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Of spirits and men (and the burning paths they trod)

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Midwinter was always hard -not as hard as it was in the colonies, or even in one of the poorer Providences- but this winter ... There was something different to it. Ursa had felt it as soon as the first cold front hit. Or course, what she was feeling might also be linked how pregnant she was -so pregnant she felt like a Lionseal that had been beached- but even feeling her little ones flutters never accounted for the oddity tickling the back of her awareness. A subtle change in the air, a small something that teased. At first, she'd thought it was the hand-maids she couldn't shake, watching her every move, reporting to her husband. But the feeling persisted even when she was truly alone, like now, sitting in her personal gardens. The small knowing something was there, as was the strong chill that had permeated her bones all winter. She had a nagging suspicion that it was possibly a spirit up to mischief, but nothing strange ever accompanied the feeling. 

(Nothing except the fires around her getting warmer, or candles flickering with new life, no matter how low the wick was. Nothing strange, except that no matter how warm it was around her, she was always cold.)

She was thinking herself into circles now, and that wouldn't do. The healers had specifically told her to stop stressing, and she was working herself into a good stress. Sighing, she shifted, intending to stand. Agni was sinking into slumber, and she'd found she tended to join him. The world was simply too cold without his light. She felt a ... something, a pull at her lower body, and then liquid slicking down her legs and she was panicking, because it was still two weeks too early and-

She was in her rooms, when had that happened? Her lower body pulsed and clamped, and the midwife was urging her to push-

(It was still too early!)

She was told to push.

(It was the middle of winter)

They kept telling her to push, but wasn't she pushing?

(It was also the middle of the night. These were so many bad omens at once, Ursa was half afraid that feeling she'd been having was Yama's gaze on her unborn child what if-)

They were telling her to breathe now, and by the spirits, she would punch the next of them to tell her to push, because she was pushing-

(Yama and his minions could not have her child. He was hers. She wasn't sure why she knew it was a he, but it was, and he was hers!)

The pressure on her lower body had stopped some time ago, and they'd stopped telling her to breathe, to push, and she could hardly do the latter, but she was trying to ask-

(She wanted to know if her baby was born, and if he lived, because if he didn't, she would go to the spirit world right now. She wasn't afraid of spirits -not when they may have taken her baby-)

A weak sound came from a bundle of silks that the midwife hesitantly brought to Ursa, the older woman's gaze wary and worried, but Ursa focused on that sound. It was weak, and so exhausted, as if being born had simply been too much. The first time she saw her son, he was pink and wrinkled and ugly and beautiful and so, so dear. Except he was having trouble breathing, and he looked too pale under the fresh-born pink, and she was terrified all over again that Yama and his minions really would take her baby. She watched him, and smacked at the people fussing at her, and she did everything she could to make sure her beautiful, precious boy ate and breathed and lived. By the time morning came, she and her boy were begrudgingly clean, and she was pacing wobbly by the windows. She'd been praying fervently to Agni, begging him to help her baby just keep breathing. Ozai had not yet come to see them. She wasn't sure he would bother -gossip spread fast, and everyone knew his son had been born weak. Not even a cry. Even now, he struggled to do more than whimper.

(Then Agni's first rays broke the horizon, his great eye cracking a sliver to peek at his lands, and that feeling came back, but it felt focused, and her boy, who'd been pale and shivering and whimpering went still. It broke her into a whole new panic, thinking his heart had truly stopped on her, but he warmed drastically in her grasp and -)

Zuko's first bellow in life was to the new-broken dawn, Agni's rays shining down on him merrily. He bellowed with great spirit, and generally made it known to one and all that he was, in fact, alive, and that they should be ashamed for not paying attention to that. 

(Iroh joked to her that morning when he visited that the boy would be a good officer in their army, as long as he was bellowing all the right things. Ozai said nothing at first, his eyes cold and calculating as he looked at their child. He didn't fight her on the naming, and that was her first clue that he wasn't satisfied with a child that had been born under all the wrong omens. Ursa was all right with that, because in her mind, there was not a more perfect little boy. He had come to life to greet Agni, and maybe, just maybe, he had stayed alive because of Agni. She loved her son, though she'd truly known him less than a day. Latter, much later in life, this love would work against her and her son. She was never sure if she regretted it.)

 

 


 

 

 

Zuko had thought that today would be a good day. A slightly nerve-wracking one, but a good one. He could prove to his father just how far he'd come. He could prove to Azula that -well, he wasn't sure what he wanted to prove to her. Maybe he just wanted to prove that he was a good bender -that she was just biased because no one was impressive next to her. He did know that beating that general -he wanted to send Fire Nation soldiers to certain doom? Deplorable! Those were Zu-the Fire Lords people!- would be a small victory over her. Azula might be a prodigy, but she's never fought in an Agni Kai. He was ready. He could do this. He would do this -because someone needed to protect their people- and maybe-finally his father would be proud.

Retrospectively, thinking the day would good should have been his first clue that things would go very wrong. Anytime he thought he'd caught up to the wild game being played against him, things went wrong. Like finally being able to bend, but being bad at it. Or finding out he was a good swordsman, then being banned from practice. Thinking he could show off just as well as Azula and then watching his mother get erased from their lives as if she'd never been.

(He still wasn't positive that the last points were connected, but he thought-feared-suspected that they were.)

So, of course, it wasn't the general standing there when he turned. Of course, it was the last man in the world he'd ever want to fight standing there, under Agni's rays. Agni's rays which seemed so bright and angry, the usually comforting warmth a searing heat on his skin. Of course, it was his father standing above him, the full force of Agni's disapproval behind him. This was the moment he realized he'd made a fundamental mistake.

(He couldn't do this. He couldn't fight his father. His father was the Fire Lord, the voice of Agni, and by the Spirits, he could not lift a hand against him. He was a loyal son, both to his father and the heart of his nation. Fighting the Fire Lord was an impossibility.)


(As ever, this was the wrong sentiment to have.)

And now. Now.

The hand that gripped his throat squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. The light blinding his left eye was also burning him, and oh Agni it hurt. He'd known fire could hurt -Azula had taught him that, and everyone knew fire wasn't safe, there had to be control- but he hadn't ever thought it could hurt like this. It hurt until his stomach heaved and his heart was a wild Rabbit-Cat in his chest. It hurt until he wasn't sure if he was still screaming, or hearing himself scream. It hurt until he tasted blood and smelled seared flesh and it hurt no matter how much he wished it didn't. It hurt until he wasn't sure if he was still conscious or too numb to feel anything anymore.

(Either way, when the pain took him under into darkness he went willingly because the darkness was better than the blinding, searing light. The Darkness was better than the last thing he saw before the world was burning-brightness-pain.)

(His fathers' lips twist in a not-good smile, the glint of heady not-right happiness in his fathers' eyes. Anything was better than remembering that.)

You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.

Zuko didn't even know he fell at his father's feet to dead silence. He didn't see that the sun, Agni's great eye, was covered by clouds so suddenly, even the Fire Lord looked away from the mess he'd made of his firstborn child. Zuko didn't see the storm that raged for the rest of the evening. Zuko didn't see that the night came with such a chill, it was as if Agni had removed himself completely from his throne above them. Zuko had no way of knowing that the instant his Father's hand fell towards him and the following decree of banishment was rendered, Agni felt such a rage at the people he claimed as his, he melted his own throne in the Spirit realms. Zuko had no way of knowing that this was the proverbial last straw.

 

 


 

 

 

Iroh had seen and done many terrible things -not the least of which was plotting to kill his own insane brother- but being forced to stand there and watch Ozai break his own child was ... It was the last straw. His friends in the order would surely forgive him going off-script if they knew the particulars. Even if they didn't ... it changed nothing. He'd already planned to get his nephew away from all this wrongness, the boy was too good for it, but this

(His nephew screamed, and Iroh looked away. He hadn't intended to, but he couldn't watch. Watching risked everything. Watching meant taking the chance that he wouldn't hold himself back when he felt like showing his baby brother that despite his lack of diet, Iroh was still very much the Dragon of the West.)

Iroh had his contacts in place even before his nephew was carried to the infirmary. Iroh was already devising a plan, one his brother would jump on for many reasons, and one that Iroh could quietly control despite Ozai's best efforts to twist it into a punishment. Iroh had gotten good at giving smart men a way to bury themselves -and while Ozai was smart and conniving and power-hungry, Iroh hadn't survived his brother this long by being simple. Ozai thought he was a broken old man, imprinted on Ozai's own son because Lu Ten had been ripped from him on the field of battle, and that was fine. (It was also a partial truth. Those always made the best lies after all.)

(Much later, sitting across from his brother while the man slyly smugged about his actions, while the man belittled Iroh for the many innumerable things Iroh had given him as ammunition, Iroh had to focus on his breathing like never before. It took concentrated will not to kill his brother then and there. It was, in Iroh's mind, almost the most impressive amount of control he'd ever implemented.)

(The first place would forever go to the minutes-hours-days he'd had the man who'd killed his son in his grasp. He'd stretched the torture until the fool had willingly given him everything, including the name of the monster who'd hired him to kill Lu Ten. The second place went to that first hour on the pier when he finally drug himself home, and saw Ozai again. Saw the smug satisfaction in his new Fire Lord's face. He felt that now, sitting across from his brother, would be the third. It was sad that every moment where he'd been overcome with killing rage, his brother was always responsible, and the direct recipient of the rage.)

By the end of that day, Ozai had declared that if Prince Zuko could find the Avatar, his banishment would be redacted. He announced that his gracious brother had volunteered to accompany the boy, and ensure he stayed on task to return home as soon as possible. He very publicly tried to impress the public with all the mercy he was showing, and for the most part, it worked. Except in the secret shadows, which Iroh made sure were full of whispered truths and half-lies, gossip that would slip quietly under the pulse of the city and corrupt the minds of those who saw flaws in their Fire Lord. 

Ozai tried to offer a ship, but Iroh had quietly procured his own, and already sent notice through his many contacts in the navy that he was looking for a discreet crew, and that the Dragon of the West wished them to know it was a potentially dangerous mission they may not come back from. Those who didn't know him well thought this was a lark, but the ones it was meant to reach understood. He and his nephew had a crew by the following morning, and they very pointedly did not look at the bundled, unconscious prince as he was loaded onto his ship. Ozai did not see them off, but Azula showed up at the last minute, glaring at the ship and Iroh and everyone like they were responsible for some dirty trick. Iroh (shamefully) was both relieved and saddened that they had to leave the girl behind. 

(He'd found her, the night before, sitting by Zuko's side, smiling a chilling smile. It was the first time in her life he'd realized the smile wasn't directed at anyone in particular. It was like a mask she'd become so used to wearing she didn't even know she hadn't taken it off. She'd whispered something to Zuko that sounded angry and sad and confused, and then flounced away when she realized that Iroh was there. These were the moments Iroh remembered that Zuko was barely twelve-thought-it-was-close-enough-to-thirteen, and Azula was only ten. He was still trying to make a plan that worked when he placed Azula in it, but she made things hard -primarily because everything ended up on fire, with her at the center of it, shrugging elegantly at the flames.)

If, at any time during his planning, Iroh noticed that his ideas were encouraged by familiar voiceless words drifting around him, by an incredible warmth settling on his shoulders while he planned, he paid it little mind. He also didn't pay too much mind to the fact that the Fire Nation Capital was shrouded in clouds, but as soon as they were out to sea, Agni's rays were there, warm and welcome and encouraging. He had no way of knowing what kind of turmoil this caused the Capital. 

 

 


 

 

 

Zuko wasn't sure if he hated the sea, but he knew he hated the Wani. It was small, and crowded, and his balance was already bad, he didn't need the sea making it worse, thank-you-very-much. He was also fairly certain that some of the crew wanted to pity him, which he hated, and he knew his Uncle pitied him (what else would you call that look he got any time Zuko flinched from the candles?) and he hated that even more. They'd been at sea for a month. He'd been banished for a month. He'd been away from home for a month. Banished forever, from the only home he knew, with nothing but a rag-tag crew of probably-trouble-makers, and his Uncle. Forever. His Uncle wouldn't tell him everything that happened after he'd fainted at his father's feet, and none of the crew even knew how he'd got hurt, only that he was banished now. He wasn't about to share that with them, not even if they shared with him. 

(They were probably never going to share with him, because he was a banished, dishonored prince, and he was angry all the time, which meant he was shouting all the time. People didn't like being shouted at, he knew from experience with instructors, but at least he wasn't twisting their arms or smacking them, so he tried not to feel so guilty.)

(He mostly failed at not feeling guilty.)

The waters rose in front of him, splashing against the railing in a way that would have been calming if he wasn't afraid of the salt seeping into his bandage. His Uncle had decided to take them to the Western Air Temple, since it was so far from the normal naval patrols no one would notice their ship lingering there before they moved on. Zuko didn't know why his Uncle was bothering-the Avatar was dead and gone, everyone knew that that. He wanted it to not be true, but in the last month, he barely had the energy to insist on changing his own bandages. He wasn't sure he had the energy to tell Uncle that the Avatar simply didn't exist -he knew his Uncle wanted to go home as much as he did, but ... but it had been a hundred years, and people had already looked. The waters rose again, and Zuko carefully stepped away from the railing, heading -with minimal wobble, thank Agni- to the bow of the ship. He found Uncle there, smiling into his teacup as he always was. It was ... disheartening, to see his Uncle pretending so well that being away from home didn't hurt. Zuko should probably practice pretending better.

"Nephew! There you are. Come, sit. Have a cup of tea! This is a new blend; Northeastern Jasmine and ginger. It's supposed to do wonders for sore muscles, and aching joints, of which an old man like myself has many." His Uncle chuckled a very Uncle-like chuckle, and Zuko sat with as much grump as he was able to muster.

He drank the tea with about as much enthusiasm as he had the last pot they'd shared, his eyes wandering to the ocean every now and then. Agni's eye was open and bright above them, his rays a gentle warmth on his skin, so unlike ... so unlike the Agni Kai. He wondered how Agni could go from gentle to angry so quickly, how he seemed to have forgiven Zuko so much faster than Fath-than the Fire Lord had. He wished he could ask. Maybe ... maybe he should know the answer already, but his head (see: eye) was starting to hurt, and he realized his Uncle had been talking, but he hadn't heard a word. 

"What?" the word was more a growl than he wanted it to be, and he hated himself for that too, especially when Uncle got that look in his eyes again, and looked like he might hug him and Zuko- 

He wasn't sure when he stood, but he was standing, staring at his Uncles outstretched hand, and his breathing felt off, and he watched Uncle's eyes go wrong, and-

He muttered something about resting and walked away. His room was dark when he entered, and starkly empty, but he almost preferred that with only half his vision and in order to light the room he'd need to -to light a candle and he-

He couldn't. He hated when his Uncle did, but he never said anything, just tried not to flinch every time the candle flickered, and stayed away from the flames and-

He had to focus on breathing before he could fall asleep, and his dreams-

(Flames. Flames that crawled up his legs and embraced him, became one with his breath until he was choking on them. If his fear weren't so sharp he would have realized that the flames did no such thing, merely ringed him in gentle warmth, became one with him to protect, not destroy. Had he not been so afraid, he would have seen the figure cloaked in gold and fire, who watched him sadly from beyond the flames. His dreams that night, as always, ended with him being devoured by fire.)

 

 


 

 

 

For the first time in what felt like forever, Zuko had energy, and if anyone accused him of getting it only after they reached land, he'd deny it wholeheartedly and then bellow something appropriate at them. His balance wasn't as bad on land as it was on the ship -helped in no small part by the fact that he could go some days without any bandages and healing salve. Today was one such day, his scab a twinge on his face, but otherwise, it was ... he wouldn't say better, but it was a slight patchy weight to his face that for right now didn't hurt as bad as it could. He was learning to take what he could get from life.

(He was also secretly grateful that his Uncle had quietly packed some bandages just in case, because he could feel something that might have been a blister getting ready to burst.)

(Zuko hated that he could feel when a blister was about to burst.)

"Look, Nephew." Uncle Iroh's voice drug Zuko's gaze from the mountains and twisting paths below, and towards the ravine ... and the impossible buildings beneath the edge of the rim.

The space inside him that was actually still a twelve-year-old boy wonders how hard it would be to repel or climb down. Wonders how the ancient nomads carved these  temples. The man he was forcing himself to be didn't care, simply trailed after his Uncle as they climbed down steep, winding steps to the temples underfoot. They sat waiting and silent, ancient and empty, like old treasure chests that had been long since emptied of loot. Zuko wasn't sure why the sight, the atmosphere was so upsetting, but he didn't like it. 

(He was already feeling upset, because they'd had to stop halfway down the steps and apply a bandage. His blisters had popped open and now his face hurt more.)

They poked through several temples, his Uncle keeping up a running commentary on the architecture and the supposed ancient ways of the long-dead nomads. Zuko was having trouble remembering all but the most basic facts about why his people had been forced to war against the Air nation. His instructors had hated that he never paid attention, but they always went on and on about political decisions behind the war and 'the foreseeable benefits to eradication,' that Zuko had never really understood. What did eradication have to do with war? War was about honor and the good of the people, not destroying as much as possible. The only thing in those long lessons he'd truly retained had been that they had needed to bring the nomads to order before they released the Bridge between worlds on the hapless people of the Fire Nation.

Then he saw the first of the skeletons and he knew that today may have started alright, but by the end of it, he would have new nightmares.

(This wasn't nearly as upsetting as his face hurting, because it was already an accepted fact of life that Zuko couldn't have nice things for free.)

 He would have been fine with the prospect of nightmares if the next series of skeletons hadn't been too little to possibly be adults, and then he found-

Flames and hurting brightness, the fire ate at him like he was a treat, his fathers smile the thing that was seared into his mind.

It was clearly an adult, the one in front. Collapsed in front of a whole bunch of bones that were smaller than Azula, their remains, picked clean and long since without flesh, seared around the edges. He wasn't sure how he knew those pieces were seared, but he knew

(It never occurred to him that when people said there were no nomads left, they didn't just mean that their non-benders and children had been taken into colonies and shown the way of the Fire Nation. It never occurred to him that when people said 'there are no air nomads left,' they meant that none had been left alive.)

He wasn't sure how long he stood there, staring at those bones -those children, whose remains had been left huddled and ruined, backed into a corner, but when his Uncle found him he was shaking from a chill wind he hadn't noticed before he'd found the-

Flames and pain. Burning brightness. Smiles that were wrong. 

He cried. It wasn't the first time he'd cried since, but it was the first time he let his Uncle hold him through it, his knees so weak under all his stupid armor they were kneeling in the age-old grime and wind-swept dirt of a forgotten, plundered people. He cried, and his Uncle held him, and he wasn't really sure if he was crying for himself or for the children who had died by fire, or if it was both.

(He secretly hoped it was purely for the children whose last moments had been his personal nightmare. He'd already decided all his tears for him were stupidly selfish, and these forgotten kids didn't need that. They deserved honest mourning, not mourning tainted by self-pity.)

Agni's rays, warm and gentle and so soft on his skin, were sinking in the sky by the time he ran out of tears. His Uncle didn't run out of soothing, wordless noises, his grip soft-firm and his gaze clear but sad, and Zuko wasn't sure which of them looked worse, but it was probably him. He couldn't speak, even when he tried, because his throat felt closed over and raw, but Uncle seemed to understand, because he patted Zuko's hand and hummed as he set up camp.

(Zuko wasn't sure he actually did understand, because if the banished prince had been able to talk, Zuko would have shouted about how the young are non-combatants. He would have shouted about how no child should have to die this way. He would have shouted treasonous things like 'what was great grandfather thinking,' or 'did he know? How could he not?,' or worst of all, 'why are our school children led to believe that this is justified?')

He's wasn't sure he wanted to camp next to the bones, but he also wasn't sure he could walk very far, so he merely forced himself to stand and managed to make it to where Uncle had set up the tent gear before he collapsed again, his back to the bone grave he'd just stumbled away from. Uncle made tea, and spoke quietly about the tea's qualities, and when they would leave the next morning, and where they would go from there, and he talked about everything but what had set Zuko off. He patted Zuko's hand, and hummed quietly when he wasn't speaking, and overall acted as if they were carrying on a conversation that had meaning.

(Zuko doesn't know a lot of things, but he has always known that honor and loyalty require certain things to thrive in one's mind, and even though he'd already lost his honor he thinks that maybe-possibly this field trip killed any of his honor and loyalty that remained. He's positive his Uncle doesn't know this, because this is treason again their Fire Lord and Agni's will. He hates to think that Agni asked for this, but the Fire Lord is his voice, and a Fire Lord ordered the nomads -all of them- killed. He decided to never tell his uncle any of these thoughts, because even though he's thinking he doesn't want to go home now, Uncle clearly did.)

"Nephew." Zuko looked up at the unexpected seriousness to his Uncles tone, his mind a little fuzzy and throat still raw, and found the older man watching him with -well, Zuko wasn't sure. He'd never seen that kind of look before, and Zuko usually remembered looks. (Look were important. They told him if his instructors were already short on patience and likely to hit him, or if Azula was having a bad day and might burn him.) 

"Sometimes, it is better to be without a scroll, than to believe it's words entirely. Wisdom comes from braving the winds, and seeing where they pull one's ship."

At Zuko's confused (see: disgusted) look, Uncle laughed a big-bellied-Uncle-Laugh, his smile a soft, soothing thing. The old general started the fire pit, and Zuko was proud when he only flinched a little as the flames danced to life. 

"One day, you will see the truth of my words."

Zuko managed to help his uncle set up the tent -he only got things wrong twice, and Uncle didn't get mad either time, merely chuckled his chuckle and helped him get it right. If he noticed that Zuko tensed both times he messed up and watched Uncle from the corner of his good eye, he pretended not to have noticed. They ate a pre-packed meal of smoked fish and rice cakes -and Zuko had to force himself to eat, no matter how much his stomach rolled every time the fire popped unexpectedly. He was working on bending again, but it was slow going and torturous, because he couldn't ever keep himself calm enough to try and practice. Uncle knew this -how Zuko wasn't sure- because he never asked Zuko about bending, not even here, where they sat so far from the Wani the crew would never overhear if he asked. Instead, he talked about the proper way to set up camp until Zuko was drifting to sleep against him. 

He didn't remember his Uncle helping him roll up in a blanket inside the tent, only that his Uncles hands were a comfort where they should have terrified him, and his voice was whisper soft as he bid Zuko goodnight. In his sleep-muddled mind, this reminded him that Uncle wasn't technically banished, but was still with him. Sleep-muddled Zuko wisely decided that this meant Uncle cared, not that he was being forced to babysit him, but come morning, he would forget this.

(He dreamed of fires and bright-burning-hurting, but for once, it wasn't him the flames were eating alive. Instead, he was rooted to the spot, watching in horror as they swallowed one small child after another, each of them bald and wearing flowing robes reminiscent of the carvings he'd seen all through the temples. He screamed each time, no matter it did the child no good when he shouted at them to run dammit run and they stood as rooted to the spot as him. At the end of the nightmare, the flames took on the form of a fire nation soldier that then turned to him and-

it wore his father's face, and was smiling that not-good smile, with that not-right happiness in wild eyes. The flames-turned-Fire-Lord attacked him next, and he died the same way the nomad children did. Rooted to the spot and screaming in terror.)

 

 


 

 

 

When they got back to the Wani, Zuko locked himself in his room and pulled out his meditation candles. If his nightmares had done anything, they'd reminded him that his father had (maybe possibly) already killed two members of the royal family. He didn't want to believe that his father would contemplate killing him, but the man had already shown he was capable of personally breaking the people that disappointed him. 

(Zuko had been a disappointment to his father his whole life. That it had taken the man twelve years to do something about Zuko was the only real surprise, if he let himself look into that corner of his mind. He didn't often look into that corner of his mind.)

Zuko was now on a ship that was (most probably) manned by people loyal to the Fire Lord, and he was miles away from home. His Uncle would keep him safe, but his Uncle also wasn't going to always be at hand. If Zuko wanted to survive his (probably forever) banishment, he needed to be able to defend himself. That meant getting over his fears and bending

(It might also mean he would need to quietly take up his swords again, which someone had been thoughtful enough to stuff into his things. He suspected it was Uncle, since his father would have just as soon thrown the Dao away if heard they were found in Zuko's rooms.)

He took a shuddering breath, tried to even the next one out, and used a shaking hand to light the first candle. It went disastrously (to be expected) because his breathing was all over the place and the flame kept jumping, and it ended up a melted, waxy mess on his table. That was alright. He told himself it was alright and it was fine and overall tried not to faint because he wasn't breathing. When he finally managed to get a not-shuddery-or-shaky breath in and out, he scraped up the melted wax and tossed it into the corner. He turned to the next candle. 

(If there was anything he was good at, it was throwing himself uselessly at the same objective over and over again. It had worked with his bending the first time around, and with swordsmanship, and with general training, and learning how to walk with only one good eye. It would work here. He couldn't afford for it not too.)

 

------ 

 

Agni watched with no small measure of satisfaction as his chosen took his first steps on the path Agni had laid for him. It was nice when his children did things all on their own -he did so hate shoving them onto the answer until they realized they were supposed to be doing something. He hadn't expected the first temple to be so effective -he'd thought maybe at least it would take one more- but he was glad that his chosen had such a good heart. 

(Sadly, he suspected the boys' own fears and healing wounds had a large part to play in restructuring the way he viewed the fool his people called Fire Lord.)

Now ... now all he needed was for his Dragon-given-human-skin-and-thought to walk his Chosen through his training. When he was ready, Agni would ask his sister for help. It was time, after all, for the Bridge to stop sleeping. The world was more than distracted with other matters, it would be safe for their Bridge to walk the human realm again, to learn why he was necessary. But not yet. Soon -but not yet. Agni smiled again, his eye turned fully towards his chosen and his little ship as it crawled through the surface of La's domain. He whispered requests for cooling breezes to his cousins the North and Eastern winds, and overall made sure those of his children on the Wani knew they had his blessing. 

(They felt it, in the soft comfort of heat that was there under every chilling breeze. They felt it in the way his eye seemed always focused on them, and how cheered it made them feel to wake to the full force of his light every day.)

 

________

 

Elsewhere, the Capital was in quiet confusion. Agni's eye always opened in the sky, but his warmth was distant and cool. They didn't feel his passion burning on their skin, nor did they feel as energized of late. There were more and more days of cloud cover, and there were some days that they only saw his light through a shroud of heavy clouds. Most didn't notice all of these particulars, but their strongest benders did, and those men and women quietly sent missives to the Fire Sages, making cautious inquires as to Agni's mood and predictions. They never received any replies, but this was due more to the fact that the Sages were just as baffled as everyone else who'd noticed. The Fire Lord assured those who asked that all was well, Agni merely had his eye on other, more important matters. 

(Of all the people the Fire Lord told this lie to, telling it to the High Sage was his first mistake. Shiza had seen and heard many things in his time as High Sage, but Fire Lord Ozai daring to tell him that everything was fine when it wasn't was an all-new level of absurd. He'd known that Agni wasn't pleased, hadn't been pleased for the last eighty years, but he hadn't expected their God to simply turn away from them ...except he hadn't, had he? Agni's gaze had gone distant the very same day their banished prince was driven to the seas. High Sage Shiza spent several days communing with various spirits over this line of questions, and after, he sent so many letters to all his sages, stretched near and far. The message was very simple. Agni has found his Chosen. Agni protects his chosen.)

It was telling that none of his order had to ask who Agni was protecting if not their Fire Lord.

 

Chapter Text

"Good, good. Again!"

Zuko contemplated, not for the first time, how much energy it would take to drown himself. Probably more energy than it was worth, and less than just doing the kata again would take. He would rather do a more advanced set, but Uncle -he'd learned the hard way- got snippy if Zuko just did whatever he wanted. He didn't seem to care too much for Zuko's argument that he'd 'been way past these katas back home, why did he have to start over just because Uncle was teaching him,' and had shown his displeasure by calling a halt to that training and pulling out a Pai Sho board. Zuko had learned to stop arguing after that, because Pai Sho was more confusing than any political debate his instructors tried to force him into back home. He'd rather just do the baby-katas until he was blue in the face. He set his feet and braced his weight. A quick hip twist and another firm stance later, and an arch of flames was shooting around him.

(He had to remind himself, not for the first time, that he should be happy he could at least bend around other people, so really, baby-katas were best because you didn't have to have big, impressive flames. He could keep them small and not have people give him funny looks. It had taken six months on the Wani and six months of wandering from port to port before he could get this far.)

The peach-fuzz that was his hair itched something awful, but he ignored it as he set himself up to start the kata over again without his Uncle telling him to. He'd cut all his hair off and had his Uncle help him shave last month. It had ... felt wrong to wear a symbol of honor, of status. He'd been quietly finding reasons everything his people believed in was wrong, why none of it made sense, and how ... how the Fire Lords before must not have gotten it right. More, the longer he was with his Uncle, the more he realized that his fath- that the Fire Lord who held the throne ... well, he wasn't the right one. Agni was blessing them. After the Agni Kai, Zuko had thought Agni must be terribly mad at him, but over the last seven months, they'd had fair seas and good winds. They always ended up in a port willing to trade with them, even if they'd intended to go to a different one. Agni's eye always felt like it was peeking right a them in the morning. Zuko knew why. 

(Knowing why hurt, having all his suspicions quietly confirmed.)

His -the current Fire Lord had stolen the throne under odd circumstance, and during a time when the real crown prince was in another country, and dealing with a personal loss. Ozai was never supposed to be Fire Lord, because Uncle was suppose to be the real Fire Lord. Uncle was Agni's blessed chosen, unconfirmed by the Fire Sages that would have given him the title, the voiceless voice of Agni. Zuko wondered if his Uncle even knew, but he doubted it, or he wouldn't be so obsessed with tea and Pai Sho and making Zuko do all these baby katas.

(If he knew, Zuko thought there maybe might have been more signs of ... Well, treason, but his Uncle jusy drank tea and played Pai Sho, and loyally followed all Fire Nation rules and dictates in regards to banished Princes and where they were allowed to go. Even if those rules only seemed a day old and came from suspicious sources -like the provisions distributer from the last port.)

"Alright Nephew, come, come. Enough for today!" Uncle chirped, waving him over from where he sat peacefully at the bow, sipping his most recent pot of tea. 

Zuko begrudgingly swiped a cloth from the place outside his practice ring and moved over to join his uncle, watching him watch the tea in his cup with a quiet, knowing smile. 

"You must remember to take things slow, my Nephew. It takes only a grains worth of rot to soil a good crop." 

Zuko scowled at the proverb just because he could (it hardly pulled at his scabs now, when he scowled) and he carefully took a sip of tea. He had no idea what the name was, but it was bitter-sweet-tartness on his tongue and he liked this one better than the last. Uncle was watching him carefully, and by the way his smile shifted from secretly amused to quietly pleased, Zuko knew he'd given away his preference, but he refused to acknowledge his tea preference any more than his Uncle refused to acknowledged his right to the throne.

"Why is it always tea and proverbs?" He grumbled (he was getting good at grumbling) as he took another sip. 

Uncle only smiled some more and his eyes went all stupid soft. 

"Like wild Jasmine, we must not be afraid to unfold towards Agni slowly; be afraid only of never taking the chance to grow under his light." 

Zuko wasn't sure how to take that one any more than he was sure how to take most of his Uncles proverbs, so he scowled and huffed then decided to go take a bath (but only after he finished his tea) and he walked away with as much disgust for proverbs as possible.

(Uncles laughter followed him the same way Agni's touch on his skin grew impossibly more comforting, and without even realizing it, Zuko had a good day that didn't turn bad. Without realizing it, he'd already had a lot of them in the last six months, but this would be the first he remembered.)

 

 


 

 

 

It was fair that when breaking the law, plans should go awry. Zuko had a lot of time to stew on this as he focused on breathing slow and deep and quietly. He was concentrating a lot on the quiet part so the fire benders combing the streets above wouldn't realize he was in the sewers below. The sewers that would have smelled horrendous nine months ago, before he'd had half his face burned off and became intimately acquainted with the smell of searing flesh.  There were -he'd also had time to realize while hiding- much worse things to smell in life than a sewer. At least the sewer he could wash off. 

(No amount of scrubbing would ever get his face back, or remove the vivid taste of burning from his senses.)

The bundles at his feet didn't slip (further) into the muck, and the pack on his back would have to be thrown away, and overall, if Zuko could just make it back to the Wani before dawn, he could pretend this whole thing never happened. 

"Captain -I-colony streets-check-below?" The distant, highly muffled voice was too much for even Zuko's hearing to pick up every word, but he decided he didn't like the sound of them either way. Time to move again. He had a lot of time, between hefting the bundles onto either arm creatively so he could still pull a sword, and trying to navigate a sewer tunnel, to contemplate again how things could have possibly gone so wrong with his plan.

 

Eight hours prior

 

He'd forgotten how much he hated most military men. Zhao did a very good job reminding him, all within the first five minutes of imperiously boarding the Wani. After forcefully getting in the smaller ships path, so they had no choice but to come to a halt. Uncle was standing directly beside him, smiling and chuckling and overall pretending to not have a care in the world. Zuko was having a little more difficulty pretending he was unbothered by Zhao waylaying them. They were running low on supplies, and Zuko was itching to not be stuck on the Wani for much longer. Even following Uncle around while he (Zuko did an admirable job suppressing a shudder) shopped and bargained with the locals would be preferable to another day spent constantly readjusting his center of gravity. 

(Zuko would die before he ever admitted to anyone ever that he liked-not-hated the sea, and that navel life was kind of weird-cool, and Cook had warmed up to him enough that he told him stories about all the ships he'd served on -but never why he was serving on this one now- but there were days where constant ocean and distant land was too much. Today was one of those days.)

"Ahhh, Captain Zhao!" Zuko was pretty sure that shiny new insignia on Zhao's shoulder meant either Admiral or Commander, and that Uncle knew that too, but he enjoyed the way Zhao pretended his eye wasn't twitching. "How very nice to see you! We were just about to have our afternoon tea before we made port. Would you care to join us?"

Zuko was very good at discerning looks and non-verbal cues-

(You had to be when your little sister was Azula, who was both a prodigy and slightly insane, with no idea how to express emotions normally. Being able to read her expression better than she could hide it from him had become a survival tactic. He failed that particular tactic with her, but he'd become very good at normal people as a result.)

So he noticed the subtle, not-good twist to the Commander's lips that was there in a flash then gone. He took that, and the slightly eager look in the man's eyes when he looked at Zuko as his first clue to survival, so he was prepared for the Catagator smile the older man sent him.

"I'm afraid I don't have the time, General. I'm here as a favor, from our Fire Lord to you. The fire nation has requisitioned the territory you're trying to sail into. It's so ... fortunate that I caught you before you went much further, or I might be arresting your dear Nephew right this moment. You will turn this ... vessel around." Zhao had stopped looking at Zuko, which was good, because he wasn't sure what kind of face he was making. 

(He hadn't been prepared for that. His Uncle did a good job pretending he'd been prepared for that, thanking the General profusely then simultaneously inviting him to stay while insisting he go. Zhao sent him a look before he finally left, smug and creepy and not good. The day grew a little warmer as Zuko let all the intricacies of what Zhao had just said sink in. It grew even warmer as Zuko numbly watched his Uncle ask Jee to bring the maps -because they needed to correct their course.)

This was distinctly not good.

(The smug, superior tone Zhao used to talk about Zuko's ship was also not good, but he chose to ignore that in favor of focusing on the bigger issue.)

If the borderlines had changed, that meant everything could have flipped around. They no longer had a safe harbor to haggle basic supplies from, and likely wouldn't until someone managed to figure out which ports they could legally dock in with a Banished Prince on board. That could take days or weeks, because there were only so many of them that had reliable contacts in the know, and they didn't have supplies for days or weeks. 

(Zuko wasn't one of them who had contacts, because he'd sent only two letters since he'd been banished and neither had given a reply.)

Zuko watched while Uncle and Lieutenant Jee passively pretended not to be arguing over whether they could possibly dock the Wani off-shore somewhere nearby and send one of their skivvy's for supplies. Whichever Helsmen was on duty must have already gotten the memo, because they were turning around, heading towards a stretch of islands that Uncle was positive would be safe. They argued about water-rights and borderlines, and rules of banishment.

He slipped away from the arguing men, and ended up in his room, going over their numbers one more time. He knew he was right -they could last another day or two at most, and if they stretched it, they could last a couple more, but they shouldn't have to stretch it. The Port was right there. It made him furious, looking at the numbers he'd been angrily recounting, to realize that his crew wouldn't be treated like this if he weren't on board. It made him sad-mad-frustrated to realize how much his father didn't care. 

(Every time Zuko thought he understood the rules of the game, someone changed it on him, and it was beginning to piss him off.)

His eyes landed on the Blue Spirit mask he'd hung on his wall, above his swords -the only decoration he'd added to this room that would probably be his home forever- and an idea struck him. It was a terrible thought, not so much a thought with words but an image of a spirit given life, doling out justice and punishing the wicked. On the heels of this image was an even better idea, one that Zuko knew his Uncle would hate. But Uncle would never have to know, would he? He hadn't ever been able to tell when Zuko was sneaking around at night before -you got the best information in ports from bars, he'd found, but only if people didn't know you were there- and he already had a disguise and everything. Plus, it was bleeding into winter. The benefit to winter was that the nights came early and stayed late, and if he was careful, it would be so easy to break all the rules they kept changing anyway. 

Zuko had a plan now, or at least, the beginnings of one. 

 

_______

 

They took their ship around the island and let down anchor so a team of foragers could go quietly hunt some extra supplies. Zuko recommended it to Uncle because Zhao had said -in not so many words- that any ship with Zuko on it wasn't allowed in port, and since Zhao was guarding the port and wouldn't let anyone from his ship near it, he wouldn't mind if they scavenged the island.

Iroh agreed that it was a good, temporary plan, especially when no one followed their ship around the island. It took the better part of a day for them to reach a point everyone felt safe with, and Agni was sinking into the sky by the time their people came back, with far less than Cook had been hoping for but enough that they could stretch their dry supplies a couple more days. Lt. Jee wanted to leave, but Zuko pushed them to stay. 

"If the team is willing to get up and go out again before Agni rises tomorrow, we can leave before his eye is fully open, and have just a bit more food to stretch. The next port is two and a half weeks away. We'll need everything we can get." 

(Lt. Jee specifically didn't mention that this was the only suggestion Zuko ever gave that didn't involve shouting, and that it was made all the better for it. It was also the cold truth -they would need everything they could get, especially since the fish in this area tended to try and drag fishers under. His silence spoke for him, if the Princes look was anything to go by.)

Iroh was both proud and suspicious of the determined light in his Nephews eye, but he ultimately settled on staying proud. After all, what kind of trouble could the boy get into when they were miles from a shore he was forbidden from setting foot on? His Nephew may be slowly seeing the faults of their nation's greed, but he was still a loyal son of the fire nation. He wouldn't lightly break their -or his fathers- rules. 

(Agni, as he was slipping from one horizon to another, thought it was hilarious that no one saw the devilish glint in his Chosen's eye for what it was, and almost pitied the Dragon-who-walks-and-thinks-like-man. He started his tread on the land of night in a gloriously good mood.)

 

_______

 

It had been ridiculously easy to sneak out a porthole and away on a skivvy. Zuko was -not for the first time- slightly concerned about the security of his own ship, but he thought that maybe this was an issue he couldn't bring up without revealing that he snuck out of the ship often enough to know they had poor security. So. Maybe the security was fine for now. He made good time on the water, and good time on land, and by the time he'd slipped into the port town, it was deep night and he was a shadow

(It was possible that if he'd known any normal tweleve-year-olds, he would have found his ability to row miles over the water's surface and not feel tired, or trek over heavy jungle at night and not get turned around odd. As it was, Zuko knew no other tweleve-year-olds, and had been forced to undergo rigorous training since he could walk. True, it would have been easier if he were bigger, but he'd still made it. He was very good at focusing on singular objectives.)

He knew where the provisions office was, but he was thinking that maybe a cart already loaded for the docks would be a better target. Or maybe multiple carts. Or a whole cart! 

(He had to take a moment to calm himself down, something made slightly harder behind the mask, but he managed. When he had cleared his thoughts, he settled on just one target, and since they'd heard about pirates coming into the area, he was hoping they would be blamed. This wasn't a far-off hope. There were, in fact, pirates in the dock doing nefarious things, but he wouldn't know that until later-ish.)

He chose a cart in the back of the provisions yard, one shrouded in shadow, and well away from the guards patrolling the perimeter.

(It's funny how alike banished princes and pirates tend to think when they're doing something they know they shouldn't be.)

He was quieter than an elephant mouse as he poked through the supplies, found enough storable goods to last them to the next port at least, and several packs of tea that didn't smell horribly bland. (Uncle hates bland tea.) He dropped the bundles of foodstuff under the cart, then went back for the tea when he heard a shuffle-shuffle-thunk. He rolled into the supplies cart on instinct, pressing himself carefully into a narrow space that still had a view, and he waited. Someone stopped in front of the cart, breathing a little too heavy to be a guard, made small sounds that were probably numbers, if Zuko focused. There was a small shift in weight beneath him, and he knew that whoever it was had just climbed into the cart, likely to get a better look.

(In retrospect, Zuko decided that this was exactly where things went wrong.)

He made a split-second decision, because whether this was a guard or a pirate -though he couldn't imagine how pirates had gotten away with docking anywhere near Zhao- he was not about to let them spoil his cover. A big, lumbering head entered his poor peripheral, and Zuko moved. It was very nice of whoever this was to have gotten so low, so Zuko could reach their nice, oddly proportioned head. There was a thunk of flesh meeting flesh, and someone started cursing -and flailing at the dark- so Zuko hit him again. It took another hit before the cursing-flailing-noise-making stopped, and Zuko decided that all that cursing had definitely probably attracted attention, so he grabbed a random bag from the supplies and shoved Uncles tea inside. 

(More retrospectively, Zuko thought that maybe, he should have considered the pirate option a little more realistically.)

He waited for a heartbeat, then another before he quietly slipped out where he knew the shadows were heaviest and- there were people heading towards the cart. People not guards. Zuko dropped and rolled underneath the cart, tugging the bundles of food deeper into shadow. He couldn't see a lot from his vantage point, but from the few, whispered words he caught and the way they were dressed Zuko realized they were pirates. They were pirates surprisingly upset with finding one of their own knocked out. Pirates, at least, were marginally better than fire nation guards, but not by much. 

"Whoever did this will pay. Get Tiny back to the ship, and do it quiet. The rest of you, fan out a look for whoever did this. If we have a rouge guard playing hero, we'll teach him a lesson about breaking deals."

Zuko both did and did not understand what that meant- 

(He understood that these pirates were here stealing fire nation supplies. He understood that there was no way Zhao wouldn't have burned down their ship if he noticed it, because that seemed like the kind of guy Zhao was. He understood that they were here regardless, stealing supplies, and now they were looking for him.)

Zuko's breathing shuddered only once then evened out.

(He chose to ignore the fact that they were looking for him because he was also stealing supplies, and they'd interrupted him.) 

There was no way these pirates were going to catch him. He was a shadow.

(He didn't understand what anyone had to gain from letting a bunch of pirates steal supplies. He also didn't understand how the pirate he had knocked out was named Tiny.)

He didn't have time to care. He needed to get these supplies back to the ship, so he spent a stupid amount of time sneaking and slinking from one hiding place to another. The nice thing was that none of these pirates seemed well versed in tracking. The not-nice thing was that they wasted so much time looking for him and stealing as they went, that a set of guards was drawn by the incidental noise that occurred every time Zuko was forced to knock one of their people out. If he learned anything from this experience, it was that Pirates had hard fucking heads.

(Retrospectively, he should have been more focused on finding a way out than evading them. He might have found the sewer entrance that much faster.)

The resulting three-way fight involved the Pirates swinging wildly at anything they didn't recognize -which occasionally meant Zuko- and the Fire Nation guards employing the use of fire -which Zuko avoided with great aplomb, not because he didn't want to use his bending, but because their fires weren't gentle like Uncles but angry and he still wasn't sure how well he was dealing with that- and Zuko utilized his swords, which he mostly used to knock people out or slice ankles

(Their cook wasn't a bender, or a ground soldier, had been a naval cook for decades, but he had once told Zuko the most effective way to stop another person from attacking you was though vicarious use of ankle slashing. He'd even shown Zuko were to slash, and tips for how creative to get. Zuko availed these tips judiciously against the pirates.)

(He maybe-probably wasn't loyal to the current Fire Lord, but that didn't mean he wanted to cut up his people for selfish reasons.)

By the time the Pirates were apprehended and all the guards were turning towards him, Zuko remembered that sewers were a thing that very few people thought about, and he managed to disappear into the shadows. The soldiers were very determined to try-and-kill-that-thing-with-fire and set about looking for him determinedly. Right as Zhao and another solider -a captain, Zuko thought, but he wasn't positive- came on the scene.  Zuko decided, even before he managed to quietly get himself and his cargo into the sewers, that he was never leaving the shadows again. Zhao would most definitely try to kill him first, and ask questions later, after he'd been unmasked.

(Then, Zuko was pretty sure the man would pat himself on the back in a job well done.)

Now

 

Zuko looked about carefully before he pulled himself and his cargo from the sewers. It was nice and worrying that all these gaping holes into the sewers had been left over from construction. He checked again to make sure he hadn't been followed, set the bundles of thank-Agni-so-carefully-wrapped food bundles down and let himself rest for a few minutes. Zuko used this time to allow himself some good, panicked breaths which mostly succeeded in increasing his heart rate and not dropping it. Once he'd let himself think over every bad thing that had almost happened, he could mostly breath better.

(Because all the bad things that could have happened didn't happen. He wasn't sure when life had started not taking any opportunity to hurt him, and he wasn't sure he trusted it to keep not hurting him.)

Once he felt that he was calm enough, he put his mask back on, eyed the still dark night critically, then sighed as he leaned over to pick up the foodstuffs again. He thought that he was definitely going to set these clothes on fire instead of having them washed, just as soon as he got back to the Wani. If he was lucky, he would get back before that foraging crew headed out, and he could get these supplies into a secret but clearly-obviously-visible space that was easily overlooked, but not really hidden. Cook had told the foraging team he was going to recheck everything in the morning to let them know how much they should try to bring back. If Zuko got there in time, they wouldn't have to send the foraging team onto an island of fire benders that Zuko had accidentally stirred up. They could leave. 

He made very good time getting back, but again, he was very good at doggedly focusing on a task until it was complete. 

(Uncle wasn't sure how they missed all those packs of rice, flour, dried noodles, and Cow Hippo jerky. Zuko felt like he did a really good job pretending to be just as flabbergasted, even hummed in partial disgust when his uncle went on to describe the surprise packs of tea that had also been discovered. They left as soon as they could coax the engines to life, and Zuko pretended a cough and headache, then went to blissful sleep. Agni's eye blinked merrily down at them, and the minor destruction left in Zuko's wake as their craft fled towards more friendly waters.)

 

 


 

 

 

Iroh contemplated his tea leaves quietly, not sure if the ...messages he was receiving from Agni were altogether correct. It was possible that he was interpreting them wrong but ...

Zuko didn't seem to care for finding the Avatar. He, of course, shouted about his honor or grumbled about going home, but only if prompted, and he never did seem in a hurry to actually go home, or start looking in earnest. He no longer talked about his father in a reverent, blindly faithful way, hadn't since the Western Air Temple. Iroh was ...well, not upset at his nephews' apparent slow change of attitude -he fooled no one when he pretended not to like sitting with Iroh drinking tea, watching the waves go by- but confused by it. He had thought it might take a few years to slowly guide him towards an alternate way of thinking. He had feared that his impulsive, reckless Nephew would be angry and bitter and well ... shouting more.

(It also hadn't escaped his notice that if they were refused something at a port that had a heavy fire nation presence, that something tended to unexpectedly show up a few days after their departure, in a place that was obvious once you saw it and easily overlooked. Iroh had his suspicions about why these things kept happening, but not how.)

Even now, the boy in question had spent hours attentively walking himself through a minor kata, without being prompted to, a look of concentration on his face as he -ah. That would explain the lack of shouting. His Nephew spun his dao through the moves of the kata as if they were extensions of himself -so much so, flames sparked and sliced along the blade's path on every downward stroke. He hadn't realized the boy had carried them out with him, but he was glad he had. There was something relaxing about watching the flames dance over the metal, sparking in time with his Nephews even breaths. Times like these were a stark reminder that his Nephew was an impressive bender for his age. 

(Zuko didn't think so, but then, Zuko had been a late bloomer in the same way Azula had been an early one. Everything seemed too easy for his sister where it was too hard for him, but as soon as you stopped comparing the two and Zuko was allowed to practice somewhere he thought was 'safe,' you saw the competency in his movements. He was, for his age, a prolific bender -and it showed in the way some of the crew subtly watched from the Princes blind spots.)

"Nephew, will you not come join me for tea? You have been practicing for some time." He called, pouring a cup for the boy, then refilling his own. 

(Recently, he found that Zuko rarely refused any of his requests. Found loopholes in them, naturally, but never outright refused. A good example of this was when he'd requested that his nephew stop scaling the watchtower to get to the top, and his nephew had responded by applying a grappling hook. He was flabbergasted when Iroh suggested using the ladder.)

He heard a soft sigh, and the distinct sound of sheathing metal before his Nephew appeared in his peripheral, wiping absently at his forehead. The boy sat with only a short, nonsensical grumble, sipping at his tea slowly. Iroh only saw the brief, surprised smile that twitched his nephews' lips because he was looking for it. He was building his Nephew a 'flavor profile,' a tea type Iroh could fall back on when the boy needed to remain calm. So far, anything sweet-spicy-bitter did the trick. This was a little disappointing, as it meant he couldn't enjoy the more complicated blends Iroh preferred, but it was also nice to know his Nephew liked his tea.

(Even if he never admitted it in so many words.)

 A small pulse of heat on his back, like a soft nudge, and Iroh sighed, glancing askew at Agni's great eye before he looked to Zuko. The young prince wasn't watching him, was watching the waters pulse past the ship. Nearly ten months into their banishment, and the scar on his face didn't look so angry anymore. The boy had quietly admitted to him the week before that he was sure his eyesight on the left side wasn't going to get any clearer than faint blurriness. Iroh mostly succeeded in not being angry every time he saw proof of his brothers' insanity, but today -with a fresh reminder of that his Nephew was many things, but not a failure- he had to force the anger down before he could speak. 

"Nephew ... forgive me for saying this, but you don't seem eager to find the Avatar." 

He timed it so that Zuko had already taken a drink, already swallowed, but his boy coughed anyway, looking a little startled then -brief panic, a small flash of worry-shame before he scowled at his Uncle- huffed out a quick breath. 

"I'm ... researching! The last account of an avatar was an air nomad child-" A small hitch to his voice, and both of them remembered the Western temple, "and- and I'm not sure if the child actually died or was secreted away. If the former then ...the Avatar cycle is probably dead, but there is no way to prove it. If the later, they've either been in hiding or died naturally decades ago. The next place to look would be the South or North poles. 

Iroh made a small, non-committal sound, watching his Nephew carefully watch him, then slowly picked up his own tea, keeping his voice quiet, even though they had no need for secrecy. The men on this ship were loyal to him.

"Zuko, my ...Nephew, a single pillar of stone, no matter how big, cannot support the weight of a house on its own." That elicited the disgusted-with-proverbs look Iroh had been hoping for, so he continued, smiling at his Nephew in the way he'd learned the boy found comforting. "You do not wish to return to your father or nation, do you Nephew?" 

The look his Nephew gave him was somewhere between 'I'm sorry to let you down, but I don't have any more ribs for you to crack,' and 'I have been in this trap before and I will not be caged again.'  Iroh carefully reached out to his nephew, slow and steady, then pulled the boy in for a long hug. Nothing else needed to be said. His nephew would never trust words -they were, after all, the primary reason his world view had been shattered.

(He may be slowly having a change of heart, but he still wasn't ready.)

 

_______

 

In the Fire Nation royal palace, in the dead of night when all reasonable people were asleep, a single, quiet figure dropped from the ceiling to the floor of the Fire Lords office. It took fifteen minutes of careful rummaging before they found what they were looking for. The soft pad of feet had the figure disappearing into shadows so swiftly, one would have had to see them to know they were there. Ozai entered his office just as quietly, but for different reasons than the shadow.

He had a missive clutched in one hand, slightly singed around the edges, a scowl set in place on his face. Zhao was still having trouble tracking his idiot brother and worthless son. The last the Admiral had seen the pair, their small ship had been miles ahead of Zhao's, headed towards another Earth Kingdom port. Reports said his brother's ship docked at the ports for a few days at a time, then moved on. (Zhao could never catch up in time, and he was continuously blaming the spirits for it.) None of these ports appeared to have anything in common. He didn't know what the fat, bumbling fool was doing, but he wanted it to stop. His plans could not continue until the only threat to his throne was gone, and his son was no longer such a nuisance. He wrote a hasty, somewhat too honest reply to the Admiral, but then, there was no one here but him. The details and orders he stipulated in the missive were the exact reason he'd personally come to his office. He needed no one to know what he said to Zhao, or the very loose terms he laid out for the man.

He left his rooms to irritate a messenger hawk to wakefulness. He never saw the shadow, nor how it got back out of his office. He never knew he'd had an audience to the crime he was asking another man to commit. Adults, after all, rarely look up

(This was, unfortunately, the second mistake he'd made since Zuko's Agni Kai.)

 

Chapter Text

The flames were lit with dim, impossible colors. They danced and swayed to music unheard, so fluid, Zuko swore they wove shapes. None of them reached for him with greedy, licking fingers. This was Zuko's first clue that this was a dream and not a nightmare

(Though it still might turn into the latter.)

Please, take a seat.

Zuko turned swiftly, a little awkwardly, because things were fast and bright in this dream. A figure sat stooped at a low table carved of soft-looking stone -and Zuko hadn't known till that moment that stone could look soft- and the (banished) prince had to force himself not to stumble back instead of forward. He'd perhaps been wrong about this not being a nightmare.

The ... Something in front of him stooped over the table because his body was simply too long, and tall, and ill-proportioned (by human standards) to fit comfortably. It was a fine mesh of human-like limbs and distinctly inhuman claws and teeth and proportions and scales. Had he mentioned proportions? Because this creature was oddly proportioned, and Zuko was a heart-beat away from 'oh my Agni it's neck is twisting in ways that hurt to watch, I knew I shouldn't have eaten dinner,' and 'kill it with fire!' 

(The small thinking portion of Zuko's brain knew that trying to kill something that lives in fire with fire probably wouldn't work, but again. Proportions!)

Zuko hesitantly sat, both because he wasn't sure he wanted to make this nightmare worse by fighting it, and because there were cakes and steaming tea, and at this point in his banishment, Uncle had ingrained in him that these things were both a negotiation tactic, and a peace offering. 

(It never escaped Zuko's notice that peace offering or no, everyone approached Uncle's tea with appropriate amounts of wariness. He could, after all, smite them with lightning if they were uncivil.)

The creature chuckled and huffed out amused breaths, watching him with a face that was both human in expression and ... Dragon in appearance? Its eyes were the most catching feature. It's left one was wide open, but it's right looked permanently closed- and looking into that burning left eye hurt. That eye was a tiny burning sun, lit from within by eerie golden light that seared.

(Zuko wondered if this creature could smite with lightning.)

Come now blessed one, be at ease. I only bite fools.

(This did not make Zuko feel any safer. Nor did it solve the internal debate of 'do I give up and drink the tea,' or 'kill it with fire!')

He drank the tea. Zuko was many things, but he was trying not to be foolish lately. He mostly succeeded, except any time someone made the mistake of refusing his Uncle basic courtesy. The tea tasted like Uncle's favorite blend -Northern Jasmine and Ginseng, with a hint of some spice Zuko couldn't name- and the tea cake, when he hesitantly took a bite of one, was soft-crisp and tasted like cinnamon. He decided that there were worse ways for a potential nightmare to start.

Nothing to say? No questions?

The creature chuckled, taking a sip of its own tea by way of using one of its whiskers to grab the cup from its claws and bring it up, up, up... Zuko only noticed that it was slightly blurry around the edges at that point, because he was trying not to stare at its neck, so was looking at a point over its head. The blur looked a little like the waves of a heat-mirage, which lead to him wondering if perhaps the creature he was seeing was some kind of illusion or if the dragon-man-beast was just generating that much heat.

Regardless, Uncle had ingrained in him the importance of both a running dialogue and letting the silence speak for you at the same time. Zuko was much better at the dialogue part (especially when he could shout his answers) than the silence part, so he figured he'd stick to what he knew.

"Will you answer my questions?"

He pretended his quiet question was a shout and that his voice didn't crack or wobble and the creature let him.

 Of course. I am visiting because I wished to speak with you after all.

Zuko ... He wasn't sure he wanted to know the story behind that but again -there were worse nightmares to have, and so far the only disturbing thing was the creature's neck. So. In for a zenny in for a pound.

"Who are you? You said visit, would that make this a spirit vision? Or a spirit dream?" He just barely managed to refrain from asking about why its neck was so ill-proportioned. He was proud of himself for that.

The creature gave him a contemplating look, his great eye narrowing into a thoughtful sliver. Zuko tried not to act as nervous as he felt as it-he-the creature took a slow slip of tea before responding.

This is a spirit dream. I try to avoid giving visions, if it can be helped. My children tend to misinterpret visions something awful.

Here the creature paused to delicately pluck a cake from the plate, investigating the sweet between his claws absently, as if he'd never before seen it.

