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Quetzalcóatl

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Ran awoke from her slumber. The gentle rays of Agni’s light pushing her in a way they had done only once before (before that traitor murdered her kin, her brother—).

Go, Agni whispered, protect my chosen before the traitors successor kills him.

Ran was given a vision.

A boy—a baby on a boat, locked up and trapped in darkness (a drake—for that’s what he was—did not belong in the dark), tears streaming down his face. This boy—this drake was one of Agni’s chosen children (like her, like her love, like her gone forever family). He was to be her kit (the brother to her other little one, the one yet to hatch).

For the first time in nearly a century, Ran spread her wings and flew in the daylight.

 

In the palace, Agni’s flames went dark.

The fire sages were scared. Agni was angry. And when spirits are angry...

...The world burns.

 

Agni was not angry. She was furious. Her chosen (who was still just a baby, barely three months old, the monsters) was taken away from his mother far, far too soon by that man, who was practically Tezcatlipoca in human skin. The babe wasn’t even weaned off of his mother’s milk, and he would die.

He would die, if not for her faithful child. Agni watched as Ran shot out from her cave and she led her to the babe (and if any mortal were to have seen this phenomenon—of fire dancing on water—they would have declared themselves insane for water surely cannot burn).

Agni’s scorching heat died down, if only slightly. Her babe would be safe. And Tezcatlipoca would burn.

 

Xochitzi was worried. One of the great masters had left at the first of Agni’s rays. And oh what a fright it was, the world had gone to savagery, and Ran was vulnerable. A dragon out and about while the Fire Nation still ran amok? A disaster in the making. He was chief, he was supposed to be strong, but if she died then he might just collapse with grief (and even then, his grief would not compare to the heartbreak Shaw would feel, he could truly die, for dragons only loved once, and died soon after their love).

It only scared him more when she did not return until nightfall.

But when she did return, oh what a pleasant surprise she had brought. A small babe, gently (impossibly so for such a large creature) placed down onto the ground in the very center of the courtyard. Nobody dared get close.

But then the flames burned brighter, and nothing they did could stop it. They rose up into the air, (the heat greater than any mortal had ever made) before coming together a few feet shy of the baby, only to form a woman.

The sun warriors bowed instantly, recognizing their lady Agni.

She was an unearthly beautiful woman, one that had not been seen for centuries (and they only knew her because of the beautiful art their ancestors left in the sun stone room), and one that was only made more captivating by her glow in the night sky. Long flowing hair, pinned up in a beautiful bun (and how she managed that when her hair was literally fire, Xochitzi would never know), her pale skin glowing white hot, and her eyes were made of blue flames and her gown crafted of red and yellow and orange silks. She was, in every sense of the word, a being of flame.

Carefully, with a love and care every mother recognized, Agni picked up the babe, and cradled him, cooing softly. She then looked up at her most loyal (most loving) children with protection flaming (literally) in her blue eyes.

“His name will be Zuko, by the will of his mother, whom he was torn from far too early.”

Her lips did not move, not truly. But her voice echoed in their heads; a crackling melody only a spirit could achieve.

“He is to be cared for by this people. My chosen must not die before his time is to come. But while my warriors will raise him, Ran and Shaw shall be his guardians.”

The flames left with Agni, but with her leave came seven days of festivities, to celebrate the arrival of their newest member.

 

Shaw rumbled, pleased, as he curled around both his beautiful mate and his Agni blessed child. The babe was asleep against his mother’s warm scales, with Ran grooming him while he slept. He was happy. He and his love had a family, albeit an odd one. Looking down once more he noticed something strange.

A stripe of golden hair (so gold it looked like the treasures their humans wore) ran through the middle of his hair, splitting the inky blackness in half.

Huh.

It appeared Zuko truly was spirit touched after all.

Shaw snorted, smoke curling out of his nostrils. That, he thought, is a problem for another day. And so Shaw wrapped himself around his love and slept.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, there was a brave little prince. He was born to a loving mother, but a cruel and wicked father.

Amoxtli smiled sadly as she nursed her sleeping master. It was an honor truly, but she couldn’t help but feel pain. She was the only one able to do this, but only because she couldn’t feed her own baby (her darling little girl who hadn’t even opened her eyes before she took her last breath). But she would do her duty, as both a servant to her masters, and as a mother (one that she would never get to be now---).

The prince's father was a greedy man who expected his son's spark to appear at birth. A foolish wish.

After her master finished, she made certain to bundle him in soft cloths before laying him in his crib. Ran poked her head out of the tunnel to check on her kit, nuzzling Amoxtli in thanks. The young (but so, so worn and so so sad) woman bowed to her master before leaving up the stairs and into the light. She marveled at the idea that she was one of the few to enter her masters den. Of course, everybody knew that their caves (the ones that overlooked Agni’s light) were simply entrances to the tunnels that led to their underground den, but not everybody knew of their beauty. Amoxtli supposed that she should feel lucky. But all she felt was heartache for the child she lost.

The foolish king sought out his own enemies to kidnap the prince, and to kill him in their own kingdom. But he did not account for one thing.

Ran and Shaw curled around their kit, cooing softly. He would grow into a fine leader, after all dragons were born to rule.

The spirits don’t take kindly to their children being harmed.

 

Zuko always knew that he was a strange child. He knew that having dragons as parents was abnormal (after all, nobody else did), he knew that climbing up the sheer cliff that led to Chalchuihtlicue’s domain was not safe. Or something that normal children did, especially not at five. And most importantly, he knew that most children weren’t spirit touched.

Sometimes, Zuko doubted if he were human. It certainly didn’t always feel like it. Some days he wanted to grow wings and scales like his parents and fly through the air, and others he wanted to become a spirit to speak with his nantli, Agni. The other children didn’t understand. They didn’t have the pressure of being the master’s child, nor the pressure of having Agni’s sun streak in their hair. That’s not to say they didn’t like him, of course they did! Everybody got along, it was practically an unspoken rule! But it still got a bit lonely from time to time.

A roar sounded in the distance and Zuko huffed lightly, a small knot curling in his stomach. Time for training. Zuko did not have a good feeling about this.

 

It hurt.

Training always hurts. Trying to get out of his own skin (his molt) was painful, but he had to. Mama said it would only hurt more if he didn’t learn to do so now. Sweat beaded down Zuko’s brow, as he struggled to transform. This was the thing that set him apart from the other children the most---the fact that he had a dragon lurking inside him, waiting to come out. He could feel it, pushing at his skin, trying to claw its way out (out out out, I’m trapped, it cried, let me out!) as Zuko gasped for air, face red from exertion. He knew he could do this, he’d done it once before (but that was in his sleep, when he was most relaxed). Papa nuzzled his stomach as he cried. He encouraged him to continue, even as he gasped for air, crying out that he was, he was why couldn’t he see that?

And then it was dark. A scary, terrifying darkness like no other. Don’t get him wrong, Zuko usually loved the dark. It was the best time to make fire, the best time to see fire in all its beautiful glory. But this, this, was not normal darkness. In fact, it couldn’t even be considered true darkness, because it was just nothing. There was nothingness all around him, suffocating him, so thick it was almost tangible. But it wasn’t because it wasn’t truly there. Is this how Tecol Itonoch felt every day? This was horrible, how could he stand it? Zuko promised that he would help the blind elder more than ever after this.

If he survived.

He didn’t think he would.

This blankness was like no other. It was scary and terrifying and…

Gone?

 

Slowly, but surely the darkness vanished. Not completely, he was still surrounded, but there was a small ball of light in the middle. Zuko sobbed in relief, running towards it. Or rather, running towards him. A dragon was the source of light--not that Zuko cared, he was just happy that the blindness was gone, even just a little bit. The small boy collapsed on top of the dragon hugging it close. It was asleep, and oh so cold, but warming up with every second. Sobs slowly turned into hiccups and Zuko sat up and studied the dragon. It (he, his mind screamed) was almost completely black. Pitch black scaled covered its (--His) body, with a few streaks of dark grey on the sides and much lighter grey on his mane. There were only a few spots of actual color on him. One was his white antlers; a beautiful shade of white that reminded Zuko of the pearls Yayauhqui would harvest from the ocean to make beautiful pieces of jewelry with. The other was far more striking. A beautiful streak of gold running from the dragon's snout all the way down to his tail. Would his eyes be gold as well? Like Mama and Papa (like him who was blessed with dragon’s eyes from the moment Mama found him--)? Like the other dragon’s he would never meet, because they were slaughtered by the monsters that made up the Fire Nation?

They were. The dragon looked up at Zuko, staring unblinkingly with its gold eyes (so unnerving and yet so comforting at the same time--like the dragon was a part of him. Was he?), before nuzzling him. Just like Papa. Just like Mama. Just like him.

He understood then, why looking at this dragon felt like looking at himself. Because it was him. He was the dragon and the dragon was him.

And it was right. Zuko was now whole.

 

Somewhere, in a different cavern, a crack appeared on a beautiful golden egg. It was time.

 

 

Zuko had become a dragon—just like his parents. Or, well, become isn’t truly the correct word. After all, he’d always been a dragon, it was just hiding under his human skin. He stretched his wings out, and took a few shaky steps forward before tumbling to the ground. He huffed as his mother chuckled good naturedly. She conveyed a message into his mind, “it would take time to get used to this body” or something like that.

Dragons cannot truly talk, so they conveyed messages through thoughts and feelings, a practice called Owatziplia. While it was never precise, one could typically get the general gist of the message. Most of the time.

(Zuko thought about the time when they told him to feed one of the pig-goats, but he misinterpreted the message thinking they wanted him to eat the pig-goat. He thought of the hours it took to calm him down. And then promptly banished that thought to the back of his mind.)

He was about to try again when Xochitzi ran in, panting, eyes alight with joy. And tears.

“Masters!” He cried, grinning, “The new master is hatching.”

Ran and Shaw roared in approval, before Ran picked up Zuko by the scruff of his neck (much to his displeasure, he wasn’t a baby!) and flew out of the cavern, Xochitzi exiting soon after.

They circled the courtyard, before landing in front of the egg, now with multiple cracks spreading through its surface.

(Those who were old enough to remember thought back to when Zuko arrived. They shivered slightly at how eerily similar they were)

Ran put down Zuko as the egg cracked, and shook, and wobbled. He watched wide eyed as the egg hatched. It looked hard.

Why don’t we help it?

His father sent him an owaziplia (did Zuko accidentally send one? He didn’t know, but probably. How else would father have known to answer?) of a baby chicken-fox being helped out of its shell. Moments later (not truly, but owatziplia’s weren’t usually very long) the chick-kit died, because it was too weak.

So that was why. It needed to grow strong, and breaking out of its shell on its own was the first step. But maybe—

—A cry pierced the air.

The baby had finally gotten out of its (his) shell, weakly mewling and crying for food. Zuko scrunched up his snout.

Boy was he ugly.

His scales were slimy with mucus, his eyes were shut tight, and his head looked far too big for his tiny body.

This was a dragon? Looked more like a baby crow-raccoon, ugly, tiny, and weird.

Shaw whacked Zuko over the head with his paw, before lightly nipping his tail in punishment. Zuko yelped, before scurrying under his mother’s body (not without many falls and stumbles of course).

Ran cooed at her newborn baby, picking him up inside of her mouth, and flying towards their cave. Probably to take care of the newest master.

(Zuko couldn’t help but feel like she had left so he couldn’t hide underneath her and escape his punishment. In fact, that was probably part of it. He huffed. Traitor)

Xochitzi raised a hand and declared the new master to have been born, the cheering of the sun warriors following, audible even down in the masters cavern.

Shaw soon followed Ran’s example, picking up Zuko and carrying him into their home. He was content, even though his son was not (Zuko had always hated being manhandled. All the more incentive to continue).

His family was complete.

Chapter Text

Zuko unfurled his wings, stretching them out in preparation to fly. Today was a flying lesson, one of his favorite parts of being a dragon (half dragon? A dracotaur?) was feeling the wind on his wings. But he had to stretch them out before a flight each time. The last (and only) time he didn’t stretch...caused him a lot of pain. His wings had felt cramped and his muscles were sore for what felt like forever--even if it was likely only a week. His father had told him that it was because his wing muscles weren’t strong enough yet, that in a few years he could possibly go flying without stretching. It was unlikely though. It took years to get to that point and very few had done it in under ten years. Zuko was determined though.

 

He noticed Druk watching him, dejected. Zuko had refused his plea to play, insisting he had to practice flying. He was eleven after all! Almost a man, he couldn’t afford to play (his traitorous mind reminded him of his promise to play after the flying lessons). Today was going to be long as well, with him flying both as a dragon and on Druk. It was still shocking to the boy how quickly Druk grew. By the time he had reached eleven, Druk was the size of a deer-horse. Apparently dragons grew fast. Who knew?

 

Zuko chirped at Druk motioning for him to follow. The two ran out of the cave, Zuko leading the way, all the way up to the highest cliff. While Zuko had been attending flight lessons for years, Druk had only just gotten his muscle strength up enough to carry him short distances. So, while Zuko would be soaring the skies with his mother, his father would be helping Druk learn how to glide. After all, the first thing a dragon needed to know was how to land safely, and one could only do that by gliding onto the ground.

 

Their parents were waiting for them on the cliffside, both of them on the edge. Zuko bounded towards his mother ready to fly. In unison, they stretched out their wings to their full wingspan and jumped off. Fly, his mother's messages urged, flap your wings ! He followed her example and slowly flapped his wings, making sure to build momentum. It wasn’t good to do short quick flaps, they just slowed the descent. Larger, fuller ones brought more lift, allowing for better flight.

 

The two circled the island practicing different maneuvers, like sudden swerves or doing a loop. Zuko sent an owatziplia to his mother, portraying his excitement. She crooned in agreement. He couldn’t help but feel joy while flying. He was in Quetzalcoatl’s territory, the sky. His winds were fair, clearly a blessing from the wind spirit and a message to keep enjoying his territory. The wind blew across his scales as he breathed in the cool morning air. But, eventually all good things came to an end. His mother herded him back towards the ground, landing in the clearing where his brother was practicing. Zuko hadn’t wanted to stop, but was now glad he did. He hadn’t noticed how tired his wings were until they had stopped. He bounded towards the pond that rested in the clearing and drank quenching his thirst. Druk joined him soon after. His parents, who were not as tired rested while watching their children. 

 

It was times like this that Zuko truly understood how big the difference in sizes were between his family. When in his human form, Zuko was just slightly shorter than his brother, even if he was at least a head taller as a dragon. But they were nowhere near the size of their parents. Even as dragons (who were much bigger than any human could ever hope to be) they only just barely came up to eye level. And that’s when their heads were on the ground. When they were standing tall and proud, Zuko didn’t even reach their knees. It was slightly ridiculous. 

 

They had to stop their break (which quickly broke Zuko out of his thoughts), because now the second part of flying lessons had begun. While Druk wouldn’t be doing anything different, Zuko now had a new role: riding him. 

 

He turned back into a human, a process that got easier and easier each time (it was nigh instantaneous by now), and got ready to ride on his brother. It probably wouldn’t be long until Zuko was a master at it, after all it wasn’t exactly difficult . Just...scary. While his brother was the height of a deer-horse, he was much wider and longer. Not as ridiculously skinny (or so Ham Gao said. Zuko had never really seen one, so he was hoping he wasn’t being tricked). But Zuko was still scared of hurting his brother. Druk laid on his stomach as he waited for his brother to climb on his head and clutch his antlers. Zuko quickly clambered on, finding his balance fairly quickly and grabbing onto his antlers. This was the part Zuko feared the most. A dragon's antlers were incredibly sensitive, and he feared he would cause his brother pain by grabbing too hard. 

 

Druk clearly wasn’t concerned as he bounded happily up the cliffside, ready to practice. He always was far too energetic. Druk didn’t even hesitate as he bounded towards the cliffs, making Zuko stiffen. He’d never done this before, Druk had always waited until he made sure Zuko was holding on before leaping. But not this time. Zuko squeezed his eyes shut tight as they finally flew into the air. To his surprise he didn’t fall, instead he was completely steady. Maybe the sudden leap helped after all. He hadn’t had time to stress about falling, only enough time to prepare himself for the glide. Zuko grinned, gently moving his body weight and gliding his brother in different spirals all the way until they hit the ground. He’d fallen off of his brother too many times to count, but this, this , was just so freeing. It felt good to be in his human skin and yet still have the ability to soar the skies. Maybe, just maybe, he would learn to love this almost as much as regular flying. Maybe.



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Zuko hated dancing.

 

From a very young age, all sun warriors learned to perform the dragons fire dance. But after they learned that, they had the option to learn other, more difficult dances. Most said no. But Zuko, with his stupid eagerness, said yes. And he completely regretted it.

 

Sweat stuck to his skin as he performed the dances again, and again, and again . While it was rewarding when he memorized them, the path to getting there was just...difficult. And annoying. Mostly annoying.

 

Partly because his instructor, Eleuia, was a relentless woman, who never took anything but the best. And so, Zuko was stuck twisting and twirling and jumping for hours upon hours. It was so difficult, there was a whole day set aside! Just for dancing! His thighs were going to murder him. But for now, he focused on moving. On completing the dance so that he could rest

 

When Zuko had finally completed the dance, Eleuia looked at him critically.

 

“That last twirl was a bit too long. Practice it until you get it right,” she commanded whilst glaring at him. Zuko suppressed a groan. It was only midday and yet he already wanted to quit.

 

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Zuko clutched Yaohui’s hand as a needle dug into his cheek. He had done it. He had completed the 18th dance, one that made him a man at an earlier age than the rest of his peers who looked on with jealousy. It wasn’t his fault they didn’t take the lessons, he thought to himself. It was sun warrior culture. All sun warriors become adults at the age of 18, unless of course they managed to learn the sacred dances--all eighteen of them--before they reached 18. If they were learning them when they reached 18, they would still go on to become an adult; the dances were just to make it quicker, through trials and pain.

 

He still remembered the day when he completed the final dance. 

 

Zuko had spent hours, or so it felt, completing the dance. His final dance. He knew it would be the end deep in his bones. And also because Xochitzi had told him so.

(“There are eighteen dances,” he had said, “to signify the eighteen months our gods have granted us.”

 

“If there are eighteen dances for eighteen months, then why do we learn the ones for the ninth and the tenth months last?” Zuko had asked, and Xochitzi chuckled. 

 

“The ninth and tenth months are to celebrate the dead,” he replied. “They are the most dangerous, because they are the ones with the most potential to kill. We had to be sure you were mature enough to not misuse it. Everybody who learns them has to do this.”)

 

When Zuko had finally completed the dance, he looked at Eleuia for criticism. Over the years he had grown to accept it, and tried to learn from it every chance he got. To his surprise,  she had a smile on her face as she told him he was ready to become a man. He grinned with joy before composing himself and bowing in respect and thanks. It wouldn’t do to not show respect in front of an elder.



This was only a few weeks ago, and today, on his sixteenth birthday, he would be getting his tattoos. Like the air nomads, the sun warriors had tattoos on their body to signify a master bender (or in the sun warriors case an adult). The tattoos had meanings as well. Most only got two, a single triangle on each cheek. However, for those blessed by Agni, they had four. The blessed only came around once; there were never two at the same time. It was like the avatar, they had said. A cycle of rebirth, a new beginning given to us by the kindness of Agni. Zuko would never have met, the last blessed had died three weeks before Zuko came to the sun warriors care. 

 

With practice and great care, Zuko refused to flinch. Doing so would cause his cheeks to scrunch up, and would consequently ruin the tattoo, which in turn would make the entire process much more painful. And considering his would be twice as long (with him getting four tattoos instead of just two), that was not something he wanted to deal with. So even though the pain was great, Zuko pushed through and kept a stony face throughout. He took deep breaths throughout the entirety of the process keeping his mind calm. 

 

It had started at sunrise and ended at midday when the tattoos were finally completed. Zuko let out a deep breath as the needle finally left his skin for the last time. It was finally over. He could rest.

 

He stood up and stretched before bowing to Xochitzi in thanks. Then, as was protocol, he left the cheering crowds to make his way back to his family. After the tattooing, the newly fledged adult always left to go spend a week with his family and celebrate. So, Zuko climbed up the rocks with ease, getting ready to see his family for the first time as an adult. He grinned as Druk, who was now half the size of their parents, came bounding up to him, his muscular tail wagging madly. Zuko ran towards his brother, and leaped, turning into a dragon midair. The two fell to the air and began wrestling on the ground, playfully snapping their jaws towards one another and growling. Ran and Shaw watched the two with amusement, remembering the time when there weren’t only four dragons alive. 

 

(The time when Ran and Shaw’s brother and sisters and mothers and fathers were alive. Back before Sozin. Back when the dragons were free)



Druk yelped in pain as Zuko's teeth got a bit too close and actually hurt him. Zuko stopped immediately and licked the bite. Druk shrugged off the pain and he and Zuko went back to wrestling, although being much more careful this time. 

 

Before any more injuries could occur, Ran let out a loud huff, a signal that it was time to eat, then sleep. Zuko and Druk stopped immediately, heading to their parents. Druk ran towards the large deer-horse laid out for him and started devouring it. Zuko looked at him confused, wondering why on Agni was he so hungry? Shaw snorted before sending an owatziplia to his eldest; a scene from just that morning. Druk waiting by the entrance to the cave, waiting for hours and hours without eating for his brother to return. He looked at his brother in bewilderment. He waited that long? His tail started to wag in his happiness from his brother loving him so much he would wait for hours just to see him again. 

 

Then, his stomach growled. Just now realizing how hungry he was (as he had not eaten the entire day), Zuko bounded over to his own deer-horse and started to eat. 

 

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A storm was brewing. Large winds blew through the area as a young man held onto the mast of a boat for dear life. The young man was strange, the sides of his hair shaved, his eyes and clothes the color of the sea, and his skin tanner than Zuko even knew was possible. The boat was rocking fiercely, and Zuko could hear his screams. Personally, he felt slightly offended, screaming at Tlaloc’s gift of rain. While it could be scary, especially in the waters of Chalchiuhtlicue’s domain, but still! Rain and storms were a gift, one that brought the flourishing of crops to the lands. 



The scene changed.

 

It turned into a bald young boy with a blue tattoo on his head. An air nomad. So they were still living. Or were they? 

 

Strangely enough, the boy was collecting frozen frogs of all things, muttering about saving his friends. 

 

An arrow flew through the air, trapping his sleeve against a wooden log. More flew, officially trapping the boy so he was immobile. Multitudes of people came down from the trees and tied him up (and how pathetic was that? Going after a boy, and from such a close distance?). But one word rang through his mind as this occured. Avatar

 

Zuko’s eyes shot open and he stiffened for a few moments before relaxing, although his heart still pounded. He knew it then, the dream was too specific to have not been a warning. It couldn’t mean anything else.

 

The avatar had returned.

Chapter Text

Wind blew northwind in a steady stream, the same direction Zuko was heading. It seemed Quetzacoatl was on his side, urging him on. Faster , the wind seemed to urge, get to the avatar . Zuko huffed and pushed himself, harder, flapping his wings with more strength. Agni’s light was dipping into Chalchiuhtlicue’s waters, Metztli rising as her twin went to rest, bathing the world in her soft light. 

 

Zuko took care to not go too fast, his provisions strapped onto his back had every chance of falling into Chalchiuhtlicue’s waters. While they were technically secure, he didn’t want to risk it. The avatar couldn’t wait. He had to get to him, and quickly before the Fire Traitors burned the last hope. (He ignored the pain in his chest calling him back home)

 

Eventually, he came near to the place where the avatar was held. He could sense it, the avatar must be there. While it wasn’t as overpowering a normal dragon would feel, it was still overwhelming in a sense. The avatar was a bridge between the 22 spirit realms and the earthly plane. Zuko was the bridge between humans and dragons. He felt a strange sort of kinship with him. They both had a heavy burden, and they both dealt with it with pride. 

 

(Zuko ignored the feeling of failure inside of the avatar. Surely it must be because he couldn’t get those frogs---whatever significance they may have)

 

Swiftly, thanking Metztli, for her softer light that hid him well, Zuko dove towards the ground, turning into a human just before he hit the ground, rolling, and landing in a crouch. He smirked. Seemed like his lessons were really paying off. When he stood, gripping a tree for balance, he nearly toppled over. Inside of the tree was a nook, empty, with no signs of life. It was quite large, especially for a hole within a tree, but still. It was quite small. It would have barely fit his shoulders in. 

 

A sound rumbled through the forest, and Zuko stealthily blended himself in with the shadows. Silently, he watched as a cart came into view, provisions stacked up high inside it. Grinning at his luck, he quietly took off his packs and looked around for a place to hide them. Just before the cart was a couple of meters in front of him, he looked towards the small nook from before. It was the perfect size to fit his packs in, and the dark brown color of both the tree and his bags would blend in nicely in the dark. Zuko stuffed the bags in the tree, and quickly dove underneath the cart, gripping the bottom. Now all he had to do was wait.





Aang was scared. His friends were sick and he didn’t know what to do. He had been captured by these weird archer guys who worked for the Fire Nation, and now he was captured, and who knows what could happen now. If he died, who would help Katara and Sokka! Nobody! He started to hyperventilate, worried thoughts clouding his mind and blocking everything else out. Until the door creaked open. Aang’s head shot up, his throat closing in fear of the man in front of him. 

 

He was well built, lithe muscles rippling as he stalked closer to Aang. He wore a strange collar that seemed to be made of liquid gold, and went up his neck, over his shoulders, and ended just above his sternum. Enchanting jewels hung off of the lower part, catching his eye, and also bringing attention to his defined abdomen.. He wore long pants that were pitch black, and not the kind usually seen in clothing. While most black clothing still had some tinges of grey to them, his pants were the color of night. On his feet were open-toed sandals, like those once worn in the Fire Nation. Jewel embedded bracelets and armbands decorated his arms and wrists. But what was truly terrifying was his mask. It looked similar to a cat’s skull, but not one that Aang ever had seen. It was much too large for that, and it had large tusks. What looked to be large (very large) feathers decorated the rim, making the man look bigger than he was. An intimidation tactic, and one that worked horrifyingly well. The entire ensemble seemed to be made solely to mock opponents. It practically screamed out I’m bigger, tougher, and scarier than you could ever hope to be.

 

Two swords were in each hand as the man finally came to a stop in front of him. Aang's eyes were wide with fear as he stared into the golden eyes behind the mask. He started to shake. Was this the end? The man raised his large swords and in one swift movement…

 

...Cut the chains.

 

The man grabbed Aang and started running out the door, his footsteps somehow impossibly soft, even as Aang himself, in his incredibly soft shoes made noise as he stumbled behind. His mind was practically blank in wonder. The airbenders had made shoes that were designed to be as quiet as possibly, made with tough, yet soft, materials. And yet this man, who wore leather shoes, was somehow even quieter. 

 

But who was he? He very obviously didn’t know him, and he definitely couldn’t be Sokka. For one thing, he was sick, and for another, the stranger was much paler and had a much more defined physique. 

 

Plus, no boomerang.

 

And it couldn’t be Katara, either, because of the same reasons as her brother. Even if it was her, he’d never seen her use a sword, and she would have revealed herself.

 

Suki, then? One of the Kiyoshi warriors? They were both muscular, and quite pale. In the dim firelight, Suki’s lightly tanned skin tone matched the strangers. But she used fans, and while she could have put on a different outfit to hide…

 

...the stranger's outfit wasn’t exactly discreet. Plus, he was very obviously a man.

 

Aang was slammed into the wall. The air was pushed out of him (and how ironic was that?) as the man pressed himself to the wall as well, his hand covering Aang's mouth. He looked at the smaller airbender, putting a finger to the lips of the dragon, silently telling him to be quiet. Not like he could speak anyways. 

