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Another Brother

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"You’re going through a metamorphosis, my nephew. It will not be a pleasant experience, but when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful Prince you were always meant to be."

~ Iroh, The Earth King



OoOoOoOoO


 

Chief Hakoda hated the cleanup after any battle, even if it was one that ended in victory.

He stood on the high prow of the newly captured Fire Nation ship, silent and watching his men work in twos and threes; stripping the ship for much needed supplies and throwing the bodies of their enemy overboard. Dark red pools of blood splattered the deck and drained under the metal rivets. Most of it, Hakoda noted with a grim satisfaction, the enemy's.

It hadn't been luck that had resulted in not a single mortality for his tribe, but careful strategy. The Fire Nation ship had been sighted mid-morning and they had stalked it silently. They struck at night, with the moon high in the sky blinking her baleful light on the fighting — the screaming.

The enemy ship had only three benders among her ranks, and without the energy of their elemental Sun Spirit they had been at a near disadvantage.

And now they were dead, and Chief Hakoda had a Fire Nation ship at his command.

A stiff breeze whipped his brown hair, and the newly rising sun cast long shadows across his face making the normal handsome man look haggard; old before his time.

As soon as his men were done scavenging, they would blast a hole in the bottom of this unnatural abomination. Hakoda trusted his own ships which were secured with natural wood, resin, and tar. This metal blasphemy deserved to be at the bottom of the ocean.

In water this deep, the Fire Nation would never be able to salvage it. It wouldn't be a great loss, but it would be a loss, and any wound to those evil murdering savages was a boon to him and his men's hearts.

This mission was one of revenge.

It had been three months since the surprise attack on the Southern Water Tribe. It had happened while most of the men were out on their annual seal-hunt. The losses… were staggering. Many had lost their entire families. While his own two young children were safe, Hakoda had lost his wife, Kya… and a part of his heart had died along with her.

"Hakoda!"

Hearing his name, the young Chief turned and saw Yuruck waving at him from portside. "There's something here you need to see!"

Raising his hand to signal that he had heard, Hakoda took the stairs to the lower deck two at a time. A group of men were gathered around what almost looked like an emergency metal raft. It had been strapped to the side of the ship, and its dust coverlet had been tugged half off by the search party. Whatever drew his warriors interest had been underneath.

Hakoda's second in command, Bato, turned at his arrival. "Tatum found him while searching out for supplies." Then he moved aside, and quite suddenly Hakoda found himself looking at a boy.

There was no doubt that the child was Fire Nation, what with his raven black hair and pale skin. He lay curled up, asleep with his knees tucked to his chest, completely unaware of the group gathered around him — and the reason for that was quite clear. Dark stains of blood, black with age spilled down the front of his robe like a young child who had tipped water on himself. It looked like someone had slashed his neck, from ear to collar. There was more. The visible upper left corner of his face surrounding the eye and left corner of his face was black, blistered and burned. Both wounds seemed infected, and Hakoda could smell the stink of rot from several feet away.

"What kind of monsters…" Yuruck whispered, but couldn't finish.

Bato touched Hakoda's shoulder. "I know you said that there were to be no survivors." It was a simple statement, and for a moment Hakoda didn't know what his first mate was alluding to until he noticed that the boy's chest was rising and falling in small, shallow movements. Despite the grievous wounds, he was alive.

All the men were looking to him now, and Hakoda felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Bato was right. There were to be no Fire Nation survivors. The invading Fire soldiers had specifically targeted children on their last raid. Bato's two daughters were part of the casualties — murdered as they slept in their beds.

This was war.

Hakoda knew could not ask any of his men to do this. This would be his burden and his alone. With a nod, he reached to his long knife on his hip, unsheathing it. "Go," he said, simply.

The warriors didn't argue. None wanted to witness this. Hakoda shut his eyes, and waited until their footsteps faded away. Then, gripping his knife in a sweaty hand, he brought it to bear. The boy was clearly fevered with his wounds — this would probably be an act of mercy. The kindest thing would to make it quick as possible so that he never woke up.

But as he turned the child over to get a clear, precise target at the neck, he caught a glimpse of the other side of his face; whole, unblemished, and young… younger than he thought. Why, the child had to be about the same age as his own Sokka…

He hesitated.

An image of his firstborn flashed in his mind. Sokka's laughing face, his sly intelligence, so sharp for a nine-year-old. He was a brave boy. He had begged to go along with them, to help take revenge for his mother's death. Both Sokka and his younger sister, Katara, expected Hakoda and his men to fight for their mother and the others…. How could he go back to them, and look them in the eyes, and tell them that the face of one of the enemy had been a child?

Hakoda's hand dropped. He had lost his nerve.

His men wouldn't like this, but he was the Chief, and besides… it was a great possibility the child would be dead before morning.

Carefully, wrapping the boy in the raft coverlet, he hefted him in his arms. The smell from the rotten wounds was nauseating.

The Fire Nation boy slept on, oblivious.

 


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Later that evening, Hakoda chose to take dinner alone in his private cabin rather than fest victory with his men. He wanted to be with his own thoughts and plan what to do next.

Counting this last victory, he and his men had taken out four Fire Nation battleships. There were dozens more out there, sailing what should have been Southern Water Tribe waters. His warriors were willing to challenge them all, but reports from below deck had their supplies running low. Even with salvaging there were things that just couldn't be replaced. His men were getting fatigued, and soon it would be time to return home.

Hakoda's wishes for privacy were, of course, ignored by his second in command. Bato burst in the cabin without preamble, stinking of bad Fire Nation wine. Hakoda glanced up from his navigation maps and gestured for him to shut the door. Bato was the only one who could get away with interrupting him like this, but he didn't want the other men to see it.

"Healer Kuthruk's finally finished on the boy," said Bato in his normally direct way, as he came around to the other side of the desk. "He'll have to use most of our bandaging and probably all of our rosethorn packing to stay the infection. He says, though, that he might survive, but he'll probably lose that eye."

Hakoda grunted acknowledgement and went back to his maps. He knew Bato almost better than he knew himself. The man had another point to make, and Hakoda would be quiet and let him make it. He wasn't in the mood for games.

Sure enough, after a brief pause, Bato spoke again. "The men are relived we don't have a child's blood on our hands, but what if he survives, Hakoda? You know what he will become. No one will tolerate a Fire Nation man—"

Hakoda cut him off with a wave of his hand. "I doubt that boy is even eleven years old. He's hardly a man."

"He will be, someday. What do you plan to do? Take him ice-dodging when he's older?"

The chief looked up and saw the steel passion in his friend's blue eyes. "If he survives," he replied. "The boy will be taken on our next voyage and dropped off at the nearest Earth Kingdom port. Some of the Southern Islands are still neutral in the war." He had no intention of letting the seed of an enemy take root in his tribe.

Bato nodded, satisfied, and finally bent his attention on the navigational map. "Back home, then?"

Hakoda marked his stylis against the paper, drawing out their route. "Not right away. I want to patrol the local area for at least a week before we pull into port. No use going back only to be attacked again… I want our waters clear. If all goes well," he made another small notation and then leaned back, overlooking his work with satisfaction, "we should be seeing our shores within the month."

"I'll pass the word along?"

It was more a question than anything else and Hakoda nodded, rolling up the map and passing it along to his first mate. "If you please, and tell me about any changes with the boy."

 


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Zuko awoke to a world of pain. The left side of his face seared in agony, much worse than the needlesharp pain in his neck and on his chest. He tried to groan, feeling the world tilt and spin around him. He reached up automatically to his face only to have his fingers snatched in a much stronger hand. "No," said a voice. "Don't touch. Drink this, boy. It'll rehydrate you."

Something warm was pressed against his lips; the lip of a bowl. Salty broth splashed in his mouth, and he sipped eagerly for his hunger and thirst was almost worse than the pain. Later on, he would realize that the broth had some kind of medicine in it. The pain receded, and within a few moments he was asleep again.

Thus passed his first few days onboard the Water Tribe ship. He would wake up — sometimes by the executing pain of a bandage being changed on his face, sometimes by simple hunger. He would be told not to touch anything, and either broth or soothing tea would be forced on him.

On the forth day, Zuko opened his unbandaged eye, and got a fuzzy impression of wooden walls, a thick animal fur and a tanned, deeply lined face above him.

Then there was nothing.

On the sixth day his fever broke and Zuko awoke for the first time from what was more or less a natural sleep. For once there was no firm voice directing him to drink, and his hand went up to his face to encounter a soft bandage, like a patch, over the left side of his face.

What happened? Where was he?

The room he was in was small and dark except for a single oil lamp lit in the corner. His bed was nothing more than a simple pallet lined with what had to be some kind of animal fur. Zuko stared dumbly at it, tracing his fingers along the soft edge of the blanket. It felt foreign to him.

The door opened, and he startled, pulling himself up to his elbows. If he was surprised, the figure in the doorway was as well. The man paused for a long, long moment before walking in, tray in hand. "Well, I see that you're up… good. That's a good sign," he said, his voice carefully measured.

The man set the tray by his bed, and his face fell into the light. Despite himself, Zuko took in a quick breath of surprise. He was unlike any man he'd seen before; darker with a rounded, flat nose and brown hair and… very, very cold blue eyes.

"How are you feeling?" the man asked.

Zuko opened his mouth to reply, but a sharp pain in his throat ended his word before it even began. He couldn't even hiss an answer. Instinctively, he reached up to grip at the sudden source of pain, but his hand was slapped away.

"No, don't touch!" Reaching over, the man brought the oil lamp closer and peered at Zuko's neck, grunting with what he saw. "Must have cut the vocal cords. Not that I'm surprised. You're a very lucky little boy. Whoever did that did that to you missed the big vein there by a hair."

Zuko didn't answer. He couldn't.

The man continued as if he had, "But I don't suppose you're feeling very lucky. I dare say that you won't lose the eye after all, but there will be a scar." He paused, snorting, "Oh yes, there will be a scar. The neck may heal, with time. Until then, you will use this." He reached under Zuko's pallet and came back up with a piece of parchment and some soft coal-chalk. "Write your name. Now that I'm fairly sure you'll live, I don't want to be calling you 'boy' anymore."

Swallowing painfully, Zuko did what he was told. He wanted to ask so much: Where was he? How did he get here? Did someone attack him? But his fingers trembled with the small effort of writing his own characters. When he pushed the parchment back the healer didn't look pleased.

"Zuko. Great Spirits." The healer rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. "Now that's a Fire Nation name if I ever heard one. Let's hope that the Chief graces you with a new name; a proper Water Tribe name. Now," and he pushed the tablet back, "tell me what you were doing on that ship. Were you a stowaway?"

Zuko stared at him for a moment, and then at the tablet. What was this man talking about? And what had happened? He couldn't remember… he had been…there had been fire… and pain… he was screaming something… and there was nothing.

Looking back on his own memories felt like a raw-burned wound. He didn't want to remember. It hurt too much.

Shaking his head, he shoved the tablet back.

For a moment he thought that the healer was going to demand he write again, but with a shrug he simply packed the tablet under the bed and brought the tray forward instead. "Well, I'm sure you'll tell your story when it's time. For now, let's see if you can keep down solids. You do remember how to eat?" His voice was kinder than it had been, and when he lifted the top off the tray a rush of delicious scents made Zuko instantly forget how upset he was. He nodded enthusiastically.

 


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The next morning, he awoke to a soft shaking on his shoulders. Kuthruk, the healer from yesterday stood above him. "Wake up. The Chief wants to see you. Sit, and don't touch your eyepatch."

Blinking, feeling muzzy from a combination of painkillers and fever weakness, Zuko did what he was told. Trying to move about was difficult with his neck and face all tied in white. Kuthruk had to help him change into a simple blue tunic and pants. The clothes were obviously made for a man, and he had to cinch up a leather belt nearly twice around his torso to keep everything together.

Then, with a steady hand on Zuko's shoulder, Kuthruk guided him up to the main cabin. They had to pass for a few moments between two doorways on the outside, and Zuko caught a rush of salt-scented air and endless blue ocean before he was ushered in again.

The Chief's cabin was many times larger than his own, and it wasn't only the Chief, but a whole group of tanned, brown haired men there to greet him. Their conversation stopped the moment the door opened, and immediately, Zuko felt himself the center of attention from at least ten pairs of eyes.

Most boys would shrink back, and indeed years down the road Zuko would examine this memory and wonder at the fact that he didn't, and what it meant for him. But as it was, he was used to attention, and found it almost ordinary to be stared at.

The Chief himself sat in the middle. He was younger than most of the tribesmen, but he had an immediate way about him that commanded respect. Like the rest of the men, his eyes were blue. Like looking into a deep volcanic lake where the waters extended down, down, down…

Kuthruk pushed him forward, and Zuko knew what to do without being told. He got down on his knees, hands and forehead touching the floor in the way any Fire Nation child would greet a high leader.

A buzz of murmurings broke out among the group, and a couple laughed out loud. For his part, the Chief merely cleared his throat into a fist and touched Zuko's shoulder, bringing him back up into kneeling position.

"We'll have none of that here. You're on a Water Tribe ship." The Chief said, in a way that would probably make a lot of sense to an adult, but made none to Zuko. He looked back over his shoulder in confusion, seeking Kuthruk's guidance, but the healer's face was a blank mask. He was no help.

The Chief spoke again, drawing back Zuko's attention. His voice was neither kind or unkind, but direct and to the point. "Healer Kuthruk tells me that you can't speak, so I would like you to nod and shake your head when I ask you a question. Can you do that?"

Zuko nodded his head. He did this carefully, to avoid pulling the stitches across his neck.

"Good. As I said before, you are on a Water Tribe ship, my ship. While you are aboard it, you are under my command. Do you understand?"

Zuko nodded.

Chief Hakoda seemed to hesitate as if weighing his next words. "Right now there are no other children here, so you will be treated like a man. You will be given chores, like the other men, although I'll make sure that these don't interfere with your recovery." He gave a nod of respect towards Kuthruk. "You will be expected to do these without complaint."

Although Hakoda hadn't asked him a question, Zuko felt he should nod again. It seemed to be the right thing to do. For the first time, the Chief graced him with a small smile. "I have a son around your age. You may meet him. How old are you?"

Zuko started to raise his hands, and then hesitated, confused. For a long moment he stared at his fingers, his uncovered golden eye darting back and forth. He knew how to count. He was sure of it, yet… he didn't know his own age. He couldn't recall having a birthday, although he knew what one was. Finally, he looked up at the Chief and shook his head.

"No?" Hakoda repeated. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You don't want to tell me, or are you not sure? No, you can't answer that. Well, then." One hand came up, tapping thoughtfully at his chin. "Do you know if your father was on a Fire Nation ship?"

Zuko shook his head. He didn't know.

"He could be a bastard," muttered one man, from the back. "Doesn't know who his father is."

"That's enough from you, Tatum," snapped another man, to Chief Hakoda's right.

Hakoda ignored the sniping and gestured towards one of his men. Immediately, a map was rolled out in front of Zuko. "Do you know what this is?"

Zuko looked and recognized the Fire Nation archipelago. It was more or less a detailed map of all the major islands. He glanced up to the Chief with a vaguely amused expression before nodding. Of course he knew what this was.

The Chief named some islands, and Zuko put a finger to them, pointing them out accurately. Hakoda asked him to point to the major cities, and then almost as if it were a test, the minor villages.

Then Chief Hakoda asked where Zuko lived, and for the first time the boy's mind stuttered to a halt. He took a long moment to study the map, and found that he didn't know.

Zuko looked up, and shook his head.

Hakoda asked if he had ever seen any ships in the ports, and how many there were and what kind were they? To this, Zuko also had to shake his head. He couldn't remember that either.

Finally, they asked him to write down his family name and the name of his parents. That, he couldn't do. After a long moment of staring at the parchment, he shook his head and pushed it back.

Healer Kuthruk spoke up. "He may be just frightened, Hakoda. He is just a boy, and considering his injuries…"

But Zuko was looking at him, shaking his head. He wasn't shy. He just didn't know. They kept questioning him about it, expecting him to be frightened or upset, but it was hard to be scared when he didn't even remember the people he was supposed to miss.

Hakoda still tapped at his chin thoughtfully. "If you remember any of these things, Zuko, I want you to find Kuthruk and have him let me know."

Zuko nodded.

"Excellent. You're dismissed."

At once the Healer put a hand on his shoulder and steered him to the door. Zuko left, feeling weak, but thinking already about how hungry he was getting again. It didn't occur to him that he would continue to be the subject of the men's discussion for the rest of the night.

 


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The next day Zuko was put under the care of Nunka, who, at twenty, was the youngest warrior on the ship.

"Have you ever knotted netting before?" the young warrior asked, as he retrieved Zuko from his room the next day. At Zuko's headshake, he said, "There's nothing to it, really. It's just tedious. Normally, the women do it, but since it's just us we have to make do."

Nunka may not have liked the work, but after he sat down on the deck, Zuko saw how quick and accurate his tanned fingers were with the net-rope. It seemed to be only a few flicks of his hands, and he had a string of knots completed which was the beginning of a tightly woven net.

"See?" said Nunka, holding up his work and grinning when Zuko's eyes widened. "Nothing to it."

Zuko opened his mouth, about to request for Nunka to do it again, but slower this time; his throat burned with pain. He couldn't even hiss.

Nunka did end up showing him again, and again. He would show Zuko as many times as he needed, but demanded near perfection in return. He would unstring twenty minutes worth of Zuko's work for a minor error. The third time this happened, Zuko made the mistake of glaring at the warrior and trying to snatch his rope back before it was undone. He received a sharp cuff on the back of his head for his insolence. After that, Zuko still seethed when he was made to redo the work, but he seethed discretely.

Finally, around midday Nunka seemed satisfied with his knots and allowed Zuko to have a snack of seal jerky and dried snow plums. Zuko's fingers, unused to working with rope, were starting to blister. So after the meal, Nunka led him down to the gallery and put him in charge of the cook, Ekchua, who had the biggest nose Zuko had ever seen.

Preparing food, Zuko quickly found, was much better than net-knotting. He didn't get to be outside, but he did get to sneak bits of what was being prepared, when Ekchua wasn't looking.

The next few days passed much the same with meeting the men and learning new things from each one of them… and eventually those days rolled into weeks. Slowly, as he grew stronger, Zuko was introduced to more and more of the ship's chores. The men weren't kind, but they weren't cruel. As long as Zuko did what he was told, and didn't put up a fuss, they were satisfied.

Occasionally, someone would ask him a question about the Fire Nation, and as long as they worded it in an indirect way, he found he could answer it with a nod or a shake of his head. The moment it became personal, he couldn't. One day Nunka mentioned that Fire Nation food was spicy. To this, Zuko nodded. It was spicy… but also full of flavor and delicious. But when Nunka asked what his favorite food was, Zuko could only shrug. He didn't remember having any particular dish… so how would he know?

One day, Ekchua (who was a quiet sort of person, so he and Zuko got along very well) asked if he missed his family. Zuko shook his head. He didn't miss his family. He didn't know his family.

As the days wore on, and the ship sailed further and further south, the air became cooler and cooler. Zuko got the surprise of his life one morning when he slipped and fell on a patch of frost that had collected in a shadowy corner of the ship.

Frost, he found, was something he felt sure he had no experience with at all prior to waking up on the Water Tribe ship. He liked the way he could trace patterns in the patches using his warm finger, and watch the white ice melt away to water. By mid-day, all the frost on the ship had melted away completely. It came back the next day, and the day after that… until it was cold enough so that the frost didn't disappear at all.

Zuko would get to know ice very well. Indeed, in the next few years he wouldn't pass one day of his life without it. But he wasn't to know that yet, and having lived near the equator all of his life, he now saw it as a novelty.

There was one more important lesson that Zuko learned while on the ship: Fear of the Fire Nation.

He knew that he was different from the Water Tribe men, of course, even without their constant comments. His skin was pale, his eyes gold to their blue. He wore his dark hair up in a high fashioned phoenix tail at the top of his head — he didn't know why. He just knew he had always done this, and it was right. So he fixed it as such, every day. The Water Tribe men had the top layer of their brown hair pulled and tied at the back of their head's, with the rest of it flowing to their shoulder's.

But some of the men had burn-scars; on their arms, or on their legs. Sometimes when the wine would be passed around, Zuko would watch them compare their scars and tell outlandish stories on how they got them fighting Fire Nation soldiers.

But none of them could beat Zuko's scars.

Healer Kuthruk finally stopped bandaging his eye on the third week and allowed Zuko to look in a small polished piece of metal at his own reflection.

I look mean, was the first thought that came to his mind. One quarter of the left side of his face was an angry red, extending raggedly past his hairline to his temple. The skin around his left eye was a darker shade; the eye itself puckered into a permanent glare. Zuko could see well enough, though.

The other side of his face was whole, and this was the side Zuko preferred to focus on. His neck was healing better, and the scar there would be more of a puffy line… maybe it would even fade in time. It was nothing compared to his face.

Zuko touched his scar around his eye, felt the tough flesh there, and put down the mirror. He didn't pick it back up for a week.

While all this related to the Fire Nation in a more or less direct way, and although he knew that he was Fire Nation, he didn't give where he came from much thought.

At least, until they attacked.

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

Zuko woke up one night to the clammer of alarm bells being rung topside. He had seen the great bells before; one positioned on every side of the ship, but had never heard them until now. He lay still under the thick blankets, unsure of what he should do. The warriors all slept in separate bunks in another room. His own room, a hastily cleaned out storage space, was given to him because he was the only boy and also because he was Fire Nation. He had no one to look to for direction.

Footsteps thundered from the hallway beside him, and a shout went up, "WE'RE BEING BOARDED!"

Instantly, like a thick cloud bursting all of its rain at once, a roar went up from the Water Tribe warriors. And an answering one sounded from somewhere topside.

Zuko threw back his blankets shot to his feet. He had no real idea what he would do when he got out there, but it didn't matter because the door didn't budge; not even when he threw his entire weight against it. Someone had thrown the bolt against the other side. Perhaps they did it every night, and he'd never noticed before, but now it kept him in and away from the battle.

Zuko shoved his shoulder into the door again and again, and beat his fists against it. His mouth opened in silent shouts. Outside he could hear screaming, the swell of fighting men… everyone he knew was out there fighting. Everyone but him.

Suddenly, it was as if the world itself exploded. He was thrown backward against his bed in a rain of wooden splinters and flame. Zuko coughed, blinked, and then looked up into a nightmare.

To the boy's eyes, the man standing in his doorway seemed to be about ten feet tall. He was dressed in red plated armor, colored like dried blood. His face was covered in a white skull-like mask with only his light amber eyes glinting out.

The man stared down at him. This boy with the strange coloring, but who also wore the colors of the Water Tribe. With a snap of his wrist, the man lit his hand in a sheath of yellow flame and stepped forward, ready to snuff out the enemy's child.

Zuko stared at him with wide eyes, pressed against the fall wall, shaking his head silently. Mute as he was, he couldn't scream for help.

The Fire Nation solider took another step towards him, and then faltered. His eyes, locked against Zuko's suddenly grew wide… and then blank. He fell forward onto his knees, and then crumpled down to the floor; the handle of a long bladed knife sticking from his back.

Behind him, stood Chief Hakoda.

"Are you alright?" Hakoda stepped forward, grabbing Zuko's wrist and hauling him up to his feet. Seeing his grateful nod, he reached to his belt and unstrapped something from the worn leather. Zuko found a slanted piece of metal shoved in his hand. "Here, take this boomerang. Use the sharp point to defend yourself if you have too. We're going to the top. Stay by me."

Then he was off and running, and Zuko didn't even have time to gape at the dead Fire Nation before he had to turn and follow.

The deck was pure chaos; fighting men, bodies lying in horrible awkward positions, and explosions of flame flying everywhere.

One solider stepped in front of Hakoda and Zuko, a jet of fire blossoming from his fist. The Chief was more than equal to it. He moved faster than Zuko had ever seen, and with a smooth movement had gotten beside the man and knocked his knees out from under him. The man gasped, and with another shove Hakoda had toppled him off the deck and into the cold, black night sea.

The soldier's final gout of flame had not dissipated into nothing. It caught the wooden railing on fire. Zuko grabbed for a bucket of water — left over from when he and some of the other men had washed the deck earlier in the day — and doused the flame.

But there were more. Small fires left from Fire Nation benders caught the wooden ship like kindling. The warriors were too busy fighting to take notice; indeed Hakoda was in hand to hand combat with another Fire Nation solider. Zuko knew keep in his bones that the fire must be contained. It was just as important as fighting. So, grabbing another bucket, he ran to the aft of the ship and put out another fire there.

The warriors of the Water Tribe were fighting for their very lives. They had been ambushed by surprise, and were greatly outnumbered, but they were up to the challenge, and they were slowly winning the battle.

Only a few took notice of the Fire Nation boy running back and forth, putting out their enemy's small fires. No one saw how, when Zuko ran out of water, he took off his shirt and beat the flames down with it — sometimes slapping the fire with the palm of his hand to make sure it didn't spread — and all without being burned.

Finally, with a long hooting call from the attacking Fire Nation ship, what was left of their soldiers turned and retreated.

Dawn broke with celebration and success. The warriors had driven the enemy back… but the cost had been painful. Nunka, the youngest warrior on the ship, had been stabbed through the heart by an enemy blade.

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

Later in the day Hakoda sat in his cabin, battling back a ache that was threatening to split his head in two.

The food stores had been burned to a crisp, and the fresh water tainted. The Fire Nation's aim had been to stop this rouge ship from its mission of revenge, and in that it succeeded. They would have to turn immediately for home or risk starvation.

This wasn't how he intended to end their months long campaign. Not on a failure. It was looking, though, like he wouldn't have a choice.

A soft knock sounded at the door. Hakoda growled, "Come in!"

He expected Bato with some more bad news. What he got instead was Zuko.

The boy walked in carefully and placed one clasped fist into his cupped palm in a bow of respect — they had finally gotten him to stop bowing to the floor like a Fire Nation dog a couple weeks ago. The boy couldn't speak what he wanted of course. Instead he reached back behind him and pulled out a bladed boomerang from his belt, handing it to Hakoda.

Hakoda looked at the boy and his disfigured, but earnest face. "No, Zuko," he said, pushing the boomerang back. "A boy your age ought to have a weapon for himself. Keep it, it's yours."

A grin lit up the Zuko's face, taking the Chief by surprise. He was a quiet child, of course, being muted. But Hakoda also noticed that he kept to himself; never playing outlandish imaginary battle games, or running around the ship in a fit of childish energy. This was the first time he had seen him smile.

"We will be arriving back at our home village within the next two days," Hakoda continued. "My son, Sokka, is very good with the boomerang. If you ask him, he'll show you what he knows." Actually, it was very likely that Zuko wouldn't have to ask at all. Sokka would be more than willing to show off to whomever was around — whether they cared to see or not. But Zuko was nodding enthusiastically, and Hakoda felt a hint of a smile cross his face.

He dismissed Zuko and watched the boy scamper off. It would be strange, he thought, strange to see a boy like him running and playing in the village. When Hakoda had decided to spare his life, he didn't truly think he would survive, much less begin to thrive.

When the men next went out to battle, they would have to drop the boy off at an Earth Kingdom port, of course. Zuko couldn't stay with them forever. But Hakoda didn't realize until just then that he wasn't looking forward to that day. Not at all.

With a sigh, the young Chief got to his feet and headed out his cabin. Now that he had promised the boy, he might as well make his orders to turn home known to his men.

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

Chapter Text


Remember this Zuko. No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are.

 

- Ursa, Zuko Alone


 

The next morning, the Water Tribe warriors held their funeral for Nunka.

Healer Kuthruk had spent the entire night swathing the body in blue bandaging; covering him over and over until he looked more like an outline of a man rather than the actual person Zuko had known. Then another blue tarp was placed over that, this one with the Southern Water Tribe insignia.

The services were held out on the deck. The air was crisp, clear, and almost achingly cold, and it was everything Zuko could do not to fidget in place and stamp his feet to keep his blood warm. As it was, Kuthruk had to quell him down with a couple of hard stares before he settled and resigned himself to just staying cold.

As Chief, Hakoda presided over the whole affair and spoke in deep, stirring tones about their fallen comrade. How even as a boy, Nunka had always been eager to become a warrior. How he'd insisted on taking his ice-dodging rites a year early. His acts of bravery: The time he had saved a drowning girl by jumping into a frozen lake after her. He'd nearly drowned himself, and then got pneumonia for his efforts. And how, last night, it had been he to ring the alarm bells. The Fire Nation soldiers had killed him for his effort, but in doing so, he had saved them all.

Some of the men were crying silently, fat tears running down their tanned faces and into their beards. Zuko sniffed, remembering how Nunka had taught him to knot nets. How was he ever able to look at another net without thinking of him?

When all was said, Hakoda nodded to two of the men on his right: Nunka's brother and brother-in-law, respectively. The Chief wished Nunka a safe passage into the Spirit World, and then they tipped Nunka's body over the railing. He was so well bound up that he slipped right under the waves without so much as a bubble.

Zuko cast a hesitant look over the railing, but the water was so dark and so blue that he couldn't see below the surface. It felt to him a strange way to bury a person. He himself would rather be burned to ashes. At least that way, he could stay warm forever, and his remains could be placed in the Halls of Ancestors.

If this was a strange thought to have, he didn't know it. And of course, he couldn't share it with anyone.

The food had been mostly charred, and the water tainted, but the Fire Nation soldiers hadn't broken into the casts of wine. These were brought up at Hakoda's order, and soon all of the men were drinking and trading more and more outrageous stories about Nunka. They were stories too impolite to mention at the man's funeral, but what were good fodder for erasing tears during the wake.

For his part, Zuko stayed just apart from it all. He didn't like the taste of wine, although he did sip it out of thirst. He spent his time at the railing, watching the water slip past the bow of the ship. Off in the distance, he could see what almost looked like small white rocks bobbing in time with the waves. These were the beginning of what would later become a field of never-ending icebergs.

Tomorrow, they would be at the pole.

As the wine flowed, the men's talk slowly went from Nunka to the Fire Nation in general. Even with his back turned, Zuko could feel the burn of eyes upon his narrow shoulders.

"Nunka was one of a kind. They just snuffed him out, like he was nothing."

"They're savages. Got no respect for the beautiful… or the pure."

"You know they did to the Hai Bei forest? They were in the middle of a drought and the Fire Nation burned it, and everyone in it, alive…"

"I say we turn around and go right for the capital city. Do them like they did those poor Air Nomads."

"An eye for an eye. That's how the Water Tribe does things."

At this point, Zuko had edged away, ducking out of sight.

It was a short walk to what was left of his room. The door was completely shattered and still lying in pieces, and the room now smelled like the slightly arid scent of burned wood and sour blood. Zuko wrinkled his nose against it, and quickly dug around, giving a silent sigh of relief when he saw that the small mirror he had been allotted was unbroken. It had been hidden under his futon mattress, because he didn't like to use it often, for obvious reasons.

Now he brought it up and made himself look at his own reflection — at the whole side of his face.

Yellow-gold eyes like the sun. Pale skin. A sharp nose, and black hair.

Last night, the Fire Nation soldier who attacked him had been scary — inhuman. He had reached out towards him, probably about to kill him for no other reason than just being there. And under all those layers of red metal and fire there was a person… a person who looked a lot like Zuko himself.

But they were cruel. He'd heard the men talk, not just tonight but on all the nights when there was too much wine to go around. The list of Fire Nation sins went on and on… they killed all the Air Nomads, they killed Nunka, and now Zuko's stomach growled from hunger because they had burned all the food.

I'm not like them, thought Zuko, and his reflection stared at him, set and determined. I'm not evil like them.

This wasn't an unusual thought for a child of his age to be having. Zuko still saw the world very much in terms of black and white; good and evil. What was unusual was the fact that always before, he had thought of the Fire Nation in ambiguous terms. He had heard of their horrible ways every day from the warriors, but had never personalized it. He never felt ashamed of being who he was… until now.

The sound of rough-voiced singing drifted down from the deck. Zuko gave a silent sigh, and tucked the mirror back into its hiding place. From the slightly off-key tones of their voices, the men were probably far into their wine by now. Normally, he counted on himself to be too small and out of the way to be much of a threat even when their ire at the Fire Nation peaked. No one had ever hit him, and the only times he'd been cuffed around the head or ears was when he was too slow to learn a task or when he got frustrated or tired and didn't want to do it.

But he knew with a solid certainty that going up on the deck when the men were drunk and grieving would be a very bad idea.

He couldn't stay here. There was only one other place on the ship he knew he would be safe.

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

It was all Chief Hakoda could do to stagger himself back up to his cabin at the end of that long, long night. Tomorrow, he knew, he would be cursing himself for letting his warriors drink themselves stupid. The mist collectors wouldn't be able to provide nearly enough water to cure an aching head, and there had been no food to sop up any of the alcohol.

He also knew, though, that a man sometimes just needed to grieve. His men were warriors, not women, and sometimes a man just needed a drink to come to terms with what was tearing him up inside.

Hakoda was thinking these things, and mentally excusing his own behavior now to get ready for the ache tomorrow, when he nearly tripped over a small bundle lying in the middle of his cabin. The Chief made an ungraceful leap to the side, and then blinked and grabbed the nearby oil lamp to get a closer look.

The boy, Zuko, was curled up on the floor-mat, asleep.

Hakoda realized, to his shame, that he had not given the boy one thought all night long. He should have kept his eye on him — or ordered Bato to do it. The child was under his protection, but men were angry and hurt at the Fire Nation, and full of wine…

But Zuko had found the one place on the ship where he would be safe.

Smart kid.

Hakoda passed a hand over his face, feeling the bristle of a day's growth there. Spirits, he was tired. So, as quietly as a drunken man could, he walked over to his own cot and tugged off the top fur. This, he draped over the boy. Zuko stirred, but didn't wake up.

The young Chief paused only to tug off his own boots, and then lay down on his own cot; asleep instantly.

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

The next morning, Hakoda's orders were simple and direct: They would continue on their straight path down to the South Pole at top speed. The mist collectors had done their job, and they could ration some water, but the colder the air got, the dryer it became. Although the men set the lines out and trawled small nets behind the ship; fish were scarce in this part of the ocean.

The only extra parka in storage was about five times too big for Zuko's small frame. He felt bulky, and the cold wind got into the extra space between his skin and the blue jacket. Luckily, he was far too taken with the sights around him to care very much about being half frozen.

To Zuko's delight, the occasional peak of white in the waves soon became vast fields floating icebergs and ice-sheets. Their ship either broke through the ice if it was brittle and thin, or went around if it was too large. Some of the icebergs were larger than the ship itself, and Zuko watched them pass with wide eyes. They almost seemed close enough to touch, although when climbed the railing and leaned out to try, he was yelled at by Bato.

Thick snowflakes fell from the sky, either coming in freezing flurries or else ice shavings blown off the nearby giant icebergs. These were fun to catch on his tongue, even though they did little for his raw thirst.

Best of all were the animals that lived in this strange, icy world. Zuko saw things he'd never even imagined before; Turtle-seals, cat-penguins, and giant blue orca. At each one of these sightings he would run over to one of the men, tug on his sleeve, and point, demanding to be told what it was. Most of them indulged his request, and offered some additional information as well. Zuko soon found out which animals were worth eating.

Then, on the morning of the third day, they finally made land.

Zuko knew it was coming. The warriors didn't tell him directly, but he could see the anticipation on their faces, and the way their steps became lighter. Finally, someone called out that he had spotted the village and at once Zuko rushed to the port-railing to take a look. The men had talked of their South Pole home every day, and he his imaginative mind had come up with a sprawling ice-palace guarded by ferocious polar-dogs. A place that would be hard, but enduring.

What he saw instead was nothing more was a small camp-like village. Zuko could only count a little more than the top of dozen bumpy snow structures. They were all clustered together behind a simple wall of ice and snow.

"It's not much, is it?"

He glanced over in surprise to see Bato by his side. The warrior had joined him without his noticing, and had correctly read the disappointment in his eyes.

"A hundred years ago, before the war, we had a vast city to rival our brothers in the North." Bato's grip tightened on the railing, "Now, our waterbenders are gone. Our people are scattered around the continent. This is all that's left." He looked down, meeting Zuko's wide golden eyes, and gave a smile that was both wistful and sad. "Go pack your things. We'll be pulling in, soon."

With a nod, Zuko drew back from the railing. Suddenly, he found himself feeling unsure. As far as he was concerned, his entire life had been on this ship. Now he was facing something wholly different on land… he wasn't sure what to do. Would the rest of the Water Tribe hate him? How could they not? His people destroyed their city.

Zuko's unease only grew once the ship floated to a stop. People were pouring from the village — women clutching babies, young toddlers clutching their mother's shins, and old people walking with slow jerky steps. He could see no kids around his age, and certainly no one that looked like him.

The bottom hatch of the ship opened, and at once the men swarmed out, and with glad cries the two groups met with each other. There was hugging, kissing… excited exclamations. Zuko stood to the side of it all, clutching a small sack with his two or three possessions, drowning in a parka much too large for him, feeling lost.

Suddenly, he heard his name being called. He looked over and saw Chief Hakoda wave him over. He was standing with two children — the only two children close to Zuko's age in the village — on either side of him. They looked like the picture of a perfect family, only instead of where a mother would be, an aged woman stood instead, just apart from the rest.

"Kids," said Hakoda, as Zuko walked up. "This is Zuko. We found him on a Fire Nation ship, and he's going to be staying in the village for a while."

The boy, just as tall as Zuko himself, with is father's deep blue eyes and his hair pulled back on top and shaved at the sides, stared at him. "What happened to your face?"

"Sokka!" admonished the old woman.

Zuko gave a half shrug, awkwardly reaching up to touch the tough skin on his left side, as if to brush it away. Of course, he never could.

Hakoda answered on behalf of him. "We're not sure, and he can't tell us. When we found him, his throat was cut, and he's now a mute." Then he addressed Zuko, "This is my son, Sokka, and this little lady is my daughter, Katara." At the mention of her name, Katara, who looked about a year younger than Sokka, ducked her head behind her father. She was frightened of the boy and all of his scars. "And this is Kana. She leads the women of our tribe."

The old woman pulled a tight, slightly skeletal smile across her features. Her eyes were watchful and suspicious behind their kindness. "You must be freezing in that coat. Come with me, child. We'll get you something that better fits you."

She shuffled back to the village, and Zuko followed her. He glanced over his shoulder once, at the Chief, and saw that he was on his knees and was addressing his children at their level. All three of them were smiling happy. A family reunited.

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

The next day broke late for the entire village. Zuko was the first one up, rising with the sun as was his habit. His stomach was still uncomfortably full — the entire Tribe had feasted last night at the return of their warriors, and Zuko had tried to catch up for two days of missed meals in one sitting.

He went outside, and walked a little ways away from the tents and igloos. The morning air was cold — colder than he was sure he'd ever felt before, and he shivered under his thick parka. His breath streamed out of him, visible long after it left his lungs. But the sun was rising, and although the light it cast was pale and watery over the snow, stepping into the light somehow made him feel better.

Yesterday he had been too hungry, and then after he'd eaten, too tired to really take a look around the place. He did so now. The ship had come in from the north, and out there was only rolling sea-ice. The east and west both extended far outward as jagged coast. There wasn't any beach — the ever present ice and snow just simply stopped and the water began. Finally, Zuko looked south and saw the outline of a vast mountain range. Morning clouds were rolling in between at least five different peaks, plunging down in a living stream to the valley where they dissipated before reaching the coast. It was a beautiful land, and even though he had no memories from his life before, he knew it was unlike anything he had ever seen.

The sun was climbing higher now, and the snow reflected its brightness, making it almost painful to look too far out. He shielded his eyes, put his head down against the freezing morning breeze, and continued walking away from the main village; past the back opening where the ice walls left a ten foot gap on either side.

Once he judged himself far enough away, he folded his legs and sat down in the snow. The top layer was crunchy with ice, and Zuko started digging around, finding quickly that underneath was powdery and soft. He ate some to soothe his morning thirst, and started digging a hole in the deep snow. He had the idea yesterday to make a fort for himself; a place of his own.

Presently, his fingers became sore from cold, and he stopped and looked up just in time to see a long shadow behind him. Zuko would have yelped in surprise if he had the capability to do so. He spun about, but the low sun had thrown the shadow long, and it was not a giant Fire Nation soldier behind him, but the girl, Katara.

For her part, she was just as started, and fell backwards into the snow with a squeak of surprise.

For a moment the Fire Nation boy and the Water Tribe girl looked at each other, as if sizing the other up. She had the same coloring as all the others, but there was something about her that was… softer. Prettier. She also wore her long hair differently than anyone he'd ever seen before, with two beaded loops tucked behind each ear.

Then, Katara spoke. "Gran-Gran says that if you're digging around, you should have mittens." From her parka, she withdrew a set of three fingered seal-hide mittens and carefully handed them over, withdrawing her own hand the second Zuko made his grab, as if he'd burn her.

He hadn't noticed, but the rest of the Water Tribe were starting to rise for the day. Zuko could see vague shapes back at the village, working against the bright lit snow. He nodded, and pulled the mittens.

Katara too, looked back at the village and she hesitated as if she wanted to go back there, but something made her stay. Instead of going back, she inched closer.

"Do you miss your mom and dad?"

The question seemed to come out of nowhere. He had been asked it before by the men, but it had been worded differently and had been mostly without compassion. Unexpectedly, Zuko felt a lump grow in his throat — not for his parents, for in truth he didn't remember anything about them. It was just that he had come to see the warriors on the ship as sort of family. Yes, some were surly, but some were kinder and had taken time out of their own work to teach him. He had known that life. Literally, it was all he knew. Now, it felt like he was starting all over again on land with different people.

Last night, Kana had given him over to one of the other women, Auya, to house. Auya hadn't been happy about it; Zuko saw it in her eyes. She had set him up in their family tent, but had mostly ignored him cast suspicious glances at him all night long. She had also, he noticed, slept with a knife by her pillow. Plus she had a newborn baby that required her constant care. It had mewed all night long, and he hadn't gotten any sleep. At least on the ship, he had his own small room… well, at least until the Fire Nation soldier destroyed it.

So Zuko shook his head to her question, but wanted to elaborate. He drew out the characters in the snow. "I miss being on the ship."

"Oh." Katara ventured a look past him, and moved a bit closer. "Why are you digging a hole?"

He scowled. It wasn't a hole. It was a fort.

"That'll take forever if you do it that way." Katara's lips curved into a mischievous grin. Apparently forgetting her fear, she crawled over, sitting by Zuko at the edge of his creation. "Just do this." Then, raising both arms, she made a downward scooping motion.

The snow responded instantly, following her movements, a large portion dug itself out and piled neatly along the side.

Zuko's light gold eyes widened. Katara was a waterbender!

She giggled at his reaction, a light blush highlighting her dark cheeks. He gestured excitedly for her to do it again, and she did. Shortly, Zuko had a deep circular hole for his fort, a little deeper than an arm length.

He set about packing the excess snow into high ridges around the depression. In his mind's eye this would be the start of what would be towering walls which, in its grand design, would keep everyone he didn't like, out. Katara watched him for a few moments, and once she got the idea she started working on the opposite end. Maybe it was her affinity with water, but her walls ended up being twice as high as his and neatly packed. Zuko's looked more like rounded lumps.

"You know, your house is going to need furs in it or else it'll get really cold at night."

Again, Zuko scowled. Not a house. he wrote in the snow, A fort.

"Well it's gonna need furs." She paused, smoothing out the rough edge of her wall. The snow under her hand turned to liquid and then froze again into ice as hard as rock. "I'll get some from Gran Gran." It wasn't a question, and after a moment's consideration, Zuko shrugged. A proper fort, he knew, allowed no girls. But he was cold now even with the sun shining on his back… he didn't want to think about how bitter it would be at night.

Fine, he wrote, Just don't girl it up.

Katara grinned and promised that she wouldn't.

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

Later that week, Kana sought out the advice of Hakoda. The young Chief was overseeing the sharpening of the harpoons and long-reach spears. It was mid-fall, and the Blue Orca migration would be at its peak soon. He estimated that they would need to take two animals to last out the winter… the year before, they had needed three. The Fire Nation raid in the spring had killed many people.

Seeing the old woman approach, Hakoda signaled for Bato to step into his place and walked over to meet her. "Is something wrong?"

Kana smiled up at him and shook her head. "No, but I need to have a talk with you. Hakoda, walk with me."

As his mother and also as the eldest woman, Kana had a special place in their Tribe. She was looked too as the repository of all of their wisdom, and in certain things she could overrule even Hakoda. It was very rare when she exercised this, or indeed used her rank at all. So when she asked for him to stop what he was doing and talk to her, he was intrigued, and instantly did as she said.

They walked side by side along the ice-coast. For some minutes, Kana didn't speak. She seemed to be gathering her thoughts, and would only share them when she was ready. Finally she said: "I quizzed the children on geography today."

Hakoda nodded. Normally, Kana and a woman helper taught all of the children several times a week in between chores.

"How are Sokka and Katara doing?" he asked.

"Fine… fine. Sokka is doing exceptionally well. He's a bright boy, Hakoda. All grandmothers should be as blessed."

He sensed there was something else behind her words. "But?"

"But then I quizzed Zuko." Kana stopped in her tracks, tilting her head up towards her son in law. The pale sun cast shadow's upon every line on her face, making her look very grave. "The boy can't speak, poor thing, but he was able to write in the snow. Hakoda, he knew every providence in the Earth Kingdom, as well as the major cities. He writes very well, in both the standard and the classical forms. I haven't yet tested in him mathematics, but I don't have a doubt he'll do fine there as well."

Hakoda was silent. He had the feeling he knew where this was going, and while he didn't like it, he respected Kana enough to state her piece.

"If this is how they are educating the children of the Fire Nation, we may have a real problem on our hands."

"They teach their children these things because they expect them to help invade the Earth Kingdom when they get older."

Kana nodded at this, agreeing. "And there's more. Katara… she needs a Waterbending Master."

They had this conversation before, and he was well versed on the subject. "But you've said yourself the Masters of the North will only teach her healing, not bending."

"This is true, but I wasn't suggesting going to the North." she paused, "Are you certain, completely certain, that there is no one to teach Katara?"

Hakoda did not answer her for a long time. He turned to the west, and in the distance he could see a lazy trail of smoke that stamped out what remained of their village. A pinched, haunted look came over his handsome features, and he ducked his head. "It wasn't an accident how the Fire Nation found our village. They knew I was looking for a Waterbending master. They knew we still had hope." Of course, no one could ever be sure that this was the reason they were attacked, but Hakoda felt this deep in his bones. This was his one shame… a shame he vowed he would never tell his children. His throat thickened, his next words choked with unshed tears. "They took my wife, because of me."

"Hakoda—"

He waved off her words almost angrily, turning away. "Katara will have to teach herself."

Kana bowed her head, accepting her son's words for what they were: the decision of the Tribe's Leader. Hakoda couldn't afford to think like a father. His burden was to protect the entire tribe. "She has no choice."

 


OoOoOoOoO


 

Katara, Zuko found, was very bossy, and once she got something into her head she didn't let it go. But unlike her brother, she seemed to like being around him; insisting that he take most of his meals with her, and patiently explaining how to do some of the needed chores around the village.

They worked on the fort during their free time, with Katara using some of the few bending skills she knew to enlarge the hole and strengthen the walls with ice. To Zuko's chagrin, it became as much her fort his — although he absolutely drew the line at letting her keep her dolls inside.

Her brother, Sokka, was mostly an elusive figure. Zuko would often catch him glaring narrow-eyed at him during meals, and during Kana's lessons. His surly, unapproachable nature made Zuko assume at first that he was a grumpy loner; completely the opposite of his bright, kind sister. Only later would he realize that this was by far the exception to Sokka's moods, and not the rule.

Hakoda had said that Sokka would teach him how to use the boomerang, and Zuko was eager to learn. He tried approaching the other boy on several occasions, pointing first to his boomerang, and then to Sokka's, but Sokka would just scowl and then walk away.

One day, determined that that he would learn, Zuko decided to follow Sokka; haunt him until the other boy finally gave in and taught him.

He didn't expect for Sokka to be so quick on the uptake. As soon as he knew what was going on, and that Zuko wouldn't leave him alone, he went to the outer snow-drifts beyond the village. Although he couldn't bend his element, Sokka moved through the snowdrifts like they were nothing but a well-worn forest path. He was completely at ease out in the thick snow and sub-zero temperatures. Zuko bumbled along as best he could, trying to follow in his footsteps, but he sank to his hips with each step and soon Sokka was out of sight. When he could no longer feel his toes, Zuko had to admit defeat and return to the village or else risk getting lost and frozen.

Zuko had his own tricks up his sleeve. Although he didn't know it, he had dealt with a master manipulator all of his life. He didn't remember any of it, but some of the innate skills stayed with him. He knew Sokka was like the water, and it was his nature to find the path of least resistance and plan around things to come at them from another way. It was Zuko's nature to confront, strike first, and keep going until he won.

Unfortunately, he didn't expect the confrontation to happen when it did.

It was a day like any other. He and Katara were working on their fort. They were busy building up another wall outside the main perimeter. Zuko had written to her in snowy sentences how the great city of Ba Sing Se was surrounded by a double-set of walls. How they were so high that some birds couldn't fly to the top, and how they were so strong that they and they kept even the Fire Nation out.

She decided that this was a great idea, and they should copy it. He set about using a piece of rope anchored to the middle of the fort to trace out a rough circle all the way around. She was gathering snow into bunches using her limited bending to push the snow together and then piling it up by hand.

They looked up at the same time to see Sokka striding over.

"Are you finally done sulking?" Katara called, almost cheerfully continuing to pack snow.

Sokka came to a stop just a few feet from them, a dark look on his face "You shouldn't be playing with him so much." He said, addressing his sister, and ignoring Zuko completely as if he wasn't there.

"You can't tell me what to do." Brushing off her mittens onto her long parka, she stood up, hands on her hips. "You're not dad!"

"Katara," and the look Sokka shot Zuko could have burned him to ash. "He's Fire Nation!"

Something hot and angry settled in Zuko's heart, and he stood up, clenching his fists.

"He's not like them!" yelled Katara.

"How do you know?"

"I just…" she glanced over at Zuko in a particular friendly way, causing a warm blush to highlight the unscarred areas of his face and neck. "I just do."

"They killed mom!" yelled Sokka, his voice cracking, "and you're just playing with him like it's all okay! Well, it's not! It's not right!"

Zuko wanted with all of his heart to yell at this boy, to tell him exactly what he thought: The Fire Nation attacked him once, too, and he didn't want to be anything like them.

Of course, he couldn't, and this wasn't the time or place to be scrawling his thoughts out in the snow. Zuko turned to Katara, wondering what she'd day, and found that her eyes were wet with unshed tears.

Another flash of anger, and something snapped in Zuko. He did the next logical thing, at least, in his eyes. He stomped over and shoved Sokka, hard.

The other boy stepped back, and an ugly look crossed his features before he returned the shove with another one of his own.

Zuko grabbed Sokka's wrist, and swung at him with his other hand. It hit Sokka wide, just across the shoulder. Sokka roared like an enraged lion-dillo, and took him down in a tackle. Then they were on the ground; fighting, punching, kicking.

It was a mostly equal match, with both boys being about the same weight and build. Sokka clocked Zuko hard across his good eye, and Zuko aimed a kick that landed just to the right of the other boy's groin. Neither one could easily get the upper hand over the other; although they tried. They rolled over and over, swinging at each other when they had enough space.

Katara was screaming at both of them to stop. Stop right now! She kicked snow at the thrashing boys, and as her anger and panic grew the snow and ice around them responded in kind: rolling, bucking, and waving in time with her cries.

"Stop it! I'm… I'm telling Gran Gran!" Katara screamed.

The snow under Sokka and Zuko melted and then reformed again instantly as ice, locking their bodies firmly in place mid-combat, with only their heads free. Sokka, on top, and about to lay into Zuko again, yelped in surprise. "Cut it out, Katara!"

But his sister had already run off, crying, and completely unaware of what she had just done.

"Ugh!" groaned Sokka, dropping his head in exasperation, "She has officially gone from weird to freakish."

Zuko glared up at him, but he was frozen in place, and couldn't speak his thoughts anyway.

After a long moment, the Water Tribe boy gave a long sigh, and did his best to shift, trying to break free of the ice encasing. "See if you can move to the right and I'll move to the left. Maybe we can sort of twist out," he directed. "No, my right! Your left."

Both boys strained and the brittle ice finally gave way with a sharp crack. They fell to the side, and rolled, each not wanting to be in contact with the other anymore. They were hardly free, for ragged chunks of ice still encased their feet and stuck to the fur of their parkas. It took the boys a few minutes of pounding the ice on a nearby rock (and low whispered cursing, in Sokka's case) to get free.

About that time, Kana showed up.

The old woman had expected something like this to happen for the last few days. She knew her grandson well, and had seen the anger in his young face whenever Katara and the Fire Nation boy played together. He had been unusually withdrawn, and even though she was sure he was trying not to show it — he grieved for his lost mother terribly.

Now she came upon the sight of the two boys sitting together, not talking, but diligently ridding themselves of ice side-by-side. Sokka's bottom lip was split, and Zuko's unscarred eye was puffy and looking like it would blacken tonight.

They glanced up at her arrival, and she caught a flash of twin looks of guilt.

"Sokka, can you tell me why your sister ran into the tent crying? Have you two been fighting?" she asked, although it was more than obvious that they had.

"No Gran Gran. We were…" he looked around for inspiration, "we were playing hide 'n freeze." He held up his sleeve, to which a bit of frozen snow was attached.

Kana raised one disbelieving eyebrow. "Is this true, Zuko?"

The other boy's unscarred eye widened, and he glanced at her, and then for a long moment at Sokka, before he nodded his head vigorously.

For his part, Sokka seemed surprised, but then nodded himself. "See? Katara just got all excited. We were just playing, Gran Gran."

Kana pursed her lips. Both of them were lying, and badly. But Kana had been long in the world, and she had seen generations of boys grow up. The fact of it was that they sometimes needed to settle their differences physically in a fight. Seeing Sokka and Zuko together now, she was strongly reminded of another scene just like it some thirty years ago… young Hakoda and Bato hadn't gotten along either when they were young, if she remembered correctly. Only when they had gotten half stuck in a frozen bog, and worked their way out of the mess together, had they become the best of friends. Perhaps the same would happen now. If she felt either Zuko or Sokka was needlessly picking on the other, things would be different. Hopefully, if she left them alone, they would work out what the needed to work out.

But there was no excuse for the lying. Sokka, at least, knew better.

"I see," she said at last, pinning them both down with a hard look. "Next time you decide to scare your sister in this way, you should remember what a frightened bender can do. For upsetting her, you two will not have dinner tonight."

Sokka gave a groan. "Gran—"

"No arguing, young man. You're still not too old for me to switch your bottom."

Her grandson's jaw closed with a snap, and his cheeks colored in embarrassment. Kana made sure to meet eyes with Zuko, silently letting him know that that threat went for him too, before turning around and shuffling back to the tent. Hopefully, Katara would have calmed down from her hysterics enough to be able to help with dinner.

Once Kana was safely out of sight, Sokka gingerly put a hand to his aching jaw. "You hit pretty good." He said, begrudgingly.

Zuko's own eye was hurting fiercely, and he knew that he was going to look ridiculous for the next few days with one eye blackened and the other one scarred in a permanent glare.

Perhaps it was the adrenalin from the fight, but for the first time he felt hot under his parka. With a tired nod, he laid flat on his back against the cold snow. He and Sokka had rolled around while fighting, and hand taken out a good portion of the outer wall of the fort. All of his day's work had been ruined.

"I can't believe that I don't get to eat tonight. I've never not eaten." Sokka cast a disparaging glare in Zuko's direction, and muttered under his breath. "Stupid Fire Nation."

Zuko sat up, and considered, just for a moment, punching Sokka again. But he believed Kana's threat, and he didn't want to be switched. He clenched his fists, instead, wanting to yell at the other boy. He couldn't. So he did the next best thing, and wrote angrily in the snow.

I hate the Fire Nation. He put particular emphasis on the word.

Sokka leaned over to read, and then cast him a dubious look. "No you don't. How can you hate what you are?"

I don't remember being Fire Nation. I just remember waking up on the ship.

The other boy seemed to consider this for a moment before he nodded, wisely. "That's probably why you haven't tried to kill us, yet, because you don't remember being like them." Then he fixed him with a hard look. "Is that how you got that scar? Did they do that to you?"

I don't know. Probably.

Sokka's mouth pressed into a thin, angry line before he winced again, touching his split lip. "They're monsters." He muttered, and Zuko got the feeling that he wasn't really talking to him. "They… they killed two of my cousins last spring… and my mom. It's what they do. They just hate and kill."

The only thing Zuko could do was nod, because it was true… because he had seen it for himself. The Fire Nation soldier on the ship had wanted to kill him for nothing more than existing. He was just a kid, and if Hakoda hadn't been there… he'd be dead.

The two boys were silent; alone in their own thoughts. Sokka's were sad, remembering a mother murdered by a nation he had sworn to hate. Zuko's were equally sad, in their own way, hating the way he looked, and wondering deep down inside if he was just as bad as the people who birthed him.

Finally the Water Tribe boy sighed, picking up some snow and tossing it uselessly in a random direction. "I'm already hungry." he announced.

A thought crossed Zuko's mind, and he grinned. Standing up, he tugged on Sokka's sleeve and gestured for him to follow. He had decided the other day to dig out little cubby-holes in the deep walls of the fort. He went in now, and found (to his disgust) that Katara had snuck in some of her dolls anyway. Shoving those away, and ignoring Sokka's snicker, he found a package wrapped in seaweed in the back of the deepest cubby: Seal Jerky.

Sokka's blue eyes widened, and for the first time a grin came over his face. "Maybe you aren't so bad after all." allowed Sokka, after taking a proffered piece.

The two boys sat and ate, and Zuko quickly found that the best way to earn Sokka's friendship was through his stomach.

 


OoOoOoOoO

Chapter Text

 

 

 

OoOoOoOoO

During the meeting, I was the perfect prince. The son my father wanted. But I wasn't me.

- Zuko, Nightmares and Daydreams

OoOoOoOoO

 

The next few weeks were some of the busiest Zuko had ever known. The short artic summer was passing, and soon winter would be upon them. It was becoming fall, and for the people of the Water Tribe it meant that every spare hour of daylight was needed to hunt and gather. Even the children's classroom time was put aside. Every hand was put to work, preparing against the months of total darkness to come.

The men went out on their annual whaling trip, leaving their women and the children to gather what they could. And gather, they did. Zuko received a crash course on how to paddle a simple canoe, and he and Sokka were often set out to the small inlet bay to haul up nets and nets of small silver fish, each as big as a finger. Artic kelp was also harvested, and this had to be rolled in fresh snow afterward to get rid of the salt.

All of it was then taken to the tribe's smokehouse to be cured and saved for later. The elderly, or those too infirm to move far, stoked the great fire and constantly added wet branches keep the smokehouse smoky.

One day, Zuko was pulled off his canoeing duty by Kana, and joined Sokka and Katara while they were sent out to pick the last of the season's berries. The tribe preferred to live on one of the permanent ice-shelves, as close to their watery element as possible, but a short hike to the south and the ice gave way to frozen land. Tangled brambles and dried-out weeds dotted the landscape, but if Zuko shielded his eyes from the sun and looked further on, he could see the outline of what was a great forest — the source of logs for all the great ships under Chief Hakoda's command.

He followed the siblings as they moved through the brambles at an easy pace, picking what he could, and being mindful of the sharp thorns that would sting at him even though tough seal-hide mittens.

Katara and Sokka were bickering back and forth. They often did this, and while it had worried him at first, Zuko had eventually realized that while Sokka and Katara sometimes became harsh with one another, neither one of them ever got hurt.

But when they were really going at it, they usually forgot their silent companion.

Sometimes Katara would turn and ask him a question (especially when she was trying to emphasize a point to Sokka), and Zuko would either nod yes or no or shrug… but he was never fully involved in their conversation. Both siblings were quick-witted, and their words were ever so much faster than what he could ever do by writing in the snow. So Zuko could never voice his true opinion. He could just watch their fight and feel like the outcast he was — separate from the tribe by his nation, his skin, and his disability.

"You have to wait until you're ten for a reason, Sokka," Katara was saying, with as much disdain in her voice as possible. "Blue Orca's can eat people. You don't want to get eaten, do you?"

Her brother shrugged and kicked at a mound of snow. He wasn't doing much berry-picking, because he was still too busy sulking over being left behind by the men while they went whaling. "I'd be fine. I'd be with dad."

"Stop being a baby. You'll just go next year, and dad promised he'd take you ice-fishing after they got back, remember?"

"Well they could have made an exception for me." Sokka grabbed half-heartedly at a sprig of berries and tossed them into his basket. "I did guard all of you while all the men were gone, didn't I?"

Katara simply rolled her eyes at that and glanced over to check his work. "'C'mon, Sokka! Me and Zuko already filled our baskets. Yours is only half full."

Naturally, Sokka did the exact opposite of what his little sister wanted, and put his basket down. "I don't even eat these things. Only women like berries. I eat meat, like a man."

Behind them, Zuko straitened sent a glare at the other boy. He had, at that very moment, been popping a handful of mealy berries in his mouth. But of course, his thoughts could never be expressed, and the two siblings were far too involved in their discussion to take notice.

"Fine," said Katara, "I guess me and Zuko will have to penguin-sled all by ourselves, then."

This earned her a quick look from both boys — derision from her brother, and confusion for Zuko's part, for he hadn't seen a penguin yet, much less thought about sledding on one.

"You didn't— we don't have time…" Sokka began, but was silenced immediately when Katara pulled out three small fish from one of her pockets.

Curious, Zuko put down his own basket and walked over. He plucked at Katara's fur-lined sleeve and pointed to the fish, asking for an explanation. Her eyes, though, were centered with her brother in a silent match of wills. Finally Sokka gave an indifferent shrug and once again picked up his basket. "I guess we could," he allowed, "since Zuko's probably never been. But I get to pick where we sled. You always pick the stupid runs."

"Okay," she chirped, returning the small fish to her pocket.

Zuko looked from one sibling to another, feeling a bite of impatience. But they returned back to their berry picking, neither apparently feeling the need to explain what penguin-sledding actually was. He gave a silent sigh and stomped back over to his own basket. He hated not being able to talk.

 

OoOoOoOoO

 

"We're almost there!" Sokka called. The fierce wind carried his words away in an instant, and if Zuko not been only a few feet behind, he might not have heard them at all. "Just keep going!"

Zuko reached up to readjust his hood — he had already lost feeling in his unburned ear from the cold, and tightened his grip on the penguin. The animal was at least warm, and lay passively in his arms, apparently content to be carried up to a crazy height and be ridden upon on the way down. Behind him, Katara clutched at her own penguin, a grim sort of look on her young face.

Sokka was actually having the worst of it. In his zeal, he had picked a penguin that was nearly the size of himself, and was struggling to march it up the snowy hill.

Actually hill wasn't the right word for it. As they came to the top, a few other choice terms came to Zuko's mind; precipice, mountain, death-trap. It was a sharp descent that went further down than he could even see. The very snow seemed to glint with malice, as if daring them to try their hand.

"This is your idea of a sled-run?" Katara demanded, turning to her brother. The sharp winter wind whipped at her hair loopies, making them flop crazily about her face.

Sokka didn't dignify that with a response, and set his penguin down belly first. "This is the best sled-run ever. You're just being a scaredy cat-chicken," he said, but made no move to slide off the edge.

"Oh yeah, well why aren't you going down there, oh brave warrior?"

They started to bicker again, and Zuko thought he could just scream from frustration. He was wet and cold. The freezing wind made his eyes water, and as he glanced down he thought that it had to be less windy at the bottom, if not warmer.

And now both Katara and Sokka had their voices raised, snapping back and forth words that were whipped away in an instant by the freezing wind. Zuko couldn't take it anymore. He shoved between Katara and Sokka, cutting their argument off short. Then, copying Sokka's move, he laid his penguin down on its belly and climbed on.

"Zuko, what are you doing?" Katara began, but it was too late. He had already kicked off, and in a moment he was gone.

The two Water Tribe siblings looked at each other, and then with a mutual shrug, got on their penguins. After all, even Katara had to admit that there was a bit of pride at stake. Neither one of them was going to be shown up by the Fire Nation kid on their own turf. With one deep breath they too kicked off and headed down the steep mountain.

The first few seconds of Zuko's first penguin-sledding ride were some of the most terrifying in his life. He was no longer cold — he was too scared to be cold. He whipped down the mountain at speeds he'd only dreamt of — the few bushes and rocks that were tall enough to peek out of the deep snow flashed by at a blur, and all he could see ahead of him was snow and the steep angle of the steep mountain-side.

Then he realized that he was safe, for he wasn't alone. He was on top of a penguin. Its sleek feathers cut through the snow like the sharpest of knives, gliding effortlessly over and around all obstacles. It was an old bird, and this was not its first time being ridden. It swerved this way and that, keeping himself and the child safe.

And with the fear gone, pure exhilaration took its place. Zuko grinned against the stinging wind, and would have whooped for joy if he had the capability. He turned behind him and saw that Sokka and Katara were following some fifty-feet away. But he was the one cutting the trail, and they were so far behind they'd never catch up. He gripped the penguin's feathers, silently urging it faster.

But there was a shrill voice on the wind. Again Zuko glanced back and saw Sokka waving desperately at him, trying to get his attention. He was pointing ahead, and when Zuko looked his heart felt like it dropped down to his stomach.

Just down the mountain slope was a steep curve. The path to the right led to safety. Straight ahead and to the left looked to be a sheer drop off.

Oh no.

The penguin didn't seem to see what he saw, and Zuko tugged on its feathers and pounded on its right shoulder, trying to get the thing to turn. But the cliff was looming close now, and out of panic Zuko looked back one more time for help... As if in slow motion he saw Katara's lovely face, clearly saw her fear for him… and then she turned away as the penguin she was riding turned to safety. Zuko's plowed straight ahead and he faced forward again just time to see the bottom of the world drop out from under him.

He had sometimes wondered what it would feel like to actually fly like the airbenders of legend, and for a spare second it actually felt like he was. He penguin had been sliding so fast that the simply arced out, and out…

Then gravity kicked in and they were falling. Zuko's mouth opened in a silent scream. He flailed and kicked away from the penguin, somehow knowing that if they landed together the bird would be crushed under him. The drop seemed to last forever, although it only about twenty feet or so. Then he landed in the soft snow, and rolled over and over, throwing up a shower of brilliant white snow.

He ended up on his back, arms and legs out. At first he thought that surely he was dead, and he waited for darkness to hit him. It didn't, of course, and after a few seconds he blinked and shook his head. The impact had rattled every bone in his body, although nothing felt like it was hurting…

"Zuko!"

"Zuko!"

Katara and Sokka came skidding to a stop beside him, having taken the more roundabout, sane way down the mountain. They rushed over, and Katara helped him sit up.

Instantly, Zuko gagged. It felt like something had lodged itself deep in his throat, around his neck scar. Zuko gagged again and coughed hard once, twice, three times, turning on all fours. Helpfully, Sokka pounded on his back.

Whatever it was came loose. Zuko swallowed hard, tasting both metallic blood and sour pus. His throat burned from inside around the scar. But it was a strange, good kind of pain. Like the pain of removing a festering splinter. He spat on the snow, and it came out both red and green. "Ugh."

Then he stopped and looked up at his friends. His light gold eyes were wide in surprise.

"Did you just…" Katara began. She had backed away at first, thinking that Zuko was about to throw up, but instantly she was at his side again, helping him get to his feet.

Zuko tried again. "Yes—" his voice was distorted, and he coughed again sharply into his hand, and spat, clearing the last of the blockage out. This time when he spoke his voice was normal — or as normal as it was ever going to get. There would always be a certain scratchy quality to it, and a hint of a lisp. But he would never again be forced to sit silently on the side, accidentally ostracized by muteness. "I can talk!" then, proudly, he said it again, just because he could. "I can talk!"

Katara grinned and threw her arms around him in a quick hug. "How is that possible?"

"I… I'm not sure." It felt strange to voice his thoughts, and when Katara stepped back, he absently rubbed at his neck. "It felt like something in my throat got knocked out when I landed."

Sokka, meanwhile, was less concerned with the why or how, but rather the result. He was practically preening. "I told you that was the best sled-run ever. You're welcome, by the way." He stepped forward, throwing a friendly arm about Zuko's shoulders. "So… do you wanna go again? Maybe you'll knock some memories loose this time."

"Sokka!" Katara glared at her brother, hands on her hips. "He could have broken his neck!"

"He didn't, did he? It just fixed him," he shot back, and then turned to Zuko, addressing him like an equal for nearly the first time in their brief relationship. "What do you say? First one down the hill wins? And no shortcuts this time."

Zuko looked back at the tall cliff and gulped painfully. That was probably the most horrible short-cut he'd ever taken. But he knew Sokka well enough now to see that the other boy was sort of testing him. There was no way he was going to back down. Not now. "Sure," he said, to Katara's obvious disgust. But Zuko felt fine — more than fine, and when he spat again as an experiment it came out clear. He looked around for his make-shift sled and saw it standing some way off, half of its feathers ruffled up and sticking the wrong way. "I think I'll need a new penguin, though."

 

OoOoOoOoO

 

Zuko now had a voice in the world around him, but it didn't mean that anything had really changed. There were still chores to be done: Food had to be gathered for the upcoming winter, and vital skills needed to be learned. But with each passing day, Zuko set his mind to his tasks. He set himself to learn as much as he could about his new life here, because now that he could talk he hated asking for help — most of the time it was only given grudgingly by the adults. He didn't any natural skills for what they considered to be the basics, and sometimes when Zuko was feeling the most frustrated he cursed his old life — whatever it had been — and wondered if he had been good at anything back in the Fire Nation.

But he was determined to see out any task assigned. More importantly, he never gave up. And he learned… sometimes only through trial and error, but it was still learning. Each passing day was better than the last, and he knew that one day he would be just as good as all the others at fishing, and cutting line, and skinning, and all the rest.

He grew stronger too. The fever that had so racked his body on the ship had gone. Healer Kuthruk examined him, and his newly unblocked throat, and declared him as fit as any other youngster — aside from the scarring on his face and neck.

The men returned from their whaling rip soon after that, and it was a sweet moment for Zuko to clasp his hands and bow to Chief Hakoda, formally welcoming him back with a strong voice. The Chief's eyes widened, and he ruffled Zuko's hair and claimed that both he and Sokka had grown at least an inch since he saw them last, nearly three weeks ago.

The Chief and his brave men had brought back two whales for the tribe, and the next days were spent slicing thick slabs of meat off the bone, and storing it in the smokehouse and cold-caves for the winter. It was hard, messy work which Zuko would have despised if not for Sokka promising to show him how to make spears out of the remaining whale bone.

He, Zuko, and Katara sat around the fire in Hakoda's hut late one night, four days after the men had returned. The Chief was gone on some kind of meeting which adults found important, but the children found boring.

Zuko often spent much of his time there. Even if the large hut wasn't always warm in temperature, it was warm in spirit. A far cry from Auya's hut. Zuko only went there to sleep, and even then he was the first one up and out by morning.

While the boys worked at sharpening spear-points, Katara worked on her own project — a simple whalebone necklace. She had also gotten it into her head to quiz Zuko on his past life in the Fire Nation for the last hour and a half. She could, perhaps, jog his memory. It would have annoyed him, but she was his first friend he'd made here, and Zuko was nothing if not loyal.

"So, if the sun doesn't stay down all winter, is it always like summer?" Katara asked, blinking her brilliantly blue eyes against the firelight in confusion. Zuko had just told her that the Fire Nation was centered near the equator, so there wasn't any real distinction between the seasons. "How do you know what season it is, then?"

Zuko, who was sharpening his spear-point with a black rock and casually glancing to Sokka to see if he was doing it right, shrugged. "I don't know. The fire sages keep a calendar. Plus, there's always a three day festival during the summer solstice."

She pounced immediately on that, because it was rare when he'd offer something so detailed. "Okay! Think about that, then. Think really, really, really hard. Try to remember the last solstice."

With a sigh, he put down the sharpening rock and squeezed his eyes shut. It was no use. "It's not working."

"But you remember—"

"No, I don't," Zuko said. Katara had been at this for an hour and he was starting to get a headache. "Look, I know the Fire Nation has summer solstice festivals. I know that there's a lot of fire works at night and more fire flakes than you can eat, but I can't picture any of it. It's just… gone."

"Oh." Katara sat, deflated for all of ten seconds before brightening. "Well, you'll just have to think of something else then. There has to be some kind of memory left in there."

"You mean in the big empty space that's Zuko's head?" Sokka chimed in, helpfully.

Zuko shoved him for that, and then passed his spear point over for inspection. "How does this look?"

The other boy gave it the eye of a professional before handing it back. "It needs to be pointier."

They worked in silence for a few minutes, and Zuko was left alone with his thoughts. Where had all of his memories gone, anyway? Were they still there, inside of him? Would he ever get them back? Did he want to get them back?

And what kind of person was he… back then?

He had accidentally voiced this last part out loud, and Katara looked up at him with her compassionate blue eyes. Sokka, though, thought he had answer. "You know what I think?" he asked, and then continued when no one actually said anything, "I think the Fire Nation was going to do something really bad, like attack a whole bunch of helpless people in the Earth Kingdom or something. But Zuko found out, and because he's slightly less evil than the rest of them—"

"Hey!"

"—he tried to stop it. And he did, and for punishment they scarred him and then brainwashed him so you couldn't remember anything."

"That's stupid," Katara declared.

For his part, Zuko agreed, although he did sort of like the fact that he was the hero of the story. "Fine, then how did I get on the Fire Nation ship? Healer Kuthruk told me they found me hiding in a life-raft."

Sokka seemed to think about this for a moment. Then he shrugged. "I don't know."

Zuko sighed and went back to sharpening his spear-point. Sokka's own had a curved edge, like a scythe, and he wanted to copy that.

There was the sound of crunching snow just outside the tent as two sets of feet walked by. This was nothing unusual, but the lowered voices that accompanied it, was. Instantly, it got the children's attention, and with a mutual glance they all slid over to the side of the tent, pressing their ears against the soft blue cloth. Katara stifled a giggle, and Sokka hushed her immediately.

From their position, they could clearly hear the hushed voices of the two speakers. Kana and Auya.

"—don't like it. Not one bit," Auya was saying, "The Tribe has brought him back up to health, and yet he's still here. He has his voice, now, doesn't he?"

They were talking about him. Zuko felt his stomach clench, and behind the children — unseen and unnoticed — the small cooking fire in the center pit of the tent grew brighter.

"Yes," Kana agreed, "he does. But surely, he's no trouble to you, Auya?"

"Trouble?" she let out a single bark of a laugh. "No, except for the fact I can't get any sleep at night. Who could, with Fire Nation blood that in the same tent as me — near my family and my child."

Behind the kids, the fire flared higher.

"He's just a boy. If Hakoda thought him any danger—"

"I know, Kana. Really, I do. But my point is this; the Tribe has done a good thing in bringing him in. It would be unfair to raise him as one of us. He lives with my family, and I know him best. Take him to… to Kyoshi Island. They're soft-hearted, and they'd never treat him wrong for being what he is."

"No…" Katara cried before Sokka slapped a hand over her mouth.

There was a distinct pause, and all the children held their breath, fearing they had been heard. But Kana had merely been considering Auya's request, and finally she said, "I will speak to Hakoda about this. He has told me that the people of Kyoshi value their female children over their boys, but you are right… they would take him in."

Auya replied with something else, but the two women were moving away from the tent now, and were quickly out of hearing range.

Sokka, Katara, and Zuko sat there for a moment unable to move for the lingering fear they'd get caught. Distantly, Zuko realized that Katara had clutched his hand and that Sokka's fingers were digging into his shoulder. He let out a long sigh — the still unnoticed bright fire went down to normal strength — and it almost seemed to release them.

"No, they can't do this!" Katara looked up to her big brother, fingers tightening around Zuko's hand. "Sokka, you gotta go and tell dad that Zuko should stay right here."

Zuko, too, was looking to Sokka. He didn't know why. Maybe it was because Katara trusted him to lead, and so he did as well. "Auya's lying, Sokka. She doesn't know me! She… she doesn't even talk to me!" He wanted to throw something in frustration. Only Katara's tight hold on his hand kept him still. "I don't want to leave!"

Sokka looked at both of them for a moment, and then sighed, turning away to crawl back over and poke at the fire with a stick. For some reason, the flame had eaten though the logs he'd just put on. "Dad always said that Zuko would only be staying with us for awhile."

"But—" Katara started to protest, and was silenced by her brother's swift glare. He wasn't done yet.

"So I can't just go begging to keep him around, because his mind's already made up. He'll just have to see for himself that Zuko is better being Water Tribe then Fire Nation."

"How do I do that?" Zuko asked. He dropped Katara's hand, and paced about in agitation, feeling desperate. He didn't want to leave everyone he knew and be adopted into some Earth Kingdom family. He loved it here. He didn't even mind being cold — so much.

"I don't know," Sokka admitted, poking moodily into the fire. Then suddenly he straightened, smiling. "But I have an idea!" He stood up, "Dad's going to take me ice fishing tomorrow. He promised a few weeks ago, remember? Why don't you come along with us? I can lend you some fish or something when we catch them, and he'll see that you're such a great hunter that he's bound to let you stay."

"Do you really think it will work?"

"'Course. My plans always work. You can ask Katara."

Zuko turned to Katara. She bit her lower lip and nodded. "Yeah. Sometimes they do," she admitted. But her eyes were shining with hope.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

“Remember your Breath of Fire! It could save your life out there!”

~ Iroh, The Siege of The North Part 1


 

 

"Zuko, come on!" called Sokka, early the next morning. Shoving the fur-flap door aside, the Water Tribe boy quickly ducked in. "Dad's got the sledge all packed and—" he paused as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, and he saw what was going on. "Katara, are you playing with his hair?"

"She is not playing with my hair." Zuko was sitting down, both arms and legs crossed, a scowl highlighting the scar on his left side. But Katara was knelt behind him, and there was no doubt about it, she was fixing his raven black hair.

Sokka started laughing, so overcome that he nearly doubled over.

Zuko growled and made to reach for him, but Katara had too good of a hold on his hair and jerked him back.

"Stop it!" she snapped, "I'm almost finished!"

Sokka, of course, couldn't help but twist the knife in further. With a final gasp and a wide grin he sat up. "I should have just had you join Gran-Gran instead of Dad and me… I never thought you'd look so pretty with all those ribbons in your hair."

"What?!" Zuko reached up, but his hand was slapped back by Katara.

"Don't! You'll ruin it."

"You promised that you wouldn't put in any ribbons!"

"I didn't." With a final tug — a little harder than was strictly necessary — Katara finished and grabbed a small mirror.

With a good deal of trepidation, Zuko looked. Katara had kept her word. She had pulled his hair from its high phoenix tail on the top of his head further back so it was more in line with the warrior's wolf tail that the Water Tribe men sported. She kept a piece in front out of the band, and had strung two deep blue beads of the Water Tribe colors. He had the scar on one side of his face, and the beads of the Water Tribe on the other. It was strangely appropriate.

"Hmm… he does look less Fire Nationy." Sokka said, in approval. Then he reached down, hauling Zuko up to his feet. "Dad's waiting. It's time to go."

Katara, too, leapt up to her feet. "I wanna go!" She had never before expressed the slightest interest in coming along on an ice-fishing trip. In fact, she still didn't really want to come along, but she was young and she hated to be left behind while the boys had all the fun.

"Sorry Katara." With his hand still firmly around Zuko's arm, Sokka started to drag him out. "This is a trip for men only. No girls allowed."

She pouted, and Zuko turned, hesitating, not wanting to be as dismissive as her brother. But Sokka was tugging hard on his arm, and he had to go.

"Sorry Katara," he echoed, before he was pulled outside.

It was still very early. The sun had just risen over the far eastern horizon, and the air was thick with fog and pale wintery shadows. Off in the distance, Zuko could hear the high whine of polar-dogs, and the scrape of nails against ice.

Sokka pulled him in that direction, and in a few moments they could see Hakoda, a solid figure in the elusive frozen fog. He was bending over and running lines of hemp rope from the polar-dog's harnesses to the main sledge. His team of five polar-dogs yelped and whined in excitement, leaping back and forth against the ropes, but the sledge's brakes were down and the craft held steady.

Sensing the boys approach, Hakoda straightened and turned. Zuko saw him give a pause over his new appearance, and he caught a small nod and a gleam of approval in his blue eyes.

"We're nearly ready to go, boys. Sokka, show Zuko how to get in the sledge. You'll be in front, and he'll be to the back."

"Okay Dad!" And abruptly Sokka jerked Zuko to the side.

The sledge itself was a longly shaped contraption balanced on two rails that stuck out several feet in the front and the back. The driver either ran along between the rails, or else rested by standing on them while the polar-dogs pulled. The basket itself was neatly packed with fishing poles and blankets to the sides, and covering furs in the middle. At Sokka's direction, Zuko sat himself down with his back braced against rear of the sledge.

Sokka's eyes were bright with excitement, and his easy confidence with the rigging quelled Zuko's small nervousness. After all, he doubted the Fire Nation had anything like polar-dog sledges. He had no experience at this whatsoever.

A moment later, Hakoda was at the driver's position in the back, and with a shift of weight to break the ice around the rails he yelled out, "HAW!"

As one, the five polar-dogs lurched against their bindings. The sledge creaked and jolted forward. Then they were off and gliding over the snow.

Zuko let out a breathless laugh, surprised at power of the dogs — of the speed. Hakoda seemed to be running flat out, gripping the main sledge and pushing it along just as the dogs were pulling.

"You have to lean into the turns!" Sokka yelled from just in front.

"What?"

But a moment later, after another sharp call from Hakoda, the dogs shifted direction like a well-timed flight of birds. Sokka's back was pressed against Zuko's front, and he felt the Water Tribe boy lean to the right in time with the animals. Zuko copied it, even though he felt as if he was going to spill out of the basket at any second. Of course, he didn't, and a moment later the sledge had straightened and they were once again flying across the snowy tundra.

It was by no means a smooth journey — or even a peaceful one. The dogs yelped loudly, and often. The snowpack was bumpy and uneven. Zuko knew that his rear would be sore by the end of the day.

He didn't care.

They traveled ceaselessly, tirelessly, over the frozen landscape. After a few minutes, Zuko settled back, content to watch the landscape zip by faster than he could ever run.

Plus, he was tired — he had spent much of last night wide awake and thinking about what Auya had said about him. Now he was away from the village, and with each passing moment, further away from her. He trusted Sokka, and he trusted in Katara's hope. Maybe by the time they got back home Sokka would have somehow convinced Hakoda to let him stay?

By mid-day the snowy land flattened out to a glossy sort of smoothness. Hakoda called out that they were crossing a large frozen lake, and to keep their eyes peeled for any rotten ice.

Zuko didn't know what made ice rotten. He peered about anxiously anyway, but saw nothing but blank, white snow.

The lake might have been frozen, but it seemed to stretch on and on until the sledge was in the middle and Zuko couldn't see anything on any direction but white flatness. The view might have gotten dull. But Hakoda had his own way of keeping the boys minds sharp and entertained.

"Look there, but not too closely!" Hakoda braced himself against the two back rails, resting for a moment, and raised one mittened hand out to the west. Zuko followed it, and saw what looked to be a small wisp of fog two ship lengths away, barely visible against the bright snow and pure blue sky.

Sokka saw it too, and craned his neck around, looking to his father. "What is it?"

"It's a wraith." Hakoda's face was grim. "They're angry spirits, killed in battle. If you're alone and you see one out in the wilderness you look away. They are vengeful things, and change shape to trick and lead men to their early deaths."

Zuko's eyes widened and he looked out again with a wary eye at the wisp of fog — was it his imagination, or was it getting closer? He shivered and pulled the edge of his hood down so that he could barely see it out of the corner of his good eye.

He felt Sokka scoff, but Zuko could feel how tense he was. Hakoda didn't allow them to linger at the spot, and with another quick command to the dogs, he mushed them forward. Soon the wraith was a distant speck along the horizon.

They finally slowed to a stop on the frozen lake's far bank. Once there had been a hardy polar forest there, but now only dead, charred trees littered the edge of the bank. Most had fallen into decay along the ground, but a couple had bits of life still in them and withered green shoots reached up to the sky.

"When I was a boy, this used to be a vast arctic forest. It burned down a good ten years ago," said Hakoda, as the boys looked on in wonder. Left unsaid, and immediately clear to all three of them, was exactly the reason for the forest's disappearance: The Fire Nation. "But," continued Hakoda, in a decidedly more upbeat tone. "It still makes for a great fishing spot. Start unloading the gear, boys. We will camp here."

 


 

OoOoOoOoO


 

 

"This is ice-fishing? It's boring."

"Be quiet. You'll scare away the fish."

"Scare away what fish? It's been an hour—"

"Shhh! I think I see something! No… wait… wait, that's just a twig."

Zuko groaned in frustration. He didn't care what Sokka said. Sitting around a hole in the ice with just a little line, bait, and a hook was cold and boring. He also felt a certain kind of desperation the longer they went without a bite. How was he to convince Hakoda to let him stay with the Water Tribe if he couldn't even catch a measly fish?

He glanced over and saw the Chief setting up the camp and feeding pieces of frozen fish to the polar-dogs back on the bank. The fact that he had been allowed to come at all had to be a good sign, right?

Zuko was determined to stay. But how?

A flash of something white drew Zuko's attention. Putting a hand up to shield his eyes against the still bright sun, he looked out across the frozen lake. A small cloud of white was rising from the ice only fifty feet away, more solid than a vapor, but it wasn't an animal… if he squinted his eyes it looked a lot like the wraith he had seen earlier.

"Sokka!"

"Shhh!"

Zuko grabbed his arm and pointed. "Look! Do you think it's…" he didn't want to finish, for fear of seeming stupid in Sokka's eyes.

But the other boy was following his thoughts, and skeptic that he was, he shook his head. "No. Dad was just making that stuff up. Wraith's aren't really real."

"Yeah… I guess."

Despite their words, neither boy moved a muscle. They stared out with wide eyes as the drift of white in the air became larger and larger. Then, almost as Sokka was about to turn around and call for his father, they saw a pair of long white ears pop out from the base of the thing, almost as if growing from the ice.

Immediately, Sokka relaxed. "It's just a stupid squirrel-rabbit digging around and throwing up snow." Then he brightened and stood up, reaching beside him for the sharp ivory knife Hakoda used to cut the fishing-hole. "Let's kill it and eat it!"

"But…" Zuko glanced at their fishing pole and at the unmoving line. "What about the fish?"

"Who cares about the fish? They're boring. Let's get some real meat. Look, do you want my dad to see you as a great hunter or not?"

That was all it took. With a nod, Zuko followed Sokka's example; he sunk down and moved quickly forward, stalking their prey.

 


 

OoOoOoOoO


 

 

From the shore, Hakoda noticed the movement of the boys from the corner of his eye. He paused his work, and stood up, watching them with a slight smile across his tanned features. It wasn't a good habit to abandon one's fishing post, but he couldn't help noticing the way his son and the Fire Nation boy moved — hunting whatever they were after as a team, pausing, ducking before darting forward.

Well, perhaps if they were successful, he would teach the new hunters how to gut and cook their kill tonight.

If he knew exactly what Sokka and Zuko were hunting, he would not have been amused at all. He would have been alarmed, and rightfully so. What Hakoda didn't know was that a group of pesky squirrel-rabbits had moved in and recently dug a warren of tunnels through the ice to escape the ashy, corrosive soil of their burned out forest home. Those tunnels weakened the ice.

Hakoda continued watching the boys, feeling a mix of fatherly pride for his son and mingled amusement for the antics of the young. Whatever they were hunting had to be small, because he couldn't see it from his distance. He could see how they seriously they were taking the hunt, and how Sokka silently directed Zuko with small hand gestures. Suddenly Zuko paused in his step and stand up to his full height. The Chief's eyebrows knit; what was the kid doing?

 


 

OoOoOoOoO


 

 

Far out, across the ice, Zuko stood up and looked around in confusion. There seemed to be dozens and dozens of circular burrows in the ice. At first, he had passed them off as some sort of shadows because they blended in so well with the environment — at least, until he had nearly stepped in one. Now the more he looked the more he saw, and the uneasier he became. "What are these holes doing everywhere?"

"What holes?" Sokka's focus was only for the juicy little meat creature just up ahead. The wind was with him, and he didn't want the Fire Nation kid to mess anything up. He took another cautious step — and then stumbled when his foot sunk down. "Hey! What's this stupid hole doing here?" He tried to tug his foot up, but it was stuck.

"I don't know." Zuko walked over and bent to give Sokka a hand, gripping his ankle and pulling upward. It didn't work, and he tugged again; harder. The sudden jarring along with their combined weight on the thin ice caused an unexpected effect:

CRACK.

The sound was so loud it echoed far and out repeated over and over again across the frozen lake. And it had come from under them.

Sokka and Zuko looked at their feet, at the pitted, slightly mushy ice, then at each other; twin looks of horror on their faces.

"Oh no." And that was all Sokka had time to say.

Another horrible crack and Zuko and Sokka fell down, down, down into the freezing cold water.

It felt as if a thousand knives were stabbing into him at once. Zuko opened his mouth to scream, and the water rushed in. His legs spasmed, kicked. His head broke the surface and he was able to take one cold, sharp breath that hurt more than anything else before he went down again — weighted by boots and a heavy, waterlogged parka.

The knives cut in deeper. He wanted to breathe in, but couldn't. His hand reached upward, grasping onto a razor sharp piece of ice to the side of the hole. He hauled himself up — heedless that it was cutting his hand and was able to gasp for air. "HELP!" he yelled to no one — everyone. "HELP!"

"Hold on!" He could see Hakoda, still far out in the distance, throw a length of rope around his middle and attach the other end to the sledge. The ice had cracked far out in all directions — he could only inch forward, testing one foot at a time to see if it would hold his weight, or else fall into the water himself.

Sokka, crawled up beside Zuko, his hands scrabbling against the ice to find purchase. But the ice was brittle and broke away as soon as he put is weight to it. Zuko reached for him, but Sokka slipped and fell under again. Zuko's own arms were losing strength, and he tried to hold onto the edge, but he was so cold already he could no longer feel his own fingers. As if in slow motion, he felt himself sliding down, sinking slowly under the water…

He could see the surface just above, and reached towards it, his hand silhouetted against the bright pale sun…

 

FLASH

 

And suddenly he was waking up in his bed. He blinked in confusion and sat up, turning towards the front of his bedroom.

A girl stood there, outlined by the bright crescent light behind the door. She about Katara's age and height, and was dressed in fine red robes. Her raven black hair was done up into an elegant knot, her skin a beautiful shade of porcelain — her smile was nothing short of malicious, her amber eyes narrowed, glinting almost evily.

What did she want now?

She opened her mouth and spoke… something. Zuko couldn't hear the words, although he knew somehow he had understood her in the past. Whatever she was saying… It was horrible.

Zuko shook his head, feeling a mix of white hot anger and genuine fear. He controlled himself by a force of will, gripping the edge of the blanket, and yelled back at her.

The girl just grinned, and she nearly skipped over to his bedside in her excitement — talking, laughing, mocking… torturous words that made him shake his head again and grip his blanket so hard he thought he was going to set it ablaze.

No… She was lying…

FLASH

 

A strong hand wrapped around his wrist, and Zuko felt himself being lifted up, up and out. With one massive heave, Hakoda pulled him to safety and hauled him, coughing and gagging, out on the ice.

Then the Chief turned away and went back to the break in the ice. He inched out, flat on his stomach, reaching out and yelling at his son to come closer. Sokka was still in the water.

Zuko wanted to go help, but his very mind felt frozen. His lungs felt withered in his chest. Each breath was short and painful. He was shivering so hard it was almost like a seizure. Inside, nerves were firing randomly, desperately trying to keep him moving. Keep him warm.

He was cold… colder than he had ever been in his life. So cold he almost felt hot. But even that sensation was fading, and it was harder to harder to breathe. Black dots hovered at the very edge of his vision.

Something — he would never quite be sure what — made him pause his gasping for only a moment. He gave a controlled breath out; deep down and out again.

Steam billowed from his nose and mouth. A flick of heat lit from within. It was enough to make Zuko breathe like that again; deep down nearly from his belly. In through his nose and out his mouth. With each deep breath, the warmth grew outward. Finally, on his third exhalation, a small tongue of flame flicked out from between his teeth.

Zuko felt a wave of glorious heat rush through his body, unfreezing his blood.

He was trembling still, but it was the trembles of adrenaline and not cold. He blinked melting water from his eyes and sat up in time to see Hakoda haul Sokka out from the water.

The Chief paused, momentarily surprised to see Zuko aware and alert. Something flickered across his face — something more than relief. But Zuko was in not in the right mind to be perceptive. He could only stare at Sokka. The other boy's lips were blue from cold, his normally healthily tanned skin a pallid grey. And each breath he took sounded ragged, painful.

"Get up," Hakoda rasped, either to Zuko or Sokka, it didn't matter. Still on his stomach, he slid himself and Sokka across the thinner ice to where it was more a deep-set white — thicker. Staggering to stand, he set his own son on his feet. "You must keep moving."

Zuko was still cold, and he was soaked from head to foot, but now faint wisps of steam were coming off his shoulders. He stood to Chief Hakoda's command, shivering, but alert. Sokka was far worse off. "How can I help?"

The Chief stared at him as if he was an aberration, but Sokka was leaning listlessly in his arms, so gray he looked like a corpse. Every second counted, and this wasn't the time or the place to ask. "Go into my pack. We need to start a fire and get Sokka in blankets. He needs to keep moving, and he needs to get warm." Suddenly Sokka pitched forward, retching, and Hakoda tenderly held his shoulders, steadying him. "There now, son… Let it out…"

Zuko didn't give him a second look. He tore off to the sledge, pushing away eagerly sniffing polar-dogs, and ripped off a mitten to dive his hand in the pack and search around. Either he was too panicked to look properly, or the spark-rocks were in a different pack. Either way, he couldn't find them.

Hakoda was nearly at the bank and was removing Sokka's wet, frozen clothing. Zuko turned back and dumped out the contents of the pack, scattering kindling and wrapped fishing hooks in the snow. The spark-rocks weren't there. He could have cried out from frustration. Sokka was going to die because he couldn't start a fire.

… Or could he?

The memory rose again, along with a hot flash of bile. He had been so angry at the girl that he had to control himself from starting the blanket on fire…

Zuko didn't think about what it meant. He couldn't think or else he would have scared himself out of doing it. He'd seen firebending before, from the soldiers on the Fire Nation ship. And nearly breathed fire back then, didn't he? Abandoning the pack, he ran over to Hakoda, ignoring the man's sharp questions.

There was a downed log not too far off, and he grabbed rough stump of a limb in his cold fingers, pulling it over. Hakoda was barking something at him — demanding to know what he was doing, and where were the spark-rocks and kindling? Zuko ignored him. He took a sharp breath through his mouth, letting it out through his nose, closed his eyes, and punched as hard as he could.

His knuckles bit sharply against the wood, and something — some part of him seemed to rush out from between his knuckles. Instantly, the log was ablaze.

Hakoda jerked back in shock, his free hand moving to his belt knife. But the slowly dying son in his arms was the clear priority, and with a single nod, he directed Zuko to come help him with Sokka's clothing. They removed the sodden furs, and switched them with Hakoda's own parka.

Then, shoving, gripping, pleading, threatening, they made Sokka walk around and around the fire. Keeping his blood moving. Keeping him warm.

Sokka moved like a sleep-walker; in and out of consciousness. A couple of times, Hakoda had to slap his face to keep him awake. Zuko saw the twin flashes of pain on both father and son's face —how it killed Hakoda to do that. But Sokka had to keep moving.

It worked; fire was warm and slowly the color returned back to his lips, even if his face remained an unhealthy shade of gray.

"Dad…" Sokka whispered, eyes still closed, listing against his father. "I'm tired…"

"I know, son." Hakoda put his hand to Sokka's cheek, testing its warmth. Finally satisfied he gave another nod. "I think you'll be okay now. You've earned yourself a rest." Carefully, he sat down and Sokka leaned against him, out in a moment. Then, for the first time in an hour Hakoda looked up from his son and at the Fire Nation boy across the fire.

Zuko gulped audibly, feeling pierced by those blue eyes. He sat down, across from them, drawing his legs up to his chest. "I… I didn't know…" he muttered miserably, looking away.

He hadn't allowed himself to think about it until now. He was a firebender. Like the Fire Nation men on the ship. Hakoda would surely think that Zuko would be like them… Evil like them…

"I just started breathing, and it made me warm, and I thought… I thought 'Well if I can do that then I should be able to light a log on fire.'" Zuko was rambling now, trying to explain himself; but after all he had only gotten his voice back a few weeks ago, and he wasn't very practiced yet. And he was scared, so scared that deep down inside he was just as evil as the rest of the firebenders. "And… and I saw something when I was under the water. I don't know who she was, but she was lying. I knew that she was lying— and I'm not like them! I'm not! I was angry at her, but I didn't do anything—"

"Zuko."

Hakoda's deep voice cut into his nearly hysterical rambling with the force of a slap. Zuko looked up at him, his light gold eyes wide. "I want you to stop, and take a deep breath. We will address this," his eyes flicked to the fire, "later. Right now… Right now…" he trailed off, losing his own words, and Zuko realized at that moment that the Chief was nearly as shaken as he was. But for different reasons. He had almost just lost his son.