Dreams are more direct -and you, you will take what I say at face value. It's one of the many reasons you are my favorite child.

That was more confusing than enlightening, and it must have shown on his face because the spirit -he had confirmed he was a spirit, and continuously calling him a creature felt wrong- laughed. That laughter rippled the air around them in waves of rising and falling heat. Suspiciously familiar heat, a comfort that settled on his shoulders like a cloak. It tingled and burned along his skin, but in a way that he'd come to find reassuring

(None of this calmed Zuko, because this warmth was something he'd associated with only one being his entire life. He did not want to think too closely about that.)

Blessed child, I do love your honesty. It speaks without need for words -now, to business, shall we? You asked who I am -I will answer if you tell me who you are in turn.

That ... That was a question Zuko wasn't sure he could answer. There were days he thought he knew, but mostly ... Mostly Zuko was unsure. And since he highly suspected this spirit was uncomfortably familiar with who he was, and what he was thinking, he settled for voicing his doubts here, where no one but he and this spirit could hear.

"I'm ...not sure. I know that I'm Zuko, banished Prince of the fire nation. I was the firstborn child of Ursa and Ozai. Cousin to Lu Ten. Nephew to General Iroh, the great Dragon of the West. Grandson to Azulon -great-grandson to Sozin. But those are things I was born to. Those are things I'm not technically allowed to claim." He wasn't sure when he'd drug his tea closer, when he'd slumped over the table. The heat around him shifted in comfort.

(This was another uncomfortable clue as to who this spirit was, but Zuko was ignoring it like his life depended on it.)

"I'm not sure who I am now, as just Zuko. I'm not sure who I want to be." 

(Somehow, just saying those words was a kind of comfort in itself, like he was shedding that stupid armor he wore into every port. It was ...freeing to admit this to someone else. It was nice to have someone else know these things he'd been worrying over.)

The spirit nodded slowly, delicately picking up another cake (when had he eaten the first?) and twisting it around in his claws. Zuko appreciated that this spirit was clearly taking the time to respond, not just doling out blind comfort as Uncle might have. He lov- appreciated Uncle, but there were times the old general tended to be too comforting. Talking about emotion-fraught self-conflict was one of them.

 (Not that he would ever ask Uncle to change. It was nice to know that at least one member of his family cared enough about him to be gentle with his feelings. It was also nice to know that the care wasn't a facade for pity. Uncle would never make fun of him for his entirely justified range of emotions.) 

 What kind of man do you want to be?

The question startled Zuko, who turned fully towards the spirit ... Just in time to see a long serpentine tongue flick out and back, disappearing the cake in a blink. He hadn't really needed to see that. He was having enough trouble with the weird-twisty-neck-proportions. The heat around them sort of nudged him, and he realized the spirit had asked him a question.

(It was a welcome relief to think about the complicated, made-his-heart-hurt question. It also gave him a legitimate reason to be so closely scrutinizing the teacup in his hands.)

"I want ...I want to be good. Honorable. I want to make the right choices, not just ones that benefit me. I've seen what making only those choices can do, and it ..." He found he couldn't find the right words to describe his father's calculating madness, or the gleam in the man's smile when he planned how to rip other people apart. 

(The silence spoke for him, because the heat was back to being comforting without intruding on his thoughts.)

"I want to make a difference, and help put the real Fire Lord on the throne. Uncle will need all the loyal supports and help he can get, and I want to be worthy of that."

The spirit blinked slowly at him in a way that was purely baffled .

Wait. What?

Zuko blinked at the spirit like a baby Owl Cat, unknowingly proving to this ageless, timeless being why he would be perfect for Fire Lord.

"Uncle Iroh. He's Agni's blessed chosen, the true voice of Agni and the Fire Nations heart. I want to help him get back his rightful place. I just don't know how to prove that it is his place." 

(If he said this like half an accusation, and half a question, he figured it seemed reasonably justifiable to be asking and demanding confirmation all at once. This was his dream after all.)

 A silence broken only by the crackle-pop-fizz of flames. The spirit seemed at a loss for words until he wasn't, carefully sipping his tea between clearly calculated breaths.

A most noble endeavor. I will uphold my end of the bargain now. He straightened just subtlety, his neck stretch-twitching as it if wanted to uncurl but knew it couldn't. I am Agni, King of Fire, he who watches and brings light and life. I have overseen your people since they were formed of my brothers' blood and flesh -as I will until the void breaks and devours all. 

(Zuko wished his suspicions had been wrong. It was one thing to worry that a spirit with uncomfortably-familiar-magic-fire was the God you'd worshiped your whole life. Quite another to have those suspicions confirmed right after blatantly voicing treasonous thoughts. He pretended he wasn't trembling.)

Worry not, little Prince. I have never scorned you. Child, you asked how to prove that you are worthy to ...help your Uncle ascend the throne. I am here in part to answer that question; by way of giving you a special quest. 

(Zuko was both elated and petrified. He could count on one hand how many people in Fire Nation history had been given special tasks directly from Agni. Half of them he was pretty sure were lies.)

He straightened his shoulders and clenched his fists, and nodded, telling both Agni and himself he was ready. (While being entirely unsure if he was ready. He was still afraid of large fires for Agni's sake!)

The Dragon-man-spirit-God looked distinctly amused.

(Another, quieter part of his mind wondered if he should be swearing by a God he was in the presence of.)

Go south child. My task for you will reveal itself there. Listen and observe all who come across your path, and do not be afraid to set aside differences to help another. When you feel angry or frustrated, remember, I am always with you.

The (banished) prince wondered how far into the future Agni's great eye saw, if he was speaking of things Zuko shouldn't be afraid to do. He was glad that so far, he had received no specific instructions. Zuko tended to mess up even the simplest of specific instructions.

Continue to love your nation and your people, but remember that their vision is skewed by the fool who sits on the throne. What the fire nation believes to be right is sometimes wrong. Above all -and this is most important- do not be afraid to speak to your Uncle. I know words have not been your friend in the past, but I promise you, Iroh will never betray your confidence. He will keep you safe -as you will keep him safe.

(Some of those things sounded like they would need split-second good judgment, and now Zuko wasn't sure he was going to do very well at this task.)

"I'll ... Do my best Great Agni. I promise I will do my best." He was extremely proud that his voice didn't wobble or break.

For a terrifying moment, he thought Agni was going to assure him that he wouldn't fail, but the spirit God merely nodded (which reminded Zuko again of the neck-twistiness) and then smiled in a surprisingly friendly-dangerous way. The flames were beginning to go out, and there was a fuzzy awareness in Zuko's mind, like he might be waking up. He was suddenly worried that all of this was simply a normal dream, one his mind had summoned because he so badly wanted to be thinking the right things and making the right plans.

Upon waking, go to the bow of your little ship, dear prince. I will give you a sign that this dream is real. 

That ...was both a relief and a possibility for heartache. The flames closest to him were beginning to fade, and the table had gone fuzzy around the edges.

Oh, and Zuko? Zuko looked away from the cakes disappearing one by one to Agni. The spirit God smiled again when he knew he had the boys' attention.

Happy Birthday.

 

_______

 

Zuko woke with a start. His mind was racing and his heart pounding. There was someone knocking on his door. Zuko frantically tried to disentangle himself from the blanket wound around him, and fell out of his cot for the effort. Stupid limbs. Stupid blanket.  

"Nephew?" Iroh sounded alarmed, and Zuko hurried to reassure him, not wanting his Uncle to barge in and see him struggling with the blanket on the floor.

"I'm fine! One moment!" He probably didn't have to shout, but it made him feel better as he jerked his legs free and hastily scrambled for the door. 

"Ah, good. Agni's eye has not yet risen, so I thought we could greet it together to celebrate!" Zuko swung his door open on that last word, and Iroh's cheer fell to worry. 

"Nephew are you alright? You look-"

Zuko wasn't sure he wanted to know how he looked, so he carefully squeezed past Uncle and ran for the deck. Uncle called out behind him, but Zuko kept going. He startled a couple of crewmen patrolling the deck, but he paid them no mind as he looked to Agni's just peeking eye. The familiar spark of his inner fire twitched in a way it always did as Agni began to rise.

It was a feeling that said 'Agni is awake and burning and alive, and you should be too.' But this one was different. This was the Sunrise that rose on his first day of life (because the Fire Nation counted your first sunrise as the beginning of your day of birth) and it felt just subtlety different.

Uncle stepped up beside him and draped a heavy robe over his shoulders, humming in amusement as they watch Agni rise. By the time his great eye was a little over half-open, more crewmen had trickled on deck, and then-

(His heart had been starting to break, the slow realization that it had been a normal dream crushing the baby hope in his mind.)

The light shining from Agni sharpened and intensified. It became a brilliant flare on the horizon, and then it began to fracture and curl, forming an image made of Agni's light. A brilliant golden dragon rose in the still-dawn-pale sky and twisted around the ship. It was long and sinuous and slightly ill-proportioned, and it only had one eye, and when it smirked down on their ship, Zuko realized he recognized that face of fractured light. The dragon rolled over in the sky and twisted away from the ship, heading south, and it disappeared shortly after the last of it's long, ill-proportioned body drifted out of range of the ship. There was a heavy silence on the deck that let Zuko know he wasn't crazy and they had just seen that, and Uncle turned to look at him with wide, speculative eyes.

"Nephew." A quiet word when his Uncles voice usually boomed. Zuko made a strange, strangled sound he would deny ever making forever. "I do believe that Agni has chosen to gift you with a new heading for your birthday."

It was both the most bizarre and most wonderful thing he'd ever heard, but Zuko didn't say that. He still wasn't entirely sure if he wanted to speak to Uncle about everything, and he felt like declaring that he'd had a spirit dream from Agni and been given a special quest maybe wasn't appropriate right that second. Not with the rest of the crew turning to look at the two princes on deck with quiet wonder. Later. He'd speak to Uncle about it later. 

(He only realized as Agni was setting and long after the Helmsman had corrected their course that later never came. He wanted to regret this, but he was much too tired to. He'd spent most of the day getting to advance to the next set of Kata, and getting surprised by Cinnamon-spiced cake, and begrudgingly letting his Uncle drag him into participating with Music Night. It was the best birthday he'd ever had, because there were no boring parties where his father quietly terrified everyone with how cryptic he could be over his sons' ability to survive the unexpected for another year. There were no baby sisters ambushing him with firey war games either. There was just Uncle and his happy smiles, quietly informing Zuko that thirteen was a lucky number to be, and that he would surely be prosperous in his ventures this year.)

(He could admit, at least to himself, that he missed Azulas surprise attacks because at least her seeking him out meant she cared. In her Azula way. Plus, at the end of every game, they'd play sneaky games and steal extra cake and juice, and scale to the highest point and eat and relax where no one could see. She still tried to push him off the roof every time, but he'd come to expect that Azula sometimes didn't grasp that people broke, so he tried not to hold it against her. He wished she'd responded to his letters.)

 

 


 

 

 

Zhao was ...baffled. One minute, the princes' ship was on the horizon, the next it wasn't. One minute his prey was within his grasp, and the next, his helmsman was hesitantly informing him that they'd lost sight of the ship again. He was becoming increasingly frustrated by this, because his promotion to Commander hinged on killing Iroh and apprehending the young prince. It felt like every time he advanced a few steps, something shoved his objective even further away, and no efforts he made to waylay that objective or distract it had worked thus far. 

Then of course, there was the constant spirit activity. The Fire Lord thought he was joking, or making excuses, but Zhao was intimately familiar with spirit tricks, and there were spirit tricks in abundance, dogging his every step. His men were swearing up and down that earlier that day, they'd seen a golden dragon form at the center of Agni's great eye, then drift away into the wind. These were the same men who'd been screeching about monsters in the dark weeks before, when something had climbed on deck from the waves and tried to 'eat' one of them. There had never been any signs of a monster, with the exception of some unusual sliminess to the deck. Zhao wasn't sure how much he wanted to invest in their story of 'Agni's great spirit body, starting his trek over the sky by becoming one with it.' They hadn't been sleeping much since the monster attack after all. 

Zhao was thinking of having them quietly killed. This did wonders to substantially cheer his mood as he shouted orders to find the Princes' heading and do it now.

(Much later, he'll wonder why he, a man who did believe in spirits, hadn't paid better attention to the story. And also why he never remembered that enough heat, if used correctly, could form a mirage -even over the ocean.)

 

 


 

 

 

There was an impossible, almost beautiful simplicity to traversing an area that was snow, snow, and more snow. Ah, no. That was ice. It was beautifully simple because Zuko had never seen so much white in his entire life. It was impossible because how-did-people-live-in-this-cold? Uncle had been teaching him new things, like how to use your inner flame to warm yourself impossibly. How to focus on stoking enough heat constantly so that one didn't freeze. He taught Zuko these things mostly because Zuko had a bad habit of hanging over the ship's railing to watch the Koala Otters swimming, and he'd maybe-kind-of fallen in a couple of times. 

(Dozen. A couple of dozen. Zuko usually learned things quickly, but when it came to Koala Otters, he'd found he had no self-control. He'd always wanted a pet, but given the way Azula treated wild animals, he'd never wanted to risk giving her an easy target. He was realistic enough about his sister to know that no amount of explaining would ever be enough to convince her that you couldn't light an Eel Hound on fire and expect it not to bite you.) 

"Careful Nephew. I do believe that Captain Jee is tired of diving in after you." Uncles warning drew Zuko back onto the right side of the railing, and he huffed and grumped in his Uncles direction without much heat behind the action. How could he even pretend to be grumpy when all he had to do was look to the icy inland and see a whole herd -flock? gaggle?- of Koala Otters staring back? He made his way to where his uncle was seated non-the-less, tugging the blanket he'd left crumpled by the low table over his shoulders and carefully re-warming his tea. 

"Nephew." His Uncle spoke slowly, with much frustration and something that would have been disappointment on anyone else, but managed to be exasperation on his Uncle. "Learning is a treasure without weight, that you may carry it easily. It isn't meant to be thrown away." 

Zuko should have known there would be proverbs involved with that tone of voice, but he still managed to be disgusted unexpectedly. He scrunched his face up a little to show his displeasure but tried not to shout about how Uncle only ever spoke in riddles Zuko didn't have the patience for.

"I'm not really sure what that means Uncle. Do you think Koala Otters have to live in icy water?" He asked not shouted to distract the man from his proverbs.

(Not because he was thinking maybe one of the Koala Otter babies might want to come with him. Not at all for that reason. Azula wasn't here to light it on fire after all.)

He was also working on trying not to shout so much, especially since he'd finally told Uncle about all his doubts and why he didn't think any of them should ever go home again, and why he wanted to find a way to rescue Azula and-everything. He'd told Uncle everything. Uncle had been surprised at first, and then he'd just ...accepted it. Like he'd always intended to tell Zuko that what his father had done, what his father was doing to other people, wasn't okay

(His Uncle only had trouble with accepting that Zuko knew he was Agni's chosen Fire Lord, the one that really needed to be on the throne. It had taken Zuko quietly and earnestly assuring him that he would have Zuko's loyalty, not because he was Agni's chosen, but because he was a good man. It had taken Zuko a year on the Wani to realize that his Uncle was one of the best men.

Fire Lord Ozai only tried to convince people that he wasn't because he was desperate to retain power. Zuko had apologized for ever believing the horrible things his father had said about The Dragon of the West, and Iroh had laughed it off, stating that he knew his own truths. Uncle still gave him the occasional, baffled look, and Zuko wondered why it was so strange that he'd figured out Iroh's real place in Agni's plans on his own.)

Now ...now they were near the South Pole, in the freezing cold and floating amongst the ice, because Agni had told them to come here so they had. The crew gripped about the cold, but more out of justified bafflement that people lived in snow because they all had snow-appropriate attire to keep them warm. 

(Zuko had to steal most of it from the nasty, creepy provisions officer that -for once- was not Fire Nation, just corrupt Earth Kingdom noble. He didn't feel as bad about stealing from the man because he'd kept giving Zuko weird looks, and he'd overcharged them for the coats while short-changing them on how many he was willing to sell. He also didn't feel too bad about terrifying the man half to death as the Blue Spirit. Uncle had pretended not to notice all the coats they'd seen in the provisions office unexpectedly show up in the Wani's hold the morning after they left.)

 (Zuko was getting good at sneaking and thieving, even better than when he and Azula practiced at the palace.)

"Nephew. A wise man does not seek to fulfill his own desires, but to quench the needs of the many." Uncle never did fall for his no-proverbs-please-ploys. He was devious like that. Zuko pretended not to understand that particular proverb, looking again to the shore full of Koala Otters. 

(Even though Uncle was right. The poor things were so furry, they probably did need the ice water to be comfortable. That was okay. Maybe, after his quest, he could come back and possibly pet one.)

"Drink your tea, Nephew. It's getting cold." Zuko sipped at his tea in response, warming the cup in his hands, thinking about all the names that would fit that fluffy ball of-

A quiet shweek-boom and Zuko was on his feet, wary eyes scanning the deck before they landed on a beam of light in the distance, lit and reaching forwards the sky in a desperate line. If that wasn't a sign from Agni, he wasn't sure what was. They had a new course.

 

Them

 

Katara had been steadfastly ignoring her brothers' sexist attitude. Had been. Key phrase. His most recent string of 'leave it to a girl,' punchlines had ground her patience down to nothing, and she was done. She'd been trying to be the adult of the two of them, because at least she still had a role model to look up to. Gran-Gran may not have been mom, but she was something. Sokka didn't have anything but the much older men who could hardly remember their names. All the other responsible adults that should have been helping to rear her erratic, sometimes too smart for his stupid head brother were gone. Had been gone for a while. Might not be coming back gone. Katara had stepped in to take care of the food, and cleaning, and general 'how do we stretch this food until the snowstorms stop' worrying that adult women were supposed to be responsible for.

"You're selfish, and sexist, and I am not putting up with you anymore!" Katara was yelling now, because the fishing trip had gone horrible, and it was kind of her fault but mostly Sokka's. Even now, he was looking behind her instead of at her, blue eyes wide with worry, but she was wise to his ways at this point in her life. She stomped her foot and flailed some more to show that she wasn't falling for his 'there's a Lion Seal behind you' tricks again.

"From now on, you're on your own!" A small pressure at the back of her mind and along her shoulders blades sighed, and a great big crackle-snap echoed in the air. Katara turned because maybe there actually was a Lion Seal, and something in the waters pulsed. She could feel it where she stood on the small raft of ice, feel it in her very being. The small iceberg that had been floating nearby was cracking in great big sweeping chunks, crumbling roughly into the waters, which sent their little raft swinging and had Sokka grabbing her down and holding on

"Your magic water gets weirder and weirder." He grumbled, glaring at the space where the iceberg had been floating. Katara spoke in between pounding heartbeats.

"I did that?" It looked like Sokka had something sarcastic and biting to say in response, but he mostly ended up scowling at the water even more. Katara followed his gaze to find that there was something glowing beneath them, that pulsing something there in her mind again. It pushed-pulled at her, and the waters lapped up and down and something rose. 

(Something also stayed. A small portion of her mind, the portion that was a bender and could feel the water no matter where it was, noted that their little raft of ice barely moved in the rising currents. It noted also that the great something push-pulling at her mind urged her to keep watching until there was a large, spherical iceberg bobbing in front of them and it was-)

Glowing. She could make out some kind of shape within the glow, and there was a chilling wind where there hadn't been before. It nudged and pushed until she reached for her brothers' club just as something flickered in the glow and she realized that it was a person. The flicker had been their eyes, open and wide, and white with power. 

"He's alive!" She shouted, grabbing the weapon and rushing forward. Blocks of ice rose to connect their small raft with the iceberg, and she didn't think about it then -

(But she would later. Much later, when the boy was huddling in their tent under a pile of furs.)

She just attacked the ice with as much force as possible, while Sokka tried to preach caution, saying things like 'Katara, get away from the magic glowing ice!' and 'Katara, stop, you don't know what that is!'

Except a small part of her knew that it was the answer to a lot of problems, or would be if she could just break this ice open. Then she did, and there was a concussive force and so much air released after so long being pressurized, and she wondered how anyone or anything could have been alive inside it.  Then it wasn't a mystery, just a boy, one that looked weak and tired, and so very pale. 

(He was pale, but there was an undertone of warmth to his skin, a nice peachy-ness that was unexpected. Katara had only ever seen Fire Benders outside her own people, and they had been covered head to toe in armor and terrifying. This boy didn't look like a fire nation anything. Not when he wore blindingly bright cheerful yellows and oranges, and had a pale blue tattoo on his bald head. He looked like the opposite of an Ashmaker.)

Sokka tried to stop her bringing him home, but after his most recent string of comments, she chose to ignore him empirically. It was the only way to win an argument with him after all. Gran-Gran frowned when they came back with a shivering boy and not fish, frowned even more at the great beast that lumbered after them, then sighed and shook her head. 

"You two are exactly like your parents." She'd muttered, and Katara knew that unless something drastic happened, Gran-Gran wouldn't be leaving the boy in the cold. Sokka complained loudly, but still helped her bundle the boy up, and then went looking for more food, because they had extra mouths to feed.

(He complained about not knowing what to feed the flurry monster sleeping outside their village, and about why he was expected to provide for a freeloader, and a dozen other things. But he still did it. Despite his failings, Sokka was a good brother.)

(Except that he was convinced by the end of the day that Aang was a fire nation spy -the Air Benders were dead after all- and eventually, even Gran-Gran wasn't sure how good an idea it was to let a foreigner stay.)

 

______

 

Aang was turning out to be a good friend. Except that he successfully talked Katara into breaking rules, like the one that said they should stay away from the old, wrecked Fire Nation ship. But he got her out again, and then everyone was angry, because they hadn't even recovered from the last Fire Nation attack on their shores and now - now the one person who maybe-might be able to get Katara to a real water bender teacher was gone. There was no black snow, but there didn't need to be for there to be a quiet panic -and then a fire nation ship was thereHow could the Fire Nation respond so quickly to that old S.O.S signal? Did they just have patrols out on the waters? 

(Did that mean her father and his boat, his crew, had never made it to the war? Were they at the bottom of La's domain even now?) 

She watched her brother scramble for what he thought of as war, but what Katara knew would be suicide. She watched him brace himself on the wall, the only one among them that had undergone any combat training, and wait and -

The ship stopped twenty feet from their shore, at a slight angle, and something opened along the side before a small canoe was lowered to the water with what looked like only a few people on it. Katara was so damn confused by this, she ended up on the wall with her brother, watching warily as the party came to shore then just ... stopped. Sokka looked ready to do something stupid like charge over there with his weapon drawn, but -

(They could have rammed the village wall, but they didn't. She'd seen what these ships could do, and it wasn't doing any of them. The Fire nation soldiers down there could be forcing their way into the village, but they weren't -the tiniest among them was pacing anxiously, looking up at the bleary sky every so often.)

She wondered if this was some kind of trap, and while the elders started arguing about it Katara just ...slid down the wall, to her brothers alarmed squawking. She marched towards that tiny landing party with intent, and she wasn't exactly sure what she was going to say when she got there, just that it was probably going to be loud. Sokka was right behind her, cursing quite so Gran-Gran wouldn't hear, and begging her to get back in the village. Only ...she never got the chance to be loud. The tiny soldier among them was actually a child -did they force their children to fight?- one that was maybe no older than her and watched her approach with nervous twitching. When she got within ten feet of them he-

(She wasn't seeing this was she?)

He bowed. She'd never seen someone bow before, so formal and stiff, but weirdly respectful at the same time. The older, slightly round man with him followed suit, smiling calm and not-so-evilly. She wished he looked a little eviler. Her stunned silence in the face of this bowing had the benefit of shutting Sokka up, and giving her a moment to note that none of them wore helmets. None of them had those flame insignias on their chest-plates that screamed fire nation. None of them were being extra burny in the face of her abject astonishment. 

"We're sorry to trouble you, dear girl, but we saw the S.O.S flare, and wondered if everything was all right?"

The older gentleman finally announced, flashing another smile that boggled her mind, and before she could answer with the dozen things she wanted to say-

(I'm not alright. You people took my mother and all she did was protect me! How can we be all right? Half our people are off fighting yours! How dare you act like you've done nothing wrong!)

Aang appeared. He appeared by jumping impossibly high and floating down to them, looking worried and frazzled and he was apologizing a hundred miles a minute and asking if everything (if she) was okay and-

"You're an Air Bender." The Fire Nation boy whispered just loud enough to catch attention, just when Katara remembered that the Fire Nation had killed all the Air Benders and she turned to finally say all the things she'd meant to but. But

This boy, no older than Aang, probably, looked even paler and like he might throw up, his eyes glued to Aangs robes and his staff and the arrow on his head, and then he looked so impossibly sad. 

"I thought- everyone believed that the Air Benders were gone. You-" There was something in the boys' golden eyes that sparked and grew until it felt like she was seeing more than she should, like the frustration and hurt that was there on the surface wasn't something she'd been meant to see. The sun above them, previously shrouded by heavy cloud cover, broke. It became impossibly warm, and impossibly more confusing.

Chapter Text

Zuko had only a brief moment to contemplate the way his life had turned on its head and spun slightly to the left. One second, he was staring at the air bender boy that looked too good to know what had become of his people -and trying not to hyperventilate, because someone was going to have to tell him, and it couldn't be Zuko because he shouted when he was stressed. In the next instant, he could feel Agni break through the clouds behind him, and a push-pull pulse under his feet that didn't feel right, and then he was ...still staring at the Air Bender boy, and the water tribe girl who'd marched up to them (looking ready to spit fire and kick them into the water), but he was also listening to a lot of shouting. The water tribe girl was looking at something by his feet with surprise, and the air bender looked confused and expectant, his head twisting from side to side.

"Nephew!" This from Uncle, who sounded startled. 

"Katara! Aang!" This from the water tribe ... boy? The one whose face looked ridiculous, and whose weapon was tossed aside as he ... caught the water tribe girl's body. What? "What did you do to my sister?!" He continued shouting, in a voice that cracked even worse than Zuko's. 

"I assure you, young man, I do not know what is happening!" Zuko finally looked to see what his Uncle was doing -he'd been too afraid because he had a vague idea of what was going on- to find that yes, Uncle was carefully cradling Zuko's body, with Lt. Jee twitching and flinching at the onslaught of water tribe people coming towards them in a way that said 'I was promised there would be no fuss and bother.' Zuko turned his attention back to the water tribe girl who was (ineffectively) trying to catch her brother's attention, and the air bender who was ... trying to hop back into his body. (Also ineffectively.)  

Really, you'd think that a group of peoples so deeply connected to my sister would be more spiritually aware. 

Zuko would recognize that voice anywhere and was suddenly very determined to never look away from the Air Bender again.

(He might begrudgingly accept the neck, but he in no way wanted to look at it. Agni chuckled.)

The water tribe girl whirled towards the new voice and then stumbled back, screeching in surprise. Zuko felt for her. He'd had almost the exact same reaction -minus the screeching because Prince's don't screech, or at least, they learn to do so in their heads. The air bender had stopped hopping on his body to stare in mild horror-fascination, but he stepped forward instead of away. Zuko was trying to decide if that made the boy brave or socially unaware -who looked so ready to pounce on a spirit God?- and a comforting warmth settled on his shoulder blades. He let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding and hesitantly spoke. (Over the water tribe girls quiet squeals of disgust.)

"This is Agni, great spirit God of fire, father of the fire nation. He lead me to these shores ...to find you." The air bender looked both cautiously curious and utterly perplexed before pointing at himself. 

"Me?" He asked, in a tone that Zuko was gratified to note was distinctly more breaky than his and the water tribe boy. A light lit in the boys' eyes a second later, and he gently wrapped his knuckles against his head. "Spirit God! Of course -but why would the fire nations Spirit God want to speak with me?"

Zuko was trying to figure out a way to answer that when the water tribe girl came to sudden life. 

"What. Is. Going. On!" Zuko took a careful step away from her and towards Agni's warmth. Azula had taught him well what that tone of voice meant. He also wasn't sure how to answer, so he practiced Uncles' philosophy of letting the silence speak for him and hoped for the best. 

(He must have done it wrong though, because the girl just looked angrier. He took another cautious step towards Agni, who responded by wrapping him in warmth and taking over the conversation.)

Allow me to explain, young Katara. The girl looked startled to hear her name come from Agni's mouth, and the air bender shuffled in a slightly guilty way. 

"Does this have anything to do with me being the Avatar?"

 That. That was probably something Zuko should have guessed, but it still froze him in place, and he wasn't sure he was actually breathing or forcing himself to go through the motions, but it was very hard to do all the sudden.

Agni made a sound, and Zuko didn't know what kind of face he made, but the boy looked guilty all over again. 

Yes. Now have patience. My sister and her lover will be here shortly. We were going to wait until we were on the same horizon to call you forward, but I got ... Well, impatient

The wry amusement in his tone invited them to laugh. Zuko would have tried, if he hadn't been focused on the act of breathing

 (It was hard to do because the Avatar wasn't dead twice -maybe thrice- over because of his people. It was hard because suddenly all he could hear in his head was his father laughingly declaring that Zuko could return home only if he found and brought back the Avatar. The young Prince knew that his father had never said this directly to him, but after nearly a decade and a half of living with the man, he could imagine it. It was just as blood chilling in his imagination as it would have been in real life.)

Agni's patented warmth slipped over his tense shoulders like a cloak, and it wasn't a shoulder-touch from Uncle, or even a brief hug, but it managed to center his wildly panicking mind for a necessary second. The water tribe girl had been growling something while he'd been struggling to collect his thoughts, so he only caught the tail end of what had likely been a very angry speech.

"-trust a word some fire nation spirit has to say!" She finished, flailing her arms slightly -and just wildly enough that the air bender boy trying to calm her down ducked. If he'd been paying more attention, he would have noted that the boy who was her brother had been yelling a similar spiel at Uncle, but Zuko wasn't paying attention to the tribal boy or the antic of the people in the snow. He could suddenly and temporarily forget about his (petty-ridiculous-why-couldn't-he-control-his-thoughts) mental hangups, and come to vicious life in his Gods defense.  

"Hey! Watch your tone when you speak to him!" He shouted. (Shouting was easy. It also required that he breathe.)

 "Don't you dare tell me what to do!" the water tribe girl shouted back, advancing a step. Zuko automatically took a step back in response.

Years of being ambushed by a very determined little sister made you instantly wary of the opposite sex. Before either of them could continue yelling (or advancing threateningly) that push-pull presence from earlier came back and the waters behind Zuko began to glow. He responded by taking several quick steps away, and to the right of the angry tribal girl. The air bender looked, at the very least, relieved that they were no longer shouting, but nervous all over again when the glowing water rippled and a figure began to emerge.

Zuko was beginning to think that spirits just liked to mess with human perceptions, especially when it came to proportions

(It was a partial truth. Agni and Tui were special because they had more interactions with humans than their counterparts Dabogong the brother of Earth and their Fujin cousins of Sky, who had never settled on one human name for long.)

 Tui was tall. She was super tall, and stood upright in a weird way, and wore long silvery robes and furs that looked like starlight, and her too tiny shoulders had a huge head with one large milky-pale eye. Her face looked like it belonged to a Striped Salamander Newt, and she had one massive glowing eye, and her hair wasn't hair so much as it was a set of long, swooping stalks with frills on either side of her head. Her scales ranged from pale-skies blue to pure silver, and Zuko felt that if her eye were fully open, she would see into his soul. Something else pulsed beneath the waters, but instead of rising, a great big something settled into the waters under their feet and started swimming slow circles around them under the ice.

(Zuko was grateful for that, because he was having enough trouble not looking at Agni, and now he had to avoid looking at Tui too. He was sure that as a spirit Goddess, she already knew his secrets, but he didn't want to willfully give them up.)

You didn't wait for me. The new spirit admonished Agni, her voice whisper soft but echoing, sweet but biting. The stalks on either side of her head rose and twitched in irritation, and he assumed her eye narrowed, but he wasn't sure. (He was pretending, that much like Agni's neck, the eye didn't exist.) The water tribe girl was strangely quiet about this spirit, and when he checked, he found her struggling between awe and fascinated fear. Zuko wanted to reassure her that it was an entirely natural reaction, but he was still mad at her for her tone.  

I am sorry dear one. My intervention was required. Tui snorted at that, which Agni was clearly ignoring when he motioned in their direction. Now that you're here, to business. We don't have much time left. 

Both spirits turned to them, while a third swam slowly underfoot, and Zuko suddenly felt that he should probably be more worried about being drug into the spirit world by two -three? Was La a participant in this, or simply along for the ride?- spirit deities. Of course, he'd never had the best self-preservation instincts, so he found nothing wrong with this picture.

 

______

 

 Aang had time to consider everything that was wrong with this picture while he watched with carefully controlled breaths as Tui rose out of the glowy waters. Tui was ... interestingly proportioned, but not the strangest spirit he'd ever caught sight of -that honor belonged to one he'd seen winging away from Gyatso's meditation room before it literally faded from existence- and her very large head wasn't as weird to him as Agni's neck was -oh no he was twisting it again.  Agni's head twisted fully upside down while he spoke to his sister, and Aang couldn't look away when it curled back upright and around to them, and then the young monk remembered that they were probably really angry with him for disappearing for a hundred years. He clutched his staff a little tighter and shuffled his feet, and overall, tried to not give into the urge to resume attempting to get back into his body.

Come now child, still yourself. Tui whisper-shouted, her half-lidded eye turning in his general direction while her head-lobes shivered, and ...

"You're blind!" Aang shouted, because shouting surprising information was easier than apologizing in a long continuous stream, and he didn't think they'd appreciate him wasting their apparently limited time with that. Agni chuckled, and Tui laugh-whimpered, and it was Agni who responded. 

My sister sees only the waters of the world. The only time she looks fully at the realms is while we are facing each other. Now please, listen. Aang snapped his mouth shut to keep from asking questions, and next to him, Katara did a full-body twitch, like she had a hundred more than him and even less patience, but Tui spoke before Katara could.

Katara, daughter of Kya and Hakoda. The last water bender of my Southern children. I can assure you, this is not a trick. It is not a trap, and the young Fire Heart standing next to you is not your enemy. Another outraged twitch from Katara, and Tui was speaking right over it like she could see into the girls' mind. I know it is hard to believe, because of what his people took from you, but he only a boy -and you are only a girl. You cannot take upon yourself to spread life's misery and poison. I know you, dear one. You were born during one of my lovers' rages, and all that fury, all that power, and passion, was gifted to you. In this, you cannot let it drive you -the world needs the Avatar, and he cannot go alone. That is why we summoned you three here.  

Agni took over, motioning to the still arguing Sokka and the was-smiling-but-is-now-chilling older guy that was cradling the fire nation boy's body like it was a treasure. Aang contemplated that, wondered if maybe the fire nation had really become as bad as everyone said if some of them, at least, still held all the values he was familiar with. He'd seen respect in the way they bowed to Katara and Sokka, had seen worried-about-how-to-phrase-this-politely on the boys face when he looked at Aang, and now, he was seeing protective instinct from the old no-longer-smiling guy, and the one who somehow said a hundred things without saying anything.

Look at both your peoples. Look at the way they snarl and prowl around each other. But neither of them attack. They are worried and have closed ranks. They are afraid, but taking a stand -even your young, little Water Weaver. Aang looked. So did the two benders next to him, quietly, on the boys part, with a small growl on Kataras. Aang watched the boy scowl at himself in the older man who-was-now-steaming as he denied poisoning the three children, and he watched Katara shaking her head at Sokka. There was a time this wasn't necessary. There was a time my people listened to me, and respected my sisters' tribes. There was a time her people welcomed mine. There was a time that is now gone, and you will help us get it back. The world is imbalanced, Avatar. It is time you stopped sleeping. We gift you this quest and these allies.  

Before Aang could ask 'what quest,' Tui spoke, her robes twitching as she looked in Kataras' general direction. 

The Avatar must learn about this new time. He must see the world that is, to understand what must be done. Help him head North. You will both find teachers there -and answers to many questions. I look forward to seeing you when you arrive, dear one. My brother's time is nearly done. There was weightless sadness and dying joy in those last words. Young Fire Heart, you must accompany the Avatar on his mission. It is the only way to achieve your goals and answer your questions.

Agni reached out and gently traced the outline of Tui's head with a gentle-looking clawed hand. Aang realized that it must be very hard, to have a sibling you only saw every once in a while, but clearly loved.

I will miss you till next we are turned towards each other. The dragon-man-his-neck-was-twisting-again whispered. The sun was nearly set now, and Agni looked the Fire bender boy with a soft smile. You are on the right path now. 

The next time Aang blinked, he was in his body, and Koako was crying over him being 'dead,' while her grandmother tried to pull her away. That had been both better than he expected, and answered nothing, and he thought that maybe the rolling in his stomach was linked to his abject confusion.

"Katara! You're alive! Thank Tui, I thought they'd poisoned y- OW!" Aang sat up to a startled exclamation from Koako just in time to see Katara slap her brother lightly on the head.

"Why were you actively insulting them! If they'd had half a notion to, they could have destroyed our whole village!" Sokka went to reply, but Katara was standing up and pushing past him, turning to face the fire Nation trio. The boy was shaking as he sat up, and there was steam everywhere as suddenly-smiling-again old guy tried to warm him. This is when Aang realized he was freezing.

 

______

 

Katara turned toward the fire nation people, turned towards the people she desperately wanted to hate, and forced herself to really look at them. Sokka and Gran-Grans questions were buzzing around in her ears, but she could only focus on the quiet conversation that Tui had held with her, inside her mind. That had been a shock to experience, seeing all her secret thoughts and rages slip around in the open spaces of her mind, to feel something else-

(Something beautiful, and terrible. A push-pull in her mind that she was familiar with. It had followed her whole life. She was now wondering if it was something every water bender felt.)

 

Tui had told her that the Fire Nation didn't just take from other nations and peoples. It took from itself too. The Goddess had warned her that appearances and birth-places could be deceiving. She'd quietly referred to things no fire nation spy or trick could ever know about, because they were buried deep in Kataras' mind. It hadn't been enough to cool her anger all the way, but it had been a start, because now she was looking. She saw the way the boy flinched out of the man's arms, as if he was incredibly embarrassed to be caught being weak -or terribly afraid of being seen as anything but strong. She saw the way the older man looked both accepting and saddened, like it wasn't the first time the boy had refused comfort. She watched the man behind them stand guard like he would jump in front of these two men at any given moment and die to protect them her people.

"Aang and I were pulled into a Spirit Vision." She announced, and all the voices buzzing around her stopped. Spirit Visions were serious business for her people. Most of them came from La's playful children, or from minor spirits wandering the icy land. Gran Gran and her good friend Tomoka had the most, usually involving where to send certain people to fish, or what time the next day they should hunt.  Now, people waited to see what Katara would say, and the old man hovering by the fire bender boy frowned slightly, his eyes flickering to his charge.

(She thought, distantly, that he might have called the boy Nephew at some point.)

"Aang, the fire nation boy, and I shared a spirit vision." She corrected slowly, watching the boy watch her like she was some kind of dangerous animal he wasn't fond of. "We can trust them not to hurt us." She finished carefully. Sokka sputtered and huffed behind her, while Gran-Gran's warm hand landed on Kataras' shoulder and she was slowly turned to face the old woman. 

"Child, who was your vision from that you would ask us to trust these Ashmakers?" She asked quietly. Katara knew as soon as her face began to twitch that her expression was mixed between wonder and terror, because that was exactly what she felt when she pictured Tui in her mind.

"Great Tui." She whisper-shouted back, reaching up to clutch her Gran-Grans arms. "Tui was there, and La was below, and they told me that we had to work with the Fire Hearts to help the Avatar." Gran-Gran took in whatever face Katara was making while Sokka increased his sputtering, and Aang shuffled in a nervous-guilty way, and finally, Gran-Gran turned to the Fire Nation trio with a deep frown. 

"I'm not sure I like it, but we are people who trust our deities. You may make a camp a little further inland, and we will speak of this quest." The older man bowed at that, his smile large and warm, and then he motioned to a portion of icy landmass a respectful distance from the waters edge and their village. 

"Thank you, most honorable chieftess, for allowing us safe harbor on your shores. We will set up camp there. Is it alright if a few more of our people come to shore? No more than two, I give you my word." Katara and Gran-Gran both blinked at the given title, and Sokka sputtered so hard his whole body flinched, but her Gran-Gran slowly nodded, then motioned for Katara and Aang to head back to the village. She had to drag Sokka along by his boomerang harness. 

They watched a couple more people come to shore -from the safety of their village wall- on a skivvy packed with camping supplies, and Katara realized they had likely always intended to ask for permission to make a camp. Those two extra people stayed, helping to set things up, and Katara found she was surprised by the way the boy was actively involved in that setup. She couldn't say why, but the way the others treated him had lead her to believe he was spoiled and pampered. Then he was hovering over a fire with a pot on it, doing something to it every so often, and she couldn't believe what she was seeing, but she was positive he had just voluntarily made dinner for their small camp. It was at that point that Katara's brain decided she had taken in too much information for the day, and she went to bed. None of the interactions they'd had with these fire nation people matched what had come before. The way her gut twisted and ached was likely second-hand motion sickness from her mind's rampant confusion.

(Sokka didn't come to bed. He was convinced this was a dirty trick and stubbornly set himself up on the wall to watch the 'enemy' encampment. Katara found him asleep, slumped against a snowman that hadn't been there the night before and looked suspiciously like his idea of a person. It -remarkably enough- looked like Tui, but with multiple eyes.)

(The next morning, they found Aang already in the Fire Nation camp, talking wildly at the fire nation boy, who looked uncomfortable and a little pale all over again. He looked at Aang like he was looking at his own nightmare and playing nice, like Aang was a phantom given human form. Eventually, Katara would find out what that look in his eyes meant.)

 

______

 

"The way my granddaughter tells it, the rest of your nation and that fool you call Fire Lord have made your spirit God angry. What she did not know was why he suddenly decided to act, when he hasn't in a hundred years." Iroh watched the Southern Chieftess who was not a Chieftess -but acted like one. She watched him back, smiling in a way that didn't fool him. He might have been a wild young man, but now he was a wise old man. That kind of smile on a woman was never a good sign. He fell back on what he knew.

"It is quite a long story. Let us have some tea, and I will tell you." He smiled his version of her smile, and they stared at each other politely until she slowly nodded. They sat in the large central tent they'd thrown up the night before, and the Chieftess waved the young women following her away. Iroh prepared the tea to silence. When he looked at her, she was quietly examing the multiple cots, carefully arranged around the fire pit, and the way one of them had more furs piled on it than the others.

(He would never tell his Nephew, but the boy had been plagued by nightmares the night before. Jee and the others had been startled by some of the vague things shouted, and Iroh, already knowing the stories behind most of them, told them tales while he carefully laid his own furs over his Nephew and soothed at him. By the time Zuko was fitfully asleep, curled into a tight ball, the men who had voluntarily followed him into treason to get away from war looked ready to pick up arms in his Nephews name. This was good. This was exactly what Iroh wanted.) 

"How is the boy? He looked ... well, paler, yesterday." The woman asked, and Iroh chuckled. He poured the tea while he spoke, because it kept his mind centered on his task.

"It would take more than a nap in the snow to keep my Nephew down." Iroh would know. He'd seen what it took to make that boy listless and unwilling to fight, and if it took him the rest of his life, he would make sure it never happened again. "He's quite alright. I think he had some notion of practicing his dao while we spoke, but then young Aang came over and started spinning tales about Otter Penguin sledding, and my Nephew lost all interest in pretending to be an adult." He chuckled, handing off her tea properly and taking a long sip of his own. The soothing rush of warmth was a comfort, and the Chieftess across from him followed suit -and was clearly surprised that she enjoyed his fire nation tea.

"Now, let me tell you a tale." Getting this woman's approval was only necessary in that Agni and Tui wanted her granddaughter to travel with the Avatar, and the Avatar would be traveling with Zuko. He was a man absolutely invested in making sure his Nephew had as few obstacles as possible in his path. He told her the true history behind the Fire Nations rise to madness. It took a while.

 

______

 

"Zuko, I'd like you to meet Appa!" Aang declared behind him. Zuko turned away from the penguin otter he'd been petting expecting some other sort of arctic animal. What he got was a huge mountain of fluff with horns and the biggest, most soulful eyes he'd ever seen. 

It occurred to him that it only made sense that the boy would have a flying bison, because how else would he have gotten stuck in the south pole? This was, of course, after it occurred to him that Azula could never be allowed to look at Appa, because she might set him on fire, and with all that fur he would never stop burning. Zuko was determined this was never going to happen, and cautiously got up to let the boy introduce them. It mostly involved him getting sniffed-huffed at and then ... getting licked by a tongue that was three times his size. It was gross on a level that also felt wonderful, and he was never speaking about it. 

"That ... what ..." Aang, unfortunately, seemed to understand, because he laughed and patted Zuko on the shoulder, then proceeded to cuddle the bison. Zuko would have quietly tried to get a pet in if he weren't flinging bison drool off his coat, and he huffed, and pretended to be angry, but was mostly pleased that he'd gotten the bisons approval. 

"Aang, there you are!" Zuko turned just in time to see the water tribe girl -Katara? Katra?- pausing midstep when she saw him. She laughed, but it was a short, unexpected thing, one she quickly covered up and politely pretended hadn't happened. "Gran-Gran wants us back in the village." Aang made complaining noises, and put up a small fight, trying to talk them both into another round of Penguin Sledding -and while Zuko would have been tempted, he knew that Iroh had intended to speak to the Chieftess. He dug in his heels and managed to soft-shout Aang into heading back, with the girls' -It was definitely Katara- assistance. After all, where the Avatar went, so did Zuko now. Agni and Tui had basically said as much.

When they got back to Kataras village, the skivvy was all packed, and Katara's people were waiting with Uncle. Aang and Katara paused, but Zuko kept walking, making a beeline for his uncle. The water tribe boy was standing by two packs, looking put out but determined. Aang stopped just in front of the group of people, Katara just next to him. 

"Gran-Gran?" Zuko pretended that those words didn't sound soft and a little small. They brought back a memory he had very purposefully buried. 

"I have been communing, and all signs point to now being the time. You, the Avatar, and young Zuko must go. Danger approaches, and we cannot afford for you to be here if it arrives." The girls' stance got a little firmer, and she looked ready to argue, but Iroh spoke first.

"Do not worry child. My ship and I intend to find the source of this danger and lead it away. I swear to you by my honor, I will do this."

Zuko didn't know how to feel about that, because it was suddenly very clear that he and Uncle would be parting ways, and he wasn't sure he wanted to. Uncle smiled at him, carefully setting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing. 

"This is not goodbye. After all ..." His Uncle's smile brightened, and he chuckled and Uncle chuckle. "You'll be stopping on Beiku island, to wait for me." 

This was even more unexpected. It must have shown on his face because Uncle scoffed and gently traced a thumb over Zuko's scar.

(It had taken a while for Zuko to be comfortable with that, but it was Uncle, so he had worked on it until it was soothing, not terrifying.)

"You didn't think I would let a bunch of children run off with you, did you? This may be Agni's quest for you and the Avatar, but I am your Uncle. It's my job to watch over you." Zuko had dozens of questions about this turn of events, but a soft nudge between his shoulder blades had him nodding. Agni and Uncle would never lead him astray, and if they said this was a thing that must be done, he would make sure they did it. Uncle passed him a map, and a coin purse, and Zuko tucked both into his heavy coat. They didn't hug. Zuko was still getting used to the casual touches that brought no pain, and trying to sit still through a hug with an audience was never going to happen. 

It turned out the tribal boy -Sokka- was coming with them because he refused to let his sister wander off on a spirit quest alone. This was so much like what Iroh had just said, Zuko took a moment to consider changing his opinion on this loud-mouthed-voice-cracking boy-who-thought-he-was-a-warrior. Then the boy ruined it by turning suddenly toward Zuko and pointing in a way that would have been threatening on an adult. 

"And someone has to keep an eye on the Ashmaker!"

Zuko decided that this boy was everything he appeared to be, and in a clearly justified move, he let out a small, firey breath and a growl before he turned towards Appa and jumped into the bison's saddle. The boy below squawked some more before Katara and Aang -who thought it was hilarious that Sokka had to climb up where Zuko had just sprung straight into the saddle- managed to get the boy in and situated on opposite ends of the saddle. 

(They didn't fly at first. The bison tried, but it either didn't feel like it, or was still adjusting to being awake, because it started to lazily swim away. Uncles ship eventually drifted out of sight, and an hour later, the bison surged into the air when Aang tried again. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, and Zuko loved it.)

 

______

 

The prince was gone. Zhao spent a handful of minutes trying to get more information out of the clearly distressed formal general Iroh, but the man was more useless than he'd been lead to believe, screeching things about winged monsters that stole nephews. Zhao came to the realization that sea life had probably driven the old man insane, and he realized they would have to backtrack. Zuko had clearly run away, likely because his Uncle was an insane fool. He would need to go back and question every port form their current position, all the way to Gaoling. The banished Prince might already be in Earth Kingdom territory. 

Ah. But if he was in Earth Kingdom territory, the problem would just solve itself. Especially if someone were to submit a wanted poster for a runaway prince, with a high price on his head. The idea that the Earth Kingdom army would accidentally take care of Zhao's biggest problem was such a happy one, he dismissed Iroh and headed back for his ship. He had a prince to find. Had he been paying more attention to the running tangent the old general was on, he would have realized that when the smaller Wani continued on, it did not head in the direction the crazy old general said it would.

Zhao's biggest problem was that he was so determined to chase Glory, he often missed the little things. This worked in Agni's favor when he sent his helpers to plague the man's ship with illusions and mirages. 

Chapter Text

They'd been camped on the south-western banks of Beiku for several days. This was several days of Zuko being left alone with other children, one of whom was actively trying his best to antagonize the former prince at every turn. Katara was slightly less hostile, but not by much -and Zuko got the feeling he was being studied every time they spoke. He had, to his surprise, endeared himself to her when he'd willingly made dinner before she could the first day. She'd gotten a strange look on her face, hesitantly took a bite, and finished the congee without complaint. 

(Her brother had complained about the lack of meat, at which point Zuko had pointed a thumb over his shoulder to the waters edge and invited him to go fishing and roast it himself. Congee, fried rice, and roasted vegetables were the only things he knew how to make.)

Now they were on day three, and Sokka was complaining about his fried rice, and trying to make Zuko feel bad for knowing how to cook, even though he was a boy. (Zuko wasn't sure how being a boy and cooking were related, but he was sure the tribal idiot would eventually explain.) Zuko missed his ship, because if they were on his ship, one of the old sailors would just take the older boys food and ration it out, which would be fair. You didn't complain about food you didn't have to make.

(He knew how to cook because he went to Zui -the head Cook- when he needed answers to serious questions -Uncles track record for real-responses-not-proverbs was stacked against him- and the cook made him work while they spoke. If he tried, he could probably figure out other, simple dishes, but he didn't feel like trying. Not for Sokka.)

"Sokka, for the last damn time, I'm not going fishing for you. If you want fish in the evening meal, fish for it with your own damn hands, and make it yourself." Sokka gave him the same look he'd given him every time Zuko suggested he make his own meal, and Aang blinked at him with a slightly nervous twitch of his fingers as he ate. "What?" Former Prine Zuko, who was now in charge of evening meals, and understood all of Zui's griping, growled at the air nomad. The boy shifted a little with his response. 

"You curse a lot." Zuko blinked at the nomad, and was given just enough time to contemplate that yes, from a twelve-year-old monk's perspective, he probably did cuss a lot. Not nearly as much as some of the helmsmen did, or even Zui, but frequently enough.

"Do you want me to stop?" He asked quietly, instead of telling the boy that there were people that cussed more than him. He probably would have shouted the question with a growl for effect, to maintain his (nonexistent) reputation. He'd been shouting a lot today, and he missed his ship, and frankly, the idea of not cussing made him weirdly sad. 

(The oldest naval officers laughingly taught him new curse words when Uncle was out of earshot. They thought it was great fun to teach a former prince how to be inappropriate. They also gave him a slew of inappropriate sailor stories he could probably only share with Sokka, since he wasn't half as sunshine-nice as Aang, and therefore, Zuko wouldn't feel bad when he destroyed the other boys' innocence.)

Aang shook his head slowly, fiddling with his spoon. 

"No, no, it's not that! I don't really mind except when you squish them all together while shouting -but being honest, it looked like it really hurt when you got hit by the tail end of that rockslide- so it's okay. I was just wondering where you learned them all. You seem so ..." Here he seemed at a loss for words, and waved his hand in a slightly flailing manner. Zuko settled back and rolled his shoulders, because even the memory of getting pelted by all those stupid rocks hurt and he was weirdly relieved that Aang didn't want him to stop cursing.

"Formal!" Katara piped up, supplying Aang with apparently the exact word he needed, if the goofy look the kid shot her was anything to go by.

Zuko shrugged, letting Katara take his bowl from him. She's volunteered to do clean up if he cooked, and he got the feeling she was possibly getting more out of the agreement than him, since clean up consisted of 'watch me shove all these things into a bucket of water.' 

"I lived on the Wani for the last year or so. No, a year and three months." He corrected, absently counting down the months to Azula's birthday. He had been a mid-winter birth, but Azula had been born just before spring. Aang leaned forward eagerly after giving up his dish, almost bouncing in place. 

"What's it like living on a ship? Why are you living on a ship? Is Uncle Iroh your only family or something?" The last two questions were a kick to the gut, one he hadn't been expecting. He went to answer, then stopped, his face twisting up before he could stop it. Instead of addressing all of the Avatars' questions, he focused on the one that didn't make him want to puke. 

"Living on the Wani is -was ... nice, I guess. I li-tolerated it, even though saltwater gets into everything. The Wani has a good crew too, even the ones that didn't really know what they were doing. I liked waking up in one port then traveling to another. I liked seeing all the people," even if they didn't like seeing me, he thought but didn't say. It would likely start a rant from Sokka, and the boy was finally down to muttering under breath while he set up his bedroll. It had been a long three days, but the consistent thing Zuko had picked up on was that as soon as Sokka ate the evening meal, he was ready to sleep. If Zuko started serving dinner slightly earlier in an effort to speed this process up, who was to blame him?

Aang kept staring at him after that, a mixture of concern and expectancy, and Zuko felt his shoulders tense. The Avatar could keep waiting. Zuko wouldn't share the rest with him -just because Zuko was here and helping him, did not mean he trusted the eccentric boy. Especially not with the reasons behind his life at sea and who his family was. He could just imagine the second-hand disparagement he'd receive from Sokka if the older boy knew Ozai was his father.

(He could imagine the Water Tribe boy saying things like 'Of course the Fire Lords son is a shouty jerk,' or 'It's hardly surprising that you're the son of ultimate evil. I knew the moment I looked into your shift little eyes!' After spending three days having slightly similar but really different insults slung at him, Zuko was very positive that these were accurate insult estimates. He isn't exactly wrong.)

"What about your uncle?" Katara said slowly, clearly trying to help, but really not helping with her next question. "Does he have any children?"

Zuko thought of the portrait that Uncle kept face down on his desk. He thought of the anniversary of Lu Ten's death, when he'd quietly sat at his Uncles side and held the older man's hand. He thought of the pain-joy-hurt in his Uncles voice when he quietly told Zuko stories about how his son had been on the way to being a fine man. He thought about how good his cousin had been to him when he'd been around and alive, and he knew his cousin dying was also not something he was going to share with these strangers.

(He wonders if Lu Ten would have ended up as Agni's chosen, if Iroh had died before claiming the throne. This seems reasonable to him, and he worried about who Agni's chosen would be now. Maybe, if Zuko ever got married and had children, one of them would be good enough. It was a pity he didn't have more cousins, but probably also a good thing. It was a good thing, because in the very back of his mind, he thought his father was probably responsible for Lu Ten dying. To be fair to Sokka, most bad things in life could very reasonably be blamed on the current Fire Lord.)

It must have shown on his face that he was done sharing, because Aang launched into a story about Elephant Koi, and how very easy they were to ride on. Zuko let him tell the story, and there was no more shouting, but a lot of disbelieving huffs. It was about as not-awkward as Zuko could make things around himself. Zuko fell asleep curled into a sleeping roll on the opposite side of the fire from Sokka, listening to Aang and Katara quietly swap stories about weird animal-encounters. His last thought was of the Wani, and how very hard it was to sleep on a surface that didn't rock with each powerful wave.

 (He dreamed, not for the first time that week, of flames colored an angry, roaring red. They reached for him with greedy, hungry fingers. He couldn't move away because he was rooted to the spot by tiny bald children. Those children were begging him to keep them safe. Zuko could do nothing when the flames reached them -nothing except burn up right alongside them, screaming in terror.)

Zuko woke with a start, to see a hand reaching for his face. He screamed -then he reacted, gripping one of his dao (laid beside him for exactly this reason) firmly and swinging with the flat of the blade. The hand got knocked away, and Zuko tensed on his feet when he heard the voice that accompanied it. 

"By La's might, that hurt! What is wrong with you?" Zuko blinked at Sokka and tried to get his breathing back under control. The Water Tribe boy was looking at him like ... well, Zuko actually wasn't sure. He'd never seen that kind of look before. It might have been concern, or maybe disappointment -but there was a weird twist to it, a subtext Zuko didn't understand. He fell back on Uncles belief of letting silence speak, and focused on not shaking as he put the single Dao he'd drawn back. Katara and Aang were awake -he could feel them watching him- but he refused to look their way. His biggest concern needed to be breathing.

(He really hoped that he hadn't been screaming in his sleep.)