 

A guard walked by them.

 

What?

 

How could he have missed them? They were right there!

 

As soon as the guard rounded the corner, the man took off again. This time though Aang stayed in pace with him. Time went by in a blur. First they were running down a corridor, then they were climbing down a rope from the top of the stronghold, and then they were dashing out, silently and swiftly through the gates and into the surrounding forest. By some miracle, they weren’t caught. 

 

Through it all the man hadn’t let go once. Aang was thankful for that. In his dazed state, Aang probably would have wandered off and gotten himself captured again. They didn’t stop running until they came towards a random tree. What was so special about this tree? It was just like the others.

 

As if the universe was striving to prove him wrong, the man grabbed a part of the tree and ripped it out, making no sound. No. He didn’t grab part of the tree. He had grabbed a bag out of the tree, one that was the same color of the tree. Aang hadn’t even noticed the difference. 

 

More of the bags were grabbed, about three in total. Once they were secure on his body, the man turned to Aang.

 

“Where are you staying?”

 

Whoa. Whiplash much? His voice was not one of a mans, but of a boys. He couldn’t have been much older than Aang himself. 

 

“Who are you?” Aang blurted out instead. 

 

“That’s not important right now. What’s important is getting you to safety. Now let’s go! Quickly, before they notice you missing.” Aang nodded. This man had saved him. He could definitely be trusted. They ran into the forest, towards the cave where Sokka and Katara were hiding in their feverish delirium. 



Entering the cave, the man walked over to Aang’s friends. 

 

“They’re sick.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. Suddenly, horror dawned upon Aang.

 

“My frogs!” he yelped, running towards the entrance of the cave. The man grabbed him by the scruff of his collar, raising him up like a misbehaving puppy. 

 

“Do not run, Avatar. Get water from down in the river a few miles northwest. You are an airbender, correct?” Aang nodded. “Good. I expect you back in 10 minutes. I will go looking for you after that time is up. If you are searching for frogs...I won’t be happy.” Aang nodded quickly, grabbing a large pot and bounding down the mountain. He shivered even though the night air was warm. As fast as he could, he got to the river, and filled the pot with the water. Begrudgingly, he ignored the urge to look for frogs. He didn’t want to get hurt, but he also wanted his friends to get better. 

 

As he reentered the cave, he was met with a strange, but not unwelcome sight. 

 

Sokka and Katara looked to be much better, although they were still asleep. The strange man had somehow managed to start a fire in the time Aang was gone, a pot was above it and cooking some kind of soup. His mask was laid beside him. 

 

He looked up and Aang stared at the man. His hair, previously covered by feathers, was in a high phoenix tail, one that came down to his upper back. If it were put down it would easily reach his waist. On his cheeks were four red triangular tattoos, two on each side. Surrounding his eyes was black paint that highlighted their golden color. While studying the man, he noticed with a start his odd hair color. Straight down the middle was a large strip of golden locks, looking sort of like a skunk-fox’s pattern. He blinked. 

 

The man stood and bowed, looking Aang in the eyes.

 

“Avatar Aang,” respect was evident in his voice, like almost everybody Aang met. “I live to serve you.”

 

Well, that was new.

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Aang waved his arms in front of his face and shook his head. “What do you mean you live to serve me? That makes no sense!” The man rose with a smirk playing on his lips. 

 

“I was born with the duty to help you. To help you defeat the traitors that make up the Pyre Lands. You must---”

 

“Pyre Lands?” Aang interrupted, bewildered. “What’s that?”

 

The man blinked rapidly. “Ah yes, I forgot you wouldn’t know what that means. The Pyre Lands are a...derogatory name for the Fire Nation. My people see them as brutal traitors. They don’t deserve the honorable name they once had.”

 

The anger in the man's eyes surprised Aang. He...didn’t know what to think of that.

 

“But, enough of that,” he suddenly said, turning towards Katara and Sokka, whose eyes were opening blearily. “It seems your friends have awakened.”

 

Aang gaped, then grinned. His friends were okay! Bounding over to them, he helped them sit up before taking a random cup and filling it with the water. As they drank greedily, they quickly gained their senses back.

 

“What happened?” Katara asked, rubbing her eyes while her brother stretched. “Where are we?”

 

“You were sick,” Aang explained, “so I took you here so you could rest!”

 

Sokka squinted at him. “Resting, huh? Then why are your sleeves torn Aang?” Katara’s eyes locked down onto his sleeve, widening in shock.

 

“Aang, what happened?!”

 

“Uh, well--” Aang was about to explain before being interrupted by the man.

 

“The Avatar went out to gather some sort of…” he paused, looking confused and hesitant before resuming, “ healing method to help you.” He looked up, his golden eyes visibly startling the Water Tribe siblings. “He was then captured by the Yuyan archers; a pitiful display, if you ask me,” he sniffed, slightly haughtily. “Shooting arrows at a child from such close range...pathetic,” he muttered. 

 

“And who are you ,” Sokka glared, hostility in his tone as he stood up, using Aang as a stabilizer. “You look like nothing more than those Fire Nation ba--”

 

“Sokka, calm down!” Aang yelped. “He saved me. After I was captured by the Yuyan, he broke in and got me out!” Sokka still looked suspicious, but let it slide, still glaring at the man who was now glaring back. Katara rolled her eyes, standing up as well (with much more stability than her brother), and hitting Sokka upside the head. 

 

“Ow, what was that for!”

 

Katara looked at her brother with a flat stare. “He saved Aang, idiot. Nobody from the Fire Nation would help the Avatar , Sokka.” She glared at her brother once more, before turning to the man with a significantly warmer expression. “Hi, I’m Katara,” she said, ignoring her brother shouting ‘Don’t tell him our names!’ with the ease one could only gain from years of practice. “That idiot over there is my big brother, Sokka, and this is the Avatar, Aang.”

 

The man smiled warmly at her, before bowing. 

 

“My name is Zuko, first son of the Masters Ran and Shaw. I have come to aid you in your quest.”

 

“And how would you know where we were? Sounds like some shady Fire Nation stuff to me.” Aang sighed. Sokka really had trust issues. Especially when it came to Katara and her safety.

 

Especially after Jet.

 

Zuko smiled at him, an eerie replication of his earlier warmth towards Katara. 

 

“Piltzintecuhtli sent me a dream, warning me of what would come. I raced here as fast as I could to aid the Avatar. It is my duty, as the gods command it.”

 

Sokka didn’t rebuke him, if only because he was now confused. 

 

“Who’s Piles-in-the-cut-leaf?” Zuko glared at him, anger and offence in his eyes as he advanced towards him, moving around Katara. 

 

Piltzintecuhtli , you ignorant buffon. How dare you disrespect our--”

 

Water splashed in their faces. They spluttered and looked at Katara with bewilderment.

 

“Why did you do that , Katara!” Sokka complained. She put her hands on her hips. 

 

“Because, you’re both acting like children. Sokka, you obviously said something offensive, and you’ve been nothing but rude this entire time! And you,” she whirled around and pointed a finger into Zuko’s chest. “You shouldn’t have insulted my brother, even if he was in the wrong.”

 

Zuko sighed in defeat.

 

“You are right, Katara.” He then turned to Sokka and bowed. “I apologize for insulting you. I felt that you had disrespected one of my gods and was angry.” Sokka just continued glaring until Katara elbowed him harshly in the ribs. He muttered out an apology before sitting by the fire, pouting. Katara, Aang, and Zuko joined him. Zuko handed out bowls of soup to everybody, saying that a lighter meal would be better for recovering. He also advised against eating solid food for about two weeks (“just to be safe,” Zuko said, “eating solids too early could result in vomiting. Trust me, you’d rather have a little food in your belly for a long period of time, than a lot of food for a short time and then immediately throwing it all up.”).

 

“So, Zuko,” Katara said, swallowing her bite of soup. “Who is that….uh, guy, you were talking about earlier.” Zuko put down his bowl and sighed---well, more like blew air out of his nose.

 

“His name is Piltzintecuhtli. He is the god of visions. A god is sort of like what you would call a spirit,” he explained, seeing the confusion on all their faces at the new word.

 

“Huh,” Aang said. “Cool.”

 

They continued to eat in silence until Aang broke the silence.

 

“Hey, Zuko. How did you heal them? And how did you start the fire? I didn’t see any spark rocks.” The water tribe siblings looked up, curious. Zuko sighed, and looked down at his food.

 

“I don’t want to scare you.”

 

“What if you don’t?”

 

Zuko’s head was bowed for a good minute before he finally looked up. Wordlessly, he held out a hand and a pillar of beautiful, colorful, deadly fire sprung up.

 

“Dragons fire,” Aang breathed. 

 

Katara screamed.

Chapter Text

You’re a Firebender!”

 

Katara’s screech pushed Sokka into motion, shooting up and pulling his sister behind him while brandishing his sword. He glared at Zuko. 

 

“You’re Fire Nation. I knew you were bad news!”

 

Zuko stood. “I am not Fire Nation,” he snarled. “I do not ally myself with those traitors .” He started making his way towards the siblings, a fierce glare on his face. He reared back his fist, ready to punch Sokka, before a gust of air blew both him and the siblings back.

 

“Stop it!” Aang cried, his arms outstretched in between the two groups. 

 

“Aang you can’t be serious,” Sokka cried, outraged. “He’s Fire Nation, you know, the group that’s trying to capture you? I bet he’s in league with Zhao!”

 

“I don’t even know who that is!”

 

Liar !”

 

“GUYS!” Aang shouted, effectively shutting the two up. Aang never shouted. Like, ever. The avatar looked over at his friend. “Sokka, he can’t be Fire Nation.”

 

“Oh yeah? How so?” Sokka challenged. Sokka clearly wouldn’t trust Zuko, not with his sister staring at him with such fear.

 

“His fire,” Aang explained. “It’s dragon's fire. That hasn’t been taught to the Fire Nation since Monk Gyatso was a baby.” Katara let out a shaky breath, before joining her brother in glaring.

 

“And what exactly is dragon’s fire Aang? And how do you know about it? I thought the Air Nomads didn’t associate themselves with the outside world.”

 

“We don’t normally,” Aang explained patiently, “but this is different. Dragon’s fire is only taught to the...ah, Sun Warriors, correct?” Zuko nodded in confirmation, his arms now crossed over his chest. “Right! So, Monk Gyatso taught us that the Sun Warriors were the Air Nomads spiritual siblings, the honored children of Agni and Vayu, the Sun and Wind spirits. Agni blessed her children, the Sun Warriors, with the ability to learn dragon’s fire.”

 

“So only someone from the Sun Warriors can learn it?”

 

“No,” Zuko interrupted, his eyes soft with humor. “Anyone can. It’s just more difficult, especially since we learn it from a younger age.”

 

Aang nodded, “Yeah! And apparently, it’s really special, but…” he scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “I kinda...wasn’t paying attention when Monk Gyatso said that.” Katara giggled softly at that, slowly becoming more at ease, while Zuko snorted. 

 

“It can heal sicknesses and certain injuries. Not anything like a broken bone, but poisons and dangerous substances are cleared away easily.”

 

“So,” Katara started, slowly moving away from her brother, “you’re really not with the Fire Nation?” Zuko glared at the ground, the previous look in his eyes vanishing in an instant.

 

“Absolutely not,” he spat. “They killed off the dragons, the first firebenders. I will never join them.” Katara sighed in relief, slowly sitting back down, shaking slightly.

 

“I’m sorry for freaking out,” she apologized while pulling down Sokka. “My mother was killed by the Fire Nation when I was young. My necklace is all I have left of her.” A solemn look grew in her eyes as she spoke, subconsciously touching her necklace.

 

“Yeah, I can understand that,” Zuko replied. “I don’t even know who my parents are.” 

 

Aang blinked. “You don’t?” Zuko shook his head.

 

“I was found by my people abandoned as a baby, only three months of age,” Katara and Sokka stiffened. Abandoning a baby? One so young that he hadn’t even weaned off milk? Abandoning a child in the Water Tribe was a serious offence. Even if the parents were dead, the whole village would chip in to help. Katara could remember a village meeting when she was younger (back before her father left and her mother died). One of the men had found the body of six-year old Eska, a war child that looked much like her mother, but had her sires eyes. Katara could remember seeing the body as she snuck into the meeting. Her neck was crooked and her lips and fingers were blue. 

 

Katara’s father had interrogated Eska’s mother until she broke, screaming that she couldn’t keep a Fire child, that the girl was a curse because she had the eyes of a monster. She was removed from the village and had to fend for herself. 

 

(Katara later learned that she had taken her daughter out far from the village in the middle of the night while Eska was asleep. She had left her to die from hypothermia. She didn’t want to thing about what could have broken her neck)

 

Eska was six when she was left for dead. Just how severe would the punishment be for a baby as young as Zuko was? 

 

(She didn’t want to know)

 

“What happened?”

 

“I found a family, one who loves me.” Zuko smiled at Katara, love for his family shining clearly in his eyes. The bonding moment between the two was broken by Sokka’s girly shriek manly yell.

 

“What the Tui is that?” he yelled, standing and pointing at Zuko’s mask. Katara yelped when she noticed it, scooting away reflexively. Zuko rolled his eyes.

 

“That,” he said, walking over and picking it up, “is my warriors mask.” He pointed to different parts explaining their significance.

 

“This,” he said while pointing at the skull, “is the skull of a Saber-Toothed Tiger-Lion, the first solo kill I made as a man. These feathers are to represent Quetzacoatl, the dragon god of the winds, and my patron god.”

 

“Patron god?” Aang asked, tilting his head. Zuko looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

 

“I thought the Air Nomads were taught about the patrons?”

 

Aang laughed sheepishly, and Zuko rolled his eyes, immediately understanding what Aang was too embarrassed to say.

 

“Our Patron gods are those that bless us with their knowledge. Paqui, for example, has Huitzilopochtli as his patron. Huitzilopochtli is the god of war, and Paqui was blessed with the knowledge of weaponry. Huitzilopotchtli tells him what weapons are best suited for each warrior and he makes them. He is the best armorer in centuries” Zuko pulled out his own swords, keeping the mask in one hand and his swords in the other. He didn’t miss Sokka eyeing his swords with interest. “My dual dao was made by him, actually. I had always thought that something more long-range would fit me best, but now I could never imagine myself without them.” The trio nodded as Zuko set his swords down again. He paused thinking for a moment. “Also, the feathers make me look bigger.” Everybody laughed as they sat around the fire.

 

Aang stood up after a while and dusted off his pants. 

 

“Well, now that everything is cleared up, I think we should get going, don’t you?” Everybody nodded, and started to pack up. After Zuko was finished, he walked up to Sokka.

 

“If you want,” he offered, “I could teach you how to fight with a sword.”

 

“Really!” Sokka shouted, hugging Zuko. As if realizing what he just did he pulled back, a fierce blush on his face. “I mean, uh, thanks man. But uh, what about Aang?”

 

Zuko gave him a flat look. 

 

“I can already tell he hasn’t mastered anything past airbending. Firebending will come last for him. It’s as the seasons. Winter, spring, summer, fall. Waterbending, earthbending, firebending, and airbending. Once he finishes earthbending, then, and only then, will I teach him firebending. Until then, however, I see no problem in teaching you.” Sokka grinned, throwing an arm around Zuko’s shoulders and steering him towards Appa.

 

“I was wrong about you, Zuko. You are a pretty decent guy.”

 

“You’re only saying that because he’s gonna teach you how to use a sword properly, instead of flailing around like a fish on land!” Katara called from her spot on Appa.

 

“THAT'S NOT TRUE!”

 

Zuko chuckled as he climbed up on Appa, listening to the siblings bicker. They really did remind him of himself and Druk.






Nine year old Azula knew that she was the best. Her father was Fire Lord and she was the crown princess. She was smart, beautiful, and one of the most powerful benders in the nation. There were very few things she couldn’t understand or do, and even then she managed it fairly quickly. Except for one thing.

 

Her mother.

 

Fire Lady Ursa was an anomaly to the princess. Her mother was kind and loved her, but she acted strange. The first time Azula made blue fire, her mother had congratulated her. That was normal, but what was strange was that while there was pride in her eyes, tears also showed through. Never falling, but still there. 

 

And the portrait in her mother's room. It confused her, and that made her angry.

 

(She would never burn it, though. She loved her mother far too much for that)

 

The portrait was of a young man, about sixteen years of age, and hung right above the desk, so that every time her mother would wake, that would be the first thing she saw. His hair was in a traditional top-knot and he wore the robes saved specifically for the royal children. Azula had once thought the portrait was of her father. He looked a lot like him. The same sharp curve to his jaw, and the same piercing look in his eyes (eyes that were impossibly gold, even brighter than her own amber ones). But he also looked a lot like her mother. The same soft, silky looking hair, the same downward-turned eyebrows and slender neck. It couldn’t be her father. It wasn’t Lu Ten and it definitely wasn’t Uncle Iroh. So who…

 

“What’s on your mind, dearest?” her mother asked. The soft strokes of the hairbrush never ceased, even as her mother spoke. (Her mother always did love doing her hair, and never once allowed a maid to do so when she could do it herself.) Azula adjusted herself on the bed before speaking.

 

“Who’s that boy in the portrait?”

 

This time her mother did pause. She took in a deep breath before gathering her daughter in her arms.

 

“Your brother.” Azula blinked.

 

“Liar,” she declared, with all the certainty a nine year old could have. “I’m an only child.” Her mother huffed lightly.

 

“Don’t call your mother a liar, Azula,” she scolded. Azula mumbled out an apology. “And I’m not lying. You do have an older brother. Or did.”

 

“What happened to him?” her mother took a shaky breath, before adjusting both herself and Azula, so Azula was sitting on her mother’s legs while her mother sat back against the headrest. 

 

“Two and a half years before you were born, your father and I had our very first baby. A happy, healthy baby boy. Everything was perfect . But one day, when your brother was only three months old, we got the news that he was missing. The nurse taking care of him that night was hurt very badly, and the window was open. Our baby was kidnapped.” Azula listened to her mother with rapt attention. But where was her brother now? Surely he must have come back! Father would get her back at any cost, so he must have done so for her brother.

 

Did...Did he leave once Azula was born?

 

Did he not want her?

 

Azula was hugged tighter before the story continued. “Nine months later we found...we--we found his body. He was starved and murdered by the Earth Kingdom. They sent his body to your father. They--” she broke into a loud sob, tears finally streaming down her cheeks. “They murdered my baby. He was only a year old, and they killed him for nothing .” Her shoulders shook as she continued to hold Azula and cry. “And every time I see you, I can’t help but hate the Earth Kingdom for taking your brother away from you. Every time you firebend, I can’t help but wonder how good of a team you and your brother would have made.” Azula looked at her mother in horror. Is that why she had so many guards around her room at night? Is that why a guard was with her at all times, even at night? Because the Earth Kingdom was full of monsters? But wait, if her brother was a year old when he died then...

 

“Mother,” Azula started, “If my brother was so young when he died, then how did we get that portrait of him?”

 

Her mother sniffled, before raising her head and looking at her daughter, tears streaming silently down her cheeks. 

 

“You know of the royal painter Jiken, correct?” Azula nodded. He was the best painter in the Fire Nation, how could she not know him? “After your brother passed, I asked him to make a portrait of your brother if he were sixteen years old. This was the result.”

 

“Were his eyes really that gold?” 

 

“So gold they looked like gems.”

 

Azula nodded, having made up her mind.

 

“I’ll take down the Earth Kingdom, then!” she declared, a fierce look in her eyes. Her mother let out a bark of laughter, not one meant to ridicule, but one born out of surprise. 

 

“Will you, now?” Azula nodded, crossing her arms.

 

“They killed my brother! I have to do it, for---” Azula blinked before looking at her mother. “What’s his name?” Soft laughter rang from her mother, as she peppered kisses all over Azula’s face.

 

“Zuko,” she said. “Your brother's name was Zuko.” Azula nodded.

 

“I’ll defeat the Earth Kingdom for Zuko!” she declared as she fist pumped the air.

 



The night air rang with a silent promise.

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Chapter Text

Zuko couldn’t believe his eyes. Sokka was...claiming that the fish was taunting him. And trying to catch it with his hands . Did he not know how to catch a fish? Katara and Aang were ignoring the situation (how often did this occur?). Side-eyeing the two, Zuko smiled softly at Aang's pining. Katara was modeling the necklace Aang made for her, while the avatar was blushing like mad. How the older girl was oblivious to his feelings was beyond him.

 

“Sokka,” Zuko called, “do you need help?”

“NO!” Sokka cried, looking angry for some reason. “Do I look like I need it?”
“Yes.”

 

Sokka let out an enraged screech. Zuko tilted his head at the fuming boy. He was just trying to help? Why was he so angry? Maybe it was because he was having such trouble catching the fish? Yes, that had to be it!

 

Making a decision as Sokka turned away, Zuko got to his feet and brought out his bow. Aiming carefully so as to not hit his friend, Zuko let the arrow fly, just as the fish leapt out of the water. The arrow shot through the air, piercing the fish through its side and, not stopping there, continued to fly through the air until it pierced the wall of rock on the other side of the river. Zuko smiled proudly. He had caught them lunch! Surely that would make Sokka happy. He knew of the other boy's love for meat, and now he had relieved him of the frustration of catching that fish on his lonesome. 

 

Wading through the river, Zuko tugged the arrow out of the stone (with some difficulty--he didn’t mean to bury the arrow that far into the rock) and turned back to the camp. He blinked at the looks the trio were giving him. Sokka looked dumbfounded and slightly angry, Katara looked incredibly surprised, and Aang just looked excited.

 

“I’ve never seen a Sun Warrior shoot their bow before!” Aang cried, practically vibrating with how excited he was. “That was so cool, Zuko!” Sokka grumbled and crossed his arms, not looking at Zuko as he stomped out of the water, shooting a glare at Katara who was just staring wide eyed at Zuko.

 

Ignoring the weird looks he was getting, Zuko decided to take care of lunch for the day. From what he’d heard, Katara had been the one to cook every night since the siblings left with the Avatar. She deserved a break. 

 

He started to tend to the fire, feeding the damp wood with his own flames, while carefully moving the fish in a circle on the spit Katara helped him make. His mind started to wander as he went through the familiar motions, trying to make sense of the Water Tribe siblings. They were strange. For one thing, their clothes .

 

 While Zuko knew that the siblings lived in freezing temperatures, he couldn’t understand Sokka’s instistance on shirts. It was so much warmer here, why would he wear a shirt? And Katara seemed shocked when he suggested she take off the middle of her dress. She had been complaining about the heat, so he didn’t understand what the big deal was. However, she had blushed and backed away, vehemently disagreeing. Zuko had let the matter drop of course, but he was still confused. Did...did Water Tribe clothing not have a way to remove the middle part? It was a strange thought, but the only one he could think of. 

 

And for another thing, Katara and Sokka were always looking at him. Or more specifically, his torso. He didn’t know what the big deal was. Shirts were uncomfortable and itchy, and primarily for women. Zuko had never seen a man wear a shirt, not until Aang and Sokka of course. And Aang could be excused for wearing so much clothing. The Air Nomads reveled in spiritual bonds, and covering up one's body was part of their way of showing it.  But the Sun Warriors had no such qualms. More skin showing meant more of Agni’s light. And the only reason the women wore shirts were for comfort and support. Even then, they only started wearing shirts at about three years of age. 

 

A loud roar broke through the forest, startling the group. Zuko startled as the loud noise caused him to char the fish. Shrugging, not seeing a problem with charred fish (food was food after all), he kept hold of it and followed Aang who had jumped on top of a boulder. Climbing swiftly, he reached the top and crouched near Aang.

 

A large bear-fox like creature was roaring at an elderly man, who was smiling up at the creature calmly.

 

“Someone’s being attacked by a platypus-bear!” Aang cried. Ah , Zuko thought, so that’s what it’s called . Aang hopped onto another boulder and stared worriedly at the old man. 

 

“Ah, hello, there,” he smiled at the small boy, “nice day isn’t it?”

 

“Make noise!” Aang cried. “It’ll scare it off!”

 

“No, play dead, it’ll lose interest!”

 

“Run downhill, then climb a tree!”

 

“No punch him in the bill!”

 

“And then run in zig-zags!”

 

Zuko sighed at the bickering trio, before jumping down off the boulder and walking towards the platypus-bear. 

 

“Hello,” Zuko smiled, waving at the beast. The animal turned its ( her , his mind whispered) head towards him and snarled. Ignoring the shouts from his friends (were they his friends? He would like to think so), Zuko slowly lifted up a hand towards her. Breathing heavily and warily, she dropped down onto all fours and ever so slowly and cautiously sniffed his hand. After a long while, the platypus-bear nudged her head into his hands for pets. Zuko laughed happily, feeding her the charred fish, which she gulped down happily. He continued to pet her, knowing that she felt safe in his hands. He knew that she could sense his inner dragon, a sense of security for many bear hybrids. There once was a time when the dragons would allow other animals to partake in the leftovers of their meal. Only bear hybrids took the opportunity, and a spiritual kinship had been made between the two species. 

 

“Zuko!” came Sokka’s screech. Zuko looked up, surprised. He had completely forgotten they were there. “What! Are you doing ?” He blinked at the dumbstruck boy.

 

“I’m petting Fluffy,” he replied, as if it were obvious. 

 

“Who is Fluffy?”

 

“The platypus-bear.”

 

Sokka screeched again, much to Zuko’s confusion. Fluffy was a sweetheart , and she was only scared because someone had entered her territory, where cubs were probably hidden.

 

“That platypus-bear is a vicious beast!” Sokka cried, and Zuko frowned at him, hugging Fluffy close and covering her ears.

 

Fluffy , is a sweetheart who is probably just trying to protect her cubs!” Zuko protested, before turning to the elderly man. “Speaking of, where is your village? I need to speak with the leader about changing the roads to suit the wildlife.”

 

The old man smiled pleasantly, “Why we don’t have a leader. But, we do have Aunt Wu, our fortune teller.”

 

Sokka scoffed, “Fortune telling isn’t real.”

 

“What is fortune telling anyways?” Zuko looked from the old man to Sokka and back again.

 

“It is the art of predicting the future,” the old man explained calmly. “Aunt Wu has been correctly telling our fortune for generations.” Zuko nodded in understanding.

 

“We had someone similar back home.” Zuko wasn’t just saying this either. Predicting when rain would fall, how many crops would grow, and things like that had been done for centuries by his people. 

 

“Wonderful! Then you know of the joy it brings. Now, I truly must be on my way. Oh, but before I do, Aunt Wu told me to give this to any strangers I meet.” He placed a long, thin package in Zuko’s hands before turning away and out of sight.

 

Aang snatched the package out of Zuko’s hands and opened it, while Zuko and Sokka debated on whether or not fortune telling was real.

 

“What do you know,” Aang grinned, a large umbrella in his hands, “an umbrella!”

 

Just then it started to storm. Katara gleefully told Sokka that the storm proved that fortune telling was real, and both she and Zuko joined Aang under the umbrella. Sokka continued to deny that fortune telling was real the whole way to the village.




“Sorry, we can’t let you in,” a young girl explained sheepishly.

 

Katara looked at her confused. “Why not?”

 

She pointed at Zuko. “No, you guys can come in, but he ,” she pointed at Zuko, “can’t. You need a shirt.” Zuko blinked. What was it with these people and shirts? 

 

Sokka dug through his bag (reluctantly of course, only Katara’s pestering had convinced him) and pulled out a spare shirt, handing it to Zuko. “Here you go.” Zuko thanked him and attempted to put the shirt on. Key word: attempted. A loud rip rang through the air as the shirt ripped before it could even get below Zuko’s shoulders. Said boy sheepishly removed the shirt and handed it back to Sokka, who was gaping at him.

