Late Summer, Year 9 in the reign of Fire-Lord Ozai
The tea was actually quite good.
Ash and bone, Zuko thought irritably, if I'm not careful I'll turn into my uncle
Zuko contemplated that fact as he stood at the front of his ship as it slowly made its way further south, dodging icebergs where it had to, breaking through them where appropriate. His uncle had insisted that drinking the tea would help him learn the "heart of fire" technique, an old firebending kata for staving off the cold that Zuko was only now getting the hang of.
"Bending comes from the breath and the stomach nephew," Iroh had said pacifyingly when Zuko had failed to pick up the technique. "Warming the stomach should make it easier."
Hence the tea in Zuko's hand.
His other hand held a letter he had received in the last port he been in. He shook his head, snorting in mirth at its contents. As his banishment grew longer and longer, more and more frustrating, mirth was something that was getting harder and harder to come by.
Ty Lee's letters could always be counted on to lighten his spirits however.
"Something amusing nephew?" Iroh said, looking up, surprised, from his bowl of roast turtle-duck.
"Ty Lee has decided to join the circus," Zuko said, not turning, merely gesturing with the letter.
"The little Ikoma girl that's friends with your sister?" Iroh said, amused. "Are you sure it was her? Aren't there…"
"Seven of them, yes. All identical. And yes, I'm sure. Firstly, this letter is from her. Secondly, while no one can tell them apart by sight, she's the only one of them who would do a thing like this." He shook his head in consternation.
Mai is going to be furious.
And there was the black mood he was more accustomed to. The relationship between his only two friends was something that he had looked forward to hearing about on a semi-regular basis, but there was no way, in the Sun's holy name, that Mai of all people would be caught dead at a circus. Never mind that her proficiency with throwing weapons was practically a show all on its own. Her fatherwould most certainly not allow it. Her mother would probably have one of her fainting spells at the mere idea.
He folded the letter and placed it inside his uniform with a sigh.
I must be losing my mind, he growled internally, mind coming back to his present surroundings. What in Akodo's name was I thinking coming this far south? He glared around at the frozen seascape, icebergs everywhere.
It was a rhetorical question of course, he knew perfectly well why he'd come. He'd just needed a break.
A break from all the staring.
It hadn't been bad while he was with the army. Scars were common and were seen as badges of successful survival when they were thought of at all. Occasionally he'd startle someone if he came up to them suddenly, but, with a few notable exceptions, that was the worst of it. It was a state of affairs he'd not truly appreciated until he'd spent an extended period of time in the colonies. Many in the peasant population had neither the discipline to avoid looking horrified by his face or the intelligence to realize what he could do to them if the mood took him. They gaped at him in horror, or worse, pity. As though he were some sort of freak, not a samurai due the respect he deserved.
He'd had to make a few examples.
Normally he didn't care to bend at peasants, they were beneath him after all, but sometimes he grew so angry. Angry at their disrespect, at their lack of self-control and at their lack of courtesy. He was always angry these days it seemed, angry at the very world he lived in. If they'd thrown themselves on their knees and begged forgiveness they'd have probably have gone unpunished.
He'd tried not to actually hurt anyone, and he was usually able to channel his anger into something productive, like hunting bandits, or encroaching Earth-Kingdom soldiers but it was a close thing a few times.
He was supposed to protect his people, not come within a hair's breadth of immolating them.
The fury was a constant now in his life and very useful to him here at the south pole. Fury was warm, and any source of warmth was appreciated. But just a few weeks before he'd begun to dream of Matomo again, of melting stone and screaming villagers, their faces barely remembered in the haze of his uncontrollable fury. Lately, however, the faces in his dreams had grown sharp in relief. His uncle, his sister, his crew, Rainesu, all of their faces he saw as he moved through the panicked village, completely and utterly out of control.
He was beginning to have concerns about his sanity.
So, he'd gone south. He really hadn't given it much thought, he just needed some time. Time to cool off, and there was no better place for that then the bottom of the world. The course planning paperwork he had to submit to the Admiralty had a line for rationale, for the purpose of the mission. He always wrote the same thing; "hunting the Avatar."
It was all he could write.
"CONTACT! PORT SIDE!" cried a voice from the crow's-nest, startling Zuko from his brooding.
