Act 1: The Bounty Hunter
Chapter 1: Another Reason to Bleed
A man with a scar on his face snuck down a dock in the dead of night to where another man awaited him beside a boat. “I’ve got what you asked for,” the first man whispered, passing a small but heavy sack over.
The second man accepted the sack and peered inside. When he looked up, he was grinning wolfishly. “Excellent. Come aboard, Mr. Hao.” The two of them stepped inside the boat, the first looking relieved and giddy. Unbeknownst to them, they had an audience of one on a nearby roof. Zuko quickly climbed down the side of the building furthest from them and ran towards the boat as it began to leave. He withdrew a pair of swords from their sheathes, leapt at the boat, and plunged his swords into the side. Careful to be as silent as possible, he used his swords to creep along the side of the boat, pausing at each of the windows to listen for voices. Finally, he settled below a window to an occupied room.
“…not as much as I’d hoped.” The voice was unfamiliar, presumably belonging to a third man. He spoke dangerously, with the air of someone who had too much power and too little self-control. Zuko should know. He’d spent his childhood in fear of a voice just like it. “You’re sure this was everything they had?”
“Positive, Mr. Chuong, sir,” Hao replied nervously.
“Then you won’t mind if one of my guards pats you down, hmm?” Chuong didn’t wait for an answer. “Shaoshir, if you would.”
“Of course, sir.” Zuko tensed. If Hao was hiding any of the jewels he’d stolen on his person, it might complicate his current mission. Luckily, the next thing he heard was, “All clear, sir.”
“Very well. My apologies for doubting your word, Hao, but in this line of work you can never be too careful. I’m sure you understand.”
“Munu, please see Hao to his lodgings. We should reach our destination by tomorrow morning.”
Zuko heard a door open and close, and listened closely for voices, but heard none. He carefully weighed his options. Most likely, Munu and Hao were no longer in the room, but a man like Chuong would definitely have at least one guard with him at all times, probably two or three. On the other hand, the boat wasn’t so big since it was primarily used for illicit dealings. There couldn’t be room for more than six or seven passengers, and that included Munu, Hao, Chuong, and a captain. Munu and Hao had just left, and the captain would be on the bridge unless he had a message for Chuong, which, given the silence, he evidently did not. Zuko could strike now while it was almost certainly no more than four people in the room, or he could wait and hope more of them left before anyone new showed up. The choice was obvious, but Zuko was not a patient person. Tightly gripping the hilts of his broadswords, Zuko pushed himself into the air, kicked through the window, and jumped into the room, yanking his swords out of the boat wall as he landed.
“The Blue Spirit!” one guard screamed. Zuko smirked behind his mask. He never got sick of hearing people shout his alias in terror. He quickly took stock of the room – one man at a desk and two men at the only door – and lunged for the man at the desk. The guard who’d screamed flinched backwards as he moved, but the other darted between him and the desk. Zuko ducked beneath the swipe of their blade and tumbled through their legs, knocking them over as he shot upright behind them.
With nothing between him and his goal, he pulled the man at the desk to his feet and crossed his swords on the other side of the man’s neck. “Chuong?” he hissed.
“Yes,” the man confirmed, and Zuko had to admit he sounded impressively composed. Too bad he could feel Chuong shaking. “Your reputation precedes you, Blue Spirit, but I’m not sure what I did to warrant your presence on my boat. I am not a wanted man.”
“No, but you did pay a wanted man to commit a crime in your name, did you not? I doubt the authorities would be displeased if I brought you and your stolen goods in.”
“How much will they pay you?” Chuong asked, some of his nervousness beginning to seep into his voice. “Five gold pieces? Six? With just three of the jewels Hao stole, I guarantee you could make at least twelve gold. I could be persuaded to part with so many.”
He couldn’t deny that it was a tempting deal, but given how easily Zuko had caught him, if he let him go, Chuong would be caught sooner or later anyway, and Zuko wasn’t in the mood to become a wanted criminal even with the mask on. Besides, he didn’t have enough honor left to spend on negotiations with petty criminals. “Not interested. If you want to live, you’ll come with me to the bridge and tell your captain to turn the boat around, and then you’ll pack up the jewels and hand them over to me along with Hao.”
