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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 in Hira'a. 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 them destroyed like they 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 was unable to do so and was 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 unsuccessfully 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 came 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 through the door, knocking the man 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!" Zuko 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 surprise 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 scent, 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 his own pace. He's tracking the scent the best way he 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.

"What about you, young man? Would you like to see what your future has install for you?" the old woman asked Zuko.

"I didn't come here to get a fortune," Zuko snapped.

The old women then turned to Akane, "I'm sure that you would appreciate a few wise words, my dear. Your future will be full of heartbreak and decisions that you don't want to make. What will define you is how you recover from that heartbreak and how you use it to better yourself than what you already are."

"Um... Thanks?" Akane trailed off awkwardly, not really sure what to think of the old woman's words.

The 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 had said.

"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, there 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 thirsty 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 like I said before, 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.

Chapter Text

Waiting patiently in her bed was like a nightmare for Akane, knowing that she was missing out on everything important that she needed to know. While she had been filled in for the most part, Akane still felt as though she was being purposefully left out of the loop. This was her life on the line, and Akane firmly believed that she deserved to know exactly what was going on.

Based on what Zuko had told her, he was under the assumption that someone on the crew was intentionally targeting her. Unlike Zuko, Akane refused to believe that that was the case. Only because she had spent so much time with Zuko’s crew, and she couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to intentionally hurt her.

After what felt like hours of waiting out of the loop, Akane was finally joined by Zuko and Iroh. Once she gave them a small smile, Akane noticed the sombre look on Iroh’s face and the furious look on Zuko’s. It was almost as if steam was escaping from his head, and Akane couldn’t help but wonder what had caused Zuko to get so angry.

“Find anything yet?” Akane asked nervously.

“Yes, we have,” Iroh sighed. “I’m sorry, Akane. But it was an inside job. Someone intentionally set out to hurt you.”

“No. They wouldn’t..” Akane trailed off, still refusing to believe it.

“I’m sorry, but they would. They were specifically sent to apprehend you in a way that would go unnoticeable, so that you would have no choice but to leave us,” Iroh revealed.

“Who sent them?” Akane asked.

“Ozai,” Iroh replied in an icy tone, almost as if the name was poison on his lips.

“He wanted them to kill me?” Akane shrieked.

“Perhaps this is something that you should hear for yourself. You have been in the dark long enough. Come with me,” Iroh ushered.

Sighing, Akane slowly got out of her bed and she followed Iroh and Zuko out of the room. Their ship wasn’t set that far away from where they had left Akane, and Akane figured that she was going to need that time to prepare herself for what she was about to face. Just knowing that someone who she had trusted had set out to betray her from the start was heart-wrenching for Akane.

All of this time, Akane had opened herself up to the crew and formed genuine bonds with them on her part, only for them to take advantage of them to tear her apart. For someone like Akane, who was always wiling to give people a chance and let them in, this had practically shattered whatever hope she had left in the world. Now Akane just wanted to know who was behind this, and why they had taken advantage of her.

When they arrived at the port where their boat was waiting, Akane noticed some of the crew members waiting outside the ship. As soon as they noticed her, they all gave her sombre looks which Akane simply brushed off. Akane then realised that one person in particular wasn’t with the rest of the crew and Akane’s heart dropped as she feared for the worst.

Once they passed the crew members, Iroh and Zuko lead her into the ship where some parts of it looked like it had been torn apart, most likely to find out what was doing this to Akane. Of course, they now knew what was threatening her life but it had still put other peoples lives in danger which made Akane feel even worse, knowing that whoever was responsible for this had indirectly affected the lives of other innocent people.

Eventually, they reached Akane’s room and she had a strange feeling that she’d be coming face to face who was responsible for this. As much as Akane wanted to demand answers and find out why they had done what they did, Akane wasn’t so sure if she was ready to face them. But Iroh and Zuko had insisted on having her face the perpetrator, which Akane prepared herself for as they opened the doors to her room, revealing Lieutenant Kyou sitting on her bed.

Upon their entry, Kyou looked up and he sighed as his eyes landed on Akane. Akane, on the other hand, felt like crying then and there at the sight of him. From the beginning, Kyou had been a friend to her and she had always thought he thought the same. But obviously that wasn’t the case since he tried to kill her. Now, Akane wanted to know why he had broken her trust.

“We’ll be waiting outside,” Iroh said as he pulled a reluctant Zuko outside and shut the door.

“Lieutenant,” Akane acknowledged him.

“Hello, Akane,” Kyou greeted her sombrely.

“I’m not going to let you try and defend your actions because it’s quite clear what you’ve done. I just need to know, was I ever your friend or were you always trying to kill me?” Akane began.

“I wasn’t trying to kill you,” Kyou replied.

Akane scoffed, “Well, you’ve certainly done that. Did you ever stop to think about the consequences of your actions? What it would mean for me? Or were you just doing whatever you had to do to please Ozai?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kyou snapped in a way that Akane had never seen him speak before. But then again, he had never outrightly tried to kill her before either.

“Then enlighten me, Kyou. Justify why you would put my life at risk just to please Ozai,” Akane insisted.

Kyou sighed, “I didn’t want to kill you. I just wanted to make you sick enough so that you would have no choice but to return home.”

“That place was never home to begin with! Even now when I know what my life is up against I want nothing to do with that wretched man and his little palace!” Akane exclaimed.

“It wasn’t going to be up to you,” Kyou interrupted.

Akane glared at him, “That hardly seems fair. Neither does you killing me seem fair.”

“Look, everyone knows that although he’s a spoilt prince that Prince Zuko does genuinely care for you. Eventually, your sickness would become too much to bare and then he would find out the truth about you and send you back to the Fire Nation for your own good,” Kyou explained.

“But why? Why would Ozai want me back anyways? What is it with that man and his obsession with me? No matter how obvious I have made it that I despise him, he still wants me back?” Akane wondered.

“Your guess on that would be as good as mine. He never told me why he wanted you back, he just sent me out to get you so that I could possibly manipulate you into returning home. But when that didn’t work, he ordered me to take more drastic measures that in hindsight I never should’ve done. But I only did what I had to do to protect myself and my family,” Kyou reasoned.

“Your family?” Akane stated, confused.

“He threatened me. He said that if I didn’t do what I wanted him to do that he would make sure I never got a higher job in the Fire Nation ever again. And my family has always struggled to get by and he promised to pay me big, which he had. If I didn’t do what he wanted me to do my family would’ve suffered,” Kyou explained.

Akane glared at him, “So that made it justifiable to make me suffer?”

Kyou sighed, “Listen, Akane. I am sorry that I hurt you with my actions but I had no other choice. If I could’ve done things differently I would’ve but Ozai put me in a position where I couldn’t refuse. And if I did, well you and I both know what that man is capable of when someone disobeys him.”

At that comment, Akane instantly flashed back to herself a few years ago as she was terrified of Ozai and always feared what he would do next. Even now, some of that fear remained which was partly why Akane refused to go back to him. It gave her some degree of understanding for Kyou’s actions, but it didn’t make her feel any better.

“Kyou, I can understand why you did what you did but it still hurts. I opened myself up to you, I let you in and treated you like I treated everyone else. And you just so easily threw that trust and that bond away like it was nothing. Like I was nothing. I hope that wherever you find yourself next doesn’t cause you to act as heinously as you did here. If I were you, I’d get yourself as far away as you could from here because I never want to see you again,” Akane stated, with her voice cracking towards the end.

Kyou nodded in understanding, “I get it and I don’t blame you for never wanting to see me again. But I just want to say that I never intended to hurt you like this. It was never my intention, believe me.”

Akane sighed, “I get it.”

Silence fell upon them as they avoided each other’s gaze. Akane had done what she wanted to do in finding out the truth from Kyou, but it still hurt nonetheless. The saying ‘the truth hurts’ had never been more true than it was now. Despite knowing the truth, Akane had denied it for her own reasons but once it came to light, it hurt even more. Sighing, Akane turned around as she opened the door to see Iroh and Zuko still standing there.

“He can go now. I don’t ever want to see him around here ever again, and he knows that,” Akane said, sparing Kyou a short glance.

Iroh nodded, “Very well. Prince Zuko, may you take Akane to the medical room while I escort Lieutenant Kyou off the ship?”

“Of course,” Zuko conceded as he lead Akane away, glaring at Kyou until he was out of sight.

Just by looking at Akane, Zuko could see how devastated she was by the situation and seeing that look on her face only made him want to destroy Kyou even more. It had taken a lot of convincing from Iroh tog et Zuko to stand down and let Akane decide what Kyou’s fate would be. While Zuko was glad to have the traitor out of the way, he would’ve much rather used brutal force to get their point across.

But that wasn’t what Akane had wanted and Zuko was always willing to do whatever Akane wanted. And although she might not want it now, there was nothing else that Zuko would do to help her in her time of need. Especially since Akane was going to need his support now more than ever.

Their short trip to the nurses room was made in silence as Akane refused to look up at him. Part of Zuko could understand why, since it was his father who had ordered Kyou to hurt Akane the way he had. But Zuko was nothing like his father, and Akane knew that. Zuko just hoped that Akane wouldn’t shut him out forever, because he could see that she was hurting and he wanted to be there for her, which he couldn’t do if she just ignored him.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko apologised.

“What do you have to be sorry for? You’re not the one who did this to me,” Akane said.

“But my father… wanted this to happen. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be like this,” Zuko argued.

Akane sighed as she placed a hand on Zuko’s shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze, “Zuko, it’s not your fault. Like you said, Ozai wanted this to happen, not you. And it was Kyou who made sure that it happened. This isn’t your fault.”

“But it feels like it is,” Zuko grumbled.

“And it isn’t. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even know what was going on with me. You left no stone unturned to find out the truth and maybe if you hadn’t done that, I would’ve just dropped dead and we never would’ve known what happened,” Akane reasoned.

“You’re still going to die,” Zuko said.

“Which is why we’ll have to make the most of every last minute that we have together and leave nothing to waste. At least this way we’ll be able to live with no regrets,” Akane pointed out.

“I don’t understand how you can be so… optimistic when you’re the one who’s dying,” Zuko sighed.

“Exactly, I’m the one who’s dying. That’s something you shouldn’t worry about because it’s not you. And I wouldn’t say that I’m being optimistic, I’d say that I’m dealing with the situation as best as I can,” Akane said.

“I’m still sorry that this had to happen, Akane,” Zuko apologised.

Akane gave him a soft smile, “It’s okay.”

Despite her reassurance on the outside, Akane was anything but fine on the inside. But Akane knew that she would have to remain strong for those around her, no matter how badly she felt like falling apart now that her life had been forever changed for the worst.

Chapter Text

Ever since finding out about her condition and what Kyou had done to her, Akane refused to speak to anyone. It had been hard for her to accept that Kyou was responsible for her condition, since she had opened herself up to him and told him stuff that she hadn't even told Zuko, only for him to take advantage of that trust and throw it back in her face. Not even Iroh and Zuko had been able to get through to her.

Once everything about Kyou's betrayal had come to surface, Kyou had been forcibly removed from the ship and transferred back to the Fire Nation. Zuko had made sure that Kyou was moved as far away from them as possible, since he wanted him to have no part of Akane after he'd shown his true colours. That didn't stop Kyou from making one last ditch effort to convince Akane to come with him, but she simply stood by and watched with no emotion as Kyou was taken away.

Just knowing that it was Ozai who had sent Kyou after Akane sent shivers down her spine. If Ozai was already willing to go to such lengths just to get her back, there was no telling what he would try next. It also made Akane worry about what would happen when Ozai found out that she had lied to Iroh and Zuko about why she was really with them. Although Akane wasn't sure how they would react, she had a feeling that it wouldn't be a good reaction that would potentially destroy what they had.

With those worries still present in her mind, Akane didn't really feel like dealing with the rest of the crew right now. They were currently preparing to head off to the Northern Water Tribe as they suspected that that was where the Avatar was heading next, since he would have to learn waterbending at some point. Tonight was also music night and instead of joining the crew like she always did, Akane took a page from Zuko's book and refused to come out of her room.

That was, until a knock on her door snapped her out of her thoughts. Sighing, Akane stood up and headed towards her door to open it which revealed Iroh standing there. This wasn't the first time that he had shown up at her door, since he had tried multiple times to get through to her before, only to be shut out.

"Ah, Akane. It is good to see you," Iroh greeted her.

"You too," Akane murmured.

"I thought that it would do you some good to come join us at music night instead of shutting yourself away in your room," Iroh suggested.

Akane sighed, "I'm sorry, Iroh. I just don't think that I can bring myself to see the rest of the crew. I'd much rather stay in here if that's okay."

"I understand that you must be feeling hurt because of what has recently happened but you cannot sit here in your room and feel sorry for yourself because that is not going to get you anywhere," Iroh advised her.

"I'm not really in the mood for advice, Iroh," Akane muttered.

"Akane, please do not spend whatever time you have left wasting away in your room. While we might not know how long we have with you, we must spend every moment like it is your last. That is the best that we can do," Iroh insisted.

"What good would it do me anyways?" Akane asked.

"It might take your mind off of everything that has happened. Please join us, Akane. We could even try and get Prince Zuko to play the tsungi horn," Iroh persisted.

Akane chuckled, "Zuko has never once participated in music night and I doubt that he is going to start now. But I guess it would be fun to watch you try and convince him to do it."

"Then let's go!" Iroh ushered Akane out of the door.

Sighing, Akane followed after Iroh as they headed towards Zuko's chambers. It always amused Akane that even though Zuko said no every time Iroh asked him to join them that he would try again. But Akane figured that they might have a good chance of convincing Zuko if Akane tried. They didn't even bother knocking on his door as they stepped inside his chambers, finding Zuko sitting at his desk.

"What is it, Uncle?" Zuko asked.

"It is music night, Prince Zuko!" Iroh exclaimed.

"So?" Zuko muttered.

"We were wondering if you would join us," Iroh said.

"We?" Zuko asked.

"We being me," Akane replied, speaking to Zuko for the first time in days.

Turning around, Zuko was noticeably surprised to see that Akane was with Iroh. He hadn't seen his friend in days and was surprised that she had shown her face now, but then he wasn't surprised at the same time since Akane had always gone to music night.

"Go enjoy yourselves then," Zuko said, staring at Akane. Zuko had known that she was visibly shaken by the recent news that she had discovered and Akane hadn't been the same since. He figured that it would do her some good to go out and enjoy herself.

"With you," Akane stated.

Zuko narrowed his eyes, "You know I don't like music night."

"You should join us, Zuko," Akane argued.

"There comes a time when everyone has to try something new, and this could be your time, Prince Zuko. We have always wanted you to join us. You could even play the tsungi horn!" Iroh suggested.

Zuko glared at them, "I do not want to play the tsungi horn. I haven't played that thing in years and I am not starting now."

"Come on, Zuko. Please?" Akane pleaded.

"No! I do not want to make a fool out of myself for others enjoyment," Zuko snapped.

"Let the crew see you in a different light, Zuko," Iroh argued.

"No! They hardly respect me as it is and this would just make it worse. I'm not doing it," Zuko insisted.

"Please?" Akane begged.

"I won't do it! Now leave me alone," Zuko ordered.

"Do it for me?" Akane pleaded.

Zuko sighed, "Akane, you know I would do anything for you. But not this. I can't do it so please, just leave me alone."

"I thought we were friends," Akane crossed her arms.

"We are and friends do not have fun at other friends expense," Zuko argued.

Akane rolled her eyes, "Fine. If your pride matters so much to you then we'll drop it."

"Good. Now go out and enjoy yourselves," Zuko said as he glanced from Iroh to Akane. "Both of you."

"Let's go, Akane. We would not want to keep everyone waiting," Iroh said as he pulled at Akane's arm.

"We will get you to play that tsungi horn on music night eventually. Mark my words," Akane warned.

"It will never happen," Zuko insisted as they left his room.

Unable to convince Zuko to join them, Akane and Iroh decided to leave it be for now. Although she would never admit it, Akane was somewhat hurt that Zuko wouldn't even play the tsungi horn for her considering everything that had happened recently. It made her think that maybe she wasn't that important to Zuko after all if he wouldn't just do a simple thing for her.

"Ugh, why does he have to be so stubborn?" Akane complained as she and Iroh headed through the ship.

"That my dear, has always been in my nephews nature. Just like it has been a part of yours as well," Iroh replied.

Akane snapped her head towards him, "Are you saying that I'm stubborn?"

"Yes, actually I am. But your stubbornness comes from your determination to push through unlike my nephew. Your stubbornness is to be admired," Iroh answered.

Akane smirked, "You're not that slick, Iroh."

Iroh laughed, "I try."

The two eventually headed onto the ships deck and were warmly greeted by the rest of the crew, especially Akane. Once they had all settled in, they quickly got into the swing of things and music night officially went underway. Akane was initially reluctant about interacting with them, but as the night moved on Akane found herself relaxing with them like she used to before.

"How are you feeling?" Meili asked Akane as they sat down together.

Akane shrugged, "I've been better."

"I've missed seeing you around since… it happened. I'm glad that you came out with us tonight," Meili said.

Akane smiled, "Me too."

Music night continued as it always did, with everyone trading stories of their own and dancing while playing music and singing songs. Even Akane was able to step up and sing a song of her own, which actually helped her feel better after everything that had happened. Despite every music night taking place without Zuko, Akane found herself missing him and wished that Zuko would one day give in and join the event. Perhaps she should start brushing up on her persuasion skills…

As music night came to a close, Iroh sang a peaceful song along with the band while some of the others danced around. After what happened to Akane on the other music night, no outsiders were allowed onto the ship which made it easier for Akane to relax as she felt like she could trust the people who she was with. Although Akane was offered a few dances from the crew, Akane declined all offers but she did dance on her own which made her feel better.

Getting lost into the soothing sound of Iroh's voice, Akane glanced up in the sky and sighed as the stars twinkled in the night. It was times like this when Akane wished that she could just be one with the stars, since it always looked so peaceful in the sky at night. Star gazing was often something that Akane did when she had something on her mind, which she certainly did now. Suddenly, a flash of light caught Akane's attention and she realised that it was a shooting star. Closing her eyes, Akane made a wish of her own that she hoped more than anything would come true.

I want to overcome this. I want to beat this disease.

As her eyes were shut, Akane suddenly noticed that the music had come to an abrupt stop along with Iroh's singing and the dancing beside them. Opening her eyes, Akane noticed a several figures walking up the ships ladder. At first, Akane couldn't see who it was but as they came closer and she noticed their sideburns, Akane gasped in recollection as she realised who it was. There was only one person she knew that had sideburns that big.

Commander Zhao.

Based on the look on his face, Akane knew that he wasn't here to join the party. But she also knew that look from anywhere – the same look that he had given her when he offered her to join him. That could only mean that Zhao was here because he wanted something.

"The party is over," Zhao stated.

Iroh was the first to speak, "Commander Zhao, to what do we owe this honour?"

"It's Admiral Zhao now," he boastfully proclaimed.

At that declaration, Akane inwardly groaned. Having Zhao as Admiral was bound to make things worse for them, not that they could get any worse given how they were now.

"What do you want?" Akane asked as she stepped forward, glaring at him as she did so.

Zhao returned her glare, "Ah, Akane. I see that you have retained your loyalties."

"There's nowhere else that I'd rather be," Akane stated.

"It's a pity that you waste your potential on the likes of Prince Zuko," Zhao shook his head. "I guess that would mean that you won't be joining me on my expedition."

"Expedition?" Akane repeated, knowing that she wasn't going to like the answer.

"I'm leading a siege on the North Pole and I am going to need a few extra recruits to make it happen," Zhao explained as he glanced around at the crew, and that was enough indication for Akane to know what he wanted.

"You want our crew?" Iroh stated.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Now where is Prince Zuko? I'm sure he'd appreciate me giving him this news in person," Zhao said and Akane knew that he just wanted to tell this to Zuko to mess with him.

"So we are leaving with you?" Jee clarified.

"Yes, you are. I will give you the day to pack up your stuff before I come to collect you all," Zhao declared before he turned to Iroh and Akane. "If you two wouldn't mind taking me to Prince Zuko's room, I would like to deliver this news to him in person."

"Of course," Iroh nodded. "Akane and I will take you to him."

Together, Akane and Iroh lead Zhao through the ship to Zuko's room. They walked in silence, much to Akane's relief. She certainly didn't want to deal with Zhao after everything that had happened recently. Akane wondered if he even knew what had happened, but even if he did he wasn't saying anything.

Arriving at Zuko's room, Zhao let Akane and Iroh go in first. Knowing Zuko, he certainly wasn't going to take this news well and Akane just hoped that they'd be able to get away from this without causing anymore drama for them. They were already going to be in bad enough shape without their crew and the last thing that they needed was Zhao on their case.

"For the last time, I'm not playing the tsungi horn!" Zuko snapped as they entered his room.

"If only that was what we were here for," Akane muttered.

"No, it's about our plans. There's a bit of a problem…" Iroh trailed off.

Zhao chose that moment to make his entrance as he stepped into Zuko's room, "I'm taking your crew."

"What!?" Zuko exclaimed in shock as he turned around to face Zhao.

"I've recruited them for a little expedition to the North Pole," Zhao stated.

"Uncle, Akane, is that true?" Zuko asked, hoping more than anything that it wasn't.

"Do you think he'd be here if he wasn't?" Akane replied.

"I'm afraid so. He's taking everyone…" Iroh trailed off as he put his arm over his face in woe. "Even the cook."

"It'll be alright," Akane comforted Iroh half-heartedly.

"Sorry you won't be there to watch me capture the Avatar. But I can't have you getting in my way again," Zhao drawled.

Zuko charged at Zhao in anger, but Iroh cut him off as he shouted, "No!"

Something suddenly seemed to catch Zhao's attention and it took Akane a few moments to realise that he was staring at Zuko's broadswords. It almost seemed like Zhao recognised the blades from somewhere as his face swelled into anger. Zuko seemed to notice that and his eyes widened while his mouth fell open, like he was in danger. Zhao then removed one of the swords from the wall and swung it around for a brief moment.

"I didn't know you were skilled with broadswords, Prince Zuko," Zhao commented.

"I'm not. They're antiques. Just decorative," Zuko answered.

That perked Akane's interest since Zuko had always been skilled with those swords. He had spent multiple summers with master Piando, whom Akane had also learned from. Akane just figured that Zuko was keeping his cards close to himself so that he wouldn't reveal his skills to Zhao.

"Have you heard of the Blue Spirit, General Iroh?" Zhao asked.

"Just rumours. I don't think he is real," Iroh replied.

"And what about you, Akane?" Zhao questioned.

Akane shrugged, "Like Iroh, I've only heard stories. Didn't he free the Avatar after you captured him?"

"He's real, all right," Zhao said as he dismissed Akane's comment and handed the broad sword to Iroh. "He's a criminal, and enemy of the Fire Nation. But I have a feeling justice will catch up with him soon."

"Like you have feelings," Akane muttered, even though she knew what Zhao was referring to.

Zhao moved to exit the cabin, "General Iroh, Miss Akane, the offer to join my mission still stands… if you change your mind."

"I'm going to go speak to the rest of the crew," Iroh proclaimed before leaving the two to themselves.

Silence fell over Akane and Zuko once Iroh left them. This was one of those times when Akane almost didn't know what to say to Zuko since she could feel the rage coming from him. There was no doubt that he was furious at the turn of events and understandably so. Zhao had just taken away the support that they had, and now all they had was each other.

But that wasn't the only thing on Akane's mind. There was something about the way that Zuko reacted when Zhao brought up the Blue Spirit that made Akane wonder what that was about. If Akane didn't know any better, she would say that Zuko was trying to hide something. Whatever that was, Akane wasn't sure.

"Why… why did you act the way you did when Zhao brought up the Blue Spirit?" Akane questioned.

Zuko turned to face her, "What do you mean?"

"As soon as Zhao brought him up, you just reacted in a way that you wouldn't unless you were hiding something," Akane said.

"I'm not hiding anything, Akane. Now please just leave me alone before I do or say anything that I might regret," Zuko ordered.

Knowing that leaving Zuko alone was probably the best thing to do right now, Akane simply nodded and left him to sulk in his room. But there was just something about that conversation with Zhao that was unsettling for Akane. Just the way he spoke about the Blue Spirit, like he knew who it was. And the way Zuko reacted. It made Akane think that Zuko was hiding more than what he was letting on and with Zhao taking their crew away from them, there wasn't really much room to hide.

~*•°•*~

The following day, Akane stood with the rest of the crew as she said her goodbyes. In all honesty, Akane was going to miss the crew. Despite what happened with Kyou, Akane knew that these people cared about her and would miss her just as much as she was going to miss them. Of course, Zuko had not gone out to say goodbye to the crew since he saw them as traitors whereas Akane couldn't blame them for leaving since they were under orders to do so.

"Goodbye, Akane. I'm going to miss you," Meili said as she hugged Akane.

"I'll miss you too. Take care of yourself," Akane replied as she moved on to hug Chen.

"I wish I could stay with you. I'd rather take Prince Zuko over Admiral Zhao," Chen commented.

Akane smiled, "I'll miss your cooking, Chen. So will Iroh."

"Now you take care of yourself, my dear," Nuying said as she lovingly grabbed onto Akane's shoulders.

"I'll try," Akane replied before giving Kang a quick hug and lastly moving onto Jee, who she would miss the most.

"Keep Prince Pouty in line," Jee commented as he gave her a hug.

Akane giggled, "I will. Thank you for everything, Jee. I've enjoyed having you around the last three years."

"Alright, Akane. We've said our goodbyes. Now we better move on so we don't let them get held up," Iroh suggested.

"Goodbye everyone. I will miss you all," Akane said her last goodbyes.

With the goodbyes out of the way, Akane and Iroh headed back into the ship. If she was being completely honest, Akane had no idea what they were going to without a crew. There was no way that the three of them would be able to manage the ship and they had already been lucky enough to get the crew that they had. Although Zuko would never admit it, she knew that he was going to miss them just for the purpose of having them around.

"Good luck!" the crew called out as they headed into the ship.

"Would you like to accompany me for a walk, Akane?" Iroh asked.

"I don't think so. I'd rather just stay here and rest," Akane replied.

Nodding to himself, Iroh headed off while Akane walked towards her room. Akane figured that it was better for her to stay on the ship with Zuko in case he decided to talk to her. After everything that had happened, Akane was still waiting for Zuko to talk to her. Even though she wouldn't tell him much, she still would've appreciated it if Zuko took the time to talk to her. Of all the times she could use her best friend instead of Prince Zuko, now would be one of them.

Once she arrived in her room, Akane just sat on her bed as she waited for Zuko to hopefully come and check on her. As time ticked by, Akane sighed when she realised that Zuko was probably just going to sulk in his room all night. Although he could've joined Iroh for his walk, Akane knew that Zuko probably wouldn't have joined him and would just spend the rest of the night sulking in his room.

But Akane couldn't blame Zuko, since they had found themselves in a difficult situation with no crew to help them. They certainly couldn't make it to the North Pole with just the three of them now that Zhao had taken their crew. Any chance that they had of getting the Avatar before Zhao were ruined since he had all of the ammunition that he needed.

Suddenly, Akane heard the slightest noise that caught her attention. At first, Akane thought nothing of it but that was until she heard another noise. Curious to see what it was, Akane opened her door and looked around, only to see nothing. But when she heard more noise that she couldn't identify Akane decided to go and check it out since as far as she was aware, she and Zuko were the only ones on the ship.

Nothing freaked Akane out more than something that she couldn't hear or see. And given their recent altercation with Zhao, Akane was worried that something bad was around the corner for them. Even without their crew, Akane knew that Zhao saw them as a threat and would do anything to get rid of them if it meant getting the Avatar for himself. Preparing herself for any intruder, Akane armed herself as she neared the next corner only to come face to face with Zuko.

"Zuko!" Akane exclaimed in shock.

"Akane, what are you doing?" Zuko hissed.

"I thought I heard something," Akane replied as she glanced around.

"Me too," Zuko said.

"I see you didn't go with Iroh," Akane stated.

"You didn't either," Zuko rebuffed.

"I didn't feel like walking," Akane murmured.

Looking at Akane now, Zuko could see how visibly tired she was. That was something that Zuko couldn't blame her for considering everything that had happened recently. Even Zuko had been having trouble sleeping since it happened. How could he sleep, when his best friend was going through so much pain?

"I'm sorry for not playing the tsungi horn," Zuko apologised.

Akane chuckled, "It's okay. You've never joined us before so why start now?"

Zuko sighed, "But you're my friend and you need some cheering up. I was being selfish."

"Wow, look at you swallowing your pride and apologising? Who are you and what have you done with Zuko?" Akane questioned jokingly.

Zuko leaned forward and smirked in a way that Akane hadn't seen him do in ages, "Jackpot."

With that one word, Zuko pushed Akane backwards and darted away from her as fast as he could. It took Akane a few moments to register what he meant until it dawned on her. Jackpot had always been their code word for causing any trouble or when they found something good to do. And with no adults or supervision around to judge them, what better time to run around and cause trouble than now?

Laughing as she did so, Akane chased after Zuko through the ship feeling better than she had in days. This was just what Akane needed to feel better and she was glad that it was Zuko who had brought this out of her. It almost made Akane forget about the pain that she was feeling, and that was a good thing.

Their fun and games lead them to the ships tower where Akane eventually cornered Zuko, leaving him with nowhere to run. The pair of friends found themselves laughing together in what felt like forever, since it truly had been so long since they had just acted as freely as they were now. In a way, being without the crew was a good thing since it gave them time to just act without fear of supervision.

"That was fun," Akane laughed.

"That was the point of it," Zuko said.

Akane smiled, "Well, it worked. Thank you, Zuko."

Expecting a response from Zuko, Akane waited only to get nothing in returned. It seemed as though something had caught his eyes and Akane turned to see what it was. To her surprise, there was a bird sitting right outside the windows. But this wasn't just any bird. It was a parrot. And Akane could've sworn that she'd seen that bird before.

"Hey, Zuko. Isn't that…" Akane trailed off.

Before Akane could even finish her sentence, the parrot let out a squawk before flying away and there was a loud bang heard from down below. In an instant, Akane felt the ship rocking below them and shared a split second look of panic with Zuko as several explosions were heard throughout the ship.

With no time to act, Akane and Zuko braced themselves as a fiery explosion entered the ships tower, the heat of the flames instantly being felt as they entered the room. Reacting on instinct, Zuko went to cover Akane as quickly as he could from the blast, not wanting her to suffer anymore pain than what she already had, even if it meant taking the brunt of the explosion.

It wasn't long before the flames and the smoke became too much for Zuko and Akane could feel him slipping away from on top of her. While Akane could feel everything from the explosion, she wasn't as badly affected as Zuko as he had shielded her from the main force of the blast. As the infrastructure of the ship began to collapse on them, Akane knew that she needed to do something. She couldn't let them die, not like this.

Glancing at the windows, Akane noticed that they were all surrounded by flames but she knew that it was their only way of escaping. Grabbing hold of Zuko, Akane used every bit of strength that she had to get him to the window before smashing through it with her right arm, screaming out in pain as she felt the flames burn on her skin. The pain from the flames was almost immediate, and Akane struggled to use that arm to support Zuko.

Praying that this would be enough, Akane grabbed onto Zuko and forced them both out onto the edge of the ships window and surveyed the damage done by the explosion. It was then that Akane could feel herself beginning to lose consciousness as the smoke became too much. Knowing that it was now or never, Akane leaped forward without letting go of Zuko and let gravity take its course.

They both fell plummeting towards water, and Akane hoped more than anything that the water would be enough to soothe her burns. Any impact that was made was forgotten as Akane focused on using her last gasps for air on getting her and Zuko to shore, knowing that Iroh would come as soon as he heard the explosion. They just had to get shore and make sure that everything was alright.

Any relief that was felt when Akane barely made it to the shore with Zuko was short lived as it had taken every ounce of energy to get them to the point where they could just float ashore, which was exactly what happened. Knowing that they had managed to avoid a deadly situation, Akane finally let her exhaustion take over and let darkness succumb her, with her last thoughts being of Zuko and the rare moments of fun that they were having before it was unfairly taken away from them.

Chapter Text

When Akane next woke up, she felt a whole lot better than she did the last time her eyes were open. Groaning, Akane rolled over as she tried to figure out where she was. She certainly wasn’t at the bottom of the ocean or on the sand that she and Zuko had washed up on. There was hardly anything to give Akane an indication as to where she was, except for the sound of a flickering fire that had to be nearby.

Once Akane recollected herself, her first thought was Zuko. Panic immediately overwhelmed Akane as she reached around to see if Zuko was nearby, only to feel nothing. When her eyes finally became useful again, Akane forced herself to sit upright as she felt an excruciating pain go through her bad side. Glancing around, Akane noticed that she was in some small tent but there seemed to be nobody else in sight. Her eyes then landed on a familiar figure sitting down in the corner of the tent.

“Z-Zuko?” Akane stammered weakly.

The figure quickly turned around at her voice, revealing that it was indeed Zuko who had been with her. Akane gasped as she noticed the burns on his face and had an immediate flashback to seeing Zuko’s face the first time after his Agni Kai. Back then it was so damaged and broken, and the look he had now was certainly reminding her of that moment.

“It’s about time you woke up,” Zuko murmured.

“How long have I been out?” Akane wondered.

“Almost three days. I woke up before you did. Uncle said that you took a lot of the smoke in which made it harder for us to help you,” Zuko explained.

Akane glanced around as she noticed that Iroh wasn’t with them, “Where is Iroh?”

“We’ve come up with a new plan to get us to the North Pole. We’re going to infiltrate Zhao’s crew with Uncle going in to keep us safe. We’ll be in disguise while Uncle pretends to be on Zhao’s side,” Zuko answered.

“You guys came up with that while I was out?” Akane asked.

Zuko shrugged, “We had to think of something.”

“Ugh, my head,” Akane groaned in pain as she rested her head against her hand before jumping back in alarm. “Oh my god!”

“What is it?” Zuko asked.

“M-my hand,” Akane murmured, glancing down at her injured hand which certainly wasn’t the way she remembered it.

Zuko sighed, “Yeah, your hand sort of took the brunt of the force somehow. I tried my best to protect you, Akane. But it wasn’t good enough.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Zuko. It was my fault. You were unconscious and I had to get you out somehow. By instinct I smashed a hole through the window with my hand to get us out,” Akane admitted.

“Zhao will pay for this,” Zuko growled.

“And those flipping pirates,” Akane added. “I bet he sent them after us so that we wouldn’t be a problem anymore. I remembered seeing their bird.”

“Yeah, me too. But lets focus on Zhao right now,” Zuko said.

“Where are we anyways?” Akane questioned as she looked around their small tent.

“Not too far from where Zhao’s fleet is set to take off in a few hours. Uncle’s with him now and he should be back soon so he can get us on board now that you’re awake,” Zuko answered.

“Okay,” Akane murmured.

Silence fell over them after that discussion was over. Looking down at her injured hand, Akane noticed just how badly she had been hurt from the explosion. Her entire right arm was almost fully burned with newly formed blisters making their appearance. Even some of her skin had been torn off, which left parts of her bones visible from the open cuts. It made Akane how she even managed to get out of the ship and still have her arm in one piece.

Thinking about the explosion only made Akane even more angry at Zhao. Just when she thought she couldn’t hate him anymore than she did, Zhao decides to push it even more. The fact that Zhao would stoop so low as to hire someone to kill them made Akane realise that they weren’t safe anywhere with Zhao still around. But based on what Zuko had said, Zhao was under the impression that they were dead.

Knowing that she would need as much rest as she could get for what was ahead of them, Akane laid back down onto her makeshift bed and closed her eyes as she desperately tried to get a good night sleep. Sleep could certainly do her some good now, since Akane just wanted as much rest as she could get.

~*•°•*~

The time had come for Akane and Zuko to put their plan into action. When Zhao had readied his fleet to head to the Northern Water Tribe, Iroh had successfully managed to smuggle them into the ship so they could get in position. Although they could’ve gone on any other ship, Iroh would’ve much rather have them somewhere he could check up on them if he needed to.

Thanks to the explosion, they hardly had anything to carry with them anymore except for a few of their most valuable items that they had managed to salvage from the wreckage. Since Akane and Zuko weren’t technically registered soldiers on Zhao’s main ship, they had decided to stow away below the ship where there was just enough room for the two of them.

Currently, they were wondering around the ship with their disguises on as they waited for Iroh to come find them. They had told Iroh to meet them near the ships lobby once he was done talking with Zhao. Despite walking past each other on several occasions, Akane and Zuko couldn’t afford to be interacting with each other so they had agreed to keep their distance in public areas.

When they saw Iroh heading towards them, Akane and Zuko quickly walked down a separate hallway to get some privacy away for themselves. With the risk of getting caught laying heavily on her mind, Akane was nervous about even letting this conversation take place.

“Our plan is working perfectly. Zhao doesn’t suspect a thing,” Iroh addressed them.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Zuko said as he pulled his mask down, revealing his burned face that pained Akane even more to look at.

“There was no way I was going to let you two stow away on a sip without some backup,” Iroh insisted.

“Thank you, Uncle,” Zuko showed his gratitude.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without you,” Akane added weakly.

“How are you holding up?” Iroh asked.

“I would be better if this armour wasn’t pressing against my hand,” Akane replied.

“Why don’t you go down to the infirmary and see if you can get anything there?” Iroh suggested.

Akane nodded, “That would probably be a good idea.”

Turning around, Akane headed down the other corridor leaving Iroh and Zuko alone. They stood in silence for a moment and Iroh couldn’t help but notice how his nephew’s gaze lingered on Akane as she disappeared.

“You’re worried for her,” Iroh observed.

Zuko sighed, “I should’ve done more to protect her. Now she’s in even more pain than what she should be.”

“If Akane hadn’t acted the way she did then there is a very high chance that neither of you would have made it out of that explosion alive,” Iroh pointed out.

“I’m just starting to think that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to let her come with us. Maybe we should’ve just let her wait somewhere she can rest and then we could’ve met up with her once this was taken care of,” Zuko rambled.

“Trust me, Prince Zuko. The best place for Akane to be right now is here, with us. No matter the circumstances she needs us as we’re the only support that she has,” Iroh insisted.

“I guess you’re right, Uncle,” Zuko admitted.

The sound of a door opening cut their conversation short and Iroh shared a quick look with his nephew as he quickly covered his face with the helmet. As the footsteps got closer, Iroh knew that now was the time to leave his nephew to come up with a plan that would work out the way they needed it to.

“Someone’s coming. Stay hidden until we get to the North Pole and the Avatar will be yours. Good luck,” Iroh whispered.

Following that conversation, Iroh and Zuko headed their separate ways as they both had their own missions to attend to. Iroh had to make sure that Zhao didn’t suspect anything about his true allegiances while Zuko had a plan to make and a best friend to look after.

~*•°•*~

There were a few differences from Zhao’s ship compared to Zuko’s ship. For starters, Zhao’s ship was a lot more spacious and bigger than Zuko’s, which left more room for Akane to get lost. After being on Zuko’s ship for almost three years, Akane new that place better than she knew the back of her hand. But now she was stuck on Zhao’s ship and had no idea how she was supposed to get around this place.

It took Akane almost half an hour to finally find the infirmary and lucky for her, there was nobody else in there which made it easier for her to get the stuff that she needed for her injured hand. Releasing her hand from the restraints that came with the armour gave Akane the best feeling that she’d had in ages. But that feeling was soon replaced with pain as she saw the damage that was there.

Although Iroh and Zuko had tried to help her injury as much as they could, there was only so much that they could do to heal the pain. Akane knew that her hand might never be the same again, but that wasn’t the only thing that would never be the same. Her whole life had already been turned upside down due to recent events so having to deal with abrupt change was nothing that Akane wasn’t used to.

Once Akane gave her hand the treatment that it needed, she quickly left the infirmary while making sure that nobody spotted her. The last thing that Akane needed was somebody asking questions about her when she wasn’t supposed to be talking to anyone.

With her hand taken care of, Akane headed back to where she and Zuko were hiding from the rest of the crew. Since Akane wasn’t technically a part of the crew, it wasn’t like she was expected to do any work that she didn’t know how to do. When Akane reached their room, she found Zuko already waiting for her on the hammock that laid opposite to hers.

“What took you so long?” Zuko asked.

“It took me forever to find the infirmary,” Akane replied as she took a seat. “I swear, this place is like a freaking maze. I already miss your ship.”

“You and me both,” Zuko muttered.

“It’s okay, Zuko. We’ll get to the North Pole and capture the Avatar. We’ll make it so that Zhao doesn’t suspect a thing and then he’ll be shocked that we beat him to it,” Akane reassured him.

“We should get some rest. I overheard some of the other crew members saying that it’ll be a few days before we reach the Norther Water Tribe. That will give us some time to prepare,” Zuko said.

“Shouldn’t we be thinking of a plan to actually get in to the Northern Water Tribe?” Akane questioned.

“I’m working on it, Akane. But I could use your help,” Zuko admitted.

“Why don’t we just wait until Zhao’s ship reaches the tip of it so that we don’t have to go through that much struggle to get inside?” Akane suggested.

Zuko shook his head, “No, that would be too late. We need to get in there before anyone else does if we’re to have a shot at getting the Avatar. If we wait until Zhao gets off, then we’ll really have to compete against him. I’d rather just sneak in, steal the Avatar and get out of here.”

“But what about his friends? Won’t they be with him?” Akane pointed out.

“I can handle them, Akane. The girl is hardly a waterbender from what I remember and the boy is just a nuisance,” Zuko reassured her.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Zuko. Now that they’re actually in the Northern Water Tribe, the girl could’ve learned a few tricks and the boy could’ve learned some stuff as well now that they’re with their sister tribe,” Akane argued.

“Don’t make me feel more nervous than what I already am, Akane. I just have to believe that I’ll be able to handle whatever they have to throw at me,” Zuko stated.

“I understand that but please don’t underestimate them. Remember what happened the last time you underestimated them?” Akane reminded him.

Zuko sighed, “I won’t underestimate them, Akane. I won’t let that get in the way of me achieving what I need to achieve.”

Given Zuko’s history with underestimating his opponents, Akane wasn’t so sure if he’d be able to get in there with a clear mind. On any other day, Akane would have confidence in Zuko’s abilities but when they’d both been battered and bruised, she wasn’t so sure. But she would have to be confident for Zuko’s sake.

“We should get some rest. Looks like we’ll be needing it,” Akane suggested.

“Goodnight,” Zuko said.

Getting into a comfortable position, Akane sighed as she knew this would be a rough ride for her and Zuko. They’d already faced big enough obstacles and they were about to face their biggest one yet in sneaking into the Northern Water Tribe. For their sake, Akane hoped that they’d be able to pull it off.

~*•°•*~

After some much needed rest and planning, the time had finally come for Akane and Zuko to put their plan into action and sneak into the Northern Water Tribe. It had been decided that Akane and Zuko would use a boat to get to the edge of the cliffs before finding a way to sneak inside. There were some parts of their plan that hadn’t been taken into consideration, but they were just willing to give it their best shot.

Staring at the Northern Water Tribe from Zhao’s ship, Akane couldn’t believe how breathtaking it was. On a better day, she knew that it would look better than what it did now given the damage that the icy fortress had already sustained from the siege, but it was still a magnificent sight. It certainly wasn’t anything like it’s sister tribe, which was kind of what she was expecting it to be like.

As they waited for Iroh to send them off, Akane and Zuko prepared their boat that they would be using to sneak into the Northern Water Tribe. The ships had stopped firing and they were at a close enough distance, so they figured that this would be their best opportunity to make their entrance. Akane and Zuko had since changed out of their armour and into more adaptable clothes that wouldn’t get in the way of anything. It wasn’t long before Iroh came to send them off as they were winding up some of the rope to release the boat that they would need.

