Leaving the Northern Water Tribe had been a relief for Aang. The warriors had been in an uproar when it was revealed that Prince Zuko had escaped, furious that their enemy and—at least for Iluq and his supporters—supposed bargaining tool with the Fire Lord had slipped free from their grasp. Only Master Pakku had not seemed to care, stating that he was not going to let one escaped prince get in the way of his plans to leave and help rebuild the Southern Water Tribe. He suggested that Aang and the others should do the same and offered to take them as far with him on the boat as he could before they had to depart for the Earth Kingdom base.
So it was that Aang and his friends had set sail with Master Pakku and the selected group of Northern Water Tribe warriors and healers. Yugoda had not come, which Aang knew had upset Katara at first. However, the elderly healer had given her plenty of scrolls to study to keep improving her healing techniques. Yugoda had also advised that whether Katara became a true master of healing or not would depend on her intuitive and chi manipulation abilities. Theory was good, but healing was a more spiritual art at the end of the day. That was why powerful healers were rare, even among the Northern Water Tribe where all female waterbenders were forced to learn the art.
Aang had discovered for himself that, despite being the Avatar, he could not make his waterbending heal even the smallest bruise. He felt sorry for the girls who also had no knack for the talent. It was his hope that they would be allowed to learn combative waterbending, like Katara had done. He didn't like to think of benders not being able to use their element just because they couldn't pick up a skill the tribe had decreed to be the only suitable form for a female. It just didn't seem right.
Musing about right and wrong, however, just got Aang thinking about his own problem—the one he had been desperately trying to ignore ever since he and Zuko had talked in the cell. As the Avatar, it was his duty to maintain balance and to protect the people around him. He had thought he had been doing that during the siege of the North, but now he wasn't so certain. Every time he slept, he had nightmares where he was back in the Avatar State, only this time he was attacking himself. It was scary. He was scary.
Aang squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the images. He didn't want to dwell on those dreams. He didn't want to dwell on that night. There were some things that Aang could not deny, even though he desperately wished it were otherwise. Shredded pieces of metal could not unite again to form hundreds of war ships. Bloated, frozen bodies could not renew with warmth and life. It would be easy enough to connect the pieces, to combine the angry words that had been thrown at his face with the whispered fragments of truth that, deep down, his heart already knew. But Aang refused to let his mind wander down that path. It was too painful, like a bruise throbbing at the slightest touch.
This will hurt you, his mind seemed to say. You don't want to search too deep.
And he didn't. He really didn't. But that didn't stop the nightmares from haunting him even when he was awake.
It was Katara. He gripped the ship railing and stared towards the darkened ocean as she came to stand beside him. For a moment neither said anything. She placed her hand on his shoulder and he felt the warmth of her touch sink right through into his skin, filling him with a sense of comfort. Katara always knew how to make him feel better.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked gently.
He shook his head. "It was just a nightmare."
"You've been having them a lot lately."
Aang said nothing. He knew it was true.
Katara sighed and let her hand drop back to her side.
"Wait," he said. "Can I ask you something?'
A slight crease formed on her brow. "What?"
"Do you—do you think I did the right thing, back when the Fire Nation was attacking the Northern Water Tribe?"
"What are you talking about?"
He chewed on his bottom lip. "It's just, I keep having these dreams where I'm in the Avatar State, but I'm outside of my body watching myself. I"—he swallowed, looking back towards the ocean—"it scares me, seeing myself like that."
Katara was quiet for a moment. "Do you remember when we were at the Southern Air Temple and you found Monk Gyatso's skeleton?"
Aang closed his eyes. He would never forget that day.
"It must have been so horrible for you," she continued. "I saw you get so upset that you weren't even you anymore."
He glanced up at her with a pained look in his eyes.
Katara placed her hand back on his shoulder. "I'm not saying the Avatar State doesn't have incredible and helpful power," she said softly, "but for the people who love you, watching you be in that much rage and pain is really scary." She gave him a smile. "I am glad you stopped the Fire Nation from invading the city, though. You saved the Northern Water Tribe. That has to count for something."
Aang nodded and looked back towards the ocean. "Thanks for telling me that, Katara. It's given me a lot to think about."
He still didn't know if he had been right to allow himself to merge with the Ocean Spirit to protect the Northern Water Tribe, but he did know one thing: he did not like what he became when he was in the Avatar State, and neither did his friends.
Katara squeezed his shoulder, perhaps sensing his thoughts. "Come on, Aang. We should get some sleep. We'll be heading to the Earth Kingdom base tomorrow."
He gave one last look at the ocean, then turned and headed back to the cabin. When he fell asleep, the nightmares still haunted him.
