The meadow was quiet. A light breeze slipped through the grass and ruffled Zuko's hair. He sat with one elbow propped on his knee, idly manipulating a ball of flames into different shapes. The warmth felt nice. Reassuring.
After unlocking his final chakra, his chi had been able to replenish itself at a much faster rate. He wasn't sure if it was just because the energy could flow through him more easily now or if, by unlocking the chakras, he had gained access to a deeper reserve of power. Either way, he could bend again without feeling like he was trying to get water from rock. It was like reuniting with an old friend, though the colour of his flames did seem a little different now. More gold than orange.
"I haven't seen you bend like that in a long time."
Zuko flinched at the sound of his uncle's voice. The turtle duck he had been creating dissipated into nothing. "Don't sneak up on me like that," he grumbled.
Iroh chuckled and took a seat next to him on the grass. "I'm surprised you didn't notice my presence. It's normally impossible to catch you off guard."
Zuko ignored the comment. Instead, he leaned back on his palms and stared off into the distance. Appa was grazing not far from them, looking like a giant ball of fluff. The others had all gone their separate ways into the bush for, as Sokka called it, a "potty break". Just thinking about the term still made Zuko want to facepalm. Sometimes, Sokka could be such an idiot.
Yet you still enjoy his company.
A slight crease formed on Zuko's brow. He supposed he had grown fond of the Water Tribe boy—no, of all the little group who had taken him in when he was just an amnesiac swordsman. Maybe that was why he hadn't put up much resistance when it was suggested he and his uncle continue to travel with them. They had left the Eastern Air Temple together earlier that morning after saying their goodbyes to Guru Pathik. Zuko had assumed that he and his uncle would part ways from the group once they got back to the Earth Kingdom, but Aang had disclosed that their next destination was Ba Sing Se and Iroh had suggested that might be a good place to start looking for more information about the Children of the Undying Fire. Somehow, that was all it had taken to decide the matter.
Zuko's frown deepened. He was finding it too easy to be around these kids.
"Uncle," he said, turning to face the older man.
"Do you really think we can learn something about the Children of the Undying Fire in Ba Sing Se?"
Iroh nodded. "Shang, the scholar who wrote those scrolls you found, was from Ba Sing Se. More than that, the city is known for being the centre of learning and is full of universities and archives. I think there is a good chance we might be able to learn something. Plus, we should be able to find a list of the royal lines there."
"Royal lines?" Zuko's mouth formed a small O as he put the pieces together. "The princess!"
"Indeed. Shang wrote that it all began with her. I don't know what he meant by 'it', but it sounds like she could be the key to learning the truth about the Children of the Undying Fire." Iroh spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "It's a shame that most of her name is illegible on the scrolls, but we still have the first character. That will give us something to work with."
"Shu," Zuko murmured. "Her name starts with Shu."
Or, rather, the character for autumn: 秋. It was an odd choice, at least if she was a Fire Nation princess. Summer and spring were the preferred seasons. He should know; he'd been forced to memorise his ancestry, at least the important people found through his father's direct line. He'd never learnt much about his mother's family. The same could be said for the other kingdoms' royal lines. He'd learnt about the central figures, the ones who had fought against the Fire Nation or who could help to justify wars, but there had still been gaps in his education. No doubt propaganda had been pushed to the foreground while the truth was left to slip into obscurity. In any case, there had never been any mention of a princess whose name started with 秋.
Zuko curled his hand into a fist. "I want to know the truth."
Iroh blinked, perhaps startled by the teen's sudden vehemence.
"There are too many secrets," Zuko muttered. "I never questioned it as a child, but now I can see that none of it ever made sense." He met his uncle's eyes. "I want to know the truth. About Mum, about my healing abilities, about why the world tried to erase the Children of the Undying Fire from history. I want to know it all."
"I know, Nephew," Iroh said, squeezing his hand. "We will find the answers you seek."
Zuko nodded, but then more creases formed on his brow. "Still, Ba Sing Se. That isn't going to be easy. It's not like we can just walk into the city. We're both enemies to the Earth Kingdom, and now we've lost the Fire Nation's protection."
"But we have gained an ally in the Avatar and his friends."
Zuko shifted uncomfortably. The word 'ally' sounded so concrete and, well, it just bothered him. He bit his lip and looked the other way.
"Don't look so troubled, Nephew," Iroh said, patting him on the back. "Everything is going to be fine. You'll be Lee and I'll be Yingjie. No one in Ba Sing Se needs to know our identities."
