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Flying Embers

Chapter Text

In the Fire Nation Royal Palace, a man stood hunched over a small cot in a room deep beneath the palace. Inside the cot was a sleeping child, who was just shy of being two-years-old, the same age as his first-born son and slightly older than his new-born daughter. The child seemed as though she was dead, but she was simply in a very deep sleep and had been in that state for days now. Of course, it was all induced according to plan. Another person soon joined the man inside the room, slightly trembling as he did so.

“Everything is set up according to your specifications, Prince Ozai,” the man announced.

Prince Ozai turned to face the other man with a satisfied smirk, “Good. She’ll need to be taken to her room soon enough.”

“What do you plan on doing with her then, sir?” the man asked.

“I will simply give her a new name and a new identity to live by. She is only an infant, so she’ll hardly remember anything from her past. As planned she will grow up here, in the Fire Nation while we secretly keep our eyes on her,” Ozai replied.

“What will you say to Lady Ursa?” the other man questioned.

“You don’t need to worry about my personal affairs, Takumi. As long as everything goes according to plan, there should be no reason to stress,” Ozai answered.

“When will you release her to the public eye?” Takumi queried.

“In due time, Takumi. First, I must introduce her to my father and the rest of my family before I allow the world to see her,” Ozai replied.

“You seem to have everything under control, Prince Ozai. Is there anything else you need of me?” Takumi offered.

“Yes, actually,” Ozai said as he turned around to face the other man, giving a look that would scare even the strongest of generals. “Under any circumstances, you are never to repeat a word of what we’ve done. If I ever find out that you betrayed my trust, my father will be the least of your worries.”

Takumi gulped, beginning to have second thoughts about what he’d just committed himself to. “Yes, my Prince.”

“You are excused,” Ozai dismissed him.

Soon enough, it was just Ozai left in the room with the infant girl who was beginning to stir in her cot. The world as she knew it would not be the same when she opened her eyes to reveal where she was, and Ozai was going to do his best to make sure she never knew that world even existed.

~*•°•*~

The time had come for Ozai to introduce the new addition to his family's lives to those around him. His wife had been suspicious of his secretive behaviour ever since he returned, since he was waiting for the right time to do it and that was now. Fire Lady Ursa had no idea what her husband was so intent on showing her, she just hoped that it would be something good.

"What is so important that I must see, Ozai?" Ursa asked.

"You'll find out, Ursa," Ozai replied.

Within minutes, they arrived at the doors of one of the very few unused rooms in the palace, which confused Ursa since this wasn't what she was expecting. She hardly knew what to expect when it came to her husband, and she meant that in the worst way possible. Carefully, Ozai opened the doors to the room which was much cleaner and organised than the last time Ursa had been in there. Her attention was caught by a small child lying on the bed as one of the servants tended to her.

"Is this what you wanted to show me, Ozai? A child?" Ursa asked.

"Ursa, meet the newest addition to our family. I found her abandoned during my latest expedition, and I could see the potential in her to do wonderful things, so I decided to bring her here, so she could have the best upbringing possible," Ozai explained.

Ursa raised her eyebrows, silently judging Ozai's intentions. While she had only known her husband for a few short years, she knew he wasn't just some good Samaritan who helped random children. But Ursa then realised that if what Ozai was saying was true, then it would probably be best for the girl to remain here where she could be taken care of properly.

"That's rather noble of you, Ozai," Ursa commended her husband.

Ozai grinned boastfully, "Aren't I always noble, Ursa?"

Ursa bit her lip, "Yes, you are."

"You may get a better look of her if you wish," Ozai suggested.

Ursa nodded as she stepped forward, eager to see more of this child her husband had found. The girl was only small. From first glance, Ursa could tell that she was roughly around the same age as Zuko and Ursa grinned at the thought of the potential friendship they could share. Ursa was slightly stunned by her ember eyes, which were as strong as those in the Royal Family's bloodline which obviously made her Fire Nation. Her hair was chestnut brown, which rested over her shoulders as she laid down. Another thing Ursa noticed with just one look was how passionate the girl looked, which was an unusual description for a child yet it was the first word that popped into Akane's head. When Ursa leaned closer, she saw the girl's eyes widen with what appeared to be fear.

"It's okay, sweetheart. We don't want to hurt you," Ursa soothed her.

"Ma? Da?" the grirl asked, glancing between Ozai and Ursa.

Ozai rested his hand on his wife's shoulder, "Don't worry, child. My wife and I will be your new parents. We'll take good care of you here."

Ursa smiled, "Yes, we will. You will be so loved and cared for you will never doubt it in your mind."

"Home?" the girl questioned, her lip trembling.

"Yes, this will be your new home. I think you will like it here very much," Ozai replied.

Suddenly, the girl started wailing uncontrollably which instantly caused Ursa's maternal instincts to kick in. Gently, Ursa picked up the girl and slowly rocked the child in her arms as she patted her comfortingly.

"There, there little one. Everything will be alright now," Ursa comforted her.

Eventually, the crying ceased and the girl slowly warmed up to Ursa as she sang soothingly to the girl. The whole time, Ursa noticed how she seemed to be threatened by Ozai's presence, which concerned Ursa and made her wonder where exactly her husband found her from. Either the girl was more of a mommy's girl, or there was something Ozai was yet again hiding from her. At this point in their marriage, Ursa wouldn't be surprised if the latter was the case.

"Does she have a name?" Ursa asked, as she suddenly realised that the girl had been given un-named to her.

"I was thinking that you could give her one. A new name for a fresh start and a new life," Ozai replied.

Ursa thought for a moment, before the perfect name hit her, "Akane. Her name will be Akane."

"That's a perfect name," Ozai agreed. "Welcome to the family, Akane.

Glancing down at the child, Ursa couldn't help but notice how unsettled the girl looked. It made her wonder just what Ozai had done to her, and she hoped that in time the girl would grow to adjust to her new surroundings. While Ursa didn't know for sure how the girl came to be apart of their lives, one thing for sure was that Ursa wanted nothing more than to be the support that Akane needed. Besides, Ursa feared what Ozai would do to the poor child if she questioned his intentions and by now she knew when to keep her mouth shut, and now was one of those times.

Finally, Akane's eyes slowly shut before she drifted back into another sleep. Ursa smiled at the sleeping child in her arms, who looked as peaceful as the morning sunrise. In that moment, Ursa made a promise to herself and the girl in her arms that she had no intentions of breaking.

I promise to always take care of you and love you as if you were my own and I will do whatever it takes to protect you.

Chapter Text

The sound of children's laughter and pounding footsteps is what filled the corridors of the Fire Nation Royal Palace. The source of the noise came from Prince Zuko and his best friend, Akane. Having spent practically all of their life together, Akane and Zuko were the best of friends. They did everything together from training, learning and getting up to all sorts of mischief which was what they were getting up to now.

"I'm coming your way, Nene!" Zuko yelled as he chased after his friend. The pair were currently engaged in a game of tag, which had resulted in them running around almost the entire palace.

"You'll never catch me!" Akane called back, laughing as she did so.

It was always a common occurrence for Akane and Zuko to be up to these sort of activities, since they rarely did anything without each other. Over the years their friendship had truly blossomed into something special, and it was something that they both valued more than they realised. Even though Akane wasn't technically family, Zuko had always treated her as such and he had a far better relationship with her than he did with his other sister, Azula.

Eventually, the pair of friends ran out into the palace garden before Zuko eventually caught the younger girl and playfully tackled her onto the ground, both of them laughing as they did so. Their laughing eventually ceased, and the pair just laid there as they looked up into the sky and a comfortable silence filled the atmosphere.

"What should we do now?" Akane asked.

"I dunno. We've already caused enough hassle for the servants and I doubt father will be happy about that," Zuko noted.

"Why do you call him father?" Akane questioned.

"What do you mean?" Zuko queried.

"He's your daddy. Shouldn't you call him that? Father just sounds so… weird," Akane elaborated.

Zuko sighed, "Father's always said that we're not to refer to him as such. He says it's informal and that I shouldn't do it, so I don't."

"But you call Ursa mom," Akane pointed out.

"Mom doesn't care what I call her. She's always been better to me than father has. I have fun with mom, I don't have that with father," Zuko explained.

Akane nodded, understanding her friend's feelings towards his father. Prince Ozai had always intimidated Akane, since he could be such a scary person unlike Ursa who was always kind to her and treated Akane like she was her own. That was probably why Akane bonded more with Zuko and Ursa than she did with Azula and Ozai, since they were nothing like Ursa and Zuko were. Azula was mean, just like her dad was even though Akane didn't really understand why. She figured that's just how some people were.

"I wonder how Iroh's doing," Akane thought out loud.

"He's probably fighting hard with Lu Ten," Zuko said.

Akane sighed, "I miss them."

"Same. But they'll be back. And they might even bring us back something!" Zuko exclaimed.

Akane grinned, "Iroh always did get the best presents."

Since Uncle Iroh and his son, Lu Ten had gone off to Ba Sing Se, it had just been Akane and Zuko around the palace. They hardly spent time with Azula, since she always got them into trouble. Only now they missed their family members and wished that they could be here with them. A sombre mood suddenly filled the air, which Akane didn't like at all.

"I know what we could do!" Akane suddenly exclaimed.

"What?" Zuko asked as he leaned forward.

"We could fight!" Akane replied.

Zuko looked confused, "Fight? Isn't fighting bad?"

"Not that fighting, firefighting! You know, with our bending," Akane explained.

"Oh," Zuko said in realisation. "You mean sparring?"

"I didn't know there was a term for it," Akane admitted.

Zuko laughed, "It's okay. Let's spar!"

"Cool!" Akane cheered.

The pair were quick to get up on their feet before getting into their appropriate positions. Sparring was something that they occasionally did together, since they always trained in the same room. Akane was slightly more advanced than Zuko was, but they were still relatively evenly matched benders. Firebending had always fascinated Akane, and she always felt enchanted by her native element. It was almost like she went to an entirely different world whenever she'd bend, even though she wasn't sure how to describe it herself.

"Let's go!" Akane exclaimed.

Akane was quick to send a small fire blast at Zuko, which he jumped out of the way from. One thing the pair always did was to make sure that they never hurt each other during their games. Things rarely got out of hand with them, only a few scuffles every now and then but nothing serious. They continued exchanging fire blasts until Akane eventually managed to get the upper hand and caused Zuko to fall on his back.

"I win!" Akane declared.

Zuko sighed as he dusted himself off, "Yeah, like always."

"Come on, Zuko. I'm sure with some more practice you'll beat me soon," Akane encouraged him.

"It's just that, you and Azula have always been better benders than me. It's not that bad with you, since you don't pick on me like Azula does. I just wish I could be as good as you guys," Zuko admitted.

"And I'm sure you will be one day," Akane comforted him.

Zuko smiled, "Thanks, Nene. I can always count on you."

"Let's play tag again. You're it!" Akane suddenly exclaimed before running off around the garden.

"Hey, that's not fair!" Zuko yelled as he chased after his friend. This certainly wasn't anything new of Akane, since she was always sneaky in the games that they played together and tag was no exception.

At one point, Akane climbed up a tree to avoid Zuko and she happily sat there with a smirk on her face as Zuko gave his friend an exasperated sigh. Akane knew that she was safe up in the tree since Zuko never climbed and he wouldn't dare to start now.

"Come on, Aka! This isn't fun!" Zuko whined before he tripped over a tree branch that stuck up from the ground.

"Easy there, Buster," Akane called.

"Buster?" Zuko repeated as he picked himself up.

"If you're not careful you might break your head or sprain your ankle. Again," Akane giggled.

"That was one time!" Zuko defended himself.

Akane giggled at her friend, since she knew how much Zuko's clumsiness annoyed him. Her giggling was seized when she caught the sight of a familiar face in the distance. A face that belonged to a person who made it their mission to make Akane's life miserable.

"You two are losers," they said.

Akane glared at Azula, Zuko's younger sister. Unlike her and Zuko, Akane never got along with Azula. Azula was always mean for no reason and it upset Akane to see Zuko be so upset because of his sister.

"What do you want, Azula?" Akane asked as she jumped down from the tree.

"Mai and Ty Lee are busy today, so I don't have anyone to play with and I figured that I'd come find you two, only to see Akane making a fool out of Zuzu. This has been the best part about my day so far," Azula explained.

Akane glared at the younger girl, "Go away, Azula. We don't want to play with you."

Azula huffed, "I wasn't being rude, Akane. And you should know that you can't tell me what to do. Only father can do that, and he could easily throw you out if I told him to."

Akane's eyes widened, since if Ozai did kick her out she would have nowhere to go. Even though they didn't get along, Akane doubted if Azula would actually go that far but she wasn't willing to take the risk. It was clear to Akane that Ozai liked Azula more than Zuko – which Akane didn't understand why – and it's not like Ursa would be able to help her in that situation.

"Why do you have to be so mean, Azula?" Zuko asked.

"I'm not being mean, I'm just reminding your friend where she stands," Azula rebuffed.

"Well, I'm standing right here!" Akane exclaimed, not really understanding what Azula meant.

"If you want me to, I could show you two how to bend properly," Azula suggested.

Both Akane and Zuko glanced at each other, visibly surprised by Azula's offer. Azula wasn't one for offering her help to others, so this wasn't like her. But Akane was slightly intrigued, since she knew Azula had a lot of skills although Zuko didn't share the same feelings towards his sister.

Akane's expression brightened, "Well, that would be fun!"

Azula smirked, "I know it will. Stand back."

Akane nodded and did as told, with Zuko reluctantly following in suit. They both knew that Azula was well ahead of them in her training, despite being younger than both of them. Azula had always excelled in firebending, while Akane wasn't that far behind and Zuko just couldn't keep up with the younger girls.

Slowly, Azula moved her arms around as she performed several firebending tricks, immediately captivating Akane's attention. Zuko appeared to be less than interested in his sister's display, while Akane stared at the younger girl in wonder. Eventually, Azula spread her arms out wide, causing the fire to expand around them in large amounts. This caught Akane off guard, and she failed to react in time before the fire came into contact with her hands, burning them and causing her to emit a loud cry of pain.

"Akane!" Zuko yelled as he rushed to his best friend's side, who was sitting down hunched over as she caressed her burning hands.

"Opps," Azula said.

Zuko glared at his sister, "You did this on purpose!"

"Why would I do that?" Azula asked, feigning innocence.

Suddenly, the trio were joined by Ursa who heard the commotion form inside the palace. Ursa's eyes widened as she saw Akane crying in pain and the glare Zuko was giving his sister.

"What is going on here?" Ursa demanded.

"Akane burned herself," Azula lied.

"No, she didn't! Azula did this!" Zuko exclaimed.

"I would never hurt Akane," Azula lied.

Ursa crouched down in front of Akane, her eyes widening even more as she gently took hold of her blistering hands.

"Akane, sweetie. What happened?" Ursa queried.

"S-she b-burned m-me," Akane cried.

Ursa turned around to face her daughter, who was wearing an innocent look on her face. Unlike most times when Ursa would buy her daughters lies, this wasn't one of them.

"Young lady, go to your room this instance!" Ursa ordered.

"No. I will not be punished for this!" Azula exclaimed.

"Azula, do not act this way otherwise I will take this to your father!" Ursa threatened.

Azula scoffed, "Like dad would punish me for this."

"Go to your room now, Azula. I will deal with your punishment later," Ursa ordered once more.

Azula rolled her eyes as she stormed off, "Sure, take her side like you always do!"

Ursa shook her head as she watched her daughter stormed off. She could never understand why Azula behaved the way she did. Perhaps it had something to do with the amount of time she spent with Ozai. Ursa would worry about that later, as right now Akane needed her attention. Ursa caught the sound of her son snickering and gave Zuko a look that instantly shut him up.

"Why would you act like that, Zuko?" Ursa asked.

"Because Azula always does stuff like this, but never gets in trouble," Zuko replied.

Ursa sighed, "Let's just get Akane the help she needs."

Zuko nodded, ready to help his friend. Akane's cries had weakened after the original pain subsided, but the wounds still hurt. Zuko blamed himself for Akane getting hurt, since he knew that Azula was up to no good yet did nothing to stop her. Eventually, Ursa lead Akane to the infirmary so she could get her hands fixed. Azula hadn't burned her too bad, but enough to leave some marks that would stay there for some time.

"Here you go, Miss Akane. These herbs should help sooth the pain. Once I've applied them to your wounds, I will bandage your hands and you'll be good as new," the nurse explained.

Akane's lip quivered as she felt a shot of pain, "I hope so."

Ursa gave her arm a gentle squeeze, "You'll be fine, darling."

"Does it feel any better, Nene?" Zuko asked as the nurse started bandaging Akane's hands.

"A little," Akane replied.

"That's good. There will be some mild pain for a while, but they will heal in time," the nurse said.

"You hear that, Akane? You'll be just as fine as you were this morning," Ursa said reassuringly.

Akane nodded, "I want to be."

The nurse smiled as she finished wrapping Akane's bandages, "There you go. You're free to go now."

"Thank you," Akane said appreciatively.

"Why don't you two head off to your rooms while I go speak to your sister?" Ursa suggested. "I'll make sure this doesn't happen again."

"Okay, mom," Zuko agreed. "Come on, Aka. Let's go."

"Alright," Akane murmured.

Zuko grinned once Ursa was out of earshot, "Azula's gonna get in so much trouble!"

Akane smiled slightly, "That sounds good."

"Akane, I'm sorry that Azula burned you," Zuko suddenly apologised.

"Why are you sorry?" Akane asked.

"Because I should've stopped her. Now you're hurt," Zuko replied sadly.

Akane sighed, "It's okay. The nurse said I'll be fine anyways!"

"I still feel bad," Zuko admitted.

"Well, you shouldn't! Now come on, let's go to my room and play charades!" Akane exclaimed.

Zuko grinned, "I'll race you there!"

"Way ahead of you!" Akane yelled before taking off down the palace corridors, with Zuko laughing after her as they did so.

One thing the pair of friends could always count on each other was cheering up when they needed it. That's what made their friendship as close as it was, and nothing that they'd trade for anything.

Chapter Text

Life at the Royal Palace never ceased to bore Akane. There was always something for her to do, so there was never a dull moment, especially since she had Zuko to keep her company. Sometimes Akane would sit and wonder what it would be like without Zuko. Probably not as good as what it was now. After a day of causing ruckus around the palace, Akane and Zuko were just spending time with Ursa at the pond while they fed the turtle ducks. While it wasn't the most exciting thing in the world, sometimes Akane just liked watching the turtle ducks as they swam around while Ursa and Zuko fed them. Akane was currently lying down on the ground as she lazily watched the mother and son together.

"Hey mom, want to see how Azula feeds turtle ducks?" Zuko asked excitedly as he threw the remaining loaf of bread in his hands at one of the baby turtle ducks.

Ursa gasped in shock at her son's behaviour. She would expect this sort of action from Azula, but certainly not Zuko. This was made evident as she voiced her disapproval, "Zuko! Why would you do that?"

Not happy with Zuko's behaviour, Akane playfully wacked him on the shoulder, causing Zuko to glare at her. In Akane's opinion, Zuko had that coming after following Azula's footsteps. He should know better than to do what his crazy sister did. Akane felt bad for the baby turtle duck, almost fearing for it until it resurfaced again. Her feeling of fear morphed into one of amusement when the mother turtle duck charged forth and bit Zuko harshly on the ankle, causing Akane to laugh. She had to admit, he also had that coming.

"Ow! Ow! Ow! Ouch!" Zuko yelled as the turtle duck continued biting his ankle.

Ursa then removed the turtle duck from Zuko's ankle and gently placed her back into the pond, where she swam off with her babies. Akane stifled back a few laughs as Zuko pouted at her.

"Not funny, Nene," Zuko muttered.

"Sorry," Akane apologised.

"Stupid turtle duck. Why she'd do that?" Zuko asked.

"Zuko. That's what moms are like," Ursa replied as she wrapped her arms around Akane and Zuko. "If you mess with their babies," Ursa joked as she playfully bit between the two kids. "They're gonna bite you back."

The trio laughed as Zuko stayed locked in his mothers embrace. After a few moments, Akane gently pulled away so they could have their moment. Even though Ursa was practically Akane's mother, she still felt like she was a part of something that she shouldn't be.

"You were mean to the momma duck. That's what you get for doing what Azula does," Akane pointed out.

Zuko sighed, "Now I feel bad. I didn't mean to hurt her."

"I'm sure you can apologise to her. Here, I'll get them to come back," Akane offered as she took a loaf of bread and gently ripped it into tiny pieces, so the ducks could eat them.

Soon enough, the turtle ducks returned and quickly ate the pieces of bread that were in the pond. While they were distracted, Akane carefully bent over and picked up the turtle duck that Zuko had thrown the piece of bread at. Since Akane always had a way with animals, the turtle duck didn't fret when the young girl took her from the water.

"How'd you do that?" Zuko asked.

Akane shrugged as she gently handed the turtle duck to Zuko, "They just love me. Now apologise."

"I'm sorry I threw the piece of bread at you, turtle duck. It won't happen again," Zuko apologised.

"Now put her back into the water," Akane instructed and Zuko did as he was told.

"How are you so good with animals?" Zuko asked his friend.

"I dunno. They love me, I love them. I don't throw bread at them, they don't bite my ankle," Akane replied.

Zuko pouted at her, causing Akane to laugh. It was so easy to rile Zuko up sometimes and although she didn't do it in a way his sister did, Akane still found it fun to mess with Zuko.

"Why don't the three of us head off to the barn? I'm sure the animals would love a visit from you, Akane," Ursa suggested.

Akane grinned, "I'd love to!"

After that, the threesome made their way towards the barn, so they could see the animals. Even though the barn didn't have the most exotic animals, Akane still loved visiting them and often dragged Zuko for the ride too. At one point, the trio walked passed the royal yard where Azula was playing with Mai and Ty Lee near a man-made river and a rather large fountain. While Mai sat and watched under the shade of a tree, Azula did a complicated flip but messed up the ending and grunted as she landed on the ground, causing Akane to laugh. Ty Lee then did the same flip, only she completed the ending perfectly and landed on her feet, with her arms stretched proudly in the air. Not happy with her friends display, Azula pushed Ty Lee over and laughed as she did so.

"Ugh! Azula!" Ty Lee whined as she got up, although she didn't appear to be that affected by Azula's actions.

As she sat underneath the tree, Mai caught the sight of Akane walking nearby. Mai never understood why Zuko spent so much time with that other girl, since she hardly seemed desirable with the way Azula spoke about her. When Mai caught the sight of Zuko beside her, Mai smiled as she turned away and blushed. Noticing Mai's obvious crush on her brother, Azula turned to Ty Lee with a plot in mind.

"Watch this!" Azula whispered to Ty Lee as her friend giggled before running towards her mother, Akane and Zuko. "Mom! Can you make Zuko play a game with us? We need equal teams to play a game!"

"I am not cart-wheeling. And I won't do anything with you if you're going to leave Akane out," Zuko replied.

"You won't have to," Azula stated as she rolled her eyes. "Cart-wheeling's not a game, dum-dum. And your little friend can join us as well if she has to."

"I don't care. I don't want to play with you! And neither does Akane!" Zuko exclaimed as he wrapped his arm around Akane who nodded in agreement. After the incident almost a year ago when Azula burned her hands, Akane always tread lightly around Azula and was only with her if Zuko was there too.

"We are brother and sister. It's important for us to spend time together! And this could be a chance for Akane and I to get to know one another better. Don't you think so, mom?" Azula said with a sickeningly sweet smile.

"Yes, darling, I think it's a good idea for you and Akane to play with your sister," Ursa agreed as she placed one hand on Akane and Zuko's shoulder.

"But you said you would take us to the barn," Zuko pointed out.

"We can go later. Go on now, just for a little while," Ursa said before she walked away, leaving Akane and Zuko both glaring at Azula.

Once all five kids stood together, Akane shot Zuko a nervous glance as Azula whispered something to Ty Lee. Zuko did his best to reassure Akane that everything would be fine, but even he didn't know that since Azula was always up to no good. Azula then reached for an apple on the tree that Mai was under earlier.

"Akane, you stand there and Zuzu, you stand there," Azula instructed them.

"What game is this?" Akane asked, since she didn't know any games that involved an apple.

Azula huffed, "I was getting to that. Here's the way it goes. Now, what you do is, try to be the first one to catch the apple after I throw it in the air."

Azula then threw the apple high up in the air while Akane and Zuko both looked at each other before charging towards one another. Once the apple started to descend, Azula shot a small jet of flame to the apple with her firebending and burned it on the spot. With nothing to catch and no time to stop, Akane and Zuko went colliding into one another and landed on the ground in one tangled heap.

"That's what you get when you play games with a peasant," Mai drawled, shooting Akane a disdainful look.

Akane groaned as she shifted Zuko's weight off of her. Once he was on his feet, Zuko offered his friend his hand – which she took – before he felt something shoved against his back which caused him and Akane to fall into the fountain together. This time, Azula, Mai and Ty Lee laughed as Akane and Zuko struggled to sit up straight.

Azula laid a hand on Ty Lee's shoulder, "See, I told you it would work!"

"Don't you think Zuko would look better in there with Mai?" Ty Lee asked.

"Definitely," Azula replied.

Once she got up, Akane struggled to get out of the fountain, nearly tripping over the ledge as she did so. Fuelled by her anger, Akane stormed towards Azula, ready to give the princess a piece of her mind.

"You're a bully, you know that Azula?" Akane asked.

Azula laughed, "What makes me a bully?"

"Well, you're rude, you're bossy, you threaten people and you're just not nice!" Akane exclaimed.

"I'm better than you," Azula boasted.

Akane narrowed her eyes angrily at the younger girl, "Just because you're a pretty little princess doesn't mean that you can walk around like you own the place! Ugh, you're just the worst!"

"So I'm pretty and the worst?" Azula clarified, knowing that it would upset Akane even more.

"Why do I even try?" Akane asked to no one in particular before she angrily stalked off, leaving Zuko behind as he got out of the fountain.

"Your friend should really learn some manners, Zuzu. She's hardly worthy of staying here with an attitude like that," Azula said.

"I don't know what you see in her," Mai added.

"Well Akane doesn't push me into the fountain!" Zuko exclaimed as he stormed off after his friend, who was already way ahead of him.

Once she was far enough away from Azula, Akane angrily sat down as she tried her best to dry her clothes, already feeling the water in places where it shouldn't be. Soon enough, Akane was joined by Zuko who sat down next to her.

"Your sister is such an… ugh!" Akane snapped angrily.

Zuko sighed, "We should've known better than to get in with Azula's stupid games. Those always end badly."

"I don't even know how she has friends," Akane muttered.

"Come on, let's get dried off and see if mom will still take us to the barn," Zuko suggested as he pulled his friend up.

"That would be better than any of Azula's games," Akane agreed.

The two headed towards the house where at that moment, Ursa came out from the house towards the duo with a scroll of paper in her hand before she spotted them. Their wet appearance didn't go unnoticed by Ursa.

"Why are you two soaking wet?" Ursa asked.

"Azula pushed us into the fountain," Akane replied as she shot a glare at the princess over her shoulder.

Ursa sighed, "Oh. Well, you two can get dried off now and then we'll meet in the main room shortly."

"Why?" Akane questioned.

"I just so happen to have a letter from someone who I'm sure you'd both love to hear from," Ursa answered as she held out the scroll of paper.

Akane and Zuko grinned at each other as they excitedly exclaimed, "Uncle Iroh?"

Ursa laughed, "Yes. Now, go get cleaned up and I'll read it to you shortly."

"Alright! I'll race you, Nene," Zuko challenged his friend.

"You're on!" Akane accepted before dashing off ahead of Zuko.

Ursa smiled fondly as she watched her son and the girl who she always thought of as a daughter race off against one another. It always warmed Ursa's heart to see the affect that Akane had on Zuko, since not many people brought out Zuko's soft side but Akane was one of the few who could do that. Ursa knew that they would both have a special friendship for as long as they lived, and Ursa was grateful for that.

~*•°•*~

Once they had both cleaned up, Akane and Zuko met with Ursa where much to their disappointment, Azula was too. With her children peering anticipatingly over her shoulder, Ursa unrolled the scroll before she started reading the letter from their uncle.

"Greetings, family. I hope that you are all doing well, just like how everything is over here. As I'm sure you're aware of, we only recently broke through the outer wall of Ba Sing Se and are well and truly on our way to succeeding in our great march of civilisation. Although I have only laid my eyes on the outer wall, I must say it is truly a sight to be seen. If the city is as magnificent as its wall, Ba Sing Se must be something to behold. I hope you all may see it someday, if we don't burn it to the ground first!" Ursa read Iroh's letter.

Akane, Azula and Zuko all laughed at Iroh's last joke. Ursa gave them a small smile before she continued down the letter, "Until then, enjoy these gifts."

Three servants dressed in white came up, and Akane and Zuko ran up to meet them. Ursa remained seated and continued reading, "For Zuko, a pearl dagger from the general who surrendered when we broke through the Outer Wall. Note the inscription and the superior craftmanship."

Zuko picked up the dagger admiringly, unsheathing it as he read the inscription, "Never give up without a fight."

One of the servants then turned to Akane, who carefully opened the box as Ursa told her what was inside of it, "As for his friend, Akane, I leave her with an elegant bracelet made from the finest jeweller in Ba Sing Se. Take notice of the beautiful crystal encrusted bezel forged from the city's most signature traits."

"It's beautiful," Akane swooned as she admired the jewellery in her hands.

"And for Azula, a new friend. She wears the latest fashion for Earth Kingdom girls," Ursa finished.

As Ursa read, Azula picked up her present which was a doll wearing green. Azula picked it up by the head with disgust, making sounds and sticking out her tongue.

"If Uncle doesn't make it back from war, then dad will be next in line for Fire Lord, wouldn't he?" Azula asked.

Akane looked at Azula in horror, "Why would you say that?"

"Azula, we don't speak that way. It would be awful if Uncle Iroh didn't return. And besides, Fire Lord Azulon is a picture of health," Ursa reprimanded her daughter.

"How would you like it if cousin Lu Ten wanted dad to die?" Zuko asked.

"I still think our dad would make a much better Fire Lord than His Royal Tea-Loving Kookiness," Azula muttered as she set the dolls head on fire.

"What did that doll ever do to you?" Akane questioned.

"Exist," Azula answered.

"Azula, you do not treat a gift that way. Uncle Iroh gave that to you for you to play with, not to burn it," Ursa scolded her daughter.

Azula scoffed, "If he really wanted to give me a good gift, he would've given me something like that knife or that bracelet. Why waste a perfectly good gift on someone like Zuzu and then this one who isn't even related to him?"

Ursa glared at Azula, "Young lady, we do not speak like that. Go to your room and think about what you've done."

"Fine, mom," Azula conceded as she strode out the room.

Ursa shook her head as she followed her daughter out the room, deciding that she needed to have a few words with her about how she treated Akane and Zuko. It always worried Ursa how little her daughter seemed to care for them, but lately Azula had been taking it to the extreme and Ursa had decided that it was time Azula accepted that Akane would be staying at the Royal Palace, just like Zuko was her brother.

"Can you believe her?" Zuko asked once his mother and sister left the room.

"I can. Azula's always been like that. She must've been dropped on her head one too many times," Akane replied.

Zuko laughed, "That would be fun to watch. Hey, why don't you grab your other dagger and we can have our own little showdown?"

Akane grinned, "That'd be epic!"

Laughing as they did so, the pair of friends ran throughout the palace halls without a care in the world. If only they knew that that would be one of their last moments like that.

Chapter Text

Once Zuko had gotten his dagger from Uncle, he and Akane spent whatever time they could having little fights with one another. Of course, they were always careful not to hurt one another. They were currently running around the palace gardens as they engaged in another one of their battles, laughing joyously as they did so. Azula sat by herself as she watched her brother and his friend with disdain. How was it that little Zuzu was able to get along better with that other girl than his own sister? Why did Akane get more attention from Ursa than Azula could ever dream of? Azula shook her head at those thoughts, refusing to acknowledge them. She had always seen Akane as below her, and just assumed that people only treated her better out of pity. Yes, that had to be it.

Azula watched as Akane and Zuko yelled happily together. It wasn’t fair that Zuko got to have all of his fun and games. What made Zuzu so worthy of that luxury over Azula? He was behind both her and Akane in his training which was arguably pathetic. The fact that he couldn’t even keep up with two girls who were younger than him always amused Azula. Granted, Akane was only a few months younger than Zuzu but still. Suddenly, a devious lightbulb went off in Azula’s head as she thought of another plan to mess with her brother and his pathetic friend. The one good thing about Akane was that she was always easy to rile up, just like Zuzu was.

Carefully, Azula got up from her seat and snuck behind the tree near where Akane and Zuko were playing. The young princess made sure that her intended targets did not spot her. One thing her father always told her was that the best way to catch your opponents was with the element of surprise. It was time for Azula to put what she’d learned into practice. When she was confident they’d be caught off guard, Azula jumped out from the tree and used her firebending to create a giant cloud of smoke, which easily caught Zuko off guard while Akane was able to react faster. The sudden intrusion caused Zuko to stumble back a bit before he tripped over a nearby log, landing flat on his butt against the tree which caused a stack of bark to fall on his head.

Azula laughed at her brother’s misfortune, “Poor Zuzu. Always on the wrong side of luck.”

Zuko glared at her, “Not funny Azula.”

“Then why am I laughing?” Azula asked.

“Because you’re sick!” Zuko exclaimed before noticing that Akane was struggling to stifle back a few laughs. “Akane! You’re supposed to be on my side.”

“I am. If you could see yourself right now though, even you would admit that you look funny,” Akane admitted.

Azula grinned with satisfaction, “See, even she agrees with me.”

“I thought Akane’s opinion didn’t matter to you?” Zuko asked.

Azula shrugged, “Obviously you wouldn’t admit that you looked hilarious, so I need someone to back me up.”

“You two are going to pay for that!” Zuko declared as he stood up.

“Oh, I’m so scared,” Azula mocked before running off.

Akane grinned sheepishly at Zuko, “Uh, sorry?”

“Too late for apologies, now Aka!” Zuko exclaimed before chasing after his friend and his sister.

The three children proceeded to run around the palace grounds, all laughing as they did so. Even Azula seemed to be enjoying herself with Akane and Zuko, despite what she thought of them. As they passed Ursa who was sitting in front of the fountain as a messenger approached her with a scroll. Ursa opened the letter and read it to herself, its contents causing tears to stream down her face. Ursa’s sudden change of appearance didn’t go unnoticed by Akane who haltered in her chase as she stared at Ursa, concerned.

“What’s wrong?” Akane asked as Azula and Zuko joined them.

Ursa turned to the three children as she revealed the devastating news, “Iroh has lost his son. Your cousin Lu Ten did not survive the battle.”

Zuko seemed shocked and saddened by the news of the loss of his only cousin, while Azula hardly reacted at all. Akane hung her head down sadly. Even though she had only met Lu Ten a hand couple of times, she still cared a lot about him and she knew that Zuko did to. Akane could only begin to imagine how Iroh must be feeling now that he’d lost his only child, which was every parent’s worst nightmare. Zuko shook his head before running off inside the palace with Ursa following him behind.

“That’s so sad,” Akane muttered to no one in particular.

Azula still heard her and scoffed, “Please. I’ve heard sadder stories than that.”

Akane glared at her, “How could you say that? He was your cousin!”

“Yeah, was. It’s not like I saw him much anyways. That’s life for you, people live, and people die every day. Get used to it,” Azula said.

“You’re a horrible person!” Akane hissed before storming away from the young princess.

Azula scoffed, “She needs to remember who she’s speaking to.”

With that, the Fire Nation Princess went off to do her own thing, away from her irritating family members who she sometimes wished would just go away and never come back. At least then she’d be happy.

~*•°•*~

A few days had passed since the news of Lu Ten’s death was announced. Since then, Akane had picked up on a strange vibe at the palace, but she didn’t say anything to anyone. There was a tense feeling in the air, with a mix of something else that just didn’t sit right with the young firebender. Zuko had been upset after he found out about Lu Ten’s death but was able to cheer up after some help from Akane and Ursa. It was obvious that Ursa and Zuko were grieving over him, but what Akane didn’t understand was how Azula and Ozai hardly seemed to care at all. There were just some things about this family that confused Akane, but it was the only family she ever knew.

Today Zuko seemed to be doing better, since he was running around in the Royal Palace with his dagger that he got from Uncle as Akane and Azula sat nearby. At one point, Zuko faked his death, dramatically falling to the floor with a groan. Azula rolled her eyes at her brothers display while Akane laughed to herself.

“You waste all your time playing with knives. You’re not even good!” Azula taunted.

“Put an apple on your head and we’ll find out how good I am!” Zuko challenged as he spun around to glare at his sister.

“Let’s not go throwing knives around,” Akane suggested, not wanting them to get in trouble since knowing Azula the young princess would most likely pin the blame on them and get away with it.

Azula ignored Akane, “By the way, Uncle’s coming home.”

“Does that mean… we won the War?” Zuko asked uncertainly.

“No, it means Uncle’s a quitter and a loser,” Azula replied harshly.

“What are you talking about? Uncle’s not a quitter!” Zuko exclaimed.

“Oh, yes he is! He found out his son died, and he just fell apart!” Azula mocked her uncle as she spun around a nearby pole before resting against it. “A real general would stay and burn Ba Sing Se to the ground, not lose the battle and come home crying.”

“How do you know what he should do?” Zuko asked angrily. “He’s probably just sad his only kid is gone. Forever.”

Akane nodded, “You should learn to be a little less heartless.”

Azula rolled her eyes at Akane’s comment and was about to make a remark that wouldn’t have sat well with the other girl until Ursa appeared in the doorway.

“Your father has requested an audience with Fire Lord Azulon. Best clothes, hurry up!” Ursa ordered hurriedly.

Zuko ran past Ursa quickly to get ready, while Akane stood awkwardly where she was and Azula walked rather slowly.

“Fire Lord Azulon…” Azula trailed off in a bored tone. “Can’t you just call him ‘grandfather?’ He’s not exactly the powerful Fire Lord he used to be. Someone will probably end up taking his place soon.”

“Young lady! Not another word!” Ursa scolded Azula as she ran past her mother and left the room. “What is wrong with that child?”

I’ve asked myself that question too. Akane thought.

“Um, Ursa. What should I do?” Akane asked

Ursa sighed, “I’m afraid this is a family only meeting, Akane.”

“Oh. I’ll just go to my room then,” Akane muttered.

For some reason, it hurt Akane that she wasn’t considered family, even though she technically wasn’t. Akane had been around long enough to be a part of their lives. However, only Iroh, Ursa and Zuko treated her like family. Everyone else just treated her like she was some washed up peasant who didn’t belong there. That hurt Akane, but she was used to it by now.

~*•°•*~

That night, Akane laid in her bed as she wondered what could have been possibly going on in this meeting. It had to have been important since Akane wasn’t even invited although she attended most of their gatherings. Part of Akane was glad she wasn’t there, since Fire Lord Azulon scared her but she still wished she could know what was going on. Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she hopped off her bed before heading out of her room and towards the Fire Lord’s chamber.

As long as nobody spots me, I’ll be fine. Akane thought.

Eventually, Akane reached the secret entrance that lead to the Fire Lord’s chamber since she would not have been able to go through the main one. Carefully, Akane entered the chamber that she had only been in a few times and hid behind the curtains, so she wouldn’t be spotted. Akane could see Fire Lord Azulon sitting in his throne as the fire surrounded him, while Ozai, Ursa, Zuko and Azula sat on the floor some distance away from him.

“And how was it Great-Grandfather Sozin managed to win the Battle of Han Tui?” Ozai asked.

“Great-Grandfather won… because…” Zuko trailed off confusedly.

Azula took that as an opportunity to upstage her brother, “Because even though his army was outnumbered, he cleverly calculated his advantages. The enemy was downwind and there was a drought. Their defences burned to a crisp in minutes.”

“Know-it-all,” Akane muttered so only she could hear it.

“Correct, my dear. Now, would you show Grandfather the new moves you demonstrated to me?” Ozai asked.

Azula stood up and moved up. She began with some circular motions, warming herself up, and started her firebending. Akane watched in slight awe as Azula performed fairly complicated moves with ease, finishing off her routine with a jump and a powerful fire blast towards the throne, before landing on her feet gracefully. If she was being completely honest, Akane wasn’t that far behind Azula in regard to her training but there was no way she’d be able to perform the moves that Azula did with such ease.

“She’s a true prodigy! Just like her grandfather for whom she’s named,” Ozai stated.

“Suck-up,” Akane muttered quietly to herself.

As Azula walked back to her seat, the young girl glanced at Akane’s direction and narrowed her eyes. Panicking, Akane shut the curtains to keep herself from being spotted. Once she was certain she was in the clear, Akane peered through the curtains again and saw Azula lean closer to Zuko as she whispered something to her older brother which seemed to upset Zuko as he angrily stood up and declared, “I’d like to demonstrate what I’ve been learning.”

This isn’t going to be good. Akane thought. It wasn’t that she didn’t have enough faith in Zuko, he just tended to mess up when he put pressure on himself and there was no doubt that Zuko would be feeling the pressure to upstage his arrogant sister.

Zuko started off well, doing the same circular motions that Azula did just before. He managed to produce a small fire blast, which didn’t seem to impress anyone. When Zuko tried to create another one, he fell. Zuko got back up and tried again, only to fall harder this time. Akane cringed as she saw Ursa get up and approach Zuko.

“Oh, Zuko,” Akane whispered sadly, feeling sympathetic for her friend.

Akane couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it seemed like Ursa was giving Zuko some much needed encouragement. It also seemed like Fire Lord Azulon was quickly getting impatient.

“Prince Ozai, why are you wasting my time with this pomp? Just tell me what you want. Everyone else, go!” Azulon ordered.

At that moment, Akane debated on if whether or not she too should return to her room since the meeting appeared to be over, but there was something that held Akane back from leaving even though she wanted to.

“Father, you must have realised as I have, that with Lu Ten gone, Iroh’s bloodline has ended. After his son’s death, my brother abandoned the siege at Ba Sing Se, and who knows when he will return home. But I am here, father, and my children are alive,” Ozai began.

“Say what it is you want!” Azulon demanded and Akane nodded in agreement, wondering what Iroh and Lu Ten had to do with this.

“Father, revoke Iroh’s birthright. I am your humble servant, here to serve you and our nation. Use me,” Ozai implored.

Akane had to shut her mouth to keep the gasp in that was threatening to escape. Iroh had just lost his son, Ozai’s nephew and all Ozai cared about was seizing power for his own selfish gain? Akane really shouldn’t be surprised though, since she knew how cold and heartless Ozai could be at times. It just upset her that Ozai could be so insensitive towards his own family, which Azulon actually seemed to agree with as the flames around him began to grow.

“You dare suggest I betray Iroh? My first born? Directly after the demise of his only beloved son?” Azulon roared, sending a wave of fear through Akane. “I think Iroh has suffered enough! But you… Your punishment has scarcely begun!”

After Azulon’s outburst, the flames around him shot up which only meant that he was feeling extreme anger towards his younger son, which Akane would understand. Akane desperately wanted to get out of there, fearing that she’d hear something she wouldn’t want to. Only she couldn’t. Her feet remained planted on the ground as she stood there frozen on the spot, unable to bring herself to move.

“Father, what is it that you want me to do?” Ozai asked.

“It is clear that you have no sympathy for Iroh, which is a shame since he is your brother. That clearly does not matter to you. By asking me to revoke Iroh’s birthright, you have committed treason against your brother. That being said, your punishment must fit your crime. Perhaps it might even make you a little more sympathetic,” Azulon started.

“I am willing to do anything I can to redeem myself in your eyes, father. Please, tell me what it is I have to do,” Ozai said.

“Since you clearly have no feelings for Iroh’s loss of Lu Ten, you must know the pain of losing your own first-born son. By sacrificing your own,” Azulon ordered.

Akane clasped her hands over her mouth to prevent a gasp from escaping as tears threatened to spill from her eyes. Zuko… Azulon wanted Ozai to kill Zuko. Akane wanted Ozai to be punished for his actions, but not like this! This was more of a punishment on Zuko, since Ozai clearly didn’t care about his first-born son and Akane wouldn’t be surprised if he happily got rid of him.

Ozai rose to his feet, “I understand, father. I will do my best to uphold your wish.”

That… jerk! Akane thought as Ozai left the room without another word.

Never before had Akane felt so much anger, fear and sadness all at once. Azulon wanted Ozai to kill Zuko. And Ozai was going to do it! Akane had to do something. She refused to let Ozai kill Zuko. He’d have to kill her too if that’s what he wanted.

But what could she do? There was nobody who could help Akane in this situation. By telling someone, she’d have to reveal that she had spied on a private meeting which could easily get her in trouble. Akane could just tell Zuko, and the two of them could run away so they’d be safe from Ozai. Neither one would be safe here anymore after tonight. There was no way Akane could stop this on her own.

Ursa! Akane realised.

All Akane had to do was tell Ursa what was happening, and she had no doubts that Ursa would stop at nothing to protect Zuko. Unlike Ozai, Ursa actually cared about her children and Akane knew there was nothing Ursa wouldn’t do to stop this. Akane knew that she had to act fast. There was no way that Akane was going to let Zuko die. Not on her watch.

Chapter Text

As soon as Akane left the Royal Chamber, she immediately headed off in search of Ursa. Akane wasn't sure how much time she had left before Ozai did what Azulon ordered him to, so she knew she had to act fast. Just the thought of what Ozai was going to do was enough to scare Akane to her core. She needed to stop this, and Ursa was the only one she knew that would even be willing to help her. When Akane arrived at Ursa's room, she was surprised to find the room vacant before immediately heading off in search of the older woman. Akane refused to go to bed until she told Ursa what was going on. For Zuko's sake as much as her own.

Eventually, Akane found herself alone in one of the corridors of the Royal Palace. She was just about to turn around and head off in the other direction when she heard two muffled voices behind one of the doors. Carefully, Akane tip-toed her way to the door and pressed her ear against it and her eyes widened as she recognised the voices that belonged to Ozai and Ursa.

"Ozai! You can't do this!" Ursa exclaimed.

"I have no choice. Refusing the Fire Lord's command is treason. But I am a merciful man. I'm waiting until he falls asleep. He won't feel a thing," Ozai responded.

Akane's face paled when she realised that they were talking about Azulon's order. Then Akane started to wonder how Ursa had found out about that. Ursa wasn't there, right? So how could she possibly know what Azulon wanted Ozai to do? What astounded Akane the most was how easily Ozai was giving into his order, not even caring that he was about to kill his own son. But after living at the palace for as long as she has, Akane shouldn't be surprised that Ozai would be so willing to do something like that. Akane just hoped that Ursa would be able to put a stop to this.

"You listen carefully. I'm going to make you a deal," Ursa pleaded.

"You have nothing I want," Ozai stated.

"You want the throne," Ursa said.

"Go on," Ozai urged.

"I know how to make a poison that is colourless and odourless, completely untraceable. It causes a person to pass quietly, as if he'd simply fallen asleep. I'll give you a vial of it in exchange for Zuko's life. Once the poison is in your hands, you do whatever you wish," Ursa explained.

"Just where did you learn to concoct such a substance?" Ozai asked.

"My mother was a master herbalist," Ursa replied.

"Very clever, dear wife. Very clever," Ozai murmured.

After that, Akane struggled to hear the rest of Ozai and Ursa's conversation until their voices became clearer once again.

"…I will hunt you all down. Just like I did with your precious boyfriend," Ozai threatened.

"Leave Ikem out of this!" Ursa exclaimed.

"It's not like it matters anymore, Ursa. After all, Ikem has now been wiped from existence. If you really loved your children and that brat you hold so close your heart, you'll leave them be," Ozai said.

Akane's eyes widened as she listened to the rest of their conversation. Why would Ozai want to hunt them down? This whole situation was becoming more and more dire by the minute. The sound of footsteps approaching the door caught Akane's attention and she quickly darted away from the door before hiding behind the nearby curtains. She watched as Ozai exited the room and waited a few moments before rushing inside, catching Ursa by surprise.

"Akane, sweetheart, what are you doing here?" Ursa asked fearfully.

"Zuko's in trouble, Ursa! Ozai is going to kill him because Azulon wants him to," Akane explained.

Ursa sighed, "I know, sweetheart. I know. But how do you know this?"

Akane avoided Ursa's gaze, "I sort of snuck inside the chambers for your meeting with Azulon. Once you all left, Ozai asked for Iroh's birthright to be taken away. Azulon got angry and ordered him to kill Zuko. He can't kill Zuko, Ursa!"

"You shouldn't have done that, Akane. Now you're in trouble too," Ursa scolded her.

"I didn't mean to. I was just curious," Akane muttered.

"Listen to me carefully, Akane. I'm going to take care of this mess. When you wake up tomorrow, everything will be just like it's supposed to be," Ursa promised.

"What are you going to do?" Akane asked.

"I'm going to protect you, Azula and Zuko. You three are my entire world. I won't let Ozai hurt any of you. I just need you to do something for me, Akane," Ursa said.

"What?" Akane questioned.

"I need you to go to your room now and get some sleep. Once this is all cleared up, you won't have to worry about anything ever again. Just promise me you will not tell Zuko any of this," Ursa ordered.

Akane nodded, "I will, Ursa. You can count on me."

Ursa smiled, "I know I can, Akane. Now go to your room."

Before doing just that, Akane wrapped her arms around Ursa and buried her head into her chest. Ursa quickly wrapped her arms around the child with Akane failing to notice the tears falling down the woman's face. Once they'd hugged, Ursa lead Akane out of the room before going off to do what she said she would. One thing for sure was that after tonight, nothing would ever be the same again.

~*•°•*~

It was late at night when Akane awakened in her room. The sound of shuffling footsteps interrupted her from her restless sleep. Akane rubbed her eyes to get a better view of what was going on when she saw Ursa standing at her door.

"U-Ursa?" Akane murmured tiredly.

Ursa stopped in her tracks and slowly turned around, catching sight of Akane on her bed, "Akane, you must go back to sleep."

"Why? What's happening?" Akane asked.

Ursa sighed, "I have to leave now, Akane."

"Can I come with you?" Akane asked.

"No, you cannot. I need you to stay here and watch over Zuko. Your friendship has always been special to him, and I know that it will continue to be especially after I leave," Ursa replied.

"Why do you have to go?" Akane questioned, her lip trembling.

"It is what's best. Just remember Akane, be true to yourself no matter what and that I will always love you," Ursa pleaded.

Tears started to fall from Akane's eyes as she realised what was happening. Ursa was leaving her, and she wasn't coming back. This wasn't what Akane wanted to happen. Ursa wasn't supposed to leave her. She was supposed to stay here, with her and Zuko.

"Y-you can't leave," Akane cried as she flung her arms around Ursa.

"I don't want to leave, Akane but I must," Ursa soothed the young girl as she gently rubbed her back.

"Please, don't leave me momma," Akane pleaded, before she could even stop herself.

That was enough to break Ursa's heart more than it already was. In all honesty, Ursa had always thought of Akane as her own daughter from the moment she met her, and it touched her more than Akane would ever know for her to think that way. It only made leaving her behind even harder than it already was.

"I'm sorry, baby girl but I have to go. It's better for you all if I'm not here. Just promise me you won't forget me and that no matter what, you will stand by Zuko's side. He's going to need you more than ever once I'm gone," Ursa said.

"I could never forget you, momma and Zuko will always be my best friend," Akane reassured her.

Ursa smiled as she wiped the tears away from her face, "Thank you for being you, sweetheart. You've made my time here better than it could've possibly been without you. I'll never forget you, Akane. I love you."