"Sokka… He's going to be okay, right?" he asked, his voice small.

"I don't know." Again Hakoda was looking at him, and when he spoke next it wasn't as a Water Tribe Chief to a nearly hysterical, afraid boy. It was something kinder than that, almost in the way he would talk to Sokka on the few occasions he would become upset and irrational. "We need to get him back to the healer. I'm going to pack up the sledge, and we will ride back as fast as we can. Zuko… How ever you made yourself warm — can you do that for him? Can you keep Sokka warm on the way back, too?"

"I… I think so." Meeting Hakoda's blue eyes, Zuko felt his resolve strengthen. "Yes."

They bundled up Sokka as best they could, wrapping him in all the furs and blankets they had. Zuko had a brief worry for Hakoda, as he had given up his own parka to replace Sokka's. Now he was visibly shivering in his blue tunic, and the journey back would surely be cold with the sun going down — but the Chief was a strong man. Probably the strongest man Zuko had ever known, and he knew that if anyone could get them back safe it would be him.

Zuko sat in back of the other boy, wrapping his arms around him to make sure he didn't slip off the sledge. It was hard — Sokka was easily his weight, and had fallen back into a sickly sleep. He was in danger of flopping back and when the dogs ran over bumpy snow. But Zuko gripped him as best he could, and concentrated on breathing in and out — warming himself, and warming Sokka through his own heightened body-heat.

That was the hardest work of all. Zuko felt like something was being pulled from deep down inside of him, and eventually he became so hot that beads of sweat collected on his forehead — just to freeze again by the cold night wind. He wasn't doing this for himself, though, and no matter how uncomfortably warm he became and how tired he got — he kept going.

It took them half a day to ride out to the fishing spot, but Hakoda drove his dogs so mercilessly that it only took half that time to get back. In many ways, luck with them. The night was cloudless, and frozen enough so that the rails of the sledge had no problems. And the moon was full, almost as if she were looking out for Sokka's wellbeing herself.

"It's okay, Zuko. You can let go of him now."

Zuko became aware of the world again and realized that the sledge had stopped, and indeed Hakoda and Healer Kuthruk were standing over him, trying to pry him away from the sick boy. He had been so focused on keeping Sokka warm — so intent on his breathing, that he hadn't even noticed.

With a nod, he let go and crawled out the sledge, falling heavily to his knees when his legs refused to support him. A hand hooked under his arm and helped him to his feet: Hakoda. "I want you to get yourself back to Auya's tent. Don't leave there until I come and get you. Do you understand?" At Zuko's second tired nod, Hakoda favored him with a tight smile. "You did good today."

That buoyed him. He wanted to ask again if Sokka was going to be all right, but Hakoda had turned and was helping healer Kuthruk. It was all Zuko could do to stumble to Auya's tent, fall into his pallet on the far side of it, and pull the sleeping bag over his head.

 


 

OoOoOoOoO


 

 

The night was late, but sleep was the furthest thing from Hakoda's mind. He sat, a solemn figure in the shadows of Kuthruk's tent as the healer tended to his son; checking his fingers and toes for signs of frostbite, running a beaded amulet over his chest to realign his chi, and lighting spicy incense to encourage good blood flow.

Someone must have alerted Kana, for she appeared a few minutes after the sledge had arrived, pressing a mug of some kind of hot sweet drink in Hakoda's hands. She sat by him, her lined face pulled down in worry; a silent watcher; knowing that her son would tell her the circumstances behind the accident later. Right now, Kuthruk needed all of his attention on her grandson.

After rewrapping Sokka's hands in bandaging — he had scraped them up badly clinging for life on the ice — Kuthruk turned to Hakoda and Kana.

"No signs of frostbite or chilblains. Just simple exhaustion. Aside from those cuts on his hands. I wouldn't have guessed he'd fallen in for as long as you said he did. He must have real fire in his veins to survive that."

The healer had meant it as a light joke. He did not expect Hakoda's frown to deepen. "No," he said, after a moment, and anyone could tell that his mind was other places.

"He'll wake up soon, and he should be allowed to eat as much as he wants," Kuthruk continued, after an uncomfortable pause. Then he smiled reaching down to fondly tweak the sleeping boy's foot. "He should like that. A couple of days of bed rest, and he’ll be as good as new."

Finally, Hakoda seemed to relax. "That's good news. Thank you, Kuthruk."

Kana spoke softly. "Something is on your mind, Hakoda. I can tell."

The Chief sat silent for a moment, and then nodded. "You're right." He drew his hand down his face, feeling the weight of responsibility over his people, and as a father. "Zuko is a firebender."

The Healer was in the middle of putting away jars of salve, but at this he paused. "I see," he said, carefully and returned from his shelves to sit next to his Chief. "Tell me everything."

"I won't go into the entire story, because this will have to be told before the tribe, but he lit a fire for Sokka out of a half-frozen log. He kept him warm on the way back."

"He probably saved him from pneumonia, then." Kuthruk sighed and glanced back towards Sokka. "The tribe will not like this. Bad enough that the boy is Fire Nation, but a firebender?"

Hakoda nodded and said nothing.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 


 

"I know, maybe you could find a nice Earth Kingdom family to adopt you."

- Azula, Zuko Alone


 

 

Hakoda sat traditional style in the Tribe's great roundhouse — the largest structure in the village. As per the name, the structure was circular in shape, both as a nod to the Spirit of the Moon and to best fit as many people in as small of space as possible. A blazing fire had been lit up in the center of the room, and the air was pleasantly warm and smoky. Soon, he knew, it would be almost uncomfortably hot both with the warmth of the Tribe's adults packed in, and their angry words.

Bato took his place to Hakoda's right and sat whittling some kind of a figurine out of wood. Hakoda could sense his curiosity, but even his second in command and best friend would learn what happened with the rest of the tribe. He could read Bato like he could read himself, and he planned on using him as a gage to reflect the mood of his people.

Hakoda closed his eyes, collecting his thoughts — waiting. He heard murmured greetings as people slowly trickled in. Adult voices — for none of the children except for the smallest babies were allowed to attend. Someone grabbed up an aged seal-skin drum and began to pound out a low, welcoming thrum. As if that were a signal, the rest of the stragglers came in and took their seats.

Hastily called gatherings like this were rare. The tribe trusted Hakoda and his council of elders to make most of the major decisions in regards to when and where the next hunt would be, for marriage blessings, and war. But Hakoda was not a fool. This was a special situation; a decision that required the combined will of the tribe.

Finally, there was a small, almost imperceptible shift in the air. Even with his eyes shut, Hakoda knew that everyone had gathered and was waiting. He took a final deep breath to steady himself, and opened his eyes.

Instantly, a hush fell over the crowd.

"My brothers and sisters," he said, and his strong baritone voice carried easily to every ear. "I come to you today with a story to tell, and at the end we will decide as a people what to do about it. I ask only that you allow me to state my words first, and ask questions after."

He looked around, meeting blue gazes one by one — People, faces he had known all his life. They trusted him as their leader, just as they trusted his father before him to do the same. He hoped that it would be enough.

"I am sitting in front of you today as your Chief, but also as the father of Sokka. He is alive today because of the actions of Healer Kuthruk, and to the Fire Nation boy, Zuko."

So he began to tell his story, starting from the very beginning when Sokka first approached him asking if Zuko could come along on their ice-fishing trip.

Hakoda knew himself to be a great speaker. He knew how to stir a man's heart with stories, and how to frighten children into behaving during long winter months. Just as he had seen Sokka's own innate talent for creative planning, he had the ability to show the truth in his words, and make someone feel what he was speaking.

So when he told his people how one moment he was feeding the polar-dogs and watching the boys run off to hunt, and the next they had both fallen through the ice, some of the women gasped and Hakoda knew he had drawn them into his story.

"Most of you are aware," Hakoda said, pausing at that moment to sweep his gaze around the room, "of the choice I faced at that moment."

Some of the men looked away, not meeting his eyes. It was a cruel fact of Antarctic life that if two people were hypothermic and there was only one parka to go around — a brutal decision would have to be made. Hakoda was the only adult, the only one to build a fire and keep a boy moving around it.

It was every man's worst nightmare: Which to lend his jacket, and which to leave to death by exposure?

And they all knew, without saying, that this horrible thing had been on Hakoda's mind while he fished the boys free from the water — and of course Sokka had won.

Hakoda paused, letting that sink in, and he nodded his head once. "So you can imagine my shock when, after I pulled both boys out, Zuko got to his feet. Naturally, he was very cold, but lucid. And he was in a panic. When I told him to go make a fire to help warm up Sokka — he bent one instead."

A single gasp went up from around the villagers, along with an angry buzz. Hakoda held up his hand for silence. It took a few moments before he got it.

"Yes," he drawled in such a dry fashion that he got a few chuckles. "Needless to say, when Sokka was as warm as I could get him, and I recovered my wits, I interrogated the child. He did not know until then what he was capable of — I saw the truth myself in his eyes."

Despite Hakoda's warning to let him speak, Bato turned to him. "But Sokka… he will be fine?" The worry in his face and eyes were clear. Bato loved Sokka as if he was his own, just as Hakoda had loved Bato's two daughters, and had grieved as much as any father when they were killed in last spring's Fire Nation raid.

Hakoda nodded, allowing a small smile to cross his face. "Yes. Zuko used his bending to keep Sokka warm on the journey back. Healer Kuthruk believes it is because of that and how promptly he was put by a fire after leaving the water, that he will make a full recovery." Now he raised his chin, his authoritative voice echoing down from one end of the meeting room to the other. "Sokka will grow up stronger and wiser because of this. He will survive to lead the new generation in large part due to actions of a young firebender. Now we must decide, as a people, what to do."

There was a moment of silence, and then several people spoke up at once — some angry, some confused.

It begins, Hakoda thought. Hopefully, he had stated Zuko's case well enough.

Tatum was the first to stand. He was a burley lug of a man with thick eyebrows. He was also one of the tribe's most seasoned warriors. Hakoda acknowledged him with a nod, letting him speak freely.

"Brothers, and sisters; the choice is clear. While I am grateful to hear the Fire Nation boy helped saved young Sokka, it was merely a debt repaid. Chief Hakoda was the one to originally spare Zuko. He now owes this tribe nothing, and we require nothing of him." There were several nods from around, and cheered by this, Tatum continued, "The boy must go to the Earth Kingdom. I've heard talk from Auya about sending him to Kyoshi Island. Let's send him there."

Bato stood up, bristling, and barely waited for Hakoda's nod to rebuke. "It would be hard to get anyone to accept a Fire Nation boy on their doorstep, but a firebender? No. They would put him down like a polar-dog."

"But he cannot go back to the Fire Nation," Tatum replied. "I will not stand by while another firebender is added to their ranks."

Now there were more nods, and a woman, her face half hidden in the shadows called out. "Look what those Fire Nation savages already done to the boy! I can't hardly look at his face without thinking about it. He was abused over there. We can't send him back!"

Hakoda's plan was to be silent and have his people talk this out, for he had faith that they were good and that they would come to the right decision in the end. But at this, he had to speak; not as Sokka's father this time, but as Chief. "Even if I thought that it would be best for the boy to go back to his own people — and I don't — I could never risk a ship full of my men in enemy waters just to drop off a child."

"He can't stay here!" another woman shot back, and Hakoda recognized the voice of Auya. Instantly, he was dismayed. He had counted on the woman to be on Zuko's side, since she was the one charged with housing him.

People started shouting, voicing their own opinions and Hakoda had to hold up his hand for silence.

Bato indicated that he wanted to speak again.

"I've watched the boy, and talked with him a few times. He follows the men around like a puppy, and imitates us. I have no doubt in my mind that he would wish to be Water Tribe, if he was given a chance."

"It just wouldn't be natural for the boy," said Auya, standing. "His best chance is to go to the Earth Kingdom. Perhaps he could hide his abilities—"

Healer Kuthruk spoke up, cutting off her words. "As far as I've been told, bending is something from the spirit, and not a physical power. Zuko could no more hide what he is than he can hide his eye color."

Ekchua, the man who had served as cook on the ship, grunted from the back. "He might be useful to us as a warrior when he grows up — fight fire with fire, eh?"

There was more murmuring to this, and Hakoda was glad that it was in approval rather than of anger. He saw his chance, and took it. "Bato, would you want to be responsible for the boy, then? He is young, yet. He could be molded into our ways."

Bato stared at him for a moment, and then a flash of grief passed over his face, and Hakoda knew the answer before he spoke it. "No. I can't… Hakoda, it's too soon since my daughters…" He broke off, looking away and Hakoda placed a hand on his shoulder. His friend didn't need to say any more.

There was a shuffling movement, and Kana stepped into the flickering firelight. Hakoda gestured for her to speak, intensely curious.

"Many of you know that I spent my childhood in our sister tribe up North," Kana said, and although her voice was soft, the quiet reverence of the tribe allowed her words to carry to every ear. Even Hakoda leaned forward, for he had only heard her talk of North a handful of times in his life. "When I was young, there was a Fire Nation raid on our city. Many men were killed on both sides, but we held them off, and at the end three prisoners were brought up to the Chief; a Fire Navy Captain and two of his Lieutenants — all firebenders. They were kept alive, and placed in the cells. It was thought we could use them for prisoner exchange since the Fire Nation had captured some of our waterbenders."

She paused then, hands folded within her fur-lined robes, head bowed. Hakoda wondered what was flashing behind her eyes — and what horrors she had witnessed as a girl. Was this the reason why she came down South? "I was friends at the time with a celebrated healer, Yagoda," Kana continued. "She was charged with keeping the men fed and healthy. We were of the same age, and as she was afraid of them, I would often accompany her." She paused, deep in thought. "They were… cruel men with tempers fit to burn… Looking back now, I don't see our Zuko in any of these men." A couple smiles went around, mostly from the women, but now Kana's deeply lined face was blank. She was not in the roundhouse… her mind was back in another time. "They abused us with insults at every chance, because we were young and because they could. But they were healthy, and strong… then the winter came." Again she paused. "Our Northern sister tribe live at a higher latitude, so they suffer four months of darkness to our three. As soon as the days of darkness started, the Captain and his two Lieutenants lost their firebending ability. Then, slowly, they became weaker. Yagoda did everything that she could for them… She was so very kind in the face of their contempt. But they wilted like flowers without the sun, and by the second month they were dead."

She finished speaking, and a certain stillness entered the room, as if all the air had gone out of it.

Hakoda felt his stomach clench. Kana's words had the weight of truth behind them. Automatically, he looked across the room to Kuthruk. "Have you heard sort of thing before?"

"I know that extreme cold can reduce the capabilities of firebenders," Kuthruk said, after a moment. "We've used it to our advantage before, if my memory serves. But it seems more likely that the men Kana remembers caught some disease which they had no resistance against."

Kana shook her head slowly, regretfully. "Yagoda was certain. She said there was no physical reason for it. It was almost as if the Spirits themselves had stepped in and seeped their life away."

All was silent for another moment as everyone digested this news. The tribe had been on the edge of decision, but now Hakoda could feel the moment slip away. The final door had closed, leaving Zuko with no options at all.

Again, Tatum stood to speak. "So the boy cannot go to the Earth Kingdoms, and we will not send him back to the Fire Nation. Who's left? The Air Nomads? Well, it's a hundred years too late for that."

His words seemed almost unnecessarily cruel in the face of what they had just heard, and there was an awkward silence afterwards. Some people shifted.

Auya spoke again. "It isn't fair, but it is his people who are to blame for this. Not us."

Hakoda let out a long breath. He was impatient to speak, although he had promised himself that he wouldn't. The Tribe may see him as too close to this, because of Sokka. Zuko needed an unbiased champion.

Bato cast him a long look out of the corner of his eye, and then stood. They had been friends since they were around Sokka's age, and the other man could read him like a book. Predictably, when he spoke it was almost exactly what Hakoda himself would have said.

"So it comes to this, brothers and sisters: The boy will die. Either at the hand of his own people, or by an angry Earth Kingdom mob, or by some sort of spiritual defect. He will die. So, the question is; which would be the least cruel? Kana," and he turned, bowing his head respectfully at the woman who had always been like a mother to him. "Do you think that those Fire Nation men suffered?"

Kana closed her eyes. "Some," she said, after a moment, "but not physically. It was their pride in becoming weak that hurt them the most."

Bato nodded. "As I'm sure it would hurt any warrior."

"I'm still not convinced that their death wasn't caused by some sort of disease, or a strange suicide pact," added Kuthruk, from his seat.

Tatum stood with a sneer. "Perhaps then we should consult the Spirits, and let them decide if we cannot make up our minds about it."

His words were clearly meant as sarcasm, but a ripple of agreement went through the tribe.

"Perhaps we should," Bato agreed. "This winter could be… a sort of a test." He stroked his chin and turned to Hakoda. "And if he dies… Would it not be more humane to be surrounded by those who have cared for him?"

Hakoda privately thought that it was more than just a little harsh to test the boy with his very life. Something inside of him recoiled at thinking of Zuko wasting away from lack of sun. But he was also a realist, and nothing said in this gathering wasn't true. The Earth Kingdom had suffered through a hundred years of firebender attacks, and they would not grant Zuko an easy death. The evidence of what the Fire Nation was capable of was already seared across the boy’s face.

And there was always the chance that Kana was wrong.

"Then if the Spirits grant him the strength to survive the darkness of winter, he will be Water Tribe," he said, and his voice carried with it the weight of an order. He looked around and saw acceptance on the faces of his people — and felt a flash of pride. They had all lost so much to the Fire Nation, yet they were willing to accept one of their children as one of their own.

There was still one matter to clear up, though.

"Auya," Hakoda commanded, and the woman stood again. "No one will think worse of you for your words, so please answer truthfully; these might be Zuko's last days. Do you think you could care for him as if he were your son?"

The woman had started to shake her head almost as soon the last word had left her mouth. "No, Hakoda," she said, looking down at the ground. "I know he's just a child… but every time I look at him I can only think of my sister, Ahnah, and how the Fire Nation…" She closed her lips over her next words and shook her head again, taking her seat.

Ekchua, the cook stood up. "It's gotta be you, Chief." He grunted. "You have the only other bender in your family, and I've seen how he respects you." A round of pleased mutters followed his words.

Hakoda was taken aback. He hadn't expected this. In actuality, he had thought that Zuko would go to Auya… but that was now out of the question.

If Zuko was going to be Water Tribe, he would need someone strong to lead him. He was young enough to mold to their ways, but he would still need kind direction. Hakoda wondered briefly if his beloved Kya was watching this from the Spirit World, and laughing. She always told him that destiny had a twisting path all its own. Now in one turbulent year he had lost a wife, and gained another son.

Hakoda bowed his head in acceptance.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Zuko slept in usually late the next morning, well past the rising sun. When he awoke, Auya's tent was empty; she and her baby had gone to their daily chores without bothering to wake him first, although she had set aside some bread, a little seal-goat cheese, and a small flask of water for his breakfast.

Mindful of Hakoda's orders last night, Zuko ate in the tent and then only went as far out to peek out the fur-flap entrance.

Auya's tent was set near the border of the village, and through the morning fog he could see vague adult shapes converging on the Tribe's roundhouse. Zuko heard the low deep boom of a drum from that direction. Soon all the adults had gone inside. Usually meetings were held at night, after dinner. He had never seen one held in the morning like this, and it made his insides twist with worry.

How he wished he was able to just find the stupid spark-rocks instead of having to set that log on fire! But then Hakoda might not have ordered him to keep Sokka warm like he did, and Zuko may not have thought of it himself…

… He hoped Sokka was okay.

An hour's time found Zuko sitting just outside the tent, scraping snow into small sloppy piles for lack of anything else to do. The meeting was still going on, and although he could occasionally hear raised voices he couldn't quite catch the words. He dared not sneak closer, either. This was as far as he thought he could go, while still obeying Hakoda's command to stay in the tent.

Zuko heard a crunch of footfalls against icy snow and looked up to see Katara standing about ten feet away from him. One look at her face, and he knew that she knew. She was back to being afraid of him, and now maybe she had a good reason. Only this time Zuko had his voice, and although he didn't realize it, the few months of friendship and relative kindness from the tribe had done much for his confidence.

"Quit staring at me like that," he ordered. "I'm not going to burn you."

"How come you never told me?"

Of all the questions he thought she would ask, that wasn't one of them. He looked away from her, and moodily added a handful of snow to the top of his pile. "I didn't know… I just remembered."

He glanced up, wondering if she would believe him, or accuse him of lying. Her hands were on her hips, much like he had seen Kana do when she was feeling stern.

"You remembered?" she repeated. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought he saw her face soften, just a little. "You mean, you got your memory back?"

"No, just one thing." He flashed to that red bedroom and that horrible girl, and he shivered. "I don't want to talk about it. How's Sokka?"

"He's sleeping. He's the one who told me what happened, after he stuffed his face full of food." Katara rolled her eyes, and dropped her hands from her hips. Then she hesitated, just for a moment longer, before stomping over and deliberately sitting down next to him. "I'm not afraid of you."

"Good." This was said harshly, to cover up the wave of pure golden relief that washed through him. He didn't look at her, not directly. It was easier to pretend to be mad at Katara… just in case she was still secretly mad at him. Like a preemptive strike.

"In fact," Katara continued, wholly oblivious to Zuko's plan. After all, she had one of her own. "Now that you're a bender, you can teach me."

Zuko shook his head and grabbed yet another handful of snow, adding it to his growing pile. "Don't be stupid." The look she gave him then was so full of contempt that he again flashed to the girl in his memory. Quickly, he added, "Okay, look… Even if I ever got all my memories back; fire and water are opposites anyway. There's no point."

"But there's no one else in the whole South Pole to teach me!"

"Katara—"

But she was more determined than he. After all, she had been waiting her whole life to see someone bend, and she wasn't going to let a little thing like opposite elements stop her. "C'mon, I'll show you." She tugged him, still protesting, back in Auya's tent.

It was warmer inside, but the wash bucket in the corner still had a film of ice across the top. This, Katara broke and dipped her hand in, lifting some in her hand. The water held still for her, a near perfect globe in the cup of her palm. "Here, can you do this?"

"What? With water?"

"No." She gestured impatiently to the low coals smoldering in the tent's small fire-pit.

He did a double-take, and then shook his head, actually scooting himself away from the fire-pit. "Are you crazy?! I can't do that!"

"Yes you can." She held out the water-globe to him almost as an example. "It's your element. It will do what you tell it to do."

He looked from her hand to the softly glowing coals and back again. She was staring at him, with her hand still held out, such a plaintive look on her face that it almost hurt to have to say no.

"What if I become evil?" he said, and it came out as a whisper, because he didn't really want to say it, and he didn't want anyone else to accidentally hear his fears. "What if I… I become as bad as all of the rest of the Fire Nation, and I just want to burn everything down?"

Katara's face fell, and she got that sad, pained look on her face she always got when she was thinking about her mother. Then she shook her head. "You won't." Her free mittened hand reached out for his, curling about his fingers in a reassuring squeeze. "I know you, Zuko. You're not like the evil firebenders. You've been with us for too long, and you saved Sokka's life."

"But… what if—"

"You don't know how it is, 'cause you just learned that you could, but it hurts not bend. It's like… not being able to see color. So, you can teach me what you know, and I can teach you what you know… and… and we'll learn together. And if you slip and start burning people and stuff… well, I'll be there to put it out." The water rippled in her hand, as if emphasizing her words. “That’s what water does.”

Zuko would have never, ever done it if he didn't see some sort of point in her words. He had to admit, though, that he did. He felt a sort of longing to try and bend again. All morning he had been avoiding looking at the fire-pit, because he felt that in a small way the heat drew him in. Now that he dared to look he saw that the embers were glowing a sort of sickly orange, and it disturbed him in a vague sort of way. Like coming across an animal which was slowly dying from lack of air. He felt sympathy for the dying fire.

Finally, he nodded and carefully crawled forward, to kneel in front of the coals. There was every real chance he could get badly burned. "I can't just stick my hand in there," he said, feeling the weight of her gaze on him. Katara was beside him, water still in hand, watching his every move very closely. "Give me a minute."

He closed his eyes, knowing somehow instinctively that he had to be calmer than he was right now. He could feel the heat of the close burning coals tighten his skin, and it was almost a welcoming sensation, but he ignored it. Instead, he focused on breathing; in and out. In and out. Katara was right there with her water in case things got bad… She was right there…

"Zuko…"

His light gold eyes snapped open to Katara's alarmed hiss. The coals were brighter now, and Zuko got the impression that they were breathing with him. He raised his hand, hesitated one more moment, and then shoved it in. It was hot, but he was quick enough so that it didn't burn, and when he snapped his arm back he had a little dancing flame in the cup of his hand. "Wow!"

"See!" Katara made a move as if to hug him, but at the last moment remembered he was holding fire, and just settled for grinning. She had been waiting her whole life — all eight years of it — to talk about bending with another person, and it didn't matter at all if that person bent fire. "Do you feel a sort of… a pulling feeling with your fire?"

He frowned, and he looked at the fire in his hand thoughtfully. "No. It's more like… It's…" He trailed off.

"What?" she pressed.

"It feels like a little heartbeat. It's almost alive."

Now it was Katara's turn to frown and look to her own element. She had never felt that way about water. It moved in ebbs and flows. Fire, she thought, must be very different. Carefully, she tugged the mitten over her free hand with her teeth and reached out, holding her hand over Zuko's flame as close as she could without getting burned. She could feel it flickering in tiny waves, something almost the same as her own water… but very different at the same time.

Zuko did the same, covering his free hand over her globe of water.

"I think I feel what you're talking about," Katara said.

"I think… maybe I do, too."

The fur-lined tent flap opened, startling Zuko and Katara out of the reverie.

Zuko snatched his hand back from the globe of water and closed his fist; guiltily snuffing out the small flame. It was too late. Sokka had seen everything.

"What are you doing out of bed?" Katara's concern was only for her big brother, and she leapt up, pulling him inside. He was wearing his thickest parka and blue leggings, but there was still a sickly sort of grey color about his skin. Katara sat him down by the coals, and deftly grabbed one of Auya's best furs, throwing it about his shoulders. "Healer Kuthruk said you were to stay inside our tent."

"I'd rather die of pneumonia than boredom," snapped Sokka, although his blue gaze never left Zuko's face. "What were you two doing?"

"Bending." Katara's tone was nothing short of glib as she tucked the edges of the furs about Sokka's body. She was always happiest when bossing someone around, or trying to mother them.

Sokka's face darkened, and Zuko looked away guiltily. He knew what had happened to Sokka and Katara's mother, and if Katara was going to pretend it didn't matter, it was only because she was so excited to have another bender around. Sokka was a different story.

Sure enough, when Sokka spoke his voice was full of venom. "I can't believe you two are just sitting around, wasting time like this," he said, then pointed outside. "Dad's in the roundhouse, telling the tribe now what you are, Zuko. I heard him and Kuthruk talking about it when they thought I was asleep. They're probably going to send you away, and you two are just sitting around playing with your magic?"

Katara gasped and murmured "No…" but Zuko knew that Sokka was telling the truth. Zuko wasn't going to say he was sorry, because he wasn't, really, but he felt a flash of shame flush his unscarred cheek.

No one said anything more for a few pained moments. Finally Sokka let out a long breath and scratched the back of his neck. "And… I guess you saved my life back there. Sothanks." This was said very quickly, followed by a hastily held out hand. Zuko gripped his arm, Water Tribe style, and noticed that Sokka still felt cold to the touch, but he dared not warm him or increase the flame on the nearby coals.

"But…" Katara's eyes darted from one boy to another. "Who will teach me about bending if they send him away?"

"Is that all you care about?" Zuko demanded, turning to her.

"I don't!" she snapped, although her gaze darted guilty to the side. "But I just thought… You have a plan, don't you, Sokka?" Katara turned to her brother, hopeful.

The Water Tribe boy seemed to sink down in the folds of the thick blankets. Zuko had never seen him look so tired. It must have taken almost all his effort to just walk over to the tent.

"No," Sokka admitted, with a swipe of his hand across his nose. He looked like he was getting the sniffles. "I just wanted to say goodbye before they send Zuko back to the Fire Nation and turn him against us."

Zuko's mouth felt dry. "I wouldn't ever—"

"You won't have a choice. They took away your memories once, right?"

Sokka had a point, and Zuko felt a sense of horror rise up with himself. It was too easy to imagine himself in those blood-red uniforms, bearing down on the South Pole in one of those iron-ships… "No. I'll— I'll fight them. I'll run away," he said, clenching his fists. "And I'll join the Earth Kingdom and…" He thought again of that golden-eyed girl in his memories. He closed his eyes. "It was horrible over there. I remembered something when I was in the water. I'm never going back."

"Of course it's horrible over there," Sokka said, pragmatically. "Why do you think the Fire Nation is trying to conquer everyone else?"

But Katara had once again gripped Zuko's hand into her own. "What did you remember?"

"It doesn't matter."

"I still want to know. Please?"

Zuko opened his eyes and saw that her face was sincere. Even Sokka seemed mildly interested, although he looked like he was pretending not to be. So, he started speaking, telling them of his fragmented memory. The large bedroom, and of the girl with her hateful words which he could not understand today, but which had filled him with such terror before.

Sokka stopped him at points, and asked him to elaborate on certain details. Zuko did as he was told, and to his surprise with a little prompting he remembered things that he had half-forgotten before. There had been a dagger laying on his bed stand, the hilt inlaid with some sort of pearl design. The rich russet hangings around his bed were ornamented with the Fire Nation insignia. Although try as he might, he couldn't figure out one word that the girl had been saying.

Finally, there was nothing more to tell. Zuko felt strained and worn, having to remember the unpleasant memory all over again, although he felt anxious what Sokka thought of it. The other boy was thoughtful in ways that he knew he could never be.

But Sokka was also tired, and he sat huddled in his blankets, cold and miserable. "I don't know," he said, at last. "It's weird to think of a bedroom that large. Maybe your dad was a Chief of his village, although… If he was he would have been looking for you, wouldn’t he?" Sokka sighed, his head bobbing in exhaustion.

Katara shot Zuko a meaningful look, and then went over to her brother. "I'll take you back to our tent. Auya will yell at us if she catches you sleeping in here. Come on."

She and Zuko hauled him to his feet, although Zuko could only help him to the door of the tent, remembering that he had been told to stay inside.

"I'll be back," Katara promised, meeting his eyes again.

Then the two siblings were gone, and Zuko was stuck alone in the tent with nothing but a cold fire and an unpleasant memory to keep him company. He stuck his head out of the tent, and reluctantly looked to the roundhouse.

What was taking the adults so long?

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

The meeting adjourned soon after. Once the decision was made, the tribe as a whole was eager catch up with the day's chores, and hunting and gathering. A whole morning had been wasted, and winter's darkness would be upon them soon enough.

Only Hakoda stayed back, and with a nod to Bato to let him know he would be joining him later, he headed back to the main village to check on Sokka. This morning, Kuthruk had judged his health to be good enough to be moved back from the healer's tent to his own. It was a short walk, but Hakoda's mind was heavy with decision, and he ended up taking the long way —around the perimeter of the village.

He pushed back the fur-flap door and found Sokka curled up asleep under a thick pile of blankets, Katara by his side.

His daughter looked up. "Dad… you told everyone that Zuko had to stay, right?" she whispered. "He saved Sokka's life. You can't send him away."

Hakoda favored her with a small smile, but didn't answer her directly. "Go on outside and play, Katara. I need to speak with your brother."

She hesitated, nearly wiggling with curiosity, but she had been raised to mind her elders at all times and with a sullen nod, took herself outside.

Sokka seemed to be asleep, but he woke easily enough when Hakoda came to sit down beside him. He had eaten heartedly several hours before, much like Kuthruk had said, and had seemed to be in his usual high spirits this morning. Now he seemed to be tired again, but his eyes were clear and he watched his father with an intelligent gaze. Clearly, he was expecting bad news.

Hakoda picked his words very carefully. The boy had just lost his mother to a firebender attack this spring, after all. The best way would be to talk to Sokka in a clear, concise way. "Everyone thought that Zuko showed himself honorably in saving your life. He will stay with the tribe, and since our family has the only other bender, he will stay with me as my son."

Sokka jerked back in surprise, and then grinned. "Really?!"

"Yes, although I know it won't be easy. We've been a small family now for some time and it may take patience and understanding to make sure everyone finds their place."

"I think it’s right," Sokka said, after a long moment. Some of the jubilation and relief was fading, and now Sokka was thinking again. "But… I still get to be the elder brother, right Dad? I mean—" He set himself up more fully in the bed, trying to make his point, "—Zuko doesn't know anything. Like how to look for rock fish, or what season is best to hunt seal, and he still can never hit anything with a boomerang. I do, and I could teach him."

His son would make a great and wise Chief one day. Hakoda smiled and clapped his hand on Sokka’s shoulder. He too, had thought of this, among many other things on his long walk. It was impossible to say how old Zuko was, exactly. The years just before adolescence sometimes made age an ambiguous thing. But where being the older brother was mostly a source of pride for Sokka, Hakoda’s plans were further reaching. In the coming years, it would mean who had the greater decision on who Katara would be betrothed too, and who would lead the tribe.

"Yes, Sokka. You will be the eldest. That's why I came to you with this, first. You must help guide your brother to our ways. He's made a good start, but as you said there's much more to learn." He paused then, meeting his son's gaze, and judging him to be old and mature enough to know the rest. "You must also help him be strong. Your Gran-Gran is wise and knows many things, and she has said firebenders need the sun to live."

Sokka's blue eyes widened, and Hakoda could almost see his quick mind make the connections. "But, there's gonna be no sun at all in the winter, and that's not too far away!"

"Exactly my point. The elders have decided it will be a test for him. If he lives then the Spirits mean him to be with us. So, it's going to be our job to make sure he's as strong as he can be."

"Oh." Sokka was quiet for a long, long moment. Then, "Do you think he'll die, Dad? Is that why you sent Katara out?"

Hakoda hesitated at this, but in truth Sokka was now eldest of two siblings, and he had to know the entire truth. "The Tribe did not come to this decision lightly. We think he has a better chance with us than anywhere else. The world won't be kind to a young firebender."

The boy sighed and shifted around, plucking a tuft of hair out of the fur blanket. "No, I guess not. They would all think Zuko was just like the rest of them. Not that I mind… it would be kind of neat to have a little brother, even if he is another bender." He looked up. "How are we going to tell him about the winter?"

And now they had come to the question that had been plaguing Hakoda the most during his walk. "No," he said, at length. "I don't think he should be told… not yet." Sokka opened his mouth, but Hakoda continued. "There's nothing we can do to change when the sun will or will not shine, and having Zuko worry about it won't help him at all. Sometimes, Sokka, people are stronger when they don't know that they need to be."

Sokka didn't agree fully with him. Hakoda could see it in his eyes. But he nodded all the same, accepting his father’s wisdom for what it was.

Hakoda rose. "I will make sure Kuthruk stops by to check on you soon. Is there anything you need? Are you warm enough?"

"I am sort of hungry," Sokka admitted, ruefully. “Do we have anymore seal jerky?”

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Later that afternoon, Hakoda visited Zuko in Auya's tent. He could see the boy brace himself for the worst, but there was no whining. The Fire Nation were a savage people, but they bred their boys and men to be tough… Hakoda would give them that. Looking down at Zuko, he couldn't tell that the boy had nearly drowned the day before. It seemed impossible that he could be so susceptible to a lack of sunlight.

"Zuko," Hakoda said, matter of factly. This was a matter of fact situation. How he wished that Kya were still here…. This needed a woman's touch. He probably should have brought Kana along, but it was too late now. "It's been decided that you are to stay with the tribe as one of my sons. Go on and pack your things. You'll be moving into my family’s tent."

The boy seemed not to understand for a moment. He just looked up at him with large, light golden eyes. "You… you mean I'm not going to be banished?"

Banished…? Hakoda knelt down so that he was eye-level with the child. "No, Zuko. I think you will make a fine Water Tribe warrior one day. Would you like to stay with Sokka, Katara, and I, as a family?"

"More than anything!"

"Good boy. I'll help you pack your things."

He didn't have much, and shortly thereafter Hakoda led him to the tent. Katara squealed upon seeing the boy — Hakoda assumed that Sokka had just told her the news — and he watched in amusement as she threw her arms around Zuko, embarrassing the boy horribly.

Kana set to work pressing Katara, Zuko and Sokka into cutting up sea-prunes for the night's soup. Soon the air in their small dwelling was filled with the smells of cooking, and children's high-pitched talking and laughter.

Hakoda sat by the fire, watching the scene, and allowed himself a smile. This tent had been empty, and too quiet since Kya had died. Now, for the first time, it seemed full of life again.

Outside, the short Antarctic day was ending — the long night was beginning.

 


 

Notes: Zuko has a family now! :)

Okay, so while I was writing this (and boredly looking up random Wiki articles at work.) I came across polar night. In season 1 it was supposed to be winter, but Sokka made a reference to 'Midnight Sun Madness', and when I rewatched the episode I realized that the sun never set. It might be winter for the northern hemisphere, but in the southern I guess they were in summer. Since they were having Midnight sun, I would assume that polar night would also occur. And because the Water Tribe apparently live at the South Pole I would assume at least some of this would be astronomical polar night — where no trace of light is at the horizon during any point in the day. (Again, all of this researched at work. I am the worst employee ever.)

Now, we know that firebenders lose their ability during eclipses and gain more of it with a comet. Waterbenders also lost their ability when the Moon Spirit was killed. I also think that the earthbenders in the out-to-sea jail were stricken with more than normal despair when they were separated from their element. If I really stretch, it's almost like the earthbenders only got some of their hope back once they were presented back with their element. Katara's inspirational speeches didn't help. The coal did. Of course, they did had metal — which none of them realized is possible to bend. So they didn't fade away completely.

Anyway those are my thoughts, and why I turned the plot in the direction that I did. Whee!

Thanks for reading! Your thoughts are appreciated!

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 


 

OoOoOoO

“You rise with the moon. I rise with the sun.”

Zuko, The Siege of the North, part 1

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

With each day, the sun sunk down lower and lower below the horizon. At first, Zuko hardly noticed. He had a vague idea — he wasn't sure where, but it was probably from his past life in the Fire Nation — that the days would become shorter, and then longer again after the Winter Solstice. Certainty no one told him any differently — even the seasoned warriors could hardly conceive of a winter with sun. And no one wanted to broach the subject with him. That was Hakoda's duty.

So, when Zuko realized that the sun's light had diminished to only a few hours a day with winter hardly upon them, he asked Bato who hesitated, and then told him matter of factly that in the southern pole, the winter darkness lasted three months.

Zuko blinked in surprise, and then shrugged. It was just another new thing to learn.

The last few hours of light were spent in preparation. Banks of tall clouds and thunderheads raised high in the sky from the north, and it seemed with every passing day the storms got closer, and darker. The Water Tribe tents were made of sturdy fabric secured with tough rope, but even they would not be able to stand up to winter storms. Blocks of snow were cut, shaped, and stacked around the outer walls, curving in so that they formed a strong enough dome that could hold the weight of a man. The children were charged with packing bits of snow into the cracks formed between the blocks. They had to make it as insulated as possible to keep the chill air out.

Zuko got the idea of melting the snow into the really deep cracks to get it to fit. After all, it was only a little bit of bending — no fire was involved; he just had to place his hand over the spot and give it a small sort of a nudge. Katara caught onto what he was doing with a startling swiftness, and enthusiastically took up the idea — dragging Sokka along when the older boy started scoffing at their magic. Soon a system evolved where Sokka would gather the piles of loose snow, and identify the major cracks in the ice. Zuko would melt the snow in, and Katara would apply her own talent to reform the water inside to secure ice.

By the second day, Zuko and Katara had become so practiced at this that they didn't need to lay their hands over the snow they were manipulating. A small wave would do it, and the process happened so quickly that sometimes Zuko felt almost as if he were bending water, and not just the heat around it. He thought about asking Katara if she felt the same thing, but could never find the right words to express himself.

The days became shorter still, and it was without any apprehension on Zuko's part when the sun became a sliver of brilliance along the east horizon, and then nothing but a glow.

To the people of the Water Tribe, the first week of darkness was a celebration. Everyone piled into the great roundhouse and shared stories, and sang, and danced, and feasted around a great blazing fire. Sokka challenged Zuko to an eat-off of seal jerky— which Sokka then won quite handily.

The elder men of the village took turns telling stories and fables of their forefathers, using their hands to cast shadow puppets against one wall of the lodge. This, Zuko felt, was best done by Hakoda, who specialized stories so frightening and real that they would sometimes keep him and Katara awake and shivering at night.

His favorite story was one that everyone swore was true, because it was about Hakoda's grandfather.

It went like this:

Back in those days, the land was wilder and the tribe was plagued in the summer by a giant elephant-wasp; a beast so large and so fierce that it dragged children away when they wandered too far from their homes.

Other kinds of people would have run away in fear, or fought among themselves, or been too afraid and stubborn to go out. But the people of the Southern Water Tribe instead came together in friendship and cooperation. They pooled their resources and fashioned a long string out of all their net-rope. The men waited for days around a trap of cut tiger-seal meat, but by this time the elephant-wasp had only a taste for human-flesh.

After declaring that he was not afraid, the Chief's eldest son tied the string around his waist and put himself out as bait. Three long days passed, and the giant elephant-wasp swooped down and carried him away. But the trick had paid off, and the tribe was able to follow the long string to the wasp's nest. There, they joined in battle and their waterbenders drowned the monster. The Chief's son was a hero, and the Water Tribe would never again be plagued by elephant-wasps, because the beasts would never forget the Southern Water Tribe, and how they were strong because they fought as one people and stuck things out together until the end.

So, the first week of darkness passed very pleasantly for Zuko. All the hard work he and the rest of the tribe put into hunting and gathering for days on end in the fall had paid off. The tribe would have enough to eat and drink for the winter. While the fierce winter wind howled and tore at their dwellings, they were so warmly packed with snow and skins that Zuko felt secure, and safe. Boredom was the only real problem.

And if sometimes Zuko caught some of the tribesmen giving him sidelong, pitying glances, he ignored them. They were probably just thinking of his scars.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

One day — or night — there was a usual lull in the terrible winter storms. The sky was dark, but very clear and the half-moon shined down on the new fallen snow making it glitter like a thousand encrusted diamonds. Peeking his head out the tent, Sokka saw this and immediately challenged Zuko and Katara to a game of hide an' freeze.

The children spent next few hours dashing around within the strict perimeter of the village, and shrieking when one or the other was caught.

It was one of those strange times of day when the sun should have been up, but wasn't. It lurked just below the horizon, casting a sort of dark twilight over the whole village. This, Zuko soon discovered, made for a ton of excellent hiding places. He got the idea to creep into one of the long shadows thrown off by someone's tent and sink down into the snow, practically unseen. It worked nearly every time.

In this round, Katara was It, and he could hear her from far off away, counting to one hundred.

Zuko grinned to himself, and after checking to make sure he wasn't in view of Sokka (because he would steal his trick if he could), he walked over and laid out flat along the edge of a long shadow. Katara would have to look really hard to find him here.

His parka was thick, and lined with wolf-wolverine fur, but after a few minutes he felt the chill of snow against his belly. Katara had stopped counting, so he couldn't risk changing his position or using the fire breathing (which he liked to call his breath of fire, because it sounded mysterious) to warm up. So instead Zuko carefully shifted back and forth, creating a rut in the snow. It was strange, but sometimes the snow could provide a little insulation that way.

He had chosen very well for his hiding spot, but it was boring to wait, and he only getting colder by the minute. He sighed silently, thinking that next time he would stay near the roundhouse where it was warmer. He looked out from his half-sunken hole, and tried to count how many stars were dusted around the moon. There were many, and he kept losing his place. Before Zuko realized it, he had drifted off to sleep.

"Got you!"

Something shook his shoulder hard, pulling him out of a heavy doze. He groaned, and tried to get up, but his limbs felt stiff. He could hardly move.

"Get up!" Katara commanded. "I know you're there, Zuko!" She pulled on his parka, rolling him over so that he lay on his back. He could see her standing over him, grinning. "I already caught Sokka — he was cheating. He thought I wouldn't ever look in the boy's outhouse. So he's It … Zuko, c'mon. Get up!"

"I'm cold…" he groaned. He felt strangely lethargic, and numb.

Katara gave him a long look and then grabbed his arm, sitting him up.

He cupped his hands to his mouth, blowing into the mittens to get them warm the usual way — and then resorting to his breath of fire when that didn't work. He was able to blow steam; just enough to unfreeze his blood. The tongue of flame never came, though, and when he stood up he felt dizzy.

"What's wrong?" Katara asked.

"I don't know… I don't feel right."

Just then, Sokka came racing around the corner, counting as he went along. He had heard his siblings voices, and had been too excited to wait properly. "Ninety-nine! One-hundred! I found you!" He slapped Zuko's shoulder, "And you're It!" Then he seemed to realize that neither one of them were paying attention. "What's going on?"

"Zuko doesn't feel good. I told you that stupid jerky-eating contest was a bad idea."

If Zuko was feeling better, he wouldn't have missed the way Sokka's eyes widened ever so slightly before he gazed out to the dark horizon. "You can walk it off. I'll tell you what; I'll call this a redo," he said, generously, "and I'll go count again and you two can hide properly this time."

It sounded like a good idea, but Zuko only took four or five paces before a rolling shiver went down his spine, leaving him strangely breathless. "I don't feel much like playing anymore," he said, miserably wrapping his arms around himself. He just felt cold.

Again, there was an awkward pause from Sokka. "Maybe you should go lay down."

"Yeah… maybe." He shook his head, distracted, but took Sokka’s advice and went back to the family tent, and crawled back into his sleeping bag. He was asleep almost as soon as his head hit his pillow.

By morning, his firebending had completely left him.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

Zuko didn't know what was going on, and of course there was no one to ask. But as the days wore on, his energy dwindled. It didn't matter how much he slept — and suddenly he was sleeping a lot — past even Sokka who could nearly out-sleep anyone.

Katara had to shake his shoulder hard to get him to wake up in the mornings for breakfast.

He seemed to be colder than everyone else, too. He was freezing no matter how many furs Gran-Gran made him wear, and at the gatherings at the roundhouse he'd often sit to the side and watch the dancing and singing with half hooded eyes — too exhausted and worn to join in for more than a few minutes at a time.

One morning, he awoke to the familiar sensation of someone shaking his shoulder. He expected Katara's high, slightly nagging voice telling him that he had missed breakfast again. Instead he got the soft authoritative command of Hakoda.

"Wake up, Zuko."

He struggled to sit up, and it was like pulling himself out of thick mud. His scarred left eye was stuck shut with sleep-gunk, and he rubbed at it absently with the back of his hand. For a moment, he worried that he was in trouble — Hakoda's face was full of concern as he handed him a parka to pull over his blue tunic.

"As soon as you're ready, we're going to visit Healer Kuthruk."

"He'll tell me why I'm tired all the time?" Zuko asked, around a jaw-cracking yawn.

Hakoda hesitated, and then nodded once.

Not only was it dark outside, but the wind was blowing so fiercely that Zuko would have pitched over quite a few times if not for Hakoda's steady hand on his shoulder. As it was, he found himself exhausted, and gratefully lay down on a bed pallet when Kuthruk went to examine him.

The healer's tent was warm — warmer than even Hakoda's, and filled with spicy herbs that mingled together in a pleasant sort of way. Zuko found himself drifting off to sleep again, even before he knew it.

Hakoda watched the healer work silently for a few minutes — pinching the sleeping boy's skin, listening to his heartbeat and breathing, and running a few sprigs of incense over him and watching the smoke intently to see which direction it blew.

Finally, Kuthruk turned to him and his blue eyes looked very tired.

"He's healthy, physically. I suspect something is happening with his chi, which is nearly impossible to test for without a waterbending healer." Kuthruk must have seen the look on his Chief's face, because he added, "Chief, you knew this could happen."

Hakoda rewarded him with a sharp look. "What do you suggest we do?"

He let out a long sigh, pulling at his short beard in thought. "Have him eat more vegetables. Plants get energy from the sun, and maybe that could help him get whatever he needs. Also, keep him away from anyone who's coughing. The last thing he needs is to catch something he can't fight off. Aside from that…" Kuthruk sighed again, and for the first time a flash of regret crossed his face. "He needs to know what he's facing. I know you've kept it from him, to spare him. But that's not an option anymore."

The Chief nodded, and went over to wake Zuko again. It took a few minutes to get him to sit up. Sometimes, Hakoda swore he could almost see the life leaking out of the boy.

"I didn't know I was asleep," Zuko muttered, rubbing again at his left eye, as if it was bothering him. "Did you find out what was wrong?"

Again, Hakoda hesitated. This was hard, he realized, harder than he thought it would be. Yet the child deserved the full truth. "Yes," he said, "we've suspected it for some time. You're a firebender, and you need the sun. Without it, you're getting weaker."

"Oh," he replied, without any interest, still rubbing at his eye. "I guess that's why the Fire Nation's at the equator then. Plenty of sun there…" He trailed off, his hand dropping away. "Wait, what do you mean you've suspected? You knew, and you didn't tell me? I haven't been able to firebend for weeks, and you didn't tell me?!"

This was the most alive Hakoda had seen him for some time, and he was almost glad for it — despite the insolence. "It was my decision." He put both his hands on Zuko's thin shoulders, only to have his touch shrugged away.

"You should have told me! I'm not a baby!"

"Zuko, you need to calm yourself." Hakoda did not mean for so much disapproval to enter his voice, and he did feel a pang of guilt when the boy shrank back. "I did it because I didn't want to worry you. We didn't know for certain that this would happen," he said, and then added, "I know you're a young man. I'll try not to forget that, next time."

This seemed to mollify the boy slightly, although his pale cheek was still flushed with anger. He looked away, for a long moment, and Hakoda braced himself for the question he knew was coming: Was he going to die?

And at that moment, the Chief felt like the worst kind of coward, because he would have given nearly anything to not have to tell the truth.

When Zuko spoke, though, his voice was small, and the question wholly surprised him. "So are you going to have to send me away?" Before Hakoda could answer, Zuko continued, "I don't want to go back. I don't care if the Fire Nation gets sun all the time — I don't ever want to go back there ever again."

"No, you will not be sent back." He made sure to meet the boy's eyes as he answered, and was surprised at the naked relief that was there. Bato had been correct at the tribal meeting; Zuko wanted to be Water Tribe more than anything. And Hakoda wondered, briefly, what kind of fierce loyalty existed in Fire Nation blood, and if they were all so determined once they had made their mind. "But that means you have to be strong. We still have a month and a half of darkness ahead."

Kuthruk coughed from his corner where he had been watching the exchange, silently. "Actually, the winter solstice is only three weeks away. It stands to reason if this is somehow connected to the sun, he may get better after that time."

"Why?" Zuko asked, turning to him.

The healer held up his hand, clenched in a fist. "Right now our part of the world is tilting from the sun," he said, pointing to the heel of his palm. "After the solstice, it will begin to turn back." And his wrist flexed, moving his fist to the other direction.

"So… only three more weeks?" Zuko repeated, and he drew himself up, glancing from the healer to his adoptive father. "That's easy. I can do it."

"Good boy." Hakoda smiled and ruffled his hair, and got a tentative grin in return.

He almost believed him.

During the next night's gathering, Hakoda saw Zuko playing with his two other children. They had found the wolfskin warrior helmets and he and Sokka were busy chasing Katara around the fire and spooking some of the toddlers. And if Zuko was slower in step than Sokka, Hakoda chose not to notice. He was satisfied that the boy was putting more effort into things, and turned back to his conversation with Bato.

Later on, he would find Zuko curled up asleep in a corner, helmet still on his head. He was in such a listless daze that Hakoda had to carry him back to their tent.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

"Sokka," Katara whispered, nearly two weeks later. "Is Zuko gonna die?"

Sokka quickly shushed her, and sent a guilty look towards the boy he thought more and more as his younger brother. He was sleeping by the fire, his face pale and drawn. Nowadays, he wouldn't wake up hardly at all, except when forced by Gran-Gran to sit up and drink some broth.

Kuthruk had been called again, and both Katara and Sokka had seen the way the grizzled healer examined him, shook his head, and pulled Hakoda to the side to have a meaningful conversation outside the door.

"He's just not feeling good, because the Fire Nation worship’s the sun instead of the moon like normal people," Sokka said, wisely. "He'll be better, after the solstice. Dad said." Actually, Hakoda's talk with his eldest son had been a much grimmer tone than that, but Sokka instinctually wanted to shield Katara from what he could. He hated to see her cry.

Katara looked down. She had one of her favorite dolls in her lap, and she was alternately hugging it and smoothing out the thick threads in its hair. "I don't think he's going to make it to the solstice," she whispered, softly.

"Of course he is. Zuko's just not going to give up."

His little sister was looking to him now, and Sokka forced a smile on his face, even though he felt like he was suffocating inside. He couldn't show any of that, though. He was always telling Zuko to be strong, but Dad expected Sokka to be stronger. And if that meant not showing how worried he was, and covering it up as best he could with humor… he could do that.

For the first time in his young life, but certainly not for the last time, Sokka decided that he didn't want to understand any of his crazy bending stuff. He preferred to live in the world of the logical and the sane, thank you very much. He lived in a world where people didn't just… fade away because of the sun. It didn't make any sense. None of this stupid magic stuff made any sense.

The door’s fur flap was pushed aside, and his father walked back into the tent. Kuthruk was gone, but Bato and Gran-Gran had taken his place.

Hakoda's eyes met his across the tent, and Sokka's felt his stomach drop. Whatever had been said outside hadn't been good news at all. Sokka would have cursed, if Gran-Gran wasn't so close to hear.

"C'mon, Katara. It's too hot in here." Which was the truth. They had the fire going as hot as possible in the tent, trying to keep Zuko warm. Not that it was doing any good. "Let's get to the roundhouse."

Katara wasn't fooled, not for one moment. She bit her lip and looked from Sokka and back to the sleeping Zuko.

But Sokka curled his hand about hers, and tugged her to the door. The adults were off to the side, and he didn't want Katara to hear anything that would upset her. His little sister still hesitated, and Sokka blew out an annoyed breath. "Look," he said, and his voice was slightly sharper than he intended, "Zuko didn't come all this way, get dropped on his head while penguin sledding, and nearly drown, just to die now. C'mon."

This seemed to convince her more than anything else, and with a final long look back over her shoulder she joined her brother.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

Hakoda waited for Sokka to drag Katara out of the tent, before he turned and sat by the sick child again. Zuko was curled almost dangerously close to the fire, as if straining to get close to it. His eyes flicked back and forth under closed lids; he was dreaming, and Hakoda hoped for his sake that it was a good dream.

Kuthruk's final prognosis a few minutes ago outside had been a death sentence. "I think he will pass in his sleep in the next few days." He had said, "The best thing to do is to keep him comfortable… He won't feel a thing, Hakoda." The healer then put a hand to his shoulder in a gesture of sympathy, before taking up his things and trudging away. There was nothing more he could do.

Kana took her place on the other side of the boy. "It was very much like this, before." She didn't have to say when. They both knew she was speaking of the firebenders in the North.

There was a soft clink of a bottle while Bato fished around the tent for the rough-grain alcohol, hidden away for special — or horrible, occasions.

It had been a long time since Kana had tried to mother him. When he had taken his father's place as Chief, she had drawn back, which was only right. Hakoda wondered briefly how terrible his face must have looked, if she felt the need to reassure him now.

There was a murmur of success somewhere from Bato's direction, and a few moments later a mug of mulled rum was pressed into Hakoda's hands. It was a rough kind of alcohol, but if anyone needed it right now, it was him.

"Seeing a child die isn't easy for anyone," said Bato softly, sitting down to join them in their vigil. "But we knew going in this would be the kindest end he could have. Drink up, Chief."

Hakoda did what he was told, wincing against the harsh burn. Bato took his own drink, although Kana did not partake. There was a grim sort of silence between the three adults, punctuated only by the soft gasps of the slowly dying boy beside them.

"It's not fair to Katara and Sokka. They grew… attached." Hakoda murmured, at last, looking into his mug.

Bato sighed. "I think it's you who's grown attached." It had been much like what Kana had said — all the life out of him had just wilted away without the sun. And no, it wasn't fair. Zuko might be Fire Nation, but he turned out to be a good kid. "But since when has life ever been fair for us Water Folk?" he asked, speaking his thoughts out loud.

The boy shifted beside them, eyes darting at a frantic pace under his lids, and his hand curled into a fist. "Father…" he whispered, and Hakoda visibly gave a start. Zuko winced in his sleep and murmured pained, low. "I'm sorry."

Something felt like it snapped in Hakoda's chest, and he had to close his eyes against the pain. "You have nothing to be sorry for," he said, when he was able to speak. Reaching down, he rested his hand against the Zuko's forehead, finding it cold and dry. "You are very brave."

The boy let out a long breath, and his movements stilled as he fell back into a more natural sleep.

The adults grew respectfully silent again, but Zuko had been oblivious to their words before, and they knew logically he had been only dreaming.

"I didn't think it would be this hard." Bato's words seemed to surprise even him, and he gave a sort of a shrug, drinking deeply of his rum as if he just wanted to forget what he said. He had lost more to the Fire Nation than nearly everyone else in the tribe. He shouldn't be mourning like this.

But something in his words seemed to jerk a reaction out of Hakoda. He took a final swig of the rum and then set it down, wiping his mouth on the edge of a sleeve. "This test has gone too far. I'm taking him out. If I can get north, the sun will be shining. It may not be too late…" He stood up, but Bato had as well, and was blocking his path before he could make a step to go outside.

"You can't do this, Hakoda," Bato said lowly, urgently. "I know this hurts… Everyone knew this would hurt. And that's why the tribe wanted you to do it, in the end. You can't go back on your own orders, now!"

"He's dying! You can't expect me just to stand to the side and watch…" he trailed off and let out a low, breathless laugh, "and watch one of my own son's die."

He tried to shove past Bato, but the alcohol had hit his empty stomach hard, and his friend easily shoved him back and down again into.

"Sit down and listen to me!" Bato snarled, "What if you do this thing, and he survives? What then? You would have gone back on your own word, and your honor with the Tribe will be gone. Oh yes, that'll be good for Sokka and Katara. And what of Zuko? He won't be accepted and we will be back exactly where we were before — either sending him to the Earth Kingdom to be torn apart by an angry mob, or burned alive at the Fire Nation." He met Hakoda's eyes, glare for glare. The absurdity of what they were arguing about flashed across Bato's face, and he grinned, tempering his own words. "And the Tribe will have to name me Chief, and then you'll have to listen to me no matter what."

Hakoda snorted and looked away, although his temper had gone to a simmer. Some of what Bato had said penetrated his mind. "Until that happens, I am Chief," he said, after a long moment, and stood up. Bato could see the determination in his eyes. He fully meant to go through with this crazy task.

"Hakoda, if this is the will of the Spirits, you have to let it be," murmured Kana, softly.

The Chief paused at the fur doorflap, and then shook his head, pushing it aside and walking out.

It would take him a few hours to get the canoe packed and ready. In that time, almost as if the Spirits themselves were listening to Kana's words, a fierce storm blew in on the village.

The people of the Water Tribe were more than up to the challenge, and strung long lengths of rope from one tent to another so no one would get lost in the near whiteout blizzard. No one could even go outside without being blown over.

And, standing at the doorway with a length of fabric across his face to protect his skin from the scouring wind, Hakoda had to admit defeat. He couldn't bring Zuko out in this.

The child would die.


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

"Zuko, get up." Katara shook his shoulder steadily, noticing how cold he was, even though he slept right by the fire. She was nearly sweating under her clothes. She glanced around, checking to make sure the rest of her family were still sleeping. Dad and Gran-Gran didn't want her bugging Zuko, and Sokka would only scoff and laugh at her idea. She bent down, hissing in his unburned ear. "C'mon, Zuko. Get up. I want to show you something." She shook him again. "It's important."

His breathing was so shallow it was hardly there at all. Finally, he rolled his head to the side and opened his eyes. They were so dull it was like looking at a field of dried yellowed weeds, parched and dead. "What?" he rasped.

"Look." She held out her hand, a ball of cooling water cupped within.

He stared at it, dumbly. "That's… great, Katara." He closed his eyes. "Go away… I'm tired."

"No, you aren't looking." She shook his shoulder again until he opened his eyes. "I know you're not feeling good. I'd feel horrible if someone took away my bending, and it's the full moon and everything! I was thinking… you're doing this all wrong. Dad and Sokka keep telling you to be strong, but that's not it. You gotta be like the water, Zuko."

He didn't say anything, but she could tell she had his attention. At the very least, his eyes seemed to focus a little. Katara was encouraged. She went on, "Right now, you're like an ember that's going out, right? But water doesn't burn out. It freezes, or it steams, but it never goes away. It just changes."

"I don't…"

She sighed. Males could be so thick sometimes. "A Fire Nation boy would die 'cause there's no sun, but you're not Fire Nation anymore. Everyone says that you're Water Tribe now."

She held out the glob of water, and after a moment Zuko reached out towards it, covering his hand over it like they had done the first time they bended. Maybe it was Katara's imagination, but she swore that the water glowed a brilliant blue — just for a moment, between their fingers.

Zuko dropped his hand away, all the strength gone. "I'm Water Tribe," he mumbled, eyes sliding shut.

"And Water Tribe boys don't die 'cause of the sun. They just adapt." she told him. And the corner of Zuko's mouth twitched upward before he sank again into oblivion.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

Zuko passed the day of Winter Solstice in what was more or less a coma. The bottom of the world was tilted the furthest away from the sun as it was ever going to get, and there was hardly a scrap of life left in his body.

Kana, Kuthruk, and Hakoda took turns to keep him company, and when Katara and Sokka weren't looking, pressing a hand to the scarred neck to see if there was still a pulse.

The next day, Zuko stirred and opened his eyes. Two days after that, he was able to sit up and told Kana that he was hungry.

Day by day, he grew stronger. Once he was sure he would live, Hakoda gave out a tacit reminder during the night's gathering that Zuko had indeed passed the Spiritual test, and that he was Water Tribe. No one dissented from this, because it was a tight knit community and even the most jaded adult had seen that the boy had suffered, and lived, where others of his kind had not. The general consensus was that it meant there was something good — something Water Tribe — inside of him. And slowly, he stopped being the Fire Nation child, and started being the second son of Hakoda — brother to Sokka and Katara.

One night, almost a month and a half after Zuko lay on his deathbed, Katara woke up to see her him slip out of the family tent. Curious, she pulled on her own parka and followed him. It was easy; a new layer of snow had fallen recently, and his footsteps were clearly visible even in the dark.

She found him just outside the village, facing east. Hearing her approach, he turned and spoke. "Do you feel it?"

"What? The wind?" She shivered and pulled her hood up.

"No." He pointed out to the east where a slight glow had been visible for days. "The sun."

She shook her head, and stood next to him, watching together as the glow slowly brightened more and more into a pearly luminescence. Zuko took deep breaths, in through his nose and exhaling out his mouth. On his forth breath, a slight sheen of yellow sun peeked just over the horizon.

Her brother visibly shivered, and then grinned, holding out his hand. A spark of flame lit, and even when the sun sank down again not fifteen minutes later, the flame both in his hand and deep within him continued bright and strong.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

Notes: Some parts were left vague on purpose, including the exact reasons why Zuko survived. More explanation will be given later in the series, but it has to do with his Spiritual state of mind. (And no, he did not gain his memories back, but a couple of them in particular are still floating around in his head, just out of reach)

Next: TIME SKIP! (Also, bending, southern lights, water fights, and a really eventful canoeing accident.)

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:  This is kind of a strange chapter. The first three quarters or so is comprised of loose drabbles. It's all in order as the kids grow older. Luckily, the last quarter of the fic is something… a little more cohesive which I hope you guys like. :D


 

OoOoOoO

“There is a storm coming. A big one.”

- Iroh, The Storm

OoOoOoO


 

Zuko gasped in a deep breath and then plunged overboard. The water closed in from every side, needling his skin with freezing cold. He ignored it, kicking his legs and reaching out to grasp an underwater rock.

He had calculated his position perfectly. In the cold, clear summer water everything had been visible from the surface. Now that he was under, features and objects were more or less a blur. He reached out, searching for a splash of red gripping an underwater rock, and once he found it, he stuck his pry under and heaved upward. The shell popped off with a soft shawooping sound. Grabbing it, feeling the burn of old air in his lungs, he kicked off the bottom and shot back up to the top.

His head broke the surface with a gasp, and he reached out, hauling himself back up to his canoe. He lay on his back for a few moments, letting the weak summer sun melt into his skin, and staring up into the impossibly blue sky. Then, with a wince (because the butt of his pry was digging into his skin) he sat up, and dug his hard-won prize out of the seal-skin sack.

It was a rust red, bumpy oblong. A shell with a crease down the middle that, when boiled, would open easily. Zuko tossed it in the bucket with a dozen others. They were Katara's favorite, both for their taste and the likelihood of finding pearls inside, and he was determined that she would have as much as she wanted on her upcoming birthday.

Just a few more, and he would be done.

Once again, Zuko went to the side of his canoe and peered down into the clear water, choosing his next target.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

The people in the Water Tribe believed that the colorful southern lights in the night sky was a veiled curtain between their world and the world of the Spirits; that the great ancestors looked down upon them from the gap. And if you looked very hard – you could see the faces of the ones you lost gazing back down at you with love in their eyes.

Zuko knew for a fact that Sokka didn't believe any of it, because he had said so on a number of occasions. Sokka believed there had to be some other, some more rational explanation.

"I don't know what it is, but I'm sure someone will figure it out sometime. Maybe it has to do with the moon," he said wisely, one day while they were practicing hitting far off targets with their boomerangs.

Katara, on the other hand, did. More than once Zuko had seen her look up to the southern lights and raise her hand, as if in greeting. He never asked who she saw in the sky — probably her mother.

As for himself, he at first looked towards the waving green and blue tinged veils with more than a little trepidation. Would he see his blood mother and father glaring down at him, evil, and snapping like the fire itself?

But he never did. Maybe, he thought, half-asleep one night with the southern lights crackling overhead. Maybe because he was Hakoda's son, his ancestors were now different, too. Maybe his Fire Nation ancestors couldn't see him from up high because he would just look like any other Water Tribe boy.

Comforted by this, he finally fell asleep.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

"What do you think?" asked Sokka, anxiously.

Zuko couldn't answer right away. He was too busy coughing, doubling over, pressing in on his stomach in order to force its contents to stay there and not come back up and embarrass him. "Strong!" he gasped at last, pushing the stolen liquor bottle back into Sokka's hands. "Your turn."

"Hmm…" Sokka examined the label again, carefully wiping away some dust from the characters. With a shrug, he put the bottle to his lips and took a swig of his own — a smaller one than his hapless brother. He didn't cough nearly as much, although the strong spirit did burn all the way down. "I guess you just have to be a real man to enjoy it," he concluded at last.

This earned him a dirty look from Zuko's general direction. "I can't believe they like to drink this stuff," he grumbled, taking another swig.

"Think of it this way. We're getting our practice in so when they do let us drink in a few years, we won't embarrass ourselves." Sokka took his turn at the bottle. "I kinda like it."

"No you don't."

"Well, no. But now no one will know."

Presently, Zuko started to feel a little dizzy. He sat down in the cooling snow, and looked over the vista of their village. He and Sokka had chosen their little hiding spot well — they would be able to see anyone coming (especially a suspicious father) well before anyone could see them.

If being drunk made Zuko quiet and contemplative, it had the exact opposite effect on his elder brother. Sokka became even more animated and chatty, talking out loud to him well after Zuko had stopped bothering to answer.

Over all, it was a pleasant experience… even if they did end up stumbling, more or less, back to the tent. And somehow, Sokka had lost his best pair of mittens in the snow.

The next morning was an entirely different story.

Hakoda could hardly not notice the green, pained expression on his two son’s faces the next morning, or the way both of them winced whenever there was a loud noise. He didn't need to check the supply cave to know that one of the bottles of rum would be missing. Sokka and Zuko thought they were clever — and most of the time, they were — but neither one of them was the trouble maker Hakoda had been as a boy. He knew a hangover when he saw one.

It wasn't Hakoda's style to pull both boys aside and lecture them. No, he was more creative than that.

Instead, he put them on rowing duty for the day, which was hard, tough work. The sea was deliciously choppy, and he made sure to sit out of range when both boys inevitably lost their breakfasts over the side of the canoe. He didn't offer any sympathy, instead fixed them both with a glare that cut off any request to return to shore.

"If you two want the privileges of men, you've got to earn your work like men." And that was all he ever said about it.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

"Zuko! Wake up!"

He struggled against the amber tinged terrors in his mind. It was like fighting against a black veil which only folded deeper with every movement.

He cried out, reaching for his attacker, and when his hands gasped against boney wrists — solid and real, he woke up to find himself face to face with Katara, hovering over him.

"It's okay," she whispered, meeting his wide, frightened gaze with an understanding sort of calm. "It was just a nightmare."

Zuko gulped in air like a dying fish. His heart felt like it was trying to beat its way out of his chest. But all was quiet in the tent; he could hear the crackle of the fire and the call of some kind of night bird. And Sokka's soft snores from his left assured him that his thrashing had mostly gone unnoticed. All of the children slept together, as was done in the Water Tribe.

He was still holding her wrists, and once he realized this he released them at once.

"Sorry," he muttered, laying back down, and trying to calm his hitched breathing.

Katara was quiet for a long time, and he thought that she had gone back to sleep until she spoke, "You were dreaming about the girl again, weren't you?"

Her whisper was so quiet, he could have pretended to ignore it. But there wasn't a point. She was right, anyway. "Yeah."

She didn't say anything more, and he rolled over, facing away from her. But every time he closed his eyes on that night he saw the girl's face; her evil amber eyes, and a laughing, taunting voice he couldn't understand.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

And suddenly, Sokka realized that his younger brother had grown taller than him.

He didn't know when that had happened. One day they were playing around the fort, Sokka tackled Zuko and brought the pipsqueak down into the snow… and it seemed like the next day they were carrying firewood back to the camp and Sokka had to look up to meet Zuko's eyes.

It so wasn't fair, and when he made the mistake of complaining about it, he got to hear Katara and Zuko make short-jokes all day.

Sokka got his private revenge, a few days later. They were hunting with Bato and their father, tracking down a herd of moose-caribou. The boys, with their young eyes, were the first to spot a mess of antlers; just visible over the ridge.

"Over here!" Sokka yelled. There was no point in being quiet; the animals had backed themselves up against the sea. They had them trapped.

"What are we—" and in those three syllables, Zuko somehow managed to convey three entirely separate octaves. He stopped, gripping his own throat in shock.

Hakoda and Bato joined up with the boys just about the time Sokka had stopped laughing.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

"They're coming back."

Katara's voice was quiet, pensive. Zuko stared into the campfire, watching the orange glow for a long moment before he raised his head, following her glance.

He could them off in the distance; Dad had his arm thrown over Sokka's shoulder, and by the slumped, dejected look in Sokka's gait, Zuko knew without question that had been told he couldn't come to war.

He would never, ever tell Sokka (he hated to admit it even to himself), but at that moment Zuko felt relieved. He didn't want Sokka to go off to war, and leave him and Katara all alone with the women and kids. The Fire Nation was cruel and heartless, and if his brother was going to war, Zuko wanted to be along with him — so they could watch each other's backs like they had done all along.

As the pair drew closer, Katara and Zuko stood up to greet them. Zuko could see where Sokka's face-paint had been washed away by tears. He looked away, pretending not to see, and focused instead on his dad.

Hakoda's face was grim —it seemed like he hadn't cracked a smile for weeks. Not since the plea come by messenger for aid. When he addressed his children, it was with a certain distance in his voice, as if he couldn't stand to be warm to them in this moment, or else he wouldn't be able to leave.

"The Earth Kingdom are our allies, and they have requested our help. The Fire Lord has stepped up his attacks recently; he's planning something, and the only hope now to stop him is to combine our forces."

"Dad…" Katara whispered, but didn't finish.

Turning, Hakoda addressed his sons. "Sokka, Zuko, you two will need to be the Tribe's warriors while we are gone. Kana will direct you, but as the men you will have your say in defense. Sokka, that will mean you especially, as eldest. Both of you, listen to your Gran-Gran, but also listen to your heart and your judgment."

Zuko swallowed hard past tears that threatened to come up and nodded, coming to stand by Sokka. "We will," they both murmured.

Hakoda nodded, swallowing as well. This was just hard, if not harder, for him. Then he turned to his daughter. "Katara—"

But he didn't get to finish, because she had flung her arms around his waist, sobbing. Then Sokka turned, and Zuko stepped forward and they all hugged him — as hard and as long as they could, because they all knew this might be for the last time.

Hakoda touched their heads, murmured words that were meant to comfort, but were meaningless. But the ships were ready, and eventually he had to draw back.

They all watched him go, and stood by the shore until the wooden ships with the blue sails were nothing but dark points on the horizon.

Later in life, Zuko would look back on that day and decide that was the one where he stopped feeling like a child. As they all turned and trudged back to the village — so empty and so dead without the men — he met eyes with Sokka and knew that there would be no more fooling around… no more games. Their father had left them with a task, and they were not going to fail.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

Zuko's voice was first to break, but Sokka was the one who was the first to shave. He refused, at first, attempting to grow out the peach-fuzz on his upper lip into a proper mustache. But it was sparse at best, and when it became apparent that only one half would grow in properly, he had to admit defeat.


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

The sun had risen only a quarter high in the sky, shining its weak light upon the bright snowy landscape. Past the small huddle of dwellings and just up the coast there were a series of rocky-shale hills. It was the only place within walking distance from the village where the sun was able to truly bake in, helped by the rock underneath, and melt back the snow and ice during the warmer months. Yet the shale was loose, always crumbling down, and so grey and desolate that not even hardy artic brambles could take hold.

The only sign of life came from snow-melted water; streaming in rivets from higher peaks and valleys, and trickling down between the cracks and chipped stone before finally traveling out to the sea.

Two figures stood side-by-side in the middle of a small dip formed by two grey hills. At first look, it seemed as if the two were dancing — something ancient, yet strong and powerful and immeasurably graceful. The boy and girl swept their arms around in graceful loops, feet centered to the ground, and above them in the sky duel ribbons of water and fire flicked about to the left and to the right.

The two stopped, recalling their elements into globes in their hands before twisting them out again around their very bodies. Fire snapped and coiled about Zuko's frame like a beautiful and dangerous ribbon. Katara's water copied him almost exactly, but her stream was cool, thick and strong. Where his element looked like it was ready to snap out and enflame someone with a vengeance, hers was ready to defend, to cool and heal.

Occasionally, either Zuko or Katara would fall out of sync. After all, their elements were opposites, and Zuko had to make his movements quicker, more forceful. Katara, for her part needed to almost always be in motion; channeling the water, pushing and pulling it through the air.

She was the one keeping the pace; directing their shared set of katas that they had spent the last few years together carefully etching out of nothing more than vague ideas and determination.

"Okay, and now… out," she said, and both shifted into a low crouch; Katara flicking out her water into a sharp point of a spear as if to impale an enemy. Zuko's own fire lashed out as a lance. Both elements went to the length of their control — about thirty feet away or so, before the benders reeled them in.

"And defend." Katara commanded.

This time their movements were once again in unison. Both swept their arms inward and up, settling them like a shield in front of thief faces. Their elements leapt to their movements and a thick wall of ice and fire erupted before each of them. They let this hold for the count of three before dropping their stances.

It was the end. Twenty minutes work, and they had gone though all the katas that they had created. It was better than nothing, but learning new forms from zero reference and with no help was deeply frustrating… for both of them.

Katara sighed and let her water run from her fingers and back to the ground. Zuko sent his flames back to the camp-fire he had built to cook their lunch with. He preferred to always have a supply of fire with him when he practiced, like a waterbender, rather than generate it himself. That way he could match Katara's fluid movements with more ease.

"Real benders with masters practice from sun up to sun down," he grumbled, stretching down to touch his toes. He hadn't understood at the time, now years past, why Katara was so anxious to meet another bender. Now he knew. He could feel the bite of impatience each and every time their forms ended, along with something else, something sad. It was a craving that was not so different from hunger or thirst.

Katara walked to the campfire to check on their roasting lunch. The fish was still sizzling softly, propped up over the V of two sticks. It would still be a few minutes before they could eat.

She glanced up at his words and frowned. "Don't start talking like that," she commanded, pointing a twig at him. "I am a real bender, and you are too." Although, she did look a bit wistful at having nothing to do all day but practice. As it was, the rest of the tribe could only spare them for an hour a day at most… and they had to do it during lunch.

"It's just… There's more. There's so much more we could do, and I wish I could remember it!" He pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, almost as if wishing he could press the knowledge out. Of course, nothing came. Nothing ever came.

Katara sent a sidelong glance to him over the campfire. "It's okay. We'll figure it out… somehow."

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Zuko sighed, and cursed Katara one more time for falling so inconveniently sick with the flu. With her out, it had fallen to him to teach the little kids how to knot proper nets. He was no good at dealing with children, partially because he didn't remember being a small child, and partially because he was impatient.

"Tuktu, start that row again," he said, bending down, and with a swift tug unknotted the imperfect work. "You are going to have to rely on this net, so make it good and strong."

Tuktu's younger brother, Denahi held up his net, grinning a gap-toothed grin. "Zuko, how's this?"

He took the net into his hands. The knots were good enough, but, "You're weaving the net too tightly," he said, absently, handing it back and looking around to make sure the rest of the kids were still doing what they should be doing. "You're not fishing for an octopus."

"What's an octopus?"

Zuko glanced down at the boy in surprise. He had said that, hadn't he? "It's… just an old saying, I think. Never mind." He shook his head as if to clear it stood up. Where had that come from?

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

"No, that can't be right." And with a quick swipe, Sokka grabbed the scroll out of Katara's hands, unrolled it, and turned it to the side, as if seeing it from a new angle would be better. A pause, and then. "There's no way this can be right."

Zuko came up from behind him, and his unburned eye widened as he, too, saw the grim figures. "That's all that's left?" He was always quicker to go from shock to anger, and he whirled around towards Gran-Gran. "But we've been gathering all season, and there are half as many people to feed. What happened?"

"Weevil-rats got into some of the fish-salt barrels last spring, remember?" Katara reminded him.

"Yes, but—"

Their Gran-Gran cut in, her stately voice rising above her grandchildren's initial shock. "The fact of it is that many of us elderly can't provide as well as we used too. These old hands just aren't very fast at picking and fishing, and with the men gone…" she gave a sigh, and gently tugged the scroll from Sokka's hands, rolling it up with a sort of finality.

"We'll take care of it, Gran-Gran." Sokka's eyes met with Zuko's, and they nodded at each other, set and determined. Dad had told them to protect the tribe, and they would. It was their job to be the men now, and to provide. "There's at least three weeks until it gets too dark to hunt," Sokka continued, "We can take the sledge and the dogs. If we bring home even a couple of Tiger-Seals…"

"We are all going to get sick on too much seal jerky," Katara groaned.

Sokka looked offended. "Sick of jerky? How can you get sick of jerky?"

"Not everyone can just live off meat alone, Sokka!" she snapped, then shook her head and pushed a piece of hair back to the nape of her neck. No one was going to say it, but she saw it on her brother's faces all the same: They wished that Dad was here. He would know what to do. How she wished…

But wishing wasn't going to do anything. He wasn't here. He had left them to fight war in a far distant continent, and Katara felt a flare of irrational anger which she quickly shoved away. She would deal with that, later.

"Alright," she said, "me and Gran-Gran will organize the women and the children while you two hunt. We'll need greens: grasses, kelp, berries, and winterfruit." She cast around for a spare bit of parchment to write on while she spoke, all the while ignoring the slight gagging sounds that Sokka was making at the mention of plant-stuff.

"There have been shortages in the past," Gran-Gran said, "worse than this, and we have survived it. We may have to ration ourselves, but we will survive."

"I never feel much like eating anyway, in the winter," Zuko muttered, quietly.

If this was his idea of a joke, Katara didn't appreciate it. She shot him a dark look. The first winter had been by far the worst, with each following being a little easier for him to endure.

Zuko was still dead to the world around the solstice, and Katara had grown to hate that time of year; seeing him comatose and curled around a fire he couldn't feel.

"Great!" Sokka, of course, had a whole different perspective on things. He threw his arm about Zuko's shoulders, all good humor restored now that they had a plan. "I'll just have your ration, then."

Katara was appalled. "Sokka!"

Kana regarded her grandchildren, and her blue eyes sparkled with pride. This was the next generation of leaders for her tribe, and they were young, far too young to have this burden. But they were all shouldering it well.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

The events leading up to the return of Sozin's comet would be something that historians would detail and attempt to recount for generations to come. There were many dissenting opinions on the exact date of Avatar Aang's return to the world, but the majority believed it to be the second day of the eleventh month in the year of the monkey.

Even in high summer, the Antarctic land was frosted in white. The short summer with had no purchase on the cool springs and autumn, and brutal winters. The areas of melt were few and far between.

Out to sea, all was blue and calm with neither wind or fog to obscure the day. The air was so clean, the sky and water such a deep blue that they were discernable from each other only from caps of icebergs gently bobbing in the water. High overhead, four-winged pigeon-gulls called to each other in high voices of complaint; wheeling, and diving. The only dab of color aside from white of ice and deep navy of the water was a small smudge of brown; a single canoe, hugging along the jagged ice coastline.

The three occupants, teenagers with only a year or so between them, were dressed in the traditional light blues and purples Southern Water Tribe. The two boys sitting in the front cut through the water with sure, even strokes with flat wooden paddles. The girl, younger than both of them, sat in the back with her hand steady on the rudder.

Finally, they came to a place where the water cut into the land, creating a small inlet bay. Paddles were put away. The boy at the front of the canoe, handsome and tanned with light blue eyes and hair shaved on both sides of his head with the top piece pulled back wolf-tail, leaned forward; spear in hand and eagerly gazing into the deep waters in search of a flicker of shadow.

The girl in back rolled her eyes at her brother's concentration, and when she gazed into the water it was to look at the brilliant reflection of the sky playing across the surface rather than to hunt. She was young, but already lovely with a soft face and her hair pulled back into a complicated braid with two hair loops dangling from each side.

The boy in the middle, taller than the other two, was distinguished by scars across his face and neck, gold eyes, and pale skin. He had shaggy raven black hair which today was let down — two blue beads weaved into a piece which sat next to the whole side of his face.

Something in the water caught the girl's attention. Her eyebrows knit and she shifted her weight, leaning forward to peer below the surface.

The movement rocked the canoe slightly, and the boy in front sat up to glare at his sister. "Hey, you're going to scare away all the fish!"

Katara's eyes widened focusing on a dart of a flounder-trout, lazing just below the surface. "Sokka, I think—"

"Shhh!" Sokka had gone back to his intense search. The point of his spear dipped below the surface, just for a moment. But the dark shape in the water was just a piece of kelp, and not a juicy, delicious fish. He made a face and used the butt of the spear to flip it aside before peering again. "It's not getting away from me this time."

Katara shot an exasperated glance at Sokka's back, and then to Zuko who just shrugged at her. He was busy lounging back, face tilted to the sun, the paddle resting casually across his lap. In contrast to the dark southern winters, he hardly got any sleep in the summer, and any moment of drowsiness was welcome.

"Here fishy, fishy…" Sokka whispered, in direct contrast to the order he had just given to stay quiet. The corner of his tongue poked out the corner of his mouth. "Come to Sokka…"

Katara narrowed her eyes and turned back to the water. The fish was still there, almost lazing gently just under the surface. If only she had a spear — her small net would never do, and both her brothers jealously guarded theirs. The fish seemed almost close enough to touch. In fact…

Tugging off her mitten with her teeth, Katara glanced one final time at the boys — neither were paying attention — before she reached out her hand, carefully moving it up and down in a slow wave.

The water rippled to her command and with an uplift of her hand a shaky globe of water sprung to the surface, the fish trapped neatly within. A grin crossed Katara's face; she had never even attempted anything like this before, and she got it on the first try! "Sokka, Zuko! Look!"

Zuko cracked open his unscarred eye, and had the decency to look mildly impressed. Sokka, meanwhile, had not turned around.

"Katara, I'm trying to fish, here!"

"But Sokka, look!" The globe of water floated upward to her command until it was hovering just over their heads. Katara grinned in triumph. "I caught one!"

Suddenly, a small stream of fire slipped through the air like a tiny orange spring, landing with a small hiss of steam right on the surface of the globe. It was a tiny impact, but enough to break Katara's concentration, and the globe disintegrated in mid-air. Zuko had timed it well: not only did Sokka get soaked, but the fish hit him on the back of the head on its way down.

"Hey!" Katara yelped.

Sokka sputtered, and his spear slipped from his grasp, falling into the water before bobbing up to the surface again just out of reach. He turned, his blue eyes snapping. "How come every time you two play with magic, I get soaked?"

"It made you look, didn't it?" Zuko drawled, not impressed by the dramatic way his elder brother wrung out the edge of his parka. He didn't get him that wet.

"Zuko, that was my fish!" snapped Katara, "And it's not magic, Sokka. It's—"

"Yeah, yeah. An ancient art unique to our culture." Sokka rolled his eyes before he snatched Zuko's long spear and bent over the side of the canoe again, using it as a hook to reel his own weapon back. "Tell you what. I'll match your magic waterbending to my skillful hunting, and we'll see which actually works."

"Well, I already would have one if Zuko didn't get jealous and ruin it! Ugh! You two are so—"

But Katara never got to tell them exactly what she thought. The canoe rocked again, and the three Water Tribe siblings looked up to see that they had drifted into a fast-draining current. It was taking them swiftly out to open water, and worse, right into the middle of a field of icebergs.

The boys grabbed their paddles, and dug in. It was no use trying to fight the current; it was too strong. Their only hope was to cut across, parallel to the shore. Unfortunately, that way was strewn with icebergs — deceptively tranquil on the surface, but massive below water with sides as sharp as razors.

From her seat on back, Katara gripped the rudder and barked out orders. "Left! Left! Sokka, your other left!"

But they were well within the icy grip of the current, and heading full speed between two icebergs, to a path too narrow for the canoe pass through. Zuko turned, barking out, "Katara, push them away!"

"I… I can't!"

"A little help over here, Zuko!" Sokka yelled.

It was too late. The nose of their boat hit just as the ice-bergs crashed together. The canoe tilted upward, pitching all three of them out, yelling in surprise and shock, onto the flat ice, before it fell back down into the water again, split into two, and promptly sank.

"Great… just great." Sokka sat up, rubbing his head, and glared at his brother. "You call that paddling?"

"Me? At least I was going in the right direction!"

Katara got painfully to her feet, dusted loose snow off her parka, and looked around. It wasn't good. They were stranded on a large iceberg, which floated on the edge of the current. Every second took them further and further away from land and out to the ice-fields. Behind her, the two brothers continued bickering.

"Well, lazy, if you put some effort into paddling—"

"Lazy?! I was paddling on the correct side—"

"If you weren't sitting back, letting me do all the work like you were some kind of… of king or something —"

"What?!"

Katara risked a glance over. Zuko was steaming — literally, and Sokka was using one of his arm wraps to tie both ends of his broken spear together, grumbling in a stage whisper. "Oh I know, you should have blasted the icebergs out of the way. But that would mean your firebending would be useful."

Zuko made a move towards Sokka, but not before Katara got between them first. "Do I have to separate you two?" she snapped, glaring at both of them. "If you haven't noticed, we're kind of in a situation here. Now is not the time for fighting."

"Maybe you should can just waterbend us back to land." Sokka's fingers danced in the air, sarcastically.

Behind her, Zuko snorted. "He's right, you know. You should have been able to move those icebergs."

And suddenly, Katara found herself pulled right along in with their argument. She rounded on Zuko, glaring up at him. "What about you? You could have blasted them apart."

"I was kind of busy trying to paddle us out!" he snapped.

Sokka held up a hand as if he were in class, cheerfully digging the knife deeper. "Not very well."

This was getting them nowhere. Katara stood back and made herself take a deep breath. The longer they argued, the further away from shore they were getting. "Sokka, please tell me you at least told Gran-Gran where we were heading…"

A look of dawning horror on his face was all the answer she needed. Zuko groaned and turned away in exasperation muttering. "Perfect, just perfect…"

"Well," Sokka rubbed the back of his neck, "when we don't make it back in a few hours, they're bound to come looking…"

"They won't even know where to start!" Zuko pointed to the shore, now a rapidly fading line on the horizon. "We can still see land. I say we just jump in and take our chances."

That was a very bad idea, and they all knew it. Even in the warmest time of the year, it was unsafe to be in the water for more than a few minutes at a time. Zuko might be able to do it, but there would be no rescue if he couldn't bend himself back to warmth again. No one said anything, and Zuko turned, crossing his arms and looking sullenly out to sea.

Katara shook her head. "There has to be another way," she said, "We're going to get out of this, together."

"How?"

All three of them looked at one another, each seeing the same sort of grimness on each other's faces. This was bad. There was nothing to eat on an iceberg, nothing to drink… they'd be dead within a few days, or the iceberg would melt out from underneath them first and they would drown. Even Sokka was out of sarcasm.

Suddenly Sokka blinked, eyes lighting. "Wait!" he said, standing up to go to Zuko's side. He, too, gazed out to the vast field of icebergs. It was a desolate sight — too many tips of white to be able to count, and as soon as they were completely out of sight of land they could get easily turned around, and not be able to find their way back. But Sokka's quick mind was making different sort of connections all together, and he turned to the others, excited.

"We can still make it to shore! These icebergs are almost close enough to leap across. Katara, you can freeze a stepping stone to get from to one and another. Iceberg bridge!" he concluded, with a wide smile.

Zuko's unburned eye widened. He glanced out, perhaps finding the same path through the icebergs as Sokka. "Yeah… I think that'll work." He must have seen the doubt on Katara's face, because he added. "It will just be like one of your ice walls, but sideways."

But Katara wasn't so sure of herself. It was easy for Zuko to say that, but it was just theory and as they found out countless times in the past, ideas on bending didn't necessarily work on application.

She had to try.

Carefully, making sure she didn't slip, she scooted herself to the edge of the ice. The nearest iceberg was about six feet away — just too far away for a safe leap. She waved her arms in a loop, willing the water to freeze. It jumped at her command in a wave instead, splashing up and soaking her seal-hide boots.

She glanced backwards at her brothers, biting her lip. Ever helpful, Sokka gave her the thumbs up. Zuko stood by his side, just waiting for something to happen, radiating a calm confidence. He believed in her. They both did. Looking at them, Katara reminded herself that their very lives depended on her. She was the only one with the abilities to do this. Zuko — and most certainly Sokka — couldn't.

She faced the water again, breathing in from her nose and out her mouth like she had practiced a thousand times before. Then she pushed her hands out, fingers splayed, willing the water in front of her to freeze.

It did. Just for a moment, at least, before the current cracked through the thin ice. But it was a start, and with a determined glint in her eye, Katara got to her feet. It took only a couple of quick gestures to lock her boots in ice to make sure she didn't slip off the edge. Then, fully centered, she swung her arms around, ending once again in that push outward.

The water between the icebergs stilled, and then froze. This time it stayed frozen, as thick and secure as the ice shelves on which they lived.

Sokka gave a whoop, and before Katara could stop him, he had scrambled down, across the short bridge and onto the next iceberg. "C'mon!" he called, "we're wasting all day sunlight, here!"

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Katara became more adept at her freezing technique, creating safe bridges for them to cross on nearly every first try. They made good time, using the icebergs as giant stepping-stones to cross them out of the current and slowly, back towards land.

"There should be a peninsula around here," Sokka called eagerly. He was cutting the way, pointing out the direction on every path. "I think we only have a little way to go, and once we hit land we can just hike back home…"

But of course, it wasn't that easy. They were following more or less a path through the field of icebergs, cutting across the smaller ones out of the current and into calmer waters. Off in the distance, and steadily drawing nearer, a problem lay ahead.

It looked almost as if a mountain had sprung up out of the water. In a lifetime of living near and on sea ice, none of the Water Tribe siblings had ever seen anything so massive. It seemed to stretch from one horizon to another, and so high that they could tilt their necks up and up, and still the top couldn't be seen.

Such a thing was easy to plan around, and Sokka did his very best. Yet the iceberg was so big it almost seemed to draw everything around it in its path. No matter which direction that they went, the field of ice seemed to curve back around, leading them once more to the giant.

It was almost eerie, although none of them spoke about it.

Finally, they stood not a hundred yards away from the giant iceberg, unsure what to do next.

"I am not making a bridge there," Katara grumbled, crossing her arms.

Meanwhile, Zuko had tilted his head, as if looking at the thing from another angle. "No use going around it," he said, "I guess we're just going to have to go through it."

Sokka raised his eyebrow. "How do you want to do that?"

"See that dark spot?" Zuko pointed with one mitten to a long imperfection on the face of the crag, centered in the middle. "It looks like a big crack. I think if we target it, we could have a shot at splitting it into a few pieces, at least."

"Hmm… violent, but effective." Sokka stroked his chin, and then nodded in approval.

Katara grinned; the first smile she’d had in awhile. "I just think you're looking to blow something up," she said, fondly reaching up to ruffle Zuko's dark hair.

He ducked away, scowling, but there wasn't any heat to it. He was used to her teasing, and when he straightened up again, his light gold eyes were bright. "Are you ready?"

She nodded, and they took a few steps back. Katara didn't want to say it out loud, because Sokka would have just made a comment, but it felt good to actually put one of their kata's to use. This had been one of the first moves she and Zuko had worked out — simple, but effective.

Katara bent some snow into a watery globe between her hands, and he conjured an identical ring of fire between his palms. Together they took a single step forward, miming an exaggerated underhanded toss.

Together, in a ribbon that twisted over and over, the two elements flew through the air and struck the targets, hitting perfectly in the middle of the deep imperfection.

There was a rush of steam and then a crack so loud that all three of them clapped their hands to their ears. For the space of two breaths, it seemed nothing had happened at all. Then, in slow motion, the entire face of the mammoth iceberg began to fall away. It started out small, like a tiny shift on an impossibly tall mountainside. Then it gained speed, crumbling away with rocks each as big as their family tent.

And the whole thing fell under with a grinding sound and a crash that would haunt Katara for weeks to come.

A huge wave rose in its wake, all froth and destruction. It rolled forward, and abruptly all three teens were confronted with exactly how short-sighted they had been, for they were directly in its path.

Katara held up her hands out of instinct, but it was like throwing a flat rock in the midst of a roiling ocean. There was no way she could shift that amount of water. She was just one girl — untrained and not even a real bender, no matter what had said before.

Looking up at that wave, which loomed high above — the tallest thing she thought she had ever seen, she doubted even the legendary Avatar could stop it.

Someone grabbed her, shoving her down. She had only a moment to gain an impression: Sokka landing beside her and Zuko on top of them both, thrusting fire-wreathed hands into the ice on either side of them to get a hold.

It would have been no use at all if the wave had crested over them. As it happened, it didn't. That destruction was waiting for the distant shore. Their iceberg rolled and pitched, nearly rising straight into the air, and if Zuko hadn't had such a good grip they would have all slid into the sea.

Then with a crash that rattled Katara's teeth in her skull, the iceberg righted itself and they were level again.

"Never mind," Sokka said, after they caught their breath checked to make sure they were all still alive. "I hate simple and violent. Next time, I don't care how long it takes; we go around."

Katara nodded in shaky agreement.

Zuko remained strangely silent. He sat up, staring at his own hands as if he didn't recognize them, and she immediately saw why: The tattered remains of his mittens clung black and charred to his wrists. His pale hands, though, were unblemished.

"Burned my mittens," he muttered, looking dazed.

Katara didn't blame him. She had never seen him do any firebending move like that before. And it was obvious that he didn't know he could, either. He had just reacted out of instinct — and although he never spoke of it, she knew how deeply it disturbed him when new things cropped up like this. It reminded them all of his shadowed, former life. Zuko never fully trusted himself with his bending because of it — it was the reason he usually let her take the lead with their katas.

She reached out towards him, but Sokka was there, first. His brand of compassion was something totally different than hers.

"Hey," Sokka said, grabbing Zuko's shoulder to get his attention, "Fire hands, huh? Cool."

Katara wanted to roll her eyes, but Sokka's glib words had the desired effect, and Zuko seemed to mentally give himself a shake, coming back the present. "I wouldn't really say it was 'cool'…" he said, with the tiniest hint of a smirk.

"Yeah, but if I ever call you hot, I'll have to drown myself."

Zuko gave a low chuckle, and his brother slapped him on the back and helped him and Katara to their feet.

Together, they gazed out on the destruction that they had wrought. As far as Katara could tell, the massive mountain of the iceberg had split into four or five ragged chunks. They were still big and intimidating, but at least she could see over them.

Looking out to the water, her eyes caught something bright — something that almost looked like a reflection of the sun, but wasn't. Whatever it was, it was below the surface… and it was getting larger.

"Hey, what's that?" She pointed, and almost as soon as the words left her mouth, something exploded up from the ocean depths.

The three siblings winced away, but this time there was no giant wave. Just a shower of water as what looked like a whole new iceberg popped to the surface in front of them.

Only this iceberg was… glowing?

Katara squinted, stepping forward to get a better look. Then her mind caught up with what her eyes were trying to tell her, and she jerked back again in surprise.

No doubt about it — there was a form, a human shaped form sitting in the middle of that iceberg. Strange arrows curved from the figure's arms down to his joined fists, and up over his forehead.

As she watched, frozen in disbelief, the arrows and what looked to be the eyes, glowed.

Whoever was in there… was alive!