Zuko examined the white lotus tile resting on his palm. It had been a week since he had first set out on the raft. In that time, he had simply tried to survive. When he was not focussed on keeping his raft and body intact, he worked on figuring out the riddle that had been his mysterious helper's final message.
"Follow the path of the ancient ways and you will find what you are seeking," Zuko repeated, having memorised the note long ago. He growled in frustration and stuffed the tile back in his pocket. "I don't understand!"
He didn't know what the ancient ways were. He wasn't even certain if he knew what the note had meant by finding what he was seeking. He had been searching for the Avatar for almost three years, but somehow that didn't fit. All he had to help him was the dagger and a white lotus tile, two things that he associated strongly with his uncle. It was that connection which had him so frustrated now. In his heart, he believed the message was a clue to finding his uncle—the person he was indeed seeking—but Zuko had might as well have been trying to decipher a different language for all the sense he could make of it.
"Why does everything have to be in riddles?" he grumbled, letting his arms rest on his knees as he leaned back against the mast.
If people just spoke plainly, he might already have an idea of where to begin his search. Instead, he was stuck trying to figure out what the ancient ways might be and why his anonymous helper had given him a Pai Sho tile of all things. He also couldn't help but wonder why someone in the Northern Water Tribe had chosen to help him in the first place, let alone given him, or so he hoped, clues as to how he might find his uncle.
Zuko closed his eyes, feeling the sun caress his face. It pained him to admit it, but he knew that the Avatar would have tried to help him break out of prison, yet the note and the careful way the escape route had been planned was much too subtle for that airhead, or for any of the Avatar's friends for that matter. He did wonder if perhaps the healer, Yugoda, might have had something to do with his escape. For all he’d got frustrated with her, she had been kind to him in her own way, and he had not forgotten that she had been the one holding onto his dagger. Still, he had got the impression that she did not know how to fight, and someone had taken out all the guards.
His brow creased. Was it that old guy then? The one with the piercing eyes who had come to warn him and asked weird questions?
Zuko sighed and stretched his legs out more. Maybe he'd never know who had helped him, but he wished he could at least unravel the stupid message. That was all he really cared about right now, and surviving.
"I hope I find land soon," he muttered.
He'd been lucky enough to have good winds to push him along for most of the week, but he wasn't sure how much longer his supplies would last, even with all of the rationing he'd been doing. The stars told him that he was at least heading towards the Earth Kingdom, but he had little choice but to let the current take his raft where it willed. One sail and a paddle could only do so much in terms of helping him navigate the ocean. It was just fortunate that he could swim and was well and truly used to being tossed around in choppy waters. He could have done without the circling sea vultures, though.
Zuko exhaled and got back to his feet, picking up the paddle as he did. No sense in sitting around. He had to be quick if he wanted to catch up to his uncle.
Then I'm coming for you, Avatar, he thought grimly.
The Earth Kingdom base had not been what Aang was expecting. General Fong had greeted them with high praise and an impressive display of fireworks, but the cheery atmosphere had not lasted. As soon as they had been called into the general's private room, Aang had begun to feel uncomfortable. The general kept talking about the great victory Aang had achieved in the North, oblivious to the airbender's mixed feelings regarding the subject. Then, to the shock of all, he had declared that Aang was ready to face the Fire Lord.
Aang could still remember the distinct jolt of horror he had felt upon hearing those words, the horror he had continued to feel as the general went on to explain that the powers he gained by entering the Avatar State would be more than enough to defeat the Fire Lord. With the Avatar leading the head of the army as the ultimate weapon, the Earth Kingdom could cut a swath right through to the heart of the Fire Nation. Nothing would be able to stop them. It was a foolproof plan, and the general was not going to take no for an answer.
In vain had Aang tried to explain that he did not know how to get in or out of the Avatar State, let alone control it; in vain had Katara stated that Aang needed to be focussing on learning the elements. The general had listened to all with deaf ears and then, when their protests had fallen silent, he had shown them the infirmary. In his mind, Aang could still see the injured Earth Kingdom soldiers. Some of them had missing limbs while others had been badly burnt. Some had not been moving at all.
"Those are the lucky ones," General Fong had said. "They came back."
Aang squeezed his eyes shut. He knew what the general had been trying to do—that was the reason they were still at the base, after all. Because Aang could not quite forget General Fong's parting words.
"People are dying, Aang! You could end it, now! Think about it."
He sighed and stared out over the balcony, looking down at the group of wounded soldiers. It was easy to walk away when it was just a blustering general telling him that he needed to defeat the Fire Lord; it was not so easy when he was confronted with a courtyard of pain-tinged expressions and disfigured bodies. Avatar Roku had told him that he needed to master the elements before going against Ozai, except Aang only had until summer's end before the comet arrived, and every day the Fire Nation was taking more lives.