"I love you too, mom," Akane said.

"I have to go now, just please be safe, Akane. I'll always be with you," Ursa said before she lifted the hood over her head and left Akane's room, shutting the door behind her.

Once Ursa left her room, the dam finally broke and the tears started falling down Akane's face. Akane knew fully well that without Ursa around, nothing would ever be the same, but it was something that she'd have to learn to deal with. Finally, Akane cried herself to sleep with her last thoughts of Ursa and how much she loved her.

~*•°•*~

Hours later, Zuko awoke with a start as he quickly glanced around his room for any signs of his mother. He just had the strangest dream where she had come into his room and told him to never forget who he was. Almost as if she was saying goodbye to him.

"Mom?" Zuko asked as he looked around before jumping out of his bed. "Mom? Mom!"

She can't be gone. She can't. Zuko thought.

Looking everywhere he could think of, Zuko searched around the palace in the hopes of finding his mother only to find no sign of her. As desperation started to set in, Zuko yelled loudly for his mother, hoping that this was just some game and that she was just playing a joke on him with Akane. But when there was no sign of his mother, Zuko's hopes started to dwindle as his fears became reality.

Eventually, Zuko ran into one of the main rooms of the palace hoping more than anything to find his mother there, only to find Azula who was the last person Zuko wanted to see right now.

"Where's mom?" Zuko asked desperately.

"No one knows. Oh, and last night, Grandpa passed away," Azula replied nonchalantly, almost as if she didn't care at all about what she was saying as she twirled Zuko's knife around.

Zuko noticed his knife in his sister's hand and glared at her, "Not funny, Azula! You're sick. And I want my knife back."

Zuko lunged forward to grab his knife, grunting as he missed when Azula dodged his attempt before mocking him, "Who's going to make me? Mom?"

At that, Zuko's eyes widened before he dashed forward and grabbed the knife from Azula's hand as she dangled it in a tantalising manner. Zuko ran away from his sister with his knife in hand and ran off in search of Akane, hoping that his mother was just with her. He found Akane crying at the bottom of the main stairwell as she clutched onto her favourite toy that Ursa had given her for her birthday years ago.

"Akane, I can't find mom!" Zuko exclaimed.

Zuko immediately stopped in his tracks when he noticed the tears falling down Akane's face. Something had to be wrong because Akane hardly ever cried, only if she was really hurt or upset.

"Where's mom?" Zuko asked.

"I d-don't k-know," Akane choked out as she buried her face into her hands to muffle her cries.

Eyes widening, Zuko took off once again hoping more than everything that his mother would just come out and surprise him. Zuko eventually found his father in the garden as he stared at the pond where Zuko and his mother always fed the turtleducks.

"Where is she?" Zuko asked, almost pleadingly only for his father not to acknowledge him and continue to stare at the pond in front of him.

When Zuko got no response form his father, Zuko bowed his head in defeat with his shoulders slumping as he did so. His fathers silence and Akane's tears was enough to confirm what Zuko feared the most.

His mother was gone.

Chapter Text

Things had changed drastically since Ursa left the Fire Nation. The obvious change was Azulon’s death and Ozai’s declaration as Fire Lord, a position which he had held ever since. As for Akane and Zuko, their friendship had become closer than ever now that they only had each other to rely on. In that time, Akane noticed how withdrawn Zuko had become since Ursa’s disappearance. Her friend rarely smiled or joked around like they used to when Ursa was still there, and that only added more to Akane’s pain since there was nothing that she wanted more than to have Ursa with them. Their family really had never been the same since that night, since Ozai became more cold towards Akane and Zuko while Azula became more conniving and mean to them without Ursa there to scold her.

The only comfort that they had was in the form of Iroh, who had returned almost a month after his father and son’s death. Despite Iroh still recovering from the loss of his own son, he had welcomed Akane and Zuko with open arms knowing that they would need the support that Ozai wouldn’t give them. Akane had always liked Iroh, since he was nice to her and told delightful stories that were always fun to listen to. In a way Iroh had filled the void that had been left behind by Ursa, but Akane knew that nothing would ever replace the woman who had always been like a mother to her.

It always felt like there was a dark cloud hovering above their heads that never seemed to go away. For a brief time, Akane had hoped that Ursa would soon return from wherever it was she had gone to but as the weeks rolled into months and those turned into years, Akane had accepted that Ursa was never coming back and that their lives would never be the same again.

Now, at twelve-years-old Akane had spent eleven years at the Royal Palace and she often found herself wondering where it was that she had come from, even more so after Ursa left. It was a common feeling for Akane to feel like an outsider in the palace, despite having lived there for pretty much her entire life. Whenever Akane asked about where she had come from, it was always the same answer: she had been abandoned by her family and Ozai adopted her into the Royal Family. For the most part, Akane never really questioned the story but as she got older, Akane realised just how inaccurate it sounded just based on the fact that Ozai hardly seemed like the kind of person who would take an abandoned child in out of the goodness of his heart.

There were many times when Akane just wished that she had never left her original home because of the harsh treatment she often received. Azula was always sure to remind Akane of her place and use her power against her, which made Akane feel inadequate. The addition of Mai and Ty Lee certainly didn’t help either, since Mai was always cruel to her for whatever reason while Ty Lee just never said anything. The one time where Akane felt at peace with herself was when she’d firebend, and that was something she’d always known. It was almost like she was in a different world when she bended, without any worries or concerns.

Late at night, Akane was practicing her bending in one of the training rooms after a tough day. Something just made today awful for Akane, so she decided to firebend to make herself feel better. Akane never firebended with the intent of using it against someone, only because of the way it made her feel inside. She had just finished performing a rather advanced set of moves when she heard the sound of someone clapping lazily from the doorway. Akane inwardly groaned when she saw Azula standing there with a smirk on her face, which coming from Azula meant she was up to no good.

“What do you want, Azula?” Akane asked.

“I just heard a noise from outside, so I came to see what was going on, only to find you in your natural habitat,” Azula replied.

Akane raised an eyebrow, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Azula shrugged, “You’re always training in here. Don’t you have anything better to do? Though, I guess you need as much help as you can get.”

“I’ll have you know that I’m not that far behind you in training,” Akane snapped.

Azula laughed, “And I’m a ten-year-old girl while you’re twelve and you’re not even on the same level as me? You’re just as pathetic as Zuzu.”

“Zuko’s not pathetic. You shouldn’t say that sort of stuff about your brother,” Akane defended her friend.

“When has that ever stopped me from messing with Zuzu?” Azula asked.

“Right, I forgot because you’re a demented psychopath,” Akane quipped.

Azula glared at her, “Do I need to remind you of where you stand in this place, Akane? I’d hate to have to go tell my dad, the Fire Lord how mean you’re being to me.”

“Still hiding behind daddy dearest, are you?” Akane asked.

“Don’t talk about my father that way. I can easily have you kicked out of here without a second thought. How would poor Zuzu cope without his only friend to keep him company?” Azula threatened.

“At least Zuko doesn’t have to scare people into being friends with him,” Akane retorted.

“You’re really digging yourself a hole, aren’t you Akane? Just be careful of what you say because I know things, Akane. Things that you wouldn’t want people to know,” Azula said.

“What could you possibly know about me?” Akane asked, somewhat curious since there wasn’t really much for Azula to know about her.

“More than you think I do, Akane. I could use it against you at any moment and nobody would hesitate to throw you out of here after that. Though, I’m still surprised that you’ve managed to stick around for as long as you have,” Azula replied.

“Maybe I’m not as hated as you think I am,” Akane said.

Azula laughed cruelly, “Ha, who could possibly like you apart from Zuzu, Uncle Fatso and mother? She’s gone anyways so you only really have two supporters left. It’ll only be a matter of time before they get tired of you and don’t want you around anymore. Then you’ll finally be out of my hair and I can do as I please without you to stop me.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying, Azula. Iroh and Zuko would never abandon me. They’re my friends,” Akane argued.

“Didn’t mother abandon you? That’s because she couldn’t stand to be around you anymore and since father wouldn’t kick you out for whatever reason, she left,” Azula said.

“You’re lying! Ursa loved me, just like I loved her. You’re just jealous she never loved you the way she loved me and Zuko!” Akane declared.

“I’m done wasting my time with you, peasant. Just remember my warning Akane,” Azula proclaimed before leaving Akane to herself.

Once Azula was out of the room, Akane let out a growl of frustration before unleashing a powerful blast of fire. Azula never ceased to give up an opportunity to make Akane’s life miserable, especially since Ursa left. Akane knew that Azula was lying about Ursa, since she knew why the woman had left two years ago. She just wished that Ursa could be with them now, instead of wherever she was.

“Why’d you have to leave, momma?” Akane whispered sadly.

With nothing better to do, Akane decided to head off on her own and wander around the palace since Zuko had already gone to bed and she didn’t want to disturb him. Before she even realised it, Akane had ended up getting herself lost as she found herself in a room that wasn’t hers. There was hardly anything inside of it, except for a shrine with various characters written on it and a large poster with the Fire Nation insignia on it.

“What’s this?” Akane asked curiously as she stepped inside the room.

Instead of focusing on the shrine, Akane found her attention fixated on the large poster of the Fire Nation insignia that stood above it. Without even realising what she was doing, Akane lifted up her hand and firebended at the symbol. Only once the poster shifted to the right did Akane snap out of her daze and widen her eyes in shock when she saw a set of stairs that descended into darkness.

After a moment of hesitation, Akane climbed into the passageway and headed down the stairwell. She wasn’t sure what she would find at the end of the stairs, but Akane was curious enough to investigate on her own. When Akane reached the bottom of the stairs, she found herself in another room lit up by a single braiser in the centre. There were all sorts of items from all four nations which Akane had never seen before and right at the back of the room was a large chest.

“What is this place?” Akane wondered as she walked towards the chest.

Having lived in the palace for practically her entire life, Akane was well aware that it had many secret rooms hidden beneath its walls and Akane figured that she’d just accidently stumbled into one. Inquiringly, Akane examined the chest in front of her and hesitated for a moment before she lifted its lid open. Inside were many pieces of paper folded up and with her curiosity getting the best of her once again, Akane pulled out one of the pieces of paper and read its contents, her eyes widening as she did so.

Ikem, I know it has only been a few months since I left but there is not a day that goes by when I do not think of you, my mother, my father and everyone else that I once knew and loved. Life as a member of the Royal Family is incomparable to what I grew up with. I miss the freedom of our youth, the time that we spent together. I wish that I could go back and change what happened, but even then, there is nothing that could’ve been done to prevent this from happening. Just remember that Ozai will never be the man that you are, and my heart will always belong to you Ikem. Love always, Ursa.

By the time Akane finished reading the letter, tears started welling up in her eyes as she recognised Ursa’s writing. That wasn’t the only thing she recognised, though. The name ‘Ikem’ rung a bell before Akane remembered the conversation she overheard between Ozai and Ursa on the night she disappeared. His name had been mentioned and Akane saw nothing of significance to it until now. This ‘Ikem’ person was someone that Ursa knew, someone that Ursa loved who she had left behind just like Ursa did with her.

This left a dozen questions going through Akane’s mind. There was so much she wanted to know but would most likely never find out. Akane was too busy thinking about the contents of the letter she just read to notice another presence join her in the room until she heard their deathly deep voice.

“My, my. What do we have here? A little brat sticking her nose in places where it doesn’t belong it would seem.”

Letting out an audible gasp, Akane fearfully turned around to come face to face with the man she was afraid of the most: Fire Lord Ozai. Ozai stared disdainfully at the girl in front of him before his eyes widened as he noticed the opened chest and caught the sight of the piece of paper in her hands.

“What did you just read?” Ozai asked.

“N-nothing,” Akane stuttered.

“Do you really think you’re in any position to defy me, you insolent brat? Now, tell me what you just read,” Ozai ordered.

“A l-letter f-from Ur-Ursa,” Akane stammered.

“Why would you read that, Akane? Didn’t you know it’s a crime to read another person’s mail?” Ozai questioned.

“Shouldn’t you not have it then?” Akane rebuffed.

Ozai glared at her, “Do not question me, you little miscreant. I am the Fire Lord, so I have every right to read whatever letter I want. Especially if it’s from my dear wife to her precious boyfriend.”

“W-who’s Ikem?” Akane asked, realising that he was Ursa’s so-called ‘boyfriend’ but she still wanted to try her luck with finding out more than what she knew now.

“Just some treacherous dog who I wiped from existence. You wouldn’t want to end up like him now, would you?” Ozai threatened.

Akane’s eyes widened in fear, “N-no.”

“Then consider this a warning, Akane. Ursa might not be around to protect you anymore but unfortunately you are still useful to me, so I cannot get rid of you just yet. As long as you are staying under my roof, I will not tolerate any sort of treason like this. Now it’s time for you to suffer the consequences of your own foolishness,” Ozai declared.

“Please, don’t! I’ll do anything! I’ll forget I ever came here!” Akane begged.

“Begging will get you nowhere, child. It only makes you more pathetic than you already are,” Ozai sneered.

Before Akane could react, Ozai pulled out some sort of cloth and forcefully placed it over her mouth. Akane could only let out muffled screams before she eventually lost consciousness and was left to her fate at the hands of the man in front of her.

~*•°•*~

The moment Akane opened her eyes, she was welcomed by an excruciating pain that shot through the right side of her stomach. Akane winced in agony as she rolled over, wondering what on earth had happened to make her feel such pain. The last thing Akane remembered was going down that passageway, reading the letter and then… Ozai. He had showed up, and he must have done something to her for her to end up like this.

Carefully, Akane glanced down at her stomach and her eyes widened as she noticed the singed fabric on her training gear and the bandages that were wrapped around her stomach. It didn’t take long for Akane to piece together what had happened before she flung her head back and let out cries of pain. Of all the things, Akane never expected Ozai to do something so horrible but really, she shouldn’t be surprised given the fact that he was so eager to kill his own son.

Soon enough, Akane was joined by one of the nurses who was instantly by her side when she noticed the young girl was wide awake.

“Miss Akane, you’re awake!” the nurse exclaimed.

“W-what happened?” Akane asked, even though she already knew the answer.

“You accidently burned yourself after training last night. You’re lucky that Fire Lord Ozai found you when he did, otherwise these burns would have been much worse,” the nurse explained.

“Worse?” Akane questioned.

The nurse sighed, “I’m afraid this is going to leave a scar behind, my dear. Just what were you thinking by doing what you did?”

“I… wasn’t thinking…” Akane grumbled.

“Clearly you weren’t. The scar will eventually heal overtime, but it will remain permanent for the time being,” the nurse explained.

Akane sighed, “Oh. T-that’s alright.”

Suddenly, another figure appeared in the doorway and Akane’s eyes widened in fear once again when she saw Ozai standing there. At that moment, she so badly wanted to storm up to him and demand he tell her what he did. But Akane wasn’t stupid, and she didn’t want a death wish either.

“Fire Lord Ozai!” the nurse exclaimed as she bowed before the Fire Lord. “What brings you here?”

“I was just checking on Akane to make sure she was okay. You are excused for now, nurse,” Ozai dismissed her.

Bowing as she did so, the nurse got up from her feet and left Ozai in the room alone with Akane who was obviously avoiding his gaze. Silence filled the room until Akane eventually broke it.

“What did you do?” she asked hesitantly.

“I merely taught you a lesson about sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong. For your sake, you better remember this for any future circumstances,” Ozai replied.

“There won’t be,” Akane mumbled.

Ozai nodded, “Good. I’m glad to see that you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Why are you here?” Akane questioned warily.

“I am here to make sure that what happened last night is never repeated from your lips again. If I ever find out that you told anyone about last night, a little burn will be the least of your worries,” Ozai threatened menacingly.

“What am I supposed to tell people then?” Akane asked.

“Nothing. I have already told everyone that you were taken ill last night and will be recovering for a few days. The nurses are under the impression that you’re so embarrassed by your foolishness that you don’t want anyone to know about your scar. The only people who will know about your scar is you, me and the nurses,” Ozai explained.

“What if somebody finds out?” Akane questioned nervously.

“Then I’ll deal with them appropriately. If you were smart, Akane you would do your best to make sure that nobody ever finds out about last night. Am I clear?” Ozai said.

Akane nodded, “Crystal.”

“Good. I’ll leave you to ponder your actions then,” Ozai declared before leaving Akane alone once again.

Once Ozai shut the door behind him, Akane buried her face into her hands as she silently cried to herself once again. In hindsight, Akane wished that she’d never set foot in that room since all it did was lead to more questions and consequences that she never saw coming. Akane’s life had changed once again that night, and whether it was for the best or not was yet to be discovered.

Chapter Text

Ever since that fateful night when Ozai left Akane physically and emotionally scared, she had an obvious fear of the powerful Fire Lord. True to her word, Akane had never repeated what happened that night to anyone. The only people who really knew what happened was Akane and Ozai, since as far as the nurses were aware Akane had done that to herself. It was hard for Akane to keep this secret from Zuko, since she always told him everything but Akane knew that it was better if nobody knew about her scar. For Akane, that meant that she could no longer wear short shirts or anything that would reveal her stomach, since it would only lead to questions that Akane couldn't answer.

It was hard for Akane to admit it, but she never felt safe at the palace anymore, especially after what Ozai did to her. Then again, she hadn't felt safe at the palace since even before Ursa left. Now, Akane rarely ever wondered around the palace by herself for fear of what would happen to her if she was by herself. The only time Akane ever truly felt safe was when she was with Iroh and Zuko, who had never made her feel uneasy and always treated her as if she was one of their own.

Currently, Akane was waiting outside Zuko's room as he was eager to show her something that required her to stand there patiently as her friend did Agni knows what in his room.

"Can you hurry up and show me what you want to show me already? I've been waiting out here for almost ten minutes!" Akane complained.

"Just a minute!" Zuko called out.

"This better be worth the wait," Akane muttered.

Soon enough, the door to Zuko's room pushed open and Akane waited to see what her friend had install for her. Akane's eyebrows raised when she saw Zuko wearing some sort of warrior's uniform that she'd never seen him wear before. He looked so formal and just not himself.

"Don't you look all spiffy," Akane complimented him as she ruffled his hair.

Zuko brushed her hand away, "Stop that. I can't have my hair being all messy."

"Why? What's with that outfit anyways?" Akane asked.

"There's a war meeting today and I want to go to it," Zuko replied.

"Are you even allowed to go in there?" Akane questioned nervously, not wanting her friend to get in trouble.

"I'm the Crown Prince, so I should be able to get in there with no problem. Besides, it's about time that I started getting into the politics and stuff, since I will be Fire Lord one day after father steps down," Zuko explained.

Akane stiffened at the mention of Ozai. Any time his name popped up in conversation, Akane always had a sickening feeling build up in her stomach. Just the thought of that wretched man made her feel sick. It pained her to see Zuko speak up of his father with such admiration, since his father hardly ever did the same for him and especially after what Ozai did to her.

"Are you sure you want to go in there? It's probably just some boring meeting where they talk about old people stuff," Akane dismissed it, cringing when an old general walked passed them and shot a glare her way.

"Even if it is, this is something that I need to learn if I'm going to follow in my father's footsteps. I might not be as talented and strong as he is, but I can still make up for it in there," Zuko said.

Akane frowned at Zuko, not liking it whenever her friend put himself down like that. It was bad enough that his father and sister did it to him on a day-to-day basis, but him doing it to himself was no better. Zuko had always felt inadequate in the eyes of his father and sister, but Akane firmly believed that her friend was ten times the person that they were. It was just a shame that Zuko never believed it himself.

"Well, if you really want to go, then you should," Akane reluctantly agreed.

"Hey, why don't you come with me?" Zuko suggested.

"Um, I doubt the Fire Lord would approve of me stepping foot in his private chambers. Besides, I'd much rather take a nap than sit in some boring meeting," Akane replied.

Zuko snorted, "You sound like my Uncle."

Akane grinned, "I'll take that as a compliment."

"Come on, don't you want to see how all of the cool battle strategies are planned and what really goes on in there? Plus, we'd be able to beat Azula at being the first to sit in on one of those things," Zuko implored.

"You know I don't really care about that stuff, Zuko. It's not something that concerns me," Akane pointed out.

"You just don't want to be proven wrong about the meeting not being boring," Zuko argued.

Akane rolled her eyes, "You know that doesn't work on me."

"Please, Nene. Come with me. I'll feel a lot better if you're in there with me," Zuko pleaded.

Akane sighed, "Fine, I'll go."

"Great, let's go then!" Zuko exclaimed.

Before Akane could say anything else, Zuko grabbed his friends hand and dragged her towards the war chamber. When they reached the door, there were two guards standing beside it as the other generals walked inside. But when Akane and Zuko tried to go inside, they were blocked by the guards standing in front of the entry.

"Let us in!" Zuko ordered.

"Clearly we're not wanted here so why don't we just go have a nice cup of tea?" Akane suggested, wanting nothing to do with this.

"This is not the time for tea!" Zuko exclaimed.

"There is always a time for tea," a familiar voice chimed in.

Akane grinned as she saw Iroh heading towards them, "Iroh!"

"Prince Zuko, what's wrong?" Iroh asked his nephew as he put his arm around him once he saw the frustration on his face.

"Akane and I want to go into the war chamber, but the guards won't let us pass!" Zuko exclaimed as he pointed at the guards in front of them.

"I want no part of this. I'm only here as a hostage," Akane added.

Iroh gestured for Akane to follow him as he guided Zuko away, "You guys aren't missing anything. These meetings are dreadfully boring."

"That's what I tried telling him," Akane drawled.

Zuko ignored her as he spoke, "If I'm going to rule this nation one day, don't you think I need to start learning as much as I can?"

"Very well. But you must promise not to speak," Iroh warned him as another elder soldier walked by them and into the war chamber. "These old folks are a bit sensitive, you know?"

Zuko bowed to his uncle, "Thank you, Uncle."

The threesome then made their way into the war chamber, and even though she was escorted by Iroh, Akane was still surprised that they had been able to enter the room without any fuss. Now Akane just had to make it through this meeting without messing anything up.

~*•°•*~

As Akane expected, the meeting was flat out boring. Nothing seemed too interesting for her liking, although Zuko seemed to be fascinated as the generals planned their battle strategies. This sort of stuff had never entertained Akane the way it did to Zuko, which was one of the few differences between them. At one point, the generals started discussing plans on how to use their forces more effectively in the Earth Kingdom when Akane started to tune in.

"The Earth Kingdom defences are concentrated here," General Bujing stated as he showed the place on the large map in front of them. "A dangerous battalion of their strongest earthbenders and fiercest warriors. So, I am recommending the forty-first division."

"But the forty-first is entirely new recruits," another general butted in. "How do you expect them to defeat a powerful Earth Kingdom battalion?"

"I don't. They'll be used as a distraction while we mount an attack from the rear. What better to use as bait than fresh meat?" Bujing proposed.

Akane was horrified at his suggestion. Those were their soldiers; their people and he was just so willing to sacrifice them after everything they do for their nation? Just the thought of it made Akane's skin crawl. In that moment, there was nothing more that Akane wanted to do than to give General Bujing a piece of her mind, but she restrained herself from doing so knowing that it would only mean getting herself into trouble.

That didn't stop someone else from speaking out, though.

"You can't sacrifice an entire division like that! Those soldiers love and defend our nation! How can you betray them!" a voice shouted from above them.

It wasn't just any voice though. It was Zuko's. Akane stared at her friend in shock, completely baffled that he had the guts to do that. She wasn't the only one who was shocked though, as the other generals glared at Zuko, save for Iroh who was kneeling behind his nephew. Quite frankly, the generals seemed pissed off and clearly offended by Zuko's outburst. A sinking feeling started to grow in Akane's stomach as she feared for the consequences of her friend.

The generals weren't the only ones angry at Zuko's outburst as the flames that surrounded the Fire Lord suddenly started to grow larger by the second. Akane had only ever seen the flames like that once before and she knew that whatever the outcome was wouldn't be good for Zuko.

It was safe to say he had messed up big time and it didn't look like Zuko was going to get out of this scot-free.

~*•°•*~

"Please, Zuko. Don't do this!" Akane pleaded with Zuko as he prepared himself for the biggest moment of his life so far.

Soon after Zuko's outburst at the meeting, the Fire Lord had been quick to deliver his punishment. By disrespecting the General in the way he had, Zuko had spoken out of turn at the wrong place and certainly at the wrong time. As a result, Zuko had been ordered to fight in an Agni Kai the following day which had since been the talk of the whole Capital City. Anyone who was anyone would be there to watch the young prince duel for his own rights.

"I have no choice, Akane. I can't back down," Zuko declared.

"This is crazy. You're crazy! I can't believe you would be so stupid and challenge the general like that! Iroh told you not to speak out of turn and you still did anyways!" Akane exclaimed.

"I couldn't just sit back and let them betray our people like that! Even you said you agreed with me!" Zuko argued.

"You still should've just kept quiet because then you wouldn't be in this situation!" Akane yelled.

"Why is this such a big deal, Akane? All I have to duel is duel the old general. Do you really not have that much faith in me?" Zuko asked.

Akane sighed. It wasn't that she didn't have faith in Zuko. On paper, Zuko should be able to win this duel no problem considering he had his power and youth on his side. Akane just worried for Zuko, since she didn't want him getting hurt in any way.

"You know I have faith in you, Zuko. I just don't want you to get hurt," Akane murmured.

"I know, and I appreciate your concern, Aka. But this is something I have to do. This is my chance to finally prove myself to my father," Zuko proclaimed.

Realising that there was no point in arguing against Zuko, Akane just sat back and watched agonisingly as he got ready for his duel. Iroh was also in the room with them, but the whole time he had just sat quietly in the corner with an uncertain look on his face. It was that look that made the sick feeling in Akane's stomach even worse as she feared for Zuko's safety.

Once Zuko was ready, he stood proudly in front of the mirror as Akane stood by his side and linked her arm with his supportively. Even though she had full faith for Zuko, she still wanted to be there for her friend.

"You look good," Akane complimented him to ease his nerves.

"Hopefully my performance will match it," Zuko added.

"It will, I believe in you. But Zuko, can you promise me that you will be fine? I can't afford to lose you too," Akane pleaded.

Zuko smiled, "You don't have to worry about me leaving you, Nene. You're stuck with me for good."

"I never complained about that," Akane pointed out. "Though, I did complain about the nickname."

Zuko chuckled, "You'll always be Nene to me."

A sombre silence filled the room as Akane and Zuko stood opposite each other. Akane didn't want to let Zuko leave this room, but she knew there was nothing she could do to stop him from acing the duel.

"I should get going," Zuko said.

Akane nodded, "You should. Good luck, Zuko."

"Thanks, Akane. I'll be looking for you in the crowd," Zuko said.

"I'll be cheering for you so loud you won't even have to look for me," Akane added.

As his nephew and the girl he always saw as a daughter said their final words, Iroh watched quietly from the corner he was in. It seemed as though the gravity of the situation hadn't fully dawned on them yet and Iroh had his own fears about the duel but for other reasons of his own. This was something that he didn't have the heart to break to the two children and he could only hope that his nephew would make it out of this in one piece.

~*•°•*~

The time had come for Zuko's duel to begin and Akane took her place next to Iroh in the front of the crowd. In all honesty, Akane was somewhat surprised by the amount of people who were actually there given the fact that it was only the day after the duel had been issued but she figured that word travelled fast around here. Akane wasn't surprised to see Azula and Captain Zhao up front as well, knowing their dislike towards Zuko. What surprised Akane was that Ozai wasn't sitting with them as well.

"Come to watch Zuzu make a failure out of himself, have you?" Azula asked as Akane sat down next to her.

Akane glared at her, "Zuko will be just fine. I have faith in him. Just like you should have in him."

"I wouldn't even bet on Zuzu if he was fighting an amateur," Azula scoffed.

"He's just duelling the old general. Zuko should have this won with no problem," Akane said, more to herself than to Azula.

Azula smirked, "Really? If you say so."

"Hush, girls. The duel is about to begin," Iroh ordered.

"I'll speak if I want to speak," Azula huffed.

"Are you alright, Akane?" Iroh asked once he saw the terrified look on the girl's face.

Akane sighed, "I'm just worried. I have confidence in Zuko, but I can't help but fear for the worst."

Iroh tightly gripped her hand, "Everything will work out in the end."

"You're such an optimist, Uncle," Azula commented.

"Is there anything wrong with that?" Akane asked impatiently.

"You'll find out soon enough, Akane. Maybe then Zuzu will think twice before he speaks," Azula replied.

Akane resisted the urge to fire back another comment at Azula, knowing that things would most likely escalate into something worse between them. Something about what Azula was saying just seemed to unsettle Akane. It was almost like the other girl knew something that she didn't, which was mostly always the case with Azula. Akane would worry about that later as right now, she had something more important to focus on.

Finally, it was time for the duel to begin and Akane cheered loudly for Zuko as he stepped out into the arena before getting into his opening position. Surprisingly, there wasn't that much noise going around the arena which Akane didn't quite understand but then again, this was the first official Agni Kai that she'd ever watched. Eventually, Zuko's opponent stepped out onto the ring and Akane glanced forward as she noticed the figure heading towards Zuko hardly seemed to resemble the one of the General that Zuko had spoken out against.

As Zuko's opponent stepped closer and his body came into view, Akane gasped in horror as she realised the mistake that they had made. Only now had it dawned on Akane that by speaking out of turn in the Fire Lords war room, it was actually the Fire Lord who Zuko had disrespected which meant only one thing.

Zuko would have to duel his own father.

Chapter Text

Time seemed to stand still as Ozai revealed himself to his son. When Zuko realised it was his father who had come to duel him, he was more terrified than he had ever been in his entire life. This was not what Zuko had been expecting. He had fully anticipated facing off against General Bujing, not his own father. In one split second, Zuko’s confidence had plummeted straight to the ground and rightfully so. His father was famously renowned for being the most powerful firebender in the world, even surpassing his uncle. How on earth was Zuko supposed to overcome these odds stacked against him?

Zuko glanced in the crowd, hoping to find Akane and his uncle. Sure enough, they were seated in the front row along with all of the other important people who had showed up to watch the duel. His stomach dropped when he saw the terrified look on Akane’s face. She looked as scared as he’d ever seen her, and his uncle had the most downcast look on his face, like he had seen this coming. He wasn’t the least bit surprised that Azula wore a satisfied grin on her face, while Captain Zhao had a similar look as well.

Over in the stands, Akane watched in horror as the scene played out in front of her. Never before had she been so terrified in her life, not even when she was cornered by Ozai himself that year ago. This wasn’t looking good for Zuko, and part of Akane couldn’t even bring herself to watch this knowing that it wouldn’t turn out alright regardless of the outcome, yet she still couldn’t bring herself to look away.

“This can’t be happening,” Akane whispered repeatedly to herself as she blinked several times, hoping nothing more than to un-see what was in front of her. Much to her despair, everything still remained the same and all Akane could do was hope with every fibre of her being that Zuko would survive this battle.

As his father advanced towards him, the fear inside Zuko multiplied with each beat his heart made. He could see the fear on Akane’s face and he knew that she was terrified for him. He had promised her that he would make it out of this okay, so Zuko knew that he had to survive this. Not just for himself, but for Akane as well. Although Zuko had to admit that he had no idea how he was going to survive this battle unscathed. In that moment, Zuko just did the first thing that came to his mind.

He got on his knees and begged for mercy.

“Please father, I only had the Fire Nation’s best interests at heart! I’m sorry I spoke out of turn!” Zuko apologised profusely in a desperate attempt to defend himself. His father, however continued his advance towards his son.

“You will fight for your honour!” Ozai ordered, not the slightest bit affected by his son’s pleading.

“I meant you no disrespect,” Zuko pleaded as he gazed up at his father, tears shimmering in his eyes as his voice started to waver. He no longer cared if he looked pathetic, Zuko just wanted to survive this, if not for his sake but for Akane’s. “I am your loyal son.”

“Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!” Ozai yelled as he grew irritated with his son’s defiance.

Zuko bowed once again as he pleaded to his father, “I won’t fight you.”

“You will learn respect,” Ozai declared as he reached his son who was now starting to shake as tears streamed down his face. “And suffering will be your teacher.”

Akane’s eyes widened in fear as Ozai raised his hand at Zuko and she whispered, “No. Please don’t.”

Despite how desperately she wanted to close her eyes, Akane’s attention remained fixated on the scene in front of her. All that could be heard throughout the room was Zuko’s scream of agony as his father unleashed a powerful blast of fire at his face. Soon, Zuko started to writhe in pain as his cries of pain echoed throughout the room. Eventually, he fell face first onto the ground in one lump with his body sprawled out as blood surrounded him. Akane didn’t need to be a doctor to know that this wasn’t good, this was horrible. What made it worse was that nobody did anything, they just sat there while Ozai towered over his son’s unconscious body.

Devastated for her friend’s pain, Akane lunged forward over the railing as she screamed out Zuko’s name, tears falling down her face. Akane had never felt so many emotions building up inside of her before, mainly anger, sadness and despair. Iroh forcibly held onto the young girl, knowing that whatever she did would only make things worse.

“Let me go, Iroh!” Akane yelled desperately.

“No, Akane! Please remain seated,” Iroh pleaded with the young girl.

“Zuko needs me! I have to go, please!” Akane screamed as tears fell down her face.

“Shh, my dear. Everything will be alright,” Iroh soothed Akane as he held onto her.

“No, it won’t!” Akane wailed.

Albeit Iroh’s best efforts, Akane remained in her catatonic state as she feared for her friend’s survival. No matter what happened after today, Akane would never be able to rid her mind of what she just witnessed, despite how much she wished she could. Akane could only imagine how Zuko would feel when he woke up.

~*•°•*~

Hours had passed since Zuko’s duel with Ozai. Word had quickly spread of the injuries Zuko had sustained under his father’s wrath. Of course, there were all sorts of rumours about his condition, rumours that Akane wished more than anything wouldn’t be true. Akane was currently waiting with Iroh outside of Zuko’s room as they were eager to find out the prince’s condition. After what felt like an eternity, a nurse finally stepped out with a rather sombre look on her face and that only made Akane fear the worst.

“Is Zuko okay?” Akane asked desperately.

“He’s… stable. But unfortunately, the wounds he sustained from his duel will be permanent. He can only rest to help ease the pain,” the nurse explained.

A slight sob escaped Akane’s mouth as she buried her face into Iroh’s robes.

“Can we see him?” Iroh asked hopefully.

“You may, but please be gentle with him. He should be awake soon so just be patient,” the nurse replied.

Gently, Iroh pulled Akane away from him and lead her into the room where Zuko was. When they walked inside, they saw Zuko lying unconscious on the bed with a bandage wrapped around his left eye. Just the sight of her friend in that condition broke Akane’s heart. She then felt a pit of rage build up inside of her knowing that it was his own father that had done that to him. Zuko’s face and his life would never be the same again, all because of his father.

“Oh, Zuko,” Akane murmured sadly.

“My nephew, you did not deserve this,” Iroh whispered.

“I can’t believe this,” Akane muttered as she crawled to Zuko’s side, her eyes shimmering with tears at her friend’s current state.

“He will never be the same again after this. But perhaps that is for the best,” Iroh mused.

“How could it be for the best? He’s just been burned by his own father! Now he has a mark that he never deserved which will probably stay with him for the rest of his life, all because of his douchebag of a father!” Akane angrily exclaimed.

“Calm down, Akane. Getting angry will not solve any problems, it will only make the situation worse. There is nothing we can do,” Iroh said.

“This is all my fault,” Akane muttered.

“How is that so?” Iroh asked.

“I never should’ve let him go in that stupid room. I should’ve stopped him from speaking up when I knew that he would’ve. I should’ve tried harder to convince him not to go through with the duel,” Akane rambled.

“Akane, there is nothing that you could’ve done to prevent this from happening. If this wasn’t going to happen now, it was going to happen soon enough. But just like everything that happens in the world, it happened for a reason. Whatever is the reason will be discovered on our own,” Iroh comforted her.

“Hasn’t Zuko been through enough already? He’s already lost his mother and even up until now things haven’t been easy. He doesn’t deserve this,” Akane said.

“No, he doesn’t. But the universe always has a plan for everyone. Some people struggle more than others, but they end up coming out triumphant in the end. I’m sure it will be the same for Zuko,” Iroh reassured her.

“I just wish I could take the pain for him,” Akane whispered to herself.

Suddenly, Zuko started to stir in his bed and Akane watched attentively as her friend regained consciousness. When he did, only Zuko’s right eye was open as his other one was bandaged up. Akane smiled for the first time since the duel at the sight of her friend, but it soon morphed into a frown as she saw the pain he was in.

“W-what happened?” Zuko asked groggily.

“You mean you… don’t remember?” Akane clarified.

“Remember what? Why does my eye hurt so much? Why can I only see from my right eye?” Zuko questioned as he lifted his hand to touch his eye, eyes widening as he felt the bandage around it. “Why is my eye covered? I can’t be like this before my duel!”

Iroh sighed sadly, “Zuko… Your duel already happened.”

“It did?” Zuko asked confusedly.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Akane questioned nervously.

“I just remember getting ready for my duel. Everything after that is just one big blur. Did I win my duel?” Zuko replied.

“Unfortunately, you didn’t,” Iroh said.

Zuko looked dumbfounded, “What? How could the general have possibly beat me?”

“Zuko, we got it wrong. It wasn’t the general you faced. You spoke out against his plan, but you did so in the Fire Lord’s war room…” Akane trailed off, not wanting to finish her sentence.

Zuko’s good eye widened, “You mean… I faced off against my father?”

Akane nodded sadly, “I’m so sorry Zuko.”

“D-did I… Did I at least get a blow in?” Zuko asked.

“No, the moment you saw him you begged for mercy. He didn’t take any of it, and then he did… that to you,” Akane replied.

Zuko’s good eye widened again as the realisation dawned on him. In that moment, Zuko remembered what he had been missing as the duel played back in his mind. He had just face off against his own father and lost. His own father had just burned him. No wonder his eye felt so bad.

“I can’t believe it. My own father…” Zuko muttered.

“Neither can I,” Akane added. “Zuko, I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? You’re not the one who burned me,” Zuko replied.

Akane grimaced, “I just feel like I could’ve stopped this. Like it’s my fault.”

“You shouldn’t be sorry, Akane. You were the one who got me through that duel,” Zuko reassured her.

“Really? Besides, if anyone should be sorry it should be Ozai,” Akane hissed.

“Yeah…” Zuko trailed off glumly, still struggling to comprehend what his father had just done to him.

There was suddenly a knock at the door, which Iroh went to answer while he left the children to themselves. Iroh shut the door behind him and was now carrying a rolled-up scroll in his hands which caught Akane and Zuko’s attention.

“What’s that?” Akane asked.

“It’s a message from Fire Lord Ozai,” Iroh replied.

“What does it say?” Zuko questioned, a twinge of hopefulness in his tone.

Iroh unrolled the piece of paper and read its contents to Akane and Zuko, “As a result of his actions in the Agni Kai against Fire Lord Ozai, Prince Zuko has shown shameful weakness and has lost his honour. Therefore, by decree of Fire Lord Ozai, Prince Zuko is hereby banished from the Fire Nation and may only return once he has captured the Avatar. Only once that is completed may he return with his honour.”

Once Iroh had finished reading the scroll, a downcast silence filled the air as the news sunk in. Iroh sighed sadly as he rolled up the scroll, not one bit surprised by the news they had just been delivered. Akane felt nothing more than sympathy for her friend, who just wore a blank expression on his face once Iroh had finished delivering the news. Zuko was usually someone who wore his heart on his sleeve, so for his expression to be as stiff as it was, Akane knew that he had to be deeply affected by this news.

Akane gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze, “Zuko, are you okay?”

“What do you think? I just got burned and now I’m banished for life!” Zuko exclaimed agitatedly.

Akane flinched slightly, since Zuko rarely ever raised his voice around her so this was something she wasn’t used to, and something that she didn’t like to see from her friend.

“Prince Zuko, maybe you should take some time to –“ Iroh began before he got cut off.

 “I’m not a prince anymore so why should I be called that?” Zuko exclaimed.

“Zuko, please listen to us,” Akane pleaded.

“I don’t want to listen to what you have to say! Just leave me alone!” Zuko yelled.

“Don’t be like this, Zuko,” Iroh scolded him.

“Just let us help you,” Akane added desperately.

“What could you possibly do to help me? Neither of you understand how I’m feeling and you never will!” Zuko hissed.

“Don’t shut us out, Zuko. We want to help you,” Akane pleaded.

“I don’t want your help! Just leave me alone you annoying wretch!” Zuko yelled as he turned his back to them, his words not wavering.

The tears that were once falling down Akane’s face resurfaced once again at Zuko’s outburst while Iroh gasped at his nephew’s cold words. Never before had he heard his nephew say anything like that and it was disappointing to see. Iroh gently grabbed Akane’s hand and lead her out the room, carefully shutting the door behind them. It pained him to see the two children he held so dearly to him like this. He just wished there was something he could do.

“Are you alright, Akane?” Iroh asked.

Akane sniffed, “Not really. But it’s my fault, again. I shouldn’t have made him snap like I did. I should’ve just taken the hint and left.”

“You were just trying to be a good friend,” Iroh comforted her.

“But I wasn’t really being one, was I? Just like I wasn’t when I didn’t defend Zuko or stand up for him because I was too scared for my own safety,” Akane said.

“You were in no position to argue with Ozai. Even if you had, nothing would’ve changed. It probably would’ve made things worse,” Iroh reasoned.

“Now Zuko hates me,” Akane muttered.

“I’m sure he doesn’t hate you. I just think he needs some time to take this news in. I’m sure he’ll apologise when he comes to his senses,” Iroh said as he patted her shoulder gently.

“I’m just going to go to my room,” Akane murmured, brushing Iroh’s hand away.

Iroh watched sadly as Akane slowly walked away. He could hear the sniffles escaping her as she did so, which didn’t make the situation any better. For their sake, Iroh wished that his nephew and his dear friend would sort this out and go back to the way things were. But despite his best wishes, Iroh knew that things would never be the same after this.

~*•°•*~

Instead of going to her room like she said she would, Akane headed off in search of Fire Lord Ozai. Under any circumstances, Akane would stay as far away as she could from that man. But this was different. She wasn’t just going to sit by this time while he ruined Zuko’s life. Akane might be afraid of Ozai, but she cared about Zuko more and would do anything for her friend, even if he wasn’t exactly happy with her right now.

Eventually, Akane found Ozai in his study. He didn’t seem the least bit affected by his actions but Akane had learned not to be surprised by Ozai’s coldness. At first, Ozai didn’t notice Akane enter the room until she made her presence known and he glared at her once he saw who was there.

“What do you want?” Ozai asked impatiently.

“To talk to you,” Akane replied, trying her best not to let her nerves show.

“Let me take a guess, it’s about my son, isn’t it?” Ozai questioned.

Akane nodded, “Yes, it is. How could you do that to him? What did Zuko do to deserve that?”

“He should’ve known better than to speak up like he did. Zuko has known for a long time that it is not his place to speak up in. Clearly, he was not paying attention, so I had to teach him a lesson the hard way,” Ozai replied.

“Zuko was speaking his mind, which was the truth! It was a terrible plan, one that I can’t believe you even agreed to. But then again, I shouldn’t be surprised by anything you do anymore after what you did to me,” Akane hissed.

Ozai glared at her, “Didn’t I tell you never to mention that night again?”

“Where’s the harm? It’s not like there’s anyone around to hear me,” Akane retorted.

“You should watch your tongue, young lady. Remember your place here,” Ozai threatened her.

“I have no place here! I’m just some peasant who you took under your wing for reasons that I still don’t understand!” Akane exclaimed.

“My dear, you are more important than you realise,” Ozai said.

“Why? What makes me so special that you’d want to keep me around even after what happened?” Akane questioned.

“You will find out when the time is right, which is not at this moment. Now, do yourself a favour and leave before you say something you might regret,” Ozai warned her.

“I’m not leaving until you overturn Zuko’s banishment!” Akane exclaimed.

“Then I guess we’ll be here for a while,” Ozai stated.

“You’re really going to just let him go like that, your own son?” Akane demanded.

“Yes. He needs to learn his lesson the hard way. Maybe with Zuko gone now you’ll be able to focus on your studies. He always did distract you,” Ozai drawled.

“What makes you think I’m staying here?” Akane asked.

Ozai laughed, “You really think you have the option to leave? Remember, Akane, I control you. I decide what it is you are allowed to do, and it should be clear that you are not allowed to leave with my wretched son. He is the one who is banished, not you.”

“Then banish me too!” Akane screamed.

“I have no reason to,” Ozai said.

“Fine, then I guess I’ll just have to leave on my own terms if you won’t let me!” Akane yelled as she turned around.

Before Akane even reached the door, she felt something tightly grab onto her shoulder and she didn’t even need to look to know that it was Ozai. If she was being completely honest, Akane was surprised by the defiance she showed against the Fire Lord since anyone else would be cowering before the man. But Akane wasn’t like most people. She had had enough of Ozai pushing her around.

“If you leave, you will never find out the answers you want. Don’t you want to know where you came from?” Ozai asked.

“I’ll just have to find out on my own then,” Akane hissed.

“Then you’ll never find out what it is you want to know. It will remain a mystery to you. Unless, of course, you stay here, where you’re supposed to be,” Ozai said.

“I’m not staying here!” Akane yelled angrily.

Ozai growled, “It seems as though I’ve given you too many opportunities. From now on, you will be watched and guarded at all times. Any move you make will be reported back to me. If you even step out of line, you will face the consequences. And I think you already know what I am capable of.”

“So, what, I’m a prisoner now?” Akane asked.

“Not a prisoner, just under watchful eyes. And if I were you, I wouldn’t even think about leaving now since you’re already being watched,” Ozai threatened her.

“You can’t do this to me!” Akane yelled.

“Actually, I can. Now excuse yourself, Akane,” Ozai ordered.

Akane growled as she left Ozai’s study, refusing to look at the man once again. Sure enough, when Akane entered the halls there were guards surrounding her who followed her every move. There was nothing that Akane wanted more than to give them a piece of her mind, but she knew that it wasn’t her place to do so. Once Akane reached her room, she slammed her door shut and jumped onto her bed, with tears falling down her face as she did so.

So much had happened in the past twenty-four hours. So much had changed, and certainly not for the good. There was so much that Akane wished that she could undo, but by now she had come to realise that you can’t always turn back the clock no matter how much you want to.

~*•°•*~

Sometime after Akane entered her room, she had fallen asleep before waking up several hours later in the early morning. When she did open her eyes, Akane noticed a rolled-up scroll lying on her bedside table. Curiously, Akane picked it up and unrolled it before reading it to herself.

Akane,

I want to start this off by saying sorry for what I said to you earlier. I know that you were just trying to help me, and I pushed you away. You did not deserve that, just like I don’t deserve you as a friend. Now that I’m banished, I have to go look for the Avatar and even though it’s probably going to be impossible, it’s what I have to do. I already have a ship ready for me to aid me on my mission, which will definitely come in handy.

Uncle has decided to join me on my quest and by the time you read this letter, we will probably already be on our way to leave. I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to you myself, since I knew that things would get messy, so I thought that it would be better to leave you a letter. I will always remember the good times we shared together, and I hope you do too.

From, Zuko

By the time Akane had finished reading the letter, tears were once again welling up in her eyes. This was not how she imagined her goodbye with Zuko would go, especially since she never even imagined saying goodbye to him to begin with. Before Akane even thought of it, she knew what she had to do. Akane quickly gathered as many personal belongings as she could and stuffed them into one of her bags. Knowing that she would most likely be caught if she left from her room, Akane decided to leave through her window which luckily for her, was only on the first floor of the palace.

When Akane tried pulling the window open, she realised that it had been locked shut which left her with no way out. Thinking quickly, Akane pulled out her dagger and jammed it through the doors until they forcibly broke open. Once they did, Akane crawled out her window with her bag in tow before jumping onto the ground. Luckily, there wasn’t anyone around to see her so Akane quickly fled the palace garden in the hopes of not being caught by any of the guards. She didn’t even want to imagine what would happen to her if she was caught running away.

Finally, Akane reached the palace gates which were obviously guarded but Akane had been around long enough to know how to sneak in and out of the palace which was something that she had done in the past. Akane managed to sneak through her secret passageway that she had made several years ago without being spotted and once she was through, Akane was immediately greeted with an overwhelming sense of freedom. But she wasn’t completely out of the woods yet, since she had to find Iroh and Zuko as fast as she could before they left, otherwise her grand escape attempt would all be for nothing.

~*•°•*~

Thanks to her quick speed, Akane managed to make it to the pier in record timing. For a moment, Akane feared that she would’ve been too late, but luck seemed to be on her side today as she caught the sight of Iroh and Zuko standing far ahead. Grinning as she did so, Akane raced towards them with anticipation and some nervousness, since she wasn’t sure how her appearance would be received.

“Zuko! Wait up!” Akane yelled.

Upon hearing the familiar voice calling his name, Zuko’s head whipped around and he was surprised to see Akane racing towards him. But really, he shouldn’t be surprised that his friend would do something like this.

“Akane, what are you doing here?” Zuko asked.

“What does it look like? I’m coming with you,” Akane replied.

“I didn’t think you would be allowed to,” Zuko admitted.

Akane bit her lip, contemplating on how she was going to respond to that. The way she saw it, Akane had to options. She could either tell Zuko that she was running away to join him, or she could lie about why she was here. If Akane told Zuko the truth, he would try and convince her to stay since he would never pressure her to go with him. Whereas if she lied, Zuko wouldn’t question her one bit.

“After I left your room, I went to speak to Ozai, so I could convince him to let you stay. He didn’t like that one bit, and I may or may not have been what he would deem ‘disrespectful’ to him in the process,” Akane explained.

“So, what happened?” Zuko asked.

“Ozai said that by defending you, I had dishonoured myself and betrayed his loyalty,” Akane replied.

Zuko’s eyes widened, “What did he do to you?”

“Nothing, nothing at all. But it looks like you have a travelling buddy now,” Akane said.

“Ozai really banished you?” Iroh questioned once he put the pieces together, although there were some parts of Akane’s story that didn’t add up.

“Banishment seems to be his favourite punishment, so yes, he did,” Akane lied.

“Then why did he let you remain in the palace? Once he was deemed well enough, Zuko was ordered to leave,” Iroh said.

“He didn’t want me to have the chance to leave with you, since he knew that’s what I would do. But I was able to escape, and I ran here as fast as I could, so I could make it in time,” Akane lied as she avoided Iroh’s glance.

“For what it’s worth, Akane, I’m glad you’re here. Even if it’s not for the best,” Zuko said.

“Me too. I was getting tired of the palace anyways,” Akane added.

Zuko laughed, “Well, it looks like we’re in this together, Akane. But before we leave, I want to apologise for what I said to you. I know that you were just trying to help, and I was just being a jerk about it. Now I really feel like I don’t deserve you after the way you defended me.”

Akane smiled, “It’s what friends do. So, how exactly is this going to work?”

“I was able to get a ship to help me, so that will definitely come in handy. It’s not as big and fast as the other ones, but it’s better than nothing,” Zuko replied.

“If Akane is not supposed to be here, then I suggest we get moving before we cause any problems,” Iroh suggested.

“That would probably be smart,” Akane agreed.

“Let’s go then,” Zuko ordered and they did just that.

As their ship set sail from the Fire Nation, Akane laid in her newly acquired room which was obviously different from her last one. Akane knew that she had potentially got herself into even more trouble by what she had just done, but even now she doesn’t regret anything. No matter what would happen, Akane would always stand by Zuko and she knew that he would do the same for her.