She didn't remember making the decision. She hardly even felt control over her body. She just reacted. Snatching Sokka's bone club from his holster, she raced over and with a deft movement, froze the water between her iceberg and the glowing one.

Katara heard Sokka and Zuko yelling at her to come back, but she was already racing across the short bridge. Whoever was in there couldn't wait for help!

She came right to the face of the ice and swung the bone club as hard as she could. It bounced off, small pieces of ice chipping away in every direction. Gritting her teeth, Katara swung again. Dimly, she heard her brothers skid to a stop behind her.

Someone, probably Zuko, made a grab for the club, but he missed and this time when her swing hit, it made an impact.

A jagged crack ran lengthwise up the encasing of ice, which she now realized was a globe. Then it split open, like a penguin egg, and a rush of warm air spilled out along with a jet of blue light so intense that she was momentarily blinded.

Sokka yanked her back, and the three siblings huddled together, protecting each other – each equally horrified as a figure, now a silhouette against the bright light, crawled out over the top and stood, looking down on them.

Then, just as suddenly, the light cut out. The figure wavered in his stance and then with a low groan, pitched forward. He slid down the slope, coming to a rest nearly at their feet.

"Is he… dead?" Zuko wondered aloud, prodding the figure with his toe.

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Next time: Who is that mysterious boy in the iceberg?

(Ducks rotten fruit)

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Note: Everyone is the same age as in canon. Aang is 12, Katara is 14, Sokka is 15 and Zuko is 16. BUT Zuko thinks of himself as younger than Sokka... if by only a few months.

 


 

OoOoOoO

"Things will never return to normal...

… But the important thing is, the Avatar gives Zuko hope."

- Iroh, The Storm

OoOoOoO


 

 

It took a few moments of furious blinking for Sokka to clear his light-dazzled eyes.

Slowly, the colorful dots in his vision faded away and the strange figure at his feet resolved itself.

It… was just a kid. He was eleven, maybe twelve, and shaved completely bald. The glowing arrows that had been so unearthly strange had now become light blue tattoos, each running down an arm and tipped at his forehead. He was dressed differently, too; strange, high pants and an overcoat of yellow and red.

Zuko prodded him again with the toe of his boot.

"Stop that!" Katara snapped and knelt down to lay her mitten across the strange boy's cheek. The boy stirred at her touch and blinked grey eyes up at her.

"Hey," she said, giving the kid a smile. Sokka nearly groaned aloud. He had seen that smile before; that time she adopted a seal-kitten, forgetting it would soon become too large to fit the tent. "Are you okay?"

The boy winced and blinked again. When he spoke, his voice was weak. "I need to ask you something."

Katara hesitated and bent her head to hear him. "What?"

Suddenly, the boy's grey eyes widened, and a mischievous smile crossed his face. "Do you want to go penguin sledding with me?"

"Uh." She was taken aback. "Sure…"

Sokka, at least, had recovered his wits and stepped forward. He retrieved his bone club and daringly prodded the boy with it. "Stand back, Katara. He could be dangerous."

But the boy just casually batted the club away, and too quickly for Sokka to react, leapt to his feet. "Where am I?" asked the boy, scratching the back of his head.

"South pole," Zuko answered. He had wisely kept his distance, and watched the scene with arms crossed over his chest, eyes narrowed. "How are you not frozen?"

"I dunno." The boy gave a shrug. "Huh. I didn't know I made it. I was just flying with Appa — Oh! Appa!" He turned, and with three graceful leaps, he somehow scaled the enclosure of ice and jumped back inside.

The three Water siblings turned, shrugged at each other, and followed.

Personally, Sokka didn't think that he could be surprised by anything else today. He had seen a giant mountain of ice split into pieces, Zuko doing some freaky fire thing with his hands, and now a crazy tattooed kid rise up from an iceberg. But when he scaled the ice globe, and looked inside… Yeah, the giant white and brown furry monster with six legs and beaver tail surprised him.

Zuko made a choked sort of sound, and Sokka looked over to see he had dropped his 'tough guy' pose, and was trying to pick his jaw off the floor. Come to think of it, so was Sokka.

"What… is that thing?" Zuko sputtered.

"Appa," the boy chirped, climbing around the thing's head to pull at his eyelids. "He's my flying bison. C'mon buddy, wake up."

Sokka had a pretty good view from where he stood, and he didn't see any wings on the thing. "Right," he said, jerking a thumb at Katara. "And this is Katara, my flying sister."

The giant animal stirred, shaking himself to the kid's obvious delight. Then, without warning it sneezed, and had Sokka not been standing over by Zuko, he might have been hit by a big load of green (and possibly contagious) snot. As it was, the glob smacked against the ice wall right behind him, and the two boys nearly tripped over one another in their scramble to get out of the way.

"These are my brothers," Katara said, stepping forward to tentatively reach out and lay a hand on the giant muzzle. "The sarcastic one is Sokka, and Mr. Grumpy over there is Zuko."

The kid beamed. "Oh, hi. I'm—" A strange look came over his face, and before Sokka could put his club out to defend himself, he sneezed.

But he didn't just sneeze. He flew at least twenty feet straight up in the air, as if — well, Sokka couldn't think of a proper analogy, but it was straight up IN THE AIR. Then he floated downward, overcoat billowing around him, as if it were nothing. "I'm Aang."

"You're an airbender," Katara breathed.

Personally, Sokka would have settled for 'freak', but airbender worked too.

"Yup!" Aang confirmed, with a smile.

"No… you can't be an airbender." Zuko stepped forward, holding out his hands as if pleading for sanity. Sokka knew the feeling. "I mean, no one has seen an airbender for a hundred years."

"What do you mean?" Aang asked.

But Sokka knew where his brother was going. He strode forward importantly, jabbing a finger into the kid's chest. "What he means, buster, is that clearly you're a spy." He could almost feel Katara's silent objection. Poor, naive Katara. He'd set her straight. "That bolt of light was probably a signal to the Fire Navy."

"Why would I want to signal the Fire Navy?" Aang asked. "I don't know anyone in the Fire Navy. Oh, hey," he turned to Zuko, "Do you know Kuzon?"

"Uh, no?" Zuko looked completely taken aback, which Sokka had to admit, was a difficult reaction to draw from his brother. And he'd tried.

"Sokka, look at his face," Katara said, "Is that the face of an evil Fire Nation spy?"

He had to admit the kid looked fairly innocent. And, if Sokka really thought about it, it was a little bit of a stretch to think that an airbender would be working for the Fire Nation. But still…

Sokka had enough.

"You know what? Giant light beams, flying bison, guys named Kuzon… airbenders. I think I've got midnight sun madness. I'm going home where things make sense," he declared, but he had no sooner turned around and looked out to the desolate sea that he remembered, oh whoops, they were all kinda, sorta, stranded.

"Yeah, you let us know how that goes," Zuko snorted, which earned him a glare from Sokka. After all, he was supposed to be on his side.

Of course, the weird flying kid had the answer. "Well, if you guys are stuck, Appa and I can give you a lift." Then he promptly floated to the top of the giant flying bison, extending a hand as if all were welcome.

Katara said, "We'd love a ride! Thanks!" and she climbed up before Sokka could grab her to shake some sense into her.

"Oh no, we are not getting on that fluffy snot monster." Sokka had only the faintest idea about how whiny and petulant he sounded at that point. But really, could anyone blame him? Was it too much to ask for this world to start making sense again?

Apparently it was, because Zuko gave a sort of a shrug and pulled himself on board, calling over his shoulder. "Better than freezing to death out on the ice."

"But… but he could eat us!"

All three were looking at him from the bison's back, and finally Sokka gave a defeated sigh, walking up to the beast. However, he refused to let go of his spear, and his sister and brother had to help pull him up.

Aang sat at the thing's head, gripping a pair of leather straps attached to the curved horns like reins. "Okay, first time flyers, hold on tight!" Then he flicked his hands. "Appa, yip-yip!"

The creature stirred, its muscles rolling under the thick pelt of fur. It slapped its wide beaver tail against the ice, and with a massive jerk and a rush of wind, it leapt out into the sky…

… only to fall down again with a sickening lurch and a splash that once again got Sokka all wet.

The fates hated him. They really did. For the second time today, he was forced to wring out the bottom of his parka.

"I knew he couldn't fly," he muttered.

Zuko grunted, arms folded. His attention was elsewhere, for Aang had turned back around and was staring at their little sister with a dreamy expression on his face.

"Hey kid," Zuko snapped, "eyes in front."

Sokka had to admit, his little brother could really pull the intimidating firebender thing off sometimes. Aang gulped and quickly turned back around.

Slyly, on the down-low, Sokka and Zuko gave each other high-fives.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Even though the sun had not fully set, it was well past what anyone could consider bedtime.

Katara and Sokka were dozing, curled up in the middle of the thick-padded bison-saddle. Zuko inched himself upright, bracing his back against the wooden wall, and watched the bison's slow swim with his arms still crossed over his chest. He had no chance of sleep at all; the sun still sat low in the sky and shone fully upon the scarred side of his face.

Katara stirred, turning her head, and caught his eye. "Still awake?"

"Can't sleep," he grunted, and then cast a dubious glance at the stranger sitting at the bison's head. The kid was sitting cross-legged, but leaning forward as if exhausted. Zuko wouldn't be surprised if he was. The fact that he was even alive had to be some kind of miracle.

His sister followed his gaze, and the look in her eyes was something he didn't want to see; soft, compassionate, and hopeful all at once. "He's an airbender," Katara breathed, as if releasing a long-awaited sigh.

"So he says."

"Do you think…" Katara paused, sitting up and biting her bottom lip. She glanced about for Sokka, but he was snoring peacefully, completely oblivious to their conversation. "Do you think Aang knows what happened to the Avatar?"

Something strange jerked in Zuko's chest, like a tug at his innards that sent a cold sort of shiver down his spine. He couldn't place the feeling, and in a moment, it was gone.

He shook his head, but only to clear his thoughts. It was best that Sokka was asleep, because he would have just jumped in proclaiming the Avatar as just a made up legend. Katara always believed the stories, and although Zuko could never quite pinpoint why, he did too. "I don't know," he said, at last. "I could ask him."

"Ask him nicely." Katara had no idea how much she sounded like Gran-Gran. But before Zuko could tell her, she reached out and gripped his hand. "He's an airbender," she repeated, eyes locked with his, "Maybe he could teach us—"

"What? Airbending?"

"I don't know. Something. Anything."

He caught the hope in her voice, and another tingle went up and down his spine; one of excitement. He broke his gaze with Katara to look back at the kid, this time appraisingly. Air was probably different from Water and Fire all together, but he and Katara had learned from each other, right? It wasn't so far-fetched.

"Maybe," Zuko allowed, but couldn't hide the thread of excitement in his voice. He dropped her hand. "I'll ask about the Avatar, and you ask him to teach us after he rests. Get some sleep."

He would leave it up to Katara to convince the kid to teach them more bending. After all, she had worked her magic on him years ago, despite his fear and doubt.

Getting up, he carefully picked his way past the saddle, over the giant bison's back. It was an odd sensation; quite unlike padding across a fur-rug. The muscles under his feet bunched and unbunched as the animal swam, and a couple of times he had to kneel down and grip the fur to keep from losing his balance. There was a sharp dip between the body and the head.

After a hesitation, Zuko leapt over the short neck, catching one of the black tipped horns in his hand to steady himself.

Aang startled, jerking out of what must have been a light doze. At once, he relaxed and offered him a chipper grin. "Hey, Zuko," he said, as if he had known him all of his life. Then he scooted over and patted the space next to him, allowing the taller boy to take his seat.

Zuko had to admit, there was a strange sense of power from sitting on the bison's head. From this vantage point, it seemed as if an entire watery world was laid out before him; his to command. It was an interesting feeling, and not unwelcome.

But he pushed it away for the time being, and focused on the kid next to him. "Hey… Aang." He tried — and failed — to copy that same sort of familiarity in his voice. Quickly, he went on. "Look, I was sort of wondering… since you're an airbender, do you ever know what happened to the Avatar?"

"The Avatar?" Aang squeaked, raising his hand up to the back of his smooth head. "Uh… No, I didn't know him. I mean, I knew people that knew him, but… I didn't. Sorry."

"Oh." He really didn't expect the kid to know anything, but all the same he felt a pang of disappointment.

An awkward sort of silence stretched between the two. Aang, for some reason seemed twitchy, and Zuko was at a loss of what to say next. Sokka would know. He had a way with words that Zuko knew he could never have. So, out of slight desperation — and because the question had bugged him at the time — he asked, "So, who's Kuzon?"

Aang gave small chuckle at this. "Oh, he's one of my best friends. He's Fire Nation, too."

It felt as if Zuko had been simultaneously slapped and doused with a cold bucket of water. He straitened, narrow-eyed at the boy. "I'm not Fire Nation," he growled, and stood up. "Goodnight." With that, he jumped across the small gap between Appa's head and back to rejoin the others.

Behind him, Aang looked surprised. After a moment, he bent down, hand coming to rest by one of Appa's ears. "Was it something I said?"

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

The 'flying' bison continued on his leisurely, yet steady swim, and by three in the morning they found shore. Everyone, sans Zuko, was sleeping. He quietly woke Katara and Sokka, and told them to get to their tent. After a moment of hesitation, he did the same for Aang; walking the extremely drowsy boy to one of the unused tents.

The airbender was so sleepy that Zuko doubted he barely understood what was going on, and when Zuko came back with some extra pelts for bedding, he found Aang curled up and asleep on the floor of the tent; perfectly comfortable without blankets.

No one in the camp was up, and the sun was still at the horizon, ever present during the summer months. It was just as nearly bright as full day, with only a pallid sort of grey to mark the time.

Zuko's body screamed for sleep, although he knew he could lay down for hours and not get any of it.

Returning to the home tent, he quietly poured himself some of the special tea that Gran-Gran made for him during the summer. It was the only way he could get more than an hour’s worth of sleep during midnight-sun. He bent the liquid to warmth with a short breath, and wincing, downed the entire bitter cup.

Then he crawled in between the furs, ignoring Sokka's wide-mouthed snoring, and waited for it to kick in.

His dreams were troubled, full of dark mist and faceless beings who reached towards him with spindly fingers like claws. Screaming gibberish right in his face… Something about the Avatar…

Zuko awoke, a good seven hours later, alone in the tent, with the energy of the sun singing harshly in his veins.

Rubbing his eyes, he dressed quickly. He could hear all sorts of sounds just outside the fabric, but which were muffled and distorted beyond understanding. Dressing quickly, and shaking his head to rid himself of the last of his night-terrors, he pushed past the tent flap and walked out.

"Great!" Sokka was saying, sounding anything but happy. He stood facing Aang and Katara, outnumbered. "You're an airbender, Katara's a waterbender, and Zuko's a firebender, and together you can just waste time all day long!"

He was, then, completely surprised and gave a most undignified yelp when Zuko came up from behind and thumped him upside the head.

Unnoticing, Aang turned to Katara. "You're a waterbender!"

"Well," she bit her lip, suddenly shy in a way that Zuko had never seen from her before. "Sort of—"

"Yes, she is," Zuko snapped, cutting her off. "She's a good one." He didn't understand. She was the better bender out of both of them, the one who usually was able to pick up their ideas with ease… and wasn't she always saying how they were real benders, despite the lack of training?

But now Katara wouldn't quite look at him, and he didn't know why.

"And… you're a firebender?" Now Aang's grey eyes turned on him again.

Zuko met his gaze with a glower. "Yes, I am."

"Yeah, you can tell by his flame-boyant personality." Sokka was sure to stay just out of arm's reach.

Luckily, they were saved by Gran-Gran who had come up to see why the kids were gathered around, apparently not working. "All right, come on, enough playing. There are chores that need to be done around here."

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Since Zuko and Sokka were the only men of the village, it fell to them to train up the new generation of warriors in their father's absence. This, Zuko had to admit, was Sokka's expertise. He liked to talk and make important speeches about being a warrior. And although he would never admit it, Zuko was sure it was his way of dealing with missing Dad. Where Zuko became introverted and moody, Sokka would puff himself up and overcompensate by treating toddlers like new recruits.

"One day, they won't be kids anymore," Sokka told him, some time ago when the training first started. "And I'll be leading them as Chief." He had paused, and added, "You can help, of course."

"…Thanks."

But Sokka was right, of course. They wouldn't be kids forever, and Zuko knew that war didn't stop for anyone. They all had to be ready for the day it would inevitably reach their shores.

He still felt a little groggy from the sleeping tea, so today he sat along the sidelines, watching Sokka parade in front of a group of six of the oldest boys (some, barely out of diapers), gesturing wildly with his boomerang and talking of wild fights and evil firebenders.

For his part, Zuko used his time to sharpen a large whale-tooth for what he hoped would be his new spear-point. He had lost his best one in that ridiculous canoe accident yesterday, and he didn't want to be without for very long. As he ran his sharpening stone again and again over the ivory, he listened with half an ear to his older brother.

"Now, men," Sokka said importantly. "Never show any fear when facing the Fire Nation. In the Water Tribe, we fight to the last man standing…" He went on, and Zuko found his mind wandering elsewhere.

The main village seemed quiet. At least, quieter than usual. It wasn't exactly a bustling hive of activity even on the best of days, after the men had gone to war. Zuko cast a glance around, did a swift headcount and came up short Katara and one tattooed airbender.

Auya was walking by, her arms laden with driftwood for the fire. He called out to her, "Hey, do you know where Katara and Aang went?"

The woman paused. She and Zuko had never learned to like each other after she more or less rejected him as a child, but the bonds between the people of the Water Tribe were not something taken in jest. They retained a more or less civil attitude; a cap of paper-thin ice overlaying a sea of intense dislike. "She and the boy went off towards the hills about an hour back," Auya said, curtly. "Said something about penguin sledding."

He nodded and sat down again to sharpen his spear, muttering under his breath, "Penguin sledding better not be a metaphor…"

"What's a metaphor?" Little Denahi asked, at his side.

Zuko groaned and flopped back in the cool snow.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

After more lecturing from Sokka (and about three requested potty breaks from the boys — Zuko seriously considered limiting what they ate and drank for breakfast in the morning) the group was ready for an example of a good way to fight Fire Nation invaders.

Zuko stood up with a leisurely sort of air, aware that the children’s eyes were on him. He took his time, dusting off bits of snow from his parka and building up the suspense. Only when the boys started to fidget in anticipation did he twist around, reaching towards the flames of the nearest campfire. The fire jumped to his command. With his feet planted, he streamed the flames through the air, and then sent them, like a bright ribbon of fire, over to Sokka.

His brother was ready, and quickly stepped to the side as they had practiced, letting the flow of fire fly past him and land with a hiss in a nearby snow bank.

"There, you see that, warriors?" Sokka said, over the ohh's and aww's of the little boys. "Fire travels in more or less a straight line. Once it has left the control of the bender, you can avoid it. More importantly, while they are doing their weird little arm wavy thing—"

"It's called a kata," Zuko reminded him.

"…Whatever. While they're doing that, it's the perfect time to strike. My method? I prefer the boomerang." Sokka held up his own with just more than a little reverence.

But the boys weren't listening to Sokka any longer. Something else had caught their attention.

"Zuko, can you do that, next?" Tuktu asked, and pointed up to the sky.

At first Zuko thought it was the sun, but that was impossible because he could feel the actual sun shining brightly on his back. The bright orange glow against the blue sky had to be unnatural. All turned to watch it rise rapidly from the horizon; a trail of smoke in its wake.

All activity in the village paused as the phenomenon was sighted by more and more people. Then, just as the light reached its zenith, it exploded in a shower of loud and bright red fireworks.

"It's a flare." Sokka had come over to his side, and Zuko looked at him in surprise, seeing his brother's fists clenched. "That's coming from the direction of the old Fire Navy ship! Where are Katara and Aang?"

Zuko's stomach felt like it dropped out from his stomach. "Out. Auya said they went penguin sledding."

Although Sokka didn't know it, the dark look that crossed his features was so fierce that Zuko had to restrain himself from stepping back. He had seen Sokka angry, but always before there had been an undercurrent of goofiness that mellowed it out. Now, the humor was gone. "Aang’s trying to signal the Fire Navy with that flare! He's bringing them straight to us."

It wasn't often that Zuko found himself the voice of reason, but it was hard to reconcile in his head the overly-friendly kid with what he knew of the Fire Nation. "Hold on, Sokka, I don't think…"

But Sokka wasn't looking at him now. He was glaring out beyond the village. And following his gaze, Zuko felt a hot coal of anger settle within his heart.

Past the ice road and towards the abandoned Fire Navy ship came two figures set against the misty sunlight; Katara and Aang.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

By the time the two had trudged up the icy path towards the village, they were greeted by the full village: a wall of disapproving glares and crossed arms. Even the little children, mostly oblivious to the political turmoil in a small village, hung back behind their parents, confused.

Sokka had been seething the entire time, and he was the first to break rank and step forward, pointing angrily at Aang. "I knew it! You signaled the Fire Navy with that flare! You're trying to lead them straight to us, aren't you?"

"He didn't do anything," Katara shot back, wholly unrepentant. "It was an accident!"

Aang looked at them with wide eyes. "Yeah, we were just on the ship and there was a booby-trap and—"

But Sokka cut him off. "Oh, that's a likely story. Katara, get away from him!"

"And you," Zuko snarled, stepping forward toward Aang with anger in every line of his body. "What were you thinking?! You put us all in danger!"

Sokka was trying to lead Katara away, but at Zuko's words she shrugged off his touch and went over to stand between Aang and the angry firebender. "Zuko, you're making a mistake. Aang is not our enemy!"

Sokka joined up against Zuko's side, and the four teenagers squared off against each other.

"We're keeping our promise to Dad," Sokka snapped. "We're protecting you from threats like him."

"Yeah," Zuko added, glaring at Aang. "Get lost."

Katara glared at him, and behind her the snow trembled ever so slightly. When she spoke, her voice was low, and dangerous. "I can't believe that you of all people would turn someone out, just because they're different. This tribe took you in."

Sokka stepped in front of Zuko, intending to forestall the impending fight. There was no point; Zuko was rooted to the ground in shock. He and his siblings had been in plenty of arguments before, and the words might have been harsh, but they were never meant to truly hurt…. Now he felt pierced right through the heart.

Gran-Gran, perhaps sensing the sudden impasse, stepped in. "Katara, you knew that going on that ship was forbidden. Your brothers are right. The airbender must leave."

"Then I'm banished, too!" With that, Katara swung around, gripped Aang by the shoulder and practically marched him away.

"Hey!" Sokka looked at Zuko, who only shrugged. Sokka ran a few steps after them. "Where do you think you're going?"

"To find a waterbender master!" Katara yelled over her shoulder. "Aang is taking me to the North Pole!"

"I am?" The airbender wondered. Then, "Great!"

"Fine!" Zuko snapped to Katara's retreating back. He was so angry and hurt that he felt he couldn't even breathe properly. Behind him at the campsite, every fire flared up in bright orange colors. He marched over, past Sokka who hurried to catch him, to Katara. "Go learn waterbending properly, if that's all you want! Never mind about your family, or your tribe. I guess we're not important enough for you anymore!"

Katara hesitated, and for the first time he saw indecision in her step. "That's not it, Zuko. This is important to me." She paused again, looking up at the broad back of the great bison. "You could come, too. I'm sure we could find a firebending master on the way."

He hated that part of himself that was tempted, if ever so slightly, by her offer. He wanted to yell at her. He wanted to hurt her just as much as she was hurting him. But it felt like the words, all of the anger and disappointment, had collected somewhere around his neck scar. He shook his head; a sharp, angry gesture, and turned away.

"Katara, I don't want to get between you and your family," Aang offered, tentatively.

"You're not," she lied.

Sokka moved forward, hands out, pleading. "You're really choosing him over us?"

She hesitated one last time before reaching out and gripping Sokka in a tight hug. "I'll be back. As soon as I've learned— I'll be back… I promise." Then before Sokka could say anything, she stepped away and went to her other brother.

But Zuko glowered at an invisible point in the snow, and refused to look at her. She held up her hand as if to touch him, but drew back at the last moment and reached up to Aang, who was sitting on Appa's head. In a moment she was up, and with a snap of the reins, the great beast turned and plodded slowly away.

Zuko turned only once to watch them leave. And back in the village, every campfire went dead.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

"Hey," Sokka grabbed Zuko’s arm hard to get his attention. His blue eyes were bright with withheld emotion. "You know she's didn't mean any of that. She's just… angry. She'll be back, when she calms down."

They were walking back to the village. Everyone was still gathered, open curiosity and horror on their faces. Seeing all the woman looking to them for an explanation, Zuko took in a deep, shuddering breath and willed himself to feel the wisdom in Sokka words. He was probably right. Katara wouldn't get ten miles away before she got homesick and came back.

He nodded, once, and Sokka straightened himself up, almost unconsciously, before plastering an easy smile on his face for the sake of the rest of the village. "She'll be back," he said again, this time louder for everyone's benefit. "She's just seeing Aang off."

Zuko took his brother's cue and did the best to relax his shoulders and uncurl his fists. He couldn't manage a smile — not yet, but when the little kids swarmed around his legs, asking where Katara went, he was able to answer easily that she was just leading the airbender out past the boundaries. She'd be back… soon.

In the meantime, Sokka had other things to occupy the minds of his warriors in training. "All right men!" he said, and at once all the little boys snapped to attention. "Ready our defenses! The Fire Nation could be on our shores any minute now. I want each and every one of you on the ice wall, looking for any sign of them!"

Denahi raised his hand, "But I gotta—"

"And no potty breaks!"

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest, smirking, as all the boys fell into action. "It's about time you thought of a good use for them," he said in a low aside.

Sokka preened. "Yup, and they'll be able to tell us as soon as Katara comes back. And if any of them start sleeping on watch, you can just scare them with a fire blast."

Gran-Gran listened to their conversation, her face lined with worry. "Sokka, you don't expect these children to actually fight if the Fire Nation do invade?"

He waved away her worry with an errant flip of his hand. "Nah, Gran-Gran. The chances of a Fire Navy ship actually being down close enough to see that flare are — well, they have to be really low. Like rock bottom, or next to none." He met Zuko's eyes. "We're going to be fine."

No sooner than he said that then a small, high shout pierced the wind. "Sokka! Zuko! I see them!"

"Katara?" Zuko called back in relief.

"No!" The boy pointed his mittened hand back towards the sea. "The Fire Nation!"

The brothers exchanged a glance that was equal parts shock and dawning horror. Without a word they turned, scrambling to the watch tower. They had built it last summer, over the remains of Zuko and Katara's old fort. It was the tallest structure in the village and apt to lean dangerously in one direction or another unless Katara fortified it regularly with new ice.

The steps were mushy with summer melt and a couple of times Zuko nearly slipped off, but within moments he and Sokka were at the top and looking out towards sea. The sun was setting — or at least as close to setting as it ever got, and they had to shield their eyes from the bright reflection of the water. But there, just beyond the far field of icebergs, was a grey metal point along the horizon.

"Maybe they won't spot the village," Zuko breathed. "They are pretty far out there."

But as the boys watched, the metal bow turned ever so slightly, becoming smaller as it lined up directly to their village. A lazy line of smoke drifted above it as the engines kicked into high gear. There was no doubt about it… the Fire Nation ship was headed to their shore.

Sokka cursed.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

The giant bison plodded slowly onward though the dense snowdrifts. Every step of its six-legged foot broke through a thick casing of ice and permafrost as if it was eggshells. The path Appa left would have been pathetically easy to find, if not for the wide-beaver tail which dragged easily upon the ground, smoothing out the snow and leaving behind no trace at all.

Aang and Katara sat at Appa's head, not talking, letting the distance between themselves and the village increase in mutual, miserable silence.

Finally, they came to a low rise of a hill. And beyond that lay a landscape of snowy rock-columns. The winds were fierce in this part of the country, and it had stripped and scoured ancient strewn boulders into strange twisted objects which sat, glittering, under a layer of crystal ice and snow.

Feeling the bare wind on his face, Aang took in a deep breath and then tugged on the reins which had sat loosely in his hands. Appa groaned and then halted.

"This isn't right, Katara." Aang's young, high voice was gentle, but firm. "The monks who raised me used to say that to put the world in order, you have to put your family in order, and to do that you have to put your heart in order."

Katara had been crying, silently, and at her friend's words she raised a hand up to brush away an errant tear. "I know," she said at last, and together they sat in silence and watched the tendrils of fog being blown here and there through the ice columns. Finally, she continued. "All of my life, I've wanted to be a waterbender. When Zuko came, I thought we could learn together… and we did. But we don't know what we're doing half the time."

Aang looked thoughtful. "My best friend, Kuzon, was a firebender. Oh, he could do the craziest things with fire! One time we—" He broke off, perhaps realizing that this was not the time or the place for that particular story. "Anyway, I never thought about learning anything from him, because Fire and Air are different elements. I can't imagine how hard it would be to work Fire and Water, because they're opposites. You two must be really great benders to be able to do that."

"Really?" A slight smile tugged at her lips, and she was looking at him as if trying to judge whether he was just being nice. "You think so?"

"Yup!" And with a tug on Appa's reins, he directed the great bison around. "Maybe once everyone calms down, I can come back for a visit… I'd really like to see what you can do."

She looked down, shyly. "I'd like that."

He grinned, and within a few moments the bison had made his slow way around and they were plodding back towards the way they came. From this direction, they could see far up the coast, and out to the far flung ice-fields.

"So what will you do, next?" Katara wondered.

"I guess I'll visit the Southern Air Temple. Wow…." Aang blinked, and then grinned again as a particular thought struck him. "I haven't cleaned my room for over a hundred years. Not looking forward to that." He was going to add more, maybe tell her about the time he and Monk Gyatso played the best prank on some of the elders. Something, anything to get her to smile, because Aang really liked it when Katara smiled.

But then he caught a glint of silver out over the sea, just above the far horizon. He blinked again, and rubbed his eyes, but the dark smudge of silver was still out there when his vision cleared. "There's something out there!" he exclaimed, and before Katara could react he dropped the reins and leapt high into the air to get a better look, letting a rush of wind float him back down again. There was no doubt about it; the ship was exactly like the one he and Katara had explored earlier.

She too, had seen the silver glint, and she stood up, her eyes wide. "It's heading towards the village!"

And there was no doubt in Aang’s mind, about who the Fire Nation was coming for.

"This is all my fault…" He gripped his airstaff, but at that moment he knew he would never be able to fly high enough or fast enough. The dark, heavy burden of responsibility pulled him down like a ton of literal bricks.

To fly, one had to detach himself from the world — but how was he supposed to do that when it was his job to save the world?

"No…." Katara let out a low groan under her breath. The ship was advancing at a fast pace. Only a few moments ago it had just been a streak of silver. Now they could see its clear outline.

Then Aang had an idea. "Wait! Do you still have any fish left?"

She fished around in her pocket and brought out one single frozen minnow. Aang grinned in renewed delight. "A penguin would be able to get me there no problem! Stay with Appa." Before she could react he snatched the fish from her hands, and with one great bound he cleared the bison and landed some twenty feet away.

"Aang!" she yelped, "No! Wait!"

It was too late. Another three giant leaps and he was over the next rise of the hill.

Katara sat back down. But her shock lasted only for a moment, before indignation kicked in. No. No way was she going to just sit by and be safe while a Fire Nation ship steamed towards her village…

… Oh Spirits, her brothers… her stupid, lovable brothers would be the only thing to protect the village.

Taking the reins into her hands, she snapped them with all the authority she could muster. "C'mon, Appa. We need to hurry! Please!"

The bison let out a low groan, but picked up his shuffling pace.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Sokka and Zuko went through their battle preparations in near silence — trading parka's for thick close fitting wraps dyed in Water Tribe blue. A warrior's greatest weapon was his brave heart, but actual weapons didn't hurt, either. Their boomerangs were holstered, and whale bone machetes were secured to their backs with a strap of leather. Finally, their ivory spears were checked for imperfection — Zuko missed his best spear, and promised himself that if they survived this he wouldn't be as foolish as to bring something like that fishing ever again.

Lastly came the war paint. Made of melted seal blubber mixed with finely ground coal and flour, it was applied thick and heavy to the face and neck. Zuko pulled his hair back into an unshaven wolf's tail, and when he took a glance at himself in a small looking glass, the face of a Water Tribe warrior scowled back at him. Behind the black and white paint, he saw himself for the first time without any scars — his left eye being more narrowed than his right the only indication.

"Ready?" Sokka asked.

Zuko put down the mirror and nodded. "Ready."

His brother reached forward and gripped his arm by the elbow, and Zuko did the same — one man to another. There weren't any words between them. There didn't need to be.

There was every chance one or both of them wouldn't make it back.

"Let's go knock some Fire Nation heads," Sokka said, and with those words they walked outside.

The village was in pandemonium — women scurrying back and forth, children crying, tent flaps being hastily closed up, polar-dogs howling from the scent of fear… and on the backdrop of it all, the Fire Navy ship drew steadily closer.

There was a gap in the parameter ice-wall, and between those two points Sokka and Zuko waited; ready to make their stand.

Thick black smoke seemed to pour from the steel column of the ship, as if it had caught the panic of the village and was hurrying for the kill. And now they could see small figures scurrying back and forth across the deck — there were so many, and only two warriors to fight them.

They expected the ship to stop on shore, and they would meet their enemy disembarking. It was quite the surprise when the ship did not even slow, but plowed headlong into the icy ridge that separated sea from land.

Zuko's heart leapt — just for a moment. But this was not a wooden Water Tribe ship. And with a crashing, squealing, and a grinding sound of metal plates against the tortured snapping of ice, the Fire Nation ship advanced.

Sokka and Zuko exchanged mutual looks of surprise, and although they backed a step or two in surprise, they held their ground.

The ship plowed towards them, banks of snow shoved forcefully to each side… and bit by bit it slowed as the weight of the snow collected against the metal hull.

The sheer weight of the ship warped the ice around it, and with a muffled sound of defeat, the unsteady watchtower fell inward on itself.

Sokka gave a low groan.

But it seemed like they were to be the next to be plowed over. It took every fiber of Zuko's resolve to hold steady. His panicked heart beat against his chest, and he tried to quell it down. He would not turn. He would not run.

Finally, finally the ship halted; a mere ten feet from where the boy warriors stood.

Zuko realized he was no longer scared — he was too angry to be scared. What right did these people have to come into his village, break down his brother's watchtower, and terrify all of the women and children? The fire inside bloomed up with savage force, and his fingers nearly smoked against the wooden shaft of the spear. He sent one more glance to Sokka and saw the steel resolve in his brother's eyes: Let them come. They were ready.

A hollow clang of a metal release was heard inside, and Zuko didn't know how he knew what would happen next, but he did.

He cried, "Watch out!" and pushed Sokka back. It was not a moment too soon, because the entire bowsprit of the ship fell forward, crashing down where they had stood, revealing a ramp — and the enemy.

The last time Zuko had set eyes on a Fire Nation man was when they had boarded Hakoda's ship; the night Nunka was killed. The six intervening years had dulled the memory, but now looking at the faceless white masks, the rust red armor, every detail of that night came back full force.

There were five soldiers, arranged in a flanking position — two in front and three in back. And in front of them, seeming oddly short and pot-bellied, was a grey-haired man wearing what Zuko recognized as a General's sash — order of the Dragon.

Sokka let out a warrior's yell and charged, aiming for the old fat one, marking him for their leader. The armored soldier to the right stepped forward, meeting Sokka's spear not with any weapon, but with his bare hands. He grabbed the spear, using Sokka's momentum against him, and broke it into two halves. Then he dealt Sokka a kick that sent him flying off the rampart, and back into the snow.

Zuko was right behind him, and seeing Sokka's mistake, stopped short and swiped instead at the soldier in front with the tip of his ivory point spear. The man let out a cruel chuckle, and moved faster than Zuko had ever expected. He stepped past Zuko's defense, and grabbed the spear from his hands, shoving him away. He fell backwards against the snow.

The two siblings had been dispatched in a matter of seconds, and with the threat gone the Fire Nation soldiers continued their path down to the village.

But then there was another roar from Sokka. He seemed to explode out of the snow, taking one of the men down in a tackle. It was ungraceful, sloppy, and Sokka was about half of the soldier's weight… but it did have the element of surprise.

One of the soldier’s cursed and stepped forward to help his comrade, raw flame erupting from his fingers.

Zuko only had a second to react. He charged forward, sliding in between his brother and the Fire Nation soldier a moment before the fireball hit.

He held up his hands, and with one sweep of his arms, diverted the blast to the side so that it landed harmlessly with a hiss in the nearby snow.

A cry went up from one of the armored soldier’s, "He's a firebender!"

Zuko got to his feet, centering himself in a graceful stance. Sokka had leapt up too, and threw his boomerang, aiming it once more for the leader in the middle who was watching the scene with perfect calm.

The General barely needed to move. One hand jabbed, as quick as a bolt of lightning, and the boomerang was engulfed in flames and fell scarcely before it had begun to fly

The General punched out, and a lance of flame shot towards the brothers. Zuko took a deep breath, throwing up his arms to create a wall of fire that canceled it out before it could hit them. But he had never fought fire before, and he couldn't have counted on the sheer force of the impact. He was unburned, but blown backward, crashing into Sokka, and knocking them both once more into the snow.

He groaned, and rolled away only to feel the cold steal of a broadsword touching his neck — right where the scar was hidden under his black and white warrior's paint.

Another soldier held Sokka in much the same way, and both boys froze, helpless as the remaining Fire Nation men walked to the village.

Hearing the fighting, the women had come out from their huts. Some were clutching their children tightly. All of them were staring, wide-eyed at their invaders.

There was a beat of silence, and then the aged General spoke. His voice crackled, almost in the same way Zuko's crackled — and in some ways it was genial— but there was also hint of steel under it that brooked no rebuke. Under this man's calm manner was a seasoned warrior. He was dangerous.

"I am in search of the Avatar," the General said, folding his hands into the large sleeves of his russet robes. He paused for a moment, letting this sink in. "Perhaps, you have seen him?"

The women said nothing. They were terrified, perhaps stunned, by the duel realities of their most horrible nightmare crashing into their peaceful village, and the kindly looking old man in front of them.

"I see," said the General, when it became apparent that no one was going to talk. "I know that you are hiding him, and I do not wish for this to come to violence." He unfolded his arms, holding out the palm of his hand. A spark of fire lit within and despite the fact that they had seen Zuko do the same thing a hundred times before, the women drew back, fearful. The threat was very clear.

Suddenly, one of the soldier's gave a cry of surprise as a blur of something orange and yellow swept under his knees. He fell down, and none other than Aang slid before them, riding on top of a penguin. The children gave a cheer, and the little airbender gracefully leapt off the penguin before turning to face the General. "Looking for me?"

The old man's calm demeanor changed in an instant, looking shocked, before his lips pressed into a thin, grim line. "You are the airbender. You are the Avatar." It wasn't a question.

"Aang?" Zuko whispered.

"No way…" Sokka answered. The two shared another glance. This one of hope. Aang was the Avatar! Their village was saved.

… and where was Katara?

Aang held out his palms, maneuvering himself between the enemy firebender and the rest of the village people. But the aged man had simply tucked his arms in his robes again. "If you wish to save these people," he said, "you will come with me."

Aang hesitated, and cast a glance behind him to the terrified women and children. "Do you promise?"

The General nodded his head stiffly and then turned, his eyes flickering to Sokka and Zuko. "I will take the firebender, as well."

"NO!" Sokka made to get up, but was forced back again by the point of the soldier's blade.

Zuko lay stunned for a moment, but he saw the helpless women and children… he saw Gran-Gran's tear filled eyes, and he knew that Aang was making a sacrifice to save these people. If the kid could do it, he would as well.

He nodded, and the sword was drawn away from his neck. As rose to his feet, he had a sudden flash to one of Dad's old stories; the one about how the Chief's son put himself out as bait for the giant elephant-wasp in order to save the rest of the Tribe. Remembering this, Zuko stood to his full height, shoulder's back and proud.

"I'll go," he said and his voice was strong and clear. "I'm not afraid of you, old man."

"Show your Prince some respect, whelp!" One of the soldiers struck Zuko between the shoulders for his insolence, driving him down to his knees. His arms were pulled behind his back and bound. But he caught a flash of something — perhaps amusement in the General's eyes.

Aang's hands were also bound, and together the two of them were walked up the ramp and to the ship.

They turned, and Zuko took one last look at his home… the people who were his family… Sokka's snarl of helpless rage… before the ramp closed completely and he and Aang were plunged into darkness.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Sokka angrily rubbed some cool snow over his face, riding it of the last of the paint. The point of his boomerang stuck out of the snow nearby, blackened with soot but otherwise unharmed. He grabbed it, wiping it clean with fur-lined hem of his parka, and holstered it. Then he took a deep breath and turned to the ruins of his village.

We'll have to relocate, he thought dully. The Fire Navy ship had cut a huge swath between the ocean and the village, and it made all of the ice around it unstable. The women were apparently of the same thought, and he could see them milling back and forth, taking down tent poles and setting the children to task packing up supplies.

Zuko was gone. Taken.

Sokka's stomach twisted painfully from deep inside and he rubbed angrily at his eyes. He wasn't crying. Men didn't cry. He was just… frustrated, was all. And worried. After all, he knew his brother's heart was in the right place, but if he'd just paused and thought things out for once instead of just putting himself up as a hostage…

… except that Sokka hadn't thought of a better idea at the time.

He cursed low under his breath and ignored that the back of his hand came down wet with angry tears. He wasn't going to stand there and wonder what he was going to tell Dad when he finally came home… no, he was going to do something about this. The safety of his little brother was his responsibility, just as the village was his responsibility.

He strode back towards the center of the village, hardly noticing how the little boys he had spent so much time training watched him with wide, blue eyes. To them, he was their warrior. The controlled anger in his step, the set and determined look on his face made them stop and stare in awe.

Sokka found Gran Gran just outside their tent, using a sharp knife to saw through some of the hemp ties that bound the cloth to the poles. "You're going after them?" She didn't need to look up as she asked this, because it hadn't been really a question at all. After all, it was the same thing that Hakoda would have done.

"I'm taking the canoe," Sokka confirmed. "Get everyone packed and moving as soon as possible. The Fire Nation will probably want revenge once I've freed Zuko and Aang and you can't be here."

Kana looked at him then, for the first time as a man. Normally Sokka would have preened, but at that moment his mind was elsewhere, planning. "We could set up the village again under Wolf's Head Peak. Katara knows that spot and when she comes back, she'll probably look there first."

Suddenly a low, deep sound, like a weary groan was heard, echoing off of the far snow banks and dips. Sokka turned and saw the silhouetted form of the giant bison lumbering over the rest of a nearby snowdrift. Katara sat on his head.

"Katara!" In a instant, Sokka was off and running. His sister slipped from the bison's head, and the two siblings embraced. In another community, in another culture, Katara would have been expected to apologize and explain her behavior. That wasn't how it worked in the Water Tribe. The fact that she had come back was all the apology that Sokka would ever need.

Katara pulled back after a moment, her eyes lingered on the ship-sized hole in the ice, the crushed icewall, the grim faces of the rest of the tribe…. and notably, the people who were missing from it. "What happened?"

"Aang told them that he was the Avatar and they took him and Zuko because he threw fire at them."

She sagged at his words, hands gripping at his elbows, looking for purchase. Sokka gripped her back, giving her a little shake to catch her attention. "It's okay. I'm going after them… I'm going to bring them back. You need to go with the women—"

"What?" She stared at him in shock. "No way, I'm coming with you!"

"No, it's too dangerous." In the corner of his eye, he caught Kana coming up to meet them. Sokka turned, almost whining, the kid that he was once more showing through. "Gran Gran, she has to stay here, right?"

But his grandmother was tugging something along behind her; a small sled packed with three sleeping bags, a sack full of food, and although the kids wouldn't know until sometime later, a small skin filled with the Tribe's meager supplies of coin. "Sokka, it is as much her destiny as it is yours to help the Avatar."

"But Aang's not the Avatar!" he looked from female to another, bleakly wondering why he was only ever the sane one in this family sometimes. "Do you think the real Avatar would allow himself to be captured? Why didn't he just blow them up with some awesome Avatar power?"

And just like that, it fit all into place for Katara. "Because he has to learn the elements before he could use them!" Her voice grew higher in her excitement, her eyes bright. "When we were exploring the ship, Aang and I talked and we figured out he must have been frozen for one-hundred years. That's the same time that the Avatar disappeared!"

"Look, I know you like him, but—"

"It has to be him, Sokka! Don't you remember Dad's stories? The Avatar has to master the elements according to the seasons… that's why he came down here. He needs to learn Water next!"

Kana nodded slowly. Her eyes were tired behind her mass of wrinkles; sad. "She's right, Sokka. And now, your destiny lies with him." She reached out, taking Sokka's hand and wrapping the hemp rope tied to the sled around it.

"Gran Gran…" But there was nothing more Sokka could say, and the old women moved to Katara.

"We were wrong to try to keep you here, my young waterbender. I'm so proud of you, and I know your mother would be as well." She hugged Katara, and then stepped back to address Sokka. "And Sokka, be sure to give Zuko my love… and be nice to your sister."

"Ugh, I — we just can't…he's not…" His protest was half-hearted at best, and with a shaky smile, Kana turned from her grandchildren and walked back down towards the village.

Katara turned, eyeing the small sled of supplies and then the canoe. There was no way they would be able to catch a battleship with that. So she turned, reaching a hand up to gently stroke Appa's velvety muzzle. "Aang is in trouble, Appa. We need to catch up to the ship. Do you think you could fly us there?"

The bison let out a low, mournful moan.

"I think that means, no," Sokka grumbled.

"I think it means yes." Katara reached over, snagging the rope from Sokka's hands and dragged the sled behind the beast to the wide beaver-tail. "Help me load him up."

Sokka grumbled, but did as he was told, and a few minutes later he was sitting sullenly back up in the saddle with Katara at the head. He had protested that he should be the one to drive the thing, but then Katara pointed out that he didn't believe Appa could fly anyway, so what was matter? She had a point.

"Up. Arise. Ascend," he commanded, rolling his eyes; ever the backseat driver.

Katara snapped the reins, but Appa didn't move a muscle. What was it that Aang had said...? Then she had it.

"Appa! Yip-yip!"

The beast gathered himself and with a sweep of his tail, launched into the air.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Zuko could see Aang sag slightly next to him, but the kid was putting on a brave face, so he said nothing. They were walked up a metal staircase to the main deck where they could breathe open air. Already, the ship was moving away and Zuko turned to see that his village had already become a vague outline against the horizon.

The General stood before them for a long moment, golden eyes flicking back and forth between the Avatar and the firebender in indecision. Then he nodded towards Zuko.

"Lieutenant Izhar, please secure the Avatar below deck." The old General said, "Lieutenant Ji, you will assist me in interrogation of the traitor."

Zuko snarled at the word, but was cuffed upside the head. And with a quick, "Yes, Prince Iroh," Lieutenant Ji pushed him towards a ramped staircase leading to what looked like the captain's cabin.

Zuko didn't struggle, although he wanted too, because he had promised away his freedom in exchange for his Tribe's safety, and he was a man of his word. He went proudly, with a sniff of distain to the metal ramparts and fastenings as he passed. These Fire Nation people were so proud of their little machines, but he had seen the Water Tribe build better ships using just wood.

The interior was decorated in red hangings and plush overstuffed furniture. Both a tsungi horn and five-string liuqin sat leaned carefully against stands in the corner. Two separate fireplaces were stoked to full blast on each side of the room, making air feel uncomfortably warm and the skin on Zuko's face itch under his war-paint.

A tea set sat on a nearby low table, and General Iroh headed straight towards it. "Please, sit," he said, and Zuko was promptly pushed down into a kneeling position under the Lieutenant's hand. Iroh pretended not to notice and went about humming under his breath while he brewed. "Tea?" he asked, pouring himself a cup.

Zuko glowered and then looked away. He would have none of that Fire Nation swill.

The General took a sip, then inclined his head, walking over to the table and taking his own seat in a comfy over-stuffed chair. "What is your name?"

Zuko fixed his gaze on a far point in on the wall, focusing on a painting of what looked like a lotus flower, and said nothing.

"Very well, then. Where were the men of your village?" Iroh asked.

No answer.

The General sighed. "I can see that you are young, and confused. Please understand that no one will hurt you here, but I do need to know how a young firebender like yourself came to be living with the Water Tribe."

Zuko's jaw tensed nearly imperceptibly, but he kept his silence.

"There have been raids on this spot in the past, sir," Lieutenant Ji said, tentatively. "One of the men could have gotten carried away, and this boy could have been the result."

The old man hummed for a moment. "Perhaps." He did not look happy with that theory, but he didn't offer up any other explanation. "Lieutenant, it is a shame to see a Fire Nation face obscured by paint."

"Yes sir." Taking the cue, Lieutenant Ji hauled Zuko up by his collar and shoved him outside to a small balcony. There was a water barrel set against the railing to collect the rain, and wash the dishes. Ji walked him forward and before Zuko could make a sound of protest, his head was dunked forcefully in it.

Zuko could hold his breath for a long time, having the practice during the summer when it was safe to swim, but Ji fisted his hair and brought him up only for a second before plunging his head under again and again. He was breathless and gasping by the time he was let up. Rivets of water ran down his face and neck, all black and white war-paint gone — his features and scars completely visible. With another shove, Ji brought him back inside.

"Much better now, sir."

"Excellent." Iroh was at his desk, peering at a map of what looked like the South Pole. He didn't glance up at their arrival, instead absently took another sip of his tea. "Now, what I would like to know is—" he looked at Zuko, and his words faltered. The teacup slipped from his fingers and fell, staining the map in soft brown liquid. "Zuko?!" And then, to Zuko's complete surprise and shock, the General stood up, reached across the desk, and pulled him into a tight hug.

"Wha— Get off me!" Somehow, Zuko was able to wrench himself away. He fell to the ground, and struggled away, falling back again when Iroh hurried around the oaken desk to haul him back up. "Don't touch me!"

For his part, Lieutenant Ji stood to the side, frozen, just as shocked as Iroh. "Zuko?" he repeated, looking to his General. "Surely not… that Zuko? Prince Zuko?"

"I do not know such a thing can be possible." Iroh stared at Zuko as if he was looking at an aberration, a ghost. "You are dead."

Dead? Prince… no… no… He shook his head vigorously, trying to scoot away. He came only to the far wall. "You're crazy. I don't know who you are."

"You have been presumed dead for over six years." Then Iroh's light amber eyes sharpened with such intensity that Zuko cringed back, despite himself. Iroh's voice went from kindly to fierce in the blink of an eye. "Who did this to you?" he demanded, striding forward and gesturing angrily to the scar around Zuko's left eye, then to his neck. "Did the Water Tribe abduct you?"

"N-no… I… They saved my life!"

"Prince—"

"STOP CALLING ME THAT!"

It was as if the words had made all the tension suddenly snap in the room, and replaced it with some kind of unearthly silence. Iroh and Ji exchanged a look while Zuko finally struggled to his feet, bracing himself against the far wall. Zuko looked from one man to the other. "I am not a Prince, and I am not Fire Nation. My… my father's name is Hakoda and when he hears what's happened—" Until this point he had kept his voice in a sort of steel calm, but now it broke and he swallowed convulsively. Dad was a world away and he needed him so much right now. "When— when he finds out you've attacked our village, he will come and kill you." Again he swallowed. His heart was hammering and his mouth was dry, "If I don't kill you, first."

The threat hung, empty in the air. "I remember you as a child," Iroh said after a long moment, returning to his desk to pick up the teacup. He regarded it for a moment, a finger tracing the round edge. "You used to play with my son, Lu Ten, around the turtle-duck pond in the palace gardens. You were a willful boy, just as you are a willful young man. I can see that."

His words should have struck a chord, but there was nothing in Zuko's memory. It was, as it had ever been, a blank. "I don't know who you are." It came out more as a plea than anything else.

"I am your uncle, Zuko."

Zuko stared at him, at the face which showed a strange mix of kindness and a calculating fierceness. His heart was thumping too wildly, his mind too scattered to tell if there was any resemblance at all between the two of them. He knew that he didn't recognize the face. This General might as well have been a perfect stranger. "I don't believe you," he said, although his thoughts were racing… six years… he said he'd been missing for over six years….

Now he saw clearly the flash of pain — however briefly — cross Iroh's face. "Lieutenant Ji," he said, turning to the other man. "Please alert the helmsman to reverse course."

"No!" Zuko started towards him, but he was no threat to them with his hands bound behind his back. "You promised you would leave them alone!"

"Someone has made you forget who you are, Zuko. I will have answers one way or another."

This was a nightmare. He could feel Iroh's amber gaze on him, watching his reaction closely. The Fire Nation General had all the leverage, and he had nothing. When Zuko spoke, his words felt like ash in his mouth. "Stop… Just — I'll tell you what you want. I'll tell you everything. Just don't hurt them. Please." He couldn't even look the General in the face, for he was nearly begging now. Begging to the man who represented the people he hated most

Perhaps it was Zuko's imagination, but he could almost hear the whistle of the wind, just outside the large porthole. When he looked up, he saw Iroh nod to Ji. Had they heard it too? The man bowed, one fist under his vertical palm, and walk out.

To his surprise and relief, the General turned his back to him and sat calmly again at the table, taking up a new cup of tea. Clearly, he was waiting.

"They… They found me on a ship. I was sick and hurt. They took me in and gave me a home…." He trailed off, looking miserably at the floor. There was nothing to the story, really. He wished he had Sokka's talent for embellishments to make it at least interesting.

Iroh stared at him calmly over his teacup. "Sit down, Prince Zuko." He indicated the table again, and this time Zuko sat. To his surprise, the General came up behind him and with a soft snick his bounds were cut. Zuko rubbed his chapped wrists, but didn't make a move to get up. Iroh hadn't said anything, but he could feel the man's presence like a power in itself in the room. If he made a move, he'd be down before he got to the door… and the Water Tribe was still in jeopardy.

And now the interrogation truly began.

"You were found on an Earth Kingdom ship?"

"Earth…? No." He shook his head. "Fire Nation."

Iroh's eyes widened in surprise and he was silent for a moment. Then, "What happened?"

The General didn't know? Zuko felt a flash of frustration, and he clenched his fists. "You tell me!" he snapped. Surely this old man was toying with him. "The first thing I remember is waking up on a Water Tribe ship." What happened to me?

He expected Iroh to snap back at him or to treat this as a lie. After all, even the Water Tribe men had been dubious at first about his lost memories. But the old man simply nodded once and continued sipping his tea as if they were having a casual conversation between old acquaintances rather than some strange prisoner interrogation.

Then Iroh asked him a question he did not expect.

"Who taught you to firebend?"

It took him by surprise. "No one," he blurted, "I taught myself."

"You firebend like a waterbender. Fire is not an element of defense, Prince Zuko. Treating as such weakens your power."

Zuko raised his chin. "I am Water Tribe."

Aside from their voices, it had been completely silent in the cabin, for the walls were thickly insulated and the quarters were located far above the noisy engine room. But now there was a sound — so faint that it almost wasn't there at all — the high whistle of the wind. Before either Zuko or Iroh had time to process the noise, a distinct thud sounded across the cabin door, as if something heavy had been thrown bodily across it.

Zuko tensed, waiting, hoping…

The whistle became an enraged bellow of air. The door slammed open, and Iroh stood up.

Zuko seized his chance and tipped the table between himself and the General, blocking the fireball aimed in Aang's direction. It only took a moment for Iroh to kick it out of his way. Aang — he had somehow not only gotten free, but had also recovered his airstaff — circled his arms, and a rush of air slammed the General and the table up against the far wall.

"Good timing." Zuko's grin was strained, but he clapped Aang on the shoulder. "Let's get out of here."

"Prince Zuko."

He didn't know why, but the General's voice made him pause at the door and look back. Iroh was slowly standing, collecting himself; and at that moment he seemed very old.

Aang tugged on his sleeve, his grey eyes wide. "Zuko, c'mon!"

Iroh did not attack again. Instead, he folded his hands within his robes. "I have been given a mission by the Fire Lord to capture the Avatar," he said, his voice grave. "If you do this, if you leave with this boy, you will be declared an enemy of the Fire Nation. The Fire Lord's wrath will be terrible, and I will not be able to help you."

Zuko looked for a long, long moment upon the man, and even though he did not recognize the face from his past, he saw the truth of his words in his eyes.

Still, Zuko wasn't tempted and it wasn't hard to turn his back on him, murmur, "Let's go," and run with the Avatar down the long steel corridor…

…away from his past and to a different type of future all together.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Zuko had to fall flat backwards in order to avoid the bloom of fire aimed for him. He and Aang's escape had lasted long enough to get to open air on the wide deck. But by that time the alarm had been sounded and the anchor had been thrown to halt the ship.

Every available hand had come up top to stop the escapees.

Now the two boys were fighting for their lives against Imperial firebenders.

The flame curled overhead.  Zuko rolled away, avoiding being scorched by inches. He scrambled to his feet, and he and an enemy firebender faced each other, circling. There was a cruel twist to the other man's lips. He held himself in a stiff stance, like the open jaws of a steel trap with Zuko in the middle.

"What's the matter, Water Tribe? Can't take the heat?"

Zuko's fists shook. He punched out: a quick jab of motion imitating what he had seen the soldiers do. But that was not how he bent flame. His own fire bloomed out weak, dissipating a mere foot away, and he heard the soldier's harsh cackle in his ears as he once again was forced to roll to the side to avoid getting burned.

And now he was backed up against the very edge of the deck. There weren't any bars or safety railings — just a sharp steel drop-off for dozens of feet to the cold churning sea.

The soldier pressed forward, backing the boy's heels to the edge. Zuko was scared, but his mind felt strangely clear. Fighting like them wasn't going to work. A firebender's strategy was to attack and keep on attacking — so Zuko forced himself to wait instead, hands held out with one palm up and one down.

When the burst of flame came, it was almost in slow motion to his senses. He reached out as if to grab, and with one smooth movement, twisted the fire into a wreath around him. Then, with a shove, he threw it back.

The Imperial firebender moved to block — a quick, almost angry motion — but it was nothing against the literal wave of fire. He was blown backward, saved from a burning by his thick layer of armor.

And two more firebenders rushed to take his place.

Meanwhile, Aang's feet hardly seemed to touch the deck for a spare second as he leapt and flipped, dancing around the fire attacks and returning with forceful blasts of air. Three men in the water now clung to hastily thrown life-rings, having made the mistake of facing an airbender too close to the edge of the deck.

But Aang was sorely outnumbered, and a rash of red along his right arm told of one close encounter. Airbending Master or no, he was dueling at least ten firebenders.

From his spot on the balcony, Prince Iroh watched the melee. There was no need to involve himself; it was more than obvious the boys fight for freedom would be over shortly. This time Iroh intended to assign every able body, save the cook, to guard the child Avatar.

And as for his nephew…

Iroh's eyes shifted over to the smaller, less spectacular battle. He watched the boy — and he looked so much like Lu Ten at that age — barely cut a swath between two jets of flame and divert them harmlessly to each side. When the fire had cleared, Zuko was unhurt, but even Iroh could see how he gasped in air with every breath. He had lost his breath control.

A bright flash of orange drew Iroh's attention away. One of his soldiers had finally caught up to the Avatar's tricks, sending a blast right in his path. The boy yelped in surprise and dissipated the flame in a whirlwind — at the cost of his own altitude. He fell heavily to the deck and was instantly surrounded by a ring of firebenders, their fists cocked.

Zuko blocked another rolling ball of fire just in time by throwing up his arms and creating a defensive wall. He had maneuvered himself away from the edge of the deck, but had accidentally backed up against the plated wall of the engine room. A firebender or an earthbender could use close quarters to their advantage… a waterbender could not. He was as good as beaten.

Then, a noise like a low deep groan or a foghorn, echoed through the air. But that was impossible. Iroh's ship was all alone out in the Southern Seas.

All activity paused — only one person on the ship knew the source of that noise.

Aang lifted his head from the deck, his grin wide enough to split his face in two. "Appa!"

A rush of white, and a creature every Fire Nation child was told had been extinct, landed on their deck. One slap of his wide beaver-like tail and half the firebenders surrounding Aang were blown away like a scattering of autumn leaves. Aang leapt up again and slammed his airstaff down, blowing away two more firebenders.

The soldiers fighting Zuko had stopped to gape at the creature, and he took his chance, lancing out what he intended to be a torrent of fire, and what ended up as a crackle of hot sparks — easily blocked by the closest man. The soldier retaliated with a swift fiery kick.

Zuko ducked and threw up his hands, instinctively trying to block, but there was no hope…

Then from nowhere, the Imperial firebender was bowled over by a large banked wave. The flames, now under no one's control, rolled harmlessly around Zuko and into nothingness.

A hand reached out and Zuko took it, smiling. "Nice waterbending."

"Thanks," Katara replied, grinning back.

Maybe more words would have passed between them; maybe an apology or perhaps nothing at all. But a moment later Zuko caught sight of a new danger: Prince Iroh had strode onto the deck, no longer content to watch from above.

A surge of fear gripped Zuko. He knew this man was too formidable to beat. It was time to leave.

"C'mon!" Grabbing Katara's wrist, he yanked her at full run for the safety of the bison. Aang was still dodging the remaining benders — he had not seen the danger yet. "Aang, we're leaving!" he called, glancing back towards the General — the man who had said he was his uncle.

And for the second time he caught, just for a moment, the indecision on Iroh's face as his amber gaze flicked over both Zuko and Aang. This time, he chose Aang.

The young airbender had only a moment to jump clear of the first set of fireballs, using his rotating airstaff to give him lift. But it was a slow escape.

"NO!" Zuko pivoted in his stance, reaching around to divert — but Iroh's blast of fire was too strong and it slipped past his reach — and at the same time Katara tried to summon an icewall between the flames and Aang… but it was too brittle to stop anything….

The Avatar turned his airstaff, cycling it desperately — he was blown right off the deck and into the cold sea.

Katara screamed, "NO! AANG! AANG!" and Zuko had to grab her by the waist to keep her from diving after him.

Sokka jumped down from the bison's head to help. "Katara! Stop! You can't—"

And in another instant, they were surrounded by the remaining firebenders.

With the threat of the airbender gone, the General turned to face the Water Tribe teens, hands once more tucked benignly within his robes. But before Iroh could speak, before any one of the siblings could truly begin to feel afraid, there was a rush of water, the sound of wind and… something not seen for over one-hundred years rose above the deck upon a cyclone of water.

It was Aang, but it was like no one had seen before. Like no one could even imagine.

His light blue tattoos glowed with an unearthly light. His eyes were gone, swallowed in white as if the peaceful little monk was only a shell containing the spirit within.

He was the Avatar.

The Avatar landed on the deck with enough force and power to shiver the metal plates. A couple of brave souls blasted fire balls, but the Avatar swept those away with a living tentacle of water. Air and Water worked together seamlessly, and with one outward push the walls of the cyclone shoved a wall of water, knocking the enemy off their own ship.

The Avatar stood on the deck, but with the Fire Nation soldiers gone, the white light flickered and died, leaving only Aang.

Katara rushed to his side, putting a helping hand under his arm as Aang wobbled in his stance.

"Aang… That was amazing!"

"Now that's what I call Avatar power!" Sokka crowed as he and Zuko rushed to join them.

The young monk looked up, confused and a little dazed. "What… What just happened?"

Zuko looked up, his gaze traveling past them all. Prince Iroh had wisely backed up to the stair rampart at the Avatar's return, wisely avoiding being washed overboard like the rest of his men.

"We need to leave," Zuko said.

The General made no move to stop them, but they all felt the weight of his gaze, and when Zuko looked back for the last time after scrambling aboard Appa, Iroh gave him a small, almost imperceptible nod.

Then Aang had called out, "Yip-yip" and the bison surged into the air. Within moments the ship was a small toy-sized thing drifting among the sea and ice.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

It took two hours to fish the remaining crew from the icy sea. The Spirits had been kind in some ways — there hadn't been any deaths. Iroh was still kept busy, pressing cups of hot tea into cold hands and ordering bed-rest to his men both for chills and bruised egos.

Needless to say, music-night was canceled.

A sharp knock on the door would have caused Iroh to spill ink from his brush, if his hand wasn't naturally so steady. He wrote the last few characters — his signature — and rose from the desk to let it dry. "Come in."

He was unsurprised to see Lieutenant Ji stride in. Iroh let the man bow before addressing him. "The summons weren't urgent, Lieutenant. I was hoping you would get your rest."

"No one can sleep with the sun up like this. I'm fine, sir." Although his cheeks were still ruddy from his extended forced swim. "You have orders, my Prince?"

Iroh nodded and crossed the room to close the cabin door. He did not wish this conversation to be overheard. "This is not an order — it is a request, and one that is strictly off the record."

The Lieutenant's thick eyebrows shot right into his salt-and-pepper hair, but Iroh ignored the expression and went back to the desk to lift the scroll. The ink was good quality; it had dried quickly, and Iroh remained silent as he crumbled some wax and then melted it over the seam of the scroll, affixing it with the royal stamp.

"Do you have any children, Lieutenant Ji?"

"I have a daughter," he replied. "She's about seven years old, and she lives with my parents." There was a pause and when Iroh didn't offer any further explanation Ji hesitantly inquired, "Sir?"

The General sat down at the desk, motioning for Ji to take the other seat. His face was troubled, more troubled than Ji had ever seen him before. "I had first learned of my nephew's death scarcely after I had started to come to terms with the passing of my own son, Lu Ten," he said, after a long silence. "I had been on a quest… a spiritual quest, but against the advice of a friend I decided to return to the Fire Nation. I knew my family would need me. Two children lost in such a short amount of time… both to enemies of the Fire Nation. It nearly broke my family apart. And now, I find that one is still alive."

"Sir—" Ji hesitated, glancing at the steel cabin door which assured their privacy. He knew he could always be frank in Iroh's presence, but this would be coming very close to stepping over the line. "The boy is in league with an enemy nation… in league with the Avatar! You can't — he is a traitor, sir."

"You take a boy," Iroh said, his voice soft and full of memories of a young, happy, fiery child. A child who used to yell out 'Uncle!' and throw his arms about his legs when he came home from battles. "And you remove him from his family before his formative years. Then you tell him that everything he knows is evil and wrong, and punish him when he speaks of it." His hand went up, brushing under his own left eye for emphasis. "And you praise and accept him only him when he seeks out his new family. Zuko was only ten years old when he disappeared. I have seen full grown prisoners break under lesser circumstances."

The Lieutenant's jaw set, and he gave a stiff nod. "I didn't think of it in that light. Spirits above, they now have a Fire Nation royal about to come of age who is loyal to only the Water Tribes. It's… ingenious." He glanced out the port-hole, to the vista of sea and ice. "I didn't think the barbarians would have it in them."

"I do not believe that they do."

"Sir?"

The General raised his hand to stroke his beard, but whatever his thoughts were, he did not share them out loud. "My nephew mentioned a name… Hakoda? Have you heard of this man before?"

Ji cleared his throat. "Yes, sir. He is reported to be the leader of a fleet of Water Tribe ships which have caused minor problems for us on the eastern Earth Kingdom coast." Left unsaid was that had Iroh not been treating this hunt for the Avatar like a sort of early retirement-cruise, he would have kept up to date on Fire Nation communications.

Iroh's face darkened, but he was not bothered by the insinuation. He was thinking of Zuko's scars. "Whatever the bounty is on his head, I want it tripled." With that order, he pushed the sealed scroll across the desk. "This letter is for Princess Ursa's eyes only. It is very important… that Prince Ozai not see it."

"I understand, sir." Taking the scroll, Ji tucked it within one of the folds of his tunic. "But with all due respect, if he is traveling with the Avatar it will be just a matter of time before the truth is found out."

"I will hope by that time, it will not be an issue. The Fire Lord has commanded me to search for the Avatar, and I have found him. He is young, yes, but what we saw is just a taste of his full power. He must be stopped." General Iroh paused, "But now I also have a second objective… I intend to bring Prince Zuko home."

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

"We have to head North," Sokka announced, once the initial exhilaration of their escape had faded. "We'll lead the Fire Nation away from the village."

Zuko had spotted the packed supplies which had been tied securely to the saddle; he had guessed as much, but Sokka's words had with them the weight of finality. He realized for the first time that it would be long while before he saw home again. He turned, looking out behind them and silently watching the high peaks of white fade off into the distance — his mind buzzing with… everything.

Suddenly the mood, which had just moments before been jubilant, became melancholy and almost sad. Aang sat off to the side, knees tucked up to his chin and Katara scooted over to his side.

"Aang," she said, and the young airbender looked up. "Why didn't you tell us you were the Avatar?"

"Because I never wanted to be," came the soft, sad reply.

"What you did with the water… That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen." Katara beamed at him, and tentatively, Aang smiled back.

"Thanks, but I don't really know how I did it. I just… did it." Despite his modesty, Aang visibly perked up. He looked around happily, not seeming to notice how Zuko was trying to avoid catching his eye. He hoped that the kid would get the hint. Of course, he didn't. "So why did that General guy call you a prince?"

"What?" Katara snapped. Abruptly Zuko felt the weight of everyone's attention on himself.

He sighed and looked out to sea. "I don't know," he said, hedging. "That 'General guy' is Prince Iroh." A random fact came into his mind, as it had done when he had first thought about the solstice; a piece of Fire Nation information, completely without emotion or accompanying memory. "If that's true, he's the next in line to the throne, and he said… He said he's my uncle."

Katara gasped, her hand flying to her mouth, and Zuko crossed his arms, feeling defensive, and not quite knowing why.

It was Sokka who spoke next, though, in his typical, cynical way. "Well, do you believe him?"

"I don't know," Zuko said, again. He paused, considering. "He was trying to get information from me about the Tribe. He knew my name, though…" And he knew how long he had been missing, but he didn't want to add that.

"I could have said your name when we were fighting those soldiers." Sokka rubbed the back of his neck in thought. "I can't remember."

"Yeah." Zuko wanted desperately to believe him. It was possible Sokka called out his name. So many things had happened so fast. Prince Iroh could have taken that piece of information and run with it. "Maybe…"

If the boys were willing to delude themselves, Katara wasn't. She spoke, tentatively. "Do you remember anything about him?"

"No." On this, he was at least certain. It seemed like he would remember his own uncle, right? He could remember tons of useless stuff about the Fire Nation — all of the islands, all of the governors and the name of the major Generals, or at least the ones in favor of the Fire Lord…

… which happened to be the exact things a prince would be educated on.

A sick sensation bubbled within his gut, and he looked away again out to sea in case any of the others saw a flash of the fear and doubt on his face. He couldn't be a Fire Nation Prince. He… he just couldn't.

Sokka was the one who summed it up, like he was often able to do with stupid or amazing events, a half-smile on his handsome, tanned face. "So you're saying," he waited a beat, "that I'm sitting in a saddle with the Prince of the Fire Nation and the Avatar?"

Aang chuckled, weakly, but in good humor. Zuko just shot his brother a glare. "I'm not a Prince!"

"Oh, I'm sorry." Sokka touched his hand to his chest, as if in a bow. "Your highness."

"Shut up!" But now Sokka was bowing down so low, and with such comic reverence that Zuko couldn't help the bubble of laughter in his voice. He reached over, shoving the other boy hard. "Idiot…" It was said with fondness, and abruptly Sokka was upright again and grinning, giving a friendly shove back.

"You may be a Prince, you know, but you're still my little brother."

It was meant to be a mostly-manly hug that followed, but Zuko needed it more than he knew, and held on to Sokka. Then Katara followed and Zuko met her eyes for a moment and knew he wasn't upset at her for leaving the village. He could never stay angry at her for very long.

Poor Aang sat off to the side, smiling wistfully, but obviously the outsider. Katara, of course, could be counted on to say the exact right thing.

"Come over here, Aang. You're part of the family now, too."

Aang's grey eyes lit up and when he joined the group-hug, it felt right.

"So," said Sokka, after they separated, "We need to come up with a plan."

Katara looked thoughtful. "According to legend, the Avatar needs to learn the elements in order. You know Air, Aang. So next would be Water, Earth and then Fire." She ticked off the elements as she spoke.

"That's what the monks told me."

And now her smile was just a bit like Sokka's at his most devious. "Well, if we go to the North Pole you can master waterbending."

"And, oh hey, so could you!" Zuko cut in with a roll of his eyes, not even bothering to pretend he didn't see her ulterior motive.

Aang, of course, didn't catch the sarcasm. "We can learn it together!"

She turned to her brothers, her smile now sweet. "And I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunities to see more firebending. And," she turned to Sokka, "you two will get to knock some Fire Nation heads on the way."

She had said the magic words. Zuko couldn't help but feel a bit wistful at the thought of learning more — he had barely held his own on the ship, and he certainly had no intention of letting his sister outstrip him in bending.

At his side, Sokka sighed almost dreamily. "I would like that. I would really like that."

"Then we're in this together," Katara said, with a bit of finality.

Aang turned and dug around in his small pack, coming out with a scroll. "All right, but before I learn waterbending, we have some serious business to attend to here." He pointed to a spot on the map. "Here, and here."

Sokka shifted around and came behind Aang, reading the map over his shoulder. "No way," he said, and his voice was full of the same sort of stubbornness Zuko had heard a hundred times before when he was trying to lead him and Katara on some crazy adventure. "They'll expect us to go to the Southern Air Temple first. It's too obvious. We can faint them out if we circle around here." He poked a finger to some of the pale-shaded islands.

As Aang and Sokka planned, Zuko found his mind wandering and turned to look out behind them. Off in the distance, a slight discoloration beyond the edge of the horizon, he could just make out a lazy draft of smoke. Iroh's ship was in full pursuit.

The Fire Nation would be after the Avatar… and even if the General wasn't telling the truth, Zuko knew that they would be after him as well, a rogue firebender.

Zuko’s light gold eyes narrowed. He and Sokka had failed in protecting their village, and he was determined that wouldn’t happen again. He would learn firebending as best he could. He would protect his family, and its newest member. He wasn't some haughty Prince. He had lived and thrived on the ice. He was Water Tribe.

All the Fire Nation had ever been to him were nightmares and scars.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

One other real quick note… I'm intentionally throwing as many wrenches in the plot as humanly possible so it doesn't end up being Season 1 with Zuko just there for extra comments, or something.

Also, YES I fucked up with the timeline of the war balloons. For some reason, when writing this chapter, I thought they were already a part of the Fire Nation's arsenal. So I'm totally handwaving that as a butterfly effect of Zuko's disappearance from the Fire Nation... uh, somehow. 

 


 

OoOoO

Your future is full of struggle and anguish, most of it self-inflicted.

- Aunt Wu to Sokka, The Fortuneteller

OoOoO


 

 

Sokka convinced Aang to set the bison for north. Best to make their path obvious to the pursuing Fire Nation ship and draw them as far away from the village as possible.

The further they flew — Appa's speed winding down from a desperate sprint to a more relaxed glide — the deeper the midnight-sun sank below the horizon. This made sense, when the kids paused to think about it. They were reaching the arctic circle and when they were no longer at the extreme edge of the world, the sun would rise and fall like it did in most other places, even in the middle of summer.

Iroh's ship was soon swallowed in the darkness behind them.

"Just… Just gonna take a nap." Zuko muttered, nodding as he spoke. No one was fooled. His chin dropped to his chest, and within a few minutes he was curled up and deeply asleep in the bison's saddle. After weeks of being exposed to the midnight sun, his body had crashed at the first sign of darkness.

Aang was flagging, too — both boys had an exhausting day, and he didn't put up too much of an objection when Sokka started wheedling to take over driver's duties on Appa's head. The young monk trudged back to the saddle and curled next to Zuko.

Katara sat, watching over them. The moon was only half-full, but so brilliant and the air so cold and crisp that she could see them both almost as if they were lit by a pale sun: Avatar and Prince.

The chill that went up her spine had nothing to do with the night air.

She flipped up the hood of her parka, sinking herself into the furs and pretending she were being snuggled by someone warm and secure: Maybe Dad… maybe Mom.

In some ways, it was easy to accept that Aang was the Avatar — he had appeared into their lives so dramatically — but even then it was hard to reconcile in her mind her cheerful friend with the powerful spirit that had swept all the firebenders off their own ship. Looking at him sleeping beside her brother, it was hard to believe that he could stop the war.

Katara shook her head and reached up to touch the blue stone of her necklace, as if in a talisman against those unworthy thoughts.

Stranger still was thinking of Zuko as a prince. Some years ago, Katara had stopped thinking of him as Fire Nation at all. He was her brother. Her strong willed, determined, passionate, bone-headed brother. He loved their father's stories as much as she did, both he and Sokka took their warrior duties too seriously, and he got stomach aches when he ate too many white snow-nuts. Thinking of him as royalty, the enemy's royalty, was absurd.

As she looked on, Aang shifted in his sleep and pressed his back up against Zuko's back, seeking out his body heat. The other boy didn't stir.

Katara's lip trembled, and then twitched upward into an almost maternal smile. Searching through their supplies, she unfolded one of the thick fur blankets and laid it over them.

Then she got up, walking across Appa's wide back to join Sokka at the driver's seat. She gave him a soft smile in greeting, which wasn't returned. He was busy staring out to sea, his back stiff and the leather reins tightly grasped in his mittens.

"Is everything okay?" she asked.

He sent her a sidelong look, and didn't answer her question directly. "We should find land soon. Get some rest."

"I'm fine, for now." She sat quiet for a moment, hands folded in her lap, expecting Sokka to speak again. If there was one thing that was constant about her eldest brother, it was that he hardly ever kept anything bottled inside. But the silence stretched on, and finally, shifting uncomfortably, she spoke. "Is this… about Zuko?"

That jerked him out of his melancholy silence. "Zuko? No… What?"

"You know, about him being a prince."

Sokka rolled his eyes, and at once he was the brother she knew again. All intelligence and biting sarcasm. "The only thing Zuko is prince of is annoying little brothers." He tugged on Appa's reins. Out in the distance, looking like a black smudge set against charcoal colored waters, sat a small strip of land. "That General guy was just trying to butter him up."

"But—"

"It's an interrogation technique, Katara. You're a girl," he added, flippantly. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"What does me being a girl have to do with anything?"

"Look, this isn't sewing and baking. It’s strategy."

She considered, just for a moment, about bringing up a soaking wave of icy water and showing him exactly what this 'girl' was capable of. But before she could act on that impulse, he continued.

"Think about it, Katara. Zuko's been living with us for seven years—"

"Six years."

"Fine. And if someone that important—If a Prince of a whole nation went missing…. They just wouldn't shrug and forget about it. Zuko is not a prince. You know that Dad's men might have—" He stopped, cutting off his words with a click of his teeth, and he pulled again on Appa's reigns as if in distraction.

Normally, Katara would not have let that go. But now the bison was angling down, and she clutched almost fearfully at the steady black horn in front of her for balance. The strip of land was nothing more than a rocky rise somehow up-thrust in the middle of the southern sea. There was just enough room for Appa to land, although choppy sea waves beat on the island in all directions sending cold spray periodically over them all.

The bison didn't seem to mind — perhaps his fur was so thick that he didn't even feel it. With a shift of weight that made both Water Tribe siblings reach again for the steady horns, he hunkered himself down and let out a long, resting sigh.

"We'll be kind of doomed if this magical monster rolls over in his sleep," Sokka joked, standing up to reach towards the starlit sky in a long stretch. "I don't think he will, though, with Aang on his back."

They made their careful way up to the softly padded saddle. Katara pulled out another blanket to keep out the sea-spray and lay down next to Zuko, taking advantage of his unnaturally warm body heat. She expected Sokka to take his place — perhaps on the other side of Aang as added protection for the younger boy. But he kept himself apart on the other side of the saddle. She saw his outline, dark against the spray of glittering stars, watching over them with a troubled, guilty look on his face.

It occurred to her just as she was falling asleep that perhaps it wasn't Aang or Zuko who needed a helping hand; a supportive ear: It was Sokka.

 



OoOoO


 

 

 

In the South Pole, grass grew in more or less dry patches upon thinnest part of the permafrost, and then only during the summer months. During the first snowfalls, what little life was able to eek its way out of the snow was quickly covered and forgotten about.

It was nothing, nothing like this.

Seeing the bewildered expressions on his friend's faces, Aang angled Appa down for a landing right in the gently waving field of green.

"There's… just so much of it," Katara said in wonder. She was the one to jump down first, grinning widely when she felt how springy the grass was under her booted moccasins. Her sudden movement disrupted the native bugs, and a swarm of tiny gnats flew up to circle crazily at waist height. Off in the field they could hear more; chirping, chattering, droning insects. Far too many to count. So much more life in this field than an entire snow-plain back home.

Zuko was next. He stretched, giving a jaw-cracking yawn before he slid down the bison's side and landed lightly on his feet. Gazing around this alien vista, Zuko knelt down, curling his fingers in the green shoots and inhaled the strange yet somehow vaguely familiar scent of vegetation and sun-baked earth.

Beside him, Sokka did the same and sneezed.

Aang leaned against his upright airstaff, a small smile on his face as he watched the siblings cautiously explore. "You guys have never seen grass before?"

"We've never been outside the South Pole." Katara threw a glance at Zuko, who simply shrugged back. He had been, but he didn't remember, so it didn't count. This was as new for him as it was for Sokka and Katara.

"Oh wow, well this is nothing! Just wait until you see the Si Wong desert. And the Fire Nation has rain forests so thick you can't even cut your way through. Oh! And the Hei Bai forest—"

"We're going to the North Pole." Sokka straightened up — he had been busy poking the tip of his boomerang into a prairie-rabbit hole, but any tasty little creature was burrowed too far down to reach. "Remember?"

"But there's no reason we can't have a little fun on the way." The airbender smiled. "You have to at least ride the giant elephant koi."

"Aang, I know fun." Sokka stuck a thumb in his chest. "I am the Master of Fun, and riding a giant fish does not sound like fun."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Hours later, Sokka repeated his complaint, this time while standing on the shores of a nearby bay with his arms crossed tightly over his chest.

"Well," Zuko said, as he gathered some loose kindling into an organized pile and lit it with a quick burst of heat. "It looks like he's having fun to me."

Far out across the sparkling blue bay, Aang was a doll-sized figure stripped down to his underpants and grasping on tightly to the fin of an orange and white fish easily the size of Appa. The fish dove and jumped through the water, looking pleased to have him as a passenger.

"Wow! Look at him go!" Katara had waded out to her knees in the bone-aching icy water and watched Aang with shining eyes. She raised a hand to wave at him, and out in the bay, he waved wildly back.

By the fire, Zuko made an exaggerated retching sound.

The elephant-koi took another wild leap, its body rising almost straight out of the water before landing back with a crash and a spray of white. They could hear the boy's happy laughter and wild whoops of joy echoing back to the shore.

Sokka crossed his arms even tighter. "Well, that's just… Clearly, the fish is doing all the work." But he looked more than a little wistful, like he was battling between staying in his grumpy mood as leader, or swimming out to take his turn on the giant fish.

Zuko stood, wiping his hands clean on the hem of his long blue tunic. He was considering the same thing as his brother, but his sharp eyes caught something dark and foreboding under the water. He squinted, raising his hand to shield his eyes. It couldn't be a deeper patch, because it was moving. A fin — dark and spiked, unlike the white and orange koi — sliced out of the water.

"AANG!" he yelled, "LOOK OUT!"

The fin turned and headed straight for the boy.

By now Katara and Sokka had also seen the danger and joined in the yelling. "AANG! GIANT FISH THING!" "COME BACK!" "BEHIND YOU!"

Aang waved back, pleased that his friends were so excited.

Sokka grabbed up his whale-bone machete and looked at his younger brother. "C'mon, we need to go after him."

But there was no need. Aang had finally turned his head and seen the dark snake-like shape heading towards him. He yelped and jumped clear of the fish, his legs pumping so fast and bending the air around him so that he actually ran over the surface of the water. The black fin was in hot pursuit, but it was no match for the airbending master. Aang didn't slow down, and ended up running headlong into Sokka and Zuko at the shore. All three boys crashed back against the rise of the bank in a tangle of limbs.

"Ugh," Aang groaned, clutching his head where he had bumped into Sokka's elbow. "What was that thing?"

"How should I know?" Zuko snapped. Aang's knee was digging painfully into his stomach, and he shoved the other boy off before getting to his feet.

The bay was tranquil again, and as deceptively calm as a smoothed over mirror. Even the elephant-koi had fled in the face of that… Whatever it was.

Aang scratched his head in wonder and went over to his pile of clothes, tugging the wide pants and orange over-shirt back over his head. "I don't think that was there one-hundred years ago."

Sokka took Katara's proffered hand, standing up and rubbing his back. "Wow, Aang, you're right, that was super-fun. Can we go now?"

No sooner had he said that then there was a sharp snapping of a twig in the nearby rocky forest. The kids turned, all suddenly reminded that they were not in the South Pole and in enemy territory. The Water Tribe siblings had hardly any experience with forests at all, and even the two boys shifted together nervously. Was that a shadow or a person behind the trunk of that tree?

Appa gave a low groan, mournful and yet somehow annoyed, and suddenly they were surrounded.

Zuko only had a second to react. He reached out to the campfire, trying to bring the flames to bear, but his arm was knocked away. He caught a flash of green — an impression of a white painted face, and then his knees were kicked out from under him, his face pushed in the dirt. A thin noose was pulled over his wrists, tying them behind his back, and a blindfold slid over his eyes.

And beside him, he heard his brother groan, "Or we could stay awhile…"

Zuko found himself hauled back up to his feet. His captors were strangely silent, but he felt quick hands search over his pockets — removing his boomerang and bone-club. The thought of those same pawing hands, those same dirty fingers, searching over his sister in the same brisk and intimate fashion made his heart contract in rage.

"Katara?" he demanded, twisting his head right and left. It was no use; he couldn't see through the thick blindfold.

"Right here." Her voice came from his right; choked and scared.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes... They have me blindfolded."

"Me too."

"We're all blindfolded," Sokka muttered.

Then Aang's bright voice cut in. "Don't worry. I'm sure this is all just a big misunderstanding."

Someone shoved Zuko forward and he stumbled, unsure of his footing on the pebbly terrain. His captor had to hook an arm him under his elbow to keep him from falling flat on his face. Being hauled up again, Zuko caught a strange scent he didn't quite understand — orange blossoms and vanilla.

"Where are you taking us?!" Sokka demanded, from Zuko's left. He heard uneven footsteps as if his brother was struggling to find his footing as well. "If you lay one finger on any of them—" There was a deep thump and then Sokka's voice again; high and cracking, "Naaaugh… Ow, OW!"

"No!" Zuko surged forward against his captor's grasp. "Don't hurt him!"

Something sharp was pressed against the back of his neck. It felt like pinpricks of fingernails. As if in a warning to silence himself. But that didn't make sense. What kind of warriors had long fingernails? Then he was shoved forward again.

He could only imagine that they were being led through the forest. The terrain underfoot soon went from rocky to soft with an odd crunching sound he assumed was dead, dried foliage. Aang had told them all only this morning how the trees in these area — so different from the sparse conifers back home — shed their thick, broad leaves every winter. That had to be what was crunching.

Zuko heard occasional stumbling, whispered curses from his siblings and even from Aang — what were Monkey-feathers, anyway? — But whoever had a hold on him kept a very strong grip. He only lost his footing once or twice.

Eventually, they came to a flat area he hoped was a road. He could smell the slight scent of roasting meat, and heard the general babble of people. That was good. If the blindfold were taken away and his hands freed, he might be able to draw from the fire. There had to be patches of snow around that Katara could use as a weapon.

With one final shove, Zuko was turned and pushed backward against something hard and rough. He shrugged his shoulders, but something — his guess would be another rope — was secured around his middle, tying him against a thick pole. He assumed the others got the same treatment, because once the rope was tightened Sokka seemed to explode in ire. "Who are you?! Show yourselves, cowards!"

A man's voice broke in, deep and foreboding. "You four have some explaining to do."

Another voice spoke, but this one was a lot more feminine. "And if you don't answer all of our questions, we're throwing you back in the water with the Unagi."

Zuko grit his teeth, and tried to shrug from out of the bonds, but the ropes were tight. He could barely move. "We weren't doing anything wrong!"

The girl spoke. "This one," and Zuko felt something hard, like the butt of a weapon, poke into his chest. "looks he’s been in some fights. I think he’s a firebender."

"He's not," Sokka snapped, cutting off Zuko's angry retort. "You saw wrong."

Aang spoke up. "It's my fault. I'm the one who brought them here. If you should be angry at anyone, it's me. I didn't mean to trespass, though! Honest!"

That did the trick. Rough hands scrabbled at the back of Zuko's head. The blindfold was lifted, and he blinked for a few moments against the bright light before the scene resolved itself. To his side, Katara and the others were getting the same treatment. But what stood in front of him caught most of his attention. Zuko had been ready for anything — though he was fairly sure he hadn't been caught by Fire Nation soldiers, but instead of burly earthbenders he saw… girls?

"Wait," he said, twisting his head about to make sure the actual warriors weren't hiding somewhere in the back. "Where are the men who ambushed us?"

Suddenly one of the girls; painted like the rest but with a large golden tiara on her head stepped forward, all menace. She grabbed him by the collar with enough strength to lift him to his toes, and a green gloved fist shook in his face. "There were no men! We ambushed you. Now tell us who are you and what are you doing here?"

To his side, Sokka let out a bark of a laugh. "Wait a second. There's no way that you took us down."

The girl-warrior raked him over with narrowed, smoky-blue eyes. "We'll feed the loud one to the Unagi first," she said with a glare for Sokka, "the scarred one can go next."

"No!" Katara gasped, straining at her bonds. "Wait! Don't hurt them! My brothers are just idiots, sometimes."

Aang looked at the warriors with an earnest, innocent face. "I just wanted to ride the elephant koi. We didn't mean to cause any trouble miss… Uh, warrior, ma’am."

"How do we know you're not Fire Nation spies?" the old man demanded, while the warrior-girl continued glaring at the two brothers. "Kyoshi Island has stayed out of this war so far. We intend to keep it that way."

Something pinged deep in Zuko's mind. For a spare moment he thought it was another vague fact that had drifted its way up from the dark, shadowed recesses of his hidden memories. But no, this was a true memory, long ago when he first came into the tribe.

"Take him to Kyoshi Island. They're soft hearted, and they'd never treat him wrong for being what he is."

Right.

Looking around at these stern, painted faces and this strange vista filled with trees and rocks, Zuko repressed a shudder. For the thousandth time in his life, he cursed that fool Auya. These Kyoshi Islanders were threatening to kill them all just for trespassing. He couldn't imagine what they would have done to him as a child if they found out he was a firebender.

The name of the island had inspired a memory in Aang as well, but a wholly different one. "Oh," he said in a long, satisfied sigh. "This island is named for Kyoshi? Well, I know Kyoshi!"

There was a distinct, shocked silence. Then the old man laughed, laying his hands on his ample belly. "Avatar Kyoshi was born here four-hundred years ago. She has been dead for centuries."

"I know her because I'm the Avatar."

This earned him confused looks from everyone, including the three siblings. They could all see the statue of Avatar Kyoshi if they craned their heads up; a large strong-jawed woman in green and gold uniform. Aang was just a goofy kid, maybe a bit small for his age. His cheerful demeanor looked completely out of place, especially compared to the statue. It looked like Kyoshi had never smiled in her life.

Clearly, the old man was of the same mind. He had stopped laughing and now regarded them all with intense disapproval. "I've heard enough of this. Throw the imposter to the Unagi."

Instantly, the female warriors behind him snapped to attention. They advanced with what looked to be bladed fans in their hands.

"Aang," Katara said in a terse whisper, "Do some airbending!"

It seemed to be just what he was waiting for. With another, more secret smile, Aang took a deep breath and with a rush of wind he broke free of the bonds.

It was almost worth getting tied up to see the villagers — including all of the warriors save for the leader — shrink back with jaws dropped as the boy shot straight up in the air, flipped over the statue of their Avatar idol, and float easily back down.

The old man's mouth worked for a few seconds before he was able to speak. "It—it's true. You are the Avatar." Then he bowed, and every watching villager did the same.

Last was the leader of the warriors. She looked as if she was trying to swallow something very sour, and her suspicious eyes stayed on Sokka and Zuko for a long moment before she dropped her gaze and bowed.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Prince Iroh stood on the bow of his ship, hands clasped behind his back and observing the harbor with weary amber eyes. He heard the familiar tap, tap of boots upon the metal platting behind him. He did not have to turn around to know that Ji had come to his side.

"Commander Zhao has done well for himself," his Lieutenant murmured, echoing Iroh's own thoughts. The harbor was choked with warships, most of them making Iroh's own vessel seem undersized. The Prince preferred his ship — it was quick and nimble where the giants were plodding and slow. But he did not want to think about the well stocked kitchens, or the modern amenities of the newer models.

Iroh nodded and regarded Ji from the corner of his eye. "You have what you need for your journey, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir. And I've circulated your orders among the crew. No one is to go ashore in your absence." Except, of course, for Ji himself. This would be the point where he would separate from the crew and the prince he had served with for two years. It would be easy to blend in and lose himself in this busy Southern hub. If all went well, he would be back in Fire Nation territory within the month with the message to Princess Ursa in hand.

"Good," Iroh rumbled, "I will distract Commander Zhao and give you the time that you need."

"Thank you. It… has been a pleasure serving with you, sir."

Iroh turned and clasped a warm hand upon Ji's shoulder. His smile for his Lieutenant was genuine. "We will meet again, Ji. I am sure of it. Keep safe."

A half hour later, the ship had been tied to the dock, and Iroh was striding alone down the rampart. He was unsurprised to see a small welcoming party — his royal flag was recognizable. Commander Zhao himself stood at the head of it, and when Iroh's boots touched soil, the commander bowed low.

"It is an honor to receive the Prince of the Fire Nation." Zhao's voice was much as Iroh remembered it, smooth — too smooth. "What brings you to my harbor?"

"My ship needs to resupply, and I am here to requisition two of your war-balloons."

Zhao's face was too schooled to show any surprise, but Iroh thought he caught a hint of it anyway in his glittering eyes. "Of course, Prince Iroh. Would you care to join me for a drink?"

Iroh nodded, and the Commander turned smartly so that they walked side-by-side. "You have amassed quite the fleet, Commander," said Iroh with an eye for the row upon row of ships docked along the port.

"All of the navel forces are gearing up for the arrival of Sozin's Comet," Zhao replied. "Although I plan on cutting their teeth on some of the smaller islands off the Earth Kingdom. You've come at the right time, General. Another day would have seen us gone.” He inclined his head politely. “How goes your search for the Avatar?"

Iroh smiled something benign, yet secret. "To be expected. I plan on using the balloons to visit the Southern Air Temple. No one has been there for a hundred years. There may still be a sign…"

This was a lie, of course. Iroh was counting on the young monk's return to the temple, and with him… his nephew. He only had to get there before the children arrived. His tiles were laid on the table, so to speak, and the trap was being set.

Commander Zhao led him to the main staging tent, and Iroh's nose was assaulted with overly fragrant packets of tea.

"Do you have any ginseng?" Iroh asked, hopefully. "It is my favorite."

 


 

OoOoO


 

The next morning, the kids woke to a polite knock on the door. Sokka was the one who answered it, his hair still down and rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He had to jump quickly out of the way as a gaggle of women, all carrying steaming platters of food walked in. A table was quickly set up, and soon it was covered with at least eighteen different types of food. The women scurried out as quickly as they came in, some winking and giggling at the child Avatar.

"Wow!" Aang exclaimed, sitting himself up at the head of the table and looking over it with wide grey eyes. "Dessert for breakfast!" He picked up a roll of sticky-sweet rice and popped it into his mouth. "You've got to try this one, Katara." He said thickly as he pointed excitedly to an orange-shaded roll.

Katara did, smiling at her friend's happiness as she took a bite. Then her expression changed to something strange — almost as if she was going to sneeze. She coughed and spat it back out into her napkin. "Hot!"

Zuko took one of the orange rolls for himself, and his remaining eyebrow raised at the spice when he bit into it. "Hey, that's not so bad." Then he promptly stuck another one onto his plate.

Katara, still fanning at her mouth, looked over and saw that someone had not joined the table. "C'mon, Sokka. The food is getting cold."

Her eldest brother sat slumped by the window, arms crossed moodily over his chest. "Not hungry."

All activity at the table stopped. Zuko and Katara exchanged a look of mutual shock. Even Aang seemed mildly surprised — he had heard Sokka complain bitterly over food many times in the last few days that he'd known him.

"Since when are you not hungry?" Zuko asked.

"Since he got his butt kicked yesterday by a bunch of girls," Katara replied, eager to dig one in after her little conversation with Sokka the other night.

Zuko and Aang laughed; it all seemed so stupid now that they were safe, and that Aang was being treated like a god by these people.

Sokka shot them all an icy glare, clearly not amused.

Aang grinned widely, and waved his hand, sending a couple of creamy pastries flying to the older boy. "Don't be angry, Sokka. Enjoy yourself. They're giving us the royal treatment!" Another puff of air and the light pastries fell onto a small plate right by Sokka's side.

The boy looked at it, and with a resigning sigh, took a bite. He chewed thoughtfully for a few moments, but then his face soured. With an angry shake of his head, he got up. The door slammed behind him.

Katara made a move to get up, but Zuko was first and placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay. I'll talk to him." He rose and followed Sokka out. He found him, a few moments later, sulking just outside the door.

"What's wrong with you?" Zuko demanded, once the door was safely shut behind.

Sokka shot him a scathing look. "Nothing. I'm fine."

"No you're not. You let those warrior girls get to you, didn't you?"