“If you’re fishing for an octopus my nephew, you need a tightly woven net, or he will squeeze through the tiniest hole and escape,” Iroh said as he entered the room.

Akane raised her eyebrows, “Are you talking about the Avatar or are you being literal?”

“I don’t need your wisdom right now, Uncle,” Zuko snapped.

“I’m sorry. I just nag you, because… well,” Iroh spoke as his voice broke slightly. “Ever since I lost my son…”

“Uncle, you don’t have to say it,” Zuko stated.

“I think of you as my own,” Iroh admitted before turning to Akane. “Both of you.”

That was when Akane truly felt like her heart had been touched. Sure, Iroh had always treated her as if he was her own but he had never said that that was how he saw her. And although Akane had never said it out loud either, she had always saw Iroh as the father that she never had.

“I feel the same way, Iroh,” Akane murmured as she went in for a hug.

Zuko’s expression softened, “I know, Uncle. Come on, Akane. If we’re going to do this we have to do it now. But we will meet again.”

Iroh hugged him, but Zuko wasn’t about to let this moment get in the way of what they had planned. They could hug once they had the Avatar.

“After I have the Avatar,” Zuko added as he turned away and got on the boat with Akane.

“Remember your breath of fire. It could save your lives out there,” Iroh reminded them.

“We will,” Zuko replied as he lowered the boat, suspended by ropes, down the side of the ship and into the water.

“And put your hoods up. Keep your ears warm!” Iroh added as their boat continued to lower.

“We’ll be fine!” Zuko reassured him.

“We will,” Akane said as she squeezed Zuko’s arm.

Once the boat reached the water, they released it form the ropes and allowed it to drift alone with the current. They road in silence, so that they wouldn’t attract any unwanted attention. Their boat swiftly made its way through the water and quickly neared the main fortress of the Northern Water Tribe. Out of the corner of her eye, Akane spotted a Water Tribe guard on patrol looking in their direction but their boat barely managed to avoid his gaze as it disappeared behind an ice spike.

The cold air that brushed against Akane’s face was unlike anything that she had felt before. It always astounded her how people managed to live in climates like this, since she couldn’t understand how people could survive without freezing their butts off. Their boat pulled up onto one of the many ice spikes that resided near the shore. They then noticed another group of Water Tribe guards marching atop the wall, before their attention turned to a group of turtle seals resting by a hole in the ice. One seal plunged head first into the icy water and Zuko shared a look with Akane as they both began thinking the same thing.

“That could be the only way inside,” Akane reluctantly admitted, since the idea of diving down there hardly seemed attractive.

“Where are they going?” Zuko asked as he peered down the hole, his face reflecting in the water. “They’re coming up for air somewhere.”

“But we’re going to find out, aren’t we?” Akane whispered.

Nodding, Zuko pulled down the mask covering his mouth and nose before he deeply inhaled and plunged into the water. After taking a few deep breaths of her own, Akane followed in suit as they swam through the freezing cold water. Swimming through the cold water was unlike anything that Akane had experienced. She was already weakened enough which made it difficult to keep up with Zuko, but she knew that she would be fine as long as she kept him in her sight.

Eventually, Zuko emerged from the water through another hole in the ice. He lied on his back on the ice as he caught his breath and waited for Akane to come up. When she did, Zuko could see that she was struggling as he helped pull her out from the water. To keep them both warm, Zuko pulled them together and breathed fire to warm themselves up.

“Are you alright?” Zuko asked.

“Freezing. But, I could be worse,” Akane replied over the barking seals.

“Be quiet!” Zuko snapped, causing them to quiet down.

Akane gently hit his arm, “Don’t be so mean.”

“Let’s just keep moving,” Zuko said, glancing back at Akane as she shivered form the cold.

Although the cave that they were in was pretty freezing, Akane felt that it was better than swimming in the cold water. They then walked past the seals and Akane shook her head as Zuko pushed their heads aside before chuckling to herself as they resumed their barking once they had past them.

They managed to make their way through another opening where water was pouring out. It was hard, battling against the water that was going down on them as they tried to make their way up. This much physical activity was beginning to take its toll on Akane as she struggled to keep up with Zuko. When Zuko took a breather of fresh air, he made sure that Akane got some as well since he could see that she was struggling. Maybe letting her come with him wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But with a job to do and no time to rest, Zuko dove back into the water with Akane following in suit. They continued to make their way through the channel of water as they swam upwards. Zuko managed to spot a frozen surface nearby and knew that he needed to get Akane out of this place fast. But when he attempted to resurface, Zuko noticed that the surface of the water had frozen into a thick ice patch. They tried to break through the surface together before Akane ceased her attempts, and Zuko could see that she was losing air.

It wasn’t just Akane who needed some air, as Zuko quickly found himself desperate for a break as well. Zuko then pressed his hands against the frozen patch of ice and heated his hands using firebending which melted a hole in the ice, the ice steaming and finally melting away. Zuko emerged and pulled Akane up with him as he caught his breath, relaxing against the wall of the tunnel.

Upon catching his breath and looking around, Zuko noticed that they had found themselves in a tunnel within the city. Knowing that they wouldn’t have to swim anymore, Zuko finally let out a sigh of relief before turning to look at Akane. His heart twisted in knots as he noticed her passed out form in the tunnel. After checking to make sure that she was still breathing, Zuko contemplated his next actions. Zuko knew that he was running out of time and that he had to act fast if he wanted to succeed in capturing the Avatar. But he couldn’t drag Akane with him as well, not when she was like this.

Making his final decision, Zuko picked up his friends resting form and carried her out of the tunnel before putting her somewhere where somebody could hopefully find her and get her some help. After a brief second thought, Zuko sighed and left Akane leaning against a pillar, hoping that he was doing the right thing and that she would be able to forgive him for leaving her behind. But Zuko knew his motives for doing what he did, since he had never sacrificed Akane’s well-being for his own gain and he certainly wasn’t going to start now.

Chapter Text

Long after Zuko had left her, Akane regained consciousness to find herself lying in some sort of icy tunnel that she didn’t remember being in. At first, Akane was slightly delirious and struggled to make sense of her surroundings as she was feeling really tired from everything that she and Zuko had done up until this point. As soon as Akane thought of Zuko, she realised that Zuko was nowhere to be seen at all. That was enough to spring Akane into action as she frantically looked around in the hopes of finding him nearby.

There were a dozen thoughts going through Akane’s mind as she scrambled to find Zuko. Had he gotten hurt? Did he get captured? Were they discovered? It didn’t make sense for Zuko to just leave her like this, since they had promised that they would do this together no matter what. But since there was no sign of a struggle, Akane was beginning to think that maybe Zuko had abandoned her.

Without Zuko, Akane had no idea what she was supposed to do. She knew that she was supposed to be out looking for the Avatar, but then she had no idea where Zuko was. As reluctant as she was to admit this, Akane needed help. But she was going to have to get it without actually asking for it. They had come here to find the Avatar, so there was a good chance that Zuko had gone off to find him on his own and that Akane would be able to find him there.

After getting herself focused for her new mission, Akane scrambled to her feet and carefully climbed out of the tunnel that she had found herself in. From what Akane had remembered, it had been dark when she last saw Zuko but now daybreak had arrived and the battle was once again raging on. Hundreds of fireballs were being flung into the air before smashing the icy fortress into smithereens. But Akane had no time to worry about the battle that was raging on, she had to find Zuko.

While making her way through the icy fortress, Akane suddenly and rather unexpectedly spotted a familiar face. It was the Water Tribe boy who was travelling with the Avatar along with a girl who was dressed in elaborate Water Tribe clothing and platinum white hair. They seemed to be in a hurry and urgently talking about something, so Akane quickly hid to the side to hopefully catch a glimpse of their conversation.

“Yue, what’s going on?” the boy – Sokka, Akane remembered his name was – asked the girl.

“There’s no time! We have to help!” the girl, Yue, exclaimed.

“Tell me what happened, this time with fewer words,” Sokka said as he grabbed hold of her hand, and Akane couldn’t help but notice how lovingly he looked down at her.

“Katara and I were with Aang in the Spirit Oasis. He was trying to get into the Spirit World. But when he did, a firebender showed up. I quickly ran off to find you but I could here him and Katara getting into a fight. I don’t know what happened after that,” Yue explained.

“Wait, this guy, did he have a scar on his face?” Sokka asked.

“Yes, he did,” Yue replied. “Why? Do you know him?”

Zuko,” Sokka hissed. “Come on, if he’s taken Aang we’re going to have to move fast to get him back. We can ride on Appa.”

Upon hearing that Zuko hadn’t gotten captured or anything like that, Akane let out a sigh of relief. The relief was soon replaced with anger as it confirmed her suspicions that Zuko had indeed abandoned her. But now wasn’t the time for Akane to be angry at Zuko. Now was the time for her to get to him before the others did so they could get out of here in one piece, even if it meant giving up the Avatar.

Since Akane had no idea where this ‘Spirit Oasis’ was, she quietly followed Sokka and Yue as they boarded their flying bison and unknowingly lead Akane to their shared destination. What they eventually found was not what Akane was expecting, as it was just a small round door that looked like it didn’t even go anywhere. But when Akane saw the bison flying over it Akane knew that she had to follow in suit. Carefully, Akane headed in after them and was completely amazed by what she found.

It was unlike anything Akane had seen before. Although this Spirit Oasis was located at the heart of the Northern Water Tribe, it was as warm as any other place that Akane had been to. Those brief moments of warmth was the best feeling that Akane had felt in ages, and it almost made her forget what she had come here for.

“What happened? Where’s Zuko?” Sokka asked urgently as he and Yue got off Appa and rushed towards Katara.

“He took Aang. He took him right out from under me,” Katara replied, dismayed. Their lemur also seemed to share that dismay as it looked sorrowfully from the edge of the pond.

“Where did they go…” Sokka trailed off.

Looking to her side, Akane could see an icy stair case that lead to the top of the Spirit Oasis. Since there was no other way for Zuko to get out of here, Akane figured that he would’ve chosen that route to get away from all of the conflict that was taking place. But Akane knew that she wouldn’t be able to follow him on her own. And she knew that if the Avatar’s friends found him that they might not be so merciful. This time, Akane knew that she would have to ask for their help.

“I think I can help with that,” Akane stated.

That immediately got their attention as Katara quickly got into a fighting stance while Sokka prepared to throw his boomerang. The other girl simply looked warily at Akane, no doubt only doing so since it was obvious that they didn’t trust her.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” Sokka demanded.

Akane raised her arms in surrender, “I don’t want to fight you, trust me.”

“Well, your little boyfriend didn’t seem to mind doing that when he hurt my sister,” Sokka snapped.

Akane rolled her eyes, “First of all, Zuko is not my boyfriend. Second of all, I want the same thing that you want. I want to find Zuko. I don’t want to get in any fight.”

“I think we should listen to her, Sokka,” Yue said.

“See, she believes me!” Akane exclaimed, giving Yue a thankful smile.

“That’s because she doesn’t know you like we do!” Katara exclaimed.

“Do you even really know me? We’ve only ever come across each other when we’re fighting. You don’t know a thing about me so don’t stand there acting like you do!” Akane yelled.

“She has a point,” Sokka reluctantly admitted.

“Why should we listen to you?” Katara asked.

“Because, I can reason with Zuko. I’ll get him off your backs for now. I’m tired of chasing you guys at this point in time. I just want both of us to survive this battle. And I know that he won’t be able to survive it where he’s gone. I can help you find him,” Akane reasoned.

“She could be useful,” Sokka said.

Katara sighed, “Fine. She can come with us.”

“Now, where would Zuko go?” Sokka questioned.

“Considering there are hundreds of Fire Nation soldiers storming the city by now, it would be stupid of Zuko to leave that way. Especially since he and Aang are the most recognisable people in the Fire Nation. So, his only other option would be to go up there,” Akane answered as she pointed up at the top of the Spirit Oasis.

“But that’s crazy! The Northern Tundra is the most coldest place in the world! They’ll freeze to death!” Yue exclaimed.

“That’s Zuko for you; always choosing the most difficult path,” Akane murmured, while suddenly feeling a lot more nervous for Zuko.

“If it’s as cold as Yue says it is, that means that Aang could die too,” Sokka stated.

Katara knelt down on the ground at that statement, “And it’s all my fault. I can’t believe I lost him.”

“You did everything you could, and now we need to do everything we can to get him back,” Sokka reasoned as Katara looked back up at him, with tears in her eyes. “Zuko can’t have gotten far. We’ll find him. Aang’s gonna be fine.”

“Trust me, Zuko wouldn’t let himself die in that blizzard,” Akane added for extra reassurance.

“Okay,” Katara agreed as she stood up before glancing back at their lemur. “It’s all right. You stay here, Momo, in case Aang comes back.”

Together, the four teenagers climbed onto the flying bison in an awkward silence. Right away, Akane could feel that the animal was wary of her as it growled in her direction. But after some reassurance from the others, it allowed her to get on board.

“So how does this work, exactly?” Akane asked, referring to how they were supposed to get Appa to fly.

“You say it, Sokka,” Katara said.

“Yip, yip,” Sokka flicked the bison’s reigns before the animal took off into the air, taking Akane by surprise.

“Oh my god,” Akane breathed in shock as Appa flew into the air.

“First time flying?” Katara asked awkwardly.

Akane nodded, “Yeah. I’ve only ever travelled on ships.”

“You’ll get the hang of it,” Katara reassured her with a slight smile.

Giving Katara her own reassuring smile, Akane simply sat back in the saddle as the bison took off into the air. It was long before they reached the top of the Spirit Oasis and started heading off in the treacherous Northern Tundra. The cold quickly greeted Akane and she shivered uncomfortably as she sat in the saddle, but she knew that she’d have to deal with it if it meant finding Zuko. All Akane wanted to do was find her friend and get them out of one piece.

~*•°•*~

They rode on Appa in a bearable silence, only acknowledging each other if it was to look around in the hopes of finding Aang or Zuko. Part of Akane felt like she was betraying Zuko for even working with the Avatars friends. But Akane knew that her intentions were just, as all she wanted to do was find Zuko before he did something else stupid. If something was to happen to Zuko out here, Akane didn’t know what she’d do.

At one point, they came across a part of the ice that looked like it had been destroyed. Upon realising that there was nowhere else that seemed to have that damage, Akane realised that Aang and Zuko had to have passed through here.

“Look over there!” Akan exclaimed as she pointed at the broken ice.

“Let’s check it out,” Sokka observed before steering Appa in that direction.

Once they landed on the ice, Sokka hoped off of Appa and surveyed the area, only to find that a part of the ice had been ploughed in. Thinking that it was the direction that Aang and Zuko had headed off in, Sokka looked further ahead for any sign of the two boys, only to find nothing.

When Sokka realised that there was no sign of the boys, he stared back up at Akane and Katara and shook his head. The two girls looked on in equal disappointment and worry before Sokka climbed back onto Appa’s head and lead the bison back into the air.

“We have to stay positive. Zuko can’t be too far ahead. He’ll be tiring out soon enough,” Akane reassured them.

“What makes you say that?” Katara asked.

“Things haven’t exactly been going great for us recently. We’re a little bit worse for wear at the moment, so Zuko isn’t as strong as he’d normally be,” Akane explained.

Nodding, Katara kept looking ahead as they stayed focused on hopefully finding their missing friends. At the same time, Akane was wondering how she was going to deal with Zuko when they finally found him and Aang. After giving them her word, Akane couldn’t just let Zuko take Aang. While Zuko didn’t care about his reputation with Aang and his friends, Akane did and she didn’t want them to think any less of her than they already did.

The Northern Tundra was truly unlike any place that Akane had been to before. It was the coldest place that she had ever been and not even her firebending was enough to withstand that freezing blizzard. The only part of Akane that wasn’t freezing was her injured hand, and that was only because she’d lost most feeling in it after the explosion. Akane suddenly felt another bit of pain surge through her and she winced in discomfort, which didn’t go unnoticed by Katara.

“What’s wrong?” Katara asked.

“Nothing,” Akane dismissed. “Just an injury. We need to keep focused on what we’re doing and that’s finding Aang and Zuko.”

Katara’s gaze softened, “You look like your hurting a lot, though. More than I’ve seen you before.”

“Trust me when I say that it’s nothing that you should worry yourself over. It’s just my hand. I’ll live,” Akane reassured her.

“Your hands are probably the most important thing to both of us. We need our hands to bend and if we can’t use them, we’ve got nothing. So let me have a look,” Katara insisted.

Sighing, Akane carefully took off her glove, revealing her injured hand to Katara which earned a gasp from the other girl. Although her hand had somewhat healed since the explosion, it was still in bad shape.

“That’s actually really bad. What on earth happened?” Katara wondered as she began healing Akane’s hand.

“Our ship was blown up. And it was right after Zhao had come to take our crew for his little expedition. Everyone else was off it, which left Zuko and I inside. Of course, Zhao being the coward that he is couldn’t have us causing trouble so he sent those blasted pirates after us to finish the job. We almost died,” Akane explained.

“That explains why you and Zuko look so battered and bruised,” Katara observed.

Akane nodded, “We tried to make do with what we have, but without our ship we practically have nothing. So if it makes you guys feel any better, we can’t really track you down as well as we used to.”

“But if you didn’t have your ship, how did you even get to the North Pole?” Yue wondered.

“We managed to sneak onto Zhao’s ship and disguised ourselves as guards. We didn’t want Zhao knowing that we’d survived the explosion so we just hid amongst the rest of his men. Our plan was always to try and capture Aang, but now I really don’t see that happening. Without our ship, we have nothing and no way of getting back to the Fire Nation,” Akane answered.

“But you don’t even want to capture Aang,” Katara pointed out.

Akane sighed, “It’s true, I don’t. I’m only here because I’m Zuko’s friend and he needs my support. But if we had it both of our ways we wouldn’t even be in this situation.”

“If both you and Zuko don’t really want to capture Aang, then why even bother?” Katara asked as she finished healing Akane’s hand.

“That’s not really something that I should tell you guys,” Akane replied, knowing that Zuko wouldn’t like her sharing their past with the people he considered to be their enemies. “But trust me when I say that Zuko wouldn’t even be after you guys if he had to be. This wasn’t where we imagined our lives heading and Zuko isn’t just your average firebender who wants the Avatar just for the sake of having him. There’s more to him then you’ll ever know.”

“But you won’t tell us that,” Sokka grumbled from Appa’s head.

“Yes, because Zuko is my friend and I wouldn’t betray him like that,” Akane stated.

“Even though you’re technically betraying him by being with us and not to mention the other times you’ve let us go,” Sokka pointed out.

“It’s complicated, okay?” Akane snapped, even though part of her knew that Sokka was right.

“Don’t pay any attention to my brother. He’s just an idiot,” Katara said.

Akane smiled, “I’ve noticed. Now we just need to stay focused on finding Aang and Zuko.”

“The more time we waste, the more worried I’m getting. Who knows how far out they are?” Katara voiced her concerns.

“Don’t worry, Prince Zuko can’t be getting too far in this weather,” Yue reassured her.

“I’m not worried that they’ll get away in the blizzard. I’m worried that they won’t,” Katara admitted.

“They’re not going to die in this blizzard. If we know anything, it’s that Zuko never gives up. They’ll survive, and we’ll find them,” Sokka insisted.

“Sokka’s right. If there’s one thing Zuko is, it’s determined. He won’t let some blizzard get in his way,” Akane reassuringly squeezed Katara’s shoulder.

“Let’s hope so,” Katara murmured.

They continued flying, hoping more than anything that they would find their friends. While Aang wasn’t really Akane’s friend, she didn’t want him to die as much as she didn’t want Zuko to die. Only because without Aang, there would be nobody to stop Ozai from continuing his reign of terror. After seeing the effects that the war had had on the world in the past three years, there was nothing more that Akane wanted than for it to be over.

Out of nowhere, a bright light that was almost like a shooting star shot through the air, immediately catching their attention as it shot over their hands and into a cave that wasn’t too far from where they were flying.

“Look, that’s gotta be Aang! Yip, yip!” Katara exclaimed.

Following the order, Appa flew towards the cave and Akane hoped that they wouldn’t be too late. As they got closer, Akane noticed something come flying out of the cave and something else following after it. Any worries that Akane had about Zuko were washed away as she recognised him chasing after Aang, only for them to be replaced by nerves as she figured out how to deal with this situation.

“Appa!” Aang cheered as he noticed the bison.

Once Appa landed, Katara slide off of him while Akane kept herself hidden, wanting to see how this would pan out without dealing with that much conflict.

“Here for a rematch?” Zuko asked as he tossed Aang to the side, causing the boy to yelp.

“Trust me Zuko, it’s not going to be much of a match,” Katara replied confidently as she countered his fire blasts with her waterbending.

Their match was over before it even began as Katara used waterbending to launch Zuko into the air before plummeting him down to the ground, knocking him out. Gasping, Akane hopped off of Appa and headed towards Zuko as Sokka went to free Aang from his restraints.

“Hey, this is some quality rope!” Sokka exclaimed.

“We need to get to the oasis; the spirits are in trouble!” Aang said urgently.

When Aang airbended himself on top of Appa, Akane quickly gave him a hopeful glance, not wanting to be left out here with Zuko when they could hardly fend for themselves.

“Wait, we can’t just leave them here,” Aang stated.

“Sur we can. Let’s go,” Sokka dismissed them, earning a glare from Akane.

“No, if we leave him he’ll die,” Aang insisted.

Smiling gratefully at Aang as he jumped off of Appa, Akane allowed Aang to retrieve Zuko and bring him onto Appa as she climbed back onto the bison from his tail.

“Yeah, this makes a lot of sense. Let’s bring the guys who are constantly trying to kill us,” Sokka commented sarcastically.

“Hey, we’ve never tried to kill you. We’ve only tried to capture you,” Akane pointed out.

“There’s no time to argue, we have to go!” Aang interrupted before ordering Appa into the air.

“What’s happening, Aang?” Katara asked nervously.

“Someone’s going to kill the spirits and we have to stop them before they do,” Aang replied as they flew in the air.

Knowing that Zhao would most likely be the one to try and kill the spirits, Akane knew that they needed to hurry. While she wasn’t an expert on the spirits, Akane couldn’t help but imagine the kind of chaos that killing them would cause. They just had to get back to the Spirit Oasis before it was too late.

~*•°•*~

Sitting in Appa’s saddle was even more uncomfortable with Zuko and Aang added to the group. As much as she wished that he wasn’t, Akane was glad that Zuko had been knocked unconscious as he probably would’ve made this ride even more unbearable. Their journey back to the Spirit Oasis was more awkward and uncomfortable as Akane could feel the looks that she was getting as she kept Zuko close to her.

Suddenly, Akane gasped in shock as she noticed the moon’s colour change from white to red. Everything around them also changed to red from the moons light. Dread instantly welled up inside of Akane as she wondered what this could possibly mean. Beneath her, Appa groaned and Yue grabbed her head as if she was in pain.

“Are you okay?” Sokka asked.

“I feel faint,” Yue replied.

“I feel it too,” Aang added as he held his own head with his hand. “The Moon Spirit is in trouble.”

“I owe the Moon Spirit my life,” Yue stated.

“What do you mean?” Sokka questioned as Akane sat up, curious by what Yue meant as well.

“When I was born I was very sick and very weak. Most babies cry when they’re born, but I was born as if I was asleep, my eyes closed. Our healers did everything they could. They told my mother and father I was going to die. My father pleaded with the spirits to save me. That night, beneath the full moon, he brought me to the oasis and placed me in the pond. My dark hair turned white, I opened my eyes and began to cry, and they knew I would leave. That’s why my mother named me Yue, for the moon,” Yue explained.

Now knowing of Yue’s connection to the moon, Akane couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the spirit was killed. This whole situation was becoming more and more dire with each passing moment, and Akane knew that they had to get to the Spirit Oasis as fast as they could to hopefully save the Moon Spirit and the Water Tribe.

The rest of their trip continued in silence, and it wasn’t long before they arrived at the Spirit Oasis. When they did arrive, Akane’s suspicions were confirmed as she saw Zhao holding a bag with something that obviously didn’t want to be there. Luckily for them, Zhao didn’t seem to notice their arrival as he boastfully declared his victory.

“I am… a legend, now! The Fire Nation will, for generations, tell stories about the great Zhao, who darkened the moon. They will call me, Zhao the Conqueror, Zhao the Moon Slayer, Zhao the Invincible!” Zhao yelled, only for Momo to jump on top of Zhao’s head as he struggled to get him off. “Ugh… Get it off! Get it off!”

Momo did just that as he flew away and landed on Aang’s arm before running to his shoulder, with Akane, Katara and Sokka standing behind him. Zhao’s shoulders readied for battle as Aang, Akane, Katara and Sokka did the same. But Zhao’s advance was haltered as he spotted Akane behind them.

“You!” Zhao yelled angrily.

“Yes, me!” Akane proclaimed as she made her presence known. “Did you really think that you could get away with sending those pirates after Zuko and I? You should know by now that we’re not that easy to get rid of, Zhao. And it’s just a pity that your cowardice self couldn’t even take us out on your own so you hired someone else to do it!”

“One more word and I’ll light this fish on fire!” Zhao threatened as he lifted the sack up.

“Zhao, don’t!” Aang exclaimed.

“It’s my destiny, to destroy the moon, and the Water Tribe,” Zhao declared.

“Destroying the moon won’t hurt just the Water Tribe. It will hurt everyone, including you. Without the moon, everything would fall out of balance. You have no idea what kind of chaos that would unleash on the world,” Aang tried to reason.

“He is right Zhao,” a familiar voice agreed.

“General Iroh, why am I not surprised to discover your treachery?” Zhao asked calmly, while Akane smiled upon seeing Iroh with them as well.

Iroh pulled the hood over that covered his head, “I’m no traitor, Zhao, the Fire Nation needs the moon, too; we all depend on the balance. Whatever you do to that spirit I’ll unleash on you ten-fold. Let it go, now!”

This was one of the rare times where Akane had actually seen Iroh get this angry. Usually he was level-headed and kept his emotions under control. But this situation wasn’t something that could be handled calmly, as only threats would be enough to convince Zhao not to do what he wanted to. Iroh’s anger proved to be enough to convince Zhao otherwise as he released the fish into the oasis and for a few moments, everything returned to normal.

But that didn’t last long as Zhao quickly struck the koi fish with a fire slice out of anger. Iroh recoiled from the flames as Aang looked up at the moon, noticing that the moon had faded out and the world had turned grey. At that, Iroh immediately began firebending at Zhao who managed to evade his attacks by countering them with his own firebending. As Iroh got busy with Zhao’s soldiers, he went unnoticed by the others as he made his escape. Noticing this, Akane raced towards Zhao only for him to immediately grab her in a choke-hold as he lead her out of the oasis.

“You’re coming with me whether you like it or not, you interfering little brat!” Zhao hissed into her ear, sending shivers down Akane’s spine.

Knowing that the Moon Spirit was more important than her, Akane let Zhao take her out of the oasis so that the others could hopefully find a way to save the spirit and restore the world to normal. That seemed to be on track as Akane suddenly noticed a giant, lightning-like creature descending towards the Northern Water Tribe with Aang controlling it. There was still hope.

Despite her best efforts, Akane couldn’t get free of Zhao’s grip as he dragged her away. On any other day, Akane would probably be able to get rid of Zhao easily but considering she was seriously wounded, she was at a distinct disadvantage. But that didn’t seem to matter as a quick fire blast got in their way which haltered Zhao’s escape. Turning around, Akane smiled more than she had in days as she saw Zuko standing there.

“You let her go now,” Zuko growled.

“You’re alive as well?” Zhao asked in shock.

“You tried to have us killed!” Zuko snarled angrily as he attacked Zhao.

“Yes, I did,” Zhao admitted as he threw Akane to the side and defended himself against Zuko’s attack. “You’re the Blue Spirit, an enemy of the Fire Nation! You freed the Avatar.”

“What?” Akane spluttered in shock.

“I had no choice,” Zuko stated, confirming Zhao’s statement as he continued his attacks that were effortlessly blocked by Zhao.

“You should have chosen to accept your failure; you’re a disgrace. Then, at least, you could have lived!” Zhao yelled as he and Zuko continued to fight.

“But we still did anyways!” Akane shouted as she launched her own fire blasts at Zhao.

Side by side, Akane and Zuko worked together to attack Zhao as he struggled against them. Even with their injuries, Akane and Zuko proved to be a formidable force against Zhao. This was a bit of payback for both Akane and Zuko, as they took out all of their anger and frustration on Zhao. Although not all of it was a result of him, he still provided a way for Akane and Zuko to let it all out.

Their fight lead them to a bridge that was slightly destroyed from the previous attacks. As they duelled, Akane suddenly looked up at the sky and smiled as she saw that the moon had returned, along with the normalcy of the world. That didn’t seem to go unnoticed by Zhao as he looked up at the moon in horror.

“It can’t be!” Zhao yelled.

Suddenly, a large hand came out from the water that was unlike any hand that Akane had seen before. Mostly because it was practically made up of energy. What came next was even more surprising as the energy-hand grabbed Zhao and dragged him towards the water.

“Take my hand!” Zuko shouted as he offered Zhao his hand.

For a brief moment, Zhao seemed to consider Zuko’s offer before retracting his hand. The energy then plummeted into the water, dragging Zhao with him before dissipating into nothing. After that, Akane and Zuko just stood there as they stared at the now empty water, with no idea what to say.

“That was… unexpected,” Akane broke the silence.

Zuko sighed, “At least he’s not a worry anymore.”

“Zuko, why did you just leave me like that?” Akane asked.

“You were exhausted, Akane. You needed some rest and I wasn’t going to let you get hurt while I tried to get the Avatar,” Zuko replied. “Speaking of which, why were you even with him?”

“Because I was trying to find you after you abandoned me!” Akane yelled.

“I’m sorry for leaving you like that, but it was for your own good,” Zuko stated.

“Whatever,” Akane muttered. “Let’s just find Iroh and get out of here.”

At the time, leaving Akane like he did seemed like a good idea to Zuko but now she was clearly upset with him for leaving her like that. But her safety had always come first for him and while she might not have admitted it, she knew it too.

~*•°•*~

By the time the sun had risen the following morning, Akane, Iroh and Zuko had already salvaged a raft and set out to sea. Their next destination was unknown, but Akane knew that they were fine going anywhere for now. Glancing around, Akane couldn’t help but notice how much damage had been done to the Northern Water Tribe. It was a miracle that they had survived the battle, and Akane was going to hold onto that tightly.

Glancing down at Zuko, Akane frowned as she noticed the sombre look on his face. Although she was upset with him at the moment, Akane knew that this had to be hard for him. This was probably their last real chance to try and get the Avatar, and it hadn’t exactly worked out the way that they wanted to.

“I’m surprised Prince Zuko, surprised that you are not at this moment trying to capture the Avatar,” Iroh stated as he got their small raft ready.

“I’m tired,” Zuko said.

“Then you should rest. A man needs his rest,” Iroh suggested.

Taking Iroh’s advice, Zuko lied down on the raft and closed his eyes as he tried to get some rest. If there had ever been some uncertainty in their future, it had never been as strong as it was now. Things had never been as bleak as they were at this point in time and for their sake, Akane hoped that there would soon be a silver lining as she knew things would only get tougher from here on out.

Chapter Text

Following the events at the North Pole, Akane, Iroh and Zuko spent weeks travelling at sea with their small raft. It was safe to say that their raft was nothing compared to the ship that they once had, but since their ship had been blown to pieces, they had no choice but to travel across the sea in their small vessel. Unlike Zuko, Akane was doing fairly well with their sudden changes. So far, there hadn’t been a day that passed where Zuko didn’t complain about their situation.

It was safe to say that Zuko was struggling with no longer having the creature comforts that his ship provided, since they now had to be up 24/7 to run this raft without anyone to help them. Food was also a big problem for all of them, since it was hard for them to find a good source of food besides fish since they were literally stuck at sea. While they had tried fishing, it hadn’t really been much of a success for them.

“Are we ever going to see land again?” Zuko complained.

“We should be nearing the western coast of the Earth Kingdom soon,” Iroh replied.

“Why are we going to the east cost instead of just docking at the first bit of land we saw?” Akane wondered.

“Because, I know a place near the western coast that will be able to help us get back on our feet. If we went to any other place, they might not be so willing considering we are Fire Nation,” Iroh explained.

“If I ever have to spend this amount of time on a raft it’ll be too soon,” Akane grumbled, having grown sick and tired of floating around on the piece of junk that they were on.

“What can we do for food?” Zuko asked.

Akane rolled her eyes, “I don’t know, maybe try fishing?”

“Fishing hasn’t exactly worked out that well for us,” Zuko retorted.

“Give me a try,” Akane said as she took the fishing supplies form Zuko’s hands.

Fishing was something that Akane had done many times during their old visits to Ember Island. Those times was when everything was so much simpler, back when Akane didn’t see Ozai as the monster he was while actually having a sense of normalcy. Much to Zuko’s annoyance, Akane was able to successfully catch a fish on her third try before reeling it back onto their raft.

“There you go,” Akane stated as she tossed the fish to Zuko.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” Zuko asked as he struggled to hold onto the slippery animal.

“Kill it so we can eat it,” Akane replied.

“Man, I miss our ship,” Zuko sighed.

“Think of this as an opportunity to actually learn how to do things yourself instead of relying on other people to do them for you,” Akane suggested.

“Why would I even have to know how to fish?” Zuko grumbled before slipping backwards, almost falling off the raft and loosing the fish in the process before saving himself.

Akane burst out laughing, “To stop something like that from happening.”

“Not funny,” Zuko grumbled.

“You could also learn when to laugh at yourself too,” Akane added.

“What is there to laugh at?” Zuko snapped.

“You almost falling off the raft for one thing and trying to keep hold of that fish,” Akane answered.

Zuko glared at her, “Only people with no dignity laugh at themselves.”

Akane narrowed her eyes, “And you think you have any dignity?”

“At least I don’t go off fraternising with the enemy!” Zuko remarked.

Silence quickly fell over the two at that comment as Akane glared at Zuko. It had been Iroh who’d told him that she had been with the Avatar and his friends at the North Pole, news that Zuko hadn’t taken lightly. The fact that Zuko was just angry at Akane for going with them despite the fact that he was the one who had abandoned her had only made the Akane even more upset at him. While Zuko had tried to justify leaving Akane behind, it had still hurt her that he hadn’t thought about anything bad happening to her while he left her alone.

“I had no choice,” Akane muttered.

“Yes, you did. You could’ve used that as an opportunity to capture the Avatar, yet you didn’t!” Zuko exclaimed.

“Only because I couldn’t! Their whole group was there, and we were in a freezing cold blizzard while we were trying to track down you after you made that as your brilliant escape route,” Akane defended herself.

“Whatever. It’s not like we’re ever going to find the Avatar now without our ship,” Zuko murmured.

“Don’t give up hope yet, Prince Zuko,” Iroh said as he sat nearby. “While we may no longer have our resources, we still have our strength and determination that can get us through anything.”

“Let’s just focus on getting to land,” Akane suggested, earning a nod from Zuko.

While Akane wouldn’t voice her thoughts out loud, she felt as though something had changed in her friendship with Zuko. They weren’t the same as they used to be, like they were before they found out about Akane’s condition. Although their friendship hadn’t been the same for years since Zuko’s banishment, it seemed to have hit rock bottom after recent events. All Akane knew was that she wasn’t going to let this break her and Zuko apart, because she refused to lose him.

~*•°•*~

Luckily for the trio, they were finally able to reach the western coast of the Earth Kingdom before travelling near the Su Oku river where they found the resort that Iroh had mentioned. Since the resort was under Fire Nation control, the three of them were easily welcomed inside and given the royal treatment, almost like they used to back at the Royal Palace. Under Iroh’s suggestion, Akane went to get herself checked out to see if her condition had gotten any worse due to the extreme environments that they had found themselves in. Although it wasn’t the best of news, it was still good to hear that nothing had changed and that Akane was still the same as she had always been.

When one day in particular rolled around, Akane could barely bring herself to face Iroh and Zuko. Mainly because it was the third anniversary of Zuko’s banishment. That was truly the day that not only Akane’s, but all of their lives had changed. For three years they had been on an endless quest that only seemed to be getting even harder with the Avatar’s return. This was a day that Akane didn’t like remembering, since it left her with a memory that would forever scar her. Remembering Zuko getting burned was worse than remembering her own incident with Ozai, since she saw it happen in full view and had to deal with the repercussions a lot more severely.

The day didn’t seem to phase Iroh though, as he was more than happy to relax at the resort as he was currently lying on a table and getting a massage. On the other hand, Zuko sat down nearby with a straw hat covering his face as he gazed out the window. There was no doubt in Akane’s mind that he was thinking about the same thing that she was as she leaned against a nearby pillar, with an equally unhappy look like Zuko’s.

“This is what I’ve been missing. Who knew floating on a piece of driftwood for three weeks with no food or water and sea vultures waiting to pluck out your liver could make one so tense?” Iroh wondered out loud in complete bliss.

His attention then turned to Zuko, and he noticed the sombre look on his nephews face. Realising what day it was, Iroh got off from his massaging table and headed towards him to give him some comfort. Noticing this, Akane also walked off to join them.

“I see. It’s the anniversary, isn’t it?” Iroh stated.

“Three years ago today, I was banished. I lost it all,” Zuko said in a brooding tone as he looked up. “I want it back. I want the Avatar, I want my honour, my throne. I want my father not to think I’m worthless.”

Resisting the urge to say something against Ozai that Zuko wouldn’t appreciate, Akane simply watched as Zuko looked on regretfully. Why Zuko would want the love of somebody who burned and disowned him was something that Akane would never understand. It was clear to Akane that Ozai had never loved Zuko, yet that was something that Zuko could never seem to see for himself.

“I’m sure he doesn’t. Why would he banish you if he didn’t care?” Iroh suggested, causing Zuko to get up and walk away and for Akane to face palm. It didn’t take Iroh too long to realise his mistake as he turned to Akane, “Uh, that came out wrong, didn’t it?”

“What do you think?” Akane remarked as she followed Zuko, knowing that he would most likely need her comfort over Iroh’s.

When she reached Zuko, he was kneeling against the railing as he balled his fists up in what Akane assumed to be anger. Even though it felt like Zuko was angry at her now, Akane still felt sorry for him as she knew how much this was upsetting him. All of Zuko’s life he had strived to earn his fathers love, only to be treated like he was worthless. Dare she say it, Akane would go as far to say that Iroh was a better father than Ozai ever was, even after that comment. That comment was nothing compared to what Ozai had said and done to his son. At least Iroh’s intentions were good with that comment. Every hurtful thing that Ozai had ever said and done was intentional.

“You know he means well, right?” Akane asked.

Zuko sighed, “I know.”

“Try not to be so down. I mean, we could be in a worse situation,” Akane reasoned as she leaned against the railing.

“Like what?” Zuko snapped as he turned towards her.

“We could…” Akane trailed off as she tried to think of a response to that. “Still be floating on a piece of driftwood with sea vultures attacking us?”

“Do you… Do you really think that my father cares about me?” Zuko asked hesitantly.

Hesitation was also something that Akane felt as she debated how she should answer that question. Truthfully, Akane didn’t think that Ozai cared about Zuko, since he had never shown that towards his son. What kind of father banishes his son on an endless quest without a second thought? Obviously Ozai sent Zuko on the quest with the intention of him failing. But Akane knew that if she said that to Zuko it would only make him feel even worse, even if it was the truth.

“He probably does… deep down. He just might not know how to show it,” Akane replied.

“You don’t sound so reassuring,” Zuko stated.

“Truthfully, the only person who knows how Ozai feels towards you is Ozai. If it’s any consolation, if he really didn’t care about you he wouldn’t have even given you an option to return. At least capturing the Avatar gives you hope,” Akane tried to reason as believingly as she could.

“I guess you’re right. At least I have you and uncle,” Zuko replied.

Akane smiled, “That’s the spirit. Now lets go see if we can get some massages.”

Forcefully pulling Zuko away from the railing, Akane dragged Zuko back to the resort with the intention of trying to make him forget for even just a moment the horrible thing that his father had done to him. If there was one thing that Akane liked seeing, it was seeing Zuko happy and she would do anything to see him smile, especially on today of all days.

~*•°•*~

The following evening, Akane and Zuko sat inside the place where they were staying as Iroh happily walked inside with a bag over his shoulder. Any curiosity that Akane had was wiped away as Iroh emptied the bag, revealing several shells from the bag. While they didn’t interest Akane and Zuko in the slightest, they seemed to interest Iroh as he stood at the table, picking up and examining the different shells.

“Look at these magnificent shells!” Iroh exclaimed as he picked up his collectives. “I’ll enjoy these keepsakes for years to come.”

“We don’t need any more useless things! You forget, we have to carry everything ourselves now!” Zuko snapped as he stood up.

“We’re not in any condition to carry anything that we can’t afford to carry,” Akane agreed more calmly than Zuko.

A new voice came from the corner. A voice that Akane hadn’t heard in years and the same voice that always sent shivers down her spine. “Hello, brother.”

Turning around in shock, Akane was surprised to see Azula of all people calmly sitting at the table. You’d think that with Azula being Zuko’s sister that she and Akane would’ve gotten along, but that was far from the case. Just the sight of seeing Azula made Akane’s blood boil. How she had got there without them noticing, Akane had no idea. Then again, Azula had always been stealthy like that.

“Uncle,” Azula acknowledged Iroh before slightly glaring at Akane. “And… you.”

“I have a name,” Akane snarled.

“Must’ve slipped my mind. It has been a while since we’ve seen each other, after all,” Azula smirked.

“What are you doing here?” Zuko demanded angrily.

“In my country, we exchange a pleasant hello before asking questions,” Azula remarked as she held up a shell in her hand before rising from her seat and walking towards the trio. “Have you become uncivilised so soon, Zuzu?”

“Don’t call me that!” Zuko snapped angrily.

“Don’t let her get to you, Zuko,” Akane put her arm in front of Zuko.

“You’re still letting her fight your battles for you? I see things haven’t changed between you two,” Azula noted.

“To what do we owe this honour?” Iroh addressed Azula, clearly upset.

“Hmmm… must be a family trait. Both of you so quick to get to the point,” Azula stated as she broke the shell she was holding with her fingertips which left Iroh angry. “I’ve come with a message from home. Father’s changed his mind. Family is suddenly very important to him. He’s heard rumours of plans to overthrow him; treacherous plots. Family are the only ones you can really trust. Father regrets your banishment. He wants you home.”

If there was a pin to drop at that moment, it probably would’ve echoed throughout the room as the silence fell upon Azula’s announcement. Sharing a shocked glance with Iroh, Akane glanced at Zuko as she waited for his reaction to this… unexpected news. Of all the things for Azula to say to them, this certainly wasn’t what Akane was expecting.

“Did you here me? You should be happy. Excited. Grateful. I just gave you great news,” Azula insisted.

“I’m sure your brother simply needs a moment,” Iroh started.

“Don’t interrupt, Uncle!” Azula furiously interjected. “I still haven’t heard my thank you. I’m not a messenger. I didn’t have to come all this way.”

“Father regrets? He… wants me back?” Zuko trailed off in shock.

“I can see you need time to take this in. I’ll come to call on you tomorrow. Good evening,” Azula said surprisingly politely before exiting the room, leaving Zuko to ponder what had just been said.

Watching Azula as she left the room, Akane glared at the spot the princess had just been standing in as she too contemplated her words. Growing up with someone like Azula, you soon learn how to tell when they’re lying or telling the truth. And ninety-nine percent of the time, Azula always lied. Especially given the timing of Azula’s announcement, straight after their failure at the North Pole, Akane refused to believe that Ozai had suddenly changed his mind. He never came across as the type to change his mind.