Chapter Text

In the years that followed Zuko’s banishment, a lot had changed. For starters, they now practically lived on a floating hunk of junk as they sailed around the world in search of the Avatar. Akane had seen more of the world than she ever thought she would, and some parts she wished she could just forget since there were definitely some strange parts of the world. One of the biggest changes Akane had witnessed was Zuko’s character all together. Soon after he was banished, he turned cold and bitter, not just to her but to everyone else. He practically never smiled or joked around anymore like he used to, and Akane often found herself longing for those days when everything was so much simpler.

Zuko wasn’t the only one who had changed either, since Akane had also developed more over the years. Akane was now more grown up and mature than she was before, something which she had to develop given the circumstances. Though she still found time to joke around and relax, since she wasn’t as uptight and demanding as Zuko was. Speaking of Zuko, a hard scar now stretched across his face that was pretty much unmissable. It hurt Akane whenever she had to look at it, since she knew how much pain and suffering it had brought on her friend. There were many times when Akane just wished she could go back and time and make it so that they were never put in this situation, but Akane knew that would never be a possibility. The only chance they had of things going back to the way they were was by capturing the Avatar. Even if that happened, Akane still doubted that everything would just be fine.

If she was being completely honest, Akane had doubts that they’d ever even find the Avatar. He had disappeared almost a hundred years ago, so Akane thought that the chances of him randomly showing up somewhere were slim, but she never had the heart to say that to Zuko. Now it was sometimes hard to be around Zuko, since Akane felt like she was walking on eggshells around him since Zuko had become a lot more irritable over the past few years. He was no longer the kind and caring boy who Akane grew up with, he was just an angry and pessimistic shell of his former self who Akane wished more than anything would return.

They were currently travelling through the seas down south because it had been months since they last searched there. Zuko was off doing who knows what while Akane and Iroh were sitting together on the deck as they played a game of cards.. Akane felt comfortable as she sat there with Iroh, dressed in her nice robes which kept her warm in these conditions. Being a firebender was also a bonus. She then heard the sound of footsteps hitting the metal ship behind her, and she glanced around to see Zuko heading towards them.

“Good morning, Zuko,” Akane greeted her friend.

“Would you care to join our game?” Iroh asked.

“I don’t have time for your stupid games, Uncle. I have more important things to do,” Zuko snapped.

Akane rolled her eyes, “Gee, a simple ‘hello’ or ‘good morning to you too’ would’ve been nice.”

Zuko sighed annoyingly, “Hello, Akane, Uncle.”

“That’s better,” Akane smiled approvingly.

“Now, what exactly are we doing down here, nephew?” Iroh asked curiously as he watched Akane make her next move.

“Yeah, why are we in the South Pole of all places?” Akane added.

“The Avatar could be anywhere! We might have checked most of the world already, but that doesn’t mean we can’t check thoroughly for him!” Zuko exclaimed.

“If he’s even still alive,” Akane muttered.

Zuko snapped his head towards her, “What was that?”

Akane sighed, “Nothing. Just go and do your morning orders.”

“And what are you two going to do?” Zuko questioned.

“We’re going to finish our game, which I am going to win,” Iroh answered.

Akane smirked, “I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Iroh. I’m no easy beat.”

Iroh laughed, “That you are, Akane.”

“You two are impossible,” Zuko snapped.

“Some would say the same about you,” Akane said, knowing how some of the crew members thought about Zuko. While she would never agree with them, Akane had to admit that Zuko lived up to his reputation at times.

“Oh yeah, like who?” Zuko asked.

“You should know that I’m no snitch, Zuko. Besides, maybe if you weren’t so uptight all the time they wouldn’t think of you like that,” Akane pointed out.

“I don’t care what anybody thinks of me! I don’t have time to worry about that nonsense. What I need to do is focus on capturing the Avatar,” Zuko declared.

Their conversation was cut short as the boot suddenly shook from side to side for a few moments before steadying itself. Then, a large burst of light shot up into the air which immediately caught Zuko’s attention while Akane and Iroh remained focused on their game.

“Finally,” Zuko muttered before turning to face his Uncle and friend. “Uncle, Akane, do you realise what this means?”

“We won’t get to finish our game?” Iroh replied calmly as he placed down another card.

Zuko turned back around to face the light, “It means my search is about to come to an end.”

Akane groaned, “Why do you always have to be such a party pooper, Zuko?”

Zuko gestured to the beam of light as he turned to face the pair, “That light came from an incredibly powerful source! It has to be him!”

The light soon disappeared while Akane and Iroh continued their game, not the slightest bit bothered by Zuko’s claim. Every time they found something supposedly related to the Avatar, it was always some hoax or something random. Akane just didn’t want Zuko to get his hopes up, only to have the destroyed like the always were.

“Or it’s just the celestial lights. We’ve been down this road before, Prince Zuko. I don’t want you getting too excited over nothing,” Iroh stated as he placed a card with the symbol of airbending over the symbol of firebending and gestured towards the table as he continued in a relaxed voice, “Please, sit. Why don’t you enjoy a calming cup of Jasmine tea?”

“I don’t need any calming tea!” Zuko yelled angrily as he faced his Uncle, “I need to capture the Avatar! Helmsmen, head a course for the light!”

Akane sighed as she shook her head and looked back down at her game with Iroh. He had just put down another symbol of airbending on top of the one he just put down when a small gust of wind blew past, shaking the cards. Akane watched Zuko as he stared off into the distance, knowing that he was probably filled with determination at the prospect of returning home. Not letting Zuko distract her, Akane confidently placed down her card before jumping up into the air with satisfaction.

“Ha! I win! Never underestimate the power of me!” Akane cheered while Iroh crossed his arms and huffed in defeat.

~*•°•*~

Day soon turned into night and only Zuko remained out on the ship as he stood on the balcony above the deck. Most of the crew had gone to bed, but Zuko couldn’t sleep. How could he, when there were a million thoughts going through his mind? Why was it that the Avatar decided to return now, when he could’ve showed up three years ago? Maybe if he had Zuko wouldn’t had wasted the past three years of his life searching for the Avatar. That was his ticket home, a place that Zuko desperately wanted to go back to, which had been his mission for the past three years.

His thoughts were interrupted by Iroh who slowly joined his nephew on the balcony as he commented and yawned, “I’m going to bed now. Yep, a man needs his rest.”

Zuko’s gaze remained focused ahead of him, ignoring his Uncle as he continued to stare ahead. Iroh sighed as his nephew stared ahead, his attempt at getting him to rest failing.

“Prince Zuko, you need some sleep. Even if you’re right, and the Avatar is alive, you won’t find him. Your father, grandfather and great-grandfather all tried and failed,” Iroh reasoned.

“Because their honour didn’t hinge on the Avatar’s capture. Mine does. This coward’s hundred years in hiding are over,” Zuko stated, not missing a beat on his words.

Iroh sighed again and shook his head before turning around and leaving Zuko to himself, “Good night, Prince Zuko.”

Once his uncle was gone, Zuko kept his attention fixated on the horizon ahead of him. For the first time in a long time, Zuko felt a slight twinge of hope build inside of him at the possibility of the Avatar’s return. He had failed so far, but Zuko had never been more positive than he was now. Zuko suddenly felt another presence join him on the balcony and groaned, not wanting to have to deal with his uncle right now.

“Uncle, just leave me be,” Zuko ordered, not turning around.

“Since when did I become your uncle?” they asked.

Zuko turned around and sighed when he saw Akane standing there dressed in her evening gown. Even though she was dressed in comfortable robes, Akane still looked slightly put off from where she was.

“I thought you were in bed,” Zuko said.

“I was but I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d find you knowing that you’d still be up,” Akane explained.

“Oh,” Zuko muttered.

“You really should get some sleep, Zuko,” Akane suggested.

“I can’t sleep knowing that the Avatar could be somewhere out there, mocking me with his freedom while I’m stuck chasing him around the world,” Zuko snapped.

Akane sighed, “If you’re going to capture the Avatar, don’t you think you need some sleep so you’re in the best form to get the job done?”

“I suppose you have a point,” Zuko admitted.

“Then you should take my advice and go to bed. You’ll feel much better after a good night’s sleep,” Akane said.

“Who says I feel bad?” Zuko asked.

Akane shrugged, “I can just tell that you’re on edge because of the Avatar, so some sleep could do you well.”

“You know that I can’t sleep whenever I have something on my mind,” Zuko pointed out.

“You really shouldn’t put this much pressure on yourself, Zuko. Besides, it could all be for nothing and I don’t want you getting down in the dumps again,” Akane reasoned.

“Weren’t you just convincing me to get some sleep, so I could capture the Avatar?” Zuko questioned.

“I’m just saying that there is every possibility that the Avatar could be back, just like it could be some coincidence. You’ve been so certain about the Avatar before only to get let down in the end. This could very well turn out like those times,” Akane explained.

“That giant beam of light was no coincidence, Akane. It had to come from a powerful source. And what else could make something as big as that light was besides the Avatar? And I know that I’ve been wrong about him before, but I just have a feeling that this is it. This is my chance to finally capture him, so I can return home,” Zuko proclaimed.

Akane frowned, “Is that all you care about, capturing him so you can go back to the Fire Nation?”

“Well, it’s the only way for me to regain my honour. Just think, Akane. We could finally return home and things could go back to the way they were,” Zuko said.

“You seem to be forgetting that I wasn’t the one who was sent to capture the Avatar, that’s your job. Ozai banished me with no intention of letting me return, so I doubt you finding the Avatar would do me any good,” Akane argued.

“Maybe my father will finally respect me once I achieve this and when I capture the Avatar, he’ll have no reason to refuse your return since you helped me,” Zuko said.

“I’m not here to help you, Zuko. I’m here to support you. If I wasn’t I would’ve just let you do this by yourself,” Akane pointed out.

“Then why are you still with me? It’s been almost three years, Akane. You could’ve started a new life for yourself by now, yet you’ve still stayed with me,” Zuko queried.

“Because you’re my friend, Zuko. And friends stand by each other no matter what, even when times get tough. No matter what, I’ll always have your back,” Akane stated.

Zuko gave Akane a small smile, which made her smile as well knowing that she was the one who made him do that. The rare moments when Zuko just sat back and was more of his old safe were what Akane longed for, and this was one of those moments.

“Thank you, Akane. I’m lucky to have you as a friend,” Zuko said.

“Just like I’m lucky to have you as mine. Come on, let’s go to bed,” Akane suggested.

Zuko sighed, “Fine.”

Together, the two friends walked back inside the ship before heading to their separate chambers. When Akane entered her room, she was quick to flop onto her bed in the hopes of getting some sleep, although her conversation with Zuko still lingered in her mind.

Just think, Akane. We could finally return home and things could go back to the way they were.

Unlike Zuko, Akane was perfectly content with spending the rest of her life travelling the world in search of the Avatar since she had no intention of returning back to the Fire Nation. Besides, as long as the Avatar was potentially out there, there was still the smallest chance that he wouldn’t even need to be captured and bring an end to the pain and suffering in the world. But Akane would never tell Zuko that, simply because she didn’t want to ruin everything that they had. Some things were just better left unsaid anyways.

~*•°•*~

The next day, Akane woke up and got herself dressed in her training gear, knowing that Zuko would most likely be training himself. Before Akane went off in search of her friend, she headed off to the kitchen in pursuit of something to eat, since her stomach was starting to turn. When Akane entered the ships kitchen, she was greeted by the head chef, Chen who smiled at her upon her entry.

“Good morning, Miss Akane,” he greeted her.

“Morning, Chen. What are you cooking?” Akane asked.

“Just some roast duck for General Iroh. I could make you some if you like,” Chen replied.

“That would be great,” Akane said, her stomach getting hungrier upon the mention of roast duck.

“Would you mind passing me the sauce over there?” Chen asked.

“Sure thing,” Akane replied, having no problem with helping Chen during his duties.

“Thank you, Akane. Your help is always appreciated,” Chen smiled.

“I’m always happy to help,” Akane said.

As Akane waited for Chen to finish preparing the meals, they were joined by another one of the ships men, Kyou. Kyou had been with them for over two years now and at only nineteen-years-old, he was the closest person to Akane’s age besides Zuko so the two of them were reasonably close.

“Morning, Akane,” Kyou greeted her.

“Hey, Kyou. What are you doing here?” Akane asked, since Kyou wasn’t supposed to be in the kitchen.

“Just getting some snacks for the other crew members on break. You could come join us if you like,” Kyou suggested.

Akane shook her head, “Thanks, but I should go train with Zuko. Besides, I didn’t get changed into my training gear for nothing.”

“You could always spar with us,” Kyou said.

“It’s better that I go train with Zuko. You know how he gets when he trains,” Akane pointed out.

Kyou laughed, “Yeah, he’s even more of a stiff prince when he trains. I just feel sorry for Iroh having to put up with him. Even you, at times.”

Akane glanced around awkwardly, “Zuko has his moments, but he has his reasons for doing what he does. He wasn’t always how he is now.”

“Well, if you change your mind we’ll be on the top balcony,” Kyou said as he left the room.

“Alright, Akane. Here are the meals. I hope you enjoy,” Chen said.

Akane smiled as she took the meals, “I always enjoy your cooking, Chen.”

Once Akane had the meals in her hands, she headed off towards the ships deck to find Iroh and Zuko. Sure enough, when she got there Iroh and Zuko were training with some of the other guards.

“I bring roasted duck,” Akane declared, getting their attention.

Iroh’s expression brightened upon seeing the meal in her hands, “Just what I need. Thank you, Akane.”

“So, what are we working on today?” Akane asked as she began eating her meal, the taste hitting just the spot.

“Prince Zuko is working on perfecting his basics,” Iroh replied through mouthfuls of food.

Just as Iroh said so, Zuko kicked an average side blast of fire at the guards who counteracted his attack with their own firebending. Eventually, Zuko was able to best the guards which was not enough to please Iroh.

“Again,” Iroh ordered sternly.

Zuko opened the fight by spreading his arms in the direction of the two firebenders, showering them with flames. His adversaries blocked his attack with ease. Zuko shifted his weight to duck under a retaliation blast of the firebender to his left. The firebender to his right jumped forward to aim a blast at Zuko’s feet. The prince propelled himself out of the way and twisted around mid-air, directing another fire blast with his hand to the firebender that retaliated first, and another with his foot to the firebender that aimed for his feet. Both soldiers jumped out of the way of Zuko’s flames. Zuko landed and stretched his fists out towards his adversaries, ready to face another attack.

Iroh sighed while he stood up, “No! Power in firebending comes from the breath, not the muscles!” Iroh corrected him as he moved his hand up in front to emphasise the breathing motion and stretched his left arm out as if he was sending a fire blast. “The breath becomes energy in the body, the energy extends past your limbs and becomes: fire! Get it right this time.”

“Enough! I’ve been drilling this sequence all day. Teach me the next set! I’m more than ready!” Zuko addressed his uncle with suppressed anger.

“No, you are impatient,” Iroh replied as he sat down before yelling his next order, “You are yet to master your basics. Drill it again!”

Zuko clenched his teeth in anger and turned around before suddenly directing a power fire kick towards one of the soldiers. The firebender attempts to stop the fire blast, but he is unable to and is thrown on his back by its power.

“That was unnecessary,” Akane commented.

“The sages tell us that the Avatar is the last airbender. He must be over a hundred years old by now. He’s had a century to master the four elements! I’ll need more than basic firebending to defeat him. You will teach me the advanced set!” Zuko yelled with the suppressed anger apparent in his voice.

Iroh did not look pleased with the attitude of his nephew and conceded reluctantly, “Very well.” But then his expression changed to one of complete delight as he picked up his meal, “But first, I must finish my roast duck.”

“You gonna finish your sauce?” Akane asked between mouthfuls of food.

“Of course, I am!” Iroh exclaimed.

Zuko backed away as he looked at his uncle and friend with disgust at their eating habits, “You two are disgusting.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you took a moment to appreciate the wonders of roast duck. Come on, take a bite,” Akane said.

“No thanks,” Zuko snapped.

Akane shrugged, “Suit yourself. It’s very good.”

~*•°•*~

Later that day, Akane was meditating in her room after her training session with Zuko. Akane always meditated after her training, since it helped her keep a peace of mind. She always liked meditating, since it was a good way to put her mind at ease and relax. Suddenly, there was a knock on her door, which caught her attention as she got up and opened it to see Iroh standing there.

“Is something wrong?” Akane asked nervously.

“That depends. Prince Zuko thinks he has found the Avatar,” Iroh replied.

Akane’s eyes widened, “What? Are you serious?”

“Yes, he’s preparing the ship to dock at the South Pole in a few hours since that’s where he thinks the Avatar is hiding,” Iroh explained.

“We better help him get ready then,” Akane suggested.

Iroh then lead Akane to the ships top deck where Zuko was ordering the crew around, presumably for their attack on the South Pole. When Zuko caught sight of Akane and his uncle, he dismissed the crew before heading towards them.

“Did you really find the Avatar?” Akane asked.

Zuko nodded, a twinge of hope evident on his face, “Yes. I saw him airbending off an old Fire Navy ship and heading towards the Southern Water Tribe. That has to be where he’s hiding.”

“How do plan on getting him?” Akane questioned.

“Simple, we demand they give him to us or we burn their village down,” Zuko answered.

Akane opened her mouth in shock, “Zuko! That’s a terrible thing to do.”

“Well, I doubt they would give up the Avatar if we just ask them to. We’ll be making things a lot easier for everyone by just demanding that they hand him mover,” Zuko proclaimed.

Akane sighed, “If you say so.”

“I’m going to get ready. You should too,” Zuko ordered.

With his crew getting everything ready for the moment of truth, Zuko headed off to his chambers to get ready for the biggest moment of his life so far. As he did so, Akane couldn’t help but wonder what this would mean for them, since it could go either way. They either capture the Avatar or fail like they always did. For Zuko’s sake, Akane hoped that they would succeed in what they’d tried to do for the past three years.

Chapter Text

Once Akane had gotten into her formal armour, she headed off towards Zuko's room to wait for her friend. As Akane made her way through the ships corridors, the nerves in her stomach started to grow at the possibility of facing off against the Avatar. He was supposed to be the most powerful bender in the world and most likely had years of experience under his belt while her and Zuko were practically amateur firebenders.

If it really is him, why couldn't he have returned when we needed him most? Why does he choose now, of all times to show up again? Akane thought.

Part of Akane was glad that the Avatar was still alive, since that meant that there was still hope for Zuko and the world. But that also put Akane in an awkward position, since as much as she wanted the Avatar to finally put an end to this pain and suffering, she still wanted Zuko to succeed in his mission, so her friend could finally be happy, even if she wouldn't be. So, for Akane it was really a matter of if whether or not peace and harmony was more important than Zuko's happiness and freedom.

Deciding to find Zuko since he would most likely want her to be there when they made their assault on the Southern Water Tribe, Akane headed off throughout the ships corridors. But not before she found herself bumping into Nuying, the ships nurse.

"Oh, my apologies, Miss Akane," Nuying apologised.

"It's alright," Akane reassured the middle-aged woman.

"I'm just in a bit of a rush since I'm making sure everyone's prepared for the attack on the Water Tribe," Nuying explained.

"Yeah, it's going to be a bumpy ride," Akane agreed.

"Need any last minute aid, Miss Akane?" Nuying offered.

Akane shook her head, "Nope. And how many times do I have to tell you to just call me Akane?"

"Sorry," Nuying apologised before shuffling along.

Watching Nuying as she scurried across the floor, Akane couldn't help but shake her head out how Nuying had referred to her as 'Miss Akane.' While most of the crew simply referred to her as her name, there were those who addressed her formally due to her association with Zuko, which annoyed Akane to no end since she hated being called 'Miss.' Remembering what she was supposed to be doing, Akane headed off towards Zuko's chambers where he would more than likely be getting ready for what was about to happen.

When Akane found Zuko in his chambers, he was finishing getting ready for their assault on the Southern Water Tribe. His servants had just putting on his breastplate, the kneecaps and boots, wrist guards and finally the helmet. Once they were finished dressing him, the two servants bowed before leaving him to himself. Zuko adjusted the helmet on his head to make sure it fit properly before nodding in approval.

"Well, don't you look all spiffy in your armour and ridiculous helmet," Akane joked.

Zuko turned around to face her, "It's not supposed to look good, it's supposed to be functionable. The helmet also protects me from any other attacks."

"Well, you look ridiculous in it. I wouldn't be surprised if it does more harm than good. Whoever designed it should have their creativity licence taken away from them," Akane observed.

Zuko smirked as he picked something up, "I'm glad you feel that way cause you'll be wearing one too."

Akane grimaced, "You can't make me wear that if I don't want to."

"I don't want you getting hurt, Akane so please wear the helmet," Zuko pleaded.

Akane sighed as she took it from his hands, "Fine. But only because you asked me to."

Zuko grinned sneakily once she put the helmet on, "Now we're matching."

"Hilarious," Akane muttered.

"Now that we're ready, let's gather the rest of the crew since we'll be reaching the Southern Water Tribe soon," Zuko suggested.

"Sounds like a plan," Akane agreed.

They then made their way through the ship together and the whole time they did so, Akane couldn't help but wonder what would happen when they finally faced off against the Avatar. This was what they'd been working towards for the past three years and Akane had know idea how it would all go down. One thing that Akane was sure of was that she didn't want to hurt anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. Although Akane felt like they would be able to make it through this without using any unorthodox methods since the Southern Water Tribe was remarkably weaker than it's counterpart due to the damage it had sustained from the Fire Nation.

"So, how exactly is this going to work?" Akane asked.

"Well, if all goes to plan I won't have to harm anyone and they'll just give him up without any fight," Zuko replied.

"And if they don't?" Akane questioned.

"Then we'll have no choice but to do whatever it takes to get him under our grasp. If they're smart, they'd give him up without question," Zuko answered.

"What do we do once we have him?" Akane inquired.

"Simple, we'll keep him as our prisoner until we reach the Fire Nation before handing him over to my father. Then we'll finally be able to return home and things will go back to the way they were," Zuko replied hopefully.

"That's easier said than done," Akane commented.

Zuko raised his eyebrows, "What makes you say that?"

"Well, there's no telling how powerful the Avatar really is. Even if we do manage to capture him we'll still have to get him back to the Fire Nation. I doubt that that's going to be easy," Akane explained.

"If he does escape then we'll just have to capture him again," Zuko stated.

"What do you think the Fire Lord is going to do once you bring the Avatar to him?" Akane asked.

"First, he'll welcome me back with honour, and then restore my rightful place on the throne," Zuko replied confidently.

"But what about the Avatar?" Akane questioned.

Zuko shrugged, "I don't know. Father will either kill him or throw him into prison. I couldn't care less about what happens to him, just as long as I get the honour of making it possible."

Akane gasped, "Zuko, that's a horrible thing to say!"

"You really think I would care about what father does to the Avatar? Once I hand him over he won't be my problem anymore and I'll finally be rid of that burden," Zuko declared.

Akane sighed, "Just promise me you won't get yourself hurt."

Zuko scoffed, "I shouldn't have to promise you that. The Avatar is supposed to be over a hundred years old. Surely, I can take on an old man, even if he is the master of all elements."

"If you say so," Akane murmured, although she didn't share Zuko's level of confidence. The Avatar might be an old man, but he was still the most powerful bender in the world and Zuko was only a teenager.

"You don't sound too confident," Zuko pointed out.

"I am confident, there's just always that bit of doubt that anything could happen," Akane said.

Zuko paused, "You don't think I can capture him, don't you?"

Akane sighed, "Well, he is the most powerful bender in the world. He might be old, but he probably has more experience than you could ever have."

"Don't you think I know that, Akane? I need to be confident in my abilities or I'm never going to succeed," Zuko argued.

"Just don't underestimate him, he could surprise you," Akane said.

"I have nothing to underestimate," Zuko stated.

Akane raised her eyebrows, knowing that Zuko was full-on underestimating the Avatar. She had a feeling that that would be Zuko's downfall, since he wasn't taking into consideration the true power that the Avatar could possess.

"The Southern Water Tribe is now in view! Prepare yourselves for the landing!" the helmsmen yelled.

"Let's do this," Zuko declared.

Akane nodded, "I'm right behind you."

In no time, Akane, Zuko and several other guards were standing behind the ships bow as they waited for it to reach contact with the Southern Water Tribe. When it did, Akane felt every bit of impact from the ship. Akane could hear the ship breaking through the ice, creating its own port. Suddenly, the ships came to a halt and steam surrounded them as the ships bow lowered itself onto the icy shore, creating a loud booming noise that made Akane jump. For a moment, Akane was unsure of what to do so she glanced at Zuko who nodded before they began to make their way down.

As they did so, Akane couldn't help but notice how small the Southern Water Tribe was. There were only a couple dozen villagers there, mainly women and children along with a few elders. It hardly looked like a tribe and Akane could practically see the fear in their eyes, which made her feel guilty knowing that she was partly responsible for that feeling.

A loud scream suddenly filled there and Akane saw a young boy who was probably no older than Zuko run screaming towards them with a war club in his hands. Zuko was easily able to disarm him by kicking the kicking the club out of his hands before kicking the boy aside, causing him to fall off the ships ramp and send him flying into the snow where his head got stuck. Once they reached the ground, the villagers backed a few feet away and they were obviously scared by their unexpected visitors. Not wanting to waste anymore time, Zuko stepped forward as he examined the small crowd for any sign of the Avatar.

"Where are you hiding him?" Zuko asked in a demanding voice.

When Zuko got no answer, he reached into the crowd and forcefully yanked out an elderly woman and held onto her by her parka, "He'd be about this age, master of all elements?"

"Zuko, don't be such a jerk!" Akane reprimanded him, not liking the way he was being rough with the old woman.

Once again, Zuko got no response which made Akane think that they had no idea what he was talking about. At that, Zuko let go of the woman and shoved her back into the crowd. The old lady clung onto a young girl, who Akane assumed was her granddaughter. It was safe to say that the girl didn't like them one bit based on the glare she was giving them.

"I know you're hiding him!" Zuko yelled once he swung out his arm and released an arc of fire that went over the heads of the villagers.

Akane's eyes widened. Why was Zuko acting like this? Sure, he could be a bit of a jerk at times and had his demanding moments, but he never acted like this and Akane didn't like it one bit.

"Zuko! What are you doing?" Akane exclaimed.

Zuko glared at her, "Stay out of this, Akane and let me handle it."

Suddenly, a somewhat girlish scream filled the air as the Water Tribe boy who attacked Zuko went in for another go. The boy lunged towards the prince while Zuko swiftly turned around just as Sokka approached, quickly ducking under Sokka's wide swing and hurled the boy forward. The boy landed on his rear in the snow and was quickly forced to dart from his spot when Zuko fired a blast at him. The boy spun to the side and tossed his boomerang at his opponent who barely managed to miss getting hit by the weapon. Zuko growled angrily and glared at the boy in anger at the near hit as one of the village boys tossed the warrior a spear.

"Show no fear!" the village boy yelled.

Once the warrior caught the spear, he immediately got back on his feet and charged towards Zuko once again. Akane had to give him credit, not many people would have the guts to stand up to someone like Zuko in the way he was. Her admiration was short lived as the warrior was quick to get halted on his advance by Zuko yanking his spear away from him and snapping it in half before using the soft end to poke the boy in the head which caused him to fall onto the ground again. With that, Zuko simply threw the broken spear aside like it was nobody's business.

Out of the corner of her eye, Akane suddenly saw a flashing object hurl through the sky before recognising it as the boy's boomerang. It seemed to be heading straight towards Zuko, but before Akane could warn her friend, the boomerang collided right into his head letting out a loud cling as it pushed him forward. Despite the situation, Akane couldn't help but snicker under her breath before Zuko shot a glare her way as he rearranged his helmet.

"What? Even you have to admit that was funny," Akane said.

Instead of glaring at his friend, Zuko turned his glare to the Water Tribe boy who sat dejectedly on the ground, with the boomerang at his feet. Enraged by the attack, Zuko summoned two fire daggers and was ready to unleash them on his opponent. Before Akane could intervene, something shot past her at lightning speed which collided right into Zuko and sent him flying through the air before he landed on his face with his legs in the air and his helmet landed on his butt. The sight was even more hilarious than when the boomerang whacked Zuko on the head.

As Akane headed off to help Zuko, she caught the sight of a boy sliding off a penguin before it waddled away. He smiled in the direction of the two Water Tribe teenagers.

"Hey, Katara. Hey, Sokka," the boy greeted them.

"Hi, Aang. Thanks for coming," the boy, Sokka, commented dryly.

"I told you not to wear that stupid helmet," Akane said to Zuko as she pulled him up.

Zuko didn't respond to Akane and instead signalled for the soldiers to surround the boy who clutched onto some sort of stick as he was surrounded. Akane gasped as she noticed the blue tattoos that covered his body and the robes he was dressed in. Putting the pieces together, Akane grinned as she realised who was standing in front of them.

Those markings. It has to be him! I can't believe it! Akane thought to herself.

Though her smile faltered as she stared at the boy in confusion. Instead of being an old man like he was supposed to be, he hardly looked like a teenager at most. The boy then swept the ground form side-to-side with his staff, showering them with snow. He then slammed the ground with his staff which sent a rush of snow towards Akane and Zuko who braced themselves for the attack. Once they were covered with snow, Akane and Zuko both heated it up, so it would melt with Zuko wearing an angry look on his face as he did so.

"Looking for me?" the boy asked.

"You're the airbender? You're the Avatar?" Zuko asked, shocked.

The two Water Tribe teenagers appeared to be just as shocked as Zuko was, with Katara voicing her own disbelief, "Aang?"

"No way!" Sokka exclaimed.

Akane raised her eyebrows, "How could you have not known that he was the Avatar?"

Sokka shrugged as he gave her a sheepish look, "It didn't really occur to us…"

Meanwhile, Aang and Zuko were circling around each other as they both prepared to defend themselves. An eerie silence filled the air for a moment that was almost uncomfortable to a degree. You could've cut the tension between the two boys with a knife it was so thick.

"I've spent years preparing for this encounter. Training… Meditating… You're just a child!" Zuko growled.

Aang stood back a bit, "Well, you're just a teenager."

Akane snorted, "He has a point."

Zuko glared at her, "Who's side are you on, here?"

"Yours? Shouldn't it be obvious?" Akane replied.

Not giving Akane another thought, Zuko angrily firebended at Aang who twirled his staff around to deflect the flames that were hurled his way. Aang's act of defence caused the flames to shoot past him and towards the villagers who cowered in fear.

"Zuko! Be careful!" Akane yelled.

Aang seemed to share Akane's concern for the villagers as he quickly pushed Zuko's flames to the side and held his staff out in surrender as he offered himself up, "If I go with you, will you promise to leave everyone alone?"

Akane's eyes bulged at the Avatar's offer. Was this kid serious? Was he really just going to offer himself up like that? The whole thing just sounded too easy to Akane, but she knew that Zuko would have no problem with agreeing on the Avatar's terms if it meant getting him for himself.

Sure enough, Zuko nodded and signalled for the guards to apprehend Aang and they did just that. Aang grunted as they took his staff away and forced him to walk up the ships bow.

"No, Aang. Don't do this!" Katara pleaded desperately.

"Don't worry Katara, it'll be okay," Aang reassured her.

Not wanting the Water Tribe girl to cause anymore trouble, Akane stepped forward to hold her back as the guards lead Aang up the ships bow. However, Katara didn't seem to like that as she roughly pushed Akane off of her.

"Don't touch me!" Katara hissed.

Their little altercation didn't go unnoticed by Zuko who glared at Katara with the most deathly look. He was always protective of Akane, and he certainly didn't appreciate this washed up peasant pushing his friend around like she was nothing which she certainly wasn't. If anything, Akane was ten times worth that water tribe peasant.

"You watch who you shove, you Water Tribe peasant!" Zuko yelled as forcefully yanked Katara by the wrists.

Akane quickly managed to recover from her shove and knowing that Zuko would do something he'd potentially regret, Akane intervened to put an end to their scuffle.

"Zuko, it's okay. Just let her go," Akane ordered calmly.

Zuko sighed as he gave Katara one last glare before shoving her away, "Fine. Let's go."

Up on the ships bow, Aang watched the scene play out in front of him with curiosity. He didn't understand how the scarred teen could go from being such a bully to a protective friend in the span of seconds. They must've been close for him to have reacted that way so Aang made a mental note not to get in the way of them.

"Take care of Appa for me until I get back!" Aang called out, not wanting his beloved bison to go unattended.

"Set a course for the Fire Nation! I'm going home," Zuko ordered as he and Akane made their way up the ships bow.

With one last look at the crowd of people below him, Aang tried to appear as calm as possible even though he was lowkey panicking on the inside. What hurt him the most was seeing the devastated look on Katara's face, which was enough to hurt him as the ships bow blocked out any form of light.

~*•°•*~

Once Aang had been securely restrained and the ship was on route to the Fire Nation, Akane, Zuko and the guards took him onto the ships deck where Iroh was waiting for them. Just like they were, Iroh was surprised when he saw that the Avatar was merely a child. This was certainly not what they had been expecting.

"This staff will make an excellent gift for my father," Zuko declared as he examined Aang's staff. "I suppose you wouldn't know of fathers, being raised by monks."

The ticked off look on the Avatar's face at that comment didn't go unnoticed by Akane since Zuko was being a bit of a prick right now. Part of her felt bad for Aang, since he was practically a child just like they all were yet was being handed off like he was heading to the slaughter house.

"Take the Avatar to the prison hold and take this to my quarters," Zuko ordered as he handed Iroh Aang's staff before walking off with Akane hot on his tails.

"You mind taking this to his quarters for me?" Akane heard Iroh ask which caused her to roll her eyes at his laziness.

As she and Zuko made their way through the ship, Akane couldn't help but think about how the villagers had reacted when they took Aang away. She had never seen so many looks of despair before and it actually made her feel guilty about what they had just done.

"Zuko, a word?" Akane asked as she tugged on his arm.

Zuko glanced down at her, "What?"

"Don't you think you were a little harsh back there?" Akane questioned.

"No, my actions were perfectly justifiable. Besides, it's not like anybody got hurt," Zuko answered.

"But you scared the villagers, you threw that warrior into the snow and you yanked onto that girl's wrists," Akane pointed out.

Zuko scoffed, "That peasant was hardly a warrior and that brat hurt you."

"No, she didn't hurt me. That was an overreaction on your part. She had every right to be mad at me after we just invaded and destroyed their village," Akane reasoned.

Zuko shrugged, "They can fix it. At least now they have a port."

"What do we do with the Avatar now?" Akane asked uncomfortably.

"Until we get back to the Fire Nation, he's our prisoner. We'll have to keep him under a watchful eye at all times, so he doesn't get the opportunity to escape," Zuko replied.

"This whole thing just seems too easy, like something's gonna happen," Akane admitted.

"Akane, nothing's going to happen. He surrendered as long as we left them alone which we did. He has no reason to escape," Zuko reassured her.

Akane raised her eyebrow, "Except to save the world perhaps?"

"That's not going to happen. We're going to return him home, father will welcome me back with honour and overrule your banishment. Then everything will go back to the way it's supposed to be," Zuko declared.

"Zuko, don't you realise that we're literally keeping the saviour of the world captive? By doing so we're only allowing for more pain and suffering to happen," Akane argued.

"What do you want me to do, let him go? You know that I can't and won't do that. I need to capture the Avatar to restore my honour," Zuko snapped.

"Yeah, cause your honour is more important than the world," Akane muttered.

"What was that?" Zuko demanded.

Akane sighed, "Nothing. It's just, I don't want you to take on this much responsibility. If you hand the Avatar over to the Fire Lord, he'll probably just kill him. Do you really want the Avatar's blood on your hands?"

"I doubt that father will actually kill him. He'll probably just put him into prison," Zuko said.

"Right, cause prison's so much better than death," Akane commented sarcastically.

Zuko sighed, "Akane, don't be like this. You know how much this means to me. I'm sorry but I can't let him go."

"I know, just… don't do anything you'll regret," Akane said.

"I can't promise you that, Akane. But I'll try my best," Zuko responded before heading off to his quarters.

Akane frowned as she watched Zuko's retreating form. He seemed to be forgetting that the Avatar was just a child, which was pretty much what they were. Even though she knew how much this meant to Zuko and that his freedom was pretty much on the line, Akane still felt guilty about keeping the Avatar prisoner. But she had to remind herself that the Avatar was what Zuko needed more than anything else, and that as his best friend she had to support him on this. Besides, it's not like Zuko had many people supporting him anyways.

As Akane made her way down the ships long corridor, she suddenly felt something heavy collide into her which sent her hurling towards the ground. Groaning as she did so, Akane pulled herself onto her feet and was ready to yell at whoever had just knocked her onto the ground before her eyes widened once she saw the Avatar standing in front of her.

"Sorry! I guess I wasn't really watching where I was going," the Avatar – Aang – apologised.

"And where exactly is that?" Akane asked.

Aang's eyes widened as he recognised who he had just bumped into, "I'll just be on my way then…"

"Wait!" Akane called out before Aang could run off.

"I don't really have time to wait…" Aang trailed off.

"I know, which is why you should run to the left and up the first set of stairs before going two doors on your right," Akane advised him.

Now it was Aang's turn to widen his eyes. Wasn't this Zuko's friend? Why was she even helping him? For a moment, Aang debated on if whether or not he should trust her since she could easily be leading him to a trap. Deciding to throw caution to the wind, Aang smiled at the girl before running off in the direction that she had advised him to go in.

"Thanks for the help!" he yelled.

"Agni, what did I just do?" Akane whispered to herself once the Avatar was out of sight.

Part of Akane felt guilty for helping the Avatar escape, since she was indirectly betraying Zuko. Yet at the same time, she knew that it was the right thing to do. Akane just hoped that she wouldn't live to regret what she had just done, which was already proving to be the case as the guilt swarmed inside of her.

"It was the right thing to do," Akane repeated.

With nothing better to do, Akane decided to head off to the ships deck to hopefully clear her head and get her focus back on. No doubt Zuko was going to discover the Avatar's escape and she would have some explaining to do. Akane figured that she'd just cross that bridge when the time came.

When Akane came back out onto the top deck, she was immediately greeted by the cold breeze of the icy South Pole seas. Even though she was dressed in her thermal gear, being in the cold was something that Akane wasn't used to. For a moment, there was just silence around her until Akane suddenly heard a loud shout from above. Looking up quickly, Akane gasped as she noticed the Avatar flying above her before recognising Zuko jumping onto him.

That seemed to stop the Avatar's advanced as his glider quickly closed before the pair fell onto the ground in a tangled heap. Akane quickly rushed to her friend's aid, despite that small part of her that just wanted to get the Avatar out of there. Zuko growled as she helped him up, before they suddenly heard another loud growl from above. Curiously, the pair turned their gaze and widened their eyes as they saw a flying beast heading towards them.

"What is that?" Zuko asked.

"Appa!" Aang exclaimed brightly.

"You don't see that every day," Akane mused.

Quickly getting over his shock, Zuko started sending fire blast after fire blast at the Avatar who twirled his staff to deflect the attack. Eventually, Aang dropped his staff and with nothing else to defend himself, he was left to evade Zuko's attack before jumping onto the ships railing to save himself. Using this to his advantage, Zuko kicked out another fire blast which seemed to do the job as it sent Aang hurling over the edge and into the water.

"Zuko! I can't believe that you did that!" Akane yelled angrily.

"I had no choice," Zuko declared.

"So much for capturing the Avatar alive," Akane snapped.

"Why do you care?" Zuko asked.

"I don't care! I just don't see how that was necessary! How are you going to explain this to your father?" Akane exclaimed.

Their argument was cut short by a sudden rock against the boat before a water vortex shot up into the air. For a moment, Akane had no idea what was happening until she recognised the Avatar at the top with his eyes and tattoos glowing. Relief instantly shot through Akane, before she was overwhelmed with dread at what the Avatar was about to do.

This wasn't going to be good for them.

Sure enough, the Avatar landed onto the ships deck as he summoned the water around him before the water swirled around him which created a protective circle before it spread outward. The impact of the attack was enough to knock Akane, Zuko and several soldiers off their feet. Akane even almost fell over the edge herself but managed to save herself at her own misfortune as her head banged onto the ships railing which immediately sent a wave of nausea through her.

For a moment, Akane's vision blurred as she struggled to stand upright. She could make up the sight of a fuzzy creature on the ships deck, which she assumed was Aang's pet. It certainly didn't look like any normal pet from what Akane could see. After giving her head a shake, Akane knocked some sense back into her vision just as she caught sight of a boy she recognised as the one from the South Pole. He reached down to pick up Aang's staff before shrieking and poking it over the edge which elicited a shout that Akane immediately recognised as Zuko's.

"Ha! That's from the Water Tribe!" the boy – Sokka – cheered.

"Hey!" Akane exclaimed.

Sokka turned his head and his eyes widened as he saw Akane standing there. Wasting no time, he immediately took off running towards the Avatar's pet, which Akane recognised as a flying bison. Recovering from her brief shock, Akane ran towards the ships edge and she gasped as she saw Zuko dangling down below.

"Take my hand!" she yelled as she reached down to help Zuko, not even caring about the Avatar in that moment.

"Stop the Avatar!" Zuko shouted.

"I'm not gonna say it again, Zuko, now take my hand!" Akane yelled.

Groaning as he did so, Zuko grabbed hold of Akane's hand and she successfully managed to pull him back onto the ships deck despite him almost falling on top of her. Just as they did so, Appa was already flying off into the air while a bemused Iroh watched on.

"Shoot them down!" Zuko ordered.

Together, Akane, Iroh and Zuko shot a combined fire blast towards the Avatar's bison in an attempt to knock it down, only for their fire ball to be redirected right into the iceberg next to the ship. All three of them widened their eyes in shock as the impact caused a snowy avalanche to come hurling towards the ship, immediately halting it from moving anywhere while causing them all to tumble over, though some more than others.

Since he was too blinded by his rage at being defeated by the Avatar, Zuko failed to notice that Akane wasn't standing with him and Iroh as they regained their composure.

"Good news for the Fire Lord, the Fire Nation's greatest threat is just a little kid," Iroh stated.

"That 'kid', Uncle, just did this. I won't underestimate him again," Zuko declared before yelling his next order, "Dig the ship out and follow them!"

Zuko turned around to see several of his firebenders using their firebending to melt away the ice that had trapped his soldiers in their place. He grunted with embarrassment as he narrowed his eyes in determination, "As soon as your done with that."

Turning back around, Zuko noticed that Akane wasn't standing with him and Uncle and his eyes widened as he caught sight of his friend trapped underneath the mountain of snow that had encased half of his ship. It didn't look like Akane was moving at all, so Zuko immediately rushed over to his friend's aid.

"Akane! Akane, are you alright?" Zuko asked as he pulled her out from the snow. He quickly noticed the bump that had formed on her forehead, which certainly wasn't there before, and he cursed the Avatar for putting his friend in that position.

"It seems that Akane has taken a blow to the head and the impact of the snow hasn't helped her either," Iroh observed as he tried to increase Akane's temperature with his firebending.

"What should we do, Uncle?" Zuko asked, showing a rare feeling of concern.

"I think we should take Akane to her room, so she can rest in the warmth. There doesn't appear to be any reason for grave concern, so some rest should do her good," Iroh advised.

"I will take Akane to her room while you make sure they get their job done as soon as possible," Zuko said.

With Iroh's help, Zuko managed to pick Akane up and carry her in his arms. While his friend might look light, Akane wasn't light to carry but that was something that Zuko would never say to his friend. As he carried Akane to her room, he felt her stir in his arms as her eyes slowly opened.

"Mmm… Zuko?" Akane murmured weakly.

"Just go back to sleep, Akane. I'll take you to your room," Zuko said.

"I knew you'd underestimate him," Akane whispered before her eyes fell shut once again.

"I won't do that ever again," Zuko promised, for Akane's sake just as much as his.

Chapter Text

Since the Avatar had all but destroyed Zuko’s ship, they had set a course for the nearest harbour to get the repairs done as soon as possible. They had just docked at an Earth Kingdom harbor in the hopes of getting the ship fixed. Zuko had went to get Akane so that she could go with him and his Uncle, since they weren’t allowed to be on the ship during the repairs.

“Akane,” Zuko said as he knocked on her door, only to get no response. “Akane. Are you awake? It’s time to go.”

There was a slight shuffling noise before the door opened, revealing a dishevelled looking Akane. Zuko was quick to notice how tired she looked, with the bags under her eyes being a dead giveaway. She then let out a loud cough, followed by a few sniffles from her nose.

“What?” Akane murmured.

“Are you feeling alright?” Zuko asked, concerned.

“Just a bit under the weather. It’s nothing to worry about,” Akane reassured him followed by another sneeze.

“Are you sure? We could get you checked out while we’re here,” Zuko suggested.

Akane shook her head, “It’s fine. I’m sure I’ll get better in time. Can’t I just stay in my room? It’s not like my room got any damage.”

“I don’t want you to be by yourself while the ship is getting repaired. You’re coming with us,” Zuko stated.

Akane groaned, “But I really don’t want to. Have some sympathy for your sick friend, Zuko.”

“Didn’t you say you were fine?” Zuko snapped.

Akane sighed, “Fine. I’ll get ready now.”

“Uncle and I will be waiting for you on the deck,” Zuko said.

“What’s got you so up-tight,” Akane muttered.

“What was that?” Zuko asked.

“Nothing,” Akane replied. “Now, would you just let me get changed then?”

“Right, of course,” Zuko conceded, blushing slightly as he shut Akane’s door.

Akemi grimaced once she was left to herself, feeling bad for riling Zuko up when she should’ve known better after they just lost the Avatar. She also felt bad since it was partially her fault that he got away, since she was the one who told him where to go and indirectly helped him escape. Akane reminded herself that he had already escaped and probably would’ve made it out even if she didn’t interfere. Deep down, Akane couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t let the Avatar go. Maybe then their ship wouldn’t need repairs and they’d be well on their way to the Fire Nation.

Ignoring her thoughts, Akane finished putting on her regular clothes as well as her armour before heading out of her room and onto the deck where Iroh and Zuko would be waiting for her. When Akane caught up with them, they started to make their way down the ship which was noticeably smaller than the other ships around them. It felt somewhat strange being in this area, since they were pretty much outcasts because of Zuko’s banishment and Akane’s position as his friend.

“Uncle, I want the repairs made as quickly as possible. I don’t want to stay too long and risk losing his trail,” Zuko ordered.

“You mean the Avatar,” Iroh commented disinterestedly.

Zuko stopped in his tracks as he turned around to face his uncle, “Don’t mention his name on these docks! Once word gets out that he’s alive, every firebender will be out looking for him, and I don’t want anyone getting in the way!”

As Akane trailed behind Iroh and Zuko, she suddenly stopped in her tracks when she saw a familiar figure heading towards them. Once their face became recognisable, Akane’s spine shivered and she instantly tensed up, not liking their sudden presence at all and knowing what this could potentially mean for them.

“Getting in the way of what, Prince Zuko?” the person asked.

It was none other than Commander Zhao who stood before them. His sudden presence caused Iroh and Zuko to turn towards him in shock as they widened their eyes. Akane couldn’t help but stifle back a laugh at his comically big sideburns that were signature to his appearance. Zuko crossed his arms with contempt while Iroh just stared at him.

Zuko was the first to address him, with the dislike evident in his voice, “Captain Zhao.”

“It’s commander now,” Zhao smirked as he bowed at Iroh. “And General Iroh. Great hero of our nation.”

Iroh returned the bow, “Retired general.”

Zhao glanced towards Akane, “Well, well, well. If it isn’t the Fire Lord’s esteemed protégé.”

“I’m not Ozai’s protégé,” Akane snapped.

Zhao ignored her comment, “The Fire Lord’s brother, son and protégé are welcome guests anytime. What brings you three to my harbor?”

“Our ship is being repaired,” Iroh replied as he gestured towards their ship, which was noticeably smaller than the other ones around it.

“That’s quite a bit of damage,” Zhao noted.

“Yes. You wouldn’t believe what happened,” Zuko added as he thought of a way to derive the attention from the ship, only to fall silent. In the end, Zuko decided to pass the talking onto his uncle. “Uncle! Tell Commander Zhao what happened!”

Iroh’s eyes widened in surprise as he was addressed by Zuko, “Yes. I will do that. It was incredible!” Iroh related enthusiastically before he murmured to Zuko from the corner of his mouth in a confused tone, “What? Did we crash or something?”

“Yes! Right into… an Earth Kingdom ship!” Zuko exclaimed in an attempt to make their story more convincing. Although Zhao seemed to be getting more suspicious with each word. Since Akane was yet to say anything, Zuko thought it would be a good idea for her to add more to their story. “Isn’t that right, Akane?”

Akane’s eyes widened as she glanced at Zuko, not really sure what to say in this situation. However, Zhao ended up saving Akane from any trouble as he butted into their conversation.

“Really? You must regale me with all of the thrilling details. Join me for a drink?” Zhao challenged as he leaned into Zuko’s face.

Zuko averted his gaze and started to walk away, “Sorry, but we have to go.”

Zhao smiled evilly at him as he started to walk away, his advance halted by Iroh as he placed his hand on his nephew’s shoulder to hold him back, “Prince Zuko, show Commander Zhao your respect. We would be honoured to join you. Do you have any ginseng tea? It’s my favourite.”

As Iroh and Zhao walked away, Zuko grunted in anger upon hearing Iroh’s tea comment and growled angrily as he firebended a small arc out of annoyance.

“I’m sure we’ve got nothing to worry about. He might just be up for a drink,” Akane reassured him.

Zuko sighed, “Somehow I doubt that. Let’s just get this over with.”

“Don’t do anything to make Zhao question us. We’re already in enough trouble as it is,” Akane reminded him as they headed after Iroh and Zhao. She tried not to show it, but Akane was feeling really unsure about this whole situation but she knew she’d have to appear otherwise for Zuko’s sake.

~*•°•*~

It wasn’t long before Akane found herself sitting in a tent with Commander Zhao along with Iroh and Zuko. The whole time Zhao was droning on and on about the Fire Nations future plans with the occasional comment from Iroh and Zuko while Akane just sat there quietly, not really interested in their conversation. Even Iroh appeared to be disinterested as he went off to examine something in the corner.

“…And by years end, the Earth Kingdom capital will be under our rule. The Fire Lord will finally claim victory in this war,” Zhao declared.

“If my father thinks the rest of the world will follow him willingly, then he is a fool!” Zuko snapped bitterly.

“Easy, Zuko. Don’t talk like that,” Akane said.

“You should listen to your friend’s advice,” Zhao commented as he pulled up alongside Zuko and smirked. “I see that two years at sea have done little to temper your tongue. So, how is your search for the Avatar going?”

Iroh knocked over a weapon display behind them causing them to crash down with a lot of noise. The general cowered at the noise and the damage he wrecked as Zhao turned around looking annoyed.

“Eh… My fault, entirely,” Iroh murmured as he placed his hands in his sleeved and walked away backward with a faint smile on his face.

“We haven’t found him yet,” Zuko snapped aggressively, causing Akane to raise her eyebrows.

“Did you really expect to? The Avatar died a hundred years ago. Along with the rest of the airbenders. Unless you have found some evidence that the Avatar is alive?” Zhao smirked once again with a look that made Akane want to slap him in his face.

“No. Nothing,” Zuko responded clearly.

Zhao’s expression changed to one of disbelief as he rose from his chair, “Prince Zuko, the Avatar is the only one who can stop the Fire Nation from winning this war. If you have an ounce of loyalty left, you’ll tell me what you found.”

