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heart of a dragon

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"Well," Sokka began, if for no other reason than to break the tense silence that had fallen over the group since they'd left Crescent Island behind, "-that could have gone worse."

"Really, Sokka?" Katara asked. "You think it could have gone worse?"

"I mean, we got out of there, didn't we?" Sokka asked. "And seeing as it was pretty touch and go there for awhile, yeah, I'd say things could have gone worse."

"Sokka does have a point." Aang admitted, glancing behind him from where he sat on Appa's head. "At least we know about the comet now."

"And we're not dead." Sokka added. "Don't forget that."

"Still, let's maybe not do that again anytime soon." Katara said. "I think I'm through with the Fire Nation for the time being."

Sokka snorted in agreement. "You can say that again. Then again, I didn't exactly expect the nation filled with people trying to kill us to give us a warm welcome."

Katara glanced over towards him, giving him that squint she always got when she wasn't sure if something was meant to be a pun or not. Well, the joke was on her- everything was always meant to be a pun. Always.

Aang chuckled a little, which he had to admit, heartened him to hear. He knew the news he'd gotten about Sozin's Comet was weighing heavily on him, even more so than it did on them. After all, they weren't the ones who had to master three entirely different forms of bending in just under a year, which even to his non-bending self sounded like a serious time crunch.

"So what should we do next?" Katara asked. "Avatar Roku didn't make it sound like we have a lot of time."

And the good mood he'd brought back was ruined now. Thanks, Katara.

"Well, I for one, say we find somewhere to camp out for the night." Sokka said. "I think we're all pretty exhausted. Not to mention hungry."

As if to agree, Appa rumbled lowly. Poor guy had to be pooped, flying almost non-stop only to have to break through a Fire Nation blockade. Which, by the way, he was never doing again. There was nothing fun about having giant, flaming rocks hurled at you.

"Yeah, I think Appa's voting for that plan too." Aang agreed, reaching out to ruffle the sky bison's fur. "Aren't you, buddy?"

Appa rumbled again, this time lower. If he didn't know any better, he almost sounded kind of... distressed? Glancing up towards Aang for confirmation, he sat up a bit straighter as he took note of the furrow of his brow. He guessed that wasn't just a rumble of agreement then.

"Aang?" Katara asked, sensing the mood. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm not sure." Aang frowned. "I think Appa senses something, but..."

Glancing around, Sokka confirmed for himself just what put the doubt in Aang's voice. There were no ships following them- they'd thankfully lost Commander Zhao and his fleet of ships back on Crescent Island. And considering they were still flying over water, ships were pretty much the only thing they had to worry about.

"I don't see anything." Katara observed. "Maybe Appa's just tired."

"I don't know..." Aang frowned, almost anxiously ruffling Appa's fur. "Everything okay there, buddy? We should be able to find a place to set down soon."

Exchanging a glance with Katara, Sokka just shrugged. Maybe Appa was just tired. It wasn't like there was anything-

...wait. What was that?

Squinting, Sokka turned his gaze upward. There almost seemed to be some kind of... long shadow moving within the clouds. And if he didn't know any better, it almost seemed to be following them.

"Uh, guys...?"

That was all Sokka could get out before the creature burst through the cloud cover, revealing itself. Sokka lurched to his feet, his eyes blown wide and his mouth agape at the sight. The creature easily dwarfed Appa in size, its wingspan alone nearly as long as the sky bison. Long, curled horns protruded from its head, and the scales that coated its great body gleamed a deep purple in the moonlight.

Even without having seen one before, he knew the stories. This was a...

"Dragon!" Aang cried, hastily jerking on Appa's reins to get it out of the way of the massive creature. Sokka was thrown back on his rear, colliding with the edge of the saddle as the dragon flew past them, down towards the sea.

"It's coming back around!" Katara cried, staring down over the edge of the saddle at the beast.

Leaning over the saddle, Sokka realized she was right. The dragon had turned around and was now surging upwards again. Squinting, Sokka made out a pinprick of red by the great beast's horns, realizing abruptly that the dragon hadn't come here alone.

"Guys," he said slowly, "-I think there's someone on the dragon."

"What?" Katara asked, leaning over for a better look.

Sure enough, when the dragon shot past them again, they realized there was, in fact, someone riding it. They stood fearlessly on the dragon's head, one hand grasping its horns, the only thing keeping them from plummeting to their watery doom. Suddenly, every thought he'd ever had about feeling unsafe on Appa flew out the window, replaced by the realization that compared to riding a dragon bareback, Appa was practically the safest thing in the world.

And then the dragon's rider jumped.

Sokka swore underneath his breath, wondering if this was really happening. Maybe he'd actually passed out from exhaustion on their way back from Crescent Island, and this was all one big, crazy stress-induced dream. That seemed way more logical than well... any of this, really. Especially once the dragon's rider landed right in the middle of Appa's saddle, in a neat little crouch and everything.

They stood up, and Sokka immediately remembered that dragons were Fire Nation creatures.

The dragon's rider was young, maybe not that much older than him, but he had gleaming gold eyes and too pale skin that marked him as Fire Nation in a way that even his red clothing couldn't. He couldn't tell if his hair was actually that dark, or if it was just the dim light that made it look that way, but either way, it looked pretty wild, long enough to just barely touch the small of his back. There was a sword strapped to his back, and a pouch slung over one shoulder. He was also completely barefoot, which was... weird, but he guessed no weirder than the fact that the guy had just jumped out of the sky off a dragon.

Honestly, compared to that, anything else would be almost normal.

Immediately, everyone was on guard. Sokka was back on his feet, as was Katara, one hand hovering over her water skin. His own hand hovered over his bone club, ready to use it if this weird, obviously Fire Nation kid proved that he needed to. Honestly, if it hadn't been for Shyu helping them back at the Fire Sage's Temple, he might already be attacking, but as it was, right now he was just waiting to see what would happen next.

Maybe this wasn't an enemy. After all, he could have just had his dragon shoot them out of the sky, couldn't he? But he hadn't done that.

(Said dragon was now flying just beside Appa, and Sokka had to swallow back his fear. It was even bigger up close. At least Appa wasn't freaking out.)

"Who are you?" Katara demanded. "If you've come for Aang, I'll-"

The boy jerked, as if startled out of a reverie. Glancing over towards Katara, he squinted at her, before he turned his gaze towards him, squinting further.

"Neither of you are the Avatar." He concluded, like it was some kind of brilliant observation. He turned on his heel, prompting Katara to make a choked sound of protest- whether it was because he'd completely ignored her, or because he'd just casually turned his back on them, he couldn't tell.

"That would be me?" Aang said awkwardly, now having the weird kid's full attention. "Um, and you are...?"

The weird kid tilted his head, taking several seconds before he spoke again. "Oh. Right."

He muttered something underneath his breath about uncle and introductions, before shifting on his feet, his gold eyes darting between the three of them. Sokka felt his hand drifting back towards his bone club again, briefly wondering when he'd moved it. It wasn't like he'd stopped thinking this kid could be a threat, but he just seemed... well, more awkward than he did threatening.

"Zuko," the weird kid finally blurted out, "-I'm Zuko. That's my name."

There was an awkward silence for a moment, Aang peering out from behind Zuko's back to look at him and Katara. Katara slowly nodded, moving her hands hesitantly away from her water skin. If he was going to attack, he probably would have done it already.

That didn't mean they necessarily trusted him, but well... fighting on Appa's saddle while still in the air didn't exactly sound appealing to either him or his sister. Aang would probably be fine, and he got the feeling Zuko would be too- given that he had a whole dragon to catch him if he fell- but he'd rather avoid that situation if he could help it.

"I'm Katara," his sister began, "-that's my brother, Sokka. Behind you is Aang."

"The Avatar." Zuko sagely nodded.

"He prefers Aang." Katara said, almost, but not quite glaring.

"So, Zuko," Sokka began, not missing how weird it felt to say a Fire Nation name so casually, "-what uh... what brings you here?"

"I'm supposed to teach the Avatar firebending." Zuko said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Like that was just what firebending teachers did- drop out of the sky off of dragons. Then again, for all he knew, maybe that was what they did. It seemed exactly like the kind of hardcore Fire Nation-y thing he imagined whenever he thought about them.

"You are?" Aang asked, practically lighting up. "That's great! We were just talking about finding me some teachers!"

"Aang," Katara began, caution in her tone, "-I know we're looking for teachers and all, but don't you think this is a little too convenient? We just got away from the Fire Nation, remember?"

"Yeah, how do we know this isn't a trick?" Sokka asked.

Zuko tilted his head, finally blinking. He hadn't up until now, which was weird in and of itself. "Why would it be a trick?"

Sokka exchanged a glance with Katara, who just frowned. "Because you're Fire Nation? You know, the nation of people that's trying to kill us?"

"But I'm not." Zuko said.

"How did you even find us?" Katara asked, then squinted suspiciously. "Have you been following us?"

Zuko shook his head vigorously. "Mom knew that you would have to go to Crescent Island to speak with Avatar Roku on the solstice. She tracked your sky bison's scent from there. We would have come earlier, but it's safer for her travel at night."

"Wait, hold up," Sokka said, holding up his hands, because only part of that made sense, "-your mom did what?"

"Tracked your sky bison's scent?" Zuko asked, tilting his head the other way this time. "It's not like it's hard. They give off a pretty strong one."

Behind him, Aang bristled. "Appa does not smell!"

Sokka bit back a remark that well... Appa kind of did. It wasn't an awful smell, but Zuko definitely had a point. Which didn't make his statement about his mom tracking Appa's scent make any more sense- nor the part where he talked about her only being able to travel at night. As far as he could see, the only thing that had accompanied Zuko was that dragon, and-

Oh. No. No way.

"Is uh," Sokka began, his eyes darting over towards the dragon that was steadily following them, "-is your mom the dragon?"

"Of course." Zuko said, like it was supposed to be obvious. "What else would she be?"

Not a dragon, Sokka wanted to shout, but somehow- somehow- managed to bite it back. Instead he just turned to helplessly gape at the dragon, only to realize with a start that it was watching them all. There was something almost vaguely maternal in its gaze, in a way that suggested if one of them even tried to harm a single hair on Zuko's head, she would shoot them all down from the sky with no hesitation.

"Oh," Zuko said suddenly, snapping everyone's attention back towards him, "-I should introduce you to my brother too."

Before any of them could question what he meant, something wriggled out from within Zuko's tunic, wrapping itself around his upper arm and settling its head in the crux of his elbow. He almost mistook it for some kind of snake, but a closer look revealed that it had wings and horns, if only on a vastly smaller scale than the massive dragon still flying alongside Appa.

"This is Druk." Zuko said, almost seeming to smile. "He was just born this fall. Mom found his egg hidden away in a cave, but I'm the one who named him."

"Wait, okay, so let me get this straight." Sokka began, exchanging a glance with Katara, who just gave him a helpless shrug. "Your mom's a dragon."

Zuko nodded wordlessly.

"And so is your brother?" Sokka continued.

Zuko frowned, like he didn't understand what the problem was. "Isn't that what I just said?"

"Yeah, you did." Sokka said. "But aren't you, uh... aren't you human?"

Was he? They had just dealt with some freaky spirit world stuff like, barely even two days ago. Maybe those same spirits had figured that they'd never find a human firebending teacher for Aang, so they'd just gone and turned a dragon into a human. Those were some alarmingly gold eyes, now that he thought about it.

He glanced over towards Aang, but the bridge between the worlds just gave him a helpless shrug, the same as his sister. He could tell the kid was just barely holding back from blurting out a million questions of his own- which was probably for the best. He wasn't sure how Zuko would react to the sudden onslaught. He seemed kind of... well, not properly socialized? Awkward? He sure as heck didn't seem to understand the proper flow of conversation, at any rate.

"Of course I'm human." Zuko stated bluntly. "What else would I be?"

"Wait so," Aang piped up, unable to bite it back any longer, "-you were raised by dragons?"

Zuko squinted at Aang, like he didn't understand why anyone was confused. "Yeah? I thought that was obvious."

Sokka had to bite down on his tongue again to keep himself from saying anything else. Instead, he took a long, deep breath, trying to steady his thoughts. Because somehow, even though he'd grown up with a sister who had magic water powers and had later gone on to find the Avatar- who by the way was just a twelve year old kid- the idea of someone being raised by dragons just seemed so... insane to him. And now they were supposed to believe that this guy- this firebender- was supposed to be on their side, and was here to teach Aang firebending?

And he thought this day couldn't get any crazier. The universe just loved proving him wrong.

"You know what," Sokka began, "-I think this is maybe something we should discuss on solid ground."

Zuko turned his gaze on him, staring at him in that eerie, unblinking way of his. "What's there to discuss? I'm joining you."

Sokka rubbed his temples. Ah, there it was, his old friend- the headache. Somehow he got the feeling he'd be having a lot of those in the next few days.

Somehow, he wasn't sure how, they got Zuko to agree to continue the discussion somewhere that wasn't on Appa's saddle in the middle of the sky. Aang had been no help- leave it to the airbender to not see any issues with having important discussions with strange people mid-flight- but he and Katara had eventually managed to make him see sense. Which all would have been great, if Zuko hadn't proceeded to then jump off Appa's saddle, catching one of his dragon mom's horns on the way down in a stunt that still had Sokka's heart pounding.

Were all people from the Fire Nation this crazy, he wondered, or was it just the ones raised by dragons? Because he was seriously hoping for the latter.

Said dragon mom's name was Fen, as it turned out. It was still unclear if Fen would be joining them, or how she knew that they would be at Crescent Island- or why she was so convinced that Zuko was meant to be Aang's firebending teacher, a fact which Zuko himself appeared to be very insistent on. It was weird hearing someone who had been raised by an animal go on about destiny, but Sokka guessed this was just his life now.

Anyways, they'd managed to somehow find a place to camp that wouldn't attract too much attention, a task made infinitely harder now by the presence of a dragon. Or well, two dragons, he guessed- but Druk was way too small to attract the same kind of attention as Fen. The little guy was actually pretty cute, Sokka had to admit, all coiled up in Zuko's lap. It was only when he remembered that Zuko viewed said tiny dragon as his brother that things got a little weird.