"Why'd you wake me up?" He asked, slipping the Dao's sheath on, then carefully folding his bed-stuffs back up. He did all of this while perfectly conveying 'I don't want to talk about anything that just happened, someone shut Sokka up.' He could feel a prickle on his skin that said Agni would soon be rising, but it was unusual for any of the three to be up before him. Sokka started to say something, but Katara tossed her rolled sleeping bag at him and pointed wordlessly to Appa. The boy glared at his sister, glared at Zuko, glared at the sky, then finally, turned and marched towards Appa. 

"You're Uncles ship is out there. Aang wants to go meet them so that they don't have to circle the island looking for our camp." Zuko paused in tying up his stuff to stand and look out to sea. If he tilted his head at the right angle, his good eye caught on something that might have been the Wani

"Any of you have a spyglass?" He asked, without any real hope. The two Water Tribesmen shrugged, though Sokka looked suspiciously interested, and Aang scratched his head and smiled. 

"It's probably better if we wait until they're in closer range. The Wani isn't the only Fire Nation ship in these waters." Aang started pouting -something about how staying on the ground was terrible- while Sokka grumped and crossed his arms and glared some more in Zuko's direction. Katara looked distinctly amused when she crossed her arms.

"Funny, Sokka was complaining about that just before ... we woke you up." She hesitated on the last few words, a flash of concern on her face. Zuko pretended not to see it, and continued shoving together the small pack he had. He was wondering if maybe he'd be able to go to his room and get his Blue Spirit gear without anyone noticing.

It was nearly afternoon before the ship was close enough Zuko was willing to go along with Aang's impatience, and he's never been more grateful in his life to see his dingy little ship. Crew members on deck froze when they saw the bison, and then did double-takes when they saw him on it's back. They began smiling in relief and waving. His hair was plenty long enough that he wasn't sure if he actually saw any of this, or if it's what he thought he saw. Uncle came running onto deck by the time they landed, looking slightly startled but extremely relieved.

"Nephew! I see that you're well." Uncle greeted. Zuko slipped off the bison at the same time Aang did and was startled when he stumbled slightly.

Stupid land legs. Stupid Airbenders never having a problem with balance or gravity. Uncle was chuckling over some of Aang's questions, and inviting everyone to tea, and Zuko very determinedly hefted his pack and started for his room. Uncle was still laughing behind him when the door to the deck shut. He ran into a few crew members who were startled to see him, then relieved, and weirdly, had no questions. By the time he made it to his room, he realized that everyone was well aware of the abundance of treason the two former princes were committing and fully supportive of it. He didn't know how to feel about that. His room was untouched when he entered, and the first thing he did was pull the Blue Spirit ensemble out of the chest by his bed. He didn't grab any more clothes -he intended to find some Earth Kingdom robes to wear instead. What he did grab was a series of scrolls Uncle had asked him to study, because something told him they would come in handy. 

"So this is your evil lair!" Sokka declared behind him. Zuko jumped, then pretended it had never happened and glared at Sokka appropriately over his shoulder. He did this while shoving a couple of meditation candles into his bag, and another set of maps he'd appropriated before they headed south. These ones depicted Fire Nation outposts and trading routes. They were perfect for telling the Avatar exactly where he shouldn't go

"My people call it a room," he responded, without as much heat as he would have liked. "We keep our evil lairs below deck." He laid the bait and waited a second, then turned. Sokka was, predictably, not there. Zuko should feel bad about what he'd just done, but really, it was what the Water Tribe boy got for his attitude

(It hadn't been a lie. The enginers were the evilest, most terrifying people that Zuko knew, but for entirely different reasons than Sokka was thinking.) 

When he was sure he was actually alone, he opened a hidden drawer in his wardrobe and found the small portrait of him, Azula and their mother. He'd burned their father out of it months ago -it gave him too many bad dreams to accidentally catch sight of his father- so it would be mostly safe to bring with him. He snapped the wooden portrait box closed and wrapped it in a shirt, then left his room. He didn't look back. As soon as he had Uncle, he would have everything he needed for the next chapter of his life. 

(But he did stop by Zui's 'office,' and quietly say goodbye. The man responded by giving him a bundle of rations and a small scroll of quick, simple meal recipes because 'you cannot live off of congee alone, you need to eat properly,' and Zuko let the wirey man hug him, but not for long. Katara was surprised and grateful when he presented the bundle of rations to her, and when Sokka was carried onto the deck by the head engineer, Zuko chuckled quietly while Katara apologized and Uncle and Aang tried to peace-keep. Sokka would speak to him when they climbed back into Appa's saddle. It was the best present.)

(Having everything he needed didn't mean he wouldn't miss the Wani -just that there would be nothing left on it to remind him why he was doing what he was.)

 

______

 

"You want to stop where?" Zuko asked, for probably the third time, blinking stupidly at the Airbender.  

"My home, the Southern Air Temple! You guys will love it! It's the most beautiful place in the whole world!" Aang pepped, urging Appa to go faster.

Katara was sitting just next to him on Appa's wide head, and Zuko sat at the front of the bisons' saddle. Uncle had a hand very firmly on the rim of the saddle, his smile forced as he looked at the back of Aang's head. Sokka was sitting on the other side of Uncle, because if the two boys had access to each other, they would argue

"You must remember, young Avatar, going forwards sometimes requires us to let go of the past. Expectations and reality do not always share the same bed." Zuko groaned softly, leaning forward to rest his forehead on the rim of the saddle. Uncle chuckled at him, while Aang replied. 

"I know things will have changed! I don't expect them not to, I just want to see for myself!" The Avatar chirped, smiling at the old man over his bright yellow shoulder. Katara leaned forward, a serious frown on her face. 

"Aang, you know that no one has seen your people for a hundred years." She reminded softly. "It's possible the only thing you're going back to is a bunch of empty buildings."

They won't be empty. He wanted to warn. There will be bodies, he nearly shouted, littered like forgotten shoes -both your countrymen and mine. Zuko thought all this but didn't say. Uncle didn't either. 

"You don't understand Katara," The boy said, a wavering smile on his face, and Zuko saw desperation in his eyes. "The Fire Nation can't have gotten to the air temples. You need a bison to get up that high, and there's no way they had those, right bud?" He finished while ruffling Appa's furry head, his fingers twitching in the fur in a way that looked like self-reassurance. 

"There are some that need to court misery to learn," Iroh said softly, and Zuko didn't complain about the words that were almost a proverb. "All we can do is be there when he finds it." Sokka looked like he might throw out something about the evils of the fire nation, but Uncle turned and smiled at him, and the boy snapped his mouth shut. Zuko wasn't quite sure what it was, but Uncle's smiles seemed to completely disarm the other boy.

The rest of the ride was quick ascension and steep-rocks-everywhere and it was almost like boy and bison were doing everything they could to terrify their passengers. The saw the air temple. It was beautiful, and just as impossible as the Western one had been, and Zuko felt a growing pit in his stomach as they approached. 

"Are you sure you want to do this?" He ended up asking, leaning into the bisons' wild turn as it decided where it wanted to land on a wide platform.

Aang was all beaming smiles that spoke for themselves, and the faint hint of disbelief as he looked at the empty skies around them. He lead them up an incline towards the main series of temples, and Zuko was putting a lot of effort into controlling his breathing as they approached. Aang was suitably sad at the lack of upkeep and lived-ness, and right when Zuko would have turned and begged the others to just drag the boy back to the bison, the Water tribe boy asked Aang to teach him a game. Zuko stood off to the side with Uncle, not quite on the path but close enough to it that he saw the water tribe siblings find an old Fire Nation helmet. he watched the boy glare at them, and Katara cover up the evidence as Aang approached. 

After that, the Airbender was smiles and excitement again as he proceeded onwards. Zuko agreed with Sokka about needing to let Aang know, but he couldn't make himself speak any more than Aang let them talk him into leaving. The young nomad lead the others into the main temple, and Zuko split off quietly, trying to think like an adult pacifist trying to protect a bunch of children. He could hear slightly clumsy footfalls behind him, and knew that Sokka was following, but he ignored it in favor of continuing with his self-imposed mission. He reached a relatively non-descript looking hall and proceded down. Sokka caught up. 

"Ashmaker. What are you hiding?" He demanded, stopping Zuko in the hall simply by walking in front of him. Since Zuko had no desire to fight this particular battle, he sighed. 

"I'm not hiding anything, Water Tribe. I said we should go. And you shouldn't let your sister keep protecting Aang." Sokka blinked at that, looked at Zuko like he'd been expecting something else, and when he didn't immediately start insulting him, Zuko slowly pushed a door open -it was narrow, heavy, likely some kind of metal- and found exactly what he was afraid he might. Sokka turned to peek into the room, then froze, his face going slack in a mixture of horror-anger, and Zuko slipped past him. Much like the Western temple, the bones of the children were scattered behind the bones of their guardian. Zuko absolutely believed the nomad of old was dead long before his charges were.

Zuko crouched in front of the guardian's body, bowing low as he whispered prayers. He hadn't been in the state of mind to do this for the children of the Western temple, but he would do it here. Above all else, he hoped their stay int the spirit world had been happy before their rebirth. He hoped whatever life they were in now, it was a good one. He hoped that even if it had hurt, they had quick deaths, because there was nothing more painful than burning. Sokka stays with him until Zuko finds another room of children, and he doesn't stay through that series pf prayers. That's okay. Zuko had intended to do this alone from the start. At some point, there was a sound like crumbling stone, and Zuko had enough presence of mind to wonder if something had collapsed finally. 

 

______

 

He isn't sure when Zuko, Iroh, and Sokka leave the group, but he notes that when Sokka comes back, he looks ... pale. Like he'd seen something he wished he hadn't. Aang doesn't pay too much attention to it because he's determined to open the air temple doors. Even if there isn't anyone waiting in there for him, maybe they left some sort of clue as to what he needed to know. He's slightly disappointed to find statues set up all in a weird row, but intrigued by the idea of this being his room full of past lives. He's wondering how much Iroh and Zuko know about Roku when the lemur finds them. Sokka comes to life for a minute, and they argue over terminology, (Pet or food) and then he chases it and then-

(There is a ring of fire nation soldiers, long dead and reaching for something at the far wall. There are bodies piled on top of bodies in thick, concentric circles.)

The Fire Nation soldiers of old are skeletons in too-big armor now. 

(The secret is the soft jelly middle, young one.)

The thing they were reaching for is old and decrepit now. But it didn't use to be. 

(Your aim is improving with every lesson, my boy.)

It wears orange and looks like it died when someone fired a precision shot of flames through his heart. 

(They should have waited until you were sixteen.)

The snow around it reflects light and makes the death look peaceful, but Aang knows there was nothing peaceful about this. 

(We need you Aang.)

The corpse wears Gyatso's necklace.

He cries, and he thinks, and eventually, he is filled with rage-despair-guilt. He goes to a place inside his head where he never ran away from the other elders trying to separate him from everything when he was already trying to learn how to deal. He goes to a place in his head where he stood next to his master and didn't abandon him to flames and forces and death. He thinks of all the things he could do the people that had destroyed everything. Only. It's been a hundred years. The ones directly responsible are long dead. He can hear Katara shouting something at him, and he realizes that he's lost control. But what did that matter when everyone he'd loved had been ripped away by his own stupidity? If he'd only been there, if he'd just stayed then maybe-

"Aang, please, calm down!" Katara.

He realized he wasn't the only one on this mountain. 

"Aang come on!" Sokka, sounding desperate. 

He should stop now. He just didn't know how.  

"You have to remember that you aren't alone Aang. Please. Let us help you with this." 

He wasn't alone, was he? He'd been spirit blessed in companions. Maybe Tui and La had seen this coming and realized that Aang would need people. Maybe Agni hadn't been so far off either, but at this exact moment, he wasn't feeling too happy with the Fire Nation, so he focused on Katara and Sokka, and eventually, he felt his feet hit the ground. Then his knees. Then him. He was crying again. Gyatso still sat exactly where he'd been. Time would continue marching forever, and Gyatso might just stay there. Aang decided that his old master had deserved the nap; look at all the Fire benders he'd had to kill. That had to have been exhausting

Aang cried harder. He apologized through the tears and cried some more, only to start apologizing again, and he wasn't sure who he was apologizing to anymore. Katara and Sokka manage to calm him down with totally required cuddles and soothing sounds, and when he could breathe without crying all over again, Sokka cautiously approached Gyatso and so carefully took his necklace. Aang wants to tell him not to, but he also really wants it, so he says nothing out of confliction and 'thank you,' out of habit when Sokka hands him the medallion. 

It weighs nothing and everything in his hands, and feels like home. He manages not to start crying again, and Katara and Sokka lead him back towards the temples.

(They find Zuko, with Iroh quietly watching, praying in front of a group of children's bones, and Aang cries all over again. He isn't sure when he moved, but he was crouching by Zuko and hugging him, because he might be Frie Nation, but Aang had seen the shine of tears in the boy's good eyes as he straightened and went to bow again. Aang hadn't known until that moment that Zuko showing respect and compassion for long-dead corpses would be his selling point.)

The Lemur comes back, and adopts him, petting at his head soothingly when he starts sniffling. Someone else takes over handling Appa. He thinks it's Zuko, who'd gotten flustered and weirdly embarrassed, and tried to refuse more hugs, but didn't the instant Aang would start tearing up. Iroh was sitting close to him at the back of the saddle. They watched the Southern Temple become a distant, shrouded memory, and Aang made sure to be quiet when he spoke.

"Zuko is a good person, under all the gruff." He started, and Iroh smiled sadly and nodded. "Someone hurt him." Another sad smile and nod. "He's here because of that." Iroh gave him a contemplating look, then spoke just as quietly. 

"I'm not sure why he is here, but I can say, it is not a light decision. He is not here just because someone hurt him. He is here because wise men go searching for knowledge. My nephew is looking for his own truths." Aang thought about that for a while. He thought about that, and about Gyatso, and about this world he was unfamiliar with. It looked the same, and some of the people hadn't changed, but some had. 

(One thing that hadn't was that there were good and bad people in every nation, and Iroh and Zuko were good Fire Benders.)

If he had any hope of bringing peace to his peoples' memory, he had much to learn about this world.

 

 


 

 

 

His son's ship was gone. It hadn't been seen in any port, and the last missive that Zhao sent him suggested that his idiot brother had finally gone senile and gotten everyone on his ship killed in a storm or drug down by a Kraken. The only problem with this unexpected turn of events was that his useless son had apparently been in the wind before that. Ozai wasn't sure where the boy was, or what he was doing, but he was positive that it wasn't anything productive. Leopard wolves don't change their spots after all. 

A maid entered with his lunch, shoulders hunched and left just as quickly as she'd come. That was a definite improvement on her previous performance. He'd have to congratulate the Head Mistress later for that. He deplored sloppy servants almost as much as he hated his son. Which begged the question -did he let Zhao handle any possibility that his son was alive ... or hire someone more competent? Ozai put that thought -and his subsequent list of options- aside for later. He'd make his decision by the end of the day. First and foremost, he had to decide what to do about the Fire Sages. They'd closed their ranks, and subsequently, their influence. 

The little people were getting antsy about Agni, and Ozai could get nothing from the sages. He was running out of plausible reasons for the everyday benders to be losing their abilities in the heart of their nation. He didn't know what kind of game the spirits were playing, but he intended to win it. To start ...He needed to kill High Sage Shiza.

Chapter Text

Aang was all over the place. Like, really all over the place. He fluttered from one point on the saddle to the other, and it may have only been a day and a half since they left the Nomads former home behind, but they clearly needed to address the Avatars angst. Momo was trying, but there was only so much that lemur cuddles and consolatory pats could do. Sokka was just the man to help him too. He was very helpful.

(He could almost hear Katara snorting at him for that. So what if he didn't cook, or tidy the camp when he fidgeted? Stupid Zuko with his stupid cool scar and his stupid fluffy hair, and his stupid cool swords. Why did a Firebender need swords? Not important. They were stupid!)

So, he cleared his throat and spoke loudly over the wind -and Zuko, quietly asking his Uncle about the necessity of proverbs.

(Sokka had also been wondering that, but this was more important.)

"Aang, where are we going?" He asked, because the key to being helpful was being discreet about it. Aang tensed where he currently sat on Appa's head, in front of Katara. There was the slightest of guilty hunches to his shoulders, then he seemed to snap himself out of more angsting to turn fully to Sokka.

"I was thinking maybe we could stop and ride the Elephant koi? If that's okay!"

Were it not for the nightmares Sokka knew the kid had the night before, and how very twitchy he was, Sokka would have complained about stopping again. They'd only just started their journey North! They were stopping every time they got into the air! As it was. Nightmares.

(This was plural, because stupid Zuko had also had some night terrors, but where Aang had quietly cried and woken with a pale start each time his started, Zuko quietly begged his way through his, as if he simply couldn't escape on his own. Sokka wanted this to be stupid too, but it wasn't.)

"Sure, that's fine." He groused fully, wondering why the adult with them wasn't taking over, except Fire Nation, "just remember we should probably keep moving after that, at least until nightfall." They had no real reason to avoid staying in one place too long, but Sokka preferred to ere on the side of caution. Caution had saved his hide plenty of times. Like the Tiger Whale Incident that-shall-never-be-mentioned.

Aang brightened considerably, spinning into a running monologue about how he and his friends used to surf on elephant koi all the time during the hottest summer days. Sokka patted himself on the back in a 'job well done, I'm good at adulting,' and promptly smugged in Zuko's direction. Iroh chuckled and Zuko glared in confusion -this seemed consistent with their dynamic, never mind Sokka had known them literally less than a week- and all was right with the world. Katara did that sister thing she did where she half-listened, half didn't, going through an assortment of what Sokka called 'girl chores.'(but never where she could hear) Currently, she was sorting through a pile of mending, one that included Sokka's only other pair of pants.

"Katara, check it out!" Aang exclaimed, and this time, it was his usual excited exclamation and not one fueled by his own nervous energy trying to distract him. He was making two marbles spin wildly between his palms, and Sokka would have labeled it as a nice trick to distract children if nothing else.

(Absently, he noted that Zuko looked perplexed by the boy's trick as if he couldn't fathom why anyone would use their bending in such a way. Having seen some of the practice steps the boy had done when he thought no one was around in the early morning, Sokka contemplated that, of course, an Ashmaker wouldn't understand using bending for party-tricks.)

"That's great Aang," Katara said absently, having pulled Sokka's pants out of the mending pile. Aang frowned at her over the rim of the saddle, his shoulders drooping in a sulk. At least this kind of sulk was preferable to 'I'm remembering the horrible way my father figure died, why is my life like this.'

(Sokka remembered in a flash of irritating clarity that Zuko had a similar-but-very-different-look to Aang's father-figure-is-dead expression on his face as he prayed for those massacred children his nation had been responsible for murdering.)

"You didn't even look." The boy complained mildly. Welcome to my world, Sokka grumbled internally, and Katara predictably looked up and smiled that sister-smile at the kid.

(This made Zuko flinch, and Iroh gently patted at his shoulder. Sokka hated that he noticed the way the boy looked terrified and seriously depressed all at once.)

"That's great!" Katara exclaimed. Aang frowned at her, leaning forward on the saddle.

"But I'm not doing it." Aang had very clearly not been around too many girls -or sisters- so Sokka stepped in. To be helpful.

"Leave her alone Air Head. Girls need space when they do their sewing." Aang gave him a weird look, Katara stopped sewing to scowl at him, and Zuko shifted enough in the saddle that he could make eye contact with Sokka over his Uncles round form.

"Why are those things related?" The fire nation boy was giving him the same look he'd given Aang's party trick. Sokka couldn't believe he had to explain this, but then, Zuko and Iroh didn't seem very manly (Zuko's hair was so fluffy, and Iroh was only interested in making tea and spitting proverbs, and what manly man did that?) so maybe they really didn't know.

"Alright, it's simple. Girls are better at things like mending pants and socks and cooking and cleaning. Guys are better at hunting and fighting and ...stuff like that. It's the natural order of things." Iroh was giving him the same look now too, and Katara's scowl darkened even more, before she suddenly flashed him a sister-smile and tossed the pants at him with the needle still attached.

"Look at that, I'm all done! Don't they look beautiful!" Sokka was aghast at this, as she was clearly not done, but Iroh spoke before he could take a page out of Zuko's book and shout something appropriate.

"You must remember that what is given to you feeds your body, but what you give to others feeds your soul. All men in the fire nation know this."

That didn't make any sense, but Zuko was nodding along like it was perfect English and Katara was staring at Iroh consideringly. Before he could ask 'what does that even mean,' or shout, 'I can't wear these!' Aang gave an excited whoop.

"Where we're going, you won't need your pants anyway Sokka!"

(He wanted to shout that needing pants didn't work like that, but Katara was looking at him now, and he realized he maybe-probably shouldn't risk saying anything else. He'd already made her mad once today. His pants weren't going to sew themselves.)

They were on the beach a short while later, Aang bouncing on his feet in excitement, and somehow managing to strip at the same time. Even if it was too much energy, at least the nomad had vigor now. He'd take that over moping. Katara huffed past him, and he realized he'd have to really apologize (for the truth!) before she'd finish sewing his spare pants. (Which he needed. The laundry sack was starting to smell, and he wasn't going to walk around without pants while she did it the next time they stopped.)

There was snow on the ground, and the trees -trees! nature that wasn't totally frozen!- were bare. Aang was bouncing on his feet now, shivering and keenly observing the ocean critically. Momo watched the waters too, hopping encouragingly, if with minor confusion, while his human chittered excitedly. Sokka knew the waters would be freezing, so he had no intention of getting in them. He was smart like that. Katara seemed to feel the same, because she was frowning at the nomad like he maybe needed to take a nap and calm down. Then a fish bigger than two Appas jumped out of the ocean. Aang got even more excited and charged towards the edge of the water.

(Sokka had no idea why Aang was excited. If he wanted to jump into icy water and play with humongous monsters, they could have stayed in the South Pole.)

But there he went, jumping into freezing waters and rushing towards probable death with excitement. Zuko was pacing just off to the side of Sokka's vision, his wild golden eyes scanning the frozen woods. Iroh had taken a seat just behind them all, humming softly under his breath, and chuckling every so often. (Mostly when Aang, riding on the giant monstrosity that would feed Sokka's people for half a year, came out of the water laughing his crazy bald head off. Sokka wanted to sit down and ask the old man what was so funny, but then he'd be taking active interest in a Fire Bender, and he still wasn't sold on them, so he resisted. Remembering why he really hated Zuko and Iroh -No, Katara, not just because they were Firebenders, and no I won't tell you- helped in that resistance.)

"He's doing well out there," Katara noted, smiling softly at the insane child, and Sokka gave her an askew look.

"The fish is doing all the work. He'd be doing good if he could get it on land. Can you imagine how much smoked jerky we could get off that thing?" Katara rolled her eyes at him, then turned when there was a distinct Appa-crunch behind them. She growled softly, went to wrangle the nomad's bison, and overall, Sokka stood and alternated between watching Aang (who was insane) ride the giant fish, and watching Zuko (who looked strangely disappointed to not be out there) pace as if his life depended on it. The only reason he realized there was something wrong was because Iroh stood and let out a wordless shout. His eyes were on the water, so Sokka looked too.

There was an even bigger shadow under the waves, a brief flash of something that broke through and followed the fish wherever they swam. Zuko growled, and all three of them generally shouted warnings, but Aang either didn't notice or didn't care until he was thrown into the water. Zuko made a move, like he would have dove in and gone after the nomad, but Iroh caught his tunic and held. Katara was drawn by their noise, and also started shouting, and really, none of that helped Aang move any faster over the water -how was he doing that? Air Bending or subconscious Water Bending?- until suddenly he was-

(Sokka swore he saw stars. Or at the very least, a vaguely horrific, one-eyed fish woman frowning at him in blind disapproval, but that didn't make any sense, so he stuck to the idea of stars.)

He was on his back, with a frozen Air Nomad on top of him, panting and laughing, and looking slightly freaked out. Katara was there to pull Aang up, offering him his clothing with a side dish of worried questions. Sokka took another second to try and breathe -Ow, his lungs. It felt like Aang had a head of steel- and Iroh was gently offering his hand, while Zuko ... Zuko looked both relieved, and like he was hiding a laugh behind his hand, his face turned away from them all.

After Aang was dressed and Sokka was on his feet -he'd accepted reluctant help from Iroh, because no matter how he tried, the man's smile made him stupidly trusting and weirdly desperate to earn approval- after Zuko was back to softly shouting, they talked about leaving.

Then they got ambushed and it was too fast to keep track of, and Zuko was shouting more. Iroh was making vague, soothing sounds at his Nephew, likely trying to get him to stop doing whatever he was doing. (Probably fighting back. Sokka had never met someone not him so willing to fight everyone. Zuko took the cake and won every prize, because everything was either a glaring competition or a shouting match. Both of these were things he won, because of the scar and Zuko's sheer ability to increase his volume willfully. Sokka hates that he didn't have time to fight back, because now it feels like he has something to prove.)

He's in the middle of composing a literary masterpiece of bargains and threats when the blindfolds were removed. They try to tell him that girls -girls!- are the warriors who snuck up on them and ambushed them and made him look like a fool in front of Iroh and Zuko-

(He isn't sure why that's important. He doesn't want to think about it too hard or he thinks about Zuko's ability to look cool even when he wasn't bending, or the way he sometimes touched his scar and went paler, or the way he had nightmares a lot but Iroh quietly smiled them all into pretending he didn't. If he thought about it too hard, he thought about the few bouts of humor that Zuko displayed and Sokka liked, or the way that Iroh chuckling at him in approval made his heart hurt weirdly.)

It was easy to talk brave at first, to point out the clear facts of life -A bunch of girls could never take them down- and then Katara found the need to talk over him and-

"How do we know you aren't Fire Nation spies! Kyoshi has stayed out of the war so far, we won't be drug into it now!" Their headman accused. They couldn't very well refute that some of them weren't Fire Nation, and Sokka was trying to figure out a way to say this that didn't sound like 'we brought spies to your village, sorry not sorry.'

"Your island is named Kyoshi?" Aang asked excitedly. This excitement slotted in nicely to Sokka's newest plan-for-getting-them-out-of-ropes.

(Though even the small inkling of a plan he was building was quickly destroyed by the fact that, oh yeah, Iroh and Zuko screamed Fire Nation spies!)

"These two are Fire Nation!" Someone outside his line of sight shouted. Aang started making peace-talk noises, and they were being accused of being a whole group of Fire Nation spies -and Sokka took exception to that!

"Hey! I am not some Ashmaker! I'm just traveling with them because the Avatar got a Spirit visit that said we had to! Though I suppose a bunch of girls wouldn't know anything about epic, life-changing spirit quests!" This caused no small amount of confusion -and a lot of anger- as Aang increased his peace-talk efforts, and Zuko growled and shouted, while Iroh joined Aang's peace-talk efforts, and Katara for some reason, was also growling, but she was growling things like 'Aang, just do some air bending,' and 'Why don't you two just fire bend us free.' Which was sacrilegious as far as Sokka was concerned.

"I am sure, if we all just sit down for some tea, we can discuss this like reasonable people. Like the white lotus blooms for all to see, we come with no dishonor, our colors are worn upon our sleeves." Sokka understood half of that, and even that soft-spoken-and-confusing-sagely-wisdom voice that Iroh possessed didn't seem to fool anyone.

"I swear, I really am the avatar!" Aang promised.

"The last Avatar was an Airbender that disappeared!" One of the girls exclaimed, stepping forward threateningly. Their Headman finally scoffed.

"They're clearly lying. Prepare to sacrifice the prisoners to the Unagi!"

Sokka increased his vocal disagreement at being anything close to Fire Nation when the day got substantially warmer in a short amount of time, and Zuko roared something like-

"Don't you touch my Uncle!"

(Katara was kicking his feet for some reason, what did he do this time?)

"Enough!" Aang shouted. The winds picked up speed, and the day got even warmer, then the ropes were loosening, and Aang was floating above them, while the sun was incredibly bright. The people around them froze, their expressions slowly going slack. Aang twisted and did something, and the few ropes still tangled around Sokka and Katara's legs were shredded, and Zuko had increased his growling.

"I am the Avatar, and I swear to you, these people mean you no harm." That didn't stop the dirty looks, but they at least weren't trying to tie everyone back up. "If you let us explain, I'm sure you'll understand." More dirty looks were thrown -most of them at Zuko and Iroh, which Sokka understood, but a fair amount were thrown at him, which he didn't understand- but they were none-the-less lead to the central hall.

(In Sokka's expert opinion, this was primarily because Aang could look terrifying when he wanted to, and floating ten feet off the ground and using magic air to slice things counted as terrifying. Not that he looked terrifying right now. Right now, he was all smiles and bouncing steps, and he was very glad to have his staff back because he gave the girl-playing-dress-up the biggest smile when she handed it to him.)

Explaining took a long time, and at some point, the girls drug Iroh and Zuko into rooms by themselves for questioning. Aang hovered nervously outside those doors, clearly worried, while Sokka didn't mope, he was just strategizing, shut up Katara. Eventually, they were either satisfied or perplexed by whatever the Firebenders told them, because they were released. Zuko looked slightly more furious, but also weirdly terrified, and Iroh looked entirely amused, and neither of these was a good sign for how the night would go.

(He was right. Zuko shouted more than usual, and Iroh somehow ended up in charge of tea, and he handed it out like they would all die if he didn't, and the quiet plotting Sokka could see in the old man's eyes didn't do anything for his nerves. It also impressed the secret parts of his mind that were awed by this old guy's ability to terrify without trying.)

Sokka went to sleep grumbling about warrior girls and dreamed dreams where he was clearly-the-better-fighter.

 

______

 

Zuko woke before the sun had fully risen, and quietly slipped from the rooms they'd been given. The guards they'd posted at the door eyed him like he was a Cobra Cat waiting to strike, but he paid them no mind as he found a relatively clear area to practice in, just beyond the doors and facing the mountains. He started his morning exercises in smudged, grey darkness, and completed it under the gentle rays of Agni's just peeking eye, carefully keeping his movements fire-free. Uncle had already started tea by the time Zuko came back, and Katara and Aang were awake. Sokka was still sleeping in the small room beyond. He was muttering something -had been all night- and Zuko let Uncle talk him into tea and breakfast.

"I'm going to go find their training hall," Zuko announced quietly. Aang gave him and Uncle a worried look, but Zuko waved it away. "I'll be careful. Of course, if we aren't back by nightfall, you might want to make sure we haven't been fed to anything." It was we because he could already see Uncle setting aside his teacup. It was somehow a given at this point in life that Uncle really didn't intend to let him wander anywhere alone. He hoped that if he needed to be the Blue Spirit, he could safely sneak away. Aang laughed nervously at what he kept muttering was 'a good joke,' when Zuko hadn't been joking. Iroh stood with him, and lead the way out of the guest rooms, humming slightly to himself as they went.

(The song was familiar, one Iroh'd taken to humming in the last couple days -ever since the Southern Temple.)

The guards on the Avatars' rooms broke away and followed. He expected as much.

Iroh spent a bit of time wandering around their market, letting the people fleece him of more money than their wares were worth. He picked up Earth Kingdom clothing in soft, dark greens and browns, and a couple of conical hats. Zuko had known it would be coming, but it was still odd to realize that by the end of the day, he likely wouldn't be wearing Fire Nation colors. He was strangely alright with that -it wasn't disloyal because his Fire Lord was the man picking the clothes.

"You are quiet this morning Nephew," Uncle said softly, inquiring without asking. Zuko thought about that, and how he could answer without shouting -he'd been practicing at not shouting for a while, but he'd increased his efforts with Aang because the kid looked disheartened by any shouting. It was like looking at the face of a kicked Koala Otter, and Zuko hated it.

"We were so easily detained yesterday -and I know it's because we didn't bend but ...how are we- how am I- supposed to be useful to the Avatar if I have to rely on bending every time I'm in trouble?" Iroh slowed his steps, and Zuko shortened his in response.

"Only by looking past your reflection can you see the effect you have on the world."

Zuko gave his Uncle an appropriate scowl, then quickened his pace, marching forward. Uncle laughed behind him, and no matter how much Zuko liked hearing that sound, he had a point to make about proverbs. When he found the Kyoshi Warriors -he knew this was their name and this was their training hall because he had very keen hearing and very attuned sneaking skills- training dojo, he paused in the doorway, watching them move.

They were quick, sure-footed, graceful -and deadly. Sokka had a lot of things to learn, and a healthy fear of girls was one of them. They'd disarmed and manhandled him yesterday like it was nothing, and he wanted to know-how. They noticed him as one and paused, a few took defensive stances, but when he did nothing but observe respectfully from the doorway, one of them -the one that had spoken like the Headman's equal yesterday- spoke.

"Going to stand there all day, or will you be getting around to why you're here?" She snipped. Zuko bowed, not low enough to dishonor himself, but enough to show respect for her position as clearly-the-head-warrior. She didn't exactly react to this, but he noticed the subtle shift back, as if she hadn't expected formality.

 "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I was wondering if we could spar." He managed to not shout any of this, and was impressed with himself. It helped when he counted his breaths while he spoke.

The girls stared at him, then shared a look, and he was made appropriately wary. They shared another look, and then the one who'd spoken stepped forward.

"Well, seeing as how you asked so nice, I guess I could kick your butt again."

Zuko felt his lips twitch alarmingly and resisted the urge to shout to cover it up. He would not shout at these kinds of girls that could put him on the floor and make it hurt.

(Zuko liked her. She reminded him a little of Azula in a weird way, only not as distant and with more social and empathic awareness.)

"You honor me." He responded instead, even and not shouty, and stepped into the room. Predictably, he was on the floor in no time, but it didn't hurt as much as it could have. Also predictably, he stood and asked for more. He still couldn't figure out how her feet did that thing.

"Aren't you embarrassed to be beaten up by a girl?" She asked after the seventh -no,eighth-time, but it wasn't mocking, and Zuko gave her the same look he'd given Sokka when he'd said similarly stupid things yesterday. Were Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom girls just not scary or something? He had a hard time believing that.

"I have a little sister." He admitted with equal parts affection and terror. The warrior blinked at him in confusion, and he decided to elaborate. (He liked this warrior. She was very straightforward and her footwork was tricky.)

"Fire nation culture dictates that as long as you can do a job, you can have a job, no matter your gender. My sister expanded on this by proving that little or not, she could and would make me cry when she felt like it. You being a girl has nothing to do with you being a warrior."

The girls exchanged another look, this one more multilayered and complex, and since he hadn't understood the first one, he was never deciphering this one. They sparred for a little bit longer, until Suki -she'd given her name in between throwing him at the walls and tossing him to the floor- asked him what exactly he wanted to achieve by doggedly sparing with her.

(Her fellow warriors had been buzzing to know, he could tell. Azula had also taught him to decipher 'we will gossip about this quietly in front of you,' body language. Though maybe mostly Ty Lee had taught him that one.)

"... I wanna know how you do it." He gruffed, because it was slightly embarrassing to admit he couldn't figure it out. At her questioning look and superb use of silence, he growled his follow up answer.

"The thing you do with your feet! I can't figure out if it's a thirty-degree turn to the left of your center, or if you're just sliding it."

Uncle chuckled from his place by the door, where he sat with his back braced against the frame and his face turned towards the wilderness. Zuko was surprised he hadn't magically found some tea yet. 

"Honest men catch less fish but more trade." He chimed, sounding amused and approving. Zuko took a bracing breath and had to work on not shouting. Proverbs were, if nothing else, a good gauge for his ability to speak normally. Suki started laughing, low at first and a little unexpected, and the other girls followed suit.

Well. Allow us to teach you then." The offer was also unpredicted, but the resulting lesson was done with vigor and lots of varied ways to be flipped to the ground. It was actually a very nice start to his day.

 

 


 

 

 "Have you heard?"

Kei looked up from his fishing basket at the sound of an excited little voice to find a girl bouncing in front of him. He chuckled to himself, thinking that she'd possibly learned all her letters, or gotten a new sibling, and had been sharing with everyone. (He had several daughters. He knew how children worked.) What she said next left him flabbergasted him.

"The Avatar is on Kyoshi!" She exclaimed and pointed. At first, he thought maybe she was just the mischievous type, but when he followed her finger, he was treated to an impossible sight.

A boy, wearing bright yellows and deep oranges, floated -jumped without falling?-from a balcony to a tree, rustled around in it for a bit, and then floated-didn't-fall to the ground in front of a crying girl. He handed her something -a doll, perhaps- and then turned to give a soft, smiling lecture to a group of boys. These boys watched him in awe, and the adults around him did the same. The girl who'd happily done her duties and shared bounced off to find her next victim.

He left Kyoshi with a mind-boggled headache, and a great story to tell.

(Much later, one of those stories was to a slightly less reputable buyer, who notably didn't care who he sold his fish to. This was perhaps a mistake.

It was. That fish monger went on to tell the tale to a cook from a fire nation vessel, who hurried to report it to his Commander. Zhao had promised extra pay and privileges to the man that brought him interesting news. He thought this counted. It did. Unfortunately, Agni wasn't paying a lot of attention at this time- or he might have caught what came next.)

"Set course for Kyoshi. Rumor or not, this is the kind of thing we can't allow. The world will know there is a price to pay for harboring fantasies of long-dead myths."

And, if he was lucky, the Prince would be there, sniffing around for any chance to go home honorably.

He didn't notice that for the first time in a long time, he had no trouble getting from where he'd been to where he wanted to be. This was because the minor spirits watching him had only been told to misdirect him if he talked about Zuko or Iroh. The Avatar had never come up, so they thought nothing of letting Zhao sail off. This was another minor oversight, but then, even deities weren't without some flaws.

 

 


 

 

 

When Sokka walked into the training hall, he did so loudly. Zuko was sitting inside the doors with Uncle, having let the warriors convince him to sit down you're wobbling. He didn't know what they were talking about, but Uncle made enough disapproving noises that he resentfully sat down next to the old man and his twin. He didn't remember having two Uncle Iroh's, so maybe everyone had a point about how many times he'd bumped his head. Then suddenly there was tea, and another old man -real this time, because everyone greeted him- walked in with a Pai Sho table, and Zuko was even more begrudgingly watching them play.

(All things considered, he was glad for Sokka's loud and skewed opinon on women to distract him, no matter how much he wanted to lock the other boy in a room with Azula because of it.)

"Sorry to interrupt your dance lesson ladies. I was looking for somewhere to do a little workout."

Suki looked not at all surprised by the other boy's words when she propped her fists on her hips. Zuko wasn't either, but he was going to enjoy the show. It was even better than he'd hoped -everything he needed after a week of constant badgering from the older boy just because he was born Fire Nation.

(Being honest, Zuko couldn't really blame him for the badgering. But he did resent it. He didn't ask to be born to Ozai. Being the Fire Lords' son was his greatest shame, but this was something he never intended to say.)

Suki apologized for the day before (and in this, he could tell she mostly meant it) then, with the fakest sincerity Zuko had ever heard, buttered Sokka's ego until he was ridiculously easy to goad. Had Sokka thought twice about all those giggles, he would have surely seen the secret evils there.

(He didn't understand how someone with a sister couldn't to begin with.)

He laughed when Sokka ended up on the floor way more creatively -tied up by his own belt! Zuko would remember that one- than the former Prince had up to that point. His laughter seemed to startle the other boy. Sokka went from pained-confusion-awe to embarrassed fury very quickly, but Zuko couldn't find he regretted it any. He also wasn't sure where the fury was directed and preemptively scowled harder, just in case.

"You think this is sooo funny? I'd like to see you do better!" Zuko opened his mouth to point out that it was only natural neither of them had lasted very long; first, because girls were terrifying; second, these were warriors that had been able to practically apply all their combat training.

(He didn't count his escapades as the Blue Spirit as combat, because that was only ever highly advanced sneaking and ankle slashing, and that didn't count.)

Suki cut in before he could say any of this, grinning from ear to ear.

"Oh, he did. He lasted a full minute longer than you did, and then he got up and did it again and again. Unlike you, however, Zuko came here to learn, not to try and belittle us." She motioned to him in a way he'd become familiar with, and Zuko gruffed a sigh and stood.

Their match did last a little longer this time, but then she pulled her fan on him last minute and he lost first one dao then the other. Then, naturally, he ended up on his back, but in an almost gentle way. Suki crouched down and patted him on the head.

(Girls were also weird.)

Sokka had watched them while trying to struggle free, and he lost a little of that anger. Now, he still seemed pouty, but he was also considering.

"How ... How long have you been at this with them?" Zuko turned his scowl away from the ceiling to Sokka, and he answered while he rolled to his feet.

"All morning. Most of the afternoon. I finally get how they do the thing with their feet, but now I have to figure out how to fight against fans." He scowled at Suki for extra emphasis with this point, and Sokka frowned harder before he finished freeing himself and stomped off. Iroh watched the boy with a familiar but strange look on his face and stood.

"I think I will go for a walk, and stretch these old muscles. Nephew, don't wander too far if you leave." The old general then turned to the man he'd been playing with and bowed. "Forgive me, friend. You know how stiff muscles can cramp one's concentration."

Both old men laughed and then Uncle was gone and Zuko was left with the warriors, and the remaining old guy. They stared at each other for a long minute, and then Zuko slowly picked up his Dao. They tag-teamed him this time, and it was a really good warm-up. Aside from his head getting knocked into the Pai Sho board. That hurt.

(Sokka and Uncle came back a little later, and bowed before Suki, asking if she would be willing to teach him how to move like she did. Zuko had no idea what Uncle said to the boy, but the string of apologies that attached itself to his request was impressive. So was the way she so sweetly trapped him with that 'all of our traditions,' clause.)

(Sokka looked weirdly nice in their warrior garb. Zuko declined the offer of trying it on. It was a good ending to a good day, where he didn't think once about the nightmares he would have that night. They came as expected and ate up his mind like a toddler with fire flakes.)

Chapter Text

By their second day on Kyoshi, he and Uncle took a walk to a nearby stream, and he helped his Uncle shear his top knot, then trim the hair so it was even. He watched as his Uncle shed the last vestiges of his honor from one life, and listened while he made quiet promises for this new chapter. They changed into the clothing he'd bought for them the day before, and burned most everything Fire Nation. 

(Except for their boots, and Zuko kept his much lighter and smaller but no less durable chest plate set. It was comforting to wear under his blue spirit garb.)

When Aang and the Water Tribe siblings saw them, they seemed startled. Zuko wasn't sure why -they were about to be surrounded by people that had spent their whole lives learning to fear the Fire Nation. He and Uncle were also trying to come up with Earth Kingdom names, and a back story that Zuko wouldn't botch.

(Apparently, lying about things that might get him killed, like thinking treasonous thoughts, was entirely different than lying about the most basic things, like a fake name. He was very bad at lying about basic things.)

He expected more grumbling from Sokka about Fire Nation ruffians pretending to be harmless, but the boy just muttered something unintelligible and proceeded to eat more than should be possible for his height and weight. Zuko managed to eat what counted as a full meal for himself, and Uncle, he noted, cut back on his usual portions. (Apparently, now that they were going to be on the run for an unspoken amount of time, Uncle was trying to go on a diet.) Zuko didn't like the thought of a skinnier Uncle, but then, Uncle Iroh was Uncle Iroh, skinnier or rounder made no difference. Zuko still quietly split a dumpling with his Uncle and then stared until the older man ate it chuckling.

"When are we leaving?" Katara asked when the sounds of food being eaten quieted down, and Aang smiled absently at her as he fiddled with his marbles. 

(He'd apparently spent the entire day running from a group of girls that thought he was amazing.)

"Oh, I'm not sure. Tomorrow afternoon or the day after. There are a couple of things here I want to look into." This was such a blatant fib, but the boy did it while smiling a mischievous smile, and really, Zuko didn't argue the point too much because he wanted to spend tomorrow morning sparing some more. He was alright with leaving the next afternoon.

(They didn't leave the next afternoon. Each new girl that smiled at Aang and fawned over his Nomad tricks was more fuel to the fire. Zuko found him posing with a whole gaggle of young women for an artist, but the artist in question eventually walked away, because more kept coming. It was ridiculous, and someone needed to stop it, but Sokka was busy learning from Suki, and Katara was extremely irritated the boy wasn't listening to them -which meant she was the wrong person to speak sense to him. Irritated sisters were not-nice sisters. This also meant that Zuko was out, because he wasn't even sure how to be nice and stay nice. This left Uncle, who tried imparting wisdom through a proverb, but Aang apparently interpreted it the wrong way, because they didn't leave and he increased his shenanigans.)

They'd been on Kyoshi three additional days before Zuko had enough. Sure, it was three days of Zuko getting a consistent string of sparring partners, while Sokka donned their traditional garb with less and less grumbling, but Aang became more frustrating. The monk was letting the attention go to his head, which was understandable because he was a fun-loving twelve-year-old, but at the same time, made Zuko question the boys' life choices. Currently, he was watching the kid get goaded into doing various and creative types of pushups while Momo sat on his back looking adorably comfortable. Zuko was frowning at the display of apparent prowess when Sokka appeared at his side, notably not in the Kyoshi Warrior garb.

"Is he at it again?" Zuko nodded at the boys' question then motioned to a part of Sokka's chin where he'd missed some of the face paint. While he quickly scrubbed it off, Katara appeared on Zuko's other side, scowling at Aang. 

"I've asked him three times today when we could leave, and he hasn't answered. We have all the supplies. We have some extra money, apparently, thanks to Iroh winning a couple of Pai Sho games? We're all set to go." She complained. Zuko was right there with her. As much as he liked everything he was learning from the Warriors, he wanted to get moving. They had a lot of ground to cover between here and the North Pole.

(Katara, he knew, was itching to learn Waterbending. He was waiting until they were away from prying eyes to show her the only scroll he had about water bending, which went over very basic forms and the apparent spirituality of the bending type. Uncle had given it to him because learning about other bending types could be useful, especially when you were trying to produce lightening.)

(Producing lightening was important, because it was a weapon he wasn't sure his father could use, and Zuko needed every weapon he could get his hands on.)

Zuko nodded at the siblings and then marched forward. The girls oohing and aahing at Aang quieted at his approach, and he could feel several adult eyes on him. The people of Kyoshi still overcharged him and Uncle if they bought anything, but they'd at least given up on the dirty looks -unless, like now, he approached one of their own even incidentally. He stopped a respectful distance from the kids and didn't look at them while he spoke.

"Aang. When are we leaving?" Aang paused in his display of prowess and jumped-floated to his feet, smiling as he bounced towards Zuko, with Momo desperately holding onto his bald head.

"What's the rush, Hotman?" Aang asked, and the use of such old-fashioned slang left him briefly speechless. He hadn't ever actually heard someone use that term, just read about it, and it was ... weird. It must have shown in his expression because Aang made a face, while still smiling. "Do people not use that one anymore?" Zuko felt his silence was answer enough, so he moved on.

"Look, I get that you're having a good time here, but we need to move on. It isn't a good idea for you of all people to stay in one place too long." Aang frowned slightly, then smiled again. 

"I appreciate that you're worried Zuko, but I think we'll be fine for at least another day, right? Besides, I want to see if maybe I can ride the Unagi instead of the Elephant Koi!" Zuko was five seconds away from shouting a lot of things when the monk admitted that, and Sokka was suddenly there, carefully steering Zuko away and taking over. That was good, because Zuko needed to count his breaths and massage the bridge of his nose, and overall try not to shout

(Also, try not to think about the fact that Sokka had toned down on his attitude. He really wanted to know what Uncle had said to give the boy such a thoughtful look on his face every time he went to say something scathing about them. He also secretly didn't want to know. Which was why he was pretending not to notice, and really not talking about it.)

"Aang. Buddy, pal. You can't do that. You barely got away from it the first time, and the word kind of needs the Avaatra to not maim himself for the sake of showing off. We need to seriously consider leaving, and you need to try not to do drastic things. The rest of us are ready to leave, by the way. We're only waiting for you." 

Which was maybe the wrong thing to say to an eccentric Monk child who'd been taught to go where the wind took him, because Aang was pouty and snippy after that, and then disappeared. Katara caved and went to find him an hour later. Sokka went off to possibly say goodbye to Suki (and if he did so with a slightly dreamy look on his face, Zuko pretended not to notice), and Zuko and Uncle double-checked all their supplies. Everything was fine, and then ... things weren't fine, because there was a Fire Nation warship apparently, and everyone was looking at Iroh and Zuko like they were responsible. 

(The warriors vouched for them. That was surprising, but not as surprising as the Warriors asking him and Iroh for advice in fending off an attack. Zuko knew they wouldn't like what he and Iroh had to say. They didn't, but they did take the advice under consideration while they planned. Thankfully, Katara drug Aang into the village just before Zhao of all people rode in. The sun boiled above them.)

"Give up the Avatar, and I'll let some of you live. Admit that he was never here, and I'll only burn down parts of your village." Zuko got a fresh reminder for why he hated the Commander. Most of the village had been lead away, via heavy advisement from Zuko and Iroh, and the Warriors fended off most of the search parties while Zuko and Iroh got Katara and Sokka into position. Aang played bait really well, keeping just within sight and just out of reach, and proving that he was very much the Avatar through the creative use of gale-force winds. Eventually, they got him into Appa's saddle and heading away, and Zuko and Iroh made sure to stay ducked out of sight as they fled.

Apparently, as they flew over the cove's water and Zhao and his men gave chase, the Unagi rose from the depths with determination. Zuko heard it's scream of rage, but didn't get to see it spit freezing water at the Fire Benders. (Katara swore to him that night over the fire that their leader looked ready to pop a blood vein when the serpent wouldn't stop spraying him and his men. Katara also said it had felt like the oceans were alive beneath them, singing a siren song to defend and attack. Zuko hadn't felt that, but he had felt Agni's light like a flame that didn't hurt on his shoulders.) He felt Agni's light now, on his face, and he tracked the slow sink of the sun through his eyelids as they flew North-ish. 

(Aang felt terribly guilty about the whole thing, and before Katara could try to sooth or mom him into feeling better, Zuko took up the responsibility of being brutally honest and pointed out that he should feel guilty. That he needed to remember that he couldn't just tell everyone who and what he was, and that when the rest of his party spoke up about something, he needed to listen and consider with more care.

It wasn't just his life he risked when he wanted to stay somewhere. It was theirs, and every villager or tradesman around him. Aang pouted about this for a little while, but later that night when he finally felt it was safe to have Appa land, he thanked Zuko for his honesty, and for worrying about everyone's safety so well. It was on the tip of his tongue to admit that like it or not, they were his people now, but that was such a strange thought, he pushed it aside. He was probably just tired.)

 

 


 

 

Zhao watched the Avatar and his bison disappear into the sky. He watched his men fend off attacks from a bevy of sea creatures as they tried to give chase. He watched and he stewed, and he ground his teeth until the attacks stopped and they limped their way after the Avatar. 

"Get me a messenger hawk!"

He bellowed. His plans had just shifted from 'find Prince Zuko,' to 'capture the Avatar and let Zuko find him.' The Fire Lord needed to know that the World Bridge was, in fact, alive.

(Fujin Reitsui, mother of the Southern winds, let the hawk leave the ship, then spent several days playing with it at the temple that used to house her people. She finally -resentfully- let the bird continue on its way, but only after making sure it knew they could play again on its return trip. The longer she stalled Zhao, the longer the last of her human children had to get away. She hadn't been able to save her children a hundred years ago -she would not let the last of them die now.)

 

 


 

 

 

When they reached Omashu, Zuko took one look at the giant, mountain-like structure and shook his head slowly. The last thing they needed was to be discovered in an enormous Earth Kingdom city with impossible-to-scale walls that was filled with Earthbenders. Iroh wordlessly agreed with him, turning to start setting up a campsite and despite Aang's pestering, they finally managed to convince him to just go do what he needed to, they were really fine with making camp with Appa.

 Aang's disguise, and the subsequent attitude that he applied to it, left Zuko very grateful that they'd elected to stay behind. After Iroh and Zuko lost sight of the trio heading into Omashu, they turned to make camp. Iroh did the setup, while Zuko started dinner. He was hoping the rest would be back before nightfall -Aang had said his 'business' shouldn't take them very long. 

(Naturally, they didn't return at all. That left Zuko with helping Appa find good shrubs to eat, and brushing down the bisons' sides. The animal had started to look a little ruffled the last few days, not that Aang was neglecting care, just that they'd had little time for in-depth care. Zuko spoiled him now, because the fluffy monster was very good about carrying them from one point to another. He fell asleep with the Bison as a backrest, which was a good way for staving off cold -there was no other reason to cuddle such a large, flammable monster. None at all.)

It was the middle of the night when he woke suddenly, unsure if he was waking because of a nightmare or something else when- a rumble that started in the distance, and then the ground was shaking beneath him. The Earth broke underneath him, and Uncle let out a shout. If it weren't for the Earth holding him like a vice, he would have thrown a fireball and their cover would be super blown. As it was. Earthy prison. Small miracles did happen. 

Appa was rampaging somewhere behind him, but another rumble and minor earthquake later, the Appa-is-angry noises had stopped. He really hoped they hadn't killed the Avatars bison.

"These are them, right?" Zuko looked up with a preemptive glare in place and tried not to be startled when Three heavily muscled men surrounded them, Sokka in tow. It took a second for his heart to burn with betrayal his feelings to gain a new weight. A new, crushing weight that was ridiculous because it was only natural that the boy who had loudly proclaimed his hatred for the Fire Nation for the last week and a half had-

Then he noticed the stone handcuffs and the gag around the boy's mouth. Sokka was shrugging. He shrugged at every question they asked him, and glared, and overall made extremely rude gestures with his hands, and let his silence speak for him like a pro. Uncle would be proud if he weren't too busy being buried with his back turned to them.

"Look, boy, the King's punishment will go a lot smoother for you if you just cooperate." 

If Zuko had been able to take more than small, shallow breaths, he would have shouted a lot of things just then.

(Things like 'How dare you threaten him?' And 'What did Aang do now?' And 'Release me so I can smite you with fire!' On second thought, he probably wouldn't shout the last one, but he really wanted to.)

 The guards turned to him again and tried to ask him questions -and it took them a long time to realize that he couldn't answer because he was buried too well and breathing hurt. Zuko had hoped that enemy soldiers would be a little smarter -what kind of luck had kept his father's armies from completely taking over? 

(The answer to that was Badger Moles. The Fire Nation could only ever get so far before the Badger Moles became a problem.)

They loosened the Earth's hold on him, and Zuko thought that if he wiggled just right, he'd probably be able to get loose. This would be, of course, after he managed to even out his breathing because breaths tasted so good wow he was light-headed.

"Are you associates of the young Avatar Aang?" The man in front of him half shouted half asked.

Zuko answered with a glare and another pointed gasp for air. 

"They match the description, and from the way this one is looking, I'm gonna say yes." Another volunteered. Zuko took in a couple more breaths and was ready to start shouting when they gagged him. It was horrifying, because the man just pulled the gag out of his sleeve like it belonged there. They had him out of the Earth faster than he could attack, and bound right next to Sokka, but he was wearing boots and they weren't, and it might have been childish, but he took advantage and went for the toes.

(They learned to shackle his legs, and one of them had to heft him over his beefy shoulder, and Zuko took vicious satisfaction in jabbing his elbows into the man's nerves. If he'd been able to apply adequate force, he would have blocked all the chi. Ty Lee had accidentally taught him that move when she kept using it on him -and he was never more grateful for it, because he could tell it was irritating.) 

By the time the guards managed to get him and the others, plus a very irritable Bison, into the city and the heart of the palace, Zuko could feel murderous intent rolling off his victim in waves. He kept jabbing at the nerve between the fifteen and twentieth vertebrae, with more vigor. A cackle echoed through the room, and Zuko was set down with force. He rolled back into the fall and jumped to his feet, glaring at the Earth Kingdom soldier. The soldier glared back, and there really was murder in his eyes.

(He was doing it wrong. To really convey the intention to kill or maim a child that was irritating, you had to smile all cold while you looked at them with murder eyes. Most of his instructors, Zhao, and father had all taught him that one.)

"I hear this one is feisty!" A loud voice boomed, followed by a snorting cackle. Zuko managed to turn around without falling -stupid shackles- and glared at the speaker.

The old man sitting on the throne was wearing a garishly purple outfit that was possibly the gaudiest thing Zuko had ever seen. (His headpiece was also gaudy, and just as stupid.) The old man studied first him, then Iroh, and then he tapped his chin and squinted.

"Now, I am an old man, so you'll both have to come closer. I can hardly see you from over there." Zuko felt like pointing out that his guards had stopped them there, but he also wanted to know the man's angle -and to possibly burn that ridiculous headpiece, but fire was still a bad idea. Zuko shuffled closer very pointedly, taking his time, and he could feel the murder-waves behind him increase. Iroh was following him with unspoken exasperation, and a lot of wariness. 

(Looking back, Zuko should have paid more attention to that wariness.)

When they were finally standing a respectful distance from the steps of the throne, the king hummed and ahhed, and cackle-snorted some more. This went on for such a long time, Zuko was legitimately concerned about this King -he'd clearly hit himself in the head one-too-many times. How he was still king was baffling, unless he was one of those figure-head rulers. The old man finally stopped cackle-snorting to rub at his eyes, and then smile at him and Uncle all crooked like.

"How very interesting! You'll do perfectly for some of the challenges!" Not what Zuko had expected, but better than 'Fire Nation spies! Crush them rocks!' Zuko would take it. Possibly. He had no idea what challenges the man was talking about. It must have shown on his face because the king cackle-snorted some more and motioned to the guards.