“I haven’t found anything,” Zuko said softly before continuing in a softer tone, slightly mockingly, “It’s like you said. The Avatar probably died a long time ago. Come on, Akane, Uncle, we’re going.”

Zuko grabbed Akane by the arm and lead her to the door. But before Zuko could leave, the guards stopped him from leaving by crossing their spears while a third soldier entered the room.

“Commander Zhao, we interrogated the crew as you instructed. They confirmed Prince Zuko had the Avatar in custody, but let him escape,” a soldier declared.

Zhao smiled evilly, “Now remind me, how, exactly, was your ship damaged?”

“You better come clean, Zuko,” Akane whispered.

“The Avatar caused an avalanche which damaged the ship,” Zuko answered reluctantly.

“Tell me, Prince Zuko… What was the Avatar like?” Zhao questioned.

Zuko sighed, “He’s an airbender. A 112-year-old in the body of a child. He’s hardly aged at all somehow.”

“So, a twelve-year-old boy bested you and your firebenders. You’re more pathetic than I thought,” Zhao mocked.

“I underestimated him once, but it will not happen again!” Zuko snapped angrily.

“No, it will not. Because you won’t have a second chance,” Zhao responded aggressively.

Zuko stood up, alarmed, “Commander Zhao, I’ve been hunting the Avatar for two years and I- “

Zhao angrily turned around as he spread flames in an arc, “And you failed! Capturing the Avatar is too important to leave in a teenager’s hands. He’s mine now.”

Zuko’s face contorted in anger and he jumped at Zhao. Before Zuko could reach the commander, he was held back by the two guards.

“Keep them here,” Zhao ordered as he walked away, leaving an angrily panting Zuko.

Enraged, Zuko kicked the table in front of Iroh, breaking it clean in two, sending the objects that were on it flying through the room. Akane glanced at Zuko worriedly while Iroh remained in the corner.

“More tea please,” Iroh requested with a hint of amusement in his voice.

“Now is not the time for tea, Iroh,” Akane commented.

Iroh gasped, “There is always a time for tea!”

Suddenly, a guard entered the room and glanced in Akane’s direction, “Commander Zhao has requested Miss Akane’s presence outside.”

“What? Why?” Zuko asked angrily.

“That is for Miss Akane to know and for her only. If you would please,” the guard replied as he gestured for Akane to follow him.

“Don’t worry, Zuko. I’ll be fine,” Akane reassured him as she followed the guard out.

Akane felt an uneasy feeling build up inside of her as she followed the guard outside. She had no idea what it was that Zhao would want to talk to her about, but just the thought of speaking to that man sent shivers down her spine. There was just something about him that Akane didn’t like, and it was probably the way that he spoke to Zuko. Anyone who spoke to Zuko like the way Zhao did earned Akane’s distaste.

Eventually, the guard lead Akane to a private place outside where she saw Zhao standing. Once the guard made their presence known, he turned to face her with that same smirk that riled Akane up.

“Ah, you’re here now. Come stand with me. I have something important to discuss with you,” Zhao stated.

“And what would that be?” Akane asked.

Zhao chuckled, “Ozai told me that you were highly-strung. That is actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Me being highly-strung?” Akane questioned.

“No, your abandonment of the Fire Nation after Prince Zuko was banished. You had no right to just leave like you did,” Zhao answered.

“I left because I wanted to. I refused to stay anywhere near Ozai after what he did to Zuko,” Akane spat.

Zhao growled at her, “You’ve done yourself no favours by going with that bratty prince. You would be far more useful back in the Fire Nation. If you weren’t stuck with him then you would have plenty of time to perfect your studies and reach your true potential.”

“So, you’re saying that Ozai would just welcome me back with open arms if I took the chance?” Akane queried, not understanding what Zhao was saying.

“That is exactly what I’m saying. You have so much potential that is being wasted on that pathetic excuse of a prince. You could join me as we aid our nation in its quest to supremacy. Then you could finally return home and be treated like you deserve,” Zhao offered.

“You want me to join you?” Akane clarified.

“Yes, I do. You might not see the raw power that you possess but I do. Do not waste your potential,” Zhao said.

“No. I want nothing to do with you, or that monster you call a Fire Lord. So, you can forget about me helping you because it’s not going to happen. My loyalty lies with Zuko and with Zuko only,” Akane proclaimed.

“Very well. I can see that you’ve made your choice. But I should say that Ozai will not give up on you. He wants nothing but the best for you,” Zhao stated.

Akane scoffed, “If Zhao wanted the best for me then he would leave me alone and stay out of my way, just like you should if you would excuse me.”

With that, Akane stalked off and headed towards the tent where she had came from, not wanting anything to do with Zhao anymore. Akane couldn’t believe that Zhao had the audacity to offer her something like that, when it should’ve been obvious that she would stand by Zuko no matter what after she left to go with him. When Akane walked inside the tent, it was just Iroh and Zuko inside while the guards stood by the entrance.

“What did Zhao want?” Zuko asked once he saw her enter.

“Nothing, really,” Akane murmured.

Zuko raised his eyes, “Really? Zhao pulled you outside to talk about nothing?”

Akane sighed, “He wanted me to go with him and his crew.”

“He what?” Zuko roared.

“But don’t worry, I said no and left before he could even offer me anything else,” Akane reassured him.

“I knew that you wouldn’t say yes but I can’t believe that Zhao would offer you something like that. Why would he even offer you something like that? You’re banished just like I am,” Zuko said.

Akane shrugged, “I don’t know. But I knew that he had to have something in mind that wouldn’t be good for you or me, so I refused. Zhao’s always up to no good when it comes to us anyways.”

Just then, Zhao chose that moment to walk into the tent, shooting a disdainful glare in Akane and Zuko’s direction.

“My search party is ready. Once I’m out to sea, my guards will escort you back to your ship and you’ll be free to go,” Zhao stated.

“Why? Are you worried I’m going to try and stop you?” Zuko questioned angrily.

Zhao laughed out loud, clearly amused, “You? Stop me? Impossible?”

Zuko angrily stood up, his anger showing, “Don’t underestimate me Zhao! I will capture the Avatar before you!”

“Prince Zuko, that’s enough,” Iroh said sternly.

“You can’t compete with me. I have hundreds of war ships under my command and you? You’re just a banished prince. No home, no allies. Your own father doesn’t even want you,” Zhao boasted.

“You’re wrong! Once I deliver the Avatar to my father he will welcome me and Akane home with honour and restore my rightful place on the throne!” Zuko exclaimed angrily.

“If your father really wanted you home, he would have let you return by now, Avatar or no Avatar. But in his eyes, you are a failure and a disgrace to the Fire Nation,” Zhao taunted.

As much as Akane hated to admit it, she knew that Zhao was right. It was obvious to everyone except Zuko that his father wanted nothing to do with him. In fact, Akane would even go as far to say that Ozai had been waiting for the right opportunity to get rid of him.

“That’s not true,” Zuko insisted.

“You have the scar to prove it,” Zhao pointed out.

With a cry of frustration, Zuko jolted up out of his chair and into Zhao’s face as the two stared at each other in anger.

“Maybe you’d like one to match!” Zuko yelled furiously.

“Is that a challenge?” Zhao asked mockingly.

“An Agni Kai. At sunset,” Zuko stated, much to Akane’s horror.

“Very well,” Zhao responded as he erected himself. “It’s a shame your father won’t be there to watch me humiliate you. I guess your uncle and friend will do.”

“Zuko! Are you crazy?” Akane exclaimed once Zhao left the room.

“Prince Zuko, have you forgotten what happened las time you duelled a master?” Iroh asked worriedly.

“I will never forget,” Zuko muttered darkly.

“Are you really going to go through with this?” Akane asked.

“Yes, I can’t back down after I challenged him. That will make me look even more pathetic than he already thinks I am,” Zuko declared.

“But you’re not pathetic. You don’t have anything to prove to Zhao. You’re ten times the person he is, and you know that,” Akane said.

“Why are you so against this?” Zuko asked.

“You’re seriously asking me that after what happened last time? I don’t want you getting another scar, Zuko,” Akane replied.

“I know what this is really about. You don’t have faith in me,” Zuko accused.

“What? Zuko, you know I believe in you. Can you blame me for being worried like this after what happened the last time?” Akane argued.

“You’re my friend, you’re supposed to believe in me. Yet you don’t. Some friend you are,” Zuko scoffed.

“Prince Zuko, do not speak to Akane like that. She’s just concerned for your safety as am I,” Iroh scolded his nephew.

“I am your friend! That’s why I’m worried about you!” Akane exclaimed.

“Are you going to support me in this or not?” Zuko questioned.

Akane paused for a moment before giving her response, “No. I’m not going to watch you put yourself through that again. I’m not coming to watch.”

“Suit yourself,” Zuko muttered.

After that, Akane stormed out of the tent with no intention of going back which left Iroh and Zuko alone. Once Akane had left, it didn’t take Zuko long to realise why Akane had been so upset. Guilt swept through him as he realised what affect him challenging Zhao to a duel would have on Akane. He should’ve known better than to act like that to his friend.

“Are you going to go after her, Prince Zuko?” Iroh asked.

Zuko sighed, “I can’t let her distract me from my duel. I’ll talk to her later.”

As much as Zuko wanted to go after Akane, he knew that now wasn’t the right time to do so. He knew that she would just try to convince him not to go through with this, and Zuko wasn’t in any position to back down. How could he, after he was the one who challenged Zhao in the first place? It looked like Zuko was going to have to go through this duel, whether Akane wanted him to or not.

~*•°•*~

Sunset had arrived and Akane was left sitting in her room on the ship while Zuko had gone off to face against Zhao in his Agni Kai. Part of Akane felt bad that she hadn’t gone to watch, let alone wish him good luck but she just didn’t want to have to watch Zuko go through that again. Deep down, Akane believed that Zuko could beat Zhao but that didn’t mean she thought he would get out of it unscathed.

A knock on the door snapped Akane out of her thoughts about Zuko so Akane hesitantly got up to open it since she was half-expecting to see Zuko there, only to find Kyou standing on the other side.

“Oh, Kyou. It’s just you,” Akane sighed.

“Expecting someone else?” Kyou asked.

“No, it’s just… Never mind,” Akane murmured.

“So, I heard that Prince Zuko challenged Commander Zhao to an Agni Kai,” Kyou said.

“Yeah. It should be happening right about now,” Akane replied.

“Shouldn’t you be there with him then?” Kyou questioned.

“I didn’t want to watch Zuko go through that again, so I stayed here,” Akane answered.

“Oh, I understand. Why are you still here?” Kyou asked.

Akane raised her eyebrows, “What do you mean?”

“Why are still here, with Zuko? You could return home whenever you want. I’d do that if I had the option, but I’m kind of stuck working here,” Kyou explained.

“Zuko’s my friend, Kyou. He has been for practically my entire life. I’d do anything to support him. Though, I guess I draw the line at watching him do something as stupid as this,” Akane said.

“I’m just surprised that Zuko made you come with him. He didn’t strike me as the kind of person to drag his friend on an impossible quest for the rest of her life,” Kyou admitted.

Akane tensed up at that, “Yeah, well, Zuko didn’t really ask me to come. I left to go with him. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

“Fire Lord Ozai actually let you leave on your own accord?” Kyou asked, somewhat shocked.

“Not really. I did kind of run away after he refused to let me go with Zuko,” Akane revealed.

“Does Prince Zuko know this?” Kyou questioned.

Akane sighed, “No. As far as he’s aware, I’m here because Ozai banished me with no intention of letting me return. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell Zuko that. Can you do that for me, Kyou?”

“Of course, I can. Especially after all the times you bailed me out of dealing with Prince Pouty Pants,” Kyou replied.

Akane laughed, “Just don’t let Zuko hear you saying that. Is there a reason why you came to see me, anyways?”

“Uh, no. Not really. I was just looking to see if anyone else was on board,” Kyou stammered.

“Okay, well, I’ll see you later then,” Akane said as she shut the door.

For the past three years, the only person who had known Akane’s true reasons for going with Zuko was herself. The rest of the crew just thought she was with him as his friend, while Iroh and Zuko thought that she had been banished. Akane felt like she could trust Kyou, since she had known him for over two years and he had done nothing to convince her otherwise. Besides, like he said he owed her for all the times she bailed him out of trouble.

Now with Kyou gone, Akane was left by herself once again to worry about Zuko’s fate. Part of her wished that she had gone to watch the Agni Kai, since then she wouldn’t have had to put up with this much anxiety, but she couldn’t bare to watch Zuko go through something like that again especially after what happened the last time.

“Please, Zuko. Just be alright,” Akane whispered.

As time ticked by, Akane was getting more and more nervous as she awaited for the result of Zuko’s Agni Kai with Zhao. Akane hoped more than anything that he would at least make it out with a small amount of harm done, but she just wasn’t sure if that was the case. In the meantime, Akane just stared up at the ceiling, hoping to distract herself from the anxiety that was building up in her chest. This wasn’t as bad as how she felt when it was Zuko’s first Agni Kai, but it was still pretty close.

Suddenly, Akane heard her door thrown open and she jerked up to see Zuko standing there. Her eyes widened as she jumped off her bed, quickly examining him to make sure that he was alright. Akane breathed a sigh of relief when she realised that there was no new scar or anything remotely close to an injury on Zuko. But then she started to wonder how that had even happened, since she at least expected him to get hurt in some way. Nevertheless, Akane threw herself into Zuko’s arms as she smiled into his chest.

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Akane murmured.

“Me too,” Zuko said as he gently pried her off him.

“How did it go? Did you win?” Akane questioned.

“It went fine and yes, I won,” Zuko stated proudly.

Akane smiled, “I knew you could do it, Zuko. I was just worried about you. Especially after…”

“Akane, you don’t have to say anything. I’m sorry for snapping at you like I did. You were just being a concerned friend and you didn’t deserve that,” Zuko apologised.

“It’s okay. I’m just glad you’re okay. So, was Zhao pissed that you beat him?” Akane asked eagerly.

“Of course, he was. For a moment I really did think he was going to beat me, but I just remembered my basics and that was the key. Even Uncle gave it to him after he snapped at me,” Zuko recalled.

“Now that, I wish I could’ve seen,” Akane admitted.

“It was definitely a proud moment for me,” Zuko said.

“I’m glad. So, where to next?” Akane asked.

“Well, the repairs are almost finished so we should be ready to leave in a few hours. We’ll be racing against Zhao now, so we’ll have to track down the Avatar fast. I’m just going to get some rest now so I’m ready for then,” Zuko replied.

Akane nodded, “You do that. I’ll be here.”

When Zuko shut the door to her room, Akane let out another sigh of relief at the fact that he was okay. It was still a surprise to Akane that Zuko had managed to get out of his duel without even a single scratch but even Akane didn’t give Zuko enough credit. She just hoped that Zuko wouldn’t do anything stupid like that again, but knowing Zuko’s knack for getting himself into trouble, Akane wasn’t so sure. She’d just have to wait and see how it all turned out.

Chapter Text

A few days had passed since Zuko's altercation with Commander Zhao. Since then, the repairs on their ship had been made and they set sail in the hopes of catching the Avatar. Now that Zhao and every other firebender knew that he was alive, it was truly going to be a race against the superiors to get the Avatar in their clutches. As much as Akane wanted to be confident in Zuko's abilities, she wasn't sure how he would be able to compete against every other firebender who wasn't confined to his limitations. But Akane knew that Zuko was determined to capture the Avatar, and just maybe his determination would be enough for him to succeed.

After sparring with Zuko in the afternoon, Akane was currently on deck while she continued her training with some of the other guards. Zuko wasn't with them since he had gone to the meditation room, and since meditation wasn't really Akane's thing, she opted to stay on the deck and continue her training. Despite being decades younger than most of the ships workers, Akane's skills were up there with Zuko's best trainers. In fact, she even surpassed some of them in certain areas. That was a result of her high-intensity training that she went through while she was still in the Fire Nation, since nothing but perfection was enough to please Ozai. Not that Akane had to appease to Ozai's wishes anymore, but that had always been her motivation in the past and it was what made her bending as strong as it was.

Fire clashed as Akane dulled her opponent, Kyou on the ships deck. This would have to be their fifth duel, since they were battling for a best of seven and Akane was currently up three to one. Their sparring had caught the attention of some of the ships other crew members, who eagerly watched to see what the result would be. Kyou made a swift fire kick while adding a few fire punches for good measure and Akane simply protected herself with a wall of fire before spreading it outwards to Kyou, who propelled himself into the air to avoid her attack. While he was in mid-air, Kyou sent a few quick-fire punches towards Akane who reacted by returning her own punches.

When Kyou landed back on the ground, he unleashed a pair of fire whips at Akane who counteracted with her own. Their whips clashed erratically as they battled for supremacy, and the duelling was beginning to take its toll on Akane. She was normally able to put up a much stronger fight against whoever her opponent was, but lately she had been struggling to achieve her true power and ferocity like she normally did. For a moment, Akane thought that Kyou would be able to beat her as he sent a powerful attack at her, but Akane was able to evade his attempt while returning the favour. That was enough to knock Kyou out of their designated ring, which meant that Akane had won the round and their overall duel.

As the crew members congratulated her on her win, Akane stumbled away before leaning over the ships railing as she suddenly felt an overwhelming sensation build up in her chest. It was unlike anything that Akane had experienced before, but she saw no reason to be concerned about her health since it wasn't like this had previously happened. Once Akane managed to calm herself down, she turned around to find Kyou standing in front of her as he wore a concerned look on his face. But once he saw that Akane was alright, he gave her a bright smile.

"That was a good match. For a moment I thought I had you, but you're just too good for me," Kyou praised her.

Akane smiled, "Thanks. You weren't too bad yourself. In fact, there were a few times when you almost had me."

"You seemed to be getting very tired around the end back there. Even now you seem a bit out of it. Are you alright?" Kyou asked.

"I'm fine. Just a little bit tired from training," Akane replied.

"Maybe you should take a break then?" Kyou suggested.

Akane nodded, "That would be a wise choice. It's getting late, anyways. I'll see you later, Kyou."

"Let me know when you want to spar again," Kyou said.

"Will do," Akane called back.

Taking a moment to herself, Akane took a few deep breaths to calm herself down. Deciding that it would be best for her to get some much-needed rest, Akane gathered her belongings and left the deck with the intention of returning to her chambers. However, once she walked below the ships deck she found Iroh heading towards her.

"Ah, Akane. I was just looking for you," Iroh addressed her.

"Do you need me for anything?" Akane asked.

"I was just going to give Prince Zuko a progress update and I was wondering if you would accompany me, since it most likely won't go down well with him," Iroh explained.

Akane grimaced, "Is it not good news?"

Iroh shook his head, "It is not. But I'm sure Prince Zuko will be able to handle it. Your appearance will just help soften the blow."

"Gee, thanks," Akane muttered.

Wanting to get this over with, Akane headed after Iroh as they made their way through the ships long corridors. Although Akane had been on this ship for nearly two years now, she still found it easy to get lost on some occasions so it was always easier to get around with somebody alongside her. They passed several of the crew members along their way, who politely greeted Akane and Iroh while they returned the greeting. Unlike Zuko, Akane and Iroh actually got along well with the crew members which made it easier to interact with them.

Eventually, they reached the meditation room and quietly opened the door so that they wouldn't disturb Zuko. Akane watched as he sat meditating, with four candles situated on a table that steadily increased and decreased in time with Zuko's relaxed inhalations and exhalations. The candles continued to brighten and dim under Zuko's control until Akane and Iroh walked inside the room, catching Zuko's attention.

"The only reason you should be interrupting me, is if you have news about the Avatar," Zuko stated calmly.

Iroh pushed the door away completely as he stepped towards his nephew while holding a rolled-up scroll in his hands, "Well, there is news, Prince Zuko, but you might not like it. Don't get too upset."

Zuko remained motionless as he assumed his meditative stance and calmly responded to his uncle, "Uncle, you taught me that keeping a level head is a sign of a great leader. Now, whatever you have to say, I'm sure I can take it."

Akane scoffed quietly, "This should be good."

Iroh tugged his beared as he spoke hesitantly, "Okay then. We have no idea where he is."

That seemed to be enough to put an end to Zuko's calmness as the flames of the candles suddenly erupted in a fiery mass, brushing the ceiling as Zuko angrily stood up.

"What!?" Zuko yelled, clearly enraged at the news.

"So much for keeping a level head," Akane muttered as she scrunched up her nose at the smell coming from the smoke while Iroh simply shield his face and withdrew a fan from his robe and waved it to cool himself down.

"You should really open a window in here," Iroh commented.

"And keep your voice down. Not everybody is awake, you know," Akane added.

"Give me the map!" Zuko demanded as he snatched the scroll from Iroh's hand and unrolled it, scanning over the parchment.

"Well, there have been multiple sightings of the Avatar, but he is impossible to track down," Iroh said.

"How am I going to find him, Uncle?" Zuko asked desperately as he glanced down at the map, with several locations marked down with zigzagged lines connecting each point. "He is clearly a master of evasive manoeuvring."

"The Avatar doesn't strike me as a master strategist," Akane remarked.

"Then what do you think he's up to?" Zuko snapped.

"Well, I'm not a betting girl but I'd be willing to put money down on the Avatar being lost," Akane said.

"What makes you say that?" Zuko asked.

"Considering the fact that this map is basically marked with zigzags, it would be safe to assume that he clearly has no idea where he's going. That, or he's just jumping from one island to the next," Akane replied.

"Akane's probably right," Iroh agreed.

"What are we supposed to do, then? Follow the zigzags?" Zuko grumbled as he crossed his arms like a child on time out.

"No wonder they call you Prince Pouty Pants," Akane muttered.

"What was that?" Zuko asked.

"Nothing," Akane quickly replied.

"How about we wait until morning before we make our next move? The Avatar himself is probably stopped somewhere now so we could quite possibly receive word of his whereabouts tomorrow," Iroh suggested.

Zuko sighed, "Fine. But I want everyone up and ready at dawn tomorrow."

"Very well. I shall pass the message onto the rest of the crew," Iroh said before leaving the room.

Once Iroh had left the room, Akane and Zuko stood there awkwardly as they avoided each other's gaze. Even though they had both apologised for what had happened with Zhao, there was still an air of thickness amongst the pair of friends, which Akane hated since she didn't like it when Zuko blocked her out. Deciding that this was the time to properly clear the air with Zuko, Akane glanced at her friend as she gave herself the courage to speak her mind.

"Zuko, we need to talk," Akane addressed him.

"About what?" Zuko asked.

"You know what. Don't act like you haven't felt the tension that's been around us ever since Zhao," Akane replied.

Zuko sighed, "Well, you've just seemed mad at me for whatever reason so I've just left it alone. Why are you even mad at me?"

"It's not that I'm mad at you, Zuko. I'm just worried about you," Akane admitted.

"Why would you have to worry about me?" Zuko queried.

"Because I don't like it when you do stupid stuff that could get you in serious trouble. Like challenging Zhao to an Agni Kai. Didn't you see how that affected me? I was so worried for you, Zuko. And you know that I worry for you easily yet you still go ahead and do stupid stuff like it's your hobby," Akane snapped.

"I thought we'd moved past this," Zuko muttered.

"We have. I just constantly worry about you doing anything reckless because I don't want you getting hurt again. You've already been hurt enough," Akane explained.

"Akane, you know that I can't promise you that I won't get hurt. People get hurt all the time. It's not something you can prevent," Zuko reasoned.

"It is when you could easily not do it," Akane pointed out.

"What do you want from me, Akane?" Zuko asked.

"I want you to promise me that you'll stop being so stupid all the time. I know that you want to capture the Avatar, but your safety is more important than him. Besides, it's not like you'd be in any state to capture him if you did something dangerous that got you hurt," Akane said.

"Fine. I promise that I'll try and be more careful," Zuko conceded.

"Good. Now, you better stay true to that promise, for me," Akane ordered.

"I'll try my best," Zuko smirked.

Akane rolled her eyes, "I guess that's all I should expect."

"Enough about me. Are you alright, Akane?" Zuko asked seriously.

Akane raised her eyebrows at the sudden change of topic, "What do you mean?"

"You seem… unsettled," Zuko trailed off.

"Oh. I've just had an intense training session. Nothing a good night's sleep can't fix," Akane dismissed Zuko's worries.

"If you're sure. I'll see you in the morning," Zuko said.

"Goodnight, Zuko," Akane called as she left his room.

Akane smiled to herself as she wondered down the corridor, knowing that she'd officially smoothed things over with Zuko and that there shouldn't be anymore problems with their friendship. However, Akane couldn't help but think that this wouldn't be the last time that she'd get upset at Zuko's antics despite his promise, since Zuko seemed to have a habit of making all the stupid decisions and the wrong moves. The only thing Akane could hold onto was Zuko's promise, since that should be enough to keep him in line but Akane still worried about her friend's future actions. It would be interesting to see how long Zuko stayed true to his promise.

~*•°•*~

The next day, Akane was wondering around the ship as she searched for Iroh and Zuko. There was still no word on the Avatar's whereabouts, and for Zuko's sake she hoped that they'd find something soon, since it was obvious that her friend was getting more and more frustrated at the lack of development in their search. Which for Zuko, meant taking out his anger on the rest of the crew members. They already didn't like him enough, and his attitude towards them only made it worse. Unlike Zuko, Akane actually got on with the rest of the crew members and prided herself on knowing each and every one of their names.

That just so happened to be the case when she saw Meili, one of the crews cleaners heading towards her. Meili was seven years older than Akane, at twenty-three years old although she still had the heart of a child, which made Akane closer to her than most of the crew members. Based on the look on her face, Akane could tell that Meili was in a sour mood which was surprising since Meili was always cheerful.

"Everything alright?" Akane asked her.

"No," Meili muttered. "It's Prince Pouty Pants."

"What did Zuko do now?" Akane groaned, knowing that that was what some of the crew members often referred to Zuko as. Even Akane referred to him as such in her mind, but never out loud.

"Apparently I don't know how to clean the dishes properly. He said I was doing it wrong, when I've been cleaning all of my life!" Meili exclaimed.

"Zuko just likes things done his way," Akane reasoned.

"Well, his way stinks," Meili complained.

Akane laughed, "For someone who's twenty-three, you're not really acting your age."

"Who says I have to act my age?" Meili stuck her tongue out.

Akane giggled, "True. You do you, girlfriend."

"And you tell your boyfriend to quit being such a jerk," Meili commented.

Akane blushed, "Boyfriend? Zuko's just my friend!"

"Yeah, I know that. But you guys sure do act like boyfriend and girlfriend sometimes," Meili argued.

"We do not. We're just friends. Nothing more, nothing less," Akane insisted.

"Calm down, I'm just messing with you," Meili said.

"Whatever. Anyways, since Zuko criticised your cleaning does that mean you've seen him nearby?" Akane asked.

Meili nodded, "Yeah, I saw him and his uncle heading into one of the rooms down that corridor."

"Thanks, Meili. I'll see you around," Akane said.

"Make sure you tell your boyfriend what I said!" Meili called out to her.

Shaking her head as she walked away, Akane couldn't help but blush at Meili's comments about her and Zuko. Did they really act that much like a couple? Of course, Akane would say that they didn't but on the outside she could see why other people would think that. After all, they did have a bond unlike most people her age had for which she was thankful for.

Eventually Akane found Zuko and Iroh sitting together in the dining room, and Akane couldn't help but chuckle at Zuko's scowl. Although the situation itself wasn't something to be laughed at, Akane just found Zuko's reactions amusing. But Zuko certainly didn't find the situation funny whatsoever.

"What's so funny?" Zuko snapped.

"You should wipe that scowl off your face. It's hard to take you seriously when your acting like a child," Akane suggested.

"Akane does have a point, Prince Zuko. People do not take leaders seriously when they do not even take themselves seriously," Iroh advised his nephew.

"You should listen to Iroh," Akane agreed.

Zuko groaned, "You two are not making this situation any better."

"Hey, we're just trying to make you feel better. You can't walk around all the time looking like you have a papaya stuck up your butt," Akane pointed out.

"I do not look like I have a papaya stuck up my butt!" Zuko exclaimed.

Akane giggled, "Looks like somebody needs their beauty sleep."

"You didn't get enough of it," Zuko rebuffed, although he didn't mean that comment as a personal attack which Akane knew as well. This was just one of those times when they'd tease each other senseless, but Iroh wasn't about to put up with their shenanigans when they had other matters to attend to.

"Alright, you two. Let's settle down and focus on what we need to do," Iroh said.

"We need to find out where the Avatar is. We can't keep following him around like we are now, since all that does is give him the upper hand with that beast of theirs," Zuko stated.

"It's not a beast. I think the correct term is bison," Akane corrected him.

"Whatever it is does not matter. What matters is finding out where the Avatar is heading," Zuko said as slammed his fist down on the table.

"What did that table ever do to you?" Akane asked.

Zuko glared at her, "Enough with the jokes."

Before either of them could make another comment, the door to the room opened as Chen walked in with their lunch and placed it on the table. Akane grinned as she smelt the deliciousness of the food in front of her. Chen's cooking was definitely Akane's favourite, so she was looking forward to enjoying this meal.

"I have news for Prince Zuko," Chen stated.

"What could you possibly have that would be of importance to me?" Zuko snapped, causing Akane to nudge him disapprovingly which mead Zuko rephrase his previous statement. "What is this news you speak of?"

"While I was in the town at our latest pit stop, I received news on the Avatar's whereabouts that I thought you should know," Chen explained.

Zuko's eyes widened, "What? Where is he?"

"Word has spread about the Avatar supposedly being on Kyoshi Island," Chen replied.

That was enough to snap Zuko into motion as he abruptly stood up and exclaimed, "The Avatar's on Kyoshi Island? Uncle, ready the rhinos! He's not getting away from me this time."

As Zuko got up to leave, Iroh took that as an opportunity to get his nephew's food for himself, "Are you going to finish that?"

"I was going to save it for later!" Zuko retorted as he snatched the plate of fish.

"Hey!" Akane cried indignantly as Iroh crossed his arms and huffed to himself.

"I know there's more important things to life than fish, but it's so sad," Iroh said sadly.

Akane put a comforting hand on Iroh's shoulder as she sympathised with his loss. She too had been looking forward to the meal that was sure to tend to her hunger, only for it to be quite literally snatched away from her.

"I'm sure what we have left here will be enough for our stomachs," Akane reasoned.

"You should probably go and get ready with Prince Zuko, since he will surely require your assistance," Iroh suggested.

"Are you saying that because you mean it, or because you want all of the food to yourself?" Akane asked.

Iroh laughed, "I'll admit to both. But in all seriousness, Kyoshi Island is not that far away from where we are now."

Akane sighed, "I guess you're right. But I expect plenty of food for the both of us next time."

"You'll just have to try and stop me, Akane," Iroh called as Akane left the room.

Knowing that Iroh was right and that she would be most likely joining Zuko in the line of fire, Akane headed off to her chambers to get ready for battle. Although Akane couldn't ignore the rumbling feeling that still remained in her stomach. Maybe she could sneak in a snack before she got ready to leave with Zuko…

~*•°•*~

The time had come for Akane and Zuko to ready their rhinos for their assault on Kyoshi Island. From what Akane knew about the place, it was relatively isolated from the rest of the world and they had somehow managed to stay out of the war for the past century. There was also apparently this giant sea monster that resided near the islands waters, which made Akane hope that they wouldn't come across it. As they got ready for their assault on the island, Akane suddenly felt that nervous feeling building up inside of her that she remembered from the first time they fought against the Avatar.

Although Akane knew that capturing the Avatar was vital for Zuko, it wasn't something that Akane felt entirely comfortable with. It's not like she would be benefited in any ways if they succeeded in Zuko's mission, contrary to what he thought. Even if Zuko managed to successfully capture the Avatar and bring him to his father, Akane doubted that Ozai would think twice about letting her return to the Fire Nation after she left the way she did. Despite her doubts, Akane knew that she had to do her part as Zuko's friend and help him capture the Avatar, no matter how much her heart didn't want her to.

"Is everything ready to go?" Akane asked Zuko as she approached him.

Zuko nodded affirmatively, "The rhinos are fit and ready to go, just like the soldiers. All we need to do now is wait for the ship to hit the shore."

"Can you promise me something, Zuko?" Akane asked hesitantly.

"What?" Zuko queried.

"Please don't use any unorthodox methods to get the Avatar. If you can get him without hurting anybody else, do it. The villagers don't deserve to have that sort of treatment," Akane said.

Zuko sighed, "I'll try my best. But if the Avatar decides to make things difficult, I'll have no choice but to use brute force."

Figuring that was as good as a promise that Akane was going to get, she decided to take Zuko's word for what it was. The thought of hurting innocent people made Akane feel sick in her stomach, and although he didn't show it, she knew that Zuko felt the same way as well. Akane just hoped that they'd be able make it through this assault in one piece, and that Zuko wouldn't do anything stupid like he always managed to.

Soon enough, the ship docked at the island's waters, catching the attention of the gigantic sea monster that feared the ships massive size as it retreated into the water. Once the ship's bow landed on the ground, the rhinos piled out of the vessel one after another as they headed up Kyoshi Island. As the rhinos made their stampede, Akane couldn't help but glance around and admire the scenery, before she reminded herself that she wasn't here to look at the view, but to capture the Avatar even if she didn't want to.

"I want the Avatar alive," Zuko ordered as they continued their assault.

"I'm sure he'll appreciate that," Akane muttered.

As she trailed behind Zuko and the soldiers, Akane could've sworn that she heard some rustling from a few nearby rocks. With her curiosity getting the best of her, Akane steered her rhino towards the rocks and did her best to see what the commotion was without potentially disturbing whatever it was. Akane could make out a few short coughs, along with a muffled voice.

"Katara… don't ride the Unagi. Not fun…"

Akane's eyes widened as she recognised the Avatar's voice before they narrowed in curiosity. What in the name of Agni was the Unagi? It certainly wasn't anything that Akane had heard of before. It didn't take long for Akane to realise the situation that she'd put herself in. Now she was faced with exposing the Avatar's hiding spot, or letting it slide once again. But Akane had promised herself after the last time that she wouldn't let the Avatar escape Zuko's grasp again, even if she didn't want to take him.

This tug of war that Akane found herself having was frustrating to say the least, since she wanted both sides to win. Akane didn't want to capture the Avatar, but at the same time she didn't want to let him go knowing how much it meant to Zuko. In a split second, Akane made her decision just as Zuko called for her attention.

"Akane! What's taking you so long?" he yelled.

"Nothing important. Just thought I heard something. False alarm," Akane replied as she steered her rhino away from the rocks.

Although Akane could've easily given away the Avatar's position – which she almost did – Akane figured that there would be another chance for Zuko to get the Avatar, since now wouldn't exactly be the best time for any of them to go into battle. Just like the last time, guilt swarmed through Akane knowing what she had just done. As much as she tried to rationalise her actions, Akane knew that she could've done things differently. She just hoped that her actions wouldn't come back to bite her in the butt.

Focusing on their mission at hand, Akane followed after the other rhinos as they headed towards the village. It didn't take long for it to come into view, and Akane wasn't surprised to see that all of the villagers had retreated into their homes. There were a few villagers that occasionally popped their heads out from their homes. Even though their faces were in the distance, Akane could spot the fear plastered on their expressions a mile away and she felt guilty knowing that she was responsible for them feeling that way.

Get a grip and focus, Akane. Don't let Zuko down again. Akane thought to herself.

"Come on out, Avatar! You can't hide from me forever," Zuko shouted as the rhinos made their way through the small village. "Find him."

One after another, the rhinos moved into the town. Just like before, Akane stayed at the back as she glanced behind, noticing the large statue of Avatar Kyoshi that towered above them. It almost felt like her eyes were staring into Akane's soul, even though it was only just a statue. Suddenly, Akane could've sworn that she heard the sound of a fan opening nearby before spotting a flash of green dart past the rhinos. Their movements were suddenly haltered as three figures dressed in green fabric jumped towards the soldiers, knocking some of them off their rides. One of the warriors landed in front of the leading rhino and opened her fans as the rider stabbed at her with his spear. She moved to the right before disarming the rider and jumping up to knock him off his steed with a spinning kick. Akane couldn't help but admire their skills for a moment before realising the situation that they were in.

Another warrior came running towards Zuko, who sent a fire blast towards her which she managed to avoid. The warrior jumped over another blast and attempted to attack Zuko from the air, but he simply turned his rhino to the side which slammed the girl away with a sweep of it's tail, knocking her down. Akane winced at the impact, knowing that it would've hurt. With the girl lying on the ground, Zuko readied himself to shoot a fire blast at the girl, but right before it would've burned her, another warrior jumped before her and decimated the flames with a sweep of their fan. The second warrior prepared to fight Zuko, but before they could do anything, another warrior jumped off a nearby roof and knocked a surprised Zuko off his rhino, causing the beast to dash away.

"He had that coming," Akane muttered, somewhat angry at Zuko for almost burning the girl after he promised that he wouldn't hurt anyone unless it was absolutely necessary.

"I guess training's over," the warrior who came to the girl's aid said, causing Akane to narrow her eyes as she recognised the voice.

Isn't that the guy who's with the Avatar? But why is he wearing a dress and makeup? Akane wondered.

While her thoughts distracted her, another warrior launched themselves at Akane with their fans ready to attack. Just before the warrior would've knocked Akane off her rhino, she got her focus back on before pulling out a shield and using it to knock the warrior down. Meanwhile, Zuko angrily opened his eyes as he found himself cornered by several of the warriors who had attacked him. Once he assumed a fighting stance, Zuko pushed himself up and rapidly spun around on his hands while shooting fire out of his feet, knocking one of the warriors back into the house and slamming another against a wooden pole where she collapsed in pain. Zuko proceeded with a low fire kick in the boy-warrior's direction. He managed to jump over the fire once, but as soon as he landed again, Zuko took that as an opportunity to sweep his feet from underneath him, causing him to fall on his back. Zuko then jumped into the middle of the street as he angrily looked around the deserted street.

"Nice try, Avatar! But these little girls can't save you," Zuko exclaimed.

Akane glared at him, "Hey, little girls can do anything they put their mind to!"

"Now is not the time for that, Akane," Zuko snapped.

"I guess you're right," Akane agreed as she spotted a familiar figure in the distance.

"Hey! Over here!" the figure yelled, and Akane didn't need to look twice to know that it was the Avatar as he held out his staff in front of him like he was challenging Zuko. His name was Aang, wasn't it? Just like the boy's name was Sokka and the girl's name was Katara.

"Finally!" Zuko hissed.

Commencing their battle, Zuko sent two fireballs in Aang's direction as he prepared to face the incoming, burning projectiles. Aang ducked underneath the first and used his staff to decimate the next fireball. He then rapidly spun his staff over his head, propelling himself into the air. He landed in front of Zuko, who immediately kicked the staff out of his hands. Aang jumped up and landed between two fans that were lying on the ground nearby. Using the fans to his advantage, Aang stood up and picked them up with his airbending. Zuko madly charged towards Aang with his fist already held stretched out before him. Aang simply spun around a few times to create a bigger momentum and used the extra power of his swirl to blast Zuko into a nearby house with a strong blast of air.

"He had that coming too," Akane murmured.

Now that Zuko was out of the way, Akane suddenly found herself as the focus of the attacks with several of the warriors charging towards her. Not wanting to hurt anybody, Akane simply leaped forward on her rhino and shot a blast of fire towards the warriors with her feet in an attempt to keep them away from her. However, they continued to make their way towards her at full speed, so Akane simply jumped off the rhino and ran past a nearby house in an attempt to get them off her trail, which she successfully managed to do.

Even without Akane and Zuko leading the charge, the battle between the soldiers and the warriors waged on as Akane ran past several houses, stopping once she caught sight of two figures wearing green in the distance. Since she didn't want to be seen, Akane ducked down and crept around the houses with the intention of not getting spotted. As she crept closer towards the two figures, she could make out bits and pieces of their conversation as she recognised their voices from before.

"There's no time to say goodbye," the girl said hurriedly.

"What about I'm sorry?" the guy, Sokka, offered.

"For what?" the girl asked, almost taken back.

"I treated you like a girl when I should've treated you like a warrior," Sokka admitted.

"I am a warrior," the girl stated before leaning forward to kiss Sokka on the cheek, and Akane could spot the blush forming on his cheeks from where she was standing. "But I'm a girl too."

Akane smiled to herself, since she couldn't help the butterflies that swelled up in her chest at the cuteness of the scene in front of her. She then glanced towards the village, and Akane frowned at the damage that their soldiers had inflicted on the village. This wasn't what Akane wanted to happen. The villagers didn't deserve this, but they had got caught in the crossfire anyways. As Akane made her way past the houses, she failed to notice that her position had been compromised until she heard a somewhat manly shriek, causing Akane to shriek as well.

"It's you!" Sokka exclaimed.

"It's me," Akane stated.

"Stay back, I'm warning you," Sokka threatened as he held out his fans.

"Relax, I'm not going to hurt you. Why would I, since you look so pretty with your cute dress and makeup?" Akane teased with a giggle.

Sokka blushed, "It symbolises my bravery and honour!"

"Bravery and honour, huh?" Akane mused as she crossed her arms, and she couldn't help but think of Zuko when he mentioned honour.

"If you're not going to hurt me… then what are you going to do to me?" Sokka asked.

Akane sighed, "Nothing. Now get out of here before Zuko catches you. He's not exactly the type of person you'd want to be at odds with."

Seemingly shocked by Akane's words, it took Sokka a moment to recover before running off past the corner. Once he was gone, Akane let out a loud groan as she slammed her fists against a nearby house, frustrated at herself for what she had just done.

"Why did I just do that?" Akane whispered as she banged her head against the wall.

Just as she did so, Akane suddenly felt an overwhelming sensation of pain swell up in her chest again. Only this time, it was much more intense than it was the last time. The intensity of the pain spread throughout Akane's abdomen, which caused her breathing to hitch as she gasped for air. This pain was unlike anything that Akane had experienced before, even when she had her little episode on Zuko's ship earlier. It didn't take long for Akane to get to the point where she couldn't hold herself up anymore before she collapsed onto the ground as she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an attempt to sooth the pain.

"What's h-happening t-to me?" Akane stuttered in confusion and shock. She truly didn't understand why this was happening to her, since this sort of pain had only been getting worse and it wasn't like Akane had done anything for this to happen.

Akane's vision soon started to blur as she struggled to walk straight, resorting to crawling to get herself to safety. An array of water suddenly poured down over Akane and everything around her, which only seemed to make her feel worse. Eventually, Akane managed to stumble her way through to the village where she found Zuko and the other soldiers as they prepared to leave the village in pursuit of the Avatar who was flung into the air by a giant sea monster before being caught by his bison and flying away.

"Where is Akane?" Zuko demanded as stood amongst his soldiers. Everyone had been accounted for except for his friend, and Zuko wasn't just about to abandon her even if it meant giving up the Avatar's capture.

"Um, sir…" one of his solders trailed off as he pointed behind him.

Turning around, Zuko's eyes widened in shock as he caught the sight of his friend stumbling towards him. This was unlike anything that Zuko had seen before, since Akane never acted like this. Without thinking twice, Zuko ran towards his friend as she lunged towards the ground in a mess of tangled limbs.

"Akane, what's wrong?" Zuko asked fearfully.

"I d-don't k-know," Akane stuttered as she shook violently.

The concern for his friend was evident on Zuko's face as he desperately wanted to help her, but he didn't know how since he didn't even know what was wrong with her. As he saw the warriors approaching them, Zuko quickly picked Akane up before rushing her over to one of the rhinos and gently placing her on his. For a moment, Zuko glanced up in the sky as he saw the Avatar's bison fade in the distance. As much as he wanted to chase after him, he couldn't deny that Akane came first. There was no way that he was going to risk her safety for the Avatar. He could wait, by now Akane was more important.

"Z-Zuko. It h-hurts," Akane whispered as she buried her face in Zuko's chest while he rode off on his rhino.

"Where?" Zuko asked worriedly.

"Everywhere," Akane murmured.

"Just relax, Akane. We're going to get you to the ship as quickly as we can and everything will be fine. I promise," Zuko reassured her.

When Zuko didn't get a response form his friend like he thought he would, Zuko glanced down to see that Akane had passed out in his arms. Seeing her like this was a major kick in the guts for Zuko, since he felt like it was his own fault to a degree. He never should've left her alone in battle. But he did and now there was something seriously wrong with Akane. Whatever it was, it had to be serious since he had never seen his friend in a state like this before. Zuko just hoped that it wasn't too serious for Akane to handle.

Chapter Text

As soon as Zuko got Akane on board the ship after their disastrous raid on Kyoshi Island, he made it his mission to find out what had happened to his friend. While the ships nurse checked Akane out, Iroh suggested visiting a mystic that he knew in the Earth Kingdom. Despite Zuko not wanting to stray from the Avatar's trail, Zuko wasn't about to sacrifice Akane's health and well-being for his capture so Zuko ordered the ship to set sail to Iyashi no Sato, which wasn't that far off from Kyoshi Island.

Shortly after the ship set sail, Akane regained consciousness but Zuko had ordered her to stay in her room until they found out what was wrong with her, an order which didn't set well with Akane. Although she understood Zuko's reason's for wanting her to rest, Akane hated being treated like she was helpless but knew it was better to listen to Zuko than to stir up trouble. Truth be told, Akane was just as nervous about herself as Zuko and Iroh were, but she didn't want them to worry about her so she tried her best to appear fine. Her efforts did little to help, since although Akane was awake, she still felt weak for whatever reason.

Almost everyone on board had come to offer her their best wishes, since Akane was as close as she could be with the rest of the crew members. Currently, Akane was getting checked out by nurse Nuying, who had been one of the first people to respond to her condition.

"What's taking so long?" Zuko asked impatiently as Nuying did her tests.

"If you insist on being here, Prince Zuko, then I must insist that you be patient as well. Patience is not going to help Miss Akane," Nuying snapped.

"Alright, fine," Zuko muttered impatiently.

"Trust me, nurse Nuying. There is no need for this," Akane argued.

"Yes, there is. You almost fainted after suffering from alarming symptoms that cannot be ignored," Nuying insisted.

"When was the first time you started feeling like this?" Nuying questioned.

"A few weeks ago, shortly after we left the South Pole," Akane replied.

"And you've only been feeling like this since then?" Nuying clarified.

Akane nodded, "I've never felt like this before."

"That is very unusual them," Nuying noted.

"Can you tell me what's wrong with me?" Akane asked.

Nuying shook her head, "I'm afraid not. There could be numerous reasons as to why you're feeling like this, and any treatment that I give you could cause them to work in the opposite direction. The best thing you can do right now is rest and wait to see General Iroh's mystic."

"Some nurse," Zuko muttered bitterly, earning a glare from Akane.

"Thank you for your help, Nuying. If you wouldn't mind..." Akane trailed off, gesturing for her to leave.

"Of course," Nuying nodded in understanding. "In the meantime I'll see what I can do about your problems."

"Well, that was a waste of time," Zuko grumbled.

"She did everything she could. And you heard what she said, any possible remedy that she gives me without knowing what I'm dealing with could only make it worse," Akane reasoned.

"Still, couldn't she have been more helpful?" Zuko asked.

"Zuko, don't blame Nuying when this is hardly her fault," Akane rationalised.

"Then whose fault is it?" Zuko wondered.

"Mine," Akane replied.

Zuko narrowed his eyes, "How?"

"Well, I haven't exactly been taking care of myself that well recently," Akane pointed out.

"Then that won't be a problem anymore. From now on I'm going to look out for you as best I can so that nothing happens," Zuko proclaimed.

"That's sweet and all, Zuko, but I can't ask you to do that for me," Akane said.

"You're not asking me and I'm doing it," Zuko stated.

Knowing that there was no point in arguing with Zuko, Akane decided to let him have it and watch out for her for the time being, even if he could be suffocating at times. Then again, Akane should just be grateful that she has someone like Zuko who cared about her, since she didn't really have that many people in her life.

Eventually, the ship arrived at Iyashi no Sato where Iroh's mystic lived. Akane was nervous about the whole prospect, since she didn't feel entirely comfortable seeing someone she didn't know, even if they knew Iroh. On the other side of things, Akane was nervous about what she would find out, and hoped that it wouldn't be anything serious that would hinder her in the long run. Despite Akane and Zuko continuously asking Iroh about who this mystic was, Iroh gave them little information but reassured them that if anyone could find out what was going on with Akane that it would be her.

"Is this really necessary, Iroh?" Akane asked as she and Zuko trailed behind him.

"If you want to find out what is wrong with you, then yes," Iroh replied.

"Why does this mystic of yours even live in the middle of nowhere?" Zuko complained since they had been walking for almost an hour now.

"It's not that far from the nearby village, which was where I first became acquainted with her quite some time ago," Iroh recalled.

"How did you meet her?" Akane queried.

"It was when you and Zuko were young, while Lu Ten and I were off fighting in the war. Unfortunately, Lu Ten contacted a harsh virus with a very rare cure. After searching the nearby villages, I was eventually informed of Uilani, the island's mystic. Once I brought Lu Ten to her, she was miraculously able to cure him within hours and he was back to his normal strength," Iroh explained.

"Uilani sounds amazing. But why is she called a mystic though?" Akane questioned.

"Because she uses shamanism to reach altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel the transcendental energies into the mortal world," Iroh answered.

"How is that mumbo jumbo supposed to help Akane?" Zuko asked.

"It is not mumbo jumbo. Mystic's have been used for generations to cure those in need of help. It was even a mystic who developed the first cure for dragonpox," Iroh reasoned.

"Well, if you're sure this will help me then I'm willing to give it a try," Akane conceded.

Soon enough, the trio came across an isolated house that wasn't too far from a nearby village, which Akane assumed was where Uilani lived. As they neared the house, Akane caught the sight of a figure out the front and it was clear to Akane based on the way she looked that it was Uilani herself. Once they were at a close enough distance, Akane noticed how Uilani was dressed in flowing robes of numerous colours, which made it difficult to identify which nation she was from. Not that Akane had any problem with being helped by anyone from a different nation, it was just usually easy to deduce where someone came from based on the clothes they wore.

"Uilani!" Iroh called as they neared the woman.

The mystic turned to face the sudden intruders on her property, before recognising the old man whose son she had helped all those years ago. Smiling as she did so, Uilani made her way towards the trio as she greeted Iroh first. Using this as an opportunity to get a better look at Uilani, Akane noticed that there was paint adorned on her face with large earrings and matching bracelets to go with them. Uilani was certainly unlike anyone that Akane had seen before, since just the sight of her was mesmerising on its own.

"Well, if it isn't General Iroh. I never thought I'd see you here again," Uilani greeted him.

"As much as I wish this was a social call, Uilani, I'm afraid it isn't," Iroh stated.

"How can I be of service to you?" Uilani asked.

"Firstly, I'll have to introduce you to my nephew, Prince Zuko and our dear friend, Akane," Iroh announced.

"It is a pleasure to be at your acquaintance. Any friend of General Iroh's is a friend of mine," Uilani said.

"Unfortunately, something appears to be troubling Akane on the inside. She has been feeling rather faint recently and is having trouble breathing. Our ships healer was unable to identify what was wrong with her, so I was hoping that you might be able to help us," Iroh explained.

"I'm sure I can be of assistance. I've been a mystic for over twenty years now, and in that time, I have helped thousands of individuals seeking remedies for their troubles. I can honestly say that I have never been unable to help someone, so I'm sure I can help your friend," Uilani proclaimed.

"Let's just hope your skills are as high as your modesty," Zuko muttered loud enough for Akane to hear, causing her to jab him with her elbow.

"Don't be rude," Akane scolded him.

Uilani chuckled, "Ah, children. Sometimes I wish I had some of my own, but alas I haven't been able to find someone to settle down with."