It seemed as though Akane and Iroh were sharing the same thoughts as they nodded at each other before Zuko abruptly got up and left the room. For a moment, Akane considered going after him before deciding that this was something that she should discuss with Iroh.

“Do you believe it?” Akane queried, even though she already knew the answer.

Iroh shook his head, “My niece is an expert liar and manipulator. She knows how to manipulate Zuko’s emotions to her advantage, which I’m sure she has already done.”

Akane sighed, “It baffles me how Zuko always falls for Azula’s tricks. She’s been manipulating him before she even knew what that word meant!”

“It does make me wonder what her true intentions are for coming after us. While I do believe what she is saying isn’t the truth, Princess Azula has to have another reason for being her. I’m just not quite sure that that is,” Iroh thought out loud.

“Do you want to go back to the Fire Nation?” Akane asked.

“Any loyalties that I had to my place of birth was taken away the moment my brother scarred Zuko’s face and tossed him aside. I’d be quite happy to spend the rest of my life travelling, but if it’s what Zuko wants then I wouldn’t want him to go back alone,” Iroh admitted.

“It’s probably what he wants,” Akane grumbled, knowing how desperate Zuko was to return home.

Sure enough, Zuko returned a few minutes later with all of his belongings as he started packing. As he did so, Akane quickly noticed how happy Zuko looked. It was the happiest that she had seen him in ages. But knowing that his happiness was a result of his feelings being manipulated didn’t make Akane happy for him at all. It only made her sadder.

“We’re going home! After three long years, it’s unbelievable!” Zuko exclaimed as he packed his things.

“It is unbelievable. I have never known my brother to regret anything,” Iroh commented as he stared out the window thoughtfully.

“Did you listen to Azula? Father’s realised how important family is to him!” Zuko insisted irritatingly. “He cares about me!”

“Whatever happened to Azula always lies?” Akane snapped, repeating Zuko’s mantra that he had drilled into himself since he was a kid.

Iroh turned to face Zuko and held his arms out in gesture, “I care about you! And if Ozai wants you back, well, I think it may not be for the reasons you imagine.”

Zuko turned his back to Iroh, “You don’t know how my father feels about me. You don’t know anything!”

“Just like you don’t,” Akane pointed out.

“Zuko, I only meant that in our family, things are not always what they seem,” Iroh tried to reason with his nephew, but it only seemed to make him even more angrier.

Zuko turned back to Iroh, “I think you are exactly what you seem! A lazy, mistrustful, shallow old man who’s always been jealous of his brother!”

Before Akane could even argue with Zuko, he stormed out of the room leaving Iroh sadly looking on. Any restraint that Akane had on the anger that was building up on Zuko was broken the moment he said those cruel words to Iroh, since they were far from the truth.

“How dare he! I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!” Akane angrily exclaimed as she headed off to follow Zuko.

“Akane, do not push any further,” Iroh warned.

“He needs to hear this!” Akane yelled.

Finding Zuko nearby, Akane prepared herself for what was no doubt about to turn into a screaming match with the two of them on opposing sides. It was rare for Akane and Zuko to disagree like this, but they only did on serious matters like this.

“Hey!” Akane shouted, getting Zuko’s attention.

“What?” Zuko snapped.

“How could you say that to Iroh, the one person who’s been there for you since the beginning and has supported you through thick and thin despite how badly you treat him sometimes?” Akane demanded, with her hands on her hips.

“What would you know?” Zuko snarled.

“What would I know?” Akane repeated sarcastically. “I know everything! I know that you are nothing but a spoilt prince who only cares about his fathers love when his father doesn’t even love him! The two people who love you the most are standing right here yet you continue to treat us like we mean nothing to you!”

“That’s how you act!” Zuko exclaimed.

“What? How have I acted to give you that impression?” Akane asked.

“I don’t know, maybe every time you’ve interfered with my mission in capturing the Avatar. Every time something goes wrong, you’re always there! It’s almost like you do this on purpose, even though you know how much it means to me,” Zuko explained.

“Even if that was my intention, I’d certainly be doing you a favour. You don’t know how much it kills me to see you refer to Ozai with such admiration when he’s the same monster who did that to your face!” Akane yelled as she pointed at Zuko’s scar.

“It’s what I deserved and it’s only made me stronger,” Zuko stated as he glared at Akane. “You, on the other hand, are just a weak, spineless little girl who needs to rely on others to help her. You’d waste away on your own!”

“I’d rather be on my own than around you right now!” Akane exclaimed.

“Then I guess that answers my question if you’re coming back or not,” Zuko crossed his arms.

“I guess it does,” Akane turned to walk away before adding something else. “Just remember this the next time you mess up in front of Ozai and he does the same to you. Because when that happens I won’t be there to support you.”

Tearing up, Akane stormed away as she wiped away one of the tears that was beginning to fall down her face. That was probably the biggest argument that she and Zuko had ever had, despite it being so quick. It had left her feeling angry, betrayed and hurt all at once. This wasn’t how Zuko was supposed to make her feel. He was her best friend. But Akane now figured that was is exactly what he was, since he had crushed that title on his own.

Not wanting to be around anyone anymore, Akane walked to her room and started packing her stuff for tomorrow, knowing that she couldn’t stay here any longer. But unlike Zuko, Akane had a different destination in mind.

~*•°•*~

Despite much convincing from Iroh’s part, Akane had decided to go off on her own the next day. After her argument with Zuko, Akane didn’t think that she could ever be around him the same after what they had said to each other. So when morning came around, Akane said goodbye to Iroh as she thanked him for helping her throughout her life before wishing him good luck with Zuko and heading off on her own.

This was truly the first time that Akane was acting independently and on her own. Every decision that she had made up until now had been for Zuko’s benefit, but this one certainly wasn’t. And she wasn’t going to lie, it felt good to do something on her own terms without worrying about anyone but herself.

Although Akane had told herself multiple times not to think about him, she couldn’t help but wonder what Zuko was up to right now. He was probably on board a luxury Fire Nation ship and heading towards his old home. Maybe even with Iroh as well if he had let him. When Azula found out that Akane wasn’t joining them, Akane figured that she was probably psyched at the idea, since the two of them had never gotten along. Now Akane had a new reason to hate Azula, since she had been able to turn Zuko against her without even actually doing it.

“Maybe this is what I need. Some time to myself so I can figure out what exactly it is what I want to do,” Akane murmured to herself.

Being by herself would definitely challenge her in a new way, as she’d be forced to grow and adapt faster than she ever had before. It would be even more challenging in her condition, but Akane was determined to make it through this new journey in her life and to make the most of every moment. That was one thing that she could never do with Zuko, since she was always constantly worrying about what was coming next. This would truly give her the opportunity to live every moment to its fullest, especially since her time was running out.

Unfortunately for Akane, her moments of solitude didn’t last long as she soon found herself being followed. Acting on instincts, Akane prepared herself to square off against anyone who tried to get in her way. But Akane wouldn’t have to fight on her own as she was instead confronted with the two people that she didn’t think she’d see again so soon. Iroh and Zuko.

Standing there in complete silence, Akane wondered how on earth they had gotten out this far and why, since as far as she was aware they had gone to Azula’s ship. Upon further inspection, Akane noticed that both Iroh and Zuko had their topknots cut off, which was unusual for the both of them. Looking closely at Zuko, Akane noticed a rare look on his face. Regret.

“Why are you here?” Akane asked.

“It was a trap. Princess Azula wanted us to go home with her, but we were to be taken as prisoners,” Iroh explained.

“Oh,” Akane murmured.

“Now we’re enemies of the Fire Nation, just like we’re enemies of the Earth Kingdom. So we are truly on our own now,” Iroh stated.

“I guess that explains the lack of topknots,” Akane observed.

“We thought it would be best to give us a new identity, since there will no doubt be a warrant out for our capture,” Iroh said.

“So, what now?” Akane wondered.

“Would you be willing to travel with us again?” Iroh asked, glancing between Akane and Zuko.

Akane sighed, “I guess since we’re all each other has.”

Iroh smiled softly, “That’s great. We are going to need each other more than we ever have before since it is only going to get harder from here on out. Let’s get moving.”

In the span of a few moments, Akane’s plan had entirely changed. Now it looked like she was back to travelling with Iroh and Zuko, but Akane knew that it would be nowhere near the same like it used to be. Walking quietly behind Iroh, Akane and Zuko avoided each other’s gaze at first before they could no longer bare the quiet.

“I’m really sorry,” Zuko apologised.

“Me too,” Akane admitted. “We both said some really horrible things that can’t be undone, but at least we can see that it was wrong to say those things.”

“No, what I said was worst. You were right in saying that I haven’t treated you and uncle the way that I should. I’m just ashamed that it took almost getting killed by my sister to realise that,” Zuko sighed.

“Did she really almost kill you?” Akane asked, feeling her anger at Azula returning.

“Yeah, but uncle managed to get in between us in time to stop her,” Zuko replied. “Oh, and get this. Azula can generate lightning now.”

“Great, just what we need. A lightning generator on our tails,” Akane grumbled, knowing that it would be harder than ever to face Azula. Even with their short conversation, Akane could tell that Azula had grown a lot in the time that they’d been away.

“We can take her. If we have to, we’ll do it together,” Zuko said.

Akane smiled, “We will.”

“You’re going to have to change something about your appearance though, so that we’re not so recognisable,” Zuko suggested.

Akane thought for a moment, “Do you still have that knife?”

Zuko nodded, “Here.”

Taking the knife form his hands, Akane glanced down at the inscription that read never give up without a fight and knew that they’d need those words now more than ever. With slight hesitation, Akane sliced the knife through her hair and in several chops, her hair was falling on the ground. Now, her hair wasn’t long anymore as it rested above her shoulders in a length that it hadn’t been at for years.

Handing the knife back to Zuko, Akane couldn’t help but think how she had intended for a new beginning, yet in a way that is exactly what she got by cutting off her hair and leaving it behind. There was no doubt that their new beginning was going to be a rocky one, but after what they had handled so far, Akane knew that she and Zuko would be able to get through it together.

Chapter Text

Life as a fugitive was not what Akane had expected it to be. But in all honesty, Akane had no idea what this life would be like for her. Going into it, Akane knew that it would be nothing like the luxurious life that they had lived the past three years. They were now enemies of the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom and were left completely on their own with nobody to help them. It was especially hard having to deal with Zuko after their argument about Azula.

Despite them both apologising to each other with sincerity, the wounds from their words still hurt and their friendship had been on thin ice ever since. It was almost as if they were equally afraid to say something that would hurt the other person, and that was something that they had never had a problem with before. In the span of a few weeks, their friendship had drastically changed to a point that Akane didn’t like. They were supposed to be best friends, yet now it was almost as if they were strangers.

Their new lives as fugitives was something that Akane had coped remarkably well with. Mostly because she had already felt like a fugitive to the Fire Nation, yet now it was official. Shortly after reuniting with Iroh and Zuko, the trio had come across their official wanted posters which portrayed their likeness exactly accurate. Now they didn’t have the luxury of using the Fire Nation card to get what they wanted, since exposing themselves would either get them captured or killed.

Unlike Akane, Zuko was hardly coping with his new status as a fugitive. There hadn’t been a day that passed where Zuko didn’t complain about their situation, and it made Akane to want to snap some sense into him that not everything was going to go their way. The trio were currently hiding in a forest, while Akane and Zuko tried to scavenge for food and Iroh took in the scenery.

“I didn’t find anything to eat! I can’t live like this! I can’t live like this! I wasn’t meant to be a fugitive,” Zuko complained as he emerged from the bushes, with his hair now the shortest that Akane had seen it in years. “This is impossible!” Zuko yelled at the sky as he raised his fists in the air.

“Here we go again,” Akane muttered as she rolled her eyes, not in the mood to deal with Zuko’s complaining again. Out of the corner of her eyes, Akane spotted Iroh staring in awe at a red and white flower, which seemed to catch Zuko’s attention as well.

“Uncle, what are you doing?” Zuko asked.

“You’re looking at the rare white dragon bush. Its leaves make a tea so delicious, it’s heartbreaking,” Iroh doted over the flower. “That, or it’s the white jade, which is poisonous.”

“We need food, not tea. I’m going fishing,” Zuko said before walking away.

“Hmm… delectable tea?” Iroh wondered dreamily before changing his voice to one of suspicion. “Or deadly poison.”

“Try not to take any stupid risks, Iroh. We are fugitives, remember? It’s not like we have a first aid team on standby if that plant is poisonous,” Akane warned before heading off after Zuko, believing that Iroh wouldn’t be stupid enough to put himself at risk because of a flower.

Although their friendship had been awkward as of recently, Akane didn’t want to let this be what ruined her friendship with Zuko since after all, it was the most important thing in her life. Without Zuko around, Akane didn’t know what she’d do. When she caught up with him, Zuko was too busy trying to fish that had didn’t notice her standing there. Keyword: trying.

“Damnit,” Zuko grumbled as one of the fishes stole his bait.

“Maybe you should try tightly securing the bait so the fishes can’t steal it,” Akane suggested, which noticeably caught Zuko off guard as he spun around in alarm.

“Akane! Don’t sneak up on me like that,” Zuko snapped.

Akane shrugged, “I had to see if you needed my help first.”

Zuko shook his head, “You should be back with Uncle.”

“Why should I?” Akane crossed her arms.

“We both know how uncle can be when it comes to tea. And you also know just as well why you shouldn’t be doing vigorous activity like this. We can’t afford to have you hurting yourself even more. Especially now that we don’t have anything to help you,”  Zuko replied.

“It’s just fishing, Buster. It’s not like I’m getting into a fight or anything. And Iroh is the wisest person that I know. I highly doubt that he would risk his life over a stupid tea,” Akane dismissed his concerns.

“Akane, don’t make me order you to go back to Uncle,” Zuko warned.

“What authority do you have over me, Buster?” Akane asked.

“I’m the Prince of the Fire Nation,” Zuko proclaimed.

“Not anymore,” Akane argued, since his wanted poster had made it clear that Zuko wasn’t to be respected with his title.

“I’m older than you,” Zuko stated.

Akane scoffed, “You certainly don’t act like it.”

Zuko sighed in resignation, “If you’re going to make that big of a deal out of it then fine, you can help.”

“Great. I’ll help you find some better bait,” Akane said as she went off to do her part.

They continued fishing for about half an hour, still having as much luck as they had so far, with that luck being nothing. With every fish that they missed, the more agitated Zuko got. Even though it was clearly frustrating him, Akane had to admit that it was highly amusing to watch Zuko fumble like he was.

If there was one thing that Akane had learned from that experience was that neither she or Zuko were expert fishermen. Although Akane almost changed her mind on that statement when it seemed like Zuko managed to catch something on his bait, only for it to be the tiniest little fish that Akane had ever seen before in her life.

“Wow, that’s really tiny,” Akane giggled.

“It’s better than nothing,” Zuko grumbled.

“Like we’re totally going to get a proper meal out of that thing. There’s barely any meat in it,” Akane argued.

“Let’s just go back to Uncle. Maybe he’s had better luck in the food department,” Zuko suggested.

Nodding in agreement, Akane followed Zuko back to their spot with Iroh. Upon arriving back in the forest, Zuko made it seem like they’d been hard at work when all they had to show for it was just a tiny fish that flapped about helplessly on the branch that was used for a fishing pole. When they spotted Iroh, he was hunched over with his back turned towards them.

“Zuko, remember that plant I thought might be tea?” Iroh asked.

“Please tell us…” Akane trailed off in shock.

“You didn’t,” Zuko finished in equal shock.

“I did...” Iroh turned around, revealing himself to be swollen and covered in red marks. “And it wasn’t.”

“Ahh!” Zuko yelled as he dropped the branch out of shock.

Akane did a facepalm, “Iroh! I told you to forget about the stupid plant!”

“When the rash spreads to my throat, I will stop breathing,” Iroh said surprisingly calmly before his voice changed to one of excitement as he held out a branch of berries. “But look what I found. These are bacui berries, known to cure the poison of the white jade,” Iroh revealed before speaking unenthusiastically. “That, or maka’ole berries that cause blindness.”

Zuko grabbed the branch of berries and hurled it into the bushes, “We’re not taking any more chances with these plants! We need help.”

“And where are we going to find that?” Akane asked.

“She’s right,” Iroh agreed as he knelt down and scratched his rash vigorously. “We’re enemies of the Earth Kingdom and fugitives from the Fire Nation.”

“If the Earth Kingdom discovers us, they’ll have us killed,” Zuko started.

Iroh rose to his feet as he continued, “But if the Fire Nation discovers us, we’ll be turned over to Azula.”

“Well, I think that settles it then,” Akane stated, knowing what option she preferred without even considering it.

Zuko nodded as he looked at Iroh, “Earth Kingdom it is.”

With their decision made, the trio headed off to find a way out of the forest so that they could hopefully find some help in the Earth Kingdom. While neither option out of the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation sounded nice, Akane would much rather face her death at the hands of the Earth Kingdom instead of Azula.

~*•°•*~

Luckily for the trio, it didn’t take them too long to find a nearby village with a small hospital in it that was willing to treat Iroh. It was also handy that they were able to give Akane a few herbs and medicine to help ease her condition. The whole time Akane and Zuko just ignored each other as they blamed the other for them being in this situation.

Looking around, Akane could see that this was a pretty good place for them to seek help as it didn’t look like there as any trouble nearby. Nearby, one doctor was treating a man with what appeared to be a cupping treatment, which made the man grit his teeth in pan. While Akane and Zuko blamed each other for Iroh’s condition, Iroh was getting treated by a young girl who couldn’t have been any older than they were.

“You three must not be from around here. We know better than to touch the White Jade, much less make it into tea and drink it,” the girl scolded Iroh and flicked his hand away as he tried to scratch his rash.

“Whoops!” Iroh exclaimed in an even worse condition than before with the rash having spread to his face and his cheeks swollen.

“So where are you travelling from?” the girl asked.

“Yes, we’re travellers,” Zuko nervously replied as he rose from his seat.

“Do you have names?” the girl inquired.

“Names? Of course we have names,” Zuko answered as he tried finding believable names for them. “I’m, uh… Li. This is our friend... err, Nene and my Uncle, uh… Mushi?”

Akane cringed at the names he had given them, while Iroh shot him an angry look, “Yes, my nephew was named after his father, so we just call him Junior.”

At that, Iroh leaned over to give Zuko a pleased smile while Zuko glared at him and move his finger across his neck to say he’s dead meat, but abruptly came to a halt and put his hands behind his back when the girl turned to look at him and Akane.

“Nene’s an embarrassing childhood nickname,” Akane quickly recovered before giving a far more suitable name. “It’s short for Naoki.”

“Mushi, Junior and Naoki, huh? My name is Song. You three look like you could use a good meal,” Song said before slapping Iroh’s hand away when he went to scratch at his rash.

“Sorry, but we need to be moving on,” Zuko denied the offer as he looked away.

“That’s too bad,” Song gave an innocent smile as she screwed the cap back on the lid she was holding. “My mom always makes too much roast duck.”

“Where do you live exactly?” Iroh asked excitedly.

“What Mushi means to say is that we would love to join you for dinner,” Akane accepted Song’s offer in a more polite way.

“That’s wonderful. I’ll take you to my house once I’m finished here,” Song said before heading out of the room.

“What?” Akane asked as Zuko gave her a glare. “She’s offering us free food and don’t even deny that we need it.”

“Like I said, we need to be moving on. We can’t risk staying here too long and exposing ourselves,” Zuko hissed.

Akane rolled her eyes, “Oh yeah, like I’m sure we have a reason to be afraid of Song with a name like hers.”

“Names can be deceiving,” Zuko argued.

“Like Mushi, Nene and Li?” Akane crossed her arms.

Zuko blushed as he scratched his neck, “I was under pressure!”

“I could’ve given us better names,” Akane muttered.

“When you two are done arguing, could you give me a hand over here?” Iroh interjected.

Glancing at each other, Akane and Zuko nodded as they went over to help Iroh while Song was gone. The rashes had seemed to go down, but Iroh was still trying to scratch them when lead to a whole lot of swatting in order to get him to stop. This was what they got for leaving him alone with a plant he thought was tea, since Iroh had clearly shown he valued tea more than his life.

~*•°•*~

By the time night arrived, the three of them had arrived at Song’s house where her mother had prepared a large spread of food for them. Just look at it had Akane’s stomach watering, as it was the best meal that she had in ages. Upon eagerly sitting down, Akane started to politely shove as much food down her mouth as she could while Song introduced them to her mother.

“My daughter tells me you’re refugees. We were once refugees ourselves,” the woman stated as she set down a platter of roast duck and took a seat.

“When I was a little girl, the Fire Nation raided our farming village. All the men were taken away. That was the last time I saw my father,” Song revealed, which earned a sympathetic look from Akane.

“I have never known my father. I’ve been with Ir-Mushi and Junior for as long as I can remember,” Akane said.

“I haven’t seen my father in many years,” Zuko admitted, which surprised Akane.

“Oh, is he fighting in the War?” Song asked sorrowfully.

Zuko hesitated as Iroh slurped up a bowl of noodles before he gave his answer and looked down in dismay, “Yeah.”

Song’s mother sighed, “It’s a shame what the War has done to so many families. I can’t imagine the amount of people that must be in misery like we are.”

That seemed to be enough for Zuko as he barely excused himself from the table and exited the room. For a moment, Akane considered going after him but Song beat her to it as she volunteered to see if he was okay. Akane wasn’t sure what it was, but something inside of her just didn’t sit right with Song checking on Zuko when she barely knew him. If anyone should be looking out for him, it should be Akane, not Song.

“I need some fresh air,” Akane declared as she got up from her seat and carefully slipped outside.

After looking around for Zuko, she noticed him sitting on Song’s front porch as Song went to join him. Despite wanting to walk right up to them now, Akane chose to stand back and listen to their conversation instead. Normally, she’d feel guilty about spying on people but in this scenario she didn’t care whatsoever.

“…The Fire Nation has hurt you,” Song observed, glancing at Zuko’s scar. What she did next surprised Akane as she reached her hand out to touch it, which sent a rare feeling of rage go up inside of Akane. Before Akane could react, Zuko pushed her hand away.

“It’s okay. They’ve hurt me, too,” Song admitted compassionately before pulling up her pants leg to reveal burn scars on her leg. That earned a surprised look from Zuko, and one with even more rage from Akane.

Instead of feeling sympathy for Song like she normally would’ve, Akane only felt anger at the girl for pushing Zuko’s boundaries like that. Who did she think she was to just try and touch his scar? Not even Akane was allowed to touch Zuko’s scar when she’d known him all his life. You just don’t intrude on someone’s personal space when you’ve barely met them. And Song showing Zuko her scarred leg only added more to Akane’s resentment that was building inside of her.

One thing that Akane always believed was that you never shared personal secrets like that with someone you’ve just met when you don’t even know a thing about them, just like Song didn’t know anything about Akane and Zuko. So for her to just act like she understood their pain and suffering really irritated Akane since Song knew nothing about the hardships that they had faced.

So when Zuko got up and excused himself to leave, Akane prepared herself for what she was about to do and headed towards Song, ready to give the girl a piece of her mind.

“Hello,” Song greeted Akane as she approached her. “I didn’t realise that you were there.”

“Listen, I’m sure that you’re a nice girl and everything, but you don’t have the right to go around acting like you know what we’ve been through when the fact of the matter is that you know nothing. You don’t know anything about Li and I and what we’ve had to go through so don’t think that you can understand because you don’t. You might have won him around with your sob story but it didn’t work on me because there are thousands of people out there just like you so don’t go thinking that you’re any special,” Akane ranted.

“That wasn’t what I was trying to…” Song trailed off.

“And you had no right to try and touch his scar when that is a very personal matter for him. And after seeing your scars I would’ve thought that you’d know better than to push someone’s boundaries especially when you don’t even know them,” Akane snapped.

With that, Akane turned back around and headed back into Song’s house, without even feeling the slightest bit guilty for what she had said. While Iroh continued to engulf himself in the food, Akane searched for Zuko to find him sitting out behind the house. The look on his face was one that Akane couldn’t quite register but nevertheless, she sat down next to him on the bench that he was sitting on.

“I’m sorry about what Song did,” Akane apologised, despite feeling as though it was Song who should be apologising. “She had no right to try and touch your scar like that.”

“It’s okay. She wouldn’t be the first to try and touch it anyways,” Zuko sighed.

“But still, it was wrong of her to do so. You should never invade someone’s personal space, especially when its sensitive to them,” Akane said.

“You know, listening to Song talk about her father made me think about mine,” Zuko admitted, which caught Akane by surprise.

“What’s there to think about?” Akane grumbled, not wanting to spew her hatred for Ozai right in front of Zuko.

“Do you think father will ever let me come home?” Zuko asked.

“Only if you can capture the Avatar,” Akane replied.

“Do you think that he thinks about me?” Zuko questioned.

Akane shrugged, “He had to if he sent Azula to bring you back, so that’s gotta count for something.”

“You’re not really helping, Akane,” Zuko sighed as he wistfully looked up in the sky. “I just want to go home.”

Putting her arm around Zuko, Akane leaned her head against his shoulder to give him the comfort that he needed. Hearing Zuko talk about his home made Akane wonder about her home. Not the home that she had grown up with, but the real home where she belonged. The home that she never knew. But those thoughts were interrupted when Akane felt someone looking at her and Zuko so she turned around to see Song peering through the window. Narrowing her eyes, Akane gave her a look that basically told her to get lost.

Clearly, Song couldn’t take a hint since she seemed to enjoy getting into people’s business and eavesdropping on strangers conversations. Akane no longer felt like staying at this place that she didn’t feel comfortable staying in with Song snooping around.

“Come on, we should get going,” Akane suggested as she pulled Zuko up to leave, ready to move on to the next part of their journey.

~*•°•*~

Getting Zuko to agree to leave had been easier than it was to get Iroh to leave, since he had become too engrossed with the food that Song’s mother had made them. Despite her initial interest in the food, Akane didn’t really feel like taking anymore of it given how she felt towards Song. Although as they were getting ready to leave, Akane noticed Song giving her an apologetic look and started to think that maybe she had been unnecessarily rude to the girl who was just trying to be nice to them.

Dozens of fireflies flew in the air as Akane and Zuko prepared to depart Song’s house. It was ironic how the fireflies were desperate to find light off of Song’s house, just like the three of them had sought food from them. In a way, Akane found that they were a lot like the fireflies, trying to find something to give them what they needed to move on.

“Thank you for the duck. It was excellent,” Iroh showed his gratitude as he took an extra meal from Song’s mother.

“You’re welcome. It brings me pleasure to see someone eat my cooking with such… gusto,” Song’s mother replied.

“Much practice,” Iroh patted his stomach in a contented manner as Akane and Zuko turned to leave. “Junior, Naoki, where are your manners? You need to thank these nice people.”

Both Akane and Zuko turned and bowed out of respect as Zuko spoke, “Thank you.”

“I know you don’t think there’s any hope left in the world, but there is hope,” Song called out to them. “The Avatar has returned.”

“I know,” Zuko muttered bitterly and Akane couldn’t help but cringe in the irony of Song’s words.

They started to leave Song’s house, but were stopped when Zuko noticed an ostrich horse. Quietly, he walked over to the animal, unfastened it from its post and lead it away. When Akane and Iroh noticed that Zuko had disappeared, they saw him riding the ostrich horse.

“What are you doing?” Iroh asked. “These people just showed you great kindness.”

“I agree, this is wrong,” Akane added, feeling as though they had already taken enough from Song and her mother.

“They’re about to show us a little more kindness,” Zuko replied as he offered his hand to them. “Well?”

Disappointed and reluctant, Iroh mounted the ostrich horse before he and Zuko helped Akane get aboard as well. They then road away in the darkness, while unknowingly being watched by a sad girl who let them go.

Chapter Text

With every day that passed, Akane could feel the distance between her and Zuko growing. Although they still talked to each other and there was no real animosity between them, it was still awkward being around him at times. This was because Zuko seemed to be pulling himself away from Akane, no matter how hard she tried to keep him close to her. It seemed as though their days as fugitives was having an obvious effect on Zuko as he became more withdrawn than Akane had seen him, which upset her knowing how down he was.

Ever since the situation with Iroh and the White Jade, they had been a lot more careful in regards to what they ate or drink. Due to the fact that they were wanted criminals, there were only so many places that they could go without being recognised. Luckily for them, nobody had seemed to recognise them despite having the most recognisable faces of the Fire Nation. People had just assumed that they were travellers who had been hurt, given Zuko’s scar and Akane’s obvious injuries.

Since they were refugees, finding food and supplies was difficult for the trio but they had managed so far. Although Akane and Iroh had somewhat managed with their new situation, Zuko was still being as defiant as ever which certainly made things difficult at times. They had currently found themselves in a small Earth Kingdom town and luckily for them, there didn’t appear to be any wanted posters of them hanging around which made it a little easy to roam around.

It was hard for them to get around from town to town since they had so little money, which meant that they often resorted to begging to get by. While Akane and Iroh were able to use their words to get money, Zuko always just sat there and complained about how humiliating it was to be begging like peasants.

“Why can’t we go out there and actually provide for ourselves instead of begging like peasants?” Zuko grumbled as they sat in a public spot while asking for money.

“It’s not begging, it’s asking,” Iroh reasoned before preparing to ‘ask’ a woman for money as she passed them. “I hate to bother you, miss, but myself, my nephew and our friend are a little short on money. If you would be kind enough to give us some spare change it would be much appreciated.”

“Well, I was going use this to get new shoes, but I guess you three need it more,” the woman conceded as she gave Iroh a gold piece.

“Thank you, miss. Your kindness is appreciated much like your beauty,” Iroh thanked her.

The woman blushed, “Thank you. Take care.”

“See, asking?” Iroh stated once the woman had passed.

“You have such a way with words, Iroh,” Akane giggled.

“Years of experience,” Iroh smiled.

“You two are impossible,” Zuko growled.

“As much as I hate to agree with his attitude, Zuko is right. Begging for money will only get us so far,” Akane stated.

“Akane’s right,” Zuko agreed, ignoring the dig at him. “We can’t just sit around and wait for people to help us. We shouldn’t even have to ask for their help in the first place, but they won’t give it to us now.”

“Then what should we do?” Iroh asked.

“We should try getting a job. If we got some income on our own, we’d be much better off than we would be begging for money,” Akane suggested.

“But how can we get a job as refugees?” Zuko asked.

Akane shrugged, “I’m sure we could find some work somewhere. So, while you two try and think of a better idea I’m going to try and find myself a job.”

“Be careful!” Zuko called out to her as she walked away.

“I will,” Akane reassured them.

Although it had only been two words, it still made Akane smile knowing that Zuko still cared about her since she found herself doubting that recently. It wasn’t that they were fighting, Zuko was just being distant towards Akane and it made her wonder if it had been something that she had done or if it was just because of how things had changed for them. Putting her thoughts on Zuko aside, Akane remained focused on her task at hand, which was finding a job so she could support herself.

Even though Akane knew it would only be temporary since any stay they had in a town was short, she still wanted to prove that she could provide without any help. Since the explosion and finding out about her condition, Iroh and Zuko had almost been treating her like she was helpless, which irritated Akane to no end. That was part of the reason why Akane had headed off in search of a job, since if she could find one then Iroh and Zuko had no excuses to not treat her like an equal.

There weren’t that many places around that looked like they would be suitable for Akane or that would even hire her, since most of the available jobs seemed to be for noblemen, and Akane was far from being a noble. At least, in the Earth Kingdom that was. Eventually, Akane managed to find a small pub on the outskirts of the town that appeared to be looking for hire, and it seemed as though they wanted anyone to start right away.

Eager to find a job, Akane opened the door and walked inside, figuring that anything they could have for her to do couldn’t be that bad. But when Akane saw what was inside the bar, she wished she hadn’t stepped inside. Only because Akane was quick to realise just what kind of bar it was, and it certainly wasn’t any bar that she’d fancy visiting on her own accord. Before Akane could make an exit, her entrance seemed to snag the attention of the owner.

“Hey, miss. What brings you in here?” the bar owner addressed her.

“Um, I saw you were hiring but I’m not really interested in this job, sorry,” Akane said, trying to find a way out of this.

“You’re interested in working? Fantastic! You can start right now if you want to, we’re a little short on staff,” the bar owner offered.

“No thank you, I’m only in town for a few days and looking for small work. You wouldn’t want me to work for you,” Akane reasoned.

“Nonsense! Any help would be appreciated and we’ll be sure to pay you for your troubles,” the bar owner insisted.

Akane sighed, “How much money are we talking about?”

“Ten silver pieces for each hour. You get to keep any tips that you make,” the bar owner replied.

Doing the math, Akane realised that by doing this work long enough she could make up to one hundred silver pieces per day. An opportunity like that was too good to pass up and since it didn’t look like she was going to find any other work in given time, Akane decided to give it a try.

“Okay, I’ll work,” Akane conceded.

“Excellent! You can start right now,” the bar owner exclaimed.

“What do I have to do?” Akane asked warily, hoping that her work wouldn’t involve her doing any of the unappealing tasks.

“You can either be a cleaner, performer or waitress,” the bar owner replied.

“I’ll take the waitress job,” Akane nodded.

“Alright, then. I’ll come check up on you in a few hours to see how you’re doing,” the bar owner said before handing Akane an apron and disappearing out back.

With a sigh, Akane put the apron around her neck before heading over to the counter to do some work. Her mind briefly drifted to Iroh and Zuko, and she knew that they would soon start worrying about her if she didn’t return soon. But knowing they needed money more than they needed her was enough to convince her to stay.

Luckily for Akane, the job hadn’t been quite as bad as she thought it would be since all she was doing was taking a few orders and bringing people their food. Even though it wasn’t the best work, it still made Akane feel as though she was doing something worthwhile, and it felt good to be useful again.

~*•°•*~

Later that night when Akane had finished her work, she headed back to the cave where she had been hiding out with Iroh and Zuko. When Akane made her presence known, Zuko’s head instantly whipped towards her before he let out a sigh of relief upon recognising her.

“Where have you been! We’ve been looking for you all day!” Zuko exclaimed.

“Calm down, I’m fine. See? No bruises or scars or anything else,” Akane reassured them.

“What happened?” Iroh asked.

“I found a job. Here’s what I earned,” Akane replied as she handed them a sack with a total of eighty-five silver pieces.

“Wow, that’s a lot of money,” Zuko observed.

“Seventy silver pieces, to be exact,” Akane said.

“How did you get so much?” Iroh inquired.

“The job I took paid ten pieces per hour, so I worked seven hours and got seventy. I even got a few tips as well,” Akane answered.

“What kind of ‘work’ are you doing?” Zuko demanded.

“I’m working at a brothel,” Akane replied with a grimace, knowing that it was going to earn some outrage from Iroh and Zuko.

“You’re what!” Zuko exclaimed.

“Calm down, it’s not like I’m doing anything bad. I’m just working as a waitress,” Akane reassured him.

“Are you sure that it is a safe job for you, Akane?” Iroh asked.

“I can handle it, Iroh. I’m not helpless, you know,” Akane tutted.

“We never said you were,” Iroh stated.

“But you’ve treated me like it,” Akane snapped. “For the past few months both of you have been acting like I’m some fragile piece of glass that you can’t afford to drop which I’m not. You don’t have to worry about me since I can take perfectly good care of myself.”

“We’re sorry if we made you feel that way, Akane. But we’re just looking out for you,” Iroh reasoned.

Akane sighed, “I understand but I’m not useless. I can provide, which I’ve proven today. Just let me keep working as I please and if things become too much I’ll stop.”

Iroh nodded, “If you’re sure.”

“But don’t get too comfortable at that job, since we won’t be staying here for long,” Zuko said.

“Trust me, I don’t plan on getting comfortable,” Akane muttered, since the last thing she wanted to do was rely on a job with low income to get by.

With that out of the way, Akane sat down with Iroh and Zuko as they discussed their future plans, since they all knew that staying in one place for too long was far too risky with Azula out there searching for them. It had been decided that they would stay here for at least another week so Akane could get some more money while Iroh and Zuko tried asking for some.

The whole time, Akane noticed how Zuko was hardly paying attention to their discussion as he stared off in the distance. It was clear that Zuko wasn’t exactly happy with their situation, so Akane assumed that that was what he was thinking about, and that he would tell her in time once she forced it out of him.

~*•°•*~

A few days later when Akane was on break from work, she sat on straw mats with Iroh and Zuko with their stolen ostrich horse lying behind them. This was one of the many places where the trio had gone to so they could beg for money, since it was in one of the more public areas. At one point, Akane saw a cart with masks for sale passing by in front of them. One of the masks in particular caught her attention, as it belonged to the Blue Spirit, which she now knew was Zuko.

The cart didn’t seem to phase Zuko as he just sat where he was sitting with a pout on his face. As the cart passed, another pedestrian walked in front of Iroh, who held out his hat to the pedestrian and began to talk to them.

“Spare coins for wear travellers?” Iroh asked somewhat enthusiastically, which made Akane roll her eyes at how happy he seemed at their situation. Even though Akane had accepted it, she was by no means happy with what they were going through.

The pedestrian tosses a couple of copper pieces into Iroh’s hat as Zuko turned to Iroh in anger, although Akane’s look was more of annoyance.

“This is humiliating!” Zuko exclaimed angrily with his arms folded. “We’re royalty! These people should be giving us whatever we want!”

“Do you want people to know that we’re Fire Nation and lock us up for it?” Akane hissed as she elbowed Zuko in the ribs.

“They will, if you ask nicely,” Iroh said with disregard of Akane’s comment as a peasant woman strolled past. “Spare change for a hungry old man?” Iroh asked somewhat dramatically.

“Aw, here you go,” the peasant girl conceded as she withdrew a coin from her sleeve and gave it to Iroh.

“The coin is appreciated, but not as much as your smile!” Iroh exclaimed.

Zuko slapped his forehead in frustration as the young girl giggled lightly and walked away. As soon as she walked away, a man with dual broadswords on his back wandered up to the three of them.

“How about some entertainment in exchange for…” the man trailed off with a smile before pulling out a gold piece from his pocket with a flourish. “A gold piece.”

“We’re not performers,” Zuko snapped.

“Not professional anyway,” Iroh dismissed as he stood up.

“Iroh, don’t,” Akane murmured, knowing that he would most likely end up humiliating them and bring unwanted attention towards them.

Iroh ignored Akane as he put his hat down and stood up, swaying slightly as he began to sing, “It’s a long, long way to Ba Sing Se, but the girls in the city, they look so pretty!”

“Come on, we’re talking a gold piece here!” the man exclaimed, clearly annoyed with the quality of the entertainment. Zuko sharply glanced up at him as he withdrew his words, “Dance!”

The man began to slice the ground near Iroh’s feet, causing him to hop up and down to ‘dodge’ the attacks while Zuko struggled to control his anger at the man and Akane tried her best to calm him down. Iroh’s ‘performance’ seemed to caught the eyes of other citizens as they watched the spectacle.

“They kiss so sweet that you really got to meet the girls from Ba Sing Se!” Iroh sang.

The man stopped slicing and laughed cruelly, “Ha, ha! Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner. Here ya go!”

“Such a kind man,” Iroh said dramatically once he caught the coin and watched the man walk away.

“Kind?” Akane exclaimed. “He humiliated you!”

“He was helping us,” Iroh corrected her.

Knowing that there was no point in arguing with Iroh’s logic, Akane simply got up in a huff as she headed off to go back to her job.

“You two, behave while I’m gone,” Akane warned them.

Glancing back as she left, Akane noticed how Zuko’s gaze remained fixated on the man with the broadswords as he wandered through the village. Hoping that Zuko wouldn’t do anything stupid, Akane ignored those worries as she headed back to work. But knowing Zuko, he was bound to do something anyways and he probably wouldn’t tell Akane what it was either, considering his past actions.

~*•°•*~

In the days that followed, their situation changed drastically. For starters, it seemed as though Akane’s work was no longer required as Zuko suddenly started bringing in supplies after supplies. It started with two barrels of food before he got much more luxurious items. Any time Akane and Iroh tried asking Zuko about where he got his items from, he dismissed them. Though Akane had a sinking suspicion on how he was managing to afford such items.

One day, when Zuko snuck off Akane followed him around, hoping to find out just what exactly Zuko had been doing in his spare time. At first, it seemed like he was just wondering around but that was until Zuko bent down to pick up a pair of broadswords that Akane didn’t even know he had. His last broadswords had been destroyed in the ship explosion caused by the pirates. What surprised Akane even more was that when he bent back down he came up wearing the mask of his alter ego, the Blue Spirit.

Ugh, not this again. Why, Zuko? Akane thought.

Since Zuko was wearing the mask of the Blue Spirit, Akane knew that he had to be up to something since Zuko only wore the mask if he was doing something extra sneaky. Once Zuko had put on his getup, Akane followed him throughout the forest until she saw a cart heading towards them. That seemed to catch Zuko’s attention to as he hid in the bushes, which Akane did as well.

Any hopes that Akane had about Zuko not being up to no good were thrown aside when he ambushed the rider, knocking him off his ostrich horse before jumping on top of the cart. Within a flash, Zuko had snatched something from the cart before dashing away, leaving the rider sprawled out on the ground.

Without thinking, Akane stormed off after Zuko, ready to confront him. His actions had just confirmed her suspicions no matter how much she had hoped that they’d been just that. There was no doubt in her mind that Zuko had been stealing for them.

“Well, well, well. Look what we have here,” Akane drawled as she approached Zuko. “If it isn’t the Blue Spirit.”

Zuko sighed as he unmasked himself, “What are you doing here, Akane?”

“Following you,” Akane replied.

“What! You of all people should know not to follow people!” Zuko exclaimed.

Akane scoffed, “You’re one to talk, stealer.”

“What are you talking about?” Zuko asked.

“Oh, don’t lie to me Zuko. I just saw you attack the rider and where else could you get that chest from,” Akane snapped as she pointed at the chest in Zuko’s hands.

“Look, don’t worry about me. I’m not going to get in trouble,” Zuko reassured her.

“That’s not what I’m upset about. I’m upset about the fact that you’re stealing. And I bet that you stole those broadswords from that jerk in town too,” Akane said.

“He deserved it. You said it yourself, he was a jerk. You were there when he made a fool out of Uncle,” Zuko reasoned.

“But still, it doesn’t justify stealing from him. Two wrongs don’t make a right, Zuko,” Akane stated.

“Look, we’re struggling to get by as it is, even with your job. I just thought I’d make it easier for all of us if I helped out,” Zuko said.

“What you’re doing is wrong though. If you’re going to provide for us, do what I did and get a job instead of letting your pride get in the way of what you do,” Akane suggested.

“We’ll never get anywhere by working. I’m sorry, Akane. But this is the best way for us to get by,” Zuko insisted.

Akane rolled her eyes, “It’s almost like you don’t even value me anymore.”

“What have I done to give you that impression?” Zuko asked.

“The fact that you had to go around stealing even though I’m doing just fine providing for us. I know that you think I’m useless, Zuko but that doesn’t mean you should treat me like I am!” Akane rambled.

“I’ve never treated you like your useless,” Zuko stated.

“Oh, yes you have. You don’t let me do anything by myself anymore and you don’t let me help you. I always have to argue with you just to get me to do something and I’m sick of it! Why can’t things just be like the way they used to be, Zuko, instead of the way they are now?” Akane ranted.

“What do you mean?” Zuko questioned.

“Oh, come on, Zuko. You know just as well as I do that our friendship hasn’t been the same in years. We never hang out the way we used to. You don’t tell me stuff anymore. Like the fact that you were the Blue Spirit,” Akane argued.

“You found out,” Zuko interjected.

“From Zhao instead of you,” Akane scoffed. “Don’t you remember that I said you could come to me for anything? Just thought I’d remind you in case you didn’t.”