It wasn't that he believed they were doomed to failure; he'd snuck into more dangerous places as the Blue Spirit. It was just that he felt unsettled. He couldn't even place his finger on why. Maybe it was a result of being around the Avatar and his friends. They were almost too friendly, too quick to accept him. It was unnatural.
It was—it was kind of nice.
"Friends?" Shizue frowned at him. "What do you mean, Prince Zuko?"
Zuko folded his arms across his chest. "Azula has Mai and Ty Lee, but I'm never allowed to see anyone." He pouted. "I want to have my own friends as well."
"That isn't possible."
Shizue shook her head. "This is Prince Ozai's decision. I cannot go against his orders."
Zuko's chin wobbled. "So, I'm just supposed to be alone?"
She knelt in front of him. "Your father wants you to become strong. He has told you before that you need to stop relying on people, but”—she hesitated—"truly, I think it is better for you this way."
Tears welled up in his eyes. "Why would you say that? What's so wrong with wanting friends?"
She brushed her thumb against his cheek. "Attachments can be dangerous, Prince Zuko. Especially for a boy like you. Just focus on your training. That is what your mother and father want."
Zuko let out a breath. He spotted movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Sokka, Aang and Momo emerge from the trees. Katara and Toph followed not long after.
A big grin curved Aang's mouth when he spotted the two firebenders. He waved, if a bit too enthusiastically. "Ready to go?" he called.
"Attachments can be dangerous, Prince Zuko."
Zuko exhaled. Wordlessly, he got to his feet and headed back with Iroh to where the group had gathered. Sokka ushered everyone into the saddle like some pushy guard. It seemed that relieving his bladder had caused him to revert to his We Must Hurry to Ba Sing Se mode. Never mind that Sokka had been the one to call for a break in the first place.
"Can it, Snoozles!" Toph snapped, making a rock form from the ground and smack him in the back of his head.
Sokka made an overly dramatic sound of pain. "What the heck, Toph? What was that for?"
"You're being annoying."
"Well, excuse me for wanting to hurry to Ba Sing Se," he retorted.
Toph rolled her eyes. "Ba Sing Se isn't going anywhere. Why are you getting so worked up about it?"
"Because the e—" Sokka caught sight of Zuko and Iroh "—uh, I mean elephant-roosters are supposed to be a big attraction."
Zuko raised his eyebrow. "Elephant-roosters?"
"Yeah." Sokka shrugged. "I've never seen one before."
"Oh yeah," Aang said, flashing a grin at them over his shoulder. He was sitting on his usual perch at the front. "Those animals are awesome! They can't fly because of their big bodies, but they're still fun to ride." A crease formed on his brow. "But, Sokka, I thought you wanted to hurry to Ba Sing Se because of—"
"Okay, Aang," Sokka said loudly, drowning out the other boy's voice. "That's enough chit chat. Time to get moving! Let's yip-yip our way out of here!"
Aang looked a bit puzzled, but he obliged and soon they were flying up above the clouds. Zuko frowned as he watched the Water Tribe boy. Sokka had gone back to pouring over maps, though every now and then he'd make little notes on a scrap of parchment. It was clear that he was hiding something. Zuko had sensed it when they'd first left the library, and this time he was sure of it. He considered prodding the boy until the matter was finally revealed, but he was distracted by a splotch of colour out the corner of his eye.
"What the ..." he murmured.
He leaned over the saddle, focussing on the splash of reddish brown against the clouds. Soon, wings took form and then the body of a bird. It was a messenger hawk.
Zuko gripped Iroh's arm. "Uncle."
Iroh followed Zuko's gaze and let out a hiss of breath.
"What's wrong?" Katara asked.
"That's a Fire Nation messenger hawk," Zuko explained. "They're usually used to carry messages for the army." His eyes narrowed. "It looks like it's heading this way."
Sure enough, the bird slowed and circled once around their heads before landing on Iroh's shoulder. Iroh removed the rolled up piece of paper from the carrier. Meanwhile, Momo had moved to perch on Zuko, no doubt wanting to get closer to investigate the hawk. The two animals stared at each other warily.
"What does it say?" Zuko asked, reaching up to pet Momo's head.
Despite his outward calm, he was tense with nerves. Running his fingers through Momo's fur helped to ease some of the tightness in his chest. The soft texture was a distraction, even though all anyone else would see was him trying to stop the lemur from getting agitated.
Iroh scanned the contents. Some of the warmth faded from his eyes. "It's your sister."
