Zuko finds them at the Western Air Temple, the first that they visit after his banishment. He doesn’t mean to, and he sure as hell doesn’t go looking for them, but he finds them anyway. He bolted out of the temple, past his uncle, past their camp, and runs until he reaches a forested meadow, where he drops to his knees and throws up everything he’d eaten that day.
The tiny skulls wouldn’t get out of his head.
Spirits, they were so small, and the way they were piled up, huddled together against the back wall, not fighting, not murdering, not an army , makes Zuko want to crawl out of his skin. The Air Nomads had an army. That’s what everyone was taught; that was what Zuko was taught. Everyone fights, just like in the Fire Nation, and defeating a great army is a great victory for the one who leads them.
Zuko didn’t see an army. All he’d seen were tiny burned skeletons, with bigger ones in front. Sheltering, protecting. Uselessly.
Not an army.
His feelings are too big for his body ,and Zuko vomits again until he’s dry heaving and wheezing and sobbing . He digs his fingers into the dirt and holds because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. Hold on, don’t die. That’s it.
War is war, and if a soldier won’t surrender then the victor has to kill him. But honorable surrender is always given as an option , and even in the Fire Nation, children aren’t allowed to go to war. Honorable surrender isn’t even an option for children because it’s the only option, because children can’t make the reasonable choice to go to war. If you find kids, you leave them, or take them, or you let them go, but you don’t kill them. They can’t make that choice yet. Zuko knows that. Everyone knows that.
But these children are dead.
And someone, whether that was his Great-Grandfather or someone under his umbrella of responsibility (his knowing, his honor, his trust, his loyalty) didn’t let them surrender. It’s a war crime. It’s a travesty. It’s obscene. It’s wrong.
It’s illegal .
It’s an offense to everyone who claims to be just and loyal, who looks to the Fire Lord to be just and loyal.
Zuko’s whole body burns and chills, and he can’t feel the left side of his face.
He’s apoplectic with rage and grief; he’s not sure how long he lays in the dirt and waits for the world to take him in his weakness. It’s coming, it’s always been coming. Zuko’s known he was unwanted since he was seven and woke up to Azula trying her level best to smother him with a pillow, and nobody did anything. It might as well take him now as later, he figures.
...there’s a pressure on his back.
Zuko jumps and twists up and falls instinctively into a stance...and freezes.
Wants to throw up again, but there’s nothing left to go.
That’s a bison standing right there, eyes wide and frightened like the fear of fire’s been bred right into the line the way it’s been bred out of komodo-rhinos. Zuko can’t fucking believe it. Nobody’s seen one since the defeat (the decimation, the annihilation, the murder ) of the Air Nomads, and Zuko can’t move. He doesn’t want to scare it off, but he doesn’t want to see it either, not after all those tiny little bones.
He can’t make himself frighten it off.
He knows he looks awful, that death might be a mercy. Half his face bandaged, the other half tearstained and dirty, his whole body shaking like a leaf.
But the bison, huge up close, approaches him, puts its massive head on his back and gives a quiet low of sound, and Zuko can’t stop the tears that burn and sting and cleanse.
It’s a long time before he has the strength to get up on his feet, and he feels wrung out and shaky, like he got put back together the wrong way. The bison watches him and waits until he’s steady before pushing its face into his dirty hands.
Zuko doesn’t know how long sky bison are supposed to live, but he’s pretty sure this one’s not old enough to have been a tamed one. It’s hesitant but not afraid enough to be tame; just the smell of soot and smoke on him should be enough to send it running, never to be seen again, if it experienced any part of the massacre a hundred years ago. But, nevertheless, it lets Zuko bury his hands in thick fur and hold on until his feet work.
And slowly, he starts the walk back up to the temple, back to Uncle, back to almost a century of shame and horror left to rot and be forgotten. They need burial rights. Zuko doesn’t know what a nomad spirit needs to rest, so what he knows will have to do. Sort the bodies, burn the bones, and maybe throw the ashes into the wind? It’s the best he’s got.
And he has to tell Uncle about the sky bison.
Iroh is constantly surprised by his nephew, but this might be the new standard.
Zuko’s standing before him, back ramrod straight and jaw raised, despite clear evidence of tears still on his face. He makes an excellent picture of a stoic soldier about to make a report— or he would, if not for the massive bison standing behind him, and trying its level best to chew on his phoenix tail.
Do not laugh, Iroh , he tells himself sternly, don’t you dare . No matter how you want to. He wants to remember this moment for the rest of his life, and it won’t do to hurt Zuko’s feelings by laughing at him. Enough people in his life have laughed at him; Iroh will not make himself another.
His mirth doesn’t entirely override the shock.
If anyone on this planet could possibly rediscover the sky bison by accident it would definitely be his nephew.