"Bring the old man and the Water Tribe boy to the room with the girl." He ordered. Then he fluttered his fingers at Zuko. "Put this one on challenge number one!" The guards hesitated at that, and the king scowled. 

"Sire, do you want us to hang him in the waterfall instead of the key?" Zuko panicked for a brief instant, because that sounded like 'do you want us to drown him,' but the king slapped his forehead and then waved a hand. 

"No, no! Which one is the one with Flopsie?" Zuko had no idea what a Flopsie was, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know, by the resigned tone of the guards' reply.

"The second one, sire." The king clapped his hands eccentrically, then smiled at Zuko in a way that could have been murder-cold if he didn't just look crazy.

"Perfect! Hang him over a pit of spikes on a rope that slowly lowers! Aang will have to figure it out if he wants to keep his Fire Bender friend safe!" There was a sudden silence, and Zuko considered how hot he'd have to make his hands and feet to melt stone. Too hot. His mind supplied, along with a painful string of remembered feelings. He didn't want to burn himself. He also wasn't about to make this easy for the clearly-insane-no-doubts-about-it king and his henchmen. He stepped on all the toes to the mad cackle-snort of the King of Omashu.

 

_______

 

Iroh managed to shrug off the most recent attempt to stop him from reaching his Nephew when King Bumi stepped in front of him. He had heard rumors of this king, but never before had he seen him with his own eyes, and he was regretting that now.

"No harm will come to my Nephew." He said it quiet, aware of Sokka's eyes where the boy struggled against his guard. 

Bumi cackle-snorted, but it was a surprisingly kind sound, considering the show he'd just put on.

"The White Lotus blooms wide to those who know her secrets." It wasn't exactly a promise, but from what Iroh knew of this man, it was the best he would get. He let himself be taken away, but much like his Nephew, he showed them how unhappy about it he was. He did this by smiling at the guards and letting it serve as a promise

(They seemed to understand the message because most of them stopped meeting his gaze. That was good. Because if anything did happen to his Nephew, he wasn't sure what he might do to this city -only that he would be breaking every promise he ever made to himself.)

(When Agni's eye peeked over the world that morning, he was angry at first, but then considering. His Dragon-given-human-flesh wouldn't be so very calm if his Chosen was in real danger. He still made sure to make the daylight streaming into Omashu extra hot. Just as a matter of principle.)

 

_______

 

Aang had thought his day couldn't get any more messed up when he walked into that sunken court and looked up. He was instantaneously proven wrong, because Zuko was hanging by his hands to his right, gagged and glaring, and below him, was a whole lot of spikes. This was mind-boggling, but fit in perfectly with how crazy this King was proving to be. Zuko muffled something, and it sounded important, and Aang was getting ready to help him -"Hold on Zuko, I'll be right up!"- when the Earth sunk one of his feet into the ground and held. He fell flat on his face. Falling hurt, he decided, and then the King's voice echoed through the court.

"Now, now, don't be impatient! I've lost my pet Flopsie, and I need help finding him. Won't you retrieve him for me? I should point out that your friend there very clearly depends on you doing so promptly." Aang glared when the rope holding Zuko jerked down a couple inches, and the boy glared harder and muffled something again. 

"You're insane! How is a pet worth more than a life!" He argued, and Zuko's rope jerked again. He got the message and started looking, to the sound of Zuko grumbling and Sokka keeping up a frantic chatter that kept getting interrupted by the guards. They ended up gagging him too. 

He thought he found Flopsie, a Bunny, of all things -which was weird and a little exotic, so maybe right up this king's alley- and then a huge Gorilla Goat was there, roaring and chasing, and grabbing. When he checked on Zuko it looked like his feet were touching the spikes and he really just needed Flopsie to stop running and the Gorilla Goat to stop chasing him and- The idea hit him like a strike of lightning and he frowned as he turned to look at the Gorilla Goat who was following him, and then at the hole the Bunny had just disappeared down. 

"Flopsie?" He asked hesitantly, and the creature excitedly stopped in front of him. 

(After he got above and demanded Zuko's safe release, he realized what Zuko and Sokka had been trying to tell him. There weren't any spikes beneath the boy, just a whole bunch of cleverly placed ones around him. From the glare he sent the King, Aang was sure that none of that mattered because if he could have, he would have lit the Kings ridiculous hat on fire. As it was, the guards assigned to dragging him away for the next challenge shackled his feet and did a funny little dance when the boy tried to stomp on their toes. Aang realized how well-practiced the dance was and was secretly proud the other boy had clearly been giving the Earth Benders a tough time.)

 

_______

 

Iroh watched King Bumi fight the Avatar, and decided that no matter how much his Nephew grumbled, he was going to need to stick to his diet. He was an impressive bender, he felt no shame in admitting, but he simply didn't move like that anymore.

(Here, Bumi jumped impossibly high for his age and smacked the ground into a concussive wave. Iroh watched the earth beneath him turn from hard stone to dirt.)

He may need to move like that, being in the Avatars company. It was time for the Dragon to come out of retirement. He mentally reviewed all the things he would have to pick up again, and decided that a little company wouldn't be bad during his training. It was perhaps time to increase his Nephews teaching. Maybe young Sokka wouldn't be averse to getting additional warriors training either.

(Here, Bumi ripped off part of the balcony above, and Iroh was glad that it wasn't his Nephew down in that ring, though he had to reach out and grab the boys tunic to keep him that way.)

Having Sokka and Zuko train together might even warm the cool water between them. He knows the reasons for Sokka's attitude, and he is sure that is given time and opportunity, the two boys could be friends. That was something both of them dearly needed, and while Aang would make a good friend, he was also a boy who preferred fun and peaceful past times to war games and weapons training. Yes, he thought, as Bumi held a boulder the size of Appa over his and the Avatar's head. Having two young boys to train while whipping himself into shape would be just what he needed. 

(And, he admitted, Young Katara might also be interested in learning how to fight. He'd seen her eying Zuko's dao with equal parts interest and disgust. The way she so desperately wanted to be able to use her bending to fight was another clue that she would make a good student. He was positive that while he couldn't help her master her bending, he could nudge her in the right direction. He'd known many Waterbenders in his time after all. By the end of the day, Iroh had a plan.)

 

_______

 

After. After everything, Aang sat down with Bumi on one of Omashu's tall walls and watched Zuko stomp across the bridge, Iroh trailing after him, looking much calmer even from a distance than he had inside the walls. Sokka was right behind Iroh, but he stopped with Katara half-way and looked back. 

(Appa had already gone back to where they'd previously made camp, after several angry roars at the Earthbender guards. Aang would try to get that story later. He was sure he wouldn't like it.) 

"Why did you involve Zuko like that? I still can't figure out what you were trying to show me there." Bumi cackle-snorted, and smiled a wide smile. It was familiar, and made Aang's heart hurt -and also wonder how he hadn't seen it before- but focusing on the negatives would only discolor the positives, so he forced himself to not feel that pang of guilt-shame-longing

"That wasn't so much for you as it was for me." Which made no sense, and the confusion must have shown because Bumi laughed all over again. 

"He tried to burn the ropes -when you weren't looking. He tried to burn them, to show that you didn't have to worry. Lucky we had the presence of mind to have him hanging from a steel chain before we tied him up. I needed to see what he would do, and I'm satisfied that he'll look after you the same way you'll look after him. The Avatar needs people around him that are willing to go that extra mile, Aang. The world is too dangerous for you otherwise."

That made a weird, Bumi-logic kind of sense, but Aang didn't really want Zuko breaking limbs in an effort to be helpful. He resolved to keep a closer watch over the boys' clear disregard for self-preservation. Iroh looked like he could use more help in that particular club anyway, and he liked Iroh. He made great tea and gave good advice, when Aang was able to decipher it fully. He hugged Bumi before he jumped from the wall, and letting go was the hardest thing since finding Gyatso. But he did. He let go and glided down, and walked towards all the current positives in his life. 

(At least, a small part of his mind whispered, something from his past still walked and moved, and roamed the Earth. At least he wasn't the only thing that was a hundred and twelve and remembered a time when the four nations were neighbors who bickered but had no need for conquering each other. At least someone else had looked at Iroh and Zuko and seen not a threat pretending niceties, but good people trying to do the right thing.)

(Bumi's people still didn't understand why he'd let two Firebenders walk in and out of his city without any kind of punishment. Bumi only cackle-snorted and told them they needed to learn to see better. It was exactly the kind of answer they should have expected.)

Chapter Text

They stopped in the mining town despite Zuko and Iroh's objections. They needed supplies, and Sokka was slightly terrible at hunting when there was no snow to help muffle his steps. Zuko was terrible at hunting because he took one look at what he was supposed to be killing and saw his Mother's turtle-ducks. He never could go through with killing it.

(This didn’t, he later argued, make him a vegetarian. He was fine with eating meat -he just …didn’t want to be responsible for killing it. Aang probably would have pressed the teasing after that, but he seemed happy that there was someone who enjoyed all vegetable meals as much as he did.)

So they went into the mining town on full alert, with every intention of staying together as a group. They only needed some basic food supplies after all, it was a simple in-and-out kind of deal. No reason for them to spread out and risk getting stuck somewhere.

(Naturally they accidently split up. Zuko wouldn’t know till later, but his Uncle wandered into a tea shop with Sokka tailing him, and Aang and Momo got distracted by the sounds of someone crying. Zuko was coming to find that being Aang’s … companion was basically a job of trying to keep him from getting suckered into problems that weren’t his.)

He and Katara were the only ones to take their initial task seriously -probably because they did the most cooking. Katara growled into the air, then sighed a second later, just as he was starting to edge away. When he didn’t light anything on fire -or rather, soak someone- he judged it was safe to help her stock up.

“How do you know how to do this?” She asked out of nowhere, and he gave her a confused look from under the shadow of his conical hat. She tilted her chin at the vegetables they knew they could take and keep fresh for more than a few days -like gourds and roots, and any potato or squash- and Zuko shrugged slightly.

“Back on the Wani, I was … friends with Cook Zui. If I had questions about -well, things, I went to him. He taught me how to cook -and incidentally help in the kitchen- in exchange for answers.” Katara nodded along to this, and for the first time, he could see how she might be the easier one to get along with. When she wasn’t being overbearingly sister-like, she was companionable. This was a nice change of pace from Aang’s all-over energy and Sokka’s wild sarcasm -which even toned down was cutting and made Zuko want to fight him before anything else.

They managed a short, less-awkward-than-he’d-feared conversation while they shopped, and when they were done, they put a little effort into finding the others. Sokka and Iroh had apparently wandered from the tea shop to somewhere -no one knew where- and Aang was in the air. Not literally thankfully, because they’d had that discussion, but metaphorically. It was through silent unanimous decision that they turned and headed for Appa.

It was no surprise to him that they were done storing all their food stuff before Aang , Sokka and Uncle made a reappearance. What did surprise him were the serious looks on their faces. He and Katara jumped out of the saddle and head towards them. Before he could even ask what was wrong, Aang was talking.

“Okay, so look, I know you’re probably going to get all growly because I ran off and I promised that I wouldn’t, but before you do -we have to help them.” He must have let all his baffled feelings out on display because the boy kept talking. “These people! I heard this crying, and there was a woman, and the Fire Nation guys around here are not nice, and they take the benders and put them somewhere! They might be killing them, and they just took her son, and she said he’s like, our age! I can’t just let them, so I need to figure out how to help, because that’s my job, right? Isn’t this kind of stuff what I’m supposed to help with?” Aang was looking at him like he should know, and also like he might be having a panic attack. Zuko could see the signs in the kids shaking hands and wobbling steps, and he knew those. He was hoping that the kid wasn’t going to hyperventilate.

Just to be on the safe side, Zuko reached out and shoved the boy’s head down until he was crouching with his head between his knees. Iroh stopped both Katara and Sokka from stopping Zuko, and the former prince made sure to speak so they could hear.

“You need to breathe. Proper breath control is important for an Airbender, right? With me. In.” He breathed in and Aang stopped struggling long enough to follow suit. “Out. In. Out. Good. You feel calmer?” Zuko knew he did because his shoulders had stopped shaking, but he let Aang choose to nod. Zuko released him and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Is this important to you?” It was something Uncle always asked him when they spoke about big decisions. He quietly asked it when Zuko insisted they take a skivvy to Katara and Sokka's village. He'd asked it every time it mattered. It was one of the few things that wasn’t a proverb. Aang nodded quickly, then visibly forced himself to breathe some more. Zuko shrugged.

“Alright. As long as you’re aware that the consequences will be loss of anonymity.” Aang tilted his head in a way that said both ‘I’ve already heard this but in proverb form,’ and ‘please translate.’ “The instant you decide to break Fire Nation prisoners out of any kind of encampment, any Fire Nation citizen left standing will give a full description of you, and walking into places like that mining town will be like rolling the dice. Maybe they have a wanted poster, and maybe they don’t.”

Aang nodded again, but slower, and Zuko knew the kid was worrying about the consequences, but also determined to help. That was alright. Zuko’s entire purpose in traveling with him was to help Aang get through this new world, and if Aang felt this is what he needed to do, it was what they’d do.

(Zuko didn’t say he’d been dying to try breaking into a military encampment for a year and a half. That would raise all the wrong questions from Uncle, and he preferred it if Iroh remained oblivious to Zuko’s shadier activities.)

“Get me a map.” They had a plan to make.

 

 


 

 

It was Katara that ended up really saving the day. She took all the heated words the trapped Earth benders threw at them and turned them into a call for arms like a poet. Zuko contemplated that if she’d been in the Fire Nation militia, she’d probably be the type of high-ranking officer that could give incredibly moving speeches that inspired you to run at the Earthbenders in front of you with no fear, and die with those words still ringing in your ears. That was a scary-cool power to have, and being a sister made it even worse.

Now, he plucked her necklace off the deck as Aang lead Appa down and the prisoners fled. An older man and a young boy were thanking her, and promising that they had taken her words to heart. He could see in their eyes that when they got back home, they wouldn’t just drive the Fire Nation from their waters. They’d destroy them. Zuko could live with that.

(He’d seen some of what they were doing to the people of that town before they left for the prison, and even if their flames hadn’t been very bright, fire could burn no matter how strong or weak it started. There was no honor in threatening the weak.)

When the Earthbenders turned to him, he gave them a wordless bow, and gently handed Katara her necklace. She paled when she saw it in his hand, reaching for her throat. The younger of the two Earthbenders cleared his throat, and when Zuko looked, he returned the bow Zuko had given.

“Before five minutes ago, I didn’t think I’d ever trust a Fire Bender. You saved my father from that last blast, and you worked with the Avatar to help us requisition those ships. Right now, that means more to me than where you were born, so thank you.” Zuko was struck speechless by this and nodded awkwardly before he quickly turned away and walked-didn’t-run towards Appa.

(He heard Katara quietly thanking them on his behalf and saying sister-things like 'Sorry he's awkward. He's still getting used to positive responses,' and other nonsense. He was not awkward; he just had no reason to say anything! This was his job!)

Uncle got into the saddle on his own, and he and Sokka watched the men give Aang one last thanks before they fled. Zuko hoped that they didn’t just make it safely -he hoped they won. As terrible as it was to think, his people had been doing worse for nearly a century. Aang possibly had the right idea; This was what they were meant to be doing.

(Zuko didn’t know, but when those prisoners went home, the sun went cold for the Fire Benders abusing an entire people because they could. Agni watched his children die and had no anger -only sadness that it had come to this. The former prisoners had stories to tell about the Avatar and the people he traveled with. They told tales about the courageous, inspiring young Waterbending warrior that rose the ocean to meet the soldiers flame -an exaggeration they would never admit to- and how a Water Tribe warrior had disarmed Fire Nation soldiers -bender or non-bender- left and right.

How there were rebel fire benders escorting the Avatar to the North. How they’d watched what looked like Earth Kingdom refugees work in tandem to redirect flames back at the armored soldiers trying to kill fleeing Prisoners. They told tales about an Avatar that laughed mischievously as he swept people off the deck with gale-force winds, an Avatar that had brought them a weapon to fight with when they thought they were defenseless. One who’d stood by and watched them carry out justice on the man who’d imprisoned them and smiled sadly. They kept their promise about keeping Katara’s words in mind. They headed for the war front -they had a bone to pick.)

 

 


 

 

Ozai read the reports coming in from Zhao, and then from the mining prison warden, and he sat back in thought. Zhao made no further mention of Zuko, either his efforts to figure out where the worthless brat was hiding, or his attempts to root him out. (He also made no mention of Iroh, but Ozai had long accepted that his stupid brother would be a thorn in his side until he personally rooted out the problem.) The Prison Warden spoke about two ‘rebel’ Firebenders whose descriptions varied. Apparently, only a handful of men and women involved in the fight had gotten a good look. One series of account stated that the old man who wore no top knot, his hair dishonorably short, was much taller than average. Other reports on the same man stated his beard was streaked with black still (so potentially not an old man) and that he had more muscles than the beefiest Earthbender soldiers. Accounts on the younger man ranged in description wildly. Some said he had long, braided hair and wore a veil under his conical hat, was lean and wiry and clearly a young adult. More still thought he might have been a boy only recently past his manhood, but one that was just as well built as the older man.

The warden himself wasn’t sure. He kept using phrases like ‘trick of the light,’ and ‘fluid shapeshifters,’ and swore that the Avatar must have summoned fire wielding spirits to his aid. Ozai thought there was a much similar answer. A much better answer. He ruffled through the papers again until he found the one that was most incriminating, the one from a level-headed woman who swore up and down that the younger of the two Firebenders -and she knew they were Firebenders, from the way they moved- had a scar splashed across the left side of his face. Yes. Ozai had a very good idea for what to do with this.

If he played this right, he wouldn’t have to hunt down his son. The Avatar would take care of all his problems.

(Had he been paying attention that day or any other, he would have noticed that Princess Azula was startlingly absent from her formal lessons. Her instructors thought nothing of this, as she’d been skipping regularly because they were apparently boring. Even when he found out about her continued absence, he would only laugh at the men that were supposed to be training his daughter, because they were clearly too weak to keep a child in line. He wouldn’t be laughing by the time evening meal rolled around. No one would be.)

 

 


 

 

The winter solstice was a week away before Zuko found the time to show Katara the basic Waterbending scroll he had. The girl squawked and growled, and overall, acted very sisterly while berating him for not showing her sooner. He tried to tell her that between Kyoshi, where he barey knew her, Omashu -which needed no explanation- and then the mining town, there hadn’t been time. She just glared at him until he stopped defending himself. At her insistence, they found somewhere to camp so she could try and practice.

(Their camp ended up at the base of a mountain, with a good, strong river running by it. Zuko was reasonably sure the next township was within flying distance, and was Fire Nation free, so camping for a few days while Katara practiced and Iroh got Sokka used to training wouldn’t hurt. He’d found out his Uncle had offered to teach the Water Tribe boy some more fighting moves, and the other teen had accepted readily. Zuko would feel bad for what that entailed, but he couldn’t wait to see what Sokka thought of standard Fire Nation training.)

He and Aang spent the first half of that first day quietly giving Katara movement tips. She was exactly like Azula when she got frustrated, which meant Zuko’s nightmares that night would probably be taking a whole new, terrible turn. It also meant he kept a healthy distance between himself and her. On the bright side, Zuko got to laugh at Sokka a lot while the boy was put through standard Fire Nation drills. They were things Zuko had been doing since he was a child, so watching another culture trying to acclimate to it was surprisingly funny.

(Sokka’s complaints were primarily almost always based off the time and repetition of each drill. Apparently, they were too fast, and they wanted too many movements all at once. Later, his only complaint was the time of day they drug him out of bed.)

They had a nice, light dinner, where Zuko carefully demonstrated the wrist movements Katara was having trouble with -and he could well see how having an instructor would be good for her. Zuko and Aang understood the subtleties of the scroll because they'd been trained in bending from the instant they showed capability for it. Katara had only her very frustrated self, a Grandmother that couldn't help, an absentee father, and a brother that still called bending magic. He felt another pang of responsibility for everything his people had taken from hers and repeated the wrist movement every time she growled 'again.'

(His nightmares did take a turn for the worst. Instead of him trying desperately to protect a group of children wearing bright yellows and oranges, deep blues and wild greens, he was chained in one place while the fires turned against Azula, who was visibly flustered and now had no one to hide behind while she composed herself. He watched her burn up in the flames with the other children.) 

He was up before Agni was even a dream on the horizon. He stayed up, swinging his dao in a wild dance, trying to work out all the feelings he had now. Azula would be fine, because Azula always lies. She was the best at lying. She didn't need her big brother to hide behind and never had

(This in itself was a lie, but he wouldn't realize that till much later. As it was, he'd managed to work out his anger productively, without shouting, and half convince himself that his baby sister was probably fine. He tried to imagine what she might be doing, but all he got was half the palace on fire while she elegantly shrugged at the flames.)

He was working himself up again when Uncle woke a little before Agni breached the sky. Iroh took one look at him and somehow managed to get Zuko sitting down and drinking tea before Agni's eye peeked over distant mountains. He couldn't make himself talk about his nightmare, and Uncle never pushed, and somehow the bitter-sweet-spicy tea did calm him down. They went through a set of warm up kata together, then Iroh broke off to wake Sokka and put him through more training while Zuko went through all the kata sets in his level. Aang fluttered around them, talking quickly with either parties -while occasionally mimicking movements curiously- but overall being active and chipper.

(Katara woke up late, and growled about him not waking her up, and drug him from his training to help with hers. He went with a little bit of resentful mutterings quietly aimed at her back, and he danced through the Waterbender steps with her until he hurt more than usual and his nightmares were a distant thought.) 

The move she was trying to learn didn’t even seem that hard, just a big glob of water you were supposed to control fluidity, without loosing any water. It was the most basic of scrolls after all, but Katara’s problem was that it wanted big and impressive, and the Water Tribe girl worked best when she could control small, specific amounts of water.

(He’d watched her practicing with water in a bowl, or a cup, or sometimes the cooking pot before anything else was added. Her movements weren’t nearly as forced. Maybe they were going about this wrong way.)

He was pulled from his thoughts when Katara let out an excited shout, and he saw that she’d managed to pull a glob of water from the stream, one a little bigger than Aang’s head. She was making it dance -a little wobbly- in the pattern shown on the scroll. Then she turned to look at him with excitement, and the water ball flew towards him fast. He couldn’t dodge, because he wasn’t expecting it, and now he was soaked. Aang was laughing somewhere behind him, and Sokka was apparently not being kept busy enough, because he was also laughing.

“Sorry! I’m sorry! But Zuko, I did it! I didn’t do it as big, but it’s a start, right?” Katara managed to make her apology sound very open ended, like she wasn’t sure how many times that would happen, and also like she wasn’t sorry at all.

Right.” He growled.

Zuko managed to not shout at her, because he wanted to be happy she was improving in her own way, and also because he was too busy glaring. He could already tell the next few days were going to be ridiculously long. He needed more tea.

(Katara didn’t stop him when he turned away and headed for the pot Uncle had left sitting out. She just did a weird little dance with Aang and they talked excitedly while Zuko drank his tea and steamed himself dry.)

 


 

 

Zhao read the instructions he’d received and smiled. There was a reason that, no matter he was always looking for a knife in the back, he and Fire Lord Ozai always could agree. Zhao took the new parameters of his mission to heart and turned to the Helmsman.

“Head to the last place the Avatar was sighted. We’ll track him down if I have to burn the whole Earth Kingdom to do so.”

The Helmsman obeyed without further prompting, and Zhao retired to his study to plot. When he finally caught both Avatar and banished Prince, he had a lot to say, and a lot of gloating, and he wanted it to be perfect.

 

 


 

 

Elsewhere, a small girl watched the waters go by like a blur. She wondered if she was supposed to feel something about how big it all was, but couldn’t figure out what. Her brother would have known, and he would have quietly explained it to her, and maybe she would have been able to imagine. As it was, the same numbness she always felt -except when she thought about father- was ever present and yawning above her.

(She didn’t think she liked the sea. It felt like there was something watching her back, and instinct told her she needed to either win the staring contest, or outlast whatever it was. The comfort in this unnerving-being-watched feeling was that she could easily set whatever it was on fire if it became a problem.)

“More tea Princess?” She asked, and Azula nodded. She didn’t particualrily like hot leaf juice, but the letters Zuzu had written her -after she’d finally been able to read them, a year too late- said he was- had been learning to tolerate it. She wouldn’t be outdone by her brother. That was how siblings worked. One-upmanship and competition.

(Or at least, that was how it had always needed to work. She wondered if that would change now. She wasn’t sure she liked that idea either.)

“How much longer?” she asked levelly -not impatiently, thank you, she wasn’t Zuzu- and she got a happy chuckle in return.

“By boat? A little under a month. Then it’s a matter of traveling overland. This time can depend on the weather and roads, and people.” Azula snorted but settled back into glaring at the waves blurring past.

It was back again, and this time, she would win the staring contest.

 

 


 

 

The eclipse was only a few days away by the time they left their little campsite. Katara had managed to figure out the giant water ball and was slowly working on bending on a larger scale. It had helped when Iroh explained that bending came from within, and that the more she tried to force it, the more stress she was putting on her chi. They’d switched off teaching duties the day before, and Zuko had overseen Sokka’s training while Iroh helped Katara. His Uncle and the Waterbender had spoken quietly, and a lot to each other. Zuko still had no idea what Iroh was saying to people, but now Katara was also acting different around him and Uncle -and while it wasn’t a very noticeable change overall, he still noticed- and he was again overcome with that feeling of both wanting and never wanting to know.

(They found the scar in the forest, miles of charred trees and wood that would take time to heal. Zuko thought of all the creatures that had lived here -and possibly the people too- and wondered why. Why was the standard for his people wanton destruction? Were the only people that joined the militia blatantly unkind? Did the Fire Nation army go through and find the most violent benders around, then release them on the other nations? He wasn’t sure he wanted that answer either. Regardless, they ended up trying to help that town with its spirit problems, and Aang hadn’t been unnecessarily humble before. For all his peaceful ways, Aang had apparently never received any training on how to deal with spirits. Then Sokka was grabbed by the spirit in question, and Zuko was charging after it and Aang.)

He lost them -the spirit moved too fast, and Aang had been determined to catch it. When he ran back to the village, Katara looked pale and worried, and he wished he’d been able to do more. He sat with Katara through the night, both keeping watch over an empty rode and dark skies. They spoke very little, except when Zuko quietly admitted that he had a sister. He’d refused to say anything more, because thinking on it hurt too much. (And also summoned images of the palace on fire and Azula smiling at the flames.) Iroh checked on them often -and brought tea every time- and Appa curled around them with a soft groan.

(Momo had decided that Iroh needed comfort as well, but he gave weirdly reassuring head-pats when Iroh checked on them. Zuko would never admit that the ball of fluff was adorable, and that he wished he had one of his own. It was also too flammable.)

Somehow Iroh got them inside before nightfall, his sharp eyes on the forest beyond. It became a waiting game of ‘Who will show up first. The Avatar, or the Angry Spirit?’ Zuko wished that Agni had chosen to be a little more vocal now, because he had no idea what he was supposed to do, or how to help.

(Thankfully, he never needed to figure it out, because Aang showed up after the spirit did, and somehow managed to calm it down. They got Sokka back, and the other villagers that he been disappeared. Zuko accidently used Firebending to turn some dangerous amounts of falling debris into ash. He’d been afraid that they’d get mobbed, and for a second, it had been a close call. Then Aang reminded everyone that Zuko had been trying to help, and that he was one of Aangs personal guides. He also announced that he needed to speak to Roku. Things got complicated after that.)

 

 


 

 

Zuko watched the ocean behind them, trying to figure out what kept bugging him about it, when Sokka made strangled-angry-noises.

“They blockade the waters. Seriously? What, other parts of the ocean are free range, but that part of the ocean is by invitation only?” Sokka was making a lot of sounds that didn’t sound healthy, and Zuko shifted a little guilty-nervous next to him.

“They consider everything on the other side of the blockade Fire Nation waters.” Sokka snorted at that, flinging his open hands out at the ocean below.

“It’s the ocean. It only belongs to La and occasionally Tui, depending on if it’s a push or pull cycle. They don’t see the Earth Kingdom pulling those stunts! Or the Water Tribe!” The older boy was getting all heated again, and Zuko could just hear the cultural ridicule to come. Then Sokka took a deep breath and firm-but-gentle-like smacked Zuko on the arm companionably.

“No offense to the rest of your country-men, but your military leaders, and consequently your Fire Lord, are huge jerks.” Zuko hadn’t been expecting that. He also found nothing to disagree with and shrugged in a way that perfectly said, ‘what can you do about it,’ without words. He was afraid he would shout on reflex if he tried to speak, because he hadn’t expected that.

“Are we really flying over that?” Katara asked, and Aang got a determined set to his shoulders. Zuko preemptively gripped the saddle rim by slipping an arm through one of the built-in holes and held on. Appa picked up speed and barreled right on. No one threw any fireballs at them, but Zuko was naturally inclined towards paranoia. Which was why he couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling along his spine.

(Breaking into the temple was just as ridiculously easy as breaking into the Earthbender prison had been. This was disappointing, and apparently, raised just as many questions. Zuko ignored all of them to expertly scale the next wall and disappear into a neat and unexpected vent that was tight but would have been just right months before. He hated that he’d be taller and wider soon. Being small was perfect for sneaking. He got them the rest of the way in, but they had no idea where to look for this room. It didn’t matter in the end -the Fire Sages found them.)

“It is our duty to protect the Avatar’s temple.” The Head Sage announced, looking ready to thrash them for sneaking in. (Not that it had been hard to do. Why didn’t they have better security?) Aang hesitantly shuffled his feet and flashed a bright, beaming, let’s be friends smile.

“That’s great, I am the Avatar. You guys pass!” The group of old men all exchanged a look, and then turned back to Aang slowly, as if they weren’t sure what to do with this information. Zuko felt like they were missing a lot of subtext somewhere, because there was a meaningful silence, and now all the Sages were looking at him and Uncle, which wasn’t good. Slowly, the Head Sage stepped forward and motioned at Zuko.

“Show us your face, young man.” He said that so gently, Zuko was positive it was a dirty trap.

(Adults not Uncle or Cook Zui, or Jee, or anyone on the Wani that were nice to him always wanted something. They usually never liked it when they got it.)

He hadn’t been going to respond at all, but he should have taken Aang into account when he made this plan.

“Zuko? The nice man who isn’t going to set us on fire and might possibly take us to Roku would like to speak to you.” Aang hinted heavily, all while throwing Zuko to the Tiger Sharks. This is what he got for having friends. He should have reinforced the Earth Kingdom name rule before they broke in.

The sages all gasped, and then there was the distinct sound of knees hitting the floor, and Zuko flinched as he turned in horror. They were bowing on their knees. Not at him. No. Definitely not at him -he didn’t ever want anyone on their knees for him. He turned to look, and saw that Uncle was behind him, and he realized with relief that they must have pieced together ‘this is our banished prince,’ with ‘that can only be his Uncle, Agni’s chosen.’ This was an immense relief. He subtly shifted so that Iroh could acknowledge them and Zuko could pretend like Sokka’s eyes weren’t burning holes into them.

“Head Sage Rama, please. There is no need for that here. We have a very urgent mission -the Avatar must speak to Roku, and we can waste no more time.” Iroh announced. The sages hesitated just briefly, and he felt Agni’s warmth swell in the room and brush over them each gently. This was as good as confirmation for Zuko that everything he suspected and Iroh wouldn’t admit to was true.

The Sages moved after that, leading them to the chamber with Roku’s statue hastily. Zuko very studiously ignored Sokka’s quiet questions and burning eyes, and Aang’s confused glances intermingled with Katara’s curious apprehension. Aang went into the room alone, which seemed right, and it shut with a slam without anyone ever touching it. Zuko wondered if that was spirit work or magic, and decided it was probably both. He wondered all this from the safety of a statue he probably shouldn’t be sitting on, but was sitting on, because Sokka was prowling next to the statue and monologuing about friendship, and warrior bonding, and other things Zuko didn’t understand -like ‘you can trust me with things, you know that right?’ and ‘I might yell a little because you’ve been keeping secrets but you’re my buddy! We bonded over swords!’ because people who tried to tell him those things almost always ended up changing their minds.

(And really, they bonded while beating each other up on Kyoshi, and again when Katara wanted to learn that scroll. And okay, they possibly bonded while fighting on the Prison ship. Also over their swords and training. But Zuko knew none of that would matter the instant Sokka found out who his father was. His father ruined everything.)

Iroh was talking quietly with the sages, with Katara using the sneaking skills he’d taught her to eavesdrop, and he could see how that was a mistake now with how she turned to look at him wide-eyed. Things were going great.

And then the Fire Nation attacked.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Aang watched a shadow of his former self manifest in the room, and it was surreal. Roku bowed to him in the traditional Fire Nation manner (he’d noted that a hundred years and a war had changed the way the Fire Nation bowed) and it was like being given another piece of his life before the iceberg. He returned the gesture and tried to ignore the distant sound of shouting.

Aang. What took you so long?” Aang wondered if he’d had such a clear sense of humor in every life.

Roku’s expression was serious in the next instant.

There is something we must discuss.” Even his tone was serious, and Aang tried not to let it show that he was nervous now.

“Is this about that vision? The comet streaking through the sky?” He asked, and Roku nodded gravely.

 “I have a story for you, one you must carry on your journey through this life.”

He then preceded to alter what Aang had thought of as simple fact.

 

______

 

 

A Fire Sage charged into the room, looking panicked, and bowed formally at Uncle and the Head Sage. Zuko was grateful for the distraction, until a soft sound echoed through the halls. He was familiar with the sound of boots on polished stone, and he jumped from the statue in response, a knot in his stomach making him feel woozy.

“Commander Zhao is here!” The Sage announced breathlessly. Zuko hated those words more than he hated a lot of things.

Uncle gave Zuko a look, and it was one he didn’t need translation for. He turned and scaled one of the carved pillars all the way to the ceiling, where he became a shadow. Iroh ordered Katara and Sokka behind him, and the Fire Sages took up defensive stances in front of the siblings. Then Zhao was there, smiling that smile Zuko hated.

(That smile reminded him of his father. Not-right and bad-happy.)

“Ahhh. General Iroh. It appears you aren’t insane or dead after all.” The intentional ‘yet’ that rang through the brief silence had Zuko tensing. “But where is the young Prince? I see he’s done a fine job of completing his father’s orders.” Zuko felt his gut clench and had to refrain from throwing fire at the man below on principle.

(Zuko wasn’t following anyone’s orders! He was doing what was right!)

Sokka and Katara both flinched behind the sages, and Zhao caught it, because Zhao caught everything that might be a weakness. Zuko had a sneaking suspicion about where this conversation was going, and he wasn’t sure how he was going to come out of it. The twisted smile on Zhao’s face said he was going to do everything he could to instill doubt and hatred with as few words as possible. Or maybe as many. He did like the sound of his own voice, and he had them surrounded.  

(Zhao was so confident that he was going to win today, he hadn’t intended to go through with Ozai’s plan, but on the off chance that they did escape and took the Prince with them, he wanted them as doubting as possible. He had no idea what trickery the Prince had used to become one of them, but he was positive he’d just destroyed the story. This thought had him smiling even wider.)

Zhao’s men shuffled closer, and the siblings tensed. Katara had no water to bend, so she’d have to rely on the basic combat Zuko and Iroh had been teaching her, but Sokka pulled his club with intent, hoisting his boomerang in the other hand. Neither of them looked up, but he could see Sokka’s eye twitching and his fast brain thinking. Katara was looking at Zhao like he’d just handed her a piece of unripe orange and hadn’t told her it would be sour.

 (Before Zhao did what Zuko knew he was going to, he might have been able to wave away their questions with the pathetic excuse that the rest of his family were aristocrats in the Fire Nation, well respected by even their priests. Since this lie would be one that could potentially save him from a club to the back of the head, he was reasonably certain he’d manage it. Now. Now they would know. He wasn’t sure what that would mean for the frien- for the budding alliance between them.)

“Oh, didn’t you know?” His tone suggested he knew the answer. “The young man -whom I have no doubt is here, General Iroh, thanks to that little stunt with the Earthbender prison- is the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. Prince Zuko, first son of Fire Lord Ozai, who was sent to find the Avatar and bring him home to his father. He’s done a remarkable job gaining your trust, hasn’t he?”

Zhao smiled like a Catagator that had just caught the fattest Parakeet in the world. Zuko listened to the sound of his own heart beating erratically and his breath hitching. He really hated Commander Zhao.

 

_______

 

"Well ... That's not as bad as it could be, I guess."

Aang finally muttered, because he felt like he needed to say something. Roku blinked at him, then smiled softly. 

"You are most certainly an Airbender. Always finding the positives. My time here is almost done, and it appears that the young Prince needs help. I offer my assistance in this." Roku swept his arms to his sides, a kind of roll to his shoulders, and the day got warmer. But Aang wasn't focusing on the room or whatever Roku meant by that. 

"What Prince?"

 

________

 

He probably shouldn't have let himself get goaded so easily, but the instant they grabbed Katara and Sokka, then held flames to them like they would sear half their faces off, Zuko moved. He dropped from the well of shadows above like a snarling Pygmy Puma, and he went for the eyes behind those masks. Sokka and Katara managed to get free only to get chained up to a pillar, and Uncle was surprising Zhao's forces with how quickly he moved, and then Zhao grabbed for Zuko and the former Prince was moving

(It wasn't enough. He was only thirteen and just building up substantial muscle mass, and they were outnumbered, even with the Sages trying to help. Eventually, Uncle couldn’t throw the men off himself fast enough. Eventually, there were two soldiers holding Zuko on his knees because he kept trying to stand, and Zhao stood over him smiling that not-right smile. The temperature in the room started to boil.)

"I've been dreaming about this moment for a year, young Prince. The only glory won today will be mine -I'm going to drag you back to our Fire Lord a failure -because when the Avatar comes out of that temple, I won't be capturing him." His eyes flickered only once to Sokka and Katara, and Zuko knew the following words were deliberately said for them. “You never should have been entrusted to this mission in the first place. It takes real men to bring glory to our nation.”

Zuko tried to stand again and Zhao smirked when he forced back down.

“Prepare for the Avatar.” He ordered, and Zuko could feel that slow bubbling panic in his gut foaming over until it felt like it was in his bloodstream

(Zuko could see it now. He knew Aang would fight, would try to evade and talk peace, or evade and be clever, but there were dozens of Firebenders here. The Avatar might possibly die today, and Zuko couldn't let that happen. He was speaking without processing the words.)

"You can't kill the Avatar. He lives on, life after life Zhao. Killing him here would only send his spirit to the next part of the cycle." He growled, trying again to jerk free. If he kept Zhao distracted, maybe something would happen. Maybe for once, his luck would decide not to roll the dice on him.

Zhao stood still, considering, and then he smirked at Zuko all wrong

"You're right, Prince Zuko. We can't have the cycle continuing, can we?" 

(Of course, his luck had already rolled the dice. Zuko could see whatever Zhao was adding to his plans would be terrible.)

"Naturally we'll have to do to the Northern Water Tribe what we did to the South."

That wasn't what Zuko had meant at all, but he didn't get to say that because suddenly Zhao was speaking again as he moved.

“It always bothered me that only one side got harmed. Asymmetry is vexing. Perhaps we should fix that here.” his hand was in flames, and he was reaching for Zuko’s face and he saw the not-right glint in his father’s eyes as flesh-

(Zuko screamed and tried to move away -and for an instant, the guards holding him realized how wrong this was. But they didn’t let go. Agni raged in his domain, because they weren’t learning at all. Sokka and Katara were screaming too. Things Zuko couldn’t and didn’t hear, because he was watching from a haze of fear and cold remembrance. No one realized that Zhao’s fire lost some of its flare and life, because something else drew their attention before fire could touch skin.)

The door to the temple was opening and there was weird mist spilling out. Zhao gave the order to fire, and everyone did. Or rather, everyone tried to. Their flames came out as weak puffs, their inner fires gone dim and cold.

(Agni had seen enough of watching his people destroy children.)

In the middle of that mist stood Avatar Roku. He took in the scene before him and roared in rage.

(Beneath this was a secondary roar no one head because they were all busy looking at Roku. Iroh used this opportunity to melt the chains they’d tried to bind him with and go to Zuko. His Nephew looked pale and lost, watching Roku with hazed eyes. Iroh felt no guilt in using his fires against the men holding the boy. They deserved any pain he caused.)

 Fire licked between Roku’s teeth, and then there were waves of searing flames aimed at every soldier doing nothing but watching. The ground was shaking and splitting, and Roku spit flames, and then willed heat and magma through the cracks deep beneath them. Agni watched. Until the very last of his strength for this horizon was spent, he watched and made sure that the Avatar had Zhao running. He walked onto the next horizon in a rage, and it was the hottest morning Be Sing Se ever had.

 

________

 

Zuko isn’t sure how they get on Appa’s back. He isn’t sure why he’s on Appa’s back. He only knows that Sokka is flying the bison, and Aang is shaking at the front, and Katara is watching him with the strangest expression. (It’s an expression he knows. He just can’t remember what it is. Uncle gave it to him a lot when they first went to sea.) He knows that it’s Uncles warm, wide hand he’s gripping like a lifeline in a storm. He knows that he hasn’t seen father in over a year, and that there was no way he was in that temple ready to finish what he’d started at the Agni Kai.

(He knows but he still can’t make himself not tremble. He knows but he still ends up curling into Uncle and trying not to cry. He’d thought he was over the fear of fire, but apparently, it had only been waiting for the opportune moment to kick him in the gut.)

Uncle holds him without comment and they both pretend that his shoulders aren’t shaking. He isn’t sure when he falls asleep, but he dreams again of red, angry flames, desperate for a snack. He’s consumed by them over and over again while his father laughs. He wakes to find that they’ve landed somewhere, near the coast -he could hear the sea- but concealed.

Uncle was speaking nearby, but his words were too soft for even Zuko’s hearing. He was okay with that. He sat up slowly and scrubbed at his face. No telling moisture, so at least he hadn’t been crying. Eventually, he stood -someone had laid out his bedroll and then tucked him into it- and tidied. When he had nothing else to do with his hands, he went looking for Uncle.

(He was probably with the Avatar and the Water Tribe siblings. That was good. It was best for all of them if they got this out of the way. He’d ask Agni to help them find a better-suited helper from the Fire Nation. He was sure he and Uncle couldn’t be the only ones that saw all the problems.)

He found everyone he expected to find in a small clearing a good distance from the camp -close, but not hearing-range close, and probably within sight if you sat where Uncle was, on that boulder. There was a soft, small fire burning in the middle, because it wasn’t dawn yet. Sokka had been pacing when Zuko walked into the clearing, but he stopped dead when he realized Zuko was there. Katara was playing with a bowl of water thoughtfully, a sister-scowl on her face, and Aang was fluttering from one person to the other, hovering and then moving again. The former Prince walked quietly to Uncles side and slowly sat at his back, his face turned towards the woods and sounds of waves beyond. He could feel their eyes on him, but he would not be breaking this silence.

(All he had in him right now was shouting, and he was sure that wouldn’t be appropriate.)

Aang was the one who finally broke the silence.

“Um, Zuko. I know that this is going to be hard but … well, I think it would be better if we heard everything from you. Could you -no- I need you to be honest with us now. Uncle Iroh said you aren’t exactly a Prince anymore, but I want you to tell us why.” Zuko took care in counting his breaths and croaked out a single, hard word. (This alone told him he’d probably been shouting in his sleep.)

Why.” He repeated and managed to make it sound like a question without being a shout. Aang understood. He’d always been good at reading Zuko’s subtext.

“Why it is you ended up at sea, not technically a Prince. Why whatever it is that happened made you reconsider how good the Fire Lord was for your people. Why you didn’t tell us, even when Agni himself vouched for you.” Aang specified, very direct and matter-of-fact.

Zuko wished that it was daylight and not pre-dawn, so that he could close his eyes and feel Agni’s comfort on his skin. He settled for leaning back into Uncle and taking several deep breaths. Since Aang had asked for the truth, he started at the beginning.

“The reason I was banished all started with the Forty-first regiment of recruits.”

____

“What? Of course, my father did this! It was technically his right as the winner of the forfeited match to punish the loser however he wanted- why are you crying!” He learned quickly it was impossible not to shout while speaking about these things.

____

 

“Being honest, I didn’t really care about finding you at first. I was in too much pain and plagued by nightmares. It wasn’t until Uncle took me to the Western Air Temple that I realized how many inconsistencies were being fed to the people.”

Aang rose his hand and Zuko growled at him from over Iroh’s shoulder. He’d learned to watch the Air Bender or he might spontaneously try to hug him.

“What … what did you see there to make you realize that?” There was a healthy amount of fear in that voice.

“A pile of children’s bones.” Was perhaps the wrong answer to give, because then he was crying again. Zuko was thinking that he might need to moderate his honesty.

____

 

“I wouldn’t have killed you in your sleep!” Sokka protested. It was a weak protest in Zuko’s eyes.

“You spent our every waking moment until Kyoshi, nearly a week later, casually mentioning how little you thought of my people and how it was your expert opinion that we should all be executed for our crimes against humanity.” He pointed all this out while maintaining eye contact. Sokka, he knew, was the type that only understood direct, logical points. The Water Tribe warrior was quiet for a moment before he sheepishly shrugged.

“Fair point. Please continue.”

____

Zuko was done sharing after he hit all the points Aang had asked him to address. He leaned back on Uncle and crossed his arms, and didn’t look at any of them, because he wasn’t sure what kind of face he was making. (But he was sure it wasn’t good because he felt nauseous.)

“I know that was hard but thank you,” Aang whispered into the silence, then he cleared his throat and helpfully took the attention away from Zuko.

“It’s my turn to share! What I have to say is … well, a little weird, but also apparently Fire Nation history? Sokka! Don’t walk away! This is important.” A heartbeat of grumbling before Aang continued. “So a super long time ago, Agni fell in love with this comet, and she -or he? Roku wasn’t specific- fell in love with Agni. A pact was made that roughly every hundred years his comet spouse would make a return trip across the void to be with Agni for a full turn of the Earth. Traditionally the comet spirit’s name is Teirazuko, but the Fire Nation tended to just call it the Lovers Comet.” Sokka started making ‘bored now,’ noises, and Zuko let himself glance back to watch Aang glare the other boy into silence and then continue.

“The major point here is that Teirazuko makes Agni’s heart burn so bright with love, his people’s abilities increase a thousand-fold. Having one soldier becomes the equivalent of having ten or more. It’s when the Fire Nation is at its most powerful, and approximately a hundred years ago, it’s what the Fire Nation used to wipe out my people. Roku told me that it’s coming again. It may not be this year -he said it was never exact, that it seemed like there were centuries it was on time, and others it was late, but it will be soon.”

There was a dead silence then, and Zuko completely lost control of his breathing. The campfire wanted to flare, but Iroh had hold of it, and Zuko let himself breath badly for a few minutes. Also pace. And growl in frustration, and overall, react badly to the news that ‘oh hey, a comet your ancestors used to kill an entire nation of people is going to be coming back around soon-ish.’

“We need a plan.” He eventually growled. When no one offered anything, he took a deep breath and forced the words that had been sitting on his tongue out.

“Look, I know you probably aren’t comfortable with traveling with me any longer, and that’s fine. I’ll see if somehow, we can contact Agni and lead you to someone else, someone worthy, someone who feels the same way Uncle and I do. But first, you need a plan for how you’re going to handle this, and I should know so that I can help from the Earth Kingdom. It can’t be that hard to start a rebellion against the Fire Nation. So first you-” Aang hugged him.

Katara was there in the next instant, growling as she got in on the hug, and Sokka very slowly approached, then wrapped his arms around all three of them. Zuko looked to Uncle for help, but the older man just smiled and nodded, and pretended like his Nephew wasn’t extremely uncomfortable. It’s what he deserved for thinking he wasn’t worthy of something he wanted.

(When Agni rose, he rose to the sight of his Chosen yelling and flustered as the Avatar clung to him like a Koala Monkey. The Waterbender was shouting something back at him, while her brother nodded along. Agni settled slightly. His Chosen was well, and whole, and surrounded by people that saw him. There was no need to let his anger fester this day.)

 

________

 

Zhao hadn’t been able to catch all the Fire Sages. Some of the treasonous bastards had simply disappeared, and he made sure to note descriptions and any names in his letter the Fire Lord Ozai. He also included everything he’d seen between the Prince and the Water Tribe savages he was traveling with. Iroh, he’d barely gotten a look at -he’d been pinned rather nicely under several of Zhao’s men. He’d already requested that they submit any relevant details they remembered to him.

In the back of his mind buzzed a thought. It was something the Banished Prince had said about the Avatar’s cycle. About how life went on for the Avatar always. He wondered what it would take to kill an entire people without the use of Sozin’s comet.

(He played with many ideas, but the real answer to that wouldn’t come till much later.)

 

________

 

They stayed in their make-shift camp for several days before moving on. They all needed time to adjust to new information given, and while Katara and Sokka treated him different, it wasn’t worse. It was more like … begrudged acceptance (Sokka) and recognition (Katara) and while he got a few jokes thrown at him, it wasn’t anything meant to make him bleed. Aang was the least affected by the news that he was a former prince. (But then, Nomads had notoriously not cared for status or wealth.) The night before they’d left, Sokka had unexpectedly took him aside and they’d spoken quietly about swords and training, fighting styles and the pros and cons of Fire Nation steel versus Earth Kingdom iron. At the end of it, the older boy had quietly told him that it was going to take him a bit to get over the fact that Zuko had purposefully concealed something, but that he had seen for himself that Zuko was distinctly ‘un-Fire Nationy. Except when he did the bowing thing.’ And Zuko figured that was about as mushy as either of them was ever going to get about it. He was grateful for this, because Aang and Katara seemed determined to break what remained of his spirits with hugs.

(Not that he tried very hard to get out of them. It was the principle of the thing though. If he didn’t complain about it, Sokka would make fun of him a lot before he finally joined in the hugging.)

They needed supplies so desperately, Zuko caved to the other's insistence that they stop in a port town that screamed shady to Zuko. Unfortunately, beggars couldn’t be choosers. They reinforced the use of Earth Kingdom names, and everyone that needed to donned conical hats before they took a vote and split up. Iroh and Sokka went in search of a Pai Sho game they could bet on (Or win), and Aang, Katara and Sokka went to find the supplies they needed. They managed to eke buy with the money they had, and if either he or Katara had been paying better attention, Aang probably wouldn’t have managed to waste some on that stupid whistle.

(Much, much later, he’d be grateful that the monk was so slippery, and recognized the whistle for what it was.)

They met up with Iroh and Sokka, who looked both guilty and highly amused, and found that the two had made a killing in several Pai Sho matches. (Because Sokka would make a small bet on Iroh and then loudly convince everyone that it was the worst mistake he’d ever made. How they got away with this for three rounds was beyond Zuko, especially given where they were. But apparently, they now had a little more spending money for the pot.)

They were just about done getting supplies when Iroh and Aang made excited noises over a slummy ship that Iroh swore was some kind of shop. Zuko only had to take one look to recognize his mortal enemies. Pirates.

(That first time as the blue spirit wasn’t the first time that their breed of irritating had messed up a perfectly good plan, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last.)

He tried to warn the rest of the group quietly, but Sokka and Katara seemed content to be drug along, and Uncle Iroh wasn’t listening -and here he didn’t try too hard because he didn’t want Uncle knowing how he could instantaneously recognize a pirate ship at a glance. So instead, he crossed his arms and tried to keep his uncle from spending unnecessary money on these hooligans.

Aang was refusing every offer and counter-offer the Pirates tried to make him over Momo, and Katara was making sounds by the scrolls while Sokka suspiciously poked around. Zuko was betting the older boy would catch on before Aang or Katara. That was when he saw them. It was the most heart-rending thing he’d seen since those children’s bones in the Western and Southern air temples. It made him hate the pirates even more than he thought he could.

Laying in a cage, looking poorly cared for and sick, a Crowned Bearded Serval wheezed weakly as it curled around several kits. Zuko counted three, then spied an egg laying just outside the adults’ paws. The Crowned Bearded Serval was a creature local to the Fire Nation, and they were endangered because their fur and feathers were heat resistant, and at the beginning of the war, every Earth Kingdom noble wanted to be heat resistant.

(And some Fire Nation nobles. They didn’t need to be heat resistant but having leather armor that wouldn’t burn off was nice.)

These days, he heard that if they weren’t killed for their pelts, they died as exotic pets in the Earth Kingdom. While people knew of them and could recognize them -they were an apex predator that tended to migrate if they felt that their cliff-side nests wouldn’t be warm enough for offspring- there wasn’t a lot known about them. Mostly because as soon as they were trapped they were killed. This was … so incredibly wrong. Zuko stood there in front of that cage for a long time while Uncle and the rest shuffled around, and when the Pirate with the Iguana Parrot (Probably the Captain) walked up and crowed over their capture.

“The adult already has a buyer, as do the kits, but if you’re interested, I could slip you one of the kits and say it died. For a price.” Zuko wanted to punch him in his smiling face. It was likely good fortune that Iroh came up when he did. He took the subtle cue his Uncle gave him and turned to walk-not-march to Katara’s side. She talked at him quietly about the scroll, and he knew she wanted it almost as badly as he wanted to burn this ship until it was ash.

(When they got kicked off, he stopped her from slipping that scroll into her robes, subtly shaking his head and making later motions. When later came, he had a proposition for her. She agreed with a wicked smile he was wise enough to mistrust. She admitted to him quietly, after dinner and they had snuck away, that she wanted the scroll more because it was part of her culture and they’d taken it like they had every right. He could do nothing but nod mutely, thinking of those kits and that mother that were all dying because they were too cold and too hungry.)

Later came, and it was good to be the Blue Spirit again. There was nothing like smoked Pirate for a midnight snack.

 

 

 



Chapter Text

The shadows were still, lifeless. The port was quiet where it counted, riotous exactly where Zuko knew it would be. He'd counted the pirates lazing or patrolling the deck, and a quick, soundless visit from their hiding space to the bar a little further inland proved that probably half the pirates were accounted for on the ship. He'd only seen the two -no, three, there had been one doing something above deck earlier- when they'd been in the shop, but looking at the ship, there couldn't be more than a dozen or fewer men for the crew. He nodded to Katara where she could see, and they initiated phase two of their plan. Phase one, they'd already set in motion.

(He'd found that gossip rings in every port were the same. A whisper here and a well-placed slip of the tongue there, and soon everyone knew. Pirates tended to the same behaviors too. If they'd timed it right, by now some drunk idiot was telling an equally drunk pirate that the new ship that had pulled into port at early evening also had a Crowned Serval, but thiers was moving around and not half dead. The pirates, being pirates, would get it into their heads to do some high-risk trading. He was right. The pirates in the bar did in fact take matters into their own hands and head towards the opposite side of the port. They would be gone a while.)

Zuko adjusted his mask and Katara adjusted hers, a mask in paler blue with large frontal tusks and four eyes and near-black hair along the sides. Zuko didn't recognize what it was from, because it was a less well known Water Tribe spirit -they'd requisitioned it from another store down the street because the storekeeper had tried to steal Katara's necklace as they left earlier- and he didn't really care. He made sure the black cloak she was using in place of sneaking clothes (He'd have to remember to get her some) and nodded. 

They became shadows and played Zuko's favorite game of 'how well can I be a shadow while standing right in front of you?' Katara played too, but she wasn't as adept as him -twelve years in a palace where your father could be lurking anywhere made you a master- but she was better than average because she was equally as determined. (It must be a little sister thing. The only other person he'd met that could keep up with him was Lala.) They knew what their targets were, and where they were going once they had them -a pulley kart, one that didn't squeak, carefully concealed in the shadows just past the ship- but the real mystery was how much else they needed to steal to muddy the waters. He really wished it were a foggy night. He'd said as much to Katara as they were getting ready, just as Agni was beginning to sink and Tui was beginning to rise.

(Tui had heard. She'd smiled-snarled as her brother whispered about what their children were doing and why. Zuko didn't know it yet, but he was getting his fog.)

They made it to the base of the ship, quiet and still and like living shadows under the hazy moonlight -it was forecast tonight, wasn't it?- and Zuko prepared to scale the dark side of the ship when the fog just. Rolled in. It was like a shroud, or gauzy curtains suddenly closing around them. The pirate on guard duty above started cursing and fruitlessly lit a lantern. Zuko felt the flare of heat, felt it try to penetrate the soupy air, and he subtly dimmed it. He wasn't sure why there was a fog, but he was very grateful for it. 

(It was also startling that he could turn and instantly see Katara in it. Like they each had a bubble of space where the fog couldn't go. He tilted his head and she nodded. Phase two was still in motion, and now they had fog.)

When they slipped into the 'shop' portion of the ship, the fog came with them, spilling through the doorway and every crack, filling the space completely. Zuko headed for the cage in the corner, and the idiots hadn't even covered it, how was a Crowned Beared Serval supposed to survive if it was cold? Zuko detoured to find some blankets or rugs. They needed it to be comfortable when they saved it after all. He initated Phase three, and he was sure Katara was doing the same.

------

Katara went straight for the scrolls. She marched right up to them, only pausing long enough to swipe up a pale leather bag that she also intended to steal back from the pirates, and then she shoved every scroll she could reach into it. She'd had it with this town. First, they overcharged her for squash, then it was the propositions she hadn't understood until Zuko started getting mad, and then it was the pirates, and that stupid old lady that tried to take her mother's necklace! She moved down the wall and swiped up a weird monkey statue with ruby eyes -real or fake, who could say?- then she swiped what looked like a war fan -Sokka would love that- and then she was carefully sneaking over a small counter to look at the jewelry on display. 