"I wonder why," Zuko murmured, this time quiet enough so that only he could hear it.

"I understand that you usually require someone to give you a gift before you give them your service, but we are on a tight schedule and cannot afford to be waiting around for too long," Iroh cut to the chase.

Uilani nodded, "Under any normal circumstances, I would ask you to bring me something of worth to me, but after the help you gave me when I helped your son, I suppose I can make an exception."

"That would be greatly appreciated," Iroh said.

"Now, miss, why don't you come with me so that we can find out what is troubling you," Uilani suggested to Akane.

"Let's do it," Akane replied as they followed Uilani into her house.

When they entered Uilani's house, Akane quickly noticed how eccentric the place looked. It was certainly unlike any other house that Akane had ever been inside. There were strange paintings on the walls, which Akane soon realised where made out of bamboo, just like the rest of the house. There were also numerous objects hanging from the roof, including several lanterns which illuminated the room along with beautiful dream catchers.

"I take it by the look on your face that you like my domain," Uilani addressed her.

Akane nodded, "It's beautiful."

"We didn't come hear to go house browsing. We came here to find out what is wrong with Akane," Zuko snapped impatiently, not liking the time that they were wasting.

Uilani chuckled, "Impatient, I see? If you want me to find out what is troubling your friend, then I suggest that you treat me with respect, otherwise I might just turn you away."

"Fine, I apologise," Zuko muttered.

Akane's attention soon turned to the large space in the centre of the room, which was surrounded by a circle and included a bed at it's centre. Assuming that it was for her, Akane turned to face Uilani as she was ready to move on.

"What do I need to do?" Akane asked.

"I need you to lie down on that bed and make sure that you're relaxed," Uilani replied.

"I can do that," Akane nodded as she sat on the makeshift bed and spread her limbs out for Uilani to asses her.

"Where do you feel the most pain?" Uilani questioned.

"On my side. That's where it always starts," Akane answered, wincing as she unexpectedly felt another jolt of pain surge through her body.

"Then you're going to have to remove your garments so I can have a better look," Uilani proclaimed.

Realising that by removing her clothes that she would be exposing her scar – which Iroh and Zuko had no idea about – Akane's eyes widened. This certainly wasn't how she wanted them to find out, not that she even wanted them to find out to begin with. Deciding to use this as an excuse for them to live the room so that they wouldn't see her shame, Akane turned to face Uilani for help.

Understanding what Akane's look was implying, Uilani turned to face Iroh and Zuko to address them, "By removing her garments she will be exposing herself to you."

"In other words, could you please leave me and Uilani to ourselves?" Akane asked gently.

Zuko's eyes widened as he realised what Uilani meant. Not wanting to see his best friend half naked, Zuko quickly excused himself with Iroh shortly following him. Akane sighed now that she was left alone with just Uilani. Although Iroh and Zuko weren't with them, Akane still felt uncomfortable exposing herself to someone who was practically a complete stranger to her.

"I'm going to have to ask you to remove your shirt. Don't worry, there's nobody else but us here," Uilani reassured her.

Hesitantly, Akane slowly undid her shirt before lifting it over her head, leaving her in just her bindings to cover her chest. Almost immediately once she lifted her shirt, Akane heard Uilani gasp from beside her. Knowing that the woman had to have been gasping at her scar, Akane slowly turned to face her with the feeling of dread inside of her.

"My goodness! That is a nasty wound," Uilani exclaimed.

"It's not that bad," Akane whispered.

"How long have you had that scar for?" Uilani queried.

"Since I was twelve," Akane quietly responded.

"Do you mind asking me how you got that scar?" Uilani questioned.

Akane sighed, "It was a training mishap. I accidently burned myself."

"That looks more serious than a self-inflicted wound. Who hurt you, child?" Uilani inquired.

"Nobody. It was an accident. My own fault. I couldn't control my bending, so I hurt myself. Nobody hurt me," Akane insisted.

"If you're sure. But this isn't the only part where you're feeling pain, correct?" Uilani clarified.

Akane nodded, "I feel it everywhere below my chest. The pain happens spontaneously, but it quickly gets worse. Then I have trouble breathing and feel like I'm about to pass out."

"I see. When did you start experiencing this pain?" Uilani asked.

"Well, my chest has just been hurting for a few months now, but it's only gotten worse in the past few weeks," Akane admitted.

"Where was it when the pain started to intensify?" Uilani queried.

"Sometime after we left the South Pole, which was a few weeks ago," Akane replied.

Uilani hummed for a moment as she looked over Akane, "Before I can be certain of anything, I'm going to have to examine you so we can be absolutely certain of what you have."

Letting Uilani do her job, Akane simply laid down as she let the woman check her body. There were a few times when Akane tried to analyse Uilani to see if her expressions would give away anything, but Uilani did a pretty good job of staying focused and not giving anything away. That on it's own was enough to make Akane feel even more nervous as she worried what was wrong with her.

At one point, Uilani just left the room without saying anything which made Akane feel even more uncomfortable. However, Uilani quickly returned with some sort of ointment which she applied to Akane's torso. Almost instantly, Akane hissed at the cold feeling of the ointment before she eventually relaxed to it. What surprised her was that eventually the pain on her torso started to subside. Although it was still there, it wasn't as intense as it previously was.

"Can I ask what you did that for?" Akane uttered.

Uilani chuckled, "Considering you just did, yes. To answer your question, I'm not entirely sure what exactly is wrong with you, since there could be many reasons as to why you are experiencing the symptoms that you are. However, this ointment is a rare substance that is meant to soothe rashes, but it can also soothe pain in the appropriate areas."

"But what is wrong with me?" Akane asked nervously.

"You could have contacted some form of illness from your time in the South Pole, or it could very well be from before that. You are Fire Nation, correct?" Uilani clarified.

Akane nodded, "Yes, I am."

"Then unlike most people, you are not as easily adjustable to the cold. While the Water Tribe citizens might be used to the climate, others are not. Even then, the Fire Nation is the least adaptable to intense cold weather since they thrive on the heat and the cold is like their kryptonite," Uilani explained.

"I'm still confused," Akane admitted.

"What I am saying, child is that you are at a lot more risk of finding yourself attracted to an unwanted virus. There are numerous viruses that can be transmitted through air, without even needing the sender to be sick," Uilani simplified.

"So, what you're saying as that I'm sick?" Akane said.

Uilani shook her head, "I can't say for sure, but that could quite possibly be the cause of the symptoms you are experiencing. But then there are some areas which are alarming to me, but unlike anything that I have seen before."

"What do you mean by alarming?" Akane questioned.

"If not treated properly, I'm afraid that it could lead to severe problems for you in the future," Uilani answered.

"Then what can I do to make myself better?" Akane asked.

"The best you can do is to continue to apply this ointment every time you experience striking pain in your lower torso. That should make it subside for a few hours before it could strike again. As for your breathing problems, the ointment cannot help you in that area, but I do have something that can help you," Uilani replied.

Once she finished speaking, Uilani headed over to one of the nearby drawers before rummaging through it for a few moments and pulling out several leaves in various forms along with what she recognised as ginger root.

"These are the ingredients for Licorice Root tea. When mixed together, they can sooth your breathing and clear any problems in your respiratory system," Uilani explained.

"I've never heard of Licorice Root tea before," Akane mused.

"That's because it's something only used for healing. It's not necessarily the best of remedies for those who cannot brew tea, but with someone like General Iroh with you I'm sure you can manage," Uilani smiled.

"His tea is pretty good," Akane agreed.

"It was General Iroh who suggested that I combine these ingredients in the form of tea to help patients with severe cases. Although I knew it was possible beforehand, making tea wasn't exactly something that I was good at. While his son Lu Ten was recovering, General Iroh taught me how to make the perfect tea to help those who need it," Uilani recalled.

"That's why you agreed to help me for free," Akane realised.

Uilani nodded, "Yes, it is."

"Alright, so is that everything I need then?" Akane checked.

"Indeed, it is. However, I'm not sure if it will be a permanent solution for your troubles so I must ask you to keep General Iroh updated on your progress and in return he will inform me if there are any troubles. In the meantime, I will continue to do as much research as I can to find out what exactly has caused you this stress," Uilani proclaimed.

Akane smiled gratefully at Uilani, appreciative of her help, "Thank you for helping me."

Uilani returned a similar smile, "No need to thank my, child. Helping people is what I do. Now, I'll let you get dressed while I go talk to General Iroh."

Akane nodded at Uilani before quickly redressing herself and making sure that she had everything that Uilani had given her. Although Uilani hadn't helped her completely, Uilani had still done plenty of help which would surely make things easier for Akane in the long run. Once she was sure she had everything ready, Akane headed out of Uilani's house where she found Zuko waiting for her while Iroh and Uilani talked nearby.

"Is everything alright?" Zuko asked, concerned for his friend's well-being.

Akane smiled at him, "I'll be honest and say that Uilani couldn't exactly pinpoint what was causing me to have these troubles, but she did give some potential reasons that could be the cause. She also gave me some herbs and remedies to help me feel better if I have trouble again."

"That's great. Now we just have to make sure that you have them with you at all times. I don't want to risk you getting into trouble again," Zuko said.

Akane grabbed Zuko's shoulder, "Zuko, you don't have to worry about me, I can take care of myself. Besides, we have much more important things to worry about."

"I suppose your right," Zuko agreed before noticing Iroh walking towards them. "Here comes Uncle."

"Did everything go alright with Uilani?" Akane queried.

Iroh nodded, "Yes, she just went over the remedies that she gave you and you are to take those whenever you feel the slightest amount of pain. But you must be careful of how much you use since Uilani only gave us enough to last a few months."

"I'll be careful," Akane reassured him.

"Now that we're done here, can we please move on?" Zuko snapped.

Akane chuckled at Zuko's impatience, "Yes, we can Buster."

Zuko glared at her, "How many times have I told you not to call me that?"

"Obviously not enough," Akane quipped.

Iroh chuckled, "Come on, you two. Let's get moving on."

Not needing to be told twice, Akane and Zuko quickly followed Iroh as they left Uilani's house, not before Akane thanked the woman again for her help. As the walked away, Uilani couldn't help but watch Akane with interest as she wondered what could be going on with the young girl. Her condition was truly unlike anything that Uilani had seen before, and she had seen a lot of strange conditions during her time as a mystic. That thought on its own was enough to put concern into Uilani, and she would have to do more research and keep in touch with Iroh before she could deduce what exactly was happening inside the young girl.

~*•°•*~

It didn't take long for the trio to arrive back at Zuko's ship which was waiting for them where they left it. As they neared the ship, Akane noticed Kyou talking to some man who she had never seen before. Based on the armour he was wearing, Akane assumed that he was Fire Nation but Akane had no idea what he would want with them.

"Lieutenant Kyou, what is the meaning of this? Everyone was instructed to remain on deck while we were gone," Zuko demanded as they approached them.

"I apologise, Prince Zuko. Commander Haruto just came to report some very intriguing information that I think would be of use to you," Kyou said.

Zuko raised his eyes, "What is this information?"

"There was a prison break-out on one of our prison rigs off the west coast of the Earth Kingdom. It has been reported that the Avatar aided the prisoners in their escape," Haruto replied.

"Do you think it's worth checking out?" Akane questioned.

"If it's something to do with the Avatar, then yes. Thank you for the information, Commander Haruto. We will be leaving now," Zuko stated.

After thanking the commander, Akane, Iroh, Kyou and Zuko boarded the ship before it set sail in the direction of the prison rig where the Avatar was reported to have been at. The prison rig wasn't that far away from where they were now, so it wouldn't have been that long of a trip before they reached it. At one point, Kyou pulled Akane to the side to speak with her which sparked curiosity in the young girl.

"Is something wrong, Kyou?" Akane asked.

Kyou shook his head, "No. I was just wondering if everything was alright with you, after you went to see the mystic."

"Oh. She was very helpful. Although she couldn't exactly pinpoint what was wrong with me, she was able to give me some herbs and this ointment to help me. As long as I keep using it I should be fine," Akane explained.

Kyou sighed, "I'm glad that you're alright and I'll make sure that you stick to your remedies then."

Akane laughed, "There will be no need for that, since I'm sure that Zuko will be hounding me to stick to them more than anyone else."

"You value him as a friend, don't you?" Kyou asked.

Akane nodded, "More than anything. There isn't anything that I wouldn't do for Zuko, just like there isn't anything that he wouldn't do for me. We really are the only friends each other has ever had, so that's enough to make us close."

"I thought I was your friend," Kyou pouted.

"You know what I mean, Kyou," Akane chuckled.

"Do I really?" Kyou joked.

Before Akane could reply, they were interrupted by Zuko as he made his way towards them. Not wanting to get into any trouble with the stubborn prince, Kyou backed away as he assumed that whatever he was here for had nothing to do with him.

"What are you doing here, Akane?" Zuko questioned.

"I was just talking to Kyou. He was just wondering if I was okay," Akane answered.

Zuko glared at Kyou, "While I'm sure your concern for Akane is genuine, it is not needed. Please leave her to me and make yourself useful somewhere else."

"Of course, Prince Zuko," Kyou muttered before walking away, leaving Akane and Zuko to themselves.

Akane crossed her arms, "What was that about?"

"What do you mean?" Zuko rebutted.

Akane rolled her eyes, "Why were you acting like that towards Kyou? He was just being a concerned friend, just like you are."

"He is not your friend. He's just trying to take advantage as your position as my friend to put himself in a better position. Pretty slimy if you ask me," Zuko scoffed.

"Zuko, Kyou is not taking advantage of me. And unlike you, I actually get along with everybody on this ship so I would consider them all my friends. But don't worry, nobody could ever replace you, Buster," Akane reasoned.

"You can never be sure of anybody's intentions," Zuko argued.

"Zuko, are you a jealous of Kyou?" Akane inquired.

"Jealous? Of What? Why would I be jealous of someone as low as Kyou?" Zuko asked.

"Oh, you are jealous. How sweet. It's nice to know that you care about me Zuko, but you don't need to control who I do and don't talk to," Akane said.

"I'm not jealous!" Zuko exclaimed.

"Seriously, Zuko. Chill out. Kyou is of no reason to be worried. He's just being a good friend," Akane insisted. "Now instead of discussing your unnecessary jealousy, why don't you tell me what you came here for?"

"We're almost at the prison rig. You'll be coming with me and uncle once we get there," Zuko told her.

Akane nodded, "Then let's get ready."

Just like Zuko had said they would, it wasn't long before the ship arrived at the prison rig that was practically isolated in the middle of the ocean. As they made their way across the rig, Akane couldn't help but notice all of the coal that was scattered all over the place. Her attention then turned to the smokestacks, which Akane figured was where the coal had come from. But how did it get to here? There didn't appear to be any way for that to happen. Whatever the cause was, Akane assumed that it had something to do with the Avatar if he had supposedly bene here.

That's a big hole in the wall over there. No doubt earthbending had something to do with that. But how? There doesn't appear to be any earth in sight? Akane thought to herself.

With one glance at the supposed warden of the prison rig, Akane could tell that he was somewhat flustered about something, and she assumed that it was to do with the Avatar's escape attempt. There was no doubt that Fire Lord Ozai would hear about this, and then the warden probably wouldn't have any good odds at getting a promotion. One thing that Akane wondered was how on earth the Avatar had managed to orchestrate a prison escape. Sure, he might be the Avatar but from what he's seen he can only bend air, and there's only so much he could do with airbending.

"And you're sure the Avatar was here?" Zuko interrogated the warden.

The warden nodded, "Absolutely positive. He was with the girl who managed to infiltrate our prison. She even made a speech about how the Avatar had returned before he showed up. The boy had tattoos and everything, just like he's described."

"And you let the Avatar bust all the prisoners out?" Akane criticised.

"We didn't let him and the prisoners escape. They simply overwhelmed us and managed to get the better of us. If anyone should be blamed for this escape it should be Fire Lord Ozai himself! He was the one who ordered us to use coal to fuel our products, the very same coal that allowed the prisoners to escape!" the warden exclaimed.

"How did they use coal to escape?" Akane wondered.

"Coal is a form of earth, Akane. So, they were able to use their earthbending to manipulate the coal to their advantage," Iroh informed her.

"Oh," Akane realised before turning to the warden again. "But shouldn't you and your guards have been able to stop them?"

"We were overwhelmed!" the warden argued.

"Sure, you were," Akane muttered before noticing that Zuko had walked away from them and was glancing down at somethin on the ground before he picked it up.

Curiously, Akane headed towards Zuko – much to the warden's pleasure. Once she was at a close enough distance from him, she noticed that he was holding some sort of blue material in his hands as he gazed out at sea. Akane could tell by the look on his face that he was determined, more than he had been before.

"What's that?" Akane pointed at the object in Zuko's hands.

"This is our ticket to the Avatar," Zuko declared as he held the necklace up, in clear view of Akane.

Glancing at the necklace in Zuko's hands, Akane couldn't help but gasp as the engravings on the pendant attached to the blue material. It was certainly unlike any necklace that Akane had seen before, obviously Water Tribe as well. Once Akane realised that it was Water Tribe, she recognised it as the girl, Katara's necklace.

"It's the waterbenders necklace," Akane stated.

"Precisely," Zuko affirmed.

"It really is beautiful," Akane observed as she snatched it from Zuko's grasp. "What should we do with it?"

"Like I said, this is our ticket to the Avatar. No doubt the waterbender will want her necklace back. And if we play our cards right we might be able to make a deal with them," Zuko proclaimed.

"More like bribe them," Akane pointed out.

Zuko shrugged as he took the necklace from Akane, "Same thing. Either way, this necklace is ours now."

"But it's not. It belongs to someone else and we should do the right thing and return it to her," Akane suggested.

Zuko laughed at Akane, "I'll give it back to her once she gives us the Avatar. Seems like a fair trade to me."

"That is not a fair trade. You're putting them in an impossible situation. And to be honest, you're stealing," Akane argued.

"I'm not stealing, Akane. I'm just holding onto it for her until our paths cross again, which I'm sure they will. For now, I'll just keep it safe for her," Zuko said.

Realising that there was no point in arguing with her friend, Akane decided to let the subject drop as the pair made their way back to Iroh, who had finished his conversation with the warden. After that, they returned to their ship before setting sail once again in search of the Avatar. However, Akane couldn't help but feel the guilt inside of her knowing that they had taken something that didn't belong to them. While it wasn't technically stealing, Akane knew that she could easily hand it back to Katara, even if she wasn't in any position to do so.

It's the right thing to do. For Zuko. Akane thought to herself, although it wasn't as convincing as she'd like it to be.

~*•°•*~

Later that night, Akane found herself sitting in the ships kitchen as she prepared herself to take her first dose of her new medicine. As per Uilani's orders, Akane had to take her medicine at least three times a day. Uilani had been kind enough to give her plenty of the ingredients that would be required to make the remedies. Sighing, Akane put in the last few bits of leaves before she started mixing it all together.

However, Akane was soon joined by someone else in the kitchen and thinking that it would just be one of the other crew members fetching something for themselves, Akane simply maintained her focus on stirring her tea until it had the right consistency for her to drink it.

"You know, you shouldn't be up this late at night," they said.

Eyes widening, Akane turned around to see Kang, one of the ships attendants standing there. Being five years older than her, Kang was one of the few people along with Kyou who were relatively close to her age. Although, she and Kang never really got along as well as she did with Kyou, partly because Kang hardly even knew she existed. To him, she was just the annoying prince's sidekick, but to Akane, he was the most gorgeous boy she'd ever seen.

That's right, Akane had a crush on Kang. It wasn't like he was that older than her, so it wasn't that bad. Plus, Kang looked pretty damn hot without his shirt on. He had abs that could rival Zuko's and that's saying something since not many people were as strong as Zuko.

"Kang, what are you doing up?" Akane asked nervously.

"Just thought i'd get a night snack before I head off to bed," Kang replied. "What about you?"

"Oh, I'm just making my medicine," Akane replied.

"Medicine? For what?" Kang inquired, appearing concerned.

"I went to see a mystic about my fainting episode, and she thinks I've contacted some sort of virus so I have to take this stuff three times a day to get better," Akane explained.

Kang gave her a sympathetic look, "That's too bad. Well, I hope it works."

"You and me both," Akane muttered.

Just as Akane said that, Zuko entered the kitchen and looked relieved upon seeing Akane with the ingredients for her medicine. Although his relief then turned to a scowl upon seeing Kang standing there, especially when he saw the look on Akane's face at him. It was like the look that he'd saw any lovesick girl give a boy, and one that a girl like Akane should not be giving to someone like Kang.

"Well, I better get going, Akane. See you around," Kang said.

"Bye," Akane murmured as she left, leaving her and Zuko alone.

"What was that aout?" Zuko asked.

"He was just getting something to eat, and gave me his best wishes," Akane replied.

Zuko rolled his eyes, "Sure, that's all there was to it."

Akane narrowed her eyes, "What makes you say that?"

"Come on, Akane. I know you have a crush on him," Zuko stated.

"What?" Akane blushed. "Why would I have a crush on Kang? He barely even notices me!"

"Uncle always tells me that girls want what they can't have," Zuko teased.

"Since when do you get love advice from Iroh?" Akane asked.

"That doesn't matter. The point is, your little crush on Kang has got to go," Zuko insisted.

"What? Not that I'm saying I have a crush on him, but so what if i do?" Akane questioned.

"He's too old for you! And like you said, he barely notices you!" Zuko exclaimed.

Akane rolled her eyes, "Why do you always have to question who I choose to associate myself with when it's none of your business."

"As your best friend it is absolutely my business," Zuko argued.

"I'm not going to have this conversation with you now, Zuko," Akane muttered as she drank her medicine. "I'm going to bed."

"We'll finish this later!" Zuko yelled.

"No we won't!" Akane called back.

Shaking his head at his friends antics, Zuko headed out of the kitchen before retreating to his own quarters. While he would never understand Akane's taste in who she hung out with, it was just something that he'd learn to deal with. Ever since they were young, Akane had always associated herself with people he wouldn't think of as her friends. But then again, that was Akane in a nutshell. She was a social butterfly, and in a way Zuko had to be grateful for that since without that he doubted that their friendship would be as strong as it was.

Chapter Text

Now that Zuko had found the waterbenders necklace, he had grown more determined than ever to capture the Avatar. They had stopped at a nearby area close to the prison rig that the Avatar had helped liberate, and Zuko was hoping to find some reliable information to aid them in their search. As for Akane, she was making use of the remedies that she had been given by Uilani, which had definitely bene helpful since she started using them. Although they didn’t stop her problems immediately, they still helped subdue them which was more than enough for Akane.

Unfortunately for Akane, Zuko had been pestering her about taking her medicine and while she appreciated his concern, it was certainly getting annoying with the way he went about with it. Akane knew that Zuko was just worried about her, which she knew he had every right to be given the fact that she was his friend. Then again, Akane never got this worried about Zuko. He was practically treating her like she was helpless, which irritated Akane to no end.

“For Agni’s sake, Zuko stop it! I’m not invalid,” Akane snapped after Zuko reminded her to take her medicine for the thirteenth time that day.

Zuko held up his hands in defence, “I never said you were.”

“No, but you’re certainly treating me like I am. I don’t need you constantly reminding me to take my medicine, especially when I’m getting ready to take it right now,” Akane snapped.

“I’m just doing my job as your friend to keep you safe. If you don’t take your medicine –“ Zuko started.

“I know, Zuko. You don’t have to remind me,” Akane interrupted him.

“If I don’t, then I’m sure you’ll have no problem with me standing here while I watch you take your medicine,” Zuko said.

Akane rolled her eyes, “Be my guest.”

Biting her tongue as she did so, Akane carefully mixed the ingredients together before she added them into a cup with the tea for her to drink. Iroh had taught her how to mix it perfectly, and it was supposed to help her with her breathing issue. She had already applied the ointment for her stomach problem, now all she had to do was drink her tea. Once the ingredients were properly mixed together, she took one big sip as she drank them in one go, releasing a sigh once she did so before turning to face Zuko.

“There, see? All gone,” Akane stated as she showed him the empty cup.

“Good. Now, let’s get out of here,” Zuko ordered.

“Can’t we have a snack before we go?” Akane asked.

“You just drank tea,” Zuko pointed out.

“Yeah, but tea isn’t really… fulfilling. I could go for some fire flakes,” Akane grinned as she headed towards the cupboard that held her stomachs desires.

“Just don’t take too long,” Zuko called.

“I’m just getting some fire flakes,” Akane muttered as she reached forward to grab the packet of fire flakes.

However, just as she took one of the leftover packets, her foot slipped off from the part of the cupboard that it was holding onto. Before she even realised what was happening, Akane fell tumbling onto the ground with the cupboard crashing down on top of her.

“Akane! Are you okay?” Zuko worriedly exclaimed as he ran over to his friend’s side.

“Yes. Just get this cupboard off me,” Akane groaned as she tried to squeeze out, but to no avail.

“I’ve got it,” Zuko calmed her.

Sure enough, Zuko was able to lift the cupboard off Akane and put it back into its place before he went to his friend’s aid. Akane couldn’t help but admire Zuko for his strength, since there was no way that she would’ve been able to lift that up on her own. The cupboard wasn’t the only thing that came tumbling down, since Akane spotted the bundle of fire flakes that had escaped form her grasp. Grinning, she bent down to pick it up before opening it up and taking a few for a bite.

Judging on the look on his face, Akane could tell that Zuko wasn’t exactly pleased with her and that was only confirmed when he simply lifted his hand up and whacked the fire flakes out of her hand, causing them to rain everywhere.

“Hey!” Akane cried indignantly.

“Look at the mess you’ve made!” Zuko exclaimed.

“You certainly didn’t help by whacking my fire flakes all over the place. What did they ever do to you?” Akane challenged.

Before Zuko could respond, the door opened and they turned to see Iroh standing there with a confused look on his face. His confusion soon morphed into one of understanding as he spotted Akane and Zuko standing in the middle of the room.

“I should’ve known that you two were behind this commotion,” Iroh stated as he walked into the room.

“I just wanted some fire flakes. The cupboard fell on me,” Akane defended herself.

“Sure, blame the cupboard,” Zuko jested.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t blame the cupboard. I should blame gravity for not doing its job,” Akane muttered.

“Alright, you two. How about we get someone to clean this mess up so you can go off and do whatever it is you need to do?” Iroh suggested.

“Whatever,” Zuko conceded.

Not wanting to be held up by his uncle and friend any longer, Zuko stepped out of the room leaving Akane and Iroh to themselves. Even though Iroh didn’t seem mad at her, Akane still felt bad since the mess was technically her fault.

“I swear, Iroh. I didn’t mean to make all of… this,” Akane trailed off as she glanced around the room.

“No worries, Akane. Have you got plans for the rest of the afternoon?” Iroh asked.

Akane raised her eyebrows, “No, why?”

“Because I was going to go relax in the nearby springs. It’s certainly more relaxing and enjoyable when you’re a firebender. You can come with me if you want,” Iroh offered.

While Iroh’s offer did sound tempting, Akane was hesitant about accepting it since that would mean showing off her scar. Then she figured that as long as she wore a long shirt, she shouldn’t have any problem with exposing herself.

“That sounds like a great idea. Should we tell Zuko where we’re going?” Akane checked.

Iroh brushed off Akane’s concerns, “I mentioned to him before that I wanted to go examine the hot springs. Once he doesn’t find you, he’ll assume that you came with me.”

“Well, alright,” Akane shrugged.

Taking one quick glance around the room, Akane quickly grabbed another packet of fire flakes that was left on the ground, smiling in satisfaction as she felt them tingling her test buds. Now that she had her hunger satisfied, she could spend the afternoon relaxing in the hot springs which certainly sounded a lot better than watching Zuko do his orders.

~*•°•*~

Hours later, Akane found herself relaxing in the nice hot springs not too far from where their ship was docked. Surprisingly, there had been quite a few of them in the same area which meant that both herself and Iroh got their own spring, which Akane was thankful for. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel comfortable around Iroh, she just didn’t feel comfortable being that close to him, especially considering he wasn’t even dressed.

For the most part, the two just relaxed in their own separate springs. Of course, there was the occasional conversation that came about every few minutes. With Iroh, Akane felt like she could go to him for anything. Well, not everything since she’d certainly never tell him about her scar. But for the most part, Iroh had been her confident especially after Ursa had left all those years ago. Sighing, Akane glanced wistfully in the distance as she wondered where the woman was now. She hoped that Ursa was safe, but since she hadn’t seen her since the night she disappeared, Akane wasn’t so sure.

One thing that the hot springs were good for were for soaking away Akane’s troubles, since she hadn’t felt this relaxed in ages. How could she, when she was constantly chasing the Avatar and barely had any time to unwind? Admittedly, Akane wouldn’t rather be anywhere else but she could safely say that the job got a bit tiring at times. Said job just so happened to be what interrupted Akane and Iroh from their relaxation, when Zuko came storming towards them.

“Uncle! Akane! It’s time to leave! Where are you? Akane! Uncle Iroh!” Zuko shouted.

“Over here!” Iroh called out to his nephew as he relaxed in a hot spring.

“Uncle? Where’s Akane?” Zuko demanded.

“To your right,” Akane replied, giving Zuko a slight wave.

Assuming that Akane was in next to no clothes like his uncle was, Zuko shielded his eyes from his friend’s direction, since he didn’t want her to think he was some perve.

Akane chuckled, “It’s okay, Zuko. You can look.”

Zuko frustratingly shook his head, “We need to move on. We’re closing in on the Avatar’s trail and I don’t want to lose him.”

“You look tired, Prince Zuko,” Iroh observed. “Why don’t you join me in these hot springs and soak away your troubles?”

“It really works,” Akane said.

“My troubles cannot be soaked away. It’s time to go!” Zuko insisted.

“You should take your teacher’s advice and relax a little. The temperature’s just right. I heated it myself,” Iroh said as he breathed steam through his nose, causing bubbles to form in the water.

“Enough!” Zuko yelled. “We need to leave now. Get out of the water!”

“Very well!” Iroh sighed as he got up, exposing himself in the process.

Zuko shielded his eyes, “On second thought, why don’t you take another few minutes? But be back at the ship in a half-hour or I’m leaving without you! That goes for you too, Akane!”

With that, Zuko left his best friend and his uncle to themselves, and Akane couldn’t help but shake her head at Iroh, knowing that he had just scarred his nephew for life (figuratively, of course) just to get rid of him.

“That image is probably permanently engraved in his mind forever,” Akane commented.

“My nephew should know better than to disrupt relaxation. This is something that cannot be rushed,” Iroh said.

Akane rolled her eyes, “Sure it is.”

While Akane wanted to head back to the ship, she knew that if she left there was a very likelihood that Iroh would go ahead and miss their deadline, and Akane didn’t want Zuko to be upset with them. Besides, the springs certainly were relaxing and another half hour would certainly do Akane some good.

~*•°•*~

Time seemed to get away from them, since it wasn’t long before Akane realised that their deadline had passed and they were still in the hot springs. It would be safe to say that Akane didn’t fulfil her job of making sure that Iroh made it back to the ship in time. Especially since Iroh still remained asleep in his hot spring after dozing off some time ago. But she figured that it’d be better to be late than to not show up at all.

“Iroh, we have to leave,” Akane stated, only to get no response but a few snores from the old man. “Come on, Iroh. We don’t want to have to deal with a ticked off Zuko because we missed our deadline.”

Akane’s words seemed to have no affect on the sleeping man as he made no movement whatsoever. Not even the slightest stir. This wouldn’t be the first time that Iroh’s sleeping was an issue.

“Iroh. Wake up,” Akane yelled, only to get no response yet again.

Out of the corner of her eye, Akane caught the sight of a meadow vole scurrying across her hot spring. An idea quickly formed in her mind and stopped the creature in its tracks.

“Hey, do you reckon you could wake him up for me?” Akane asked the tiny creature, only for it to give her a confused glance before hopping away and into the bushes.

That seemed to do the trick though, since it wasn’t long before Akane heard loud rustling noises coming from the nearby bushes. The rustling increased before Iroh finally started to awaken from his sleep.

“Who’s there?” Iroh asked as he leaned forward.

“Relax, it’s nothing,” Akane replied as she pointed at the creature sitting on Iroh’s spring.

“That is not just nothing, Akane. It’s a meadow vole! I should have known,” Iroh commented as he took the creature into the palm of his hand. “You startled me, little one.”

“Well, you wouldn’t wake up so I had to get you up somehow,” Akane said.

Iroh sighed, “It seems I dozed off and missed my nephew’s deadline, but it was a very sweet nap.”

“That isn’t going to save us from the lecture that we’re sure to get from Zuko,” Akane commented.

Suddenly, the meadow vole leapt up and down. That was followed by shaking and the ground moving towards Akane and Iroh, causing Akane to glance worriedly around. The rock at the bottom of their springs jumped up, capturing them booth. Three Earth Kingdom soldiers surrounded them.

“He’s a Fire Nation soldier,” one of the soldiers stated.

“He’s no ordinary soldier. This is the Fire Lord’s brother, the Dragon of the West. The once-great General Iroh, but now, he’s our prisoner,” their captain declared, earning a stern look form Iroh.

“But who’s the girl?” the second soldier questioned.

“She’s nobody important. You won’t get anything with her, so just let her go,” Iroh answered.

“Don’t try and lie for her sake, old man. While I don’t know her name, I know exactly who she is and what importance she has to the Fire Lord. Both of you are coming with us,” the captain proclaimed.

It wasn’t long before Akane and Iroh were made prisoners thanks to the three earthbenders and it was clear that they had their own plans for the two Fire Nation nobles. All Akane could do was hope that they didn’t find out what their plan was, and that Zuko came to their rescue.

~*•°•*~

Night soon fell, where Akane and Iroh where still imprisoned by the three earthbending soldiers who had attacked them. They were riding ostrich horses across a long path, with one of the soldiers carrying a light to guide them.

“Where are you taking me?” Iroh asked.

“We’re taking you to face justice,” the earthbending captain replied.

“Right, but where, specifically?” Iroh clarified.

“Yeah, could you be more clear?” Akane added.

“While you wouldn’t know of it, girl, it’s a place the old man is quite familiar with, actually. You once laid siege to it for 600 days, but it would not yield to you,” the earthbender captain answered.

“Ah, the great city of Ba Sing Se,” Iroh drawled.

“It was greater than you were, apparently,” the earthbender captain commented, earning a glare from Akane.

“I acknowledge my defeat at Ba Sing Se. After 600 days away from home, my men were tired, and I was tired,” Iroh yawned. “And I’m still tired.”

With that, Iroh fell off one of the horses before he was quickly picked back up. Akane glanced at Iroh in confusion when she noticed that he was fully awake and smiling cleverly. That was before Akane spotted one of his sandals lying behind and she resisted the urge to grin smugly.

Iroh, you are a genius. Let’s just hope that Zuko can follow our trail… Akane thought nervously, since if they got to Ba Sing Se before Zuko found them, they’d be in a world of trouble.

~*•°•*~

After spending a long, sleepless night cramped on the back of an ostrich horse, morning greeted Akane and Iroh as they remained with the earthbenders who captured them. There was still no sign of Zuko finding them, and Akane was beginning to worry if he would find them at all. Iroh didn’t seem to be as nervous as she was, since he just sat comfortably on the back of his ostrich horse. That was, until, he suddenly glanced at the sky and gasped in wonder.

“What’s the problem?” the earthbender captain asked.

“Nothing,” Iroh replied before speaking again. “Actually, there is a bit of a problem. My old joints are sore and aching, and these shackles are too loose.”

“Too loose?” the captain repeated.

“That’s right. The cuffs move and jangle around and bump my wrists. It would help me if you tighten them so they wouldn’t shake around so much,” Iroh explained.

Akane glanced at Iroh as if she thought he was crazy before she realised that he had to have something up his sleeve. While Iroh might have his random moments with words, now definitely wasn’t the time for them but they might just be able to help them get out of this in one piece.

“Very well. Corporal tighten the prisoner’s handcuffs,” the captain ordered.

They all stopped on the trail that they were currently travelling across. The corporal dismounted form his ostrich horse and moved towards Iroh. As the corporal touched Iroh’s handcuffs, he breathed deeply and heated them up before pushing the corpora’s hands to the cuffs, causing him to scream in pain. Iroh used this opportunity to jump free and blast fire at the soldiers, causing them to jump out of the way. He then rolled down the hill as the soldiers tried to get control of their ostrich horses. That caused Akane to fall off her own horse before she firebended herself down the hill after Iroh, relieved that Iroh’s plan had worked.

Unfortunately, Akane’s relief was short-lived as they were suddenly hit with a rockslide, causing them to land in a heap at the bottom of the hill covered by rocks. All of the soldiers chased after them, reaching the pair at the bottom of the hill.

“They’re too dangerous, Captain! We can’t just carry them to the Capital! We have to do something now!” one of the soldiers exclaimed.

“I agree. They must be dealt with immediately and severely,” the captain conceded as Iroh spit out a rock.

“W-what do you mean dealt with?” Akane asked nervously.

“You’ll soon find out, ash maker. Corporal, keep her over there. We’ll take care of him first,” the captain stated.

Against her will, Akane was dragged over to the side as she watched the soldiers pull Iroh out from the pile of rocks that he’d landed in. When Akane saw the soldiers moving a giant boulder towards him, Akane knew that whatever was about to happen wasn’t going to be good, for either of them.

Only once the soldiers were satisfied that Akane was properly restrained did they focus their attention back on Iroh, whose hands were spread apart across a rock. Akane desperately tried to get free of her restraints, but to no avail and was left with no choice but to hope that by some miracle that they made it out of this alright.

“These dangerous hands must be crushed,” the captain proclaimed as he levitated a boulder and prepared to drop it on Iroh’s hands.

“Crushed!?” Akane exclaimed in horror as she closed her eyes, not wanting to see what was about to happen. However, all she heard was the sound of a rock smashing on the ground and the sound of a chain being broken. When she opened her eyes, Akane was both stunned and relieved to see Iroh and Zuko standing there, unharmed.

“Excellent form, Prince Zuko,” Iroh complimented him.

“You taught me well,” Zuko responded, giving Akane a reassuring glance.

“Surrender yourselves. It’s five against three. You’re clearly outnumbered,” the captain ordered.

Iroh smirked, “Yeah, that’s true, but you are clearly outmatched.”

The soldiers then fired rocks, but Iroh destroyed them with the chains. Zuko took out two soldiers with his firebending, but he fails to notice a rock being fired at him. However, Akane noticed this and immediately ran towards the action before jumping in the air and blasting fire at the rock, destroying it. The captain fired three rocks at Zuko, which he dodges and one of which Iroh uses to take out two other soldiers. The captain brought up a large mass of rock, however, Iroh threw his chains around the captain’s ankles, knocking him over and causing the rocks to fall on top of him. The soldiers groaned underneath the rocks while Iroh and Zuko glanced around.

“Now would you please put on some clothes?” Zuko asked his uncle, earning a laugh from the man.

“Uh, a little help over here?” a voice called.

Iroh and Zuko glanced around to see Akane lying on the ground in a tangled heap, since she was still restricted by her chains. With the help of Iroh and Zuko, she was able to break free from her restraints before she stretched her arms and legs out in relief.

“Freedom!” Akane exclaimed before turning to Zuko, “Good timing you got there, Buster. For a moment I was starting to think that you weren’t going to show up.”

Zuko rolled his eyes, “You two should consider yourselves lucky that I cam looking for you after you disobeyed my orders and missed your deadline.”

“Would saying sorry cut it?” Akane asked sheepishly.

“There’s no need. Now, let’s get moving on,” Zuko dismissed.

“All in a day’s work for us, huh,” Akane lazily commented as they followed Zuko away, ready to get back to their mission at hand.

Chapter Text

Immediately after Zuko reunited with Akane and Iroh, they headed off towards a nearby town on the rhino to see if the Avatar had been there. While Zuko wasn’t entirely sure if that was the case, he was willing to do anything if it meant getting him one step closer to capturing the Avatar. Especially after he gave up an opportunity to rescue Akane and Iroh. So, there was no time to waste as there was no telling where the Avatar was.

“So, where are we going?” Akane asked tiredly as she and Iroh rode on Zuko’s rhino while he steered it.

“We’re going to a nearby village,” Zuko replied.

Iroh hummed, “Any particular reason why?”

“I saw the Avatar’s bison while I was searching for you two. He might’ve stopped at the village and that could give us an indication as to where he is heading next,” Zuko explained.

Not wanting to argue with Zuko after the day they’d had, Akane simply rested against his back as the rhino walked across the ground. After everything that had taken place, Akane was exhausted and she knew that the chances of them getting any rest soon would be slim.

Zuko glanced behind his shoulder as he saw his friend resting against him, “Are you alright, Akane?”

Akane yawned, “Yeah. Just tired.”

“Remember to stay alert,” Zuko reminded her.

Eventually, the trio reached a nearby village that looked like half of it had been destroyed. The roofs appeared to have been blown off while everything seemed to be intact. Other than that, the village appeared to be in a state of silence as night surrounded it. Akane couldn’t help but wonder what could’ve happened in the village for it to have ended up in such a state.

“That building looks significant. Maybe that’s where their leader resides,” Zuko suggested as he hopped off the rhino.

“Don’t do anything reckless, Zuko,” Akane warned him.

“When am I ever reckless?” Zuko inquired somewhat loudly.

“Always,” Akane deadpanned.

Before Zuko could approach the door to the building, it was opened by a middle-aged man as he tiredly rubbed his eyes. The man walked out from the building before stopping in his tracks when he saw Zuko standing there as he gasped in shock.

“Having trouble sleeping?” Zuko asked as he pushed the back through the door, knocking him down.

“Zuko!” Akane exclaimed from the rhino.

“Seen the Avatar lately?” Zuko interrogated him.

The man’s eyes widened, “T-the Avatar? N-no. Of c-course not.”

“Don’t lie or else I will burn this village to the ground!” Zuko yelled.

“Please, not our village. Spare us,” the man pleaded.

“Then tell me what you know,” Zuko demanded.

The man sighed, “The Avatar is heading towards Crescent Island. He wishes to speak to Avatar Roku on the Solstice.”

“Thank you for your cooperation,” Zuko said sarcastically as he slammed the door shut and headed towards Akane and Iroh.

“Was that shove really necessary?” Akane asked.

“It helped me get what I wanted out of him,” Zuko defended himself.

“So, where are we off to now, Prince Zuko?” Iroh questioned as Zuko quickly steered the rhino away from the village.

“We have no time for questions,” Zuko snapped.

While Akane didn’t know exactly where they were going, Zuko gave her the vibe that wherever it was, it wouldn’t be good for them and that she’d need as much rest as she could. That was partly why she easily let herself rest against Zuko’s back as she wrapped her arms around him to keep herself steady. That, and he was pretty comfy to lie on.

~*•°•*~

By the time they returned to the ship, Akane had fallen asleep entirely so Iroh and Zuko had taken the liberty of transporting her to her room. When Akane woke up the next morning, she could feel that the ship was moving across the water given the rockiness of the vessel. Unlike most times, it was moving at top speed so Akane knew that wherever they were going, they were certainly in a hurry to get there.

Wanting to get caught up to speed, Akane quickly got herself dressed and joined Iroh and Zuko on the ships deck. When she got there, she saw Zuko peering through his telescope while a fully-clothed Iroh stood beside him. One thing for sure that was Akane was glad she wouldn’t have to lay her eyes on a half-naked Iroh anytime soon. Before Akane could even ask where they were going, Iroh answered her internal question on his own.

“Sailing into Fire Nation waters…” Iroh trailed off.

Akane’s eyes widened, “What!? Are you insane!? Why would you do that?”

Zuko’s head spun around as his eyes landed on Akane before he focused back on his telescope, refusing to let her outburst distract him from his mission at hand.

“I am not insane. I am doing what I have to do,” Zuko insisted.

Iroh shook his head, “Of all the foolish things in your sixteen years, Prince Zuko, this is the most foolish!”

“It’s not foolish, it’s insane! Zuko, you can’t do this!” Akane exclaimed.

“Have you forgotten that the Fire Lord banished you?” Iroh asked angrily before his tone turned into one of fear. “What if you’re caught?”

Zuko broke away from his telescope as he turned to face address his uncle, “I’m chasing the Avatar! My father will understand why I’m returning home!”

“You give him too much credit. My brother is not the understanding type,” Iroh commented.

“No kidding,” Akane muttered bitterly.

Something seemed to get Zuko’s attention as it switched from Akane and Iroh to whatever had caught his eye.

“There they are. Helmsman! Full steam ahead!” Zuko ordered.

“What are you even going to do, Zuko? You can’t catch them from down here,” Akane pointed out.

“I know. But I can shoot them down from here,” Zuko said before he made his next order. “Prepare the catapult!”

Akane groaned as she covered her nose with her hands, “Ugh, the catapult? Really, Zuko?”

“Do you have any other idea?” Zuko asked.

“Here you go, my dear,” Iroh said to Akane as he handed her a fan while he fanned himself. “Ugh, really Prince Zuko, couldn’t you shoot them down with something a little more fragrant?”

“Yeah, why does it have to be so stinky?” Akane agreed.

Zuko ignored them as he lit the stinking ball on fire with a punch, “On my mark! Fire!”

Obeying Zuko’s order, the guard beside him sliced the rope that was holding back the catapult. The flaming projectile raced towards the bison in the sky. From what Akane could see, it didn’t seem like the catapult had hit the animal as it remained flying in the air.

“Ready the catapult again!” Zuko ordered.

As Zuko and his men readied their next catapult, Akane’s eyes widened as she caught the sight of something in the distance of the ocean. And it wasn’t just ‘one’ something. It was a whole lot of somethings.

“Um… Zuko, maybe you should take a look ahead,” Akane suggested.

“Unless it is a life or death situation Akane, I really do not care,” Zuko snapped.

“Well, you should,” Akane argued as she turned him around to face what she had saw.

Zuko’s eyes instantly widened as he realised what Akane was referring to. While it may not lead them to a life or death situation, it could still very well land them in a whole lot of trouble.

“A blockade,” Zuko realised.

“Technically you are still in Earth Kingdom waters. Turn back now and they cannot arrest you,” Iroh advised his nephew.

“Chasing the Avatar really isn’t worth getting us all in trouble which is what will happen if you keep on going,” Akane insisted.

Ignoring his uncle and friend, Zuko turned his attention back to the sky, deciding that he would follow the Avatar regardless if he kept going or turned around. Capturing the Avatar was the whole reason why they had taken the risk in the first place, and Zuko was going to see it through no matter what Akane or uncle wanted.

“He’s not turning around!” Zuko stated as the Avatar made no reverse move.

“Please Prince Zuko! If the Fire Nation captures you, there is nothing I can do! Do not follow the Avatar,” Iroh pleaded.

“Again, I’ll say it really isn’t worth it. Just think about it, Zuko,” Akane added.

Zuko lowered his head as he closed his eyes and clenched his hands into fists as he sorrowfully spoke, “I’m sorry, Uncle.” He then raised his head, opened his eyes and thrusted his right hand forward commandingly as he ordered, “Run the blockade!”

“Are you trying to get us all killed?” Akane demanded.

“Nobody’s going to die,” Zuko reassured her.

“You’re out of your mind, Buster!” Akane argued.

“I’m not changing my mind, Akane and there is nothing you can do about it!” Zuko snapped.

Iroh then decided to break up the fight before anything worse was said, “If you two weren’t so busy arguing you would be paying more attention to the flaming projectiles coming towards us!”

Gasping as she did so, Akane looked up to see dozens and dozens of fireballs hurling towards them. Even if Zuko suddenly decided to change his mind, there was nothing that they could do to protect their ship. They’d got themselves caught right in the middle of the crossfire and there was no way of escaping it.

In an instant, the fireballs slammed into the ocean, most of them narrowly avoiding the ship. Akane just hoped that their luck would continue, since she didn’t know what they would do if they got hit with limited access to help. The impact of the fireballs crashing near the ship sent sheets of water over the ship as crew members ran for safety. Akane moved a second too late and she was swept away by one of the waves, only being stopped by the ships railing as she slammed into it.

“Ow,” Akane groaned, since her scarred side took the brunt of the hit.

“Akane, are you okay?” Zuko asked as he went to his friends help, suddenly feeling guilty for putting her into this position.

“Do I look okay?” Akane snapped as she carefully stood up.

“Look, I want you to get inside the ship and stay somewhere safe. I don’t want you getting hurt,” Zuko ordered.

“I’m not going anywhere!” Akane insisted. She might not have agreed with Zuko’s decision to press forward, but she wasn’t about to abandon her friend in the heat of the moment.

A loud crash cut their conversation to an end and they turned around to see that a fireball had exploded on the aft side of the vessel, causing smoke to spew into the air. While Akane might not be a mechanic, she knew that the smoke was hardly their main problem at hand.

“Prince Zuko! The engines are damaged! We needed to stop and make repairs!” their engineer exclaimed.

Zuko spun away from the man and faced the blockade, “Do not stop this ship.”

“You’ve really lost it, haven’t you?” Akane asked, earning a glare from Zuko as headed back over to his uncle.

Out of the corner of her eye, Akane suddenly spotted the smallest object falling from the sky before the bison descended towards it. It was then that Akane realised that wasn’t an object, it was a person. Whoever it was seemed to make it back to safety as Akane could no longer see anything hurling towards the ocean.

Fortunately, the flying projectiles from the blockade appeared to have ceased their attack, and Akane figured that they were now focusing on the Avatar as he was flying towards the blockade, barely above the ocean. Akane glanced ahead as she watched the action take place, with one firing projectile coming hurling towards the bison. For a moment, Akane thought that the fireball would reach the Avatar before they did, only for it to suddenly disappear.

“What was that?” Akane queried, shocked.

“I’m assuming that the Avatar had something to do with that,” Iroh noted.

“Wow,” Akane murmured, earning a glare from Zuko. “I mean, that wasn’t really impressive.”

“They made it past. So we must follow them,” Zuko declared.

“But what about the blockade?” Akane asked fearfully.

“It doesn’t matter!” Zuko snapped.

“But we’re on a collision course!” Iroh exclaimed.

“We can make it!” Zuko confidently proclaimed.

“In your dreams,” Akane muttered.

For a moment, Akane thought they were doomed as their ship continued its pace towards the other ships that were about to block their path. In that moment, Akane thought that there was no way out of this for them. That was, until the ships suddenly started to slow down.

“What’s happening?” Akane asked with a bit of uncertainty.

“I’m not sure,” Iroh admitted.

It wasn’t long before the ships heading towards them haltered in their spot, making no other moves to stop them. That wasn’t what Akane was expecting to happen. Not only had they escaped the blockade and entered Fire Nation territory, the blockade had actually let them pass.

As they glided beneath the other ships decks, Akane noticed Zhao standing aboard one of the ships and she couldn’t help but glare at the man. Akane also noticed the interlocked gaze that he shared with Zuko as their ship sailed past. Once they were out of harms way, Iroh and Zuko looked behind them in silence as they safely sailed through while Iroh stroked his grey beared curiously.

“Well… That was… unexpected…” Akane trailed off. “Shouldn’t they have, you know, arrested us?”

“They should have. But for a reason only known to them, they didn’t,” Iroh replied.

“At least we’re safe. For now,” Akane murmured.

Unsure if they were truly safe, Akane kept on watching the ships from the distance until they disappeared from her view. It seemed as though they had indeed avoided a close call now that they had ventured into Fire Nation territory for the first time in almost three years. Almost immediately when they passed through the ships, Akane felt the shivers go down her spine now that she was back in her old homeland. This place had nothing but bad memories for Akane, and she hoped that she wouldn’t be making anymore.