Zuko's heartbeat stuttered. "What? Why would Azula write a letter to you?"
"It's not from Azula," Iroh corrected. "It's about her. She's planning to conquer Ba Sing Se."
Sokka dropped the maps he had been holding. "What?"
Iroh's mouth twisted a little. "So this is her way of retaliating," he murmured.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Sokka said, sitting up straighter. "What do you mean that Crazy Blue Flames is planning to conquer Ba Sing Se? How is that even possible? I've been researching about the Earth Kingdom and that city is fortified like none other. She shouldn't even be able to get close."
"Snoozles is right," Toph said, sprawled against the saddle with her ankles crossed. "I mean, I could probably conquer it on my own, but—"
"Don't be naïve," Zuko said impatiently. "Unlike me, Azula can use the entire Fire Nation army and its resources to achieve her goals. She won't attack the city by herself; she'll attack with whatever is necessary."
"You sound like you believe she can actually do this," Katara observed.
Zuko gritted his teeth. "I know my sister. If she has decided to conquer Ba Sing Se, it's because she knows that she can do it."
"I'm afraid that Zuko is right," Iroh said, sounding unusually grim. "Princess Azula has assumed leadership of a large division of soldiers that were set to invade Ba Sing Se. There were delays because of a new strategy that had been put underway, but it looks as if she has pushed the date forward. In two days, she and her army will be ready to attack."
"Two days," Katara echoed in dismay.
Sokka turned to Aang. "We have to stop her."
Aang nodded. For them, there was no question about whether they should fight or not.
"What will you do?" Katara asked Zuko and Iroh.
Zuko averted his gaze. He no longer believed in the propaganda that justified the war or the Fire Nation's supremacy, but just realising the truth couldn't erase sixteen years of loyalty and love for his nation. He was a prince—albeit, a banished one who had been branded a traitor—but a prince nonetheless. Believing that his country was wrong was one thing; acting against his people, even attacking them, was quite another.
"Nephew?" Iroh prompted.
Zuko let out a small breath. "If we stop the army, we really will be traitors."
"Is that all you're worried about?" Toph said in an unimpressed voice. "Hate to break it to you, Sunshine, but everyone already thinks you're traitors. You can't make things any worse for yourself."
He clenched his jaw. "I'm aware of that."
"Then what's the problem?"
Zuko said nothing. There was no point in trying to explain his feelings. To them, the Fire Nation was just an enemy to be stopped. For him, however, the issue was much more complicated. He had realised while opening the chakras that he didn't want to give up on the nation. It was still his home and those soldiers were still his people. Fighting them as a real opponent would be like stabbing a knife into his own heart. Of course, that wasn't to say that he condoned the atrocities the Fire Nation had committed in the name of war. He just knew that if he followed Aang and the others now, there would be no going back for him. It was a decision that he wasn't sure he was ready to make.
Iroh placed his hand on Zuko's shoulder. "I understand how you must feel, Nephew."
The prince relaxed a fraction.
"However, this time I cannot ignore my conscience."
Zuko stared at his uncle with wide eyes. "What?"
"Once, I believed that it was my destiny to conquer the walled city," Iroh explained. "I have since come to a realisation of the truth. Ba Sing Se must not be allowed to fall."
"Then you'll fight?"
Iroh nodded. "For me, the time to act has come." He squeezed Zuko's shoulder. "But I will not force you to join me. That choice is yours alone."
Zuko let out a breath. His own choice, huh?
"Of course," Iroh added in a far too innocent voice, "if the city falls to the Fire Nation, you probably won't be able to access the libraries. It would be a shame if you missed learning something about the Children of the Undying Fire just because we couldn't stop Princess Azula."
Zuko's eyes narrowed. "I thought you were going to let me decide."
"Just stating facts," his uncle responded.
Which was a load of komodo-rhino dung. Iroh knew that the most important thing to Zuko was learning the truth about his bending. The old man had purposely made that point about the Ba Sing Se libraries, just as he had purposely chosen to bring up Azula's name, knowing of the siblings' rivalry. It was an attempt to sway Zuko's decision, plain and simple.
"Let's just focus on getting to Ba Sing Se first," Zuko said, settling back against the saddle and looking the other way.
He needed to think. He needed to decide for himself what was right, because all the logic in the world meant nothing if he could not answer affirmatively to one question.
Could he really fight against his nation?
