are poisons. Yes. He could see it, Agni help him. "You believe she knew of Lady Ursa's skill."

"She's Azula." Zuko's hands fisted on the reins. "She'd… do things, leave them bleeding, and I couldn't…." He shook his head, violently. "At least - she got bored with that. After a while."

Oh, Zuko. His nephew was not a fool. Try to heal, and mark himself a traitor, as he knew Ursa would have been marked? Try, and fail, as a young firebender with no one to correct such a delicate technique would have failed….

It is not a wonder he feared to try. That he fought the fear, when I asked, and when Asahi needed him - Ozai, you are a fool. "Why did you not tell me?"

"Who was going to stop her?" Zuko said bitterly. "She's… she has a pattern. She starts on something, and - she keeps doing it, more and more, until you blow up. And then she does it even more. But if you can act like it doesn't matter, like you don't care… sometimes she gets bored." He swallowed. "I'm not good at keeping still. Acting like I don't care. I should be better."

You fooled most of your crews for three years, Iroh thought wryly. "Do you remember the storm? I believe your men prefer the prince who honestly risks their lives, rather than a ruler who executes those who hesitate at her whims."

That earned him a troubled glance back, before his nephew's jaw clenched, silent.

Iroh hid a smile. Certainly, a prince commanded by right. But if your men followed out of their own will, as well as duty - that was a tie not lightly broken. Not among their people, at least.

And I do not doubt that is part of what Fire Lord Sozin played on, to lead us to destroy the Air Nomads. We of the Fire Nation are loyal, to the death - and when the airbenders would change their minds and shift, as history says was their way, those of us who might have counted them as friends would have felt… betrayed.

And unearned betrayal drove his people to desperate acts. If history had not sufficed to teach him that, three years on his nephew's quest had driven the point home to the heart.

"Do you think she suffered?" Zuko's face was set, and he would not look back. "I've heard - some people hang on for days before…."

Heard, indeed. How Azula had used that to prey on his nephew's mind, perhaps he was better off not knowing. "If she had died that way… there are limits to what my brother could conceal."

Zuko did look at him then, grim and hurting. "She betrayed the Fire Lord."

"If she did, she did so as your mother," Iroh said bluntly. "Her loyalty is to her children, her husband, and her family. So it has been since the first firebenders earned their skills under dragons' wings; so it will be, until the nations are no more. To kill her own beloved father - yes, that betrayal would have wounded her spirit to the grave. But Fire Lord Azulon… it is quite possible that she survived."

"Then where is she?"

"If I knew, my nephew, I would help you find her." Because she is your mother, and so holds her own claim on you. Though I would not do so without help. For my sake, as well as hers. I do not think I would be gentle, asking about that night. And about why she left you behind.

"Maybe you're wrong," Zuko said quietly. "Maybe she was loyal." He stared down the road, seeing nothing. "Have you seen someone die like that?"

"In war, anyone's loyalty may be strained past bearing," Iroh admitted. "I have seen traitors' deaths. And they are not pleasant." If my aide had not nursed me, and kept silent… well.

"So how can she post those lies? Calling you a traitor?" Zuko said fiercely. "You're the Fire Lord's brother. You'd be-" He cut himself off, with a breath of irritated steam. "But… Sho killed Ping. And she was his daughter. How could he… I've seen these people, and sometimes they act like decent people, like Sela, but others…."

"Other nations are not bound as we are," Iroh acknowledged. "And they do not risk their lives, when those bonds are broken."

"So if Azula posts a reward for traitors, they'll believe it." Zuko muttered something under his breath, almost too low to hear.

Iroh stifled a rueful laugh in a deliberate cough. Three years aboard ship might have been good for his nephew's spirit, but they had wreaked unholy havoc on a prince's vocabulary.

Perhaps he will listen, now. If I am subtle. "It is not impossible. We have been gone for some time. It is likely Fire Lord Ozai has considered that any illness of mine," or yours, "might have been hidden by our crew."

"They haven't!"

No, worse luck. "And while it is rare, some firebenders have survived."

"General Jeong Jeong," his nephew nodded grimly.

"I know of others." Carefully. "Sometimes, when you are trapped by two bonds, one must break. From need, from fear… from finding one's loyalty was gifted to one not worthy of it, and you must take it back." Listen to me, nephew. Listen, and heed.

"I know where my loyalties are."

"As do I, Prince Zuko." Unfortunately.

Patience, the elderly general reminded himself, as he had for years. Fire wishes to burn through the enemy - but you must be like water, wearing away stone.

Easy enough to tell himself years ago, when searching for the Avatar had been a fruitless quest. With the airbender returned, and Sozin's Comet on its way… things were beginning to become difficult.

At least we have not seen the bison since the North Pole-

Zuko stopped. Stiffened. Dropped to one knee to study the road.

Stood, with a tuft of familiar fur.

If there had been a spirit in front of them, Iroh would have set it on fire.

Chapter Text

This is too easy, Zuko thought darkly.

They were alternating riding and walking through the grassland; not the fastest they could have gone, but he wanted Asahi in shape to run if things went wrong. And he had a lot more practice tracking that flying fur rug than Azula did. He could cut loops off the trail, see in advance obstacles the bison would have soared over and the tank had to crunch its way around, and work out their own route, easier than hers.

And it was definitely Azula. Who else could divert a valuable war machine out here, where there were no strategic objectives to be taken? Given that - he'd take every advantage he could get.

But it was too easy. And that had nothing to do with the trail, and everything to do with the older firebender currently humming that bawdy tune about girls in Ba Sing Se.

"You should be talking me out of this."

"Hmm?" Currently riding, Uncle Iroh gave him a look of bemused surprise.

"We're outnumbered."

"That is very likely," Iroh allowed.

"She's in better condition than we are." Azula hadn't spent more than two months injured and hungry, count on it. "She has access to supplies. Probably better maps, too, and we're heading into unknown territory."

"All true."

"She's flushed them out of at least two camps," Zuko went on. "She's got them on the run. They're reacting, not thinking. Meaning the Avatar's lost his best tactical asset." That idiot Water Tribe boy might be annoying as all hells - Zuko knew exactly where he was going to jam that boomerang, if he got the chance - but he was the closest thing the Avatar had to a strategic planner. If he was too tired and shaken to come up with a plan, the Avatar's little gang was screwed. "Sooner or later the bison's going to get tired - sooner, if they don't start thinking - and it'll be all over… why are you looking at me like that?"

Iroh was smiling at him, hands folded on the saddle's pommel. "A teacher is always pleased to know when his student has mastered the lesson."

Mastered the- never mind, even if he asked it wouldn't make sense. "Uncle, this is a bad idea."

"It is," Iroh nodded. "You have summed up the worst of it quite well. If this were only a matter of your honor, nephew - yes, I would object. But it is not."

Only my honor? Only my- Wait. "It's not?" Zuko asked warily.

"No." Iroh frowned. "Fire Lord Ozai wishes the Avatar alive, which is wise. Why hunt among the Water Tribes, who still resist, if we do not have to? You know Azula's power, and you believe she can capture the Avatar. That may be true. But you also know the Avatar's power. Can she hold him, nephew? Without killing him?"

A whirlpool rising out of southern polar seas, sweeping sailors from his ship. A massive, glowing thing at the North Pole, blasting through the Fire Navy's might. "…No."

"And will she be humble enough to admit that she cannot?"

Azula, humble? The two words didn't even belong in the same universe. Wordless, Zuko shook his head.

"And if she does slay him…. Avatar Roku's fate may be known to some among the Fire Sages, none can say for certain. And our nation conquers in the wake of that uncertainty. If it were to become known that the royal family killed an Avatar - there would be no chance for peace in our colonies while this generation lives." Iroh regarded him gravely. "We are loyal to the Fire Nation. We must not allow this to happen."

My people. The colonies were as close as he'd come to home for three years. Technically, he wasn't supposed to be there, either… but all nations came to trade in some of those ports, and on festival nights when everyone wore masks, even he could go unnoticed. It was worth being no one, to taste fire flakes and listen to people who sounded nothing like the Navy. "What should we do, Uncle?"

"You have laid out our disadvantages well," Iroh said thoughtfully. "Please, continue."

"This isn't a tactical exercise, Uncle!"

"Is it not?" Iroh regarded him with mild reproach. "Remember, nephew. The warrior whose anger rules him has already lost. We have time. They are not near. Calm yourself, and consider the situation for all its outcomes. Even, perhaps, victory."

Treat it like an exercise. His blood boiled, he wanted to burn something - but that would be stupid, here in the middle of flammable grass. Though they had used that to their advantage, earlier; the pair of them controlling a circle of flame to flush out enough vole-rabbits for their first hearty meal in days. Asahi hadn't minded roasted cricket-mice, either.

nd Azula thought it was stupid to read stories about primitive firebenders- stop. Stop right there. She's the obstacle, remember? Just… try not to think about her. Much.

"We've probably got surprise," Zuko said at last. "She doesn't know we're here, or we'd know it by now." By way of lethal blue fire; no, she couldn't know. "And the Avatar probably thinks we went down with the fleet." If he thinks about us at all. And he was not going to let that make him mad. He wasn't. If the Avatar underestimated him - well, good. He could use another edge.

Besides, it wasn't like it was personal. The Avatar was a kid. He underestimated everybody. After all, the so-called link between the two worlds hadn't seen Zhao's plan coming either….

Zuko frowned, trying to pin down that thought.

"Surprise may help," Iroh nodded. "What else? You have thought of something."

"I'm not sure it helps, Uncle…."

Iroh raised an eyebrow. "I am curious, nonetheless."

"They don't know what they're dealing with," Zuko said at last. "None of them do." Azula probably thought, of the two Water Tribe siblings, it was the waterbender who was dangerous. And sure, she was - but not nearly as dangerous as she and the Avatar were with her brother's plans backing them up. And as far as what the Avatar thought about Azula….

"If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends too?"

"Spirits," Zuko hissed, "please tell me he's not that stupid."

Even as he said it, he had an awful suspicion the spirits were laughing at him.

--------

When they found the decoy trail, it wasn't a suspicion anymore. "Uncle?"

"Yes, nephew?"

"If those monks weren't dead, I think I'd kill them all over again."

"Prince Zuko-"

"Washed bison fur? Forget the Avatar - don't those primitive, hunting Water Tribe peasants know any tracker could tell the difference? A blind hog-monkey could see through this!"

Dismounting, Iroh coughed into his fist, eyes suspiciously alight. "A pity that we will not be able to tell him so."

"Oh, we will," Zuko snarled.

"He has his airstaff," Iroh observed, patting Asahi while she nibbled on spruce buds, apparently out of curiosity. "When he finishes laying his trail, he can simply fly away, without a trace."

"Which is why he won't," Zuko said grimly. "He's an airbender, Uncle. He thinks flying can get him out of anything. He's not going to do the smart thing, and retreat. He's going to find a spot for an ambush, and he's going to wait. Only he's not going to ambush her. He's going to talk."

Iroh was silent a long moment, considering that. "Do not take this the wrong way, nephew… but I hope that you are wrong."

"…I know."

He wasn't.

--------

"So, where is your nephew?"

Good question, Iroh thought, looking past the little blind earthbender. "Scouting ahead." Which had seemed best, one person alone on Asahi could retreat far faster…. "But he should have returned by now. I hope he has not run into something unexpected." Or worse, the one danger they did expect, that he had planned to face with his nephew.

Agni, let my nephew be sensible. Let him not try to take her alone.

Assuming, of course, Zuko had a choice.

"Scouting?" Toph chuckled. "You make him sound like a whole army patrol."

Oops. "Ah, well. I was a soldier, a long time ago." And not long enough, sometimes. "Traveling… it brings back old memories."

"Huh." Her bare feet felt at the ground, like a fisherman absently knotting a net. "Well, I don't think there are any bad guys around here. Maybe he's just lost."

"Yes, he is. A little bit." Iroh smiled sadly. "Our lives have recently changed, and while I think much good may come of it, it has been difficult. My nephew has choices to make. Some, I did not even know he might have, when we began our journey. He doesn't know it yet, but he is trying to figure out who he is, and what he wants." He sighed. "It is hard, to even look down a path your father would not approve of." Belatedly, he remembered his guest. "Er, that is, I meant to say-"

"It's okay, I get you." Toph grinned, in a way he'd seen on some of the best firebenders in the service. Cocky, and with good reason. "He's an idiot, but he's your idiot. Want some help finding him?"

Hmm. Accept the aid of a young, if powerful, earthbender, and run the risk she'd turn them both over to the Earth Kingdom? Or refuse, and possibly find his nephew facing Azula?

Well. As he'd decided with the white jade, it wasn't much of a choice. "I would be honored to accept your assistance."

"You're really worried," Toph said, not smiling. "What's wrong?"

Finishing his tea, Iroh sighed. "I believe there may be a small Fire Nation force nearby."

"What, here? In the middle of the kingdom?"

Iroh frowned. She didn't seem surprised….

"Yeah, you do need help," Toph said decisively, dusting off green robes as she stood. "Let's go find some idiots."

"I would not say my nephew is an idiot," Iroh said judiciously. "Most of the time."

Toph snickered, picking up her bag as he packed away his teapot. "Your nephew's very lucky, even if he doesn't know it."

Iroh smiled ruefully. I doubt he would agree with you….

--------

"Zuzu?" the Avatar laughed.

It was like white-hot barbs under his skin. Don't let it get to you, Zuko seethed. Almost cursing himself for leaving his dao on Asahi. But Uncle had been adamant. Leave the swords - leave the very fact that skill existed - as a tile up his sleeve. Azula would never take him and sharp edges seriously, anyway. Unless he was trying to kill her. And he couldn't. Just - don't.

It wasn't helping. On one side of him, the living symbol of everything he'd fought for three years; the only thing between him and his honor, his throne, his country.

Father's love….

On the other side, his nightmare. His little sister.

"You're a big brother," his mother had told him, over and over again, when he'd been especially bratty and jealous of an annoying little baby taking up his mother's attention. "It's your job to protect her. No one will ever do that like you will."

He'd believed it. He'd wanted to believe it. Agni help him, part of him still believed it.

I love you, Mom. But who was supposed to protect me from her?

He had to try.

"This isn't going to work, Azula!" You don't have chains, you don't even have rope - you don't have a clue. "The Fire Lord wants him alive."

"Like the little failure knows what Father wants." Her smile was mocking as ever. Chilling to the bone. "I'm not going anywhere."

Zuko swallowed dryly. "Yes, you are." For Father. For my people. For me.

I have to get this right.

The smile spread, glinting white teeth. "Who's going to make me? Mom?"

Traitor. Poisoner. You'll die like she did, and no one will even care you're gone….

Years of whispers, eating at him like acid. He knew what she was waiting for, and hated himself for it; the temper that would flare out of control, leaving him easy prey to her attack-

A memory of shaped warmth, bringing an absence of pain. Of a soft whistle, and feathers pressed gratefully against his hand. Of a firestorm, wreaking justice for an unmarked grave.

"Azula could not even attempt what you are beginning to master."

Zuko breathed, letting the whispers fade away. Not this time, Azula.

Her smile faded slightly, and he couldn't quell a shiver. He knew that look. Azula had seen something she didn't expect, and was calculating how to fit it into her plans-

Blue fire.

"The best block, is not to be there."

Too bad Uncle's advice about fighting never quite seemed to catch up with Azula. He had to block, fended off her fire with a breath-stealing impact on dusty ground.

Faster than I am, better than I am, she's going to win-

"We do not need to win this battle, Prince Zuko. We simply must not lose."

My people. Fingers clenched, Zuko coughed, and got back to his feet, dimly surprised Azula hadn't finished him off-

She was chasing the Avatar. Of course.

"The wise warrior knows his limitations, and accepts them. If she is more skilled than you - how can we use that against her?"

Good question, Uncle. Azula was punching blasts of blue fire at Aang, every one just barely a miss. She was faster, more skilled, more precise-

Precise. Control. Azula controlled everything and everyone around her, just like their father did. What they couldn't control, they destroyed.

Make her lose control. Make her angry.

Azula chased the Avatar into a wrecked building. Zuko let her hear him follow - then whipped around, fighting down the impulse to chase as he raced back to open air.

Sure, chase him into a building. Airbender, Azula. He loves bouncing people off walls; I should know. He can head out a window and be gone.

Just outside the doorway, Zuko swept his arms in a deliberate arc he hadn't used in weeks, hands curling and ready-

Blasted fire into the main support beams, and felt them catch.

A superior fighter made the terrain his ally. Ghost town. Dry wood.

This isn't going to kill you, Zuko knew; not sure who he was thinking of, as he urged flames upward. Like a graceful, angry flow of dark hair and blue dress, fighting him to the last in a spirit-touched oasis. Like nothing Azula would have ever fought.

This isn't going to kill you. But it's definitely going to get your attention.

And no matter how deeply Uncle might be contemplating his tea, he'd never miss this.

--------

Well, Azula thought coolly, clinging to the second-story ledge as flames rose around them, this is new.

Either this was a particularly desperate gambit on her pathetic brother's part, or little Zuzu had grown a ruthless streak while he was exiled.

Please. With his tea-drinking kookiness?

For a once-great general, Uncle was amazingly easy to fool about how she played with her brother. Just smile at the right time, and look oh so concerned about how hard Zuzu tried, wasn't it a shame he'd had to start a year behind her and just never caught up….

Not that Zuko ever could catch up. He worried about people. Cared what they thought; as if what weaklings thought mattered to the royal family. He had no focus.

So. Had to be desperate, then. Not that it would work. She was the prodigy, after all. The best. Keeping a bit of over-enthusiastic fire from singeing her was easy.

Though it did split her concentration. Which was annoying, when the Avatar was so close-

Well. Look at that. Trembling, sweating, even the ball of air fizzling out from under him… the little airbender was afraid of fire.

Oh, poor Zuzu. You're such a good brother.

Such a good fool.

--------

…Ow.

He was in the street. At least, Zuko thought he was in the street. He'd been fighting Azula for control of the fire, she'd made some kind of twist in the midst of the flames….

After that, everything was fuzzy.

I can't be dead. I hurt too much. He blinked, and faded brown resolved. "Uncle?"

"Get up!"

He grabbed Iroh's hand with trembling relief. Uncle was here. He'd promised, and he was here.

No. You can't collapse. Not yet. "Need at least two benders to make that work," Zuko observed, world still spinning.

About to speak, Iroh blinked instead, and raised an eyebrow at the structure crumbling into flames. "Azula was in there?"

Fire-blasts and wind-bursts echoed through the streets. "Was," Zuko said grimly.

They ran for the fight.

--------

Zuko? Katara thought, dazed, water at ready.

Of course Zuko. Why not Zuko? Miss crazy blue firebender had chased them all the way from Omashu, why shouldn't their very own personal bogeyman show up again?

Sokka was right. We should have let him freeze….

Except crazy as it was - and Sokka was right about lack of sleep making you crazy, not that she'd ever admit it - Zuko didn't seem interested in Aang at all. He was totally focused on the girl in Fire Nation armor, backing her into a corner right along with the rest of them.

He's… helping us?

He was with the old firebender, the one who'd tried to save the Moon Spirit from Zhao. Fire Nation, her enemy - and he'd still tried.

But this is Zuko. It's got to be a trick. Somehow. I don't know how, yet, but-

Gold eyes didn't even flicker, before blue fire flew. Not toward Aang. Not toward them. Toward….

Fire Nation, but he was trying to help, and - he's an old man, how could she-?

He didn't cry out. But Zuko….

Katara hadn't heard anyone scream like that since-

Mom.

No one deserved to suffer like that.

Not even Zuko? the same surly, malicious voice that had picked a fight with Toph sniffed.

No. Not even an arrogant, high-handed, spoiled prince of an enemy… what in the world was he doing to that fire?

--------

Flow with the flame.

Forget knots of copper instead of gold threads; part of what he was working with was charred, and too much just blackened ash. He had to dig in, pour in the fire and his own strength, somehow clear what couldn't be restored out-

"Katara! Don't put out the fire!"

The Avatar. Serious, for once. And damn right. He needed that fire. Uncle needed it, and while he'd never tried to seriously hurt the Avatar's little band of renegades, if they got between him and Uncle now….

Something cool slipped in under the flames, laving away ashes.

The waterbender. I should-

But the water didn't push. It just flowed around his fire, working at knots he hadn't touched. Or had touched, and couldn't - quite - unravel.

Why is she helping?

Didn't matter. Worry about it later. Just keep working, keep healing, and damn Azula….

"Don't push too hard. You want to work with the body, not against it."

He tried. Panic was the enemy. Uncle needed him to be thinking, not crying. Definitely not driving off a healer who seemed to know what she was doing, no matter how much he wanted to scream his fury to the skies.

How could she? How could she?

"It's okay, you're doing fine… whoa, that's a weird thing to say. Okay, just listen. Move around me, all right? I'm going to get the tricky parts. Just back me up, and everything's going to be fine."

Just because you're after the same goal, doesn't mean you're allies.

Some of the screaming in his head - you're helping the Avatar! - finally went quiet.

She's a healer. She's helping Uncle. Which is going to help me, and the Fire Nation. I don't have to like her. I just have to use it.

Better. Much better. As was the feel of Uncle's pulse under his hand when he ventured to touch healing skin; still fast, but steady.

Water retreated, and he let the fire go. She uses a waterskin, Zuko thought suddenly. So even when there's no water near to grab…. I wonder… didn't one of Uncle's scrolls say something about firepots…?

Grimacing, Zuko tried to gather his scattered concentration. Fire or no fire, he'd really overdone it this time.

I need sleep. Soon.

But not yet. Not until- Gathering his courage, he looked at the awful wound. Cloth was charred, still tainted with the awful scent of roasted flesh, but….

Letting the little earthbender help him sit up by way of a raised rock, Uncle smiled at him. "Well done." And lifted an expressive brow.

I know, Uncle. I know. Rising to his feet - he was not going to wobble, damn it - he ignored the rising babble from the two boys. And bowed to the waterbender.

Katara. You owe her that. And more.

"I owe you," Zuko said roughly, rising. "And I pay my debts." He skewered the airbender with a look. "Azula's going to kill you."

The Water Tribe boy snorted. "You've got a real funny way of-"

"Let him talk, Snoozles!" The earthbender stamped a foot on the ground for emphasis, dropping the boy, boomerang and all, into a sudden sinkhole. "This is important."

"Toph!"

"He's just talking, Sokka." Katara's voice was hard, but level. "Let him."

Amazing. Someone in the little bunch actually had sense. "Azula's not an exile," Zuko went on. "Fire Navy ship, Yu Yan, fresh mounts, tanks - if she asks for it, she'll get it."

"Zhao had all that," the Avatar started, "and-"

"Zhao just killed people when he didn't get what he wanted," Zuko bit out. "Azula is worse."

"Oh yeah?" Sokka challenged, up to his chin in dirt. He should have looked ridiculous, except for the determination in blue eyes. "And how, exactly, do you get worse than death?"

"She finds what you love, and she takes it away." No. I shouldn't have said that. I shouldn't have….

But he had. And from the way the airbender flinched, something had finally, finally gotten through that shaved, tattooed head.

Use it.

"She'll track you," Zuko went on harshly, standing his ground. "I did it by asking questions and following what I could see; you think it's a hundred years ago and sky bison are everywhere? They're not. People notice. And maybe some of them wouldn't talk to me because you're the Avatar, but believe me, they will talk to Azula. Because she smiles, and she knows how to make people want to trust her - and if they don't talk, someone will disappear. Maybe their wife. Or their friends. Or their children. And if they're lucky, they'll get a body back. She broke her neck. He drowned. They got buried in a landslide. Oh, what horrible accidents." He had to stop, and breathe, smoke curling up from clenched fists. "She'll say it just like that. And smile. And ask again." He stared into gray eyes, trying not to shake. "She's trying to kill you. She won't stop until she catches you. Any of you." Another breath. Spirits, he was going to kill something. Or throw up. Maybe both. "Do you understand me? Didn't any of those monks tell you what real people are like? We're not all worth saving, you idiot!"

Aang swallowed hard, but met him gaze for gaze. "I don't believe that, Zuko." He shook his head. "I can't."

Zuko saw pure, blinding red. "Then you're going to die-!"

"Nephew."

Enough. Just enough, to catch him before his temper teetered over the ragged edge. Zuko forced clenched fists open, dissipating daggers of flame.

"Go find Asahi," Iroh directed, golden gaze worried and sympathetic. "We will need to move swiftly."

Yes. They would. Zuko nodded to the old general, and took off down the street, leaving the whole infuriating band behind.

--------

Iroh sighed in relief as his nephew vanished around a building. Now, to deal with-

"Did you see that nut?" Sokka sputtered as Toph bent him back out of the ground. "Don't do that again! We were about to have crispy-fried Aang-"

"My nephew," Iroh said, in a voice that had cut across parade grounds at need, "was trying to help. Difficult as that may be to believe."

"Oh, sure. Chase us all over the world, and now he's on our side?" Sokka shook his head, wolf-tail whipping fast enough to catch him on the ear. "Ow!"

"No, he's not," Aang said firmly. "He was helping Katara."

"Who, me?" the waterbender said skeptically. "Just because I- um."

"Even so," Iroh nodded graciously. His shoulder was still sore, and likely would be for some time, he imagined. Still, he had no complaints.

That was meant to be a deathblow. Long, lingering, and painful.

Oh, Azula. Have you fallen so far, to please my brother? Or were you always this cruel, and we were all blind?

All, save Ursa and Zuko. Why had he never truly believed the boy?

It was too horrible, Iroh admitted to himself. My nephew had already lost his mother. It only seemed reasonable that he would be angry, and blame his rival for Ozai's love. As Ozai felt I was, for our father's. Only… expected.

"Honor's really important in the Fire Nation," Aang was saying. "That's what Kuzon always said."

So you do not know why. Iroh hid a grimace. And why should you? Roku was an Avatar; he was not bound by a firebender's loyalty. Avatars serve the world, they cannot serve their own clan. How Sozin must have ached, knowing one born as his dearest friend was as foreign to him as an airbender in the wind.

Still, the past was done. These children needed his mind on now. "Kuzon of Byakko?" Iroh asked.

"Yeah!" Exhausted as they all were, Aang still brightened. "Did you know him? Is that how Zuko healed you? I saw Kuzon doing something with green flames once, but he'd never show me. Even when I asked him a lot of times-"

"There is no time."

The Avatar's face fell, and Iroh almost regretted his brusqueness. Almost. "Azula will return, and she will not be alone. You must not be here when she does."

"And what about you, Uncle?" Toph asked, jabbing a finger into his unwounded shoulder. "You'd better not be here, either."

Uncle. Iroh smiled at the strong little girl. I do not think I would mind another niece. One who would at least give my nephew a chance to be himself, without always watching for pain. "Zuko and I have eluded her before. We will be all right."

"Whoa, whoa," Sokka was waving his arms in disbelief, "you're running from her?"

"Did you not hear her call us traitors, young man? Which is quite unfair to my nephew. He has always been loyal to the Fire Lord." He gave Aang a piercing look. "He still is."

"So… I guess we should get moving," Aang said reluctantly.

"It would be wise," Iroh said dryly.

"But… you helped us. And I really, really need a firebending teacher-" Aang saw his look, and gulped.

"Avatar Aang," Iroh said, with deliberate finality, "I hope, when next we meet, you will know why what you have asked is cruel."

"I'll say," Toph grumbled. "Don't worry, Uncle. I know enough about the nobles to clue Twinkletoes in." She clapped dust off her hands. "Come on, slowpokes!"

"Wait," Katara said hurriedly. "Uncle… what did Azula take from Zuko?"

Iroh closed his eyes, wrung by grief too worn for tears. "More than you will ever know, child."

"But-"

"Katara, come on!" Sokka hissed. "Creepy ladies. Blue fire. Sleep!"

Footsteps faded, and Iroh breathed a sigh of relief.

"They're gone."

Iroh started, looking about guiltily. Pain distracted one from the stillness needed to feel another firebender's fire, and his nephew was silent enough; that Asahi could almost match him for stealth was a bit unnerving. "Trying to take them would have been-"

"You're wounded. I'm exhausted. And Azula wants us both. I'm determined, Uncle. Not stupid."

Yet tired as he must be, Zuko didn't look angry. Or even resigned. In fact, if Iroh didn't know better…. "And what has you in such a good mood, my nephew?"

Openly smirking, Zuko dropped a hand-sized patch of familiar scales in front of him, one side still raw and bloody. "Guess who's going to be walking in an hour?"

Mongoose dragon scales. The rear thigh, if he remembered their patterns correctly. "But how…?"

"Who's a sweetheart?" Zuko crooned, scratching under a black-feathered beak.

If Iroh didn't know better, he would have sworn Asahi's trill was a chuckle.

Chapter Text

"Okay," Sokka said, with what Toph thought was probably supposed to be strained patience, but just felt sarcastic. "We're fed, Appa's all shedded out, no crazy ladies or metal monsters in footsie range, and, most important of all, we've all had sleep. Now. Are you going to explain what you meant about knowing nobles, and what that's got to do with Aang asking one of the less crazy fire-guys to teach him?"

Toes feeling everyone's place in the loose circle around her, the earthbender frowned, and cracked a nut between two rocks to buy a second to think. Most of the time, she'd just bull through with the blunt truth, and let people's illusions shatter around her. But even though she'd been locked out of sight by her own parents, she'd still managed to slip out for months of earth-rumbles. You met people that way. Good people, weird people, people you never, ever wanted in touching range. And you learned stuff. Some of it stuff that might have turned really nasty, if she wasn't the best.

These kids? Just look how they'd tried to deal with her parents. They were - well, they weren't dumb, but they could stand to learn a few things. "First off," Toph asked, getting her thoughts in order, "why didn't you say Prince Zuko, instead of just some angry guy with a ponytail?" Which he didn't even have, anymore; she would have heard his hair swishing around, like she heard Sokka's. And she hadn't.

"So he calls himself a prince," Sokka shrugged. "Big deal. Our dad's a chief. Who cares?"

"It is a big deal." Toph stabbed a toe into the dirt, flinging up a pebble to smack him from behind. "There's plenty of kings in cities across the Earth Kingdom, but there's only one Fire Lord. Ozai's got two kids. And we just met both of them."

"Zuko's the Fire Lord's son?" Katara said warily.

"Azula's his sister?" Sokka squeaked, almost at the same time.

Toph swung her head toward Aang. "You're not surprised."

"She asked if I could see the family resemblance," the airbender admitted reluctantly. Vibrations told her he was clinging to his airstaff. "She thought Zuko's scar was… funny."

"That's what most of the Fire Nation thinks," Toph said sourly. "My parents didn't like me around when they entertained, but when you can walk through walls, you overhear lots of stuff. Earth Kingdom merchants like to talk." That some of what she'd overheard had really been from Fire Nation merchants - maybe she'd better not lay that little bit of truth on them just yet. The Bei Fongs weren't rich from being stupid. They traded with anybody honest enough to strike a good deal with.

"So you know some stuff about the guy who's chased us all over the planet?" Sokka sounded reluctantly interested.

"I know he doesn't have a choice," Toph said flatly. "Nobody I heard really knew how he got scarred, but they think it had something to do with why the Fire Lord banished him right after. And everybody who's anybody knows he got told he couldn't come back without the Avatar. For three years, it was one big joke. And not the good kind." She pointed toward Aang. "And then you woke up, Twinkletoes, and all of a sudden? People aren't laughing anymore. Prince Zuko just might have a shot to do it. You have any idea how many people that got mad? Really, really mad?"

"Like Azula," Katara whispered.

Huh. Sugar Queen's heartbeat felt way confused. Good. She needed to fall off that high ostrich-horse once in a while. "You got it," Toph nodded sharply. "Zuko's her older brother. He gets out of exile, he could be the heir. He fails - or dies, you don't want to know how many people were sure he'd croak chasing rumors all over the world - she gets the throne. And from what people say? She's the one Ozai wants. Daddy's little girl, all ready to go out and burn soldiers alive." Toph snorted. "Makes me glad I'm an only child."

"But she's his sister," Aang protested. "Isn't that important?"

"Hey," Sokka patted the airbender on the shoulder. "We all know Zuko's the bad guy. No way would he tell the truth about-"

"He. Wasn't. Lying," Toph ground out. "He was mad, and scared, and just about dead on his feet, but he was not lying. I know when people are lying."

"You do?"

"You scarfed the last berry-tart out of Katara's bag and blamed it on Momo," Toph said bluntly. "Earth lets me know about people. Zuko's got really good stance; he's probably been training it for years. That's why you guys didn't realize you could have knocked him over with a lizard-bird feather."

"And we left him back there with her?" Katara swallowed uneasily.

"Relax," Toph waved. "Now that Uncle knows she's trying to kill them, if she does catch them, she won't get off that easy. You don't tick off the Dragon of the West."

"The who?" Sokka said skeptically. "He doesn't look like a dragon to me. Just kind of short, stumpy, follows after Zuko like an old… um." Sokka's heart sped up, as that rock-like (but strangely, unbendable) brain finally let a few conclusions through. "Uncle? Ah. You mean, on Zuko's mother's side. Right?"

Toph grinned at him.

"…Oh, this is not cool…."

"Um, raised by monks," Aang put in warily. "Am I missing something?"

"Are you ever." Toph raised a handy rock to lounge against. "The guy you asked to teach you? General Iroh. The Dragon of the West. The only firebender who ever breached the outer wall of Ba Sing Se." She paused, just to drive the point home. "Fire Lord Ozai's older brother."

The airstaff fell from nerveless fingers.

--------

I'm not going to scream at Uncle. I am not going to scream at Uncle.

Singed, blackened, and ears still ringing from the third failed explosion, Zuko punched fire into the ground instead.

"Zuko!"

"Leave me alone!" He clenched the more hateful words behind his teeth; they weren't true, Uncle was trying to help, it wasn't Iroh's fault that Azula was perfect at this while he was just-

A failure.

He breathed out pain and flame and the simmering fury of Uncle was hurt, I couldn't stop her-

It should have been me.

Another long, shuddering breath of fire, and Zuko sat back, drained. Going to have to cover the ashes if we want to keep our trail cold. Spirits, that was so stupid…. "I don't think this is going to work."

"You must clear your mind, Prince Zuko. Let go of your shame-"

"I'm not ashamed!" I know what I am. I try, and I try, and I can't fix it! I'm not ashamed-

Just angry.

Angry, and tired. And tired of being angry. There had to be something he could do.

"If the enemy is too strong to face directly, change your tactics."

Zuko blinked, absently weaving flame between his fingers. "Lightning… the energies are inside."

Iroh sighed, resigned. "Yes, they are. You separate your chi, and-"

Zuko let the flames flicker over his hand. "This is outside. So is healing. I can move my energy, Uncle - but I move it outside."

"…Hmm." Iroh stooped to feel through the ashes, rising with a few blackened, glassy lumps. "Perhaps I have forgotten what it is like to be your age, nephew. Lightning requires calm. And if your temper is anything like mine was then, calm will not come easily for some years."

Zuko blinked at the odd shift of tone. Not the impatience he'd expected from a master faced with a substandard student, but… understanding? "You had a temper?"

"The stories I could tell, could curl an airbender's hair," Iroh said with great satisfaction.

"…They're bald."

"Not without shaving." Uncle looked him over with a considering frown. "But I had thought you were calm, when you healed."

"You did?" Zuko said incredulously.

"It would seem I was mistaken," Iroh said thoughtfully. "You have always seemed quiet, with the healing fire. Focused."

Zuko eyed him a long moment, then shook his head. "It's not calm, Uncle. It's-" He hesitated, reaching into memory for the feel of it. "It's like a fight."

And now Uncle was looking at him very strangely.

"It's like fighting with someone else." Zuko glanced away, remembering that first touch of flame on Asahi, and how the wounds had seemed to scream a challenge at him. "They're fighting too, but they're just outnumbered. So you step in, and guard their weak side. And you keep fighting until it's over." He took a breath. "The energies - what you use is from you, and the fire, but what you're fixing is inside. Knots. Sort of. That you're trying to get straight again. Katara… she soaked them, until they loosened up and did what she wanted. I - kind of have to melt them. A little."

Iroh smacked himself in the forehead.

"Uncle?"

"At my age, I should know better than to assume," Iroh said ruefully. "I have another idea."

--------

"So what's got your hair-loops in a knot?"

Hand on the canyon wall, Katara groaned. Aang was snoring the sleep of the earthbending-exhausted, and Sokka was busily cleaning out any scraps left in the cooking pot, but apparently it was too much to hope that Toph's feet would let her brood in peace. "My hair's fine, thanks."

"Sparky, huh?"

"Sparky?" Katara sputtered.

"I've heard a lot about firebenders," Toph shrugged, leaning back against comforting stone. "Never heard of any of 'em who could fix people."

"No," Katara said quietly. "That's just weird. I mean, Master Jeong Jeong said-"

"You met Jeong Jeong the Deserter?" Toph cocked her head, obviously interested.

"He tried to teach Aang firebending," Katara nodded. "That… didn't go so well." She looked down at her unmarked hands. "That was the first time I ever healed myself. He saw me do it; he was the first person to tell me waterbenders could heal. I think he would have given anything to be a waterbender instead of fire." She frowned. "It just doesn't make sense! Master Jeong Jeong - well, he wasn't nice. He was hard, like Master Pakku at the North Pole. But he was a good man. Why should Zuko-" She cut herself off.

"Masters don't know everything," Toph said seriously. "Mine thought I was still working on kiddie moves." She stirred dirt with her toes, a sandy whirlpool. "Don't tell Aang this, but some of my serious stuff? I kind of got started on by accident. Just to see what I could do. So I can pull moves other benders think are impossible. 'Cause nobody told me I couldn't."

Katara stared at her. "You think Zuko figured out how to heal by accident?"

"Why not? You did."

That… actually made sense. Kind of. "It just seems crazy," Katara shook her head. "I know what fire does, it-" Her throat tightened. Mom.

"It's like Azula?" Toph said wryly. "Hey, if you think you're confused, what do you think he feels like?"

"I don't care what that jerk feels like!" Katara snapped. "He came to our home, he threatened Gran-Gran, he's always trying to hurt us, and Aang-"

"I could go home," Toph said matter-of-factly.

Katara rolled her eyes. "If this is about the camp chores…."

"No. I could go home. You and Sokka - you could go home. If you really wanted. And now you're thinking about how Sparky can't, and it's got you twisty as a nest of dragon-flies."

"Well, Aang can't go home either!" Katara bit out. "And who can we blame for that?"

"Is Zuko really a hundred years old?" Toph said wryly. "'Cause I gotta tell you, Sugar Queen, he sure doesn't move like it."

"But it was the Fire Nation!"

"This time." Toph snorted. "Never had to sit through history lessons, huh? Check out Chin the Conqueror. If he could've gotten up to the Air Temples, you bet he would have."

"And they didn't do anything to him, either!"

"Yeah. They didn't. Nice, peaceful guys, right? Didn't do anything to him. Didn't do anything to stop him. People kind of don't like other people sitting back and watching them get creamed." Toph looked straight at her, blind eyes serious. "I don't exactly do maps. But last I heard, the Air Temples aren't in the Fire Nation. They're on big mountains, right? Surrounded by the Earth Kingdom. Or up near the poles. Which means Water Tribe territory."

"So?" Katara said, puzzled.

"So. Who let the Fire Nation get to those mountains?"

Katara swallowed, chilled. "You're wrong. You don't know my father. You don't know anything!"

"I know your father's not a hundred years old, either," Toph shrugged. "You going to tell me I'm wrong, Snoozles?"

Katara smiled as her brother wandered their way, scratching the back of his head with a thoughtful scowl. Her big brother, would-be warrior, pretty much a good guy when he wasn't thinking with his stomach-

And then he had to open his mouth.

"Well, Dad wouldn't have," Sokka frowned. "But Gran-Gran's a lot older than any of us, and she left the North Pole for some kind of good reason."

"Sokka!" Katara exclaimed.

"Hey, you know what you had to go through to get Master Pakku to teach you waterbending," her brother pointed out. "And they were going to use eighty-five-year-old Fire Nation armor to try and sneak into the fleet. They didn't even know it changed!"

"So?" Katara griped, folding her arms.

"So, what do we really know about the Fire Nation? Besides the fact that they did start the war, they are after Aang, and Zuko's so stubborn even a city full of waterbenders couldn't keep him down. Well, him and his uncle," Sokka amended. "And that's… weird. Interesting, but weird."

Katara snorted. "Believe me, Sokka, nothing about that jerk is interesting."

"Still mad he tied you to that tree, huh?"

"I'll save you from the pirates." That high-handed, arrogant, over-confident-

"Ooo!" Toph bounced. "You've got to tell me about that!"

"Never mind about the tree!" Katara snapped. "I can't believe you're still thinking about him. Or his uncle!"

"I kind of can't believe you're not," Sokka said seriously. "Iroh told us something important." He held up a finger for emphasis. "Remember how he said Azula thinks they're traitors? And that wasn't fair to his nephew?"

"I really could care less what's fair to Zuko, Sokka," Katara grumbled.

"He didn't say it wasn't fair to him."

"Whoa. Good point," Toph said. "He helped you guys at the North Pole, right? Which kind of squashed Admiral Zhao's whole invasion flat. He really is a traitor."

Katara let her arms fall, unable to argue. "But Zuko trusts him." She frowned. "And he said he wouldn't help Aang."

"He's not going to teach Aang," Sokka said, with what was meant to be a wise and knowing air. "Doesn't mean he won't help, next time we run into them."

"Next time?" Toph asked.

"Oh, yeah," Katara sighed. "With Zuko? There's always a next time."

--------

"All this four elements talk is sounding like Avatar stuff," Zuko said warily.

Meaning he was treading on the very thinnest ice of his nephew's willingness to listen, Iroh knew. Lifting a hand from his dirt drawing, he tossed another twig to the small fire he'd built in Zuko's seared pit; deliberate distraction, to ease the singing tension. The Avatar was the bridge to the spirit world - and the spirits had ever been less than kind to his nephew.

Well. Except, perhaps, in one instance. Asahi browsed in and out of view, clearly unworried by any fire so long as it was theirs.

"It is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful," Iroh agreed. "But a true Avatar's power is rooted in more than just bending. The Avatar was meant to travel the world, and teach each nation of the others, so none of us forgot why we need each other. He saw the ways of each people, and so we saw them in him. For sometimes it is only by looking at another that we can see the truth of ourselves."

"I don't understand."

Nor do I. Not as I had thought I did, Iroh thought. "I have been considering what you said, nephew. And I believe I may have an answer. But to be certain - and I must be certain - I will need you to do something very difficult."

Zuko sat up straight, determined. "I'm ready."

"Good," Iroh nodded. Waved at the fire. "Imagine a small child, who has just started to firebend. Like yourself, perhaps, when Lu Ten was your age. Teach him to heal."

"Uncle?" The unscarred eye was wide.

"Imagine, nephew," Iroh said gently. "Imagine that I ask for him, why does this work? How do I begin?"

Zuko stared into the fire, silent.

Perhaps it is too soon. I hoped not, but what Azula did to both of us… betrayal cuts deep.

"Fire wants to fight."

Iroh sat back, listening.

"It wants to fight, and it wants to burn." Zuko frowned, feeling his way through words. "If you want it to be more, you have to give it part of you. You have to flow with it. It's like… if firebending is being the captain of the ship, healing is turning it so you don't get swamped by the rogue wave. You get what you need, but you're not - all the way in control." He paused, shaking his head. "Fire is a rhythm, a heartbeat. It knows how to dance, it just doesn't know what dance you need it to do. You have to show it the steps. It's you, and the fire - and you're not trying to match it, not like breathing. You're trying to find a rhythm you can both fit. And then it's you and the fire and the person you're healing, and that gets complicated, and sometimes you trip a little. But you care, you have to care - and if you just keep going, it'll work." Zuko blew out a breath, obviously not happy with his own words.

Look outside yourself, indeed, Iroh thought, smiling. Dancing, especially with a partner, was a habit of other peoples, not the Fire Nation.

And why should it be otherwise? Other benders must find their element outside themselves. We carry ours within. Which is why those like Zhao proclaim us superior. And perhaps we are - in combat, in killing.

But in our dances, we dance alone.

"It seems a place to start," Iroh nodded. "Now. Show me."

Eyeing him doubtfully, Zuko beckoned to the fire-

Stopped. Took a breath, and reached out again with both hands. Slowly.

Shaping a fireball, Iroh thought, watching intently. But he called it from the fire, not himself, and he has not separated it wholly from the flames. And he is adding his own energy to it. Much like a waterbender, riding a wave.

Ball of flames between his palms, sparks trailing to the fire, Zuko began moving his hands in slow, opposing circles. Glints of green caught and spread, ribbons reaching out to wreathe his hands.

It is like the dao, Iroh realized. They do not move exactly as one. As two halves of a whole, yes. But one is sometimes faster, or slower. And sometimes they are near to block a single enemy, while at others, they separate to fight a host of opponents.

A fight. A heartbeat. A dance. If there were something less akin to the calm separation of lightning-bending, he had never seen it.

Zuko took the opportunity to reach back and run flames over the bruises from his meeting with the street, and let the fire in his hands die. "I guess that's it."

Nodding, Iroh reached out to the fire himself.

This is not as easy as it looks.

Training said to keep his movements precise, sharp, controlled. To establish boundaries between himself and the flame. Fire, taught the masters, was anger, destruction, deadly passion. It could not be left to rage unchecked.

But Iroh had seen dragon's fire. And yes, rage was in it - but also warmth, compassion, friendship. Even the rage was no cold thrill in destruction, but desperate love of what they fought to protect.

Flow with the flame. Let it be part of you. Care.

It seared inside, like the times he'd snuck into hidden caverns to try to bend lava. Not so much physical pain, as of the spirit; he'd ached for his family and his people so very long….

It was the searing that kicked in training again; fortunately his own, and not any gained from Sozin's teachings. Live! Let the energy flow. In, down, up, out-

Green blazed between his hands, before it shattered apart.

"Uncle!" Soothing warmth kneaded his shoulder, sinking in to his heart. "You - you weren't breathing right…."

Iroh drew a deliberate breath, and felt the flow of his own chi. A bit uneven, but Zuko's efforts were mending that. "The technique," he said wryly, "is not so harmless to the student as it appears."

"Not harmless? What did you do?"

Green flickered away again from Zuko's hands, and Iroh leaned gratefully on his nephew. "On the bright side, it appears that I am right. And for that, I am sorry. I am truly sorry, nephew. It has been in plain view for years, and I did not see."

Zuko's fingers felt for his pulse. "Uncle, are you sure you're all right? Because you're not making sense."

Iroh chuckled ruefully. "I am, no thanks to my own training. Zuko. When you change the fire to heal, you leave its energies linked to the flames. And to yourself. This is not what firebending teaches."

Zuko stiffened, pulling back. "So I'm doing it wrong."

"No!" Iroh gripped his shoulders, holding the young man before he could escape back into doubt and pain. "No, nephew. You are doing it right! I did it as firebenders are taught; I controlled the flow, precisely. And like the rogue wave on the sea, it is not meant to be so tamed."

"Your heart." Zuko was desperately pale. "You have to feel it with your heart, and…."

"Yes," Iroh nodded, relieved to have finally - finally! - gained a clear view of his enemy's position. And if his intuition was correct, it might yet become an ally instead, if he were clever enough. "The heart has a rhythm as well. Control the fire too tightly, it turns on those rhythms of your own it can reach." And I thought only lightning could so stop a heart.

Which led to grim thoughts of exactly what Ursa might have done… no. His father's death was the past. Zuko's life was here, and now. "You did it right, Zuko," Iroh said simply. And laughed at himself, ruefully. "Which means, of course, I have been teaching you firebending as I might calligraphy, left-handed."

Zuko gave him a look askance. "Did you get hit with a boomerang when I wasn't looking?"

"Listen to me, nephew," Iroh said patiently. He couldn't blame the boy for his doubts. Any other master would swear he'd been sunstruck. But if he closed his eyes to the lessons of Sozin and Azulon, and looked at what his nephew had actually done…. "To throw fire together with another bender is a fundamental technique, yet it remains one of the most difficult. Many do not even bother to master it. Why should they, when we can order the mass fire of hundreds? But at the South Pole we threw, and you did not hesitate."

"I know my basics, yes, thank you, Uncle-"

"Hush, and listen," Iroh directed. "When you faced Zhao, I worried he had you; yet with one spin you shattered his fire and his stance. I have known masters who could not have struck that blow. When you raised fire about Azula, why did she not wrest it away the instant it burned? Unless she could not, until she forced herself free with all her strength. And now, when you heal…." He let go, and smiled. "What do these fires have in common?"

Zuko swallowed. "They're outside." He grimaced. "But that's not how it's supposed to be."

"At the moment, I believe we should be less concerned with proper style, and more with what will work if Azula does bring reinforcements." Iroh nodded toward the dao resting by their packs. "Is that not why you learned swords as well?"

Zuko's fists clenched. "I just - wanted to be good at something."

"And so you are," Iroh said firmly. You are good, nephew. Not a master, perhaps; but you are only sixteen. Give yourself time.

Azula was chasing them. Sozin's Comet was coming. Time, they did not have.

"Do not discount your gifts, Prince Zuko," Iroh said instead. "They may yet save your life. There is a firebending technique neither Azula nor my brother know, and it depends on something very much like what I have seen you do."

"There's a move the Fire Lord doesn't know?" Zuko said warily.

Iroh smiled. "He doesn't know, because I made it up myself." He dropped his nephew a wink. "I was studying waterbenders years before Katara drew your attention, nephew."

"Drew my attention?" Zuko sputtered. "She buried me in ice in the middle of a blizzard, Uncle!"

"You should have seen what my Natsu did when I was your age," Iroh said fondly. "Ah, what a fiery chase she led me, before she caught me!"

"Uncle." Zuko was gripping the bridge of his nose in the exasperated way that meant he'd decided this was another bout of temporary insanity, which just might pass if he waited it out. "She's Water Tribe. She is not waiting to ambush me with a red cord and three cups of wine. Trust me."

"Ah, a shame," Iroh sighed gustily. Mentally chalking another point on his side of the tally: one distraction, complete. "Well. The cold fire is powerful, and certainly impressive, but it has a weakness. More than any flame, it is energy, and it seeks the path of least resistance. If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow." He stood. "Let us begin."

--------

In, down, up, out, Zuko chanted to himself as they practiced through the afternoon, shifting the flow of energy as he moved. Trying not to think of that flash of pure fear, as he'd stared Azula's sparkling death in the face-

Before Uncle had stepped between them, and redirected her bolt into the cliff.

He saved me. I didn't even realize what he did, not then - too scared, too angry - but he did.

Next time, I want to save myself.

In, down, up, out.

It was and wasn't like healing. Healing was a dance, a partnership, both sides trading off the lead. This was more like Jun the bounty hunter's whip, snapping out against danger. But it was still a flow. A pattern.

It makes sense.

He could feel the technique, solid as any of the basics Uncle had taught him. This was how it would flow. How it would work. "I'm ready."

"Ready?" Uncle Iroh said incredulously, dropping out of stance. "What, are you crazy?"

"I have to know it works, Uncle!"

"And if it does not?" Iroh blazed. "I have lost my son; I will not lose you as well! If you are lucky, you will never need this move in your life!"

He's angry. He never gets angry. Zuko clenched his fists, unwilling to back down. "When have I ever been lucky, Uncle?"

Silence, stretching taut between them as gold warred with gold. "No," Iroh said flatly, every inch the Dragon of the West. "You are not ready."

I need this! It was all the banished prince could do not to scream. I need this, Uncle. I need to win. I need to beat her!

…I need to be good enough. Just once.

Breathe. Bite back the anger, even if smoke rose from between his clenched fingers. "Azula's after us, Uncle. If she brings troops - if she gets us separated…." Zuko swallowed hard, pride burning like acid. "If she does that, I'm dead anyway."

I'm not good enough to take her. I never have been. All I can try to do is stay alive.

All we can do is run.

It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. The rage burned in him like lava, demanding to blaze free….

It's never been fair, Zuko reminded himself, forcing the anger back. And I don't care. I'll make my own destiny. Whatever it takes.

Uncle sighed, anger draining away like water, leaving him worn and tired. "You make a good argument, Prince Zuko. I will consider it."

Zuko let out a breath of relief. "Thank you, Uncle-"

"No!" Iroh slashed a hand across, trailing smoke. "If you wish me to risk your life, you will earn it! You will practice. You will listen to me. And for once in your life, you will wait, until I say you are ready!"

Zuko swallowed, shaken. Uncle Iroh was always calm, always controlled. To see him half-raise fire without even thinking about it…. He shivered.

Iroh sighed once more. "We are tired," he went on, more quietly. "And healed or not, a fight like that we faced yesterday would drain trained soldiers, much less-"

"You don't have to explain, Uncle." Biting his lip, Zuko bowed, student to master.

And tried not to flinch, as Iroh's arms closed around him.

"I love you, nephew," Iroh said softly. "I do not tell you that enough. If I could, I would stand between you and harm forever. But you are right. I cannot." One hand lifted, brushing back unfamiliar short hair. "I can only give you the skills to protect yourself, and pray."

Uncle's hand in his hair. It should have been comforting. It was.

And somehow, that made it even worse.

No familiar weight of a phoenix-tail. No breeze across shaved skin. Clothes that weren't meant to be worn with armor; that weren't even red. No taste of salt, no coal smoke, no sway of the ship under him….

Nothing was right in the world. Nothing.

"I'm sorry, Uncle," Zuko choked out, hating the tear that trickled from his good eye. "If I hadn't chased him to the pole, you wouldn't have been with Zhao. Our crew wouldn't have- they couldn't call you a traitor-" He swallowed hard, words a bare whisper. "I just wanted to go home."

"I know, nephew. I know." A chuckle against his shoulder. "And you may underestimate Lieutenant Jee. Our crew has seen the Avatar unleashed before. If anyone had a chance to survive that fury, they did." Iroh let go, and nodded. "Come. We can make some more distance, before dark."

--------

So it begins.

Lying awake beside Asahi's warmth, Iroh looked over at his nephew. Even in sleep, Zuko frowned, huddled on himself, hands clenching and unclenching on the bedroll.

"I just wanted to go home."

Zuko knew. He had not admitted it to himself, not yet. But he knew.

We can never go home again. Iroh smiled wryly. Perhaps I should almost get killed by Azula more often.

Though he doubted matters would have gone this well, had Zuko not been able to heal him. Azula had won the physical fight, but Zuko had denied her the victory. It gave him strength. A place to stand, to be certain of himself, when all the world seemed to fall apart around him.

And it will.

All his life, Zuko had tried to please his father. To win, by painful effort, the approval Azula seemed to gain simply by breathing. To admit that they could not go home, would be to admit he had failed. That he had not - could not - wring love from Fire Lord Ozai's heart of stone.

I love you, Zuko. I wish that were enough.

Futile wish. A child's first love and loyalty was to his parents, always - and while soldiers might put that as second to their commander's orders, the Fire Lord was the crown prince's commander. Exiled or not.

To admit the truth, will break my nephew's heart.

But would it break his loyalty? That, above all, was the question.

Well, no, Iroh admitted to himself. Whether or not Azula will catch us - all else will hinge on that.

So. First, avoid the she-devil on their trail. Though if they were lucky, Azula would leave them for later, pursuing glory from her father by seeking the Avatar's head.

…Not that he wished the young airbender harm. Quite the opposite, despite that horror at the North Pole. The boy was twelve. He could not, truly, have known what he was unleashing, allowing the Ocean Spirit his way with all an Avatar's power.

Hope that is so, Iroh told himself grimly, recalling torn ships and bodies, awash in the sea. Remembering weeks trapped on the raft with Zuko's nightmares and his own. Hope he did not know, and that he will never do so again. The consequences, otherwise….

Well. There were reasons beyond family he had trained Zuko, and followed his nephew on what seemed a fool's quest. Reasons Aang had best hope he never learned.

Still. Young Aang had friends, and allies, and a flying bison. He and Zuko had only each other and one stubborn ostrich-horse. And with Sozin's Comet on the way, they were running out of time-

Iroh sat up suddenly.

"Mmph? Uncle?"

"Only thinking, nephew. Go to sleep."

"Mmph…."

Leaning back as his nephew settled, Iroh probed at that sudden thought. Sozin's Comet would arrive by the end of summer. After that-

After that, it would be the Avatar against the Fire Lord. One would win. If that one were the Avatar, his nephew would be safe. If it were not….

We would have to run again. But the comet does not last forever.

We do not know where the Avatar has gone. And even my nephew will not strike out blindly. If I can only keep us moving….

No. No, that would not do; Azula was moving, and the Avatar was definitely traveling, and the more they themselves crossed the land, the more chances the spirits had to arrange another meeting between all of them.

Iroh was not feeling charitable toward spirits, at the moment.

We are in the Earth Kingdom, and we should take a lesson from the badger-mole. Go to ground, and hide.

Easy to say. Far more difficult to do. The Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation were locked in war, territory changing hands with each shift of the tide. Nowhere was safe-

Iroh drew in a sharp breath. It hurt; even all these years later, it hurt. But he steeled himself. Considered the option. And nodded.

Ba Sing Se.

Those walls had not fallen to his assault. They would hold. At least until the comet came.

Still. To venture there, where he would never escape memories of a young man who had never had the chance to give him grandchildren… he shook his head.

"Father," Zuko murmured in his sleep. "Please…."

Almost against his will, Iroh's fists clenched. Deliberately, the old general called to mind those high walls, those proud earthbenders, the whole massive edifice that had denied him victory.

You took my son. Iroh let out a quiet, angry breath of flame. Let us see if you can save my nephew.

Chapter Text

I'm starting to not like roads, Zuko thought darkly, touching the side of Asahi's neck to keep her quiet. The sounds from up around that blind corner were… not good.

On the one hand, roads meant people. Asahi needed grain to stay her best, and while he might be getting better at hunting, people couldn't live by meat alone. And letting Uncle try to gather wild plants was not happening. Roads meant towns, farms, trading posts. Places they could trade skills or just willingness to work for a few meals or coin.

On the other hand… roads meant people. With all their lovely habits.

"Three at least," Iroh estimated quietly, as they snuck closer. "No more than seven, or we would hear more. They waited around the corner for their victims - a light wagon, hmm…."

Smart place for an ambush. A blind, sharp turn, as the road bent around a tall outcrop of dust-brown stone. Brush crept up on the road's other side, making flight that direction a difficult choice, in those first critical moments of surprise. Zuko did not want to go around that corner. Not if there were any chance one of the attackers had enough sense to keep watch.

"Mommy!"

"Go!" Iroh dropped back, already plotting his own assault. "Find the child!"

Sort out who're the bad guys later, Zuko knew, urging Asahi into a sprint. They rounded the bend, and she skipped sideways, dodging the lump in the road-

The body.

Earth Kingdom brown, splotched with red from an arrow driven all the way through. And never mind, it wasn't moving, worry about it later. The handful of people around the wagon with its stolid draft ostrich-horse were moving, and he had his dao out and separated before the spearman could even register there was a new fighter-

Bandits. Spearman. Two with swords, holding an older woman. One in the wagon, on the girl.

Meaning snatch, grab, and ride wouldn't work. And Asahi wasn't combat-trained. One of many reasons he hadn't taken her near Azula.

Zuko launched himself from her back instead, trusting the hen's truly rotten temper toward strangers to keep her out of grasping hands. The first whirling strike bisected the bandit's spear before it could come to bear.

The second took his head.

Swordsmen. Letting the woman go, now, going for steel, but Zuko wasn't worried about them. Not as much as he was about the bow and quiver laid in grabbing range against the side of the wagon. Probably by the bastard just rising to his feet in the back, surprised at the sudden shouting.

Green and tan wriggled away, still shrieking.

So small. She's just a little girl-

The distraction almost cost him. Zuko dodged the first wild swing, and parried the next few with a flourish of what appeared to be completely unnecessary footwork. Letting them drive him away from the wagon, and their probable leader.

And smirked, as the pair suddenly realized that impressive bow had been kicked far too many yards away.

"Zhen!" The bruised woman bolted around them, heading for the shrieks with desperate determination.

"Back off, woman!" Steel flashed, as the disarmed archer grabbed for the struggling girl. "You, boy! Put the swords down."

And have you cut her throat anyway? Zuko glared back. "No."

The woman froze in place, face flashing between fear and hate. "You can't! My baby-!"

"Let her go," Zuko said grimly. "Now."

"Are you deaf?" the bandit snorted. "Put them down, or the girl-"

Bloodied fletching sprouted from his throat.

"A bit high." Iroh's voice carried across the battlefield as the incredulous bandit choked on his own blood. "It would seem I am badly out of practice."

The swordsmen hesitated, looking at Zuko. Looking past him.

Zuko waited, knees bent, blades out and ready. Smirking, to hide the uncertainty of, Uncle only had that one shot….

They bolted.

"Let them go!" Iroh ordered, before he could leap after them. "We may still be able to save this man."

"Heng!" Zhen in her arms, the woman glanced back toward the fallen man, torn.

"Get your supplies!" Zuko ordered, shaking off his blades before he sheathed them. He jumped into the wagon, and hauled the dead weight out. "We need to move!"

Terrified, she jumped. And started grabbing what had been scattered onto the road; bundles of roots, dried plants, and what looked like odder things. Some of them looked familiar, he just couldn't think from where.

Whistling for Asahi, Zuko helped Uncle manhandle the unconscious merchant across her back, then down again into the wagon bed. Stooped, and tossed the quiver in as well.

They're going to be back.

"Can you drive, Madam?" Uncle asked with courteous haste as he climbed into the back. "Asahi will follow, and I need to help my nephew with your husband."

"He's bleeding so bad…." Pale, she grabbed the harness reins and snapped them, one arm still wrapped around Zhen.

"Mommy! They're hurting Daddy!"

"Hush, little one! Don't look back."

"But they're bad-"

"Zhen, quiet!"

It probably did look like they were hurting him, Zuko knew, wincing as Iroh's knife cut free the bloodstained inner robe. Shoulder wounds weren't good at the best of times, and Uncle hadn't had time to be gentle yanking that arrow out.

Too much blood. No way is just a bandage going to be enough.

Uncle grimaced, obviously reaching the same conclusion. "We cannot risk it," he murmured regretfully. Raised his voice. "How far is the next town, Madam-"

"Hot water," Zuko said abruptly.

"Lee, what-?"

"Hot water, Uncle. For clean bandages!"

"Ah!" Iroh went to work, bracing a pot against the jouncing of the road, lighting a few precious pieces of coal inside it, and tucked his teapot atop the flames. "Will this work?" he murmured warily.

"I have to try." It works with rocks. It works with my own fire. Water can't be that different.

I won't let it be.

Soak one of their bandages in boiling water. Press it into the wound, with the same circular flow he used on fire. Pick up the bits of fire still singing through steaming cloth, and guide them into the dance. Dive into the worst knots, and soften them, and hold, until Uncle could pass him another cloth.

It was like trying to climb sheer rock with his fingertips. But he'd done that, too.

Soak and melt and hold. Soak and melt and hold….

And somehow the sun had slipped a handspan across the sky, and Uncle was shaking him. "Lee. Lee! Stop. Stop now."

Zuko blinked, looking at red, raw flesh. Still gouged. Still not whole. "But-"

"Enough," Uncle said flatly. "He will live." Iroh gently shoved him down, onto canvas covering fragrant roots, away from drying blood. "Rest."

But they could be back-

He was out before he hit the canvas.

--------

"Is your son going to be all right?"

Iroh lifted his hand from Zuko's pulse; strong and steady, if a bit fast. "Lee is my nephew." He smiled slightly. "And he will be. Master-?"

"Heng Mu." The merchant grimaced as the road jarred his bandaged shoulder. "Dyes and spices. This is my wife, Nuan, and our daughter Zhen-"

"You get away from Daddy right now!"

"Zhen, that's enough," Nuan ordered. Looked over her shoulder for just a moment of heartsick gratitude. "Thank you, sir. Spirits bless the both of you. Even if-" She swallowed hard, and turned back to the road.

"Your mother's right, Zhen," Heng stated. "They were helping us. Even if I don't know exactly what you did…?" He left the question hanging, green eyes curious despite the pain.

"They hurt you! And the ugly one, with the swords, he-" The young girl shivered, hiding her face in her mother's arm.

"We'll talk about it later." He gave Iroh a hard look, and lowered his voice. "Just what did my daughter see?"

"More than enough," Iroh said firmly, matching his low quiet. "She will have nightmares, I think. Treat her kindly. She will not forget, but time will reassure her that you all live."

Heng frowned toward Zuko. "My daughter usually doesn't call anyone ugly."

Iroh sighed. "It is likely she saw him dispose of the spearman." He shrugged. "My nephew does not enjoy defending himself with such force. Even so, he is good at it. Fortunately for all of us."

"Dispose of- He's a boy!"

"A pity, that the war does not care." Iroh raised an inquiring brow. "Will it be far to the next town? It is good to have company on the road, but I would like to know how likely it may be that the two who fled will try their luck again."

"Two?" Heng said uneasily. "I thought there were four."

"There were," Iroh agreed mildly.

Heng stared at him. Opened his mouth-

Shut it again, paler than blood loss could account for. "Oma and Shu. You're F-"

"Please." Iroh met his gaze, knowing what he saw. We can hide our bending, but we can never hide our eyes. "The arrow was within a finger of your heart. If Lee had not healed you, you would never have woken."

"Healed?" Heng said, dazed. Looked at Zuko. And the bandages. And the teapot.

Blinked, and looked back at Iroh with mingled shock and amazement. "How did a waterbender get born in the Fire Nation?"

"Ah." Iroh leaned back, smiling genially. "That, is a very long story…."

--------

"That's the bow, all right," the Earth Kingdom Guard said grimly, gripping it in one gloved hand. "Cut-Horse Meng. We'll have to send a patrol out for the body. Good riddance, if it is him." The man's mustache wrinkled in distaste. "You might want to light some incense to Guan Yin. If those healers hadn't come along when they did… that filth has a record when it comes to little girls."

"I was already planning to, but…." Heng swallowed dryly. "Yes. I'm very glad they found us."

"Why can't lowlifes like that go off and die fighting the Fire Nation, that's what I'd like to know," the guard grumbled. "Animals deserve animals."

"Is there anything else you need to know today?" Heng asked humbly. "My wife and daughter are… well, I'm sure you can imagine. We were going to be staying in town to sell for a few days anyway, even before this." He lifted a hand, not quite touching his bandaged shoulder. "I don't think I'll be up to the road for a while."

"Mu's Dyes and Spices, right?" The guard looked a bit less grim. "My wife's been looking for a good fast jade green, whatever that means. I don't suppose you'd have any advice?"

Three sales and some frank advice on cheap fabric tricks later, Heng finally escaped into the twilight, ducking into the inn stable to check on Sand. And their - rescuers. Odd as that thought was. "He's still asleep?"

"Asleep again," Mushi corrected, patting the black hen curled protectively next to his nephew. "He woke enough for dinner. Thank you for sending Madam Nuan with it. I would prefer not to leave Lee alone among strangers. Sometimes, it seems he attracts bad luck."

"Is that how he got that scar?"

Mushi's gaze rested on him, calm as a saber-moose lion stalking its prey.

Heng raised a hand to fend off… he didn't know what. Mushi couldn't be a firebender. He'd used a bow, hadn't he? Everybody knew firebenders were too proud of their element to use steel. "I just want to understand," he said honestly. "You said it was a long story, and then you just say it's probably from his mother. I can understand why you're hiding, and that you don't want my wife to know-"

"I was more concerned with your daughter."

"Zhen?" Heng said in disbelief. "Why?"

"We frightened her, and she nearly lost you," Mushi said frankly. "If she knew something that would bring trouble to us - and she is young, she would not realize the consequences would be far worse - well. It is better not to take the chance."

"Oh." He hadn't even thought of that. Zhen was eleven. She'd never really want to hurt anyone.

But she was scared.

"I'll talk to her," Heng stated. "But she's not here now. And - a waterbender?"

Mushi sighed, and shrugged. "His mother could heal. I knew, but I said nothing. I knew my brother's temper. And she was a wonderful person. Kind, strong, and honorable. I thought she would temper my brother. Give him a balance he lacked." He shook his head. "Something went wrong. I am still uncertain of what. I was… away. When I returned - I should have taken Lee and left, then." Gold eyes met his squarely. "My brother is a firebender. A strong one. To think his son was simply powerless was disappointment enough. To discover the truth-" He winced, and sighed.

Heng swallowed, eyes drawn to the ridges of scar under dark hair. "Are you saying, his father…."

"Lee does not speak of it." Sadness shadowed Mushi's face, mixed with a cold, terrible anger. "He knows a score of firebending forms; they are useful for defense, even for one who cannot bend. But not one of water. He could not heal himself. When he was well enough to move, I took him. We have not returned to the Fire Nation since."

Spirits, what a nightmare. And yet - something didn't ring right. "So why were you lost?" Heng said cautiously. "You don't seem like the kind of man who ends up not knowing where he is."

"I do not? Ah." Mushi rubbed at his left shoulder ruefully. "Unfortunately, my nephew is not an only child."

Heng had to lean on a stall door. "I don't really want to know, do I?"

"Let us just say, we misjudged the tides of war," Mushi said dryly. "We were recognized, and fled. With only what you see. Though I am grateful even for that. Still, we did not escape unscathed." He regarded Heng soberly. "Yours is the second mortal wound Lee has healed in a week."

No wonder they were jumpy. Well, besides the obvious. "He needs a teacher."

"Hiding in the Earth Kingdom is difficult enough," Mushi observed. "I do not think we could pass at the North Pole."

"Who said anything about the poles?" Heng chuckled, thinking of the odd dyestuffs that came out of the Foggy Swamp. And the even odder people who traded them. Oh, the women were graceful enough, neatly dressed as any Earth Kingdom villager, if exotically different. But the men, especially if they were on a hunting trip… Augh, my eyes! Heng thought ruefully. "Ice isn't the only water in the world."

"That is true," Mushi allowed. "But the ports are never safe."

And they'd never fit in at the swamps, Heng knew, after a moment more to think about it. They might look the part, except for the eyes - but that accent would be a dead giveaway. Accent on dead. "There's still one port that is."

Mushi straightened. "The inland sea of Ba Sing Se."

Heng nodded. "I don't know for sure, but I've heard there are healing waterbenders there. I know some people travel to the city, if they can, if ordinary healers can't handle their sickness."

"Hmm." Mushi stroked his beard thoughtfully.

Heng winced, suddenly remembering a problem. "But you need documents to get into the city, and-"

"Do not worry, Master Mu. There are ways." Mushi was considering the problem with the same abstract air he'd seen in the most skilled Pai Sho players. "What else do you know of the waterbenders?"

"They like blue?" Heng said uncertainly. "I've never been to Ba Sing Se."

"But you know those who have?" Mushi inquired.

"Well…."

Mushi smiled. "Well, indeed. Tell me of someone who has been there, and what they said of what they found."

--------

"Did you mean it?"

Just back from seeing Heng off to his family, Iroh sighed. I should have known better than to expect him to sleep while I talked to strangers. "If we can find a waterbender who heals, perhaps we can-"

"About… Father."

Oh. "I did," Iroh said quietly, entering the stall to look his nephew in the eye. "Your mother was a ray of sunshine in the midst of clouds. Her presence eased the heart; her smile was the rainbow. Even the coldest soul, I believed, must warm and thaw to her."

"But he didn't." Gold eyes closed, still weary.

"No," Iroh sighed. "She was sunshine in the falling rain, and then she was gone… like the tales of the dragon-wife…."

"Uncle?"

I am tired, Iroh thought ruefully. I should never have said that. "Only an old man's wandering thoughts, nephew. Sometimes, when the world seems coldest, the old stories give us hope."

"Maybe." Zuko gave him another skeptical look, before settling back into the straw. "But she wasn't a dragon, Uncle. I think somebody would have noticed if I came out of an egg." He took a breath, let it sigh out in a whisper. "Besides. Everybody knows dragon-children were special."

And you, who can heal, are not? But Iroh kept quiet, letting his nephew sink back into restless sleep. Zuko was in no mood to hear comfort. He had saved a life today, yes - but he had also taken one. And that never became easier. Not for any soul who still claimed a heart.

He could still feel the bow's grip in his grasp, see the spray of blood as the arrow sank home. It'd been years, but he'd never quite forgotten the archery lessons that were part of every Fire Nation noble's training.

Well, almost every noble's. His nephew was a rare exception. Archery was not easily practiced on board a ship. And even before his exile, Zuko had never taken to the bow.

Dragons have always hated archers.

Ridiculous thought. Truly. Zuko was correct. Someone would have noticed if Prince Ozai's firstborn had-

"Like trying to hatch a stone," Ursa's voice echoed in memory.

An old legend. Hidden, like those stories the Fire Nation never spoke of to outsiders: that the gold eyes many feared as inhuman truly were. For it was said the first firebenders had been no mere mortals learning from dragons, but a dragon's own children….

The Avatar has returned, after a century of silence. Powers are stirring. Spirits are moving.

Still. His Zuko? Lady Ursa had never been unfaithful. He would stake his soul on that. Zuko was his brother's son.

But whose daughter was she?

He hadn't recalled it before, but Lady Kotone's relations with her husband had been rumored to be… odd….

No. Impossible, Iroh decided, making his own nest in straw to seek sleep.

And yet….

Spirits. If you stacked the deck against my nephew before he was even born, we need to have a very long talk.

--------

A turtle-duckling crying in the reeds, blood and the knife coming down-

Zuko woke with a strangled gasp in the gray darkness, straw rustling through his fingers. No pond. No blood. No little girl's life riding on his desperate guess at the right thing to do.

Nightmare. You knew you'd have them.

Close to dawn. No point in trying to go back to sleep. Zuko crept out of his bedding, drawing his dao to check them.

Clean. Uncle's work.

Uncle had helped him clean his blades the first time, too. Water and oil and a shoulder to lean against until the shaking stopped, when the fire of battle finally guttered out and a scared fourteen-year-old remembered exactly how close some of the blades had come.

Stupid. I should have listened to Uncle.

But he'd been fourteen and full of himself and angry - and he'd just wanted to get away from the ship. From the quest, the stupid, useless quest, no one had seen the Avatar in a hundred years and he just couldn't take it anymore-!

I just wanted to go home.

But he couldn't. All he could do was leave the ship and leave the armor, just dress in quiet black and leave the Fire Nation behind.

He'd taken the dao, though. He wasn't that stupid. Firebend, and he might as well fly a banner saying idiot prince here. And the point was to be alone.

A port's back streets were no place to be alone.

He couldn't remember everything that had happened. Uncle said that was common, in your first real fight. He'd just felt something wasn't right-

I should have paid attention.

Heard the coarse laughs, smelled cheap wine, felt the ropes-

They thought I was a kid. Ten, maybe twelve. He'd put on height since then, but it still looked like he'd never be a match for his father… and why in the world had the spirits made men in other nations so damn big?

They thought I was a kid. Spirits, that's sick.

One-Hook Bai; that'd been the name he'd heard, in the midst of the roaring and the stink and the painful twist of his left wrist as he misjudged a blow and it skidded off ribs. He'd dealt with a thousand petty palace intrigues before his exile, he knew to remember names-

-And then he'd had just enough brains left to say screw pride, and start setting bastards on fire.

When it was over, some had run, two were melting in pools of flame….

And one was rattling out his life on top of a shaking teenager, blood bubbling black in the starlight from a half-cut throat.

Never wanted to do that. Never.

But he had, and he couldn't undo it. Like stepping off a cliff. Bending his first flame. He'd closed a door he'd never even realized was open, and locked himself on the other side.

Uncle had found him back on the ship, cleaning up. An unfamiliar, grim-faced Uncle, jaw set and hands hard as he looked over scrapes, bruises, and one knife-gash to the cheek Zuko couldn't even remember getting. Iroh had helped him clean up, taken his stumbling report - then hugged him within an inch of his life. And stayed with him, all that awful, numb day, and through the first night of nightmares.

Then yelled at him, once the retired general was certain his nephew was back in touch with reality.

Worked, Zuko thought wryly. I never did anything that stupid again.

Not just because of Uncle. Because… he'd asked, and listened, and found out about Bai's - preferences. And anybody who would turn over anyone to that was just sick-

But killing was awful and horrible and he hated it. And being good at it didn't change that.

There wasn't another way. Not this time.

Didn't help. Not today. Tomorrow, maybe.

Just keep going. Uncle needs you.

Iroh didn't have nightmares; not that he knew of, anyway. But he did get… sad. And clung even more tightly to his tea than usual.

Dyes and spices. Maybe Heng Mu has some ginseng? I could ask. I think. It couldn't hurt-

Footsteps. Heavy, and not trying to be quiet. Zuko faded into the shadows by Asahi.

"Hard to believe Cut-Horse Meng got taken out by an old refugee."

Two Earth Kingdom guards. Looked a lot more polished than the bullies he'd run into in Li's village. Good sign, in that they were probably professional enough to actually guard the town instead of terrorize it. Bad, in that if they saw him, they might know what they were looking at.

Stay hidden.

"He picked the wrong refugee." A third guard near the door, with some kind of insignia on the brim of his uniform hat. Probably the leader, by his stance. "I saw him talking to the Mu family last night. He may act harmless, but if that man wasn't a soldier a few decades back, I'm an airbender."

"Always thought your head was up in the clouds, Sergeant."

"Funny, Bao. Very funny." The sergeant watched his men saddle up their ostrich-horses and nodded as they checked their gear. "Stay sharp. Word has it Red Ling didn't like Meng either, but he won't take losing two of his gang well. Especially to a boy…." The sergeant stepped over to Asahi's stall. "Odd. I could have sworn the innkeeper said they were both here-"

Asahi snapped at him.

"Better count your fingers," the other guard said dryly. "That's a Yonaguni hen."

"Yonaguni?" The sergeant frowned, absently checking. "Sounds almost Fire Nation."

"Probably did come from the occupied territories," his subordinate shrugged, leading his mount to the stable doors. "Give me a good, solid Feng any day. Just look at her! Too small for a real man, and that temper… they may be tough as steel, but it's just not worth it."

"Hmm." Still frowning, the sergeant followed them all out.

Zuko waited a moment, then patted Asahi on the neck. "Idiots. Don't listen to them." We need to get out of here.

Thinking of what they needed to get on the road, he ticked off tasks in his head. Asahi fed and tended, supplies packed, Uncle breakfasted….

Okay. There ought to be time for one more small errand. Assuming Heng Mu didn't just slam the door in his face.

--------

"Where has that boy gone?" Iroh muttered under his breath, holding Asahi's reins in the early morning. It wasn't like Zuko to disappear….

Well. That wasn't quite accurate, given some of his nephew's… adventures. But it was certainly not like Zuko to hurry them both into readiness to travel, then disappear.

A few more minutes, and I had best start asking questions.

No; there was his nephew, at last. Looking a bit stunned, which was never a good sign. Carrying a tied bundle, and walking with… Heng Mu? Well, well. "How are you faring, Master Mu?"

"Better than yesterday," the merchant admitted, still moving stiffly. "Moving on?"

"It seems wise," Iroh said graciously.

"Be careful," Heng said seriously. "Sergeant Ying said those four we ran into were part of a larger gang. I don't know what the kingdom's coming to; there's never been bandits on these roads before."

"Lee told me," Iroh nodded. "We will be wary."

"That's good." Heng winked at his nephew's bundle. "Don't want you to have to use that all in one place."

Iroh raised a curious brow.

"Dyes, spices - and medicines, though that's more Nuan's specialty than mine," Heng said, smiling. "It's not much, but I hope it'll help keep you on your feet until Lee can find a teacher."

Ah. No wonder his nephew was in shock. "You are very kind," Iroh bowed.

"Thanks," Zuko got out, still dazed with disbelief.

"You two make my head hurt," Heng said honestly. "But I hope you find what you're looking for." He brightened. "And maybe the war will be over soon. They say the Avatar has returned!"

…And the morning was going so well, Iroh lamented.

"So I've heard," Zuko ground out.

Heng took a step back. "I don't understand. It's good news. The best we've had in a century. Why…?" One hand waved, helpless.

Why, indeed. Iroh racked his brain, trying to come up with something.

"The Avatar's supposed to keep a balance between the four nations," Zuko said, low and cold and angry. "Airbenders in the Nomads. Firebenders in the Fire Nation. Earthbenders in the Earth Kingdom. Waterbenders in the Water Tribes." The searing gaze swept them both. "What happens when someone's born who doesn't fit?"

Heng started to speak, and stopped. Shook his head, green eyes wide. "I don't know."

"An interesting argument, nephew," Iroh said quietly a few minutes later, as they made their way out of town. "I must admit, I did not think you would be interested in adding to our story." And he'd sounded perfectly sincere when he said it. Which was odd. Zuko was a horrible liar.

"I was thinking about the airbenders." Zuko kept his gaze straight ahead, flicking a glance toward the little travelers' shrine some way down the road. "If someone like that was born into the Fire Nation…."

"Yes?" Iroh asked cautiously.

"What would we do, Uncle? They'd be our people. Fire Nation. I don't care what the spirits say!" Fists clenched, but there was no trace of flames. "What kind of balance would take people away from their homes? From the people they care about?"

"You do not know the Avatar would do any such thing, nephew," Iroh said firmly.

"Do you know he wouldn't? Does anybody know?" Zuko's eyes narrowed. "The Avatar keeps the four elements balanced. The Avatar keeps the four nations separate. People whose grandparents were Earth Kingdom are in the Fire Nation now! What happens to them, Uncle? What happens to my people, if the Avatar returns?"

"…I do not know," Iroh admitted at last. "I am glad you spoke of this, nephew. I will think on the question." He frowned, troubled. "I will think on it, very carefully." He nodded toward the shrine off the side of the road, little statues under a rough-hewn alcove of rock to keep rain off inked strips of paper. "Perhaps a few moments to pray?"

Zuko's jaw tightened, and Iroh braced for the explosion-

"Why not."

Er, what?

Iroh kept his smile mild and thoughtful as he made bows to those honored in the shrine, no matter how startled he felt. To draw attention to his nephew's behavior would be to force Zuko to justify it. And if it did not fit the mold of a loyal exile bent on capturing the Avatar - well. His nephew's reaction would not be helpful.

For every step forward, a step back, it seems, Iroh thought ruefully. He does not try to be contrary, I think. Only stubborn. Push, and he pushes back. Pull, and he fights to escape-

There, tucked into a crevice in the rock. A rough circle of blue stone, carved so its shadows suggested yin and yang.

Tui and La. Moon and Ocean. Push and Pull.

Do you remember us, Yue? We tried to help, and we failed - and perhaps we have no right to ask your aid now. But you of all spirits should remember what it is to be human, and to love your people.

I can fight Zuko's love for his father. I will fight it. He is fighting it, though he does not yet know he does. Every moment he leaves his quest to help another, every time he struggles to think instead of chase after his honor - he is fighting, Yue. He is fighting so hard.

I can fight Ozai's hold. But how can I fight his love for his people? We are what we are; the royal blood of the Fire Nation. As you were, of the Northern Water Tribe. Those within our nation's borders are in our care, no matter what element they were born to.

My nephew has been betrayed too deeply, and too well. He cannot trust the Avatar will be merciful. And I know too much of spirits to believe all will be well. Zuko may be right. The Fire Nation has taken so much from the world. The balance may require that we give it back. Even if it breaks our hearts.

But if there is any way… if there is any way… help us, Yue. Help us see a way to help our people.

Help us, or I go no further. I will not betray my nephew for the Avatar.

Not the most reverent end to a prayer, perhaps. But there came a time when a man simply had to say, enough.

He had lost his father, his wife, his son. He had lost brother and niece as well, though they yet lived. If the spirits' balance required Zuko as well - no. No. Not while he yet breathed. Not while one scrap of his soul even existed-

Rough stone glimmered with blue.

So. Iroh sighed, straightening. I have been heard. What the answer may be, though- He blinked, and looked again. "Prince Zuko!"

"It's information, Uncle." Zuko's face was set, as he tucked the prayer-slip he'd been reading back into place. "We can't ask too many questions without risking our disguise. There are bandits around here. I want to know what else people have met on this road. Or think they might." Zuko brushed off his hands. "If they wanted the prayers to be private, they would have burned them."

In the Fire Nation that would have been true, yes, but - ah, never mind. "What did you find?"

"No plagues. A few rock-falls; we should keep an eye on overhangs. And somebody has a vicious sense of humor." Zuko glanced at a slip near the last he'd put back.

Brows up and interested, Iroh dipped his head to read. Hmm, some kind of malediction on Red Ling, a plea to set two evils against each other….

Reading the last lines, he took a deliberate step back, and turned away. "We should go."

Perhaps they could move fast enough. Perhaps they did not fit the spirits' requirements. Good as they both were, they were hardly a long-range Fire Nation raiding party-

And three hours down the road, he knew it didn't matter.

"I hear you killed two of my men…."

--------

By the time Sergeant Ying and his men got to the ambush site, the bodies had almost stopped smoldering.

"Spirits," someone muttered. "Fire Nation? Here?"

"Look for a trail," the sergeant ordered. Oma and Shu, so many dead. "That many firebenders should have left tracks."

The men looked dubious, and who could blame them? But they split off, two pairs of two, leading their mounts as they looked for the characteristic scuffs of armored feet.

Sergeant Ying stayed behind with old Gui, watching the elderly veteran walk among the bodies. And cursed the war. Gui ought to be carving wooden necklace chains for grandchildren, not keeping up with the young men and wounded veterans who made up most of the home guard. "Let's not take more time than we need," Ying said aloud. "I hear raiding parties don't stick around after a slaughter like this, but I don't want to risk our being outnumbered…." A scrap of cloth caught his eye, seared and crumbling, but one edge still blatantly scarlet.

A red bandanna. A group of armed men, their weapons now twisted metal. Mismatched arms; this was no army patrol.

"Red Ling's gang," Gui said with grim satisfaction. Nodded toward one of the blackened skulls. "I recognize the teeth on that one."

The teeth of a man who'd tried to take advantage of Gui's widowed daughter, before the veteran had driven him off with a sword and a bluff. Gui had wasted no time afterward, either, bringing the shattered family into town to work in the inn, before joining up with the guard himself. Bringing decades of experience… and a grudge. Ying could put up with the one, for the sake of the other.

Red Ling's men. Well. That was one piece of good luck for the day, then.

A drift of wind blew corpse smoke over them, and Sergeant Ying fought to breathe. "I've never- have you seen anything like this before?"

"I have," Gui said gravely. "At the siege of Ba Sing Se." He stepped back from the bodies, and motioned Ying to join him. "I think they were standing… here."

Ying moved there, and frowned. "That doesn't make sense. Why come so close?" Red Ling's body was barely ten yards away. Why come within range of firebenders when he had archers among his men?

"Do I look like a fortune-teller?" Gui hmphed. "The scorch marks make a pattern. Put that together with the bodies, and those," he waved a hand, indicating Red Ling and a sweep of five men about him, "went down in one blow."

"One blow?"

"Hmm. A mass fireball, it looks like. Not something most common firebenders learn."

"One blow?" the sergeant repeated, incredulous. Six men dead, in one fireblast?

"They're grouped together, Sergeant. Which means they had no chance to run. Yes, I think so." Gui shaded his eyes, looking up at surrounding cliff walls. "Ah. There are the archers." A snort. "I should say, were."

Seared wood, scattered in pieces down the slopes. Each bow had been seared through as if cut by a flaming knife. Ying measured the distance with his eyes, and swore.

A firebender's fire died, the further it got from him, the Army always said. Get far enough away, and you'd be safe.

"That's over a hundred feet! No firebender can do that-"

"No common soldier, no," Gui said dryly. Frowned, old eyes sweeping the scene. "Only imperial firebenders are that precise."

For a moment, Sergeant Ying devoutly hoped rumor was right, and Fire Nation raiders did strike and move on. Because he desperately wanted men capable of doing this to be anywhere but here.

"One blast while they still had surprise," Gui said thoughtfully. "Archers next. And then… hmm. They separated, to take out the stragglers; there, and there." He shook his head. "It was probably over before most of them knew they were dead."

Chilling thought. As was what he wasn't finding on the ground. "Why aren't there tracks?" Ying demanded. "If a troop went through here, they should have left some sign."

"Oh, this wasn't a troop," Gui shrugged.

The sergeant eyed him, taken aback. "More? Spirits, if we're outnumbered, warn a man!"

"No, not more." Gui smiled darkly. "Four, I'd guess."

"Four?" Ying sputtered. "Four firebenders did this?"

"Or less," Gui agreed. "Feel any better?"

"No," Sergeant Ying gritted out. Raised an eyebrow, as his scouts came wandering back. "What did you find?"

"Nothing, sir," Chen, the oldest of the four said uneasily. "No boot prints, no komodo-rhino tracks, no scorch marks where somebody blew off steam. It's like they just… disappeared."

Like spirits, Ying could hear in the silence.

Well. If no one else was going to say it, he certainly wasn't. "Let's get back," he said frankly. "We've got a report to make."

--------

A/N: On why I decided Zuko has experience in lethal self-defense…. First, "The Blue Spirit". Even vastly outnumbered, Zuko never hesitates. Second… one thing that's struck me about the series is that compared to several firebenders (hi there Zhao, Aang), Zuko is careful with his fire. Hell on meditation candles, yes, but he doesn't set things on fire by accident. Even when he fights Katara as the last thing in his way at the Spirit Oasis, he does not burn her. In fact, if you look at the havoc the Gaang has caused throughout the series, Zuko's a lot more careful than a lot of benders. ("The Earth King." Whoof.)

And in real life, "careful" is what you see from martial artists who know they can really hurt someone.

Given Zuko often needs to be hit over the head with the obvious, and was exiled outside the Fire Nation (to areas where, surprise! People don't like firebenders), the odds of him having gotten into a deadly fight are depressingly high.

Top that off with his uncle being General Iroh, whom the Avatar creators avow was "very good at what he did". Zuko is a crown prince of the Fire Nation, specifically trained to rule and conquer more of the world. He may hate killing. He may go to great lengths to avoid it. But he's definitely been trained that it is an acceptable option.

He's not Aang.

Reverence for life is fine, upstanding, and idealistic. But when all's said and done, count which nations are still standing.

(Though, Gyatso? Wow.)

Chapter Text

Baths are good, Zuko thought wearily, sneaking from the tavern's bathhouse in through the kitchen's back door, silently dancing through the blind spots of the preoccupied cook at the stove and her harried sons as they scurried in and out with food and dishes. Uncle might have found a fellow Pai Sho enthusiast in the bartender, but Zuko still preferred not to use the front door. No sense asking for attention.

No sense at all, given the bartender apparently wasn't just a bartender.

Order of the White Lotus. What on earth is that? And Uncle's a Grand Master? What the hell's going on?

Out of the kitchen, through the common room's shadows, and up the stairs. They actually had a room, for once, even if it wasn't much more than a glorified closet with a cot and a window. And how Uncle had pulled that off, he really didn't want to know.

He should want to know. He should be down there kicking in the bartender's door, or at least leaning on it, listening in to Uncle's conversation.

But he was tired. And sick, in a way fire couldn't heal.

Door closed behind him, Zuko curled up near the window, breathing in spring's night air. Baths were good. Clean hair. Clean skin. Clean clothes - though half of them were borrowed, and he was wearing a too-familiar embroidered robe over them all to hold in as much of the bath's heat as he could manage.

Too bad a bath couldn't do anything for his mind.

No witnesses.

Eleven bandits, snuffed out like candle flames.