Meanwhile, Zuko stood at the end of the deck as he tightened his knuckles on the ships railing. Smoke billowed behind his ship as a result of the earlier attack. But that wasn’t the only thing on Zuko’s mind.

“What’s he up to, Uncle? Why didn’t Commander Zhao arrest me?” Zuko questioned as his uncle approached him.

“Because he wants to follow you,” Iroh answered. “He knows you’ll lead him to the prize you’re both after: the Avatar.”

“If Zhao wants to follow a trail of smoke, then that’s exactly what I’ll let him do,” Zuko murmured.

“What are your orders, my nephew?” Iroh queried.

“Ready my skiff. I’m going to go out on my own. And make sure that Akane comes too,” Zuko ordered before walking below deck.

Although he didn’t necessarily agree with his nephews orders, Iroh walked towards Akane as she gazed intently out in the sky. Iroh could tell that something was troubling the young girl, since she had that look on her face that was a giveaway.

“Is everything alright?” Iroh inquired.

Akane spun around to face Iroh, “Huh? Oh, yeah. Everything’s fine…”

Iroh didn’t believe her, “Are you sure about that?”

“It’s just weird being back in… This part of the world. It’s been a while,” Akane admitted.

“Indeed it has,” Iroh agreed. “But we will not be here for long.”

“What are Zuko’s plans?” Akane asked.

“He intends to pursue the Avatar on his own. He wants you to join him,” Iroh replied.

Akane sighed, “Of course he does. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

Minutes letter, Akane was ready to head off with Zuko on their own as smoke still billowed from Zuko’s ship. Zuko’s skiff was being lowered into the water, with Akane and Zuko already in it as it slid down.

“Uncle, keep heading north. Zhao will follow the smoke trail, while I use it as a cover,” Zuko instructed.

Based on Iroh’s doubtful grunt as he stroked his beard in deep thought, Akane had a feeling that he wasn’t so confident about Zuko’s plan working. Akane had to admit it to herself that she had doubts of her own. But like always, she wouldn’t voice her doubts to Zuko since that would only make the situation worse. Zuko’s boat settled on the ocean’s surface and disappeared in the smoke of the ship.

“Do you think we’ll make it in time?” Akane asked.

“Of course we will. We’ll just have to move fast since we have no time to waste. I’m not letting the Avatar escape from me this time,” Zuko declared.

Sighing, Akane glanced back towards their ship as they sailed further and further away from it. While she knew her place was with Zuko, Akane couldn’t help but wonder if their plan would all be for nothing.

~*•°•*~

Eventually, they arrived at the Crescent Island, which was smaller than what Akane thought it would be. Akane’s eyes widened as she saw the tall temple that towered above them, and she assumed that was where the Avatar had to be. Zuko docked his boot not too far from the entrance for a quick escape route.

“Akane, I want you to remain here and keep the boat prepared for our exit,” Zuko ordered as he hopped out of his vessel.

Akane narrowed her eyes, “Is that the only reason you want me to stay here?”

“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t have asked you to come with me otherwise,” Zuko insisted.

As much as Akane wanted to go inside with Zuko, she knew it was better for her to stay here like he told her to. It wasn’t long before Zuko disappeared inside the temple, and Akane hoped that he wouldn’t be too late. She knew how much capturing the Avatar meant to Zuko, but Akane still wasn’t sure if she was willing to sacrifice her morality for her friend. Sometimes she doubted if Zuko would ever do the same for her, as much as she hoped he would.

“Please make it out of this okay, Zuko,” Akane whispered.

Suddenly, a loud noise from the shore got Akane’s attention. Although Zuko had told her to remain with the boat, Akane’s curiosity got the better of her and she carefully made her way towards the source of the noise. Unfortunately, her fears were confirmed when she saw three boats docked near the islands shore. Those boats could only belong to one person: Zhao.

“No,” Akane hissed, knowing that Zhao’s appearance would interfere with Zuko’s plans.

Knowing that Akane had to do something to halt Zhao’s advance, she immediately ran towards Zhao and his men as they headed towards the temple. They were quite clearly surprised by her sudden appearance as she shouted for their attention.

“You stop right there, Zhao!” Akane yelled.

They did just that as they turned to face the young girl, Zhao stepping in front of his men as he glared at her. While he had come to get the Avatar, getting Prince Zuko and his little friend would be an added bonus.

“Ah, Akane. I was hoping that I’d run into you here,” Zhao stated.

“Of course you were, because you’re a greedy bastard!” Akane seethed.

“On the contrary,” Zhao argued as he stepped closer towards her. “You should know, my offer from before still stands.”

“What offer?” Akane asked.

“You know, my offer for you to join my crew. All you have to do is say the word and I’ll steer my men away from you. I’m sure it must be getting around having to tag around with Prince Zuko,” Zhao offered.

Instinctively, Akane wanted to refuse Zhao’s offer and punch him in the face then and there. But she had to play it smart, since she was currently surrounded by Zhao and several of his men. Akane might be an above-average firebender for her age, but she was no match for several opponents at once. If she attacked them, they would easily overwhelm her and then she would be in their custody and who knows what would happen to her then.

“What happens if… I join you?” Akane asked hesitantly, yet curiously as well.

“Firstly, we’ll apprehend the Avatar and Prince Zuko. Then, you’ll be able to return to the Fire Nation with no charges against you,” Zhao explained.

“Then I accept your offer,” Akane reluctantly conceded.

Zhao smirked, “Excellent.”

“On one condition,” Akane said.

Zhao’s smirk dropped, “What?”

“I go with you,” Akane propositioned.

Zhao laughed, “Why would you want to go in with me? Wouldn’t it be hard to face Prince Zuko knowing that he’d be crushed at your betrayal?”

“Even if you told him that I’d betrayed him, he wouldn’t believe it until he saw it with his own eyes. Besides, if I was there Zuko would be completely thrown off for a loop and I know that he wouldn’t be able to fight against me,” Akane reasoned.

“Hm, you do have a point. Very well, Miss Akane. You may come with us,” Zhao agreed.

“I’m glad we could come to an agreement, Commander Zhao,” Akane stated.

“Though I do have one question, why would you betray Prince Zuko? I thought you two were as thick as thieves,” Zhao said.

“We were best friends. That was until he got banished and became obsessed with his honour. There have been so many times when he’s put my safety at risk without even contemplating it and he continuously takes advantage of me. I want to be with people who appreciate me, and I know that the right place is with you,” Akane explained, although she couldn’t help but admit some of the truth in her words.

Zhao nodded, “Indeed it is. Let’s get moving on.”

Sighing, Akane followed behind Zhao as they ventured into the temple. As she did so, Akane could feel the other guards intent gaze on her as she followed their leader. If Akane were them, she’d be watching her as well. Akane couldn’t ignore the sick feeling in her stomach, knowing that she had to appease Zhao for the time being. But hopefully it would all be worth it and Zuko would understand her actions.

~*•°•*~

After walking up a long staircase, they finally reached what Akane assumed was Avatar Rokus sanctuary, which was where the Avatar and Zuko would most likely be. The whole time they made their way up those stairs, Akane couldn’t help but wonder how on earth the Fire Sages managed to get up there since her thighs were aching by this point. Ignoring the pain, Akane remained focused on what she had come her to do. Within minutes she would be face to face with Zuko, and she feared what his reaction would be once he saw that she was with Zhao.

“Here is the moment of truth. We will enter upon my signal,” Zhao instructed his men before turning to Akane. “You will make your grand entrance at the end.”

“Alright, Commander Zhao,” Akane spoke through gritted teeth. It took almost everything in her to obey his orders, when all she wanted to do was flip the bird at him.

When they entered the sanctuary, the first thing that Akane noticed was the Water Tribe siblings chained to a column. Then she saw Zuko standing in front of several Fire Sages, with one of them kneeling on the ground with what looked like their hands tied together.

“Why did you help the Avatar?” Zuko interrogated him.

“Because it was once the sages’ duty. It is still our duty,” the sage replied with a mixture of sadness and pride in his voice.

That was when Zhao decided to make their presence known as he slowly clapped with the six firebender guards behind him, “What a moving and heartfelt performance. I’m certain the Fire Lord will understand, when you explain why you betrayed him.”

One of the sages placed his palms together as he bowed his head forward, “Commander Zhao.”

“And Prince Zuko. It was a noble effort, but your little smokescreen didn’t work,” Zhao said, with Zuko scowling sharply as two firebenders stepped behind him, seizing his arms. “Two traitors in one day, the Fire Lord will be pleased.”

Zuko strained against his captor as he snapped at Zhao, “You’re too late, Zhao! The Avatar’s inside and the doors are sealed.”

“No matter,” Zhao grinned confidently. “Sooner or later, he has to come out. And even if I don’t get the Avatar, I still get enough to call this mission a success.”

“What do you mean?” Zuko growled.

“There truly is nothing better than beating you at your own game, Zuko. That, and I now have your number one ally on my side,” Zhao proclaimed.

Zuko glanced forward in confusion before his eyes widened in recognition, “Akane.”

“That’s right,” Zhao agreed as he gestured for Akane to step forward, which she did so.

“You let her go!” Zuko yelled as he struggled against the firebenders as they dragged him towards a nearby column.

Zhao laughed, “Like you’re in any position to order me around. Besides, I have no reason to let her go when she is with me on her own terms.”

“What… what do you mean?” Zuko asked hesitantly, fearing the answer.

“Maybe if you treated Akane like she deserved to be treated, she wouldn’t have left you. But it doesn’t matter now, since she’s on my side. And I will give her the respect she deserves to make sure she never leaves me,” Zhao proclaimed.

“Akane, you’re with Zhao now!” Zuko roared.

Akane shrugged, “Sorry, Zuko. But you never once considered me in your plans. It was always about you, never letting me have a say. I want to be somewhere I’m appreciated, and I know that Zhao appreciates me.”

“He only appreciates you for his own selfish gain!” Zuko bellowed. “How could you do this to me? I thought we were in this together!”

“Sometimes, plans change,” Akane stated.

“Indeed they do. Everyone prepare yourselves for the Avatar’s arrival,” Zhao ordered.

“I’ll block off the exit,” Akane said.

By the time Akane reached the top of the stairs, Zhao, his guards and the sages already had their backs turned to her as they faced the sanctuary doors. That only made things easier for Akane as she carefully made her way towards the column that had the Fire Sage and the Water Tribe siblings chained to it. Using her firebending, she carefully melted the chains but not to the point where they would notice it until they needed to.

Once she had done enough damage, Akane made her way towards the column where Zuko was chained to. Immediately, he noticed her presence and was about to open his mouth before Akane silenced him as she raised her finger to her mouth before giving him a reassuring grin. It was then when Zuko realised that Akane hadn’t left him, and that she obviously had a plan of her own in mind.

“When those doors open, unleash all your fire power!” Zhao shouted.

Ignoring the Water Tribe siblings as they voiced their fear, Akane remained by Zuko’s column as she slowly melted away the chains with her firebending. In that moment Akane was glad that Iroh had taught her that technique, since it was certainly coming in handy when she really needed it.

Suddenly, the large door in the sanctuary glowed a bright white as smoke streamed through the room. The door unlocked itself, beginning to open. As it opened, a blinding white light forced all present to look away. Akane was almost blinded by the light, since it was unlike any light that she’d seen before.

“Ready…” Zhao trailed off as the light faded, revealing a pair of glowing white eyes in the darkness.

“No! Aang!” Katara screamed fearfully as Sokka struggled against his chains, which were loser than he last remembered.

“Fire!” Zhao yelled before he and his guards cooperated in blasting fire onto the unseen target.

The wall of fire amassed, circling its new host as Avatar Rokus, eyes aglow, was revealed behind the flames, remaining completely untouched. Everyone in the room was stunned by their unexpected guest, and Akane couldn’t help but laugh at the shocked and horror-stricken look that appeared on Zhao’s face.

“Avatar Roku… How is that possible?” Akane asked in awe.

Avatar Roku drew the circling fire together in one motion before launching it forward in one powerful wave that seared the room, blasting the offenders off their feet and melting the chains complete that bounded Katara, Sokka, Zuko and the Fire Sage with precision. It seemed as though Akane’s help wasn’t really necessary in hindsight.

“Let’s go!” Akane yelled as she pulled Zuko away from the action.

Loud explosions could be heard from the temple as a large blast destroyed the outer wall. The ghostly Avatar Roku turned his glowing glare upon the offending sages and Zhao’s men, causing them to run from his wrath as well.

“Where is Miss Akane? She was supposed to be blocking the exit!” Zhao seethed as he ran down the stairs.

“Um, I think that’s her down there,” one of his men replied as he pointed at the retreating figures of Akane and Zuko.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, girl?” Zhao demanded.

“Did you really think that I would betray Zuko? Because like you said, we were as thick as thieves,” Akane yelled as she and Zuko disappeared down the stairs, their age and agility coming in handy.

Akane and Zuko narrowly managed to escape the temple as explosions ran through it, blocking off all possible entries. Once they exited the temple, they ran as fast as they could towards their escape boat, not even bothering to acknowledge each other as they did so. As soon as they were inside the vessel, they started it off as quickly as they could, with Zhao’s booming voice still being heard in the distance. Only once the voices disappeared did they both release a sigh of relief, knowing that they had just dodged a major bullet.

“So,” Akane broke the silence.

“How did you get with Zhao? I thought I told you to stay with the boat!” Zuko snapped.

“Well, that’s what I was doing until I saw them approaching. I knew that they would be after the Avatar so I had to buy you some time to get him,” Akane explained.

Zuko relaxed, “Oh. But why did you ‘join’ him?”

“Because, I was surrounded by his men and there was no point in me challenging them, since it would only leave me locked in a prison cell on Zhao’s ship. So, I told Zhao that I’d go with him for his advantage knowing that I would be there to help you,” Akane revealed.

“I have to admit, that was smart of you,” Zuko praised her.

Akane shrugged, “Well, you have to be able to think quickly on your feet.”

Another wave of silence filled the air as Akane and Zuko glanced around for any sign of Zhao or the Avatar, with none in sight. There was an unreadable tension amongst them, as Akane’s words from earlier echoed through Zuko’s mind.

“Akane… Did you really mean what you said in there?” Zuko asked.

“In where?” Akane raised her eyebrows.

“In the sanctuary. When you said that I never appreciated you. And that I never took you into consideration in my plans,” Zuko elaborated.

Akane sighed, “Oh. Well, some of it was true.”

“Akane, you know that I value your friendship. Other than Uncle, you’re the best person that I’ve ever met,” Zuko insisted.

“I know. But sometimes it just feels like you don’t really care. You didn’t even ask me if I wanted to come with you to the sanctuary,” Akane said.

“That’s because I knew that you would try and argue your way into going with me,” Zuko reasoned.

“Okay, well, maybe I would’ve. But it’s not just then. You always expect me to do whatever you want and to be frank, that’s not what I signed up for,” Akane explained.

“I’ll admit that maybe I have shown how much you really mean to me recently, but you should never have any doubts about our friendship, Akane. You mean the world to me and I would do anything for you,” Zuko reassured her.

“Even if it meant giving up the Avatar?” Akane asked.

Zuko nodded, “Even then. Nothing is worth more than you are to me. I’ll make sure you know that from now on so that you never have to doubt it.”

Akane smiled, “After this, how can I? You know, we really should talk more like this. I don’t remember the last time we had a meaningful conversation.”

“You’re right,” Zuko sighed. “We’ll have to do this more often.”

“Alright, now where are we off to now?” Akane asked, wanting to break the twinge of awkwardness that surrounded them.

“I told uncle to head off north, so we’ll have to find him first before we make our next move. But for now, let’s keep our eyes out for the Avatar,” Zuko replied.

Nodding, Akane sat at the back of the vessel as Zuko pulled out his telescope and gazed into the sky. After everything that had happened today, Akane was glad that she had Zuko had reaffirmed their friendship and she couldn’t deny the happiness she felt when Zuko said he’d do anything for her. Although it had taken some strife to get here, Akane was positive that their friendship could only get stronger from here on out, and that nothing could break them apart.

Chapter Text

It didn't take Akane and Zuko that long to reunite with Iroh after they left Crescent Island behind. Now their attention was focused on keeping track of the Avatar so that they could find the perfect opportunity to get him in their clutches. Since Akane and Zuko's talk on his boat, their friendship had improved from what it had been, and Akane was glad to see the change in Zuko's attitude, even if it wasn't that big of a change.

Despite Akane's reassurance, Zuko still felt like he had something to prove to his friend after what had happened with Zhao. Zuko had realised that he hadn't exactly been treating Akane the best lately, so he made it his mission to be the friend that she deserved. The pair were currently sparring together on the deck, with Akane in the lead as per usual. While she always won their sparring matches, it was still good for Zuko to refine his skills with a superior opponent. Suddenly, the boat turned and they were thrown to one side on their backs.

"Are you alright, Akane?" Zuko asked as he helped his friend up.

"I'm fine," Akane grumbled. "What was that about?"

Zuko glared at the tower, "Someone's changing our course. Let's go find out what's going on."

They did just that and headed up to the boats tower to find out what was going on. For a brief moment, Akane considered going up herself since she knew that Zuko would most likely lose his cool at whoever was behind their sudden change in movements. But then she realised that there was no stopping Zuko when it came to stuff like this, so it was better to just let him go up on his own.

When they arrived at their destination, Zuko was quick to bust through the door without a single care of what was on the other side. Once she walked in, Akane saw Iroh playing some sort of Pai Sho game with a few of the crew members. Zuko, however, didn't seem to notice his uncle's appearance as he focused his attention on the helmsmen as he steered the ship at the top of the boat.

"What is the meaning of this mutiny? No one told you to change course!" Zuko shouted angrily.

"Actually, someone did," Iroh said, getting Zuko's attention. "I assure you, it is a matter of utmost importance, Prince Zuko."

"I can't wait to hear this," Akane muttered, knowing that what Iroh considered to be 'important' was certainly different than what Zuko considered important.

"Is it something to do with the Avatar?" Zuko asked hopefully.

"Even more urgent. It seems, I-" Iroh paused as he rubbed his forehead in stress. "I have lost my lotus tile."

"Lotus tile?" Zuko repeated confusedly as Iroh moved a piece of his across the Pai Sho board.

"For my Pai Sho game. Most people think the lotus tile insignificant, but it is essential for the unusual strategy that I employ," Iroh explained.

"You've changed our course for a stupid lotus tile?" Zuko clarified in disbelief.

"Can't you just make one of your own?" Akane suggested.

"See, you, like most people, underestimate it's value. Just give me ten minutes to check the merchants at this port of call. Hopefully, they will have the lotus tile in stock and I can get on with my life," Iroh insisted.

Just as Akane suspected, Zuko didn't take Iroh's explanation well as he breathed fire up at the ceiling in anger which caused smoke to fill the room. Akane coughed as she waved off the smoke around her.

"I'm lucky to have such an understanding nephew," Iroh commented, causing Akane to snort at the irony of his statement.

"You know he doesn't care, right?" Akane checked once Zuko had left the room.

"Then that's his fault. As for me, the lotus tile is integral to my Pai Sho strategy," Iroh said.

"How?" Akane quirked her eyebrow in curiosity. "It's just a stupid lotus tile."

Iroh looked as though he'd been offended by Akane's comment as he shook his head in disapproval, "And here I thought you appreciated the game of Pai Sho."

Akane rolled her eyes, "Sure, I like a good game of Pai Sho as much as you do, Iroh. But we have more important things to worry about."

"It will only take a few moments," Iroh promised.

"Why do I even bother?" Akane muttered, knowing that there would be no point in trying to convince Iroh otherwise.

"Come on, Akane. Take a seat and join us for the next game," Kang offered.

Akane blushed at him acknowledging her, since she still harboured her little crush towards him. Not that she would ever tell him that, since then she would have to put up with the pain of rejection.

"Um, s-sure. Why not?" Akane agreed nervously.

While Akane wasn't exactly the biggest Pai Sho enthusiast since she could never seem to beat Iroh at the game, she still enjoyed it and appreciated it more than Zuko did, even if she thought Iroh changing their course for a lotus tile was a bit ridiculous. Besides, she could use something to pass the time since whether she liked it or not, they were going shopping.

~*•°•*~

As per Iroh's request, they stopped at the nearest market to hopefully find a substitute for his missing lotus tile. While Akane hid most of her displeasure at the situation, Zuko was off pouting like a five-year-old. They both agreed that this trip wasn't necessary, but they didn't want to have Iroh sulking about his missing lotus tile for who knows how long, so it was just better to get it done and over with.

"You know that it's easier to just let him look for it, right?" Akane asked as she and Zuko stood by themselves.

Zuko sighed, "I know but we're wasting valuable time that could be spent doing things far more important than this!"

"Don't let Iroh here you say that," Akane chuckled.

"How long did he say this was going to take again?" Zuko questioned.

"About ten minutes, so not too long," Akane answered.

"Knowing uncle, he'll probably get side-tracked and find something else to grab his attention," Zuko muttered.

"Hey, why don't we look around for a bit to kill some time?" Akane suggested.

"I'd rather just stay here," Zuko replied.

"Come on, it'll be fun. Now just let me pry you away from this wall," Akane insisted as she grabbed Zuko's arm before dragging him off.

"I am not in favour of this!" Zuko complained.

"Well, I don't care," Akane said.

Against his will, Zuko tagged along with Akane as they looked around the fishermen's pier that they had found themselves in. There were numerous stalls around the place that included things like foreign objects and goods that Akane had never seen before along with clothes and entertainment galore. It was certainly unlike anything that they had come across in the Fire Nation before.

One thing that Akane had come to realise in her time at sea with Zuko was how different the rest of the world was compared to what they had grown up with. Every nation had it's own differences, yet at the same time they had many similarities as well. As they started to head back to the shore, Akane stopped in her tracks as she spotted a jewellery stall that caught her eye. It wasn't necessarily the store itself that grabbed her attention, it was one of the items that were on display at the front.

"Zuko, come look at this!" Akane exclaimed as she once again dragged Zuko to the store.

"I don't get it. This is just a dumb store," Zuko muttered.

Akane stood on his foot, "Zuko, be careful of what you say."

Zuko rolled his eyes, "Yes, mother."

"Look at that necklace. Isn't it beautiful? It matches my bracelet as well!" Akane fawned, referring to the piece of jewellery that Iroh had given her several years ago which still wore to this day.

"It's… pretty," Zuko admitted.

Akane chuckled, "You're hard to please, aren't you?"

"It shouldn't come as a surprise to you that I'm no fashion expert," Zuko muttered.

"Can I get it?" Akane asked eagerly.

"Why would you want a useless piece of jewellery?" Zuko questioned.

"It's not useless! Besides, I deserve something nice for all I have to put up with," Akane pleaded before pouting at Zuko. "Come on, don't be a Buster, Buster."

Zuko sighed in resignation, "Ugh, fine. I'll buy you the stupid necklace."

"It's not stupid!" Akane exclaimed as Zuko walked into the stall to purchase the necklace.

Sighing, Zuko took the necklace from it's spot before heading over to the cashier to pay for it. To be honest, Zuko didn't understand what the big deal was about the stupid necklace. But then again, Akane did deserve something nice and she wouldn't let this go if he didn't let her have it. Sometimes it was just better to do things that other people wanted to do, even if you yourself didn't want to do them.

"Just the necklace," Zuko muttered as he handed the cashier the money.

"It's really beautiful, isn't it? You're girlfriend has good taste," the cashier commented.

Zuko's cheeks instantly reddened, "She's not my girlfriend. She's just a friend."

"Only a boyfriend would buy their 'friend' a necklace that she desires. Here you go, young man," the cashier said.

"Thanks," Zuko mumbled as he quickly walked away, his cheeks still red after Akane being referred to as his girlfriend. It wasn't that the thought disgusted him, it was just awkward since Akane was his friend. Nothing more, nothing less.

"So…" Akane trailed off expectantly as Zuko approached her.

"Don't expect me to get you anything after this for a while," Zuko snapped as he handed her the necklace.

Akane grinned as she took the garment from Zuko's hands before putting it around her neck. Once she was done, Akane glanced over a puddle to get a view of herself before turning to Zuko in a pose.

"How do I look?" Akane asked.

"Um…" Zuko trailed off nervously, not really sure how to respond to Akane when she was posing like that. "You mean the necklace on your neck or the necklace with all of you? Either way, you look fine."

Akane giggled, "I'll take that as a compliment then."

"Yeah," Zuko murmured.

"Let's go check on Iroh and see how he's doing," Akane suggested.

"Sounds like a plan," Zuko agreed, suddenly very eager to get away from the jewellery store.

As they walked back to where they had agreed to meet Iroh, Zuko felt awkward around Akane as she fiddled around with her necklace. Zuko wasn't exactly sure why such a simple piece of material was having an affect on him. He just figured that it was because he rarely saw Akane show her feminine side like this, and he had to secretly admit that he liked seeing it. Soon enough, they were joined by Iroh who wore a disappointed look on his face.

"No luck?" Akane guessed.

Iroh shook his head, "I've checked all the shops on this pier. Not a lotus tile in the entire marketplace."

"It's good to know that this trip was a complete waste of time for everyone!" Zuko snapped.

"Quite the contrary. I always say, the only thing better than finding something you were looking for is finding something you weren't looking for at a great bargain!" Iroh exclaimed as several crew members walked past carrying his purchases, one of them even carrying a tsungi horn while playing it.

Akane glanced at Iroh, "When do you ever say that?"

"You bought a tsungi horn?" Zuko questioned in bewilderment as he looked at his uncle.

"For music night on the ship. Now, if we only had some woodwinds," Iroh said before he caught sight of a ship nearby. "Oh, this place looks promising!"

Zuko groaned as they followed after Iroh, "Just what we need. More wasted time."

"Look on the bright side, at least now you can brush up on your tsungi horn practice," Akane joked, earning a glare from Zuko.

"Hello, young lovers!" a strange voice called out to them. "Could I interest you in some scented candles? They'll certainly make your date nights more exotic."

Akane blushed, "Oh, you see…"

"We're not…" Zuko stammered.

"Young lovers, as you put it. We're just friends," Akane stated awkwardly.

"Oh, well I'm sure you could find some other use for them," the seller tried bargaining with them.

"Well, we better be moving on now," Zuko said quickly as he pulled Akane away.

"That was… embarrassing," Akane muttered.

"Tell me about it," Zuko agreed. What was it with people thinking that he and Akane were involved with each other when they were just friends?

When they entered the ship, they found Iroh obsessing over the strange objects that filled the ship. There were a few other people in there dressed in strange clothes, so Akane assumed that they were pirates. Especially since the guy at the back had a parrot with him. Now that's a classic pirate look.

"Man, that's creepy," Akane commented as she spotted some sort of monkey statue.

Iroh seemed to disagree, "Oh, that is handsome! Wouldn't it look magnificent in the galley?"

"Handsome isn't exactly how I'd describe it," Akane said as another pirate entered the shop.

"We lost the Water Tribe girl and the little bald monk she was travelling with," the pirate stated.

That seemed to get Zuko's attention as he turned to face the pirates, "This monk, did he have an arrow on his head?"

Iroh turned around, making an awkward face similar to the monkey's which made Akane laugh. Not only at the expression on Iroh's face, but the fact that he chose that moment to make a joke.

"Yes, the monk did have an arrow on his head," one of the pirates replied. "What's it to you?"

"Would you be interested in making a deal with me?" Zuko asked.

"Zuko, be careful," Akane hissed, knowing that pirates were notorious for being shifty characters.

"What kind of a deal?" the other pirate asked.

"Let's just say I'm after the monk as well. You're after the girl, and I know that they'll be together. So, why don't we save ourselves the trouble and track them down together," Zuko suggested.

"You've got yourself a deal," the first pirate agreed.

Zuko smirked, "Excellent."

Unlike Zuko, Akane wasn't so sure if he was making the right decision by working with the pirates. They had to have had their own reason for wanting the Water Tribe girl who was with the Avatar, and Akane figured that once they got what they wanted that Zuko would be left on his own. Akane just hoped that it wouldn't come to that and that they would all walk away satisfied.

~*•°•*~

Later that day, Akane, Iroh, Zuko and several of their crew members boarded Zuko's skiff before launching it into the water. The pirates had agreed to search with them on their own boats, so they journeyed through the nearby river together. Ever since they encountered the pirates, Akane had kept a close eye on them since she didn't want them to get swindled by the pirates. Akane had heard several stories of people getting on the wrong end of a deal with pirates, and she was hoping that it wouldn't come to that for them.

Eventually, the sun started to set and they still hadn't found any sign of the Avatar or his friends. Surprisingly, Zuko was remaining calm since he usually became agitated when they came up empty handed. Akane assumed that he was just trying to put on a front for the pirates, since they weren't really aware of how serious this situation was for them. While Zuko had told the pirates that they were also looking for the monk, he had failed to mention that monk was the Avatar.

Deciding to join Zuko outside, Akane headed to the top of his skiff before she spotted him standing with the pirate captain as they surveyed the area. Akane stifled back a laugh as she saw the parrot sitting atop the captains shoulder. It seemed to go with him everywhere he went, and Akane couldn't help but wonder what Zuko would be like with a parrot. Though, Zuko would most likely go for something more Fire Nation, like a hawk.

"What's so funny?" the pirate captain asked Akane.

Akane ceased her laughing, "Nothing, sir. Just my thoughts."

The pirate captain grunted at Akane before turning back to Zuko, "Shouldn't we stop to search the woods?"

"We don't need to stop. They stole a waterbending scroll, right?" Zuko checked.

"Mm-hm," the pirate captain murmured.

"Then they'll be on the water," Zuko stated.

"I'll go make sure that my men are ready for any attack," the pirate captain said before walking away from them.

Once Akane was sure that the pirate captain was out of earshot, she tugged at Zuko's arm, "Are you sure that this is a good idea?"

"What do you mean?" Zuko asked.

"Working with the pirates," Akane clarified. "Do you really think that this is the right thing for us to do?"

"To tell you the truth, I am a little hesitant. But when has that ever stopped me?" Zuko admitted. "Besides, it'll be much easier to capture the Avatar with their help. They'll get their precious scroll back, and we get what we came for."

Akane sighed, "If you say so."

"My men are ready when you are, Prince Zuko," the pirate captain suddenly said, causing Akane to jump back in surprise at his sudden appearance.

"Jeez, do you always sneak up on people?" Akane asked.

"It's a good skill to have, girl," the pirate captain replied.

"My name is Akane," Akane drawled, having already told him her name half a dozen times, yet he still hadn't properly addressed her.

When the pirate captain ignored her again, Akane simply huffed indignantly as she crossed her arms and turned away from his gaze. After that, they simply stood at the top of Zuko's skiff as they sailed through the waters while keeping their eyes open for any sign of the Avatar. As much as Akane wanted to find Aang and his friends for Zuko's sake, she also didn't want to find them for the sake of the world, since Aang was the only thing stopping the Fire Nation's quest for victory.

Ever since Akane and Zuko had first encountered the Avatar at the South Pole, Akane had been having a battle with her morality. While she wanted to do what was right as Zuko's friend, she also wanted to do what was right for the world. Unfortunately for Akane, those things never seemed to go on the same path so it looked like she'd be at odds with herself for the time being. She just hoped that the pirates could get whatever it is they wanted and that there would be another chance for Zuko to capture Aang, one that didn't involve her.

Suddenly, Akane heard a loud shout in the distance that not only caught her attention, but Zuko and the pirate captains as well. At first, Akane couldn't make out what was being said until she recognised the voice.

"… Okay, Katara. Shift your weight through the stances," Akane heard Katara say, which made her wonder what she was doing over there. Then she realised that it was probably something to do with waterbending since after all, she did steal a waterbending scroll.

"Stop the boats. We'll ambush them together," Zuko abruptly ordered.

They did just that, with the boats quickly pulling up onto the river bank. As per Zuko's order, his men and the pirates headed towards the source of the noise. By that point, Katara's shouting had ceased until one of the pirates caught her.

"No! Let go of me!" Katara shouted as she bended water up into the pirate's face, causing him to release her. She ran again but this time, she was grabbed on the wrists by Zuko.

"I'll save you from the pirates," Zuko glared at her as she looked frightfully at him.

Akane snorted at Zuko's choice of words, "You're not supposed to flirt with her."

"I wasn't flirting with her," Zuko snapped, his cheeks slowly reddening.

"That sounded like a cheesy pick-up line to me," Akane commented before turning to the pirates around her. "Wouldn't you guys agree?"

"Like they would know anything about pick-up lines!" Zuko retorted.

"I happen to consider myself a genius in the art of romance," one of the pirates, Oh, proclaimed. "I'd have to agree with your lady friend there, Mr. Princey."

"Don't call me that!" Zuko angrily exclaimed. "I am Prince Zuko to you!"

"Um… Where is this going?" Katara asked awkwardly.

Akane rolled her eyes, "Let's just get this over with, okay?"

"Fine. We need to have a talk about you interrupting my moments," Zuko said to Akane as he tied Katara to the tree before facing Katara. "I recommend that you disregard that last conversation."

"You probably should. It would make this less awkward than it needs to be," Akane suggested.

Now that Katara was tied to a tree, Zuko positioned himself in front of her as she stared at him with her eyes full of hatred. Akane couldn't blame her since if she was in Katara's position, she'd hate Zuko too.

"Tell me where he is and I won't hurt you or your brother," Zuko threatened.

"Go jump in the river!" Katara retorted.

Akane stifled back a few laughs as she murmured, "I like her."

"Try to understand. I need to capture him to restore something I've lost, my honour," Zuko explained.

Akane rolled her eyes at the word honour. In the past few years with Zuko, she'd heard that word plenty more times than she would like to, and it would forever be a word that she'd associate with Zuko.

"Perhaps in exchange I can restore something you've lost," Zuko offered as he held up the necklace he had found several weeks ago around her neck.

"My mother's necklace!" Katara exclaimed. "How did you get that?"

That necklace was her mother's? It must be important to her. If only Zuko wasn't such a jerk and would give it to her. Akane thought, hoping that Zuko would decide to be nice and give Katara what was rightfully hers.

"I didn't steal it, if that's what you're wondering," Zuko taunted before his voice turned threateningly. "Tell me where he is."

"No!" Katara shouted defiantly, and Akane couldn't help but admire her for not giving in and protecting her friends. At the same time, Akane found herself glaring at Zuko because of the way he was talking around her. There was just something about it that ticked Akane off, and she couldn't quite figure out what it was.

"Enough of this necklace garbage! You promised a scroll!" the pirate captain snapped.

"I wonder how much this is worth…" Zuko trailed off as he took out the scroll and held it over a fire in his hands, causing the pirates to gasp. "A lot, apparently. Now you help me find what I want, you'll get this back, and everyone goes home happy. Search the woods for the boy and meet back here!"

"Fine," the pirate captain conceded before heading off with his men, leaving Akane, Zuko and his men behind.

"You lot search around the area in case they're nearby. Akane, you watch that peasant and make sure she doesn't escape. I'll go wake my uncle," Zuko ordered and everyone did as they were told.

An uncomfortable silence filled the air as Akane was left alone with Katara. If Akane was being completely honest, she wasn't so sure if Katara hated her like she hated Zuko, since that wasn't the vibe that she was getting from her. Akane couldn't help but notice how Katara stared longingly at Zuko as he walked away, and she couldn't help that ticked off feeling in her chest before realising that she was gazing at her necklace in his hands.

Of course, what else would she be looking at? It's not like she would ever look at Zuko that way. To her, he's the enemy. The enemy who has something that obviously means a lot to her. Ugh, why does Zuko have to be such a jerk sometimes? He was so much nicer before he was banished. Akane thought.

It was true, Zuko had changed a lot since his banishment almost three years ago. He was no longer the boy who Akane had grew up with, he was now cold-hearted and angry. Akane blamed Ozai for this, since he was the one who burned and banished him without a second thought, yet Zuko still sought for his approval. Sometimes Akane wondered what their life would've been like if Zuko hadn't been banished. They definitely wouldn't be on an endless quest to find the Avatar. Maybe they'd actually be happy, just like they should be.

Turning to Katara, Akane took notice of the scared look on her face. If Akane were in her position, she'd be scared too. For her sake, Akane hoped that Zuko wouldn't do anything too rash since she didn't deserve that. The silence eventually became unbearable for Akane, so she decided to try her luck and strike up a conversation with Katara.

"I'm sorry about your necklace," Akane apologised.

Katara glanced at her in surprise, "Why?"

"It obviously means a lot to you. I didn't want Zuko to just take it like he did, but he kind of goes by the whole 'finders keepers losers weepers' motto," Akane replied.

"Well, that necklace is mine. It shouldn't be with him," Katara muttered.

"If I could give it to you I would," Akane reassured her.

Katara narrowed her eyebrows, "Can I ask you something?"

Akane shrugged, "Go for it."

"Why are you with him? You clearly don't agree with what he's doing. Aang told me how you told him to escape when Zuko first captured him. Then Sokka told me how you just let him go at Kyoshi Island when you could've easily taken him," Katara said.

Akane sighed, "It's complicated. I know it might not make sense to you, for why he's so desperate to capture Aang. But trust me when I say it does mean something to Zuko. He's not just out for him because he's the Avatar. If things were different, Zuko wouldn't even be after you guys. And while I might not agree with most of his choices, Zuko is still my friend, and friends have each other's back no matter what. Plus, he'd be like a pig-chicken with its head cut off without me."

Katara nodded in understanding while laughing at Akane's last comment, "I get it. You have to do whatever you can for your friends. That's why I didn't give up Aang and Sokka for my necklace. But it's probably not going to mean anything."

"You're probably right," Akane agreed.

"Listen, Akane. We might be on opposite sides but from what I've seen, you're a good friend and a good person. I might hate Zuko with a burning passion, but he's lucky to have you," Katara said.

Akane smiled, "Thanks, Katara. Who would've thought that we'd have a civilised conversation under these circumstances?"

Katara laughed, "Certainly not me. I never would've thought that I'd have a conversation like this with anyone from the Fire Nation, let alone you."

"Yeah, well…" Akane trailed off before she noticed Iroh and Zuko approaching them. "Conversation over."

For a moment, Katara was confused at Akane's words before she saw Iroh and Zuko heading towards them. Realising that she'd have to go back to being a distressed prisoner, Katara avoided Akane's gaze since after the conversation that they'd just had, it was hard for her to look at Akane like she was the enemy. As for Zuko, well, she still saw him as her enemy. That would never change. But Akane was different. She wasn't like Zuko, which Katara was grateful for. The last thing she needed was another antagonistic firebender on her case.

"What's going on here?" Zuko demanded.

"Nothing. I've just been keeping watch over her like you told me to. She hasn't caused any trouble," Akane lied.

Zuko nodded, "I'll gather up the rest of the men."

Watching Zuko as he disappeared through the trees, Akane couldn't help but think back on her conversation with Katara as the waterbenders words echoed through her mind. Zuko's lucky to have you. Was he really, though? Would any good friend secretly go behind their supposed friends back when they needed them the most? Akane knew that the answer was no. If she was really Zuko's friend, she wouldn't be interfering the way she has so far. Then again, Akane knew that no other friend would stick by Zuko for as long as she had given their circumstances. Maybe Zuko wasn't the only one who needed to work on being a better friend.

~*•°•*~

Just as Katara had said they would, her efforts to protect her brother and Aang were for nothing as it didn't take long for the pirates to show up with Aang and Sokka's hands tied together. By then, the sun had risen and there was no time for resting. Akane could see that Aang and Sokka were struggling against their ropes as they stood with the pirates.

"Nice work," Zuko complimented the pirates.

"Aang, this is all my fault," Katara cried.

"No Katara, it isn't," Aang reassured her.

"Yeah, it kind of is," Iroh commented, causing Akane to roll her eyes and Katara to glare at him.

"You're not helping, Iroh," Akane muttered.

"Give me the boy," Zuko ordered the pirate captain.

"You give us the scroll," the pirate captain demanded.

"I knew this was going to get messy," Akane murmured.

"You're really gonna hand over the Avatar for a stupid piece of parchment?" Sokka suddenly inquired.

"Don't listen to him, he's trying to turn us against each other!" Zuko exclaimed.

That Water Tribe boy is smarter than he looks. But wait a minute, if the pirates take Aang then that means Zuko can't have him. I knew that this was a bad idea. Why does Zuko never listen to me? Akane thought, noticing the aggravated look on Zuko's face and that this entire situation could've easily been avoided.

The pirate captain seemed to take interest in what Sokka was saying as he turned to Aang, "Your friend is the Avatar?"

"Sure is, and I'll bet he'll fetch a lot more on the black market than that fancy scroll," Sokka exaggerated.

"Shut your mouth, you Water Tribe peasant!" Zuko yelled angrily.

"Yeah, Sokka, you really should shut your mouth," Aang said nervously.

"I'm just sayin' it's bad business sense. Think how much the Fire Lord would pay for the Avatar. You guys would be set for life," Sokka proclaimed, causing the pirates to grin at the prospect of more rewards for them.

"Keep the scroll; we can buy a hundred with the reward we'll get for the kid," the pirate captain said to Zuko as he and his men turned to leave.

"You'll regret breaking a deal with me," Zuko threatened as he and two of his soldiers sent a blast of fire at the pirates.

To counteract their attack, the pirates jumped back and Oh ran out, throwing smoke bombs and jumping into the cloud as the fight ensued. Some of the soldiers ran out to Sokka and Aang, who struggled with their ropes but were stopped by several pirates. Smoke soon filled the air as they engaged in battle, leaving Akane and Katara on the sidelines.

Realising that there was no point in leaving Katara tied to the tree and that it wouldn't hurt her conscience, Akane headed over to Katara with the intent of releasing her from her restraints.

"Well would you look at that, my firebendings gone wild! I can't control it!" Akane dramatically exclaimed as she lit Katara's ropes on fire, freeing her.

Katara smiled at Akane as she rubbed her wrists to soothe them, "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," Akane called out.

Out of the corner of her eye, Akane noticed Zuko and the pirate captain engaging in their own battle outside the smoke, barely paying attention to their surroundings. When Akane noticed one of the other pirates approaching Zuko, she immediately ran towards him before he used a rope to snag the waterbending scroll from Zuko's belt. However, the Avatar's lemur managed to steal it from the rope as the pirates parrot chased after it.

When it looked like the other pirate was going to take a sneak attack at Zuko, Akane quickly firebended a blast between them, halting any potential advance. With the pirate cut off from Zuko, Akane leaped around as she avoided his ropes that flung towards her. At the perfect moment, Akane spun her foot around while sending a blast of fire at the pirate, which did the trick as he ran off in fear.

Akane then saw Iroh heading towards Zuko and the pirate captain, and she wondered what he could possibly be doing before she noticed both the captain's and Zuko's ships setting sail. Reaching Zuko at the exact same time as Iroh, she pulled his ponytail back while Iroh pulled the pirate captain away.

"Are you so busy fighting you cannot see your own ship has set sail?" Iroh asked.

"We have no time for your proverbs, Uncle!" Zuko snapped.

"It's no proverb!" Iroh stated as he pointed at the captains hijacked pirate ship.

"Why would he even say a proverb at a time like this?" Akane wondered.

"Bleeding hog monkeys!" the pirate captain exclaimed as Zuko laughed while pointing him, causing Akane to smile. Zuko's laughter dissipated as the pirates hijacked his own boats and they taunted him.

"You should laugh more," Akane said.

"Hey! That's my boat!" Zuko angrily yelled as he chased after the hijacked boat.

"Maybe it should be a proverb…" Iroh pondered.

"But I don't see how it would fit any other scenario," Akane commented.

"C'mon, Akane, Uncle!" Iroh yelled.

Akane sighed, "Let's go save his boat."

Despite their best efforts, the trio failed to catch up to the boat and they helplessly watched as it fell down the waterfall. Zuko was fuming, as not only had he lost the Avatar, but his boat as well. Akane, on the other hand was wondering how they were going to get back to their ship.

"My boat!" Zuko cried.

"There, there, Buster. We'll get you a new boat," Akane half-heartedly comforted him.

It seemed like they had had another failed attempt at capturing the Avatar, but knowing Zuko, he wouldn't be giving up on his quest anytime soon. Akane also noticed how Iroh was the only one of them who appeared to be remotely positive, which she couldn't understand how.

Iroh chuckled, "Akane, Prince Zuko, you're really going to get a kick out of this… The lotus tile was in my sleeve the whole time."

"You've got to be kidding me!" Akane drawled.

In that moment, there was nothing that Akane wanted to do more than rip that stupid lotus tile from Iroh's hands and throw it away. However, Zuko seemed to be one step ahead of her. Seething, Zuko grabbed the lotus tile from Iroh's hand before throwing it over the waterfall, immediately causing the smile on Iroh's face to disappear. Akane couldn't help but laugh at the look on Iroh's face, since he had that coming.

"Well, that's unfortunate. Now you're going to have to go get it!" Iroh said.

"What!" Zuko yelled.

"Prince Zuko, the lotus tile is integral for my Pai Sho game. I cannot go on without it," Iroh insisted.

"You two can look for it on your own. I'll find my own way back to the ship. I need a nap anyways," Akane muttered as she walked away.

After the day that she'd had, Akane could certainly use a little down time so she quite happily ignored Iroh and Zuko's protests as she headed through the forest. Although she actually had no idea how to get back to the ship, wondering through the forest seemed more appealing than searching for Iroh's stupid keepsake. Besides, knowing those two, they'd probably find another way to get into trouble and Akane wanted to be as far away from it as possible. At least, for now.

Chapter Text

Down below the ships deck, Akane aided Chen as he prepared the meals for the day. Normally, Akane would be alongside Zuko as he oversaw the ship, but since the pirate fiasco, Zuko had gone back to his usual agitated self that Akane didn't like. It was almost as if he had forgotten about the promise that he had made to her after what happened on Crescent Island. Akane didn't it when Zuko would shut himself off from everyone and everything like he was now, since it was almost like walking on thin ice whenever she was around him.

"Pass me the spices, Miss Akane," Chen instructed.

"Chen, how many times do I have to tell you that there's no need for any formalities. Just call me Akane," Akane said.

"When you are taught to respect your superiors, it is a hard habit to break," Chen admitted.

"I'm not your superior, Chen. I'm just a person," Akane commented.

"Who happens to be friends with the man in charge of this ship," Chen pointed out.

Akane giggled, "Well, Zuko isn't really a man."

"I will never understand your friendship with that boy," Chen said.

"Sometimes I don't even understand it," Akane murmured.

It was true, there were definitely times when Akane questioned her friendship with Zuko. Although they had their similarities, they certainly had their differences which clashed at times. But they were still friends, and although their friendship had certainly changed over the past few years, Akane was glad to have Zuko in her life.

"It surprises me with how much time you spend down here with me, Akane. Surely you would prefer to be out in the open with the sun beating down on you?" Chen questioned.

Akane raised an eyebrow, "Are you trying to get rid of me, Chen?"

Chen laughed, "Of course not. I value your company, Akane. You just don't see too many people your age so willing to help around whenever they can. Especially when your help is not even necessary."

"But it's appreciated," Akane added.

"It sure is. A pair of extra hands certainly makes things easier around here," Chen agreed.

While it might be strange for Chen to have Akane always helping around, it wasn't anything strange to her since that was always something that she did. Even when she still lived at the palace, Akane always lent her help to any of the servants if they were willing to let her. There was just something about helping people that made Akane feel good about herself, since there were certainly people who needed more help than she did.

Speaking of her problems, Akane suddenly felt that overwhelming sensation build up in her chest again. Since receiving the help from Uilani, the problems had somewhat subsided although they would still randomly pop up at times. Luckily for Akane, she still had some leftover tea that had her remedy in it from earlier so she was quickly able to get rid of the pain with a few quick sips. Her sudden episode did not go unnoticed by Chen as he noticed the strange behaviour from the girl.

"Did you feel it again?" Chen asked.

"Yes, but it's nothing to worry about now that I can control it," Akane reassured him.

"Maybe you should take a break before you over-exert yourself. I don't want you to risk falling under any spell," Chen suggested.

"You're probably right. Zuko probably wants me on deck soon anyways," Akane agreed.

Bidding her farewell to Chen, Akane left the kitchen as she made her way to the ships deck where she knew Zuko would be. They had received word earlier that the Avatar had been spotted, so Zuko was out there trying to find any sign of him. When Akane wandered onto the deck, she wasn't surprised to see Zuko peering through his telescope as it was aimed at the sky while Iroh stood nearby.

"Hello, Akane. I was wondering when you would show up," Iroh greeted her.

"I was just helping Chen with the food before I decided to join you guys up here," Akane said.

A loud squawking noise could be heard from above and Akane looked ahead to see a flight of birds passing over Iroh's head. Iroh then sniffed the air as Zuko lowered his telescope to turn to his uncle.

"There is a storm coming. A big one," Iroh stated.

"You're out of your mind, Uncle!" Zuko exclaimed as he walked up to Iroh. "The weather's perfect. There's not a cloud in sight."

"A storm is approaching from the north," Iroh explained as he turned to face Zuko. "I suggest we alter our course and head southwest."

"You should listen to Iroh," Akane agreed. "I heard that bird migration is related to change in weather. You can see the birds changing their direction over there."

Zuko took a few steps towards Iroh as he briefly pointed northward, "We know the Avatar is traveling northward, so we will do the same."

"Prince Zuko, consider the safety of the crew," Iroh pleaded sternly.

"The safety of the crew doesn't matter!" Zuko exclaimed as he advanced on his uncle angrily.

For Zuko to just dismiss them all like that hurt Akane, since she was a part of the crew as well and that meant he clearly didn't care about putting them in danger. Behind them, Lieutenant Jee walked onto the deck and Akane grimaced as she realised he overheard their conversation. As Zuko realised Jee is behind him, he turned to face him with his expression briefly losing its raging intensity. Jee raised an eyebrow as Zuko walked over to him, addressing Jee directly while strutting up to him, dominantly looking him right in the eyes from a close distance.

"Finding the Avatar is more important than any individual's safety," Zuko snapped.

How do you expect us to find him when we're trapped at sea, Buster? Akane thought.

As Zuko walked away, Jee glared after him. Zuko eventually left the deck through the door at the base of the superstructure, while Jee looked slightly enraged as Iroh walked over to him.

"He doesn't mean that. He's just all worked up," Iroh said reassuringly, with a twinge of uncertainty in his voice, almost as if he did not fully believe what he was saying.

"Yeah, I think he meant it," Akane deadpanned as she crossed her arms.

"Akane, you know Zuko that Zuko cares for us all," Iroh reassured.

"He has a funny way of showing it," Jee muttered as he too left the deck.

Akane sighed, "I'm going to have a nap. Wake me if anything important happens."

"Will do, Akane," Iroh agreed, but he couldn't help but notice the change in her demeanour as she walked away and frowned knowing that his nephew had something to do with it.

Shaking her head as she did so, Akane headed back into the ship with the intention of having a nap to cool off her anger and frustration. It was mind boggling to Akane as to why Zuko would put all of their lives at risk for capturing the Avatar when they couldn't really do that if they were all dead. Her frustration was enough to cause her to lose focus on where she was going as she ended up bumping into someone else.

"Whoa, there," they said.

Looking up, Akane grimaced when she saw Meili standing there. Then again, Meili was probably one of the few people who Akane would actually want to see right now, with Zuko not being on that list given his recent statements.

"Sorry," Akane apologised.

"What's with the pissed off look on your face? Your boyfriend piss you off?" Meili asked.

Ignoring Meili's comment about her and Zuko, Akane went on, "He just infuriates me with how careless and inconsiderate he can be sometimes! There's more than just the Avatar at stake! Our lives matter too!"

"He clearly doesn't see that," Meili commented.