Zuko sighed, “I’m not going to argue with you anymore, Akane. Just leave me alone.”

Not wanting to give her the chance to respond, Zuko quickly turned around and left with his mask and broadswords beside him. Once Zuko was out of sight, Akane let out a frustrated sigh as she kicked the ground. This wasn’t how things should be between her and Zuko. They should be happy and free, just like any other kid their age. But they were children of war and you can’t be happy and free when the war rages on. That was something that Akane had unfortunately come to realise.

Deciding to deal with Zuko later, Akane headed back into the town to try and get some work down, all the time hearing about how a masked man had been terrorising the place as of recently. It upset Akane to know that Zuko was hurting innocent people with his actions, and that he didn’t even seem to care about it. This was one of those times when Zuko was a lot more like Azula than he normally was, and Akane hated that.

~*•°•*~

By the time Akane had returned to the cave, she saw Zuko heading off on their ostrich horse. Since Iroh wasn’t with him and he seemed to have his extra belongings as well, Akane assumed that he was running away.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Akane asked as she approached him.

“I’m leaving, Akane,” Zuko replied.

“Because you can’t handle it? Or is it because you can’t and don’t want to deal with me anymore?” Akane questioned.

“This has nothing to do with you. After talking to Uncle, I have come to realise that we no longer have anything to gain by travelling together. I need to find my own path,” Zuko answered.

“Of course, because that’s what you always do,” Akane muttered.

“What?” Zuko glared at her.

“Whenever things get tough, you leave or make an excuse for yourself. If you can’t accept the reality of our situation with us then I highly doubt you’re going to on your own,” Akane snapped.

“I’d hoped that you would understand,” Zuko said.

“Well, I don’t. And quite frankly, I don’t want to. So go,” Akane snarled, her voice breaking.

“I would’ve thought that you’d tried to convince me not to go,” Zuko admitted.

“It’s not like anything I could’ve said would’ve changed anything, since you were perfectly fine with just leaving without even giving me a goodbye!” Akane exclaimed.

Zuko sighed, “This is it then, Akane. Take care of yourself.”

“You too,” Akane grumbled, and although her voice might have implied otherwise, she did mean it. Even if she was mad at Zuko, she wouldn’t want him to get hurt because of his stupidity.

“Goodbye,” Zuko said before heading off on the ostrich horse, leaving Akane standing there by herself.

Only once Zuko was completely gone did the tears finally come out, and Akane hated herself for letting Zuko have this much of an affect over her. He had left, so why should she be crying over it? Figuring that she might as well talk to Iroh about this, Akane headed back to the cave where she found Iroh waiting for her.

As soon as he spotted her, Iroh was heading towards her before enveloping her into a tight hug, which was almost enough to make Akane feel better while not doing much at all.

“I’m so sorry, Akane. But he left,” Iroh apologised.

“I know, Iroh,” Akane sniffled. “I saw him. I let him go.”

“Are you angry at him?” Iroh asked.

Akane sighed, “I know I should be, since he just left us and didn’t even seem to care what I thought but I don’t. I don’t hate him. I just hope he can make it out there on his own and find the path he wants to.”

“He won’t be apart from us for long. It will only be a matter of time before our paths cross again and when they do, we’ll be there for him,” Iroh reassured her.

“What do we do now?” Akane wondered.

“We look after ourselves. Sitting around and doing nothing isn’t going to help us, so the best we can do is just wait for fate to take its course,” Iroh replied.

Akane nodded, “Sounds like a plan.”

Now that Zuko had left them, it seemed as though Akane and Iroh would be trying to make it on her own. Admittedly, Akane had no idea how things were going to change without Zuko. And even though she was partly angry at him, Akane hoped that they wouldn’t be separated for long.

Chapter Text

Travelling without Zuko was weird for Akane. Mainly because they’d spent the last fifteen years of their life joined at the hip. This was going to be their first time without actually being around each other, but Akane figured that some distance would be good for them. Maybe this would give Zuko the chance to branch out and find whatever his path was supposed to be. As for Akane, this would give her the chance to spend some time with Iroh and hopefully gather some insight on her life.

There were so many bits and pieces of Akane’s life that seemed to be missing. For starters, Akane had no idea where she had come from or who she was supposed to be. She was hoping that maybe Iroh could give her some insight on that, since after all, Iroh was Ozai’s brother and Akane was hoping that he would at least know something about her life that she didn’t. Without Zuko around, Akane felt a lot more comfortable to ask Iroh these questions, since she worried how Zuko would react depending on what the truth actually was.

Since Zuko’s departure, they had left the town that they were previously staying at once they felt like they could make it on their own. That was after trying to return some of the stuff that Zuko had stolen to the original owners. Even though it was Zuko who had stolen those items, Akane and Iroh still felt guilty about doing so and thought that it was the right thing to do. Once that was done, the pair headed off on their own without Zuko for the first time in over three years.

It had only been almost five days since Zuko’s departure, and Akane was struggling to deal without his presence. Even though she had known Iroh all of her life, Akane still felt somewhat uncomfortable around him on her own since she could never really tell what he was thinking. But above all, Akane found herself missing Zuko and upset at herself for letting the last words that she had said to him happened out of anger. If those really were the last words that Akane said to Zuko, then she would never forgive herself for letting him leave like that.

“You miss him, don’t you?” Iroh asked, snapping Akane out of her thoughts.

“What?” Akane murmured.

“You miss Zuko,” Iroh stated.

Akane sighed, “I do. I know I should be mad at him for just leaving like that, but I’m not. And I hate that the last words that I said to him were spoken out of anger.”

“That is why you should always choose your words wisely, since you never know when they might be your last,” Iroh said.

“Iroh, can I ask you something?” Akane asked nervously.

“Dear, you’ve known me long enough that I think it’s reasonable for you to call me uncle now. We are practically family,” Iroh replied.

Family.

That was something that Akane knew she had out there, but didn’t know where. Even though she always had Iroh, Ursa and Zuko to treat her like family, it wasn’t the same as having her own blood family that she found herself longing for each day.

“That was actually what I wanted to ask you about Ir-Uncle,” Akane corrected herself, realising that it was going to take some getting used to so she could refer to him as such.

“You want to know about our family?” Iroh questioned.

Akane shook her head, having known more about their family than she wanted to, “No, I want to know about my family. The family that I didn’t grow up with because I’ve been with you all for as long as I can remember.”

Her question seemed to bring Iroh to a halt as he stopped in his tracks and pursed his lips in thought. It seemed to be in disapproval, so Akane worried that she had offended him by asking such a question.

“I’m sorry if I offended you, it’s just that I have so many questions that I’ve never had answers for, and I’d like some now,” Akane admitted.

“There’s no need to worry about that, Akane. I’m just surprised that it’s taken you this long to ask that question,” Iroh reassured her.

“I’ve just always been told not to ask them,” Akane muttered.

Having been with the Royal Family since she was basically a baby, Akane had always thought that they were her family. But when Akane realised that she was just with them, she had always wondered about where her own family was. However, Ozai had made it clear that she wasn’t allowed to ask such questions.

At six-years-old, Akane was just beginning to understand some of the more important things in life. For Akane, it was clear that family was important to many other people, just like it was to her. She had her brother Zuko, her sister Azula, her mother Ursa and her father Ozai. They had always treated her like family, so that was what Akane thought they were.

One day, when Akane and Zuko were playing together outside, Azula approached them. Before they even really noticed her, she’d just came up and pushed them around, laughing as she did so. By now Akane had grown used to Azula always ruining their fun, but it still annoyed her to no end.

“Hey, why did you do that?” Akane asked.

“Because it was fun,” Azula smirked.

“That’s not nice. I’m going to tell mom on you,” Akane said.

Azula blinked, “Who?”

“Our mom,” Akane replied, as if it was obvious since she thought it was.

Azula laughed, “She’s not your mom.”

“Azula, shut up,” Zuko hissed.

“What do you mean she’s not my mom?” Akane asked, genuinely confused since for as long as she had thought, Ursa was her mother.

“That she’s not your mom. She’s mine and Zuzu’s,” Azula replied.

“But nobody has ever said that she isn’t,” Akane argued, refusing to believe that Azula was telling the truth.

“Stop it, Azula,” Zuko said.

“No. You might think we’re your family but we’re not. Father is our father just like mother, so they’re not yours,” Azula stuck her tongue out.

“Then who are my mom and dad?” Akane questioned.

Azula shrugged, “Why should I know? I like that you’re not my sister, since Zuzu’s bad enough on his own.”

“Leave us alone, Azula,” Zuko snarled upon seeing how upset Akane was getting.

“I’m only leaving because I want to,” Azula remarked with a smirk.

“Akane, are you okay?” Zuko asked his friend once his sister was out of sight.

Immediately brushing Zuko’s hand away, Akane took off running as she wanted nothing more than to be on her own. As much as Akane didn’t want to believe that what Azula was saying was the truth, Akane couldn’t deny that she had that nagging part of her mind telling her that it was the truth. That only made Akane even more upset as she wondered why she had been lead to believe that for the past six years, since it was really the only family that Akane had ever known.

For days Akane isolated herself from everyone else, even Zuko. The whole time Akane was just scared about how she was going to deal with everything now that she knew everything she believed in was a lie. A few days later, Akane was sitting down with her private tutor along with Ozai as they discussed her recent performances. It had come to her tutors attention that she seemed to be lacking her drive recently. Once Ozai pulled her aside to find out why she was being lazy, Akane finally snapped when he asked her what was going on with her.

“Because I know you’re not my dad!” Akane exclaimed.

“What?” Ozai asked, baffled.

“Azula said you and Ursa aren’t my parents,” Akane murmured before looking up at Ozai. “Is it true?”

Ozai let out a frustrated sigh, “Listen, Akane. There are many things that you don’t know and it is better that they stay that way. It is true that Ursa and I are not your mother and father but we have raised you just like any parents would.”

“But why didn’t I know?” Akane pouted.

“Because we didn’t want you to grow up feeling any different,” Ozai replied, although there was something about the way he spoke that didn’t sit right with Akane.

“What about my real parents?” Akane questioned.

Ozai glared at her, “Now that is something that you are not to know about. Do not ask about them, because you will find no answers. Do not try finding out about them, because you will get the same result. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” Akane muttered.

“Good. Now I expect that your training should resume as normal now that is out in the open,” Ozai stated.

Once Ozai walked away from her, Akane couldn’t help but feel even more curious now, since she felt like there was more that she needed to know than what Ozai was telling her. But given the amount of power that Ozai had, Akane knew that she’d be better off doing as she was told and keep her nose out of it, even though she felt like it was her business entirely.

Truth be told, Akane did try digging into her family history only to come up empty handed. It was almost as if she had just came out of nowhere and ended up with the Royal Family. But Akane knew that she had to have come from somewhere before she ended up with them, and Akane was hoping that Iroh would be able to give her the answers that she craved.

“If I’m to be completely honest, Akane, I do not know much about your short life before the palace. What I do know is that my brother brought you there when you were barely a year old. Based on what Ursa told me, he found you abandoned and saw that you had the potential for greatness and decided to nurture it himself,” Iroh explained.

“That hardly sounds like him,” Akane muttered, thinking back on all of the cruel things that Ozai had done like burning Zuko. Taking in a child out of the goodness of his heart just hardly seemed like something that he would do.

“No, it doesn’t,” Iroh agreed with a nod. “I think that even Ursa was left in the dark about your true origins, since she didn’t seem to believe what she told me. That was just what Ozai had lead her to believe. And she had learned by then not to question anything that her husband had done.”

“So basically, the only person who could know something is the one person who would never tell me what I want to know. Great,” Akane grumbled.

“Don’t go getting down on yourself just yet, Akane. I’m sure that in due time you will find the answers that you seek. You’ll just have to be patient,” Iroh advised her.

“I’ve been patient for fifteen years, isn’t that good enough?” Akane snapped.

Iroh sighed, “I’m not sure how to answer that.”

“I’m sorry, Uncle,” Akane apologised. “I know I shouldn’t be getting mad at you. There’s just so much that I don’t know, so much that I want to know. I just feel like I don’t even know who I’m supposed to be without knowing where I’ve come from.”

“You don’t need that in order to know that, Akane. I think you have a fair idea of who you’re supposed to be. Who your family is doesn’t change that,” Iroh reasoned.

“I guess you’re right on that. But there’s still so much I need to know. Maybe one day I’ll get those answers,” Akane conceded.

“For now, let’s just focus on continuing our journey,” Iroh suggested.

Nodding in agreement, Akane and Iroh continued walking along together as they headed off to wherever they found themselves next. Without their ostrich horse their to guide them, they were left to continue on feet while Zuko was doing who knows what. For his sake, Akane just hoped that he wasn’t up to anything stupid.

~*•°•*~

In the days that followed, Akane found herself wondering more and more about the family that she missed out on. It frustrated her to no end that the only person who really knew where she had come from was the one person who would never tell her anything. What confused Akane the most was why Ozai would think that she was so important for him to just take her under his wing. One thing that Akane knew for sure was that he had to have thought that she was of vital importance, otherwise he probably would’ve just left her alone.

Thinking about that made Akane wonder what life would’ve been like with a family of her own. Things for sure would’ve been different compared to how they were in the Royal Family. Though it made Akane wonder just how different her life would’ve turned out. Would she have grown up with loving parents? Would she still hold the same values that she believed now? Would she have even met Zuko? Those questions would never be answered though since it was a life that had been taken away from her.

Because of the anger that Akane felt at not knowing where she belonged, Akane blamed it all on Ozai. After all, he seemed to be the only person who knew what there was to know about her. He had been the one to take her in, away from the family that she had to have had. Knowing Ozai now, Akane doubted his story that she had just been abandoned, since Akane didn’t feel like that was the case with her. But there was no way to prove her own thoughts since they were just theories that couldn’t be backed up.

“Something on your mind?” Iroh asked Akane as he poured her a cup of tea.

Akane sighed, “I’m just thinking more and more about my family. Then I just feel even more angry at Ozai, since I know that he was the one who took that away from me. Why, I guess I’ll never know.”

“Hm,” Iroh murmured as he took a sip of tea before putting it down. “I’m going to tell you something, Akane. Shortly after I discovered your existence, I tried finding out where you had come from. But unfortunately my brother had covered his tracks well and there was hardly anything proving you even existed. Although it did lead me to make a sound conclusion.”

“What would that be?” Akane asked curiously.

“That you come from a powerful family, or at least you yourself are powerful. I’d like to say that I know how my brother thinks, and I’m fairly confident that he wouldn’t even bother going through all the trouble with you if you weren’t of any importance. My father certainly wouldn’t have allowed someone from such a low ranking place in society become such an integral part of his family unless they were important,” Iroh explained.

“But what could that be? There are hundreds of powerful family’s in the Fire Nation so I could come from anywhere,” Akane remarked.

“Not necessarily,” Iroh interjected. “Has it ever occurred to you that you have the same ember eyes of the top Fire Nation elite? Even though ember eyes are associated with the Fire Nation, there aren’t actually that many people who have them. In order to have those same eyes they would have to come from a very powerful bloodline. Although there are numerous important people in the Fire Nation, it is hard to find people with specific eyes like yours.”

“What makes mine so special?” Akane inquired.

“Because your eyes are the purest of the colour ember. That means you would have to come from a powerful bloodline, since eyes like yours are hard to come by,” Iroh replied.

“If I come from such an important family, then why didn’t they try getting me back?” Akane asked quietly, starting to feel as though she really was unwanted by her true family.

“No family could rival the power of the Royal Family. They have thousands of supporters across the country with unwavering loyalty. And knowing my brother, I’m sure that he would’ve made sure that nobody knew it was him that took you. So your family probably is looking for you out there, they just don’t know where to look,” Iroh reasoned.

“This just makes me hate Ozai even more,” Akane grumbled. “I know he’s your brother and everything, but I wouldn’t be sad at all if something bad were to happen to him.”

“I understand your hatred for Ozai. If it weren’t for the fact that he was my brother I would probably hate him just as much,” Iroh admitted.

“Why can’t you just hate him anyways?” Akane questioned. “I get that he’s your brother, but you can hate your family members.”

“I’ve been raised to respect your family, even if you disagree with them. So it would be disrespectful for me to hate Ozai, especially since he is my leader,” Iroh answered.

“Even though it should be you,” Akane muttered. “You would’ve been a much better Fire Lord than Ozai.”

“At the time when the position was available to me, perhaps not. But now that I have a world of experience it is something that would have come easier for me. Although I am aware that being Fire Lord was never my destiny, just like I never really was interested in the job. It had always been Ozai who desired the throne, so it was only fitting that it went to him,” Iroh said.

“You would never have burned your son though,” Akane sneered.

“Never,” Iroh shook his head. “What Ozai did to Zuko that day was horrible and wrong on so many levels. My nephew did not deserve that treatment from his father, since all he was doing was keeping our nations best interests at heart. But even that doesn’t concern my brother, since all he cares about is maintaining the power that he has.”

“Ozai is just a horrible person all around. There is nothing redeemable about him whatsoever. What kind of monster just burns their child like that? What kind of monster raises their child to be a killing machine? I might not like Azula but she’s the way she is because of Ozai. Without him I’m sure she’d be a lot more likeable,” Akane ranted.

“That very well may have been the case, but I sense that your hatred for my brother comes from something deeper,” Iroh observed.

“What?” Akane raised her eyebrows.

“You speak with such hatred for Ozai and while most of it is justified, I can tell that most of it is personal,” Iroh stated.

“Of course it’s personal. That monster took me away from my family,” Akane snarled.

“But that’s not all, isn’t it?” Iroh questioned.

“W-what do y-you mean?” Akane stammered, hoping that Iroh didn’t know more than he should.

“Don’t think that I haven’t noticed, Akane. I pay more attention to you than you realise,” Iroh said.

“What’s there to notice?” Akane crossed her arms.

“That you haven’t shown yourself to anyone since you were ten-years-old, after you were supposedly taken ill in the night. That the scar on your stomach is far too faded to be from anything recent,” Iroh replied.

“I told you, the scar must’ve came from the explosion,” Akane reasoned.

“There is no need to lie to me, Akane. You can tell me what happened and what my brother did to warrant such hatred from you,” Iroh insisted.

Akane narrowed her eyes, “It should be quite clear what that monster did to warrant my hatred. He is a terrible man and a terrible father who abused his power and burned his own son. That is enough to earn my hatred. Now let’s just keep going.”

Not wanting to deal with Iroh anymore, Akane glanced away from him before walking slightly faster so that she was ahead of him. While it was clear that Iroh knew more than he was supposed to, Akane wasn’t ready to talk to him about it. Quite frankly, she didn’t want to talk to him about it all. But given the fact that he was all she had and there was nowhere to run, Akane knew that she would eventually have to come clean about the secrets that she had kept hidden for so long.

~*•°•*~

Much to Akane’s annoyance, Iroh didn’t keep pestering her about coming clean to him. Instead, he just gave her a look that basically said she had to admit her truth. If she was being honest, Akane would’ve preferred it if he kept on telling her to tell him instead of just looking at her like he was. It was that look that made her feel guilty for not telling the truth, even though Iroh had made it seem like he already knew the truth.

The main reason why Akane had barely told anyone her secrets was because she feared how they would react to the truth. Especially since the truth surrounding her secrets would without a doubt strike a chord with anyone, given who her secrets came from. It was because of Ozai that Akane had so many secrets and she hated that she had to keep secrets from the people that she cared most about.

“Are you ever going to tell me, Akane?” Iroh asked her.

Akane sighed, “Why? You already seem to know without me even telling you.”

“I want to hear it from you. Tell me what Ozai did to you to make you despise him so much. You might find yourself feeling better after opening up to the truth,” Iroh urged.

Knowing that Iroh was probably right, Akane tried to bring herself to tell him what Ozai had done to her. But Akane hated remembering that night, since it left her permanently scared physically and emotionally. Since Iroh had insisted that she came clean, Akane knew that she’d have to tell him eventually and she figured that she might as well do it now without Zuko there to hear it.

“It was Ozai who burned me. I was twelve when he did it,” Akane finally admitted.

“Why did he burn you?” Iroh inquired.

“Because I stuck my nose where it didn’t belong. Burning me was a punishment. That seems to be a trend with him. If I hadn’t been so foolish then it wouldn’t have happened,” Akane grumbled.

“Listen to me, Akane, no matter what you might think, what my brother did was not your fault. You didn’t deserve that treatment and neither did Zuko. You were both treated horribly by him and for no reason,” Iroh reassured her.

“I try to tell myself that but deep down, I know that if I had just stayed away that I wouldn’t have ended up in trouble. It was my fault for snooping around,” Akane berated herself.

“That’s not all you’re keeping from me, is it?” Iroh asked.

“What do you mean?” Akane wondered.

“Your supposed banishment,” Iroh reminded her.

“Oh, that. It wasn’t really something that I kept from you, I just lied about it,” Akane admitted.

“Why?” Iroh inquired.

“Because I knew that Zuko would’ve tried convincing me to stay since he would’ve felt guilty for taking me away from my life no matter how much I would’ve said that it was what I wanted,” Akane replied.

“Are you ever going to tell Zuko this?” Iroh questioned.

“No,” Akane shook her head. “It would only make things worse for us if I told him the truth, since all he wants is his fathers approval and me telling him would bring up all kinds of unresolved emotions. So I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell Zuko.”

“I can promise you that, Akane. But I do believe that you should tell Zuko since he deserves to know. And if he were to find out from the wrong person, it could potentially make an even greater rift between you two,” Iroh advised her.

“I’m willing to take that risk. There’s a bigger chance that he won’t find out than he would and I hope he doesn’t,” Akane murmured.

“Until then, we must keep going on our own before our paths cross with his again,” Iroh stated.

Nodding in agreement, Akane and Iroh continued their travels on their own in the hopes of eventually catching up with Zuko. Part of Akane was nervous about being reunited with Zuko given how they left things off, but she was just hoping that in time they would be able to move past whatever this rift was between them.

Chapter Text

Since Iroh had decided to try and keep track of where Zuko was going in case he needed them, Akane had sat back and let him take the lead on where they were headed. That was what had lead them to an unruly Earth Kingdom town after they had heard of a lonely traveller who had arrived there not too long ago on an ostrich horse. Assuming that it was Zuko, Akane and Iroh decided to head to the town in the hope of reuniting with Zuko.

As much as Akane wanted to see Zuko again, she was nervous about where their friendship stood since the last time they spoke to each other things weren’t exactly good. It was clear that Zuko had changed since the North Pole, even more than he had when he got banished. With Azula now on their tails, there seemed to be even less hope that they would be able to capture the Avatar – not that it was a goal that Akane had.

Looking around the town that they were in, Akane couldn’t see how or why Zuko would end up in a town like this, since it had everything that he despised. Mainly Earth Kingdom civilians and people who thought that they were above everyone else, which was mainly the Earth Kingdom guards who walked around like they owned the place. Just looking around Akane could see how out of order this place was, and was somewhat doubting if there would be any indication if Zuko had been here or not.

“I can’t believe that even after what happened, Gow and his men still walk around like they own the place,” someone near Akane commented loudly enough for her to hear.

“Even though that so-called prince was off his nuts, he did us all a favour by putting Gow in his place,” another person added, which perked Akane’s interest.

“I actually feel bad about how we handled that. He was doing the right thing by attacking Gow and helping the kid. You know as well as I do that everyone has been wanting to put Gow in his place for ages. We just treated him poorly because he was Fire Nation,” the first person admitted.

“What?” Akane asked, knowing that they had to be talking about Zuko if they were referring to a prince from the Fire Nation.

“Who are you?” the first person asked warily.

“I’m… from another town not too far from here. I’m visiting a friend of mine,” Akane lied, hoping that they wouldn’t pry for more information.

“Yeah, I was gonna say that you don’t look like you’re from around here,” the second person observed, earning a nudge from the first person.

“You mentioned something about a prince from the Fire Nation,” Akane started, approaching the subject cautiously. “I thought we were safe from them.”

“Apparently we’re not, since we didn’t know the boy was Fire Nation until he declared it himself. That was after he’d beat Gow and his men to the side like they were nothing. Then he something about being heir to the throne,” the second person explained.

Akane nodded, their words confirming her suspicions, “Oh, well, at least he’s gone now. But how did everyone react to his declaration?”

The first person grimaced, “Yeah, we didn’t take it too well. We basically ran him out of town after we realised that he was hardly even a prince since he was burned and disowned by his father. ”

“His father is a horrible person then,” Akane said. “And you people are no better for running him out of town since he wasn’t even doing anything to hurt you. He was doing the right thing and that was how you repaid him?”

Not wanting to get into an argument with those people, Akane left it at that and headed over to where Iroh was waiting for her. They had decided to split up and see if they could find any indication that Zuko had been here, which was what Akane had just done.

“I was just talking to those people over there. Zuko was here,” Akane whispered.

“When?” Iroh asked.

“I’m not sure, I didn’t ask,” Akane replied. “But it means that we’re on the right track. Hopefully we can find him soon enough.”

“Hopefully we can. Now let’s get out of here before we attract any unwanted attention,” Iroh suggested.

Nodding in agreement, Akane followed Iroh out of the small town that they had just found themselves in. Even though they didn’t have much to go from, Akane was just glad that they were at least keeping some tabs on what Zuko was up to and she couldn’t help but smile at Zuko doing the right thing, even if he had been outcasted because of it. Maybe Zuko’s moral compass wasn’t as damaged as Akane thought it was after all.

~*•°•*~

A few days later, Akane and Iroh found themselves wondering through a mountain range where fog obscured part of their peeks. Since leaving the Earth Kingdom town, they hadn’t managed to find Zuko but they had managed to find a fair bit of footprints from an ostrich horse, which they were hoping to be Zuko. At one point they had lost track of the footprints, and were now traversing through the mountain range. There wasn’t that much to see, except what looked like a small town in the distance which Akane figured that they were going to check out at one point.

Unfortunately for Akane, that was when her body decided to act up and she suddenly found herself struggling to walk properly. Her illness hadn’t been a real problem throughout the Earth Kingdom, since they had managed to remedy it to some degree by getting some medicine from Song which had done a great deal of help. However, the medicine needed to be mixed with a liquid which meant that it took time to repair and they didn’t really have that much time on their hands.

“Are you alright, Akane?” Iroh asked as he noticed the young girl struggling behind him.

“I’m fine. Let’s just keep moving on,” Akane grimaced as she clutched her side in pain.

“No, I’m going to sit you down here and prepare your medicine. We can’t have you walking around like this,” Iroh said.

Just as Iroh said that, Akane suddenly felt the ground moving beneath her feet as a stream of earth travelled to a large rock beside Iroh before the rock was somehow manipulated to strike Iroh on the side, pushing him onto the ground in pain. Immediately Akane got onto her feet and prepared herself to face an attacker, only to come face to face with a girl who couldn’t have been more than twelve-years-old.

“Ow… That really hurt my tailbone,” Iroh murmured.

“Iroh!” Akane exclaimed, giving the girl a glare and preparing to attack.

“Calm down, Akane. I’m sure our friend meant no harm,” Iroh reassured her.

“Friend?” Akane spluttered, looking back and forth. “She just attacked you with a rock!”

“With earthbending,” the girl corrected her.

“I was just going to make some tea. Would you care to join us?” Iroh offered the girl, ignoring the dumbfounded look on Akane’s face.

The girl stood there for a moment before shrugging, “Okay.”

“Um, my name is Akane,” Akane introduced herself awkwardly, figuring that she might as well start some conversation while Iroh got the tea ready.

“I’m Toph,” the girl replied.

“How come you just attacked us like that? We didn’t even know anyone was nearby,” Akane said.

“I felt you coming and I’ve trained myself to react like that when I’m approached by someone I don’t know,” Toph replied.

“What do you mean you ‘felt’ us coming?” Akane asked.

“I’m blind,” Toph stated, earning a shocked gasp from Akane. “I use my earthbending to see since you’re connected to the earth, so that’s how I felt you two coming.”

“Impressive,” Akane commented with a smile.

“Here is your tea,” Iroh said once he poured tea into three tin cups before handing one to Akane and Toph. “You seem a little too young to be travelling alone.”

“You seem a little too old,” Toph remarked as she took the tea form his hand. “I guess that’s why you have her with you.”

Iroh laughed, “Perhaps I am. I am also lucky to have Akane with me. Who knows how I would survive on my own?”

“You’d be dead already without me since you’d try making the most poisonous plants into tea,” Akane commented, earning another laugh from Iroh before glancing back at Toph.

“I know what you’re thinking… I look like I can’t handle being by myself,” Toph interjected.

“I wasn’t thinking that,” Iroh reassured her.

“Neither was I,” Akane added.

“You wouldn’t even let me pour my own cup of tea,” Toph pointed out.

“I poured your tea because I wanted to and for no other reason,” Iroh insisted.

“Trust me, it’s his thing. He’s a bit of a tea snob,” Akane said.

“People see me and think I’m weak. They want to take care of me, but I can take care of myself, by myself,” Toph proclaimed.

Both Akane and Iroh shared a look, sharing the same thought that this girl reminded them a lot of Zuko. He was always out there to prove that he didn’t need anybody’s help, which in hindsight might’ve been another reason why he left.

“You sound like my nephew, always thinking you need to do things on your own, without anyone’s support,” Iroh stated. “There’s nothing wrong with letting people who love you help you. Not that I love you, I just met you.”

Toph laughed, “So where is your nephew?”

“We’re tracking him actually,” Iroh replied.

“Is he lost?” Toph queried.

“You could say that,” Akane murmured.

Iroh put a comforting hand on Akane’s leg, “His life has recently changed and he’s going through very difficult times. He’s trying to figure out who he is and he went away.”

“So now you’re following him,” Toph observed.

“I know he doesn’t want us around him right now, but if he needs us, we’ll be there,” Iroh said.

“We’ve been through some of the most difficult times together, but it has only made us stronger. Even with all the strength you could still use some help from the people who care about you,” Akane proclaimed.

“Your nephew is very lucky, even if he doesn’t know it,” Toph began as she got up to leave. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure. Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights,” Iroh replied.

“No, thank you for what you said. It helped me,” Toph clarified.

“I’m glad,” Iroh said.

Toph rose to leave, but turned around briefly, “Oh, and about your nephew, maybe you should tell him that you need him, too.”

The power of Iroh’s advice never ceased to amaze Akane, since he always knew what to say at the right moment. His words had certainly had an impact on Toph and it seemed as though she had taken them to heart. To Akane’s surprise, she’d also had some parting words of wisdom for them, which they both took seriously.

“She’s right, you know,” Akane stated once Toph had left. “We really should tell Zuko that we need him, just like he needs us.”

“Whether or not he is receptive to that will be up to him. But I’m sure that sooner or later Zuko will come to his sense and realise that he can’t do this on his own,” Iroh said.

“Let’s just go down and check out that town over there. It could be promising,” Akane suggested as she got up to her feet.

With Toph’s words echoing in the back of her mind, Akane was hoping that they’d come across Zuko sooner or later since she really did need to tell him just how much she needed him. No matter what they went through together, Akane was certain that she would always need Zuko in her life because without him, she didn’t know what she’d do.

~*•°•*~

Upon deciding to check out the town that wasn’t too far away, Akane was hoping that they would finally be reunited with Zuko. But her hopes were somewhat dashed when they approached the town that sounded like a battle was raging on inside of it. At first, Akane had no idea what to think but then she was shocked when she saw a blast of blue flames go off into the sky. Since there was only one person she knew who could produce such flames, Akane’s dread only intensified as she realised what it meant.

“Azula,” Akane hissed, the name of her childhood enemy coming out of her mouth as if it was poison.

Having never gotten along with the younger girl in their youth, Akane was certainly not looking forward to see her again. The last time Akane had seen Azula was when she had tried tricking Iroh and Zuko into going home as her prisoners, which had almost worked had it not been for Iroh being there. Even though she hadn’t been there when it happened, Akane still felt as though she had a score to settle with her because of it.

When they entered the small town that was clearly abandoned, Akane was surprised to see Azula chasing after the Avatar with no sign of Zuko in sight. That was, until Akane spotted a figure lying on the ground.

“Zuko!” Akane exclaimed as she ran towards her friend, happy to finally be reunited with him.

Any excitement that Akane had turned to worry when she noticed how Zuko was lying down, since it seemed as though he had been knocked out. Knowing who was most likely responsible for that, Akane glared at the direction where Azula had disappeared with the Avatar.

“Akane… Uncle…” Zuko trailed off, slightly dazed.

“Get up!” Uncle barked as he offered his nephew a hand while Akane helped him up.

“Good to see you again,” Akane smiled.

“You too…” Zuko murmured, earning a smile form Akane.

“Now lets go and put Azula in her place,” Akane sneered.

Together, the trio ran towards where the action was taking place. When they got there, Akane was somewhat surprised to see the girl who she and Iroh had barely met an hour ago along with the Avatar and his friends. It really was ironic how the things worked out sometimes.

They managed to spot Azula running through an alley as she leaped over some crates and tried to escape, only for Iroh to intervene as he used his rotund belly to knock her off her feet. As Azula got to her feet, Akane and Zuko joined Iroh’s side, as did the Avatar and his friends. Akane couldn’t help but find it funny how the one time they were on the same side was to take down someone who wasn’t supposed to be their enemy.

“Well, look at this. Enemies and traitors, all working together. I’m done,” Azula proclaimed coolly as she backed up and raised her hands in surrender. “I know when I’m beaten. You got me. A princess surrenders with honour.”

Shock went through Akane as she registered what Azula was saying. She was basically giving up, and Azula wasn’t exactly the kind of person to give up, no matter how outnumbered she appeared to be. There had to be some sort of ulterior motives, something that Azula always had whenever she spoke. Whatever thoughts Akane had about Azula and her conniving ways were answered when she felt a searing pain throughout her chest.

At first, Akane had no idea what was going on around her as everything suddenly became blurry and she heard fire blazing around her. Then Akane realised that she was now no longer standing on her feet, and that she was now sprawled out on the ground, experiencing a pain that could only be rivalled by the feeling she felt when Ozai burned her. That was when Akane realised that she had been struck down by Azula, and the short feeling of satisfaction that came from being Azula was replaced by pain as she felt herself slip into unconsciousness.

Around her, Zuko cried in horror as he watched his best friend and his uncle collapse on the ground as a result of the attack that came from his sister. Not even his efforts combined with the Avatar and his followers was enough to stop his sister from escaping. Once Azula was gone, Zuko bowed his head in despair as he looked at the fallen bodies of his uncle and best friend, who had both been injured by his sisters attack. Without knowing how to properly react, Zuko groaned angrily as he was approached by the Avatar and his followers.

“Get away from us!” Zuko yelled.

“Zuko, I can help,” the peasant waterbender offered.

“Leave!” Zuko bellowed as he bended an arc of fire.

All of them did just that as they ran away, leaving Zuko with Akane and Iroh. Part of him briefly thought that maybe he should have accepted the waterbenders offer, since he would be useless to help his friends. But Zuko refused to admit that, as his first priority was now getting Akane and Iroh the help that they needed on his own. If there was one thing that Zuko had come to realise during his time alone it was that he needed them more than anything, and he wasn’t going to lose them like this.

Chapter Text

Once Zuko realised that he needed to get Akane and Iroh help fast, he took them to an old and abandoned house not too far from the town that they had been shot down in. Luckily for Zuko, Iroh seemed to recover quickly within a few hours after being knocked unconscious whereas Akane was a different story. She had been left with a nasty burn that had almost torn her skin to shreds despite coming from a somewhat weak attack. As weak as Azula’s attacks could get anyways.

Knowing that it was his sister who put his best friend in this position made Zuko’s blood boil. Never before had he felt so much anger towards Azula for what she had done to Akane. Akane hadn’t deserved this and neither had Iroh, yet here she was, lying unconscious from attack by his sister of all people. Sure, Zuko had always known that Azula was a cold and malicious person, but he never would’ve thought that she’d do something like this to him since she of all people knew how important Akane was to him.

“We should let her rest, Prince Zuko,” Iroh suggested.

“This is my fault. She’s like this because Azula wanted to get back at me, I just know it,” Zuko grumbled bitterly.

“That very well may be the case but rest assured that Akane will be fine. Her body just needs some time to recover,” Iroh reasoned.

“H-how was she when I was, you know, gone?” Zuko stammered.

“She was upset at first but understood your reasons. All she wanted was to be reunited with you again instead of letting you face these troubles on your own. There was definitely some regret in there for how she had left things with you,” Iroh answered.

“Me too,” Zuko mumbled, grimacing as he remembered the way in which he and Akane had said their goodbyes. At least when they saw each other again Akane didn’t seem too angry at him, which Zuko was glad for.

“How was your time away, Prince Zuko? Did you find what you were looking for?” Iroh inquired, curious to see what his nephews time away had done for him.

“It gave me some… perspective,” Zuko replied before getting up. “I need some time to think alone now.”

“Very well, but don’t be gone for too long,” Iroh called out to his nephew as he left the house.

Glancing back down at Akane, Iroh sighed as he brushed his fingers through her hair and down her unconscious face before resting on the part of her stomach where her burn resided. It was just Akane’s luck that Azula had struck her in the exact same spot where his brother had all those years ago and it made Iroh wonder just what his niece knew about the girl who was far more of a niece than his own one had ever been. If Azula knew more than she should, then Iroh could only imagine what that would mean for Akane.

Unable to deal with his guilt surrounding Akane, Zuko had left the house and found a quiet place to sit and think about everything that had recently happened. From this unprecedent rift between him and Akane, to him leaving and to everything he’d experienced before what had only happened just now. To say that his time on his own hadn’t given Zuko time to think about things would be an understatement, since without Akane and Iroh around to bother him, Zuko had started to think about what he really wanted from this world.

His time away had made Zuko realise the importance of the people closest to him, and he didn’t think that he would be leaving Akane and Iroh anytime soon since they were all that he had. Akane getting struck by Azula had only made Zuko realise just how much he’d cared for his friend and even though he knew that she would recover in time, the guilt that Zuko felt was overwhelming. Just knowing that Zuko could’ve lost them both in a blink of an eye made him realise that he never wanted any moment with them to go to waste ever again. If everything that had happened was to make him realise this, then Zuko was more than willing to take it for what it was.

When you wake up, Akane, I promise that things will be different between us. Zuko promised to himself.

Looking back, Zuko could see where he had started to take Akane for granted and how he had treated her like she didn’t want to be treated. Now he planned on making amends for those actions, since Akane didn’t deserve to feel like that because of someone who was supposed to care for her. Only this time, Zuko would care for her in ways that he hadn’t done so before.

~*•°•*~

When Akane started to come through, all she felt was pain on her abdomen. At first, she had no idea where that had come from but then she remembered. The abandoned town. Finding Zuko. Getting struck down by Azula. Pain surged through Akane’s side as she struggled to sit up, desperate to get a glimpse of her surroundings only to see nothing but a blur.

“It looks like she’s waking up,” a distorted voice observed.

“Akane? Akane, can you hear me?” another voice asked.

“Mhm,” Akane tried mumbling.

As Akane felt her eyes twitching, she slowly felt herself regaining a sense of her surroundings as she realised that she was lying down and felt the bandage wrapped around her stomach. Finally, her eyes started to open and they eventually rested on Iroh and Zuko. Upon seeing that they were both okay, Akane let out a sigh of relief as she’d had no idea what had happened to them after she had been struck down.

“Hey…” Akane trailed off.

“Akane, it is wonderful to see that you’re awake,” Iroh smiled.

“It doesn’t feel good,” Akane murmured weakly.

“Yes, well, you took a nasty hit from Azula,” Iroh said.

“I’m sorry, Akane,” Zuko apologised, which immediately caught Akane’s attention. Given how dazed she was, she’d almost forgotten that he was in the room until he spoke to her.

“Why?” Akane asked.

“For leaving you like I did. And for letting this happen to you,” Zuko clarified.

“Not your fault,” Akane mumbled, since it wasn’t. While Akane had originally been angry with Zuko for leaving, she had understood his reasons and it wasn’t like it was him who struck her down.

“I still can’t believe that Azula did this to you both as a surprise attack,” Zuko muttered.

“Somehow, that’s not so surprising,” Iroh groaned as he felt the strain of his own injury.

“I made some tea for you both,” Zuko said as he handed them a cup of tea each. “I hope I made it the way you like it.”

Upon taking a sip of the tea, Akane had to resist the urge to recoil in disgust as it certainly wasn’t anything like the tea that Iroh had always made for her. Whatever Zuko had done to this tea, it had made Akane more alert than she had been before as she regained her other senses. Glancing at Iroh, Akane could see that he too wasn’t pleased with his nephews creation as he let out a cry of disgust, but managed to mask it.

“Good,” Iroh grimaced. “That was very… uh… bracing.” He was then given another cup, which he secretly threw out behind his shoulder which made Akane giggle. While Iroh might be a tea snob, he was at least a polite tea snob.

“So Uncle, I’ve been thinking. It’s only a matter of time before I run into Azula again. I’m going to need to know more advanced firebending if I want to stand a chance against her. I know what you’re going to say: she’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her,” Zuko said.

“No, she’s crazy, and she needs to go down,” Iroh spoke the exact opposite of Zuko’s thoughts, earning a nod from Zuko. He then grunted as he stood up and proclaimed, “It’s time to resume your training.”

“What about me?” Akane wondered.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You just got shot with lightning,” Zuko pointed out.

“But I still want to improve. If we’re going to face Azula again then I’m going to need to be able to defend myself,” Akane argued.

“There is always room for you to learn, which is exactly what Akane wants to do so I think that it would be a good idea. She can just sit there and watch,” Iroh reasoned.

“Let’s get to it,” Akane said eagerly, ready to get back into training again.

“I’ll go make us some tea,” Iroh suggested as he headed off before returning with a tea set and started preparing them tea while Akane sat beside herself with excitement as their lesson began.

This was the first time since before the North Pole that Akane and Zuko had found themselves under Iroh’s teaching. They hadn’t really had the chance to learn anything since then given that they’d been travelling on foot, so it felt refreshing for Akane to get back into her training. What made it even more exciting was that they’d be trying something that Akane had only ever saw but never attempted herself: lightning generation.

“Lightning is a pure form of firebending, without aggression,” Iroh started as Akane and Zuko took their tea. “It is not fuelled by rage or emotion the way other firebending is. Some call lightning the cold-blooded fire. It is precise and deadly, like Azula. To perform the technique requires peace of mind.”

“I see. That’s why we’re drinking tea, to calm the mind,” Zuko observed.

“Oh yeah, good point!” Iroh exclaimed with a chuckle as Akane rolled her eyes, since she knew that the main reason why they were drinking tea was because Iroh wanted to.

“How does it work though?” Akane wondered. “It’s never made sense to me how energy can just be pulled out of nowhere and into lightning.”

“Because that is exactly how it works,” Iroh replied as he stood up. “Now, come outside with me and I will show you how it works.”

Although Akane wanted to prove that she could handle herself despite her condition, Akane knew that she would at least need some help getting up and down which was why she didn’t snap at Zuko when she went to help him. It was time for Akane to realise that people only wanted to help her because they wanted to, not because they took pity on her and this was the first step to doing so.

“Please don’t treat me like I’m helpless again,” Akane whispered to Zuko as they followed Iroh outside.

“I won’t. I’ve realised that you’re one of the strongest people that I’ve ever met and that you can handle yourself,” Zuko replied, his hand resting on Akane’s shoulder.

The difference with Zuko’s touch this time was that it wasn’t like he was trying to hold her together. Instead it was more of an affectionate hold that Akane found herself lingering when he eventually took his hand away.

~*•°•*~

Part of Akane was nervous about practicing lightning generation since it had only been used as a way to threaten her before at the hands of Azula and Ozai, but Akane reassured herself by remembering that Iroh would never hurt her like that. Alongside Zuko, Akane stood beside Iroh while using a crutch for support as Iroh continued his teaching.