She swiped a red and orange string of pearls and a beautiful bracelet that was distinctly water tribe. She didn't see anything else she could easily grab from the jewelry stand. She was getting ready to hop back over the counter and pilfer her way towards Zuko when they caught her eye. The items were water tribe, she was sure, but she'd never seen anything like them before in her life. Two pieces, probably weapons, perfectly matching, except mirrored, and she thought maybe they went on hands, but she wasn't sure because men like these pirates kept stealing pieces of her culture.

There were smooth-looking handholds combined with soft-looking leather straps to wrap around a wrist and fingers like a glove almost(probably, she was assuming. Sokka or Iroh might know.) There were three blades attached, and when Katara experementally sliped one over her hand, they looked like claws coming from her knuckles. They were beautiful, and practically perfect. She swiped them because the inlay design in the shape of waves was beautiful, and they were carved so carefully, and they were part of her culture. They didn't belong on some collector's wall, and she was sure she would put them to good use once she found what they were.

She lifted a couple of other things on her way to Zuko, saw what he was doing with the blankets, and quickly moved to help. She tried not to be unnerved by the dangerous animal they were about to uncage. This Serval creature was ...odd. Large enough that it likely stood just above Katara's knees when it stood, it's front was the shape of a large spotted-stripped feline -with humongous ears. Not Momo huge, she didn't think, but huge; it probably had fantastic hearing. There were soft-looking feathers growing over its eyes like eyebrows and racing towards the crow of its head, where they spread up the ears and if she tilted her head, it did look crowned.

Its forelimbs were disproportionately long, and its chest looked covered in a fine layer of heavy feathers -and she couldn't tell, but it's throat looked a little too wide. She couldn't see its hindlimbs, but the kits curled up and shivering between its paws had bird-like-claws and a short tail with baby feathers growing on it. If she squinted, she also saw a beard-like shape in the feathers coming off the adults chin. It had wings, and they probably should have looked impressive, but they looked ...sad, and mangled like one had probably been broken and never set right

(She hoped it was just the fog and poor lighting, because if it couldn't fly, if it was ruined, Zuko would be upset in that quiet, broody way he tended to get upset. He would probably shout and walk away from them to deal with his sadness by physically destroying his body in the makeshift training area. She hadn't understood that first week they knew each other how emotionally repressed Zuko was, or she might have gone softer on him from the start.) 

The Serval (Even thinking her full species name was too much) whined and hissed at them when they opened the cage. A man somewhere above shouted something that sounded like 'Keep it down you mangey cat!' but did not come to check and Zuko tensed. The air around them got suddenly warmer when he breathed out deeply. He was using his Breath of Fire to warm the air substantially, and the feline looked at them with wild, intelligent eyes. (Hungry eyes. She looked starved.) Zuko breathed warmth into the air three more times before she stopped hissing when he reached for her. He was very careful in reaching out, breathing that warmth until he was steaming next to her. He didn't touch. He gave the wild, slightly broken animal the choice. She whined one last time and nuzzled into his palm desperately, shivering like it was an arctic winter and not a mildly cold spring

(It was ridiculously easy to get the animal and her kits rolled up into the cocoon of blankets provided. All Zuko had to do was touch them and they melted and leaned towards him desperately. Zuko leaned into the cage and plucked up the egg that hadn't hatched, tucking it carefully into his robes. Katara might have asked why if she didn't know Zuko.) 

They initiated the fourth and final phase of their plan by sneaking out carefully, shrouded in fog, and Katara forced herself to breathe through the exercise she didn't know she'd be getting. Starved or not, the Serval was heavy, and her kits kept trying to crawl towards Zuko, so their process was painstakingly slow. That was alright. She could feel the ocean at her back, a wild push-pull that watched over them, and she knew they'd get the time they needed. When they did make it to the small pulley they'd acquired (with some intention of returning) Zuko set himself up to push. But not before he turned back in the direction of the ship and breathed deeply ... then threw a fireball. It hit. She could see the flames start through the fog. A pirate started cursing loudly on deck, and then howling, and Katara got the feeling he'd tried to put it out wrong. She didn't argue with Zuko's slightly uncharacteristic decision to throw fire. There was a mangled creature in their cart that might die soon, and there was no reason for it to be mangled. Besides, if memory served, he'd aimed for and hit the lantern that the pirate had set up. It would be a small fire, and nothing less than they deserved. Pirates.

(They left the town the same way they'd entered, like shadows. Unfortunately, the fog stopped following them halfway through the town. Just before they entered the woods, the Serval whined loudly. They didn't know until later that an older woman looked out her window to see two dark spirits making away from the town into the woods with a cart that made strange noises. The pirates that were even then stumbling towards the slightly singed ship with fresh stolen loot and blood on their weapons would soon question this woman. But that was later. First, they tried to figure out how the ship had gotten on fire, and why there was fog floating lazily and dispersing only in their area.)

 

______

 

Iroh was understandably upset when he woke much sooner than he expected to because something in the camp was screeching sadly. This was his first indication that his day would be hard. His second was rolling out of his bedroll to see Zuko and Katara, in dark garb, cooing at the Serval that they'd seen on the Pirates ship the day before. It only got worse from there. The mother was hurt badly; a mangled wing, malnourished -which meant she was smaller than an adult with kits should be, and worst of all -she was freezing.

(Aang woke the next time she trilled sadly and set about helping and worrying about the morals of stealing from pirates all at once. Sokka, to no one's surprise, only grumbled in his sleep and rolled his sleeping bag further away from them.)

Iroh had only ever seen these creatures from afar, but he knew enough basic things about them. They required warmth to live, had their own inner fires, and if that inner fire went out ... there would be no rekindling it. This adult's fire was going out. It was good that his Nephew had put thought into ways to keep it lit. While Iroh kept the adult and kits warm, Zuko gathered together several large stones -Appa had looked at him in confusion when Zuko had coaxed the bison into positioning them, but bribes of sweet fruits went a long way in earning the bisons assistance- and then draped a heavy rug and several blankets over it a roof, held up by a series of stones atop it. Momo had settled on one of those stones, looking on in fear and fascination both. 

(The conversation about where those heavy draperies came from left him feeling like he needed a calming cup of tea. Not fire whiskey. Tea. He hadn't touched fire whiskey since Lu Ten's death, and he'd sworn he never would again. His second son's clearly loose morals when it came to pirates would not be the thing that drove him back.)

Zuko took some of the coal kindling from their own campfire and lined the bottom of this den-like structure, then lit it aflame. It burned bright for several minutes, and he watched with pride while Zuko breathed it down to dim-searing coals, lit softly from within. The mother crawled inside cautiously, her short, feathered tail flickering with suspicion, but when no bars were slammed down around her, she rolled into the warm coals and let out a sound that needed no translation. It was sad and joyful, filled with longing and pain. The kits, eyes crusted over from infection, breathing weak, gave similar sounds when Zuko set them gently between the mothers' paws. 

(After Katara finally walked away, having been told in no uncertain terms that she was hovering by Zuko, he watched his Nephew carefully pull a creamy egg from his robes and carefully bury it in the coals. He placed it nearer the warm rock walls, so it wouldn't be jostled by the adult, and Iroh knew that even if it seemed hopeless to have tried, his Nephew still would have done so. It wasn't in his nature to give up.)

Sokka had finally woken, and he set about loudly proclaiming that Zuko and Katara arguably did a lot of stupid things (like play with magic) but that this had been the stupidest. He probably would have kept proclaiming such things if young Katara hadn't thrown a metal war fin in brushed steel at the young man's face. Afterward, he quietly went through everything his sister had swiped and made noises over the weapons Katara had adamantly refused to let him touch. It had been several years since Iroh had seen Bagh Nakh claws, but he could tell he would have to scrounge up memories of how they were used from the possessive glint in Katara's eyes.

Zuko was using a scrap of cloth and warmed water to try and gently clean the kits eyes, and the mother watched him weakly. Iroh let his Nephew take first watch for these creatures, and went hunting. Carnivores needed fresh meat, and one should never let an apex predator go hungry, no matter how injured. Lemurs would be the first thing that went missing, and then fingers.

(She wanted to gorge, but they set up a feeding schedule. Small pieces of a meal for her and her kits every couple hours. They were well concealed in these woods, so there was no rush to move just yet. His Nephew swore that no one saw them, so Iroh allowed this. They couldn't risk moving the mother anyway, she was too weak, and even if the heat of the coals was helping, he could feel her inner fire flickering with indecision.)

The first day was nice and warm, and Zuko had to be forced to go to sleep and eat, and Iroh took over caring for his Nephews high-risk acquisition. Momo kept him company, dropping offerings of foraged fruits and nuts by the den entrance, and when they weren't eaten, a field mouse ended up the next offering. Iroh found this particular, but accepted it.

(Lemurs were more intelligent than most thought. Momo was, in his own way, trying to help. Even if it did look like bribery.)

The mother stayed the same for several days, though the kits showed slow improvement. Even when the infection was carefully cleaned from their eyes, they couldn't seem to open them, and Iroh worried about that. A blind predator had a much harder life than other predators -if the infection had taken hold in the eye itself ... They would cross those waters when they got to that shore.

(Then, of course, the Pirates attacked the fourth day. Iroh didn't have time for worrying about all these things while he was trying to protect the children under his care.)

 

______

 

The pirates used smoke bombs. This was both cool and infuriating, and Zuko made sure to steal some on principle when he knocked out his most recent target. He heard the distinct sound of rushing water, and then a snap of sound before someone started howling, and was abruptly cut off with a thunk.

"See! This is exactly what I was talking about!" Sokka yelled somewhere in the smoke, and Zuko growled in response before he swiftly moved position. He ran straight into the captain of the pirates, and the man snarled at him.

"No one steals from me!" was a ridiculous thing to say, because he stole from everyone

(And it wasn't stealing if he'd been freeing something that wasn't meant to be caged. Wild things needed to breathe fresh air to live, and Zuko knew from experience that being in a cage sucked all the air out of you. Alright, so maybe Katara's spiteful sticky fingers hadn't been entirely necessary, but she was a sister. How was he supposed to control that?)

Zuko bared his teeth in response to the man's stupid statement, and then they were moving. One sword versus two dao, but they were evenly matched because Zuko was smaller and didn't have as much power to his swings yet.  He made up for the lack of power by being extra dexterous. No one had ever taught this man how to properly adjust his stances, or Zuko never would have been able to swing underneath his feet and get behind him for that slice to his thigh.

Somewhere beyond the smoke, a by now familiar, shrill sound echoed through the smoke and the pirate turned to him with a smirk. If Zuko hadn't grown up with not-right-happy smiles worse than that smirk, he might have let himself get shaken. As it was, he was only increasingly furious. He increased his efforts to wipe the stupid smirk off the man's face. 

____

Momo viciously attacked the first fool to come toward the den of the injured Danger! Predator! that had been brought into the group nest. He-that-was-loud-always assisted in downing this foe. When his vicious enemy Bird-claws-and-scales-smelt-like-anger appeared, he was not afraid. There were hatchlings below him, and they may not have been his, but he would not let other Danger! Predators! touch them. He fought against the Bird-claws-and-scales-smelt-like-anger Predator! and won by being clever, then returned to his protective roost-on-top-of-den.  

When multiple Danger! Bipeds! walked towards him with teeth bared and extended-sharp-claws-that-hurt, he knew he would b no match for them alone. He screeched a call that would have had a whole flock winging with him, if this were a proper nesting ground, but alas, Fluffy-flying-shape-of-cloud friend was the only one who responded. Momo dove for the exposed fleshy eyes of the first, but did not see what happened to the others. He only heard the shrill sound of a Danger! Predator! defending her nest and knew that something bad had happened. He didn't speak the mother-of-hatchlings tongue, but dying needed no translation.

____

In the end, Uncle Iroh started breathing fire, and Katara pulled the water from the river and used it to trip up half of the pirates. Aang used his staff to create gale-force winds and knock them into the flowing river beyond. Sokka was making use of the fan skills Suki had taught him, and the captain got knocked down and out because no one had ever told him to protect his ankles. Zuko didn't bother checking to make sure he was truly out, he just ran for the make-shift den while Katara and Aang made sure every pirate ended up in the river. 

(And from there, unknown to them, La and his children of the sea took immense satisfaction in dealing with the foolish humans to get in the way of the Avatar and his companions. Hadn't spent a hundred years guarding the boys sleeping figure to lose him to pirates of all things.)

Uncle caught Zuko before he could get in view of the mother and kits, and tried to hold him back. This was all he needed to let him know things were not okay. He surged forwards regardless, then froze midstep when he saw her. There was a pirate sprawled face down, and it looked like something had latched onto his throat. Two of the kits lay outside the den, with the third just barely inside the safety of the coals, as still as their mother. A mother that had a knife in her chest. He wasn't sure when he got on his knees in front of them, only that suddenly he was there and breathing very wrong. The two larger kits were the ones laying just outside the den, like they'd been grabbed and then dropped roughly. They probably had been.

(The mother, whom he'd quietly called Mango Cake, because her eyes were the exact shade of yellow as the rich sweet, had just barley tolerated Zuko handling them. Having one of her former captures touch them would have had her protective instincts in overdrive. It was only natural she'd gone for the mans most vulnerable point. He hadn't needed to kill her. She had just been protecting her kits.) 

He hadn't been aware that he was crying until Uncle was soothing as his hair, saying soft things like 'This wasn't your fault. You did her a kindness, Nephew. She died on her terms and free.' and he realized that he'd been quietly apologizing to the lifeless animals. A set of arms startled him, but he allowed Aang the hug, because he really needed it. Katara was carefully picking up the third kit, so very gently. There was something wrong with its back leg, it looked like, but Katara looked starkly relieved. Then she turned to the coals and plucked something out of them, holding it carefully in a cloth. She brought both the kit and the clothed bundle to him, and carefully crouched at his side. 

"Zuko. Look." He looked, saw the rise and fall of the runts' sides and was so grateful that whatever had happened, it was only slightly injured. Then he looked to what she'd plucked from the coals -the egg, formerly creamy yellow, it looked singed around the edges, like a Fried Dumpling, and it wobbled softly before it squeaked-

"What?" He croaked, carefully reaching for the egg. Katara placed it in his hands, then set about gently cleaning the surviving kit. The egg squeaked again, and trembled in his hands, and then it cracked, small claws carefully pushing their way out. Zuko hadn't thought there was anything alive left in it. He'd placed it in the fire because the mother deserved the right to choose what to do with it. The hatchling that was breaking its way into the world fit into his palms nicely and was sticky from the egg, and it mewled freshly-alive sounds at Zuko while he cleaned it. Uncle patted him on the shoulder slowly. 

"With every tragedy in life, a good thing is also given to us, Nephew. You must remember that." He whispered.  

(Uncle and Sokka carefully gathered Mango Cake and her other kits. They burned their bodies until they were ash, because they'd come from fire and deserved to rest in it, and as much as his mind buzzed with guilt, he was relieved that they weren't in pain anymore. He still cried over it. He cried over it soft and quiet, the way he was used to crying over things, carefully feeding the kit in his hands a piece of soft cheese because they had no milk, and bracing this new life and the one in Katara's lap against the cold air above the ground. Aang was crying too, and Katara was sniffling, and Sokka pretended that he hadn't gotten teary, but Zuko had seen the way he looked the largest kit and he knew. Uncle was sad in his Uncle way, comforting and there.)

They were on the move again because now they couldn't afford to stay in that area, and if Zuko saw any of those pirates, he would lose all the honor he thought he had, because he'd attack them until someone went down. Their insistence on getting back what they thought belonged to them had resulted in unnecessary loss of life. (And Zuko did know that whether Katara had been lighter about her theft or not, they still would have hunted them down for those Servals. This was perhaps, one of the sadder points.)

(If he hated pirates before, he despised them now. All he'd tried to do was free something that didn't deserve to be caged -and for people who stole for a living, they'd been pretty hypocritical about being stolen from. He knew none of these facts made everything okay, but if he didn't tell himself that they'd been in the wrong trying to re-cage something, he would sink into a numb-drowning-well in his own mind.)

 

 


 

 

When they eventually stop, it's in a harbor town that is notably unfriendly towards the Fire Nation. They had a small force of Earth benders that, if rumors were true, were masters of their craft. It had been nearly two weeks since the pirates. Zuko tried not to sink into the numb-drowning in his mind, but sometimes it was hard. The kits helped with that. Teriyaki Noodle -so named for the soft brown stripe that ran asymmetrically down one side of his muzzle- had finally managed to open his eyes, but he did so to look at Appa.

The bison had huffed at the tiny kit several times, and apparently terrified Noodle so bad, he needed to see what this-thing-that-breathed-like-wind was. it was love at first sight, for Noodle. Appa had no idea why the furry hatchling predator had made itself a nest on his head, but he didn't mind all that much. Hatchlings were hatchlings, and maybe, like Momo, it would keep the bugs away. Zuko quietly thought it was adorable when he could feel more than sad. 

He elected to stay with Appa in a cave while the rest of the party went into town to resupply, despite Iroh trying to object. Shortly, it was just Appa, Noodle, Fried Dumpling -who'd decided that Zuko was her own personal perch and spent her days curled up inside his robes- and him. It was weirdly nice to not have Katara hovering, or Sokka helpfully-accidentally distracting him from his plaguing guilt. Or worse, Aang's insistent, always there hugs (which he secretly liked, because they were meant to comfort and support) or Uncles insistent and almost impressive inner-library of proverbs for everything. Surprisingly, as soon as everyone was gone, he banked the low fire and grabbed a blanket, then curled up with Noodle and dumpling to nap. 

It was the first bit of real sleep he'd had in a long time, because the only ones around to hear him cry were Appa and the kits. 

(At least mostly. Aang came back in the afternoon, and quietly set about making some congee. He'd been paying attention to how Zuko liked it, because Katara always talked about how she appreciated not being the only one to cook, and his small crush on her wasn't gone, just buried except when she wasn't looking. He was also cooking to not think about the truth of why he was in the South Pole even though he'd been headed to Omashu. He was still having nightmares about the guilt. Zuko wasn't alone in this.)

Then the storm hit.

Chapter Text

The Capital was in an uproar. Their Princess was gone, stolen from her own chambers by Earth Kingdom spies. Their Prince -banished or not, he was still their prince- was missing, presumed a prisoner of war. Agni only knew what he must be suffering at the hands of savages. Their Fire Lord feared the worst, that his too young mind would break under the pressures of torture. That he would side with the enemy to avoid further pain, and the steps they might have to take to prevent any confidential information from getting into enemy hands. 

 

The Fire Lord was heart-broken at the implications within these fears. His people were trying not to see everything wrong with what he had so subtly suggested his course of action would be. People that saw something wrong with their Fire Lord tended to disappear. 

(Yet they couldn't ignore that the capital may have been lit by Agni's rays, but it was cold. Colder than any winter, and anyone who was a strong enough bender felt the disconnect. This was all made worse by the sudden death of High Sage Shiza. Another thing that was blamed on Earth Kingdom spies.)

(Those within the court that had never cared for Ozai's rise to power wonder quietly when the Earth Kingdom had started burning their enemies alive. No one was stupid enough to wonder this within Ozai's hearing. The glint in his eyes the last few weeks had become more obsessive, and no one wanted to be caught directly by that look.)

 

 


 

 

The storm came swiftly, building up in the far distance as a dark smudge before it was suddenly there. Zuko only noted it because one moment he was dozing with the soft feel of Agni's warmth in the air, and the next it was bizarrely cold. He woke to find that Aang was cooking, and speaking quietly to Katara, evading her questions expertly, but without shouting. Beyond them, the mouth to the cave was darkness and angry, rolling clouds

(Far, far beyond, on the seas, La and his brother-in-law the Fujin of the Western winds raged at Zhaos's ship. Zhao had not been having a good time the last few weeks. It felt like the world had it out for him. Most of it did.)

Zuko was in that quiet place between wanting to sleep more and wanting to be awake, because he was no longer alone and he wasn't sure if today was a good or bad day yet. Then he caught the tail end of what Aang was saying. 

"... didn't even find out I was the Avatar until a month before I ended up in the iceberg. They weren't supposed to tell me until I was sixteen, and they weren't explaining anything, but they were perfectly fine with changing everything on me so fast!" He growled, stabbing at the hot coals viciously. Zuko wasn't sure what they were talking about, but that certainly sounded familiar. Things like that had been his whole childhood.

Zuko sat up slowly, getting soft, complaining mewls from the two kits curled on his chest. Noodle refused to move from his arm, where he tumbled when Zuko sat up, but Dumpling clawed her way to his shoulder as he carefully shuffled over to sit down by the fire. Aang wouldn't look at him, but he didn't stop talking.

"They said they needed me. They never explained what for before they increased my training, and started trying to limit what I did and where I went. It took less than a week for the other kids in my year to start excluding me -because I was the Avatar. Like that made me any different. Like anything had really changed!" Katara reached out to gently pat Aang's shoulder comfortingly.

"I'm so sorry Aang." The boy hunched further over Momo, his eyes squeezing shut. 

"I could have lived with all that." He admitted weakly. "I could have lived with everything else, but then ... they wanted to separate me from Gyatso." Zuko flinched unintentionally.

He hadn't seen the corpse of the boy's father-figure, but he'd eventually been told about it. Zuko couldn't imagine being separated from Uncle Iroh or worse, finding the old general dead. He got a cold pit in his stomach just thinking about it. Zuko wasn't good at comfort, but he gently pulled the monk in for a one-armed hug regardless. Aang stiffened, then melted into the touch slowly. Momo chittered nervously and got a soft, sleepy sound in response. Aang chose to pull away after a few minutes of deep breathing, and continued quietly. 

"I don't understand how they could do that. They were taking away everything I knew, and then they wanted to take everyone I loved! The nomads had a different idea of a family than the rest of the nations, but Gyatso raised me! He was my father!" The boy was crying angrily now, and Zuko subtly held his hand out to Katara and motioned to Aang with wide eyes. Panic attacks or sinking depression, he could deal with. Tears were beyond his ability to comfort at present. Katara rolled her eyes at him, and gently reached out pull the nomad into a tight hug. She made shushing, soothing sounds that were both familiar and not, and he realized she must have been picking certain things up from Uncle. That short hum was definitely one he'd heard from the older man. 

"Sorry." Aang eventually rasped, and Katara pulled away. 

"No, you have a right to be sad and angry after the monks sent you away!" She chastised. The boy's guilty look intensified and Zuko suddenly knew before he spoke why he always looked super guilty when people talked about the Avatar's disappearance

"That's not what happened, is it." It wasn't a question. Aang hugged Momo to his chest and buried his face in the lemur's fur. The lemur started patting at his bald head affectionately, trilling softly. 

"I was angry. Confused. They had me at the end of my rope, and they were ripping away everything pieces by piece. In only four weeks, they managed to turn my world upside down and shake it. I didn't know what to do, and felt like I had no one to talk to. The only thing they'd ever consistently trained me to do was follow the wind, and I thought-" he paused and scrubbed at his eyes, shaking his head slowly. "I thought that I'd just go away, visit some friends in other nations. People that wouldn't treat me different. I thought time away and on the wind would offer me clarity for the right things to say and do when I went back." 

"You ran away." Katara looked impossibly sad and understanding all at once, and Zuko felt for this boy, who'd literally had his whole life changed in a month, then completely altered in almost three

(Aang woke up three months ago to a new age, and new people that didn't know his culture and probably never would have had he not been the Avatar. The nomad had known he was the Avatar for all of four months of his lifetime, and he was twelve.)

"Yeah. Then the Fire Nation attacked my people and I wasn't there to help." Aang responded bitterly. Zuko stirred at that and gripped Aang's shoulder, shaking his head slowly. 

"Aang, you're twelve. Avatar or not, how long do you think you would have held up to an entire army that was extra powerful? How long could you have lasted even if you managed to save some of your people? My great grandfather was determined to wipe the nomads off the map, and if he'd thought even one lived, he would have been searching the oceans for you." He gentled his tone, because he could see the sheen of angry-tears starting up again. "I get it. Okay? You wish that you had been able to protect your people because they were your people. That's noble, and honorable, but while you're beating yourself up, you need to remember a couple of things. You were much too young to be given so much responsibility, and they were taking away the one person you trusted not to lead you astray. On top of both of those things, they didn't adequately communicate with you about what dangers were present, and why."

Katara and Aang both gave him odd, thoughtful looks, but he brushed it off by way of patting the Airbender on the shoulder lightly.

"The Spirits work in mysterious ways Aang. If they hadn't wanted you where you ended up, you wouldn't have been on those wind currents. Isn't that one of the nomad philosophies?" Aang nodded mutely, and Zuko stroked a finger over Noodle's head. "Then stop beating yourself up over it. It's good that you're trying to take responsibility for your mistakes, but if you hadn't done everything you had, there really wouldn't be any Airbenders left, and the Avatar of this generation might have been killed three times over. You don't want to know what my father would do with his own pet Avatar, Aang. No one does." Zuko carefully passed Noodle off to Aang, and the nomad was extremely gentle in curling the kit to his chest while Zuko checked the food. Before anything more could be said on the subject, there was the sound of wet boots on stone, and Iroh and Sokka walked into the cave soaking wet and chuckling, holding packages.

"You left them alone in town with money?" He hissed at Katara. The Waterbender slapped her forehead gently. 

"I forgot to grab the purse from Iroh when that fisherman started saying all those things about the Returned Avatar." It was an apology and self-deprecation all in one, so Zuko let it drop. 

"Uncle, we talked about unnecessary supplies." He said instead, as soon as Iroh and Sokka were in earshot and no longer chuckling. Sokka gave him a look of fake affront. 

"I'll have you know all the supplies Uncle Iroh and I pick up are necessary! And thanks to all those weird things Katara swiped, totally affordable!" Katara rolled her eyes, casting a look at the Earth Kingdom bag she'd swiped to carry the scrolls (and one truly atrocious monkey they'd had to pry out of Iroh's hands) and subsequently, currently held everything from their stealth mission she had intended to keep -like the water-tribe jewelry- and both of the Waterbending scrolls in their possession. 

(Like the Claw weapons. Iroh had started teaching her how to use them -or how he'd seen them used- to fight with. She'd figured out how to bend while wearing them the last time she practiced.)

Before they could figure out what was so necessary in Sokka and Iroh's minds, someone appeared at the mouth of their cave and started begging for help.

"My husband is in that storm! Please! You're the Avatar, aren't you?" So, of course, Aang agreed to help. Noodle ended up in Zuko's hands, so he carefully tucked the kit into his shirt -which Dumpling took as an invitation to join her brother- then he served the woman a bowl of congee, and Iroh put on some tea while Aang, Katara and Sokka drug Appa up and out. He could already tell it would be a long night.

(It was, but mostly because the older woman chatted at him insistently the entire time she was there, fretting and twitching towards the cavern entrance every time there was a flash of lightning or a shadow in the sky. Uncle helped by being charming at her, drawing her into a conversation that was mostly directed away from the current situation.)

After Aang, Katara, and Sokka returned, and the couple left after bickering, they found out that Uncle and Sokka's idea of necessary supplies were new sheaths for their weapons. They'd spent their day in town politely bullying people into making the sheaths, because Katara didn't have anything for her claws, and Zuko's strap for his dao was just barely long enough to fit over his shoulder -he'd grown a lot in the last year. Now, Katara had a belt with square leather pouches on either side, highly reinforced and perfectly fit for her claws. Zuko's new sheath for his dao would fit him no matter how tall or wide he got, and he stroked the leather while Sokka chatted at him about the new leather sheath for his war fan, which hung by his knife now. 

(These, of course, were Sokka's idea of necessary supplies. Iroh produced more tea, and what looked like a flute, and a bundle of miscellaneous clothing items he swore would be necessary in the future. Zuko not-so-quietly accepted the fact that he was never getting away from music nights, but at least they couldn't very well tote a tsungi horn around.)

(Much later, he found out none of them had remembered to resupply the food. He ended up dragging Sokka back out with him the next morning, while it was still drizzling. The older boy complained about the rain the whole way into town, and the entire time they were shopping. Dumpling -who'd refused to be left behind- had been fascinated by this thing she'd never seen before, until she found out it was wet. For the rest of the trip, she attached herself to his collar and curled into his chin. Sokka stopped complaining when he realized that Zuko wasn't listening. On their way back, now laden with supplies that Dumpling wanted to explore but didn't want to get wet for, Sokka started coughing.)

 

 


 

 

Sokka thought he was an Earthbender, and he kept calling Noodle 'King Crab.' He also thought he was an Earthbender, and that he could understand Appa and Momo. Zuko would have felt bad for the cold if Sokka weren't slightly hilarious while in delirium, and really, who caught a cold from a little rain? Weren't they from the South Pole? Katara shrugged helplessly when Zuko asked these questions, trying to help Sokka break his fever. 

"Crabby? Come 'ere Crabby, whose a good little crabby?" Sokka cooed, gently pulling Noodle into his sleeping bag. The kit seemed confused by the name -Zuko marveled again at the intelligence of these creatures, that even young they could recognize being given a name- but curled into the soft scritches being given. 

Iroh, who'd spent most of the morning brewing a 'bracing, healing potion,' paused as he dropped some fine-sliced ginger root into the boiling pot. 

"Ah, Nephew! I have just remembered!" Before Zuko could get worried, Sokka tried to sit up blearily, cradling Noodle to his chest.

"What is it, Uncle! Did you remember where you hid my seal jerky?" Katara carefully made the boy lay back down, and Zuko wondered when the rest of the group had started calling Iroh 'Uncle' so casually. 

(Also why his uncle would have hidden seal jerky from the boy, but then, his Uncle probably hadn't. Babies or not, they'd quickly learned that Dumpling and Noodle had sharp teeth. The two tiny apex predators were also growing at an alarming rate, with Noodle being half of Momo's size now compared to nearly two-and-a-half weeks before. Of course, they also weren't sure just how old Noodle was. Malnutrition and infection tended to slow growth substantially. Dumpling had only hatched two-and-a-half-weeks before, but she had full locomotion and sat in his palms comfortably.)

"What? No, I'm sorry Sokka. I remembered the nickname for the Servals! It has been bothering me for some time." The older man chuckled, absently stirring the contents of his pot. "Their species name is quite a mouthful, so many of our ancestors called them King Servals. I cannot tell you how long it has bothered me!" Zuko rolled his eyes at Katara, who was chuckling over Sokka's overexaggerated requests for Seal Jerky while also trying to keep the boy laying down.

"How's the tea going?" Aang asked, running in from outside the abandoned temple. Iroh smiled at the monk in response and carefully pored a cup out.

"Hopefully, it will be as strong as my old friend Cheng's. Now, there was a field medic who could analyze an injury in a heartbeat, and have you patched up just as fast!" Zuko and Aang followed Iroh over to Sokka and watched him smile-with-force at the sick boy until he choked the brew down. The boy gagged and made faces at them, then promptly fell asleep minutes later. He made Katara drink some too, because she'd started coughing and they couldn't afford for her to be sick as well.

"How come we're the only ones that have to drink it?" The girl grumbled, scrunching her nose at her empty cup. Zuko didn't want to know what the brew had tasted like, but he could imagine.

(He'd had plenty of 'healing brews' shoved at him at the start of his voyage, and none of them had been good.) 

"You'll forgive me for reminding you, but you and your brother had never left the South Pole before the beginning of our adventure. You haven't been exposed to some of the illnesses on the mainlands, so your immunity is weaker to it." He patted the girls hand gently, and took her cup. "The rest of us are traveled -we have been to multiple ports and places, and have better immunity to local illness or sudden weather. That doesn't mean I won't insist on my Nephew or Aang drinking my brew if they begin to feel ill." Zuko very subtly ignored the pointed look Uncle gave him -the same look Uncle gave him any time he was thinking about the week after he'd woken up where he'd quietly disposed of brews creatively.  

"Don't feel bad Katara! I caught the hog-monkey flu a couple of years back and wow! That was terrible! Of course, it was my own fault for messing with hog-monkeys." Zuko hadn't heard of the hog-monkey flu, so he had no idea why messing with hog-monkeys pertained to getting sick. Katara made similarily confused noises, and Aang launched into a running tirade of what the hog-monkey flu was, and Zuko was glad it was apparently a sickness that had died out. Dumpling agreed by way of mewling in a way that sounded like a squawk, and he spent the rest of the evening feeding Noddle and Dumpling while Iroh got increasingly insistent with his brews.

(Far away, on an ocean that was just barely calming, Zhao looked into the face of the seas and La looked back. He stared at the unholy spirit staring back at him and realized that before he dealt with the Avatar, he needed to deal with this. If this was in the seas, no Fire Nation vessel was safe. La laughed at his angry shouts, lost to the Fujin's winds, and pushed the ship a little more. Agni looked on. Zhao had done this to himself, and no matter how much he wished his children below would see reason, parents could not simply hand their children all the answers. He did ask La and Tiesan to calm themselves a little. There were children on that boat who didn't deserve to drown in La's embrace -there were children who saw.)

 

 


 

 

They chose Makapu village because it was the closest to going north and resupplying they could get without going backward.

Sokka was feeling way better as they landed just outside the village, and not at all woozy. He doesn't remember thinking he was an Earthbender, but he does remember looking at Noodle and seeing King Crab, his older brother, then looking at Dumpling and almost calling her Sea Prune. Sokka remembers missing King Crab and Sea Prune so much he was cuddling both remaining kits and whining about seal jerky, while thinking about how tough and snappy King Crab would grab wiggling Water Tribe fingers and nip before he forced them to pet while his eyes got cleaned. He asked for his missing seal jerky all while wishing that Sea Prune was disdainfully sitting on his chest and pretending she didn't want pets.

(He missed the two older kits. Pirates were the worst.)

The fact that he could only remember things he'd said after he'd started drinking Uncle Iroh's noxious, disgusting brew was not lost on him, but he still swore never again. It was possible he'd asked Zuko to kill him first if he got sick again, and he didn't think his buddy had agreed, which they would have words about. Overall, his day had been going good because he was feeling way better, and wasn't at all feverish or headachy. Not even Katara and Aang practicing with their magic water (Aang with slight disinterest) made him overtly upset. That is until he found out that there was a whole village that believed in every word a fortuneteller said. 

The parts of him that wanted to believe that there was always a logical explanation and reasonable, physical proof of something denied the possibility of a fortuneteller emphatically. He didn't care if it was raining now Katara, fortunetelling isn't real.

(Katara once asked why he believed in spirits but nothing else. He hadn't been able to find the words to explain that Spirits were different. You saw traces of them everywhere, especially in the South Pole. And anyone that looked at the ocean and didn't see the hidden power there was a fool. Sokka believed in spirits. Magic was a different matter entirely!)

Zuko, at least, appeared to be on his side in this. The former prince had been scoffing almost as much as Sokka was, but Iroh was amused by the idea of having his fortune told, so unlike Sokka, Zuko was going along with it. (It had taken Sokka less than two weeks with the duo to learn that Zuko would put up with a lot of things for his Uncle, and vice versa. It had taken him a day after learning this to use it to his advantage.) Now, they were walking towards a large house in a surprisingly clean village, and Sokka would have been cold if it weren't for Zuko helpfully keeping the air around him warm. (Dumpling and Noodle both appreciated this, as they'd climbed onto Zuko as soon the rain started, hiding under his conical hat.)

"If I catch that cold again, remember, you need to off me before Iroh gets his brew anywhere near my mouth." Sokka stage whispered since they were at the back of the group. Zuko shot him an offended glare. 

"I already told you I'm not doing that! Are you sure you don't have a fever still?" he tried to check and Sokka lightly smacked his hand away. A mutual narrow-eyed look, and they were at war. Sokka and Zuko were play-slapping each other's hands away when they were invited inside the house. Sokka managed to get one last clearly-the-bigger-brother slap in before he hurried inside to Zuko's affronted growling and Dumplings mimicked echo. (At some point, that animal would be bigger, and Sokka would have to make it clear he was just playing, because she might eat him. She was extremely territorial of Zuko.)

They were met by a baby-faced young girl that looked at Aang like he was a fresh slab of meat, and Sokka shuddered where she couldn't see. The kid probably wasn't any older than Aang, but she already had flirting mastered. Girls. Mushy and terrifying. Aang seemed completely oblivious to the girls' subtle flirtations -which made sense, because he was a monk child and had the social awareness of Zuko when it came to most girls. Sokka would have told the kid it wouldn't do any good because Aang had a tiny crush -alright, so a kinda big one- on Katara, but that would be breaking the unspoken code between men.

Instead, he elbowed Zuko -who immediately elbowed him back with a glare- and nodded to the girl blushing and stumbling away from Aang. He also reached over the took the pastry dish. Zuko swiped a couple of the bean curd puffs, and they watched in mutual fascination as Katara jumped up and hurried after Aunt Wu.

"What ...what do you think they're talking about?" Aang asked. 

Sokka offered the bowl to Zuko, who swiped some and handed it back. (Momo somehow wiggled between them and swiped a few, then tried to take off with the whole bowl. Wrestling it back from his little lemur paws took Sokka and Zuko working together.) Uncle Iroh was the one who answered. 

"It is my understanding that young ladies are usually only interested in love."

Predictably, Aang badly wanted to know what was being said, but Iroh metaphorically sat on him before Sokka could encourage him to give up his seat. After that, Aunt Wu and Katara came back, and Katara looked happy, where Aunt Wu had an odd look on her face that was a fine mixture of amused and awed. She gave Sokka a fortune before ever really talking to him, which only confirmed his theory that fortunes were nonsense, and Zuko mutely shook his head when she asked if he wanted his told. Iroh went, and came back smiling that serene smile of his, while Aunt Wu looked charmed. One day, Sokka would figure out how the old man did that. Finally, Aang went, then came back with a spring in his step and a dopey sigh.

(They split up after that. Zuko drug his uncle towards the market to resupply, and Sokka set out to prove the fortuneteller wrong, for his own peace of mind. He wasn't sure what Katara and Aang were doing, only that the next time he saw them, Katara and Zuko were comparing shopping notes, and Aang looked disheartened by something. Since Sokka's day had been nothing but disheartenment, he felt for the monk.)

"I cannot believe all these people are so convinced of this woman's fortunes." He grumbled. Momo jumped onto his shoulder and patted at his head, while Katara smirked at him in a way Zuko always referred to as 'a sister-smile.

"Couldn't convince anyone that their fortunes were wrong, huh?" Zuko probably had the right idea about Sisters being the worst.

"You're only saying that because she told you how many fat babies you're going to have!" He growled. Katara blinked at him in bafflement, then rolled her eyes. 

"You think all I spoke to her about was my love life?" Sokka knew that tone of voice, and from the way Zuko very subtly shifted so he was leaning away from them both, so did he. "I'll have you know she may have told me what type of man I'll end up with, but I wanted to know about whether or not I'd find a good Waterbending teacher in the North, and if there would be any more complications on our journey. Just so you know, Aunt Wu suggested we avoid any big fires for a few weeks, and that looping either east or west would be safer than going straight North." Her fists were propped on her hips now, and Sokka was trying very hard not to lean back. 

The instant he showed any fear, she'd take advantage and be given the upper hand. There was no snow here for her to dump on him, but that wouldn't stop her from trying. He spread his hands in a conceding manner, maintaining eye contact as he did so.

"Okay, okay, fine. I'm sorry I dare suggest that you, a girl, only had boys on your mind. That was sexist of me." Aang stifled a chuckle behind his hands, and Zuko was pointedly not looking at him. They would have words about his buddy's tendency to leave him on his own when it came to Katara. Katara marched off, and Aang shuffled in between him and Zuko for a minute before he spoke.

(Him asking for advice on women was the best thing Sokka had heard all day. It was also a good thing that Katara had already marched away. He thought he was giving pretty good advice, but Zuko kept contradicting him, and Aang ended up growling at them both and stomping away just as the girl Mieng walked up. Sokka almost told her it was hopeless to pin after Aang, but he wasn't a jerk. Later, while scaling that stupid volcano, he wished he was a jerk, because then he would still be in town, with Zuko, who'd shook his head and quietly pointed at Dumpling, who wouldn't survive a fall from a sheer cliff face. This only had Sokka thinking about King Crab and Sea Prune all over again, so it was good that he was climbing a mountain and complaining about Aang's love life, because he needed that distraction.) 

The best distraction came in the form of an active volcano that was thinking very hard about blowing up. He and Aang made a mad-dash for the village, but naturally, no one would listen but their party members, because Aunt Wu had suggested they would all be fine and they blindly believed her. They had to talk fast to come up with a plan that might work, but the only problem was implementing it. They couldn't find Aunt Wu, but Aang had a brilliant idea.

(Which naturally lead to theft, because when didn't it in their group. Iroh looked like he was fighting a headache, but he was doing that wise teacherly thing where he mostly let them choose their own course of action. Zuko clearly would have preferred to do the theft himself, if it weren't broad daylight. The former prince looked unreasonably upset to be standing guard outside. While Aang and Katara figured out a way to bend clouds, Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh quietly gathered everything they'd need for the plan. Of course, everyone listened to them after Aunt Wu was brought outside and shown the message in the clouds. Sokka had to admit there was nothing more ominous than a giant cloud shaped like a skull, laughing down on them from above.)

From that point to late evening, it was nothing but dig, move, dig, all day. The Earthbenders did most of the work, but enough of the non-bender village people helped that Sokka was hoping it would make a difference. Zuko and Iroh were standing by to put out any fires that started just in case, and Sokka got the first real taste of intense heat in his life. He wasn't sure he liked it, and he really hoped that summers were nothing like that going forward. 

They saved the town. Well, Aang saved the town, and they all helped. Sokka hadn't even been aware you could super-cool lava with air. It struck him again that this was a child who so often played with gale-force winds like it was nothing. That he was a tweleve-year-old who earned his 'mastery tattoos' early. (Sokka hadn't been sure, but thought earning your tattoos early would be something like the Water Tribe manhood trials.) They all agreed, when they left, to maybe take Aunt Wu's advice about not flying directly North. Sokka grumbled about it, but he was outvoted because Katara smiled her sister-smile to the group as a whole. It was a smile that said she would purposefully season their stew awfully if they took an unnecessary risk based on Sokka's pride and big-headedness.

(Yes, actually, smiles could say all that. Sokka had enough experience with her actually saying it to know.)

Sisters were the worst.

 

 


 

 

Zhao received a reply from Ozai. His ship had finally managed to make port int a small, insignificant little harbor that wasn't even close to Fire Nation, but had to do because they were down on supplies and the men were exhausted. He sat down with the note intending to send a reply, but ended up sleeping on his desk. He woke to the feeling of being watched, but the only thing in his office was darkness and moonlight. He glared at the moon through the porthole, then set about writing his reply. He'd hopefully get some real sleep and real news soon, but it could wait until he'd finished this reply. 

He wrote another series of missives and had those sent out too. By next month, he would hopefully have enough people for his plans. 

(If, in his very much sleep-deprived state, he forgot that his timeline put him perilously close to the full moon, he didn't note it. He hadn't slept in some time, and he didn't sleep well that night either. His dreams were full of all the things the ocean had spit at him during the storms, and none of them were kind. As had been common any time he slept, the final part of his dream was of a four-eyed monstrosity that was the ocean, and opened impossibly wide jaws to swallow his ship whole.)

(Zhao was not having a good time.)

Chapter Text

Teaching Aang anything about Waterbending had, in retrospect, been a poor choice on their part. Katara had started the small lessons weeks before, because she wanted someone to spar against with her element. Aang had gone through with the lessons because of the not-so-small-anymore crush he had on her. He'd continued them for -Zuko was only just realizing- nefarious purposes.

 

(The monk had confided in Zuko -for reasons unknown- that he'd liked Katara like a boy thinks he likes a girl at first, but watching her pull a river up and sweep a bunch of pirates down a channel had increased his like to divine-spirit-levels. Whatever that meant. Zuko was still trying to figure out what the difference between liking a girl and thinking you liked a girl was.)

 

Zuko had shrugged at the lessons, in the beginning, content to let someone else take over being her practice partner (see: punching dummy without the physical punching) because he was tired of getting soaked. The lessons had started with mild disinterest from the nomad ... Until he realized how much easier pranks were when you had two elements in your arsenal. Because monks were secretly nefarious.

 

It was with great shame that Zuko admitted he hadn't seen the warning signs until far too late. Like now. Now he sat on a recently soaked log watching Sokka flail in the shallow riverside just beyond what used to be their campfire, listening to a monk stifling his laughter behind them. Katara was on the opposite side of the narrow river, whatever she'd been practicing falling with a splash from lack of concentration, watching with wide eyes and twitching lips. Sisters, he suddenly decided, weren't as bad as monks.

 

"Aang! That was uncalled for!" Sokka wailed, finally sitting up and rolling to his knees. Zuko refused to look anywhere but straight ahead, because he was counting, and not shouting. Shouting would be taking steps backward in his efforts to communicate better with those around him. Shouting would feel good, but it wouldn't be good.

 

"Well, I asked if you guys were hot. You're the ones that agreed you were thinking about taking a dip." Pure, lying innocence in every word. Aang and Azula should never meet. Zuko had to start recounting when his breathing hitched. 

 

"That wasn't blanket permission to soak me! And look! You ruined dinner! And now I'm freezing!" Sokka's volume had increased with every point. Zuko's slow, steady, angry-breath-counting had managed to rekindle the fire unexpectedly. Dumpling chose this moment to growl impressively and swipe at something behind him. 

 

(She'd spent several frantic moments after the water fell on Zuko scrambling behind a log. The water has missed her, he was grateful to note. She'd tentatively crawled closer when all water-related splashing was done, and had been gently licking at exposed skin to try and help remove the wet. Swiping at -presumably- Aang was such a good-girl move, he gave her careful scritches.)

 

"Zuko, we've had this discussion. You aren't supposed to reward her for your kind of behavior!" Aang announced behind him. 

 

Zuko glared more at the slow-building fire and increased his affectionate petting. The water from the river rippled behind a shivering Sokka, who was sitting alarmingly close to the fire pit and what was supposed to be a stew. Katara moved into view a second later, looking serious despite the leftover amusement.

 

"Aang. We also had a discussion about water-related pranks in camp." She motioned widely over shivering Sokka, the stew that was now watery soup (Zuko was going to throw it out. Just as soon as he had control of his breathing,) and steaming Zuko, whom Dumpling had decided was safe enough to curl up against. 

 

He heard the shuffle of suddenly guilty feet and hoped distantly that Katara would always use her power to silently imbue disappointment for good. 

 

"Sorry, Sokka. Sorry, Zuko." The sheepish, but honest, apology took some of Zuko's annoyance, and really, he shouldn't let himself be upset. He could dry himself relatively quickly, unlike Sokka. 

 

(And a little cold river water was nothing to the frigid waters of the South Pole, no matter how much those Koala Otters had been worth it.)

 

Zuko sighed out his latest deep breath and nodded in Aang's direction to let him know the apology was accepted and mostly forgiven. If anything, he'd just spike Aang's soup with sweet-chili paste. An eye for an eye, right? Zuko motioned Sokka over to him, and the boy practically scrambled over the small growing fire. 

 

(Zuko barely resisted the urge to snuff the flames just in case, but Sokka never even came close to them.) 

 

He did a lot of deep breathing and general warming of the space until Sokka felt dryer and looked warmer, and then he tossed out the river-soup. He was pretty sure he'd seen a flash of a tail in the pot, so it was a good thing.

 

(Cook Zui had told him never to boil a fish alive. Zuko couldn't remember why, only that the chef said he shouldn't. He would have been worried if he had thought the flame was hot enough to reboil the cool water.)

 

Uncle chose that moment to appear from the woods, returning from his recon of the small settlement nearby. Zuko hadn't wanted to let him go alone, but Iroh was, of all of them, the least likely to accidentally or purposefully draw attention. Besides, he hadn't ended up going alone -Noodle had gone with him. The kit was even now happily draped over Iroh's shoulders, receiving soft pets under his chin, looking extremely content. Noodle chirped a greeting to Appa, who groaned from his space and huffed back in a way that Zuko recognized as distinctly happy.

 

(In the last couple weeks of travel-stop-resupply-travel, Noodle had grown until he was just bigger than Momo, like the kit's body was making up for all the lost growth from his early weeks. Zuko had noticed that Dumpling was growing at a fast rate as well, and he wondered if this was natural so far from their usual environment. He was never likely to get an answer. King Servals were supposed to be a protected species in his nation and were usually so dangerous, no one had ever studied them -except passively and from a great distance. The only thing he knew for sure was that eventually, both kits would be able to fly, and their shoulders would reach his knees, if their mother had been anything to go by.)

 

"Uncle Iroh! How's the settlement?" Aang asked, clearly already forgetting about his errant prank. That was good. Zuko wasn't sure what he was making to replace the stew, but he knew it would have sweet-chili paste in it. 

 

"It was very friendly, Aang -and also Fire Nation free. I asked around, and the lovely people there said they don't mind if we join their story-circle tonight." Uncle smiled at the now-empty pot sitting by the slow-dying fire, then quirked an eye at the children in amusement, "apparently, those that cook will have food carts set up. I noticed our dinner is conspicuously missing, so perhaps this was fate." Uncle chuckled. 

 

Aang laughed one of his nervous laughs, the one that suggested he hoped others got the joke, and they did end up going to the small settlement for their story-circle. He refrained from bringing the sweet-chili paste, because Aang would notice if Zuko slathered it on top of his food publicly. He could always sneak it into the congee in the morning, with some berries Momo had helped him forage earlier that day. 

 

The food offered wasn't bad, even if it could have been spicier, and most of the stories were even entertaining. It was a nice look into Earth Kingdom culture he hadn't had before -like the fact that they all believed their spirit deity was dead. Dabogong hadn't been heard rumbling under the Earth for centuries. The great Earthbenders of old, imbued with their deities blessing -able to form mountain ranges and raise land from the seas- had long since faded into fantastical legend. 

 

(Zuko wondered if this spirit looked as strange as his Brother and Sister did. He hoped not.)

 

Then the final story-teller spoke about Air Nomads, spinning tales around their legendary mischievousness that Zuko could well believe were true. One only needed to spend a few days in Aang's company to see that Air Nomads may have been highly spiritual, but they were also highly bored and prone to shenanigans and time-wasting nonsense. Katara nudged Aang softly, looking amazed and slightly amused. 

 

"Was any of that true?" She asked. 

 

"Some of it was a little exaggerated, but I laugh at gravity all the time!" The boy chuckled back. 

 

The final storyteller was walking around with his hat out. Zuko nudged a zenny into Sokka's hand and they both dropped one in. Uncle Iroh was circulating around the story-circle, speaking to people and being charming -with Noodle purring loudly on his wider shoulders. Zuko nudged another zenny into Katara's hand when the man turned to her expectantly. Aang and Momo found their own to give, if only because the boy had followed after the man as he turned away. 

 

(Finding out that the man's decrypt old grandfather claimed he'd seen a nomad recently was unexpected and made Zuko both sad and hopeful. Sad because he knew this wouldn't end the way Aang wanted it to. Hopeful that his own pessimism was wrong for once, and that there would be a happy surprise waiting for them in the Northern temple.)

 

 


 

 

Azula breathed deeply, glaring on principle at the ocean. She ignored the frigid air like she ignored the adults a few feet away, speaking about her like she couldn't hear them. She had finally gotten word to Uncle Iroh, but didn't know if he would be able to get back to them in time. They'd all tried to convince Azula that she needed to reconsider what she was doing, but she'd grown up with a man that could manipulate better than anyone. 

 

(When he was thinking clearly. When he was at full strength. The father she'd grown up with would have never let her run away.)

 

The adults on this boat didn't understand why what she was doing now was important, but it was. She understood a little, but not as much as Azula needed. That was the problem. Azula didn't need a-a ...a mother figure! She'd never needed one! She didn't need a father figure either -her's had taught her that fathers couldn't be trusted. Parents were for other children. What she needed was something more important than that -

 

(She'd seen the documents before she left, written before he'd started being strange, dated for years ahead. Her life plotted out in meticulous detail, down to the kind of company she was allowed to keep, and when he wanted her to murder Zuko, should he still live. She was supposed to be his legacy. His eventual figurehead. A pretty daughter that wasn't allowed to be pretty, who would eventually marry someone he chose and have babies to further continue his legacy. These weren't the main reasons she'd finally decided to leave, but they were some of them.)

 

"Princess? Would you like something to eat now?" Azula let her attention drift purposefully away from the waves -not a defeat or a retreat, she was choosing to look away from the water because she was better. She still wasn't sure what was out there, but she would not let it think she'd given up their mutual test of wills.

 

"I suppose. As long as it's not that stew again." She grumbled snippily, letting herself be seated.

 

She smiled, that smile she only smiled at Azula, when she was supposed to frown like the other adults did at that tone. Azula got a steaming plate of seasoned fish with sweet-chili paste on the side, and a series of vegetables she didn't recognize but at least weren't that stew. Distantly, in the back of her mind, she wondered when the idea of eating a quiet meal with an adult stopped being so chore-like. That thought-road made her squirm inside, so she alternated between glaring at her plate and glaring at the waves appropriately.

 

 


 

 

Aang leaned into the harsh Northern winds and smiled. He could feel, just under his skin, the happy-tingle of freedom that came with a flight. The small part of him that was dreading whatever he'd find in the Northern temple squirmed uncomfortably. Or maybe that was Momo trying to crawl into Aang's Gi again. He peeked open an eye to check, and found that there was, in fact, a lemur squirming its way into his Gi. Noodle brushed against Aang's back curiously and then his fluffy head appeared at Aang's elbows, eyes intent on Momo's hindquarters. 

 

"Teriyaki Noodle! Young man, we have talked about this. Momo doesn't like your kind of play!" It involved a lot of gentle nibbling and roughhousing that terrified the lemur. "Be a good kitty and go tackle Sokka." He finished, gently scooting the kit away from Momo's frantically waving tail. 

 

Noodle gave him a betrayed look, but expertly navigated his way into the saddle. A second later, Sokka let out a surprised squeak.

 

"Not the face! Why is it the face every time!" The water tribe boy shouted next. 

 

Aang settled back into place and listened to the sound of his found family bickering. Momo reached out from his Gi and patted his face gratefully, peeking out cautiously every now and then to see what was going on before he wiggled back inside. Aang ran soothing hands over the lemurs' ears when he could, letting himself get lulled back into a state of relaxed-worrying. He almost missed the familiar-but-felt-old feeling of crisp-cold wind in his mind and along his spine, accompanied by the sweet rush of free-flying. He hadn't felt his Southern mother when they went to his former home -he'd worried that something might have happened to the Sothern Fuijn, but her winds had still blown strong and true, so maybe she'd still been in mourning. 

 

(On of the few lessons he'd retained about spirits was that they were empathically different from people. They carried emotions longer or shorter depending on their personalities, and a hundred years would mean nothing to them if they were sad enough.)

 

To know that his Northern Mother awake was a blessing he hadn't known he needed. Aang grabbed his glider even before he was aware of moving, following her pull as he always had. Momo jumped from his Gi at the last second, screeching in surprise when Aang dove off of Appa's head. He could hear the group calling after him, but all his focus was on Fujin Seiruka beneath and above. She surrounded him in welcome, a cacophony of happy-sad-hopeful emotions that played through his mind.

 

(They flew together as they were meant to, blessed human child and spirit mother. It had been a century since she had felt one of their children under her winds, and she had missed this. She lead and he followed, a wild dance in the sky and clouds that had them both laughing -crying, they were crying too- and ended with her gently depositing the last of their wild human children on the Sky-Bison's back. Seiruka had known they intended to wake him, but seeing and knowing were two different things. Seeing gave her hope. Knowing had only given her nightmares.)

 

When Aang landed gently in the saddle, he was exhausted and breathing wrong, and crying a little still. In the last four months, he'd only felt the faintest of pulls from the winds -the Western ones- but they had been distant and distracted. To fly with one of his peoples' deities again had been something he'd needed terribly. Katara was aking him soft questions he wanted to answer but didn't have the words for right then. He felt the subtle change in the wind and looked up in time to see a shimmer tug on Appa's reigns, and the Bison obligingly shifted into the gale, riding it easily. 

 

"She's leading us to the temple." He croaked when Sokka went to grab the reigns. The older boy paused to frown at Aang and slowly sat back, caution in every move.

 

"Who's leading us to the temple?" Zuko and Sokka asked in unison -then glared at one another. Aang spoke after clearing his throat.

 

"Fujin Seiruka. Mother of the bracing Northern winds." Sokka immediately held his hands up and scooted further away from the front, sliding closer to Iroh. One of the nicest things about Sokka was that he rarely argued with anything spirit related. Zuko shifted curiously where he sat, his eyes trained on the subtle-and-only-occasionally-there-shimmer near Appa's reigns. There was no more time for talk after that because they broke through a layer of heavy fog and clouds and the Northern temple was there. 

 

(It was all high towers and frosted roofs, and all the same as it had been. Except for what distantly looked like damage to a couple of the lower towers. And oh, right, the people gliding around it erratically, and what appeared to be a semi-ramshackle village connected by bridges, build at the slightly wide base around the temple. This wasn't how Aang expected his day to go.)