"There isn't enough time," Aang muttered, tightening his grip on the balcony so that his knuckles burned white.
He had no guarantee that he would be able to master the elements before the comet arrived, but he did know the full extent of the power he could gain through entering the Avatar State. The only problem was that he didn't know if learning how to enter the Avatar State was the right thing to do either. The nightmares had continued to plague him and he had by no means forgotten his conversation with the Fire Nation prince.
"It was cruel and wrong. If that's your method of keeping the balance, Avatar, then I want nothing to do with you."
Aang hung his head, conscious of a sharp twisting in his gut. No matter what he did, people were going to die. He wished he knew what was right. He wished he had someone to advise him, yet all he felt in that moment was the unbearable weight of General Fong's hand still pressing down on his shoulder.
The storm set in swiftly. Zuko would have cursed the spirits for his bad luck, but in truth he wasn't all that surprised. Three years ago today he had lost everything when his father had banished him. Now he was celebrating the anniversary by struggling for his life on a worn out raft surrounded by heaving waters.
In despair, he watched the remains of his supplies get swept overboard and then disappear into the black depths. In despair, he saw the mast break and the cloth sail whip away in the wind. He tried to cling to the paddle for as long as possible, but he was having a difficult time just trying to keep himself on the raft. A wave crashed over him, dragging and sucking him towards the water like a gaping maw. The paddle was nowhere to be seen.
He cursed and tightened his hold on the wood. Splinters pierced his hands, but he was too charged with adrenaline to notice the pain. Then another wave pummelled into him and he suddenly found himself choking on a mouthful of salty water as he was forced to release his grip. Though a strong swimmer, Zuko was helpless in that moment. Down and down he went, pushed deeper by the gravity of the waves while the ocean tugged him in every direction as if trying to tear him apart. Fear seized hold of his chest as he realised he had no idea in which direction he should go to find the surface, and he knew with grim certainty that he needed to get to the surface. The burning in his lungs and the painful urge to vomit told him that he had swallowed too much water. He was already beginning to feel sluggish and dizzy.
I'm going to drown.
The thought flashed in his mind, but instead of accepting his defeat, he forced himself into motion, praying with all of his heart that he was heading in the right direction. The current still pushed and pulled, but at last he managed to break through the surface. He coughed and spat out the water that had got into his lungs, even as he took in great gulps of air. A quick scan of his surroundings revealed that his raft was now several metres away. Inwardly he groaned, but he knew he would not be able to survive the storm unless he could hold onto something that floated.
He was just about to start swimming in earnest when a fresh wave smashed into his back, pushing him back under the water. Zuko managed to keep his mouth shut this time, but he was still gasping for air when he finally got back to the surface. To his horror, he realised he was now even farther from the raft.
The scream ripped free from his throat, angry and bitter, and so terribly afraid. He did not want to die. He had gone through too much to die now. But the ocean was determined to keep him, and no matter how determinedly he tried to reach the raft, his fingers never did find purchase. Water encased his body. It slipped inside his mouth and nostrils to choke his breath; it stung his eyes and turned his vision into a haze of liquid black. He was losing consciousness, but then arms wrapped around his body, pulling him upwards.
"Don't worry, Prince Zuko," a gruff voice said in his ear. "I've got you."
Zuko blinked dazedly and saw a blur of red. Then his eyes rolled back into his head and even the storm ceased to matter.
Someone was stroking his face. Zuko could feel the soft fingers skimming along his forehead, then brushing down across his unscarred cheek in a caress that just allowed the person's little finger to trace the curve of his jaw. It was a gentle touch, should have been a soothing touch, but his chest tightened and his muscles tensed. Long, sharpened fingernails grazed his skin as the person stroked his face again. He breathed in sharply and opened his eyes. A young girl stared back at him, her dark hair pulled up into a topknot with a red headpiece holding it in place.
"Hello, Brother," she greeted, allowing a smile to form on her lips.
Zuko wrenched his face away from her hand. "Azula. What are you doing here?"
She made a sound of disapproval. "In my country, we exchange a pleasant 'hello' before asking questions. Have you become uncivilized so soon, Zuzu?"
"Don't call me that!"
Her eyes gleamed. Zuko ignored her and tried to sit up on the bed, only to sway as a rush of dizziness washed over him. He placed his hand against the wall to keep himself upright, taking in deep, steadying breaths. Spirits, he felt so weak. He wasn't even sure how he had got out of the storm, but one look around the room told him that he was in some kind of steel cabin, which meant he had to be on a Fire Nation ship.
"How did I get here?" he asked. "What happened?"