“There is energy all around us. The energy is both yin and yang. Positive energy and negative energy. Only a select few firebenders can separate these energies. This creates an imbalance. The energy wants to restore balance, and in a moment the positive and negative energy come crashing back together, you provide release and guidance, creating lightning,” Iroh explained.

“I understand now. This is just like what happened at the North Pole when the ocean and the moon spirits were disturbed which sent the ocean spirit into a rage that could only be calmed down by the moon spirit,” Akane realised.

“That is exactly right, Akane. Now I am going to provide an exact demonstration on how this works,” Iroh said as he gestured Akane and Zuko to stand back, which they did.

Once Akane and Zuko were at a safe enough distance, Iroh started to move his arms around in a circular motion before lightning started to generate itself around him. In one swift movement, Iroh then thrusted one arm outward, shooting the lightning away from them.

“I want to give it a go,” Akane stated as she stood forward and handed her crutch to Zuko.

“Do not forget that you are merely guiding the energy around you. I would recommend that you breathe first,” Iroh called out to her.

Doing as such, Akane took a deep breath, as she prepared herself for what she was about to try as she remembered what Iroh had told her. At first when Akane began her movements she felt and heard nothing around her, but then she started to hear the cackling noise and feel the energy moving around her, coming together to create lightning. Having never felt this much power and control Akane had no idea what she was supposed to do with it now.

“Release it, Akane!” she heard Iroh yell from beside her.

When Akane tried to do just that, she suddenly felt the energy backfiring on her, like it was about to explode onto her. Luckily for Akane, Iroh intervened just in time to grab hold of the lightning himself and redirecting it elsewhere, leaving Akane struggling to hold herself together before falling onto the ground.

“What was that?” Zuko questioned, unable to hide the panic in his voice as he crouched down to Akane’s level.

“I’m not sure,” Iroh admitted. “Akane, dear, are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Uncle. Just feeling a little bit tingly,” Akane replied with a chuckle.

“I think that’s enough trying for you,” Iroh stated as he helped Akane get to her feet.

“That was just… unbelievable,” Akane trailed off. “I did it right, you saw me. I managed to generate the lightning but when it came down to it, I couldn’t control it.”

“You’ve certainly left me with something to contemplate,” Iroh said.

“Well, I’m ready to try it!” Zuko exclaimed confidently as he gave Akane her crutch back.

“Be careful,” Akane choked out.

“Remember, once you separate the energy, you do not command it. You are simply its humble guide. Breathe first,” Iroh reminded Zuko like he had with Akane.

Taking Iroh’s advice, Zuko took a deep breath as he started moving his arms around in a circular motion like he had saw his uncle do. He then tried to generate lightning, except unlike Akane all he got was an explosion that launched him back as Iroh shook his head in disappointment. Feeling worried for her friend, Akane started to walk towards Zuko, only for him to get right back onto his feet as he tried giving it another go.

It was clear that Zuko’s frustration was only growing with each attempt that he failed, which Akane figured was hardly helping him at all. Following another failed attempt at generating lightning, Zuko sat frustratedly on the ground instead of getting right back up like he had previously done.

“Why can’t I do it? Instead of lightning it keeps exploding in my face… like everything always does,” Zuko demanded angrily.

“It’s okay. I’m sure you’ll get it eventually,” Akane tried calming Zuko, but failed as he flinched away from her touch.

“I was afraid this might happen. You will not be able to master lightning until you have dealt with the turmoil inside you,” Iroh said.

“What turmoil?” Zuko demanded.

“Zuko, you must let go of your feelings of shame if you want your anger to go away,” Iroh advised his nephew.

“But I don’t feel any shame at all. I’m as proud as ever,” Zuko proclaimed.

“Prince Zuko, pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame,” Iroh clarified.

“Well, my life has bene nothing but humbling lately,” Zuko muttered.

“I have another idea. I will teach you both a firebending move that even Azula doesn’t know, because I made it up myself,” Iroh suggested, earning a smile from Zuko and a grin form Akane.

“Now this, I gotta see!” Akane exclaimed excitedly, wondering what tricks Iroh could have up his sleeve.

“Let us move over here,” Iroh said as he gestured to their side.

Sitting down with Zuko, Akane eagerly glanced at Iroh as she wondered what he could have to teach them. Anything that Iroh could say was always helpful, but whatever he was about to show them was going to be something special. At the same time, Akane was wondering why her lightning generation attempt had gone the way it had, but she figured that she’d find out in due time.

“Fire is the element of power,” Iroh began as he drew the firebending insignia in the dirt. “The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy to drive and achieve what they want.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Akane remarked, thinking about how the Fire Nation’s energy to achieve what they want had resulted in one hundred years of war.

“Earth is the element of substance,” Iroh continued as he drew the earthbending insignia. “The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring.” Iroh then drew the airbending insignia as he went on. “The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom. Also, they apparently had pretty good senses of humour!”

“The kid does seem pretty funny,” Akane commented, referring to the Avatar which earned a glare from Zuko.

“Water is the element of change,” Iroh said as he drew the waterbending insignia. “The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.”

“Why are you telling me these things?” Zuko asked.

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from one place, it becomes rigid and stale,” Iroh replied as he divided the four insignias into separate sections. “Understanding others, the other elements, and the other nations will help you become whole.”

“All this four elements talk is sounding like Avatar stuff,” Zuko stated once Iroh drew a circle around the insignias.

“It is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful. But it can make you more powerful, too,” Iroh explained. “You see the technique I’m about to teach you is one I learned by studying the waterbenders.”

“Wait a minute…” Akane trailed off as she realised where this was going. “Is this how you managed to pull the lightning away from me before and how you did it earlier when we were in that storm a few months ago?”

“Precisely,” Iroh nodded. “Now if you both could just stand up so I can demonstrate to you properly.”

Obeying Iroh’s command, Akane and Zuko got to their feet as they waited for what Iroh was about to show them. The coin still hadn’t dropped for Zuko, but Akane was beyond excited to learn the technique from Iroh.

“Waterbenders deal with the flow of energy,” Iroh began once they were on their feet. “A waterbender lets their defence become their offense, turning their opponents’ energy against them. I learned a way to do this with lightning.”

“You can teach me to redirect lightning?” Zuko realised what Iroh was saying.

“If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow it. You must create a pathway from your fingertips, up your arm to your shoulder, then down into your stomach. The stomach is the source of energy in your body. It is called the sea of chi. Only in my case it is more like a vast ocean,” Iroh laughed at his last remark.

“What happens then?” Akane queried.

“From the stomach, you direct it up again, and out the other arm. The stomach detour is critical. You must not let the lightning pass through your heart, or the damage could be deadly. You may wish to try a physical motion, to get a feel for the pathways’ flow, like this,” Iroh explained as he began to demonstrate the movements, which Akane and Zuko soon followed.

Together, they copied Iroh as he showed them the proper redirection motion. The way they practised it made it seem like it was some sort of slow motion movement, when Akane knew that it would have to be performed quickly in a life or death situation.

“Now, are you focusing your energy? Can you feel your own chi flowing in, down, up, and out?” Iroh questioned.

“I think so,” Zuko answered.

“Come on, you’ve got to feel the flow,” Iroh said.

They practiced the motion for a few more minutes, which allowed Akane to memorise every little movement in the back of her mind. This technique was certainly something that would come in hand for the next time they faced Azula considering her skill with lightning and her desire to kill them.

“Excellent! You’ve both got it!” Iroh exclaimed.

“Great, I’m ready to try it with real lightning!” Zuko proclaimed.

“What, are you crazy?” Iroh asked as he gave Zuko a look as if he thought his nephew was crazy. “Lightning is very dangerous!”

“I thought that was the point! You teaching me to protect myself from it!” Zuko stated.

“Yeah! But I’m not going to shoot lightning at you!” Iroh exclaimed exasperatedly with his worry for his nephew evident on his face before he turned around. “If you’re lucky, you will never have to use this technique at all!”

“Yeah, Zuko, don’t be stupid,” Akane said.

“Well, if you guys won’t help me, I’ll find my own lightning,” Zuko snapped as he headed off to leave.

“Zuko, don’t!” Akane cried as she tried to stop Zuko, but struggled due to her injuries.

“I’m sorry, Akane. But I need to know for sure that I can do this so that I can protect myself and you from danger,” Zuko apologised as he got onto the ostrich horse and rode away.

Within seconds, Zuko disappeared from Akane’s sight and she angrily threw her crutch to the side as she vented out her frustration. Just when Akane thought that she had Zuko where she needed him, he goes off like this again. Except this wasn’t like the last time where Zuko was unsure of what he was going to face. This time he knew exactly what he was looking for.

“Why does he have to be like this!” Akane yelled in frustration. “He’s going to get himself killed!”

“Akane, you need to understand where Zuko is coming from. While his actions may be misguided, they come from a good place,” Iroh reasoned.

“Yeah, yeah. He wants to protect me,” Akane muttered. “Well, this might be a newsflash for him but I don’t need or want protecting! I can look after myself just fine and I’m going to show him that.”

Not giving Iroh a chance to stop her, Akane picked up her crutch as she headed off in the direction where Zuko had left in. It never ceased to amaze Akane with how many feelings Zuko could make her feel at once. He made her feel happiness, sadness, anger and the list could go on. Right now he was making her feel frustration, and she planned on putting an end to that by talking some sense into Zuko’s thick head.

~*•°•*~

Finding Zuko had taken longer than Akane would’ve wanted, since he’d certainly gone off a long way but she was able to track him down using the footprints that their ostrich horse left behind. The nerves Akane was feeling towards Zuko only intensified when a strong storm started, which was exactly what Zuko had been looking for.

Eventually, Akane managed to find their ostrich horse resting down at the bottom of a small mountain as rain poured down and lightning flashed in the sky. At first, Akane couldn’t see any sign of Zuko until she suddenly heard a loud voice yelling from above her. Knowing where that was coming from, Akane started climbing up the mountain until she saw Zuko standing at the top as he yelled at the heavens above.

“Zuko!” Akane screamed, her voice being hidden by the striking of the lightning.

“You’ve always thrown everything you could at me! Well, I can take it, and now I can give it back!” Zuko yelled as loud as he could at the storm. “Come on, strike me! You’ve never held back before!”

At that point, no lightning had struck itself at Zuko which caused him to yell at the top of his lungs in agony. It hurt Akane to see Zuko in so much pain, even though she knew some of it was a result of his own actions. In hindsight, Akane could see that a lot of the turmoil Zuko had been through was because of the wrong decisions that he had made and that was happening once again.

Suddenly, a large lightning bolt appeared right before them and panic immediately swept through Akane as the lightning strikes only got closer to them. Fearing for Zuko’s and her own safety, Akane lunged towards him before tackling over, which resulted in them both being flung over the mountains edge and tumbling down the side. When they finally stopped it was because they had reached the bottom of the mountain, which left them both tangled in a heap and covered in mud as Zuko positioned himself on top of Akane.

“What are you doing?” Zuko demanded.

“Stopping you from being an idiot,” Akane snapped.

“I thought I made it obvious that I wanted to be alone,” Zuko grumbled.

“Well, sometimes you need someone to be with you. You might forget it, but I’m here for you, Zuko,” Akane insisted.

“I don’t want your help,” Zuko growled, his frustration beginning to rise. Despite their situation, Zuko couldn’t help but admit that he liked being this close with Akane, since it was something that they hadn’t had in ages.

Akane scoffed, “Well, isn’t this just ironic. You always ‘help’ me even though I make it clear I don’t need help. You might not want help Zuko but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need it.”

“Do you always have to be like this?” Zuko snapped.

“Like what?” Akane remarked.

“Act like you’re all high and mighty and know how I feel when you really don’t. You might like to think that you know my feelings but the truth is, you don’t. There is nothing that you can do to help me,” Zuko rambled.

“Then just let me be there for you! I can help you get through this if you just let me! Why won’t you let me in?” Akane exclaimed.

“I can’t let you in because you’re part of the problem!” Zuko yelled.

“What do you mean?” Akane questioned, genuinely confused by what Zuko meant.

“You’re just always… there. Even when you’re nowhere near me you’re constantly bugging me in my mind it’s like I can’t get rid of you. You wanna know what I constantly thought about while I was gone? You. It’s always you and I just want you to leave me alone when you’re always ruining everything!” Zuko rambled.

“How dare you say that to me! It’s not my fault that you can’t control your thoughts and that I have that much of an impact on your life. In case you haven’t forgotten I have been by your side through everything! I was there for you when part of your own family and your country disowned you! I gave up everything that I’d known just to be with you and you have the nerve to say that to me?” Akane shot back, letting more out than she wanted to.

Silence fell over them, with the only sound that could be heard being the clashing of the lightning and the roaring of the thunder around them. It wasn’t until that moment when Akane realised just how close she was to Zuko, and she could practically feel the frustration coming from the both of them. She could hardly describe whatever was going on between them and she had no idea what was going to come from this. That was when Zuko decided to take action and to say that his actions surprised her was an understatement.

Because he kissed her.

He kissed her so hard Akane barely had any time to register what was happening until she realised that there was more than just the wetness from the rain on her lips. For a split second, Akane just laid there, completely breathless as Zuko kissed her after everything that they’d just said. Then, hesitantly but confidently at the same time, she kissed him back.

They laid there kissing each other underneath the rain completely forgetting their surroundings and the reality of their situation. Never had anything felt so… right to Akane. Sure, Zuko was her best friend and you’d think that kissing him would be taboo, but Akane had never felt more content than she was right now. As cliché as it was kissing under the rain, Akane’s breath had been completely taken away by Zuko’s unexpected kiss. That was when Akane realised what was happening.

Holy mother of Koh. Holy spirits. Oh my Raava. I’m kissing Zuko. I’m KISSING Zuko. Holy spirits. Akane repeatedly, completely unsure of how to react.

Any moment of bliss that the two had as they laid there entangled in each other’s embrace was cut short when Zuko abruptly pulled away. When he did, both he and Akane stared at each other in horror as they realised what they had just done. Neither of them did anything as they avoided looking at each other, looking anywhere other than their eyes.

For Akane, this was the most terrifying moment of her life. Even more terrifying than being burned by Ozai or all of the crazy things that she’d done with Zuko. Terrifying because she had done something that could ruin everything that she’d had.

As for Zuko, he instantly started mentally kicking himself for what he had done. It had been a moment of weakness, where Akane was just lying there and his first instinct was to kiss her. Now he was wishing that he’d done anything but that. One of them had to do or say something, so once again, Zuko made the first move.

He pulled himself off of Akane and ran.

At first, Akane had no idea what to think of this sudden change of events. Kissing Zuko had never been something that Akane planned on doing. Granted, it was something that she had sometimes thought about but never thought would happen. This had been different from the many kisses on the cheek that they’d given each other. This had been one, big, giant, smackaroo that had completely taken Akane’s breath away.

Still reeling from the kiss, Akane gently touched her lips where Zuko’s had been moments ago to be sure that it actually had happened and that she hadn’t hit her head rolling down the mountain and was in some bizarre daydream. Of course, it was no daydream. It was real, and it had happened.

There was no denying the gravity of what had just happened and Akane knew that it was going to leave implications on their future. In time, Akane would have to confront these implications but she really had no idea how she was going to do that. So, she did all she could do at this moment.

She lied frozen on the ground as she stared at the sky, watching as the storm raged on while the million thoughts going on in her mind did the same.

Chapter Text

To say that Akane and Zuko were being awkward around each other after their kiss was a complete understatement. The two had barely spoken to each other, let alone acknowledged each other and only did so if they had to for Iroh’s sake. After knowing them for all of their lives, Iroh knew that something had to be going on between them. Everything seemed to be as fine as it could be before Akane went looking for Zuko after his lightning lesson the other day.

Upon their return back on that day, Iroh had noticed how awkward Zuko was being, since he was certainly being more awkward than usual. As for Akane, she had just appeared to be stunned and above all, embarrassed. Something had to have between them on that day and Iroh wanted to know what that was. So when they prepared themselves to leave the abandoned town that they had found themselves in, Iroh decided to see what he could find out.

“Is everything okay between you and Zuko?” Iroh asked as he helped Akane pack up their belongings.

Akane momentarily froze, “W-what? Why would you ask that? What have we done to make you think otherwise?”

“You two have been acting odder than usual around each other after you went to find Zuko. You two didn’t even come back together after you had gone looking for him,” Iroh pointed out.

“I just didn’t find him,” Akane murmured. That was what she had told Iroh when he asked her what had happened and ironically, that was exactly what Zuko said to him as well.

“I understand that things have been tense between you two since the North Pole, but if we’re going to travel together then you two need to put aside whatever differences you have,” Iroh said.

“Believe me, we put those differences aside,” Akane muttered.

Yeah, when he had his tongue shoved down your throat. That voice in her head remarked.

“Shut it,” Akane hissed.

“What was that?” Iroh asked.

“Nothing. I’m just going to go outside for some fresh air,” Akane mumbled as she got up to leave.

Just as Akane was about to exit their small little house, Zuko walked in through the door. For a moment they just stared uncomfortably at each other, neither of them wanting to be the one to say or do something first.

“Um, could you…” Akane trailed off as she gestured for Zuko to step aside.

“Oh, of course,” Zuko replied and did just that, allowing Akane to leave the house.

Once Akane was at a far enough distance from the house, she let out a pent up sigh as she mulled over what had happened. Since their kiss, Akane had avoided Zuko like the plague and could barely even look at him without seeing his lips on hers. It was safe to say that this was the worst that things had been between them in… forever. The awkwardness that they were experiencing was nothing compared to their petty arguments that often resolved themselves in a few days. But this wasn’t just something that could resolve itself in a few days.

Kissing Zuko had never been anything that Akane had planned on doing. Sure, she had wondered what it would be like to kiss him a few times but she never would’ve acted on those thoughts. This kiss with Zuko was unlike anything when compared to her first kiss when she was ten to a boy named Kohaku. This kiss left her feeling breathless and unable to hide the affects that it had. But above everything, it left her wanting more.

Because you liked having his tongue shoved down your face.

“It wasn’t like that,” Akane muttered.

Right, of course. It was nothing but pure bliss for you.

“Even if it was, it can’t happen again,” Akane said.

Why not? You liked it. Zuko probably liked it. So just do it.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Akane snapped irritably.

It was then when Akane realised how ridiculous she was being, having an argument with herself over something that she already knew the answer to. Kissing Zuko might have been one of the highlights of Akane’s life, but it wasn’t something that could happen again. The kiss had already added some awkwardness to the intensity that their friendship already was.

Part of Akane wanted to confront Zuko about it so that they could put it behind them and not let the awkwardness consume them. At the same time, Akane had no idea how to approach this situation and she had come to realise that sometimes talking to Zuko about things like this only made things worse. So for the time being Akane was just going to sit back and hope that eventually the awkwardness would pass over and that they’d eventually be able to pretend this never happened.

~*•°•*~

Pretending that nothing had happened between her and Zuko was proving to be a lot harder than Akane thought it would be. Especially since they were pressed up against each other as they rode on their ostrich horse. Since being on the run, Akane had found herself being up close and personal with Zuko more times than she’d like to admit. Their hands were just barely touching as Akane held onto Zuko while Iroh rode behind them.

Luckily for them, the awkwardness was tuned out by Iroh’s fake-moans of pretend pain at every step that the ostrich horse took. At the same time, Akane was experiencing her own pain from being wounded by Azula but she wasn’t being that overdramatic. In fact, Akane was willing to bet that Iroh was just trying to do that to get their attention.

“Uncle, what’s wrong?” Akane asked.

“Maybe we should make camp,” Zuko suggested.

“No please, don’t stop just for me!” Iroh railed.

Rolling her eyes as Iroh theatrically let out several more groans of pain, Akane helped him get off the ostrich horse as she took this as an opportunity to not be pressed up against Zuko. Just by looking at him, Akane could tell that he was irritated by Iroh’s behaviour and she couldn’t blame him for being so since she was as well. They had been riding the ostrich horse for hours now, so Akane figured that they could use a break from it.

Any moment rest that they had was cut short as the ostrich horse was suddenly armed by something. Reacting quickly, Zuko took on a firebending form, ready to defend himself while Akane did the same.

“What now?” Iroh asked, annoyed.

“Maybe you should stay back, Akane,” Zuko said.

“I can take care of myself,” Akane snapped.

They soon heard what sounded like footsteps approaching them before they suddenly found themselves surrounded by a group of men riding rhinos. The guy that seemed to be the leader pulled back the reigns of his rhino as Zuko kept up his defensive position, look at the men that surrounded them. Iroh, on the other hand, hardly seemed affected by their presence as he placed a hand on Zuko’s shoulder.

“Colonel Mongke! What a pleasant surprise!” Iroh acknowledged the leader.

“If you’re surprised we’re here, then the Dragon of the West has lost a few steps,” Colonel Mongke scowled as the other men prepared themselves for battle, each readying what seemed to be their own weapon of expertise.

“You know these guys?” Zuko asked.

“Sure. Colonel Mongke and the Rough Rhinos are legendary. Each one is a different kind of weapon specialist. They are also a very capable singing group,” Iroh explained.

“They don’t seem like the singing type,” Akane muttered.

“We’re not here to give a concert,” Colonel Mongke snapped as he raised his fists, ready to firebend. “We’re here to apprehend fugitives!”

“Would you like some tea first? I’d love some,” Iroh said as he rubbed his arm. “How about you, Kahchi? I make as a jasmine man. Am I right?”

“Enough stalling! Round ‘em up!” Colonel Mongke ordered.

Doing as told, the Rough Rhinos attacked. A dark skinned, pony tailed guy swung his ball and chain at Iroh, who kicked it away. The chain wrapped itself around the leg of a nearby standing Rhino. Iroh tumbled over the ground, dodging two fire blasts. He rose back up and hit the Rhino in the rear, making it dash away, yanking the dark skinned warrior off his rhino and dragging him along. Iroh then waved goodbye as he watched them go.

Without its rider, the rhino charged towards Akane who propelled herself into the air to avoid it before tricking the rhino into following off after its rider. Behind Akane, Colonel Mongke shot a blast of fire at her which Zuko stopped from reaching her before the archer shot a lit bow at Zuko. While Zuko took care of the archer, Akane and Iroh fended off Colonel Mongke as he shot multiple fire blasts at them.

Once Zuko released a fire blast that burned a hole in the surprised archer’s bow, Mongke joined the fight by shooting a blast at Zuko, which Akane stopped from reaching him. He then turned his focus back to Iroh, who deflect each and every fire blast that was sent his way. Whilst Mongke was busy with Iroh, Zuko ran up and jumped on the back of the rhino. With two spinning fire kicks, he sent Colonel Mongke flying.

Ready to get as far away from there as they could, Akane hoped onto the ostrich horse and raced it towards Iroh and Zuko. Upon reaching Iroh, he jumped onto it and rode towards Zuko, who awaited them as he stood on the rhino of Colonel Mongke. When they reached him, Zuko jumped onto the ostrich horse, sliding in between Akane and Iroh as he kept his arms on Akane. The rider threw a grenade at the fleeing ostrich horse, exploding right in front of it, but they managed to ride through the explosions smoke.

“It’s nice to see old friends,” Iroh said.

“Too bad you don’t have any old friends that don’t want to attack you,” Zuko hissed.

“Hmm… Old friends that don’t want to attack me…” Iroh trailed off as he grasped his shoulder again as he racked his brain in search of an answer, almost as if it was a foreign concept to him.

“Do you have any friends that won’t want to attack you?” Akane asked, hoping that he did.

“It just so happens that I do,” Iroh grinned. “I’ll lead the way from here.”

Looking down at her waist, Akane almost freaked out when she saw that Zuko was still holding onto her. Before the kiss, any contact like this would be fine. But since the kiss, any contact with Zuko felt like it wasn’t normal.

“Do you have to hold onto me like that?” Akane asked nervously.

“Oh, right… Sorry…” Zuko apologised sheepishly as he removed his hands.

Whatever place Iroh had in mind of taking them to meet these friends of his who presumably didn’t want to attack them, Akane was hoping that they’d get there soon since she wasn’t sure how long she could handle being up close and personal with Zuko like this.

~*•°•*~

Not too long after they were attacked by the Rough Rhinos, they arrived at a small town on the outskirts of the Si Wong Desert. The heat that greeted them was more intense than any heat that Akane had experienced in the Fire Nation. Because of this, Akane had reluctantly taken off her bandages and anything else that made things uncomfortable for her.

“Where exactly are we?” Akane asked as they got off their ostrich horse.

“This is the Misty Palms Oasis. It used to be an icy and refreshing spring, but it would seem as though things have changed since I was last here,” Iroh replied.

“I’d say so,” Akane murmured as she glanced around, noticing how rundown the place seemed.

“What are we doing here?” Zuko questioned.

“This is where our friend is,” Iroh answered.

For a brief moment, any awkwardness between Akane and Zuko was pushed aside as they glanced at each other in confusion before they remembered what had happened between them and scooted away from each other.

“Um, Uncle, are you sure this is the best place for us to be at?” Akane asked as she pointed at a kiosk where she noticed their Fire Nation wanted posters.

“We’ll be fine as long as we do not act in a way that would expose ourselves,” Iroh reassured them.

Being in a place where their wanted posters were plastered everywhere for people to see was definitely not a place that Akane wanted to be in. As they walked into some sort of bar, Akane could’ve sworn that she saw someone following them. Looking behind her, Akane saw two men glancing between them and the kiosk with their posters. Not wanting to get caught, Akane quickly followed Iroh and Zuko inside, hoping that they’d be able to get through this alright.

Upon walking into the bar, Akane quickly took notice of how run down the place looked. At first glance, Akane didn’t see anyone who could possibly help them since everyone here looked like they needed help too. Eventually, they decided to sit down for some rest so that Iroh could find who they were looking for.

“No one here is going to help us. These people just look like filthy wanderers,” Zuko snapped.

“So do we,” Iroh pointed out. Behind Zuko, Iroh noticed a man sitting at a Pai Sho table that caught his interest. “Ah, this is interesting. I think I found our friend.”

“You brought us here to gamble on Pai Sho?” Zuko asked in disbelief as he turned around to see where Iroh was pointing at.

“I don’t think this is a gamble,” Iroh smirked as he got up to walk towards the Pai Sho table.

After a few moments of hesitation, Akane and Zuko briefly glanced at one another before following after Iroh. As they did so, Akane noticed the two men from outside were watching them which made her feel even more nervous. Especially when one of them abruptly got up and seemed to be heading towards them, only to be stopped by the other man.

“May I have this game?” Iroh asked as they approached the Pai Sho table.

“The guest has the first move,” the old man gestured for Iroh to sit down, who then placed the lotus tile in the centre of the board. “I see you favour the white lotus gambit. Not many still cling to the ancient ways.”

“Those who do can always find a friend,” Iroh said as the other man cupped his hands towards Iroh before reciprocating the action.

“Then let us play,” the old man said as he placed a tile on the board.

Playing Pai Sho was something that Akane had done since she was a child, which was taught to her by Iroh. So she at least somewhat understood what was going on, unlike Zuko who watched as the two men quickly placed their tiles on the board, seemingly without even looking at what their opponent was doing. Zuko then sat down and watched intently as the two men placed one tile after the other before finishing their game. When they were done, their tiles formed the shape of a lotus flower.

“Welcome, brother. The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets,” the old man said.

“I’m lost,” Akane stated, not knowing what they were talking about. Based on the look on his face, Zuko was just as lost as she was.

“What are you old gasbags talking about?” Zuko exclaimed.

“Zuko!” Akane wacked him on the arm.

“I always tried to tell you that Pai Sho is more than just a game,” Iroh smirked as he rolled a tile over his knuckles and clutched it.

“I’m not waiting all night for these geezers to finish yapping!” a man yelled as he walked over to the Pai Sho table, followed by another.

Panic swept over Akane as she recognised them as the two men who had been watching them from outside. They had clearly recognised them and were about to expose them for everyone to see, just like Akane had feared they would.

“You three fugitives are coming with me!” the first man yelled.

“I knew it!” the old man exclaimed as he quickly placed himself before Iroh and Zuko, preventing the two men from reaching them. “You three are wanted criminals with a giant bounty on your heads!”

“I thought you said he would help!” Zuko hissed as Akane’s eyes widened even more.

“He is. Just watch,” Iroh reassured them as he placed a hand on Zuko’s shoulder.

“How is this helping us?” Akane squawked.

“You think you’re going to capture them and collect all that gold?” the man asked angrily.

That seemed to be the magic word as every person in the bar looked up upon hearing the word ‘gold.’ Some of them stood up, pulling a knife, ready to attack. That was also when Akane realised how the old man was helping them by getting everyone else focused on the two men who came to take them.

“Uh… Maybe we shouldn’t,” the second man trailed off as they were slowly surrounded.

It didn’t seem to convince the first man as he grinned while moving towards them, only to be blocked by two men who jumped in front of him to block his path. Using earthbending, the man was able to bend a rock from the ground and easily pushed the two men out of his way. Chaos then erupted as all of the other men in the bar went in to attack, giving them the perfect opportunity to slip out the tavern.

“Let’s go!” the old man hissed.

Doing as told, Akane, Iroh and Zuko ran out of the bar together while leaving the fighting men behind. As they raced away, Akane heard a loud bang and she turned to see a figure being flung into the air and against a palm tree. While they had managed to elude the two men who seemed to be after them, Akane had a feeling that that wouldn’t be the last time they went looking for them.

~*•°•*~

Following the old man – whose name they learned was Fung – lead them to a small, urban town not too far from the Misty Palms Oasis. Making sure they weren’t spotted, the trio stuck to the shadows so that nobody else would see them until they reached a flower shop. At first, Akane had no idea what they were doing at a flower shop of all places before she remembered that this was something to do with the White Lotus, which was a flower.

Unlike Zuko, Akane actually paid attention to some of the philosophies that Iroh taught them, and although he hadn’t told her much about it, Akane knew that he was a part of some sort of secret organisation.

“It is an honour to welcome such a high-ranking member of the Order of the White Lotus,” Fung said respectfully as he bowed to Iroh. “Being a Grand Master, you must know so many secrets.”

“Now that you played Pai Sho, are you going to do some flower arranging, or is someone in this club going to offer some real help?” Zuko snapped.

“I don’t think we’ve come here to do some flower arranging,” Akane remarked.

“You must forgive my nephew. He is not an initiate and has little appreciate for the cryptic arts. As for our friend, she at least understands that certain things have different meanings to certain people,” Iroh told the other man.

The Pai Sho player lead Iroh towards a door with a peephole in it and knocked two times, followed by a man sliding open the small window in the door and peeking through.

“Who knocks at the guarded gate?” the man asked.

“One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries,” Iroh replied.

That seemed to be some sort of secret password, since the door opened to let him and Fung through. When Akane and Zuko attempted to follow them, the door slammed shut in front of them. Zuko looked at the door with a pout when Iroh opened the small window.

“I’m afraid it’s members only. Wait out here,” Iroh said apologetically before shutting the small window.

An annoyed Zuko frowned and crossed his arms as he rested against a nearby table. He leaned over to sniff the plant on the table before looking away. Beside him, Akane shifted uncomfortably in her spot as she mentally freaked out over the prospect of being alone with Zuko. This was the first time that they had been alone since The Kiss and Akane didn’t know how she was supposed to deal with what was left of it.

Standing in silence, Akane and Zuko both avoided each other’s gaze, seemingly thinking the same thing – that it was better to just sit back and pretend that The Kiss never happened. All Akane could do was stand there and hope that the club meeting would be over soon enough so that it could relieve some of the awkwardness between Akane and Zuko. But as time ticked by and the club meaning went longer, Akane knew that they were going to be like this for a while.

To her credit, Akane really did try to ignore Zuko. She even tried resting against the wall to hopefully get some sleep and make this go by faster, which didn’t work. Out of nowhere, Akane suddenly felt the desire to confront Zuko about what had happened. If they were going to be working together like this, they couldn’t risk letting any unspoken tension get between them. So hesitantly, Akane broke the silence.

“Are we just going to sit back and pretend that it never happened?” Akane asked.

“That’s what I was trying to do,” Zuko muttered.

“Well, we can’t. We have to sort out whatever this is between us so that we don’t let it affect everything else,” Akane said.

“There is nothing between us,” Zuko snapped, somewhat hurting Akane.

“Shoving your tongue down my throat is a good way of showing that,” Akane crossed her arms.

Zuko cringed, “Must you describe it like that?”

“Yes, because that’s what happened. We were there, I was trying to talk some sense into you so to shut me up you shoved your tongue down my throat,” Akane said.

“It wasn’t to shut you up,” Zuko mumbled.

“Then why did you do it? Why’d you kiss me… like that?” Akane asked.

Zuko sighed, “I don’t know, okay? We were just lying there, in the rain and it was a moment of weakness that made me do it. It meant nothing.”

Okay, that hurt. Akane thought, since as much as she didn’t want to mean it, The Kiss did mean something to her. She just didn’t know what.

“You sure about that?” Akane demanded.

“Yes, it meant nothing. It was something that I shouldn’t have done and something that you shouldn’t have let me do,” Zuko replied.

“Oh, so now it’s my fault?” Akane snapped.

“Well, you could’ve pushed me away,” Zuko argued.

Akane scoffed, “Like I could’ve done that with you on top of me.”

“You still kissed me back,” Zuko pointed out.

“You were the one who kissed me first,” Akane said.

“Well, I wish I didn’t because it was a mistake. Don’t go thinking that I have feelings for you or anything because I don’t. I could never have feelings for you,” Zuko stated.

“What would be so horrible about anyone having feelings for me?” Akane asked, somewhat hurt by what he had said.

“No, I didn’t mean that it would be a bad thing,” Zuko said quickly. “It’s just, you’re you, and I’m me. Us together would just be… not good.”

Akane narrowed her eyes, “Why wouldn’t it be good?”

“Because we’re, you know, friends. Friends shouldn’t think about each other… that way,” Zuko replied.

“I get it,” Akane sighed.

“So lets just forget that it happened and move on from it,” Zuko suggested.

“That works for me,” Akane agreed.

“Good,” Zuko nodded.

As much as Akane believed that moving past the kiss was the best thing for them to do, there was still a part of her that wished that wasn’t the case. Whether she liked it or not, Zuko’s kiss had left an impact on Akane that she didn’t quite understand or know what to think of. All things considered, addressing whatever she was feeling probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do with the risk of making things more awkward than they already were now.

So as much as Akane didn’t want to do it, sitting back and pretending that it never happened seemed like her best option.

~*•°•*~

Never in her life had Akane ever waited for anything for as long as she had waited for this meeting to be over. Whatever they were talking about had taken hours to discuss, and Akane was just glad to have gotten over some of the awkwardness with Zuko. At least they didn’t have to spend the entire time ignoring each other. The door that Iroh had went through before suddenly made a squeaking noise, altering Zuko to take on a defensive stance as Iroh stepped through.

“What’s going on? Is the club meeting over?” Zuko asked.

“Everything is taken care of. We’re heading to Ba Sing Se,” Iroh replied as he and Fung bowed to each other in respect.

Zuko’s eyes widened, “Ba Sin Se? Why would we go to the Earth Kingdom capital?”

“Yeah, I’m not sure going to a place where we’re considered criminals is the best place to go,” Akane added.

“The city is filled with refugees. No one will notice two more,” Fung calmly reassured them.

“We can hide in plain sight there. And it’s the safest place in the world from the Fire Nation. Even I couldn’t break through to the city,” Iroh happily shrugged his shoulders.

A bell the signalled that someone had entered the shop, with that person being a young man who approached them holding up some papers.

“I have the passports for our guests, but there are two men out on the street looking for them,” the young man said.

Looking outside the window, Akane gasped upon recognising the two men who had tried to take them earlier at the tavern. It seemed as though they haven’t given up on their quest to find them as they held up Akane, Iroh and Zuko’s wanted posters to a man walking by.

“What do we do?” Akane asked.

“I know what to do,” Fung said before heading into the back room. When he returned, he was pushing a cart with two large pots on top of it that both looked like they could fit someone inside of them. “These are used to transport large items across the desert. I’m sure they’d work just fine transporting three people through the desert.”

“How are we supposed to fit inside of those?” Zuko asked.

“They’re bigger than they look,” Fung reasoned.

“But there are only two of them,” Akane pointed out.

“Clever observation, Akane. That means that you and Prince Zuko will have to share one,” Iroh stated.

“What!?” Akane and Zuko exclaimed at the same time.

“Two people couldn’t possibly fit in there at once,” Zuko argued.

“Yeah, one seems reasonable, but two?” Akane added.

“It is our only option,” Iroh said as he prepared himself to climb into one of them. “Get in.”

If Akane didn’t know any better, she’d say that the universe had it out for her. First she and Zuko had to spend hours by themselves after their kiss, and now they had to spend who knows how long in a cramped up pot? Just great.

“After you,” Zuko gestured to Akane and the pot.

Reluctantly, Akane stepped inside the pot, thankful that it was in fact bigger than it looked on the inside. It wasn’t long before Zuko joined her inside and the two found themselves pressed up against each other. Light soon became darkness when the pot was covered and all they could hear was one of the men’s voices as they were pushed away.

“Hey, you. Where are these men? I got a tip that they’re in your shop.”

Riding in silence, Akane sat there as she could practically feel the awkwardness coming from Zuko. This was without a doubt the closest that they had ever been to each other, with their faces just inches away from each other. Being up close and personal with Zuko on the ostrich horse that they had given away was nothing compared to the awkwardness that came with being in this pot together.

“So…” Akane trailed off awkwardly.

“When we get out of here, let’s never speak of this again,” Zuko suggested, his hot breath being felt on Akane’s face.

“Agreed,” Akane said without a shadow of doubt.

All they had to do now was wait for this ride to be over and then they could forget this ever happened, just like they said they would with their kiss. Since they were now heading to Ba Sing Se, Akane was sure that they’d be making plenty more memories that would hopefully be enough to forget the time that she and Zuko were cramped up in a small pot with hardly any room in between them.

Once they did arrive in Ba Sing Se, they would be free to start a new life away from the Fire Nation. That was something that Akane was actually looking forward to, and something that she hoped Zuko would eventually come around to as well.

Chapter Text

The entire ride in the pot with Zuko had been awkward. They hardly spoke to one another, with the awkwardness of their kiss still lingering around them. Despite agreeing to clear the air between each other, Akane knew that that was only for the sake of doing it and that things would probably always be awkward between her and Zuko, for now at least. So when they had finally been released from the restraints of their confined place, Akane had been more than willing to get out.

“We’re here now,” Iroh said when he took the lid off of their pot.

“Finally,” Akane muttered as she got up, startling Zuko.

Iroh chuckled, “It’s not like you two were in there for that long.”

“It felt like a lifetime,” Akane remarked.

Upon getting out of the pot, Akane quickly noticed that they were basically in the middle of nowhere. She had half-expected them to already be at wherever they needed to be, but they weren’t. If anything, it seemed like they were in the middle of nowhere.

“Where exactly are we?” Akane asked.

“You’re a few miles away from Full Moon Bay,” the young man who had got them here replied as he handed Iroh a map. “The directions that you need to take are on this map.”

“I see no Full Moon Bay listed on this map,” Akane pointed out. “The only way I see us getting to wherever we need to go is through that sliver of land called the Serpents Pass.”

“The Serpents Pass would be our last resort route since it is considered a deadly pass,” Iroh said. “Besides, there is a reason that Full Moon Bay isn’t seen on this map. That is because it’s hidden from the Fire Nation.”

“And you didn’t think to tell anyone about this secret passage?” Zuko demanded.

“It is my obligation to the Order of the White Lotus to keep the secrets that transcend between the Four Nations to myself,” Iroh said. Akane had expected Zuko to make another remark at Iroh’s ‘betrayal’ but instead he just huffed.

“We better get moving on,” Akane suggested.

“Yes, that would be best,” Iroh agreed before turning to their helper. “Thank you for everything that you have done for us.”

“It is my honour to help such a high-ranked member of the White Lotus,” the young man bowed in respect before turning to Akane. “Fung told me to tell you that you will find the answers you seek in the walls of Ba Sing Se.”

“Um, thanks?” Akane replied, not really sure what he was referring to, although she had a hunch.

“Here are your passports. You will need them in order to get onto the ferry and again so that you can enter Ba Sing Se,” the young man said as he handed them their passports.

Curiously, Akane took a look at her passport to see what it looked like. It didn’t appear to have anything out of order, so Akane hoped that they’d be able to enter Ba Sing Se without any hassle. She just liked the fact that she had been given a relatively normal name that she could get used to.

“Mr. Mushi?” Akane giggled upon seeing the name that Iroh had been given.

“It’s better to stick with what we know in case we come across any trouble related to our previous identities as Mushi, Junior and Naoki,” Iroh reasoned.

“At least Junior isn’t the name on my passport,” Zuko grumbled.

“I will allow you three to go on your way now. Good luck,” the young man bowed to Iroh one last time before heading off on his way.

“Off to Full Moon Bay we go,” Iroh proclaimed.

With their new identities behind them, Akane was feeling a little bit more confident about infiltrating the great city of Ba Sing Se. The city was legendary anywhere in the world, and Akane had always wondered what it would be like to see it. Now it seemed like she’d finally get to see it for herself, and for that she couldn’t wait.

~*•°•*~

When they reached what Akane thought should’ve been Full Moon Bay, there was almost nothing in sight, just a rock of earth. To Akane’s complete surprise, two men clad in Earth Kingdom clothes slid down the mountain using earthbending before stopping themselves in front of them.

“Who are you and what do you want?” one of them demanded.

“I am Mushi, this is my daughter, Naoki and my nephew, Lee. We wish to seek refuge in Ba Sing Se after our town was burned down by the Fire Nation, forcing us to flee,” Iroh explained as he handed the documents over.

“Please help us, we only wish to start a new life somewhere safe,” Akane added.

“The documents seem to be in order,” the second men nodded in approval.

“Very well. We will escort you to Full Moon Bay,” the first one conceded.

Relief flooded through Akane as the Earth Kingdom men gave them their help, using their earthbending to allow them into Full Moon Bay. Even though Akane had reassured herself that everything would turn out alright, she had still feared that they wouldn’t be able to make it in since after all, they are three of the most famous people in the Fire Nation. But Akane couldn’t rest easily yet, since they still had to get their passports approved before they could enter Ba Sing Se.

Just like Iroh said it was, Full Moon Bay was a hidden passageway that they were able to access via earthbending. Upon entering the place, Akane quickly noticed just how many people were in this area. Looking around, Akane could just see how bad things seemed to be for the people around here. Even though it wasn’t her fault, Akane still felt guilty that the Fire Nation was responsible for these peoples suffering.

“This is so sad,” Akane whispered.

“It certainly is,” Iroh agreed sadly.

Zuko scoffed, “These people brought it on themselves.”

“Zuko! Why would you say that?” Akane hissed, more offended by Zuko’s comment than the fact that he had said it in public.

“I shouldn’t have to explain this to you,” Zuko muttered as he walked ahead of Akane and Iroh.

Akane sighed, “He’s only going to make this more difficult because he doesn’t want this.”

“He’ll come around eventually,” Iroh reasoned.

Despite Iroh’s confidence that Zuko would eventually come to accept their new lives, Akane knew that that most likely wouldn’t be the case. Zuko would never be able to accept living as a refuge amongst Earth Kingdom commoners because of the way he had been raised and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, Akane couldn’t blame Zuko for having that frame of mind. After all, they’d been forced to start a new life somewhere that would otherwise be the last place that they wanted to be.

It was kind of ironic how their situation was, since they were fugitives from the Fire Nation, yet they were just as much wanted in the Earth Kingdom but that was where they would now be living. It soon became apparent to Akane just how different things were run in the Earth Kingdom compared to the Fire Nation. The most apparent difference was how their version of ‘security’ was a platypus bear who seemed to intimidate everyone.