“We have work to do, Uncle,” Zuko says seriously and doesn’t shift out of parade rest, “we have to—“ and here his expression goes vulnerable and horrified and all Iroh wants to do is hold him but he can’t, not right now, “We have to take care of the— the bodies, and set their spirits to rest. Ours and theirs.” For there were plenty of Fire Nation corpses too, though far fewer. “Also, I found a sky bison.”
Iroh’s voice is choked and strangled when he says, “...I can see that.”
What he doesn’t ask is what Zuko plans to do about it. It’s clear that the boy is hurt and struggling, and while Iroh isn’t having an easy time of it, he’s also not terribly surprised. Horrified, yes. Surprised? No.
“I know what to do with our people, Uncle, but what of the others?” Zuko asks. “Do you know anything?”
Iroh rubs his chin, looking thoughtful.
“I haven’t read anything specific,” he admits, eventually, “In retrospect, I wish that I had looked a bit harder.” He’s not sure that spirits of air will appreciate being burned. Zuko looks just as unsettled.
“Are Fire rites better than no rites at all?” He asks after some thought, “I don’t...I don’t know what they want.”
And what they want is important , he doesn’t have to say. After Zuko bolted past him and out of the temple entirely, Iroh had looked into the room he’d just left and had to grab the wall. It’s no small matter.
And Zuko is kind. He’s hurting right now from every direction and a good day for him still means he’s more prickly than a porcupine-bear, but it’s not his pride or ego that hurts, it’s his heart . Iroh would rather cut out his own than take that kindness out of him.
“I think,” Iroh tells him very gently, “That they might forgive cremation if thrown to the wind with respect.”
The work is horrible and backbreaking and messy.
It’s supposed to be hard, Zuko thinks, and forces himself to hold it together. Uncle’s fine. Somber and serious, but he doesn’t look like Zuko feels, tense and tight on a tether, like the slightest wind will blow him to pieces. It’s supposed to be hard and horrible because what happened was hard and horrible.
And every time Zuko finds himself holding a very small, sooty skull in his hands, he has to stop and do some deep breathing until he can keep going.
With every body, he and Uncle say a silent prayer to Agni. For their own people, for them to simply be taken to rest because that and salt and flame is all they need to settle. For the rest, Zuko asks the sun spirit to find whoever watches over the people of the air, to carry them where they need to go, and a traitorous apology. He can’t own up to that part, not to Uncle. It feels like giving up, like he’s betraying his country to feel that this was wrong.
But it was, and he’s sorry , even if there’s nothing he can do about it.
The bison that Zuko definitely hasn’t already named Mochi is still hanging around outside the temple, despite the smoke from the burning of the bodies. They’d trundled her out before they started burning, and Zuko was sure that she’d fly away, flee, the way the Air Nomads should have, but she doesn’t.
He’s not sure whether he wants her to or not.
And finally, finally, they’re ready to let the ashes blow, and maybe it’s a coincidence and maybe not, but the wind blows a hard spiral, catches the cloud of ash, and carries it away.
Slowly, slowly, Zuko sinks to the ground.
He feels hollow and wretched, and like he wants to sleep for a week.
Zuko might never sleep again.
Uncle settles himself down on the ground next to him. Doesn’t touch (knows better) but makes himself close.
He doesn’t ask if Zuko’s okay. He’s not stupid.
“Uncle, this was…” he begins, stops, thinks, starts again. “This wasn’t right. Not just— what they taught us was a lie . There was no army at all, not here, just…” Just little kids and nuns and babies, a bunch of pacifists who didn’t see any of it coming. There are rooms still with cribs that they had to go through. Zuko is never sleeping again. “It wasn’t right. And not just because it was a lie. It was wrong. To do it at all.”
Uncle says nothing, like he can sense that Zuko isn’t done.
And Zuko’s not done. He turns and reaches out, just once, to grip Uncle Iroh’s sleeve. Holds tight, releases.
“Uncle, this was wrong . We were wrong .”
It hurts. Like a full body hit taken undefended, slipping right past Zuko’s defenses and landing soundly in the softest spot he has.
“We came here to learn about airbenders so that I could find the Avatar, wherever he is.” So that Zuko could find him, capture him, and take him home . So that the pit of shame and guilt and not enough could finally fill in and he wouldn’t just be a disappointment anymore, he’d be the Crown Prince who did what so many couldn’t: capture the Avatar and win the war.
But no one knew anything about the Avatar, and as far as the war…
Zuko wants to throw up.
“I don’t think I can do it.”
And with those words Zuko buries his face in his palms and can’t even look Uncle in the eyes.
“You haven’t been exiled,” he mumbles into his hands, “You could still go home. I wouldn’t stop you.”
And I wouldn’t blame you.
And leave him here to rot, like he deserves for being a traitor to his country.