Chuong sighed heavily. “I suppose I have no choice. Guards, let us through.”
The guards stepped aside, and Zuko allowed Chuong to lead him to the bridge. “Captain, there is a slight problem. I must ask you to return to the dock.”
“Why - ?” The captain turned around, took one look at them, and paled. “Yes, sir.”
Next, Chuong led him back to his own lodgings, where Zuko instructed the guards to stay within his line of sight as Chuong placed twelve jewels in a sack. Finally they approached the dock. Chuong tied the sack to Zuko’s belt, and the guards held Hao down while Chuong tied his wrists up. Zuko released him and swiftly evacuated the vessel, throwing Hao over his shoulder. He took a millisecond to look at Chuong and commit his features to his memory before making a run for it. “Please don’t do this,” Hao begged, practically on the verge of tears. “I was – I was going to donate it all! I swear I was!”
“Save it for someone who cares,” Zuko grunted.
“Have a heart, Mr. Blue Spirit,” Hao wailed. “Children will go hungry without the money from these jewels – “
“If you were such a good person, maybe you wouldn’t have murdered two innocent people to get to these jewels.”
Hao fell silent.
They arrived at the town authorities’ headquarters close to dawn, and Zuko triumphantly dropped Hao in the doorway. “Blue!” one guard cheered, a woman named Wishi. “The night shift told me you’d stopped by, but I knew you wouldn’t leave without saying hello. And look! You brought me presents!” She winked at him. “So polite.” She rose from her desk and lifted Hao to his feet. “Hao, you are under arrest for the murder of Raonoh and Lang.” She dragged him over to a jail cell.
Zuko untied the sack of jewels and handed it to her. “Wishi, could we discuss the case in private? I discovered some delicate information that you may find useful.”
Wishi nodded seriously as she took the jewels from him. “Of course. Paoshu, could you take the jewels to the back and send for the daughter, Haki?”
She passed the bag on to another guard and escorted Zuko to her office. “What happened?” she asked.
“I’ve got an anonymous tip on Chuong.”
Zuko grinned under his mask at the open jubilation on her face. “He hired Hao to get the jewels in exchange for an illegal trip – where to, I’m not sure, but I am sure Hao will tell you if you… persuade him.”
“So Chuong confessed?” Wishi pressed.
“Even better. He confessed, and then he tried to bribe me into letting him keep the jewels.”
“Did you see his face?”
“Of course.” She set a scroll, a quill, and ink on the table. “Narrow eyes, round nose, thin lips, short chin, heart-shaped face, and a nasty-looking scar across his right cheek.”
She scribbled vigorously as he spoke, and when he finished, she looked up at him with the widest smile he’d ever seen on her face. “Finally. Finally we can start putting up wanted posters with an actual face on them! Blue, thank you so much for this. I don’t know how I can repay you.”
“Well, you can give me Hao’s bounty.”
She laughed good-naturedly and retrieved three gold pieces from a jar on the desk. “I wish I could give you more, but unfortunately, anonymous tips don’t get rewarded.”
Zuko shrugged, accepting the gold with a bittersweet grimace as he remembered Chuong’s offer. “I’ll be okay, Wishi. By the way, I have two more names for you – Shaoshir and Munu. I believe they work for Chuong as his guards. There was a third man, but I didn’t catch his name, and I didn’t get a good look at any of them.”
“You’ve done more than enough, Blue,” Wishi insisted.
They stood up and exited the office. A red-eyed young woman rushed towards Blue. “Thank you for catching him.”
Zuko frowned. “Haki, isn’t it?”
She looked so young, Zuko could hardly believe she was a year older than him. Then again, he’d lost both of his parents almost three years ago, albeit in very different ways, and she was only just losing hers now. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Haki.”