Waiting around seemed to feel like an eternity, since they were left standing in a line as they waited for their names to be called. Even though nobody called them out on it, Akane still felt vulnerable being in an area surrounded by people who would probably celebrate if they were caught dead.

“Next!” a loud voice called.

The trio walked up to the place where they were supposed to get their tickets from. In a strange way, Akane was nervous by being in the presence of that woman even though she was hardly scared of her.

“Passports,” the woman demanded.

“You’ll find everything in order,” Iroh replied as he handed them over.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” the woman snapped as she examined the passports. “So you’re Mister Mushi, Mister Lee and Miss Naoki?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Akane replied.

The woman seemed to examine them for a few moments as she glanced up and down from their passports, almost as if she was questioning them internally. That was enough to make Akane nervous again, as she hoped that they wouldn’t be turned over to the platypus bear.

“Here are your tickets,” the woman finally conceded, stamping three pieces of paper before handing them back.

“Thank you very much,” Iroh smiled before taking them.

A sigh of relief that Akane didn’t even realise she was holding came out. They were now another step closer to safety, and Akane wasn’t sure if she’d be able to feel comfortable until they were fully accommodated in Ba Sing Se. Now that they had their passports ready, their next step was to board onto their ferry so that they could reach Ba Sing Se. However, before they could even approach it they heard a loud voice that caught their attention.

“I’m the Avatar! Let me through!” they yelled.

There was a split second of panic that went through Akane as she heard the voice since if the Avatar was here, then that would risk exposing them as Fire Nation. It also seemed to get Zuko’s attention as he turned to the source of the voice. When Akane turned to see if her fears had been confirmed, she was relieved to discover that it was not the Avatar. Just someone dressed up as the Avatar in a very poor costume.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Akane hissed as Zuko made a move towards him.

“Getting the Avatar,” Zuko replied as if it was obvious.

Akane rolled her eyes, “If you’d look closely you’d be able to see that that’s not the Avatar.”

“Oh,” Zuko muttered as the realisation hit him.

“Come on, we don’t want to miss our ferry,” Akane said as she pulled him along.

When they boarded the ferry, Iroh was the one who handed their tickets over to the guard. Upon looking closely at the guard, Akane noticed that he was wearing the same outfit that everyone else seemed to wear around here and it was hard to not acknowledge how… bleh it was.

“So, this is your daughter and your nephew?” the guard asked.

“Of course they are,” Iroh smiled.

“Enjoy the trip,” the guard said dryly, giving Akane the impression that he was required to say that and didn’t really mean it.

Once they got on the boat, Akane took notice of their surroundings and when nobody seemed to think twice of their appearance, she was able to sit back a bit. But all it would take was for one person to recognise them for who the truly were and then everything would’ve been for nothing.

~*•°•*~

It felt strange being on a boat again. The last time Akane had been on a boat like this was on their way to the North Pole while masquerading as guards. The scenario this time around was actually almost the same, except they were sneaking into Ba Sing Se while masquerading as refugees. At the same time, they weren’t masquerading as anything since they really were refugees on the run from the Fire Nation.

Their situation was certainly bothering Zuko, since he sat slouched up against a pillar while Iroh looked thoughtfully out at sea. Part of Akane had been worried about Iroh going back to the place where he had lost everything all those years ago. Then she was worried about Zuko’s sour attitude ruining everything. There was a lot to be worried about, and Akane could’ve dealt without the worries.

“Who would have thought after all these years, I’d return to the scene of my greatest military disgrace…” Iroh turned away for a few seconds before turning back with a floral hat on his head. “As a tourist!”

Akane giggled, “Where did you get that?”

“Look around. We’re not tourists, we’re refugees,” Zuko said as he sipped his food and spat it back out.

Akane rolled her eyes, “Thank you for stating the obvious.”

“Ugh! I’m sick of eating rotten food, sleeping in the dirt. I’m tired of living like this!” Zuko complained.

“Aren’t we all?” a new voice said.

Turning around, Akane saw three other people standing there and they couldn’t have been any older than what she and Zuko were. They were all dressed in some sort of armour, making Akane think that they were fighters of some sort.

“My name’s Jet and these are my Freedom Fighters, Smellerbee and Longshot,” the boy at the front – Jet – introduced them.

“Hey,” Smellerbee greeted them, while the boy next to her just nodded.

“Hello,” Zuko returned the greeting.

“Hi,” Akane waved, suddenly feeling all squeamish when Jet gave her a flirtatious smile.

“Here’s the deal,” Jet started. “I hear the captain’s eating like a king while the refugees have to feed off his scraps. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“Not at all,” Akane grumbled.

“What sort of king is he eating like?” Iroh asked.

“The fat, happy kind,” Jet replied. At that, Iroh’s mouth hanged open as he started to drool. “You want to help us “liberate” some food?”

Zuko looked at the bowl of food in his hand before tossing it into the water and facing Jet, “I’m in.”

Jet smirked before flashing a charming smile at Akane, “What about you?”

“I can’t say no to more food,” Akane agreed, feeling her cheeks flush at Jets smile. There was just something about the way he looked at her that made Akane feel nervous, but in the giddy way.

“Sounds great. I’ll meet you guys here tonight where we’ll be feasting on our takings,” Jet said before walking off with his two Freedom Fighters.

“He seems… mysterious,” Akane observed as she watched Jet walk away.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Zuko asked.

“There’s just something about him that’s endearing. It makes me want to know more,” Akane replied.

“You’ve just met him,” Zuko pointed out.

“And I want to know more about him. Is there so much wrong with that?” Akane crossed her arms.

“Yes there is when we barely know him and don’t know if we can trust him,” Zuko argued.

“He trusted us enough to ask us if we wanted to help, so I’m trusting him enough to give him a chance in the long run,” Akane shrugged.

Zuko shook his head, “You need to be careful on who you open up to, especially now that we’re going to Ba Sing Se. We won’t be able to trust anyone with anything.”

“Don’t worry, Buster. I won’t tell him that I’m Fire Nation,” Akane whispered so that nobody would hear her.

“Just be careful. Don’t go getting yourself involved in anything dangerous,” Zuko said.

“Yes, mom. I’ll be careful,” Akane drawled.

“I’m not your mom,” Zuko snapped.

“Yes, you aren’t. So don’t act like it. I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself,” Akane remarked.

“Alright, children. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the ride,” Iroh interrupted.

Figuring that there was no point in adding more tension to her and Zuko, Akane decided to just forget their argument that wasn’t really an argument and just focus on what was around the corner. It was a strange feeling but Akane was looking forward to the night, despite the fact that they’d technically stealing. Then again, they were stealing for a good reason and that was what Akane had to remind herself.

~*•°•*~

When the time came, Akane and Zuko met up with Jet at the spot where they had agreed to meet that night. Once they were ready, Akane and Zuko snuck into the ferry’s kitchen where they managed to steal enough food to give to some of the other passengers. The whole time, Akane could feel Jet watching her and every time she turned to look at him, she saw the same dashing smile on his face.

Once they nearly got caught, that was time for them to leave so they escaped by sliding down a rope form Longshot’s arrow. Working with the Freedom Fighters had felt good for Akane, since it was nice to be apart of a group doing something for the right reason. Yes, they were stealing food, but it was for the betterment of everyone else. So when Jet was handing out the food that they had took, Akane didn’t feel the least bit guilty since she knew that this people deserved it just as, if not, more, than anyone else.

“So, Smellerbee,” Iroh addressed the girl as they sat down together. “That’s an unusual name for a young man.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m not a man… I’m a girl!” Smellerbee shot back as she got up to leave.

“Oh, now I see. It’s a beautiful name for a lovely girl!” Iroh called out to her while Akane did a facepalm as Longshot got up to follow her.

“Nicely going, dad,” Akane jested, putting emphasis on the word ‘dad’. Referring to Iroh in such a way was hardly uncomfortable for Akane, since he was basically the father that she never had so it only felt natural to call him that.

“I didn’t mean to be offensive,” Iroh admitted.

“From what I heard, people eat like this every night in Ba Sing Se,” Jet said as he approached them. “I can’t wait to set my eyes on that giant wall.”

“It is a magnificent site,” Iroh agreed.

“So you’ve been there before?” Jet questioned.

“Once. When I was a…. different man,” Iroh answered, and Akane couldn’t deny the pang in her chest as she remembered the loss of Lu Ten that had devastated Iroh’s life.

“I’ve done some things in my past that I’m not proud of, but that’s why I’m going to Ba Sing Se: for a new beginning. A second chance,” Jet said.

“That’s very noble of you. I believe people can change their lives if they want to. I believe in second chances,” Iroh stated.

“I just realised that I never really got your names before,” Jet said.

“I’m Naoki. This is my father, Mushi and my cousin, Lee,” Akane introduced them properly.

“Well, Naoki. Would you like to come and talk with me?” Jet suggested.

Akane glanced at Iroh and Zuko, who didn’t seem to give her an indication of what she should do, which was what prompted her to accept Jet’s offer.

“Yes,” she replied.

With some help from Jet, Akane got to her feet and followed the Freedom Fighter to a more quiet part of the ferry. They then sat down together, looking out at sea and towards Ba Sing Se.

“How do you feel about going to the city?” Jet queried.

“Nervous, I guess,” Akane admitted truthfully, since she was nervous. “This whole situation has just been really hectic for me and it’s been hard having to constantly readjust to my situation.”

“I’m ready to see what the city has to offer. Hopefully it has more than what I’ve been given so far,” Jet said before glancing down at Akane’s hand, which was slowly healing but still obviously scarred. “What happened to your hand?”

“Oh, it got burned when our old town was ambushed by the Fire Nation. I barely managed to escape with my dad and cousin,” Akane replied.

“I’m guessing that’s where he got his scar form as well,” Jet noted.

“Mhm,” Akane murmured, feeling the familiar rage boil inside of her whenever the origins of Zuko’s scar was mentioned.

“You know, I wouldn’t have thought that the two of you were cousins,” Jet stated.

Akane raised her eyes, “Why’s that?”

“Just the way he looks at you. It’s not how I’d think a cousin would look at their cousin,” Jet replied.

“Oh,” Akane murmured, trying her best to hide the blush that she could feel forming on her face. “He’s just very protective of me. We’ve been through a lot together so we’re closer than your typical cousins. He’s basically my brother.”

“He seems to have something stuck up himself all the time,” Jet noted.

“Yeah, that’s Zu-Lee all the time,” Akane corrected herself before she almost called him Zuko.

“What was that?” Jet asked.

“What was what?” Akane replied, panicked that she had let something slipped.

“What you almost called him,” Jet clarified.

“Oh, it’s just a joke. Lee was named after his father so my father likes to call him Junior to poke fun at him. He doesn’t like that,” Akane replied, hoping that her lie had worked.

“I could see why,” Jet mumbled. “You wanna know something, Naoki. You and Lee are two of the most intriguing people that I’ve ever met.”

“I could say the same about you,” Akane said. “I’m not sure if it’s the piece of wheat in your mouth but there’s just something about you that gets to me in some way.”

“I’d say that it’s my dashing charm,” Jet flashed Akane another grin.

“Yeah, that could be it as well,” Akane agreed. “You’re also pretty similar to Lee in some way, yet completely different at the same time.”

“We also come from very similar pasts,” Jet added.

“How’s that?” Akane inquired, wanting to know more about Jet’s past.

“My village was also raided by the Fire Nation when I was eight-years-old. My parents were killed right before my eyes as I watched my village burn to the ground because of those ash makers. That day changed me forever,” Jet replied.

As Jet spoke, Akane could sense the hatred coming off from each and every word that he spoke, especially when he used that slur against her people. Being completely honest, Akane had never used a slur like ‘ash maker’ in her life against anyone, since she just didn’t feel right saying that. But Jet said it like it meant nothing to him.

“I’m so sorry. I wish I could say I understand, but I’ve had my father with me for all of my life. The only way I can relate is that my mother was taken away from me when I was very young,” Akane said, referring to Ursa who had always been like a mother figure to her.

“That day changed me forever. It made me realise just how evil those people could be, and it made me want to make them suffer for doing just that. That’s why I formed the Freedom Fighters so we could help those who couldn’t defend themselves against the Fire Nation,” Jet said.

“It is sad how the Fire Nation is so merciless against people who can’t do anything to help themselves,” Akane whispered.

“I soon got caught up in everything and as much as I hate to admit it, I became just like those monsters who hurt innocent people. It had somehow become etched into my mind that I had to do whatever I had to beat them, no matter who got caught in the way,” Jet said, a hint of regret on his face.

“Is that what you were referring to when you said that you’d done things in your past that you weren’t proud of?” Akane questioned.

Jet sighed, “Yeah. It took a pretty big wake up call for me to realise that I had lost sight of what I was truly fighting for. But now that I know what that is again, I’m ready to take it with me to Ba Sing Se.”

“It takes a lot of pride for someone to admit their wrongdoings,” Akane smiled.

“But that doesn’t change anything for me when you look at the big picture,” Jet said, causing Akane’s smile to falter. “If I ever get the chance to give the Fire Nation scum what they deserve, I will gladly give it to them with no remorse. They have ruined the lives of so many people and each and every one of them deserve to suffer for that alone.”

“B-but, what if there were some good people from the Fire Nation?” Akane asked quietly.

Jet scoffed, “Like that’s a possibility. They’re all ruthless monsters, each and every one of them.”

Despite the severity of their situation, Akane couldn’t help but find how ironic Jet’s statement was, since he firmly believed that all Fire Nation people were evil but he had just had a civil conversation with three people who weren’t. Well, two at least.

“We should get back,” Akane suggested, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in Jet’s presence.

Jet nodded, “Yeah, we should.”

It really is funny how just one conversation with a person can completely change your outlook on them. When Akane first met Jet, she thought he was somewhat of a mysterious character but after one conversation she knew exactly what he was. Jet was a strong-willed person, set in his ways and there was nothing that could change that. What worried Akane the most was how his beliefs were potentially dangerous to Akane, Iroh and Zuko, since they were so against them and everything they stood for.

Just when Akane thought her nerves had calmed down, Jet’s presence suddenly made them escalate to the top once again. Now Akane couldn’t wait to get off this ferry if it meant getting away from Jet, since Akane had a feeling that he wouldn’t have any mercy towards her if he found out that she was ‘Fire Nation scum’ as he put it. After parting ways with Jet, Akane returned to the part of the ferry where Iroh and Zuko were, except Zuko was now lying asleep on the floor while Iroh stood up.

“Ah, Naoki. I was wondering where you and that boy had gone off to,” Iroh said.

“We just talked. I didn’t realise that much time had passed,” Akane replied, deciding not to voice her concerns about Jet right now.

“Lee wanted to wait up for you, but I insisted that he get some rest,” Iroh stated.

“How do you think he’s going to handle Ba Sing Se?” Akane asked, resting against the ferry’s railing.

“It will take some adjusting, but I’m confident that Lee will eventually come around to the prospect of living there,” Iroh replied as he turned to look overboard, stroking his beard in thought.

“What are you thinking?” Akane inquired.

Before Iroh could respond, he let out a loud gasp as something suddenly caught his eye from above. Looking up in the sky, Akane couldn’t hide her gasp either when she recognised the Avatar’s flying bison in the sky. What caught her attention the most was that it didn’t even look like he had any passengers, which made Akane wonder just what was exactly going on in the Avatar’s world. The real Avatar, that was. Not those fake Avatar imposters at Full Moon Bay.

“Uncle? Akane? What are you looking at?” Zuko asked as he sat up. “Is there something out there?”

“Uh, it’s nothing. Go back to sleep,” Iroh replied nervously.

Complying, Zuko sat back down and went to sleep, causing relief to go over Akane and Iroh. The last thing that they wanted was for Zuko to get hooked on his Avatar chasing days again.

“You should get some rest too,” Iroh said to Akane.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Akane yawned.

Lying down on the ferry’s deck, Akane struggled to get herself to fall asleep with thoughts of Jet, the Avatar and Ba Sing Se swirling through her mind at once. But after a few minutes, Akane’s tiredness seemed to take over and she quickly found herself snoring lightly on the floor, preparing herself for what was ahead.

~*•°•*~

The following day, their ferry seemed to be getting closer to the walls of Ba Sing Se. It truly was a sight to behold from the outside, and Akane could only imagine what it would be like on the inside. As Akane watched the view, she felt someone approach her and turned to see Zuko standing there.

“Hey,” Akane acknowledged him.

“How was your talk with Jet?” Zuko asked curiously.

Akane shrugged, “It was interesting. He told me some things, I told him some things.”

“What kind of things?” Zuko pressed.

“Just the basics, you know. Where we come from and how we think,” Akane replied. “He’s kind of like you.”

“How could you say that?” Zuko asked.

“I mean, you’re both mysterious and a bit guarded. But at the same time it makes you endearing,” Akane clarified.

“That’s why you like him then,” Zuko stated.

“I mean, it’s what drew me towards him at first but I wouldn’t say that I like him. I just met him,” Akane reassured Zuko.

“Whatever you say,” Zuko muttered.

It was a fair assumption on Akane’s part that there was something about Jet that really bothered Zuko, not that she couldn’t blame him. Because Akane had her own reasons for being bothered by Jet, but Akane wasn’t so sure if she should tell Zuko her concerns or not. Speaking of the devil, Akane spotted Jet approaching them from behind.

“You know, as soon as I saw your scar, I knew exactly who you were,” Jet stated.

Panic swarmed through both Akane and Zuko as they shared a look, both fearing that Jet had somehow recognised them and was about to expose their identities.

“You’re an outcast, like me,” Jet added, sending a swarm of relief through them. “And us outcasts have to stick together. We have to watch each other’s backs. Because no one else will.”

“I’ve realised lately that being on your own isn’t always the best path,” Zuko admitted.

“It’s good to have people to support you,” Akane added, smiling at Zuko.

“I can tell that you two support each other. I like that,” Jet stated.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Zuko said.

“I see that,” Jet nodded. “Well, it looks like we’ll be landing soon. Maybe I’ll see you guys again later.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Akane said politely, even though part of her was somewhat hoping that she wouldn’t have to deal with Jet again.

“See you guys around,” Jet said before walking off.

“I don’t like him,” Zuko stated once Jet was gone.

“Why? You’ve only just met him,” Akane pointed out.

“There’s just something about him that I don’t like. I can’t really put my finger on it,” Zuko said.

“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s a kid, just like us. Sure, he’s got a band of misfits but it’s not like he means any harm,” Akane reassured Zuko, even though she could understand Zuko’s hesitancy regarding Jet. But Akane didn’t want to voice her concerns since it would risk setting Zuko off and they couldn’t risk Zuko flying off the handle again.

“I doubt that he and I are ever going to be bust buddies,” Zuko muttered.

“Maybe you won’t. But if we do see him again when we’re in the city, at least try to be nice about it,” Akane said.

“Whatever,” Zuko murmured.

All things considered, Akane really couldn’t expect that much from Zuko. They were about to be entering new territory that wasn’t somewhere they thought they’d be ending up. There were many things that Akane wasn’t so sure about, whether it be her concerns about Jet or her worries about fitting in where it mattered. It was hard for Akane to just forget about the thoughts that were clouding her mind, since they were reasonable doubts.

If there was one thing that Akane had come to realise in the past few months was that you can’t control the future. You can think about it all you want, but whatever happens is completely out of your hands. So far, whatever had happened in Akane’s future had been unpredictable, but Akane was hoping that maybe Ba Sing Se would be different. Maybe this would be a place where Akane could finally settle down and feel free. Or maybe it would be the worst thing that could happen to her. Whatever happened, Akane was glad that she’d have Iroh and Zuko by her side to face these changes together.

Chapter Text

After what felt like an eternity, their ferry finally landed, allowing them to get off. But first they had to get their tickets for the train that would take them to Ba Sing Se. They seemed to have gotten away from Jet and his misfit friends, which Akane was glad for since she still didn’t feel entirely comfortable around him. She still didn’t feel safe where they were, and figured that she’d feel more relaxed once they’d settled in at the city. Once they got themselves sorted, they headed towards a ticket booth and gave their tickets to the woman who inspected them.

“So, Mr. Lee, Miss Naoki and Mr. umm… Mushy, is it?” the ticket woman asked, pronouncing Iroh’s made-up name wrong.

“It’s pronounced Mushi,” Iroh corrected her.

“You telling me how to do my job?” the ticket woman snapped irritably.

“Uh, no, no,” Iroh reassured her as he approached the ticket booth, giving the woman a flirtatious look. “But may I just say you’re like a flower in bloom. You’re beauty is intoxicating..”

“You’re pretty easy on the eyes yourself, handsome. Raorr!” the ticket woman replied back flirtatiously as she gave him a flirty growl and stamped their tickets. “Welcome to Ba Sing Se.”

Iroh then took the tickets and turned back to Akane and Zuko, who were both wearing a contrasting look on their faces. Akane just looked bemused at Iroh while Zuko shook his head in disgust.

“I’m going to forget I saw that,” Zuko grumbled as he took his ticket and walked away.

“Is that how you always talk your way out of trouble with the ladies by flirting with them?” Akane crossed her arms.

Iroh smiled, “I wouldn’t call it flirting. I’d just call it passing on compliments.”

“Sure…” Akane trailed off.

Unbeknownst to them, the three firebenders were being watched from afar by Jet, who had no idea of their true identity. As far as he was aware, they were three refugees who had been chased away from their home like him.

"I think Lee and Naoki would make some good Freedom Fighters. They're just trying to find their way in the world, like us," Jet stated.

“You don’t know anything about them, Jet,” Smellerbee argued.

“I know that Naoki’s hand got burned by the Fire Nation. And Lee certainly didn’t get that scar from a waterbender,” Jet remarked.

“You only want the girl to join us because you’ve got the hots for her,” Smellerbee stated. “You’re looking at her the same way you looked at the Avatars waterbending girlfriend. Do you really want this to turn out like that?”

“So what if I’ve got the hots for her?” Jet smirked. “And besides, this won’t turn out like that did since Lee is only Naoki’s cousin. As far as I’m aware, she’s completely available and doesn’t have a kid following her around.”

“Besides, I thought we were going straight now,” Smellerbee pointed out.

“We are, and the new Freedom Fighters could use a guy like Lee and a girl like Naoki. What do you think, Longshot?” Jet asked his other comrade.

Longshot looked at him in silence with a meaningful look as he blinked twice.

“I can respect that,” Jet nodded.

Away from Jet, Akane, Iroh and Zuko sat down as they waited for their scheduled train to arrive. They still had a few hours before that time came, so it would seem as though they had some time to kill.

“I’m bored,” Akane complained as she slouched against the pillar that they were sitting against.

“What do you expect me to do about it?” Zuko asked.

“Think of something to do,” Akane suggested.

“Why don’t you?” Zuko snapped.

“What do you expect me to do, think about my place in the universe?” Akane drawled as she thought of ways to pass the time. “Oh, I know! We could play eye spy!”

“Not that game,” Zuko groaned.

“Come on, it’ll pass time. And we’ve got two hours to wait before our train arrives,” Akane reasoned as Zuko reluctantly conceded. “Okay, eye spy with my little eye, something beginning with t.”

“Train,” Zuko shrugged.

Akane rolled her eyes, “You gotta give me a little more credit than that.”

“Fine,” Zuko muttered. “Tiles?”

“Nope,” Akane shook her head.

“Tracks?” Zuko asked.

“Nah-uh,” Akane replied.

“Tea?” Zuko suggested.

Akane scoffed, “I’m not Iroh.”

“Just tell me what it is so we can finish this stupid game,” Zuko grumbled agitatedly.

“You’re no fun,” Akane grumbled. “Fine, it was teeth.”

“Teeth?” Zuko repeated.

“You know, the white things in your mouth that you use to chew. They’re kind of important,” Akane deadpanned.

“You’re weird,” Zuko shook his head.

“But you love me anyways,” Akane threw her arm around Zuko.

It was hard not to notice how Zuko had shifted uncomfortably at Akane’s comment, which made her remove her arm from his shoulder. Despite agreeing to put the Kiss behind them, things were still awkward between Akane and Zuko. The awkwardness was soon replaced with nerves when Akane noticed Jet approaching them before he sat down next to Zuko.

“So, you guys got plans once you’re inside the city?” Jet asked.

“Get your hot tea here! Finest tea in Ba Sing Se!” a tea seller yelled, which instantly caught Iroh’s attention.

“Ooh!” Iroh called out as he waved his hand. “Jasmine, please.”

The tea seller poured tea into a leaf cup for Iroh before giving it to him. Iroh then sipped the tea, but soon grimaced at its repulsive taste.

“Blaugh!” Iroh cried in disgust. “Ugh, coldest tea in Ba Sing Se is more like it! What a disgrace!”

“Hey, can I talk to you guys for a second?” Jet asked Akane and Zuko.

He motioned for them to follow them. After sharing a quick glance with Akane, Zuko sighed and reluctantly rose to his feet. They walked several feet away from Iroh’s spot.

“Us three have a much better chance of making it in the city if we stick together. You want to join the Freedom Fighters?” Jet offered.

“Thanks, but I don’t think you want me in your gang,” Zuko replied, and Akane couldn’t help but agree with him quietly. There was no way that Jet would want Zuko as part of his little gang if he knew who he was.

“Come on, we made a great team looting that captain’s food. Think of all the good we could do for these refugees,” Jet insisted.

“I said no,” Zuko snapped as he walked away.

Akane grimaced as she turned to face Jet, “Sorry about him, he’s not really a people person. So you probably wouldn’t want him in your gang anyways. He’s a bit of an angsty pain in the butt at times, trust me.”

“What about you then?” Jet asked with a charming smile. “I could certainly use a fighter like you around. You’ve got spunk, and I like that.”

“Oh, um, thanks,” Akane blushed. “But you wouldn’t want me in your gang either. Lee and I are very private people, we don’t like exposing ourselves to the world. You guys seem fine on your own and I don’t really like fighting anyways.”

“You don’t have to fight to be in the Freedom Fighters,” Jet said.

“No offence, Jet, but I don’t really want to get myself or my family into any trouble. It was a lot of work to get us here and I don’t want to risk blowing it,” Akane replied, hoping that he would finally take the hint.

Despite the subtle insult in her words, Jet couldn’t help but admire her for putting her family above herself. That was something that Jet could learn from her. What endeared him to her even more was that she was able to stand her ground against him, since most girls easily succumbed to his wishes. But not Naoki. She was different, and Jet liked that.

“You know, Naoki. I could certainly learn a lot from you. I can tell that you’ve got a big heart and I wouldn’t be the first to say that my heart has been a bit guarded. If there’s anyone that could learn something its me from you,” Jet admitted.

“It takes a lot to admit something like that, Jet. I’d say that you’re doing just fine on your own. Sometimes its better to learn by yourself than it is to have others with you,” Akane said.

“So that’s a no to the Freedom Fighters, then? How about instead of joining our gang you just join us in the city? We could hang out whenever we’re around,” Jet offered, not wanting to give up on Naoki just yet.

“We’ll see,” Akane replied, hoping that that answer would be enough to satisfy Jet.

It seemed to be enough as Jet didn’t say anything in response to that, so Akane just turned around and headed back to Iroh and Zuko. But she nearly had a heart attack when she saw steam coming from Iroh’s cup of tea. He had just said that it was cold only moments ago, and there was only one other way that he could’ve heated it up himself.

However, Akane wasn’t the only one who came to that deduction as Jet’s eyes widened in shock and realisation before narrowing his eyes and walking away. His behaviour didn’t go unnoticed by Zuko who angrily knocked the cup of tea out of his hand.

“Hey!” Iroh cried.

“What are you doing firebending your tea? For a wise, old man, that was a pretty stupid move!” Zuko gritted in a whisper.

“I know you’re not supposed to cry over spilled tea, but…” Iroh sniffed as he mourned the loss of his tea that was now in a puddle on the floor. “It’s just so sad!”

“I believe the phrase is not to cry over spilled milk,” Akane interjected. “Either way, that wasn’t exactly the smartest move, especially given who’s around us.”

“What? Who’s around us?” Zuko asked in alarm.

“Anyone who could’ve noticed us – noticed you – firebending your tea. Then instead of being on a one-way ticket to Ba Sing Se, we’d be on a one-way ticket to prison,” Akane replied, not wanting to name Jet specifically.

“She’s right,” Zuko nodded. “Don’t ever do that again.”

“What was I supposed to do, drink it cold?” Iroh asked.

“Yes!” Akane and Zuko both exclaimed at the same time before glancing at each other momentarily and turning away.

“You two never seem to understand the importance of properly made tea,” Iroh huffed.

“There are more important things to worry about than your Agni-forsaken tea!” Akane hissed.

“You two worry too much. I’m sure nobody saw,” Iroh dismissed her concerns.

“You better hope that nobody saw,” Akane muttered.

With Jet’s words from the ferry echoing in her mind, Akane was now more worried than ever about going into Ba Sing Se. After what Jet had told her, Akane wouldn’t put it past him to do something drastic if he even for a moment suspected that they weren’t who they said they were. If they got exposed because Iroh couldn’t handle having to drink cold tea, then Akane was going to be very annoyed with him.

~*•°•*~

Two hours passed and the last train finally arrived to take them to Ba Sing Se. If she was being completely honest, Akane was somewhat surprised that Jet hadn’t just exposed them already since she could’ve sworn that he saw Iroh drinking with his heated tea after he had just said that it was cold in front of him. Perhaps Akane was just worrying about nothing, since she had been doing that so far.

“Last call for Ba Sing Se!” the train conductor called out.

“Finally!” Akane exclaimed, happy to finally get on the train.

“Eager to see the city are you?” Iroh asked as they boarded the train.

“I’m just eager to get away from here,” Akane replied.

“Hm, I wonder why,” Zuko muttered, though Akane still heard them.

A familiar shiver went down Akane’s spine as they boarded the train, like that feeling you get when you just feel uncomfortable. Just before they walked inside, Akane glanced around to see if anyone was looking at them, only to see nothing out of ordinary. Akane couldn’t wait to settle into Ba Sing Se so that she could hopefully get rid of these ever-persistent nerves. When they sat down on the train, they were accompanied by a young family including a baby that barely looked a few days old.

“What a handsome baby,” Iroh said as he stroked the infant.

“Thank you,” the woman smiled.

“Um, I don’t think that ‘handsome’ is the correct way to describe a baby girl,” Akane stated.

“What makes you so sure that it’s a girl? Don’t all babies look the same?” Zuko asked.

“You clearly don’t pay enough attention to your surroundings,” Akane muttered.

“She is a girl, and a handsome one nonetheless,” the man who Akane assumed was the father said.

“That baby hardly even looks a few days old,” Akane observed.

“You are right there as well, miss. Little Hope was born today,” the mother smiled.

“And you had to get into Ba Sing Se as well? I imagine that that wasn’t easy,” Akane stated.

“It certainly wasn’t, but we had a little help along the way,” the mother replied.

“Do you want to start a family with your boyfriend as well?” the father asked.

“B-boyfriend? W-what boyfriend?” Akane spluttered.

“The handsome young man sitting next to you, of course,” the father clarified, pointing at Zuko.

Horror morphed onto Akane and Zuko’s face while Iroh snickered beside them. Though the wise old man couldn’t help but wonder why the thought of being a couple was so horrifying for them.

“He’s not my boyfriend!” Akane exclaimed, embarrassed.

“She’s not my girlfriend!” Zuko snapped at the same time.

“Oh, my apologies. You just seem to give off that impression,” the father apologised.

After a few moments of awkward silence, Zuko got up from his spot next to Akane and moved to sit next to Iroh who shook his head at their humorous behaviour. That wasn’t enough to stop the blush that quickly started forming on Akane’s face. There was just something about being referred to as Zuko’s girlfriend that never ceased to embarrass Akane.

Wanting to distract herself somehow, Akane turned her attention to the picturesque view that was the miles and miles of agrarian land with what seemed to be an endless path of fields. This was unlike anything that Akane had seen in the Fire Nation before, and she couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.

“I can’t believe that this is really real,” Akane said in awe.

“It’s just grass,” Zuko grumbled.

“How can you not be fascinated? This is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen before,” Akane spoke in awe with her face pressed up against the train window.

“This is just the Agrarian Zone. Wait until you see the city itself. I’m sure that the city is just as magnificent as its wall,” Iroh stated.

Sure enough, it was. When Akane first laid her eyes on what really was Ba Sing Se, she was amazed beyond belief. The city seemed to go on for miles and miles and it was probably a hundred times bigger than the Fire Nation Capital City. It had certainly surpassed her expectations, even though Akane wasn’t really sure what she had expected either way. Given how big the city was, it would probably take a lot of luck to bump into someone you already knew, which Akane was somewhat glad for.

Following their arrival, the trio managed to spend the night in an inn located near the Inner Ring, which was where they would be living. In that time, Iroh had managed to find them a small apartment that was big enough for the three of them. It certainly wasn’t anything like they had lived in before, but it was good enough for Akane. As for Zuko, Akane could tell that he wasn’t exactly happy with their living arrangements but she hoped that he would be able to adjust to them in time.

The day after they had gotten settled in their apartment, Iroh had taken Akane and Zuko for a walk through the Lower Ring. Knowing Iroh, he either just wanted to drag them along for the fun of it or he had some ulterior motive for bringing them along. As Akane and Zuko walked ahead, Iroh caught up to them from behind, holding a large vase with several orange flowers placed in it. While Zuko gave the flora and Iroh a cold look, Akane smiled at the beauty of the flowers.

“I just want our place to look nice, in case someone brings home a lady friend!” Iroh said as he gave Zuko a nudge in with his elbow.

“Hey!” Akane exclaimed, somewhat offended at the thought of Zuko bringing home a ‘lady friend.’

“Or in case someone brings home a male friend,” Iroh quickly added.

“This city is a prison. I don’t want to make a life here,” Zuko muttered bleakly.

“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not,” Iroh commented wisely. “Now come on, I found us some new jobs, and we start this afternoon.”

“You got us jobs?” Zuko asked incredulously.

“Where?” Akane questioned.

“You’ll just have to wait and see!” Iroh exclaimed.

“It doesn’t involve tea, does it?” Akane asked knowingly.

“Like I said, you’ll just have to wait and see,” Iroh replied.

“If you actually did get us a job serving tea, I’m going to burn that place down,” Zuko muttered, causing Akane to laugh.

“That might not be such a good idea, Lee. In order to maintain our status in this society we need to remain as recluse as possible which means staying out of trouble,” Iroh warned them.

“What do you mean by maintain our status in society?” Akane asked.

Iroh sighed, “Ba Sing Se is a very wonderful city, but it is governed very differently compared to the Fire Nation. Based on what I know, the city is divided into three sections with those being the Upper Ring, the Middle Ring and the Lower Ring. It is strictly forbidden for anyone of a lower class to enter the places that are out of their hierarchy. There is a reason that they have so many walls, with those reasons being to keep people out and more importantly, keep people in.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Akane scoffed. “People should be able to go to wherever they want if it’s their city.”

“Unfortunately, that is not the case. Many of Ba Sing Se’s strict rules are to help maintain order and preserve its culture. They have a fierce group of earthbenders who run as the secret police called the Dai Li and they are not to be trifled with. So under any circumstances, do not do anything to attract any unwanted attention or that would get you into trouble with the wrong people,” Iroh said.

“I promise,” Akane nodded before giving Zuko a nudge.

“Yeah, whatever,” he mumbled.

“Now lets get to work!” Iroh exclaimed.

Little did they know, they had already caught the unwanted attention of someone else. Someone else who wanted nothing more to do with them and couldn’t wait until the three firebenders were thrown into prison. For now, they’d just have to wait before making their move.

~*•°•*~

Just as Akane had suspected, Iroh’s job that he had gotten them did in fact involve tea. Not only did it involve tea, they were practically serving it. Much to Zuko’s humiliation, they were quickly dressed in aprons that was hardly anything that he’d prefer to wear. The whole time that they made the arrangements with their boss, Pao, Akane could’ve sworn that she saw someone watching them from outside the window, but when she looked back whoever it was had gone.

“Well, you certainly look like official tea servers. How do you feel?” Pao smiled at his new employees who looked extremely uncomfortable in their work clothes.

“Ridiculous,” Zuko replied as Iroh desperately tried to tie the string behind his back, but his efforts were in vain.

“Uh, does this possibly come in a larger side?” Iroh asked as he gestured to his apron, with the strings not quite long enough to tie.

“I have some extra string in the back. Have some tea while you wait!” Pao said cheerfully as he went to get the string.

Before Pao left to get some string, he poured some tea in three cups, handed them to his new employees and headed to the back of the shop. The first sip that Akane took of the tea was met with disgust, since it certainly wasn’t as good as Iroh’s tea. Iroh also seemed to notice that as his face quickly contorted into a look of disgust once he took his first sip.

“Blech!” Iroh quickly held the cup at a distance as he looked at it in disgust. “This tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!”

“Uncle, that’s what all tea is,” Zuko snapped in an annoyed tone as Iroh examined his cup.

“How could a member of my own family say something so horrible!?” Iroh exclaimed dramatically.

“You’re talking about a family that Azula and Ozai in it, two people who have done unspeakably worse things than insult tea,” Akane remarked.

“We’ll have to make some major changes around here,” Iroh proclaimed as he angrily took the pot of tea and headed over to the window to throw it out.

Akane giggled, “I don’t think that Pao will appreciate you taking over his teashop.”

“Nonsense! I’ll just be helping him out, that’s all,” Iroh said.

“Here’s the extra string!” Pao announced as he returned to the room before noticing that the pot of tea was empty. “Where’d all the tea go?”

“It was so good that we drank it already!” Iroh exclaimed. “But don’t worry, we can make plenty more before our customers arrive. I could even add in my own tea making abilities, if that’s alright.”

“Oh… Of course it is…” Pao trailed off.

“Lee, Naoki, what are you doing just standing there and doing nothing?” Iroh chastised them. “We must make this place look presentable for our customers so start setting up the tables!”

“Sorry,” Akane mouthed to Pao, feeling bad for the shop owner as Iroh basically insulted his workplace.

“This is going to be one, long day,” Zuko muttered.

“It’ll go even faster if we get to work,” Akane said.

“I hate this,” Zuko complained.

“At least pretend to like it then,” Akane drawled.

The rest of their day was spent working in the tea shop, serving tea and cleaning whatever mess was made. For Akane, working at the shop hadn’t been that bad since she never really had a problem with working or doing chores. There were a few times when working became a bit too much for Akane, since she could only do so much. It was frustrating for Akane to not be able to work as much as she wanted to with Zuko constantly slacking off.

Speaking of Zuko, he spent majority of the day complaining about everything whenever Iroh and Pao weren’t around, which was extremely annoying for Akane to put up with. It seemed as though Zuko was still in denial about their situation and it would appear as though working in a tea shop only made him even more unbearable. Recently, Zuko’s behaviour had been getting on Akane’s nerves since he had just been so negative about everything, even more so than he normally was. As much as Akane tried to understand it from his viewpoint, she really couldn’t understand why Zuko couldn’t just accept that their lives would most likely never be what they used to.

So when their time at Pao Family Tea House came to an end for that day, Akane was glad to be able to go back to their new apartment and get a break from everything. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to stop Zuko’s complaining as he found anything to whine and moan about, which had finally gotten on Akane’s last nerve.

“We’re royalty, we shouldn’t be slaving away in a tea shop of all places!” Zuko exclaimed as they entered their apartment.

“For Agni’s sake, Buster, stop complaining about everything! It’s getting annoying,” Akane snapped.

“I’m just saying that we shouldn’t have to work for money. They should give it to us whenever we want it,” Zuko said.

“Can you stop talking so loud when you’re talking about that? We don’t want anyone to hear us,” Akane hissed.

“We’re in our apartment so I can talk however I want to,” Zuko remarked as he went to lie down on a nearby bed.

“You don’t have to have such an attitude,” Akane mumbled.

“Naoki’s concerns are quite justifiable, Lee. We cannot take any chances so for our sake, try to refrain from referring to our old lives,” Iroh agreed.

“And try to at least pretend to have a positive attitude,” Akane added, earning a glare form Zuko.

“Would either of you like a pot of tea?” Iroh asked from the counter.

“We’ve been working in a tea shop all day! I’m sick of tea!” Zuko exclaimed while Akane nodded in response to Iroh’s offer.

“Sick of tea? That’s like being sick of breathing!” Iroh chastised his nephew as he rummaged through the cupboard beneath the counter, only to not find what he was looking for.

“Need some help?” Akane asked.

“Have you seen our spark rocks to heat up the water?” Iroh asked.

Akane narrowed her eyes, “Didn’t we just buy a set this morning?”

“I’ll be back in a minute,” Iroh said before heading out.

“I don’t see why we can’t just heat the tea ourselves,” Zuko grumbled as he sat up. “We’re in the safety of our own apartment, we should be fine.”

“I don’t know about that,” Akane admitted as she glanced around nervously. “Have you gotten the feeling that we’re being watched?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Zuko scoffed.

“I’m serious! I thought that once we got settled in at Ba Sing Se that my nerves would’ve calmed down, but they’ve only intensified. I don’t feel comfortable at all,” Akane glanced around nervously.

“Even if we are being watched, it’s not like we’ve done anything to arouse any suspicions. You need to stop worrying,” Zuko said.

“Well, you need to stop being so negative all the time. I get it, our living situation isn’t exactly ideal but that doesn’t mean you can just complain about it all the time,” Akane snapped.

“Hey, why are you suddenly spinning this on me? You’re the one with a problem,” Zuko pointed a finger at her.

“It’s rude to point at people, Buster,” Akane smacked his hand away.

“I’m just saying, you keep on yelling at me for being negative about this when you’re being a worry wart for no reason. I’d rather be negative about this than be unnecessarily worried which is even more annoying,” Zuko argued.

“You’ve been negative about everything since the North Pole! For once, could you get your head out of your butt and stop making things worse than they already are!” Akane exclaimed.

Zuko shook his head, “I have every right to be angry. I’ve lost everything, my honour, my country and my ship! Uncle basically forced me to come to Ba Sing Se when I didn’t even want to but I had no choice!”

“You could’ve just left like you did last time,” Akane crossed her arms.

“Like you’d want me to leave,” Zuko remarked.

“I could do just fine without you like I did the last time you left,” Akane insisted.

“Oh yeah?” Zuko smirked. “Then how come Uncle told me that the whole time I was gone you just seemed so depressed like something or someone was missing? He also said something about you not quite being yourself without me. I didn’t realise that I had that much of an impact on you, Akane.”

Outside their apartment, Jet covered his mouth to stop himself from letting out a gasp at the name that ‘Lee’ called ‘Naoki.’ It certainly wasn’t any Earth Kingdom name that Jet had heard before, so he gritted his teeth in rage and satisfaction at being right of their true identity as Fire Nation. But Jet wasn’t about to leave just yet, since things seemed to be getting interesting between ‘Lee’ and the girl who he now knew was Akane. If Jet was a betting man, he’d be willing to say that they definitely weren’t cousins considering how they were acting around each other.

Before their little argument could escalate any further, Jet spotted the old man entering the room. Interestingly enough, the two teenagers stopped their argument and went back to acting like they were before the old man left.

“I borrowed our neighbours. Such kind people,” Iroh said as he entered the kitchen, seemingly oblivious to the tension that was now existing between Akane and Zuko.

“You know what, I suddenly don’t feel like having tea anymore. I’m going to go to bed,” Akane mumbled.

Although he missed the tension between them, Iroh certainly noticed the way that his nephews eyes lingered on Akane as she left the room. It had become alarmingly clear to Iroh that something was slowly shifting between the two teenagers, in more of a romantic way. Not only did Iroh pride himself on being an expert on tea but an expert on love as well.