Candles I could light again.

Tactically, he knew Uncle was right. There had been too many to take them with just bare hands and steel. And once they started bending….

Once they started, they couldn't leave anyone alive.

If we're discovered, we're dead.

And they hadn't been good people. To put it mildly. He still felt sick.

I don't want to die. I don't want Uncle to die. Zuko dug fingers into his scalp, nails biting even through hair. So get a grip and deal with it already!

It didn't feel right. Nothing felt right.

Letting go, he stared at his fingertips, and wondered when his own hands had betrayed him.

Still strong, despite everything they'd been through. Still callused with years of stubborn blade-work and firebending katas. But other marks were starting to appear. Red-rubbed skin, where Asahi's reins tugged against him. Nails rough-trimmed almost to the quick, after hunger had left them prone to tearing. Thin white scars on the back of his left hand; he thought they were from that ill-fated attempt to drag the Avatar through the blizzard. But he wasn't sure.

It scared him, that he wasn't sure.

You had him, Zuzu, Azula's voice crooned in his mind. You had him, and you were just too weak to hold him.

At the fortress. At the North Pole. In the desert-

No, Zuko told himself, remembering fear and panic and rage as charred flesh knit back together under his fingers. Not that time.

Three master benders and an idiot with a boomerang against him. On his side, an injured man. And the sure knowledge of a returning enemy.

Loyalty to the Fire Lord-

Did not require suicide. It never had. Soldiers might choose to fight to the death; he'd heard what other nations did to captured firebenders, and it was the stuff of nightmares. But loyalty meant living for your lord, not dying for him. He was alive, and Uncle was alive, and they'd have another chance. Just as Iroh's soldiers had, after he'd broken the siege of Ba Sing Se.

He wasn't a traitor, Azula. He wasn't a coward. Did you read the casualty reports? It wasn't just Lu Ten. Those earthbenders made the terrain inside the wall a deathtrap. We can't afford losses like that. Not if we want to hold the rest of our territory in any kind of good order.

If we take land, it's ours. If people live there under our laws, they're our people. If we can't give them something better than the war, what's the point?

But it was the Fire Lord's war.

It's - it's not my problem. I have my orders. Capture the Avatar. Alive.

Azula said their father didn't care anymore-

Azula always lies!

Breathe. Fold fingers into fists. Unclench them. The Avatar was gone, and Uncle was alive, and he was not a traitor. He just - had to think. About what to do next.

Scars and wear and callus, and the weird tickling of hair against his ears. Why couldn't he think?

Someone knocked on the door, brisk but quiet. "Hello?" A fumbling at the latch. "I'm looking for Lee? Your uncle said you could help."

Act normal, Zuko told himself, standing to reach the door.

…Would help if I had any idea what normal is.

He braced himself and opened the door. "I'm Lee," he managed. "What's the-"

Green. A kind of nice, darker forest green, bordered by pale yellow like a shaft of sun through shadows. Only if the frogs closing her dress were there, then the soft roundness he was looking at was-

Flushing, Zuko jerked his eyes up to meet a blue gaze. "Where are you from, Kyoshi Island?"

Almost a head taller and at least a few years older, she looked down and back, her own jaw dropping as expressions flitted across her face. Annoyance, surprise, sudden shock….

Zuko stared right back, fingers curling. Don't you. Dare. Pity me. "What's the problem?" he said roughly. "Is someone hurt?"

"I'm Xiu," she said, eyes narrowed slightly in consideration. "My Grandma has an awful headache. Your uncle said you'd help." She backed up a step, and crossed her arms. "He didn't say you were raised by raven-wolves."

"I was not!"

"And you're half right. Dad was from Kyoshi Island. Left to join the military over here; no way was he wearing a dress. He just never went back."

Zuko blinked, struck by the memory of a Southern Tribe wolf-tail above red and white makeup. It'd been pretty funny, afterward. Once he'd gotten over being slammed into the wall by the Avatar's fans. "Why are you telling me this?"

"You remind me of my cousin, Yingpei," Xiu said ruefully. "He's lousy with people, too. And when he's surprised - well. It's not pretty." She tilted her head. "Coming?"

This was so many different kinds of wrong, it made his head hurt. Just get through it. "I need to get our teapot-"

"We've got hot water downstairs." She gave him a hint of a smile. "That's what your uncle said you like to work with, right?"

"Y-yeah." The floor was solid. He could feel it under his feet. Why did he have the same kind of knot in his gut as when the ship was about to fall into the trough of a rogue wave?

Just keep moving.

No candles lit the room the old woman rested in, though a basin of water sat on a warming pan of coals near a worn towel. She looked up when they opened the door, brown eyes slitted. "So you're a healer, young man?"

Just inside the doorway, Zuko froze.

I'm not a healer. I'm a firebender.

I'm not Earth Kingdom. I'm not a waterbender. If Uncle didn't need this for our disguise….

I'm your enemy! Can't you see that? You don't want me here!

"He's not real great at talking, Grandma." Xiu shut the door, forcing him forward. "Go on, it's all right."

No. It wasn't. But-

Do what you have to.

Grimly, Zuko picked up worn cloth, and reached for hot water.

--------

I think he thinks Grandma is going to eat him, Xiu thought wryly. Not quite like Yingpei, then. Her cousin didn't usually know someone had ill intent until they stole his lunch out from under him. Lee seemed perfectly aware that Grandma was best handled with kid gloves, or possibly iron pincers. She was proud enough of her status as a fine silk weaver at the best of times; headaches made her downright cranky.

Leaning against the wall by the door, the younger weaver watched Lee work with interest. Outside of ports that the Water Tribes visited, how often did anyone get to see a bending healer?

No one told me there were pretty colors.

Flickers of gold and green and violet, shimmering through cotton as Lee moved the steaming towel over Grandma's forehead. Like stories her father had told of the southern lights, dancing in Kyoshi Island's winter skies.

How did he know where Dad was from? Xiu wondered. Kyoshi's been neutral since the war started. Most people have never met an Islander.

A puzzle. And not the only one. Lee - well, from his height, she'd have guessed he was fourteen, tops.

Then again, maybe short just runs in the family. His uncle's pretty… compact.

Must be. Lee certainly didn't act fourteen, and once you looked past the scar, he didn't look fourteen either.

Once you looked past the scar….

I'm an idiot. Burn scar - looks years old - and he's with his uncle? No parents?

War orphan. Had to be. Spirits, no wonder Lee was jumpy.

And no wonder he didn't know what to do with his eyes, either. If he was the late teens his voice gave away, he would have been burned just about the time he'd started figuring out girls just might like to go on walks in the moonlight. Ouch.

Still. Some things about Lee just didn't fit.

That robe, for one.

Pine-dark, embroidered with old-fashioned fire-thorns in ruby-rust on every hem and seam. Not the expensive, flashy materials someone would use trying to impress; she was a master weaver, she knew what was in style. No; that was old-fashioned wild silk thread, spun from broken oak-cedar moth cocoons and dyed with cochineal-dew roasted with sea salt.

Earth and Air, Water and Fire. Someone was serious.

Mushi wearing a protective scarf was one thing; he was old as Grandma, probably, the kind of person who adhered to traditions because they suited him. Both of them? Either respect for the spirits ran in the family-

Somehow, that just doesn't seem to fit Lee.

-Or they'd run into the same kind of trouble as the villagers near Hei Bai, after the Fire Nation burned the forest down. Angry spirits, who didn't care if the people they hurt were innocent. Which was… scary.

Kind of makes sense for him to be panicked, though. Great-Gran used to say, benders touch the spirit world to get their power. And it can touch them back.

Even that didn't sit right. There was just something about Lee that-

Pale hands shifted as he plunged cloth back into steaming water, and Xiu swallowed.

"What?" Lee asked roughly, glancing her way.

"I thought the dao were your uncle's," Xiu said honestly. She hadn't had much chance to look inside their room, but it wasn't much of a room. "They're yours, aren't they?"

Lee looked down at callused hands, and something shut down in his face. "The roads aren't safe."

Which was no answer at all, and more than she wanted to know.

I've seen Dad look like that, after….

After he had to kill somebody.

Cool and calm, Xiu. Remember what Dad always says. Be like a mountain lake. If you're right - Lee's already jumpy. Don't make anything worse.

"No wonder you're such a confused young man," Grandma said sternly, squinting to test the absence of pain as Lee put the towel down. "A healer, learning steel? What is the world coming to?"

The door creaked slightly. "And why should one not?" Mushi said genially. "The waterbenders of the North Pole are some of the fiercest fighters anywhere. I have heard they recently turned back an assault by the Fire Navy."

"I heard they had help," Lee said darkly.

"Hmm. A giant spirit-monster rampaging through the fleet," Mushi's hand made a sort of swimming motion, "would count, yes."

"Spirit-monster?" Grandma said skeptically. "Nonsense. The spirits haven't bothered with our world in over a century. They've abandoned us." She scowled. "Just like the Avatar."

"…He didn't abandon you."

"Lee," Mushi said quietly.

"It's wrong, Uncle! 'The Avatar has to save us. The Avatar abandoned us. The Avatar's returned, and he's going to fix everything.' That's all I hear, everywhere we go. And it's crazy! The Avatar is twelve years old!"

He's… what? Xiu thought, stunned.

"The Avatar is a child! An idiotic, naïve, hyperactive little airbender who thinks everybody deserves to live! And people think he's going to save them? How? Ask the Fire Lord to think really, really hard about the war and decide to play nice?" Knuckles were bone-white in clenched fists. "You want somebody to save you from the Fire Nation? Grow up and do it yourselves!"

The door slamming was almost an afterthought.

Mushi blinked at the space where his nephew had been, and sighed. "I must apologize-"

"Indeed you must!" Grandma snapped, eyes glinting. "You're training that boy as a healer? He may be a bender, but he'll never do!"

"I'd go to him," Xiu cut in, before her grandma could really get going. Respect for your elders was honorable and right, but it was also the reason Dad had left Kyoshi Island in the first place. And the reason she'd been stuck with Grandma on the trip back home, when Mom had decided to stay to help nurse Aunt Wen through the latest bout of fever. Thanks, Mom. You owe me. Big-time. "I like to hear the truth. Even if he is as blunt as a dropped ax." She stood straight, and gave Mushi a sober look. "It is true, isn't it?"

Mushi hesitated. "I might leave out idiotic…."

"Oh, boy," Xiu said faintly.

"My nephew spoke nothing but the truth," Mushi agreed soberly. "We have encountered the Avatar on our travels, and while he is a master airbender, he has no wish to take a life. If people are hoping for a great warrior to stop the Fire Nation's advance, they are mistaken." He bowed to Grandma. "If you will excuse me…."

"Good riddance," Grandma sniffed.

Xiu sighed, already considering what she'd have to do to clean up, given Grandma's fading eyesight. Towel, water, coin purse - oh no. "Grandma! Did you pay him?"

Grandma straightened, obviously feeling well enough to act her stature. "We are silk weavers, Xiu. If a rag-tag tramp of a water-blooded peasant doesn't have enough sense to hold his tongue when- What are you doing?"

It's dark in here. She probably didn't even see the scar. Much less… ooo, respect be damned! "He was bending, Grandma. He's hungry." Snatching clinking strings from the purse, she dashed out.

Light was flickering under their door; they must have had the window open, though Xiu couldn't feel any draft. She couldn't make out what they were saying, either, but she didn't have to. Older sane relative trying to talk sense into a sullen teen was easy to pick out. She knocked. "Lee? You forgot something."

The door inched open, and Lee swallowed. "I'm - sorry?"

"Don't worry about it," Xiu said bluntly. "Grandma can't stand Yingpei, either." She looked at him askance. "I know your uncle's already given you an earful on this, but listen. If you're good, and I'm betting you are going to be good, you're going to have to deal with a lot of people like Grandma. This isn't like the border towns, or whatever little port you came from. This is the heart of the Earth Kingdom. I hate to say it, but a lot of our nobles and artisans think acting like that is a good reason to cheat you." She pressed the coins into his hands. "Don't let them."

He stared at her as if she were as weird as the Earth King's bear. "But… why?"

"Dad was from Kyoshi Island, remember?" Xiu smiled wryly. "I've seen it all before. He always said, noble blood might be a gift from the spirits, but noble behavior is a gift you give your family. And yourself." She backed up a step, and grinned. "Besides, you kind of did me a favor. Grandma's going to be so mad about you, all 'improper behavior' and 'what is this world coming to', she's not going to even think about pestering me to 'stop pining after that no-good soldier boy and settle down with a nice rich young man'. As if. Rich men's wives don't get to weave the way I do." She winked at him.

"Um… you're welcome?"

"Xiu!" rang down the hall.

"Good luck, Lee!" Still grinning, she dashed off.

One nag-free night, coming up. Yay!

--------

"I must give my compliments to Master Xueyou's wife," Iroh said, leaning back on his cot as he rubbed a bit of candle-wax between his fingers. "That was delicious!"

"You can probably tell her in the morning. If you catch her early enough." Zuko's eyes were closed, but he lay tense on the futon below, obviously awake despite the darkness.

"Early?" Iroh arched an eyebrow. Firebenders rose with the sun, true, but given the chance, most people slept later.

"Bread with dinner. Made this morning. She's probably up hours before dawn."

"Ah, yes." Iroh smiled. "I forget, sometimes, how often you found the ship's ghost watch convenient, to be… unobserved."

"Not as easy as you'd think," Zuko said quietly. "Bakers, millers, brewers… smiths, sometimes… all kinds of people get up in the dark." He shifted on the futon. "Where are we going?"

"Full Moon Bay, eventually," Iroh answered, allowing the conversation to shift. One of these days he would pin Zuko down about the Blue Spirit. But not tonight. "We will make a stop shortly beforehand, to pick up some… documentation."

"False documents."

"But very good forgeries, I am assured," Iroh said cheerfully. "From there, we should be able to reach Ba Sing Se unhindered. The city is vast, and full of refugees. We should pass unnoticed."

"You mean hide." But it wasn't accusing. Just… tired.

"Yes," Iroh acknowledged. "We are tired, nephew. We need rest, and time to breathe, before we plan our next move." And I intend to stretch that time as long as possible.

"We have a bounty on our heads, Uncle! Hiding's no good if someone knows where you are!"

But no one would- oh. He had not explained, had he? "Master Xueyou does not know who we are," Iroh said firmly. "He recognized the moves, and certain words. But the only name he knows, is Mushi."

Zuko's hand lifted, hesitated near his face. "I'm not exactly easy to miss, Uncle. If Azula finds this place-"

"Then it is well that Xueyou knows my nephew is a waterbender, is it not?" Iroh said pleasantly.

"…You set up that thing with Xiu's Grandma on purpose."

"It was convenient," the retired general allowed. "Two leaves in the forest, nephew. I rely on your courage, and determination."

"You do?"

Spirits, the surprise in his nephew's voice. And - was that a hint of hope? Toph was right. I do need to tell him I need him. "I have always relied on you to do what you believed was right, nephew."

Gold eyes glanced at him, then away. "Why did she do that?"

"Because Xiu has her own honor," Iroh said plainly. "Get some rest, nephew. If we move too slowly in the morning, I fear we are destined to meet that most unpleasant woman again. And some destinies are best avoided."

With a snort of laughter, Zuko pulled the covers over his head.

Smiling himself, Iroh turned the bit of wax over again, recalling Zuko's stricken look as the candle flared in the wake of their argument. I know I can rely on you, nephew. But I think, wherever we hide, we will need shutters.

Small enough price to pay, for that glimmer of hope on Zuko's face.

That was the boy I knew, years ago. The one I thought I had lost with Lady Ursa.

How very odd, that speaking of the Avatar should bring it so close to the surface….

No. Not the Avatar. That Aang is a child, expected to do the impossible.

Only for the Avatar it was possible. Or so legends said. Even the boy himself seemed to think so.

Still. Why should that strike home with his nephew, who truly did have an impossible task…?

Oh, spirits.

His Zuko. His dear, shy nephew, who worked so hard and loved them all so fiercely, years ago. Who failed so often, but struggled onward, because he had hope.

He never believed it was impossible.

Iroh let out a quiet breath, resisting the urge to pound his head against the wall. Zuko needed his sleep.

Yet another true proverb: there is no fool like an old fool.

All this time - all this time! - he had thought Zuko's quest driven by pure, stubborn determination. A burning need to take the cruel fate, the punishment, that had been unjustly laid on him, and force it down Ozai's throat.

I was wrong. It was never about rage.

Not rage as most knew it, at least. Not the bitter anger driven by hate. No; this was a brighter, purer flame, and all the more desperate for it.

He loves his father. And so the task must not be impossible.

And if he fails, again and again… it is not because it cannot be done. It is because he is as Ozai has always told him he is. A disappointment. A failure. No true son of the Fire Lord.

Not a punishment; not to his nephew. A gift. A poisonous, terrible gift, that Zuko had taken to his heart. For it was a gift from his father, and what else could he do?

Spirits. What do I do?

Sleep, Iroh decided sternly. You were wrong. Know you were wrong. What you told Zuko is still true: you are both tired. Rest, and see if a better answer presents itself.

And hope the spirits have no more bandits between here and Ba Sing Se.

--------

"You're twitching," Zuko said dryly, leading Asahi down the dusty road.

Uncle Iroh blinked at him, almost innocent. "Oh? And why would two innocent traveling healers need to be alarmed, Lee?"

Right. Like he needed any extra reminders to watch his tongue, out here where anyone might be listening. Every once in a while they passed other travelers; sometimes a few weary stragglers, sometimes whole caravans.

For a hidden bay the Fire Nation's not supposed to know about, this place is awfully popular.

"You're twitching," Zuko repeated, letting his gaze flick over road, rocks, trees. "Just wait. Whatever it is, it'll get us later. When you're not expecting it."

"It has been remarkably quiet these past few days," Uncle grumbled.

"Like I said. Wait."

It had been quiet. Quiet enough, long enough, that all his screaming nerves had pretty much screamed themselves out, and were now quivering in exhausted knots while Zuko held his breath in anticipation of the next disaster.

At least I've got the teapot bluff down.

He'd had one or two false starts in the past few days, complete with nervous looks at the little firepot that seemed to flare contrary to breezes or fuel. But he'd persisted, and slowly, things seemed to fall into place. Using hot water was still hard… but it was a good hard, like a tough practice, or climbing down rough cliffs. He could handle it. Unlike Uncle, who was all but tearing gray hair out trying to get candle flames to flux into the healing fire, those few times they could practice unobserved.

He'll get it. We just need some time.

They'd have time, if Uncle was right about Ba Sing Se. And yet….

It's too easy.

Someplace they could hide. Someplace they'd be safe. Someplace no one from the Fire Nation had ever, supposedly, been able to invade - so obviously, anyone who made it inside couldn't be Fire Nation, and no one would suspect them.

Perfect. Too perfect.

It's a trap.

He didn't know how. Not yet. But he hadn't survived thirteen years in the palace and more than three scouring the world without listening to his instincts. They might be flawed and tattered and singing tension down his nerves whenever a stray lizard-bird twitched wrong, but they'd kept him alive.

Perfect and pretty equaled poison. White jade. Flutter-hornets. Azula.

But Uncle thinks it's safe.

No. Uncle hoped it was safe. He might have intelligence and reports and secret society contacts, but he'd never been there. And while Zuko knew his grasp of military strategy paled next to Azula's, he knew this: a good commander never, ever declared an area safe. Not until he'd ground-truthed it himself.

He's counting on me.

Okay. He could deal with that. Stay calm, stay back; let Uncle be the friendly face while he watched for the jaws of the trap. Then, depending on the situation, either tell Iroh what he'd found-

And hope he listens - no, he promised he would. He promised.

-Or, if everything had just dropped into Koh's lair in a hand-basket, grab Uncle and run.

Decision made, Zuko breathed a sigh of relief, murmuring endearments to Asahi when she turned her head to look at him. He had a plan. Not much of a plan, but given what usually happened to his plans….

Yu Yan archers. Typhoons. Ocean-spirits. Azula.

Given that, he'd just have to keep his eyes open and be ready to improvise.

Speaking of. "Someone thinks they're being sneaky," Zuko murmured, not looking where the brush was rustling.

"I see." Iroh smiled, gentle as a komodo-rhino about to take down an annoying little gate. "I believe we should allow him to think us fooled. For now."

Harmless travelers. Right. Damn.

Turning off the open road to reach the oddly tree-shaped rock Iroh's source had described, the retired general stopped, and cleared his throat. "Hello?"

"No names!" Shorter than Earth Kingdom average, and not at all skinny, the man who slunk out of the bushes still reminded Zuko of a weasel-mink. Without the pretty coat. "No names, I don't know you, you don't know me, I was never here- urk!"

Casually gripping the man's wrist, Zuko held him while Iroh checked the little documents their nameless contact had pressed into his hands. "They appear to be in order," Uncle said calmly.

"Of course they're in order! You don't think I'd risk my life - er, your lives - with bad papers, do you? You've got what you were promised! Let go!"

"Who are you afraid of?" Zuko asked darkly.

"Afraid? Me? Do I look afraid? Ha!" The man yanked against his grip, and blanched. "Son of a hog-monkey- er, I mean, you can let go anytime-"

"Who'd trace fake papers back to you?" Zuko said, voice low and dangerous. "Tell me!"

"N-no one! I swear!" He yanked harder, and yelped.

"You are, perhaps, unaware of the consequences of that particular hold, Master Nameless," Iroh observed thoughtfully. "Another such unwise move is likely to fracture your wrist. Which would do much damage to one of your more… lucrative sources of income."

Sweating, the forger gulped.

"Now. So that we may all avoid unpleasantness, and leave you to enrich yourself further - who is it, that you fear more than simple refugees longing for a better life?"

"The - the Dai Li," the forger stuttered. "They work for the Earth King. Or so people say. They don't leave Ba Sing Se, usually, but when they do… they're earthbenders. Cross them, and you just disappear. Or - worse."

"Worse?" Iroh asked levelly.

"I don't know. I don't know! People say - sometimes those they take, go away for a while. And when they come back, they're not them anymore. No one knows why. No one knows how! But it happens. And it's not going to happen to me!"

At Iroh's glance, Zuko let him go. "Thank you for the generous advice," Iroh said genially. "We wish you the best of fortune."

Straightening his robes, the forger sniffed. "You're going to need more than that. They don't let animals into Ba Sing Se. Not with refugees." With a last, irate glance toward Zuko, he scurried back down the road.

They don't…. Zuko swallowed hard, patting Asahi's neck when she bumped against him. "Uncle?"

Iroh sighed. "I have the name of a reputable caravan master, as well," he said plainly. "We should be able to find a representative of his near the ferries."

Oh.

Breathe. In and out. He hadn't been gutted by a sword blade. It just felt that way.

"I am sorry, nephew-"

"Let's go," Zuko said harshly, tugging on Asahi's reins. "We're wasting daylight."

He could make it to shore after he'd been blown out of his own ship. He could do this.

Besides, it wasn't like he'd had the right to expect anything else.

Silly Zuzu, Azula's voice crooned as he walked. You know nothing you love is yours to keep.

Chapter Text

Never, in all my days, did I think I would be longing for a bandit attack, Iroh thought ruefully, leading their way aboard the ferry. Zuko was a silent shadow in his wake, face empty of everything but cold determination.

He'd seen that look before. Three years ago, after Zuko had read the terms of his banishment.

He did the right thing. He did the honorable thing. And again, all he has for it is loss. Iroh tried to keep his face pleasant, even as his heart ached. Zuko was forbidding enough for the both of them. And this time, I am the one who has dealt the blow.

Never mind that he had not laid a finger on his nephew. Wounds to the heart went far deeper than mere scars.

I wish he would yell at me. Spirits, I wish he would set something on fire.

Nothing. Only terse replies when he must, and silence whenever it was possible. Like a warrior with his death-wound, holding his peace so his comrades would not break and die.

There is nothing I can do, Iroh decided, heart heavy. Not here. Not now.

Well… nothing serious. But then, perhaps serious was not what his nephew needed.

Grinning to himself, Iroh plotted.

------

That, has to be the most ridiculous hat this side of the Western Sea, Zuko thought blankly. A lone, rough-edged thought, crashing through the numbness of where's the next attack and she's gone, it's not fair, it's never fair. He would have been just as happy if it crashed right back out again, and left him numb and bleeding.

But this was Uncle. Uncle doing something that looked completely, utterly insane. Which meant it was time to duck. Or at least start distracting like hell.

I am in no shape for this.

Didn't matter. He had to try. "Look around," Zuko managed roughly. "We're not tourists." Desperate to shut down the conversation, he raised the wooden bowl of supposed lunch to his lips-

Sniffed, fingers feeling the lukewarm heat from the brown liquid, and abruptly dumped the whole bowl over the side.

"Lee," Uncle sighed.

"I'm not spending the next week chained to a latrine," Zuko growled.

Uncle Iroh blinked then, and sniffed his own bowl. "I admit it is not pleasant…."

"It's - not the smell." Reluctantly, Zuko curled his fingers over the rim of Iroh's bowl, feeling the faint warmth above the liquid. "Something in it doesn't feel right."

With a thoughtful frown, Uncle tossed his own bowl over the railing.

"But - what-" Zuko managed.

"I have survived spoiled food before, during the war," Iroh said gravely. "Hunger is unpleasant, but not fatal. If something in the energy of that is amiss enough that you sensed it, I do not feel inclined to trust to luck."

"Huh," a low voice chuckled. "Knew the food was bad, but not that bad."

Zuko refused to flinch. He'd heard the trio of teenagers coming, but he'd hoped they'd just walk on by.

Like I'd be that lucky.

Armed teenagers. Joy. A thin, small one with red striping on pale cheeks, like a Kyoshi Warrior gone feral. A taller, silent boy with a bow. And in front, messy brown hair over sly brown eyes and a chewed stalk of dry grass….

Leader. With an attitude. Great. Just great.

"My name's Jet, and these are my freedom fighters, Smellerbee and Longshot."

Would-be guerillas. Even better. Meaning they probably knew what Fire Nation looked like. Or thought they did.

Let's hope they look for uniforms. Deliberately, Zuko looked over the lake.

"Hey," Smellerbee said.

Damn. Be polite. Keep the cover. "Hello," Zuko replied, not looking back.

"So… waterbender, huh?"

Calculating. Jet's voice was pure calculation, hidden under devilish charm. It raised all the hackles on Zuko's neck. "So?" he said coolly.

"Don't usually see that in the Earth Kingdom." Jet's voice was lazy and watchful. Waiting.

Damn it! They don't even think I'm a firebender, and we're already screwed-

"Yes, it was quite the surprise, when we discovered what was happening," Iroh stepped in smoothly. "We hear there are waterbenders in Ba Sing Se. With luck we will find one, so there will be no more… er, random mishaps."

"Did some damage, huh?" Jet smirked. "You sound like our kind of guy."

If you're into random damage, I'm not the guy you're looking for, Zuko thought, giving them a dark glance.

Either blind to the hint or deliberately ignoring it, Jet stepped closer. "Here's the deal. I hear the captain's eating like a king, while us refugees have to feed off his scraps. Doesn't seem fair, does it?"

Life's not fair, Zuko thought dryly. Armed, no adults with them, no one as sane as even Sokka in the bunch, and mad at the world. He definitely needed to put distance between himself and these idiots.

"What sort of king is he eating like?" Iroh wondered.

…Argh.

"The fat, happy kind," Jet said sardonically. "You want to help us liberate some food?"

Smug, charming, and knows how to find people's weak spots. Zuko stared over the lake, and nodded. "I'm in."

I want you where I can see you.

------

"I'm sorry, Uncle," Zuko said, voice low enough that none of their fellow passengers would hear him through the joyous laughter as Jet handed out food. "He thinks he knows something-"

"And the best way to be certain he looks no deeper, is to allow him to think you are firmly in league with him," Iroh nodded. He'd noted the rebel's charisma as well; confined as they were with a ferry full of refugees who feared the Fire Nation, Zuko had every right to be wary. "Well. A meal was part of the passage price. We will be in the city soon, and able to shake him from our trail."

Longshot and Smellerbee neared, and he could say no more. Only smile, and grip his nephew's shoulder briefly.

We do what we must. But I am glad to see it bothers you.

And glad for a purely selfish reason, as well. His nephew's gaze had cleared, focused on the dangers of the present, rather than the pain he still suppressed. Apparently, furtive dealings did Zuko's spirits good.

Well, and why should they not? I know of many who specialize in covert missions. But has any other firebender ever infiltrated the North Pole?

Like healing, it was a dubious skill for a Fire Nation noble to claim. But unquestionably useful, so long as they remained fugitives.

I wonder. Is there any way he can put such skills to good use? Something I could encourage freely?

Something to think on, as he exchanged polite nods and dug into the bounty with his nephew and the two young rebels. A better meal than he'd had in some days, truth be told. Particularly once Zuko slipped a few tea sweets out of his sleeve when no one was watching. No longer graceful, outlines of maple leaves and cherry blossoms blurred by squishing, but still a lovely contrast to plain hot water. No tea, unfortunately. Well, one couldn't expect everything.

Food, drink… yes, we should have some conversation as well, Iroh decided. If only to keep Jet convinced waterbending was Lee's only secret. And in truth, he was curious. "So, Smellerbee. That's an unusual name for a young man."

"Maybe it's because I'm not a man. I'm a girl!" Obviously irritated, she stood and stalked off.

Oops. "Oh, now I see!" he called after her. "It's a beautiful name for a lovely young girl!"

Zuko's face didn't so much as twitch. Iroh wasn't sure if that was lack of surprise, unusual self-control, or simple teenage hunger overriding the brain to the point that his nephew wouldn't have cared if Smellerbee were a uniformed platypus-bear, so long as she didn't grab for his bowl.

Teenage firebender, Iroh reminded himself wryly, as the silent Longshot caught his young lady friend and didn't have a conversation. Hunger is most likely.

Drifting on the polar seas had been bad enough. Hunted as fugitives, only able to pause in one place long enough to gain meager supplies before prudence advised they move on… he could afford to lose the weight, but his nephew was too lean to be healthy.

Even if he were not bending, I think he may have grown an inch, Iroh thought ruefully. Late bloomers ran at least as strongly in Sozin's line as prodigies, but no one had ever convinced his brother of that. I had hoped he would take more after me than Ozai, but this is not the best timing.

Jet sat down with them, still caught up in the excitement of the crowd's adulation. "From what I heard, people eat like this every day in Ba Sing Se. I can't wait to set my eyes on that giant wall."

"It is a magnificent sight," Iroh agreed. And a terrifying one.

Jet raised a bushy brow. "So you've been there before?"

"Once," the retired general admitted. "When I was a different man." If events had been different, if he had been different….

If I had not been the Dragon of the West, would Zuko still be alive?

He doubted it. He very much doubted it. Zuko was stubborn and resilient and persevering, but the odds had been stacked too heavily against him for any young prince to survive. Much less succeed.

Now, if he could only convince Zuko of that.

"I've done some things in my past that I'm not proud of," Jet said in a low voice. "But that's why I'm going to Ba Sing Se, for a new beginning. A second chance."

"That's very noble of you," Iroh said thoughtfully. I think you even believe it. Whether or not the boy could hold to it - well. Theft from the captain was not a promising start. "I believe people can change their lives, if they want to." He looked at his nephew. "I believe in second chances."

Too late, he realized how Zuko might take that. Capturing the Avatar is not a second chance, nephew!

But he couldn't say it. Not with Jet studying them both.

"So what'd you do to a waterbender?" Zuko said levelly.

"What makes you think I've even met another waterbender?" Jet smirked.

Zuko gave him a hard, flat look.

Iroh recognized it. From mirrors. That was a general's look.

You're trying to look clever. I'm so impressed. Get your head out of your ass and start giving me straight answers before I feed you your insignia.

Of all the tricks of command he'd tried to teach his nephew, why did that one have to stick?

"Nothing you need to worry about," Jet said at last, not smiling. "She and her idiot brother and that kid…. You're more realistic than she'll ever be." He snorted. "Like the Fire Nation didn't do enough to the South Pole already. Maybe that's why they got away with it."

Iroh's eyes widened, and he couldn't help but glance at Zuko. Who had gone very, very still.

Katara.

It could be another waterbender. But Southern Tribe, with her brother? He doubted there was another bender left that far south, after the Sea Ravens had done their butcher's work.

If this young man had managed to draw that young lady's ire, he had a great deal to make up for, indeed.

Well. One could say as much for my nephew.

No, that was not fair. Prince Zuko's quest forced him to be at odds with the young waterbender, so long as she defended the Avatar. This young man, who claimed to fight for freedom - meaning, most likely, against the Fire Nation - what, exactly, could he have done?

Whatever it was, Zuko is right. We will be better off away from this boy.

------

Morning. No place to practice katas, not with so many people. But it was misty enough that Zuko could almost pretend to be alone, as he stood at the prow and practiced his breathing. In, and out. In. And out.

He'd lost breath control against Azula, that awful day she'd tried to lure him into chains with promises of Father's forgiveness. Lost his breath, lost his temper, lost the battle.

I'm not going to let that happen again.

He couldn't work on stance. Couldn't even run katas without fire, not with so many eyes. But he could breathe.

…Or he could, if one charismatic annoyance weren't trying to pad up behind him from his bad side.

You want people to trust you, but more than that, you want to be in charge. So you can't help twisting the knife, with little things you think people won't notice. And I bet most of them don't. I bet your little band thinks you're gold. I bet Katara liked you too, until you did something stupid.

Azula would eat you for lunch.

"You know, as soon as I saw your scar, I knew exactly who you were."

Oh, hell.

He'd kept his head when the Ocean Spirit had tried to drown him. He was not going to panic now.

A breath, and he glanced at Jet warily.

"You're an outcast, like me," Jet went on, standing beside him. "And us outcasts have to stick together. We have to watch each other's backs, because no one else will."

An offer, blatant as a dagger wrapped in silk.

Join up with me. Or don't, and leave me wondering why.

Damn it, Uncle and I never worked out what to do if someone wanted us around!

"Is there a healer on board?"

One of the crew, eyeing Jet's hook-swords narrowly as he kept a grip on a sweating refugee man.

Now what?

"Please!" the refugee blurted to the deck at large, littered with people still mostly asleep in the mist. "My wife - there's so much blood - is there anyone-?"

Jet forgotten, Zuko ran for his kit.

------

…I smell like blood.

Wearily, Zuko sat back away from his patient, as the husband hugged and kissed his still-pale wife with a flood of tears. "Make sure she gets all the water she wants to drink," he told the phlegmatic gray-haired aunt beside him. "Tea would be better. Boiled water. She got sick off that slop from yesterday. Wouldn't have mattered, if she hadn't been…." He groped at air, unable to find the right words.

"Torn up from the birth," the aunt nodded, cradling a small bundle of person that had slept through the whole thing. "Three weeks ago. I thought she was fine." She grimaced. "She swore she was fine."

"Fresh meat," Zuko went on tiredly. "Fish, if you're sure it's fresh. She's healed, but she needs to build her blood back up." He frowned. There was something he was forgetting, he knew it.

"Salt," Uncle Iroh said firmly, appearing in his field of vision. "Her blood is thin enough. Nursing the little one will make things worse, if she does not have enough." He smiled, and offered a steaming cup. "She's not the only one who could use some, it would seem."

"Mmph?" Zuko managed, half of it already downed. Sweet, with a little salt; where had Uncle gotten it?

"We've reached the docks." Iroh still smiled, but his eyes glanced toward the direction of the ramp. "And we appear to have drawn some attention."

…Damn.

------

"We're not from the Foggy Swamp!"

"Of course you're not, Mr. Lee," the customs lady said dryly, re-stamping their papers with enough red ink to make them bleed. "No one ever is."

City Guard Huojin watched the old gentleman - Mushi, if the info Amaya had gotten from certain contacts was right - whisper something into the furious teen's ear, and had to stifle a laugh. Given that sparkle of pure mischief in the genial face, that was probably go with it, Lee. Which wasn't at all what you'd expect from an Earth Kingdom refugee… but made far too much sense, given what they actually were.

Amaya's refugees always had a story to tell. These two looked to be more interesting than most.

Making his way over to the booth, he cleared his throat. "Is there a problem, Ma'am?"

"No, no problem," Mushi said swiftly, looking innocent as a pygmy puma kitten. "We were only distracted by such a rare loveliness." He turned back toward the official, smile charming as an antelope-fox. "May I just say that you're like a flower in bloom, your beauty intoxicating."

Mole over her eyebrow and all, she smiled. "You're pretty easy on the eyes yourself, handsome. Raorrr."

I'm going to die laughing. Right here, right now, Huojin snickered to himself, as the teen looked like he wanted to drop dead of pure mortification. No, keep it together, they're probably scared stiff under the bluff.

"But it doesn't get you out of the facts!" She jabbed the handle of her stamp Lee's way. "Unlicensed healers cannot practice in Ba Sing Se! Waterbenders or not!"

Whoa, whoa - what? Huojin thought.

"She was bleeding to death!" Lee defended himself.

"And the ferry was not quite in Ba Sing Se," his older relative interposed smoothly. "Surely, now that we know the law-"

"Rules are rules! Rules maintain order. Like it or not, there has to be an investigation!"

"And hold up the line for how long?" Huojin pointed out. "Probably all day, if everyone on the ferry has to be questioned. That's an awful way to welcome good citizens trying to make a new life in our city. If they weren't docked, he didn't break the law."

She scowled, and opened her mouth-

"What he needs is a license," Huojin went on, before she could quote chapter and verse at him. "I'm due to go off-shift soon anyway. I can escort them to Healer Amaya, and she can examine his training. I'm sure she'll summon the proper authorities if there's a problem."

"Well… I suppose that would be acceptable…."

"You are as gracious as you are lovely," Mushi smiled. "We will not forget this kindness."

"You'd better not," she said dryly, adding final entry stamps before handing the papers back. "You're just lucky you caught me on a good day."

"Immensely fortunate," Mushi declared, bowing. The teen swallowed, but followed his lead.

Awkward bow, and he has to stop his hands from shaping the Flame, Huojin observed. Mushi can pass, but that poor kid can't have been outside the Fire Nation more than a few months.

…And he's a trained fighter. Who's already messed with the wrong firebender. Oh boy. Amaya's going to have her work cut out for her with this one. "If you'll follow me, gentlemen?"

As he escorted them onto the train, Huojin felt eyes on the back of his neck, and glanced back. Lone teenager. Hook swords. Brown eyes dark and suspicious and angry.

Hell. Hope he didn't get a look at their eyes.

Thank the Spirits Ba Sing Se's so big. Odds are, this is the last he'll ever see them.

He led them into one of the emptier cars, and sat on the outside edge of their bench, trusting his uniform to keep other passengers at bay. "I'm Guard Huojin. I hear you're travelers from far away... and that you've had a touch of heatstroke."

"What?" Lee asked warily.

"Yes, we are," Mushi plainly, relaxing. "Where are we going, really?"

"Healer Amaya's," Huojin said frankly. "We're old friends. Took me in when I was six, for a while. She's good at helping people make a clean start."

"Oh?"

"You'll see when you get there." Huojin smiled, taking those odd gold eyes. He'd seen plenty on those Amaya helped over the years, but they were always startling.

Especially Lee's. Most Fire Nation gold still had a hint of hazel in it. Lee's were paler. Purer.

And he's a waterbender?

Well. If that were true, the kid had a really good reason to run. Way better than most of those who ended up on Amaya's doorstep.

Better than the reasons you know about, Huojin reminded himself. When it's honor, you know they don't like to talk about it.

"I'm not going to tell you you're safe now," Huojin said in a low tone, as the car began to fill up with refugees. "But you got this far, and that's no small thing. I did, too, but I can't take the credit. I was six. My parents were the brave ones."

As the train left the station, Mushi raised a curious brow, but obviously refrained from asking. Lee, though-

Lee stared at him, just for an instant. As if he could stare right through Earth Kingdom green eyes to-

Shaken, Huojin looked away. Oma and Shu. What was that?

Nothing to do with Oma and Shu at all, he feared.

Loyalty. Damn loyalty.

His parents hadn't had time to teach him much about where they'd been born, but they'd taught him enough. And he'd pulled up more from Amaya's refugees. The ones who made it… and the ones who didn't. Couldn't.

He was thirty-six. Good job, loving wife, two joyous little daughters, good friends. And yet every once in a while, he got ambushed by the feeling of something missing.

"You don't have a loyal lord, Huojin," quiet Meixiang Wen had told him, one of the times he and their fellow hidden folk got together to discuss things her earthbender husband didn't want to know about. "Some of us have, and left them; some of us were told to run. You've never had the choice, or the order." She'd had to stop, then, and look at him with a mother's worry. "I hope you can bear it. Most of my children are all earth, but Jinhai…."

Yeah. The boy was game enough, and cheery, but definitely took after his mother in more than build. Meixiang's other children hadn't needed Amaya's help to hide. Jinhai had.

Just like these two would.

Why does this kid get to me?

They hit the Lower Ring before he could puzzle it out. The train stopped, and he rose, brusquely gesturing for them to precede him. Have to make this look official.

Besides, twitchy as Lee was, he sure didn't want the kid behind him in a closed space.

He could have found his way to Amaya's clinic blindfolded. Not the best part of the Lower Ring, sure, but far from the worst. And not much to look at on the outside. But looks were deceiving. Most people didn't have their own private well. Amaya did, thanks to some of her grateful earthbending patients working together to dig down to pure, fresh water.

That wasn't all they'd dug. But so far, even the Dai Li seemed to believe Amaya's underground hidey-holes were just esoteric treatment rooms, good for compounding light-sensitive medicines and treating soldiers whose nerves had been shattered by too much time on the Wall.

Let's hope it stays that way.

Huojin knocked on the clinic door, and ushered them in without bothering to listen for an answer. "I found them, Amaya."

"Thank you, my friend." Graceful in a lightweight, long-sleeved indigo dress, the graying Water Tribe woman stroked a last bit of glowing water along what had been a carpenter's broken arm. "Choose your next tavern game more carefully. Wrestling with earthbenders never ends well."

"But he was such a skinny guy!" her patient started to complain. Caught her look, and snorted. "Sure. Don't mind the paying client. Charity comes first."

Lee bristled, eyes narrowed, mouth a thin line as Mushi put a hand on his arm.

Great. Fire Nation temper, in spades. "This is official Guard business," Huojin said levelly. "Mister…?"

The man forced a smile. "Actually, I was just leaving. Sir."

"I'm sure you were."

"You enjoyed that," Amaya chuckled ruefully, after the man had scurried out.

"When you've got a temper, use it for a good cause," Huojin shrugged. "Besides. You've had a lot of charity cases this year. We don't want people connecting the dots."

"We're not-" But Lee's burst of temper died half-formed, as the teen looked between them, good eye widening. "We're… not the only ones, are we?"

"I suspected as much," Mushi said thoughtfully. "Interesting."

"And something better not spoken of here," Amaya said politely. "Come with me."

She led the way underground, stone steps twisting and turning so none of the lower chambers were visible from above, and even sound barely carried. Huojin brought up the rear, quietly ready for anything. Amaya's help was effective, but sometimes - traumatic.

Hope the kid's not a runner, Huojin thought practically, standing where he could move between them and their gear as Amaya charmed them into putting it down. Normally, he wouldn't take a kid Lee's age with dao seriously. Teenagers generally didn't know how to use one sword well enough to bother him, much less dual blades.

Normally. But this kid had made it all the way from the Fire Nation to Ba Sing Se. He wouldn't be here if he couldn't use what he was carrying.

Lantern-light glowed over Amaya's sober face as she gestured for her guests to sit in simple wooden chairs, then sank into her own. "I don't know your names," she began simply. "With luck, I never will. You are Lee and Mushi. And there is a reason for that."

"The Dai Li, or Azulon's list?" Mushi asked soberly.

"Azulon's what?" Lee asked, uncertain.

"You would not have heard; our family never earned such unpleasant attention," Mushi said gravely. "Let us say, it is known the Fire Lords keep lists of those to be dealt with permanently. Yet what is less known is that some seem added with no act of treason or disfavor to their name. And, I have heard, some few of those have not been found. Alive or dead." He raised a questioning brow at Amaya.

"The Fire Lord has no power here. But the Dai Li…." Amaya inclined her head. "Whatever you know, is likely wrong. They are skilled earthbenders, swift and silent. They protect their city, far more than its walls could ever do. And they protect it from itself… by silencing all talk of the war within these walls." She hesitated, blue eyes full of sorrow. "I've tried to help some of those they have taken. What they do to people, to their very spirits… I was Northern Water Tribe. I know what the Fire Nation tried to do to my people, eighty-five years ago. But no one deserves that." She looked at them again, gaze alight with fierce determination. "And you are Fire Nation. You are the war. If they find you, even if they let you live… you wouldn't be yourselves anymore."

"We are not the war, Lady Amaya," Mushi said plainly. "I will not lie to you; I was a soldier, once. But that was many years ago. And my nephew is innocent."

"Uncle!"

"Well, you are. Technically." Laughing gold eyes turned serious. "If this is so, Lady Amaya, then I thank you for your truthfulness. Allow us to find shelter for the night, and we will trouble you no more."

"Planning to run again?" Huojin put in.

"We don't have a choice." Lee's voice was grim. "I knew this was a trap."

"And in a funny way, that's what makes this so safe." Huojin shrugged, eyes sober. "I told you, she took me in. After she found me." Spirits, I don't want to say this. But - the kid looks like hell. If they run again, they're not going to make it. "After the Dai Li caught my parents."

Twin golden gazes burned into him. "You were born of the Fire Nation?" Mushi asked, thoughtful.

"In the colonies," Huojin nodded. "If you want to make it here, you can. Just keep your heads down, and let Amaya help you."

Mushi inclined his head, and looked back toward Amaya. "How?"

"I can't tell you, until I'm sure the Dai Li will never know," the healer said plainly. "All I can do, is ask you to trust me."

"A grave request," Mushi said quietly. And nodded. "What must we do?"

"Uncle, you can't!" Lee protested.

"Sometimes, one must take a leap of faith." Mushi gripped his nephew's shoulder gently, and regarded Amaya with a level gold gaze. "Shall we begin?"

Faith, right, Huojin thought wryly. But you're still giving the kid a chance to run if things go wrong. Spirits. What had these two been through, to have that level of unthinking trust in each other?

They got here. Whatever it was, it was bad.

Amaya stood, and coaxed a ball of water from a pitcher with a wave of her hand. Kneaded it with her fingers, until only pure water remained. "Close your eyes. This is a delicate technique."

Huojin made himself stay calm and steady as Amaya cupped Mushi's brow in glowing hands. It'd been years, but he still remembered how it had felt, cool water seeping into every nook and cranny of self-

And carefully, gently, lifting a paper-thin layer of it out and away. Changed.

This is Huojin, had been the not-quite-words in his mind. Let him be your sword and shield. An innocent citizen of the Earth Kingdom. Let him breathe. Let him be.

He'd worn Huojin as a second skin so long, it was hard to remember he'd ever been anyone else. This was home. These were his people.

But the first few days - it's hard. I hope Mushi is as level-headed as he looks.

Amaya lifted her hands away, and Mushi shivered slightly. "A most curious technique," he mused, eyes still closed. Frowned slightly; lifted a hand and let it fall, in a sway of motion that flowed from arm to arm. "Ah. Not a blockage. The energies are merely a bit unsettled."

"You can sense that?" Amaya's brows climbed. "It's the influence of water. It will calm within a day or so, as your chi adapts."

"Hmm. And what does that mean, precisely?"

Huojin kept a frown off his face. Amaya didn't usually explain this part while they still had somebody untreated in the room.

She's trying to calm the kid down. Hope it works.

"It means what it means," Amaya said simply. "Healing touches the spirit as well as the body. I ask water to accept you. To protect you. And I ask your energies to accept it." She smiled, looking into memory. "I met an… interesting teacher, on my journey from the North. I never thought I would use his gift to help those of the Fire Nation. But you're running from the war. How can I not help heal those sick of all this death?"

Mushi inclined his head. "We are grateful for your care." He blinked, finally, and looked at Lee. "Nephew-"

The kid exploded.

Huojin had expected a dash for the stairs; a grab for the dao. Spirits, he'd even - a little - expected slack-jawed shock. Though not really, Lee was wound too tight and balanced on his feet too well to let bad situations paralyze him for even an instant.

He did not expect the sizzling arc of flame that snapped straight at Amaya's head.

Oma and Shu. He's a firebender!

Huojin grabbed for him anyway. He was taller than the kid. Older. Stronger. And pin most bender's arms, they were done for. Granted, he was going to end up with bruises; the kid was mad as a wet pygmy puma and wanted to kill something-

He was never able to work out exactly what happened next. Somewhere in there was a head-butt and an elbow-jab and a hook of an ankle around his knee to hit a spot that made his leg collapse like flicked tiles, and - Koh's lair, the kid could kick fire with his feet-!

…Ow.

But he'd held on just long enough, and Mushi moved in with a tricky series of strikes that kept Lee busy for a few seconds-

Just long enough for Amaya's shirshu dart to kick in. Gasping, the kid went limp.

Not letting go, Mushi glanced back at the healer. "Do you wish to tell me why my nephew tried to kill you?"

"Tried to kill her?" Huojin muttered under his breath, getting to shaky feet. Damn, Lee fought dirty.

"If my nephew had meant to harm you, Huojin, you would already be dead," Mushi said bluntly.

Say what? Ex-soldier, yes. He could believe Mushi had trained Lee to fight. But to be sure he would kill….

Oh, hell. Lee's… but even the Fire Nation doesn't put kids on the front line! What happened to him?

"Amaya was his only target," Mushi went on. "Why?"

Sighing, she swept a ball of water into a frozen sheet in her hands, making a rough mirror. "This is why."

Mushi looked, and went very still.

Remember what that's like, too, Huojin thought, sympathy outweighing even shock and bruises. The first time you looked, really looked, and saw green instead of gold…. Feels like the world went tilt.

Some people screamed. Others cried. Most, Amaya had to sedate to sleep it out; one reason she had shirshu darts on hand.

Mushi? Tough as steel. He only looked, and let out a slow breath. "I see." He knelt then, and cradled the silent teen close. "Work swiftly. My nephew has been struck by a shirshu before. He has built up some resistance. And the inner fire can be used to rid oneself of poisons, if one is determined. I have no doubt he is attempting that as we speak."

"No." Weak; almost soundless from the venom. But clear. "Don't do this."

"This is our best chance, nephew." Green held gold, with all a father's worry. "It does not hurt-"

"I can't. I won't! I'm not a traitor!"

Setting his jaw, Huojin swore silently. Spirits. The kid is screwed.

Not just Fire Nation, firebender. The loyalty that just tweaked Huojin, or made someone like Meixiang scared and sad, was part of this kid's life. Literally.

Fire Nation traitors died. Amaya tried, but some of her refugees couldn't make it. Not, didn't want to. Couldn't. A firebender….

"It is not treachery to live, nephew!" Mushi held on tight. "I could order you, as your teacher. I could command, as your elder. But I beg this of you! Live. Live, and make your own destiny!" His voice dropped. "I need you, nephew. I do not think I can survive the loss of another son."

"Thought she'd killed you. Thought-" Lee's eyes slipped closed, tears running from the good one. "…Do it."

Water in hand, Amaya held back. "You're a firebender. Water is your opposite. This could kill you!"

"It did not kill me," Mushi said bluntly.

Two firebenders? Huojin thought, stunned. How? Why?

"And what pursues my nephew will be his death, if you cannot aid us. We have no choice." Mushi laid a hand against the scarred cheek. "Do not fight. Flow with it. Let it carry you. Remember what you told me of the turtle-seals. You found a path then. Find one now." Looking at Amaya, he nodded.

Face pale and drawn, she laid glowing hands on Lee's head. Huojin held his breath, seeing her hope, her determination-

And her utter despair, as Lee's heart stopped.

Chapter Text

Dark.

Zuko coughed, and rolled over, staring blearily up at a sky full of stars. No sign of the Crown or the Wheel among the constellations; couldn't be too far north or south, then. But I'm not in Ba Sing Se anymore. Am I?

Uneasy, he summoned a flame for a look around-

Nothing.

"That won't work here, you know."

That voice. He knew that voice, and that face, as the young man in a Fire Nation uniform stepped out of the shadows of a tree. But it wasn't possible.

"It's been a while, cousin."

The voice, and the smile. So much like Uncle's.

He was crying as he hit outstretched arms, and for once - just once - he didn't care at all. "Lu Ten…."

"It's okay. It's okay, Zuko. I've got you. I won't let you fall."

Lu Ten let him cry himself out, rocking him gently. Waited until his breath hitched, and Zuko scrubbed his tears away. "How is he?" Lu Ten asked quietly.

Uncle. "He's okay. He misses you." Zuko swallowed hard. "He's going to be so angry at me. I promised to stay, I tried…." And I failed. Again.

"Zuko!" Lu Ten gripped his shoulders. "Calm down. You're not dead yet."

"But-"

"You're here, yes. But you're not dead."

The Spirit World? Doesn't make sense.

Uncle. It should be Uncle here, Iroh would understand why the world had gone crazy….

Iroh should get to see Lu Ten. Not him.

"Zuko. Focus." Lu Ten bent a quiet smile his way. "Trust me, it's not your fault things turned out like this. You're stubborn; it runs in the family. You'll find a way out."

Here. Just where is-? Zuko swallowed, seeing the tree, the hill, the great wall in the distance. "This is your grave."

"Well, it's convenient. We're not tied to them… but it makes some things simpler." Lu Ten glanced around. "We need to get you back, and I don't think I can do it alone." Gold eyes fixed on his. "Do you know anyone else here who would help you?"

"Here?" Zuko managed. "I know a kamuiy who wants to tear my throat out, but-" He caught that hint of a smirk, not nearly as subtle as Uncle's. "You knew!"

"I did get to see that," Lu Ten admitted, grinning. "You two? Were fantastic." He ruffled Zuko's hair. "Who'd have thought the kid who was always tripping over himself could get that good? And what a show! Fire, drama, vengeance!" He winked. "And on top of all that, I got to hang out with a lovely girl."

"Ping," Zuko breathed. "Ping Lu Yu."

The world shifted.

And they were walking beside a cairn of rocks, where an Earth Kingdom girl barely his age sat singing to a cooing, gold-eyed infant.

She looked up at them, and smiled. "Lu Ten!" Her smile shifted, more bittersweet. "Hello, Lee."

He sat down beside her. It seemed like the right thing to do. "…I'm sorry."

"It wasn't your fault." Her smile was pretty, but sad. "Not everything is, you know."

"I wish - I wish I could have been there," Zuko blurted out. "I wish I could have helped."

"You saved my mother," Ping said plainly. "You saved Asahi. The world is broken, but you've never stopped trying. That's brave, Lee. It matters."

"My name's not-"

"Isn't it?" She touched his lips for silence, and smiled past him at Lu Ten. "So. Someone's interfering?"

"Heavy-handed. But they probably figured this was the only shot they'd get," Lu Ten said wryly.

"Why? I'm not the Avatar!" Zuko growled. "Why do the spirits want to tamper with my life? Isn't it bad enough already- Why are you laughing?"

Still snickering, Lu Ten shook his head. "Zuko. You give spirits a headache."

"What?"

"Sozin broke part of the world, and we've been paying for it ever since," Lu Ten said seriously. "He twisted destinies, and so ours have been twisted. And a lot of spirits were satisfied with that. They don't… really get humans, a lot of them. So long as we suffer, they think they've fixed the problem. And they don't understand why it keeps getting worse." He smiled. "But you? You fight destiny. They throw something at you, it bounces off. Or you cut your way through it. Or it does stick, and you keep going anyway, until you walk it into the ground begging for mercy. You're Fire Nation. You don't quit."

He looked about then, apparently considering something. "Sometimes you have to go back to go forward. We have Fire, and Earth." Gold eyes met his, sober again. "Who do you know in the Water Tribes?"

No one I'd want to meet here. Zuko had fought Water Tribe warriors, before he'd ever visited Katara's little village. North or South, they didn't care if his ship wasn't part of the war. It was Fire Nation, and that was all that mattered.

He'd fought, and he'd killed. His men deserved no less.

"There's no one who would help you?" Lu Ten said quietly. "No one who ever has?"

Katara.

Stones blurred into ice and snow.

This doesn't look good.

Not the small, igloo and tent village he remembered. This was a town; the ruins of one, still smoldering, once safe behind carved walls of ice. Not as grand as the North Pole, but it didn't look anything like where he'd found Sokka. And the Avatar.

"It wouldn't." A woman's voice, forbidding as an ice cliff. "You destroyed this place long ago."

He spun around, looking for the voice's owner. "I've never been here."

Blue and white furs stepped out of blowing snow. A dark-haired Water Tribe woman, about his mother's age, with pale blue eyes relentless as winter. "The Fire Nation was," she said coldly. "And you are the Fire Nation. Aren't you, Prince Zuko?"

My throne. My country. My honor.

And yet…. "I didn't do this."

"There are many things you haven't done." Blue eyes flashed. "What have you done, besides hunt my children across the very world? You kill and burn and destroy; nothing stops you from getting what you want! Nothing but my children, who put themselves between the Avatar and harm. What makes you different from the rest of your murdering kind? What gives you the right to ask anything of me?"

Zuko stiffened, and glared right back. "Nothing."

"Cousin," Lu Ten murmured.

Zuko shook his head. This is my fight. "If I hadn't hunted them, Zhao would have. Without anyone interfering. If I hadn't chased them - and I don't want to kill them, no matter how annoying your son is - someone would have wiped them out of the world with a fireblast months ago." Gold eyes narrowed. "But you don't care what I haven't done."

"And I thought you were going to try to convince me." The tilt of her head was so familiar, he half-expected to be buried in ice.

I know you, Zuko realized. I know enough. "I don't have to convince you."

"A prince's arrogance." She gave him a dark look. "I'm not surprised."

"You're Katara's mother." It's not arrogance. Not if you're right. "She does what's right. Even when it's hard. Even when she hates you." He met her glare for glare. "I'm not supposed to be here."

"No. You're not." The cold wind died, and she looked him up and down. "But it won't help. I know what you're trying-"

You're ahead of me, then. Spirits!

"-You're one short. Who are you going to find?"

Fire. Earth. Water. Air. Zuko swallowed, and shook his head. "I don't know."

"It's not an easy question," Lu Ten allowed. "But the past isn't as far away as people think. Not when there are those who still remember."

If we'd known each other back then….

"Kuzon," Zuko breathed. "Kuzon of Byakko. He'd know somebody." He glanced at Lu Ten. "Where can I find him?"

"I can't tell you."

Laughter in gold eyes. Faint and rueful, but definitely laughter. "Can't, or won't?" Zuko demanded.

"Both," Lu Ten admitted. "I already told you; you're not dead. Some things, you just can't know."

So close. So close, and it was all going to fall apart. Like everything else he tried fell apart.

No. I am not going to die on Uncle. Not here. Not this way.

Reading the constellations above, he started walking north.

"Zuko?" Lu Ten, beside him easily as breathing.

"You were at Ba Sing Se. Ping was at her cairn. Katara's mother was at her grave." Knuckles white, he headed for the ocean. "I'm going to the Southern Air Temple." Even if I have to swim.

Ice-mist blurred, and he was standing on a windswept mountainside.

Lu Ten's fingers brushed his hair, faint as a breath of wind. "This is as far as we can take you," he murmured. "Without someone to search for, you have to get there on your own."

Wind blew, and he was gone.

"Don't worry," Zuko muttered. "I'm used to it."

Eyes picking a way over sheer rock, he started climbing.

No gear. No backup. No plan.

Not like it was the first time.

For a world of spirits, it felt real enough. Rocks tore at him. Air got thinner, biting at his lungs. Muscles trembled and weakened, pushed to their limits.

How did anyone ever live up here?

But every time he thought he'd made real progress up the slopes, the cliff fell away up, in an arc even the Avatar's lemur couldn't have climbed. Which was not like real mountains. At all.

Right. Not like spirits have to play fair.

Thunder rumbled, as if the sky itself smirked at him.

Of. Course.

He'd seen storms sweep up the mountains at home, he knew how fast they moved. It was still impossible. One moment, only the down-blast of wind. The next-

A flood of rain, weakening holds already slipping from torn fingers. Howling wind, prying his body away from ragged stone. Thunder cracked, lightning shattering a cliff near enough to shower him with stones.

"Is that all you've got?"

The storm darkened. Thickened, lightning flashing from cloud-top to cloud-top like the sky cracking its knuckles.

"Why stop there?" Digging his fingers into bare cracks, Zuko glared at the sky. "You've always thrown everything you could at me! Well, I can take it! Come on! Strike me! You've never held back before!"

The storm howled. Stones gave way, he was slipping-

Worn fingers caught his, and pulled.

"Gently, my young friend. You've had a busy day."

He sounded like Aang. Sort of. If Aang had made it to eighty and had some sense knocked into him. Zuko blinked, and looked up-

A vaulted ceiling. No storm in sight. But we were just- Spirit World. Doesn't have to make sense.

Daring, he looked at his rescuer. Shaved head, long white mustaches, yellow and orange robe… airbender tattoos.

"A very long day," the monk chuckled softly. "But here you are. With love, compassion, and honor."

Zuko stared. Turned, and looked.

Behind him, Lu Ten winked back, one arm wrapped around Ping's shoulders. Beside them, the Water Tribe woman rolled her eyes.

Unsettled, Zuko looked back at the airbender, in time to see one white brow go up in curiosity. "Friends and allies are the greatest of treasures," the monk said plainly. "What more could you need?"

"Truth," Zuko blurted out. "How do I get out of here? Why did I end up here in the first place?" He swallowed, mouth dry. "Why aren't you angry with me?"

"Should I be?" Under the mildness, gray eyes were sharp. "Have you broken your promise?"

Which one? "I don't think so," Zuko said warily.

"No, you have not," the monk nodded in satisfaction. "And as I recall, you never promised to be gentle. 'Drag him home by the scruff of the neck and make him apologize for scaring us like that', I believe you said."

What? "You're confusing me with someone else."

"That is possible," the airbender nodded. "Many things are possible. Even promises that last a lifetime, and beyond." A knowing wink. "Sometimes the spirits remember those. When it is to their advantage."

"You should play Pai Sho with Uncle," Zuko muttered. "I don't need koans. I need answers!"

"Ah. But to find your answers, first you must find the right questions." The monk smiled, waving off hints of imminent explosion. "But I forget how much need fire has for haste. I do not hate you. I would even say that I am greatly in your debt. I may have taught Aang to master air, but I also loved him. And some things, one who loves as a father cannot easily teach a young son. That the world can be cruel. That people may hate, without cause or reason. That evil can come in friendly guise." He met Zuko's gaze, stern as the mountains. "That even one who seems your most fearsome enemy, may act with honor, and justice."

Zuko stiffened, but held his ground. "I did what I had to."

"And that is a truth my young pupil had not faced," the monk said evenly. "It was not a kind lesson, nor one easy to watch. But I love Aang too much to deny that he needed it." White-wreathed lips quirked in a smile. "You may have detected a bit of… flightiness, in the boy."

"Never would have noticed," Zuko deadpanned.

The monk broke up in laughter. "I see your sense of humor hasn't changed!"

"I'm not who you think I am," Zuko insisted. "I don't know you!"

"Oh? Then it would seem my manners are lacking." He bowed. "I am Gyatso."

This is a bad idea. A really, really bad idea. But Zuko forced himself to return the bow. "My name is Zuko. Son of Ursa, and Fire Lord Ozai." And this is the end.

"Nephew of Iroh, and grandson of Azulon, among others," Gyatso nodded. "A fact someone has taken shameless advantage of, I think."

Moonlight shone through the vaulted hall, and she was there. "So he found you."

"Did you think he wouldn't?" the Water Tribe woman said dryly. "He's Fire Nation. They finish what they start." A bittersweet smile. "Or they try to."

"It was a necessary risk." The white-robed princess almost touched the floor, white hair flowing like water. "Your uncle asked a question. There was division on the answer. It could not be decided. It is still undecided. The Avatar is human as well as spirit. He will do what he will do." She floated closer. "But you have acted to restore the balance. Even when you could have passed by. And so you have earned my answer."

Glowing fingers touched his forehead, and the ocean dragged him down.

------

This cannot be happening.

Iroh was frozen on the floor, heart like stone within him as Amaya frantically tried to revive the boy in his arms. Mushi wrapped around his self like a sheath of cool silk, but he could not care. This could not be happening. Not again. They'd come so far. Tried so hard. The world could not be so cruel, not twice-

Zuko spasmed in his arms, coughing up water.

What in the world?

Questions later. He helped the boy twist, supported him as Zuko choked out enough liquid to drown an ostrich-horse. Much less an underfed teenager.

"Tui and La!" Amaya breathed, blue eyes round. "How…?"

"Tui and La," Iroh said grimly, "indeed." Thumped Zuko hard on the back, helping him clear the last froth out. He could see the faint glow fading from the water as it lingered on the floor. "My nephew seems to attract the spirits' attention. And not in a pleasant way." He lowered his voice. "Lee?"

"Yue said… you asked a question." Zuko breathed harshly, ragged as if he'd been dragged up from deep water. "Not sure… I can live through another answer, Uncle…."

"Yue?" Iroh frowned darkly, and briefly entertained the notion of a koi-fish dinner. That Zuko's life would never be easy, he could accept. That a spirit would strike his nephew to get at him - that went beyond even the spirits' stern justice, into cruelty.

Wait, he reminded himself sternly, as Amaya ran her hands over his nephew to heal the inexplicable marks of drowning in deep water. The spirits' messages are not always clear. Wait, and see what occurs.

"Ping thinks Lu Ten's cute…."

Iroh blinked. Shook his head, to clear his ears. He couldn't have heard what he thought he'd just heard. Could he? "Nephew?"

"…Don't go."

"I am right here," Iroh said gently, as Zuko's grip slipped into unconsciousness. "I will not leave you." Soberly, he looked at Amaya.

"He's resting," the healer said as she stood, still shaken. "This has never happened before, I-" She cut herself off, and bent to feel Zuko's forehead. "And now he has a fever. I don't know why!"

"It is not a physical illness, I think." Iroh frowned at the ghostly dragons entwined around his nephew, snapping and snarling; a larger red, and a smaller, younger moon-white. Somehow, he wasn't surprised. He might be handling the not-quite-other that was Mushi, but he was older, more stable. He knew who he was, and what he wanted. Zuko was still trying to find out.

Reaching over, he tapped on misty scales. "Stop that at once, both of you."

Startled, they looked at him.

"Fight on, and one of you may win," Iroh said bluntly. "But he will have lost something precious to him. To all of us. Strive together, instead. Lean on each other. Learn from each other. You are not enemies. You are my beloved nephew. You always will be."

Abashed, the red dragon licked a wound on the white. Gold eyes closed, and they faded.

"I'm going to hate myself for asking," Huojin said reluctantly, "but - what just happened?"

"Lady Amaya's healing does touch the spirit," Iroh said frankly. "And my nephew was already divided against himself. I merely needed to remind him of the greater whole." He raised a gray brow. "That was the fever. As for the water - I have a tale you may wish to hear." He paused. "And you may not wish to be sober."

------

Luli's going to give me a Look when I get home, Huojin thought ruefully, cradling a cup of tea in his hands as he pictured his wife's cheerful exasperation. Not that she'd be too angry; a Guard's hours were never straight from the clock, and the midnight-to-morning shift was one of the worst. She knew that, and they made it work.

Besides. The hair still hadn't settled back down on his neck since Lee'd… drowned, back down there in the basement. If some kind of trouble had just moved into the Lower Ring, he had to know about it.

Tucking Lee under a blanket on a borrowed futon, Mushi drew the screen closed around his nephew, shutting him into a corner of Amaya's small dining room. Sighed, and picked up his cup of tea. "Thank you, Lady Amaya."

"Amaya," the healer said plainly. "I have a feeling we may be seeing much of each other." She sipped her cup. "I've never met another bender who could sense the spirits at work."

"It was an unexpected gift," Mushi said humbly. "And not always a welcome one. But we may be meeting for more than that." Crossing to a wall sconce, he pinched an oil-lamp alight, and brought it back to the table with him. "I believe my nephew left you somewhat bruised."

"Don't worry about it, I've had worse…." Words died in Huojin's throat, as Mushi moved his hands about the flame-

And fire changed.

Hands wreathed in burning green, Mushi bent to run fire over his aching knee. Warmth washed through the joint, washing pain away.

Sparks dying around his hands, Mushi straightened. "Lee is much better at this than I am." He regarded them both. "My nephew is not a waterbender. But he is a healer."

A healer. A firebender is a healer? Huojin thought, stunned.

Two firebenders. And how had firebenders managed to flee their nation, and survive?

Amaya looked as if she wished her tea had been spiked. "Perhaps you should start from the beginning."

Mushi inclined his head. "I have not been to war in many years, true. But - forgive me, Lady Amaya - it was known that I studied waterbenders. So when Admiral Zhao decided to invade the North Pole, where the Avatar had taken shelter… let us say, I was invited to come along."

"My tribe," Amaya whispered, pale.

"The Avatar?" Huojin got out. And didn't care if his voice squeaked. The Avatar was a myth, a story for children. No one had seen him. No one had seen him for a hundred years.

"Yes," Mushi nodded. Bent a look of warm understanding on Amaya. "They took losses, but they survived. Zhao… overreached himself. He invaded, and did a great deal of damage, but his goal was more proud than that. More proud, and more evil." He drew a breath. "You may have noticed, when the moon went dark."

"Spirits." Amaya's hand pressed over her breast. "Tui and La…."

"Zhao found their mortal forms, and struck," Mushi said heavily. "I could not stop him, not in time. But the Moon had given some of her life to Princess Yue… and that brave girl, gave it back." He shook his head. "And the Avatar, together with the outraged Ocean, destroyed the entire Fire Navy fleet." A wry smile. "Lee and I spent three very long weeks on a raft, praying we would reach land somewhere safe."

If he hadn't already been sitting down, Huojin had a feeling he would have become forcibly reacquainted with Amaya's floor. Spirits. Spirits getting killed. The Avatar. A whole fleet sunk. That was- He shook his head violently, and concentrated on details. "Lee's too young to be a soldier."

"He is," Mushi agreed. "I snuck him on board. It was not safe for him to remain where we had been. Not that it was much safer for him with me," he allowed. "The Ocean Spirit appears to have very poor aim. When it took Zhao - well, I am grateful Lee is dedicated to his training. He ducked."

"Ducked," Huojin repeated numbly.

"I did mention some spirits are not fond of my nephew?"

"…Right." Sure, he knew about the small kamuiy that appeared in Ba Sing Se; the item-spirits, the two-tailed cat-owls, the other small creatures of mischief. But the Ocean and the Moon? When, exactly, had the world stopped making sense?

When you saw a teenager drown on dry land.

"In any event, we did reach territory held by the Fire Nation," Mushi went on. "We thought we had found safety. We were, unfortunately, mistaken." He paused a moment, obviously choosing his words. "You do not wish to know our names. That is likely wise. But I will tell you that for my actions against Zhao, I have been declared a traitor to the Dragon Throne, and Lee with me." Another pause. "And did they know what we are capable of, what Lee found himself capable of in our flight, there would be nowhere in the world we could hide."

"Because you can heal?" Huojin shook his head, appalled. He didn't hate his own people, he didn't, but the Fire Lord- spirits.

"Because of how they heal." Amaya regarded Mushi with interest. "You are not like other firebenders."

"The teachings of Fire Lords Sozin and Azulon are that fire comes from the darker emotions," Mushi said seriously. "Hate. Pain. Anger. All things that have twisted our nation, and our spirits. But to heal, one must care. And with that caring, one learns the fire can come from compassion. Love. Even righteous fury, that will defend the innocent to the death. True firebending, the teaching of the dragons, comes from life itself. What we can do, what we are… our very existence proves the Fire Lord is wrong."

"And to defy the will of the Fire Lord, is treason," Huojin finished for him.

"Even so."

"So…." Spirits, there was no polite way to say this. "Why aren't you dead?"

Mushi smiled wryly. "I was under the command of Fire Lord Azulon. After he died… you left the colonies at six? Then perhaps you do not know it is customary for those of noble blood to pay formal visits to the new Fire Lord, and assure him of their loyalty." He chuckled. "As my brother's loyalty is beyond question, Fire Lord Ozai neglected to see that I appeared."

There was more to it than that, Huojin could feel it. But I don't think I need to know.

Still. There was something Mushi was leaving out that he did need to know. If his stunned brain could just focus on what.

"You've kidnapped the boy from his father," Amaya said levelly.

Ah. Yeah. That would be it.

"In a way, yes," Mushi admitted. Paused again; not in the calculated manner of a man choosing his words, but the silent ache of looking into painful memory. "Three years ago, my brother declared Lee a failure, and a disgrace. He has traveled with me ever since. Much as it pains me to say, the only reason my brother would care that Lee is with me, is that I am between the boy and those who wish him harm."

Huojin recoiled. "His own father?"

"The power of our nobles rests not merely on blood, but on bending," Mushi said seriously. "Most firebenders show their first sparks by four; five at the latest. Six is very late." A quiet sigh. "Lee did not bend a flame until he was eight."

"Not good?" Huojin asked Amaya. He might be Fire Nation by blood, but she knew bending.

"The Northern Tribe counts blood more than bending in its politics," she said, with a trace of old bitterness. "But no. It isn't. Four years, Huojin. Imagine a proud man, a proud firebender, who lives through four years of having his heir considered useless by those in power. Four years of whispers and veiled threats, by all the courtiers around him." She hugged herself, as if feeling a chill off polar ice. "I'm not the first woman of the tribe to flee the power games. I doubt I'll be the last." Forcing her arms straight, she glanced at Mushi. "But if Lee is your brother's heir…."

"There is another child."

"Of course." Amaya sighed, bitterness turning sad. "A stronger bender."

"That, I would not be so certain of," Mushi said thoughtfully. "Lee has always struggled with his bending, yes. He has spent years, learning moves others soar through easily. Only time, dedication, and unerring practice, has given him the skill he now possesses." Mushi paused. "In Sozin's style."

Huojin looked between them, as green met blue. There was something being said beyond their words. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what.

Amaya hmphed. "I haven't forgiven him for trying to kill me, yet."

"I do not ask that you do," Mushi said seriously. And waited.

Minutes passed, and Amaya finally sighed. "A healer. And he can pass as a waterbender?"

"After a fashion," Mushi nodded. "It is more difficult to wring fire's strength from hot water, but Lee can do it."

"From hot-" Amaya's jaw dropped. Blue eyes darted toward the screen. "He can do that?"

"He can." Mushi smiled. "He thought of it when a man's life rested in our hands, and we dared not betray ourselves."

"He thought of it." Her voice was hushed, amazed. "Does he know?"

"I have been afraid to tell him," Mushi said quietly. "My brother's claim that Lee is a failure was very… convincing."

"Not a bender," Huojin pointed out, trying to sort out the sudden tension in the air.

"Huojin." Amaya shook her head, still stunned. "It would be as if - as if I bent water out of lava. It exists. It is possible. But to do it…."

"I had feared it might be only an uncle's kind eyes," Mushi mused. "Thank you for the confirmation, Lady Amaya."

Huojin eyed the screen himself. "You mean, he's a lot stronger than his father knows."

"Strength has nothing to do with it," Amaya said firmly. "Lee has imagination. Will. Determination." Blue eyes all but glowed. "Not one bender in a hundred, not one in a thousand, has that tenacity."

Mushi smiled.

"You," Amaya said, and it was almost a chuckle, "are a sly, conniving, scheming old firebender."

Mushi almost looked innocent.

"A healing firebender." Amaya did laugh, now. "Training him will be interesting."

Huojin checked that he was still sitting down. "You want to train him?"

"If Luli tripped on a piece of jade rough abandoned in the mud," Amaya said wryly, "wouldn't she take it home, and wash it, and see what might be carved from it?" The healer smiled at him. "You're going to be late."

Well, yes. "You're sure you'll be-?"

"We'll be fine," Amaya said firmly. "Thank you for your help, my friend."

Which was an unmistakable see you later, don't worry about it. Huojin nodded, and made his farewells.

And made a mental note to swing by the clinic again in a day or so. Just in case.

I have a bad feeling about this.

------

Dawn.

Zuko scrunched his eyes back shut, wrinkling his nose. He hadn't felt less inclined to move since….

"I'm tired."

Up almost two days straight. Half-drowned following turtle-seals into an impenetrable fortress. Fighting his way past a suddenly master-level waterbender, dragging the Avatar through a collapsing ice sheet and a blizzard, getting buried by said waterbender again….

And finally, fighting for his life against a master firebender who utterly, sincerely wanted nothing more than him dead.

Yeah. He'd been tired.

I hurt everywhere.

Not a physical ache. More a trembling exhaustion of energies, as if he'd been clinging to one spar in a typhoon, and had been pulled in just before he slipped under the waves.

Get up. Get moving. Get to sunlight.

Quiet confusion, then caution, flickered through his mind. Which was crazy, he was a firebender, he needed the sun-

Lee is Earth Kingdom, and Water. Don't rush. Get there, but don't make it obvious.

A whisper. A nudge. Like the times Uncle's voice seemed to pop up in his head, when he was about to do something really stupid. It was weird.

Sunlight. Now.

He'd marked the exits from Amaya's clinic automatically, just as he did going into any unknown territory. The street was not an option. But that sliding screen, over there - that seemed promising.

He slid back wood and paper, and breathed in green. A water garden.

No turtle-ducks. None of the giant lotuses he'd seen in some nobles' displays. A fair-sized pond, water burbling up at one end with a chuckling clarity that spoke of a source somewhere far below, trickling out the far side into a neat herb garden. Cattails, blooming iris, and yellow water-lilies spread from rocky edges to deep water, and iridescent fish no longer than his little finger ducked under leafy cover.

Molly-guppies. Wild, and some of the fancy breeds.

…How do I know that?

Ba Sing Se, that whisper nudged him again. You know, like you know where the Rings are. When curfew is. How to get down to the docks without people asking too many questions.

Lee. That whisper was Lee.

What did she do to me?

Focus. Sit in the strengthening sunlight. Breathe.

It was like dropping a lit candle into a gaping chasm. Warm, and welcome… but spirits, he felt so empty.

Firebenders rise with the sun. Be patient. She almost killed you. Just keep breathing.

A few minutes, and Uncle sat down beside him with a happy sigh. "I am feeling a bit chilled myself. Amaya believes it will pass soon."

"I just want to soak. For days." Zuko breathed more deeply, testing the flicker of fire inside him. Still a pale shadow of what it should be, but growing stronger. "It was like everything washed away." Another breath. "Almost everything."

"But you are well?" Uncle's voice was calm, with only shadowy overtones of hunting down a certain waterbender with malice aforethought if he were not.

"Coals in a firepot. I just need to dry things out inside…." Zuko grimaced, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm not making sense."

"I believe you are entitled," Iroh said tolerantly. "Dealing with spirits is always unsettling." He paused. "Nephew? You have not looked at me today."

"I'm afraid," Zuko whispered.

"Of what you will see?"

Zuko swallowed. "Of what you will." Who am I, Uncle? Who?

"I see my beloved nephew," Iroh said quietly. "Prince Zuko. Son of Ursa, and Fire Lord Ozai. Your eyes cannot change that." Uncle's hand rested on his shoulder. "And I see Lee, whom I have grown to know and rely on through our travels." He chuckled. "But perhaps I am greedy, wanting to have you both."

"How do you always know what to say?" Zuko wondered, feeling the words just as warming as the sun. "I never know what to say."

"Some things come with time." He could hear the smile in Iroh's voice. "Be patient. You are still young."

I don't want to be patient! I want-

That thought seemed to tangle itself up like a pygmy puma kitten in a ball of yarn, hissing and spitting and somehow utterly ridiculous. He might want his honor back, but Lee flung up glimpses of arrogant, uniformed Earth Kingdom generals, who didn't care what the Dai Li did so long as they kept order in Ba Sing Se.

It's not like that! I have a reason. A good reason.

The whispers seemed to ripple, confused.

If I don't have my honor, I can't be Father's heir. If I'm not - Azula is.

His people. Oh spirits, the things she'd do to his people. And to the world.

Earth and Water. Stay hidden. Deflect your opponent.

He couldn't argue with that. The chances of Aang defeating the Fire Lord any time soon ranged between slim and none. Meaning it didn't matter if Azula thought she had a lock on the throne. Uncle was right. Right now, he had to focus on staying alive.

Uncle.

He lunged, knowing his target would never expect it.

Strong arms caught him regardless, gently returning his fierce embrace. "Zuko?"

Family. He had to laugh, ruefully, as all the loose pieces inside seemed to fall into place. "I think something went wrong, Uncle. We're supposed to be Earth. Tradition. Enduring." He made himself look into green without flinching. This was Uncle. And somehow, that made everything all right. "I think Lee is Water."

Iroh's brows went up, but he smiled back. And if it was a bit wry, Zuko couldn't blame him. "Perhaps that will be to our advantage, nephew. It does us no harm for those around us to see you as foreign. So long as they do not see what you are." He hesitated. "Is it difficult?"

"It's different." Zuko pulled back, just far enough to rub his eyebrow. "It's like a flood washed everything out of your house, and you have to find things, and put them back." He had to look away. "What if I don't do it right?"

"Right?" Iroh asked quietly. "Or the same? I am not as I was, before the siege of Ba Sing Se. It is all right to change, nephew. To grow. So long as you remain rooted in your true self."

"I think I already did," Zuko said quietly. Looked up. "I put you back first."

Green eyes widened. "Nephew?"

"When she struck you down…." Zuko had to stop, and breathe. "If she's doing what Father wants - then I don't want it anymore."

Iroh drew in a startled breath.

"I was ordered to capture the Avatar. And I will! Alive. He needs to be stopped. Anyone who can do… what he did to the fleet… he has to be stopped." Zuko clenched his fists, trying to still their trembling. I'm not a traitor. "But I won't sacrifice my people to do it. And I won't let her sacrifice them." Calm. Just… be calm. "You're my uncle. I won't let that happen to you again. I won't." Stay calm. Think. "I know - I have a hard time with my temper. But I'm going to try. To bank the flame. To think." She's an obstacle. With a lot more firepower. "She expects me to attack like a firebender. Straight on, for the kill. If I can go around her, deflect her…." Words failed him, and he shrugged.

"It is a place to start," Iroh nodded, and stood. "Lady Amaya says we have a little time yet, before any patients should arrive. And that we are quite unobserved."

Even drained, Zuko's heart leapt. He scrambled to his feet. "We can practice?"

"Gently," Iroh advised. "The chi of water is still disturbing our own."

That was fine. He didn't feel up to much beyond candle-lighting. But still. "We can practice."

Iroh winked, and shifted into stance.

Zuko matched him, half a joyous heartbeat behind.

------

Breakfast, a few good cups of tea, and one nephew safely ensconced in Amaya's garden with a healing scroll and orders to soak up sunlight. That tended to, Iroh caught Amaya between patients. "We must talk."

"You said you were going out to look for work." Amaya's tone was mild, but one dark brow arched in curiosity.

"And I will," Iroh affirmed. "This will not take long, I hope." He frowned. "How much of what you have… shaped, in my nephew, is real?"

"Almost all of it," the healer said simply. "The mask uses pieces of your self, and reshapes them as if they were formed in the Earth Kingdom-"

"My nephew seems convinced Lee is Water Tribe."

Amaya halted in mid-thought. Blinked, and slowly nodded. "I believe that does make sense."

"Does it?"

"I checked some of my scrolls yesterday," the healer informed him. "I was searching for anything that might explain what happened. I didn't find it, but I found something else. Something I'd nearly forgotten." She gave him a sober look. "He was given that scar by someone he trusted."

Iroh winced. Which, he knew, was answer enough.

"It's not directly on one of the chakras, but a blow there, where so many of the body's channels come together, with a massive force of chi behind it…. If that wound had been dealt by a waterbender, I would have a patient with no will, no desire to live. An empty shell, who would want - nothing."

Iroh straightened, the dreadful meaning sinking home. "One whose inner fire had been extinguished."

Amaya inclined her head. "Just so."

"So my nephew-"

"Has survived surprisingly well," the healer stated. "You must care for him deeply, for him to have even been able to sip that comfort." She glanced toward the screens blocking off the garden. "He's had years of drought. Whatever happened… I don't know if it was the spirits, or simply being that close to death. The scar is there. But the energies it blocked are beginning to flow again."

"Love, and family, and the ability to adapt," Iroh murmured. Considered all that, and paled.

"I would think this would be a good thing, Mushi," Amaya said with some asperity.

"In any other, I would agree," Iroh admitted. "But this is my nephew. If there is any way trouble can find him, it will."

------

Zuko sighed, and shaded his eyes, as the chi meridians marked on the scroll seemed to swim in his vision. Sunlight might be filling the emptiness inside drop by golden drop, but the rest of him didn't seem inclined to tolerate it as well. Not today.

Looking away from the brightness, he saw a cat-claw of white hanging in blue sky. And tensed.

Yue.

Or La, if he meant to invoke the Moon-spirit formally. Which he didn't.

But it was hard to look away.

Grimacing, Zuko set the scroll safely down on the portable writing tray, and walked over to the pond. He needed a distraction.

Then again, reading itself would probably be going fine, if practice hadn't been one long series of distractions.

His movements had been right. One advantage of having had to drill the basics into his very bones. He didn't forget. But the flow of his energies had been - off. Odd.

Amaya says it'll settle. Be patient.

On top of that, something just kept tugging at his concentration. Not Lee. At least, he didn't think it was Lee. Lee was a nudge, a whisper. Whatever was bothering him was more - directional. Like the push of storm winds. The shift of a ship in waves.

Push, and pull.

It was annoying.

He crouched by the water, watching multicolored bodies flicker in and out of the sunlight. Wasn't too different from sitting on a dock, watching sealife circle and dance as the tides lapped at them. No salt, though. Breathing didn't seem quite the same without it.

You lived on dry land until you were thirteen, Zuko growled at himself. You can't actually miss sailing around the world chasing rumors and myths.

No. Not really. But the ship had been predictable. Train, hunt for a myth, deal with a crew that wanted to be there only slightly less than he did. Stable. Sane. No spirits, no Avatar, no bounty on their heads.

Until he'd spied an impossible light at the South Pole, and everything had gone catastrophically downhill from there.

If I'd caught him then, if I'd held him then - we wouldn't be in this mess.

Sighing, Zuko skimmed his fingers across the pond's surface. The past was past. He had to deal with what was, not long to chase an airbender who'd never so much as touched water….

His hand lifted, and a thin arc of water lifted with it.

What the-?

Splashed away and was gone, as a quick roll took him yards away from the pool. It wasn't glowing, and it hadn't been a hand - but there were fish in there. You could never be sure.

Flipping to his feet in a ready stance, Zuko eyed the pond suspiciously, ready to sear it out of existence if he had to. If he even could, with spirits involved.

Nothing. Just the quiet murmur of water.

"Lee?" Amaya stepped quietly into view on the garden path. "I'm breaking for lunch, if you'll join me. How far did you-" She eyed him, and his stance, with bemused worry. "Did something happen?"

"Do you have spirits in your water?" Zuko asked tersely.

"Not to my knowledge." The healer gave him a patient smile. "A little paranoid, are you?"

"Only because things are out to get me."

------

"You make tea?" Huojin muttered under his breath, too low for the higher-ranking guard with him to hear. Not that Officer Yaozu probably would have noticed, bent on getting a steaming cup before they headed out way too early on evening duty, but better safe than sorry.

They're shuffling guards around all over tonight, Huojin thought. Guess they need some extra security up in the Upper Ring. Wonder what's going on?

Not that it really mattered, so long as it stayed in the Upper Ring. Not his neighborhood, not his problem. Poking around up there was a quick way to bump into the Dai Li, and that was a pleasure he'd just as soon forgo. Unlike tea.

"I do," Mushi smiled at him, gesturing the pair of them to empty seats. "It is one of my life's quieter pleasures." He chuckled. "And here comes one slightly louder."

Huojin raised an eyebrow as Lee walked through the door, feeling a wash of interest and relief. The kid looked frazzled at the edges, short hair sticking up everywhere and ink staining his hands and one sleeve. But that was a heck of a lot better than lying half-drowned on Amaya's futon.

"Well?" Mushi asked.

"…I've got an apprentice's license," Lee admitted, taking out the thin sheaf of papers long enough for Mushi to beam at it, before tucking it back under his robe.

"Ah, very good! Tea?"

Lee gave him a skeptical look. "Steamed leaf juice?"

"How can one of my own family say such a thing?" Shaking his head, Mushi poured Yaozu's tea.

The officer picked it up - then took a second breath, sipping it slowly, and sighed. "This is the best tea in the city!"

"The secret ingredient," Mushi said expansively, "is love."

He walked back toward the back of the shop, as Lee stifled a groan.

Huojin chuckled, remembering too well what it was like to be a proud sixteen. "Don't worry. When you get to be his age, you can embarrass your nephews, too."

Lee blinked, and all the color drained from his face.

What'd I-? Oh. "Another child," right. Still. Even if Dad likes your sibling better, why do you look like you'd rather face down a charging dillo-lion?

The shop door slammed open.

"I'm tired of waiting!" The angry teen refugee from the other day, sheathed hook swords glinting in the shop's lights as he pointed toward Lee and Mushi. "These two men are firebenders!"

Oh, hell.

------

You bastard.

The world seemed to shimmer through a watery haze as Jet unsheathed his swords. Zuko deliberately kept his fists from clenching. No swords, no way he could take on someone quick as Jet with just bare hands - damn trained reflexes. Let his hands even start to close, training would kick in and he'd firebend right there, in reflexive self-defense. Which would get them both killed.

Damn you! We didn't do anything to you. Why?

"I know they're firebenders!" Jet growled. "I saw the old man heating his tea!"

The ferry. Damn it.

"He works in a tea shop," Huojin's fellow guard pointed out dryly.

Right. Stay quiet, Zuko told himself. Let other people talk Jet down. Spirits knew he was in no shape to do it, not after a day spent studying and then answering Amaya's exhaustive questions on what he could and couldn't do for a patient. She'd marked his triage judgment as fairly educated, his knowledge of wound care as decent, and his healing bending as remarkably good for someone working mostly on instinct. He might have been proud of that, if he hadn't been so exhausted.

And twitchy. Definitely twitchy. Ever since the pond. Worse since the sun went down. A lot worse.

Push, and pull.

It was driving him crazy.

And Jet wasn't helping. "He's a firebender, I'm telling you!" the rebel insisted.

The officer looked less than impressed, as Huojin rose to back him. "Drop your swords, boy. Nice and easy."

"You'll have to defend yourself," Jet said, grim and smug at once. "Then everyone will know. Go ahead, show them what you can-"

Pushing and pulling and damn it, he couldn't just stand here! Why couldn't you just leave us alone?

Porcelain clattered like an earthquake, and three cups' worth of tea suddenly hurled itself at Jet's face.

What the…?

"Firebender?" Huojin drawled in the sudden silence. "Looks more like teabender to me."

Please let Uncle keep a straight face, Zuko prayed. "That's my uncle you're calling a firebender. Are you out of your mind?"

"I saw-"

"I don't know what you saw. I don't care." Zuko took the last step he needed to near Huojin's incautious, dao-armed associate. "See this!"

Pull the blades. Separate. Move.

And the fight was on.

------

Iroh clapped a hand to his forehead as more furnishings fell victim to the duel. Ordinarily, he wouldn't worry about Zuko; rested and ready, his nephew could put most fighters of Jet's level down in less than a minute. Tired as he was, though, with his chi still upset from Amaya's waterbending… this could get tricky.