As if this whole day hadn't been weird enough already.

At least Zuko had helped with the campfire. He'd turned around to say something Katara, and by the time he turned back, the fire was already lit. Guess there was some benefit to having a firebender around- or at least, a firebender that wasn't (currently) trying to kill you.

Thankfully the supplies the villagers had given them hadn't been damaged when they'd run that Fire Nation blockade. Katara had some kind of stew going, which he wished would just hurry up and be done already. It had been a long day, and he was hungry enough that the patch of mushrooms near the campsite was starting to look pretty appetizing.

"So," Aang began, staring across the campfire at Zuko, "-you said it's Zuko, right?"

Zuko peered up at him, his gold eyes reflecting almost eerily in the firelight. "Yeah."

"And you want to teach me firebending." Aang said.

Zuko nodded. "It's my destiny."

"Yeah, about that." Sokka said, cutting in. "You've been saying that for awhile now. How can you be so sure?"

Zuko opened his mouth to reply.

"And don't say it's because your dragon mom said so."

Zuko closed his mouth.

"Maybe you should just explain from the beginning." Katara suggested, glancing up from the stew.

Now that things had calmed down a bit, and Zuko hadn't shown any obvious signs of trying to kill them, she'd become a bit more comfortable with his presence. That said, she didn't trust him fully yet- not based on the fact that she still had her water skin on her, she didn't. They'd chosen a campsite close to a creek, just in case, but with any luck, they wouldn't need it.

Sokka still kept his boomerang close.

"Okay," Zuko said slowly, sparing a glance behind him towards where Fen lay, nearly invisible in the dark, "-where do you want me to start?"

"How about we start with the fact that you were raised by a dragon?" Sokka asked. "How does that even happen?"

Zuko just shrugged unhelpfully. "Don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?!" Sokka blurted out, staring at the firebender. "How could you possibly not know?!"

"It's always been like this." Zuko said. "I've just never questioned it. Never saw any reason to."

"I mean, there used to be old Fire Nation legends about people being raised by dragons." Aang said. "But I thought they were all just stories."

"Well, apparently not." Sokka said, rubbing his forehead.

Katara shot him a sympathetic look, before smiling at Zuko. "How did your mom know we would be on Crescent Island?"

She said your mom so easily, like she was talking about a human woman and not a humongous dragon. Truly, his sister was a force to be reckoned with.

"Fang told her he would be there on the solstice." Zuko said, as if that somehow explained everything.

Aang, at least, perked right up. "You mean Roku's dragon?"

"Roku's what now?" Sokka asked.

"Roku's dragon!" Aang said. "He's the one who lead me to the Fire Sage's Temple while I was in the spirit world. But why would Roku's dragon tell your mom about it?"

"Because Fang is mom's father." Zuko said, then added, almost as an afterthought, "-and Avatar Roku is my great-grandfather."

"He's your what?!" Sokka blurted out.

"You're who!?" Aang blurted out at the same time. "Roku didn't tell me anything about a great-grandson!"

Even Katara let the stew she was starting to ladle into bowls spill a little, though she somehow avoided joining them in blurting out incomplete sentences. She hastily bent the broth before it touched the forest floor, though she was unable to save an unfortunate morsel of meat. As if lured by the smell, Druk's head perked up, the tiny dragon darting out of Zuko's lap to grab at the chunk, bringing it back like it was some kind of prize.

Zuko just chuckled, watching as Druk scorched the meat further before swallowing it whole. Something in his expression softened for just a moment, the firebender reaching out to lightly stroke just underneath Druk's chin with a finger. The tiny dragon curled around his forearm, shutting its golden eyes and drifting back off to sleep. Only then did Zuko finally return his unblinking stare back to the three of them.

"I don't know why he didn't tell you." Zuko admitted. "But he's been dead for over a hundred years. Maybe he just didn't know."

"He knew about that comet thing." Sokka pointed out.

Zuko's expression darkened. "Sozin's comet."

"Yup, that's the one." Sokka nodded. "Also, wait- if Avatar Roku is your great-grandfather, does that make Aang your great-grandfather?"

Zuko just stared blankly at him, like he'd said something deeply stupid. "I don't think that's how it works."

"Coming from the guy who calls a dragon his mom, that doesn't exactly mean much." Sokka pointed out.

Narrowing his eyes, Zuko bared his teeth in a flash of white. "She is my mom."

Sokka flinched, sinking in slightly on himself. Was he- was he growling?

"I'm sorry about my brother. He doesn't mean anything by it." Katara quickly said, cutting in before the situation could get any worse. "He just has a habit of shoving his foot in his mouth."

The low growl broke off, Zuko turning towards Katara with a confused blink. "What does that have to do with anything? Both his feet are on the ground."

In spite of himself, Sokka let out a snort. It proved to be a mistake, because he only earned Zuko's ire again, the fire suddenly flickering almost menacingly in response. He saw Katara's hand twitch toward her water skin, before Aang wisely decided to cut in an attempt to clear the air.

"Maybe we should all eat something first." He said. "I think the hunger's making us a little tense."

Zuko huffed, a puff of smoke escaping from his nose. "He insulted my mom."

"Sokka wasn't insulting your mom." Aang reassured him. "We're just not used to your kind of... family dynamic?"

Zuko blinked again, which was already becoming a noteworthy event in his head. "Aren't you the same? I mean, a sky bison is no dragon, but-"

"Wha- Appa's not my dad!" Aang blurted out, his eyes wide. The sky bison in question rumbled something in response, though he had no idea what.

"He's not?" Zuko asked, scrunching up his nose. "I thought for sure..."

"No." Aang said. "He's family, yeah, but not- not like that."

"How about we all just eat, like Aang said?" Katara chimed in, thrusting a bowl of stew at Zuko before he could start suggesting Katara had been raised by the moon or something. "Here. I made a bowl for you too."

Zuko frowned, carefully accepting it. He gave it a quick sniff, but any comment Katara might have wanted to make in response to that died in her throat as the firebender blew out a small puff of fire into the bowl. The contents now charred and blackened, Zuko set to work, picking the ingredients out of the bowl one by one and popping them into his mouth, using the arm that Druk wasn't wrapped around.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Katara take a deep, calming breath. Right. Figures the kid raised by dragons would like his food charred and crispy.

Katara let her protests die, instead focusing on passing out bowls to the rest of them, briefly using the fire to reheat the broth in the bowl she'd set aside for Aang before she'd started adding the meat. They ate quietly, each of them stealing the occasional glance at Zuko. None of them quite knew what to make of him yet- you know, other than the fact that he was a total weirdo. Then again, he guessed being raised by dragons didn't exactly lend itself to normalcy, so he couldn't exactly blame the guy.

Once he'd finished picking out each ingredient from the bowl, Zuko guzzled the broth. He set the bowl down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand before getting up without a word. They all watched him make his way towards Fen, the dragon lifting her head at his appearance. Zuko rested a hand on her muzzle, leaning close until his forehead touched it. Fen closed her eyes, letting out a puff of smoke that almost seemed to wrap around her tiny human child like an embrace.

Okay. He'd admit it. That was sweet.

Weird, but sweet. Definitely made the whole mother son thing they had going on obvious as daylight.

It made him think about his own mother. Her face in his memories was blurry, almost indistinct, but he could still remember the sound of her voice as she sang him lullabies. He wondered about Zuko's human mother, and how exactly he'd ended up living with a dragon one instead. It was too easy for him to think that she hadn't wanted him- she would have been Fire Nation, after all, and therefore wicked- but found that he couldn't. Maybe leaving her son to be raised in isolation was still a better alternative than one day letting him become part of their country's war machine.

It was a sobering thought.

"So," Aang broke the silence that had descended over their small group, "-what do you think?"

"I don't know, Aang." Katara said with a soft frown. "I want to believe he's telling the truth, but-"

"He does need a firebending teacher." Sokka pointed out. "And I don't think we're exactly in much of a position to look a gift ostrich-horse in the mouth either. I say we accept his offer."

Katara's frown deepened, her gaze flickering over towards Zuko. He was still busy with Fen, paying no mind to their conversation. If Sokka didn't know any better, he was talking to the dragon, bringing up the question of how exactly the two even managed to understand one another. Probably more mystic spirit mumbo-jumbo or something along those lines, Sokka decided.

"I guess you're right." Katara admitted. "And for a trap, this does seem a little..."

"-strange?" Sokka finished for her.

Katara just nodded, staring at the campfire. Maybe she'd been thinking about mom too. More than the fact that they had been chasing them ever since they'd freed those earthbender prisoners, it was the fact that it was firebenders who had killed their mother that made him- and by extension, Katara- wary of letting one join them.

But Zuko didn't seem... well, okay, he still seemed dangerous. But not dangerous in a way that made it feel like he was out to kill them. Or capture Aang to drag him before his Fire Lord. He actually seemed kind of... sincere?

Yeah, thinking about a firebender this way was weird for him too. But Shyu had been on their side too, so maybe... maybe not everyone from the Fire Nation was bad.

(Just most of them.)

"I think we can trust him." Aang said. "I have a good feeling about him."

Sokka bit back a remark that Aang had a lot of good feelings, and that they didn't necessarily always pan out. Still, this one seemed a little more reliable than the time he'd had a good feeling about those purple berries they'd found while foraging that one time. He'd had stomach cramps for days afterwards.

"Have you thought about my offer?"

Sokka yelped, nearly jumping out of his skin at Zuko's sudden reappearance. He hadn't even noticed him move. At least he could take comfort in the fact that no one else seemed to have either- Aang and Katara had both been startled just as badly as he had. Okay, so he was the only who had yelped, but- look, it had been a long, stressful day. Of course he was going to react badly to someone sneaking up on them in the dark.

Zuko just blinked at him, staring at them blankly like he'd done nothing wrong.

"We have." Katara said, managing to compose herself. "And we're considering it."

"You need to do more than just consider it." Zuko said, sounding more than a little frustrated. "Like I told you, this is my destiny."

"Yeah, you keep saying that." Sokka said. "But how do you actually feel about that?"

Zuko blinked, tilting his head. "What do you mean?"

"It means that if you join us, you'll be fighting against your own people." Katara said, the corners of her lips tugging downwards in a not-quite frown. "That's not something that's easy to do."

Zuko's expression darkened, his gold eyes seeming to glint unnaturally in the firelight. "That won't be a problem."

The trio exchanged a glance amongst themselves, before Aang almost hesitantly asked, "-do you have something against the Fire Nation?"

"Not the Fire Nation." Zuko said, narrowing his eyes. Sokka swore there was an undercurrent of a growl to his words. "Just the royal family."

They waited a few seconds, but it didn't seem like Zuko intended to elaborate. And frankly... none of them really felt comfortable asking, not when the campfire had gone back to flickering dangerously. They all edged away from it a bit, but it made no move to leap out towards them and ignite any bit of clothing too close to it.

Whatever Zuko's problem with the Fire Lord and his family was, it clearly ran deep.

"Well, that's good enough for me." Sokka finally shrugged. "Seeing as we are trying to defeat the Fire Lord and all. Katara?"

Katara slowly nodded, breathing a little easier when the campfire died back down. Glancing over towards the monk at her side, she gave him a considering look. "Aang? You're the Avatar. You should have the final say."

Despite Zuko's still present mood, Aang somehow managed to beam brightly, leaping to his feet and thrusting out a hand. "Welcome to the team, Sifu Hotman!"

Zuko's anger instantly dissipated, staring at Aang's outstretched hand in confusion. "I-"

"What, do dragons not know how to do handshakes?" Sokka asked.

"I know how to shake hands!" Zuko protested, grabbing Aang's hand as if to prove a point. "I just don't- what's a Hotman?"

"Oh," Aang's face fell a bit, "-do they not use that slang anymore?"

Zuko just stared at the monk, squinting. "What's slang?"

In spite of himself, Sokka let out a bark of laughter. It looked like Aang wasn't the only one who was going to need lessons around here. Someone clearly needed to teach Zuko how to you know, be a regular human.

"What is he laughing at?" Zuko asked, turning that suspicious squint towards him.

"I wouldn't worry about it." Katara just rolled her eyes. "Sokka can be weird sometimes."

Sokka's laughter abruptly died. "Hey! I am not weird!"

"I don't know, Sokka. I think she's got you there." Aang said.

Sokka shot Aang a very ineffectual glare, folding his arms in front of his chest. He was surrounded by a sister with magic water powers, a one hundred and twelve year old spirit bridge, and a firebender raised by dragons. If anything, he was the normal one here.

How exactly had his life gotten to this point again?

Socks. This was all because he'd never washed his own socks, wasn't it? Damn his past self for being so lazy. Not having to deal with his own foot stench was nowhere near worth all this trouble.

(He had to wash his own socks now anyways. Katara made them all share the chores.)

"If you're all just going to make fun of me, then I'm going to bed." Sokka said resolutely, already getting to his feet. "And so should everyone else for that matter. We've all had a long day and we have a lot of ground to catch up on if we want to make it to the North Pole any time soon."

"Sokka's right." Katara said, getting to her feet. "We should sleep."

She turned, glancing briefly at Zuko. "We only have bedrolls for the three of us. Will you be okay? We can always pitch a tent if you need one."

"I think I'll be fine." Zuko said. "I'm pretty used to sleeping outside."

Yeah, he would be, Sokka thought to himself. Oh well. Maybe being raised by dragons meant Zuko was good at hunting. Not that he was bad at it! He just wasn't used to all this dirt, that's all. He was more of an ice and snow guy.

(And no matter what Aang said, they could definitely use some more meat in their diet. They couldn't just depend on handouts from the villages they saved forever.)

They didn't stay awake for much longer than that. Katara doused the fire, making sure not to leave behind any embers that might reignite. Sokka yawned, all but collapsing in his own bedroll. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zuko returning to Fen's side, leaning against the dragon's body. In return, she nestled her head closer, moving her tail so that its feathered tip shielded him from the chill of the early winter air. Druk slithered up from Zuko's forearm, draping himself around the back of his neck like the world's tiniest and most ineffectual scarf.