Only time would tell if Iroh was reading too much into their relationship, but Iroh saw the potential for something special between those two. Even more special than what they already had. For now, Iroh was just willing to stand back and let love take its course. But If Akane and Zuko were going to be difficult, then Iroh would be more than willing to give them a gentle nudge in the right direction.

Chapter Text

Life in Ba Sing Se turned out to be a lot more different than how Akane expected it to be. Given how they were introduced to the city, Akane would’ve thought that things would be a bit more hectic for them but for the most part, it had been relatively easy for them to adjust to their life in the Lower Ring. Two weeks had passed since they sought refuge in the city and they had quickly fallen into a new routine like they had before which consisted of trying to capture the Avatar. Only now their routine consisted of getting up, going to work and then going home. In the time that they had worked at the tea shop, Iroh was beginning to make a name for himself with his tea making abilities.

It was nice to see Iroh enjoying himself and the simplicities of life, something that Akane was slowly beginning to adjust to on her own. The past three years of Akane’s life had been filled with adrenaline and adventure as they travelled the world, so it was almost unnatural for Akane to just be sitting around doing nothing. As for Zuko, he only seemed to hate Ba Sing Se with every day that passed. Sure, Akane could understand why since nothing could ever replace their home in the Fire Nation no matter how messed up it was, but Akane didn’t see why Zuko could just suck it up and deal with it.

So with Zuko somewhat getting on her nerves, Akane decided to take some time to herself during her lunch break. Since arriving in Ba Sing Se, Akane hadn’t really taken the time to explore the Lower Ring and see what it had to offer. That was what she found herself doing since if they were going to be living here forever, then she might as well check it out. For the most part, the Lower Ring was crowded with people as they went through the markets and things went about how Akane expected they normally did. Considering the people in the area, Akane was surprised when she bumped into Jet as she felt those familiar nerves grow inside of her.

“Oh, hi, Jet,” Akane murmured.

“Hey, Naoki,” Jet greeted her, putting a strong emphasis on her name. After hearing what he’d heard the other night, Jet knew that that name wasn’t her real one and he was determined to find out who she really was.

“Fancy seeing you around here,” Akane stumbled backwards.

“Small world,” Jet commented. “So, I just wanna let you know that my offer to hang out still stands if you want it.”

There was no denying that there was something about Jet that made Akane feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the way that he spoke about the Fire Nation, or the way he constantly flashed a smile at her as if he was trying to get somewhere. Since Akane really didn’t have anything better to do and was hoping that maybe this would be enough to get Jet to leave her alone, Akane decided to take up his offer.

“Well, I am on lunch break so I guess I could use some company. Especially since Lee’s being a pain in the butt,” Akane accepted.

“Funny you should say that. I was strolling around a few nights ago and I overheard you and Lee arguing from your apartment. The thing is though, I didn’t hear him call you by your name,” Jet said.

Akane paled as she tried to think of an excuse, “O-oh. That’s just something that Lee and I do when we argue. We like to butcher each other’s names. I call him Junior and he calls me Akoni, since it’s my name jumbled around and I hate people saying my name wrong.”

“The name he called you sounded a lot like a Fire Nation name,” Jet remarked, since the name she had just said sounded familiar to the one that ‘Lee’ had called her but not similar enough.

“Well, we hate the Fire Nation a lot so Lee often butchers my name into some Fire Nation name to rile me up,” Akane lied, hoping that spewing hatred towards the Fire Nation would be enough to get past Jet.

“But on the boat you said that not all Fire Nation people are bad,” Jet argued.

“I said that what if not all people were bad. I’m not sure if it’s the naivety in me, but I’d like to think that not everyone from the Fire Nation is bad,” Akane clarified. She liked to think that she was living proof that not all Fire Nation people are bad, but Akane didn’t want Jet to know that.

“It’s probably the naivety in you,” Jet said.

“Yeah, probably,” Akane murmured, even though she knew it wasn’t.

“So come on, I’ll show you around,” Jet flashed what Akane had come to realise was his signature smirk.

For the most part, Akane enjoyed having Jet show her around the Lower Ring when he wasn’t rambling on and on about the Fire Nation and how evil they were. In some way, having Jet around was a good reminder for Akane to not slip anything up because there had been a few times that she’d forgotten that they were Fire Nation fugitives in the Earth Kingdom. That was definitely something that Jet couldn’t know, since Akane had been around him long enough to know how he would react to that news.

“What do you think of the city so far?” Jet asked.

“It’s unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before. Ba Sing Se as a whole would have to be a hundred times bigger than the place that I grew up in,” Akane replied.

“How was your childhood, if you don’t mind me asking?” Jet inquired, hoping to see if he could find out anymore of ‘Naoki’s’ backstory to see if he could exploit it to his advantage. Despite the lies that she had been feeding him, Jet was convinced that Naoki, her father and apparent cousin were monstrous firebenders.

Akane shrugged, “I’d like to think that I had a normal childhood, but I know that mine was different form a lot of peoples. My dad was almost always out of the picture since he was travelling a lot, so it was mainly just my mom and Lee at home. Lee’s parents died when he was younger, so he’s just lived with us our entire life. But then my mom died and my father came back to us. Not too long after that, our village got burned down, forcing us to flee.”

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that was a pretty convincing backstory. But I’ve seen what her father can do. That has to mean that she can do it too and her cousin. Jet thought bitterly. It seemed as though the girl was sticking to the story that she’d told so far, and Jet was desperate to find a crack so that he could expose her as the monster that she was.

“Where did your parents come from?” Jet inquired.

“My parents…” Akane trailed off, genuinely unsure of where her real parents had come from. “My parents travelled a lot on their own, so they met while they were going between places and started a life together. They’ve never really told me that much apart from that.”

Her hesitance was enough for Jet to further believe that she was hiding the fact that her parents were murderous monsters. The same murderous monsters who had killed his parents as well.

“What about your parents? Do you have any good memories of them before they… died?” Akane asked nervously, not sure if it was an appropriate question to ask.

Jet’s face brightened, and for a moment he almost forgot that he was talking to an ash maker. “My parents were great. They were the best parents that I could’ve asked for. That’s why it hurt so much to lose them thanks to those ash makers.”

Akane cringed, “I’m sorry you had to lose them that way. I can see why it had such a strong impact on you.”

“It did,” Jet nodded, hoping that she’d get the message. “From that day on, I knew that I would have to protect myself on my own. For a while I was on my own, until I found a group of other kids who’d lost their family because of those Fire Nation scum. We banded together to create the Freedom Fighters, so that we could protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. It became my mission to do whatever it took to give the Fire Nation the justice that they deserved.”

And that’s exactly what Jet planned on doing with this girl and her wretched family. Once he got the evidence he needed, he would expose them to the police and watch smugly as they rotted in jail like they deserved.

“B-but what about those people who don’t know what they’re doing is wrong?” Akane questioned, hoping to talk some sense into Jet. “I’m sure that there are some people from the Fire Nation who just do what they do because its expected of them, not what they want to do.”

“How could you say that?” Jet exclaimed, disgusted that she’d even try to defend the actions of those disgusting people. His patience with Akane was running thin, and the next thing Jet knew he was yanking her closer to him by her neck and gripping tightly onto her injured hand, hoping to cause her pain like so many of her people had done to others.

“J-Jet, what are y-you doing?” Akane stuttered, now fearing being in Jet’s presence.

“Let me tell you something, Naoki,” Jet spoke through gritted teeth. “The people of the Fire Nation are nothing more than disgusting, pathetic excuses of human beings. They are all one and the same. Nothing anybody, including you can say can convince me that any of them have redeemable qualities.”

It was then that Akane got the feeling that Jet wasn’t just referring to anyone from the Fire Nation. He was referring to her. She’d had hopes that maybe in time Jet would realise that not everyone from the Fire Nation were horrible people, but it didn’t seem like he was going to turn a new life like that.

“Let me tell you something, Jet,” Akane asserted herself. “I’m not liking what you’re implying about me and my family but I will say that you said you came here for a fresh start – a second chance. I thought you were genuine like me but obviously I’ve misjudged you because you’re still holding onto grudges that don’t mean anything anymore.”

Jet glared at Akane. How dare she talk to him like that? She knew nothing about him but he certainly knew enough about her. And he certainly didn’t want to know anything more from her.

“But I do believe that your intentions in coming here were good, so we can make this easier for everyone if we just forget each other existed. As for you, you still have the chance to make the most of this second chance. Don’t let your hatred or your vendetta destroy you. Move on from it. You don’t have to forgive anyone but you can at least leave it behind. Let it go and you’ll feel so much better,” Akane finished.

“I don’t need anyone telling me how to lead my life,” Jet seethed.

“Then I see you’ve made your choice,” Akane sighed as she yanked her hand away, which was now sore after being in Jet’s grip. “From now on, I would appreciate it if you stayed away from me and my family. If we do cross paths with each other, I will be polite and cordial in public but other than that, I don’t want you causing any trouble. We’ve all had to make sacrifices to be here and I don’t want those to be for nothing.”

With that, Akane turned around and quickly walked away from Jet, unsure if she had done the right thing in telling Jet off. At the same time, Akane felt as though she needed to put Jet in his place since he was obviously a threat to their livelihoods. Whether or not Jet would take her advice was yet to be seen, but Akane hoped he would.

As for Jet, never before had I ever felt so angry towards someone from the Fire Nation. Not even those monsters who murdered his parents made him feel so much rage. There was just something about that girl and the way she acted that infuriated Jet. She and her murderous family had no business here and regardless of what they wanted, Jet was going to do everything in his power to make sure that they rotted away like they deserved.

If the Fire Nation wasn’t going to leave him alone, then he was going to make sure that he got rid of them himself. Only then would he be free of their presence.

~*•°•*~

Everything was foggy. It had only been hours ago that Akane had went to sleep and it almost felt as though she was waking up already. However, as Akane glanced around it soon became apparent that this wasn’t reality. This was a dream.

Looking around, Akane could see that they were in Ba Sing Se. Only ‘they’ was just Iroh and Zuko, standing atop of a small hill in a deserted area. There didn’t seem to be any sight of her, so Akane just assumed that she was herself in the dream. Carefully, she approached Iroh and Zuko to see what was going on.

“Guys?” Akane asked, only to get no response. “Hello? Can you hear me?” Akane tried again, only to get the same result.

Was this one of those nightmares where everyone you care about acts like you don’t exist?

“Why did she have to leave us?” Zuko grumbled bitterly.

“It wasn’t like she had that much of a choice, Prince Zuko,” Iroh whispered. “We all knew that her time with us was going to be short. Especially after Kyou’s actions.”

“It’s so wrong that while she’s down there, Kyou’s out living as a free man. He should be the one down there, not her. She didn’t deserve this,” Zuko muttered.

“Regardless of that, it still happened. I thought that losing my son in this city was the worst I would have to face, only I was wrong. I never would’ve thought that losing her would hurt this much,” Iroh said.

“She should be here with us. She shouldn’t have left us,” Zuko growled.

“My nephew, death is the cruellest thing in this world. Not everyone will deserve their fate,” Iroh reasoned as he put a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, only for him to yank away from his uncle’s touch.

“D-death?” Akane stammered. “W-what death?”

“It shouldn’t have been like this! She didn’t deserve to die. Akane was the best of us. If it should’ve been anyone, it should’ve been me!” Zuko exclaimed in an out-of-character fashion.

“Prince Zuko, Akane would not want you to grieve for her like this,” Iroh stated.

“I don’t care what she would’ve wanted. She’s dead and there’s nothing we can do to change that,” Zuko snarled.

Horror morphed onto Akane’s face as she finally registered what was going on. They were mourning for her. She was dead. This wasn’t a dream, this was a nightmare.

“What? I’m not dead! I’m right here!” Akane shrieked, desperately trying to get a reaction from Iroh and Zuko but getting nothing in return.

“She didn’t deserve this,” Zuko repeated. “Akane, I am sorry. This is my fault.”

“No, it’s not your fault! You didn’t know! You didn’t tell him to do anything!” Akane yelled. “Why is this happening?”

“Your time is running out. Time dwindles for your life. But you can stop it,” a voice boomed.

“How? How can I stop this from happening?” Akane begged.

“Find the help you need. It’s near you.”

Upon jerking up with a gasp, Akane looking around, desperate to see if she wasn’t dead which thankfully, she wasn’t. With a sigh, Akane glanced outside to see that the sun had barely started to rise, which meant that she probably wouldn’t be going back to sleep considering she was a firebender and rising with the sun was her thing. Deciding to get herself up anyways, Akane rolled out of bed as she staggered across the floor. She was still reeling from the nightmare that she’d just had, and wanted to do something to take her mind off of it.

It seemed like Akane wasn’t the only person up at this early hour, since she also found Zuko up in the kitchen. Though she quickly noticed that something also seemed to be on Zuko’s mind since he didn’t appear to be angry or frustrated about anything that he usually was. Just upset. And it was rare of Zuko to show that kind of emotion, so Akane wanted to find out what it was about.

“Hey,” Akane greeted him as she sat down. “What’s up?”

Zuko shrugged, “Just sitting.”

Akane rolled her eyes, “I can see that, Buster. But what’s up with you? You seem… I don’t know, upset?”

“Is it such a crime for me to be upset?” Zuko snapped.

“Well, you’re always usually angry or tense all of the time but never upset,” Akane pointed out. Zuko opened up his mouth as if he was going to make a comment to that, but then he quickly shut it. “Zuko, if somethings bothering you, you can tell me. We’re friends, remember?”

Zuko sighed, “It’s Lu Ten’s birthday today.”

Guilt swarmed through Akane as she realised that she had forgotten just what this day meant for Iroh and Zuko. It was Iroh’s sons birthday and Zuko’s cousins birthday. Their dead cousin and son. Sure, Akane had spent plenty of time with Lu Ten when he was still around but she wasn’t his family. It didn’t hurt her the way that it hurt Iroh and Zuko. At the same time, Akane found it somewhat ironic that she’d had a dream about dying on Lu Ten’s birthday, and she wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about that yet.

“I’m sorry, Zuko. I know how much you liked him,” Akane put her hand on his shoulder.

“He was the sibling I never had but always wanted. We always preferred him over Azula,” Zuko muttered.

“I’m sure she probably doesn’t even remember what day it is,” Akane muttered before she looked around and realised that there was no sign of Iroh. “Where’s Uncle? Is he okay?”

Zuko shrugged, “He was gone by the time I woke up. I think he’s going to be gone all day.”

“Agni, I can’t imagine how hard it must be for him to be celebrating his sons birthday in the same place where he lost him,” Akane said, her heart aching for Iroh. Unlike Ozai, it had been clear that Iroh loved his son and would’ve done anything. If it had been possible, Akane was positive that Iroh would’ve sacrificed himself if his son could’ve lived.

“He would’ve been twenty-five today,” Zuko murmured.

“Today doesn’t have to be a sad day. I’m sure that Lu Ten wouldn’t want us to feel sad on his birthday. He’d want us to remember all of the good times that we had with him,” Akane suggested.

Zuko glanced at Akane, suddenly noticing how something seemed to be a bid odd with her this morning, “What’s up with you?”

“What do you mean?” Akane asked.

Zuko rolled his eyes, “You harass me until I tell you what’s wrong but when I ask you it’s a problem even though it couldn’t be more obvious that somethings bothering me. Like you said, we are friends.”

Akane sighed, “I just had a bad dream, that’s all. It’s left me a bit frazzled.”

“What was the dream?” Zuko inquired.

“You remember what happened with Kyou, right?” Akane asked.

“How could I forget?” Zuko muttered, still feeling like it was his fault that what had happened to Akane had happened to her.

“Well, in my dream, there was you and Iroh and I was there, but it was like I didn’t exist since it was like you didn’t even know I was there even though I tried getting your attention. At first I thought that it was one of those nightmares where everyone you care about forgets you exist, but then I realised that it was a different kind of nightmare because I was dead,” Akane replied.

“You know you’re not dead, right?” Zuko asked. Not on my watch.

“I know that, but in the dream I was. You were both mourning for me and it hurt so much to see since I was right there. But then I heard a voice, a voice that was telling me that my time was running out but I could stop it. Now I have no idea what to think of it and it’s made me more aware of my situation than before,” Akane admitted.

Zuko narrowed his eyes, “What do you mean?”

“Ever since I found out about my condition, I’ve tried so hard to just forget about it since we’ve always had bigger things to worry about and I didn’t want to think about the fact that I might die. I don’t want to die when I feel like I’ve still got so much that I need to do,” Akane confessed.

Glancing at Akane properly, Zuko could see just how distraught she was over this. Normally, Akane was well put together and rarely expressed her worries or concerns since she mostly kept those to herself. But Akane had basically spelled out her fears to him, and Zuko hated how those fears were because of him and what he failed to do. He still felt guilty for the Kyou incident and wanted to find some way to make it up to her for neglecting her health for as long as he had. Maybe now was his time to make it up to her.

“Alright, we’re going out,” Zuko proclaimed as he got up.

“What?” Akane questioned, taken back a fair bit by the way that Zuko had phrased that statement.

“Like you said, Lu Ten wouldn’t want us to celebrate his birthday like this. You need something to take your mind off of your dream, so we’re going out. Uncle won’t be back until later, so we’ve got a whole day to waste,” Zuko replied.

“Zuko, that’s sweet, but really, you don’t have to do anything for me,” Akane tried arguing.

“No, I’m taking you out and that’s final so get up and follow me,” Zuko ordered.

Akane sighed, but she couldn’t hide the smile that had formed on her face, “If you insist.”

Together with Zuko, Akane headed out of their apartment with the intention of letting Zuko take the lead like he had asserted himself to. When Zuko had offered to take her out, Akane couldn’t help but notice how there was a twinge of excitement in his voice that Akane couldn’t remember hearing for the longest time. So even though she wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of going out, Akane was more than willing to tag along with Zuko if it meant that they got to chance to act like the friends that they should be.

~*•°•*~

To say that Akane had enjoyed her time with Zuko was a complete and utter understatement. Straight away, Akane had realised that Zuko had been serious when he wanted Akane to enjoy herself because the first thing that they did was go to a small festival that was taking place in the Lower Ring. They’d watched as people danced around and saw the beautiful side of Ba Sing Se, not the typical strangeness that they had seen so far. For the first time since they’d arrived, Akane was able to forget about keeping up their pretence and just enjoy herself.

At one point, they’d been pulled over to a dance which gave them basically no choice but to tango with each other. While it had been awkward at first, Akane had enjoyed being able to let loose and enjoy herself for once. Even more so, it was nice to see this side of Zuko that Akane hadn’t seen in years. It almost seemed like he’d forgotten how to have fun, but now it seemed like he was having that.

After dancing in the Lower Ring, Akane had taken charge of their outing and dragged Zuko along to some of the markets that were on sale. They had taken the liberty of bringing some money with them, so Akane wanted to put that money to good use and get some new clothes. The only clothes that they had were their work clothes and the clothes that they had come to Ba Sing Se in. So Akane thought that they were long overdue for a new wardrobe.

“Are you done yet?” Zuko asked as Akane changed into a new outfit.

“Just a minute!” Akane called out as she put on the finishing touches. The outfit that she was wearing wasn’t one that she intended on buying, since it was a bit too fancy and expensive for her but Akane still wanted to try it on for the fun of it.

When Akane had finished putting on the dress that she had selected, she pulled back the curtains and walked out for Zuko to see. It soon became evident to Akane that Zuko quite liked what he saw, considering the way that he let a bit of drool fall from his mouth before whipping it away.

Akane giggled, “Like what you see then?”

“Of c-course. Y-you look, uh… rather fetching?” Zuko trailed off awkwardly.

“Fetching? Well, that’s a compliment that I’ve never received before,” Akane remarked teasingly.

“Well, uh. Not that it’s a bad thing,” Zuko tried saving himself.

Akane rolled her eyes, “Calm down, I was just teasing you. You know I love your awkwardness anyways.”

“You really wanna buy that, though?” Zuko asked as he glanced up and down at the dress she was wearing.

“No, I just wanted to try it on for the fun of it,” Akane shrugged.

“Then what’s the point in trying on something if you’re not gonna buy it?” Zuko questioned.

“I just said that I wanted to wear it for fun. It’s not like I’d actually want to wear something like this on a daily basis,” Akane remarked.

“Why not? You look nice,” Zuko questioned.

Akane gave him a small smile, “Thanks, but this just isn’t something that I could see myself wearing all the time. It almost feels like I’m betraying our country by wearing all of this.”

“I miss red,” Zuko sighed longingly.

“You could always wear something read underneath,” Akane suggested.

“But we’re still wearing mostly Earth Kingdom clothes. I hate how we can’t just wear the clothes that we want to wear,” Zuko grumbled.

“Don’t go getting all grumpy on me now, Buster. Why don’t we just ditch this place and go find something else to do?” Akane suggested, not wanting to have to put up with Zuko being all moody.

“Like what?” Zuko asked.

“Oh, I know!” Akane exclaimed. “We could go to that new zoo that opened outside the Lower Ring.”

“What Zoo is outside the Lower Ring?” Zuko questioned.

“A new zoo,” Akane drawled.

Once they’d finished up at the markets, Akane took Zuko to the zoo that she’d recently heard about. Based on what she’d heard, the zoo used to be located within the city before it was moved outside. It had been the talk of the Lower Ring for days now, and Akane was eager to see the zoo for herself since she wondered what kind of animals Ba Sing Se would have to show for itself.

“Wow, this is impressive,” Akane commented as she looked around, taking in everything that was surrounding them. This was without a doubt the biggest zoo that Akane had ever seen.

“It’s alright,” Zuko shrugged.

“Look at all these animals! I’ve never seen some of these before,” Akane awed.

“They’re just animals,” Zuko grumbled.

“Don’t be such a buster, Buster,” Akane jeered. “While I appreciate the fauna, why don’t you go get some animal food so that we can feed them? They must be hungry.”

“Fine,” Zuko conceded.

There truly were so many animals in the zoo, animals that Akane was fascinated by and had never seen before. The Earth Kingdom really did have the most exotic kind of fauna and flora based on what she had seen so far. As she looked around, Akane couldn’t help but look at everything in awe because she really couldn’t believe how everything was.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” somebody commented.

Turning around, Akane saw a man standing behind her. He didn’t appear to be that much of a threat, so Akane felt as she didn’t have to be on egg shells with him like she was with Jet.

“Yeah, it is,” Akane nodded.

“We moved out here a few days ago. Before then, the animals were just barely getting by because I didn’t have any money to feed them and I didn’t have any money to feed them because the kids stopped coming. But that’s all changed since the Avatar showed up,” the man said.

“Avatar?” Akane paled, hoping more than anything that Zuko wasn’t around to hear this.

The man nodded, “Yeah. He showed up at my zoo and offered to get all of the animals out here. He did that just using his glider and airbending. All of these facilities are thanks to him. I owe him a lot for helping my business.”

“I didn’t know that the Avatar was in town,” Akane murmured, wondering if she’d be able to get anymore information from the man.

“They showed up about a week ago. Even crashed a party for the Earth Kingdom. But they’ve been keeping quiet for the most part in the Upper Ring. Apparently they’ve got some fancy house up there,” the man replied.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” Akane said, needing some quick time to herself before she met up with Zuko again.

If the Avatar was in Ba Sing Se, then that would be bad for Akane, Iroh and Zuko. Especially if Zuko caught wind of this news and decided to go back to his Avatar hunting days which Akane knew were far from over. They were just starting to settle in, and Akane didn’t want anything to ruin the life that they could have here. So as much as she felt guilty for doing so, Akane decided that it was better for everyone if Zuko was kept in the dark about this.

“I got the food,” Zuko announced as he approached Akane.

“Oh, good. Lets use it,” Akane grinned.

The rest of their day was spent in the Ba Sing Se Zoo before having dinner at a restaurant in the Lower Ring. When they got home, Akane was happy to see that Iroh was doing alright and gave him a comforting hug before she went to bed. That night, Akane went to sleep and unlike the night before, she slept peacefully and content.

~*•°•*~

Things seemed to be looking up for Akane and Zuko in the following days. Their friendship was slowly returning to what it was before The Kiss and Akane would even go as far to say that it was becoming what it was before Zuko’s banishment. That didn’t mean that everything was great, since Zuko was still struggling to adapt to their living situation but Akane had made it her mission to get him to accept that things were the way they were.

For the most part, they just worked at Pao’s tea shop where Iroh was becoming more famous every day. His tea was getting met with praise and Akane couldn’t help but be happy for him, since this was just what he deserved. One night while they were at work, Akane and Zuko were helping prepare the tea while Iroh poured it for the customers, something which he took great joy in.

“This is the best tea in the city!” an officer exclaimed as Iroh poured him some tea.

“The secret ingredient is love,” Iroh replied as he waved a hand through the steam coming from the teapot and walked towards the back of the shop where Pao was.

“Well, now it’s not a secret anymore,” Akane remarked playfully as she put her hands on her hips.

“Disgusting,” Zuko muttered.

Pao turned to Iroh beside him, “I think you’re due for a raise.”

Suddenly, the door slammed open causing Akane to jerk upwards in surprise. When she turned to the door, horror morphed onto her face as she saw none other than Jet walking on. Oh spirits, no.

“I’m tired of waiting!” Jet growled as he pointed an accusing finger at them. “Those three people are firebenders!”

Upon his declaration, Jet unsheathed his hook swords and prepared to fight. At the same time, Akane dropped the tray she was holding in shock as she started to freak out on the inside while Iroh and Zuko exchanged a quick look, not knowing what to do.

“I know they’re firebenders, I saw the old man heating his tea!” Jet roared.

“He works in a tea shop,” one of the officers said bleakly.

“He’s a firebender! I’m telling you!” Jet insisted.

The officers stood up as they faced Jet, “Drop your swords, boy. Nice and easy.”

“You’ll have to defend yourself,” Jet snarled at Zuko. “Then everyone will know. Go ahead, show them what you can do.”

Please, don’t bite into his bait, Zuko. Be calm. Akane tried pleading with her eyes as Jet walked towards them with his swords. Just as one of the officers was about to draw his swords, Zuko stepped in front and grabbed them instead.

“You want a show? I’ll give you a show!” Zuko snarled.

As soon as Zuko took the swords and took on a fighting stance, he pulled a table in front of him with his foot and kicked it at Jet, who sliced the table with his sword and jumped over it. As it landed, Jet swung both hook swords at Zuko, who deflected the attack and jumped backward on to another table, which was sliced in half by Jet, swinging one sword through the middle of the table. Zuko stepped onto one half of the table and balanced on one foot as Jet continued his attack by cutting the legs on the half of the table that Zuko was standing on. Zuko quickly jumped up, and as he landed, he swung both broadswords at Jet’s feet, and Jet somersaulted away and landed in a crouching position before charging forward at Zuko again as Zuko swung both of his swords at Jet.

“Please, Jet! You need to stop this!” Akane pleaded with Jet, not wanting to see either of them getting hurt or risk Jet giving away their identities.

“What I need to do is rid this place of Fire Nation scum like you three!” Jet yelled as he dodged Zuko’s attacks.

“It doesn’t have to be like this!” Akane exclaimed.

“Yes it does, Naoki,” Jet growled.

All Akane could do was watch in horror as Jet and Zuko’s swords clashed together. At one point, Zuko burst out through the door and tumbled onto the street and Jet ran out after him before striking at Zuko with both swords. Each of Jet’s attacks were met by full force from Zuko as he defended the strike and both combatants locked swords.

“You must be getting tired of using those swords. Why don’t you go ahead and firebend at me?” Jet grinned sinisterly.

“Please son, you’re confused! You don’t know what you’re doing!” Iroh tried pleading with Jet, but to no avail.

“You both need to stop this! There’s another way to sort this out and there doesn’t have to be any blood shed!” Akane yelled desperately.

Her pleas were ignored as Jet and Zuko continued fighting. Zuko swung at Jet, but Jet stopped Zuko’s broadsword with the ends of his hook swords, spun around and deflected it to the side. Then Zuko spun with his swords and tried to counterattack, but Jet hooked the ends of his swords together and begun to swing them at Zuko in large circular motions. Retreating back a few steps, Zuko still managed to defend himself against Jet.

“Bet you wish they’d help you out with a little fire blast right now,” Jet taunted as he swung at Zuko’s feet, only for Zuko to stab one of his broadswords through the hilt, pinning it to the ground.

You’re the one who needs help,” Zuko remarked as Jet looked at his sword with annoyance.

Jet smirked as he moved his gaze to Akane, “Actually, your little friend could use some help now.”

Before Zuko could react, Jet retrieved both of his swords and charged towards Akane who stood there in shock. Unable to move, fear took over Akane as Jet jumped behind her and crossed his swords in front of Akane’s throat, pressing them against her throat. As soon as Jet did that, Akane saw Zuko’s face get filled with absolute rage like she had never seen before.

“Now look who needs help,” Jet smirked.

“LET GO OF HER!” Zuko roared with rage.

“Show everyone that you’re firebender scum and I’ll do it. If not, I’ll slice her head off,” Jet threatened as he tightened the swords against Akane’s throat.

Tears quietly poured down Akane’s face as she felt Jet’s swords dig into her skin, causing blood to come out. This wasn’t how she’d wanted things to end with Jet. She really wanted him to move past his grudge against the Fire Nation instead of letting his hatred consume him, but it unfortunately looked like that wasn’t going to happen. As Akane saw the anger take over on Zuko’s face, she knew she had to find some way to keep him calm so that he wouldn’t expose them.

It’s okay. Don’t do anything. Akane mouthed weakly.

That seemed to be enough to stop Zuko from doing anything drastic in retaliation but it wasn’t enough for him to give up on the fight as he quickly charged towards Jet with a loud battle cry filled with anger. It took Jet by surprise as Zuko managed to disarm one of his swords again, prompting him to shove Akane out of the way. Not even caring who she ran into, Akane raced away from the fight as she felt the blood dripping down her shirt and crashed into someone’s arms. Relief flooded through Akane as she felt Iroh’s comforting touch before she worried for Jet and Zuko.

“You see that? The Fire Nation is trying to silence me. It’ll never happen!” Jet yelled.

Unable to watch the fight anymore, Akane kept her face buried into Iroh’s chest as she wept uncontrollably. The tears came from the pain in her chest but also the agony she felt for this situation. Whatever the result was, Akane knew that somebody was going to be left with the wreck and she didn’t want any of them to be left with it. Why couldn’t Jet have just left them alone?

“Drop your weapons,” an authoritative voice demanded.

“Arrest them, they’re firebenders!” Jet demanded as Akane heard them withdraw their weapons, which was a relief to her.

“This poor boy is confused, we’re just simple refugees,” Iroh said as he kept his arms around Akane.

“This young man wrecked my tea shop, and assaulted my employees!” Pao yelled.

“It’s true sir, we saw the whole thing,” one of the officers interjected. “This crazy kid attacked the finest tea maker in the city.”

Iroh blushed at the compliment, “Oh, ho, ho. That’s very sweet.

“Come with us, son,” a voice ordered.

Turning around, Akane watched with relief as the two men dressed in robes with long hair moved towards Jet who tried to swing his hook sword at them. The guard disarmed Jet and both guards pulled the boy’s arms behind his back, binding his wrists together with rock gloves. They then dragged Jet towards a wagon and despite everything that had just happened, Akane still felt as though Jet didn’t deserve this.

“You don’t understand! They’re Fire Nation! You have to believe me!” Jet yelled as he was shoved into the wagon.

Once Jet was in the wagon, the crowd that had surrounded them began to disperse. Much to Akane’s relief, they seemed to be left alone after that as she’d feared that Jet had already done too much damage to their reputation, which he hadn’t. When Iroh went to speak with Pao, Akane turned to see Zuko standing there unharmed and ran into his arms.

“You’re bleeding,” Zuko tried his best to hide the concern in his voice, but anyone could’ve seen it.

“That’s what happened when you have a sword pressed against your skin,” Akane wept.

“I’m so sorry that Jet got you into that. I should’ve been protecting you more,” Zuko apologised.

“No, it was my fault. I was fighting a lost cause with Jet. I shouldn’t have even bothered with him,” Akane murmured as she buried her face into Zuko’s chest.

“Pao has given us the night off so that we can get Naoki checked out and so that he can repair the tea shop,” Iroh said as he approached them.

Zuko nodded, “Let’s go.”

As Akane left with Iroh and Zuko’s arms wrapped around her, she couldn’t help but recognise just how sad this situation was. Although Jet had attacked them and hurt her, he had still been right in the fact that they were Fire Nation and was now most likely being punished for his actions. His actions may have been misguided and fuelled by hatred, but Akane had spoken with Jet long enough to know that he really did want to protect people.

From the moment she met him, Akane had immediately noticed the similarities between Jet and Zuko and she was now even more worried about Zuko’s future, especially with the Avatar in Ba Sing Se. Just like with Jet and his grudge against the Fire Nation, Zuko would never be able to live peacefully with the Avatar around. No matter what it took, Akane was going to do her best to make sure that Zuko didn’t end up like Jet. Not on her watch.

Chapter Text

Following Jet’s attack, life for Akane, Iroh and Zuko seemed to fall into a routine of normality. They continued their work at the tea shop while going about what they had come to establish as their daily lives. Luckily for them, Jet’s accusations hadn’t done much to diminish their credibility and they hadn’t encountered any problems since then. That was actually able to help Akane ease into their new lives a lot easier than she had before without the worry of Jet’s presence around.

Because of Jet’s attack, Akane had been left with a small scar on her face as a result of the pressure from his swords. Despite going to get it checked out, the healer that they had went to hadn’t been able to do much for the injury. Although the healer had said that it would eventually heal in time, Akane just considered it another one of the many scars that she already had and was forced to deal with.

With each day that passed, Iroh was gaining more fame in the Lower Ring because of his tea making abilities. It was obvious to Akane that Iroh was enjoying the peace that came from living in Ba Sing Se. As for Zuko, he was finally beginning to keep his mouth shut and adjust to their new lives. Even though it was fairly obvious to anyone that Zuko had no intentions of making friends around here, that didn’t stop him from gaining the attention of one of their frequent visitors, Jin.

In the many times that Jin had come to visit the tea shop, Akane noticed that her gaze always lingered on Zuko. With Zuko being as oblivious as he was, he hadn’t seemed to notice the attention that Jin gave him, which Akane was somewhat glad for. Even though she hadn’t spoken properly to Jin and assumed that she was just a nice girl, there was something about the not-so-subtle looks that she gave Zuko that annoyed Akane. When Zuko did seem to notice the looks she was giving him, it wasn’t because of what Akane assumed was the truth.

“Uncle, we have a problem,” Zuko hissed as Iroh descended from the ladder. “One of the customers is on to us. Don’t look now but there is a girl sitting at the corner table. She knows we’re Fire Nation. Any moment now she’s going to attack us.”

Akane rolled her eyes, “Oh yeah, I’m sure she’s going to attack us. You can tell by that evil look in her eyes.”

“Didn’t I say don’t look!?” Zuko hissed as Iroh gave the girl a glance.

“You’re right, Zuko. I’ve seen that girl in here quite a lot,” Iroh agreed. “Seems to me she has quite a little crush on you.”

“What?” Zuko spluttered, bewildered.

“Thank you for the tea,” Jin said as she handed Zuko some coins, which he put on a table. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Lee,” Zuko replied as he turned around while Iroh smiled at the question. “My uncle, cousin and I just moved here.”

“Hi Lee, my name’s Jin. Thank you and… well, I was wondering if you would like to go out sometime,” Jin offered.

Having never really been asked out on a date before, Zuko was stunned. Next to him, Akane’s eyes widened in surprise and she felt the tray she was holding slip through her fingers and land on the ground with a loud thud.

“He’d love to!” Iroh replied before Akane or Zuko could respond.

“Great,” Jin smiled. “I’ll meet you in front of the shop at sundown.”

As Jin walked away, Iroh threw his arms on a bewildered Zuko’s shoulders with a large smile before Zuko turned to glare at him. They then turned to Akane who was busy cleaning up the mess she had made.

“Butter fingers…” Akane trailed off awkwardly.

Zuko turned to face Iroh, “Uncle, why would you just let some Earth Kingdom girl ask me out on a date?”

“Because that’s what Earth Kingdom boys do, they go out on dates with Earth Kingdom girls,” Iroh replied. “You’ll thank me when you have a good time, nephew.”

“Was it really fair to just accept Jin’s offer on his behalf when he might not have even wanted to go but now he has to go because otherwise he’ll look like a jerk if he doesn’t?” Akane asked, glancing between them.

When she noticed the hesitance on Zuko’s face, Akane began to panic. Is that what Zuko had wanted in the first place? Did he want to go on a date with that girl? Akane shuddered at the thought.

“She’s right. I don’t want to go on a date with some girl I only just met!” Zuko exclaimed, which sent a wave of relief through Akane. So Zuko didn’t want to go on a date with a random girl. Maybe that meant that he’d want to go on a date with a girl he knew, not that Zuko knew any other girls besides Akane.

“Oh, come on, it’s just one date. Go out and enjoy yourself for once, nephew. I’m sure it won’t kill you if you go on one date with her. It should help that Jin is pretty easy on the eyes,” Iroh nudged Zuko encouragingly.

Why was Iroh encouraging this? Why would he want to risk putting them in a position that could possibly see them exposed? Most importantly, why did he think that Jin was even attractive? Sure, Akane could admit that she wasn’t hideous but she wouldn’t go as far to say that Jin was attractive. Her hair was very messy and her clothes were hardly appealing. That wasn’t what Akane would consider attractive.

“I guess if it’s just one date,” Zuko mumbled. What? Why was Zuko now agreeing to this? He didn’t want to go on a date with Jin, so he shouldn’t have to.

“You shouldn’t go on a date with her just because you have to. It’s not fair to lead her on if you’re not interested,” Akane spoke up.

“It doesn’t mean that he has to keep seeing Jin. I’m sure that she’ll move on to some other attractive looking Earth Kingdom boy like young teenage girls do,” Iroh reasoned.

“I’ve never even been on a date before! What am I supposed to do?” Zuko exclaimed and Akane couldn’t help but chuckle at the hopeless look on his face.

“Just be yourself,” Akane found herself saying before she could stop herself. “If Jin really likes you then it shouldn’t be a problem how you act.”

“She is right. I’ll even teach you the ways of romance since after all, I have been around long enough to know a thing or two about the ladies,” Iroh grinned and Akane recoiled at the thought of Iroh helping Zuko impress another girl. Why go through all of this trouble just for one date?

“Fine, I’ll go. But if this turns out to be a disaster, I’m blaming you, uncle,” Zuko reluctantly conceded.

It was hard to deny the pang that Akane felt in her chest once Zuko had agreed to his date. Just thought of Zuko going out with another girl and doing things that weren’t with her made Akane feel sick. Shock worked its way into Akane’s system at the implications of her thoughts.

Holy spirits, did she like Zuko?

Sure, Akane liked him. He was her friend. They’d known each other since they were babies, for Agni’s sake. But did she like him that way? If she had to answer right now, Akane wasn’t so sure. She didn’t know how she felt towards Zuko now since her feelings towards him had definitely changed in the past few months. She just didn’t like the idea of Zuko going on a date with some random girl and it had nothing to do with the fact that the girl wasn’t her. That definitely wasn’t it.

~*•°•*~

The whole time that Zuko was getting ready for his date with Jin, Akane stayed as far away from it as possible. She didn’t feel comfortable helping Zuko get ready for a date that she didn’t want him to go on so she wasn’t going to help him. Deciding to make use of her time, Akane took it as an opportunity to really think and evaluate her relationship with Zuko so that she could decide if these feelings of pettiness came from jealousy or something else.

In the last few years Akane’s feelings towards Zuko had certainly changed and not in a romantic way. They had to change after Zuko changed himself because he wasn’t the same person who Akane liked to think he was. She missed that person. Sure, it was fun seeing Zuko get all angsty but she missed him being the carefree kid that he used to be, back when they didn’t have anything to worry about.

Their relationship had certainly taken an unsuspecting turn in the past few months with The Kiss and how it had left Akane feeling. She’d been worried about it ruining her friendship with Zuko, but for the most part they seemed to have gotten over the consequences of it. Thinking about The Kiss reminded Akane that it had been Zuko who initiated it. That prompted a very confusing question: did Zuko like her that way?

It was hard to say what Zuko felt, since sometimes he wore his emotions on his sleave but then other times Akane had no idea how he was feeling. Perhaps if she knew how he felt towards her it would help her deal with what she was feeling.

“Akane, would you be a dear and teach Zuko the art of dating? My teachings don’t seem to be leaving any effect…” Iroh trailed off as he entered the room.

“I told you that I didn’t want to help,” Akane snapped.

“Why are you so against the idea of Zuko going on a date? Don’t you think that it would be good for Zuko to go out and enjoy himself?” Iroh asked, even though he had his own suspicions. He had had his own reasons for accepting the offer for Zuko to go on a date with the girl and he was interested to see if it would play out.

“I don’t want to think about Zuko going out with some girl he doesn’t even know,” Akane said. Not some girl who isn’t me. Where had that afterthought come from?

“If you’re just going to sit around and mope all day, I have something else that you could do,” Iroh offered.

“What?” Akane leaned forward curiously.

“You’ve been putting this off for quite some time, but its about time that you sought help for yourself and I know where you can get it from. You were even told that you’d find the answers you want in Ba Sing Se, but you haven’t done anything about it,” Iroh replied.

“I’ve just kind of accepted my fate,” Akane muttered.

“There is a different alternative. You can seek actions and find ways to help yourself and make your life much easier,” Iroh stated.

“How?” Akane wondered. Her situation had seemed pretty bleak. She tried not to think about it, but Akane knew that her time would be cut short.

“You should take the time to visit a professional healer in the Upper Ring. I used to know this woman named Mizu who lives there and she owes me a favour,” Iroh answered.

“But, we’re not allowed to go to the Upper Ring,” Akane pointed out.

“There is a secret passageway beneath the city that you can use. I can give you a map that will lead you there,” Iroh said as he held out a scrunched up piece of paper.

Akane sighed, “I guess I have nothing more to lose.”

“So while Prince Zuko gets ready for his date, you can go and see Mizu. Perhaps the time away will give you some time to think about more pressing matters,” Iroh suggested.

“Yeah, maybe,” Akane muttered, deciding not to wonder about the implications of Iroh’s words.

With nothing more to lose, Akane left the apartment without even giving Zuko good luck since she didn’t want to encourage this date with Jin. All she wanted was to hopefully find some answers that could shine some light on her life. Whatever the answers were, Akane just hoped to at least get some.

~*•°•*~

Using the secret passageway that Iroh had told her about, Akane was able to travel safely to the Upper Ring without any trouble. When she first saw the Upper Ring, Akane suddenly remembered what she had been told about the Avatar staying up there, so she hoped that she wouldn’t cross their paths since the last thing that Akane wanted was to get into trouble with them. That little information was something that Akane had kept to herself, since she didn’t want Iroh worrying about it and she didn’t want Zuko to go back to his Avatar hunting ways.

Finding the healer that Iroh had told her to see was pretty easy, since the directions that he had given her were pretty straightforward. Considering her appearance, Akane had tried her hardest to remain recluse so that nobody would think that she was just a girl from the Lower Ring who was somewhere she shouldn’t be. But Akane didn’t need to worry as she managed to get into the place unbothered.

“What do you want?” a woman at the front desk asked Akane.

“I’m here to see a Healer Mizu. Someone that I know sent me to see her,” Akane replied, hoping that it would be enough to get her past.

The woman glanced at Akane sceptically before getting up and returning with another woman wearing Water Tribe robes. Assuming that this was the healer that Iroh had told her to see, Akane stepped forward.

“And who might you be, young miss?” Mizu asked.

“I can’t say here,” Akane murmured.

“Very well,” Mizu nodded. “I shall take you to my room.”