"No!" he said at once, although it was obvious that the answer was 'Yes.'

Zuko rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, leaning against the far wall, waiting. It didn't take long. Sokka was seething, gritting his teeth and clasping his hands into tight fists. As Katara had observed, it was hard for him to keep what was bothering him inside.

"It's just — I just… I couldn't stop those firebenders from getting to the village or taking you away, and I couldn't protect you or Katara yesterday."

"Oh." Zuko was silent for a beat, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He had thought Sokka was just dealing with a bruised ego. Now he wished that he had taken his sister along. She knew how to provide comfort. "Look," he began, hesitantly, "we were really outnumbered back at the village, and we were sort of taken by surprise here—"

"It doesn't matter." Sokka shook his head angrily, full of self recrimination. "It's my job to keep you two safe and I've failed. Twice."

Zuko couldn't help but feel a twinge of annoyance at that. After all, he could take care of himself. He didn't need his big brother to do it for him. But he bit back those words, instead saying, "Look Sokka, you're probably going to fail a lot—"

"Thanks, Zuko." Sokka's eyes were flinty, and before Zuko could finish, his brother shouldered past him. "That really helps."

"Hey, I had a point to that!" But Zuko was calling to empty air. Sokka had turned the corner, and walked away.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

After Sokka left, the mood in the guest suite became muted. Zuko ate quietly, ignoring Aang's longing looks out the window at the clear blue sky and Katara's annoyed little tuts over random female voices that kept filtering through the wooden walls.

Apparently news that the Avatar himself was staying in the village had drifted all over Kyoshi Island. A gathering of what appeared to be mostly young females was forming in the square outside, and Aang periodically stuck his head outside to give them a wave. Finally, he announced that he was going to go exploring.

Zuko muttered his own excuse and left, feeling the weight of Katara's glare between his shoulders. He forced himself not to care. He didn't have to spend all day inside, sulking, just because Katara wanted to. He had his own plans.

He tried not to think about what General Iroh had told him when he was aboard the Fire Nation ship. It was nonsense. And even if it were true — which it wasn't, he quickly told himself — it wouldn't matter anyway because he was part of the Water Tribe. He didn't have any ties to the Fire Nation.

Still, feeling somewhat guilty for it, Zuko asked around, wondering if Kyoshi Island had a library or a hall of records. It was a long shot — why would anyone from the Earth Kingdom have records of the Royal Fire Nation family tree? But it at least kept him out of the way of the screaming masses of girls that seemed to follow Aang around.

He was eventually directed to an old hut set off to the side behind a row of overgrown bushes. He walked up the worn dirt path, noting how this hut — like so many others of this tiny village — looked to be in disrepair, and could stand to use a coat of paint.

The door was unlocked, but shrieked horribly on rusty hinges when he opened it. He walked in, curious, and then was immediately disappointed. Instead of scrolls or books there was a woman's dress and boots mounted on what could only be a shrine. It had the same functional utilitarian look as those warriors who had attacked them yesterday.

Something was painted on the far wall, and he bent close to look. It was a mural, but of what he couldn't quite tell. The only light came from outside through the half-open door, and it wasn't enough to distinguish details. He lit a kindle of flame in his palm, but the paint was so faded and dusty he could only make out the outlines of a peaceful scene; people working, building, children playing in the fields. Overlooking them all stood a tall dignified Kyoshi Warrior with a bladed fan resting near her thigh.

The door squealed open behind him, bringing with it a rush of fresh air, and the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors strode in, still decked out in her full regalia.

Zuko froze, fighting the impulse to close his hand over the flame. There wasn't any point. The girl — what had she called herself yesterday? Suki? — was staring at it. Then her jaw snapped shut, and she glared at him.

"I knew I saw you reach for that fire yesterday. What are you doing here? This is a sacred hut!"

"I didn't know that." He gestured around the dim room. "And there weren't any lights."

Suki reached over, grabbing at something half hidden in the shadows. A lamp. Roughly, she handed it over. He transferred the fire to the wick, and held it up. Now illuminated, the room looked even less spectacular than before. There was a weapon's display he had completely missed, but the bladed fans and elegant looking swords seemed aged and were in need of a good oiling.

"What are you doing here?" Suki demanded again, watching him sharp eyes that reminded him of a hunting kestrel-hawk.

Trying to find my supposed royal heritage. Wisely, Zuko did not voice that thought out loud and instead shrugged insolently. What would Sokka do? He would charm his way to her good side, probably. Too bad Zuko didn't know how to be charming. "Uh, I like… history?" he offered.

Her painted eyes narrowed, but she stepped forward and gestured to the nearby display. "These were Avatar Kyoshi's personal weapons, and her uniform. She had the biggest feet of all the Avatars, you know."

Zuko made a sound in his throat he hoped sounded interested. He walked over to examine the mural again, and heard Suki follow.

"Your brother," and there was a slight uplift of her painted eyebrow at that word, as if she didn't believe their relation for a moment, "came to our dojo. He thought he would be able to show us girls a thing or two."

Zuko winced at the sharp tone in her voice. "And?"

"Let's just say we reminded him why we are called warriors." She stood in front of him now, and Zuko could almost feel the sense of danger radiating off of her. When she spoke next her voice was steely. "Us girls have kept this island free of Fire Nation rule in Avatar Kyoshi's name for a hundred years. So, let me make one thing very clear." She prodded a strong finger into Zuko's chest, "If you weren't with the Avatar, firebender, you would be lunch for the Unagi right now."

She was formidable, angry, and dangerously in his personal space. The wise thing would have been to step back, concede the point, or say nothing at all.

Zuko had never been that guy.

His good eye narrowed and he held his place, solidly unwilling to give an inch. In the back of his mind, he caught her scent — orange and vanilla, and it brought him back for a moment to that stumbling walk through the forest, and her tight, strong hold on him. "I have traveled and battled side-by-side with today's Avatar, and he trusts me. You're just honoring a ghost."

Suki grit her teeth, and for a moment he wondered if she was going to try to hit him. But she only said, "Tell your brother that he's welcome back for round two… if he's up to it."

Then, turning crisply on her heel, she strode out.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

By the time lunch had rolled around, General Iroh was convinced that he had a thief among his crew.

The journey started well: The requisitioned war-balloons had made good time, and the wind had been with them. They traveled through the night, and arrived at the Southern Air Temple just as the first rays of sunshine had peeked over the frozen, snowcapped mountains.

The Temple was much as Iroh had expected it to be: cold, remote, and empty. As far as he knew, no one had set foot there for nearly a hundred years. His men whispered and clustered together, nervously eyeing half rotted wooden railings and listening to the constant wind that whistled through empty stone corridors. Although none of them dared to speak of it in Iroh's presence — they did not want to be labeled cowards — they all feared that wind, and the ghosts of long dead airbenders that rode along with it.

Iroh did not blame them in the slightest.

It was hard — very hard — to not look into the empty rooms, the snow frosted corridors, the broken windows, and not think about how many people had died a century ago.

His tongue curled in his mouth, and it may have been his imagination but he thought he could still catch the scent of soot and ash. He could not help but think of it all as a sad waste. Surely his grandfather, Sozin, did not need to slaughter them all — as distasteful as it was, the children were all that needed to be killed. And then, only the children in a certain age. The babies and those above the age of twenty could have been spared. Wholesale slaughter was not the answer.

Iroh shook his head against those thoughts, and directed his men up to the main temple. This, he felt sure, the Avatar would be sure to visit. It seemed to be the Spiritual center of the temple.

That was before the stash of fruit was plundered, and his soldiers bright valuables went missing. Some of the men blamed the more light-fingered among them, and several scuffles broke out before Iroh ordered them back to work.

He had his own ideas what was going on, but couldn't confirm them until he caught the would-be thief red-handed.

Taking the last three sweet-peaches, the prince set himself up in a high room. From the balcony, he had the best view of the approaching vista. The weak sun was shining, soothing away aches and pains from a body now quite unaccustomed to hard labor. Iroh started to doze, awoken only by the soft sound of light feet upon the stone.

He cracked one eye, and smiled, seeing the identity of the thief. "Hello, little one," he said, softly, "You have caused much trouble for my crew today."

The white and brown creature with overly large ears sat up on his hind legs at the sound of Iroh's voice. Tilting his head, he crooned low in his throat, his large eyes focused on the closest of the three peaches.

Iroh held one out, and let the lemur approach. Its little hands were very much like a human's, and took the peach with delicate grace. It seemed content to eat by him, and when Iroh reached up to scratch behind one of the ears, it purred.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Supper time was a communal gathering on the Island of Kyoshi. Long tables were set out and the villagers sat in groups, according to age and rank.

Aang, Katara and Zuko sat together, with every girl under the age of eighteen on the island jostling and giggling to get as close of a seat to the Avatar as possible. Aang took this in good humor and amused them with a small airbending trick which made a handful of berries fly around in crazy circles between his fingers.

Zuko glowered down at his plate, moody from his encounter with Suki. Katara wasn't much better. She sat at his side, silently disapproving of Aang's showboating. Zuko couldn't help but notice how, even though the table was almost groaning from the weight of so many girls crowding for a spot, there was an empty seat on the other side of himself. It seemed as desperate as the girls were to get close to Aang, none of them were willing to sit directly next to the disfigured kid.

Then, just as everyone had stopped chattering and was starting to tuck in, someone slid into the empty space beside Zuko. He caught a flash of a green uniform, and if anything Zuko's head dipped down lower. Great. Just what he needed. Another Kyoshi warrior.

"Hey Sokka," Aang chirped, "Nice dress."

Zuko glanced up, saw a familiar face now covered in a thick layer of lady's makeup, snorted into his cup of water, and promptly started to choke.

"Thank you, Aang," Sokka said, with as much dignity as he could muster while his little sister was overcome with a fit of giggles and his brother coughed and gasped for air.

"Sokka, w-why are you wearing a d-dress?" Katara could barely speak between her giggles. Oh, where was that portrait painter when she needed him?

Sokka drew himself up, affronted. "It's not a dress. It's a warrior's uniform. Suki and the other Kyoshi Warriors are teaching me how to fight in their style. See, look. The silk threads symbolizes brave blood, and the golden insignia represents the honor of a warrior's heart—"

"Yeah?" Zuko had finally gotten his breath back and reached out to poke playfully at Sokka. "What about the lipstick?"

But before his fingers could touch, Sokka whipped out a closed fan and knocked his hand away. Zuko yelped, more out of surprise than pain, because the movement had been quicker than he could react.

Sokka smirked. "The Kyoshi warrior's philosophy is turning defense into offense, and using the power of an opponent's strength against them."

"That's like waterbending!" Katara exclaimed, mildly impressed.

Sokka smiled, the first true smile he'd had since they left the South Pole. "Yup!"

Zuko shook out his stinging hand, but he couldn't help the small grudging admiration for Sokka's nerve. His family wasn't the only one who was staring at his get-up. Some of the girls had peeled their adoring eyes from Aang and were now watching Sokka — a boy in their warrior's makeup — with abject disapproval. Sokka didn't care. He bent to eat quickly, decked out in a dress and makeup, not bothered by their glares in the least. Unconsciously, it made Zuko sit up straighter in his own seat.

The other boy caught Zuko watching from the corner of his eye, and Sokka gave a ridiculous wink. "You know, I could put in a good word in with Suki. I'm sure she'd take on another pupil."

And Zuko considered it, really considered it… for the space of about five seconds. Finally, he shook his head. He was not going to wear a dress. Luckily, Katara stepped in and saved him from having to beg off with a bad excuse.

"No, we haven't practiced our bending in days," she said, and Zuko shot her a look of relief. She then turned to Aang. "You could show us what you know, and maybe we could all work on new techniques together."

"Oh… uh…" The young monk bit his lip, and sent a guilty look to the fluttering girls. "I sort of already promised I would go out with them."

"Aangy's taking us for a ride on his bison," one of the little girls announced with a glare for Katara, hands on her chubby hips.

Now it was Sokka's turn to snort into his drink. "Aangy?"

"You can come along, if you want," said Aang, completely earnest, and not noticing the way that Katara's eyes had narrowed.

"I think you're letting this Avatar stuff go to your head." Her low tone was something the two brothers had learned the hard way not to mess around with. Both Sokka and Zuko leaned back from the table, instinctively distancing themselves from any sources of liquid.

Aang hadn't learned that lesson yet, and narrowed his eyes back. "You know what I think? I think you're jealous."

"Jealous?! Of what?!"

"Jealous that we're having so much fun without you."

"That's ridiculous!"

"It is a little ridiculous, but I understand."

"If you want to go traipsing with these little girls instead of practicing, I get it… I'm glad!"

"I'm glad you're glad."

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

Both Sokka and Zuko's heads went back and forth, following the conversation like a bouncing ball. At Aang's final words, Katara stood up so fast that she knocked against the table and all of the food shivered and jumped. "If that's the way you feel... C'mon, Zuko." She reached down, grabbing her brother under his arm and hauling him to his feet. "We're going to have to practice alone."

She didn't wait for him to respond, and he nearly had to scramble after her to keep from being forcefully dragged away.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Suki already knew about Zuko's firebending ability, and they had both more or less announced that Zuko was some type of bender in front of the little girls, but they still thought it prudent to keep their practicing low key while they were at the island.

They cleared some space in the main common area of their suite. Katara found some clean water from a nearby pitcher, and Zuko pulled his flames from the lit candles. They sat traditional style, juggling their elements in easy, elegant circles above their heads. It was a deceptively hard process — requiring both concentration and breath control…

… which explained why Katara was having such a hard time.

"Remember to breathe in from your mouth and out your nose," Zuko repeated for what had to be the tenth time after her water accidentally collided with his fire in a hiss of steam.

Her face set in concentration and she pulled the water into a tight blue ring overhead. Almost playfully, Zuko sent a zip of fire through the center. But she didn’t notice. Something tight and angry crossed her face. "I bet Aang’s won’t even be careful with those girls. They could all fall out of the saddle the way he flies Appa!" The wheel of water wavered and then fell completely apart, showering them and extinguishing Zuko's fire.

"Ugh! Katara!"

"Sorry!" She stood up and waved her arms, summoning back the liquid and sending it to the pitcher.

Zuko growled and pulled his now messy hair back into a neater wolfs-tail before he did something quite rare; lit his own flame for bending. "Who cares what he is doing?" he asked, lobbing an idle ball of flame where it bounced against the far wall, leaving a scorch of soot before returning to his hand. "He's the Avatar. He can take care of himself."

"He told me he was just a simple monk." Katara snapped, "But now he's just letting this all go to his head!"

Zuko sighed and extinguished the flame. "Give the kid a break. His whole people were wiped out by the Fire Nation. He's probably just acting out, or something."

But Katara wasn't listening. She was busy glowering out the window and Zuko distinctly heard her growl out the word, "Aangy" before she got up and walked out.

The firebender sighed and wondered to himself when, exactly, he had become the sane sibling.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Katara slammed open the flimsy wooden door with enough force for it to crack against the far breakpoint and then snap back into place with an equally loud crash behind her. Later on, she would look back on the day and feel a little badly for the way she was acting, for dragging her brother away from a perfectly good meal only to cut practice short.

Now all she could see were those twittering girls with their stupid doe-eyed expressions, and poor Aang—who was only a kid, after all, and very naïve to the world—falling for their stupid charms.

Aangy. UGH!

She had meant what she said before. She was sure Aang wasn't being careful. The girls would laugh at his stupid jokes and he would bush from the point of his bald head to the soles of his feet, and he probably would urge Appa up too high or too fast…

The path from the village down to the bay sloped downward, and Katara found her pace picking up as she went. Her thoughts grew darker with each step, and soon she was jogging with her fists tight and angry against her thighs—and then running full pelt; knocking away winter-bare branches and jumping through patches of nettles. Somehow, someway she knew that her worries had come to life and her friend was going to get hurt…

And then she was at the rocky beach overlooking the cold, blue bay. Appa almost looked like a white cloud hovering in the sky. He was so far out across the water that he was the size of Katara's hand when she held it out from her.

Shielding her eyes from the brightly reflecting sun, Katara suddenly felt a little silly. They were far away, but she could see that Appa was traveling at what looked to be a sedate pace. She had been expecting crazy loopy-loops… but the bison could have been a plow-ostrichhorse for all he was hanging in the sky.

With a sigh, Katara dropped her hand and walked over to the nearest boulder. Brushing snow from the cap of the stone, she sat down. She would just stay here for a few minutes…

… a few minutes turned into an hour, and by then it was clear that Aang was going to continue flying Appa in sedate laps around the bay. Katara crossed her arms over her chest, feeling annoyed at herself, and at Aang for some reason — mostly because he hadn't acted out impulsively, and so now she felt like the unreasonable jerk.

Finally she got up, brushing out her dress to straighten it of wrinkles. She was getting stiff and sore sitting like that. Maybe she should go check up on Sokka. What kind of little sister was she if she missed out on the opportunity to make fun of him in a dress?

She had no sooner turned than a scream — so high and far away it could almost be mistaken for the wind — pierced the air. Whipping back, Katara saw something rising from the depths of the bay with a wedge shaped head and trailing whiskers. It was the Unagi.

And it was reaching towards Appa.

"NO!" Katara cried, slapping her hands to her mouth in horror. But her shout was too little, too far to do any good. She had to watch, feeling helpless as the bison swerved to the right.

The Unagi missed his target, but its great head crashed along Appa's side. The bison's deep roar of pain and surprise could be heard across the water, and a tiny speck with waving arms and legs fell from his saddle to the water below.

Katara didn't think. Her body acted for her. She sloshed into the water, heedless of her heavy, fur-lined dress, of the bone-aching cold, aware that she was out to shore and the poor girl who’d fallen was nearly in the middle of the bay. She would never reach in time.

Are you a waterbender or not?! snapped a voice in her head, sounding very much like Zuko.

Oh… Right.

She froze a thick block of ice in front of her, and, after hauling herself up, she centered her feet and repeated her 'ice berg bridge move' to create a frozen pathway about twenty feet out. "Hold on!" she yelled, dashing the length before pausing to lengthen the path. "Hold on! I'm coming!"

Meanwhile Aang had pulled Appa around, aiming a charge at the Unagi before sweeping away at the last second with a blast of air; keeping the sea-serpent's attention on himself instead of the little girl in the water.

One last shove, and Katara's ice pathway froze alongside the girl. She reached down, hauling the shaking, sobbing girl up onto solid ice. But the Unagi had not failed to notice what was going on nearly right beside it.

The Unagi and Katara locked eyes; blue against fishy green. It seemed for a long moment—although it was only a second or two. Then the creature's jaws parted, and it dove down…

… but not before Aang got there first.

A wall of white, and a hand grasped around Katara's own— she didn't know when she had even held it out. She was hauled up, and up, feeling as if her arm was going to be wrenched from its socket, and only had the presence of mind to grab onto the little girl by the collar, carrying her along with her. The wind itself seemed to pillow under her feet, and abruptly Katara and the little girl found themselves in Appa's saddle.

But the Unagi was still reaching for them. Appa turned to the side, and those rows and rows of razor sharp teeth missed him by bare inches. A blast of putrid fishy air swept over them all — the Unagi's breath.

Appa slapped his wide tail across the choppy water and they were flying up and up, out to safety.

"Aang!" Katara meant for her voice to be a rebuke, but it came out more like a breathless gasp. Almost a thank-you.

Abruptly, she found herself surrounded by all the little girls. Some were laughing out of pure relief, most were crying… but all apparently felt the need to be with a mother figure, and as eldest girl and hero of the moment, Katara fit the bill. She found herself crowded, and did her best to murmur comfort to them all, especially the fallen girl, Koko, who clung onto her with white-knuckled strength.

"Katara! That—that was amazing!" Aang hovered just off to the side, looking embarrassed and awed at the same time.

She felt a warm tingle go up her spine. Aang, an airbending master, the Avatar, was awed at her? "You were so brave. I didn't know you could waterbend like that!"

She grinned. She couldn't help it. "Thanks, Aang. Don't tell my brothers, though." She could imagine their very bad reaction to her being in danger; it involved Aang strung up by Sokka's best rope, and Zuko coming at him with fire ready.

Perhaps Aang had the same thought, because he grinned sheepishly. "I'm not saying a word."

Appa groaned under them as if in agreement, and the young monk patted his head.

"Appa promises not to say anything, either." But then the bison groaned again, this time in a lower note and Aang looked to him in concern before glancing out to sea.

No less than four grey ships were silhouetted just over the horizon. Even from this distance, he could see the red and black flags. The Fire Nation.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

"Out skulking again?"

At the sound of that voice, Zuko decided he officially hated Kyoshi island. From its stupid sea monster, to its forests with not enough snow, to (and especially) its woman warriors. He hated this place, and once he and the others continued onto the North Pole he was never, ever coming back.

He didn't turn around to acknowledge the voice. That didn't deter Suki. She had a long stride, and it was easy to catch up and match pace alongside him.

They walked in silence for a few moments, around the winding path that took them through the outer perimeters of the village — where stone walled wells and ties for ostrich-horses rose from the ground.

Zuko glanced at her from the corner of his scarred eye to see her watching him. He sighed. "What do you want?"

She arched a finely painted brow. "Who says I wanted anything?"

"I'm just walking. You don't need to follow me."

"Who says I'm following you? Maybe I'm just walking this way, too."

"Yeah right." But short of tackling her, he wasn't sure how to ditch the Kyoshi Warrior. She could probably outrun anything he tried to pull, and by the set of her shoulders and the smug sort of air nearly leaking off of her, she knew it, too.

They walked in silence for a few minutes. They made an interesting set; scarred Water Tribe boy and painted warrior. Zuko couldn't help but notice how Suki kept looking at him, just slightly out of the corner of her eye.  Each time he caught her at it, he bristled. Until finally: "What?!"

"Someone cut your throat, didn’t they?"

"W-what?" He repeated, and this time his voice broke. It wasn't what she said that had surprised him — he had just been expecting her to accuse him of trying to burn down the forest, or something. His hand reached up to absently rub over the swollen pink line that extended from just under his jaw on his right side and across to the collar bone on his left. He hardly ever paid that scar much mind. When people stared at him, it was at his face, not his neck. "I mean, yeah… I guess." He rubbed at it absently and shrugged, turning away.

But she caught his wrist and before he could object she was stood close, examining it. She touched his jaw, turning his head to get a better look. "It looks deep. What happened?"

"What do you think?" he snapped, shrugging away. He didn't like the pity in her voice just as much as he didn't like the suspicion. "I don't see how it's any business of yours."

"I'm a warrior." She replied, hands on her hips, completely unrepentant. "I'm trained to fight and defend, and I was just… surprised, was all. Most would die from—from that."

"Well, I didn't." He wanted to walk away, but she would just follow him. He started to rub again at the scar, then realized what he was doing and forced his hand back down. "It messed up my voice. I couldn't talk for a few months afterwards." Until the first time he penguin sledded. He nearly grinned at the memory, and then caught himself, feeling her eyes still on him. "You should ask Sokka how I started speaking again. He can tell the story better than I can."

Suki rolled her eyes. "Oh, him." But before Zuko could bristle at her tone, she continued, "He's quite the charmer, you know. Or at least, he thinks he is. But he's learning quickly." She grinned wickedly. "And he looks pretty good in a dress."

Zuko groaned. "This had better not leave this island. I don't know how my family will live it down."

"So, is that why you're not training with us?"

He stared at her, struck dumb, and she casually walked forward, flicking out a fan as if it was a true lady's ordainment, and not a sharp weapon. "Sokka said he's trying to become a warrior. I can respect him for that. He's taking his training seriously, and trying to better himself. You, on the other hand, would rather have your pride, and spy around the village—"

"I told you I wasn't spying!"

"And sulk in the forest," Suki continued, archly.

"I'm not— I wasn't—" He was sputtering, frustrated, and clenching his fists so tight that wisps of smoke were curling from between his fingers. The second he realized it was happening, he relaxed his hands, but Suki's sharp eyes picked up on it anyway.

"Careful," she said. "I have been training all my life to fight against the likes of you. If you want to spar, then we'll do it in the dojo." A pause. "I want to show all my girls how to defeat a firebender."

He grit his teeth, growling out, "Fine. You're on." And it would only occur to him later that perhaps this was what Suki had been after all along, and that he was being baited — quite successfully.

But before Suki could reply, before she could set the terms, the peel of bells rang through the air, loud and piercing even though they were some way from the village.

Suki tensed and Zuko did, too, instinctively and looking around for a clue on what was going on.

"Those are the alarm bells. We're being invaded!" All humor was gone from her voice, and somehow — Zuko couldn't quite figure out how — she seemed to grow taller, then. A new air of authority. "Get back to the village and hide with the others. My women will take care of this." And before he could reply, she had sprinted off.

A shadow passed overhead, and through the tops of the trees he saw the white mass of Appa's belly. The decision was easy. If Suki thought he was going to hide from a battle, she was crazier than he thought she was.

"Aang!" he yelled, and ran to where the bison was landing; a clearing just outside the forest. "Wait up!"

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Kyoshi Island was well known for its deep, wide harbor. It was part of the reason why the fishing industry was so valued here. In the off season, the harbor could provide for every ship and its protected bays could shield all against heavy winter storms.

Unfortunately, the bay which had provided for Kyoshi’s people even when they were connected to the mainland Earth Kingdom was also more than large enough to provide for the large Fire Navy imperial battle cruisers, commanded by Zhao.

The Fire Navy ships met no resistance when pulling into harbor. Almost simultaneously, the four bowspirits dipped, and a small platoon of men backed by a cavalry of Komodo Rhinos disembarked.

Commander Zhao led the way, clad for war and sitting atop his own Komodo Rhino.

His amber eyes narrowed as he took in the sharp, rocky beach; the winter-thin forest that wouldn't provide good cover for guerrilla resistance, and the wide path that led to the main town. It was quiet; he wouldn't be surprised if the locals were in hiding, or had fled outright. They would if they knew what was good for them.

"Set fire to the forest!" he ordered, indicating the platoon on the right. After all, the village didn't need to be viable for it to be useful to the Fire Nation. They were just in need of the harbor.

A cruel smile curved at the Commander's lips. He gave the order to march forward.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

"Is it Prince Iroh again?" Katara rasped, peeking around the far corner of the general store. She, Aang and Zuko had stayed behind, wanting to fight. The children and young mothers who were not Kyoshi Warriors were herded into the far caves at the foot of the mountain. There would be enough supplies there for a week of siege.

Zuko braced himself against the edge of the building and glanced out, a quick furtive look. "No," he whispered, "Those ships are flying the flags of Sea Wolves. Iroh has the twin flame of the crown heir. Their troops are coming up the path. Get ready."

She nodded, flicking her hand to a nearby well. A small stream of water leapt to her command and streamed through the air, coiling around her wrist like an affectionate blue snake. Her brother nodded back and she heard the soft crackle of flame held in the palm of one hand.

There were so many Fire Nation soldiers. At least twice as many as this village had Kyoshi Warriors. She wasn't sure if she and Zuko could help too much — Oh, how she wished she could have learned something useful from Aang! — but they weren't going to hide. They were benders, no matter how poorly trained and self-taught. They had to help.

"Do you think Sokka's with the girls?" Zuko murmured.

The thought of her eldest brother fighting in women's makeup and a dress caused a slight smile, even as her stomach clenched in renewed worry. He had better take care of himself. If he got hurt or killed, she… she would never forgive him.

The Fire Nation soldiers advanced, and Katara felt herself trembling. Her and Zuko's plan was to wait for the Kyoshi Warrior's signal, and then strike from the side.

But before the soldiers entered the center of town — a threshold marked by the intimidating statue of Avatar Kyoshi glaring down at them from up top her high pole — there was the sound of whistling wind and a abruptly, a yellow and orange figure landed in front of the cavalry.

Katara gasped, looking reflexively behind her where, a moment ago, Aang had been waiting.

To her side, Zuko gave a low growl, "Idiot! What is he doing?!" and Katara had to put a hand on his shoulder to keep him from rushing after the younger boy.

"What's this?" The man astride the lead rhino. His face, unshielded by helmet, had confident, cruel features. He gave a loud laugh. "So this is what the people of Kyoshi have to defend them? A little boy?" He laughed again; a laugh that ended with a blast of fire aimed right at Aang's feet.

The young monk spun around, wielding his airstaff and knocked the blast harmlessly to the side. "No," he declared, and his young voice seemed to echo through the empty buildings and deserted streets. "I'm the Avatar."

It seemed to be just the signal that the Kyoshi Warriors were waiting for. At once three green-garbed warriors fell upon the mounted soldiers from their hiding places up top the roofs. Five more appeared from between buildings, wielding war fans to engage them directly.

The leader, for his part, gaped at Aang for the space of two seconds and then fired a larger bolt of fire at him.

Aang was far too quick, and before the flames had even left the commander’s hands he had jumped up and away in a rush of air that knocked the commander right off his rhino.

Katara and Zuko entered the fray. Stepping forward in a synchronized movement, they shot out fire and water in a long twisting ribbon, knocking two men off their mounts before the elements returned back to their hands.

"The rhinos!" Zuko yelled, seeing an opportunity. "Aim for the rhinos!"

Again, their elements shot out, water following the rapidly flowing fire. They struck their target, the nearest rhino's backside. The animal let out a roar of pain and surprise, lifting up on its high feet, and throwing its rider. It swung its head left and right, blindly, panicked, and charged forward to crash into two other rhinos, throwing them into a rage.

The lines of the Fire Nation soldiers broke, and what had been a organized invasion now seemed to have disintegrated into a common brawl. Firebenders were falling left and right to fan-wielding girls. Commander Zhao was barking out orders, trying to get a fix on the child Avatar. But just as Prince Iroh's men had discovered earlier, it was nearly impossible to hit the bounding, flipping, dodging boy. Aang retaliated in kind with powerful blasts of air that sent three men sprawling backwards.

In their excitement and anxiety to do some good, Zuko and Katara had stepped out from their hiding place from in back of the general store, and were sending their elements into the fray wherever they could. Zuko was still aiming his fire to terrify the rhinos, and Katara had gotten the idea to freeze water where the soldiers were standing, making them slip on patches of ice that were not there a second before.

The siblings didn't realize how exposed they were, and it was only by a stroke of luck that Zuko heard the quiet crunch of boots against stone above all the shouting and fire-blasting. He whipped around just in time to divert away a jet of fire aimed for himself and Katara. The jet arced over them both, crashing into the far wall of the building to their backs.

Katara retaliated with a wave of water that sprung up from the well, but the three firebenders were more than up for it, and two blasts later, the wave was dissipated in a rush of steam.

The three firebenders advanced. The boy and girl backed up nervously.

The lead firebender punched out, and Zuko took a deep breath, ready to call up a wall of flames to defend — but at the last moment something golden hit the firebender's wrist — a bladed fan — and knocked his arm away. A Kyoshi Warrior bounded into the fray, dealing a sharp upper cut to the firebender, which brought him down. The other two firebenders rushed towards the warrior, but she simply stepped aside and grabbed the backs of their necks, cracking their heads together.

Then, the warrior turned and she — no he — smiled.

"Sokka!" Katara cried, happily.

"You guys need to be more careful." Sokka grinned again, unabashedly proud of his own actions. Then he sobered. "The soldiers set fire to the forest." He pointed out towards the forest between them and the sea, where a wisp of smoke could be seen curling up towards the sky. "The warriors need a waterbender to help put it out."

Katara nodded. "On it!" And with one last grin for Sokka, she rushed through the thickened trees.

Sokka scooped up his fallen fans, and then nodded towards his younger brother. "Come on. Aang needs some backup."

"I can't believe," Zuko said with a barely concealed grin, as he followed Sokka, "that you are still fighting in that dress."

Sokka's hand waved in the air. "Oh, it's not so bad. It's actually kind of freeing—" he stopped with a yelp, jumping back as a errant fireblast landed at his feet.

"Sokka!" But some of the fighting had spilled over, and a charging rhino broke between the two brothers, a saddle half cut and leaning crazily from its side. Zuko ducked below another wave of fire, and when he glanced up again Sokka had somehow moved twenty feet away, and was helping some of the Kyoshi warriors corral and take down a knot of benders.

All around him, men were fighting with painted women. The arid smell of smoke and cries of warriors filled the air and hammered at his ears. He had often imagined battles, mostly after his dad went to war, but he never imagined it would be like this: Chaos. Fire and bladed fans flying in every direction, barked orders no one was hearing… Screams of the wounded…

Something caught Zuko's eye — smoke behind one of the main buildings. A sinking feeling that he couldn't quite identify formed in his stomach, and he ran, leaping over a downed and moaning Fire Nation solider to round the far corner.

The brush grew thickly behind the buildings, in the space where the wood stopped and the forest began. Now that was all on fire, and backed up to it was the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors. She stood, fans outstretched, facing down two firebenders, one with a Commander's sash.

"Take her alive, if you can," the Commander was saying, "She's the leader. The other girls won't fight if—"

And that was as far as he got.

Zuko centered his stance and reached out, grabbing for the blaze behind Suki. With a loop of his arms he pulled the flames towards him, safely around the Warrior girl and threw them in an overarching wave at the firebenders. The men yelled out, surprised by the sneak attack, and dove to each side. It was just the diversion that Suki needed. Her fan went sailing, hitting one of the firebender's in his helmeted head, and knocking him to the ground.

The Commander was first to return to his feet. He gave a bellow of rage and swung around, blasting a jet of such force and heat that Zuko had barely enough time to dive behind a rocky fence. He covered his head as pieces of chipped and melted rock exploded all around him.

Suddenly, the onslaught stopped. Suki jumped between them. Her bladed fans shot out: snick, snick, snap! And Commander Zhao cried out again, this time in pain, holding a deeply cut arm which bloomed blood against his chest.

Suki turned and grabbed Zuko's arm, forcing him to flee with her; back behind the momentary safety of two sheds. "You need to go. I heard him talking before — he'll chase the Avatar. You have to leave, now!"

"No!" He shook his head, gripping her arm just as fiercely as she was grabbing him. "I want stay and fight."

Perhaps Suki saw some of the fire in his eyes. She paused and a soft sort of smile crossed her face. "I'm sorry," she said, "about before… I shouldn't have been suspicious of you because you're a firebender. You saved my life."

"And you saved mine," said Zuko, stubbornly. "We're even."

"It's not about being even! It's—" Then she hesitated once more, and Zuko was hardly prepared for it because at that moment it was the last thing on his mind… she leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek, and whispered, "Tell your brother I said thank you. Now get out of here."

He looked at her, completely dumbstruck, but with the beginnings of a smile on his face. "Yeah…" Then, "Wait, what?"

But it was too late. With a low chuckle and a squeeze of his hand she was off again to rejoin her warriors.

He watched her go, touched his cheek, and visibly shook himself. Nothing had changed. The Kyoshi Warriors were still badly outnumbered, and worse, Zuko could see that the Fire Nation soldiers were starting to get over their initial shock and were regrouping. Suki was right. Leading them away would be the only hope to save the Island.

Zuko found himself grinning, although he didn't quite know why. He touched his cheek again; there was a slight smudge of paint.


 

OoOoO


 

Some minutes later, Appa lifted into the smoky sky. All of the kids were stained with soot and grim-faced; from the air, the destruction of Kyoshi Island was easy to see.

Katara and some of the Warriors had done their best, but a large part of the forest was still burning. Some of the buildings had been caught by the flames as well — even the statue of Kyoshi was afire.

"I should have been able to stop them." Aang slumped over the side of the saddle, downcast and exhausted.

Katara reached forward, laying a hand on his shoulder. "This isn't your fault, Aang. We're doing the right thing. The Fire Nation will follow us, and leave Kyoshi Island alone."

"Great. Then we'll have that Commander Muttonchops chasing us along with Old Prince Crazy." Sokka's words were muffled as he was trying to change out of the dress, and the thick neckpiece had gotten caught around his head. Katara rolled her eyes, and with a flick of her wrist, undid one of the ties so he didn't choke himself.

"The people of Kyoshi will rebuild," Zuko said, thinking of one warrior's strength in particular. Kyoshi Island didn't seem so bad, now... not really. "They're not going to let this get them down."

"But what if— I just wish…" The young monk trailed off with a sigh, and all was silent between them as they watched the island slowly grow smaller and smaller.

Sure enough, they could see the great ships pulling out of port. The Fire Nation was abandoning their siege. Maybe it wasn't worth it to fight these warriors with such little gain in resources — but more likely Commander Zhao just saw a tastier prize ahead.

Sokka had finally struggled back into his normal clothing, and was now rolling out a map, smoothing out the edges on the flattest part of the saddle. "Okay everyone, I figure it will take some time for those giant ships to get up to speed. We'll circle around here," he pointed to a small ring of islands, just tiny dots on the map, "to throw them off. Next stop: Aang's Air Temple."

Aang visibly brightened a little at this, and for the first time he tore his eyes away from the island. "You guys will love it. There's so many old caves, and there's an airball court…" He gave another long sigh, but this one had a note of happiness. "I can't wait to see how it's changed in the last hundred years."

Zuko winced while Katara and Sokka shot each other a quick look. No one said anything.


 

OoOoO


 

It was a bitterly cold day, and Prince Iroh was glad for the warm furry little body curled around his neck. He had expected the lemur to leave once it had fed, but it seemed to enjoy his company. Iroh found that he did as well; the creature had a very endearing way of cocking its head to the side every time he spoke, and chattering something back.

He decided to name it Momo; the old word for peach.

The lemur shifted on his shoulder and stood up, the tail curling possessively around his neck a moment before a knock was heard on the door. "Come in." Iroh commanded, soothing Momo's questioning chirp with a pat on the head.

Lieutenant Izhar walked in, giving a deep bow. "The second shift teams have checked in, sir. There's no sign of the Avatar."

"He will come, Lieutenant. Keep the men alert."

"Sir…" Lieutenant Ji would be bold enough to ask how Iroh could be so certain. But Izhar was newly promoted to his position, and unsure of where the lines lay. The Prince saw it in his face anyway, even if he decided not to answer in full. He just knew, like he had known where the weak-points in the outer wall of Ba Sing Se were. Some had called it a gift… he preferred to call it the wisdom borne of long experience. No spiritual foresight would show him the weak-points of an enemy's wall, and yet leave out the warning of his own beloved son's death.

"There are two temples for the males. This is the closer. The Avatar will be drawn to this place, his homeland. We only have to be patient."

"Y-yes, sir.," Izhar stammered and hurriedly bowed again before backing through the door.

Iroh turned again towards the window, sipping a warm cup of tea. His eyes were to the horizon, waiting.


 

OoOoO


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Art by Engelen

 

 

 

 

 

"Those summers we spent here seem so long ago. So much has changed."

~ Zuko, The Beach

 

 

Zuko kept his eyes to the horizon. The sun was slowly rising in the east. He felt that even if he were blind, he would be able to feel the rise and set of the sun. But it was more than just seeing; it was in his bones. The air bison was asleep. The whole world felt like it was asleep under a thick coating of night-frost; even the birds were giving only sleepy twitters back and forth from the high trees. He sat with legs tucked under him on Appa's wide flank, watching the dark blue of night pale and melt away. It was cold — bitterly cold, but he had felt much sharper chill than this.

The sky grew brighter — lightening to grey and then slowly to glowing pink as the sun crested over the horizon and color was brought into the world.

"You always get up early, huh?"

Zuko looked to the side, startled to see that Aang had slipped by and sat next to him without his noticing. He gave a quick nod of greeting and then glanced down to his brother and sister — they were still curled up in the sleeping bags on the flat of Appa's tail, completely dead to the world.

The sky was brightening and now streaks of orange could be seen through the tall clouds — massive thunderheads that were roiling up as the earth was warmed by the sun. They were too far off to be a danger, and they were heading in the other direction anyway, but it made for a stunning view. Zuko wouldn't ever express it to anyone (except for maybe Katara… she'd understand) but it felt to him that the sun was the bringer of change. It seemed to him that everything stopped when the sun sank — his own spirit receded in the dark depths of cold winter.

His sister might argue that the moon and sea worked together to bring the ultimate balance, but he always preferred the sun.

"I can always feel the sunrise," Zuko said when the sun had become less of a sliver and more prominent on the horizon. "I usually wake to it unless I'm very tired."

Aang nodded. "My friend Kuzon was the same way. I guess it's a firebending thing, huh?"

"Maybe, but…" He shrugged. "I don't know any other firebenders. It's just how I am."

They fell into a companionable silence, content to sit and watch the sunrise and feel the rhythm of Appa's deep breathing under them. But now Zuko's thoughts were on what lay ahead. If Sokka was right (and Zuko trusted his map-reading skills even above his own) they would be hitting the Southern Air Temple today.

Yet Aang sat beside him, looking content to watch the sunrise just as if it was another day.

"Aang," he said after a moment, and then stopped as the young monk turned his eyes to him. Nervously, Zuko scratched the back of his neck, unsure how to voice his thoughts. "I don't know what we're going to find in your temple. Things have changed since you were frozen in the ice… It might not be what you expect."

He blinked. "You're right, I don't know how things are changed… I bet they're really different now." Maybe he caught the other boy's wince, because he added, "You don't know how it was. There were hundreds of monks and bison in the temple, and a whole bunch more roaming and exploring. That's why there's four temples — one for every direction of the wind. Just because no one has seen an airbender doesn't mean they're not around." Now Aang was smiling. "Maybe people just didn't know where to look."

Zuko wasn't reassured. He knew, knew that Aang was wrong. Just as he knew what was up and what was down, he knew that all the Air Nomads were gone. Wiped out. The details, of course, were lost to him in the same frustrating way as all of his Fire Nation based knowledge. So he couldn't elaborate. He could only shake his head. "But the Fire Nation — they're bad. Just, really, really evil." Zuko let out a long sigh and turned his face away from the east. It was too bright to look comfortably at the sunrise now. "Just don't get your hopes up."

"I'm not." Aang's bright cheery voice spoke completely otherwise. "You'll love it there, Zuko. It's one of the most beautiful places in the world, and this time of the year they always have circle walking competitions." He jerked a thumb into his chest. "I'm one of the best."

"Is that… a dance?" he asked, getting a very strange mental image of a bunch of bald, robed monks drunken dancing around the fire like the men and women in his tribe tended to do when there was too much to drink. At least… before the men had gone to war.

"Nooo, it's an airbending form." Aang scrambled to his feet, tugging the other boy's sleeve. "C'mon, I'll show you."

Zuko glanced over; Sokka and Katara were still fast asleep. Katara was going to be so jealous if he actually managed to learn something… but it would be nice to know a move before her. Just this once. So he nodded, albeit a bit warily, and followed Aang down off the bison and down a little way to a sandy sort of clearing where brush and weeds made a clear space lightly speckled with sand.

Aang put down a rock in the middle of it and, with Zuko watching curiously from the side, he centered himself and started to move. At first Zuko thought that the strange duck-like steps was just Aang goofing off or messing around. But the little monk walked around and around the rock, putting each foot at a strange angle to one another, always keeping his palms centered inward. Occasionally he'd twist and walk the other way, his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth in concentration.

But it was silly, and as far as Zuko could tell, there was no airbending involved.

"That's a stupid move," he huffed, stepping up to the younger boy. "Look, anyone could just come up and—" He meant to give Aang a light shove, but somehow — he wasn't quite sure exactly — Aang completed one of his little twisting steps, and got behind Zuko, a soft palm laid directly on his spine.

"Wha-?" Zuko turned in surprise, intending to face him, but Aang stepped along with his movements, keeping successfully behind him. He turned the other way, and Aang matched him step-for-step.

"Hey, this isn't fair!" But Zuko was chuckling, turning in vain to try catch the other boy. It was no use. Aang matched him easily for every move, and if Zuko couldn't face him he couldn't fight him.

And somehow it became a game between them — a game of firebender against airbender, in which Zuko was loosing at every turn.

"The monks said that a fight avoided is a fight won," Aang said, still behind, laughter in his voice. "But this helps, too." Suddenly — and Zuko couldn't tell how, since the kid was behind him — Aang stepped forward, putting an ankle in front of Zuko's next step. Their legs fouled, and Zuko would have pitched forward onto his face if not for the steady hand gripping his elbow.

"Okay! Okay!" the older boy yelped, and Aang was able to circle-step in front of him, pushing him up to regain his balance.

Both boys were grinning, and Zuko was the first to look away, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.

"So, ah, how do you do that again?"

OoOoOoO

"I am so hungry," Sokka moaned. He was stretched out dramatically along the bottom of the saddle, clutching a hand to his stomach. "Can't we just stop and eat?"

Zuko glanced down from the side of the saddle. They had been flying for hours and far, far below the ground was covered in a thick veil of mist. Sharp points of rock, looking like jagged teeth seemed to reach out of the fog. It didn't look like a safe place to land. "I think there's a couple of apples in my pack," he said, tossing his bundle over.

But Sokka only gave a sad shake of his head. "There was. I ate them yesterday."

"What do you mean? You've been eating my food?!"

His elder brother shrugged, completely unrepentant. "What can I say? Hunger is a driving force for me."

Zuko growled and snatched his pack back, pawing through it to come up empty. "You ate all of my blubbered seal-jerky, too?!"

"Ohh… that's what it was?" Aang gave a sheepish laugh from his seat up front on Appa's head, safely out of range from the incensed firebender. "I thought that was firewood."

"What?!"

Sokka was scowling, too. "Wait, you had blubbered seal jerky left, and never told me about it?"

"I was saving it!" Zuko snapped, tossing the pack back. If Sokka's reactions weren't so quick it would have hit him square in the face. "How could you think that was firewood, Aang?"

"Well it didn't look much like food…"

Katara chose that moment to step in, getting right between her squabbling brothers and the Avatar. "Guys, calm down. I know we're all a little hungry right now—"

"You don't have any extra food, do you?" Sokka looked hopefully to her pack. So far it had gone unsearched because there could have been any number of horrible… girly things in there. But desperate times called for desperate measures and he was reaching towards the pack before his sister slapped his hand away.

"No, I don't. I would have shared." This last part was directed squarely at Zuko who crossed his arms and scowled off to the side. Katara sighed, "Aang, maybe we could stop and forage for a bit?"

"No need. The temple has entire wild orchard groves along the hills. There should be plenty to eat." Aang snapped the reigns happily. "We're nearly there, guys! Appa, yip-yip!"

The Water Tribe siblings had already gotten a taste of Aang's dubious sense of time, but this time he was right. Not a half hour later they saw the first spiraling mountain peeking up from out of the clouds. Sokka sat up straighter in interest while Zuko forgot the fact that he was sulking, and crawled to the front of the saddle to get a better look. Katara joined his side, grinning.

The air itself seemed to change around them, becoming thicker and warmer somehow. The great bison had caught a natural thermal updraft and within moments they were shooting upward — hundreds of feet in the air, nearly scraping along the side of an impossibly high cliff while Aang laughed in delight and the siblings held on for dear life.

Then they were up and over the cliff, which was just one of a half dozen finger-like craigs set in the middle of the mountain range. Ahead, set in the middle like a centerpiece on a fancy table, sat the Southern Air Temple.

The tallest and highest mountain cliff had been carved away; ground down and then built back up again in the form of several tall blue and white twisting towers with cave complexes set in the middle. Trees sprouted crazily from the far sides, and as they drew closer they could see how the hill had been flattened into levels for farming and orchards.

Appa was flying them in from the direct west, and ahead was a long pathway starting from the base and winding crazily up and up like a loopy piece of string all the way to the upper-most tower.

It was silent. And cold. And still.

OoOoOoO

Appa landed on the base of the high temple. They crossed over a small arched bridge to the main temple with the siblings silent, heads twisting about in every direction to get a look at every sharp angle of the place. It was so much different than home, so different than Kyoshi Island.

If Aang was affected by the strange stillness of the land, or the somber mood of his companions, he didn't show it. He bounced in his steps, pointing out everything. "That's the circle-walking court, and the rock gardens! And there's where the bison sleep!" He gestured to some stable-shaped structures, the cracks now choked with old weeds and the flat areas covered in snow. "And… that's where we used to play airball." Wooden pegs had been driven into a field, but nothing had disturbed the snow. Maybe not for years. Aang dropped his hand and gave a sigh. His eyes were far away; distant in an old memory that wasn't old for him. "This whole place was just so full of life…"

Zuko exchanged a glance with Sokka, and the elder brother shrugged, stepping forward. "So Aang, how did you guys play this airball game?"

The young monk instantly brightened and turned, grinning over his shoulder.

His subsequent explanation made the earlier complicated circle-walking seem like a breeze. Sokka listened attentively, rubbing his chin and asking questions he probably thought sounded intelligent.

Zuko, though, felt his eyes glaze over and hung back to walk with a melancholy Katara.

"It's so… quiet here," she said, in a low undertone.

"It's dead." It was Zuko's nature to get to the point, and Katara slumped slightly at his words. But she couldn't deny it. She nodded and gave a long sigh. Then, suddenly, she froze in her step, and her hand shot out to grasp Zuko's arm. "Did you see that?"

He followed her gaze, shielding his eyes against the intense glare of the sun-struck snow on the far hill. But he saw only one of the large towers, and a twisting empty path. "See what? What?"

"I thought I saw…" Her blue eyes narrowed, but whatever she had seen was gone. The grip on his arm relaxed. "I thought I saw something moving up there, but… it's gone now."

"Probably just melting snow falling off of trees." Zuko shook his head, and turned away. "There's nothing here, Katara. They wouldn't have left anything alive."

She caught on that immediately. "They?"

"The Fire Nation."

He tried to walk away, but her grip was there on his arm again, holding him in place. She was staring at him, something akin to hope in her bright eyes. "You mean, you're remembering something?"

"Oh yeah." He bit out the sarcastic words before he could temper himself. She was always on him about his memories, and his answer was always the same: No. "I remember playing on those stairs as a baby, and playing airball while my evil Fire Nation family killed Air Nomads for fun."

She gave him such a long, steady look that he eventually dropped his gaze, ashamed of his dark words. Finally, he added, "Look, something really bad happened here… I just feel sort of strange about it." He tried to laugh, although the thought that struck him wasn't all that funny. "My blood relatives could have helped kill Aang's friends. It's a little awkward."

"Hey." He looked down at her, his light gold eyes meeting her at her blue fierce, compassionate gaze. "Maybe they did, but that's not you. Your true relatives helped establish the Southern Water Tribes." She reached forward to push against his chest with her mitten, over his heart. "You belong to a long line of Chiefs; Brave, honorable men. Don't let yourself forget it."

Zuko let out a long breath he wasn't even aware he had been holding. He hadn't talked to his brother or sister about what Prince Iroh had said, aside from that first day. Hearing this now, he felt some weight come off his shoulders.

"Yeah," he said, finding it suddenly hard to speak. "I know."

Sokka had apparently grasped the finer basics of the game. He had shed his parka and was struggling to scramble up one of the wooden poles while Aang elegantly floated to the top of another, a light wooden ball in his hand.

With this distraction, Zuko smirked, remembering his earlier circle-walking lesson, and getting the distinct feeling that this was going to be over for his brother very quickly. Aang loved games, and he was good at them.

Zuko walked over to the side of the small field, wanting to get a better view and gestured for Katara to follow.

She did, but her right boot kicked against something partially hidden in the snow. She fell down, gasped, and crawled backwards from the object in surprise. "Zuko! Get over here!"

"Are you okay?" Then he saw it too; a rust red curved triangle sticking out of the ground. He paused for a long moment, looking at her, and then bent down to grab the thing and twist it up out of the snow.

There was a popping sound, and a Fire Nation helmet and white face-mask glared up at him in his hands. But that wasn't all… there was something behind that white face-mask… Something that rolled inside when he tilted it to get a better look. A skull.

"Gyeeh!" He dropped the thing at once, bending down to scoop clean snow over his gloves.

Katara only let herself stare at the head for a few moments before she gulped and turned. With a reverse scooping motion she brought a soft pile of snow from a nearby rise over the, helmet, burying it again.

Neither wanted to think about what else lay under the snow. Suddenly the unremarkable bumps and valleys no one had noticed took on a darker meaning.

Katara looked green. "We… we can't let Aang see this."

"What do we do?"

"I—"

She was interrupted by a sickening thud from above and Sokka fell back into the snow. Aang's joyful laughter was heard over head, echoing off of the empty buildings and valleys. "Aang seven, Sokka zero!"

"Ugh." Sokka rolled over, rubbing his injured backside, moaning, "Making him feel better is putting me in a world of hurt…" Then he caught the looks on his sibling's faces and sobered immediately. "What? What's wrong?"

At that moment, a still giggling Aang floated down to retrieve the ball; it had landed dangerously close to the helmet. Katara rushed forward, putting herself between the monk and the ball, a false cheery smile on her face. "Aang, I really want to see rest of the temple. It… it looks so interesting! What's that over there?" She pointed to a square building, halfway up the hill.

"Uh, the restrooms?"

"Oh wow, that's great." Her hand slipped over his and she was leading him away, tossing a 'help me out here' glance over her shoulder.

Zuko nodded, bending to help pick Sokka back up to his feet.

"What's going on, Zuko?" demanded Sokka in a low hiss, catching his elbow.

He felt tired, suddenly. Katara was leading Aang away from this, but who knows what else would be found up at the top? They should probably leave. "Just watch your feet," he advised, steering his brother away from a suspicious bulge in the snow. "You might step on someone."

It was almost funny how quickly Sokka paled, how audibly he gulped. "You mean…"

Funny, until Zuko looked around and saw one misshapen mound after another covered in a cool blanket of snow. "Yes."

The other boy made a strange wheezing sound. "I'm suddenly not so hungry anymore," he said clutching his stomach, and now looking a bit green. "We should get out of here."

They didn't even clean up their dead. Zuko thought, feeling sick. The soldiers didn't get a proper funeral pyre… they just were left by their own commanders, sat out to rot.

Up ahead, Aang was chatting animatedly with Katara, going on about the advanced pipework (apparently fed by hot geothermal under the mountain) and was completely distracted.

Zuko nodded. "Yeah, as soon as he's seen what we need, we can make some excuse and get out of here."

"Firebenders were here… We should get out of here now before Aang —" Sokka gulped again, "I mean, we could accidentally run into a skeleton of someone he knows, or something."

"I know." Zuko paused, thinking back to this morning and the younger boy's cheerful denial. "But maybe he needs to see this, too. As long as Katara is with him, he'll be okay." If anyone could comfort, it was his sister.

Zuko's Gran Gran had stitched his parka that very spring, layering it with blue-dyed fabric and skin that was a Water Tribe woman's secret. It had kept him warm during the worst storms, in temperatures so low that the fog of breath froze on eyelashes, and no one could see more than a hand-span ahead.

But somehow the mournful, whistling wind of the temple cut right through his parka like a sharp knife. He shivered, resisting the urge to use his breath of fire out of respect for the dead monks.

"I don't like this place, Sokka." Zuko said, at last. "It's bad."

OoOoOoO

Zuko and Sokka half expected to see more horrors at the top of the temple, but either there hadn't been bloody fighting here or (more likely) the century's worth of storms and weather had cleaned the temple steps of anything left.

Aang was not completely oblivious to the darkened tone, and eventually grew quiet. Once or twice he stopped on a step, and took a long look out to the vista. His eyes were unfocused… he was remembering a different time, almost a different place.

"Monk Gyatso said there was someone I would meet when I was ready," said Aang at last, when Zuko and Sokka had caught up to them. "He said he would answer my questions about being the Avatar."

Katara bit her lip. "Aang, no one could have survived a hundred years—"

"I survived a hundred years." Those words would have been bitter, having come from anyone else. From Aang, it seemed more like an impish challenge. He even half-smiled. "So it is possible."

Sokka seemed to catch his mood, and he rubbed at his empty stomach, instantly forgetting how nauseous he had been half an hour ago. "And maybe whoever it is has a medley of delicious cured meats!"

They were following Aang, trusting him to lead the way, but suddenly stopped and turned, his grey eyes widening and a smile of delight stretching across his face. The others followed his gaze and saw what they could only guess was some kind of long eared white and brown rabbit-bat sitting on a nearby rock, grooming itself.

"LEMUR!" Aang shrieked.

Sokka, of course, saw things from a slightly different angle. "FOOD!"

And, clutching airstaff and boomerang respectively, the two boys leapt after the creature. The poor thing looked up, gave a shriek of terror and sprinted off with the boys in hot pursuit.

Katara and Zuko stayed behind, eyebrows arched in strangely identical expressions of annoyance.

"Sokka's kidding, right? I am not eating that," scoffed Katara as the two boys rounded the far corner.

Her brother shook his head. The creature — lemur, or whatever — looked too stringy to be any good. How hungry was Sokka, anyway? "Come on," he said with a long suffering sigh, and motioned for her to follow.

OoOoOoO

Sokka's legs covered more ground with every stride, but Aang was more than up to winning this race. The air seemed to give way before him, and he soon rocketed past the other boy, giggling a little at Sokka's, "Hey, no fair!" of indignation.

Aang had lived at this temple for years, in between journeying with his guardian monk Gyatso, but things had changed and grown older — different in the century of disuse. There were vines where there shouldn't be vines. Some staircases had crumbled. There wasn't snow on the ground when he had left, either. It had been high summer.

So he didn't recognize the path that the lemur was taking. And by the time he realized where he was, and saw that the temple door had been cracked ajar — he had never seen it open before — the lemur was already scrambling inside, and Aang didn't hesitate to follow.

"Where did you go, little guy?" Aang asked, slowing down to a walk while his eyes fully adjusted to the dim light. The lemur was sitting on a strange statue… In fact, as Aang's eyes grew used to the dim darkness he realized that the whole room was filled with statues. The one directly in front of Aang was an aged man with a square jaw in Earth Kingdom clothing. Next to him was a woman from the Water Tribes, and—

Aang stepped forward in wonder, bedazzled with the sight. The were hundreds, maybe even a thousand or more statues, all set in a spiraling pattern going up and up… a never ending chain…

A shadow moved, unseen to the side, and something metallic swung down while the floor popped up. Instantly, before he could even begin to react, Aang was surrounded, entrapped on all four sides and vaulted upwards — suspended in a metal box.

"Hey!" he yelped, more in shock and surprise than genuine fear. He tried a basic airblast, but his wrists and elbows banged against the steel walls with a hollow clang. It was too small a space to airbend! "Hey!" he yelled again, jumping up to catch the metal bars so he could peek out a small vent-like window.

The box hung suspended from a chain at least twenty feet up, but he could clearly see the small knot of firebenders gathered below — The old General guy looked up at him with pleased expression on his face.

Then, Sokka blundered in through the open door. "Aang, did you find my dinner ye…" His intelligent eyes took in the entire scene, and before Prince Iroh could order them to attack, Sokka had his boomerang out and thrown. His aim was true, and it hit the metal chain holding Aang's steel prison up with a shower of sparks. But it was not enough to cut through with one hit.

Then Sokka was ducking away from a fire blast, bringing his bone machete out to strike—

And he was grabbed roughly by the arm. Prince Iroh spun him about, and Sokka crashed head first into the nearest statue of a firebending Avatar. Skull met stone with a resounding crack, and the boy sat down, hard.

Iroh moved forward, but Sokka held up one finger. "Wait…" His voice was thick, his eyes strangely unfocused. He reached for Iroh, missed by abut a foot or so, and then collapsed into unconsciousness.

Iroh bent to take the boy's pulse. "Ready the second and third traps," he ordered, standing up again. "The other two are benders—"

They didn't have time to prepare. The final two children were at the door. Zuko gaped in the same way Sokka had done, but it was Katara who acted first. She raised her hands up and then pushed them down, and all of the ice that had collected in the cracks in the high ceiling, all of the water that had gathered and frozen in the shadows, fell to the ground in shards of icy rain. The soldiers ducked and scattered.

Zuko reached for his boomerang and it flew truly, striking the same imperfection that Sokka's had created, and severing the rest of the chain. Aang's box fell with a clatter, although the boy was still trapped inside.

It took about the space of two seconds for the men to realize that the icy shards weren't sharp enough to impale. One shot fire at the two before Iroh could call out a warning: He had seen his nephew do this trick before, and sure enough with a graceful sweep of his arms, Zuko was able to reroute the fire and twist it around as his own weapon.

The waterbender, too, had called up her own element from the fallen ice. Together, they stepped forward in the same gracefully bounding movement and a wave of fire and ice broke past Iroh's men and sent them scattering.

Lieutenant Izhar, newly promoted in Ji's absence, leapt forward kicking and punching quick fireblasts that were meant to overwhelm an opponent. A move that worked fairly well against waterbenders.

Zuko could think of nothing more than blocking with his own shield of flames, gasping with the effort. Katara stepped behind him and launched back with a blast of water that knocked the attacking firebender off his feet.

"We have to get to Aang and Sokka!" Katara yelped, but now nearly all of their enemies were firing with those quick blasts. They were too rapid for Zuko to react, and his shield of fire was failing… he was gasping for air, breath control gone, and the heat and smoke was becoming unbearable…

He shoved his hands out, instinctively pushing his shield outward, keeping the stinging flames away from his bare skin. It dissipated into nothing within seconds. Grabbing Katara, he spun her away out the cracked temple door — fire blasts missing them both by inches.

He fell to the side, unexpectedly winded, coughing. Firebenders were pouring out the door, and thinking quickly, Katara seized some snow from the temple steps and hurled it as ice against the door, locking the rest in.

But that was no solution — none at all, because Aang and Sokka were still inside and two firebenders and the aged prince had been able to follow them outside. Zuko staggered to his feet, trying to raise a firewall for defense… but Iroh was too quick, and his blast was aimed at Katara. She threw up spray of water which saved her from being burned, but she was blasted back… tumbling over and over…

Towards the edge of the steep canyon wall… and off the edge…

All Zuko could see of his sister were two hands, fingers white, holding onto the temple edge.

"NO! KATARA!" Zuko ran, but had not gained more than two paces before he was tripped by a well timed blast from Iroh that send him falling hard to the ground.

"Hold him!" At Iroh's sharp words the two men rushed forward, grabbing him. Zuko fought back, wildly, disjointedly, but they were trained soldiers and pushed him to the ground, holding his arms behind his back… and now Katara's hold had slipped to one hand and her wail of terror could be heard echoing up from the temple walls…

"KATARA! KATARA!" Zuko screamed her name over and over again, fighting, flailing against the firebenders like a mad thing. Not even trying to bend — he was too panicked to think clearly. The soldiers held on, nearly sitting on the screaming, writhing boy. He had somehow wrenched one hand free, and reached out to her… but she was too far… she was slipping…

Things seemed to happen in slow motion. He saw Iroh hurrying to the edge. Katara was just holding on by her finger tips, and he could hear her wails above even his own — it was all he could hear.

Iroh bent to help, but then her fingertips had disappeared, slipping away a hand's-breath from safety.

Everything seemed to stop. Zuko's heart contracted in his chest. He looked up; Iroh's shocked amber eyes met his own.

I didn't mean for this to happen.

I will never forgive you.

The looks passed silently between them, as quick as an eye blink. As clear as spoken words.

"No… no." Zuko was first to turn away, shaking his head — his entire body was shaking — denying, but there was nothing to deny. She was gone. "No…no, please…NO!" But saying it didn't make it not true. Katara was gone. Fallen. And Zuko screamed again, twisting against his captors... She was dead… his sister was dead…

"Get the restraints." Iroh's voice held barely over a rough whisper. He glanced again to the temple edge, and felt the guilt of the girl's death as almost a physical blow. There was nothing he could do… it was just another guilt to added over a lifetime of mistakes. The best he could do now was restrain the hysterical boy so he didn't hurt himself or others, maybe force a sleeping drought on him…

Yes, that would be… best. For the best.

And that was all Iroh had time to think before the temple-door exploded outwards.

OoOoOoO

Aang had never felt so helpless in his life.

He beat his fists against the box. The air inside swirled around in angry currents, but there was not enough space to do anything. Even as the Avatar, even as a twelve-year-old airbending master, he just wasn't powerful enough.

Katara and Zuko were out there, fighting. Sokka was hurt. He had to help them. The firebenders…

… Fire Nation. Here. In the temple. Somehow, here without a sky bison.

His beating firsts slowed as realization finally, finally struck him. "No…" But if they were here, now, they could have been here then, too. What if all his airbenders weren't just in hiding? What if they were all gone? Killed.

A hundred years… everyone took pride in their temple. They would have never allowed it to fall into such disrepair. Not even if there was one person left. They were all gone.

His friends… all of the monks… Gyatso…

"NO!" Aang cried again, sinking to his knees, folding his arms around himself as if to keep it all in. He couldn't. The grief was too much.

And his cry was joined by another, a heart-wrenching wail from outside. "KATARA! KATARA!"

Something was wrong outside. The firebenders had hurt Katara.

Aang felt despair and a kind of rage, a need for revenge he had never felt before. It engulfed him, swallowed him.

Something inside snapped. Aang was gone, and the Avatar Spirit took his place.

OoOoOoO

It was only Prince Iroh's reflexes — trained and honed over years of firebending — that saved himself, his men, and his nephew from being crushed by stone fragments. He whipped around, generating a concussion explosion that blasted the worst away, although they were all pelted by a hale of pebbles.

Through the cloud of dust which was all that was left of the temple, a pair of unworldly white eyes glared down at them all.

"Aang…" Zuko whispered, but there wasn't any need. It wasn't Aang. It was the Avatar.

The Avatar hovered above the ground, his hands in claws, hunched over, his face a mask of rage and pain. He didn't move, but the wind came anyway; rushing from the mountains, from the hills and valleys. A torrent, a gale of wind that whipped towards them all — shoving all the shocked firebenders back.

One of the men holding Zuko yelped in fear. "He's trying to blow us off the mountain!" His grip loosened, just enough for Zuko to roll around and shove him forcefully back. The wind around them all was only picking up speed, and to his horror he found himself sliding backwards.

"AANG! STOP!" Zuko reached out, catching a corner of stone, using the rough block to shield himself. The wind was tugging at him from every direction, trying to pull him away, and it was increasing.

Iroh yelled orders to his men — words that were ripped out of his mouth and carried away in the now screaming wind. Fireblasts, sent by the bravest of the bunch, were bent away from the slowly rising Avatar and sent back among scattered screams and yells.

Aang's face twisted into something ugly, and suddenly the ground erupted, tossing the firebenders back like ragdolls.

The wind roared around them, scoring skin like sandpaper. Shielding his eyes from the worst of it, Iroh called for retreat, and then, to Zuko's surprise — and disgust, Iroh looked towards him. "Zuko. Come with us!"

The stone under them shivered, buckling. They all felt it drop, sickeningly, a few feet. Zuko clutched his boulder — being younger and lighter than the other firebenders, and without the benefit of heavy armor, it was the only thing keeping him from being blown away.

The firebenders were retreating, but Iroh held back, looking to him with sadness in his amber eyes.

Zuko stared back with hate, an expression between a grimace and a snarl masking his face, highlighting his scars. "I would rather die." All he could see in his mind's eye was Katara's fingers slipping over the edge — Iroh moving too slowly to save her.

"Don't be foolish!" Iroh called.

And then came another sound; different from the wind — Lower.

Tail pumping, straining against the wind, and with a deep bellow, Appa soared above them, landing in the no-man's land between Aang and cliff's edge…

… Katara sat in the saddle.

The wind here was worse than anywhere else. She hunched against the front of the saddle, wind whipping out her hair, calling to the Avatar. "Aang! I know you're upset… and I know it's hard to lose the people you love, but this isn't the right way." The Avatar was watching her now, expressionless. "I know you're in a lot of pain. I went through the same thing when I lost my mother, but if you don't stop, you're going to hurt a lot of people. The airbenders are gone, but Sokka, Zuko and I… we're your family now."

The wind slackened slightly, and the Avatar slowly sank to the ground. Katara jumped off Appa and ran towards him, catching him in a tight hug the moment his feet touched the ground. The wind relaxed, the glowing tattoo's flickered, and then Aang was himself again, slumped down in near exhaustion.

Zuko whipped around, intent on fighting Iroh — but the Prince and his men were gone. Fled.

He shook his head, half in a daze and staggered over to Katara and Aang. "Katara, I… I… thought—"

She was still clutching Aang fiercely and looked up at his words, giving a quick shake of her head. The meaning was clear. Aang was fragile right now. Don't say it. Don't upset him.

Meanwhile, the young monk had turned into her embrace, shoulders shaking, hiccupping, "If the firebenders found this temple… It means they found the other ones, too…"

Zuko bit back the rest of his words, swallowing hard, and looked at the remains of the temple. It had exploded outward — chunks of rock and bits of statues were lying everywhere. There was no sign at all of Iroh or his men, and Sokka…

… Sokka!

His good eye widened and he dashed away, back through the crumbled remains of the door.

Those next few moments, looking for his brother in what remained of the temple were some of the worst in his life. Boulders were scattered everywhere — some bigger than Zuko himself. The hundreds of statues within had all been knocked down or had simply shattered into lethal chunks under the force of the Avatar's rage. Only one was left; the newest of them all, depicting an aged and dignified firebender with a twin flame crown upon his head. It stood firm, shielding the unconscious Water Tribe boy lying crumpled at its base.

Zuko bent, checking Sokka's pulse and letting out a long breath when he felt it strong and steady under his fingers. He could have lost them both…

"C'mon Sokka, get up." He shook his brother's shoulder, and got no response. It wasn't a good idea to move the injured like this, but there wasn't much of a choice. He doubted that Iroh and his men had retreated for very long. So he threw the other boy's arm over his shoulder and hefted him up.

Katara gave a small cry when Zuko exited the temple, staggering under his brother's weight. Finally disengaging herself from Aang, she rushed over to help him. She had been crying — tears had made streaks in the dust on her cheeks, and up close Zuko realized that she was trembling… It had been a very close call — Appa had almost not caught her in time.

But she was strong — probably the strongest person he knew. She pushed her own terror away to help him with his burden. Together, they somehow maneuvered Sokka to the saddle. Aang jumped over to Appa's head, and they were up and safely into the sky.

Katara dug around in their packs and came back with bandaging and a strip of cloth. She bent some snow she'd picked up a few moments before and made a cold compress, laying it over to the egg-sized lump on Sokka's forehead. Zuko hovered nearby, shielding Sokka from the wind, feeling useless.

"I think he'll be fine," she said, at long last. "It's just a bump on the head."

"I'm going to kill him."

Katara looked up, shocked, and met Zuko's fierce gaze. He wasn't talking about Sokka, or Aang. He was thinking about the man who had called himself his uncle. "Don't, Zuko… Not right now. Sokka's going to be okay. And I'm… I'm fine, too."

He looked away. He hadn't missed the waiver in her voice. He wouldn't ever forget watching her slip off that cliff.

"Why didn't Aang take Iroh's men out?" he asked, finally, looking towards the bison's head where the young monk sat there, alone. "He could have. He had the power."

She shook her head. "It wasn't about that. He was hurting, and it activated his Avatar Spirit…He could have easily killed the firebenders. All the firebenders." And she looked at him. "But he didn't, because it wasn't about revenge. He was just in a lot of pain."

It was a low blow, and Zuko nearly called her out on it. But her point was made. He glowered, but said nothing.

Sokka was stirring into wakefulness now, wincing, and asking what was going on. Zuko reached over to touch his shoulder to let him know he was still here, but he ultimately got up, leaving the healing motherly-type stuff to Katara.

He felt like pacing, but on a flying bison there was nowhere to go. Somehow, he ended up at Appa's head, next to Aang. He intended to ask Aang the same question, why he didn't rid them all of an enemy when he had the chance? But one look on his friend's face wiped that idea away.

Aang was trying to smile — he really was. But the grief inside kept trying threatening to break free, and his eyes were watering very suspiciously.

"I guess… you were right. About the temple, I mean," Aang said, at last, with a slightly cracking voice.

Zuko's shoulders slumped, and he sat down, feeling exhausted all of a sudden. "I wish I wasn't." A pause. "Aang, I'm sorry, for what it's worth…."

Aang's hands were tight around the reigns, and he nodded. Zuko couldn't tell if he was listening or not. "I'm really the last airbender," he said, almost to himself. As if he still couldn't believe it.

"I don't know how, but we will set this right." He shook his head — a quick, almost angry gesture. "We'll get the Fire Nation back for what they've done to your people."

The younger boy blinked at Zuko's fierce words. Then he shook his head. "The monks used to tell me that holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone; you are the only one who gets burned."

"I can hold hot coals," Zuko reminded him.

"Still." And Aang snapped the reigns again, but now his face was more relaxed. Reminding the other boy of his people's teachings, had reminded himself as well. "They wouldn't want me to live in anger or hate… I'm the Avatar, and…and it's my job to stop the war. I just wish I knew how."

"We'll figure something out," he said, after a pause. The fire had that bloomed inside was dying a little as Aang seemed to cheer up. Katara's words came back to him, and he thought repeating them wouldn't be such a bad idea. "Me, and Katara and Sokka… we're going to be with you. You're family now."

"Thanks…" Now Aang was smiling for real, and Zuko clapped him on the shoulder.

Back in the saddle, Sokka was sitting up, clutching the cold compress to his head and looking disgruntled that he had missed the fighting. Then he started complaining, in a high, plaintive voice about how hungry he still was. Zuko smirked. It wasn't quite a smile, but it was a start.

OoOoOoO

"All the men are accounted for, sir," Lieutenant Izhar said, after his customary bow.

Prince Iroh nodded, but his attention was elsewhere. He was bent over a map, making notations, tracing the Avatar's path. North-northwest.

"Order the men to ready the balloons," he said, finally, straightening. "I wish to reach the ship and disembark by the end of the day."

"Yes sir." The Lieutenant bowed and left.

Iroh looked again to the map, and then out over the horizon. The Avatar's bison had long since gone. He had not been pleased, of course, to see them escape. At the same time, Iroh was an honest man and he could not deny that he felt a measure of relief that the Water Tribe girl was alive.

He flashed again to the hatred in his nephew's eyes.

A warm weight fell onto his shoulder, the slight grip of tiny hands on his arm. Iroh's lips twitched upward in a smile and he rested one large hand on the lemur's head, feeling it arch under his touch like a feline.

"So, you have come out of hiding my little friend?" The poor animal had been startled by the Avatar's power — and rightly so. Iroh was glad to see Momo had come out unharmed.

He reached into his pack and brought out a small slice of candied plum which the lemur took up with a happy trill.

Iroh smiled. "Would you like to join me on my little quest? I cannot promise candied treats every day, but it is sure to be interesting. We could keep each other company."

He did not know if the lemur understood his speech — perhaps it just responded to warm the tone of his voice. In any case Momo gave a little chirp and circled himself on Iroh's shoulder, laying down and curling his tail possessively around his neck. It was all the answer the aged prince needed.

He bent again, rolling up the map. "If the Avatar continues on his path, he will be within reach of New Azulon. If he and Prince Zuko are captured…" He trailed off with a sigh, feeling a headache start in between his eyes. He was getting too old for this. "On the other hand, there are some warm springs near the Earth Kingdom coast. I often find that a good soak revitalizes the mind, and calms the body."

Momo did not answer. He had fallen asleep. Iroh gave him an absent pat before making his way down the long staircase.

OoOoOoO

 

Next up: With Sokka still injured and food scarce, what's a brother to do?

Chapter Text

 Adorable Fanart by Tophis1

About the art: They're out hunting for berries right now, which can only happen when its warmer. Thats my excuse for having no mittens. >.<

 

 

 

 

 


 

OoOoOoO

"What? Everyone else went on a life changing fieldtrip with Zuko. Now it's my turn."

- Toph, The Phoenix King

OoOoOoO

 


 

"I'm hungry," announced Sokka. He was sitting up against a mossy log, legs scrunched up in a blue sleeping bag instead of taking in heat by the half-cold fire. "And bored." This was directed at his little sister, who was busy stirring half cold embers with a stick.

Katara barely glanced up. "Look at your maps, then."

"I've been at the squiggly lines on this page for so long, I'm starting to see squiggles everywhere," he answered, and would have flopped back down if not for the fact that he was currently battling a fierce headache and more than a little dizziness. Sokka settled for a dramatic sigh instead.

Katara sent him a quick glare, but her expression softened when she caught sight of his pale, sickly shade, the slight glaze of pain in his eyes. The swelling on Sokka's forehead had gone down, but it had left behind a combination of dark purple and yellow tinged bruises.

Lifting a water-skin, she walked over to sit by her eldest brother. "Sokka, it's only been a few days. You need to rest. We're not all going to fall apart because you're not running around playing leader."

"I'm not playing leader. I just happen to be the leader because I'm the oldest." A pause as he took the proffered water-skin and drank deeply, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "And the smartest."

It was very tempting not to give into some of her lesser urges and rap him over the head with a stick. Maybe Gran Gran would have done it. But her brother's thick skull had already taken enough of a beating thanks to Prince Iroh.

So, instead of snapping at him, she forced herself to take a deep breath. "You overdid it, mister brave chief. So now you get to rest today…. Do you know how frightened I was when you fainted yesterday?"

"I did not faint!" Sokka's cracked in indignation. "I merely — I just felt a little dizzy. I'm fine."

"You have a concussion, and if you don't take it easy I swear I'll — I'm not going to lose you just because of your ego." He was staring at her as she spoke, a slight smile on his face as if he was already thinking of a joke or something to brush her away. Katara lifted her chin stubbornly, and met his eyes. "Do you know how lost we would be without you?" she asked. "Zuko needs someone to help him think things through. Aang looks up to you. I can see it. You're my big brother. I need you too."

A slight brush darkened Sokka's cheeks. He looked away from her, but some of the rebellion had gone from his expression. "Well… I guess having everyone else do all the work for once isn't the end of the world."

"Good." She smiled. "I knew you would see it my way."

"But I am hungry," Sokka said, again, after a few moments of silence.

"Zuko and Aang will be back soon," she soothed. "I'm sure they'll find something."

Sokka grumbled something low (and luckily for him) mostly unintelligible. He shifted around in his sleeping bag, drumming his fingers on the ground. And then, despite his resolve not too, pulled out the map and started to study it again.

Satisfied that she had made her point, Katara went back to tending the fire.

But Sokka was never one to keep silent for very long. "I don't get it."

"What?"

"We should be at Omashu by now."

She glanced over to see him following some of the lines on the map with a forefinger, his nose so close it was nearly brushing the parchment. Putting down the stick she walked over and knelt down beside him again. This was one of Aang's maps. Although it had been frozen for the last hundred years, it held up well and was still ledgable in most places.

It didn't look anything like any of the maps she or Sokka had grown up using. She could read a nautical map. Gran Gran had drilled points of reference and contour lines in her head from early childhood. But this was an Air Nomad's map, and she could only assume that the strange wavy lines over land and the numerical notations were air currents instead of water currents.

Sokka lifted his head and rubbed at the bridge of his nose — a habit he unconsciously picked up from Zuko. "Maybe the city doesn't even exist anymore."

"We could always ask for directions."

"Kataaaraaa." Sokka looked mortally offended. "We can't just ask for directions. We're not lost. I just… don't know where we are?" he ended this on a hopeful note.

She huffed. "That sounds like we're lost to me."

"Men don't get lost." Now Sokka was sitting up again. He tugged the map away in irritation. "I'll figure it out. I just—"

But he was cut off by a movement in the bushes on the far side of their campsite; the crack of a broken twig.

Katara reacted quickly, summoning water from one of the water-skins into a glowing ball between her fingers, but a moment later Aang's bald head broke through the leaves of a nearby bush, and she relaxed.

Aang gave her a cheerful grin and then his head disappeared as he called back over his shoulder. "I found them, Zuko!" Then he was pushing through the bushes again.

Katara raised an eyebrow. "Did you two get lost?" she asked, with a quirk of a smile towards Sokka.

"Only a little," Aang answered, completely unashamed. With another tug he was free of the twiggy bush, and stumbled into the campsite. He was using the front of his shirt as a net, and it was heavily weighed down by round brown nuts. Katara just hoped they were eatable.

Another crackling in the bushes and Zuko emerged. One look at her other brother's face, and Katara knew that the foraging had not gone well. His remaining eyebrow was knit forward, highlighting his scarred features, and it was with more of a growl than a greeting that he tossed his half empty bag down at Katara's feet. "Nuts and roots," he said, in disgust. "I don't understand it. How can a forest this big be so empty?"

Aang had dumped his shirt out near Zuko's pack — and there were even less of the brown nuts than Katara had feared. "Well," he said, "it is winter."

"No it's not. It's summer." Sokka struggled to sit up in his sleeping bag, and then looked doubtful for a moment, casting a glance at Katara as if remembering he had recently been hit on the head pretty hard. "Right?"

Zuko answered for her. "Yeah, you're right. We were experiencing midnight sun back home. The summer solstice shouldn't be too far off."

"Guys, there are patches of snow on the ground." Then Aang remembered exactly who he was speaking too. "There's not going to be any snow on the ground in a few months. It will get a lot warmer, you'll see. You might like it."

Katara glanced down at her own hands — bare because it was too hot to wear any mittens. "You mean, even warmer than it is now?"

"Oh yeah," Aang said. "The Southern and Northern hemispheres are switched. We're coming up to the winter solstice, not the summer solstice."

Aang didn't understand the surprised, even stricken look that came over the sibling's faces, or why Katara took in a quick breath and glanced towards Zuko. But the scarred boy just shook his head, murmuring, "I didn't know… I didn't feel anything."

"This place," Sokka concluded, sinking back down into his sleeping bag. "Is officially weird."


OoOoOoO

 


 

Aang showed Katara how to crack open the nuts and pry the soft flesh from the shells, and in the end she decided that there might be enough along with Zuko's roots to make a stew. It was mixed success. There just wasn't enough to go around; her stew was more water than actual food, but by the time she was finished the sun was just sinking below the horizon and everyone was too hungry to care.

Katara ladled out everyone's portions, but Zuko pushed his back with a quick shake of his head. "Sokka needs this more than I do," he said in a quiet undertone.

"Zuko—"

But he shook his head again, pressing his lips into a thin stubborn line. She sighed and ladled half of his out, and back into Sokka's bowl.

It was a morose little campfire that night. Sokka's tried to lighten up everyone's mood, but he wasn't feeling well and his jokes were thin and strained. He ended up falling asleep early, tucked up against Appa's warm flank. Aang excused himself from the campfire a little later and sat on a bolder with legs crossed in a lotus position; meditating.

Zuko had drawn his legs up and was sitting by the fire, moodily staring at the ground deep in thought. When he finally spoke, it took Katara by surprise.

"There's a town not too far from here. I saw it when I was climbing trees for those stupid nuts."

"What?" Katara was so surprised she lost control of the water she was bending to clean out the bowls. It fell to the ground in a muddy mess, and she had to bend some more from a nearby stream. "Why didn't you say anything? We could buy food, supplies—"

"We already bought food the other day, and now we're out, and half our money is gone." He dug the point of his boomerang in the soft soil, as if stabbing something invisible. "We have weeks until we get to the North Pole."

"So what do we do?"

"I… I don't know."

He was looking into the campfire now and resolutely not meeting her gaze. There weren't many times when Katara couldn't read his mood — sometimes it felt she knew him better than anyone. But now, she couldn't. Zuko looked confused, and worried. But there was something else, something she couldn't put her finger on.

"We have to try," she said, "Maybe if we buy something I can spread out into a few meals, like rice…. That can't be expensive."

He nodded once, although she got the distinct feeling that he wasn't listening to her. Soon afterwards, he excused himself to sleep.


OoOoOoO

 


 

It was the same old nightmare. The same malicious smile, the same laughing amber eyes.

"Who are you?!" Zuko demanded, clutching the blanket in his dream so hard he thought it would surely burst into flames. "What do you want from me?!"

The girl smiled at him; and her face smile so full of evil intent that Zuko felt himself recoil in horror. He backed away, but he was small and helpless and there was no where to run. No… no… she was lying… she was lying

He jerked violently out of his doze, sitting up in his sleeping bag, gasping. Everything around him was quiet and dark and cool; a stark contrast to his dream filled with hues of red fabric and warm scented air.

Zuko passed a hand over his sweaty face, trying to get control over himself.

The moon overhead had only moved a finger-length in the sky. He had barely just lain down, yet everything in the camp was quiet. Katara was curled up nearby. Aang had laid himself on the other side of the campfire, forgoing blankets or mattress; he slept right on the ground.

Sokka was still curled up with Appa, using the flying bison as a giant furry pillow. His soft snores rolled over the entire campsite, so familiar to Zuko that he could hardly remember a night in his life without hearing them.

Yet there had been a time, hadn't there? A time he couldn't remember. When he was a different person with different feelings and different values… When he had been Fire Nation.

Not anymore, he thought fiercely, shoving back the nightmare. There were more immediate worries right now other than the type of person he had been when he was eight years old.

His stomach felt so empty it was starting to hurt. Zuko pressed his hand to it, trying to tell himself that he had eaten only a few hours ago, and that he and Katara would probably go to the market in the morning. He could make it until then.

But his metabolism burned brightly. Not only was he growing, he was a growing firebender, and his body needed more than a half cup's worth of watery-stew.

Zuko forced himself to lie back down, lacing his fingers behind his head. But growing worries nagged at his mind, keeping him from sleep. Their Water Tribe money wasn't going as far as it should in the Earth Kingdom. It was almost as if the merchants saw the foreign coins and suddenly everything tripled in price. They could easily spend the last of their money tomorrow in an expensive marketplace for just a day or two's worth of food. And then what?

Zuko looked up to the sky, to the moon. He had been taught, like all Water Tribe children, that the moon often brought luck. Tonight, it was nearly full.

The idea struck him again, just as forcefully as the hunger pangs in his stomach. Earlier at the campfire, he had cast away the thought as foolishness. But it stuck with him, and still hungry with everyone else asleep, he thought of it again: He could go into the town by himself. It wouldn't hurt to look around…

Zuko shook his head, scowling at his own thoughts. He was going have to be honest with himself. He wasn't just planning on a midnight stroll through town. He was thinking about stealing. Like a thief. Like a shameless Fire Nation piece of scum—

No, came a sudden, very clear thought. Fire Nation men don't steal. They bully. They murder, and burn… but they don't steal. That would be something below their honor.

And strangely enough, that made him feel a little better about the whole thing.

He didn't ever remember making the conscious decision. He just acted. He rose quietly out of his sleeping bag, pulled on his boots, and with one last look at the campsite behind him, he slipped away.

Zuko's earlier expedition with Aang taught him how easy it was to get turned around in this thick forest of trees. Now it was dark, and a hazy night's mist was creeping through the gaps between the trunks and thickening in open patches. Some of his father's advice came back. What worked in the thin artic forests should be good enough here.

So with every count of a hundred paces he took out an old whale-tooth which had the point filed to the sharpness of a dagger, and scoured a line in a tree trunk. The new scar set in the bark glowed white under the moon, and he was sure he could use that trail to find his way back.

At every moment Zuko was alert for the noises of animals creeping through the trees — or of people. But the only sounds were the soft rush of wind through the branches of the trees, and the twitter of night-bugs. Once or twice he heard a slight crash, but it was always so far off in the distance and probably made by such little feet that he only paused for a moment before continuing on. Mostly it was quiet; almost oppressively so. As if the entire forest were holding its breath.

The edge of town wasn't far off, and soon he had crossed the threshold into the village and was walking past a row of neat-ordered houses with prim square yards. Even though the windows had their shutters pulled for the night, he felt strangely visible; a boy walking alone with a blue tunic that seemed to almost shine in the moonlight.

One of the house's occupants had left their laundry to hang overnight. Zuko looked down at his pale arms. He didn't need a mirror to know that his features were all too recognizable. They were on the run after all, and the less trail that Prince Iroh needed, the better…

He still felt horribly guilty for stealing the clothes, but the black hooded shirt and dark pants were much better at covering his pale skin. And after hiding his parka and recognizable Water Tribe clothing behind a secluded tree, he was able to blend into the darkness and move quickly forward; a furtive figure in the shadows.

Zuko didn't know what to expect of this town. He had only been in a couple of them so far, and that counted Kyoshi Island. Still, if the forest was almost unnaturally quiet so was this village. It was as if the entire population were asleep, or off somewhere else. All doors were closed, all the merchant stalls were shut up and locked up. Feeling a little desperate, he tried prying one open to see if there was anything stealable inside, but it was locked up too tightly.

Eventually, realizing that there was no one around to see him, he melted out of the shadows and just walked down the streets — his soft seal-skin boots echoed on empty flag-stone paths.

Sokka's earlier words came back to him full force, and he found himself agreeing: This place was weird. How could both the forest and the town be… empty?

He sighed, leaning against a building and crossing his arms over his chest, glancing up at the moon as if for guidance.

And there it was. He didn't know how he could have missed it before. It was an estate which was set up on the top of the slight rise of a hill, and glinted in grandeur in the milky light of the full moon. Zuko stepped forward to have a better look. The cobbled road he was following twisted upwards, past a double-set of arched gates and to what had to be tended gardens.

Everything else about this night had been a failure. He stood, hovering half-in and half-out of a moon shadow thrown by a building, unsure. He could go back. If he left now, no one would even know he was gone.

He hesitated, just for a moment longer, before stepping forward. There was every chance that the estate had gardens. Maybe a few fruit trees. It would be safer to pick from there than random bushes in the wild forest. A victimless crime… he liked those.

Zuko took the long way around, cutting through some empty back alleys and a couple of yards instead of using the wide path – if these people were as rich as they looked, they might have guards. He crept around, picking a low point on the stone wall, and scaling it as quick as a shadow; stone was so much easier to climb than a face of a slick glacier.

He landed in a crouch on top of a thick mat of tended grass. He took a quick look around, and cursed low under his breath. There weren't any fruit trees in sight. The estate grounds were well cared for, with drooping willows and a stream running under a small footbridge. A few large boulders were set here and there – most likely in the positions that would most bring the family luck and good fortunes.

Just as he was about to turn back, he caught the scent of something — something sweet and baked, hanging thick in the still night air. His stomach reacted, pinching inward so painfully empty that he curled forward, putting a hand to it.

Once the spasm had passed, he crept forward, feeling painfully exposed under the moonlight and out of the shadows. Zuko couldn't shake the feeling, somehow, he was being watched. But that was stupid… there was no one around. No guards. No animals… no movement in the bushes. He reached the building and there, on a low windowsill, were two berry pies set out to cool for the night.

He reached in his pocket and withdrew a sack, but those pies were going to be a mess by the time he made it back to the camp. The room beyond was dark, and he could just make out the outlines of low set tables. A kitchen? There could be something else, more food, further within. If he was careful, if he was quiet…

Emboldened by his new success, he shifted the pies to the side and put a foot in. The family hadn't even drawn down paper shades for the night — no doubt trying to encourage a night breeze. Within a few moments, he was inside.

He had lived in Water Tribe tents, and no doubt he had been in a Fire Nation home, but none of this was familiar to him. He was in a kitchen of some sort, because of the neat stacks of plates and bowls. They had been ordered neatly to each side, sitting on what looked like marble countertops. Zuko ran his hand curiously over the stone, feeling how finely it had been polished.

These people are very rich, he thought as he reached up to peek inside a cabinet; more bright plates and glasses. Surely they won't miss a bag of rice or two…

Suddenly the ground itself seemed to shift under him. Zuko fell to the side, cracking his ribs painfully on the stone counter-top before hitting the ground. He was up in a flash, turning, running for the safety of the window. A slab of stone erupted out of nowhere, blocking his path. He skidded to a stop.

Before he could turn, before he could think about unholstering his boomerang and trying to defend himself, the slab broke in three neat pieces, and hurled in his direction as if by an invisible hand. They hit him hard, in fierce succession, knocking him back into the far wall, and instantly his arms were encased in stone.

He cursed, trying to wiggle free. With his arms encased and locked to the wall, he couldn't bring up any fire.

A laugh — small, as if coming from a child's throat — came from one side of the room. Zuko zeroed in on it, but there was no movement in the shadows.

"Well, well, look what I've caught. Not many burglars get past the guards out front. You must be really sneaky." A pause. "Or really thick-headed."

The kitchen was dark; his attacker hadn't brought up any lights. "Let me go!" Zuko snapped, to the darkened room. "I wasn't going to take anything!" Which was a lie, and a bad one. The mysterious earthbender must have known as well because the stone tightened painfully, making him gasp, "I…I was just looking around!"

The young voice — and how old was this kid anyway? — seemed to almost smirk in the dark. "Oh well if you were just looking around… I guess you can go." And instantly the rock crumbled way to sink back into the floor. Zuko stood, unsure for a moment, but not wanting to let this chance slip by. But he only got a few steps before he tripped on an unseen rock. He fell painfully, but forced himself to rise again. Another step and the ground seemed to sink in and he found himself up to his waist trapped in the floor.

"Just kidding." The voice sing-songed. "You know, I've always wanted my own pet. What do you think I should name you?"

Zuko's scrabbling fingers found a chunk of rock. He growled, hurling it in the direction of the voice. Bad idea. The rock came right back at him at twice the speed, hitting him painfully in the shoulder. He yelped, and the voice laughed.

"Good idea, blockhead. Throw rocks at the earthbender. That will do you some good."

A dozen horrible scenario's flashed through Zuko's mind; Katara, waiting for him to show up again back at camp… Himself, locked in a jail-cell. Sokka, still injured and wincing in pain, having to come and plead for them to let him out. They would be so ashamed at him for stealing. For getting caught and delaying their trip to the North Pole. He was so stupid…

"Let me go!"

"No."

He snarled, scrabbling about, trying to grab something, anything to get him out of this hole. The earthbender laughed again, but then it cut off suddenly; sharply. There was a slight movement in the shadows as the young earthbender twisted around, and a muffled a low gasp. "She's coming!"

Abruptly the tight rock encasing his legs loosened and he popped out of the ground like a cork to land sharply on his hands and knees. There was a soft crumble of stone, as every marble tile and crack and fissure reordered itself.

"Hide!" the young voice whispered.

Zuko didn't need to be told twice. He got to his feet, aiming for the safety of the window. But his legs felt prickly and bloodless from being trapped so tightly in stone. He could only manage a rough limp, and now he could clearly hear footsteps coming from down the darkened hall. A woman's voice called out, "Toph?"

He wouldn't be able to make it in time. Thinking fast, he dove underneath one of the tables…

… which happened to be the earthbender's chosen hiding place.

She was just a girl, he realized, with an unpleasant shock. Tiny. Maybe Aang's age, and dressed in a peasant's outfit of tan and green. She looked just as out of place in this fancy household as he did. What was more, she looked to be just as unhappy to share the hiding spot as he was to find her there.

Her nose wrinkled in the semi-darkness. "What are you doing?! Not here! Don't hide here—" But it was too late.

The footsteps stopped, and the woman called out again, uncertainly in the dark, "Toph, was that you, sweetie? Are you out of bed?"

The girl, Toph, held silent; tensed with both hands flat against the floor as if to get support, biting her lower lip. Zuko forced himself to take deep, even breaths, looking again towards the slight arc of light that meant the window, and freedom, and wondering if his legs were uncramped enough to make the sprint. It was risky. If this girl's mother was an earthbender too, there would be no hope at all once he was sighted.

Toph dug a sharp elbow into his ribs, hissing, "Quiet down! I can't hear a thing over your heartbeat!"

"…What?"

But the woman was moving away from their table and towards the back of the wide kitchen. She was half obscured by darkness, but he could see her opening up a cabinet as if searching for something. Then there was a sharp snap of two struck spark-rocks, and immediately the kitchen was illuminated by the soft light of a candle.

And suddenly their not-much-of-a-hiding-place wasn't one at all.

The woman was turning, candle in hand, and Zuko only had a second to act. He reached out, gesturing to the small flame. It flickered to strength — just for a moment — increasing in heat in a flash and melting the wax underneath. A few droplets fell down, stinging the woman's hand. She gave a surprised cry, and the candle slipped from her finger to land, once again darkened, on the floor.

A hand, tiny but with the strength of steel bands, enclosed around Zuko's elbow and he found himself being dragged from under the table. The window was the other direction, but so was the woman, and at that moment he didn't think he could shake the girl's grip anyway.

They sprinted down the hall; her bare feet and his seal-hide boots making almost no sound at all. Abruptly the girl stopped and pulled him to the side with enough force to almost yank his arm out of its socket. They ducked into a room and she repeated her order. "Hide!"

She jumped into what could only be a large bed, and threw the covers up to her chin. Zuko hesitated and sunk behind a large wooden chest, rubbing his legs to get feeling back into them and feeling tender bruises forming up and down his back, his torso… everywhere.

They waited for the space of ten long breaths. Then the door creaked open. The woman stuck her head in, candle again in hand. From Zuko's place he could see how the candle threw soft light on Toph's face. She had her eyes shut, her face relaxed in fake blissful slumber. He heard the woman give a soft sigh of relief, and then the door closed again.

It was silent in the room.

Zuko counted to thirty in his head and peeked over the chest, checking to make sure it was all clear. The girl had sat up, and thrown the covers back.

"How did you do that?" she demanded. "With the candle? What did you do to make her drop it?"

"I—" A strange feeling of shame he couldn't quite place rushed through his veins. He hesitated, shaking his head.

But the girl didn't seem to notice it, for whatever reason. She continued staring at him. "Well?"

"It doesn't matter. I need to get out of here." He looked around the room properly for the first time. It was strange… spare of most furniture, even though he had seen that Toph's family could afford it. There were rolled bamboo paintings on the walls, but they were stuck here and there at odd angles — some even facing the wrong direction. As if the person plastering them had no idea how they should look.

He rose to his feet, noticing how Toph was staring at him. Her eyes were just a touch too wide, and were an odd clouded shade. When he stepped to the side in careful experimentation, her head turned towards him, but not completely. She couldn't see him.

"You're… blind, aren't you?"