Mai twirled one of her knives round and round. She was standing on the deck of a large Fire Nation vessel, one of many that was bound for Ba Sing Se. Of course, this was only one section of the army. The rest were already at the base camp and preparing the drill. That was also part of Azula's plan. War Minister Qin had wanted to wait to gather a larger force. He'd stressed that the drill wasn't a weapon and, as they all knew from what happened six years ago during the siege, the Earth Kingdom army's was fierce. Azula had begged to differ. She had presented a plan to the minister and commanding officials that had shown they could take the city with few casualties. All that mattered was getting inside.
A sigh escaped Mai's lips. Once upon a time she'd actually found fighting exciting. It had felt good to test her skills against her opponents, to feel the adrenaline flow through her blood. Now she just wondered what she was doing here. Conquering a city did not interest her. The fact that part of Azula's plan was to lure the Avatar out of hiding unsettled Mai as well. It felt like there was a cold stone weighing down her stomach. She didn't want to fight the people who had taken care of her brother. She especially didn't want to fight Zuko.
"There you are!" Ty Lee joined her on the deck. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
Mai slipped her knife back into its holster. "I wanted some fresh air."
Ty Lee let out an uncharacteristic huff. "I just want off this boat. It's so grey and stinky, and there are no cute soldiers at all." She slumped against the railing. "I miss the circus."
Mai said nothing. They both knew that neither of them really wanted to be on this mission. Plus, it was so much more dangerous for Mai to express her true thoughts. Azula had always been more forgiving of Ty Lee.
"Well," Ty Lee said, forcing a grin to her lips, "I suppose if the Avatar really does come to stop us, at least I'll get to see that cute boy with the ponytail."
"I don't see how you can like that loudmouth," Mai said bluntly.
"But his eyes are so blue, and there's something really nice about his mouth. Don't you think?"
"The only thing I've noticed about his mouth is that he uses it to talk too much."
A cheeky sparkle entered Ty Lee's eyes. "Ah, that's right. You prefer the golden-eyed, brooding type, right?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, really?" Ty Lee leaned forward, lips curving into a grin. "Because I seem to remember a certain someone used to be quite taken with Prince Zuko." She nudged Mai in the ribs. "You know, if what Azula said is true, he will prob—"
"That's not funny."
Ty Lee blinked. "Huh?"
Mai forced her expression to go blank. She couldn't believe she had let herself slip-up like that. Time to do damage control.
Heaving a bored sigh, she folded her arms and looked the other way. "I'm just saying that Zuko is a traitor now. He's not worth talking about."
Ty Lee tilted her head to the side. "I guess, but—"
"I'm going back in." Mai headed for the door. "Azula will get annoyed if we leave her alone for long."
It was a rushed excuse, but all Mai cared about was escaping the conversation. Her control was so fragile at the moment. Stupid Zuko. Stupid Avatar and those stupid Water Tribe siblings. It was their fault she was unable to focus. If those brats hadn't acted so selflessly to help her brother, if Zuko had never betrayed the Fire Nation and turned himself into her enemy. Yet even as Mai shoved the blame for her unsettled heart onto them, she also knew that she was only kidding herself.
After all, she had always been the stupidest one of all. The cage she felt trapped in was one she had created for herself. She had clipped her own wings and called it freedom. It was pathetic.
She was pathetic.
Mai clenched her hands into fists. She stared at the steel walls of the war ship, so narrow and suffocating. "What am I even doing here?" she murmured.
Aang stretched his arms above his head, working the kinks out of his muscles. They were getting close to Ba Sing Se now.
"Can't you make Appa go any faster?" Sokka asked, coming to sit behind Aang.
Aang shook his head. He explained that Appa was already tired from carrying everyone. He didn't want to take the risk. After all, the last time they'd fought Azula had been made that much worse because Appa had been too exhausted to fly. This time they'd be up against an army. It would be better not to push the bison.
"There is something I wanted to ask you, though," Aang said, glancing over his shoulder at the other boy. "Why didn't you tell Zuko and Iroh about the eclipse?"
Sokka's eyes widened and he clamped his hand over Aang's mouth. "Shhh," he hissed. "Not so loud."
"'E un' ear mmph."
Aang pulled Sokka's hand away. "I said they can't hear us. Look, they're too busy talking to each other."
Sure enough, the firebenders were huddled with Katara at the far end of the saddle and were deep in conversation. All three clutched a piece of what looked Shang's scrolls. Aang couldn't help but smile as he watched Katara get excited with Iroh upon managing to decipher a new part of the text. Even Zuko smiled and got a bit animated. It was such a relief to see them all getting along, to see Katara willingly help the prince even though she had always been so reluctant and grudging about giving him any kind of assistance before. They were all changing. All beginning to understand and care for each other a bit more. That was why Aang didn't want to ruin it.
