Chapter 1: Air: Aang
He was probably the happiest traitor in the history of the Fire Nation. All right, "happiness" might not be exact. After all, there was still the small problem that most people he knew fit into two categories: the ones who just distrusted him and the ones who actually wanted to kill him.
Well, the flying bison liked him. That was something at least.
Yesterday he'd almost been killed by the assassin he'd stupidly hired, managed to finally say what he meant to the Avatar, gotten accepted into their group, been threatened by the waterbender, and endured one of the most uncomfortably awkward dinners he could remember. He still slept soundly, though, compared to his nights in his father's palace. That kind of peace came only from the deep certainty of knowing he was doing the right thing. There was far to go still; he had to make a lot of amends to Aang and his friends, and to Uncle Iroh when he found him. But for the first time in years, he felt like he had hope rather than just desperation. He was sure he'd regained some of the honor he'd lost as the person he used to be.
He'd risen at dawn and now climbed to the clifftop to practice, since it had the open space and bare ground he needed to bend fire safely. True firebenders usually greeted the morning sun with their exercises. They could draw some heat from many sources, even the faint, distant flames of the stars, but nothing compared to the sun's fire for raw power.
He started with the basic forms to loosen up: Fire Lotus, Eagle-Bear, Black Dragon, Wildfire…the motions smooth and familiar by now. He'd spent most of his time at sea complaining about having to do the Fire Lotus form—"It's for children, I learned it when I was nine!"—and demand to learn a harder set of exercises. Remember your basics,Uncle Iroh had always told him in that case. They're the foundation on which all firebending is built. And even a master can always do them better. He'd become even worse about "kid's stuff" after his pride got a boost with his Agni Kai against Zhao...not to mention his obsession with being able to defeat the Avatar.
As the sun grew warmer he moved into the Rising Phoenix set, the last he'd learned before hiding his firebending abilities in Ba Sing Se. A master's level form, and every time he'd tried it, all he managed to do was fail and remind himself that unlike Azula, unlike Uncle Iroh, unlike his father...he was no master.
Right from the start it was hard; the first slow, searching motions of the unfledged phoenix were unusual to firebending. And it stayed every bit as difficult. By the end, the firebender was surrounded by a blur of flame from a furious barrage of rapid airborne circular kicks and strikes to represent the firebird's wings as it took flight. The control and focus needed had long been beyond his reach. He couldn't even count how many times in the past he'd lost the rhythm and ended up in the dirt after landing off-balance in the sequence of non-stop leaping attacks.
It struck him as he was almost through that it seemed much easier. The realization caught him off guard, and he lost his focus. Landing awkwardly on a spinning kick, he felt his ankle give and winced, barely saving his balance. Time to stop before he twisted it further trying to complete the set, he decided. Still…still, he thought, it was far closer than he'd ever been before. He couldn't help punching the air with a quick laugh of triumph.
It surprised him, but maybe it shouldn't have. He'd felt the difference in his control and focus. When a man's spirit is finally in balance, all things are suddenly possible. Master your mind first, Zuko, and you'll master this. Iroh, as usual, had been right—had heever given Zuko bad advice? All right, maybe the bit about hair for the evening out with Jin…and when he'd tried to make Zuko eat those poisonous white lotus flowers…and when he'd claimed that Zuko really would make an excellent sungi horn player. Zuko mentally amended that Iroh had never given him bad advice about firebending or on being a man. As for everyday things, he was probably better off on his own instincts.
In any case, maybe this was because he hadn't needed to try and live up to someone else's expectations. He was firebending this morning not to prove his worth against some impossible ideal, but just for himself. It felt almost like being a little kid and finding the joy in producing that first flame all over again. He'd actually enjoyed it rather than pushing himself to the point of despair. He'd approached that feeling sometime practicing with Uncle Iroh; but there had always been the grim thoughts of Azula, of his father, of the Avatar, to keep him off-balance.
He realized he was grinning like an idiot, but the discovery was just that overwhelming. And even though he knew he still needed to improve before the final battle, it was strangely without pressure. He knew he could do it, with this new clarity of mind and spirit. The old ghosts had no power over him.
Wiggling the ankle a bit, he decided it had loosened up enough to give Rising Phoenix another try. He'd always secretly loved the jumping strikes of firebending. Azula sneered that they were all flash and no substance. But then, her firebending was precise and perfect because she never let her emotions color her actions. Maybe he cared too much and it blew up in his face at times, but he'd rather have that than feel nothing at all. He turned to start the set again, and gave a start to see Aang standing there.
He was suddenly embarrassed that Aang might have seen him acting like a crazy, laughing kid rather than conducting himself with a teacher's maturity. "How long have you been here?"
Aang bowed, fist to palm. "Er…half an hour, Sifu Zuko." He had to admit he appreciated the courtesy of "Master", a title he hadn't formally been awarded. He hastily bowed in return, thinking a little sourly that if it wouldn't be more obvious than the blushing, he'd get rid of the sudden heat in his face by casting it off as fire.
"You're up early." He winced when he realized he'd almost snapped it like an accusation.
"You said to come up and see you mid-morning. It's almost noon." Glancing at the sun, he was shocked to see that Aang was right. He'd been so lost in his own world that he'd had no sense of time passing.
And if Aang was here…he glanced towards the nearest copse of bushes about fifty yards away. He had the feeling Katara was there to keep a suspicious eye on him. So he'd had an audience. That was just wonderful. Not to mention whatever confidence he'd felt seemed to evaporate with Aang standing there, ready to be taught. It was one thing to make mistakes himself. It would be another thing entirely to be a lousy teacher, particularly when the balance of the entire world hung on Aang's learning to bend fire. Especially not with the Avatar's girlfriend right there and ready to kill him—he didn't doubt she was serious—if she thought Zuko was out of line. No, no pressure at all.
"You're right," he admitted, trying to shake off the wave of doubt and self-consciousness. He needed to regain focus. "I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention to time. And you've really got none to waste."
"Well, it was good. I got to see some firebending," Aang offered generously. "I mean, I've seen it before...a lot. But I got to see without worrying about being attacked and all. So I got to actually watchand…" He broke off.
"I know. This is really awkward. But we both have to get past it. You have maybe two months to learn firebending. And my father…" He hesitated at the word. "Fire Lord Ozai's very powerful."
Aang leaned on his staff, shaking his head. "It's got to be hard. To have to fight your own family; I mean. I guess I wouldn't know. It wouldn't happen to me."
And that dedication to peace and harmony meant the Air Nomads weren't prepared when Fire Lord Sozin decided to wipe them out to kill the new Avatar. They must have died by the dozen. Then my Gramps gave Fire Nation history the tale about the glorious Battle of Zhanxi Pass where he routed the 'army' of the Air Nomads. And I believed the lies. I believed it all. He thought it but didn't say it.
"He's my father," he said instead. "His blood is in me; Fire Lord Sozin's blood." Not exactly an illustrious patrimony the last few generations: Fire Lord Sozin, who started the war and slaughtered all the Air Nomads save the one standing right here. And Fire Lord Azulon, whose idea of punishment for his son's ambitions was to order him to kill his own son. And Fire Lord Ozai…well, the less said the better. "All of that pain, that cruelty. That's my heritage."
"But you're still here with us. You picked a different path from all of them."
"I have my mother's ancestors too. And she gave up a lot to save my life. I guess she got it from her grandfather…Avatar Roku."
"Wait, Avatar Roku was your great-grandfather?" Aang's grey eyes widened in shock at that news.
"Yeah. And Sozin and Roku—they were friends. I mean, when they were young. Before Sozin started the war." At least Aang wasn't accusing him of making up some connection to Avatar Roku to try and earn some trust.
"I know. Roku told me about Sozin. But I didn't know that…"
Almost wistfully, he wished he could have met Roku as well. "I didn't either. But in the end, I can choose which destiny I follow: the Fire Lord or the Avatar." He fell silent for a moment, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face.
He'd made his choice. If Sozin's way was the Fire Lord's path, it wasn't what he was meant to be. "I'll honor Avatar Roku, and you too, Avatar Aang. And…and maybe I can fix some of Sozin's mistakes. Along with mine, I mean."
"For what it's worth, I'm glad you're not chasing us any more." Aang grinned sheepishly. "I mean…uh…"
"Thanks," he said wryly. There wasn't much good answer to that aside from, Sorry for the last seven months. I mean the whole thing with stalking and trying to capture you and…best to not start stammering that apology again.
The silence got awkward pretty quickly. Aang glanced his way a few times, as if he was waiting for Zuko to say something. With that, he decided it would be best to just move on before he dug himself a hole again with his words. "Anyhow, time for your first lesson. Firebending's very different from anything you've done before. It starts with the breathing—"
"Oh," Aang gave a heavy sigh as he shifted into a horse stance. "Breathing exercises?" His lack of enthusiasm matched any six-year-old of the Fire Nation starting firebending lessons. Zuko hid a little smile at that.
"In through the nose, out through the mouth." He looked Aang over; it was pretty obvious he'd been studying earthbending lately. He'd settled into a stance that was so rooted that one good fire strike would burn him alive, because he wouldn't be able to move to avoid it. "Your stance—you're too rooted. A firebender's always in motion." At least Aang was an airbender, so he was agile and quick on his feet. That'd be useful soon enough.
Obediently Aang shifted his feet closer together, stood up straighter. He rested his hands on his thighs. "OK?" He looked again and sighed. Now he was in what Zuko guessed was his natural airbending stance. He'd be ready to leap and move, all right, but he couldn't stand against any kind of attack. Of course, it didn't help that he was tense as a board too. This is going well. He's as nervous as I am. He's probably waiting for me to start yelling and throwing fireballs at him.
Master Kareza would have poked and prodded a pupil with her staff into assuming the right stance. Uncle Iroh would probably come up with some kind of obscure proverb to make the point…or somehow connected it to tea."Um…not quite. You need something in between the two." He demonstrated, sliding his feet into a firebender's stance. "You need both balance and the ability to move."
"Oh!" Aang beamed, looking happy that something made sense. "It's like a waterbending stance!" Well, whatever he called it, his new stance looked fine.
He let Aang continue for a while, and fished for some encouragement. "You're…ah…doing well on the breathing."
"That's from meditation. Lots of it."
Next he made a flame almost the size of a kuai ball—always better to let a new student start with something big and visual, and so easier for the mind to grasp hold of. Deliberately he made its heat low, feeding it only what energy it needed to keep the flame from dying out. He let it hover over his palm for a moment then nudged it into the space between them. "You have to control fire before you can create or work with it. So as you inhale, draw in heat from this flame as energy, along with your breath. That'll decrease the flame. Do itslowly," he cautioned. "And then hold the breath in."