It should have been harder to fall asleep with a firebender right there, but he was drifting off before he even knew what hit him.

Ah well. Zuko looked too comfy to kill them all in their sleep anyways. They'd probably be fine.

Chapter Text

To his surprise, Zuko was still there when he woke up. Honestly, he was almost expecting the guy to have been some kind of wild fever dream.

Guess not.

Zuko was also already wide awake. Wide awake, and skinning an elephant-rat.

You know what? He was just going to assume that was normal for Zuko and roll with it. Aang would probably have a few protests to file, but thankfully, Aang wasn't awake yet. Maybe Zuko would be done with... whatever he was doing by the time he woke up. Heck, Katara wasn't even awake yet. Honestly, he had no idea why he was even awake.

Maybe he had been more apprehensive about falling asleep around a firebender than he'd thought.

He didn't see Druk, but it was pretty hard to miss Fen. She hadn't moved from where she had settled down last night. In the early morning sun it was even more apparent that her scales were a deep purple- what served to hide her in the darkness only made her stand out even more in the daytime.

He was starting to understand why Zuko had said she could only travel at night.

She was also carefully watching his every movement, one golden eye fixed on him. He did his best to ignore it, but also tried not to make any sudden movements in Zuko's general direction all the same. He did not want to find out firsthand what an angry dragon mom was like.

"So," Sokka began, desperately searching for something to say to the firebender, "-early riser, huh?"

"Firebenders rise with the sun." Zuko said.

Apparently, that was all he was going to say. Right. Made sense. Zuko had clearly only ever had like, five conversations in his entire life. He wasn't about to hold it against him.

But man, was it awkward.

In the daylight, he got a better look at the guy. It turned out that not only was his hair really that dark, but it was also even wilder than he'd first thought too. His skin was surprisingly pale for someone who had presumably lived outdoors all his life, but maybe firebenders just didn't tan. The gold of his eyes hadn't been a trick of the light either- they were just as bright in the daytime, though right now they were fully focused on his task.

He couldn't help but notice that his knife looked like it was meant more for ornamentation than it was for skinning a dead rodent. For that matter, his clothes looked almost new- not to mention almost obnoxiously fire nation red. The frankly ostentatious gold trim did nothing to dampen that impression. They were probably both stolen, Sokka thought- maybe his dragon mom had told him to go get some new clothes before their journey or something. Or maybe even being raised by dragons couldn't stop Zuko from having a powerful craving for fashion.

That wasn't even touching on Zuko's sword. Swords? Squinting, he swore it looked almost like there were two of them in that sheath, but that couldn't be right. What was a firebender even doing with a weapon like that anyways, especially a feral one?

Ugh, he still couldn't believe they'd accepted a feral firebender into their group. This was so weird.

"So," Sokka tried again, taking a seat near Zuko, "-uh, what's the Fire Nation like?"

"There's lots of volcanoes." Zuko said. "It's nice."

"No offense, but a bunch of volcanoes doesn't exactly sound like my definition of nice." Sokka said.

It was only when Zuko finally looked at him that Sokka realized he wasn't trying to make a correlation between those two things. Right. His fault, clearly, for expecting Zuko to make any sense.

"That's not what I meant." Zuko said, like that wasn't already clear enough already.

"Okay, okay, I get it." Sokka said, holding up his hands. "My bad."

Zuko huffed, once more blowing a puff of smoke from his nose. He wondered if all firebenders could do that, or if that was just a Zuko thing. It did seem pretty dragon-y.

"So, uh... what'cha got there?" Sokka asked, glancing down at the elephant rat. He'd finished skinning it, and was now in the process of cleaning his knife. He caught a glimpse of some kind of inscription on the blade before Zuko sheathed it again, tucking it away in his pouch.

Which, incidentally, solved the mystery of where Druk was. The tiny dragon was curled up by the pouch at Zuko's feet, watching his human brother with rapt attention.

"Breakfast," was all Zuko said before he speared the elephant rat with a nearby stick and proceeded to breathe fire onto it. Sokka swore he saw the flames briefly tint green and purple before settling back to the usual shade of orange-y red, but that had to have just been his imagination. He was pretty sure fire didn't come in those colors, controlled by a firebender or not.

"Oh." Sokka frowned, eyeing the now charbroiled rodent, "-uh, looks tasty."

Zuko glanced over at him, tilting his head slightly. "Do you want one? I'm sure I can find another."

"No, no, that's okay." Sokka said, holding up his hands and shaking his head. Sure, he liked meat, but he drew the line at eating crispy rodents. "I think I can make do with whatever Katara makes for breakfast. But uh, thanks?"

Zuko just nodded, before tearing into the large rodent with his teeth. For his sake, he hoped that thing was actually cooked.

"I'm just gonna," Sokka began, motioning in a direction that wasn't here, "-yeah."

Thankfully, Zuko barely even seemed to notice him leaving, too intent on his meal. Making his way back towards the others, he gave a somewhat nervous glance in Fen's direction, only to find that the dragon was very much still watching him. Right. Of course she was.

Katara was just waking up when he got back, blearily squinting at him as he approached. "Sokka? You're up early."

"I guess I'm still wired from yesterday." Sokka said, sitting down next to her.

"Makes sense." Katara said, yawning before glancing in Fen's direction. She startled slightly at the sight of the dragon. "Oh. I guess that part wasn't a dream."

"Nope." Sokka said, jerking his head in Zuko's direction. "Fire boy's still here too."

Katara glanced in the indicated direction, grimacing slightly. "Well, I guess that's one less person I have to make breakfast for."

"That's one way of putting it." Sokka said. "I'm just glad Aang's still asleep."

The airbender was, in fact, still asleep. He must have been more exhausted than any of them, Sokka thought. Avatar Roku doing... whatever the hell he'd done had clearly taken a lot out of the kid, and the fact that they all had forgone sleep the night before in favor of trying to make it to Crescent Island in time for the solstice definitely hadn't done him any favors. It was probably just best to let him rest.

"So what's the plan for today?" Katara asked, doing up her hair.

"I was thinking of maybe heading to that port we passed on the way in." Sokka said. "If Zuko's going to be traveling with us from now on, we'll need more supplies."

He spared a quick glance in the aforementioned firebender's direction, taking in the red and gold of his clothes, and added, "-also maybe some clothes that don't scream Fire Nation."

"Good plan." Katara agreed. "Any chance it can maybe wait until this afternoon? I was hoping to start Aang off on some waterbending basics."

Sokka considered it. His sister wasn't exactly a trained waterbender, but she did at least know a few things about her aforementioned magic water art. It probably wouldn't hurt if Aang had at least some kind of foundation before he started his training in the North Pole, and even with their new deadline, they could probably squeeze in at least one day of rest. In fact, after yesterday, he'd even argue that they needed it.

"Okay, morning water magic lessons it is." Sokka said.

Katara rolled her eyes at how he referred to it, but busied herself with starting breakfast for the rest of them instead of commenting on it. Sokka left her to it, instead making his way over towards Appa to check on their supplies. The air bison made a soft noise as he climbed up on his back, but remained where he was.

Guess he was still tired too.

He just hoped they'd have enough money to buy what they needed. There was no sense in asking Zuko- he was pretty confident the guy didn't even know what money was.

Spirits, he hoped he wouldn't have to teach the firebender basic math.

"Don't worry, I saved you some."

Zuko smiled, setting down what little remained of the elephant rat so that his brother could get his share. The little dragon darted out from his hiding place, wasting no time in tearing apart what remained of the rodent. He was still little enough to not have much of an appetite, able to share what he and their mother caught, but he knew that in a year or two, he was going to have to teach Druk how to hunt on his own.

Hopefully by then, the human's war would be over, and it would be safe for dragons again. He didn't want Druk to have to grow up in a world where he had to worry about being hunted.

"That good?" Zuko asked.

Druk chirruped in response, gobbling down the last morsel of meat. Zuko's smile grew, holding out his hand for his brother to climb up on. He carefully placed him on his shoulder, before turning on his heel, trying to gauge what everyone else was doing. The Avatar was still asleep from the look of it, but both of the Water Tribe children were awake now- Sokka and Katara, he dimly recalled.

He wasn't sure what to make of them. He hadn't known that there was anyone traveling with the Avatar other than his bison. Uncle hadn't told him that much. He had to wonder if the old man didn't know, or if he had kept it from him on purpose. He did weird things like that from time to time, so it might very well be that he had known, and just hadn't felt the need to tell him. Maybe he thought the surprise would be good for him or something.

He'd never met humans his own age before.

Or a girl, for that matter.

He was actually kind of disappointed. Girls didn't seem that much different from boys- or maybe it was because the two Water Tribe kids were brother and sister. He wasn't sure. It wasn't like he had met any other siblings, and he certainly didn't have a human sibling to compare himself to.

At least, not that he knew of. He knew he had a human mother, and that he must have had a human father too, but he didn't know anything else about them. He'd never seen the point in asking- Fen and Druk were his family now. Why would he even need a human family when he had the two of them?

For the moment he ignored everyone else, only briefly exchanging a glance with his mom. An image of a cool river popped into his head, and he huffed slightly, smoke curling out of his nostrils as he did. She didn't need to tell him, that was exactly where he was headed. He wasn't completely clueless.

He made his way towards the river, crouching in the cool water. He shivered slightly, his toes reflexively curling inwards. It was colder in the Earth Kingdom than he was used to. Maybe he should have listened to Uncle when he'd told him to dress warmly, but he hadn't seen the need. It was always warm in the Fire Nation, and besides that, he was a firebender- he just didn't get cold.

And besides, he was sure the North Pole couldn't be that cold. There was no way the land there was really just made up of ice. Uncle had to be making things up. Snow sounded pretty fake too. Why would rain freeze? He'd never seen it happen, and neither had his mom- and between the two of them, he trusted his mom way more than he trusted Uncle.

This water sure was kind of chilly though. Exhaling, he let heat radiate out from him, turning the water around him a more pleasant temperature. He then proceeded to scrub the blood from his hands, making sure they were at least passably clean enough so that no one would complain. He wasn't sure if anyone here was like Uncle, ready to pick at even the finest details of his personal hygiene, but he wasn't taking his chances.

(He didn't get it. Wasn't it fine so long as he didn't smell? Who cared if dried blood got under his nails?)

"Oh, there you are. I was looking for you."

Zuko glanced up, peering behind him at the Water Tribe girl- Katara, he reminded himself. "Why?"

"I was planning on teaching Aang some waterbending basics after breakfast." Katara said. "I wanted to know if you wanted some time after that to maybe teach him some firebending."

Zuko shook his head. "I think he should probably learn waterbending first."

The elemental order was important- or at least, that was what both his mom and Uncle had told him. He didn't understand why, just that it was.

"That makes sense." Katara said, shifting slightly on her feet. "Um, I made some breakfast. I know Sokka said you already had some of your own, but if you want...?"

"I'm pretty full." Zuko replied.

He'd smelled what she had been making anyways, and it didn't seem anywhere near as appetizing as last night's meal. Besides, he couldn't let living with humans dampen his skills. This was only a temporary arrangement- once the Avatar had mastered firebending, and the war was over, he would go back to the mountains with his mom and Druk.

He didn't belong with people. They were nice to visit every once in awhile, but he wasn't one of them.

"Oh." Katara frowned. "Well, you could still sit with us if you wanted?"

Zuko studied the girl, tilting his head slightly. He didn't understand the offer, but it sounded pretty important to her. Maybe sharing meals was just a human social custom? Come to think of it, Uncle did invite him to come sit and drink that weird, nasty leaf juice stuff with him a lot. What was it called again? Tea?

Well, whatever it was, it was nasty. The sweet cakes his master would give him after a long training session were a lot better.

"Sure." Zuko said. "I guess I can do that."

"Great." Katara smiled, looking relieved. "Come on. I still need to wake up Aang."

Even though she said that, the waterbender just stared at him, rather than doing what she said she was going to do. Glancing behind him, he wondered if she'd maybe spotted something off in the distance, but there was nothing there. Was she waiting for something then? Or was there something he was supposed to do?

Ugh, this would be so much easier if they could just communicate mentally, like he could with his mom. He might not be able to send pictures back, but at least he always knew exactly what it was that she wanted. He didn't know how she had ever managed to learn to understand him when his only options for communicating with her were words and vocalizations. Patience and understanding, he guessed.

Thankfully Katara started walking back towards the campsite soon enough. Zuko followed along behind her, catching his mom's eye as he returned. He nudged Druk with two fingers, motioning with his head in her direction. His brother nuzzled his cheek, before flying off in the direction of their mom, landing on her head and curling up around one of her horns. She let out a faint huff, a small bit of smoke curling out from her nose. Druk let out his own tiny puff of smoke, far weaker than that of their mother's.

He smiled at the sight. It brought back memories of when he was still young and was learning how to master his own inner fire. He soaked up everything his mom had to teach him, and he knew Druk would too. His brother was too young to form clear pictures yet, but he could still sense his eagerness to learn, to become a great dragon one day like his mother- and like him.

He was somewhat unsure if Druk understood that he wasn't a dragon yet. He hadn't realized he wasn't one himself until his third summer- he'd just thought he was a funny looking dragon. He hadn't realized his lack of scales and wings were because he was actually human.

(In his defense, it was another three summers before he even saw another human. He had no idea what they looked like.)

"Just sit anywhere you like." Katara told him, before leaving to go wake the Avatar.

He did just what he was told, sitting down next to the cooking fire. He could feel it pulse and breathe, and was soon matching that of his own to it. It was a technique his mom had taught him, though Uncle had said it was similar to the firebending meditation that they were taught in the Fire Nation. He'd argue that point- he'd seen Uncle meditate, and it was always more about taking control of the fire rather than becoming one with it. He'd tried to explain it to him once, but he'd never been all that good with words. He wasn't sure if he'd said it right or not.