"We can't keep this from them, Sokka," Aang said seriously. "They have the right to know about the eclipse."
Sokka shook his head. "They're Fire Nation, Aang. Do you really want to risk our plan by telling them?"
"Iroh has already agreed to help us fight against Princess Azula."
"So he says." Sokka spread his hands. "We don't really know if he is telling the truth or not. And let's not forget that Zuko never agreed to anything."
Aang furrowed his brow. "Zuko isn't our enemy."
"He's not really our ally either."
Aang opened his mouth to retort, but Sokka got there before him.
"Look, Aang, I want to believe that they won't betray us just as much as you do. Iroh is a pretty cool guy, and I guess Zuko isn't so bad when he's not being an angry jerk and chasing us all over the world. The fact is that they both have emotional ties to the Fire Nation, and this time we'll be invading the capital when the army is at its weakest." He shook his head. "Can you honestly tell me that you trust them with that kind of information?"
"I guess that's where we differ," Aang said softly, "I feel that if we don't tell them of our plan, we'll be the ones betraying them."
Aang stared down at his hands. "Not saying something when you know it's important to the other person is just as bad as lying, you know? That's what you and Zuko both taught me." His knuckles burned white. "I've lied to my friends too many times. Especially Zuko. I don't want to hide things from him anymore."
"But, Aang, the plan is—"
"We'll make it work." Aang's gaze was steady. "I don't want a victory built on lies. Not when it means betraying my friends."
Sokka stared at him for a moment and then let out an exaggerated sigh. "Geez, how can I argue with that?" He waved his hand. "Fine. Do what you want."
Aang pulled him into a hug. "Thanks!"
"Yeah, yeah," Sokka grumbled, folding his arms and looking the other way. "Don't blame me if it all blows up in your face."
"Don't worry. I'll take full responsibility."
"We're going to hold you to that," Toph said.
Both boys turned to see the earthbender watching them from where she reclined on the saddle. Well, perhaps watching wasn't the right word. She just stared blankly in their direction.
"How long have you been listening?" Sokka demanded.
"Oh, I heard everything," Toph said with a careless wave of her hand. "You forget that I have good hearing."
Sokka muttered something under his breath.
Aang smiled at the blind bender. "You agree with me, right? That it's better to tell Iroh and Zuko?"
"Not at all," she said frankly. "Prince Sunshine will probably get upset, and I dunno how Gramps will feel about it either." She shrugged. "Still, they probably do have a right to know. Just depends if you wanna take the risk to soothe your conscience."
"I do," Aang said, raising his chin.
"Then have at it." A grin curved her mouth. "It'll make things more interesting at the very least."
Aang scrunched his nose. "You have a strange sense of humour."
"I do what I can," Toph said airily.
His frown deepened. He glanced back at Iroh and Zuko, but they were still discussing the scrolls with Katara. Aang handed the reins to Sokka. "Can you take over? I'm going to tell them now."
"You sure you want to rush into this?" Sokka asked.
Aang smiled a little sadly. "If I don't tell them now, I might change my mind."
He knew his own weakness. Running away and taking the easy route came far too easily to him. That urge would always be there; it was something he had accepted. That was why he had to keep trying. He had to prove that he wouldn't break his promise to be a better Avatar and friend.
Aang traded places with Sokka and then moved to join Iroh, Zuko and Katara. "Um, hey," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "So—"
"Look at this, Aang!" Katara exclaimed, shoving one of the scrolls under his nose.
He inclined his head back. "Uh, what am I supposed to be looking at?" All he saw was charred, faded text.
She pointed at a section. "This part here. We just discovered it's talking about energy bonds. If we can figure out the rest, we might be able to understand the connection you share with Zuko."
"Wow, that's great!" Aang grinned at Zuko. "This will be a huge help."
"Yeah, but the rest is barely legible," the prince responded. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't know when, let alone if, we'll be able to decipher it."
Katara pulled his hand away from his face. "Stop being so pessimistic. We'll figure it out, so don't worry."
Zuko blinked at her in surprise. It almost made Aang want to chuckle. Sometimes, the prince could be so clueless when it came to dealing with other people, especially those close to his own age. Aang wasn't sure what had surprised Zuko more: the fact that Katara had touched him, that she was still offering to help, or that she had actually told him off for being gloomy.