He spun left and saw a bright blue beam of light splitting the twilit sky, extending to the heavens and seemingly beyond. A jolt like electricity shot through him, his yellow eye growing wide with excitement.
That's it! It's HIM, he thought in shock. He knew it somehow, felt it in his bones. He'd never seen anything like it before, and he'd been around the world. The only other thing he'd never seen before was the Avatar.
"RANGE AND BEARING!" he roared, sprinting across the deck of the ship and halfway up the ladder towards the ship's bridge.
"Orders, sir?!" His executive officer had leaned out the helm's window, saving him some effort.
"Hard to PORT Mr. Dosei, best possible speed! Make ready the ice-breaker!"
Soldiers and sailors began working with frenzied activity, making the ship ready for action. Zuko stalked into his cabin and began doing his own plotting to figure out where the beam had come from. The lookout would be in soon with a bearing and range, and he wanted a head start.
"Nephew?" Iroh called, knocking on the door frame of his open door.
"Yes, Uncle?" Zuko said, not looking up.
"I must suggest caution nephew; the south pole is an odd place, it's said that the spirits used to roam wild here before the Water-Tribe came."
"Your point, Uncle?"
"If the Avatar is not here…"
"He IS here."
"But if he is not… you mustn't give up hope. You get very worked up about these things you know, and-"
"Is there a reason you're treating me like a child Uncle?" Zuko said darkly, glaring at him. He was a few months over 17 and had been an adult since his gempukku, over four years ago.
"That had not been my intent Zuko. I am simply concerned for you," Iroh said, his eyes narrowing.
The stared at each other for a moment, until they heard footsteps pounding down the hall. The lookout making best possible speed towards his captain.
"I've got bearing sir, 162 degrees South Sou'East!"
"What about…" Zuko stopped.
Of course, he doesn't have range, that... whatever-it-was didn't have a top to it and there were probably icebergs in the way at its base.
"Acknowledged, sailor. Bearing 162, range indeterminate. Head to the bridge and tell the XO to make best possible speed around any icebergs too big for the breaker, set condition one throughout the ship," Zuko said briskly and plotted a circle on his map where the beam could have originated from.
"Aye aye Sir!" the sailor cried as he darted away, a look of relief on his face.
"I will try not to be too hard on myself should this prove to be a false trail," Zuko said sarcastically, looking back up at his Uncle. "After all, I'm completely unused to failure!" he finished with a snap.
Iroh sighed. "Yes, my prince, I apologize for my rudeness," he said, turning away.
Zuko rubbed his eye in consternation at himself. There is no reason to yell at him, he just cares about you, he thought made a mental note to apologize to him later and began reviewing his maps.
Zuko sparred with Sgt Rin.
The Sgt, despite approaching middle age, was an excellent swordsman. His lanky build allowed his sword strikes to seem to whip out of nowhere and to strike with the precision and power born of long hours of practice. He was not a bender unfortunately but was still a fine warrior and accomplished duelist. Despite kenjutsu being what Zuko's sister referred to as "primitive brawling" Zuko refused to neglect his skill with the sword. So, he practiced.
When he practiced he didn't have to think about the fact that hadn't found anything, or slept, in two days.
It was HIM, I know it! He snarled internally, earning himself a snap on the elbow when he failed to block Sgt Rin's boken. Focus! I need to foc-
Sgt Rin had stopped, dropping his guard position, and pointed starboard. "Flare Sir."
"Flare?" Zuko said, puzzled, as he turned around.
"CONTACT STARBOARD SIDE!" came the confirming cry from the crow's-nest.
There was indeed a flare, a Fire-Nation standard distress beacon, burning a bright red-gold arc through the air, ninety degrees from their current heading. Iroh stood from where he was contemplating his Pai Sho board, as usual, and merely looked at Zuko.
Damn him, Zuko thought, he assumes I will ignore it!
One of the first rules Zuko had learned when taking command of a ship is that you never ignored a distress call, not even from an enemy. Firing a distress flare was a sign of automatic surrender, a cry for help. Though they loved the sea and hated an enemy navy, every sailor knew that the sea was a cruel mistress and would kill you more completely and for far less reason than any mortal man would.
Drowning was not a particularly honorable death.
"Damnit," Zuko said quietly, vocalizing his thoughts. "Hard to Starboard! Prepare the skiffs!" He shouted loudly.