The flame wavered, then rapidly shrunk and disappeared entirely. He just stared at the empty space for a moment, incredulous. "M'hmhh," Aang mumbled with his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk jay from his held breath. Zuko interpreted it as "I'm hot," although the sweat pouring down Aang's face pretty much told the tale. Idiot. You're dealing with the Avatar. Most firebending students would be lucky to draw down the flame at all on their first try. He should have figured that the Avatar would be much more powerful. And he had a sudden suspicion that without control to help him, Aang hadn't just drawn on the flame's energy. He'd probably pulled in some from the sun as well.
No flame to just slowly exhale the heat back to, and even if Zuko made another one, he had the feeling Aang was too panicked to control it anyway. And if he Aang just exhaled all that stored energy fast without a proper channel like a Breath of Fire, he'd end up with his throat blistered, maybe swelled shut. Time to skip ahead before the Avatar managed to cook himself from the inside out: Fire Lord Ozai would really love that. "Next," he said, forcing himself to focus and remain calm. He demonstrated a quick punch for casting fire. "Channel the energy as a flow from your lungs down your arm to your hand, and then out. It's cast off as fire." If that didn't work; well, then as much as the Fire Nation made taboo the idea of manipulating heat in another person's body—too many stories from ancient times of ruthless firebenders killing people that way—he'd have to do it.
Aang nodded rapidly, his skin starting to turn red. His motion was too fluid, more of a frantic open-hand wave than an actual punch. And the firebender's power from tensing the blow at the last instant was missing. But that actually was a good thing; it was still enough to cast a red-hot arc of flame…following panicked instinct, Aang sent it right at the sound of Zuko's voice. Thinking fast, Zuko managed to block it. At least, long enough to rapidly draw in the heat energy and channel it. Making a strike on the ground with his foot, he redirected it into a line of fire that almost right away burned itself out on the bare rock.
Aang stared at the smoking dark scorch on the ground, coughing from the irritation of the intense heat in his lungs. "Er…sorry?" he finally managed.
Zuko sighed, raking his fingers through his hair. Obviously teaching the Avatar was going to take some planning and adaptation. "You're all right?" Small skin burns and irritated lungs were inevitable; they happened to every novice. Though he was almost sure if he sent Aang for healing Katara was going to be more than a bit upset. She seemed pretty deeply in love with the Avatar, after all. He was half-surprised she hadn't charged out of her hidey-hole already.
Aang looked at his hands for a moment, tried clearing his throat only to start coughing again. "Yeah. A little sore." His voice had a raspy edge: definitely not good.
"Take my uncle's advice; tea can cure pretty much anything." Mallow root and red lotus flower tea, specifically. "I've got some I can give you for your throat. Every firebender keeps some around. Drink it and rest up until tomorrow. You can't bend fire if you can't breathe."
"I didn't mean to…"
Most masters let their pupil's first injuries heal without remedy. That made the pain into a harsh demonstration to drive home the dangers of reckless firebending. Aang didn't need that lesson, and there was no time to waste with him unable to practice. Besides, he was starting to wonder if that kind of suffering taught fear of fire more than it taught respect. "Mistakes happen. They'll happen again. Studying firebending always means some pain, because fire hurts easily. But now I know your firebending lessons are going to be in the late afternoon. At least, until you have better control." Close to sundown would be best, when there was little sun to channel energy from. He really didn't want to think what could happen. He'd been lucky today with such a basic exercise: he'd been half-tempted to try and accelerate Aang's training, assuming he knew something about self-control already. He was ready to thank any benevolent spirit he could think of that he'd decided to play it safe. With the Avatar's raw power...something ugly and involving their mutual total immolation wouldn't have been out of the question.
"And mornings and afternoons?" Aang asked, looking hopeful for some free time.
"I need to study my own firebending in the morning." Whatever part he had to play when the end came, best that he was ready. "And you have three other elements to practice. Today, guess I'm going hunting for stuff to make medicines." He had the feeling he was going to need a lot of burn salve for the both of them. "Herbs aren't the kind of information on the Fire Nation that's of use to you right now, though."
At least the coughing had stopped, and Aang managed to bow formally. "But any information about firebending might be useful. Thank you for the lesson, Sifu Zuko."
Polite even when he was in pain; showing no sign of his discomfort. Any son of the Fire Nation, raised to the same philosophy, had to respect that. He responded with the same courtesy, bowing in return. "Thank you for your attention, Pupil Aang." He moved towards the cliff edge and picked up the rope as Aang reached for his glider. "Now let's go get you patched up."
Chapter 2: Earth: Toph
Another training session was done, and Zuko was pleased enough with Aang's progress after a week. Well enough that he felt he could leave the Avatar alone for a few more hours to practice by himself. A dozen candles scattered around the room, he'd told the boy to practice lighting them with casting small flames, both from a standstill and while in motion.
Aang would be another prodigy, he was sure. Even better than Azula, but surprisingly he wasn't bitter about the idea of being beaten by his pupil. After all, no firebender could hope to match the power of a fully realized Avatar when you got right down to it. Heading back towards his room, he heard the clattering of rock a few chambers over, and stopped to take a peek. Toph was practicing, turning fallen block of the temple into fragments of rock and turning them into a deadly spray, then reforming it into a massive boulder.
He watched, remembering that Uncle had advised him to watch and learn from other elements. A move from the waterbenders had already saved his life once. He almost wished he'd seen the look on his father's face. It must have been infuriating for Ozai to realize that his embarrassment of a son who'd chosen the ways of "tea and failure" hadn't been eliminated. Not only that, said annoyance had even beaten him with a technique he didn't even recognize. If he thought Katara would actually listen, he might get to tell her about his newfound appreciation of her art someday.
But for the time being, who knew what earthbending might have to teach him? After a few moments, Toph called over her shoulder, letting the boulder settle. "Quit gawking at me, Prince Charming. Either get in here and talk to me, or leave."
Embarrassed, he slipped into the room. "I'm…uh…not really a prince any more." Not after telling his father that he renounced him and everything the Fire Lords had stood for over the last century, and that he was leaving to join the Avatar. His prospects as Crown Prince were pretty slim, he was sure. As for charming; that applied only if tongue-tied and awkward" now qualified.
She gave a snort of amusement, turning towards him. "OK. Hothead? Flamebrain? Sparky? Or maybe what Snoozles called you when I joined up. 'Some angry freak with a ponytail who's tracked us all over the world'."
At least that was better than "Zuzu". Anything was better than that. He was surprised Sokka hadn't mentioned his scar and wondered if Toph knew about it. If not, he considered that a small bright spot. "I lost the 'ponytail' months ago." Too bad he hadn't remembered cutting his hair and symbolically cutting his ties to the Fire Nation when it had really counted. "And I got rid of the angry part too…I think."
"You don't really have much of a sense of humor, do you?"
Now he understood this game. She was going to keep poking him verbally until he responded. At least it seemed a lot more good-natured than Azula's viciousness. He gave it a try. "Humor? That's not standard issue for Fire Nation boys. If we laugh we might—um—actually be mistaken for human beings."
"Better!" She gave him a nod of approval. "You might break the mold yet." With a stamp of her foot, she raised a short, flat-topped pillar of stone and gestured him to it. "Have a seat, Sunshine." She beamed at him in satisfaction.
He sighed to himself at that. "Sunshine" it was, apparently. "How are your feet?"
"Sweetness took care of 'em," it took a moment to manage to translate that to "Katara". "I'm back to normal. No worries." As he absorbed that with relief, she immediately threw the next question at him. "So how's Twinkletoes' training going?"
"Fine, just fine," he said, much too quickly.
She stared at him with her clouded eyes. He still felt like she could see right through him. "You know, your sister's a much better liar than you."
Azula always lies. He remembered her at the beach trying to deny that Ursa's opinion of her had mattered. She'd told so many lies that he thought she couldn't even recognize truth any more. "Guess that's a compliment. Azula's had a lot of practice."
"You and Twinkletoes are probably the two worst liars I've ever met," she continued cheerfully. "Surprising for someone who grew up in the snake pit you did. So what have you got him up to?"
Something about her invited his confidence. Maybe it was her blunt honesty, maybe the fact that she hadn't been with Aang since the beginning and didn't carry as much of a grudge against him. "I've got him in a big hall trying to light candles from various distances. It's good for his control. And you can use a small bolt to burn a hand or snap a bowstring and disarm your opponent instead of just torching him. Sheer power isn't everything." That had been a hard lesson for him to learn, but Aang seemed eager when Zuko had explained the idea. Small wonder: the idea of fighting with the intent of hurting anyone bothered the Avatar intensely. And that was part of the problem.
"Nice party trick too. Bet the girls love it." He allowed himself a laugh at that, although it brought memories of Ba Sing Se again. Happier days, now that he thought back on them. But he couldn't hide forever as Li, and the Earth Kingdom could never be home. "But…?" Toph prodded him.
He sighed, shaking his head and leaning against the column at his back. "But that's for taking down actual weapons. It's going to be useless against another firebender...like my dad."
"Mmhm." She kicked up another stone seat across from him and sat down, dangling her feet off the edge. "So talk to Auntie Toph, Sunshine. What's keeping you from teaching him more useful stuff?"
She gave a discreet cough. "You want to be a little more specific with that?"
"He hates firebending. He hasn't said it, but I can tell." The reluctance whenever attacks came up, cringing when Zuko urged him to be more aggressive.
"Your people did kind of wipe his out," Toph pointed out. "And even you haven't exactly been different from that until recently." He glared at her before realizing it was pointless; she couldn't see it. Stupid.
"Airbenders fight defensively. All the time I was chasing him, he'd never strike me first, would try to just run. But the only firebending defense is starting on the offense and staying there. And so far he won't deliberately attack someone."
"At least he's not playing airbender on you and running away from firebending. He tried to just ignore the problem when we couldn't think of anyone to teach him."
"He's going to have to face my father and fight, and accept that only one of them will survive. Nothing else is going to defeat the Fire Lord."
She stared sightlessly at him a long moment. "We've taught him more than bending, you know? He started by just avoiding his problems like an Airbender. Sweetness taught that sometimes you confront the obstacles by redirecting your efforts. I almost started ripping my hair out, but I finally taught him how to stand his ground. And you…now it's your turn. The last step: he has to learn to think like a firebender when it's needed. And that means?"
"Confront the problem head-on and beat it."