"So?" The response was immediate and forceful. Toph scrambled from the bed and faced him, as solid and unflinching as one of the boulders set in the outside gardens. "I can still whip your butt."

It hit him then; had been beaten by a blind twelve-year-old girl. Zuko's last bit of ego felt crushed into nothingness. He groaned, resisting the urge to pinch the aching spot between his eyes. "Just point me out of here. I'll promise I'll never come back." Which was the truth.

But Toph shook her head, and an evil little grin came up over her face. "Look, you might have just saved me from being caught by my mom, but you were still trying to rob my house." Her arms crossed over her chest. "Even if I didn't feel like crushing your bones to powder, all it would take is one scream." She held up a finger to emphasize the point. "And ten guards run in here, and you never get to see daylight again."

The girl didn't know how powerful those last few words were for him, or maybe she did because her shark-like smile only increased when he shuddered.

Zuko clenched his fists. "I wasn't trying to steal anything valuable! I'm not a thief. I'm— my brother's hurt. There's nothing to eat in the forest, and I just thought — Look, you're rich and I'm sure you don't eat half of what you have. I wasn't going to steal anything really important. Just some food."

There was no reason for her to believe him. No reason at all, except for the fact he was telling the truth. He waited for several long agonizing moments; for her to scream, for her to encase him in stone and use him as her own personal punching bag.

But she blinked and cocked her head to the side. Then to his surprise she snapped her fingers — as if gesturing to an obedient dog-cat. "Follow me, Sparky."

"Sparky?" Zuko wondered, but did as he was told.

Toph stopped in front of a wall and with one quick, strong gesture, the stone slid up to reveal a door large enough for a twelve year old girl. Toph motioned for him to follow, and when Zuko did he found himself outside in the courtyard again.

It was hard not to be impressed. The little girl bended like it was nothing, like moving the earth around was part of an every day thing. Where he and Katara had to work painfully at each Kata, Toph simply worked her element like a seasoned card player at a table.

What was more, she seemed to know how he felt. Her hair dark hair covered her useless eyes, but her grin was white and wide in the darkness. "It's okay, you can say it. I'm the greatest earthbender in the world. You'e seen nothing yet."

Zuko glanced down at her. He wasn't exactly willing to go that far. "Maybe you're good, but I've never seen an earthbender before."

"Where have you lived all your life? Under a rock?"

"The South Pole."

She turned to face him, her sightless eyes level at his chest. "Oh, you're Water Tribe. So that's why you're so wishy-washy." Then she punched him hard in the shoulder.

"Ow!" he yelped, "What was that for?"

"Hmm… Delicate, too." Toph started walking, obviously meaning for Zuko to follow. He did, grudgingly, rubbing his sore arm.

"I'm not wishy-washy," he muttered, rebelliously under his breath. How did this girl know where she was going? He kept expecting her to stumble or trip, but as he watched she expertly went around a large upraised rock, just as if she saw it.

"So what happened to your brother? You're kinda a long way from the South Pole." The question came from nowhere. Zuko hesitated, before settling on a vague version of the truth.

"He got hurt fighting firebenders. We're traveling up north."

"Just you and your brother?"

Zuko hesitated again, and then somehow stumbled over a little dip in the path that appeared right before his feet. He looked up, glaring at the back of Toph's head. He didn't like this line of questioning, this interrogation. "And my sister and our friend."

Toph's next question surprised him. She turned, sightless eyes regarding him. "Alone? No parents around?"

He swallowed, thinking of his dad. "No."

"You're so lucky." This was said in a long sigh, and she turned back around again and continued on her path. "I'm not even supposed to go out into the gardens without an escort. My mom and dad think I'm this tiny, helpless little girl."

"They don't know you're—" A half dozen words ran through his mind: spoiled, brutish, violent… Zuko settled on one, "tough?"

She stopped, and he almost ran into her. "You think I'm tough?" she asked, "Really?"

"Well," he rotated his shoulder, feeling it pop painfully in a couple of places. "Yeah, I guess. You did just take me down pretty fast back there."

"It wasn't like it was hard."

Zuko grit his teeth, but forced himself not to say anything. But the girl seemed to be mollified. She started walking again, and now there was a definite spring to her step.

"I'm the reigning Earth Rumble Champion, you know."

"Earth Rumble?"

"I get to beat up on these tough muscled guys, and show them who's really boss. It's great. They call me the Blind Bandit, and I got this belt." Toph reached down, tracing her stubby fingers on a wide heavy belt he hadn't noticed before. And something in the way she said it, her graceless boasting, suddenly struck home again to Zuko how young this girl really was. And how… strangely lonely. Somehow, Zuko got the feeling that Toph hadn't told anyone about this before. Except to him… a near stranger.

"That's what I was doing tonight," Toph continued, heedless of Zuko's silence. Or maybe she just didn't care. "I was just coming home when you decided to show up. You're just lucky I'm tired from all my fighting." She laced her fingers together, cracking them all at once for emphasis.

Zuko winced.

They were still walking through the garden — it was so much larger than he ever suspected, and he wondered suddenly if Toph had any brothers and sisters. She didn't say anything more, and no more rocks jutted or unexpected dips cut though Zuko's path. Finally when they reached the other side of a low bridge, she held up her hand, signaling him to stop.

Again he got that feeling that she was looking at him, even though she clearly wasn't. "Stay here." And once again his boots and ankles were encased in stone.

"Hey!" he yelped, throwing out his arms, teetering in place.

She chuckled, and turned to leave. Zuko felt a bolt of panic. "No, wait… wait! Where are you going?"

"Shut it, Sparky. I'll be right back."

Toph either shared Aang's very bad sense of time, or the minutes crawled by slowly as Zuko waited there, alone in the middle of the estate's garden; completely visible under the bright moonlight. Finally, finally there was the sound of soft padded feet upon grass and Toph came back; something big and bulky slung over her shoulder.

"Here," she said, shoving the sack over. The contents clinked within.

He stared dumbly at it, not understanding. "What?"

"I guess your stupid sob-story worked. So take it." At once Zuko found his arms filled with a sack of goods, and his feet released from the stone.

"I—" he started, then paused to set down the sack. He bowed low with one fist encased in the other; Water Tribe style. "Thank you."

It was hard to tell in the night air, but he could almost swear the brutish girl blushed. "I guess you're right. We don't need all of it.  Now get out of here, and if I ever see you around again..." She balled a tiny fist and shook it, and that was all the incentive that Zuko needed. With a hasty nod, he grabbed the sack and walked back towards the far garden wall.

If he turned around to look back, he would have seen something almost sad and wistful on Toph's face. He didn't, nor did he ever know that she watched him… as only a blind earthbender could, following his faint flashing vibrations until he was to the edge of town, and safe.


OoOoOoO


Zuko meant to get back to the camp well before anyone realized he had been missing, but neither time nor luck was on his side. Where the town had been empty, suddenly there were people walking the streets even at this late hour. It didn't take much to put two and two together and realize that most were probably at the Earth Rumble or whatever it was, before. He had to step quietly, and keep to the shadows to avoid being seen.

Everything hurt.

Being pelted by stone, encased in tight rock, falling a half dozen times… he felt every inch of his skin was tenderized. The cool early dawn made it worse; stiffening up abused muscles. He paused on the outskirts of town to change back into his normal clothing — the black outfit was too dirty by now to be returned. He figured he might as well keep it — and fish through the pack and eat a slice of soft bread to assuage his hunger. When he started walking again, he couldn't help the slight limp on his right side.

Dawn broke while he was still in the forest following his way back by his marks in the tree trunks. It was bright by the time he stepped into the camp.

"Where have you been?" Katara turned to face him, hands on her hips. Her ringing voice made the slight ache in his head grow and sharpen like a dagger.

"Out." He brushed past her, not really in the mood to explain himself. He swung pack around his shoulder and set it down. "There's food, and supplies."

"Food?" Sokka who was sitting by the fire perked up. His eyes were notably brighter than yesterday, and he scooted over, pawing through the bag over Katara's outraged protests.

"Zuko, you didn't… How can we afford… Did you steal this…?" She bent by the sack, her eyes wide as Sokka brought out loaves of bread, bags of rice, bushels of apples, packets of dehydrated broth, jars of sweet and spicy sauces, corn-potatoes, a smear of butter wrapped in wax paper, and one very smooshed pie.

Aang had a completely different outlook. "Wow, that's a good haul. Did you make a new friend or something?"

Zuko rubbed the bridge of his nose; feeling foolish and proud all at the same time. "No, it was given. Trust me." He held up his hand when Katara started to argue. "I've been out all night. I'm tired. I'm going to sleep. No disturbances."

With that, he limped over and pulled himself up into Appa's saddle, curling up on the shadiest side. He fell asleep, listening to his family; Sokka's exclamations of relief, Aang's cheerful laughter, and Katara's half annoyed murmurs.

And he dreamed of the tiny earthbending girl, alone in her giant house.


OoOoOoO

 


 

Don't worry. This isn't the last we'll hear of Toph. The GAang just has to get some stuff done first. :)

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Notes: This AU Season 1 isn't gong to follow the normal pattern. I'm not going to rewrite every single show, simply because I don't have very good ideas for all of them. Some shows will be out of order, some won't be appearing and some things will be very new.

This is the longest chapter yet. Hope you all enjoy!

 


 

OoOoOoO

"I thought you had changed!"

"I have changed."

~ Katara and Zuko, The Crossroads of Destiny

OoOoOoO


 

 

"The Avatar's methods are… unusual."

That’s an understatement, Katara thought, ducking as a piece of wood hit the roof overhead with a clatter.

It had been a normal day that turned into a strange night. They had been flying northwards, following the path that Sokka had plotted out, and had come to a burned out forest. Upon landing, they had been approached by an elderly man who had asked for the Avatar's help with an angry spirit that had been terrorizing his village.

Now she, Sokka, Zuko and some of the villagers were clustered around the window watching Aang trying to talk sense into a black and white monster twice the size of Appa — whose only concern seemed to be smashing all the remaining buildings down.

The head of the village, a man called Gon, spoke again. "Are you sure that boy knows what he's doing?"

Katara bristled at the perceived slight to her friend. But before she could reply Zuko had turned around and growled, "What do you think?"

…Which wasn't an answer at all, but Gon shrank away from his ferocity and kept his silence.

Sokka, however, wasn't afraid of his younger brother's anger. If anything, he was more agitated than Zuko and kept pacing back and forth, lips pressed in a thin line, unholstering and reholstering his boomerang. "This isn't right. We shouldn't just stay here and cower."

"Aang will know what to do, Sokka." Katara put as much sympathy in her voice as she could muster. 

Now he was fully recovered from his bump on the head, Sokka had been itching to jump into action — maybe to prove himself to his family, maybe just to show himself he was good as new. Now he was gritting his teeth, watching the scene unfold with narrowed eyes. Zuko gave him a bump on the shoulder, which he ignored.

Meanwhile,  Aang was doing everything he could to get the spirit monster's attention. He leapt to the top of a nearby building, calling out, "Excuse me, will you please turn around?" It would have almost been funny if the monster was not literally punching a rapidly crumbling building. Aang's face crinkled in frustration. "I command you to turn around!"

The spirit did, effortlessly swatting the little monk as if he were nothing but a buzzing horsefly. Aang fell bonelessly to the ground.

"That's it!" Sokka snarled. "He needs help!"

"No, wait!" But Zuko's cry fell on deaf ears. Sokka had already sprinted out the door. Zuko started after him, but was held back by Gon, the head of the village.

"You can't go out there. It's not safe!" Gon said.

"Let go of me!" Zuko yelled.

Katara heard the argument as if from very far away. She stood by the window watching Sokka run away from safety of the main hall and out to the open at Aang's side.

Time itself seemed to slow down, even though the horrible moment took less time than the blink of an eye. One second Sokka was helping Aang back up to his feet and speaking too quietly for her to hear, and the next the spirit monster had snatched her brother up.

"Sokka!" Katara wrenched away from the window, throwing off an old villager's hand who tried to hold her back, and ran for the door.

It took only a moment for her to get outside — the space of ten heartbeats, no more — but already the monster's black and white form was lost to the darkness, and Aang was flying after it in hot pursuit.

"Sokka!" Katara yelled again, slowing to a stop. Zuko was only one step behind her. His unscarred eye wide and round in shock while the other glared fixedly ahead.

Sokka was gone.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

… and suddenly he was standing and surrounded on all sides by a great forest of bamboo.

Sokka took a startled step back, only for his shoulders to press into more bamboo. He cast a glance around around, confused. The great shoots were so thickly grown he couldn't see more than a foot in either direction; up and up so high he could barely see the sky — a muted sort of washed out orange peeking through the thinner leaves up top.

"Uh… Hello?" he called out, uncertainly. His voice was muted, swallowed up in the great forest of green. “Um … spirit… monster thingy?"

There wasn't an answer.

Cautiously, he reached out and hooked the point of his boomerang to one of the bamboo shoots and pushed it aside. It bent to his will, the fibers giving a soft sort of crackle. That was good enough for him. Wiggling, cursing Sokka began to force his way inch-by-inch through the thick forest. He didn't know where he was, or how he got here. All he knew was he had to get back to the village, and make sure Aang and the others were okay.

Time seemed to have acquired a strange quality as he threaded his way through the bamboo. One moment he was pushing his way past a thick stalk, and the next he was past it and was picking up his boomerang which had somehow slipped free… then he was turning sideway to slip between two more shoots of bamboo… and he was past that clump and stepping over a stone… 

It was as if time were pausing and slowing, skipping forward in random jumps as if he was leaping from rock to rock across a pond. He could have been traveling for minutes… It could have been days.

A shadow moved to his left. Sokka squinted, using his boomerang to part two shoots. "Hello?"

The form resolved itself; it was unlike the flickering play of shadows from the pale sun. It was real — at least as real as anything else he'd seen so far in this crazy forest. More importantly, it was human shaped.

"Hello?!" Sokka called again, and again received no answer.

Then the shadow paused, turned, and Sokka was seized with an irrational fear and simultaneous hope that whatever it was, it would go away completely. He shoved through the stalks, splintering them out of his way, cursing as he fell. But the shadow stayed put and in another strange skipping, jumping timeframe Sokka had come right up to him: a man dressed in a shabby green tunic.

"Oh," said the man, with a benign smile on his face. "You've come to join us, too."

“Um, yeah. Sure." Sokka looked around, but they were alone in this close bamboo forest. "Where am I? How did I get here?"

The man smiled again even wider this time. His teeth had a gap where an eyetooth should be. "Why, you're dead of course."

There was a beat.

"No, I'm not." Sokka pressed a hand to his chest. He could feel his heart thump just as it had always done, even if it was a little fast. He could feel quite clearly the ridges of his boomerang under his grip, could smell the scent of thick vegetation around him. "Look, I was attacked by—"

"The Hei Bai Spirit. This is the afterlife, young man." The villager turned, green eyes examining the bamboo as though appraising an unusual piece of art. "We all find it strange at first, but you will get used to it soon. We all do." Then he turned away, hands clasped behind his back and admiring the view of endless green.

"I'm not dead." Sokka repeated, louder this time. But the man ignored him.

Finding no more help at all, Sokka grit his teeth and moved away. Within a few moments the figure had retreated into shapeless shadow and then was no longer visible in the darting, pale sunlight.

The man couldn't be right, could he? Sokka took a deep breath for experimentation and held it. Within a few moments his lungs burned for air, and he let it out in a grateful rush. There. That solved it. A dead person didn't need to breathe. Science.

Maybe he was asleep? Sokka pinched himself, and when nothing happened he did it again; harder this time until he yelped in pain. The noise was welcome because it meant he was alive and feeling, but it was swallowed instantly in the suffocating shoots of green.

"I didn't ask for this," he grumbled, shouldering through a thick patch of bamboo. The thin sharp leaves caught and tore at his hands, and he had to pull his sleeves up over his fingers to protect them. "I'm just a guy with a boomerang. I told Aang he would need backup against a giant spirit monster. But did anyone listen? Nooo…."

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Prince Iroh winced as he sank slowly in the hot springwater. Perhaps he had been over-zealous with his heating, but as the water finally came level to his neck, he tilted back his head and gave a long sigh. By Agni, father to them all… he needed this.

His little lemur companion chirped a question from the side of the rock tub and dipped a paw in. Momo drew it back immediately with a shriek of surprise for the warmth. 

Before Iroh could comment, Momo had tipped himself in and started paddling about, sending small splashes up the side of the basin. The lemur could only handle a few moments of the heat, however, and soon crawled out to sit on the lip of the rock and groom himself.

Iroh could feel the warmth sinking into his skin, loosening tight and tense muscles. Agni was high in the sky, and he turned his head to it, opening his senses and feeling the element warm in his spirit as well as in his body.

The aged firebender smiled and closed his eyes. It had been a long journey from the Southern Air Temple, and any leads on the Avatar's location were half-suspect at best; hints won through a combination of bribery and threats to the local population. Iroh disliked working that way. It went against the grain of his personality. Still, needs are a must.

Despite his resolve to relax and let the warmth revitalize his body and mind, he couldn't keep back the shadows of worry. His nephew… and the Avatar had somehow moved beyond his reach. Iroh was in real danger of having both of them slip through his fingers. Every moment, every day, he was aware of the fact that he had to stop the Avatar before he became too strong… and before Prince Zuko did something in his ignorance that would truly betray the nation of his birth.

Time was running out. And Iroh felt both old and alive at the same time. If the fates were different, he would be looking forward to seeing grandchildren, not traipsing through the Earth Kingdom in search of a legend and a lost nephew.

He was also an honest man. Maybe there was something to be said of Fire Lord Azulon's order to search out the Avatar.

"It will give you time to grieve, my son. Some time to find purpose in your life again."

Purpose. That was something Prince Iroh had not felt in some time.

Although his eyes were half-lidded in relaxation, a part of Iroh's mind was always alert, always aware of his surroundings. He had, after all, told his crew to take the rest of the day on leave. He didn't have any backup, any protection.

So when Momo tensed, his ears flicking upright, Iroh was alert at once. 

"Hello?" he called, his voice roughened by the warm steam. He glanced left and right to the silent forest. "Who is there?"

His answer came as a low rumble in the earth. Iroh began to stand, but the stone tub around him cracked into pieces like a broken plate. The water hissed out, and Iroh slipped, falling back. Four spears of earth erupted from around him; the points aimed for his throat.

The bushes moved and several burly men in Earth Kingdom regiment uniforms walked out. Iroh regarded them silently.

"Well, well what do we have here? A Fire Nation soldier all by himself?" sneered one.

Another man had gone to Iroh's clothing where it was draped over the low branch of a tree. Seeing the insignia, he gasped and stepped back as if it would burn him. "This isn't any soldier. Those are royal markings! It's Prince Iroh! The Dragon of the West!"

Iroh narrowed his eyes, but said nothing.

Up in the trees, unseen by the earthbenders, Momo scolded them all soundly. But his little voice was lost to the leaves and the rest of the animal life in the forest.

When the earthbenders took his favorite person, Momo spread his webbed arms and followed.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Katara and Zuko waited at the forest's edge for a sign, any sign of Aang and Sokka. The forest beyond the town was deathly silent. They stood there for hours, peering out for any movement in shadows, a noise, a hope.

But there was nothing.

Katara dozed off sometime after midnight, legs tucked up and chin resting on her knees. Zuko sat beside her, intent on keeping his vigil for his brother and Aang. He ended up dozing off one or twice; startled awake by the sound of a snapping twig, or a half-formed dream of Sokka swaggering up the path with a wide grin on his face. "Oh please, like a stupid spirit-monster could keep me down!" 

The new rising sun cast dawn shadows upon the ruined village. The rays of light lit Zuko's scarred face, and he jerked into consciousness, muzzily shaking his head. Katara was asleep next to him, shivering slightly in the damp grass. He took off his parka and draped over her shoulders.

Presently, they were joined by the old man who had first brought them to the village. Zuko was never good with names, and he was distracted and barely acknowledged him. But the old man didn't seem to expect a greeting. He stood by Zuko, watching with the boy as the sun rose and the night-crickets stilled their chirps.

"Don't worry," said the man, at length. "I have full faith that the Avatar will return soon. Your brother is in good hands." 

Katara stirred at the sound of his voice and the old man bent to give her a sympathetic smile.

Zuko swallowed and looked again to the mouth of the forest, thinking again of Aang's optimism. His bouncy sort of strength. 

A gentle breeze stirred the morning; a dried brown leaf fluttered across the ground, and he knew somehow that the old man was right. He had only known the kid for a few weeks, and he didn't know when, but somewhere along the way he had grown to trust him — he'd grown to think of him as a friend. Aside from maybe himself and his father, there was no one else he trusted more to look after Sokka. 

"Yeah," he said, "I know."

"You two have been out all night. Maybe you should get some rest."

Katara had sat up, letting Zuko's parka fall from her shoulders. With a rueful grin at her own sleepiness, she shook her head, and handed it back. "No, I want to be here for when they get back." 

Her eyes met her brother's and he gave a nod in agreement.

"Breakfast is served in the main hall." The old man stretched a crooked finger in the general direction. "We don't have much… but you're welcome to come eat when you're hungry." He rose, then, leaving them to their lonely vigil.

It was silent between the two for some time. Finally Katara said, "You know, Sokka's going to be so upset when he comes back. He didn't even really believe in spirits. And now—"

“He's been kidnapped by one," Zuko finished. His smile, though, was fleeting. "Do you think…?" he couldn't finish, but the question held still in the air, and he couldn't quite meet her eyes. He didn't doubt Aang as a person, but…

Katara's lips thinned. "Wherever he is, Sokka make that spirit wish it never touched him. Even if it's with his bad jokes. And Aang… Aang will come through."

Behind them, the village was waking. They could hear the faint babble of people, and someone had already set to work trying to nail shut one of the gaping holes in a rooftop. There probably wasn't any point. Unless Aang got back, and soon, the spirit monster would likely destroy what was left of the town that night.

Zuko took one long last look towards the trees. He could see no sign of Aang or Sokka down the forest path. With a sigh, he rose to his feet and extended his hand down to help Katara up. "I guess we'll just have to trust him," he said. "Let's see if we can't give these people a hand cleaning up.”

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

A sudden, warm weight fell on Sokka's right shoulder, like a friendly hand. He yelped and spun around, bringing his boomerang to bear. There was no one behind him, and he drew in a deep, shuddering breath, clutching the hilt of his boomerang like it was a shield.

But now, for the first time, he could see a slight gap in between the bamboo shoots.

He pushed through and found himself in the middle of a small clearing. The ground was covered in a carpet of mossy grass, and filtered sunlight streamed through.

And there, his hair done up in a neat top-knot affixed with a golden pin, was man dressed in Fire Nation armor.

"Who are you?" Sokka demanded, pointing with the sharp tip of his boomerang in what he hoped was a threatening manner. "Where am I?"

The Fire Nation man regarded him for a moment, hands clasped behind his back. He wore the full uniform regalia that Sokka had seen on others, but there was something polished about his appearance. Something vaguely familiar in the set of his light gold eyes, and the small play of a smile across his face. 

"My name is Lu Ten," he said. "And you are in the Spirit World, Sokka."

"The Spirit—wait. Stop." He shook his boomerang at the him. "How do you know my name?"

If the man was threatened by Sokka’s random flailing, he didn't show it. With his hands still clasped loosely behind his back, he walked around the startled boy. "I know many things about you: The time you stole a bottle of rum from the supply caves and used it to get drunk with your brother. Your journey with the Avatar." He paused, and the corner of his mouth turned up. "And how you worry yourself to sleep every night about trying to keep your family safe, and wondering if father would approve of you leaving the South Pole. He would, by the way. I'm sure he would be very proud."

Sokka stared, mouth open, almost speechless. "But h-how… You mean you've been using the Spirit World to spy on me! That is so—so very off limits!"

Lu Ten stopped and stood before him. An eyebrow quirked. "Even for your spirit guide?"

Now, if Sokka felt confused before, he was at least sure this man was lying now. "One: If you were my 'spirit guide' you would know I don't believe in spirit guides. Two: You're Fire Nation. My guide would clearly be a Water Tribe warrior. Three: No… just no." He would have added a fourth, a fifth, and maybe even a sixth reason, but he was counting his fingers out on the hand that held his boomerang, and he didn't want to put it down to continue, so he settled for just glaring.

"All excellent points," said Lu Ten, breezily. Despite the stuffy, crisp uniform he had a relaxed air about him. But behind the slouched posture there was something sharp and intelligent in his light amber eyes. "I had the feeling you wouldn't be very receptive to the idea. Most would welcome wisdom from their spirit guides."

Sokka bristled. "Unless your wisdom is telling me how to get out of this stupid forest, I don't want it hear it." He had enough of this. He had places to go, people to see… less crazy conversations to have. With another pointed glare for the Fire Nation man, he turned to the literal wall of bamboo. Somehow it seemed to have grown thicker in the last five minutes. Sokka stuck an arm in up to his shoulder, trying to wiggle through. "C'mon… stupid bamboo…"

Lu Ten gave a slow nod and sat down on a wide mossy bolder. "Your friend, the Avatar is working on that with his own spiritual guide. You'll go back, Sokka. What I'm more concerned with is what your choices will be once you leave this place."

Sokka's struggles slowed, and he very reluctantly turned back around. "What do you mean?"

"Where you lead, others will follow. The success or failure of your journey is as much on your shoulders, as the Avatar's."

"Why? What's going to happen?"

"Sit with me," said Lu Ten, indicating a soft mossy bolder. Sokka visibly hesitated, and Lu Ten offered an easy smile. "I told you that the Avatar is working on a solution. We have time in the Spirit World. Trust me on this."

"I never trust Fire Nation…" he grumbled, but sat anyway, boomerang still clutched in his hand. Just in case.

The spirit guide was silent for a moment. His eyes were far off and gazing at something that Sokka could not see. Something troubling in the far horizon of the future. "You will be faced with a decision, if my guess is correct," he said, at last. "In one hand, you will have the guaranteed safety of your family." Lu Ten held out one cupped hand, regarding it with half lidded eyes. "And in the other you will have what is right."

Another person would have immediately questioned this. Sokka didn't. He pressed his lips together. His blue eyes narrowed has he sought to make the connections. "So you're saying… I'm going to have to do something that I don't want to do, but I'll have to do it anyway.” When Lu Ten nodded, Sokka asked the next logical question. "Why?"

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that."

"Okay, so when will it happen?"

"I can't tell you that, either."

Sokka slumped. "You have to be the worst Spirit Guide ever. How do I know this isn't some Fire Nation trick?" He ignored Lu Ten's deep chuckle. "Where were you when I got lost for two days when I was five? Or when I nearly drowned when I was nine? Or when I got my butt kicked by those girls AND Prince Iroh?"

"Ah," said Lu Ten. "But you learned from those experiences, correct? And as for Prince Iroh…." For the first time, the spirit guide seemed to hesitate. He almost looked wistful. "There is something else you do need to know."

As he spoke the air shimmered, then grow indistinct. Sokka clutched at his boomerang again, but before he had time to really become frightened, the air changed in volume again, and features and objects popped back into being — only they were different.

Instead of a mossy clearing, he was now at the bank of a muddy little pond. Water reeds choked the edges, and some kind of flowering tree blossomed overhead. Lu Ten got to his feet. "C'mon," he said, with a wink. "I want to show you something. It may help answer some questions."

Wary, but curious, Sokka got up and followed his guide, twisting his head this way and that to take everything in. They walked on a small curving path that roughly followed the bank — it was a well manicured garden, Sokka realized. He could see the edges of the walls through thickly leaved vines.

The path opened and the bank sloped down to a grassy edge. A kid sat at the muddy bank with his back to them — he was young, maybe eight or nine — in Fire Nation clothing. He sat on the very edge, the tips of his shoes in the water, uncaring or unaware how the mud was dirtying his backside.

And he was throwing rough chunks of bread to several squawking turtleducks.

"What—" Sokka started to say, but the sound of crashing in the nearby foliage stopped him short. Two bushes parted, and Sokka recoiled in horror, nearly crashing back into his spirit guide.

It was Prince Iroh.

The man spotted the boy and pushed his ungainly way through, and Sokka wanted to cry out a warning… but his voice stuttered, halted. There was something different about the prince. His hair was darker, his beard streaked with grey. He was slimmer, too, for all that he was having difficulty dragging himself free of the brush.

At last, Iroh dusted himself free of clinging leaves. He didn't seem to notice Sokka and Lu Ten at all. "So this is the place you have chosen to sulk."

The boy at the shore refused to acknowledge him, and Prince Iroh — a younger version of Prince Iroh, Sokka realized — grinned. "Not that I don't blame you. It is lovely place."

“’S’not fair," the boy sniffed, back still turned away. His quick fingers ripped another chunk of bread from the loaf, and he angrily threw it into the water.

The benign smile slid off of Prince Iroh's face. "No," he allowed, "but I assure you the Capital zoo will be open for some time. You will still have your chance to visit it, my nephew."

The boy turned… and Sokka nearly got the shock of his life. He knew that face, although he had never seen it whole and unmarred. It had been so long since he had seen him do up his hair in that stupid Fire Nation style like that.

"Zuko…?" Sokka breathed.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Katara set herself to work, and quickly became a hero among the women. The Hei Bai spirit had destroyed the piping to the water tower a week ago, but it was a simple matter for her to bend a stream of water from the well to some hastily scrabbled together troughs. The women were delighted, and set to work bringing out dirty laundry and praising her so thoroughly that she felt dizzy from blushing.

Zuko was lending a hand repairing the fence of one of the rabbit-chicken coops. One of the men was showing him how to properly mend the wire while the remaining village children scattered about, laughing and trying to recapture the scattered hens.

Despite everything — her worry for Sokka and Aang — it was a pleasant day. The steady sense of industry reminded Katara painfully of home. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine the bite of frosty air… could almost hear the sound of Sokka directing the toddlers, and the women chatting about the latest fish-catch.

"Could we bother you for some more water, dear?"

Katara opened her eyes and met the shy face of one of the village women. Lighter skinned. Green-eyed. So different from one of the women of her tribe, but also the same in many ways. Katara nodded and arched her arms, bringing in a fresh wave of clean water to replace the dirty.

As the two nearest women washed and scrubbed the clothing, they chatted among themselves. "Oh, I'd kill for a little cow-goat milk right now. Settles my stomach in the mornings, it does."

"I don't know how you can stand the stuff. It unsettles mine! But I suppose after the Avatar fixes this business with the spirit we can rebuild and restock."

Katara joined the two women, and at their encouraging smile picked up a tunic and began to scrub. "Did the spirit take your cow-goats?"

"No." The woman to her right gave a sigh. "Some of the men got the bright idea that the spirit was angry. They thought that maybe a sacrifice of some rabbit-chickens might appease its anger. When that didn't work, they slaughtered all the flamingo-goats.” She paused. "These are bad times… bad times. I don't know how we're gonna last the winter even if this spirit doesn't destroy the village, and everyone we love."

"I'm… sorry," Katara murmured.

The woman laid a water-wrinkled hand on her knee. "Nothing to be sorry for, dear. It's our fault… we've brought this on ourselves, somehow, and no atonements or sacrifices of firebenders are gonna change that. I can only hope your friend the Avatar can fix things."

Katara nodded absently, but then stopped. "Wait. What did you say about firebenders?"

The woman hesitated, but her friend spoke up. "After Junji's little girl was taken, and putting the animals to slaughter didn't appease the spirit, we didn't know what else to do. Maybe the spirit was angry because something we did. Maybe we weren't doing enough. I dunno. No one does." She paused, laying the shirt she was scrubbing out to dry before selecting another from the pile and wetting it in water. Katara didn't speak up. She felt frozen, horrified, because she had the feeling she knew what was going to be said next. "They found a couple of them firebenders out doing whatever evil they were up too, and brought 'em back. Then—"

"Ekta," snapped the other woman. "That's enough of that business now." But she wasn't looking towards her friend. She was looking at Katara, at her wide blue eyes and suddenly grey-tinged skin. The woman nodded slowly, as if she saw the horror in her mind. "Don't worry yourself about it, dear. This is war, and the spirit wasn't appeased anyway. I don't think that the men will need to do any more of that nastiness now that your friend the Avatar is here to help."

"They… killed the firebenders?” Katara didn't need to see the slow nods of their heads to get her answer. It took every fiber of control that she had to not twist her head back and check on Zuko.

She made herself count to thirty before carefully glancing back at her brother.

Zuko was still working mending the wire along the rabbit-chicken coop. He was talking to one of the men as they took turns holding and then securing the poles for the new fence. Katara was too far away to hear the conversation. As she watched one of the men clapped Zuko on the shoulder.

Was that one of the men who had killed the firebenders? What would they do if the found out that Zuko…

She stood up, abruptly, and the water in the washing basin sloshed all around her. "I… I'm going to see what my brother's up too," she stammered, in the face of their confused expressions. With a jerky bow, she excused herself and half walked, half ran over to Zuko's side.

"We should check on Appa," she said, grabbing his arm, her fingernails digging into his flesh. He looked down at her, startled, and she begged him with her eyes not to ask. Not yet. "We left him alone all night, and… and he must miss Aang so much..."

Zuko stared at her like she had gone insane, but to his credit he didn't say anything. He straightened up and glanced toward the man in charge, but the villager only waved him away with a grin and a thanks. They were nearly finished anyway.

Appa did make for a sorry sight, standing alone at the edge of the village. The great giant bison made a show of snuffling over the two teens, as if to make sure that they were still there and that they weren't going to be abandoning him either. Katara patted his nose and dug around in one of Aang's packs until she came up with a stiff bison-brush to work some of the knots out of Appa's thick fur.

Zuko stood to the side, arms crossed, waiting for an explanation. But Katara glanced around before she spoke, making sure none of the villagers were near by to hear. "You didn't tell any of them you can bend fire, did you?"

"No. Why would I?"

Katara let out a breath she didn't realize she had been holding. "A couple of the women told me that the men killed a couple of firebenders the other day. They… they thought it would appease the angry spirit."

Zuko's good eye went wide and then narrow again. "What?" It came out as a low hiss and he swung his head around, looking back at the village; the people he just helped, and who had just fed himself and Katara a nice breakfast. His face was averted, but she could see him recoiling in horror, and at the same time… trying to push it away. They had been Fire Nation after all, and it was war.

"Zuko."

His head snapped back towards her, and for a moment she looked at his uneven face. She hardly noticed the scar anymore. But now he looked at her with two different eyes; one her brother, and the other narrowed and glinting.

Her hand clenched in Appa's thick fur, and the bison turned his head, his sweet alfalfa-scented breath washing over her. It brought her back to the present, and she realized he was waiting for her to speak. "I know what you're thinking, and I promise we'll do something about this, but not right now. I want you to be safe. As soon as Aang comes back—"

"No." His voice was quiet, nearly a whisper, and he looked down at the ground. "No, it's… okay."

"It's not okay! They can't go around killing people because they're afraid."

"They were Fire Nation, Katara."

His words hit her like a blow. She stood there, rooted to the ground in shock. But only for a moment, because she felt her ire rising. She had expected to be forcefully holding him back. Why didn't he get it? She opened her mouth to snap something, he but stepped forward, hands fisted to his thighs.

"They're just like… like Prince Iroh. He almost killed you, and he'd capture Aang in a heartbeat if he could. Don't feel any pity for them, Katara. They're monsters. All of them."

The last few words were nearly spat out, and his unburned cheek was flushed with emotion… and Katara didn't know whether she wanted to slap some sense into him, or hug him.

"Those villagers didn't kill the firebenders in battle," she said, "They murdered them."

"You saw what the Fire Nation did to the forest. If they somehow captured some firebenders nearby, they were probably about to do the same thing to rest of the land."

"You don't know that."

"Oh yeah? Maybe they were trying to reenact it like the battle of Han Tui." Impassioned in his speech as he was, he hardly seemed to be understanding what he was saying. "Just wait until a drought comes along and burn it all to the ground!" Zuko slashed his hand for emphasis, a small wisp of smoke rising in the wake.

Katara stared at him. "The battle of… what?"

"What?" Her confusion gave him a pause. "I just— you never heard about that?"

"No." She stepped forward, tentative. "Zuko are you… remembering something?"

His light gold eyes flicked rapidly back and forth. After a long moment he shook his head. "It was one of the great battles of Fire Lord Sozin. He was advancing the army, but they were met by earthbenders dispatched from Ba Sing Se. They were outnumbered, driven into a forest. And then…" He closed his eyes. "The siege lasted a month, and there was a drought so Sozin… ordered a fire started in the thickest part of the forest. It grew into an inferno. Even most of the firebenders even couldn't escape, and all the earthbenders were doomed… Five thousand benders died. Sozin came back a hero." He gave a strange sort of shiver and turned away, pressing the sleeve of his tunic to his mouth. He looked like he was going to be ill.

Katara didn't know what to say, but when she reached out to touch his shoulder her hand wasn't shrugged off. "That's a horrible thing to remember," she said, pushing back her own sharp disappointment. Like all of Zuko's memories of the Fire Nation this was purely factual. Not even a memory at all, but a figment of history probably gleaned in a history lesson.

He swallowed and then gave a long sigh. She removed her hand. "Yeah, it is. But it gives me an idea." He straightened up and turned around. "I'm tired of waiting around. Let's take Appa out to the burned out part of the forest. Maybe we missed something."

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

The sun was rising, and filtering through the treetops in little dappled patches. Prince Iroh sat very still, focusing on his breathing — inward when they were walking through a shaft of sunlight, outward when they were again in shadow. He sipped the sunlight in like a man about to cross the desert and drinking as much as he could ahead of time to steady him.

He had remained silent in his captivity, and aside from a few thrown comments, his captors hadn't addressed him. They had given him little spare clothing, nothing more than a loincloth to cover his nudity. 

They mean to humiliate me, no doubt, Iroh thought. I’ll be paraded through Earth Kingdom towns on his way to… wherever they were taking me. The defeated Fire Nation royal.

Iroh was not defeated. Not yet. He was patient.

And he had a lotus tile up his sleeve.

Not literally, of course. But the prince's amber eyes had caught what the Earth soldiers had missed — flashes of white and brown, high up in the treetops. Momo had followed them throughout the night. He was an intelligent creature. Perhaps he would know to help when the time was right.

Iroh broke his silence the first time in hours. "Where are you taking me?" he asked, pitching his voice to a quaver. Let them think him ashamed of his nudity. Let them think he was old and broken.

He was sat up against the back of a solider, sharing a saddle pad, and he felt the man's back tense against his shoulder. 

It was the sergeant up front who answered. "To face justice."

The ever-present fire within Iroh's flared, and he couldn't quite keep the snap out of his voice. "Yes," he said. "But where, specifically?"

Although he could only see the back of the sergeant's head, somehow he knew he was smirking. The man halted his ostrich-horse and whipped it around. Sure enough, one corner of his mouth was curved. "Take a guess. You laid siege on it for six-hundred days."

Something cold bit at Iroh's spirit, effectively quenching the fire. It was not hard to look down, to pretend to be ashamed. "The great city of Ba Sing Se."

"Apparently too great for you," the sergeant sneered. "You threw everything you could at it, and it did not fall."

Iroh closed his eyes. "Yes."

Satisfied that his prisoner was old, and quelled, the sergeant turned his ostrich-horse back. They continued the journey in silence. 

Behind Iroh's eyes, memories were passing… of those he loved, and those he lost.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

"Zuko! Down there! It's Aang!"

Zuko turned to his sister's shout and followed her gaze. There, along the edge of the forest was a circle of stones hidden in the ash. Everything was pallid and grey, which made Aang's orange and yellow clothing stick out all the easier. 

He grinned and with a sharp, "Yip-yip," to Appa, tugged the reigns to the side and angled the bison in.

Appa landed as softly as a ten ton flying bison possibly could, stirring up a cloud of soft ash that drifted lazily into the sky, staining the air brownish grey. They were surrounded by a forest of blackened dead husks of trees, charred by a fire that had been no accident. The rocks Zuko had noted from above were covered in soot, burned remains of what used to be a great alter.

And in the middle of it sat a statue of a bear, and on its head, serenely meditating, was Aang.

Zuko felt a flare of anger. He jumped down off Appa's head, landing in the soft ash and strode up to the statue. "We've been worried sick about you, and you've been here meditating?! Where's Sokka?"

Katara had come up behind him, her neck craning up to look at her friend. Aang hadn't reacted at all. It was hard to tell from below, but she could see one of his hands… and the strange glow that came from his skin. 

"His arrows," she hissed, catching her brother's arm.

Zuko had been gearing himself up to climb up there himself, but at her warning he stepped to the side and got a better angle. There was no doubt about it. Aang's arrows were glowing, just as he had seen them do when he was in the Avatar state. 

"But there's nothing going on," Zuko blurted, looking around at the dead — yet windless landscape. "He's not even using his Avatar power."

An idea struck Katara and she gasped. "The Avatar is the bridge between the Spirit World! Maybe he's contacting the spirits!"

"He can do that?"

To this, Katara could only shrug. Both siblings looked up at their friend again, at a loss for what to do.

Finally, after a moment of scratching the back of his head in thought, Zuko came to a decision. "I'm getting him down from there."

"Zuko," she snapped. "We can't disturb him! What if he's doing something important?"

He ignored her and leapt, catching one of the bear’s stone paws before hauling himself up. "The sun will be down in a couple of hours. I'm not leaving him here to be eaten by that spirit monster or to be picked up by a Fire Nation patrol."

Zuko was naturally agile, and quickly found hand and footholds in the curves of the statue. But nearly to the top, he realized he would have no way of getting Aang down without crashing them both to the ground and possibly breaking the little monk's neck. Aang had somehow perfectly balanced himself up at the top, and would have almost looked asleep if not for the distinctly glowing tattoos. Zuko sighed and jumped down again, landing in a crouch, and ignoring Katara's superior look.

"We will just have to guard his body," his sister said. "I'm sure whatever Aang is doing, it's important. We'll wait here and make sure he's safe until he comes back."

Zuko glanced up again, to Aang's serene blankness. The little monk's tattoos were glowing like a beacon in the dead, burned forest. Katara was right; it was like there was no life left in his body at all. He was just a shell, waiting patiently for the spark that was Aang to come back to his own body. He was helpless like this. 

Zuko found himself nodding, agreeing. They would stay, and wait for him to come back.

A soft breeze tickled at his unburned cheek and he looked towards the remaining forest — a band of green off in the distance. 

Sokka, where are you?

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Sokka felt like he was falling, although the world around him was quite solid, if not completely real. That was Zuko… Zuko before Sokka even knew him. He stepped back, shaking his head. But this— no, but that meant that Iroh… and so Zuko truly was…

"Prince Zuko," Lu Ten confirmed, a quiet voice of reason from behind him. It was as if he was reading Sokka's thoughts. In actuality, he probably was.

The younger version of his brother had turned back to the pond. "I'm older than she is!" Zuko snapped, wiping suspiciously watering eyes on the edge of his sleeve. "Father told me that if I get high enough marks, I could go… and I've been trying! I practiced so much, and she didn't at all…" he trailed off, angry, his bottom lip trembling. And it hit Sokka then like a slap in the face he Zuko wasn't talking about his father, but obviously some other father… some Fire Nation father. "But of course she gets everything perfect." At these last words Zuko ripped the remaining loaf in two, and tossed both pieces as far out as they could go. The turtleducks swarmed the blobs, quacking and squawking in greed while Zuko looked on, scowling.

Somehow his glare didn't look half as menacing without his scars.

"What happened to him?" asked Sokka, as Prince Iroh joined his nephew at the shore. “How did he get burned? Who tried to cut his throat?”

"I don't know."

Sokka turned, planning on calling Lu Ten out on a lie. He was a spirit guide, or whatever. How could he not know? But for the first time, there was a look of sadness on the firebender's face. Lu Ten shook his head. "I'm not his spirit guide, Sokka. I'm yours. "

"There now…" And the younger version of Prince Iroh walked over, putting a hand on Zuko's shoulder. A lot in the same way that Sokka would, when Zuko would get in one of his moods. "So she will see the zoo before you, but what if by the time she came back you knew a firebending trick that she didn't?"

That got the boy's attention. He tore his gaze from the pond and looked up at his uncle, interested. "Like what?"

Prince Iroh grinned. "It's my specialty. The reason why I am called the Dragon of the West. I learned it so I won't freeze to death when we conquer the Water Tribes —"

Sokka made a noise of outrage in the back of his throat.

"— it's called the breath of fire."

Sokka had seen enough. He rounded on his spirit guide. "Look, this is a really cute family moment, but this was a long time ago. Okay, so… fine, Zuko was a prince or whatever. Fine. But he is part of our tribe now… He doesn't even like the Fire Nation!"

"Destiny is a funny thing, Sokka," said Lu Ten. "Yours, the Avatar's, Katara's, Zuko's, Iroh's… none of them are set in stone."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Lu Ten did not design to answer, but the slight smile was back. He seemed to be amused by Sokka's reaction, as if pleased by watching someone struggle to find the truth when it was right there all along, right in front of his face.

Back on the shore, Iroh was still talking softly to Zuko, telling him how to steadily breathe deep from within his stomach. Both man and boy were completely oblivious to the harsh conversation not ten feet away. 

It’s like, Sokka thought, me and Lu Ten are ghosts. Or maybe Iroh and Zuko are the ghosts. Ghosts of the past. 

As he watched, a small flame peeked out from between Zuko's teeth. The boy who would later on become Sokka's brother gasped and grinned. "I did it, Uncle!"

Sokka had seen him use that move a hundred times. It was the very move, apparently, that had saved Sokka’s own life that time he almost drowned. The day that Zuko discovered he could firebend. Now, as he watched Iroh congratulate the boy and then slyly suggest they go back to the palace for tea and cookies, he felt a bit of sadness.

Zuko didn't remember this.

And Prince Iroh in this time he would never guess that he would eventually try hunt down the boy he was cheering up.

Sokka turned again to Lu Ten. He felt calmer now. His anger had been replaced by melancholy that tugged at his heart, and weighed him down. "He's not just some old man who likes spoiling his nephew." It felt weird to be saying that word in conjunction with Zuko and Iroh. It felt wrong. "What am I supposed to do? Invite Iroh in for tea and cookies? Katara can provide the water and he'll provide the fire?" He mimed a quick punch, like a fire blast, and winced. "Iroh's trying to capture Aang. And he'll probably kill us for getting in his way."

"Perhaps," said Lu Ten. Although he didn't seem to be concerned about the prospect.

"Zuko doesn't even remember him like this! He's—" Sokka bit off the last words angrily. He was going to say was Zuko better off. Better off? Scarred and not even remembering anything before he was nine? "His family sound like jerks, anyway." Except for Prince Iroh, this one time.

And suddenly, Sokka realized that he had been missing the point all along. He had been focusing on his brother — and why not? It was weird to see him so… Fire Nationy. But what if that wasn't what Lu Ten meant to show him?

Sokka turned, looking at Lu Ten with one eyebrow cocked. "Why did you really show me this?"

"I have my reasons, and I think you know what they are… even if you don't want to acknowledge it just yet." His spirit guide grinned, and hesitated. His light amber eyes grew unfocused. "But now our time is drawing short. The Avatar has returned to the physical world, and its time you left as well. The exit is that way."

He gestured and Sokka turned to see the thick bamboo forest again, and a gap between the stalks where he had never noticed it before. 

Suddenly Sokka was out of the lush Fire Nation garden completely and back, surrounded by a curtain of green.

Lu Ten was nowhere to be found.

Sokka hesitated. "What do you mean?" His voice muffled against the bamboo, and there wasn't an answer. Only oppressive silence. 

Turning again, Sokka eyed gap between the stalks — only a shaft of white light could be seen. Steeling himself, he stepped forward.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

The Earth Kingdom soldiers had led their mounts up a steep rocky pass. The sun was sinking down along the other side of the horizon, and Iroh was worried. He had spotted Momo out in the open several times — the lemur had no trees or shrubs to hide in. He was following at a distance, but if the soldiers saw… if they realized he was being followed…

Iroh intended to give it a few more hours. He was not being poorly treated, and there was every chance that his crew would find the trail and mount a rescue. He planned to break himself out by Agni's first light on the next dawn. But out ahead was more and more desolate wasteland. They were leaving the forest, and entering into a wide expanse of rocky shale; perfect for the earthbenders.

A flash of blue caught his eye — a voice on the wind. Iroh turned, but saw nothing… nothing until he glanced up. He didn't see more blue — he saw white instead.

From down on the ground, the bison could easily be mistaken for a cloud in the sky, but for the fact that Iroh had spent the last few weeks thinking of that shape. He gave an involuntary gasp. The Avatar!

Hearing him, the sergeant up front pulled his ostrich-horse short. "Is something wrong?"

"No!... No…" Iroh cleared his throat, as if amending a cough. Suddenly his limbs found new life in them, and he knew that if the Avatar and his nephew were close by, he could suffer this foolishness no longer. It was time to act. "Actually, there is something wrong. My restraints are too loose."

"Too loose?" the sergeant barked.

Iroh was more than a match for the man. He met his suspicious glare with a small, watery smile. "Yes, you see the chains are jangling and it bumps my wrists." He raised his voice slightly, a querulous old man.

The sergeant sighed and made a curt gesture to his second in command. "Corporal, tighten the prisoners restraints."

"Yes sir."

Iroh helpfully held out his hands. The corporal grabbed for his keys which were latched onto a ring, and held them up. A moment before they touched, Iroh breathed out.

It wasn't his breath of fire — his intention wasn't to melt the man's face off. He directed a superheated jet of steam to his own maniacals, and with one smooth movement, pinned the corporal's hand to the thick cuff. The man screamed and wrenched away.

Iroh jumped down, sending a blast of fire with his chained feet to the ostrich-horses. The creatures whinnied and reared back.

Iroh hit the ground with a grunt. Maybe if he thought help was coming — maybe if he was just trying to buy himself some time, he would have attempted to roll to safety down the hill, and escape later into the trees. The grim reality was that Iroh was all alone. He rolled back up to his feet, standing his ground.

The ostrich-horses were whinnying in terror, but the captain kneed his beast brutally forward, heedless how the fire singed its feathers. Iroh stood his ground, waiting carefully for the right moment —

And when it came it was not at all what he suspected.

Out of the air was another flash of white. The captain screamed — more out of surprise than actual pain. Momo had knocked his wide brimmed helmet away, and was on top of his head, pulling at his hair and screeching wildly.

Iroh darted forward. The still hot metal shackles didn't burn him, and gave way to some plasticity. He snatched the key ring from the man's belt and shoved it in the lock. One twist later and his hands were free. He knocked the shrieking captain aside and took his place on the ostrich-horse — sitting awkwardly on the side because his feet were still chained.

"Ha!" He slapped the beasts rump with one hot hand and then were off, and running to safety. Iroh had his feet unchained in a few moments, and he ducked low on the saddle. The captain, he hoped, was the sort of man to reserve the best fit beast for his own personal transport. He had a good chance of escape.

A familiar warm weight settled on his shoulder, and Iroh reached up to scratch Momo's ears. The lemur purred.

Only later, once he was sure of his escape, would he glance up to the sky and take a good heading of the sky bison's path… where it was going, and where it came from.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Zuko was not patient. He could not sit still. He paced back and forth in front of the statue of the bear; acorns and cold remains of charcoal snapped underfoot, his seal-hide boots were soon coated with a fine layer of ash.

Katara watched his seething with compassionate eyes, but said nothing. She knew how he hated to wait, and now the sun was sinking to the horizon. It would be dusk soon.

The Spirit would be coming.

A chill wind passed over the wasteland, although the boy and girl did not feel it. A voice was on the breeze, although it was silent to their ears; a scream of terror. "Slow down! We're gonna crash!"

And then Aang's arrows faded of light, and he woke up.

Katara was on her feet in an instant, coming over and throwing her arms around him the moment his feet touched the ashy ground. "Aang! You're back!"

"Where's Sokka?" Zuko came to his other side, his voice insistent. "Is he all right?"

Aang's narrow shoulders slumped. "I don't know." And Zuko would have snapped at him, but for the dejected look that came over his face. He reigned his anger in, barely, and glanced over to the western mountains. The village.

"We'll find him." His voice was a low growl.

Aang too, looked to the west. His storm grey eyes widened. "The Spirit! It's going to attack the village again. I have to stop it! C'mon!" He leapt to Appa's head. Katara and Zuko were right behind him.

Pressed on by Aang's urgency, the bison flew low and swift, cutting right over the trees. But they were not alone. Katara saw it first, and her gasp of surprise alerted the two boys. Even in winter, the crowns of the pines were thick, and they could only see flashes of the ground below; and a black and white body. Racing, just as they were racing to the village.

Aang snapped the reigns, but Appa could go no faster and bison and Spirit came to their destination at the same moment; when the last of the sunlight had drained over the mountains.

The black and white spirit gave a roar — high and wild — something not belonging to this world. It raised a fist, bringing it down on the first building that it saw as Appa came about, landing in front of the village hall.

"Get inside!" Aang ordered, gripping his airstaff. "I've got to find out a way to stop him."

"No!" Zuko's eyes glinted with an inner fire. He turned, not caring if the villagers saw him, and pulled from candles lit from within the great hall. Within a few moments, he held a bright stream of fire in between his hands like a short chain. "We're taking this thing down together."

"I don't want anyone else to get hurt!" Aang turned to Katara, hoping she would provide some tempering influence on the firebender, but her normally soft face was set in a hard look of determination and her own water was fisted between her hands.

He should have known. They were going to get their brother back, no matter what.

"We're not leaving you." Katara said. "We're not going to let you fight this thing alone!"

"But I don't want to fight him!" His protests fell on deaf ears, and it was too late anyway because the angry spirit had grown bored of pounding on the roof of the house. It turned without turning; one moment facing east and the other moment moving straight forward.

Seeing the three children, it charged, roaring so loud that the fluid in Aang's ears shook. Katara and Zuko were behind them, elements crackling. He didn't want them there… he couldn't stand to see them taken, but Aang felt their strength, and it steadied his own. 

For one moment — a split second between thought and action — he wondered if this was part of what it was like to be in the Water Tribe. To never stand alone, and defend always as a group.

The spirit was rushing toward them, and Aang leapt. He meant to flip himself over the Spirit, turn and distract it from the others so they could encircle — his hand reached down to touch the wedge-shaped forehead, just for a moment so he could get leverage to flip.

But in that moment he saw something underneath. Something bear-shaped. Something kind.

The Spirit stopped. So did Aang. He floated back down to the ground; no longer afraid, but looking at the spirit in wonder.

"You're the Hei Bai Spirit," he said, in wonder. "You're the Spirit of the forest, aren't you?"

The creature didn't speak. It didn't attack, either. Behind Aang, Zuko and Katara exchanged a quick look, but didn't lower their elements.

Aang, though, was smiling. "You're upset and angry because your home was burned down… I know, because I felt the same way. Then I found this." He dug around in his pocket and brought out a fat acorn, the same one Katara had handed him a few days before. It had germinated in the warm safety of his pocket, the top split and a poke of green was erupting from the top; the start of a new shoot, of a new tree. Aang held it out for the spirit to see.

"It's going to grow back, Hei Bai. The villagers here love the forest. It's their home, too. It will take time, but it's all going to come back."

The Spirit reached out with fingers each as long as the monk's torso. It plucked the acorn with surprising delicacy out of his hands, and studied it for a moment. Then, wordlessly, it turned, shrinking down to size. A bear once more — a panda. It plodded off back past the ruins and houses.

As it sank into the forest, shoots of bamboo sprung up behind it. A forest as thick as the trees. 

It was silent for a moment, but then the bamboo shivered — there were shadowed shapes moving forward and abruptly people were stumbling out, looking around in wonder.

Sokka was with them.

Katara gave a glad cry and rushed forward, capturing her startled brother in a hug. Sokka rocked back for a moment, looking wholly dazed, and asked, "What happened?"

"Aang gave an acorn to the monster.” Zuko grinned and punched Sokka on the shoulder in manly greeting. "Welcome back."

"You were in the spirit world for over twenty-four hours!" his sister exclaimed, finally stepping back and giving him some room to breathe. "How do you feel?"

Sokka hesitated. He didn't look worse for wear, although Sokka's blue, slightly unfocused, eyes lingered on Zuko for just a moment or two. "I feel like I have to use the bathroom. Really bad." And before either sibling could comment, he staggered off with a pained expression on his face.

Zuko turned, watching his retreat, and snorted. "At least he's back."

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

Sokka did have to use the facilities, even if it wasn't quite as bad as he made it out to be. He just needed a moment to think, to breathe. He stayed in the outhouse for a bit, swallowing down bile, staring at one of the cracks in the rough wooden door.

He felt a strange mix of sickness, guilt and rebellion churning his gut.

"In one hand you will have the guaranteed safety of your family," Lu Ten had said, and the words echoed around and around in his head like a bad song. "And in the other, you will have what is right."

And when he saw Zuko, once again scarred, ignorant of everything… Prince Zuko…

Sokka took in a deep breath, and then let it out very slowly. This kind of stuff wasn't for him. He didn't believe in most of the mystical, and he outright resented being told that someday he would be forced to make a decision between his family and doing the right thing. 

He was Sokka, son of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribes. He made his own fate.

He opened the door, forcing his walk from a stilted, tense gait to something almost a swagger. He had just escaped the Spirit World, right? He put a cocky, half-smile on his face and by the time he reached his siblings and Aang, he could almost believe that everything was all right.

Katara was still fawning over Aang as Sokka strode up. "I'm so proud of you, Aang." Her eyes were sparkling blue, gazing down at the little monk in a mixture of awe and almost motherly pride. 

From behind her, Zuko caught Sokka's gaze and rolled his eyes.

It was a small thing, but the familiar gesture made Sokka's heart lighten a little, and when he grinned back it was real.

Aang grinned, his cheeks alight with a blush even in the rapidly fading light. "Actually, I did have a little help. I need to speak to Roku."

"Roku?" Zuko asked. "Wasn't he the Avatar before you?" At Aang's nod he said, "But… he's dead, right?"

"Yeah, and I think I found a way to contact his spirit."

Katara grinned. "That's great!"

"Creepy, but great," Sokka drawled, but it was only to hide his own confusion. After all, he had spoken to Lu Ten pretty easily, and all he had to do was get scooped up by an angry forest spirit. Aang was the Avatar, and probably more adept at those…. sort of things. "So are you going to call the forest spirit back or something?"

Aang shook his head and bit hit lip. "No, I have to go to a temple on a crescent shaped island on the solstice."

All the Water Tribe siblings shared a look. Katara was the one who spoke. "Aang, the solstice is tomorrow."

"Yeah, and there's one more problem." Aang paused and took a breath. "The island is in the Fire Nation."

Katara, Zuko and Sokka drew back, identical looks of shock and horror on their faces.

 

 


 

OoOoOoO


 

 

 

Gon, the head man of the village, fell asleep with a smile of satisfaction on his face. He had not been willing to admit to himself until now how close to despair he truly had been. After his wife, Yan Me was taken by the Hei Bai spirit, he had lost all hope… but now, truly, they had been blessed by the Avatar. Now they could rebuild.

A sharp knock on his door woke him out of the most restful sleep he had in over a month. Rubbing his eyes, yawning widely, he staggered to the entrance. There was a sound — almost like a high pitched scream outside, but it barely registered. It was the middle of the night. Why would someone—

And he opened up the door, and stared into a nightmare.

An older man stood there dressed in Fire Nation armor. Gon threw his hands over his face, instinctively to shield himself, but the aged General simply smiled. "I understand the Avatar was here. Where is he?" The voice was mild, but underneath it was pure steel.

Gon shook his head, but not out of denial… out of fear. "I… I— He's gone. You're too late!"

"Sir!"

Both the General and Gon turned to see a red-armored officer come up. Something was folded neatly under the crook of his arm, and Gon felt a new wash of terror. He recognized those clothes, and that empty helmet. His greatest shame.

"We found this in one of the houses," said the firebender. "The tags say they belong to two infantrymen, Zang Li and Huzun."

Prince Iroh turned to Gon, his amber eyes glinting.

 

OoOoOoO

 

Next up: Field trip to the Crescent Island.

Chapter Text

 

Art by the fab GreenAppleFreak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

"Until then, enjoy these gifts. For Zuko, a pearl dagger from the general who surrendered when we broke through the outer wall. Note the inscription and the superior craftsmanship."

~ Ursa, Zuko Alone

 

 

They flew through the night, using one of Aang's old star-maps for a directional guide. Crescent Island was half a world away and they only had a day to get there.

Zuko woke up at the first light of dawn as was his habit. He struggled from sleep, his limbs were stiff with cold and his face raw from windburn — a consequence of a night spent in the air. Pulling his shaggy hair out of his face and tying it back in a wolfstail, he walked over Appa's wide white and brown back to join Aang, who was dozing on the bison's head.

They must have crossed the last of the Earth Kingdom sometime during the night. Below them, in every visible direction was ocean — flat and blue with little peaked caps of cresting waves. It went on and on… it would be hours before they saw land again.

 So far to go, and maybe not enough time to get there.

Aang was curled over on himself, napping on the top of Appa's head, and Zuko carefully unwound the reigns from his limp fingers. 

"You should go back and get some rest," he said, when Aang stirred. "I can take over for awhile."

The young monk shook his heavy head, yawning widely and struggled to sit up. "No… I'll be fine." He glanced back towards Appa's saddle, to Sokka and Katara who were visible as blue lumps still in their sleeping bags. "You guys shouldn't have come."

"What are you talking about?" Zuko favored him with a glare. "Of course we should."

"But if any of you get hurt I'd never be able to forgive myself." Aang looked down, twisting his fingers in Appa's thick fur, biting his lower lip.

Zuko sighed. "Let us worry about that, okay? You're our friend. We aren't just going to let you take off to the Fire Nation alone. Besides," he added, after a moment, "it's good luck to take a firebender to the Fire Nation… I think."

Aang blinked, before he realized that this was Zuko's brand of humor. He didn't often joke. It made Aang smile anyway. "Right," he chirped, digging a playful elbow into the older boy's ribs.

But despite his bravado, Aang was tired. After awhile, he lay down again, stretching out on his stomach and looking at the vast endless sea below them. There seemed to be more questions crowding his mind than waves below. How far did they have to go? What did the other Avatar have to say that was so important? Would he be angry for Aang being frozen and gone for a hundred years? Would he be able to teach him how to be the Avatar, as Monk Gyatso had said? Aang leaned down to stroke the spot between Appa's eyes, lost in thought.

Appa gave a soft groan.

"Do you think he'll make it?" Zuko asked.

"Appa? Sure he will. He's strong, aren't you boy?"

Appa groaned again.

Aang lay there on his belly for some time, thinking of the crazy dragon ride that had brought him to Roku's Temple in the first place, and worrying.

He might have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew, Zuko was speaking in a low murmured undertone, "Feels weird to be awake during the solstice."

"Why?" Aang turned his head, and the other boy looked at him a bit startled. Apparently he had just been talking to himself.

"Nothing." And Zuko pointedly glanced away. But when Aang remained silent and just watched him expectantly, he finally gave in with a sigh. "Firebenders rise with the sun, right? Well, in the South Pole it gets dark during the winter months… it's hard." Something in the way he said this made it seem a lot like an understatement. Still, Aang didn't interrupt and Zuko continued after his pause. "But here it is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, which is the worst day at home, because the sun is tilted so far away, and now I just feel… fine. I wouldn't even known it was the solstice at all unless all this craziness hadn't happened."

Aang sat up next to him, crossing his legs and looking thoughtful. "I never heard of a bender needing their element like that before, but I grew up in an Air Temple. You can't get away from air." It would be strange to be a firebender, Aang thought, but luckily did not say it out loud.

Zuko snorted. "It's how I know I'm Water Tribe. Other firebenders might die without the sun for months. I didn't." Then, it was almost as if he had been reading Aang's mind because he then asked, "Roku was born a firebender, wasn't he?"

Aang nodded. "Yeah, so maybe he will know what to do about the Fire Nation… and about this war. I don't."

The admission took Zuko by surprise, although he was careful not to react. If Aang had been having doubts about being the Avatar before, he had only shared them with Katara and not either one of the boys. Frankly, now that it was out, Zuko didn't know what to say other than, "We'll get you there in time."

"I hope."

"We will," he said in a self-assured sort of way that brooked no argument.

"I don't think that Roku is going to be happy with me for being gone for so long."

"Probably."

Aang frowned at this, but then Zuko spoke again.

"But you are the Avatar now, and you're doing the best you can. You got Sokka back from the Spirit World, and you saved that whole village from Hei Bai." Zuko favored him with a smile. "You have the stuff, Aang. Roku will see that."

Aang nodded again, drawing his knees up to his chest. He felt a little better. Maybe.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

Prince Iroh's joints ached, and he was reminded once again that he was getting too old for this. Too old for capture by Earth Kingdom soldiers, and subsequent escape. Too old for cleaning up messes left over in unfriendly, paranoid towns. He should be sleeping, resting his aching bones.

But while he was old, he also loved Pai Sho.

Ensign Lin was no prodigy, but after six months aboard, Iroh could safely say that the boy was coming along in the game. He had picked up the basics quickly - the rules were simple. But Lin was impatient, and seemed capable of only thinking one or two moves ahead.

The young ensign moved his jasmine tile forward, giving a nervous glance to gauge Iroh's reaction. Perhaps he feared retribution if he ever managed to out-move the Fire Nation royal. 

That didn't concern Iroh… as long as Lin continued to play as he did, the young ensign would never have to fear the taste of victory.

The ensign’s whole strategy was typical. Lin's pieces chased Iroh's across the board, hoping shift the weight of balance to his favor. Meanwhile, it was a simple matter for Iroh to set a trap.

Iroh moved his favored piece – the lotus tile – and snatched one of Lin's air tiles.

"Didn't see that coming, sir,” the ensign said with determined cheerfulness. "I guess I was looking at the other side of the board." And he moved his jasmine tile again, tantalizingly close to one of Iroh’s water tiles; another two moves and he would have it.

Iroh nodded, and moved another piece, and took one of Lin's.

The ensign whistled between his teeth. "Excuse me for askin', sir, but I was just about to move that piece you just took. How'd you—“

It was difficult for Iroh not to smile. "Pai Sho is more than just about capturing tiles. This is a game of strategy. The more aggressively you attack, Ensign Lin, the easier it is for me to turn and strike back—"

He stopped.

A thought, perhaps something that had been nagging at the back of his mind for some time, finally came to the forefront. He bent over, a hand stroking his beard, studying the tiles and the arrangement of the board: The Air tiles in pinwheel formation – the Avatar. The Lotus Tile — his Nephew, and flanking to the right and the left as two water tiles — the two Water Tribe Children.

Iroh sat back, stunned. "I have been a great fool."

"Sir?" Ensign Lin asked.

But the Prince did not answer him. He got up, and with a quick bow, forfeited the game. Then, before the startled ensign could react, he swept off to his room. There was something he needed – another tile to be added to the board.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

Midday found Sokka sitting towards the back of Appa's saddle, staring out to sea with unfocused eyes. His thoughts weren't focused on the present mad dash against all reason to the Fire Nation. Instead his mind was turned to a scene so long ago —although thanks to freaky spirit world magic —relived in startling detail.

Zuko and Prince Iroh had been close. Prince Zuko… A Fire Nation version of his own brother. And Lu Ten's cryptic warnings about choosing between what was right and his family…. What did it all mean?

Normally Sokka would just be wondering if it would be worth it to bug Katara into fixing something to eat. Now his thoughts cast out wide, troubled. Should he sit his younger brother down and tell him everything that he had seen?

Sokka tried planning exactly how he would do it (because he was always a big fan of plans), but each version was a little more crazy than the last. "Hey Zuko," he imagined himself saying, ever so casually. "So you know how I was kidnapped by Hei Bai yesterday? Well I met my Spirit Guide in the bamboo spirit forest, and I wanted to let you know that your old Fire Nation family was a bunch of jerks that made you cry as a kid, except for Iroh who liked to feed you tea and cookies…"

Sokka didn't believe in fate, but it was a large coincidence that, while shaking his head and coming out of his own thoughts, he focused again out to sea and saw a glint of silver along the horizon.

"Fire Nation!"

His shout had every head turned towards him. Katara put down her sewing, and Zuko climbed over Appa's bulk and joined Sokka's side, leaving Aang to keep steering at his head.

"Where?"

Sokka wordlessly pointed the direction, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun reflecting on the water. Already the ship was more than a glint, and had started to take shape. They must have been spotted already from the deck; the ship was gaining. Quickly.

Zuko scowled at the shape. "Can you tell who it is?"

Sokka's eyes were better at long distances. He had only seen this ship once before, but it had invaded his village — he would never forget its sleek lines. His stomach plummeted. "It looks like Prince Iroh's."

"How did he find us?" Katara asked.

The look on Zuko's face was terrible. He shook his head and called back to Aang. "Can we go any faster?"

"Appa's been flying all night!"

"Aang, the Fire Nation isn't exactly going to give him a rest!" Sokka snapped, but most of his sarcasm was lost as Katara cried.

"LOOK OUT!"

Iroh's ship was still far back, but something fast and round was launching upward from it — a boulder dipped in sticky tar and set alight. It arced through the air, aimed straight for Appa. 

The bison groaned and all of the kids felt a sickening drop right in the middle of their stomachs as he stalled in mid-air. The fiery mess missed them by mere feet, a stinky trail of smoke making them all clutch their noses.

"Aang!" Katara called. "We need to get up higher before Iroh throws another hot sticker at us!"

But Aang was hunched forward in determination. He had spotted something. "We have bigger problems than that," he said, pointing ahead.

Something else was on the edge of the opposite horizon; new glints of metal like an ugly string of pearls on the water's surface. 

Appa was speeding towards it, and those glints rapidly took shape: at least twenty battle ships stood between them and Fire Nation waters.

"A blockade," Zuko murmured, into the stunned silence.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

Iroh stood on the bow of the ship, the stiff wind blowing out all the wrinkles of his uniform. He had set the engines to full all through the night. Now the efforts were paying off; the Avatar's bison was within sight.

"Load the catapults," he called. His eyes squinted upwards where the bison's darker belly could just be seen against the blue sky and puffy clouds. Iroh waited patiently, his arms clasped loosely behind his back as the catapult was loaded and its payload lit. "Aim low. I wish to disable the beast, only."

Sensing the excitement, Momo flitted around the ship, perching on railings and chirping questions at Iroh's men. They were too well trained to take any notice of him.

"Fire,” said Iroh.

All necks on the deck craned, watching, and for a moment it seemed the payload would hit… but the beast maneuvered back, and the boulder flew past its nose.

"Reload," said Iroh, calmly. In truth he had not expected the first shot to hit.

This was a firebender's greatest advantage, attacking a fleeing opponent. Metal couldn't fatigue. This ship did not need to rest. Normally it would be a matter of hunting down the quarry until it was exhausted, and coming in for the final attack from there.

But Iroh had studied the maps. He knew it would not be this simple.

"Sir!" Ensign Lin was at the telescope. "There are ships ahead – dozen's of 'em! Fire Nation. Sir, they’re running the flags of the western blockade!“

Quick as a snapping mongoose-dragon, Iroh turned to his Lieutenant who had been standing quietly by. "Who is commanding the blockade?"

"Last reports indicate Commander Zhao, sir."

Iroh's amber eyes narrowed and he turned again to the sea, just as their catapult launched another load up towards the Avatar. He did not need to follow it to see that it would be a miss. And they would not have many more chances before they were within range of being hit by friendly fire.

The Avatar flew straightly forward, towards the blockade. A hundred men – more — under Zhao's command would see him and the bison. After today this would be no longer just Iroh's quest.

Stupid, stupid boy…

"Sir?" his Lieutenant asked, and paused, hesitant.

Iroh felt like turning, felt like snapping at the soft officer. He missed Lieutenant Ji; that man had fire in him, and never held back what he thought.

Under his wide sleeves, Iroh's fingers worried the White Lotus tile, turning it over again and again. The prince closed his eyes, letting his breath out in a low, even rush. When he opened them, his face was once again of calm determination. He knew what he had to do. "Lieutenant Izhar, cut the engines to half-full."

"Aye sir." He turned to yell to the aft, "Engines! Half-full!"

"Load the catapult," Iroh ordered. "But do not fire unless the Avatar turns his course."

There was silence from the deck around him, and although Iroh had not turned he could well imagine the looks his officers were exchanging behind his back. It should have been his Lieutenant who spoke next, but as Iroh had already known, the man was gutless. 

Instead the cheerful and high voice of Ensign Lin was heard. "Sir… we aren't going to just let them take our quarry?"

Again, Iroh's fingers traced over the slight ridges and rises of the  white lotus tile. "No Ensign," he said, at last. "I intend to do no such thing."

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

The tiny image of the air bison glinted in the glass of another telescope several miles away. The hands holding the scope tightened — just for a fraction of a moment, but when it was lowered, Commander Zhao was smiling. 

"This must be my lucky day," he purred. The scope went up again, and a quick glance across to the line of horizon brought another surprise.

Of course.

He had his suspicions. Every officer knew of Prince Iroh's current mission, but no one seriously expected him to succeed. Then again, no one seriously thought the Avatar was more than just a by-gone legend, either.

Zhao lowered the scope again and turned to his waiting men. "Ready the catapults!"

"But sir… there's a ship out there. One of our own! If we fire, we risk striking them.”

The Commander didn't spare a glance back. "Then they will just have to stay out of our way. The Avatar will not cross over Fire Nation borders on my watch."

Zhao was in the command of over two dozen Fire Nation battle cruisers, and his men had quickly learned to follow his orders. Shouts went up from around him, and the signal officers flashed his orders to the others ships by flag. They were ready well before the bison flew into range.

"LAUNCH!" Zhao roared.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

There was nothing they could do. Turning north to avoid the blockade would take time — time they didn't have. Turning back would mean facing Prince Iroh's ship full on. Plowing ahead, running the blockade was the only option left.

Aang glanced back to his friends, and one by one the Water Tribe siblings nodded: Anxious, determined, calculating… they were in mutual agreement. They had come too far to back down now. It was Fire Nation or bust.

Aang turned back, taking the reigns into his hands, hunching his shoulders, a glint of steel determination in his grey eyes. "Appa! Yip-yip!"

The air bison let out a groaning roar and swung his wide tail down. The whistling air around them whipped into a scream, and the vast line of ships far below grew rapidly larger.

There was a movement below, a glint of metal movement between the water and the air — no one was looking back, now. They had not noticed that Prince Iroh's ship had fallen behind. It wouldn't have changed things in the slightest if they had.

Suddenly something bloomed from the ships ahead—dozens of tar-coated flaming boulders—launched through the air. All directly aimed for Appa's soft underbelly.

"Aang!" Katara cried. "Look out!"

But Aang was yanking Appa's reigns, and the beast was in agreement with him. They shifted, speeding skywards, although the flaming boulders were much faster. Children and boulders all reached the high cloudbank at the same, sending the white clouds into a roiling confusion of flying rocks and orange fire. Appa roared again, and Aang let him have his head, trusting the bison's instincts. He twisted,nearly sideways to avoid a close hit—the boulder so near that they all felt the heat from the flame. Then with a sickening dive, another twist, another near miss, it seemed they would make it out alive after all—

Sokka lost his grip.

Later on he would tell a chiding Katara that he was reaching for something important that was about to slide off. The truth was his hands were slick with sweat, and on the sharpest of Appa's twists where he was nearly upside-down, he simply lost his hold.

"SOKKA!" Katara screamed, as her brother slipped over the edge.

"NO!" Zuko reached for him, missed, and watched him disappear under the clouds.

Aang grabbed the reigns back, tugging them down. Appa had already turned, but when they broke through the bottom of the clouds Sokka was a flailing doll-sized figure down, down below.

It was a race to the water's surface, and as Sokka's form grew larger so did the ocean — until blue filled their vision, and it seemed that they would all reach the waves at the same time. Then Zuko reached out, snagged Sokka's wrist in both hands and yanked him back into the wide saddle just as Aang pulled savagely up on the reigns, trying to level them out.

Appa's feet skipped the choppy waves — and then it would have been over for sure — but he regained his balance, and with another strike of his tail they were speeding along the very surface of the water, level with the ships.

The Fire Navy launched again, and only Appa's instincts and timing kept them from getting hit at close range. The boulders sent up magnificent plumes of water into the air — high enough to overtake them all. But Katara rose to her knees, throwing out her hands in a pushing gesture that turned the waves back.

There was a boulder that somehow seemed bigger than all the rest of them combined. Fired from the flag-ship, it was aimed right at Appa's head.

Aang leapt out, airstaff in hand. His form was perfect as he kicked out, one leg straight out ahead of him. A blast of air blew out and hit the boulder dead center. It exploded, the lethal chunks whipped away in an instant to form a donut shaped clearing just large enough for the bison to rocket through.

Now they were sailing past the ships themselves. The soldiers on deck set out blasts of fire, perhaps as a last resort. Most were too far away to do any damage, but Zuko stood up and copied his sister's movements, pushing back what he could in a returning wave of fire and heat. He wasn't strong enough to stop it all, but Appa only got singed a little on one side.

And then they were through.

"We did it!" Aang crowed, pumping a fist into the air. Then he stopped.

Sokka spoke for them all. "We made it to the Fire Nation," he said, a sick expression on his face. "Great…?"

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

Prince Iroh had long ago taken control of the long-seeing spyglass. Usually, it wasn't his style. He much preferred to stand back and let others report to him, but for this… He refused to rely on a second-hand witness to tell him that his nephew, and the Avatar, had made it safely.

He was unaware of the cold burning wind, his white knuckled hands, or the warm weight of the lemur on his shoulder. His entire world seemed to shrink down to that little view through the spyglass. 

When the blue-garbed boy fell from the bison's saddle—Iroh couldn't breathe.

A quick twist of the spyglass and a refocusing of the lense showed it was the Water Tribe boy, not his nephew.

The Avatar caught him anyway.

"Lieutenant Izhar," Iroh said, without taking the scope from his eye. "Increase the engines to full, and run up the royal flag." He paused, peering again, decisions weighing heavily on his mind. "My belongings are packed in my cabin. Please have someone bring them up for me."

"Right away sir."

He sensed, more than saw his Lieutenant bow. But Iroh was not paying him any mind, every atom of his attention was once again focused on the narrow view through the spyglass.

And he only took the next full, proper breath once the Avatar's air bison crossed the last ship of the blockade.

With the engines steaming once again to full power, there was very little delay in reaching the flagship. Zhao's battle cruiser was perhaps a little newer, although not larger, than the ship Iroh had chosen when he set out on his quest nearly three years ago.

A ramp was lain between the two ships, and Iroh casually strolled across to Zhao's deck, Momo still on his shoulder. No less than three ensigns staggered behind him, sweating, with their arms full of his packed belongings.

Commander Zhao ran a tight ship — the deck was clean of debris and sticky tar despite of the fact the crew had been in heated catapult launchings less than twenty minutes ago. The less than modest crew arranged themselves in two neat lines with Zhao in front. They bowed low as Iroh boarded.

Zhao was first to rise to stand at easy attention. “Prince Iroh," he said, and his eyes flicked to the lemur just for the barest of moments before returning back. "It would appear that you were not chasing a legend after all." Yet there was no surprise, no concern at all in his tone. Iroh filed that away for later.

"It is always satisfying to see one's theories pan out,” Iroh agreed, mildly. "I have been pursuing the Avatar since the Earth Kingdom border."

"Then you know where he is headed?"

Iroh rewarded the Commander with a sage look. He had not forgotten for one moment what an ambitious man Zhao was. "My crew is tired," he said, at last. "They have served be very well, but now I will require fresh men and ships with more engine power.” He looked about the deck in satisfaction, pretending not to notice the way Zhao's twitched with controlled anger. Iroh did not wait for the Commander's reply before he issued his first order. After all, he outranked the other man not only in birth.

"Set a course for the Crescent Island, Commander Zhao, and send orders for three ships to flank. The rest will stay behind."

He would not have Zhao's ambition tip the balance over what was already a situation that required… delicate handling.

"Yes… my prince.” Zhao bowed again, stiffly.

Iroh smiled and reached up to scratch Momo's head. "I will be in the cabin. Please come and join me for a cup of jasmine tea before the Avatar is sighted. I have brought some of my finest blends."

And with that, Iroh signaled for the baggage-carrying ensigns to follow him. Momo gave a twitter on his shoulder, perhaps sensing his inner satisfaction.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

The bison flew on.

The great blockade was only a halfway point — miles and miles of endless blue still lay ahead of them. Appa's strength faltered, although as the day wore on and the sun slowly crossed over the horizon he kept slowing, having to be reminded by gentle "Yip-yip's" from Aang to hurry, that time was not on their side.

They were racing against the setting sun, trying to reach the Crescent Island before it set completely. Now the sun burned low in the sky, and the literal eighteen hours of flying had put everyone in a stupor.

"There it is!" Aang's sudden cry roused the Water Tribe siblings.

Zuko blinked, sat up, and crawled to Katara's side to look over the edge of the saddle and his first view of the Fire Nation. 

The moment seemed very much like it had been when he first set eyes on the tiny South Pole village as a child from the deck of Hakoda's ship; it was nothing as he had imagined.

The island stood out blackly in contrast to the surrounding deep blue sea. A volcano on the southern tip leaked glittering red magma which ran a short length into the water, throwing up plumes of hot steam. The land was bare of vegetation. It was stark and ugly.

As Aang directed Appa in for a landing, Zuko caught a faint scent of sulfur in the air. The bison touched ground with a groan of relief, and the kids only had a few moments to scramble down before he rolled over on his side, exhausted.

Katara and Aang set to him immediately, stroking his muzzle and crooning praises to the beast, telling him how wonderful he was; how strong and how brave.

Sokka stretched, and his back popped at least five times. "Nice place," he commented, looking around at the barren landscape of black rock and foaming water.

Zuko snorted. "Yeah, no kidding." His sealhide boots crunched the volcanic stone like glass, and when he bent to pick some of it up, it was unpleasantly sharp to the touch.

This wasn't a place to live.

Unexpectedly, he thought of home; the cold air and frozen landscape. It was winter solstice here, so it would be the summer solstice in the south… and even if he didn't get enough sleep in the summer under the full glare of the midnight sun, there would be celebrating, and the little kids would get summer-day presents. The adults would mark the day to start planning and hunting during the short fall to harvest for the early winter… 

Zuko's throat felt tight and he quickly looked away from his siblings and Aang, coughing politely into his fist— as if that were the problem.

"That's the temple Roku's dragon took me to,” Aang said, helpfully pointing to the only real feature on the island; a tall tower carved of red stone with wicked points on each side. He had told everyone of the whole story of his crazy Spirit World adventure during their long flight. Katara and Zuko had listened with rapt attention — Sokka, strangely silent and withdrawn. No doubt, Zuko thought, because he didn't believe in Spirit World stuff.

In fact, his older brother had his arms crossed over his chest and was shifting from foot-to-foot as if he was bothered by the warm soil. "So, what? Do we just knock on the door?"

"Pretty much," Aang grinned.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

As it turned out, they didn't need to knock. The oversized thick stone doors had been propped open; no doubt to encourage evening sea breezes. They walked in slowly. Both Water Tribe boys flanked Aang and Katara cautiously with their whale bone machete's out and ready.

"Hello?" Aang called, and his voice echoed off of dark marble floors. Torches were lit on either side, and the walls glinted with thinly veined gold. "Anyone home?" After a moment of silence, Aang turned to the others with a shrug. "I guess not."

He had no sooner spoke than shadows fell across the room. The kids whipped around, and there in the doorway as if appearing out of thin air, were five men; robed in red, gaunt and wrinkled.

"We are the Fire Sages that guard this temple," one of the men, the oldest, croaked.

Aang stepped forward, a wide smile on his face and spread his hands in a gesture of peace. "Great! I'm the Avatar."

"We know." With that, the old man struck, aiming a fireblast at the young monk.

Katara cried out, but Aang cycled his air staff, dissipating the fire before it hit. "Run!" he yelled. "I'll hold them off!" And with another blast of air, he swept the sages off their feet.

The siblings ran, ducking into the nearest corridor which led to a long tunnel-like hallway. That hallway led into another one, and then a sharp set of stairs leading up and down.

"Zuko, where do we go?" Katara asked.

"How am I supposed to know?!"

Sokka spotted a likely door and tried the handle. It was unlocked. "In here! Aang, c'mon!" Aang was rounding the nearest corner, using airbending to increase his speed and catch up. At Sokka's call, he slowed and ducked into the room with them.

Zuko shut the door and they listened with baited breath. Footsteps soon echoed down the hallway outside.

"We cannot let the Avatar contact Roku," one said, his voice muffled through the walls. "Who knows how powerful the boy will become?"

"We must split up. Search every hall and corridor."

Then the footfalls faded away.

The kids relaxed, breathing normally for the first time in minutes.

"This isn't right," Aang said, wiping his brow and leaning against a gilded wall. "Sages are supposed to help the Avatar, not hurt me."

Sokka shrugged. "They're Fire Nation. What do you expect?"

"Sokka!" Katara chided, although Zuko gave a nod in his defense. It was foolish to trust Fire Nation.

Aang turned the handle and opened the door just the slightest crack — the well oiled hinges gave no squeak or sound to betray them. They waited several tense moments, listening to the emptiness of the hallway; the sages were searching elsewhere in the temple.

"The sun's setting soon," said Zuko, and no one questioned how he knew. "We have about twenty minutes."

Aang nodded and opened the door the rest of the way. "I think we have to go up this way. Roku's room should be at the top of the temple."

Just ahead of them was a narrow staircase. Sokka gave a shrug and took the lead, machete out and ready. They skittered up the staircase and down another set of red halls. Some led to outside windows, and some to inner doorways. There didn't seem to be another way up.

Then they heard footsteps down the hall.

"Run!" Sokka hissed.

They did, tearing down the corridor and around a sharp bend. Behind them they heard a man's voice call out, "Stop! Wait! I'm not here to harm you!" None of them believed it for a moment. 

The corridor turned again, ending dead against a glass-pained window which overlooked the boiling land and churning sea.

Aang yelped, "Not this way!" 

They turned around to pick another direction, but the path was blocked. A Fire Sage stood in the corridor, hands held out and panting with exertion. "Wait!" he cried again, and the children tensed, but the man dropped to his knees, his forehead nearly scraping the floor. "I know why you're here. I serve you, Avatar."

Aang had been in a spry airbending stance, but at this he drooped almost comically. "You do? But—"

More voices echoed down the hall—the other Fire Sages, calling out to one another and asking if they had seen anything.

The sage in front of him raised his head and got painfully to his feet. "Time is running out. I know you wish to speak to Avatar Roku. I can take you to him."

Aang looked around: at the dead-end hallway, at his friend's quizzical but wary faces. He turned back to the sage. "How?"

In reply the Fire Sage reached over to a lantern and twisted it to the side revealing a small hole in the wall. Taking a deep breath, the sage placed his palm over it and exhaled sharply. A line of fire erupted from his palm and raced around the edges, revealing a door which slid aside.

"This way," the sage said.

Zuko looked at the doorway and then at the other firebender. "How do we know this isn't a trap?"

"We don't trust Fire Nation,” Sokka added stepping forward, shoulder to shoulder with his brother.

Another voice echoed down the hall—the other Fire Sages were getting closer. The man gestured again to the door. "Please, I wish to help you, but I am only one. If the other sages discover us I cannot possibly defend you all."

The young Avatar bit his lower lip, hesitating. Katara stepped forward and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Aang, what do you think?"

His grey eyes darted back and forth between the sage and the plated window. Out on the horizon, the bottom of the sun was nearly touching the water. "We have to trust him."

"Quickly, then!" The sage gestured for them to duck inside. They did — Sokka and Zuko with suspiciously narrowed eyes. 

Once they had passed the sage stepped inside and with another quick blast against the lever, shut the door. It was dark but only for a moment; he lit a kindle of flame in his palm and gestured to the children. 

"My name is Shyu," he said. "Please, follow me."

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

The path behind the paneled wall was flat and even, but each footprint left a mark in the thick layer of dust along the floor. No one had been down there for years. Decades maybe.

Shyu led the way; the flame no longer kindled in his palm. Every two dozen steps or so he shot a small controlled flame from his fingers to a torch up ahead, lighting the way. 

Zuko watched him with a hesitant fascination; he doubted he had enough control to shoot that small and accurate of a flame. It had never occurred to him to try.

There was more; he had never been around another firebender. The exception being his brief unwelcome moments in Prince Iroh's cabin. A hundred questions flitted around in his head, a lifetime of wonderings. Why did he wake up every morning to the rising sun? If he could control fire, how could it be that his face had been burned? Was it true what Iroh had said? Did he treat fire as an element of defense, and was he weak because of it?

The old sage was chatting softly with Aang up front, and Zuko watched him curiously… almost hungrily. But he held himself back. He wasn't shy. Shyu was Fire Nation, for all that he was helping them now. Zuko's lifetime of questions warred with his lifetime of knowledge that Fire Nation was evil and to be feared…

Katara walked by his side, and he caught her glancing at him once or twice. The expression on her face was unreadable, although the way that her shoulder casually brushed against his every time Shyu directed another small flame at a torch told him that she at least understood a little what was going on in his head.

And it was hot in the hidden corridors. The very walls around them seemed to radiate warmth. Soon, the children all had a fine sheen of sweat on their brows.

The Fire Sage's voice drifted back, helped by the cavernous walls. "I never wanted to serve the Fire Lord. We should serve Agni and the balance.” He shook his head as thousand regrets flashed across his face. "When the statue of Roku's eyes began to glow and we knew you had returned to the world, I knew I would have to betray the other sages. It should be our duty to assist the Avatar. It gives me great honor to do so again."

Aang bowed low. "Thank you for helping us."

Shyu smiled, though it disappeared off of the man's face the moment they reached the top of a long winding series of steps. He gasped, "No!" and ran past wide stone columns to a large set of double doors. "The sanctuary doors! They're closed!"

Aang was first to his side. He reached out, touching the double doors and peering at the strange twisting lock. "These look like the air-locks in my Temple. Can't you just open it with firebending?"

"No. Not with myself alone."

There was a stilted pause where Katara dug a sharp elbow in Zuko's side. He glanced at her and with a resigned sigh, stepped forward into the flickering torchlight. "I'm a firebender. I can help."

"You?" The Fire Sage whipped around to stare at what he thought was a Water Tribe boy. He blinked, as if seeing Zuko for the first time — and perhaps he had. All of his attention so far had been focused on the Avatar. "No," he said, after a long moment and gestured again to the door. "Two will not be enough. It takes five firebenders or one fully realized Avatar to open these doors."

"So what do we do?" Aang asked.

Shyu looked at the kids, and then slumped. "The sun is nearly set. I'm… sorry."

"Wait!" Sokka had come to the door too, and was examining the lock, rubbing his chin in thought. "We don't need the door to open. Maybe we just need it to look like it has."

"What are you talking about?" Katara asked, speaking for them all.

Sokka turned to the Fire Sage. "The Sages don't know how powerful Aang really is. Can you throw some fire at the door? The soot will make it look like it's been opened."

"I don't know, Sokka," Aang said, his voice veiled in doubt. "They do know I haven't mastered all the elements yet."

He waved that away with a flippant hand. "Doesn't matter. They'll have to go in to check to see if you're inside. Then," Sokka punched one fist into another and grinned, “Surprise attack from behind!"

There was a moment where Shyu considered it, then glanced at Zuko as if assessing his inner capabilities. But as to what he saw, he didn't say. "That… just might work," he murmured.

Aang, Sokka and Katara hurried out of the way as the two firebenders took their stances. Shyu took a deep breath and punched out, blasting a thick jet of fire into the nearest lock. Zuko took the other side, summoning a flame from the nearest torch before stepping forward with a pushing motion; his flame was thinner, cooler, and left behind more soot.

Shyu raised an eyebrow at the unusual technique, but respect for the Avatar's companion kept him from criticizing it. He only said, "Exhale on your strike. The power from firebending comes from the breath, and you are not breathing nearly enough."

Shyu took another deep breath, raising his hands to his chest for emphasis. Then he let it out in a quick noisy rush as he punched, striking and darkening another hole in the lock.

Zuko nodded once and took a breath — he perhaps overfilled his lungs, but when he let it out and threw his kindled flame at the lock, the flame at least looked stronger.

The Fire Sage nodded and stepped back, indicating the last mawed hole. This time Zuko's flame hit it dead center, his most forceful blast yet.

Sokka walked over to examine the door, wiping a careful finger along the soot. He nodded his approval. "It looks blasted enough. Time to spring our trap."

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

"In here! Quickly!" Shyu's voice echoed throughout the cavernous sanctuary, and the kids sunk behind the great pillars. "The Avatar is inside!"

"Impossible! The boy is just an airbender! How—" The man's voice broke off with a gasp. He was looking at the evidence of the sooty doorway.

"I don't know." Shyu sounded credibly frustrated. "Perhaps someone has been able to teach him. The sun is only moments away from setting."

"He cannot be allowed to contact Roku!" another agreed. "We must open the door!"

The five sages arranged themselves before the doorway. One deep combined deep breath, and five powerful jets of fire hit the lock. With a low groan of metal upon metal and a great settling of decades worth of dust, the door slowly slid aside.

From their hiding place it was impossible for any of the gang to see what was going on, but an angry yell went up from one of the sages told them all they needed to know. "The room is empty! We have been tricked! Shut the door!"

"NOW!" Sokka yelled.

Shyu turned, sweeping a leg under a man to his left and sending him crashing to the floor. Sokka, Katara and Zuko rushed in to help. It was luck, or shock, that allowed them to get to the firebenders, grabbing their arms behind their backs or just pushing them down.

Katara didn't have a firm hold, and her sage was younger and wilier than most. He managed to twist from her grasp and reach for a latch half hidden in a corner.

With an agonized rumble, the door began to slide shut.

"Aang!" Katara cried, "Go! Hurry!"

The young monk needed no more incentive. He shot from his hiding place behind a pillar, and with a blast of air, leapt over the struggling sages. The door was nearly shut, but he was slender and dove right in, landing lightly on his feet. Then he turned and grinned back at his friends. He made it!

Katara was still struggling, holding onto one arm of her sage while the man tried to push her off. Suddenly something white — a flying lemur — dove from above, landing on her head and making her shriek in surprise.

And there, standing behind them all at the mouth of the stairway and flanked by a dozen soldiers was Prince Iroh and Commander Zhao.

Aang's heart contracted within his chest. The doors were closing. He reached out to help, even as the literal platoon of soldiers stepped forward towards his friends. 

He only saw the scene for a spare moment. Then it was gone. The massive doors were shut, sealing him in and his friends, out.

"NO!" He swung around in a semi-circle, throwing a powerful gust of air at the sealed crack between the two doors. It rolled away harmlessly. "No! I don't want to be in here! Let me out!" Roku didn't matter now, his vision didn't matter. His friends were in trouble! "Let me out!"

Aang didn't notice at first the rolling steam along the floor, collecting as thick as his knees. He was panicking, throwing gust after gust at the door, terrified that his friends were going to be hurt…

A slight cough interrupted his tirade.

Aang turned, grey eyes wide. It was as if he was looking at his own reflection – only not. The aged man was tall, with no similar features, but there was something Aang recognized of himself in his bemused expression.

"Welcome Aang," Avatar Roku said. "What took you so long?"

Aang swallowed hard, and then put his hands together in a low bow.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

It wasn't much of a fight at all – the children were overpowered, and at Iroh's command, lashed against one of the great dragon-stone pillars in thick, heavy chains. Zuko twisted, a low fierce growl coming from somewhere deep inside his throat. "It's too late, Iroh! Aang is inside and the sun is setting."

But Iroh had turned away, ignoring him, his real attention back to the sanctuary doors. He made a curt gesture towards the sages, and at Zhao's command they fired a combined blast at the fire locks. The heat was incredible, tightening the skin and making those not gifted with the element of fire look away.

This time, the door remained unmoved.

"It may be that Avatar Roku doesn't want us inside," mused a sage.

Commander Zhao didn't seem concerned. His smile was nothing short of oily. "No matter. Sooner or later, he has to come out."

Katara gave a low moan of fear for her friend; stifling it as soon as she could. 

It was too late. The Commander heard, and turned, assessing his prisoners for the first time. His gaze passed over Katara and Sokka without much interest, locking onto Zuko and his grin only got wider. "Well, well. If it isn't the rouge firebender. I remember you from Kyoshi Island."

Zuko grit his teeth, although he didn't shrink back. He leaned forward tightly against the chains instead; some hidden instinct inside not wanting to let this other firebender know he was afraid. "I remember your men getting driven back by a bunch of girls."

The commander stepped forward, and with a snap of his wrist his right hand lit into flame.

"No!" But Katara could do nothing more than lurch against the chain. If looks could kill, though, Zhao would have been a smoking heap on the floor. "Leave him alone!"

"We do not have time for this, Commander." Iroh's had slipped close by. And, even though Zhao and Zuko were too busy with locked glares to really pay attention, Sokka noticed how the aged prince deftly inserted himself just to the side, ready to strike—and defend.

Finally Zhao broke his gaze with the teen, glancing over, and ground out, "The law is very clear on the penalty for treason, my Prince.”

"His fate is for the Fire Lord to decide." When Zhao didn't move, Iroh's voice became sharper. "Resume your place and wait for the Avatar."

Finally, finally, Zhao stood down. The flame dissipated from his hand and he turned around, snapping to his next Lieutenant to get into formation. "As soon as that door opens, direct all of your firepower to the door!"

Sokka watched his brother glare, narrow eyed, at the Commander, and then at the man who was his uncle, even though Iroh had once again turned away. Zuko didn't say anything more — his jaw was clenched tightly, but Sokka could feel angry heat coming off him in waves.