How in the world did my nephew fling tea?

"Serve the tea pretty hot here, huh?" Huojin muttered, watching for any opening to separate the battling youngsters.

"So we do," Iroh agreed after a moment's shock. Of course. We can move fire. Tales say dragon's children could even bend lava, and that is fiery earth. Fiery water… well, well.

And wouldn't that be a most unpleasant surprise, for anyone who trapped his nephew on terrain that should favor waterbenders? He could already see some tactical advantages-

Crash.

…Oh dear. Perhaps it was just as well Zuko was not working here. That had been the front door.

------

Damn. He's better than I thought, Zuko realized, dao locked with Jet's swords. Between that, and exhaustion, and not wanting to kill the idiot….

I could be in trouble.

"You must be getting tired of using those swords," Jet taunted. "Why don't you back off and let the old man fry me?"

Because I'm not stupid. Because my uncle is worth ten of you, and a pygmy puma thrown in on top. Because you're so wrapped up in needing to hurt someone you'd go after innocent strangers, if you thought they were Fire Nation.

No wonder Katara hates you.

"Please, son, you're confused!" Iroh called out from the doorway. "You don't know what you're doing!"

No, Uncle. He does. That's the problem.

In more ways than one. This was not going well.

No more kid gloves.

Breathe and focus and channel inner fire into a quick burst of speed, pinning one hook-sword down, turn and advance and strike-

…I cannot believe he ducked.

At least he'd killed the damn wheat straw.

------

Someone needs to teach that kid that regular people don't kill their problems, Huojin thought acidly, ignoring Yaozu's sputtering over his borrowed swords as he tried to figure out a way to get between two desperate fighters without killing either of them. At least, Lee was desperate. The other refugee was riding such an avalanche of hate and fury, he wouldn't care if someone cut his hands off so long as he could spew his venom.

"You see that?" the troublemaker snarled, balancing on the edge of a well. "The Fire Nation is trying to silence me-"

Grinning suddenly, Huojin dashed back inside.

Let's just hope the owner- yes!

Grabbing what he sought, he ran back out toward the fight. Think fast, kid. Before someone wonders why a waterbender's not taking advantage of a well. "Lee!"

------

Damn, he's behind me, I can't-

"Lee!"

Hot and near and pulling-

Spinning, he let his free hand arc out, and pushed.

A kettle's worth of hot tea hit Jet with the force of a fireball, blasting him down.

Step in, disarm, finish- no!

Foot still on Jet's wrist, Zuko stopped the dao an inch from the teen's throat.

"Good, hold him there," Huojin said briskly, moving in with iron bindings as Jet wheezed, trying to get his breath back. Left wrist secure, the guard motioned Zuko back, and yanked Jet up enough to catch the teen's bruised wrist behind him in the cuffs. "You're under arrest, young man." Green eyes cut back at Zuko. "Drop the sword. Now."

Breathing hard, Zuko nodded, and laid the blade down. Out of reach of Jet's feet. He'd trained hard to be capable of fighting even when captured. No way was he going to assume the freedom fighter hadn't picked up a few tricks.

"Me?" Jet sputtered, dripping. "They're Fire Nation!"

"No, we're not!" Zuko let some of the fury and frustration pour into his voice. "You moron! You said you wanted a fresh start! Well, so did I! But if it's the only way to get an idiot like you to stop attacking my uncle… damn it, my mother was from the Great Foggy Swamp!"

Dead silence in the street. He could feel the onlookers staring, aghast.

Tea dragging wild brown hair into a soggy mass, Jet blinked at him. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Do I look like I'm kidding?"

Jet didn't resist as Huojin hauled him to his feet, face scrunched up in horrified disgust. "You're - you eat bugs!"

"You have never had fried silkworms? Deprived child." Iroh gave Jet a stern look. "Lee's mother was far more civilized and honorable than most people I have met anywhere. I will thank you not to insult the memory of my brother's wife."

Foggy Swamp?"

Zuko flung up empty hands, disgusted. "Now do you see why we didn't tell you?"

Jet seemed to slump against his bonds. "No wonder you're so sneaky…."

It's working? Zuko glanced at the crowd, looking for traces of disbelief. I can't believe it's working… uh-oh.

He didn't need Lee's shiver to recognize the pair of Dai Li walking through the crowd. Even if the uniforms hadn't been a giveaway, the way onlookers melted out of their path would have shouted they were trouble. "Is there a problem?" one said levelly.

"I'll say there's a problem!" The teashop owner jabbed a finger toward Jet. "This young man wrecked my teashop, and assaulted one of my employees!"

"Mistaken identity," Huojin said dryly. "We've got it sorted out now." His voice hardened. "Right?"

"I didn't think-" Jet started.

"You got that right." Huojin gave the Dai Li a professional smile. "Thanks for the assistance. But everything seems to be under control now." He glanced at his fellow officer respectfully. "Right, sir?"

"Boy's getting off easy," the officer grumbled. "Attacking the finest tea-maker in the city!"

"Oh ho ho," Iroh chuckled. "That's very sweet."

Zuko wasn't sure whether to laugh or groan. The Dragon of the West, a tea-maker….

Two leaves in the forest. We're just simple refugees. If Uncle's happy with what he's doing while we're resting - well, don't screw it up.

Zuko tried, very hard, not to glance back at the wreck he and Jet had made of the teashop. …Any more than you already have.

Apparently he hadn't done too badly, because the Dai Li were moving off. Though not without a considering look his way.

Lee. Be Lee.

He leaned on that whisper, and gulped air, without any touch of breath control. Shook a little, like a new recruit, now that the battle-rush was fading. Drew closer to his uncle, who was all a frightened refugee had in the world.

They turned and left, and now he really did want to fall down.

Later, Zuko promised himself. And hid a vindictive grin, as the officer reclaimed his dao and started hauling Jet off, abusing his prisoner's ears every step of the way.

"Gentlemen?" Huojin raised a brow at the pair of them. "If you'll step over here a moment, I have few more questions."

"He should get off with a warning, this time," Huojin said in an undertone after they complied. "Which is just as well for all of us. The Dai Li don't usually bother questioning random troublemakers before they deal with them, but better safe than sorry." Concern swept off his face, giving way to exasperated anger. "Lee, just what the hell did you think you were doing?"

"He attacked my uncle!" Zuko protested.

"I'm not helpless bare-handed, you know," Iroh said patiently. "I would have been fine-"

"If somebody recognized your form?"

That stopped Uncle cold.

"Damn," Huojin groaned. Looked at Iroh with rueful sympathy. "I hate to say it, but he's got a point. We do get soldiers off the Outer Wall down here. A few of them have been close enough to the action to notice things." Another green-eyed glare Zuko's way. "Still. We were right there. Let us handle it. That's what the Guard is for."

Confused, Zuko glanced at Iroh. Who started to speak, stopped, and finally shook his head. "It seems we are both unaware of customs that may prevail in the larger cities of the Earth Kingdom," Iroh said thoughtfully. "If you would be so kind as to inform us how the Guard functions in Ba Sing Se? So we may avoid any other misunderstandings."

"We're like the Guard everywhere, I think," Huojin said wryly. "We enforce the laws. Investigate petty thefts. Keep people from killing each other?"

"You do?" Zuko said, even more confused.

This time, it was Huojin who hesitated. Looked at him. Looked back at Iroh. "Is he serious?"

"My nephew is rarely not serious," Iroh said bluntly. "We are not accustomed to such protections being extended to everyone." He paused, choosing his words. "Some might say that those in our unpleasant position do not deserve our lives, if we cannot fight to keep them." He shrugged. "Besides the obvious - I believe I was twenty, when I encountered my first assassin outside the shelter of my clan. Lee… has not had such fortune."

Huojin stared at him. Turned a disbelieving gaze on Zuko.

"What?" Zuko said crossly. The fight was over, he was tired, and no matter how low they kept their voices, there were far too many eyes on them.

And he knew that look on the guard's face. Knew it, and drew in a hiss of breath. "Don't ever pity me," he bit out, low and angry. "If I were better, they wouldn't dare come." If I were better. If Father loved me. Zhao would never have dared if he'd- if I'd-

Fists clenched, cold, he turned away. "You need anything else?"

"…Let me talk to your uncle for a minute."

------

Huojin barely waited for Lee to get out of earshot before facing Mushi head on. "Assassins?" he hissed, barely above a whisper. "And what the hell's the obvious?"

Mushi gave him a skeptical brow. "I believe you know, if you will think on it."

Agni Kai. Oh. Hell.

Firebenders. Benders who had the right to challenge, or be challenged, when two of them went head-to-head. Duels that could be to wounding, or death.

Damn. Never really thought about that. Our people here, they're just people. Most of them never wanted to hurt anyone in their lives. But firebenders… they're trained to kill. All of them.

"Right. Stupid question," Huojin managed, voice unsteady. "But - assassins?"

"I told you it was not safe for Lee to remain behind." Mushi weighed him in his gaze, and sighed. "Specifically, because he had just survived an attempt arranged by Admiral Zhao. The man could not be allowed to learn he had failed."

You got drafted as an adviser to the man who tried to kill your nephew. And you snuck him onto the Admiral's own invasion ship, and got away with it. Who are you? "He's sixteen," Huojin protested.

"The war does not care. The spirits do not care. His father does not care." Mushi gave him a sad smile. "Thank you for your assistance. It was most clever, and timely. Now, I think your Officer Yaozu is waiting." He inclined his head. "Do not worry. I will see that Lee rests. He's much more civilized, after a good night's sleep."

Civilized, Huojin thought numbly, heading off to join Yaozu and his sullen prisoner. Oma and Shu. How could anybody call a land where that happens to kids civilized?

Only it didn't happen to kids, from what he'd heard. Not ordinary ones. Not even ordinary firebenders. Fire Nation politics were vicious, true, but the nobles who earned admiral's rank didn't try to assassinate people who couldn't possibly be a threat-

Oh, Agni. Huojin almost tripped over a cobble left awry after some random earthbender had played with the street. A dozen little facts Mushi had dropped fell into place, and the pattern was something he should have seen a mile away. His brother is unquestionably loyal to the Fire Lord? They're not just nobles. They're great names!

The highest class in the nation, beyond the royal family itself. Warriors. Firebenders of unparalleled power. And - yes - targets of assassins, when court politics turned nastier than usual. Down to the children.

Meaning the reason Lee acted like he expected people were trying to kill him… was that he expected people to try to kill him.

And they're hiding here, in Ba Sing Se. As commoners. They're not just desperate. They're clueless.

Grimacing, Huojin ran through his likely patrol duties in his head. No help for it, he wouldn't be able to drop by the clinic until late. And this wasn't the kind of thing he could tell Amaya in a note.

"Where are you taking me?" Jet growled, defiance back now that Lee and Mushi were out of sight.

"Headquarters," Huojin said loudly, noting the pair of ragged teens slinking through the night crowds after them. "Lucky for you. Let me tell you a little about the Dai Li…."

Chapter Text

"So." Safely ensconced in their new apartment, Iroh poured hot water into a cup in front of his nephew. No point in wasting good tea on an experiment. "Can you show me again?"

Gentle words, that he hoped sounded casual, instead of carefully chosen. Zuko had fought so hard, so long, to master Sozin's style. To bend fire as others claimed it should be bent. Learning to follow his own instincts and experiment now - it was a delicate, delicate task.

He tried, and failed, so many times. And with Azula, and my brother… it was never safe to fail.

Yet without failure, how can we discover anything new? And this is new. Or, perhaps, very old.

"I'm not sure," Zuko admitted. "I just - got angry." Biting his lip in concentration, he touched steaming water, and slowly lifted his hand.

Thin and sparkling, a strand of water clung to his fingertip.

Holding his breath, Iroh watched.

Water collapsed back into the cup, and Zuko hissed in frustration. Frowned. Held himself still, and deliberately breathed out, slow and easy. Dipped his fingers in a scooping motion, as if gathering a handful of flames.

A globe of water shimmered in his palm, still steaming.

He's done it. Iroh breathed freely again, spirit soaring. "Magnificent."

"It's just a little water, Uncle."

"And an acorn is only a small nut," Iroh smiled. "You have proved it can be done. We will build on that." His smile turned rueful. "Tomorrow. We have both had a busy day."

Zuko tipped the globe back into his cup, staring at his dry palm. "I look like a waterbender."

"It might be best not to do that in front of the Fire Sages, true," Iroh admitted. Both the Fire Lord and the Fire Lord's heir were children of fire. No other element would suffice. "But I doubt any of them are here. And think, nephew. Now, if you carry a waterskin, you can bend anywhere in Ba Sing Se. Without betraying yourself." He chuckled. "And as to that - you told our story perfectly."

Zuko reddened, and ducked his head. "I didn't think it would work."

"Under other circumstances, it likely would not have," Iroh said bluntly. "You are a very poor liar, Prince Zuko. Which is nothing to be ashamed of." It was inconvenient, yes. Nearly fatal, given the viper-scorpion's nest Azulon and Ozai had made of the court and the military. But not shameful. "You were angry and upset, and clearly worried for my life. And those about us had every reason to wish Jet wrong, and these walls safe from even the thought of the Fire Nation."

"You mean, I didn't fool them," Zuko said grimly.

"But you did choose the right words, to allow them to fool themselves," Iroh said with great satisfaction. "It was well done." He laughed again, softly. "But take pity on your poor, elderly uncle, and do not scare me that way again."

Standing, Zuko snorted at poor and elderly. But gave him a faint, tentative smile. "I'll try."

"Ah." Iroh's eyes danced. "So you mean to find some entirely new way to terrify your uncle to death?"

"Uncle Iroh!" Zuko sputtered.

Chuckling, Iroh stood, and opened his arms.

And almost immediately regretted it, as Zuko froze in place. Too much, too soon, Iroh berated himself. He is tired, but not as unbalanced toward water as he was this morning. I cannot expect-

Gingerly, Zuko met him halfway, and hugged him back.

Felling the body in his arms tremble, Iroh frowned. "What is wrong?"

"It hurts. Inside."

Iroh stiffened. "I never intended-"

"Don't. Don't let go."

Interesting. And given what Amaya had told him, of the wound to his nephew's spirit…. Iroh held on. Firmly, but not so tight Zuko could not pull free, if he wished. "If it hurts, do not take more than you can bear."

"It's a good pain." Zuko's voice was low, just above a whisper. "Like stretching a scar." A few more moments, and he had to retreat. "I'm sorry, I'm trying…."

"No more than you can bear," Iroh said firmly. Gripped his nephew's shoulder. "I can wait. I trust you. And I know you care."

Green eyes glinted at him, fierce as gold. "I'm not going to give up, Uncle."

"I know you will not," Iroh nodded. Which is part of what worries me.

One step at a time, the retired general reminded himself, preparing for bed. We are here, fed, housed, and relatively safe. And I will be more careful with my bending.

No need to force Zuko to break his word, after all. He only needed to delay the pursuit, until summer was over. Which should be easy enough. The Avatar had a flying bison, and aid from hopeful people throughout the Earth Kingdom. Surely, now that he had found young Toph, he could hide among the mountains no Fire Nation troops would have reason to venture up, and safely learn earthbending. Why should any of them come to a city bearing the focus of Fire Nation assaults?

Outside his window, Iroh glimpsed the moon.

…Why do I even ask?

------

Moonlight itched at him, and Zuko buried his head in his pillow. Pushing and pulling and damn it, he knew there wasn't a drop of hot water left in the apartment! Why couldn't he sleep?

I need some air.

Pulling on a robe, Zuko slipped out the window and climbed up to the tiled roof. The moon danced in and out of spring clouds, shadows turning footing uncertain. But he was used to that.

The wind is worth it.

He'd always loved the wind, even though Fire Nation ships didn't need it. The wind told you about places you'd never been, lands you might never see. If you knew how to listen.

Leaning on the roof cistern, Zuko closed his eyes.

Murmurs of people, faded by distance. Music somewhere west of here; no tsungi horns, and the rhythm was different, but it was definitely supposed to be music. A drift of green and earthy scents grown too familiar over the past month; farms, inside the Outer Wall.

You'd never know there was a war out there.

Wind shifted, bringing faint cries of lake-gulls chasing schools of fish in the moonlight. Something tickled his hand, and Zuko snatched-

And blinked. Bison fur.

A few, thin strands. Not freshly shed, if the past few months had taught him anything. Spring fur, not winter - though length was a little hard to judge. Half the strands had been melted back, tips charred from white to smoke-brown.

You idiot.

He couldn't think. He couldn't breathe.

I warned you. I told you! She does what Father asks - she does everything perfectly, even if it means killing….

No.

Kneeling, Zuko pressed his head against the night-cool ceramic of the cistern, forcing panicked thoughts into rough order. No. The Avatar couldn't be dead. Not just because he desperately needed Aang to be alive. Because if the Avatar were dead, Fire Lord Ozai would have announced the Fire Nation's triumph to the skies.

And Ba Sing Se would be falling, even now.

Which obviously wasn't happening. So the Avatar was alive. He had to believe that.

Panic receding, Zuko let out a slow breath, and braced his hands on top of the cistern to stand again. Don't scare me like that again, Aang.

Aang. He'd thought of the Avatar as Aang.

And he could feel the water under his hands, separated from him only by thick, fire-hardened earth. No fluttering almost-heartbeat of fire, like the steaming brew in Uncle's teapot. Just pushing, and pulling. Waiting. Aching at him.

Trying not to think, Zuko swept an arm out, hand open.

Like the moon, like the tides; like Katara facing me, angry and lethal as a host of blades….

Pulled it back.

Water erupted.

Reflexes seized hold even through shock; he skipped back, feet not even damp. Water curled on itself, following-

Stop!

The wave halted, rippling in time to his trembling, out-flung hand.

…I can feel it.

Not a warmth; not a heartbeat. Not like fire. This was the flow of blood in his veins, the ripple of a stream over his fingers. The heady rush of turning a ship into the teeth of a storm, knowing it'd take everything he had to survive - and knowing he could.

The ache inside was easing, and that was the most frightening thing of all. Other benders might be too young to remember. He hadn't been.

Eight, and there was something I needed, and I couldn't - I couldn't figure it out. It was like being hungry and thirsty and drowning, and I couldn't get air. And I wasn't cold, but it was like cold, I had to get close to the fire, I needed it….

He'd needed fire then. Like he'd needed water now.

Terrified, he snapped his left hand out, fire blazing to life in his palm even as the wave collapsed.

Oh yeah. Real smart. Idiot!

He snuffed it, relieved despite his mortification at breaking cover. Whatever was wrong with him, his firebending was still intact.

It doesn't feel wrong. Just - like bending.

Crouching, Zuko ran a hand over wet tiles, fingertips not quite touching the roof.

Water beaded up in the moonlight, and followed.

Oh, Agni.

He should be panicking. He knew it. But rage and panic and fear for Uncle's life had seared through him so many times the past few days… there just wasn't anything left. All he felt was numb.

I can never go home again.

Oh, but it was worse than that. So very much worse.

"So this is your answer," Zuko whispered to the spirit shining overhead. "The Fire Nation destroyed the Air Nomads, and now you'll destroy us." A tear slipped down his cheek; he wiped it away. "That's what's going to happen. My father only has two heirs. And Azula's insane." Another tear; he let it fall. "When he dies, she'll inherit. And I know what she'll do. You think the war is bad now? Just wait.

"And if she doesn't inherit-" Zuko swallowed hard. "Firebenders are loyal. We need it. If there's no Fire Lord, my people will tear each other apart. We won't be able to stop. And once our defenses are down, once we're at each others' throats in a civil war…." He could see it, clear as daybreak. Water Tribe ships sailing into the Fire Nation's deepest harbors. Ramps falling, unleashing earthbenders in a roar of steel and stone.

Zuko's fists clenched, and he stared up at the moon through a veil of tears. "Great plan." And he bowed, formally, vanquished to victor.

Then straightened, and glared defiance back at silver. "But we're not Air Nomads. We'll fight. We'll live." He swallowed tears. "I'm going to save them. As many as I can."

I'm going to learn what Amaya does. All of it. And then-

And then, what? Hide frightened refugees all through the Earth Kingdom? They'd be found. Hunted down. Killed.

I don't know yet. Jaw set, Zuko climbed back down off the roof. But I'll think of something.

Lu Ten says I give spirits a headache. Agni, I hope he's right.

------

"You are ridiculously awake for this hour of morning," Amaya murmured, downing the last of her tea. And almost immediately wished she could take the words back. If Huojin was right, and she'd never had reason to doubt him yet, Lee might not know her gentle teasing for what it was.

Like a Northern chieftain's son, trying to pass as a simple Southern tribesman. It's a wonder he's managed to stay unnoticed this long.

No. Not a wonder, not given what she'd seen of Lee so far. Pure, unrelenting effort, fueled by intelligence, tenacity, and the burning desire to live that marked the best of her charges.

"Firebenders rise with the sun," Lee said, studying the scroll she'd lent him as if he hadn't noticed the snap in her voice. "Polar summers are hell. No one can sleep. Polar winters - there's good reasons not to go that way."

Amaya tried not to let herself react, storing those facts away. You've been to the poles. More than once. And you're usually surrounded by firebenders. What have you been doing?

She shouldn't want to know. She'd made it a habit, not to know about people before they came to her. But none of them had been benders.

I want to know. You've done something impossible. How?

He glanced at her warily. "I didn't think waterbenders needed to be up nights."

Hmm. You're curious too. "We don't," Amaya allowed. "I prefer to work a later day for my clients, who often must be working from dawn to twilight, with irregular times off. And for myself. I may be a master healer, but I am not the strongest waterbender by far. I take advantage of the moon, when I can, for more difficult healing."

Some of the tension eased out of Lee's shoulders. "Work around your weak points. I know."

Amaya frowned. "Your uncle thinks well of your skill."

"He's good. I'm - nowhere close." Lee didn't look up, voice quiet and steady. Not angry, as she would have expected from a young man his age, much less a young firebender. Barely even a whisper of resignation, buried in the smooth flow of fact.

We'll have to work on that.

"So if you're not usually up this early, why are you?" Now Lee glanced up, lone brow raised.

Blunt, but not suspicious. Maybe his reflexes weren't quite as hair-trigger as Huojin feared. "I need to make a house call," Amaya answered. "And I don't want them to see me coming."

…And perhaps Huojin was right after all, and a warrior's trained suspicions were merely held under iron control. Uncanny green fixed on her. Not the familiar leaf-green of blue on Fire Nation amber. A fierce, emerald blaze, eerie as the flames in the Earth King's palace. "You're expecting trouble," Lee said levelly.

Amaya caught her breath, and shook her head. "I'm not certain what I'm expecting." What is it about this boy? I faced down young Arnook, when I wasn't much older than he is now. And we all knew he was raised to be Chief someday.

Chief, yes. A leader of men in war, certainly; though they all hoped the Fire Nation had learned their lesson decades ago, and would never return. But Lee was more than that.

Fire is the element of power.

Even soaked in water's shadows, Lee burned.

"What's the situation?" the young man asked, impatience leaking into his voice.

"I would prefer not to tell you," Amaya said plainly. Raised a dark brow, before he could open his mouth. "Something is going on, and I have not be able to determine what. It could simply be a series of accidents. But there have been so many, these past months." She paused, deliberately. "It could be malice. Everything I know from my training, everything I know about these people, says that it can't be. But I could be wrong." She tapped a finger gently on the table. "I would like a pair of fresh eyes. In case friendship has clouded my judgment. Do you need to know more?"

He reddened a little, and ducked his head. "No, Master Amaya."

Amaya smiled quietly. Teenager, with the arrogance of the nobly born engrained into his bones… but Mushi had at least taught him manners. "Madam Meixiang is one of your people. She's married to Professor Tingzhe Wen, earthbender, archaeologist, and historian with Ba Sing Se University-"

"Does he know?" Lee caught her look, and glanced away. "…Sorry."

It was a reasonable question. "He knows," Amaya nodded. "Not that he cares. I don't think Tingzhe pays attention to anything that happened after
Avatar Kyoshi died. Meixiang has to remind him when the children's birthdays are." She chuckled, shaking her head at one memory. "When Jinhai was born, Tingzhe's students had to drag him out of the rare scrolls section of the library! He was tracking down this piece of Fire Nation correspondence from someone else who'd been researching the Avatar. Spirits only know why. I'd thought the Fire Nation worried about living Avatars, not dead ones."

No reaction. Not so much as a twitch. In fact, it was such a careful non-reaction, she was startled.

What's that about?

"They have children?" Lee asked warily.

"Four," Amaya said, rising. I have so much I want to ask you. I wish it didn't have to wait. "They don't know their mother's history. It's safer. The rest, I'll tell you on the way."

------

Nice house, Zuko thought, mentally comparing it to other Earth Kingdom dwellings he'd seen. Not palatial, by any stretch of the imagination. Not even really big. But the Middle Ring definitely had the Lower beat when it came to quiet style. "Why don't you live up here?"

"Most of those who need me will never leave the Lower Ring," Amaya said quietly. "If Meixiang didn't love Tingzhe, I doubt she would have left. It's hard for your relatives, trying to fit in." Blue eyes regarded him. "Are you faring well?"

I'm wanted for dereliction of duty and treason. My sister wants me dead. And the spirits have made it so the whole Fire Nation will want me dead. How do you think I'm doing? "I'll be fine," Zuko forced out. "I still have Uncle, and…."

I'm a waterbender. Despair opened up like a black pit, hungry to swallow him. I don't have anyone.

…No. He clung to hope, the way Uncle would have wanted him to, even when caring cut him to the bone. He said he didn't hate me. Even after he thinks - after Mom-

He's Uncle. He's not going to turn me away. He won't.

If he could only be sure.

"I still have Uncle," Zuko repeated quietly. "I guess - most of the people who make it here aren't that lucky."

"Some aren't, no." Amaya frowned at him a moment longer, considering something. Shook it away, and beckoned him to follow as she knocked on the front door.

"Amaya?" A middle-aged woman, impeccably dressed despite the early hour. "Oh, I'm glad you're here… why are you here?"

"I'd like you to meet my new apprentice, Lee," Amaya said briskly. "Who's hurt?"

"Suyin," Meixiang answered, stepping aside so they could enter. "It was her turn to make breakfast. I've warned her to be careful, she's just at that awkward age…."

Zuko listened with half an ear, looking for anything out of place. Not that he'd know what was out of place in an Earth Kingdom professor's house. Something he'd reminded Amaya of on the way over.

But she'd asked. He had to try.

Suyin's the younger daughter, he recalled from Amaya's briefing. Thirteen, not a bender. The older sister, Jia, is a good bender, but tries to hide it - it's not ladylike here. Mostly her father trains her. She's in and out because she's a student at the university, along with her older brother, Min. He's sixteen, he is getting official training, and that's something Amaya's worried about. The Army would be one thing, but if the Dai Li want him as a recruit…he's mentioned it a few times, and the family's not handling it well.

And then there was Jinhai. Granted, he didn't know anything about normal families, but he remembered time he'd spent with Lu Ten. Teenagers and a six-year-old weren't always a good mix-

Zuko frowned, leaning closer to the painted screen half-folded by the entryway, blocking direct view of the stone stairs to the second floor. Were those spark-holes, half-hidden in the black of cat-owl feathers?

Pretty far from the kitchen for sparks. Even if they were using a hearth instead of that stove.

Yet his questing fingers came away with specks of soot, far below the height anyone would carry a candle.

Any adult, Zuko reminded himself. When you were six, you had to carry a candle. Which had been humiliating as hell, for one born of Sozin's line. He'd learned to get around without them whenever possible. He'd practiced sneaking through the dark, ever since-

Jinhai is six.

Suyin got burned.

Sparks where there shouldn't be.

No. Couldn't be. This was an earthbender's family.

Eyes narrowed, Zuko started searching.

"What are you looking for?"

Suyin, arm healed but dark green eyes wary as her mother and Amaya talked, Meixiang rescuing the breakfast rice from scorching. Young as she was, Suyin still gave him a considering look that oddly reminded him of Lieutenant Jee after the storm.

"I'll know it when I see it," Zuko said levelly, crouching to view the house from more of a six-year-old's height. I just hope I don't see it.

There. A patch of wall slightly paler than the rest. One regular, rectangular stripe, as if the scroll painting beside it had been moved just a little over….

Lifting painted paper aside, he stared at small, blackened fingerprints.

Damn.

"If you don't know what you're looking for, how will you know if you find it?" Suyin smiled bravely, hand on his arm. "Have you had anything to eat yet? We've got some great peanut sauce-"

"Suyin," Zuko said quietly, "where's Jinhai?"

She recovered well, he'd give her that. "Just here, a few minutes ago - he's always a pest in the kitchen, he knows he's supposed to wait until the meal's ready…." She looked into his eyes, and swallowed hard.

"He was there," Zuko went on, still quiet. "When you were burned."

"I - got distracted." She faced him squarely, a mother turtle-duck in front of her brood. "It was an accident."

You know. And if she knew about her brother, what didn't she know? "Accidents can get worse, if someone doesn't know what they're doing," Zuko said plainly. Kept his hands from trembling by an effort of will. The more people who know, the more danger we're in. But these are my people. Even if they don't know it. "Suyin. I can help."

Suyin sucked in a startled breath, and her mother's attention jerked toward them. "What's going on?" Meixiang asked.

"I would like to know that as well," Amaya said evenly. "Lee?"

"Master Amaya." Zuko didn't try to soften the grim look on his face. "We have a problem."

"Where is he?" rang down the stairs. Young, male, and ticked off.

An unintelligible groan echoed down to them. Jia, Zuko guessed, from the half-heard maledictions on idiot older brothers who didn't know when to keep their voices down.

"Don't cover for him, Jia! Not for this!" Half-shaved, university uniform thrown on, Min brandished a ribbon-tied sheaf of scrawled-on paper, now liberally splashed with fresh ink. Stones cracked under his feet as he stomped downstairs, sliding askew. "My class notes! Do you know how long it's going to take to rewrite these?"

Do you know how long it's going to take to put those steps back to rights? Zuko thought wryly, hand against his waterskin to warm it. Facing an upset earthbender without firebending and without his dao was not on his list of fun things to do today.

"Min, the stairs!" Meixiang said sharply.

"Slag the stairs! He does not get out of it this time-" Min stopped short, finally getting a good look at Zuko's face. "Who are you?"

"I'm with her," Zuko said levelly, nodding toward Amaya as he took in the temper, the way upheaved stones were tilted at odd angles instead of directional, and the lack of balanced stance. Trained, but not experienced. Just keep calm, and keep your head. He turned back to Suyin. "He's probably scared too. I know what that's like." Twice over. Somebody really hates me.

Suyin paled a little, but nodded. "What are you going to do?"

Zuko tried to smile. It probably wasn't reassuring. "First, we get the accidents to stop."

"Accidents?" Min's eyes narrowed, and he stomped toward the kitchen, a wave of one hand yanking up the trapdoor that led down to the root cellar. "All right, brat. No more nice big brother."

You're going to corner a- Oh, you idiot!

Zuko moved, quick enough to catch the trapdoor before it fell back into place. The thin layer of stone on top of wood yanked down with more than its own weight; apparently Min didn't want to be interrupted.

Exhale, and push.

Stone and wood shattered.

…Oops.

He leapt through the opening down the stairs, in time to see Min yank a tearstained, brown-haired boy out from behind pottery jars of rice.

"Let me go!" Jinhai squirmed, twisting his arm around. "I didn't mean to! I'm sorry!"

"Hiding's not going to do you any good," Min said grimly. Gripped the collar of the boy's robe, and gave it a tooth-rattling shake. "I'm going to do what Dad should have done weeks ago."

No!

Jinhai flung up hands in front of his face, and sparks flew.

Landing on the cellar floor in a crouch, Zuko swept his hands out to deflect, then pushed flattened palms down.

Every spark winked out.

Min had dropped the boy, and was backing away from him with a look of pure horror. "You - you're-"

Looking up at his older brother, Jinhai crumbled into fresh tears.

"Jerk," Zuko ground out. Stepped around Min in one fluid motion, and caught Jinhai before he could scramble away. "It's okay. Shh." He held on tight, rubbing the boy's shaking back. The way Ursa had, years ago. "Just breathe. It's going to be all right."

"Who're you?" Jinhai sniffled.

"I'm Lee," Zuko answered. "Amaya's apprentice. Let's go talk to your Mom, okay? I'm sure she wants to know everyone's all right."

"All right?" Min sputtered. "He's a- a-"

"Firebender," Suyin said bluntly. "Took you long enough to figure it out."

"You knew?"

Leaving his apparently capable ally behind to distract Min, Zuko carried Jinhai upstairs and handed him off to a pale Meixiang. With difficulty. The boy did not seem to want to let go. "He's not hurt," Zuko reported. "But he needs to learn control. Or people are going to see things Suyin can't cover up."

Jinhai buried his face in his mother's robes. "I didn't mean to."

"I know, sweetheart," Meixiang said quietly. "You haven't done anything wrong. Mommy's just… surprised." She looked between Zuko and Amaya. "He's six!"

"It happens, sometimes," Zuko shrugged. And bit back, I was eight. Prince Zuko's late firebending was still afloat in the currents of vicious noble gossip, even if it wasn't nearly as juicy as his scar. No point leaving clues around for Azula.

"How the hell did it happen at all?" Min stalked up the basement stairs, Suyin rolling her eyes in his wake.

"Min Wen, you watch your language!" Meixiang ordered. "That sort of thing may be passable among the young idiots at the university, but it is not proper in this house!"

"…Sorry, Mom." Min only looked abashed for a moment. "But how? We're citizens of Ba Sing Se! Dad's an earthbender!"

"And Mom's a refugee from the war," Suyin said bluntly. "Figure it out, Min."

Meixiang stared at her daughter. "You know?"

"Jia helped me put it together," Suyin said shyly. "You don't talk about outside much, and when you do, you always say you were from far away. You know a lot of people who look like Lee. And once things started happening around Jinhai…." She shrugged.

"But you can't be," Min said, stunned. "Not one of them."

"Good people are where you find them, Min," Amaya said calmly. "No matter what their nation. Or their element." She turned a considering look on Zuko. "You can teach him?"

"It'll take some time. Putting fires out is trickier than starting them," Zuko said honestly. "Yes. I can."

Jinhai lifted his head from his mother's embrace, just enough to give him a wide-eyed stare. "You put it out!"

"Yes, he did," Amaya smiled. Turned a serious look on Meixiang. "You should talk to your husband, and tell me what you decide. Lee is my apprentice. If he needs to train someone else as well, we'll have to work out a schedule."

"What's a firebender going to learn from a waterbender?" Min said sourly.

You've never fought another element, have you? Spirits, I hope someone trains you before you do. Or you'll be toast. "Healing," Zuko said flatly. "We don't all want to kill people. Firebenders make glass. Forge steel. They do all kinds of things that aren't the war." Though the Fire Lord's orders have taken a lot of people away from even that.

It wasn't right. It was his father's will, but - it was wrong, that other nations didn't know anything of firebenders but killing.

Min pressed his palms to his forehead, as if to hold in a splitting headache. "This is crazy."

Zuko hid a smirk. Welcome to my life.

------

Shutting the clinic door, Lee leaned his head against the wood, just for a moment. Sighed soundlessly, and straightened. "Is that it?"

Level voice. Ready stance. You'd never know he's had a day that would work most young men into the ground. Amaya studied her apprentice. And I don't think it's an act. He doesn't hoard his strength, no - but he spends it judiciously. Carefully. Enough to see the job done, and keep moving.

Mushi said he wasn't a soldier. But Lee had the same steely discipline she'd seen in the best earthbenders off the Outer Wall.

And something more. She narrowed her eyes, trying to pin it down. They're part of a unit. Always sure someone will be there for backup. To rescue them… or at least, avenge them. Lee's not like that.

For Lee, there is no backup.

She could still see that arc of flame snapping toward her, searing orange, before Mushi had shoved it aside in smoke and rippling hot air. But she couldn't hold onto the anger anymore. Not after he'd given her everything she asked for, all day, with people who even got on her nerves, biting back what probably would have been scathing comments as professionally as a soldier on a grim but necessary detail. Not after she'd seen him with Jinhai.

I still want to know how he broke that trapdoor. He didn't bend anything. Did he?

"There is one more thing I need your assistance with." Amaya pointed toward one of the waiting chairs. "Sit down."

"Why?" Lee asked warily, complying.

"I want to examine your eye."

Ah. White knuckles, carefully hidden up his sleeves. "It's a scar. You can't heal that."

Which was as close as he'd come to telling her to go to hell all day. So there is a teenage boy in there, Amaya thought, wryly amused. I was beginning to wonder. "The surface, no. You'll always carry that mark. But underneath it - the body tries to heal for years. Something should still be willing to bend." She gave him a frank look. "Huojin says you are skilled with the dao. He doesn't have to tell me what a wound like that likely did to your peripheral vision. Let me see if I can do anything about that."

"…What do you need me to do?"

"Sit still, and keep your eye closed. This will prickle a bit." Hand sheathed in water, Amaya touched her fingers to ridged flesh and held them still. Waiting. Fresh wounds were obvious, a swamp-muck of disruption in the body's chi that dragged at her like quicksand. Scars were more subtle. A fine grit of sand, washing under her fingertips.

There you are.

She'd never be one of the great healers; never close a mortal wound with her patient on the brink of death. But scars didn't ask for power. They asked for skill, and patience.

Bit by tiny bit, she picked at still-healing tissues, willing them to draw strength and become whole. Drove her concentration deeper, into the blood, and dug at the under-layer of the scar itself.

Sometimes you must break, in order to mend.

Delicate work. And likely more painful than a prickle. But her patient made no sound.

Leave it there.

Amaya drew her energy away from his blood, back into healing water. Passed her hand slowly over the scar, feeling grit drag at her chi as she healed the flesh anew. Held her fingers still, searching, and nodded. "That should do for tonight."

"For tonight?" Lee blinked at her as she let water glide back into a basin. "You plan to do this again."

"For at least a week. Two would be better. Slow and patient; that's the best way to handle old wounds. Remember that. No, stay there," Amaya added, before he could rise. "Sight feeds into your balance. Give yourself a little time to adjust." She gave him a patient smile. "Perhaps you could tell me exactly what you did to Meixiang's cellar door?"

"Oh." Lee reddened. "I overdid it."

"The shards of stone were a clue," Amaya said wryly. "What did you do?"

"Breathed," Lee said, deadpan. Took in her raised brow, and shifted his shoulders. "Instead of pushing it out as fire, you keep it inside. It's a little more strength, a little more speed." Another half-shrug. "It's not a big deal."

"You broke the door," Amaya pointed out.

Red deepened. "Should have known it wouldn't be as tough as iron," Lee said, eyes down. "You should see Uncle. He can just shove, gentle as a kitten-owlet pat - and they stop skidding forty feet away."

Amaya stared.

Still looking at the floor, Lee missed it. "I try not to use it too much. You don't want to depend on it. Never know when someone might take your bending away."

"Might what?" Amaya started, aghast. "Bending is a gift from the spirits!"

"Which you can't use if you can't move your chi." Lee was looking at her now, confused. "Aren't there special enforcers in Ba Sing Se? People who know how to block chi?"

"If there were, I hope I would know about it," Amaya stated, feeling faint. "Someone can take your bending away? Forever?"

Lee shook his head. "Only for a few hours. Depends on how hard they hit you."

Amaya felt ill. "And you've seen this happen."

"You could say that," Lee muttered. Hand almost touching one of the key chi meridians on his side, before he forced it back down to grip his chair.

Don't react, Amaya told herself forcefully. There could still be a reasonable explanation. "Can you describe the symptoms? I'd like to know what to look for."

"Okay…."

------

"Lady Amaya?" Iroh set a cup of tea down before the healer trembling in his kitchen chair. "It is a bit late for Lee to be out shopping, no matter how much I do appreciate your offer to split a roast duck."

"Curfew's not for hours yet. And that license gives him the right to be out even after it, so long as he's off to a patient or heading home." Amaya cradled the cup in her hands, as if chilled. "Mushi… your nephew was sabotaged."

Mid-sip, Iroh halted. Deliberately set his cup down. "Please explain."

"I can't believe - spirits, if that's the child your brother wants as heir, what is wrong with the man, he deserves to be flung overboard to the leopard-sharks…." Amaya stopped, and deliberately breathed out anger as a wisp of chill. "Lee's sister. She has a friend who knows this… chi-blocking?"

Ty Lee. "I know the girl you speak of, yes."

"She made this girl practice on Lee."

If porcelain had been in his hand, he would have shattered it.

"The odd thing is, he doesn't blame the girl at all," Amaya said softly. "His sister asked her to, called it necessary training, and she had to do it. Even if she didn't want to." Blue eyes beseeched him, desperate for it not to be true.

Iroh winced. "That would be so, yes. The girl could not have refused her… requests. Not without dire consequences. And this girl has six sisters to think of, all of whom would have been in peril." He forced down the anger. "How often? For how long?" How much damage did she do, that I had no chance to see?

"What kind of consequences, Mushi?" Amaya demanded. "What reason in the world could be enough for you and Lee to think it doesn't matter that she hurt him?"

"It matters," Iroh said bluntly. "It matters a great deal. But Lee would never have wished the girl's sisters to die for her defiance."

Pale, Amaya fell back in her chair. "Die." She swallowed. "Lee's sister could-"

"Kill them?" Iroh finished. "All of them? Yes. She could. She has done such things." Even traveling the world, he'd kept up on news of the royal family. His Army contacts might have cringed to pass along word of Azula's actions, but they respected him enough to tell the truth. And frankly, burning down a guard for disrespect on the very steps of the palace wasn't something that could be kept quiet. "Tell me what you mean by sabotage. Lee's sister would not have had him blocked during his training. She is far too cunning for that," he finished, half to himself.

"Not… during his official training." Amaya kept her voice quiet, even if it shook with tears. "She'd - arrange for it to happen afterwards. Not all the time. But often enough he mentioned techniques he avoids using, because if your bending is cut off in the middle of them…." Dark fingers curled on the table, tightening into unpracticed fists. "She tortured him, Mushi. Her own brother." Blue eyes glistened, angry and aching with disappointment. "And you're not even surprised."

Iroh bowed his head, accepting the rebuke. And the guilt. "I can only say that, like my brother, she is very clever at disguising the true nature of her actions," he said quietly. "I left a shy, happy boy of eight, who was just learning to bend, and was sure his father would finally come to love him. I returned to find Lee's mother gone, his sister all but acknowledged as the true heir, and Lee himself an angry eleven-year-old whose skill was…." He couldn't say it.

"Sabotaged." Amaya gripped her cup, horrified disbelief etched on her face. "How could his father let-?"

"I doubt he knew," Iroh said dryly. "My brother preferred her, yes, but to have Lee such a disgrace in skill? No. He would not permit that." He chuckled bitterly under his breath. "It explains many things. Why Lee improved so greatly after we left, for one." And why he has fought so hard to gain skill in moving unseen.

"You honestly believe a six-year-old girl could plan this?"

"Plot a course of action that would see her confirmed as heir, and Lee discarded?" Iroh said coldly. "I do. We are skilled at long-term strategies. It is in our blood. From letters Lee's mother sent me, she made this girl and her companion friends within weeks of first meeting her at school. And believe me, Lee's sister sees no need to make friends." He frowned, looking back on memory. "Though she could not have acted directly until Lee was nine. The girls of that family are not taught chi-blocks potent enough to stop a firebender until they are at least seven."

"And you're not even surprised." Anguish wracked Amaya's voice. "Tui and La, why didn't you take the boy and-" She cut herself off, hand pressed to her lips to hold back horror.

"Take a loyal firebender from his father?" Iroh said quietly. "Would that I could have." He sighed. "If I had believed we would survive the flight - yes, I should have drugged Lee years ago, and disappeared. But we would have been hunted, to the very ends of the earth. I chose a slower path. And I will not regret that. Choosing to heal instead of wage war - Lee's father would never approve. He knows that. Yet he has chosen to study with you. And that is the most hopeful sign I have had in some time." Iroh folded his hands before him, regarding her gravely. "There is a secret few know, Lady Amaya. But I believe you will use it wisely. To break one's loyalty, suddenly - that is fatal. But to wear at it, slowly, and nurture another, fiercer loyalty in its place… that can be survived. Even by a firebender."

The healer sat up straight, absorbing that. "You know this."

"I do," Iroh nodded.

"You said you were loyal to Azulon."

"I was," Iroh allowed. "Until I found myself forced to choose between the Fire Lord's orders, and the lives of the men under my command." He chuckled ruefully. "I admit, it surprised me. I had not realized how deeply we were bound to each other." He shrugged. "I was fortunate. Someone realized I was ill, and why. And did not betray me." Only later had he learned what considerable skill at Pai Sho his aide Toushirou had been hiding.

"Lee doesn't know." It was not a question.

"No," Iroh admitted quietly. "Do not tell him. Lee's choice is more difficult than it is safe for you to know. If we are fortunate, circumstances will work in our favor."

"Your nephew doesn't seem to believe in luck," Amaya pointed out.

"If fate serves us so ill, then he must make his choice because it is right," Iroh said heavily. "I will do all I can, to see he survives it." He favored her with a conspiratorial smile. "Though whatever you might do to give him ties to this life, instead of that which we left behind, would only help."

"You may be surprised." Some of the color had come back to her face, along with a glint of wicked humor. "He seems to be handling that on his own."

"Oh?" Iroh raised a curious brow.

A knock at the door. "I'm home," Zuko's voice filtered through, before he opened the door. Stepped through, wrapped meat in hand, and looked at them both. "Is something wrong?"

"Not at all." Amaya smiled, accepting her half of the duck. "I was just telling your uncle you should have a talk about Jinhai. Good night."

"Jinhai?" Iroh asked, once she was gone.

"Jinhai Wen," Zuko sighed, adding the duck to already-simmering rice and vegetables. "His father's a professor at Ba Sing Se University. And an earthbender. So are his older brother and one of his sisters. His mother's one of us."

Us. Iroh smiled as he poured more tea to go with dinner. You have always been loyal to your people. "And?"

Zuko gave him a half-smirk. "Jinhai's six. And he gets up at dawn."

He didn't quite spill his nephew's tea. But perhaps he did set the teapot down a bit hastily. "A firebender? Born in Ba Sing Se?"

"I can teach him to put fires out," Zuko said quietly. "They saw me stop him from burning his brother by accident, they know about me. They don't know about you." He set his jaw. "But I don't know if that's fair to Jinhai."

"You will be fine," Iroh said firmly. "You have a thorough grasp of your basics. Give him a firm foundation, and all else will follow." He smiled. "So my student will become a teacher. I am pleased." He had to sigh. "And worried. An earthbender, or a waterbender - they might train in secret. A firebender…."

"Sooner or later, he's going to lose his temper," Zuko agreed grimly. "I know. I can't just abandon him!"

"Of course you cannot," Iroh agreed. Though your sister would. In a heartbeat.

"He needs to get out of Ba Sing Se," Zuko muttered.

"Ah? And to where?" Iroh pointed out. "Where can a young firebender go, and be beyond the war's reach?"

"…I don't know."

"Eat," Iroh advised. "Let us enjoy this duck, and perhaps an answer will come." It was delicious. Perhaps he could convince Lady Amaya to share another, some days from now. They were a bit cheaper that way….

Be in the moment.

Bones polished clean, Iroh leaned back in his chair, while Zuko gathered up dishes and blew a surreptitious breath of steam to warm the wash-water. "A firebender, of Ba Sing Se." The retired general shook his head, amused at his own lack of foresight. "I should have considered this might be possible, once we learned of the waterbenders of the Foggy Swamp. It is within the Earth Kingdom, yet it seems they are Water Tribe. Of a sort."

"So, what? The spirits get confused in the Earth Kingdom?" Zuko's brow climbed. "Why is it strange Jinhai was born here? Plenty of firebenders are born in the colonies."

"Under the rule of the Fire Nation," Iroh said practically. "Bending is in part our spirit's way of influencing the world. And it is channeled by the philosophy of our nation. Ba Sing Se is the heart of the Earth Kingdom. Any bender born here, should be born of earth."

"For once, Uncle? Your philosophers are dead wrong," Zuko said grimly, tipping dishes into hot water.

"How so?" Iroh eyed his nephew, curious.

"I mean, if it was just your philosophy, how could anybody be the Avatar?" Zuko said quickly. "He has to be born in one of the four nations."

"True," Iroh allowed. Though that was not what you were thinking of. He frowned. "But I have never heard of two elements being born in the same family…." He hesitated, an old rumor drifting out of memory. "Kyoshi Island."

"They have a lot of blue eyes," Zuko recalled, arms crossed as he waited for the dishes to soak. "The Southern Water Tribe trades there a lot, right?"

"For centuries. And the island is neither fully of the Earth Kingdom, nor of Water Tribe territory," Iroh said thoughtfully. "In the past, both earthbenders and waterbenders have called it home."

"Ba Sing Se takes in everyone, as long as you keep your head down and don't cause trouble." Zuko's eyes narrowed. "That's not what you said earth is like."

"No," Iroh said darkly. "Earth is diverse. Strong. Not rigid. Not punishing." He breathed in steam from his teacup. "So they have bought their safety with their ideals, and lost themselves."

"Because there's more than one element born here? Kyoshi Island didn't give up who they were," Zuko objected.

"That is true," Iroh murmured, struck by the fierce glitter of green eyes. Like dragon's fire. "Nor has Lady Amaya. Nor have we. To hide in the face of overwhelming force, is not to give up. It is adaptability. Perseverance. Will." He chuckled, dryly amused. "Water, earth, and fire."

"It's not funny," Zuko said grimly. "If any element can be born here…."

"Jinhai will not be the last." Iroh nodded, troubled. "And those of our people who believe themselves safely hidden, are not." He paused, seeing a sudden misery in the slump of his nephew's shoulders. "Zuko?"

"Not any element," Zuko said quietly. "There's no freedom."

And without that, air could never rest within a spirit. "No," Iroh agreed sadly. "Not here…."

Green met green, eyes widening. "Somewhere else," Zuko breathed.

Iroh raised a brow, silently encouraging his nephew to go on. If Zuko's thoughts had followed the same path as his - it would not be following Ozai's will.

And yet, the Fire Lord has not ordered that Zuko could not do it, Iroh thought wryly. And it would help our people.

Tread carefully, nephew. Please. You walk between your loyalties, even now.

"What if there were somewhere else to go?" Zuko said slowly. "Somewhere - not safe, nowhere's safe. But free. For everyone."

"Such a place does not exist," Iroh stated. And paused, for one heartbeat. "Yet."

"That would be…." Zuko swallowed dryly. "A lot to pull off," he whispered.

"Hmm." Iroh stroked his beard, keeping his expression merely thoughtful. "You are trained in the movement of troops, Prince Zuko."

"Yes, but this is-"

"And in building field encampments, and evacuations in the face of hostile forces."

"Yes, but Uncle-"

"And in what is required both to build a new colony, and see that it flourishes." Iroh gave him a knowing smile.

Zuko winced. "You know what happened with Azula."

"I know that we had relatively little time to plan, and serious disadvantages entering the fight," Iroh said plainly. "Yet you accomplished your goal. We lived, and the Avatar survived, and Azula does not yet have him."

"I almost lost you!"

"Then we will need to plan more carefully, this time," Iroh said firmly. "Now. What is the first piece of intelligence you need to construct such a plan?"

Zuko bowed his head, thinking. "A location," he said at last; uncertain, as if he couldn't believe he was saying it. "What we need to get there, how we get there, what we'll need when we reach it - all of that's going to depend on where."

"Consider that I may have some possibilities in mind," Iroh said mildly.

Zuko's eyes widened. "You do?"

Iroh beamed.

------

Make a place to go.

Sitting in his room with a pitcher of water, Zuko lifted a hand, and let it fall, studying how water rose and fell with it. It was easier and harder than fire. Easier to move; it wanted to move, even trapped in a pitcher. Push and pull and change was part of what it was.

But if moving it was easy, knowing when you were moving it wasn't. Fire was a sword in his hands. Water was - damn, Uncle could always find the right words, why couldn't he?

Frustration curled his hand in a snap of motion. Water twisted with it, over and over, the curl tightening until it collapsed in on itself and splashed back into the pitcher.

Like a net for an octopus.

Staring at rippling water, Zuko considered that thought. Three years on a ship. He'd caught his own baitfish plenty of times. Using a net… and a flow of motion, that echoed what he'd seen of Katara's bending.

See your target. He marked a spot in midair. Arrange the folds. One hand to grip gently, the other poised to fling-

Coolness swept over his skin, and he almost dropped it all.

Hold! Don't look at - at the net. Look at the target. Just hold. And wait.

All the while feeling hands that were and weren't wet. Spirits, this was weird.

And throw. With the little half-twist at the end that took forever to master, just enough torque to fling weighted edges wide over the unsuspecting school-

Water snapped around air like a jeweled flytrap, dragging a clear bubble back with a tug of his hands.

It worked? Incredulous, Zuko cupped the bubble in one hand, and poked it with a finger. Wet, and then dry; he'd caught his target, even if it had only been-

Splash.

Wiping droplets off his face, Zuko sighed. And started carefully sweeping his hands to gather the puddle off the floor. This is going to take some work.

An hour later, he guided a globe of dirty water into the sink, and let it flow away. Crept back into his own room, silently sliding the screen closed, and collapsed.

Got it. I think.

Water was different. Slower. Not as sharp as the motions you had to make with fire.

Like trying to write backwards.

His eyes snapped open in the darkness. Backwards? Or left-handed?

The rhythm's different. Push and pull, not a heartbeat. But they both flow. Water, and the fire outside.

I can do this.

And if he could make waterbending work… then maybe, just maybe, Uncle wasn't chasing flying pigs after all.

Don't try to find a place for our people. There isn't one. Anywhere.

So we have to make one.

Oh boy. This was going to be a lot more complicated than ambushing Azula and living to tell about it.

I need to make notes. A lot of notes.

…Starting tomorrow.

He was asleep almost before he finished pulling the covers up.

Chapter Text

Finally, back on a sane schedule, Huojin thought cheerfully, striding up Amaya's clinic steps. Not that he was really happy to be bringing her this news, but getting back to his regular shift was a relief for the whole family-

Rock-gloves darkened by early morning shadows, a Dai Li agent was knocking on Amaya's door.

Don't panic!

A practiced thought; just enough to keep his reaction to the flinch of an honest man, given the excitement these past few days.

Stay calm, Huojin reminded himself, nodding to the earthbender with polite wariness. A tall, lean-faced man; the uniform made it hard to say for certain, but Huojin thought he was more wiry than heavy-boned. If they knew anything, there wouldn't be just one.

Unless the rest of them are just burrowed out of sight….

He loved his city, he truly did. But every now and then, when the paranoia spawned by what he was seemed to grab him by the throat-

I wish there were something better. Somewhere to be free.

Lee opened the door, and vague wishes flew right out of Huojin's head. Oh, Agni. This is not good.

"Can we help you?" Lee said levelly.

"I am here for Healer Amaya," the agent said formally, not even blinking at the scar.

"That makes two of us," Huojin put in, almost as formal. "We've had a report of a potential plague on the docks. Something in from Omashu. We need to track it down and head it off, quick."

The agent looked unhappy, but still willing to argue. "The patient is at the palace."

"I'll tell her," Lee stated. And closed the door in their faces.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry, Huojin thought, frozen. Though the look on the Dai Li's face was priceless.

A minute, and Amaya opened the door. "Human or animal?" she asked the agent briskly.

The agent shifted slightly. Maybe he was sweating? Not likely. "We were requested to bring you with all due speed."

"Is it that bear again?"

Under the tasseled hat, the man actually looked a little sheepish. "It's important to the Earth King-"

"Lee. Pack your kit."

"Me?" The young firebender looked more inclined to bolt right back to the docks. Huojin couldn't blame him.

"He has more experience with animals than humans, at the moment," Amaya said frankly, gripping Lee's shoulder and turning the reluctant teen back inside. "Chest of animal treatment scrolls, third drawer down, red ribbon." She glanced back at the agent as Lee retreated. "I have no doubt he can handle the situation until I've finished assisting the city."

The agent inclined his head. Straightened, and started, as Lee reappeared. "What are you doing with a firepot?"

Packed kit in one hand, Lee touched the strap holding both waterskin and firepot slung over his shoulder. "Animals don't always understand that you're trying to help. Warm water doesn't startle them so much. And sometimes you want hot water to clean things out, before you try to heal them."

Good answer. Huojin tried not to look too relieved. He should have known the kid would have a cover story ready. They'd gotten here, hadn't they?

"Lee was on the road quite some time," Amaya said with honest affection. "He's come across a few techniques they didn't teach at the North Pole." She rested a hand on his shoulder, and nodded. "You'll do fine."

Huojin watched them head down the street to a waiting carriage. Sighed, and followed Amaya back inside to collect her own kit. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"He knows what not to say, and he knows his uncle's life depends on his ability to pass as Lee, the waterbending healer," Amaya said quietly. "He's sword-steel, Huojin. He won't break."

"I thought he was rough jade," Huojin quipped.

"That, too." Stuffing a few last packets of herbs into her bag, Amaya smiled at him. "You should have seen him with Jinhai. He may look merciless, but there's a kind heart under all the scars." Her smile faded, chased away by worry. "Huojin. Normally I would keep this quiet for the family, but if something goes wrong, you may need to know. Jinhai needs training. Lee and Mushi's kind of training." She shook her head. "I only hope Meixiang and Tingzhe agree to let Lee help."

For a moment, it felt like all the air had been sucked out of his lungs. "The accidents," Huojin managed. "The burns. The fires. "

"Apparently, a sequence of events that is not uncommon," Amaya said dryly. "Lee advised that they put sand buckets in every room. And ban Jinhai from going near the stove until he gets more control." She arched a brow. "He was also insistent that Jinhai get as much sunlight as possible. I know waterbenders are stronger when the moon shines, but Lee says firebenders need the sun. That without it, they - starve. They get desperate."

"Yeah?" Huojin ventured.

"He carefully avoided saying how desperate."

Ah. True. Lee was, apparently, justifiably paranoid. He would have kept that to himself, just on "don't want to give people an opening" principles. Huojin let out a slow breath, bringing up old memories and things he'd learned from other refugees. "Insane covers it," he said bluntly. "Too long, and they can die. It's like the prison barges you hear about for earthbenders, out at sea. If there's none of your element around-"

"Something in your spirit dies," Amaya finished. And picked up her kit. "Shall we?"

Outside, Huojin led their way through twisting streets toward the docks. "You seem pretty forgiving toward a kid who - well."

"Would you blame someone for striking you, if he were delirious in fever?"

Huojin frowned. "He wasn't sick."

"Yes, he was," Amaya said sadly. "He still is. Though he's healed a great deal, even in these few days. That scar didn't just burn his flesh, Huojin. It burned his spirit. He's been hanging onto humanity by his fingertips, and it seemed as if I had taken away the last person he loved in the world. I would be far more worried if he hadn't attacked me."

The guard squinted, trying to follow a healer's twisty logic. "Because that would mean he stopped fighting."

"Yes." She chuckled ruefully. "Though I'm beginning to think Lee simply refuses to recognize that giving up is an option."

"Scary kid," Huojin muttered.

"Yes. He is."

The thoughtfulness of that tone prickled the hairs on the back of his neck all over again. "Did something happen?"

"It's not what happened that worries me," Amaya said carefully. "It's what Lee said about it later. You've traded stories with people who've served on the Wall."

Not a question. Exactly. "In quiet corners, sure," Huojin said frankly. Often with a few drinks on hand, and a friendly bartender who understood some bloody stories weren't enough reason to call the Dai Li. A lot of Wall veterans ended up joining the Guard, after years or injuries slowed them down. "You've treated plenty of them."

"Yes. But apparently they never wanted to burden a healer with the thought that some of their opponents seemed - inhuman. Too strong. Too fast." She arched a brow at him.

"I've heard some stories," Huojin admitted, after a moment to check no tasseled hats were in sight. "Not the average soldiers, but when imperial firebenders come out to play…. Some of them supposedly dodge arrows. Others kick rocks out of the way, even when a bender's still moving them. Crazy stuff like that-" He cut himself off, swords flashing in a teashop in his memory.

Jet was fresh. Lee was exhausted.

Yet Lee had kept up anyway, blow for blow. And that blazingly swift slice, that should have ended the fight permanently if Jet wasn't half circus acrobat…. Oh, Agni.

He blew out a breath. "What'd you hear about?"

"An oak cellar door with a granite cover, shattered in one shove," Amaya said frankly.

"Um." And what, exactly, did you say to that?

"As I said, it was the reaction that was interesting," Amaya observed. "Apparently? It wasn't a big deal. "

"Really," Huojin said warily.

"In part, or so the story went, because someone who was really skilled, could simply shove, and send a person skidding over ten yards away."

"Someone?" Huojin winced. Mushi.

"Have you ever heard a rumor like that?"

"No," Huojin said honestly. "No, I haven't." He grimaced. "Though from what I have heard, a lot of people didn't come back, six years ago. And it makes sense to guess those people… well. Maybe they saw a lot more than people just on the Wall."

Amaya nodded.

"I told you who I think they are." Huojin kept his voice down, covered by the morning crowds. "I guess I should have thought it through myself." Oh, Agni. We've got a pair of great name, imperial firebenders on our hands. Now what do we do?

"Well," Amaya reflected, "it's good to have a frame of reference, to determine exactly what Lee means when he says his skills are passable."

Urk. Huojin tried not to shiver. Passable as a healer's apprentice was one thing. Passable as an imperial firebender? A whole other kettle of catfish-eels.

Ba Sing Se soldiers never take them one on one. Not even our earthbenders. They use three on one odds, at least. Even then, you're going to lose people. Huojin muffled a groan. Oma and Shu, what'd I do to deserve this?

Well. At least now he knew why Mushi was convinced Lee hadn't tried to kill him. "What are we going to do?"

"Do?" Mischief sparkled in blue eyes. "I think they've handled things quite well so far. Don't you?"

"Well, yes, but-"

"They're looking for a place to rest," Amaya said softly. Narrowed her eyes at him. "They're not walking weapons, Huojin. They're people."

People and walking weapons, Huojin thought unhappily. Not that he thought they meant to start anything. That pair wouldn't have gotten this far if they let their tempers lead the way. Even Lee. The kid might bristle like a porcupine-pig, but he hadn't so much as raised a hand until someone threatened his uncle.

But if anything did get started, those two would finish it. Permanently.

I should have let the Dai Li have Jet.

Bad thought. Try not to go there. Done was done, and he'd just have to hope Fire Nation honor was everything his people said it was. Mushi had said they were looking for a fresh start-

No. No, he said they had no choice. Someone wants Lee dead… hell, if they've been declared traitors to the Dragon Throne, the whole Fire Nation wants them dead.

Big difference. Huge.

"So exactly what sort of plague are we looking for?" Amaya asked.

Think about them later, Huojin told himself. "Not sure. You ever hear of something called pentapox?"

-----

Glad he was light on his feet, Zuko whipped back around the corner, out of sight of the open doorway. "What the heck is that?"

Under the formally calm mask, the Dai Li agent looked mildly amused. "It's a bear."

"That is not a platypus-bear."

A hint of humor glimmered in green eyes. "No, it isn't."

"Or a skunk-bear. Or a gopher-bear. Or even a polar bear."

The agent actually raised an eyebrow at him. "Where did you see a polar bear?"

"…The Water Tribes bring pelts into ports, sometimes." Which was true. No need to mention one of the white monsters had tried to eat him once.

"Hmm." The Dai Li gave him a slight smile. "Weirdest thing you ever saw, huh?"

Zuko stood there a moment, bits of the past few months flashing through his mind. The Avatar, eyes and tattoos glowing, rising in a waterspout that swept his men from the decks. The Fire Nation fleet, destroyed by a giant watery monster. His uncle, stripped to a loincloth, swinging chains to fight off earthbenders.

…Spirits, was he never going to get that sight out of his head?

"No," Zuko managed at last. "Not really." Ignoring the man's curious look, he opened Amaya's scroll again, reading carefully. Take it slow. Get it right the first time. Rolling the scroll back up, he stalked through the door.

"You're not Amaya." Patting the groaning bear, a young, bespectacled man in glasses and ornate Earth Kingdom green looked him over, puzzled. "You may bow, now."

I may what?!?

But he could feel the Dai Li's eyes boring into him, so Zuko throttled his temper and knelt along with the agent. At least it wasn't a full prostration. He'd be damned if he'd do that ever again.

"We are your majesty's humble servants," the agent said smoothly, as if he hadn't just tried to glare a hole through Zuko's head.

"Yes, yes, I know. But where's Amaya? Bosco's feeling so awful. "

The bear groaned, like a massively oversized toddler with a tummy-ache.

"Master Amaya had a healing emergency with the Guard, your majesty," Zuko said, trying not to stumble over the odd address. There weren't any kings in the Fire Nation. Hadn't ever been. Unless you counted some of the waegu kings and queens centuries back, and no honorable great name would ever count a pirate as noble blood. "I'm her apprentice, Lee."

"Someone's hurt?" Narrow eyes widened behind glass, concerned. "I hope it's not serious."

"She's trying to make sure it's not," Zuko managed, trying to buy time to think. This is a city. A huge city. People get hurt all the time just by accident.

And one of the people who do it on purpose is kneeling right next to me.

Yet there wasn't a sliver of the glass-sharp precision Azula's voice would have had, saying the same words. Not a hint of the sadistic smirk his sister would have worn, knowing a peasant was at her nonexistent mercy. And knowing they knew it, too.

No. The man honestly seemed worried. In a distracted, optimistic way that reminded him all too much of one particular hyperactive airbender.

Why do I feel like there are two adults in this room - and I'm one of them?

Head down. Mouth shut. Things were wrong here, in a way he couldn't pin down. Better to keep his eyes open, and see what happened next.

"Well, don't just stand there. Come and give Bosco a hand!" the Earth King said cheerfully. "Don't worry; he's an excellent judge of character."

The bear growled.

…I am so dead.

-----

"She sent someone else?" Long Feng, Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and self-made power behind the throne, frowned at the report. At the information, not the agent, Quan; he had his Dai Li's unswerving loyalty for a reason. "I thought we knew of all the waterbenders in Ba Sing Se." Not that there were many, besides Healer Amaya and the Avatar's young teacher. Most of the rest were minor fishing flotsam washed up on Ba Sing Se's docks, and they tended to stay there. Amaya might never have had official combat training, thanks to the North Pole's restrictive customs, but her refusal of her family's chosen betrothal had apparently come with an inventive streak. One she tended to use on anyone who threatened to, as they'd put it, drag her back North where she belonged.

"The boy's new," Quan informed him, leaning against the wall where he'd bent a rock-tunnel to listen in on the Earth King. "Lee; no family name known. We're tracking his records now. Half Foggy Swamp, from one of the reports."

Mixed blood. Hmm. That was never predictable. Look at Kyoshi Island, jealously guarding their neutrality for almost a century, before that improbable contingent of warrior women had shown up at Full Moon Bay. At least the Fire Nation colonies forced order on their half-blooded spawn. Even if it was the enemy's order.

"But you can tell he's met a firebender," Quan went on, gesturing toward his left eye.

Scarred, then. And still alive to tell about it? Interesting. "How did he explain that to the Earth King?" Not that he expected Amaya would send someone suicidal enough to tell Kuei about the war, but you could never be too sure.

"He didn't," Quan said wryly.

"Really." Long Feng arched an elegant brow. "And?" Usually, his agents didn't wait to offer pertinent details.

A wry delight danced in Quan's eyes. "You might want to listen to this, sir." A wave of his hand opened the listening hole a little wider, just enough for both of them to hear.

"Grrgh! Arrgh!" Bosco snarled.

"Really, I don't think-" Kuei started.

"Sit! Down!" an unfamiliar teenage voice snapped, obviously out of patience.

"Graargh!"

"That means you, too!"

"Grr? Eeep!"

The next sounds were horrendously unpleasant, and reminded Long Feng of an earthbender's attempt to unclog a storm drain gone horribly, horribly wrong.

"Grrr-yipe!"

"Eww…." Kuei's voice faded, and cloth swished.

"You could have let him drop," the teenager grumbled.

"Drop his majesty?" Dai Li agent Shirong's voice held stifled laughter. Which turned to a gasping cough. "Ugh… Lee, what is that thing?"

Something squelched, and rattled. "Earring. I think. Big one. Made to look like grapes," Lee got out, with the breathless tone of someone trying not to breathe through his nose. "Jade and amethyst, maybe…."

"Hey… we had a report on that going missing!"

"Well," Lee gasped, "you've got it. Soon as someone cleans it up. Boils it, maybe." Another ragged breath. "You idiot! This isn't food!"

"Growf?"

"So. That's it." Lee breathed shallowly. "One sore gut, courtesy of eating rocks." He groaned. "Anything else?"

"I'll send in some help," the agent said kindly. "With a bathing robe, so you can get cleaned off."

"Thanks," the teenager said fervently. And gulped. "Hurry?"

"On my way."

Long Feng closed the hole with a practiced clench of his fist, and traded a speaking glance with Quan. "Shirong seems to like him." Given Shirong was one of their more skilled recruiters, when not attending to his other duties, that was… interesting.

"I'll put a rush on the report, sir," Quan nodded.

"Make sure he's not chased out of the bath too soon," Long Feng said dryly. "From the sound of that, we'll all appreciate it."

-----

Hot water. Holding his breath, Zuko submerged completely, feeling clean warmth sink all the way into his bones. This was his third change of water, and he was finally beginning to feel like he could face food again.

The stone tub vibrated. "Don't drown in there."

Reluctantly, Zuko surfaced. And looked into startled green eyes.

Oops.

In a place that claimed there was no war, letting others see his scars probably wasn't… wise. Or conducive to survival.

"Apprentice healer?" the Dai Li agent said neutrally, politely turning his back.

Wrapping a towel around himself, Zuko tried to stay calm. "My mother didn't have time to teach me much before she was - gone. Uncle couldn't help. And Master Amaya's the first waterbender I've met who didn't try to skewer me with ice." Careful. You're a lousy liar. Stick to Amaya's story. Tell little bits, and let him put them together.

Turning toward him, the agent studied him for a long, thoughtful minute. "I can see why." Reaching out, a rock glove brushed the air near damp black hair. "Let that grow out enough for a topknot, and you could pass."

Getting out of warm water, Zuko shivered. "Don't even joke about that."

"Wasn't joking. It's always good to have another boulder to throw." He stepped back, and nodded. "I'm Shirong. I think we may be seeing more of each other." A deliberate pause. "When you check on the bear again."

Not quite a threat. I think.

"The clothes are yours. Call them recompense for the… unpleasantness." A wry look. "Someone will be here shortly with Healer Amaya's fee. They'll escort you out."

A rumble of stone, and he was gone.

Clothes?

On a table were his brown robes, freshly washed but still too wet to wear. Beside them, just far enough away that they wouldn't get damp, were another set. Not fancy; a bit of embroidery at collar and hems to add interest to durable fabric. About Middle Ring respectable, given what he'd seen around the Wen house.

Green. Argh.

Browns might be typically Earth Kingdom, but they weren't too far off the dark tones found in Fire Nation uniforms. It didn't seem right to be wearing green. Even a dark green. So dark it was almost the color of Dai Li uniforms….

Okay. Spooked now.

Nerves yelping or not, he was not going to be caught half-dressed by whoever was coming.

Green it is.

Dressing quickly, Zuko wrapped the outer robe around him. And paused, one hand pulling up a sleeve. Something's not right.

Another careful rub of fabric between his fingers, and he was sure. There's something in the hem of these.

No time to worry about it now. He wrapped and tied his sash, just as the door opened.

-----

Amaya sat across from her friend and longtime patient, wishing she had Mushi's touch with tea. Her ginseng was bracing, but far from soothing. "I realize this must be a shock-"

"Finding out Avatar Kyoshi created the Dai Li, that was a shock," the graying professor said gruffly. "Having one of my brightest students disappear just before he was qualified to teach for an indiscreet comment on current politics, that was a shock. This? This is a disaster. "

"It's not Jinhai's fault," Amaya stated firmly.

"Try telling that to Min," Tingzhe Wen said tartly. "He's seeing his chances of joining the most elite earthbenders go up in flames. Literally." The professor stared into his cup. "Where did I go wrong, Amaya? I tried to raise my children to be honest, and upright, and to know how to use the minds the spirits gave them. And all Min wants to do is join those silencing us all." His lip curled. "For an earthbender, perhaps he's the one with too much of his mother in him."

Amaya's eyes narrowed.

Yet even as he said it, Tingzhe looked stricken. "Oma and Shu, I didn't mean-"

"I know," the healer said levelly. Better this poison came out of his system now, with her, than in a fight with Meixiang. "You've heard some of my stories of the Northern Water Tribe. Meixiang's people don't have a monopoly on the lust for power. Spirits, if they did, there would be no Dai Li." She softened her voice, using the matter-of-fact tone a fellow teacher would respond to. "But in a way, you are right, as well. Min has always had a drive to be the best. And everyone knows the Dai Li are the best. And he's sixteen. His family has always been there for him. He doesn't realize his choices could truly threaten the people he cares about."

"And this boy you want to teach Jinhai?" Tingzhe said pointedly. "Isn't he sixteen?"

"Lee is different," Amaya replied. "He's learned some very hard lessons. He's lost most of his family, and almost died himself. That changes you." She smiled. "Sixteen, yes, and he does have a temper, but Lee is far more grownup than most people I've met."

Slam!

Damp hair wild, dressed in green when she'd sent him off in brown, Lee stalked in with a bundle of damp clothing and a look that had probably sent innocent passersby and no few would-be muggers running in terror. "I want to forget today ever happened. "

"What was wrong with him?" Amaya asked warily.

"Note six," Lee growled, handing over her scrolls and a bag of coin-strings.

"Oh dear." That particular personal note on the chi chart being to the effect that Bosco could and would try to eat anything that vaguely tasted like food. She still didn't know how he'd managed to swallow a soup ladle without anyone noticing, and she wasn't inclined to find out.

"That? Was disgusting, " Lee said faintly, gripping the bridge of his nose to hold back a stress headache. A very practical maneuver; she'd used it herself, often.

He does it without even thinking. Does he ever relax?

"I don't ever want to do that again, but they said someone was going to have to check on the bear, and…." Lee ground to a halt, taking in her startled guest. "You must be Professor Tingzhe Wen."

"I must, eh?" The earthbender looked Lee up and down, as if studying an essay about to be splashed with red ink.

A shadow of a smile passed over Lee's face. "Jinhai looks a lot like you."

Tingzhe leaned back in his chair, a hint of interest in hazel eyes. "That's not something I hear often."

"You don't? Oh. Because of the eyes, and…." Lee ducked his head a little. "It's the way he looks when he's trying to figure you out. You can see him thinking it over, and… sorry. I'm not real good with people."

Better than you think, Amaya considered, pleasantly surprised. Tingzhe had come in prepared for a fight, and all her efforts had barely brought him down to a simmer. Lee's simple words, a firebender affirming that Jinhai was Tingzhe's son first, and anything else only after that….

Charming people are a copper a dozen, and worth even less. You, and your uncle under the scheming… you're sincere. That's rare.

…Damn, the time. "People will be in for appointments soon," Amaya said, rising. "The two of you should take this discussion into the garden."

Tingzhe nodded, standing.

Lee hesitated. "Master Amaya. That official matter?"

You don't mention plague, because you don't want people to panic if it's not true. Smart boy. "Completely groundless," Amaya assured him. And couldn't help but smirk. "Apparently someone played a nasty practical joke on the Fire Nation forces occupying Omashu. One that let them evacuate the entire city." She crossed her arms, imagining the chagrin when that army found out they'd been had. "I'd like to meet this Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. He must be a wise, skilled warrior-"

Lee made a choking noise.

She eyed him.

"…Nothing, patients, I'll just-"

"You've met him." Tingzhe gave Lee a considering glance. "And if I know young men, you came off the worst." He tched. "I know it's difficult to accept at your age, but there's nothing wrong with losing to a more experienced man-"

"He's fifteen! "

Dead silence.

Lee kept his hands from clenching with an effort. "Fifteen, and he's a moron, with flashes of tactical brilliance. The moron part would have gotten him killed a long time ago, except for one small detail. He's traveling with the Avatar. " Her apprentice let out a breath, visibly forcing himself to calm down. "So you're right. I fought him. And I lost." Lee bowed to her, jaw set. "Master. I need a little air."

"Go," she said, troubled. Keeping just enough of an eye on him to be sure he headed into the garden, and not back out on the street with unsuspecting passersby. Waited long enough for him to get out of earshot, and whistled. "Well. I certainly didn't expect that." Either he met Sokka traveling… or I was right, and he has been to the poles. Both of them.

Staring at the screens to the garden, the professor blinked, and glanced at her. "It explains a great deal of the prickliness. It's one thing to lose fairly. To lose because your opponent brought his own army along, that's quite another matter. Especially to an honorable young man."

"His uncle swears Lee wasn't part of the war," Amaya protested. Even if he was trained for it.

"My dear healer, we're all part of the war," Tingzhe said dryly. "He may not have been a soldier, but if a Water Tribe boy ended up in the same town with your apprentice - your people have a long history of attacking enemies first."

Amaya frowned, uncertain how to take that. "So who do you believe was at fault?"

"How should I know? I wasn't there," Tingzhe stated gruffly. And frowned. "He has some very interesting turns of phrase, your Lee. If he wasn't in the army, he certainly received a military education. Though I imagine that's true of most firebenders, these days." He stood there a long moment, thinking. "I haven't made up my mind. Not yet. But I would like to speak with him. If you believe he'll calm down any time soon?"

"He's probably calm now," Amaya sighed. "Or at least controlled. He's good at that." Too good, I think.

"Hmm." Tingzhe gave her a dry smile. "Well then. Time to face the dragon."

-----

He's a very small dragon.

Approaching quietly, Tingzhe took a moment to study the young man seated on the ground, trailing his fingers in Amaya's pond. Really, it was a wonder he'd managed to pass unnoticed this long. The fine, lean features, the pale skin… add a topknot, change green eyes and robe to gold and red, and he'd be any young great name right out of the classical scrolls.

A testament to how much people simply don't see, I imagine.

"Eleven," Lee said quietly. "I counted them all. Three times." He looked at the water, obviously seeing… somewhere else. "That's how many of our men we pulled out of the water, after they were gone. The water that was ice, on the deck… and the water that wasn't, overboard." He shook his head, slowly. "The spearmen Katara froze got lucky. Once we broke them out, they just needed some hot drinks. But by the time we got the ship out of the iceberg and turned around for the ones the Avatar swept overboard… it was so close. Too close." He swallowed dryly. "I had to count. I didn't know all their names. That water's so cold…. "

Cold, and dark. The two most sure ways to kill a firebender. Decided, Tingzhe sat down. "And that's how you met Sokka?"

"I don't expect you to understand." Lee still wouldn't look at him. "The Fire Lord has declared the Avatar an enemy of the Fire Nation. We had to investigate. We didn't hurt anyone!" He yanked his fingers out of the water, drops rising off as steam. "We scared people. We threatened women and children. I'm not proud of that. The Avatar promised to go with us, and - our commander promised not to hurt anyone. We left. " A deep breath. "And then Sokka and his waterbending sister decided to land a ten-ton flying monster on our ship, and everything went to hell."

The professor kept silent, using decades of a life of reason and logic to work his way past his first, emotional reactions. Shock wouldn't help anyone. Neither would anger at a young man who'd been doing… well, what quite a few of his countrymen apparently thought was the reasonable thing to do. "I understand that the Fire Nation sets a high value on honor," Tingzhe said levelly. "If your commander did offer a prisoner reasonable parole, and he broke it, even with outside instigation… yes, from what I've read of your history, that's a grave insult indeed." He regarded the young man carefully. "What truly surprises me is that you're more upset about the casualties."

Lee shrugged, as if it didn't matter what he thought. "Sokka's dangerous. He turns things loose, and he doesn't think. He gets out of things because he's lucky, not because he's trained. His sister's a master waterbender, and his friend is the Avatar, so he's got a lot of luck on his side. And spirits." Closing his eyes, Lee hugged his knees to his chest. "Ask Master Amaya about the North Pole. I don't want to think about it."

A century of war, your nation has unleashed on mine. His students might joke that he still lived in the reign of the forty-sixth Earth King, but Tingzhe was perfectly well aware of the war. There just wasn't anything he could do about it, save help his people remember their past, so they would have hope of a better future. I should feel pleased at the Avatar's retribution.

But this wasn't the Fire Lord. This was a scarred young man who'd seen as much horror as any veteran on the Wall. Who'd fled the war, just as Meixiang had.

Stop stalling, Tingzhe told himself firmly. You already know what you've decided. "My wife says you want to teach Jinhai to put fires out."

"It's the first thing my mother taught me." Lee uncurled to look at him, green eyes bright and serious as fire. "My sister - there were a lot of benders around, and… you don't want two benders flaring the same flame. It's harder than starting a fire, but it makes things safer. Less scary." Lee's glance slid sideways; returned, determined. "He'll always be yours first, you know. Uncle says other nations aren't bound by loyalty the same way we are. Not in their spirits. Jinhai's a firebender, and you're his parents, and he loves you. No matter what I teach him, he'll always look to you first. Always."

Tingzhe tried not to start, recognizing the archaic phrase from one of the old letters he'd recently found in the university's collection.

"Who do you look to, dragon-born?"

"I am cast upon the waves, for my clan is fled, and our stronghold ashes."

"Who would you look to, dragon-born?"

"I seek a great name, one worthy of my blade and fire."

-Or so the story goes, the letter went on. Which should have clued in the hapless oni that all he was going to get was coin-hire, not loyalty, and when the clan regrouped, he'd be ogre flambé. But that's folktales for you. And now you're chasing folktales in Ba Sing Se. Father, please be careful. I know you promised your friend, but your clan needs you too.

A few days' research hadn't been enough to track down what Lady Kotone's father had promised, but given a letter written only decades ago had been tucked into scrolls on Avatar Yangchen, the last Air Nomad Avatar… well.

Perhaps it's better not to mention that Avatar Aang visited the university only a few days ago. Body or pride, sometimes the best medicine is time. "I'll speak with Amaya about a good time for you to come," Tingzhe said bluntly.

"Can you be there?"

Given he'd been about to put his foot down on just that, the professor arched a foreboding brow.

"Fire and earth aren't as different as people think," Lee explained. "The stances aren't the same, and we spend a lot more time in the air. But if you watch, you'll see… things in common." He let out a breath, and nodded, determined. "So if something goes wrong, and the Dai Li catch me - you'll know where to start to help Jinhai teach himself."

Tingzhe scowled at him. "You will not get caught. Not if you're careful."

"I'm careful," Lee said dryly. "Things just happen around me. No matter what I plan. So it's better if you know. Besides, Madam Wen might want to brush up on her forms, too."

"My wife," Tingzhe said with deliberate calm, "is not a firebender."

"I know that," Lee said, obviously puzzled.

"So why would you think she knows any firebending forms?" Tingzhe went on, eyeing him as he would any student who hadn't done the assigned reading.

"Because everyone does?" Lee said, exasperated. "The ones for self-defense? " The young man looked suddenly thoughtful. "Unless she's like Huojin, mostly raised here…."

"No… you really do teach your women to fight?" Tingzhe shook his head, years of study suddenly tilted awry. "I've read references to women warriors, but I thought they were - well, myths. Like Wan Shi Tong, or the Blue Spirit. No one's ever seen one."

"Oh, that's going to change," Lee muttered. Gave him an incredulous look. "Kyoshi Island teaches women to fight."

"That may be true," the professor admitted, "but everyone knows they're a few stones short of a mountain."

Lee stared at him, as if he'd suggested walking into the midst of a pit of viper-hornets. "Suyin and Jia don't know how to fight?"

"Jia's a skilled earthbender," Tingzhe said impatiently. "I'm certain that if she had the misfortune to deal with a rude young man, she could lock him up neatly until the guard arrived-"

Lee buried his face in his hands.

"Young man, what is the matter with you?"

Lee shook his head, and looked up. "And what about Suyin? Or what if it's not a rude young man Jia has to deal with? What if it's Dai Li?"

Tingzhe gaped at him, aghast. "You can't fight the Dai Li!"

"Never give up without a fight." Fiery green bored into him. "If you want me to train Jinhai - then I train Suyin, too."

"She's not even a bender!"

"Some of the most dangerous people in the world aren't benders," Lee said impatiently. "Master Piandao defeated a hundred soldiers single-handed!"

"Who?"

Lee started to speak, and stopped. "Just - someone I heard of. Years ago." He folded his hands, straightening; equal to equal. "Please consider it. We can't always be there to protect the people we care about. The best thing we can do is teach them to protect themselves."

"I'll talk to Healer Amaya," Tingzhe said finally. "It's been very… interesting, to speak with you." He inclined his head, and Lee bowed.

The very picture of a polite young man, the professor thought, leaving. But when you truly care about something, when that inner fire flares… only a blind man can't see what you are.

What is a great name's son doing in Ba Sing Se?

Chapter Text

Click.

"Huh."

A whisper of thread and cloth. Another soft, almost inaudible click. "Uncle," Zuko said thoughtfully, "you might want to look at this."

Evening tea in hand, Iroh moved to see what his nephew was doing, sitting cross-legged on the floor with scissors and a bowl and… his new green robes, from which he had carefully pulled out the threads binding the hems. Oh dear.

Click.

Frowning, Iroh crouched to reach into the bowl, pressing a fingertip down to pick up one of the tiny stone beads. Gray, mostly quartz, no bigger than a millet grain... and one of many Zuko was picking out of the robe's inner hems. "And this was given to you by a Dai Li."

"I can think of a lot of things they could do to someone wearing these, and I don't like any of them," Zuko said grimly, picking out another bead. Click.

"Interesting," Iroh murmured, considering the potential motives behind such a perilous gift. Serious harm seemed possible, but unlikely; the amount of stone was small, and even an earthbender who knew they were there would be hard-pressed to pull them together swiftly enough to draw blood. They could tangle and bind, certainly, hampering an unwary wearer, but the trap was not as lethal as it first appeared-

Iroh's eyebrows arched in surprise, as an unlikely possibility occurred to him. "We must mend these tonight, after you have finished," the retired general said thoughtfully. "You should wear this, when you are called to check the bear again."

Zuko frowned, teasing out more stone. "They'll ask for Amaya."

"I believe they will ask for you."

Zuko stared at the bead in his hand, then at him. "This is some kind of test?"

"It may be."

"I stuck to the story," Zuko whispered, face ashen.

"There are some things you cannot hide. And they have nothing to do with that scar," Iroh added sharply, as his nephew's hand crept toward his face. Spirits, how do I say this? My brother decreed you useless, and you have no idea how wrong he was. "You have habits of caution most your age lack. You move in a balanced stance. You determine where in a room you are, and how you might best leave it if violence erupts. And while most within these walls are civilians, with no knowledge of what it is they see-"

"The Dai Li aren't most." Zuko swallowed, and deliberately dropped the latest bead into the bowl. "It'd look worse if I showed up with these still there, wouldn't it?"

"For one they suspect has a warrior's training? Yes. It would."

"Jet," Zuko snarled, almost a curse.

"It is likely someone made note of that fight." Iroh stroked his beard, thinking. "Keep to our story. Your mother was Foggy Swamp, and we have traveled for years, mostly on the western coast. If this Shirong has already noted you can pass for Fire Nation, he may draw his own conclusions."

Zuko went from pale to red, shaking. "My parents were married!"

"And there is no reason to claim they were not," Iroh said calmly. "Sozin's forces were in the Earth Kingdom decades before I was born. If we are pressed, if there is no way to escape without some explanation - then admit you suspect one of your grandparents was a colonial. But insist the family has never spoken of such things. Which is fact, and will help the tale ring true."

His nephew looked down, fury fading. "I didn't intend to get us in trouble."

Iroh smiled, and rested a hand on his shoulder. "You cannot help being who you are, Prince Zuko. I do not think they believe you are an enemy."

"Then why-?"

"I do not yet know," Iroh said truthfully. Though he had suspicions. None of which quite made sense, given the Dai Li knew his nephew was not an earthbender. "Lean on Lee. Be wary, but calm, when they speak with you. You have done nothing wrong." He lowered himself to the floor, eyeing the opened hem. "Let us see how swiftly we can clear this trap."

-----

Gather, and throw.

Water snapped closed around the candle, flickering flame trapped in a bubble of air. Letting out a slow breath, Zuko held the trailing strand of the water-net in his right hand. Carefully, concentrating, brought the main strand over with his left, and gingerly slipped it free. And tried, yet again, to do the impossible.

Water yields and changes. Use a light grip. Steady….

Reaching out with his left hand, he sought fierce determination. And pushed - slowly - down.

Inside the smoke-darkened bubble, the flame sank into a bare glow around the wick.

Two kinds of energy. Ow, my head.

No. He wasn't going to quit. Not yet.

Zuko reeled in the net, setting the candle down on the floor in front of him. This was where it had gone wrong a dozen times before….

Gentle movements. Like stroking fire-lilies.

Water curled back like petals, exposing the red-glowing wick. He held it to just that glow, despite the rush of fresh air. Three, two, one….

And released.

The candle flared back into life, casting golden glints across water still curled around wax.

…I did it.

Water wavered, threatening to fall.

Don't jump! It's not fire. Move smoothly. Call it.

A curl of his fingers, and water coalesced into a globe in his palm. Zuko smiled thinly, and tipped it back into the pitcher.

Then collapsed backward onto the floor of his room, stifling tired giggles. I did it!

Granted, compared to what he'd seen at the North Pole, it was about as impressive as one sparkler in the midst of a festival fireworks display. But it'd worked.

Uncle always said, if you don't know what you're doing, start small.

I wish I could tell him.

Head against wood, Zuko winced. He had to tell Iroh. Granted, they were working on the evacuation plan together, but he'd be surprised if there weren't half a dozen aspects of it the retired general had thought of and he hadn't, yet. Things that might hinge on them both being firebenders of Sozin's blood.

I have to tell him. I just - can't. Not yet.

…I'm ashamed.

Shame. Inner turmoil. Part of what Uncle thought kept him from the calm needed for lightning.

I'm ashamed to be a waterbender.

Why am I ashamed? I didn't ask for this! I didn't want it! The spirits just decided to screw with me, like they have all my life-

Because we're Sozin's children.

Sozin the hero. Sozin the conqueror. Sozin, who'd instigated a bloody massacre whose extent made Zuko sick. It was one thing to walk in the Western Air Temple a century after the bloodshed had ended. Another to have met Aang, to have hunted him across the world, and slowly realize there had once been thousands of airbenders just like him, soaring between the four corners of the earth.

How could he? How could anyone?

Zuko shivered and sat up, faintly nauseous. Just thinking about how they'd died - men, women, and children - it made him feel… ashamed.

I'm ashamed to be Sozin's heir. I'm ashamed not to be Sozin's heir.

I'm confused.

It hurts.

It ached inside, like being trapped under ice without air. His thoughts were scattered as feathers in the wind, he didn't know what to do, it wasn't fair-!

"Prince Zuko." Iroh's voice; one of many long-ago lessons. "If you are lost in the wilderness, the first thing you must do is sit down."

Sit down. Calm down. Breathe.

The candle-flame breathed with him.

"What do you have, and what do you need?"

What he had? Was impossible-

Focus, damn it!