"No, he doesn't," Akane agreed. "Ugh, why does Buster have to get under my skin like this sometimes?"

"Buster?" Meili repeated. "I always wondered why you called him that."

Akane blinked before she retold the story as to how Zuko got that nickname, "We were playing around once when we were little and he tripped and fell. Then he was being all whimpy about it like he was busting the fun. I guess it doesn't really make sense now, but to my childhood self it did."

"I can see that it annoys him," Meili commented.

"It does, that's why I still use it," Akane grinned.

"As much as I'd love to stand here and trash talk your boyfriend, I wouldn't want to get under his skin so I'll just leave you to it," Meili said.

Akane giggled, "See you around."

Watching the other girl as she walked off, Meili couldn't help but chuckle to herself at her frustration towards the Fire Nation Prince. While Meili's came from genuine hatred, Meili had a feeling that Akane's came from another source, not that the girl would ever admit it, of course.

~*•°•*~

Hours passed before Akane returned onto the deck again. After treating herself to a short nap, Akane was ready to do whatever it is that she needed to do. However, Akane couldn't find anyone around the ship so she ventured back onto the deck to see if anyone else was there. Most of the crew including Lieutenant Jee and several other soldiers were standing there as they gazed around. At first, Akane didn't know what they were staring at until she looked up in the sky.

The sky that was once filled with nothing but blue was now filled with a massive bank of darkening clouds. It was almost as if they'd appeared out of nowhere. There was a strong breeze in the air, and Akane had a sinking feeling that this storm wasn't going to be a good one. Akane walked over to Iroh, Jee and the other soldiers as they stood by.

"Looks like you were right, Iroh," Akane stated.

"Unfortunately," Iroh murmured, knowing that they were sailing right into the storm and that his nephew was too stubborn to do otherwise.

Zuko chose that moment to walk back onto the foreground, taking notice of the clouds as Jee and the others turned to face him. Akane and Iroh walked between Zuko and Jee as they braced themselves for a confrontation.

"Looks like your uncle was right about the storm after all," Jee taunted.

"Lucky guess," Iroh commented in a contrastingly pleasant voice in comparison to the way he responded to Akane, though she had a feeling it was to ease the tension that was already in the air.

Zuko whirled around as he angrily walked towards Jee, "Lieutenant! You'd better learn some respect," he threatened as he jabbed two fingers into Jee's chest, "-or I will teach it to you."

Akane shivered as she remembered those words that were spoken years ago, but they didn't come from Zuko. It was now frightening Akane as to how much Zuko was becoming like his father, which certainly wasn't a good thing. Zuko began to walk away from Jee, but Jee wasn't going to let Zuko get away that easily as he followed the prince with his eyes, continuing his taunting after a short pause.

"What do you know about respect?" Jee asked as Iroh's expression turned to panic and he made a cutting motion at his throat with his hand, trying to signal Jee to stop while Akane grimaced at his words.

Zuko stopped as he listened to Jee's words, "The way you talk to everyone around here, from your hard-working crew to your esteemed uncle and even your so-called friend at times, shows you know nothing about respect!"

Iroh hasped slightly, reaching out a hand in desperation before moving it to his forehead in resignation, believing Jee has gone to far. Akane's expression only weakened as she thought about Jee's words.

Zuko's face was contorted with anger as Jee continued his taunting, "You don't care about anyone but yourself! Then again, what should I expect from a spoiled prince?"

That seemed to be the last straw for Zuko as he instantly turned around and extended his right arm as if he was preparing to firebend. Lieutenant Jee did the same and Akane just hoped that they'd be able to resolve this in a civilised matter.

"Easy now," Iroh calmly pleaded as both Zuko and Jee wrist-blocked the others arm. Smoke rose from a furious Zuko's hands.

"Please, Zuko. You don't have to fight," Akane found her voice as she tried to plead with Zuko. He usually listened to her. Though, he wasn't doing that right now.

Interrupting the stare-down, Iroh extended an arm and pulled theirs apart, causing the smoke to fade, "Enough! We're all a bit tired from being at sea so long. I'm sure after a bowl of noodles, everyone will feel much better."

Finally, they listened to Iroh as they pulled their wrists away. Jee immediately walked away along with a few of the other soldiers, and Akane had a feeling that they were off to complain about Zuko's antics. Again. However, Akane just looked at Zuko with sadness as she saw the bitterness that clouded his eyes. This wasn't how she liked seeing Zuko, and it pained her to see her friend like this.

"I don't need your help keeping order on my ship," Zuko snapped.

"Maybe so, but think about Akane. Do you want her getting involved in the crossfire?" Iroh warned as he placed a comforting hand on Zuko's right shoulder.

Glancing back at Akane and noticing the expression on her face, Zuko couldn't help but feel bad for her. But Zuko knew that now wasn't the time to deal with his friend, since he knew that he could only just hurt her more. So, Zuko shrugged it off and walked away, leaving Akane and Iroh on the deck.

"I hate seeing him like this," Akane murmured as she watched Zuko's retreating figure disappear.

"Like I said earlier, he's just a bit worked up. Sometimes people say and do things they don't mean when they're like that," Iroh reassured her.

Akane sighed, "I know. I just wish he wasn't so hotheaded sometimes."

"He'll calm down eventually. Why don't we head down below deck to keep safe from the storm?" Iroh suggested.

Nodding in agreement, Akane followed Iroh downstairs as he wrapped his arm around her. It was times like this when Akane really did appreciate Iroh's guidance and she couldn't help but ponder his words from earlier. Maybe a nice bowl of noddle's would do her some good…

~*•°•*~

After Zuko's outburst with Jee on the deck, Akane hadn't seen Zuko since then. She figured that he had retreated to his room to let off some steam, since that was what Zuko usually did when he was angry about something. It wasn't like he could let off his steam on deck, since they were heading right into the storm. Akane and Iroh had gone to get some noddles, since after all, Chen did make the best noddles.

Although the noodles had relieved Akane's hunger, they still hadn't eased the heavy feeling in her chest as she thought about Zuko. While he was her friend, there was no way she could excuse his recent behaviour. But she had to remind herself that that was not who Zuko really was, and that he was just under a lot of pressure. They all were, since they were racing against practically everyone in the Fire Nation to find the Avatar.

"Is there anything on your mind that you would like to discuss, Akane?" Iroh asked as he noticed the look on the young girls face.

Akane sighed, "I just wish that Zuko would learn to let go every once in a while, and actually show some compassion. I know that he does care about us, deep down, but it's hard to believe sometimes."

"Akane, you of all people should know what must go through Zuko's mind. You've been with him for almost your whole life, so you would know that Zuko was raised to put on the front like he does. Leaders like Zuko are expected to be ruthless and strong-willed," Iroh reasoned.

"Well, that's stupid. Zuko's a teenager! He shouldn't have to worry so much about his responsibilities that he shouldn't even have in the first place," Akane said.

"You may very well be right there, but that is not how Zuko sees it and since my nephew is quite stubborn, it would be difficult to change his views like that," Iroh mused.

Akane chuckled, "He is easily the most stubborn person that I've ever known."

"Now, why don't we go check on the rest of the crew? I'm sure that they would appreciate our presence as we whether this storm away," Iroh suggested.

"Sounds like a plan," Akane agreed.

Together, Akane and Iroh headed down to the break room, also known as the room where the soldiers went to vent about Zuko. If there was anywhere that they would go now at a time like this, it would be there. Sure enough, when they entered the room Akane could overhear them complaining about Zuko. While she didn't like them talking about Zuko like that, she couldn't excuse Zuko's recent behaviour so she understood why they would feel that way.

"I'm sick of taking his orders! I'm tired of chasing his Avatar! I mean, who does Zuko think he is?" Jee complained.

"Do you really want to know?" Iroh asked, alerting them of their presence.

Jee stood up at the sound of Iroh's voice, "General Iroh, Miss Akane. We were just –"

"It's okay," Iroh said. "May we join you?"

"Of course, sir," Jee conceded.

"Try to understand. My nephew is a complicated young man. He has been through much," Iroh messaged his beard as he sat down along with Akane.

That's one heck of an understatement. Akane thought to herself.

It was true, for someone of his age Zuko had already experienced more than what most people have in their entire life. From losing his mother to his banishment, Zuko had certainly been through the wringer and Akane had been by his side every step of the way. They truly had been through a lot together, more than what they should for their age. In the end, their struggles had only made them who they were and helped them grow as individuals.

As Iroh went on, Akane realised that he was about to tell the story of Zuko's banishment which meant telling the story of how he got his scar, which was not a story that Akane liked remembering. Not only because it reminded her of Zuko's pain, but of hers as well. Akane almost brought her hand to the part o her body where her own scar from Ozai rested. While it wasn't as painful as it used to be, it still held painful memories of what Akane had tried but failed to forget.

The reality of what had happened to her at the hands of Ozai left Akane with many emotions, the most common being guilt. From the moment she woke up after that night, Ozai had made it clear that under no circumstances was she ever allowed to tell anyone about what truly happened. Being the naïve child that she was, Akane obeyed his orders and never told anyone. The only people who really knew what happened that night were herself and Ozai.

Even now, Akane was still terrified of having to tell the truth of what really happened. Iroh and Zuko didn't even know that she had a scar. As far as they were aware, Akane had been taken ill that night and was on mandatory bed rest for weeks until she was able to function properly. Staring into the blazing fire as Iroh told the story of Zuko's banishment, Akane couldn't help but remember the first time she saw Zuko after what happened that night.

Two days had passed since Akane's incident at the hands of Ozai. Since then, she had remained in her room on ordered bed rest. The only people who had come to see her were the nurses and Ozai. But he hadn't returned since his first visit when he ordered her not to tell anyone what really happened in that room.

Admittedly, Akane had always been terrified of Ozai since there was just something about that man that she never liked. But after what she had just experienced at the hands of that man, Akane was downright fearful of the him. Now she would never be able to look at Ozai without remembering what he had done to her.

Part of Akane desperately wanted to see Zuko, since he always knew what to do to make her feel better. But then she remembered that she wasn't allowed to tell anyone about what had really happened. As far as the nurses knew, she had accidently burned herself during training that night and was too embarrassed to tell anyone. Everyone would be under the false assumption that she had fallen ill and was in recovery.

Almost as if the universe read her mind, there was a slight knocking sound on Akane's door before it opened and someone walked inside. At first, Akane didn't want to see anyone in her condition but then she brightened when she saw that it was Zuko.

"Zuko!" Akane exclaimed brightly.

"Father told me you had fallen ill and I wasn't allowed to visit you until now," Zuko said as he took a seat on Akane's bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Um, not good," Akane replied, which wasn't a total lie. The scar that she had received from Ozai still hurt more than anything else despite the remedies the nurses had tried to use on her.

"Well, I can still hang out with you in here. I'm sure we can think of something to make you feel better," Zuko suggested.

Akane smiled, "How about a board game?"

"That sounds like fun. I'll see if there's anything we can use in here," Zuko agreed.

Watching Zuko as he rummaged around her room, Akane couldn't help but feel guilty for lying to her friend. They had promised each other to always tell each other everything, and she was breaking that promise by not telling Zuko the truth. It wasn't like Akane had any choice in the way things were handled, since Ozai had forced her to keep quiet.

"This might be something we can use to pass the time," Zuko stated as he pulled out a board game from one of the boxes in her room.

"You can set it up," Akane said, since it hurt her side too much if she did any movements. And setting up the board game would hurt her, so it would be up to Zuko to get it ready.

"Why can't you? You're just sick, not handicapped," Zuko pointed out.

"Would you really want me to risk making me feel worse over a simple board game? Think about the guilt, Zuko," Akane exaggerated.

Zuko rolled his eyes, "Fine, I'll set it up since you're in that condition. But don't expect me to do everything for you just because you're sick."

Akane smirked, "You know, my throat is feeling really scratchy. I sure could use some soothing tea. Too bad I can't get up to get it."

Zuko groaned, "You're gonna make me your slave until you feel better, aren't you?"

"That's what friends are for," Akane stated.

"Fine, I'll get you the tea," Zuko conceded.

"Thanks, Zuko. You sure do know how to treat me good," Akane called out as he left her room.

Once Zuko was out of earshot, Akane sighed as she laid back on her bed. This was truly the first time that she had ever lied to Zuko throughout their friendship, and it let her with a guilty feeling. They were friends, and friends weren't supposed to keep secrets like this from each other. But Akane had to rationalise that it was better for her and Zuko if he didn't know the truth about what happened.

Akane was brought out of her flashback by the sound of thunder and lightning from outside. She then glanced around the fire, and she could still see that Iroh was in the middle of retelling Zuko's tragic story. It was only fitting that Iroh would tell this story on a night like this, with thunder and lightning to match the depressing atmosphere that already surrounded the ship. Based on the looks on the other crew members face, Akane figured that Iroh had finally told the truth on how Zuko had got his scar. Something that she was yet to do.

"I always thought that Prince Zuko was in a training accident," Jee murmured.

"It was no accident. After the duel, the Fire Lord said that by refusing to fight, Zuko had shown shameful weakness. As punishment, he was banished and sent to capture the Avatar. Only then could he return with his honour," Iroh finished.

"So that's why he's so obsessed," Jee realised. "Capturing the Avatar is the only chance he has of things returning to normal."

"Things will never return to normal. But the important thing is, the Avatar gives Zuko hope," Iroh stated.

"And hope is all we have to rely on in times like this," Akane added, sharing a look with Iroh.

Silence fell upon the group as they all set their mulling over what had just transpired. It was almost as if nobody didn't know what to say after what they had just been told. Suddenly, there was a loud booming noise that filled the boiling room which immediately shifted the atmosphere to one of urgency.

"What was that?" Akane cried.

"I don't know, but I do not think it was good," Iroh stated.

Quickly, they all hurried onto the ships deck to find out what had caused the commotion. Much to their shock and horror, the ship had been struck by lightning and was now rocking against the crashing waves that were only amplified because o the storm. Some of the water even crashed onto the ship, and Akane feared that they would be thrown overboard all because of Zuko's stubbornness.

This storm certainly is a big one. Akane thought worriedly.

Eventually, Zuko joined them out on the deck which even surprised Akane before she remembered that Zuko really does care about the safety of the crew, he just doesn't show it as much as he should. The ship rocked back and forth against the waves and with nowhere else to go, they were truly at the mercy of mother nature.

"Where were we hit?" Zuko asked.

"I don't know," Jee replied.

"Look!" Iroh exclaimed as he pointed above.

Everyone looked up and gasped as they saw the helmsman hanging on for dear life. It looked as though he was about to all any minute, and given how harsh the waves were being against the ship, Akane feared that minute wasn't too far away.

"The helmsman!" Zuko shouted.

Without even coming to an agreement, Zuko and Jee quickly headed towards the ladder before they climbed up to save the man who was about to fall. Akane couldn't help but smile at Zuko for doing that, since if he really didn't care about them like he said he didn't then he wouldn't even bother with it. However, her smile was whisked away as lightning strikes narrowly avoided hitting their ship.

Just as one of the lightning strikes were about to hit the ship, Akane watched in amazement as Iroh reached out his hand and managed to grab control of the lightning before directing it into the waters.

"Iroh, that was amazing!" Akane exclaimed in disbelief, having never seen anything like that before. She'd have to ask him how he did that sometime.

Looking up above, Akane let out a sigh of relief as she saw that Zuko and Jee had successfully saved the helmsman as they carried him down the ladder. Unfortunately, one disaster as another seemed to be hitting them as a huge wave rocked the ship to its side, and Akane lost her balance as the waves came crashing down on her. Her attempts to try and stay upright were in vain as she was eventually tossed overboard, screaming as she lost all sense of gravity.

When Akane plunged overboard, she heard the sound o the other crew members desperately call out her name. But Akane knew that in these conditions, the chances of them rescuing her were slim. All Akane could do was try to stay afloat as the waves tried to take her underneath and hope that by some miracle, she'd make it out of this alive.

Back on the ships deck, Zuko had successfully rescued the helmsman and had brought him back onto the deck with Lieutenant Jee. With his feet planted firmly on the ground, Zuko surveyed the ships deck before he realised that Akane was nowhere to be seen when she had just been standing there with the rest of the crew. Fear instantly welled up inside of him as he feared for his friends safety.

"Where is Akane?" Zuko demanded.

"She fell overboard, sir!" one of the men replied.

At that moment, Zuko lost all feeling of everything else as he ran towards the ships edge. His heart sank when he saw a figure not to far away from the ship which he knew was Akane. Guilt swarmed inside of him, since he was the one who didn't change their course when he had every reason to. Now, Akane's life was on the line and if he lost her because of his stubbornness, Zuko would never forgive himself.

Acting quickly, Zuko ordered the men to grab the life rope which was specifically saved for situations like this. Hoping that it was long enough to reach Akane, Zuko tied it around his waist before he made sure that the rest of the crew was doing their job to hold onto him and jumped into the water. As fast as he could, Zuko swam towards Akane while battling the harsh waves that tried to force him away from his friend. But Zuko wasn't going to let some waves stop him from rescuing Akane.

When Zuko finally reached her, his stomach dropped as he saw that she seemed to be slipping away from the world around them. She was coughing up water, but Zuko could see that her eyes were barely open. Fearing for the worst, Zuko gave his men the signal to pull him back as quickly as they could. Once they reached the side of the ship, Zuko climbed up the ladder with Akane on his back. It was difficult, since he had to deal with the waves that were constantly smashing against them but he successfully managed to get them both up on the deck.

"Is she alright?" Iroh asked fearfully as he approached his nephew.

"No, she was coughing up water when I reached her. Now she's just… lying there," Zuko replied as he hurriedly checked for a pulse. "I can't find a pulse!"

"Stand back and let me see," Iroh ordered and Zuko did just that. What Iroh couldn't help but notice was how in those rare times, Zuko was actually showing his emotions in front of the rest of the crew. Iroh breathed a sigh of relief as he found a sign of Akane's pulse. "It's there but it's very faint. We must get her inside so she can have medical treatment immediately."

Not needing to be told twice, Zuko picked up Akane bridal-style and was just about to head inside when he caught sight of a familiar flying bison in the distance. There was no doubt in his mind of who that was.

"The Avatar!" Zuko shouted.

"What do you want to do, sir?" Jee asked.

Zuko sighed as he looked down at Akane's lifeless form in his arms, knowing what the right decision was, "Let him go. We need to get Akane and this ship to safety."

"Then we must head directly into the eye of the storm," Iroh suggested, giving Zuko a smile.

Giving his uncle a nod, Zuko walked inside the ship with Akane still in his arms. His first priority was ensuring Akane's safety, which had already been jeopardised by his stupid decisions. Much to his surprise, he felt Akane shuffle in his arms and he breathed a sigh of relief as that had to have meant that she was alright.

"It's okay, Akane. I've got you. I won't let anything happen to you again," Zuko promised, and he intended to keep it.

~*•°•*~

Finding the eye of the storm wasn't that difficult, and it wasn't long before their ship finally reached it's safe-place. Luckily for them, the waters weren't nearly as rough there compared to how they were in their recent area. All of the crew had assembled on the deck while Akane was being looked after. Thankfully, she was going to live which made Zuko relieved, although it didn't help ease the guilty feeling in his chest since he knew he was responsible for Akane being in that position.

"Uncle, I am sorry," Zuko apologised as he bowed his head remorsefully.

"Your apology is accepted," Iroh said as he put a hand on Zuko's shoulder.

Suddenly, a bright light emerged from the water and everyone looked up in shock to see the Avatar's bison shooting out from the water. Instead of reacting like he normally would've, Zuko simply stared the Avatar down as he did the same before the bison flew up into the sky, disappearing from their view.

"What do you want us to do now, Zuko?" Iroh asked.

"Once we are sure the weather is safe, I want this ship to be repaired," Zuko replied before gazing back at the ships structure. "I'm going to make sure that Akane is alright."

Nodding, Iroh let his nephew walk off before delivering his orders to the crew. While it had taken some turbulence, it seemed as though Zuko and his crew had finally reached an unspoken understanding. Now, Iroh hoped that things would improve for them from here on out since they could sure use some improvements.

Chapter Text

Ever since the storm, things had improved for them on a more personal note. It seemed as though an understanding had been formed between Zuko and his crew, since they now understood why he was so focused on capturing the Avatar. After her near-death experience, Akane had taken some time to recover before integrating herself back in with the crew. Zuko had continuously apologised to Akane for putting her in that position, since he obviously felt guilty about what had happened to her.

"Zuko, for the hundredth time I'm fine," Akane drawled as Zuko followed behind her.

"Are you sure?" Zuko asked.

Akane rolled her eyes, "Yes, I'm sure. As much as I appreciate your concern, it is getting quite frankly annoying."

"I'm sorry, it's just that it was kind of my fault that we were in that situation. I almost lost you then," Zuko said.

"Hold up, did you just say sorry?" Akane asked, trying to lighten up the mood.

"Why is it such a big deal?" Zuko queried.

"Because you never say sorry. Wow, I'm going to remember this moment for the rest of my life," Akane remarked.

Zuko scowled, "It's nice to see that you still have your sarcasm."

"That's something I'll never lose," Akane promised.

"Come on, let's go see if the crew has anything to report," Zuko suggested.

Their ship was currently travelling near a shore in search of the Avatar, but based on what she had seen on the outside Akane assumed that they weren't the only ones scoping out the area that they were in. When they reached the top of the ship, Akane saw Iroh engaged in a game of Pai Sho with some of the other crew members while Lieutenant Jee was looking at a map nearby.

Deciding to pay attention on Iroh's game instead, Akane watched as he made his next move while keeping her ears open in case Zuko or Jee said something important. They had certainly gotten along better since the storm, which was a good sight for Akane to see.

"What is there to report?" Zuko asked.

"We haven't been able to pick up the Avatar's trail since the storm, but if we continue heading northeast…" Jee trailed off as a larger Fire Nation ship pulled up next to theirs.

"What do they want?" Zuko wondered agitatedly.

"Perhaps, a sporting game of Pai Sho!" Iroh exclaimed.

"I highly doubt that," Akane muttered, considering their luck it was probably going to be something that wouldn't turn out in their favour.

Just as Akane suspected, they wanted nothing along the lines of a game of Pai Sho. Instead, they came in bearing a wanted poster of Aang on it. That perked Akane's interest, since it was the first time she had actually seen a wanted poster for the Avatar. It was a pretty accurate description of him if you asked Akane.

"The hunt for the Avatar has been given prime importance. All information regarding the Avatar must be reported directly to Admiral Zhao," the soldier announced as he held up Aang's wanted poster.

"Zhao has been promoted? Well, good for him!" Iroh exclaimed. As he made a move in his Pai Sho game, another player slapped his head against his own forehead as if he lost.

"I don't see how it's good for us," Akane deadpanned.

"I've got nothing to report to Admiral Zhao," Zuko snapped as he looked down. "Now get off my ship and let us pass."

"Admiral Zhao is not allowing ships in or out of this area," the soldier stated.

That didn't seemed to sit well with Zuko as he yelled, "Off my ship!"

Much to Akane's surprise, the soldier obeyed Zuko's command and left the ship with little fuss. Meanwhile, Iroh finished his Pai Sho game with a victory as his opponents groaned in defeat.

"Excellent! I take the pot!" Iroh declared as a crew member punched himself. "But you're all improving! I'm certain you will win if we play again."

Chuckling to herself, Akane shook her head at the crew members as they eagerly set up another game with Iroh, even though they would most likely lose again. Akane glanced at Zuko, and she could see that his eyes were twitching with rage as he watched the other ship sail away. Although she couldn't help but notice how unfazed he was by the news of Zhao's promotion, like he already knew it himself. Nevertheless, Akane brushed those thoughts aside and put her attention on Iroh's Pai Sho game.

"Care for the next game, Akane?" Kang offered.

Akane grinned, "You know it!"

Eagerly sitting down in the opponents spot, Akane took the right tiles for her to use in the match. As he always did, Iroh used the Lotus Tile first and she couldn't help but shake her head as she remembered all of the trouble they had gone for that tile in the past.

~*•°•*~

Later that day, their ship continued to steam by the shore as the sunset went through it's last stages. After their unexpected visitors from before, Zuko had been a lot more angry ever since. He was currently letting off some steam as he practiced his firebending on the foredeck. Akane sighed as she walked up to Zuko, being careful so that he didn't accidently burn her.

"You know, you don't have to take the suggestion 'letting off steam' too literally," Akane suggested.

Zuko glared at her, "Not now, Akane."

"Okay, you're in a bad mood," Akane held up her hands in defence. "Isn't there something you can do to take your mind off it?"

"No!" Zuko yelled as he went through another few firebending moves, with one of them barely missing Akane as she evaded his aggression.

"Watch it!" Akane exclaimed.

They were soon joined by Iroh as he noticed his nephew and closest friend out on the deck. He noticed the agitated look on his nephew's face and the somewhat annoyed look on Akane's face. Situations like this really brought out the worst in them sometimes.

"Is everything okay?" Iroh asked as he walked towards the two teenagers. "It's been almost an hour and you haven't given the men an order."

"I don't care what they do," Zuko snapped.

"Don't give up hope yet. You can still find the Avatar before Zhao," Iroh reassured him.

"How, Uncle? With Zhao's resources, it's just a matter of time before he captures the Avatar," Zuko exclaimed as he turned back, desperation and fear on his face before he turned back out to sea and whispered, "My honour, my throne, my country, I'm about to lose them all."

In that moment, Iroh wasn't really sure how he was supposed to reassure his nephew. Zuko wasn't easy to console in moments like this. Akane was the first of them to step forward as she gently put a hand on Zuko's shoulder.

"You can't give up, Zuko. Just remember what Ursa said, you're someone who keeps fighting even when things are hard," Akane comforted him.

Zuko glanced at her, "But how can I keep fighting when I have nothing against Zhao?"

Akane sighed, "Instead of moping around like a loser, why don't you actually do something about it? Don't let Zhao take the Avatar so easily. You've worked too hard to lose to him like this."

"I'm the banished prince of the Fire Nation, Akane. I can't really do that much," Zuko pointed out.

"Then do something without people knowing that it's you," Akane suggested.

Zuko seemed to ponder Akane's words for a bit before he nodded and headed below deck, leaving Akane and Iroh to themselves. Sighing, Akane headed towards Iroh as she decided to let Zuko do whatever it is he needed to do. Sometimes it was just better to leave him on his own for a while, and now was one of those times.

"Anything else you need, Iroh?" Akane asked.

"Actually, we're getting ready for music night in a bit. I could use your help to get some of the instruments up here," Iroh replied.

Akane smiled, "I'd be more than happy to help."

Together, Akane and Iroh headed down below deck to get ready for music night. It seemed to be enough to lift Akane's spirit, since unlike Zuko she actually enjoyed participating in the event.

~*•°•*~

Music night was something that happened every night once a week on the ship. It was a weekly tradition that started a few months into their initial journey, since the crew had missed their families and Iroh thought it would be a nice distraction for all of them, which it was. Initially, Akane didn't want to take part in music night since she didn't want to embarrass herself but after some encouragement from Iroh, she became a regular singer during the group performances.

Despite Akane's best efforts, Zuko had never once participated in music night and she figured that tonight would be no different. It was a shame, since they could certainly use a tsungi horn player like Zuko. Once Akane had dressed for the night, she headed back onto the deck to join the others. But not before she crossed paths with a dark figure who barely escaped her eyes.

"What the – Zuko!" Akane exclaimed upon recognising her friend.

Slowly, Zuko turned around to face Akane. Based on what Akane could see, he was dressed in all-black clothing and was carrying what looked like a mask with something covered hung over his back.

"Where are you going? More importantly, what are you wearing?" Akane asked.

Zuko sighed, "I'm following your advice."

"My advice…" Akane trailed off.

"Just don't wait up on me, alright? Go have fun with music night," Zuko said.

"Alright. Don't do anything stupid," Akane murmured, even though she already had a feeling that he was already ahead of her in that area.

With Zuko gone, Akane headed off to the ships deck where the rest of the crew was waiting for them. Everyone except for Zuko took part in music night, so they always made sure to dock the ship so everyone could participate. Music night was an opportunity for everyone to let loose for a bit which was what Akane loved the most about the event. It was a shame that Zuko never took part in it, since he could certainly let loose every now and then.

"Ah, Akane. Now everyone is here," Iroh acknowledged her. "You haven't seen Prince Zuko by any chance?"

"Um, yes I have. He's stepping out for the night. He told me not to wait up for him," Akane replied.

"And once again, my stubborn nephew evades the wonders of music night," Iroh said as Akane giggled. "Very well, we'll be just fine without him. Prince Zuko will wish he had been here."

"So, what are we going to do first?" Akane inquired as she took a seat next to Iroh while the rest of the crew members assembled themselves around them.

"I was thinking that you could start us off with a song, Akane. I always do look forward to hearing your wonderful voice on this night," Iroh suggested.

Akane blushed, "Alright."

"Yeah, Akane," Kyou cheered.

"If you guys could play a bit of a soft-tempo music that would be great," Akane said to the band who nodded as they began playing their instruments.

Waiting for the right beat to play before she started singing, Akane swayed to the movements of the music. Although she wasn't that much of an accomplished dancer, Akane still liked to dance when she performed since it made it that much more enjoyable. Once Akane was ready, she began singing the song she had prepared.

And the blood will dry, underneath my nails. And the wind will rise up, to fill my sails. So you can doubt, and you can hate, but I know no matter what it takes.

This was a song that Akane held dear to her heart, since it was one that Ursa always used to sing to her when she was young. While it made her heart heavy to think of the woman she always saw as a mother, she always held the song dear to her heart.

I'm coming home, I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home. Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday. I know my kingdom awaits, and they've forgiven my mistakes. I'm coming home, I'm coming home, I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home.

As she swayed to the music, Akane couldn't help but think about everything she had left behind. Akane always got a feeling of nostalgia whenever she thought of this song, since it always reminded her of the home she had grown up with, even if the memories weren't always good ones.

Still far away from where I belong but it's always darkest before the dawn. So you can doubt and you can hate but I know no matter what it takes.

Taking a deep breath, Akane prepared herself to sing the chorus once again. Although it was a rather simple song, she still loved its simplicity that always left an imprint on her.

I'm coming home, I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home. Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday. I know my kingdom awaits, and they've forgiven my mistakes. I'm coming home, I'm coming home, I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home.

I'm coming home, I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home. Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday. I know my kingdom awaits, and they've forgiven my mistakes. I'm coming home, I'm coming home, I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home.

Once she was finished, Akane took a bow and graciously accepted the applause that ran throughout the crew. As she looked up, Akane could even see a few crew members with tears in their eyes and she smiled knowing that she had managed to touch someone like that.

After Akane's performance, music night continued as it normally did. Stepping aside, Akane watched as the rest of the night went on, which included singing and musical performances from the rest of the crew members. One thing that Akane loved about Music Night was how it brought the crew together, and distracted them from the reality of their situation. As she stood near the ships railing, Akane saw Kang approach her and she couldn't help the blush that formed on her cheeks.

"That was a really good performance that you gave," Kang said.

"Thanks," Akane replied.

"Where'd you learn to sing like that? It's not everyday you hear a voice like yours," Kang stated.

"I took singing lessons for three years when I was younger," Akane recalled.

"Why'd you stop?" Kang questioned.

Akane sighed, as she was unsure of how to explain this to Kang. Ever since she was young, Akane had always sung around the Royal Palace whenever she felt like it. However, it annoyed Ozai so Ursa thought of putting her through singing lessons since she seemed to enjoy doing it, which she did.

"I started taking lessons because my... mom wanted me to," Akane explained, referring to Ursa as her mother since that was always how she saw the other woman. "But then she left, and it didn't feel right to keep doing it."

"Oh," Kang murmured. "Well, if you had kept that up I'm sure you would've made a great career out of singing."

Akane blushed, "Thanks. Now it's just something that I like to do for fun."

"It's always good to have a hobby," Kang said.

"It's definitely something to pass the time," Akane agreed.

"So, would you wanna dance?" Kang offered his head as the music around them started to play louder.

"I don't see why not," Akane replied, trying her best not to appear flustered at the situation.

Together, Akane and Kang danced to the beat of the music around them. Akane was no stranger to dancing, since she had to at least know the basic movements for all of the celebrations that she had to go to when she was younger. Most of those times, Akane would just dance with Zuko but since Zuko wasn't there, it gave her time to dance with someone else. They continued their dancing until Akane suddenly felt the presence of a few other people on board their tiny vessel. Turning her head, Akane saw one of the other crew members talking to a group of men who she had never seen before.

"Hey, General Iroh, these are some of my old military buddies. You mind if they join us for the night?" the crew member asked.

Iroh grinned, "The more, the merrier!"

Although she wouldn't voice her own thoughts, Akane felt a bit awkward in the presence of those other men. There was just something about them that didn't sit well with her, but she just figured that it was because she didn't know them. If one of the crew members knew them and if Iroh seemed to trust them, then she figured that she should've as well.

They took a break from performing for a while as they told stories of their own. Despite music night happening once a week the crew never seemed to run out of stories, which didn't bother Akane the slightest since she loved listening to their stories.

When the story telling was over, Lieutenant Jee took to the stage to sing a love song of his own. Akane always loved it when the other crew members performed, since she was able to see them in an entirely different element compared to how she usually saw them. During Jee's performance, Akane danced near the side of the ship until she was approached by one of the men who had joined them for the night.

"Hello, little lass. What's your name?" they greeted her.

"My name is Akane," Akane replied, not wanting to be rude.

"Pretty name for a pretty girl," the man purred. "You look like you could use a drink."

"Well, I am pretty thirsty," Akane agreed.

"Here's some tea," the man offered.

Staring at the cup in her hands, Akane debated if whether or not she should actually take a sip. She didn't know this man who was suddenly offering her a drink, and she didn't know what could possibly be inside of it. Ultimately, Akane decided to ignore her pestering thoughts and just enjoy the night so she took a sip from the cup before scoffing it down in one go.

As soon as Akane finished her drink, it was like something inside of her suddenly switched on. She felt a lot more tipsy than she did before she took the drink but she barely had time to register the feeling that she was experiencing. After spending some time with the man who had offered her the drink, Akane was practically in another world. Everything around her just seemed different, not that she cared.

"How about you give me the grand tour of this place?" the man asked.

"Sure," Akane agreed, slurring her words as she did so.

However, Akane barely made it a few feet before she fell over. Luckily, the man caught her before she face-planted onto the ground. This was unusual for Akane, since she was never really clumsy like this.

"Just let me help you there," the man offered as he slung her arm around his shoulder before taking her down below deck.

At that point, everything around Akane just felt blurry to her. She could barely make out what was around her, although she knew that she was heading below the ship. The only thing Akane could register was the movements her body made, which was why she instantly became alert when she felt herself being shoved up against something.

"Ow," Akane murmured.

"Don't worry, little girl. I'll take good care of you," the man insisted.

Despite being in a somewhat delirious state, Akane was able to register what was about to happen to her. Refusing to let her fears become a reality, Akane tried to push the man off of her but he proved to be far too strong for her as he forcefully shoved her against the wall. Her fear levels were already rising, and Akane had no idea how she was going to get out of this.

"Please, don't," Akane whispered.

"Take too long? Don't worry, I won't. It'll be over before you know it," the man promised.

Luckily for Akane, it was over before it even began. While she wasn't entirely sure what happened after that, she vaguely remembered the man who had forced himself on top of her being shoved away before he was taken away. Relief instantly went through Akane as she realised she was safe before she allowed her body to shrink to the ground.

Above her, Akane could barely make out the two figures who had came to her rescue since everything around her was still fuzzy. Akane could barely make out the outlines of General Iroh and Lieutenant Jee standing before her. She had never been more thankful to see them in her life.

"It must've been something in her drink," the figure of Iroh observed.

"I'll take her to her room so you can deal with him," the figure of Jee said.

After that, Akane felt herself being carefully picked up so she assumed that Jee was carrying her to her room. By the time she felt the softness of her bed, Akane was practically knocked out as the nights events took their toll on her. So, when Akane was greeted by darkness she was more than willing to let it take over.

~*•°•*~

Morning eventually came and that was when Zuko chose to make his return. Their ship had already returned to the water to head off to whatever their next destination would be. Zuko's tiny vessel was pulled back onto the mother ship as a sullen Zuko walked past his Uncle on the main deck.

"Where have you been, Prince Zuko? You missed music night! Lieutenant Jee sang a stirring love song," Iroh drawled.

"I'm going to bed. No disturbances," Zuko stated as he rubbed his head.

"While you are at it, could you please check on Akane?" Iroh asked hesitantly. "She wasn't in a good place when I saw her a few hours ago."

Zuko's tiredness was forgotten as he instantly turned around to face his uncle, "Why?"

"There was… an incident last night," Iroh replied.

"What kind of incident?" Zuko asked as he walked towards his uncle.

"Somebody slipped something in a drink of hers before she disappeared with one of the men who had joined us for the night. If Lieutenant Jee hadn't noticed she was missing… I can't imagine what would've happened to her," Iroh explained.

Anger boiled inside of Zuko at the thought of somebody doing something like that to his best friend. Forgetting about his own needs, Zuko headed off to Akane's room to check on her. His rest could wait, Akane was more important right now. When Zuko reached her room, he hesitated for a moment before letting himself inside.

The sight that greeted him wasn't a pretty one to say the least. Akane was hunched over what appeared to be a bucket as she vomited her guts out. Zuko quickly walked towards his friend as he wrapped a blanket around her.

"Z-Zuko?" Akane stammered as she looked at her friend, unsure if it was really him.

"Yeah, it's me," Zuko replied.

After getting a closer look at Akane, Zuko noticed how bloodshot her eyes were. Just by looking at her Zuko could see that his friend wasn't in a good place, like his uncle said she was. If only Zuko could get his hands on the bastard who had put her in this position…

"Uncle told me what happened," Zuko revealed.

Akane hiccupped, "Oh."

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you," Zuko apologised.

"You're here for me now," Akane said as she leaned against Zuko's shoulder.

"How are you?" Zuko asked.

"I feel awful. But I suppose I could be feeling worse if certain events had taken a different direction," Akane groggily replied.

"Remind me to thank Lieutenant Jee later," Zuko said.

"I'll probably forget myself. So, how was your night?" Akane questioned as she lifted her head up to Zuko's level.

"It was… eventful," Zuko answered, not wanting to tell her everything that had happened.

"Did you take care of your problem?" Akane inquired.

"For now," Zuko replied as he stood up. "Just get some rest, Akane. I'll check on you later."

"Okay," Akane murmured as she watched Zuko retreat from her room.

As she watched her friend leave her room, Akane couldn't help but notice how… distant Zuko appeared to be. Whatever had happened last night for him had certainly left an impact on him, since it wasn't like Zuko to come across like that. Pushing those thoughts aside, Akane put her focus back on herself since right now, she had her own headache to take care of.

~*•°•*~

Miles away in the Fire Nation Royal Palace, Fire Lord Ozai sat in his throne room as the flames roared in front of him. The very same flames that always intimidated anyone who set foot in his throne room. However, that didn't stop someone from entering his throne room unannounced.

"What is the meaning of this interruption?" Ozai demanded.

"A m-message just a-arrived for you s-sir. It's f-from your source," the servant replied.

Recognising who the servant was referring to, Ozai stood up from his seat and stepped through the roaring flames to approach the servant who grovelled before him. One thing Ozai loved about being Fire Lord was the effect that he had on even the strongest of citizens. Nobody would dare speak out against Fire Lord Ozai. And the few that had done so had suffered greatly because of it.

"You are dismissed," Ozai stated as he took the letter from the servant.

Bowing as he did so, the servant left the throne room which left Ozai alone to read the contents of his letter. For the past few years, his source had been giving him updates on a rather delicate situation that Ozai simply couldn't leave alone. It had been sometime since his source had replied to him and Ozia was eager to find out what they had to report.

Fire Lord Ozai,

My deepest apologies for not writing sooner. I would've written sooner, but there wasn't really that much to report in regards to my mission which has now started to successfully develop. Despite my best efforts over the past few years, the girl refuses to leave Prince Zuko's side, even though it's clear that she does not want any part of his mission. Nevertheless, she has stuck by his side no matter how much of a prick that boy can be.

Growling as he read that part, Ozai couldn't help but seeth at the mention of his wretched son who was a failure by no means. It was no surprise to Ozai that his son was interfering with his sources mission, since Zuko had never been one to let Akane go so easily. Those two had always been attached by the hip which irritated Ozai to no end. Recovering from his brief anger at his son, Ozai continued reading the letter to see what else his source had to say.

Recently, I have managed to find myself getting closer to the girl. I'd even go as far to say that she trusts me, since we always seem to have the appropriate conversations. Although this could just be wishful thinking, since the girl seems to trust everyone on this crew, even complete strangers who almost took advantage of her a few nights ago. Luckily, she had been salvaged which will allow me to continue with my current plan.

As previously mentioned in my other letters, this plan has been slow in the making. It's taken me some time to make it happen, which it finally is. The girl is showing signs of struggling, and she must now use these remedies to help her declining health. Eventually, it will become too much for her to bear and although Prince Zuko might be an entitled brat most of the time, I know for a fact that he does care for the girl since he risked his life to save her recently. This would give Prince Zuko the encouragement he needs to abandon the girl so she can get help, which would finally complete my mission that has been long in the making.

Apart from that, there is very little to report. But expect to hear from me soon, since I'm sure that the effects will begin to take its toll on the girl before it comes too much for her to bare.

Regards,

Your Faithful Follower

Grinning as he finished reading the letter, Ozai tucked it away in his robes before returning to his seat on his throne. If what his source was saying was correct, everything was going according to plan and it would only be a matter of time before everything came falling into place and he would be reunited with the girl who so foolishly tried to abandon him, not knowing that nobody got away with abandoning Fire Lord Ozai.

"Akane, you are going to regret not staying when I gave you the chance," Ozai whispered, a sinister smirk growing on his face.

Although this plan had taken two years to finally come into fruition, it would appear as though his plan was falling perfectly into place, and Ozai couldn't wait for the further developments to continue.

Chapter Text

After the incident with Akane on Music Night, Zuko became more wary of anyone who even came in the same direction of Akane, much to her annoyance. As much as she appreciated her friends concern, Zuko could certainly be a bit suffocating at times and this was just one of those moments when he’d get on her nerves.

Currently, Akane was wondering throughout the ship with Kyou as they awaited their orders. Since the storm, they hadn’t gotten any word on the Avatar’s whereabouts and they were all eagerly waiting for any news that could point them in the right direction.

“So, do you have any plans on what you want to do once we get the Avatar?” Kyou asked as they roamed through the ships corridors.

Akane shrugged, “I’m not really sure. As you’d know, things aren’t really as simple for me as they are for Zuko. Ozai might welcome Zuko back if he gets the Avatar, but I’m not sure if he’d welcome me back given the way I left.”

“Didn’t Commander Zhao offer you a position on his crew?” Kyou questioned.

“Yeah, he did,” Akane answered. “Why?”

“If Ozai hated you like you think he does, wouldn’t he have disgraced your name so that nobody would want anything to do with you?” Kyou wondered.

“I don’t know. Ozai always confused me,” Akane admitted which was true. Given all of the trouble that Akane caused at the Royal Palace, she was surprised that Ozai even tried to get her to stay.

“I’m sure he doesn’t hate you and if it came down to it, he’d welcome you back along with Zuko. Then you could go back to the life you once had,” Kyou said.

“I’m not really sure if I want that life,” Akane murmured. “What about you? What do you want to do once this is all over?”

“I might leave the Fire Nation army and try something new with my life. I only really took this job because it’s what my family wanted,” Kyou replied.

“Well, I’m sure we’ll both find what we’re looking for,” Akane reassured him.

Their conversation was cut short as Zuko approached them, shooting a glare Kyou’s way as he noticed how close he was being with Akane. Although Kyou didn’t appear to be exhibiting any behaviour that would be deemed as inappropriate, Zuko was still cautious of anyone being around his friend like that after what happened on music night.

“There you are, Akane. I’ve been looking for you,” Zuko addressed her.

“Why? What’s wrong?” Akane asked.

“Nothing’s wrong. Uncle just wants us to take part in some breathing and meditation exercises,” Zuko replied.

“Oh,” Akane said before turning to Kyou. “See you later, Kyou.”

“Later, Akane,” Kyou bid her farewell.

Once Kyou was gone, Akane turned to face Zuko with her arms crossed as she disapproved of the way he was acting around her. While she could understand his cautiousness, it wasn’t necessary since it’s not like she was in any serious danger.

“What?” Zuko asked upon noticing the look on her face.

“Does Iroh really want to see us or do you just want to get me away from Kyou?” Akane questioned.

“Why would I want that? And to answer your question, yes Uncle does want to see us both,” Zuko answered.

Akane raised her eyebrows, “Sure. But just so you know, I can take care of myself, Zuko. I won’t be making the same mistake as I did on music night again.”

“Let’s just go and see Uncle,” Zuko said, not wanting to think about what could’ve happened to his friend if things had gone differently.

Eventually, the pair reached the room where Iroh had asked to meet them where they found him setting up what looked like a few drinks of tea, which elicited a scowl from Zuko. Akane laughed at Zuko’s distaste for tea, since you’d figure that after being with his Uncle for so long that Zuko would be used to it by now.

“Ah, Prince Zuko, Akane. How nice of you two to join me,” Iroh greeted them.

“What did you want us for, Iroh?” Akane asked.

“I thought that given how stressful things have been for us recently that you two could use some peace and quiet to clear your minds,” Iroh explained.

“We have no time for this!” Zuko snapped.

“My mind could certainly use some clearing,” Akane agreed before turning to Zuko. “And you could too, Zuko. Just take a seat and have some tea.”

“Fine,” Zuko grumbled.

“Then please take a seat while I get some tea ready,” Iroh said.

They then sat down with Iroh as he poured them some tea before handing a cup to Akane who happily took a sip. Unlike Zuko, Akane appreciated Iroh’s tea since the man certainly knew how to brew a good one.

“Aahh!” Iroh exhaled as he poured Zuko a cup of tea. “See, Prince Zuko, a moment of quiet is good for your mental well-being.”

“And the tea hits the spot,” Akane added with a smile.

As Zuko raised the cup to take a sip, the ship suddenly jerked which sent vibrations throughout the room and caused the tea in the cup to go flying, soaking Zuko’s face and hair. Akane stifled back a few laughs as Zuko grunted in frustration, pushed his ponytail back and rose to see what the commotion was about with Akane and Iroh following him behind.

“He has the worst luck,” Akane muttered amusingly.

When they got onto the ships deck, they saw several firebenders standing poised as they prepared themselves to attack their intruder. Their intruder was a woman on a large beast which suddenly leapt onto the deck, with the woman mounted on its back. The firebenders fled from the beast as the woman slowed down the beast’s progress.

“Look out!” the firebenders yelled at the intrusion.

“Get back! We’re after a stowaway!” the woman on the beast yelled as she held up a rolled whip.

“There are no stowaways on my ship,” Zuko glared at the woman.

The woman’s beast teared off a chunk of the metal deck flooring and hurled it in Zuko’s direction. Alarmed, the prince ducked for cover, the firebenders and Iroh moved to the side but Akane barely had time to react before Zuko pushed her out of the way.

“Thanks,” Akane murmured as he helped her get back up.

The metal piece that the beast had ripped from the ship ended up hitting the doorway leading to the main compartments of the ship with a clang. Zuko looked on in frustration while the firebenders and Iroh took a firebending stance. Akane watched as the beast stuck its head inside the ship and begun to sniff around. Suddenly, a man who Akane had never seen before emerged from below the deck and tried to make a run for it, but not before the woman’s beast lashed out its elongated tongue. The tongue hit the man, and he instantly fell onto the deck before Akane realised that he was paralysed.

“He’s paralysed,” Zuko stated in shock.

“Only temporarily,” the woman replied as she lifted the man and slung him over her shoulder. “The toxins will wear off in about an hour. But by then, he’ll be in jail and I’ll have my money.”

“But how did you find him on my ship?” Zuko asked her as she walked away.

The woman prepared to mount her beast, the stowaway already slung onto his back, “My shirshu can smell a rat a continent away.”

“Well, I’m impressed,” Iroh mused as the woman cracked her whip and the shirshu bolted off the ship. They watched as the shirshu raced down the dock and Iroh stroked his beard thoughtfully, “Very impressed.”

“Iroh,” Akane jested as she elbowed the man.

“What? It was impressive,” Iroh defended himself before leaving the two teenagers on the deck.

Although Iroh probably had different reasons for being impressed with the woman and her creature, Akane couldn’t help but be impressed herself. It wasn’t everyday that you saw something like a shirshu so easily track down guy and knock it down with a flick of its tongue.

“Do you reckon that I could get one of those things?” Akane asked Zuko.

Zuko glanced at her, “Why would you want a shirshu?”

Akane shrugged, “It’s cool and you heard what she said; it can track a rat a continent away. Think of the stuff we could find with it!”

Zuko’s eyes widened as he caught onto what Akane was saying, “Like the Avatar.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Akane asked, caught off guard.

“If that beast can track a man hidden below my ship, surely it can track down a simple monk,” Zuko stated.

“But how would you track him? Wouldn’t you need something to get his scent?” Akane pointed out.

“You seem to be forgetting that I have the water girl’s necklace. I’d bet my life that she’s still with them, so all it would take is a sniff of that necklace and he’d be ours,” Zuko said.

“You’d really want to get help from someone else?” Akane asked, remembering the last time they tried getting somebody else’s help. “Have you forgotten what happened with the pirates?”

“Of course I haven’t,” Zuko scowled in remembrance. “But she’s just one woman with a beast, she can’t do much damage.”

Akane resisted the urge to make a remark at Zuko’s subtle sexism and found it ironic that he would underestimate her since Zuko of all people should know better than to underestimate someone after his experiences with the Avatar.

“Instead of asking her for help, why don’t you just get me a shirshu?” Akane suggested.

“I already got you a necklace, I’m not getting you a shirshu,” Zuko argued.

“How can I be a bounty hunter if I don’t have a shirshu?” Akane asked.

Zuko raised his eyes, “Why would you want to be a bounty hunter?”

Akane shrugged, “I dunno. It’d be something to do once this all over.”

“You’re not getting a shirshu,” Zuko said.

Akane groaned, “I never get to have anything.

“Soon we’ll have the Avatar which will be better than any shirshu but for now, we should probably get the ship fixed,” Zuko said.

Much to Akane’s apprehension, Zuko seemed set on seeking out the mysterious bounty hunter to aid them in their so far futile quest. But with Zuko’s honour on the line, Akane figured that they might as well give it a chance.

~*•°•*~

Later that night, Akane, Iroh and Zuko headed off in search of the bounty hunter. After asking around, they found out that she often frequented a local tavern that wouldn’t be hard to miss which sure enough, it wasn’t.

“This is it,” Zuko declared upon their arrival.

Akane glanced around, noticing how seedy the place looked. Under any other circumstances, this wasn’t the sort of place that Akane would visit but Zuko was set on going inside and finding the bounty hunter. Their entrance into the tavern was haltered as a man was shoved outside the door, almost knocking them down.

“Um, I’m not sure if we should go inside that place. It looks a little… seedy,” Akane trailed off.

“It’s just a tavern,” Zuko brushed off her concerns.

“We don’t have to go inside, we can find another way to track the Avatar. I’m sure we’ll run into him again like we always do,” Akane argued, trying to convince Zuko not to go inside.

Just like he always did in times like this, Zuko simply ignored Akane’s protests and stormed inside the tavern with Iroh not too far behind. Sighing, Akane reluctantly followed them inside, deciding that she’d be better off going in with them instead of waiting outside. As they walked inside, Akane immediately noticed the woman who raided their ship in the centre of all the chaos as she calmly arm-wrestled a man, who gnashed his teeth and sweated. Despite the swarm of people around them, Zuko wasn’t going to let them get in his way.