Uncle’s staring, pale and shaken. He looks at him like he’s seeing him for the first time, and then clears his throat.
“Nephew, please do not take my silence for agreement,” he says, finally, quietly. “I thought I would have more time before we would talk about this. I had hoped that by the time we would, I would know what to say.”
Zuko feels cold down to his bones; firebenders can still freeze.
Uncle’s the one to reach out now, to take his shoulders in his hands and reel him in to crush his sooty, devastated nephew to his chest.
“When I came with you, I had already made my decision. Wherever you go, I will follow. You are my family, far more than what we left in the capital. And you are right , Prince Zuko. This was wrong .” He can’t say I’m proud of you ; Zuko isn’t ready to hear it. But he gives the boy in his arms a squeeze and doesn’t loosen until he stops trembling. “I will not forsake you. Not here, nor anywhere else.”
Zuko sags against him, completely speechless and…relieved.
He wouldn’t have been surprised to be left, and he’s glad it didn’t happen, but he doesn’t think he’d forgive himself if he hadn’t given Uncle the option. Even though now he’s definitely signed himself up for extra meditation and calming tea.
The moon’s up, shining white over the mountains.
“What do I do? ” Zuko had felt better, moored, with a purpose. That purpose is now gone, scattered out on the wind, never to be seen again. He feels lost and aimless.
He is lost and aimless.
“What to do will come when it is ready,” Uncle tells him and lets him sit up, keeps his arm wrapped firmly around Zuko’s shoulders. “The real question is: what do we do about the bison?”
There’s nothing Zuko can do for the people who once lived here. He’s idealistic but not stupid: the dead are dead and very rarely get a say. But the bison are here and alive and survived somehow for a century without being seen or found. How many might there be? Are they healthy? Where are they even living?
“We need to find the rest,” Zuko says firmly, “We’ll take care of them.”
Finding the bison is easy. All Zuko has to do is get up the nerve to climb on top of Mochi, and let her walk him to the rest of the herd holed away in hidden little forests and caves. From the little bits that Uncle’s managed to read about them, he knows that that’s not where they’re most comfortable. Bison are meant to have space, with lots of room to move and graze and stretch. These?
They aren’t afraid, not really, not in the way that they would be if they’d experienced human cruelty, but something about them is hesitant and frightened. Zuko sits on top of Mochi and lets her plod him around for three hours before the others will let him close. By then he’s named all the ones he can tell apart; there’s Mochi and Matcha, and Furikake and Katsudon and Dango, and he’ll come up with names for the rest later but for now he’s so relieved that Mochi isn’t the last one that he wants to lay down on the ground and not get up for a while.
Zuko does not do that.
He does, however, lay down on Mochi and doesn’t get up for a while.
And there are so very few of them, and Zuko knows nothing about bison, and this was a terrible idea. At least Uncle’s gone down to the Wani to talk to Jee and the crew. Searching for the Avatar? Sure, fine, okay. Not searching for the Avatar? There may be a problem, especially when it came to marines and military having their orders changed on them.
For all Zuko knows, he won’t even have a crew by the end of today, and then what’s he going to do?
Wait. Stop. Think.
Plan for bison first, plan for crew next, plan for Zuko after that.
Zuko eyes the tiny herd of bison, eyes the temple that he can just barely see, upside down and tucked into a mountain. That’s not a good place for them to live, and the forest isn’t a good place for them to live, and aren’t bison supposed to be able to fly? He hasn’t seen a single one so much as hover.
The ‘sky’ part of sky bison had to be true, right?
In the end, though, he makes his way back down to the ship and nearly runs headlong into Lieutenant Jee who has a look on his face like he’s sure he’s lost his mind, with Uncle close behind him. Zuko stares at him, straightens, and dares him with his mind to start a fight, only to have the man stop mid-step and turn into a firebender-shaped statue.
Zuko feels something lipping at the end of his phoenix tail and swats a hand backwards, catches Mochi in the nose.
“Stop that,” he grumbles at her.
“Sir, that’s a sky bison.”
“I thought my uncle told you about them.”
Uncle Iroh shrugs helplessly in the background.
“He...did. Sir.” Jee side-eyes Uncle with a pointed look that plainly says that this was not what he signed up for, and that’s it, Zuko’s definitely lost his crew and he’s only had them for a week, and what are they going to do — “Sir?”
“ What ?” He snaps out of habit. Being startled makes him snarlier.
“What are we going to do with them?”
That’s not what Zuko had expected, and he flounders for a moment and forgets, just for a bit, about the bandages around his head. Jee looks at him, looks at Uncle, then looks at Mochi. Despite himself, he puts out a hand for her to sniff, which she does. Zuko lets himself relax, just a little.
“I thought it was obvious what we were going to do.” It wasn’t. “Bison are an endangered species, and we’re gonna save them.”