Katara released Zuko's hand and turned to Aang. "Anyway, how far have we got to go now until we reach Ba Sing Se? It's going to be dark soon."
An inhuman scream pierced the air. Aang froze, words dying on his lips.
"What the heck was that?" Zuko questioned, glancing at his uncle.
Iroh gripped the edge of the saddle and looked over the rim. "It sounded like it was coming from below."
Momo appeared from the sea of clouds that blocked their view and fluttered in front of Aang's face. The lemur chittered in a distressed sort of way, waving his hands and looking half crazed with his big round eyes. Aang's brow creased. He moved to grab his staff.
"You're going to check it out?" Zuko asked.
Aang nodded. "I'll be back soon."
With that, he whipped the staff open to reveal his glider and dived off Appa. Clouds brushed against him in waves of cold moisture. He pierced through the fog and an expanse of blue greeted his vision. It was the Eastern Sea. He spotted the source of the inhuman scream almost immediately. It was some kind of serpent: huge, at least a hundred foot long, and covered in teal scales. The serpent had wrapped itself around a boat full of passengers and was slowly crushing the wooden frame.
"Oh no," Aang muttered.
He urged his glider into a swift descent. Now the human cries were getting louder. He could see the people on the deck hacking away at the serpent with their weapons, desperately trying to force it to release the boat. The serpent just screamed and snatched a warrior up from the deck with its mouth.
"No!" someone yelled.
Aang was shocked to see a girl clad in green dash up the serpent's body, moving with acrobatic speed. Her armour and gold headdress looked oddly familiar, but now wasn't the time to get distracted. She stabbed her katana into the creature's head, forcing it to release her comrade. The serpent screamed and bucked her off, hissing and thrashing in pain. Aang quickly spun his glider back into a staff, channelling a gust of air to create an air cushion to slow the girl and the wounded warrior's fall.
That was Sokka. Appa flew past Aang, manoeuvring in a way so that Zuko and Iroh could catch the two warriors. Aang let out a breath of relief and touched down on the deck. The boat was beginning to sink and fall apart. People screamed and started to abandon ship while the warriors—all female and wearing face paint, he quickly noted—hacked away at the serpent. Now he knew why they seemed so familiar; it was the Kyoshi Warriors.
"Everyone get in the water!" Aang ordered.
"Avatar?" one of the warriors exclaimed in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"Never mind that," he said impatiently. "I'll take care of the serpent. You all need to get off this boat."
"We can't! There are too many refugees and the evacuation boats got damaged. Plus, a lot of them are too old or young to swim. They won't make it without the ferry!"
The boat juddered. Wood splintered and cracked. Aang almost lost his balance and gripped the side to steady himself. Suddenly, the serpent's face loomed before them. Blood dripped from its head where the katana pierced like a steel horn. Its razor-sharp teeth gleamed.
"Get back!" Aang shouted.
He swung his staff and created a ball of corporeal air, which he used to strike at the serpent's face. It shrieked and was knocked back, but the boat also lurched from the movement. More wood splintered. Not good.
Katara landed on the deck next to him. "Need some help?" she asked.
Aang turned to her. "Katara, thank goodness. We need to get everyone off the boat and away from the serpent."
She smiled for answer and thrust her hands forward. An island of ice formed underneath the refugees who had already jumped into the water, gradually spreading and thickening. Some more intricate hand movements created a bridge from the ferry to the ice platform.
"Thanks!" Aang said. "I'll keep the serpent distracted. You help the Kyoshi Warriors get everyone to safety."
She dashed away with the warriors. Aang turned his attention to the serpent and exhaled a deep breath. Time to get serious. He closed his eyes, accessing the deeper vaults of his power. It was like turning on a switch. Suddenly, his eyes glowed pure white and he could feel the energy surging through him like an open dam.
"This is as far as you go," Aang said in a voice layered with lifetimes upon lifetimes of Avatars.
He sped towards the creature and got his staff ready.
Use fire, his past lives whispered.
Aang ignored the voices. He struck out with a powerful wind blast. Just like last time, the attack made contact, but because the serpent was still wrapped around the ferry, it also caused the boat to tip dangerously. The refugees screamed in terror. A few fell into the water, joined by broken bits of deck. Worse, the serpent recovered fast and began snapping at anyone close.
"Aang, you need to get the serpent to separate itself from the boat!" Katara shouted.
The serpent's thrashing had broken the bridge. She was busy trying to create it again while also keeping the ice platform together, which was steadily weakening under the weight of the refugees. It was too much for one waterbender, even a master like her.