What he had was himself, and Uncle, and an as-yet unknown possible amount of help from the rest of the hidden folk in Ba Sing Se. What he needed-

I want to save my people.

Nice goal. Very pretty. Just the kind of thing the Avatar would get behind, if they were anybody but Fire Nation.

Aang is an idealistic idiot. What do you need, that you can do? Survival. Focus on the basics.

Breathe. Feel the heartbeat of the flame….

I need someplace some of my people can survive.

All right. Assuming he and Uncle pulled off a miracle and outwitted the spirits long enough to make this work, some would survive. Though it wouldn't be the Fire Nation he'd grown up in.

In the Fire Nation, Jinhai could be challenged to an Agni Kai at thirteen. I don't want that to happen. It's… wrong.

Don't think about it.

So. One small band of exiles to keep the fire alive. What would stop Earth and Water from just rolling right over them?

We'll need fortifications. And we'll have to be smart about them. Metal if we can get it. Wood if we can't. Tremor-sensors, to detect earthbenders making tunnels. Having other elements on our side would help, a lot. If the Wen family comes - earthbenders would let us build multiple lines of defense. We could even build walls meant to come down.

Breathing and flame were steady. Good.

So. How does being a waterbender affect the plan?

Assuming the people he was trying to help didn't mind waterbenders… they knew Amaya. It shouldn't be a problem. If he was trained, if he had the courage to tell Amaya and ask for her help, it could even be an asset. Diverting water made a lot of things easier. Healing would save lives.

One down. Zuko glanced at the candle, making sure nothing flammable was within yards. Now. Think. Does it matter if you're of Sozin's line? Does it matter for the plan?

Flames burst up a foot, before he could damp them again. It hurt.

Gripping his knees, Zuko fought the anger and grief and bewilderment back down. Like it or not, true or not, he and Iroh had both been declared traitors to the Dragon Throne. It didn't matter who they were. Not anymore.

Anyone who comes, is going to come because they want to. Not because they're loyal to us.

Which would be the case with anyone who showed up later, as well. And Uncle seemed convinced people would show up.

Think about that. Zuko frowned. The hidden folk here - they ran. And they made it. But they're hiding.

We wouldn't be hiding. We're not going to be sending up fireworks, but we won't be hiding.

If people know there's somewhere else to go, if they get the idea that you can make somewhere else to go….

What would happen, if Ozai died, and some of the great names just didn't confirm their loyalty to Azula?

You'd have to have guts to pull it off. You'd have to have power, and a fortified domain, and loyal people.

There were places like that in the Fire Nation. Some of the smaller, more out of the way islands, who contributed men and weapons to the war but otherwise mostly kept to themselves. Just the kind of places that'd be most likely to survive an angry world's retribution.

If we can pull this off, we won't be alone.

None of that needed him to be Prince Zuko, son of Ozai, grandson of Azulon. They'd have a plan. Those they were trying to rescue would think it was a good idea, or they wouldn't. That was it.

He had to put his head down and just breathe. The room kept trying to spin.

It doesn't matter who I am. If the plan is good, it doesn't matter if I'm crown prince, or just… just Lee, the refugee.

Only it did matter. And not just to him.

I'm not Lee. I wish I was. Lee doesn't have orders.

Still. The Avatar wasn't here.

And if he's smart, he never will be. The army keeps attacking this place, he'd be an idiot to come here when he hasn't mastered all four elements yet….

Oh. Wait.

Zuko sighed, gripping the bridge of his nose. He's an idiot, but Katara's got some sense. And Toph sounds pretty solid, from what Uncle said. He won't be here.

And given that going after three master benders on his own - plus one idiot with a boomerang - was a quick way to get himself dropped in a bloodied heap somewhere… and given Azula was probably following the whole idealistic bunch like a vulture-wasp on a corpse-scent… no.

He was loyal. He was. But Azula wanted him dead, and he was not going to hand himself over gift-wrapped.

So. Simple enough. So long as he was in Ba Sing Se, he'd do what he could for his people. The Avatar would just have to wait.

I chased ghosts for almost three years. At least now, I know he's real.

A real headache. Which he was not going to think about any more tonight. He had work in the morning.

Maybe they'll forget about the bear….

-----

Morning singing through his veins as he stood in the luxurious kennel, Zuko eyed the bear in the ridiculous green jacket and hat.

Bosco eyed him back. Shifted restlessly, muzzle starting to wrinkle in a snarl-

"Sit."

"Growf?" Blinking innocently, Bosco sat, as if it'd been his idea all along.

Hot water wrapped around his hands, Zuko ran his fingers over brown fur, paying special attention to the generous gut. So far, everything seemed to be fine. A few knots twinged at him, recalling other unwise meals. He melted those, as much as they'd let him.

Be thorough. Maybe you won't have to come back.

"It's amazing how he listens to you," the Earth King said cheerfully. "Not even one playful little nip!"

Brown bear eyes peered Zuko's way, tongue slurping in anticipation of just such a nip.

Zuko glared.

The tongue slipped back inside the mouth, as if sucked up through a straw.

Right. Behave. Or else. "You really shouldn't let him bite people."

"Muzzle his natural protective instincts?" the king said, aghast. "He's my friend!"

Your friend has enough teeth and claws to make the Unagi think twice. One of these days, somebody's going to regret that. Zuko stifled a sigh. "If we let ostrich-horses follow their natural instincts, they'd bolt every time a komodo-rhino came onto the field."

"Why would that ever be a problem?" the Earth King asked, puzzled. "Komodo-rhinos live in the Fire Nation."

"Right," Zuko said uneasily, aware of listening ears. "But what if-" Damn, what do I say, Azula would know what to say, she got Ty Lee to believe in her- oh. "What about traveling circuses?" he blurted out.

…Oh yeah. That really sounds plausible. Good going.

"Traveling circuses?" the Earth King said skeptically.

"Well, they have animal acts, and…." As brown brows climbed higher, Zuko sighed. "Never mind. He's fine. Just don't let him eat anything else that's not food."

"Animal acts." The Earth King chuckled. "You're a strange young man."

You have no idea.

"Well, you may go."

"Your majesty," Zuko managed stiffly, kneeling. And retreated, as fast as was politely possible.

Hate this, hate this, hope I never have to do it again-

A green-uniformed figure fell in silently beside him. "Circuses?" Shirong said, amused.

"It could happen," Zuko said defensively. Braced himself with Lee, trying to think and act like a typical refugee.

A refugee they know can use dao. Oh, this is going to be fun.

-----

Shirong kept walking beside the young man, enjoying the unexpected silence. Lee didn't try to explain or defend himself. He'd just offered a possible, if not very plausible, explanation - and let it drop.

Interesting young man.

Half Foggy Swamp, according to the report on the teashop brawl. Which wasn't in his official papers. But then, it seemed likely there was quite a bit about Lee, and his uncle, that wasn't in their papers.

Original hometown listed as Taku. Right.

Taku wasn't there anymore. Nothing really was, except a half-mad herbalist and that damned Pohuai Stronghold with its thrice-damned Yu Yan. Which made it the perfect place to base papers for people trying to hide something… well, possibly even worse than kin in the Foggy Swamp.

He really does have their looks. Poor kid.

Could come in handy, though. As could the waterbending. Especially given the special situation they had in the Upper Ring.

Avatar Kyoshi left us prepared to deal with any element. But that isn't the same as having someone who can feel it.

Granted, the situation was currently under control. But you could never tell what kids that age would do. And the thought of a fourteen-year-old waterbending master loose in his city gave Shirong cold chills.

Still. Lee's not an earthbender. If we're going to make exceptions, he's got to be worth it.

Well. Time to figure out how badly Lee reacted to booby-traps. Shirong lifted gloved fingers slightly, gestured-

A small cloth bag slid out of Lee's left sleeve. The teenager caught it automatically, then stopped, and turned to hold it out to him with a bow. "I didn't break any. They looked like they took time to make."

Startled, Shirong took it, and gestured more openly. Tiny as they were, any lone bead should still respond.

Nothing. Not a whisper of earth from collar or hems. "You found them."

Lee's lone brow lifted. "Wasn't I supposed to?"

Shirong weighed the young man in his gaze, and smiled wryly. "Come with me."

He led them through walls and corridors, into one of the small rock rooms his fellow agents used for private conversations. Set the pouch down on a low table, where a long bag already rested. "How did you find them?"

"I noticed the color." Lee's face was serious, but a little quiet pride warred with the wariness in his gaze. "Then I felt something in the hem. So when I got home, I checked." He rubbed cloth between his fingers. "Water… you have to feel what you're doing. I haven't had a lot of practice, but I know that much."

And you're still not asking why, Shirong noted. You want to. I can see how badly you want to. But you know enough to be wary of us. So you're waiting, no matter how hard it is.

Wary, but not afraid. Interesting. "I'm surprised someone with your sword-skills wants to be a healer."

"Master Amaya is a good teacher," Lee said levelly. "I can waterbend. I can't get away from that. I have to learn how to control it." A sardonic snort. "Or every teashop in Ba Sing Se's going to throw me out. And my uncle loves tea."

Observant, good blade skills, and sarcastic understatement. My, my. "I'm told women from the Northern Water Tribe aren't taught combative waterbending," Shirong said levelly, taking a blue-capped scroll tube out of the bag. "That seems like a shame."

Lee stood still as ice. Only his eyes burned, green flame in a pale face.

I thought so. You're a fighter. You know what this is. And you want it. Shirong kept his gaze locked on the teenager's. You want it, but you know there's going to be a price. And some prices are too high. You're not one to be trapped that way, are you? If what I ask is too much, if you believe it will lead to more than your soul can bear - you'll walk right out that door.

Good. Good. Weak-spirited benders had no place in the Dai Li. They might be fit enough for the Outer Wall, where all they faced were human enemies. Inside the walls, where dissent and restless spirits roamed… you couldn't send a man ruled by his own desires up against a kamuiy. It'd be a slaughter. "Do you love this city, Lee?"

"I've only been here a few days," the teenager said quietly. Still looking at him, and not the scroll.

"But you have people you care about here," Shirong said evenly. "People you want to protect." He raised a hand for patience as the boy took a dangerous step back. "That's not a threat. I don't know who's tried to kill you in the past, besides that young idiot Jet, but I would never threaten your uncle. Family is important. Why else would we fight? Honor? Pride?" The agent shook his head. "Leave those to young fools who don't know any better. You know what's important. You protected your family, and you left a young idiot alive to learn from his mistakes." He had to chuckle. "Not only that, you made it so glaringly obvious he was wrong, he may just settle down and become a decent citizen. Which would be best for everyone."

Lee let out a slow breath, still wary as an alley pygmy puma. "What do you want?"

"Want? I want those with the power to protect this city to have the skills they need as well." Shirong held out the scroll. "This is a loan, not a gift. I'm going to need it back."

Lee's hand closed around it; firmly, but not too tight. "I'll show this to Master Amaya, and ask if she considers this appropriate to learn." Tucking the scroll into his kit, he bowed formally.

"You do that," Shirong said lightly, returning the bow. Escorted the young man back to the main corridors, and silently perched on a handy wall to watch him leave.

Not long after, quiet feet stopped underneath him. "Well?" Long Feng said dryly.

Smirking, Shirong dropped the bag of beads into his hands.

Long Feng hefted the rustling cloth, puzzled. Brought it near his ear, shook it, and jerked his head up to eye Shirong in amazement.

"Every. Last. One," Shirong said, with great satisfaction.

His leader frowned. "Even a skilled earthbender-"

"Could apparently learn something from paranoid fingers," Shirong shrugged.

"Hmm." The Grand Secretariat nodded. "What did you promise him?"

"Nothing."

Long Feng arched a brow.

"That boy's dealt with manipulators before, sir. Dangerous ones. One hint of a snare, he'll be gone."

"He's inside the Impenetrable City," Long Feng said dryly. "Where would he go?"

"He'd think of something." Shirong shifted against the wall, thinking. "You don't promise an abandoned pygmy puma, sir. You leave out food, and you leave the window open. And you wait."

"We have dozens of eager candidates," Long Feng said levelly. "Why should we wait for this one?"

"Besides the reasons you outlined before, sir?" Waterbender. Earth Kingdom native. Already trained to be dangerous. Known family here, so it's in his interests to cooperate. "He's not eager. Which means when he is convinced, he'll stay that way. He's inventive, tenacious, and thorough. And he knows how to discipline himself. Even when it's something he wants very badly."

Long Feng stood still, eyes half-closed as he considered that. Nodded once. "I assume by wait, you mean that your efforts with him will not conflict with your other duties?"

"It's unlikely they would." Shirong glanced down. "Did a report come in I should be aware of?"

"No." But Long Feng still frowned. "They claim to have been wandering for some time. If this boy is the quality we need - why hasn't the army found him before now?"

"His uncle," Shirong said levelly. "Who else is going to look after an old man with no family? I doubt Jet's the first one to attack them."

"Hmm." The Grand Secretariat nodded. "Carry on."

-----

The Dai Li are trying to recruit me. Heading through the busy streets of the Middle Ring's early afternoon for Jinhai's first lesson, Zuko tried - again - to make sense out of the situation. He'd seen politics and negotiations played out for as long as he'd been old enough to remember. Shirong was subtle; a lot more like Lieutenant Jee, or even Uncle, than a blustering weasel-snake like Zhao. But not subtle enough. He knew what had just happened.

It just didn't make sense.

The Dai Li are trying to… oh, hell. Tell Uncle - tell Amaya! - and try not to think about it. A refugee wouldn't know what just happened. Right?

He didn't know. Which was sobering and scary at once. How could people spend their whole lives not knowing the deadly dance of lords and courts?

How can I pass for normal, when I don't even know what it is?

At least one good thing had come out of the whole mess. Uncle was right. They didn't think he was Fire Nation. Shirong would never have offered that scroll to an enemy….

I'm being followed.

Zuko had grown up in cities before he'd been cast out into the wilds of the world. He knew this game.

First, match the crowd's pace.

Sometimes that was enough to throw off an unskilled pursuer. Blending with dozens of other people turned a clear target into one beast in a komodo-rhino stampede. If his tail hadn't marked him, specifically-

He has. Zuko glanced subtly back to catch the ripple in the crowd as someone forced their way around a knot of happily chatting wives out to market. The people between them hid who he sought, but from their glances of disapproval, and startled fear….

Male. Probably younger than they are. Probably armed.

…Oh, hell.

Ahead, the odd flutter of a noodle-shop curtain caught Zuko's eye. No one had just passed through, and the breeze from the street shouldn't push that way, which meant the breeze had to come from somewhere else- yes!

Speeding up, Zuko smiled and fell in beside another knot of women bent on acquiring dry noodles for tonight's dinner. Politely worked his way around the edge of colorful dresses as they stopped for a last-minute discussion on the merits of northern winter wheat versus southern summer. Hovered on the far side of a stately elderly matron, head down as if he wouldn't even think of cutting ahead of his elders.

And vanished down the tiny alley just beside the shop.

Hurry; any minute he'll realize you're not with them….

The alley was almost skinny enough to climb like a rock chimney. Unsure exactly how resilient his waterskin was, Zuko resisted the temptation, fingers and boots finding holds on the shop's earthbent stone wall. One floor, two, three - roof!

He swung up onto umber clay tiles, quiet feet careful not to dislodge any that might be less than securely fastened. Crept into the best shadows he could find, that would keep him hidden yet still let him look.

Even from above, the twin hook swords were unmistakable.

…Damn it.

He'd rather have been followed by Dai Li.

Not that Zuko wanted to be followed by anyone. But the Dai Li knew Amaya. They probably also knew the Wen family were long-standing patients. If her apprentice visited - well, what was odd about that?

But if Jet saw Meixiang, or Jinhai….

He was looking for Fire Nation on a secret ferry. Why wouldn't he look for them here?

Jinhai had just started bending. If Jet frightened him - there would be sparks, count on it.

I'm not going to let that happen.

Right. He'd just sneak away, circle around, leave Jet fuming in the street….

No.

Not just his own hot temper. Lee, bristling like a porcupine-boar.

I'm Amaya's apprentice. I have every right to be walking these streets. He's the one who should be skulking, not me!

Not the most cautious reaction. But sometimes the cautious plan wasn't the smart one.

I'm Lee. Amaya's apprentice. An Earth Kingdom waterbender. And I've done nothing wrong.

I have to act like it.

Okay. Act like an outraged, innocent teenager. But Jet was armed.

He's never lived in cities, Zuko thought. If you're not a great name, you don't go armed unless you're looking for trouble-

Water sloshed as he leaned back in shadow, and Zuko froze. I am armed.

Think it through. If you heat up the water you can firebend it, but if he still thinks we're Fire Nation, you don't want to do that. Meaning you're stuck with something you can barely use- he's coming!

Country-bred or not, it looked like Jet had finally spotted the alley. Fists clenched, he stalked in.

Loosening the cap on his water-skin, Zuko beckoned coolness around his hands. For a moment he thought the angry teenager would walk on by. But wherever he'd come from, Jet must have had some experience tracking; the freedom fighter glanced at the wall, and stiffened-

Throw!

Water snapped dead on target. Zuko yanked, and leather tore.

Clutching still-sheathed hooked swords, Zuko glared down at Jet. "Why are you following me?"

Chewing on yet another wheat straw, Jet glared back. "Maybe you didn't notice, but it's a free city."

That? Is so many kinds of wrong. "Fine." Water back in its skin, Zuko shook the swords. "Good luck ever finding these again."

"Yeah, why not?" Jet said darkly. "You kill and burn and murder, why not steal, too?"

"You're still-" Zuko swore under his breath, fighting the temptation to shower sparks. Bad idea. "Are you blind? I'm a waterbender!"

"Your uncle's not." Brown eyes narrowed at him. "I know what he is."

Must not kill idiot. "I already told you-"

"Your mother was from Foggy Swamp?" Jet said contemptuously. "His brother's wife? If he even is your uncle. Though I guess that's not a lie, no way would a firebender pick up some orphan who looks like the losing side of a fire duel…."

Will. Not. Kill him. The world shimmered in a red haze. He wanted to break something. Lots of things. Preferably Jet's bones-

There was a smirk tugging at Jet's mouth, as he subtly shifted stance.

He's waiting for me to come down there.

I don't think so.

The rage didn't fade. If anything, it burned hotter. But he was a firebender. He could hold fire in his bare hands, if he wanted. And he would hold his temper. Now. "You make me sick."

Jet's smirk slipped.

"A fresh start, you said. A second chance. And you want to harass an old man who works in a tea shop?" Zuko's eyes narrowed. "What kind of freedom fighter picks on civilians? There's a whole wall that needs people on it, protecting it! Protecting the innocent people trying to survive here! You want to fight the Fire Nation?" He jabbed a finger toward the Outer Wall, looming far in the distance. "Go fight out there!"

"And let a happy little traitor's family slip away?" Jet taunted, muscles tensing to spring and climb the wall. "I don't think-"

"Don't. Ever. Call my uncle a traitor again."

Eyes suddenly wary, Jet backed up a step, almost to the opposite wall.

Zuko forced himself to breathe, water curling around his hand like octopus tentacles. I didn't call… never mind. Use the anger. Don't let it use you. "That's what this is all about, isn't it? I still have a family. And you don't. You bastard."

"What would you know about it?" Jet flung up at him. "You've never lost anything to those Fire Nation-"

"What the hell makes you think that?" Don't kill him. Amaya will be disappointed if you kill him. "I lost my parents!" Mother gone; a father that only wanted him disgraced or dead. "I lost my sister!" Maybe Azula had never been anything but evil, he didn't know. But losing Mom had sent her spiraling into Ozai's approval, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. "I lost everything I had!" My honor. My country. My throne.

Breathe. Move the water. Don't make it steam.

"I lost everything," Zuko said, more quietly. "Except my uncle. And you want to hurt him, too?" He stared down, pinning the brown gaze with his own. "Let me tell you something about the Water Tribes, Jet. The most important thing there is, is family. And Uncle is mine."

Jet's eyes shifted to dancing water. "Sure, bend your way out of trouble. You can't take me in a fair fight. And you know it."

Zuko let himself smirk, fire still blazing in his veins. "That's not going to work," he said, almost kindly. "I told you. Family. That means I don't have to fight fair." His smirk deepened, showed a faint glint of teeth. "I don't have to fight at all."

Jet was back against the wall, now, face slowly paling as his shoulders pressed against stone.

"Stay away from me," Zuko said, voice deadly quiet. "Stay away from my uncle." Water snaking back into the skin, he turned, and headed across the roof, leaving the swords behind.

"Or what?" Jet hurled defiantly after him.

Snorting, Zuko stepped into a blind spot formed by a chimney and a flapping line of laundry, and vanished. You're not stupid. You figure it out.

Though he wasn't quite sure about the not stupid part. For a guy who thought they were murdering Fire Nation scum, Jet seemed to be risking a lot on the assumption they'd behave like civilized people.

Maybe he'll think it through. Maybe.

For now, he'd lost the angry teen. Time to put that to good use.

-----

A firebender. Waiting inside the front door, Suyin picked nervously at her cuffs. Lee's a real firebender. And he's going to help.

She wasn't quite sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, the relief was strong enough to knock her silly. She wasn't going to be alone anymore, trying to keep fires from flaring and sparks from flying. Not that she'd been totally alone, but Jia was so busy with her classes and her friends and her bending… and keeping Min from poking his nose in. Which had been a lot of help. Really.

On the other hand, some boy she didn't know was going to be teaching her little brother. Sure, Amaya vouched for him, and he'd acted a lot less blue-nosed monkey "ooh, ooh, ooh," than Min did, but what did she really know about him? Besides the fact that he was a firebender… and he wanted her to train, too.

I'm not even a bender!

None of them had overheard what Mom and Dad said to each other, after "Professor" Dad came back from Amaya's clinic. But you could hear the tone. Some of it was angry, and some surprised, and there had been this one odd thump right in the middle of it all.

And her Dad had wandered out of the bedroom rubbing his head and looking very thoughtful. Wrong period artifact in the dig thoughtful. And Mom had come out just a little after, looking oddly sheepish and amused all at once. With her clothes a little disheveled. And not that way.

After which Dad had asked her, very seriously, if she would take that first lesson with Jinhai. Just to see what she thought.

Well. What she thought was that Min had come within a pinprick of exploding, when he'd found out Jinhai's first lesson was going to be while he was off at class. As if Dad and Mom couldn't handle one teenager, firebender or not.

At least Jia had been sane about the whole thing, asking Suyin to pick up any tidbits she'd miss while she was off at poetry class.

Though I'm not sure I can find out everything she wants to know, Suyin thought doubtfully. I can ask about family, sure, and what it's like working with Amaya, but some of the other stuff-

There was a knock at the door. Heart in her throat, Suyin peeked through the peephole.

Green. Scary green. Almost Dai Li, but there's no hat-

Lee looked up, and she felt a rush of relief. And tried not to look at the scar.

"Can I come in?"

"Y-yes, hold on…." She fumbled the door open, swallowing. Shut it after he'd silently stepped inside. "Um, we thought - the basement?" She filled her lungs, and called upstairs. "Mom, Dad! Lee's here!"

Suyin glanced back in time to see Lee take his hands away from his ears. "You're going to do fine on the breathing lessons," he said dryly.

"Thanks?" Was that a compliment? Didn't sound like one. But it didn't sound mean, either. Weird.

Her parents came down with Jinhai between them, and Suyin saw the moment Jinhai saw Lee. Her little brother just lit up, eyes wide and bright and hopeful as if Mom had come home after a long day dealing with other professors' wives.

Lee caught the flying little boy as he was hugged, looking stunned as if he'd just been slugged. "Is something wrong?"

"You came! You really came!" Jinhai pulled back enough to look up, bright green eyes doubtful as he chewed on his lip. "You kind of felt like a spirit-story. I didn't know if you were really real."

"I'm real," Lee said quietly. Looked up at her parents. "Professor. Madam."

"Downstairs would be wise," her father said plainly. "Shall we?"

Suyin pulled the new cellar door shut after them, wondering how long this one would last. And just what Lee had done, to break rock the way she'd thought only an earthbender could. That would be so cool….

Keep dreaming. Not a bender, remember? Suyin sat down by the old futon her mother had dragged into the cellar. Just listen, and pay attention. It's not like you're going to get anything out of this except a way to help Jinhai….

"The first thing you need to know," Lee interrupted her thoughts, setting up a semicircle of five unlit candles in front of where he sat, "is that everybody has chi, and everybody can learn to move it."

Wait. What?

"Chi's what Amaya uses to fix people, right?" Jinhai bounced as Lee sat him down.

"Yes," Lee nodded. "It's what all benders use to affect their element. And fighters use it, too. Though I guess a lot of them here don't know that's what they're doing. A warrior who does know is an incredible fighter. Years ago, Master Piandao of Shu Jing resigned from the army and retired. Somebody decided they wanted him back, and they sent a hundred soldiers to convince him. He defeated them all." Lee had a slight, wry smile as he looked at her parents. "He's a swordsman. Not a bender."

"And you've actually met this legend?" her father said doubtfully.

"I did," Lee acknowledged. "A long time ago." The teenager looked down, smile rueful. "I kind of hope he doesn't remember. I was a little brat." He poked Jinhai gently in the shoulder. "Even younger than you."

Jinhai eyed him. "I'm not a brat!"

"You sure? I was at your age." Lee shrugged. "Just remember, everybody has chi. People who aren't benders have to work hard to learn to move it, but they can. And that's how you learn to-" Lee glanced at her parents again, and colored slightly. "Sorry. I thought the door was stronger than that."

"Wow!" Jinhai breathed.

Suyin picked her jaw up off the floor. "I - could learn to do that?"

"If you practice." Lee nodded. "It takes years. I've been training since I was four."

"Four? We don't start self-defense in school until-" Meixiang froze suddenly, eyes wide. "…My lord."

"No!" Lee's unscarred eye was almost as wide, and his face paled. "No, please. I'm no one's lord." He looked down, dark hair not long enough to hide pain. "Not anymore."

Lord? Suyin thought, aghast. Lee's a noble? He wasn't anything like the snooty brats from the Upper Ring. She'd met enough to know.

"Mommy?" Jinhai looked between them, worried.

"It's complicated, love." Meixiang smiled at him. "But if you're ever in trouble and you can't find us - find Lee. He'll look after you. That's what families like his do."

Lee swallowed dryly. "I am honored by your trust."

"I'm going to have to talk with Huojin," Meixiang said ruefully. "He's probably jumpy as a rabbiroo, with no idea why."

"Huh?" Lee said, confused.

"Later," she said firmly. Made a shooing motion. "Go on."

"Okay," Lee said warily. Looked at Suyin and Jinhai, drawing them in with his gaze. "Meditation teaches concentration and focus. And in firebending, chi comes from the breath. So we're going to start with a breathing meditation."

"We're going to breathe?" Jinhai said, dismayed. "I do that all the time!"

"Oh really?" Lee gave him a wink, and pinched a candle wick-

It puffed into flame.

Suyin held onto her jaw this time, as Lee pinched the rest of the candles alight. They were small flames. Ordinary, compared to the whispered horror stories of fireballs that could take a man's face off, or flame-daggers that seared armor and heart to the same black char. But the casual way he'd done it….

Like Dad, skating aside just enough dirt to uncover a site layer. Just - precise.

Lee sat up straight, in a formal meditative pose. Not too different from the ones she'd seen her father use, though Lee's hands rested on his knees instead of clasped together in front of him. "Can you breathe like this?" Slow and steady, Lee breathed in through his nose, and out through his mouth. Quietly. Almost soundlessly.

And the flames breathed with him.

"So… where's my candle?" Jinhai asked.

If she weren't focused on breathing, Suyin would have smacked herself in the forehead.

"You get one when your parents and I say you're ready," Lee said levelly. "Breathe. No, sit up more. Straight. Your mind's busy a lot, and that makes you more nervous, which is not good for fire. We're trying to calm everything down. In through your nose, out through your mouth…."

It was the most exhausting fifteen minutes Suyin had ever breathed. She wasn't sure what was more impressive; that Lee kept nudging Jinhai back to work without ever losing his temper-

Or that the candles never wavered, keeping Lee's rhythm.

"This is hard," Jinhai complained, breathless.

"Yes, it is." A swift exhalation, and all the candles went out at once. "Ask your father what it takes to learn earthbending as well as he has. This is hard. And it takes time to learn." Lee stood and stretched, then dropped back into a crouch to look Jinhai in the eye. "But you want to make sure no one gets burned again, right?"

"…Yeah." Jinhai stretched out his legs, and slid a glance at Lee's face, curious and a little scared. "Is that what happened to you?"

For a moment, Lee went very still. Let out a slow, controlled breath. "That's… complicated. Grownup stuff." He looked into the distance, seeing somewhere else. "Firebenders can get focused on a goal and not think things through. Sometimes that's a good thing. A lot of times, though, it can get you in really big trouble." Lee smiled wryly. "That's one of the reasons we meditate. So you can clear all the noise out of your head, and think. Because fire doesn't want to think. It attacks. It burns. It's never patient. So you have to think twice as hard, to stay out of trouble." His smile gentled. "That's one of the reasons we love our parents so much. If the fire gets too hot, they pick us up by the scruff of the neck and haul us back."

"Because firebenders are bad," Jinhai whispered, eyes downcast.

"Who told you-?" Lee's eyes went hard for a moment. He shook it off. Traded a glance with Suyin's parents, who looked both angry and stricken, Meixiang's hand covering her mouth.

"You're not bad," Suyin said firmly. "You're my little brother. You just don't know what you're doing yet. Remember Mom's stories about Min on the roof when he was little? He got up there and started bending the tiles all over the place. It took Dad hours to put everything back."

"But he was scared of me." Jinhai's eyes were wet; she could see him holding back a sniffle.

"I don't like boulders flying my way, either," Lee said dryly. "He'll learn to live with it."

Jinhai did sniffle, and Suyin held back a sigh. Sure, her little brother had reasons to be upset, but this wasn't going to help!

"Want to see something neat?" Lee offered, pinching a candle back to life. "You know, there's a reason Amaya's teaching me."

Halfway to crying, Jinhai looked at him suspiciously. Blinked, and almost backed into Suyin, as Lee's circling hands blazed candle-flame to gold and green that wreathed his hands like-

Like Amaya's water, Suyin realized, stunned.

"You can touch this," Lee said quietly, glancing at them both. "It doesn't burn."

Spellbound, she reached out with Jinhai.

It was warm.

It tickled a little, like Amaya's water; poking at her to see if anything needed fixing. Beyond that it didn't feel like anything, except snuggling up in blankets on a cold morning. Just - warm. "You're a healer," Suyin blurted out. "How? I never heard of-" She cut herself off, not wanting to fill Jinhai's ears with what she had heard.

"My mother had a secret," Lee admitted. "I didn't figure it out until a few weeks ago." He let the fire flicker back to the candle, fading to ordinary hot yellow. "Fire's not bad, Jinhai. It's what you do with it that matters." He stood, and waved them both up. "Now, we work on falling."

Professor Tingzhe coughed quietly. "I believe you were going to cover dousing fire?"

"I am," Lee stated. "It's connected. You shift how you fall, so you don't get hurt. And that's part of how you shift a flame's energy, so it goes out."

"A bit counterintuitive," Tingzhe mused. "I'm used to impact being used to break things… though I suppose this would be breaking a fire's energies." He inclined his head.

Lee nodded back, and glanced at the two younger children. "Like this. Watch." Quick as that, he tipped over onto the futon, landing with a soft thump before he curled back onto his feet, light as a cat-owl. "See?"

Jinhai stared. "Erk?" Suyin managed.

"Don't worry. I'm here to catch you."

Over and over they fell, until Suyin thought she was too breathless to move. But she wasn't, quite; Lee had her fall twice more, before nodding her off the futon, and sitting Jinhai down by the candle. "Now we try the tricky part. Breathe. Feel your heartbeat." He waited for her brother's shy nod. "Reach out. Not with your hands, with your feelings. Reach for the flame. It's like a little heartbeat. Feel it?"

"Wow," Jinhai breathed.

This, I can't do, Suyin thought wistfully, watching. Had the flame flickered when Jinhai focused on it? She couldn't be sure.

"Do what I do." Lee reached out a hand, holding it flat and level. Jinhai mimicked him, glancing at Lee's calm face. "Now," Lee said quietly, "Push down. Just like pushing your fall into the futon, so it doesn't hurt. Down, and out."

"But it's alive!" Jinhai dropped his hand, horrified. "No! I won't hurt it-"

"Jinhai!" Lee's voice didn't snap, but it cut through panic like a knife. "You can always light another fire."

"B-but-"

"Fire is everywhere. Lamps. Candles. Stoves. All kinds of places. There are lots of fires. But you only have one Mom. One Dad. Jia, Min, Suyin - they can't stop a fire if it gets out of control! You can. You have to." Lee stared at her little brother, deadly serious. "I know it hurts. I know you don't want to. But that's what being responsible is. Sometimes, we have to do things we don't want to, because our family needs us." He rested a hand on Jinhai's shoulder. "Do you understand?"

"…I guess so," Jinhai whispered.

"Good. Now follow me." Lee held out his hand again. "Down… and out."

The flame flickered. Guttered. Snuffed, a wisp of gray smoke snaking upward.

Jinhai burst into tears.

"Good," Lee said firmly. Glanced up, and beckoned Meixiang over anxiously. "That's good, Jinhai. That's just what you needed to do." He backed off, letting a worried mother gather up her son and tell him how brave and smart he was. Leaned back against a cellar wall, running a shaking hand through damp black hair. "Oh, am I glad that's over…."

Suyin didn't grab Lee by the throat, but she glared hard enough to clue him in that she wanted to. "Professor" Dad was looming up behind her, and that was enough to scare any teenage boy with sense. "Why's my brother crying?"

"It hurts to stop a fire." Lee looked between them both, tired and serious. "Part of it's the bending. Your energy's in the flame, and when you start out, you can't pull it back fast enough not to hurt. But part of it's… spirits. We love fire, Suyin. Killing it's like - like cutting yourself open. It feels wrong." He took a deep breath, let it out. "But we all learn to put fires out. We have to."

Tingzhe studied him a long moment, and nodded. "Can you come again tomorrow?"

"I already asked Master Amaya," Lee stated. "Yes."

"And it is real pain?" Tingzhe raised a gray brow.

Lee winced, and snatched the candle off the floor. "Sorry… I'm not used to being able to help - hold this?"

Startled, Suyin gripped the re-lit candle, bringing it over as Lee stroked that odd fire over Jinhai, dimming sobs to hiccups. "You know what really helps?" Lee said, fire flickering out. "We should go get some sunlight."

 

Chapter Text

"Is that normal?" Meixiang asked quietly.

Zuko watched Jinhai sleep in a curled lump in Meixiang's small garden, breathing easily. "Fire's not like the other elements. It comes from inside you. You have to build up your strength. My bending showed up late, too. I needed a lot of naps." Which had made him very cranky. Naps were for little kids. Thank the spirits his mother had a sense of humor.

He glanced over the faces of two worried parents, and a sister whose protective bearing reminded him so much of Lu Ten, it hurt. "One good thing about being a firebender. We don't sunburn easily." Which had been lifesaving when they'd been floating on the raft with little shelter-

"I guess that's another thing you have to watch out for," Zuko sighed. So many little details. So many ways to get caught.

And that's when someone's not looking for Fire Nation. I have to tell them.

"I meant to get here earlier," Zuko said levelly. "I wasn't, because I had to lose someone." He held up a hand. "Goes by Jet. He's about this tall. Messy brown hair, brown eyes. Hook swords. Chews on a wheat straw, all the time. He saw my uncle and I on the ferry to Ba Sing Se, and he's sure we're firebenders. Well, that Uncle is," Zuko amended. "I've pretty much got him convinced I'm a waterbender."

"How?" Suyin asked, while her parents were still sputtering.

"We were in a teashop. I hit him with a bunch of hot water," Zuko answered, sheepishly avoiding parts of the truth. "Healing means moving fire in ways most benders don't try. I can move fire inside hot water. It's kind of neat."

"Inventive," Tingzhe said, stunned, as Meixiang stared at him. "Have you tried this with anything else? Earth, perhaps?"

"Not yet," Zuko managed, shaken by the sudden possibilities. "Sand might work… it works in water because water flows, like heat…."

Air flows, too.

Agni. I've got to try it.

Just once, just once, he'd like Aang to know what it felt like to be blown through a building. A little humility would lengthen the Avatar's lifespan.

"Thank you," Zuko said, and meant it. "I'll try that. Later. But you have to watch out for this moron. He's dangerous. Uncle's been acting like an old civilian, and Jet still went after him. If he thought he knew about Jinhai…." Zuko looked Suyin in the eye, deadly serious. "He doesn't care who he hurts, to get back at the Fire Nation. Don't face him. Just run."

"But you did lose him?" Meixiang asked, visibly reining in fear with determination.

"I've had practice," Zuko admitted. "Now that I know he's still looking, I'll be more careful. I won't lead him to you." He met her gaze squarely. "Can you warn people? Huojin already knows about Jet, and I'm going to tell Amaya, but I want to make sure everyone gets word."

"I will." Meixiang inclined her head, almost a bow.

Zuko winced. "Don't do that. Please."

She eyed him, one black brow lifted. "My lord, even if you chose to leave, you can't abandon what you were born-"

"I didn't choose to leave!" Say it. Just- get it out. "I'm an exile, Meixiang. I was banished." Fists clenched, nails denting skin. No fire. Not here. "If you want a lord, look for someone with honor." I lost mine. Lost everything….

But I won't let you lose what you love. I can do that much. I will.

"You lost an Agni Kai," Meixiang said at last.

Obvious, isn't it? "I didn't even fight," Zuko got out. "How could I? He was-" my father "-someone I owed loyalty to. I couldn't."

"An Agni what?" Tingzhe asked warily.

"A fire duel," Meixiang said plainly. "We're children of dragons, Tingzhe. Sometimes the only way to settle things is with a fight."

"And the Fire Nation calls itself civilized?" her husband said incredulously. "When we have disagreements here-"

"You argue, and shout at each other, and start whispering campaigns that can go on for generations?" Meixiang said pointedly. "When an Agni Kai's over, it's over. Decided. Done. And everyone's loyalty is satisfied. You've risked your life for what you believe is right. No lord can ask for more than that." She looked back at Zuko. "But you couldn't have been more than a child."

"I was thirteen." He couldn't help but glance at Suyin. "That's old enough."

The girl swallowed dryly. "Is - is that why you're training me?"

"No," Zuko said, incredulous. How could she even think - Earth Kingdom. She doesn't know. "That's self-defense. You have to be a firebender for an Agni Kai. Honor duels for non-benders are blade fights. I mean, you could learn swords, if you wanted to." He caught Tingzhe's stern look, and tried to shrug. "I know, spears and throwing knives are more traditional, but I'm lousy with them…."

Tingzhe's eyes darkened further. The earthbender cracked his knuckles.

"Don't threaten him just for the truth, love," Meixiang said, amused. "Dragon's children. But we don't have fangs and claws. We have to settle for steel and fire." She eyed Zuko again. "But thirteen? What happened?"

Zuko froze. I can't tell them. I can't.

He'd never told anyone about that day. Not even Uncle. And Iroh had been there.

She's got this crazy idea I'm still a lord. I can't let her believe that. We're going to make it so they can get out of the city. If she wants someone to be loyal to… she has to find someone better.

I have to tell her something.

"I should have listened to Uncle, and kept my mouth shut," Zuko said at last. "I should have stayed out of the war room. But I thought I had responsibilities to learn about… it was a bad idea." He took a breath, trying not to feel. "One of the gen- one of the commanders was planning to gain a tactical advantage by sending new recruits up against trained earthbenders. To lure them out into the open. I said we couldn't do that to our people." He would not touch the scar. "He challenged. I should have backed down. But I wasn't afraid. Not of him." Zuko tried to shrug, and failed. "I can be really, really stupid, sometimes."

"Yes, well," Tingzhe said uncomfortably. "You can't always judge a bender's skill by his looks."

"No." A bare whisper, but Zuko got it out. "No, when I turned around… it wasn't him." Don't shake. Not now. It's over. It's been over for years.

"That's dishonorable!" Meixiang's own hands were fists, white-knuckled. "Your family should have blocked the duel from proceeding! They should have protested, even to the Fire Lord's ears-"

It wasn't funny. Not even close. So why was he laughing? Laughing to the point it hurt, and he had to lean against the house wall, tears running down his face.

Don't wake up Jinhai. He shouldn't see this.

Dragging in a sobbing breath, Zuko shoved the pain back into that dark corner of his mind. "It wouldn't have worked," he managed raggedly. "The Fire Lord has a thing about respect."

Dashing away tears, he straightened. "Uncle took care of me after - after. So I didn't die. The first day I could get out of bed-" He remembered the crinkle of the decree in Azula's hands. Her smirk, knowing and cruel, as he read through the terms. Uncle's face, finding her there; a grim puzzlement that changed to cold fury as she skipped away down the hall, humming.

Don't think about it.

"Uncle went with me," Zuko said simply. "He didn't have to. He's never been banished. I'd be dead a dozen times without him." He looked at Meixiang, and shook his head. "Find someone else."

Put the pain away. Focus. Survive.

Outwardly calm, Zuko bowed to the professor. "I promised Master Amaya I'd be at the clinic for the evening hours. I'll be back tomorrow."

He headed out through the house, and didn't look back.

-------

He looks like death warmed over.

Amaya steered her dazed apprentice out of the waiting room, past curious patients. "Where are you hurt?" she asked in an undertone.

"I'm not injured." Lee bristled at her look of disbelief; even his irritation looked weary. "Just tired. Jinhai's parents had questions. Some of them were hard to answer. I ran into Jet again, he's still after Uncle; lost him in an alley, hope he starts thinking before I have to hurt him. And - one of the people around Bosco loaned me this." Face almost blank, he handed over a blue-capped scroll.

A waterbending scroll.

"I'm not injured," he repeated flatly, as she glanced up at him. He swallowed, fingers clenching. "I can work."

I don't want to think, Amaya could all but hear the silent plea. Please, give me something to do.

"Start with Nin," she sighed. "He's managed to twist his back again. You'll work on minor healing, and you'll stop when I say."

A subdued nod. "Yes, Master Amaya."

This is going to be a long afternoon.

-------

So this is what we've got to work with.

Disguised in civilian clothes, rock gloves tucked up his sleeves, Shirong watched the class of university earthbending students in their stone-walled practice yard. Most were fair. A few were excellent, the kind who'd end up specialists on the Wall or architects and delicate stoneworkers in the city itself. But of all the students here, only one had the drive, the killer instinct, to potentially become Dai Li.

Min Wen.

Paired against an older teenager, Min split his wall of stone with a slice of his hand and punched the fragment against his opponent. The older boy stamped another wall up in time to take the blow, but both rocks shattered.

Skill is there. And he's fast enough. We could certainly train him to our level.

But to be honest with himself - and having seen the spirits he'd seen, Shirong tried very hard to be honest with himself - it wasn't earthbending skill that worried him.

Professor Wen's son.

Problematic, right there. Tingzhe Wen certainly acted like a man still living in Avatar Kyoshi's era, but there was nothing wrong with the man's mind. He knew enough to know what he shouldn't talk about, but some of his students hadn't been so wise.

A good teacher loved his students, and Tingzhe Wen was a very good teacher. One day that might outweigh his prudence. Could Min Wen deal with being one of those who might have to make his own father disappear?

And if he can - do we want that kind of recruit?

There were other reasons to be wary of the boy. Harder for Shirong to pin down, but real nonetheless.

He's too eager.

Burning with zeal, like a flame loosed on flash-paper. If the Dai Li weren't all he'd dreamed, if the hard reality of their dirty work to keep Ba Sing Se stable fell short of what Min aspired to… who could say he wouldn't be as quick to turn that zeal toward something else?

Still. Feelings, no matter how trained and tested, weren't reason enough to deny the boy a chance. They needed new recruits. Or Quan and the Grand Secretariat wouldn't even consider Lee.

And that would be a damn shame.

Min Wen had never faced death. Lee had, and dealt it; you could see it in his eyes, whenever the young man forgot to play innocent. Yet Lee still cared about people. Even if he thought most of them were flighty and annoying.

Frankly, the Earth King was flighty and annoying. But he was the hereditary ruler of Ba Sing Se, Shirong had a duty, and that was that.

Another point in his favor. Lee understands duty.

Duty or not, Shirong would never have wanted to do that to Bosco. Lee had hesitated, examined the bear to see if there were any other way to get at the obstruction short of cutting the creature open… then grimaced, and did what had to be done.

I like him.

Shirong raised an eyebrow at that thought, turning it over carefully. He'd survived two decades in the Dai Li's ranks. You didn't last that long without paying attention to the chill down your neck that told you when spirits were about to drop the mother of all landslides on top of you.

Lee felt… warm. Strong. Safe, in the way wearing his rock gloves and working with a tested agent felt safe.

If we were backed against a wall, he'd fight.

Though all things considered, the healing was an even more critical asset. Every year the Avatar had been missing, the spirits had grown more ill-tempered; more ready to lash out at humans for the smallest infraction. That wasn't superstition, it was fact. You could track the increasing assaults in Dai Li records, the lists of people gone fey and strange-

Lee's fought a spirit.

If he'd been alone, Shirong might have indulged in a smack to the forehead. As it was he only winced, and wondered why he hadn't pinned that down before.

He was playing innocent. Pretty well, too.

But it was clear enough, once Shirong had pinned down that feeling of safety and strength. People who'd met the spirit world, who'd dealt with it - there was a presence to them. A feeling of elsewhere, that went beyond even the strength of a bender.

It's not just our uniform that frightens people.

No wonder Lee could look him in the eye without flinching. The otherness was already in him, setting him apart from those who lived quiet, ordinary lives.

You poor kid. I hope you do make it with us. You're never going to fit in with normal people again.

Though healer was a good second choice. Amaya was spirit-touched, too. No one expected a waterbending healer to be normal.

Wonder if you've figured that out yet?

If Lee hadn't, Shirong might just point it out to him. If he really wasn't interested in being Dai Li. A waterbending healer on call was no small asset.

Decided, Shirong turned his full attention back to Min as the teen almost literally crushed his next opponent under a mini-pile of rubble. Ouch.

Which was when four bruised and dusty former opponents all decided they'd had enough, and literally boxed Min in.

Tch, tch. You forgot the top.

A fact Min made swift use of, soaring up on a spike of earth before kicking the four walls back to their creators. But now more students were advancing, plus one of the instructors….

Grinning, Shirong leaned back to watch the show.

-------

Dad's in his study, Min's still eating dust at school, Jia's got Jinhai on pain of no nights out with her girlfriends if she lets him down here while Mom's cooking. Best chance I'm going to get. "Mom?" Suyin said quietly, standing at the edge of the kitchen as her mother chopped vegetables. "What did Lee mean about finding another lord?"

It was the best question she could think of. The only one, about that whole awful scene in the garden, that wouldn't just get a "you're too young to know" from her parents. She hoped.

Meixiang looked at her sadly, the way she'd looked after Lee had fled. Her brows drew down, and she nodded, determined. "Would you peel the potato-chokes?"

"Yes, ma'am," Suyin said hurriedly, picking up a bristle-brush to scrub the pot of tubers. Studying each before it went under her brush, putting aside three that had enough sprouts to be worth planting. 'Choke flowers were pretty, and fresh young tubers in the fall, with a little butter, were about the best breakfast ever.

"I don't want to tell Jinhai about this until he's older," her mother began. "He can keep training a secret, I hope, but stories of spirits and dragons… well, what child is going to keep that from his playmates? But you're old enough to know."

"What do lords have to do with spirits and dragons?" Suyin asked, still scrubbing.

"Oma and Shu were the first earthbenders, but they were human. It's said the first firebenders were the children of a bright, brave lady, who appeared to her lord when he was on the brink of death, and the sun shone through the rain. She nursed him back to life, fought by his side, and raised their children." Meixiang paused. "And when her lord died, she turned back into a dragon, and flew away."

The 'choke didn't quite slip out of Suyin's hands, but she was glad she hadn't yet picked up a knife. "She was a dragon?"

"Not the only one in our history," Meixiang said plainly. "Many of our greatest heroes, and blackest villains, are said to have had dragon's blood. You can check the genealogies. There are names that come from nowhere, raise children, and vanish. Vanish, not die." She paused, and shook her head. "Or you could have checked them. Fire Lord Sozin outlawed all mention of such people, when he started the hunting of dragons."

Made sense. In a weird kind of way. You wouldn't want to try to get people to hunt down their… relatives. "Do we have-?" Suyin couldn't quite say it.

"We do," her mother nodded. "Your little brother would be proof enough, if I hadn't heard my grandfather's stories." Meixiang regarded her, concerned. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. But it makes us different. We need lords. Dragons… they don't negotiate. One dragon is in charge of one territory, and all the others who live there bow to him. Or her. Or there's a fight, until the loser leaves or submits. Or so the tales say."

Like the pygmy pumas Suyin had watched on the roofs sometimes, snarling and posturing and, once in a while, dissolving into teeth and claws. Which might draw blood, but usually didn't kill anybody.

Like an Agni Kai?

"So," Suyin said, trying to piece it together. "If there weren't lords - people would be fighting all the time?"

"My grandfather read stories written by his several times great-grandfather, about a time when the Fire Nation was all warring clans and pirates," Meixiang nodded. "Ask your father about it. He knows more about the reign of the forty-sixth Earth King than any of us."

Good idea. "But you don't have to fight anybody," Suyin objected.

Meixiang hesitated, and sighed. "Suyin. Do you know why Jinhai - your quiet, shy little brother - hugged a boy he'd only seen once?"

"Well, I…." Suyin's voice trailed off, as she thought about that. It made sense. Didn't it? Why wouldn't Jinhai trust Lee? Lee was-

Suyin jerked her head up to meet her mother's gaze. "Lee feels… safe." And that didn't make sense. It didn't make sense at all.

"Oh," Meixiang whispered. Put her knife down, and reached over to hug her daughter close. "Oh, my brave little girl. I didn't know."

"Mom?" Why did her heart feel all fluttery, like this was scary and important as Mom telling her about being alone with boys and why not to do anything unless you had dragged him home to meet armed parents first?

"The strongest dragon rules, but he also protects." Meixiang's gaze searched hers. "Fire is loyal. All its children are. First to your parents, and then to your family. After that, your loyalty is your choice. Be careful who you give it to. Breaking it will break your heart." She looked down, pale and worried. "For a firebender… breaking it kills them."

That sounds crazy. But it wasn't. Suyin could feel it wasn't. She'd rather die than hurt her parents, her brothers, her sister. Wasn't that why she'd fought so hard to keep Jinhai hidden? She'd rather die-

Or kill.

The thought had been there, gnawing, ever since Lee told them about Jet. That's what a pygmy puma did, when something went after her kittens. She'd hiss and slash claws and try everything else first. But if that didn't work….

"Mommy," Suyin whispered, and clung to her.

"I know, sweeting. I know." Meixiang rocked her gently, stroking her hair. "That's why I want you to pay attention to your lessons with Lee. Because if some bastard comes after you, or any of us - I want you to be the one who walks away. Maim him if you have to. Kill him if you have to. Live." Another hug. "And remember what I told Jinhai. If there's trouble, real trouble - find Lee, or his uncle. They're great names. They will protect you."

"Lee's lord didn't protect him," Suyin sniffled.

"That should never have happened," Meixiang said sadly. "The good lords are loyal to their people, even children not old enough to-" She froze.

"Mom?" Suyin whispered.

"Oh, spirits," Meixiang breathed. "That poor boy. No wonder he doesn't think he's…." She let out a slow breath, and let go. "Suyin, can you finish these? I need to talk with your father."

Suyin nodded. "About Lee?"

"About something I hoped I'd never have to study again," Meixiang said, half to herself. "Politics."

-------

The knock on his door wasn't unexpected. Just a bit early. Tingzhe sighed, and put down a mostly untouched glass of wine. "Come in."

Meixiang saw what he had spread out on the desk, and closed the door before she shook her head. "You know what they could do to you, if they catch you with those."

"Bai's gone," Tingzhe said sadly, ruffling through his former student's notes. "This is all I have left of him." He shrugged, and offered her a wry smile. "Besides. Everyone knows I have no interest in current events. Why would anything like these be here?"

"You sly deceiver." Meixiang's smile lit her face, warming his heart all over again. "I'd match you against the Face-Stealer any day."

"I hope not," Tingzhe chuckled. Let his expression turn serious again. "What is it?"

"Lee's Agni Kai." Meixiang winced. "It was his father."

Ah. That fit, unfortunately. "How do you know?"

"He was thirteen. He couldn't owe loyalty to anyone but his family. His uncle's here. And the way he talks about his mother? It couldn't have been her."

Spirits, that possibility hadn't even occurred to him. What sort of land taught mothers to fight?

The kind that maims and exiles a boy at thirteen.

No. He couldn't blame the land for that. The Fire Lord, certainly.

I wonder if Lee ever has.

Meixiang was frowning at him, tapping a finger against her hip. "You're not surprised."

That was his wife. Clear-sighted as a messenger hawk. "I believe I know who he is," Tingzhe said simply.

Meixiang looked at the wine he ordinarily wouldn't touch until after dinner. "It's that bad?"

"No," Tingzhe said thoughtfully, "it's worse." He sighed. "Mind you, this is only an educated guess. The circumstances under which the boy in question was scarred were apparently not common knowledge. But the timing fits. Unless the Fire Lord banished some other great name's son that year, and Bai never had a chance to find out. This is one of the last fragments he found, before… well." Still. That laughter. Awful, soul-shredding; as if the boy had only just realized how obscenely unjust the universe had been.

"Tingzhe." Meixiang gave him a sober look. "Why don't you just tell me?"

"Because you can't not know, once you know," Tingzhe said bluntly. Hesitated, and told the truth. "And… I don't know what will happen. You called him my lord." He dropped his head, ashamed. "I don't want to lose you."

"Oh, Tingzhe." She took his hands between hers, kneading earth-worn fingers. "I'm your wife. You and the children always come first." She gave him a smile of quiet mischief. "Why do you think we train girls to fight? So when husbands or brothers do something stupid, they can protect the children. No matter what their lords do." Her voice dropped. "I love you. No lord can change that."

I love you, too. I have to trust you. "Not even this one?"

Meixiang read Bai's notes. Stopped. Reread them, slowly.

Reached past him, and slugged good wine down like water.

"Precisely," Tingzhe said dryly.

She let out a slow breath. "He said he was here with his uncle."

"If Bai was right, he only has the one," Tingzhe said wryly. "I must admit, the thought of that man inside these walls turns my spine to water. What on earth is he planning?"

"He's not," Meixiang said after a long moment. "They're hiding. Just like the rest of us."

Tingzhe gave her a skeptical look.

"They came to Amaya, love. A man in his position… he wouldn't be here if there were any hope left for them in the Fire Nation."

"A man in his position is far more likely to be carrying out a long-reaching plot-"

"Here? Alone? With only Lee? Hiding with a waterbender's help?" Meixiang studied him, and shook her head. "What's more likely? A plot? Or a man trying to save his nephew by coming to the only place in the world they can hide?"

Tingzhe sighed. "Lee said he'd done things he wasn't proud of." The commander of the ship, indeed. "It's only…how can that man's son be the young man we let into our home?" He was gentle with Jinhai. Kind. Not an implacable enemy. Not a monster. "How could any man do that to his own son?"

"We could ask his brother."

Tingzhe eyed his wife suspiciously. "You're not serious."

"Why not?" Meixiang looked almost impish. "We're having Huojin, Luli, and their girls over next week anyway. Why not invite them, too? Lee will be busy with Jinhai and Suyin, and Lim and Daiyu, and probably fending off Jia, and getting glared at by Min. We'll have plenty of time to corner his uncle and… talk."

"I'd rather corner an enraged dillo-lion," Tingzhe muttered.

"That's why we need to plan this, dear."

"Ah, yes. A plan." Tingzhe nodded. "I'm doomed."

-------

"Here." Amaya set a steaming cup in front of her apprentice, grateful for the quiet as the last regular patients walked away from her door. She'd unlock the front if there was an emergency, but for now, they were alone. "I know you're not fond of tea, and this is good for someone who's had a bad day."

Lee sniffed it first. Brightened a little, like a shaft of sun through rain, before taking a hot sip. "You have limons?"

"Some trade goes through, even these days," Amaya nodded, relaxing a little. Honey and limon in hot water eased a multitude of heartaches. "They're one thing I would miss, if I ever lost my mind and went back to the tribe."

"You don't miss your people?"

"I do," Amaya admitted. "But for decades they've been waiting for something that never happened." The Avatar to be born into the Northern Water Tribe.

It was a reasonable assumption. The Air Nomads were dead, and no one had seen the Avatar. Why shouldn't he have been killed, and reborn? She'd seen the shamans of her tribe testing child after child, to no avail.

She was a bender, and a woman, and not the Avatar. Meaning her parents would likely accept her betrothal to the first strong bender who offered. Master Pakku had been on their list of candidates; he'd been mourning Kanna as lost for years, surely he was ready to look for another bride.

But that hadn't been quite enough to push her into leaving. No; that decision had come from what she'd overheard, inadvertently eavesdropping on one of the shaman's tests.

Find the Avatar. Train him.

Destroy the Fire Nation.

Defeat the Fire Nation, certainly. But destroy it? Break the cycle of elements further, just for revenge? She wouldn't be part of that. She couldn't. There had to be another way.

"I miss them," Amaya admitted now. "But I needed an answer I couldn't find at the North Pole. So I left." She smiled, recalling a giant webbed claw, a face both kind and terrible. "The answer I found gave me many more questions, but it's made my life interesting." She tapped the scroll. "As is this. It must be at least two centuries old… you say a Dai Li gave it to you?"

"Loaned it," Lee stressed. "I think he's trying to recruit me."

Amaya considered that impossible statement. Shook her head. Thought it through again. "Spirits. Why?"

"I don't know. I'm going to ask Uncle." Lee frowned. "I told him I'd need your permission to learn what's on here." He paused. "Are you going to try the forms? He said your tribe doesn't teach women benders to fight, which is one of the silliest things I've ever- um." He visibly bit his lip. "What I mean is, I don't know waterbending, but I know combat forms. I could help. If you wanted."

Amaya's brows climbed, taking in those shy hints of interest. "You want to try these." Which made no sense, except- "You think you could approximate the forms with boiling water?"

"…Maybe?" Lee said awkwardly.

Hmm. Not all the truth. But there was life in his gaze, where before there had been weary horror.

Decided, Amaya unrolled the scroll. "Let's have a look." Hmm. The water whip, circling waves, breath of ice-

"You have a breathing form?" Lee looked downright interested.

"Not one I think you could fake," Amaya pointed out.

"Not with firebending," Lee admitted. "But I wonder if that's what gave Uncle the idea."

"What idea?" Amaya asked warily. Mushi was a good man, from what she'd seen. Not bad looking, either, if a bit pale. But given his ideas had already landed a healing firebender in her clinic- well.

Lee got up from the table, took a few steps back. Breathed deep. And breathed out licks of flame.

Amaya tried not to stare.

"It's good for staying warm," Lee said shyly. "Or if a waterbender locks you in ice. That's happened to me."

Amaya whistled. "I've never heard of firebenders doing that." Much the opposite. Icing over a firebender was lethal. Or so she'd been taught.

"Uncle invented it," Lee said proudly. "He-" The teenager blanched.

Amaya frowned, then realized the likely cause. "That would give away who you are, to another firebender?"

"…Maybe." Lee looked stricken.

"Lee." She tried not to chuckle. Really. "There can't be that many great names out there who've been declared - what was the term your uncle used, traitors to the Dragon Throne? If I wanted to learn who you were, I probably could." Amaya gave him a serious look. "But I won't. That is your secret, and I will not take it from you." You've lost so much already. "You are my apprentice. You're safe with me. I promise."

Lee just looked at her, wary green eyes enough to break her heart.

He wants to believe me. But he should have been safe with his sister, too.

"Though I admit, it is interesting to know ingenuity runs in the family," Amaya said lightly. She spread out the scroll again. "Which of these should we try?"

-------

"I appreciate the company, nephew," Iroh said warmly, folding his apron before bowing to his employer. Pao might be cranky and a bit cheap, but he'd defended a mere employee from Dai Li interest, and that was no small thing. "But a young man might like some time to himself in the evening, with so many lovely girls in the neighborhood-"

"Jet's around. Somewhere," Zuko said grimly.

"That insane boy?" the teashop owner bleated. "Again?"

"I lost him in the Middle Ring." Zuko shrugged. "Tried to talk him down, but I don't think he's listening."

"He'll listen to the clink of handcuffs, if I see him!" Pao fumed. "Reckless, destructive… cost good money to replace that table, and the door-!"

"You're very thoughtful. Good night!" Iroh said cheerfully. And ushered Zuko out the door before the man could remember the other half of that destruction.

Yes, it is a very good thing Zuko is not working here.

Though perhaps a shame, in a way. There were quite a few pretty girls his nephew's age who stopped in for afternoon tea.

Ah well. His nephew's nerves were stretched taut as it was. Perhaps this was not the best time to try to prod Zuko toward anything as normal as a date.

Wait a few weeks, Iroh decided. Let him grow accustomed to the city, and its people. Tread gently. At least until we've dealt with this Jet boy, one way or another.

Oh Agni, he could all too easily see how that could become a disaster. A vindictive teenager, a young lady who might know no better than to dodge into a blade's path, and his overprotective nephew - well.

No. Better not to shove Zuko into that aspect of normal life. Not yet.

"So how was your day?" Iroh asked as they headed home. Though part of it was written on his nephew's face. Even another duel with Jet should not have left his nephew so worn.

Surprisingly, Zuko gave him a smile. "Master Amaya and I are working on a water wall."

"Truly?" Iroh raised an intrigued brow. "I had thought the Northern waterbenders did not teach women skills beyond healing." Unlike the Southern Water Tribe. Now, those folk knew how to fight.

I wish I could have done more to save them.

Yet he'd still been loyal to Azulon then, and fighting generals of the Earth Kingdom. The South Pole raids were not in his theater of operations. Once he'd learned of the White Lotus, and its goals, he had been able to arrange for contacts to spirit a few of the survivors from prison. So long as it was made clear their efforts in the war were over.

A few. Painfully few.

You did what you could, and what was wise for your people, Iroh told himself. If Lu Ten had not died-

No. Better not to torment himself with such thoughts.

"They don't," Zuko was saying, "but she's figured out a few things. And I've seen some of the moves on the scroll in action. So we're working on it. It's not real impressive yet."

"What scroll?" Iroh asked, curious.

"Tell you when we get to the apartment." Zuko glanced warily around at the street crowds. "It's been an… interesting day."

Oh dear.

Some time later, Iroh eyed his nephew over what was supposed to be a cup of soothing tea. Not that he could blame the blend for failing. It obviously had not been created with his nephew's gift for havoc in mind. "An interesting day."

Having just recounted a tale of bears, Dai Li, vengeful teens, and confused young firebenders, Zuko shrugged.

"Stay wary with the Dai Li," Iroh advised. "Your caution is an ally and a shield. They will expect a refugee to be more nervous than one born here, and more prepared to hear the worst of the rumors about their actions. If Shirong is clever enough to approach you with care, he is unlikely to change his tactics swiftly."

"But why do they want a waterbender at all?" Zuko said warily.

"If you felt you could trust a waterbender, one born in the Fire Nation, would you not wish them among your forces?" Iroh gave him a pointed look.

"Oh." Zuko winced. "I should have thought of that. It's just, most people in the Fire Nation…."

By which you mean my brother, Iroh thought sadly. Reconsidered. And the Fire Sages, and those generals not retired, dead, or fled, and the nobles… well, most is fair enough. "Experience, tactics, and logistics are crucial to winning battles," Iroh stated. "But when those factors are equal, it is the general who can make use of the unexpected who may win the day."

"Don't tell me Sokka's going to be a great general someday," Zuko grumbled.

Now there was a terrifying thought. "Not unless he learns to master his own resources, as well as the Avatar's," Iroh said dryly. "At the moment, most of his offensive capability could be neutralized by… oh, a pretty girl like Ty Lee walking up to the young airbender with an innocent smile."

"You really think he's naïve enough to fall for that?" Zuko said skeptically.

Uncle and nephew stared at each other, then nodded in unison.

"Why didn't I think of that?" Zuko lamented, hands spread to the skies.

"Perhaps because those trained in chi-blocking are not permitted to travel outside the Fire Nation?" Iroh suggested mildly. "We do not wish to risk other nations gaining the technique. Out of compassion for its users, if nothing else. I know what unscrupulous generals of the Earth Kingdom - Fong comes to mind - would be willing to do to gain such knowledge." Physical torture of chi-blockers would be the least of it. "And there is the difficulty of getting such an agent close enough to an airbender to begin with."

"Yeah, but if you could, he'd be toast," Zuko muttered. "Even if they missed enough that he could still move… without bending, he's just a skinny kid with a staff. He has no combat training. None of them do, master benders or not-" Zuko froze. And swore under his breath; something he had to have picked up from their crew. "Azula's got Ty Lee with her."

"You do not know that," Iroh cautioned.

"I know Azula." Zuko's eyes narrowed, grim. "She'd get away with it. They ran from her, Uncle. Why else would they let her chase them into making stupid mistakes? A tank's not a small target. They could have frozen it. Or swallowed it in rock. They didn't. They ran. They were afraid." His voice dropped. "There's only one thing that scares a bender that much."

"Amaya told me," Iroh said heavily. "I am sorry, nephew. I am so, so sorry I did not know…."

Zuko was smiling at him. Ruefully, but a smile. "It's not as bad as you think, Uncle. Ty Lee's loyal to Azula… but Azula always said it was training. So Ty Lee could help. Sometimes."

Iroh raised a skeptical brow.

"I learned how to dodge. Some of it, anyway." Still that wry, wistful smile. "If I don't see her coming, she can get my bending. But I can move fast enough that she doesn't put me all the way down. Most of the time."

"And so, the swords," Iroh realized.

Zuko nodded.

"Well done," Iroh said with quiet pride.

Tired as he was, Zuko still sat straighter.

"Though I am curious to know why you chose that path, rather than enlist aid," Iroh said, very carefully.

"Didn't want Azula to try smothering me in my sleep again," Zuko shrugged. "At least with Ty Lee doing it, I was pretty sure I'd still be breathing afterward."

The teacup shattered.

"…You're bleeding." Zuko pulled flame from the lamp, searing out pottery dust to leave whole skin behind.

Would that my heart healed as easily. "You told your parents of this?"

"Mom told her it was wrong." Zuko kept his voice quiet. Level. "So she went to Father, and told him what horrible lies I was telling to get her in trouble. He said that was unworthy of a great name's son. And he smiled at her." He looked aside, into memory. "She smiled just like that, at Grandfather's funeral." Zuko swallowed. "Can we not talk about her? She's not here, and Jet is, and arguing with him doesn't work. What do I do, tie him up and drop him down a well?"

"It is tempting," Iroh acknowledged, setting the anger aside. Time enough for fury later, when Zuko would be sure it was not aimed at him. "I can only say, do as you think best at the time." He smiled wryly. "And I am working in a teashop, nephew. Should he be so rude twice - I am certain, given your example, I can improvise."

Zuko nodded, reluctantly satisfied.

"Perhaps an early night would be wise, for both of us," Iroh reflected. "But I would like you to consider something, Prince Zuko."

"Uncle?" Zuko said warily.

"There is a certain freedom of action in being declared a traitor to the throne," Iroh said levelly. "My brother is not here. The laws of our nation do not rule here. Do what you believe is right." He paused. "And never forget that here, she is not a princess, whose every command must be carried out without fail. Nor are you an exile. She is an enemy of Ba Sing Se, and you are a healer, serving our people within these walls. Innocents she would see executed as traitors, simply for seeking sanctuary. If by some stroke of ill luck she chances on us again - strike her down."

"I'll…." Zuko swallowed dryly, and nodded. "I'll think about that, Uncle."

I pray you do, nephew. Watching Zuko disappear behind a closed screen, Iroh sighed. I never want her to hurt you again. I never want her to believe she has the right.

Ozai. If fate is kind, I will not meet you again. No matter what you have done, you are still my brother, and I would not force Zuko to choose between us. That wound, at least, I would spare him.

But if fate is not kind….

You have a very great deal to answer for.

-------

"Kitty."

Zuko eyed the stuffed calico toy being thrust at him by grubby hands, and nodded. "Looks like a cat-owl to me. Now, just let me see-"

"My kitty!"

"Yes, it is." Zuko gripped the youngster's arm lightly, turning it to get a better look in the morning light. He wasn't sure if his patient was a boy or girl, and he didn't really want to ask. "Just let me see this scratch your mother says-"

"My kitty!"

He dodged the blow by instinct, soft cloth or not. Eyed the brat's mother. Who smiled at him, beaming at her little monster as the kid kept trying to thwack him. "Now, honey," she chirped, "let's not be too much trouble."

Now I know why Amaya was grumbling about shirshu darts. "Ma'am?" Zuko said politely. "Could you take the toy for a minute?" He could deal with a bear. He'd deal with this-

"Mine!" The toddler lunged, and Zuko barely fended off snapping teeth.

No more nice healer for you, brat.

-------

"Well, I never!"

In the midst of taking down the exact improbable sequence of events that had led to a fisherman getting a hook somewhere very painful indeed, Amaya looked up as Madam Li stormed out from behind Lee's screen, biting brat in hand-

Biting, gagged brat in hand.

Giggling in the woman's face wasn't the most professional thing she'd ever done. But oh, it felt good.

-------

Noon sun warmed him down to the bones as Zuko ran cold katas in Amaya's garden, warmth seeping in to replace what healing had drained.

Getting better at this.

Granted, nothing he'd done here was as serious as the wounds he'd healed outside of Ba Sing Se. But it was like any firebending. You had to build your strength gradually.

And you have to breathe.

He took time to do that now, trailing his fingers in the barrel of spring-water they'd set up last night. No need to upset the fish by raising the pond to steam-hot.

And I can't tell her I don't need to. Not yet.

The lie of omission twinged Zuko's conscience, but - he did want to learn how to move hot water by firebending. You never knew with spirits, after all. What if Yue changed her mind, and his waterbending vanished tomorrow?

Would be my luck. Can't count on anything.

Which seemed confused even in his own head. Not being a waterbender would make things easier. Wouldn't it?

Touching cool water, Zuko drew it up in a fluid arc. It's pretty.

Fire was, too, when you did it right. Though it'd taken him years to find any joy in fire again, after… after.

It was a tool. A weapon. I had it. I needed it. I trained it. But it didn't feel… warm. Not like Mom's fire did. It was just… barren. Empty. All sharp edges.

Like the stiff, brittle bush Ursa had rescued from the gardeners once; all thorns and no roses, until she'd planted it in a secluded wild nook, and nursed it into green life.

Those first small buds had smelled like magic.

A breath, and flame danced in his other hand. Zuko turned his palms sideways to face each other, flames and water twisting around each other like bright ribbons.

I think Mom would have liked this.

For once, he didn't shy away from the thought. If Ursa had been a healer, she'd probably been good with outside fire, too. And water was like that. Sort of.

A stab of pain. Water twisted too slowly, and everything scrambled together as steam.

Don't lose it! Just try.

A swirl of both hands, and a boiling sphere hovered between them.

Past the greenery, Zuko heard the screen slide back, and hastily dropped steaming water into the barrel.

"Having fun?" Amaya smiled at him, walking over to gaze into the pond. "Break's almost over."

"How did you- oh." I can feel fire when it's close. "You can feel water moving that far away?"

"Your range improves with experience," Amaya nodded. "It helps that I live here. I know where all the water is supposed to be. You could probably do the same with fire, when you've stayed here a few more months." Still smiling, she waved her hand through fading wisps of steam, gathering it into water around her fingertips.

And looked suddenly thoughtful.

Not good. Whatever it is. "So did you still want me to stand the watch here tonight?" Zuko got out, trying to sound sheepish. "I'm sorry about the gag, it just seemed like a good idea…."

"Oh, I've threatened her with as much before," Amaya said wryly, letting water slide off her fingers. "Now, perhaps, she'll believe me. Hurt children are upset. That's acceptable. Biting is not." She glanced at him. "Besides. I'm curious to find out what your uncle considers a good evening of tea and conversation."

"Music and food," Zuko said ruefully. "Don't let him talk you into playing a tsungi horn."

Amaya snorted. "Not that I even know what a tsungi horn is…."

Oops.

"And on that note - standing watch is something you don't usually hear off the docks in this city. Most would say, hold down the fort."

"Oh." Damn.

"Hmm." But curious as she looked, Amaya didn't press farther. "Good luck with Jinhai."

"Thanks," Zuko said warily. After yesterday, I'm going to need it.

-------

"He gagged the boy?" Mushi clapped a hand to his forehead in disbelief.

Toying with the last of her dessert, Amaya couldn't help but snicker. "He's a very direct young man, your Lee."

"He may never believe this, but that does run in the family," her dinner companion smiled back. "A few more years will calm him down. If we can keep him alive that long."

Assuming I'll help, are you? Not that it was far off the mark. She liked the man's nephew; prickly temper, awkwardness, and all. Even if she hadn't liked him, Lee seemed to be a genuinely good young man. If a little confused about people who weren't out to harm him. She'd feel very small if she didn't help just because he was a firebender. "You always expect trouble, don't you? Both of you. Lee's just more obvious about it."

"Our lives have rarely been quiet," Mushi allowed. "I find working in a teashop very relaxing. And your work? It cannot be easy, taking in an apprentice after years alone. I know my nephew is not always the most patient of students."

"You might be surprised," Amaya mused, setting her chopsticks aside. "He isn't calm, but he is determined. He behaves very well, most of the time. And he's been responsible about getting out of sight if he does need to swear and hit the ground." She regarded Mushi thoughtfully. "How much was his mother able to teach him, before she…." Spirits, what did she say?

"Vanished," Mushi said firmly. "Fled, I hope. Thought I fear- well. I do not know." A quiet shrug. "Nor do I know what she was able to teach him, while his bending was still uncertain. He knew how to soothe pain, at least. And when I showed him what I knew of her kata, he was able to take it that step beyond, and truly heal."

"Tide-touched," Amaya said thoughtfully. "Or… well, I suppose you'd call it something else." How to define it? "Huojin and other swordsmen call recruits like that, a natural?"

"Someone who has the proper instincts, which training will hone," Mushi nodded. "I had not heard of this in bending. I have known prodigies, who take to training very quickly - but that is not the same."

"I'd be surprised if you had known of them," Amaya admitted. "It's not common even in my tribe, where children are often granted freedom to play with water in the moonlight for a year before formal instruction begins. Master Pakku learned that way, I heard. And I imagine hardly anyone in the Earth Kingdom learns from the badger-moles anymore." Amaya glanced around the rest of the dinner crowd enjoying sidewalk tables in the lantern-light. Clear. Good. "A bender who learns from the original source always seems to have a more intuitive grasp than those just taught by humans."

Mushi considered that, and nodded thoughtfully. "Then it would seem that even as an adult, this may be true."

Amaya lifted a brow, intrigued. We were taught by the Moon and Ocean. Who were you taught by?

"Though I do not know any way my nephew could have-" Mushi cut himself off, looking very thoughtful.

Amaya leaned back in her chair. "You know, when Lee looks like that, it means he was right about something all along, and he'd really hoped he wasn't."

"It is a very long story…." His glance touched the crowd, and green eyes narrowed. "And best saved for another time. Good evening, Smellerbee. Longshot. Where is your friend Jet?"

"Fixing his harness," the feral young girl said sourly, as the silent archer behind her shrugged. "Lee tore it up pretty good with that waterbending trick."

"Ah." Mushi regarded them levelly. "You will, perhaps, understand if I hope that takes him some time."

"Okay, so maybe Jet took it too far going after you," Smellerbee said defensively. "Lee didn't have to attack him!"

"I'm sure he didn't-" Amaya began.

"I am certain he did," Mushi said dryly. "Strike the first blow, at least. But in this city, where the war is not mentioned, by claiming us as Fire Nation, it is Jet who attacked." He eyed both children sternly. "Do you wish us to vanish, never to be seen alive again, simply because your friend somehow believes we might be of those who have wronged him?"

Longshot frowned.

"Jet doesn't go after people without a good reason," Smellerbee protested.

"He'd better not go after anyone near my clinic, or he'll see what I know of waterbending," Amaya said angrily. "Don't you understand what your friend is doing? Every time he levels this charge, he holds a knife to Lee's throat!"

"It's not-" Smellerbee started.

"It is exactly that!" Amaya slapped her hand down on the table. "Ba Sing Se took you in. Gave you sanctuary. How dare you threaten that for others?" She shook her head. "Lee is my apprentice, and Mushi is my friend. You send Jet to me. I am Amaya of the Northern Water Tribe, and we've survived enough raids to know them when we see them!"

Longshot raised an eyebrow. Touched Smellerbee's shoulder, and gave her a serious look.

"You're right," the girl said after a moment. "We should go check on him."

That quickly, they were gone. To her eyes, at least. From Mushi's sober frown, he could see them ghosting through the crowd.

"Perhaps we should make an early night of it," Amaya said quietly. And smiled. "It was a good evening, with good company."

"I am glad." Mushi inclined his head, then rose to escort her back. "I have not had the chance to enjoy such an outing with a lovely lady for some time. You will, perhaps, permit me to hope that if this boy is reined in, you might consider it again sometime?"

"It's possible," Amaya allowed, walking beside him. Pale, perhaps, and devious enough to make her think twice whenever that gleam came into his eye - but he wasn't afraid of her.

He's touched the Spirit World, too.

As had Lee. Prickly and impulsive and wary as a feral pygmy puma, yes. But the boy was comfortable to be around.

She'd missed that. For a very long time.

The walk home was uneventful, thankfully. Reaching her front door, habit made Amaya reach out with waterbending, sensing well and spring and pond-

What in the world?

Oh. Of course. Dropping Mushi a wink, she lowered her voice to a whisper. "Has Lee shown you what he's been up to?"

"We have not had much time," Mushi murmured back, obviously intrigued. "We should enter quietly, then?"

Eyes dancing, Amaya snuck into her own house.

Mushi helped her muffle the screens to the garden, and slipped out onto the path with a silence she'd never expected of him. Step by careful step, they advanced toward the whisper of moving water, and quiet crackle of flames.

It's like the Firelight Fountain, made small.

Frozen into ice, a candle floated on the barrel's surface, flames split into three flickering ribbons by Lee's swift-moving fingers. The young man's face was pale with concentration, as he beckoned a stream of water up to weave snakelike around every strand, inhaled-

And blew a white puff of frost, water crackling into glittering ice.

…What?

Beside her, the man who'd faced down guards, bandits, and invading admirals to get here, who'd kept his nephew alive through fire and grief and panic, who'd stood his ground in the face of the unmistakable influence of Tui and La themselves-

Hit the ground in a dead faint.

-------

The world came back in a murmur of voices, and a soft glow of healing blue.

"Uncle? Uncle, don't do this-"

"Nephew." Iroh latched onto Zuko's hand with a sigh of relief, glad for Amaya's support at his side. "I was having the oddest nightmare…."

Eyes open, he looked past the boy, to a candle floating upright, wreathed by ice.

Not a nightmare. Iroh took a steadying breath. Two. "How…?"

"I don't know. I don't know! She drowned me, and you got me back, and the teashop, and something just kept pushing and pulling at me, so I went to the roof for some air, and-" Zuko waved a hand, and water rippled in echo of it. "I'm sorry, I know you had plans, and now she's the heir, and there's nothing I can do…." He winced, and rubbed his temples.

Letting go of Iroh, Amaya crossed over to her apprentice. "Headache?"

"Don't worry about it-"

"You let me decide what I'll worry about." She rested water-wrapped hands on his head, eyes half-closed. "Your uncle told me before that she was considered the heir. Why do both of you look as if someone just died?"

"Several of my plans just did," Iroh admitted. Zuko was young, not foolish. He knew enough to guess the truth. "She was the heir, yes. But we had some hopes…."

"I'm sorry." Zuko looked - small. Exhausted. Beaten. "I know what this means for our people, Uncle. I just… why do they have to hate us so much? So many of our people are going to die, and I don't care if the spirits think it's balance! It's wrong!"

Oh Agni, Iroh could see it. Azula as the heir, or no one; either path would lead his people into bloodshed, savagery, and civil war. And after a century of violence - to think the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes would be content to simply sit back and watch, was to be ignorant of the hatred nurtured in human hearts.

Even the Avatar's? "Spirits' gifts are often difficult to understand," Iroh said soberly. "I would not be so swift to assume Yue acted out of hatred."

"I hate to say this of a woman of my tribe, Mushi - but I wouldn't be so quick to say she didn't." Amaya took her hands away, blue eyes narrowed. "Does it always hurt when you waterbend?"

Zuko shook his head. "Just when I try to do them both together. Two different kinds of energy."

"It's not. Or it shouldn't be." She rested a hand on his forehead. "Let me look again."

Long moments passed. Iroh sat still on the path, gathering his scattered wits. Zuko… was a waterbender. Spirits, no wonder his nephew was confused.

But he has not lashed out. He has not panicked. He has tried, as much as he can, to face it. To master it.

My beloved nephew. I would claim you as my own in a heartbeat, if you would but allow it.

"Well." Amaya's breath was almost a snarl, as she lifted her hand away. "That is a nasty piece of work, indeed." She glanced between them. "Both of you, brace yourselves. This may be hard to hear."

Iroh held out an arm, comforted when Zuko leaned into it, resting against his side.

"Spirits are energy, that can sometimes take a physical form," Amaya began. "Living beings are energy in a physical form. What works for one, sometimes doesn't work for the other. That's why malevolent spirits can often be harmed by salt, when to us it just stings in cuts. Our physical body protects us from what salt does to them." She looked at Zuko. "The fire-blow you took seared you down to your spirit. It left a hole in you. A scarred hole, where some of your own energy should have been. An… empty place, Yue could fill with water." Amaya winced. "But to do that - she ripped out the scar."

Zuko shivered against him. Iroh couldn't blame the boy. "And this means?"

"She may not have intended any harm," Amaya said grimly. "For a spirit, I think this might be like - oh, eating when you're starving, and letting the food build your muscles back up. But humans aren't that simple. Tear our scars, and you can't just slap new flesh into place. Lee is bleeding, whenever he uses both together. It flexes the heart of who he is, and the scar gapes." She shook her head. "No wonder you're always exhausted."

Iroh held his nephew close. "Can you heal this?"

"That depends on what you mean by heal." Amaya regarded Zuko soberly. "Lee… no. If I do this, I'll need to touch you more deeply than ordinary healing reaches. I promised I wouldn't ask. But for this, I need your name."

"Zuko." His nephew swallowed dryly. "My name is Zuko. Son of Ursa, and-" He closed his mouth, and shook his head.

"That's enough," Amaya said kindly. "Zuko. I see three paths we can take. First - we could do nothing. I don't advise that, but it won't kill you. Immediately. You have a strong spirit. It's quite possible you could go on this way for years. But Huojin says you react in a fight, and if that's true with your bending as well-" Her grim look told its own story.

"A better option, if you would," Iroh said dryly.

"I could restore the scar." Amaya winced as she said it. "My teacher told me never to take with this gift. Only to give. But to save a life… I think he would understand."

"No more water," Zuko said numbly. "It'd make things - simpler."

"No," Iroh said softly, feeling his nephew tremble. "Oh, no. You have been well. You have been happy."

"I have a duty to our people, Uncle." Still numb. Still aching. "What I want doesn't matter."

"It does," Iroh said fiercely. "This time, it does! Think! You said this was Yue's answer to my question. I asked how to save our people, nephew! How to find a path that would hold those bound by love and loyalty together, no matter what nation their forebears came from." He gripped the boy's shoulder. "Think! How can the Avatar shatter us apart, when you stand whole before him?"

"But - if she's the heir-"

Iroh sighed, letting the last of a decade's plans float free as scattered dust. "The damage done has been too great," the retired general said soberly. "There are too many in power like Zhao, and too few like Jeong Jeong. Even if the Avatar himself tried to enforce a peace, firebending has been twisted for far too long. There will be war. In a way, there must be war. Corruption festers throughout our nation, and it must be burned clean." Iroh rested a hand on dark hair. "Enough, nephew. We have both suffered enough. Choose your own destiny."

Zuko looked at him, and nodded. Turned to Amaya. "You said there was another way?"

"My teacher taught me to touch the flesh along with the spirit," Amaya said plainly. "I think I can fix what Yue intended to do. But are you sure? This will be the most delicate work I've ever done. If you fight me, if you fight at all - I can't imagine the harm I might do. Please. Be sure."

Zuko bent his head, fingers clenching and unclenching. "When I knew I was waterbending," he said, almost soundlessly, "when I realized what that meant… I promised myself I'd learn what you did. How to hide our people, and keep them safe. I've fought the spirits my whole life. I'm not letting our people die just because I wasn't brave enough to ask you before."

Just for our people? Iroh thought sadly. Oh, Zuko.

"And - I want it back." Zuko swallowed dryly. "I've been angry with Uncle for years, angry with the whole world, and it's wrong. I wasn't like that before he-" Fingers strayed near the scar; lowered, and clenched. "He took part of me away, and I want it back."

"I can't turn back time," Amaya said gently. "You were wounded. Scarred. I can't change that. This will be water, and it will help you - but it will never be what you were before the fire. It can only be what you are, and what you will be. Is that enough?"

Zuko met her gaze, fiercely determined. "I'll make it enough."

Amaya inclined her head, and opened her arms. "Come here. And trust me." She raised her gaze to Iroh's. "This is going to be delicate. Guard us. Do whatever you have to."

Brows bouncing up in surprise, Iroh nodded. Stood, brushed himself off, and assumed a ready stance.

One hand on Zuko's brow, the other over his heart. Amaya breathed in, and out. And there was light.

-------

Everything was light, and he couldn't seem to close his eyes; it was too bright, he couldn't bear it-

Shh. Trust me, Zuko.

"Amaya?" Why was Amaya inside his head? He could feel her worry, her concern. Her determination to make things right, fierce as fire….

Separation is an illusion. We are all a part of each other. A gentle chuckle. It's just more obvious, spirit to spirit.

"That's why this is dangerous," Zuko whispered. Or thought he did; nothing felt the way it should, and where had the garden gone? "You're touching my spirit? You shouldn't, you don't want to see-"

We are all capable of great good, and great evil. I have my own darkness. And you are not as lost as you think. A shimmer of light, like an outstretched hand. Trust me. Help me help you. We can do this, together.

Tentatively, he reached out….

And saw the gash between golden red and moon-blue, seeping away strength as he breathed. So close to right. Just a little off. All he had to do was touch.

Gently. We have time.

Fire and water were opposites, but they weren't separate. Fire burned, yielding water disguised in hot smoke. Water held inside it the seeds of fire, just waiting for lightning's strike.

Touch. Hold. Melt. Two into one, in a dance that was so familiar….

Just like that. Fire and Water, and Spirit to bind them both.

Spirit? Those pale, not quite colorless wisps reaching out to red and blue, making them whole?

You are my apprentice. What was taught to me, I now teach you. Use it wisely.

He thought he nodded. Everything felt right. Just tired.

Hang on one moment more… look. Over there.

Another light, apart from them both. Blazing, fierce fire, protecting what it-

Zuko's breath caught. "Uncle… loves me?"

Of course he does, you silly little dragon. You are lovable, once we get past all the prickles. A glittering chuckle. Get used to it.

Rest now. You're going to need your strength in the morning. I have a whole new set of lessons for you… waterbender.

Sleep closed over him like a blanket.

-------

"I'm tempted to have you rent out the cot," Amaya said dryly, helping Iroh tuck Zuko back into bed.

"I am tempted to accept," Iroh chuckled, brushing back unruly black hair. "He will be well?"

"I'll have to see how he handles bending both in the morning, but yes, I think so." Blue glanced at him, amused. "You sense spirits. What do you see?"

"Two dragons, no longer wounded," Iroh said softly. A lift of his fingers, and he brushed misty scales; first red, then moon-white. The white was almost the size of its brother, now, and gold eyes regarded him with surprised joy. "Rest now," he wished them both. "I am very, very proud of you."

"Dragons," Amaya breathed, as spirits faded. "You think Zuko learned from dragons."

"No," Iroh said thoughtfully, stepping back from Zuko's cot. "I know he learned from his mother. Who, I believe, may be a dragon's child."

A long silence.

"Walk with me," Amaya requested.

They sat in the opening leading to the garden, Amaya eyeing the thickening moon.

"You seem to believe me," Iroh observed.

"If you were going to lie to me, I think you'd do it with something a little less impossible," the healer said tartly. "Though I admit, I'm trying not to imagine how that works."

Iroh chuckled ruefully. "From our tales, the dragon takes human form. For a night, a year and a day, or a lifetime. They are not ordinary creatures," he added at her look of shock. "They love, and they hate, just as we. And like us, they can be capable of great evil. As Sozin's dragon companion was, hunting down his own kin who would not bow in the wake of the massacre…." He sighed. "I am not certain. There are only - little things. About Zuko, and Lady Ursa, and her parents, Shidan and Lady Kotone. Separate, they mean nothing. Together…." He shrugged.

"I see one already," Amaya said thoughtfully. "In a nation obsessed with power, how does a man not noble rate a lady's hand?"

"By being a powerful firebender, who is also most adept with daisho," Iroh said practically. "Her father approved the match the day he appeared."

"Appeared," Amaya echoed quietly.

"Indeed. True, Shidan brought a genealogy to the match. Which tales say most dragons do not," Iroh admitted. "Though given the order to hunt them had already been issued…." He shrugged again. "Questionable, but not proof. Nor are the swords. Though most firebenders of any skill simply do not bother to master other weapons. My nephew is a rare exception." He hesitated. "And the healing fire… it is the colors of dragons' fire. When they breathe to teach, and not to slay."

Amaya leaned against the frame, considering that. "I was going to ask why you took Zuko's waterbending so calmly-"

"You consider a faint calm?" Iroh murmured, embarrassed.

"You didn't scream at him. You didn't even singe him," Amaya pointed out. "I can only imagine what Master Pakku would have done if one of his students had suddenly thrown sparks. It wouldn't have been pretty."

No, likely not. A member of the White Lotus Pakku might be, but open-minded? No.

"But you're used to the impossible," Amaya went on.

"I have seen the Avatar unleash the fury of Ocean himself," Iroh said gravely. "Many things may be unlikely. But I would hesitate to assume anything impossible." He smiled. "Besides. You did not know my nephew when he was young. He loves water almost as much as he loves wind. If any firebender could master water, it would be Zuko."

Amaya eyed him. "If your nephew hadn't made it clear you two have met the Avatar, and if I hadn't felt his spirit with my own bending… well."

"My nephew is not that unlucky," Iroh said wryly. "Though I plan to have words with the Moon, should we ever meet again."

"She may have done all she could," Amaya said reluctantly. "I was always told the spirits aren't there to solve our problems. They point the way. After that, it's up to us to step in and choose."

Iroh inclined his head, accepting that point. Though had we left here without discovering the injury… spirits are not always kind. The Avatar has returned; they must have a plan. So long as Zuko survived long enough to carry out their chosen part for him - I doubt some of them would have cared what became of him afterward.

"But this question you asked Yue… surely you don't mean for Zuko to fight the Avatar?"

"I do not," Iroh said plainly. Though he has. And that is the purpose of the White Lotus, if hope should fail and an Avatar become corrupt and cruel. "But to stand in the way of hasty judgments by a naïve young boy - yes, that Zuko will do. And I will stand with him."