"You're not as dumb as they like to think, are you? He needs all of it to win: the airbender's compassion, waterbender's adaptability, earthbender's persistence…and firebender's courage."
He shook his head. "I think he's too afraid. Fire Nation mindset is totally contrary to that of the Air Nomads. And he's lost his people already. If he accepts firebending …he might lose being the last of his nation."
"Come on. We all gave up something to take this quest. Even you did."
"I did it because I had to make things right."
"You just rejected your entire country and its ideals, probably threw away your chance at the throne of the Fire Nation, and knowingly agreed to fight against your own family…to help save the world. Give yourself somecredit. Hey, I will."
"Thanks." It still surprised him that it stung a little to hear it spelled out so clearly what he'd lost. The Fire Nation had been deceived and led astray by the Fire Lords, yes, and they'd done dark things in consequence. But he still loved his country and its people fiercely. He was a son of the Fire Nation, and it would always be home until the day he died. He wasn't sure there was any place there for him after this, and that maybe hurt most. "Um…and you?"
"Pff. I guess I don't compare. I just gave up being smothered to by my parents. She'll need a husband to constantly look after her, poor little blind girl, so good thing she's a Bei Fong and can buy one, right?"
"You're Toph Bei Fong?" He stared at the dusty little earthbender with her drab clothes. Even he'd heard of the fabulously wealthy family, part of his lessons on the powers of the other nations. He had some fellow-feeling, he realized wryly. Who'd have ever thought that Li, the shop boy in the apron and drab Earth Kingdom peasant clothes, was a prince of the Fire Nation?
"Ah, but you beat me," she said with a satisfied snicker. "I'm only the Earth King's cousin."
"Fourth in line for the throne, though," he said. "I think."
"Third now. Cousin Feng died."
"Sorry. In the wars?"
"No, he drowned in his koi-crab pond after drinking too much plum wine. But he was a jerk anyway."
"So's my father," he offered tentatively.
"I kind of figured from the whole 'shamed and banished until further notice' thing."
He groaned. "You heard about that?"
"Sunshine, everybody knows. Outside your borders, we all pay pretty close attention to what's up with the Fire Lord's heir. It gives us an idea what to expect when the current one croaks."
"Oh." He hadwondered why Earth Kingdom peasants had heard about his banishment. Apparently they'd failed to mention his scar as part of the story: small mercy. He wouldn't have been able to hide anywhere if they'd known about it.
"So what did you do anyway…toasted Daddy's favorite pet or something?"
"No." He said it more harshly than he intended, but it was something he didn't want to talk about just then. "I didn't deserve what he did to me, but I guess the whole world can say that about Fire Lord Ozai. Leave it at that."
"Have it your way. Your uncle's a much better guy anyhow. And he cares about you."
"I know," he said it with a sudden lump in his throat. "I've got a lot to make up to him…when I find him."
"My suggestion? Start with an apology. He'll see what you've done now and know the kind of person you've become. And he'll be proud." She gave him a sly smile. "Probably offer you some tea while he's at it."
"Probably." If Uncle Iroh could forgive him, he swore he'd never say a word against tea again as long as he lived…or Pai Sho, for that matter.
"Anyhow, Twinkletoes is the Avatar. He's got sacrifices to make too. He's destined to restore balance to the world by giving up allegiance to any one nation and its people. So go at it like you're meant to, like a firebender. Direct and with force—make him see. You may not have been big on sense, but I don't think any of these guys ever faulted your sheer guts." She grinned cheekily at him. "Or your stubbornness, it sounds like. You sure you're not part earthbender?"
"Katara's going to love it," he couldn't help remarking, trying to keep his tone nonchalant. "I give it about five seconds of me trying to force a fight before she comes charging out all ready to maim me."
"She has no idea how other elements work; kept trying to tell me that I was pushing him too hard and that I needed to give him 'gentle encouragement'. Ha! Like that would work. She's been spying on you, you know."
"Spying where?" He stared at Toph, with a sudden paranoid vision of Katara standing over him in his sleep or the like.
"Training. You think she's going to let her dear Twinkletoes be left alone when there'sfire being thrown around? Not to mention that you kept trying to kidnap him in the past. No offense, I'm just saying."
"Oh, that. Yeah, I was pretty sure she was watching." To have it confirmed was neither here nor there to him. He'd started to just ignore her, and was determined to not let her presence affect his lessons. Also, he was trying to keep her thinking he was clueless: let that knowledge become his advantage.
Toph had a strange expression on her face, almost suspicious. "What did you think I meant?"
"Bad liar," she reminded him. "Although to be honest, she's sneaked into your room and been through your stuff too."
"I knew that." He'd found a few things out of place and knew it was Katara. Aang was probably too friendly to rummage through another person's things without invitation. Sokka really didn't seem to care one way or another. And while he could imagine Toph being a brat and freely "borrowing" from people, nothing was missing and too much care had been taken to try and replace things where they'd been. That tidiness ruled out the bison and the lemur as well, he thought with a roll of his eyes.
Ergo, that left the waterbender. He was half-surprised she hadn't just stolen his broadswords and dagger and claimed she was doing it to help protect Aang. She was bold, he'd give her that. All right, he was no hand in practicing subtlety himself, but years of seeing the deviousness and manipulations at the Fire Lord's palace made him familiar with it. "She's pretty obvious in everything she does. Clear as water." He waited, pleased at his joke.
Toph gave a quick groan and shook her head, locks of black hair flying. "Nope, keep trying on the humor. In any case, it's your choice." She leaned forward as she spoke, her voice so soft he had to strain to catch it. "Now, you can be a good boy, keep Sweetness happy and let Twinkletoes off easy." Her face almost in his, she barked, "Or you can do your job!" Piece said; she sat back, arms folded. She was right, he admitted. He'd known it all along.
"I have a few days to think, because this definitely needs a plan. He still has some basic control lessons to master first. Then…"
Toph nodded with a satisfied smile. She couldn't see it, but he smiled back. He had to admit he actually liked the little earthbender and her honesty. "Good luck. You're gonna need it. So sound the charge, Sunshine."
Chapter 3: Steel: Sokka
They'd been at the Western Air Temple ten days now, and while some things were still strange, it was getting easier. Toph still called him "Sunshine", but he'd come to recognize that the nickname was her own way of taking him into the group. Aang seemed to waver between treating him with the respect for a sifu, and trying to draw him in as a friend. As for the Water Tribers, Katara had followed Sokka's lead and pretty much ignored him—well, except for when she kept a dragonhawk's eye on him whenever he was with Aang.
He'd managed to get a small laugh from Sokka by offering to help with the cooking a few days ago. "I'm faster than firesticks," he'd offered.
"Hey, you know, we could just chuck this whole 'fight the Fire Lord' bit and start a restaurant," Sokka offered, tweaking Katara's hair. "You can keep the stuff stirred, he," he nodded to Zuko, "can handle the heating, and me? Blades of fury! Cabbages are gonna fear me!" He'd made some furious chopping motions in the air.
Katara hadn't even responded to her brother's humor, just gravely told Zuko to light the fire. At least they hadn't asked him to make tea. They hadn't fully accepted him yet, but he admitted he'd have been a little suspicious of their common sense if they had. Maybe he hadn't been bad on the level of Zhao or Azula, but he'd been no prize. A few weeks of good behavior wasn't going to wipe out the fact that for four of the last seven months he'd chased them across the earth. And when he'd been given the choice to do the right thing a little over a month ago, he'd chosen poorly.
But for now, they seemed willing to let give what advantages he could to their campaign. Or at its most sinister, they were at least willing to get what use they could out of him before dealing with him. He'd been in the Fire Nation long enough to be paranoid, he decided. Katara's threat aside, he didn't think they had it in them to manipulate and use people like that. They might worry that he'd be too weak to withstand the lure of power when he was tested—and he knew he would be tested again. And he knew, deep inside, that what he'd told his father was true and irrevocable. This was his path now.
But for the time being, they seemed to at least believe that for right here, right now, he was genuine. He hadn't tried to harm Aang, had started to teach him as best he could. As chatty as he was in general, Aang seemed to make a point of telling the group what he'd been up to that day. Zuko had been a bit surprised, but quietly grateful, for the Avatar evidently supporting him.
For his part, he'd tried to offer information when he could. Not blatantly; he had the feeling trying to contradict them, even if he was right, would be a bad idea just now. But he'd dropped a subtle bit here and there, especially to Toph, from his inside knowledge to help them in their final campaign. He knew that she'd act as his messenger and pass it on to the group to cut down on the bad feelings that'd result from his offering it directly. He had the feeling she knew that was his intent…so far, so good.
The firebending was going surprisingly well. He still hadn't confronted Aang about his passiveness, but the young airbender's skill was undeniable. If he could only just accept the spirit of firebending and learn how it could serve him, he'd quickly become formidable. As for himself, he was closer and closer to mastering Rising Phoenix, and each day's practice made his bending seem easier, more natural. He'd found calm in his spirit to center from, and the results were startling.
He'd made some more efforts to try to figure out how to incorporate the other elements into his bending. He'd been working on a flame shield from earthbending, although it had been to limited success against the assassin. So far he'd had the most success with water—redirection of energy was almost natural to him now after having to think fast more than once with Aang. He'd also admit he'd borrowed from the water whip after being hit by one countless times to create his own flame lash. He knew he was thinking more creatively, and his techniques were better, than when he'd arrogantly thought the other elements had nothing to show him.
As for the innate skills of firebending, he hadn't tried bending lightning again; not just yet. But he'd have to try, because Aang would have to learn it; that, and Uncle Iroh's technique. His father had bent lightning at him so quickly that it had only been the hours of practicing the motions of redirecting, making them instinctive, that had saved him.
He'd been working with his swords as well during some of his sessions. Much as his firebending prowess was growing, he wouldn't forget that his broadswords had saved him more than once. Whatever weapons he had to offer Aang and his friends, he would.
He found Sokka waiting for him on the clifftop. "Hello…" Sokka hadn't paid much attention to him one way or another other than the occasional wisecrack in his direction. "Um…something you needed?"
Sokka rubbed the back of his neck. "I saw you brought swords with you?" He gestured to the swords in their sheath, slung over Zuko's back.
"Katara and Aang both say you're pretty good." He knew Aang had seen him use them when he'd busted the Avatar from Zhao's imprisonment in the guise of the Blue Spirit. Katara's monitoring had obviously caught him during sword practice as well. "I mean, uh, my sister…"
"I know she's been keeping an eye on me," he said wearily. "If it makes her feel better, I guess I don't blame her." So long as she didn't actually interfere, he realized he really didn't care if she even camped out there.