Sokka kept looking at him, but he didn't know why. He made sure to watch him to try and find out, but the only thing that seemed to do was make him nervous.

Weird. He wasn't showing any signs of aggression. He might not be able to flatten his ears like his mom or Druk could, but he wasn't showing his teeth, and there was nothing aggressive in his posture. But for some reason, the Water Tribe boy just didn't seem comfortable with him. It had been that way earlier too, but he'd just assumed it had more to do with the presence of his knife.

He still had his swords on him, so maybe that was it.

"Morning, Sifu Hotman!"

Zuko blinked, tearing his gaze away from Sokka- missing his sigh of relief- to look at the Avatar. He uncertainly lifted one hand to mirror the way Aang had his up. "Morning...?"

Behind the Avatar, Katara stuck both of her thumbs in the air, looking almost encouraging. He had no idea what that meant.

"So," Aang plopped down next to him, almost uncomfortably close, "-what are you going to teach me first, Sifu Hotman?"

Zuko blinked, looking in confusion towards Katara. He understood the shake of her head a lot better. She hadn't told him that he wasn't going to start teaching him firebending yet.

"Nothing." Zuko told him. "You have to master waterbending first."

The Avatar did something with his face that Zuko didn't quite understand. He pulled down his lips, but he wasn't quite frowning. He didn't have a name to put to this emotion and it was making him uncomfortable. He wished the Avatar would stop doing it immediately.

(He would later learn that it was called pouting.)

"But I thought you came here to teach me firebending!" Aang protested.

"I did." Zuko said. "But you need to learn waterbending first."

He paused, then added, "-and earthbending."

"Wait, so you're saying you can't teach Aang anything until he masters the other two elements?" Sokka asked.

"That's how it's done." Zuko insisted, even though he still wasn't sure why. "But I can still help you fight the Fire Nation. And I can teach him about breath control. That's really important for firebending."

"But I already know how to breathe!" The Avatar whined. "I thought you were going to teach me cool fire punches and stuff."

Zuko frowned, his brows knitting together. This was the Avatar? This wasn't what he'd been expecting at all. He'd been expecting someone more like Avatar Roku, a wise old man. But he was... Aang was just a child, even younger than he was.

"Aang," Katara began, "-I'm sure Zuko has his reasons."

"I guess." Aang said, kicking at the ground, almost seeming to sulk. "But you'll still teach me some waterbending, right?"

"Of course." Katara smiled. "We can start as soon as we finish breakfast."

"Great!" Aang said, perking right back up again. Grabbing a bowl, he almost inhaled his food, only pausing to look over towards him. "Aren't you going to have any?"

"Zuko's already eaten." Sokka interjected, a strange note to his voice that he couldn't quite identity.

"Oh," Aang frowned, looking almost disappointed for some reason, "-okay."

He didn't get it. Why was he upset? All he had done was eat earlier. Did he have to actually eat with them for it to count as communal eating? Maybe he should have listened to Uncle's stupid lessons after all. Maybe then he wouldn't be struggling so much. It had just never seemed all that important at the time.

Or maybe humans were just completely nonsensical. Yeah, that sounded more right. He was obviously the reasonable one here.

(Why was his mom laughing?)

"You, uh, comfortable up there, buddy?"

Sokka pointedly did not look up. He already knew what he would see if he looked up. It would be Zuko, crouched on a tree branch like some kind of feral cat. He'd been up there ever since Katara had invited him to watch her teach Aang her fancy water magic tricks, while he was stuck scrubbing mud and bugs out from between Appa's toes.

That just didn't seem fair.

I mean sure, Momo and Druk weren't working either, but that was different. The two seemed to have become fast friends in the short time no one was watching them, Momo apparently delighting in the discovery that this new addition to the team was a tiny source of warmth. The little noodle was currently draped over Momo's belly, the pair sunning themselves on a flat rock, presumably fast asleep.

He wasn't going to lie, it was totally adorable.

"I think Katara is angry."

Which wasn't a response to his actual question, but okay, Sokka could work with this. It wasn't Zuko's fault he had no idea how to carry on a conversation.

"What makes you think that?" Sokka asked, glancing over towards his sister. He'd kind of been ignoring her lesson with Aang, too focused on scrubbing Appa's feet. Honestly, he was kind of surprised to realize that Zuko was actually right. Katara did look kind of annoyed.

"Eh," Sokka shrugged, "-I'm sure she's just realizing teaching isn't all it's cracked up to be."

Zuko cocked his head slightly to the side, glancing down at him. "So you've taught someone before?"

"If you can call trying to show a bunch of toddlers how to be a warrior teaching, sure, I guess." Sokka shrugged. "What about you?"

"I'm supposed to teach Druk." Zuko said, then after a small pause, added, "-and the Avatar."

"So in other words, no." Sokka said.

Zuko bristled, a puff of smoke escaping from his nose. "So what?"

"Easy there, dragonbreath." Sokka said. "Just trying to make conversation."

"Dragon-?" Zuko began, before cutting himself off. "Is that one of those nickname things?"

"Wait," Sokka said, staring up at the guy like he'd just grown an extra head, "-you know what a nickname is?"

Zuko just shrugged. "Sure. Uncle taught me."

"Like, your dragon uncle...?" Sokka asked, wondering if dragons had a concept of nicknames and if so, what constituted a dragon nickname. He'd never been more curious about anything in his life.

Zuko had the audacity to roll his eyes. "Of course not. Uncle's a human."

"Wait, so," Sokka said, rubbing his forehead, already feeling another one of those headaches coming on, "-you have a human uncle?"

"He's not my uncle." Zuko said. "He just told me to call him that."

You know actual humans other than us, Sokka wanted to ask, but somehow, somehow, managed to bite it back. He guessed it made sense, actually. Zuko could talk, which didn't exactly seem like the kind of skill he'd pick up too easily living among dragons. Maybe this Uncle was just a nice old guy who liked kids and didn't mind when they came half-feral. Kind of like how every kid in his village called his grandmother Gran-Gran, even though she was only related to him and Katara.

Now that he thought about it, his Gran-Gran would probably try and raise a half-feral kid. He wasn't sure what to do with that revelation. Maybe bundle Zuko up and take him back to the South Pole so she could feed him sea prune stew and teach him letters?

Wait, did Zuko even know how to read?

He opened his mouth to speak, but before he even got the chance, a huge wave broke over him. He somehow managed not to get swept up by the river, but he wasn't so lucky in avoiding getting a mouthful of dirty river water. Sputtering, he glanced up towards where Zuko had been perched just a second ago, only to find that the firebender had scrambled up higher into the branches of the tree to avoid the wave.


"Aang!" Sokka yelled, hauling himself to his feet. The wave hadn't been anywhere near powerful enough to displace Appa, and thankfully, he'd taken their supplies off of the sky bison's saddle before he started cleaning out his toes. "Be careful, would you? You almost swept me downstream!"

"Oops, sorry Sokka!" Aang gave him a wave that wasn't apologetic at all, before he turned back towards Katara with a bright smile. "Looks like I got the hang of that move! What else do you got?"

"I think that's enough practicing for today." Katara said, turning as if to avoid Aang's smile.

Huh. Guess she really was annoyed. Weird. From the look of it, Aang had been doing really well- hence why he was now sopping wet. What was she so upset about?

Katara stalked away from the mouth of the river, back towards camp- though she didn't get very far before she stopped, forcing herself to take in a deep breath. She'd been acting... well, not all that great towards Aang. It was just so hard to watch him be so good at something that she had struggled with for most of her life- and it wasn't even his primary element!

He'd made it look so easy. Made her feel stupid for ever having struggled.

She knew that wasn't Aang's intention, but it was hard not to feel stupid when he so quickly took to a move that she hadn't even managed to master herself yet. She tried to argue that was a good thing- Aang picking up waterbending quickly meant that he would be able to master all four elements that much faster. And given their time constraints...

...the faster the better, honestly.

But she still felt like an idiot. This is a more difficult move, she had said. Don't worry if you don't get it right away, she'd said.

She was embarrassed just remembering.

At least maybe once they got to the North Pole, she'd be able to find someone to teach her too. But it didn't change that she'd taught Aang basically everything she knew in just ten minutes- and he'd made learning it look easy. What if he asked for more lessons? What if he found out that she didn't even know anything else?

Sure, she could teach him how to freeze water, but that was it. Fourteen years of struggle, and she was surpassed in ten minutes. She wasn't sure why she had even bothered.

At least Zuko had probably mastered firebending already. All she was doing was pretending.

Ugh, and he'd been watching the whole thing too, hadn't he? She thought she'd seen his eerie golden glare up that tree. She didn't know what was more embarrassing- making such a bad first impression in front of their new member, or the fact that said new member was a firebender.

A firebender. They had a firebender in their group now.

A firebender... and a dragon.

It was with that realization that Katara jerked her head up, and realized with a flush of embarrassment that Fen had been watching her the entire time. Her stare was just as unblinking as her... son's, which was still so strange to think about. Sure, there was a legend in the Southern Water Tribe about a great chieftain who had been raised by polar leopards after his parents had been slaughtered by a usurper and he had been cast out to die, but she never expected that she'd find herself in the middle of such a legend.

Well. Not that she thought Zuko was actually a secret prince. That would just be ridiculous.

Fen let out a puff of smoke, the dragon stretching out her wings. Katara found herself staying very still, because even though she probably wasn't going to hurt her, it was hard to look at something with claws that large and not be a little worried.

She wondered if the dragon would be staying.

Fen settled again, but her gaze remained fixed on Katara. Not knowing what else to do, Katara gave her an awkward smile. She had to understand humans somehow, if she'd managed to not only raise Zuko but teach him human speech, but talking to her felt a lot like talking to Appa- kind of silly.

Honestly, it was almost a relief when Sokka came to join her, Aang trailing slightly behind. At first she thought it was because he'd picked up on her mood, but before that pang of guilt could sink in, she realized it was actually just because he was trying to carry both Momo and Druk at the same time, all while trying to not wake the latter.

Right. Two dragons. Two dragons, and a firebender.

Somehow she wasn't all that surprised when she turned back to look towards Fen, only to realize Zuko was now right there. He'd done that last night too, moving so quietly that none of them had even noticed.

That... wasn't exactly comforting. She couldn't help but feel more than a little nervous around him. He was still Fire Nation, after all, even if she more or less trusted that he was on their side. He'd seemed pretty sincere when he had explained himself last night, and thus far, he'd shown no reason for her to doubt him.

But the last time there had been a firebender in their camp, her mother had paid the price. So yes. She was still fairly apprehensive about their new ally.

The unblinking stare definitely didn't help matters much either.

"So," Sokka began, "-I was thinking that since Aang's waterbending lesson is apparently over, that we should just head down to the port now."

Katara twitched, unable to stop herself. Sorry for not being a good enough teacher to keep up a lesson for longer than ten minutes. Maybe if she'd actually had someone around to teach her while growing up, things would have been different.

But she knew Sokka didn't mean anything by it. He probably hadn't even noticed how frustrated she was. He'd been too busy with Appa.

"Port?" Zuko questioned, looking away from Fen.

"We'll need more supplies if you're going to be joining us." Katara explained.

"Yeah, and since we passed a port on the way in, we figured we might as well stop there. It shouldn't be more than a half hour's walk, if that." Sokka shrugged, then paused, staring at Zuko almost suspiciously. "Wait. Have you ever actually been to a port?"

"I... know what one is?" Zuko offered. "We flew over them sometimes."

"So in other words, no." Sokka concluded.

"That's okay." Aang said. He'd managed to settle Momo and Druk back down in a sunny patch of grass, all without disturbing the baby dragon. "There's always a first time for everything!"

For a moment, Zuko almost seemed to hesitate. "I don't know. I've never been around that many people before."

Katara gave him a reassuring smile. She couldn't help herself, not when he sounded so nervous about it. It was almost kind of endearing. "It'll be fine, Zuko, I promise."

"Yeah, just stick with us and you'll be fine!" Sokka assured him.

"I-" Zuko began, glancing back towards Fen. The dragon nudged him almost encouragingly, prompting the firebender to give her a tiny smile. "Okay. I guess I can't keep avoiding people forever."

He paused, glancing between the three of them, "-well, other people."

"Great!" Aang chirped. "C'mon Momo, let's-"

The airbender paused, glancing down at the lemur in question- and more specifically, at the tiny sleeping dragon draped over it, and seemed to think better about what he was about to say. "Actually, on second thought, maybe you should stay here with Appa, buddy. Druk seems pretty cozy and I'd hate to wake him up."

"Young dragons typically sleep a lot." Zuko remarked. "I'm sure between your da- Appa and my mom, they'll be perfectly safe."

Aang merely arched a brow. "Did you almost call Appa my dad?"

"No." Zuko said sharply, mustering up a pretty effective glare. "Why would I say that? I know Appa's not your dad."

"Right," Aang said, totally unconvinced, "-sure you do, buddy."

Aang's sarcasm, however, completely flew over Zuko's head, the firebender instead giving them a firm nod. "Good. I'm glad you understand."

Katara quickly decided that she didn't care for the look that her brother and Aang had just shared. She made a hasty mental note to introduce Zuko to the concept of sarcasm before the two of them could use his ignorance against him. Zuko's offer to teach Aang firebending wasn't one they were likely to come across again- she wasn't about to let them turn him against them because of a few bad jokes.

And if she knew her brother, they would be very, very bad jokes.

"Uh, where's Zuko?"

Katara had just tucked the copper coins she'd confiscated from Aang into her sash when Sokka spoke up. Frowning, she glanced behind her to where Zuko had been just seconds ago, only to find that somehow in the time between taking the coins from Aang and putting them away, the firebender had managed to all but vanish.

"I- he was right here, he- Aang?" Katara asked, glancing over towards the airbender who just gave her a helpless shrug.

"Great." Sokka heaved a sigh. "Just what we need. A lost child."

"Sokka, I'm pretty sure Zuko is older than you." Katara pointed out. "And I'm sure he's not lost. He just..."

"-wandered off?" Sokka finished.