“I’m just glad my parents’ murderer will face justice,” she replied, but her heart wasn’t in it. Zuko almost asked if she had anyone to help her adjust to life without Raonoh and Lang, but decided against it. There was no point. Regardless of her answer, he didn’t have time to babysit. Instead, he gave her a short nod and strode out of the building.
Zuko rode his ostrich horse to the nearest marketplace. As he tied it up and went in search of food, he was surprised by the lack of awed and frightened glances that his mask usually earned him in public. Everyone was whispering, but not, seemingly, about him. “What’s got everyone so talkative today?” he asked a fish merchant as he examined the merchandise.
The merchant scowled. “The Avatar is on Kyoshi Island.”
A trout slipped from Zuko’s grasp as his heart pounded in his ears. “What did you say?”
“The Avatar,” the merchant repeated, looking thoroughly disgruntled. “He’s back. And he’s on Kyoshi.”
For a split second Zuko wondered how he could sound so unenthusiastic about the Avatar’s return, but then he remembered that he was in Chin Village, possibly the only place in the Earth Kingdom where the civilians would rather the Avatar didn’t return. “Huh,” he said numbly.
“Are you gonna buy something or what?” the merchant grumbled at him, and Zuko realized he’d been standing there doing nothing a bit too long. He picked up two trout and held them up in response. “That’ll be two silver pieces.”
Zuko reached into his pouch and pulled the money out. As he wandered through the merchants collecting some fruit and a few bags of feed, he tried to come to terms with this new information. The Avatar was back. To be honest, he hadn’t thought the Avatar was ever coming back. Though he’d hoped beyond hope, had dreamt of it almost every night, had thought about it more than anything else, at some point he’d finally registered that he was never going home. But if the Avatar was alive, then there was hope – real hope.
He had to get to Kyoshi Island.
The next day, Zuko went to sea with his boat, a boat much smaller than Chuong’s, with just enough room for himself, his ostrich horse, and hopefully a bound Avatar. He paddled his way to the edge of the forest, hoping to be spotted by as few people as possible. The people of this village had been very suspicious of him thanks to his reluctance to remove his mask when he’d visited on-the-job two and a half years ago, and besides, the arrival of a bounty hunter so soon after the arrival of the Avatar was certain to be treated with suspicion. He and his pet left the boat, and he quickly finished off the food he’d purchased the day before, giving the ostrich horse a bit of feed as before tying him to the same tree he’d tied the boat to. He’d be back before the end of the night.
Before then, however, he had to capture the Avatar. He wouldn’t have a lot of time; Kyoshi Island was small, and someone would certainly stumble upon him if he lingered. The Kyoshi Warriors would probably protect this new Avatar with their lives in honor of their namesake, so unless he wanted casualties, he had to catch the new Avatar alone. Somehow. Zuko resisted the urge to bang his head against a tree. He was closer to going home than ever before, and yet in some ways he felt no closer than he had been the day before. Sure, he knew the general location of the Avatar, but he had no way of getting a more specific location, no way of catching him alone, and no way of capturing him.
I just have to treat this like a normal case, he decided. That was easier said than done, though, because normally he would ask the authorities for more information first, and for once the authorities weren’t on his side, because he was capturing the Avatar, not a wanted criminal with a bounty on their head. Then again, the Avatar wouldn’t be hiding, either. He was a hero to this village. Everyone would probably know where he was. The only question was how to get them to tell him. With a sigh, he reluctantly removed his mask. He would have to question them without his mask, as a random person who happened to be passing through. He always felt terribly vulnerable when he had to remove it for one reason or another, but it would be worth it to finally capture the Avatar and regain his honor and his home.
Zuko made his way to the nearest dock and went from there to the town so as to look less suspicious. Once there, it was pretty easy to tell where the Avatar was; he followed the sounds of vapid giggling to a throng of young girls. At their core was a young boy clad in bright yellow and orange, and even more noticeably, holding his hands out before him as a series of marbles chased each other in a circle between them, touching nothing but the air around them. Zuko froze, staring at the boy. He could hardly be more than a preteen, yet he was most certainly using airbending, and Zuko could think of no one other than the Avatar who might be capable of that. He was struck by the sudden, violent urge to take the Avatar then and there, but quickly silenced it. He had waited three years for his chance. He could wait a few more hours.