"I don't understand," Amaya said warily.

Iroh nodded. "Do you wish to be forced back to the North Pole, Lady Amaya?"

"Forced back?" the healer exclaimed, disbelieving. "Who would-?" She read the answer in his level gaze, and recoiled. "He wouldn't!"

"Do we know?" Iroh said bluntly. "Does anyone? The Avatar's balance is meant to include four separate nations. Yet we have lived without that for a hundred years. What will he decide is right, for those like you, who choose another land as home? For families like Jinhai's, who are earth and fire? For untold numbers of people in the Fire Nation, whose parents and grandparents might have blood of earth, or water, or even remnants of air?" He spread empty hands. "I do not know. I cannot even begin to guess. And if I do not know, Zuko has every right to be afraid for our people."

"That certain of yourself, are you?" Amaya said dryly.

"Yes," Iroh said simply.

While she was still stunned, he marshaled his thoughts. "There is something else you must consider. Sooner or later, Jinhai must leave Ba Sing Se."

"This is his home-"

"He is a firebender." Iroh regarded her soberly. "Believe me when I say to you, a child cannot hide that forever, even with help. A month, a year - sooner or later, the Dai Li will come for him."

"But he can't leave," Amaya whispered. "There's nowhere else to go."

"Not yet," Iroh said practically. "My nephew and I plan to create one."

She stared at him, speechless.

"It is not impossible," Iroh said frankly. "Zuko and I know what is required to create, fortify, and defend a colony. And how to evacuate civilians, even under difficult conditions. I should like a few more months to develop it, but we have already begun to craft a plan that should work. If our people decide they wish to leave."

She was still staring.

Iroh lifted a hand to reach out to her, and reluctantly thought better of it. "I know this must seem abrupt-"

"Abrupt?" Amaya finally burst out. "Zuko says he wants to learn how to protect refugees, to hide them - and now you say you've been planning all along to toss that away?"

"A plan we hope we will never have to use," Iroh insisted. "Zuko does wish to learn from you. Even if we evacuate, we may still need to hide what we are. And as for plans - we are great names, Lady Amaya. We protect our people. From the moment we knew what the Dai Li were, we knew we would need strategies to use against them."

"And letting them try to recruit Zuko is part of your strategy?" Blue eyes flashed at him, anger rising.

"A wise strategist makes use of the unexpected," Iroh said practically. "My nephew knows the risks. He will be cautious."

"He's sixteen!"

"Seventeen, in a few months," Iroh pointed out. "Amaya. He was banished at thirteen. Saw his first lethal battle a year later. And has fought alongside me throughout our journey, most recently against bandits who very much wished us dead. He is not a child."

"But you're asking him for the impossible," Amaya protested.

"No. His father asked the impossible," Iroh said grimly. "I only ask for the difficult. And I will not abandon him, lost and afraid, with no idea where to even start." He leaned back, deliberately lightening his tone. "I think you underestimate your apprentice. You assume that I proposed this plan."

About to speak, Amaya cut herself off. Narrowed her eyes at him. Shook her head, and glanced behind them into the shadows of the clinic.

"It is a very hopeful sign," Iroh said quietly. "To even consider this, instead of what I know his father wishes… that loyalty is weakening. A few months, perhaps a year - he will survive, Amaya. I know it."

"You," Amaya said, after long minutes of thoughtful silence, "are absolutely insane."

Which was exactly what his then not-yet-fiancée Natsu had said, many decades ago. Obviously, the night was looking up.

Catching the warmth of his smile, Amaya scowled. "That was not a compliment."

"No?" Iroh did his best to look surprised. And innocent. And cuddly.

"Don't even think about it." Still scowling, she stood, and hmphed. "Stay with Zuko, or go home. Your choice."

"Most generous of you." Iroh stood as well, and bowed. "I wish you a very good night." Turning, he executed a polite strategic withdrawal.

And grinned all the way to bed.

He still missed Natsu. He always would. Though not as sharply as he missed Lu Ten. Natsu had been gone near two decades, now; his son's grief was fresher, and sharpened by being, in part, his responsibility.

But raising Zuko had helped soften that pain. Quarrelsome, impatient, often reckless and sometimes foolish - Zuko still loved him, mending the heart Iroh had thought forever broken by Ba Sing Se.

My second son.

He had decided long ago he would not repeat his father's mistakes. He would love this unlooked-for child, and teach him honor, loyalty, and justice. As Zuko had taught him of the wonder that could be hidden under a mask of rage, and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.

Still. All battles are easier with allies… and friends.

He would like to be Amaya's friend. He would like that very much. She was lovely and inventive and quietly, fiercely brave.

But she was also Zuko's teacher. And he would not interfere with his nephew's training.

Be patient. Wait. You have made your interest clear; let her choose what she will and will not risk. There is time.

Clearing his mind of hopes and nightmares, Iroh meditated to his nephew's breathing. And deliberately fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Note to self, Huojin thought, head still ringing from hitting the clinic wall, do not shake sleeping imperial firebenders. Bad idea.

“H’ojin?” Lee muttered, blinking as if he couldn’t figure out why, exactly, he was half-dressed with a groaning Guard at his feet. “’S middle of the night… two hours ‘til dawn, easy….”

Blinking away a few stars, Huojin eyed him with disbelief. “You can’t be looking at a clock.”

“Who needs a clock? I know-” A jaw-cracking yawn. “Know where the sun is. Isn’t.  S’night. Go ‘way.” Eyes sliding shut, he meandered back to the cot.

“Healing emergency.” Face freshly washed, Amaya emerged, giving her apprentice a look of rueful sympathy. “If you’ve rested enough, I could use your help.” She glanced at Huojin. “Are you all right?”

“Had worse,” Huojin admitted. Touched the sore spot, and winced. “Remind me to throw water on him next time.”

That seemed to jerk Lee awake. Green eyes widened, guilty. “I’m sorry. Uncle always calls from the door to wake me up, don’t move-”

“I’ll handle it,” Amaya said firmly. “Get dressed. You’re coming.”

Nodding, Lee grabbed his clothes from the foot of the cot, and stumbled off to the washroom.

Sprawled on the next cot over, Mushi simply snored.

Amaya’s cool touch washed away the pain, and Huojin picked himself off the floor. “Thanks. What are they doing here?” He didn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation. Much.

“Aftereffects of Lee’s drowning,” Amaya said blandly. “The spirits really do have it in for that young man.”

“Maybe this isn’t the best call to take him on,” Huojin said reluctantly. “Everything’s supposed to be handled….” But you could never be sure. Not with creatures like these.

“What’s handled?”

Kid moves fast. “Let’s just say, this wasn’t a regular house fire,” Huojin told the firebender plainly.

“And there are reasons I treat the Dai Li, if they need me,” Amaya added. “They were meant to protect the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se. They still do. But protecting history means protecting ancient artifacts, and with that….”

“Tsukumogami.” Lee looked a bit more awake, feeling at his sash. “I’ve got salt, but I don’t know anything about consoling ceremonies. That’s more of a Fire Sage thing… what?” he asked at Huojin’s raised brows. “They held ceremonies every solstice where I grew up. Ba Sing Se’s not the only place with old things.”

“Hadn’t occurred to me,” the Guard said honestly. “Is that what you call ninety-nine-year spirits?”

“We have some odd words,” Lee said after a moment. Sighed, and seemed to brace himself. “So Dai Li handle spirits? They must be pretty strong benders.”

“And how,” Huojin agreed grimly. Eyed Amaya again. “You sure you want to bring him? It’s supposed to be just cleanup, but….”

“Anyone who can dodge the Ocean Spirit in a bad mood is safer than you are,” Amaya replied, dryly amused. “Let’s go.”

I tried. Shivering slightly, Huojin led the way.

“What’s wrong?” Lee asked as they threaded their way through dark streets.

“What’s wrong?” Huojin echoed, incredulous. “Spirits, Lee. Any sane man would be heading the other way.”

“That just lets them hit you from behind.”

Which implied Lee was both pessimistic enough to believe running wouldn’t do any good, and optimistic enough to believe he could survive anyway. Ow.

At least the aftermath looked quiet. An unassuming block of Lower Ring apartments, now smoke-stained and surrounded by a huddle of evacuated residents and a few nervous City Guards. You couldn’t see the Dai Li moving through shadows and over rooftops, but you knew they were there.

Amaya headed for the worst of the wounded, those already being tended with herbs and poultices by some of the local non-bending healers. The looks of relief on their faces were enough to make Huojin wince.

Lee hung back a little, taking a few moments to glance over buildings and knots of people before he murmured in Amaya’s ear and started setting up his firepot.

Marked the trouble spots, Huojin realized, following the firebender’s gaze to suspiciously thick patches of char, and faces more angry than glad to be alive. Ready to pull out and take Amaya with you, aren’t you?

Not the most professional reaction from a healer. But personally? He couldn’t blame Lee one bit.

Let’s see if I can’t head some of that trouble off.

Some of the would-be troublemakers just needed someone to talk to. Or talk at. He wasn’t the only Guard listening and nodding politely as various people recounted their fiery encounter with an old stone lamp and a couple of theater fans gone really, really bad.

“-Flapping like a bat-raven!” the latest shocked oldster was recounting, hands up and clawing the air. “Black tears for eyes, that glowed like evil lava….”

Huh. Didn’t sound like a fan-spirit. “I’m sure they’ve gotten all the spirits left in the apartments-”

“No, no, no! Not in there!” A gnarled finger jabbed two alleys over. “I saw it! Before all this happened! But no, no one listens to old Hu….”

Right. And what were the odds of four ninety-nine-year spirits loose in the same area? “I’ll check it out,” Huojin sighed. Traded a few words with the officer in charge, and headed down the alley. Panic tended to spread; nip this in the bud, and there’d be less chance of a riot later-

Something hooked around his throat and yanked him into the wall, hard.

What the-?

Silky membranes whipped dust into his eyes, battered his fingers away from gripping the vice on his throat. The alley went red and black, he couldn’t breathe-

Something snapped like the crack of a whip, and there was air.

Black and flapping, all right. But caught like a netted cat-owl in a translucent sphere, water leading back to….

That’s not Amaya.

Lee was a firebender. Huojin knew that. He’d seen it.

Just as plainly as he saw water wrapped around the teen’s hands, anchoring the net holding a squealing, homicidal spirit. A black, tattered….

Huojin closed his eyes, and shook his head to rattle the image free. Peeked.

No good. Still there.

I almost got strangled to death by an umbrella.

I’m never going to live this down.

“Get help,” Lee said tightly.

“No need,” came a familiar voice. “We’re here.”

Iron chains shot out, trapping the indignant spirit with an almost cheery rattle. A familiar Dai Li dropped to the ground, hands clasped behind him as he regarded the thrashing umbrella. “You can let go now.”

“Agent Shirong.” Water swept back into Lee’s waterskin in a flow that stuttered, like a spring freshet around a just-dropped log. “I didn’t know the Dai Li handled… things like this.”

“Most people would rather not think about it,” Shirong shrugged. Eyed Lee. “I don’t remember that move from the scroll.”

“…I kind of made it up.”

Must’ve hit my head on the wall harder than I thought, Huojin concluded. It was the only way any of this made sense.

“Hmm.” Even shadowed by his hat, a flicker of Shirong’s surprise still showed. “Then you might want to see if you can modify it. As it is, you’re using both hands….”

“So once I’ve got it, what do I do with it?” Lee sighed. “I know. I can switch off to just one, but it takes a lot of concentration. I’ll ask Master Amaya… what?”

Shirong was studying him, very carefully, as fellow agents vanished with the umbrella. “You’re far too calm. What kind of kamuiy have you fought before?”

Oh, this is bad, Huojin realized. No way can he tell them - and damn it, Lee’s an awful liar-

“A plague spirit,” Lee said quietly.

“Seriously?” Huojin croaked.

“One of the scariest nights of my life.” Lee started to go on, stopped, and drew a deep breath, obviously gathering his thoughts. “While Uncle and I were traveling, we came to a ranch, where the animals were sick, and…. We’re not sure of all of it. This is just what we figured out after - after we found the body.”

Shirong winced; the most human reaction Huojin had ever seen on a Dai Li. “A mother with child.”

“She was just a girl,” Lee said sadly. “She wasn’t even my age. We found out there’d been a Fire Nation raid there, months ago, and-” He spread empty hands, helpless. “Her father said she was missing. Her brothers were going along with it.”

“That’d do it.” Shirong actually looked ill. “How did you stop it?”

“Burned the ranch down,” Lee shrugged.

Huojin clapped a hand to his forehead in disbelief.

“At least we hope it worked,” Lee said sheepishly. “We couldn’t exactly stick around. How do you prove you’re not a firebender?”

…He did not just say that.

“Good point,” Shirong chuckled. Turned to go, and paused. “By the way. Plague spirits are vindictive little bastards. If it didn’t follow you, then it worked.”

Some of the tension went out of Lee’s shoulders. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“Try to stay out of trouble,” Shirong advised, almost kindly. “I know you won’t be able to entirely, the spirits have painted a target on your back just like the rest of us… but try not to get into any human trouble.” A vicious chuckle. “It’s so messy when we have to scrape people off walls.”

A rumble of earth, and he dropped out of sight.

“Showoff,” Huojin grumbled. And eyed Lee uncertainly. “What… how?

“I drowned.” Lee was eyeing him right back, wary as if trying to gauge which way to run. “The Moon - did something to me. It’s crazy, but it’s real.” He swallowed. “Amaya’s going to help me train that, too.”

Too? As in- “You’re… both?” Huojin got out.

“I thought Uncle would be mad,” Lee said in a very small voice.

“No, really?” Huojin managed. Firebender with a waterbending nephew. Ouch.

“But he’s not,” Lee went on, surprised.

“The clinic still standing was a clue,” Huojin said dryly, rubbing his throat. Ow.

“Uncle doesn’t - um. Well, he hasn’t… for a while… he’s retired….”

“I don’t want to know what from, do I?”

“No,” Lee said honestly. Glanced aside, as they started walking back toward the survivors. “He should be really retired. Playing Pai Sho, like he wants… but when he got home, Father - dumped me on him. I didn’t - didn’t really take it well.”

That sounded like an understatement. So why are you telling me this? Huojin wondered.

“Did you do that to Amaya?” Lee asked, low and quiet. “Just - get mad at her, because she wasn’t who you wanted there?”

Oh. Sounded like drowning had made someone think a little. “I did,” Huojin admitted. “You can tell a kid ‘til you’re blue in the face he can’t have what he wants. Doesn’t make it hurt any less.” He arched a paternal brow. “You could start by apologizing.”

“I thought I’d start with your throat,” Lee said wryly.

Huojin brushed the edge of bruises, and winced. “I can live with that.”


Uncle,

I’m sorry for being angry with you. Because you were there, and Mom wasn’t. Because Father made it clear I wasn’t worth his time, and she was. Because of a lot of things.

I’m going to try to do better.

You’re probably going to have to thump it into my head a few more times, though. Family temper. Reckless. That whole mess.

Going out with Amaya to visit some villages near the Outer Wall. Will be back.

…And don’t tell Huojin, but it’s really hard to save somebody when you’re trying not to giggle. Rabid umbrella-spirit. Heh.

-Lee.

Rereading the note in a lull between customers, Iroh smiled. Folded it away, and turned back to his tea.


Shifting his weight in the apple tree as it swayed in the wind, Zuko looked over the green patchwork of fields and villages inside the Outer Wall. “You could lose small islands out here.”

“Can you see my Fluffykins?” called up from below.

Zuko eyed the fluffy white creature cleaning itself in a cleft of thinner branches, just out of safe arm’s reach. “I see her.”

“Well?”

“If I get her, she’s not going to be happy,” Zuko warned.

“Just get her down, please!”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Zuko muttered. Gathered water, and threw.

The squalling wet white tornado hit a compost pile, and shredded leaves flew.


Even as a waterbender, he’s a born firebender, Amaya thought, wryly amused as she helped clean the last of the scratches on those who’d volunteered to catch the city woman’s pet. Never work around a problem when you can cut right through it.

Ah well. No one had gotten worse than scratches, and Fluffykins was back with her owner, who’d already left to catch the train, after cooing over her still-damp kitty and gratefully dispensing a small sum of coins to everyone who’d helped.

“So what’s a city cat doing all the way out here?” Zuko asked, frowning as he checked over one of the wide-eyed farm children.

Good question, Amaya realized. And glanced covertly at her apprentice. You always know when something’s out of place, don’t you? Good habit.

“Some crazy young earthbender from the Upper Ring,” the headman’s wife, Wu, said with a disapproving scowl. She waved a hand, indicating vaguely north and west. “Carved up some of the fields outside the Inner Wall for a zoo, of all things. They say there was a stampede of animals a few days ago - everything in the city!”

Which unleashed a flood of gossip and speculation; what were the Inner Ring nobles thinking, who was going to feed the city if this caught on, how much had the farmers been compensated more than they admitted they had, did this mean the generals were going to move the Outer Wall outward again, and did that mean the war was going well, or…?

Zuko, Amaya was startled to notice, paid careful attention to all of it.

And why are you surprised? the healer asked herself after a little thought. No few of these people are Fire Nation; he can see that as well as they can see him. If he and Mushi are planning… that impossible thing they’re planning… of course he needs to know what they’re worried about.

An attention to detail she’d never have expected of someone Zuko’s age. Tested by the spirits or not.

They’re really planning to do it. Evacuate their people. Create a sanctuary, outside of Ba Sing Se.

I’ve looked after my hidden folk so long….

But being a healer meant you did what was best for your patients. Not what you wanted. Amaya braced herself, and got through the morning of seeing to those who didn’t have the time or strength to come into the Lower Ring. And waited until they were on the train back to murmur, “Do you think you’ll be able to send word back to the city, once you’re all safe?”

Zuko raised that lone brow and gave her a smirk that reminded her of his uncle. “You want to just hear about it? Or do you want to help make it?”


“I don’t want to!

Sitting off to the side in the cellar, Tingzhe held his breath, glad he’d sent Suyin upstairs at the first signs of Jinhai heading toward a full-blown temper tantrum. He could see “Lee” silently counting to ten… and the royal line of Sozin wasn’t exactly known for calm and even tempers.

“Firebending,” the young prince said levelly, sitting still, “comes from the breath, not the muscles. It took my teacher years to get that into my head, but I have a lot of bad habits. You need to start out with good ones. Fire isn’t like other elements. Earth doesn’t rise up and crush you; water doesn’t decide to pull you down. But fire will spread, and it will try to consume everything it can. You need to control your fire. And you have to start with breathing.”

“I won’t! It’s stupid and you’re no fun and-”

The teenager breathed out sharply, and fire erupted.

Tingzhe forced himself to sit there, even as Jinhai yelped at the flames encircling both firebenders. He won’t hurt a child. Forget his father - the boy you’ve seen has been patient, kind, and not someone who enjoys the sight of others in pain.

Spirits, please let me be right….

“You can part another bender’s fire with a defensive move. If you control your own fire.” Zuko’s voice was iron. “You want to leave this circle? Do it.”

Jinhai’s mouth dropped open. “But - that’s not fair!

“Who ever told you bending was fair?” Zuko’s voice didn’t soften. “This is fire, Jinhai! Any time you bend, you’re walking into a cage with a dillo-lion. A hungry, angry dillo-lion. If you don’t have control, it will chew you up and spit you out!”

“Daddy….”

Clenched fists hidden in his sleeves, the professor shook his head. “When I was in training, my teacher threw an extremely large boulder at my head, son.” I grant you, I was a bit older. “Lee is correct. Bending is not fair.”

Jinhai reached out to the flames, and yanked his hand back. “But he’s got the fire!”

“Of course I do,” Zuko said dryly. “You want the whole house to burn down? If I let go, that’s exactly what will happen.” Green eyes narrowed. “Fire is power, Jinhai. It’s the determination to get what you want. How badly do you want to get past these flames?”

Don’t move, Tingzhe told himself grimly. Unless he’s in actual danger - don’t move.

Another deliberate breath, and Zuko’s circle of flames shrunk inward. “How badly do you want it?”

Jinhai was backing away from the flames, wide-eyed, glancing at his father as if he couldn’t believe this was happening. “You’re being mean!”

“You haven’t seen mean yet.” Zuko’s voice held an edge of threat that put the hairs up on the back of Tingzhe’s neck. “Jinhai. I’m tired is a reason to stop. I don’t know what I’m doing is a reason to stop. I don’t want to is never a reason to stop.” The circle of flames flickered a little lower. “Determination. What do you want?

Fingers almost brushing flames, Jinhai pulled back, almost tripping over Zuko’s knee. Looked at his father again, still stunned that Tingzhe wasn’t doing anything.

Oh, how I want to. But Tingzhe arched a brow instead, the same as he would when Jinhai brought him any problem the boy needed to solve himself. And mouthed, “Think.”

Jinhai blinked, and swallowed. “I want… to stop?”

The fire went out.

“That works,” Zuko said tiredly. “That’s enough for today.”

Jinhai was already halfway across the cellar, skidding to a stop in front of his father with wide, hurt eyes-

Turned on his heel, and bolted up the steps.

Tingzhe sighed, heart sore. Eyed the teenager standing there, face closed and defiant, stance balanced and subtly braced.

He expects me to attack him.

Well. And what else would he think?

“Come up to the garden,” Tingzhe requested. “I think you need the sun more than Jinhai does.”

Surprised and wary, Zuko followed him out.

“As one teacher to another,” Tingzhe said levelly as they settled on a bench, “if you’re tired enough to start losing your temper, tell your students to go home.”

Zuko winced.

No stranger to proud young men, Tingzhe waited, letting the silence stretch out.

“…It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Zuko glared into the tangle of a mustard bush. “I promised Uncle I’d try to think. I’m… things are better right now than they’ve been since - we were on a raft for three weeks with nothing! I shouldn’t be angry!”

“Perhaps,” Tingzhe mused. On a raft? Exiled or not, how does a young prince end up… save it for Meixiang. If she’s right, we’ll hear quite a story. “But if I’d been stuck on a raft three weeks, I think I might still be angry. Let alone if I’d suffered the other events you mentioned.”

The unscarred eye narrowed. “When an Agni Kai’s over, it’s over.”

“So I’ve been told,” Tingzhe acknowledged. And here you risk your life on the hope that you are right, and he’s more like his uncle than his father. You’re a sentimental old man, no doubt. “But the outcome of the duel does not change the fact that you were betrayed before it ever began.”

Smoke rose from between clenched fingers. “I owed him loyalty,” the teen gritted out.

“And as one of the Earth Kingdom, I don’t pretend to understand how strong that bond is,” Tingzhe said bluntly. “But my wife tells me loyalty never demands suicide. Forcing a thirteen-year-old boy to duel an unexpected, far stronger opponent - I’m not certain suicide is a strong enough term.” Attempted murder comes closer. That man, I could believe it of.

“But as I said, I can’t ever know,” Tingzhe stated, a bit wistfully. “My wife granted me not only her hand, but part of her spirit’s strength. Sometimes, I wonder if my love can ever be a fair return.” He smiled sadly, and leaned back. “Meixiang would like to invite your family to a potluck, next week.”

Zuko hesitated, smoke wisping away. “What’s that?”

Oh dear. “Why don’t we both talk to her,” Tingzhe said plainly. “She can suggest a few things that aren’t hard to cook, and anyway I can never keep straight how much you need to bring for this many people myself.” If he even knows how to cook, the professor realized ruefully. Some of our noble children can be spectacularly useless….

How many people?” Zuko asked warily.

…Well, let’s hope for the best.


“Six children, and six adults,” Iroh mused, scratching notes on tattered paper with a bit of charcoal. “Hmm.”

Keep it slow. Get the wrist movements right…. Zuko pulled most of the water from the pitcher with only one rippling splash, and started snaking it between his hands. “It’s a bad idea.”

“It’s dinner, nephew. Not a surprise attack.”

“Surprised me,” Zuko muttered. “They can’t really want me there, Uncle. I scared Jinhai.”

Iroh only raised a brow. “And what did he do, to deserve being frightened?”

Zuko winced, and had to swirl a hand to keep the stream from falling. “He was being a brat.” It sounded so petty.

“During training?” Iroh nodded once. “Then it was wise to correct him.” The retired general held up a warning hand before Zuko could protest. “If you feel now that you were too harsh, watch him closely in the next lesson. You do not wish him to be afraid of you. But a little fear, in and of itself, is not always bad. Fire is dangerous. Self-control is essential. A firebender cannot act like a temperamental brat.” Iroh paused, looking into memory. “No matter how much a young one might deserve to.”

“I break things,” Zuko muttered, feeling even more guilty. “He just - didn’t want to breathe.”

“You have not broken anything recently,” Iroh stated. “Your temper will always need work to control; it is a flaw of our family, and none of us escape it. But unpleasant as that is, nephew - you break things. You do not harm people. A firebender who does not control his breath will never control his fire. We both know what that leads to.” He set his notes aside, and nodded at the liquid flowing with Zuko’s movements. “What is that?”

“Amaya calls it streaming the water,” Zuko answered, concentrating as he arced it high. For some reason, moving it over his head always threatened to make it fall apart-

Oh. Idiot. North Pole. Ice and water over your head was not good, remember?

He’d melted it then, and survived. This was just a little water. It was not going to drown him.

Rippling water steadied, and he breathed easier, looping the ribbon back down near waist level. “It’s a beginner’s move. Like playing with a candle.”

“To learn the feel of your element, under controlled conditions,” Iroh nodded. And paused. “You do not have Jinhai working with candles yet.”

“No.” Zuko flexed the water. Let it gather into a globe in his palm, and tossed it back into a soaring ribbon. “If he works on breathing again tomorrow, I was going to have him try the burning leaf.”

“Good,” Iroh stated. “If he sees control directly applied, he may more clearly understand why he needs it.” He raised a brow. “For a beginner’s move, that looks quite useful.”

“Lets you work on quantity, direction, and precision,” Zuko agreed. Up and around. Can I-? Yeah, just twist that way…. Dragging fingers through the ribbon split one strand into three; he held them rippling for a few moments, then collapsed them back together.

But it’d been a long day, and he could feel the tremors that meant he was pushing too far. Gathering water together, he tipped it back into the pitcher. “I can think of a lot you can do with just this. I’ve already done a few things; that net I used to catch the spirit? I didn’t know what I was doing, when I made it up, but it’s just this in a couple different pieces. Toss water, make a globe, bring it back.” Which meant he might be able to make it work one-handed after all. With practice.

“Basics,” Iroh smiled. “Learn them well, and all else will follow.” He raised a curious brow. “What is it like?”

Zuko frowned, reaching out to the quiet tide-pulls of water in their apartment, in the next over, on the roof. “Like walking in the surf just offshore. It pushes and pulls at you, and most of the time, that’s fine; you just keep going. But if you don’t pay attention, and a rogue wave comes through-” He clapped his hands together, remembering the groan of their ship’s twisted metal in the midst of the typhoon.

“Fire, and the ocean,” Iroh mused. “It is not safe to turn your back on either of them. But respect them, and they are powerful allies.” He laughed softly. “Even beautiful, from how I have seen you bend.”

Oh. That was… interesting to know. He hadn’t really been trying for pretty, it’d just happened that way, and… right. Think. “It feels weird,” Zuko admitted. “Not in chi, Amaya fixed that. Just - being able to do both of them. Fire and water. It shouldn’t work.” He hesitated. “It shouldn’t feel like it fits.”

“They are not as separate as one might think,” Iroh said thoughtfully. “I have been told that at its core, all bending is one; that even non-benders who learn to move their chi for battle, as you are teaching Suyin, draw from the same source. More specifically… have I told you of jin?”

“All eighty-five kinds?” Zuko said warily. He did pay attention to lectures on battle strategies, even if he couldn’t name them all off the top of his head.

“It is wise to know them all, but three are most important to bending,” Iroh observed. “Neutral jin is the key to earthbending. The master waits, and listens, to find the exact moment to strike.”

“Professor Tingzhe,” Zuko realized. “He’s always just… calm. Waiting. Until he knows exactly what he wants to say.”

“Indeed,” Iroh agreed. “I very much hope to have an opportunity to speak of bending with him. We use many similar stances, but the reasons behind them are very different. Which leads us to fire. Positive jin, advancing and attacking, is the heart of our art. As our fire is fueled by our own chi, we often cannot fight as long as other benders. So we attack first, relentlessly, to overwhelm our foes before endurance can tip the battle’s scales.”

That one, Zuko knew. But he nodded and listened anyway, sure Uncle had a point. Well, mostly sure.

“Water may oppose fire, but in tactics and energy, our true opposite is airbending,” Iroh went on. “Negative jin, retreating and evading, are part of the philosophy of air. You have seen this chasing the Avatar. He will not stand his ground, he will not fight if he can flee; and while he is himself, and not possessed by Avatars past, he will not kill.”

“The monks fought,” Zuko pointed out. “I’ve seen the temples.”

“An adult knows when to set aside ideals for reality,” Iroh said practically. “If all life is sacred, so is your own life. And you should not allow it to be taken.” He smiled. “So we have come around the cycle, to water. Which balances both positive and negative jin, turning defense into attack as they use their opponents’ force against them. This conserves energy, and allows them to fight for great lengths of time. But they rarely strike the first blow, and if they are too slow to turn their enemy’s attack, they lose momentum.”

Which could be the difference between a battle won, or lost. Zuko glanced away, thinking that through. “So I know positive, and I’ve fought negative….”

“And you have lived in the tide’s grasp for three years,” Iroh stated. “You know water, Prince Zuko. Perhaps not as one of the Water Tribes would, but you do know it. Build on that.”

I’m going to try. “We haven’t talked about….” Zuko swallowed. “I’m not the heir. You said that wrecked a lot of your plans. Did it - what does being a waterbender do to our plan? Just because our people accept Amaya, doesn’t mean they’ll understand if I am.”

“It is likely some will not,” Iroh said bluntly. “Yet it is also likely those are the ones we would not have been able to persuade, even if our names were clear.”

You can’t save them all, Zuko told himself grimly.

…I know I can’t. But I wanted to try. “A lot of them aren’t going to want to leave,” Zuko admitted. “They already started over once.”

“And as you yourself know, to begin another life is never easy,” Iroh nodded. “We will be asking them to leave behind the lives they have built, and cast their fate with those who have created what seems a desperate plan. And if Jinhai is the only firebender who has been born here, in all these years - they may not consider it a risk for their children.” He glanced aside with a grim smile. “Though the risk may be greater than they realize, as the Fire Nation turns more attention here. I think it is not a coincidence that Jinhai was born while my siege still held.”

Okay, interesting to think about later, but not exactly crucial right now. “So we’re only going to get people who are scared, or fed up with the Dai Li, or just out to take a risk,” Zuko concluded.

“Most likely,” Iroh nodded. “And such people are unlikely to balk simply because you are a waterbender. I admit it might have been easier to call on our people’s loyalty had we not been declared traitors, but that time is past. We have both seen what waterbenders can do. You will be a great help.” He sighed. “And given we are alone, and in hiding, it is a great relief to know that one of us will not be without bending during the eclipse.”

Zuko winced. He’d been without his bending before, but Ty Lee had never intended to kill him. Eight minutes without it, without armed backup, when anyone with the brains to look out a window could know firebenders were helpless… not a good situation.

I can’t tell Jinhai. Not until it happens. Maybe the Earth Kingdom has better astronomers than I know, good enough to keep track of the heavens the way the Fire Sages do. But I doubt it. There’s an eclipse every four years, somewhere. If they’d known, they would have used it sometime this last century. So they don’t. And if they don’t - I’m not going to make Professor Tingzhe choose between his nation and his family.

“As for specifics on how waterbending will help,” Iroh smiled, “I have some ideas.”

“Trade you for some on the fortifications,” Zuko offered.

“Oh?” Iroh looked interested.

“We’re going to have to be ready for any element,” Zuko pointed out. “I have some plans for what we can do if we’ve got metal, or if we have to stick with just wood.”

Sleep would be a while coming, but Uncle’s look of approval was worth it.


“Okay,” Suyin said dubiously, holding the dried oak leaf by its stem. Gripping his own, Jinhai looked equally confused. Watching from the corner as she mended a sleeve, Meixiang didn’t look confused - but she didn’t look about to explain, either. “I’m not exactly sure how a leaf is supposed to teach me to fight….”

“Uncle would say something about tiny acorns and mighty oaks, but I’ll spare you the proverbs,” Lee said wryly. “This is actually two lessons. But they’re related. Suyin, you’re getting the moves down, which means it’s time to show you what happens when you have to fight distracted. Which is going to be most of the time. Until you’ve had a lot more practice, any time you fight, thinking is going to go right out the window. So I’m going to show you what that’s like now. That way, if you do get in a fight, you’re less likely to panic. If you stay in control, even if you can’t think, you’re going to react correctly. Which means you live.”

Swallowing hard, Suyin nodded.

“Jinhai. Your lesson is also about control,” Lee went on. “Control your breathing, and you control your fire. This is going to show you exactly how that works.” He gripped the center of Jinhai’s leaf between two fingers, and a spark blazed. “Focus on the fire. Keep the flame burning as long as you can. Slowly. So it takes as long as you can make it to reach the edges of the leaf.” Lee smirked a little. “It’s okay if you mess up. I brought plenty of leaves.”

As one, the two siblings looked over at Lee’s kit. And the paper sack of leaves. Suyin stifled a giggle; not fast enough, though, and Jinhai wrinkled his nose at her.

“Don’t worry. She’s not getting off that easy.” A jab of Lee’s fingers, a wash of heat-

Suyin didn’t drop the leaf. But she felt sweat prickle all over, her breathing quicker, heart speeding up. Fire, it’s on fire, I’m not a bender….

“Suyin.” Lee’s voice was eerily calm. “I know you’re scared. That’s the point. Combat is the scariest thing there is. Fire can’t even come close. I have the fire, Suyin. I won’t let it burn you. Breathe.”

In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Take your stance.

It was like forcing her thoughts through stone. Everything was too bright, too loud, too fast. Dimly she saw a flare as Jinhai gasped, saw Lee walk across the cellar to give her brother another leaf and some encouraging words. She couldn’t hear what. She wasn’t sure she would have understood if she had.

“Suyin.” Lee was in front of her, gently turning her to face away from her brother. “He burned you a couple times?”

I’m not going to cry. I’m not. Eyes brimming, she nodded.

“You love him, but you’re afraid.” Lee held her gaze, understanding. “That’s okay. That’s what this is for. Partly. You have to respect fire. But if you’re afraid, you’ll make the wrong decision when it matters. So we’re going to get you past that. Still breathing?”

Mute, Suyin nodded again. In and out. In, and out.

“This is hard,” Lee said seriously. “I know that. But I also know you can do it.” He guided her over to the futon. “So we start over. This is how you fall, when you can’t use one of your hands.”


Footsteps stomped deliberately down the stairs, and Zuko bit back a curse. We must have gone longer than I thought.

“Min. Jia.” Meixiang’s voice was warm, but not entirely welcoming. “You’re early.”

“Why does he have his hands on Suyin?” Min bit out.

Jia smirked behind him. “And why didn’t you mention he wasn’t bad looking, in a scruffy kind of-”

Letting Suyin up from the pinning hold, Zuko gave Jia a hard look.

“…Ugh.”

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

“You two-!” Suyin blazed.

“Suyin.” Meixiang’s tone was hard. “Forgive my children’s ill manners, Lee. They should know by know what full-contact training looks like. And that not all of us escaped the war unmarked.” She shook her head. “We are going to talk, later. I am very disappointed in both of you.”

What am I supposed to say? Zuko wondered. “I forgive you”? I’m a lousy liar. And I’m not the one Min really insulted. Doesn’t he respect his sister’s ability to protect her own honor?

Then again, the Earth Kingdom didn’t teach women to fight. How messed up was that?

Deliberately turning his back on the stairs, Zuko reached out for Jinhai’s slow-burning leaf. “I think that’s enough for today.”

“Aww.” But Jinhai handed the leaf over, gaze still sliding toward his older brother.

“If you want to practice this, get your parents’ permission first, so someone can spot you,” Zuko said plainly. “And do it right over a sand bucket. So if something goes wrong, all you have to do is drop it.” He hoped he hadn’t let the stab of hurt show. He was used to reactions like Jia’s, but Min-

He’s Jinhai’s brother. You’re just his teacher. Let it go.

But that didn’t feel like the right thing to do either. He didn’t intend to interfere with family loyalties, Meixiang should know that even if Min didn’t-

Earthbender. This isn’t about loyalty. I don’t know what it is… but I can’t let him think he can cut in on their lessons.

Right. Stick to the plan. “There was one more thing I wanted to show you,” Zuko stated. “If Madam Wen doesn’t mind a little experiment? Something the professor said gave me an idea.”

Meixiang raised curious brows. “Let’s see it, then.”

Burning leaf still in hand, Zuko reached into the bag for another handful. Walked to the center of the cleared floor, lit all his leaves from the first, and tossed them into the air.

Move; like water, just a little sharper….

He swept his arms across. Burning leaves followed the arc, swirling in their own hot wind.

Pull, but gently. You don’t want to pull the flame free. You want it to carry its own fuel.

Which wasn’t classic firebending at all. But he’d thrown Sozin’s style against the Avatar a dozen times. It didn’t work.

He can snuff out a fire that’s just chi. But if something’s on fire - he’s not so good with that.

And neither is Azula.

Control kept the leaves burning slowly. But he held a loose grip on the fire, not a tight one that would rip it right off the leaves. Careful… gentle… keep everything in motion….

Swirling leaves echoed swirling hands. Zuko turned, and fire twisted around him in a burning whirlwind.

It works!

Flames burned higher as his heart soared; he almost laughed. No one’s seen firebending like this. Not since-

Kuzon. He didn’t know how he knew. He was just sure, the way he knew the sun would rise tomorrow.

Kuzon knew healing. He knew airbenders. He must have tried this.

Great-grandfather. Thank you.

Wind slowed as he slowed, bringing his hands up in the opening move of streaming water, gathering fiery bits in a globe between his hands. Zuko felt through the cellar for any other fire, marking his own internal flame, and Jinhai’s, searching for any stray sparks….

And exhaled softly, letting fire die to cool ashes.

“Wow,” Jinhai breathed.

Min, Zuko was grimly amused to note, suddenly didn’t look sure of himself at all.

Think, he willed the teenage earthbender. I don’t care how good your teachers tell you you are. I’ve fought earthbenders. If you haven’t fought firebenders - believe me, you don’t want to start with me.

And I don’t want to fight you. I’m here for Jinhai and Suyin. I’m even here for you, you jerk.

You don’t want to lose your family. Ever.

Maybe Min would think about it. Maybe Uncle would have a better idea. Right now, he didn’t know what else to try. Earth might not have the determination of fire, but they had a stubborn persistence that fixed them to a chosen spot; a fort, a city, a point of view. He wasn’t sure how to dislodge Min from his “I hate firebenders” stand without using overwhelming force… and that would not have a beneficial effect on Jinhai’s training.

So be like water. Evade and redirect. See what happens.

“I’ll have to tell my husband about that move,” Meixiang mused. “It reminds me of the sandbenders he’s described a few times.” She nodded, as if to herself. “I’m sure he looks forward to discussing that with your uncle at the potluck.”

“You what?” Min started. And cut himself off at his mother’s sharp look.

“I know Uncle’s looking forward to that,” Zuko said politely, deliberately ignoring the tension in the air. He’d eaten dinners with worse enemies. And Iroh was looking forward to this, cooking and all.

The anniversary’s coming up. He should - he should have some time to be happy. Before then.

Min wasn’t cruel, after all. Just pigheaded and ignorant. He could survive that.

Exchanging bows with his students, Zuko let Meixiang escort him to the door. And tried to ignore a sudden shiver of foreboding.

Pigheaded, ignorant, and knows I’m a firebender. But he won’t do anything to expose me. He wouldn’t put Jinhai in that kind of danger.

Spirits, I wish I could believe that.


Jumpy as a rabbiroo on hot coals, Huojin thought ruefully, glancing at Lee out of the corner of his eye as the teen attacked his mochi. Much like a canny but harassed Guard commander would, taking apart a hostage situation.

Poor kid. He’s trying, he really is. He just doesn’t do normal.

Oh, Lee knew which utensils to use, and why; Amaya had given him that much to build on-

“So, what do you do for fun?” Jia gave him a bright smile, only betrayed by the wariness in her eyes.

“I don’t.”

-He just absolutely failed at small talk.

“Is he always that serious?” Luli whispered in Huojin’s ear, eyes dancing.

“Pretty much,” Huojin murmured back.

“Aww. Poor kid….”

Down at the children’s end of the table, twelve-year-old Lim and nine-year-old Daiyu were happily chatting away with Suyin… and tolerating Jinhai. Which was about as much as you could expect at their ages, especially after the firebending little scamp had gone after Daiyu’s braids with a glue pot a few months back.

Can’t really blame Lee for not having a hobby, Huojin admitted to himself. Between the clinic and keeping the kid out of trouble, who’d have time?

Not to mention the waterbending. Oma, Shu, and Agni. If Lee was training that on top of everything else - when did he sleep?

“Always busy, my nephew,” Mushi smiled. “I have tried to interest him in Pai Sho, but he usually prefers studying maps. Or fishing, once in a while.”

“Too bad you’re not out with the fleets,” Min said dryly.

“That would make it hard to study with Master Amaya,” Lee said levelly.

“Like you’d really miss that,” Min said skeptically.

“Yes. I really would.”

Oh no, Huojin almost winced, hearing that level, carefully calm tone. Not good.

He couldn’t blame Amaya for wanting a nice, quiet evening to herself after a week of Lee and Mushi’s havoc. But they really could have used a good calm voice of reason right about now.

Still, Luli hadn’t been a Guard’s wife this long by accident. She stood, with an easy smile. “Well, it’s never too late to learn to have a little fun. Right?” She winked at Meixiang.

“The ruby chard’s about done in anyway,” Meixiang nodded. “Might as well tear up there, if you want.” She waved a shooing hand at Lee, smiling wistfully.

The downright grateful look the young man cast her didn’t belong on any teenager being yanked out the door by a gleeful group of kids, Huojin reflected sourly.

Except it did. Because a great name’s son apparently had two main responses to any threat: kill, or ignore. Given he probably didn’t want to kill Min, and the young earthbender was making it impossible to ignore him… yeah.

And from that Look of Doom Tingzhe’s got, they’ve had this discussion before. And it didn’t take. Clearing his throat, Huojin shoved his chair over to put a deliberately heavy hand on Min’s shoulder. “Piece of advice? Don’t do that.”

“Why?” Min said sourly. “Because he’s a firebender?

“No,” Huojin said flatly, not letting his gaze off the teenager as Jia gasped and the rest of the adults tensed. “Because he can break you in half with his bare hands. Literally.” He’s trained, he’s lethal, and he’s having a really bad year. “What’s your problem with him, anyway?”

“He’s Fire Nation.” Min said it like a curse. “You know what they train firebenders for.”

“We do,” Mushi said, green eyes weighing Min and finding him wanting. “But I can assure you Lee has never been part of a military action against the Earth Kingdom. He has faced earthbenders of the Army, yes; but that was only to rescue me, when I had done something a bit foolish. Even so, he left them alive. Bruised, and buried underneath their own rocks, but otherwise unharmed.” He folded his hands before him. “But do you know what firebenders are trained for? I suspect you do not. Or you would not be making yourself an obstacle to a key strategic objective. That objective being,” Mushi went on over Min’s noise of protest, “the safety of Jinhai, your family, and all of us. Jinhai must learn, or all of your family is at risk. You are Jinhai’s brother, and he looks up to you. Which means my nephew is considering his options for dealing with you very carefully.”

Jia paled a little. Proving yet again she’s a lot smarter than she lets on to her friends, Huojin thought wryly.

“Are you going to let him sit there and say that?” Min said hotly, glancing at his father.

“Min,” Tingzhe said with strained patience, “you are not listening-”

“Oh, I’ve listened enough. Strategic objective? You say a teacher has to respect his students. And you’re letting someone teach Jinhai who doesn’t even care about him?” Scraping his chair back, Min glared at Mushi. “Everything was fine before you showed up! You tell him he can consider his options all he wants. I’m going to do what’s right.”

“Min-” Meixiang started.

“I’ll be back by curfew!”

In the wake of her brother storming out, Jia smiled weakly. “I’m… going to go brush up my haiku. Need to be in shape for the competition.” Bowing politely, she escaped upstairs.

“Oh, this is going to end well,” Huojin said sarcastically. “Professor….”

Tingzhe held up a hand, face sober. “Believe me, we have some idea of exactly how unpleasant this could become.”

“What, worse than you’ve already said?” Luli cocked her head, insatiably curious. “I’m sure it’s not going to be pretty, but they’re just boys. Let them beat each other up a little, and… Meixiang?”

Moving around the table to Mushi’s chair, the professor’s wife was shaking her head sadly. “I don’t think Lee knows how to be just a boy. Or am I wrong?” Bending, she whispered something into his ear.

Mushi didn’t turn a hair, but he did sigh. “Perhaps we might continue this with more privacy?”

“My study,” Tingzhe suggested. Frowned at Huojin and Luli. “You may not want to be aware of the details. For your own safety. Meixiang and I already know the most dangerous part….”

“I believe we can speak without mentioning names,” Mushi said genteelly. “If, that is, you truly wish to know more than you do.” Another sigh. “I will say this. If Min truly believes Lee does not respect Jinhai, and says so… he is likely to learn a very painful lesson.”


“The Fire Lord,” Huojin said faintly. Luli was gripping his hand, jade eyes wide. “He was up against the Fire Lord?

“It was the Fire Lord’s war room,” Meixiang said bitterly. “If he chose to take offense - yes, he could claim Lee showed disrespect.” Her gaze flashed at Iroh. “It was cruel.”

“It was,” Iroh acknowledged sadly, recalling her silent, respectful whisper: Prince Iroh. “I should never have allowed my nephew into that chamber. I should have realized he could not keep silent, when he saw an outrage to our people. I should have known he… trusted too much.”

“He said he didn’t even try to fight.” Tingzhe grimaced at Iroh’s sharp look. “Don’t blame him. He was very careful not to give specifics. But spirits, I can see why.”

“It was the best decision he could have made,” Iroh said grimly. “I recently learned of events around his mother’s disappearance.” He winced. “I knew my brother favored Lee’s sister as heir. I did not imagine the lengths he might go to.”

Luli and Tingzhe paled; Meixiang swallowed dryly. But Huojin….

Huojin looked at him, anger channeled into a professional’s deliberate focus. “You think your brother helped make this happen. To kill Lee.”

“I believe he would have found such a death convenient,” Iroh said coldly. “But as Lee was on his knees, even the Fire Lord had no excuse for a lethal blow.” He shook his head. “I am certain my brother found that very unpleasant. He preferred Lee’s sister, that I knew. How much so, I did not realize, until she appeared with orders to take us back in chains… alive or dead.” Iroh sought Tingzhe’s gaze directly. “She is an excellent firebender. A true prodigy. Had I been a moment slower to block her strike - Lee had no defense against the move she unleashed. Most believe no such defense even exists.”

“His sister tried to…?” Luli was trembling; in outrage, not fear.

You have found great fortune in your wife, Huojin, Iroh approved. I only hope my nephew is as lucky. “You begin, I think, to understand why my nephew has no idea what to do about Min.”

“Oma and Shu.” The professor held his head in his hands, and drew a sharp breath. Straightened his shoulders, and looked up. “You’re the tactician, General. What do you suggest?”

“General?” Luli and Huojin said, aghast.

“Retired,” Iroh smiled. “And - wait.” He closed his eyes, feeling at that sense of banked fire, far more controlled than Jinhai’s tiny flicker. “Someone is about to knock.”

A few more moments, and his nephew’s fist thumped the door. “Uncle? Professor?”

Tingzhe raised a brow. “Come in.”

The door opened a few inches. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, it’s just-” Zuko’s gaze swept serious faces, and he winced. “What’s hide ‘n slide?”

Ah. “Like hide and explode, I believe,” Iroh said thoughtfully. “But no explosions.”

“Oh.” Zuko still looked dubious.

“And no knives,” Meixiang put in quickly.

“Okay.” Zuko looked a bit less glum. “Thanks.” He shut the door, and retreated.

“No knives?” Tingzhe got out, while the other two were still gaping.

“We play rough, dear.”

“How’d you know he was coming?” Huojin inquired, still eyeing the door.

“A skilled bender can feel his element nearby,” Iroh informed him. “All firebenders carry our own fire within. My nephew can likewise sense me, when he is calm. Which is not often,” he admitted. “So. To answer your question of why we are here, Madam Meixiang…. Bear with an old man a bit longer.” Spirits. In some ways, this was the hardest part.

Their children, and their lives, are at risk. They have the right to know.

“After the duel, the Fire Lord said that by refusing to fight, my nephew had shown shameful weakness,” Iroh went on. “He was banished, and sent- well. That is a tale for another time. Let us only say, the task was one I knew Lee would never survive alone. So I joined him. I hoped to keep him alive; to teach him, and mend the worst of my brother’s wounds. And I hoped, away from the Fire Nation, we might find - a chance. Something unexpected, that could be turned to our advantage.”

“I believe you had a reputation for that,” Tingzhe said dryly. “Which rather makes me wonder why your brother dared to let you run around loose.”

“Ah.” Iroh smiled, a bit sadly. “But I am only a sad old failure who lost his son, his position, and his will to fight. My brother would tell you so himself.”

“Lee said his father dumped him on you.” Huojin’s brows lowered in unpleasant conclusion. “He meant that, didn’t he?”

“I was grieving my son; I did not return home until some months after Lee’s mother vanished,” Iroh said levelly. “I regret that, as well. His father would not have protected him from his sister, and no one else would have dared. She is… cruel. She enjoys others’ pain. And she is very skilled at deceiving people into believing she is innocent as a koala-lamb.” He lifted a brow. “Should you see her, I advise that you run. Swiftly.”

“But she can’t get into Ba Sing Se,” Luli objected.

“Madam Luli, we are in Ba Sing Se,” Iroh pointed out. “I admit we had aid, but strategy and tactics are in our blood. Lee found his own way into the North Pole, into the very heart of that fortress of ice, before Zhao broke in with all his forces. I doubt she would ever of her own will pass as a mere refugee, but if my brother ordered her to do so, she would. She is loyal to him.” His voice dropped, sad. “Which is, in a way, the most heartbreaking fact of all. For all my brother’s flaws, his children love him, and gave him their loyalty without reservation. And he… I begin to doubt he has ever been loyal to anyone. Even our father.” Iroh gazed into memory, heartbroken. “Especially our father.”

“Your father? But that would have been-” Tingzhe cut himself off, obviously juggling names and dates in his head. “Oh my. That - I can’t even think of a word….”

“Does Lee know?” Meixiang asked quietly.

Iroh breathed in, and sighed. “Yes.” He regarded her soberly. “But I did not. And for years, Lee was too frightened to tell me what he knew. His grandfather was dead. His mother, vanished, and none would say where. And he already knew his sister saw him as an obstacle to be removed. He has been very frightened, for a very long time. Often he buries fear in anger, which can be useful when you are fighting for your life. But he knows he must not do so around Jinhai.”

Huojin groaned. “So basically, the kid’s scarred up inside as a wharf weevil-rat, clueless about normal nasty but don’t want to kill you teenagers as a badger-mole, and mean in a fight as a pygmy puma cornered by scorpion-vipers.”

“Very well put,” Iroh admitted.

“He’s going to tie Min up and leave him dangling under a bridge, isn’t he?” Luli grinned wryly.

Delighted, Iroh beamed at her. And raised an inquiring brow at Tingzhe. “Would you be offended if I suggested such to Lee? It would be far safer for Min than most scenarios I had imagined.”

“You had better not be asking what I believe you are,” Tingzhe warned, fingers tapping restlessly on one knee.

“He’s not,” Huojin said frankly. “Lee’s messed up and hot-tempered, sure. But he’s not looking for a fight.”

Luli rubbed his shoulder, eyes rueful. “Too bad for him, Min is.”

“Right,” Huojin nodded. “So what I think the general’s asking for is - what do you call it, rules of engagement?”

“Even so,” Iroh inclined his head. Regarded the professor again. “My nephew is a just and honorable young man. And he will behave as such. If someone will simply inform us what is appropriate.”

Meixiang held her peace, as her husband crossed his arms and eyed Iroh dubiously.

Well. No one said convincing an earthbender of something he did not wish to accept was easy.

At least Zuko is having fun.


Lying prone in the shadow cast by the side wing’s roof, hands braced against tiles as he listened to mutters of broken haiku, Zuko grinned. The kids currently hiding and searching in Meixiang’s garden knew he had to be somewhere, but they were looking down, not up.

Earth Kingdom. Heh.

Well, that wasn’t quite fair, he allowed, as Jinhai peeked behind the garden’s water barrels to discover a shrieking Lim. A lot of Fire Nation soldiers never seemed to get the knack of looking up, either.

Stupid. Air Nomads aren’t the only ones who can take the high ground.

The Dai Li might have a clue, given the way they’d dropped off the rooftops after the umbrella spirit. And wouldn’t that be ironic, having something in common with the people who’d kill him if they knew who he really was?

They fight spirits. I’ve been after the bridge to the Spirit World. And we’ve both got our orders.

Orders a lot of the rest of the world hated. Orders sanctioned by their rightful rulers; if the Earth King didn’t know exactly what the Dai Li were up to, he damn well ought to.

Yeah. He had a lot more in common with the ominous earthbenders than he liked to think….

Huh. And there they are.

He resisted the temptation to wave to the shadows a few roofs over. They probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

And I’m just fine up here. We’re playing a game.

And possibly the Dai Li recognized that. They weren’t doing anything. Though they seemed to be waiting for something….

Tiles shivered under his hands, and he didn’t move fast enough.

Baked clay clamped around him like a vice, and Zuko felt the weight of several people tremble through the wall and up onto the roof. “See how you like that move, Min!” someone sneered. “Man, you think you’re going to be Dai Li? You didn’t even feel it coming!”

Teenage boys. Hate them. Hate them all, Zuko decided, gripping red-hot fury. “I’m not Min,” he growled.

“Hey… he’s not,” another boy said, surprised. “So what do we-”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Third voice, Zuko registered, breathing slow and controlled as he flattened pinned hands against the roof and stoked the fire inside. He’s in charge. He’s smug-

“He’s here. Which makes him another refugee friend of the family. So he’ll just have to carry the message.”

Even as tiles tightened, Zuko smirked. He was pinned down. Couldn’t obviously use fire. And there were three of them.

Too bad for them.


“I understand your concern,” Iroh said patiently, “but-”

The study lamp flared, flame blazing up and flickering. In a deliberate pattern.

Oh no.


Hot tiles shattered, and Zuko’s hands had room to move.

Come!

You didn’t need to see your element to bend it. You just had to feel it.

Male voices yelped as water slapped them, and his tile prison loosened. It was all he needed.

“Get inside!”

He heard the children’s startled yells, but they were far away. He had three earthbenders to deal with here and now; three young, stupid teenagers, who’d already shown they could bend deadly tiles, and there were innocent civilians down there-

A slash of fingers through water, and he had two streams floating over his hands. Bend and spin and breathe….

Ice locked four feet to the roof. The third bender yelped, feet slipping out from under him, and yelled all the way down.

If it’d been just him, Zuko would have immobilized them completely before he jumped off the roof. But it wasn’t, and while Suyin was urging Lim and dragging Jinhai back to the house, Daiyu was approaching the swearing teen with innocent intent to help-

Snarling, the teenager swatted her away with a fist of earth.

Bad move.

Zuko dodged the head-sized earth missiles with barely a thought. Blows flying his way weren’t heading for the children… and there was another reason to be on the ground rather than the roof. The water was closer.

One stream whipped out, bound busy arms. Another entangled legs before the teenager could fully rise. A second freezing breath.

Down, and out.

Something whistled through air; he almost ducked.

Throwing tiles, Zuko registered through that first bolt of pain. He felt blood trickling, and dismissed it; scalp wounds always bled, and he wasn’t dead yet. It’s dark, they can’t possibly see well enough to be sure it’s me they’re hitting-

…Damn, I really make a lousy water wall.

Wavering water slowed the tiles, but didn’t stop them. He could dodge, but the kids - damn it, he just wasn’t good at defense!

So attack.

Compressing water might be hard, but moving it was easy. Zuko swirled it into a twisting wave between himself and the tiles, using the mini-waterspout’s gathering momentum to hurl them back-

And the weight of ice and bodies on a tile-stripped, fire-weakened roof, finally did exactly what he’d been hoping for.

Crack. Crunch.

“My robes!” Jia shrieked.

And all the tiles stopped.

Professor Tingzhe was beside him, standing steady as a mountain, hands shaped in a formal gesture of halt that probably held every inch of earth within a block still as ice. Not that the two now half-through the roof could have mustered much opposition.

“What,” the professor said sternly, “is the meaning of this vandalism?”

“Not vandalism,” Zuko got out, gathering water back into a swirling tentacle at his side as two little girls hit Luli’s arms and started wailing. “They said they had a message for Min.”

“Oh, did they.” Huojin’s voice dripped unpleasant implications, as he glared at the frozen teen. “Which one of you fine, upstanding young gentlemen hurt my daughter?”

Even frostbitten, the boy started to sweat.

“Get. Out. Of. My. Room!” Jia appeared at her window, arms circling in a vicious overhead arc-

And her two intruders, arms pinned in tiles, shot back out of the hole in her roof. And dropped.

They stopped, barely an inch above the ground. It wasn’t easy to make out in the light of the lamp Meixiang had brought along, but Zuko was pretty sure Tingzhe smirked.

All of them accounted for, Zuko thought. Uncle’s got Jinhai and Suyin. Madam Luli’s got her kids. Time to let the Guard handle this.

Relieved, he let borrowed water flow back to the barrel, and stepped out of the line of fire. And accepted his waterskin from Iroh with a murmured, “Thanks.”

“Very restrained,” Uncle Iroh approved. “Well done.”

“I hope so, Uncle,” Zuko muttered. “There are Dai Li a few roofs north of here.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Three forms, Shirong thought with great satisfaction, inhaling his morning cup of tea. Three trained earthbenders - not experienced, but they’ve had years of training - and Lee took them out with three forms. That he learned in a week.

Well… three waterbending forms. What he’d seen from the rooftops hinted at something else, as well. Which was why he was sitting in this particular teashop, out of uniform, waiting for one of its employees to take a well-deserved break.

Not what I would have expected, at all, Shirong mused, sipping the last of his drink. But it makes sense. I would have said it was impossible… but they’re obviously here.

Though if I am right - well, there’s a kettle of eel-catfish, indeed.

Ah. Pao was stalking out to the front, which meant his target was safely out the back. Paying, the Dai Li agent disappeared into the crowd, slipped up and out of sight up a few handy walls, and descended again behind the teashop.

Mushi, he somehow wasn’t surprised to note, didn’t turn a hair. “Good morning,” the elderly gentleman said graciously.

“So it is,” Shirong agreed.

“I believe my nephew has described you well,” Mushi noted. “Though I could always be mistaken.”

Well, well; that’s where Lee gets it, Shirong thought, amused. Not that the young waterbender could do subtle, not with his temper. But at least he could see why Lee recognized it. “Since I know Pao’s as stingy with his breaks as everything else… I admit, when Lee borrowed that scroll, I expected him to be diligent in practice. I never expected what I saw last night from someone with no experience bending.” He paused, deliberately. “Or should I say, someone with no experience with bending forms.”

Mushi raised an eyebrow.

“Forgive the impatience of the young,” Shirong said sardonically, “but how did two colonials get all the way to Ba Sing Se?”

“Very carefully,” Mushi smiled. “Though it is not as unlikely as you seem to believe. Lee and I left those territories many years ago. For reasons you can likely guess,” he added dryly. “Is his style that distinctive?”

“Probably not to most people,” Shirong said candidly. “I’ve seen a fair number of waterbenders. They wait for you to come to them. Lee goes right down an enemy’s throat.” He raised a brow right back at the older man. “Effectively, too. I imagine he had a very good teacher.” You are not a harmless old man, and we both know it. Which makes me wonder why you’re taking such pains to look like one.

Mushi regarded him for what felt like ages, and finally sighed. “I have heard stories of the Dai Li, as you can imagine. But I have also heard my nephew’s account of you, and I believe you do not wish him harm. Though if that is so, the events of last night bear a bit of explanation.”

On one hand, the Dai Li didn’t have to explain themselves to anyone. On the other…. He’s fought spirits, too. “Lee had things under control,” Shirong said bluntly. “Or close enough. Though I was actually watching to see what Min would do with the rabid little upper-class boys he’s managed to show up. Our nobles are a bit touchy about deference and proper place. Not that they’d ever stoop to be Dai Li, but spirits forbid a refugee’s son should have the strength to qualify.” He hesitated. And tried to look as if he weren’t.

Ask. You’ll never get a better chance.

“Is it true that generals in the Fire Nation aren’t nobles?”

“Yes, and no,” Mushi said levelly. “Most in high ranks are powerful firebenders, and most of those are of noble blood. But not all. Tactical gifts and the ability to bend are not always found in the same person.” He smiled. “I begin to see why my nephew has allowed you so close. You are both curious of how things might be. If you had been born different people. If there was no war… or rumors of war.”

Nice save. “I’m curious as to how Lee was born who he is,” Shirong said pointedly.

“Lee’s mother concealed her heritage,” Mushi shrugged. “I learned of her healing by accident; Lee was a difficult birth. But she was my beloved sister-in-law, and I would not betray her.”

Shirong’s eyes narrowed, thinking of that scar. “But someone figured it out.”

“No, I do not believe so.” Amusement flickered in Mushi’s gaze. “Lee is a poor liar, but good at keeping secrets.” He sighed. “No. What you think of… was dealt not because he is a waterbender, but because he has a heart.” He shrugged slightly. “I have traveled much in my life. This time, we simply traveled… further.”

“I see where Lee gets his knack for understatement,” Shirong said dryly. “You realize you could both be arrested as spies.”

“We could,” Mushi acknowledged. “I can only assure you that we are not. We are, indeed, what we seem: two refugees, fleeing… what lies outside Ba Sing Se.”

With that, he was silent. Waiting.

Like Lee. He knows when to stop talking.

Who are you, really?

But it wasn’t quite time to press that question. Not yet. “You’re an interesting man, Mushi,” Shirong stated. “We’ll have to talk again sometime.”

Mushi inclined his head graciously. “I hope you enjoyed your tea. I will ask Pao if he wishes to introduce more varieties of oolong.”

Meaning not only had Mushi seen him in the shop, Shirong considered as he slipped back out of sight, but he’d matched teas to faces. A useful habit for any shopkeeper… or spy.

But they’re not spies. No one would make someone as visible as Lee an agent.

Mushi, though….

Damn. A traveler. A colonial who knows how to fight, but can also blend in. Who knew Lee’s mother was a waterbender and kept quiet - it makes sense. A lot of sense.

So. A possible spy in a position to teach, and a nephew quietly, obviously devoted to him.

Bets Lee was meant to follow in the family trade, anyone?

Settling into an out of the way corner of rooftop, Shirong leaned back for some serious thought. On the one hand, this was good news. Lee wasn’t just a fair catch. He was an excellent catch, already primed and prepared for the hard choices and impossible situations an agent found himself dumped into without warning. On the other….

I don’t think I’ll tell Quan where Lee’s from. Yet.

Dai Li mindbending didn’t quite work on those with Fire Nation ancestry. Not the way it should. You could brainwash them, yes. It took longer, a lot longer, but it could be done. You could implant false memories, take over their will-

But if any command pitted them against their loyalties, they just - broke. If they didn’t drop dead on the spot, they’d be dead within days. Always.

We can trust Lee, or we can kill him. No middle ground.

Which wasn’t necessarily enough to disqualify the boy as a candidate. Historically, a few people had ended up in the Dai Li specifically because they wouldn’t bend under ordinary treatment. And in almost every case, if you could trace their ancestry back far enough… well.

“Don’t even joke about it, indeed,” Shirong chuckled, recalling Lee’s quietly frantic attempt to deflect him away from any thought of Fire Nation heritage. “One of these days, I have to see you in a topknot.”

Someday after he told Quan the truth. Though how to frame that was going to be tricky. Quan was practical enough to take in a waterbender, colonial or not. Long Feng, though….

He is our leader. But Avatar Kyoshi created us to serve the city, not one man.

A thought Shirong wasn’t entirely comfortable with, no matter how true it was. Long Feng had earned his right to power. He’d fought for them all, almost two decades ago, forcing back one of the darkest hordes of spirits ever to swarm within the walls. Shirong himself still carried scars from those horrible nights; Amaya had helped as many as she could, but she’d had to reserve her power for those most critically injured by fangs and claws and leech-mouths that drained chi away like blood.

The agent winced, as memory roused some of those wounds to aching. There were reasons he wasn’t married. Jagged blue scars, obviously not made by ordinary teeth and claws, tended to make potential lovers… uneasy.

No. There was no question in his mind that Long Feng deserved his position. But the man sometimes seemed to focus purely on Ba Sing Se, as if the war truly did not exist. Witness their current confinement of the Avatar’s sky bison. If Long Feng were so concerned about the Avatar’s effect on the Earth King, wouldn’t it make more sense to send the beast away, and get rid of all the trouble in one fell swoop?

I’m just an agent. I don’t know what our generals are planning. Surely, they have a good reason.

And Shirong wasn’t inclined to second-guess the judgment of the man who’d fought to save all their lives, that horrible moon-dark night. Compared to that, General Iroh’s later siege had been a model of peace and harmony with the spirits.

For a bloodthirsty firebender, he fought cleanly. I wonder what happened to him after he broke the siege?

Nothing good, most likely, given Fire Lord Azulon had apparently named Ozai to follow him instead. And officers under Fire Lord Ozai… didn’t fight cleanly.

“That poor girl,” Shirong murmured, thinking of Lee’s reluctant confession. The waterbender might not have given the gory details… but he could fill those in for himself. Unfortunately.

Such things had happened once or twice during the siege… but no more than that. Prince Iroh’s response to outrages on civilians had always been swift, just, and ruthless. No plague-spirits spread in his wake.

Just fire, blood, and ash, Shirong thought darkly. Half the world they’ve conquered, and they just won’t stop. Spirits, I hate them.

Yet he’d found hate was a very two-edged sword. He’d hated the Fire Nation so much and so deeply, mourning his people’s losses, that he’d been driven to understand them - all the better to destroy them, if he had the chance. He’d studied, delved into archives, attended interrogations of the very few firebenders captured alive….

And one dusty afternoon in the university library had shaken him down to his bones.

Honor. Duty. Benevolence. Respect. Courage. Honesty. Righteousness.

The founding principles of the Fire Nation, according to writings left by Avatar Kyoshi herself.

It didn’t change anything. He still hated them. Still intended to keep their army from disturbing the hard-won peace of Ba Sing Se. By any means necessary.

Yet deep within the hate, there was something… he didn’t know what to call it. But it felt oddly sad.

A colonial waterbender is truer to their principles than their own soldiers. Shirong snorted at the irony. Not that that will be a good argument to use on Quan.

But Quan wasn’t the real problem. Quan hated the Fire Nation as well. Long Feng….

I’ve seen him interrogate prisoners. He doesn’t hate them. He despises them.

And something about that made Shirong very uneasy.

Focus, Shirong told himself. You’ve been given time to recruit Lee. Use it. Let what he can do make his case for him.

In the meantime, he had work to do. There might not be plague on the docks, but rumors like that didn’t get started without something behind them. He hadn’t found out what. Yet.

Time to go hunting.


Suyin tasted dusty futon again, and groaned. I promised myself I wouldn’t stare. I promised.

Yet she had. Again. And Lee had used her distraction, again, to turn what should have been a simple block-and-dodge into another embarrassing defeat. And that didn’t even begin to cover Jinhai’s wildly flickering leaves, and random bursts of sparks.

Lee sighed, and let her up. “All right, both of you stop. It’s obvious neither of you can focus today.”

But his tone wasn’t mean, or even exasperated, Suyin noticed, relieved. Just - patient.

“Is this about last night?” Lee raised that lone brow, eyeing them.

From his corner, her father set down his notes and politely cleared his throat. “I can understand your uncle not wanting to get into details with the Dai Li in the vicinity. But, “my nephew has reason to study with Master Amaya” leaves quite a few questions unanswered.”

Lee took a deep breath, let it sigh out. “Spirits like to mess with me.”

“You’re joking.” But Tingzhe didn’t sound sure himself.

“I wish,” Lee muttered. Raised a hand near his scar, just for a moment. “When - this happened - Master Amaya thinks it burned most of the water out of my spirit. So later, when she helped hide us - I drowned.” Knuckles whitened, before Lee forced fingers straight. “After that, water just started… moving when I got upset.” He dredged up a weak smile. “You should have seen Uncle’s face.”

“I can only imagine,” Tingzhe murmured, dazed.

“Can I learn to freeze jerks, too?” Jinhai said eagerly.

“Ice is waterbending,” Suyin reminded him. “I know Lee said he could move fire in other things, even water… no, you were napping… what?”

Lee was smiling at her. Really, truly, smiling. “Jinhai? Your sister’s a genius.”

“She is?” Jinhai said doubtfully.

“I am?” Suyin echoed.

“Let me get a pot,” Lee said in a rush, and dashed upstairs. And came back almost before the three of them had time to blink at each other, one of Meixiang’s larger metal pots half-filled with water. “If you’re out in plain view, you’re going to need a fire to keep people from getting suspicious. But down here, we can cheat. Jinhai, hands on the pot. Breathe, but hard, not sharp. Push the fire inside out from your hands. We want heat, not flames.”

Jinhai frowned in concentration, and the first tiny bubbles stirred in water, wisps of steam starting to rise.

“Good. Keep it up. And remember how this feels,” Lee directed. “If you ever end up falling through ice, this is something that can save your life.” He frowned. “There’s a couple of other techniques you should know for that, but you need a lot more control of your fire before you start those.” He shrugged. “This, by itself, you can use all kinds of ways. And most people never see it coming. Can you tell me why?”

“Umm….” Jinhai chewed his lip, and shook his head.

“Think about it.” Lee looked over both of them. “What’s the difference between this and the other moves I’ve showed you?”

Moves? Suyin thought, confused. “Jinhai’s not moving.”

“Exactly.” Lee glanced at her father, dead serious. “This is one of the differences between fire and earth. Earthbending, you have to move. Firebending, your chi has to move. Which means, if you know what you’re doing… if you can breathe, you can bend.”

“You charred the tiles to break them,” Tingzhe realized.

“They couldn’t see my hands,” Lee said matter-of-factly. “Once I had enough room to call water up, they were toast.” He looked straight at Suyin. “Breath moves your chi. Maybe you can’t burn tiles, but if you’re trained enough, I know you could break them. And I don’t care how strong a bender is. If you can surprise them, you’ve got a chance.”

Suyin swallowed hard, warmed and shaken all at once. “Is this why the Fire Nation keeps winning?” she asked in a small voice. “They just - keep going, keep fighting….”

I’m sorry! she wanted to say, as so many eyes looked at her. I don’t want to hurt you, any of you. I don’t know why I hurt. I just do….

Yet Lee didn’t look angry. Just - sad. And determined, as he reached into his sleeve and took out a sheathed dagger.

It’s pretty, Suyin thought past the ache in her heart, taking in mother-of-pearl inlay, the water-steel revealed when Lee unsheathed the blade-

Never give up without a fight.

“Uncle says you have to draw wisdom from every nation,” Lee said, holding the blade so she could read it clearly. “He sent this to me before the worst days of my life.” Silent, he turned the dagger.

Made in the Earth Kingdom.

“If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t have made it this far.” Sheathing the blade, Lee made it vanish again, and looked at them both soberly. “You should be proud of your people. All of your people.”

“Your uncle is a very unusual man,” Tingzhe said thoughtfully.

A faint smile touched Lee’s face. “I guess he is.” He reached out to the pot, and nodded. “That’s hot enough. Jinhai? Watch.” Lee breathed out, and scooped-

A globe of steaming water shimmered in his palm.

“Waterbending,” Tingzhe began.

“No,” Lee shook his head. “Firebending.”

Suyin’s jaw dropped. But… if he can… oh, spirits.

“Really?” Jinhai breathed.

“Really,” Lee stated. “That’s the move you use to grab a handful of fire. There’s fire in hot water. Move that, and you can move the water with it. If it’s hot enough.”

“You can teach Jinhai to look like a waterbender,” Suyin blurted out, stunned. “You can - he could use this in plain sight….”

“Didn’t I tell you you were a genius?” Lee smirked at her. Glanced at her father. “I can’t teach him everything with hot water. It’s a lot harder than fire. And if he runs into a real waterbender, they’ll figure out something’s up. But right now, the only waterbenders you’ve got to worry about are me and Amaya. So….” He grinned at them all. “Who feels like getting out of this cellar?”

Jinhai’s cheer shook dust from the rafters.


“Were you scared?”

Zuko glanced at Suyin as they watched Jinhai toss a ball of hot water, giggling. “When water started pulling at me?” he guessed.

Suyin nodded. “I was thinking about it… I know bending’s important to Min, and Jia, and Dad, and probably you and Jinhai too. But if the world started changing on me… I know I’d be upset. And I thought, maybe….” She shrugged, shy.

“Jinhai’s very lucky,” Zuko said quietly. I wish I’d had a sister like you. “The world fell out from under me. I didn’t know what to do. What to be.” He breathed out slowly. “But it’s not the first time things… fell apart. So I kept going.”

“It was bad,” Suyin said plainly. “After the Agni Kai.”

Wordless, Zuko nodded. Reached back, and uncapped his waterskin, drawing out a thin stream to wrap around his fingers. “At least getting better this time is a lot more fun.”

Slowly, she smiled.

“But I wasn’t scared. Exactly.” Zuko shrugged. “I would have been, I was just… tired.” He grimaced. “That happens in combat, too. You don’t just get hurt and exhausted. Your spirit gets tired. Uncle says you shouldn’t keep soldiers on the front more than a month, if you can. People need rest. They need to be safe.”

“…Why are you telling me about soldiers?” Suyin asked, voice hushed.

I’ll try to be gentle, Uncle. I just don’t know if that will be enough. “Because you’re good, Suyin,” Zuko said honestly, streaming water back into his waterskin. “You pay attention. You ask questions. And you don’t just practice until you get it right. You go over moves you’ve already learned, to see if you can make them better. You’re good. If you keep it up, you’re going to be very good.”

Dark green eyes widened. “I don’t want to be a soldier!”

Spirits aren’t big on what we want. “But you want to protect Jinhai,” Zuko pointed out. “I know what that’s like. He’s your family. You want to keep him safe.” Uncle says you’re one of us. I believe him. “I’m telling you this in case, Suyin. In case something goes wrong. In case everything goes wrong. If something happens, and you end up outside Ba Sing Se - don’t let anyone tell you girls shouldn’t fight. Just say you had relatives from Kyoshi Island, he’s your little brother, and they can go to Koh’s lair in a handbasket.”

Suyin stared at him.

Zuko reddened a little. Okay, not the most polite way to say it. But maybe she’ll remember it. And if she yelled that at some over-officious Guard, he might just stay stunned long enough for her to grab a weapon and deal with the problem herself.

Try again. “Suyin - I’m telling you because I know you’ll fight. So you need to know how to take care of yourself. Not just during the fight. Before it, and after. After… after is hard.” Zuko swallowed dryly. “It’s not like the plays and the hero-stories. You feel awful. You’re alive, and you’re glad you’re alive - and that feels awful, because someone else isn’t.”

Suyin paled, fists clenching.

“I’m telling you because you love them.” Zuko tried to keep his voice quiet. Gentle. “When we love people, we throw ourselves between them and the fireball. We don’t even think about it.” He took one of her hands, warming the chilled fist between his fingers. “Your mother knows what that’s like. Talk to her.”

Suyin gulped. “She’s… a professor’s wife….”

“She’s your mother. Never mess with a mom. They bite back.” He backed off a step, considering his options. “Just talk to her. I’ve always been in the middle of trouble. She probably has better ideas.”

Suyin nodded, obviously thinking it over. “So what do we do now?”

Zuko saw Jinhai’s globe start to wobble into a puddle, and strode over to heat it again with a touch. “Now, we figure out how to breathe with hot water.”

Jinhai stuck out his tongue. But grinned, and sat down with a dramatic sigh.

Smart kid.


 

“And breathe in,” Amaya directed, water-wreathed hand pressed against scarred skin. Feeling Mushi’s watchful eye, the strength of the moon rising outside the apartment with sunset, the steady pulse of chi beneath her touch. Not as swift or as strong a flow as it should be in whole flesh….

But he’s a fighter. He may be rough at the edges, but he’ll survive. Better; he’s thriving.

Satisfied, she took her hand away, letting water flow back into a basin. “I think we’re done.”

Gingerly, Zuko touched the edge of seared skin. And tried not to look disappointed. “I thought… never mind.”

“I’m a healer, not a spirit,” Amaya said plainly.

“And where it matters most, there is improvement,” Mushi stated, holding up a finger in front of his nephew’s eyes. “Follow.”

Amaya stepped back as the gray-haired firebender guided his nephew through a test Yugoda herself might have used to check peripheral vision. And smiled.

“Very good,” Mushi nodded at last. “The surface remains, but all else has improved.”

Zuko braced himself, and nodded. “Thank you.”

You do mean that. But it still hurts. Amaya sighed, and touched her student’s shoulder, waiting until he reluctantly met her gaze. “In the Water Tribes, a scar is not a mark of shame. It is worn with honor, and respect. It means you survived.”

“It wasn’t worth his time to kill a failure,” Zuko muttered.

Amaya kept herself from flinching, even as she saw Mushi rein in his sorrow. The burn had been dealt by a firebender he trusted….

He’s not a child, Amaya reminded herself. He’s slighter than many of your tribesmen, he’ll never have a spearman’s build, but he’s of age to prove himself in war. He has, from his uncle’s account. “Forgive me. I forget, sometimes, that you’re not just another healer. You’re a blooded warrior. And a warrior doesn’t need sympathy for the scar that failed to slay him.”

Green eyes snapped to hers, startled. And, beyond the shock, calculating.

So very alike. How much of that is blood, and how much training?

Age made a difference; Mushi’s gratitude was a quiet light in his eyes, while Zuko stood straighter. “So… I’ll go see about that duck,” Zuko said in a rush, out the door almost before he finished.

“I’m half surprised he remembered to bring water,” Amaya murmured wryly.

“My nephew is always mindful of his weapons,” Mushi nodded. And smiled at her. “It is hard to raise a young man, sometimes. Those we traveled with were all older men, confident in their skills….”

“And your nephew’s been on the losing side of battles with children,” Amaya sighed, absently spiraling water up out of the basin with a fingertip. “I’ve known young warriors. It speaks well of both of you that he’s not bitter. Avatar or not, it can’t have been easy, seeing your people brushed aside like leaves by a twelve-year-old boy.” She gave Mushi a searching glance.

He inclined his head, but not without a twinkle of humor. “One day, I hope to tell you everything. But for now… yes. It has been difficult. The more so because I did not realize, at first, that my nephew believed he should have been able to turn the tide. It is, after all, what his father claimed he expected.”

Amaya stepped back a bit, absently tossing water between her hands as she considered that deliberate opening, and how best to use it. “I meant what I said. A warrior doesn’t need sympathy. He needs revenge.”

Mushi folded his hands, careful to make no sudden movements. “That would be difficult. I myself do not think I could raise a hand against my own brother, and I am not loyal to him. Lee would be in a far more perilous position.”

“There are more ways to take revenge than just killing a man,” Amaya said levelly. “Sometimes I think my tribe invented most of them. It’s a pity you weren’t born one of us; our chief would never have known what hit him.” She raised a brow at her fellow teacher. “I imagine your plan to create a sanctuary is going to be a fine revenge on someone. Spirits, the Dai Li, the Fire Lord himself - for all I know, all of the above. I’d never accuse you of thinking small.”

Mushi was eyeing her with a delightfully wary respect. “You help those in need. Even the Fire Nation.”

“I help people who happen to be of the Fire Nation,” Amaya corrected. “I save lives where I can. And destroying the Fire Nation would be no more right than destroying the Air Nomads was. But even though my tribe wouldn’t teach me to wage war, I will fight to defend my people.” She gave him a piercing look. “Or is Lee not Water Tribe after all?”

Lee may be. But my nephew-”

“They’re the same.” Amaya streamed water back to the basin, recalling his description of dragons she could sense but not see. “He’s my student as well. It’s good that he has an uncle; I am glad that he has you. But water depends on community. No one in my tribe would ever leave a young waterbender with so little family. It’s just not right.”

Frowning, Mushi lifted a hand to speak - then stopped, and looked aside. Let something fall from his sleeve, and regarded the lotus tile in his palm before tucking it away. “You came from one of the smaller villages. Not the North Pole itself.”

“I went there to train, before I left,” Amaya acknowledged, startled. “How did you know?”

“The main chiefdoms, both North and South, do not consider uncles so important. They trace inheritance through the father’s line. It is the smaller villages who look not for a father, but a mother’s brother.” He smiled. “I would have been honored to be Ursa’s brother.” The smile stayed, but green eyes were deadly serious. “You believe it is blood feud, then.”

“Don’t you?” she said bluntly. “The Fire Lord won’t take the creation of this sanctuary lightly.”

“He will not.” Something hardened in Mushi’s gaze. “But I have reason to believe he will have more strategically critical matters to attend to.”

He means that. Amaya shook her head. “If we are forced to leave Ba Sing Se, will you tell me who you are?”

“If that should come to pass, I will tell you before we leave,” Mushi said quietly. “The risks are great. And would be far greater, to you, if we accepted your offer of kinship.” He sighed. “I am glad you did not ask Lee directly. To protect you, he would refuse. And he would not be kind.”

“Did he do that to you?” Amaya pounced.

“For years,” Mushi said dryly. “I think I have finally convinced him he cannot be rid of me so easily. He has been far better behaved of late.” A slight shrug. “Though in part, that may be due to our encounter with his sister. It is one thing to drive away one you love, to protect them. It is quite another to have them nearly taken from you, and fight desperately to keep them.”

Which explained a great deal. But not, of course, everything. If I ever find out you’re keeping secrets just to keep me wondering, you old fox, you’re going to find yourself treating frostbite, Amaya decided.

Blinking innocently at her, Mushi glanced at the door. “Where is he?”


It was the yelling that drew Shirong’s attention, away from the possible smears of dried blood he’d found on a carpet-seller’s roof. Young, male-

“You bastard!

And obviously fighting mad.

“Stop insulting my mother.”

That voice, Shirong knew. Now what?

“Is that your Lee?” Yunxu, the agent slated to take over the search from him for the night, looked almost awake. Which was about as interested as the man ever got in anything, outside the mindbending rooms under Lake Laogai.

“Hardly mine yet, but yes,” Shirong acknowledged. Peered down into the next alley, where ice glittered around a furious body. “And unless I miss my guess, that would be Jet.”

“Come over here and fight like a man!” the ragged teen yelled, pinned to a wall.

“Do I even have to answer that?” Lee stepped back, water flowing around one hand. “Wake up. You can’t win. You’re not a freedom fighter here. You’re a refugee, just like the rest of us. No, wait; you’re not. My uncle is a respectable teashop worker. I’m a healer’s apprentice. You? You’re a troublemaker, Jet. The Guard let you off with a warning once. I doubt you’ll get a second chance.” His voice dropped, quiet and confident. “Go fight on the Wall, Jet. If you have to hate, take it where it’ll do some good.”

“You think you can stand there and lecture me?” Jet demanded. “I know what you are! Murdering Fire Nation scum-”

Water cracked, whip-fast. A fine red line parted on Jet’s cheek, welling tiny beads of crimson.

So he’s been working on the water whip as well, Shirong thought, satisfied. Good.

“For once in your life,” Lee said, low and cold, “Think. If I’m murdering, sadistic, Fire Nation scum - scum that has you pinned and helpless, that knows exactly how to dismember you and leave the frozen pieces where only the scavenger lizard-birds will find them - why are you still alive?

Jet’s jaw worked, but no sound came out.

“Goodbye.” Turning on his heel, Lee stalked off.

Shirong smirked, watching Jet squirm fruitlessly in ice. The kid has style.

“Should have killed him,” Yunxu said disinterestedly. “I know the type. He’s not going to shut up until he’s dead or mindbent.”

“Do you want me to take him in?” Shirong said neutrally. Altering minds might be necessary, but he didn’t exactly enjoy it. Not the way Yunxu’s associates did.

“No need.” Yunxu sounded almost amused. “Why waste a good setup?”

Shirong inclined his head, acknowledging the truth of that. Spirits were drawn to those already touched by the spirit world. If the creature they were seeking was a predator-

And it probably is.

-Then if it wasn’t stupid or arrogant enough to attack Lee himself-

And it probably isn’t. Not while he’s with people.

-The next best thing would be a human touched by Lee’s bending. A pinned, helpless, angry young man, bent on disturbing the peace of Ba Sing Se.

“Enjoy your night,” Yunxu waved as Shirong left.

“No,” Shirong murmured, once he was certain Yunxu wouldn’t hear. Thinking of spirits, and a troublemaker turned unwilling bait, and the young waterbender who might well have put a merciful dagger through Jet’s heart rather than leave him as a kamuiy’s prey. “No, I don’t think I will.”


“You really put your foot in it this time, Jet,” Smellerbee grumbled, working with Longshot to chip their leader free. Or should that be, former leader? Jet wasn’t exactly taking charge the way he used to.

Then again, maybe he was. But leading here wasn’t like being in charge in the tree village. Grownups didn’t listen to Jet.

And given what he’d been doing, Smellerbee was starting to wonder if she should, either….

She yawned, and shook herself. Prodded Longshot, when the archer seemed dazed. This was no place to nap. Not with Jet in trouble.

“Too scared to finish me off. He must have guessed you guys would be behind me,” Jet said confidently. “The next thing we should do is-”

Longshot flicked him in the forehead.

“What was that for?”

“He’s right,” Smellerbee growled. “Lee was about as scared as Sokka was. Remember him? The kid who didn’t want you to hurt an old guy?”

“That old man was Fire Nation!

“So what?” Smellerbee burst out. “And so what if Mushi is? He’s making tea! That’s all he does. All day! Who’s that hurt, huh? Come on!”

“We don’t let the Fire Nation win! We don’t just leave them alone….” Jet’s voice trailed off. Something seemed to whisper through the air, chill and tasting of salt.

Smellerbee traded a glance with Longshot, and started chipping faster.

She had one arm free, and Longshot had mostly broken Jet’s legs loose. But the older boy didn’t move. Instead, Jet seemed to cock his head, as if listening to something they couldn’t hear. “…Dad?”

Jet’s parents were dead. Smellerbee knew that, the same as she knew about every one of the Freedom Fighters’ lost ones. Just as she knew the wind somehow had a sound like waves lapping on the great lake, coming with the shadow suddenly at the mouth of the alley. A shadow that felt lonely, felt wrong… but Jet was straining toward it, breaking the last of the ice-

“Get away!” Smellerbee yelled, and didn’t care how shrill her voice was, or how puny the knives felt in her hands. Longshot was holding their struggling friend back, and she was all they had. “Get lost! You’re not his father. Get out of here!”

Something chuckled, like seawater through rocks. Long black stretched out like an arm-

A door slammed open. “Here now! What’s all this noise….”

Footsteps. The shadow drew closer.

“…Do I know you?”

Grabbing Jet’s arm, Smellerbee ran. And didn’t look back.


“You fell asleep?” Quan said neutrally.

Yunxu dropped to his knees. “I have no excuse.”

Studying traces left behind, Shirong tried not to glance at either of them. Quan was hard, but fair. “I wouldn’t say there’s an excuse, but there may be a reason.”

Quan crouched to look at drying bits of twisted brown, not touching them any more than Shirong had. “Seaweed?”

“Smells like it,” Shirong nodded.

Quan let out a slow breath. “Not good.”

Now there was an understatement. All water spirits were unpredictable, and tended toward extremes; a river spirit mild as milk toward its denizens might be lethal as a typhoon to invaders. But of all the kamuiy bound to water, those of the sea were the worst. At their mildest, they were uncaring. Those strong enough to put a trained Dai Li to sleep… well.

I was right. We’re dealing with a man-eater.

Had to be. Nothing else would draw a sea-spirit this far from the shore. Salt was scarce; human lives were packed in like the anchovies in the schools off the eastern shore, that boiled water with their bodies. Lonely, desperate people, half of whom didn’t even believe in spirits. The balance of the world was upset, and Ba Sing Se was full of prey.

Sometimes I hate my job, Shirong thought grimly. “Has anyone talked to the waterbenders on the docks? They’re not spirit-touched, but they are benders. They may have noticed something-”

“They’re gone,” Quan said grimly.

“Gone?” Shirong echoed uneasily, as Yunxu finally got to his feet.

“Not a trace of violence,” Quan went on, eyeing seaweed as if it might burst into flames. “Looks like they started vanishing a week ago. We have reports that some said they’d seen an old friend, and had to go. Others… it’s as if they just got up from whatever they were doing and walked away. Of course, they worked with fish. No one would notice a few water-weeds.”

No. They wouldn’t. “Old friends,” Shirong wondered. “Shapeshifter?”

“Probably.” Quan didn’t look happy at the thought. As well he shouldn’t. It narrowed the field of possibilities considerably… but all of those left were lethal.

“And a smart one,” Shirong added, half to himself. “It knows what it’s vulnerable to.”

“Or who’s vulnerable to it,” Yunxu put in levelly. “Water pulls both ways.”

Waterbenders. Shirong tried not to flinch. “Sir-”

“I’ve already placed a watch on Healer Amaya’s clinic,” Quan informed him, brows lifting slightly. “Calm down.”

“I don’t think it’s the healer he’s worried about,” Yunxu said dryly. “He hasn’t given us any oaths yet, Shirong. You shouldn’t get attached.”

“I’m not,” Shirong said sharply. “Just worried. Lee wasn’t raised Water Tribe. If this is a spirit they’d know about, he’ll have no idea how to protect himself.” He glanced at Quan. “And he’s fairly good at spotting us. If we put a watch on him, he may notice, and try to lose them.” Which might run him straight into a kamuiy’s jaws.

“So tell him not to,” Quan said bluntly. “If you think he can keep it to himself. The last thing we need is a panic while the Avatar’s here.”

“Some bridge to the spirit world,” Shirong muttered. “Second outbreak of malicious spirits in as many weeks, and he hasn’t noticed anything?”

“He’s twelve,” Quan said dryly. “And he’s an airbender. The Grand Secretariat practically had to hit him over the head with a rock before he noticed you’re not supposed to bother the Earth King with the world outside the walls. And he’s a monk. If the stories are right, he was raised in a temple, by people who prided themselves on being spiritually aware. There probably wasn’t a malevolent kamuiy within miles.”

Point. Spiritual awareness was well and good. But you had to have something really try to kill you before you developed the spiritual sensitivity to know when Something Nasty wanted you for dinner.

Which is why we’re not monks, Shirong thought wryly. “Given this is now a larger search, sir….”

“I’m reassigning agents to take it over, and we have the Guard looking for Jet and his associates,” Quan said matter-of-factly. “Work on your recruits.” Brown eyes were shadowed. “We need them now more than ever.”


“I don’t usually bring swords to healing sessions,” Zuko observed, following Shirong down through the earthbent tunnel toward an open chamber of green-glowing crystals. A city under the city. Why am I not surprised?