The command echoed inside him again. His mouth twisted.
Use it, the voices urged.
Stubborn defiance welled within him. He didn't need to use the element. Fire was dangerous. Plus, there were too many people around. Just because he had accepted that he had the potential to be a firebender didn't mean that he had to wield the element recklessly like one. Not now and not ever.
Cosmic power stuttered inside him. His eyes flickered back to grey. Somehow, he had fallen out of the Avatar State. Aang was so shocked that for a moment he didn't move. More screams from the ferry made him twitch back into focus. Ah, there was no time to worry about this! He'd just take the serpent down without the Avatar State.
He made a beeline for the serpent, using his glider to stay afloat. Once he was close enough, he moved his hands in the forms he had been taught at the North Pole, drenching the serpent in water and then solidifying it into ice. Some of the refugees cheered, but Aang realised his mistake even before Iroh shouted out for him to stop. The weight of the frozen serpent was only making the boat sink faster.
Katara gave up on the bridge and instead focussed on creating blocks of ice to keep the ferry from sinking. The serpent shattered its ice cage a second later. It screamed in rage and released the ferry, heading straight for Aang. His eyes widened. Well, at least now he could get it to follow him away from the refugees and Kyoshi Warriors.
"This way, ugly!" Aang taunted, wiggling his butt.
The serpent shrieked and charged after him. He flew into action, but a glance over his shoulder revealed the serpent had got distracted again. It seemed hunger had won over irritation. Bloodied and enraged, the serpent loomed over the refugees. Katara created a wall of ice between the platform and the monster. It smashed through her barrier as if it was nothing.
"Aang!" Katara screamed as she created a waterspout and flung it at the serpent, trying to push the creature back.
Aang quickly added wind to the waterspout so that it was extra powered. Together, he and Katara managed to direct the serpent straight into the rocks. It thrashed and shrieked in pain, splashing up giant waves. Aang gritted his teeth. He had not expected the creature to resist this much. Fortunately, the combined attack proved to be too much for even the serpent's rage and hunger. The growing whirlpool sucked the creature under the sea. Everyone watched for a moment, but the serpent did not resurface. Aang could only assume it had given up and decided to go nurse its wounds somewhere else.
"Phew." He landed next to Katara on the boat. "That was tougher than I thought it'd be."
"Yeah, but what do we do about the refugees now?" she asked. "We can't just leave them like this."
Appa moved to hover next to them. A grinning Sokka popped his head over the side. "I have an idea," he declared.
As it turned out, Sokka's idea was to use waterbending, or at least ice, to hold the ferry together and take it, along with all of the passengers, back to Half Moon Bay. The wounded were given priority and flown via Appa. It was slow, gruelling work. The sky changed from pink to black and the chill air of the night crept in. Everyone was exhausted by the end.
"You two alright?" a feminine voice asked.
Aang looked up from where he sat slumped next to Katara on the Half Moon Bay wharf. A Kyoshi Warrior with auburn hair smiled down at them, holding a lantern in one hand. He recognised her as the girl who had stabbed the serpent with her katana. Now that he saw her up close, he was also able to put a name to her face.
"Suki!" he exclaimed.
She laughed. "It's good to see you, Aang."
"And you!" Aang's smile widened. "I wasn't expecting to find Kyoshi Warriors all the way out here."
"We left the island not long after you."
She explained that she and the Kyoshi Warriors had been inspired by their efforts. They had travelled to the Earth Kingdom and had eventually found themselves at Half Moon Bay.
Katara hugged her knees to her chest. "I heard you've been helping the refugees get to Ba Sing Se."
Suki nodded. "Sometimes we act as security guards here at Half Moon Bay and sometimes we protect the ferries." Some of the light faded from her eyes. "I'm ashamed of what happened earlier. If you both hadn't come, I don't know what would have happened."
"Don't worry about it," Aang said. "We're always glad to help. Plus, you're our friend."
A strained smile curved her lips. "Thanks, but that doesn't change the fact that the Kyoshi Warriors failed today."
The girl turned her head to see one of the other face-painted warriors waving at her. "Sorry, looks like I'm being called. Anyway, I really just wanted to thank you both. You saved us today, especially Lan. That monster would have had her had you not stepped in." She bowed low. "On behalf of the Kyoshi Warriors, you have our gratitude."
"It was nothing," Katara said. "Really. I'm just glad we got there in time."