"It's okay. He couldn't have gone far." Aang said. "I'm sure we'll find him if we look."

"Good idea." Katara said. "Zuko probably just... saw something and got distracted."

She winced, realizing how bad that description sounded. But it was true that once they had gotten into the port itself, Zuko had proven to be... distractible. All of his nerves had just disappeared in the blink of an eye, reminding her of how she had felt when she saw grass and trees for the first time. She guessed this was a new experience for him- and wondered again just how much human contact he'd had in the past, if he had any at all.

(That... felt almost kind of sad. She didn't doubt that Fen loved him, but that didn't mean he still didn't need other people. Everyone did.)

She should have known better than to take her eyes off him, even for a second. Just look at what Aang had done when she'd taken her eyes off of him! He'd gone and wasted what little money they had left on a whistle that didn't even work.

At least Aang knew how shops worked. What if Zuko thought he could just take things? It wasn't like he had any actual money on him. Maybe bringing him with them to the port hadn't been such a good idea.

She sighed. At least they had been able to get some of what they would need. They weren't successful in finding another bedroll, but they had found some clothes in Earth Kingdom green that she hoped they could convince Zuko to wear- plus a nice parka that looked like it would fit him. If he was going to come with them to the North Pole, he was going to need warmer clothes.

Also probably some actual shoes.

"Maybe he saw something shiny?" Sokka shrugged. "I mean, that's a dragon thing, right?"

"Sokka, he's not an actual dragon." Katara said.

Although... she hated to admit it, but he might have a point. It wasn't like they knew much else about Zuko, other than the fact that he had been raised by a dragon. Zuko probably had just seen something interesting and wandered off.

She sighed again. They were definitely going to have to set some ground rules after this.

"Come on," she said, "-let's see if we can find him."

The two boys exchanged a glance, before they both shrugged, falling into step behind her. They made their way through the marketplace, looking for any sign of Zuko. She didn't think it would be too hard to find him- even if there were other people wearing red milling about the port. A few of them eyed their group oddly, which ordinarily she would be more worried about- if it weren't for the fact that there were plenty of people in green and even blue giving the same looks too.

She was starting to think that maybe this port wasn't exactly the savory type.

"Kid," anyone else would have picked up on the clear exasperation in the man's voice, but to Zuko, it just fell flat, "-you do have actual money, right?"

Zuko blinked, finally tearing his attention away from the assortment of knives that lined the cart. He'd been systematically taking each one down, unsheathing it to study the blade, before he moving on to the next one and repeating the process. He'd started on one side of the cart and had since moved on to the next, the cart owner all the while growing more and more exasperated at having to deal with this kid who couldn't seem to make up his mind and didn't even look like he was worth his time.

Zuko, of course, was not aware of the impression he gave off, not in the least. His clothes might have been made of good material, but the kid was barefoot and his hair was wild. There was dirt- or what he hoped was dirt- underneath his fingernails, and he hadn't spoken a single word since he'd started looking at the man's wares. Not to mention the fact that he had come out of nowhere, nearly scaring the crap out of the cart owner.

Zuko was also only dimly aware that he'd left behind the two Water Tribe siblings and the Avatar somewhere. He had seen the knife cart and had realized his need for one. He did already have a knife, but the fancy one Uncle had given him wasn't as good at skinning and prepping an animal as he wanted it to be. He needed something better.

"Money?" Zuko asked.

"Yeah, money." The man said, making a gesture with his fingers that Zuko didn't understand, rubbing his thumb and his index finger together. "You know what money is, right?"

Zuko tilted his head, considering the question. The word pulled at him. Sokka and Katara had talked about it on their way here, and Uncle had...

Oh! Right. Uncle had given him some of this money.

Rather than say that, Zuko instead dug into his sash. Uncle had shown him how to hide the small pouch of coins he'd given him before he'd left on his journey so that they didn't make any noise when he moved. Honestly, he'd forgotten about them until now. He hadn't seen much use for the shiny gold disks, but Uncle had seemed fairly insistent that they would come in handy.

Plucking out the coin pouch, he untied it, opening to show the man what was inside, blissfully oblivious to the way the man's eyes widened at the sight of the gold coins tucked within. "Is this enough to buy a knife?"

The cart owner looked at Zuko, looked at the coins, and then back at Zuko- and then immediately decided that this kid was definitely more trouble than he was worth.

"You know what, kid?" The man asked. "How about I just give you a knife for free?"

He could fleece the kid for all he was worth, but something told him that nothing good would come out of that. He sold knives at a port filled with pirates. That had given him some pretty good self-preservation instincts over the years, and right now, those instincts were telling him to just get this weird golden-eyed kid away from his cart as soon as possible.

Zuko wordlessly nodded, tucking away the coin pouch. He thought it was silly that humans apparently valued these flat disks, and maybe this man had realized that too. He scanned the rows of knives that lined the man's cart, picking the one that had looked the most promising. Unsheathing the blade, he pressed it lightly against his thumb, testing its sharpness.

The cart owner made a small face, but didn't dare say anything.

Satisfied, Zuko nodded his head, sheathing the blade. It would do.

He was just about to walk off with it, when Uncle's words about politeness came back to him. Turning on his heel, he made a rough attempt to mirror the bowing motion Uncle had showed him once, and then left without another word, confident that he had done well.

He didn't know that the cart owner watched him leave, wondering if he'd just been visited by something out of a Spirit tale.

"He's not here." Aang reported.

"He's not here either." Sokka said, coming out of the shop across from the one Aang went into. "That guy moves fast."

They had been up and down this row of shops with no luck. She was starting to think Zuko might have gone in the other direction, and that maybe they should have split up to find him. Not that she liked the idea of splitting up, not here- the more she looked around, the more she started to realize just how shady this place was.

"Well, maybe he's-"

"Earth Nation! Fire Nation! Water Nation! So long as bargains are your inclination, you're welcome here! Don't be shy, come on by!"

Katara cut herself short, scowling slightly. Who called the Water Tribes the Water Nation? That was just silly.

"Maybe Zuko went to check out the stuff on that ship?" Aang suggested. "He sounded pretty interested in the boats earlier."

Katara didn't exactly miss the way the airbender's eyes glistened, but just because she had picked up on his alternative motives, didn't mean he didn't have a point. Zuko had expressed an interest in the wooden boats that lined the pier.

"I guess it wouldn't hurt to look." Katara said. "But if we don't see him once we get in there, we leave."

She couldn't help but glance with some trepidation towards the man clad in Earth Kingdom yellows and greens who stood outside the ship, calling out to potential customers. Something about him gave her a bad feeling, though she wasn't quite sure what. He certainly didn't look any more trustworthy than anyone else in this place did- a little caution was probably prudent.

Her mistrust turned out to be well placed, as the men quickly revealed themselves to be pirates- or as they put it, high risk traders.

They also had a waterbending scroll.

A stolen waterbending scroll.

Katara's hand twitched. It would only dawn on her later- much later- that what she was about to do was a very, very bad idea.

Zuko turned the corner just in time to watch the Avatar send a cart of round leaf orbs flying, crashing into a small group of armed men. His new purchase securely tucked away in his sash, he couldn't help but wonder what he'd missed.

Well, whatever it was, it looked interesting.

He hastened his pace, hurrying to catch up with his new traveling companions. He made it just in time to watch the Avatar and his two Water Tribe companions wind up cornered by yet another trio of unknown men- all of whom were armed.

Something told him these people weren't friendly.

His hands twitched, his inner fire thrumming just under his skin. He quickly exhaled, letting the flames die down. Too much of this place was made of wood, and while fire wasn't destruction like too many people thought of it as, it could destroy. He didn't want to accidentally start a fire that he might not have the time to put out.

"Now," a lanky, mustached man who appeared to be their leader spoke, "-who gets to taste the steel of my blade first?"

Zuko's hands settled on his swords instead, drawing them both in one swift motion. "How about me?"

The man spun on his heel, fixing his gaze on him- and then on his swords. "This doesn't involve you, boy."

"These people are my companions." Zuko said. "So I think it does."

The man merely arched a brow, before signaling to the other two men with him. "You take care of the girl and her friends. I'll deal with this one."

He wasn't too worried about the Avatar- he had seen what he was capable of after even just a few minutes of waterbending training. He had to assume he was even better at airbending, it being his main element and all. Zuko just grinned, baring his teeth in a clear sign of aggression. The man did the same.

Finally, something that made sense.

The man lunged towards him, steel flashing in the sunlight. Zuko had never fought against someone who used knives like this before, but that didn't give him pause in the slightest. He'd fought off animals far fiercer than this, when he was much younger than he was now.

Besides- this man was underestimating him.

He could see it in the way he moved, in his confident stride. It made him wish people were this easy to read outside of battle.

Zuko deflected his first strike with ease, knocking away one of his knives in the process. The man narrowed his eyes, confidence giving way to doubt- and that was when he struck, slamming his knee into the man's stomach, causing him to double over, gasping for breath.

"Zuko!" He heard Aang call out, prompting him to look towards the airbender. The other two men had already been disabled, each sporting twin bumps on their foreheads. "Boy, are we ever glad to see you!"

"No time for catching up, Aang." Sokka said. "We have to get out of here before more of those pirates show up."

"Oh, right!" Aang said, sheepishly rubbing his head. "Wouldn't want that."

Zuko just glanced down at the man he'd just knocked out, before sheathing his swords, giving the child Avatar a wordless nod of his head. The two water tribe siblings hurried past him, with Aang taking up their rear. Zuko fell behind him, briefly glancing over his shoulder to make sure that there weren't any obvious signs of pursuit.

If there were, he'd deal with them.

"The two water tribe children and the bald monk managed to escape."

His captain scowled- something that was rarely a good sign, Oh had learned during his many years of following him.

"How?" The captain more demanded than asked. "I was under the impression that the lot of you were better than a bunch of mere children."

"They had help." Oh weakly provided, leaving out the part where their helper had been a child as well. He was still sore where the barefoot imp had driven his knee into him. "A swordsman of some skill."

"Yeah, and the bald monk just blew us around like it was nothing!"

"Blew you around?" The captain asked, arching a skeptical brow. "Are you saying the boy was an airbender?"

"He did have the right tattoos." One of Oh's fellow pirates provided. "Saw 'em in a scroll once. Right color and everything."

Putting a hand to his chin, the captain's bad mood seemed to vanish in an instant as he contemplated this new information. "A bald, airbending monk traveling with two Water Tribe children? That sounds awfully familiar. Didn't the Fire Nation just put out a bounty for such a group?"

Oh exchanged a glance with his fellow pirates. They did keep tabs on the bounties that the various nations distributed, what with them being pirates and all. Always best to check who was and wasn't welcome in different ports. And come to think of it, there had been such a poster going around recently- something about helping a bunch of Earth Kingdom prisoners escape from Fire Nation captivity.

In hindsight, he wasn't sure how he had missed it.

There was nothing about a Fire Nation swordsman, though. Then again, maybe they just didn't want people to know one of their own had turned traitor.

"Gentlemen," the captain began, a familiar glint in his eyes, "-forget the scroll. I believe we have an even more profitable target to recover."

Chapter Text

"Okay," Sokka said between gasps for breath, "-I think they've stopped chasing us."

"Why were they even chasing you in the first place?" Zuko had the nerve to demand, irritatingly not out of breath. "What did you do?"

"Nothing! They just started chasing us on their own!" Sokka sputtered.

Or at least, that's what he'd thought. But then he saw his sister's guilty flinch, and realized that maybe she knew a little bit more about why the pirates were chasing them than she'd first let on.

"Katara?" He asked. "What did you do?"

Sensing that she was caught, Katara dropped the guilty act, instead opting to lock eyes with him. "They shouldn't have had it in the first place."

"Had-?" Sokka began, before the meaning of her words dawned on him. "You- tell me you didn't steal their waterbending scroll."

"It wasn't their waterbending scroll!" Katara yelled. "Where do you think they got it from, Sokka? They stole it from a waterbender!"

"I can't believe this!" Sokka yelled right back. "You put us all in danger, and for what? Some stupid scroll?"

"This isn't just a stupid scroll, it's a-"

"Okay, okay!" Aang cut in, physically stepping between the two of them. "What's done is done. There's no sense fighting about it now."

Sokka grumbled, but bit his tongue. Aang had a point- it wasn't like they could return the scroll to the pirates. Somehow he got the feeling that wouldn't be nearly enough for them to forgive the theft. What's done was done.

"Fine." Sokka said, folding his arms in front of him. "But I think it's about time we set some ground rules about stealing from pirates. Namely not doing it."

Katara only huffed, tearing her gaze away from him only for it to fall on Zuko instead. "Well what about Zuko? We never would have went into that ship in the first place if he hadn't wandered off."

Zuko startled, clearly not having expected to be dragged into this. Then he huffed, smoke curling out of his nostrils in a way that was already becoming familiar. "I didn't wander off! I went to get something."

"You went to get something." Sokka repeated, pinching the bridge of his nose. "And by get, did you mean steal?"

One thief in the group was bad enough, but... then again, did Zuko even know what stealing was? Maybe. That Uncle person might have taught him. The question was, did Zuko know that stealing was wrong?

"No!" Zuko bristled, now clearly very annoyed. "He said I could have it for free!"

It felt like there was a lot to unpack there, and frankly, Sokka wasn't in a mood to do it. Instead he just let out a long sigh, his gaze darting between Zuko and Katara, and then back to Aang, the airbender just giving him a helpless little shrug. Honestly, at this point he was just glad that they had gotten most of their shopping done before Zuko had up and disappeared on them, and that they somehow had miraculously managed to not lose any of it after Katara had decided to steal from pirates.

And he thought yesterday had been absurd.

"Maybe we should just head back to the campsite for now?" Aang suggested.

"You know what?" Sokka said. "That sounds like a good idea, Aang. Let's head back to the campsite and hope the pirates don't find us."

Katara shot him a glare but didn't say anything, marching on ahead of them instead. Aang just offered him a sheepish look as he hurried to catch up with Katara, asking her a question about the stolen scroll. His sister visibly brightened, removing the scroll from its hiding place, almost seeming to flaunt the stolen goods.