 

 


 

 

Bato of the Southern Water Tribe took in a deep breath and rolled his shoulder experimentally. There was still the slightest of twinges, but it would continue healing as he made his way over the Earth Kingdom. Hakoda had finally sent him word, so there was no need to stay at the Abbey. His sources said the Fire Nation navy was gathering directly North -which was concerning- so he intended to stick to by now well-known inland rivers that would help him subvert Fire Nation colonies and military encampments. While he prepared to leave, he thought of all the insane stories he'd been hearing about the Avatar returning and traveling with two young Water Tribe warriors, and some Fire Nation rebels. Even the nuns had found reason to gossip about it.

 

He distantly wondered how the insular Northern Tribe felt about two of their own galavanting around with the Avatar, and then decided the snobs were probably writing out a list of everything they wanted in return for letting their warriors help. He just hoped that the Northern attitude wasn't rubbing off on the Avatar -if such a person really existed. This made him think of home -of Katara and Sokka, and the children he was trying to protect. These thoughts successfully turned his mind back to important, serious matters, and away from daydreams like the Avatar returning to help them.

 

(He had no way of knowing that if it weren't for Aang's puppy-kitten eyes and the fact that there was a fire nation colony just northeast of his position, he would have found out who the brave Water Tribe warriors were. As it was, Zuko had eyed the map and elected that Aang's desire to go pray in the Northern temple was clearly the lesser of two evils. Bato would find out, in the weeks to come, that the two warriors traveling with the Avatar sounded bizarrely familiar.)

 

 


 

 

The Earth Kingdom refugees that had made a home around the base of the temple called their make-shift village Skytopia. Zuko thought it was a stupid name, but their reasons for building it around the temple became clear after a few stories. And a look at the alarmingly familiar technology they used to keep their village warm, and to glide, and to move up and down the levels of their 'streets.' The central figure of all their stories was a spirit shrouded in mist and feathers, with a woman's face and a voice so powerful it summoned clouds. Apparently Fujin Seiruka did not appreciate their efforts to 'fix,' her temple. She made his clear by destroying all their tools. 

 

When they tried again, she used her winds to blow their belongings off the mountain and screeched every time they tried after that. Eventually, they reached a compromise with the angry spirit, and she allowed them to build around her temple. She even helped. She didn't care if they looked around the temples, but the instant they wanted to move in and change things, she got angry. Aang agreed with her -except Zuko could tell the boy wouldn't have minded if they lived in the temples, as long as they didn't destroy anything

 

(Zuko and Dumpling had explored the damaged buildings. He could see where they'd tried to set up a system of pipes, only for it all to be destroyed. It was a good thing Seiruka guarded her temple, or it would have ended up a monstrosity. This bit of exploration led him to invite himself along on Sokka's 'exciting' tour of the place, because he needed to know where the man had gotten the idea for the steam pipes. His people had been using this technology for the last century and a half. It was the equivalent of the Earthbenders and their stone chutes for his people. Refugees whose town had flooded shouldn't have even seen this kind of thing this far north.)

 

When the tour ended in the mans 'laboratory,' one of the few buildings built onto the stone outcropping just below the temples, and he and Sokka started talking in long-running streams that both made sense and didn't -how did they talk so much?- Zuko decided he'd seen enough. He wasn't sure if the man was just extremely intelligent, or slightly insane, but he was determined that he would find the answer to his numerous questions. But only after he'd met Aang to pray with the boy. 

 

The monk and Katara had gone with Teo to see how his village used their gilders. Uncle Iroh had trailed after them curiously, having taken one look at Sokka and Teo's father speaking adamantly and smiling. Zuko sometimes got the feeling that he wasn't the only one who only understood half of Sokka's brain. The older boy thought in weird, abstract ways. He was intelligent, there was no doubt -and Zuko would never admit that or Sokka's ego would inflate more- but he often got his answers and ideas in obscure ways. Like whatever they were shouting about rotten eggs.

 

(He didn't notice Dumpling slip into the shadows by the door. She'd taken to walking more often the past week and a half, so he hadn't given a second thought to her weight being absent from his shoulder. He'd assumed that this was her way of slowly becoming independent, like how Noodle would wander away from Appa to explore with one of them. After today, he would remember to keep a better eye on her.)

 

When he found Aang and Katara, Katara was learning how to glide, and it looked awesome. Uncle tried to stop him from accepting a glider and getting a tutor, but he was outmatched and outvoted, and Zuko had only listened to the first series of instructions before he jumped off the cliff to his Uncle -halfway through a proverb about safety on the ground- shouting his name.

 

(Distantly, he realized they'd forgotten to emphasize the Earth Kingdom name rule. Presently, he was too excited by the slice of wind on his cheeks to care.)

 

On the cliff above, watching Aang break away from Katara to glide down to Zuko and give him a boost up up up until the boy was even with Katara and they were all gliding together, Iroh was taking deep, calming breaths. He needed tea. He needed tea five seconds ago, when his Nephew was smiling shyly at the glider being handed to him, and he needed tea five minutes ago, when the offer to learn had been made. He was afraid he might be breathing fire, because the children around him were eyeing him warily. 

 

"I think we should make some tea. They will surely be parched and chilled when they come back down." Hopefully in one piece. 

 

______

 

Dumpling slunk through the shadows, hunting for the smell-that-wasn't-right. She'd been catching traces of it all over, but here it was strongest. In the corner by the stone wall was the strongest scent marker, so she sat and waited. She shivered a little too, but her inner fire was a warm, steady blaze. She wished Nesting-Mom-roars-a-lot hadn't left, but she also knew she must find out what this scent belonged to. It was the smell of warm-fires but wrong because it was also the smell of many-ashes-in-pit-dying-angry-sick-preySqueals-when-nipped-squishy-human-uncle was chittering excitedly at scruffy-stranger, but soon squeals-when-nipped left. Dumpling watched. She waited. She was a good-girl-best-sneaker, and she was patient. The stone slid open like a den-cover, and a man came out. Dumpling watched. She waited. This man was covered in bad smells, and he made scruffy-stranger stink of fear. He was a predator, like her, and that wouldn't do. Dumpling was the only best-girl-good-hunter. This was her ancient-territory-since-warm-sky-rose. The hunt was on, but she knew she needed hatch-brother-prowling-partner-Noodle to take down this prey. She was still too small to do it alone. She also needed Nesting-Mom-roars-a-lot, because she had no human paws to open stone-den-covers. She slipped through the shadows like she was one, in the way she'd been taught, and went looking for her pack. 

 

 


 

 

The Princess still hadn't been found. The Fire Lord was obsessed with finding her, so much so that he was sinking all of his efforts and energy into focusing on her retrieval. As a result, he'd shoved off several duties he shouldn't have to two different people. General Lui Wei, in charge of his private security force, was given leeway to respond and coordinate all military operations for the time being. Councilor Li Qiang, the only other head of an aristocratic house that dated back to the beginning of their nation and who acted as his political advisor, was told to handle the courts.

(Both of these men were poor decisions, for drastically different reasons. Had he been in his right mind in any capacity, Ozai would have realized this.) 

General Lui Wei was a man who was loyal to Agni and his Nation -not an upstart brat that had never had a military career, whom he only respected because of the crown on his head. This made him Ozai's worst enemy when it came to military tactics and decisions because all of his advice had come from experience in the field, compared to Ozai's pure tactic and disregard for life. As soon as he was given the approval to do so, he started sending out subtle messages to his people in the field. These messages in no way said 'search for the princess and burn everything in your way,' as Ozai had wanted. The message was much simpler, and much more complex all at once. A simple order to restock on Jasmine tea.

(This General, wise to the underlying political atmosphere, was not one of the many whose inner fire had gone cold, only one that was pretending very well. This was perhaps the only reason he'd been given the position.) 

Councilor Li Qiang was a man that held loyalty only for his wife and children. For them, he would do many things. Acting as Ozai's voice was only his most recent sin. He told the courts everything Ozai wanted them to hear with a pleasant smile and a glint in his eyes that said he was aware he was making no sense. In its own way, this was even worse for Ozai than what the General was doing, because the Generals incidental treason had been years in the making. Councilor Li Qiang had merely seen an opportunity and took it, and now, he asked Ozai questions from the court in only the vaguest of terms to see what the man spit out in his mania to find his daughter. This was intentional treason, because he very much wanted Ozai to be seen as inept.

(Everyone knew the girl had run away. No one was saying it, but a child didn't just disappear with clothing and a maidservant in tow unless it was very much on purpose. Councilor Li Qiang was a father. His daughter was twice Princess Azula's age, and he and his wife had sent her three dresses as holiday gifts in the last six months alone. She was never allowed to wear any of them. Unlike the General, he wasn't doing this because he was a patriot. He was doing this because he was a father, and no little girl should have that kind of confused hunger in their eyes when they watch other girls prance around in dresses.)

 

 


 

 

Zuko found Dumpling. He'd been looking for her everywhere, but there she was, gently butting Noodle towards Zuko. He was confused for several minutes, because she kept screeching at him and running away, then quietly running back. It took longer than he would have liked to admit for his head-fog -from praying so long- to clear. When it did, he followed after the insistent kit on quiet feet, and they slunk across the village bridges in the dark. He wasn't sure why they were doing so, but he was always up for sneaking. Noodle also seemed keen to explore and sneak -no surprise, as the kits loved to sneak around with him- and Zuko's interest was piqued-not-abated when Dumpling lead him to the Crazy-scientists laboratory. 

They slipped in quiet and quick, shadows in a well of shadows. He could hear Dumpling pitter-pattering softly across the floor, and he used the soft, dim light coming through the cracks in the walls and door to navigate after her. They found a door -or rather, Dumpling showed him where a door was. This was so cool, he gave her good-girl scritches and all three of them slunk inside. The door lead to a small room, which was connected to a tunnel. The tunnel went down for a long time, and ended in the opening to a cave. A cave full of Fire Nation military men, who didn't see Zuko and his companions because the three of them were really good at sneaking

(This was less cool, but a very good-bad thing his very-good-girl had found, so he gave her more scritches, and then some for Noodle, because he was being extra quiet, and they snuck away again. He would have liked to explore the camp itself, but there were sentries that were awake and fires raging. There weren't enough shadows in that cave to make sneaking worth it, especially without his mask and two kits to protect. He had a lot of time to contemplate how very bad this all was on his way back up the tunnel, and the implications of the well-maintained door that lead to a crazy-scientists lab. Bad. Very, very bad.)

 

 




 

(Going to be at work. I had to stop and rework things, because they went a little dark in my first pass. Need to try a different approach now, so that tonight deadline has been moved to tomorrow morning.)

 

*Okay, before I even posted these sketches on here, my Danger!babies got fan art that was so wow! Go check out the amazing Charcoal-Wolf!

 

 

Chapter Text

Agni had been worried when he left the horizon the day before, closing his eye on his chosen warily. There had been something off about the temple, something he couldn't place. He was hoping it was nothing, had been nothing, that he was simply paranoid because maybe he'd been a little too hard on Zhao the weeks before -but he'd deserved it- because the man's plans, from what his brother-in-bond told him, were worse somehow. It was with that thought that he peeked over the horizon that would show him his chosen, barely managing to greet his sister before he felt his magic freeze around him, his great heart stutter.

Flames and burning stone, his sister of the Northern Winds temple was on fire. He could hear screams and cries for help, little people running around like mice. Fujin Seiruka was screaming, angry and afraid, and trying to protect the people that had come to live in the shadow of her temple. She was using so much energy she couldn't afford to spare and on one of the center platforms -He could see his chosen and they were- 

Oh. What have they done? 

 

The Previous Evening

 

 

Sokka had the best day. Rui Ho's plans and diagrams, his ideas for progressing his village into a new era, were fascinating. Southern Water Tribe education was basic -the older women who ran it taught minor arithmetic and reading, and only lightly touched on writing, because what use did they have for that in the arctic, isolated lands of their people?- but they maintained pretty decent archives from when they weren't so basic, and Sokka had spent a lot of his free time in the last two odd years scouring it. Being the only able-bodied male in the tribe meant he needed to know important things.

Things like how to make a chart of the stars to navigate by while at sea -also applicable to land, in case he got stranded while hunting- or how his ancestors had tactically outwitted other warring tribes, or hostile nations. Outwitting hostile nations usually equated to 'we used the water benders and sunk their boats in a different creative way than last time,' but he'd been willing to take what he could get. He'd also stumbled over several scrolls about science things. Like the technicalities behind Tui's spirit magic, the way their globe was affected by minor rotation -and how that played a part in constellations shifting. Reading those had shown him that while he was a warrior, he was also an academic, because his heart had broken when he realized how little knowledge they had really maintained after the fall of their tribe.

(Sokka had read the small amount of scrolls Zuko lugged around with him that weren't maps -though he'd taken a heavy interest in those too- or bending scrolls. A couple of plays, some non-fictional work about a swordsman's travels, and one story with minor romantic elements, primarily focused on a soldier and his unit rescuing a team of archeologists from an ancient temple that was possessed by a spirit. Sokka hadn't minded it, and it had given him a very watered down view of life through Fire Nation eyes. He'd gagged a couple of times, but according to Zuko, it was actually treasonous, if you read it in the right context. The explanations for why and how had taken an hour of frustrated explaining via his steaming, shouting buddy. It still boggled Sokka's mind.)

So. Spending time with Rui Ho, Machinist and man of science, who had a whole plethora of information about the advances Sokka didn't have records for? Best. Day. Ever. Learning there was a gas leak somewhere in or around the temple? Not so cool. Getting to help the Machinist figure out a solution for plugging up that problem and having someone -who wasn't basically his Uncle- acknowledge that he was intelligent? Best. Day. EVER. 

By the time he couldn't ignore the grumbling of his stomach anymore, he'd completely missed Zuko disappearing in that sudden way he did -one moment on the peripheral of Sokka's vision poking around, the next gone- but he knew where he could find him. He split from the Machinist outside the man's lab, heading back the way he'd come. 

(Completely missing that the Machinist didn't head towards the 'in production,' bathhouse but slipped back inside his lab. He also missed the flash of pale cream and gold gently striped with deep, spotted black in the very corner of the lab. The former, he should have taken note of as he turned to work the steam lift. The latter, no one was supposed to notice because Dumpling was a very good sneaker.)

"Katara! You are never going to believe the day I've had." He announced as soon as he found her, sitting on the wall to one fo the temples above the makeshift-so-cool village.

Katara looked up from gently rubbing an oiled piece of leather against her claws, making a shushing motion. At his baffled look, she turned and tilted her head to the round temple behind her, and Sokka followed the directional gesture. Just inside was what appeared to an alter -but he couldn't be sure- of a vaguely human-faced, multiple winged figure clutching snakes in its taloned feet. There were other carvings around it, but Sokka was too far to make out anything else. Aang and Zuko sat in front of that statue, a stick of incense placed directly in front of them.

(Iroh was presumably standing guard at the door, sitting in what he called Lotus position, his face turned inwards.)

Some of Sokka's good mood vanished, and he heaved himself up to sit next to Katara with slightly less enthusiasm than he might have a few minutes ago. He and Katara watched for a few minutes more, and after the third time the two boys dipped their heads in a bow, Sokka had picked up enough of the pattern to know that they'd probably be at it for a while. 

"So what happened?" Katara asked quietly, and Sokka drug his eyes away from the two children paying their respects to the long dead. "To make you so excited." She clarified when he didn't answer with anything but a small frown.

"Oh. Well, I guess ...Never mind, it was just ... a good day." He shrugged, finding a spot in the village below to watch intently.

Katara reached out and pinched him -which didn't really hurt, because they'd had to put their heavy coats and gloves back on to be up this high, but he still gave her a dirty look. It was sometimes the principle of the matter when sisters were involved. 

"It's not wrong that you had a good day, Sokka. Aang will understand if you're a little more excited than he is." Katara reproached in that way she had that was both irritated sister and concerned mother. It also said 'now tell me everything,' without her actually saying it. Sisters.

"Well, the Machinist showed me and Zuko how the steam pipes work, and told me about how he got the idea for them -something about hot Earth vents a couple of miles away- and I got to see how they'd done the construction so high up! Then he took us to his workshop" here, he had to pause for breath, and try to modulate his voice a little, but Katara was watching him expectantly, "-I got to look at his diagrams, and he has so much information about the latest sciences, and so many scrolls! He gave me a couple, Katara! I know how you feel about most science stuff, so I won't go into detail, but some of my theories about what information our tribe is missing were right!" He gushed, practically bouncing where he sat. 

(Katara set her claws carefully back into their sheath and tensed, because if her brother fell in his excitement, it would take a lot of pull to make the snow gathered on the hard cliffs below rise to meet him. She was suddenly aware of how Iroh might have been feeling while Zuko was in the air with them, and why he'd looked so stiff when they'd stumbled into a landing.)

"That's great Sokka!" She enthused, because while she wasn't particularly fond of most science-related matters -she'd always preferred histories and local lore to arithmetic and sciences- Sokka was, and now wasn't a 'tease your brother mercilessly' moment, but a 'this is important for him,' moment. 

(Despite what Sokka and Zuko both thought, she was fully aware of the distinction between the two.)

"That's not even the best part!" Sokka squealed quietly, bouncing a little more when he looked at her. "We were talking about a problem the village has been having with natural gas leaks, and I helped him solve it! He told me I was really intelligent, and extremely clever, and that I had good abstract thinking skills!" He finished with a final bounce and all the energy slowly seeped out of him. 

That right there had been why it was important for him. Katara had been surrounded by strong women to look up to during her most trying formative years -because coming into womanhood sucked- but Sokka hadn't. All the men he looked up to were gone. There weren't any adult warriors around to tell him his footwork was improving, or that he was good with tactics, or to show him how to get a better angle for his club swings.

Positive interaction between him and an older man was something her brother needed. She knew it was why he enjoyed spending time with Iroh -which had helped a lot, especially after the old soldier had started training him- but Rui Ho was the opposite side of the coin. Her brother wasn't just a warrior. He was a boy that loved to learn, and he was starved for information. Katara could tease him about this later. After everything had a chance to sink in, and there wasn't a risk of actually hurting him with her words.

"It sounds like you had fun." She said mildly, mentally compiling a list of suitable, subtle ways to tease him about the praise while he smiled absently at the shroud of fog and clouds around the temple spires.

"I did have fun." He nodded, then shifted a little awkwardly, sending her a brief, relieved smile. "Thanks for listening." 

Katara smiled back, and now that he didn't look at risk of slipping off the edge of the wall, she pulled her claws back out. 

"How was your day?" He asked, after another companionable silence, and a little more mental digestion, and Katara smiled down at the weapon in her lap.

"Well, while you were off looking at diagrams and talking science, I went and did some physical research. Their gliders are so cool! A little terrifying at first, but awesome!" She announced, slipping the glove for her claws onto her hand and twisting her wrist to reach a slightly odd spot on the claws.

"You went flying? Seriously?" Sokka groaned, looking a little put-out. "I can't believe I missed that!"

"It gets better. Zuko joined us." Sokka drooped so much, he really was at risk of falling off the wall. 

"I bet his expression when Zuko jumped off the cliff was perfection." He whispered into the winds. 

(Fujin Seiruka quietly agreed that it had been, but you really had to have been there to understand why. Zuko and Aang finished about this time, and Zuko ran off to find Dumpling, whom Sokka was only just noticing wasn't sitting patiently with anyone, waiting for her favorite person. Aang lead them to the temple they'd temporarily put their bags in, and Katara started dinner to avoid fretting over where Dumpling could have run off to. Sokka's day kind of got worse from there, but he would always have the memories of one of the best early evenings in his life.)

 

______

 

Zuko rushed into the small temple they were camping in -apparently on Fujin Seiruka's insistence- breathless and panicking. Dumpling collapsed at his feet, Noodle on his other side, and the small conversation that had been going on stopped. Uncle was looking at him in a familiar way -a way that he hadn't even realized the older man has stopped looking at him lately.

"Zuko? What's wrong, you look like-" Katara started, standing slowly from where she'd been serving up dinner. 

"We have a problem!" He rasped, trying and failing to regulate his breathing. Uncle had stood and was walking towards him, calm in the eye of the oncoming storm.

"Nephew, you must restructure your breathing." He chided softly, and Zuko took a stumbling step back when Iroh would have reached out for him. 

If Uncle touched him he would let himself get pulled into the comfort, and he needed to be keyed up right now. It was giving him an incredible amount of focus on their problem. (Or he would be, if he could breathe right.) He was pacing before he was aware of the urge to pace building, his breaths turning a little shallow. Dumpling mewled at him worriedly from the floor, and Sokka and Aang were standing now too, watching him like he was insane. 

"There were at least twenty-five, not a full squadron -but the others have to be close by!" He managed to get the most important information out, his brain frantically shoving all the information he had at him. The problem was that it couldn't all come out at once. "I think the Mechanist knows, because why else would there be a secret door to their encampment unless he did?" Iroh looked alarmed now, and Zuko wished he could breathe enough to explain, but he kept seeing the people here being burned alive while the mad-scientist laughed. 

(There was another, newer picture in his head involving how Teo had ended up so hurt. He didn't like it. The panic increased with each new way the boy's father could have done that to him.

A slim, familiar hand suddenly grabbed his neck and he found himself being forced onto a stool that hadn't been there a minute ago. Iroh was crouching in front of him, and Aang was speaking above him, calm and steady, and a lot nervous. 

"Breathe Zuko. In and out, remember? In," Zuko found himself breathing with the monk, his mind stuttering over the sudden change of focus, "Out. Good. Now, don't stress, don't think, two words answers are best. Who has an encampment here?" He asked it like he already knew the answer and didn't want to.

There was a cup of tea shoved into his shaking hands at the same time Dumpling found her way to him, curling up tiredly beneath his bent head. His hands clenched around the teacup, and Zuko inexplicably felt like sagging in relief and screaming in confusion.

(He felt outnumbered and outmatched. Sokka was crouching on his other side a bowl of stew in hand. Katara had been the one to shove the tea at him, and Uncle was gently patting his shoulder. That Aang was the one taking charge was both natural and confusing.)

"Fire Nation." He croaked, letting the warmth from the tea seep into his palms, his breath a little easier now.

The air around them stilled, and it wasn't just a 'the group as a whole was quietly contemplating this' silence. It was a 'there is something else here and it's suddenly paying very close attention' kind of stillness. He could only imagine what Fujin Seiruka was going to do when she found out his people were back. He didn't think it was going to be good.

"Okay." Aang croaked back, his hand fluttering against Zuko's pulse before he snapped his hand away and took over pacing in front of Zuko. "Okay, you said it wasn't a full squadron. That means they could just be a ...a scouting party that got lost in the mountains and is forcing the Mechanist to house them while they collect themselves." Aang said slowly, and Zuko thought that on their list of options, that probably should have been slotted into the 'optimistic hope,' category, and not 'first instinct.' 

"Or," Sokka inserted, his mind racing behind suddenly wild eyes, "knowing our luck, this is an elaborate trap tailored specifically to draw in the supposedly lost Avatar. The same Avatar that's made a pain of himself in several Fire Nation occupied ports, and is responsible for the destruction of a culturally important temple." 

Sokka got up to pace, shoving the bowl of stew into Zuko's hands -but not before stealing some, the leech- and joining Aang in the pacing. Zuko was saved from trying to juggle everything in his hands when Iroh took his tea and then motioned sternly for him to eat. 

(Now that he was no longer letting panic and fear ride his brain -completely, they were still there, in the back of his mind- he realized how hungry he was.)

"I'm sure there has to be a better explanation, Sokka." Aang whispered, eyes wide and stubbornly hopeful. 

Aang's biggest problem was that he was twelve, and despite how worldly he seemed, he'd had an incredibly sheltered life before he went to sleep in La's domain. He was too ready to trust people, in the hopes that giving trust would be trust returned. Zuko could easily overlook the eccentric ideas and occasional petulance, because the boy should be allowed to feel those things. What he had a harder time with was the occasionally blind optimism that wanted to see sunshine where there was only dirt. It was times like now Zuko had a harder time not shouting at the monk.

(But shouting at people for the way they thought or the things they believed accomplished nothing.)

"Look, I want to believe that Rui Ho wouldn't be in league with the Fire Nation, I really do! He's a man of science! But if the past few months have taught me anything, it's that personal perceptions are sometimes wrong." Sokka motioned to Zuko with a pointed look. "Case in point. Our shouty friend over there looks super Fire Nation -but he's distinctly Zuko in behavior."

Zuko paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth to glare at Sokka, and the only thing that saved the Water Tribe idiot form some justified shouting was Uncle tapping the bowl meaningfully. Katara smacked her brother on the arm -and not lightly, he saw Sokka flinch- and Aang shuffled in indecision. 

"But why and how could he possibly be working for them? We were all over this village today, and I didn't see anything Fire Nation." Katara cut in, standing in the warriors resting pose -feet braced apart, hands loosely clenched at her sides, she must have picked it up from him and Uncle. 

"Actually, the way they are using steam here is distinctly Fire Nation. True, I have never seen it used to lift someone to another level, but it all looks Fire Nation." Iroh cut in, taking Zuko's bowl and patting him on the knee lightly. 

(That action alone shouldn't have been able to instill a measure of calm and peace in the boy, but it did.)

"Before you make any plans, remember that the stalking leopard wolf hunts best in a pack. It is best if we go and speak to this Rui Ho in person, and come to the truth of the matter." Iroh gently set the bowl in the wash bucket to soak, and straightened his shoulders almost imperceptibly. His Uncles training regimen and diet had taken him a long way from soft roundness -he cut a formidable figure against the firelight. Sokka shifted in response to Iroh's change in stance, and Katara walked over to where her claws were sheathed. Even Aang lost some of his hesitation, subtly standing firmer.  

(If his Uncle hadn't intended to accidentally train them all to act as a unit, he should have put more thought into offering them training 'for a good, healthy workout.' As a man who'd spent most of his life in the military, he knew what happened when you trained young recruits that also relied on you for guidance.)

(Iroh had considered this possibility, he just hadn't anticipated the children calling him Uncle and picking up the small military ques he used and made without thought. He couldn't be upset that they did so, because it made it easier to keep them all on track, and most especially because as a result, his Nephew's stunted social skills were improving greatly.)

The air swirled around them once and then rushed out of the temple. 

"No time like the present then. If Rui Ho is working with the fire nation, it needs to stop. This temple has seen enough bloodshed." Aang said quietly, gripping his glider a little tighter before he took a deep, shaky breath.

They left as a unit to find Rui Ho and get answers. 

 

 


 

 

The old man standing in front of her now reminded her of Uncle, but skinnier and meaner. She kind of liked him. She didn't like that he kept giving her that arch look adults sometimes gave her when they were doubting her. Resisting the urge to set him on fire was a new study in self-control. The adults were talking -about boring things, like hostile takeovers, and chances of betrayal, and if they had bothered to just ask Azula what her plans were, she could have told them. Or maybe she wouldn't.

More fun if she kept them guessing. Regardless, the adults were being boring, and there was a whole ice palace around her -why anyone would live in such a thing was beyond her, but then, it did show resourcefulness, using what they had at their disposal- and they weren't actually looking. 

(It was really their own fault that she slipped away, the pale, tan hide of her hood purposefully drawn up over her head. Only the people looking for her would see her in the shadows, and adults never looked where they should. This was the most Zuzu thing she could have done, but her brother had always had good first instinct -it was every decision he made after that made him a dum dum.)

(In the deep, deep quiet of her mind, she allowed herself to acknowledge that she missed her brother. She had no idea how she'd beaten him here. He was supposedly on a Flying Bison. Having a flying animal you could ride was having the ability to fly in a straight line -why wasn't he here yet? What troublesome dum dum thing had he done now?)

She couldn't find the answer to these questions in any of the cold shadows she slunk through. She did find some fish stuck in a tiny pond, glittering a little prettily in the early moonlight and contemplated the lack of turtle-duck shapes in the water with a sneer. Then she found the Icy Savage Princess. Her night became substantially more interesting.

 

 


 

 

Rui Ho's small panic when they confronted him didn't last long before he swung into complete remorse. His tale of a Fire Nation lord using him for military improvements in return for not killing his entire village was both wild, and just feasible enough, Zuko couldn't really discount it. It sounded like something one of his more power-mad countrymen might do. Even the scientists' description of the man, when pressed, was exactly as most Councilmen dressed and acted back home.

(There were a few that had always been kind to him, in discreet ways. Coincidently, these were the same ones that were even now making plans -they hadn't been in the crowd that watched Ozai burn half his face off, but they'd heard enough about it and the subsequent way Azula fled the country, and they let both of these things quietly fuel them as they moved forward. Zuko wouldn't know this until much, much later.)

They were in the middle of trying to make a plan when a small bell gave a single ring, and Rui Ho panicked. Zuko and Dumpling slipped into the shadows by the hidden door, Uncle positioned himself with Aang behind several bulky projects, and Katara and Sokka positioned themselves across from Zuko, using the shadows the way he'd shown them.

(Katara did it better than Sokka, but that was okay. Between the two of them, Sokka was the frontman, and Katara was the scout. Only one of them was meant to be seen as potentially dangerous.)

The man who imperiously strode through the door, without any backup, was very definitely a Govoner or Councilman -possibly given a position so far North because he'd angered someone- and Zuko was reminded why he hated court politics in a short minute. Or maybe less. 

"You know what happens if you don't stop making excuses, Machinist. Where are the plans?" The man growled.

Rui Ho fluttered and flustered, and turned anxiously towards his table, shuffling through papers like a pig-chicken looking for scraps. Aang was outright vibrating with repressed sad-aggression

(Zuko could tell because from his vantage point he saw Iroh lay a staying hand on the boys shoulder, and that hand shook. There was an impossible breeze in the room.) 

"Here! Here -just- take it." The Machinist said in defeat, handing over a hastily packed carrier tube. 

The Fire Nation councilor-look-a-like did take it, growling and huffing as he tucked it into his robes. 

"And the other matter?" Rui Ho tensed visibly, slowly shaking his head. 

"I can't make it work." That the Machinist trembled as he said this, took a nearly imperceptible step back, told Zuko that he expected backlash for this admittance.

Aang must have seen it too, because the boy looked so focused, Zuko wasn't sure who he should be watching. 

"Well, then you know the price for failure. Now tell me, who will you sacrifice to keep this pathetic village going?" There was something dark and cruel and not right in that. Zuko knew what usually followed those words. "Perhaps ... Your son?"

(He hated when he was right. Turns out he should have been watching Aang, because one moment Rui Ho was stuttering through a plea, and the next, Aang was bending the Machinist back, stepping into the room with clenched fists. The probably-a-Councilman looked both startled and like the Fire Festival had come early.)

"Enough!"

The small monk shouted with surprising force, and that mystic breeze in the room swelled around the edges. Zuko remembered, in a sudden flash, the way Agni's spirit power had seared on Crescent island, and he had to do some quick calculations in his head. If Fujin Seiruka created a tornado of wind with them as the focal point, they'd either be thrown off the cliffside or smashed into the Air Temple above

"You and men like you have already caused enough problems here. This Temple isn't your playground. These mountains aren't your domain."

There was something just slightly off about Aang's voice. It was still his voice, but it was also old, and angry, and filled with non-human power. Aang's Northern mother wasn't influencing him to the same level Roku had, but there was still a clear influence being placed on the young nomads' emphasis and words. 

(Fujin Seiruka had lost the people she once called hers -these new ones, so young and fragile and helpless, weren't hers yet, but she had taken responsibility for them when they settled on her mountain. Agni's wayward, dark-hearted children would not take another people from her.)  

The probable-councilor moved with surprising swiftness, especially given the heavy robes he wore, advancing not towards Aang, but back towards the hidden door. Zuko slipped out from his hiding spot to intercept, just as the man's hand flicked out and a small, heavy-looking knife smacked into the little bell that had wrung before. Zuko couldn't stop his forward momentum fast enough when the man followed the movement with a turn. They came face to face just as there was a chilled breeze on Zuko's back. Dumpling growled at his feet while the man smiled impossibly wider, looking a lot like Zhao with every passing second. 

"The Banished Prince!" He crowed. 

It was no surprise to Zuko that things only got worse from there. 

(As it always did anytime someone reminded the universe that he was Ozai's firstborn. They were all so lucky Uncle Iroh was going to be Fire Lord, because Zuko was positive that his terrible luck would have been a detriment to any attempt to rule.)

 

 


 

 

"How is that even burning?" The Savage Princess asked incredulously. 

Azula gave an elegant shrug and smiled serenely at the blue flames dancing over the ice, consuming that offending document. The smile was perfectly calculated to match Yue's, calm and docile, and she made sure to stare at the sexist Chief in front of her while she did it. He shifted appropriately where he sat. 

(Tui laughed above them, snarled on their behalf and the moonlight on the ice seemed to shiver. Yue smiled in response. There was something about this daughter of Flame and ash that she couldn't help appreciating.)

Yue's father and the Fire Nation Princesses Guardian watched with opposed expressions. Her fathers was horrified and alarmed, and she could see Pakku taking a familiar stance behind him. The fellow Princesses Guardian was smiling at the Princess like she'd just done something particularly amusing.

"I'm sorry, I was briefly overcome with a trifling fit of boredom. You were saying ... something? Something droll and long-winded, possibly about the gentler female sex?" she inquired in a tone of voice that shifted between matching Yue's butterfly-moth soft tones, and the harsher-slicing-edge of her much younger, regular tone. There was a pit in her stomach that wouldn't go away, but she was not-anxious, even if it was long past when Zuzu should have arrived, even if he and Uncle and whoever else they traveled with needed to stop for supplies. 

Something was very wrong.   

 

 


 

 

"They've broken through the lower temple walls!"

Sokka shouted from his post, leaning carefully out a slim window. Zuko reached over to tug him out a few minutes before a flare of fire hit the stone, lighting the edges of the window ominously. The Water Tribe boy was breathing wrong again, so Zuko patted his head and made soothing Uncle sounds until his breathing evened out. Then he motioned to Dumpling and they went to join the rest.

The refugees scrambling around them were doing so with panic, frantically checking and rechecking their own work. They had a rough idea for a plan to get the Fire Benders permanently off the mountain, but they were all aware that they would only have one chance. Sokka joined him a second later, rubbing absently at his burned tunic sleeve, and Zuko resisted the urge to check his arm again. It was fine. Sokka was fine. Katara had made sure of it. 

(Katara could heal. Waterbending could heal. He was incredibly grateful for this fact, because those searing moments where Sokka had gotten caught by a stray flame had been lethal to Zuko's state of mind. If he stopped to check them all for burns one more time, it would be eating into the time they were supposed to use to get into position, and they couldn't afford that. He would check them again later. If he survived this.)

"Everyone knows their positions?" Sokka asked, eyeing the roughly painted map of the temple -via Aang, who'd done it mostly from memory- and Zuko nodded, echoed by everyone else. 

Uncle looked both worried and furious. Zuko refused to meet his eye, because it had to be done.

"Remember Nephew -the hunting tiger wasp has only a second to snap up the stinging scorpion hound before it is caught. Do not let yourself be outmaneuvered." He said gruffly, and Zuko nodded, with the appropriate disgusted look for proverbs, before he reached to carefully pat Iroh's shoulder.  

"I'll be fine Uncle. I know what my job is and I know what your job is." Uncle gave him a firm look that conveyed more than Zuko was willing to think about, then they parted.

Zuko's mission was clear, and he wasn't about to fail it. There were innocent lives depending on this plan not going wrong. Dumpling and Noodle fell in next to him as he slipped into the shadows, and the count down began. All they needed to do was distract and annoy, possibly sabotage the Fire nation troops below for thirty minutes. That wouldn't be too hard

For the first fifteen minutes, it wasn't. It was all shadows and sneaking, and snapping ropes while trying not to think about the lives he was ending. It was fine when he was replacing their blasting jelly barrels with empty barrels and then kicking the full ones off the cliffside to the entrance below. Then -

(Then it wasn't fine. Somewhere, someone's hand slipped, and a cavern full of natural gas exploded. It shook the whole mountain, and blew Zuko's cover when he tumbled out of hiding keeping Dumpling and Noodle safe. Then it wasn't fine at all, because the plan was partially ruined. He fought back, naturally. Probably would have managed to slip away, too, if that too-light on his feet mountain of a man hadn't shown up out of nowhere and knocked him down. Now he kneeled -begrudgingly- with his wrists cuffed in good steel behind his back.)

"When the Fire Lord hears of this, I will be welcomed home like royalty." The councilman above him cooed, eyes gleaming with far off ambition.

Dumpling and her brother had slipped away, like good kitties, but he knew his girl was prowling close by. He could hear the particular soft scratch of nails on stone that most people ignored, but it was all Dumpling in the way the weight translated through the sound. This was less good-girl of her. He was going to need to find a way to make her leave. She should have followed Noodle, wherever he went.

(To Appa, naturally. To handle a big threat you needed something even bigger and even more threatening, and Papa-mama-Appa was that even bigger threat. Noodle was half right.)

"Nothing to say, traitor?" The man hissed, breaking his own gloating monologue as behind him, other portions of Rui Ho and Sokka's plan went smoothly. Several men were toppled over the cliffside after mysteriously slipping, and there were shapes above them in the hazy-night-fog-lit-by-fire.

"I don't answer to you." Zuko growled, glaring his level best at the man above him. 

"Ah, yes, that's right. You answer to the Avatar now." Zuko let him think that. He didn't have to explain himself to this foolish, cruel, ignorant man. He wasn't worth getting upset over -not when Zuko knew who he followed. Ozai's people never changed, but believing in Iroh as his Fire Lord was one of the easiest things about Zuko's banished life. 

"Still nothing to say?" The man pressed. When Zuko remained stubbornly silent, he smiled with all his teeth and looked towards the temple spires above them. "I bet your Uncle will have some things to say, won't he?"

(Zuko wondered how hot his fire would have to be to melt Fire Nation steel.)

He motioned to a few of the guards standing by, the ones that were smart enough to stay clustered close instead of spreading out. Their forces were still slowly making their way up the cliff, but Zuko wasn't the only one who'd noticed that explosion, or the way small units kept disappearing. Zuko was very glad that Fujin Seiruka had managed something for that.

(The answer to his question was too hot. His hands would be useless after. Maybe if he was better at bending with his feet, but he wasn't. That was something he would have to work on.)

"Make our Prince more appropriate. We're about to seek an audience with the Avatar."

(Zuko could see from the glint in their eyes and the way they whispered 'Traitor' that this was going to hurt.)

 

Now

 

Dumpling made an appearance. She came screeching from the shadows, an unholy abomination of fur and feathers that jumped right through and into the flames thrown at her without hesitation. When she swiped at the men working him over so he'd be a more 'presentable' hostage to the Dragon of the West, she did so in a way that scratched their armor and ended with one man's face-mask gone -along with one of his eyes.

(She disappeared again as quickly as she came, but she was there, slinking in the shadows, growling ominously anytime one of them twitched in his direction.)

When Zuko could breathe, he gave a low, firm whistle, one that he'd trained her to acknowledge as 'go home.' Home, in this case, was Appa's saddle. A small silence echoed his whistle, and then an eerie, dangerous screech of denial. The Councilman sent men to look for the 'rabid creature,' and then Zuko was being drug through one of the openings they'd made in the temple. They set him up with several firey fists pointed in his direction, and the Councilman took great joy in quietly organizing his speech in front of Zuko. 

(This was just more affirmation that Zuko hated him. His monologue left something to be desired and was too long-winded to be effectively ominous like he wanted. He should read more play scripts. From somewhere in the temples above, he heard a muffled, startled sound that was half outrage, half panic, and all half-way-to-loosing-his-shit Avatar.)

"General Iroh!" The Councilman shouted into the silence, smugging at the temples above. 

(Which was the wrong way to be looking. Zuko could almost feel the danger approaching them, and it wasn't coming from the temples.)

"I have your Nephew -he wasn't properly attired for negotiations, of course, being a traitor on the run," he continued, oblivious to the men who'd stiffened and were shifting nervously, "so we went ahead and helped him. If you don't want him to be further assisted, you will bring me the Avatar -preferably alive, so I have proof for my Fire Lord." An echoing silence was his only response. 

(There was a burning itch under Zuko's skin, and he realized that it would be sun-break soon. They'd prepared for this confrontation all through the night, and all that careful planning had been botched now, thanks to him. Pretty soon, Agni's eye would open, and the fires around him wouldn't just be warm -they'd be searing. He wanted the energy to do more than glare at everything and everyone around him.)

"I'll take your silence to mean that you don't care what happens to the boy, then?" The Councilor asked, turning to smug in Zuko's direction. "Very well, I'm sure Fire Lord Ozai will enjoy having his firstborn home for appropriate punishment. What about you Avatar? What will you do to defend this temple?"

With that question, one of the men at the front turned and started setting some of the leftover wooden structures on fire. Another appalled sound front he temples above, but still no real response. That was good, but also bad. Aang and Katara sometimes did the stupidest things when they were quiet. Sokka wouldn't be able to stop them because he was working on another part of the plan.

And then the mountain of a man that had knocked Zuko down while he and the kits were trying to run went flying over his head -at almost the exact moment Agni's light hit the far sky.

(Zuko could feel it, could almost sense the Diety spirits renewed gaze.)

"How dare you." Iroh growled behind him -only it wasn't really his Uncles voice.

 

 



 

 

Chapter Text

How dare you.

Soft words, nearly a growl, and the soldiers around him turned in startlement. The look on the councilors' face was somewhere between abject awe and disbelieving terror, and the armored soldiers took small steps back. The air felt like it was boiling with repressed rage and unbearable heat. He couldn’t turn to look himself, but he was positive that the look on his Uncle’s face would have given even Azula pause.

(He saw his Uncles’ expression at the Avatars temple. It had been the angriest he’d ever been around Zuko, but it had made an impression. Then the soldiers surrounding them had been nervous. These ones were terrified and trying not to show it.)

He wanted to get up, to stand, but breathing had already been hard, and he didn’t think he was doing it right anymore, and his legs hurt. Dumpling was there, between one blink and the next, hissing and swiping at the soldier in front of him until he stumbled back. His silly, beautiful girl curled up between his knees and spread her wings, hissing some more. He wanted the energy to reprimand her at least a little.  Zuko was tired. More, he was exhausted.

(Uncle was here. Agni was with them. Uncle would make sure to do what Zuko couldn’t, would make sure the people here were protected from the threat of the Fire Nation. He knew his uncle would do this with certainty. He was also suddenly aware that when they’d roughed him up earlier, they’d hit his head too hard -it had bounced off that mat the Councilor stood on. Heads shouldn’t do that- and broken or bruised something that made it hard to control his breaths. A small part of his mind was worried about all of that. The rest of him was focused on the sounds around him.)

His former countrymen had broken out of their fear when the Councilor ordered them to attack and ran, not even waiting to see if his orders were followed. There was movement around Zuko, but he could feel the soft weight of Agni’s presence mixed with Uncles calm, and he couldn’t bring himself to lift his glare from the stones just in front of him and Dumpling.

(He had the strangest notion that if he softened at all in this moment he would fall. He both wanted to nap -because no one would notice if he did- and knew he needed to stay awake.)

A rush of sound that could have been a roar. The noise became like a bizarre melody around him. The hard shuffle-thump of heavy boots, moving too fast through their katas to keep up momentum. The whisper-soft slap of flesh-on-armor and the distinct hissing crack that followed. In the distance, and on occasion, there was a rushing clang of sword-on-armor, but he only noticed that after the soft-heavy-loud groan of a bison somewhere. Those last two things didn’t seem right, but Zuko was too afraid to try and lift his head.

(It felt fuzzy, and it ached, pounding almost in time to the shuffle of movement around him. He wondered if Uncle-Agni would mind if he set aside the mantle of warrior for just a few minutes. He was very tired, and it was very heavy. Under the comfort of Agni’s glare, he focused on breathing between the moments.)

 

 


 

 

Iroh had caught a glimpse of his boy, the fires lit around him uncaring and too close, and his heart had started pounding with a rush. He’d given the people he oversaw, and the frigid waters he and young Katara had put together, over to a competent woman that knew what was expected and abandoned his post. He could feel the itch under his skin that said it would be day-break soon, that Agni’s eye would peek over their horizon. This was fortuitous, because Iroh would need the strength of his light to handle this new development.

He snuck around their forces, joining Sokka’s team in the fogs, taking out as many of their forces as he could while heading directly for his Nephew. A shadow slid up alongside him, a flash of blue in the dim orange haze, and young Sokka was there, watching him with wide, panicking eyes.

(Sokka had been using a glider to direct his portion of the people. He had seen Zuko before Iroh did -of course, he was here now, instead of bossing the villagers around. These adults were perfectly capable of following orders, and Sokka wasn’t blind. He’d seen the way they’d been looking at Iroh and Zuko after Rui Ho confessed, and the two Fire Benders admitted they could only help with probable tactics because neither of them had contact with their nation anymore. He knew these people would hesitate in any rescue attempt, whether they knew it or not. That wasn’t what Sokka needed to save his battle buddy.)

Together, they made their way to the entrance the Councilor had made. Sokka chose to be the flank-man, circling around the entrance to the side, hidden by fog that followed them, had been following them, all night. Iroh waited until the fool of a councilor was done speaking, when he could feel Agni’s attention on the distant, hazy horizon. He reached for the spirit deities’ energy, and the exact moment that Agni became aware of what was happening, he was ready.

Heat and flame, a terrible boiling under his skin that was familiar and new. He felt Agni’s conscious mind overlap his own like a shroud. He was not the God’s host, but a willing vessel for a small portion of pure, burning energy. He reached for the large soldier standing behind his Nephew and turned the man sharply. The white mask that stared back at him did so with surprise, a moment before Iroh slipped his leading foot around the man’s boot, and gave a firm pivot, hands grasping deep red armor. He sent the behemoth flying a heart-beat later, crashing into several other soldiers. When Iroh spoke, he spoke with all the repressed fury he’d carried around within. He spoke as two minds with one mouth, and no patience left for the fools of his nation.

How dare you.”

Simple, direct words, and they got the soldiers' attention, if their flying Komodo Rhino friend hadn’t already. When they looked at him, they looked at him like he was a ghost given form. He wondered how much of that had to do with his own stature, and how much had to do with Agni’s presence around him.

(It was both. Aang and Katara would tell him later, much later, that looking at him had been like looking at one of Yama’s minions. He had been terrifying and alive with fury, and appeared to be on fire.)

The Councilor -Yang Chin! He remembered now. Banished to the Earth Kingdom colonies for insubordination during Azulon’s time- looked at him and instead of continuing his act as a brave leader, the coward that lived within him took control.

“Don’t just stand there, subjugate the traitor!” He screeched, then turned and fled. That only served to make Iroh-Agni angrier.

He saw the exact moment that Zuko could no longer hold himself up, despite the many bruises, and elected to set aside his anger until he could take a look at his Chosen-Nephew. The fools around him had probably damaged the boys head, and Zuko wouldn’t have paid any attention to it because he had terrible self-preservation instinct. The soldiers around him broke from their frozen states, and Iroh-Agni distantly wished they hadn’t.

(He saw Lu Ten in their faces. Willing and eager to obey orders and be brave, young enough to believe that numbers mattered. This wouldn’t stay his hand, not when Zuko was involved.)

I lost one son to this war already. You will not take another.”

He roared -a true roar, nothing like what he had made before the ancient Sun Warriors. Then they were dancing, but he seemed to be the only one that knew the steps. This was good for him, and bad for the soldiers around him. The first of their numbers to reach him flew at him with the basic katas for the Salamander Monkey set. Iroh-Agni responded by stomping into the Elephant Bear stance and using the boy’s momentum to slap himself -and those surrounding them- into oblivion. When that soldier was no longer usable, Iroh tossed him into a couple of the non-benders and spun his way into someone else’s personal space.

Movement became hazy and distant, the parts of him that were Iroh able to trip and disarm, fight and overpower -all while keeping track of his Nephew, who was slumped slightly where he kneeled, his Dumpling curled protectively in front of him. The parts of him that were shrouded by Agni were stoking the fires towards him, building a wall of heat, making the fires dance to his tune. Those bending were more than confused when their fires wouldn’t flare, just spark, when their chests felt heavy with bitter cold instead of giving warmth.

An older soldier -possibly a woman, if the cunning way she approached him with the slithering Cobra Fox kata was anything to go by- got in close to him and they traded counteracting blows for several heartbeats. Iroh found an opening in her stance and twisted her over his shoulder with a firm, fiery punch to her armor, and he made sure to knock her head into the fellow that ran at them with a knife.

(He took the knife, used it to cut the straps on several pieces of armor for his next opponent. Armor design hadn’t changed in the last fifty years, and he was once a boy that had polished his and his commanding officers to a near gleam. He left the knife sitting in another man’s shoulder -he’d seen this one reach out to drag Zuko’s head up at some point, an unforgivable crime- the blood making partially broken fingers unable to attend to his wound.)

He bowdlerized his way through their numbers until their fallen lay unconscious and wounded in a trail behind him, creating a hazy semicircle in the minor courtyard of Fujin Seiruka’s temple. For a short period, there was silence, soldiers that had crawled their way into the fray late unsure weather to watch the billowing fog behind them, or the raging man in front of them. Regardless, they couldn’t retreat -there were soldiers in the fog that they couldn’t keep track of any longer- and advancing into the fiery ring around the old general seemed like a terrible idea.

When he turned to them and appeared to be aflame with rage, his gaze as bright and burning as Agni’s above them. They looked into his luminous, human eyes, and then to Agni’s eye above, and those among them that were weakened by the bitter cold understood without being told.

(This was judgment. They had done something terribly wrong here, and this was their punishment.)

They looked at this bitterly enraged former crown prince, at the boy behind him beaten and bruised, and they were confused. They thought of their commanding officer promising that they were doing a great service for their people, rooting out vicious rebels hiding in the mountains. They thought of being told that the rebellion here threatened not just their Fire Lord, but Agni’s vision of the future.

And yet.

Agni stood above them, bright and burning, but they couldn’t feel his warmth. Former General Iroh stood before them, and he was imbued with spirit flames, and could very much still bend. Only some of them realized what this might mean. They did all they could think of when faced with insurmountable odds and judgment from their spirit deity.

Those who had weapons dropped them and slowly kneeled. Those who were benders dropped straight to their knees, hands tucked firmly against abdomens. Those that continued to stand, both for the beliefs of their current Fire Lord and in defiance of one they viewed as a traitor, had made their choice. All those men still able to stand after their initial encounter with Iroh remained standing stubbornly. So be it. Agni could not afford to suffer fools.

The fires coalesced around Iroh, rising and forming a twisting dragon of flame and light with a human-like torso and arms that grew from a mostly serpentine body. It sported an ill-proportioned, twisting neck, and a single, burning eye. The dragon surveyed them with sad-angry-hurt-rage, then roared. A swirl of fire exploded and spread over Iroh’s head, and a blinding light overtook the courtyard -a beacon in the early morning that was seen for hundreds of miles.

It terrified those refugees that thought they would turn to ash, Earth Kingdom people flinching from flames with startled gasps. Aang and Katara ducked behind a fallen wall, and Sokka, where he’d been fighting (see: swinging his sword wildly at a couple that just wouldn’t stop getting up) with several soldiers, dove behind an elegant pillar.

(Only the fire didn’t burn. )

It swallowed the soldiers whole without burning, turned blue around the edges, and then faded like a swarm of fire-moth-flies. The lights danced over and around terrified people, until they were enticed to slowly reach for twirling warmth, and comforted those who were left behind. The temple around them was un-scorched. A startled quiet -with the exception of those few teens that had been allowed to participate in the battle happily trying to catch the spirit lights- followed as eyes turned from where the apparition of Agni had been to Former General Iroh.

(The lights faded with inattention, swirling into the early morning sky and disappearing. Few would think to broach the subject of exactly what happened while Iroh was in the temple. Everyone would be wondering about it after he left.)

Iroh wasn’t burnt, just rumpled and worried as he slowly crouched in front of Zuko and looked the boy over as gently as possible. Sokka was there minutes later, carefully dragging tools out of one of his pouches and contemplating the shackles on Zuko’s wrists. The young boy leaned into Iroh and glared at those watching them. Iroh felt the boy trembling and knew it was taking all his foolish boys' pride to keep himself vertical.

He helped Sokka get the steel shackles off, then, with Aang and Katara acting as buffers, they drug Zuko into one of the smaller side temples. It took hours after that to make his Nephew accept treatment, and during the course of that, they remembered their unexpected surprise from the night before. Water bending could heal. Of course, It would do so much better if Katara could figure out how she’d accidentally done it to his head.

After he was patched up, Zuko insisted on getting up and moving around on his own, thinking he was going to help them with the after-battle work. He fell asleep on his feet after Iroh finally held up his hands and stood back, and got promptly tucked into a bedroll. They stuck Dumpling, Noodle -who had spent the last portion of the fight with Appa, shoving people off the edge of the cliff- and Sokka next to him so he wouldn’t disappear while they were handling the remaining Fire Nation soldiers.

(This was a true test for Iroh, still angry from the sight of his Nephews bruised face. They found that most of the young recruits that had surrendered had done so both out of confusion -over Iroh’s presence- and fear of Agni. When prompted to explain what they had been told, Rui Ho and his people weren’t just offended, they were outraged at being labeled as a ‘band of renegades,’ and a ‘rebel alliance.’ Iroh quietly explained the truth of the situation to them as a group and had the satisfaction of watching quiet horror color their features.)

“Well, I can’t just let them go!” Rui Ho whisper shouted, pointing at the elected leaders of the soldiers, his scraggly eye-brows twitching. “They know where we live! Why would I risk that?”

Iroh and Aang were quietly trying to find a way to answer that when one of the women stepped forward slowly, bowing deeply to Rui Ho and the adults elected to stand with him in the meeting.

“With all due respect, we don’t wish to go, until we’ve repaid our dishonor to you.”

This threw the Earth Kingdom refugees for a loop, and had Iroh settling back where he sat idly, smiling.

(He wondered how many of them were now questioning similar missions. How many of them had been questioning similar missions, and more, what they would do now. This would be a good start, if they could prove themselves.)

 Aang stepped forward into the negotiations, desperately trying to make things civil. Iroh let him. He was tired, but awake and worried. Agni’s presence had grown weak against his skin. The Deity Spirit had likely expended too much energy with what he’d done, would need to rest and recuperate for a few days. That was fine, especially since they would likely be traveling for the next little while. He hoped.

(He completely forgot, in the haze of memories that were only distantly his, that the Councilor had disappeared long before he and Agni dispersed of the threat against Fujin Seiruka’s Temple. Most of them did.)

 

 


 

 

He ran. He skidded and fell, and ducked into all the secret, hidden passageways he’d learned over the last couple of years. He could feel something growing behind him, reaching for him, but he must have run too far from its reach, because it never caught him. He knew because he was always looking. He paused, breathless and still terrified, on a foggy ridge he didn’t completely trust, but he could no longer feel the burning-hurting-itch on his skin that said he was being watched by something dangerous. He patted his robes lightly, once he could stand on his own two feet, and was assured by the gentle weight of the scroll tucked inside them.  As long as he had that, everything would be fine. He could still make this work. Especially if he went to the Fire Lord with news of the two traitor Princes, and how they had help from impostor spirits.

(That couldn’t have been Agni. There was no way. Agni was the voice of the Fire Lord -his home and heart was with the honor and glory of the Fire Nation. Yang Chin had not survived this long without having that simple fact of life beaten into him.)

He turned his eyes towards the sea, and sighed. Then he started climbing. If he could make it to the edge of the mountain ranges, he could make it to a Fire Nation out-posting there. From there, it was a matter of commandeering a ship.  

 

 


 

 

Katara worried a hand over Zuko’s forehead, checking his temperature -again- before she drew it back and resettled his blankets. Iroh and Dumpling settled down on either side of the boy, and she made short work of crawling back out of Appa’s saddle. She joined Aang in saying goodbye to Rui Ho and his people, where Teo was uncharacteristically quiet. The whirlwind of time they’d spent in the temples had been brief, but the boy had been a consistent fountain of energy and hopeful optimism.

(In the couple days since Iroh and Agni had lit the early-morning sky with flames that didn’t burn, those soldiers that had surrendered had made a promise before their spirit deity to do everything in their power to make amends for the crimes they’d committed in the name of a corrupt Fire Lord. They wanted to start by defending the people here until they could stand on their own. Rui Ho and his people had been reasonably wary about it at first, until Aang came forward and swore as the Avatar, their bridge between worlds, that if Agni trusted them, he did too. Katara had come to expect the near-mystical way people seemed to automatically trust Aang as soon as they were reminded he was the Avatar and not just an excitable twelve-year-old.)

“Will you come back?” Teo asked now, his eyes sad and large. Katara wanted to pat his head or pinch him, no matter that he was probably Zuko’s age. “When you’re done in the Northern Water Tribe?”

Aang hesitated, the parts of him that were all excitable boy clearly wanting to say yes. Katara stepped in to speak, because Sokka would have if he wasn’t loading Appa, and she was aware that someone occasionally needed to act as Aang’s voice of reason.

“We probably shouldn’t. It would be safer for you if no more attention is drawn to the Temples.” Teo wilted a little at that, but nodded solemnly. Aang wilted a little too, but then smiled wide.

“But as soon as I can, you bet I’ll take the opportunity to come fly with you!” Katara let them have that one, stepping back to accept some additional, heavy clothing from one of the refugees, and as soon as that was up in the saddle with Sokka, Iroh and Zuko, Katara scrambled up after them. Momo jumped from Aang’s shoulder to the rim of the saddle, and it took a few minutes to get the Nomad himself onto Appa.

(She knew, because he’d told her the night before, that he was more upset to be leaving Fujin Seiruka than the temple itself. It had taken a sibling-tag-team-hug-plus-one-lemur to get him out of that particular mope.)