After allowing himself a few seconds to take in everything he saw that could be of use, he busied himself with a nearby merchant. He’d used up the last of his food that day, and with any luck, he’d need enough to last him a few weeks’ travel – he didn’t plan on letting the Avatar out of his sight until they got to the Fire Nation, and he didn’t plan on letting him off the boat either, which meant he would be confining himself as well and no shopping would get done. Crescent Island would be the best place to take him; of everyone who could take him and the Avatar to the Fire Lord, the Fire Sages were the best choice, as they were honorable and the least likely to try and take credit for the capture from him. Crescent Island was pretty close, too, only a week’s travel.
The merchant he’d stopped at smiled kindly. “We don’t often get strangers out here,” she commented. “You here to see the Avatar?”
Zuko nodded. “When I heard he was back, I… wanted to see for myself. I can hardly believe it.” He hesitated. “He’s so… young,” he pressed, hoping she would give him more information if prompted.
He was rewarded. “Yes, he is, poor dear.” She frowned. “Only twelve, but he’s so polite, so nice. He has no idea about the war, either.” Zuko’s eyes widened as she shook her head. “This world is going to chew him up and spit him out.” Zuko glanced back at him. The Avatar had a large grin on his face, clearly pleased with the attention he was receiving. She was absolutely right, and Zuko was part of the reason why. But he hadn’t survived as long as he had by giving in to his guilt. “Anyway, what are you looking for?” Zuko jerked his attention back to her and selected enough fish to last him and the Avatar a week and a half, just to be safe. “You got a long trip ahead of you, or a large family to feed?”
“Trip,” he replied quietly. He paid for the fish and went on to purchase some fruit and an extra bag of feed. He took a quick look at his money pouch and inwardly cursed. He didn’t have much left. If something happened and they ran out of food before they reached their destination, he may very well need to stop to take on another hunting job, or else resort to theft. When he was first banished he’d had an easy time stealing from others because it was for his mother, too, and because as Fire Nation royalty he’d felt somewhat entitled. The past three years had thoroughly humbled him, however, especially when his mother had died. Now, he would do almost anything to avoid stealing again.
As he shopped, he kept an eye on the Avatar, taking care not to stray too far from him. Though the Avatar himself didn’t seem too worried about his surroundings, a closer look revealed one of the Kyoshi Warriors watching him from the shadows. It was difficult to tell through the makeup, but Zuko thought he might recognize her as Suki, a Warrior who had been incredibly aggressive in his dislike for him two and a half years ago. She couldn’t possible recognize him without his mask, but he felt himself instinctively shying from going near her regardless. If he were being honest, she scared him a little. It was rare to find a fighter half as good as him, with his expert training, even in adults, let alone a girl one year younger. He would rather not find out how much she’d improved in his absence.
Once he’d finished shopping, he made small talk with a few of the merchants about the state of the war and the local goings-on. The latter was a boring topic, which was typical of such a small village, but it was an easy enough excuse to keep the Avatar within his line of sight. Finally, the girls began complaining of boredom, and the Avatar quickly appeased them. “I’ve got something else to show you!” he chirped. Zuko cringed at the cheerful innocence in his voice. “Come on, this way!” He pocketed the marbles and began to walk away.
The Kyoshi Warrior stepped out of the shadows. Whether she really was Suki or not, he had to do something to prevent her from following the Avatar. He approached a crowded vendor and slipped an apple into his pocket – there weren’t any apple trees on Kyoshi, which made apples a more valuable commodity whose absence was more likely to be noticed. Then he planted the apple in someone else’s basket and, after a few seconds of steeling himself, approached the Kyoshi Warrior. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
She paused in her calm pursuit of the Avatar and his fangirls. “Yes?”