"Oh." Sokka blinked, obviously surprised. "Right. Well, I studied the sword with Master Piandao last month…"
"You studied with Master Piandao?" Now he felt a definite twist of envy at that. The sword master was a legend. Even if he was a legend kept hush around the palace because of his defiance of the Fire Nation, and thus the Fire Lord.
Sokka glanced at him with the arch of an eyebrow. "Rich kid like you, I figure access to a good sword teacher wouldn't be an issue."
He shook his head, knowing a bitter little smile crept onto his face. "I asked my dad for a sword master when I was seven. And I only asked once."
"He said that weapons were meant for people without the bending gift. And if I stopped wasting my time playing with knives and focused on my firebending,maybe I might be half as good as my sister." His mother had given him a look of sympathy as he'd mumbled apologies to his father.
Sokka cleared his throat and shuffled his feet a little awkwardly. "You know, I really don't like that guy. Aside from the whole 'Whoo, I'm the evil Fire Lord!' thing he's already got going."
"Join the club. So far we've recruited most of the world."
"A joke? Hey, Toph's getting to you. Stick with me; we'll get you some good ol' sarcasm, Water Tribe style."
"No, then people might actually think I'm human." It had worked with Toph, and it worked now for a chuckle from Sokka. Guess that joke's a keeper.
"So you still kept studying."
Fire Lord Ozai, in the end, had pretty much given up on his son and dismissed him as a weakling. And with that, he refocused his attentions fully on Azula and for the most part ignored Zuko's actions entirely. So while he hadn't had a sword master, he'd managed to practice with his knives. "I really only learned swords after I was banished," he admitted. The sailors of the Fire Navy had some incredible swordsmen in their numbers, and some either kind enough to teach an interested kid, or frightened enough of turning down the Fire Lord's son to do it. "But it's saved my life a few times…and so these swords are a part of who I am." From the way Sokka nodded, he obviously understood that the sword wasn't just a diversion or a crutch to make up for lack of bending skills. Of course he would—he'd been studying as well. Sokka knew that swords could be as much a part of a warrior's spirit as any of the four elements.
Never forget who you are, his mother had told him. And much as Ozai had scorned his interest, the swords were now as much his own as firebending was. And that skill made him more than just the lesser child of the Fire Lord. Made powerless during the eclipse, his father had known that the son he belittled had the skill to cut him down. He'd seen it in Ozai's eyes as he'd pulled his broadswords and forced the Fire Lord to listen. It had been sweet for a moment, to know that his father feared him for once, but he'd shaken it off. Dark power like that wasn't what he wanted.
Suddenly serious again, Sokka gestured towards his sword. "So you know some stuff. I've learned some. You've been practicing, I've been practicing…and we both know we've gotta be ready for when the comet comes."
"You want a sparring partner." He had to respect Sokka's guts in being willing to ask a former enemy in order to help his own skills. Sokka had far more memories of being hurt by the Fire Nation than Aang, so even this small bit of trust meant a good deal.
"Yeah. I mean, that is, if you're up to…" Sokka gave him an awkward smile. "OK, this is really weird."
It struck him that Sokka had said it: Katara had mentioned about his swords as well. Maybe she was coming around? Well, at least enough to be willing to swallow her own pride and misgivings to help out her brother. He had to respect that. "Your sister's a smart girl," he commented.
Sokka gave him a confused look at the apparent non-sequitur. "Yeah, she is. Why, you think your sister isn't? After Ba Sing Se, I'd say she's is an evil genius."
"Azula? No, she's brilliant. Power and how to get it…that's been her only interest since we were kids. Nothing else matters." She had another interest, though, when he thought about it. He'd discovered the scrolls under her mattress when searching for a few things that Azula had "borrowed" from him. After reading Valo's overwrought declaration to Princess Hizaka that his heart burned for her after her rescue, he'd left Hizaka melting helplessly into Valo's strong, manly embrace.
He'd slipped out of her room, although a servant passing by had seen him with his hand clapped over his mouth, muffling his helpless laughter. All right, it didn't change anything too much. She was still vicious, powerful, and deadly. He'd never let that slip his mind. But still, it had been wonderful to find out perfect little Azula had a few embarrassing secrets. He wondered, with a sort of helpless, appalled interest, if she secretly wanted to be like the princesses in her stories.
No, it was Azula. The only use she'd have for a husband would be to happily do her bidding. "Actually, she likes bad love stories," he offered.
"This is the same Fire Nation princess we're talking about? Crazy psycho, shoots blue flames, likes to torture people for fun?"
"Yes." From how Sokka's eyes flashed angrily at the last words, he wondered if Azula had made someone this young man cared for into one of her little "pets". He decided it was better to not ask just now. He tried to redirect Sokka's thoughts. "The kind of stories you expect to be on perfumed parchment and tied with pink ribbons, you know?"
It worked. Sokka gave a whoop of laughter, collapsing back against a tree. ""Katara sniffling around the campfire after some sappy story, now that's a sight. Girls! The romance always gets 'em." Not Mai, Zuko thought with mingled affection and pain. He wondered what she must think of him now, after knowing what he'd done. For now, he tried to close off that part of his life. He'd take measure of the consequences later.
After he stopped laughing, Sokka crossed his arms over his chest and gave Zuko a searching look. "So, you're here with us. And you'll run into her again. She's your sister." From his tone, the idea of being at odds with fighting against family bothered him. It looked like the Fire Nation had the monopoly on deadly family squabbles.
He tried for the words for a few moments, casting around in his mind for how to explain it. "You're not a bender."
"Thanks," Sokka said with a roll of his eyes. "So you were too busy obsessing over Aang to notice the poor helpless Sokka with the war club whenever you attacked us?"
He'd been put in his place again, and after the tentative ease they'd been developing, it felt like he'd been slapped. His temper raised a notch at that, and he tamped it back down only with difficulty. "I meant," he forced his voice to remain calm, "that you know what it is to grow up with a little sister who outshines you. And everybody says how special she is, how gifted…"
Sokka sighed heavily. "Yeah. We found out when she was six that she was a bender. And of course I'll take Dad's place as Chief someday, but we all know who the great hope for our tribe is. Katara."
It was like hearing himself, and it startled him. Fire Lord Ozai could never formally give Azula the throne. But he'd known for years that his father meant to make Azula his true heir. He'd seen the favoritism, the careful grooming for the role. And he'd known with a sense of his own doom that she'd be named "Royal Advisor" or "Chief Counsel" on Ozai's death. He'd take the throne, all right, to sit there and be just a smokescreen. In Ozai's mind, Zuko's rule would be a nod to the demands of tradition, but Azula would be the real power of the Fire Nation. He tried to say it, to give some tenuous bridge between the two of them. "He knows I'd have to be Fire Lord in name, but he was planning the actual power would to go to her. My father means it…I mean." He realized he was stammering.
"I wanted to hate her for a few months," Sokka admitted with a shamed look.
"Jealousy's natural, I guess. But…you got over it. Because she's a good person, you know? And she lets you look out for her."
"Azula doesn't need a big brother, huh?"
"Not except as her toy." He said it without thinking, and immediately felt himself blushing in embarrassment. "Look, if I thought I could save her, I'd try right up to the end. But I can't. She's my sister…she's a heartless little monster."
"So you mean that you're willing to fight her."
"I don't know if any of you can beat her, so I can't ask you to do it."
"But can you beat her?"
He hesitated a moment before answering honestly. "I don't know. But so long as I give the Avatar enough time to face my father without her interfering, that's what matters. And that I can do."
"Come on, we may not exactly love you, but you don't have to go make yourself into bait for that crazy little witch…"
"No, it's my duty. I didn't do it in Ba Sing Se when I should have. And I won't let her get to me this time, no matter what. I won't risk the world for some stupid dream."
"I think you're telling the truth—where's the human lie detector when I need her? I tell you though, I don't envy you."
"I don't either," he said grimly. "But for once I know I'm doing the right thing."
Sokka looked at him with something like pity for a few seconds. Then he grinned mischievously. "So, should you sit down with Dr. Wang Fire for a while and have more 'feeling sharing time'? Or do you wanna fight?" Wondering for a second just who Dr. Wang Fire was, he quickly shrugged it off, smiled in return, and reached over his shoulder for his swords.
Chapter 4: Fire: Zuko
He was in his room making up a light day pack with a few things when Katara came in, her boots stomping against the stone floor in fury. His back was to her, so he couldn't see her face. But he could tell she was speaking through gritted teeth. "Aang just told me you two are heading out for the day? Alone?" Her tone implied that she'd let that scenario happen over her dead body—or more likely, Zuko's.
He sighed to himself. He almost wished that he hadn't planned this thing ahead, thanks to Uncle's encouragement to strategize better instead of acting on impulse. Everything was going more or less as he'd thought. He'd told Aang they were leaving for the better part of the day, to find a better place for some of the more dangerous parts of the firebending curriculum. He pretty much had figured that Aang would have told the rest of the group, including Katara. And exactly like he'd thought, she was charging into his room in high dudgeon to threaten him. Predictable, he thought. And now she'll tell me that I'm not leaving her sight…
Her steps came closer, her voice dangerously low. "If you think I'm letting—"
Sometimes he almost hated being right. But confront the problem before it could cut you down: that was the firebender's way. And that was how he was going to handle both Katara's mistrust and Aang's reluctance. Force the issue, and then prove the truth to each of them. He finally turned and cut her off mid-sentence. "You aren't, he is. I suggested it, he agreed."
She gawked at him for a second then anger twisted her features. "And that's your plan? Get far enough away that we're all out of reach. You surprise Aang when you're 'training' and take him prisoner. Then you head east to present him to your dad. Give him a gift-wrapped Avatar!"
"Not the best idea," he deliberately kept his voice nonchalant. If he started shouting, she'd feel justified in expressing her own rage. "I tried separating him from your group before. Even then, the plans never worked." She looked stunned for a moment that he had stayed calm, and that he'd admitted readily to what he'd done in the past. Attack their base and throw the fighter off balance.
"So then what's your game?" she demanded.
"No game." He reached for a hefty jar of burn salve, putting it in his rucksack. "What I have to teach is dangerous. I don't want him near other people for it." Aang had readily agreed to that; Zuko knew the guilt of burning Katara was still on his mind. He turned to look at her again. "And I also don't want you there spying. Interruptions wouldn't be a good thing today."
"What?" she sputtered. Now he'd put her on the defensive. "Me? Spying?"