Katara couldn’t feel the Fujin the same way she felt the push-pull force of La or Tui, but she did know there was something in the winds around them as they left the Northern mountains. It broke off around the time they reached the rocky coasts, and hours later, Zuko woke long enough to eat something -Iroh heated it carefully in a heavy ceramic bowl one of the Skytopia refugees had given them- and they managed to keep him awake for a short conversation.

(Uncle Bato has once been hit on the head too hard, she remembered. Their healer, who’d left with the rest of the men -leaving his daughter behind to act in his place- had quietly given Katara a list of things to look out for with head injuries. She had been doing so at every opportunity with Zuko, helped in no small part by Aang, who’d taken the task very seriously once he’d learned the whats and whys of it.)

“What about when we met?” Aang asked now, leaning heavily over Apa’s saddle, Noodle and Momo perched on opposite sides of him, watching with mild confusion. “What’s your least favorite memory about when we met?”

Zuko gave Aang the most exasperated look she’d seen in a while, though it was ruined by all the sleepy blinking he was doing, curled up much closer to Iroh than he normally allowed himself.

“The fact that Katara looked ready to drown me.” He growled, which matched up with a couple of his previous waking answers. She nodded subtly to Aang, and the boy laughed.

Told you so Sokka! You owe me half of your next non-meat-meal!” Zuko gave them a confused look, but evidently decided to shrug it off in favor of handing his bowl off to Uncle Iroh. The old general took the offering and smilingly finished off his Nephews food, watching the boy subtly as he drifted back to sleep. As soon as they were sure he was out, Aang and Sokka cut their banter short, but with friendly smiles. They had all, at this point, become experts at subtly making sure Zuko didn’t get in the way of his own healing.

(As soon as he realized they were all taking care of him, he would be more insistent that nothing was wrong, and probably make whatever was wrong worse. It said a lot about their travels to this point that they could tell when he’d hurt himself doing something on his own and that they had adaptable systems in place for dealing with said injuries.)

The flight North was boring except the occasional wild conversation, and involved a lot of dozing on their part and chittering-play-not-really-help from Momo and the King Serval siblings. Dumpling and Noodle, at least, didn’t seem bothered by long flights, and appeared to be taking turns sitting watch on the saddle rim. Or maybe Katara was reading too much into bored-animal-roaming. Regardless. When something finally happened, she was all too eager to not just stare blankly into nothing. She needed movement.

(Two days, give or take a few hours, was simply too much to be stuck on a saddle. Zuko was more awake now, but that meant almost nothing because he had no energy. This only made him shouty, which meant he and Sokka’s arguments got loud. They needed to not be stuck in a confined space with her brother. His snippy comments were driving even Aang up a wall, especially when he started complaining about the lack of altitude.)

She wasn’t exactly thinking she wanted them to be attacked by Water benders though. That sucked, and not just because they were lobbing icy spears at Appa. It sucked because she stopped the Icy spears, and in response, they crashed the tired bison, then surrounded him with more ice. Aang was shouting things about peace, and could we not do this please, while Zuko looked halfway to jumping out of the saddle and melting everything.

(Sokka ended up being the voice of reason, because he had the loudest volume. Katara had dawned her claws as quickly as she could, given the bustling way they’d crashed, and Northern Water Tribe or not, she was going to teach them manners the next time they lobbed something at her family. What made it worse was that they were all being extremely arrogant about the way they’d crashed the Avatar’s Bison.)

She only wished that unspoken arrogance was her only problem with them. Zuko was soaked, and steaming, and glaring, which made them nervous, but his hands were still stubbornly crossed over his chest, and Dumpling was gently licking some stubborn perspiration off his cheek. She could tell from their looks alone, they were going to have problems.

(They probably should have put more thought into explaining two Fire Benders dressed like Earth Kingdom refugees.)

 

 


 

 

“Sir, we have something that will be of interest to you.”

Zhao turned wildly from the map of Nations, his carefully laid coarse pinned painstakingly with bright red thread. There was a man that could be a Councilor standing between two of his best men, shivering but looking arrogant. Zhao bared his teeth in what should have been a coy smile, but probably came off wrong, if the small flinch was anything to go by.

(He was sleeping more now, but his dreams were plagued by nightmares of giants in the water with four eyes and fish-like bodies put together wrong. His chest always felt bitter and cold, and he hadn’t been able to properly bend in too long. This was all the spirits' fault. He would make them pay.)

“And who are you?” He growled, when it should have been a sneer.

The man flinched again, then drew himself up, tilting his head to look down his nose at Zhao.

“I am Councilman Yang Chin, and I have very urgent documents and news for the Fire Lord.” Zhao wanted to snort. He did. He snorted a laugh and smiled some more, because this was the most amusing thing he’d heard since their last helmsman tried to tell him they wouldn’t be able to dock safely at this port. That Helmsman was now gone, and they were docked, and the port now belonged to the Fire Nation. He would have turned away, if not for what the man screeched next.

“I have just come from a battle with the Avatar and former General Iroh, traitor Prince to our esteemed nation!”

That, at least, succeeded in catching Zhao’s attention. Everything he had to say after only made him smile more. His plans suddenly seemed possible. He could have the full backing of his nation and revenge on not just the traitor Princes, but the Avatar. The plans that the Councilman carried could also be useful, so he had them copied and then sent to the Fire Lord along with everything else. Luck was finally smiling on him.

(This was a lie that he was convinced, no matter that Luck was laughing at him. It had already rolled the dice -and knew where this leads the admiral. There were consequences for every action, and Zhao had made a lot of terrible choices in the last year or so.)

 

 


 

 

Azula was woken by the softest of sounds at her door and sat up in her bed of every fur she could get her hands on to see Her coming into the room unprompted. The look on her face was enough to give Azula pause.

“They’ve finally arrived Princess.” The words had hardly finished leaving the woman’s mouth before she was tossing back her own covers and scrambling for warm clothes. She lightly slapped away the hands that tried to help -she could do this simple task, she wasn’t helpless- and barely managed to get her hair up and tied back before she was pulling on her heavy boots.

Others would mistake her enthusiasm for eagerness. The truth of it was that Azula fully intended to beat her brother bloody for taking his time getting here. She intended to smack him for every sleepless moment she’d had in the last week. She wanted to grind his bones into dust for probably forgetting her. Then she’d make him explain himself, and after that, she’d make him explain her own feelings to her.

 In short, she wasn’t eager to see her brother. She was eager to make him pay.

(When she saw him, really saw him, her plans were slightly derailed. First, she’d make the people who bruised him pay. Then it would be his turn.)

Chapter Text

They were 'escorted' into the Northern Water Tribe Capital, which would have been awe-inspiring, if Katara wasn't quietly fuming. They'd tried to take Zuko into custody. He may not have firebent at all during their encounter -and that wasn't for lack of desire, but simply lack of energy- but he was very clearly steaming in the arctic north.

(When they'd moved towards him with intent, Iroh had stood, the heavy robe he'd been wearing till then falling from his lap and onto Zuko's with a damp plop. He'd smiled at the men in a way that was quietly dangerous. Her mind was still fresh with Spirit-dragon-rage, and it must have been on everyone else's too, because Sokka had flung himself in front of Iroh and Katara had stepped behind him, with Aang desperately catching their attention.)

They'd only stopped when Aang continually declared that he was the Avatar - Bridge between worlds, keeper of balance and harmony, and that the spirits had sent him this way. By trying to detain one of his totally necessary and spirit-blessed companions, they put the balance of the world into jeopardy. Momo parroted all of this in Lemur, from the safety of Aang's gi, where he tended to hide anytime something remotely alarming happened. 

(It had taken them all -minus one shouty former Prince who'd contributed exactly two options and then walked away in frustration- hours of brainstorming a month before to come up with that one. They'd realized they needed some way to protect the Fire Benders they traveled with, since most people in the Earth Kingdom disliked anything Fire Nation on principle. The sun felt a little warmer when he'd insistently repeated this phrase to the Northerners, and that warmth had followed them here.)

She watched the walls cleanly fall away via waterbending, and instead of being awed at what she might one day be able to do, she seethed at the people eying Zuko -clearly injured Zuko- like he was an unlucky spirit waiting to strike. Like they would be sure to strike him down first. 

(They would have to get through Katara and Sokka and Aang and Iroh first. Even if they succeeded in even getting close to the former-prince-now-her-brother-in-arms, there would be two very angry King servals that did in fact see Zuko as part of their personal territory.)

Appa made a low, irritated sound. Noodle easily jumped onto Sokka's shoulder, growling at something over the rim. Aang stiffened in front of her, his head twisting around abruptly. She refused to look away from the canoe where the gruff boy -who'd first suggested they drag the Ashamker into their boat- sat glaring at her in return. She didn't need to know that whatever had happened, Aang didn't like it. The look on his face was exactly as angry as she's seen him at the Northern temple right before he revealed himself in Rui Ho's lab. 

(Noodle saw them all as his personal territory, because Mama-Papa-Appa allowed these bi-pod packmates to live on fluffy-soft-like-cloud-but-not-damp back. Since Mama-Papa-Appa was Noodles territory, by extension, that made his squishy-packmates his territory. Dumpling was simply incredibly protective of still-injured-warm-mom-who-is-roaring-less. The roaring-less part deeply concerned the young King Serval.)

Sokka spoke to someone she couldn't see, his tone friendly, but with a clear edge of warning. He also spoke before Aang could, which gave the monk a chance to do some of those deep breathing exercises that tended to make her hair ruffle and the wind whistle past. From the collar of his Gi, a furry lemur hand slipped up to pat at his cheek, and big green lemur eyes peeked out curiously before disappearing again.

(She took a small amount of satisfaction in the way the Northern Tribesmen looked at him, when he started, and kept looking at him by the fourth breath. Almost like they'd understood the words 'I'm the Avatar,' but hadn't processed what that and a flying bison might mean until the wind was stirring around the young boy in ways it shouldn't.)

"Yeah, if you need to lead the bison somewhere, it's best to just get in front of it. I can't promise that Appa's walking attachment won't maul you if you try poking him again." From the corner of her eye, she caught movement, and knew that Sokka was likely giving Noodle good-boy scritches on his chin, dangerously close to teeth that were perilously sharp. "Teriyaki Noodle here does love to play 'ambush' with people's faces."

The warriors around them still said very little -either our of disdain or under orders, Katara couldn't tell- but one of the larger canoes pulled up in front of Appa and the bison obligingly followed it with a gentle nudge of his reigns. Aang had regained his nonchalant exterior, easily slipping back into the role of fun-loving-twelve-year-old, talking excitedly and loudly. It probably said something about their months of travel together that Katara could tell Aang's level of loud was entirely on purpose, and a clear attempt to keep him distracted from his anger

"Oh, they added on more to High-Street! That's where they do most of their trade, though I guess the only thing they'd have to trade would all be made locally now." Katara managed to tear her glare off of Gruff-boy-thinks-he's-an-adult to glance in the direction Aang pointed. She could just make out a three-tiered set of streets that had deep blue canvases strung over the top, probably to keep all the warmth a market would bring above the market. "Back when I used to come to visit Kuraka, the Northern cities were still doing trade with the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation," the young monk continued, almost bouncing in place, "they didn't do so much trading with the Nomads -unless it was related to dessert recipes, or the occasional knit-work. The Nomads didn't do a lot of trade with anyone come to think of it. There were very few worldly possessions we maintained." He shrugged, giving her a briefly goofy smile before he turned back to the canal ahead.

He continued to point out several landmarks he remembered -though, from the sound of it, he hadn't spent a lot of time in the Northern tribes because 'they're overrun with Polar Bear Geese,' whatever that meant- and made their escorts increasingly curious and weirdly nervous. This lasted through all the tiers of the city, until they came to what Katara could only describe as a palace.

When she turned to check on Iroh and Zuko, she was relieved to see that Iroh sat alert and smiling at several of the men on the boat behind Appa, while Zuko had slumped onto his Uncles shoulder, blinking sleepily at Dumpling where the kit was curled up contentedly in his lap. He looked grumpy about his own lack of energy, which was about as good a sign as she could hope for. 

Appa slipped from the frigid waters to the icy steps purposefully, huffing at anyone that didn't move fast enough for him to do so. Aang was the first to excitedly float off the bison's head, and Katara followed him down. She spent a minute studying the men around them suspiciously before she nodded up to Sokka and Iroh. Her Uncle-in-arms slipped down from the saddle before his Nephew did, turning to help Katara make sure Zuko got down and stayed steady. Sokka obligingly nudged Zuko up and held him steady while the firebender climbed over the rim of the saddle. 

(That Zuko accepted that help with nothing more than a glare and a muffled string of curses made her worried. The fact that Dumpling was perched on the rim of the saddle and not clinging to her favorite person's cloak was also a worrying point.)

Zuko completely ignored them trying to coax him down slowly and jumped down to the icy walkway -which he clearly realized was a mistake a second after he slipped over the rim, if the slightly green tint to his face was anything to go by. Katara got around to cursing at him when she was sure he wasn't about to throw up on his own boots, while Iroh insistently had the boy lean on him. 

(She'd known it was a concussion, but she'd expected it to be a bit more minor with the reactions he'd been giving up to this point. Next time, she'd remember that the real test was being able to stand without tipping over. She wondered if Uncle Bato's concussion had been this bad -most of his recovery was a hazy memory at most.

This made her think of home and heartaches, so she determinedly returned her thoughts to the here and now. She couldn't think about her father or the village she and her brother had left behind. Those thoughts were only ever for sleepless nights when she had the comfort of Tui's gaze.)

Sokka jumped down a second later, his and Zuko's swords slung over one shoulder as he took over helping to brace Zuko. The King Serval siblings jumped down after him, Dumpling landing expertly on the ice and then letting out a shrill, surprised sound before immediately jumping onto one of Iroh's shoulders and clinging. Noodle landed in Katara's arms a second later, his eyes wide and focused on the icy ground he'd just scrambled away from.

The Northern men had been saying something to Aang, but their voices abruptly cut off with the noise.

"...What are those creatures?" Someone asked, and Katara didn't bother looking away from the Serval she was soothing with her response. 

"King Servals. We saved them from Pirates." There was a short silence with this, one that Appa filled with a rough groan and a familiar stance.

Katara reacted even before she realized she was reacting. The bison shook himself roughly, and she bent the water as it flew, creating a kind of umbrella over where Iroh and Sokka were propping Zuko up. Sokka sent her an odd look, his lips twisting into a pout. Zuko was frowning as something over Katara's shoulder, his eyes confused. 

(Confused but weirdly hopeful. Hopeful and incredibly sad.)

"Oh, so now you want to protect me from water? Where was this enthusiasm a couple of weeks ago when Appa did the same thing and the only one that tried to warn me was Uncle?" Her brother shouted, and Katara shifted through the motions of flinging the water back to its source.

The motions were a little awkward with Noodle clinging to her the way he was, but she managed. She was about to retort when Zuko spoke, sounding ... sounding weird. Weirder than he did right before a bad nightmare he was too proud to talk about. Weird like he was when he spoke of his childhood. 

"Uncle." A word strong enough to catch attention, the elbow he was letting Iroh hold trembling. "Uncle, I think I'm hallucinating again. I need you to tell me if it's real or not."

(Since he'd only been hallucinating once in this past week, right after he first woke from his head injury, Katara wanted to say it wasn't likely.)

She turned to see what had held his attention and was startled out of her wits to see a girl. This was no Watertribe girl. Her skin was far too pale, her eyes, even if they were young were sharp ... but they were also the exact shade of tawny bronze that Katara had begun associating with Iroh. Her face was still rounded with baby-fat, and her hair was pulled up in the messiest queue Katara had ever seen -half of it was falling out and draped messily over her collar.

She was swathed head to toe in screaming reds and golds, bundled up like there was a blizzard going on. She still managed to look regal beyond all imagining. This girl was glaring at Zuko and Iroh in a way that was deeply offended -like she'd been reminded that things like bugs existed and a couple had crawled in front of her.

"You are not hallucinating Nephew," Iroh said softly. His tone of voice suggested that he wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.

There was an older woman -old but not Iroh old, Katara didn't think. She was old like Aunt Wu had been, and the look of deeply amused affection she was giving the impossibly regal Fire Nation girl -because what else could she be?- suggested they were companions, but Katara couldn't figure out why they would be here. A man came up behind the two, clearly in a hurry but not wanting to appear like he was in a hurry. From the way the other men around him reacted to his presence, Katara was guessing he was in charge.

(She completely missed the sidelong looks some of them were giving her, insulted and confused, as if she'd just kicked their favorite turtle-seal into a fire. Sokka did notice. He noticed most things that had 'potential threat,' written all over them. Just like he was noticing this young girl draped in different shades of blood, who made Zuko shake in Sokka's grasp.)

"How am I not hallucinating?" Zuko shouted, looking confused. The girl looked likes he wanted to stomp him out of existence until Zuko's next words seem to catch up with her brain, "I haven't figured out how to rescue Azula yet, much less how to talk her into being rescued! Why would she be here if we haven't rescued her yet!" 

(That name sounded familiar. It buzzed around in the back of Sokka's mind, a half-formed memory that he must have shoved into the background, the information important, but not important enough to always have on hand. Katara didn't have as much trouble remembering. It had been a handful of flyaway comments over the months that she'd finally brought up to Zuko -possibly before the Northern temple, but after Aunt Wu. Azula was his sister.)

Iroh looked like he was about to say something, but then Zuko lurched out of their hold and stomped forward -while swaying, dear Tui and La, he was swaying and Katara was going to kill them all and-

Zuko reached out slowly, slipped some hair behind the girl's ear. 

(His hands shook when they made contact with the fine, smooth looking black strands.)

The girl looked confused and outrightly furious, and her voice shook when she spoke, but Sokka and Katara weren't sure if it was the good kind of shaking.

"You were going to rescue me? After forgetting about me!" blatant accusation and disbelief in her voice, and the growing crowd behind her looked ...well, Sokka didn't have a perfect word for it, but it was somewhere between the feelings, 'I'm dreaming, please tell me I'm dreaming,' and 'I have never seen something this bizarre or potentially life-altering in my life.' Sokka thought the looks were kind of funny. 

(Katara privately agreed. The way the men were looking at the clearly outraged child, it was like they had no idea who she was.)

"Lala," the Southern Watertribe siblings' attention was suddenly very intently on the two royal children, and Aang was suddenly in between Sokka and Katara, anxiously bouncing in place. None of them had ever head that much emotion in Zuko's voice. "I never forgot you. I saw you in every secret shadow."

The girl- Azula. Her name was Azula, and her face went briefly blank, a war of confusion and suspicion in her eyes before she spoke, deliberately slow.

"You swear? " she growled, almost too quiet to hear, and Zuko smiled in a way that they'd never seen. It looked soft and sincere all at once, amused rather than irritated. There was raw relief in the way he reached up and carefully slipped more hair behind her ear. 

(Aang would swear, later, that she leaned into the touch, just subtly.)

"By the grace of Agni and all his light shines on, I swear."

Katara suddenly felt that they had accidentally witnessed a very private ritual, one that others weren't meant to see lightly. She was proven right in the very Zuko way the girl turned her accusing glare on the rest of them -and briefly at her Uncle- before she growled again. Really growled, like she was a feral animal rather than a little girl.

"Now which of you idiots let my Dum Dum of a brother hurt himself? "

(It took a long time to convince the girl to let them take this indoors, but weirdly enough, it was the way Zuko swayed on his feet and reached for Uncle Iroh that seemed to convince her. Katara hardly paid any attention to the glitter of the ice palace after that. She was far too absorbed by the interactions between Zuko and his little sister to care about a bunch of pompous grandeur that hurt if she thought about it too much.)

 

 


 

 

Across the globe, several things happened at once. 

......

Zhao received a missive from his Fire Lord that was exactly as manic as the one he'd sent. There was nothing in it that explicitly forbad him from going forward, so Zhao chose to look at it like it was blanket permission for all of his schemes. No one questioned him when he requisitioned that fleet under the order of the Fire Lord. Not until it was far too late to risk jumping overboard.

......

Fire Lord Ozai -no, that title wouldn't do, not anymore. He was so close to becoming what he was meant to be! He would have to think of something better. Something more majestic- paced his rooms and had a sudden moment of clarity. It was just a minute, a short, blissful minute in the endless stretch of time since he'd been able to think clearly. He considered, in that minute, what it would take to subvert Ba Sing Se from the inside out, because if he had their force Azula could surely be found-

That minute ended, and he was lost to his own mania again, pacing wildly in the confines of his office. It was the first instant of many to come. Ozai was, after all, an incredibly intelligent man -you had to be to achieve what he had. Even -temporarily!- losing his bending would only affect him adversely for so long. Eventually, he would be able to think his way around the chaos in his mind.

......

Bato nearly dropped his mug onto the grimy tavern floor. He'd stopped in a port town that wasn't Fire Nation friendly, but still got a lot of traffic from places that were. He stared at the chipper traveler across from him, the man's unusually happy demure enough to make what he'd said moments before almost a joke. Except he should have known the names he just dropped.

"What did you just say?" He asked and it was really a growl.

"I said I bring you a message from Aunt Wu!" The man chirped again, smiling like Agni was still awake and beaming. "She asked me to tell you that Sokka and Katara are just fine, and you shouldn't worry too much when you see the papers. The Avatar will take care of them." He gave one last flashing smile before he took his drink and ambled away, and Bato was left staring at the place he'd been in a cold sweat. 

(He managed to convince himself that he'd heard wrong. Then he saw the posters as he was heading towards the docks the next morning. A poster that depicted a young girl in water tribe blue with familiar hair loops. The art was minimal, so of course he could be reading too much into it. He'd almost convinced himself of that too when he saw Sokka's. He booked it for his canoe and decided that he would not be stopping again unless it was absolutely necessary. He needed to speak with Hakoda.)

 


 

 

Yue first became aware of the whispers halfway through her etiquette lessons. They were a welcome distraction from the countless, ridiculous rules she was expected to remember, for reasons no one could explain. 

(She'd stopped asking years before why she needed etiquette lessons. Her tutors usually only tutted at her in disapproval. It was simply what was always done before, so they do it now.)

The whispers started as the barest of murmurs in the ice, muttered in passing between servants in the halls beyond her study room. It was mid-day, but she felt the faintest stirring of awareness in her mind, as if something was watching her -but it wasn't her All-seeing Mother. This presence was familiar, but not the same, a tickling something in the glimmer of light through the nearest window-

(She realized all at once what the association between light and this fuzzy awareness was. She was not Tui-blessed and the youngest Spirit-diviner for nothing.)

She stood as soon as her lessons were over, smiling her way through her tutors' string of reminders about protocols she needed to follow in the coming month. Turning sixteen was apparently a big deal -so what if she was now of marriageable age? Why did that need to be the only important footnote in her life?- but Yue was really more interested in the soft something she could almost taste in the air. 

(The tiny, angry-girl-shaped hole in the conversation had her worried, but not as worried as the ice-spirits she could feel getting ready to make mischief.)

"No, no, little one," she said demurely, her voice clear despite how soft it was - and incidentally interrupting her tutor scandalously-  but she hardly paid attention to the gasping. Her eyes were trained on the dripping ice wall over the woman's shoulder. "I'll ask you not to make mischief right now." 

The older woman -a little slower on the uptake than some of Yue's other tutors, despite the fact that Yue had known the woman her whole life- turned to stare where Yue's gaze was fixed. A spurt of chilly wind rushed past, playing with the smaller braids tucked into Yue's hair briefly before it vanished. The Northern Princess took the opportunity presented with her tutor sputtering with pale-sickly-looking-worry to slip out of the room.

(It would forever bother the Princess, that look of worry. As if she was still a fragile, sickly child that needed moonlight to breathe right -not a strong young woman that played their games because she wasn't in a position to change the rules yet. As soon as she could though ... Yue knew what had to be done -what her All-seeing Mother demanded after years of being misinterpreted by the shaman. Maybe some of Azula's ideas had also given her inspiration.)

She entered the central hall -which doubled as her father's greeting hall on occasion- having absently followed the tail-end of an excited ice-spirit while she stewed in her own thoughts. She froze in the doorway as much as her father froze half-way through what looked like an attempt to calm down Master Pakku, who was shouting at a smiling old man in Earthkingdom browns and greens that didn't look particularly warm enough for the Northern chill.

This wasn't what really had Yue frozen to the spot. There were children standing clustered together -they stood in loose formation behind the old Earth Kingdom man, managed to look relaxed but tense all at once- and one of them was a tall boy with a terrible scar across the left side of his face. Looking at him made her feel- 

(The axis on which she stood tilted just slightly, almost imperceptibly. That faint, hazy connection she felt to her All-seeing Mother thrummed inside her head, and she knew. Agni was smiling down at them in joy, and somewhere across their world, that joy bounced against Tui's senses. She and this boy were two sides of the same coin exactly like Agni and Tui were, their lights always strongest when they could face each other.)

Complete. Looking at him made her feel complete, as if she'd been spinning wildly before, looking for the right direction to face. She managed to tear her gaze away from his startling gold eyes to look at his companions. A boy stood just to his side, bouncing in place slightly and watching her back with avid curiosity and a welcome smile. He wore such a startling shade of yellow that she was temporarily caught off-guard. The aura around him was old and sad, a dying and a living that sparked her interest and held. She sent him a real smile in return, her eyes flickering to his side-

And here is where her day became truly interesting. The Wartertribe boy and girl that stood with the group were not of the North. Yue knew that like she knew the secret name of every gleaming star within Tui's sights. She would know them, at least distantly, if they were of her people. 

(And their particular shade of blue was just slightly flatter than what most of their Northen people looked for in a dye.)

The boy stood like a soldier, feet braced and ready with his arms crossed. There were weapons strapped to his back and hips. He might have looked strong and seasoned if it weren't for the traces of baby-fat along his jaw. His expression was slack-jawed. He looked back at her like she was the moon and he'd been stuck in the ice-caves for ages. (She wasn't far off. Sokka thought she was divinity given human form, or possibly a spirit trying to trick him. He would find out much later how right he was about one of these options.) The girl stood in much the same way the boy did, her stance almost easy in its readiness.

There was a leather holster across her hips and over one shoulder, and Yue had no idea what was inside the little pouches, but from the look in this girl's eye, she knew it was a weapon. What really caught and held her attention about this girl was the taste of salt and deep waters that emanated from her like a shroud. Looking at the scared boy made Yue feel complete -watching this girl watch her made the Northern Princess think they could part the seas if they tried hard enough. If Yue was blessed by Tui and her All-seeing eye, this girl was blessed by La and all his fury.

(Azula stood much closer to Agni's favorite child than she'd stood to anyone thus far. She was within touching distance of the boy, and it was only now that Yue realized he was swaying slightly, a pinched, sick look on his face. Lady Myong stood just to the side of them all, smiling an amused smile at the children, one that got soft anytime her eyes flickered to Azula and Agni's son.)

The furry-feathery, bizarre animals that were curled up carefully on top of boots looked extremely irritated. She had no earthly idea what they even were, but they almost reminded her of Polar Bear Geese -in that their eyes screamed danger.

"You! You!" Pakku's shouting finally drew her notice, and she glanced over at the man while purposefully stepping further into the hall, pretending not to see her father shaking his head. "You cheated and you know it!" The old Waterbending master finally managed, to which the Earth Kingdom man laughed heartily, shaking off Pakku's accusing finger.

(Yue had never seen the old master so ruffled before. She wished she'd been here from the beginning to figure out what the old man had done.)

"I would never dare play tricks on you, old friend!" He boomed in an entirely friendly voice, while her father edged around the two and made straight for Yue. "Though if we must have this argument again, why not do so with a friendly rematch? "

"Yue," Father hissed once he was close enough, looking worried, and Yue gave him the smile she'd been practicing with Azula. She knew it was successful when his step faltered. "Yue, what are you doing? Don't you have lessons? "

"Oh no, Father, my lessons are all done for the day! And besides," she smiled past her father to the group of children that was watching her with interest, "I couldn't possibly neglect our guests! "

The bald boy in garish yellow bounced on his feet even more, smiling a little wider at her in turn. Azula shifted, smiling her own smile in approval, and then the girl reached out -hesitantly- to grab the scared boy's sleeves and gently tug him closer. He shuffled after the girl willingly, smiling down at her in a way that was both weak and sheer happiness. The rest of their small group shuffled along with him, including the older man who'd been arguing with Pakku. 

(The animals snarled at eh shuffling, and ended up scrambling up onto the old Earth Kingdom man's shoulders, quivering and growling at the ground.)

"Zuzu," Azula started once they were within what Yue had learned was Azula's 'comfortable distance' range, "This is Yue, the Northern Savages Princess. She talks to magic fish, which I would find silly, if it weren't also interesting to watch the fish talk back. Savage Princess, this is my Dum Dum of a brother Formerly Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. You will refer to him respectfully of course-" she interrupted herself to smile that slightly colder smile she usually reserved for Arnook, "I'm the only one that gets to call him Dum Dum."

A telling silence echoed with this declaration, and the boy- Zuko, bowed a little awkwardly to Yue and her father. His friends, stifling smiles and laughter behind him, followed suit, though, in the Water tribe children's case, they merely inclined their heads respectfully. Zuko nudged the girl pointedly, with the kind of patience Yue had only seen from Lady Myong up to this point.

(Lady Myong was chuckling behind them all, her shoulders shaking merrily, one sleeved hand held over her lips. She looked exactly like a doting relative in that instant.)

"Oh yes," Azula drolled, almost absently, twitching her free fingers in the direction of the other children and the old man. "I almost forgot. The old one is my Uncle Iroh, and the others are the Avatar and his other companions. I wasn't paying a lot of attention to their names, but I'm fairly certain one of them is named Peasant-boy.

The Water Tribe boy huffed up at that, sending the little princess a heated look, and Yue felt like she'd stumbled into more than one argument. Before anything more could be said, Zuko shook his head slowly. Her father was pinching the bridge of his nose, looking worn without meaning to. She wondered how long these foreign children had been steamrolling over him.

"I think we should find our guests an appropriate apartment to stay in!" He announced loudly. 

Yue beamed at him with as much sweet charm as she could muster. 

"I think I have the perfect one in mind! " She conveniently didn't hear all of Arnook's objections over the Avatar's excited chatter as she lead them down one of the many walk-ways within the palace.

Chapter Text

He wasn't sure what to make of Yue. She was a Princess, which automatically meant he was as respectful as possible to her -he couldn't see a knife or any indicator that she was a bender, but that meant nothing- and  Lala seemed to like her. To be fair, Azula liking the Princess could mean anything -and he wasn't going to ask about the magic fish thing, because he'd heard Sokka scoffing- and with Azula, magic fish might just mean spirit fish

(Azula was as adamant that spirits didn't exist as Sokka was that science could explain anything.)

However, she lead them to a set of quarters in the palace that had heavy white rugs over a good portion of the floor, and she asked Katara with help in making additional shelving space. Zuko noticed the way the men around them twitched when Katara complied with a mild amount fo amusement, and he was proud to note that her simplified stances for such things were seamless. The decorative ice sculptures of bison flying over the shelves seemed unnecessary, but it made Aang laugh and Yue clapped lightly. 

(He might be a little addled because his head was pounding and he was dizzy, but he had noticed every time the men around them looked at Katara like she was breaking laws by bending so well. He was wondering if they expected the Southern Tribe children to be inadequate in some way, simply because they were scattered and less powerful.)

The next thing he knew, he was being forced onto one of the comfortable-looking low sofas set in front of a fireplace, and he had to do a lot of deep breathing. Katara and Sokka had been the ones to herd him onto it, but their hands disappeared unexpectedly, to be replaced by Uncles -and a smaller set of warm hands that poked carefully at the spot on his head that had greeted the hard stone of the temple floor. Someone was talking, but he couldn't focus on the words, his head hurt so much, and he really hoped those guards that had followed them in weren't looking. 

Someone was pushing him back down -when had he started getting up?- and his head landed on Azula's lap. She looked marginally uncomfortable (others would say she looked irritated, but they'd be wrong) with the display of care, but when he tried to rise again she kept him down. That seemed like it might possibly be a good idea, so he subsided enough to blink-

and he woke up when someone lightly tapped at his face. He opened groggy eyes to find Aang crouching in front of him, looking a little nervous and a lot alarmed, and he wondered what Azula had done. Aang blinked, then frowned, and his eyes flickered to something outside of Zuko's range of sight.

"How did you know that Azula, um, did something?" Since Zuko hadn't known he'd asked that question out loud, he forwent answering, because those were Azula's secrets, and he was pretty sure they weren't alone.

"What'd you do Lala?" He asked again instead of answering, letting his eyes flutter shut because they were really too heavy. He felt a small movement under his head, carefully controlled, but he'd know his sister's shrug anywhere.

"The Servals wanted to play. I played." 

Zuko's eyes popped open at that, but before he could get up to check on Dumpling, Aang piped up, and he noted the wild fascination in his sister's eyes at the same time. 

"Did you know the servals will eat fire and then spit it back up?" Aang asked worriedly. 

"I approve of these pets, Zuzu. They aren't stupid, like the other ones were." Azula cut in, waving a hand at the monk almost absently. "The one called Dumpling is surprisingly well-groomed, and she knows exactly how to play with a rag on fire."

Zuko blinked up at his sister, wary all over again. 

"That wasn't a rag on fire, that was one of my good shirts!" Sokka protested from somewhere.

Two girlish chuckles followed this comment, and Zuko felt the inexplicable urge to not be in a vulnerable position. He managed to sit up slowly, Azula carefully helping him from one side and Aang fussing on the other. Just as he sat up full the Serval siblings tumbled in front of him, Noodle carrying a burning blue wad of shirt in his jaws. He and Dumpling fought over it for a few playful minutes before the Servals were scrambling away again. 

"Why was it necessary to set Sokka's shirt on fire?" He asked, taking careful breaths before he looked up and around. Katara and Yue were sitting on the sofa to his left, almost perpendicular to where he, Azula and Aang sat.

They were smiling a smile he recognized. 

"Why did you teach Katara how to smile like that!" 

Shouting when one has a concussion is not, apparently, the wisest thing.

 

..........

 

Arnook sat at the head of the table, what Sokka assumed to be a couple of honored elders sitting to his right and left, and the councilmen flanking either side of them. They'd been called in to give their side of events since the Avatar's waking -and Sokka got the feeling they were trying to suss out some sort of Fire Nation ulterior motive. All of their questions to Zuko not so subtly lead back to questions about the Fire Nation. It would have been fine, honestly, because from Sokka's own experience Zuko gave pretty interesting tidbits about his culture that clashed with Water Tribe mental images of Ashmaker evils. Apparently they were all the wrong tidbits though, because Arnooks' most recent question was exactly the same as the last one, just worded differently and way more specific. 

"What do you and your political alliance achieve by siding with the Avatar?" The Northern chief was growling now. 

How in the world Zuko managed to get people from normal-tone-voice to growling, Sokka still didn't know, but it was a skill he was trying his level best to pick up. Irritated people were people easily manipulated or turned around. Zuko turned -again, Sokka felt the need to add a mental tally- to Azula with a questioning look. The former Prince's younger sister smiled at her brother in that eerily-creepy-sort-of-threatening way and then cut a challenging glare to the Northern chief. Katara -who had shoved her way in right behind Azula when they tried to keep her out- leaned over Sokka to nab his Bitter-berry tea and smile encouragingly at Azula.

"As of right now, there is no major political alliance in place. As I've said before, Chief Arnook," Azula's voice was too sweet and too soft, and there was a bit of Yue in her smile, "Political coups in the Fire Nation are rare because they're almost impossible to achieve. Our culture, much like yours, is heavily steeped in spiritual beliefs that are hard to overcome without a lot of sound yet spiritual reasoning." The Princess gave one of those differential shrugs Sokka had come to realize she used specifically to piss off adults. "The people that have been left in charge of overseeing that are doing the best they can, but my Brother, Uncle and I are the only major political -and might I add royal- roles that have willfully stepped into treason in ... oh, the last thousand years?"

Arnook looked long-suffered, his eyes darting again to Iroh and Pakku in the corner of the room. Neither man looked up from the Pai Sho board, but Sokka saw the way the Group Uncle smiled at the tiles. The older man was very much aware of the tension and very purposefully ignoring it. He was a staunch believer in letting them feel their way through these situations, and since he hadn't intervened yet, Sokka figured they were doing alright. 

(If he was perfectly honest, he really enjoyed the way the Northern Councilmen were getting annoyed. Maybe it was petty, but the headaches he could see forming felt justified. These were the people, after all, who had ignored the South's cry for help -and according to every story Sokka grew up hearing, had been angry when the Southern War Chief of the time refused to cede to some of their requirements for aid. Their help hadn't been worth the price they demanded. Maybe it had been foolishly prideful, but the South split from the North for a reason. Sokka just couldn't remember exactly what it was, but he would!)

Arnook was looking at Zuko expectantly, and Zuko was staring back in mild confusion, a defensive scowl preemptively in place. Sokka could see where this might go if Arnook made Zuko feel like he was expected to be doing something, and he jumped into the 'conversation' hurridly. They didn't need their jumpy Firebender Battle-buddy to start something accidentally.

(Or for Arnook to start something on purpose.)

"Can we get to the real reason the Avatar is here?" He could almost physically feel Aang perk up at that, and the boy was sitting on the other side of Katara. 

(They'd had to separate him from Azula because Aang had trouble with boundaries and she told him in no uncertain terms that if he tried to hug her again, she'd 'set his bald head on fire.' It had taken one look at Zuko's earnest-panic to know she wasn't joking.)

"Yeah! Katara and I need a teacher! She's taught me some things, but everything we know is kinda guesswork!" Aang declared, almost bouncing right off the fluffy cushion that served as his seat.

Sokka was beginning to suspect that the boy never ran out of energy. He was wondering if it was an Air Nomad thing, or just an Aang thing. Zuko twitched next to him, and Sokka suddenly realized that a heavy silence had settled over the room at large. Something niggled at the nack of his mind as he looked at the old guys all looking back at them like they'd done something terribly, terribly wrong.

(It was a something that tasted like a memory, either a thing he'd read or maybe a story he'd heard. Something about the Northern tribe that had seemed silly when he'd learned it and thus forgotten about it. Or maybe shoved it aside when other things happened? His mind was always so twisty when it came to memories.)

"I'm sorry," Pakku spoke up, turning his attention fully away from the Pai Sho board in front of him, "who did you say has been teaching you?" there was a touch of something bitter and unpleasant in his tone that Sokka didn't like.

Aang, naturally, completely missed the tone, beaming at them all like Fishing Season had gone without any Arctic Lobster Wolf raids. With lightning-fast moves and a contorting dexterity that Sokka was positive must be exclusive to Nomads, Aang flung his arms up to frame Katara, wiggling his hands in a 'ta-da,' manner. Sokka concluded that this was probably the best way anyone could fully introduce his sister. 

(She might be a sister and a girl, but she was his girly sister, and as much as he griped about magic water, she was impressive. She'd managed to go from floundering with ice and water to being able to lob icy-water-bombs at people with ease. Plus, this introduction had the added benefit of being mildly embarrassing. That little nugget of almost-remembered information burned in the back of his mind.)

"Katara did!" Aang declared.

Pakku scoffed, turning his head in a way that was entirely snobbish.

"Well, she can't have taught you much then." 

Those words fell like icy blocks, and were not helped at all by Aang. 

"We do pretty well in combat actually, we just can't figure out the healing thing!" Aang chirped, smiling despite how still Katara had gone, and Sokka was pretending to be anywhere but where he was.

He loved his sister, he did, but when her temper exploded, he preferred to not be sitting next to her. It usually resulted in him being soaked and freezing. Zuko shifted next to him, and as always, his battle-buddy had his back, because there was now enough room for two on his cushion. Bonus, it was super warm! He carefully scrambled onto it just as things got as bad as he thought they would.

(He barely noticed Azula glaring at him and then climbing into her brother's lap with as many pointy-elbow jabs as possible.)

"This young woman fights?" one of the elders gasped. It was the beginning of the worst conversation Sokka has ever been stuck in his life, and that nugget of barely-there information was suddenly right where he needed it too late

It had been a story Gran-Gran had told him about living in the North, where women couldn't vote in Things unless their husbands let them, where they rarely had a say in who they married, and if they were benders, they could only do certain things. Women weren't allowed to fight or be rowdy, and little girls weren't allowed to play with little boys past a certain age unless there were adults following them around. Orca Seal tribe had been bigger then, before the Black Snow. They'd had warrior women who watched over the village and trained the young in a lot of things, and laughed all pretty in the sun when he and Katara 'sneak-attacked' them. The memory of learning where Gran Gran had came from had faded and been shoved aside with everything that happened after, but now he remembered and he was appalled.

(He knew, of course, that he was kinda sexist, but he was getting better at it. He hadn't had anyone before to show him the right ways to think, or any examples of strong females because the warrior women, painted and pretty and laughing while he and Katara lobed snow at them had been forgotten. Now that he was growing to see that men and women could be warriors together, he could see the flaws in his own thinking. Why the Northerns still couldn't was beyond him -they'd had a lot more time to mature than he had, and their Princess reminded him of those long dead warrior women from home. Yue was dazzling and beautiful, and strong.)

Katara smiled that smile Azula and Yue had been helping her practice and Arnook flinched.

(He'd been trying not to think about how pretty Yue is, because they were in the North to get Aang a teacher, not so he could sigh over the Northern Princess and her pretty, cut-throat smile.)

"I am sorry, Avatar Aang. You, we will gladly teach, as is our duty as the last real Tribe of La's domain. Your young lady friend, however, if she truly wishes to learn, must know her place." Pakku cut in, giving Katara a dismissive once over, "Girls are far too delicate to be allowed to fight. If she wishes to learn healing, we can arrange for it of course -for the journey ahead, you'll surely want a dedicated healer."

Aang deflated word by word, looking confused and upset on Katara's behalf. Uncle Iroh was looking at Pakku oddly, his frown deep and eyes narrowed in confusion. Azula shifted as well, practically in Zuko's lap and leaning over Sokka, her frown deep. She looked impassive except for that frown -which lead him to wondering if he should be concerned about and icy-battle-to-the-death or things being spontaneously lit on fire

"But Katara is a fighter. Why does her being a girl have to matter?" The older men around them let out chuckles, shaking their heads in a way that was totally, definitely snobby.

"Ah, the young are so innocent. This is simply the way it has always been, Avatar Aang. Our culture and people have never had female warriors, especially not female benders. Their talents and dispositions are better suited for healing," one fo the really old guys rumbled, stroking a wrinkled hand down his beard, "like Mother Tui soothes the rages of her lover Father La, the women of our tribe are meant to soothe our ailments. The men fight, and the women heal. It is a balance."

Zuko finally shifted next to him, leaning forward with a look of extreme-confusion-pre-shouty-bafflement. Whatever he was about to say was cut off by Katara standing, her stance strong and grounded, but ready to flow into movement at any time. 

"This young lady is Katara, daughter of Chieftess Kya and War Chief Hakoda of Orcaseal Tribe." Katara said slowly, sweet as you please until you really focused on her smile, "I am the one who found and freed the Avatar from sleep. I'm the one that Mother Tui and Father La pulled into a Spirit Visit. I am the one destined to help the Avatar end this war and restore balance. I am not delicate." 

(This didn't help win their case any, no matter how Katara argued that she was only asking for basic defense. The whole thing finally ended when Aang tried to say he would only take healing with Katara and his sister ended up temporarily giving up, because no matter what, Aang needed a teacher. Arnook -clearly suffering a headache he hadn't had at the beginning, declared the meeting over and left like his pants would catch fire if he didn't. The way Azula was looking at all the men, Sokka didn't doubt that was actually a possibility.)

 

..........

 

Katara wasn't angry. She smiled all the way through the swift walk she was taking away from the ridiculous War Hall. Katara wasn't mad. She gave polite waves and head nods to anyone that wandered into her path. She might be from the South, but Gran Gran had made sure she had manners, and she would use them. She knew the rest of her family was following behind her -she could feel them, a faint buzz at the back of her senses. 

(She could feel the push push push of La in her mind. His presence was a buzz along her senses.)

Katara wasn't upset. 

(She could feel the water all around her, shimmering and waiting and pulsing.)

Katara was furious.

"It didn't go well?" Yue asked somewhere behind her. 

(That small something in the back of her mind that had clicked with Yue from moment one eased and swelled. Katara was able to focus, and with that focus, she had a plan. It was just a baby of a plan, but a plan none the less. Yue would love it. Unfortunately, the plan was lost in the fuzzy edges of her mind with the next wave of something other in her mind.)

Sokka said something in response, but Katara couldn't hear it over the move move move that thrummed through her. Some of the Northen men in front of her were looking at her weird, but she didn't care. La was calling her. She stepped out the front doors of the palace, brushing past several of the still-young warrior boys and smiling at the distant, raging waters.

(A storm was brewing on the waters, the arms of the oceans rising and falling in a dance she recognized. She had seen La's waters like this many times in her life, boiling and alive with fury. She walked to the very edge of the palace walkways, right before where the canal was.)

Aang fluttered to one side of her, Yue to the other. She could feel Sokka behind her, supportive and there -as her brother always was when it mattered. Zuko's presence was a warmth beside him, with the new and unexpected presence of Azula. Azula was less a warmth and more a raging inferno. 

(The push in her mind was almost unbearable now. It wanted her to dance with the distant waves. It wanted her to smash walls and reform buildings. It wanted her to prove that she was just as strong as any of those boys playing at being warriors.)

A soft, gloved hand curled over her clenched fist, and Katara startled out of what could only have been the beginnings of a Spirit Taking. Yue smiled at her, kind and knowing and secretive, and suddenly there was a pull in her mind too.

(La and Tui's chosen would always be two balancing acts. That was how the ocean and his lover worked -It only made sense that Tui's favorite daughter would have the same effect on her cousin, pulling all her anger away and turning it to determined focus. Between the two of them, Tui had always been the more conniving. La was too brutally honest.) 

"Princess Yue. I find myself needing more knowledge about this Sister Tribe. Your ways are different than ours." Katara rasped, raw fury still rich in her voice.

Yue smiled that secret smile, her gloved hand twitching over Katara's in understanding.

"I have just the place. It is my duty as Princess to help our honored guests in any way." The gleam of silver in her dark eyes would have been a play of light to others, but Katara had stared into Yui's great eye. She knew that gleam of spirit light.

(In the back of her mind, La's presence shifted with repressed fury. If she needed it, it would be there, one touch away. Katara was pretty sure she would need it.)

 

..........

 

 

 

Yue showed them where the palace library was. It was, according to the Princess, one of the only wooden rooms they'd find in the palace. The guards that trailed in after them looked nervous. Zuko wanted to be offended by the speculative, suspicious glances they kept sending his sister. Unfortunately, he'd grown up with her and knew some of their fears would be a reality if they weren't careful. Still, he had a small inkling as to what Katara had wanted to come here for.

"Lala, you've been here before?" He asked quietly, almost subvocal. It was the way they'd learned to speak when they were young, and Azula imperceptibly nodded. "Take me to the secret shadows." old words, their meaning long agreed upon by two children who'd been desperately trying to survive.

(The meaning was simple -it always boiled down to 'let's be places we shouldn't be in the safety of darkness.' The fact that he was using them outside the royal palace, in almost a playful manner, because he intended to quietly help a friend subvert a restrictive patriarchy was refreshing. He far preferred their use here than in the dark of night.)

The small, truely amused smile she gave the floor was worth every bump and bruise he'd earned in the last odd-year. She grabbed his sleeve and started walking, barely casting a look at the group over her shoudler. Dumpling was a pleasent weight on his shoulders, and he could hear the soft pad of Sokka's tell-tale lope after them. The guards followed a few minutes later. Perfect.

 

..........

 

Aang watched Azula drag her brother off and noticed the small, telling signal he tossed over his shoulder. It was tough work to repress a beaming smile, but he managed, because this was important. As soon as the guards were gone, trailing after the fire siblings and Sokka, Aang turned to follow Yue and Katara. The Northern Princess kept her voice low as she spoke to them, pointing out several scrolls she felt Aang should read when he had a chance. 

(Aang hated reading. He wasn't very good at sitting still unless it was to meditate -but meditating and reading were two different things.)

"The most important thing for you to do is to beat them at their own game," Yue whispered softly, stopping at a row of special shelves filled with rows and rows of neat little scrolls. Her gloved hands fluttered over them briefly before she selected one, "they want to out-talk you, and out-politic you, so you need to understand their perspectives. I'm not sure how much it will help, but my Father always says one must know one's enemies."

She cast them a smile, and it was that smile Aang had caught Sokka sighing over quietly hours before. It was a nice smile -if you could ignore how chilled it made you feel- but Aang didn't think it held a candle to Katara's smile. Katara smiled like that when she was planning how to whip someone's feet out from under them, or freeze them to the ground, or toss them to La's mercy. Katara's smile was all sharp edges and mischief, and impending force ready to drown those around her. 

(Aang would be the first to admit that he'd only thought about girls and boys being attractive in the loosest of terms until a few months ago -well, alright, a few months and an iceberg ago. He hadn't yet figured out what he liked, but he'd been pretty sure that like many of his brothers and sisters, he liked all people. Now, liking Katara, he wasn't sure again, but he did know that every time she found the bright side or perfected a bending move, or laughed a little wildly or- alright, anytime she was just Katara he felt fluttery inside.)

Yue helped Katara shove several political scrolls and a handful of historical documents into her heavy parka, using pockets Aang hadn't even realized the girl had. They were moving again a second later, with Yue trying to sneak -and really she wasn't too bad at it- and Katara gliding over the ice soundlessly in a way that was Zuko. Aang didn't have to try to hard to be light on his feet, and he was nervous-excited. He almost never got to help when Katara and Zuko did their sneaky missions or practices.

(To be fair, the one time they had let him, the wild Boar-Q-Pines hadn't been too happy to see so many people sneaking past them when he laughed too loudly. Now his sneaking practice was restricted to the campsite, where he mostly used it to help Zuko or Katara prank Sokka.)

Then the Princess showed them the best part of the archives. 

"These are our water-bending scrolls. Technically, I shouldn't be showing this to you, but what can I, a single, demur Princess do when her honored guests wander too deep into the archives and stumble over such knowledge?" The gleam of something other in her eyes had Aang thinking about Tui and her too-large eye and too-tiny shoulders and her too-knowing smile and he shoved that memory aside as quickly as possible. He preferred not to think about the bodies the spirits chose to wear -because while it was true he'd seen worse, it was still unsettling to think of. 

(And the touch of something other in everything Yue did and was, from her silvery hair to her floaty laugh reminded Aang of Tui. He suspected he knew why, but it was another thing he was trying not to think about. According to the monks, this was sometimes best to do when spirits, especially deity spirits, were involved.)

There was a whole shelf dedicated to bending right in front of them, and Katara looked . . . Aang wasn't sure what the emotion was, because it shifted so rapidly. First awed and then upset, another second eager and then angry. Yue watched the other girl expectantly, and Aang bounced on his feet, trying to stick to the sneaking rules Zuko had taught him -the first being to not talk too loud, which meant Aang couldn't talk at all- and they both waited for Katara to speak about whatever was bothering her. They didn't have to wait long.

"They have all this knowledge, all this history, and they're just hoarding it." The girl finally whispered, and Aang stopped bouncing, because the raw quality of her voice was so wrong. "My tribe only has scattered memories and oral stories left -we can't even communicate regularly with some of the others along the shelf because we're all too afraid the Fire Nation will intercept messages. We've lost so much of our own history, and your councilmen sit up here in their halls hoarding information that might help. For what? Why do they insist on that disconnect? "

Aang couldn't help the hug he gave the girl, wanting to sooth the newest swell of anger-hurt in her eyes. She'd been too distant earlier to risk touching, too touched by something other for him to get too close to. Now, the feeling tingle along his chi paths was distant, still an angry throb, but not one that might take him over. Katara hugged him back tightly, her jaw clenched. 

(The monks had warned him -after they destroyed his perception of who he was- that Spirits and the Spirit touched would be especially sensitive to him. Touching them, even inadvertently, would be like rolling the dice. Maybe all he'd get was an itchy-buzz along his chi routes, or maybe he'd accidentally become a host without control of his body -they'd warned him it was better not to take that risk if he could help it. Aang wasn't very good about remembering to be careful, but he was trying more and more recently -especially since he really started paying attention to the difference between what Zuko believed and what all evidence pointed to.)

Yue ran a soothing, hand over the other girls' braid then nudged the two carefully, mischief in her eyes again. Aang decided he liked the look of mischief on this Princess most. She slowly raised a finger to her lips, then reached out to pluck several scrolls from either side of the shelf. Aang was trying to follow why she was selecting only some when he realized the compartments were split in half. One side for fighting, the other for healing. It was mind-boggling that they would separate the two, but Aang was also still extremely boggled by the idea that all these adults thought girls were delicate.

(He'd had one too many of his sisters from the West flip his Gi over his head and kick him off the side of the temples without a glider to believe that. Being pacifist had in no way made them any less likely to 'prank' their brothers. There were very valid reasons he had never argued with Zuko's testament that girls were terrifying.)

Yue showed them which ones they should read, carefully tucking the healing ones into Katara's parka, and Aang kicked Momo out of his Gi to help secret the rest away. Katara laughed softly at that, smiling at him in a way that was truly genuine for the first time since they'd walked into that meeting. 

"You know I'll teach you whatever I learn, right?" Aang said softly, trying not to be too loud or excited, because this was serious and he didn't want the guards that were somewhere to overhear.

(Should he be worried that he couldn't hear Sokka?)

Katara paused in helping Momo curl into her hood, her expression doing that too-fast-shifting thing again before she reached out and hugged him. Aang loved hugs, so melted into it willfully, squeezing her back just as tight. 

"Thank you, Aang," she flashed a much softer smile at him when she pulled away, "I'll show you how to heal when I figure it out too." 

Aang beamed a smile at her, and they shook on it, because healing sounded awesome. Then Sokka started shouting, and Aang remembered that the older boy had been way too quiet for way too long all at once.

 


 

Chapter Text

The Northern Tribe had minor histories dedicated to the split of the Tribes and the subsequent couple hundred years directly after. Reading some of this early history -while heavily skewed because it was from the North perspective- explained a lot about the Northerner's attitude towards him and Katara. It also explained why some of the really old elders of Orcaseal outright scoffed at the idea of the North ever being in any way charitable without reason.

(It made him worry about what they were going to ask Aang for in return for teaching him, and if Aang would be able to say no. Given the possessive way the Spirits tended to get around him, Sokka was hedging on the possibility of forcing a favor form the Avaatra not being an option, but just in case it wasn't, he needed a plan.)

Zuko twitched next to him, and Sokka glanced from the scroll he'd been incredulously skimming to peek over his battle-buddies shoulder. Azula was several feet away, running her hands along the shelves thoughtfully as she waited for them, and the guards that had tailed them stood a few feet further away from her, shifting nervously. Sokka didn't like them. They were hefty and arrogant, and one of them reminded him of a Lion seal, hungry and gluttonously waiting for them to slip up so he could drag them under.

"This ...this can't be right, can it? I mean, this just seems so . . ." while Zuko struggled for the right words -thankfully not shouting yet- Sokka tried to pick out what had the other boy stunned. The scroll he held, at first glance, seemed like another 'basic reasons for why the Tribes split,' but it was slightly different in that it didn't go over the political aspect of the Northern Tribe trying to then strong-arm a vow of allegiance from the freshly formed South. This one was about . . . Sokka blinked in mild confusion, then slowly rolled up the scroll in his own hands.

(Which, after a quick glance, he found he was able to sneak into his parka, because Azula had drifted a little further away and was manhandling several scrolls. Sokka couldn't see her face, but he already knew that it must be mildly terrifying, from their baby-sitting guards body-language alone. Lion seal looked torn between flinching back and springing forward and his skinny friend looked a little pale.)

"I don't know if I read that right," Sokka said slowly, making grabby motions at the scroll, which the young Firebender handed over willingly. Sokka tried starting from a point a little further up and re-reading, but it was still both confusing and alarming. "I - wow. Alright, um. Why don't we just . . . hold on to this one and ask Yue about it when we see her?"

Zuko's only response was to turn back towards the rows of scrolls. Sokka was well-versed enough in 'brooding-angry-former-Prince-who-shouts' to know that was a bewildered-agreement. Sokka went digging in the area the boy had been standing, looking for scrolls that might mention the same subject. There weren't many that he could tell, but then, it might not be the most relevant subject to these people. Azula drifted back to them as Zuko was wordlessly shoving a scroll with a bunch of charts mapped on it into his chest. 

(Out of the corner of his eye, he saw true alarm on the guards now and they were rushing forward. Zuko would be the one to find a super-important document. Lion seal looked ready to ram them into the ground and sit on them.)

Sokka took those moments to seriously study the scroll in his hands, trying to process what the patterns and lines meant before someone took the information from him. As it was, when he realized what he was looking at, he had even more questions than the last scroll Zuko had found, and was slowly building up a confounded fury. The scroll was roughly taken out of his hands and he glanced at the men that were gearing up to lecture him. He wasn't sure what his expression was, but for the first time since his arrival, they looked uncertain of him.

(He'd already been upset on Katara's behalf, irritated that these men were being so stubborn about just showing her how to use her magic, but he'd been willing to follow her lead when she simply bottled her anger and walked away. He knew that her walking away now was more a first-time courtesy than anything else, that she wouldn't hold back next time. Katara wasn't one for holding back -she'd been a wild-moving wave at sea almost from the instant she could tottle around after him. The day she stopped living furiously was the day he knew something was wrong.)