He sighed. He never would have expected Katara to go so far as to steal. Sure, he knew that she was desperate to learn more waterbending, but wasn't that what they were going to the North Pole for? To get her- and Aang- a waterbending teacher? She didn't need to go that far.

He also abruptly realized that by lingering, his only other companion was now Zuko. Nervously glancing over his shoulder towards the firebender, he tried not to flinch when he realized that he was staring at him... and probably had been for some time. He chalked that down on the list of things they really had to talk to the guy about.

He took a few steps forward. Zuko followed behind. He kept expecting the firebender to overtake him, but he never did.

"So, uh," Sokka began, attempting to not sound as nervous as he felt, "-what was it that you needed?"

"A knife." Zuko said.

"I thought you already had a knife." Sokka said.

"I needed a better one." Zuko replied.

Right. Okay, he guessed that made sense. He chewed on his lip, torn between wanting to know how Zuko had managed to score one for free and also desperately not wanting to find out. He wouldn't exactly put it past the guy to threaten some poor hapless knife merchant into coughing up the goods.

At least Katara hadn't tried threatening the pirates.

He glanced up ahead towards where Katara and Aang had taken to animatedly chatting about the scroll, and fought the urge to sigh. Maybe Zuko wouldn't take it personally if he walked faster so that he could catch up with them. No offense, but guy didn't exactly seem like he had the social intelligence to realize when someone was trying to avoid him.

He was just about to when Zuko suddenly spoke, scaring the crap out of him.

"So, uh... what's a pirate?"

Sokka groaned. He knew he should have walked faster.

By the time they returned to camp, Druk was wide awake.

Zuko smiled as his brother flitted towards him, flying as fast as his tiny wings could carry him. He extended his hand so that he wouldn't have to fly quite so far- sustained flight was tiring for newborn dragons. Druk landed on his open palm, before scrambling up his arm, perching on his shoulder. His tiny whiskers tickled as he sniffed him, taking in the unfamiliar scents of the port that doubtlessly still clung to him.

Zuko chuckled, before looking at their mom. She beckoned him close, and he went without a second thought. Lifting her head, she lightly nudged where he had hidden his new knife, which he brought out to show her.

"I tried to give him the disks Uncle gave me," Zuko explained, "-but he wouldn't take them. Maybe he was wrong about them being important."

His mom seemed to think this was reasonable. After all, she had lived with the humans on Avatar Roku's island for nearly ten summers before she had set off on her own, and she'd never seen any of these round disks trade hands. Still, things could have changed since then, so he urged him to ask his new human companions about it as soon as he could- though perhaps a bit later. She could sense tensions brewing between the three of them, and it would be wise for him not to overstep his boundaries when their relationship was so new.

Zuko turned, looking towards the three humans. The Avatar held the scroll in his hands, while the waterbender scanned what was written there. He'd seen scrolls before- Master Piandao would often read them, and Uncle never ceased in his efforts to get him to sit down and learn the letters printed on them. He only knew a handful of symbols that his master had taught him to draw, including the ones that made up his own name. It was more interesting than Uncle's lessons, where he just sat and stared at paper until he could think of a way to escape.

Uncle had always seemed insistent that it would be useful one day. Zuko didn't see how. He'd survived this long without learning how to read.

Curious, Zuko pulled away from his mom, heading towards the riverbank where the other three were. He peered at the scroll the Avatar held, surprised to find that it contained pictures, not words like he thought. There were some words here and there, but the main focus was the pictures.

"Whoa!" Aang said, nearly jumping out of his skin. "Uh, hey Zuko. Didn't hear you come up."

"What are you doing?" Zuko asked.

"Well, we have the scroll now, so we might as well learn from it, right?" Aang asked.

Zuko blinked, not expecting his question to be met with another question. "...I guess?"

"Rhetorical question, buddy." Sokka said from the sidelines.

Zuko frowned, turning towards the Water Tribe boy. "What's a-?"

"It's a question that doesn't actually need an answer." Sokka cut him off, arching a brow. "Seriously, didn't that Uncle of yours teach you anything?"

"Uncle?" Aang asked, suddenly interested. "You have an uncle?"

"He's not my uncle." Zuko said for the second time today. Didn't these people communicate? "He just told me to call him that. And he's taught me plenty."

He didn't add the fact that he was positive that sometimes Uncle just made things up, or tried to teach him things that weren't actually important. It wasn't nice to insult people behind their backs, even though it wouldn't really be insulting him if he was just telling the truth. It'd still make him sound bad, though.

And he did like Uncle, after a fashion. Even if he was of Sozin's bloodline.

"Is he a dragon too?" Aang asked. "Or is he-?"

"Hey!" Katara snapped. "Do you mind? We're trying to focus, Zuko."

Zuko flinched, Druk making a faint noise of distress before ducking into his shirt to hide. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw their mom briefly lift her head, before she decided that there was no real threat and relaxed again.

He hadn't expected the waterbender to raise her voice. She sounded mad. Why was she mad?

"Oh, uh," Zuko took a step back- and then another one, just to be safe, "-sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt."

He must have, he concluded. That would make the most sense. Katara looked pretty focused, scowling at the scroll like she expected the knowledge to simply leap into her head. He couldn't be sure, but he was almost positive that wasn't how they worked.

"Hey, don't worry about it too much." Sokka shrugged. "Katara just gets like that sometimes. She doesn't mean anything by it."

Zuko just nodded, seeing the wisdom in staying quiet. He just sat down crosslegged on the ground, watching as Katara tried and failed to mimic the movements on the scroll. Druk poked his head briefly out of his shirt, but ducked right back in after Katara accidentally hit herself in the head with her own water whip.

He'd never seen anyone waterbend before today, but something told him that she wasn't doing it quite right.

Katara made a second attempt, this time better than the first- except for the fact that the whip struck out backwards, hitting the Avatar's lemur in the rear instead. The animal let out a cry of distress, prompting Druk to surge forward out of his shirt and over towards his new friend, apparently more worried for him than he was worried about Katara.

Zuko smiled a little, but the expression was quickly wiped off his face as a frustrated Katara stomped her foot, annoyed at her continued failures.

"Ugh, why can't I get this stupid move?"

"You'll get it." Aang was quick to assure her, setting down the scroll and moving towards the riverbank. "You just gotta shift your weight through the stances."

He watched curiously as the Avatar so effortlessly performed the move that Katara had been struggling with. He had shown the same amount of ease at handling the water element earlier, when Katara had tried teaching him. It was clear that the waterbender herself wasn't well trained, which puzzled him- why had no one taught her her own craft? He recalled how delighted his mom had been when he'd finally started to firebend, and couldn't imagine that a human parent would feel any less excited at such a display of talent and potential.

And why couldn't the Avatar just learn waterbending at the South Pole? That was where the siblings were from, right? The South Pole? They had to be if they were going through the trouble of taking the Avatar to the North Pole to be trained.

But why couldn't they just-

"Will you please shut your air hole?" Katara yelled, breaking him abruptly out of his thoughts and momentarily causing him to reach for his knife before he realized there was no real threat. "Believe it or not your infinite wisdom gets a little old sometimes! Why don't we just throw the scroll away, since you're so naturally gifted!"

A bold move, he thought, yelling at a being so powerful. He had seen what the Avatar had done to Crescent Island.

But instead of lashing out, the Avatar just looked... upset? Hurt, even. Kind of like how Uncle got whenever he turned down one of his offers to teach him something pointless. He wasn't interested in etiquette- whatever etiquette even was.

Katara, at least, seemed to quickly realize her mistake, apologizing to Aang and handing over the scroll.

"Here," she told him, "-this is yours. I don't want to have anything to do with it anymore."

Aang took it from her, giving her a slightly weak smile. "It's okay, Katara."

"What about Momo?" Sokka asked. "He's the real victim here."

Druk huffed in agreement, watching the waterbender warily as she stooped down in front of Momo. Once it became clear that she had no intention of further harming his friend, his brother stood down, allowing Katara to pet Momo's head, offering her apologies to the lemur.

Then, to his surprise, she lifted her head and turned towards him, an apologetic smile on her face. "I probably should apologize to you too, Zuko."

Zuko blinked. "What for?"

"I tried to indirectly pin the pirates chasing us on you." Katara said. "I shouldn't have done that."

"Oh," Zuko frowned, tilting his head, "-I forgot about that already. It's fine."

"Hey, what about me?" Sokka asked. "There was that time you-"

"No more apologies!" Katara snapped, cutting her brother off and startling both Druk and Momo, the former of whom abandoned his post to return to Zuko's side.

"It's okay," Zuko mumbled, lightly stroking the underside of his brother's chin, "-she wasn't yelling at you."

Katara winced, getting to her feet. "Sorry. I didn't mean to spook him."

"It's okay." Zuko said. "It's not exactly hard."

Druk jerked his head up, letting out a small puff of smoke to make the fact that he took offense to that statement known. Zuko just chuckled. He knew his brother, and he could be a little bit of a baby still. Which given the fact that he was still an actual baby was perfectly acceptable in his book- and their mom's.

He'd apparently been... less fearful as a baby. Which had apparently been a problem.

Katara just smiled, glancing back towards Aang who gave her one of his own. "I guess we should probably get started on dinner. Aang, do you want to-"

"I could help." Zuko offered, lifting a hand.

"Um," there was something strained in Katara's smile, "-that... that's okay, Zuko. I think Aang will be enough help."

Zuko frowned, tilting his head, wondering again if he'd done something wrong. "Are you sure? Because if you need meat, I could-"

"No, that's okay!" Katara said quickly, holding up her hands. "Aang's a vegetarian anyways."

"What's a," he began, scrunching up his nose at the unfamiliar word, "-vegetarian?"

"Aang doesn't eat any meat." Sokka said.

Zuko blinked, glancing back at the Water Tribe boy. "How can he not eat meat?"

Sokka just shrugged. "Don't ask me."

Zuko turned his head, looking back towards Aang. "How can you not eat meat?"

"Well, the monks always taught us that-"

"-and that's why Air Nomads don't eat meat." Aang finished.

Zuko just stared at him, a complete lack of comprehension on his features.

Yeah. Somehow Aang got the feeling that someone raised by carnivores probably wouldn't get it. That was okay. He understood. The Air Nomad lifestyle wasn't for everyone.

But why did he have to cover Druk's ears like he'd been saying something offensive?

As the sun began to set, Fen left their campsite.

They had been startled when the dragon suddenly stood up, given that she hadn't moved since she'd landed the previous night. For a second, they thought she was almost about to fly away, but she'd instead gone deeper into the forest. Zuko had assured them that she was just going to find some dinner of her own, and that she would return once she was done with her hunt.

As for how long that would take... Zuko just shrugged. However long it took to find an animal big enough to sate her appetite, apparently. A few hours, maybe.

Dinner was a slightly stilted affair. The way she had lashed out at Aang earlier still hung in the air, even after she'd apologized. She knew that she'd been in the wrong, and that she'd let her frustrations get the better of her, but at the same time, she couldn't stop thinking about the scroll. This was her first real chance to learn actual waterbending, and some part of her wasn't ready to give it up just yet.

But she'd promised Aang. The scroll was his. And given how she had acted before, maybe it really was for the best that she had nothing else to do with it.

Unfortunately, logic wasn't working.

Maybe sleep would help where it wouldn't. They'd decided to turn in early, since Sokka wanted to leave as soon as possible tomorrow. They were all a little antsy because of their run-in with the pirates, though she was confident that they'd managed to lose them.

"Are you sure you'll be okay without a bedroll?" Katara asked. She still felt bad that they hadn't been able to find one to purchase at the market.

"Like I said before," Zuko said, "-I'm used to sleeping outside. I'll be fine."

Katara frowned, unconvinced. Still, she sensed that Zuko was starting to get a little annoyed with her, and if there was one thing she knew better than to do, it was to test the patience of a firebender. Even a firebender that was on their side.

At least he'd proven that much today. He could have just walked away when he saw them being chased by pirates, but he hadn't. And to her, that meant something.

"Okay," Katara finally caved, "-if you say so."

"I just did." Zuko pointed out.

From anyone else, the statement would have been annoying. But from Zuko... well, it was pretty obvious that being raised by dragons hadn't exactly done him many favors in the social department. She'd been surprised when she'd heard from Sokka that he apparently had a human uncle- or at least, someone he called an uncle. Up until now, she'd just assumed they were his first real human contact.

It still made her a little sad, thinking about that. It didn't seem right to raise someone so far away from their own people- even if those people were Fire Nation. Then again, there was no telling how Zuko might have turned out if he had been left with his birth parents, whoever they were. They probably wouldn't be peacefully sharing the same campsite, that much was for sure.

She watched as the firebender leaned against a tree, placing his swords next to him and folding his arms in front of him. Druk crawled into his lap, curling up there. Zuko exhaled, a tiny flicker of flame dancing off of his tongue, the tiny dragon lifting his head to mimic his older brother. He smiled, before leaning his head back against the tree and closing his eyes.

Katara couldn't help but think that looked like a massively uncomfortable position to sleep in. But it seemed to work fine for Zuko, so she wasn't about to argue.

Unfortunately, sleep didn't come as easily to her.

She tried. She really did. But no matter how many times she shifted her position and closed her eyes, she just couldn't manage to fall asleep. Eventually, she just decided to give up entirely. Sitting up, she let her eyes adjust to the dark, checking to make sure everyone was asleep. Once she was satisfied they were, she crept out of her sleeping bag, snatching the waterbending scroll from Sokka's bag before she could have second thoughts.

It wouldn't hurt if she just practiced with it a little, right?

Making up her mind, she quietly crept out of the campsite, keeping a watchful eye behind her. Given the fact that she nearly ran straight into a very awake Momo, she probably should have watched what was in front of her too- but thankfully, the lemur didn't make too much noise, and didn't bother Katara as she went on her way, heading towards the river proper rather than the little inlet that they had been camping nearby.

She didn't notice a single golden eye peek open, watching her leave.