He nodded, gave a half-shrug. "Look, you were smart enough to tell your brother I could be his practice partner. He's pretty good, by the way." And he'd freely admit he envied Sokka's black star-iron sword.
"Sokka, that loudmouth!" she growled, clenching her hands into fists.
"And Toph. And Aang." Katara raised her fist a little at his using the Avatar's name, as if she thought he had no right. "And I've known since the first day. I didn't say anything because you never interfered."
She changed tack, obviously unwilling to discuss her surveillance. He decided to not bring up her snooping through his things. It'd only invite an argument. "What's the danger?"
"Same thing every firebender learns. How to fight."
"Aang knows how to fight," Katara said with an irritated snort. "I seem to remember he pounded you a few times."
Once again, he didn't take the baited hook she dangled. Then he launched another attack on her objections. Cool temper and simple logic were stunningly effective, he decided. "Not like a firebender; we fight fire with fire. All he knows now are some nice flame tricks. Those won't beat the Fire Lord."
She stared at him, lips compressed in a tight line. "If it's so dangerous, then I'm definitely coming with you."
"No, you're not."
"You're nobodyin our group. Don't think that just because we let you teach him, you have any say!"
"I'm his firebending teacher. And I don't tell you how to teach him waterbending."
"You might need a healer," she argued stubbornly. He could see that she was visibly calming down, not given anything to fuel her anger with.
"Nothing that won't keep till we get back…and we both need all our focus. Lose it and both of us get hurt. I don't need you panicking and interrupting like you did with Toph."
"Panicking and inter—you flame-brained jerk!" Her blue eyes flashed with irritation again.
Somehow it was strangely easy to keep his temper down. He understood her; maybe that was why. Well, that and the fact that she was an absolute novice at provocation next to Azula. "You were wrong then, and I think you know it. You care about Aang a lot. But you can't protect him from everything. He has to face this…and my dad."
She looked at him, a hint of fear in her expression. "No other way?"
"Time's short and we're taking more risks, yes. But even if you gave me twenty years, I can't be nice like you. Fire's not a gentle element."
She sighed, shook her head. "All right." One last glare of defiance and she snapped, "But by all the spirits, if you're lying to me, there's going to be nowhere on earth you can hide."
He hid the smile of victory threatening to come over him, knowing he'd won. It almost surprised him. He'd been afraid that the wrong word would end up with her attacking him, and he knew words had never been his strong suit. "You want to get Toph to see?" he offered.
"No. She says you're one of the worst liars she's ever met." Her hand on the doorpost, she looked back over her shoulder. "But…I wanted to believe you in Ba Sing Se."
He waited until she'd left before slinging his pack over his shoulder and muttering, "So did I." She wasn't going to be his friend, but she at least would trust him to do the right thing to help Aang. That was progress at least. Closing the door behind him, he headed for the rope he'd anchored to the cliff. Aang was waiting there with Appa, sitting on the bison's saddle in the golden hues of sunrise.
Appa gave a happy rumble seeing Zuko, and gave him a nudge with his head. The fact that he was suddenly covered in fluffy white hair was of secondary importance to the fact that the bison's love-tap almost sent him over the cliff. "Eh…nice Appa," he said, smiling sheepishly and brushing at the hair. "Ready?"
"Hop on!" Aang beamed, slapping the burnished leather of the saddle beside him. Climbing up, he settled down and looked at Aang. "You might wanna grab onto something, Zuko. First ride on an air bison and all."
"I've been in the air alre—"
Aang grabbed the reins attached to his pet's horns. "Appa, yip yip!"
With a bellow, the bison leapt into the air and Zuko's stomach suddenly seemed to plummet somewhere near his toes. This was nothing like the easy ascent of the war balloon. Grabbing on was a good idea, he decided in a daze. Gripping for dear life was an even better one. At least he didn't start hollering in terror.
After five minutes or so, he'd settled down enough to be enjoying the ride, and the dazzle of sunlight off the water below. "How's it going back there?" Aang said, flashing a smile over his shoulder.
"I'm OK." Thankfully, his breakfast had decided deciding to stick with him. He forced himself to look down and scout. He knew this area of the Sea of Fire—he should, after two years constantly at sea. His first journey after leaving the Fire Nation had been through these waters, headed to the Western Air Temple. The ships of the Fire Navy mostly wouldn't be in home waters for the summer: their forces all would be in the unconquered parts of the world focusing their attacks, with firebending power at its peak.
And luck was with them; no ships were in sight, none heading to check out the Western Air Temple to see if the Avatar had taken refuge. He had the sneaking suspicion his father had figured they'd head east into the remote parts of the Earth Kingdom anyhow. Thinking objectively, hiding virtually in the Fire Lord's backyard was insanely risky: just risky enough to work, apparently.
Aang waited for his signal of where to land, and he chose one of the many volcanic islands dotting the ocean about a half hour flight from the temple. Maybe a mile in either direction, it was remote enough to ensure nobody was nearby.
Sliding down off Appa, he wondered if the thought had crossed Aang's mind like it had Katara's. The guilt and curiosity twisted inside until he found himself asking. "Did you think I dragged you out here to capture you?"
"I thought about it," Aang admitted. "But I didn't believe it."
"Ah." Someone more at ease would be able to acknowledge that show of trust with a nice sentiment. All he could muster was an embarrassed, "Thanks."
He studied the island quickly while Aang tugged off his shoes and settled his toes into the black volcanic sand of the small beach with a happy sigh. The location fit well. Volcanic rock, seawater, ocean breeze, and the sun's heat: all four elements within Aang's reach to work with. He'd intended that as a safety.
"So what's it today?" Aang said, almost bouncing in his eagerness. "That firebending form you keep doing on the cliff?"
He closed his eyes for a moment, hoping to all the spirits that what he'd have to do wouldn't totally erode whatever trust he'd built. If he were wiser, maybe, or if there was more time, he'd figure a better way. But failing that…
The very second he summoned a flame Appa roared in alarm, running away from the two of them. Confused, they both stared, and Aang started chasing down his pet. "Appa! Come back!"
Zuko hesitated, shrugged, and chased after them. Running after a flying bison; his life was definitely getting interesting. They finally caught the shaking bison halfway across the island. It was more than an ordinary animal fear of fire; it had just been a small flame. "Was he ever burned?" he asked, while Aang petted the nervous Appa and murmured quietly to him.
"Not that I know of," Aang said with a frown. "But we lost him for a month." He turned concerned grey eyes on the now-calming bison. "And I don't know what happened to him then."
"He must have run into something bad." That was a depressing thought; yet another Fire Nation cruelty. Part of him was thankful he had used his swords and not his bending to set Appa free under Ba Sing Se. If Appa was that terrified of fire, he might have stampeded over his would-be rescuer. "Can you call him back? I mean, have you got some mind-bond or whatever?"
Aang fished in his left trouser pocket and pulled out a white whistle. "I have an air bison call."
He admitted that was something of a letdown. He had been sure the two of them had some kind of deeper communication than…well…a whistle. "That works…let him go. He can take a nap a few islands over."
Appa lumbered into the air with a grunt and lazily flew off to the northeast. As they watched him go, he found at least a few words. "He's afraid of firebending. So are you. But you don't have the luxury of running from it."
"I know," Aang said with a heavy sigh.
Well, it looked like it was time to assume his role as the bad guy. "You're the Avatar. That means you're a firebender. I know we haven't given you much to admire, but…defeat my dad and you might just set the Fire Nation free too."
"Seeing it this summer, it's so different from what I remember. Kuzon and I used to laugh at this old storybook about the life of Fire Lord Zhalon." His great-great-grandfather; nobody spoke of him these days except to say that the only worthwhile thing he had done was fathering a strong ruler like Sozin. "'Cause nobody laughed about Sozin. They wrote it to tease Zhalon, just a little bit, you know? Like you do to show someone you like them. But the people of the Fire Nation loved him, even though he was gone. And Zhalon loved dancing, and tea, and pretty girls, and writing poems…"
"He sounds a lot like my uncle." He wished things had been different, that his father hadn't stolen what wasn't his. With Uncle Iroh as Fire Lord, the world would have been spared so much, he was sure.
Aang spent another few moments looking pensively at the horizon, before turning to Zuko. "I guess that's enough time daydreaming. What do you have in mind?"
His answer was to draw enough heat to rapidly cast a circle of flame about ten feet in diameter around Aang, roughly to the height of his waist.
Aang let out a yelp of surprise. "What are you doing?"
Adding enough energy to keep the flames going at their same level, he answered, "I'm teaching you about firebending."
Pretty much as he'd expected, Aang relied on his instinctive reaction. In a little over a second, he'd created a gust of wind strong enough to pop right over the flames, landing gracefully on the hot sand.
"You failed," Zuko informed him calmly.
"What?" Aang blinked.
"You dealt with the threat, fine. But you used airbending. You'd also have failed if you doused it with water or smothered it with rock, by the way."
"You had me in a circle of fire!"
"A firebending student usually gets put into a dome of flame in this exercise—one that the master makes smaller every five seconds or so to increase the threat and force the issue. And they don't have other types of bending to help them out." He'd failed that exercise twice, much to his chagrin. "A lesson that harsh is pointless. So you have that escape route, and the other elements here ready to use, in case of an emergency. But the point here is for you not to rely on those things."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Stop being afraid of what you are. When I got this," he pointed to his scar, "I gave up bending for almost a year. All I remembered was the pain, until I faced it."
"What happened?" He'd been dreading the day one of them wanted to know the story of his father's cruelty. Much as it hurt to tell it, he decided the boy should know.
"My father did it when I was thirteen. I spoke up when I shouldn't at a war meeting, and I refused to fight him in an Agni Kai. So he did this and banished me. The only way I could come home was if I found the Avatar and captured him."
Aang stared at him with a gleam of sympathy. "That's what it was all about? Just so you could go home?"
"I went home last month. The cost was too high."
"And what does firebending cost me?" Aang ventured.
He sighed, clasping his hands behind his back. "You're the last keeper of the Air Nomad culture, and you can rebuild your people. But only if you survive. And that means really becoming the Avatar. You can't escape what you truly are, even if it hurts." He'd found that in the Earth Kingdom. Every time he'd tried to hide who he was, it always found its way back out into the open.
"Confront my fears, huh?"
"Yes. Firebending means facing the threat and not running, not enduring, and not trying to find another way. You have to just attack it and defeat it."
"And that means…" Aang straightened and looked thoughtful. "Draw on the fire's heat and turn it into attacks. That'll get rid of the flames."