"Why-" he started, but was swiftly cut off by another voice.

"What's going on over here?" old and scratchy and deeper than the deepest ice-reef back home, the elder that spoke had an elaborately braided beard and sharp blue eyes. 

"The Avatar's companions have been poking around in the histories and geographic charts." Lion seal said, almost calm but still too arrogant for his words to be anything less than a sneer. Skinny said nothing, his jaw clenched tightly. Sokka didn't let them continue with that particular line of accusation -he could see the anger building in Lion seal's eyes, and he wasn't about to let them distract him- instead waving his hands and talking quick.

(None of them noticed Azula, fluttering around them all in a wide circle, slipping scrolls she'd already pegged as potentially useful into her coat, watching the coming argument with keen eyes.)

"Nope, wait, hold up. Why does that chart map have ocean boundaries on it?" Sokka asked, pointing at the aforementioned scroll accusingly. The elder blinked at him, first in surprise -what, like reading chart maps was hard?- and then in his own confusion. 

"It marks where our control of the waters ends." 

A stretched silence settled over them while Sokka and his brain tried to digest that information. Zuko scowled in extreme confusion, and then Sokka broke his silence in a way he had learned was entirely appropriate.

"What in the name of Mother Tui makes you think you can own the ocean!

 

..........

 

Sokka got them kicked out of the archives, but they still managed to smuggle the scrolls out. Zuko was a little extra shouty -no matter how much he winced every time- at the guards pushing them out, and the Elder that was still in. Sokka was fuming, encouraging some of the things Zuko shouted by adamantly agreeing, and then repeating whatever had just been said. If it weren't for Azula standing firm at her brothers' back, Lion seal and Skinny might have tried to turn it into a real confrontation. As it was, the young Princess had developed a reputation in the week she'd been in the palace, and the Avatar's fretful hovering made them believe it wouldn't be worth it.

Katara managed to get Yue, in the mild confusion, to agree to show her around the palace so she can find somewhere safe to practice. Yue seemed very willing to help, and Katara knew she would be teaching the Princess some basic self-defense. Just because the men here refused to teach their women, didn't mean Katara was bound to their rules. She fully intended to break every one of them if she could.

 

..........

 

Yue lead them back to their suite, citing the need for 'some calming tea for the Avatar,' and Zuko had grumbled about it the entire way back. Katara was close to joining the two boys in their fit. On top of everything else they'd learned in the last few hours, finding out that the North was so far removed from the old ways that they thought they controlled part of the ocean was . . . She was still trying to process why. They ended up going through some of the scrolls they'd taken from the archives, skimming the ones that Yue sadi were most important quickly.

(Once again, Yue's idea, and she was clearly trying to distract them from their upset. Katara let her because she didn't want to take this upset out on a new friend -and because Yue, as a young female, likely had no say in such beliefs. Which was another thing to be upset about and distract herself from. Katara was beginning to think she and Aang should have just pretended to know what they were doing and stayed in the Earth Kingdom. Then again, if they had, they never would have met Yue, and that thought was unbearable for Katara. Yue was the calm in a storm, the very center of a rage. She knew that after they left the North, Yue would be someone she would miss.)

A lot of the scrolls had been written in the last fifty-odd years, if Katara had her dates correct, and they were a bunch of nonsense. Zuko and Azula only skimmed a couple of them before they waved Yue off, Zuko muttering something about 'having enough of court-life, thank you,' and he and Azula were steadily going through some of the scrolls the young Princess had swiped. Yue had frowned at some of them in puzzlement, then quietly asked why the two were so certain that a bunch of old diaries would be helpful in navigating the Northern Tribe. 

Azula had only smiled at Yue slowly, and it was the smile that was a little bit like Yue's, docile and demure and kind . . . if you ignored the too-sharp twist to it and the deadly focus in her eyes. She'd refrained from verbally responding -Katara was grateful for that, because she was positive it would have been somehow more terrifying if the girl had spoken her mind- and Zuko had only given them a small, secret smile of his own. His wasn't sharp, but was distinctly amused and oddly mischievous. That hint of genuine amusement shouldn't have made her so unnerved, but it did.

Sokka had become ingrossed in whatever he'd taken, laying on the floor in front of the fire, having claimed one of the fur-feather rugs Zuko hadn't taken as a blanket as his 'study space.' Noodle was half-perched on his back, curled up tight and watching the scrolls with extreme disinterest. Dumpling -who'd almost permanently claimed one of the couches in the few hours they'd been in the room- was resting in a similarily tight way, though her attention would twitch to Zuko any time he moved. 

(While Dumpling would willfully follow Zuko anywhere, Noodle had refused to leave the fireplace earlier, when they'd went to the meeting. Katara wasn't sure that anything other than mentioning Appa would get the Serval away from the fireplace. She had a feeling that, given the time they intended to spend here, the male King Serval would eventually make his way to staying with Appa in the stables that had been constructed for him. Only the new environment and the people had driven him to follow them into the palace.)  

There was a knock by the door, and a general kind of quiet scrambling to hide the scrolls took place. Yue took her time going to answer, her face morphing into one of impassiveness. Katara nodded at her from where she was lounging on the free couch, Aang having scrambled onto one end of it and perching on the back. Zuko and Azula had done . . . something, and the scrolls were no longer where they'd been. Instead, Azula had taken down her messy hair and shoved a comb at Zuko before sitting in front of him stiffly. Her battle-brother was currently just barely perched on the couch by dumpling, combing his sister's hair in a way that was familiar and soft.

(How they had managed to make such a natural-looking scene simply manifest was a mystery. One Katara intended to make Zuko teach her. He'd been holding out on her sneaking lessons.)

Another knock began to sound just as Yue opened the door, smiling softly at whoever was there. A quiet conversation ensued, and then an older woman stepped into the room, flanked by two younger women. The woman's smile was all politeness, but when she saw Katara, she froze, going pale so fast that Katara was instantly alarmed. 

"Are you alright?" she asked, standing and taking a step forward, the woman's look of wounded-awe painful.

"Y- I'm sorry -I," the woman started, waving a hand slowly, some color returning but not all. The two girls at her side looked as concerned as Katara felt, but the old woman brushed them off to carefully dip her head to Katara. 

"I am sorry dear -you just- simply reminded me of a friend I once lost. The resemblance was a shock." The last words were quiet, and Katara allowed herself to settle marginally. 

"I'm sorry for your loss then." She responded just as softly, smiling at the woman before she looked to Yue in question. Seeming to catch the movement, the woman drew herself back up, and smiled at them all in turn. 

"I am Yugoda, a healer of this Tribe. Master Pakku and Chief Arnook asked that I come and attend to some of the Avatar's party." Katara blinked in mild surprise at that, but nodded slowly, stepping back and aside to sit down again. Aang took over easily, bouncing from the couch in a weightless way and smiling at the woman broadly. 

(It had become habit -one forcefully ingrained him by the rest, and one they still occasionally struggled with getting him to stick to- that he let someone else handle most introductions, then step in after. Katara or Iroh were usually the ones to do so, because they were both personable. Zuko and Sokka had far too much attitude to be allowed to make any introductions.)

"Most of us are fine, but Zuko got his head hit pretty badly. We'd really appreciate you helping anyway you could!" the monk announced, gesturing back and towards the former Prince. Zuko glanced up from his sister's hair, a gold ribbon that had suddenly manifested caught between his lips. Yugoda and the young women with her made small sounds, all of them watching the boy weave Azula's hair into a complex looking braid with wide eyes. Aang was bouncing on his feet again, then bouncing towards were Zuko sat excitedly.

"I would be most pleased if you could fix my brother. Tell me, can you also fix broken self-preservation instincts?" Azula piped up, smiling a little sardonically at the woman. 

(Katara saw Zuko tug at the girl's hair softly in reprimand, but he didn't move his attention from his task.)

Yugoda only hesitated a second before she smiled softly at the girl, and shook her head sadly. 

"Unfortunately, no." 

Azula seemed miffed by that, but said nothing more, and the woman shuffled over to the boy, eyeing Dumpling with a speculative glance. Aang willingly swooped in and cooed at Dumpling, managing to get her to decide that she could just as easily lounged on the other half of the couch while Katara stood and moved around behind it with interest. Sokka took the opportunity to quietly shove the scrolls he'd hidden -by laying on them- back into his parka. 

Zuko tensed when Yugoda sat down, but didn't otherwise look away from tying off Azula's hair, somehow running the length of the ribbon through it and then pulling and twisting until it was an elegant knot at the back of her neck. Yugoda watched him intently, the two young women with her seemingly just as awed, and he only turned to her after he'd pinned the ribbon in place with a set of hairsticks that he also seemingly just manifested

(Katara was going to make them show her how they did that. She was extremely disappointed that her battle-brother had been holding out on her.)

"It's my understanding you have a serious head injury?" at Zuko's slow nod, she gave him a stern frown, then glanced at Katara in silent question. 

"We fought a Squadron of Fire Nation soldiers a couple of days before we started the last leg of our journey North," she explained slowly, heavily simplifying the events as she spoke, "Zuko somehow ended up in the middle of them and they were . . . less than happy." Katara ended weakly, motioning carefully to the faintly discolored area of Zuko's temple.

(She had the distinct feeling that if she spoke brashly around the young assistants, they might work themselves into a nervous fit. They already looked appalled at the abstract idea of fighting. If Katara talked about how hard Zuko's head had bounced, or the way that she was sure some of his ribs were still bruised, she wasn't sure what they would do.)

Yugoda smiled, first at Katara and then at Zuko, in a soothing way as she motioned for one of her assistants to step forward. The girl held out a waterskin -one that was in much better condition than Katara's- for the woman to draw from. When none of them reacted with surprise to the glowing water, she chuckled softly under her breath, and then carefully reached for Zuko's face, talking all the while.

"Now, you'll feel a small tingle, but it shouldn't hurt. You must let me know if it does. Understood?"

Zuko nodding wasn't necessarily a reassurance, Katara knew, but she intended to watch him carefully. From the way that Azula fully turned around and her eyes latched onto the healers' hands, Katara was fairly positive that she wouldn't be the only one. Aang shifted his position just slightly to watch, just as eager as Katara was internally. It took a few minutes -or maybe a little more, it was hard to say- and then Yugoda's small smile twitched into a frown. Before Katara could ask why, the woman shifted carefully, making her movements obvious as she shifted her glowing hands where Katara knew some of the worst bruises -and possible breaks- had been on Zuko's abdomen. 

(Zuko was stiff and tense under her ministrations, but he didn't move more than necessary, his eyes tracking Yugoda's hand with clear curiosity, and mild confusion. Even as he relaxed marginally with each minute that passed, he never completely lost his tension. By the time Yugoda sat up straight and gave a satisfied smile, Zuko looked ready to bounce away.)

"Now, I've managed to heal most of the damage, but there will be no roughhouse for you, young man. You'll feel headaches for the next couple days, but they should be minor, and completely natural." Yugoda pronounced, swiftly slipping the waters coating her hands back where they came from, and answering Katara's questions without even looking her way, "The headaches are something like ghost pains -it's unfortunate, but such always happens with head injuries."

This only increased Katara's questions, but before she could ask, Yugoda looked at her in thought and then said very carefully, "You're a waterbender, yes?"

Katara nodded, trying to organize her questions from most important to least, when Yugoda continued. 

"Excellent. I had wondered who Master Pakku might be talking about, but I'm glad to see it's you," she announced, standing carefully, "It's not every day I get to teach a young woman the first steps in the Path. Most of my students are very young when they come to me."

A baffled kind of silence stretched, and then Katara could only twist her head in confusion. 

"I'm sorry, but . . . what are you talking about? What Path?" She asked -before Aang could, the young monk looking ready with a dozen questions of his own. Yugoda blinked at her in equal surprised, and then smiled gently.

"The healers' Path of course! I teach young bending girls how to heal. Master Pakku mentioned after I arrived that one of the Avatar's companions needed training. He asked if I might take them in. Didn't he say as much?"

Flabergasted -and irritated- Katara was about to say that Master Pakku had no right to try and sign her up for anything when she stiffened in thought. It wasn't like she hadn't already decided she wanted to learn healing -it really would one more weapon in her arsenal- and she intended to leave the North with as much knowledge as she could get her hands on. Learning from Yugoda would be just as helpful as studying the scrolls she'd already nabbed about healing. Slowly, her mind already working on how she could use this, she smiled at the older woman. 

"I would be honored to learn from you."

If Zuko flinched in her periphery and then pretended to be completely absorbed by Azula ordering him to redo her hair, she pretended not to have noticed.

 

..........

 

When they followed Yue to diner, Aang wasn't sure what he expected. He'd only ever visited his long-ago-now friends in the North very occasionally -because Polar Bear Geese weren't fun- and he'd only ever eaten from market stalls before he decided he would rather be on the wind and moving again before nightfall

(Nightfall was when the Polar Bear Geese tended to find themselves in the then slightly smaller Northern kingdom, wreaking havoc as they pleased.) 

The long hall they were lead into was even more dazzlingly icy than the last hall they'd been in. The long tables were set in a stretched U-shaped pattern, the front most one facing the entrance and a slightly raised platform. The tables were staggered in terms of height, two tables flanking either side of the entrance, the back one just higher than the front. Uncle was already in the room, sitting at the slightly far end of the singular the front-facing table across from the entrance, a soft smile on his face as he poured himself some tea. He glanced up at them as they filed in, and Sokka immediately honed in on the man, taking a seat with a couple of cushions in between him and Iroh. Katara sat next to him, and Aang next to her, with Zuko and Azula slotting themselves into the two open seats in between Sokka and Iroh. 

"Where have you been?" Sokka asked with mild suspicion, and Aang leaned over to watch as Iroh grinned broadly in a way that said Katara was about to get irritated. 

"We are in a new climate, my boy! I found the means and opportunity to increase our coffers." He responded slyly, if not a little quietly, and then he tossed a small leather pouch at Sokka. Even more curious now -though possibly irritated on Katara's part- Aang and Katara both shuffled a little closer to peer inside when Sokka opened it. Inside were creamy, clinky little things that were delicately carved with the Water Tribe symbol, varying slightly in size.

"Is that bone? " Katara asked softly, and Aang frowned.

Sokka plucked a piece up in his heavy mitten and twisted it around in an impossibly airy way. Aang tilted his head in consideration, remembered the soft, carved shell currency that Orcaseal had given them -that had been familiar currency, as the South had always used carved shells for trade. He was disappointed to see that the North didn't do something similar. Using discarded shells seemed much kinder than using bone.

"This is definitely bone." Sokka announced, nodding once before he plopped the piece back into the pouch and tucked it into his parka. Iroh chuckled at them all, while Azula poured first Zuko then herself some tea, and there was a rustle of heavy fabric when Miss Myong settled on Iroh's other side. 

"Princess," she said softly, ignoring Iroh's nodded greeting. 

(Aang thought that was a little rude for her to ignore Uncle, but Iroh looked both pleased and amused by the action, so he let it go.)

Azula looked up from her tea and even though Aang couldn't see her face, he felt like she was doing that thing with her face again, because several of the staff behind Myong shuddered and quickly devoted themselves to whatever their tasks were. Myong's returning smile was so impossibly gentle that for a minute, Aang was reminded of Priestess Taiyu, one of the elders that had smiled in exactly that way no matter what question he asked or how big a tantrum he'd thrown as a very young monk.

(As with most memories or flashes of memory, it hurt, but Aang welcomed the pain, because the people living in his memories deserved to be remembered.)

"Did you retrieve what I asked for?" Azula asked now, and the woman nodded before she turned her attention to her own tea-cup, which Iroh had poured for her wordlessly.

When Azula's profile was in view again, she was outright smirking, and Aang felt that it was perfectly natural to be concerned. Thankfully, Zuko seemed to share that sentiment, because he spent the remainder of their time watching other people shuffle into the hall trying to figure out what she'd done or asked for. Yue made her way over to them from where her father had been speaking to her and several other people -and Aang noticed the Chief looked quietly irritated the entire time- and he'd thought she might sit next to him when she suddenly took a few steps further and then glanced at Aang a little tiredly. 

"Avatar Aang, would you mind over much scooting over a bit?" 

Genuinely concerned by the wariness in her eyes, Aang did as she asked with a comforting smile, and Katara didn't even hesitate to scoot over when she was nudged, placing the Princess between the two Southerners. 

"Are you alright?" Katara asked quietly, and the Princess nodded briskly. 

"Just . . . tired of arguing over the same thing. I'm sorry, but I'll be using you all as a shield for the duration of the meal." Yue intoned softly, and Aang perked up at her, making sure his smile was extra goofy

"That's alright! I'm really good at distracting people!" He volunteered, and Zuko sighed so deeply Aang could hear clearly from where he sat. "What? I am." Aang argued at the firebender, who leaned forward to give him an almost bland stare. 

"I know, Aang. I wasn't doubting you -I was remembering the Boar-Q-Pine." 

Aang blinked as innocently as he could, pretending confusion for show before he looked to Yue. The Princess was trying not to smile too wide, he could tell, and Katara was shaking her head at him even before he spoke.  

"I have no idea what he's talking about."

(Internally, he was wondering when he would live down the Boar-Q-Pine Incident, and it was looking like 'no time this year,' was the answer. This made all the pranks he had been planning slightly harder to pull off. He should probably see about toning down for a bit, because it was, it was no fun if people expected to be pranked. He had to get back at Zuko for the sweet-chili-paste after all. An eye for an eye and all that.)

Before any more smart retorts could be made, the palace staff began parading into the hall with wide, full dishes of every variety between them. Aang was grateful to see what looked like an all-vegetable plater -even if he only recognized a few of those vegetables- and he was bouncing in his seat again by the time the staff stopped milling around. Arnook made a soft sound and Aang turned just in time to see the man shaking his head in mild disapproval at his daughter before he caught Aangs eyes and smiled a little too widely. Aang recognized that look. 

(Despite what Sokka said about him being naive and too trusting, he was fully aware of what people were doing when they gave him that look. It might have taken him a couple of months after the Ice Berg to pick up on it, but he had. He hated that look. He went to great lengths to avoid letting people with that look sucker him into anything. The parts of him that were still Aang of the Southern Air Temple, Joyous Son of Reitsui, wanted to be kind and generous and open still. The parts of him that were becoming Avatar Aang knew that he couldn't afford to hand out generosity to everyone. Iroh had been teaching him that, and this new world only highlighted the old general's lessons with ever encounter.)

Aang still smiled back, but he made sure it was nothing less than polite, if marginally distant, drawing on the teachings of Elder Monk Taitsyo, who had been so near the end of his time in Aang much young youth that he'd been purposefully distant from everything. He'd been the only elder that hadn't cared what Aang did after he was told about being the Avatar. He had watched and nodded with easy politeness, his eyes forever fixed on a distant horizon. It was much easier than Aang expected it to be to channel the old master when Arnook started talking.

"I am personally honored for you to be with us, Avatar Aang. This day will be remembered in Northern history as the first of many joyous celebrations with the Avatar that ended the hundred-year war." Arnook announced, speaking so hard in the future tense that Aang was temporarily distracted with trying to figure out how the man could be so certain.

Arnook looked like he would have said more, but a soft hush fell over the crowd, and a super old man and woman were lead in, their robes looking too-heavy and their attendants looking hassled. Something about them buzzed at the back of his mind, and Arnook shifted uncomfortably as the two were given a place in the middle of the first right-most table. The Chief quickly straightened up beside him and cleared his throat.

"My people," Arnook called, and his voice echoed impressively in the wide hall, "tonight we welcome our Brother and Sister from the south," he announced, gesturing to Sokka and Katara, who received some polite -if confused- claps, "and we welcome one they have led here, guided by our Mother Tui. Someone we believed lost to time -The Avatar!" This received a shocked silence, which made Aang nervous, and then uproarious clapping from the startled people. 

(Aang noted, in the far corner of his mind, the older couple that had made Arnook tense up looking at him weirdly, but it was hard to focus on that with what followed.)

"We also welcome one who will hopefully make our peace talks much easier in years to come- someone that we are hoping will join us in harmony when these troubling times are past. Formerly General Iroh, the Dragon of the West, true heir to the Fire Lords throne." 

The silence this time was deafening while people tried to process this, and Aang realized there was already something weird going on, because he didn't remember any peace talks, nor did he think Iroh did, if the shuttered look he was giving the Chief meant what Aang thought it meant. Azula shifted the slightest bit, leaning forward to give the Chief a look that needed no interpretation via Zuko. Arnook either pretended not to notice, or sincerely didn't notice, and Aang wasn't sure which option was worse.

"I know you are uneasy, my people, but be at ease. Our Mother and Father were consulted before any matters were truly discussed, and all signs point to this time and these people being right for us. Now is not the time to let old hostility get in the way of potential allies, nor is it the time slap the hands outreached to us in peace." While most seemed to take a measure of comfort from the Chief's words, others still gave Iroh and Zuko -and Azula, though they seemed to be trying not to look at her- wary glances. "Now, Master Pakku and his brightest students have prepared a grand show for us. Let the evening begin!" 

On cue, Master Pakku and a couple of young men stepped up and onto the raised dais, getting into familiar stances. Katara leaned forward slightly, her eyes like glacier chips in their focus. Zuko mirrored the movement slightly, and Aang was content to sit back and carefully pick out as many all-vegetable dishes as he could. Between Zuko -who had a strong memory and surprisingly good eyesight for only having one good eye and one passably-good eye- and Katara, who was very good at footwork, he had no doubts that Pakku was accidentally teaching his friend.

Momo crawled out from Aang's Gi suddenly and hopped excitedly in place before he swiped a couple of things from Aang's plate, then jumped from shoulder to shoulder until he was comfortably wrapped around Zuko's. Dumpling, whom Zuko was absently hand-feeding pieces of meat, and Noodle -who was surprisingly curled up in Azula's lap, enjoying the same courtesy from the young girl, vocally greeted the lemur.

(Just because Dumpling and Noodle liked to chase their flying-furry-squeals-and-hides friend, didn't mean they wanted to hurt him. It was just funny when he ran. Besides, social eating was important for a pack -every reasonable creature knew that. Momo tended to agree that the best time to be around his still-young-but-flock friends was when they had something else to focus on but him.)

Everyone started uproariously clapping, and Aang looked back to the stage in time to see Pakku give a stiff nod to the audience, his students following his lead. While the man made his way to the head table, Aang picked at his vegetables, trying not to grimace at the sea prunes anytime he came across one. He'd never liked the taste of sea prunes, but these ones were especially terrible -they were hardly ripe. He much preferred whatever the buttery green vegetable was, and the bright blue slices of slightly-sweet-crispy that was faintly familiar.

"As you can see, Avatar Aang, Master Pakku is a more than adept instructor," Arnook was saying, and Aang glanced at him distractedly as he tried to separate his vegetables from sea prunes, "and we are hoping you'll benefit immensely from his tutelage."

Aang smiled a little more than politely, because he did enjoy the idea of learning more about waterbending -and bonus, he could then teach Katara!- and Pakku stirred at Arnooks other side.

"Very well, Avatar. I will expect you in classes tomorrow by first glance of the sun." Aang pretended not to notice the very deliberate way he avoided Agni's name, because there were only so many things he could fight about at once, and right now he felt like maybe Agni would forgive him if he focused on ways to help Katara skirt around the rampant divide between males and females. 

(It was very well known, after all, that Agni took the rights of his people seriously, no matter their gender. In the Fire Nation, all people had a right to understand their bending. The fact that it was a death sentence to do anything less only played a minor part in the grand scheme of things. A fire left unattended was the most dangerous kind of fire after all. It was a pity that the Northern Tribe didn't realize that the same could be applied to the ocean -it simply required a lot more words and symbolism.)

"Great!" Aang chirped, instead of spewing any of his thoughts recklessly, smiling at his plate. Soon, something in him whispered, tasting like moonlight and ice, soon he could be a bit freer with his thoughts. Until then, he focused on judiciously hunting out the sea prunes on his plate and tossing them to the side. He hated sea prunes.

 

..........

 

An unsteady silence settled over the hall, intermingled with soft conversation and a lively drum-beat from one side that would have been nice to dance to if there weren't a slightly somber undertone. Sokka had slowed down his steady consumption of food to pick lightly at several things on his plate, his attention more often than not drifting over the hall intensely. He'd complained at first about the sea prunes not being ripe, and the meat being far too dry, but those complaints had barely lasted before he went right back to eating. 

(Katara had said, very quietly, that her brother would eat anything, but that mostly stemmed from their own tribe occasionally not having enough to eat. Being overly picky wasn't always an option, but she agreed that her tribe tended to like ripe sea prunes much better than unripe -it was considered mildly insulting if they weren't. Yue filed that information away to stew over later, because not a second later, she was back to observing her Southern friends in interest.)

Yue was suddenly struck by how serious the boy could be, when he was usually the first -after Aang- to act silly or be brash and loud. She'd barely known them a full day, but she still felt silly for only just realizing that unlike the young 'warriors,' of her tribe, Sokka was very much a warrior. He'd seen real battle, done real harm to others and had harm done to him. The Wolf Tail he wore wasn't for show, not like some of the Fox Braids were for others. 

(Her people could puff and pride all they wanted about being warriors, the simple fact was that they were too removed and too powerful to claim such titles. When their only interaction with the Fire nation was the occasional scouting ship sent looking for some lost brethren was all the association they had with the world, how could they really say they were warriors?

Sokka of Orcaseal was different. Despite him being a warrior, he was kind and a little goofy, with the occasional joke thrown out unexpectedly, often at his own expense. Between eating and observing the hall, they'd been having a small conversation that was refreshing, because, despite the fact that he had an ego, he was making an effort to talk about her. He asked about what she loved and hated about her Tribe, asked about her favorite view of the city below them, about her favorite thing to read about. She had never felt so visible in her entire life, and a small secret part of her preened at the attention he was giving her.

The boys that were vying for her father's favor only wanted to speak about themselves, or their families, or what they ended to hunt during the next season. It had become habit to hum or nod or smile and just let other people talk, but Sokka wanted her to speak, wanted her to be open with him. He looked at her with wide eyes and smiled openly and flushed anytime she laughed, then quickly included Katara or Zuko in their conversation. His openness stretched to other people and he shared himself so openly that Yue was baffled and pleased and angry that her own people couldn't be like this with her.

"So -so I used another fishhook!" Sokka laughed, and the sound was a soft, pleasant sound that was also boisterous, and Yue found herself laughing along with him. Zuko snorted on his other side, and Katara sighed in fake exasperation, giving Yue an apologetic look while Sokka's shoulder shook uncontrollably next to her.

They settled into an easy silence, with Yue taking a much-needed drink of snow-pear juice, and her father suddenly spoke up. He'd remained mostly quiet from what she could tell, but given what he was trying to talk her into, she wasn't all that invested in whatever he had been speaking to Aang about when he deigned to speak. His next words changed that -but then, they weren't aimed at Aang.

"Ah, yes, I nearly forgot, Prince Zuko. I've made arrangements to move your sister into the Avatar's suite." He said it so off-handedly that Yue knew there would be issues. Azula was the one who responded, almost before Zuko did.

"No thank you." Azula all but growled, and the clink of her cup hitting the table echoed, "I'm perfectly fine with having a separate room. Princesses do not share, Chief Arnook."

A stifled silence settled over the head table, and thankfully, the rest of the hall didn't seem to have heard what was going on. If the courtiers had been made aware of what was happening, her father would have to be even more insistent, and while she was sure he would be at least polite while they were at the head table, that could swiftly change if he felt he needed to defend his status against a young woman. Unfortunately, Master Pakku had none of her father's tact.

"You would be wise, Iroh, to get a better hold of your niece's attitude. She'll never make a suitable bride if you continue to allow this tendency to blatantly disrespect others to run rampant." The Master growled back, and Yue could read between his words well enough to know that when he said others what he meant was 'betters.' Sokka stiffened next to her, and the warmth she felt from Zuko, even with another person between them, intensified. Iroh let out a slow, telling breath, and when he spoke, it was with none of the amusement she'd come to expect from him.

"I would be careful of your words, Old Friend. While I will respect your rules, it does not mean I am bound to your culture, or your beliefs." The quiet warning in those words apparently went right over Pakku's head, because he had a response almost as soon as Iroh finished speaking.

"My culture and beliefs have nothing to do with Princess Azula's blatant disrespect for my Chief." 

A flicker of something in her peripheral had Yue glancing to the side just as Azula leaned forward over the table and smiled at Pakku. It looked like a threat, one she knew her little friend was perfectly capable of following through with. Her age had nothing to do with her ability, that much the girl had proven in the week she'd been in the palace.

"When your Chief shows himself worthy of my respect he'll have it." She announced soft and sweet, but no less clear. 

Her Father finally stirred, his voice equally as stern as Pakku's had been.

"Prince Zuko, if your Uncle will not reign in your sister, I would ask that you do." He warned softly. It was definitely the wrong thing to say.

The air around them grew warm in a way she was unaccustomed to, and next to her, Sokka shifted until he was leaning back, his weight put fully on his hands and his attention on the soldiers past Miss Myong. Kata also tensed next to her, but Yu was much too focused in that moment to do anything else but stare at Zuko.

His eyes were liquid gold, and they burned with indignant fury on his sister's behalf. There was a telling heaviness to the air that marked the presence of spirits, and she didn't need to see the low fires around them dance and flare and lean towards the young boy to tell her that he was the focal point. That small something inside her that would always belong to Tui grew brighter, grew happier, and she soaked up the warmth he cast. She stopped feeling connected to the words he spoke -those were human concerns, and she hadn't always been very human, but she did listen because he was the one speaking.

(The rest of the hall grew quiet, because nearly sixteen years with a child blessed by Mother Tui had given even the slowest among them the ability to tell when the spirits were present. Usually, when Yue was overtaken by such things, the halls would become lined with new frost and the air would be heavy. She'd been told, once a long time ago, that when Tui was truly with her, her eyes gleamed like slivers of moonlight. Much like Zuko's now looked lit from within by dim candles.)

The Chief drew back instinctively, watching the young man with wide eyes. Agni may not be his Spirit deity, but he knew better than to meddle with the fire spirits that represented him. It had never before occurred to the North Cheif that Agni might also find it in himself to bless children of his nation, but now, looking at the liquid gold of the young Prince's eyes, he wondered why he hadn't.

"Were my sister being truly unruly, Chief Arnook, I might ask her to remember we are here as guests." The boy bit out, his shoulders trembling with apparent fury. "As it is, I haven't found anything about her behavior unwarranted. In my culture, you give respect as it is given to you, and though I may have only been here a day, I have seen nothing in your behavior to indicate that you respect either my sister's status or my sister as a whole." The words were bitten out, his fists clenched atop the table. 

The creature in his lap was tense, it's bright, bright eyes locked on Arnook as well.

"As it is I will simply remind you that not only is my sister a Princess many generations strong, but she is her own person. She makes her own choices, and given our upbringing, has been more than diplomatic thus far. I personally value her input and opinions, and would never try to silence her." His voice had started loud and clear, but had gotten subtly quieter. That somehow made the anger in him worse than if he'd been yelling. Yue watched in amazement as the boy visibly struggled with reigning his fury in, then stood abruptly, his clenched fists trembling. "I thank you for this meal, Cheif Arnook, but I'll be retiring now."

He was walking away from the table before anything more could be said, and though Azula was clearly seething, she stood and followed her brother, as did Iroh, who looked gravely concerned as he marched after his niece and nephew. Miss Myong hesitated a second before she slipped into one of the abandoned seats, and then Sokka was also standing abruptly.

He gave Yue's Father a long, intense look, almost as if he were trying to divine something, and then he loped away in a nearly Arctic Lobster Wolf-like way. Katara and Aang remained, the two casting one long glance at each other before their attention shifted to Arnook. Her father said nothing, seeming to struggle with preserving his own image in the eyes of the Tribe and something else. 

"I believe, Avatar Aang, I may have . . . insulted your spirit-blessed companion." Arnook said carefully, almost neutrally. 

Aang seemed to think about his words deeply, then slowly nodded at her father in a way that was both polite and distant. 

"You did. In Fire Nation culture, accusing anyone of behaving dishonorably is grounds for a confrontation. It's akin to some from the North . . ." here the Avatar paused, tilting his head in apparent thought, "it would be like one Warrior accusing another Warrior of stealing a weapon, maybe. I'll admit I'm a little bit behind on current taboos-alright, so a hundred years behind. Regardless, your insinuation that Princess Azula is essentially being unruly implied dishonor on his family, and your dismissal of his Uncle as the head of their family unit was equally as bad." The Avatar suddenly leaned forward, his eyes flying to Miss Myong. "Did I get that right? Is that still how it's done?"

"I cannot speak for the specifics of my Prince's displeasure, Avatar Aang, but the idea is correct." She replied easily, smiling down at a new cup of tea. 

"That is-" 

Aang stirred in a flurry of motion, cutting off whatever Master Pakku had been about to say.

"Essentially, you don't know enough about Fire Nation culture to be accusing them anything, as it is -or was- quite typical for those in the Fire Nation to reserve outright respect for their peers until their own standards were met." Here, the Avatar's expression went sad and soft, "I imagine a war and a new drive for perfection have probably effected what the normal standards are. The problem here is that Azula is a Princess, so her standards will be high. I know you haven't asked for it, Chief Arnook, but I feel that as the Avatar, it's my duty to help foster peace where I can, and I'm officially recommending that your ambassadors speak with whoever is acting as Azula's to determine how you can speak peacefully, or at the very least, figure out what's considered taboo."

The words were firm for a child that had spent the majority of the day bouncing on his toes, smiling with over-eager excitement. But then, all the old scrolls she'd read about the Nomads had said that the monks were considered peace-keepers and excellent negotiators, citing that many had been brought in during the time before the Fire Nations first attack, to help when conflicts became too big and too personal.

Master Pakku still looked like he had a few choice words, as did her Father, but he nodded at Aang slowly, because really, there was no arguing with the Avatar. Aang's too-polite smile flashed again, and then he was excusing himself and Katara, which clearly surprised her father. It didn't surprise Yue -but she was sad to see them go, and even more upset when Myong trailed after them. Thankfully, her father was too consumed with keeping things cordial and cutting off rumors before they could start for the rest of the evening, so he didn't notice when she slipped away ahead of him. 

Hearing the Avatar talk of negotiations had brought up her own dilemma, but she was thinking that there might actually be a way out of it now. All she needed was someone to act as the 'ambassador,' between her and her father . . . and possibly a solid back up plan or three if the first failed. Yue knew few things as well as she knew that she would not be letting anyone try to force her into marriage because it was her 'duty.'

 

 


 

 

Very late that night, Arnook sat, exhausted at the head of the council and eyed his fellow councilors. He was surprised to see old Kuraka among them, and felt a whole new headache forming. The five men who flanked the elder looked even more determined than usual to give Arnook a taste of Yama's fire. Pakku took his seat roughly, looking even more irritable than ever. 

"Well? What exactly are we going to do about those Ashmakers?" Old Tuuka asked, a spark of hateful fury in his eyes. 

Tuuka's hatred wasn't directed at the Avatar's companions, not really, because Tuuka hated everyone equally. Arnook regretted that he still hadn't found a replacement for the man, but unfortunately, the old warrior was relatively well-liked because his mandates were at least fair if not hot-headed.

"Nothing," Arnook announced, and rose a forestalling hand when several of them went to complain, "I know, you don't trust them, but Pakku swears that they can be trusted, and you heard the Diviners the same as I. The Avatar's chosen companions must not be harmed in any way."

Pakku stirred next to him, his irritability suddenly three-fold when he spoke.

"I'm less concerned about that and more concerned about what we should do about the girl." He growled. 

Arnook blinked in mild confusion, then belated realized what the Master was talking about. 

"The Southern girl? Why should we do anything? Yugoda said she's agreed to attend lessons tomorrow. Our obligation to her ends there." He waved the words away, but Pakku persisted, his expression even more pinched than usual.

"Chief, even you must see that merely being shown how to heal won't appease the child. She's clearly the reckless type -why else would she insist that she must be the one to follow the Avatar around? That child is going to get herself killed, and I for one don't want her death on my conscience, not when we could do something about it." 

Arnook deliberated over the words for several long minutes, then sighed. He could see mild agreement around the room -or rather, in the parts of the room he was willing to look at- and while he knew he was going to regret it, he conceded to at least hear the man out. 

"What did you have in mind then? It had better not be anything like the Lobster Wolf Bait Incident." That got him a few chuckles, and some loosened shoulders. Arnook had learned that sometimes, that was all one could hope for in life, especially when one was a chief. There were moments he envied the Southern Chief -at least up until he remembered that the Southern War Chief was in charge of a crumbling people involved in the violence. Arnook pushed that thought aside and settled back, letting the conversation flow around him, and trying not to think about how hurt his daughter had looked earlier, and then startingly, how angry the Southern child had looked when they'd told her she wasn't allowed to learn how to fight.

 

..........

 

Hakoda watched the Snowy Owl Pigeon as it winged its way towards his place on the ship, and was briefly concerned about what he should be more focused on. The clearly distinguishable boat they had left Bato, coming at them with as much speed as the man aboard it could offer, or the rare and unexpected correspondence from the Chief of the Molefox tribe. ultimately, he focused on the correspondence, because it was going to reach him first, but he allowed himself to be distantly excited about Bato's return. He'd missed his old friend, had been worried sick the whole time he was on his own. 

Those around him shot him distantly curious looks as he received the bird, but he paid them little mind as he towards his 'office,' absently ordering one of the younger men to let him know as soon as Bato was in shouting distance. He'd thought the correspondence was another status report of Fire Nation movement in the far south, along the route they tended to send large numbers. Namotuk would occasionally send him information about those movements. What he wasn't expected was what the letter actually contained

With every word he read, his throat tightened a little more, his heart sped up and shattered a little quicker, and by the time he'd numbly read it a fourth time over, the information was starting to make sense. He wished it wasn't. Mother Tui he felt like his brain had broken out of his skull and rolled away, and he was positive that his heart was in his stomach. He heard muffled shouting, and stood quickly, clenching the letter in one hand and shoving his way back onto the deck with the other. The words were burning in his mind.

 . . . imagine my surprise when your mother and your entire tribe walked out of the storm and into our tribe, asking for hospitality and help . . . 

 . . . but not your own children. Rest assured that, according to Elder Kanna, they are well, or we assume they are . . . 

 . . . with none other than the Avatar himself! Of course, the addition of a couple of Ashmakers to the tale was enough to turn my stomach, but . . . 

He must have looked even paler than he felt, because his men kept shooting him worried looks. He ignored all of them to focus on the boat that they were scrambling to hook up a tow line to, and the figure that was frantically trying to get on board. 

"Good moonlights kiss, Bato, what's gotten into you!" someone shouted. Hakoda only had to look at his friend to know that whatever it was, it was nearly as bad as his own news. When they locked eyes, Bato charged towards him, looking sick to his stomach, and Hakod clenched the letter in his hand carelessly. 

"We need to talk!" They announced in unison. 

(And that, despite everything else, helped to ease some of the weight he'd felt in the last half hour. Knowing his friend was here with him, would stand with him, and more importantly, had managed to stay out of trouble . . . that was better than he could have hoped for. It was a very illuminating and gut-churning night. There were days he envied the Northern Chief. At least all he had to worry about was appeasing a bunch of snobs and not whatever life-threatening antics his children were getting up to.)

 

 


 

 

Zhao hadn't responded to any of his missives in some time, and in the moments that Ozai could think on this, it made him furious. During one of his more lucid moments, he sent an order to any ships heading North to return to their original posts. Whatever the man was doing, it would not affect the stranglehold Ozai had on the South-West pieces of Earth Kingdom he had managed to take and hold the past years.

"Sire, the enginers you requested have responded to your missive. They seem excited about the designs." His current steward said softly, and Ozai stopped glaring at the map hung on one wall to watch the man with narrowed eyes. 

He ... couldn't remember whatever the man was referencing, which served to make him even more irritable. It must have shown on his face, because the fool in front of him shook the slightest bit.

"Bring me the copies of whatever those missives are pertaining to." He ordered roughly, watching as the man bobbed a too-fast nod and carefully set the scroll he held in front of Ozai before fleeing. 

A quick study of the reply had him confused, but once he had all the copies, including the copies of the 'designs,' Ozai smiled, the first real, lucid smile in months. Perhaps Zhao hadn't been completely useless, but something would still have to be done about the man. A quick lance of pain in his mind, and his thoughts began to teeter, scattering everywhere at once. This particular instance was the longest to date that he'd been lucid, hopefully with many more to come. He was lost to his own mind again in the next instant. 

(When he was next lucid, he had a new steward. He had no idea what happened to the old one, and he wasn't inclined to ask.)

 

 


 

 

Azula snuck into their suite that night. Despite her words to Arnook, and the fact that Zuzu shared his suite with the whole rag-tag group he'd arrived with, Azula found her feet moving almost before Myong was conveniently retiring early for the night. she had missed her brother.

(It had taken a lot of introspection over the last seventeen odd hours for her to admit this even to herself.)

She hadn't been able to speak to him alone yet, and something told her she probably wasn't going to be able to. His head injury was no longer a problem thankfully but the Avatar's unknown time table was, and she was having a hard time planning. There was an urgency to talk to him, and this one time, she acted on instinct rather than cool logic. She did that a lot where her brother was concerned. It was habit to conceal her movements through the palace. 

(This instinct had been born of many years where she'd have rather been sleeping in her brothers' bed than her own, but knew getting caught resulted in several days of dejected sadness for Zuzu.)

The moonlight watched her slipping down the hall, silvery, cool light reflected off of the ice in sharp glances. Azula glared at it in turn and mentally told herself that moonlight couldn't see because spirits weren't real. It took a lot more effort to ignore the laughing chill down her spine than it did the warm nudges on her shoulders during the day. Azula ignored the fact that she was ignoring the dim, icy light and slipped into the Avatar's suite with no one the wiser, not even the stupid guards that were supposed to be watching and waiting for her brother to turn into an Ash-making murderer.

(The men here were all stupid. If it came down to one of the fire-benders in these halls having a murderous-raging fit, it would be her or Iroh. Probably her more than her Uncle. Uncle Iroh would only become murderous if any of the Northern idiots forgot Zuzu was a Prince that was protected.)

Having had a couple of minutes earlier that day to scout ahead, when Yue first brought them into the room, Azula made her way from the 'common' sitting area and into the bedroom she knew they intended to share. She'd been initially appalled at the idea of sharing sleeping space with any of them, but it had made sense a moment later. No matter how well-intentioned the Northerns seemed, this was a group that Azula knew -even if it was second-hand knowledge- was most often on the defense in their travels. Sharing a sleeping space made strategic sense, rather than risk splitting the group between different rooms.

(She still didn't like the idea of having any of them seeing her here.)

They'd clearly pushed some of the furniture around since her glance earlier that day. The two beds that had formally been on opposite sides of the room were now pushed together and directly in front of the door. There was a similar set up in the back left corner, and a single bed in the back right. The water tribe siblings were sleeping on the bed closest to the door, with the Avatar and Zuko in the back left corner -they'd allowed her brother to be close to a window? It did make sense of course -of all of them, Zuko was the most likely to be able to keep up with the Airbender. Uncle was snoring in the back right corner. 

(She contemplated turning around and walking back out. She didn't want to risk waking the Avatar and having the boy wake the whole palace with his over-eagerness. Even the thought of being too close to his touchy-too-happy-face made her wince.)

But. Zuko was right there. 

Once again her feet were moving before she could think the decision through, and she slunk past the sleeping siblings with as much quiet swiftness as possible. She realized too late that the King Servals were also present, one fo them -probably Dumpling, she thought, given the slight tawny-darkness to her coat- was watching her from a curled position behind Zuzu's knees.

Her brother's back was to her, but she saw it stiffen just subtly at her continued approach an instant before the other Serval -this one was definitely Noodle, that silly little stripe going from one corner of his mouth could only make him Noodle- raised it's head to watch her appraisingly from where it spilled over the Avatar's chest. The monk didn't even twitch in his sleep, his chubby, too-young face serene. The Serval on his chest shifted and stretched his wings, hiding the boy from view. 

(She could feel the animals' inner fires, now that she was closer. They were weaker, true, but no less prominent in the creatures. They clung to Zuzu's warmth, basking in it in a way she understood all too well.)

She finished her journey by carefully sitting down on the edge of the bed and tapping out the old, familiar pattern on her brother's back. He turned to her in mild surprise, his eyes open and alert, but his shoulders were losing their tension now. He Rolled over carefully, then lifted one side of his heavy blanket -actually, peering closer, that looked like one of the rugs from the sitting room- and she slipped in soundlessly. 

(Her own inner fire, sparking and spitting and too-hurting-bright stuttered then calmed, for the first time in a year. All too suddenly, she felt exhausted, and she didn't even wait for him to quietly start the conversation, like he used to.)

"I wanted to burn Father's stupid beard off his stupid face." She started, angry and quiet, shoulders trembling with rage rather than cold for the first time in days. Zuzu looked stunned, then a series of other expressions that were too fast for her to try and catalog. "He hurt you and I had to watch and smile and be what he wanted. I wanted to burn him and everyone else for letting him."

Zuko's hand, calloused where it hadn't been before, came up to slip some of her hair back. He nodded, slow and understanding, no old hurt in his eyes, but something else that was too-mixed for her to place. His emotions were always so complicated. If she were better at reading people that might not be such a problem.

"I'm sorry I left you alone, Lala." Zuko whispered back, soft the way they had to speak at night, or anytime they weren't arguing for the Fire Lords benefit. Azula felt another surge in her stomach, tight and wobbly all at once, her mouth dry and her throat burning

"I don't understand what I've been feeling, Zuzu." She answered back, rather than forgive him. They both pretended her voice didn't wobble. 

(She had already forgiven him of course. He would -should- know that. It wasn't his fault his face had been burned up, and while he was responsible for being an idiot and speaking out, she couldn't really fault him. Zuko was Zuko, and no matter how stupid he was being at any given moment, his intentions were usually ... kind.)

Zuko fell into their old pattern with surprising ease, his smile the same, soft smile he always used specially for her. Zuko had, for a long time, been the only person that had a special smile for her, one that said many things without saying anything. Myong was good at her own version of Zuzu's smile -even if she'd never seen Zuko smile at Azula- but Zuko's smile for her was ... Azula didn't have words for what it made her feel. 

(She never had. She'd tried to explain it to him once, but he'd been just as confused. She'd almost burned up their mother's fire-lily-roses in frustration when even Zuzu didn't understand a feeling, but he'd turned right around and told her that even though he didn't have a word for it, he knew it. He felt it for her too, when she did something funny or ordered -see: asked in her own way- him to help with her hair.)

"What kind of feelings?" He whispered. Azula scooted closer to him, her lips twisting into a frown as she tried to find the words to explain everything. It was always hard to find the spoken-words that fit with the specific rolling of her gut or the level of heat in her blood, or the different and distinct kinds of tightness in her face.

They spoke for a long time, with her stumbling through several explanations, and him trying to help her place the feelings with names. Then she made him tell her about everything that had happened since he left. It was fairly simple to follow -except for the times where he was clearly hiding something he'd done. However, she was very good at picking and choosing her battles, so instead, she tried to understand his reasoning for Uncle being Agni's Chosen.

(She might not believe in Agni, but there was a clear record in Fire Nation history where certain, good Fire Lords had all the same traits, and Uncle had only some of those traits. She wasn't sure how his being the Fire Lord would work, but ...)

There wasn't any good way to talk him off of that particular ledge, and really it was better if he kept thinking of their Uncle as the next Fire Lord. Then he got to talking about his birthday. His description of a dream that seemed eerily familiar made her a little agitated -it was a coincidence, she told herself, clearly a coincidence. She isn't sure when she drifted off to sleep, but the last thing she hears him talking about is purposefully and willfully breaking into a Fire Nation prison to free Earthbenders before she was asleep.

(She dreamed of the most bizarre creature, silver and shimmery and draped in robes and furs that gleamed with hidden starlight, and the same, golden, gilded man-dragon from months before. Zuko was there as well, looking a little put-out, his eyes anywhere but on the creatures in front of them. The creatures spent some time laughing quietly while she outlined her plans for the North. Zuko smiled at her the entire time.)

She would never know, but there were witnesses to their conversation. Iroh and Katara had woken when she'd entered the room, but stayed 'asleep,' for different reasons. Katara had stayed quiet because she wanted to know what Azula, who clearly cared for her brother but was outwardly cold, would do when she felt she wasn't being watched. Iroh had stayed asleep because he had only a little understanding of his Niece -most of it second hand from his Nephew- and knew that if he had been awake, the girl would have simply left. Sokka woke at some point, unusually quiet and alert, but had relaxed when he picked out Azula's voice. Aang had woken up as soon as the girl slipped into bed, but it had felt so wrong to overhear everything and then ...

Then they were given a very clear picture of what others would call Azula's problem, but what they knew to be a difficulty. The way Zuko had always described it, most of them had assumed that the girl was simply too obtuse to realize what some social interactions could mean. They'd never imagined that when Zuko quietly said 'Azula has trouble with understanding emotions,' he meant literally.  It was a unanimous, unspoken decision that they would never speak of this. 

(They did stay awake through the whole conversation, warmed and awed by the Prince and Princess, both children equally awkward in their own way. For Iroh, it only served to show him that despite their Father's disposition, despite the corruption of the Fire Nation, good things could still come of it. Things like a good, slightly awkward older brother determinedly helping his too-smart little sister understand herself and the world around her in a way that made sense. He had never felt so heart-wrung in all his years than he had when listening to his Niece, in a display of emotion he had never before heard from her, describe loneliness.)

(Aang decided they were going to be friends, and she would have to just accept that now. Katara and Sokka quietly decided that Azula would make a great battle-sister.)

 

 


 

 

Come morning, Azula was gone, and Katara wasn't sure when it happened. It seemed like between one hazy spot of wakefulness and the next, the child had simply vanished. She felt like her eyes were too-dry and her head a little foggy as she got up fro the day, but it only took the briefest reminders about what the day would bring for her to perk up. She would learn how to heal today. It might not have been combat, but at least it would be useful, and any opportunity to practice bending was something to be grateful for. Zuko woke up when she got Aang up, and then he was up for the day too, moving into the common room to do fire-less warm-ups while she and Aang scrounged up something to eat for everyone. It ended up being some dried fruit and some seeds, and Zuko wolfed down the handful of fruit she offered and then kept going through his Kata's. She and Aang dwadled because they could.

"I hope Master Pakku is a good teacher," Aang muttered, frowning at some of the leftover nuts and seeds. 

"At least you'll actually be learning how to fight," she reminded him softly, smiling when he colored slightly in apology. She brushed his words away before he could speak them, nibbling on her own fruit thoughtfully. "It's fine. I already know some, and you promised to share what you learned, just like I'll share what I learn." 

Aang's usually goofy smile returned full force, and Zuko stopped his mad twirling a few feet away to glance at them curiously.

"Did you want me to see if I can observe the lessons? It might help if there's more than one pair of eyes on what Aang is being taught." He asked quietly, and Katara felt another one of those deep, fluttery feelings in her chest. Yesterday they'd reminded her that she had support after that disastrous meeting, where she'd been told that being a girl meant she wasn't strong. It was good to know that her chosen family thought otherwise. She couldn't help the smile she flashed Zuko, and was grateful to see him smile back. 

"If you can, I'd appreciate it. You know how Aang can be with little details." Aang sent them both an affronted look, pouting adorably from where he'd perched on the couch, though he didn't seem to be truly taking it to heart if the sparkle in his eyes was anything to go by. 

Azula showed up several minutes later, and after ducking in to let Sokka and Iroh know they were leaving, the four of them walked to the meeting point Aang had been given -or rather, Katara escorted them to the entrance and was startled to find that Yue was already there waiting. The men on either side of the entrance seemed to feel out of place anytime the Princess smiled at them in a serene way. They tried to stop Zuko and Azula from going inside, but there was very little that could actually stop Azula from doing as she pleased, and the guards at the entrance were simply unfit to handle a bull-headed, firebending child with enough menace to put evil spirits to shame.

She and Yue chatted while they walked to Yugoda's healing hut, and they parted with Yue's promise to pick Katara up and show her around, as she said she would the day before. Katara found herself giving the other girl a firm hug, felt the usually turbulent wave of emotions in her subside slightly when Yue returned it. She had to take the first step towards really understanding her bending on her own -but that was a good thing. 

(It was one of the most informative days Katara had ever had. Yugoda wasn't shy about answering questions, even when Katara had dozens of them, and she stayed a little while after, inviting Yue in so that the girl wasn't waiting outside. Yugoda seemed a little odd about that, but she quickly grew accustomed to it. By the time she was running out of questions about healing, she was left with questions about the North.

This lead to the unexpected and heart-wrenching discovery that Yugoda had known her Gran-Gran. The woman's unexpected tears would have made Katara feel terrible if she hadn't known they were happy tears. Several streets up and away, Aang was dragging himself away from a lesson that he swore up and down had been unnecessarily hard, and refused to explain why when Zuko and Azula asked. Not until they were back in their suite.)

 

 




 

 

I couldn't gracefully work this into the endnotes, so sorry: Someone asked about the Polar Bear Geese, so I figured I'd just re-amp the hype; MuffinLance is the wonderful, wonderful person who created them, she's just letting me borrow the concept. If you want to read about them in her fic, you can find them in Little Zuko V. the World. This is where you can find some gorgeous fan art of them. :) 

Chapter Text

It had been several long, grueling days since the disaster of a first day. They'd had to suffer through more morning, afternoon, and evening meals -most of them almost always cut abruptly short by someone in the party becoming too irritated to finish the whole meal. After that first day with Zuko storming off, they'd had hopes that things would be better if not outright less irritating. They were wrong.

(Arnook may have apologized for the way that he and Pakku spoke to them, but Zuko had quite openly -at least in the privacy of their rooms- doubted the man's sincerity. The happenings at every meal only proved that he wasn't truly aware of how rude he and his own people acted. )

As it was, Katara and then Azula had been the next to abruptly leave the meal-time tables, and by the end of the third day, Sokka had also joined in parading them out. No one was quite sure what had made the normally snarky but good-natured boy as irritable as a snapping Arctic Lobster Wolf, but they had all seen him being drawn aside by several warrior-like men. What had been said was the real issue -and Sokka refused to talk about it, his eyes almost arctic-levels of icy when asked.

(Zuko had apparently tried, taking the other boy aside in concern. This had lead to a spur of the moment sparing match in one of the icy courtyards that drew a lot of attention. Sokka had seemed less tense after, but had still refused to repeat whatever made him mad. Zuko hadn't pried much further, and had told the rest of them to let it be.) 

They were on their fourth day now, and the only bright spot what felt like their lifetime of a visit had been the bending instruction. Aang's lesson with Pakku were apparently 'alright,' but nothing like the lessons Katara had been giving him to that point. Zuko, who'd consistently and stubbornly followed the Air Nomad to each lesson, had growled a lot of choice words about the man's teaching method.

(Something about him being almost as bad as Zuko's royal instructors, just without the breaking bones. The conversation they had pulled out of him after that little surprise had been confusing -for him- and anger-inducing for the rest of them.)

Despite Pakku's apparent failings, Zuko, Aang, and Katara found somewhere to practice what the man taught -usually the closed-off, apparently secret pond where no one was supposed to go. Yue had shown it to them the afternoon after their first lessons, smiling wide all the while. The pond -where too suspiciously weird fish tended to watch their practice- had become their meeting place. It was where Zuko helped Aang teach Katara, and where Katara showed Yue how to defend herself. 

It was also where Katara willfully taught Aang healing, giving the boy all of her knowledge form her lessons with Yugoda. 

"This is how a community is supposed to work, you know," Katara muttered offhandedly to Yue, the Southern girl's head bent over one of the many pilfered scrolls. Yue blinked over at her friend, waiting for her to elaborate, and when she didn't, the spirit-touched Princess turned fully from where she'd been watching Sokka and Zuko practice their swordsmanship -against a grinning, dodging Aang.

"What do you mean?" She inquired softly now, and Katara looked up, the absent look on her face vanishing with her full focus now on Yue. 

(She did that a lot. Turned her focus from something to someone so decidedly. IKt was nice speaking to someone that clearly valued the discussion.)

"This," Katara said slowly, motioning not just to where they were sitting, with scrolls spread between them, but to where Azula was now helping  Aang -see: using his Gi to tug him around-avoid getting tapped with a sword, the two younger children clearly making a game out of the older boys training, "A healthy community, a working community, shares it's knowledge between its members openly. It's how the South has survived as long as it has. If one of us learns a new way to fish, we teach it until everyone knows. You're only as strong as your weakest member -because it only takes one crack in the ice for the whole party to drown."

Yue thought about that, rolled the words around in her head and then tried to line the concept up with her own people. 

 

_________

>you can ignore the minor outline below!!

 

-Talk ensues about ways to subtly fix the rift in knowledge between 'classes.'

-Mentions of how Fire sibling shenanigans over the last few days have people put off balance. Ex: Zuko openly and blatantly embordering dragons onto one of Azula's scarves while the girl practices her katas in a more pubic training yard. Ex 2: The siblings having an ongoing argument about politics where everyone -including those delicate, sensible young ladies of the court- can hear?  

-Possibly allude to plans made previously to eventually bring other young women willing to learn defense into Yue lessons. >>Just because the North isn't will to teach Katara, doesn't mean Katara isn't willing to teach the North. They very literally have no rules against this.

-Next skip in perspective will be Iroh, and what he's doing >>Possible argument with Pakku and how his isolation in the North had several affected his ability to reason. Lots of burns for the waterbending master.