"My guards went fishing," Azula said with a sharp little smile. "They found you half-dead in the ocean. You're lucky I was around. You would have drowned if my helmsman hadn't seen you."
Zuko's eyes narrowed a fraction. "You still haven't told me why you're here."
Azula sighed. "Well, since you're so intent to get to the point. I actually came to find you."
"You and Uncle, but yes. 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." Her voice softened, as did her expression. "Father regrets your banishment, Zuko. He wants you home."
For a moment Zuko was too stunned to say anything. His emotions whirled inside of him, too fast for him to even understand what it was exactly that he felt. Hope, fear, relief, uncertainty. They were all there, tangling in a confused mesh of feelings, yet all he could think over and over were those simple words: his father wanted him home. His father wanted him home.
"Did you hear me?" Azula demanded. "You should be happy. Excited. Grateful. I just gave you great news."
Zuko met his sister's gaze. "Father regrets?" he asked in a voice that sounded too small and vulnerable to be his own. "He—he wants me back?"
"Isn't that what I just told you? Really, Zuko, how much sea water did you swallow?"
He shook his head, looking the other way. "I just—it's been three years."
Three years of silence. Three years of wondering if he would ever be able to prove himself worthy of his father's respect. He raised a hand to his scar, feeling the rough, uneven flesh. How he had ached to hear those words, to be told that he could finally go home. He had thought it would only happen once he had captured the Avatar, but there were no stipulations this time. No impossible tasks. His father regretted his banishment. His father cared. It almost seemed too good to be true.
Azula stood up from the bed. "I can see you need time to take this in. If you need anything, call for one of the guards. I'd recommend a bath and a change of clothes." She eyed his borrowed attire with distaste. "Those Water Tribe rags you're wearing are not fit for the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation."
He watched her turn to leave. "Wait."
She glanced back at him with her eyebrow raised.
"You mentioned Uncle," Zuko said, conscious of the way his heart pounded in his chest. "Do you know where he is?"
Azula's expression hardened. "Uncle Iroh will not be coming home with us."
"You've seen him?"
She nodded. "This morning, in fact. At the Ying Hua bathhouse."
"It seems that Uncle does not share our feeling for family unity." Her lips curved. "But I'm sure he'll come around with the right persuasion."
A crease formed on Zuko's brow. He couldn't imagine his uncle walking away from a chance to return to the Fire Nation. Not after everything that had happened, and especially not if he knew that Zuko's banishment had been lifted. It didn't make sense yet—
"Don't look so troubled, Zuzu," Azula said, interrupting his thoughts. "I'm sure that once Uncle realises you're safe in the palace, he'll come back home."
"I guess," he said slowly.
She allowed her smile to widen. "Well, I'll leave you to get some rest. Don't forget to call for the guards if you need anything."
He nodded absently, too tired and too distracted by everything he had heard to pay attention to her parting words. It wasn't until the door had closed behind her that he realised what had felt so wrong about the conversation. Azula had been pleasant. Too pleasant.
Azula always lies.
The thought flickered in his mind, but he banished it immediately. There was no reason for his sister to lie about something like this. No reason at all. He was just being paranoid. He was just tense from being stuck on a raft for almost three weeks and nearly drowning. He should be grateful that she had saved him. He was grateful that she had saved him.
But he still felt uneasy.
Zuko sighed and placed his head in his hands, running his fingers along the short strands of hair that had grown back while he had been stuck in prison and travelling on the raft. He'd have to shave that off eventually, but not right now. His sister had given him much to think about, and he was just too exhausted and on edge to care about something as mundane as his appearance. Though a bath did sound nice. In fact, the thought of getting out of his dirty, salt-encrusted clothes and soaking in a tub of hot water sounded really, really nice.
"I suppose there's no harm in relaxing a little," he mused.
He could worry about why his uncle had chosen not to return with them to the Fire Nation later. For now, he'd just try to make the most of his new accommodations. There were some things that even Zuko could not resist. After three weeks of not being able to wash, a hot bath was definitely one of them.
A firm knock on the door startled Zuko awake. He sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes and wondering how long he'd been out. After bathing and changing into the grey jinbei one of the firebenders had brought for him, he'd ended up face-planting his pillow and falling asleep in seconds. His bones still ached with tiredness. It would probably be a while before he recovered from everything that had happened. Unfortunately, whoever was knocking on the other side of the door was persistent.
"What is it?" Zuko asked, smothering a yawn with his hand.
"Princess Azula has requested you join her for dinner."
He raised his eyebrow. Even if the man used the word "request", it was obviously an order. Azula was still as demanding as ever.
Zuko didn't have the energy to fight his sister just then, and a part of him had to admit that he was curious. They'd had no contact since his banishment. He wanted to ask her about home. He wanted to know if she had changed at all. Plus, he was just damn hungry.