Wait. “There’s water down here,” Zuko breathed, feeling it tug, cool without the touch of sun.

“Quite a bit. That’s why I want you armed,” Shirong said plainly. “As long as there’s something out there, don’t rely on just bending as your only defense.”

I never have. “Something?” Zuko asked pointedly. “You can’t be a little more specific?”

“If I could, we’d be halfway to catching it.” Shirong stopped, just outside an area of more crystals and stronger light. “Go to the left, and stay out of sight. Unless someone gets overenthusiastic and needs your help, I’d prefer it if they had no idea that you’re here.”

Zuko nodded once. “You want to see who’s paying attention to the earth, not just their eyes.”

Smirking a little, Shirong stalked forward.

Zuko waited a few breaths for Shirong to draw their attention, then eased into the cavern, sticking to the shadows cast by the odd half-light of the crystals. Hands tucked into his sleeves, he sat down to watch the mayhem; just another irregular lump on the cavern wall. Think they missed me.

Not that that was such a great accomplishment. Between the crashes, the grating of bent rock, and the playful sparring assaults of various Dai Li agents, the young men in front of him probably would have missed a whole regiment marching through.

A figure in the center caught his eye, narrowly dodging a flung rock glove. Min.

Damn. Given what Shirong had told him about something that might be eating waterbenders, this could make things tricky.

Just keep out of sight, Zuko told himself, surreptitiously heating his waterskin. Amaya had walked him through healing with water instead of fire, but it always seemed to drain him if the water wasn’t warm. Decide on your story, make it simple-

Flesh moved slower than rock, and someone screamed.

Here we go.


There’s at least four who won’t make the cut, Shirong thought, looking at those lined up against the wall out of the action. More than four were injured; some of those Lee was treating had real promise, they just needed a bit more vigorous training to learn when not to jump in front of flying rocks. And one of those Shirong had decided was out hadn’t a scratch on him; that young man just glared out of a body-bind of rocks, after he’d deliberately shoved one of the others into the path of a rising earth pillar.

The Army can have that one, Shirong thought darkly. If you couldn’t trust one of your own to behave honorably in sparring, you definitely couldn’t trust them against spirits-

What’s this?

One of the possibles still standing had just done a startled double-take, and was now marching toward Lee with mayhem in his eyes. “What are you doing here?” Min Wen hissed.

“My job.” Unfazed, Lee finished sealing his patient’s nasty gash, glints of color fading out of water as he bent it back into his waterskin. “Looks like they’re interested in you. Congratulations.”

Min’s eyes narrowed. “Like you really mean that.”

Bad blood between them? With all the time Lee’s spent at the Wen house? Why? Casually, Shirong drifted closer.

Lee sighed. “Yes, I do. If this is what you want to do with your life, good.” He looked into the distance. “At least somebody’s life came out the way they planned it.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Min said tautly.

“I’d say it’s fortunate for you he is,” Shirong said levelly, snickering to himself as Min jumped. “Next up is partner work. And it looks like we’re one short.”

“You want me to-” Min caught the look in his eyes, and swallowed the rest of his protest. “Yes, sir.”

Lee looked equally dubious, if more relaxed. “Steel or bending?”

One of the other survivors snorted. “You think you can fight earthbenders with swords?

“I’ve done it before.”

Not a boast. Not a trace of swagger. Just a simple, level statement. Shirong hid a smirk, knowing more than half the young men here simply wouldn’t believe it.

Their loss.

Min didn’t look as if he doubted it, though. Interesting.

“It’s a spar,” Shirong said plainly. “No killing. No maiming. Outside of that… keep yourself and your partner in one piece.” He waved them toward the others, and watched as Agent Bon picked the first set of pairs to compete.

“Begin!”


Min has no idea what he’s doing.

Zuko grimaced, batting a flying rock away as he ducked. Oh, Min knew earthbending. He wasn’t too bad at sparring, either. Though the whites of his eyes were getting a bit too visible for Zuko’s comfort, and if his moves were any more predictable, you could have set a clock by them.

Which was probably the only thing that had kept them in the game this long. Zuko could work around Min, knowing where not to be. There wasn’t any other option; Min had no clue how to work with a partner.

At least, not one that’s not an earthbender-

Earth trembled near his feet. Zuko slipped sideways away from the opening rift, nudging Min’s shoulder with his own to warn him of the oncoming threat.

Min flinched, and earth roared.

No!

Reflex crossed blades in front of him to ward off his own partner’s blow; he needed fire, needed a shield, but he couldn’t-

Water crashed down.

Zuko held his breath through the wave, rising as it receded, some still lapping hungrily at his sandals. Min was down and coughing, in no shape to defend himself. Their opponents hadn’t been hit nearly as hard; they were damp and wary, but stamped feet to yank up stones to punch-

Wet stones.

Zuko spun in place, swords slashing to swirl up waves as he would a storm of fire. Lashed out, letting water call to water, thirsting for movement and surface-creatures and life-

Stone and water and bodies froze.

I win.

It wasn’t over yet. They still breathed. And it’d take so, so little to surge water into gasping lungs, and drain everything….

No!

Zuko shoved ice back into steaming water, dropping to his knees in formal surrender. “Shirong! Shirong, it’s here!”

“Everyone hold!” the agent’s voice snapped out, before freed rocks could pummel him. “Lee! Where?”

Water yanked at him, cruel as the ocean in a surging typhoon. Enemies; he was surrounded by enemies. But the tide would carry him, strong and sure and forever. All he had to do was slip into the cold….

No! Let go!

Silent, mocking laughter. Cold and seawater and cruelty, and it had him, sure as a frozen riptide. Pulling him under, sealing hope and heart away in ice….

Don’t think. Just do.

Eyes closed, Zuko let his dao fall. Brought his hands up before his mouth, remembering another lethal sea of ice. And breathed.

Breath of fire.

With luck, his hands would hide the tiny flames. Without….

Zuko breathed again, fighting the chill in his blood. If this thing gets me, I’m dead anyway.

In, and out, and let chi fan the flames inside to a bonfire-

Something snapped, a chain of ice shattering. Zuko sagged, barely feeling rough stone gloves catch him.

“You’re freezing.” Shirong’s voice was cold as any ambushed commander. “Where is it?”

“The water,” Zuko managed, trying to turn toward that channel etched in stone. “It’s… moving away….”

“On it,” Agent Bon said grimly, leading a green charge along the sides of the canal. “Get the waterbender out of here.”

Zuko felt Shirong’s nod, but didn’t have time to flinch before he was pitched over the agent’s shoulder. “I can walk!”

“Who’s walking?” Shirong’s stance shifted, and earth shot up under them, rocks parting before them with a grinding moan.

Sunlight.

It blazed down Zuko’s nerves, burning through ghosts of ice. Searing away the strength of the sea’s uncaring cruelty, unearthing worry and fear and the pain of having his family shattered.

But it was his pain. Not the alien thing that had ripped through him from the water, turning his ally into something that would have destroyed them all.

Zuko clung to his scars, and breathed.


Reluctant footsteps. “Is he going to be all right?” Min wondered.

Shirong raised a brow, accepting Lee’s dao from the teenager. The healer himself was seated within grabbing range, closed eyes turned to the sun, meditating as if his life depended on it.

And it very well might.

“He’s warmed up, and he’s not wandering off to get eaten,” the agent said practically. “So far, those are good signs.” Wiping a rag down steel to dry it, he clicked the blades together. “I’m hoping he’ll be coherent soon. Any clues we can get to the nature of this kamuiy would help.” Though he suspected speed was no longer a factor. Not when Bon and his men had come up empty-handed.

“It’s dark water,” Lee rasped.

Shirong let out a relieved breath. “Are you all right?”

“Cold.” Lee cleared his throat, and opened tired eyes to glance around the little-used palace garden they’d surfaced in. “But it’s gone. Doesn’t like sunlight.”

Shirong nodded, adding that to the scant list of what they knew about this creature. “What else?”

“Felt like the sea. Like staring down into deep water, where nothing’s alive, not even seaweed….” Lee shuddered. “The middle of the ocean. Where there’s no one to help. No one to care if you live or die. You’re alone.”

“Is that how it’s luring people?” Shirong asked levelly.

Lee shrugged, hands spread; how the hell should I know? “It got me when I - thought I was outnumbered.”

“When Min hit you,” Shirong said bluntly. And you thought you really were alone.

“Hey!” Min protested. “He’s the one who got caught by a spirit!”

“What part of keep your partner in one piece did you not understand?” Shirong said sharply. “I wanted you working with Lee for a reason.” He shook his head. “We didn’t expect an attack, but we knew something might happen. Given your demonstrated level of skill, I thought you’d be the most capable partner Lee could have.”

Silence. Min’s gaze slid away, and he swallowed.

Angry and embarrassed, Shirong judged. Good. You screwed up, Min. Learn from it.

“It got me through the water,” Lee said quietly. “I was fine with my waterskin. But when I was… scared, and reached out to the channel… sunless water. That’s where it’s strong. It - tried to pull me under. Inside. Through my bending.” He drew deliberate breaths. “It wanted to drown everyone. It’s hungry, and cold, and it tried to - to use me, wrapping its power around mine….” Lee’s voice trailed off, and he paled.

“What?” Shirong asked, alert to danger.

“That’s what he did.” Lee’s fists clenched, rage glittering in fire-green eyes. “That’s what he did, that’s why they died, that-!”

The punch to unsuspecting ground didn’t shock Shirong, though the amount of dust raised took him aback. Yet even that didn’t give him nearly as much pause as the occasional crackling words in Lee’s sudden stream of curses; a litany of odd, sea-touched foul language that almost made him want to cover Min’s innocent ears.

Oh. My. A waterbender who curses with Fire Nation High Court archaisms. Half of which Shirong didn’t recognize, despite his study of that people’s odd second language. You’re lucky I already know what you are.

“-Parents probably got drunk on a moonless midnight-”

Shirong’s brows climbed. “Back up,” he mouthed at Min, waving a warning hand to be sure the teenager got the message. The Fire Nation took lineage seriously. For Lee to be implying what he was - oh my, indeed. “You’ve seen this before?” he said neutrally.

Lee’s fists hit the ground again, knuckles bone-white, anger rising off him in a heat-haze. But he stared into the distance, jaw clenched, hauling in his runaway temper like an anchor chain. “Something like it. Once.” Green eyes closed, conjuring up painful memory. “A waterbender - wanted to hurt the Fire Nation. He let a spirit take him over. The ships… those men had no warning, no chance, I-”

“They were Fire Nation,” Min growled.

Bad call, Shirong winced.

“They were people!” Lee blazed. “When the Dragon of the West broke through the Outer Wall, he let people surrender! This - this thing-” He swallowed, and went on, voice thick with horror. “You look into the water, and all you see is broken ships and broken men. And you can’t help them. You can’t help anyone….”

He’s on the edge. Pull him back. Kneeling by the healer, Shirong put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s over,” he said quietly. “You’re alive. And you can help us, Lee. If something like that is loose here, we need all the help we can get.”

“But if we could turn it against-” Min started.

“Don’t even breathe that,” Shirong said coldly, boring into the teen’s gaze with his own until Min paled. “In fact, you’re going to forget this conversation ever happened. Or you will forget it ever happened. Am I clear?”

“Yes, sir.” But Min still looked unconvinced.

“He doesn’t understand.” Anger was fading from Lee’s voice, swamped by exhaustion. “Guess they don’t teach the laws of war at the university.”

“Like war has any laws,” Min snorted.

“Actually, it does,” Shirong informed him dryly. Leave it to the Fire Nation to write them down. And hold to them. Mostly. “The one Lee’s thinking of, the most basic, is the reason it would be suicide for Ba Sing Se to do what you’re suggesting. It’s called the law of reprisal.” He raised a brow. “In short, don’t do to others what you don’t want blasted right back in your face.”

“Humans don’t get the spirits involved in our wars,” Lee said bluntly. “Spirits aren’t human. They don’t recognize honorable surrender; they don’t even recognize someone just trying to run away. We’re supposed to honor them, and they’re supposed to leave us alone to go on with our lives. Mostly. And if we dishonor them, they’re supposed to go after the humans who broke the rules. Those people. Specifically.” His voice dropped. “Not that they’ve been holding up their side, lately.”

“The definition of broke the rules can be very flexible for malevolent kamuiy,” Shirong said dryly. “In essence, Min? The Fire Nation must not know what happened, or there’d be nothing but ice and ash where the North Pole used to be. But if they ever do find out - given they’re probably not insane enough to pull the same kind of stunt with a fire spirit, this waterbender’s actions would force the Fire Nation to treat every waterbender as if he might do exactly the same thing.”

“Which means the Water Tribes die,” Lee said flatly. “Though maybe you’d think that’s a good thing. Take some of the pressure off the Earth Kingdom. For a while.”

Min, Shirong was grimly pleased to note, looked practically gray. “But - they were defending themselves!”

“How the hell do you know that?” Lee said harshly. “You weren’t there!

But you were, Shirong reflected. What happened? When? Why haven’t we heard of it?

And why did he have a sense of holding puzzle pieces and just not recognizing their edges?

“The Water Tribes got lucky,” Lee said, half to himself. “The Fire Nation’s already looking for that waterbender. Hard.” He glanced at Shirong. “If that thing pulls me in, and I can’t get out-”

“We’ll do what has to be done.”

Lee nodded, accepting that grim promise.

“Which is another thing you should consider, before you think of spirits as weapons.” Shirong eyed Min. “The kamuiy we’re hunting would have killed us all. How many of the Water Tribes were destroyed because of what they unleashed?”

“Spirit or fire, dead’s dead,” Min objected. But he didn’t sound quite as certain.

“Oh, no,” Shirong said, deadly calm. “No, Min. If you want to be Dai Li, learn this, and learn it well. There are worse fates than death. Much, much worse.”

That gave the boy pause for thought. I hope it lasts, Shirong reflected, snaring a palace servant to escort Min out. He’s got potential. But if he can’t think of the consequences…. The agent sighed.

Lee, he was slightly amused to note, was still sitting in the sunlight. Breathing. “That’s a firebending meditation, isn’t it.”

Lee glanced at him, and away. “It helps.”

“It doesn’t like fire.” Shirong nodded, adding that fact to the rest. And tried not to shiver. “Haima-jiao.”

“What?”

“Assuming the worst? That’s what we might be dealing with.” Shirong frowned. “There’s not much in the archives about them. They’re sea-spirits, and usually we’re too far inland to draw them. But in the time of Chin the Conqueror one supposedly followed a trail of shipwrecks up to the lakes. They’re shapeshifters, predators. Usually they pick off people lost or stranded on the shore, or already drowning. And they hate sunlight, and fire.”

“Think I’m going to burn lamps around Amaya’s well,” Lee said, half to himself.

“Couldn’t hurt,” Shirong acknowledged. Paused, and gave the younger man a deliberate look. “Who’s the waterbender?”

Lee hesitated.

Odd. “Don’t tell me he’s a relative….”

“No!” Lee looked horrified by the thought. And wearily resigned. “No. It’s just… you’d never believe me.” His voice dropped. “No one would.”

I wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t I-

Puzzle pieces clattered into place, and Shirong looked at his chain of conclusions with dread. A waterbender the Fire Nation was already searching for. A waterbender they’re already prepared to throw armies against to destroy. A waterbender Lee doesn’t think anyone will believe something so horrible of….

A waterbender we welcomed into the Inner Ring itself. Because he destroyed the Fire Navy.

The Avatar.

He’s supposed to be the bridge to the spirit world. To enforce balance between the nations. To protect humans.

He’s not supposed to let the spirits use him. Ever.

Yet if he believed Lee - and Shirong did believe Lee - the Avatar had done just that.

And he’s in my city. Being kept in my city.

What the hell do I do?

First things first. “We’ll get you home.”

Lee shook his head, eyes sad. “The clinic. Uncle - he’s not going to be home yet.”

Grief, Shirong recognized. “You’ve lost someone.”

“Hasn’t everyone?”

Point. “The clinic, then. I believe you have something there I need returned.”

Lee tensed, then deliberately made his face calm. “Master Amaya and I found the scroll very useful.”

You think I’m just going to take it. Whoever had you in their keeping before your uncle, they treated you shabbily, indeed. “Come with me.”

Through doors and down corridors; some public, others most definitely not. Those Dai Li lucky enough to have families lived elsewhere. For most, though, barracks under the palace close to their king were good enough.

But barracks weren’t the only rooms down here. Shirong led Lee into one of the archives, and stepped aside to see the look on his face.

Surprise. Wonder, as Lee took in end-caps of blue, green, red, and orange. The whole room should have been lit from the force of it. “These are all….”

“Avatar Kyoshi left us very well prepared for our duties,” Shirong smiled in satisfaction. “And we’ve expanded our library since.”

Lee smirked, muttering something under his breath that sounded like pirates. Looked over shelves of scrolls with fierce longing. “Have you copied these?”

Interesting question. Particularly given he’d deliberately loaned Lee one of the older scrolls. “Why do you ask?”

“You should make caches. At least three or four. Some outside the city.” Lee gave him a sober look. “This is the greatest treasure in Ba Sing Se. It shouldn’t be lost if… if something goes wrong.”

Shirong laughed once, softly, another part of the puzzle becoming clear in face of that hunger to know. “You’re not at the Wen house for Min at all, are you? You’ve been seeing Professor Tingzhe.”

“I like history.” Lee’s smile was quiet. “It’s not like I can afford the university… he’s been giving me lessons. And I’ve been teaching Jinhai.”

Damn. Shirong gave him a hard look. “Jinhai’s a waterbender?”

Lee grimaced, accepting the rebuke. “I didn’t want to tell you earlier; I don’t want word to get out to people I don’t know. The whole family’s upset. Especially Min. He thought Jinhai would get him kicked out of being recruited. And the university….”

“If they knew, the family would be in for hard times,” Shirong acknowledged. “But you know the boy’s in danger.”

“They don’t have a well, Jinhai’s six and not allowed out after dark, and he bends with hot water,” Lee said frankly. “He’s probably safer than I am. He’s never been marked by the spirits. And Suyin would shove a flaming spear right down the bastard’s throat.”

Reasonable arguments. Still. “Next time, tell me there’s something I need to know. We almost lost you. Remember?”

“You’re right,” Lee acknowledged quietly. “Sorry. I screw up when I get surprised.”

And being told there was a waterbender-eating spirit out there was definitely a surprise. Fair enough. “Think it through next time.” Shirong let himself smile slightly. “As for caches… I imagine you’re not familiar with earthbending printers, where you’re from.” He waited, watching.

“Exact copies,” Lee realized. “As close as you can bend it to what you see. And if you can make print blocks….” Delight bloomed in green eyes.

“We’ve done a lot more than make a few caches,” Shirong agreed dryly. “If you think you’re leaving here empty-handed while there’s a lethal kamuiy out there, you’re out of your mind.”

Though one thing still bothered the agent, as Lee almost smiled.

What the hell were you doing at the North Pole?


“I made dinner, Uncle Mushi.”

Setting down his traveling box and hat, Iroh nodded. So. We are being observed more closely than normal. He’d thought he suspected a few shadows on nearby roofs. “I appreciate that, nephew.”

“…I miss him, too.”

“I know you do.” Iroh smiled sadly, and moved in for a fragile hug. “I know that you do.” He looked up into worried eyes. “What has happened?”

“It’s not-” Zuko saw the look in his eyes, and winced. “Something tried to make me kill people….”

“Haima-jiao,” Iroh said thoughtfully sometime later, after a stumbling explanation and a slightly scorched dinner. “The lurer. Yes, I have heard of them.” He frowned, stroking his beard. “It must have come up from Chameleon Bay. The western route would be far too chill.”

“But it’s dark water,” Zuko objected.

“A spirit of ocean’s darkness, yes,” Iroh nodded. “But if tales are true, its chill is not that of ice, but of an emptiness of life. It is a spirit of the deserts of the sea; of warm water, warm oceans, that lack the rich bounty of the poles and flowing currents. The haima-jiao lairs beyond the sun’s touch, ever hungering for what it cannot have. But when that great fire retreats, it looks upon the shores, and it hates.” He nodded, recalling texts studied years ago. “Fire is its enemy. Fire, and family. It promises an end to pain - but the end it means is eternal. It lies, nephew. Never forget that.”

“I knew it had to be, but….” Zuko swallowed. “I didn’t know spirits could do that.”

“Most cannot,” Iroh assured him. “Which is why Agent Shirong is, unfortunately for us all, likely to be right. A haima-jiao would have the power to twist water against you.” He sighed. “Most spirits do not have that power… and most benders, even those touched by the spirits, are not powerful enough to be so vulnerable.”

“I’m not powerful.”

How little you know. “You have the determination to drive flesh and bone beyond where others fail, and perish,” Iroh said bluntly. “Your will is stronger than your body.” He smiled wryly. “Usually, this is an advantage.”

“Perfect,” Zuko grumbled. “So how do I fight this thing? Salt’s only going to make it laugh.”

“With fire, and with family,” Iroh said firmly. He gripped the young man’s shoulder. “You are never alone, nephew. There are those who love you, and wish you well. And they are not only myself and Master Amaya. Huojin, Luli, Tingzhe, Meixiang; even young Suyin and Jinhai. They care. Even if I were lost, they would take you in.”

Zuko did not look convinced.

I suppose I cannot blame him. He does not know some of them know the truth. And while we are watched, I cannot tell him.

But the young man sighed, and tried to push his doubts aside. “I miss him, too,” Zuko said quietly. “And - I don’t know if today’s a good day to tell you this, but when I drowned….”

Ping thinks Lu Ten is cute. Close to death, was close to the spirit world. “Tell me,” Iroh said gently. “Tell me everything.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Never. Letting Katara. Drag me out for girl stuff. Again.

Still smarting from those horrible girls the other day, Toph stalked down into the better end of the Outer Ring, on the hunt for truth in a city built on lies. And hoped she’d know it when she felt it.

“I’m looking for stonework,” she’d told the Joo Dee currently watching over them when she left. “Buildings, carvings, fountains… I’ll know it when I feel it,” she said impatiently when the creepy smiling woman tried to interrupt. “The Avatar’s got to have the best earthbending training. I can’t just sit back and teach Aang everything I know. I’ve got to keep looking. See if there’s a technique I don’t know.”

All of which was true. None of which had kept the woman and her Dai Li friends from following anyway. Which suited Toph just fine.

I am the greatest earthbender in the world. We’ll see who out-stubborns who. 

So here she was, hours later, walking down into the cool of a stone-carver’s establishment. Reaching out with her bending, Toph felt marble, agates, quartz… and jade. All right!

“Can we help you, Miss?”

“You may,” Toph nodded to the owner, and held up one of the ornaments she and Katara had used to crash that awful party. It’d been tricky, getting straight answers at moments she’d be pretty sure she wouldn’t be overheard. “I’d like to talk with Luli.”

“It doesn’t look as though it needs repair… are you looking for a match?”

“I’m looking for a carver,” Toph said impatiently. “She did something interesting with the flaw in this jade, and I want to pick her brains.”

“There’s no flaw in that jade-”

“There’s no flaw you can see,” Toph said pointedly. “Believe me, I can feel it. But she made the piece work with it. I want to know how.” She drew up her best highborn manners, and folded her arms. “You’ll both be paid for your time.”

“…Right this way, ma’am.”

Eel’s-bed apartment design, Toph recognized, following the owner through the shop, into his family’s living quarters, and out into a garden full of kids giggling and studying lessons between patches of green-smelling things. Her feet told her walls ahead formed the mirror image of the building she’d just left; the garden was the center of a whole block, with shops fronting the streets and dwellings sandwiched safely between.

Scared people. I don’t like this city. At all.

Katara and Sokka and Aang might need the break, after being chased across half the planet. She hadn’t been, and she’d joined up with their wild bunch for adventure. Tromping across new patches of ground. Bending rocks she’d never felt before against real bad guys, not just opponents in the ring. And yes, even marching blind and thirsty across deserts, not knowing if she’d make it out alive. Her parents had bundled her up like a blind china doll, and she wanted out.

And what had Aang done? Dropped them into a city under siege, a city where nobody would listen to them. And now he was just waiting, hoping to find Appa and get the Earth King to actually read his petition, when you didn’t need eyes to see that Long Feng was the guy in charge and he didn’t want a damn thing to do with any invasion plans.

Avatar or not, Aang was an airbender. He’d do just about anything rather than hit a problem head-on.

And I don’t know what’s the best thing to do yet, Toph admitted to herself, placing feet precisely on gravel. I could bust some heads, but if the others aren’t right behind me, what’s that going to solve? And Aang’s not going anywhere without Appa.

There had to be a way out of this. She just had to figure out who to bury in rocks to find it.

“Luli!” the owner said brightly, as they approached an oasis of relatively calm youngsters. And shade, Toph recognized, feeling the sudden coolness in the air. “This young lady would like to ask you questions about stone-carving.” From the shift of his feet, he was gleefully rubbing fingers together to indicate coins.

Idiot. I’m blind, not a moron. “I am Toph Bei Fong, of the Bei Fong family,” Toph said with her best society attitude, coupled with the practical touch of one merchant dealing with another. “I have specific questions in regard to the carving on this piece.” She held up the hairpin. “I think this will take at least a half an hour of your time.”

Toph felt the owner’s face fall, as the busybody realized he couldn’t be away from the storefront that long. Hid a smirk, as he stuttered something meant to be obsequiously polite and hurried off. Waited until his footsteps thumped away, and grinned at Luli. “Is he always that bad?”

Luli giggled, and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Sometimes? He’s worse.” She whistled, and four sets of younger feet scampered in from various parts of the garden. “Toph Bei Fong, these are my daughters, Lim and Daiyu….”

“Hi,” from someone about her age, and “Eep!” from a girl a few years younger-

“Are you blind?”

Much younger. Sounded like a little boy, though Toph wasn’t quite sure.

“Jinhai!” An older girl’s voice; probably about Katara’s age. “Please forgive my little brother, Lady Bei Fong. We keep trying to teach him manners but it hasn’t stuck yet.”

Which sounded like a Katara kind of thing to say. But there was something else in her voice that made the earthbender prick up her ears. Something she’d heard before, somewhere…. “Hey, at least he knows the truth when he sees it.” Toph stuck out a hand. “Toph.”

“Suyin.” The girl shook hands with a good grip, not the flimsy little flutter upper-class Ba Sing Se approved of. “Don’t let us bother you, we’re just visiting.”

“Aww,” Jinhai muttered.

Sounded like there was a story there. But it also sounded like even Jinhai was wary enough not to tell it to a complete stranger. Toph smirked a little, and turned toward Luli. “You’re not a bender. This was carved. So how’d you find the flaw?”

“Well… first, that’s Apple Mountain jade,” Luli said practically, as kids scattered again. “It has wonderful color, but a lot of it does have flaws. Usually, right in the heart of the best green in it….”

Sitting down on a raised stool of stone, Toph listened to an expert talk rock. This was the kind of thing she needed to teach Aang. You couldn’t just learn the moves and think you knew everything. You had to study your element. Poke at it. Play with it. Listen to it. And listen to people who knew what they were doing. Benders or not.

“…So instead of carving the flaw out to give a large piece with an awkward hole, I tapped a cut to extend the flaw, and let it cleave,” Luli finished practically. “The color left wasn’t the best, but I like how I was able to carve it into sun-dappled leaves….” Her voice trailed off.

“I can feel that,” Toph said plainly. “I can feel the stone’s different, anyway.” She touched the spiraling vine-shape. “There are different kinds of earth. One of them is more here, and less over here.”

Luli’s fingers touched hers, and the jade. “This is dark green.” A fraction left. “This is lighter, shading to almost amber here. And over here is dark again - wait. Come over here.” She moved into the sun, and held a leafy stalk that smelled like mint still. “Feel the leaf. Where it’s warm, that’s sun; that’s a bright green. Where it’s cooler, that’s darker. Where you feel it dried - that’s brown.”

Toph traced her fingers over mint, remembering long hours spent in her family’s estate gardens. She knew what plants felt like. But what they looked like…. You’re blind, her mother would always say. And, I’m sorry.

No one had ever tried to show her something before. To let her see, the way they saw.

“So you can feel different kinds of earth inside stone?” Luli was almost bouncing in place as she held the mint. “Professor Tingzhe would love to trade notes with you. Tingzhe Wen; he’s an earthbending archaeologist at Ba Sing Se University? He’s Jinhai and Suyin’s father; I have them today because Meixiang’s mixed up in some kind of paperwork over Jia and Min’s classes, honestly I don’t know how they ever get things done over there, she must have explained the kids really didn’t know Bai a dozen times-”

“I’m not so sure that’d be a great idea,” Toph admitted. “I got here on my own, but I bet I’d pick up a Joo Dee if I tried to hit the university again.”

Luli’s heart speeded up. “You’re… visiting the city, then.”

Toph lowered her voice. “Yeah. Don’t think I’m being watched right now-”

“You are.” Almost a whisper. “Jinhai’s being watched.”

The kid? Why? “Are you in trouble? I could help-”

“I live with trouble.” Toph could hear Luli’s grin, despite her fear. “My husband’s in the City Guard.”

A massive yawn split the air from Luli’s apartment. “Do I hear somebody slandering my good name?”

“Just telling the truth,” Luli chuckled. “Toph likes the truth. Toph? This is my husband, Huojin.”

Solid footsteps onto gravel; the sway of a nod. “Pleasure to meet you, Miss Toph.”

And she could hear it again in his voice, like she had in Suyin’s and Jinhai’s. Like she’d heard in at least half the kids through the garden. “You’re-”

Toph bit her lip before she could say it. Huojin. Fire metal. The name was Earth Kingdom, but the meaning, and that accent….

You’re Fire Nation.

“You don’t sound like other people I’ve met in the city,” she said instead.

“My parents were refugees,” Huojin said matter-of-factly. “We came when I was six.” He shook his head. “Still shows, huh? Imagine that.”

And he was nervous, a little, but he wasn’t lying. Huh.

“Strange place to come for a visit on your own,” Huojin mused. “This city’s not a good place for a kid alone. I got lucky; Healer Amaya took me in after my parents were gone.” He shifted his weight, obviously eyeing her. “You do have people to go to, don’t you?”

“I’m fine,” Toph scowled. “I can look after myself.”

“Just asking. You looked worried, that’s all. And trust me, even in the Guard, it’s good to have people you can ask for backup.”

Toph smiled ruefully. “You sound like Uncle.” In more ways than one. “I’m okay. I just need to think about something.”

“Rocks?” Luli said wryly. “Or someone with a rock-hard head?”

“Hey!” Huojin protested. “I resemble that remark.”

Toph giggled.

“You’re as stubborn as the Wall, and we both know it,” Luli said affectionately. “So now that you’re up, sleepyhead… are you going out for tea before work? Or should I go pump Mushi for details?”

“You know,” Huojin said dubiously, “it’s actually possible for Lee to go a few days without a disaster.”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

“Who’s Lee?” Toph asked, curious.

“A walking disaster area,” Luli said brightly. “Poor kid!”

“Luli,” Huojin groaned.

“He’s a waterbender,” the carver went on. “Amaya’s apprentice. He’s really a nice young man….”

“But if trouble were lightning, somebody dumped that kid on a mountain top in a thunderstorm hog-monkey-tied in copper wire,” Huojin said ruefully. “So! Do I need to terrorize our little angels into finishing their lessons, or have they taken after their mother and been responsible?”

“They’re as responsible as you are, love.”

“Oh spirits, not that. We’re all doomed.” A quick hug, and Huojin charged into the bushes. “Okay! Who’s got their books in order?”

Toph listened to childish yells wistfully. She didn’t mind being an only child. Honest. But sometimes….

“You know, if you get done thinking, and you do need help, we’re right here,” Luli offered. “That’s what the Guard’s for. And my husband’s got one of the biggest hearts in it. And the hardest head,” she chuckled. “But sometimes, that’s just what you need.”

Determination. Yeah, that was the Fire Nation all over. “You’re right,” Toph said thoughtfully. “Sometimes it is.” Rising, she bowed politely. “Thanks. That really helped.”

Accounts settled, Toph headed back toward the Upper Ring, scuffing her feet over stones as she thought about elements, and Long Feng, and being stuck in a city that felt more and more like a sitting target.

Aang’s an airbender. He tries to skate around problems. He won’t take Long Feng head-on. Katara, Sokka - they’re water. He thinks up a plan, she comes at the bad guys sideways. Only Long Feng’s already got the angles covered, so that won’t work either. And me? I may be the greatest earthbender ever, but there’s an awful lot of Dai Li.

We need to do what none of us really knows how to do. We need to attack.

…We need fire.

Uncle. Spirits, she’d give a lot to have Uncle here right now. Heck, she’d take Sparky; Zuko might be hair-trigger and cranky, but he sure as mountains knew how to go after something bigger and badder than he was. He’d snuck into the North Pole. The Earth King’s palace couldn’t be that much harder.

Keep dreaming, Toph. Uncle’s the Dragon of the West, remember? The whole army’s probably got pulverize on sight orders for him. No way is he in Ba Sing Se.

Too bad. Still. If Huojin was Fire Nation, and those other kids also sounded like his kids….

Maybe we can find some fire here after all.

Something to think about. After she pounded Aang into the ground with another lesson.


Another boring night, Shirong thought, perched in the shadow of a cistern atop a specific roof. Huddled a bit in his uniform, as an evening breeze blew off the lakes. Not that there’s anything wrong with boring. Considering the alternative.

Not knowing where the spirit was, that was the problem. Everyone was jumpy. Search as they might, the kamuiy remained stubbornly out of sight. Though they had found evidence of the creature. Damn it.

It took imagination and unpleasant experience to recognize the fish-eaten lumps of flesh washed up on Lake Laogai’s shores. For those with that experience… the tattered livers were both threat, and raging incitement to break skulls.

This thing is eating people, Shirong thought darkly, fingering the whistle he had to summon reinforcements. Right over our heads.

There were a lot of angry Dai Li watching the lakeshore tonight.

Not that it has to come up there; not if it’s going through the underground waterways, Shirong scowled. Spirits, let it stay arrogant. Let it think it can keep taunting us. If it’s learned to travel through artesian water, it could go anywhere-

Earthen tiles trembled in his senses, as a familiar weight climbed the wall and crouched on the roof. “Are you keeping an eye on the neighborhood, or just me?”

Shirong eyed Lee, taken aback. “Ah, well….”

“Because if it’s just me, Uncle and I are about to unroll the maps. And he made tea.”

“Unroll the maps?” Shirong echoed, confused.

“You want to help pick out interesting spots or not?”

“Interesting how?” There was something decidedly askew about the world tonight. People just didn’t walk up to Dai Li!

“Come on inside. Uncle thinks you might like trying a little ginseng in your oolong.”

Bemused, Shirong followed Lee down.

And yes, Mushi’s blend of tea was tasty.

Odd. So very odd. “How did you know I was there?” Recalling what had been up on the roof, Shirong added, “The cistern?”

“I’m not that good with water,” Lee said dryly. “Somebody had to be out there. I just looked.”

“I am a bit too old to be climbing onto roofs,” Mushi smiled, unrolling a map of the world across the table.

Sure you are, Shirong thought sardonically. Granted, Mushi looked like he’d carried a bit more weight a few months back, but given what he’d seen from Lee? If the man wanted to be up on a roof, he’d be there.

So they hit a bad spot a few months back. I wonder what- Oh.

If Lee had seen the Avatar destroy the Fire Navy’s invasion fleet - yes, two surviving colonials would have been in a bad spot. The only surprise would be that they’d lived to get out of it.

Details. I want details.

But he couldn’t risk asking. If Lee didn’t trust him enough to tell him about the Avatar - then Lee didn’t trust him enough. Yet.

Keep your eyes open, and be patient.

Just being invited in was a step forward. If a slightly daunting one. How many people in Ba Sing Se would willingly have a Dai Li in for tea?

It’s kind of nice.

And it was an excellent opportunity to gauge the pair of them. You could tell a lot about people from what was in their apartment. And wasn’t.

Bare in here, aside from Mushi’s bonsai. I know they’re not making a lot, but most people would spend a little on dressing up the place.

No wall hangings. No whimsical little lanterns or fine clothes in sight. But if those weren’t two stocked travel packs tucked discreetly away in Lee’s sleeping alcove, he’d eat his hat.

And the map. Not an expensive map; Shirong had seen bigger and fancier in noble houses of the Upper Ring. But from what he knew, it was an accurate map. Those weren’t cheap.

Scraping by, and they’ve put their resources into being able to run again.

Meaning Lee wasn’t paranoid. Something bad had happened to them… and they believed it could happen again.

Which led Shirong right back to the North Pole, and his unsuspecting city, and what in the world was he supposed to do if the haima-jiao latched onto the Avatar…?

Some of the notes on the map’s transparent overlay finally sank in, and Shirong tried not to let his eyebrows climb. Little corrections, what ports needed dredging, whose forces had been sighted where and when…. “Have you been all these places?”

“Quite a few,” Mushi said generously. Tapped Kyoshi Island’s main bay. “The Unagi, here, might be a match for your lake’s serpent. It feeds on young elephant koi… and the occasional unwary swimmer.”

“I’ve always heard those people were crazy,” Shirong muttered.

“Why?” Lee pounced. “Because they teach girls to fight?”

“Because they thought they could stay out of the war,” Shirong said levelly. “Being out of the way only helps so long. And they don’t have walls to protect them.” The North Pole did - no. Don’t ask. Yet. “So… what makes a spot interesting?

“Ah.” Mushi inclined his head. “That, is a matter of some debate.” He touched a large island to the southeast. “The Eastern Air Temple.”

For a moment, Shirong couldn’t believe his ears. “You want to visit an Air Temple? No one can get up there!”

“Says the earthbender,” Lee smirked. “You can. If you really want to.” He flipped through a stack of handwritten notes. “I don’t know. It’s close, but you have to get through Chameleon Bay, and there’s going to be fleets fighting there. If they aren’t already. And it’s east. People would have to come a long way.”

“An argument against much of the east coast,” Mushi observed. “I also recall that the forests are not such as we would find convenient, and the rainfall patterns are different from both here and the west. Which would be an unnecessary hindrance.” His finger moved south and west, back onto the main continent. “Gaoling.”

“Better spot,” Lee nodded, tracing the coast from Chameleon Bay west. “We’d still have to get through the bay, and it’s a longer trip the first time, but we’d only have to pass through these coastal waters once. It’s almost as far from strategic as you can get. That would help.” He frowned. “But it’s been quiet, so there are a lot of people there. Which could make it tricky.”

“Still, a possible spot,” Mushi noted. “Kyoshi Island.”

“Too small,” Lee stated. Eyed his uncle. “And I think they’d remember us.”

“Very possible,” Mushi acknowledged, a gleam of pure mischief in green eyes.

“It wasn’t my fault!”

Mushi raised a gray brow.

“I- but he- but they didn’t….” Words failed Lee, and he buried his head in his hands, groaning.

“What happened to you on Kyoshi Island?” Shirong asked warily.

“To me? Nothing.” Mushi smiled. “But my nephew happened to them. Let us say, both sides… disagreed.”

“And you’re still in one piece?” Shirong eyed Lee. “I’ve heard their warriors aren’t pushovers.”

“They’re not.” Lee lifted his head, still looking a bit sheepish. “They’re good.” He looked aside, thoughtful.

Mushi cleared his throat. “No.”

“But I could-”

“I do not think so.”

“But they’d be really-”

“Skilled as they are, they have made their stance in this war clear,” Mushi stated. “It would take extraordinary delicacy of manner to persuade them to even consider our plea, and when it comes to diplomacy….”

“Subtle, you’re not,” Shirong added dryly. Considered the locations they’d mentioned, and frowned. They’re not just looking for someplace to visit. What are they looking for?

“The Southern Air Temple,” Mushi suggested.

“No.” Lee shuddered.

“I agree,” Mushi admitted. Glanced at Shirong. “It was unpleasant to visit before, but now that we know you are vulnerable to some spirits… I do not know what Fire Lord Sozin’s commanders were thinking, to leave so many without funeral pyres. The risk of staying beyond nightfall would be far too great.”

Shirong studied the map anew, dredging up old history lessons. What little citizens were officially taught about the war focused on the Fire Nation’s attacks on the Earth Kingdom. But it started here. In the Air Temples. “It’s been a hundred years….”

“In some rooms, the bones still lie as thick as scythed wheat,” Mushi said gravely. “It is not pleasant to consider you have kin among those who carried out such attacks.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Shirong watched Lee, trying to catch flickers of emotion on that scarred face. Anger, guilt, sorrow… determination.

He thinks what the Fire Nation did is wrong. And he wants to do something about it.

What, exactly, Lee thought he might do, Shirong had no idea. Lee was just a teenager.

Then again, the Avatar’s barely more than a child. These two got into Ba Sing Se. Whatever they’re planning, I wouldn’t want to bet against them. “I’m still trying to grasp what you consider interesting.”

Mushi’s smile held amusement, and challenge. “The Western Air Temple.”

“Upside-down would take some getting used to,” Lee reflected. “It’s well placed, but I’m not sure we want to be somewhere you can rappel down into. But maybe.” He touched the map. “We’d be going west through the lakes. That might be safer.”

“And that route leads to other possibilities,” Mushi acknowledged. “Taku.”

“Pohuai Stronghold,” Lee countered.

“Yes… though I believe someone illustrated that was not the most secure of fortresses,” Mushi chuckled.

Shirong stared. Mushi smiled back. And Lee tried to look anywhere else.

He broke into Pohuai Stronghold?

And he was still alive to tell about it. Unbelievable. “Mushi,” Shirong asked bluntly, “what have you been teaching this boy?”

“Everything he would learn,” Mushi said with great satisfaction. “Though some of the credit is not mine. The arts of stealth were never my specialty.”

Lee, Shirong noted wryly, was blushing. “You knew?” the waterbender muttered.

“I lost no little sleep worrying,” Mushi answered quietly. “But I knew you would not have attempted it if you were not certain you could.” He regarded Lee with quiet pride. “I rely on you to do what you believe is right. And I trust that you will do so with care, and proper planning.”

Compliment and gentle rebuke in one, Shirong judged, seeing Lee’s ears go red. On the one hand, he was tempted to tell Mushi to ease up; the boy was only sixteen. On the other….

If he’s taking Pohuai Stronghold level risks, I’m amazed Mushi hasn’t locked him in a room to calm down.

No wonder Mushi wanted Lee working himself into the ground. Spirits only knew what kind of trouble he’d find if he didn’t.

“So… next was Gaipan?” Lee managed.

“Fire Nation territory, for the last several years,” Shirong pointed out.

“And apparently prone to floods,” Mushi mused. “An upland near there might have promise, but….” He shrugged, and let his finger trace around the mountainous coast, almost to the very northernmost tip of the continent. “And then, there is here.”

“Chilly,” Shirong observed dryly. You got clear of the North Pole once. Why would you come that close again? Even if there is a stretch of ocean between.

“Not as much as you think,” Lee said seriously. “It snows up there, and the winter nights are dark… but high as it is, the mountain tops are warm.” He frowned, and nodded. “At least as warm as Ba Sing Se.”

Shirong glanced at Mushi, startled. “How is that possible?”

“Fortuitous currents of air, it would seem,” the older man informed him. “Though I also suspect this mountain, here, may be volcanic.” He tapped the map just slightly west. “The natural gas underneath the range can be a hazard if one delves too deep in the earth… but that itself could be an asset, properly applied.”

“Not the Temple.” Lee smiled wryly. “Next door.”

“It was cultivated once, and could be again,” Mushi agreed. “Yet it would be far enough from the current occupants to not impose.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Shirong held up halting hands. “Temple? There’s an Air Temple in the Earth Kingdom? And it’s inhabited? The Fire Nation-”

“Left no survivors,” Mushi cut him off. “Those who dwell there today, are from a village destroyed a decade past by flood. They are of earth. Though living that high has made them… a bit odd.”

“Crazy as an airbender,” Lee muttered. “I’m keeping my feet on the ground.”

“Likely wise,” Mushi chuckled.

Shirong looked at the map. And them. And Lee’s extensive, exhaustive notes. And sat back, stunned. “You’re not planning a visit.”

“Agent Shirong,” Mushi said, quiet and serious. “As a guardian of this city… what would happen if Ba Sing Se fell?”

Shirong felt chill. “It won’t.”

Mushi inclined his head. “But if it did?”

“We’ll fight to the last man standing. You know that.” Shirong half-rose from his chair, angry. “If you know something-”

“It’s not like that!” Lee was on his feet, hands out and empty between them. “It’s not. Just - Shirong, listen.” His voice dropped. “You don’t know what’s out there.”

“Or more accurately, who,” Mushi said gravely. “For the first time since the Siege of Ba Sing Se, a descendant of Sozin’s line has taken to the battlefield in war.”

Shirong swallowed hard. Sank back into his chair, legs suddenly nerveless. “I thought - rumor said the crown prince was exiled….”

“Prince Zuko was, indeed,” Mushi said levelly. “Princess Azula was not.”

Slow breaths, Shirong told himself, trying to keep the world from graying out. One of the royal family on the battlefield. The last time that had happened….

Keep it together. You’ve got to tell Quan. “If she’s the younger heir, she can’t be more than a child.”

“Don’t,” Lee said harshly. “Don’t ever make that mistake. It’ll be the last one you make.”

“She is fourteen, true,” Mushi said, equally grim. “But she is a firebending prodigy, and a tactical genius. I believe even the Dragon of the West would pause, if he faced her on the field.” He swept a hand over the map. “So. I ask you, as guardian of your city and a loyal citizen of the Earth Kingdom. What hope do your people have, if Ba Sing Se falls?”

“I hope it doesn’t,” Lee said quietly. “I hope you can stand her off. But if things go wrong… and damn it, around me things always go wrong… Shirong, if she takes you, you’re Earth Kingdom. You’re just dead. If she gets us….”

“I see.” And he did. Horribly enough.

They’re afraid. These two aren’t even afraid of Dai Li - and they’re afraid.

“You’re going to run,” Shirong said bleakly. “Again.”

“I’m not running,” Lee said grimly. “I’m tired of running.” He took a breath. “But sometimes you have to make a strategic retreat.”

Call it what you want. They were planning to run. Why had he expected any better? Spies didn’t stand and fight-

Wait, Shirong told himself, through the haze of outrage and disappointment. Think. What are they looking at? Resources, rain, how cold it is, how many people are there, how to get past those fighting the war…. “What do you mean by hope?”

Mushi saw the dawning wonder in his face, and smiled. “The only hope that matters. The hope to live, to fight another day.”

“…You’re planning a resistance outpost.” It was incredible. Impossible. They were refugees. Fire Nation colonials, no less. They had no money, no resources, no authority-

And none of that would make a difference, if Ba Sing Se fell, Shirong realized. It’d be chaos, panic; blood in the streets. If they meant to get people out - all they’d have to know is where to find supplies to commandeer, how to talk people into seizing them, and how to get people to listen to them long enough to evacuate.

Like he was listening, right now.

Lee’s been all over the city working with Amaya. He’s found allies in the university, the Guard - even the palace. He knows how to find us. And who knows what contacts Mushi’s made in that teashop.

Spirits… I think they could do this.

Try, at least. Succeed? It still seemed unreal.

“I guess it might work for that,” Lee said, after sharing a glance with his uncle. “But that wasn’t exactly… the Fire Nation’s not going to destroy Ba Sing Se. It’s too big. Too valuable. Unless she’s having a really bad day….” He took a breath. “What we’re looking at is, if that happens, some people shouldn’t be here. Me. Uncle. Professor Tingzhe and his family; anybody who knows something about the catacombs under the city. Healer Amaya. And anyone else we can get out who’d poke a hole into any plans to hold the city.” He hesitated, and looked Shirong straight in the eye. “Your families.”

Shirong smiled wryly, the offer bittersweet. Would that I had one.

But it was a valid point. If Ba Sing Se ever fell - it wouldn’t do at all, to have Dai Li families in enemy hands. “I still think it’s impossible.”

“That may be,” Mushi acknowledged. “But we would rather prepare for a disaster that will never come, than be cast adrift in the typhoon.” He gestured to the map. “So what do you think we should consider?”

It was impossible. It should have seemed ridiculous.

But if there was one thing he’d learned studying Lee, it was that despite his masquerade as an Earth Kingdom refugee, the young waterbender didn’t have a deceptive bone in his body.

And here were two people with a map, who’d been places he’d never see.

“…Tell me about the Air Temples.”

Hours later, Shirong was back on a rooftop. Thinking.

Learn your enemy’s nature, and half the battle is won.

Not that the Avatar was his enemy. Spirits, no. But a threat to Ba Sing Se - yes. That he might very well be.

And while Lee hadn’t breathed one word about the Avatar, he’d been almost talkative when it came to the Temples. The sorrow of the Southern, the peacefulness of the Eastern, the head-hurting upside-down architecture of the Western.

“How does it even stay standing?” Shirong had asked, disbelieving.

“No clue,” Lee had muttered, shaking his head as if to blot out memory. “Maybe they found a bunch of insane earthbenders to hook it into the cliff top.”

“And paid with many barrels of cactus juice,” Mushi had added wryly.

Though when it came to the Northern, Lee had been a lot more picky with his details. Shirong couldn’t blame him. Mention in the colonies that you’d seen anyone gliding, and you’d probably find yourself being wrung dry by Fire Nation interrogators, all the while knowing you were responsible for unleashing rabid firebenders on innocent people.

They’ve literally been around the world. How? Why?

It’d make sense, if they’d been spying for the Fire Nation. But if that were the case, there shouldn’t be a Northern Air Temple anymore. On the other hand, if they hadn’t visited there until after Mushi had decided his nephew’s injury merited an unannounced retirement - why go there?

North, a lot of ocean, and difficult terrain, Shirong reflected. Not a bad place to break your trail if you were worried about Fire Nation pursuit.

Which seemed to fit what he’d seen of them. Lee tried to hide it, but the healer moved like he was expecting an ambush. Always.

But that doesn’t make sense. If no one knew he was a waterbender, why chase them? They’re just two colonials.

Or were they? Mushi seemed to know things about everywhere in the world. What else was hidden behind wise eyes?

Questions upon questions. Though if they’d been enough places to see the war’s horrors firsthand…. Well, it explained why Lee was as determined to learn healing as he must have been to learn swords. There was nothing worse than having someone die on you and knowing you could have done something. If only you’d known how. 

Healer or not, Lee was still a fighter, none too subtly prying for details on the haima-jiao whenever they’d paused to brainstorm. Given it was the young man’s neck on the line, Shirong had obliged. Though he’d left out exactly how angry his fellow Dai Li were. An agent was always cool, calm, and inhuman. Ask anyone.

“Lake Laogai,” Mushi had mused. “If it is lairing there, and not in truly sunless waters below the earth - either there is more salt in the lake, or there are other reasons such a creature is more… comfortable.”

Lee had looked alarmed. “Did something happen there?”

“I’ll look into it,” Shirong had answered. And knew no one was fooled.

Bad, yes. Something that would upset the spirits more than usual? Difficult to say. They’d been mindbending Joo Dees and troublemakers for decades. Imprisoning or executing those the Grand Secretariat deemed necessary, shaping Ba Sing Se as it must be; why should the spirits decide now was any worse than times past?

Before, we didn’t have the Avatar’s bison.

He’d attended more than a few of Tingzhe’s lectures on Chin the Conqueror, trying to gage if the professor were alluding to the current war in ways that might be too dangerous. What the man had said about Chin, Kyoshi, and badger-moles had made him interested enough to look up the Dai Li’s own records of Avatars. Which implied the bison… might not be just a bison.

Avatars have animal guides. Kyoshi didn’t meet hers until after she defeated Chin, but… she had a badger-mole. Roku had a dragon.

The Avatar was being kept from his bison. The spirits might be very upset, indeed.

Enough to unleash a man-eater on our city? Our people are innocent!

But the Dai Li served the people. And the Dai Li were not.

Oma and Shu. That can’t be it. Long Feng wouldn’t order the bison kept if it put our people at risk. He wouldn’t!

When had he stopped being sure?

Mind on the job, Shirong told himself grimly, looking about in the night. First, keep the water-kamuiy from grabbing any more waterbenders. Second, find the damned thing and arrange for a spirit-roast. Third, work on his recruits.

At least that last seemed to be going well. Once they’d talked out the map, Lee had shyly shown him one of the latest scroll’s moves; a flex of fingers that turned water into lethal claws of ice. Useful in and of itself; deadly daggers were no small asset, and when those claws could be thrown - yes, a Dai Li knew how handy that could be.

But Lee had surprised him yet again.

“How do the gloves work?”

From anyone else, Shirong would have laughed. A waterbender whose first training had been in firebending forms, and he thought he could figure out how to shape ice like rock?

But he’d never seen a waterbender create a move like Lee had. A net strong enough to drag a malicious kamuiy off its prey; to trap it, even if only for a minute.

It couldn’t hurt to try.

Well, now we know many ways it won’t work, Shirong thought wryly. I’m sure he’ll be at it again tomorrow. And again, and again, until he gets something to work.

From a purely practical point of view, that was useful in itself. A waterbender practicing might draw their prey into the open.

I hope he survives.

He’d hate to lose any recruit. Lee more than most. The young man had talent, drive, the pure will needed not to give up….

And they had me in for tea, Shirong admitted, recalling the warmth, the friendly looks, their honest respect for his opinion. I could get used to that-

Oh. Oh, spirits.

Rueful admiration in his gaze, Shirong eyed a dark window below. Mushi, you are a sly, conniving, wonderful old man.

A lost pygmy puma, abandoned to live by its wits. That’s how he’d thought of Lee, that first day with the bear. An impression that had only strengthened with the first waterbending scroll, and how fast the young healer had blossomed under Amaya’s teaching.

But if that were true of Lee, how much more was it true of himself?

I’m not alone. I trust my friends. And I can always take the uniform off, and….

There. That was the sticking point. If he wanted something beyond the Dai Li, he had to hide what he was. Who he was.

With those two, he didn’t have to hide anything.

I think someone just tried to recruit me.

Well, well, well.

That man, Shirong thought wryly, has the guts of a first-class cat burglar.

And was it wrong for him to feel delighted, instead of offended? Puzzles, the pair of them; an intricate web of honest mysteries Mushi had all but invited him to unravel.

Let’s play. Shirong smiled, plotting out exactly what he’d search for once his shift was over. Pohuai Stronghold, hmm?

He could hardly wait.

Chapter Text

Too early for big sisters, Suyin thought grumpily, eyes half-open as she tried to work around the giggling girl at the wash basin.

“Paddle my canoe!” Jia chortled. “Oh, the look on Madame Macmu-Ling’s face….”

Poetry class. Argh. Suyin got her face washed, stuck out her tongue behind her sister’s back, and headed downstairs.

“I saw that!”

“So?” Suyin smirked, jumping off the last step with a flourish. To land in front of her mother’s raised eyebrow. “Er… Mom?”

“Ooo, now you’re gonna get it,” Jia said gleefully, gracefully gliding down the stairs like a proper young lady.

“Suyin, be polite to your sister,” Meixiang said firmly. Raised her gaze, and eyed Jia. “Jia, stop hogging the washroom in the morning, or you’re going to have to start cutting your dates an hour shorter.”

“But, Mom-!”

“If you can’t get out of the way fast enough in the morning, you obviously need more sleep. Or am I wrong?” She shooed them both toward breakfast. “Eat, eat; you don’t want to be late.”

Tea, Suyin thought gratefully, gulping it down before she attacked her morning rice. Chewed her way through half of it, trying to ignore the sullen steaming beside her. Jia’d deserved that, she’d been out late a lot-

But some of those times, she was out late when she would have been early. Only she was helping me with Jinhai. Suyin braced herself, and glanced at her sister. “So… something neat happened at poetry?”

I am so going to regret this. Somebody probably scored something esoteric about stars and spring mists off somebody else in the linked verse competition, and I’m going to be so bored….

“You’ll never believe it!” Jia perked up, smiling. “A Water Tribe boy crashed the class!” She giggled. “And I mean crashed. He fell in wearing half the window!”

Suyin’s jaw dropped. “Really?”

Okay. For once? Making nice with her sister wasn’t so bad.

Jia launched into salacious details, including way too many about what Water Tribe tunics didn’t cover, and it was almost enough to make Suyin forget they were being watched. And why.

Something that eats waterbenders. Suyin tried not to shudder. At least her little brother was actually safe.

But Lee’s not.

For once, she hoped the Dai Li won. No matter what it took.


There came a point in time, Smellerbee realized, shivering, where you were just too scared to scream. Even if there hadn’t been rock wrapped around her mouth as a gag.

The Dai Li were so quiet.

A few carried crystals that glowed soft green; just enough light to ease their passage through endless tunnels. Only an ingrained habit of defiance kept Smellerbee struggling against her bonds; even if she broke free, even if she by some miracle got Longshot and Jet loose too - where would they go?

Yell at us. Hit us. Look at us. Do something!

The Dai Li weren’t even touching them. Just moving at a fast walk, the three bound freedom fighters carried on a rolling wave of stone.

I feel so dumb. Smellerbee squirmed again, useless or not. That Guard warned us. Amaya and Mushi, they told us Jet was asking for trouble. We were trying to talk him out of it! If it weren’t for that - that thing….

She thought they’d gotten away from it in the alley. And two of them had. But Jet….

Part of Jet just wasn’t home anymore. He kept seeing shadows where there weren’t any, listening for a voice neither of them could hear. And at night - at night, he kept trying to get to water.

After she and Longshot had dragged him out of a well, she decided this was a bad idea. That all of Ba Sing Se was a bad idea, and she’d rather take her chances with the whole Fire Nation army camped outside the walls than stick around here anymore.

She’d told Longshot that. He’d nodded once, eyes sober. And they’d tried to get Jet and themselves to the Outer Wall and out.

They hadn’t made it.

Now, a pair of Dai Li parted stone like a curtain, and they were lifted into an ordinary room carved into rock, with real lanterns burning on a table by a pitcher of water.

One of the Dai Li did glance at them then, just for a moment. Barely interested; like they were a particularly stubborn boulder that hadn’t yet split.

Turned away, and disappeared up stone stairs.

Look at us! We’re here! We’re right here!

Who knew how long later, footsteps came back down. And not alone. “Was it wise to send him away?” the Dai Li said neutrally.

“The sun is still up,” Amaya observed, stepping into the light to regard them with sorrow, and grim determination. “He’ll be safe enough with his uncle to look after him. And he may have done some hard things in the past, but this… even to protect those he loves, I would rather not ask this of him.”

Which was when Smellerbee stopped being scared, and started being terrified.

Never tick off a healer, her older brother had told her once; back when she’d still had an older brother. They know how to mess you up.

“You usually don’t need my help to question prisoners, Agent Yunxu,” Amaya went on, still with that same chilling sorrow.

“Time is critical,” the sleepy-eyed Dai Li said plainly. “And the one most affected,” he nodded, ever so slightly at Jet, “isn’t behaving… rationally.”

“So you want me to heal him enough to talk.” She sighed. Looked over them all, and inclined her head. “I am sorry. But what they’re after will kill those I care for, if it is not stopped.”

No, no, Smellerbee thought, frozen. Get away….

“The water-spirit almost took Lee’s mind and spirit,” Amaya went on quietly, advancing on Jet. “It will try again. And I will not let that happen. No matter what it takes.”

“The Fire Nation took our homes! The Fire Nation took our families!” Jet had said that, raid after deadly raid. “We have to fight them wherever they are, whoever they are! No matter what it takes!”

Facing it from the other side, Smellerbee was very, very sorry.


“Nothing,” Yunxu frowned.

“Nothing?” Amaya arched a brow, still queasy. Though she’d be damned if she’d let this man know it. Shirong, she might have; a faint light of compassion, of regret, still burned in the man, like stars seen through mist. She couldn’t fault Zuko for being drawn to him. Like called to like, and she knew what wounds Shirong had suffered.

Yunxu… the light was gone. If it had ever existed.

“Nothing we didn’t know.” Yunxu let his gaze linger on the re-gagged children. “We’ll take them now.”

“Why not just let them go?” Amaya said levelly, glancing at the terrified girl out of the corner of her eye. “They were trying to get out of the city. Surely, that would be best for everyone.”

Faint hope lit Smellerbee’s eyes. Longshot held himself still-

“And what if it decides to follow a victim that got away?” Yunxu said dispassionately. “A waterbender is a more attractive target, but we can’t take the chance.”

“Then you could just hold them until the spirit is dealt with,” Amaya suggested.

Yunxu looked at her, and silently looked away.

You can’t save everyone, Amaya told herself, heartsick. People are dying. “I think I could use some air.”

Somehow she wasn’t surprised that Yunxu followed her out to the garden. He didn’t trust her. Hadn’t for years. She was too valuable to drag under Lake Laogai without proof… but Yunxu was sure she was up to something.

Which, of course, she was.

I wish I were up to a bit more, Amaya thought, sitting by her pond to watch flashes of gold, crimson, and blue molly-guppies, flickering through light cast by one of Zuko’s lanterns. Thoughtful, careful young man; he’d hedged iron and glass in with stones to be sure none would trip over, and refilled all the oil reservoirs before he left-

The pond rippled as if blown by wind, a thin sheet of water lapping over the edge. Upwards.

Lantern-light hissed out.

Have to get back, get away-

“Amaya….”

Blue robes trimmed with white fur, her mother held out a damp hand. And… there was something wrong about that. But she’d been so lonely, so long, and she’d done so many awful things to try and save those she could from the war….

“I forgive you,” whispered a voice of waves and water-weeds.

Yunxu never had a chance to scream.


Shirong stared at a Fire Nation wanted poster, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Pohuai Stronghold, indeed.

The Army always kept the best intelligence for themselves, but a fair amount did eventually end up where a Dai Li could get to it. You had to know what rumors you might need to squash, after all. And which groups of refugees would be the most trouble.

As for the intelligence available on the stronghold and Taku…. Given the last herbalist hanging on up there had a habit of talking to her cat, anyone might be forgiven for thinking her tale of advising the Avatar to look for frozen frogs was - well. But when you put that together with reports of localized whirlwinds, Yu Yan mobilization under a recently-promoted Admiral Zhao, and the absolute chaos that had apparently broken out in the stronghold that night….

Plus, the wanted poster. One simply could not ignore the wanted poster. Fierce-tusked blue theater mask and all.

Spirits, no wonder Lee’s paranoid. That’s no small string of cash on his head.

And put together, the reports explained much more. That crushing sorrow and guilt, like a blanket of stones. The fierce determination to learn healing from Amaya first, when Lee was a fighter through and through….

He freed the Avatar. And how did the boy repay him? By slaughtering untold thousands of his countrymen.

Exact numbers were hard to come by, but reliable accounts placed the invasion fleet at hundreds of ships. Many of classes that would carry a hundred, even a thousand men. Wrapping his mind around the potential casualty count alone made Shirong shiver.

Even if Lee had abandoned the Fire Nation, the boy had a heart fierce as any waterbender’s. Every death must have cut like a knife.

And he’s probably convinced himself it’s all his fault, Shirong thought bleakly. No wonder he doesn’t want to trust anyone.

After all, legends said the Avatar was the defender of the world. If you couldn’t trust him to do the right thing, who could you trust?

Except the Avatar doesn’t defend your world. Not if you’re Fire Nation.

Or so one Fire Nation petitioner had claimed, centuries ago, crying for justice against Kyoshi before the Earth King himself.

What was her name? Tama? Temun? Something odd….

He’d tracked down as much as he could of the original record, hungry to know if there was actually a reason behind a century of war against his people-

Temul. That was her name. A firebender.

A very odd firebender, from what he could cudgel out of memory. Who’d sworn the Avatar had wronged her people, bitterly, and that all the world would suffer for it.

The darkest day in Fire Nation history. I wish I knew what happened.

Professor Tingzhe Wen would know, probably. But speak face to face with a man he might one day have to disappear? No. Not if Shirong could avoid it.

Besides. I already know what I need to. The Avatar isn’t always fair. Temul didn’t even get a hearing.

And that was Kyoshi. A grown woman who knew that justice required consideration, as well as decisiveness, and that nothing in life was either fully good or evil.

This Avatar is twelve years old. And the people he trusts are barely older. Shirong shook his head. I don’t like it.

I want him out of my city.

The agent sat up straight in his chair, the ramifications of that thought sinking in. The generals surely had a plan for the Avatar’s power. Long Feng must have a plan, or he wouldn’t order the bison confined-

But if the Avatar had his bison, he wouldn’t have to be here. They could still plan. He could visit. Why keep the animal from him?

Shirong couldn’t think of any good reason. But he could think of a reason. A horrible one.

Back the Avatar into a corner. Trap him, so you can aim that power at your enemies.

Like he was trapped at the North Pole.

No!

Hands clenched on paper, crinkling it; Shirong made himself let go, glad he never used his rock gloves to read. He could imagine the walls of this archive studded with stone from that sudden, soul-deep fury.

I am Dai Li. I’ve done horrible things to protect my city. I’ll probably do a lot more. But this….

I am Dai Li, of the order formed to protect Ba Sing Se from its own spirits. By Avatar Kyoshi herself. And this horrible thing, I will not do.

Shirong had to take a moment just to breathe, shaken. He’d be out of step with his comrades. He’d be potentially disobeying Long Feng….

I don’t know what effect that horror at the North Pole had on the spirits, and I don’t want to find out here. Ba Sing Se doesn’t deserve that. My people don’t deserve that. Lee sure as hell doesn’t deserve that.

And a twelve-year-old boy who happened to be the Avatar didn’t deserve it either. Shirong had read reports on the Ba Sing Se Zoo incident. For all his awesome power, the Avatar was a child. An impulsive, happy, optimistic child.

It’s wrong. If I’m right… what they’re planning to do is just wrong.

Not to mention lethally short-sighted. Eventually that boy would grow up, and have all the power legend said Kyoshi and Roku had wielded. Did the Earth Kingdom really want someone that powerful knowing they’d been used as a weapon?

No. Oma and Shu, no.

I have to do something.

Do something? Do what? Go against Long Feng’s direct orders? Not to mention the purely practical aspect of the number of fellow Dai Li who’d be between him and any attempt to free the bison. He was a reasonably skilled earthbender and agent. He was not the Blind Bandit.

I need help.

Almost against his will, Shirong glanced at the poster again.

There’s a big difference between a fortress on a cliff and a labyrinth underground.

Still. Pohuai Stronghold. Who in the Army had ever broken in there?

He’s fast, smart, and sneaky. He may have less than a month training his waterbending, but those moves he does know, he has cold. And he has years of training in firebending forms.

Most important of all… no one would see it coming.

Valid points, Shirong thought. But will he do it? He has no reason to love the Avatar.

But Lee did love his uncle. And cared about Amaya. Not to mention the numerous other people he’d apparently gotten mixed up with. The young man cared.

And he’s practical. Even if he hates the Avatar, and I couldn’t blame him if he did… he’ll do what he believes is right.

Still. If Lee agreed, and that was an if, he’d need an earthbender’s help to get in-

Running feet; Shirong had just enough time to stuff the poster out of sight before Quan hit the doorframe hard enough to shiver rocks.

“Our agents at the clinic missed their check-in,” Quan said grimly.

Amaya.


“Perhaps we should just go home, nephew,” Iroh suggested, as they climbed the steps to Amaya’s clinic. “If she believed it was better for you not to be here….”

“She was going to do something she didn’t want to do, Uncle.” Zuko’s face was grim. “I’ve seen that before.”

And what that might be, Iroh feared to know. Especially if the Dai Li were involved. “Even so,” he said gravely, “she may not be pleased if we interfere.”

“I’m - not planning to interfere,” Zuko admitted quietly. “If she feels she has to - I know what that’s like.” He glanced at his uncle. “But I thought, if it’s over… we could be there. If she needs somebody.”

Iroh raised gray brows, and nodded. “That is very thoughtful, nephew. But let us be polite, as well. If she tells us she wishes us to go, we will-” He cut himself off, as Zuko held up a warning hand.

“What do you hear?” Zuko asked, half a whisper.

Focused, Iroh listened. People in the streets, shopkeepers calling their wares before closing for the night, the outraged squawks of an ostrich-horse a street away….

From the clinic, nothing.

The pair traded glances, and his nephew went through the door fast and hard.

Silence.

Iroh shut the door quietly behind them, and lit a flame in his palm for more light. “Only one lamp lit,” he observed, as they passed through the entryway into the main clinic. “It could not have happened too long after dark….”

The smell reached them then, and Iroh saw his nephew pale.

Seaweed. And blood. “Call a fire.”

“Uncle-”

“We will make explanations later,” Iroh said darkly. “If there is anyone still alive to explain to.”

There wasn’t.

One agent lay lifeless in a cold red pool just inside the screen to Amaya’s garden, throat ravaged as if by the Unagi’s teeth. Another had fallen face-first in the pool, drowned and gone when they turned him over. A third was all but entombed in ice against the wall where he’d tried to flee, hands raised before his face in futile defense-

Not futile, Iroh realized, as they came closer and Zuko swore under his breath. “He kept an airspace open. Quickly!”

Fire in their hands, breathing steam, they cracked the agent free. He fell as dead weight into their arms, pale as ice….

But Iroh had studied waterbenders, and taught his nephew well. A cold body might only seem dead.

Ear by the Dai Li’s mouth, Iroh felt the faintest whisper of a breath. “Bring him inside. Build up the fire!”

Hot rocks wrapped in blankets around the man, they propped him by the stove and kept working. Heating water on top of the stove, Zuko wreathed his hands in flame and worked over icy skin. Iroh timed faint breaths, and blew out gentle steam so the agent could breathe in warmth as well.

“Bon,” Zuko kept saying as he worked, “Bon, it’s Lee. You’re at the clinic. We found you. You’re going to be all right, just hang on….”

Finally, the agent began to shiver.

Iroh glanced at his nephew, who nodded and released the fire back to the stove, wrapping his hands in hot water instead. “Agent Bon?” Iroh asked. “Can you hear us?”

“Father?” Bon whispered, teeth chattering. “No… can’t be… you’re dead….”

“Bon!” Zuko said sharply. “It’s gone. I can’t feel it anywhere. It’s gone, and people are dead, and Amaya- Wake up!”

Bon’s eyes snapped open. “…Lee?”

Iroh arched an eyebrow, intrigued. Earthbenders didn’t usually respond to a firebender’s force of will. “We have not found Healer Amaya.”

“It took her. Through the water….”

As he’d feared. “Stay with him, while I get help,” Iroh directed, rising.

“Not staying here,” Bon gasped, trying to sit up before Zuko shoved him back down. “It killed Dai Li, can’t let it get away-!”

“Stay. Down.” An order, that crackled in the air as Zuko glared the agent into going limp. “You did your duty. You told us what we’re up against. Now stay put, so Uncle can get help to keep you alive while we go kill this thing.”

“Kill it?” Bon managed through shivers. “But - you’re a waterbender….”

“I am.” Zuko’s gaze went to the lanterns. “Which is why it’s never going to see this coming.”


One remains who would challenge us.

Curled in endless cold, Amaya tried not to think. But the water and the power and the hunger were all, and she couldn’t help but see green eyes under black hair; green that burned to gold….

That one. Hunger, and a chill contempt. Thief. Disrupter. Prey. Yes, we know him….

Thief? Zuko had never-

And she was breathing in storm, she was the storm, fixed on the fires of mortal lives on the frail metal vessel. Born of fire; born enemies. Too dangerous to approach in calmer seas; too dangerous to lure, almost always. Which would make their despair all the sweeter. She felt the lightning building… strike!

No!

Fire-in-flesh had seized the lightning; parried it, away and into the waves. The life dangling so temptingly from twisted metal was grabbed by other lives, hauled away from danger. Unfair, unfair; it hungered, they could not deny it….

But the storm was still strong, the metal hull damaged. The fire-lives would fall. They would. Curses breathed around the mortals, two above all, and Agni had no power here. And no other spirit would deny its feasting. The mortals’ own hate and obsession would make them prey-

“Let him go. We need to get this ship to safety.”

Impossible! That blood could not ignore its curse. It existed; that alone disrupted what-should-be. It could not deny destiny. It would fall, and be destroyed.

Yet the mortals gained the sunlight at the heart of the storm, and it was powerless.

You cannot rob me of my prey!

But they had. For a time. As another bright fire had, years ago and far away; gold and green and violet burning between water and delectable flesh. It could taste the sand of that warm-water shore, even now.

But that fire-life was well defended, and these more recent thieves had headed north, into waters too chill for comfort. And the hunger would not be sated by anything as petty as waiting.  Death and disruption called; and here, the feeding had been good.

There was still need for caution, of course. The Bridge was near, and it was always wise to avoid such great power, no matter how young. The Bridge might not understand what belonged to it by right.

And anything it could take, belonged to it.

As you do. A susurrus of waves. He is the last? And he is coming to us.

Twice he escaped. Fire-born. Enemy. Thief. Once by fire. Once by sun.

The sun will not scorch again for hours. And as for fire….

Water crushed her, and she had no strength to weep. 


Think, Zuko told himself. Don’t jump in. Don’t panic. Think. He tugged the reins of his hastily-borrowed ostrich-horse to aim for a distant stretch of sandy lakeshore between water and towering cliffs. Uncle was matching him pace for pace, still tching a bit about their mounts’ hapless owner, who had not fully appreciated the seriousness of their request.

The nerve jabs would wear off. Eventually.

“The plan is clear?” Iroh called to him.

“Yes!” I hope. “Just tell me why this monster isn’t going to do the smart thing, hide on the bottom of the lake, and laugh at us.”

“Three reasons!” The retired general sounded grimly cheerful. “First, if it did that, we would have no chance to rescue Amaya. And that would simply not be fair.”

“This isn’t a spirit-tale, Uncle!” The hero doesn’t always win. As if we were ever heroes.

“Is it not?”

Better reason!”

“Young people…. Second - this is a kamuiy, not one of the great spirits. It is surely hungry, and cunning. But I would imagine it is not too bright.”

Okay, he could work with that. Though dumb opponents could be some of the most dangerous. You never knew what the idiots would do. “And third?”

“Well, I am certain that is more than enough….”

“Uncle!” Zuko cast him a brief glare. “We’re risking our lives. We might be risking the whole city! I need to know!”

Iroh gave him a look askance. “Nephew. I have great confidence in your ability to irritate anything.”

…Okay, maybe he didn’t need to know.

Oh hell, it’s a talent. Use it. Which was what their plan meant to do-

His mount shied, as earth erupted. “Stop right there!” an unfamiliar voice ordered.

Dai Li. Wonderful. Zuko halted his mount, searching under night-shadowed hats for any hint of a familiar face. “Agent Shirong! Amaya’s in the lake!”

“You’re sure of that, are you?” Shirong’s stance was subtle, outwardly relaxed, and unmistakable.

He thinks it got me again. Damn it, we don’t have time-!

“We are not,” Iroh stated, voice carrying through the night. “Agent Bon said it took her, and her body was not at the clinic. We hope she is there. And that it has not yet fed.”

“Bon?” the agent apparently in charge echoed darkly.

“Probably feels like he went for a swim at the North Pole, but he was lucid,” Zuko bit out, staring at calm, dark waters. “We left him with the Guard-”

Oh no.

“Down!”

A push froze the leading edge of the wave as it roared overhead, held back the bulk of the water long enough for everyone to bolt clear. But even that light touch of bending swamped him, cold and hunger and death pulling him under….

No.

I am Prince Zuko. Son of Ursa, and Fire Lord Ozai.

I’ve faced fire, and betrayal, and the Avatar himself.

Exile didn’t kill me. The North Pole didn’t kill me. Azula didn’t kill me.

One of us is going to die here. It’s not going to be me!

Night snapped back into focus, and Zuko bared his teeth at towering wet shadows. Pulled up a ball of water between his hands, flattening it between circling palms until it steamed with glints of green and gold. Swirled it into a globe again, and lashed out-

He lost the sphere as soon as it hit shadow-water, with a wrench like someone tearing away a fingernail. But that was fine. Better than fine. Because fire-laced water made it scream, and in the brief moment shadows cleared at the impact-

Amaya.

Suspended in water, limp; eyes open and aglow like nothing the Dai Li had ever seen before. He could tell that from the gasps, the scrambling huddle of fear behind him.

But I’ve seen it before. And I don’t care.

Zuko smirked, and knew Shirong thought he was crazy. “Was that supposed to scare me?” he taunted surging black water. “You’ll have to do better than that!”

Shadow-water roared, swirling into a scaled dragon-horse whose head lunged for him, fangs leading.

A duck, a roll, and he laughed in its face. “Too slow!”

Let’s see just how mad I can get you.


“He’s insane,” Shirong said numbly, standing by Quan in terrified shock. The other two Dai Li had raised a low wall to break oncoming waves, and stood ready to bend it higher. If that would do any good. He’d read about haima-jiao, certainly; they all had. But the reality….

We’ve found it. Now what the hell do we do with it?

“No, only focused.” Mushi seized both of them by the shoulders, just long enough for a determined shake. “He is buying you time. Think! It draws strength from the water, and from Amaya. How can we best weaken it?”

“How long can Lee even keep standing?” Shirong shot back. “It’s pulling from the whole lake-”

“Lee is not drawing his water from the lake,” Mushi said firmly. “Look!”

Mist, was Shirong’s first thought. Followed hard by, Why is mist just there, near Lee’s feet-?

Sweeping feet, shifting from stance to quick stance as Lee led the monster on a mad chase across the beach. Feet that circled, and whirled, as Lee spun himself back upright after a lash of water knocked him down by the sheer force of displaced air….

Firebending! Shirong realized. Those are firebending stances, the kind they use to gather energy to strike-

But Lee was pulling up water. Out of the shore itself.

Water from the shore is water of the shore, Shirong knew, heart racing. Not the lake. Not the land.

And shores were boundaries, in-between places, like the moments of dawn and dusk. Places spirits roamed freely; yet at the same time, places a human could fight a spirit, even one with the strength of a murdering sea.

Fight, yes, Shirong knew, still shivering. Win?

Mist spun into another small globe, glowed, flung-

An inhuman scream, and the haima-jiao lunged once more.

“So long as he is not bending the same water, it cannot seize him,” Mushi said fiercely. “You are earthbenders! Cut away its strength!”

Quan gave the gray-haired tea-maker a narrow look; then nodded, flinging a subtle gesture at Shirong before gathering the other two and arcing a long wall into the lake.

Gee, thanks, Shirong thought dryly, grabbing Mushi right back. “You couldn’t know we’d be here. You must have had another plan-”

“Ah, yes.” Reaching around, Mushi took a roll of pine-dark cloth and a capped skin off his shoulder. A full skin, that sloshed, and didn’t smell anything like water.

“…Remind me to never, ever get you mad at me,” Shirong said faintly.

Mushi’s smile was wry, and bittersweet. “Do you know spirit-mazes?”

Shirong nodded. That, and every other nasty spirit-trick he could hunt down in the archives, plus anything he could persuade out of people from beyond the Wall.

“Then let us give this creature a night it will never forget.”


Let me die.

She didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to see. She didn’t want to feel the cold, cruel pleasure of hunting Zuko across the shore with waves and water-whips and fangs-

“Amaya!”

No! She didn’t want to hear her student plead, she didn’t-

“Amaya, damn it, wake up! It’s lying to you!”

That… didn’t sound like pleading.

“It feels like it’s angry, but it’s not! Not like you and me. It’s just empty. A hole in the water. It eats and eats, but it can never fill that hole up. That’s why it hates us!

“It makes you feel empty. That’s how it uses you! It makes you alone, and scared, and lost. Makes you feel like you can’t get angry, like that’s giving it what it wants-”

A flicker of vision, as the strength of the lake seemed to shrink. Zuko dodged a spray of ice daggers, vanishing in a cloak of steam. Fire in water confounded the sense of fire-in-flesh; made her tormentor slow, like a lull in the storm.

“It’s lying.” Zuko’s voice was low and dangerous as he stalked out of the fog, glaring defiance into dripping fangs. “You think your tribe faces off things like this by community, by water. That’s what the other waterbenders thought! That’s why they died!”

No, get back, get away-! Helplessness washed over her, and she felt a contented snarl.

Thin mist blocked some of the next wave, but not all. Water yanked Zuko from his feet, fangs tore-

Shredded brown cloth, as Zuko kicked free of his over-robe and rolled to his feet, dagger in hand. “You beat it because when you care about your family, you feel,” Zuko panted. “And feeling is fire, Amaya! Get angry!

What-?

You are alone. Outcast from your tribe. Condemned by your own hands; who would take back one who has served their enemies? You are mine!

But she’d never done it to serve anyone. She’d done it because… because….

Huojin.

Just a little boy, lost and crying on the streets. An innocent young troublemaking scamp, like Jinhai was now, who’d done nothing to deserve the death hunting him.

I did it because I had to. Because he needed me. He needed someone, and I was there, and how could I call myself a healer if I let a child die when I could do something….

Loneliness pounded her like a tsunami, driving her down-

No.

No, I won’t let you.

I have a family. It’s not my tribe. It’s small and hidden and broken. But it doesn’t give up. Not now. Not ever.

You should have settled for me, haima-jiao! That’s my student you’re trying to kill. And you can’t have him!

A hiss of waves; a torrent of images, all the pain and aggravation and fear for the rest of her hidden folk Zuko had brought home to roost. Hate him! Hate, and destroy!

And it was all true - and all lies. No, Amaya thought, and felt shattered boundaries of herself draw together, hardened by growing anger. You hate us, because you envy us; because we are warm and breathing and alive, in a way you can never be. I could never hate Zuko. I am angry with him, for doing something so stupid and wonderful and brave….

And he’d done it for her. She knew that, clear as she could suddenly see the beach, the Dai Li raising walls to cut the strength of water, Mushi’s intent discussion with Shirong as they moved sand in subtle patterns. Surely they had a safer plan. Surely, they could have waited.

But Zuko had put himself on the line, here and now. To get her angry.

Give up, bastard, Amaya thought, focusing all her will on one hand. If she could win that back, even a twitch of her fingers…. You’re going to die!

Foolish little life. None here are strong enough to defeat me!

Water surged, and stone shattered.


No time to think. No time to ask if Mushi had a plan B. Only a moment to stomp and thrust-

Shirong felt something more solid than water hit his raised wall; Lee surfaced through the grasping waves, gasping for air.

Flinging his gloves, Shirong grabbed, and yanked.

“Owe you one,” Lee managed, dripping on sand as rock flew back to Shirong’s hands.

“We’ll settle up later,” Shirong said plainly. “Don’t drip on the lines.” More trenches in the beach than lines, but still….

Lee’s smirk would have looked right at home on a dillo-lion. “Uncle?”

“A few moments more,” the older man stated, digging and pouring. “Fortunately, it is distracted by breaking the walls-”

Ice slashed like razors, and Shirong knew it hadn’t been distracted enough.

Oh. Red, so red; why was everything red when the world was so cold? That’s going to hurt….


For some, war slows the world.

Iroh felt his pulse stretch into slow beats, as Zuko spun to their falling ally and renewed walls of stone ground glacier-slow out of the lake. He was closer to the shore than his nephew and Shirong, closer to danger….

Which was precisely where he wanted to be.

Wait.

Fangs lunged for him, slow as thread unraveling.

Wait.

A scaled foot of water drifted down, crossing sandy trenches-

Now!

A breath, and flames roared up from poured lamp oil, will pushing them ever higher. Just high enough to conceal the sphere of fire Iroh breathed and shaped around himself, stepping through stunned water until one hand touched chilled, struggling flesh-

He snapped open the firethorn robe, wrapping it about Amaya in one swift swirl. Breathed, and stepped….

Out of the water. Out of the maze. Fire still blazing behind them.

Old smoke, indeed.


Lost!

Flesh gone, waterbender gone, lake’s strength being sliced away by stone. It writhed in the maze of flames, bewildered. Prey… prey did not do this….

Prey.

One still touching water, touching its power; blood and fear and alone slinking through its defenses….

Mine.


“Zuko….”

Fire around his hands; Agni, let Uncle be distracting the others, there was no way he could explain this, he was too tired to use water and he couldn’t let Shirong die-

“Zuko.” His mother’s voice, warm and sweet as smoke-sugar. “Come home.”

No. You’re not real. Yet he couldn’t stop himself from rising, and walking toward her.

No! Damn it, you know it’s lying! Shirong is bleeding and you have to-

But it wasn’t just his mother, it was her and Azula; and his sister was smiling, glad to see him, and he wanted it so much, he would have given his heart if it had been real….

Fire is passion.

Love and rage and fire slammed home, steel sinking in to the hilt.

Never give up without a fight.


“You got him,” Shirong whispered, as the black jelly of a dying sea-kamuiy slid off white-hot steel. “Good job.”

We all did a good job, the agent knew, feeling the cold creep back in. He should care about that, but he was so tired….

Not a bad way to go. My city is safe. My people….

Weren’t safe. Not yet. He hadn’t told Lee, he had to tell Lee-

“Shirong.” An exhausted sob; Lee’s hands grabbed his, hot as embers. “Do you trust me?”

Silly question to ask a dying man. But he tried to nod.

“Don’t give up. Just- don’t give up….”

Darkness. And light. And something burning inside, he couldn’t bear it, he’d be nothing more than ash and smoke on the wind-

Don’t give up.

Like breaking through a crust of lava, and still somehow breathing. The fire was everywhere, burning….

Easing. Like banked coals, warming winter-chilled skin. Shirong took a soggy breath, coughed-

And kept breathing.

…Huh. Didn’t see that coming.

Daring, he opened his eyes. “You look like hell.”

“Thanks,” Lee muttered, ghost-pale and shaking. “Sorry about the reports.”

“Reports?” Shirong echoed, confused. But just for a moment. That’s right. I’m alive. Which means I have to write up what happened. Damn. “Are you trying to kill my will to live?”

Lee smirked at him. Turned a little, creaky as an old man, to look Quan in the eye. “Anybody else hurt? Please tell me there’s not….”

“Bumps and bruises. We’ll keep.” Quan crouched beside Shirong, face almost blank with amazement as he took in the healing scars raking the agent’s chest. “Damn. I was sure you were….” He whistled. “Healer Amaya’s a good teacher.”

“Yes, she- Master Amaya!” Lee tried to jump to his feet; staggered, would have fallen if Quan hadn’t caught him. “Uncle- Uncle?

Eyeing the tea-maker whispering sweet nothings in the drenched healer’s ear - and her desperate clutch on his robes - Shirong raised an eyebrow.

“…That’s just not fair,” Lee managed.

“Indeed,” Shirong stated wryly. “The hero’s supposed to get the girl. You know, the handsome prince, or the injured, bleeding common bender who saved the day in the nick of time? It’s a fundamental law of the universe!”

Mushi lifted his head enough to smile at them, mysterious as a cat-owl. “And what makes you think the hero did not?”

Lee clapped a hand to his forehead.

Shirong snickered. And couldn’t stop. “Oh, Oma and Shu… don’t make me laugh, it hurts….”

But it was a good hurt. Pain meant he was alive.

We’re alive, and it’s dead… and I’ll be able to tell Lee about the bison. Soon.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dawn. Amaya could see it in the light filtering through the window-shades. Hear it, in the quiet grumble of Zuko getting breakfast started. Feel it, as Mushi yawned and stretched beside her, warm as the hot rocks wrapped in blankets on her other side.

“Good morning,” Mushi said politely, eyes sleepily half-open. “Are you warm enough?”

“If I were any warmer, I’d be in a sauna,” Amaya stated crisply. What was he up to? He’d always behaved like a perfect gentleman in the past, and she couldn’t have fallen through a winter-frozen lake last night-

Memory crashed like an ice shelf into the sea, and she shivered. No. No….

“It is over. Amaya, brave lady, it is over.” He caught her hands before she could push away, giving her an intent look. “You saved Agent Bon, you know.”

“I… no, I tried to kill him….”

“You sheathed him in ice,” Mushi said bluntly. “He held on long enough for us to revive him. So you did save him.”

“It’s not enough,” Amaya whispered. Yunxu, an agent whose name she’d never known… they were dead. Because she hadn’t been fast enough. Wise enough. Strong enough.

“It never is,” Mushi said quietly, sitting up. “Evil comes, and we do our best to defy it. But always, there is a loss.” He regarded her gravely. “That is the cost of courage. To face evil, because if you did not, more lives would be shattered. Courage scars us all, Amaya. My nephew’s is simply more visible than most.”

“I…” Amaya swallowed, and tried again. “I hurt inside.”

“I know.”

“I want to hurt something else,” she admitted, ashamed. “But it’s already dead, and… I know everyone was doing their best to find it, and….” Speak the truth. “Zuko fought it off!”

“My nephew is a firebender,” Mushi said bluntly. “He could raise fire in his very veins, to beat it back. And even so, he says it was too close. Sometimes all our training and power fails us.” He released her hands, and gestured toward the kitchen. “But when we have fallen, and the battle has passed… that is when we must cling most tightly to hope, and find the courage to reach out to our friends. For the truest will come to us, and help us stand again.”

He means it. Tears threatened; she’d been so cold and alone, and he was still that same sun-warm rock she could rely on, faithful and kind….

And still, there was that glint of mischief in green eyes, playful and not quite innocent. Amaya lifted her chin. “Get out there, and let a respectable lady dress in peace.”

Mushi snapped his fingers, obviously disappointed. Grinned at her, bowed, and departed.

“Reprobate,” she murmured, not unkindly.

It wasn’t the best breakfast she’d ever had, but it was warm, and filling; overall, much better than she’d expected. “Huojin wasn’t sure either of you could cook,” Amaya remarked. And wished she dared pound her head on the table. Not as rested as I thought.

Zuko snorted, humor dancing in his eyes. Mushi chuckled. “I did enjoy having a cook in the past,” he admitted. “But after I came home from campaign once half-dead from bad food, my late wife insisted I learn, in self-defense. And so I later taught our son, and my nephew. She was a brave woman, my Natsu. Not everyone dares to unleash a proud soldier on a kitchen!”

Amaya had to smile, imagining that indignant young soldier. “I would have liked to have met her.”

“Me, too,” Zuko said softly. “If Mom had been there….”

Mushi rested a hand on his nephew’s wrist. “Your mother was only a child then herself, and Shidan and Lady Kotone avoided the capital as much as they could. With good cause. Do not take guilt for what was. Focus on what is.”

Words that cleansed and stung at once, like salt on wounds. Amaya sucked in a breath. “The children - down the stairs-”

“We didn’t go down there.” Zuko inhaled the rest of his breakfast, rinsing out his bowl in a hurry. “I’ll go. Tell me what I’m looking for, are they going to be hurt-”

Amaya winced. “It’s Jet.”

“What?”


For once, Huojin heard Lee coming before he saw him.

“…Idiotic, obsessed, isn’t going to take anything less than maiming as a hint….”

Wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that, the Guard reflected. “Min again?” he asked, straightening from where he’d been officiously leaning against the wall beside the clinic door. “You’re early.” Dropping his voice as the young man neared, he nodded toward inside. “Is Amaya all right? Headquarters got orders to post a guard, but not go in….”

“She’s shaken up. She’s tough.” Lee took a deep breath, and reached for the door. “It’s going to be ugly.”

What happened? Huojin wanted to ask. But bit his tongue. If Lee could have told him on the street, he would have. So he touched his sword and followed, instead.

Blood, and death. Faint. But you could taste it, if you knew the air.

“Huh,” Lee muttered to himself. “They cleaned.”

“Cleaned?” Huojin said uneasily, following Lee to a slight stain beside the screen to the garden. If that wasn’t faint traces of blood spatter, he’d retire to carve wooden tops. “What happened?”