 

“Sorry, I think I have too much muscle.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” Sokka cried, outraged. Zuko just tilted his head at him. Compared to Sokka, Zuko was outrageously well defined. He had a lot more lean muscle, and his shoulders were broader than Sokka’s. He told Sokka this, which only served to make the boy angrier. Zuko just shook his head, ignoring the boy's cries of anger and Katara and Aang's muffled laughter.

 

He turned to the girl, who was looking at him with wide eyes.

 

“Do you have any spare shirts?”

 

She blinked rapidly, a flush on her face.

 

“I-uh lemme go check!” she stuttered out before slamming the door in their faces. A few minutes later, she reappeared, holding a shirt in her outstretched hands. It was a very pretty shirt, and quite baggy. Slipping it on, he found that while still tight, it wouldn’t rip. It was incredibly itchy, though. He grinned, forcing away a grimace and thanked her. She accepted the thanks with a shaky smile and led them inside, face still red.

 

“I’m Ming, and I’m Aunt Wu’s assistant,” she introduced. “Who are all of you?”

 

“My name is Katara, and this is my brother Sokka, and our friends Zuko and Aang.”

 

As they settled down onto some cushions (and finally something normal), a young woman exited a different room.

 

“Oh, Meng!” she cried, “Aunt Wu says I’m going to meet my true love! He’s going to gift me a rare panda lily!”

 

“That’s so romantic!” Meng swooned, “I wonder if my true love will give me a rare flower.” She directed the last bit towards their group, much to the confusion of Zuko. Was she trying to hint something? Probably, it was lost to the poor boy. Zuko sighed, shaking his head. A small part of him (not that small) wanted to return home where things made sense.

 

A strange moment occurred between Meng and Aang before Aunt Wu showed up, introducing herself.  Then Aunt Wu took Katara into another room, where she could predict her future. Then went Aang, and finally Zuko.

 

Entering the room, he took comfort in the low flames as he sat across from Aunt Wu. She instructed him to pick a bone from a bowl filled with them. He studied them carefully, before finding one that caught his eye. It was twisted in a way that no bone should ever be. It was deformed and hideous, and yet strangely beautiful. He grabbed it, and threw it into the fire, as per Aunt Wu’s instructions.

 

The two watched as cracks formed into the bone, strangely intricate in their design. After a few minutes, Aunt Wu used a special tool to take the bone from the fire.

 

“Oh my,” she gasped, staring at the design. “What a curious design.” Zuko looked over at the bone, the cracks looked almost artfully made, creating the design of a dragon looping all around the bone. While not very detailed, it was undeniably a dragon. “You, young man,” Aunt Wu finally said, after a few minutes of studying, “have the heart of a dragon. Strong, brave, and loyal.” Zuko simply nodded his head. That was it? He already knew that. “Now, now, give me your hand.” 

 

Aunt Wu felt all around the lines of his palms, a very strange feeling, before speaking. 

 

“My, my. You have a very cruel and evil father--”

 

“Don’t say that!” Zuko barked, standing up. “My father is kind, and generous, and--” he paused, a realization coming to mind. “You’re talking about my blood father. Aren’t you.” Aunt Wu simply smiled at him, taking his palm once again as he sat back down.

 

“Perhaps. But I am only the messenger of the fortunes. I do not know everything. But your father will be the one to help you find your love. Someone you least expect, and one who will help you at the end of your journey. And…” Aunt Wu’s face fell. “Oh, dear.” She picked up the bone, now cool to the touch, and looked at the other side. A random crack, one not part of the dragon, ruled the bottom of the misshapen bone. “Right here, it says: ‘The man who took you will take your happiness.’”

 

A foreboding feeling curled tightly in Zuko’s stomach, and he paled slightly. Standing quickly, he bowed and left the room, leaving Aunt Wu’s home to find Aang and Katara.

 

He didn’t know what to think.





Zuko groaned as they flew through the air, burying his face is Appa’s soft fur. Somehow, Aang and Katara had saved a village from a volcanic eruption, tricking Aunt Wu and the villagers. The fact that it worked spoke volumes of what Zuko was getting himself into. Along with the fact that they didn’t bother to ask Zuko if the volcano would really erupt. He was a firebender! Sure, it would take concentration, but he could still tell when and if a volcano would erupt.  At least he was able to give Aunt Wu the shirt back before they left. 

 

(A few girls had screamed in the crowd. Zuko had no idea why.)

 

Sokka patted Zuko’s back in an attempt to be comforting.

 

“It’s okay buddy. I hated that village too.” Zuko simply let out a muffled wail in response. Aunt Wu hadn’t even considered his idea of reforming the paths. Sokka laughed and leaned in closer, about to say something, before letting out a screech of horror.

 

“Oh La, Zuko your ears!” Zuko lifted his head up, raising an eyebrow at the horrified boy.

 

“What is it, Sokka?” Katara called from Appa’s head, where she was sitting with Aang.

 

“Zuko has a ho le in his ear !”

 

“WHAT?” Both Aang and Katara whipped around and moved over to Zuko. Katara manhandled him until his head was in her hands, and she could clearly see his ears. She gasped in horror, seeing two large holes in Zuko’s ears. They were ginormous

 

“Zuko are you okay?” Worry was shining in Katara’s eyes as she looked all over him for any more injuries. He simply nodded, too tired to actually fight her manhandling. 

 

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m good. I got that a while ago.”

 

“Tui and La, Zuko,” Sokka wheezed, joining his sister in her worried manhandling. “Do they hurt?” Zuko finally pushed himself up (much to the protest of the siblings) and looked at them.

 

“Of course not, they were on purpose.”

 

Katara looked ready to faint.

 

“What do you mean they were on purpose ?!” she shrieked, “Zuko, that’s not normal!”

 

“Sure it is,” he grabbed his bag and dug through it, finding what he needed. He took out two thin golden disks, that were even larger than a gold coin, going down all the way to his chin. With a horrifying nonchalance, he simply placed them in his ears. “See?”

 

“Zuko, what?” squeaked Sokka.

 

“Oh yeah,” Aang suddenly said, already back to steering Appa. “The Sun Warriors wore lots of jewelry, right? It’s like a status thing.”

 

Zuko nodded, “Yeah. I would have brought more, but they didn’t fit in my pack.”

 

“You have more?”

 

“Can I see them?!”

 

Zuko looked at Sokka. “Of course. My parents are part of the...erm higher status. It’d only make sense that I have lots of jewelry. I actually have some armbands with jewels in them, but they’re pretty uncomfortable, so I didn’t bring them.” Sokka practically looked ready to faint, which Zuko ignored, turning to Aang instead. “After the war is over, I can show you to my home and show you my jewelry. Speaking of, I actually have some really pretty blue earrings if you want them, Katara.”

 

“Uh, would I have to...make my ears look like yours?” At Zuko’s nod, she turned a little green. “No thank you.” Zuko just shrugged.

 

“Your loss.”

 

Katara and Sokka looked at each other with wide eyes. Boy, would they have a story to tell their dad once the war is over.





Night had fallen, and Zuko stared at the stars with longing. He wanted to fly. Silently pushing himself into a crouch, Zuko jumped off of Appa’s back, quickly turning into a dragon. He only managed to soar for a few precious seconds, before his wings cramped up and he had to turn human again. Falling from the sky would be an experience Zuko would forever love. The exhilaration he felt as the wind rushed past his face was amazing. The feeling of the wind whipping through his hair, and mixing golden strands with darker ones would never get old for him. Rolling to a stop in Appa’s saddle, Zuko let a sad smile grace his features. He didn’t regret coming to find Avatar Aang, but...his wings hurt so badly from such a long fly. He had never flown that long before. The most he had done was for about five hours, and his flight across the ocean was nearly triple that amount of time. It would take a long time before he could fly without pain.

 

Zuko laid down in the saddle, closing his eyes and steadying his breathing, trying to fall asleep.

 

Throughout it all, his companions never even stirred. 



Fanart!

 

Chapter Text

This was a bad idea , Zuko thought. A very, very bad idea

 

Walking back up to their camp, Zuko looked nervously behind him. People were wearing masks, disguising their faces. It was a good thing Aang had been a Fire Days Festival, and that Zuko looked so much like a Fire Nation citizen, he could walk in and get masks for the group. Well, Zuko's appearance was a good thing from a tactical standpoint. Zuko for one, hated his appearance. 

 

(It made him look like a monster)

 

“Here,” he said, handing them out. Katara got one of a woman's face, Aang got one of a flower demon, and Sokka...well, Zuko didn’t know what it was, but it was cheap.

 

“Thanks, Zuko!” Katara said, a smile in her voice as Zuko tied her mask for her. “Where’s your mask.” Zuko grumbled, before holding up a mask of a water spirit. He had wanted to wear his saber-toothed tiger lion mask, until Sokka had shown them a wanted picture of him and Aang. With him in his mask.

 

“Will you help me tie it?” he asked her, as she turned around.

 

“Sure!” she grinned, walking behind him. Wordlessly, he moved his hair up into a bun, holding it in place with his hands. After Katara finished tying it, he let his hair fall down. He smiled at her, before realizing she couldn’t see it.

 

“Thanks,” he said, somewhat awkwardly. Katara laughed goodnaturedly, and walked down to the festival, animatedly talking with Zuko and Aang. 

 

There they saw some...disturbing things. One of which was a psychotic puppet show. Only the Fire Nation could think of such a thing. So far, the only good thing was watching Sokka try some fire flakes. His reaction was pretty funny, but Zuko didn’t know what he was complaining about. It was a little less spicy than he was used to, but he enjoyed them nonetheless. 

 

Zuko was looking at some jewelry he thought Druk would like for his hoard (the Fire Nation was evil, but they had style ), when he realized he was alone. Looking around frantically he finally spotted Katara. She was on a stage, sitting tied up, while Aang (the idiot ) airbent fire away from her. Zuko facepalmed. The fire was mostly yellow, and the guy did have pretty good control. It wouldn’t have hurt her. He ran over to them, grabbing Aang's arm as Sokka untied his sister.

 

“We have to go!” he said urgently, pulling on his arm.

 

“Why?” Aang asked, a confused tilt to his head. Zuko huffed, frustrated, before pointing to the quickly advancing guards. “Oh.”

 

“Follow me!” came a voice from the alleyway. The group turned and saw a man in a mask gesturing towards himself. “I can get you outta here!” Sokka hesitated.

 

“Should we trust this guy?”

 

“What choice do we have! Let’s go!”

 

They followed the man through the twisting and turning streets as more and more guards pursued them. Aang called for Appa using some type of whistle. Years of training and adrenaline was the only thing stopping Zuko from hesitating as the whistle made no sound.

 

Man, Katara really needed to keep money away from Aang.

 

“This way!” the man cried turning a corner. “Or not!” he yelped, and Zuko saw guards blocking off the entrance. The man pulled down his mask and threw another smoke bomb, and they turned back to continue weaving through the maze of alleyways. Eventually they came to a dead end. 

 

They all turned around seeing a bunch of guards blocking them in. Zuko snarled lowly, quiet enough that only Aang could hear it.

 

(The snarl was low, and animalistic. A dragon's rage through a human's mouth. These guards enemies hunters were going to hurt his pack hoard friends.



The dragon in Zuko howled )

 

Some of the guards shouted in shock and backed up. Zuko sniffed the air, smirking evilly as the musky scent of Appa’s fur filled the air. 

 

“Appa!” Aang cried happily. Appa landed on the ground as the guards scrambled back, slamming his tail on the ground and blasting them away. 

 

Zuko laughed and jumped on Appa, helping the strange man onto Appa’s saddle, before Appa took off. The man simply threw another smoke bomb at a crate, somehow having perfect accuracy even from the sky. The crate exploded, creating a beautiful display. Zuko stared at it with wide eyes. He had never seen such a thing before. It was beautiful. He took off his mask to see them more clearly.

 

“Nice touch with the fireworks,” Aang praised. The man simply grinned awkwardly at him.

“And thank you for helping us out,” Katara smiled. “We would never have gotten away without you.” The man looked at her bewildered. 

 

“You wouldn’t have?” he asked, “But couldn’t he have led you?” he pointed to Zuko, who turned around to stare at him, raising an eyebrow.

 

“No, why would you think that?”

 

“He...he...nevermind. I never got your names. I’m Chey.”

 

“My name’s Aang! This is Katara, this is Sokka, and this is Zuko!” Chey turned to stare at Zuko, a strange look on his features.

 

“How old are you?” Zuko blinked, bewildered. 

 

“Uh...sixteen...why?”

 

Chey paled. “I’d go under an alias whenever you’re in the Fire Nation then. That’s a dangerous name to have these days.”

 

“Why?” Katara asked. “It’s just a name.” Chey looked at her, a deadly serious look on his face.

 

“Because,” he looked at all of them, before finally making eye-contact with Zuko. “That’s the name of the Murdered Prince.”




Zuko didn’t know how to feel. He barely had any time to process the fact that his name was one of a murdered prince , before they were apprehended by a group of men. 

 

On one hand, he was angry and wanted to fight them for pointing spears at him.

 

On the other, they wore leg and arm bands, had a crude sort of collar on, and wore no shirts. They were like a knock-off version of the Sun Warriors. Every Sun Warrior made an oath not to attack their brethren unless necessary. Zuko didn’t want to risk breaking that oath, just in case they were part of the Sun Warriors. 

 

But then, to top it all off, Jeong Jeong The Deserter wouldn’t even see them. Jeong Jeong's men thought they were there to convince him to teach the avatar firebending. But that wasn’t it. Zuko was Aang's firebending teacher. 

 

What they wanted was information. Information only Jeong Jeong had. Information on the murdered prince.

 

Zuko knew that he needed to find out what happened. Something was telling him to. So, he followed Aang into Jeong Jeong’s tent-hut-thing.

 

Entering, the duo found an elderly man, his back turned to them. 

 

“Get. Out.”

 

Zuko lifted his chin up defiantly.

 

“No.”

 

Jeong Jeong turned and glared at them. Aang nudged Zuko in the ribs. 

 

“Zuko, threatening the elderly firebender with, oh I don’t know, decades of more practice than you might be a bad idea.” 

 

Zuko scoffed. “I can take him.”

 

“You are arrogant, boy,” Jeong Jeong snarled, turning around, his anger making the candles flare up. “You know nothing of firebending. Not you, or the Avatar! Fire is alive. Without a bender, a rock will not move on it’s own, but fire will spread. I will not teach you Avatar. Not you or your friend. You are too weak!” The candles flared, and Jeong Jeong stilled, a faraway look in his eyes. After a moment, he jostled.

 

“You are not here to learn firebending, are you.” It was the calmest sentence they had heard him speak.

 

“No,” Aang agreed. “We’re here to learn more about the prince. His name was Zuko? Does that ring a bell?” Jeong Jeong gestured for them to sit before he started to speak.







Jeong Jeong had seen many things in his life as a Fire Nation Admiral. He had seen cities fall and rebellions rise. He had seen how even children suffered, like Chihiro, a little orphan boy with only one arm and a crippled leg (Chihiro was the reason Jeong Jeong wanted to fight. The Earth Kingdom hurt a child, and he would make them pay). He had seen how fire burned and how the war hurt everybody, even the Fire Nation. The biggest testament to this was the kidnapping of the son of Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa. Prince Zuko. 

 

Jeong Jeong had the honor of seeing the babe, if only because he was guarding the birthing room from the outside. A perfectly healthy baby boy, with the brightest gold eyes Jeong Jeong had ever seen. Prince Zuko was a joy to have in the palace. Like Prince Lu Ten, the palace staff adored the young boy, and loved to make him laugh.

 

The happiness only lasted a short while. 

 

Only three months after Prince Zuko’s birth, an alarm was raised. The palace guards were informed of the kidnapping of Prince Zuko, and were sent out to locate the child on Fire Lord Azulon’s orders. They didn’t manage it, but the search never ceased. 

 

Nine months later, Fire Lord Azulon made an announcement. He told the people that the Earth Kingdom had sent him his grandson's body, a bloodied corpse with only a taunting letter to identify him as the Prince. Jeong Jeong could clearly remember the faces of the Fire Nation Royal Family. The horrified look on General Iroh’s face, the silent tears on ten year old Prince Lu Ten’s cheeks as he tried (and failed) to keep his composure, the silent anger and grief that practically radiated off Fire Lord Azulon, and the stony look on Prince Ozai’s face as he held on to his weeping wife.

 

(Jeong Jeong would never forget the look on her face as the announcement was made. Make up was running down her cheeks as she cried hysterically. Her hair was in disarray, and her entire body was shaking with hiccuping sobs. She looked as if it was taking every bit of her willpower not to scream in agony. It was the worst display of grief he had ever seen.)



The funeral for the dead prince was held that same afternoon. Jeong Jeong was one of the four people designated to cremate the prince, alongside Fire Lord Azulon, Prince Ozai, and Prince Iroh. As such, he was the only one outside of the royal family to see the body.

 

It was horrendous. His body was so thin Jeong Jeong could easily see his ribs, and even where they were cracked and broken. The skin was molten and bruised, many parts of it were a yellowed color, showing how old the injuries were. Cuts littered his only arm, and Jeong Jeong wanted to gag at the sight of bone peaking out from where the prince’s right arm used to be. Each finger was twisted and crooked, broken and bending in painful ways. His legs were twisted in the entirely wrong direction, while his feet were facing the sky. 

 

But the worst bit was easily his head. It was sickening, twisted and cruel to think that anybody would do this to a boy. His head was completely bashed in, dented like the hull of an old ship that had crashed. His nose was completely gone, looking as if it were torn off. His mouth was open, unable to be closed with his lower jaw crushed and broken. It allowed for Jeong Jeong to see the missing teeth, many of them brutally ripped out, and his missing tongue, severed off in the middle. But his eyes , oh his beautiful, beautiful eyes that were as gold as Agni’s bright rays. They were gone . All that was left was an empty, dark abyss that stared back at him almost accusingly.

 

(Only years of training stopped Jeong Jeong from looking away. But the guilt still settled in. If only he had been a little bit faster, then this poor child would never have been tortured because of a war his great-grandfather started.)

 

Jeong Jeong stilled as he looked again. The left leg was injured, but not in the same way the right was. It looked crippled, crushed as if by a rock. Jeong Jeong looked up at Prince Ozai in horror, just before the funeral sheet was laid over Prince Zuko’s body. The triumphant look in his eyes made Jeong Jeong want to throw up.



But the ceremony continued and the Earth still spun.











A new wanted poster was put up only a week later.

Chapter Text

It was so cold . Zuko shivered, pulling his (and Katara’s, and Sokka’s, and Aang’s) blankets tighter around his shivering form. He listened half-heartedly to Sokka complaining, and then to Aang. Katara was resolutely rubbing his feet in her hands, having forced him to get barefoot as soon as he started shivering. 

 

“Hey, Katara,” Zuko said, ignoring the other two boys, “can I keep braiding your hair?” 

 

No, ” Katara glared at him, fury in her eyes. Zuko wilted slightly, before fixing the blankets that had slipped off his shoulder. “This is your punishment, Mr. I’ll-be-fine-I've-kept-myself-warm-in-the-cold-before!” Zuko grinned sheepishly at her. It wasn’t his fault that he thought he could keep warm! Really! It’s just that his home never really got cold, even in winter. So he could warm himself easily over there, but here the climate just seemed to be ripping his body heat from him.

 

“Yeah, I mean come on, Zuko,” Sokka complained. “Shoes are always necessary. If you’d just listened to me, this wouldn’t be a problem.”

 

“Hey!”

 

“Calm down you two!” Katara burst, glaring at the two boys. “We’re all just tired and cranky because we’ve been flying for two days straight. I’m sure when we find the water tribe, they’ll give us some better clothes for Zuko.”

 

Sokka scoffed, gesturing around. “What tribe? There’s nothing here, Katar--AH!” The water around them started to churn dangerously, moving in an unnatural fashion. Aang, Sokka, and Katara scrambled to find handholds, but Zuko didn’t react. He was just so cold , it was messing up his brain. 

 

Almost in slow motion, the three watched in horror as Zuko fell into the icy depths of La’s domain. Katara screamed in horror, before jumping off of Appa and onto some ice that had formed around the bison. She started to search around the ice for any sign of their friend, as Sokka ran to the edge of the ice, waving his arms and yelling.

 

“Hey!” he yelled at a boat full of men, “Help, our friend fell in!”

 

The men jolted, passing along the message, and searching the water with urgency. Meanwhile, one boat, filled with older men came up to them, bending water into weapons.

 

“What is your business here?” an elderly man asked, an ice spear in his grip.

 

Aang hopped down from Appa, landing next to Sokka. “Hello! I’m Aang, and this is Sokka! I need to learn waterbending, and the only trained waterbenders left are here.” The elderly man looked at him skeptically.

 

“And why do you need to know waterbending? You are not Water Tribe.” Aang just smiled and did a little airbending, preening just a little at the sounds of awe.

 

“I’m the avatar,” he explained to the wide eyed men, “I have to learn waterbending next.” The elderly man bowed, his comrades following his cue.

 

“Avatar, I apologize for our rudeness. We did not know who you were.”

 

“It’s okay!” was all Aang said, grinning widely. “Just...please help our friend, h--”

 

“Sir!” A Water Tribesman came running up to the group, bowing low at the elderly man. “We’ve found their friend, but she’s in critical condition. We must hurry out now!” The man nodded, getting into his boat. Sokka and Aang climbed up onto Appa, just as the waterbenders removed the ice.

 

“Wait!” Sokka cried, looking around frantically. “Katara!” he called, worry clear on his face. “Katara, where are you!”

 

“Sokka!” came Katara’s cry, and Sokka’s head whipped towards her. She was standing on a boat waving her arms to get his attention. “I’m over here!” He breathed a sigh of relief at seeing his sister safe, and nearly sagged in relief once he saw Zuko just behind her, water being bent out of his clothes by the men.

 

Sokka could have cried, but instead he just sat down on Appa’s head next to Aang, watching the water go by as they moved.



--------



Yugoda had seen many things in her life. But having the men of her tribe bursting into her workspace carrying a shivering, blue, barefoot , young lady was definitely one of the strangest.



(Had Yugoda been born in another tribe, she might have teased Master Pakku about his injury being the strangest she had ever seen. After all, how did one even get three fish hooks stuck in their thumb?)

 

“Master Yugoda,” Pakku greeted her coldly as his men laid the girl down onto the bed. “This girl is one of Avatar Aang’s companions. See to it that she doesn’t die.” With that, he left the hut with a dramatic flare, his men following behind. Yugoda rolled her eyes once they couldn’t see her. 

 

She already had a hot broth cooking, so she ladeled it into a bowl. It was going to be her lunch, once she had added some meat to it, but her hypothermic patient was much more important. Carefully opening her mouth, Yugoda bent some of the broth into her mouth and down to her stomach. Hot foods always helped heat up the body.

 

Quickly she removed the top half of her patients parka and---oh. Oh . Yugoda stifled a laugh, as she looked at her patient's distinctly masculine chest. Oh this was good . The men clearly had no idea the maiden they’d just saved was actually male.

 

(This discovery was only made better when she remembered the blush covering most of the younger boys faces.)

 

As a healer of the Water Tribe, Yugoda should go clear up the obvious misunderstanding, but she didn’t really see the need to. It wasn’t as if it changed anything. They were still her patient. And besides, it had the potential to be a great prank. Just like the one’s Kanna and her used to plan.



Hours later, Yugoda’s patient stirred, finally conscious. He blinked blearily.

 

“Wheah--?” he slurred, slightly loopy.

 

“You’re in the healing hut, young man.” Yugoda had seen too many cases of hypothermia to not understand the slurred words the victims often spoke. He sat up, with Yugoda’s help of course, and rested his back on the pillows. She continued to take care of him, and once a parka was delivered (a girls one at that. Yugoda was never going to forget this) she helped him dress. She had just finished feeding him his second bowl of broth when his friends came in.

 

“Zuko!” they cried, running towards him. Yugoda stiffened. Zuko , a Fire Nation name. The only female of the group noticed her reaction. She steered the young girl away from the other two.

 

“Is he Fire Nation?” she asked in a low voice, staring at her dead in the eyes. 

 

She shook her head. “No.” Yugoda simply nodded her head, whispering something into the girl's ear, before getting ready to leave to take care of her other patients. 

 

“You know,” she said, looking back at the group, “Zuko isn’t a welcome name here.” And with that, she left.



--------



Katara couldn’t breathe . Everybody in the Northern Water Tribe thought Zuko was a girl. Tui and La, this was the best thing ever .

 

(She couldn’t wait to see Sokka’s reaction. Zuko was more muscular than her brother, and yet could still pass off as a girl.)

 

“You know,” Katara said casually, sitting on the bed next to Zuko, “people are a bit confused about you, Zuko.”

 

The boys looked at her quizzically. 

 

“What do you mean,” Zuko asked her, his voice slightly weak. Katara grinned ferally. 

 

“They think you’re a girl.” Sokka choked on air, Aang looked between Katara and Zuko with wide eyes, and Zuko just smiled.

 

“I’m flattered.”

 

WHY ,” Sokka cried. 

 

“They think I’m pretty enough to be a girl. Why wouldn’t I be flattered?”

 

Sokka groaned in frustration as Katara laughed.

 

“Zuko could be in the fighting classes with you and Aang, that’d show them!”

 

“What do you mean, Katara?” Zuko asked, looking at her, “Aren’t you going to join the fighting classes as well?”

 

She turned to her friend, and her mood instantly soured.

 

Apparently , I’m not allowed. Girls can’t learn how to fight here. It’s healing only.”

 

Zuko just raised an eyebrow. “That’s...really stupid.”

 

“That’s what I said!” Katara threw her arms up in the air, “but would they listen? No! They even pretended not to hear me!” Before Katara could get into a full blown rant, Zuko rested a hand on her arm.

 

“Then, let’s get back at them.”




------------



Sokka would readily admit it: Katara and Zuko made a scary team. Both in and out of combat.

 

They had managed to come up with an entire cover story for the older boy. In five minutes. Sokka didn’t think their dad could do that, and he could do almost anything!

 

Zuko was dressed up in fine furs and large boots, mittens covering his hands. Katara had done his hair as well, making it all loopy and beaded and braided. His hair was out of it’s usual wolf tail (“ phoenix plume!” Imaginary Zuko shouted in his head, “ It’s a phoenix plume!” ) and done up in a low topknot, a style they had seen on a few water tribe members. But along with that, his hair also had multiple beads and braids looping in it. 

 

Currently, the boy was watching Sokka train with the other nonbenders, sitting with Princess Yue on some ice steps. 

 

“Isn’t she just so pretty?” one of the warriors sighed, almost lovesick sounding. Sokka looked back at him quizzically, taking a drink of water.

 

“Uh...who?”

“Your friend, the Earth Kingdom one?” Earth Kingdom? Sokka didn’t know anybody from the Earth Kingdom, except for Suki and the other Kiyoshi Warriors, but she was still at Kiyoshi Island.

 

(Sokka wondered if they were okay. Even though he was only there for a short time, he had made quite a few...not friends but something similar)

 

“Next to the princess it’s impossible not to notice how radiant the two are,” the warrior's friend had a wistful look in his eyes as he stared at the pair.

 

Oh.

 

Oh ew .

 

Was Sokka really going to have to listen to the other warriors talk about how beautiful Zuko was?

 

“Hey, Sokka, right?” One of the warriors nudged his side with an elbow, “What’s her name?”

 

“Li Li” he blurted out. He groaned inwardly, cursing himself. Li Li was the name of one of the Kiyoshi warriors; specifically Sukis second in command.