"Any sign?"

"No," Oh reported, not lowering his spyglass, "-she hasn't- wait. I see her."

There was a screech as the captain's iguana-parrot landed on his outstretched arm. Oh lowered the spyglass, turning to face his captain, ready to await further orders. The entire crew was itching to receive them- just the mere thought of the payday that the Avatar would bring them was enough to make them all salivate.

That said, they were not a crew of fools. If it weren't for the fact that the Avatar was only a half-trained child, they wouldn't have even considered taking up the bounty. They were skilled, yes, but he doubted that any pirate crew, no matter how skilled, would be able to capture a fully realized Avatar- not without some treachery and dirty dealing, both of which took time to set up.

Time their captain was not currently interested in spending.

"It would seem she was able to locate them." His captain said, sounding pleased. "Set a course for the river. Polly here will guide our way."

"Shh," Zuko hushed his brother as he got up, the dragon making faint sounds of annoyance at being disturbed, "-go sleep with Momo."

Druk chattered in annoyance, but quickly flew over towards his new friend, who didn't hesitate to curl up with him and go to sleep. The lemur seemed glad for the company, if anything.

He already knew without looking that their mom wasn't back yet- this was unfamiliar territory to them all. Fen hadn't been in the Earth Kingdom since the start of the war, when she'd left to find answers as to what could have happened to her father and Avatar Roku, only to find their island covered in ash and both dead. She had remained in the Fire Nation since then, afraid that those in the other nations might associate her with the war, and try to hurt her.

She hadn't known then, that the nation of her birth was no longer safe for dragons. That they were being hunted.

He scowled at the thought. He knew who was to blame for that.

But Fire Lord Sozin was long since dead, so he couldn't exactly exact vengeance upon him. Or his son, for that matter, the old man having died before he could have a shot at him. But his youngest grandson lived, as did his great-granddaughter, and he would see them pay for what their lineage had started.

Uncle had only earned his forgiveness by sparing the Great Ancients and then lying about it afterwards so that they would remain protected. Even he'd been surprised to discover that there were more dragons, if only just the one. They hadn't found Druk's egg yet when he first met the old man.

He shook the thoughts off. They weren't important right now. More curious was whatever the waterbender was doing sneaking off this late at night.

She wasn't hard to follow. Had no one taught her how to cover her own tracks? But then, maybe that wasn't something civilized people thought was important, which was stupid. They were on the run from the Fire Nation. Of course hiding their tracks was important.

Clearly, he was going to have to teach them a thing or two. For example: it was much more difficult to follow someone's trail if they used trees.

He was easily able to locate the waterbender, who true to his suspicions, had been heading towards the main body of the river. She had the scroll from earlier, and had presumably been trying to learn from it in secret, going back on her earlier promise to the Avatar.

She'd also found trouble.

They were in luck. Polly lead them straight and true- right to the Water Tribe girl, and the stolen scroll. Both would be valuable in their own right, but they weren't what the Captain was seeking. Not anymore. He had a bigger prize in mind.

"Tell me, girl," he said, "-where is the Avatar?"

The Water Tribe girl just spat in the captain's face, ferocity in her blue eyes. "Like I'd tell you."

She'd put up a decent fight, but it was clear that she'd had no real training- probably why she had needed the scroll in the first place. He'd heard that the girls up North weren't taught how to fight using waterbending, and it would seem that was true. She couldn't possibly be from the South Pole- the Fire Nation had taken every waterbender they had.

"Got some fight in you, eh?" The captain asked, looming over where they had tied the girl to a tree, at least for the moment. "But if I were you, I'd make it easy on yourself and just tell us where your little monk friend is. Maybe we'll even let that brother of yours go."

The Water Tribe girl's scowl deepened, before she turned her head in a huff, making it abundantly clear that she didn't plan on saying a damn word. If Oh was being honest, he had to give her some credit- the captain could be an intimidating man when he wanted to be, which was almost always.

"Suit yourself." The captain said, drawing back before turning to Oh and the rest of his men. "Search the woods. The three of them can't be too far. I'm sure the Fire Lord will pay us a handsome reward for the Avatar."

The girl's eyes went wide as she jerked her head back towards the captain. "You can't- You can't sell out Aang to the Fire Nation! They'll kill him!"

"No, I don't think they will." The captain said. "Can't have him being reborn, can they?"

That did nothing to assuage the girl's fears, but to be frank, she looked more angry than she did fearful. She glared at the captain, her blue eyes burning bright in the dark.

Then all of a sudden, she blinked, looking up, the fury slipping away from her features. It was enough to prompt Oh to look up himself, curious as to what she could be looking at.

A pair of gold eyes blazed in the darkness, staring down at them.

Oh felt himself flinch, and out of the corner of his eye, he could make out one of his fellow pirates frantically making a sign for warding off evil. It wasn't until the figure moved that they realized this was no Spirit, but was rather a golden eyed boy- the same one who had intervened earlier in the day, preventing the capture of the thieves.

The Fire Nation swordsman.

Oh's hands twitched over the hilt of his sword. He was itching for some payback.

He didn't have his swords with him, he noted with some disappointment. That should have made his hands stray from the hilt of his own, but there was something in the boy's gaze that stopped him. Maybe it was simply the wild way he wore his hair or the simple fact that his eyes were pure gold in a way he had never quite seen before, but there was something about this kid that felt almost dangerous.

It reminded him, he thought, of the time he'd stumbled upon a mother armadillo-lion and her cubs. He had been lucky to get out of that situation alive.

But that had been when he was a mere child. He was a full grown man now- and a battle hardened pirate for that matter. He was not about to let himself be intimidated by some slip of a boy.

"Zuko!" The Water Tribe girl exclaimed, then frowned. "Wait, why are you even here? Did you follow me?"

The boy- Zuko- just gave her a look. "How is that even important right now?"

The girl squinted. "Fair point. But you have to get out of here! These men are pirates! They want to capture Aang!"

Zuko's head jerked up, looking towards him and the rest of the crew. "They want to what?"

"You must be the swordsman that gave my men so much trouble." Captain said, taking a step forward even as he rested a hand on the hilt of his blade. "Can't help but notice you don't have them now."

At the captain's threat, Zuko's lips curled back, the boy almost seeming to bare his teeth at the man. If Oh didn't know any better, he could swear he heard growling.

Nobody quite noticed their torches flickering dangerously.

"Easy there, lad." Captain said. "You show us where the Avatar is, and perhaps I'll consider letting you go. The Fire Nation pays a pretty penny for traitors."


That was all the warning they got before they were briefly plunged into darkness, their torches flickering completely out.


Zuko bared his teeth in a fierce grin, wasting no time in ducking around the tall man who seemed to serve as the group's leader and making his way to Katara's side. Drawing his new knife, still tucked securely in his sash, he slashed at the ropes holding her in place, all while the men- the pirates- continued to scramble to get their bearings in the sudden darkness.

"Thanks." Katara said, rubbing her wrists.

Zuko just nodded. "We should get out of here."

"But they have the scroll!" Katara protested.

"Do they?" Zuko asked, tossing her the item in question. He'd plucked it from the leader's sash when he'd slipped by him, sensing that Katara would want it.

Katara caught it, her expression lighting up in the dark. "You got it back!"

"It wasn't exactly hard." Zuko said, before tensing. Reaching out to grab Katara's wrist, he pulled her out of the way, the two of them just barely avoiding a strike from above.

The pirates had gotten their night eyes.

"I believe," their leader said, his voice cool yet furious at the same time, "-that you have something that belongs to me."

"Belongs to you?" Katara grit her teeth, indignant despite the situation. "You stole this from a waterbender!"

"So that may be, but it is ours now, and we've been promised a handsome price for it." The man said, taking a step forward. "And now I suspect we'll get a handsome price for the two of you, as well as the young Avatar."

This man must view himself as intimidating, Zuko thought. But compared to his time in the mountains, facing down predators of all sorts, this man was nothing. He had his sword and his size, and nothing else- once those factors were removed, he was just as powerless as any other human.

He could take him.

But he also had numbers. And where one predator alone was easy enough to take down, multiple predators were far more difficult. It would have been best to escape while they were still distracted by their fires going out, but he didn't think they were going to give them that chance again.

He exhaled, before taking up a firebending stance. As if sensing the change in mood, Katara tucked the scroll away in her sash, taking up a stance of her own.

He hoped she'd had luck with her practice. They might need it.

Katara tried to ignore the rapid pounding of her own heart, even as she took up her stance. Sokka might accuse her of being an incurable optimist, but even she knew a bad situation when she saw one. These pirates had already beaten her once, and even if she tried to justify it as her having been caught off guard, she knew that wasn't the only reason they'd won in their brief earlier scuffle.

She'd just barely managed to do a successful water whip, and it had been half on instinct. It hadn't been anywhere near enough to take down the swarm of pirates, and before she knew it, they had overpowered her.

At least she wasn't alone this time, she thought.

Weird. She'd never expected to find a firebender's presence so reassuring. She'd also never thought she'd be in a situation where she'd end up fighting back to back with one, and yet here she was, doing just that.

She just hoped it would be enough.

One thing was for sure- they couldn't let these pirates get Aang. She couldn't let these pirates get Aang. It was all her fault that they were even after them in the first place. All because she'd gotten so jealous that she'd let herself stoop to theft.

She couldn't live with herself if something happened to Aang because of her.

The pirates chuckled, drawing their weapons as they closed the distance between them. In the moonlight, the glint of steel looked almost menacing.

But the moon was high in the sky, and with it, she felt stronger somehow. Maybe she could do this.

She pulled water from the river itself, having left her waterskin behind. It rushed over the heads of the pirates to come to her aid. Unbidden, she found herself following Aang's advice, shifting her weight through the stances and instantly felt guilty about yelling at him all over again. He'd only just been trying to help, and she'd let her ugly feelings of jealousy take control. She knew that if they got out of this, she would have to make sure to apologize to him again.

Right now though, she had to focus on the getting out of this part.

That said, she nearly lost her control over the water the first time she saw Zuko bend. She'd seen him do it before, of course, but only in brief licks of flame. This was the first time she'd actually seen him produce flames that were more powerful than a mere wisp escaping from his tongue.

She hadn't expected the colors.

Mixed in with the gold that she had come to expect were red, green, purple- she'd never seen fire that was so... so beautiful before. It almost made her forget, just for a moment, how dangerous fire actually was.

But only just for a moment.

Then she was lashing out herself, taking advantage of the pirates' distraction- because they were distracted by Zuko's bending too- smacking one hard enough with a water whip that they landed back in the river themselves. In other circumstances, she'd take the time to be pleased with her success, but her attack had also succeeded in snapping the pirates back to reality.

With a rallying cry, the pirate captain lead his men forward in a charge. Katara pulled her water whip back, ready to strike again, while Zuko lunged for the captain, what could only be described as a growl tearing itself from his throat.

Wasn't firebending ill suited for close quarters combat?

Zuko apparently knew that (maybe), which is why she caught a glint of steel in his hand- he'd drawn his knife again. The pirate captain merely chuckled, seemingly amused at the idea of fighting a knife-wielding child, but Katara couldn't afford to focus on him. Not when there were plenty of pirates after her too.

She took out another one with her water whip, before avoiding a second whose massive club looked as if it would do a lot more than just knock her out for awhile. Recalling her water, she smacked him from behind, causing him to stumble forward- though he didn't lose his footing like she'd hoped.

Zuko was surprisingly not dead, and also a lot lighter on his feet than she would have thought. He was locked in close quarters combat with the captain, but was managing to keep the other pirates at bay by spitting out the occasional burst of fire.

That gave her an idea.

Steadying her breathing, Katara slightly changed her stance. Thus far, she'd been using the water whip to knock away opponents one at a time, but if she could just strike out horizontally instead of vertically, she could do a lot more damage. Exhaling, she lashed out, and though the actual water whip was less powerful than her earlier ones had been, it succeeded in knocking several pirates back.

She could do this.

Just as she was getting ready to strike again, Zuko's voice cut through the din, nearly making her lose control on the water. She looked towards him, freezing at the sight of the firebender. He had the pirate captain pinned down, one knee shoved squarely into his chest, and his knife at the man's throat, close enough to draw blood.

"Stand down," Zuko ordered with a surprising amount of force, "-or your leader won't make it."

Something told her he wouldn't hesitate to carry through with that threat.

Unfortunately, these were pirates.

"Boy," the captain chuckled, heedless of the knife at his throat, "-you don't know much about pirates, do you?"

Everything seemed to move in slow motion then. She caught the glint of steel in the corner of her eye, her body feeling sluggish as she tried to prepare a water whip, only to be blocked by another pirate.

Then a powerful gust of wind knocked several pirates back. Were it not for the roar accompanying it, she would have thought it was Aang.

But no.

It was Fen.

An extremely angry Fen.

She actually did lose her control over the water this time.

A dragon.

That was a dragon.

Oh felt his heart seize up in his chest, suddenly feeling a lot less like a fearsome pirate, and a lot more like that scared child who had stumbled into the path of a dangerously maternal predator. The dragon that loomed over them nearly blended in with the darkness, but their golden eyes blazed in a way that was unmistakable.


The firebender boy sprang to his feet, the Captain all but forgotten. Alone among them, he didn't seem to fear the beast- even the Water Tribe girl seemed somewhat wary.


Ah. In that instant, looking between the firebender and the dragon that he had just called his mother, the pirates seemed to understand that they were all dead men. Even to those who had never so much as stepped foot in the Fire Nation, the stories of how far a dragon mother was willing to go to protect her children were legendary. Oh in particular recalled one where the mother had gobbled up not only the thief who had stolen her egg, but also the thief's entire family.

And now they had an angry mother dragon staring right at them.

The dragon took a step forward, the earth seeming to shake underneath her feet as she moved. All too quickly, Oh realized that his sword was still angled at where the boy- the dragon's son- had been mere seconds ago, but for all that he was desperate to lower it, he was frozen in place, unable to move.

The dragon leaned close. Her fangs were larger than his head.

Oh swallowed.