Katara twitched fretfully at his other side. Her brother was out of danger, but her friend wasn't. "How is Aang going to make it out of this?"

"How are we going to get out of this?" Sokka shot back, wriggling against his chains. It was no good. They were too tight.

Meanwhile, Zuko's light gold eyes were still locked on Zhao's back. "I'll fight them," Zuko snarled. His unburned eye glittered savagely. He seemed almost possessed by the desire to pay back the Commander's insult… he seemed to have forgotten Iroh completely. "I'll fight them all."

Sokka opened his mouth to say something — preferably pithy –– but Katara got there first.

"Zuko, concentrate!" she snapped, and her brother visibly blinked, as if coming back to himself. He shook his head and took a deep breath, and looked towards his sister.

Katara was smaller than the two boys — the chains weren't as tight for her as they were for either of them. "You two lean forward. I might be able to get my arm free…" She shrugged her shoulder upward, moving her right arm inch by inch. The chains were tight and were leaving dark bruises against her tanned skin, but she grit her teeth and worked through it. If she could get one arm free… it would be a start. Maybe there was some water around she could use from a vase or a pitcher or something. Maybe…

It was all cut short a moment later — a flash of bright light illuminated all the cracks in between and around the doorways. A rush of steam billowed out, and the door opened. The light increased — like looking into the white hot core of the sun itself. Katara, Zuko and Sokka winced away, turning their heads from it.

When the light had faded to something less than an eye-searing level and they could look again, the room beyond was dark, save for two glowing eyes.

"NO!" Katara screamed, abandoning her careful escape. There was no time… "Aang! Look out!"

"FIRE!" Zhao's order roared around the room, and at least a dozen soldiers punched forward, releasing their fire at once. Katara wanted to shut her eyes from it, but part of her couldn't believe… it couldn't end like this. It couldn't end like this!

It didn't. The fire didn't hit Aang. It whipped around him again and again in a bright glowing ball — burning away the rest of the steam and revealing —

It wasn't Aang at all.

Everyone in the room had the same moment of dumbstruck horror. The Sages were the first to react, dropping to their knees murmuring, "Avatar Roku..."

The man was tall, noble, and with his head peaked with a twin flame crown. His eyes glowed as Aang's did when he was in the Avatar state, but his skin was a molted grey — they were looking at the very vision of the dead Avatar himself. Yet here he was, as powerful as he had been in life, and very, very angry.

The Avatar swept his hands around in two elegant movements, condensing the fire into a bright ball in between his hands. Then he let it out and the fire swept forward again, knocking the platoon of firebender's back and racing towards the kids. Again, Sokka, Katara and Zuko winced away, but the fire hit only their chains; dissipating them in a moment of intense heat that somehow didn't burn.

"HAH!" Roku took a powerful step forward, chopping his hand down. A great fissure erupted in the floor, and with an uplift of his hand literal magma began to spew out, rolling to each side.

The firebenders were running — Zhao along with them. They were quite willing to blast fire at a half-grown airbending monk, but they had no chance at all against the might of a fully realized Avatar.

Shyu hovered in between escaping and staying with the children. "Avatar Roku is going to destroy this temple! Run!"

"Not without Aang!" Katara yelled.

Zuko stood behind them, and was about to add his own comment when a strong pair of arms grabbed him from behind. Before he could yell out, "Sokka! Help!" a hand slapped against his mouth and he was pulled behind the pillar.

Zuko struck out wildly, turning and catching his attacker across the shoulder. The man — Prince Iroh — grunted with the impact, but took it in favor of shoving him hard against the pillar. Zuko's head snapped; he was dazed, stunned for a precious few moments.

Iroh's face was grim, and it had nothing to do with the Fire Temple literally falling to pieces around him. "You have no need to set yourself against Zhao. He is an officer, but you are a Prince. You could command him at any time."

Zuko grimaced. "What are you going to do, Iroh?" His vision swam in and out of focus - for a moment it seemed there were three aged Prince's above him, instead of one. "Execute the traitor?"

"You are not a traitor, nephew. You are a victim."

Zuko was no one's victim. Nor was he this man's nephew. But before he could say it, Iroh had knelt and pushed something into his palm, curling his fingers around it. Something bound in leather.

Amber eyes caught his own. "This was yours, once. It's time that you had it again."

The very floor beneath them lurched violently to the side. Iroh fell back, and Zuko rolled away. Ignoring the sudden vertigo, the surge of nausea, he stood up to face the other firebender once and for all… but Iroh was already to the main door, sprinting away with his men in full retreat.

Zuko didn't have time to wonder about the thing Iroh had gifted him. Suddenly the outpouring smoke which had been rushing by in a knee high thick mist, literally stalled. Then it reversed course, rushing back to the aged apparition of an Avatar. Roku seemed to collect it back to himself with a grim face. Taking a standing position, he squared his shoulders, pushing the breath back down… and out.

And suddenly Aang was standing there, leaning dangerously to one side.

Sokka and Katara cried out; they were closer and they rushed to catch him before he fell. 

"Where's Shyu?" Aang asked, weakly.

Katara shook her head. "I don't know, but we need to get out of here."

"Stairway's blocked!" Zuko could see the mass of destruction just through the thick smoke. It had collapsed right after Iroh had fled.

"Great!" Sokka snapped. "Anyone else have any good ideas on how to get out?"

As if on cue, a great chunk of floor caved in towards the middle, panels falling into a sudden chasm. The kids backed up nervously, exchanging frightened glances. Suddenly Katara gasped and pointed to the window.

Appa was speeding toward them – heedless of the gouts of lava or falling, erupted rocks. He pulled up neatly to one side of the window, braying out as if telling them to hurry.

They did.

Their feet had hardly touched the saddle before Aang called, "Yip-Yip!" Appa slammed his tail downward and with a rush of wind they took off and made for the safety of the sky.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

Zhao's hands curled inward upon the iron railings. "We have nothing—nothing at all to show for this," he snarled, looking up into the wide empty sky, dark now that the sun had long set in a final blaze of orange glory. He swung around. "Would you care to tell me why you showed leniency to a firebending traitor who is in league with the Avatar?"

His tone was nothing short of insolent, but Prince Iroh paid him no mind. He was busy feeding tidbits to the little lemur. Only when Momo snatched up the last morsel and had curled up again, contented on his favorite place on Iroh's shoulder did the Prince respond. "I assure you, the Fire Lord will be very interested in the boy."

"If we took the chance to eliminate the Water Tribe barbarians—"

Something sharp twisted Iroh's face. He stood up, making the lemur squawk in alarm and despite himself, Zhao stepped back. "The Fire Lord will want the boy alive, Commander Zhao." But then, just as swiftly as the anger had come, it passed again. Iroh folded his hands into his robes and looked out to sea. "You will accompany my ship back to Earth Kingdom waters. Please scribe this order to Admiral Zee; going forward, your ships and infantrymen are being placed under my command."

"B-but, Prince Iroh—”

Iroh's voice rose, overriding his shocked protest. "You will be my first Captain, and will join my hunt for the Avatar. All sightings are to be reported to me, and it is my standing order that the Avatar and the firebender are to be captured alive."

It was both a promotion and a demotion all in the same single stroke. No longer would Zhao be the commanding the power of over two dozen ships… and it was only a lifetime of engrained habit that unclenched Zhao's jaw and reminded him to bow, deeply. "Yes, Prince Iroh."

The aged Prince signaled him to go with an easy wave of his hand. When Zhao turned away to dictate his orders, his eyes were flashing in rage.

 


 

OoOoOoO

 


 

 

The sun had long set and the moon was more than newly risen by the time their excited jitters had calmed down, and the adrenaline exhilaration had faded. It happened very suddenly: Aang looked out across the moonlit ocean, and his face, which had been cheery and laughing, fell.

"Aang?" Katara touched his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"What did Roku say?" Sokka asked, when Aang didn't answer right away.

It looked as if for a moment Aang wouldn't tell them; maybe he would try to keep his pain inward where it couldn't trouble his friends. But Katara was looking at him in her particularly soft way, and try as he might he couldn't avoid her compassionate gaze. "He said there's a comet coming." His voice was hushed, betraying the dread that had somehow settled around his heart. "At the end of summer."

Zuko glanced to dusting of stars above, as if expecting to see something now. "So?"

Aang bit his lip, wincing at something inside. When he spoke, it all came out in a rush. "Roku said that I have to learn all the elements before the comet comes, because once it does it's going to give the firebenders more power than we can even imagine. And… and I haven't even started waterbending yet, and we're still weeks away from the North Pole. But if I don't stop the Fire Lord before the comet comes, the whole world will be thrown out of balance forever, and—“

"Wait. Stop." Katara commanded. She knelt, a hand to each side of Aang's narrow shoulders. "Look at me. Breathe, Aang."

Sokka and Zuko were just as shaken, and Sokka swung towards his younger brother. "What is he talking about? What comet?"

"How am I supposed to know?"

"Don't you have, you know, some kind of mythical connection to that kind of stuff? This thing gives firebenders more power."

Zuko scowled. "Oh yeah, you're right. Why didn't I just remember that?"

"Guys!" Katara snapped, "Cut it out!... He's really hurt."

The two boys broke off to look back at Aang. He had sunk down to his knees, Katara's arms wrapped around him in a hug, his head bowed. "What am I going to do?" Aang asked, and his voice sounded broken. "It took me twelve years to master airbending."

"Technically… one hundred and twelve," said Sokka, and immediately yelped as Zuko's elbow dug into his rib.

Aang sighed, slumping down even further.

"You're not going to have to do this alone." Katara said, with another squeeze to his shoulders. "And, maybe we don't have to wait until we get to the North Pole. I know a little waterbending. Maybe… I could show you?”

"Really?" Aang looked up at her, a glimmer of hope in his eyes.

Zuko took his cue from his sister and came to Aang's other side, kneeling down so he was eye level with his friend. "And I could teach you what I know about firebending. It's not much, but…"

Sokka cut him off. "Still, three out of four elements isn't bad," he added, with a hand up to his chin in thought. "And who cares about Earth? That sounds like a stupid element, anyway." He ignored Zuko's scowl, thinking it was for something else… after all, Sokka had never seen an earthbender at work, while Zuko had. Painfully.

But the comforting words helped. Surrounded by his friends, knowing that he wasn't alone, the weight on Aang's shoulders suddenly didn't feel so heavy. "Thanks guys," he whispered.

It was only later, after the requisite group hug and when Aang was cracking a smile again, that Sokka pointed to Zuko. "Hey, what's that on your belt?"

His hand immediately flew down to his belt, where, in the mad dash for safety he had unthinkingly shoved Iroh's gift. He took it out now, feeling the weight of the other's eyes upon him. "I don't know," he said, honestly. "Prince Iroh gave it to me… he said it was mine, once." He gave an awkward shrug and sat down to examine it.

No one spoke, although Sokka and Katara exchanged glances.

The moon was full, and the sky was cloudless, but it was still hard for Zuko (who's eyes were, of course, adapted to see flame) to make out all the fine details. It was a leather holster for what looked to be a belt knife, rather plain, and not something he would immediately associate with a 'Prince'. He gripped the handle and drew out the blade.

Recognition hit him like a bolt of lightening down his spine. He gasped, jerking back, nearly dropping the knife – only keeping his hold in shock. "This… this is mine.”

"Yeah," said Sokka. "You said that."

"No." And his eyes rose to meet Katara's. "This… I remember this knife. It was on my nightstand, the night the little girl came in. It was right there."

Sokka and Aang just looked confused, but of course Katara remembered. Zuko didn't often speak of his one remaining memory before he joined the Water Tribe. She knelt by him, gently prizing the knife from his slack fingers, examining it herself. She read the inscriptions carefully, "Never give up without a fight," and she glanced up to him again. "You said Iroh had this? What does it mean?"

"I don't know." He stared at the knife in her hands, his mind reeling. "How could Iroh have known that I…" he trailed off, running a shaky hand through his hair. Zuko felt completely undone.

Sokka knelt as well, and if Zuko and Katara's eyes weren't on the knife, they would have seen a strange sort of inner conflict pass over his face. He, of course, knew the truth. But sitting there with them, with his younger brother nearly trembling in shock, and with everything they had just learned about the comet… it wasn't the right time.

"Give it to me," Sokka said, and once he had it he turned it over, examined the other side with expert precision.

"Made in Earth Kingdom." Katara helpfully read, craning her neck to look at the blade in the moonlight. "Well, what does that mean?"

There was only one thing he could say. "Hmm… Maybe it means Zuko was made in the Earth Kingdom." Sokka's eyebrows went up, suggestively.

It took to the count of three for that little nugget of information to register.

Zuko recoiled. "Ugh!"

"Sokka!" Katara chided.

Aang blinked. "What do you mean?"

But the thick tension had been broken. Zuko took his knife back and slid it back into its sheath. For a moment, it looked as though he was going to fling it off the bison's saddle. But then he sighed and affixed it to his belt once more, glaring around afterwards as if daring someone to say something.

No one did.

Sokka smirked, and clapped him on the shoulder. But when he looked away, out towards the sea and back towards the Fire Nation, his expression was serious and closed.

He felt like a coward.

 

Chapter Text

 

OoOoOoO

The Winter Solstice

OoOoOoO

The winter plums were flowering. From her reclined position, Princess Azula watched the light breeze flutter the delicate white flowers, sprinkling the petals down past her open window and to the pathway. Azula had never been outside the hot, tropical zone of the equator. She would have never thought to compare the small drifts of flowers to a frosty dusting of snow.

As it was, she only considered the way the soft white petals would soon brown and wilt on her pristine pathway, and she made a mental note to herself to order her servants to be extra vigilant in their sweeping.

Over the soft babble of water and whispered comments of her servants, she heard footsteps coming from down the hall—marble floors were very good at conducting noise.

She cursed to herself and shut her eyes. Perhaps if she pretended to have dozed off…

The footsteps stopped just to her right side, and the girl could feel the weight of a stare upon her brow. She didn't acknowledge it, instinctively seeking to win this small battle of wills. Predictably, she was not the one who broke first.

"Azula, you know what day it is."

"I'm just getting my hair combed, mother." And her feet scrubbed, but she knew better than to add that.

"Your hair is beautiful as it is. Meet me at the east gate." With that firm order, Ursa walked away.

Azula waited until her mother's footsteps had dimmed down the hall. Once she could no longer hear them, therefore pretending she wasn't going to follow her request at all, the princess sighed and sat up, snapping her fingers. Instantly the servants fell in line, tucking a soft cloth about her neck so that her wet hair didn't dribble on her robe, patting her hair dry and then arranging it up with the royal pin affixed firmly in place.

She deliberately took her time choosing suitable attire — sending back the servants three times before settling on her favorite red and black outfit with light-duty armor. It was comfortable, yet functional. After this nonsense was over with, she would be heading to the courtyard for some firebending practice before dinner. Yes, that would be pleasant.

The national holiday meant that the palace was unusually empty, devoid of the usual courtiers and noblemen crowding the halls and looking to seek royal favor. No doubt they were resting at their own villas, or perhaps the less restrained would be celebrating with the common folk in the streets. The Winter Solstice was the Day of the Dead in the Fire Nation, where the Spirit World and the Physical World were most closely aligned. It was a day of remembrance of those departed.

At one time, Azula remembered enjoying this day–watching with wide young eyes the ruckus fireworks set in all the streets to chase away evil spirits, the delicate floating lotus candles set alight in the fountains, the spice cakes.

Pointless.

Her mother was waiting at the eastern gate. Her hair was in its usual elegant half knot, but up close Azula could see a few strands out of place, just here and there. Probably from the palanquin ride. Azula had applied to Father for permission years ago not to be part of the annual dawn precession through the capital streets. Her mother always kept to the tradition, taking it upon herself to be the lone royal representative.

It was a shame Azula could not forgo this tedious ritual as well.

Ursa didn't speak as she and her daughter made their stately way past the eastern gardens, around the Hall of Ancestors—a large outside pavilion with a golden placard and a sprinkling of ashes for every royal. 

Their destination wasn't too far off now. It was a quiet, gated garden—a place where the cherry trees dipped low, heavy with early blossoms and where sweet ivy clung on the wrought iron gates.

The children's cemetery.

Several aged tombstones poked out of the ground, some so old that the rain and wind of the preceding centuries had reduced them down to shapeless nubs. The most recent with the stone face still bright and new, was lit by an ever lasting oil-fed flame along the top. It was this one by which Ursa knelt. And, after a small roll over her eyes, Azula did as well.

The two didn't speak for a long time. Tears, small and silent, dripped down Ursa's cheeks while Azula looked away. She had always hated seeing her mother's weakness.

The Day of the Dead was a time for prayers and reflection. Azula didn't bother. Growing quickly bored with the silence, her gaze swept from the tombstone to a clump of ivy just to the right. The intervening years had hidden all of the evidence, but Azula knew the spirit-board and lumps of candles were probably still there where she had hidden them, three years ago. In a fit of whimsy brought on by a discovery of the practice in the Dragon Library Catacombs, Azula had dragged her two childhood friends Mai and Ty Lee down to the cemetery to practice a séance and raise the spirit of her dead brother.

Nothing happened, of course. She hadn't expected it to. Her real goal at the time had been to scare Ty Lee, and it worked. The other girl reportedly hadn't been able to sleep alone without one of her many sisters in the same room for weeks afterwards. 

The séance had another unexpected result: To this day it was the only time Azula had ever seen Mai cry.

Azula's right foot was falling asleep, and she shifted ever so slightly to relieve it. She resisted the urge to let out a long sigh. How long must she stay like this?

Perhaps Ursa sensed her frustration. She opened her eyes and when she spoke it was with a false brightness—as if her son could actually hear her. "Sixteen years old, Zuko. Nearly a man." Ursa tried to smile, but her bottom lip trembled. "You would have grown so handsome, I could imagine… it would be driving me mad keeping the girls away."

"Mother," Azula said, hardly able to stand it. "He was hopeless around girls."

Again, Ursa tried a shaky smile. "Just a phase, I think." From her long robes, she pulled out a few trinkets, placing them by the base of the tomb, and brushing away a few dead leaves. They were toys: a small komodo-rhino, a puzzle box and a small flute. Toys that ten-year-old Zuko would have liked, but which would have been inappropriate for a teenager.

Azula didn't bother to point this out. Ursa would probably be returning to this spot every year for the next forty years and still bring the same type of toys—offerings for a lost son who would be forever ten-years-old in her heart.

Her mother brought out two joss sticks, and with two pinches of her fingers, lit them. The incense drifted up in lazy loops and spirals, tickling Azula's nose. It was by only the finest breath control that she resisted sneezing.

"I miss you every day." Ursa whispered, bowing her head once more.

And Azula resigned herself to a long, tedious afternoon.

 


 

OoOoO


 

By the time the joss sticks burned low, and Azula had given up on disguising her bored sighs (Mai had been a most excellent teacher in the art of silent contempt) Ursa had allowed her to leave. 

Her mother would take a small, private dinner in her rooms – still grieving throughout the day.

Azula had no patience for that sort of thing: her legs had most definitely fallen asleep, and she walked slowly out of the gardens at last, feeling the setting sun on her cheeks and wondering which of her three firebending masters to summon first. She would not have an entire afternoon wasted.

As she got closer to the palace, the gardens turned slowly from wildflowers and unordered chaos to the more manicured paths and valleys. She passed a large weeping willow tree; as a child she had played under its wide boughs, a rare source of cooling shade in the Fire Nation heat.

Perhaps it was the hours of reflection in the graveyard, but for a moment Azula could have sworn that she caught a flash of red between the branches; a long forgotten memory of herself and her brother chasing each other under the dabbled shade. For a second–a barest half breath of time—she heard his high happy laughter.

I tried to warn you, Zuzu. You were a fool not to listen, and I have no patience for fools.

It was with these thoughts that she made her way through past the gardens and to the outer, airy corridors.

Perhaps some wouldn't have noticed the man at all—servants and soldiers with pressing messages came and went on a regular basis, and a new face was hardly noteworthy. But Azula's keen amber eyes picked up the slight hesitation in the soldier's step, his official armor, and the way he glanced about like a man who was lost, but definitely didn't want to look like it.

"Who are you?" Azula snapped, with all of the importance of someone used to asking questions and getting them answered without hesitation. "What is your business here?"

The soldier made a fatal mistake. He paused, eyes shifting to the right and then to the left in a quick panicked flick. "I—"

He got no further than that.

Azula stepped forward as quick as a ferret-snake, shoving the man back against the wall. The outcome of a match-up between a fourteen-year-old girl and a fully grown man, only a few years past his prime, should have been easy for anyone to guess. But this was no normal fourteen-year-old girl, and the man's eyes widened as her hand drew back, creating blue sparks.

"You aren't supposed to be here." It wasn't a question.

The man's jaw worked silently several times. "I—I was sent by Prince Iroh with a message. I have a message for Princess Ursa."

"Prince Iroh is my esteemed uncle, and Ursa is my mother. I will pass it along for you."

"B-but he said it was for her eyes only."

Azula smiled, and before he could reac,t her free hand searched through his jerkin, coming out with the message scroll affixed with the royal seal. Then she stepped back, breaking the seal and unrolling it in one precise gesture. 

Lieutenant Ji could only stand and watch helplessly.

He saw the Princess's eyes widen, the way her sharp pointed nails dug into the paper as her breath caught. Finally, she looked up and Ji was certain at that moment he was staring death itself in the face.

 


 

OoOoO


 

Tap. Step. Tap. Step. Tap. Step.

Azula slowed her pace to match with her father's. Prince Ozai walked straight and tall, head forward, shoulders back; tall and proud. The picture of health, of balance and the fitness of firebending control. Azula knew better. She was walking at half speed to keep from out-stepping him. Ozai never mis-stepped, never winced, but she could see how hard his right hand clutched the top of his cane, and she knew how stiffly the leg swung under his rich robes.

So, by one slow, carefully measured step and a tap of a cane after another, they made their way through the inner corridors and out to the gardens. They paused overlooking the turtle-duck pond.

"Azula," Ozai said at last, "you wished to have a word in private. Well we are here, and now I am waiting."

Stung by the rebuke, Azula remembered her place and knelt down before her father. Her hand drew out the scroll where it had been tucked, hidden from her mother's view under her robes. "I have intercepted this message from Uncle Iroh's first Lieutenant. He was trying to deliver it to mother in secret.”

Wordlessly, he took the scroll. With her head bent down, she could not see his reaction save for his hand which curled over the cane. His fingers were white.

"I see." And that was all he said, for a very long time.

After some minutes, Azula dared to look up. Ozai had turned away from her, overlooking the pond. He was paying her no attention which was unusual enough. She stood. 

"Father, that—the night Zuko disappeared—"

His head snapped back to her, as if realizing that she was still there. That unnerved Azula. For as long as she could remember she had always been the center of his world. 

"Understand this, Azula." he said. "There has not been a female Fire Lord in all of our Nation's history when there has been the slightest chance of a male heir. It was you who the Spirits gifted with talent, intelligence, and cunning. The second born, disqualified only by chance of birth."

He was not just talking about her… he was speaking also of himself. But these were things she knew—had known for quite some time. It hadn't mattered, not for years, but now…

"What are your orders, father?"

Ozai pressed his lips into a very thin line, and the scroll burst into flame between his fingers. All evidence destroyed in an instant. "It will be best not to trouble your mother with this. She has been… delicate since the loss of her son. She does not need to know about this… imposter."

The last word, and its many meanings, seemed to linger in the courtyard. And later on, Azula would only remember it as a cloud passing across the sun, but the sky over the palace garden seemed to darken.

"Yes, father."

"It is the Day of the Dead, is it not? Well then, how appropriate." Ozai smiled as if in good humor, but there was nothing happy in his gaze. He turned again, facing the pond with his hands clasped loosely behind his back. "I will have a task for you, Azula. It is about time you went out to see the world, and it is your duty alone to make sure your throne is secure. You will need to clear all obstacles from your path. Learn what you can from your masters and prepare yourself. You will be called upon, shortly."

It was a clear dismissal. Azula knelt again and left, her face composed in a mask of determination.

And when she passed the willow tree again, and heard the echo of the boy's laugher, she firmly ignored it.

 

 

Chapter Text

This amazing art is by Flurrin.

Based on the lines (a few chapters back): Katara glared at him, and behind her the snow trembled ever so slightly. When she spoke, her voice was low, and dangerous. "I can't believe that you of all people would turn someone out, just because they're different. This tribe took you in."

 

 

 

 

 


 

OoOoO

"Your friend is the Avatar?
"Sure is, and I'll bet he'll fetch a lot more on the black market then that fancy scroll."

~ Sokka and the Pirate Captain, The Waterbending Scroll

OoOoO


 

The air was soft and warm and the color of fluffy orange sugar-candy, just how Monk Gyatso used to make it.

Aang stretched his arms, fingers flexing against the grips on each side of his airglider. He grinned into the wind. To his senses, the air currents wrapped around him, playful and friendly – urging him up and higher. But he was happy just floating above the surface of the ocean – the water was the purest shade of blue, so bright to look at that it should have hurt his eyes. It didn't. Not now.

He dipped the airglider down, playfully skipping just over the waves. Katara's shimmering laughter echoed back at him from the right, and he turned to see her skimming along side him, sweeping her arms in elegant arcs and riding along the ice pathways she was creating.

Two shadows passed from above – Sokka to his left, doing a lazy loop-de-loop with his own airglider, and Zuko on Aang's right, riding on Appa's head and waving to him.

Although Katara was some feet away, her voice sounded close as if she were whispering in his ear. "We need you Aang."

"I know," Aang grinned, feeling affectionate towards his friends. They had risked everything to go to the Fire Nation with him. "I need you guys too."

"Don't leave this time, okay?" Zuko's voice, too, was closer than it should have been. "Don't let us down."

The sky seemed to darken, and Aang turned to look at him, saying, "No, I won't. I won't ever again—“ But then Zuko was right next to him, standing there. His scars were gone, his face softened to became cubby and younger— no, it wasn't Zuko at all.

"Kuzon?" he gasped.

"You never even said goodbye,” Kuzon said, looking down.

Aang's heart clenched. He stood up. He was no longer flying – how could he ever detach himself from his worries and be free again, knowing what he did? "I know… I didn't mean for it to happen."

"Monk Gyatso came by, looking for you. I thought you died."

"Kuzon, I'm so, so sorry. I —" Aang's words stuck in his throat. He reached out to touch his friend, but his fingers passed through Kuzon's shoulder. He wasn't real. He was long gone. A ghost.

Lightening split the air, shattering the daylight like a fractured mirror. Suddenly it had fallen dark around him, and Aang was alone sitting on Appa's head, ducking against cold drops of water which were pelting down like small hammer blows. The air was thick with grey clouds, the puffy outlines shaped like meditating monks. He could hear their whispers, their condemnations even above the shrieking wind.

"We needed you, Aang. “

“You left us. 

“You left us…."

"No!" Aang cried, although his voice felt weak. He was so small in the face of the surf, the wind, his own guilt. "It wasn't supposed to —I just needed to get away! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

A great wall of water rose up, spurned on by the lashing wind. Appa bellowed in fear and tried to turn away, but the wave crashed down upon them both, driving them mercilessly down… down… the water crushing all life from his body. Aang couldn't breathe, and the reins were slipping from his fingers…

 


 

OoOoO


 

Aang woke up gasping for air.

It was still dark. He and his friends had made it back to the Earth Kingdom from the Crescent Island around dusk that night, and had fallen asleep all pretty much where they had collapsed, snug up against Appa's broad side. Not a hint of light lit the east horizon – even Zuko was still fast asleep.

Aang put a hand to his head, breathing deeply. It was only a dream. But he didn't lay back down. He could never hope to fall back asleep, even if his heart wasn't still thudding with the nightmare's after effects of adrenaline and guilt.

Besides, Sokka's wide-mouthed snoring was loud enough to practically wake the dead.

Katara murmured something in her sleep and cracked open a blue eye. "Aang?" she asked, seeing his outline in the dim light. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I just had a bad dream. You can go back to sleep."

But she had already turned over away from Sokka's snores and rolled to face Zuko's warm back, asleep again before he had even finished her sentence. 

Looking at her, Aang couldn't help a wistful smile. She said she would teach him what she knew about waterbending… and he bet that she would be just as pretty and graceful teaching as she had been in his dream.

He got up, shuffling around their hastily cobbled together campsite in a sleepy haze, and he passed the hours sitting at Appa's head, chin on his knees, thinking about the autumn wind-tournaments at the Southern Air Temple.

The sun lit the sky into false grey of dawn only an hour later. Predictably, the moment the first rays of the newly risen sun peeked over the far mountains, Zuko stirred and sat up. 

If he was surprised to see Aang already awake, he didn't mention it. He said nothing at all; casually crawling out from his sleeping bag, rolling it, and setting about lighting a small campfire. 

Aang caught the other boy glancing at him a few times, a frown on his face, but he didn't ask why he was up and Aang didn't particularly want to talk about his dreams.

But with the lightening of the sky came the lightening of Aang's own mood. He jumped to his feet with a rush of cool air and hunted around the campsite until he found a roundish stone. He then returned to the other boy and held it out with a lopsided smile on his face. "How about some circle-walking?"

They hadn't practiced the airbender form since the day of their disastrous visit to the Southern Air Temple. Seeing the rock now and Aang's hopeful expression, Zuko nodded once and strightened, stretching.

There was a grassy clearing not far from the camp. Aang placed the rock in the middle, and began to move around it; keeping his hands centered inward, his feet placed always at an angle to one another. Zuko watched quietly from the side for the first few revolutions, arms crossed over his chest.

Aang was performing the simplest of the steps, and as he stepped and pivoted, his mind drifted back again to his old life at the temple. He could almost imagine hearing his friends nearly practicing around their own stones, the monk's calling out gentle instructions. And when Zuko moved to stepped in opposite of Aang; all intense confidence with hardly any of the right moves, Aang could almost imagine him as another airbender.

Almost, except for the blue clothing and beads in his hair which declared him Water Tribe, and the yellow eyes and pale skin which spoke of the Fire Nation.

Aang tried to imagine his friend, just for a moment, with a shaved head and airmaster tattoos. He giggled, and Zuko glanced up at him, speaking for the first time all morning. "What?"

He checked his laughter, settling for a wide grin. "You need to turn your feet in, like this." Aang stopped and stood, knees bent inwards with both feet out in strange angles.

Zuko's good eye narrowed. "I'll fall over."

"No you won't, and it will make you quick and nimble.” Aang struck out, withholding a blast of air and turned quickly, pretending to dodge and invisible opponent. Zuko watched him intensely, and copied the maneuver, sloopily. At Aang's correction, he did it again and finished it with a quick turn.

"Good!" Aang chirped, and started walking the circle; slower this time so Zuko could see where he put each foot. "Count to eight," he suggested, and started again. "One…two… three…" He stepped as he went. "Four… five… See? Each step has purpose."

Zuko stood back again, watching the process. "I thought I was the one supposed to be teaching you." But his grumbles were mostly good-natured, and his steps were becoming more sure and accurate with each round. Soon, Aang thought, they could practice some of the other, more advanced S-type moves.

Their practice was finally broken up by a delicious, mouthwatering smell drifting from the camp; Katara had started cooking breakfast, and Aang's stomach pinched in painfully. There hadn't been much time for anything aside from a hurried snack on their way to the Fire Nation, and nothing on the way back. Zuko straightened up and put a hand to his own stomach, and Aang suddenly remembered how much Kuzon used to eat – Monk Gyatso would always joke his stomach was a deep pit with fire at the bottom.

And that thought brought back the dream again.

"Hey," Zuko was looking at him in a sidelong fashion. "You okay?"

You never even said goodbye…

"Aang?" Zuko asked again.

"Yeah." Aang blinked, shook his head to clear his thoughts, and then playfully smacked the other boy's shoulder. "Race ya!" And he set off back towards the camp before Zuko could protest.

 


 

OoOoO


 

A few hours later they were once again in the air, putting some distance inland between themselves and the Western Earth Kingdom coast. Katara was shifting through her bag, rearranging her clothing and looking for something suitable to wear for waterbending practice. She hadn't forgotten her promise to Aang, and was clearly looking forward to the exercise.

"We'll start you out on the basics, first," she said with a glance to Aang. "I can show you what I've worked out in water, and by the time we reach the North Pole and find a waterbending master… well, we should both have a good head start."

"But what about a firebending master?" Aang asked.

Zuko shrugged. He was sitting on the other side of the saddle, leaning back with his head tilted to the sun. "Maybe we can raid a Fire Nation colony, and watch what they do when they firebend at us." It was hard to tell if he was joking or not. Judging by the scowl on Katara's face, Aang guessed he probably wasn't.

"Yeah…" Aang scratched the back of his neck. "Let's save that one for later."

Sokka had once again taken the driver's spot on Appa's head. He always seemed happiest when leading the way, and he snapped the reins importantly. "Well if you guys are going to waterbend, we're going to have to find some water."

"You think?" Katara shot back, archly.

"Go back out west. The coast is nearby." Zuko suggested.

"Nope." And Sokka snapped the reins again. "We need to head inland away from the Fire Nation, and I know just the place."

"No you don't."

"Trust me," said Sokka. "I got a good feeling."

So later on, when Sokka angled in Appa for a landing at the a wide misty end of a river; a place where no less than three waterfalls, all crashing down into deep blue lagoon, with three sides choked off from any outsiders by sharp cliffs and the forth being a wide sandy beach, everyone's jaw's dropped.

Once Appa landed, Sokka jumped down and his chest puffed out in pride. "Am I good or am I good?"

"He's never going to let us forget about this," Katara told Aang in an aside, as they worked the wide buckles to relieve Appa of his saddle. "From now on every time he does something stupid he'll just turn to us and say, 'Yeah, but remember that time I found the waterfalls?'".

Aang smothered a giggle.

Zuko's unofficial assigned job was to start and maintain the campfire. While Katara and Aang worked with Appa, he hunted around for firewood. Finding nothing except for dried water-reeds and bits of moss, he settled for dragging a half sodden log up onto the beach. Then he knelt by it, placing one hand on each side and breathed in and out deeply, his eyes half closed, focusing on channeling the heat. Within a few moments the wood began to steam and dry.

Aang stopped what he was doing to watch, his grey eyes wide. "Whoa… will I be able to do that?"

"Big deal," Sokka said. His chest was still puffed and he was twirling his boomerang in what he clearly thought was a manly sort of way. "He's just speeding up the sun's work —" A splash of water hit him square in the face, and he sputtered indignantly. "Hey!"

Katara grinned. "That will be your first waterbending lesson, Aang," she said. "Splashing is all in the wrist."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Katara had decided that she would have the first chance at teaching Aang bending, and by now all three boys knew better than to argue with her. She took Aang by his bony wrist, pulling him to a shallow pool and stopping only to hand Sokka a pokey stick and tell him that Appa's feet needed cleaning, and to make sure to get the mud and bugs between his toes.

Zuko had the bad grace to laugh at his brother's misfortune, and was promptly handed a stiff bison brush by Aang.

So, grumbling, the two boys stripped down to their underpants and waded, hissing with cold, into the clear blue water. Appa waded right after them, his bulk displacing a huge amount of water and sending little rippled waves back to the shore. The winter chill didn't bother the bison; he gave a low groan of pleasure, sinking himself down until he blew bubbles out his nose.

"Ah, gross!" Sokka pulled the stick out from between two of Appa's toes, and made a face at the brownish green glob stuck at the end of it. "Appa, what have you been stepping in?"

It was hard to say how much Appa heard and understood him, but he made a huffing sound very much like deep laughter and lulled over onto his side, unceremoniously dumping Zuko, who had been untangling mats of hair, back into the water. He broke the surface of the water a moment later, sputtering and glaring at his brother. "What'd you do that for?"

"Oh right, the magical furry ten-ton monster rolls over and it's my fault?"

Appa took exception to this and blew a snort of water in his direction. Sokka just rolled his eyes and waved the putrid stick at him. "Don't you start, either."

Zuko clambered back up the bison's side, settling back down where he had been working some of the thickest mats with the stiff bristled brush – just at the point where the saddle usually sat. "At least he only has six feet," he complained, picking free a knot of fur that was as big as his fist. "I should cut this out and let him grow it again."

"No way. That's cheating." Sokka flicked the stick, sending the brown glob safely away down river.

As the boys worked, Katara set to instructing Aang in the ankle-deep water by the river. Her voice bounced over the water to them in occasional snatches of conversation. "Now, this is something I find really useful… I call it streaming the water…"

Zuko hazarded a glance back to the shore and watched for a moment or two as Katara fell into her graceful pose he knew so well. Aang was watching her as well, although Zuko's sharp eyes noted that he wasn't looking as much about how she moved, but, well, her.

He scowled, shook his head, and returned to pulling mats out of the bison's hair.

By the time the worst of the knots were worked out and Appa's hair was, not silky but passable, Zuko's back felt stretched and sore from bending over so long. He straightened and stretched, tilting his head to the sky; though the air was heavy with mist, a light grey sheet of clouds had rolled in (probably for the best) even under the cloudy sky he felt hot and sweaty. The Earth Kingdom's version of winter was a joke.

Sokka was sitting safely out of the water on Appa's flank, working diligently on the bison’s last foot.  Seeing that, Zuko got a devious idea. His older brother was too puffed up with himself today; someone ought to take him down a few pegs.

Taking careful aim, he dove from Appa's back. Underwater, Sokka's dangling leg looked like a tanned splotch up against Appa's white fur. Zuko surfaced for a second, grabbed hold of Sokka's ankle and yanked, hard.

Sokka tipped into the cold water with a loud squawk of surprise. His head broke the surface a moment later and the battle was on.

Soon the water was thick with shouts and choked laughter as the two boys tested their strength against one another, each trying to get the upper hand and dunking one another under. It was a fairly even match: Zuko was taller, but years of sunless winters made it hard to gain any real bulk to his frame.

Sokka also had taken the momentary advantage - a hand gripped under Zuko's knee, and was just about to haul him up over his shoulder and dunk him – but he was first to sense the oncoming danger, catching the ominous shadow just on the edge of his vision.

The two boys stopped scrabbling and fell still, looking up. A swell of water, twice as high as Appa, had appeared impossibly in the middle of the lagoon. It towered above them, spare second from folding down right on top of them.

"AAANNG…" Sokka called, his voice thick and heavy from dread. There was no question on who made the wave; that was Avatar-sized bending.

And when it crashed down upon the two boys, sweeping them up and tumbling them over and over until they came to a stop, coughing and sputtering back on the shore, they both raised their heads and glared at the little monk.

"Oh! Ha-ha… sorry about that guys." Aang gave another nervous laugh and a wave as if to say 'my bad'. "It kinda got away from me there."

Zuko spat a mouthful of river water and staggered to his feet – half his side was covered in a fine crusting of sand. "I get his arms," he snarled, bending down to give Sokka a hand up.

"I got his feet." Sokka answered.

Aang's eyes widened almost comically as the two boys advanced. He turned, instinctively seeking sanctuary in the form of Katara. But she just stood to the stood to the side, arms crossed, trying and failing to hide a grin. Clearly, Aang was going to pay the price for out-doing her in waterbending practice.

Aang probably could have knocked the two away with an air blast if he really wanted too. As it was, he only was able to duck away twice before Zuko caught his arm. Sokka caught hold of the younger boy's ankles and together they unceremoniously swung him into the water.

"Water Tribe one, Avatar zero," Sokka said proudly.

 


 

OoOoO


 

It was only a short time later when the boys had dressed again and Aang blown his own clothing dry with a stiff wind that Katara looked in their sack of supplies and announced that they were running low. The food Zuko had managed to gain from his trip in the village was either eaten at this point, or spoiled from age.

"We flew over a forest not too far from here," Sokka said. "Should be plenty of tasty meat creatures there… and maybe some nuts and roots or whatever, too," he added, seeing Aang's expression.

"Great!" Aang chirped, and would have rushed off to take the drivers seat at Appa's head before Sokka got there, except Zuko was quicker.

"Hold it!" he snagged the young monk by the back of the collar, stopping him mid-stride. "You're not going anywhere. You still have a firebending lesson today."

"Really?" Aang turned and grinned upward at him, his expression so bright that it made Zuko smirk back and completely ruin the image he was trying to craft of himself being a tough, wise sifu. "I can learn firebending and help with the food later, right guys? Katara?" He looked to the other two, almost pleading.

"Of course you can," Katara said, smiling fondly at him. Sokka simply shrugged and made for Appa. 

Before she turned to join him, Katara's brilliant blue eyes met Zuko's and there was something else, some other hidden amusement in her expression. "Good luck."

The misty lagoon and its waterfalls were great for waterbending, but it was too damp for working with fire. Zuko led Aang a little ways up the beach where the air was dryer. Then, collecting some spare wood into a neat pile, he lit it.

"Sit down," he said, and followed his own example, putting himself close to the fire. He had time to think on how he wanted to start Aang's firebending while de-matting Appa. Katara would have already had him starting basic moves she worked out, but he would have to start smaller. Water didn't burn or rage out of control. 

For a moment, Zuko wondered how other firebenders started… how had he been taught as a small child? But of course, the memories weren't there. The best way, he concluded, was how he had started learning – so long ago in Auya's cold tent.

Aang looked at the flame with wide eyes. "Am I going to learn to throw fire?"

Zuko hesitated. "We'll see how you progress."

"Oh! What about flaming pinwheels? I saw Kuzon do those one time and—“ His mouth snapped shut, perhaps noticing the other boy's severe look.

"Right now I want you to just handle fire without getting burned."

This was probably not the wisest thing to say. He didn't miss the quick dart of Aang's eyes to him again, or rather, the left side of his face.

Zuko shouldn't have been surprised. It wasn't like he looked at himself a lot; real mirrors were expensive and even then he didn't like reminders not only of the disfiguring scars, but how different he looked from everyone he loved. Sometimes he wondered what he would have looked like without the burn and the slash across his neck. Plainer, probably. In those rare moments of reflection he thought that maybe it was better this way—never knowing a time when he must have looked normal. Everyone he grew up with in his tribe had gotten used to his features years ago, anyway. They looked at him squarely– not at his left side in horror or his right in pity. They just looked at him; just as Aang had always looked at him… until now.

There was little point in hiding the fact that his biggest scar was a burn.

Zuko's hand drifted up to touch the tough flesh on his cheek almost without realizing it, and saw Aang wince, knowing he had been caught staring.

"What happened?" Aang asked, his voice small. "Did—did that happen when you were firebending?"

"No," he said, then paused, considering. "Well, I don't know. Maybe. I don't exactly remember it. I might not even known I was a firebender at the time. Who knows?" He gave an awkward, one shouldered shrug. "I can tell you that since I learned to firebend I've never burned myself or anyone else on accident, and the first thing I want to teach you is how to do that same." He passed his hand effortlessly through the flames, scooping up a palmful which he held up to Aang in demonstration. "Katara told you about water always pushing and pulling?"

Aang nodded in reply.

"Well, fire feels more like a heartbeat. It sort of…" He lidded his good eye half shut in thought, trying to put into words what he felt instinctively down to his very bones. "It's not a friend, exactly. You can't turn your back on it, but if you respect it, it will keep you warm when you're cold, and help defend you against your enemies. So I guess it's more like, a partnership?" He shook his head and shrugged awkwardly again, not waiting for Aang's answer. "The bender needs fire to live, just as the fire needs the bender."

"So you're saying it's alive?" Aang cast a dubious glance at the small campfire as if waiting for it to sprout a face.

Zuko smirked. "It needs air just like we do, and fuel to eat. But you tell me. Eventually, I want you to grab some fire."

Aang blanched. "Just reach in? But I'm not a firebender yet!"

"If you want to be a firebender, you have to work with fire."

"But…" Aang reached out, as if to test the waters, and visibly hesitating as he felt the heat of the flames prick his open palm. "What if I get burned?"

"Once you have control of the fire you won't be. We're going to work on that, first."

Aang nodded again, his grey eyes focused on the kindle of fire in Zuko's palm. "So once I do that you'll show me how to fireblast?" he mimed a quick, hard punch; probably the way he had seen the Fire Sages do it.

Zuko smiled grimly and closed his hand, snuffing out the flame – much to Aang's disappointment. "I'll show you that once you get your own fire." He straightened up, following Aang's example and crossing his legs in a lotus position. Normally when he tried this, he just sat normally, but he found that sitting straighter meant he could breathe deeper. "I want you to take in a breath of air. In through your nose and exhale out your mouth…"

By the time Sokka and Katara arrived back with Appa, both Zuko and Aang were ready for a break. Aang was complaining that his stomach muscles hurt from breathing so deep, and he felt a little light headed. Zuko was tired of telling the young monk not to fidget and stop crinkling his face every time he exhaled. Aang hadn't actually caught hold of the flames yet, and Zuko was not about to actually let him dive his hand in the fire until he was completely sure he had it under control.

So when Aang jumped up in relief, completely abandoning the firebending lesson, Zuko didn't snap at him. He wanted to do the same thing.

"How'd it go?" Sokka asked.

Zuko caught Katara's eye, and she gave him a smile; she understood, and that gave him the grace to answer, "He's getting there."

Finally, Aang remembered his manners and bowed low to both siblings. "Thank you for the lesson, Sifu Katara." Another bow. "Sifu Zuko." Then he stood up, grinning and ignoring the blushes from the other two. "What's to eat?"

Sokka held up a rough piece of twine in answer. Tied to the end was what looked almost like a rat-beaver—dead and grinning and probably the least appetizing thing any of them had ever seen, even to the ones who did eat meat. "I guess we're going to have to go to the market for supplies… although this rat might be good with some spices." He put a finger to his chin in thought.

Katara made a face and pushed past her eldest brother, heading towards Appa's pack. "I'll get the money."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

 

Despite Sokka's reluctance to backtrack, the only village to be found was back toward the coast. The shoreline swept back into a shallow inlet bay; this being low tide all the fishermen's wives and children were sloshing about in the ankle-deep surf, digging in the sticky mud for clams and unlucky fish trapped in the tide pools. 

The village itself was a cluster of six dozen or so clustered houses with most of the main activity centered along the edges of the piers. Long tables were set out in front of each moored ship with colorful barkers at each end, trying to draw attention to their wares.

With Appa safely hidden in the nearby forest, Aang, Katara, Zuko and Sokka walked along piers, glancing every once in awhile at wooden tables filled with strangely shaped fish and baskets of harvested fruit. Sokka had a bag slung over his shoulder, and already it was half-full with a a few purchases. Their empty bellies had loosened Katara's tight hold on the money, they already spent two out of their six remaining coins.

And one of them hadn't even been on food.

Aang was hardly noticing the tables, too intent on examining his shiny new bison-whistle. To the Water Tribe siblings' complete disgust, it blew nothing but silent air and Aang had been promptly forbidden from ever handling the money ever again.

"Hey, you kids!"

They turned to see a swarthy barker with a lime green bandanna and a golden hoped hearing the size of a fist bare down on them. He was grinning. "From the looks of your clothes, I can see you are world-travelers." His eyes seemed to linger on the catch of Sokka's tunic, the gap of fabric that showed skin, for just a hair's breath too long before he smiled again. "Could I interest you in some of our exotic curios?"

"Sure!" said Aang, before anyone could decline. Then, "What are curios?"

This seemed to give the barker a pause. "I don't know," he admitted. "But I'm sure we got 'em!"

"What, this stuff?" Zuko pointed to a table, smaller than the rest and littered with crusty-looking statues and bits of stained glass. "No thanks."

"Oh that? No, that is only for the public view. The real stuff is in there." The barker gestured to the wide-mouthed ship behind him. He grinned again, more of a leer this time as he stepped closer to the two brothers. "Water Tribe, right? Can't let the pier foreman see the… more interesting things we carry. We've got spear's a 'plenty and the Captain himself has a collection of boomerangs."

Sokka looked vaguely interested. "Well…"

"Well nothing," Katara snapped. "We're here to buy food, not boomerangs. Anyway, you two could make new ones yourselves."

"It might be worth a look." Zuko said, and held up a hand at his sister's venomous glare. "Just for a minute, and if there's nothing good we can leave."

"C'mon, Katara." Aang grinned up at her. "I want to see the curios."

Katara looked from one male to another, and realized that she was outnumbered. "Fine," she said, with a huff, crossing her arms. Then, with the barker cheerfully leading the way, she muttered under her breath. "Boys…"

But her bad mood lasted until she stepped past the threshold of the main cabin. Every inch seemed packed with all sizes and shapes of objects, from lady’s dresses to a cabinet of scrolls off in the corner. Zuko bent to examine a grinning monkey statue with ruby eyes while Sokka went to the back to search for weapons.

There was something that seemed to draw Katara to the cabinet. Thanks to GranGran's lessons, she was literate, but she couldn't make out all the inscriptions on every end. They were too formal.

She didn't need any words for the thickest scroll; the one with the painted Water Tribe blue end-stop with engraved wave patterns. Carefully, not realizing she was holding her breath at all, she reached out and withdrew the scroll. She unrolled it, and her gasp could be heard around the small cabin. "This… This is a waterbending scroll!"

She barely heard the other's response, or noticed Zuko walk over to look over her shoulder until he spoke. "Wow, look at those moves."

There were perhaps only four actual waterbending forms, but each was carefully drawn out with a figure demonstrating every graceful step. For two benders who had spent all of their lives slowly eking out kata's with nothing more than half-formed ideas and determination, this was a goldmine.

Their eyes met, and the same thought flashed between them.

Katara turned towards a man who was lounging behind a counter with an impressive looking captain's hat and some kind of lizard-parrot on his shoulder. "How much for this waterbending scroll?"

Her voice was too high, a touch too excited, and the captain seemed to pick up on it at once. "Already got a buyer. Some Earth Kingdom noble is willing to pay a lot of money for that piece of paper you have there."

"What would an Earth Kingdom noble want with a waterbending scroll?" Zuko pointed out. "Sell it to us instead. We—she would actually be able to use it."

The captain seemed less than concerned by his plea. When he spoke again, there was a gap where his eyetooth should have been. "Don't care who uses it, boy. The deal's already been made… Unless you got two hundred coins on you right now."

"Two hundred…?" Katara trailed off, and looked down again at the precious scroll. It was quite literally worth its weight in gold. With a gulp, she carefully re-rolled it.

Zuko scowled. "That's piracy."

"Aye. Perhaps." The captain shrugged one shoulder – the one his lizard-parrot was not perched on – and leaned across the counter, his eyes glittering in amusement. "But it's business, too."

Aang and Sokka had come over, attracted by the conversation and the sick, saddened look that was coming over Katara's face. "Don't worry, Katara." Aang said. "Merchants love to haggle. I'll get that scroll for you." Katara doubtfully handed over their coins and Aang grinned, sauntering up to the counter. "Excuse me, good sir. How about… two copper pieces for that scroll? No? How about three?"

Zuko shook his head and something sharp caught his eye – a row of gleaming swords arranged along a nearby wall. He turned fully to look, now hardly registering Aang's horrible haggling skills, or how Katara accidentally bumped into Sokka when he too, came over.

"Doesn't look like the leather on these have been oiled in, about, forever." Sokka said, joining his brother to admire the weapons. He set down his pack and tentatively lifted one of the swords from a wall-hook. His fingers left bright spots upon the dusty handle. "I wonder how much they'll want for this?"

"Probably two hundred gold pieces." Zuko grumbled, only a little bitterly.

There was a small collection of boomerangs off to the side. He bent to examine them. But while the shapes were similar, the surfaces were painted in dark color blues, the handle grips wider than he had ever seen. "Hey Sokka, do you think these could be from the Northern Water Tribe?"

"Maybe." Sokka returned the dusty sword to its hook, but now he was frowning, looking around the place with narrowed blue eyes. "Wait a minute, there's stuff from all over the place: Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, and I'm sure the tacky red stuff is from the Fire Nation. Where do you think these guys got all of it?"

"I don't know. Trading? Why?"

"With a war going on?" Sokka asked, and didn't wait for Zuko's response before turning away, muttering to himself. "A collection of 'interesting curios', a lizard-parrot— Hey… These guys are pirates!"

For being so smart, Sokka could be really stupid at times. His loud announcement seemed to cut through the air, interrupting Aang's failing negotiations. Everyone turned to stare at him, and then the captain behind the counter grinned again and reached up to tip his wide hat, as if in greeting. "We prefer to call ourselves high-risk traders."

"Wow!" Aang beamed up at him. "I've always wanted to meet a pirate!"

But this only seemed to alarm Katara. She backed up a step, jumping when her hip crashed into what looked like a table of delicate wooden figures, knocking two of them over with loud clatters. Within a few moments she scooped up Sokka's half forgotten bag and shoved it back in his arms. "Guys… I'm not really comfortable with this. I think we should leave."

Aang turned towards her. "Aw, but Katara—"

"I feel like I'm getting weird looks. I want to go,” she insisted, and it was at least partially true… the barker had edged himself forward and stood again near Sokka.

Aang pouted for a moment longer, but they could all see her unease. In fact, Katara was first out the door, and didn't even demand Aang hand her the coins safely back in her possession. She led them on a swift pace back across the docks, with the boys giving each other covert glances; silent questions about what this sudden change in mood was all about. But they had no sooner stepped to the edge of the docks when there was a shout behind them.

"Hey, you kids!"

It had come from the pirate ship.

Zuko glanced over his shoulder, and gave a detersive snort at the number of men running onto the top-deck, trying to wave them down. "What do they want now?"

"Looks like they came to their senses," was Aang's cheerful answer. He turned around and gave the pirates a little wave.

But that only seemed to spur the pirates on, and now they were practically pilling topside from the cabin.

No one noticed Katara edge away nervously, or the expression of alarm and guilt that crossed her face. "You guys… I don't think they want to talk…"

Completely forgoing the normal route, the pirates simply leapt over the edge of the railing, landing heavily on the docks and withdrawing their swords.

"Stop right there!" A pirate yelled. From his scabbard, he pulled out a long twisted knife with bits of rust on the edges. His meaning was very clear.

Sokka cursed – and for once Katara didn't correct him. "They know Aang's the Avatar! Run!"

Aang acted first, twisting around with airstaff in hand and aiming a rush of wind to the middle of the approaching pirates – all greasy grins and twirling blades - sweeping the closest man off his feet and crashing him into the rest of the pack. 

The kids fled, running away from the docks and to the marketplace. But the village was small, just a shabby collection of weather-worn buildings, and under the overcast sky not many merchants were out to provide them cover.

Aang did what he could. Using directed airblasts, he knocked apple stalls over, rolling the fruit under the feet of some unsuspecting pirates and tripping them. Katara spied a barrel of rainwater and with an arch of her arms, pulled the liquid out and froze it when it splashed to the ground, creating treacherous black-ice for their pursuers.

But for every pirate who fell, another seemed to be right behind him. And they knew these alleyways well.

One man who had to be at least seven feet tall with too many piercings through every part of his face to count, came roaring out from between two houses, sword flashing. The blade missed Zuko a mere inch. The boy reeled back, throwing up a shower of sparks – more out of surprise than anything else, there weren't any live fires around to pull from. But the man fell back in alarm and in that hesitation, Aang stepped forward to knock him away with another airblast.

"I'm calling Appa!" Aang dug out the bison whistle, but was stopped when Sokka pointed ahead, making an inarticulate sound of distress in the back of his throat.

Half a dozen pirates suddenly stood before them, cutting off the already pinched alleyway. The kids skidded to a stop, and turned, but the way back had even more pirates blocking their path. There were similar alleys to the right and to the left, but they had no way to know which one led to safety… and which to even more danger.

The pirates moved forward, closing in.

"Wait!" Aang tapped the butt of his airstaff on the ground, snapping it open into an elegant glider. "Climb on, and hold on tight—" he ordered, but stopped, and his friends could see his indecision clearly. Aang was a twelve-year-old airbending master, and the Avatar at that – but he was also light as a feather. The Water Tribe teens were not.

"Go." Zuko reached forward, pushing Katara forward, nearly into Aang. "I'll be fine."

"We'll be fine." Sokka corrected backing from Aang and standing with his brother. "Splitting up is our best shot."

"What?!" The look on Katara's face was terrible; a mix of dawning horror and guilt. "No, you can't—" But Sokka was already turning away, making a rude gesture to the pirates to catch their attention, and she only locked eyes with Zuko – one last agonized look, before he turned with Sokka and fled down the nearest alleyway, trying to draw the pirates off.

And Aang was yelling at her to hold on, and she had no choice but to wrap her arms around his neck, close her eyes, and feel the world slip away under feet. Aang actually stepped on the heads of one or two pirates to get a lift-off.

… It hurt when she tumbled down, only a few spare moments later, crashing against the ground with Aang pinned on top of her, bound and tangled in the weight of a throwing net.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Neither boy had any illusions of what they were doing – drawing off as many pirates as they could on foot in order to give Aang and Katara the best chance they could in the air was risky at best, a suicide mission at worst. There needed to be no words between them because they had come to the same conclusion: Aang was the most important member of the group, and neither one of them was going to let the pirates have their little sister.

It was pure luck that the alleyway they ran down turned into a helpful little side-street behind some businesses, chocked full of crates and boxes. A group of snarling pirates were hot on their heels. Sokka drew out his bone machete, hooking the end to a stack of crates as they ran past and tipping them over.

Zuko was a half-step ahead, and darted quickly to the left, down yet another alley with a blind curve. Suddenly it opened into a wide square courtyard, ringed by a neighborhood of small dumpy fish-houses with pointed rooftops.

"We need… a place… to hide." Sokka panted, bending over to rest his hands on his knees and catch his breath. The crates had slowed the pirates for a moment, although he could hear the clatter of footsteps echoing narrow stone walls, and getting closer.

Zuko looked around, frowning to himself, and then glanced upwards. His quick gold eyes caught a deep shadow and he pointed to a sheltered place right where the roofs of two close houses had joined, creating a small shadowed area. "There!"

That looked fine to Sokka. "Can't head straight for it. Gotta circle around and lose them."

"Okay, how?"

"Watch and learn." Sokka straightened again and they took off running, halfway across the courtyard before they were spotted. Another angry shout went up, but it only served to add another burst of panicked-driven speed to their step. These new back alleys were short, curved every few feet, and patterned like a maze between houses. They jumped between small fenced yards, cut across cobbled roads, and back behind more houses. Twice more they heard approaching footsteps, and once a shout, but they were always able to turn in the other direction.

A movement exploded out at them from a shadowed path two the right; a pair of burly pirates, one swinging what looked to be a mace attached to a light chain. Zuko didn't remember actually taking the pearl dagger from his belt. It was just there in his right hand as he stepped forward, using his left to knock the chain, causing it to wrap tightly around his wrist. The dagger flashed and the pirate bellowed in surprise – a sizeable slash now gaping his bicep. The pirate dropped the chained mace, clutching his arm instead, and Zuko turned in time to see Sokka knock his own pirate over the head with his whalebone machete.

"C'mon!" Zuko yelled, and they were running again, leaving behind the stunned and cut men.

But now Sokka was leading the way. Zuko was already lost, and his brother had an uncanny sense of direction. His mind whirled with all the twists and turns; the only thing he could do was to trust that Sokka at least knew where they were going. And before he knew how they got there, they were facing the house with the steepled shadowed rooftop.

Zuko's burning legs gained new strength – he sprinted the last few steps, passing Sokka and then leapt as high as he could. The very tips of his fingers caught the rough wood, and gritting his teeth, he forced himself to hang on, to dig his boots in and haul himself inch by painful inch up to the roof shingles. Once at the top, he hooked his ankle under the crook of the eave and bent back, extending a hand to a mostly bemused Sokka.

They hadn't seen a pirate for the last part of their flight, but for a few seconds, scrabbling along the roof they were visible to anyone who cared to look. Then they were safe, ducking into the small triangle of shadow cast by the overhang of two overlapping roofs.

The space was just big enough for both of them, and both boys squatted there, getting their breath back. From their elevated position they could see over the roofs of at least five buildings; the pirates seemed to have split up in their search, and they could see the now small figures still dashing back and forth, still roaming the streets.

"I've decided," said Sokka, after a few long minutes, "I hate pirates. Sure, they're pretty cool looking with their tattoos and their lizard-parrots, but when you get down to it… they're just a bunch of jerks."

"Yeah, no kidding .” Zuko's eyes were to the sky. There was only slate clouds above, not a speck of orange or the bulk of a sky bison to be seen. "I hope Aang and Katara are okay."

"They are." Sokka grinned as a particular thought struck him. "Now that I'm pretty sure we're going to live, we have guilt on our side. I'm going to make them both do all my chores for a week. And Aang's going to have to let me fly Appa." He even rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

They could still see the pirates milling around down below – something had attracted a knot of them, but they were so far off in the distance neither Sokka or Zuko could tell what was going on. The brothers hunkered down, intending to wait them out.

A stiff breeze kicked up, bringing with it a miserable sort of drizzle that, of course, blew in sideways and had them both shivering. There was a shuttered window behind them, perhaps leading to a sort of an attic, although when Sokka tried it was locked shut. Zuko couldn't light a fire, both for fear of lighting up their dark hide-away and for the fact they were both surrounded by wooden shingles.

There was nothing to do but wait.

But the rain was just as cold for the pirates, and eventually the frequency of the patrols along the alleyways reduced until there was long stretches of minutes were they weren't seen at all.

The rain slackened and a thick roll of fog came in from the sea, darkening the landscape well before evening. The boy's climb down from the roof was a lot less graceful and more uncoordinated than going up owing to stiff joints and cold muscles.

They took the return walk slowly to stop and listen carefully along each new stretch of cobbled road for telltale signs or sounds of movement. It felt like playing hide and seek in a way, only with buildings instead of snow-drifts and nasty armed pirates instead of a sibling.

The last rays of the day's sun would have been shining down by the time they finally exited from the village and staggered back up the long track up a steep slope, and back into the forest – except the thick cloud cover darkened everything, making the trees seem like giant shadows and the ground muffled their footsteps. They were cold, wet, and exhausted.

But that was okay. They had gotten away unscathed, outsmarting swarthy pirates, no less. They would come sauntering into camp like the brave warriors they were. Katara would probably have something hot to eat, and Aang would be laughing and buzzing around on his air scooter…

Appa gave a lowing sort of a groan, having scented the boys before they came into view. The beast rushed over as only a ten-ton bison could, smashing saplings and unfortunate bushes underfoot with such noise that it would have raised alarms of anyone within a half mile – if anyone else was out that cold evening. Appa stopped short of running them over, snuffling and moaning again and again. His hair had rematted, now soaked from the rain.

"Whoa, easy there big guy." Sokka pushed the giant head away, redirecting Appa's tongue to Zuko, much to his disgust.

"Ugh! Appa, no! Bad bison!" Appa had gotten Zuko square in the face and he sputtered, wiping away palmfuls of slobber. "Hasn't Aang played with you today?"

"I don't think he has." Sokka was looking back to the clearing. It was silent, shrouded in a vague drift of mist. No smell of a campfire or cooking, no high-pitched happy laughter.

Appa moaned again, and this time it was low and plaintive – almost a cry.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Katara hit the ground hard and Aang landed on top of her, one pointy elbow digging into her back. He was rolling away in a moment, trying to gain traction for a blast of air, but the pirates were there too, and the thick webbing only tightened. Coils of rope were thrown back and forth, and in a moment Katara and Aang were so tightly bound that neither could move; they could hardly breathe.

A dirty, unshaven pirate face leaned down into Katara's vision, filling it up. "Gotcha, girlie." And his breathe washed over her, so foul that she could almost taste it.

"What about them boys?" another pirate asked.

“Off runnin'. We'll catch up to 'em. They've where else to go."

"Aye."

The thought of her brothers being run down, hunted like artic moose made a little sob of fear rise from Katara's throat. All captured… all her fault. And when the pirates found her brothers… when they checked in Sokka's pack…

Her involuntary sound caused Aang to thrash against the bindings. They were so tight his movements came out as only a wiggle. "Let her go!" he yelled. "I'm the one you want!"

"Aang!" she gasped. "Shush up!" The last thing they needed was for the pirates to figure out who exactly they had just caught. Sokka had been wrong. She knew they weren't after the Avatar at all—at least, not right now.

But the pirates laughed and made rude remarks about Aang's heroic words. They worked quickly, removing the netting, but keeping the children bound hand and foot. Then they were picked up – some of the pirates hands lingered where none ought to be, making Katara grit her teeth and wish her own hands were free, just for moment. She would find some water somewhere…

The large four-mast ship rose into view. They were carried, trussed up like chickens back into the cabin filled with curios and one very smug looking captain.

The pirate who caught them, the one with at least a half dozen hoops in his nose, stepped forward. "'Caught two of them, but the other two brats run off."

The captain nodded. "And the scroll?"

"Not here. Must be with the boys."

"Scroll? What scroll?" Aang made another wiggle, and the captain motioned for him and Katara to be put down. The young monk looked back and forth. "We don't have any scroll…" he trailed off, and then turned to his companion when they were on their feet again. She looked away, and his eyes went wide. "Katara?"

"I'm sorry, Aang," she whispered. "I didn't think—"

She was looking at her friend and wasn't watching when the captain stepped forward. The harsh crack of hand against cheek was heard around the room. Katara cried out, hunching down.

The captain's voice was steely. "So you thought you could steal from us, wench? You best pray to whatever spirit guards yer people that scroll is undamaged, or I'll take every gold piece out on yer hide."

He raised his hand again and out of her corner of her eye Katara saw Aang take a deep breath, likely to blow the captain back against his own deck. She shook her head once, trying to stop him. They couldn't find out he was the Avatar—

And in that moment, before either the pirate captain or Aang could make their next move, a voice called down from topside. "Hey, Captin'!" It was the barker who had first lured them in.

The man swung around. "What?!"

"There's a customer up here wanting ta know if we got any extra Pai Sho tile pieces."

Before the captain could respond, another voice broke in. This one aged, and genial. "I am looking specifically for the lotus tile. Without it, I have an incomplete set."

There was the slight creak of wood, and a man stepped into the cabin, a grayed man in full Fire Nation armor, hands tucked into his wide sleeves. Seeing the children, he froze mid-stride. 

Prince Iroh, Katara and Aang stared at each other for a full three shocked seconds. The lemur on his shoulder, chirped.

"Well," said the prince, with a nod of respect to the captain. "It appears your barker was telling the truth. You do have quite interesting curios."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 This adorable Art is by ScuttlebuttInk

(The two boys drinking stolen alcohol from a previous chapter.)

 

 


 

 

OoOoO

Please Prince Zuko, if the Fire Nation captures you, there is nothing I can do. Do not follow the Avatar.

~ Iroh, Winter Solstice Part 2

OoOoO


 

 

Prince Iroh's amber eyes took in the situation in a glance; the tied and bound Avatar and the Water Tribe girl, the unhappy captain. And the finer details: the red, swelling mark on the girl's face, how the Avatar stood with perfect balance which left him ready to strike a blow, despite his bindings. 

Iroh almost smiled. This unfortunate pirate captain did not know what he was dealing with, or else he would have the children restrained in more than simple hemp rope.

The captain, too, was making his own deductions, identifying Iroh's sash of rank for what it was. He grinned, something that was more strained and uneasy rather than pleasant. "'Scuse us, good sir. I was just dealing with a couple 'o thieves. What can I do you for?"

"I was looking for a tile to complete my Pai Sho set," Iroh repeated, tucking his hands in the wide sleeves of his robes. "But this interests me more. Tell me, Captain, have you managed to capture the two boys as well?"

The pirate captain's eyes narrowed, although his grin became wider. "So these be professional troublemakers, eh? No, these brats took something from me. A waterbending scroll worth at least three hundred coins—”

"Hey, you said it was two-hundred before!" the young Avatar yelled, and was promptly grabbed by the pirate by one ear which was then given a savage twist. "Ow, ow, ow!"

"Stop it!" the girl shrieked. She lunged forward, but was easily held back by two other pirates. She turned to the captain, pleading. "I'm the one who stole your scroll, and… and I'm sorry! I can get it back. I—"

"I have a different proposition." Iroh's calm tone cut through the air like a knife, silencing the still struggling Avatar and the laughing pirates. "These children are wanted fugitives of the Fire Nation. I will pay you the two-hundred pieces for your missing scroll, and another hundred for these two."

The captain seemed to consider it for a moment. "Aye, that is a generous offer. Very generous indeed." But he turned his back on the prince, sliding behind the children. His hand rested loosely on the girl's shoulder, and she went very still. "But I believe a pretty thing like this will make on more on the market. My price is three-hundred for the boy and the scroll both. If you want this girl to be warming yer bed, you best be willing to pay a higher price."

Iroh didn't move. His expression didn't change, but Momo was able to sense his mood. The little lemur sat up straighter, wrapping his tail securely around his neck and let out a throaty little trill. Something about the sudden coldness in those amber eyes made the captain back slightly, although his hand stayed on the girl. He hastily continued, "'Course, you can throw in that fine beastie on your shoulder there, and we can call it a deal."

Iroh raised his hand, touching light fingers to Momo's back. "My little companion is not for sale." He paused, letting the tension of the haggle build. "I will pay no more than three-fifty for both children…and the collection of those deliciously scented tea-packets I smell."

Again, the captain paused. Then his hand slipped from Katara's shoulder (to her shuddering relief) and he gave another, businesslike grin. "You be driving a hard bargain. I accept, but you bringing the payment in coins. Gold coins."

"I would expect nothing less." Iroh did not extend a hand to finalize the deal, and the captain did not offer one in turn. Instead, Iroh turned to the nearest man, a beefy looking pirate with several golden hoops in his ears. "My Commander will be awaiting outside. Please, retrieve him for me and tell him to bring along the strong restraints."

 


 

OoOoO


 

"Where are they?" Zuko asked, and then, because there was no answer either Sokka or Appa could give, he repeated it again; louder, and turning around as if expecting Katara and Aang to come bursting out of the brush at any moment. "Where are they?"

"I thought—I mean, we outran so many of the pirates…” Sokka had an unfocused look on his face. He was thinking back, trying to retrace every step of their mad escape. "But maybe they weren't trying hard to catch us because…” He trailed off and groaned, scrubbing at his face with a hand. “Katara and Aang have to have been caught."

"Then we'll just have to go back." Zuko was striding towards Appa even before he finished speaking.

The other teen nodded and followed him, absently picking up his shoulder-bag by one strap. Something fell out a gap in the stitching and hit the forest floor with a thump. He bent to retrieve it, and froze. "Oh no."

Zuko stopped, turned, a question on his tongue. Then he saw what Sokka held. "What— wait, you stole the waterbending scroll?!"

"Why would I want a waterbending scroll?!" Sokka's indignant voice broke in no less than three places.

The two boys looked at each other with mirrored expressions, and each saw the other make the same connections.

Sokka exploded. "That's it! She may be a girl, but she's cut off from ever shopping again. Ever!”

Zuko took a step back. He seemed to be in a daze, for once the calm one in the face of Sokka who was still ranting. "That's why Katara was acting so weird. She must have put it in your bag when we were looking at the weapons."

"Great!" Sokka snapped, flailing both his arms and the scroll. "You can just tell her how clever and sneaky she was when we return this and pirates are finished trying to hack us to pieces!"

Zuko scowled. "We can't give back that scroll. Those pirates probably stole it from the Water Tribe. It's not theirs to keep." He saw the look of doubt on Sokka's face and pressed on. "This scroll is for waterbending. It's important to Katara and to Aang."

"Well, too bad. They'll just have to wait until we get north to learn."

"We can't just—" Zuko ran an agitated hand through his hair, trying to put into words what he felt deep in his soul. The feeling, the need to bend. Katara would have understood. He knew she felt it just as strongly. But Sokka… "Look, you just don't get it, okay? You don't understand how it is to want to bend, but don’t know how.”

Sokka flinched, as if he had been struck, and at once his ridiculous flailing stopped. His blue eyes hardened, and he walked up until he was toe-to-toe with his younger brother. "Oh I don't understand?"

"That's not what I meant!"

"No, go on, tell me Mr. Bender. Tell me why learning a few fancy moves is more important than making sure your sister and your friend are safe. Do you think the pirates are just going to ask nicely to get it back? Or is it something else I'm not getting, because I can't bend?"

Zuko narrowed his good eye. "That's not what I meant," he repeated again, through grit teeth.

"Yeah, well I think it was."

Both boys glared at each other, and Zuko was first to break, crossing his arms and glaring off to the side with a sour look on his face. 

Appa groaned, lowly. It broke the tension in the same way that Katara always stopped their bickering before it could escalate too far. Only she wasn't here, and although neither boy would admit it out-loud, they both felt her absence. Badly.

Finally Sokka gave a loud sigh and reached up to rub the back of his neck. The anger had drained away, leaving only awkwardness. "Yeah… well, whatever."

Zuko just shrugged as if answering an unasked question. “You're right. About the scroll," he added, quickly, with a swift sideways glance at his brother. "We'll take it back to the pirates."

Sokka nodded in reply and turned to the giant bison. Appa dipped his great head, allowing him to climb on and take the reins, with an anxious snort as if admonishing them for taking so long about it. 

Zuko silently jumped to the basket-saddle, and they were off.

 


 

OoOoO


 

The night was full upon them now, moonless and dark due to the thick cloud-cover above. The only thing visible ahead were the lanterns of the fish-houses, and a flashing lighthouse further out.

Sokka angled Appa in low, close above the surface of the silent bay. Neither wanted a repeat of the hide and seek against the pirates through the village, doubly as hard now with a ten-ton bison. So they flew in from the sea, eyes straining to pick out the shapes of ships along the long, dark pier – and one in particular with a deep hull and a four mast sail.

Sokka always suspected that he had the better night-sight out of the two of them, and certainly he was the one to pick up the danger first. 

The near total darkness made it hard to tell one thing from another at a distance, and they had both mistaken the lit running lanterns along the ship's prow as something else – a building perhaps, or part of the pier. But Sokka was first to recognize the shape, and when he did he jerked Appa's reins up sharply in surprise, causing the bison to stagger in midair before regaining his balance.

"What's wrong?" Zuko hissed, but Sokka was already pointing ahead.

"That's a Fire Navy ship!"

But it was no ordinary Fire Navy ship, and Zuko's expression darkened to anger. He swore words they had only heard Bato use, and even then only when the warrior thought no one had been listening.

Sokka tugged on the reins – gentler this time – and directed Appa to float closer, right along side the massive hull of the ship. He was fairly certain that this was a blind spot from the cabin above. And if Appa made a large splash when he finally sunk into the water to swim up to the pier, it was at least dimmed by the sound of crashing waves back on shore.

The boys dismounted, climbing quickly from Appa's wide back onto the wooden planks. Sokka turned, putting his fingers up to his lips, and hoping the bison would understand. 

For his part, the beast simply rumbled and sank further into the water until only the tips of his upright horns could be seen from the level of the pier.

Zuko kept sending glares at the Fire Navy ship as if trying to burn a hull through the metal with his scowl. "How does Iroh keep turning up like this?"

"I don't know." Sokka's mind was already several steps ahead, analyzing the situation without prompting, as if from muscle memory. "This is bad. Really bad. But maybe Prince Iroh doesn't know we were here yet… I mean, how often does the Fire Nation deal with pirates?"

Zuko scowled again, but said nothing. Apparently his on-again-off-again knowledge of the Fire Nation wasn't turning anything useful that night. Sokka sighed and sank down, gesturing for Zuko to follow and keeping to the shadows. It wasn't hard – lantern oil was expensive, and there was only one every fifty feet or so, enough to lead a drunken man from the village and to the ship, but not good for anything else.

Sokka noticed how the lanterns would dim suspiciously upon approach, but didn't say anything to his firebending brother.

The pirate ship was moored just where they remembered it, to Sokka's intense relief. It also seemed to be the life of the party with men staggering this way and that, both on deck and just along the piers, flagons of amber liquid clutched in their hands. They were obviously celebrating, and Sokka just hoped it wasn't at the fact that they caught the Avatar.

Suddenly Zuko's hand seized upon his wrist and Sokka found himself being dragged behind a large wooden pillar. Zuko had seen something he hadn't – a bit of movement from the rampart of the ship. Both boys pressed their backs to the shadowed side of the pillar, and within a few moments they heard and felt the shiver of a well-ordered march of two dozen feet.

Only when they had mostly passed did Sokka peek out, and his breath froze in his throat.

A small platoon of Fire Nation soldiers were stepping solidly in two ordered lines. Prince Iroh and that one angry looking Commander-guy with the bad muttonchops was at its head. In the middle, easily visible even in the dim light among the rust reds and spiky armor of the Fire Nation, were Aang and Katara; bound head to foot in chains, shuffling along with two sharp points of broadswords at their backs to ensure their cooperation.

He felt Zuko shift at his side, and Sokka grabbed his forearm hard. He met his gold eyes and shook his head once. There had to be twenty Fire Nation soldiers out there.

It was hard to remain still and quiet, safe in the shadows. The two brothers followed along the best they could, darting from behind wooden column to wooden column, keeping out of sight and waiting for a chance, a distraction, to go in. 

Aang stumbled once– he was weighed down with at least twice the chains that had been thrown around Katara – but the nearest solider roughly hauled him back up to his feet by his collar and they continued on without another misstep.

Then they were to the Fire Nation ship, and being pushed up the ramp.

"Sokka…" Zuko growled.

The silent question seemed to almost hang in the air. Sokka closed his eyes, not able to watch his sister and his friend step disappear into the ship. "We can't just rush in there. We'll just get captured, too. We're Katara and Aang's only hope right now, and we have to do this right… We have to have a plan. "

A light breeze stirred, bringing with it the sound of voices. Two figures had hung back while the prisoners were led in and were speaking quietly to one another, and if the two boys strained, they could just pick out the words.

"My helmsman report a storm blowing in from the west, Prince Iroh." And Sokka recognized the voice as Commander Zhao. "If we raise anchor immediately we can be back within home waters by the end of the week."

"No, Commander," Prince Iroh answered. An oddly shaped lump flickered over his shoulders – that damned lemur which was always with him. "I would like two contingents of men sent out in the morning. I wish to retrieve the two Water Tribe boys as well."

"But with the Avatar as your prisoner—!” Zhao's voice choked off mid-sentence, as if silenced by a glare or some other reminder the other two boys could not see. When he spoke again, it was with deference. “My Prince, you must reconsider. You can return with the boy, now, as a legend. Any delay now—"

"I am charging you with making sure the boy does not escape." Iroh replied. His voice was cold. "Those are my orders, Commander."

Interesting, Sokka thought, So these Fire Nation jerks aren't all united. And he could also guess, very easily, why Prince Iroh didn't want to leave yet. He turned to his brother, nodding once, but was very careful not to look him in the eye. For whatever reason, having the Avatar wasn't good enough. Iroh wanted his nephew as well.

Zuko took a very long moment before pulling away. Together, they headed back to Appa to regroup, and to plan.

The place they chose was a high, lonely flat-topped hill which overlooked a sharp drop-off and the bay beyond. It was nearly perfect; the high spot guaranteed that it would be hard anyone to sneak up on them, and from there they could watch the running lights of the ships, make sure that the Iroh's ship wouldn't disembark in the middle of the night.

The brothers set up camp in silence – Zuko brooding, and apt to snarl when the tent he was trying to set up kept getting snagged on twigs and low tree branches.

"I hate this!" Zuko snapped. He stood up and gave the tent peg a swift kick, sending the thing flying into the bushes.

Sokka ignored his tantrum. He was squatting down, arranging three or four sticks in a particular order, using them to mark the position of the Fire Nation ship, the plank and the pirate's ship. But he was tired and kept blinking rapidly, passing a hand over his face. "We should take turns staying up," he said, at last. It was the first thing he said since they arrived. "Just in case Iroh changes his mind and the ship takes off with the new tide."

Zuko shot him a sour look. "What if it does? Who's going to be able to stop a ship? Appa? It's dark. There's no moon, no light. We could sneak down there right now."

"No," Sokka shook his head and stood. "Look, I know it's hard but we're just going to have to lay low right now. The only thing we have is surprise. We're going to get just one shot at this, Zuko. You can't just rush in. It won't work."

His brother shook his head, his lips pressed together in an thin, angry line. Abruptly, Sokka was reminded of their earlier argument. But, after a silent minute Zuko gave clipped nod of agreement. 

"Okay." Zuko's voice was strained, although Sokka didn't know if it was due to worry for Katara and Aang, or some holdover from their argument before, or if it was nothing at all and he was too tired and frazzled to read the other boy correctly.

Sokka thought, briefly, about offering to stay up first. He had to work on a solution, a plan, a way to get Aang and Katara out of there. What would his dad do in this situation? Probably hold a war council. But he was tired. And it was hard to think when he was sore, and hungry. So he said, "Wake me up around midnight. Okay?" He didn't wait for Zuko's answer, figuring the other boy was probably in too bad of a mood to acknowledge him anyway. So Sokka crawled into his sleeping bag, feeling the bottom folds of the fur and cloth surround his toes like ice. It would warm up in a few minutes, though. And he was already drifting off. "G'night…" he muttered, and then a particular sleepy phrase came to him, making him grin to himself and add, "Jerkbender."

Through half-lidded eyes, he saw Zuko glance at him sharply and then a corner of his mouth ticked up in a grudging smile. 

That wouldn't have happened if he was feeling angry about earlier. The argument had truly passed, and Sokka rolled over, asleep within moments.

 



OoOoO


 

 

Zuko looked out over the cliff's edge, watching the slowly bobbing row of lights that lit the Fire Nation ship until his eyes crossed and his head bobbed, once, twice… until he jerked up suddenly awake again to find that the crescent moon had moved three finger length's across the sky. The Fire Nation ship was still there.

He still had a few hours left on his watch. Zuko stabbed the ground with the sharp point of a twig, digging a little hole in the dirt. He wanted to be down there, now, fighting to free Katara and Aang, set fire to things— maybe confront Iroh once and for all. 

But he saw Sokka's wisdom in waiting – saw it, and didn't like it, not one bit. If either Aang or Katara were hurt because they had waited… if something were to happen…

He stood up abruptly, his skin itching and crawling. He had to do something. He couldn't just sit around and be useless. Maybe he could take Appa back down and do some reconnaissance. Sokka slept like the dead, anyway. He would never know…

Zuko was drifting over to the bison, trying to figure out the best, quietest way of waking him up, when he caught sight of Sokka's travel-bag. He froze, mid-step, and crossed his arms, glaring at the bag as if it held the solution to his problems. 

Maybe it did.

Prince Iroh had told him, on that first terrible meeting, that he firebent like a waterbender. That it made him weak. Zuko had never consciously made the decision to firebend the way he did. He didn't know what he was doing when he was a child, or how to properly begin. Neither did Katara. They just wanted to bend, and had spent countless hours practicing and making forms up as they went along. It was hard work, full of give and take with many more failures than successes.

He wasn't a waterbender.

But he also didn't think firebending the way he did made him weak.

Zuko took another step closer to the bag, away from Appa and away from his rash decision to go out spying. He glanced furtively over his shoulder to make sure Sokka was still asleep, while pulling out the scroll.

There was a hollow not very far away – a dip in the short sparse grass where he could easily keep an eye on the gently bobbing Fire Nation ship, and be out of view, as long as he kept his fire below shoulder-height. He unrolled the scroll, propping it open between two stones, and frowned, studying it. There were perhaps four actual forms, but the one depicted first looked the most promising; Water Whip.

"Okay," he murmured, and his voice echoed hollowly in the dark air around him. "Fire lash? Looks easy enough."

He lit a small fire out of hot brand he had taken from the camp, and stood back, widening his stance and checking over his shoulder again to the scroll, and readjusting his footing an inch to the right. Then he took a deep breath and summoned the flicking flame into a loose ball of fire between his hands.

Carefully, and after another look at the scroll to check what to do, he widened his hands, stretching the flame into a stream and sent it out. He had been aiming for a nearby stump, but the fire lasted only just past his reach before dissipating into air with a puff of smoke.

Maybe it needed to be hotter, then.

He summoned more flame, and stepped forward again, trying to make his movements graceful and fluid. The way he had seen Katara do a hundred times before…

Katara, who was probably tied up and scared out of her mind, alone on a Fire Nation ship—

The flame crackled and died between his fingers before he even sent it out.

"Oh come on! What was that?" Zuko snapped, although he wasn't sure if he was yelling at the flames, or at himself.

He didn't have time for this. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine how Katara would approach how to bend, while trying not to think of Katara herself. She was the better bender out of the two of them, the most creative, the most patient. She usually understood what had to be done first, and how to do it. (If they hurt her, if they did anything to her, he would burn their ship to cinders, hunt every last one of them down—)

"ARGH!" The fire snapped out, angry, vengeful in a wobbling ungraceful arc, like a crashing wave. It fell onto the stump and immediately the wood was caught aflame. Zuko stood there and watched it burn, the light playing over his scars, for a few long moments before he raised his hands and pushed the fire back down, snuffing it out.

It took a few minutes to steady his breathing, and for his chest not to feel so tight, like there were bands around him holding in white hot flame. He stared into his small campfire and told himself that he and Sokka were going to get them out. Katara was strong. Aang was—well, not wise, but Zuko trusted him to keep his sister safe.

He raised his hands, bringing up another length of fire and stepped into the movements. Then he did it again when the flame failed before it could even whip out. And again. And again.

Hours later, the tips of his fingers stained with soot and dull exhaustion was creeping into every sinew of his body. The flame under his command shot out in a bright ribbon. He bent his arms to the side, thinking briefly of the thick bull-kelp that lived under the sea back home, and how it would bend under the even the biggest of waves, but would not crack. The ribbon twisted to his command in mid-air, the tip flicking out on itself and striking the charred log with an audible crack.

Zuko stood, shocked, the flame running away from his fingers and dissipating into nothingness. A half-sort of smile crawled up one side of his face. He had done it. A real bending form; not something made up. Real.

Katara should have been here, with him.

The smile faded, and suddenly Zuko was keenly aware of the dark night – the silence and emptiness around him. Even Sokka's snoring couldn't be heard from his practice area. And if Zuko cared to wake him up, he would be annoyed, not congratulatory. Bending was not something he could share with his brother, and the only person who could - the two who really deserved to be practicing these moves were locked up, imprisoned.

Tomorrow, he thought, unaware of the fierce, determined set in his jaw as he bent down, extinguished his training-fire, and carefully rolled the scroll back up. He glanced again towards the far-off ship. Dawn was still half the night away. It was time to put the scroll back and wake Sokka for the next watch.

But tomorrow, he swore, he would get his sister and Aang out of there.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

"I'm so sorry, Aang." Katara said, for perhaps the twentieth time since being thrown in the ship's holding cell. But as many times as she said it, and as many times as he had replied that it was okay, and that they were going to get out of there… it hadn't helped any of her guilt.

"It's okay, Katara," said Aang, predictably. He lay slumped in the holding cell across from her, weighted down by the heavy chains affixed to each limb. His wrists were narrow, but the shackles were still tight and he had just spent the better part of an hour squirming, tugging, and blowing useless blasts of air at his bindings with no effect whatsoever. "What's done is done."

She looked away form him, biting her lip and bringing her knees up to her chest. She had left her coat back with Appa before they had left to go shopping, and it was cold and damp in the cell. Not damp enough for water – at least not enough she could bend, but just enough to make her miserable.

How long would it take to get to the Fire Nation, she wondered. And what would happen to Aang once they got there? Would she ever get to see her brothers again? Would her dad ever know what happened to her?

Images of them all swam up in her head, almost vividly real in the closed darkness of her cell. Dad would be so sad and worried… Sokka would be angry at her, she was sure. Angry for putting them all in danger, but he would be worried, too, and cover it up with bad jokes. And Zuko… he would be so disappointed. For stealing, for putting everyone in the danger she had, but mostly for sitting in the cell and feeling sorry for herself, for giving up.

What do I do? she thought, Aang needs me, but I don't know how to get out of here.

If she half squinted her eyes she could imagine her brother standing there, arms crossed and his good eye narrowed. His voice would have been just a little harsh: It didn't matter what she did. As long as she did something. As long as she didn't give up.

"Easy for you to say," Katara grumbled.

Her voice had been louder than she meant, and Aang raised his eyes to look at her. "Huh?"

"Nothing." Katara shook her head, banishing the apparition from her mind. Then she got up and walked to the set of bars separating her cell from Aang's. She meant only to check up on him, and maybe to try to apologize – just one more time – for letting him down. Her fingers curled around the bars, and she realized they were vaguely wet.

Curiously, she ran two fingers down the length of the steel from as high as she could reach down to the floor. She came away with a drop of water – just one – clinging to the tip of her finger.

She gasped, curling her fingers around it, and clutching the droplet against her breast like a talisman. "Aang! Can you scoot over here? I have an idea."

The young monk was exhausted, but at Katara's pleading, he shifted, dragging chains and heavy weights until he sat as near to the dividing bars as his tether allowed. His hands could only reach up to his waist and he had to nearly bend double to rub his eyes. "Wha's'it?" he asked, thickly.

She held of her palm, and the now frozen drop of water glittered like a diamond in the low light. "See if you can bend this into one of the locks in your chains. If we freeze more of it inside the lock might break. You bend it inside the lock, and I'll see if I can get more I—"

But she got no further than that.

There hadn't been any warning. The thick steel inner walls of these Fire Nation ships didn't allow for the sounds of footsteps to come through from the corridor beyond. Katara didn't even hear the cell door being unlatched. Suddenly, the door was thrown open and a large figure of a man stood in the doorway, the light from the torches outside outlining him in a menacing halo.

Katara snatched her hand back, but the man didn't seem to notice. He strode confidently in, and as soon as he moved from the bright light she recognized him at last: Zhao, the commander who had attacked Kyoshi Island and who had tied herself and her brothers up in the Fire Temple.

Aang tried to stand – at least, his heavy chains rattled as he shifted around. They were too heavy. The Commander didn't see him to have eye for him anyway. He strode right up to Katara's cell and leered in at her.

"I thought you should know Prince Iroh has put quite the bounty on your little companions heads. By morning every man, woman and child who can hold a spear from the village will be after them." He paused then, holding her gaze while her heart felt plunged in ice-water. "Dead, or alive."

She stared at him, her chest and throat too constricted to speak. All her fault… It was all her fault…

It was Aang who spoke. "What do you want?"

"It's really very simple. Even you should be able to understand." Zhao looked to the side, glancing at the bound Avatar with mild curiosity and then pretending to be absorbed with picking off an invisible piece of off his immaculate sash of rank. "It's in my best interest, and that of your two friends, if I find them first. You have my word that a hair won't be singed off their scruffy little heads. Tell me where they are and they stay alive. Or let the greedy villagers find them… and bring them in however they want.”

"No." The word came strong from her lips, with unexpected force. She took a step to the bars, and although the commander didn't flinch back, she felt his attention slide back to her.

"Don't be foolish, girl. This may be their only chance." A deliberate pause. "Don't tell me you would rather have their blood on your hands?"

Katara flinched as if she had been struck again, and she saw his satisfied smile as the words hit their mark. But she didn't step back. She lifted one hand, touching the blue pendant on her mother's necklace. It gave her strength and hope. "No," she repeated. "And you can search all you want, but Sokka and Zuko will never let you find them. Not until they want to be found."

His lip curled. "You've had your chance, little girl—" Then he stopped, literally mid-sentence. His amber eyes flicked back and forth, and Katara watched him warily, one hand still to her necklace, the other clutching the frozen droplet of water. But the commander only smiled – an oily smile that didn't fail to send another shiver up her spine. "Yes… yes, of course. How interesting." His eyes refocused back on her and he gave a nod. "You have helped me, after all, water peasant." Then, before she could respond, he spun on his heel and left the room. The door slammed with a decisive bang.

"What was that about?" Katara asked, but only got a shrug from Aang.

Her cheeks where wet. Zhao's offer had upset her more than she wanted to admit, and she angrily tried to wipe the lingering tears away, only to think better of it. A moment later two more drops of water had joined her collection.

She squared her shoulders, forcing her fear turn into determination. Yes, this was her fault, and she was going to do everything in her power to fix it. She'd work on Aang's chains all night, the whole journey to the Fire Nation without sleeping, if she had to.

"Aang, sit up," she said, when the young monk put his head down for a moment to rest. "We've got work to do."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Commander Zhao's booted steps echoed sharply in the halls and corridors. He was grinning to himself, probably drawing the curious gazes of the lesser ranked officers, but at that moment he didn't care.

Protocol and common sense demanded that the ship depart immediately to the Fire Nation once the Avatar had been locked safely in chains. Yet they had stayed with Prince Iroh insisting that that the search for the two Water Tribe boys continue. Zhao himself had been stopped from executing the firebending abomination on their last encounter at the Fire Temple. Why?

And now, it all made sense.

Zhao did not have to ask the girl which of the two boys had been named Zuko. He had thought the annoying Water Tribe firebender had been an abomination of some sort, perhaps borne out of a hybrid coupling. But Zuko? The famous, deceased Prince Zuko? The boy was around the same age… It would explain the bending talent, Iroh's strange reluctance to leave without him. It more than fit.

How the boy had come to the Water Tribe, Commander Zhao could not imagine. He cared even less. Prince Iroh was obviously attempting to avert a major scandal – a member of the royal family turned traitor. Such a shame.

Such an opportunity.

The boy's worth would only be second to the capture of the Avatar in the Fire Lord's eyes. He who brought him in would gain the honor. A stroke of luck had granted Iroh the Avatar, but if Zhao were the one to bring in the disgraced prince…

Zhao's grin became wider and he laughed aloud again, letting it echo in the halls around him.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Zuko woke to a hand on his shoulder. He sat up, blinking, rubbing at his bad eye which felt dry and was making half of his world look fuzzy and indistinct. It was early – earlier than he was used to for the sun hadn't even started to rise yet. But he recognized Sokka's shape in the shadows, and after a few moments he saw that his brother was wet, soaked to the bone and shivering in the cold pre-morning air.

Only then did Zuko register the hard patter of rain along the tent walls. Another storm must have blown in while Sokka was taking his watch.

"Take my parka," Zuko said. "I'll be fine for a bit without it."

Sokka shook his head. He was grinning in between chattering teeth. This kind of damp cold was nothing to him, he who had known harsher conditions from the first day of his life. "I got it all figured out. We're going to be able to get into the Fire Nation ship completely undetected, right under Prince Iroh's nose."

"What?" Zuko paused, mid-yawn. "How?"

Sokka gestured excitedly for Zuko to get up. He did, still rubbing his eye, and followed him outside. Some of the coals from the fire hadn't been drowned by the rain yet, and they threw flickering shadows on the ground. It had been obvious Sokka had been spending his entire watch working on his plan, because the now soggy ground all around the tent was covered in little diagrams, arrows, and pictures all scratched out with the sharp point of a stick. Half of them, it seemed, had been scratched out again, and although Zuko turned his head this way and that, he couldn't make heads or beaver-moose tail's out of any of it.

He left it up to his brother to explain.

"My instinct tell me that Prince Iroh is still hanging around for something – probably us or else he'd be off to the Fire Nation with Aang in tow." Sokka said. "All we have to do is get a hold of some Fire Nation uniforms, sneak on the ship, find Katara and Aang, free them, and then escape back to shore with one of their own lifeboats."

Zuko stared at him for a moment. He wasn't quite sure if it was because he was still waking up, or because Sokka's plan was really that bad. "How exactly," he asked picking one aspect, "are we supposed to get Fire Nation uniforms?"

Sokka grinned and the light of the fire caught the blue in his eyes, making them glint like the sharp edge of a knife. "That will be the easy part."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

By the time the first sliver of sunlight had crested over the east horizon, Sokka and Zuko were back among the buildings and alleyways of the little fishing village. 

The residents themselves were beginning to stir – good fishing waited for no man – and soon even the rain-soaked air was thick with the scents of woodsmoke and cooking. It was a painful, gut-cramping reminder to the two boys that they hadn't eaten since yesterday afternoon.

But there was nothing to be done about it. The rain was really falling now, pouring down in thick drops and making them wish that they hadn't left their oil-skinned parkas back with Appa. But heavy jackets wouldn't fit under uniforms. They ducked in the alleyway nearest to the piers where they could have the best view of the Fire Nation ship, avoiding sheets of runoff from the nearby rooftops.

They didn't have to wait for long. In the grey air they could soon see figures in red armor strolling along the top-deck, checking the mooring and doing basic chores. A few minutes later, the rampart lowered and five or six other figures streamed out in full Fire Nation armor.

The men were carrying something – scrolls, orders to be sent out, perhaps. It didn't matter. Zuko felt Sokka's tension as the soldiers peeled off in different directions, one heading right past their hiding place. The two boys crouched low, Sokka's hand on his whale-bone machete, Zuko barehanded. They would have to be quick, and above all, silent. If the soldier alerted the others…. If he was able to summon help…

The tension in their frames tightened as the man drew nearer, until he was three steps away from their sheltered hiding place – and none the wiser. 

Zuko leapt, his legs contracting as if they were tight springs finally set loose. He grabbed the man from behind, hand clasped tightly over his mouth to keep him from shouting. And with a wrench of strength borne by adrenaline, pulled him back into the alleyway.

But this man was a soldier. He let go of the scrolls, setting them loose and rolling along the wet cobblestone ground, grabbed Zuko's arm, and doubled forward. He flipped the hapless boy over his back into a pile of empty wooden fish-crates.

Sokka was there in an instant, swinging the base of his club at the man's head to knock him down. He hit his shoulder instead. The man snarled, and if he were a firebender Sokka would have been done, but they had luck on their side. Sokka was grabbed and kneed painfully in the stomach with enough force to leave him wheezing.