 

The warrior looked back at Zuko dramatically (were...were those sparkles ??) and sighed lovingly. 

 

“A beautiful name for a beautiful lady.”

 

Yes. Yes, he was.

 

Sokka groaned and turned around to continue practicing and tried to ignore the other warriors.



He couldn’t.

 

Chapter Text

Yue was the perfect princess. Docile, calm, and obedient. She always listened to what her father wanted her to do, putting her own wants second.

 

She hated it.

 

Yue wanted to be free. She didn’t want to fight, not like some of the other women, but she wanted to be able to speak her mind. To run through the streets without people whispering about how women shouldn’t run. It was unseemly apparently.

 

Her only freedom lay with the other women of the tribe, but most either didn’t like her or were very orthodox in the ways of the tribe. The elderly were too set in their ways—she couldn’t complain to them without the risk of her father being informed. The girls her age were jealous, jealous that she was blessed of the moon spirit, jealous that she got so many marriage proposals. They never stopped to think that maybe she didn’t want this life. That maybe she didn’t want the moon spirits blessing.

 

(Some days she cursed the moon spirit for bringing her back to life. What was the point of living if she was nothing more than a glorified doll?)

 

The only one who would listen to her was the head healer, Yugoda. A sweet old woman, who shared her lament and listened to her burdens. 

 

That was the reason Yue went to visit her the night the Avatar came. Just a few hours before the feast was held (a feast for the Avatar, and a feast for her birthday) Yue snuck into Yugoda’s hut. Catching sight of her patient, Yue gasped in horror.

 

“What happened?” The patient looked like a corpse. Their skin was tinted blue (a bad sign in the Water Tribes), and they were shivering. Their entire body was soaked, wet hair plastered to their face.

 

Yugoda didn’t even look up, too busy focusing on healing her patient.

 

“Those idiot men ambushed the Avatar and his bison. It caused their friend here to fall into the water.”

 

Yue’s hands covered her mouth in her shock. From what she had heard, the Avatar met with the warriors near the Mariana Ice Trench, the coldest and deepest part of the Northern Ocean. Very few survived even a quick swim.

 

“How long were they under?”

 

Yugoda was silent. 

 

“Yugoda, how long were they under the water.”

 

Still, she did not speak.

 

“Yugoda. Answer me.”

 

“Twelve minutes.”

 

Yue paled, horror on her expression. Twelve minutes ? In the Mariana Ice Trench’s waters? Tui and La, they were lucky to have made it out breathing. The fact that they were alive was a miracle.

 

A gurgling noise made its way out of their mouth. Yugoda instantly had her attention on the patient. Lifting them up with the help of Yue, she bent some more water out of their lungs. The patient opened their eyes slightly, murmuring something, before falling back into the depths of sleep.

 

Silently, Yue continued to help Yugoda, taking her mind away from the troubles of being a princess. A bell suddenly rang through the city, one Yue knew was a call to the feast. Yue gazed at the patient, noting the strange tattoos on their cheeks. Before she left the hut, she made note to herself to ask them what they meant when they awoke. If they ever did.

 

————-

 

“You did what? ” Katara cried, outraged. Sokka winced under the power of her piercing glare.

 

“I may have accidentally said that Zuko’s name was Li Li, instead of Zugoya.”

 

Zugoya, the name of one of the Southern Water Tribe women, was to be Zuko's cover name. At least until Sokka blurted out a different name in front of multiple Water Tribesmen.

 

Luckily, Zuko hadn’t spoken to many people yet, so nobody knew his “name” was Zugoya, and not Li Li. Nobody except…

 

“Princess Yue!” Katara cried. Sokka startled, looking around.

 

“Where?”

 

“No, you idiot. Zuko!” She called, turning to her friend. Zuko looked up from where he was sharpening his swords to look at her. “Princess Yue, you were with her, right?” Zuko nodded.

 

“Yeah, why?”

 

“Did you tell her your name? Your cover one?” Again, Zuko nodded, albeit much more hesitantly. Katara cursed. “This is bad. The whole cover is ruined now!”

 

“Actually,” Zuko piped up, “it’s not.”

 

“What do you mean? How could this not be ruined?”

Zuko laughed sheepishly before starting.

 

-----------

 

Zuko rubbed his hands through his mittens, trying to keep warm. Even with a large coat and fluffy mittens on, he was still freezing. All of his attention was on trying to keep warm while not using firebending. But he still didn’t get up off of the dreadfully cold ice stairs he was sitting on. Sokka was practicing with the Northern Tribesmen right in front of him, and Zuko was hesitant to leave him alone in a new place. So entranced in trying not to firebend, he didn’t notice the young woman sitting down next to him. 

 

“Hello.”

 

Zuko startled, looking up to see a lovely young woman with a shock of white hair sitting next to him. She giggled softly as he stuttered out a surprised greeting. 

 

“I am Princess Yue,” she introduced, “and you are?”

 

“Zu--Zugoya,” he said, only just managing to say his cover name instead of his real one. Yue raised one disbelieving brow.

 

“Zugoya,” she said, disbelief evident in her tone. “That seems like a more feminine name to me. And it’s Water Tribe at that.”

 

Zuko simply groaned. “I’m no good at this,” he bemoaned. “Katara and I wanted to prank the men of the village into letting a man do the ‘womanly’ activities.”

 

Surprisingly, instead of being outraged, Yue laughed, covering her mouth with a gloved hand.

 

“I apologize, it’s just…” Yue hesitated, as if worried this newcomer would spill her secrets to her father. Silently, Zuko urged her to continue, a quiet promise to keep shut in his eyes. “...The idea of the Tribesmen unintentionally allowing a man into the women’s activities is quite hilarious. Don’t worry, I’ll keep your secret.” Zuko smiled. A small silence enveloped the two, before Zuko gathered the courage to speak again.

 

“If it’s not too rude, may I ask...why is your hair white?”

 

Yue paused, gathering a lock in her mittens and examining it.

 

“I don’t mind, it’s just a topic not many dare to speak of with me.” Seeing Zuko’s panicked face, she was quick to clarify that, “it’s mostly because my father is chief, not because it’s personal or anything. In fact, most of the tribe knows about it, but none of the smaller details.” Yue looked up to the moon. “I don’t wish to bore you but...I died as a baby. My parents, struck with grief, took me to the Spirit Oasis, and begged the moon spirit to give me life. Her life force entered me, turning my hair white.”

 

Zuko smiled slightly, sending a silent prayer to Metztli, thanking her for giving life to an innocent babe.

 

“It’s similar for me,” Zuko admitted, pulling down his hood to reveal the strip of golden hair he’d always bore. “I was saved by the sun spirit, Agni. She didn’t give me life, not exactly, but she saved me.” A confused look crossed Yue’s face for a minute before vanishing.

 

“What happened?”

 

Zuko shook his head.

 

“I’m forbidden to speak of it. The word of the spirits is absolute, and it’s Agni’s will that what occurred stays between her and her people.” 

 

Yue nodded in understanding; nobody went against the spirits, not without severe punishment.

 

“Are the markings the same way?” Zuko looked at her, completely bewildered. Yue gestured towards his cheeks. “The red triangles on your cheeks. Are they also a spirit mark?”

 

“No,” Zuko laughed, good naturedly. “They’re tattoos, and the mark of adulthood back home.”

 

Yue nodded in understanding, and the two continued to chat, up until the sun went down. 



---------



Katara tracked down Yue after hearing Zuko’s story. Luckily, Yue promised to refer to Zuko as Li Li, but only if they kept her informed of what was happening. As she walked back to her hut, Katara asked the spirits to bless Yue for her kindness and understanding.

 

-------

 

The moon spirit laughed at Katara's prayer. Silly child , Tui thought, gilding La’s child back home, I already have .

 

-------



Admiral Zhao would never forgive. Never forget.

 

That impudent child, the Avatar , dared to make a disgrace of him. He would not forgive that slight, not when the Fire Lord himself gave Zhao the task of capturing that annoying child. First on Kiyoshi Island (now burned to the ground. The citizens only lived because Zhao had to pursue the boy, who flew away like a coward), then on Crescent Island, Pouhai, and finally with his former teacher, Jeong Jeong.

 

(How the Avatar escaped Pouhai Stronghold was beyond him. He didn’t even realize, too engrossed in his own speech--not that he would ever admit that. It was probably that shirtless brat, with the strange golden streak and red tattoos.)

 

But the Avatar wasn’t Zhao’s only goal. No, he had two others.

 

One would cause him to go down in the history books, and give him the moniker Zhao, the Moon Slayer!

 

But the other...the other would be forgotten to time, not that Zhao cared. The Avatars companion, a young boy with a strange golden streak through his hair, four red tattoos on his cheeks, and a very obvious Fire Nation heritage. If the pale skin and golden eyes (too golden, too inhuman. Zhao repressed a shudder) weren’t enough of a clue, the firebending definitely was. Of course, Zhao wasn’t an idiot. The boy was very obviously not Fire Nation, nor an actual boy. No, he was clearly a spirit, one the Avatar used in his hairbrained schemes. But that was no matter. He already planned to kill one spirit that night, two would simply be a bonus.

 

Zhao smirked, looking out to the Arctic city of Quel’a. A city that was getting closer by the second. Soon, Zhao would go down in history. 

 

But first, he had to get rid of that pesky general. It wouldn’t do to have the great Dragon of the West get in his way to victory. No, not at all.

 

--------

 

The pounding of a drum sounded through the city. Zuko shot up from his bedroll, still slightly groggy. Ever since he came to the North Pole he’d been getting more and more lethargic the longer he stayed. He knew it was the dragon in him, mistaking the icy tundra for the cool winds that came with winter back home. He knew it was the dragon in him, because it was begging for him to curl up and sleep the winter away, just as he did every year. 

 

He ran (or more accurately: stumbled) outside. The normally clear skies were filled with black snow that smelled suspiciously like soot. 

 

“Katara!” he yelled, jogging towards his friend. She turned toward him, and he sped up at the sight of tears streaming down her face. He gripped her shoulders, “What’s going on? Why is there soot?”

 

Katara continued to tremble, more and more tears spilling down her cheeks by the second. She was practically gasping for air, seemingly unable to breathe. Her eyes were glassy, looking right through him.

 

Zuko slapped her.

 

“Katara!”

 

Recognition returned to her eyes, and she gasped, gulping down air.

 

“Zuko?”

“Katara, what’s going on?”

 

“I know this stuff,” Katara said, gesturing towards the black snow, before wiping away some tears. “It’s soot, mixed with snow. It means the Fire Nation is coming, Zuko.” She looked up at him, a great pain swimming in her blue eyes. “The last time I saw this…” she gripped her necklace, “...was the day my mother died…” Zuko gazed at her sadly. He knew that her mothers death hit her hard, but now was no time to be reminiscing on the past.

 

“We can’t think about that right now, Katara,” Zuko looked around, seeing the men run towards the palace. Gripping her hand, he led Katara towards the ice fortress. “Right now, we need to fight.” Katara nodded, and they ran towards the palace.

 

Inside, they listened to Arnook give a speech that was (thankfully) short and to the point (Zuko hated long speeches, had since he was a kit). The chief gave an invitation for the warriors to partake in a special mission. Only a few men stood, less than fifteen, along with Sokka. Chief Arnook called them up to paint his mark on their foreheads. As the final person received their mark, Zuko noticed Katara looking conflicted, about what, he had no idea.

 

“Wait,” Katara said suddenly, looking up at the chieftain before he put the paint away. Arnook paused, and gestured an arm towards her, a silent invitation to speak. “Zuko too.” Arnook and the men looked at her in confusion.

 

“Pupil Katara,” an elderly man ( Pakku , his mind supplied. Katara’s waterbending teacher he had never formally met, having been too busy bonding with Yue) said, “who is Zuko.”

 

Zuko stood, taking a strong stance next to Katara.

 

“I am Zuko.” A communal gasp came with his declaration, most likely because of his distinctly male voice. 

 

“Then this is your fault!,” an incredibly ugly young man stood up and pointed a gloved hand at him accusingly. “Chief Arnook, Zuko is a Fire Nation name! He must have disguised himself as a girl to trick us! He must have led the Fire Nation here!” he smirked condescendingly, “and that Southern bitch must have been in on it too. She’s also a traitor!” When nobody moved to arrest Zuko and Katara, he looked around wildly, an angry look taking over his features. “What are you all doing? Why aren’t you arresting them?”

 

Chief Arnook sighed, pinching his brow.

 

“Hans,” he started, “if Zuko were really here to harm us, he would have done so already, after he was healed. It’s obvious that the Earth Kingdom cover was to keep him safe. And besides, if I had suspected him a threat, I would have already had it taken care of.”

 

“You knew he was Fire Nation?” Hans squawked. Arnook stared at him with disappointed eyes.

 

“Pale skin, golden eyes, and black hair? As well as being quite a bit smaller than many of the men in our tribe? It was obvious. But the Avatar trusts him, and so do I. There will be no more discussion of this.” The chief's word was final, and Hans sat back down scowling. Zuko approached Chief Arnook to receive his mark. The battle was due to begin soon.




--------



Zuko fought alongside the Northern Water Tribe warriors, deflecting blasts of fire from other firebenders and giving backup to those who needed it. The city was in chaos. Wounded men from both sides littered the ground, the majority of the snow red instead of its usual white. The lethargy he had been feeling these past few days vanished, replaced entirely by adrenaline. Zuko tackled a Pyre soldier away from a waterbender. The waterbender turned around, and nodded his thanks (still looking wary about fighting with a firebender), before resuming his battle.

 

The Pyre soldier pushed Zuko off, and he rolled away from a blast of fire.

 

“I noticed you firebending earlier,” he said with a slimy smile, “you’re a traitor. The Fire Lord will surely reward me once I bring your head to him. I might even become a general.” The man grinned, before punching a blast of fire at Zuko, who was still on the ground. Zuko lifted his lower body up, using the momentum to jump to his feet, deflecting the blast.

 

“Please,” Zuko scoffed, “like I would ever let scum like you defeat me.” The two traded blows, the man using quick harsh blasts while Zuko danced around him, his fire graceful and calm.

 

“What is this, the ballet?” Zuko didn’t respond to the taunts and continued a routine he always knew he would have to use. His body twisted and turned, he leaped and ducked, using every part of his body to dance. The world gained a sharper focus, and he felt more attuned to his fire than ever before. The screams were louder, the smell of smoke and burnt flesh ( prey  ) more prominent, the sight of the soldiers now terrified face in clearer focus. At the height of the dance, he spun out of the way, releasing one last fire blast. The screams were sickening, the smell of burning flesh even more so.

 

The tenth dance.

 

Only to be used in life-or-death situations. Zuko knew that the tenth dance gave the opponent small burns that distracted the enemy, and ended with a powerful fireball that incinerated them.

 

It was almost impossible to survive. Only someone who had learned the dance, and could recognize it quick enough had a chance at survival.

 

The Fire Nation would have no clue how to defend themselves.

 

Another Pyre soldier who had come to support the fallen soldier backed away, before falling into the snow and continuing to scramble backwards. 

 

“Spirit!” he cried, “The water savages have a spirit on their side!” Zuko looked at him in confusion before realizing his hood was down. Ah, the man could see his sun streak, and mistook him for a spirit.

 

The world suddenly turned red. Zuko panicked, that couldn’t be a good sign. He had to find his friends.

 

As he ran to find Katara, Aang, Sokka, Yue, anybody , he looked back at the burned corpse. Zuko felt...numb. He didn’t feel bad, he knew the soldier would kill him given the chance, but he didn’t feel good either. Zuko turned away from the body and continued running.

 

He had no direction, only a destination with no clue how to get there. No, that wasn’t right. He knew that his pack was close, their bond told him that. Zuko closed his eyes, and breathed deeply, still running. He allowed his bond to lead him. Lead him to...a garden? He skidded to a stop and hid, analyzing the scene in front of him.

 

A portly old man had a firebending stance (a familiar one...too familiar…) directed at a man with...sideburns (? Was that what Sokka had called them?) and a face resembling a pig-monkey. Sideburn-Pig-Monkey-Man was holding a sack with something wriggling inside it. Zuko looked behind the man, seeing a pond with a single black koi fish swimming in a lone circle inside. On the other side of the pond stood his pack friends along with winged-flight brothers Momo and Appa. 

 

“Let go of the moon spirit, Zhao,” the old man ordered. So, Zhao was his name.

 

( Sideburn-Pig-Monkey-Man , his dragon insisted, enemy-kill-hurt-bad man. Zuko told his dragon side to shut up.)

 

“General Iroh,” Zhao spat, “why am I not surprised to discover your treachery?”

 

“I’m no traitor Zhao, the Fire Nation needs the moon too. Whatever you do to that spirit, I shall do to you tenfold!”

 

Zuko stepped out of the shadows, quickly knocking out the Pyre soldiers behind Zhao.

 

“And I a hundredfold.”

 

Zhao whirled around, a snarl on his features. “ You .”

 

“Me.”

 

“Zuko!” Aang cried, “you came!”

 

(The horrified whisper of his name coming from the old man did not escape Zuko’s notice)

 

“Zuko, huh?” Zhao mused, “What a treasonous name. Surely you won’t help someone using the name of your deceased nephew, will you, General Iroh?”

 

The old man (General Iroh? General couldn’t be his name, Zuko had heard others use the word general before. Was it a ranking? Like a military one? Was it as high as Huey Tlatoani or as low as a tlamemeh?) seemed to regain his bearings and gave a hard look to Zhao.

 

“Let the moon spirit go. Now!”

 

For a moment, it looked like Zhao would obey, even going so far as to release the fish back into the water. Then, an enraged and psychotic look entered his eyes, and he yelled, letting out a blast of fire at the fish.

 

The moon vanished.

 

---------

 

Kill him. He hurt her. He killed my sister (killed my wife). My best friend, my companion.

 

The mother of your spirit-sister, your spirit-aunt. The sister to your spirit-mother.

 

Make the flesh burn off his bones, little dragon. Do my work.








Zuko nodded, and his world turned to fire.



-------

 

Katara didn’t know what was happening. After Zhao killed the moon spirit, Zuko started to clutch his head, whimpers and growls leaving his throat. It didn’t sound like a child crying or imitating a polar dog, and it didn’t sound like the angry growls that would leave a polar dogs mouth while hunting.

 

It was worse than that.

 

It was guttural, loud and scraping, sounding unlike anything she had ever heard. She could see Zuko opening his mouth, the growls getting louder and louder, until it got to a point that she was certain no human could ever recreate the noise. He panted roughly, saliva dripping from his mouth.

 

You’ve killed her ,” Zuko looked up, and Katara stepped back. His eyes blazed in fury, and although they were directed at Zhao, Katara couldn’t help but feel some sort of primal fear. The fear you get when you’re trapped by a rabid animal, and can’t escape. “ You’ve killed my sister!

 

Zuko's body started to shift. It started with his face. His lips stretched and twisted, teeth growing long and sharp. His forehead jutted out more, and his eyes started to move in a horrific fashion, closer to the sides of his head, and his skull elongated, growing larger and larger, with his mouth and nose turning into a snout. Two parts of his skull grew long, bone tearing through the skin, and twisting and turning until they resembled antlers. 

 

His spine stretched, and his bones cracked as they twisted and turned in ways that should have been impossible. His hands grew into paws, wicked sharp claws on the end. His hair seemed to melt into his body, only the gold actually staying as hair. The black ran over his rapidly growing body, covering it in a hard shell, and quickly turning into scales. The great beast wrapped its body around the entirety of the Spirit Oasis, and yet still reared up its front body to a great height and roared. The sound shook the water, water that Aang was merging with, turning into a giant koi made of water.

 

One friend had transformed into a dragon, and the other had merged with a spirit.

 

Katara wanted to cry.

 

When did things get this wrong?




Chapter Text

Zhao panted, running like his life depended on it---which, to be fair, it did. 

 

That stupid spirit with those stupid tattoos. This was his fault. He snarled as he shot a fire blast at one of those water savages, quickly ducking and hiding in a wrecked house. Zhao tried to regain his breath and rested, sitting against the most stable wall (which wasn’t very stable).

 

He took a chance and looked out the window. The city was in ruins. The entirety of the Northern Water Tribe was made of ice and snow, so of course it didn’t burn, but it melted. It melted so, so easily. Entire homes were puddles of water, quickly being formed into ice (whether by a water savage or by the freezing temperatures, Zhao didn’t know. Nor did he particularly care.); walls were crumbled and bodies littered the streets and canals. Zhao smirked. Good. Those water savages deserved this. 

 

A large blast of fire ran through the street Zhao was looking out of, and he quickly ducked out of sight. A loud roar blasted through the city, shaking the town, and Zhao had to dive to avoid getting crushed by a part of the wall that had crumbled. That spirit! Zhao had made a huge mistake (not that he’d ever admit that, of course), picking a fight with it.

 

He’d heard the stories of the dragons; large, fire breathing, winged creatures that were now extinct, the last of them killed off by General Iroh. Zhao had been rightfully furious when he’d heard the news. He could have been great, but that doddering old fool had taken that from him. Twice. He had wished for so many years (fifteen agonizing years) that there had been just one more . Surely if that old coot had killed one, he could too.

 

He was wrong.

 

Zhao didn’t know of the true prowess of an angry dragon. The beast blended in with the night, the only coloring being of that golden strip. Even then, it moved too fast to see, and those who did likely thought it a trick of the eye. It was large, strong, and beastly. How it moved so fast was a mystery, a beast that size should be slow! Pathetic! Instead, it was a killing machine. The screams of fire benders rung through the streets.

 

A creaking noise came from above Zhao, and he looked up just in time. The roof of the building he was hiding in had been ripped off, the entire thing in the maw of the dragon. Zhao paled and shouted, scrambling for the large hole in another wall, trying to escape. Water flooded the area, grabbing him, and bringing him out into the open. The Ocean Spirit. He struggled, yelling for help. No one came (no one would). Fruitlessly, he let out twin blasts of fire, attempting to free himself. It didn’t work.

 

The Ocean Spirit tossed him into the air, and Zhao screamed. As he flew through the air, he noticed something. Something horrible. Something disgraceful.

 

The moon.

 

It was back.

 

No. No. Nonononononono. This couldn’t be happening. He was supposed to be great. Supposed to be a legend.

 

Horror and disgrace flooded Zhao’s body as he descended, watching his greatest achievement fall through his fingers like sand. He didn’t even struggle as the dragon snapped him in half inside his great jaws.



----------

 

Iroh could remember the day he realized the war was wrong with clarity. 

 

The war hurt everybody, even children. Even his own nephew.

 

Iroh remembered meeting the little baby for the first time, back when Ozai was a loving husband and brother.

 

(Contrary to what most believed, Ozai was once a sweet boy. He had practically worshiped Iroh, always wanting to be like him. They snuck sweets from the kitchen, and played games together. Iroh, being 13 years older than Ozai, helped his little brother with the firebending katas he struggled with. Whenever Iroh thought back to those days, he thought of his beloved Lu Ten, and a faceless little boy who would never live to say his first word. He thought of what could have been)

 

Zuko was a small baby, born a few weeks early. But, oh was he sweet. Always babbling in joy at the sight of his family. He had the most beautiful golden eyes as well. Iroh remembered his father holding the child, a pleased look in his eye. True golden eyes were rare, and the sign of a legendary firebender. Nobody had been born with golden eyes in centuries, not since Avatar Kiyoshi’s time. Even Azulon, who was even stronger than his father, Sozin, didn’t have golden eyes.

 

When Zuko died, Iroh was crushed, and set out to find out why. Why would the spirits let an innocent baby die? One who had done nothing wrong? He meditated and traveled, going across the seas and the lands, looking for answers from the spirits, gurus, sages, anybody.

 

That was how he found the dragons. The last two left alive.

 

(At least, that’s what he had been told.)

 

The sight of a boy turning into a dragon was a strange one, his transformation horrific. But that isn’t what captured his attention. It was the boy's face.

 

The streak of golden colored hair, the four tattoos instead of two like the other Sun warriors wore, his strange golden eyes, none of those captivated him. No, it was the sharp jaw, the slender neck, the downward tilted eyebrows. It was the way he looked so much like his brother concentrating (when he would practice his katas as a child, the sheer determination he had to get it right), eyes glaring, eyebrows furrowed, and his mouth in a frown that tilted slightly to the left. 

 

It was the way he looked almost exactly like the portrait of Zuko in Ursa’s room.

 

The confirmation came from the cry of the boy's name. Zuko. Zuko, like his nephew who Iroh now wondered if he was truly dead. 

 

After all, the spirits work in mysterious ways.

 

---------

 

The Water Tribe bowed. The Fire Nation stood their ground. But the Fire Nation had no hope.

 

La would make certain of that.

 

La had traveled throughout the city, searching for the man who killed his wife. As he went he destroyed Agni’s children, sparing his own.

 

(He knew that Agni would mourn, but would not be angry. These children had become corrupt; evil. He knew that, had their situations been reversed, Agni would do the same.)

 

Agni’s child flew beside him, breathing colorful fire and shrieking with rage.

 

(La huffed internally. Honestly, making that boy a dragon as well as a human? Agni certainly had a flair for the dramatic, La could admit that)

 

A screech of victory came from a ruined home, and La traveled there quickly. Having deposited the Avatar after realizing his love was back, La knew he only had a little bit more power. Just enough for this.

 

Reaching in with tendrils of water, La pulled out the disgusting man who murdered his wife. He wanted to kill him on his own, but he knew Agni’s child needed retribution as well. So, he tossed him into the air, watching as the dragon's long neck shot up and bit the man in half, his lower legs falling to the ground with a dull thump. The great beast lowered his neck low to the ground, and opened his mouth, letting the torso and head of the murderer fall into the water. Most mortals would probably be appalled, but La knew the dragon's intentions. It was a sacrifice. It was dumped in there for La to do whatever he pleased with. La churned happily, returning to the spirit oasis and rejoining Tui---no, Yue, in their eternal dance.

 

I do not love you, came the voice of Yue. It was mournful, sad. La knew that she was in love with a mortal before she became a spirit. He did not feel jealous, he was above such feelings. 

 

I did not expect you to. La did not love her either; she was not the woman he had spent his entire eternal life with. He would not fall in love with her right away, and he didn’t expect her to, either. We have both lost those we love. We are both grieving. But perhaps, in time, we could learn to heal together.



The two fish continued to circle, not breaking a cycle that had been in place for thousands of years.

 

----------

 

Sokka was silent as he stared at the two koi fish. She was gone. Yue was gone. And she would never come back. He was supposed to protect her. Oh spirits, he was supposed to protect Katara. How could he protect his sister when he couldn’t even protect a fish? He was useless, truly. The weak link. But did she truly need the protection? She could handle herself, and even now, she was busy helping with repairs to the city, but Sokka just...couldn’t. He could barely find the motivation to get up that morning, much less help with repairs. 

 

Telling Chief Arnook didn’t help matters either. He was so calm. Resigned. Why didn’t he just yell at Sokka? Scream at him, hit him, anything. Anything would have been better than that sad acceptance. 

 

Something poked into his back, a warm huff of air hitting his back.

 

“Go away, Appa,” Sokka muttered. He was poked again, more insistently this time. “Go away, Appa,” he repeated, slightly louder. A third time, this time closer to his side. Sokka moved a hand to push Appa back, and paused. There was no fur, he definitely couldn’t feel any. He couldn’t even feel his nose, which was always wet. Instead, Sokka felt scales underneath his hand. Curious, Sokka turned around and screeched loudly. 

 

Oh Spirits. How could Sokka have forgotten this?

 

A large black dragon was behind him, looking startled at his screech. He remembered it from last night. It blended in much better then, but stood out like a sore thumb in the bright daylight. This dragon had...it had...it had eaten Zuko!!!