"Right. Hit your opponent before he hits you, and keep up the offense. This is one way to make the point. Otherwise, I just start throwing attacks at you and force you to react. They use that a lot on older firebending students."
"Er…I guess we'll get to that." It encouraged him to see that at least Aang didn't wince at the idea of sparring with firebending.
"Ready for another try?"
Aang gave him a small smile and assumed a firebending stance. With that, Zuko set up the flame barrier again.
By late afternoon, Aang readily dealt with a wall of flame, a look of determination on his face. They both had a few minor burns from it, and the jar of burn salve got used pretty heavily. His control still needed work—even though Zuko had urged him to try a variety of attack strengths, his sheer power tended to make his strikes overwhelming. Plus he was casting without much care for direction when confronted with actual danger. So his pupil was still panicking a little bit. He'd been right to get them far away from any kind of people, or vegetation. There probably would have been several forest fires blazing from Aang's wild throws. As for himself, Zuko had dodged more arcs and balls of flame than he had in years. Aang's attack style right now was a great idea for trying to incinerate opponents on the first shot, but he doubted Aang would get that lucky with Ozai.
At least he thought Aang could handle the idea now; soon he'd start trying to teach how to fight another person. A few of the principles of Agni Kai might be of use. After Aang blew his bison whistle and Appa hove into view with a happy roar, he offered, "Good job today."
Aang gave him a smile. "Thanks."
"Take tomorrow off," he offered before he could think better of it.
"You worked hard today. And I need to do some work myself." Time to give bending lightning another try, he thought.
Katara fussed over Aang's small burns when they got back just after dark. She gave him a questioning glance as he walked by. Did he do all right? He gave her a nod in reply and went to put his things back in his room before dinner.
After everyone was asleep, he sneaked into the Great Hall, hearing the whistling snore of the bison asleep on the cool stone. It was almost instinct to try and start a palm-sized flame for light, but he curbed the motion at the last instant, remembering how terrified the animal had been. He winced at the flash of pain as the unreleased heat dispersed back through his body; his muscles would be a bit sore come morning. Well, more sore than they already were from firebending and dodging all day long. Letting his eyes adjust to the starlight, he moved forward, juggling his offering to keep from dropping it.
Appa was sprawled on his stomach, legs twitching a little in his sleep. As Zuko approached, one large grey eye opened and regarded him, and the bison gave a little moan. Happiness to see him, or fear? He patted the bison awkwardly on his cool, damp nose. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you were afraid." Maybe someday Aang would be able to help with that. "But we're not all bad." Appa grunted and got to his feet. "I…uh…brought you these." He held up one of the apples. "No hard feelings?" he offered hopefully.
In the darkness he felt the roughness of Appa's tongue washing over him, and then the bison using his teeth to delicately pluck the apple from his hand. Despite suddenly being covered in warm, sticky bison slobber, he smiled. "Thanks."
Chapter 5: Water: Katara
Every time he thought he might be making progress with Katara, she seemed to realize her hatred of him had lessened just that little bit. And, he knew, that raised her suspicions right back to their original level. She was determined to not trust him. Not when after the crystal catacombs, she probably thought he had played on her emotions like a sunghi horn, like some manipulative monster.
But he had to acknowledge that she hated him enough to not fight fair. She'd shown him that when he'd arrived here. Once or twice he'd awoken from a nightmare where he was begging for mercy, and the form of his father looming over him with his burning hands changed to the little waterlander, face twisted in rage. She'd hit him when he was on his knees and pleading once. He didn't doubt that she could do it again.
So it seemed she hated herself for dealing with him like a human being, and turned that loathing back on him. Whenever things seemed to improve, he knew he'd better expect recoil later. It might be complaining about his handling of Aang, or fussing over Aang's small injuries while ignoring that he was equally sore. Not that he wanted her mothering him—at all.
As she tended to cook for the group, that was her favored punishment. Whenever he saw the glimmer of resentment in her eyes, he knew what to expect. She'd tried it first by giving him a half-cooked piece of the turkey quail he and Sokka had snared that day. When he'd placidly used a little sly firebending to fix the problem, he realized she saw it, and could almost feel her scowl. That had been a mistake. Afterwards, her little torments were overcooked: charred meat, lumpy and scorched porridge, seared rice, or the burned broth from the bottom of the soup kettle.
She was smart enough to know that Aang would notice if she did it at every meal, or if the food she gave him was entirely inedible. He wasn't going to go crying to Aang, though. Neither was he going to give her the satisfaction of starting a fight over it so she could accuse him of making trouble. Besides, he'd been truly hungry wandering alone in the Earth Kingdom. This wasn't that bad. At least it was food, even if sometimes he wanted to gag.
No, no way to effectively fight it. This one simply had to be endured, like the earthbenders did. She'd apparently forgotten how tenacious he could be when he put his mind to it. For years he'd gone to unreasonable lengths trying to catch Aang. He stayed now because he was equally determined to help them prepare for what was ahead. And no amount of scorn or petty games, no amount of punishment or pain he had to endure, would chase him from his goal. I've been twisted up in knots by far better than you, he thought with every offering of burnt food, every scowl, every snapped word. And thank all your Water Tribe spirits that you're not like them.
It had been three weeks now. If nothing else she must have gotten the sense that he wasn't going to let her have her way. Back on the clifftop with Aang, he tried to focus again. The young Avatar had made amazing progress thus far. Half the battle had been that mental struggle for Aang to accept that unlike Jeong-Jeong's teachings—Zuko had heard that whole story in time—fire wasn't evil. Like all the other elements, it was merely an impartial tool; capable of aid or destruction. The effect depended solely on the bender and his intentions.
If he found the rebel master, Zuko thought tiredly that he was in a mood to give Jeong-Jeong a piece of his mind. Not that he had much more than shreds of righteousness to muster, he admitted, but he might be permitted in this case. Any firebending student wreaked havoc at least once by losing control. It was a necessary lesson. And that was the source of his fury: the old man had known his glum predictions would be self-fulfilling prophecy. He had taught Aang fear of fire rather than respect, made the boy never want to touch fire again. In just a few days, Jeong-Jeong had almost managed what Zuko never had; crippling the Avatar's ambitions and making him no threat to the Fire Lord.
Never mind that. He's overcome it now, and in time to learn. "Today…it's time you learned something about lightning." Aang's face immediately drew tight, and his hand crept towards his back. Zuko knew he still carried a horrible scar in the middle of his spine, interrupting the blue of his tattoo, from where Azula had struck him with a lightning bolt. "I think you know why," he said as gently as he could.
Aang nodded slowly. "Yeah." He cocked an eyebrow. "Can you bend it?"
"Just the last few days," he admitted. He'd finally faced his fear of failing again one morning, knowing he'd need the mastery to teach it to Aang, and again, to face Azula. Somehow, he was only half shocked when he'd succeeded. "First, before you learn to attack with it, you should learn the defensive move."
"But firebending is almost all offensive."
"It is. My uncle created this technique after watching waterbenders." After watching Katara at work a few times with the leisure of not being attacked by her, he could see its roots in her movements. "So it should come more easily to you. This will let you catch and redirect the lightning."
"It really works?"
He smiled, knowing there was little humor in it. "The Fire Lord, my uncle, Princess Azula, and now me—we're the only firebenders I know of that can create lightning. And of us, the Fire Lord is by far the best I've seen." To him, his sister and father were no longer Father and Azula; they were the Fire Lord and the princess. It made the fact that he would probably have to help kill them somewhat easier to bear. "So if you learn anything from me, let it be this."
Aang was clever enough to read between the lines. "Wait, he bent lightning at you?"
"He didn't take my speech about how I was leaving to join your group too well," he attempted to make a joke. "He distracted me long enough for the eclipse to end. So yeah, it works. But trust me, practice the motion until it's become a reflex. He's that quick."
He explained it, demonstrated, hearing the echoes of his uncle teaching him. And too, remembering the sizzling, unnerving feel of the electricity coursing through his body. "I'll be honest. It's not without pain. You'll be burned on your fingertips," he admitted wryly, remembering nursing his own hurts on the way to the temple. "Your muscles all ache along the pathway you made …and you'll throw up soon after from your stomach being irritated. But what counts is that you've survived."
Aang gave a nervous cough. "You're not going to actually test me, are you?"
"No. Too much can go wrong. I can't control the lightning precisely like I can fire. Making it go roughly where you aim is about the best you can do."
He watched Aang practicing for a while. It was easy to forget when talking to him, but when he really just looked, he ended up trying once again to shake off the realization of just how young his pupil was; and how massive the expectations were. It was startling that he'd never considered it in all the time chasing him to the corners of the earth, but instead of just the Avatar, now he saw Aang—a sometimes silly child just turned thirteen, bearing far more than a man's burden. Zhiya and Kuji, he thought to the sun and fire spirits, guard him, he's just a kid. And the comet's coming in a little over a month.
"How's it look?"
"Fine," he said, trying for a smile. "Like I said, work on that whenever you have a few spare minutes. Want to give bending it a try? I think you're skilled enough."
Aang agreed readily enough. Attempting some version of Uncle Iroh's explanation failed a little. It had sounded far more impressive then, what with all the yin and yang and polarized energies and stuff. At least he managed to get across the points that a clear mind and total focus were necessary. And compared to the confused, angry, screwed-up mess that he had been in the Earth Kingdom, Aang should have no problem with emotional conflict.
The lightning writhed around his fingertips and wrists in a ghostly prickling sensation, the drawing apart of the energies making a crackling blue-white aurora that traced the arcing motion of his arms. The first time he'd managed this far, scarcely a week ago, he'd been marveling so much he lost his grip on the developing polarity. Their immediate violent re-collision had been a lesson learned; from then on it was total concentration, no admiring his progress.
Firing off the bolt at the distant other side of the canyon, he turned to Aang. "Think you got it?" Demonstrating the technique that slowly was actually harder than just slinging off a bolt of lightning at a realistic combat speed; it was that much longer to keep absolute focus and struggle against the natural tendency of the yin and yang to rejoin. He knew he'd wavered once or twice.
Aang nodded eagerly. "I think so." Taking his stance, his face in a fierce expression of concentration, he began to trace the circular motion through the air.
It was over in two seconds: funny how in even that short amount of time, his mind noticed it at first casually and then with a dawning horror. Not seeing any electri—oh, shit. He moved instinctively to stop Aang, though it wouldn't have done any good. The energies had been pulled apart, and were going to collide no matter what. Cue the explosion.