As Mizu lead Akane to her room, Akane couldn’t help but wonder exactly how Iroh knew this woman and why she owed him a favour. Since Iroh knew someone from just about every nation, Akane wouldn’t be surprised if it was because of something completely random.

“You may speak freely in here now,” Mizu stated as they entered her room.

“I am a friend of General Iroh’s. He sent me to see you and said that you owed him a favour,” Akane replied, not sure what name she should give.

“Ah, General Iroh. What a great man he was to me. I certainly do owe him a favour for what he did,” Mizu said. “You must be Akane.”

Akane’s eyes widened, “How do you know who I am?”

“He has written to me numerous times before and has mentioned you on several occasions. You had come up quite frequently in recent letters before he told me about your condition, so he asked me to do some research to see if there was anything that I could do to help you,” Mizu explained.

Akane nodded, “Is there anything you can do to help me?”

“I pride myself on being able to help any of my patients who come to see me so when General Iroh said that he would send you when the time was right, I immediately got to work and did more research than I have ever done to see if I could do anything for you,” Mizu proclaimed. “You’ll be happy to know that there is hope yet for you, child.”

“Really?” Akane’s eyes widened.

Mizu smiled, “Certainly. But you must act fast, my dear. Your time is slowly ticking away and it will only be a matter of time before your kidney gives out. But there is a way to save yourself at the expense of someone else.”

“What do you mean?” Akane’s face fell.

“In order save yourself from your failing kidney, you can get a new one. But it must be a match to yours otherwise your body will not be able to function like it should. You can receive a new kidney by finding someone who has an exact match to your blood,” Mizu answered.

“But won’t that be hard for them?” Akane asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t give a definite answer on how it would influence your donor, since this type of procedure isn’t something that has been done before as far as I am aware. Although I would know how to perform it because of my research, very little is known about the side effects that could happen to both people,” Mizu replied.

“What if I don’t take the procedure?” Akane inquired, unsure of how she felt about potentially putting someone else’s life at risk for her own gain.

“Then it will only be a matter of time before your kidneys finally give out and you depart this world. You can try and use your remedies as much as you can, but it is only delaying the inevitable. Death is something that you cannot escape, especially in your condition,” Mizu said.

“I understand,” Akane sighed. “How am I supposed to know if I am a match with someone?”

“You give a sample of your blood and test it against the donors. If it is, the next step would be to do further tests to see if you will react with their kidney. We can do this using our waterbending, because blood is almost entirely made up of water. Then once the appropriate measures have been taken, you will be allowed to receive their kidney,” Mizu explained.

“That all sounds really complicated. I’m just not sure if I have the time to sit around and wait for something that may or may not come to me,” Akane murmured.

“You don’t have to,” Mizu smiled. “If you don’t mind, you can give me a sample of your blood now and I can see if it is a match with any of the other types that we have. Then I can send out the call to see if anyone would be willing to help you.”

“I guess I have nothing to lose,” Akane said as she rolled her sleeve up.

Giving up her blood had been easy for Akane, since all she had to do was sit there while Mizu stuck the needle in her arm and took the blood that she needed. Once that was done, Akane was sent off with the promise that Mizu would contact her if she found any success. Even though it hadn’t been that much to go on, Akane had still been given a small bit of hope by making this visit. Seeing Mizu had given her a small ounce of hope that maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t destined to die like she thought after all.

~*•°•*~

After doing what she needed to do in the Upper Ring, Akane made her return to the Lower Ring with the intentions of sharing the possible good news that could save her life. It had made her happy for a short amount of time, until she remembered that Zuko would be on his date with Jin right now. The thought of Zuko going out on a date with another girl was still unsettling to Akane and she just wanted this feeling to pass.

Just admit that you like Zuko and move on.

There was that irritating voice inside her head again acting like it knew how she felt when it was her head and not her heart. It was her heart that would know how she felt about Zuko, not her head. As much as the signs pointed to yes, Akane refused to admit that she liked Zuko. She just couldn’t bring it in herself to admit something like that.

Why is it so hard for you to just admit the truth? Don’t you think you’d feel a whole lot better with everything else that you have going on inside of you?

This whole thing with Zuko was completely rattling Akane’s brain. Why did Iroh have to accept Jin’s offer on Zuko’s behalf? Why did Zuko have to go on the date anyways? Why did Zuko have to kiss her and leave her feeling all confused? Why did Akane’s life always have to be so complicated? Her thoughts subsided when Akane noticed a sudden light going off in the distance.

Curious to see what it was, Akane made her way towards the source of light except when she saw what was there, she wished that she hadn’t made any movements. Because standing there amongst an array of shining lights in a rather romantic setting was Zuko and Jin. And they were kissing. Kissing as in mouth to mouth. Kissing as in what she and Zuko had done on top of that mountain not too long ago. As Akane watched Zuko kiss her again and felt something shatter inside of her, there was only one thought that was going inside of Akane’s mind.

That should be me.

Only once Akane had that thought did she finally admit what she had been trying to deny for so long. She liked Zuko. Liked him as in wanted to be with him like Jin had just been. Feeling tears start to fall down her face, Akane knew that she needed to get away. She couldn’t watch Zuko like that. Not when she felt so betrayed inside.

Running away seemed to be the logical choice, which was exactly what Akane had done. So many emotions were welling up inside of her. Anger. Sadness. Frustration. Betrayal. Heartbreak. All because of stupid Zuko kissing stupid Jin after he stupidly kissed her. What gave Zuko the right to do that? What made him think that he can just go around and kiss random girls after the way he had kissed her? Had their kiss meant nothing to him?

At the same time, there was that one part of Akane that felt as though Zuko had no obligation to her. It wasn’t like Akane had voiced these feelings that she’d been pushing away for so long. So in some way, Zuko had every right to kiss Jin. But Akane still felt as though she’d been betrayed. Betrayed by someone who was supposed to be her best friend, not Jin’s.

A million thoughts and possibilities started swarming through Akane’s mind. What if Zuko decided that he liked Jin more than he liked Akane? What if he and Jin started their own happy little relationship which made him realise that he didn’t want her? He had already betrayed her enough by going out with Jin in the first place. Betrayal had been something that Akane had experienced so much of in her life already. Betrayal from her family, from Ozai, Ursa, Kyou and now Zuko, who was the last person that Akane expected to betray her.

Even though the rational part of Akane’s mind tried to reason with her and say that she was just overacting because of her feelings, Akane didn’t know how she was supposed to think. All of these conflicting thoughts and feelings were so new to Akane and she didn’t know what to do with them. But Akane knew one thing that she had to do.

She needed to figure things out.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until after Akane had decided that she needed to figure things out that she realised she had nowhere else to go. She certainly couldn’t go looking for the Avatar and ask to stick around with him for a while considering their history together. With nowhere to go, Akane spent the night just wondering around the Lower Ring while trying to stay out of trouble. She had taken the time to see Pao and tell him that she would need some time off while requesting that he passed the message onto Iroh and Zuko so that they wouldn’t worry about her.

This was time that Akane would be taking to figure out her feelings for Zuko once and for all. Admitting that she liked Zuko as more than a friend had been hard enough for Akane since it had hit her like a tone of bricks. Now she just had to figure out just how deep her feelings for Zuko were before she could face him again.

In hindsight, this was something that Akane should’ve seen coming from a mile away. There had always been something about her friendship that had been incomparable to anything in Akane’s life. No matter what they had been through, they had always been there for each other when it counted the most. That was something that Akane valued the most about her friendship with Zuko because despite the many difficulties that they have had to overcome, they’ve always been there for each other in the end.

Looking back, Akane could see when their friendship might have started to shift into something more than what it had been. The biggest turning point in Akane’s eyes was probably when they did discover what had happened with Kyou and she saw just what lengths Zuko was willing to go to protect her. That had made her realise just how deeply he cared for her when he realised just how close he was to losing her.

Growing up, Akane and Zuko had always just been friends. When Akane did find out that they weren’t really family, that hardly changed their relationship at all. Zuko still treated her as if she was the sister that Azula never was. They’d always had that close bond that Akane knew came from the amount of time that they spent together with Ursa while Azula was off training with Ozai. If Ozai had managed to mould her into the protégé that he wanted her to be, then Akane really doubted that she and Zuko would’ve had the bond that they did.

Jealousy was never something that Akane realised she felt towards Zuko until now after seeing him with Jin. Even when Zuko had Katara tied to a tree Akane found herself jealous of the way Zuko was talking to her like they were flirting. Then there was the jealousy that she felt with the way that Song had acted around him. Part of that had come from her irritation towards Song’s actions but most of it had been jealousy. And of course, there had been those times in their childhood whenever Mai showed any interest towards him that made Akane’s temper flare. There was one conversation that came to Akane’s mind when she first realised that Mai was something to worry about.

It had been a typical day at the Fire Nation Royal Palace when Akane was nine-years-old. She and Zuko had spent the entire day hanging out like they always did while causing as much trouble without even intending to. After getting messed up in the gardens, Akane had gone to wash herself off. When she emerged from the bathroom, Akane was in too much of a mood to notice that someone had been anticipating her exit.

“You’re really lucky, you know that?” a voice asked, startling Akane.

Turning around, she saw Mai leaning up against a poll. Mai was the same age as Akane, but they weren’t really friends since Mai spent all of her time with Azula. Every time she did speak to Mai, Akane got the distinct feeling that the other girl didn’t like her.

“Oh, hi, Mai. I didn’t see you there,” Akane acknowledged her.

Mai rolled her eyes, “That was the point.”

“Do you want something?” Akane asked.

“Yes, I do,” Mai nodded as she stepped forward. “I want to know why someone like you is lucky enough to be apart of the Royal Family and have all of that special treatment for no apparent reason.”

Akane shrugged, “I don’t know. They took me in when I was a baby. I’ve been with them ever since.”

“You know you’re being used, right? Like, why else would someone like Ozai want someone like you around,” Mai growled.

“You’ve been spending too much time with Azula,” Akane remarked, since that was usually how Azula spoke to her.

“Just like you’ve been spending too much time with Zuko,” Mai retorted.

“How is that a problem? Zuko’s my friend. Of course I’d spend time with him,” Akane narrowed her eyes.

“He shouldn’t be wasting his time with someone like you. You’re hardly worth anyone’s time. Zuko probably only hangs out with you because he feels bad that you don’t have any friends,” Mai smirked. “That has to be it. If he didn’t feel bad for you, then he’d have more time to spend with me.”

“If you want to spend time with Zuko, just ask him. You don’t have to be so mean to me,” Akane grumbled, not liking the way that Mai was speaking to her.

“You’re stupid if you don’t see that Zuko doesn’t really care about you. Just like nobody does,” Mai drawled as she walked off.

That last comment had almost been enough to make Akane burst into tears. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Akane knew Zuko cared about her and that Mai was wrong, she would’ve. But Akane couldn’t help but wonder what she had done to earn Mai’s hatred since after all, Akane had barely spoken to the other girl. Clearly Azula had been spewing nonsense like she always did.

For the rest of their childhood, Akane had watched as Mai’s crush on Zuko grew while he remained completely oblivious to it. That was something that Akane was glad for since she wasn’t sure how she would’ve been able to handle Mai and Zuko in some sort of relationship. Even back then, Akane had feared that Zuko would abandon her for Mai after Ursa had left them. Luckily he never did and even now he hadn’t really abandoned her, unless Akane counted that kiss with Jin that still felt like betrayal.

With nowhere else to go, Akane continued wondering throughout the Lower Ring until she realised that she also had nowhere else to sleep. She certainly couldn’t go back to the apartment because that would mean facing Zuko and Akane didn’t want to face him again until she knew exactly what she felt towards him. Not wanting to sleep anywhere that could’ve been dangerous, Akane stayed up all night with so much to think about.

~*•°•*~

By the time that the sun had risen, Akane still had a million thoughts racing through her mind. Majority of them centred around Zuko, but then there were a few other things still bothering her. When the sun rose, Akane wondered how Iroh and Zuko were doing right now. Had they realised that she was gone? Were they worrying about her? She hoped that they weren’t, because Akane figured that some time apart would be good for all of them. They’d been in each other’s company for far too long now.

At one point, Akane found herself wondering around a lake near the border that connected the Lower and Middle Rings. For the most part, Akane had keep to herself and avoided contact with anyone who passed her. That was, until Akane caught the sight of a familiar figure strolling past her. Rage instantly filled up inside of Akane and she quickly lost her self-control.

Because that person was none other than Jet.

Without thinking properly, Akane charged towards Jet and knocked him down with one punch to the jaw that he didn’t see coming. She wasn’t going to lie, Akane felt a twinge of satisfaction from hurting him like that but a small punch to the jaw was nothing compared to what he had done to her face.

“Who are you? Why did you attack me?” Jet demanded as he got up.

“How could you forget me, Jet? Forget what you did to me? To Lee and Mushi?” Akane shrieked, but Jet just stared at her with confusion written on his face as Akane heard footsteps behind her.

What Jet said next confused the hell out of Akane. “Katara?”

Sure enough, standing behind Akane was none other than Katara. Why, just why did she have to bump into these two at the same time? All Akane could do was just stand there awkwardly as Katara’s eyes darted from her to Jet.

“I think I can help you,” Jet stated confidently.

A look of outrage morphed onto Katara’s face and for a second, Akane wasn’t sure who it was aimed at. But when Katara bended up water from the lake directly at Jet while screaming in rage, Akane assumed that the look of outrage was meant for Jet. It was clear to Akane that they knew each other and they obviously didn’t have a good history, just like Akane had with Jet.

“Katara, I’ve changed!” Jet yelled as he looked at the wave in fright. The wave hit Jet, sending him back quite a distance.

“Tell it to some other girl, Jet!” Katara seethed, not even sparing Akane a second thought as she bended up the remaining water from the wave and turned it to ice, which she used to send Jet back to a wall.

“I don’t want to fight you, I’m here to help!” Jet insisted as he blocked the ice with his swords.

Jet then threw his swords down and reached for something behind his back. Katara quickly fired more ice crystals, witch pinned him to the wall. It wasn’t long before the rest of the Avatar’s gang showed up.

“Katara, what is it?” Sokka asked.

“Jet’s back,” Katara replied bitterly as her gaze turned towards Akane. “And he’s not alone.”

“I’m not with him! I want nothing to do with him!” Akane quickly spoke up, not wanting to be associated with Jet.

“If you’re not with him then why are you with him?” Sokka demanded.

“I was walking on my own and I saw him, so I punched him. We have a… history together. Based on your reactions to him I’m assuming that you do too,” Akane explained.

“What are you talking about? I’ve never seen you before,” Jet said.

“Oh, don’t act like you don’t remember me, Jet. You offered me a spot in the Freedom Fighters, remember? Then you attacked me,” Akane glared at him as she pointed at the scar from Jet’s attack that was now etched on her skin.

“I swear I’ve never seen her before in my life!” Jet exclaimed.

“We can’t trust anything Jet says,” Katara said.

“But we don’t even know why he’s here!” Sokka protested.

“I don’t care why he’s here, whatever the reason is, it can’t be good!” Katara retorted angrily.

“I’m here to help you find Appa!” Jet stated as he opened his hand and revealed what seemed to be a missing poster for their bison.

“Why do you need to find him?” Akane questioned.

“Because he’s missing, duh,” Sokka replied.

“Katara, we have to give him a chance,” Aang said.

“I swear, I’ve changed! I was a troubled person and I let my anger get out of control, but I don’t even have the gang now! I’ve put all that behind me!” Jet insisted, which made Akane’s rage only intensify.

“That’s a lie!” Akane exclaimed. “You came to the city with your little Freedom Fighters. I saw them myself. You even offered me a spot on your gang right before you went all crazy and attacked me!”

“He’s not lying,” Toph stated as she walked up to jet and felt the wall he was pinned to.

“How can you tell?” Sokka queried.

I can feel his breathing and heartbeat. When people lie, there’s a physical reaction. He’s telling the truth,” Toph explained.

“So you’re saying that I’m lying?” Akane crossed her arms.

“That’s the problem, cause you’re not lying either,” Toph scratched her head.

“But Jet doesn’t seem to know who she is even though she knows who he is,” Sokka pointed out.

“Maybe Akane was pretending to be somebody else when Jet attacked her?” Aang suggested, which Akane had to admit was partly right. Jet did attack her while she was pretending to be someone else. But she couldn’t tell them that.

“He still attacked someone!” Katara exclaimed.

“Katara, we don’t have any leads. If Jet says he can take us to Appa, we have to check it out,” Aang reasoned.

“All right,” Katara reluctantly conceded before pointed and looked angrily at Jet. “But we’re not letting you out of our sight.”

Almost as if they had forgotten that she was standing there, they started to walk off together while Akane remained standing in her spot. The last time she had seen the Avatar’s gang was in the abandoned Earth Kingdom town before she was struck down by Azula. She had helped them out before and had the sudden urge to help them out again.

“Um, can I tag along for the ride?” Akane asked nervously as she approached them.

“Why would you want to help us?” Sokka questioned.

“I don’t really have anywhere else to go or anything else to do,” Akane mumbled, hoping that they wouldn’t ask anything more of her.

“Oh yeah, well, what about the angry jerk? Shouldn’t you be tagging along with him?” Sokka crossed his arms.

“Actually, I have no idea where the angry jerk is,” Akane lied, not wanting to reveal that Iroh and Zuko were also in the city. That would lead to a very big problem. “We had a falling out… So I decided to go off on my own. I have no intentions of causing any problems, which you guys should know from my past actions.”

“Your past actions are confusing,” Sokka muttered. “First, you try to hunt us down with the angry jerk and then you go around saving us while still working with the angry jerk.”

“Toph, is she telling the truth?” Katara asked and Akane hoped more than anything that Toph would lie for her.

“Yeah, she’s here alone,” Toph confirmed after a slight pause, which Akane was thankful for.

“We need as much help as we can get in finding Appa, so if Akane wants to help us then we should let her,” Aang said.

“Alright, she can come as well,” Sokka conceded.

Once the initial awkwardness transpired, Akane followed after the Avatar and his friends. Despite knowing that they were in the city, Akane would’ve never expected them to cross paths with each other like this. There was definitely some distrust with them and Jet, just like there was with them and herself. That was something that Toph made evident as she pulled Akane back a safe enough distance from the others so that they could talk.

“So, are you going to tell me what you really want with us?” Toph interrogated her.

“Nothing, really,” Akane admitted, which was the truth. “I honestly don’t have anything better to do.”

“You’re not lying there, and you weren’t lying when you said you had a falling out with the angry jerk either. But you were lying when you said you’re here alone,” Toph said.

Akane sighed, “We didn’t come to Ba Sing Se to cause trouble, honestly. We came here because we were wanted by the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. We’re only here because it’s the safest place from anything, minus Jet, of course.”

“And what’s the deal with you and him?” Toph asked.

“Like I said, we met on our way to the city and he offered me a spot in his little gang. Then he attacked me when he started to suspect that I was Fire Nation,” Akane replied.

“So you were pretending to be someone else. But you still know him, which I should’ve picked up on,” Toph grumbled. “Somethings not right with him. He’s being sincere, but somethings missing.”

“His sanity, perhaps?” Akane suggested, earning a chuckle from Toph.

“You’re not too bad for a Fire Nation chick,” Toph remarked.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Akane chuckled.

They ended up following Jet to some barn where Appa was supposedly being kept. When they got there and Appa was nowhere in sight, Akane was ready to lay another punch on Jet. But then the worker told them that Appa had been taken to Whaeltail Island which prompted them to decide to leave Ba Sing Se in the hopes of finding their missing bison.

That had actually made Akane feel relieved since with them leaving the city made Akane feel a lot more relaxed knowing that the Avatar’s team wouldn’t be in Ba Sing Se to cause any trouble for them.

I might as well call them ‘Team Avatar’ at this point since that’s exactly what they are. Or maybe ‘the Gaang.’  Akane thought to herself as they left the barn.

“We’re finally leaving Ba Sing Se,” Toph spread her arms outward in celebration as they made their plans. “Worst… city… ever!”

“Jet!” a surprised voice called out, immediately catching their attention.

Behind them was Smellerbee and Longshot, members of Jet’s little ‘gang’ who he had supposedly left behind. Obviously he hadn’t left them far enough since they were able to find him pretty easily.

“I thought you said you didn’t have your “gang” anymore!” Katara looked angrily at Jet.

“I don’t,” Jet turned back to Smellerbee.

“We were so worried,” Smellerbee ran up to Jet and hugged him. “How did you get away from the Dai Li?”

“The Dai Li!?” Katara squawked in shock.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about!” Jet exclaimed.

“He got arrested by the Dai Li a couple of weeks ago. We saw them drag him away!” Smellerbee explained.

“Right after you attacked me!” Akane seethed angrily.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Toph observed as she felt the ground between the three of them. “They’re all telling the truth.”

“That’s impossible,” Katara stated.

“No it’s not! Toph can’t tell who’s lying because they both think they’re telling the truth. Jet’s been brainwashed!” Sokka proclaimed.

“That’s crazy! It can’t be!” Jet insisted as he glanced at the others who started surrounding him. “Stay away from me!”

“Now do you remember me, Jet? The girl who you threatened to kill?” Akane demanded.

“You threatened to kill her?” Katara shrieked in horror.

“N-no! I didn’t… I swear!” Jet spluttered.

“Maybe this will jog your memory – If not, I’ll slice her head off!” Akane repeated the threat that Jet had tried to bait Zuko with in their fight.

“What is she even doing here?” Smellerbee asked.

“Akane’s helping us find Appa, just like Jet was supposedly doing,” Aang replied.

Smellerbee narrowed her eyes, “Akane wasn’t the name that you gave us.”

Akane’s face paled. Holy shit, she was screwed. If it meant Iroh and Zuko remaining unbothered and her getting in trouble, Akane was hoping more than anything that Smellerbee would leave them out of this.

“Okay, so I wasn’t being completely honest about who I was,” Akane admitted. “But I had my reasons for doing so. I couldn’t just tell anyone who I was.”

Smellerbee’s eyes widened at the implication of Akane’s words and hatred soon morphed onto her face, “So Jet was right. You really are nothing more than ash maker scum and Jet was wrongfully imprisoned for just wanting to do what was right.”

“What was right? He threatened to kill me!” Akane hissed.

“He would’ve been doing everyone here a favour. People like you don’t have the right to be here,” Smellerbee seethed.

“Okay,” Sokka spoke up as he stepped in between of Akane and Smellerbee, who looked like they were about to pounce on each other. “Let’s take this somewhere we can sort this out without getting into any trouble that we don’t want.”

In that moment, Akane felt like just running off then and there but since there was a lot to resolve with Jet, Akane decided to remain with Team Avatar. With any luck, she just might be able to sort out any animosity between her and the Freedom Fighters so that it wouldn’t impact Iroh and Zuko. Because the last thing that Akane wanted was for them to get in trouble because of her actions.

~*•°•*~

Later that night, they all stood around Jet as he sat in his apartment. The biggest problem that Akane was facing was the animosity from Smellerbee and Longshot who kept on sending dirty looks her way. As for Jet, he was just confused about everything and Akane found herself pitying him despite what he did to her.

Along with the bitterness that Akane felt towards Jet, she also felt guilty because the Dai Li had obviously done something to him. Even though his actions had caused her pain, they had come from a good place and he was trying to protect people, even if they didn’t need protecting from them.

“The Dai Li must have sent Jet to mislead us, and that janitor was part of their plot, too!” Katara exclaimed as they interrogated Jet.

“I bet they have Appa here in the city,” Aang stated. “Maybe he’s in the same place they took Jet! Where did they take you?”

“Nowhere!” Jet replied, looking like a lost puppy that made it even harder for Akane to hate him. “I- I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“We need to find a way to jog his real memories,” Aang said.

“Maybe Katara should kiss him. That should bring something back!” Sokka suggested teasingly.

“Maybe you should kiss him, Sokka!” Katara remarked, causing Akane to laugh.

“What are you laughing at?” Smellerbee hissed at her.

“Nothing that concerns you,” Akane muttered.

“Hey, just an idea!” Sokka defended himself.

“A bad one,” Aang scowled.

Do I smell jealousy coming from Aang? Of course, it’s jealousy. If anyone would know anything about jealousy it’s me since it’s all I’ve been feeling lately. Akane thought to herself.

“Ooh, wait! I’ve got it!” Sokka exclaimed as he plucked a straw from the mattress, poked it into Jet’s mouth in trademark fashion and regarded him thoughtfully.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Jet spat it out.

“Try to think of something from your past that triggers your emotions,” Toph suggested.

“The Fire Nation! Remember what they did to your family! To all of us!” Smellerbee exclaimed as she gave Akane another look of distaste.

“Close your eyes. Picture it,” Katara urged, and Akane found it uncomfortable that they were indirectly using Jet’s hatred of her to bring his memories back, which certainly wouldn’t be good for her.

The idea was enough for Jet as he closed his eyes as sweat beads started to form on his forehead. Whatever Jet was thinking of, it had to have been something traumatic as he jerked backwards, horror on his face.

“No! It’s too painful!” Jet said.

“Maybe this will help,” Katara suggested as she took water and put it around his ears, using healing to clear his mind.

It astounded Akane how Katara’s attitude towards Jet had suddenly changed. From seemingly hating his guts to now being supportive of him. Her change of attitude most likely came from the fact that Jet had been hurt, which made Akane realised that that was probably why Katara wasn’t so frosty towards her. That was what made Akane realise that she had been taking pity from everyone her entire life, just like the pity that she was giving Jet.

Whatever Katara was doing with her waterbending healing seemed to do the trick for Jet, as he suddenly found himself remembering what had happened, which made Akane replace her pity for him with nerves.

“They took me to a headquarters under the water. Like a lake!” Jet stated.

“Wait! Remember what Joo Dee said? She said she went on vacation to Lake Laogai!” Sokka exclaimed.

“That’s it! Lake Laogai!” Jet proclaimed as he stood up.

“They could be hiding Appa there as well. We should check it out,” Aang stated.

Katara nodded, “You’re right, Aang. If it means finding Appa we have to go see if we can.”

“I’ll go with you,” Jet said as Smellerbee and Longshot nodded as well.

“What do we do with her?” Toph pointed at Akane who shifted uncomfortably in her spot.

“I say that we should take her along and then throw her over to the Dai Li,” Smellerbee suggested. “People like her deserve to have whatever happened to Jet. He shouldn’t have been punished for doing what was right.”

“Please enlighten me why threatening to kill someone is the right thing,” Akane remarked.

“It’s okay if it was someone like you, especially after what you and your people have done to so many other innocent lives,” Smellerbee snarled.

Akane glared at her, “I have never hurt or killed anyone in my life. I know that it might be hard to believe since it goes against everything you think you know but not all people from the Fire Nation are murderous monsters. Some of us don’t like this war just as much as you do.”

“Akane, do you want to come with us?” Aang stepped forward before a full-on argument broke out between the two girls. “I’ll understand if you don’t want to come, and I’ll make sure that you don’t get into any trouble with the Dai Li.”

“I’m in too deep now to just let you guys go without me,” Akane shrugged.

“Then it’s settled. Akane will come with us to Lake Laogai and we’ll work together,” Sokka proclaimed, glancing between Akane and Smellerbee.

They all nodded in agreement and started heading out of Jet’s apartment and started making plans for getting to Lake Laogai. As they walked throughout the city, Akane could feel someone’s gaze on her that wasn’t like the glare that Smellerbee kept on shooting her way. It was a look from Jet that kept Akane distracted because he wasn’t looking at her with pure hatred like she would’ve thought he would once he remembered.

“What is it?” Akane snapped, not liking the look he was giving her any more than Smellerbee’s glares.

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Jet stated.

“Yeah, when you threatened to kill me and tried to kill my family, remember?” Akane drawled.

“No,” Jet groaned. “I feel like somethings missing – I know that somethings missing. I’m remembering the Dai Li and being taken away, but everything before that is all fuzzy.”

“Oh,” Akane murmured, figuring that it was probably Jets brainwashed mind that had forgotten that night and everything before it.

“I did that, didn’t I?” Jet pointed at the scar on Akane’s face.

“You did,” Akane replied, with hardly any venom or bitterness in her tone. It was hard to feel angry at Jet when she had indirectly put him in such a horrible position.

“I’m sorry,” Jet apologised.

“What? Why would you apologise to me, a Fire Nation scum and ash maker?” Akane questioned.

“I don’t know. I know that I came to Ba Sing Se to make a fresh start, and hurting someone like I apparently hurt you doesn’t seem right. And if those guys can trust you than I feel like I can too,” Jet answered.

Akane nodded, “Then I’ll trust you. But please don’t tell them about the people that I was with if you remember them. I can’t have them knowing that they’re here as well since it would only cause unnecessary problems.”

“If you haven’t hurt anyone, then it shouldn’t be a problem,” Jet said.

Even though Akane knew that part of Jet’s change in attitude towards her was because of his brainwashed mind, she was still hoping that part of what he said was genuine and that once he did get his head cleared out, he wouldn’t come after her like he did before. All Akane wanted to do was help Team Avatar get their bison back and go back to figuring things out. Maybe this new adventure would give her the perspective she needed.

~*•°•*~

Upon arriving at what was supposedly Lake Laogai, Akane was surprised by what she saw. It didn’t seem like a place where you would hide a secret headquarters. Then again, that was probably exactly why they had chosen this place. Their journey to Lake Laogai had been awkward to say the least, with the unresolved tension between Akane and Jet alone with the frustration between Akane and Smellerbee while the others were just trying to keep everything peaceful.

“So where’s this secret headquarters?” Sokka asked as they approached the lake.

“Under the water, I think,” Jet replied and Akane suddenly realised that they really shouldn’t be taking directions from someone who was brainwashed. But now wasn’t the time to cause any drama.

“There’s a tunnel right there by the shore,” Toph stated, pointing to the side.

Whistling as she did so, Toph walked up to the edge of the shore and used her earthbending to bring up a slab of rock with an entrance. She then moved the rock out of the way with the same technique and they all looked down at the tunnel as Aang’s lemur flew away.

Just like Jet said it was, the headquarters was located underneath the lake. It was unlike anything that Akane had seen before. She knew that there was a secret headquarters in the Fire Nation underneath the volcano, but it wasn’t as big and elaborate as this one. They seemed to be letting Jet taking the lead, something that Akane wasn’t so sure of.

“Is letting a guy who was under the influence of the Dai Li guide us around their secret headquarters really the smartest idea?” Akane questioned as Jet lead them through.

“Jet knows what he’s doing, so shut your mouth,” Smellerbee hissed.

“Does he really know what he’s doing if he hardly remembers any of it?” Akane remarked, since it was clear to them that Jet’s memory was still fuzzy.

“You wouldn’t know what you’re talking about since you’ve never experienced something like that. If anyone should’ve been taken off and brainwashed by the Dai Li, it should’ve been you and your little friends,” Smellerbee growled.

“How about both of you shut your mouths so that we don’t get caught?” Sokka snapped.

“She started it,” Akane mumbled.

“You were the one who questioned Jet’s authority,” Smellerbee argued.

Deciding to just stop pushing her luck with Smellerbee, Akane kept her mouth shut and walked at a safe enough distance away from the girl in case she decided to flip out and attack her. If anyone was going to flip out it would’ve been Smellerbee, since Akane had no intentions of hurting anyone just like she never has.

“It’s all starting to come back to me!” Jet said.

Around a nearby corner, they walked past a room where they saw a Dai Li agent standing beside a bright light that was in front of a group of women wearing the exact same clothes.

“I’m Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se,” the Dai Li agent stated.

“I’m Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se,” the women repeated simultaneously, without missing a beat.

“We’re so lucky to have our walls to create order,” the Dai Li agent stated.

“We’re so lucky to have our walls to create order,” the women repeated in order once again.

“Creepy,” Akane muttered.

It seemed as though the more Akane dug into Ba Sing Se, the more corrupt she realised the city was. While it might have been the safest place from the Fire Nation, Akane was beginning to realise that it wasn’t the safest place from the Earth Kingdom itself. Everything here was governed so precisely and that wasn’t something that Akane liked.

“I think there might be a cell big enough to hold Appa up ahead,” Jet stated as they approached a nearby door. “I think it’s through here!”

Entering the room, everyone was anticipating to see Appa waiting inside for them. Only waiting for them wasn’t the Avatar’s flying bison. Waiting for them were several Dai Li agents, all of whom were clinging to the ceiling and preparing to fight.

“Now that’s something different,” Sokka commented at the sight in front of them.

“You have made yourselves enemies of the state. Take them into custody,” the man at the front ordered – who Akane assumed was their leader, Long Feng based on what Team Avatar had told her.

On his order, the Dai Li agents jumped off the ceiling and surrounded them. Two agents fired rock gloves, but Toph broke them up and sent two agents flying through the air with rock pillars. Jet ran towards the agents and broke two other gloves fired by agents with his swords, and tripped another. Meanwhile, Akane was trying to battle without using her firebending since that would’ve exposed her and would’ve put Iroh and Zuko at risk as well. At one point, Akane saw a rock glove come hurling towards Smellerbee who was otherwise occupied. Despite the bitterness between them, Akane couldn’t just let her get hurt like that in good conscience so she managed to save Smellerbee by pushing her out of the way.

“What was that for?” Smellerbee growled.

“I was saving your butt,” Akane remarked.

“Oh…” Smellerbee trailed off, speechless. “Why?”

“Because I couldn’t let you get hurt in good conscience,” Akane replied before heading back off, leaving Smellerbee to think that maybe the girl wasn’t as bad as she thought she was.

A full battle was beginning to ensue, with Aang dealing with a pair of Dai Li agents while Sokka and Katara destroyed Dai Li gloves, but they were soon grabbed by another pair. They were saved by Toph who created a rock wall and rose the ground up. She then knocked away the four Da Li agents that attacked her, but a glove captured her and Jet swung by to free her. The agent flew his other rock glove, and Longshot fired an arrow, which destroyed the glove. Jet jumped in front of Longshot to hold off more of their rock attacks. Any attacks that were sent Akane’s way, she waited until they were just inches away from her before punching her arms out and using the smallest ounce of firebending to break them.

“Long Feng is escaping!” Aang shouted as he knocked two agents away with airbending.

Because she was already at a close enough distance to Long Feng, Akane raced after him, with Aang and Jet hot on her heals. They headed to another part of the headquarters with many pipes of all sizes sticking out of the walls, with some of them pouring out water, but are sealed in by Long Feng.

“All right, Avatar, you’ve caused me enough problems. This is your last chance…” Long Feng trailed off with a smirk. “If you want your bison back.”

“You do have Appa! Tell me where he is!” Aang demanded.

“Agree to exit the city now, and I’ll waive all charges against you and allow you to leave with your lost pet,” Long Feng offered.

“You’re in no position to bargain,” Jet snarled.

“You just want to save yourself the humiliation of getting defeated,” Akane added.

“Am I not?” Long Feng asked.

“You’re definitely not!” Aang yelled as he got into a fighting position.

“Jet, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai,” Long Feng stated.

“What? That’s all you’ve got?” Akane crossed her arms.

“I am honoured to accept his invitation,” Jet said.

Before Akane and Aang had the chance to react, Jet swung his swords at Aang as he tried attacking Akane as well. The closer she looked at Jet, she realised that his eyes no longer appeared normal and his pupils had widened. That was when Akane realised that what Long Feng had said had been some kind of secret message to trigger Jet’s brainwashing, and now they were fighting against a brainwashed fighter who had every intention of finishing them off.

“Jet, it’s me, Aang!” Aang yelled as he ran back, refusing to fight. “You don’t have to do this!”

“I’m afraid he no longer has a choice,” Long Feng proclaimed.

“You’re a monster, you know that, right?” Akane snarled as she dodged Jet’s attacks.

“What would you know about monsters, girl?” Long Feng questioned.

No matter what Aang or Akane tried saying, Jet continued acting under Long Feng’s orders as he attacked them. Neither of them wanted to really attack Jet, all they wanted to do was break whatever spell Long Feng had put him under.

“Jet, I’m your friend! Look inside your heart!” Aang insisted.

“Do your duty, Jet!” Long Feng order.

“He can’t make you do this! You’re a Freedom Fighter!” Aang shouted.

Those seemed to be the magic words for Jet, since he suddenly straightened up in shock. It was almost as if a million scenes suddenly went through Jet’s mind, reminding him of who he was and what he really wanted to fight for. Then Jet’s irises returned to normal, and Akane dared to think that meant he was now un-brainwashed.

“Do it! Do it now!” Long Feng demanded.

Everything that happened next happened in slow motion for Akane. When Jet spun around and fired a sword at Long Feng, she had seen the earthbenders reaction before he reacted. As Long Feng uplifted a rock and fired it towards Jet, Akane reacted entirely based on someone else’s self-preservation. Surprising herself with her actions, she’d punched a fire blast towards the rock, just as its movement sent Jet flying backwards but right before it could strike him.

She had saved him. Akane had saved Jet, after what he had done to her. And she didn’t regret it one bit.

They hardly had any time to react as Long Feng made his escape and they went to Jet’s aid, deciding that he was more important to worry about than the earthbender. Glancing down at Jet, Akane let out a sigh of relief as she realised that he was still alive.

“I’m sorry, Aang,” Jet apologised.

“It’s not your fault,” Aang murmured.

Jet glanced at Akane, “I’m sorry for what I did to you too.”

“You remember me now?” Akane stated nervously, since if Jet remembered her then he would remember Iroh and Zuko.

“I do,” Jet nodded. “I remember Mushi and Lee too. I hope they’re okay.”

Relief flooded through Akane as she realised the implications of Jet’s words. He wasn’t going to tell them, which she was grateful for. That was when they were joined by the others who ran to help them.

“What happened?” Smellerbee asked as she rushed to Jet’s aid.

“Long Feng used his brainwashing on Jet to attack us. Then when we get rid of it, Jet attacked Long Feng who tried to kill Jet with his earthbending, but Akane saved him,” Aang replied, causing Smellerbee’s eyes to widen.

“If it hadn’t been for her, he probably would’ve succeeded in what he tried to do,” Jet murmured weakly.

“You don’t appear to have any potentially long-term injuries, which is good,” Katara stated as she quickly healed him.

“You guys go and find Appa, we’ll take care of Jet,” Smellerbee said.

“We’re not going to leave you,” Katara protested.

“There’s no time,” Longshot spoke up, surprising all of them. “We’ll take care of him. He’s our leader.”

“Don’t worry, Katara. I’ll be fine,” Jet smiled at her reassuringly.

Nodding, Katara got up and started to leave with the others while Akane just remained standing there. Saving Jet hadn’t been something that she intended on doing, since there was a time when she would’ve just let him die after what he did to her. But Akane knew that it would’ve been wrong of her to let it happen when she could’ve prevented it.

“Akane, are you coming with us?” Sokka asked from the door.

“No,” Akane replied. “I’ll stay with them. I hope you guys find Appa.”

Sokka nodded, “See you on the other side, then.”

Staying with Jet had also not been something that Akane intended on doing, but just like when she first met him Akane found something that was endearing her to him once again. She was reminded of the similarities between him and Zuko, which she figured was why she wanted to help him, like she wanted to help Zuko.

“I’m sorry for how I acted towards you before,” Smellerbee apologised.

“It’s okay, if I were you I probably would’ve hated me too,” Akane smiled weakly.

“Thank you for saving Jet, even though you had no reason to and any reason to let him die. If he had died… I don’t know what Longshot and I would’ve done,” Smellerbee murmured.

“I get it. I know what it’s like to lose someone you care about, especially someone you rely on so much,” Akane said, referring to Ursa.

“Let’s not think about that. Let’s just get out of this bloody place,” Jet remarked from the ground.

Together with Smellerbee and Longshot, she helped them pick Jet up and carry him out of the headquarters. Despite what had happened between Akane and Jet in the past, Akane couldn’t bring herself to hate him now after saving his life. That was when Akane realised that she had never hated Jet, she had just felt betrayed by what he had done after she had opened herself up to him.

Whatever animosity that had previously existed between them was now gone, and they were wiping the slate clean. Now Akane was going to help Jet get back on his feet, and hopefully help him in the same way she wanted to help Zuko. After all, if Akane could save his life than surely she could save his corrupted mind.

Chapter Text

Leaving with Jet, Smellerbee and Longshot had been a decision that Akane made without even really thinking. Once they had watched Aang and the others go off to find Appa, Akane realised that she’d probably be getting herself into even more trouble by getting involved with the Dai Li and that it was probably best for her own self-preservation to stay with Jet. Just like the first time she had met him, there was something about him that allured her in.

Having already acknowledged the similarities between him and Zuko, Akane figured that that was the reason why. For the most part, Jet didn’t seem to treat her harshly after she’d saved his life, but Smellerbee and Longshot were still understandably being cautious of her. They had managed to escape the Dai Li headquarters together and out of the corner of her eye, Akane noticed a certain flying bison in the sky and hoped that Aang had been reunited with his best friend.

“So, what do you want to do now?” Jet asked Akane as Smellerbee and Longshot walked ahead of them.

“I said that I wanted to stick with you guys, so that’s what I’m going to do – if I’m wanted around, of course,” Akane replied.

“Really? I would’ve thought that you’d want to go back to your firebender friends,” Jet remarked.

Akane grimaced, “I can’t really deal with them right now. I need some time to myself, a change of scenery or a change of people.”

“Well, you can join us as far as I’m aware. You proved yourself when you saved my life even after you didn’t have to because of what I did to you,” Jet said.

“I couldn’t let you die on my watch. Not when there was something that I could’ve done to stop it,” Akane stated.

“Thanks again, for doing that. And I know I said it before, but this time my head is clear and I can remember what I did to you. I’m sorry for hurting you like I did. I’d come here to make a fresh start, but I forgot about all of that when I went to attack you. It was wrong,” Jet apologised.

“Even though I’m Fire Nation scum?” Akane narrowed her eyes.

“Even so. You hadn’t done anything bad – I was being the bad guy by attacking you and your family. I only should’ve got involved if you were up to no good which in my defence, I assumed you were just by being here,” Jet said.

“I get it, Jet. If I were you I wouldn’t have trusted me too. But we really meant no harm by coming to Ba Sing Se. We were on the run from the Fire Nation, and despite being wanted in the Earth Kingdom as well, it was decided that Ba Sing Se would be the safest place to hide in plain sight,” Akane explained.

“On the run from the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation? Man, you’re popular,” Jet commented.

Akane chuckled, “I guess I am, but not in a way that anyone would want to be popular. This isn’t how I want to live my life – constantly being on the run when in my eyes I’ve done nothing wrong in the war.”

“Since you’re not really Naoki, can ask who you really are then?” Jet asked.

“I guess I do own you some kind of an explanation, but not now. We need to establish some sort of concrete trust if I am to tell you who I really am. I don’t want to jeopardise my friends freedom,” Akane replied.

“So, they’re not really your family?” Jet clarified.

“Not by blood, but we’ve been raised together like family,” Akane nodded.

Jet scoffed, “I know that there was too much tension between you and ‘Lee’ for you to be cousins. No guy looks at his cousin the way he looked at you.”

“What?” Akane’s eyes widened.

“You really didn’t see it? He gave me that look like I better stay away from you or else. And not the kind of protective cousin look. The stay away from my girl look,” Jet said.

“Oh,” Akane murmured. “I guess I’ve never really notice him look at me like that before. I’ve only ever been a sister to him.”

“From my point of view, you’re certainly more than that to him,” Jet remarked.

After catching up with Smellerbee and Longshot, they decided to head back to the city together and allowed Akane to spend more time with them. But Jet’s words had left Akane rattled. She never would’ve thought that Zuko could’ve reciprocated her feelings, which was why she had never talked to him about it. He’d basically dismissed any possibility of them having a relationship after The Kiss.

But Jet seemed to think otherwise, and despite it supposedly being the news that Akane would want to hear, it only made her even more