Zuko looked up to see the soldier reaching behind himself, his quick fingers unbuckling the sheath to reveal a wicked looking dagger. Zuko leapt up, half-fighting his way out of the crates, and tackled soldier just as he the dagger came free from his belt. It was sloppy, uncoordinated – panicked. But it drove the man away from his brother. Together, both soldier and boy fell to the ground, and the dagger came away from his grip and clattered into a grimy corner.

Zuko had taken the worst of the fall – the man was over him, the weight of his armor pinning him down. Zuko shoved his legs up, trying to get room between them to firebend. His palms sparked, but no flame caught because hard fingers were now gripped to his throat, fingers pressing in on his windpipe. 

Zuko choked, trying to twist away, turning enough to clock the man right in the jaw. But the soldier was intent – his hard amber eyes met Zuko's, his jaw flaked with spittle – or maybe that was Zuko's too… he couldn't tell because the edges of the world were growing dark. He clawed at man's hands, his lungs spasming.

The sound of running feet, and an impact as if very far away— Sokka did something – Zuko couldn't quite tell, but suddenly the weight and pressure was gone. 

He rolled away, coughing, his arms and legs tingling like they had been cut off from blood.

When he could sit up, he saw that Sokka and the soldier were on their feet, crouched and circling each other like wild beasts. Somehow, the soldier had gotten back his dagger, and Sokka his whale-bone machete. Sokka had a wicked slice along his forearm which was weeping blood. He seemed not to notice, but the Fire Nation soldier was grinning in triumph, twirling his bloodied dagger in his hand in silent mocking.

Zuko didn't think about what he had to do next. He was still gasping, still lightheaded from lack of oxygen, but he took an deep breath – more of a gasp - forcing the air through his bruised windpipe. When he exhaled, it was fire. He crouched low, and with one sideways sweep of his arms, sent the lash of flame out. The tip curled around the man's wrist, making him jump back, dropping his weapon.

Sokka was ready; he stepped forward with a sharp kick, catching the soldier right in his kneecap.

The man cried out – the most sound any of them had made so far - and fell to his knees. Sokka hit him right on the top of his head with the butt of his whale-bone machete.

With a final groan, the man sunk to his knees and fell over, unconscious.

At first the boys could do nothing more than lean over and pant, trying to get their wind back and steady shaky legs. That was harder than they could have ever expected. It had nearly taken everything out of them. When Sokka spoke, he was echoing both of their thoughts.

"I don't think I can do that again."

"Yeah, no kidding," Zuko husked. He leaned against the far wall, massaging his neck. A ring of vivid red and purple finger-sized marks were already standing out against his pale skin. At that moment he looked more bruise and scar than skin.

Sokka was gingerly unwrapping his arm guard, trying not to wince. Zuko came over to examine the wound: The white fabric had prevented the dagger from slicing to the bone, but the cut was long and was bleeding freely. It needed stitches, but that would have to wait. The only thing Zuko could do for the moment was wrap it as tight as he could.

Through the gap in the alleyway he could clearly see the outline of both the Fire Nation and pirate ship’s. "There has to be a different way to get in there."

But Sokka wasn't listening. He had bent over and scooped up one of the scrolls the soldier had dropped, giving a choked yelp when his own likeness stared back at him. "I don't have an earring! Since when do I have an earring?"

Zuko snatched the scroll out of his brother's hands to look at it himself: It was a wanted poster, and sure enough, the picture vaguely looked like Sokka… if Sokka were twenty-years-old and had somehow become a pirate. Zuko's own picture wasn't much better. "Who drew this? My scars are on the wrong side, and…" he trailed off, finally reading instead of gaping. "They're offering five-hundred royal backed gold pieces for us. Alive."

His brother rubbed his chin, and when he grinned it was distinctly wolfish. "Hmm… That's a lot of money. I wonder how much they'd pay for just one of us?"

Zuko glared at him.

"No, I'm serious," Sokka nudged the still unconscious soldier with the tip of his seal-hide boot. "That's a lot of good money. No wonder this guy didn't yell out for help. He thought he could take us both and then collect the reward himself."

"He nearly did."

"Yeah, so let's finish what he started."

Zuko started to nod, agreeing, and then stopped. He looked down at the crumpled guard, at the rust-red uniform, at the faceplate. His lips thinned and when he spoke his voice was flat. "I guess it'll have to be me then?"

"What?"

"You know, in the armor with the helmet." But it was the piece over his face that he mimed when he spoke. It was clear what exactly he was referring to even if Sokka could ignore the suddenly too stiff way he stood, the way his Adams apple bobbed continuously as he swallowed. He had known what the plan was, but now that it was happening he found he wasn't comfortable with the idea. 

Not of himself being in that uniform.

Sokka stared at him for the count of three. Then he snorted. "Playing dress-up doesn't make it the real deal, you know." A pause. "Besides, you're going to be the prisoner."

"What?" Zuko looked back and forth between the crumpled guard and his brother, torn between relief and alarm. "Sokka, I'm six inches taller than you. No one is going to believe—"

"Two inches! And Gran-Gran said I was due for another growth spurt anytime now!” Sokka snapped. “Anyway, Prince Iroh isn't even going to notice me. It's you he wants."

The impact of that statement at first flew right over Zuko's head. He was still concerned with the plan. But then, when Sokka didn't say anything more, and bent to start to work the heavy armor off the Fire Nation officer, he frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

"Nothing." Sokka muttered. "Help me with the catches here."

Zuko knelt down, but it was to only get eye-level with his brother. "What did you mean, Sokka?"

Sokka glanced up at him, and there was something in his deep blue eyes… some hesitation that Zuko didn't like at all. Maybe if it were Katara—he could always read her emotions like a book, and she the same way with him. Sokka was good at keeping his brilliant, and occasionally eccentric musings to himself. "Iroh really is—" he started, and then again came that strange hesitation, as if he were biting back words. Sokka glanced away, avoiding his gaze. "They won't care much about me, except for maybe slave labor in a mine or something, and I don't want to have to spell it out to you, but you're a firebender. It's not enough that Iroh gets the Avatar, or else he would have halfway back to the Fire Nation by now. He has to get the rogue, too."

It fit, but Zuko didn't like the way his brother was avoiding his gaze.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

They ended up hog-tying the still unconscious soldier and leaving him in a mostly dry area of the alleyway, snug between two fish crates. It took still a few minutes to figure out how exactly the complicated Fire Nation uniform was supposed to fit over Sokka's skinny frame. The soldier was taller and meatier, and while the armor plates didn't exactly match-up, they figured it would be okay unless someone looked too close.

Finally, with Zuko's hands secured behind his back with rope tied in an easy Water Tribe knot set to give with one sharp tug, Sokka lead him out.

"Don't walk like that. You're too proud," Sokka hissed. He was struggling to see out of the narrow bone-white face plate and over Zuko's head to look where he was going. "I just beat you up, remember?"

His younger brother growled something under his breath, but he did hunch over, eyes trained on the ground. 

If this were real, he thought, there would be no way he would be going this quietly.

"You! Stop right there!”

Both brothers froze right in their steps and turned. A Fire Nation soldier wearing a rank-pin of a lieutenant was behind them. It was he who had spoken, and his golden-brown eyes swept from Zuko to the uniformed Sokka and back again. His upper lip curled. "So you managed to catch one of the kids, did you? What about the other one?"

"Oh him?" Sokka's voice came out an octave above even his natural range, and he paused, coughing dramatically into his hand. When he spoke again, his voice was low, gruff, and to Zuko's ears, very fake. "I was out putting up posters, and saw them. They tried to run, but this one here was slow." He slapped Zuko's shoulder, causing the other boy to shoot him a dirty look.

"I see." The lieutenant's eyes narrowed, but it wasn't in suspicion. It was greed. "Well even if we don't find the other, that's still half the reward."

"Uh, yeah," agreed Sokka, bobbing his head. "So… I'm going to just put him with the other prisoners and, uh, go collect my money—"

"Oh, no need for that." And now the lieutenant was smiling. "You haven't heard? Commander Zhao wants to interrogate the captives the moment they're brought in. He'll want to see this one, first. I'll accompany you. "

Zuko's spine straightened the moment the Commander's name was uttered. "What?!" he barked, without thinking, breaking his persona as the beaten down Water Tribe boy. "No, I'm not going there. Where's my sister?"

The lieutenant's grin darkened into something sinister, and he took a threatening step towards the boy. But Sokka got there first.

Thinking fast, Sokka slapped Zuko hard upside the head – a ringing clout that was meant to stun more than hurt. "Silence, prisoner!" he snapped, and his other hand tightened on Zuko's wrist. 

The unspoken message was clear: Shut up, Zuko. Let me do the talking!

The lieutenant huffed out a chuckle. "Water Tribe. Bunch of savages don't know when keep quiet. Maybe the Commander will spare us the trouble and just burn out his tongue."

"Yeah, you said it!" Sokka's laugh of agreement was high pitched, and painfully forced. But when the lieutenant turned to lead the way towards the docked ship, he pushed Zuko forward, making him follow. "Just play along," Sokka whispered, while the man was a few steps ahead. "He's just in it for the reward. Don't make him suspect anything."

Zuko nodded once, but his shoulders were tight even as he slumped back down into his down-trodden hunch.

The lieutenant led the way confidently up the rampart, and through a maze of metal hallways, stopping at one unremarkable door. He knocked twice.

"Enter!" called a muffled voice, from inside.

One firm push from the lieutenant and the door swung open to reveal an unexpectedly wide storage room; rows and rows of spears and blades hung from the walls, their killing edges polished to a gleam. And in the middle of it, overseeing an inspection, was Commander Zhao flanked by no less than five men.

The Commander turned. "This had better be —" He stopped, his eyes falling on Zuko. "Well, well, well. What do we have here?"

Taking the cue, Sokka pushed Zuko forward a step or two, one hand still clasped firmly about his brother's wrist in a silent plea to behave.

The lieutenant leading them threw a crisp salute, which Sokka echoed, albeit a little sloppily. He took in a breath to speak, but again, the lieutenant cut him off. "I brought in the Water Tribe boys, sir. Just as ordered."

Typical Fire Nation to be taking all the credit where none was due. Sokka opened his mouth to object – his mouth had always been a step ahead of his brain. 

He caught the plural, Water Tribe boys, a second too late. 

Sokka stepped back. The lieutenant was quicker. He turned, and with one easy movement, hooked a finger under Sokka's too large helmet and wrenched it off – exposing the other Water Tribe boy underneath.

Zuko's hands came free from the deliberately loose rope, already sparking with intent, but there was little he could do. He and Sokka were already surrounded by Zhao's men, faced by the pointy end of several spears.

The lieutenant tossed the helmet it away with a sneer. "You can't really have expected me to fall for that, savage? That's the oldest trick in the scrolls."

"Oh, I don't know," said Sokka, with forced casualness. "You Fire Nation guys are pretty stupid."

A couple of faceless soldiers growled at this, but Commander Zhao only smiled. "Excellent work, Lieutenant Izhar. You will be commended in my report."

"Thank you, sir," said the lieutenant with a pleased bow.

Zhao turned his attention once more to the boys. "Impersonating a Fire Nation officer – that's like dressing up a hog-monkey and expecting it to dance." But his eyes were trained not to Sokka now, but to Zuko.

Zuko clenched his fists. He locked gazes with Zhao, stepping forward stiffly, almost against his own will, bringing his chest up to the sharp spear points. "Release us at once, Zhao!" It was nothing short of an order, somehow powerful, but equally ridiculous coming from the Water Tribe teen.

"Or what, exactly?" Zhao's voice was low, almost cloying.

Sokka stepped up, coming shoulder to shoulder his with his brother. "You think you're pretty tough with all these guys around!" but his words fell oddly flat. There was a sort of pressure in the air, a pressure that he was only starting to become aware of. Zuko and Zhao were glaring at one another, ignoring Sokka as if he hadn't spoken. Maybe they hadn't heard him at all. 

Around them, high up on the walls, the torches were flickering. It was impossible to say who was doing it, or maybe both were for the flames were jerking, flicking back and forth as if caught in the middle of a gale. But the air was still. Still and thick with tension.

Zuko's lips had peeled back in a silent snarl. "I fought you at Kyoshi Island. I'll do it again."

"Is that a challenge?"

"Yes!" Zuko leaned forward, nearly vibrating, passionate for the fight. "If I win, you let us go free. Me, the Avatar, my sister and my brother."

"What is going on here?" The question, no less of an order than Zuko's had been, cut through the room with the sharpness of a knife. Instantly, the almost palatable, intangible tension was gone. The torches stopped their wild dancing. Every head turned.

Prince Iroh stood in the opened doorway.

"I think you heard it for yourself, General," said Zhao. He seemed very pleased with himself, like a man who had outwitted a wily opponent. "The boy has challenged me to an Agni Kai, and I was about to accept."

Agni Kai? Sokka hadn't heard the word before, although it did sound… Fire Nationy. He glanced at Zuko and saw that his good eye had widened.

"What?" And for a moment – just a brief moment in time – Sokka saw the same exact expression of dawning horror on Iroh's face. He and Zuko did look a lot alike, give or take fifty years and fifty pounds.

Zhao's smile was oily. "Don't think you can stop this, Iroh. Barbarian as he is, he is also a firebender. It is his right." He turned, nearly grandstanding for his small audience, and gave a mocking bow which set Sokka's teeth on edge. "And I accept your challenge, Prince Zuko."

The words and the name swept over the watching soldiers – including the ones who had crowded in after Iroh to see what all the yelling had been about. The sudden surge of shocked murmurs from so many throats all at once filled the room, overpowering Zuko's loud, indignant, "I am not a prince!"

Zhao was still smiling around, and with a final smirk he brushed past the two Water Tribe boys, shouldering Zuko in his wake. "Outside, on the foredeck. I'm going to enjoy watching you burn, boy."

Iroh's expression was thunderous. "Leave us.” His order, while not loud, made every watching man scurry to the exit. 

The door shut behind them, leaving only the aged prince and the two teens.

And even though there was only one of him, and two of them, and he stood below Sokka's height with his hands clasped within the thick folds of his robes, they didn't move, didn't reach for any of the weapons lining the walls. 

The torchlights were flickering, flaring up in bright yellows and reds. There was no doubt that it was Iroh's power this time. When he spoke, however, his voice was steely, yet calm.

"You cannot hope to win against Zhao. He is considered a master among his peers."

"I don't need your advice!" Zuko snapped.

"Wait." Sokka held up a hand before Iroh could reply, turning to his brother. If someone had to inject a little bit of sanity in this situation, it might as well be him. "What exactly is this Agni Kai thing? What do you have to do?"

"I think it's like…" Zuko's gaze turned inward, as if he were grappling with the half-formed notion himself and trying to put it into terms both he and Sokka would understand. "Like an honor duel." Which was done by two warriors out on the ice, and usually stopped at first blood.

Iroh's expression was pinched. "It is a fire duel, nephew. And you have challenged a master."

Sokka stared his brother. "What, are you crazy?"

"I have to do this, Sokka. If I win he's agreed to let Aang and Katara go." But his face had gone even paler than usual, nearly white about his lips. He looked scared. He looked angry.

"And what if you lose? No, wait." Sokka turned to Iroh, and in his mind's eye he saw the scene his spirit guide, Lu Ten, had showed him which had happened so long ago; Iroh comforting an upset Zuko, and patiently teaching him a firebending trick to cheer him up. Iroh had cared for him, once. "You say you're his uncle, right?" he asked, and ignored Zuko's sputtered outrage. "Then get him out of this."

"I don't need his help!" Zuko snapped, but Sokka wasn't listening. He was looking at Iroh, holding onto the image of the boy and his uncle. He was family, and that had to mean something… even to the Fire Nation.

"Just let us go. You can say we took you by surprise, or something. No one has to know." Sokka swallowed, feeling sick at his next word. "Please."

Iroh bowed his head. He looked old, then. Older than Sokka had thought. After a long, long moment he spoke. "Zuko, if you retract this foolish challenge, I will release this boy here." He looked at Sokka. "And his sister."

Sokka waited a beat, but that was the extent of Iroh's offer. Fire Nation, he thought savagely, and he knew he had been an idiot to even hope. They were cruel monsters, and this one was no different. "What?! What about Aang?" His voice went up and down an octave in mingled disbelief and anger. "What about Zuko?"

"It is my duty to bring the Avatar back to the Fire Nation. Zuko must return to his family."

"You—”

"No," Zuko said, before Sokka could really tell the old Prince what was on his mind. "No deal." Then he turned to his brother, gripping his arm above the elbow, facing him not man to man, not even brother to brother, but warrior to chief. "Listen, I know I can do this. I don't know how or why, but I'm not crazy. I know I can defeat him, Sokka."

Sokka stared at him for a long, long moment. There was nothing weak in Zuko's gaze. Finally, he felt himself nodding, giving permission he wasn't aware until that moment he had to give. He trusted him; trusted in his judgment.

"Fine," he said, and Zuko's grip tightened in gratitude.

"Prince Zuko." Iroh's voice was grave. "Whether you wish to admit it or not, the Fire Nation is your true home. I have done what I could to keep your identity a secret—Perhaps I hoped you would come to your senses. Zhao will work tirelessly to make sure you are seen as a traitor to your people. You must remember this; you are of royal blood. No matter what the outcome of this duel, I will make sure you can return in honor."

Zuko lifted his chin. "I don't remember the Fire Nation," he said. "And I don't remember you. The Water Tribe took me in and raised me. Sokka's father adopted me into his family, despite what I am. They are my people. You're just wasting your breath."

A brassy gong rung out from somewhere up above, almost as if to punctuate his words. Iroh closed his eyes, but he did not move. "It's time. I will lead the way. My only advice to you is this; Zhao is overconfident in his abilities. If you focus on your basics and take him by surprise, you may live past today, Nephew." The last word seemed to be almost said out of spite, as if Zuko's speech had not mattered in the least.

Then, before either could respond Iroh turned, opening the door once again. As soon as he was out, his pet flying lemur settled on his shoulder, as if the creature had been waiting outside for his return.

If it was on the boy's mind's to make a run for freedom (Sokka, at least, considered it) the idea was quashed by the sight of Fire Nation guards posted every ten feet or so along the corridor. Plus Prince Iroh himself.

Sokka sighed and very quietly whispered, "Are you sure about this?"

Zuko visibly swallowed, but his back was straight – if not for the tightness in his jaw, he would have looked completely cool and certain. "I refuse to let him win."

Sokka nodded, although he wasn't sure if Zuko meant Zhao… or Iroh.

 

 

Chapter Text

This cute art is by Chomocho!

 

 

 

 

 


 

OoOoO

"Prince Zuko, have you forgotten what happened last time you dueled a master?"
"I will never forget."

Iroh and Zuko – The Southern Air Temple

OoOoO


 

In the end, it was impossible to break Aang's restraints through freezing and accelerated rust. The locks were too well made, the metal too refined. It was only by accident—an annoyed flick of her fingers an hour or two into trying to break the lock, that Katara got the idea of using her carefully gathered droplets of water as a cutting tool.

It was hard work, and she didn't dare try the technique too close to Aang's bare skin. The half ounce or so of water she had managed to collect from condensation worked like a small knife or a file. It was slow; every cut at first was shallow, a bare scratch across hardened metal. She also had trouble hitting the same place twice.

Hours of trying to airbend the heavy chains off and dragging them around the cell had left Aang exhausted. He couldn't keep his eyes open, no matter how many times Katara snapped at him to stay still. Eventually, she let him sleep… he needed it, and as the dull night wore on she was having trouble keeping her own head from bobbing. Once or twice she jerked back into alertness with her bending water puddled by her knee.

But as she practiced, she grew better. The shallow scores in the metal grew deeper and deeper. Finally, with a sharp snap and a clink of metal, the first of Aang's heavy chains was severed in two.

Katara's gasp of delight woke Aang. He blinked sleepily and rubbed at his head. Then he realized he could move that arm more freely. "Katara?" he asked, then caught sight of the broken chain. "Oh wow, you did it!"

"Shh! Not so loud!" She threw a cautious look at the door, but they'd had no more visitors since Commander Zhao. "Here, toss me the length of your other chain and I'll start working on that."

"Why? Just cut the shackles off my wrist. It'll be quicker." He held out his wrists, and the thinner chain linking them, expectantly, but she drew back, biting her lip.

"I could cut you like that." She couldn't take it if anyone else got hurt over her foolishness. "I'll just cut the big ones off. The main links are far enough away from your skin."

He just smiled. "You won't hurt me, Katara. You're—"

"I said no, Aang." She fixed him with a hard glare until he looked away and sighed.

"Well, I can't exactly do a lot of airbending like this. Maybe the guards will have keys to unlock the chain in the middle.”

It took her another half hour to cut the rest of the main chains.

He stood, wobbling for a moment as he adjusted again to the weight of his own body. He waived off Katara's concern, and after a few moments and a couple of deep breaths, said, "You have got to show me that trick later." And he smiled.

"I just made it up tonight…" Although she blushed at his praise.

After that, it was little effort to cut through the bars of their holding cell. Katara cut and Aang rushed in, quick as thought even restricted by the weight of the shackles, to catch the bars before they could hit the ground and cause a clatter. Then they squeezed through the gap.

They paused before opening the door, catching each other's eyes. Aang twisted his hands rapidly, the chain on his wrist taunt. The air pressure seemed to change in the room, pressing against their eardrums, and a spherical ball of swirling blue wind coalesced in his hand. He looked up from it, and with an answering nod, she took the handle.

Two guards were standing there to either side chatting amiably. Katara saw for one frozen moment their shock and surprise before Aang released his hold on the bended ball of energy, unleashing gale-force blast of air. The two men hit the far wall and slumped down like limp rag-dolls. Unconscious.

Katara and Aang leapt out into the hallway, elements ready to face… nothing.

The corridor was empty.

They looked at each other, shrugged. Without a word, they started down the metal hallway.

They didn't know where they were going—it wasn't like there weren't any helpful signs on the ship's bulkheads or the doors – but by the third empty hallway, Katara's head was ringing with the strangeness of their escape. Where were all the guards? She took the corridor to the right, and Aang fell into step behind her, awkward and short-stepped because of his remaining restraints.

"Katara!" he gasped, "Wait!"

She did, paused to let him catch up, she peaked around a corner. The corridor beyond was deserted. "What's wrong?"

Aang drew in beside her, holding the short length of chain that stretched between his wrists so it wouldn't jangle. "We can't leave yet. I still have to get my glider." He looked up at her, his grey eyes large and pleading. "It's the only thing I have left from the monks, and I don't want to lose that too."

Katara sighed, but she knew how important the glider was to him. Unconsciously, her hand stilled over the blue stone of her necklace. "Okay," she said. "They have to have some sort of supply room or something…"

They set out again, jogging down one stark, empty corridor after another. Steel riveted doors stood out on either side of the halls, and most of them were unlocked. But those only led into further corridors, short sets of stairs up or down to the next level, or utility closets. One door opened to reveal a grey bay stuffed with a series of pipes, some dripping water. Katara pulled the liquid to her with a smooth reeling motion of her hands and collected it into a globe the size of her head.

Even chained, Aang he was quick on his feet in a sprint and could open and look into three rooms for every one of hers. He stood in front of a large, likely door now. "I've got a good feeling about this one," he said, pushing it open with a flourish.

Someone had set up a flimsily card table directly inside, and  four beefy Fire Nation soldiers sat around it. The biggest one had already leapt from his seat, throwing down his cards and declaring, "Ha! Full dragon clutch beats two pair!" Then he paused, turning to stare at the open door.

"Heh." Aang gave a shy wiggle of his fingers. "Wrong door."

He slammed it shut as the soldiers scrambled to their feet.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

The storm had been gathering strength through the day. Now the bruise-colored clouds had finally broken wide open and the two Water Tribe boys and Prince Iroh stepped into driving rain. The wind was howling like a thing alive, driving the rain sideways one second and straight the next – pelting down with such force that the droplets felt as if they were being bended from above.

Both boys paused at the threshold under the eves to stare outside. Through the gray, soaked air they could see two orderly lines of red uniformed soldiers standing the parameter of the deck, leaving the middle wide and open like an arena. It seemed the entire compliment of the ship had braved the storm to witness the Agni Kai.

Sokka shot his brother a look, both eyebrows raised in silent question. Are you sure about this? 

Zuko's jaw tightened. He nodded, resolute before he stepped forward out into the rain.

A shift in the wind seemed to clear the rainy air for a moment, almost as if a curtain was opening.

Standing not thirty feet away, with a calculated smile on his face, was Commander Zhao. He was unexpectedly shirtless, save for a loose wrap around his shoulder the color of dried blood. He looked predatory; eager in his stance with arms and shoulders thick with ropy muscle.

Zuko’s step faltered, and someone put a bracing hand to his shoulder. Prince Iroh. Zuko recoiled from the touch, but the message behind it was clear. He straightened his shoulders and stepped forward— stiff and awkward and trying to look like he knew what he was doing.

Zhao yelled something from his side of the arena – Zuko could not hear the words over the rain and the wind, but guessed it was some sort of insult.

A man stationed off to the side struck a mallet-shaped beater to a gong once again. The crash of trembled the pooled water on the deck. It seemed to be a signal, and with a final smirk Commander Zhao turned his back on the boy and knelt down, one fist flat against the steel deck.

Zuko just stood, his own fists half-raised, already soaked through with wet hair dripping in his eyes, and unsure what to do next. He heard a jeer from the right coming from the watching soldier… although half-blinded by the rain he couldn't tell exactly from where. All the amber-eyed, pale soldiers tended to look the same to him anyway. He could not even identify Sokka, who was still dressed like one of them.

And still Zhao knelt. What was he waiting for? Was it a trick? Some kind of ruse? Zuko took a half step forward. Now, in the stillness before the duel, with the knowledge of what he must do, he was suddenly aware of the way his own muscles were burning from exhaustion; the combination of staying up the night perfecting his fire-whip and the grueling fight with the Fire Nation soldier earlier this morning. He was aware, too, of the sound of his own ragged breath in his ears and the searing reminder down his wind-pipe of being half choked earlier.

For the first time, Zuko felt doubt swell into his mind, quenching the fires of anger which had sustained him this far. He and Katara had practiced for years, but only had come up with a few moves. Would it be enough? 

It was pouring now. A coat of standing water layered the deck; much more was coming down than could be diverted away, and the air was thick with fog and moist. How anyone was supposed to bend fire in conditions like this?

He could turn now. He knew Iroh would be waiting safely to the side, probably under some shelter. Zuko knew he could still accept his offer and Sokka and Katara would be safe. Maybe he could find a way to free Aang on his own – No, no… Iroh would take him back to the Fire Nation. He would never go back.

He would die first.

The gong struck again – a third, final time, and Commander Zhao rose, the coverlet wrapping his shoulders fluttering away impressively in the wind. Zuko swallowed hard, but held steady. Across the deck, gold eyes met amber.

Commander Zhao was first to strike.

He stepped forward, unleashing a jet of fire which was like an explosion on its own. Zuko was right; the rain did help diminish the flame, but there was plenty of it to spare. Massive, hot, and strangely wild at the edges, it seemed to fill the entire area between them. Zuko couldn't have avoided it if he wanted to.

So he stood his ground, instead.

Taking a deep steady breath, he swung his arms out to the side to divert Zhao's fire. He then twisted his hands, forcing the flames around, behind and forward again – now his own – and back towards Zhao in a high, crashing wave that hissed and steamed in the rain-soaked air.

The Commander backed a step in surprise, but his own defending move was something Zuko had never seen before; strong and blocky with fists extended from his middle. The fire rolled off and around Zhao's shoulders into nothingness.

Then Zhao was on the offensive again, this time kicking and punching in bright flashes, sending thin powerful bolts like arrows which Zuko could only knock away with bursts of his own flame. 

There was a lull as Zhao regathered his strength, and Zuko took it, running forward to meet the man head on. His own flames collapsed into a thin stream which he sent out, snapping, a deadly last of fire.

But the rain was pouring down, and the water pierced through the ribbon, and it was little effort for Zhao to knock it away. 

One spin and a powerful kick and Zhao shot out a sharp blade of fire, aimed right for Zuko's chest.

Zuko sucked in a deep breath and brought his hands up, bringing with it a wall of flames, like a shield of ice Katara used. The thick firewall saved his life, but the amount of fire seemed to reach in and pull all the breath from his lungs. 

The force from Zhao's next blast knocked Zuko flat back onto the wet deck.

Zhao closed the distance at a quick sprint. He was grinning, his eyes alight with the anticipation of the kill.

Zuko rolled onto his feet, only quick reflexes allowing him to duck under a flaming fist. He saw an opening and took it; an awkward duck-footed step as he had slipped behind Zhao, palm directly on the center of his spine. He was still winded from his last effort, gasping for air – all breath control gone – but Aang's gentle instructions from their morning practice sessions floated back into his mind. When the Commander roared in surprise and twisted to shoot a killing blast to the right, Zuko stepped with him, keeping himself safely behind.

"Coward!" Zhao cried, now turning to the left, shooting another blast which hit nothing. "Face your death like a man!"

Zuko shifted again, putting an ankle right in front of Zhao's next step. Their legs fouled, and the Commander lost his balance. He pin-wheeled his arms in an effort to stay upright, but it was no use. He fell to the deck with a heavy thud.

At that moment, Zuko should have struck. The commander was down. Zuko raced forward, pulling back his arm. Then their eyes met, and Zuko saw the naked fear in them.

He hesitated.

Zhao whipped his legs up, scissoring them in a blast of fire that was hot enough to evaporate all the rain within three feet to a rush of steam. Zuko ducked ungracefully away, and the commander leapt up to his feet.

He struck out at Zuko with unfancy palm strikes – simple, direct and powerful blasts which pounded at the boy and his thin fire-wall, driving him back step-by-step.

Zuko sucked in a breath and tried to blow it out again as flame. It wasn't enough. It was all he could do to keep a shield of flame up to take the strikes, keep the heat away enough to avoid being burned. It was thin in too many places. Zhao's flame licked eagerly at his outstretched hands—

With a yell, the Commander stepped forward with both fists outstretched in a forceful blast. Zuko tried to reach out to divert it, but his breath control was gone, his balance shaky. He managed to turn the fire, but the concussion hit him like a battering ram. He was knocked right onto his back, fallen for the final time.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Aang staggered and would have tripped over his own ankle-chain had Katara not pulled him back up by an elbow. Behind them, the card playing soldiers were in hot pursuit – although they had learned to keep a safe distance, wary of more thrown barbs of ice from Katara.

But now she was reduced to only a palmful of water, and  they were racing for their lives.

They hit a staircase and ran up - Aang clumsily bending a blast of air behind them to lighten their feet. The next level was more nicely furnished than anything they had seen before, with red rugs and cheery looking torches burning upon the walls. The kids didn't pause to look, just blew past, cutting right and then left – only to stop short.

"Dead end!" Katara yelled. She skidded to a halt, but Aang didn't see her in time, crashing into her and  knocking them both down. They got up in a moment, but the soldiers had rounded the last bend.

They were trapped.

The soldier in the front grinned under his sweaty beard. "There ain't no where else to go, kids. Give it up and maybe we'll put you back in your cells all nice-like."

Katara stepped forward, instinctively putting herself between her restrained friend and the firebenders. The water in her hand flowed to her fingers and crystallized into ice, but it was little and pathetic and they all knew it. "You'll have to get through me first."

"Aw, don't be like that little girl," another soldier leered, "What you gonna do? Splash us?"

All four of the men chuckled. The one in the front had a wide grin on his face. He pulled back his hand as if to strike, flames already licking at his knuckles. "Have it your way. I'm going to enjoy this, water bitch."

At that same moment, Aang touched Katara's arm. His eyes were half lidded, as if he were concentrating very hard on something inward. "Katara," he whispered, "get ready to run."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

"Fire feels more like a heartbeat. It's not a friend. You can't turn your back on it, but if you respect it, it will keep you warm when you're cold, and help defend you against your enemies. The bender needs fire to live, just as the fire needs the bender."

Zuko's words flashed through Aang's mind, quick as thought. Peering past Katara, he ignored the taunting soldiers and focused instead on the flickering torches on either side of the hallway. And when he took a deep breath – in through his nose and exhaling out his mouth – the torches seemed to brighten and Aang felt a glimmer of something hot inside of him.

"Katara, get ready to run."

The soldier in front of them had already pulled his fist for a quick, deadly strike, but Aang was faster. He swept his arms out as if casting an invisible line. The nearest torch over the soldier's heads flared, exploding outward into the corridor with a flash. It was all brightness and little heat, but the distraction was enough. The men jumped back, and the firebender's own blast went wide as the others fell into him.

Aang pushed Katara forward and they slipped past the jumped men. They sprinted down the corridor, turning the corner just in time to avoid blasts of fire aimed at their backs.

Turning right led to another dead end, but there was a door off to the side – decorated in threaded gold, and set slightly open. They rushed in, slamming the door behind them and throwing the lock . With a press of her hands, Katara used the last of her water to freeze the seam of the door, just in case.

The soldiers were on it immediately. She could hear them banging and cursing for her to let them in, although Katara's unnaturally strong ice was holding for now. She resisted the urge to stick her tongue at the door.

The room they found themselves in was… strange. Not at all what Katara expected to find in a Fire Nation ship. A double set of fireplaces crackled merrily from each side. The walls were decorated with richly colored hangings, a scattering of stringed instruments, and what looked to be a picture of a lotus flower. The room smelled of old spices, faintly familiar, although she couldn't place it.

Aang let out a gasp beside her. "My air glider!" It lay propped against one wall and Aang stumbled over to it, hugging it against his chest. Then he pulled back, looking ruefully at his wrists. "I can't fly with these," he said, clinking the manacles ruefully.

"Well, there has to be a key around here somewhere." She went to a nearby desk and pulled at a one of the drawers, but it was locked. "What is this place?"

"It's Iroh's room."

Katara looked up sharply at Aang, and he sort of gave a shrug before turning to a set of double doors on the other side of the room. "Well, he was in here last time I was on the ship."

A chill went up Katara's spine. She glanced again to the door. The soldiers had stopped pounding upon it, but there was an ominous red glow around the handle and she could see rivets of water melting down the door. Her ice wasn't going to last for long. "Aang, we need to get out of here." Abandoning the desk, she looked around for something – anything to help. A vase of flowers with water in it. Anything.

"Katara, come look!"

Aang's panicked voice came from beyond the double doors. It led to a high balcony of some sort and at first she couldn't see what was going on. She hadn't even known it was storming outside the ship, but the rain was coming down in sheets so thick she could hardly tell what he was pointing at. Prince Iroh's room and the balcony stood high over the foredeck of the ship, and she caught at first two neat rows of armed men; nearly a ship's compliment worth. So that's where they had gone! So why—

A double flare of fire caught her attention. Two figures – firebenders – were fighting on the deck. Both were dark haired, but the thinner of the two was dressed in familiar Water Tribe blue.

No…

"ZUKO!" she yelled, but the wind carried away her voice. 

Aang gripped her arm to get her attention.

"We have to get down there. You have to cut these." He held up his chained wrists.

Katara shook her head, backing a step. "No. I can't. I—"

She was interrupted by loud explosion from back inside the room. The metal door lay half open, red with heat and smoking against the carpet. The explosion hadn't cleared the way for the soldiers completely, but it would only take one more.

Out on the deck, the figure of Zuko fell.

Aang's grey eyes caught hers. "You can do this, Katara. You're a great waterbender, and I trust you." She could only see calm certainty in his gaze. He had faith in her.

"O-okay," she said. Her voice just shook a little. "Hold out your arms. I'm going to try to make this fast."

Water droplets rose from the soaked deck, gathering under her fingertips. She brought it down in a slicing motion harder than she had before. It hit just where she had aimed it, right at the joint connecting the two pieces between his wrists. And with another snap the chains broke apart, falling into two pieces. She had sliced it in just one hit.

Aang rubbed at his freed wrists and grinned. "I bet they don't teach that sort of move in the waterbending scroll."

Katara grinned and another strike of the water and the chain linking Aang's feet were freed as well.

There was a final explosion from inside the room – so loud it rattled Katara's teeth. Aang snapped the airglider open, she gripped him around the waist and the wild-storm winds took them up into the air.

 


 

OoOoO


 

Zhao advanced slowly, like a predator. A short length of chain lay on the deck by his feet, forgotten by those rushing to clear the deck for the Agni Kai. He picked it up, swinging it menacingly, striking the deck with sparks, and smirking when Zuko tried to scuttle away. Around him, the watching Fire Nation soldiers jeered.

Smirking, Zhao brought the line of chain wrapped in fire down.

Zuko rolled to the right, feeling searing heat and a hiss of water and steam pass him, right where his head had been a second before. He tried to get up, but Zhao had done playing with his food. Dropping the chain, he rushed in fast for the kill. 

For a second, all Zuko could see was the man's leering face, the bright flash of his teeth and eager fire in his hands.

Panic seized him. His legs jerked as if on their own accord, he scuttled backwards, nearly crab-walking to avoid another strike.

He bumped into something hard – a bucket left from washing the deck, half filled with rainwater.

And Zhao was running at him, fist sheathed in fire. Zuko didn't think. His hands, holding the metal bucket now, flashed into heat and he threw the boiled water right at Zhao's naked chest.

The commander reeled back with a yell of equal parts surprise and pain, his flame doused. Zuko kicked him in the thigh hard enough to bring him down. 

Zhao fell, screaming.

Zuko struggled to his feet, dazed, lightheaded from lack of oxygen, unsure if it was over. But Zhao was half-curled and writhing in agony upon the wet deck, paying him no attention. He would not be getting back up.

It was over. Zuko had won.

And Zuko looked out across the foredeck, noting the spectators again for the first time in what seemed to be hours. The rushing wind brought their whispers.

"Never seen moves like that…"

"They say he's the lost Prince Zuko..."

"Did he just bend that water?"

"Not possible…"

For a moment, just a brief moment in time, Zuko stood straight and tall with adrenaline singing in his veins, the victor of an Agni Kai, and he knew that he had won the soldiers respect. He could have asked for them to bow to him, and they would have done it.

It was a heady, dangerous thought. But even as he pushed it away in the next moment, some of the giddiness remained.

The gong struck again, signaling the end of the Agni Kai.

Zuko caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his good eye. He half turned, but he was too slow. 

Commander Zhao was already up, hunched from his injury, his face in a snarl with hot fire erupting from between his knuckles.

In the next instant, the standing water under Zhao's feet pooled and solidified into ice. The Commander's right foot slipped, the shot went wide, and he was down again.

Zuko stepped forward, one fist cocked back, but before he could make the final, killing blow he felt a hand close over his shoulder. 

A high voice said, "No! Zuko don't! He's not worth it."

"Katara?" He spun around. She was there, right there – she had been the one, of course, to freeze the water. "How?" he asked, but the answer didn't come because she was pulling him into a tight hug. 

Distantly, he noticed the red uniformed soldiers rushing forward to subdue the still half-wild, struggling commander, but that didn't matter. Katara was there, and he needed her to calm his hotblooded anger more than he liked to admit. 

Finally, Zuko pulled back, still gripping her shoulders tightly. He must have been more light-headed, more exhausted than he thought because he could only ask, "You're here? You're okay?"

"I'm okay," she replied, and he read the truth of it in her eyes. "Aang and I broke out. What's going on? Why were you fighting, and—" She turned out of his grip, looking back to Sokka who was calling their names and running up to meet them. "Sokka, why are you dressed in Fire Nation clothing? What's happened?"

Sokka managed to skid to a stop, a wide grin on his face. "All part of my brilliant plan for rescue. It even almost worked." He punched Zuko playfully on the shoulder in congratulations… perhaps a touch too hard, because he had seen how close of a duel it had been.

"Prince Zuko."

Iroh stood before them. He spared a glance for Katara and Aang, and the lemur in his arms let out sound that was half curious chirp, half a pleased purr. Its white and brown fur stuck out at odd angles as if Iroh had been not watching the way he had pet it during the duel. Around them, the men noticed the change in mood and had come to attention, drawing their weapons.

Seeing this, Zuko stepped forward, but Sokka and Katara were there first, blocking him from the aged Prince. Katara in particular had a savage look on her normally lovely face, and the drops of rain splattering around them trembled ominously

"We had a deal," Sokka said, lowly. "He wins and you let us go."

"The Avatar and this young lady were purchased from the pirates by myself, not Commander Zhao," said Iroh. But he paused, tilting his head to the driving rain, before he met Zuko's gaze. "You fought furiously and won with honor, Nephew. There is no higher compliment for a firebender."

Zuko growled, "I did it to save Aang and Katara." He then added, almost sullenly, "And I'm not your nephew."

Iroh didn't seem concerned by this. He raised a hand, and the surrounding soldiers backed away. “My ship cannot leave dock until the storm has passed. You will have that much of a head start."

A low groan sounded in the air, and the Fire Nation soldiers scattered as Appa landed with a rush of wet-fur scented wind. Aang tucked his bison-whistle back in his shirt with a look of satisfaction. "Hey buddy!" he called. One leap later, he was on top of Appa's head, scratching at his ears.

Zuko watched Iroh suspiciously through narrowed eyes, but the Prince didn't make a move to call back his order.

Nodding once, Zuko turned and walked to Appa without a parting word. Sokka sent a lingering glare at Iroh, and then followed.

Only Katara hung back. She remembered how Iroh had haggled the pirate captain for her, when he could have just as easily left just with Aang. There had been so much to think about afterwards – so much doubt and worry and work trying to get out of that cell – but for the first time she realized she could have been in real trouble if he left her there, with those men. 

"You really are Zuko's uncle, aren't you?" she asked him.

He nodded. "I am."

She bit her lip. There were so many things she wanted to ask, but this wasn't the time, wasn't the place. But maybe, she thought, maybe if he is Zuko's uncle there is good in him, too. She only said, "Thank you… you know, for saving me from the pirates." And after a jerky half-embarrassed bow she turned and ran for Appa, catching Sokka's outstretched hand and swinging aboard.

Then they were off.


 

OoOoO


 

 

It took some time for everyone to catch up with one another. The rain had finally starting to slacken and the sky darkening into evening by the time Katara and Aang had finished telling of their escape, and Zuko and Sokka of their abortive rescue.

"And it was all because I wanted that stupid waterbending scroll." Katara slumped in her corner of Appa's saddle, looking miserable "The worst part of it is, I didn't even get it."

"The worst part?!” Sokka squawked, but Zuko cut him off.

"What's wrong with you? You can't just go around stealing things. Do you know how worried we were?"

"Yeah," Sokka added. "And I had to fight a guy like this big to even get that stupid uniform." He raised his hand way above his head, indicating a monster of a man roughly ten feet tall. "And he had a knife!" Which she already knew because she had been the one to stitch up the slash in his arm, but he felt it needed repeating again.

Katara still winced and looked down. "I know, I know. I'm sorry, you guys. Stealing is bad, and I'll never do it again."

"You'd better not." Zuko growled.

"What about our chores?" Sokka added, ever hopeful. "With my bad arm and Zuko so tired from Agni Kai-ing, I don't think we can do everything all by ourselves…"

She started to huff, but she caught the mischievous glint in her brother's eyes. Then Sokka turned to rummage through his pack. He brought out the waterbending scroll, and her eyes widened to an almost comical size. For a second it looked as if Sokka was going to torture her by withholding for just a moment longer, maybe make her say they were the best brothers ever, or make her promise cook his favorite meal.

But a strange look came over his face. He hunched over with a sharp, racking cough, and in a second Katara snatch the scroll from his hands and cuddled it to her chest. "Oh! You got it! You got it! Thank you! Are—are you okay?"

"Me? Never better," Sokka said, wiping his runny nose on his sleeve.

 

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

From the perspective of an outsider, Prince Iroh was the very picture of patience. He sat on a low bench outside the officer's quarters; calm of breath, fingers casually flipping a lotus tile over and over in the palm of his hand. The white and brown lemur, however, was able to sense his friend's true mood, and reflected it. Momo was jumpy and anxious. His large ears twitched and swiveled at every noise.

After a long length of time there was a sound from the other side of the bulkhead. A latch was jerked back, the door opened and a gruff man in a red smock and a physician's insignia stepped out.

Iroh stood up, but it was the physician who gave a deep bow.

“Commander Zhao is in pain and there will be some scarring, but his firebending will not be hindered."

Some scarring. The lines on Iroh's face deepened as he thought of other scars. Commander Zhao should consider himself lucky he would be able to cover his scars with a shirt. 

"Thank you," Iroh said. "May I speak with him?" It was not a request.

The doctor nodded and stepped aside, allowing the prince to pass. Iroh did, but not before pausing to reach inside his tunic to withdraw a single sealed scroll. "If you would be so kind, please arrange a message-hawk for delivery. These orders must reach Colonel Shinu without haste."

"Yes, sir." With another bow and one last glance back over his shoulder at his patient, the man walked away, leaving Iroh to shut the door behind him.

Zhao lay on his back upon the single cot. Iroh stepped to the side of it, staring down at him and waiting for the man's half-drugged, amber gaze to focus on his face.

"Commander Zhao," Iroh's voice had a touch of formality he had not used with the doctor. "You have lost your Agni Kai, and your own terms have forced me to release the prisoners. You have disgraced yourself and your rank."

The man was clearly under some sort of sedation, his face slack yet strangely wild at the same time. He gave a weak half-snarl. "What will you do now, Iroh?… The men know… The dead prince travels with the Avatar… You can't possibly avoid the scandal."

"Perhaps," Iroh allowed. "But I was not the one who lost to a half-trained boy today. The capture of the Avatar and Prince Zuko are no longer your concern. You and your men will be assigned other, less strenuous missions while you recover." He paused, perhaps savoring the moment. "It may give you a chance to reflect on your true loyalties… and to work on your firebending basics."

With that, Iroh turned and strode out of the room. The door shut on Commander Zhao's scream of rage.

 

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Next up: With Sokka and Katara fallen ill, what are Aang and Zuko to do?

Chapter Text


 

OoOoO

My honor, my throne, my country, I'm about to lose them all. 

~ Zuko, The Blue Spirit

OoOoO


 

 

It started with a cough.

No one thought a thing about it. They flew away from Prince Iroh's ship through the hard driving rain, jubilant at their escape and too relived to pay attention to a little sore throat and cough. The cut on Sokka's arm was stitched, but sore, and he didn't bother to complain later that night when his cough turned from dry and annoying to deep and racking. 

When Katara suggested that he take it easy, he waved her away. "It's been raining. I just caught a cold," he said, and went back to sharpening his boomerang.

The next morning Sokka woke much later than usual – past when Aang and Zuko were back from their circle-walking practice − coughing almost constantly, nose dripping, and eyes dull. He tried to shrug off Katara again when she asked how he was feeling, but couldn't quite duck fast enough when she put a hand to his forehead.

"Sokka, you're burning up!"

Sokka opened his mouth to protest, but was instead doubled over instead by a series of sharp, wet coughs. 

When he finally caught his breath, Katara was pushing him back towards the pile of sleeping bags. Well, he was feeling pretty lousy, and he supposed it wasn't the worst thing in the world to have Aang and Zuko do his chores…

By the next morning his fever had spiked high. He lay in his sleeping bag with all the extra furs and blankets bundled on and around him, tossing his head fitfully and talking to people who weren't there.

Then Katara started to cough.

"I'm fine," she said. "I just caught a cold."

"That's what Sokka said yesterday!" Zuko snapped. “Now look at him!"

They turned their heads. A sheen of sweat bloomed out across Sokka's tanned forehead, glinting in the firelight. 

"Water," he gasped, eyes half closed. Their nearby argument had woken him from his doze.

Katara shot a quick narrow-eyed glare at Zuko for being so loud before turning to bend some water from the nearby stream into a bowl. Walking over, she knelt down and put the bowl to Sokka's lips. 

Zuko followed closely at her heels. "He needs a healer. You do, too, if you're catching it."

"What Sokka needs is rest and willow-bark tea to bring the favor down, and I already told you, I'm fine!"

Sokka seemed to catch a little of the conversation. He grinned up at them through heat-chapped lips. "Maybe we could travel underground, like the earthbenders. It's warm and comfy down there…"

"That's nice, Sokka." Katara patted his arm in a comforting sort of way and refilled the bowl with a flick of her wrist.

Aang, meanwhile, had alighted to Appa's saddle and was busily digging through Sokka's pack. Once he found what he was looking for he floated down between Katara and Zuko, unrolling a ragged piece of parchment. "There's an apothecary not too far away," he said, pointing to the spot on the map. "I could get medicine."

Katara shook her head. "No way. You could get caught going out all alone." And they all knew from the fierce look in her blue eyes that she was thinking about her and Aang's capture at the hands of the pirates.

Luckily, her brother was in agreement. "You can't go off by yourself, Aang…. None of us can with Iroh trying to hunt us down. He could be anywhere by now. You and I will just have to go together." Zuko stood behind the other boy to read the map over his shoulder. Then he glanced up at Katara and caught her doubtful expression. "It's not too far off. Look at the map: The apothecary's just on the top of the next mountain. If Aang and I go now we can make it back before sundown."

"But what if—" Whatever Katara was about to say was cut off by a round of harsh coughing. 

The boys jumped away, arms over their noses against her germs. By the time she caught her breath, she was breathless and her nose was running.

"Appa can stay behind and keep watch. You can Sokka can rest in the meantime. His tail makes a really comfy bed." Aang patted the great flat tail and the bison groaned his agreement in the background.

Katara still looked dubious, but then her face contorted strangely and she sneezed three times in a row − painfully. "Okay, fine. Fine."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

The two boys set off, following a curved dirt path from the height of the ruined temples where they had camped for the night down to a well-traveled looking road. Aang had intended to fly just ahead on his airglider – the gusts of wind were promising a wild ride today – but the ominous grey clouds rolling just over the horizon made him think twice. With a sigh he snapped the orange sails shut and walked, instead.

Aang soon found that going on a journey with Zuko, when he was intent on something, was boring. Zuko on mission-mode was deadly-serious. He didn't crack sarcastic jokes, like Sokka. And while Katara was usually brimming with helpful encouragement, Zuko just grunted, gave one word comments, and complained about making better time. 

Aang knew that getting the medicine was serious, but… well, did Zuko have to be so serious about it?

"Let me know if you start to feel sick too," said Zuko, about an hour into their journey, after checking the map and the position of the sun yet again. "I don't want you to start that coughing. You'll slow us both down."

Aang had been kicking a stone along the path in boredom. He glanced up and made a face. Then, he got an idea. 

"Slow us down, huh?" He leapt forward, grabbing the map from Zuko's hands. Then, with rush of air he was off, the butt of his airstaff whacking playfully upside the grumpy firebender's head. 

Grinning deviously, Aang called over his shoulder, "Let's see who the slow one is!"

"Hey!" Zuko yelped, but Aang was already speeding down the path, a trail of dust in his wake, the echo of a happy laugh still in the air. "Hey!" Zuko called again, breaking into a run. "Wait up!"

Zuko was fast, but Aang's airbending gave him true speed. He led the older boy on a merry chase a fair way down the road, slowing only when the forest thinned and gave way to a grassy meadow. Finally, Zuko came into view, loping towards him in an easy jog, his scarred features pinched as if he really was trying to look annoyed, but was feeling sorta sheepish instead.

Aang greeted him with a cheery smile, waving the rolled map. "Looking for something?"

"Give me that!"

Grinning, Aang handed him his map. "Wanna race again? This time I can give you a head start-"

With a quick, well-calculated move, Zuko reached past the map and grabbed the young monk's head under his arm. "Where's that airbender speed now?" he teased, rubbing his knuckles over Aang's bald scalp for emphasis.

"Ahh! No fair!" Aang tried to lurch back, Zuko was too well practiced from wrestling Sokka to let him go that easily. He twisted to the side, making the other boy step with him to keep his balance. 

And at that moment there was a thwipping sound. A little puff of dust rose up from where Aang's foot had been, a second before.

Both froze, glancing at each other in mutual surprise before looking back at the ground. The stormy winds cleared away the dust to reveal an arrow sticking right up from the earth – its red feathers neatly fletched at the end.

Then they looked up.

So many other arrows had been loosed, and in so high an arc, that for a moment they looked like a cloud of angry beetle-bees against the slate-gray afternoon. All were straight above them and coming down fast.

Zuko froze, mouth half opened in surprise. His grip on the other boy loosened.

Aang was first to recover and wheeled out of Zuko's grasp to strike a hard-horse stance and join his fists to together, knuckle to knuckle. He generated a sphere of wind which expanded outward, whipping around them. The arrows were caught and scattered away.

"Run!" Aang yelled.

They cut across the grassy meadow, aiming to the safety of the forest on the other side. Zuko spared a glance back. Furtive men looking like oddly shaped shadows were dropping from the trees behind him. He saw one knock an arrow. Zuko reached out and grabbed Aang by a narrow shoulder, pulling him aside. The arrow whizzed by so close he felt the wind on his arm.

More arrows followed; thwipping by and knocking loudly into the dirt beside them and into the thick trunks of the trees as they ducked back into the forest.

The two didn't dare slow, only dodged around the trunks, zig-zagging to try to lose the archers.

For a second, Zuko was certain they’d left them behind… then another hail of arrows came, making them duck for cover once more, this time behind a scattering of large boulders. 

Aang pointed up. "They're in the trees again!"

"How?!" Zuko glanced around, searching for cover, for more archers, for any advantage. Then he spied a withered old trunk dead ahead. Half the bark was grey and dried from old age, and coiled around the healthy surfaces: It was perfect.

Zuko broke cover and charged for it, head down, half-expecting a shaft in his back at every step. Aang yelled something, but he couldn't hear what he said… then he was at the tree. Without slowing, Zuko slammed his palms into the rough bark, pulling everything he had from his center and pushing it outward.

The dried wood exploded into fire, which raced up the length of the trunk. Half the tree was already dead and the windstorm winds in the high branches took care of the rest. By the time Zuko staggered away, peering up, the crown was aflame and the trees next to it were catching. 

High above, he could hear shouts of alarm from the archers.

Aang caught Zuko's sleeve, pulling him once again into a run. The huge fireblast had left Zuko winded, but Aang was stronger than his thin frame suggested and a rush of air at their backs helped propel them both forward.

The fire was spreading; with the wind as an aid, it leapt from tree to tree. The furtive archers were soon occupied by getting away. Chasing rain of arrows at the boy's heels lessened.

Aang and Zuko hit a steep down-slope, but didn't stop, just skittered down the best that they could, nearly falling a dozen times as the loose topsoil crumbled and gave way under their boots. Aang did end up losing his balance at the end, tumbling head over heels with a yelp and landing flat on his back into a bog at the bottom.

He was up in a moment, waist deep in the water and already shaking with cold – the ravine was in a permanent shadow, and the edges of the bog were crusted with ice. 

"My foot's stuck in the mud!" he yelled, reaching down to pull behind his own knee, tongue poking out of the side of his mouth with the strain.

Zuko sloshed in to help him out. He had barely reached him before he was jerked back as if grabbed by an invisible hand. His right shoulder struck a wide log and his arm stuck there, as if glued – No, pinned.

No less than six arrows stuck the outline of his arm, each catching a bit of loose fabric in his sleeves without striking the flesh. He growled and tried to lurch free, but the arrows had bit in deep; sticking him to the log better than tying him there.

He caught a glimpse of moment to his right; more hidden archers moving silently in the bushes. Their faces wore the tattoos of masters.

Zuko slashed with his free arm, summoning a thin crescent of fire which spun uselessly out to them.

More thwips and hard knocking sounds, and suddenly his other arm was just as hopelessly pinned.

"Aang! Help!"

"Hold on!" With a final tug which almost sent him falling back in the water, Aang unstuck his boot and splashed over. He arched his arm and raised a wave of water which became an instant ice-shield. Immediately, arrows began to rain down at the ice, striking the same spot over and over and raising thick cracks through the length of it. Aang only had a moment to spare. He swept his airstaff down, snapping the arrow shafts short around Zuko’s arms.

Zuko yanked forward and with the sound of tearing cloth he was free again. 

"Swim for it!" Both boys took a deep breath and ducked under just as the ice-shield fragmented around them.

The water was cold that the mud below felt brittle, half frozen. It was dark, almost black with churned mud and rotting leaves. Zuko couldn't see more than a handspan ahead. Distantly, he felt Aang's hand on his belt, trusting him to lead the way.

He felt about blindly; the log was raised from the bottom and he wiggled under it to the other side. He then pushed away from the log and swam with strong breast strokes, counting on the brackish water to hide their escape.

Only when his lungs were burning and his throat working involuntarily did he rise to the surface for a hasty gulp of air, Aang right beside him. Then he was under again, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and the archers. But he couldn't stay down as long this time – the cold stole away his breath just as much as firebending. 

Ahead, a wall of water reeds seemed to rise in every direction, caging them both in. Zuko surfaced and found himself surrounded by thick willow-cattails and some sort of green reed. Aang broke the surface with a gasp, his face painfully reddened with cold.

Behind them – but at a distance now by the log – they heard shouted orders and annoyed voices. Zuko could also scent smoke in the hazy air. He grinned. The fire he’d started in the tree must have really taken off. The more smoke and chaos to hide them, the better.

"Oh, I know these!" Aang whispered. He broke off a water reed and tilted it up, showing Zuko the hollow tube. "We can breathe through these as long as we stay shallow. They're great for sneaking up on swamp scorpion-geese."

It was easier said than done. This end of the bog was choked with vegetation and they had to be careful not to brush past the stalks too quickly, for risk of making them shiver and alert their searchers.

Zuko just hoped this water was too cold for elbow leeches.

They could still hear people searching, and once or twice caught a flash of a red uniform – Fire Nation soldiers had joined the archers. But the bog was large, and in the smoke and confusion it was impossible for the soldiers to ring in the entire area. Eventually the boys made it to an empty bank where they quickly scuttled up, hiding themselves again in the dry brush.

Poor Aang was shivering with cold even after he used an airbending move to dry them both out. But there was nothing for it. Zuko couldn't teach him the warming breath of fire on the fly, and they had to get away from the area as fast as possible. He couldn't see the forest fire, or how widely it had spread, but the smoke was thickening, and itching at his throat. The air was heavy, too, with the promise of rain.

Aang glanced at the mountain – the apothecary, still so far off in the distance, and with the Fire Nation soldiers between them. He sighed. "I guess getting the medicine is out."

Zuko shook his head, frustrated. Stupid Fire Nation. Why couldn't they just leave them alone? "We'll have to go back to Katara and Sokka,” he said, shouldering the now dripping pack and turning his back to the mountain. "Those Yu-Yan archers are tough. I don't want to have to cross them again."

Aang sighed, turning to follow. Then, "The Yu-who?"

"Yu-Yan archers," he repeated, distracted by stepping over a downed branch.

"You mean, you know them?"

That stopped Zuko mid-stride. He had caught a glimpse of one of the archers, just for a moment as they had first been chasing them across the meadow, and he recognized them immediately. The facial tattoos were a dead giveaway. Had Hakoda told him about them? Zuko's light gold eyes flicked back and forth, shuffling through countless nights and stories by the fire. He couldn't remember, but the  unpleasant shiver up and down his spine told him his knowledge hadn't come from any Water Tribe story. 

"They're legendary," Zuko said, simply, not noticing how flat his voice had become. "It's said their precision is so fine they can shoot the eye out of a raven from two-hundred feet away. In the dark."

Aang whistled in appreciation and he glanced at one of Zuko's sleeves which had a new set of holes for their trouble. But he said no more, starting down the pathway again, the airstaff balanced over one shoulder.

Zuko glanced behind them again, back towards the direction of the bog. After a long pause, he followed, his expression troubled.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

They took the quickest way back to the temple ruins, staying away from the visible road and cutting right through the forest up the steep slope. Zuko paused to look back at the crest of the hill. A cloud of fluffy grey smoke was still steadily rising from the forest beyond. The Fire Nation archers and soldiers wouldn't stick around that area for long if they were smart.  It wouldn't be hard to find this place.

Their time was short, at best.

Katara and Sokka lay bundled in their sleeping bags, resting on the wide expanse of Appa's flank. Both stirred when they came in, but only Katara was coherent enough to wonder what was going on. 

"You're back?" she asked, her eyes dazed and unfocused. "Did you get medicine?"

Zuko looked anywhere but at her."No. We need to go, now."

"What?" She sat up, alarmed. "Zuko, Sokka's in no condition to travel!”

“The Fire Nation knew we're around here. We ran into some trouble, I'll explain it later, but we don't have much time."

"Zuko, look at him." Katara pointed to her eldest brother. Sokka was oblivious to them all, curled up on his side and shivering. "He can't go running off anywhere. We have to hide."

Zuko cast another glance outside. The smoke was still rising far off in the distance, but he could see no movement in the foliage. They weren't here. Yet. Somehow, he knew deep in his heart that there wasn’t any good hiding. Not from the Yu-Yan. Not from Iroh. "Then we'll just have to cover him in as many blankets as possible and keep him warm. We have to put distance between us and this place.”

Katara looked like she wanted to argue, but Aang jumped in with his wide, earnest expression. "You didn't see the crazy Fire Nation archers they had after us. They pinned Zuko to a tree just with their arrows!"

"They…what?"

"I'm fine." Zuko shot Aang a narrow-eyed glare. He didn't have to tell his sister about that. "We're fine, but we can't just hide from these guys. Our only choice is to run… Sokka's strong. He can handle it."

This, at least, seemed to convince her. Aang walked to Appa's head to coax the bison into rising and saddling up. Zuko went over to shake Sokka awake and lead him – stumbling and mumbling incoherently – to Appa's saddle. Katara tried to help, gathering their bag and pots and pans, but her wet coughs racked her until she was doubled over. 

It took both Zuko and Aang - bullying and cajoling, separately – to convince her to let them handle it and just climb up to the saddle. They took care of the rest of the packing, and with a yip-yip from Aang, they were in the sky.

 

OoOoO

 

From Prince Iroh's elevated position upon a small rise of a hill, he could see clear evidence of a fight. It was said that where there was smoke there was fire, and no doubt, a firebender.

And now the growing fire was hampering both the Yu-Yan and Iroh's own crew. He frowned up at the billow of smoke, noting the direction and the growing wind-speed.

"Clever boy."

The oncoming storm would surely damper the flames, but until then the confusion was stalling his men. A properly trained prince of fire would be expected to press his advantage, use the smoke to take out one or more of the archers, perhaps use them as hostages. But with the boy's bizarre upbringing the last few years, the brainwashing that must have occurred…

… he would divert away, like a stream bending around a log.

Iroh brought his collapsible telescope once again to his eye, peering to the south, against the blowing wind. He was lucky. Even with the aid of the scope, the temple ruins were far away and the giant sky bison's white and brown fur made for effective camouflage in the clouds. Iroh only caught a glimpse of it rising into the sky, no doubt with its passengers aboard.

If Iroh were a lesser man, or younger and still hot-blooded, he would have turned and ordered his men to engage the small portable catapults, and fire on the beast. He resisted the urge, but only just, letting out a long controlled breath. The strong winds would put off their aim, anyway, and it was pointless to waste the flammable tar. As it was, Iroh only let the scope down, hand diving into his pocket to clutch at his favorite lotus tile, and considered his next step.

Momo chirped from his perch on his shoulder.

The prince reached up, coxing the lemur onto his outstretched arm. "I wonder," he said, considering his little friend. Then he turned, pointing Momo towards the direction of the bison. "Would you be so good as to follow them? And come back to me when they have landed?"

He didn't know how much the creature understood. Iroh talked to him constantly for companionship, delighting in the way Momo seemed to answer with a purr or a tilt of his head. He didn't truly think the lemur understood him. Not really. Maybe he was just getting old.

But Momo only chirped again, happily, and launched into the sky. He made a wide circle over Iroh's encampment, as if to memorize the position and then set off unerringly in the same direction the bison had gone.

Iroh watched, tugging on his beard in thought, until both lemur and bison were specks in the sky.

 Then he turned, ordering his men to call off the search for now, and to begin preparing for dinner. He had no intention of traveling again tonight, not with another storm due, and not until Momo had returned.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Night had fallen, dark and cold, and they were still in the sky. Zuko sat between Katara and Sokka, listening to their raspy breathing and staring out to the dark endless landscape. There hadn't been any sign of pursuit from the Fire Nation, so far. Aang had been sure to angle Appa so the smoke from the forest fire best obscured his white bulk as they left. But they couldn't just land anywhere to rest. They needed help. Sokka and Katara were getting worse.

His sibling's high fevers had brought on intense thirst, and Zuko had run out of water to give to them hours ago. When Katara wasn't asking for water she was shivering next to Sokka, even piled under all the furs. 

Sokka's skin felt terribly hot and dry to the touch. He mumbled nonsense as if he were caught in a waking dream. He hadn't said anything sane in hours.

Zuko clenched his fists over the side of the basket, staring out into the empty air. All these weeks of traveling, and they were still so far from the North Pole. The Northern Water Tribe had to have some sort of medicine for their illness, but Zuko doubted Aang would let him force-fly Appa straight there. And even if he did, Sokka and Katara couldn't be exposed to that type of cold. Not right now.

His brother and sister. His family - the only family he had ever known – he was failing them… he felt like was going to lose them.

But on the heels of that thought came a glimmer of light to the south. Zuko squinted his good eye, leaning forward as if to close the distance. It was more than one light; perhaps signaling the edge of a village. Turning south meant heading in the wrong direction, but he would take it. He turned towards Appa's head, cupping his hands around his mouth to carry his voice above the wind. "Aang! There's a village that way!"

"Okay!" Aang called, and with an encouraging command, the sky bison turned.

Aang urged Appa to fly in fast and low just above the treetops as they drew closer. They made it to the village in less than an hour. The clouds were really rolling in now, thick even in the night sky, but Aang risked a quick fly-over on his glider to check for Fire Nation troops. He returned a short time later, grinning.

"I flew over twice," he said, landing easily by Appa's side and snapping the glider shut. "No sign Fire Nation, and it looks like everyone is hiding out from the rain. We can walk Appa right in."

Zuko frowned at that; Appa would to attract a lot of attention. But Sokka's breathing had become more raspy and Katara's face had gone grey as she coughed miserably. He didn’t think she could stand. Zuko knew he could carry Sokka a short way if he had too, but he doubted Aang's skinny arms could lift Katara. Finally, he nodded.

Luckily the cobbled streets were wide in most places – usually ringed on both sides with a series of merchant's carts. And if Appa sucked in his sides, he could still squeeze by without much damage between the narrowest buildings. 

Zuko and Aang walked on either side of the bison, leading him along as if he was a pack-ostrich horse rather than a ten-ton bison. But Aang was right; most of the town was shut in from the storm. The few people still outside gawked, but were far too intimidated to come near.

They found a large building proclaiming itself to be a hospital at the end of the second street.

Zuko sighed, squinting his eyes to peer in the gathering dark. "Well, they look open. I'll go knock, you stay here with them." He glanced over as he spoke, and his gaze lingered on the other boy's very distinctive arrow tattoo. "Can you… cover that up somehow?" Zuko gestured to his own forehead. "If these guys are with the Fire Nation I don't want them to know you're the Avatar."

Aang paused for a second in thought, then grinned and pulled the back of his shirt up until the collar was over his forehead. It made him look like a ridiculous hunchback. "How's this?"

"Better." Not that his own scars were any less distinctive. Zuko reached up and pulled his hair free of the half-wolftail he usually kept it in and pushed one loose piece in front of the left side of his face. Well, it was better than nothing.

He didn't really know what to expect when he knocked at the door; maybe deep down he imagined a healer much like Kuthruk back home. Someone who was competent, but brusque and who always smelled like the spicy herbs and medicines he kept in his hut.

He hadn't expected the attending healer at the door to be a girl about his age, or to be pretty with dark hair and soft green eyes.

"…Can I help you?" she asked after a long moment. Belatedly, he realized he had been staring.

Zuko blinked, reorienting himself. "My brother and sister are sick. They're coughing, and they have high fevers. Can you help?"

She gave him a curious look, eyes focusing on his blue tunic – perhaps she had not seen a Water Tribesman before—and nodded, stepping from the doorway. She paused only briefly at the sight of Appa, a hand flying to her mouth in surprise. But Sokka coughed wetly from his spot in the saddle, and the healer-girl moved forward before Zuko could give her a nudge. One practiced leap and she was up in the saddle, not a spare glance for Aang and his silly disguise.

"We need to get them both inside before it starts raining," the healer said, after a quick examination. She bent by Katara. "Can you walk at all?"

Katara winced and sat up. "I think so… maybe…" Her voice was a croak and she clutched her tender throat.

Aang knelt by her side, looking earnestly up at the healer. "Will they be okay?"

She only sighed. "This almost looks like it could be Fire Fever, although they're a little old for it…"

"Fire Fever?" Zuko had climbed up to join them. "What's that? How bad is it?"

"Oh!" Aang brightened. "I had Fire Fever once when I—" He stopped, swallowing his next few words. It had been when he visited the Fire Nation, over a hundred years ago. "But I thought you could only get it in the jungle?"

The girl knelt by Sokka now and had taken his arm out of the sleeping bag, examining the underside of it for spots. "Most people catch it nowadays from Fire Nation soldiers when they invade their villages." She glanced up from Sokka to Zuko, who had become suddenly very tense and very quiet. "If you haven't gotten it before, you will soon. It's very contagious."

"I don't know if I've had it before," Zuko said, quietly, crossing his arms.

This was an unusual enough answer, but the girl only nodded. “I’ve never seen clothing like that. Where did you say you were from?"

"I didn't."

Luckily, Aang stepped in to smooth over Zuko's rude response. "I'm Aang," he said with a smile. His shirt had slipped from his head, his tattoos clearly visible. The healer girl glanced at him without any recognition on her face. She didn't seem to know what his blue arrow meant.

"That's Zuko,” Aang continued. “Over there is Katara and Sokka—"

"No, I'm Sokka," Sokka said, raising his head up briefly in indignation before letting it fall again with a stream of incoherent mutters.

"That's what I said. They're from the South Pole," Aang finished.

"Oh, so you're Water Tribe!" The healer girl's eyes lit up. She turned to regard Zuko again, her smile so friendly and honest that he felt an odd fluttery feeling in his stomach. "I'm Song," she said. "Another storm will be coming in soon. Here, help me get these two inside."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

With Aang supporting a staggering Katara and with Zuko and Song carrying Sokka between them, they managed to get the two sick teenagers inside the hospital and tucked into some sterile looking cots. 

Aang immediately became Song's unofficial helper, speeding back and forth from the supply room with requested herbs and clean towels. Song ground dried twigs, leaves, and berries in a small mortar and mixed them with broths to help go down sore throats. For his part, Zuko sat by Katara's side and kept out of the way as best he could. 

Whatever was in Song's medicine had quieted Sokka's rambling and Katara's coughing, and soon both were dozing peacefully.

Zuko's mind was in other places.

Fire Fever. Brought in from the Fire Nation. A sick, oily sensation roiled around in his stomach. He remembered all sorts of stupid things about the Fire Nation; the names of the islands, the national holidays…. But apparently nothing of their local plagues. What if he had brought that sort of thing over himself and infected the whole tribe long ago? Had anyone fallen ill after he first arrived? He racked his memories, thinking back, but couldn't recall anyone falling sick around that time. Surely, Auya would have said something – it would have made a good excuse to kick him out of her tent.

A cool hand laid on his forehead and Zuko jerked up to see Song standing before him, still smiling softly, a glass of vivid green liquid in her hand. "You seem a little warm," she said, to his surprised look. "How do you feel? Do you have a sore throat?"

He brushed her hand away. “I run hot." Side effect of being a firebender, although he knew he couldn't tell her that. Gran-Gran used to complain he felt like he was running a fever all the time, although he was never ill outside the winter solstice. "I feel fine."

"Hm." She gave him a steady look, and he saw her glance at the scar on the left side of his face – he had pulled back his hair normally some time ago – although she didn't say anything about it. "I'll still feel better if you drink this. Go on, it's full of vitamins and herbs to help keep illness away."

He took the glass from her, only because Aang had a similar cup in his hand. It fizzed oddly down his throat, although the aftertaste reminded him faintly of ice-melon. Not unpleasant.

"The night-healers will be in shortly. They'll help me keep an eye on them." Song said turned to Aang. "We have a stable. Your… animal should be able to squeeze in and get out of the rain, just as long as he doesn't mind the smell of ostrich-horse."

Aang nodded, wiping the last of the green drink from his upper lip. "Appa would like that. He hates being out in the rain." As if on cue, they heard a distant drumbeat of droplets upon the high vaulted rooftop. Something distant appeared in Aang's eyes, but before Zuko could focus on it, he had turned away with a quiet, "I do too."

"But they'll be okay, right?" Zuko insisted, with a glance to his siblings again. Sokka gave an unconscious grunt, as if in answer, then started snoring.

"Yes." Song's soft hand found his wrist, squeezing it for a moment in reassurance. She knelt by him, and her gaze was a little too soft and understanding. "I'll want to keep them for a few days at least. Sokka, especially, but with some medicine and some rest, they'll be up again in no time."

There wasn't any deception in her eyes. Not that he could see, at least. A tight knot relaxed in his chest. Zuko hadn't realized how worried and anxious he had been, until now. His hands were curled into unconscious fists – knuckles white. He unclenched them with effort.

Katara and Sokka were going to be okay.

Song graced him with another smile and rose, directing Aang to a distant cupboard where she kept a supply of blankets. "You're lucky that it's been quiet at the hospital today. There's a spare room down the hall. You and Aang can bunk there for the night. I'll watch over these two, and wake you if there's any change."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

The air around Zuko was hot and thick, scented with unfamiliar flowers and something ashy,  like soot. 

Zuko frowned and glanced around, but the corridor was dark as pitch behind him. The only light came from ahead. He walked to it almost as if drawn in, compelled, feeling as if his legs weren’t moving at all. Then, he turned the corner, and stared.

His sister sat with her knees tucked neatly under herself in the middle of large empty room beyond, her back to him.

Zuko took a tentative step forward. "Katara? What's going on? What are you doing here?"

She didn't answer, save for a low chuckle – a sound that felt wrong and put every hair on Zuko's body on end. Katara shifted, but didn't turn, only raised her hand; Zuko's pearl-hilted knife was clenched in her fingers.

He felt his own face pinch as a wave of jealousy rolled through him like a fire. "That's my knife!" he yelped. "Give it back!"

"Oh yeah? Who's going to make me? You?" Now she turned – she was standing before him in a flick as quick as thought, a malicious smile on her face. 

But it wasn't her face at all. Katara had never worn that expression, twisted in smug greed and hate. And her eyes… her eyes weren't blue.

They were amber.

"You're dead, Zuko,” his sister said.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Zuko woke up gasping, covered in sweat, the air so hot around him he felt he couldn't breathe – he struggled for a moment or two, kicking away the foreign fabric that passed as bedding in this part of the world. Somehow he had got tied up in the blankets and had overheated.

A dream. It had been just a dream. A variation of the same stupid dream he had been having – well, ever since he could remember, really.

It still took awhile to calm down and for the tremors to leave his muscles. He had to reoriented himself slowly, by stages, forcing himself to breathe evenly and taking in everything around him. He was back at the hospital, having not wanted to leave Katara and Sokka alone overnight. He'd taken an empty exam room and a spare cot.

Aang was gone.

The young monk had gone to sleep in a cot next to his own and that was now empty. The blankets were neatly folded and put back into place at the foot of the bed. Wherever Aang was, he didn't intend to come back tonight.

Zuko hesitated, scrubbing his sleep-puffy face with his hands. He could feel with a sixth sense he couldn't name that the sun wouldn't be up for hours. But getting back to sleep with Aang missing was out of the question. He pushed the rest of the blankets back – the weaves were rough and caught at his skin – but paused when a glint of silver caught his attention from the corner of his bad eye.

His pearl-hilted knife lay by the side of the cot, right where he had left it.

He picked it up and unsheathed it, examining the blade and its deep-set inscriptions in the low light. Never Give Up Without A Fight. He hadn't really had time to think very much about the thing – so much had happened since Iroh had gifted it to him at the Fire Temple. But that dream had been so strange… it was more than just Katara playing with the knife. She had stolen it, and he had been angry at her for it. Upset at the loss. This knife was important to him.

Why?

Zuko was familiar with weapons. He had plenty of spears – from the first clumsy one he had made when he was new to the Tribe to the sleek ornamental one Dad had given him as a summer-solstice day present a few months before he left. He also had his boomerang, although he didn't like to depend on it as much as Sokka. And the whale-bone machete was useful.

But this knife… was different. Had it been anything else, he wouldn't have bothered to keep it around. It had too weak of a handle to be much use in fighting. The blade was etched too nicely to make it practical for skinning or cutting. But for some reason, this knife still felt important to him. He felt… safe with it.

Zuko sighed to himself and returned the knife back to its sheath. He was wool-gathering, as Gran-Gran would say. Better find out what had driven Aang from his bed in the dead middle of the night.

The hospital was empty except for Sokka and Katara who were still fast asleep in their hospital beds, and the night watch healer who had dozed off in his chair, his chin on his chest. Zuko cast them a long glance – they all seemed to be resting easily — and then stepped outside to the low porch that preceded the hospital steps. It was raining again. The night was pitch black, and rivets of water were spilling down from the roof.

Over the sound of the wind and the distant thunder, he could clearly hear Appa lowing a groan. There was a simple barn just down the path from the hospital. Taking a chance, Zuko sprinted towards it, ducking his head against the rain. He stepped in the open door, lighting a low in his hands in absence of any other light.

He found the young monk inside. Aang had ignored the bales of hay towards the stables and instead sat on the bare wood boards with his knees drawn up to his chest, staring blankly out at the inky night. From the downcast hunch of his shoulders, Zuko could guess what was going on: This wasn't the first time he had found his friend up early.

He walked up to stand beside him without greeting, turning to look out as well into the night air.

"Hi Zuko." Aang gave him a glance and his voice was as cheerful as he would in midday… and as though he didn't have reddened cheeks – irritated and puffy from scrubbing tears away.

"Hey Aang." Zuko let him keep his dignity by pretending not to notice he’d caught him crying, only asking, "Do you want to talk about it?"

For a moment Aang looked as if he had been struck. The cheerful face fell, until he collected himself and with a quick shake of his head, looked away. "The thunder just… It's hard to sleep I guess. I'm sorry if I woke you."

"Yeah, well," Zuko laced his fingers and stretched high – both shoulders giving a satisfied crack. "It wasn't you. I just had a bad dream."

The other boy gave a sudden start. "Oh?"

Unbidden, an image of the amber-eyed girl, laughing, flashed in front of his eyes. "Yeah, and I don't like talking about it," he snapped and saw Aang cringe. Zuko sighed. That wasn't fair to Aang… None of his bad dreams were his fault. So, after a moment's pause he sat down, crossed his legs, and tried again. "I only have one memory of before I came to the Water Tribe, and I dream about it… a lot. They're never good dreams." He shivered despite himself.

"Why? What happened?"

Zuko shrugged. "I don't know. It's … it's just always about this girl. I don't even really know who she is." His own words felt flat, jumbled and far removed from the terror that gripped him during the nightmares. Zuko sighed, shrugging again, feeling stupid. But Aang wasn't saying anything, letting him go on. "It's just a stupid dream about an old memory. It doesn't mean anything."

"It happened a long time ago." There was bitterness in Aang's voice, and the way he spoke was almost as though in agreement, sharing the same thought.

"Yeah, but when I dream…" He closed his eyes. "I'm there."

They were silent for a long time.

"Zuko?"

"Hmm?"

"If you ever, you know, ever do want to talk about it…" Aang gave him a sidelong glance, hedging in case of another flare-up of temper. "Then, well, I'm your friend."

"Yeah Aang, I know. Me too."

A fork of lightening cracked across the sky making daylight around them for a second or two before the rain beat down harder than it ever had before. Zuko stared at it, more impressed than afraid: Thunderstorms were a rare treat because the air was too frozen them to form in the South Pole.

But Aang wasn't enjoying the storm. His lips were pressed together – so tight that they were nearly white at the edges, as if he was trying to keep the words in. He couldn't for very long, and he blurted out in an expelled breath, "I ran away."

"What?" Zuko looked down at him and then out to the night, not understanding. "When? Just now, tonight?"

The other boy gave a quick shake, dipping his head into the encircle of his own arms. "No. Not tonight…" Whatever courage he had seemed to have fled from him. In a moment he was up, distracted, muttering an excuse, "It doesn't matter."

"Well, it seems like it matters to you."

The thunder rolled again and Aang bit his lip, walking back towards Appa. He rested a hand against the bison's horn and pushed a piece of hair out of Appa's eyes. At first, it seemed he wasn't going to answer at all. Then, "I did something really bad, Zuko." His voice was small and he looked every one of his twelve years. "I keep dreaming about it, and… and I know that… what I did… I'll never be able to take it back."

Zuko's throat felt dry. He stood up, suddenly wishing Katara were well enough to be here with them. She had a gentle way of getting someone to open up. He didn't. "What happened? What did you do?"

Aang looked at him, and just for a moment – although it could have been just a reflection of lightening outside – his grey eyes seemed to take on an unearthly glow. Then it was gone and his friend was back, looking not scary. Just sad. 

"I ran away," he said again, and his fingers tightened in Appa's fur. "When the monks… after they told me who I was."

"Oh. So, you didn't always know you were the Avatar?"

He shook his head. "The monks said they weren't supposed to tell me until I was sixteen. I didn't know what to think. I was always good at airbending, but I was always just… just me. Just Aang.” He put a hand to his chest in emphasis. "Then after that, my friends started treating me different."

It must have been like finding out I was a firebender… or when Prince Iroh... Zuko's shoved that bitter thought away before he could finish it. But right on the heels of that, came another. If Katara and Sokka had suddenly treated me differently… I don't know what I would have done. 

They hadn’t, though. They loved him. They were family.

"So you ran away," Zuko repeated, kinder this time.

Aang's nodded. His eyes fixed to the ground by Appa's toes. "Some of the elders were worried. They thought I needed more training. They—They were going to take me away from my guardian, Monk Gyatso. He was the only one who never treated me different." He shook his head, fists curling tighter in Appa's fur. "I just wanted to get away for awhile. I'd been to the Fire Nation, and the Earth Kingdom, and I've always heard about the awesome penguin sledding in the South Pole… It was only supposed to be for a little bit, just so I could get away. Then, I got caught in a storm." Aang looked up then to meet Zuko's gaze. His cheeks were wet again with tears. "I wasn't even there with the Fire Nation attacked my people."

The last piece had fallen into place. No wonder Aang hadn't been able to sleep. "There was nothing you could have done for your people," he said, hoarsely, stepping forward.

Aang stiffened. His eyes were bright again and this time the glow definitely didn't have anything to do with the lightning outside. "You don't know that! I ran away! Monk Gyatso must have been so worried. I wasn't there for them when they needed me most, and… and they all died!"

The fire in Zuko's hand came alive at his words, flaring up almost to the ceiling.

"Whoa!" Zuko yelped, jumping back, but it wasn't his fire anymore. "Watch it!"

Immediately the unearthly light died behind Aang's eyes. He turned away, whispering, "Sorry," and the flame shrank, once again under Zuko's control.

The firebender transferred the flame to his left hand and wrung out the other. He hadn't been burned, although it had been a near thing. The skin on his palm tingled with lingering heat and power. "Don't worry about it," he said, and then paused. "Look," he added, after another moment, "You couldn't have done anything about the Fire Nation."

"You don't know that," Aang repeated, miserably.

"Yes I do." He stepped forward again, closing the distance between them, his golden eyes glittering in the firelight. "Fire Lord Sozin threw everything he had at the Air Temples, and he had the power of the comet behind him. He had been building up his forces for months, years ahead of time. You wouldn't have had a chance if you stayed. No one did."

"I thought you said you don't remember—"

"I don't," Zuko snapped, testily. That wasn't the point. "Nothing specific, but I know the basics, Aang.  If you stayed in the temple, he would have found and killed you for sure. Then he would have just gone to the Water Tribes and done the same thing to us before the new Avatar grew up."

Aang was staring at him now – Zuko had been speaking earnestly, even passionately. Realizing this, he reined himself in with effort. "Look," he said, quietly, intensely. "Fire Lord Sozin couldn't count on a fully realized Avatar not appearing again, and that slowed his plans.  He had to dedicate the last years of his life to finding you. As bad as things are now, Aang… it could have been a lot worse. But now you’re here and you know about the comet. This time, you can stop the Fire Nation."

"How?" His voice was almost a whisper, broken. "I'm just one kid… I'm the only airbender left. What if I fail everyone again?"

"I don't know. We…" Zuko hesitated. "You just keep going. You don't ever give up because it's hard. You can do this, Aang." He stepped forward putting a hand on his shoulder. "I believe in you."

"Even though I ran away?"

He sighed. "Well… I guess we all have things we wish we could take back." Zuko gave a low, unamused huff of a laugh. "I probably toasted puppies for fun or something, when I was a kid." It was a cringe-worthy joke, full of hidden insecurity. He quickly went on. "You're not going to fail. You're already on your way to learning Water and Fire. Katara, Sokka and I… We're here for you and we're going to help you."

Aang bit his lip, but some of the clouds were gone from his expression. "I guess that means I have to practice harder at firebending, huh?"

Zuko just grinned in reply – the expression stretched the scar across his neck. "Learning to bend water is the first step. After Katara and Sokka are better we'll head straight for the North Pole. No more stops, no more distractions."

Despite his sorrow, Aang pulled a face. "That doesn't sound like very much fun." But he must have caught the glint of determination in his friend's eyes because he hastily added, "But you're right. After this, it's North Pole or bust."

The thunder rolled once more, almost as if in agreement.

And up in the rafters, unseen except as a glimpse of grey fur in the shadows, a lemur spread his membrane wings and took flight, fully rested and ready to brave the storm to get back to his friend.

 


 

OoOoO


 

Chapter Text


 

OoOoO

"I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you lost your way."

~ Iroh, The Old Masters

OoOoO


 

 

Prince Iroh was pulled from sleep by a particular sensation – cold drips of water were splashing over his face. He winced and opened his eyes to see the figure of a long-eared creature sitting on his chest. The lemur was soaked to the skin, but gave a purr upon his wakening, licking rain droplets off of one paw.

"Ah," said Iroh, reaching up a drowsy hand to pet heavily between Momo's ears. "You have returned to me at last, my friend. What have you found?"

He did not truly expect an answer, although he got one. Momo gave a smug chirp and alighted to the flap of Iroh's short tent. Then he looked back over his shoulder and chirped again.

Iroh pushed back his blankets and rose to follow, still in long dressing gown and night-hat. Without any hesitation at all, Momo flew once more into the driving night rain. Iroh quickened his pace, stopping only when it became certain that the lemur was indeed leading him to a particular direction.

He held up his arm and Momo landed upon it, receiving a dried sugar-plum for his efforts.

Iroh backtracked to the camp and strode to one of the officer's tents. "Lieutenant Izhar!"

"…Sir?" Iroh's first Lieutenant peeked his head out of his tent – a much smaller one by comparison than the prince's - and gaped stupidly at his commanding officer's state of dress.

"Tell the men to break camp. We have our course for the Avatar. South-southwest."

“Now, sir? I mean, uh, yes sir. Right away, sir."

But Iroh had already returned to his tent.

He emerged some minutes later just as the call was going up among the crew to rise for the early day. This time, he was dressed informally, in a traveling cloak dyed Earth Kingdom green and pants of nondescript brown.

"I will go on ahead," Iroh told his officers, once they assembled. "And will leave markings behind to follow."

And before any of his astonished men could reply, he flipped something up in the air that looked like a lotus tile, caught it, and disappeared into the forest with the lemur on his shoulder.

The Dragon of the West was on the hunt.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

The worst of the storm rolled through during the night. By the time morning broke everything was pleasantly dripping wet and grey with tendrils of mist floating up from the ground between Song's barn and the hospital.

Aang and Zuko spent the rest of the night hunkered out of the rain in the barn - Appa's great bulk generated enough heat to keep warm, and his wide tail made for a comfy mattress. 

Talking things out seemed to lighten Aang's mood. By the time the cat-birds started singing in the rain-soaked, dripping trees outside, the little monk had found the lone ostrich-horse in the stable.

Zuko stayed well away from the thing, preferring to catch an early morning nap on Appa's tail. He didn't like hostile looks the ostrich-horse gave him, or the way it bent its head to sharpen its beak against the top of the low wooden stall whenever he approached. Aang, predictably, just giggled and hunted around the barn until he found a sack of millet-seed. Soon the ostrich-horse was pecking gently out of the flat of Aang's hand. The Avatar had made another new friend.

The open doorway darkened as someone stepped in it, momentarily blocking the sunlight. Song stood there, hands on her hips. "Oh, there you are! I see you met Ushi." Her mouth curved in a wane smile as she watched Aang. "You should really watch your fingers. She's been known to give a nip or two."

"Nooo, she's a great old bird, aren't you Ushi?" Aang reached up to give a good scratch to the feathers behind the ostrich-horse's ears. Ushi closed her eyes and leaned into the touch.

Zuko made a groggy noise of his own. He had only been able to lightly doze as the sun was rising. Hearing the healer, he staggered to his feet. "How are they?"

Now Song smiled – a true smile that lit up her face and washed away puffy morning fatigue. "The medicine is helping a great deal. Your sister should be out of bed in a few days. And Sokka," Song paused, although she was too polite to roll her eyes. "Well, he's on the mend, too.”

"He's still talking to people who aren't there?" Aang guessed, with a grin.

"He kept me up half the night…but delirium is common with fire fever," she added, seeing Zuko's concerned look. "At least he's interesting. He kept calling me ‘Lu Ten’.”

"Who?" Zuko asked.

The healer shrugged. "His temperature is down, although the fever hasn't broken. You can ask him if you like, but don't expect a straight answer."

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

As it turned out, Sokka was fast asleep again; dead to the world thanks to medicine, and snoring wide mouthed thanks to his stuffy nose.

Katara was awake and sat up in bed at the boy's approach. Her cheeks were still darkened with fever blush, but her coughing wasn't so painful anymore.

"I hate this," she murmured lowly to Zuko, after Aang had turned aside to ask more questions to Song about Ushi and riding ostrich-horses in general. Katara's fingers twitched on top of her blankets as if nervous for something to do. "I feel so useless laying here all day like this."

Zuko nodded. "I know. I felt the same way every winter solstice." When he became a burden to his tribe instead of a provider. He reached out, grabbing her tanned hand to still her fingers. "And you're right. You're no good to anyone like this." Which wasn't necessarily how he wanted it to come out at all. Katara shot him a look, her blue eyes narrowed dangerously, and he quickly amended, "So your job now is to rest and get yourself better."

"Hrumph."

"Well…" He paused, looking to the ceiling in thought. "I do have a pair of pants that need mending. And I don't think Sokka has washed his socks in a week."

Katara hit him with her pillow – she was too weak to strike him hard, and her giggles brought on another coughing fit. She sobered by the time she caught her breath, eyes traveling to Aang who was – by the looks of his exaggerated hand gestures – telling Song of his encounter with the Unagi. "Hey, is Aang… okay? He seems a little down."

Zuko glanced over, wondering how she could tell. The little monk was smiling brightly, chattering happily. But that didn't mean he had forgotten the terrible expression on his friend's face just last night. "I ran away…"  He didn't know how Katara knew. No doubt Sokka would attribute it to some freaky woman-thing. Zuko saw it as a Katara-thing.

"He's been thinking a lot about his people," he hedged, unwilling to spill all of Aang's secrets. If Aang wanted Katara to know, he would tell her himself. "We talked about it, last night."

"You talked?"

Katara's voice was incredulous and Zuko cringed a little, remembering Aang's glowing eyes – his moment of lost control. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"No offense, Zuko, but you're not exactly the 'Let's drink snow-rose tea and have a chat' kind of guy."

"We talked," he repeated, glancing away. Well there had been some yelling.

But Katara smiled. "I think it's kind of sweet." He couldn't quite tell if she was teasing or being serious.

Before he could comment, she was taken again by another round of coughing so fierce and lasting so long she was nearly clawing for air by the end of it. Alerted by the noise, Song turned away from Aang, a steaming mug of medicine appearing in her hand as if by magic. "Drink this," she said, coming by Katara's side. "And I want you to lie back down. You two can visit more later on if you like."

"We can't stay?" Aang asked.

Song turned and gave him a reassuring smile. "She's still recovering, and resting up is really the best medicine."

Behind her, Katara made a face over her mug.

The healer girl took a few minutes to make sure her latest dose of medicine had its desired effect. The same elixir that soothed the coughing caused drowsiness, and soon Katara and Sokka were sleeping again, their faces relaxed as if the sickness had retreated all together.

Song soon ushered them out and slid the paper door shut behind them. "I'll tell you what," she said, looking at Zuko and Aang. "It's been raining so much the last few weeks, Ushi hasn't gotten any exercise at all. Could you two give me a hand with her?"

"Oh, uh…" Zuko was certain he didn't want to be within pecking distance of the bird, but Aang was already nodding enthusiastically.

"Sure! What do you need?"

Song pretended to consider this for a moment, playing the young boy along. "Well, she really seemed to like you, Aang. Maybe she'd let you ride her."

"Yeah, I bet she would. I like her too!"

Seeing the other boy's face light up in excitement, Zuko didn't have the heart to say no - especially when Song looked at him casually, just out of the corner of his eye, a slight brush reddening at her cheeks.

Song paused briefly to let another healer know where she was going before leading Zuko and Aang back to the stable – Aang bouncing at her side and chattering stories of all his animal experiences, especially those he'd ridden.

"You have to be really quick to catch a ferret-hound," he said, with authority. "That's the hard part, but after you're on them, they'll let you ride them. Well – not the female ferret-hounds, because of the spines. Katara took me penguin sledding once. You've been penguin sledding, right Zuko?"

Zuko blinked. It took him a second to realize that he had been pulled into the conversation. "Uh right," he said. "Lots of times."

Song giggled, although he was mostly sure he hadn't said anything funny. "It sounds like you two are real world-travelers."

Aang nodded. "I traveled all the time with my guardian. We've been everywhere—".

"Well, uh, not everywhere everywhere." Zuko interrupted, quickly. No one had mentioned to the healer yet that Aang was the Avatar. It wasn't that he liked the lie, but Zuko hadn't wanted to leave any sort of trail for Iroh to follow. "Like, uh… well, we haven't been to the Fire Nation or anything like that."

"Ohhh, right." Aang grinned up at Song who by now was looking a little puzzled. "I meant the other parts of the world. The ones that aren't Fire Nation."

Zuko barely resisted the urge to smack his palm against his forehead.

But if Song noticed their odd behavior, she didn't comment on it. "I was a baby when my parents settled into his valley." She cast a longing glance to the distant mountains – slightly smoky in the hazy after-storm morning. "It's all I've ever known." They were coming to the stables now and Song reached out a long fingered hand to brush across the tops of the thick wooden railings as she passed. "My mother started the hospital, back when this village was small. I learned everything I know from her."

"What about your father?" Zuko asked.

"He was taken away by the Fire Nation," she said, softly. "A long time ago."

"Oh." he said, lamely, sort of wishing he could just beat his head against the nearest wall. He never knew what to say to people. "I'm sorry."

She shook her head, waving away his apology, and Zuko couldn't help but notice how the high sunlight seemed to gleam in her dark hair. He was staring again. Realizing this, he quickly looked away.

Appa let out a low moaning bellow upon scenting them. Aang quickly rushed forward to greet his big furry buddy, giving him a good rub around his horns even though they had been separated for a whole hour. 

Zuko was left to help Song lead Ushi out of her own stall – he was right, the ostrich-horse still inexplicably hated him, pawing long ruts into the earth with her taloned feet at his approach, and he had to duck fast to avoid a vicious snap from her sharp beak.

"Ushi, behave!" Song chided and then led the foul-tempered beast outside to saddle. Zuko could feel its beady gaze on him until it turned out of sight.

But as much as the ostrich-horse resented the sight of Zuko, she seemed to have an equal love for the young monk. She sat calmly while Aang helped Song saddle her, bending down to snuff at his bald head. Zuko swore he saw Aang slip her another treat of millet-seed, but he was standing far away on the outside of the wooden arena so it was hard to tell.

Soon, it was obvious that Aang hadn't been exaggerating – he was a natural with animals and with riding them in particular. Song had to cinch up the stirrups twice to accommodate Aang’s shorter legs, but then he was off, cantering the ostrich-horse round and round the small sectioned off arena – Ushi snorting and tossing her head like a young excited hen-filly.

Song walked over and joined Zuko outside the fence, leaning her elbows across the railings, a bare centimeter between them. Either one of the teens could have bridged the gap – a brush of elbows or shoulders, but both were determinately looking ahead. The small gap might as well have been a mile.

Zuko glanced out of the corner of his eye once or twice, noting how the sun reflected off her brown, burnished hair. Song finally seemed to have noticed him looking. A soft sort of look appeared on her face, and their eyes met. She was staring a little, too. "You know…" she said, turning fully to him. "You really don't look anything like your brother and sister."

"What? Oh… yeah." Zuko scratched the back of his neck, aware of how – aside from Aang – they were alone in this little corner of the village. Together. Suddenly, he felt extremely conscious of his scars, and her gaze. "I was adopted when I was little. We all grew up together and Aang… well, he joined us later."

"That must have been nice." She flashed him a smile. "I never had any siblings."

"Well, we fight sometimes, but we always make it up. They're the only family I know." He shrugged. "Thank you for healing them."

"Fire Fever isn't that uncommon. I'm surprised you and Aang haven't fallen ill if you never had it before. " She hesitated very slightly, almost so quickly that Zuko didn't catch it. "It comes from Fire Nation soldiers – you don't need to say anything. I'm not asking, but… well, you should know that people won't judge you."