As usual, his student's failure was spectacular. Aang was sent flying backwards by the force of the explosion, and landed a good fifteen feet away. As for Zuko, unfortunately, his move towards Aang meant that he was close enough to be thrown off his feet as well…squarely into a nearby boulder, knocking the wind out of him. It felt like when Toph had hit him that night in the forest with a pillar of rock, but worse.
Managing to get up to his hands and knees, he looked over towards Aang, who was groggily sitting up. "I think we have some inner turmoil there," he muttered. His quiet sarcastic laugh was cut short by the flare of pain in his side.
By the time Aang made it over, he'd lurched to his feet. "You're all right?" Aang said, trepidation shining in his eyes.
Staring at the near-terror on his student's face, something Sokka had said during one of their duels flashed into his mind. Good job. I wouldn't have bet on you managing to teach him.
What, because I'm an angry impatient jerk?
No, you're actually pretty good these days. It's 'cause he's been terrified that all firebending does is hurt people. And I thought you'd be the last guy to manage to convince him otherwise.
He's got a kind spirit, had been all he could say in reply. It can accept a lot.
By now, though, he knew Aang took a lot of things to heart. Zuko wasn't sure Aang considered him a friend, definitely not a close friend like the others, but even injuring his teacher would horrify him. And he'd start to blame himself for it, and begin to doubt…Zuko decided in an instant that he couldn't risk it. Losing all their progress so far, as well as future hopes, by making Aang afraid of his abilities again? That wasn't going to happen. It had been a stupid accident, and a lot of it was his fault. He shouldn't have so easily assumed Aang's spirit was perfectly calm and in balance. Not with all they had to face; how could the poor guy be anything but in turmoil right now?
That, and immediately on the heels of that realization was the recognition that firebending and the good of the world aside, he personally didn't want to see Aang hurt. There was enough for him to endure in the days to come; adding guilt on top of all of that was needless. The sudden urge to protect the young Avatar from the damage his own gentle nature could cause him was swift and startling.
Deliberately dropping his hand from his side, he forced himself to smile in what he hoped was some kind of reassurance. "Don't worry about it. Takes more than a spill in the dirt to keep a firebender down, right?"
Aang smiled back, rubbing a sore spot on his thigh, obviously relieved. "Yeah."
He looked Aang over. "Hurt at all yourself?"
"Startled more than anything."
He nodded, tried to take a deep breath and curbed the resulting wince. He couldn't breathe properly right now—and without that, he couldn't firebend worth a copper piece. That, and seeing how alarmed Aang looked, decided it. "Enough for today."
"Look, we need to get right back up after a failure sometimes. But sometimes wisdom means knowing when to stop, come at it fresh the next day. Enough for today," he repeated.
Aang nodded, deciding to not argue the point. Zuko elected to take the stone steps down to the temple today—rappelling wasn't a great idea at the moment. Aang's voice, suddenly very small, followed him down the stairs. "But why couldn't I do it?"
No easy way to say "You're a mess inside, kid." And somehow he had the feeling he wasn't exactly the one Aang should sit down with to work out whatever his emotional blockage was. He looked back over his shoulder. "Don't take it hard, Aang. We'll figure it out."
His right flank, by the time he slathered a thick layer of salve on it back in the privacy of his room, was a sorry black-and-blue mess. Reaching for a roll of linen bandages, he wearily bound his ribs up, pretty sure several of them were cracked. Slipping his vest back on, he lay down on his bed, feeling the warmth of the afternoon sunlight on him, trying not to breathe too deeply. He pondered: if he could manage to instruct Aang with minimal demonstration and correction, there was a chance he might get away without the others knowing. He wouldn't be back to full health for a month, but even a week or two might regain him some firebending ability.
He must have fallen asleep, because he awoke to Katara barking from his doorway, "You didn't come to dinner, and Aang was worried. I suppose you want room service now?"
"Eh?" He tried to sit up, gave up. "Not hungry," he managed. The last thing he needed was her telling Aang that the poor little prince was in his room whimpering over some bruises.
Her footsteps came closer. "So maybe our food's not good enough for you. And now you're going to act like a spoiled brat and not eat?"
"Your food is excellent...when you don't deliberately ruin it. Now go away," he said through his teeth, abandoning politeness.
"Tui and La, what happened?" Her tone suddenly shifted from anger to shock. He realized he'd left his vest open and she'd seen the wrappings.
"Nothing," he said, knowing he sounded sullen.
Like a spotted elk-dog with a bone in its teeth, now she wasn't going to drop it. "Then sit up and talk. Bend some fire," she challenged. "Bet you can't. Aang said something about an accident today. Although he didn't mention you got hurt."
He glowered at her, hating her in that moment probably as much as he ever had. She thought that her suspicion gave him the right to just stomp into his life, his privacy like this? Patience might win eventually, but he was getting tired of her feeling of entitlement. Forcing himself to sit up, he met her eyes. "He doesn't know. And don't you dare tell him."
She took that as bait, neatly as a gopher-trout. "Your pride can't take it, huh?"
He didn't look away. "No, his spirit can't take it. He feels it pretty deep when people are harmed because of something he did."
She stared at him like he'd just suggested joining the Water Tribes. "What?"
"You know what he's like. I don't want to see him get hurt. This isn't worth it."
A good fifteen seconds passed in silence. Finally she ventured, "You're not kidding, are you?"
"I'm a very bad liar," he said wearily. "At least, Toph keeps telling me that."
She nodded slowly, crossing her arms over her chest. "How bad are you? And be honest."
He didn't see much point in lying. She'd pester him until he admitted it. "Broken ribs, I'm pretty sure."
"And you weren't going to say anything?" The idea that Zuko, of all people, would protect Aang from being hurt had surprised her. The thought that he was willing to suffer for it obviously shocked her to the core, if her expression was any indication.
He smiled wryly, though the pain twisted it almost into a grimace. "A Fire Nation warrior doesn't show pain." Or fear, for that matter.
"You stupid idiot," now they were back on more familiar turf, although some of the malice had left her voice. "You can't firebend if you can't breathe."
"Oh really? Thanks for the lesson, Katara." Somehow it was a sweet relief to finally unleash some of his repressed frustrations with her via sarcasm. Maybe it was the pain talking, but right now he really didn't care if they started shouting and fighting. "Anyway, why should I say anything? It has to heal in its own time."
"I'm a healer," she bit off, cheeks flaming pink.
He said nothing, but he knew his silence and level stare spoke the words for him. And you wouldn't spit on me if I was on fire, let alone offer to heal me. She looked away, and when she looked back at him, something had changed in her expression. She still looked cautious, but there was sympathy now, that instead of a loathsome enemy or some kind of inhuman monster, she finally might be seeing him as just a sixteen-year-old boy in pain.
"Don't tell him," he repeated. "It was just an accident. And my fault, mainly." If he could think how to ask her, the waterbender would be the best one to sit down with Aang and help him work out whatever his issues were. That was for another day, though.
She sighed, nodded in agreement. "All right, on one condition."
"You let me heal your ribs now, because we can't afford to lose you…." He looked at her incredulously, and she hurried to qualify her words, "…as a firebending teacher for a month. And if you get hurt, you come see me."
"You're lucky I won't turn my back on people who need my help," she couldn't resist one last shot. It wasn't friendship, he thought, as she reached for the flask of water at her side: not yet. But he'd gained her respect and lost a lot of her enmity. That was progress worth marking.
Chapter 6: Spirit: Iroh
Dawn once more, and as usual he was in his element—both literally and figuratively. He was pretty pleased of late. Even he could recognize the evolution of his technique and style in the last weeks. For years he'd been filled with rage and shame and a dark need to make himself worthy to his father. Now, filled with a calm fire of equal determination, spurred by the drive to help Aang and make the world the place it should be rather than the Fire Nation's lies and cruelties, that will showed up in his bending in startling ways. Everything seemed easier, and less urgent and desperate. He no longer came out of practice near tears or filled with a sense of his own failure.
Once more, he went through the beginning of the Rising Phoenix form, slow and steady. Move like Toph, the idle thought flitted into his head, after having watched the petite earthbender at work thanks to memories of Uncle's urging him to observe other ways nagging him. It took a few moments to realize the rightness of it, and it hit him.
He'd secretly wondered why Uncle had demonstrated this form to him in those days back in the wilderness of the Earth Kingdom. Sure, it was difficult, an ancient form that was beautiful to behold. But that was maybe the problem; it was more like a dance than anything. Certainly he'd thought back then that forms like he'd seen demonstrated at a Fire Festival would be better to learn how to fight Azula: ones like Comet's Fire or Chasing the Dragon, with their explosive, aggressive moves.
So now I can do a pretty dance before she kills me, he'd thought sullenly, trying to first movements of Rising Phoenix. He'd consoled himself that it was a master level form, and any progress was good news. And then he'd quickly lost any condescension when he couldn't do the damn thing. He could hardly say it wasn't worth his time when he couldn't even perform it correctly. In the end, between bouts of heated frustration, it was one of those things he mentally filed under "Uncle's Weird Life Lessons", though he couldn't figure it the point of it back then.
Now it came to him with crystal clarity, Uncle Iroh's gravelly voice saying in his mind, "It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others—the other elements, and the other nations—will help you become whole."
Taking the first stance, he performed the first movement, some part of his mind detached and now really seeing it sharply through new eyes, connecting the moves he now made to what he'd seen from Toph, and Katara, and Aang in the last weeks. Not the same thing exactly: the moves were re-interpreted and mingled with elements of firebending rather than staying true to the actual original source. But he could recognize the origins now.
The first movements of the newborn phoenix were small and compact, and the stance firmly grounded…earth, solid and strong
As the phoenix grew bolder, moving into larger movements next, the motions blending continuous one into another...water, flowing and mutable.
Then with the first test of the phoenix's wings, starting to turn in jumping spirals, the arms following likewise…air, free and light.
Then finally the flurry of airborne kicks and strikes as the firebird took to the air…fire. But not the raging, aggressive destruction he'd learned as firebending. This, he realized, was its twin; fire as an expression of pure energy and exuberance and life. True firebending, he thought with some awe.
That was the meaning of the form; the harmony and balance of the elements working together the way they were meant to. The four as one, and shown as the phoenix, the symbol of fire as hope and peace. It crossed his mind, standing there on the clifftop with the sun-warmed earth beneath his bare feet: How did nobody figure this out? What it teaches, what it means, it's…almost subversive
The answer came to him almost immediately. People don't see what they don't want to.Rising Phoenix was a dying form, and for those who saw it, had they dismissed it as he had? Seeing it as just a pretty dance, an archaic oddity; ill-suited to the iron warrior's way that was the life of a firebender these days?