“Out of my way!” Zuko yelled annoyingly as he pushed a man out of the way. “Step aside, filth!”

“He means no offense! I’m certain you bathe regularly!” Iroh apologised on Zuko’s behalf.

Akane got a whiff of one of the guys nearby her which made her cover her nose in disgust, “I highly doubt that.”

They managed to reach the woman without Zuko getting into any major fight with any of the other visitors. Not that it would’ve made any difference, since everybody around them seemed to be in some sort of dispute.

“I need to talk to you!” Zuko yelled as he approached the woman.

“Well, if it isn’t my new friends; Angry Boy and Uncle Lazy,” the woman acknowledged them before glancing at Akane. “Oh how cute, you even brought your girlfriend with you.”

Akane blushed, “I’m not his girlfriend! He’s just my friend. That’s all.”

“Whatever you say,” the woman smirked.

The woman’s opponent strained to get the upper hand. Iroh laughed at her previous remark and the woman won her match without breaking a sweat. The crowd cheered and threw money at her.

“Your beast trashed my ship. You have to pay me back!” Zuko growled angrily.

“Well, I’d love to help you out, but I’m a little short on money,” the woman replied as she collected her winnings before shouting to the crowd, “Drinks on me!”

The crowd cheered and the woman moved to take a sip of her drink, but Zuko grabbed her wrist in anger. Akane sighed at Zuko’s behaviour, since she didn’t like it when he was ever rough with people even though the woman didn’t seem to mind, despite seeming irritated with the action.

“Money isn’t what I had in mind,” Zuko stated in a dangerously low voice.

“Zuko, don’t you think we should ask her what her name is and find out who she really is before you even start demanding favours from her?” Akane suggested, giving the woman an apologetic look for Zuko’s behaviour.

The woman chuckled, “My name is June and that’s all you need to know. Now, tell me what this favour of yours is and I’ll see if I feel like doing it.”

Zuko glanced around, “Not in here.”

Shrugging, June got up but not before she took a few of her winnings before leaving some behind for the rest of the tavern as promised. Akane for one, was grateful when they finally got to leave the seedy tavern and hoped that they wouldn’t have to set foot inside of it anytime soon. It was safe to say she’d never come across a place like that in the Fire Nation, since taverns like that were more sophisticated and didn’t have people fighting in every corner of the place.

Once they’d left the tavern, they went to a more quiet place outside where they could make the appropriate negotiations. Around the corner of the tavern was June’s shirshu and Akane’s eyes widened with interest as she gazed over the beast.

“Nyla got your eye?” June stated.

Akane nodded, “Yeah. I’ve never seen anything like it before. They don’t have creatures like this in the Fire Nation.”

“Of course you don’t. That’s because shirshus like Nyla are native to the Earth Kingdom,” June stated.

Nodding in understanding, Akane turned her attention back to Iroh and Zuko, who was scowling at her for distracting the woman from what they had came to do. Zuko then held up Katara’s necklace against a lantern with several moths flying around it.

“I need you to find someone,” Zuko proposed.

“What happened, your other girlfriend run off on you?” June asked sarcastically as she leaned against Nyla, her shirshu.

“It’s not the girl I’m after, it’s the bold monk she’s travelling with,” Zuko clarified.

“Whatever you say,” June commented in a dry tone.

Akane couldn’t resist the urge to crack a joke, “Zuko, you never told me that you were into bald monks. I feel betrayed.”

Zuko glared at Akane before turning back to June who watched their interaction with amusement, “If you find them, I’ll consider the damage to my ship paid for.”

Jun scoffed as she started to climb her saddle, “Heh, forget it.”

“Plus, we’ll pay your weight in gold,” Iroh offered.

June stopped and widened her eyes in surprised before smiling as she walked over to Iroh and poked his stomach, “Make it your weight, and we gotta deal.”

“You got it!” Iroh laughed with his hand on his stomach.

“Get on!” June yelled as she turned back to Nyla.

Doing as June said so, the three boarded the shirshu as June took Katara’s necklace from Zuko and showed it to Nyla. As they sat on Nyla’s back, Akane observed how the shirshu looked around, like it was picking up some sort of sent. Once it seemed to have the right sent, Nyla made some sort of acknowledgement of that and June boarded her shirshu and the foursome headed off in search of what they were looking for.

“Make sure you hold on tight, I don’t want you falling off and hurting yourself,” Zuko said to Akane as they rode on the animal.

Akane rolled her eyes, “Gee, thanks for the concern.”

“Hey, I’m only looking out for you!” Zuko exclaimed.

June rolled her eyes as she remained focused ahead, “And she says they’re just friends.”

~*•°•*~

To say that they had a bumpy ride would be an understatement to say the least. There wasn’t one moment of comfort on board of June’s shirshu as it raced across the ground. June didn’t seem too fazed by it, which Akane figured was due to the fact that she’d probably been doing this for a long time by now. It made Akane wonder what it was like to be a bounty hunter, since June made it seem like an exciting job. Not that tracking the Avatar wasn’t exciting since that was about as exciting as things could get, Akane could just deal with a little bit less excitement. Who knows, Akane might just pick up a career in bounty hunting once this is all over.

As Nyla trampled across the ground at fast speed, Akane held onto Zuko tightly as she was situated between him and Iroh. The whole time, Akane hadn’t let go of her grip on something in case she fell of the animal.

“You doing okay back there, Akane?” Zuko asked.

“Yeah, just a bit jumpy,” Akane replied shakily.

“Just keep holding onto me, I won’t let you go,” Zuko promised.

“Aw, you’re looking out for your girlfriend. How cute. I wonder what your other girlfriend will think about this,” June commented from the front.

Burying her face into Zuko’s back, Akane did her best to hide the blush that was forming on her cheeks. She wasn’t sure what it was, but there was something about being referred to as Zuko’s girlfriend that made her embarrassed. It wasn’t that dating Zuko would be embarrassing since any girl would be lucky to date him if he wasn’t such an angsty prince most of the time. Akane just figured that it was because Zuko was her friend and she didn’t like thinking about him in any other way.

Their journey on Nyla lead them to some sort of ancient ruins some distance away from where they had left. For a moment, Nyla came to a quick stop which almost made Akane fall off the beast but her grip on Zuko managed to keep her upright. Below them was an elderly woman with a cat next to her that hissed upon their arrival.

“Out for a bit of fresh air, are we?” the old woman asked.

“We’re looking for someone,” Zuko replied.

“I hope it’s not Miyuki,” the old woman said before turning to face her cat. “Miyuki, did you get in trouble with the Fire Nation, again?”

The cat meowed in response to the woman and Akane couldn’t help but wonder what on earth that cat had done to get in trouble with the Fire Nation. After all, it was just a cat and it wasn’t like it could do much harm apart from maybe rip up a few bits of furniture.

“The Avatar’s been through here. Let’s keep moving,” June stated before giving her shirshu a whip and it sprinted away from the ancient ruins.

Yelping as Nyla quickened her pace, Akane tightened her grip on Zuko so that she wouldn’t fall off. The last thing Akane wanted to do was halter any progress that they could make, since she knew that would only make Zuko more agitated than he already was. And based on the way her friend was acting, she could tell that he was getting more agitated as the trip went on.

“Can’t this thing go any faster?” Zuko snapped.

June glared at Zuko, “Do you want to catch these people or not?”

“Yes,” Zuko muttered.

“Then let Nyla take it at her own pace. She’s tracking the scent the best way she knows how; fast but careful,” June said.

“Forgive my nephew, June. As you can see he is a bit impatient and has yet to master his calming exercises,” Iroh apologised on Zuko’s behalf.

Akane rolled her eyes, “I don’t think now is the best time to practice our breathing exercises, Iroh.”

“Let’s just keep moving on,” Zuko grumbled.

“Yes, lets,” June agreed.

If she was being completely honest, Akane wasn’t so sure how far off they were from the Avatar’s actual trail and even once they found him, she wasn’t so sure what they’d be able to do. For all they knew, the Avatar could be flying high in the air right now on that bison of his. Knowing Zuko, Akane figured that they’d cross that bridge once they got to it so she just buckled up and held on tight for the rest of the ride.

~*•°•*~

Eventually, their tracking lead them to a more decorative village that resided near a volcano which also appeared to be surrounded by some sort of stone. Given the fact that the shirshu was here because Katara had been here, Akane assumed that the Avatar must have had something to do with that phenomenon. Screams suddenly filled the air as Nyla entered the village, causing the citizens to flee in panic and Akane felt bad for disturbing their peace.

As Nyla sniffed around for another trail of Katara’s sent, Akane noticed a woman standing outside some building without a care in the world. It was almost as if she didn’t even see the giant beast in front of her. Akane couldn’t help but wonder what it was with every old woman not backing away from the wild shirshu like everyone else would. She put it down to an age thing.

“Why are we stopping?” Zuko demanded annoyingly.

“Because the girl must have spent a lot of time here,” June replied.

Glancing around, Akane could see why Katara would be interested in this sort of place. Even though most of her interactions with the girl had been in battle, this place seemed like somewhere Katara would enjoy herself.

“We have no time for this!” Zuko snapped impatiently as he got off Nyla and hung the necklace in front of his face. Nyla appeared agitated and he snapped at Zuko, who swiftly ducked down.

“Hey! Watch it!” Zuko yelled.

“You gotta admit, you had that coming,” Akane commented.

“Oh look, he likes you!” June exclaimed as Iroh laughed from behind her.

“Care to hear your fortune, handsome?” the old woman outside the shop asked Iroh as she calmly approached them. Akane laughed and elbowed Iroh’s side at her offer. She wasn’t sure what it was, but Iroh always seemed to have his way with the ladies regardless of where they were from.

“At my age, there’s really only one big surprise left, and I’d just as soon leave it a mystery,” Iroh replied.

For a moment, Akane wasn’t sure what Iroh was referring to before realisation hit her and she sighed sorrowfully, acknowledging the truth of her statement. While she knew Iroh still had a fair bit of life left in him, Akane knew that he wouldn’t have that long with them so until that moment Akane would just treasure every moment she had with him since after all, Iroh was like the father she never had.

The sombre mood was quickly ended when Nyla seemed to pick up another trail of scent before heading off in a different direction and Akane barely had time to react as the shirshu took off. The more time she spent on the animal, the more Akane was considering re-thinking her idea of being a bounty hunter.

~*•°•*~

Hours passed and they still hadn’t found the Avatar, much to Akane’s annoyance. It was getting really uncomfortable being squished between Iroh and Zuko, especially when they hardly even took a breather when Nyla examined the area. All Akane had to think about as she held onto Zuko was not letting go of Zuko, since she didn’t really feel like getting acquainted with the ground right about now. Especially since she wasn’t so sure if June would even bother to pick her back up.

“I’m bored,” Akane complained.

“What do you expect me to do about it?” Zuko asked.

“I don’t know,” Akane shrugged before perking up. “Oh, I know! We could play I spy!”

“What about this situation makes you think now is a time to play a stupid game?” Zuko snapped.

“Cause I’m bored!” Akane exclaimed. “Now, I spy with my little eye something beginning with c.”

Zuko groaned, “I don’t know, clouds?”

“Do you really think I would go for something as basic as that?” Akane asked.

“Now is not the time for games, children,” June chastised them from the front.

“Thank you,” Zuko muttered sarcastically before turning to Akane. “Still wanna be a bounty hunter now?”

“It was just a thought,” Akane murmured.

Their journey lead them to another village, with Nyla bursting through a wooden door into some sort of abbey that had several nuns around. The nuns steered clear of the beast as Nyla circled around for a moment before heading off again.

“We’re getting close,” June stated as she whipped Nyla, who ran out of the abbey and into the woods.

“It’s about time,” Akane muttered impatiently, eager for this trip to be done and over with. If this was what being a bounty hunter was like, than Akane could safely agree that this wasn’t the career choice for her. Perhaps she could take up a job in crafting perfume, since it’s what those nuns appeared to be doing when they stormed into their village.

Cringing at that moment, Akane simply put her focus back on the task at hand, which was capturing the Avatar. Though, just like all of the other times Akane wasn’t so sure if that’s what she actually wanted to do. Despite being involved in the thick of things most of the time, Akane had managed to evade having to do anything harmful to Aang and his friends, but Akane had a feeling that she wouldn’t be able to escape that now.

True to June’s word, it wasn’t long before they finally tracked down who they were looking for not too far from the abbey that they had just stormed into. However, Akane noticed that Aang wasn’t even with the Water Tribe siblings, which she knew wouldn’t sit well with Zuko since that was the whole reason they had gone on this chase. The rumbling that Nyla caused as he raced across the ground seemed to alert the siblings of their presence since Sokka put his hand up to stop Katara from walking any further. It wouldn’t matter since Nyla jumped in from behind them and they both turned around in fear.

“So this is your girlfriend,” June said to Zuko as he jumped off from Nyla. “No wonder she left, she’s way too pretty for you.”

Akane jerked back, “Um, excuse me.”

June rolled her eyes, “Don’t worry, you’re too pretty for him too.”

Ignoring the two girls, Zuko remained focused on the two Water Tribe siblings who stood before him, “Where is he? Where is the Avatar?”

“We split up. He’s long gone,” Sokka replied.

“How stupid do you think I am?” Zuko asked.

“Pretty stupid,” Sokka remarked as he grabbed his sister and Akane couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Run!”

To their credit, they really did try to out run them but they hardly made it anywhere at all as Nyla used his tongue to paralyse them, causing them to land on the ground with a thud. Akane winced as they did so, thinking that it had to have hurt to get attacked by a wild tongue. Since they’d probably be taking the two siblings with them anyways, Akane figured that she might as well help them out and hopped off the shirshu.

When Akane landed on the ground, she felt her thighs stretching out after being condemned to sitting the way she had on Nyla. Akane had never felt more relieved to be on the ground in her life. Pushing those thoughts aside, she headed to Katara and Sokka who both appeared downcast as they laid on the floor. Only once Akane was sure that Zuko was distracted did she make a proper move on them.

“Nice to see you guys again,” Akane acknowledged them as she crouched down to their level.

Katara gave her a weak smile, “Under any other circumstances, I’d say the same.”

Akane grimaced, “Yeah, I can’t blame you for that. I guess I should apologise for chasing you guys and paralysing you…”

“It’s okay, I know you wouldn’t if you could,” Katara said, remembering her first proper conversation with the other girl not too long ago.

Sokka was bewildered by the interaction that was taking place before him as his sister conversed with the girl who was supposed to be their enemy, “Katara! Now is not the time to make nice with the enemy!”

“Be quiet,” Katara hissed to her brother before turning to Akane. “Sorry. He thinks you’re as bad as Zuko.”

“Can’t blame him for thinking that,” Akane muttered.

“That’s because you are as bad as him!” Sokka exclaimed.

“You know, if I wasn’t paralysed right now I’d be hitting you on the back of your head,” Katara snapped, causing Akane to chuckle.

So, this must be what it’s like to have a sibling. Akane thought to herself. Even though she’d grown up with Zuko all her life and they’d been raised like siblings, she only ever saw him as her best friend and nothing else. As for Azula… The younger girl was nothing but nuisance to Akane.

“Akane, what’s going on over there!” Zuko yelled.

“Nothing,” Akane quickly replied. “I’m just making sure they don’t try anything.”

“Like we’re in any position to do so,” Sokka muttered.

“Sokka, you’re not helping!” Katara exclaimed.

“I’m so glad Zuko and I never acted like this,” Akane muttered.

Not too far away from them, Zuko couldn’t help but observe Akane’s interaction with the two Water Tribe peasants. It was nothing surprising for Akane to check to see if they were alright, but it made Zuko’s job more difficult with her constantly getting in the way with them sometimes. If he was being completely honest, there were some times when Zuko wished Akane would just step aside and let him handle it, but he would never voice his thoughts out loud since she would only argue with them like she always did.

“Akane, that’s enough!” Zuko snapped. “I want you back here now.”

Sighing, Akane gave the two siblings an apologetic look before heading back to Zuko who gave her a questioning look. Akane tried her best to avoid Zuko’s interrogating gaze, since she didn’t want to have to explain why she was ‘making nice with the enemy’ as Sokka would say.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Zuko growled as Nyla walked closer to Sokka and Katara.

“It’s seeking a different sent, perhaps something that the Avatar held,” June observed.

Akane watched as a rolled up piece of paper fell out from Sokka’s backpack and onto the floor. That seemed to be what Nyla was looking for as he sniffed it harder before turning to June who smirked.

“If you still want the girl, get them on board. We have a new scent to find,” June stated.

That seemed to be enough for Zuko as he quickly made his way towards the Water Tribe siblings and with Akane’s help, got them aboard Nyla’s back. Once they were situated properly, the shirshu headed off in search of its new scent, and Akane found herself hoping that by some chance it wasn’t the Avatar even though signs were pointing to highly unlikely.

~*•°•*~

Surprisingly, the shirshus new scent lead them right back to the village that they had just stormed into not too long ago. Once again, Akane felt bad as she saw the nuns scatter and as she saw that they had broken through their door again. However, their appeared to be no sign of the Avatar as Nyla walked around in a circle.

“What’s it doing? It’s just going in a circle,” Zuko snapped.

Looking around, Akane noticed that there was no sign of the Avatar in sight. That was, until she caught sight of an object flying towards them in the distance. Akane wasn’t the betting type, but she had a feeling that was Aang.

“Zuko, I spy with my little eye something beginning with a,” Akane said.

“Now is not the time for games, Akane!” Zuko snapped.

Akane rolled her eyes as she pointed above them, “Just look in the sky!”

Sure enough, heading towards them on his glider was Aang. He flew over Nyla on his glider, who stood up on his hind legs to attempt to paralyse the Avatar with his tongue, throwing off his riders and causing him to fall down too. As they fell off, Akane made sure to have a tight grip on Katara and Sokka so that they wouldn’t hurt themselves on their landing.

“Aang!” Katara beamed as she looked up.

“Up!” June yelled as she cracked her whip and Nyla stood up so that June could mount him.

June and Nyla charged towards Aang, but a flash object managed to knock Nyla down by leaping on the shirshus side. Akane’s eyes widened as she recognised it as the Avatar’s bison, and couldn’t help but watch on, impressed at its ferocity. Now that Aang had arrived, that was all Zuko needed to get in on the action as the two faced each other. Nearby, Akane spotted two nuns around them and called for their help.

“Hey, over here!” Akane called.

Two of the nuns hesitantly made their way towards them and dragged Katara and Sokka to the side of abbey. Making sure that she wasn’t being watched, Akane made sure that neither of the siblings were harmed after their fall.

“Is there anything you have that can un-paralyse them?” Akane asked.

One of the nuns nodded, “Just give us a few moments.”

“What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be trying to kill Aang along with the jerkbender?” Sokka questioned.

Akane sighed, “I would but I’d probably just end up getting in the way which will only make Zuko more angry, which wouldn’t be good for you guys.”

“Isn’t that what you want?” Sokka snapped.

“Sokka! What’s it going to take for you to realise that she’s not as bad as Zuko. I doubt she even wants to capture us,” Katara argued.

“I will neither confirm or deny that,” Akane murmured.

While the nuns prepared whatever remedy they had for Katara and Sokka, Akane watched the fight as it played out before them. Beside them, Zuko firebended a blast at Aang, who stopped it by waving his glider. Aang sent a blast of air at Zuko, who sidestepped it and sent a fire blast at Aang, who spun his staff to stop the blast. Aang then sent another airbending blast at Zuko, who sidestepped it and sent another fire blast at Aang, who jumped to avoid the blast.

Zuko moved in closer to Aang and sent two fire blasts at Aang’s head and feet. Aang avoided those blasts and sent an air blast at Zuko’s head, who ducked and sent more fire blasts at Aang. Zuko and Aang both firebended and airbended at the same time which created a large explosion that formed a mushroom cloud. The impact of the explosion was enough to send the flying onto different roofs. As June laid on the ground, Iroh ran up to her and put his hand on her cheek, causing her to wake up and stand up.

“Come on! Get up!” June yelled as she whipped Nyla, getting the shirshu into action.

“Shouldn’t you be out there with your friend?” Sokka asked Akane.

“Well, the bounty hunter isn’t my friend and Zuko would probably rather me stay away from all the action so that I don’t get hurt,” Akane replied.

“You make it seem like the fire jerk actually has feelings,” Sokka muttered.

Akane glared at him, “Listen, I know that you guys haven’t exactly had the best experiences with Zuko but he means well. He isn’t just trying to capture you guys for the sake of it. If Zuko had it his way, we probably wouldn’t even be tracking you guys down.”

“Like we’d actually believe that,” Sokka scoffed. “You and your little friend are just as bad as every other blood thirst Fire Nation rat.”

“Sokka!” Katara exclaimed before turning to Akane. “Sorry about him. He just tends to say stuff without actually thinking it through.”

“No, it’s okay,” Akane sighed. “I understand why he would feel that way and I can’t blame him.”

An awkward silence filled the air despite the battle that was taking place barely a few meters away from them. Katara glared at Sokka for what he had said to Akane, since although she might seem bad Katara knew that there was more to the other girl than what meets the eye.

“I’m starting to get some feeling back…” Sokka trailed off after an awkward silence, only for rubble from the roof to fall on him. “Ow.”

“You deserved that,” Katara muttered.

“Hey, I’m your brother!” Sokka exclaimed.

“An annoying one at that,” Katara muttered, causing Akane to laugh.

Out of the corner of her eye, Akane noticed Iroh standing nearby as he watched the chaos go on around him. For the most part, Iroh seemed unbothered until Akane caught him sneaking one of the perfume bottles into his sleeve.

“Iroh!” Akane chided him as she approached the man, leaving Katara and Sokka behind. They would be taken care of by the nuns, which Akane was sure of so they didn’t need her around.

“What, I enjoy the simplicities of life,” Iroh stated.

Akane faced palm, “What am I ever going to do with you?”

Completely forgetting that there was a fight going on nearby, Akane gasped as she was suddenly approached by the Avatar’s flying bison. The beast growled at her and Akane slowly backed away, not feeling like becoming a bison’s meal right about now.

“Easy there, boy…” Akane trailed off nervously as she took a few cautious steps backwards.

There would be no need for Akane to worry as June cracked out her whip and flung it against the bison several times, rendering it paralysed. Akane felt somewhat bad for the animal, even though it had just tried to make a meal out of her. With the bison knocked down, that left no room for the Avatar to hide which allowed Zuko and June to take him head on.

Cornered by June and Zuko, Akane watched as Aang desperately tried to evade Zuko’s fire blasts and Nyla’s tongue as it tried to paralyse him. However, Aang would have no reason to worry as they were suddenly showered with the perfume created by the nuns. That seemed to be enough to send Nyla into overdrive, which didn’t set well with the shirshu as it shook its head around as if it was trying to find a scent. It was safe to say that Nyla didn’t like that as he quickly lashed out with his tongue, firstly aiming it for Akane who barely had time to react.

Everything happened too fast for Akane and she was unable to evade the shirshus tongue, resulting in her getting paralysed by the beast. Getting paralysed was unlike anything Akane had experienced, since she quickly lost all feeling in her body and started to stumble backwards. Upon seeing his friend get hit, Zuko quickly sprung into action and raced towards Akane so that he’d catch her, just barely before getting hit himself.

“Looks like we’ll be here for a while,” Zuko muttered.

“I’d say ow if I had any feeling in my body,” Akane murmured.

Beside them, Akane noticed that June had also gotten hit as she laid in Iroh’s arms, with him appearing as though he’d gotten hit as well. That confused Akane as he didn’t seem to be in any position to get hit by the tongue as far as she could recall. Zuko also seemed to share the same thoughts as her as he voiced his thoughts.

“Uncle, I didn’t see you get hit with the tongue,” Zuko said.

“Shh,” Iroh whispered as he held a hand up to his mouth, causing Akane and Zuko to roll their eyes.

“Now is not the time to be a flirt, Iroh,” Akane snapped. At any other time, she would laugh at Iroh’s actions but since now they weren’t really in any position to sit back and crack jokes, Akane wasn’t going to let it slide.

“See if those nuns can help us out,” Zuko suggested.

“I doubt that help us after we trashed their abbey,” Akane pointed out. Truthfully, Akane just wanted to give Aang and the others some time to regroup and escape, which was what they seemed to be doing in the distance.

“Then we’ll just have to wait it out,” Zuko muttered.

“Look on the bright side, this will give us the chance to get up close and personal with each other,” Akane offered.

“Not helping,” Zuko snapped.

Laughing, Akane simply rested her head against Zuko’s chest plates as she waited for the toxins to wear off from their body. No doubt that once they regained control of themselves, Zuko would have some questions for Akane which she decided she would worry about until the time came.

~*•°•*~

Hours passed and, in that time, the shirshus toxins had worn off so Akane, Iroh and Zuko were allowed to return to their ship. Although they had asked June to give them a ride back to their ship, the woman had refused to help them anymore and headed off on her own. That left the threesome to trek their way through the Earth Kingdom terrain for who knows how long.

“See, this is why we shouldn’t get help from people. We always end up in worse shape than what we were when we asked for their help,” Akane snapped as she and Zuko trailed behind Iroh.

“You’re one to talk, since you so easily trust anyone even if they’re supposed to be our enemy!” Zuko exclaimed.

Akane narrowed her eyes, “What are you talking about?”

“You were acting a little too friendly with those Water Tribe peasants back there. Don’t think I didn’t notice because I did,” Zuko stated.

“I was just trying to see if they knew where the Avatar was since he obviously wasn’t with them,” Akane lied.

“I’m not talking about in the woods, Akane. I’m talking about in the abbey. I saw you conversing with them,” Zuko said, and Akane knew that she had been caught.

“I was just trying to get information from them, that’s all! In case you haven’t realised, being an obnoxious jerk isn’t always the best route to take!” Akane exclaimed.

“Since when am I a jerk?” Zuko asked.

“Always! You’re always rude to people, like when you demanded June to help us and how you treat everyone on the ship. I get that you’re supposed to be a prince, but you don’t have to act like it all the time!” Akane replied, her chest panting with each word that she spoke.

“If that’s how you really feel then maybe I should just leave you behind!” Zuko shouted.

“Are you saying that you don’t trust me anymore? Me, you’re best friend? After everything I’ve done and given up for you, you would doubt my loyalty?” Akane questioned, her words jumbled as she suddenly found it hard to speak.

“You clearly don’t share my ambitions in regards to the Avatar, and I don’t want anyone getting in the way!” Zuko snapped, quickening his pace as he left Akane behind.

In that moment, Zuko was too blinded by his frustration at his friend to notice how out of breath she seemed. It wasn’t until her footsteps became faint that he looked behind him to see if she was alright. What Zuko saw was enough to get rid of his anger at Akane in one full swoop. Because Akane was leaning a rock, hunched over as she fought to stand upright.

“Akane!” Zuko yelled as he raced back to her, suddenly feeling guilty about putting his friend through that. “Are you alright?”

“N-no… I f-feel dizzy,” Akane stammered.

“Just lie down,” Zuko ordered before turning in the other direction to get his uncle. “Uncle! Get back here! Akane needs help!”

Slowly, Akane lost all feeling in her body like she was being paralysed all over again except this feeling felt much worse, since she could actually feel it. Eventually, Akane slumped down the rock she was leaning against before collapsing on the ground, tired and out of breath.

Iroh’s eyes widened as he noticed the state Akane was in when he approached them, “Prince Zuko, what happened!”

“We were fighting and then she started having trouble breathing. I think she’s having one of her spells,” Zuko replied.

“Then we need to get her help as quickly as we can. We’re too far away from the ship to walk,” Iroh stated as he knelt down to Akane. “Akane, can you walk?”

When Iroh got no response from the girl, he looked closely and let out a sorrowful sigh when he realised that the girl was passed out on the ground. That left them with little options, but Iroh knew that they had to do what was best for Akane right now. Sharing a look with Zuko, Iroh nodded at his nephew and the two worked together to pick Akane up before heading off in search of help for her.

As they did so, Zuko was immediately swarmed with guilt which was something he only ever felt in regards to Akane. They had been arguing, he had been the stimulator of her attack, and now she was unconscious. And it was all his fault.

Chapter Text

Immediately after Akane collapsed, Iroh and Zuko rushed her to a nearby medical station so she could be taken care of. Initially, there wasn’t anything to worry about but Akane’s medical examiner recommended that she stayed behind for further tests. Although Akane had since regained consciousness, she was still on mandatory bed rest in case she had another fainting episode.

Despite being by her side as he helped his uncle get her there, Zuko hadn’t spoken to Akane since their argument before she fainted. Due to blaming himself, Zuko couldn’t even bring himself to look at her after what he said to her. Knowing that he very well could’ve lost his best friend and that the last thing that she’d remember of him would be him telling her what a bad friend she was, which was hardly the truth at all.

In fact, Akane was the only true friend that Zuko had ever had throughout his entire life. She was the only person who had stuck by him through everything, no matter how difficult he could be sometimes. Sure, he’d had his uncle’s support but that was just uncle being uncle, whereas Akane could’ve walked away at any time she wanted to, yet she never did. And Zuko had the nerve to tell her that she was a bad friend.

It was definitely times like this when Zuko didn’t think that he deserved Akane. In all honesty, Zuko wasn’t sure what he’d do without Akane in his life since she had helped him so much. They had been inseparable since the day they met, and their bond was unlike any bond that Zuko had ever had. Nobody, not even his own childhood crush could compare with the bond he had with Akane.

Hearing the sound of footsteps from beside him, Zuko turned to see his uncle heading towards him with a look on his face that made Zuko’s heart drop. His uncle had gone to talk to Akane’s medical examiner about her condition, and based on the look on his face it didn’t look like it was going to be good news.

“Uncle, what is it?” Zuko asked nervously.

“It is not good, Prince Zuko. It is not good,” Iroh murmured.

“Why? Is she sicker than we thought she was?” Zuko inquired.

“Worse,” Iroh replied. “You need to be with her, Zuko. She is going to need you after what she is about to hear. It is certainly going to rock her world.”

“Alright,” Zuko conceded, pushing his guilt aside and deciding that he needed to be Akane’s friend first and foremost.

Although his uncle’s words had certainly put worries in Zuko’s mind, he pushed them aside with his guilt and prepared himself to face Akane. Zuko was just hoping that she wouldn’t be mad at him for what he had said earlier, since if he were her he’d be mad at him too.

When Zuko entered Akane’s room, he saw his friend resting on her bed with a blank expression on her face. The look made Zuko’s stomach drop, since he feared that he was responsible for that look along with something that he couldn’t even help her with. As her friend, it was his job to support her and that was what he was going to do.

“Hey…” Zuko trailed off.

“Hi,” Akane said blankly.

“Did the medical examiner tell you anything?” Zuko asked as he sat on her bed.

Akane shook her head, “No, he didn’t. But based on the look on his face after he did his tests I know it’s not going to be good and I’m scared to hear it.”

“Oh. Listen, Akane. I’m really sorry for what I said earlier. I was just mad and I took out my anger on you and you didn’t deserve that,” Zuko apologised.

“It’s okay, Zuko. You were right. I haven’t exactly been the best of friends lately,” Akane admitted.

Zuko was puzzled, “What do you mean?”

“You were right. I have been getting in the way. While you’re focused on capturing the Avatar, I’m off making friends with them. I don’t want any sort of relationship with them, but at the same time I don’t want them to look at us like we’re the worst people on the planet when there are far worse people than us out there,” Akane explained.

Sighing, Zuko put a hand on her leg. From the beginning of their journey, Zuko had known that Akane wasn’t on board with him capturing the Avatar. Nevertheless, she had supported him and been there for him when he needed her the most. That was more than enough for Zuko in his eyes.

“Don’t say that, Akane. You’re just being who you are, and that’s a good person. That’s something I can’t fault you for,” Zuko reassured her, which earned a small smile from his friend.

Their conversation was cut short when the doors to Akane’s room burst open and Iroh walked inside with Akane’s medical examiner. Noticing the grim looks on their faces, that only confirmed Akane’s suspicions that there was something seriously wrong with her and that it was much worse than what they thought it was.

“So, what’s wrong with me?” Akane asked, only to get silence from them. “Come on, give it to me. I can take it.”

“It is not good, my dear,” Juan, Akane’s medical examiner replied.

“Tell me,” Akane urged, almost on the verge of tears. As much as she didn’t want to know the truth, Akane knew that she needed to know what was going on. Even if she wouldn’t like the news.

“Your initial diagnosis of contacting a virus was far from the reality of your condition. In fact, a virus would be the least of your worries,” Juan said.

Zuko glared at him, “Just tell us what is wrong with her.”

“My child, I am so sorry to have to tell you this,” Juan apologised.

“What is it?” Akane asked, fearing the answer more than ever before.

“Your muscular organs are far weaker than anyone’s should be for someone at your age. Especially your heart. After examining your blood tests, I can confirm that you have not contacted a virus as you initially thought. Instead, you have contacted a rare condition called pulmonary heart disease. This is the enlargement and failure of the right ventricle of the heart as a response to increased vascular resistance or high blood pressure in the lungs, which also puts them at risk. However, your greatest concern is your heart because given the state of it already, it is only a matter of time before it gives out,” Juan explained.

Silence fell across the room as everyone digested the news. Turning to Akane, Zuko could see the most blank and expressionless look on her face that he had ever seen before. He couldn’t really blame her, since if he was just told he was going to die that would be his reaction too.

“So, I’m going to die?” Akane finally broke the silence in the most monotone voice that Zuko had ever heard her speak in.

“As far as I’m aware, there is no known cure for this disease so unfortunately, that is the direction that you are heading to. I am deeply sorry, you poor child,” Juan apologised.

“This isn’t possible,” Zuko snapped. “It can’t be. Akane has always been healthy. She’s always been stronger than I am. There has to be some sort of mistake.”

“You have no idea how much I wish that was the case, Prince Zuko,” Juan murmured.

“How did this happen?” Akane asked, genuinely shocked. In the span of a few moments her entire world had been turned upside down as she now knew her time was running out. But one thing she didn’t understand was why and how. Why was this happening? How was this happening?

“Due to the already scarring of your lungs that has spread from your heart, I can deduce that this is a direct result of contact with asbestos,” Juan replied.

“What is that?” Akane questioned, having never heard of it before.

“It is a set of naturally occurring silicate minerals that all have their eponymous asbestiform habit in common. They are commonly used in manufacturers and builders with properties such as sound absorption, tensile strength, resistance to fire, heat and electricity,” Iroh answered.

“How did I get it?” Akane asked, still struggling to come to terms with the news she had just been told.

“That, I cannot be sure of. However, you can only get something as a result from asbestos by staying in such a confined space for a long period of time. So, is there anywhere you have stayed as of recently?” Juan inquired.

Akane’s stomach dropped, “The ship.”

Zuko’s eyes widened, “Does that mean we could have it?”

“You and your uncle do not appear to be showing any obvious symptoms of it, Prince Zuko. But it would be wise to take tests to determine if that is the case,” Juan replied.

“Let’s do them now before we return to the ship and take appropriate action,” Iroh suggested.

“But it still doesn’t make any sense. We’ve been on that ship for almost three years, uncle. Only recently has it started to affect Akane,” Zuko pointed out.

“Then we’ll have to examine every part of the ship from top to bottom to determine if it is only Akane who is at risk or if all of us are in danger,” Iroh replied.

Glancing back at Akane, Zuko couldn’t help but feel even more guilt well up in his chest, knowing that Akane had most likely gotten like this under his ship and he had done nothing about it. He had just sat back and ignored the obvious problems with her when it should’ve been obvious that there was more going on than what met his eyes.

In that moment, Zuko made a promise that as soon as he and his uncle got himself checked out by the medical examiner that they would go back to the ship and have it checked out from top to bottom and leave no part unchecked to find out what exactly had caused Akane to contact this deadly disease.

~*•°•*~

Luckily for Iroh and Zuko, the tests they had taken showed that they had no signs of the disease that Akane seemed to have. That only made Zuko more worried, since he was now fearing that he had been the one to put his friend at risk because of his rash decisions. Now he seemed to be paying the price for his actions at Akane’s expense, which was not what Zuko wanted to happen.

As soon as they got their tests done, Iroh and Zuko headed back to their ship while leaving Akane in the capable hands of Juan, who had been nice enough to move Akane to a close enough distance so that they wouldn’t have to travel that far to reach her. Not that Zuko would have much time to visit Akane, since his new focus was on finding out what had happened to his friend.

“Uncle, I want everyone ordered off this ship and tested to see if anyone else has the disease. In the meantime, I want this ship examined from top to bottom for any sign of what has caused this,” Zuko said as he and Iroh approached the ship.

“Very well,” Iroh nodded. “I will see to it that your orders are diligently taken care of.”

Knowing that his uncle would probably do a better job at handling his crew, Zuko decided to take on the task of arranging for the right people to examine his ship to find out where this disease was coming from. Given the fact that Juan said that Akane would have to have been somewhere for a solid period of time to contact the disease she now had, it had to have come from the ship.

By the time Zuko had made the appropriate arrangements and returned to his ship, Iroh had managed to get everyone off board as the examination team arrived. Zuko couldn’t help but noticed how frazzled his entire crew appeared to seem at the situation, and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“Prince Zuko, what is going on? Why have we been ordered to evacuate the ship?” Lieutenant Jee asked as he approached him.

“I have reasons to believe that there is something dangerous inside that ship. Until I find out what it is and what is to blame, nobody is allowed in or out of that ship,” Zuko replied.

“Is it to do with Akane?” Jee questioned, noticing that the young girl who was always by his side wasn’t where she always stood.

Zuko sighed, “Yes, it is. I will not disclose anymore information with you, but just know that she is now in serious trouble and that could mean the rest of you are as well. That is why you all must take the required tests to see if you are at risk as well.”

“I’ll inform the rest of the crew,” Jee said.

In the time that the examination crew entered the ship, the other medical examiners that had been sent arrived to take the tests on the crew. Although Zuko didn’t pay as much attention as he should to his crew, Zuko had a feeling that they wouldn’t be in the same situation as Akane. Because if anyone was, he would’ve been notified about it. That thought only made him ponder the situation even more.

Everything about this was so messed up in Zuko’s eyes. Someone like Akane didn’t deserve to be put in this position. If this was how Zuko was feeling, then he could only imagine that Akane would be feeling a million times worse since she was the one who would have to deal with this disease for the rest of her life.

Zuko grimaced as he then realised that Akane might not even have that much life left in her, since Juan made it clear that her condition was potentially lethal. Now he’d have to live everyday with Akane like it was their last together, since Zuko refused to let any moment go to waste ever again. Especially now that he might not even have that much time left with his best friend.

With his thoughts all jumbled up at once, Zuko barely realised that a few hours had passed and that the rest of the crew had been given their results. Not to Zuko’s surprise, nobody else seemed to have contacted the same disease as Akane which made Zuko wonder how on earth she had managed to be the only person who had gotten it. The more he realised that, the more Zuko started to think that maybe that was the point. Maybe someone was doing this on purpose.

“Prince Zuko,” someone addressed him.

Zuko turned to see one of the ships examiners standing behind him. They appeared to be carrying some sort of object in a clear container with gloves on their hands. It wasn’t anything that Zuko had seen before, but Zuko figured that he’d wait and let the person tell him what it meant.

“We searched the girls room as you instructed. This was what we found in between the walls near her bed,” the examiner said, gesturing to the container in his hands.

“What is it?” Zuko asked dreadfully, although he already had a sinking feeling that he knew what it was.

“It’s part of the white asbestos group,” they replied, confirming Zuko’s suspicions.

“Have you searched anywhere else?” Zuko inquired.

They shook their head, “No. We searched the girls room first, which would explain why we found it so quickly. We still have the rest of the ship to search, which could take days or even weeks to do.”

“I don’t care!” Zuko snapped. “I want you all to search that ship from top to bottom and report back to me with anything you find that appears to be out of order. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” they muttered before walking away.

Sighing, Zuko shook his head at their discovery. Although Zuko had somewhat expected them to find something like that, he was really hoping that it wouldn’t be the case. But then Zuko started to wonder how on earth something like that had gotten as close as it was to Akane’s bed. This whole situation wasn’t adding up to Zuko, and he wasn’t liking the feeling that he was getting. Something strange was going on and Zuko didn’t like it one bit.

~*•°•*~

Days passed after the examination teams initial start to Zuko’s ship. Almost a week had passed, and Zuko was beginning to get frustrated with the lack of progress. Based on what the examination team had told him, they’d only just finished examining the first quarter of the ship and had come up with nothing. Even though Zuko knew he should let the team take their time to search the ship, Zuko had a feeling that it would all be for nothing and that it would only prove his theory to be correct even more.

Since the initial process had begun, Zuko had started rethinking everything that had happened in recent months. Only since their visit to the South Pole did Akane’s health start declining. That couldn’t have been a coincidence, but Zuko wasn’t so sure how to prove it. Nothing new had happened for her health to change, since he had made no new additional developments to the crew before then. In fact, things had been the same as they’d always been for the last two years.

Knowing that someone who Zuko thought he could trust could potentially be responsible for the decline in Akane’s health made Zuko’s blood boil. There was nothing more that he wanted than to find out what or who was responsible for putting his best friend through this unnecessary pain and suffering. Part of Zuko had considered going up to his crew and confronting them all together, but he wasn’t so sure how that would go down. If he did confront them, he could loose what little respect they had of him which would only be more detrimental for his quest. But Akane’s health was more important than his futile quest to capture the Avatar.

“Is everything alright, Prince Zuko?” he heard his uncle ask.

“No, uncle. I just can’t get the thought out of my head that someone could be doing this to her on purpose,” Zuko admitted.

“Hm,” Iroh murmured as he stroked his beard.

“What? You don’t agree with me?” Zuko asked.

“Actually, Prince Zuko, I do share your thoughts to some degree. It can’t be a coincidence that Akane would show signs of her declining health when she has always been a strong girl. And the fact that so far her room has been the only place to contain this mysterious substance makes me worried for her safety,” Iroh said.

Zuko gritted his teeth, “Whoever did this is going to pay.”

“Now, Prince Zuko. We cannot go throwing around any wild allegations until we have sufficient proof,” Iroh reasoned.

“But my best friends life is at stake, uncle! Somebody is hurting her on purpose and I want to find out who it is! Maybe if I approached them out of the blue I could get a reaction from whoever did this,” Zuko suggested.

“No, Prince Zuko. Do not do anything rash. As much as we might not want to do it, our best move now would be to sit back and wait for the answers to come to us,” Iroh rationalised.

“I don’t care! I’m not just going to sit back and let them murder my best friend!” Zuko exclaimed as he got up to his feet.

Realising that there was nothing he could do to stop his nephews impending rampage, Iroh just sat back and watched Zuko as he stormed towards the crew members who were waiting beneath the ship.

“Prince Zuko, when will we be allowed to enter the ship again?” Chen asked.

“I’m the one who should be asking questions around here!” Zuko snapped agitatedly.

“Here we go again,” Kang muttered.

Someone is up to something. Someone I thought I could trust is sabotaging this ship!” Zuko accused.

Jee narrowed his eyes, “Care to elaborate more, sir?”

“I’m sure that you’re all wondering where Akane is right now. Well, she collapsed on our way back from our recent run in with the Avatar. My uncle and I quickly took her to get help, only to find out that her condition is far worse than what we thought it was,” Zuko explained.

“My goodness,” Chen exclaimed, sounding genuinely concerned. “What is wrong with her?”

“She has a rare disease now that is about to ruin her life! All because of someone messing with it,” Zuko stated.

“With all due respect, sir, you can’t go around throwing allegations without any proof,” Jee pointed out.

“But there is proof. When I first got this ship, I made sure that it was in the best condition possible for my quest! There was no sign of anything that would be potentially dangerous for anyone. Only now, the examination team has discovered a substance known as asbestos in Akane’s room that is directly responsible for her condition!” Zuko exclaimed.

“Asbestos?” Nuying gasped. “I can only imagine what that has done to her.”

“It already has damaged her lungs and her heart and is going to do far worse damage than that! Somebody put that substance in there with the intention of hurting her and I won’t rest until I find out who!” Zuko declared.

“W-will she be alright?” Kyou asked weakly, looking rather pale at all of this information.

“Didn’t I just say it’s going to ruin her life? She’s going to die earlier than she should all because of someone’s mistreatment of her!” Zuko exclaimed.

“D-die?” Kyou repeated.

“Yes, die. That is exactly why I want to find who is responsible for this and bring them to justice. Nobody and I mean nobody messes with my friend and gets away with it. Do I make myself clear?” Zuko threatened.

The crew members who had been there to witness Zuko’s interrogation all hastily nodded, not wanting to received anymore of his anger than they already had. Once Zuko was out of their earshot, the crew members all turned to face each other upon hearing the news about Akane. They all cared deeply for the girl, and it hurt them to know that she was now in danger.

“That poor girl,” Nuying murmured. “I never would’ve suspected that her condition would be something as serious as this.”

“How could someone do such a thing?” Meili asked, devastated at the thought of someone intentionally hurting Akane when the girl deserved nothing like that.

“I have no idea,” Kang said.

“I hope she’ll be alright,” Chen stated.

“Akane’s strong, I’m sure she’ll be alright,” Kyou insisted.

“You heard what Prince Zuko said, Kyou. Whatever she had could kill her,” Jee pointed out.

“But Akane’s strong. You’ve seen what she can do. If anyone can make it out of this, it’s Akane,” Kyou persisted.

“I’m not sure about that,” Nuying whispered, fearing for the girls safety.

~*•°•*~

Amongst all of the chaos that had recently transpired over the past few days, Zuko had almost forgotten about Akane’s condition. So, after his outburst he decided to visit her to see how she was coping with everything. Just like she always would, Zuko assumed that Akane would do her best to maintain a strong front since that was the kind of person she was. Only Zuko wouldn’t be dumb enough to buy an act like that.

Sure enough, when Zuko entered Akane’s room he saw her with a somewhat strong look on her face, but deep down, Zuko knew that she was hurting. If he was her, Zuko would be hurting too. Not that he wasn’t, since when Akane hurt, Zuko hurt too. It almost broke Zuko’s heart to see Akane like that, since she was usually always so upbeat and happy, only now she was anything but that.

“Hey,” Zuko greeted her.

“Hi,” Akane whispered.

“How are you feeling?” Zuko asked.

“As good as I can,” Akane replied. “Zuko, what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?” Zuko questioned.

Akane sighed, “I’m not dumb, Zuko. I know that there’s another reason why you’re keeping me here than what you’re letting on. I know that there’s a reason as to why only you and Iroh have visited me.”

“I’m sorry, Akane. But I’m not letting anyone else come into contact with you. Not when I don’t even know who I can trust anymore,” Zuko apologised.

Akane’s eyes widened, “What do you mean? Why can’t you trust anyone?”

“Listen, Akane. What I’m about to tell you, you’re not going to like it,” Zuko said.

“I’ve been told I’m going to die Zuko, I think I can take whatever you have to tell me,” Akane pointed out.

“I sent in an examination team into the ship to see if they could find anything that would be responsible for putting you in this position. Unfortunately, they found a set of white asbestos hidden in the corner of your room, where nobody would be able to find it,” Zuko explained.

“My room?” Akane gasped, instantly paling.

“Yes, your room. So far, they’ve looked over a quarter of the ship and have come up empty handed, and I think that’s how the rest of their search is going to turn up,” Zuko finished.

“You think… you think someone did this on purpose?” Akane asked.

“It’s what makes the most sense, especially since you’re the only person who’s infected,” Zuko said.

“But who would’ve been able to do that? The last time someone new came onto the crew was almost two years ago,” Akane reasoned.

“Maybe it was only something that they did recently, since you only started to show the symptoms recently,” Zuko suggested.

“I guess. I just can’t believe anyone would do something like that, especially someone that I trusted because I trusted everyone on that ship, Zuko,” Akane said.

“So did I,” Zuko muttered.

“I just don’t know what to think,” Akane admitted.

“Don’t worry, Akane. I’m going to do my best to get to the bottom of this and find out who’s out to get you. They won’t be getting away with this,” Zuko declared.

“You should go back to the ship, Zuko. I’ll be fine on my own,” Akane reassured him.

“You’re right. I need to find out what is going on around here,” Zuko agreed.

With that, Zuko turned around and left Akane to herself, but not before giving her a reassuring nod that everything would be taken care of. However, that did nothing to reassure Akane as she was left to ponder her situation. As much as it made sense, Akane refused to believe that someone on Zuko’s ship would intentionally put her in this predicament, but the evidence was unfortunately pointing in that direction.

In a way, Akane feared that this was the universe’s way of punishing her for being too trusting, since that was what she had been with Zuko’s crew form the beginning. No matter how sketchy some of their backgrounds appeared, Akane was willing to trust them implicitly, only now it seemed as though she was paying the price of her naivety in the worst way possible.

~*•°•*~

Time slowly ticked by, and everything seemed to be taking forever to happen, much to Zuko’s annoyance. Since his initial interrogation with the crew, Zuko hadn’t got any response from most of them, with them all pledging their loyalty and insisting that they weren’t to blame for Akane’s condition. But Zuko wasn’t stupid, he knew that somebody was messing with his friends health, and just that thought alone made his blood boil.

With every moment that passed, Zuko was more determined to find out who was responsible for this. Zuko had taken several steps to find out who was responsible for this, which included interrogating each and every one of the crew members in private. They had all said the same thing, claiming their innocence and that they had nothing to do with Akane’s condition.

Despite that, Zuko had narrowed his suspects down to a few people, the very few people who Akane considered herself the closest to. Those people being Chen, Kang, Kyou, Meili and Nuying. Although Zuko’s main suspect was Kang, the same person who Akane had always been so infatuated with since he set foot on his ship. Since Zuko knew a thing or to about playing people, he feared that Kang had used Akane’s crush on him to his advantage, which allowed him to sneak into Akane’s room without question.

Since nobody else seemed to be stepping forward and confessing their guilt, Zuko decided to take matters into his own hands despite his uncles warnings. Although Zuko had lost some favour with his crew members as a result of the accusations he had thrown their way, Zuko didn’t care what they thought about him. All he cared about was finding out who had been responsible for this.

When Zuko had Kang in the right moment to confront him, Zuko stormed towards the other man, ready to give him a piece of his mind and get down to the bottom of this once and for all.

“Lieutenant Kang, front and centre!” Zuko yelled.

“Yes, Prince Zuko?” Kang asked.

“I’m going to give you one last chance to confess to your wrongdoings,” Zuko said.

Kang narrowed his eyes, “I’ve already told you, Prince Zuko. I had nothing to do with what has unfortunately happened to Akane.”

“Don’t lie!” Zuko yelled as he shoved Kang to the side. “You look me in the eyes and you tell me what you did!”

“Nothing! I did nothing!” Kang insisted. “What makes you think that I’d even do something so horrible like that?”

Zuko growled, “You’ve been using her all along! You worked your way into her heart and took advantage of her trust like a monster!”

“I’m no monster!” Kang defended himself.

As his anger boiled, Zuko struggled to contain it inside of him, knowing that Kang was lying no matter what he said. In Zuko’s eyes, there was no foreseeable way that Kang could be telling the truth, but he stood corrected.

“He’s right. He’s not a monster,” another voice butted in.

Turning around, Zuko narrowed his eyes in even more anger upon seeing who stood before them, now realising that it was them who was responsible for Akane’s condition. The look of guilt in their eyes was enough for Zuko without them even having to explain themselves, he’d only wished that he’d seen their betrayal sooner.