He stared at her for a blank moment, until her eyes flickered to the left side of his face. Then he understood. "Oh.".

"It's okay," she said quickly. Then she bent, hitching up the hem of her skirt a few inches to show her leg. Pale pink ribbons ran up and down the limb, the flesh looking as hard and unyielding as the skin that slitted his left eye. He wondered how she managed not to walk with a limp. "They've hurt me too."

Zuko swallowed, looking away. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." She let the hem fall and reached out to touch his arm, gaining his attention again. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that most people here are refugees, too. We've all been hurt by the Fire Nation. Some of them keep their scars on the inside." She quirked a little smile at him. "Ours are just a little more visible."

He felt odd, as if suddenly aware of the weight of the lie on his chest. He had told Aang not to let anyone know he was the Avatar, and Sokka must not have mentioned it in his fever ramblings. Song naturally assumed that they were refugees, that they – he was running, and not a prince of the enemy.

I'm not a Prince, he told himself sternly. I don't care what Iroh says. I'm Hakoda's second son. I'm Water Tribe.

And he knew he should be feeling angry at the Fire Nation for Song's burned leg. Not guilty.

Song spoke again, seeing his distress and perhaps misreading it. "This place, this village is all about making a fresh start. Your bother's going to be better soon, and I know old Tu-Zen is looking for strong hands to plow the field, if you're looking for work…”

He shook his head. "Thank you, but we have to continue on as soon as Katara and Sokka are better."

"Oh," Song said, softly. She lifted her chin and bit her lip. Zuko followed her gaze to the distant canyons, guarding the sheltered valley. But she didn't speak again, and Zuko felt the invisible gulf widen between them once more.

He cleared his throat, feeling that some explanation was owed – although he didn't know why. He just suddenly wished that the disappointment would fade in her pretty green eyes. "We're going north," he said, after a moment. "We're traveling to the North Pole. Katara's a waterbender and… well, it's the best place for her to learn." This, he felt was much less dangerous than telling her that Aang was the Avatar.

Zuko was looking again out to the paddock and didn't see Song's eyes widen for a moment, or notice her sharp intake of breath.

Aang rode by then, showing off by nearly standing up straight in his saddle and looping Ushi around again before pulling her to a stop by the railing. "You're right, Song. Ushi is a lot of fun! Do either of you want to take a turn?"

Zuko had backed away a step to keep himself out of the ostrich-horse's reach, and quickly shook his head. "No thanks."

By this time, Song had regained her composure and managed a tight grin at them both. "No, I'm fine, but you two haven't eaten today, have you? My mom said she was making duck-beef stew for supper. Why don't you come over?"

Aang gave a regretful little shrug. "I'd love to, but I'm a vegetarian. Besides, I should go make sure Appa finds a good place to graze. Zuko should go," he added, and actually leaned over in the saddle to dig an elbow in the other boy's shoulder.

The firebender scowled at him, wondering what was wrong with Aang all of a sudden… until he realized that Song was still looking at him expectantly, a slight smile curving at her lips. His own stomach flip-flopped, but in a mostly good way.

"Sure," he said and tentatively returned her smile.

 



OoOoO


 

 

 

Riding an ostrich-horse wasn't as exciting as, say, a giant mongoose-snake, but Ushi was a fast bird, full of energy and sensitive to his commands. But anything was less fun when there wasn't an audience to show off for and Aang quickly grew bored of circling her around and around the paddock.

He cast a sly glance over his shoulder – Zuko and Song were both out of sight by now, and no one else was around to watch. Still, he made his movements discrete, figuring that if he missed his mark the first time… well, maybe then his plan wasn't meant to be.

But Aang was a twelve year old airbending master, the youngest since Avatar Yeng-Chan. Of course he didn't miss.

A strong breeze whipped from around his palms and struck at the latch holding nearest gate. The hinges groaned, but another suspiciously strong gust of wind did the rest of the work, knocking it open.

Whistling innocently, Aang led Ushi out the paddock.

Aang soon spotted a long twisty track just outside the village which led into the forest beyond. He flicked the reigns, clucking under his tongue. The mare tossed her head and snorted once in good spirit; she was just as eager to run as he was.

The path they were on was well-used, with packed earth cut on each side by deep wagon ruts. Aang grinned and urged Ushi faster and faster until he could feel the wind over his bare scalp. It wasn't as exhilarating as flying – Aang would rather be above the trees than on the ground any day – but when Ushi switched into a full gallop he gave a whoop that echoed all the way to the canyon walls ahead.

He heard another voice in answer, coming up from somewhere above in the trees, something that sounded very familiar.

Aang reigned the ostrich-horse to a stop, circling her to get a look around. The branches above were winter-bare, but it still took a few minutes to locate the flash of white and brown.

His jaw dropped. A lemur? Here? He'd only see them in the Air Temples before. Keeping his eyes fixed on the creature, he stretched out an arm. "Hey boy, come on down. I won't hurt you."

There was the sound of flapping wings and the lemur alighted to his forearm. Aang reached into his pocket under his orange overcoat where he usually kept a few nuts to eat. "What are you doing all the way out here-" he started to ask, but then stopped.

Each lemur's coat was as different as a person's face, and he had seen these handsome markings of brown and white before. What was more, the lemur wore a thin red collar around its neck. It lay half hidden in his thick fur, the front tagged with a stylized emblem with a three-pointed flame.

This was Prince Iroh's lemur.

"What are you doing here?" Aang repeated, dumbstruck.

The lemur didn't have an answer. It reared up, little hands scrabbling at Aang's fist, looking for the treat he smelled there. Aang let him have it and set the little guy on a nearby branch while he ate. Then, after a few moment's thought, dismounted Ushi and tied her reins there as well.

He bent a gust of air under him, and with a leap, he twisted his way up to the high canopy above. The trees in this forest were tall, the branches thin and brittle the higher he went. Aang leapt from tree-to-tree, seeking the highest vantage point, balancing lightly as he was taught.

From there he could see the whole valley – from Song's village on one end to the high canyons guarding it all on the other. And off to the distance he saw a line of red-uniformed soldiers descending from the canyon. It looked like a thin river of lava coming down the switchback trail.

"Oh no…"

Aang didn't hesitate. He leapt again across the branches, making his way to the canyon. His only thought was that he had to stop them. He couldn't let this village go up in flames because of him. Not like Kyoshi Island. Not like the Air Temples. Not again.

He was aware, vaguely, of the lemur following along right behind him, chittering as if he were engaged in a game of chase.

Finally, Aang came to the clearing and the mouth of the trail. It was a well-fortified entrance, beginning in a single cleft in a rock just wide enough for a wagon to be pushed through. Two stone pillars at least thirty feet tall guarded each side, their faces littered with centuries worth of graffiti from passing travelers. The area was empty, the soldiers hadn't made it down yet.

If he could block that opening, he could stall the Fire Nation… maybe…

Aang ran to the closest of the two pillars and put his hands on it, giving an experimental push. He had seen a lot of earthbending when he had visited his friend Bumi a hundred years ago. There was a lot of… shoving, and some kicking into the ground.

Aang shut his eyes, focusing on his hands – seeking the earthbending he knew had to be within him, somewhere.

"Come on rocks!" he said, with nothing happened. Aang backed up, took another deep breath and then rushed forward, throwing his shoulder into it. "Bend!"

Nothing.

He could hear some of the troops now; the faint call of voices, the low grinding of wagon wheels against stone.

Earthbending wasn't going to work. Aang stood back, took a deep breath, and blew it out again in a gale force winds that smacked against the side of the pillar, scattering dust and pebbles in every direction.

But the stone pillars had been there for centuries, through real gale-force storms. They would not break now for the power of a mere airbender.

Momo flew up to the flat-top of the pillar and looked back down at the boy, ears tilted quizzically.

Aang's face fell. "I can't do it," he whispered, sagging down to rest his palms on his knees. Maybe if he knew just a little bit of earthbending… but he didn't. He wasn't even sure he could find enough water around to do anything useful, and his airbending just wasn't strong enough to move all those rocks.

He had run out of time.

The lemur looked out toward the canyon, now trilling out a greeting. Reluctantly, Aang turned and leapt again for the trees, disappearing a moment before a Fire Nation scout rounded the last bend and came into view.

Aang found Ushi clipping contentedly at some of the high grasses where he had tied her. He mounted quickly, no longer smiling, and started her in a gallop back to the town. All the fun was out of the ride… he had to warn everyone in time.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Song's small, three room house sat nearly adjacent to the main hospital, separated only by a strip of land planted with early blooming flowers. Like most Earth Kingdom homes in this village, it was built of packed and smoothed earth with square utilitarian sort of windows cut like dark slits out of the mound. Zuko had mistaken it for a supply building earlier.

The inside was sparse, but comfortable. Strips of brightly colored fabric hung where Zuko was used to seeing furs in the tents back home. The tiny windows let in a surprising amount of light, and cheery candles took care of the rest. The home had a pleasant smell as well – decades of home cooking had left their mark - the smells of spices sunk into the walls, making the small space seem welcoming, almost maternal.

Song's mother walked from the kitchen to greet them, wiping her hands on a blue flower apron. It was apparent Song took after her mother, the older woman being perhaps more plump and lined with age. "I see you brought a guest a well." She smiled at Zuko. "Song, would you show your young man to the table?"

The kitchen was set off the main room of the house. Zuko followed the woman, ducking slightly under a low archway.

… And the entire world seemed to stutter to a halt.

It was not possible. It could not be possible.

Prince Iroh sat at the table. He wore a green traveling cloak, still dusty from the road. The royal topknot had been taken down, his long silver hair tied back in a simple queue. He sat there like a simple Earth Kingdom traveler, a cup of tea in his hands, looking up at the newcomers with an expression of polite interest. Zuko was the only one who saw the flash of hard triumph in his eyes.

Zuko froze mid-step, too surprised for horror or fear. He heard, distantly, Song's mother make cheerful introductions.

"This is Li. He is a tea merchant come up all the way from Gaoling. He gave me such a good deal on white dragon tea, I had to invite him to dinner."

"It was my pleasure," Iroh said, inclining his head to the woman. "It's rare that I meet another enthusiast."

"My mom is always experimenting with different flavors of tea." Song said, in an aside. Then she seemed to realize, suddenly, how tense and pale he seemed. "Zuko? Are you alright?"

"NO!" Zuko wanted to shout. "You don't know who that is! Get out of here! Run!"

But behind them all, unseen by the two women, a small flame-fed lamp flared – the fire high and bright yellow. It licked at the nearby curtains before guttering back down. A message, or perhaps, a warning.

And once again Zuko felt a strange rush of power thicken the air in the room. He had felt it before – twice in the presence of Iroh, and he knew with a sixth sense he could not name that every lit candle, every lamp, and even the small cooking fire was under Iroh's control.

"Yes," Zuko said, and his voice came out in a rasp. "Yes, I'm fine."

Song gave him a long, measured look, and then directed him towards the table, sitting him opposite Iroh.

Her mother bustled over and set a bowl of soup in front of her guests, along with a mug of spicy-scented tea for Zuko and a refill for Iroh. Zuko stared at the rich looking soup and felt his stomach roil with a sick, oily sensation. How did Iroh track them? Did he know where Sokka and Katara were? Were they already captured? Why was Iroh doing this?

Song's mother sat herself down at the head of the table, already clucking her tongue in mock anxiety over the state of her meal. "This is an old family recipe, passed down from my mother's mother who served the Earth King himself!"

She wouldn't stop staring at Zuko until he took a bite. Zuko did, reluctantly, feeling the strangeness of the situation. If Song and her mother were not here… but that was Iroh's plan, wasn't it? The two women were unknowing hostages. The soup seemed to turn into ash in his mouth, but he forced himself to swallow anyway and mumble, "It's good."

"Oh, I'm so relieved," the woman tittered. "I've never cooked for anyone from the Water Tribe before."

"Excuse me," Iroh said, wiping his mouth politely. "But I would not guess by your coloring you were of the Water Tribe. The dark hair and golden eyes—"

"I'm adopted," Zuko snarled and glared at the man. Iroh matched his gaze steadily, although corners of his eyes crinkled slightly in a hidden smile. He seemed to be enjoying himself.

And Song was looking at Zuko oddly again, probably wondering why he was being so rude. He flushed, half in anger and half in embarrassment and broke his stare-off with Iroh, returning sullenly to his soup.

A heavy, awkward silence fell over the table, broken only when Song's mother cleared her throat and turned to Iroh. "We don't often get merchants in our village in the winter months. I hope you didn't find the roads difficult."

"Oh, I have been traveling for some time." Iroh said, "One does get used to it, in my trade. But that is not the only reason I have come here. I am in search of my nephew… he has been lost for a long time."

Zuko visibly twitched, but said nothing.

"How horrible," Song murmured. "Is he fighting in the war?"

He spared her a wane smile. "From what I've heard, no, at least, not directly. My fear is that he may be drawn in soon, and there will be little I can do to help."

"There's not many strong boys left around here who haven't gone to war." Song's mother said, and then looked towards Zuko. "Although, I'm happy to hear the Water Tribe are on the move again. The Earth Kingdom has been taking the blunt of every attack in the last thirty years."

"My dad and the rest of his men have been helping the Earth Kingdom fight the war," said Zuko, a bit stiffly. Then added, almost out of spite, "He's fought many battles against the Fire Nation, and taught me and my brother how to fight, too."

"You are lucky to have been under the tutelage of such a great man." Iroh's reply was bland, dancing on the knife's edge of sarcasm.

Zuko bristled, but Song spoke up before he could. "If he's not gone off to war, why did he leave his family, Li? Your nephew, I mean."

Iroh sighed, leaning back in his chair. "I am not entirely certain, as I was not there at the time. He is smart, but stubborn. He does not realize how much he is needed at home, how much his family misses him. His mother, especially."

"… His mother?" Zuko asked, and the words slipped out without almost on accident. And although he didn't know it, he sounded very young right then.

"A woman gentle in spirit and of uncompromising beauty. His absence has nearly destroyed her."

So what? One part of Zuko said, a nasty biting little voice that sounded a lot like Sokka at his most sarcastic. She's Fire Nation. She's probably done a ton of evil stuff. I can't feel sorry for her.

Then why did he feel so suddenly sick inside? He felt strange. The room had taken on a slightly skewed angle and he kept hearing the words echoing again and again in his mind. His absence has nearly destroyed her… His absence has nearly destroyed her…

He didn't hear Song mother's murmured regret over this news, or Song's next question.

"I believe he has been… influenced by his friends,” Iroh said. “They have led him to do things he would not normally do. It is a sad case. The boy I know would never dishonor his family or himself in this strange fashion. But I am certain that if I can convince him to return—"

Zuko wanted to scream at him, wanted to tell him to shut up, to stop playing games and just go away. He didn't want to hear any of this… But another part of him listened with rapt attention – like a man starving, only to be shown a large juicy steak. He was rooted to the spot, staring blankly at his untouched food. Part of him recoiled at Iroh's words… the rest kept him rooted to the spot, unable to turn away.

"Maybe this nephew of yours doesn't want to go back." Zuko said, quickly. "Maybe he's made his decision, and doesn't want anything to do with you."

Iroh simply sipped his tea, pretending to consider Zuko's words. "I wish to give him one last chance, to see that he has been turned falsely against his family, that he has been lied to—"

"Lied—?!" He snapped his jaw shut against the rest of his outraged yell. He was aware, peripherally, of Song staring at him again. 

Zuko glared down at his soup, his clenched fists in his lap.

Song's mother, however, seemed to have figured it out… or at least part of it. She glanced from Zuko to Iroh and back again, taking in their similar coloring, and the way they both folded their napkins into perfect triangles, set on the left side of their plates.

"You must care about your nephew very much," she offered, gently.

Iroh nodded. "I have made it my personal mission to see him come home, and return to those who truly care for him."

"If something ever happened to my daughter…" The woman, reached across the table to lay her hand over Song's. "I would be heartbroken without her. I feel for this woman, Li, and your nephew. I really do."

"Shut up," Zuko hissed, breaking the game at last. He stared down at his plate, hurting, and not really knowing why. "You don't know what you're talking about. You… you don't-"

"Zuko," Iroh said, and Zuko looked up. "I cannot imagine how it has been for you… What you have been put though, and what you must have been forced to do to survive. But those people care only for the boy they have made you. Not for who you truly are."

He said nothing. His throat felt tigh,t and he shook his head, denying Iroh's words. But they battered against him, they hit over at a tender weak spot he didn't even know he had, until now. 

No. He had a people, a father. He was Water Tribe.

"No." It came out as a whisper, pitiful against Iroh's words. It would have been easier if the other man was angry… But Iroh just looked sad.

"You are the first-born son of Ozai and Ursa."

"No. I—I'm Hakoda's son."

For the first time, Iroh showed anger. His fist came down upon the table, making all the silverware jump. "What do you think happened? You say you were somehow found on a Fire Nation ship. How is that possible, my nephew? Your people love your father and your mother. Who would betray them to kidnap their son? And then conveniently fall into the hands of the Water Tribe? Surely, you must realize how this sounds?"

"No!" Zuko turned to Song and her mother, as if seeking their support. They were staring at the two of them, mute in horror and dawning realization. "This isn't—" He stopped and glared back at Iroh. "You're twisting the facts."

"I'm merely repeating your own words, nephew. You told me yourself the first thing you remembered was waking up on a Water Tribe ship."

"They saved my life—"

"Is that what you truly believe, Zuko? Or is that what they forced you to believe?"

"No… No… That's not how it was, Uncle!" Too late, did he realize what he had said.

Iroh heard it too. "Prince Zuko," he said, kindly, with great understanding. "I'm begging you one last time… Abandon this foolhardy mission. Return home with me, and see the truth for yourself."

Song gave a gasp. Her hand flew up to her mouth. "Prince?" And her and Zuko's eyes met and Zuko clearly saw the fear in them.

Zuko shot up from the table as if the seat had burned him. Song’s shock and horror acted like spark to tinder. His own rage, shame at himself, for what he was, flared up in the pit of his belly, boiling upward like liquid nausea.

A ring of fire burst from between his own fingers. Song and her mother screamed, diving to the side and Iroh was on his feet as well, the table upending between them.

"NO." Zuko snarled, and his face was distorted with inner pain and the fire light dancing in his hands.

As much as the monster Zuko seemed to become, Iroh remained calm – and sad. His face seemed to have more lines to it, his hair that much more silver. "I have done all I can, Nephew. I have put my own mission at risk for you, delayed capturing the Avatar and securing Fire Nation victory for you in the hopes that you come to your senses. This ends today. You either return in honor, Prince Zuko, or you return in chains."

Zuko was aware of the candles, the lamps, even the stove flaring up once more under Iroh's power. His own fire seemed very small, the flame very cool in comparison. He didn’t care. He wasn’t giving up without a fight. 

“I’ll fight you!" Zuko yelled. "I challenge you to… to an Agni Kai!"

"I do not accept." Iroh said, flatly. He stepped forward, perhaps to say more, but Zuko struck out. He thrust out his hand, palm up and the flame shot at Iroh like a thin jet of water.

Iroh dissipated it into a wisp of smoke with an easy sweep of his hand. Then he yanked the table cloth out from table before him and threw over his nephew.

It was a simple, shockingly effective trick. Zuko made to knock it away, but the thin cloth billowed over his head anyway and fowled his arms, for just a second. And that moment of distraction was all Iroh needed. He was around the remains of the table in an instant. He jabbed out a clawed hand, striking Zuko a finger length above his belly-button – the exact in a pressure point just above the sea of chi – where a firebender drew his power.

Something deep within Zuko seized up. His legs gave out under him and he collapsed bonelessly to the floor as if an invisible puppet master had cut the strings on his body. He couldn't get up, couldn't see - the ridiculous table-cloth was still over his head, pillowing his world in white. He could barely even move. An aching coldness had anchored itself in his center, like a block of ice in his gut, seeping outward his limbs. Iroh had done something to his chi. 

He could breathe, but he couldn't spark a flame to warm himself… he couldn't firebend.

Song was screaming. Zuko heard the sound of a shattering plate and Iroh's grunt of impact.

"Leave him alone you monster!"

"Stand aside, young lady. This does not concern you."

Zuko sucked in half a breath, just enough to banish the dancing black dots in front of his eyes. But no matter what he did he felt half-frozen inside. Almost as cold and weak as he felt during the winter solstices back home. He shouldn't have been able to move at all.

But he had learned long time ago, on that first dark winter, to exist without using his inner fire.

Slowly, painfully he reached upward and tugged the cloth away. He was staring level at Song's boots. She stood between him and Iroh, protecting Zuko, with another plate in her hand. Her expression was thunderous.

It took every ounce of effort in him to will his body to move past the weakness in his limbs. Every muscle felt limp, weak and lethargic. Somehow he got his feet under him and, bracing himself against one leg of the upended table, forced himself up on his feet again, as wobbly as a newborn lion-elk.

And for the first time, he registered blank shock on Prince Iroh's face. That faded almost instantly, to become hard again. Iroh stepped forward –

There was a whistle of wind, a sudden change in air pressure that made everyone's ears pop. The front door slammed open on its hinges, and Aang rushed in, speaking so fast his words were a blur. "Zuko!A-whole-bunch-of-Fire-Nation-troops-are-coming-down-from-the-canyon.I've-warned-the-mayor, but—" He skidded to a stop, noticing Iroh, pin-wheeling his arms widely behind him, his mouth and eyes almost comically wide.

"Aang, run!" Zuko yelled, but Iroh had already struck out, unleashing an efficient bolt of fire.

Aang nearly bent double backwards in order to avoid the fire – it shot past him and lit the far wall aflame. His returning gust of air hit hard. Zuko and Song were only glanced by it, and both fell over again. Iroh somehow held firm, ducking his head against the wind.

He did not count on an attack from behind. Song's mother charged in from the kitchen, a rolling pin in one hand. Iroh turned, but she was already in mid-swing and the rolling pin connected over the top of the man’s head with a loud crack.

Iroh fell to the ground and lay very still.

But the flames from his single shot at Aang had caught upon some of the paper window-shades and flared upward. The wind caused it to leap to the ceiling where it caught, crackling like dry tinder.

Aang turned to Zuko, who was struggling to sit up again. "What are you waiting for? Put the fire out!”

"I can't." He reached an unsteady hand towards the blaze, but he felt disconnected from the fire. The ice was a dark rot in his gut. "Iroh did something to my chi. I can't bend!”

The smoke was thickening now, pouring down from the ceiling. A beam cracked and fell between the kitchen and the front door, and the flames raged like something alive. The fire had caught along the roof – there was no putting it out now.

"We need to get out of here," Zuko said.

"On it." Aang twisted in place and blew out a man-sized chunk out of the nearby wall. Orange light spilled in from the setting sun like a beacon of safety. The young monk bent down, helping Song's mother along to the new exit. The poor woman was weeping and shaking her hands. Shock from Iroh's attack, her own actions, and the spreading fire had overwhelmed her.

Zuko felt a hand close around his arm, hauling him to his feet. Song. She wore a hard, determined expression – the friendly healer girl was gone.

Aang helped the older woman out of the gap and then turned. "Wait, we can't leave yet. What about Iroh?"

For one moment Zuko considered replying, "What about Iroh?" But some part – he suspected the Water Tribe part – made him hold his tongue. You didn't just leave a man behind, even if you didn't like him. Maybe even if he was your enemy and had chased you more than halfway across the world. "I'll get him. Make sure Katara and Sokka are all right. I'll meet you with Appa."

Aang hesitated, clearly torn, and Zuko opened his mouth to snap at him to go, but Song spoke first. "It's okay. I'll be with him."

He doesn't trust me? But Zuko forced that thought away. That couldn't have been it. Ice still ran through his veins and he was slightly hunched around his stomach, shivering visibly. The heat from the growing fire tightened the skin on his face, but did nothing for the strange cold in his core.

The fire had spread rapidly along the rafters, creating a ceiling of writhing orange and red – beautiful to a firebender's eyes.

Zuko ducked down where the air was still breathable. He felt one of Song's hands clench the back of his tunic. 

"Iroh!" Zuko yelled, but his voice was raspy with smoke and lost in the dull roar of the fire and the crackle of the wood.

He crawled forward – the smoke was soon so thick he didn't find the man until he was nearly on top of him. Iroh was still unconscious, and Zuko couldn't tell if he breathed, although Song put a hand to the pulse point of his neck and nodded.

"Iroh!" Zuko grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him – Iroh's head flopped limply to the side. "Wake up you fat, lazy—" he broke off, coughing. The smoke had gotten to him and he felt light headed…

There was a loud crack of wood and one of the thick beams fell down from the ceiling somewhere off to the side with a crash that shook the floor. It broke Zuko's daze. He came back to reality to see Song tugging on Iroh’s  arm; she meant to drag him out of here if he couldn't get up on his own.

Iroh… weighed a lot. Weak, frozen inside, dizzy from smoke inhalation, Zuko would have never been able to do it without Song's help. She shoved him along when he faltered, one hand pulling Iroh and the other had nails digging into his arm. Without her he would have surely given into the urge to rest, to close his eyes and let the fire warm him.

As it was, he lost track of himself. There was only the effort of dragging the man, inch by inch back across the ruins of the floor, towards vague bright light that was freedom. He was surprised to find himself at the hole in the wall again. He, Song and Iroh tumbled out, soot smeared and coughing.

Zuko lay back against the cool ground for a moment, staring up at the pure blue Earth Kingdom sky – so different from the dark cobalt arctic blue back home – and heard Song's house burn down, and the distant scream of frightened people.

He had almost forgotten that the Fire Nation was raiding the village.

Iroh was stirring beside him; blinking, twisting his head to stare at the burning house and then down at himself as if surprised to find himself still alive.

Song scooted away nervously, but Zuko felt anger return to his gut. It didn't melt the ice, but it gave his limbs strength. He leaned over, grabbing Iroh's tunic and hauling him up to a sitting position. Iroh made no move to defend himself. His amber eyes were vague and slightly confused, perhaps from the blow to the head or the smoke.

"How?" the aged prince asked, simply.

Zuko didn't know what he was asking. He didn't care. Rage flared up all over again and he leaned in close. "If you ever…" he rasped. His throat was raw and dry as a bone from breathing smoke… but oddly tight, like he was going to cry. And maybe it was sweat on his cheeks, or maybe tears. "If you…ever hurt anyone to try to get at me again… I'll kill you." It was all he could say. All that would come out.

But Iroh seemed to understand. At least, he nodded, gravely. When Zuko let him go he sat back and made no move to attack further.

And Zuko turned his back on him – the man who used to be his uncle. He got to his feet again, saw Song do the same. She slipped a supporting arm around his shoulders and together they staggered away.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Villagers were running back and forth in a mass of panic. Some clutched small children, some their possessions. A few good souls half heartedly grabbed buckets from a nearby well, but the flames were licking high in Song's house and wind carried embers to the hospital roof. There was no saving it.

Song made a sound of distress. Her grip tightened again on Zuko, but amazingly… she didn't drop her arm. She didn't scream accusations at him – although he expected it at any moment. Her eyes were bright with tears, but she only helped him along and didn't stop to weep.

"Song," he began, knowing that she was owed an explanation… and more of an apology than he would ever be able to give. "I—"

"Frozen frogs," she blurted, cutting him off.

"… What?"

"For your sist—for Katara and Sokka. It's an old woodland remedy, but sucking on frozen frogs can reduce the symptoms of Fire Fever."

He stared at her as if she had grown two heads. But he was very tired and decided not to press his luck. In any case, they were drawing to the other side of the hospital now. Zuko could hear Appa bellowing in the distance. He withdrew his arm from around her shoulder. The Fire Nation was coming. Song had to find her mother and leave. He had to make his escape as well.

But she reached out, gripping his wrist. "No, wait! That man – he said something about the Avatar."

He felt tempted to point out that she had, in fact, seen Aang airbend, but so much had happened so quickly. "Yes," he said. "It's Aang. That's why we're going to the North Pole. He'll be safer there."

She drew in a quick breath. "I know the stories. They say the Avatar has to learn all four elements."

"Yes," he repeated, sharper now. They didn't have time for this. "Why?"

She didn't let go. She stared at him for such a long moment he wondered if she meant to ask to come. And he didn't know what his answer would be.

"There's a group, not far from here," she said, in a rush. "My mom and I have treated their people, in secret. They're against the war, and they say they're led by a firebender. A good one."

Zuko stared at her, his good eye wide in shock. “A firebender working against the Fire Nation?"

"Yes. I… I'm not supposed to tell anyone. If they knew – but I thought you shouldn't be alone."

She reached up to touch his cheek, and for one fluttery moment, he was sure he was going to kiss her.

Then Appa bellowed again – louder – and they could hear shouted orders from deep throats and what sounded like muffled explosions. They had run out of time.

Song let go his wrist and with one last look and a smile, she was gone.

Zuko watched after her for a few moments, and then turned away. Perhaps it was his imagination, but he didn't feel so cold inside. The place where she had touched his wrist felt warm.

He staggered around the corner of the burning hospital. In the field beyond stood Appa with Sokka, Katara, and Aang already in the saddle. The bison gave a great bellow, ducking his head. He looked ready to spring into the sky.

Zuko broke into a loping jog. It was all he could manage, and Katara and Aang both had to reach down to help him into the saddle. He made an ungainly entrance, falling into the saddle, across Sokka's legs.

"Yip-Yip!" Aang called, and with a bunching of muscles and massive lurch that sent their stomachs plummeting to their toes, Appa leapt into the sky.

Katara took in his sooty, singed, exhausted appearance with an alarmed eye. "What happened to you?"

"Iroh happened," he gritted out. Grabbing the sidewall of the saddle, he hefted himself up onto his knees and cautiously lifted his shirt. His stomach was a mass of yellow and green tinged bruises, darkened to five purple points where Iroh had jabbed him. It didn't hurt, exactly, although the purple spots felt sort of numb. The icy feeling deep inside was melting away – either time had done the trick or the cold was driven out by the weak winter sun.

Sokka looked up at him and Zuko could see his blue eyes were clear and lucid, even if there was a runnel of snot coming out of one nostril. "You know," Sokka huffed, weakly, "I don't think that Prince Iroh likes us very much."

Zuko snorted, but his reply stuck in his throat when his brother's gaze sharpened, focusing over his shoulder past him. Zuko turned and saw, something white and brown glide down out of the sky and land on the horned tip of Appa's saddle. Iroh's lemur.

"Zuko, get my boomerang," Sokka said. "It's in my pack. I'll let you do the honors."

"Sokka!" Katara snapped. "That's mean!"

The lemur just cocked its head at then hopped over, coming to rest on Aang's outstretched arm. It made a purring sound deep in its throat and rubbed its little head against the monk's cheek, almost as if in apology. Then it took off again, just as quickly as it arrived.

The kids leaned over the side of the saddle, watching it zip through the air. They were high above the village now, above even the billows of smoke still coming up over the remains of the hospital. The lemur dived downward, circled once, and came to rest upon the shoulder of a man standing on the outskirts of the village.

Iroh.

Zuko's lips pressed into a thin line and sat back on his heels, turning away to rest his back against the side of the saddle-wall. 

Katara joined him a few moments later, bumping his shoulder with hers in a friendly sort of way. "Hey," she said, softly, so that their voices didn't carry to Aang and Sokka. "What happened back there?"

He crossed his arms and looked away. "Nothing."

"Zuko…"

"I don't want to talk about it." He looked up at her, and his eyes were bright. "Not right now."

She gave him a long, steadying look. Then she nodded, patting his arm in a gentle, understanding sort of way. She turned back to Aang and Sokka, coughing politely into her hand. She was mending from Fire Fever, although not all the way recovered. Zuko would have to make sure Aang stopped Appa later on for her frozen frog cure.

But right now he could only stare out into the endless sky, and reply Iroh's words back in his head.

What happened that day, nearly six years ago? Why had he been on a Fire Nation ship in the first place? Zuko's eyes darted back and forth, for the first time in a long time trying… really trying to remember anything before he had woken up on the Water Tribe ship.

As always, there was nothing.

 


 

OoOoO


 

Chapter Text

This chapter's incredibly relevant art is by Nandireya.

 

 


 

OoOoO

"Only a fool seeks his own destruction."

~ Jeong Jeong, The Deserter

OoOoO


 

 

A few days after the mad dash from Song's village, Zuko found himself in the odd position of teacher to both Aang and Katara.

His sister had soon recovered from her fever, thanks to a combination of Song's medicine and Aang's prowess at digging up frozen frogs out of muddy bogs. As soon as she was up, she was again pouring over the waterbending scroll. Zuko mentioned he had learned his version of the fire lash from it when she and Aang had been captured. 

The moment the words were out of his mouth he found himself being dragged to a nearby river. Aang tagged along, hand over his mouth to stifle his giggles.

"All right, just watch what I do." Zuko lit a small blaze for himself out of a nearby dry log. With a gesture, he pulled flames from it until he had a bright flare of fire between his hands. He felt self-conscious and a little silly under Katara's direct gaze – she was the better bender out of the both of them – but he stepped forward into his first stance anyway, explaining as he moved. "First, I sort of stream the fire like this. Make sure it's thin and flexible. Then…" He flicked his arms in a sinuous and the ribbon copied his movements, the tip striking with a scorching hiss at the trunk of a nearby tree. The point of impact was marked with soot.

"That doesn't look so hard." Katara called up her own water from the nearby stream. With a globe of it between her palms, she stepped forward in imitation of Zuko's quick movement. But her water remained a coalesced blob and splattered on the ground when she flicked her arms out, soaking her boots.

Zuko started to laugh, but quickly covered it with cough when she shot him a narrowed eyed glare.

Turning, Katara brought more water up from the stream and attempted the water whip again – snapping her arms out more forcefully this time – the water exploded into fine mist and blew away in the light breeze. 

Her shoulders slumped. "I don't understand. What am I doing wrong?"

He honestly didn't know. "Let's try it again on a dry run. You stand like this." He rooted his feet a shoulder-width apart and held out his arms. Once she stood by him and copied his stance, he took an exaggerated deep breath inward. Then, as he stepped forward, let it out. "You need to breathe and… sort of snap your arms out at the same time as you step. Try to make it all one movement, starting from your legs and moving upward through your body, your torso, arms and out again. The whip is an extension of your hand."

Katara followed his steps, glancing his way every few seconds to make sure she was doing it right. With a nod, Zuko took her though the stances again and again. But when she tried it with a globe of water it collapsed all over her outstretched fingers before it had even extended into a stream. "Argh! Why can't I get this move?"

Zuko scratched the back of his neck. "Well, it took me most of that night to figure it out. I don't think you would do it the first—"

Crack!

Zuko and Katara jumped at the sound of splitting wood. Aang turned towards them with a wide grin on his face. A dried dead tree-stump off to the side had been split in half with the force of his water-whip. Then, with a smooth twirl of his hands, Aang recalled the water back between his palms where it reformed into a neat globe. Not even Zuko had been able to manage that.

Katara made a sound somewhere in between an annoyed snarl and a huff. She whipped around towards her target, flicking out her arms angrily. This time, she had slightly more success; her water shot out in a stream, but twisted wide and Zuko had to throw himself to the ground to keep from getting smacked.

"Hey, watch it!"

"Sorry!" Distracted, the water exploded again into useless mist before striking her target.

Aang walked over, ever helpful. "I think you're doing it mostly right, Katara, but you have to make sure you're shifting your weight smoothly through the stances." He mimed the kata as he spoke; stepping forward with a smooth breath - only Aang's shift between his stances was so graceful, his bones seemed liquid. He ended the move with an easy flick at his wrists.

Zuko narrowed his eyes, noting Aang's easy grace and feeling a prickle of annoyance at being shown up so easily. 

"That's not what the scroll says to do," he groused, and went to one of the packs and retrieved the scroll, then pointed to the little figure in question. "See, he's moving at his elbows at the end. No wait…" He peered closer again, bringing the parchment up to his nose. It had been full dark last time he had taken a good look at this scroll and he had been studying it by firelight. Sure enough, the painted figure seemed to be flicking out his wrist, a rolling movement which started at the elbows and extended down to his hands. Wordlessly, Zuko rolled up the scroll and crossed his arms, scowling at Katara and Aang as if misreading the thing had been their fault.

Aang grinned at him, but had the grace not to say anything. He turned to Katara. "I know you'll get it. Let's start from the beginning. The secret to bending is keeping everything smooth…"

He and Katara ran through the steps again, and after a few minutes Zuko came out of his sulk and joined them. By the end of the hour Katara's whip was no longer striking random places, and Zuko had almost got the trick of recalling the fire back between his palms afterwards. Neither one of them had managed to split a log in half like Aang, though.

There was a rustling from a patch of bushes to the right, a snapping of twigs, and Sokka emerged from the underbrush, fresh from his hunting expedition. The last few days of rest (and frogs) had done him some good, too, and he was well on the mend with only a stuffy nose left from the Fire Fever.

Now he wore a wide smile and had brought back with him two fish hanging from a line in one hand. On the opposite shoulder was slung a stick, heavy with a large bunch of berries. "The brave hunter has returned and he brings with him delicious food-stuff,” Sokka called, triumphantly.

Aang abandoned the lesson at once – much to Zuko and Katara's annoyance – and skipped over. "What did you find?"

"Fish and grape-cherry berries."

"Huh. I don't know, Sokka." Aang frowned and poked at one of the berries. "These look more like white-jade berries and they're supposed to be poisonous."

"Poison, eh?" And before anyone could stop him, Sokka took a berry and popped it into his mouth. "No… no. I think it was the first thing."

"You idiot!" Zuko snapped. "Spit that out!"

"Aang, don't eat that," Katara added, noticing the little monk reaching for a berry himself. She then turned to her eldest brother. "Sokka, what's wrong with you? You were just sick!"

"They taste fine!" But Sokka had already spit it out anyway and went about washing his mouth out in a stream. It didn't taste very grape-cherryish; more like the tea Gran-Gran's used to make.

Aang stared glumly down at the two remaining fish. One gave a weak sort of flop, and he swallowed hard. "I can't eat those…”

"Two fish isn't enough for four people anyway," Katara said. "Our supplies should last today, but we need to find a village and get to a market soon."

Sokka spat a final mouthful of water into the river and reached for his pack where he had Aang's map carefully stowed. "I say we fly for the rest of the day and get out of this forest. There's some villages just beyond the border. We’ll head north from there. No more stops, no more potty breaks, no more magic bending time by the river."

"If I have to go, I have to go." Katara said, her hands on her hips. "And we're stopping."

"Fine, but you make it short." His decision made, Sokka rolled up his map and started packing his things.

During this, Zuko had hung back, uncertain. He hadn't told them what Song had said, because he couldn’t figure out a way to bring it up without making it… self-serving. Hadn't he promised Aang in the barn just the other day that he would do everything he could to help him get to the North Pole? But…

"Uh, guys. I don't think we should leave yet."

"Zuko, if you have to go, just go." Sokka waved to the nearby bushes.

He colored a little. "No, it's not that. It's just… Song told me something important when we were leaving." The rest came out very fast, and sounded not at all like what had been in his head. "She said there's a firebender who lives in this forest. She said he was good, and I was thinking, well, if he's good than maybe he could help us – that is, uh, me and… Aang…" he trailed off.

They were all staring at him, but Katara was the first to speak.

"Why didn't you tell us this before?"

"I don't know." Zuko shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. "You two were still sick, and I thought I would see a sign of something. But I think Aang and I should meet with this guy. We could—"

Sokka made a sharp gesture, cutting him off. "No way," he said, shaking his head. "We are not going out of our way to get flamed by a firebender."

"Song seemed to trust him," Zuko said.

"Well, firebenders can't be trusted."

"Sokka!" Katara snapped.

Sokka turned to his sister, clearly exasperated. "You know what I mean." But he still seemed to realize he had made an error, "Zuko's not like a real firebender, anyway, and Aang… well, he has the master of all the elements thing going for him."

Zuko felt like showing his brother exactly how much of a real firebender he was – just in case he had forgotten. But Sokka's gaze, when he met against his, was earnest. Zuko bit the inside of his own cheeks hard. It took effort, but he let the comment pass, only saying, "What if this guy is really against the Fire Nation? What if he's different, too?"

"Or what if he's just not with them because he's even worse?" Sokka countered.

"We won't know until we look, will we?" Katara stepped over to Zuko's side, her decision very clear.

"I want to learn firebending, Sokka,” Zuko said, meeting his brother's gaze squarely. "We might never get another chance like this."

"Why? You already know a lot of stuff. And you beat Zhao that one time."

His gold eyes seemed to flash. "But not Iroh," he said, lowly.

"Aang," Katara said, turning to her friend, "What do you think?"

Put between his friends, another boy might have scuffled his shoes, and looked around nervously. Aang simply bowed his head, hands lightly clasped as he took a moment to consider everyone's words before he gave his answer. "We're going to the North Pole to learn waterbending, but I still have to learn fire and earth, too. If he could teach Zuko and I firebending, wouldn't it be worth it?"

And with that, Sokka realized that he was outnumbered. "Fine.” He sighed and threw his hands up in surrender. "We'll look for one day."

 


 

OoOoO


 

They didn't have much to go on. Song had left Zuko with no directions, and the forest was large, spanning to either side of the horizon. Once Appa got in the air the task seemed even more impossible. Each tree looked like a fluffy green mushroom from up above – an unbroken vista with only a blue-green reflection of a river snaking through it.

To his credit, Sokka wasn't one to bother or complain about being outvoted. The Water Tribe valued teamwork and he was all about helping out until the others came to their senses and naturally realized he was right all along. 

So Sokka didn't waste any time sulking; he took out his map again and traced their current direction with a callused finger. "Hmm… If I were a Fire Nation jerk, where would I hide?"

"Next to a river?" Katara suggested, viewing the map over his shoulder. "There would be plenty of fish to eat and water to drink."

"He'd be within a day's ride of a village," Zuko blurted, with an air of authority that made his brother glance up at him. "He'll want to keep his ear to the ground – if he's against the Fire Nation he'll want to be in a place close enough where he can hear about their movements from the locals, but still stay out of the way."

Sokka stroked his chin as he poured over his map. "That does make a lot of sense," he allowed, and took a few more moments to look at the map. "There's a place north-east where there's a river and some villages nearby." And he turned to call out the direction to Aang.

The day wore slowly on. There was only an endless landscape of green below them. Even the bare broken patches were just empty meadows with no sign of human habitation. No smoke was to be seen anywhere all the way out to the unbroken edge of the horizon, no suspiciously burned patches of wilderness that might signal a firebender was nearby.

By mid-afternoon they were still searching from the sky, but morale was low within the group. Zuko was slumped moodily in the saddle basket, arms hanging off the side. Sokka had all but given up and was bent over his map again idly tracing a path from the forest to the South Pole, and even Katara was looking dejected.

Aang was laying back on Appa's head, boredly twisting a knot of air between his fingers when something caught the corner of his eye. Flipping over on his stomach, he put a hand to bison's dark horn to steady himself and leaned over to peer down in the forest. "Did you guys see that?"

They all came alert at once and rushed to the side of the basket to scan downwards.

"See what?" Katara asked, shading her eyes.

Aang pointed nearly straight down. "There! Right there – Hey! They're chasing that guy!"

"Where?" Zuko leaned as far over the saddle as he could and shook his head in frustration. He could only see the green tops of trees with barely a gap in them. "I don't see anything."

But Aang didn't answer him. In the next moment the airbender had jumped back from the driver's seat into the saddle, and snatched his up airglider.

"Aang, what are you—" Sokka began, but Aang was gone before he could finish, leaping out into the air without so much as a backwards glance.

"Ugh, I hate it when he does that." Sokka groaned, and with a much put upon sigh, climbed over the ridge of the saddle to take Aang's place at Appa's head. Looping the reins around his hands, he called, "Hang on!" before he turned the bison sharply to follow their friend.

 


 

OoOoO


 

 

Aang snapped open his glider with practiced ease and took a steep dive downwards – a yellow and orange arrow speeding through the air. His grey eyes searched for the spot he had seen, just for a moment's time, the frantic pursuit.

He heard Appa give a bellow somewhere above and trusted his friends would be somewhere behind him. The wind rushed past so loud he could hear nothing else and it stung at his eyes, but he could feel the currents and layers in the air, like three dimensional pathways in the sky. He felt the almost playful tug of a likely current. Aang took it, letting it lead him to a hole in the forest canopy. He slipped through that gap – shooting past the tree trunks so fast they were all a blur.

The snapping sound of cloth caught his attention. He saw another glimpse of the fleeing man through the trees to his right – the hem of his dirty brown robe flapping out behind him.

Aang's speed was greater. Anticipating the man's direction, he pulled ahead and twisted around to land right in his path, snapping his airglider shut. Within a few seconds the man rounded a corner and saw him – he staggered to a halt with an audible gasp.

"It's okay!" Aang said, holding out his hands in a peaceful gesture. "I just saw those soldiers chasing yo,u and I wanted to help."

The man stared at him for a moment; at this young boy with the distinctive arrow tattoos and the yellow and orange overcoat. Then he reached up and pushed back his hood to reveal a grizzled face and a wide-eyed expression. "You're the Avatar, aren't you?" he asked, in a thick voice. "I've been looking for you!"

"You have?"

But a shout from the forest beyond cut off the man's reply.

"Stop right there, traitor!"

Two soldiers in Fire Nation regalia stepped out from the nearby brush. Aang made to step in between them, but the robed man shook his head. "It's okay. I know how to deal with these guys."

Sure enough one of the men jumped forward, launching a blast of fire towards them. It looked to fall short, made more to intimidate rather than burn. The man in robes ran towards it. One hand fell dived into the deep pockets of his robe. Grabbing what he needed, he drew back and threw a packet of something wrapped in thin paper directly into the fireblast. The packet exploded at once, cutting right into the blast and throwing a bright bloom of fire in all directions. 

The surprised soldiers were thrown back at least a dozen feet, and landed flat on their backs.

"Whoa!" Aang cried. The man turned and grabbed his arm to twist him back around.

"That'll only stop them for a moment. We gotta get out of here!"

Aang looked up the sky to catch his bearings. Nodding, he looked to the south and then pointed to a small game trail which split off from the main path and led to the side. "C'mon this way! Follow me!"

They broke into a run, hearing the sounds of cursing soldiers behind them. The forest gave way to a large clearing not too far down the path – Just what Aang had been looking for. He darted to the middle of it, dragging his surprised friend along. Suddenly, the end of a rope fell from the sky as if by magic, and Appa's great bellow came from above.

"AANG!" Sokka leaned down from the bison's head. They were hovering above them, not forty feet up. "Need a lift?"

Aang grinned up at him and waved to show he heard. The man next to him was gaping at the impossibility of the giant flying bison. "Grab on!" Aang said, grabbing the rope and shoving it into his slack hands. He didn't need it for himself. One tap on the ground and his airglider unfurled again; a bent gust of air took him up to safety.

Katara and Zuko held the other end of the rope while Sokka took over driving duties. Aang landed next to them and helped take up the slack. Grunting and pulling, the three of them managed to pull up the robed man. He fell into the saddle in relief, laying there for a moment to gulp air before pushing the hood again off his sweaty brow.

"Thanks," he sighed. "They caught my trail awhile back. I didn't know if I could outrun 'em."

"You seemed to do pretty good," Zuko said, with a glance to the man's deeply lined pockets. He had seen how he had rushed towards the soldiers and the resulting explosion from his position up in the air. "What did you throw at them?"

"Exploding jelly packets. Just something I picked up in the army." The man gave a vague sort of smile. "Most firebenders can't take their own fire coming back at them."

Sokka had come back into the saddle from his drivers seat while he was talking. He immediately took in more details about the newcomer than the other three, including what was left unsaid. "You're a Fire Nation solider!"

"Make that, former Fire Nation solider," the man corrected. "I deserted the army a long time ago. Name's Chey."

"Nice to meet you, Chey. I'm Aang." Aang gestured around the saddle. "And these are my friends; Katara, Sokka and Zuko."

Chey nodded to them each in turn and his grin went a little lopsided at Zuko. "Named for the dead prince, huh? That's rotten luck." But before the startled teen could respond he turned again to Aang. "I've heard rumors about you and I had to find you myself. I serve a man… Well, he's more than a man, really. He's a legend."

"Who?" Katara asked.

"They call him Jeong Jeong the Deserter. He was the first man to leave the army and live." Chey paused for effect. "I was the second, but you don't get to be a legend for that. Anyway, he's a firebending master, and I knew he would be perfect to teach the Avatar how to firebend."

Sokka's face fell into deep skepticism, but Katara gave a little gasp and scooted closer. "That's why we're here!" she said. "Zuko and Aang both need to learn from a firebending master. Do you know where he is?"

"Sure do. It must be destiny that we found each other." Chey's eyes took a mystical wide look, and he ignored Sokka's snort of disbelief. "Jeong Jeong is a great man, and one of the best firebenders ever… No, he's a genius! He's hidden his village so well you'd never be able to find it without me."

"Oh yeah? So where is it then?" Sokka asked, crossing his arms.

Chey pointed over his shoulder. "Oh, over that way.”

The others could see doubt pinching Sokka's face. Sure enough he turned to them and said, "I don't think this is a good idea. We can't just follow the Fire Nation soldier to the firebender in his hidden fire village with all of their… fire!"

“I’m a former Fire Nation solider," Chey corrected, easily.

"Chey's right, Sokka." Katara said. "Anyway, this forest is too big to search on our own. We have to trust him."

"Oh, come on!" Sokka snapped, throwing up his arms in exasperation. "I can't be the only one who thinks this is a little too convenient."

"It's not just convenient," said Chey, again with the wide-eyed look. "It's destiny."

 


 

OoOoO


 

In truth most of the fight had been knocked out of Second Lieutenant Chuuzi, along with his wind, when the exploding jelly-blast had thrown him at least two lengths. He had landed flat on his back among a scattering of sharp, painful, rocks. He was getting too old for this. By the time he had sat up and got some wind back in his lungs, his quarry and the strange bald kid had already run off.

Only a healthy sense of revenge – carefully crafted and fueled from two decades hard service in the imperial military – had made him force himself up and drag his still slightly stunned firebending partner to his feet.

The idiot fugitive and the kid had left an easy trail to follow, but Agni's luck was not with the two soldiers this day. They arrived at the edge of the clearing just as the two made their airborne escape.

Chuuzi and his firebending officer watched with mouths slightly agape as the impossibly sized six-legged sky-bison swung his tail down and literally flew away.

"Is that…" The firebender couldn't finish, shaking his head and turning to stare at his Sergeant. "That means that strange little kid was the Avatar, doesn't it?"

Chuuzi nodded. Some part of his brain had come out of its shock and was noting the north-northwest direction the animal was taking. Their Commander's mission was to hunt down deserters in this forest, but something this important came first.

"We've got to report this to Commander Zhao at once."

 


 

OoOoO


 

They would have never found the village by themselves if not for Chey. It was well camouflaged, every hint of human activity hidden in the native foliage. It was Chey who pointed out the small depression along the winding river bank – something that could have easily been overlooked as a natural bend, but which he insisted actually served as a small harbor for their long boats; all pulled out of view of prying eyes by brush and branches.

Master Jeong Jeong's camp was well fortified, as well. Aang had no sooner set Appa to land in a large clearing when they were surrounded by fifteen men, all dressed in amour woven from thick grasses and wickedly pointed wooden spears.

"Hey guys," Chey chirped, sliding down Appa's side. "I'm back."

The leader of the group glowered at him. "What is this, Chey? Jeong Jeong told you not to seek the Avatar."

"I didn't. He found me first." Chey jerked a thumb at Aang who smiled and waved.

"Foolish!" the man snapped.

The young monk floated down from Appa's back between the angry men and their guide, ever the peacemaker. “Hi, I’m Aang! Is Jeong Jeong in?"

The lead man glared at the boy but another man at his side muttered, "I know Jeong Jeong's orders, but we cannot refuse the Avatar.”

The leader seemed to agree, however reluctantly. He gave a single nod, the lines of his face deepening. "Leave that animal here and follow me."

There was a small twisting path that led from the edge of the meadow and back under some wide canopied trees. A small village stood beneath the shadows of the low branches; dried mud-huts were arranged in groups of twos and threes with roofs seeded with wild grasses, making them look like wild hills.

The lead man stopped in front of a medium sized hut, set slightly apart from the others. "You wait in there," he said, gesturing to the teens. Then he turned to Chey. "Jeong Jeong will want to see you."

"That's okay," Chey said, but the smile gone from his face. In fact, he looked downright nervous and kept glancing back at Aang and the others as he was led away.

As suspicious as the hidden resistance was, they at least were gracious hosts. Their hut was clean and simply furnished with bamboo mats so they didn't sit on the bare floor, and a small pit dug out in the middle for a cooking fire. They were given water and flattish bread and then left alone; a slight muffled sound of someone pacing outside the only indication they were being kept under guard.

Dusk fell fast and early under the trees. Cricket-frogs were chirping within half an hour outside, and soon after that there was a knock on the door. Chey entered, downcast and looking much chastened.

"Jeong Jeong won't come and see you," he said, his gaze fixed firmly on his boots.

"What?" Aang exchanged an alarmed look with Zuko. "Why not?"

Chey gave a miserable shrug. "He's very angry. He says you—the Avatar isn't ready, that you haven't mastered waterbending or earthbending yet."

"Finally!" Sokka threw the last bit of crust he was eating into the fire and stood up, brushing his tunic free of dust. "Let's hit the road."

"We're not going anywhere," Zuko snapped, with a dark glare towards his brother. "And what is this guy talking about? Aang doesn't need to know Water or Earth yet, he already knows some firebending basics."

Aang tilted his head to the side. "Wait, how does Jeong Jeong know I haven't mastered the other elements yet?"

The small campfire caught a gleam in Chey's eyes. "He saw the way you walked into camp. He can tell."

Zuko let out a snort that looked like steam. "That's ridiculous."

"So he's just not going to see them at all?" Katara asked. "Even though we've come all this way?"

Aang shook his head and stood before Chey could answer. "No, we've got to talk to him." He turned to stride out, Zuko quick on his heels, but they were stopped right outside by a guard. He must have been listening at the door, or perhaps they had all been a bit too loud, because he shook his head and held up a hand.

"Only one may speak to Jeong Jeong."

Zuko and Aang glanced at each other. "I could—" Zuko started, but Aang stopped him with a shake of his head.

"No, he said he won't teach us because of me, so I have to be the one to talk to him… Maybe he doesn't know that the comet is coming? I have to tell him how important this is."

The other boy's jaw tightened, but he saw the logic in Aang's words. Besides, the young monk was a people-person and Zuko knew… well, he wasn't. He gave a stiff nod and turned away back to the little hut, leaving Aang to continue on to plead for both of them. His blood was still up and he stomped back through the low entranceway, slamming the door behind him, and glaring around at Katara and Sokka. "They'll only let one of us speak to him," he explained, before anyone could ask.

"Don't worry," Katara said, soothingly. "Aang will work it out. Trust him."

Zuko just muttered something under his breath and stalked off to a dark corner of the hut. It wasn't that he didn't trust Aang, or that he was angry at him. It was just frustrating, deeply frustrating, to be so close to finally learning some real firebending only to possibly be denied. He wanted to stand up, push past the guards and demand his right to be taught. Who did this guy think he was? 

He held himself back, only by merest of self control. He had learned a long time ago that when you were ice-fishing, fish didn't bite on the hook if you were pacing back and forth. Only if you kept yourself still, and silent.

Besides, Sokka would laugh at him if he were turned away again.

Time passed slowly for them in the hut. Caught under Zuko's broody mood, the fire died down into glowing embers. Chey slunk off to his own hut with a vague excuse about catching up with old friends, and Sokka took the opportunity of a full belly and a semi-soft mat to curl up with his back to them and get some sleep.

"So," Katara said, after a long period of silence. She kept glancing to the door, too, starting to fret over Aang. What was taking so long? "What else did Song tell you about… you know, this firebender?"

Zuko shrugged. "Just that she'd treated his people before and that…" he trailed off for a moment, feeling a slight heat come to his unburned cheek. "That I shouldn't be alone. The only good firebender, I mean."

He knew he had said too much that the moment the words were out. Katara's eyes gleamed with renewed interest. "She did? Do you think you'll see her again?"

"How am I supposed to know that?" he asked, annoyed. "Do I look like a fortune teller?"

Katara rolled her eyes. Boys. "Well, do you want to see her again?"

Zuko didn't answer for a long moment. Then, "Her house and the hospital burned down." That wasn't technically his fault, although he wasn't sure Song would see it that way. "And she knows who-what I am. Iroh told them." He sighed. "Or I did. We were arguing."

Katara scooted closer, sensing more behind his words. "What happened?"

He turned his head away, scowling at a far wall and feeling awkward and aware of her keen attention on him. Katara prided herself on being in everyone's business. He shouldn't have said so much in the first place, but it was no use to hope that Sokka would conveniently wake up and interrupt them – he might be feigning sleep for all he knew. Besides, now that Katara had learned this much, she would just wait until they were alone to ask again. She'd never let it go. "The usual. Iroh tried to get me to go back with him. And he… he told me my blood parent's names: Ursa and Ozai."

"Oh. So do you remember—"

"No." He put that question to rest at once. As a matter of fact, he hadn't let himself think too much about the names – didn't want to let them become important to him. Yet they still cycled around in his head, mostly at night when he was trying to sleep. Ozai. Ursa. Ozai. Ursa. Harsh sounding syllables… like Zuko. "Iroh said she… the woman—"

"Your mother," Katara whispered, softly.

Zuko gave a half shrug. "He said that me being gone nearly destroyed her. I don't care," he said, and reached towards the glowing orange embers to twist a small ribbon of fire between his fingers. It was a nervous gesture. "I don't even know her."

Katara looked at him across the fire, solemn, her blue eyes solemn and sad. He looked away from her… He couldn't stand to see the compassion there. After a few moments, he allowed the fire in his hands to die. 

"Does it make me a bad person?" he wondered.

"No." She reached over to take one of his hands between hers. Her fingers were cool to the touch. "But I think you're wrong. I think you do care, Zuko, even if you don't want to admit it."

Her words loosened a tight, unnoticed knot in his chest. Mutely, he shook his head, and she didn't press further.

Sokka gave a soft snorting snore from the other side of the room. It broke the moment and Katara drew back, turning her head to wipe discretely at the corner of her eye. Zuko pretended not to notice, busying himself with rekindling the embers back into viable flames.

"I liked her," he said, after a moment. "Song, I mean." To Katara's questioning glance. "But… I wouldn't want to hurt her again, and that's just what would happen, if I ever went back."

Katara gave him a long, steadying look. "I think you're underestimating her."

But he only shrugged again, his expression becoming closed and unhappy once more. For once, his sister didn't pursue it.

 


OoOoO


 

 

More time passed; the sound of Sokka's deep regular breathing acted like a sedative to his siblings. Katara had pulled up her own mat and curled up on it with her back to the fire. Zuko's chin rested on his chest, his eyes shut as he dozed.

Then, without any warning at all, the door to the hut slammed open on its hinges and Aang bounded in; a smile stretching from ear-to-ear. "He's gonna train us!"

Startled, Sokka shot to his feet, still half asleep and clutching his boomerang. "What happened?" he demanded, looking around with sleep muzzy eyes. "Are we captured again?"

Zuko ignored him. "You're sure?" he asked, Aang.

"Well, he wasn't at first. He was pretty angry when I told him I was taking firebending lessons… but then he got quiet for awhile and then just agreed. We're going to meet him at his hut right at dawn." Aang's grin got even wider. "We're going to get training from a real firebending master!"

Katara looked from Aang to Zuko and back again. "This is great! You two will learn so much."

"Yeah," Sokka deadpanned. He settled himself back down on the mat with an annoyed air. It had just hit him that they weren't going anywhere for some time. "Great."

 


 

OoOoO


 

The two boys were up early the next morning, and took the short path between their hut and Jeong Jeong's at a jog. They had been up and ready before the last of the night's stars had even completely faded into daylight. The plan was to get there early, fresh faced and ready for their firebending instructor.

They found him waiting for them instead.

Jeong Jeong's private hut was marginally bigger than the others in the village, set in a prime position on the edge of a carefully tended shallow creek. He stood on the rocky bank and watched their approach. A mushroom of wiry grey hair sat atop his head, and he was swarthy from years out in the sun. As Zuko drew closer he saw the man had scars of his own; two vertical lines drew near one eye, puckering its corner. Had the injury been any closer, he may have lost it.

The old master said nothing as they arrived, so Aang was left to do the introductions. "Master Jeong Jeong, this is Zuko. He's the one I told you about. He's taught me some about firebending already. Zuko, this is Jeong Jeong."

Zuko cupped his hands in a bow, Water Tribe style. "Thank you for agreeing to teach us."

Jeong Jeong eyed him for a moment and then gave a single nod, his expression too closed to read. Then he looked to Aang. "We will start with the basics. Horse stance!" he barked, causing the little monk to startle, before he hastily bent and positioned his feet. "Wider! Now bend your knees. Good… good."

"Um." Zuko raised his hand. "What should I—"

Jeong Jeong whipped around. "Quiet! If you cannot be here without interrupting then you may leave." He turned his back on him in clear dismissal and focused again on Aang. "Now, concentrate."

Aang looked hesitantly between his teacher and his friend. Zuko stood off to the side with his arms crossed, looking severely put out. But Jeong Jeong was still glaring down at him expectantly.

"So, what am I supposed to concentrate on?"

The old master gestured to the east where the bright gleam of the sun could just be seen though the bare winter branches. "Feel the heat of the sun. It is the greatest source of fire, yet in complete balance with nature."

Aang glanced up behind him and then back, a slight smile on his face. "Is that how I make fire?"

"No! Concentrate!"

His sharp command made Aang startle again, but he steadied himself and screwed up his face in his best ‘concentration pose’. Jeong Jeong watched him for a few minutes until he was satisfied. Then he turned to Zuko, "Come!" and walked away.

Zuko followed, hands now clenched in anger at his sides. They took a stone-edged path through the trees and came to a large meadow, the brown grass cropped short by hungry beaver-deer. Jeong Jeong stopped in the middle, turning to regard him and still said nothing. It was as if he were waiting.

Zuko was quickly growing tired of playing games. "Are you going to teach me now?" he asked, snidely.

"No."

"What!?" he yelped, "Wait, why not?"

"You are undisciplined," Jeong Jeong snapped, "and arrogant."

"I'm arrogant?"

"You do not wish to learn the art of firebending. Look at you," he said, walking around Zuko in a slow circle, evaluating the boy like a badly trained ostrich-horse. "You see an opportunity, and you pushed forward with it, heedless of the consequences. You are no master, yet you attempt to teach! How can you teach what you do not know?"

Zuko's nostrils flared. "You haven't even seen—"

"I have seen enough. The way you move, the way you breathe speaks of no control."

"That's why I'm here! I —I didn't have anyone to teach me, so I taught myself. I've figured out some things, but I don't know it all."

Jeong Jeong studied him for a long moment, and Zuko met his gaze unflinchingly. The old master was less than impressed. "Fire is the most seductive, and the most treacherous of all the elements. Playing the fool and turning your back on it will only invite danger."

"I know the risk. I'm not afraid."

"Oh? What about when your pupil's fire turns on someone else, or himself? Yes, boy," he snapped when Zuko opened his mouth to interrupt. "Do you think you are strong enough to hold the Avatar?"

Zuko almost barked out a laugh. "Aang wouldn't—He's a monk, he's not going to just run around setting things on fire." He paused, lifting his chin. "And even if he did, I would stop him."

"You are a fool."

It took everything he had not to shoot back another insult. This man is a master firebender, he told himself firmly. Letting out a long breath that was perhaps a bit hotter than it needed to be, Zuko forced his voice to come out even. "So are you going to teach me, or not?"

Jeong Jeong's eyes narrowed. He stepped forward and his tensed shoulders made Zuko flinch, as if readying himself to be smacked across the face. But the Master simply barked, "What are the three elements of fire?"

"Heat, air, and fuel," Zuko replied instantly, before he had even the chance to consider how he knew.

"It is called the divine triangle." Jeong Jeong said. "Without heat the fire cannot spark, without air the fire cannot breathe, and without fuel a fire cannot grow.” He held out his hand, palm up, and lit a small nub of a flame hardly bigger than a candle-top. "This fire has heat and air. What is it using as the fuel?"

"I don't know…" Zuko's scrunched his face for a moment in thought. "More air?"

"No! This fire is fed only by my will. It is held by my control. You may put tinder to it, and it will not catch. It grows." Jeong Jeong turned then and a brilliant plume of flame arced high into the air before it retracted, once again becoming the candle-sized flame. "And it dies only to my will as a guide."

Jeong Jeong closed his fist, snuffing out his flame. Then he poked one finger to Zuko's stomach. "This point is the single most important area of chi for a firebender. Here is where the fire gets its fuel. A firebender will use his own body heat in the core as the spark." His finger moved up, now centered in the middle of Zuko's chest. "Breath provides the air and the power to the fire. The mixing of chi, breath, and heat create flame." And once again the squat little fire appeared his palm.

"We're made to produce fire." Zuko breathed, and felt warm inside with the realization.

"Yes." But there was something bitter in the old master's tone. Before he could identify it, Jeong Jeong held out his palm once more. He seemed to be waiting for something. Guessing at what it was, Zuko moved his hand briefly over the other firebender's to collect a little of the flame into his own palm.

Once free of Jeong Jeong's control and passed into his own, the fire spread out into three cool red and orange points, nearly spilling over the sides of his palm like water – so different, he saw now, from the Master's single candle-top flame.

Jeong Jeong raised an eyebrow, his disapproval clear. "You cannot control your own fire properly, and you expect to teach the Avatar to do the same?"

Zuko's cheeks felt hot. He grit his teeth and dropped his hand, letting the fire run off into smoke between his fingers.

"Take your stance!"

So he was to be taught after all? Zuko let out long breath – half relief and half exasperation he crouched firmly down. Having seeing Aang do this shortly before, Zuko made sure to keep his legs far apart. Jeong Jeong didn't comment, except to tap at his feet with a stick to make sure they were both facing forward.

It might have been his imagination, but something in the burn in his thighs and calves felt… almost familiar.

Jeong Jeong reached up, plucking a falling leaf out of the air as if by magic. The tips of his fingers smoldered a small hole in the middle of the leaf leaving a slight orange ring. "Concentrate on the fire," he said, handing it to Zuko. "I want you to keep it from reaching the edge of the leaf for as long as you can."

He did, taking the leaf by the edges gingerly. The moment the control from the fire passed from Jeong Jeong to himself, the orange ring dimmed and then died.

"Your hands are as delicate as a turtle-duck and just as threatening." Another smoldering leaf was thrust between his hands. "Again."

It was going to be a long day.


OoOoO


 

Jeong Jeong dismissed his two students at dusk with an order to return after breakfast the next day. He firmly ignored their mulish, disappointed looks. All young students were same. Even the Avatar, as bubbly and cheerful as he was, saw the value in firebending only for the flash and awe it could inspire. He expected this to be fun. He had no idea of the burden of fire to the soul.

Jeong Jeong needed to meditate.

That night, a three-quarter moon rose overhead. The small hidden village was asleep; all cooking fires burned to embers, sentries nodding off at their posts, and late winter peepers calling out a soft mating song.

He sat alone in his hut, knelt on a simple bamboo mat. Rows of thick waxy candles breathed with him, slow, deep and even. It was the same position Aang had found him in the night before. There was little change between that night and this one, except by the slight worry creased between Jeong Jeong's dark eyebrows and the occasional flicker of the far candle flames as his own thoughts spiraled wide.

Jeong Jeong was deeply conflicted.

He would not – could not – ignore Avatar Roku's request to teach the newest Avatar. It had been a vision sent from the spirit world itself, and Jeong Jeong knew he must heed it. But it felt wrong down to his very core.

The Avatar must have the discipline of the three other bending elements before he attempted to master fire. It was the way of the world: Winter came before spring, and spring preceded summer. Just as a new shoot must first grow and mature before the hot season, so must the new Avatar learn the other elements. This was the natural balance, and Jeong Jeong felt he was tampering with something vital by introducing fire to him now.

The other source of his inner disquiet was less important, but needled at his spirit all the same.

There was something fundamentally off in the young prince. It wasn't his odd garb or the fact that he was here at all when he had long thought to be dead – Jeong Jeong had his own secrets and shame, he was not one to pry into another's. No, Jeong Jeong had been almost glad at the boy's natural show of arrogance, else he would not think of him as a firebender at all. 

The boy did not spark fire of his own when prompted, but had pulled it from Jeong Jeong's own flame. Then his fire had sat tamed and cool like water in his hand. He had heard of such firebenders before, but one appearing in the royal line? It should not be possible.

The old master's thoughts strayed wide again, reaching far back into his own memories. The scent of red-lilac came to him, for a moment so real that he breathed in deep as if to catch the aroma of his homeland once more… had he felt this strangeness from the boy before?

 


OoOoO


 

 

Admiral Jeong Jeong inhaled deeply. The scent of red lilac was thick in the wind. He closed his eyes, concentrating only on that sweet-spicy smell and willing it to lead him to inner stillness. He was going to need all the calm he could muster for this particular interview.

Prince Ozai walked beside him, hands clasped loosely behind his back. If he noticed the other man's breathing pattern change, he made no comment. He also, it seemed, felt no reason to conceal the reason for his summons today. 

"Admiral Jeong Jeong, you are renowned in the Fire Nation for your firebending training."

Jeong Jeong tensed. "No longer, my Prince. I have vowed to take no more students."

"I don't see why,” Ozai said calmly. "Every single one of your pupils has been trained into a master. Why, Zhao has recently been given a captain's commission, and he's ambitious enough to make commander within a few years."

Jeong Jeong said nothing.

The Prince remained unconcerned. "Follow me," he said, and turned on his heel to walk down a side corridor, expecting the other man to walk as passively behind as a well trained lion-dog. Perhaps, in Ozai's mind, he was. 

Jeong Jeong's face remained an impassive mask as he fell into step with him once more, matching the man's even stride. 

Ozai did not glance in his direction. "I know you have vowed not to take any more pupils, but this is no ordinary student."

They came to a high veranda overlooking the palace courtyard. The royal guard were training off in the middle-distance, their weapons clacking and warrior's calls echoing off the stone walls. Jeong Jeong felt his gaze drawn to the forefront.

The girl could not have been more than five or six years old – Jeong Jeong had no children of his own so he was not good with such estimations. She was training with what looked like the palace firebending masters. As the two men looked on, the girl sprang up in the air, executing a perfect twist; the side of her foot landed an exact mark against a high padded glove. The sharp whap of impact could be heard even from where they were standing. She landed in a lithe crouch and was up again before he instructors could command, completing the move with a quick fireblast downwards to mime finishing off the imaginary opponent she had knocked to the ground.

"My daughter, Azula." Ozai's voice was filled with pride. 

"Remarkable," Jeong Jeong murmured.

"Her instructors tell me she is a true firebending prodigy." He paused. "If she continues at this pace, she will be capable of blue flame within a few years."

Jeong Jeong never took his eyes off the girl, did not let the slightest emotion crack the rigid mask he made of his face. His fingers, however, clenched into claws against the railing – thankfully hidden under the wide sleeves of his formal robes. "Only a few are capable of such fire in each generation. You must be… proud." 

The words felt like bile in his mouth. Blue flame burned hotter, the fire within that much hungrier… the line between humanity and savagery spider-silk thin.

Jeong Jeong was certain he let none of his own thoughts show on his face, but Prince Ozai was looking at him oddly. He clearly expected more enthusiasm, more awe over his prodigy daughter. 

Thankfully, Jeong Jeong was saved from further explanation by the sound of light running feet. A young boy appeared in the open doorway behind them. He was perhaps a year or two older than the princess and shared Ozai's remarkable light gold eyes.

"Father!" His face split into a grin as he raced up to the two men. "Mom an' Uncle are going to see a play at the theater tonight. Can I go, too? Mom said you have to say okay."

Ozai glowered down at the boy. "Remember your manners, Zuko."

Brought up short, the young boy executed a hastily bobbing bow, first to Ozai and then to Jeong Jeong. "Sorry Father. May I go?"

"Which play will you be seeing?"

The boy grinned again. "The one with the dragons in it!"

Love Amongst the Dragons, Jeong Jeong thought, with a bit of snide amusement. A romantic production that was all the talk of the noble class. Ozai’s son enjoyed theater while his daughter bent her energies to combat.

Sure enough, a look of exasperation passed over Ozai's finely sculpted face. "You may, but," he held up a finger before his son could speak. "You are to conduct yourself with the utmost behavior for a young prince. Do you understand?"

Zuko squared his narrow shoulders, puffing out his chest with seriousness that seemed ludicrous for someone so young. "Yes Father. Thank you, Father." Another bow – more properly done this time – before he turned to race way.

Jeong Jeong watched him leave. "Your son is also a firebender?"

He was sure to watch Ozai's reaction of the corner of his eye and again he caught a flash of emotion – exasperation again, or perhaps disappointment – on the other man's face. "His skills are average." And he turned gain to the courtyard, dismissing the subject from his mind in favor for the more talented of the two children.

Down below, Azula executed another perfect series of leaps and kicks. There was no doubt about it: her skill was far beyond her age group. 

"I will have only the best instructors for my daughter." Ozai said, after a moment. "I am aware you are under my brother's command for the next year. After you are finished, you are to return here and teach the princess until her skills surpass your own."

It was nothing short of an order. No one, not even a renowned master under the weight of his own vow, could refuse a prince. Jeong Jeong bowed.

Looking down at the girl as she flipped and spun; a bright series of hot sparks shooting from her fingertips, he saw his own soul's destruction. 

A tiny seed of discontentment had long ago been planted in his mind, after Zhao's betrayal and during the course of his own violent campaign in the Earth Kingdom. Watching the girl now, knowing what she would become with or without his tutelage, he felt that seed spring another tiny shoot.

Jeong Jeong never returned.

 


OoOoO


 

Jeong Jeong slid open his eyes. His candles had burned themselves low; the wax spilling into puddles on the packed earth. He paid them no mind. He was certain now he had not registered anything strange about the young prince at that point – he had barely acknowledged the boy at all. 

Average, Ozai had said, and perhaps that was the case.

Control, he told himself firmly. He would prescribe a regiment of meditation and breathing lessons for them both.

If the Avatar did not wish to master bending the other three elements then Jeong Jeong could at least be certain to drill him in the art of restraint. He would be disciplined, he would be calm and in complete control before Jeong Jeong would let him touch live fire. 

Breath control could only help the prince as well, and smooth out whatever oddness he felt from him.

Tomorrow, he would work the two together.

 


 

OoOoO


 

Jeong Jeong told his pupils to meet him shortly after breakfast after that first frustrating day. So Aang and Zuko had some time to kill after they woke. Sokka announced he was going to get some well-deserved fishing time in and set off down the river with a borrowed pole and bits of stale bread to use as fish bait.

Katara, meanwhile, had been practicing on her own and wanted to show off her water whip. She had gotten better with the waterbending scroll as a guide. Her whip struck at or very close to its mark every single time.

Zuko and Aang exchanged a silent dubious glance: Katara had progressed far already while they had spent all yesterday breathing and feeling the sun.

Naturally, Aang was first to get over his jealousy. Soon he had shed his shoes and stood next to Katara in the ankle-deep water to perfect his own water whip. Not to be outdone, Zuko lit a small campfire from a nearby pit and joined them.

After awhile, the three benders stood side-by-side in the peaceful stream, setting challenges for each other on who could hit what, before deciding to find out what would happen if they all struck the same point at the same time. Two waterbenders and one firebender stepped forward in unison with the same fluid grace. The tips of the three elemental whips converged on an unlucky stone stuck halfway out of the ground. The force of the joined impact sent small chips of rock exploding in all directions.

"Wow!" Aang exclaimed, wiping his forehead free of sweat with the back of his hand. "I can't wait to do that with fire. What do you think, guys? Fire in this hand and water in the other!" He then brought his hand together in a playful clap.

Zuko smirked and turned to stream more of the campfire's flames into his hands for another round – and nearly jumped out of his skin when he caught sight of a man watching them from a nearby footbridge, not twenty feet away.

"Master Jeong Jeong!" he yelped, catching Aang and Katara's attention. His concentration shattered, the small stream of fire fell short and landed in the water with a steamy hiss.

The master's expression was… unreadable, but Zuko could feel the force of his gaze drill into him even from so far away. Why? He had not done anything wrong.

"If you are done playing," Jeong Jeong's eyebrow rose up his forehead in displeasure. "There is real practice to be done."

"Yes, master Jeong Joeng," Aang and Zuko said in unison, bowing quickly.

Katara giggled behind her hands as the boys hastily sloshed out of the stream and retrieved their shoes.

 


OoOoO


 

 

Zuko was sure he felt the older firebender's gaze on him several times over the next hour as Jeong Jeong shepherded them up a winding forest path. Every time he turned, however, Jeong Jeong was looking in another direction.

Jeong Jeong remained stoic and remote, walking up the sharp incline calmly with his hands clasped behind his back, without a hint of exhaustion.

Aang was more than happy to fill the silence for their teacher. He had taken his journey as a good sign and constantly elbowed Zuko, whispering in excitement about the types of moves they would probably be learning today, and how his friend Kuzon from the Fire Nation could make a bolt of fire where the head actually looked like a dragon.

The path wound its way up to a mountain of bald yellowed shale – bare of any grasses or vegetation. Aang's grin widened at the sight and he couldn't hold back anymore.

"Are we coming up here so we don't burn anything with our fire blasts?"

Jeong Jeong didn't even look at him. "No fire yet."

"What?!" Aang whirled to Zuko, as if seeking confirmation, but he looked just as surprised. "Then why did you bring us here?"

The old man stood straight and tall, his back to them. A slight breeze tugged at his heavy robes. "Power in firebending comes from the breath. That is why you must master proper breath control." He did not so much as turn his head, but he might as well have been pointing at Zuko. "And you," now to Aang, "must learn both patience and discipline. Assume your stance…Wider!"

He left them only a short time later after vague instructions to inhale through the nose and exhale out the mouth, to widen their stances, feel the heat of the sun and once again meditate on the balance it provided.

Zuko's mouth pinched into an unhappy line, but he stood firm on the bare hill with hands clenched strongly at his sides. The pose felt unnatural and uncomfortable to him. And as weak as the winter sun was, it was still much warmer than high summer at the South Pole. A trail of sweat dripped down his spine making his pale blue tunic stick to his back. He felt clammy and uncomfortable.

It was Aang who broke first, letting out an exhale through his mouth that was more out of frustration than meditation. "This is boring!"

Zuko remained quiet with the hope that if he said nothing, the other boy would settle back down. No such luck. Aang only sighed again, louder this time.

"He's probably going to have us up here all day long," Aang continued, more peevish. "I already know how to breathe and feel the sun."

He had a good point. This wasn't what he had hoped for firebending training at all, yet somehow… Zuko wasn't quite surprised. Letting out a long breath, Zuko cracked open his good eye. It wasn't often that he found himself being the voice of reason, and he had to think for a moment to find the right thing to say. "Look, Jeong Jeong has been a master for a long time. He knows what he's doing."

"But this is so boring! Couldn't you teach me something fun?” Aang wheedled. "Just how to make the littlest fire?"

"No."

"Ugh!" Aang broke his stance and ran a hand over his bare scalp in agitation. "I'm going to talk to Jeong Jeong."

"Aang, get back here!" Zuko reached for him, but Aang had already stepped off the sharp side of the hill. His orange overcoat billowed up around his ears as he floated gently downhill.

Zuko scowled down at the other boy, and considered marching him right back up the hill and make him take his training seriously. Only Zuko's pride held him back. He wouldn't break his stance and go hunting after Aang just to get yelled at again by Jeong Jeong – Let Aang get in trouble on his own.

So Zuko stepped back in his stance again, widened his feet, and focused on breathing. He had to believe that there was some point to this business… even if he didn't know what it was yet.

The sun blazed higher and ever hotter in the sky, and Zuko could feel the skin on the back of his neck itch with sweat. He sighed and untied his wolfstail, but he soon felt even more uncomfortable with his hair all in his eyes; his shirt nearly plastered to his back with sweat.

And Aang still hadn't returned.

"This is ridiculous," he growled, straitening up. How was anyone supposed to concentrate like this?

As much as he hated to admit it, Aang might have had a point. What was the use staying up there all day anyway when he could have been doing something useful, like perfecting his fire lash? Zuko was trying… he really was, but he was hot and cranky and somehow he didn't think that standing up here breathing all day was going to help him next time he met Iroh. The fat old prince wasn't going to be impressed by his newfound breathing techniques.

Reluctantly, he abandoned his post and trudged back down the hill.

 


 

OoOoO


 

He half expected to run into Aang and Jeong Jeong coming back up the path, but he met no one – had everyone forgotten about him? Maybe Jeong Jeong did intend for them to stay up there all day.

Zuko had nearly reached the hidden village again when the sound of excited voices made him stop in his tracks. He could hear Katara and Aang off in the distance. Although he was too far away to understand the words, the warning in Katara's tone caught his attention right away. He pushed through the last few bushes, and froze.

Aang stood on a dry upraised stone near the edge of the quiet meditation pond, and Katara was facing him across the small gap of water. Somehow, the young monk had managed a respectable flame in the palm of his hand. With one quick circular movement Aang split the fire into three parts, juggling his element like balls.

His flames were rough and red with ragged edges. It was clear Aang didn't have complete control.

Zuko strode out of the brush. "Aang!" he barked. "Stop!"

But Aang was caught up in his enjoyment of this new game. He didn't hear the other boy at all over his own happy laughter, and tossed the flames higher, twisting about in an airbending move.

Zuko knew what was going to happen, it seemed, before it even did. He leapt forward into a sprint, feeling the whole world slow to a crawl. He was too slow… too slow… 

Aang's arms cast out, and his expression changed from delighted to alarmed as the fire rolled away from him in every direction.

The flames were wild and fast– so much faster than Zuko was. He reached out, instinctively trying to gain control of the racing fire and turn it away…

He had not been ready for Aang's raw power, the heat or the sheer force. The flames rolled past Zuko's hands.

And Katara screamed.

The world seemed to skip time for a second, and when it came back Zuko was staring dumbstruck at Katara. She knelt crumpled on the ground with her hands clutched to her chest.

Aang leapt over the small creek. "Katara! Oh no – Are you all right?"

All right? All right?! Zuko rounded on Aang. "What do you think?!" He stepped forward, so furious he didn't know if he wanted to grab the young monk and shake him, or just punch him in the face.

But Sokka managed to get to him first. Alerted by the raised voices as Zuko had been, he pelted in from nowhere, the fishing pole forgotten back in the river. Moving between the two, he viciously shoved Aang back, knocking him to the ground. "Look what you did! You burned my sister!"

"I'm sorry… I didn't mean to!" Aang looked at the two brothers looming over him, wide-eyed. "I'm sorry!"

Zuko didn't care. "Jeong Jeong told us to be careful. He told us not to mess around."

"I know—"

"Then why didn't you listen?!" His last few words were almost a shout. Aang shrank back, but Zuko wasn't impressed. 

Something hot and painful burned up though his chest, boiling his blood. His fingers were claws at his sides, and bright yellow sparks dripped off his palms to sizzle to the ground. He advanced on the other boy, shouldering Sokka out of the way. "Everything's just fun and games to you! And… and you don't care! There is a war going on, but you would rather fly around and play with fire like it was a new toy. Fire isn't a game, Aang!"

Aang didn't speak up, didn't say anything in his own defense. He stared up at Zuko, his eyes so round and wide that Zuko could see a reflection of himself as a large dark distorted figure standing over the boy.

Zuko's mind stuttered to a halt. The breath died in his throat. He took an involuntary step back. Then another.

Aang was saying he was sorry over and over again – he probably didn't know he was saying it at this point. Zuko only knew he didn't want to hear it. He felt sick, nauseated. The ragged edges of his vision were dark, the remaining overly bright and contorted.

And in the edge of his perception he saw Katara rise, hands still clutched to her chest. She fled the meadow, weeping.

"You'd better go after her." Sokka was still glowering narrow-eyed at Aang, but shot Zuko a quick glance when he hesitated. "No offense, but you have the most experience with burns."

Zuko nodded, dumbly. "Yeah… right," he murmured.

Aang's face was awash with anguish, but Zuko couldn't quite meet his eye. He turned and strode away, slightly stiff-legged, in the way that Katara had gone.

It wasn't hard to find her. She had run to the outskirts of the village and had come to rest where a small grassy incline led to a bend in the river. She was knelt over again with her arms tucked inward to her chest, sniffling. Zuko's heart contracted – he knew how much it took to make her cry.

"How bad is it?" he asked, coming over to kneel beside her. In truth, he wasn't sure what he could do. Katara was the one who always provided first aid. She had always been the one to step in and taken care of things when Sokka got a fishhook stuck in his hand, or if he cut himself on a jagged piece of ice. Now, looking down at her, burned and crying, Zuko felt lost and unsure… and small.

Katara only shook her head and turned her face away, as if to hide her tears. "You shouldn't have been so rough with Aang…It was only an accident."

He should have objected, should have told her Aang knew better – because he did – but looking at her right then, Zuko only thought of how he couldn't stop the flames, how they had slipped right past him. He hadn't been strong enough to hold the Avatar's fire, and because of that his little sister had been burned.

"Let me see your hands," he said, roughly.

She hesitated only a moment longer. Then slowly, painfully, she uncurled her arms from her middle, uttering a strangled little cry when the raw flesh hit air; fresh tears running down her face. But she was so obviously trying to remain strong he said nothing of it.

Zuko let out a long breath. He had thought – no, he had expected her hands to look shiny and raw of flesh… like the left side of his face. Instead, a series of thin angry red lines ribboned the front and back of her hand, extending upward past her wrist and to the middle of his forearm. Blisters were already forming up along the edges of the burns, thick and yellow.

It was still bad. And he might have burn experience as Sokka said, but only as the victim. He didn't know what he could do for her at all.

"You're going to have to talk me through this," he said. "What do I need to do?"

Katara shook her head, gritting her teeth. "Bandages and… I don't know what else. Back home there's a lichen to stop infection… I don't know if it grows around here."

Bandages they had, packed away on Appa's saddle. Zuko looked around, hoping for some inspiration for the short-term, and spied the river. "Let's soak the burns. It might help with the pain."

Gently holding her elbow, he guided her to the edge of the bank. Katara grimaced again when he helped lower her hands into the cold water; and his heart twisted again in his chest. He could only stand to the side and pat her back awkwardly, feeling worse than useless.

Perhaps the simple touch helped… Katara leaned back slightly into him and closed her eyes, letting out a long breath - as if to regain her composure.

The water around her hands began to glow bright blue.

"Katara…"

His first impulse was to snatch her hands back out – there was clearly something wrong in the water. But Katara's expression stopped him. She'd opened her eyes, her face no longer pained, but amazed. And when she lifted her arms up, the water still glowed blue for a moment or two before falling away, transparent again, and leaving new skin behind.

"What the…" Zuko reached out to touch her hand. A bare minute ago there had been red welts there, but now there was only whole tanned skin. "What did you – How did you do that?"

"I don't know. I just felt a sort of imbalance and then…" She shook her head and glanced over to him. The tears were gone, and now her face was alive with excitement and wonder. "Wait." She reached out and grabbed his arm. "Zuko, you're hurt, too!”

"What?" He looked down. One of his pale hands was red with heat rash – he hadn't been able to divert all of Aang's fire after all. It stung, but not badly. He had hardly even noticed considering everything that happened afterwards. "It's nothing."

But Katara had already turned to the river and with a gesture, steamed a globe of water into her hand. "Here, let me see." Pulling his arm across her lap, she let the water coat over her hand like a glove and placed it over the rash. It glowed bright blue under her power. He winced, but the sting melted away almost instantly to cool relief. A breath later the water dribbled away to leave whole, unmarked skin.

Their eyes met, mirrored in mutual amazement. Then her gaze flickered, ever so briefly, to the left side of his face.

"She has healing abilities."

The moment broke and Zuko and Katara turned to see Jeong Jeong striding towards them. 

"You've seen someone heal like this before?" Katara asked, in awe.

He nodded, and something sad flashed over his craggy features. "It is said the great waterbenders can stitch wounds without sting-gut and mend bones in only a moment's time." He sat next to them without invitation, staring in to the gently flowing river.

Zuko could hardly look at the old master – Jeong Jeong's words from that first argument played again in his mind, almost mocking. Do you think you are strong enough to hold the Avatar?

"I guess you were right," Zuko said. The bitterness burned hot in this throat. "I couldn't stop Aang’s fire.”

"Fire will often burn those who are foolish enough to step in its path," the old master replied. Then he sighed. "What happened was inevitable."

"What do you mean?"

"It is the curse of fire." The trace of sadness was gone as if it had never been there. He still stared into the water, his expression as hard and chiseled as stone. "One slip, one moment of lost control, and you will destroy yourself and everyone you love."

Zuko swallowed hard and looked away, a hand going to his own chest where he felt the lingering heat of his inner-fire.

Seeing this and the horrible, uncertain look on her brother's face, Katara's inner hackles went up. "That's not fair! Zuko has never burned anyone, and what Aang did was an accident."

"Fair? The destinies care nothing for fair." Jeong Jeong dipped a hand in the cold river and lifted a palmful of it to eye-level. "Your element is cool and sustains life. You can heal, while fire… Fire rages and burns. It brings only pain and destruction. What in this is fair, that some are given the gift to heal and others only to destroy?" He paused then and shook his head, leaving the two teens stunned. After a moment, he seemed to collect himself. He looked to Zuko. "This is why I cannot teach you firebending."

The boy flinched as if he had been slapped. "Please, give me a second chance. I promise I'll work harder." The shame of begging for it washed over him like a wave, cracking his voice. The thought of failure, though, was far worse. "I'll go back and do all the breathing exercises… Whatever basics you want."

"Wait," Katara said, putting a hand on her brother's arm to still him. She looked to Jeong Jeong. "You can't train him, or you won't?"

This earned her a respectful nod. "I cannot teach him firebending." He focused on Zuko once more. "I saw you with the Avatar. A firebender would have tried to block the flame or attack its caster to dispel it. Instead, you attempted to turn it into your own and route it away. This is not the instinct of a true firebender. "

Zuko bristled. "I am a firebender." And he lifted his hand palm up in demonstration, lighting his customary many pointed flame which threatened to spill over the sides of his hand like water.

Jeong Jeong raised a thin eyebrow at the boy. "Perhaps in form, but we would both be fools to train against the spirit."

"But…" He clenched his fist, extinguishing the fire. "Prince Iroh told me once that the way I way I bend made me weak."

"You are a dragon who has learned to swim rather than fly. It is… not natural."

"But—"

"No!" Jeong Jeong snapped. "There is nothing you can learn from me. You must train with a waterbending master."

His pronouncement struck like a blow. Katara and Zuko exchanged a long amazed look between them, but before either one could find words, Jeong Jeong spoke again.

"I have always envied the waterbenders." And there was a note of longing in his gruff voice neither had heard before. "There are stories of the ancient ones, the first firebenders who learned from the dragons. It is said their firebending was pure. They were… in complete balance with themselves and their element."

Zuko blinked. “You're saying there's more than one way to learn to firebend?"

Jeong Jeong didn't answer for a long moment. Then, "Even the greatest river can change its course to the ocean."

"So… is that a yes?" Katara asked.

A sudden bloom of fire across the river cut his answer short. Jeong Jeong was on his feet in a flash, so fast that neither Katara or Zuko saw him move. The old master blocked the flames with a solid fist, and another with a sweep of his own fire and a kick.

Watching him… Zuko thought he understood, just a little, how fundamentally different the other firebender was from himself. Jeong Jeong not reroute the fire, did not twist it to the side. He stood firm and dispelled the flames with his own.

Zuko turned his defense into an offense. Jeong Jeong's offense was his defense.

The realization was there and then pushed away in the next second. There were other things to worry about. No less than four river boats were chugging their way up the river. It was too far away to see faces, but at least ten red armed men stood attention on each deck.

Jeong Jeong turned to the two Water Tribe teens, his light brown eyes blazing with inner fire. "The Fire Nation has found this place. You must take your friends and flee. Leave now and never return!"

Katara turned to run, but Zuko hung back.

"No, I'm not leaving. We can help you!"

For the first time, readable emotion flickered in Jeong Jeong's eyes. Something that was almost… relief. "It was never my destiny to train the Avatar. He must find another master, and so must you, Prince Zuko."

Prince. Zuko gaped stupidly at the man for a moment. Jeong Jeong… knew? All along? And he said nothing?

"Go!" Jeong Jeong barked, seeing his hesitation.

There was no time to ask more questions. The boats were nearly to the shore and Katara was pulling him by the arm. Reluctantly, Zuko turned and retreated up the bank with her – back to the path that led to the village. He looked over his shoulder only once to see Jeong Jeong raise a literal curtain of fire behind them – shielding their escape from the Fire Nation boats, and possibly dooming himself.

 


OoOoO


 

Commander Zhao's fists clenched as he watched the two Water Tribe peasants scale up the embankment – running like the rat-fleas they were. 

"After them!" he roared, pivoting to the helmsman.

This river was wide and shallow, only thigh-deep in places. Zhao was tempted to leap in and charge after them himself, but the still healing skin pulled painfully cross his chest, cutting off that impulse. He would be forced to land and disembark the usual way.

An orange and yellow curtain of fire erupted from nowhere, obscuring the peasant's escape and forcing the boats to make a sharp turn to shore. Zhao turned – and nearly laughed out loud. It had been nearly a decade since he'd seen his old master… Years of travel had not been kind to the man. His face was leathered from the sun, his unbound hair now steel gray, his robes dusty and patched. Once, Jeong Jeong had been a great man. Now, he was a savage.

Again Zhao's first impulse was to leap down. Perhaps he should cut through the curtain of fire himself just to show his perpetually unpleaseable master how he had grown. Finally show him once and for all that control meant nothing in the face of raw power.

And again the sharp pain from his burns stopped Zhao, giving him a moment to think twice. So he went for plan B, signaling the compliment of river boats to converge on the narrow beach rather than splitting them up in search of the Avatar and that traitor prince.

No, this prize was a little closer to the heart.

 


 

OoOoO


 

Side-by-side, Katara and Zuko burst from the foliage back into the village. Sokka was perched back on his fishing rock, scowling down at a pool of minnows. He looked up at their approach. "Katara, you're okay?"

"I'm fine. Where's Aang?"

Her eldest brother's dark look returned and jerked a thumb towards the direction of Jeong Jeong's hut. "He's in there."

Katara nodded and jogged off, leaving Zuko to make a quick explanation. "There's a fleet of Fire Nation river boats coming up the river," he said. "Go load up Appa. We need to leave." Then, before Sokka could comment, he rushed off to join Katara.

Sure enough, Aang was back in Jeong Jeong's hut. He had taken position in the back of the small building, looking lonely and small amid a dozen lit candles. Seeing him like that, Zuko's felt an unexpected stab of guilt… He had been harsh on the kid, unduly so, looming over and screaming at him like… like some sort of Fire Nation monster.

Aang's back was to them. He didn't turn his head, but he seemed to sense their approach all the same.

"I'm so sorry, Katara. Jeong Jeong told me I wasn't ready. Zuko tried to tell me to be careful too, and I didn't listen."

She stepped forward. "Aang, it's okay. I'm all right."

"What?" He turned, disbelieving, until she held out her hands. Even in the dim candlelight it was obvious they were unblemished. Aang's grey eyes widened. "How?"

"I'll explain later." She stepped to him, but he drew back, eyes still on her hands.

He shook his head. "No, Katara. I really hurt you. I'm never going to firebend again. I can't."

"Aang—"

"No," he said. "I mean it. Never again."

"You're the Avatar. You're going to have to learn some time." She turned to Zuko. "Say something."

But Zuko could think only of his own helplessness as Aang's fire had slipped past his fingers, Katara's scream, and how he had looked in Aang’s eyes… like he’d been about to do something unthinkable. He turned his face away.

Katara made a sound of disgust in the back of her throat for the two boys. “We’ll talk about this later. The Fire Nation is coming up the river with boats. Jeong Jeong is fighting them off, but we have to get out of here."

"What?!" This news, at least, seemed to energize him into action. Aang was up in a blink and already heading to the door. "We have to save him!"

"Hold it!" Aang was already past Katara, but Zuko was quicker. He reached out and snagged Aang by his overcoat before he could bolt outside. "He's doesn't need our help. Jeong Jeong's a great master. He knows what he's doing."

Aang looked like he wanted to argue, but Zuko's glare quailed him – or maybe he was still shaken from earlier because he finally nodded, looking down.

 


 

OoOoO


 

They met Sokka and Appa at the edge of the village; Appa's lowing bellows echoed through the forest clearing. Somehow, the bison always knew when something was wrong – perhaps he had learned the smell of Fire Nation soldiers. In any case, he greeted Aang with a sloppy lick, and the moment everyone had settled into the saddle he flapped his wide tail and vaulted into the air.

The kids all went to the side and looked down to see what had happened – but the village was hidden from above. The only hint of its fate came from curls of smoke drifting up from under the tree-tops.

Aang groaned and flopped backwards. "I hope Jeong Jeong's okay."

"Of course he is," Zuko said, a little too sharply. But he couldn't help glancing again to the village – the smoke was thickening. When he spoke again, it was almost to himself. "They've all been evading the Fire Nation for a long time now. They will be fine.”

Sokka took the moment of silence that followed to settle between them all, his favorite of Aang's old map's rolled flat. "Well that was fun, and I'm sure you guys all learned a lot," he said, sarcastically. "Can we please go to the North Pole now?"

His words were met with silence; everyone else had looked away. Aang and Zuko w