Iroh sighed in relief.
"You thought I would ignore it?" Zuko grumbled as he stalked over to his uncle.
"I hoped you would not, but you do have the tendency to focus on your objective often to the exclusion of all else," Iroh said, smiling ruefully. "Just as your father and I did at your age."
"Of course," Iroh continued, "your father and I used to behave like that while pursuing women, not chasing down elderly men."
"One of these days I am going to throw you over the side and see if I can use you to catch a giant sea serpent," Zuko said in mock irritation.
"Oh," Iroh said giving a false shiver, "not here, it's far too cold. For me and for sea serpents"
"Sir, you might want to see this." Lt Taro said, gesturing with a spyglass
It was a few hours later and they were on the bridge, simply waiting, scanning for any sign of the imperiled vessel. Zuko walked over to the window and took the proffered spyglass
"Yes, I've seen snow bef-," he started cutting off quickly, "are those… buildings?"
"I believe so sir. Must be a Unicorn village."
The Water-Tribe had entered the great war over three decades ago in response to repeated provocation from the Fire-Nation, joining with the Earth-Kingdom's side of the conflict. Despite being spoken of a one "tribe" of people they were divided into two groups, one at either edge of the globe. The Tribe of the Crane in the north and the Tribe of the Unicorn in the south. The Unicorn had had the better of the two navies and so Zuko's grandfather, Fire-Lord Azulon, had elected to strike there first.
It had been problematic at first, the Unicorn were a nomadic people and simply weren't around to be attacked unless they wanted to be. Azulon had had to essentially besiege the entire south pole, cutting off their access to the sea and the ice seals and rhino-whales that were their main sources of food.
Through cunning and tenacity their War-Chief, Moto Chagatai, had broken through the blockade with the bulk of their fleet and had begun to wreak havoc on the Fire-Nation's eastern islands. He laid siege and took many of them, even laying waste to the whole of the island of Jang Hui, before Fire-Lord Azulon himself entered the fray and, with the help of Zuko's uncle, brought him low and devastated their fleet of wooden ships.
So impressed was the Fire-Lord that he had offered them something unprecedented in respect for their prowess and ferocity, an armistice, an honorable ceasefire. He spent the remaining years of his life building the wonder of the world that was "the Gates of Azulon," a series of iron chain barricades that could be raised and lowered to protect the Sea of Flames, the main waterway into the capital.
Unfortunately, the armistice had only lasted until Azulon's death. Zuko remembered when he had been a boy the word coming down of how the Unicorn had begun attacking fishing vessels in the south sea as a test of the new Fire-Lord's resolve. His father's reprisals had been swift and overwhelming.
The Unicorn had practically been annihilated.
In the north, instead of mindless nonsensical aggression, the Crane had focused on fortifying their icy castles and conducting minor raids. Trying to maintain their pride, while provoking as little attention to themselves as possible. As such, they had managed to be more successful at continuing to be relevant on the global scale, if only slightly.
Both halves of the Water-Tribe built their dwellings out of ice and snow, trees not being in abundance in the frozen wastes that were their home. Hence the state of the tiny village in Zuko's view, its igloos and snow-yurts nearly invisible against the white backdrop of the terrain behind them.
"Well," Zuko said, snapping the collapsible telescope shut, his mouth in the beginnings of a sneer, "let's go pay them a visit, shall we?"
"What about the flare?" Iroh said questioningly.
"The range and bearing…" Zuko walked over to the map table and pointed, "puts the distress flare somewhere in this area," he indicated a circle a bit inland of the observed coast. "We'll have to make landfall anyway and," he grinned savagely, "we could use a guide."
To find the flare AND the Avatar.
"Let's make an impression, shall we?" Zuko roared, his infantrymen behind him waiting for landfall.
Zuko had found that showing up impressively, making it clear that he could destroy a person utterly and completely, tended to save a lot of tedious talk. When you rammed your boat through a fortification without it taking any damage, there wasn't a lot of "What is the meaning of this?" talk.
Your meaning was perfectly clear.
The ship slammed into a feeble barricade made of ice and snow, its icebreaker making short work of it and its crude watchtower. The forward ramp lowered and Zuko stalked out, his black and amber armor contrasting heavily with the whiteness of the snow, steam rising from his own elevated temperature. He advanced towards a huddled mass of water peasants, dressed in their dark blues and purples, maybe twenty or thirty in all and a lone warrior crouched in front of them, face coated in war-paint.