 

“You!” Sokka shouted, angrily brandishing his boomerang. The dragon looked upset for some reason, it’s eyes suspiciously wet and betrayed. There was no reason for it to be sad though, it had eaten his best friend! He would never get a sword teacher like Zuko, who was so patient and kind, but also stern (just like Sokka’s father). He would never get a friend like Zuko, who laughed at his bad jokes, and threatened to burn his food whenever Sokka got too annoying.

 

(Sokka knew Zuko was just kidding, though. He remembered all the times Zuko had heated up his food, long after it got cold.)

 

The dragon crooned mournfully, and Sokka got into a fighting stance.

 

“You killed my friend! You killed Zuko!”

 

The dragon paused, before giving him a flat look. Sokka felt slightly uncomfortable at that look (it reminded him too much of Zuko), but couldn’t (wouldn’t) hesitate any longer. With a yell, he went to throw his boomerang at the beast, when a large gust of air pushed him back.

 

Sokka fell to the ground with a loud oof, glaring at Aang who stood in front of the dragon protectively.

 

“Sokka, what are you doing?” Aang asked, his expression accusing. What was Sokka doing? What was Aang doing? Sokka was over here, trying to avenge his friend and Aang stopped him.

 

“Why are you protecting it, Aang!” Sokka cried. “It ate Zuko!”

 

“What? No it didn’t.” Sokka couldn’t believe this. Of course the dragon ate Zuko. There was a large burst of flame and suddenly the dragon was there, but Zuko wasn’t. He didn’t even realize until it was already over, his full attention on Admiral Zhao.

 

“Yes! It! Did!” Sokka started waving his arms around in exasperation, trying to make Aang see reason.

 

“But Zuko is the dragon!”

 

Sokka paused, lowering his arms. He sheathed his boomerang and walked towards Aang, grabbing his head and looking for blood. Aang started to flail around, struggling to get out of Sokka’s grip.

 

Sokka!” Aang cried, “what are you doing?!”

 

“Looking for whatever head injury gave you that hallucination.” Sokka didn’t notice the dragon’s head nearing him until it was too late. 

 

A burst of color exploded behind his eyes.

 

(But it wasn’t his eyes, it wasn’t his vision, his hearing. Because no matter where he turned, whether or not he closed his eyes or clapped his hands over his ears, the vision persisted)

 

Sokka saw a little boy who had to be Zuko (how many other little boys had a yellow streak going through their hair?) sitting inside a cave. He looked to be about four or five, especially with all that baby fat on his chubby cheeks, and his face was screwed up in concentration, sweat beading down his face. He saw little Zuko’s body contort in insane ways, his bones shifting quickly and his skin hardening. In the space of about three seconds, a miniature dragon was there, right where Zuko was. Two large dragons, one blue and one red, came up to the tiny creature and nuzzled it with pride.

 

The scene shifted again, this time when Zuko was older. He jumped off a cliff (and wasn’t that horrifying to see) and shifted into a dragon in the blink of an eye. A dragon that looked suspiciously like the dragon Aang said was Zuko--except, well, fun size. More and more scenes appeared, each of Zuko transforming into a dragon, before suddenly, finally, the images stopped. Sokka returned to the Spirit Oasis, blinking rapidly. Well then.

 

“Sokka?” Sokka looked down to see Aang (safely out of his grip) looking at him with concern. “Are you okay?”

 

“Y-yeah...yeah I’m fine.” Sokka stared at dragon Zuko (Dragko? Zugon? Eh, he’d think of a nickname later) warily. “Well, uh, I guess you really are Zuko, huh?”

 

“What? Why did you suddenly--” Aang gasped, looking utterly betrayed, whirling around to face Zuko accusingly. “You gave him an owatziplia! What about me?”

 

“I’m sorry, an owatzi-what-now?” 

 

Aang huffed and turned to him, pouting.

 

“An owatziplia. It’s like a dragon vision and I want one! Come on, Zuko, please!” Zuko simply turned his head to the side, in an incredibly sassy fashion, and settled down so he was laying on the ground. Aang huffed and crossed his arms, still pouting.

 

“Wait,” Sokka looked at Aang accusingly, “why aren’t you more surprised about the whole...dragon thing?”

 

Aang tilted his head at him. “What do you mean? It was so obvious!”

 

Sokka gaped, “How? Was Zuko being a literal fire-breathing noodle-lizard? Obvious?” Zuko turned to Sokka with a (somehow) offended face, before blowing a little bit of smoke in his face--just enough to make him cough for a few seconds.

 

Aang blinked. “Wait, you couldn’t tell?”

 

“I thought the dragon ate Zuko! Why would I think he was the dragon.”

 

“But...I thought that you thought that Zuko was eaten by a random dragon before he could transform?”

 

NO!”

 

“Huh...well…” Aang scratched the back of his head, “I mean his eyes are so gold, which only happens with dragons, and I heard him growling when we were at the fire festival, so…”

 

“SO YOU KNEW. THIS ENTIRE TIME. THAT ZUKO WAS A DRAGON??”

 

“You didn’t?”

 

Sokka groaned in exasperation, sliding his hands down his face. Zuko huffed before getting up, quickly transforming into a human. Sokka whirled on him.

 

“You!” Sokka cried, “why didn’t you tell us you were a dragon?” 

 

(Why didn’t Zuko trust them?)

 

Zuko shrugged. “It just didn’t seem important.”

 

“Not important?! Zuko, this is critical information! We could have had so much more stuff,” Sokka moaned, “so much more space to put things if we split the load between you and Appa.”

 

“Excuse me!” Zuko cried, “I am not some mere pack animal! And besides, it’s very difficult for dragons to hold heavy loads! At most a thin leather saddle and a full grown man. And that’s if the man is on our heads!”

 

“Wait, what? Why?”

 

Zuko huffed. “We have super hollow bones, it helps us get into the air. And our bodies are super light for our size, even our scales are lightweight! I’m not even full grown, and I only weigh about 5 tons!” Sokka blinked. Well, that did make sense. After all, if Zuko wasn’t full grown (and wasn’t that a horrifying thought? He was massive, so how big were full grown dragons?)

 

“Okay...wait, but why can you carry a grown man on your head? If your bones are hollow, wouldn’t it just...crush your skull?”

 

“Sokka,” Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “If I had a fragile skull, I’d be dead.” Sokka paused. Oh. That makes sense.

 

Sokka huffed. ”Still, that doesn’t explain why you thought telling us wasn’t important.”

 

“I...can’t exactly fly very well right now.” Sokka panicked internally at seeing Zuko’s crestfallen face. Oh spirits. He shouldn’t have pried! He didn’t know it was a sensitive topic, but that’s no excuse!

 

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pried,” Sokka hastily apologized. Zuko looked up at him, raising an eyebrow, his sorrowful expression instantly vanishing.

 

“Uhm...it’s okay? I mean I don’t know why you’re apologizing, but...”

 

“You don’t know why---isn’t it a sensitive topic?”

 

“No? Why would you think that?”

 

Sokka groaned, embarrassed. “You just...looked so sad, I assumed it was a sensitive thing not being able to fly.”

 

Zuko shook his head, laughing good naturedly. “No, no. I mean, I am sad about it, yes, but I just can’t fly very well right now because my wings hurt.” Zuko rubbed his back and winced. “Yeah, flying just now was not a good idea.”

“Wait, why do your wings hurt?” Aang asked, concerned. “Are you okay?” Zuko nodded.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just...when I freed you from that strange stronghold place, I flew nonstop across the ocean. In a day. I’m not used to flying long distances that fast, not like sky bison are. Dragons can go really fast for a short period of time, or slow for a long distance. It’s really taxing to go super fast for a long time, and I think I re-pulled some muscles while flying just now.”

 

Aang nodded, “Do you need anything, then? I know that being in the air and flying is even more important to dragons and sky bison than airbenders.” Zuko just smiled and shook his head.

 

“Of course he needs something!” an elderly voice said suddenly, making the trio jump. They turned to face an elderly woman, followed by Chief Arnook.

 

“Uhm...what?”

 

The woman huffed and whacked Zuko over the head.

 

“Idiot boy, what were you thinking! Overexerting yourself like that!”

 

“Uhh...who are you and how did you know about Zuko straining himself?” The elderly woman looked at Sokka with scrutinizing eyes.

 

“I am Tanuh, Arnooks mother and head healer in the village.” The boys scrambled to show their respects for the lady (giving her the flame, bowing low, and whatever else), but Tanuh just waved them up. “You,” she pointed at Zuko, “turn back into a dragon.” 

 

This time, the transformation was even quicker, almost instantaneous. Tanuh ordered Zuko to stretch out his wings as far as they could go, and then she started to inspect them. It only took a couple of minutes before Zuko was allowed to transform again.

 

“No flying for a week after the pain disappears,” Tanuh ordered, “when in a wide open space, stretch out your wings and then pull them back, make sure to do this over and over.” Zuko nodded at her instructions, seemingly understanding them. Sokka made note of everything she said anyways, because Zuko had no sense of self preservation and would absolutely “forget” to do any of those things.

 

“Sokka! Aang! Zuko!” Sokka quickly looked over the shoulders of the three newcomers and a giant grin grew on his face. Katara was running towards him, smiling happily while her grump of a teacher followed behind.

 

“Katara!” Sokka ran over to hug his sister tightly. He knew that she wasn’t in danger while just doing repairs, but still. He was her big brother, it was his job to worry.

 

Chief Arnook cleared his throat, and the siblings separated.

 

“Avatar and friends,” he started, “I thank you for your help in defending our home. But the time has come for you to leave.”

 

“But--”

 

Arnook held up a hand, stopping Sokka. 

 

“The Fire Nation is sending backup, and right now our warriors cannot afford to fight another battle. If you leave, the Fire Nation will follow, and I need to keep my people safe.”

 

“But Aang hasn’t mastered waterbending yet!” Katara protested. Arnook simply looked at Pakku, who smiled down at Katara.

 

“Well then,” Pakku started, “I guess he’ll just have to follow your instructions, Master Katara.”

 

Katara beamed, happy to finally be a master after so long of no training.

 

---------

 

Katara breathed a sigh of relief as the Northern Water Tribe became smaller and smaller behind them.

 

She would miss it (miss the training--and beating up all of the boys who underestimated her), but she knew they couldn’t stay. Aang had to finish mastering waterbending and start learning earthbending.

 

Katara looked at Zuko, who was sleeping peacefully next to her. That spirit thing...that was horrifying. She didn’t know what it was at first, but spending so much time doing repairs gave her time to think. 

 

It was the spirit oasis. As a bridge between the spirit and mortal worlds, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a spirit could have gone through and merged with Zuko. That had to be what happened, there was no other explanation!

 

She shivered, looking away from Zuko, a worried expression on her face. Katara could only hope it was simply a one-time phenomenon. 

 

(She refused to think of the possibility that the spirit was still inside of Zuko. The possibility that it would take him over once again. The possibility that it could take him away from them forever, turning him into a dragon permanently.)

 

“Katara?” Aang looked at her, worried. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine, Aang,” Katara smiled at her friend, “just...a bit nervous about how we’re going to find an earthbending teacher for you.” She had to keep her theory to herself. Sokka and Aang would freak out, and Zuko would probably be devastated. She knew how much his loyalty to the Sun Spirit meant to him, and worried that he would think he was betraying Agni by letting a spirit possess him (even if he didn’t want it).  He didn’t even seem to remember the transformation! Surely he would have brought it up if he did.

 

Katara listened with only half an ear to Aang's ramblings and theories about how they were going to find his earthbending teacher.

 

She knew she would have to find a way to free Zuko from the spirit. She would do it if it was the last thing she did.

Chapter Text

Ever since he could remember, Zuko had been part dragon. It had unlocked within him when he was just past the toddling stage of his youth, and ever since then he’d always been more or less...synced. His two sides were one and the same, one never overpowering the other.

 

(Except in physical appearance, of course)

 

He would act human as a dragon, able to understand everything the same way as normal. He ate like a proper dragon (not like those pyres claimed they did. Honestly, eating their food whole, eating it raw? Disgusting, they always cooked it first. And they ate in smaller bites, one limb at a time, to reduce the risk of choking. They weren’t uncivilized). He wore his ceremonial jewelry when needed. He listened to what the other warriors said and responded accordingly.

 

But he also acted in the opposite. As a human, he would often mimic the behaviors he had as a dragon. He growled at enemies (yes, that stupid bird was an enemy! He saw it glaring at Druk with it’s stupid beady eyes---his mom was ridiculous for finding it funny), he chuffed when he was nervous, and he stalked his prey (Especially during hide-and-pounce with Druk).

 

The Sun Warriors had always encouraged it with praise and smiles, which is why he was so confused at Katara’s behavior.

 

It had started their first morning after their encounter with General Fong. The night before had been a bit chilly so he snuggled up to Appa (who, he discovered, was a wonderful cuddler) after transforming. Zuko slept soundly, snoring softly...at least until he awoke to Katara’s scream with a start. He shot up, immediately turning back into a human and getting into a fighting stance. Subconsciously, he noticed that Aang was gone--his bed was neatly made though (as always), so he didn’t worry too much.

 

“Katara?!” Sokka shot up as well, turning to his sister. “What’s wrong? Where’s the danger?!” Katara took a few shaky breaths, staring at Zuko in horror. Sokka gripped her shoulders, repeating the question.

 

“It’s nothing,” she assured after a few minutes, “just...just a nightmare.” Zuko relaxed, and Sokka let go, walking back to his sleeping bag. Zuko was glad there was no actual danger, but still...nightmares were scary. He walked up to Katara and gave her a hug, feeling her stiffen slightly.

 

“You okay?” he asked, nuzzling her (a pang of sadness ran through him as he remembered nuzzling Druk after his nightmares, just like their parents did for Zuko. Agni above, he missed his family). “Do you want to talk about it?” Katara seemed to stiffen even more, and gently pushed him away, a strained smile on her face.

 

“No thank you,” she refused with a shake of her head. “I think I’m...gonna go for a walk...clear my head...see ya!” with that, she practically ran off. Zuko keened, slumping slightly. He made Katara even more upset! Just after a nightmare too!

 

“Uhh...Zuko?” Sokka tentatively spoke up from behind him, “What was that?”

 

Zuko turned to Sokka, blinking in confusion. “What was what?”

 

“That noise you just made? And why did you rub your cheek against my sister?”

 

“I...I keened? And nuzzled her? All dragons do it.”

 

“But you’re not a dragon right now. Wouldn’t it not work if you’re human?”

 

Zuko blinked, pondering that for a moment.

 

“Huh...I never thought about that,” he scratched the back of his head, “I mean, it’s always been like that, ever since I could remember. I’ve never not had both my human and dragon side coexisting, no matter what form I’m in.”

 

“Huh…cool.”

 

“Where’s Katara?” Sokka jumped as Aang's voice came up from behind him. The two boys turned to see Aang and Momo walking towards them, Aang holding a small bag. Momo chirruped and flew onto Zuko’s shoulder, cuddling into his warmth. 

 

“She went for a walk,” Zuko answered, before gesturing towards Aang’s bag. “What’d you get?”

 

Aang grinned proudly. “I got us breakfast! See? I got some lychee, some orangeberries, some strawberry-pomegranate, and some nuts!”

 

Sokka groaned dramatically, “No meat? Aang, how could you?” Zuko laughed as Aang and Sokka started to bicker lightly. Everything was almost perfect. Now, if only he could find a way to help Katara.

 

----------

 

Katara tried hard to steady her breathing, but it was so, so hard. She couldn’t help it! Over a week had gone by with no incident from Zuko! She had started thinking that maybe, just maybe, the dragon spirit, (an Ijraapalik, if she remembered Gran-Gran’s stories correctly) resided solely in the Spirit Oasis, never to leave (never to possess her friend). 

 

That hope was shattered that morning. 

 

She had been the first one to wake up, just like every morning since they landed in the Earth Kingdom. Usually, Zuko was up with the first of the sun’s rays, but the North Pole had made him lethargic, and sleepier than usual. He was slowly getting back to a normal sleep schedule (for him at least), but it would probably take a few more days. So, Katara had woken up first, laying in her sleeping bag for a few extra minutes, as a treat from the disaster that was Fong. She had heard a snorting sound, and smelled the light scent of smoke. At first, she had thought the Fire Nation had found them, and had sat up to look around the clearing. To her horror though, in the place where Zuko had gone to bed (cuddled right up against Appa, his fingers digging into soft fur, head resting on Appa’s stomach. She knew the exact position he had gone to sleep in. She had to. Because what if Fong found them again? He had reacted the worst to Zuko, burying him completely underground--nearly suffocating him---) was a dragon.

 

The exact same dragon that had been at the North Pole.

 

Katara had screamed, and the dragon startled awake, almost immediately turning into a human.

 

She had ignored her brother’s question, too busy staring at Zuko.

 

At poor, ignorant Zuko. He didn’t know. He didn’t know about the dragon...He couldn’t have. Sokka and Aang probably thought it was a one-time, spirit oasis only deal. She also knew for a fact that they hadn’t brought it up with Zuko. And that look (so confused, so innocent, so oblivious)...that’s what had sold her. Surely, if he had known, he would have noticed turning into a dragon! That was the mark of someone possessed by an Ijraapalik. Complete obliviousness to the transformations. Complete obliviousness unless they were told, but there were dangers to telling someone they were possessed by an Ijraapalik. Ijraapaliks slowly took over the mind, eventually completely dominating it and turning whoever they possessed into a monstrous beast. But if their hosts were made known to their plans, then they could panic, attempt to take over quickly, and explode the brain in their haste. She couldn’t do that to Zuko! She...She…

 

She...ran into a wooden pole.

 

Katara yelped, rubbing her nose. She was so lost in her thoughts, she didn’t even notice the pole.

 

“Oh my, are you alright, Dearie?” a gravely old voice asked from behind her. Katara turned around to see a short old man looking at her worriedly, holding a large jug of water in his hands. 

 

Katara started, realizing that she hadn’t answered the old man yet. “Oh! Yes, thank you, sir. I’m alright.” He squinted disbelievingly at her. 

 

“Hmmm...come with me, Dear, I’ll help you with your pain.”

 

“Oh, no I couldn’t!” Katara protested. She had to get back to her friends! “I, uh, couldn’t take up any more of your time, truly!”

 

The old man turned from where he had started to hobble away. He raised one thick eyebrow at her. “You say that like you’ve got a choice,” he smirked and chuckled walking away. Katara followed behind him. After all, you listen when an elder tells you to do something. After only a few short minutes, the man tripped over a tree root. Katara caught him, but was too slow to stop the jug from breaking. He gazed at it sorrowfully, sighing. 

 

“Well, there goes that one,” he gazed at the shards, before starting to walk again. “Come on dearie, I need your help getting more water.”

 

“Wait!” The man turned, and watched in amazement as Katara bent the water out of the ground, making sure to not get any dirt inside it.

 

“Well, I’ll be. A waterbender. Haven’t seen one of those since I was twenty.”

 

Twenty? Katara nearly dropped the water in her shock. “But...there are no other waterbenders in the South Pole and nobody has left the North Pole in a century!”

 

The old man cackled. “Good thing I’m a hundred and thirty, now!” Katara gazed at the man in astonishment. And she thought King Bumi was old. In a daze she followed the old man through just a few more trees, until they came upon a small hut. 

 

“Put the water in that pot, and I’ll get some tea going.”

 

“Tea? What’s that got to do with anything?”

 

The man rummaged through his cupboards muttering to himself. Katara glanced at a book lying on the table.

 

“Chamomile, lychee, green...Aha! There’s the fennel! Great for bringing down inflamed skin! Been looking for that one for ages...” The man continued searching, and Katara picked up the book. 

 

She opened it at a random page and started reading.

 

R

 

Rhododendron (right), a beautiful but deadly flower. Mostly grown in shrubbery in the Earth Kingdom, commonly grown in Ba Sing Se, but grows naturally in the wilds outside Omashu. Defined by their bell shape, bright colors, and sour taste. Most Rhododendrons have 10 stamen. Not to be---

 

“I see you’ve found my book.”

 

Katara slammed the book closed, whipping around to see the old man with a hot cup of tea in his hands. She quickly placed the book back with a guilty look on her face, taking the cup of tea.

 

“I-I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me--” she babbled excuses until the man held up his hand. 

 

“I don’t care, dearie. It’s an interesting read, now tell me, what page were you on?”

 

“...The one about rhododendron…” Katara muttered, taking a sip of the tea. She puckered her lips, not expecting the sour taste. 

 

“Ah, rhododendron, one of my favorites. There’s a bit of rhododendron in that tea you know.”

 

Katara nearly choked, having just swallowed when he said that.

 

“What?!” she practically shrieked. “The book said it was deadly!”

 

“It is,” he agreed, “if you’re an idiot and don’t know what you’re doing. Small doses do miracles, just like every other plant. The spirits put them here for a reason. They can be deadly, but if you use it right they become healing. Now, finish up that tea.”

 

The two chatted for a little while longer, until Katara jumped up. 

 

“Oh no!” she cried, looking out the window. “It’s almost noon, I gotta get back!” She turned to the elder, bowing Earth Kingdom Style. “Thank you for the tea, sir!”

 

“Now you just wait one second.” Katara paused by the door, turning her head to see the old man holding the book out to her. “Take this.” Katara gaped like a fish-snake.

 

“But...I can’t! It’s yours!” He waved her off, pressing it more insistently into her hands.

 

“Bah, I have that old thing memorized. It’s time it goes to someone new. Someone who can appreciate it more than I can. Take it. You’d be doing me a favor.”

 

Biting her lip, Katara slowly took the book from him. She smiled softly. “Thank you sir!” 

 

He nodded. “Now get going girl! Get back to your friends!” Katara grinned, ecstatic, and ran off, waving to him as she went. 

 

She ran the whole way back, grinning. She jumped and danced and laughed as she made her way down the dirt path she had come.

 

“Katara!” Sokka called in relief as she exited the forest. “Where have you been?”

 

She grinned at him, breathless, “Sorry, I was following that path and got distracted and--”

 

“What path?”

 

Katara blinked at him. “The one right---” it was gone. The path she had taken. It was gone. She blinked in confusion, spinning around the clearing trying to find it again. “What? Where’d it go?"

 

“Katara, did you hit your head?” Sokka asked worriedly, trying to check for a concussion.

 

“No! I know that there was a path! There was this old man, and he led me to a different clearing! He gave me tea and this book!”

 

Sokka just gave her a look she couldn’t decipher. 

 

“Katara, I think you should lay down.” He tried to lead her over to her sleeping bag, but she struggled out of his grip.

 

“I’m not crazy, Sokka!”

 

“I never said you were! But something happened while you were gone on your walk!”

 

“Oh, how do you know!”

 

“Because this is the only clearing in the whole forest.” Katara gaped, and Sokka continued. “I spent a lot of time looking for a better clearing to land in Katara. I tried to find one with water so you and Aang could practice, but I couldn’t! We flew over the whole forest, Katara. This was the only clearing.”

 

Katara shook her head, storming over to her sleeping bag. Stubbornly, she sat down, back facing Sokka, and opened her new book. She’d show him! She wasn’t crazy.



-------

 

R

 

Rhododendron (right), a beautiful but deadly flower. Mostly grown in shrubbery in the Earth Kingdom, commonly grown in Ba Sing Se, but grows naturally in the wilds outside Omashu. Defined by their bell shape, bright colors, and sour taste. Most rhododendrons have 10 stamen. Not to be confused with Azaleas, which have smaller and thinner leaves than rhododendrons. 

 

Rhododendron is known to help cure inflammation, headaches, rheumatism, diabetes, etc. While helpful, rhododendron is very deadly, and can cause weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, slow heartbeat, irregular heartbeat, and blurred vision. Symptoms of poisoning include sweating, impaired consciousness, chills, fainting, shock, seizure, cardiac and respiratory arrest, severe stupor, and possibly death. Should only be handled by professionals. Refrain from eating or drinking unless given by a medical personnel. 

 

------

 

“Aw man, Zuko, you’re gonna love this!” Aang cried as he flitted up the mountain using hs airbending. “Omashu’s great!”

 

Sokka rolled his eyes. “Yeah, the last time we were here we got arrested for ‘malicious destruction of cabbages’ and nearly got killed by an old man.” He snickered at Zuko’s bewildered look. 

 

“Aang?” Katara called, looking up at the boy who was uncharacteristically still. “Are you okay?”

 

“Eh, he’s probably fine, Katara,” Sokka waved off her worries, “he’s probably just admiring the city. But anyways. Zuko, I present to you, the city of Om--oh…oh no...” Katara, Sokka, and Zuko stood still in horror, watching the Fire Nation banner flutter over the walls of the impenetrable city of Omashu.

 

------

 

“Hey, Zuko, how good are you with kids?” Sokka asked with a strained smile. (Neither of them noticed the raised eyebrows the rebellion gave them) Zuko blinked and nodded. He helped take care of the children back home, after all. Besides, the little kids back home loved to see his fire.

 

“Great!” Sokka chirped, before dropping a baby in his lap. Zuko fumbled, before righting the baby, holding him to his chest.

 

“You idiot! He could have gotten hurt! And where did you get a baby?!” Sokka grinned sheepishly.

 

“He sorta...followed us?”

 

“Well, let’s get him back to his mother!”

 

“We can’t!” 

 

Zuko glared. “Why not?! It’s a baby, he shouldn’t be away from his mom this early!”

 

“Uhh...his parents are Fire Nation nobility…?”

 

So?”

 

“So...we kinda can’t risk going back in the city right now! And besides...we’re sorta...trading him for King Bumi in the morning.”

 

“What.”

 

Zuko stared at Sokka, before shaking his head and attempting to get the baby to stop pulling his hair. Key word: attempting.

 

----

 

Zuko couldn’t believe it. His life had gotten so crazy this past month and a half--Agni, it’d gotten even crazier today! They snuck into a city overrun by the Fire Nation, met a rebellion, Sokka’s half-baked plan of faking pentapox... worked, accidentally kidnapped a child, and now, the four of them were waiting on top of the walls, so they could exchange the child for King Bumi. From the other side, three girls came walking towards them. A gloomy looking girl, a smiling girl in pink, and...the third...she walked like his chief. Like someone with power who knew how to use it. King Bumi landed right behind them, calling out a cheery hello, as the gloomy girl spoke. 

 

“You brought my brother?” she asked. In response, Zuko stepped forward, showing off the child he had propped against his hip. 

 

“I’m sorry,” the regal girl interrupted. “But a thought just occurred to me. A baby for a king? That doesn’t seem very fair now does it?”

 

The gloomy girl paused, reluctance and a hint of anger flashing in her eyes, before agreeing. “You’re right. Deal’s off.”

 

“Now, now, I didn’t say that. After all, I wouldn’t want you to lose your brother as well. I simply think that there should be more given to us…” without warning she blasted blue fire at them. Zuko just barely managed to deflect it, trying to balance a baby actively trying to rip out his hair at the same time. However, he wasn’t able to deflect the hot air that blew off Aang’s hat. “What about the Avatar as well?” the girl finished. Zuko snarled, thrusting the baby into Aang's hands, and running at the girls. “What a shame,” he heard her say, “I guess the deal really is off. Ty Lee, get Tom-Tom; Mai, get the Water Tribe. This traitor and the avatar are mine.”

 

Zuko practically howled in rage (how dare she attempt to hurt his pack?). He blasted fire at her, and she attempted to deflect it, eyes widening when she realized she couldn’t. She jumped out of the way. Zuko could practically hear her brain working overtime, wondering how and why couldn’t she deflect his fire.