He slid his feet into the slippers he'd been given and opened the door. The same firebender who'd attended on him earlier greeted him—the tall, beefy man with the wonky nose. Zuko's brow creased. Was this guy meant to be his personal helper now or something?
"What's your name again?" Zuko asked.
The man blinked. "Uh, Shu."
Shu looked a bit at a loss. Perhaps Azula had never asked for his name before. He straightened a second later and his expression became as lively as a plank of wood. "You should hurry, Prince Zuko," he advised. "Princess Azula does not like to be kept waiting."
Zuko repressed a sigh. It seemed his sister was still terrorising everyone with her impatience. Then again, he probably hadn't been much better while hunting the Avatar.
"I'm ready," he said. "Lead the way."
They headed down the corridor, passing circular windows that looked out onto the deck. Zuko realised very quickly that his sister's ship was huge. His own—now a mess of rubble thanks to Zhao and the pirates—would have been like a baby's toy in comparison. Old jealousy stirred in the pit of his stomach. Typical of Father's favourite to get the nice boat. There wasn't even a speck of rust. He bet her crew didn't demand music nights or get drunk on the job either.
Forget it, Zuko told himself.
It had always been this way. Besides, what mattered was that Father was letting him go back home. Azula could have all the fancy ships she wanted for all it mattered now.
They stopped outside a big, metal door. Shu knocked twice. He waited for Azula to grant them entrance before opening it and gesturing for Zuko to go inside.
Zuko blinked a little as he crossed the threshold. The cabin was large and well-furnished—not the bare requirements, that was for sure. There was an ornate cabinet and desk, a luxurious rug, and even the massive bed was adorned with red, silk hangings. Personally, Zuko thought it was a bit over the top. He'd just slept on a plain mattress on his ship and his furniture could have only been described as serviceable. Then again, this was his sister. Azula had always liked to pamper herself. He remembered she'd been forever getting her nails and hair done back at the palace.
His gaze shifted to the younger girl. She sat at a low table that had been set for two. Fish, rice and vegetables were laid out on top. His mouth watered. Never mind the furnishings; the smell of their dinner was tantalising. How long had it been since he'd had proper food?
"Leave us," Azula ordered, not taking her eyes off her brother.
Shu and a female servant, who had been standing quietly in the corner, bowed and left the room. The door was shut so brother and sister could have some privacy. Zuko got the impression that Azula wanted him to ask her for permission to sit. He refused to do that. Instead, he walked confidently to the table and sat down on the cushion opposite her.
Azula's eyes gleamed a little. "You look better now that you're not wearing those rags," she observed. "Pity about the scar. It's really quite ugly, isn't it?"
He had to resist the urge to ball his hands into fists. "I guess. I don't think about it much."
It was difficult to keep his tone flat. Still, if he let show that she had struck a nerve, she'd just dig her claws in deeper. That was her way. Besides, he knew she'd only made the comment because he'd refused to play her game. Azula didn't like it when people ruined her fun.
"I think you've changed," she said, eyeing him with a suddenly sharp gaze.
"You haven't at all."
They stared at each other for a tense moment. Then her lips curved upwards.
"Come, Brother, let's not fight tonight. We've finally been reunited after all these years." Her smile widened and she extended her hand to him. "Haven't you missed me even a little?"
Zuko let out a breath. "Are you saying you've missed me?"
"Of course." She placed her hand on his. "We're family, aren't we?"
His shoulders relaxed a fraction. Maybe his sister had changed in some ways. "Right," he agreed. "Family."
She released his hand and encouraged him to start eating. Zuko didn't need telling twice. He made quick work of his fish before setting into his rice and vegetables. The food tasted as good as it smelt, succulent and fresh. He definitely appreciated being rescued now. Since Azula was also smart enough not to bring up any sensitive topics again, not to mention could be very charming when she wanted, dinner passed more pleasantly than he'd anticipated. They talked about home and all their old acquaintances. He was a bit shocked to learn that Ty Lee had run away to join a travelling circus and that Mai was living in a newly conquered area of the Earth Kingdom.
"It's just been me for a while now," Azula said, flicking a few grains of rice over in her bowl with her chopsticks. "Not that I'm repining. Friends can be such a distraction and I've been busy with training."
She rested her chin on her hand. "How is your bending coming along?"
Zuko's cheeks heated. He hadn't even mastered the basics. "Fine, I guess," he mumbled, looking the other way.
Azula stared at him with far too shrewd eyes. At any other time, she would have pounced on the lie and made him fess up the truth. Then she would have mocked him mercilessly until he felt no better than an insect stuck underneath her boot. But tonight she was trying to be a good sister.