“You’re not going to like it….”

You’re right. I don’t, Huojin decided, as they quickly searched the clinic’s upper level while Lee recounted the mad events of last night. Spirits that could take over benders… brr.

And he just knew Lee had downplayed how much danger he’d been in. “I made it mad until it jumped into the maze.” Sure. “But Amaya’s alive?”

“She’ll be okay. She just needs time.” Lee smiled faintly. “Uncle’s taking her to work. Hot tea, friendly customers… a haima-jiao couldn’t get her there if it tried.”

“But it’s dead- right. For the shock.” Amaya’s mind might know it was dead. If this was anything like a more ordinary assault, her body and spirit would take a lot more convincing. “So what are we really looking for?” Given the Dai Li had apparently clung to their usual mysterious ways and tried to eliminate any sign that something had happened here.

“Something I don’t think I’ll find.” Lighting a lamp, Lee led the way belowground, and sighed.

Rounding the last corner of the stairs himself, Huojin regarded the empty room. “No one’s here.”

“Not anymore.” Lee shook his head. “Jet, Smellerbee, and Longshot. The Dai Li had them here for questioning.” He looked down, shoulders slumped. “I didn’t look down here last night. Neither of us did, we were trying to save Amaya….”

“Sometimes, things don’t work out,” Huojin admitted. “Lee. I know you’re used to being responsible for people. We feel that way in the Guard, too. But when your back’s against the wall and someone you rely on is in trouble… you do the best you can with what you know and where you are. You’re alive. Amaya’s alive. The haima-jiao isn’t going to kill anyone else.” He crossed his arms, and gave Lee a sidelong glance. “So chin up, take a deep breath, and keep moving. You pulled off a damn miracle last night. Stop whining because you’re not perfect.”

Lee gave him an angry look, that slowly melted into embarrassment. “Was I whining?”

Huojin lifted a hand, rubbed thumb and forefinger together. “Just a little.”

“Sorry.” Lee shrugged, still a little red. “I just… I feel bad about really only feeling upset because I’ll have to tell Amaya.”

“Yeah, well, good riddance,” Huojin said darkly. “I warned them. You warned them. Amaya warned them. And you warned them again. You can’t save all the idiots from themselves.” He shrugged, deliberately. “So you’re handling the clinic today?”

“At least the emergencies,” Lee nodded. “Closing early, though. Don’t want her to worry where I am after dark.”

“I’ll leave word at headquarters where to find you if we need you,” Huojin nodded. The Guard already had their apartment marked down, just in case.

“You can get a message to the Dai Li?”

“We can,” Huojin agreed warily.

“Good.” Looking a little more determined, Lee headed for the stairs. “I want to make sure Agent Shirong doesn’t slip through the cracks just because we all think he’s better.” He cast a faint smile over his shoulder. “And… do you know where in the market I can find some hickory wood, powdered sugar, and grape acid?”

“What for?” Huojin asked, beyond confused.

“You never had smoke-sugar when you were a kid?”

“Well… yeah, I think so, but… you know how to make it?”

“Sweet tooth,” Lee admitted shamelessly, grinning. “Mom showed me how a long time ago. Before… before a lot of things.” He shook off the gloom. “You want the recipe?”

Oh, did he ever.


“You work for that man?” Amaya shook her head as they walked back up to Mushi’s apartment through afternoon shadows.

“There is no shame in honest work,” her host proclaimed. “And tea lightens the cares of those who visit us. Though it never does seem to work on my nephew,” he mused.

“There’s only so much a warm drink can handle,” Amaya pointed out wryly. “How long do you intend to put me up when I have a perfectly good home to go to?” I hadn’t realized what a cheapskate Pao is. The small fees Zuko was entitled to as an apprentice were more important than she’d realized.

“Until you feel ready to face the violence that occurred within that home,” Mushi said plainly, opening their door and bowing her in. “Or at least so long as you are willing to allow us this kindness. It is what friends do for one another. And a small enough recompense for the harm we did you, unknowing.”

“Harm?” Amaya frowned as he closed and latched the door.

Mushi sighed, and gestured toward the table. “Tea?” he said hopefully.

She lifted a brow, still standing. “An explanation, first.”

He inclined his head; as you wish. “You told me it was dangerous for a young waterbender to live with so little family. I failed to consider it might be as perilous for you, even though you are well trained. And so I turned away your offer of family, without explanation.”

“You said it was dangerous,” Amaya pointed out.

“It is,” Mushi acknowledged. “But we nearly lost you. And that would have been… horrible to bear.” He sighed. “So. In trying to protect you, I did you harm. It seems a custom of my family…. I would mend that harm, in some small way. So that you may know what it is you risk now, rather than wait until we must flee Ba Sing Se for Jinhai’s sake, or our own.” He lowered his voice. “With the haima-jiao gone, we are no longer watched. It is safe to speak of such things. If you wish.”

Her breath caught. He was offering one of the things she valued most in the world: truth. And yet…. “Don’t. Don’t tell me, just because you feel you’ve wronged me. You haven’t.”

“It is more than that,” Mushi said firmly. “You are dear to me, Lady Amaya. Were I another man, I would have hopes… but I would, at least, have no lies between us. That much comfort, I would claim.” He drew a breath, and met her gaze. “I am Iroh. Son of Fire Lady Ilah, and Fire Lord Azulon.”

For a long moment, the words didn’t make sense. Couldn’t make sense. Azulon; son of Sozin, the Fire Lord who’d begun a century of war. Azulon, the name she and everyone she knew had grown up cursing for his failed assault on the North Pole, and his merciless decimation of the Southern Water Tribe. And Iroh was another name to conjure nightmares. Crown prince, before Ozai took the throne; ruthless general and firebender beyond compare, who had conquered his way across half the Earth Kingdom and held Ba Sing Se under siege for six hundred days.

The Dragon of the West.

“You can’t be,” Amaya whispered, gaze sweeping frantically across the kind, gentle man in Earth Kingdom green. Warm hands, a shoulder to lean on; gentle correction when his nephew needed it most….

Zuko. If his brother is Zuko’s father, then-

Her mind shied from the thought. “You’re a tea-maker. You can’t be… General Iroh.”

“Retired,” Iroh said gently. And smiled, sadly. “I have always taken comfort in tea.”

“You can’t be,” Amaya insisted, panic and hurt and anger mixing together like foaming wine. “Not Sozin’s blood, not-” Words failed her.

“The source of all evil in the world?” Iroh said wryly. “I have heard us called that before. And yes. Sozin was evil. Not because he meant to be. Because he believed that he alone knew how to remake the world into perfection, and set out to do so - even if he must murder an entire race.” Iroh sighed. “I did not realize that was evil. Not when I knew him, when I was still a young man. To me he was Grandfather, and Fire Lord; the ultimate power in our land. If he had started a war, he must be in the right.” He shook his head, looking into memory. “It was only with time, and great pain, that I learned how wrong he was. That the beauty, the very hope of the world lies in the fact that it is not perfect, and we must find ways to cherish what is good in it despite that. For reshape the world as we will, none of us is perfect; and if we cannot love one who is flawed, love itself will die. As my brother’s died, for all of us. I was too kind. Ursa was too gentle. Zuko… Zuko was too weak, with no desire for power. We were human, and so we failed my brother.”

They failed Fire Lord Ozai. And hadn’t she hoped for that? That all of the Fire Nation would fail, and the war finally be over? And yet…. “You are the war,” Amaya whispered brokenly.

“I was,” Iroh admitted, unflinching. “But when we broke the Outer Wall, and invaded, I lost - much. Good men. Far too many good men. Including my son, Lu Ten. I was… horrified. Near mad with grief. He was all I had left. Or so I thought. But I was also the officer in command, the Dragon of the West. I had to think of my men, and of the Fire Nation. Terrain, numbers, morale; the earthbenders’ advantage was too great to overcome without losses that would devastate my troops. Only slaughter or treachery would bring Ba Sing Se down, and I did not wish either. So I ordered the siege ended, our troops withdrawn. Against all orders Azulon had given.” He hesitated. “I did not expect to survive that order.”

A firebender, breaking loyalty…. Amaya shivered.

“Once I recovered, I expected to be executed for treason. But events spared me. Now… now I would end the war, if I could. But more than that, I wish the boy I have raised as a son to survive.” Iroh spread empty hands. “Now you know the truth of us, and what you risk by allying with my brother’s outcast kin. And you must decide if we are worth it.”

“You,” Amaya breathed, voice gradually rising, “you reckless, impossible - Tui and La, he is definitely your nephew, you’re both utterly insane-”

It took at least five minutes of yelling for her to figure out Iroh had preemptively vaporized all the water in the apartment.

But that was all right. Zuko could draw water out of wet sand - and where, exactly, did his uncle think he’d learned that little trick?

Air was harder to draw from than a lake-damp shore. But not by much.


Over the course of sixteen years, especially over the past few months, Zuko had cultivated an intuitive sense for when Things Were About To Blow Up.

It was the little details, mostly. A certain glint in Azula’s eye. A scuff of a boot too close in an alley. A tremble of earth that ought to be solid.

And sometimes, it was not so little things. Zhao. The hunch of the Avatar’s shoulders, before he turned with mad, glowing eyes. Or, like now, a half-dozen fellow dwellers on this floor at the far end of the corridor from Uncle’s apartment, splitting upset looks between each other and the faint sounds of Amaya yelling.

“You’re here?” The landlord pushed his way to the front, glaring at Zuko. “You’re not supposed to be here! Water’s frozen all over the place! How can it be freezing in here when you just got here?”

“Because I didn’t do it?” Zuko glared back. “I’m not the only waterbender in the city.”

“Well, you’re the one who lives in this building!” The landlord pointed an imperious finger. “Fix this!”

I am not going to feed him his finger.

Lee’s impulse, born of the tribes’ historical feuds; more than a little startling, when he was far more used to the glass-razor insults or explosive lethal violence of Fire Nation politics.

Make an enemy maim himself. Yeah, that’s Water Tribe.

Well. He was not going to do that, no matter how tempting. But he couldn’t let this pass, either. Lee was Amaya’s apprentice. What he did reflected on her - and not even the Dai Li ordered Amaya around.

Zuko drew himself up to his full height, and stared the landlord straight in the eye. Not overtly threatening. Not yet.

Beads of sweat broke out on the man’s forehead, and he blinked first. “…Please?”

“Give me some time.” Warily, Zuko approached his own door. Knocked, and opened it. “Master Amaya? There’s ice all through the building….”

The room wasn’t quite as much of a wreck as he’d feared. Chairs were upended. Amaya was panting hoarsely, stance firm as a winter-locked lake. Ice. Uncle in the middle of the ice. Which made him want to throw weeks of caution to the wind and do something-

But Uncle was only in ice up to his neck. Meaning he was frozen because he wanted to be frozen.

Okay, there is something I can do. “What do you want me to do with the witnesses?” Zuko deadpanned.

Amaya flushed, mortified, seeing curious faces edge near in the hall. Uncle Iroh tried not to snicker. Much.

“We’ll straighten this out,” Zuko said to the hallway at large, and firmly closed the door. Waited a minute, and turned around.

Nobody’s dead. Good.

Uncle was still a bit damp, and Master Amaya more than a little pink. And neither of them were quite looking at each other. In a way that raised the hairs on the back of Zuko’s neck.

No, no, not good, what do I do, where do I hide, should have kept quiet, they know I’m here-

Panic and exhaustion and two people he cared about were fighting, which meant it was his fault, again….

Thank Agni for windows.


“He won’t come down?”

“Not yet, no,” Iroh sighed, picking up the last of the groceries Zuko had dropped in his sudden flight. Raising a brow at some of what he’d found. So you meant for us to celebrate. It appears I have unfortunate timing.

“He’s a teenage boy, who hasn’t had supper,” Amaya said confidently. “He will.” Gave Iroh a second look at his silence. “Won’t he?”

“He is quite capable of remaining up there for days, only venturing down to carry out his duties as he has given word to do,” Iroh said unhappily. Caught her frown, and sighed. “It is not defiance, I think….”

Comprehension dawned, and Amaya winced. “His parents fought.”

“Not at first,” Iroh clarified. “But as my nephew passed four - yes. Often.” He hesitated. “You have seen this before?”

“More than I like to think,” Amaya admitted. “And it is defiance. Of a sort. You can hurt each other, you can scare me to death, but you can’t make me watch.” She sighed herself. “Parents can’t hurt what they can’t catch. I would say Lee’s been teaching himself not to get caught for a very long time.”

It cut to the bone. “I should have seen-”

“Children are good at hiding things. They want their parents to be all right. No matter what.” She touched his shoulder. “It’s odd, but… this almost tells me more about the war than anything else.”

Iroh raised a curious brow.

“Sozin destroyed an entire nation to shape the world the way he wanted it,” Amaya said quietly. “How much more harm did he do to his own people?”

“I have made my own choices to fight, and to stop,” Iroh said plainly. “As must we all. Though I have hopes that our plan will show our people another way forward….” He felt a flicker of fire, and breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “I apologize, nephew.”

“Uncle.” Zuko slipped back in through the window, still wary. “You don’t… I just… I should have known it… wasn’t what I thought.”

“How?” Amaya said practically. “From what your uncle and Huojin have told me, you’ve never lived around people who just have normal arguments.”

“…No. Not really.” Zuko looked between them both, tension easing a little. “It is- was it something I did?”

“No,” Iroh said firmly, heartened. Courage in battle, Zuko had in plenty. Courage to face the ghosts of his past, and come back… his nephew was healing. “It was merely between us. Explanations, long overdue.” He gripped Zuko’s shoulder lightly. “Come. Dinner; and I see you have the makings of smoke-sugar. A fine treat.”

“Smoke-sugar?” Amaya asked, curious.

“After dinner,” Iroh assured her. “My nephew has a light touch with the bubbles.”

“Bubbles?”

Iroh grinned at her.

And smiled again later, enjoying the warmth of company as Amaya crunched into her first translucent bubble of blown sugar, filled with savory gray hickory smoke.

For life is sweet, and fragile, and always spiced with surprise, Iroh thought, enjoying his own silvery-gray globes. Especially for children of fire.

He waited until Zuko was about to bite into his third to deadpan, “She knows who we are.”

Crunch.

Choking on inhaled smoke, Zuko gave him a glare that should have set ice on fire.

“It explains a great deal,” Amaya noted gently. “I couldn’t understand why you were both so sure the Fire Nation’s time was nearing an end.” She laid her hand on the table near Zuko’s, almost touching. “But if the crown prince is a waterbender….”

Zuko looked down, and swallowed. “The Fire Lord is cruel.” A breath. “But Azula… my sister is insane.” He glanced up at Amaya, green eyes pleading. “If we can do this, if we can show you can live without following the Fire Lord - there are great names who won’t pledge loyalty to her. And if they can do that, if they can look after their people and get them out of the war…. If the Avatar’s supposed to be about balance, then he can’t destroy all of the Fire Nation. It’d be tactically sound for him to spare the noncombatants. It’d be the smart thing to do.” 

“Unfortunately, the Avatar is twelve, and an airbender devoted to peace,” Iroh said gravely. “So we do not know if he will find wisdom in time, or listen to those who know war. We can only hope, and prepare.”

“I can see how that would work for the future,” Amaya allowed. “But here and now-”

“You can’t give a traitor orders,” Zuko said harshly. “I gave my word to capture the Avatar. But he’s not here.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t know, Master Amaya. I don’t know. I’m here. My people are here. I’m going to do everything I can. But when I make plans… things happen. Things go wrong. Always. So I’m just going to try. As long as I can.”

“Which is all anyone can ask,” Iroh said firmly. “Do not dwell on it, nephew. We have all had very trying days. I am certain all will look brighter, once we have had some rest.”

“I know I’ll feel more at ease when I’ve had a chance to check Shirong for myself,” Amaya said gravely. “If he’ll allow me.”

“He knows it wasn’t your fault,” Zuko said soberly.

She arched a skeptical brow. “As you do about the Avatar?”

“Oh, no,” Iroh stepped in, before blood could be drawn. “I saw the boy let the Ocean take him. That was definitely Avatar Aang’s fault.” He hmphed. “One would think a bender trained under Monk Gyatso, one of the most legendary airbending masters, would have been more wary of the spirits.”

“He probably thought he could make friends with it,” Zuko griped. “How do you know that about Gyatso? I’ve never heard anything about legendary airbending masters.”

“There are sources of information the Fire Lord would not approve of,” Iroh said practically. “Once I had a name, I could make inquiries. None of which yielded information that would have helped in our chase,” he added at Zuko’s dark look. “But I was curious. Especially when I found he counted Avatar Roku among his truest friends.”

“Can you tell me about him?” Zuko didn’t squirm under his gaze, though he did redden. “He thought I was someone else. I just want to know who.”

Iroh hid a chuckle. “Ah. Well, if I were to guess…. It is likely he thought you were your mother’s grandfather.” He shrugged. “The records I have seen say nothing of Kuzon knowing Aang, but there is a mention of Gyatso.”

“Being a spirit must give you lousy eyesight,” Zuko grumbled. “Do I look a century old?” Glancing at Amaya, he tensed, and made himself relax. “So… you look like you need to talk a little more, so… just call me off the roof when you’re done.”

That swiftly, he was gone again.

Iroh raised a brow at the healer.

“You’re hiding something,” she said levelly.

“A suspicion, only,” he admitted. “I cannot see that it would make any difference-”

“Iroh.”

Ah, how sweet to hear his real name from such a vision of beauty and courage… er. Was that a snowball in her hands? “I do not think it would help my nephew to know,” Iroh answered, sensing for fire to be certain that nephew was out of earshot. “I have no proof. And I can think of none that would prove such wild fancies, truly.”

“Tell me.”

Iroh sighed. “When Zuko was in the spirit world, he looked for Kuzon for aid. A wise move; they were kin, even though they had never met, for Kuzon died before my nephew was born. And I later learned it was not a natural death, though he was ninety-eight; he was a strong firebender, and I would not have been surprised if he had reached Sozin’s age. But he was on Azulon’s list.” Iroh paused. “Zuko looked, but he did not find. And it has been my experience that spirits know precisely whom they are speaking to.”

Amaya let her snowball melt back into her cup. “…I can see why you don’t want to tell him.”

“Do you?” Iroh asked quietly. “My nephew has been so lonely, so full of pain. Shall I tell him that once he had family who loved him truly, and joy, and a life of peace? Shall I tell him that the Avatar was granted Gyatso as friend and mentor in two lives, yet the spirit who was once Aang’s friend is now counted among his enemies?” He shook his head. “My nephew has reason enough to resent fate’s blows. There is no need to add more.”

Amaya nodded. “Will you ever tell him?”

“When the time is right.” When Zuko knew enough of the White Lotus to know why they existed. And why they had not acted before.

Another, more deliberate nod. “Are you hiding anything else?”

“Much,” Iroh answered honestly. “But nothing else that bears on here and now.”

“So you say.” Standing, Amaya folded her arms, and gave him a measuring look. “You don’t have enough family. One nephew can’t keep you honest.”

Iroh kept a curious look on his face as he tried to decipher that inscrutable look. “I have been hoping he would find a nice girl, but there was Jet’s interference to consider, and we have been very busy….”

“He’s not the one who needs a nice girl.” Blue eyes danced. “Though I don’t think I’ve been nice for a few decades.”

Slowly, Iroh smiled.

He did remember to tell Zuko it was safe to come back down. Later.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Warm, Shirong thought drowsily, curled on rocks in the Dai Li’s borrowed palace garden. Tugged his hat a bit lower, eyes still shut; no point getting burned if he fell asleep out here. Which he might. Like most spirits of malice, the haima-jiao hadn’t just wounded his body. His chi was thin, depleted; he didn’t feel up to much beyond flicking a pebble, even resting directly on nurturing earth. Sunlight seemed to help, sinking into his veins like a blessing, but when he thought of what he meant to ask of Lee….

Stay calm, and rest, Shirong advised himself, feeling familiar footsteps on the earth. Ask him, and let him think. He’s creative. Don’t count it a lost cause just because you won’t be in shape to help.

“I didn’t think anybody could make rocks look comfortable,” Lee said wryly.

Shirong cracked an eye open to blink at the healers, shifting a shoulder in an abbreviated shrug. “Earth helps us heal.” He glanced at Amaya directly. “Are you well? Lee was shaken up, and it barely touched his spirit; malicious kamuiy can make the strongest of us feel as though we’ve struggled free of a midden.”

“I’m healing,” Amaya said quietly. “May I?”

“Just don’t ask me to look,” Shirong stated, lifting clear the top layer of his robe. “I’m still not sure I want to know how close it was.”

“I can see why.” Water-wrapped hands smoothed coolness over his skin, soothing small aches. “Hmm.”

From another healer, that would have worried him. But Amaya had a good heart. She wouldn’t have sounded thoughtful if there were any danger. “What?”

She withdrew her hands and eyed her apprentice. Who swallowed, but didn’t back down. “It froze the life out of him,” Lee said plainly. “I just… tried to fix it.”

“I think you overdid it,” Amaya murmured.

“Overdid what?” Shirong asked pointedly.

Amaya glanced about the garden, and raised a brow in silent question.

“We’re alone. Though Quan will be by later,” Shirong answered. That hadn’t been hard to arrange. Fortunately. Everyone knew Amaya would never betray a patient.

“Lee used a technique I reserve for emergencies,” Amaya said simply. “It’s dangerous. And even when it succeeds, which it did, it disturbs the patient’s chi for several days.” She glanced skyward. “You were fighting water and darkness. Until it settles, your chi will be seeking light and fire.” She frowned slightly, then shook it off. “I would say this is the best prescription. Rest, stone, and sunlight.” She gave Lee a serious look. “Try not to do that again soon.”

The young man nodded, though he did glance wryly toward the Inner Wall. East, toward Lake Laogai.

Right. There’s a limit to the promises you can keep when the spirits come knocking, Shirong reflected. And on that note…. “Could I speak with Lee in private?”

Blue eyes narrowed. “If this is about trying to recruit a boy I haven’t even finished training yet-”

“It’s not,” Shirong said hastily, as Lee looked indignant. “It’s… personal.” To me, at least. Though Long Feng won’t see it that way.

I am a Dai Li agent of Ba Sing Se. My city needs me to act. No matter what our leader orders.

It still felt like stepping off a cliff.

Breathe. Act calm. The less people who know, the better chance Lee will have.

If Lee chose to help.

Oma and Shu, please let him. I can’t do this on my own.

So he was going to enlist a teenage boy. Wonderful. Too bad he couldn’t blame this on a concussion.

The Avatar’s teachers are even younger. And Lee’s got sense. When he has a chance to think.

Which, oddly enough, reminded him of Temul again. The record had been blisteringly clear on the firebender’s tendency to open mouth and insert foot. But there was something more….

He set it aside; Amaya was making her way out of the garden and Lee was frowning at him. Shirong took a reluctant breath, and beckoned him closer. “I need your help.”

Lee raked him with a checking-you-for-missing-limbs look he must have picked up from his teacher, and raised that lone brow. “A kamuiy?”

“Not… exactly.” Shirong sighed. This is harder than I thought. “Your uncle asked if there might be a reason the haima-jiao was in the lake. There is.” He met fiery green squarely. “The Avatar’s bison is under Lake Laogai.”

Lee froze. Shirong could see panic trying to clench every muscle in the young man’s body, seeking to drive him into flight. But Lee held still, breathing ragged, forcing himself to think. “Why… how… why tell me?

“The Blue Spirit helped the Avatar once,” Shirong said levelly. “I grant you, after what happened at the North Pole, he might want to chain the Avatar to a rock and throw him off a pier. But I hope that the man wanted for raiding Pohuai Stronghold might take pity on the citizens of Ba Sing Se. They don’t deserve another haima-jiao.”

“I don’t… understand,” Lee got out. “It’s an animal. It’s smart, but….”

Gently. He’s frightened. And angry. I can’t blame him. “If the writings about Avatar Kyoshi are right, it’s not just an animal,” Shirong told him. “It’s the Avatar’s animal guide. They’re connected. Spiritually. And when they’re separated-”

“The spirits get angry,” Lee managed, barely above a whisper. “Oh, Agni.”

Shirong let out a relieved breath. He’s holding it together. Oma and Shu, that kid is tough. “I’m afraid it may be worse than that.”

“…Of course it is,” Lee ground out. Sat down on the grass, head lowered, forcing himself through a quick meditation. Let out a sigh, and nodded. “So what’s the bad news?”

“I found a report from General Fong about the Avatar State,” Shirong said carefully. Found wasn’t exactly accurate; it had landed on him yesterday, while he’d been on light duty sorting paperwork. He’d had a dizzy spell and staggered one way, an officious clerk had jerked another - and an entire shelf had collapsed on top of them. Onlookers had had to dig them both out of the scrolls, and he hadn’t even realized he’d carried one off until later. He probably should have returned it, but he’d been sore and bored….

He hadn’t been bored since. Terrified, yes. Not bored.

“He noted,” Shirong went on, still careful as picking his way across a slope of loose scree, “that you could successfully induce this state by threatening something the Avatar cares about.”

Lee went white. “Is he insane?

“If he is,” oh, spirits, no, “I fear the Grand Secretariat may have joined him.” Shirong wet his lips. “I can’t let this happen to my city. I meant to do… something, but-”

“You’d get skewered before you got near Appa.” Lee’s voice was grim, green eyes glittering. “Don’t. You’re too hurt to get away clean, and this is going to have to work right the first time.” He blinked, then buried his head in his hands as his own words sank in. “Oh, hell….”

Hope stole Shirong’s breath. “You don’t even have the floorplan!”

“I didn’t know the North Pole’s, either.” Lee lifted his head, smile wry. “At least there won’t be a blizzard.”

“You broke into the….” Shirong knuckled his brow, trying to ward off a headache. “One of these days, we need to have a long talk.”

Lee smirked; then shivered, looking into memory. “Fong’s crazy. The avatar looks like a twelve-year-old kid. Peaceful. Harmless. But when he’s… like that… Aang’s not there anymore. It’s just the Avatar, and the elements. And they’re angry at you. They’re angry at everything.”

“You are going to do it.” Shirong shook his head, trying to sort out the morass of relief and gratitude and sudden, sharp worry. “I thought, after what you’d seen….”

“The last thing I want to do is help Aang,” Lee grated out. Clenched his fists; breathed out, and deliberately straightened his fingers. “Just so you know, their plan won’t work. Admiral Zhao was arrogant and overconfident, and he never saw the Ocean coming until it was too late. But Zhao’s not out there. Azula is. She’s a military genius. And she’s read the reports.” Lee smirked, cold and bitter. “There’s a reason the Fire Lord put her on his trail after Zhao failed. If anyone can figure out how to kill an Avatar, she can.”

Spirits, Shirong thought, shaken. He’d never even considered that. Just how high up was his uncle- no. Don’t ask. Yet. “Thank you.”

“Don’t.” Lee’s voice was hard. “What you’re asking has a cost.”

Damn. Well. He’d done terrible things to save his city in the past, what was one more-?

“Tell them I’m not suitable as a recruit.”

Shirong blinked, not sure if he should believe his own ears. “What?”

“I’m going to be acting against the Dai Li. You could never be sure I wouldn’t do that again.” Lee’s eyes were hard as jade. “I lost my honor a long time ago. I won’t take yours down with it.”

For a long moment, words failed the agent. “…I never believed in the Seven Principles before.”

“You know the principles?” Lee asked warily.

“Avatar Kyoshi wrote them down, while she was learning firebending,” Shirong explained. Among other things. “I thought the Fire Nation she knew was gone. Drowned in a wave of blood.” He smiled wryly. “But you’re not all gone, are you? Just scattered. Living by your wits.” And your honor. “Though I suppose even wits have their limit. Tell your uncle everyone is convinced Jet was crazy, and I’m fairly sure no one else had time to notice the flames were too high, but he should be careful heating up steel. I didn’t see him ignite your dagger, and if anyone else had there would have already been an arrest… but tell him to stay low for a while. I’d miss his tea.”

“…My uncle’s not a firebender.”

“You,” Shirong said dryly, “are a terrible liar.” He chuckled softly. “I’ve seen you both move, and I’ve seen you both fight. What you didn’t pick up from Amaya, you definitely learned from him.” He shrugged, deliberately casual. “Though I’ve never heard of any bender taking the time to train someone who can’t touch their element….”

“He’s Uncle,” Lee said quietly. “He knows I’ve got a lousy temper. And awful luck. He tried to train me to stay alive.” The waterbender glanced aside. “I wasn’t always a good student.” Green eyes looked back up, hard. “So what are you going to do?”

“Do about what?” Shirong said practically. “Amaya saved my life. She’s saved a lot of lives, no few of them my comrades. If it weren’t for your uncle, we’d have lost her. All I intend to do is lie here in the sun and forget that night ever happened. Near-death memories can be very unclear. Or so I’ve heard.” He leaned back against the rocks. “No, I think I’ll just rest here and tell you about… well, someplace you’ll never see. Since you’ve declined to be recruited.”

Taut as a bowstring, Lee listened.

“Temul,” Shirong said, surprised; the fact he’d been searching for finally surfacing from memory with that intent look from Lee. “Ask your uncle about Temul. She was a firebender a few centuries back… I think she tried something the opposite of what you’ve done, adapting waterbending moves to fire.” Which hadn’t made Avatar Kyoshi happy at all, if he recalled correctly. She’d kept the nations separate with a granite glove behind a golden war fan, and what she would have said about a mixed-blood waterbender probably couldn’t be repeated in polite company. “If he knows anything, it might help.”

Lee nodded once, obviously committing the name to memory. “The lake?”

“Ah, yes. Well, that’s going to be tricky….”


The bison’s here. The bison’s here.

Oh Agni, what do I do?

Dimly Zuko recalled that Amaya had left him to head for the clinic, sending him on his way to teach Jinhai. He also remembered glaring at a scraggly-headed man who’d tried to pick his belt pouch, and assisting another overeager hand into a wall, before he’d reclaimed enough common sense to get off the streets and up onto the roofs.

No people up here. No conflicting voices to have to sort through for meaning when the whole world wanted to blur into a hiss of noise. Just the wind, and the sounds of the city.

Better.

Breathe. In and out.

You’re panicking.

Well, yes. The impulse to either gibber or beat somebody else’s brains against the wall was a good clue. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair; where the bison was the Avatar couldn’t be far away, and the plan wasn’t ready, he hadn’t had enough time-!

You can’t panic here.

Basics. When the world fell apart, stick to basics. He had new and unexpected intelligence on an opponent and target, and he was not reacting in a combat-ready manner.

Strategic withdrawal. Find someplace secure, and reexamine your information.

Meaning decide on a location, and move. Movement would help; movement always helped. Katas, running, fighting. He moved better than he could put things into words. Always.

So move. But move where?

Clinic, or Uncle? The clinic would be safe, but Amaya had no experience with infiltration. She’d probably try to talk him out of this. And he couldn’t walk away. His word depended on it. The whole city might depend on it.

Uncle.

A better tactical choice, given Iroh’s experience with combat, strategy, and the Avatar. But it was the middle of the day, and dragging Uncle away from work might draw all kinds of unpleasant attention. Just because the haima-jiao was dead didn’t mean they might not still be watched. Like Jinhai might be-

I have a pattern. The Dai Li know that. If I don’t show up at the Wen house - they’ll know something is wrong.

And broken patterns would lead to curiosity about why they’d been broken, and if he did get Appa loose-

They could trace it back to Shirong.

Which would be bad. Not just for the agent. If they took him, they’d question him - and Shirong didn’t have the defenses Amaya had given Lee.

I’ve got to make things look normal.

Jinhai’s house, then.

Move. Just get there. Get somewhere safe.

Work out what to do after.

A glance pinned down where he was. Forcing himself into the narrow focus of where am I, where am I going, Zuko settled into a roof-eating lope. And tried not to think.

The Dai Li would have seen him come by way of the rooftops before. This wouldn’t look suspicious. He hoped.

I can’t take the streets right now. I’ll break something. Or somebody.

Which would upset Uncle and Amaya, spirits, what was he going to tell them….

Don’t think about it.

Alleys and roofs and balconies, and finally he dropped into a street near the Wen’s to at least look semi-respectable entering the house….

One step at a time.

“Lee!” Suyin’s face was bright; sobered, seeing him. “Is something wrong?”

“I’ve had better days,” Zuko said dryly. Looked past her to Jinhai. “We should stick to simple moves today. What we got Amaya out of… it was close. Too close.”

“What did happen?” Meixiang stepped out of the kitchen, giving him a searching look. “You look like you’ve been raked over shattered ice.”

“Close. Almost drowned,” Zuko admitted. “There was a man-eating kamiuy. We stopped it.” He held up a hand before they could speak. “If you want details, I’ll tell you after practice. If I think about it before… it was too close.”

Falling. Dodging. Strikes, with foot or fist or bladed hand. He walked them through it all, warmed by how much better they’d gotten in just a few weeks.

I may never teach them again.

No. No, damn it! My people need me. They need me here!

There had to be a way.

Jinhai was panting, glad to flop down in the garden by the time Zuko called a halt. Suyin was just as sweaty, but breathed easier, ducking inside to get her mother with a look of unbridled curiosity.

Stepping out, Meixiang glanced over her sweating children, and gave him a measuring look. “You stopped it?”

“I helped,” Zuko stated. And gave them a brief account of that awful night, sparing the goriest details. But not the key facts: the haima-jiao had killed other waterbenders, and tried to do worse to Amaya. “Uncle says it’s a spirit of warm oceans; deserts of the sea,” Zuko finished. “I wonder if that’s why the Water Tribes stay near the poles.” I wonder why something like that never went after Katara; she’s been around enough bloodshed to draw them….

Oh. Idiot. She’s always with the Avatar. The haima-jiao might not have been the brightest spirit on the block, but I doubt any of them are that stupid.

“She lost all her people?” Suyin sniffled, and swiped at her eyes. “That’s awful.”

“You’re her people too, you know,” Zuko told her. “She cares about you. A lot.”

“I know, but… do you think it would help if we told her about the Southern Water Tribe boy here?”

No. It can’t be.

The Avatar’s bison was here. It damn well could be. “What Southern Water Tribe boy?” Zuko ground out.

Jinhai scrunched into his mother’s arms, wide-eyed; even Suyin paled. “He- Jia said his name was Sokka….”

Words vanished in a white hiss of fury.

Don’t move. Don’t do anything.

Head down, fists clenched on his green robe, Zuko breathed. And forced himself to stay still. Move, and the simmering cauldron of rage and fear and frustration would tip over, spilling into a wave of fire that would reach out and destroy….

These are your allies. These are your people. Don’t move.

“…Back up… tell me where… it’s all right, sometimes the great names….”

Meixiang’s voice. Worried, but not frightened. Thank Agni, not frightened.

Don’t give me a target. Please. I’m so angry….

And afraid. So desperately afraid. Everything he’d built, everything he’d tried to plan - it was all coming apart, like folded paper cast into flames.

“…My lord. Can you hear me yet? My lord, my blade is yours, against your enemies….”

She needs me. Zuko forced himself to look up, dragging back words and meaning to human voices.

Meixiang was kneeling in front of him, dagger casting back the sun by her side.

“Don’t… do that,” Zuko rasped, trying to slow his racing heart. “I’m not your lord.”

“Yes,” Meixiang said simply. “You are.” But she looked up, searching his face with concern. And relief. “You’ve banked the fury? You can understand my words?”

Zuko flinched. “I- how did you-?”

“It happens to some firebenders.” Tension eased from Meixiang’s frame. “I knew one, years ago… my grandfather called it dragon’s rage. Dragons aren’t hatched with the skill to speak; not like humans are. When fury takes them, they can lose the art of it, and words seem but whistles in the wind. So.” A graceful gesture toward herself, kneeling. “You are lord here, and you know I follow. This calms the dragon in the blood, and lets you reclaim human words.” At his look of confusion, she frowned. “Hasn’t you uncle told you this?”

“This… doesn’t happen to my uncle.” Dragon’s blood? He’d heard the legends, like everyone else. But she can’t be serious.

“But I thought - your family’s line-” Meixiang closed her mouth, wincing.

“What do you know about my family?” Zuko demanded.

“I… know you are great names.” Meixiang looked troubled. “But if it isn’t from your uncle’s side, then-” Green eyes widened. “Oh. You said your mother was a healer….”

“This isn’t her fault!” Zuko blazed. Shuddered, and hauled in his temper with trembling hands. “I just- I’m not good enough. I don’t know why it happens, everything just burns inside and the words fly away….”

“Not her fault,” Meixiang said firmly. “Her heritage. It happens.” She made her blade disappear up her sleeve. “Is this Sokka your enemy?”

He’s fifteen. But Azula was fourteen, did it make any difference? “He… has been.” Zuko picked his words. “He’s an ally of the Avatar. Who has been declared a threat to the Fire Nation.”

“Oh.” A breath more than a word; eyes green from Amaya’s water wincing with hurt. “A task you could never survive alone… spirits, Lee! You’re just one bender!”

But I’m not Lee. “Those are the terms,” Zuko said harshly. “I gave my word.”

Silence, taut between them. Zuko dipped his head, and started to rise. “I’m sorry-”

“My lord, with all due respect - stay right there.”

He sank back down, taken aback. That? Definitely angry Mom mode.

Which stung his pride; she was not his mother, he didn’t need looking after-

But I need help, Zuko admitted to himself, swallowing the acid burn. I can’t do this on my own. I need any help I can get.

“I never thought I’d be glad for sitting through so many faculty meetings… what did you promise the Fire Lord to do?” Meixiang said bluntly. “What did you promise, exactly?

“I… I never spoke it to him,” Zuko admitted painfully. “He wouldn’t see me, after. She- someone delivered the terms….” Terms that had shattered his life, and exiled him forever.

“Wiggle room,” Meixiang murmured. Nodded. “So what did you promise to do?”

Even through cloth, fingernails bit into his palms. “To capture the Avatar. End his threat to the Fire Nation. To my people.”

“And who are we?” Meixiang said bluntly. “Myself. Huojin. Our children. All of us. Who are we, my lord?”

“…My people.” Zuko wiped sweat off his face. “My head hurts.” My heart hurts.

“I can only imagine.” She inched closer, slow and cautious. “Are you going to talk to your uncle?”

Jerkily, he nodded. “Have to,” Zuko got out. “There’s more than Sokka, you don’t know - have to make sure the bison isn’t there anymore, need to get the damn spirits to stop using the city as target practice….” White noise threatened to close in again; he cradled his head in his hands.

“Wait. Just a little longer.” Meixiang rose and hurried into the house. Came back shortly, drawing a pale Suyin in her wake. “Go with Lee. Make sure he gets to his uncle, then come home.”

“Okay,” Suyin said uncertainly. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s complicated.” Meixiang bent and whispered something in the girl’s ear. Suyin started, and gulped.

Stepping away, Meixiang regarded Zuko again. “My lord. I trust you will see that my daughter is safe with you.”

So I don’t do anything stupid while she’s there. Zuko clung to that with relief. “I’ll be careful.”

“You’d better be,” Meixiang said bluntly. “We need you. More than you know.”


“What do you mean, he’s not here?”

Suyin tried not to flinch at the raw edge in Lee’s voice. It helped that Pao looked more morose than angry, sniffing a cup of his own tea and groaning. “I mean he quit!” the teashop owner lamented. “That noble rascal Quon offered him his own shop, in the Upper Ring! And he took it! Even after I offered him the position of Senior Executive Assistant Manager!”

“And how would that be different from what he was doing?” Lee said dryly.

“…He’d make more tea?”

Lee looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or set something on fire.

“Stay with him, so he stays alive,” her mother had said. “I’ll explain later. Be careful.”

Which was even scarier than traveling the Lower Ring on her own. Though walking with Lee seemed to make people she’d usually worry about find other places to be. “It’s good news, right?” Suyin ventured. “He’d want to tell you. And you’re usually at the clinic now.”

For a moment Lee seemed to look through her. Focused, and nodded.

“You could talk to him!” Pao almost pounced; thought better of it at Lee’s narrowed eyes. “Convince him to come back!”

“Uncle loves tea,” Lee said bluntly. “If he left, he’s not coming back.”

Pao wailed as they left.

“You could have been a little nicer,” Suyin scolded him as they went down the street. “Even if you’re having a bad day-”

“You have no idea.” Lee shook his head, and tried to rein in his tone. “Suyin. The last thing Pao needs is for me or Uncle to be there. Things could get… bad. Fast.”

How bad? Suyin wanted to ask. And was afraid to. “Will you tell me? At Amaya’s?”

“Your mother told you to get me to Uncle and go home. She doesn’t want you getting hurt.”

Boys! “We don’t want you getting hurt, either!”

“I can’t- you shouldn’t-” Lee gripped the bridge of his nose, and sighed. “Ask Uncle. I’m not… thinking very well right now.”

Well, at least he knew that. Which put him one up on Min.

And Uncle was at the clinic, grinning as he shared tea with Amaya. A grin that slipped into sober worry the moment he saw Lee. “Nephew?”

Lee glanced around the edge of screens that partitioned off resting patients; forced a smile for a mother nursing a no longer feverish baby. Stepped close, so his words wouldn’t reach past the screen. “The bison’s under Lake Laogai.” He jabbed a thumb toward Suyin. “And she knows something about Sokka.” He dipped his head to Amaya. “Master Amaya. I’m… going to go break some ice in your garden. Maybe a lot of ice.”

Silent footsteps, and he was gone.

“Oh, dear.” Uncle looked grave. “What is it you know, Miss Suyin?”

“Well, I….”

Ice creaked and cracked, loud as Min shattering rocks.

“He’s somewhere in the Upper Ring,” Suyin said in a rush. “He has to be, or he couldn’t have fallen into Madam Macmu-Ling’s class. Jia saw him there, he’s Southern Water Tribe, I thought maybe you’d like to talk to him?” She looked at Amaya, eyes wide. “Lee was acting weird before I told him - kept the lessons really simple, like he was trying not to think about something - and then when I said Sokka’s name, I thought- it was scary!

“I would think it was,” Uncle murmured. “Tell me what you know, and exactly what you saw.”


They’re here, Zuko thought, shards of ice melting around him. Those idiots are here, and I have to do something, I have to!

Something. But what?

Even if I can find him-

Oh, take that as a given, where Sokka was the Avatar wouldn’t be too far away.

If I find him - it’s just me, and Uncle, in the middle of Ba Sing Se. If he goes into the Avatar State… thousands of people could get hurt.

Not that he could let that matter when his duty to his nation was on the line.

But… my people are here, too. What do I do? I can’t do nothing, but I don’t know what to-

Panic. An old enemy. He knew the coppery taste of it, the way it bent the world into enemy and destroy and blocked out any words that argued otherwise.

Reaching back to Uncle’s lessons in survival, Zuko sat down.

Ow.

Knelt, brushed away a few chunks of ice, and sat again. And breathed.

Survival. Basics. What do you have? What do you need?

He had information on the Avatar, and the bison. He needed-

My people. Safe.

If he captured the Avatar, they would be safe-

Can I do that? Zuko drove the doubt home, mercilessly. Lives were at stake, not just his honor. He couldn’t afford to be optimistic. He couldn’t afford to be wrong. He’s the Avatar. Master of air. Probably master of water and earth by this time. I’m not even a master of fire. And with water? Katara could thrash me up, down, and sideways. I know healing, but Amaya and I are teaching ourselves combat moves. Against a trained waterbender? We’d be toast.

He’s the Avatar, and he’s not alone. And I know how the Dai Li like to keep things quiet. I can’t fight them all.

Remember. Remember what Uncle said. Azula could catch the Avatar. But could she hold him? Without killing him?

I… can’t.

It hurt. Like fire. Like clutching the shattered edge of an icy lake, cutting and numbing and hurting all the worse for it.

I am not going to cry.

Zuko hugged his knees for long minutes, trying not to think. Pain was not the enemy. People thought it was, but it wasn’t. Pain was a warning. Something is amiss. Something is about to break.

But he was already broken. There was nothing to do but accept the pain, and wait until he’d suffered enough. Until it sank into his very bones, where it could be acknowledged… and ignored.

I can’t capture the Avatar. But I have to protect my people.

Inside and outside the walls; Agni, this was so like the North Pole, how could Avatar be this stupid twice?

I wish I could yell at him. I wish I could pick him up and shake him until his teeth rattled-

Something white blew in the wind.

Climb, leap, and scramble; Zuko gained the clinic’s roof, snatched paper from the air-

A flyer. Neatly and professionally inked, with a picture of a creature most hadn’t seen for a hundred years.

Zuko shook a fist at the sky, wishing he knew enough about air-spirits to castigate them all to the lowest bowels of Koh’s lair. “I know already!”


“Do you think it was wise to leave him behind?” Amaya frowned as they headed into the Inner Ring, glancing back as if she expected the young firebender to melt out of the crowds.

“He promised he would stay,” Iroh said gravely. And he keeps his promises. Usually. “He asked us to scout the situation. That means he is thinking.”

“But if he’s planning to-”

“We do not know what he is planning,” Iroh interrupted. “But if he meant to be reckless and impulsive, he would have acted by now.”

Amaya rolled her eyes. “You’re his uncle. Can’t you simply tell him no?”

“Technically? No.”

The healer choked mid-breath, and glared at him. “Tui and La, why not?”

“A crown prince outranks a general,” Iroh said plainly. “If I had ever given him orders in front of the men, it would have undermined discipline. Which is very bad aboard any ship. Much less a ship full of firebenders.”

“…No wonder he had an attitude problem.”

“Part of that was his injury, I imagine, but yes,” Iroh acknowledged. “I was always glad when we could go ashore, away from other eyes. Then I could be the father he needed, and not just an old man of high rank.” He smiled. “In a way, my nephew’s raid on the North Pole was the best thing to happen to us in a long time. Had we not been cut off from the Fire Nation, and cast adrift on our own resources, I would never have been truly able to act as his uncle, and his master. And he needed me. More than I knew.”

“He needs you to tell him no,” Amaya said practically.

“I will not,” Iroh said soberly. “His honor and his loyalty are at stake. As are the lives of every being in Ba Sing Se. The longer the Avatar remains here, the more time the Fire Nation has to muster its forces against the city.”

“They’ve tried to conquer us for years.” Amaya cast him a look askance. “You should know.”

“The last siege meant to conquer, yes,” Iroh said soberly. “But the Fire Lord knows full well what strength the Avatar may gain. He knows no other creature can hope to slay his armies in their very tracks. So long as the Avatar remains within these walls, the Fire Nation’s goal will not be to conquer. It will be to destroy.” He had to look away. “You have not seen what Sozin’s line can do, when they wish to destroy. Remember the airbenders. Remember, Sozin’s forces destroyed their nation within a day.” He shook his head. “That is what awaits Ba Sing Se, should the Avatar remain.”

Amaya swallowed, pale.

“So. I will argue with my nephew. I will advise him, as best I can. But I will not tell him not to act.” Iroh smiled wryly. “We have patched our vessel in the midst of a raging storm. Now we must see if it will hold. And be prepared to bail.”

“…You have tremendous faith in that boy.”

“He has more of his father of him than he wishes to think,” Iroh stated. “And that is not so ill a heritage as you might first believe. His mother was gentle, kind, and honorable. She also avoided conflict unless there was no other choice. And by then, much damage had been done. While my family - well. We have no qualms about striking first. And unleashing enough force that no further blow is needed.” He shrugged. “I have tried to teach him to balance the two. With luck, we have succeeded. Is this the house?”

“The right address, according to the flyer.” Amaya nodded at the small mansion on their right. “That just seems so odd….”

“At the South Pole, we were the only ship in range to see the light of the Avatar’s awakening,” Iroh said plainly. “We made port to find a replacement lotus tile, and found pirates from whom Katara had just stolen a waterbending scroll. Another time we pulled in at a prison barge to re-supply with coal… and found her necklace, and then a bounty hunter who could track them from it. Even traveling by ourselves in the midst of the plains, with no desire or thought of finding the Avatar - we have found bison fur, and met again.” He sighed. “My nephew is a skilled tracker, determined, and well-taught in predicting his foes. But I believe the spirits want my nephew to chase the Avatar.” His eyes narrowed. “To chase, but not to catch. So many times, Aang has slipped from his fingers… if I ever meet those who have plotted so cruelly, we will have words.”

“Invite me along,” Amaya murmured. “Lee has a gift. He may not be as swift to catch on as some I’ve seen, but he’s thorough. He doesn’t just heal what he sees and assume he’s done. He listens to the energies.” She gave Iroh a determined look. “Make this work. I want him back.”

Iroh bowed to her, and slipped out of sight behind the Avatar’s house. Took a lump of flint from his sleeve, and quietly banged on the foundation.

Let us hope I am right, and the Blind Bandit sees more clearly than most who think they have eyes.


Thump. Thump. Thump.

Toph sighed, and hid a grimace. Bouncing her ball against the wall didn’t quite cover the rustle of Katara and Sokka playing cards, but it did break up the patter of Aang’s anxious feet as he burst back in through the front door with Momo.

“I just finished dropping all the leaflets! Has anyone come in with news about Appa?”

…And the connection Twinkletoes apparently couldn’t make between those two sentences was why Toph sometimes felt like beating her brains out rather than trying to teach him earthbending.

Oh, Aang was good enough to beat the robes off most earthbenders. He had more power than any other bender she’d ever seen, and power could cover for a lot of slipshod bending.

But if he took the time to do it right, he could do so much more….

Aang didn’t want to take the time to do it right. Get a move down enough to make it work, and push on. In a way, Toph could understand that. Aang was up against an end-of-summer deadline to throw-down with the Fire Lord, and the more he did before that, the better.

What she couldn’t sympathize with was Aang’s attitude toward training. If it’d been her with the fate of the world at stake, she’d be up before dawn and fall into bed only when she couldn’t move any more. Aang seemed to think “train hard” meant “train until I get tired, bored, or spot a butterfly”.

Lesson after lesson, she’d tried to thump that out of him. But every time she got him near the edge, every time she thought she’d get Aang to understand you could go way beyond the point it started to hurt, if you had to-

“It’s only been a day.” Katara fluttered her cards. “Just be patient.”

Yep. In swooped Katara to kiss it better. It made Toph want to tear her hair out. Or burrow into the ground and not come out.

She felt Aang’s chin hit the table as he sighed, almost heavy enough to cover the no-nonsense stride walking up to the door. Medium-weight, she’d guess a bit taller than Katara, and definitely a woman….

A knock, and Aang finally realized someone was there. “Wow, you’re right! Patience really pays off.” He swept toward the door. “Hi! Are you here about Appa?”

“I came to meet some distant relatives.” The woman sounded about as old as Toph’s mother. “I hear there are Southern Water tribesmen here?”

“You’re here to see Sokka?” Katara’s voice dripped disbelief. “Wait - you’re Northern Water Tribe! What are you doing in Ba Sing Se?”

“Healing, mostly….”

Toph tuned the rest of the pleasantries out, struck by a familiar rhythm echoing through the floor. That was… the opening theme of the Earth Rumble tournaments?

Somebody wants to talk to the Blind Bandit.

She snuck out the back door, listening and feeling….

And grinned. “Hey, Uncle.”

“Good afternoon, Toph.”

She sensed Iroh’s polite bow in the shift of his weight, and stepped into the cool of shadows beside him. “Should I even ask how you got in here, or just chalk it up to you being a sneaky old dragon?”

Iroh chuckled. “It’s a very long story, I’m afraid. And one I would prefer not to tell here, where the Dai Li are watching. Though I do not think they can see us, here. And Amaya is likely distracting enough, speaking to Katara and Sokka of her tribe and theirs, that we should have some time to talk.”

Toph raised a brow. “You know the lady inside?”

“She is a very good friend.”

A lot more than that, from the joy and good humor seeping past the worry in his stance. All right, Uncle! “So… you want to talk to me,” Toph realized. “And you want to do it without them,” she jerked a thumb back toward the house, “because they know where you are, your nephew’s not far, and Katara’s still ticked off he tied her to a tree.”

“Not the most comfortable of captivities,” Iroh allowed. “He could have been far more gentle, true. But it kept her under our eyes, in clear sight. Which prevented the pirates from doing… many things.”

“The pirates who were working for Zuko?” Toph said pointedly.

“The pirates who had allied with my nephew to win back the waterbending scroll Katara stole from them,” Iroh answered dryly. “Very few steal from pirates and live to tell of it. Those who do, especially young women, often wish they had not.”

“…Sugar Queen kind of left out that part.” Toph frowned. She’d known Katara hadn’t told her everything, but stealing? And Iroh wasn’t lying. “Okay. I’m listening.”

“My nephew and I know where Appa may be found. But we need an earthbender’s assistance.”

“And you want my help?” Toph crossed her arms. “Aren’t you two trying to catch Aang?”

“I would prefer not to,” Iroh said plainly. “The world has been out of balance long enough. But my nephew….” He sighed. “My nephew is making a difficult decision. I cannot be certain what he will choose to do. But I think, if he were offered help where he expects none, and words of good sense from an ally of Aang’s who does not hate him….”

Hope, she could feel in that upright stance. Desperate worry; probably for Zuko. Some controlled fear even now, for her and the people inside. Put that together with what he’d said about pirates- “We’re in trouble, huh?” Toph blurted out.

“Grave danger, indeed,” Iroh nodded. “Enough that I believe my nephew would risk his life to protect you, if he were forced to. And we would be risking our lives. If the Dai Li learned there were folk of the Fire Nation in Ba Sing Se… it would not be well.”

Not just for you, Toph thought, remembering a laughing Guard and happy children. “Okay, you talked me into it.” She held up a hand before he could respond. “Into hearing him out, anyway. I don’t like what he has to say, I’m leaving. And if either of you go after Aang, the Blind Bandit is going to rock. Get me?”

“Very clearly.” Amusement and respect, shimmering through the earth and his voice.

“Good,” Toph nodded. “Just let me tell them something… huh.” Yeah, that’d work. Aang wasn’t exactly fond of hunting up his own lessons. “I’ll tell them I’m going to see Luli again. Aang just doesn’t get jade-”

“Luli, Huojin’s wife?” Iroh interrupted.

“You know her?”

“I do,” Iroh nodded. “Though they do not know my name. And my nephew, they know only as Lee.” He paused, thinking. “I would be quite willing to meet you there, where we both have a friend. And where the presence of a Guard means no one will be… impulsive.”

Neutral ground. He is serious. “And it’ll be easier to slip by Dai Li if we don’t show up together,” Toph agreed. And grinned. “Well? Get moving! I want to hear what Sparky has to say for himself.”

“Sparky? Indeed.” Chuckling, Iroh slipped quietly away.

Okay. Here we go. Toph headed back inside, and drew a breath. “Guys-”

There was a rapping at the door, and Aang ran for it. “Maybe this is it!” He opened the door, and blinked. “Joo Dee?”

Amaya stepped back, out of what Toph realized must be line of sight.

“Hello, Aang and Katara and Sokka and Toph,” Joo Dee said with that eerie cheer.

“What happened to you?” Sokka asked, crowding forward with Katara. “Did the Dai Li throw you in jail?”

“What, jail?” Joo Dee said dismissively. “Of course not. The Dai Li are the protectors of our cultural heritage.”

Scary thing was, she seemed to believe that. “But you disappeared at the Earth King’s party,” Toph said, crowding around with the others. If Amaya didn’t want to be seen, there was probably a good reason.

“Oh, I simply took a short vacation to Lake Laogai, out in the country,” Joo Dee said cheerfully. “It was quite relaxing.”

From the shift of his feet, Sokka didn’t buy that. Which made Toph wish all over again he wasn’t stuck on Suki. Sokka wasn’t half bad.

“But then they replaced you with some other woman who also said her name was Joo Dee,” Katara objected.

I’m Joo Dee.”

Clue, Katara, Toph wanted to yell. Something’s wrong here!

“Why are you here?” Aang asked.

Paper rustled as Joo Dee pulled something out. “Dropping flyers and putting up posters isn’t permitted within the city. Not without proper clearance.”

Of course it wasn’t. Sheesh. Why were they here in the city again?

Because Aang can’t live without Appa. Almost literally, seems like.

“We can’t wait around to get permission for everything,” Sokka objected.

Ah! At last, he gets it! Toph almost threw up her hands and cheered.

“You are absolutely forbidden by the rules of the city to continue putting up posters.”

…Okay, that was freaky. Nobody should sound that cheerful stomping somebody’s plans- uh-oh. That tensing of Aang’s feet was really not good-

“We don’t care about the rules, and we’re not asking permission!” Aang yelled.

Toph smirked. Now, why couldn’t she get some of that when he was training?

“We’re finding Appa on our own,” Aang went on, backing the startled woman out the door, “and you should just stay out of our way!” He slammed the door, Joo Dee on the other side.

“That might come back to bite us in the blubber,” Sokka said thoughtfully.

“More than you know,” Amaya spoke up. “She’ll be reporting this to the Dai Li. The system is fairly regimented, so it may not be heard for some hours… but a report from this Joo Dee will have priority, given she’s been assigned to the Avatar’s party.”

This Joo Dee?” Katara pounced. “You make it sound like there’s… more than one.”

“There are hundreds.”

Uncle’s right, Toph thought, chilled. We are in trouble.

“That can’t be right,” Aang objected, still fuming. “I mean, two women with the same name, sure. But hundreds?”

“Lee was right,” Amaya muttered under her breath, too quiet for any but Toph’s sharp ears to catch. “You are naïve.” She rocked back on her heels a little, and Toph felt a cold anger shiver through the floor. “You’re a healer, Katara. Didn’t you ever try to treat them?”

“Treat what?” Katara shrugged. “Joo Dee - whoever she is - they’re weird. They’re not hurt.”

“…Yugoda should have covered mental trauma in your second week of training.”

“Yeah, well,” Sokka shrugged, “Katara really trained with that old sea-prune Pakku-”

“It was awesome!” Some of the frustration washed out of Aang’s stance, and he bounced, grinning. “He said he wouldn’t teach her, and she cracked the audience chamber floor, and threw razor-disks of ice at him, and shoved off his water-”

“You’re not a trained healer.” Amaya’s words knifed across Aang’s exuberance. “You have Master Pakku’s betrothal necklace. I thought for certain you must be trained. I hoped you knew, and were only biding your time until you could find a way to escape. Not that most of us have a chance to escape Long Feng’s reach….” She breathed out a chill wisp, anger and sorrow warring in her stance.

“My necklace is from my mother,” Katara said angrily. “Gran-Gran Kanna brought it with her. And I am trained!”

“She really is,” Aang insisted, hands out to smooth things over. “She’s my waterbending master.”

“And I thought Lee lost his temper too easily,” Amaya said, half to herself. Shook her head. “I can’t stay. The Dai Li give me some leeway, because my healing is useful to them. But I dare not presume on their goodwill.” A breath. “Do not let the Dai Li know you’re not fully trained. It’s probably all that has kept Long Feng from taking one of you and… damaging your minds. You’re not Fire Nation. You wouldn’t have the strength to resist, even long enough to be rescued.”

“How can you say they’re better than us?” Katara gasped. “Don’t you know what they’ve done? What they tried to do? They tried to kill the Moon!”

Sokka shifted, feeling for his boomerang, and Toph grimaced. That’s it. Nobody’s going to listen now.

From Amaya’s soft sigh, she could see that without earthbending. “I said their minds were stronger. More resistant to what Long Feng can do. To a point. They’ll break - but they will not bend.” She drew herself up, and Toph could feel her simmering anger as she pointed toward Aang. “If you refuse to understand that, Avatar - if you refuse to learn why, and where they have gained such strength - then you will never learn firebending. And the world will remain out of balance, and all of us will suffer.”

“No, it won’t!” Aang insisted. “I’ll defeat the Fire Lord, and the war will be over. And I’m never going to learn firebending!” Toph felt his glance at Katara in the catch of his breath. “I’m never going to hurt someone I - care about, again.”

“Then there’s nothing more I can do,” Amaya said simply. “I wish you luck. And I hope you escape.”

“That’s it?” Sokka sputtered. “You’re Water Tribe! You know the Dai Li are bad guys. Help us out!”

“I am Water Tribe.” Almost to the door, Amaya’s voice was iron. “I am the last of the Water Tribe within these walls. Save for you, and my apprentice, Lee.”

Sparky is her apprentice? Toph bit back a whistle. And he’s letting her call him Water Tribe?

“Two weeks ago, there were almost two score of us, benders and not,” Amaya went on, grief and pain seeping into the floor around her. “They’re all dead now. Because of the war. Because the spirits are restless. Because one malicious kamuiy followed a trail of blood into Ba Sing Se, and you-” she took one long step toward Aang, who shrank back “-you sensed nothing.”

“I- I didn’t know,” Aang stammered. “I didn’t- why didn’t somebody tell me?”

“Because there is no war in Ba Sing Se,” Amaya said darkly. “Long Feng wants you kept quiet. Contained. Until he can find a way to use you, the way he does everyone.”

She’s guessing, Toph judged. But she’s pretty sure.

“And you’re the Avatar. You’re supposed to sense when the spirits are angry.” Pain rang through Amaya’s voice. “The Dai Li are only human. Gifted benders, but human. Still, they tracked it. They found it. They stopped it. Some of them died stopping it. I owe them my life.” She focused on Sokka. “Call them evil, if you will. But for a century the Avatar abandoned this world, and they have been all that stood between Ba Sing Se and destruction.” She shook her head. “I’m going home now. I hope you find your bison. And leave.”

The door closed like a tomb.

“And I though the Joo Dees were weird,” Katara said uneasily.

“She was telling the truth,” Toph spoke up. “She was angry, and scared, but it was real.” Which the Joo Dees weren’t. They didn’t lie - but they didn’t exactly feel when they said stuff. Not like regular people did.

“But she can’t be!” Aang protested. “I would have known! I’m the Avatar!”

“Okay,” Toph shrugged. “So how does this spirit-sensy thing of yours work again?”

“Umm….”

“I hate to admit it, but Amaya could be right,” Sokka said reluctantly. “I’m not saying she is!” he added hastily at Aang’s wounded twitch. “But you were right there at the pond, in the Spirit Oasis, and you didn’t know what the fish were until after you went poof and left your body where Zuko could catch it.”

“We got you back,” Katara said grimly. “But Yue….”

“Yeah. I’ll never forgive Prince Ponytail for that, either.” Sokka blew out a breath. “Thing is, Aang, we don’t know. And I’m kind of getting a bad feeling about how much we don’t know about this place.”

“So you want us to go along with Joo Dee?” Aang demanded. “Just stay put, while Appa’s out there?”

“I didn’t say that-”

“Good! Because from now on, we do whatever it takes to find Appa.”

“Yeah!” Toph cheered, feeling his glare in her feet. Finally, some backbone! Keep it up, and we can get somewhere. “So what are we going to do? Bury the Dai Li? Storm the palace? Kidnap the Earth King?” Hey, if they were going to break rules, why not go all the way?

“…I kind of thought we’d put up the posters,” Aang admitted.

Forehead, meet palm. Repeat.

She felt like doing it all over again as Sokka, Aang, and Katara moved through the city, plastering up posters. “We’ll split up to cover more area,” Sokka said, satisfied. “Toph. I guess you should just come with me.”

“Better idea, Snoozles,” Toph said peevishly. “I’m going to find Luli again. There’s something I want to ask her, and if we do find Appa? I’m not sticking around long enough to get another chance.”

Ditched ‘em. Finally.

Which meant she could think, as she made her way through busy streets. And wince. This could be a bad idea.

Well, maybe. Uncle seemed to be a pretty good guy. And everything Toph had heard about the Dragon of the West said he was one of the most honorable firebenders out there. If he said they wanted to talk, she believed him.

Zuko’s honor-bound to catch Aang. This could still be a trap.

Except the exiled prince might be a lot of things, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d let them take off back at the ghost town, so he could look after Uncle and beat feet before Azula came back. And here he was in the very heart of the Earth Kingdom, trying to stay out of sight as a waterbending healer’s apprentice.

And how Sparky’s pulling that off, I really want to know!

If he’d been smart enough to keep from jumping Aang then, honor or no honor, he’d be smart enough to play fair now. At least while they talked. After, she wouldn’t bet on… but then she’d know where he was.

And if the rest of the guys aren’t there to blame Yue dying on him, we might really be able to talk.

Why Sokka pinned Princess Yue’s death on Zuko, Toph still couldn’t figure out. From what they’d said, Zhao had grabbed the Moon after they’d gotten back from Zuko’s kidnap attempt. Sparky himself had been out cold and tied up in Appa’s saddle, unable to tilt the fight either way. And Uncle had tried to stop Zhao.

General Iroh used to be the crown prince, too. And he’s Zuko’s uncle. Katara said he said everybody needs the Moon, even the Fire Nation. If he fought for the Moon - what makes them think Zuko wouldn’t have?

Oh, yeah, right. Fire Nation bad, Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe good. Sheesh.

She’d told them. Maybe she hadn’t found the right words. Maybe she didn’t know as much about the Water Tribes as she thought, and Zuko had somehow given them some kind of dire insult that could never be forgiven. Whatever it was, they didn’t seem to want to hear that - based on everything Toph knew - Zuko’s only interest was Aang. Not the Water Tribes. Not the Earth Kingdom. The Avatar. That was it.

Heck, even Suki’d admitted that Zuko left Kyoshi Island after Aang took off. Left, and didn’t come back.

He deserves a chance for someone to hear him out. Toph smirked, and cracked her knuckles. And if that doesn’t work… if Sweetness can take him, so can I.

Breezing through the carver’s shop, Toph stepped into the garden, and headed for voices.

“How about the Jasmine Dragon?” Iroh said heartily. “It’s dramatic, poetic, has a nice ring to it.”

“How can you think about teashop names at a time like this?” Zuko groaned.

“Who knows? We might get lucky. The Tea Weevil! No, that’s stupid….”

“Toph,” Zuko said flatly, rising.

“A good name, yes, but already taken-”

“He means Toph’s here,” Huojin said, amused. “Afternoon, Miss Bei Fong. You know these two walking disaster areas?”

“Huojin!” Zuko protested.

“We met once,” Iroh smiled. “Briefly.”

“Yeah, but it was the kind of meeting you never forget,” Toph grinned. Cocked her head, listening to Zuko move across the garden to give her a civil nod. “Huh. You really are Amaya’s apprentice.”

“…What?”

“Your stance is different.” Still strong, still aggressive - but lighter, more fluid. Less straight-in, and more of a hint of circling that would deflect away a strike before it could ever land.

Less dillo-lion, and more dragon.

“But I didn’t come to talk bending,” Toph said bluntly, sitting down across from them. “I know your honor means you’ve got to catch Aang for the Fire Lord-”

“What?” Huojin burst out.

“Patience, if you will,” Iroh said graciously, seating himself. Zuko settled down by him, still tense. “We are here to discuss matters amicably, and hopefully avoid violence.”

“Thank the spirits Luli’s taking the kids to Meixiang’s tonight,” Huojin muttered, reluctantly sitting.

“Wise,” Iroh murmured. “You may need an alibi.”

“…Oh, I really didn’t need to hear that….”

“I know the terms are you’ve got to catch him,” Toph forged on. “And I know you know you’re not getting him unless you go through me first. So. What have we got to talk about?”

“Lee, she’s just a kid,” Huojin started.

“Hey!” Toph objected.

“She’s a master earthbender, and an honorable opponent,” Zuko said plainly. “We’re negotiating a temporary alliance. She’s got every right to be blunt.”

“Still not hearing any reason we should work together.” Toph crossed her arms. “Knowing where Appa is isn’t enough. If you can find him, we can.”

“But not in time,” Zuko said levelly. “You need to get out of Ba Sing Se. You need to get out now.”

“That’s what Amaya said,” Toph nodded. Paying careful attention to Iroh’s stillness. He was waiting. Hoping. “You want to tell me why?”

“Did your friends tell you what happened at the North Pole?”

“Crazy spirits, Fire Navy go squish?” Toph said. Knowing she was pushing it. If Sparky’s going to fly off the handle, I need to know now.

Zuko tensed, but forced himself to stay still. “The people in charge here are trying to make that happen again.”

Toph froze. “No. No way, Aang hates what happened there.” She’d heard plenty about that, and about General Fong’s pushing Aang into the kind of Avatar freak-out that had blasted sandbenders halfway across the Si Wong desert. And felt a lot more in what Sokka and Katara didn’t say about the general they’d met on the Wall. Maybe glowing it up like that could take out the Fire Nation army, but…. “He doesn’t want to do stuff like that again! Not ever.”

“That makes two of us,” Zuko said grimly. “That’s why I’m going to help you.”

Oh. Toph tried not to react. Oh, wow. This is big.

“Nephew?” Iroh asked carefully.

Yeah, Toph thought. Get him to spell it out. I think I know what he’s getting at, but whoa….

“Honor doesn’t demand suicide,” Zuko said bitterly. Toph could feel his hands clenching on cloth in the way the ground vibrated under him. “I can’t capture the Avatar in Ba Sing Se. Not without exposing myself as a firebender. If I do that….” He took a shaky breath. “If I do that, I’m dead. And not just me. The Dai Li will go after anyone who’s helped me. Anyone they even suspect might know what I am. Because there is no war in Ba Sing Se.” Another breath; another clench of muscle and bone. “If I try to capture the Avatar here, I’ll die. And I’ll die a failure.”

“I fear that is so,” Iroh said quietly. “You would need tremendous luck to succeed, and survive. And luck… does not favor you.”

“It never has,” Zuko muttered. Bent his head, and sighed. “If I can’t serve my people by capturing the Avatar - then the best thing I can do is keep something like the North Pole from happening again.” He looked straight at her. “Appa’s under Lake Laogai. Will you help us get him out?”

“Should I even be listening to this?” Huojin muttered.

“Well, I hear the Dai Li deny the bison is even there,” Iroh said mildly. “And he does belong with the Avatar. Surely, what they do not admit they have, cannot be stolen from them?”

“There’s something screwy in your logic. I just know it.” Huojin stood, scratching his head. “Miss? Are you going to be all right with these two would-be lawbreakers, or do I have to hang around and incriminate myself?”

“I think I’ll be okay,” Toph said, surprised. “I think I’ll be fine.” She listened to Zuko, tracking every shift of breath and posture. “You really mean it. You’re going to help. No strings.”

“One string,” Zuko corrected, taking out a rustle of paper. “This is for Sokka. It’s… some of the stuff I know about the city. Maybe it’ll help him make up his mind to get out of here.”

Toph took the letter, folding it inside her belt. “If he knows it’s from you, he’s not going to listen.”

Zuko snorted. “I didn’t sign it.”

“Not bad,” Toph approved. “Though I’m guessing there’s one more string.” She paused, deliberately. “You want me to come with you alone. Without the guys.”

“You know them better than we,” Iroh said plainly. “Would they accept our aid? Or instead, reveal us for what we are, and doom us all?”

“Not sure I want to find out,” Toph admitted. “Okay, I’m in. What’s the plan?”

Huojin cleared his throat, loudly. “Leaving. Now.”

“Wait,” Zuko said; a quiet, lonely plea. “Toph… I know they wouldn’t believe me.” He swallowed. “Why do you?”

“Because you never lied to me,” Toph said bluntly. “I know who you are, and who Uncle is. I know you have honor, no matter what the Fire Nation thinks. If you didn’t, you never would have warned us about your crazy sister.” She had to look away, even if she couldn’t see. “The Bei Fongs deal with Fire Nation merchants. You don’t talk about fights inside the clan. Not to outsiders. They’re not worth it. But you? You owed Katara. And you paid up.” She turned back to him. “You treated her like she had honor. Even if she was an outsider. Even if she was Water Tribe.” The earthbender held out a hand. “Told you. I’m in.”

The fingers that gripped hers were warm, and strong, and barely trembling with relief. “Agreed.”

Chapter Text

“Where’s Toph?” Katara wondered.

Sokka frowned, ostentatiously looking around and down for an aggravated earthbender. No Toph.

Which was just what he’d expected. Don’t make me have to explain, Toph. Please? Katara’s scary when she gets mad….

“She said she was going to see that jade-carver, Luli,” Aang said, looking everywhere at once as they walked back through poster-strewn streets. “Wish I knew why. How often am I going to have to bend jade? It’s not like it comes in pieces big enough to throw at somebody.”

“Hey, your old friend Bumi learned to bend with his face,” Sokka pointed out. “I think having rocks in your head makes you just a little bit crazy.”

“Toph’s stubborn, and she likes to pretend she doesn’t have any manners, but she’s not crazy,” Katara argued. “She knows how worried we were the last time she walked off. She wouldn’t stay out this long without a reason.” His sister dropped her voice. “And I think we’re being followed.”

“We are,” Sokka said practically, carefully not looking up to those shadows on the rooftops. Aw, spirits. I’m going to have to tell them. “I’m hoping that’s a good thing.”

“Um… how is us being followed a good thing?” Aang said, confused.

“Because if we’re lucky, they’re not following Toph.” At the airbender’s raised brow, Sokka sighed, and nodded at the crowds carefully parting around them, wherever they walked. “Look. Haven’t you noticed nobody’s talking to us? Not about anything important. I’m guessing they know we’re in trouble, and they don’t want to end up in the stewpot with us.”

“Like Amaya,” Katara growled.

“Not exactly,” Sokka admitted. “Katara, think. Don’t you guys say waterbending is about deflecting, and redirecting your enemy’s attack?” Like Suki with her war-fans; oh, he missed her.

“Yeah,” Aang nodded, glancing up at the roofs. “So?”

Sokka tried not to whack himself in the forehead. Subtle, Aang was not. “So, why would a waterbender come straight in and say she couldn’t help us? And why would Toph, who loves to listen in on everyone and who’s always nosy about places she’s never been, just disappear while we’re talking to somebody from the Northern Tribe?” Granted, it’d taken him these last few hours to figure all of it out, but Katara didn’t have to know that.

“Maybe she just, well… kind of got bored?” Aang said sheepishly.

“You weren’t bored when we were talking to Bato,” Katara objected.

“Actually? I kind of was.”

“Toph doesn’t bore that easily,” Sokka broke in, before his sister could get huffy. “If she’s not with us, she’s after something important.”

“Finding flaws in rock,” Aang sighed.

“No. Appa.”

“What?”

“Keep your voice down!” Sokka hissed. “You want to blow Toph’s plan?”

“What plan?” Katara said pointedly.

Sokka sighed, hoping their watchers didn’t have Toph’s ears. “Amaya came to talk because we were Water Tribe, right? Why didn’t she bring Lee?”

“Because she doesn’t want to help,” Katara bit out.

“I think she did.” Sokka eyed both of them. “I think maybe Amaya was a distraction for the Dai Li. Did you see how Toph was when she did come back? Like she was waiting for something. Maybe, getting a chance to split up?” He frowned. “I think Lee was there. And Toph talked to him.”

“And he knew where Appa was?” Aang pounced. But thankfully, kept his voice down. “Why wouldn’t she tell us?”

Sokka winced. “She might think you still blame her for losing Appa in the first place. You were pretty blunt about that.”

“He was angry,” Katara defended Aang. “Anybody would have been. Toph knows he didn’t mean it.”

“I’m just saying, he never said he was sorry,” Sokka shrugged. “And you know how Toph is about pulling her own weight.”

“But this is different!” Aang insisted. “If she knows where Appa is, we’ve got to be there!”

“Aang’s right,” Katara nodded. “Toph’s a little overconfident sometimes-”

The little menace could trash Earth Rumble benders with flicks of her fingers, and take out a charging saber-moose lion. Overconfident was not the word Sokka would use.

“-She could need our help,” Katara finished. “Especially if she’s with Lee. Who in the Water Tribe names their kid Lee?

Okay, that was a good point. “But that could wreck Toph’s plan!” Sokka argued. “If the Dai Li are keeping an eye on us-”

“Appa’s more important than Toph’s plan,” Aang said impatiently. “Let’s go find Luli.”


“So… the Avatar didn’t intend to destroy the fleet?”

Dark cloak over her robes, mask ready to go on at Zuko’s signal, Toph considered the exiled prince’s words very carefully. Half of an Earth Rumble wasn’t bending at all, really; it was getting inside your opponent’s head, so you knew how he’d move, how he’d flinch, and what would get the crowd pumped up and roaring.

He trusts me, a little, Toph thought, reading his footsteps as they made their way down farm roads toward the distant lake. A train would have been way faster, but she didn’t need Zuko to tell her those earthbenders probably reported to the Dai Li too.

He’s going to help. This time. But he’s not just any firebender. He’s Prince Zuko.

Aang had been raised by monks, who seemed to spend a lot of time contemplating the universe and otherwise answered to a council of elders if they didn’t shave often enough. Katara and Sokka had grown up in a small village, where their dad was responsible for, oh, maybe a few hundred people. Zuko? He’d been raised to someday take over the whole Fire Nation.

Toph might not do maps, but she was a merchant’s daughter. And she could feel how big Ba Sing Se was. Huge. Mind-numbingly huge. A quarter of a continent big.

And General Iroh had once held the entire city under siege.

The number of soldiers that must have taken made her head hurt. The number of people who had to be behind those soldiers, maintaining supplies of food, steel, new recruits… ow.

And Zuko had been taught to be responsible for all of them.

From what Katara and Sokka had said about the North Pole, Aang had wiped out years of shipbuilding. And who knew how much time and experience in the sailors and the marines on those ships. In one night.

Uh-uh. Zuko’s question wasn’t nearly as simple as it sounded.

“He wanted to stop the fleet,” Toph said bluntly. “I think he’d have been happy if they just turned around and went away.”

“They couldn’t do that. Not under Admiral Zhao’s orders.”

“So, what?” Toph asked dryly. “Aang should have just grabbed a waterbending master and run away?”

“It would have been the smart thing to do,” Zuko shot back. “There are islands. There are miles of coastline in the north, near the mountains. He could have trained on the coast, kept somebody on lookout, and just retreated behind the mountains any time Fire Nation forces approached. Move there out of sight - it’d be easy on Appa - and he could just fly back over to the coast when he was clear.”

Oh. Now she felt like an idiot. Why didn’t Sokka think of that?

“But that probably wouldn’t have stopped the invasion,” Zuko admitted reluctantly. “Zhao had… too much influence by then. Came close to catching the Avatar too many times. Did catch him, once. Why the hell was he after frozen frogs in range of Pohuai Stronghold, the idiot….”

“Frozen frogs?” Toph asked, curious. Sokka had complained about frogs a few weeks back, something about warts on his tongue. To absolutely no sympathy from Katara.

“…Nothing.”

Definitely wasn’t nothing. But Zuko had tensed up in a way that said she’d have more luck asking with hot knives and bamboo slivers.

“Zhao had influence, and he had a plan. The Fire Lord backed him. If the Avatar hadn’t headed into Water Tribe territory, maybe… but he did.” Zuko blew out a hot breath. “Nothing would have stopped the invasion then.”

“You sound like you think it was a bad idea,” Toph said, trying for casual.

“Well, it didn’t work, did it?” The acid in Zuko’s voice could have stripped limestone down to chalky water.

“You got in,” Toph pointed out.

“Zhao didn’t even know I was there,” Zuko snorted. “He thought I was dead.”

Say what? But Toph let that interesting fact slide, feeling the tension seeping out of Zuko’s stride. Maybe he just needs somebody to listen. “Okay, Sparky. How would you have pried Aang out of all that ice?”

“With Zhao’s resources? I wouldn’t have used a whole fleet,” Zuko said thoughtfully. “A few ships, to carry the people I needed… you’ve met Ty Lee.”

“Uh, yeah,” Toph said, startled. “How’d you know that?”

“My sister was chasing you,” Zuko said dryly. “I found some of the camps she chased you out of. Only one thing makes master benders retreat that fast.”

Toph gulped. “There are more people like her?”

“A lot more. They’re not supposed to leave the Fire Nation in wartime, but Azula’s never let little things like laws stop her….” He tapped fingers against his thigh, thinking. “Stealth teams. Sneak past the lookouts; they’re looking for metal, red, and black, not small boats and people dressed like snow. They’re not trained lookouts anyway. The Water Tribes don’t have an organized military. More of a militia. They’re trained warriors, they’re good individually, but their command and control structure sucks. There are exceptions, like Chief Hakoda, but most of their leaders don’t have a grasp on long-term strategy. They don’t fight to defend their nation; they fight because you’re an outsider, and you’re there. The Northern Tribe is used to relying on their waterbenders and the ice. They hadn’t suffered a determined assault in eighty-five years, which meant all their trained warriors had no one to fight but each other. And believe me, they did. Hereditary house territories and political alliances with upper-class families, that’s where their weapons and bending training got focused. And that means when they put lookouts on the walls, those people weren’t watching the Fire Nation. They were watching their enemies, the ones they’d have to live with after we were gone. And they assumed we would be gone - the last invasion didn’t work, and this time they had the Avatar on their side.” Zuko’s bitter smile seared through the ground. “And because they couldn’t forget about each other and focus on us, they huddled in allied groups. Which left gaps in the lookout coverage.” He shrugged. “Make it in through the gaps, find the Avatar, extract him, and retreat. Let the Water Tribe think the Avatar’s abandoned them. Again. That would break their morale right there. You wouldn’t need to fight.”

“Oh,” Toph said, voice small. Swallowed hard. Well, you asked.

And when you felt past the scary shiver of realizing Zuko had thought about this… he’d told her the truth. Again. Toph frowned. “How long is it going to take us to get to this lake?”

“A while yet. Why?”

“You know I could feel anybody sneaking up on us way before we had to hide,” Toph said confidently.

“Good,” Zuko said warily. “So?”

So, tell me what’s happened since you started chasing Aang,” Toph demanded. “These guys only mention things they think I need to know, and they leave all kinds of good stuff out! Katara stole a waterbending scroll?”

“Ah, yeah…?”

“She never told me that part! I had to hear it from Uncle.” Toph bounced on her heels. “Tell me what you saw. How’d this whole mess get started?”

Tell me how I can get you on our side. Twinkletoes is going to need a firebending master, like it or not….

And if your sister ever wised up and gave you what you need to catch Aang, we’d be in big trouble.

Zuko swallowed, and drew a breath. “A hundred years ago, a ship’s log recorded sighting a bison heading toward the South Pole….”


“Why would Healer Amaya visit the Avatar?”

Reading by lantern-light - handy as glowing crystals were, his eyes hated them - Shirong started. Glanced up at Quan, curious. “Nothing I can think of-”

No. He wouldn’t.

“But?” Quan said pointedly.

“One of the Avatar’s companions is a waterbender,” Shirong said practically. “Amaya might want to discuss bending.” All the while, his mind raced. Oh, spirits. Lee, tell me you didn’t. “What’s going on?”

“We should advise her not to do that again soon.” Quan frowned. “Long Feng is… disturbed. The Avatar’s Joo Dee has had to be removed from duty. Again. Currently the children are chasing their posters through the city, which is relatively harmless… but we’ve lost track of the earthbender.”

Oma and Shu. He did.

Only long practice let Shirong keep his face neutral and interested. Inside he was torn between gut-wrenching terror and utter delight at Lee’s sheer nerve.

He needed an earthbender to get to the bison. He found one. Oh, my…. “I seem to recall that the Blind Bandit’s remarkably apt to vanish when she wants to,” Shirong observed. “But she always shows up again. Usually with a new rock sample to bounce off her companions’ heads.”

“True,” Quan acknowledged. “Well. At least you’ll get a good night’s sleep.”

“Extra guard shifts?” Shirong raised a brow.

“Just a precaution.” Quan regarded him levelly, just a fraction of an instant too long-

Smiled, and saw himself out. “Have a good night.”

Shirong kept an answering smile on his face as Quan’s footsteps retreated, feeling his heart try to freeze in his chest. Oma and Shu. They know.

No. They couldn’t know. They might suspect something could be amiss, Lee hadn’t exactly looked perfectly calm and contained heading out with Amaya, but they couldn’t know. Or he’d be answering to Long Feng personally.

And not of my own will.

Spirits, no. I’d rather die.

Startling thought. Living was living, after all. He’d served Long Feng for years, darkening his soul as every Dai Li had to. Did it matter if he lost one more shred of himself?

Yes. It does. I won’t be used. I won’t betray my city to the whims of people who can’t see beyond the Avatar’s power to the heart of a twelve-year-old boy!

Shirong sucked in a breath, shaken by his own certainty. It burned, that sureness; warming and painful at once.

I won’t be used. And I won’t betray Lee.

Which meant he had to do the hardest thing of all. Nothing.

He broke into Pohuai Stronghold. He got into the North Pole. He can do this.

I hope.

But the only way Lee would stand a chance was if Quan wasn’t sure. If Shirong moved to help, if he moved at all - Quan would be sure.

There’s nothing I can do.

No. Not quite true. There was one thing. And given the close shave he’d had with the haima-jiao, it wouldn’t even look suspicious. Much.

Lighting incense, Shirong stuck the smoking sticks in a bowl of rice before the mini-shrine every Dai Li kept in his quarters, and clapped his hands to pray.

Oma and Shu, Tui and La… Agni, if you’ll hear one who’s cursed your people so thoroughly most of his life…. One of your children really needs your help.

I know he’s a crazy, mixed-up kid. I know you’re all probably staring at him cross-eyed, trying to figure out what to do with a Fire Nation waterbender - with a firebender uncle! - who can’t turn around without tripping over a kamuiy. But he’s trying to do the right thing. He’s trying to help that other poor kid you stuck with the fate of the world. That’s got to count for something.

I know I don’t deserve any favors. I’m Dai Li. I did what I had to do. But… help him. Please.

Well. That was it. Shirong sighed, and lowered his hands-

For one heartbeat, the shrine glowed gold.


“Sparky?”

“Yes?” Zuko answered, half-listening as he scanned the dark lake for any sign of a boat. Toph could pick up anything moving on the ground, but they’d already had one near miss with a courier dead asleep on a canny old ostrich-horse standing in the middle of the road. Which had led to a tense, whispered explanation of how seeing with earthbending worked, and his realization that to Toph, the lake was one big black hole.

“I’m impressed.” Said with the kind of finality that implied Toph just didn’t do impressed, most of the time.

“Why?” Zuko looked at her, puzzled. “You know what my uncle did as a general. If the Fire Lord commands, you obey.”

“And…?” Toph prodded.

Zuko rolled his eyes. “You know, that’s really annoying.” Useful, though. What he wouldn’t give for a living lie detector to handle the court weasel-snakes.

Would have given, Zuko reminded himself. At least you should be able to avoid most of them, now. Not entirely, the plan might bring them in contact with who knew what… but they definitely wouldn’t be around on a daily basis.

“Deal with it,” Toph said cheerfully. “Come on. We both know you’re not in this just to follow orders.”

Can I trust her?

Does it really matter?

Zuko sighed. “Do you want Azula in charge of the Fire Nation?” He shivered at the thought. No doubt Toph felt it. He just didn’t care.

The earthbender let out what would have been a whistle, if they hadn’t been worried about getting caught. “Yeah. Yeah, that’d make me… pretty determined. If it was me.” She smirked, and stomped; a lump of shaped rock rose to the surface, round door shedding water. “Guess that just leaves one more question. How can you fake it so well everybody in the city thinks you’re a waterbender?”

Zuko smirked back, and raised his hands, palms together. “Watch your rocks.” A breath, and he swept his hands apart and down.

Water sheeted off stone, slipping back into the lake like a silken curtain. Toph’s jaw dropped.

“We don’t want to leave wet footprints,” Zuko said bluntly. “I’m not going to be able to do that inside. The Dai Li keep track of every bender in the city. If I use water, the mask won’t matter.” He hesitated. “Don’t tell them. Please.”

“Okay,” Toph nodded, milky eyes still wide. “Nobody’d believe it anyway… how?”

“I drowned on dry land.” Zuko shrugged, trying not to let it matter. “If… what I was told is right, the spirits are arguing over what should happen next. With Aang. With everything. Yue… she said I’d tried to bring some balance back. After that - Amaya got the water out of my lungs, and took me in.” He snorted. “Want to know what’s really scary? She and Uncle conspire on my lessons. There’s nothing in any scrolls about bending fire and water at the same time, so they get to be creative. I swear I’ve caught them giggling.” And that was really too much, he shouldn’t have-

“I bet.” Toph’s face was one wide grin. “Can I at least tell the guys Lee’s Fire Nation? We’re going to be leaving anyway… and I have got to feel the look on Sugar Queen’s face!”

Surprising himself, Zuko snickered. Wish I could see that. “Just say we’re colonials. That’s the story Uncle’s been using.” He let out a slow breath, shutting fear and laughter away. “Ready?”

“Right behind you.” Toph crooked a finger, and the cover skated aside.

Focus on the goal, Zuko reminded himself. Forget you’re helping the Avatar. Remember you’re saving your people.

Determined, he descended into green-lit shadows.


In a way, the frantic pounding on Huojin’s door was a relief.

Dai Li wouldn’t pound, they’d just appear inside. The Guard hopped over one of Daiyu’s stray wooden ostrich-horses as he headed for the door. He’d been about to head out for headquarters anyway, his fellow Guards knew where he was. They probably just needed an extra, early hand. Riot, fire, fugitive in the area, something like that. All of which, no matter how dire, had to be better than Dai Li on his doorstep. I really lucked out-

He opened the door, and had to look down.

Skinny kid. Shaved bald. Flying lemur on his shoulder. Airbender tattoos. Oh, and two determined-looking Water Tribe teens backing him up, one carrying a mean boomerang and the girl a waterskin and a glint in blue eyes that said she knew how to use it.

…I’m going to get you for this, Lee. Somehow.

“Where’s Luli?” the airbender - the Avatar - demanded.

“Where’s Toph?” the waterbender added, voice edged with violence.

“And who’s this guy Lee, anyway?” Boomerang jumped in.

“Evening to you, too,” Huojin drawled. Act like you don’t see the threat, and maybe they’ll get over themselves. “You can report missing persons at Guard headquarters.” Might as well head there now, Huojin thought, stepping into the street past them and marching off. I want backup. Lots of backup.

Report this, wait for that - everything here strangles in rules!” The airbender’s staff struck the ground, and Huojin felt a familiar tremor-

He didn’t move fast enough.

Okay, Huojin thought, up to his neck in rock and trying to hold his temper to a slow simmer, now I know why Lee’s so snarly.

The Avatar landed in front of him, gray eyes determined. “Where’s Luli?”

Keep your temper, Huojin told himself, trying not to growl. Don’t escalate the situation. “What the hell do you want with my wife?”

…Well, I tried.

“Your wife?” The Avatar blinked, and seemed to shrink a little. “Um… we just want to talk to her….”

“Rocks off,” Huojin said flatly. “Then we can talk.”

Earth rumbled back into the street.

Brushing himself off, Huojin looked at the kids and shook his head. “What is with you, anyway? Don’t you know that’s assault? On a City Guard? Trouble doesn’t even begin to cover it.” He eyed the oldest of the bunch, boomerang and all. “And you’re all out past curfew. Toph would know better.”

“She said she wanted to talk to Luli, and then she didn’t come back,” Boomerang stated, hands out to ease the tension. “It took us hours just to find you. We just want to know where Toph is.”

“And who Lee is,” the waterbender said darkly.

A kid with more guts than sense. “Toph was here earlier,” Huojin said plainly. “I didn’t see when she left.” Or who she’d left with. The less he knew about Lee breaking into Dai Li headquarters, the better.

Why was she here?” Boomerang said pointedly.

So one of them had half a brain. But given he’d asked that on the street…. Huojin sighed.

The teenager slapped himself on the forehead, and gave Huojin a weak grin. “Right! To see Luli. Why else? So… where is Luli?”

“Papers,” Huojin said bluntly.

“What?”