 

He smirked. She’d never get stronger flames than his. Yes, blue flame was impressive, but dragons fire was true fire. Something very few ever got to witness, much less fight.

 

The girl glared and threw more fire at him. Zuko dodged with ease.

 

“Zuko, look out!” 

 

Quickly, Zuko twisted out of the way of the pink girl. He got into a ready stance, prepared for her to strike again, but paused at her horror filled face.

 

“Uh oh,” she squeaked, before turning panicked filled eyes towards her friend. “Uh...Azula…”

 

There was no time for any more words as the regal girl (Azula?) looked at him with crazed, rage filled eyes.

 

The next thing anybody knew, the world had become blue.

Chapter Text

Zuko shouted in shock as he deflected the flames away from his friends. Azula jumped out at him with another blast of blue fire, eyes ablaze in anger. 

 

“How dare you?” she seethed. “How dare you mock my mothers’ pain? My brothers’ memory?”

 

“What are you even talking about?!” Azula didn’t answer and simply blasted more fire at him, which he deflected. Zuko took a breath and started one of his dances, flighting around Azula, dodging each of her blasts.

 

“What is this, a dance lesson?” she mocked as Zuko cartwheeled away from her, punching a blast of fire in her direction. She dropped low to the ground and kicked some flame back in retaliation. “I don’t have time for your games, you traitor!”

 

A large blast of fire rushed towards her, and she rolled out of the way. She threw fire at him, and he grabbed it, roping it into his own flames, twisting it above his head.

 

“You can’t be a traitor if you were never loyal in the first place.” Azula bared her teeth at him and jumped to the side as his twin pillars of fire crashed down, scorching the earth where she had stood. They circled each other for a moment before Zuko dropped into a crouch and kicked out, trying to trip her. Azula jumped out of the way but wasn’t expecting the quick kick to her face. She grunted, sliding back, and held her bruised nose. He was impressed, most people would have been knocked out from a hit like that.

 

“Princess!” came a yell. Zuko saw a young man in armor running towards them. He skidded to a stop in front of Azula, holding a spear in his hands, glaring at Zuko. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you!” Azula rolled her eyes, and Zuko took the chance. He jumped up into the air and kicked the newcomer harshly in the head. Even through the helmet, Zuko could see his eyes roll to the back of his head, and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. Azula smirked, kicking him off the ledge.

 

“Thanks for getting that little pest out of my way.” Zuko growled and bared his teeth. She distracted him with a blast of fire before kicking him in the face as well. “But that’s for kicking me.” Zuko’s mouth and nose hurt, and a harsh metallic taste met his tongue while something wet dripped down his mouth. He spat blood out onto the floor, wiping his bleeding nose, getting into another ready stance.

 

A low screech came from above and the two looked up just in time to see Aang and Bumi fall past them. They blinked in unison, surprised, and stood there for a couple of seconds, simply trying to process it. Then, Azula looked back at him and smirked. Zuko tensed, noticing the tightening of her legs.

 

Zuko jumped first.

 

“Zuko?” Aang cried loudly, confused as Zuko landed on Bumi’s cage with a dull thud. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Oh hohoho! A Zuko?” Bumi cried gleefully, before calling out a cheery “Hello!”

 

Zuko ignored him, turning around. Sure enough, Azula was following behind them in a cart of her own, ready to blast fire at them. Zuko deflected each of her flames alongside Aang. Noticing some sort of wooden structure, Zuko set it on fire, causing it to collapse.

 

(He didn’t notice the extra tinge of blue in his flames, nor did he notice Azula’s triumphant grin.)

 

Azula burst out of the flaming wreckage, clothes slightly singed. Zuko groaned. She was good, he would admit that. (Not as good as his parents, of course. Nobody could beat them. The four of them twisted and turned, going through each of the pathways. Three trying to avoid, and one trying to catch. Zuko turned around to see a fork in the road. He got so preoccupied, he didn’t notice Azula sending a spinning disk of flames at them; not until Aang shouted in shock. He looked back in horror, just waiting for it to hit. Fortunately, Bumi (somehow) managed to earthbend a small rock formation, forcing Azula to jump out of her cart and skid to a stop. Unfortunately, the weight of three people plus Bumi’s metal cage was causing the cart to go too fast, and a small bump caused Zuko to go flying off. 

 

Aang cried out in shock as Zuko twisted in mid-air, landing on his hands and feet. He looked up at Azula, who was standing only a few feet away.

 

“I don’t know why you’re helping them,” Azula smirked, throwing another blast of fire at him. “The Earth Kingdom murdered my brother, you know. When he was just a baby.” 

 

Zuko dodged the fire, before looking at her with wide eyes. She jumped towards him, twisting out in a kick.

 

“You,” he said, blocking her kick with one of his own, “you’re the princess of the Fire Nation.”

 

“Nice of you to finally notice.”

 

The two continued the fight, flames burning everywhere. Zuko was calm, confident. He had it under control. At least, until Azula threw two flames at once. 

 

Zuko only noticed one.

 

A loud cry of pain alerted Zuko, and he turned around in horror to see Aang clutching his arm. Even though they were far apart, Zuko could still see the bright red burn mark taking up the majority of his upper arm.

 

His shoulders slumped. He...failed. He failed and now his packmate was hurt because of him. Azula laughed cruelly. 

 

“Was that all it took to burn the fight out of you?” she mocked. Zuko's breathing picked up. “How pathetic, you give my brother a bad name.” Zuko started to growl lowly, smoke pouring from his mouth and nose. “You know, you’re a pretty good fighter. If you give up now, I promise you’ll be the first to be executed. Won’t that be nice? Dying first instead of having to watch your friends burn alive?” Zuko twisted towards her, snarling loudly. Azula took a step back, the first sign of fear she had shown.

 

Zuko lunged towards her and she scrambled back, eyes wide. Predator-mean-blue was afraid-scared-want-mother. Good. Zuko screeched, and swiped his claws at her. He hissed unhappily as she dodged. His claws weren’t big enough for threat-to-pack, but he couldn’t fully transform, otherwise the slide would fall down. So, he lunged towards her, grappling at her hands. They wrestled for control, each trying to one up the other. Zuko's gaze flicked towards the side, gaging the height they were at and how far they would fall. He looked back at Azula, grinning feral, before launching himself off the side. With Azula’s hands clenched tight in his own.

 

They continued wrestling for control in mid-air. Azula grunting, and Zuko snarling, twisting and turning for what felt like forever. Finally they slammed onto the ground, Azula letting out a slight gasp of pain, while Zuko stopped his snarling to let out a tiny whimper. He shook his head. Now was not the time. He took steadying deep breaths before transforming, glaring into Azula’s eyes all the while.

 

-------

 

Azula was angry. No, she was furious. 

 

Some imposter took her brother's name (an obvious insult to both her brother and her mother). And to make it worse, he was a traitor to the Fire Nation. At least, that’s what Private Raoke said. He was the only one to survive the siege of the North, claiming he escaped to tell the Fire Lord of the traitor. Azula had internally snorted when she heard; honestly, the boy was a terrible liar. It was obvious he had only escaped to save himself, but of course Azula wasn’t going to mention it. It was best to let him have his use and then get rid of him. It’s easier that way.

 

Unfortunately, when she was told to go help secure New Ursa she was forced to take Private Raoke with her. The sniveling little weasel-rat wouldn’t stop flirting with her and thinking that she needed to be protected. It was made slightly better by the addition of Mai and Ty Lee. Ty Lee would distract him, and Mai would make him uncomfortable by sharpening her knives right in front of him. She owed them one. Everything was going well: the people were subdued, the city was thriving, and the Fire Nation now occupied one of the greatest Earth Kingdom cities. 

 

At least until she heard the news. There had been a massive “outbreak” of pentapox, and the guards allowed the infected to leave the city. But instead, it was a secret rebellion force, one that included the Avatar and his friends. One that took Mai’s little brother, Tom-Tom, with them. One that agreed to the trade Mai’s parents had set up. A toddler for a king.

 

She retires early one night, and this is what happens. 

 

Now, don’t get Azula wrong, she would get Tom-Tom back (She wouldn’t let Ukano and Michi suffer like her parents did. She wouldn’t let Mai, who had the luxury of getting to know her brother, suffer like she did. She wouldn’t let Tom-Tom die like Zuko did). But it was a delicate process, especially when she also had to deal with Ukano’s deal.

 

So, she had grabbed Mai and Ty Lee (leaving Private Raoke behind), and set out. They met up with a group of four--no, five. Two water tribesmen, one short boy who...reminded her a little of Ty Lee, and...one traitor, who was holding Tom-Tom to his chest.

 

It was both easy and difficult to tell that he was the traitor. He was very obviously Fire Nation, with pale skin and gold eyes; and since he was with the Avatar, it was easy to claim him as a traitor. Unfortunately, it took her awhile to pin him as the traitor. 

 

Private Raoke had given a description of the traitor from the North. A Fire Nation male of considerable height, glowing golden eyes, and a bulk of muscle. Four red tattoos on his cheeks and a large strip of straw colored hair. Colored fire that burned everything in its path

 

The boy before her was average height, with lithe muscle, bright (not glowing) golden eyes, and a gold streak in his hair. Honestly, the only thing even remotely resembling Private Raokes description was the four red tattoos. That was the only reason she even recognized him. 

 

There were other things her father needed to know about the traitor, for a more accurate description. He wore earrings that seemed to stretch the lobe of his ear out (ew), and a strange outfit, consisting of only pants, shoes (open-toed ones at that), and a large collar. No shirt, which came as quite the shock. Most men only didn’t wear shirts in certain situations; combat, training, the beach. But he walked like it was perfectly normal to walk around shirtless. 

 

But still, it only took one fight for her to realize he wasn’t a traitor. At least, not a normal one. He was a firebender, yes (and she couldn’t deflect his flames, why couldn’t she deflect his flames? Why were they so colorful, like a rainbow?), but he didn’t fight like one. He used brutal strikes that would have incapacitated anybody else (and did incapacitate Private Raoke, who “came to her rescue”. Thank Agni she was able to kick him off, most likely killing the pest), and twisted and turned and cartwheeled. Like a more violent version of Ty Lee. It wasn’t a fighting style she had ever seen before, and one she didn’t know how to defend against. But that wouldn’t stop her.

 

Not when one of his little friends called out her brother's name. Not when he responded like it was his. It wasn’t.

 

So she fought tooth and nail at him. The Avatar could wait, nobody disrespected her brother’s memory. Yes, she attempted to get the Avatar when she had the chance, but her main priority was the traitor.

 

(She refused to call him Zuko)

 

But...He wasn’t...he wasn’t human. No human (at least, not a sane one) would launch themselves off the side of the mail chutes, taking her with him. No human would growl like an animal, before having his entire body transform. Into a dragon.

 

She looked up into the beast's eyes in fear as it slowly grew larger and larger. It was so heavy she couldn’t push it off, and she was too scared to even try, her breath coming out is weak gasps (it was the paws pressing down on her chest, she rationalized, it wasn’t fear, not of the sharp claws piercing her armor and pinning her to the ground. Not of the long, sharp teeth that could crush her in an instant. Not of anything, she wasn’t weak! Except mother always said true strength was overcoming fear--not the absence of it). 

 

But then suddenly...it stopped. It was smaller than she expected, about the size of an elephant-moose, but still large. The beast lowered its head towards her, and she turned away closing her eyes in fear--in weakness. But it didn’t open it’s jaws and devour her. Instead it...sniffed her? It let out a confused sounding keen, shifting anxiously (and ow, that definitely wasn’t pleasant on her ribs), and she could see a bit of it’s tail wagging anxiously. It got off of her and turned in nervous circles, whining, and coming back to sniff her every so often. It shook its head and pinned her down, growling again (Just when she had started to get up, too). She could see the conflict in its eyes, before they hardened. It opened its large jaws and she could see flame building up, ready to blast in her face; she felt its paws press even harder against her chest, and she thought it was hard to breathe before. She struggled, even as black spots entered her vision; she couldn’t die here! She couldn’t let this traitor (monster, her mind whispered) live! She couldn’t leave her mother with both her children dead. The heat built up, getting hotter and hotter, and she still couldn’t breathe, and then---

 

The dragon yelped, tilting on its side and crashing to the ground. Azula gasped for air, turning onto her side and choking. 

 

“Azula!” soft hands fluttered around her, steadying her shoulders. Azula looked up to see the kind grey eyes of Ty Lee, looking at her worriedly. Azula brushed her off, only wobbling a little bit as she stood.

 

“I’m fine, I’m fine. What do you take me for? Some sort of weak peasant? I had it under control, I didn’t need your help.”

 

Ty Lee sagged, a sorrowful expression taking over her face. Azula ignored the pang of regret that shot through her. She felt bad for her cold tone, but she couldn’t just apologize! A princess never apologized, Father said so.

 

(A little voice that sounded just like mother scolded her. Azula narrowed her eyes slightly, thinking. Even if princesses didn’t apologize...mother would want her to.)

 

Together, Azula and Ty Lee met up with Mai, who was holding Tom-Tom in her arms. A low growl came from behind them, and Azula saw Mai’s eyes widen slightly. She turned back, ready to resume their fight but...the dragon simply surged upwards, flying into the distance. Azula let it, watching it as it flew away.

 

“Ty Lee, what did you do to that dragon?” Azula asked, turning around briskly walking back to Governor Ukano’s home. 

 

“Oh, I chi-blocked it!”

 

“How?” Mai asked, deadpan as usual. “It had scales, wouldn’t that protect it?” 

 

“Probably against normal attacks,” Ty Lee agreed, walking normally (it wasn’t right, Azula thought. Ty Lee was always skipping around and doing cartwheels with her boundless energy. The feeling of regret grew deeper), “but the scales were actually really soft! It was surprisingly easy! But, I guess it took out most of the impact, because...well,” she gestured helplessly at the dragon that was now a speck in the distance.

 

“This is all very interesting and all, but we have a mission. It’s not just Iroh we have to hunt anymore. We have three targets now.” Azula bit her lip and looked back at Ty Lee. “And Ty Lee...thank you.”

 

The blinding smile she got was certainly worth it.

 

------



Sokka was worried. They had to fly away from Omashu. Without Zuko. Logically, he knew he could take care of himself, but still. It was like if Katara or Aang got separated from him. He knew they were both strong and formidable benders, but he would still worry. There would always be that “what if” lurking in his mind. What if they got hurt? What if they were imprisoned? What if they--

 

“We have to go back!” Katara cried, for the hundredth time. 

 

“We can’t!” Sokka retorted, folding his arms in a weak imitation of his father. “We’d risk Aang getting captured by that crazy girl! We have to keep Aang safe, Katara. That’s our main priority.”

 

Katara scowled, glaring at Sokka. “Oh, so Zuko isn’t a priority?”

“I never said that!”

 

“You implied it!”

 

“No, I didn’t!”

 

“We have to, Sokka! I have to--”

“GUYS!” The siblings turned to Aang who was glaring at them over his shoulder, which was probably unsafe considering he was steering Appa. “We can’t keep fighting! I’m sure Zuko will find us soon. He can take care of himself; you know that, Katara.” Katara opened her mouth, presumably to argue, but Aang beat her to it. “I’m worried too. But arguing won’t fix that.”

 

Sokka nodded, “Aang’s right. Let’s find a clearing at wait there until morning. If he doesn’t show up by then, we go looking for him.” Katara glared for a few more seconds before huffing and agreeing.

 

Aang steered them towards a clearing, one with a small stream, and landed. Time went by in a blur. All Sokka really remembered was gathering food for them all. He didn’t remember unpacking, or setting up their tents, or starting a fire, or even Katara healing Aang’s burn. Not except for a few fuzzy details. 

 

Night started to fall and the whole group was quiet. They were worried, very worried. What if Zuko was captured by the Fire Nation? What if he never found them?

 

What if he was dead?

 

No, he couldn’t dwell on that thought. Zuko wouldn’t die that easy. Worst came to worst, he’d be scratched up and bruised. He could turn into a dragon for La’s sake!

 

The sound of something beating against the air, and wind blowing around them made them all look up. A large dark mass was landing in their campsite, but luckily, it wasn’t so dark as to prevent them all from seeing what it was.

 

Sokka jumped up, along with Katara and Aang, with a grin. 

 

(He didn’t notice Katara’s eyes, filled with pain, sorrow, anger, and determination. He would regret it.)

 

Just as he was about to call Zuko’s name in glee, a water whip struck Zuko’s hide, causing him to roar in pain. Sokka turned, watching in horror as Katara sent a volley of ice shards, aimed with deadly precision at Zuko’s heart.

Chapter Text

Sokka shouted, reaching a hand out to stop his sister. What was she doing? She was so worried about Zuko just a few seconds ago, and now she was attacking?

 

Zuko let out another roar, turning so his tail could come in front of him, and protect the majority of his body. It was a smart, but unnecessary defence, since Aang blew a gust of wind at Katara’s ice, blowing it away. 

 

“Katara, what are you doing?” Tui and La, the kid sounded so upset, like he was heartbroken.

 

Katara whirled on him. “What are you doing? I’m trying to save Zuko!” She tried to advance, but Aang and Sokka blocked her. Katara glared. “Fine. You won’t move? Then I’ll make you!” Quick as a rabbit-viper, Katara summoned water and incased them both in ice, separating them so there were on two different sides of the clearing. Zuko snarled in anger, watching the boys struggle to get out of the ice. 

 

Zuko reared up on his hind legs and flapped his wings, creating large and powerful gusts of air. Katara would have been thrown into a tree, had she not frozen her feet to the ground. Zuko let out a screech of frustration, dropping back down to all fours and beating his tail on the ground. He hissed at Katara’s scream of rage (of pain, of hurt). Zuko bounded towards Aang, lifting up a paw, wickedly sharp claws out.

 

Get away!” Katara screamed, throwing another volley of ice. Zuko maneuvered, switching his target from Aang to Katara’s attack. As the ice shattered Zuko turned and tried to get to Sokka, only for Katara to build an ice wall in front of him. 

 

“Katara, sto--mph!” Aang’s attempt to get through to Katara was rewarded with ice covering his mouth. Zuko hissed once again, pinning back some little nubs on his head (how had Sokka never noticed those before?), and glaring, and...sneezed.

 

What.

 

Katara ignored it, and started to skate around Zuko on an ice ramp, yelling at him.

 

Leave him alone!” Katara cried, letting out another attack. Leave who alone? Sokka? Aang? If anything she should be leaving them alone! Zuko let out a weird mix of a chirp and a growl and blocked it with his tail. But this time, Zuko howled in pain, and Sokka could see a little bit of red dripping down onto the grass. Sokka renewed his struggling, straining against the ice.

 

“Aang!” Sokka called, “Use your waterbending!” Aang struggled, before slumping and shaking his head. Sokka cursed. Right, waterbending required your arms, and both his and Aang’s were glued to their bodies. Right, time for a different tactic.

 

“Katara!” he called to his sister, “Stop!” Katara tried to run towards him, but Zuko used his body as a shield, preventing her from getting close. “What are you doing?” Katara ignored him (typical little sister behavior).

 

“Get out,” Katara screamed, “of my friend!” Sokka saw Zuko pause, tilting his head a little. He batted away Katara’s next attack, and lowered his body low to the ground, wiggling a little.

 

Zuko suddenly pounced, trapping her with his paws. Katara struggled and screamed, trying to get out of his grip. Zuko’s tail swung from one side to the other, smashing the ice they were trapped in. Sokka and Aang immediately ran over to restrain her, and only then did Zuko get off. 

 

They dragged her back as she kicked and screamed at them, tears streaming down her face.

 

“It’s gonna kill him,” she sobbed, “Zuko’s gonna die.” Sokka’s brain short circuited. What? How on earth did she come to the conclusion that Zuko was going to die? And that attacking him was the cure?

 

“Katara, what are you talking about? Zuko’s fine!” He gestured towards Zuko, who had now turned back into a human, but Katara didn’t look up, still sobbing.

 

“You’re so stupid, Sokka,” she wept, “Zu-Zuko’s been taken over by an ijraapalik. He-he…”

 

Oh...oh...

 

Everything made sense all of a sudden. Katara wasn’t there when they were told about Zuko’s strange dragon ability. Sokka had just kinda assumed she had been filled in because she never said anything. He really was stupid. Not that he’d ever admit that to Katara; she’d never let him live it down. 

 

“What’s an ijraapalik?” Aang asked, slowly lowering Katara onto the ground, while Sokka scrambled to follow suit.

 

“A possession spirit,” Sokka answered softly, watching as his sister curled in on herself, still sobbing uncontrollably. “It slowly takes over the mind of the host and turns them into a beast. Katara must have thought Zuko got possessed by one in the North Pole.”

 

Aang looked at Katara with an incredibly guilty look. He sunk down and hugged her, letting her grip onto his gi like a lifeline. 

 

“I’m so sorry, Katara,” Aang whispered, holding her, “we should have told you. Zuko’s always been able to do this.” Katara looked up at Aang, sniffling.

 

“W-wha-at?” she asked amongst hiccuping sobs. She looked over his shoulder to see Zuko, whole and human, standing behind Aang. “Z-Zuko?” Katara launched herself at her friend, hugging him even tighter than she hugged Aang. Zuko stumbled back with the force she used, but stayed standing, rubbing her back with his hand and purring. Purring loud enough Sokka could hear it from where he was standing.

 

“I’m okay,” he murmured, still purring. Man, that was creepy. “I’m safe. I’m alright.”

 

When Katara calmed down, Sokka explained everything. Katara pulled back from Zuko and gave him a guilty look. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Katara whispered, wiping her eyes. “I should have talked with Aang and Sokka before jumping to conclusions. I was just scared.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

 

Katara giggled wetly, before giving him a (slightly wobbly) mischievous smile. “You’d let it spill to Zuko, you blabbermouth,” she teased. Sokka squawked in mock anger and the two play-fought. 

 

“Zuko, you’re bleeding!” Aang cried. Sokka and Katara looked over to see Zuko, who was twisting to try and see his own back. It was bleeding sluggishly, blood dripping down and staining the grass red. Katara immediately started healing him, working quickly and easily. Before long, Zuko’s back was healed, a light pink scar the only evidence it was even there in the first place. Instead of thanks, Zuko pushed both Katara and Sokka to the ground, shoving Aang next.

 

Katara and Sokka shrieked. “What was that for, Zuko?”

 

Zuko, in lieu of answering, flopped on top of them, knocking the wind out of them. “Talk later,” Zuko groaned, “cuddle now.” The trio laughed at their dramatic friend.

 

“Zuko, we gotta get moving.” Zuko let out a weird grumble, latching onto Sokka’s waist and muttering a soft ‘no’. “Zuko, we gotta move before the Fire Nation finds and captures us.” Zuko grumbled again, and rolled over, latching onto Katara, burying his face in her stomach, and ignoring her laughs.

 

“Captured your sister,” Zuko mumbled, hugging her tighter, “now you can’t leave.” The three burst out laughing again. 

 

“C’mon, Zuko,” Aang grinned, jumping to his feet, “we can cuddle on Appa! That way we can get moving and cuddle!” Zuko lifted up his head, contemplating this. He looked at Aang before groaning dramatically and rolling off of Katara, who only laughed harder, happy tears streaming down her face now. Grumpily, he waited until they were all up on Appa before climbing up, and latching onto Aang and Katara. 

 

Sokka sighed, “Guess I’ll drive first,” he said, taking the reins and calling out “yip yip!” Katara snickered. 

 

“Don’t think Appa will save you from the cuddles of doom,” she teased. 

 

“Not doom,” Zuko protested, eyes closed, “love.” 

 

“Yeah, Katara,” Aang snickered, “cuddles of love.” The two laughed as Appa ascended into the sky.

 

--------

 

Zuko was only half awake. 

 

Pack cuddles were the best cuddles, especially for naptime. Currently, he was cuddling Sokka, who was sharpening his sword. Zuko had given up trying to get his sharpening stone away from him hours ago, content to instead cuddle against his stomach instead. Sokka suddenly turned to the side and crawled out of Zuko’s grip. Zuko whined, falling on his side and making grabby hands at Sokka. He let out a few more whines, confused as to why they weren’t drawing Sokka back to him.

 

Whining like that always got him attention from his mom. Sure, it was mostly the kind of behavior he used as a kit, but still! It worked on the Sun Warriors! Why was Sokka immune? It wasn’t fair, Zuko thought, getting up on his hands and knees. He crouched low in the saddle, adjusting his body, before pouncing. 

 

“Hey, uh, are you taking us down for a reason?” Sokka asked, dodging Zuko’s attempts to bring him back. Zuko whined again. “Aang!” Sokka called out sharply, crawling to the top of the saddle, much to Zuko’s consternation. “Why are we going down?”

 

Aang blinked, shaking his head. “What? I didn’t even notice.”

 

“Are you noticing now?”

 

Zuko huffed. Katara got up and started to walk towards Aang and Sokka. Zuko took a chance and hugged her from behind, following her closely. He didn’t want to stop her, he just wanted cuddles, as he deserved for going up against that blue fire girl!


(The one who smelled like Druk but more right. The one who smelled more like home-sister-kin than his family ever could.) 

 

Katara walked up to Sokka and Aang, patting Zuko’s head absentmindedly as he snuggled into the crook of her shoulder. “Is something wrong?”

“This is going to sound weird but I think the swamp is...calling to me.”

 

“Cuddles are calling me,” Zuko muttered childishly, trying to pull Sokka and Katara back for more cuddles.

 

“Is it telling us where we can get something to eat?” Sokka asked, holding his stomach, “because I’m---Zuko, stop it!”

 

Zuko whined pitifully, and Katara looked at him worriedly.

 

The three argued some more, but Zuko wasn’t listening. Whimpering, he laid down and cuddled up with Momo. Zuko shook his head slightly, and gripped it. Something was wrong. His instincts had been going haywire ever since they started passing over the swamp. He whimpered again.

 

“Zuko?” Katara asked, looking at him worriedly. She reached out a hand to touch his forehead. “Are you okay?” Zuko snarled and snapped at her hand, which she drew back quickly. “Zuko!” Zuko grumbled angrily, curling in on Momo before realizing what he just did. He whined some more and nuzzled her hand, feeling incredibly guilty.

 

“What happened?” Sokka called out.

 

“Zuko tried to bite me!” 

 

“What?! Zuko!”

 

Zuko whined again; he hadn’t meant to! It just...happened. He closed his eyes in shame.

 

“Guys, I’m really worried about Zuko,” Katara said. “He’s been acting strange ever since we started passing over the swamp. He hasn’t spoken a word for hours, and he’s been whimpering and growling all day.”

 

“Do you think the swamp’s doing something to him?” Sokka asked.

 

“I don’t know, but I think we should leave. Aang?” 

 

“I think you’re right,” Aang's voice agreed. Zuko tried to lift up his head and look at him but couldn’t. Another whine was torn out of his throat. “Somethings wrong with Zuko. Appa, yip-yip!”

 

Everything was fine for a total of two seconds. Something was tingling underneath Zuko’s skin, and his eyes snapped open. He twisted suddenly and bolted to the end of the saddle, gripping it tightly and growling at the air. Something was coming.

 

“Aang! We gotta go faster!”

There. In the sky, a large twist of wind was following them. Zuko hissed at it as it came closer. Appa tried getting away from it, but it was too fast. Zuko attempted to lunge at it, but Katara grabbed his collar and tugged him back.

 

“Zuko!” she cried, “Now is not the time!” He yowled miserably, and slumped back. Sokka started screaming as the wind got close and lifted him up. Katara caught him, but would have been lifted up as well, had Zuko not grabbed onto her and the saddle. He hissed at the wind twist again, baring his teeth. We would prove himself as better than that stupid pack-stealing wind. He would do it even with Momo’s tiny claws digging into his shoulder.