“I’m, uh,” he scratched the back of his head, smiling sheepishly at her, “not from around here, but the Kyoshi Warriors are the guards, right?”
Her gaze sharpened. “Yes, we do. Why? Did you see suspicious activity?”
Yep, that’s Suki. Zuko resisted the irrational urge to back away. “Well, I’m not – I’m not sure, but I think I might have seen someone back there steal an apple…. Sorry, I guess that’s a silly reason to bother you. It’s just fruit.”
“Apples are rare here on Kyoshi Island, so that isn’t so silly. Who was it?” Zuko gestured to the man. “Okay. Thank you for informing me. I’ll take care of it.”
Zuko nodded and backed away to watch her from a distance out of the corner of his eye while he busied himself with browsing a nearby stall. She hesitated, looking around, probably for another Kyoshi Warrior, and when there were none she bounded towards the rapidly disappearing Avatar to have a quick word with him before approaching the man. She had probably asked him where he was going so she could find him later, which meant he had a very limited time frame in which to retrieve his mask and apprehend the Avatar. He silently followed the Avatar’s entourage from a distance until they reached a beach, which was obviously the destination. From there, he swiftly headed towards the dock, then veered off-course partway there and made his way back to his boat, where he fed his ostrich horse again and equipped his mask and swords. Then he crept back into the woods in the direction of the beach.
As he crept nearer, he watched in disbelief as what looked like the last of the fangirls trailed down the path back to town as the Avatar swam sullenly through the water back to the beach. Zuko’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Zuko waited patiently in the woods as the Avatar returned to shore, and as he made his way to the path Zuko struck, pinning two swords to his neck just as he’d done with Chuong. To his credit, the Avatar didn’t react, other than a small inhalation and tensing muscles. “Not a sound, Avatar,” he whispered, and felt more than saw the boy give a slight nod, seeming to deflate. “You’re coming with me.”
He led the Avatar back to his boat, then removed one of the swords to pull his rope out of a satchel on the ground. He knelt slowly, careful to give the Avatar just enough room for him to kneel as well without him getting cut on the sword or escaping from it. He pushed the Avatar forward with his free hand, and slid the sword out from under him as he hit the floor. Then he pressed him down with one foot while tying his hands up. Finally, he sat back, and let him sit up. The absolute misery in the boy’s eyes made his heart constrict. “Sorry,” Zuko said, and the word sounded so hollow that he didn’t even know where to begin embellishing. “I – I don’t want to do this. It’s not your fault that you’re the Avatar. You don’t deserve this. I heard in town that you don’t even know the first thing about the war.”
“No, not really,” the boy admitted. “I – I guess I sort of… slept through the past hundred years. I woke up in an iceberg a few weeks ago.”
He cracked a grin, somehow finding a way to be amused despite his desperate situation. “A couple of teenagers in the Southern Water Tribe found me and broke me out.”
“The Water Tribe?” Zuko frowned. “Where are they now? Are they here on the island with you?”
“Nah.” The grin faded a little. “They – I – I put their tribe in danger. So. They. Kicked me out.”
Zuko’s jaw dropped. “But you’re just a kid.”
“Well, they were too, really. And there are a lot of kids who are a lot younger than me in their tribe. They have to look after their own. I understand. Only one of them kicked me out. The other wanted to come with me to the Northern Water Tribe, but I told her to stay. It’s safer for her there.”
“So…, who are you here with?” Zuko asked, dreading the answer.
“Oh. Uh. No one. Suki, I guess. She’s one of the Kyoshi Warriors. She’s really nice. I mean, it’s probably only because I’m the Avatar, but I still appreciate it.”
“If it’s any – “ Zuko stopped just short of the word ‘consolation.’ Nothing could possibly be any consolation to this poor kid. “I know what you mean, about people liking you for something someone else did. Where I come from, I was pretty important to people, but it was because of who my father was, not because of me.”
“I guess that’s one thing that hasn’t changed, then.” The boy smiled suddenly. “By the way, I’m Aang.”