"Aaaaaaaah!" The warrior let out an unimpressive battle cry and charged Zuko, club held high over his head.
Poor stance, awful balance, no wakizashi, Zuko thought in a single heartbeat. Peasant. Not a threat.
Without bending, Zuko kicked the club out the man's hand then followed it up with a roundhouse kick to the head that flung him out of the way. He barely even broke stride, and continued forward, purposely twisting his face into a savage snarling grin that made it look even more frightening.
"I require a-"
"RAAAAH!" the man had gotten back up, his war paint rubbed away in the snow, and charged him.
Zuko waved the guards down, better to cow the peasants by a solo display of arms. His katana came out and sliced the man's (boy's actually...) club in half. Showing a quickness Zuko had not expected from a peasant the (...young man? He might even be my age...) dropped quickly and rolled past Zuko, drawing something from his back and throwing it as he came up on one knee. Zuko dodged and advanced calmly as the young man grabbed a spear he'd somehow concealed in the snow.
"Show no fear!" a tiny child cried out from the now huddled mass of villagers.
Such spirit for a defeated people, Zuko thought, I think I'll let them liv-
The object the young man had thrown had, through some quirk of its construction, returned and slammed into Zuko's helmet with a force he had not thought the small object could muster. It didn't hurt, but it unsettled Zuko's helmet. The young man smiled proudly and charged forward shouting.
Surprisingly competent for a peasant, pity he isn't smart enough to know when he's beaten. Or to have a balanced stance. Time to END this.
Zuko sheathed his sword, and simply grabbed the Unicorn's spear out of the air as it came towards his face. He snapped it with his armored forearm, disarmed the man with a spin and then punched him square in the nose. He felt the peasant's nose break under his fist, and he followed the strike with a high spinning overhead kick, driving the peasant down to the ground. Holding the young warrior in place with his boot on his neck, he returned his attention back to the huddled masses.
"I require. A guide," he growled. He enunciated his words to ensure that they understood that now was the time for talking and not more foolish resistance. "An hour ago, a Fire-Nation distress flare was shot off from somewhere," he gestured to his right, "over there. Someone will show me the way there."
"That was me," a calm voice said from Zuko's left. He turned his head bringing the speaker out of his blind spot. A young water-tribe woman stood holding an ancient crone, staring at him.
"You set off a Fire-Nation flare?" he asked skeptically.
"It was an accident… there's an old abandoned ship," she replied tensely.
"I will need to see it," Zuko said.
"I can take you... if you promise not to hurt my brother."
The peasant under his boot made a gurgling sound.
"Your brother attacked a samurai," Zuko intoned softly, "generally when a peasant does that the punishment is death."
"We're not peasants!" The girl said forcefully, a hint of anger creeping into her voice, "I'm Shinjo Katara of the Unicorn! That is my elder brother Shinjo Sokka."
"If you are samurai, where are your daisho?" Zuko mused aloud, skepticism obvious in his voice.
"I… We haven't…" she grew flustered.
I see, Zuko thought, glancing around quickly, seeing only the elderly and the very young. There aren't any adult samurai here. They must have left or been slain before these two could complete their gempukku. Interesting.
He looked down at the Unicorn under his boot. Shinjo Sokka was it? "I suppose it makes sense, no one in their right mind would let this one have a wakizashi," he said tauntingly.
Sokka made angry bubbling noises and tried to rise, Zuko didn't allow it.
"Very well, Shinjo Katara," he said, his tone making clear that he was taking a great deal on faith. "I will need to see the ship for myself." He leaned closer trying to burrow into her blue-gray eyes with his lone yellow one. "And after I have seen it we will discuss the location of the Avatar."
Her eyes widened and suddenly darted over his right shoulder.
He began to turn to see what she was looking at and then something hit him in the side of his stomach with an inordinate amount of force, knocking his helmet completely off, bowling him end over end, half burying him in loose snow.
Enraged, he struggled to his feet and saw the perpetrator, a penguin, waddling away while a new person, a short bald man in orange and yellow helped the bleeding Shinjo boy to his feet. He held a staff in his other hand and had a wakizashi made of wood stuffed through the back of his belt.