"Well, keep at it," she said in an even tone. "Practice makes perfect."
His eyes widened a fraction. The comment went against everything he would have expected from her. She had been so brutal in the past.
"You'll never catch up."
Zuko lowered his gaze. "Right."
They continued to talk about inconsequential things. When she smiled and later wished him goodnight, he found that he had no reason not to smile in return or to hope that she slept well. Still, something just niggled. It wasn't just because she had been nice during dinner, and he frankly wasn't used to that. It was something about this whole situation.
If Azula wasn't lying, why hadn't their uncle joined her? What had made Iroh stay away? The thought wouldn't stop nagging at Zuko.
He was still mulling over the matter when he walked back to his own cabin. Shu shadowed his footsteps, having come to collect him from Azula's room. Never mind that Zuko could remember the way just fine. It was like his sister was worried he would go wandering off or something.
"I don't need you to keep hanging around," Zuko said once they reached his room. "I'm just going to sleep."
He closed the door without another word, though some instinct made him pause and listen. No retreating footsteps sounded from the other side. Either Shu walked like an airbender or he was still standing outside the door.
Zuko let out a breath. Certainly, it could not be said that this was a damning piece of evidence. It just didn't sit right with him either. Like the fact his uncle had not come, like the fact Azula had been so pleasant when her sadistic urge to poke at his sensitive spots was still there. He needed to know the truth. The question was how to get that when his sister had a habit of lying and everyone on the ship was her subordinate.
His mouth twisted. It seemed he had his work cut out for him.
Aang woke with a lurching sensation and his heart pounding. Darkness greeted his eyes. Sokka was snoring from his left, reminding him where he was and that it had been a long time since he had last seen Zuko, let alone fought the prince on a ship. Slowly, his muscles began to relax. It was just a dream. Only a dream.
But it had seemed so real.
He placed his hands over his face, trying to block out the images. In his mind, however, he could still see the white glow that had illuminated his arrows as he turned to confront the prince, still see the fear that entered those gold eyes as he slashed forward to strike. Aang shivered and hugged his knees to his chest. He didn't want to think about what had happened next, because in his dream he hadn't been aiming to hurt Zuko. He had been aiming to kill.
Just don't think about it, he told himself. It was a dream. It didn't mean anything.
But the images would not leave him. The longer he sat there, the more disturbed he felt. In all of his other nightmares he had been the one to be attacked by his glowing self. This was the first time someone else had taken his place, and it troubled him that his subconscious should have chosen Zuko. Perhaps it was because he had been thinking about the prince earlier that day, or maybe it was because he had felt a twinge of those awful feelings again, the ones that told him that Zuko's life was in danger. Somehow, though, Aang thought it was more than that.
"I saw the bodies! I saw the ships! No Water Tribe army could have done that, but you—you most definitely could."
Aang squeezed his eyes shut. Zuko had been the one who had first made him realise the true significance of what the victory at the North Pole had meant. The prince's words had been harsh and hurtful, but they had opened Aang's eyes to a glimpse of the truth. A truth he now knew that he could no longer deny. The white rage of the Avatar State had filled him with grim determination during the siege of the North, a blinding need to defend and attack, but it had also controlled him into creating a floating graveyard. It had made him kill. There was nothing that could change that, no matter how strongly Aang knew in his heart that he had never intended to take a life.
Now, after reliving those attacks from the point of view of his victims, Aang knew that Zuko had been right. He should have never gone into the Avatar State, no matter how upset he had been. The monks had always told him that those with great power also had a responsibility to control that power, but Aang had allowed the Avatar State to control him. He had been as wild as Admiral Zhao's fireballs, tearing destruction through the Fire Nation navy with careless ease.
"Like a monster," he whispered, echoing the prince's words.
It was a crushing realisation. What sickened Aang most was that even after the battle, he had not considered that he had been attacking individual soldiers. He had just seen Fire Nation: a faceless enemy that needed to be stopped. Even Zuko screaming at him about all the men and women who had died had not really allowed the truth to sink in. It was only after Aang had seen himself kill the prince in his dream that he realised the Fire Nation was more than just nameless figures in red and black armour. After all, Zuko was Fire Nation too, and he did have a face: one that was scarred and fierce, but could bleed and bruise just like anyone else's.
Aang buried his face into his knees. There was no saying what he should have done at the North Pole. The Fire Nation navy had needed to be stopped, of that there was no denying, but maybe there had been a better way that he could have gone about things. Still, it was too late now. The past was the past. All he could do was try to shape the future, and in that he knew he could not help General Fong invade the Fire Nation.
People were dying, but they were dying on both sides. Aang wasn't about to add to that number if he could help it.