“…Oh.” Zuko stared dumbly for a few seconds, caught off-guard, before composing himself. “Most call me the Blue Spirit.”
“Nice to meet you, Blue Spirit. Can I call you Blue? ‘Blue Spirit’ is a bit of a mouthful, and it feels oddly formal, y’know?”
“Blue is fine,” Zuko answered.
Aang smiled wider. He seemed oddly determined to make friends for someone who was tied up on a boat to be delivered to someone who would probably keep him imprisoned for the rest of his life. “So I guess you’re from the Fire Nation, huh?”
“Not really,” he replied honestly. He sighed in frustration, running a hand through his hair. “This isn’t even about the stupid war. I just want to go home. And I can’t – well, I’m not allowed to go home unless I capture you.”
“Oh!” Aang tilted his head at him. “So your… your family sent you to capture me? Wow, that was fast.”
Zuko shook his head. “I’ve been looking for you for three years.”
Aang’s jaw dropped. “Wait. You haven’t been home in three years? And you’ve been looking for me for three years? But I only just got out of that iceberg! I was in there for a hundred years!”
“I’m not sure I was really supposed to find you, to be honest,” Zuko admitted. “I was kicked out like you. My father said I could only come back if I found you.”
“Wow, that’s harsh. Are you sure you even want to go back? Your father sounds awful, and I’m not just saying that to get you to let me go.”
For some reason, Zuko actually believed him. Not that it changed anything. “I have to go back. Family is family. And I don’t….”
He trailed off, but Aang nodded understandingly. “You don’t have anyone else, huh?”
Zuko shook his head wordlessly. Aang opened his mouth to say something else, but their conversation was cut short when Zuko’s eyes caught something horrifying in the distance. “Oh no.”
Aang blinked at him. “What is it?”
“A Fire Nation war ship,” Zuko breathed, scrambling to his feet. “We have to go, now.”
“Wait – a war ship - ?” Aang pushed himself to his feet as well with airbending as Zuko tied everything down securely and picked up his paddle. “They’ll leave if I’m not there, right?”
“Blue?” Aang’s eyes widened. “Blue, what will they do if I’m not there?”
“…They’ll destroy the village,” Zuko muttered reluctantly. “They won’t believe it. They’ll burn the whole village to the ground before they believe it.”
Aang’s gaze filled with horror. “What if they see us leave?”
“On this thing? We’d have to get much closer before they noticed us, and they’d probably already be in the village by then.”
“I bet they’d notice a sky bison!” Aang exclaimed. “My bison, Appa, he’s huge, and he can fly. He’s just across town – if you bring me to him, I can get him to go fly around. And only an Airbender could tame a sky bison, so they’d have to know it was me, right?”
“I couldn’t bring you across town without being caught.”
“What do you – oh. By the Kyoshi Warriors, you mean.” Aang deflated.
Zuko stared blankly at the warship rapidly approaching land. He couldn’t believe it. He had been so close, so close, and yet…, an entire village…, no. He couldn’t let an entire village pay the price for his loss of honor. That was too much. He turned back to Aang, his one and only chance at redemption. “Turn around.”
Aang looked up at him, the dismay in his eyes slowly but steadily turning to hope. “Are you…?”
He eagerly obeyed, and with a heavy heart, Zuko untied the ropes. “This isn’t over.”
“You’re letting me go?” Aang squeaked. While Aang was distracted, Zuko cut a small piece of cloth from his tunic as well and pocketed it.
“I will catch you,” Zuko asserted. He backed away. “But today, yeah, I’m letting you go.” His jaw tightened. “If they catch you, they aren’t going to treat you well. I could have some say in the way you’re treated once you reach the Fire Nation, but only if I’m the one to bring you there. Be careful.”
“I won’t get caught, Blue,” Aang promised. “Thank you.” With that, he was off.
Zuko watched him vanish into the forest with speed befitting an Airbender. He picked up his paddle and began heading back to Chin Village, thinking of the cloth in his pocket. It was high time he visited an old rival.