The epiphany was strong enough that he unconsciously glanced over his shoulder, almost expecting to see Uncle Iroh to be there watching him. Despite the fact that rationally he knew it was impossible, it was still a crushing disappointment to see the empty space, to not be able to tell him his discovery. Everything the old man had tried to tell him in the last years, the gentle encouragement, the cryptic lessons…it finally all made sense.
"I understand," he whispered to his uncle's shade. "And when I find you…" Even if Iroh never forgave him, at least he could let the old man know that his years of patience and trust hadn't been in vain.
Soon enough they realized the time had come to leave; supplies were running low, and the comet was arriving in less than two weeks. Plus, it was only a matter of time before the Fire Lord's troops decided to check the Western Air Temple. The month of idyll had been a month of precious time for Aang to train and for the battle plan to form. And though he didn't admit it to them, it was more than he imagined they'd get when he had first come here.
It was startling to see them emerging from the temple dressed in the various reds and black of the Fire Nation. Necessary, now that they were out of their hidey-hole again. He gave them a lot credit for having the wits to use the disguises successfully for weeks on end after Ba Sing Se.
There was a little consternation at covering Aang's head tattoo—as he tried to not butt in, he heard something about the Avatar previously having had hair that had hid it before for the most part. Katara, as ever taking charge, finally managed to use a dark red silk sash to make a sort of odd-looking headscarf.
"If anyone asks, say it's a burn scar," he finally offered wryly. "Trust me—it'll stop them prying further. It's considered rude." He was too familiar with that idea. People always politely pretended to ignore his own massive scar, although he knew enough now to catch the quick initial flash of pity and horror in their eyes.
So, loaded up on Appa, who gave a gusty sigh at the weight on his back but gamely carried them anyway, they left the temple behind. As he glanced around the saddle at the others, he saw that he wasn't the only one looking back a little wistfully. Things had been calm and almost happy there, his squabbles with the rest of them notwithstanding. But from here on in, it would be almost straight into the fire.
Late in the afternoon, they landed on the rocky shores of the coast of the island of Hanzhi, having spied the town of Dao Shun in the distance. "Big town," Zuko commented when he sensed the others looking to him as the Fire Nation native for an opinion, a sense of trust which both pleased and startled him. "It should be easy enough to hide out there for a day or two while we keep making plans."
"We'll need to get supplies," Katara voiced wearily. "And we're down to five silver coins and four bronze now. That won't buy much."
"You had to buy the stupid dragonhawk," Sokka grumbled loudly to himself. "Twenty gold and the thing never came back."
"I could always try and find a dice game," Toph offered. "Make some quick cash that way."
"It's too risky this time," Katara argued, although the note of disapproval he expected wasn't quite there. "We can't get caught."
"You may be right," Toph admitted with a sigh.
Well, at least here was another opportunity to help. He reached into his rucksack, tossing Aang a fat pouch of coins. "What's this?" The airbender loosened the drawstring. His eyebrows shot up at the gleam of gold bright in the sunlight.
He couldn't help a slight smile. "That's a donation for you that I took from the royal treasury." He'd had the suspicion they'd be low on funds. And it had been so simple to ask a servant to go get him some money from the royal coffers, ostensibly to go wandering the market.
Sokka beamed. "You know, you're not so bad when you're on our side."
"Thanks." Katara gave him a nod of acknowledgement. He couldn't quite say they'd become friends, but they at least had some level of respect by now.
Leaving the air bison hidden in the bamboo forest, happily crunching on the undergrowth, they covered the few miles to town fairly quickly. Along the way, Katara started listing their supply needs—he thought that she'd have been a formidable quartermaster—and firing questions his way on the likelihood of availability and prices.
He found himself discussing it with her, suggesting new ideas and possible substitutions, and before he knew it they'd arrived at the gates. He could hear that market day was in full swing in the merchant's street, the massive yammering din of dozens of people calling out their wares, haggling back and forth, trading insults about the quality and each others' ancestry. After weeks in the quiet contemplation of the temple, the sound of civilization was startling.
"Hey, that's the same symbol that was on Master Piandao's gate," Sokka said, face screwed up in a quizzical expression.
"What?" He stared at the delicate white lotus painted on the sign of the inn at the entrance to the merchant's street. Turning on his heel, he demanded, "You're sure?"
Taken aback, Sokka nodded, fishing in the pouch at his belt and flipping something small his way that Zuko instinctively snatched out of the air. Looking down at his palm, he saw the white lotus painted on the wooden face of the Pai-Sho piece. "He gave that to me when I left his house. Weird souvenir; I don't play Pai-Sho."
And he was flooded with memories of Uncle's desperation to find this tile that time they'd encountered the pirates, and being bored in a flower shop in the dusty reaches of the Earth Kingdom…he suddenly was mentally kicking himself for not paying better attention that day.
"Aang," he said, hoping against hope, remembering the massive Pai-Sho table at the Western Air Temple, "d'you know how to play Pai-Sho?"
Aang nodded eagerly. "Monk Gyatso and I used to play three, four times a week. I wasn't great, but I was getting better…"
"Good." He handed the piece to Aang, closed the boy's hand over it. "Then we're gonna go play." Glancing towards the inn, he hoped that this worked. If nothing else, he thought with a snort of amusement, he could offer to serve meals for a few days in hopes to earn level of some confidence. Spirits knew he was capable of that, at least.
Five minutes later, Aang sat across the massive Pai-Sho board from the proprietress, Keiza. She eyed them with an impassive expression as Aang hesitantly plunked the lotus tile in the middle of the board.
"The white lotus," she said nonchalantly. "You favor the old ways, then, child?" Now he could see layers of possible meaning in that innocuous phrase: the old ways, before Sozin?
"Oh, for the love of…" He rolled his eyes and decided to cut through the prelude and the half-hour of play if at all possible. Plus, he admitted he had little clue of how the pattern went, so many months later. "Mistress Keiza," he gave her a formal bow; politeness never hurt. "This is Sokka," he nodded to the Water Tribe boy, "who was given this tile by Piandao of Shu Jing. I'm Zuko, and Iroh is my uncle." Belatedly he hoped that the Fire Nation members of the White Lotus knew each others' names. "I'm…ah…pleased to greet a member of the White Lotus. Neither Sokka or I are actually initiated, but I think my uncle hoped that…" He hoped a lot for me. And I failed at every turn.
Mercifully it seemed to work. Some glimmer of humor sparkled in her eyes at his boldness. "And from what I hear, this then is the Avatar. Very well, Prince Zuko, Avatar Aang. What can the White Lotus do for you and your companions?"
Katara ventured to speak up. "We're sort of wanted here in the Fire Nation…"
"Somewhere to sleep for a night or two," Aang said politely. "We can pay," he shot Zuko a grateful look, "and for food as well."
Keiza nodded briskly, turning with a swish of her robes. "That I can do for you; would that there was more." As she gestured them to follow her, her hand fell on Zuko's shoulder suddenly. Startled, he turned to look at her. "You and your friends aren't the only ones seeking refuge here, Prince Zuko."
"Uncle?" The word tore out of his throat painfully, half-choked.
She nodded. "He has been here several days now. He's been visiting our members across the Fire Nation…"
He didn't hear the rest, as he pushed past the others and hurried for the stairs. Opening the sliding door of the first room a crack and finding it empty, he moved on.
Three doors down, he finally saw the familiar figure meditating in the glow of sunset. "Uncle?" he whispered, his heart in his throat.
Iroh turned and stood, and the first thing he registered was how fit and lean he looked in his red and black garb, seeming fifteen years younger and full of power. This was the Dragon of the West, the scourge of Ba Sing Se, a man ready for war: not the comfort-loving old man he'd sometimes scorned for the last few years. "You've…you've changed," he said stupidly, the words slipping his lips.
"Nephew," Iroh said with a polite nod, his expression impassive.
That settled it. Well aware that his friends must have been only steps behind him, not caring about humiliation, he threw himself at his uncle's feet, bowing until his forehead almost touched the floor. "Uncle, I'm sorry…you were right, everything you tried to tell me…I was too stupid…"
A thousand words fought within him to be said. You were right about my father all along, he loathes me, tried to kill me. And you saved me by showing me to redirect lightning. I paid the price for what I thought I wanted, and it's not who I am, not at all. I'm meant to follow Roku's path, I know it. And I have, I've joined the Avatar and given him all the help I can. I've been foolish and angry and blind, but Iknownow…
Voice shaking, he finally managed something that might explain it all. "The Avatar, Uncle…he's a firebender now. I taught him."
"He is?" Uncle murmured with interest.
Still staring miserably at the swirling grain of the well-worn floorboards, he made one last try, finding some words. "I'm sorry. You've been my father in every way that mattered. I told him that. I came to set you free, but you were gone."
Waiting, his heart pounding in his ears, he was aware he was trembling with his emotions. If his uncle sent him away, it might kill him. He couldn't help but think back three years, bowing in submission to another man whose forgiveness he so desperately wanted.
His father had hit him across the face with his burning hand, disciplining him with a slap like a wayward child, but far more cruelly. This time he felt a hand on his shoulder and dared to look up, and saw Uncle Iroh kneeling as well, looking at him with an expression he had never seen before. Pity, worry, fondness, love, exasperation, frustration, yes.
But this…casting around for the word, he could only term it as respect. It was the spark of one man's respect for another, and gratitude and relief washed over him as he knew that while he wasn't a man yet, in just a few months he'd grown up greatly in his uncle's eyes.
Despite his clumsy words, it seemed Iroh understood. "They're my family now…them and you." And as he said it, he knew the rightness of it. He'd acknowledged Iroh as being more a father than Ozai, and it seemed he was forgiven. But now, the rest of it came to him. Gentle and clever Aang, sarcastic and brave Sokka, wise and wry Toph, and even prickly but caring Katara: they'd rightly disliked him to start. But eventually they'd drawn him in, teased him, shared their food, their hopes, and their dreams, and made him one of their own. They'd become far more siblings to him than Azula ever had been.
And now that Iroh seemed to forgive him, he was more at peace than he ever had been. Never mind the coming battle where he'd have to face his own father and sister, wrenching as he knew it would be. Never mind the years of rebuilding struggle that might come afterwards. He felt whole for the first time in his life, and that was enough to face anything that could come.
Iroh gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Then," his voice cheerful, "why don't we go have a cup of tea downstairs with my new nieces and nephews? Mistress Keiza has an excellent white-and-lychee. And I'm sure you all have much to tell me."
He laughed, halfway between humor and tears of relief to see that some things with Uncle hadn't changed. "That sounds good."