The next morning Aang made his way to General Fong's room. He spotted the earthbender standing by the window, looking down into the courtyard where Aang knew the injured soldiers would be gathering to be healed. Something clenched in his stomach, but he ignored the feeling. He had made up his mind.
"General Fong?" Aang said, taking a few steps into the room.
The older man turned and welcomed Aang with a warm smile. "Come in, Aang. Have you thought about our discussion?"
Aang stared at his feet. "I have, and I've realised that Katara is right. At this point, I just need to focus on mastering the four elements."
The general's eyes flashed. "I would have thought, being the Avatar, that you would understand the importance of ending this war quickly. Or do you not care that hundreds of people are dying every day?"
"I do care," Aang said softly. "That's why I can't go through with your plan." He raised his head, meeting the earthbender's gaze with grave determination. "I won't be your weapon, General Fong. I won't kill for you or for anyone else. As the Avatar, it's my duty to keep balance in the world. To do that I have to master the four elements and then defeat the Fire Lord. That is my destiny, and that is what I will do."
"You're making a mistake, Avatar."
Aang shook his head. "No. For once, I'm doing the right thing."
General Fong's mouth twisted into what might have been a frown but which looked more like a snarl. He said a lot of things after that—cruel, wounding things that were designed to make Aang feel guilty and as if he was abandoning the Earth Kingdom, even the world, to be slaughtered by the Fire Nation. It was all emotional blackmail, of course, and maybe once Aang would have been moved by the accusations, but in that moment he just felt sad. Sad and tired.
"I'm sorry, General," Aang said, bowing low to him in the fashion of the Air Nomads. "Nothing you say will change my mind."
Without waiting for a response, Aang turned on his heel and left the room. The sound of rock smashing echoed in his ears, but he just quickened his pace, knowing there was nothing he could do. It didn't take him long to find Sokka and Katara.
"You alright?" Sokka asked, noticing his expression. "You don't look so good."
"We need to leave," Aang responded, already moving to pack his things.
Sokka scratched his chin. "What about that escort we were supposed to be getting to take us to Omashu? Wasn't that crazy general supposed to—"
"That's why we need to leave. I told General Fong that I'm not going to help him invade the Fire Nation. He, uh, wasn't exactly happy about it."
"Right," Sokka said, catching on. "So we can probably forget the escort, then?"
Aang smiled sheepishly. "Pretty much."
"Well, I'm glad we're leaving," Katara said, folding her arms across her chest. "I didn't like that General Fong guy one bit, and I think we're better off without any escort he could have given us."
Momo landed on Aang's shoulder and chirruped loudly. Aang smiled and scratched the lemur behind the ears. "I think Momo agrees with you," he told Katara.
"Wait a minute!" Sokka exclaimed, looking from one to the next with dawning realisation. "Does this mean we're going to miss breakfast?"
Aang blinked. "Um, I guess."
Sokka sighed and clutched at his grumbling belly. "Sorry, stomach. Looks like it's going to be nuts again."
Katara rolled her eyes. "You'll survive, I'm sure."
Aang flashed a smile at the Water Tribe boy. "Come on, Sokka. Just think of the feast Bumi will give us once we get to Omashu!"
That did cheer Sokka up, but as they packed the rest of their belongings and then flew away on Appa, it was with a heavy heart that Aang watched the Earth Kingdom base fade from view. He knew he had made the right choice, but that didn't make living with his decision any easier.
For the sake of the world, even the Fire Nation, he hoped that he would be able to master the elements soon.
Zuko had known at some point he would have to search his sister's cabin. Something about being on this ship made him on edge, like a wind-up toy waiting to be released. Azula's answers to his questions were not satisfying. The fact he was being watched all the time grated. He'd found himself thinking back on their first conversation, remembering the way her expression had hardened when he'd asked about his uncle, remembering her sharp little smiles and gleaming eyes—the discordant notes in her smooth masterpiece. That was the Azula he knew: the sister who would play sweet just before she struck. Except this time there had been no strike.
So Zuko had slipped away from his guard and snuck into her cabin when he knew her to be busy on deck. A part of him hadn't even expected to find much. He couldn't think of a good reason for her to lie, not about his banishment, but then he had found the posters.
The colour drained from his cheeks as he looked at a hand-drawn image of his own face: scarred, far too recognisable, and with a bounty listed for his capture on the right. On the lower half of the poster was an equally recognisable drawing of his uncle. Both of them had been listed as traitors. Zuko's hands trembled.
"Are you saying you've missed me?"
"Of course. We're family, aren't we?"
His throat constricted and the trembling in his hands got worse. Rage and hurt splintered through him, but it was rage that won.
"Azula," he growled, crushing the poster in his fist.