 

Aang jumped into the saddle, creating a wind bubble around them and Appa, keeping them safe. Still, they were thrown around inside the wind twist, going in repetitive circles. Suddenly, the protective wind around them dissipated, throwing them all into the swamp. Sokka, Katara, and Zuko were all thrown into the water, while Aang landed gently. Zuko leapt up and started stomping around in circles, sniffing the air. Katara and Sokka stood up and looked around. 

 

Almost immediately, Aang ran off, trying to find Appa and Momo. Zuko nearly screeched in frustration and ran after Aang. Or, he would have had Katara and Sokka not stopped him.

 

“Zuko!” Sokka cried, straining as Zuko thrashed in their grip, “What’s gotten into you?!” Zuko snarled, thrashing harder. He gripped onto something and squeezed, digging his claws in.

 

“Ow! Zuko, you’re hurting me!” Zuko let go at the same time as Sokka. He whipped around to see Katara nursing her wrist, little puncture holes bleeding sluggishly. Bleeding. Zuko stumbled back, horror in his eyes. He made Katara bleed. He made his packmate bleed. Sokka whipped around angrily. 

 

“Zuko, what the hell?!” he almost shouted, “Why would you--? Zuko?”

 

A strangled whimper left Zuko’s throat. Sokka was mad at him. Why wouldn’t he be mad? He hurt Katara! He was just trying to find Aang to protect him! He didn’t...he didn’t mean to…

 

“Zuko?” Katara said gently, walking towards him slowly. Zuko backed up even farther. “I’m okay. It’s only a little bit of blood. I promise--” she kept saying empty words to him, words he knew had no value. He still hurt her. Tears welled up in his eyes. He couldn’t stay. He was a danger to the pack. There was only one thing left to do: run.

 

So he did. He ran as fast and as hard as he could, leaping from tree root to tree root, away from his pack Katara and Sokka, ignoring their cries to return. He sobbed as he lept, not wanting to leave, but knowing he had to. He was a danger, he would only hurt them more.

 

He ran and ran and ran, until night fell. He panted haggardly, stumbling to a stop. Then, he laid against a tree and wept. That night, he cried himself to sleep.

 

----------

 

Zuko woke up to a giggle. His eyes snapped open and he shot up, looking around. The first rays of morning were just starting to rise, shining through the leaves and vines that littered the forest. He rubbed his eyes; the giggling was probably just his brain. He was so tired from running away, that was all.

 

The giggle returned, and Zuko looked up to see a little girl grinning at him.

 

“Who are you?”

 

The girl's only reply was another giggle. From the mist a beautiful woman came and picked up the little girl. She looked at him, and Zuko was struck. She...she looked like him. The same long and thin neck, the same inky black hair...those were the obvious features. Then there was the way her eyes sparkled, her smile slightly lopsided, her nose slightly scrunched up as she grinned. Just like him.

 

“Zuko,” she said, cupping his cheek with an impossibly soft hand, “it’s time to go home.”

Zuko licked his lips, trying to chase away the sudden dryness. “Home?” Tears were in the woman’s eyes as she nodded.

 

“It’s time to go home, Prince Zuko.”

 

Zuko shot to his feet, pushing her away roughly. “I’m not a prince.”

 

“But you are.” Out of the mist three other figures walked towards him. Somehow, in the depths of his consciousness, he recognized them as Fire Lords Ozai, Azulon...and Sozin. Zuko stumbled back and bared his teeth.

 

“I’m not.”

 

“You are my son.” A closer step, their eyes bleeding black.

 

“My grandson.” The black goo dripped down their faces, slithering across the floor like an eel-snake.

 

“My great-grandson.” It slithered quickly towards Zuko, who scrambled to get away. 

 

“No,” Zuko protested, backing up farther and farther as the Fire Nation royal family and goo advanced, until his back hit a tree. “No, I-I-I’m not. I’m not one of you,” tears spilled down his cheeks. “I can’t be.” They didn’t stop advancing. Zuko looked up wildly, looking for handholds to climb the tree, to get away. There was nothing. The goo was climbing up his legs, preventing him from moving. Zuko started to hyperventilate. 

 

“You are, Prince Zuko,” it was to his chest now, pinning his arms to his sides, “You must take your throne.” Zuko sobbed and shook his head as best as he could. The goo was almost to his neck now, and he strained to keep it above his mouth. “You must fight for your honor, Zuko.” He couldn’t take it anymore. Fire bloomed from his mouth as he screamed, burning the royal family, but not the goo it was coming up even faster now, he’d be cocooned soon he couldn’t get away--  

 

Silence became his only companion. There was no smell, not even that of burning bodies. Zuko took a chance and peaked an eye open. Nothing. Confused, still heaving for air, Zuko opened both eyes and looked around. There was nothing. No bodies, no lingering fire, and no goo. Confused and upset, Zuko looked around wildly for any hint of what had just occurred, tears still streaming down his face. Again, nothing. He couldn’t take this. He had hurt his packmate and how he was hallucinating? Faster than ever before, he launched himself into the air, turning into a dragon and flying away.

 

Away from his hallucinations.

 

Away from the swamp.

 

Away from his pack. 

 

--------

 

Toph Beifong was not sulking. She was just...contemplating. Yeah, that was all. Contemplating running away (for good this time) and staying with the badgermoles in the mountains. They wouldn’t treat her like glass, like a doll that would shatter if touched. Not like her parent’s did.

 

She was just so sick of it! If it weren’t for the badgermoles, she wouldn’t even be past the beginner level of earthbending! You’d think they’d want her to be able to fight back, but no. Toph huffed and crossed her arms. She’d show them! She was the greatest earthbender in the world! She was---

 

She was hearing something crashland in her cave. A deep, mournful wail came from...whatever it was. It was big, that was for sure, but not all that heavy. Definitely about the same height as a badgermole, but much, much longer. It was weird, though, how quickly its heart beat; most large animals had a slow heartbeat, but this one was beating like a startled rabbit-mouse. Toph huffed, what was it?

 

“Hey!” she called out sharply, “who’s there!” Hot air blew around her as whatever it was sniffed her, letting out a few snuffles every now and then. Something pushed into her stomach and she let out an ‘oof’ as she fell onto her rump. Blindly (heh), she felt out, trying to get a better feel of the creature. Her hands hit scales, and, fascinated, she stroked what she presumed to be its snout. The scales were soft and flexible, but the farther they got from its lips, the harder they got. “What are you?” she whispered.

 

(Her mind wandered to her lessons of Fire Nation atrocities. The slaughtering of the dragons, specifically. They were said to be long and large, bodies twisting through the air. Said to be fiercely loyal, intelligent, and maternal---the babysitters of the animal world. She pushed the thought from her mind; the dragons were dead. But...maybe some had survived. No, that was a stupid thought.)

 

Her hands stroked four large fangs, and she jumped before grinning wildly. “Whoa,” she breathed, running her hands over them, over and over again, “cool!” The beast let out an amused huff of air, and gently shook her hands away. Toph huffed--grinning now--and roamed more of the creature's face. Her hands stroked something wet and she blinked. Slowly she traced the wet path up and up, until her hands hit a little bump. A little more wandering and she could tell it was the creatures eyes.

 

“Are you,” she sputtered, “are you crying?” It let out another wail and more tears dripped onto her hands.

 

A pressure went into her mind, her skull felt like it would be crushed. A suffocating air filled the cave as distant-but-not voices rang through her mind.

 

“Ow, Zuko, you’re hurting me!” Blood. Blood-hurt-pain-did-to-pack-bad. Whimper-run-hide-can’t-stay-dangerous. “Zuko! Come back!” Ignore-can’t-stay-scratched-bad-bad-bad.

 

Toph gasped for air (when did she stop breathing?). She panted and heaved, mind running a mile a minute. 

 

“Was that,” she paused, “was that why you’re crying?” A hesitant nod from under her hands. Toph was confused. “That’s it?” she snarked, “you scratched your friend?”

 

Another nod. Toph was about ready to explode. Really. This big creature, who, if the size of its body and fangs were anything to go by, could probably crush her like a bug was crying because he scratched his friends.

 

“Are you joking!” she burst, throwing her hands in the air. The creature flinched back, but she shoved down the feelings of guilt. “It was a scratch! Probably not even a big one, since you seem like such a wuss!” It let out a disgruntled growl at her words, but she didn’t stop. “I mean come on! It was probably an accident, I’m sure they’ll forgive you! And if they don’t then they suck and don’t deserve you anyways! Do they suck?” The creature growled angrily at her and she nodded, “Thought so.”

 

It huffed for a while processing her words. Toph felt it shift its body the same way a cat-fox would right before it struck. Panic ran through her. Did she mess up somehow? Did insulting it anger it? Was she going to die?! She was strong, yes, but she didn’t think she could fight something this large. Quick as a viper-rabbit, it struck, pinning her down on the ground and hovering over her. She squeezed her sightless eyes shut and clamped her lips closed. She refused to scream. She wouldn’t give it the satisfaction. But, instead of ripping her head off like she expected, it….licked her.

 

Ew

 

Toph squealed and tried to get away. She may like getting dirty, but getting covered in animal slobber was gross! And it was licking away the dirt on her skin! She worked hard to get that healthy coating of dirt on her (okay, maybe not that hard, but still!). Plus there was something on it’s tongue that rubbed her skin raw, it was surprisingly painful.

 

The beast was relentless, though. It licked her clothes, her face, her arms, even her hair! At first, she thought it was trying to clean her to get a better taste when it finally ate her. It was the cleaning of her hair that changed her mind. She realized it with a sudden clarity. It wasn’t going to eat her--it was grooming her, like she was it’s baby!

 

“Hey!” she wiggled again, but it just pressed harder on her, restricting her movements. After a while she just gave up, resigned to her fate. Normally, she would have fought back harder, but she was exhausted. So she let the beast lick her skin softly (after the first grunt of pain, it had groomed her skin in soft short strokes. How shockingly considerate. Unfortunately, that did not apply to her rats nest that made up her hair. It was getting it clean if it was the last thing it did, no matter how painful it was). After maybe an hour or so, it was finished, finally letting Toph sit up. 

 

Toph stretched out her poor muscles and stood. She patted the beasts muzzle awkwardly with a strangled ‘thank you’. It nuzzled her one last time before running towards the mouth of the cave and disappearing. Huh, weird. 

 

She sighed, making her way down the mountain. She’d run away another day, but for now, she was going home to get this slobber off of her. 

 

She was going to be in so much trouble when she came home.

 

Worth it.

 

-------

 

Katara munched on her...food…as she listened to the swampbenders stories. She felt so guilty. It was her fault Zuko ran away. She had just wanted him to let go, she hadn’t meant to scare him! That look in his eyes...he looked so sad, so guilty, so pained. He hadn’t stopped whimpering as he stared at her wrist in horror.

 

“Katara?” Sokka asked quietly, “are you okay?” Figures Sokka would be the first to notice her plight. She gave her brother a wobbly smile.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she lied, “just...worried about Zuko.”

 

“Wha’ was tha’?” Tho asked, raising an eyebrow. “Worried ‘bout som’un?”

 

“Our friend Zuko,” Katara said guiltily, rubbing her arms. “I...I made him upset, and he ran off. We haven’t been able to find him.”

 

“Wh’a he look like?” Due asked through a full mouth. Katara grimaced.

 

“Uh...he...”

 

“Your wrist,” a startlingly familiar voice said softly. “It’s healed.” Katara whipped around and screamed in joy at the sight of her friend. Zuko stood there, staring at her wrist in wonder. Katara tried to tackle him in a hug, but he held her back.

 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, guilt filled eyes looking into hers. “I didn’t--I didn’t mean to. I was scared, Aang had run off and I---”

 

“Zuko,” he stopped and searched her eyes for any hint of malice. Katara hugged him softly, “I forgive you.” Zuko keened and hugged her back, nuzzling into her neck. She shouldn’t have had to forgive him, but she knew that’s what he needed, not her.

 

“Zuko!”

 

“Zuko!”

 

Sokka and Aang finally noticed Zuko, and joined in the hug.  Sokka whacked Zuko over the head softly. 

 

“Don’t ever run away like that again, okay?” Zuko simply nodded into Katara’s neck, choosing not to speak. Zuko started to purr slightly, and slumped into Katara’s arms after a few minutes, asleep.

 

“C’mon,” Sokka said, walking towards Appa, “this swamp is doing something to Zuko, we should get going.” Katara nodded, and Aang helped airbend Zuko onto Appa. The tree said goodbye to the swampbenders and launched into the sky. 

 

Aang leaned over and studied Zuko’s face. Katara looked down as well. He didn’t look good, he was whimpering in his sleep and tears were still streaming down his cheeks. 

 

“Hey, Katara,” Aang said suddenly, “can I try something? I think it’ll help Zuko out a bit.” Katara blinked before shrugging.

 

“Uh, sure, what is it?” Aang simply grinned at her and started digging through his bag. “Aang?” Katara called hesitantly, “what are you doing?”

 

Aang didn’t answer, and instead pulled out a fistfull of leaves from his pack with a triumphant shout. Zuko twitched slightly, and Katara stroked his hair to calm him down. Aang bounded over to them and stuck the leaves under Zuko’s nose.

 

“Aang!” Katara yelped as she jumped slightly, startled, “what are you doing?”

 

“Just watch!”

 

Immediately, Zuko’s eyes snapped open, and he made a grab for the leaves, stuffing them in his mouth. Katara looked at Zuko in confusion as he contently munched on the leaves, eyes drooping. The tears steadily stopped, and Zuko became perfectly content to fall asleep in Katara’s lap.

 

“What did you do?!” Sokka called from Appa’s head, trying to be heard over the loud wind. 

 

“I gave him some mint leaves!” Aang shouted back happily. “My friend Kuzon told me about them, they’re really good for calming down dragons!”

 

Katara shook her head fondly. “Only you, Aang, only you.”

 

Aang only laughed happily as they ascended higher and higher into the night sky.

Chapter Text

Zuko hated Earth Kingdom towns. They were stupid, with their stupid rules and stupid customs.

 

“Zuko, you can’t hate the Earth Kingdom just because they make you wear a shirt,” Katara sighed.

 

“Watch me.” Katara slapped a palm to her forehead and rolled her eyes. 

 

Sokka simply laughed, one hand on  his new bag. The trio were waiting outside Master Yu’s home for Aang to be finished with his first lesson. Katara and Sokka were sitting on the small wall outside, and Zuko was laying on the ground, napping in the sunlight. His head still throbbed a little bit from the weird swamp, but it was receding more and more each day.

 

Zuko sat up as children started leaving in small groups. They were chatting about useless things: home, dinner, earthending, a 6th rumble—whatever that was.

 

“It’s not for me,” Aang lamented, looking down. “He’s just...not the teacher for me.”

 

“It’s okay, Aang,” Katara reassured, “you’ll find a teacher. I just know it. Maybe we just have to look somewhere else.” 

 

Zuko stood, dusting off his pants. “What about that rumbling earth thing?”

 

“...the what?”

 

“Rumbling earth,” Zuko pointed at two guys, about Sokka’s age. “Those guys were talking about it.” The wind carried over their voices, allowing Zuko’s friends to finally hear what they were saying. Zuko smiled slightly, he’d never get used to how dull human hearing was. Even as a human, his hearing was sharper than normal, which made it weird to think about how normal people heard. It was so dull and oftentimes they needed to be close just to hear a small phrase.

 

“--No way!” One cried, playfully shoving his friend, “The Boulder would have to go up against the Bandit, you know how strong she is! She’s won every competition since she joined, who’s to say she won’t win Earth Rumble Six?”

 

“Hey!” Aang called, running to try and catch up with two guys. “Where’s this Earth Rumble Six?” The two boys turned around and smirked. 

 

“It’s on the island of Noneya. Noneya business!” The boys laughed cruelly as they walked away. Aang slumped down, dejected and Katara put a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. 

 

“Don’t worry, Aang. I’ve got this.” She started running after them, “Hey, strong guys, wait up!”

 

Zuko quickly threw off his shirt, thrusting it into Sokka’s hands before following. “Stay here,” he ordered, “I’m going as back-up.” Zuko ran after Katara, turning into a small roadway and hid in the shadows. Katara could take care of herself, Zuko knew that, but he wanted to support her should something go awry.

 

Katara was trying to bribe the boys into answering, an ice wall behind them to keep them from running away and a very, very sharp icicle in her hands.

 

“Where’s it at?” Katara questioned, pointing the tip of the ice at one of their throats. He simply glared and pushed her hand away.

 

“And why should we tell you? You’re nothing but a stupid little girl, trying to intimidate some actual men,” he scoffed. Zuko snarled and stepped forwards. The boys paled dramatically at the sight of his glare.

 

“Answer me,” Katara demanded, “or my friend here might get a little too upset. Not that you’d be a challenge, I mean,” Katara looked at her nails with an air of disinterest, before she gave them a truly terrifying grin, “he did defeat the Fire Nations best warrior single handedly.”

 

Zuko almost snorted. He only beat her because of his dragon form, but he knew Katara was exaggerating the fight a little just to make him seem scarier.

 

“Uuh, uuh, w-we can’t! It’s an oath of secrecy if you get in!” one of the boys fibbed. Very obviously, Zuko might add. Agni, he was a worse liar than he was, and that was saying something. Katara (Agni bless her) used her waterbending to attach the boys horizontally to the wall. 

 

“What was that?” she asked in a sickly sweet tone. The boys paled further. 

 

 “I-it’s on the edge of the city!” one of the boys stammered out.

 

“Yeah!” the other agreed, “there’s this shop...u-uh I think it’s called Xin Fu’s warrior shop! You get an entry there! Then they lead you to this mountain and that’s where the tournament is!” 

 

Zuko nodded, still glaring. “Good. Katara, let’s go.” Katara nodded and the two headed out.

 

“Hey, wait!” one of the boys called, “how do we get outta here?” Katara turned, still walking and smiled sweetly at them.

 

“Oh, it’s just a simple technique called ‘nottellin’...Not tellin’ ya!” She stuck her tongue out at them, turning back around and leaving the alleyway. Zuko snickered, enjoying their sounds of shock and outrage. That’s what you get for underestimating a member of his pack.

 

Together the two ran back to their friends. Aang was laughing at Sokka who was turned away and had his arms crossed. His bag was on the ground and Momo was curled up inside, looking like it was the most comfortable spot in the world. 

 

Katara ran up to Aang and Sokka with a huge grin. “Are you ready to find an earthbending teacher? Because we’re going to Earth Rumble 6!”

 

--------

 

Zuko was pouting as they entered. Katara had forced him back into a shirt and he was not happy.

 

“Hey, front row seats!” Aang cheered as he sat down. Zuko stopped pouting and looked around worriedly; there was no one else there, which wasn’t typically a good omen. “I wonder why nobody’s sitting here?”

 

As if it was planned, a large boulder struck the seats next to them, causing them to jump up in shock. 

 

“Guess that’s why,” Sokka squeaked, staring at the boulder with trepidation.

 

“Let’s get up higher,” Zuko started tugging on Aang’s sleeve, trying to get him up the stairs. “I don’t want us to get hit.”

 

Aang tugged his arm out of Zuko’s grip. “It’s fine Zuko, they won’t hit us! That’d make people stop coming!” Zuko just stared at Aang.

 

“C’mon, Aang, let’s just go a few rows up” Katara smiled and started walking up the seats. Aang quickly nodded, following Katara up the steps like a puppy-duckling. Sokka glared at Aang’s retreating back.

 

“I don’t care if he’s the Avatar, I refuse to let anybody date my sister,” he muttered.

 

Zuko laughed and followed the two up the seats, a sulking Sokka following behind. As they were walking, a loud voice rang through the stadium.

 

“Welcome to Earth Rumble 6!” A deep voice announced. Zuko turned and saw a tall man, wearing an open shirt and loose pants. “I am your host Xin Fu!” 

 

The crowd cheered and Katara sighed, turning to the side.

 

“This is just going to be a bunch of guys chucking rocks at each other, isn’t it?”

 

“That’s what I paid for!”

 

“The rules are simple!” Xin Fu said, “Just knock the other guy out of the ring and you win!” He jumped up onto a separate platform (probably using Earthbending, there was no way that guy could jump that high with no help. Even Zuko couldn’t do that, and he could jump pretty high), and a bell rang out. “Round one! The Boulder versus the Big Bad Hippo!”

 

Zuko blinked. “What’s a hippo?” his friends just shrugged, and Zuko turned his attention back to the ring. Two men were standing in it, one large and muscular with a huge blue tattoo on his back. The other was incredibly tall, quite chubby, wearing only a loincloth, and (disgustingly) only had four teeth. Zuko shuddered, what kinda diet did this guy have to only have four teeth?

 

“Listen, Hippo, you may be big, but you ain’t bad. The Boulder’s gonna win this in a landslide!”



“Why is he talking about himself in the third person? And why does he not have to wear a shirt!”

 

“Shh! I’m trying to watch!”

 

Zuko rolled his eyes. This Boulder guy was weird, but he’d rather him win than that creepy Hippo dude.

 

“Hippo mad!” Again, what was with the third person? Was this a thing earthbenders did? Zuko hoped not.

 

The two started chucking rocks at each other, just as Katara predicted. Zuko leaned over to her. 

 

“Guess you’re prediction was right,” he whispered in her ear, “you could give Aunt Wu a run for her money.” Katara snorted and giggled.

 

The Boulder slammed his foot on the ground and punched the air, sending a volley of rocks towards his opponent. The Hippo didn’t even try to move and instead let the rocks hit him, a cloud of dust covering him. When it cleared, Zuko gagged loudly. The Hippo was just holding a piece of rock in his mouth. And then he bit it and chewed up the rocks. Zuko’s stomach rolled. That was so gross.

 

The Hippo started jumping up and down, rocking the arena. 

 

“Unbelievable, ladies and gentleman,” Xin Fu announced, “The Hippo is rocking the Boulder!”

 

The Hippo started cheering and turned his back on The Boulder. The Boulder almost stumbled out of the ring, but used earthbending to create a platform to steady himself, which he then threw at the Hippo. It crashed into the other man’s back, causing him to stumble and fall. The Boulder pulled up a large piece of rock, The Hippo laying on top, and threw him out of the ring.

 

“The Boulder wins!”

 

Sokka started cheering, and Zuko sighed in relief. Hopefully, he would never have to see The Hippo again.

 

Katara suggested The Boulder as Aang’s teacher, but Aang just shrugged.

 

“I don’t know,” he grimaced, “Bumi said to find a teacher who listens to the earth. This guy’s just listening to his big muscles. What do you think, Zuko, Sokka?”

 

Zuko stared at Sokka as he started loudly cheering. Aang tapped him on the shoulder and repeated his question. Zuko hummed.

 

“It’s only the first match,” Zuko said, leaning back, “We should see all of the contestants and how they fight, first. And besides, those jerk kids from earlier were talking about somebody who goes by Bandit, I wanna see what she’s like.”

Zuko turned back to the arena as Xin Fu announced the next group: The Boulder versus Fire Nation Man. Why he chose that name was beyond him---wasn’t the Earth Kingdom against the Fire Nation? Why would he choose a name like that, especially for an earthbending tournament. Although, he did give Zuko a pretty good laugh with his terrible singing of the apparent Fire Nation anthem. What a stupid song.

 

Quickly enough Zuko zoned out. It was boring. Just The Boulder winning against everybody, almost no one had a chance. So far the only interesting thing was figuring out The Boulders “tattoo” wasn’t a tattoo at all, but blue paint. Watching that smudge as sweat dripped down his back was pretty funny. Zuko yawned, he hated being out of the sun, and it was really taking a lot out of him.

“Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” Xin Fu announced. Zuko closed his eyes and snuggled into Aang who (rudely) nudged him up. “The Boulder versus your champion--The Blind Bandit!” The crowd broke into such loud cheers Zuko practically jumped in the air. Sokka snickered in between his booing (he was really obsessed with The Boulder winning), and Zuko shoved him playfully. 

 

Zuko was still blinking sleepily as he looked at the newcomer before practically shooting up in excitement.

 

It was her! That girl who he found in the cave!

 

( Pack-protector, his mind muttered, keep-ours-belong-mine)

 

His heart thudded loudly in his ears and he distantly heard Aang and Katara talking about her, but all of his attention was on his...friend? Acquaintance? He had only met her once, but he knew she was meant to be part of their pack!

 

The Boulder slammed his foot down onto the ground.

 

“The Boulder feels conflicted about fighting a young, blind girl.” Zuko looked at the man in bewilderment. Whatever respect he had for him was gone now. What did that have to do with anything? And what even was the part he was most stuck on, anyways? That she was young? That she was a girl? Or that she was blind? Either way, he didn’t like him anymore.

 

“Sounds to me like you’re scared, Boulder,” the girl taunted; Zuko snickered at the now annoyed look on his face.

 

“The Boulder is over his conflicted feelings,” he announced, “and now he is ready to bury you in a rock-alanche!” Was...was that even a thing? Zuko knew avalanches existed, but rock-alanches? Never heard of ‘em.

 

“Whenever you’re ready, The Pebble!” she laughed loudly and obnoxiously.

 

The Boulder glared at her and she gazed impassively back. With a loud yell, The Boulder started to make the first move. Bandit moved her foot in a purposeful way and set her arms so they were bent, her palms facing her. It obviously wasn’t a traditional Earthbending stance, and Zuko was curious about how she’d fight.

 

It was over in just a few seconds.

 

With one kick, she manipulated the earth to push The Boulders leg to the side, putting him in a half-split. Zuko winced, he knew how painful the splits were at first, and The Boulder was obviously not flexible. It had to burn.

 

One chop of her hand, and the earth kicked him out of the ring. The crowd cheered wildly as Xin Fu announced her as the winner. Zuko grinned proudly and clapped, ignoring Sokka’s betrayed look. Zuko had a feeling that the rest of the day would be great.



-----------

 

Zuko was wrong.

 

Aang had fought in the earthbending tournament---using airbending! For one thing, that was cheating, and for another he could have revealed himself as the avatar!



“I said I was sorry!” Zuko continued glaring at Aang.

 

“Sorry isn’t good enough!” he snapped, “You could have revealed your secret, Aang! Do you know how dangerous that is?”

“But--”

 

And you cheated! I can’t believe you!”

 

“Zuko--!”

 

“I expected better from you, Aang.”

 

“Zuko, there’s no need to be so mad,” Katara butt in, but Zuko cut her off.

 

“I’m not mad,” he said, folding his arms, “I’m just disappointed.”

 

Aang hung his head down in shame. Zuko hated the feeling of guilt that festered inside him, but it had to be said. Aang was risking too much, he could get seriously hurt! Agni knows what kind of psychos like Fong were in the Earth Kingdom. Zuko shook his head and continued walking towards the earthbending school, still fuming. The others followed behind him as he stomped up the steps. Inside the two boys from earlier were punching some sand inside a pot. 

 

One looked up and scowled. “Oh great, you again.” Katara leaned towards them with a glare and they flinched back with a yell. They looked warily between Katara’s angry glare and Zuko’s murderous look.

 

“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” she said, Sokka snickering behind her.

 

“Hey,” one said, walking towards Aang, “you’re the kid who beat the Blind Bandit!” they reached out a hand but Zuko snarled loudly and the two flinched back.

 

“Zuko, stop it!” Aang cried, before turning back to the boys. “We need to talk to her, do you know where she lives.”

 

“The Blind Bandits a mystery,” one said mysteriously, “she shows up to fight, then disappears.” They gazed at him unimpressed.

 

“Let me handle this,” Katara stormed up to the two, “You’re not telling us everything!”