“You’re underage, you’re out past curfew, you assaulted a Guard, and you are definitely behaving in a belligerent and disorderly fashion,” Huojin stated. “You think I’m going to tell you where my wife is when I don’t know who you are?”

“We… don’t have any papers,” the waterbender admitted. “Toph did, but….”

“We don’t need papers!” That obstinate look was back in gray eyes. “I’m the Avatar.”

Huojin lifted a brow, arched with all the skeptical disbelief of a Guard who’d heard every drunk spirit-tale under the sun. “Sure you are.”

Heh. This could be fun.


Well, if everything blows up in our faces, at least Sparky’s having fun, Toph thought, grinning behind her mask.

It wasn’t anything big. Other people probably wouldn’t even see a smile. But there was a lightness in Zuko’s step she’d never felt before. A fragile joy, as if all the lumps of confused prince had dropped away and left a flutter-hornet dancing in the breeze.

He’s good at this.

Which was weird, for a firebender, given how much of this was listening and waiting to move. Silence and speed and silence again, moving in the gaps of guards’ attention. He’d even held her shoulder, one unseen moment, and demonstrated a slight adjustment to her step that softened her footfalls even further.

And while all the rest of him was silent, she could feel his heart beating like solstice morning.

Or like the tournaments, Toph realized, following close behind. This is the real opponent. The good one. The one that’s going to take everything you’ve got, and you still might lose.

But if you pull it off… man, you win it all.

On top of that, he was glad she was there. Her. Specifically. She’d felt tension seeping out of him as they’d walked, and she’d proved she was a better lookout at night than anyone with eyes. Felt him - not tense - but ready himself to watch what might be out in the water, where she couldn’t see. Felt his hesitance as he adjusted her step, and his honest delight when she silently accepted the correction and did her best to mimic him, within the limits of her bending.

Zuko was glad she was there. That was… whoa.

So stay on your toes, Toph told herself, as they ghosted down yet another corridor of mostly-empty prison cells. Don’t screw this up. Her eyes widened, and she stopped, hand out close enough to feel the heat radiating from Zuko’s shirt. “What?” she murmured.

“I don’t believe this,” Zuko breathed, peering into one cell. Wrestled with himself, and sighed. “We have to get them out. You’d better do the talking.”

“Why just them?” Toph asked pointedly.

“I don’t know why anybody else is here. These three, I do. Damn.”

Okay, she could work with that. Zuko eased the lock open, and Toph stuck her masked head in enough to hear the differences between a young girl, a skinny guy, and a guy a little more heavily built than Zuko. “If you want out of here, follow us, and stay quiet.”

Feet thumped the floor, startled. “I’m Jet,” the more muscled teen said; voice trying for confident, but ragged at the edges. “They’re Smellerbee and Longshot. Who are you?”

“You don’t want to know,” Toph said bluntly, aware of Zuko’s silence. “Less talking, more sneaking.”

Around and down, following Zuko’s earth-shimmering steps. Toph felt a chamber beyond the wall, the vibrations of too-still bodies, the earth-shadow of a partly open door.

“I’m Joo Dee,” a man’s voice said calmly. “Welcome to Ba Sing Se.”

“I’m Joo Dee,” dozens of women said in unison. “Welcome to Ba Sing Se.”

“We are so lucky to have our walls to create order.”

“We are so lucky to have our walls to create order.”

There are hundreds, Amaya had said. Toph felt chilled. And angry.

Some of that was smoking off her partner in crime; she could feel heat drifting through the air. She couldn’t blame Sparky one bit.

I don’t care what Aang thinks. The Fire Nation wants this city? They can have it.

But that wouldn’t be fair to people like Luli, and Huojin, and Amaya. People just trying to get by; people who knew something was wrong with their city, but didn’t have the power to fix it.

I’m not sure even Aang can fix this place.

“That - they tried to do that to us, they-”

Smellerbee grabbed Jet’s arm, and Longshot clapped a hand over Jet’s mouth, shaking his head no.

Oh boy. Toph’s stomach headed for her ankles. We’re in for it now….


“Shirong hasn’t moved?” Long Feng asked coolly. Juggling a myriad interlocking plots in his mind, calculating and recalculating the moves that would need to be made to maintain control of the city and the Earth King. Calculations the Avatar was making needlessly complicated.

He’s twelve. He should sit still, keep his mouth shut, and let those who know better decide what is right.

If only he dared bring the Avatar down here….

Too risky. If that blunderer General Fong is accurate, the Avatar State is triggered by extreme emotions. We can’t afford to lose all we’ve built here.

“He’s been quiet,” Quan reported. “Reading. Praying.” The agent met his gaze. “Sir, I admit he’s acting… oddly. But we’ve all had bad days after spirit-injuries.”

“So we have,” Long Feng acknowledged. “Coming close to death… it shakes a person. But that is precisely the point. I know you’re his friend, Quan-”

“It will not prevent me from carrying out my duty. Sir.”

“Of course not,” Long Feng said levelly. “But friendship can soften any man’s judgment.” He frowned darkly. “He arranged to see Amaya and Lee unwatched, and then she arranged to see the Avatar. One of whose teachers is now missing.”

“Coincidence?” Quan offered.

Long Feng cast him a look askance.

Quan bowed his head. “There are no coincidences.” He breathed out slowly. “Sir, Healer Amaya has been a reliable asset for years….”

“But she is now Lee’s master,” Long Feng stated. “And Lee… troubles me.”

Reluctantly, Quan nodded. “It wasn’t obvious at first… but no one with that level of weapons training should have avoided military attention. Elderly uncle as a dependant or not.”

“Yet that’s apparently precisely what he has done,” Long Feng observed. “And the haima-jiao. I’ve read the reports. They are disturbing.” He shook his head. “How does a half-trained bender throw off a spirit that sucked in his own master whole? A spirit that drew strength from water, and was only harmed by light and fire?”

Quan inclined his head, acknowledging the unanswered questions. “Lee is certainly suspect. But we have no reason to believe Shirong has… strayed.”

“None yet,” Long Feng started.

Running feet, and a junior agent was panting in his doorway. “Sir! We’ve found Bei Fong!”

Or rather, Long Feng realized as he and Quan broke in on the fray, she’d found them.

And she wasn’t alone.

The three Yunxu questioned about the haima-jiao, Long Feng realized. Conscious, still defiant - but a minimal threat, given they were unarmed aside from a few hastily-grabbed shards of stone. Insignificant, in the face of a rampaging Toph Bei Fong. And it was indeed her, despite that ridiculous mask. No other earthbender could disintegrate stone fists without even looking, and swat Dai Li agents across the room with pillars of rock.

That’s the known danger, Long Feng thought dispassionately, waiting motionless as he sized up the form behind the Blue Spirit mask. Right height, the right build, dao… a pity he’d been right about Shirong….

The intruder slashed stone from the air, and fire lashed out to blast agents away.

A firebender!


Too many of them, Zuko thought grimly, blasting to pieces the stone glove on the back of Toph’s shirt before it could drag her away. Trying not to glance behind him, as Smellerbee and Longshot kept their leader from strangling him.

I give up. Jet’s not just an idiot. He’s insane.

A passing thought, flitting around the taut focus of working with Toph to keep them all alive and free. There were just too many Dai Li….

At least, too many for nonlethal tactics.

I don’t want to kill them. I know some of these people. All we want is to get the bison and get out. If we just had some cover….

He was moving before he could think it through, blades clicking together, free hand diving into his shirt to pull out a bag and scatter its contents in one furious toss.

Dried leaves fluttered. For one instant, he saw Long Feng’s startled look.

Burn.

The fire-wind blazed, flames whipping around to block them from the Dai Li’s view.

Benders can’t hit what they can’t see.

Except for Toph, who laughed as the missiles stopped coming and slammed up walls just beyond the fire. Cracked her knuckles, and yanked a square door open in stone. “Come on!”

He dove and rolled, Smellerbee and Longshot yanked Jet through, and Toph slammed the wall behind them.


We’re being stalled, Katara thought darkly, stalking through the pre-dawn twilight toward the Wen house. At least it had better be the Wen house, after the time Luli’s husband and his fellow guards had spent denying the Avatar right in front of their faces.

They did it on purpose. They knew who Aang was. Everybody knows!

Ooo, she would have liked to freeze them all to the floor. Especially Luli’s husband. Something about him just set her teeth on edge.

This had better be it, or I’m freezing people solid.

“Maybe Aang should knock on the door,” Sokka spoke up behind her.

“Right,” Katara bit out. “Because that worked so well last time.”

“Okay, maybe I should.”

She rounded on him. “Oh, like you did any better, the way those Guards stalled us!”

“They’re scared,” Aang said quietly.

“That’s no excuse! We’re trying to help them!”

“And we want them to help us,” Sokka pointed out. “They’re not going to want to do that if you turn them into ice cubes.” Face set, he pushed past her and knocked on the door.

A long minute passed. Katara listened hard, catching a murmur that sounded like arguing behind thick wood.

The door opened, and a well-dressed woman about as old as Toph’s mother swept a green gaze over them all. “Can I help you?”

“I’m Sokka,” her brother smiled, and gestured toward them. “This is my sister Katara, our friend Aang, and Momo-”

The lemur trilled, cocking his head endearingly.

“We’re looking for a friend of ours, Toph Bei Fong? She said she was going to see Luli, and we hear she’s here. At the Wen house? Unless we have the wrong place, and in that case I’m sorry we woke you up….”

If she hadn’t been watching, Katara would never have caught the flicker of the woman’s eyes toward the rooftops.

“I’m Meixiang Wen,” the woman stated, standing aside from the doorway. “Luli’s still asleep; the children wore her out. But I may be able to answer your questions.” A slight smile touched her face. “And my daughter Jia would never forgive me if I let you get away before she’s up. You’re still the talk of her poetry class.”

“Really?” Sokka preened.

Boys! Katara fumed. But held her peace until the door was closed behind them. “Look, I’m sure Sokka would love to stick around, but we need to find Toph.”

“And Appa,” Aang added. “Please, could you just talk to us? Toph could really be in trouble!”

Meixiang looked over them again, and sighed. “She already is.” She shook her head. “But she has help. It should be enough. And I know if you go after her, you will likely all be imprisoned. Or worse.” She didn’t give them time to gasp, green eyes fixing on startled gray. “Avatar Aang. What harm has my family ever done you, that you bring the Dai Li to our door?”

“You can’t blame Aang for that!” Katara objected.

“They’re following us,” Sokka pointed out. “She kind of has a point.” He frowned at Meixiang. “Are you going to be in trouble?”

“My husband is a professor of archaeology, a teacher of history from the time before there were Dai Li. Long before they claimed the reins of power as their own. We live in danger.” She looked at Aang again. “I told you, Toph is not here. She found someone who could help her, and she’s gone to find something you lost. I suggest you find somewhere Toph can find you, and wait.” She frowned. “And then I suggest you leave Ba Sing Se, and go where you stand a chance of helping our people.”

“I have been helping!” Aang protested. “I’m trying to save the Earth Kingdom! Why do people keep telling me to leave?”

“You….” Meixiang flung up her hands in frustration, and called upstairs. “Tingzhe!”

A startled, graying professor Katara vaguely recognized from the university appeared at the top of the stairs, still wrapped in sleeping robes. “Meixiang?”

“I need to force-feed this boy a map!

One brow went up, and he peered at Aang. Shook his head, and sighed. “Second set of shelves, two down, right hand side. And try not to scar him before I get there, hmm?”

“Sokka has plenty of maps,” Katara started.

“Then he hasn’t been looking at them,” Meixiang stated, opening the door to a scroll-strewn study. She picked her way down the shelves, took out three scrolls, put one back, and spread a map of the Earth Kingdom on a small table. “Look. We’re here.” She tapped the massive double oval of walls that marked Ba Sing Se. “The Fire Nation has invaded here-” her hand swept over the western peninsula and coast “-and while no one tells us of the war, they’ve probably moved to invade the other water route, into Chameleon Bay and the two lakes.”

“They’re cutting you off,” Sokka nodded. “That’s why we have to be here.”

“No!” Meixiang shot him a look of mingled anger and impatience. “That’s why you shouldn’t be here!”

“She’s right, you know.” Professor Tingzhe walked in behind them, robe tied. “In Chin the Conqueror’s time, Ba Sing Se almost fell before Kyoshi defeated him-”

“You mean killed him,” Aang said, disgusted.

“And what would you have had her do? Invite him to a tea ceremony?” Tingzhe regarded Aang with a level look. “The city almost fell, true. But Chin had far more solid a grip on the continent than the Fire Nation has yet managed. And Kyoshi was not within these walls. That led Chin to split his forces, and that itself might have led to his defeat even if she had not acted.” His gaze went to Sokka. “I’ve been told you have some small grasp on tactics… so long as Avatar Aang is inside Ba Sing Se, the Fire Nation can concentrate their forces. Which allows them to develop the simplest and shortest supply lines possible, and….” Seeing their looks of confusion, he grimaced. “Earthbending, Avatar. Think of the Earth Kingdom as a mighty boulder. What is more likely to shatter it? Scattered, small strikes? Or one massive blow?”

“What are you doing?

Katara jerked her attention to the aghast teenage boy in the doorway. Taller than Sokka, earth-green eyes, face dark with not-yet-shaved morning stubble. “You can’t be talking about this!” the young man went on. “You know what can happen. You know what happened to Bai Xiu!”

“I do know, Min,” Tingzhe said soberly. “But I also know to do nothing against evil is not a neutral act.” He glanced at Aang. “A mistake your people made, centuries ago. The Earth Kingdom has long memories. It cost you. Dearly.” He looked back at his son. “I have done nothing because there was nothing I could do. But the Avatar is here, and our fate is already in the Dai Li’s hands.”

“Not if I can help it,” Meixiang said grimly.

“This is crazy,” Min breathed, looking between his parents. “You’re crazy. You can’t- you never would have done this before he showed up!”

“Who’s he?” Katara pounced. “Lee?”

From the flare of anger in Min’s eyes, she knew she’d hit home. “Get out,” Min snarled at them. “Get out of here, before you get my family killed!”

“Min!” Tingzhe said sternly. “You will not behave so to guests. Even uninvited ones.”

“Nobody’s going to be killed,” Aang said stubbornly. “Just tell me how I can help. I’m the Avatar. Helping people is what I do.”

“You can’t help,” Min growled, turning on his heel and stomping off.

“Min, wait,” Katara said impulsively, running after him to the foot of the stairs. “If your family’s in trouble, we can do something!”

“You’re kids,” Min said dismissively. “What are you going to do, hold off a thousand Dai Li single-handed? I don’t even know why Mom let you in! She knows what this could do to us, what this could do to my brother and sisters. And Dad’s helping her….” Fists clenched, he shook his head. “Go. Just - go.”

“You can’t give up,” Katara said, determined. “Maybe we’re strangers here. Maybe we can’t do anything. But they’re your family! There’s got to be something you can do.”

“Yeah,” Min said, half to himself, eyes dark. “I guess there is.”


They could have used the door, Zuko reflected. But Toph was having way too much fun.

Bits of rock crumbling in every direction, they tumbled into a chamber that smelled like hay and thick fur and outside. Chains clinked, and he looked up at a massive shape of white and tan and sharp black horns-

“Appa! Hey, fuzzy!” Toph ran straight for a furry foreleg. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry….”

Are you crazy? Zuko spun and leaped, trying to get between her and furry death. That thing is-

His glove touched an arrow of fur, and the world wavered.

Half-light of dawn fell over a grassy mountain meadow, and Aang was chuckling as he scratched under dark horns. “Don’t worry. Appa’s a vegetarian.”

The firebender snorted. “You’ve never seen komodo-rhino calves born, have you?”

Dawn went out like a candle, and Zuko took a hasty half-step sideways to keep from staggering. What was that?

That never happened. I know it never happened.

So why did it feel real?

“Appa?” Jet finally quit fighting his friends, though he glared at Zuko. “The Dai Li had the Avatar’s bison?”

Still have. Unless we move. Zuko tapped Toph on the shoulder while she was wiping her eyes, pointed up to the grate closing off the skylight. It’ll be tight, but it’s big enough to fly out.

“Right!” Straightening, Toph waved to the freedom fighters. “Climb on!” Dropped her voice to a whisper. “Um. Can’t see in the air, how are we going to-?”

“You know how many times I’ve watched Aang fly away?” Zuko murmured back, unlocking the first massive manacle. “We can do this.”

Toph scooted around to hit the locks on the other side, and Appa’s wide head moved back and forth to watch them both. Turned toward Zuko again as he reached for the last metal twist-key-

Sucked in a breath that spiraled, lifting the key half clear.

“Smart,” Zuko whispered to the bison, untwisting it the rest of the way. “Don’t get caught this way twice.” He leapt up to perch on the back of the furry neck, and latched onto Toph’s hand, pulling her up-

Rock surged, sucking in the bison’s feet. Appa bellowed, tail flailing with a mighty wind.

“Struggle all you like.” Long Feng advanced through the open door, ranks of Dai Li behind him. “You’re going-”

“Trust me!” Zuko hissed, and swung Toph down.

Her feet hit rock, and she twisted her toes, stone dissolving into sand. “Yip yip!”

Zuko pulled even as Appa launched, a solid lump of earthbender driving the breath from him in the wake of Appa’s wind.

Grate’s coming up awfully fast-

Toph punched, and they soared free into dawn.

“Yes!” Smellerbee caterwauled, dour face stretched in an incredulous grin.

“Why?” Jet demanded, voice full of hate. “You’re a firebender. Why are you doing this?”

“Because not everybody in the Fire Nation’s crazy, you blockhead!” Toph yanked off her mask. “I’m Aang’s earthbending teacher. And he’s a friend.”

“A friend?”

Agni. Longshot can talk.

“Yeah. And he can’t get caught.” Toph leaned back next to Zuko. “Now what?”

“Follow what I do,” Zuko murmured. “The Nomads didn’t always use reins.” Taking her hand in his own, he pressed near Appa’s left horn. The bison obligingly banked.

I wish we could go slower. But there’s no time.

He urged Appa up and over the Outer Wall, dodging blocks of stone hefted by started guards. “Now, that’s just rude,” Toph complained.

Zuko snorted, guiding Appa down at least an hour’s ride outside the Wall. Pointed at the freedom fighters, and swept a hand toward the ground.

“You’re just going to leave us here?” Jet burst out. “We’ve got nothing!”

“We’re out of Ba Sing Se,” Smellerbee shot back, jumping down. “That’s not nothing.”

Silent again, Longshot yanked Jet off.

“Here!” Toph tossed a coin-string Smellerbee’s general direction. “I’m Toph Bei Fong. And one of these days, you’re going to pay me back!” She patted Appa’s head. “Yip yip!”

“Can you afford that?” Zuko asked, keeping his voice low as they climbed skyward. “You’re going to need to run-”

Toph waved it off. “Hello? Earth Rumble champion? I’m good. Besides, people give Aang stuff. We’ll be fine.”

“Like Azula,” Zuko muttered under his breath.

Toph frowned. “Um, Sparky? She’s almost as short and bouncy, I’ll give you that. But why would you think Aang’s anything like her?”

“Everything’s easy for her.” Heading back over the wall too high for boulders, Zuko swallowed hard. “Look at him. Twelve years old, and he’s a master. A few months, and he could waterbend. Don’t tell me he’s not getting in days what took you years.” He looked aside. “And everyone helps him. Everyone says he’s doing the right thing. Agni, even the spirits want him to win.”

“I kind of want him to win too, Sparky.”

“At least you’re honest about it,” Zuko said tiredly. “I wish I could stop the war, Toph. I really wish I could. But I can’t. Because you know what will happen if it stops? They’ll come for us. The Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes… you have no idea how much they hate us. They’ll come. And what will the Avatar do then?”

“…Aang wouldn’t let that happen. Not to anybody.”

“Don’t lie to me, Toph,” Zuko said angrily. “Sozin destroyed everything Aang knew. Everything. You haven’t been to the Air Temples. I have. I’ve seen them all.” Taking her mask and his own, he threw them into Lake Laogai. “The North Pole was just a warm-up!”

“Zuko-”

“Just get them out, Toph. Get them out.” He took the cloak off her shoulders, preparing to reverse it from dark to a pale green to hide the Blue Spirit’s outfit. “Drop me in the Upper Ring. I’ll tell you where. And then, this is what you do….”


“Sokka, we’ve got to go back and help them!”

Keeping a good grip on yellow and orange, Sokka kept walking. “I think we’ve helped them enough, Aang.” Hit the Fire Nation from behind. Like sending a decoy hunter to strike the tiger-seals, and drive them the way you want them to go. I should have thought of that. Why didn’t I think of that?

I got caught up in “I must defeat the Fire Lord”, that’s why. And maybe the spirits do want Aang to take him one-on-one. Crazy as that sounds. But big and evil as he is, Fire Lord Ozai’s just one guy. We’ve got whole armies to worry about.

Still. The Wens didn’t know about the eclipse. They had a chance to knock out the Fire Lord and his main guys in the Fire Nation. They had to take it. But in order to do that, they had to see the Earth King, and get the generals on their side.

And for that, we need Toph. I hate to say it, but it looks like the only way we’re going to get anywhere is start knocking down walls-

“Sokka!” Katara grabbed his wrist, startling him into letting go of Aang. “Look!”

Sokka’s jaw dropped. White and brown with a patch of green clinging for dear life, flying north, then east, south, west, and back around the rough square-

“Appa!” Snapping his glider open, Aang hurtled into the air.

“Oh, boy,” Sokka breathed, pulling out his boomerang as Katara flicked open her waterskin. The green shadows on the roofs were heading for the streets, and the moment those stone shoes touched earth-

Appa swooped down, Aang holding his staff out so they could grab on, sucking them up with a friendly wind.

Stone gloves crashed through empty air, and they were flying.

“Appa!” Aang was clinging to the bison’s head, tears running. “Oh, I missed you, buddy….”

“Toph!” Katara grabbed the white-faced earthbender, pulled her back to anchor between the two of them. “You’re all right!”

“Hey,” Toph said breathlessly. “Hope you didn’t leave anything you can’t live without in the mansion. I just took out a dozen Dai Li, and boy are they mad.”

“The Dai Li had Appa?” Aang yelped.

“It gets a lot worse than that, Twinkletoes.” Toph tried to put on a brave face, but she was shivering.

She can’t see anything, and we don’t even have a saddle to grab onto. Sokka hand-walked a few inches closer, making sure Toph was wedged up against Katara. “Let’s land somewhere and talk.”

“Not in the city!” Toph gulped, and clung tighter. “There’s an island. Out in the lake. Should be safe for a while.”

“Toph,” Katara said, worried, “how do you know there’s an island over there?”

“Lee told me,” Toph said practically. “He gave me a letter for you, Sokka. You better read it.”

Sokka traded a glance with Aang. The airbender looked ahead, and nodded. “One island, coming up!”

They tumbled off Appa’s back onto gritty sand, and Toph shook out cramped fingers. Grimly, she drew folded paper out of her robes. “Here.” She whipped a finger toward Katara before his sister could speak. “And no questions! Not until after Sokka reads it.”

“Okay,” Katara said, one brow raised dubiously. “Sokka?”

Sokka unfolded neat creases, and even Aang stopped scratching Appa to listen.

Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, neatly inked characters read.

If Toph hasn’t already convinced you to get out of Ba Sing Se, leave. Now.

This isn’t Omashu, or any of the other places you’ve been. The Earth King is a figurehead; a political center everyone can refer to as the ultimate authority, even though they know he’s nothing of the kind. The real power in Ba Sing Se is the Grand Secretariat, Long Feng, head of the Dai Li. The generals know this, and are in willing collusion with him. They know what the Dai Li do, but they rely on them to keep order in the city while they battle the Fire Nation. By any means necessary. They know the Dai Li warp people’s minds. They know the Dai Li make some people disappear. They know, and they permit it to go on.

Ba Sing Se is a trap.

Refugees are drawn here by the hope of escaping the war. Once inside, they are told there is no war in Ba Sing Se. Those who cannot accept this, disappear. Those who can and are not broken usually fight on the Wall. Those who break - and many do - work in Ba Sing Se, living a lie. Whatever the original purpose behind this policy, it drains the countryside of potential pockets of resistance, keeps the city itself controlled by fear, and fosters an enduring - and because it is unspoken, irrational - hate of the Fire Nation. I’m sure Fire Lord Ozai would approve.

People who use these tactics are not your allies.

If none of this convinces you, consider why Long Feng had the bison. He has reports from General Fong on the Avatar State. He knows the Fire Navy was shattered at the North Pole. He, or the generals, have decided this is a viable tactic to wreak destruction on the Fire Nation.

The philosophy of the airbenders was that all life is precious. If you want your friend to be himself, and not a living weapon - get out.

It wasn’t signed.

It was weird, though. Something about the words was familiar. Like Sokka could almost hear the voice to match them, if he just remembered-

“Lee gave you this?” Katara said skeptically. “Why didn’t he just tell us?”

“That does seem weird.” Aang scratched the back of his neck. “I mean, Monk Gyatso always said the Water Tribes weren’t great letter writers… not that that’s a bad thing! It’s great that you like to talk to people face to face. But you can kind of lose track of someone if they don’t visit.”

And we couldn’t visit the Northern Tribe, being raided all the time, Sokka realized. They just… stopped coming. We got raided for years, and they never sent help. Until Aang broke the Fire Navy for them.

They had reasons. He was sure. But-

“Three reasons,” Toph said bluntly, shaking him out of his grim thoughts. “One, we were being watched. Two, we had to go in to get Appa, fast, and I think he was worried he wouldn’t get back out. He hasn’t been waterbending that long, and he couldn’t under the lake, or the Dai Li would know who he was. Three… he didn’t want you guys to see him because he didn’t want to wind up full of icicles.”

“What?” Katara said in disbelief.

Sokka looked at the letter, and the phrasing, and winced. “Lee’s not Water Tribe.”

“But he’s a waterbender,” Katara started.

“He’s Fire Nation.” Toph angled her head toward Aang. “He wanted to help, but he was scared. He’s heard about the North Pole. A lot of people have.”

“A Fire Nation waterbender?” Katara looked like someone had slapped her with a saw-dogfish.

“He said something about being from the colonies.” Toph didn’t take her ears off Aang.

The airbender seemed to shrink in on himself. “I didn’t mean to do… that.” He tried to smile. “He’s really Fire Nation? Wow, that must be weird-”

“You don’t get to dodge this one, Twinkletoes.” Toph crossed her arms, immovable as granite. “Maybe you didn’t want to. Maybe you didn’t mean to. But you did it. And everybody thinks you’re going to do it again. Long Feng. The generals. The whole Fire Nation.” She shook her head. “You should have heard Lee. He felt awful. Here he is, with the only waterbender he can find who doesn’t care where he came from - and you show up. If he doesn’t get you out of here, the Fire Nation smashes Ba Sing Se to bits and he’s got nowhere left to go. If he does get you out, he’s helping the guy who killed thousands of his people. Talk about a rock and a hard place!”

“Well he should feel awful!” Katara flared. “After everything the Fire Nation’s done to the world? To us? To Aang? He should feel so horrible he should just - just crawl away and die!”

What the heck is with- oh. Sokka saw her fingers touch her necklace, and grimaced. It’s that time of year again. When we lost Mom.

“Katara,” Aang started patiently.

“You take that back!” Toph’s fists clenched, sand hardening under her feet into solid stone. “Lots of people help us because they want to. Because they know Aang’s the Avatar, and they think he’s gonna stomp the Fire Nation and stop the war. Lee didn’t! Lee doesn’t like Aang! He doesn’t want anything to do with Aang. He helped get Appa back because it was the right thing to do. Because he doesn’t want Aang to ever hurt the way he did at the North Pole again! You take that back!

She’s crying? Sokka realized, jaw dropping. Toph was too tough to cry.

“Toph.” The rage faded off Katara’s face, swept away by worry. “What’s wrong?”

“Lee told me,” Toph said, voice thick with angry tears. “He told me, and I didn’t want to believe him. He said even if the Fire Nation stopped the war, you’d bring it right back to them. That I didn’t know how much the Water Tribes hated the Fire Nation. He helped me, he’s a waterbender, and all you want him to do is die?” She swallowed hard. “Aang, how are you going to stop the war?”

Aang paled. Gulped. Gripped his staff, and shook his head. “I’m going to defeat the Fire Lord, Toph. You know that already.”

“And then what?” Toph demanded. “We’re going to use the eclipse. We’re going to kick Fire Lord butt. But you’re going to need more than us to do it! Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes - and there they’re gonna be, right in the middle of the people they hate! Then what?

“We’ll figure it out after we get the Fire Lord,” Sokka said forcefully, as Aang wavered. “Aang’s the Avatar. People will listen to him. Right now, we need to figure out what we’re going to do now.”

Katara bit her lip. “Sokka, if Lee’s telling the truth-”

“He is!” Toph stomped a foot.

“-Then what we saw at the party, all these weeks of trouble…. Long Feng is in control of the city. I think we should just keep flying and leave this horrible place behind us.”

“I’m with Sweetness!” Toph chimed in, relieved. “I’ve seen enough of Ba Sing Se, and I can’t even see!”

“But we escaped from the Dai Li. And we got Appa back. We’re on a roll,” Sokka said confidently. “We should go to the Earth King now and tell him our plan. Before Long Feng can get to him.”

“Maybe Long Feng already got to him,” Toph objected. “I heard them making Joo Dees under the lake. They just… make these ladies so they’ll say what the Dai Li want them to say! What if they did that to the Earth King, too?”

“Then we have to go to him, so Katara can heal him.” Aang looked between them all, full of that sureness that everything in the world could be fixed if they just tried. “If he knows the truth about the Dai Li and the war, I know he’ll help! It’s the right thing to do.” He glanced up suddenly, and raced to the lakeshore.

“Aang, what’s-” Sokka looked out into the water. Earth Kingdom ships. “Um… how many Dai Li did you say you squashed?”

“There were a lot of them.” Toph touched a toe to the water, obviously unhappy. “They’re out there?”

“Probably. So….” Sokka turned to Katara, sure of what she’d say. Mention healing, and she was all over the situation.

Katara nodded once. “Let’s fly!”


Too close.

Iroh sat in their new apartment with a cup of fragrant jasmine tea, watching his nephew sleep the sleep of an exhausted infiltrator. But only sleep. No sign of the deadly fever that would mark a break of his father’s loyalty. Not yet.

But it will come, Iroh reflected grimly. I have tried to balance him on a knife’s edge… and he is slipping.

The Avatar. Why here? Why now? Was the spirits’ plan so desperate it could not have waited another month? Even another week?

Our flight weakened us. Amaya and I have done what we can… but I do not know if he is strong enough to survive. If his loyalty breaks now….

Fingers wrapped around his tea, Iroh tried to hold onto hope.

It slipped through his grasp like ashes.


“…The Council of Five and the military are loyal to the Earth King, but the Dai Li remain loyal to you, Long Feng, sir.”

Long Feng smiled behind walls sheathed in steel, considering plots upon plots and options the Avatar’s little group of troublemakers had never dreamed of. So the Earth King had proved easily swayed? Then he would be as swiftly swayed back, once given information that rather than fighting against the Fire Nation, the Avatar’s allies were agents of the Fire Lord himself.

Poor little Bei Fong, by now trapped and unable to dispute his Dai Li’s evidence… especially given her little friends were now scattered to the winds, save for one overconfident waterbender. He’d seen benders puffed up with their supposed mastery before. Katara could easily be neutralized. The Kyoshi Warriors were a less predictable factor… but they’d offered their services to Full Moon Bay to fight in the war. They should be easily convinced it didn’t matter who was in charge in Ba Sing Se.

And once Lee had given up his firebender contact - and been convinced to give evidence of his conspiracy with the Fire Nation and Shirong, so the Earth King would see only a rogue Dai Li at fault and not his most trusted advisor - these steel bars would be but a memory.

Min Wen will make a fine agent, indeed.

Chapter Text

And my brother chased these fools for months? Azula thought contemptuously, lounging at her ease in their Upper Ring guest quarters as Ty Lee and Mai surreptitiously checked their rooms for spy-holes and listening posts. They were sure to be here, just as they were in the ambassadorial rooms put at their disposal in the palace. The trick was to locate the most likely spots, and shape their conversations accordingly.

Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, Azula recalled, committing the name to her mental files of useful idiots. It was good to know exactly who among your enemies was fool enough to let in those he assumed were allies without ever checking for himself.

Zuzu chased you across the world and couldn’t catch you. But I don’t have to chase you anymore. All I have to do is wait… and gather the forces I need to take out the Avatar once and for all.

And thanks to the Earth King, she knew precisely where to find them. What a naïve, useful young man. Perhaps she’d leave him as a puppet. He was so good at it.

Sitting in front of her mirror, Mai signaled a subtle, currently clear.

Azula smiled. “We have been presented with an extraordinary opportunity, girls….”

An opportunity her brother would never have seized. Poor Zuzu. Bent on removing a threat to the Fire Nation, and never seeing that threat mobilized their people to make all their conquests possible.

My brother never did have vision. Even before Dad took half of it away.

A pity Fire Lord Ozai hadn’t finished the job. But that was all right. As soon as Ba Sing Se was on its knees, she’d find dear Zuzu….

And finally indulge in being an only child.


Well, the good news is the Avatar took his bison and left, Shirong reflected, stalking down one of the palace’s little-used corridors as if he had every right to be there. The bad news is, the Avatar’s little band raised more havoc than a chest full of ninety-nine-year spirits, Long Feng’s been arrested, the generals are making some kind of massive plans….

And I’m being watched.

Off and on, not at all times… but even so, it made no sense. If Lee had left some sign of his identity breaking the bison free, then they should both be in interrogation rooms even now. If Lee hadn’t - why the watching eyes?

Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

Which was why he’d moved to intercept Lee here, before the healer stood a chance of encountering any new faces in the palace, rather than waiting in the garden. He had an excuse, if anyone asked. It was even true.

And there’s my young break-in artist.

“You’d better get well soon,” Lee said, smile crooked. “I’m missing my uncle’s grand opening-”

“You might want to watch your step today,” Shirong said, carefully casual.

“Why?” the healer asked warily.

“It’s better if I just show you. That way, you’ll know what parts of the palace to avoid.” And hopefully, that will give my watchers time to relax.

Not that his fellow agents would allow themselves to be bored. But complacent... yes, that was possible. If the Dai Li knew where their targets were heading, and so relaxed - it might give them breathing room. Particularly since these young women were definitely in the Earth King’s favor.

Lee kept his questions to himself, only pausing near the outskirts of the section in question to murmur, “Ambassadorial quarters?”

“I suppose they were, once,” Shirong said, startled. “How did you know?”

“Color scheme.”

Which made no sense whatsoever-

Shirong blinked, and looked at decorative friezes and tapestries with fresh eyes. The dominant colors were greens and browns, as befitted a palace of the Earth Kingdom. But there were also touches of blue, and yellow, and even hints of red and black.

The elements, Shirong realized. I’ve walked these halls for twenty years and never saw it. “Are you certain you won’t change your mind?” he said wistfully, stopping for a moment in the shadow of a pillar. “We could use you. Now more than ever.”

“It wouldn’t be honorable,” Lee started.

And vanished.

No stranger to taking the high ground, Shirong joined the young waterbender up near the ceiling. I’ll be. He got the ice gloves to work.

Though they were more lumps than gloves, frozen to stone. Still, it was working; panic could do wonders for any focused bender. And Lee was definitely half a breath from panic.

White as he is? I’d give fifty-fifty on just fainting.

Shirong shook his head minutely, and moved so he could catch Lee if things went wrong. He’d heard those armored young ladies were good, but Lee’s meeting must have really left a mark-

“Will we be able to speak to General How?” the black-haired leader said to a palace guard, marching with precise and graceful steps as her two subordinates trailed in her wake. “Much as the Earth King has honored us with his welcome, we would be most grateful for the chance to address a leader skilled and ingenious enough to come up with such a plan.”

“The general’s very busy, ma’am, but I’m sure something can be arranged….”

Shirong waited until they were out of earshot to murmur, “Sorry about the shock. I thought it would be better to show you where the Kyoshi Warriors are-”

“They’re not Kyoshi Warriors.”

Grim. Angry. And desperately afraid. Shirong heard it all in Lee’s voice, and tried not to shiver. “What?”

“Outside,” Lee whispered, face gray. “We have to- I can’t- air.”

Shirong led them both to their usual garden, all too aware they were likely to be watched. But it was one of the few places they shouldn’t have guests stumbling on them. And the way Lee’s face had just shut down, like a soldier cut off and about to be swarmed….

If it’s that bad, we might want the rest of the Dai Li to know. “What do you mean, they’re not Kyoshi Warriors?”

“They’re Fire Nation.”

The world seemed to tilt sideways. Shirong forced himself to catch his breath, and silently cursed himself for using his rock gloves so casually earlier. His chi still wasn’t up to bending. “Those outfits, that makeup - how can you possibly-?”

“I know, all right?” Lee drew a breath, deliberately unclenching his fists. “I know them.”

“How convenient.”

Shirong whipped his head around, taking in Quan’s grim look, a pale Min Wen in a trainee’s outfit-

We’re dead.

But he wasn’t about to go down without a fight, weak chi or not. “Why?” Shirong asked, trying not to let his heartbreak show in his voice. And wondering why it cut so very keenly. He was Dai Li, he knew the score; it didn’t matter if you were loyal, if Ba Sing Se would be more stable without you. “I’ve always acted to protect this city.”

“By concealing the presence of Fire Nation colonials, and allowing them to make contact with a firebender infiltrated inside?” Quan’s gaze was hard as he eyed Lee. “It’ll go easier with you if you give the firebender up.”

“No,” Lee said dryly, stance ready and calm as he glanced at Min. “I don’t think it will.” He looked back at Quan, unshakable as granite. “You don’t want to do this. You’ve got bigger problems than me. You don’t know who they are-”

“Yes. They do.”

Gleaming steel flew, and Lee dodged by a hair, rolling to come up in a classic firebending stance.

Why? He has his waterskin - why firebending?

One of the Warriors stood, ready to throw more of the razor edges glinting between her fingers. Her voice was cold, with a studied disinterest that chilled Shirong to the core; she might look like a teenage girl, but she was undoubtedly lethal. “Well. Looks like there’s going to be a family reunion.”

Fire Nation. Lee was right.

“Mai,” Lee breathed, not moving from stance. “Don’t do it.”

“Why?” Gold eyes narrowed. “You never wrote me back.”

Lee glared. “She almost killed Uncle, and you’re upset about a letter?

“Your uncle’s a traitor. You know what that means.” A black brow flicked slightly upward. “And what do you mean, a letter?”

I had questions about you, Lee, Shirong thought, dryly amused, focused on steel, but this wasn’t how I thought I’d get my answers.

Wait. Just wait. Someone’s going to twitch-

“Are you two talking or killing each other?” Min wondered, held back by Quan’s hand from bending. At either side.

“Shut up,” both Fire Nation teens snapped.

Either’s still possible, then, Shirong thought wryly. But if they were talking, they weren’t killing each other. And given Quan seemed just as coolly interested in hearing more…. Keep them talking. Long enough to get your strength back. “Let me guess. You’re related?”

“No.” Mai’s lip curled.

“Yes,” Lee sighed.

“What?”

“Uncle looked it up when you kept getting serious! He couldn’t figure out why your parents thought they had a chance with my father when there aren’t any benders in your-”

“There are!” Mai’s voice finally betrayed a hint of anger. “Momiji was adopted out because she wasn’t, I know that, but her parents were-”

“Her mother was Ta Min, I know,” Lee said impatiently. “She was Ilah’s mother, too!”

Dead silence.

Ilah, Shirong thought furiously. I’ve heard that name before, somewhere- oh. Damn, Lee had no luck at all, did he? Who’d named their daughter after Fire Lord Ozai’s mother? “So you are related.”

“Second-third cousins,” Lee said impatiently. “Maybe a little closer, given some of the families… never mind. I told you this, Mai! In the last letter, after - after. It wasn’t going to happen, it didn’t matter who your father greased at court - you didn’t need my kind of trouble!”

Mai’s stance didn’t waver, but gold eyes were wide. “…I think I’m going to be sick.”

Shirong added up what he’d heard, and blinked. “Old girlfriend?” he asked Lee dryly.

“I was thirteen!” Lee said defensively. “It’s hard to find records on children adopted out, even when it’s recent. This was a hundred and twenty-one years ago!” He actually took his eyes off Mai, just long enough to give Shirong an aggravated look. “Like Uncle says, I’ve done a lot of foolish things in my life. But this? This one, is not my fault!”

“It has to be.” Mai’s voice was flat, and bitter as wormwood. “She promised me.”

“She lies, Mai.” Lee’s fists were clenched, but his eyes were sad. “Azula always lies.”

Shirong felt his heart speed up, and hoped to hell his bending could match it. “Princess Azula is in the palace?” Seeing Quan’s studiously neutral expression, Shirong blanched. “And you knew. Oma and Shu, why haven’t you-?”

“We are loyal to Long Feng, Shirong,” Quan said bluntly. “It’s a shame you forgot that.”

Lee let out a bitter laugh. “I never thought I’d feel sorry for Long Feng.” He narrowed fire-green eyes at Quan. “She’ll chew him up and spit him out. He’ll just see a little girl, playing with plots she can’t really understand. She’ll smile at him, and tell him how smart he is - and when she’s done, he’ll be dead. Or wish he was.” He flicked a glance at Min. “You should run. As far and fast as you can. If Azula gets her hands on you, your family’s dead.”

“I did this to save my family!” Min said fiercely. “This is your fault! You’re nothing but trouble!”

“From the night I was born,” Lee agreed, a bitter smile ghosting over his face. “Funny thing is? I understand. I do. You do… horrible things, when you’re trying to keep your family together. You try not to see that your sister’s a monster… and your father’s a bloodthirsty murderer.”

“Don’t say things like that!” Mai took a step forward, alarmed. “You’re not a traitor!”

“That’s not what Azula said, when she tried to take us in chains,” Lee bit out. “Did she mention that? Or trying to kill me with a lightning bolt?”

“She wouldn’t!”

“You know damn well she would, Mai!” Lee snarled. “Azula always gets what she wants. Always! There’s just one thing left she hasn’t got. One thing the Fire Sages won’t give her as long as I’m alive! You know that!

I have the pieces, Shirong thought, stunned. It just doesn’t make sense….

Mai shook her head, black bangs barely stirring. “She’s your sister, Zuko.”

Oh. My. Spirits….

Well. Now he knew why Agni had graced his altar with a sign, after that desperate prayer.

One of your children, indeed.

“That’s never stopped her before.” Lee - Prince Zuko - deepened his stance, obviously seeing opponent, not ex-girlfriend. “If she takes me, I’m dead. Uncle is dead-”

Uncle? Shirong’s eyes bugged, and he saw Quan blink, making the connection. Oma and Shu! General Iroh is here?

“-And if you don’t give a damn about us, there’s an hono’o shoshinsha who doesn’t deserve what’s going to happen!”

One of those words is flame, Shirong thought. What’s the other?

Whatever it was, it stopped Mai in her tracks. Her glance flicked to the palace, then back. “You know I’m loyal to her.”

“I know,” Zuko said plainly. “But you know I’ve never lied to you.” He didn’t even glance at the earthbenders. “Don’t do it, Quan. I’d hate to hurt you. But there are people counting on me. People Azula will kill, if she catches them.” He swallowed. “And she’ll make it hurt a long, long time.”

The utter surety in his voice must have reached Quan. The senior agent stepped back, hands down.

“You can’t be,” Min said in disbelief. “Not a- you have-”

“I showed disrespect to the Fire Lord.” Zuko’s voice was cold and sharp as ice-shattered flint. “Ask Quan. Every noble in the whole damn world laughs about it. I’d be surprised if the Dai Li don’t have all the juicy details.”

Exiled forever, Shirong recalled, forcing his stunned brain to work. Unless he can return with the Avatar-

I sent him after the Avatar’s bison. To save Ba Sing Se. And he let it go.

Heart in his throat, he stepped to Zuko’s side.

“What are you doing?” Quan said in disbelief.

“Avatar Kyoshi created us to serve the city, not one man.” Shirong tried not to let his voice shake. Spirits, what’s wrong with me? “Quan, what if he’s right? Call me a rogue; set a hunt for me if you have to! But the plan I told you about - it’s good. It could work. And what have you lost? Minor resources, easily replaced. Troublemakers Ba Sing Se doesn’t need. What does it cost the Dai Li to let us try? The Dai Li, not Long Feng!”

Quan considered that a long moment. Sighed, and inclined his head.

Mai’s stance coiled. Ready to throw. Zuko tensed-

“Fifteen minutes,” she said coldly. “Then I scream.”

Nodding, Zuko fled.

Scrambling to catch up - damn, he was fast! - Shirong hit the garden wall beside the exiled prince. “Do you believe her?”

“Climb.”

Steel sang and clattered off stone, a hair’s breadth from their feet. “She said-”

“Fifteen until she screams.” Zuko went up like a wasp-spider, fingers clinging to cracks as surely as if he were in rock gloves. “If it doesn’t look right - you don’t want to know what Azula will do.”

“No wonder you’re paranoid.” Breasting the wall, Shirong dropped, bending as his feet hit so the ground yielded instead of his ankles. I’m in no shape for this. “She’s really your-”

“Yes.” Uncoiling from the impact, Zuko raced onward, heading for the outer wall of the palace and the closest gate.

Shirong kept pace, relieved when the guards took one look at them and started opening the portal. Running waterbender with running Dai Li - that was a symptom of the kind of trouble no sane guard wanted to deal with. “And she’s really tried to-”

“I stopped counting when I was eleven.” They bolted out the gate, and Zuko sucked in a breath. “She didn’t try so often after Uncle came home. The one good thing about exile was it was away from her!

Through crowds, down streets; they finally fetched up behind a sweets shop, as lights were flashing in Shirong’s vision. “Breathe,” Zuko ordered, propping him up from one side. “I need to think.”

“We’re doomed,” Shirong croaked, fighting for air. I should leave. I’m slowing him down. Too injured to run, too weak to fight-

“I need you to warn the Wens.”

“Min bargained for their safety,” Shirong gasped. Quan might be a fool for dealing with the demon-princess, but he wasn’t that stupid.

“If Azula gets near Jinhai, no one’s safe.” Zuko weighed him a second longer, and breathed out sharply. “Firebenders can feel each other.”

Jinhai bends with hot water. A weird, off-the-wall comment he’d let slide, in the wake of trying to do something about the spirit that had nearly eaten… his waterbending recruit.

Prince Zuko. A firebender. How in the world can he-? “I’ve seen you make ice,” Shirong protested.

“Azula hasn’t.” Zuko’s smirk was shadowed, but real. “If Quan tells her, I’m dead. If he doesn’t… I might actually survive.” He nodded. “Go to Meixiang Wen. They’ve got plans. I think they can hide you. I’ll warn Uncle.”

The Dragon of the West is in my city. Has been, for over a month. “Why do you trust me?” Shirong demanded.

“You promised you’d kill me rather than let the haima-jiao use me,” Zuko said simply. “You do what’s right. And letting a six-year-old fall into Azula’s hands….” He shook his head. “You have honor. Being Earth Kingdom doesn’t change that.”

Shirong regarded the exiled prince through narrowed eyes. “Don’t you dare get killed. We need to have a long talk.”

“Later,” Zuko agreed dryly. And faded into the crowd.


One ex-boyfriend, escaped, Mai calculated coldly. His rogue Dai Li agent, likewise. Quan seemed willing to keep silent, and rein in his trainee. And as for the princess who would soon wonder where she was-

She lied to me. Azula lied. To me.

Azula lied to Zuko; everyone knew that. Prince Zuko and political maneuvering mixed about as well as oil and sparks, with much the same results. It just wasn’t prudent to tell Zuko the truth about which nobles were really in the Fire Lord’s favor, or what new maneuvers the army was using, or… anything.

But she told me the Fire Lord would approve our engagement. Just as soon as - as he changed his mind about Zuko’s exile….

And when had Fire Lord Ozai ever changed his mind? About anything?

“The best way to lie to someone,” Azula had laughed, during one late-night planning session, “is to tell them the truth.”

Mai glanced at the sky. She wasn’t a firebender, to feel the sun’s trek toward the west… but close enough. Deep breath.

Mai raised her head to the sun, and loosed phoenix-eagle screams to the sky.

She ignored stunned eyes on her in the sudden silence. “It is Mai,” she said levelly. “Daughter of Niji, and of Governor Tsumami. I pray to be allowed to address Agni.”

Perhaps the sunlight strengthened. Perhaps.

“When loyalty rests with one unworthy of it, honor requires that it not remain.”

A cloud passed over the sun. And what more needed to be said?

“Mai!” Ty Lee bounded in, Azula treading deliberately after her. “What happened?”

“A Fire Nation infiltrator was in the palace,” Quan said smoothly. “If you warrior ladies will excuse us, we need to inform the guards.” Keeping a firm grip on Min’s shoulder, the Dai Li steered his pale recruit inside.

“An infiltrator?” Azula’s gaze took in the knives gleaming in stone, and Mai’s disinterested expression.

“Your brother’s in town,” Mai said coolly.

Azula’s eyes widened, and she drew in a sharp breath. “Is he.”

“Zuko’s here?” Ty Lee bounced, smiling brightly. “Is he still cute? Did you get to kiss him-?”

“Why isn’t he here?” Azula interrupted coolly.

Brow arched, Mai started pulling her knives from rock.

“Zuzu’s a fool, not a coward.” Azula tapped a sharp nail against heavy skirts. “If he knows you’re here, he knows I’m here… and he’s not smart enough to run from me. Not when I stand between him and his precious honor.” Golden eyes were cold. “Who is he protecting?”

Min, Mai realized, recalling how Quan had gotten the boy away. One of Min’s family is the firebender! “There was an injured Dai Li agent with him. Someone called him a rogue.” She met Azula’s gaze squarely. “I don’t know why the agent didn’t mention it.”

“Dirty laundry in the Dai Li,” Azula murmured, eyes gleaming. “How convenient.” She smiled. “And how like Zuzu. Picking up strays.”

Mai recalled the fate of some stray animals near the palace, and tried not to think. “Should we pursue them?”

“Run off, when we’re guests of his majesty?” Azula’s smile turned almost playful. “That would be rude.” She tilted her head back, looking to the great walls in the distance. “Why waste the effort? Once Long Feng and I have had our chat… we’ll have Zuko brought to us.”


This was a good idea, Katara thought, heading for her table with a happy lemur on her shoulder. The Earth King seemed to be a nice young man, but - well, she wasn’t Aang. It made her knees a little shaky to talk to a king. Tea was just what she-

“I’m brewing as fast as I can!”

Her jaw dropped. The old man behind the counter was - was-

If he’s here - where’s Zuko?

The waterbender didn’t stick around to find out, fleeing down the steps. Need help, need - no, Toph’s not here, but - Suki! That’s it, I’ll-

A dark-haired boy in green moved out of the crowd like lightning, poised and angry and striking hard as Toph’s rocks.

Can’t breathe…. Katara fumbled for her waterskin, got the cap loose-

Momo leapt into the air with a screech, as Zuko followed the blow to her solar plexus with a bladed hand to her wrist, numbing her fingers before she could call her water. The exiled prince yanked her arm out straight, whirling her around to crash knees-first into the stone steps.

Ow! Bastard. Why? Aang’s not even here- wait, he’s only got one hand on me-

Something cool touched her head, and the world went out.


“Excuse me, she fainted, let me through….”

Zuko? Iroh looked up from his latest brew. This early? He took in the scolding lemur strafing Zuko’s hair, the familiar young face over the blue dress in Zuko’s arms, and braced for the worst. “Nephew, when I said you could bring home a nice girl, this wasn’t what I had in mind.” Reaching under the counter, he offered Momo a slice of candied peach.

The lemur snatched it and landed, still scolding.

Servers laughed, and Zuko reddened. “She fainted,” he gritted out, shoulders hunched like any abashed teen. “I thought - maybe some ice water?”

“Of course, how very thoughtful of you,” Iroh chuckled. “Lu, if you could see to the pots….”

The matronly woman who helped with the brewing smiled at him, then turned a stern glance on his nephew. “Mind your uncle, and do don’t anything improper with that young lady, Lee!”

“Thought never crossed my mind,” Zuko said sourly, hefting the young waterbender through the gap in the counter and into the back of the kitchen.

“She doesn’t look hurt.” Iroh kept his voice low, despite the noise of boiling water. Momo sailed in after them, still miffed.

“I put her out.” Zuko laid her gently down. “Master Amaya’s not a strong healer. Yugoda taught her how to make people sleep long enough to work on them. You can’t use it too long, people start having trouble breathing - but I can keep her under a little longer. I have to, she was running from here, which means she saw you, and if she was running from you she’d be running to help, and it isn’t, and she doesn’t know, why is she even here-”

“Nephew!” Iroh ordered. “Start from the beginning.”

Zuko shuddered, and took a breath. “Azula’s in the palace.”

“…I believe I will sit down,” Iroh mused, claiming a stool.

Zuko waved another away, pacing between counter and stove as if he would otherwise fly apart. “Azula, Mai, Ty Lee - they’re dressed as Kyoshi Warriors. The Dai Li know they aren’t, but- Min turned Lee in to the Dai Li for having a firebender contact. Quan and Min ambushed me and Shirong, only Mai caught up to all of us. She gave us fifteen minutes. And Quan - Shirong told him the plan could still work - he didn’t try to stop us. I sent Shirong to warn the Wens. I hope they can hide him, he shouldn’t be running. Much less running from her.” A gulp of air. “I sent him, I came here, I saw her - I stopped her. I haven’t gotten much farther. I’ve got to warn Amaya-”

“No,” Iroh said firmly. “I will send a messenger.” Lu had far more qualifications than just brewing. Including a very good game of Pai Sho. “You acted well, and swiftly. But Azula will be looking for you, even if the Dai Li are not.” He nodded toward Katara. “And given that scroll, she will be missed soon enough.”

“She’s been talking to the generals,” Zuko groaned, heel of his hand against his forehead. “I don’t believe this… are they insane?

“No, simply young,” Iroh sighed. “Come. I believe I have not shown you the cellars. Very interesting cellars, this shop has….”


“Zuko is where?” Sokka asked again as they soared up and away from Chameleon Bay, still not sure he’d heard right. Wind in my ears. Could be, maybe, has to be… right?

“Ba Sing Se!” Aang urged Appa onward into the night, leaving the Water Tribe fleet behind. “At least, he’s got to be there. I saw him hit Katara, and then… and then he did something, like Ty Lee, and she just stayed down!”

Like Ty Lee. And it was Zuko, again, hurting his sister, again. Like he had with the pirates, and the bounty hunter. Like he had at the North Pole. “They’ve been playing us,” Sokka said, feeling sick. “It must have been an act… spirits, I didn’t know Zuko had that kind of lying in him….”

Aang glanced back at him from Appa’s head, frustrated and puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

“Zuko and Azula,” Sokka shot back, starting to get angry. “They’ve been working together all along!”

“But - we saw her burn Zuko’s uncle-”

“When she knew Katara was right there!” Sokka said impatiently. “Katara heals at the drop of a hat! Everybody knows that.”

“But Toph said Zuko wasn’t lying!”

“He didn’t have to!” Sokka yelled back. “Sure, she’s evil and crazy and wants to kill us. She’s Fire Nation! And she’s Zuko’s sister. They have to be working together.”

“But Toph said Azula wants to be-”

“Toph’s an only child,” Sokka waved that feeble protest off. “She doesn’t know what it’s like to have a little sister. Or a big brother. Believe me, if I got kicked out of the Water Tribe? Katara would do anything to get me back. That’s what sisters do.” At Aang’s doubtful look, he scowled, leaning forward. “Look, you’re the one with the crazy spirit visions! You saw Zuko hit her. Like Ty Lee! And we know Azula and the rest of them were outside Ba Sing Se a few weeks back. They must have found Zuko, and he must have snuck in! It’s obvious!”

“But… I didn’t think he’d hurt Iroh that way,” Aang said reluctantly. “He seemed to really… care.”

“Yeah, well, remember what happened to the North Pole, and Yue,” Sokka said harshly. “He cares more about his honor than anybody.”

Katara. Hang on. We’re coming.


This isn’t real. Hidden in one of the many catacombs under Ba Sing Se, Suyin cradled her head in her hands and tried not to cry. Please, make this not be real….

But the bent stone she was sitting on was real. The Dai Li agent, Shirong, talking things over quietly with her parents, was real. Jinhai helping a lemur build a fort with wooden blocks, trying to be brave, was real. And the teenage waterbender in blue leggings and dress, out cold on a ledge with one of their mother’s quilted jackets to keep her warm… she was far too real.

Min betrayed Lee. Betrayed us. I don’t understand…

I don’t want to understand! How could he do that? How?

“I know it doesn’t help, but your brother was trying to do the right thing.”

Wide-eyed, Suyin looked up at the agent, and at her father behind him. Tingzhe looked concerned, but he hadn’t pulled out the “Professor Dad” scowl. So Dad thinks he’s okay. Even if he is Dai Li. “How could turning Lee in be the right thing!”

“I said he was trying to, not that he did,” Shirong said wryly. “I’m sure the Joo Dees have been managing things so the Avatar hasn’t realized how many people he’s talked to have been interrogated afterwards. And at least a third of those have disappeared. Given your father already has a record of teaching seditious students? Min probably thought we were within hours of pouncing on all of you.” The Dai Li’s face was sad, and cold as deep winter. “And then Jinhai would have thrown sparks, and you’d all be dead.”

Suyin shivered.

“As it was... well, he did what I might have done, if I’d been sixteen and desperate,” Shirong said honestly. “He turned you in - properly horrified, I’m sure - for knowing Lee. And turned in Lee as a colonial with a firebender contact. Lee’s already listed in our records as a waterbender, like Jinhai. It would have worked. You would have been safe.” He grimaced. “Unless someone actually caught Lee, and mindbent him enough to put him in an interrogation trance. Min must have been just hoping that wouldn’t happen-”

“From what I understand, Amaya’s methods provide a certain measure of protection against that,” Tingzhe observed.

“Methods? What-” Shirong stopped himself. “Lee’s eyes are green. But he’s....” The Dai Li let out a slow breath. “Spirits. The perfect disguise. How?

“I was careful never to ask for details,” Meixiang said calmly. “It’s delicate. And terrifying. But it works.”

“So I see,” Shirong said, impressed. “So it really would have worked, if Mai hadn’t walked in on us. Oma and Shu, when Lee said things went wrong around him, he didn’t say the half of it. This is a mess. I’ve seen ambushed ambushes that weren’t so f-” He glanced at her, and swallowed whatever he’d been about to say. “…I mean, it’s a very bad situation.”

Suyin put together what he had said with some of the nastier words she’d heard from Min, and gave him her best version of Mom’s disapproving look.

Meixiang herself shrugged, as if the near profanity was no more important than a dropped scarf. “He was ordered by the Fire Lord to pit himself against the bridge between our world and the spirits. The bad luck must spread like ink in water.”

Shirong started. “You know?”

“We’ve known who they are for weeks,” Tingzhe stated. Glanced aside into memory, and smiled wryly. “They weren’t at all what I expected.”

“You know who Lee really is?” Jinhai looked up from the lemur tumbling through his blocks. “Who?”

Shirong winced. “That’s complicated to explain….”

The waterbender gasped, and Meixiang waved Shirong back into the shadows. “You might want to stay out of sight.” She put a hand on the groaning girl’s shoulder. “Katara? Are you all right?”

“Zuko!” Katara shot up, grabbing for her waterskin. Winced, touched her head; grimaced, and looked up again. “Madame Meixiang? Professor? We need to tell the Guard; we need to tell the Earth King! Zuko’s in Ba Sing Se! He hit me; he’s going to be after Aang, but Aang’s not here….” She looked around. “Why are we underground?”

“That would be because we are hiding, young lady,” Tingzhe said gravely.

“From Zuko?” Katara nodded seriously. “But he’s a fugitive. If we just tell somebody-”

“No wonder he knocked you out,” Shirong muttered.

“You’re Dai Li!” Katara flicked the top off her waterskin, liquid coursing down her hands with deadly intent.

“Wait!” Suyin burst out. “Please! Agent Shirong came to help us!”

“Surprising as that may seem, he did,” her father said firmly. “He’s just as much a fugitive as the rest of us.” Tingzhe sighed. “We knew we might have to go into hiding. We just never dreamed it would be so soon.”

“You’re fugitives?” Katara stood, puzzled, water easing back into her skin. Momo sailed back to her shoulder with a happy chirrup. “But the Dai Li are working for the Earth King now. Why are you still in trouble for trying to help Aang?”

Shirong smacked himself in the forehead. Jinhai huddled on himself. Suyin set her jaw, and stepped between her brother and the waterbender, even as Meixiang swooped in to pick Jinhai up and murmur soft reassurances.

“Believe it or not, young lady,” Tingzhe said levelly, “not everything in this world revolves around the Avatar.” He shook his head. “And the Dai Li are not loyal to the Earth King. Which is why Shirong is a fugitive.”

“You’re not making sense,” Katara objected. “We stopped Long Feng!”

“No, you convinced the Earth King to imprison him,” Shirong corrected her. “And I wish I knew how. He may be my king, but Kuei’s always been, well, flighty….” He shrugged. “At the moment, Long Feng seems to be working on a plan to persuade the Earth King that was a terrible mistake. An innocent mistake on your part, of course; but still a mistake.”

“He’s in jail,” Katara said impatiently. “Nobody can bend their way past steel bars.”

“As long as he can get messages out, he doesn’t have to,” Shirong said bleakly. “All he needs is a sufficiently suspicious person to set up to take the blame. And I’m afraid I, and someone else I know, just happen to fit those requirements.”

Katara studied him narrowly. “Okay. Say I believe you, even a little. Long Feng’s a horrible person; I could see him trying to come up with a plot even when he knows he’s finished. Why would he luck out and frame the one Dai Li who might be a good guy?”

“Because I made the mistake of believing we’re supposed to protect the city, not Long Feng,” Shirong answered. “I was lucky. A friend helped me escape from the palace. And if you’d made it back there, as I’m informed you intended, you would have walked right into a trap. So would you please put that down and listen?” He drew a deep breath, and winced, hand over his ribs. “I couldn’t threaten a drowned kitten-owlet right now. Much less the Avatar’s waterbending master.”

“You’re hurt.” Some of the suspicion eased out of Katara’s face. “Amaya said there was an evil spirit….”

“There was. Thank the spirits Lake Laogai is about as far from your house as you can get and still be in the city,” Shirong sighed, sitting down on another stone bench. “We kept round-the-clock watches on all of you, praying the haima-jiao couldn’t suck the Avatar in the way the Ocean Spirit did… you have no idea how relieved I was to see that bison fly away. I’d hoped you all went with it.”

“Suck him in?” Katara sputtered. “The spirits needed Aang’s help! He’s the Avatar; he’s supposed to-”

“He’s supposed to protect us from the spirits, not help them slaughter us!” Shirong erupted. “You’re Water Tribe. I can only imagine what you’ve suffered. But the Earth Kingdom has lost plenty of its own. I hate the Fire Nation. I’ve hated them for decades! But what happened to the Fire Navy-” He stopped, and grimaced. “I’ve seen spirits kill. It’s a horrible way to die. So I’m only going to ask you one thing. The Ocean Spirit killed your enemies. What would you have done if it decided that wasn't enough?

“You’re more hurt than I thought,” Katara muttered, moving in with hands gloved with water. “Professor? How long has he been delirious?”

Shirong snarled. “I’m not-”

“Easy, Agent,” Tingzhe said firmly. “I know this must have been preying on your mind for some time. But the haima-jiao is dead, and we have more pressing matters breathing down our necks.”

“No kidding,” Katara agreed, glowing water moving over Shirong’s side. “Huh… has Amaya been looking after you? This seems like it’s healing pretty well.” She frowned, and blew out a breath. “Did you see who got me away from Zuko? He’s going to be back. He never gives up, and he’s used me to get to Aang before….” She looked at the grownups, light fading from her water as she bent it back into her waterskin. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Suyin added her parents’ looks, and silence, and who she’d seen carry Katara in. And gulped. “Who’s Zuko?”

“You don’t know?” Katara said in disbelief.

“There is no war in Ba Sing Se.” Meixiang set Jinhai back down. “Those of us who know something about the current rulers of the Fire Nation are usually wiser than to say so in public.” She met Suyin’s gaze. “Prince Zuko, son of Ursa, and Fire Lord Ozai. Once heir to the Dragon Throne, before he was scarred and banished; a great name, and one… rumored… to take more after his uncle, General Iroh, than his father.”

A great name. Scarred and banished. Suyin paled. Lee?

Lee was a noble, sure. But a prince?

And Uncle Mushi is… oh, boy.

“I know it’s scary to think about,” Katara said kindly. “But he’s not as tough as he likes to think. I’ve taken him down before. This time, he just didn’t fight fair.” She smiled confidently, one fist at her hip. “So which way did he go?”

Suyin saw her parents glance at each other, and at Shirong, with the unhappy creases around their eyes that meant they’d decided to stay silent.

No one’s going to tell her she’s wrong.

And that was just wrong. Lee - Zuko didn’t deserve that. “He went to save my sister,” Suyin said angrily. “Jia’s out at class, she doesn’t know what Min did yet. Zuko brought you down here so you’d be safe, and then he went to get her! He could get hurt; he could get killed! But the Dai Li are looking for all of us, and Jia won’t trust just anybody, and he’s the only one who knows how to fight if they catch him….” She swiped at angry tears, and swallowed. “Why didn’t you teach me to fight, Dad? I want to be out there! I want to do something!”

“I’m sorry, Suyin,” her father said heavily. “We’ve had peace inside these walls so long… I hoped you’d never need to know.”

“That’s partly the anger talking, love,” Meixiang said plainly, gathering Suyin into a hug. “Try not to take it too much to heart.” She held her daughter close, a few breaths longer. “Waiting is always the hardest part of a fight.”

“And jumping into a fight with Zuko is a good way to get hurt,” Katara said fiercely. “He told you he was going to help your sister? And you believed him?”

That? That was just- oooh! “He said he would!” Suyin sputtered. “Zuko doesn’t lie!”

“He doesn’t lie? You didn’t even know his name.” Katara looked at her with pity. “He said he was going to capture the Avatar, too. You know, the last hope for the whole world? Zuko wants to capture him and bring him to the Fire Lord. The Fire Lord! The most horrible, evil person in the world! And you think someone like that is going to help your sister?”

The Fire Lord. Suyin felt ill. The Fire Lord is Lee’s… Zuko’s father. His father burned him and cast him out.

He made a promise. And Mom tried to help him not have to keep it. “Yes,” Suyin said, voice shaking. “Yes, he will.” Her fists clenched. “I just wish I was good enough to help him.”

“Could we go, Mom?” Jinhai tugged hopefully on Meixiang’s sleeve. “If he’s in trouble, shouldn’t we be in trouble too?”

“Er, well….”

Shirong snickered under his breath. “Spirits, you’ve raised a whole clan of them.”

“So it seems,” Tingzhe agreed, bemused. “Do you think they’ll execute me for treason, or sedition?”

“Neither, if Azula kills you first,” Shirong said wryly.

“Azula?” Katara’s hand went back to her waterskin. “Azula and Zuko? Where? We’ve got to warn people, this is bad-”

“The princess is in the palace,” Meixiang said bluntly. “And if the Dai Li haven’t taken her prisoner by now, it’s already too late. She is of the blood of Sozin, she is Fire… and if other Dai Li are as driven by their loyalty as you have been, Agent Shirong, they’ve walked straight into a steel-jawed dragon trap.”

Shirong tensed. “She may be of the royal family, but she’s only one bender.”

“I never thought I’d say this, but I have to agree with him,” Katara said firmly. “Even if she is in the palace, even if she’s got Mai and Ty Lee with her, they’re just three people. Sure, Toph got Appa past the Dai Li, but she’s Toph. Azula’s really scary, but if enough earthbenders box her in? They can take her.”

“No, they can’t,” Meixiang said quietly. “Shirong. You didn’t stay with the Dai Li. You went with Prince Zuko. And he wasn’t even trying.” She looked grim. “Princess Azula would have been taught to use her inner fire, especially on those whose loyalties are vulnerable. If they waver at all, if Long Feng isn’t strong enough… she’ll have them. All of them.”

Tingzhe closed his eyes, pained. “Even Min?”

“He’s been near the prince. He’s still young. I don’t know.” She bowed her head, and hugged Jinhai close. “I just don’t know.”


“…And so bright petals fall,” Jia concluded.

Madame Macmu-Ling frowned at her.

Jia counted syllables, and flushed, as other students tittered around her. Darn it, she knew better! She was just - distracted. And who wouldn’t be? Fire Nation strangers her parents seemed to like, the Avatar showing up on her doorstep, the Dai Li watching them….

And she’d left home this morning knowing her parents were packing essentials like her father’s notes, and tough clothing, and the hidden stash of coin they didn’t know she knew about. Things were going wrong. Who could concentrate on poetry?

You have to. You know that.

Her mother was a refugee, and her little brother was a firebender. If she didn’t look like a perfect professor’s daughter, people would look at the Wen family even harder than they were already. But if she had the right clothes, the right makeup, the right manners… then maybe, just maybe, people would think everything was all right.

Besides. She was good at looking perfect. Most of the time.

The giggles finally died down, into a murmur of interest. Jia dared to glance toward the door-

Oh no.

Lee. Dressed… well, reasonably decent. There were plenty of university students who looked scruffier. But they didn’t come near Madame Macmu-Ling’s classes. They didn’t dare. And that scar, and he couldn’t possibly know how to behave, coming as a refugee from the Lower Ring-

Lee bowed, properly, before crossing the threshold. Walked precisely along the edge of the classroom, stopped a few feet away from the stage, and bowed directly to Madame Macmu-Ling. And knelt there.

Respect to the place of learning, respect to the instructor… how did he…?

“My apologies,” Lee stated deliberately. “Jia must come with me now. Tingzhe bids her home.”

Jia tried not to drop her jaw.

“Five, seven, then five, syllables make a haiku,” Madame Macmu-Ling said coolly. “Unkempt intruder.”

Lee inclined his head again. “Are dandelions, unkempt in zephyr’s laughter? So I, too, will fly.”

Jia stared. The first haiku he could have figured out on the way here, sure. But the second? Referring to himself as a common flower, and Madame Macmu-Ling as the wind, a known symbol of superior nobles? And further stating he depended only on her grace to be here?

She hadn’t heard anybody flatter her instructor so gracefully in weeks.

Madame Macmu-Ling smiled. “Jia lacks focus.” She looked at Jia. “Perhaps her father’s learning, could aid her better.”

Jia forced a smile, and bowed her head. Slid a subtle glance Lee’s way-

And if that wasn’t the subtle gesture her mother had taught her meant, get over here so I can rescue you, she’d eat her headdress.

She rose as Lee did, and stepped gracefully over to him so they could bow together.

“Madame Macmu-Ling,” Lee said formally, “We, with your understanding, will surely depart.”

Another bow, and they made their escape.

“You never said you knew poetry!” Jia accused him as they made their way through darkening streets. Scarred, scruffy, a refugee - and he’d spent all this time with Suyin and Jinhai and never said he could help with haiku?

“You never asked,” Lee said wryly. Shrugged, sheepish. “Uncle insisted. He said one of the best ways to defeat your opponent was to make sure they never got to the battlefield in the first place.” He waved a hand at her carefully-chosen presentation of self; makeup, clothing, ornaments. “Like you. The best camouflage is when nobody even realizes there’s anything to hide.”

Jia swallowed. “I - I thought you didn’t like me….”

“Because of what you said?” Lee snorted, eyes dark. “Everybody looks at the scar first. That’s why he did it.” Another shrug, only slightly bitter. “You were being an upper-class daughter. Being friendly with a Lower Ring healer’s refugee apprentice would have hurt your family’s standing. And that’s important. That’s how you were protecting them.” He smiled at her; faint and wry, but there. “There are all kinds of ways to fight.”

She’d never thought of it that way. At least her makeup blunted her blush. “This isn’t the way back....”

“It’s the way to where your family is,” Lee said quietly. “Do you trust me?”

She nodded, and offered her arm.

Aw. He blushes!

He was also watching. Everywhere. Which meant- She blanched, and tried not to look up.

“It’s okay.” Lee’s voice was low, but sure. “I don’t think they'll be looking for us. Yet. Someone else is looking for me, but Ba Sing Se’s a big place.... Smile. Like everything’s normal. I know you can do this.”

Damn right I can. Jia held her head high, despite her fear, and stepped with a lady’s grace.

They wove through crowds and out of sight, slipping into a brush-maker’s shop Jia had visited a few times for fine calligraphy supplies. Not often, nothing here was less than expensive - but she didn’t stint on her classwork. Not when it was important.

“Ah, Healer Lee!” Brush-maker Tu traded bows with them both, before ushering them into the back. “Your uncle sent word you’d be by. Come, come....”

“I don’t think we were watched coming in,” Lee started.

“Then I’m sure you were not. You are Mushi’s nephew, after all.” The elderly brush-maker smiled briefly. “Don’t worry. Your uncle’s friends can handle a little danger.”

“If it were just a little, I wouldn’t be worried....”

One concealed door and a goodbye later, Lee was leading the pair of them through a labyrinth lit with green crystals. “You’ve been down here before?” Jia asked, curious.

“No. Someone just gave me directions.”  

“Directions?” Jia eyed him, suddenly uneasy. “You don’t even have a map?”

“A tunnel map? With earthbenders around?” Lee said dryly. “You might as well ask the badger-moles.” He shrugged. “If we get lost, I know which way’s up, and you can get us out. We’ll be okay.”

Apparently so; after some time, and a few warnings about the odd people she was going to meet, she heard a murmur of familiar voices. Swallowing, she all but flung herself around the next corner. “Mom! Dad!”

...Okay, not genteel, but it wasn’t like there was anybody she had to impress. Not this time.

“You’re Jia?” A Water Tribe-accented voice; Jia could still hear the surprise in it, as Mom hugged her. A girl, dark as Sokka, features definitely close enough to be his sister; though it was hard to tell her clothes were really blue, given the crystals’ glow.

And now surprise was fading into anger, as the young waterbender rested a hand near her waterskin. “Well. Look who slunk in.”

Lee looked at Katara askance, and sighed. “Let me guess. I’m not going to get a thank you.”

Thank you? You hit me, you-”

“Probably not,” Agent Shirong said wryly, sitting on a stone bench as if he’d rather not move again today, thanks. “She doesn’t really believe your sister’s in the palace-”

“How could Azula get into Ba Sing Se?” Katara burst out. “She couldn’t beat the Kyoshi Warriors.” She jabbed a finger toward Lee. “You couldn't beat them!”

“I never tried,” Lee snarled back. “They were an obstacle. When they weren’t anymore, I didn’t have any reason to fight them!”

...I’m getting over here, Jia thought, easing out from between angry firebender and angrier waterbender. She could see Suyin keeping Jinhai out of the line of fire behind their parents, her little brother petting a lemur so its fur went sideways. But no sign of Min. Oh, no.

“Go ahead, tell yourself that,” Katara said sarcastically. “It doesn’t change what happened. You failed. And you’re always going to fail when you go after Aang. You know why? Because we’re going to stop you!”

Lee gave her a hard, flat look, deliberately ignoring how close her hand was to her waterskin. “Are you even listening? Azula. Is in. The palace.”

“Quan could have come to his senses and ordered her captured,” Shirong offered.

“I doubt it,” Lee said dryly. “We haven’t heard any explosions.”

“Explosions?” Tingzhe asked, startled.

“The royal line of Sozin,” Meixiang said quietly. “They often have a gift for lightning-bending.”

“Lightning?” Shirong swallowed dryly. “I know - someone said that, but....”

“She doesn’t use lightning,” Katara said dismissively. “She bends this crazy blue fire-”

“She’s never used lightning on you,” Lee said flatly. “Believe me, she can do it.”

“You attacked me in broad daylight, and you expect me to believe you?” Contempt twisted Katara’s face as she jabbed a finger toward Suyin. “I’m not like your little fan over there. I know what you are!”

“I didn’t have time to explain! I had to keep you from running into a trap-”

“Oh, of course it’s a trap!” Katara shot back. “So when Aang shows up to rescue me, you can finally have him in your little Fire Nation clutches!” She clawed her hands, eyes narrowed and furious.

Definitely staying over here, Jia thought, seeing the careful coldness of Lee’s face. And she’d guess that was probably all Katara saw. But she’d practiced reading hints of emotion under the careful society facades, and under the surface....

Hurt. Exhaustion. Resignation.

She’s not going to listen, Jia realized. And he knows she’s not.

Spirits, it was like watching a carriage wreck. She just couldn’t look away.

“You’re a terrible person, you know that?” Katara steamed on. “Always following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to capture the world’s last hope for peace! But what do you care? You’re the Fire Lord’s son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood!”

Jia’s jaw dropped as Lee’s fists clenched. The Fire Lord’s-?

Amaya’s scruffy little scarred apprentice, who knew poetry and manners and could barely hold a dinner conversation even if his life depended on it... was a prince?

The girls in class would never believe this.

Chapter Text

They know. They all know, now. Grimly, Zuko looked up, braced for the hatred Jinhai's parents would rightly feel-

Except... he didn't see it. Just concern, and a bit of motherly worry on Meixiang's face.

"Katara blew your cover when she woke up," Shirong shrugged, carefully casual. "I think we're mostly over the shock."

Over it? Zuko thought in disbelief. You know who I am, and you still-

"How can you say that?" Katara blazed. "Don't you know what the Fire Nation has done to the Earth Kingdom? To the whole world?"

"Would you stop worrying about the world for a minute?" Zuko said, exasperated. "We need to concentrate on right here, right now!"

"Is that how you live with yourself? How you live with lying to these people?" Katara waved an angry hand at the Wens. "Just tell yourself the past doesn't matter, I'll just be someone else for a while? Well, you're not! You're a monster! And nothing you do will ever change that!"

"Says the thief!" Zuko snarled back. "Says the ignorant peasant girl who would have left me to die in a North Pole blizzard!"

"After you kidnapped Aang-"

"I had my orders!" Zuko made himself breathe. Made himself not close his fists; the fire was crackling inside him, begging to be set free... and he couldn't. He couldn't. "I've never tried to kill you!" Breathe. Breathe, damn it! "Just - stop. Stop. Give me a minute, and listen. You're angry at me because I want to capture Aang? Fine. Azula wants to kill him. Would you consider that maybe, just maybe, neither of us wants that to happen?"

"It's not going to happen," Katara said levelly. "I'm going to stop you."

It didn't make sense. He knew what he'd said. What was she hearing?

Shirong cleared his throat. "What I think the prince is trying to say," the agent said blandly, regarding the waterbender with narrowed green eyes, "is that we're all trying not to get killed by Azula, and it might be easier if we all tried that together."

"He told you Azula's trying to kill him?" Katara said in disbelief. "Low, Zuko. That's low. Even for you. How could you say that about your sister?"

She might have said more. Zuko couldn't hear it. She doesn't believe me. No one believes me.

Why won't anyone believe me?

Fist clenched, he drove the fire and fury into stone.



"Oh dear," Iroh murmured, rounding the corner onto crackling flame and shattering crystals. Harsher words sprang to mind; he kept them off his lips with a determined effort. Unleashing some of Jeong Jeong's favorite Army curses wouldn't solve anything.

But it would make me feel better, Iroh admitted to himself, watching Zuko drive one more fiery punch into the cavern wall before the young man stopped, shaking. The Wens and Shirong were between the children and any flying fragments, Katara had water wrapped around her hands and an angry look on her face...

And his nephew was not looking at the Water Tribe girl. Deliberately.

Regarding Katara with a wary eye, Iroh moved into Zuko's field of vision, and wrapped his nephew in a hug.

"'M sorry." A bare whisper in his ear, almost a hiccup of pain. "She won't listen."

Katara had done far more than that, somehow. I should not have stayed so long at the teashop, Iroh thought unhappily. He'd thought it worth the risk, to try to send warnings to the generals of the Council of Five, and listen for word on what Azula might have set in motion. And more than worth it, for what he had learned from the White Lotus of the spirit-snare his nephew was in. But nothing was worth this. "Diplomacy is not one of your better skills," Iroh said clearly. "I will explain matters." He let go, and swung the pack he'd carried off his shoulder. "It is late, and we are all tired. Perhaps some dinner, and rest, would do us good."

"...Not hungry."

That, I doubt, Iroh thought dryly. "Then you will not mind helping the children with theirs, yes? Come; let us separate the dishes." He bent to help his nephew, but kept a steely gaze on Katara.

Not one word, little waterbender. Not one. Or I will deal with you.

Whatever she saw in his face made her blanch, and step back.

Good.

Suyin took a gulp of breath, and stepped forward to lend a hand. "So... do we have rice, or noodles?"

"Noodles," Zuko muttered, shoulders slumped.

"Well come on, Jinhai hates it when noodles get cold..."

Meixiang nodded encouragement, and smiled at her youngest son before gently shoving him off Jia's way. Squeezed her husband's hand as the children took their share of dinner into the next chamber; a subtle gesture Iroh recognized from his own marriage. It'll be all right, love. Trust me.

"Zuko," Tingzhe said levelly, before the young man could follow. "Remember, I heard you out before I made my decision. I had to hear her out as well." He gave Katara a measured look. "I think your uncle and I will have quite a bit to say to the young lady."

Iroh hid a smile. Perhaps the situation is not as grave as I feared.

Though grave enough, from the way Tingzhe carefully raised stone to block the tunnel after them, thick enough that the adults would be able to speak in private, even if Zuko cupped an ear to the wall.

"You're letting your kids go off with him?" Katara said in disbelief. "You saw what he just did!"

"Young lady," Tingzhe said dryly, "I've seen a great many teenage benders lose their temper. I trust him far more than I trust you."

There was a subtle twist of venom under the cool tone that made Iroh raise a startled brow, and eye the waterbender even more warily. "Precisely what did you say to my nephew, Miss Katara?"

"Before or after she called him a monster?" Shirong was watching Katara like a hawk-eagle. "Did you leave him to die at the North Pole?"

"Aang would never let that happen!" Katara glared at the Dai Li agent, obviously tempted to slap him with a water whip.

"So you would have." Shirong shook his head, grim. "And you're the one teaching the Avatar waterbending? We're doomed."

"A monster," Iroh said, very quietly. Conscious of a growing rage he had not felt in... a very long time.

One of my men was ambushed, where he expected no enemy... calm. Stay calm.

"Well, first she accused him of lying about Azula being in the palace," Shirong said, matter of fact. "Then she called him a failure who couldn't even beat Kyoshi Warriors, then lying again about Azula lightning-bending, then accused him of using her to set a trap for Aang, then... well, I'd rather not go into what she said about your brother, General, and Zuko being his father's son... have I missed anything, Madam Wen?"

"Not yet," Meixiang said, coolly furious.

"I see," Iroh said, still quiet. She is Water Tribe. But I had thought the Avatar would have... stay calm.

"But he didn't crack until she called him a liar for saying Azula wanted to kill him," Shirong finished. "Does Fire Lord Ozai know Princess Azula's tried to kill the crown prince?"

"Insofar as I can determine, my brother has encouraged it," Iroh stated, never taking his gaze off the waterbender. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Meixiang raise a hand to cover her horror and rage, and Tingzhe draw her close for comfort. But Katara...

Katara stared back at him, unrepentant. Defiant, as if she were facing a true enemy. "Oh, come on! Even if she weren't his sister - and she is! - that doesn't make sense. Why would the Fire Lord let anyone kill his precious son?"

"Because if Azula does so, she will have proven she is precisely the heir Fire Lord Ozai wishes," Iroh said in a voice like iron. "Cunning, strong, and ruthless. And loyal only to him. My brother despises Zuko for his kindness, his wish to see the Fire Nation whole and at peace, instead of eternally at war. But his rule of our people is not absolute, no matter what he wishes the rest of the world to believe. If he were seen to raise his hand directly against Zuko, after failing to slay him in combat, all the great names would fear for their own heirs, and Ozai's power would be damaged. Yet if he allows Zuko to live... The Fire Sages are not fools. They would not choose Azula as the next Fire Lord, no matter what Ozai's will might state. Not if they had another choice. But if Zuko should die facing the Avatar, as so many of the Fire Nation have died..." He shook his head. "Who would question who truly dealt the blow? The Avatar, after all, is also a firebender."

"He'd do that to Aang?" Wide-eyed, Katara swallowed. "I don't care what Toph says. You're all monsters!"

Tingzhe tensed. "Now, see here, young lady-!"

Iroh held up a warning hand. "Professor. What we have here is a failure to understand one another's cultures."

"A failure?" Tingzhe said, incredulous. "She just called your entire nation monstrous! And while I might say that about some of your army..."

"By the standards of the Water Tribes," Iroh stated, "we are."

Tingzhe eyed him, considering that. Shirong blinked, surprised, and settled back onto his bench to listen. Meixiang paled. "Amaya never said..."

"Amaya's got something wrong with her," Katara snapped. "Training a Fire Nation apprentice? What is she thinking? Who knows why he really helped Toph, it sure wasn't for Aang-"

"Be. Quiet." Just a touch of fire's rage. The merest hint of smoke. Any more, and... well, Iroh was certain he would regret it. Later. "Amaya has learned something every Avatar was meant to learn. Something it seems Aang has not learned. Nor have you. The four nations are different. Not only in their bending, but in their culture. And most important of all, in how they define right, wrong, and responsibility."

"Right and wrong don't change!" Katara flung at him. "It doesn't matter who you are!"

"Ah. But who is assigned the blame for a wrong, does change," Iroh said plainly. "And that is why you call us all monsters."

"Because you are!"

"No," Iroh said firmly. "Very few of us are. Zhao, yes; my brother... Azula. But Zuko? No. My nephew is not, and has never been, a monster. Yet to you who are Water Tribe, that does not matter. In the tribe, it is the community which bears the guilt or credit for an individual's actions. When Chief Hakoda sinks a Fire Nation ship, you all have won a victory; when one of your warriors falls to a firebending soldier, you all feel shamed. And the tribe is your source of right and wrong; right is what benefits the tribe, and wrong is what harms it. So harm done to others, who stand outside the tribe, does not truly matter. Which is why the Northern Tribe saw the Ocean strike, and cheered a great victory... and never, ever, felt compassion for those struck down."

"Oh," Shirong said softly. "Spirits, no wonder he was worried it could happen again. If the haima-jiao had... oh, damn." He eyed Katara with a look of wary dread, as if calculating exactly how far he could get from her before he'd have to start tunneling through walls.

"How can you say that?" Katara gasped. "I'm not evil! Not like the Fire Nation."

"Says the young lady we have followed across the world as she lied, cheated, and stole from those she passed," Iroh said dryly.

"The pirates stole that waterbending scroll, and you know it!" Katara planted fists on her hips. "Aang needed it."

"My nephew needs his honor," Iroh observed, looking at her askance. "Yet you do not seem to consider that reason enough for him." He sighed. "But then, you would not. You consider Aang one of your tribe, even if he is an airbender... and my nephew is not of your tribe, and so an enemy."

"You say that like you don't think he's done anything wrong," Katara fumed.

"No!" Iroh slashed a hand across, trailing only a hint of heat-shimmer in its wake. "Never have I said that! But you would hold my nephew guilty of Ozai's crimes! And Azulon's! And Sozin's! You would hold him guilty of the decimation of your people, and the extinction of the Air Nomads! And that, he did not do!"

Katara stared at him, still angry... but also confused, if wide blue eyes spoke truly. "But he's the Fire Lord's son."

"And I am the Fire Lord's brother," Iroh said levelly. "And in the Fire Nation - and yes, the Earth Kingdom as well - no young man is held guilty of what his father has done." He spread empty hands. "I know it is foreign to you. But grant us this grace, for Zuko truly did mean you well, no matter how little he explained. Grant us the honor of trying to understand."

"You think I don't understand?" Angry tears filled her eyes. "Do you know what this war has put me through? Me, personally? The Fire Nation took my mother from me!"

A harsh loss for any child, Iroh knew. But she was the Avatar's teacher. She had to be able to look beyond her own needs, or the world was doomed. "And so has my nephew lost his mother, to Ozai's schemes," Iroh replied. "So did I lose my son, in the siege of Ba Sing Se. You are not alone in your grief. A century of war has harmed us all."

"And you think the only one who's guilty is the Fire Lord?" Katara shook her head, tears still streaming. "How can you live like that? How does anybody stop a murderer, if he knows his family's not going to pay for it?" She gave him a venomous look. "Oh, that's right. You haven't!"

"No, I have not," Iroh acknowledged. "I do not believe I could defeat Ozai. Not alone. And if I did, our people would only see a brother slaying a brother for power. And the war would go on. For true justice to be done, the Fire Lord must be defeated by someone else."

"Justice?" Katara swiped at her tears, and straightened, looking at him. "How can you talk about justice when the war needs to stop?"

So. Mention defeating the Fire Lord, and she listens, Iroh thought wryly. "Because without justice, the war will not stop. Even if the Fire Lord is dead."

Katara drew in a breath, scowling-

"He's right, you know," Tingzhe said plainly. "That's what history tells us happened, when Avatar Kyoshi faced Chin the Conqueror."

"Really?" Shirong put in. Sounding only normally interested, if you didn't catch the sharpness in green eyes. "I've never known as much about that part of history as I'd like to have."

"No, I'd imagine that wasn't a time Long Feng encouraged his men to learn about. Not since he took power." Tingzhe clasped his hands behind him, a professor calculating how best to fit what he knew to his audience. "Avatar Aang implied that you know of Chin the Conqueror?"

"Aang got put on trial for Chin's murder," Katara said heatedly. "Avatar Kyoshi... appeared... and told us about it. But it was self-defense!"

"Hmm." Tingzhe nodded. "But did she tell you that severing Kyoshi Island from the mainland, and Chin's death, were not enough to stop the war?"

Katara looked aside. "She... didn't have much time."

"Then I'll try to be brief, as well."

Meixiang smothered a laugh.

"Yes, I can be brief, from time to time," the professor said dryly, giving his wife a sidelong look. "It's not as though she's paying for the lecture... where was I?"

"Justice," Iroh stated, hiding his own chuckle. How many generations of students had Tingzhe fooled with that absent air? "And Chin the Conqueror."

"Ah, yes. Justice." Tingzhe nodded once. "In the Earth Kingdom, and from what I know the Fire Nation as well, justice is done not by the decisions of the tribe, but by having a system of laws, and Guards to enforce those laws. Now, the laws themselves are not always fair, given they are made by rulers like the Earth King, or the Fire Lord..."

Iroh inclined his head, admitting the point.

"But in some respects they are more fair, for they are not decided by the chieftain of the tribe and his most powerful followers gathering to state what they will do this time. They are the laws, and everyone knows them, and the consequences of breaking them." Tingzhe raised a finger, stabbing air. "As Chin's soldiers broke laws, to follow him. Yet they could, and did, argue that the laws they broke were unfair. That events, and striving to give their families a better life, had left them no choice."

"So... what did Kyoshi do?" Katara asked warily. "If the laws are supposed to be the same for everyone - they had to be punished."

"From what I've studied, that is one of the reasons we have an Avatar," Tingzhe said plainly. "As they do not truly belong to any one nation, so they are not bound by its laws. And it's a very unwise sovereign who crosses them without good cause."

"Unfortunately, Sozin thought he had one," Iroh sighed. "I am curious as well. What did she do?"