He stormed out of the cabin, pushing past anyone who got in his path as he made his way back to the deck where he had last seen his sister. She was giving some orders to her men, but he simply shoved them aside.
"You lied to me!" he shouted.
Azula rolled her eyes as if he were nothing more than a small child throwing a tantrum. "What are you talking about?"
He thrust the poster in her face.
"I see." A smile curved her lips. "Well, I guess you found me out."
An inhuman snarl escaped his throat. Fire streamed from his hands and crafted into twin daggers, burning right through the poster. Suddenly, he lunged for his sister, slashing wildly at her face—anything to wipe the smile off her mouth and ease the gnawing ache of betrayal in his chest. She dodged his blows again and again, not once bothering to retaliate with an attack of her own. It was an insult to his bending and they both knew it.
His eyes narrowed and he struck out with a ferocious slice to her left, hoping to catch her off guard. Azula caught his wrist and spun him around, twisting his arm up against his back and pulling him hard to her chest. Zuko froze, breathing heavily as he found himself trapped.
"You know, Father blames Uncle for the loss at the North Pole," she hissed into his ear, "and he considers you a miserable failure for not finding the Avatar." Her voice dug into him like knives. "Why would he want you back home except to lock you up where you can no longer embarrass him?"
Zuko screamed in anger and lashed out with his free hand, forcing her to release her hold. He followed quickly with a flaming hook kick. The fire licked a little too close to her skin. She straightened from her crouch and her lips twisted into an ugly expression. The next second he was stumbling backwards, blood dripping down his forehead where her nails had snagged—an inverted echo of the caress she had given him when he'd first woken on her ship. For a moment they just glared at each other. Then the fire daggers were back in his hands and he lunged for her again, determined to make her feel his pain, determined to make her see how much she liked it when her family turned on her.
"Come on, Brother." Azula laughed as she slipped away from his attacks with agile ease. "You're going to have to do better than that!"
He responded by bringing both daggers around in a ruthless strike to her chest. Azula side-stepped the attack and kicked him hard in the stomach, sending him sprawling in a heap of bruised limbs to the ground. Smoke curled free of his mouth. With a strangled yell, he charged for her again, flames trailing from his hands. Her lips curved. She raised her hand and then all he saw was blue fire. It was so hot, so fast. Zuko didn't have time to think. He bent back as far as his spine would allow and managed to avoid the fireball. The moment he straightened, a wave of heat mixed with pure elemental force struck him in his stomach. All the air whooshed from him. He hit the ship railing, still struggling to breathe and blinking away fuzzy spots from his eyes.
"Oh, did that hurt?" she taunted.
Dazedly, he tried to regain his balance. The difference in their skill was humiliating clear, but even then he couldn't give up. He just couldn't.
Azula stepped into his line of vision. He saw that same sharp little smile lift the corners of her mouth. She poised the fingers of her right hand like a blade and then moved her arms in a circular motion, blue streaks crackling and arcing around her. Zuko's heart gave an odd lurch in his chest. Then Azula pointed her fingers at him. Lightning surged free, moving in a flash of sapphire for his heart.
It was a scream in his mind. He desperately tried to throw himself out of the way, but his limbs were still shaky from his sister's last attack. That was when the lightning struck. It collided with his shoulder in an explosion of agony, sending shockwaves of white-hot energy throughout his body. He cried out from the intensity. It felt like an electrified fist had closed around his heart, squeezing tightly and slowing the life-giving beat right down. Dimly, he realised that he was falling—not to the ground, but over the railing and towards the ocean.
The last thing he remembered was the feeling of flames swallowing him whole.
Azula stared at the space where her brother had stood only moments ago. One of the guards who had watched the fight stepped forward.
"Princess Azula, would you like us to begin a search? Prince Zuko can't have got too far after, well …" he trailed off and cast her a nervous glance.
Azula's eyes hardened as his unspoken words whispered between them: because she had hit Zuko with the most lethal of firebending techniques. "Don't bother," she said, turning to face the man. "Even if my brother managed to survive the lightning, he'd be little more than a corpse now."
The guard bowed and fell back into line with the others. Azula shifted her gaze to the expanse of storm-tossed blue. A faint crease formed on her brow. Once, she had seen cuts that bled in rivulets of red disappear from her brother's body right before her eyes. She had seen bruises fade and watched him recover from injuries that should have paralysed any other child, even killed. But she knew there could be no miracle recovery this time. Whatever the strangeness of her brother's inner fire, the lightning had struck true. If that didn't stop his heart, the ocean was sure to finish the job.
Her jaw clenched. "Send a message to my father," she ordered the guard.
"What should I tell him?"
Azula met his gaze coolly. "Tell him that Prince Zuko is dead."