 

He leaned back, his hands up in surrender, “No no, I swear it’s true! Nobody knows who she really is or where she goes.”

 

Aang gasped, and ran up to them with a grin. “Do you guys know anything about a flying boar?”



They blinked. “A flying boar is the symbol of the Beifong family,” one said as his friend hid behind him, “they’re the richest person in town, probably the whole Earth Kingdom.”

 

His friend leaned over, “Yeah, but they don’t have a daughter.”

 

“Flying boar is good enough for me!” Aang cheered. As they walked out Zuko heard one of them mutter something and shot them a fierce glare. The two shrieked and fell over, but Zuko didn’t get any satisfaction from it. He was too upset to care.



----------

 

A poster was handed to Xin Fu, a young man detailed on the paper.

 

“Your weight in gold, huh?” he muttered darkly, chuckling. “Well now, this should be interesting.”

 

--------

 

The quartet snuck into the Beifong estate, and looked around a large bush, seeing nothing. Zuko’s anger had melted away slightly, and now he was giddy with excitement. He was going to talk to her again! Well, he didn’t really talk the first time they met, since he was a dragon, but still! 

 

Zuko shifted his stance slightly, backing away from the group. Something was wrong. Crouching, he touched the ground with his hand, feeling it tremble slightly. He opened his mouth to give a warning, but the ground shot up right at that moment. His friends screeched as they went flying through the air and into some bushes, but Zuko, with the grace that only came with hours of practice, landed neatly on the balls of his feet.

 

“What are you doing here, Twinkle Toes?” A surprisingly gruff voice asked. Zuko’s head snapped up to see a young girl. She looked different from the arena, but the same as when he first met her. He grinned happily, watching her and Aang react, just waiting for her to greet him, but...she didn’t…

 

His smile slowly fell with every passing second, and Sokka had to grab his arm so Zuko would remember to flee once she called the guards. Tears stung Zuko’s eyes. She didn’t remember him. She didn’t remember him.

 

Zuko didn’t really react to anything the rest of the day, not when they met her parents, and not when food was set out in front of them. At least, not until they introduced our daughter, asking Aang to introduce his companions as well.

 

“This is our daughter, Toph,” Lao Beifong stated proudly. “Our only daughter. And who are your friends?”

 

“Oh!” Aang startled slightly, before grinning. “This is Katara, my waterbending master, and this is Sokka, he’s a tactical mastermind!” Katara inclined her head politely while Sokka just waved. “And this…” Aang hesitated, clearly wondering if he should say Zuko’s name or not. Zuko huffed impatiently.

 

“Zuko,” he finished for him, “I’m Aang’s firebending teacher.”

 

Silence sounded through the dining hall. Even the cricket-cicadas seemed to have stopped making noise.

 

“Like the dead prince?” Toph asked in a childish voice, breaking the silence. Zuko scowled.

 

No,” he denied, “Pretty sure I was born first, so the prince would have taken my name, not vice versa.”



“A-ah,” Poppy Beifong grinned nervously, “I assume you’re not allied with the Fire Nation?”

Zuko glared daggers into the wooden table. The silence in the air was suffocating with his anger, until he took some deep breaths and forced his shoulders to relax. 

 

“I will never meet my grandparents,” he said softly, “Nor my uncles, or my aunts, or my cousins. The Fire Nation murdered them all.” He briefly saw Toph’s eyes widen, as Poppy Beifong drew in a breath.

 

“I’m so sorry, young man.”

 

Zuko shrugged and turned away. “May I be excused?” He was given permission, and he went outside to the grounds, walking around aimlessly. Talking about his family hurt. Especially what the Fire Nation did to them, killing them all before he was born. It wasn’t fair. Why did the Fire Nation get to prosper when his whole family was murdered? All except for his parents, himself, and Druk. 

 

Spirits, he missed Druk. He was his best friend for so many years, and he didn’t even say goodbye. He could only imagine how heartbroken he was when he discovered his big brother was gone. Zuko sat on a rock and cursed softly, holding his head in his hands.

 

“What’s got you all bothered?”

 

Zuko looked up to see Toph standing next to him, still dressed up. He sighed and looked up. It was already nighttime--how long had Zuko been out here?

“Quite a while, your friends are worried about you,” Toph answered. Did...did Zuko ask that out loud? “No,” Toph grinned, “you didn’t say it out loud, but it was pretty obvious what you were thinking.”

 

Zuko hummed. “How did you find me out here?”

 

Toph walked away and Zuko followed, watching her carefully as she walked along the edge of a small bridge. 

 

“Even though I was born blind,” she started, “I’ve never had trouble seeing. I ‘see’ with earthbending. I can feel the small vibrations in the earth and I can ‘see’ where everything is. It’s kinda like seeing with my feet.” Zuko looked at her for a long while, thinking over her words.

 

“You were born blind? And yet you still fight?”

 

Toph scowled, crossing her arms, “Yeah, what of it?” Zuko smiled towards the ground.

 

“That’s really admirable.” Toph blinked, clearly not expecting that.

 

“You think so?” she asked, hesitation clear in her voice. 

 

“Absolutely.”

 

Toph smiled slightly, but Zuko hesitated for a small moment. “So you...really don’t remember me?”

 

“We’ve met?” Zuko flinched back, hurt in his eyes. She really didn’t remember him. That hurt more than it should have.

 

“...Nevermind.”

 

“Hey, wait I--” Toph’s head suddenly shot to the side. “We’re being ambushed!” she cried.

 

Zuko grabbed her in his arms and started running, trying to keep Toph in his arms as she struggled.

 

“Hey, let go!” she shouted, “I can take care of myself!” Zuko snarled and ran, dodging flying rocks. One rock got a little too close for comfort, but he managed to destroy it with one well placed kick.

 

“I’m faster,” he panted, “I can get us both out of here and into your house. There’s no way they can beat you, me, Katara, and Aang at the same time. It’s safer--!” Zuko yelped as something struck him in the back of the neck, causing him to fall to the ground and let go of Toph. A large body crashed on top of him, forcing the air out of his lungs. Distantly, he heard the thud of metal and a cry from Toph. Straining, he turned his neck and saw a large metal cage surrounding her.

 

He was heaved up, and forced towards a second metal cage. Zuko yowled and twisted, scratching everywhere, trying to escape his captor. A loud curse came from behind him and Zuko was dropped. He tried to run back to the estate to grab his friends, but two others restrained him, throwing him in the cage. Zuko’s head thudded against the top and he hissed in pain. He attempted to stand up straight, but couldn’t. It was too small, and Zuko had to hunch over for any semblance of comfort. 

 

“I think you owe me some money, girl,” came Xin Fu’s voice, an angry undertone taking over the calm words.

 

Somebody lifted up his cage and carried him, Zuko yowling and screeching the whole way. He kicked at the metal and rattled the bars as they were lifted into the air. 

 

“You think you’re so tough!” Toph crowed, pointing a finger downward once they were all the way in the air, “Why don’t you come up here so I can smack that grin off your face!”

 

“I’m not smiling.” Sure enough, when Zuko looked down, Xin Fu had an angry frown taking over his entire face. 

 

“Toph!” Zuko, Xin Fu, and the other earthbenders looked to see Toph’s parents, Master Yu, Aang, Sokka, and Katara all standing at the entrance. Master Yu slid a bag of coins towards Xin Fu. “We have your money, now let her go!” Xin Fu looked inside the bag before signaling the earthbenders to lower Toph...but not Zuko.

 

“Hey!” Aang cried, “What about Zuko?”

 

Xin Fu grinned and unrolled a poster, one that made his friends recoil in shock. “I think the Fire Nation will pay a hefty price for the traitor who ruined the siege of the North Pole.”


Zuko screeched in anger as Toph and her parents walked away, Katara running after them. Zuko was lowered, but kept in his cage, thrown over the shoulder of The Hippo. The sound of earth rising came soon after.

 

“Let him go!” Toph shouted, “I beat you all before and I’ll do it again!”

 

“The Boulder takes issue with that comment.” Zuko grunted as he was tossed onto the ground, hitting his head again and again. Black spots dotted his vision and he gasped in pain, feeling something wet drip down his forehead.

 

His friends ran over to him, each trying to pry open his cage. Sokka was hitting the hinge with a rock, Katara was trying to pry open the bottom, and Aang was trying to cut open the metal with precise strikes of airbending. 

 

“Hit it harder, Sokka!”

 

I’m trying!

 

The sounds of grunts of pain, and rocks flying, and the bang of rock on metal filled the air as Zuko wiggled around in the too small cage. Eventually Sokka wore down the metal hard enough that it broke and allowed Katara to open up the bottom. Zuko wiggled out and groaned in pain, holding his head. Katara gasped, uncorking her waterskin and putting the water around his head. Zuko tried to wiggle away, but Sokka grabbed his wrists, holding him still.

 

“Zuko, calm down and let Katara heal you, idiot!” Sokka cried, “Your head’s bleeding.” Zuko stopped fighting and let his eyes dart around wildly instead. 

 

“Toph,” he breathed, “where’s Toph?”

 

“It’s okay,” Aang reassured, “she’s fighting the earthbenders. She’s winning.” Katara soon finished and Zuko turned to watch Toph fight. A large cloud of dust was covering a majority of the arena, but he could see Toph facing The Boulder and The Hippo in the uncovered area. She moved the earth, switching their positions, and giving Zuko front row seats to see another earthbender crash into the other two, the three landing in a heap. Smirking, Zuko saw Toph flick her fingers and force them out of the arena. 

 

Toph raised, then lowered her hands, the cloud of dust following her movements. On the other side of the arena, Xin Fu cracked his neck, and circled the arena, Toph doing the same. 

 

Xin Fu made the first move, kicking rock after rock after rock at her, to which she just made a shield and waited it out, before throwing one of the rocks back at him. Xin Fu jumped out of the way and sent another boulder after her. Toph caught it easily and threw it back at him. He didn’t have a chance to dodge and was thrown into the stands.

 

Toph stood, tall and proud in the middle of an empty arena, a winner.



---------

 

Toph was crying. She had tried to explain to her parents that the Blind Bandit was who she really was, not the obedient little girl her parents made her out to be. And yet, their only response was more restrictions. Sobs wracked her small frame as she packed her bag, full of clothes and other necessities.

 

She was doing what she had planned to do for so long. She was running away.

 

A bag over her shoulder, she ran up the hill towards the Avatar and his friends. Calling out for them to wait up. She panted as she skidded to a stop, a large creature of some sort in front of her. Not like the one she met in the caves, though. It was taller, but not as long, and had paw pads instead of claws.

 

“My dad changed his mind,” she lied, “he said I was free to travel the world.”



“Well,” the Water Tribe boy said, “we’d better get going then.”

 

“Just one second,” Toph grinned, a mischievous idea forming in her head, “Twinkle Toes, get down here.” She heard his clothes fluttering as he jumped down, and as soon as his toes touched the ground she struck, sending him into a tree. “That’s for taking my title. I’d like my belt back now.” She held out a hand, expecting one of them to just drop it in her hand but no, they just had to drop it on her head. She went down with a yelp, sprawling in the grass. 

 

Footsteps approached, and a hand grasped hers gently, hauling her up.

 

“Welcome to the team, Toph,” Zuko said, a grin in his voice. She smiled...at least until they tried to get her onto the bison.

 

“Oh, no,” Toph protested, “I am not getting on that fluffy death trap.”

 

“You have to!” Water Tribe girl protested. “Appa is the only way we travel!”

 

Toph shook her head stubbornly. “Nope, not happening.” The bison, Appa, was just too soft! Nothing like the comforting sturdiness of the earth. She would never feel safe on that thing---not that she’d ever admit it out loud. She heard a contemplating hum from Zuko.

 

“Well,” he said, “you could ride me.”

 

Toph choked.

 

“I could what?” she practically shrieked. Holy shit she was not expecting that.

 

“You..you could…” A sudden weight on the earth appeared, right where Zuko was. Toph gasped.

 

“Wait wait wait...were you…” A scaly face nudged her hands and Toph laughed long and loud. “Oh!”

 

“What?” Twinkle Toes asked, obviously confused. Toph continued laughing.

 

“I’ve met him before! Like this!” cries of shock met her words, and she grinned in their direction, already climbing up onto him. On top of him, she could see his massive size even more clearly. “What is he exactly?”

 

“Oh, he’s a dragon.”

 

“He’s a what?!”

 

The group laughed as Zuko and Appa launched into the sky, Toph whooping with excitement as Zuko’s body twisted and turned, playing with Appa in the air. As she held onto the horns on his head she couldn’t help but feel lighter than ever before. This. This is what she had been missing her entire life.

 

Chapter Text

Hi! I’m really sorry that I haven’t updated in forever. I’m working on the next chapter though, but I don’t know when I’ll be finished. I maybe sorta kinda did some dumb shit that landed me in a mental hospital, and then like a week out of there I kinda...fell into a coma.

Car accidents lmao.

But I lived! My heart did stop twice so I can officially say that I have died and come back lmao.

Good news! The whole nearly dying thing allowed me and my mom to reconcile, and we're not doing great, but we’re doing better, and I’m really happy about that.

Man, comas are fucking weird. Like...you have no idea how strange it is to have the last thing you remember being a semi heading straight for you, and then waking up in a hospital being told that 6 weeks had passed. Even weirder I can remember people talking to me, but I can’t at the same time. I can recall their words but not them speaking and it is freaky.

I only recently got released from the hospital, and I’m like 90% certain they only kept me so long was because almost immediately after waking up I got out of bed and almost fell flat on my face lol, so yeah! That was fun. I’m pretty sure my face is messed up too. I have to type. So. Slowly. Because there are bandages on my face. Ugh.

But I’m not paralyzed! I can still walk although it is like an old man. I’ve had to sit down a LOT, and I’ve been binge watching tv because that doesn’t require me to think. Any good tv you guys know of? I’ve been watching The Untamed and Word of Honor lately which you guys should watch! It’s distracting me from my pain :D

Yep. That’s my bullshit. Have fun being horrified at the bullshit that’s my life right now

(Oh yeah and I almost forgot to mention! The driver of the semi is okay! I mean, he’s in jail because he hit me on purpose but. He’s alive so that’s good.

Oh you guys know about that whole thing with semi-truck drivers hitting people for an insurance claim? Yeah, he was one of those guys. Good thing there were like....30 other people that watched the guy swerve specifically to hit me, so kudos to them for speaking up in court while I was in dreamland)

Chapter Text

Katara laughed happily as she watched Zuko flying around in the sky, twisting and turning and overall just having a great time. Toph was gripping onto his horns and whopping with every trick, having the time of her life. She still felt guilty for attacking Zuko and then making him run off, so it was nice to see him having fun. 

 

“Zuko!” Aang cried, shouting over to his friend. Katara looked down and saw a clearing nearby. It was a great place to land, and would fit all of them--including Zuko in his dragon form. That was a true rarity, given how massive both he and Appa were. Zuko didn’t respond and continued playing in the air. Aang shouted louder to no avail. Zuko just wasn’t listening.

 

“Aang, let’s just land,” Sokka suggested, climbing up to Appa’s head. “He’ll notice us eventually and follow.” Aang nodded, and Appa descended into the clearing. Sure enough, Zuko noticed and followed suit after a few minutes.

 

Zuko snuffed as he landed, lowering his body to let Toph off. She slid down with a gleeful laugh, landing on Appa’s shed fur and wiggling her toes. Zuko turned back and walked towards Katara, helping unload Appa. 

 

“Man,” Toph grinned, “you guys picked a great spot, the earth is so soft.”

 

“That’s not earth, Toph,” Sokka said, shaking his head. “Appa’s just shedding.”

 

Toph blinked. “Huh.”

 

(Distantly, Katara thought she saw Zuko shudder and gag, but she couldn’t be certain)

 

She scrunched her nose up, “Oh, gross.” She quickly hopped off the fur, who knew what kinds of bugs were in there?

 

“It’s not gross!” Aang protested, “It’s just nature! The beauty of spring, you know?”

 

“Yeah...sure.”

 

Appa was grooming his paws and got a mouthful of fur, which made him sneeze. Unfortunately, Katara was right there and got absolutely covered in it. She shrieked as fur--and bugs--rained down on her head.

 

“Come on, Katara, it’s not that bad,” Sokka joked, turning around so she could see the pile of fur on his head, “it makes a great wig!”

 

“And a great beard!” Aang agreed, forming his own wig.

 

Katara sighed. “Well, at least we have another girl in the group,” she muttered. Maybe she could finally get away from all the gross habits the boys had.

 

“Excuse me,” Toph interrupted, walking in between the two boys, “does anybody have a razor? Because, I got some hairy pits!” She raised her arms to show off the fur she placed inside her sleeves. To Katara’s dismay, both Sokka and Aang laughed.

 

Movement made Katara whip around, and she breathed a sigh of relief at seeing that it was only Zuko. However, Zuko was slightly hunched over, and his face was green. Katara walked over to him and gently touched his shoulder.

 

“Zuko?” she asked, “are you okay?” He shrugged her hand off and turned to her, a strained smile on his face.

 

“I’m fine,” he assured, waving her off. “Come on, let’s finish unpacking.”

 

He walked away, but Katara stared at his retreating back. Something was wrong, and by La she would figure it out and fix it.

 

-------------

 

Zuko had only ever spent a brief time in the Earth Kingdom. Before the North Pole his only experiences with the world were in the Fire Nation and his home. And his first week in the Earth Kingdom was spent in a city, a very clean one at that.

 

Needless to say, he wasn’t prepared for the dirt and bugs and filth that littered the ground. It was better than the swamp, sure, but it was still dirty.

 

Back home, it was always clean. The roads were swept once a week (not even being the eldest son of the masters could get him out of that), the homes were always kept tidy, and everything was organized.

 

But here, where everybody was acting so calm about sleeping in the dirt? He couldn’t understand it. To make things worse, Appa started shedding, leaving it all over the ground. Normally, he wouldn’t care, he knew sky bison must have different views on shedding than dragons, but...the bugs. It got all in the fur and it was dirty and Zuko just couldn’t stand it!

 

So Zuko was just trying to get his mind off of it. He volunteered for cooking while Katara got the water. It was a simple enough task, that was also difficult enough that he didn’t have to think of the dirt and bugs and----

 

Nope. Not going down that rabbit-fox hole.

 

He grabbed his bow and walked over to Sokka, who was setting up the tent.

 

“I’m going hunting,” Zuko informed him, “I’ll be back in a few hours or so.” All he got was a non committal grunt in return, so Zuko turned around and stalked into the woods.

 

Silently, carefully, Zuko moved through the forest, looking for game. He was hoping for a deer, but a few rabbits would work just as well. The forest was dark, and the world seemed to still within it. He moved carefully, trying not to rustle the leaves and give away his position to any potential prey.

 

He scanned everywhere, looking for fur or tracks or something. A few small tracks littered the ground, and Zuko sniffed the air. He could smell it faintly, and as a human that meant it was close by. He could tell a few more things after a couple more minutes of inspection. One was fatty, another was stringy, and another was pregnant. He grimaced and made a mental note to avoid that one. If there was anything he was taught about hunting, it was to go for certain prey and not others.

 

Always go for the elderly and the sick--it helps the herd grow strong. Never go for the young, it weakens the species and then their numbers will dwindle. Go for the males if possible, the females are needed the most. Never go for one that’s pregnant. That was a dishonor of the greatest sort. (Unless, of course, it was unintentional. He remembered the tears on Xicohtencatl’s face when he realized his prey was with pup. That was unintentional, and he was never held accountable---he was just a child. 

 

He also remembered the banishment of Teuipa, who willfully and knowledgeably killed a pregnant wolf-fox. She claimed ignorance, but the elders knew better. She was one of their best--she knew what she was doing)

 

Zuko continued tracking, hiding behind bushes to get to his prey at every chance. Finally, after many painstaking hours of stalking, hiding, and tracking, they were in sight. Grinning in the darkness, he nocked four arrows and let them fly.

 

------------

Chapter Text

“Hey, has anybody seen Zuko?” Katara asked. “I haven’t seen him for a couple of hours, and I’m getting worried.”

 

Sokka stretched and yawned before looking at his sister. “Yeah, he went hunting a while back. I’m sure he’s fine.”

 

“I dunno,” Aang pipped in, adding wood to the fire. “It usually doesn’t take him this long to come back.” Sokka worried his lip; Aang was right. Zuko could probably catch a platypus-bear in an hour or two, but they were going on hour five with him missing. No, not missing, just out hunting. Katara was making him paranoid.

 

“Still,” Katara looked around at everybody. “I think we should go looking for him. I’m scared that something happened. Please?”

 

“You’re just paranoid; I’m sure he’s fine,” Sokka waved her off.

 

“But–”

 

But if you’re that worried, I guess looking for a few minutes couldn’t hurt. He’s fine, though, I’m sure.” Sokka got up and stretched, looking around a bit. “Hey, Toph, could you use your earthbending to see where Zuko—Toph? Are you okay?”

 

Toph had her head in her hands, a look of pure agony on her face.

 

“Toph!” Katara gasped, running over to her. “Are you alright?! What's wrong?”

 

“Something,” Toph gasped, clearly overwhelmed, “somethings coming!”



Rumbling filled the air, and the ground trembled underneath their feet. 

 

“What’s going on?!” somebody shouted, though Sokka couldn’t tell who. It was just so loud; no wonder Toph couldn’t handle it! She was already sensitive enough to minor vibrations, so this would have been torture for her.

 

Suddenly a giant metal machine plowed down the trees behind them, and a familiar figure stood on top. 

 

“Azula!” Aang gasped, stepping back a little. “What are you doing here?”

 

Azula grinned, her topknot slightly lopsided, a somewhat crazed look in her eyes. 

 

“Hello, Avatar,” she greeted smoothly. “I’m so glad I found you; after all, you’re the second half to what I want.”

 

Second half? What did she mean by that? All of a sudden, the words she spoke in Omashu came to Sokka in a flash.

 

“How dare you! How dare you mock my mothers’ pain? My brothers' memory?”

 

Oh no. Oh nononononono. Zuko.

 

“Where is he,” Sokka’s voice trembled as he spoke. “Where’s Zuko?” Horror grew on his face as Azula grinned wider. 

 

“Oh, your little friend?” she cooed mockingly before patting the metal machine behind her, just as two more came up. “He’s right here.”

 

“You bitch,” Katara screeched, lashing out with a water whip that Azula nimbly avoided. “Give him back!

 

“Now, now, little savage,” Azula chided, “Zuz–ko’s not a toy. And after all, it’s finders keepers, no?”

 

Katara screamed in rage, lashing out again. Sokka threw his boomerang at her head, missing (because of course she dodged), but quickly had to stumble backwards as a leg came up towards his face. 

 

(The good thing was pink acrobatic girl almost got hit by his boomerang while it came back)

 

Great. Just great, Princess Pyromaniac had her little friends join her as well. A quick glance showed Aang fighting knife girl, who had purple on her knives for some reason.

 

Sokka dodged acrobatic girls' attacks, watching her face light up in joy.

 

“Hey, you’re doing much better than last time!” she chirped, “What changed?” Sokka growled and didn’t answer, making her smile disappear. “Geez, no need to be so grumpy,” she muttered before upping the speed of her attacks. Soon enough, Sokka’s arm was out of commission. 

 

“Why did you take Zuko?” Sokka questioned, flipping out of the way of acrobatic girls’ next attack. “He didn’t do anything to you!”

 

“Uh…he shares a name with the dead prince,” pink girl said tilting her head and pausing her attacks. “That’s like…illegal you know. Nobody in the Fire Nation is allowed to have that name.”

 

Ty Lee!” Azula shouted, “Focus!

 

“Whoops!” Pink girl Ty Lee muttered before continuing to fight (and chatter). “So yeah! Azula takes that as a big offense, which it is! His parents should have known better; they should have changed his name the second the law was decreed.”

 

“But Zuko isn’t Fire Nation,” Sokka furrowed his brows, throwing his boomerang and nailing Ty Lee in the arm. “He’s from somewhere completely different.”

 

“Wait, what?” Ty Lee looked confused, “But Zuko is a Fire Nation name!”

 

A scream caused them both to look over, only to see Azula standing over Katara, who was holding a heavily burnt arm. 

 

“Katara!” Sokka shouted in worry, throwing his boomerang at Azula again and running towards his sister. He skidded to a stop and got down on his knees, his focus solely on his baby sister.

 

His baby sister who he let get hurt, it’s his responsibility to take care of her, why didn’t he do a better job—

 

"Katara," Sokka fretted. He knew he should be focused on Azula, but he couldn't. His sister was his main priority and he needed to worry about her. "Katara, you're going to be okay, just hold on. Aang!" he shouted towards the boy who was still fighting knife girl. "Aang! Get us onto Appa, quickly!"

 

A gust of wind blew the two up onto Appa, where Aang and Toph and all their supplies were already there. 

 

“Appa, yip yip! Let’s get outta here, quickly!”

 

Appa groaned before lifting off faster than Sokka had ever seen him lift off before. (It was still pretty slow, but it’s the thought that counts, right?)

 

Sokka looked over the edge as Katara started to heal herself, to make sure nothing attacked them. To his surprise, all he saw was Azula holding up one hand and pivoting, walking back to her strange machine. He threw himself back into the saddle with a sigh of relief, it was over.

 

But not for Katara. 

 

“Aang, we need to go back!” Katara cried, “Zuko’s there with them! Who know’s what they’ll do to him!”

 

Aang’s knuckles were white as they gripped Appa’s reigns. 

 

“I know.”

 

“Then turn around and —”

 

I KNOW!” Aang shouted. He quieted down immediately after. “I know. I know that Zuko’s with her, but we couldn’t stay. We were losing, Katara, and you're hurt. Azula’s too strong for us. We need to think this through rationally and get the element of surprise on our side.”

 

Sokka blinked. That was…surprisingly mature for the normally childish twelve-year-old. 

 

(Twelve. Aang was twelve and had the weight of the world on his shoulders. 



For the first time it really hit Sokka just how young they were.



They weren’t ready for war.



But then…who is?)

 

The whole saddle went quiet as the pondered on Aang’s words. Nobody liked it, but it’s what needed to be done. To save Zuko they needed a plan, and they needed to rest, to heal. It was the smart decision to make, the logical one to make.






That didn’t stop the guilt from forming in Sokka’s stomach.



— — — — —

 

Zuko groaned in pain, his head was killing him. This had to be the worst migraine he’d ever had. He tried to lift up his arms to hold his head but…it wasn’t working. He couldn’t lift up his arms, why couldn’t he lift them up–

 

Water splashed over his head, and he started choking.

 

“Wake up,” a strong commanding voice said. Zuko blearily opened his eyes and lifted his head.

 

(It felt so heavy, why did it take so much strength to do something so simple?)

 

“Good, you’re awake,” the man said, his voice echoing on the walls and only worsening Zuko’s headache. 

 

The man was ugly, a receding hairline and a long braid thrown over his shoulder. Behind him stood another man in long black robes, with a strange hat on his head. 

 

The man lifted up Zuko’s chin and grinned. “You’ve secured us a great deal, boy. And I am happy to announce that you’ll become of…service…very, very soon. But first.” He waved his hand and stepped aside, the man in the black robe stepping forwards. Something he couldn’t see gripped his head and forced him to look forwards.  

 

The black-robed man put a lantern in front of him and stepped back slightly. For the first time, Zuko noticed a metal ring surrounding them. The lantern started to spin, mesmerizing Zuko with its brilliant light in the darkness. 

 

“Stay calm,” he said in a soothing voice. “You’re safe now.”



“W-what?” Zuko slurred, confused. What was happening?



“There’s only one thing you need to know at all times,” the man started, not reacting to Zuko’s statement.










“There is no war in Ba Sing Se.”