A wooden wakizashi? Where have I seen… his eye grew wide in shock. An AIRbender!
The man turned around, revealing that he was just a boy. A boy with an arrow tattooed on his head.
Zuko's soldiers moved to encircle the newcomer, but with a wave of the airbender's staff the wind picked up suddenly, knocking them back and covering them with snow.
"You. You're the Avatar?" Zuko said, stunned. "You're just a boy."
"So? You're just a teenager," the boy chirped in amusement.
With a gesture Zuko bent fire into his hand, creating a crimson blade that hummed and pulsed angrily. Everyone but the Avatar took a step back in surprise. Zuko's eye grew wide in a combination of shock and bloodlust.
"I, Akodo Zuko, challenge you here and now to honorable combat!" Zuko said grinning triumphantly. "I have you now!"
"No thank you," the boy said smilingly.
"Very well, we sh- wait, what?" Zuko blinked stupidly.
"I said 'no thank you.' 'Thank you' is what you say to be polite," the tattooed boy said still smiling.
"You can't… You can't just refuse a challenge!" Zuko thundered.
"Sure I can, I just did!"
"But… Have you no honor?!"
"Well sure! I just don't particularly want to fight you."
Zuko was flabbergasted.
"I mean if we fight here in the middle of the village somebody could really get hurt," the boy said, scratching his head sheepishly.
"A fight is going to happen whether you duel me or not!" Zuko growled advancing on him.
"What if I just surrender? Will you promise to leave? And not hurt any more of these people"
Zuko blinked. It… it can't be this simple, can it?
"Surrender to me and, on my honor, you and I will leave immediately. This village will be unharmed, so I swear."
The boy shrugged. "All right then."
"Aang no, don't do this!" Katara shouted as Zuko's men grabbed Aang's arms and led him up the ship's ramp.
"Don't worry Katara, everything will be fine," he called over his shoulder.
"What was all the commotion about?" Iroh said, popping his head into Zuko's cabin.
"I… I've got him," Zuko said quietly staring at the wall, a look of complete bewilderment on his face.
"The Avatar... the AVATAR uncle!" Zuko cried, suddenly looking half his age as he leapt up and grinned wildly at his uncle "Ash and bone, I'VE CAPTURED THE AVATAR!" he began to laugh maniacally.
"That little boy? The Avatar would be an old man"
"Don't you see?" cried Zuko, still laughing madly as he rifled through the papers at his desk, the files he had on the Avatar. "Avatar Roku died one hundred fourteen years ago years ago! Sozen's comet was one hundred and one years ago! The Avatar didn't just go into hiding, he went to sleep! For over a hundred years!" His laughing intensified as tears began to stream from his right eye. "He's a thirteen-year-old boy! I've been hunting a sleeping child for almost half a decade!" he wheezed as he sat down and fought to catch his breath. "I… I can go home," he whispered softly, almost disbelievingly.
"You can go home," Iroh said and bowed proudly. "Well done Prince Zuko, well done."
Zuko hadn't been able to sleep, he knew it would be several weeks before his ship made it to Fire-Nation waters, but his mind was a whirl. He paced back and forth, muttering to himself, thinking about what he'd say to his father, what his father would say back, how proud everyone would be. He kept glancing at the staff he'd confiscated from the Avatar, just to make sure it was real.
Suddenly his ears caught the sound of slamming doors and rapid footfalls booming their way down the hall outside his room. Very light footfalls. Not one of his crew.
He's escaped?! Damnit! He thought furiously as he looked around. He's come for his staff.
Zuko stood behind the door to his cabin and waited.
"My staff!" the Avatar exclaimed happily as he stepped into the room.
Zuko slammed the door behind him.
"Generally, when a person surrenders they stay put in their cell," Zuko hissed. "Apparently, the Avatar need not concern himself with honor!" Then he charged and the duel began.
The boy was fast. Faster than anything Zuko had ever seen. Faster than Azula even, and she was like lightning. He'd thought water style was a difficult opponent? This wasn't like fighting against yourself, this was like fighting nothing, like trying to wrestle with a summer breeze.
But still doable, he thought to himself, just keep him in here, let him tire out. Keep him in the middle distance.