"Katara is right," Aang agreed. "And you have nothing to be ashamed of. That serpent was tough. It took all of us to drive it away, so don't beat yourselves up. What matters is that everyone is safe now."
Suki's smile widened, becoming much more sincere. "I guess you're right."
"Of course we are," Katara and Aang chorused.
She chuckled. "Well, don't rush off too soon, okay? I'd like to talk with you all more."
With that said, she waved and dashed off to join her comrades. Aang let out a small breath. People were still bustling around on the wharf, trying to figure out what to do with the damaged ferry or ushering the refugees towards a big building.
He glanced at Katara. "Guess we should find the others."
Katara nodded and got to her feet. Suddenly, the colour drained from her cheeks. She swayed and probably would have collapsed had Zuko not appeared from out of nowhere and stepped in to steady her.
"Careful," he murmured. "You shouldn't move too fast right now. You've used up a lot of energy."
Katara's cheeks dusted with colour. "Uh, thanks."
The firebender turned to Aang. "That goes for you too. Both of you need rest."
Aang couldn't argue with that. His whole body felt like jelly. "I guess we won't be making it to Ba Sing Se tonight," he sighed.
Appa was crashed not far from the wharf and snoring away like a foghorn. There was no way the bison would be able to fly again. Aang wasn't sure where Momo, Sokka, Toph and Iroh had got to, but they had been doing a lot to help the refugees and Kyoshi Warriors, so he assumed they were probably tired as well. Maybe it was best for everyone to rest. Still, he had to admit that he was surprised Zuko had been the one to suggest it.
"You're like a worried mum," Aang said with a grin.
Zuko scowled. "Shut up."
Katara let out a snort of laughter. This earned the ire of the prince, who released her and said they could find their own way back to the sleeping area if they were just going to act like idiots. He had no time for their nonsense.
"Sorry," she said, sobering up. "It's just you looked so grumpy."
Zuko's scowl became more pronounced. Of course, this just set the two off again into another fit of giggles. He blushed and folded his arms across his chest. "Anyway," he muttered. "Things wouldn't have got this bad if you hadn't held back so much, Avatar."
Aang blinked. "Huh?"
"Don't think I didn't notice," Zuko said, glowering at him. "You could have taken that serpent down easily. Instead, you chose to cancel the Avatar State and didn't even bother to use firebending, which would have been the most effective method."
Something plummeted in Aang's stomach. So Zuko had noticed that.
"What were you thinking?" Zuko demanded. "Why did you hold back? My uncle and I couldn't do anything because we'd just make things more complicated, but you didn't have to hold back!"
Aang stared at his hands. There was no humour in his eyes now. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to kill the serpent and I was worried that I might hurt someone if I used firebending."
"Idiot," Zuko said in exasperation. "I've told you before not to fear your firebending."
"I know." Aang's shoulders slumped. "I just can't help it. I already lost control once and burned Katara. What would have happened had I lost control again? All those refugees could have been hurt."
Zuko pursed his lips. "So you'd rather drag out a battle and risk more serious damage?"
Aang said nothing to defend himself. He knew that Zuko had a point. Most creatures were scared of fire—aquatic ones especially. A simple attack probably would have frightened the serpent into leaving. That was why his past lives had told him to use the element.
"There's another thing as well," Aang mumbled, hanging his head. "I didn't cancel the Avatar State. I got shut out of it."
Katara frowned. "What?"
He shrugged. "Something went wrong during the fight. I think"—he swallowed—"I think it might have been because I refused to firebend. My past lives were telling me it was what I needed to do, but I kept on resisting. After that, I lost the Avatar State power."
Zuko made a frustrated sound. "Alright, that's it." He picked the boy up by the scruff of his tunic. "I don't care if you're exhausted right now, you're coming with me."
"W-wait, what are you—"
Zuko rounded on him. "I did not just watch you go through opening all those chakras to let you stuff up everything now. I'm going to teach you how to control your fire, so shut up and prepare yourself!"
Aang closed his mouth. Zuko was going to teach him how to firebend? Right now?
The prince glanced over his shoulder at Katara. "If you see my uncle, tell him that I'm helping this idiot and we'll be back later."
Katara looked torn between wanting to laugh or rescue Aang. "Are you sure that doing this now is such a good idea? You were the one who said he needed rest."
"That was before he admitted screwing up his ability to go into the Avatar State because he's scared of a few flames."
Aang's shoulders slumped further. "Sorry."
Zuko just muttered something under his breath and carried the boy away. Somehow, Aang got the feeling it was going to be a long night.