The Avatar flipped and twirled and dodged, winding in long circles around Zuko. At one point he summoned a ball of wind and rode it around on the ceiling, even faster than before. He grabbed one of Zuko's wall hangings and tied it around him moving so fast Zuko could barely see him. Zuko exploded out of the hanging, bathing the entire room in crimson fire. Aang grabbed his staff and blew himself a clear patch. Zuko summoned his sword of fire. They squared off again, the battle that had been raging the moment before gone, now locked into a battle of anticipation and wits.
A battle the Avatar won.
The boy slammed Zuko into the wall by bending a gust of wind under his futon and slamming it into him. Then as Zuko began to fall to the ground he did it again, slamming him into the ceiling.
Zuko shook his head, clearing it to see the Avatar rapidly exiting his cabin heading for the outside.
"NO," he growled madly leaping to his feet to pursue.
He chased the boy down the hall and onto the bridge where the Avatar had leaped out the fore window, his staff unfolding to reveal wings. Zuko, with no consideration for his own safety, flung himself after and managed to grasp the Avatar's foot.
They were too heavy to maintain altitude, and they both hit the deck with a thud. Zuko rose immediately and kicked the glider away, then tried to seize the boy by the neck. The Avatar spun away rapidly, putting distance between himself and Zuko, landing on the edge of the ship.
"Can't you just let me go?" Aang asked desperately.
"No," Zuko said flatly, and pummeled him with fire.
Zuko locked the boy in place with a torrent of fire, an overwhelming red flood of flame. The boy blocked as best he could but he quickly seemed to grow weaker, exhausted. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and he passed out, falling over the edge of the ship.
"DAMNIT!" Zuko roared, "MAN OVERBOARD!"
As sailors piled onto the deck a strange basso roar sounded to Zuko's left, something was coming towards his ship. Something flying.
"What the…?" Zuko began, but stopped, cut off by a new noise. It was another rumble, much deeper and more dangerous, coming from below his ship.
The boy, his eyes and his tattoos aflame with shining blue light rose from the waves like one of the dreaded sea serpents of old, riding on a massive column of water. He landed on the boat surrounded by a spinning wheel of hundreds of gallons of water, which he flung outward knocking back the soldiers who had come at Zuko's call and sending Zuko himself flying over the edge.
Zuko managed to just barely catch the anchor and once he had secured his grip he quickly began to climb his way back up. He could see the Avatar's staff right above him and he reached to grab it only to find the other end being held by Shinjo Sokka. The Unicorn looked at him, grinning, his nose swollen from where Zuko had broken it and he slammed the staff into Zuko's nose roughly, breaking it as well, and knocking him back down.
"That's from the Unicorn!" Sokka shouted, giving a little hop of emphasis. "You icehole!"
Growling, Zuko began to climb the anchor chain again, his nose streaming blood. When he reached the top of the chain again he grabbed a proffered hand that was thrust out over the edge.
"Are you alright nephew?" Iroh asked worriedly.
"Never mind me," he snarled thickly, "OPEN FIRE!"
The ship began to throw everything it had at the retreating creature, blasts of fire, leafhead arrows and the large bolt from the ship's main ballista.
"Great comet?" Iroh asked.
"Great comet," Zuko snarled.
Working together the two Akodos bent an enormous amount of fire and hurled it towards the Avatar. It was on course for a solid hit when it took an impossible 90-degree turn and hit a giant iceberg on the starboard side of the ship. The icy wall collapsed, half burying the ship and blocking their path.
"RRGGGG!" Zuko raged wordlessly. "RANGE AND BEARING! Get the ice breaking gear! Clear this away!" he ordered after coming to himself.
"Ah, sir?" Sgt Rin said quietly.
"WHAT… happened to them?" Zuko's voice went from rage to confusion instantly.
Behind him, on the aft of the ship, it looked like half a platoon had been turned into ice statues, the rest of the men had begun trying to thaw them out.
"Damn him," he snarled.
"It was the girl, sir," said Sgt Rin quietly.
"Girl? What girl?"
"The Shinjo girl sir."
"She's a waterbender?!" Zuko said eye widening.
Well at least she didn't lie to me about being a peasant, he thought, mind spinning furiously. A bender was a samurai regardless of anything else.
He stalked over to the ice sculptures that were his men, "I'll deal with them, the rest of you get to work and clear us a path!"