The dragon stared at him for what might as well have been hours. Then finally, she breathed out a puff of smoke, clogging the air and causing him to cough. She drew back, before raising a wing, causing every man still on their feet to stumble back at the gust of wind it produced.

The firebender turned on his heel to look back at them, his gold eyes a near mirror for those of his mother's. Oh was suddenly seized with the question as to whether or not the boy was actually human, or if they'd been attempting to capture some kind of Spirit, bound to human form.

(Which was, he realized in hindsight, what the Avatar was. Perhaps this had been a fool's quest from the very beginning.)

"Stand down," the dragon's son repeated, and the order was far more effective this time.

They did. The captain got to his feet, but instead of trying to attack, he backed up. So did everyone else, for that matter. Nobody dared to move any further than a single step, least the beast looming in front of them decided to either burn them to a crisp or gobble them up- or perhaps both.

"You know," the Water tribe girl suddenly spoke, startling those who had forgotten about her presence after the appearance of the mighty beast, "-if I were you, I'd leave."

Oh looked at the Captain. The Captain looked at Oh.


Zuko's didn't tear his gaze away from the pirates and their boat until they had disappeared down the river. He didn't think they would make another attempt on the Avatar again.


"The sun is starting to rise." Katara observed, though he'd long since known. "We should probably get back to camp before anyone starts to worry."

Zuko blinked, glancing over towards the waterbender. She looked frazzled, but otherwise uninjured. She gave him a faint smile, and abruptly realizing that she was waiting for a response of some kind, he wordlessly nodded.

Katara began to head back towards the camp, before she paused, looking back. "And Zuko?"


Katara smiled. "Thanks."

Zuko blinked, then blinked again. He'd never really been thanked by someone before, not really. It was a strange feeling.

He... didn't dislike it? He didn't think. But he wasn't sure.

"Oh, um," Zuko shifted awkwardly on his feet, suddenly unsure of himself, keenly aware that he didn't know what to do in this situation, "-thank... you?"

Katara opened her mouth to say something, before deciding against it. "We should probably get back before everyone wonders where we've gone."

Zuko just nodded. She'd changed the topic. She'd definitely changed the topic. Had he done something wrong? Given the wrong response? He knew he was probably... well, strange by human standards, but it had never really bothered him before.

Suddenly, it kind of did.

Fen leaned down, his mom giving him a gentle nudge with her snout. Glancing up at her, he gave her a faint smile, taking reassurance from the wave of support she gave off. Right. It didn't matter if he came off as strange.

Besides, Katara seemed pretty forward. He was pretty sure if she had a problem with him, she'd come right out with it. He could appreciate that. Her brother and the Avatar seemed... nice? Yes, that was the word. They seemed nice.

Maybe traveling with them wouldn't be so bad.

He could almost hear Uncle's annoying, "-see? Didn't I tell you that having human friends would not be so bad, Zuko?"

He huffed. Fine. Maybe Uncle had been right. Maybe humans weren't so bad- and maybe- maybe he could even be friends with them. But he was never, ever going to tell him that.

"General Iroh. What a surprise. I hadn't heard of your return."

It had been nearly three years since he'd last laid eyes on Captain Zhao- Commander now, in large part due to his brother's influence- and during that time, he had not changed in the slightest.

That was not a good thing.

"I only just arrived, as it were." Iroh said, keeping his tone placid. "I hear that you nearly captured the Avatar at Crescent Island."

Zhao scowled. "And I would have, had it not been for the interference of a traitor."

Yes, Iroh thought to himself. He knew of the traitor well. Shyu had been a member of the White Lotus for years now, and he always knew that when the time came, he would do whatever he could to guide the Avatar. He alone had remained faithful among the Fire Sages, always believing that the Avatar would one day return.

And so he had.

"A shame." Iroh observed. "But I do not doubt that a man of your talents will soon find himself with another chance."

It was a lie, and a bold faced one. Zhao was talented, to be sure- in cruelty and suffering, and little else. While he was a skilled firebender, his own reckless nature would prevent him from ever ascending to the level of a true master, much as he might like to think of himself as one.

Zhao's expression eased. "Naturally. I plan to return to the Earth Kingdom as soon as matters are dealt with here."

"But of course." Iroh bowed his head. "That is why I am here, actually. I was hoping to accompany you."

Zhao's brows inclined slightly, a slight frown pulling at the edges of his lips. "Far be it from me to deny a request from my prince, but might I ask why?"

"I thought perhaps that I might be of some service." Iroh lied. "Though I am not quite to level I once was, I still have years of experience that may very well be useful to you, Commander."

Zhao leaned back in his chair, mulling it over. He knew it was a tempting offer. Even if his siege on Ba Sing Se had failed- a mercy, in hindsight, save for the loss of his only son- he was still known throughout the Fire Nation as a general of some repute. For an officer as interested in climbing the ranks as Zhao was, it would be almost irresistible.

Of course, he had no intention of actually helping the man. No. He had long since realized that what the Fire Nation desired was not what was good for the world at large. Balance needed to be restored, and the only way to do that was if the Fire Nation lost the war, and his brother was removed from power.

But it was not his destiny to kill Ozai, not when doing so would only throw the Fire Nation into further disarray. No- that destiny belonged to the Avatar.

The Avatar... and his nephew.

And that was the crux of the matter. The only reason he would even consider offering a man such as Zhao his assistance was for his nephew's sake. Now that he had left to fulfill his destiny, he knew it was only a matter of time before the Commander encountered him, and the Fire Nation at large became aware of his existence.

He needed to protect Zuko.

While he had no doubts that his nephew was more than capable of protecting himself, it was not only the physical that he needed to keep him safe from. No- what he truly needed to be protected from was the truth. The world could not be allowed to discover his true identity.

And it wouldn't hurt to keep it from Zuko for awhile longer either.

"I do believe I that could use a man of your talents, General Iroh." Zhao concluded. "In fact, I would be honored to have you join my quest for the Avatar."

"Excellent!" Iroh exclaimed, faking cheer. "I will begin preparations to leave with you immediately."

He left Zhao there, the man pleased as if he had received a great gift, and not a cup of poisoned tea instead. Not that he would ever do such a thing to tea- it was a thing to be enjoyed, not something to be used as an instrument of murder.

Iroh's lips twitched slightly in a smile. Though his nephew's continued refusal to share his favorite pastime with him admittedly stung, he couldn't help but recall with fondness the suspicious look he'd given his very first cup of tea. He had known that his nephew had been raised wild, but somehow it had never occurred to him that this meant that he had grown up without so much as having a single cup of tea.

He'd not yet managed to find a blend that his wild nephew liked, but he knew that with patience and persistence, he would find one eventually. Perhaps he would even stumble across such a blend for himself, as he journeyed with the young Avatar and his two Water Tribe companions.

He hoped his nephew wouldn't be too mad at him for leaving that part out. He'd always been so reluctant to make human friends, that he thought perhaps the slightest bit of an omission was in order. He held out hopes that by the end of his journey, that not only would Zuko fulfill his destiny and help bring balance back to the world, but that he would also make some friends in the process.

And with any luck, become a little less wild.

Make no mistake, he loved his nephew- but if he was going to become Fire Lord one day, then he at least needed to learn how to read.

But, he supposed that was a matter for another day. Right now, there were preparations he needed to focus on. He could only imagine that Zhao would not allow him to restock his tea supply as often as he would like, so he needed to make his choices very carefully. It would not do if he ran out of tea.

Chapter Text

Somehow, he wasn't all that surprised when he woke up to find both Katara and the scroll missing. He'd known from the very beginning that she wasn't going to give up on that thing so easily, no matter what she said.

No, it was the fact that Zuko was also missing that was more of a surprise.

For a brief second, his heart seized up, fearing the worst- but then he relaxed, realizing that although Zuko was nowhere to be found, Druk was, and somehow he couldn't picture the firebender leaving his little dragon brother behind. Zuko was a good firebender, as absurd as that notion still seemed to him. But if Katara, who had actually seen the man that had gone into their home that fateful day could trust him, then so could he.

(He hoped Shyu had gotten off Crescent Island okay, but somehow he doubted it. He wondered, not for the first time, what the punishment for treason was in the Fire Nation.)

He was just about to suggest that they go look for them, when the two- three, actually, because apparently Zuko's dragon mom was also with them- finally returned to camp. Katara caught his eye, giving him a slightly sheepish look, realizing that she'd been caught red-handed.

"So," Sokka crossed his arms, starting down his sister, "-I thought you said you were done with the scroll."

"I was!" Katara said hastily- a little too hastily, if you asked him. "But then I couldn't sleep, and..."

"-and you thought it would be fine to just go back on your word?" Sokka asked.

"It's okay, Sokka." Aang chimed in, ever the forgiving type. Probably a monk thing. "I'm sure Katara has her reasons. Besides, it's not like there was any actual harm done."

Katara and Zuko exchanged a glance at that statement. Maybe he didn't know Zuko all that well yet, but he did know his sister.

"Wait," Sokka squinted, looking between the two of them, "-I know that look. That look means something happened."

"Well..." Katara trailed off.

Zuko, on the other hand, had no such hesitation. "The pirates came back."

"They what!?" Sokka yelled, loud enough to startle some nearby birds- and Momo, who darted straight towards Aang. "When!? Tell me they're not right behind you."

Zuko just tilted his head, staring at him like he was some kind of idiot. Coming from Zuko of all people, that somehow stung more than it usually would. Maybe he'd only known the guy for like, a day and a half, if that, but he was starting to understand that common sense and raised by dragons were two concepts that just didn't go together.

"Why would we just be casually walking back if people were after us?" Zuko asked, folding his arms in front of him. "We took care of them, obviously."

"Well," Katara glanced back towards the dragon bringing up their rear, "-Fen did, mostly."

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Sokka drew in a deep breath. Right after he woke up was way too early to start having headaches, even by his standards.

"So let me just get this straight," he began, once he'd calmed himself somewhat, "-you were attacked by pirates-"

"Well, Katara was."

"Right." Sokka said, briefly glancing in Zuko's direction. The firebender was, predictably, still watching him, his expression the definition of intense- which he was starting to understand was just how he always looked. "So Katara was attacked by pirates, and you-"

"Zuko apparently decided to follow me to the river." Katara chimed in.

Zuko narrowed his eyes, his attention mercifully shifting. "I thought you said you weren't mad about that anymore!"

"And I'm not." Katara said, in a way that implied she totally sort of was but only just a little bit. "It's just relevant to the story."

"Wait, so you saw Katara sneaking away, and you didn't think to wake any of us?" Sokka asked, staring at Zuko in disbelief.

Zuko just shrugged. "I saw her take the scroll. I just figured she was going to practice a few katas."

Sokka fought the urge to groan. "You mean the scroll she promised to have nothing to do with anymore."

Zuko just tilted his head, doing one of those confused blinks he kept doing. "Yeah?"

"You know what, nevermind." Sokka sighed. A wise leader knew when to pick their battles. "Just- continue."

Katara shifted uncomfortably on her feet. "Well... I guess I was just so engrossed in my practice, that I didn't notice the pirates. They snuck up on me. I tried to fight them off, but there were just too many of them."

Sokka was trying very hard to pretend that something in his stomach wasn't clenching right now. The idea of Katara being in danger while he was sleeping blissfully didn't sit well with him at all. Sure, he knew she had her magic water powers and all, but he was the one their father had put in charge when he'd gone off to war. He was the older sibling, the protector. He should have been there to protect his sister, but instead he'd slept through the whole thing.

She'd ended up being saved by a firebender instead.

And that was... that was a weird feeling. The one thing he knew for sure was that it made the guilt he was feeling even worse.

"What did they even want?" Aang asked, far more visibly distressed. "You had the scroll with you. Couldn't they just have taken it back and left you alone?"

Katara hesitated. "Well, they-"

"They wanted you." Zuko said bluntly, blinking when Katara glared at him. "What? I thought that's what you said!"

Aang's face fell, suddenly clutching his air staff that much tighter. "Oh."

"It's not your fault, Aang." Katara quickly assured him, easily picking up on the guilt that the young Avatar was feeling. "And besides, I was fine. Zuko showed up not long after. He helped free me, and we were able to fight the pirates off until Fen arrived."

In the background, the dragon huffed, a plume of smoke escaping from her nostrils. All Sokka could see from this angle was how the rising sun glinted off her massive fangs.

"So, when you say Fen saved you..."

"They're alive." Katara said, catching his drift- or maybe just the direction of his gaze. "Fen just scared them off, that's all."

Yeah, he could see that. He couldn't exactly picture Fen taking people threatening her tiny human son in stride. His Gran-Gran had taught him all about the danger inherent in animal mothers, especially when their young were around, and his father had only later reinforced that when he'd begun to teach him how to hunt.

Never go after a cub, he'd said- no matter how tempting it might be. The mother is always somewhere nearby.

"In that case, we should probably get moving." Sokka said. "Even if the pirates don't come back, they might not have been alone in realizing that Aang is the Avatar. The faster we get out of here, the better."

It had been a mistake to stay in the first place. They should have left as soon as he realized why the pirates had been chasing them. But he'd thought they had gotten far away enough to be safe, and as a result, he'd put them all in danger.

He'd put Katara in danger.

He'd screwed up, no doubt about it. But he wasn't about to do that again. His father had left him in charge, and he wasn't going to let him down.

"But what about breakfast?" Aang asked, placing a hand over his stomach, which growled as if on cue.

"We can set down again once we've put some distance between us and the port." Sokka said. "We can make a late breakfast then."

"Wow," Katara stared at him, "-I can't believe you're the one suggesting delaying breakfast. Are you sure you're the real Sokka?"

"Oh, ha ha." Sokka rolled his eyes. "Real funny. Now let's hurry and break camp before Katara's thieving ways attract even more trouble."

Katara bristled. "Hey! I only stole that scroll because those pirates shouldn't have had it in the first place!"

"Right." Sokka said, locking eyes with his sister. "You stole it because it was the right thing to do, and not because you wanted to learn real waterbending from it."

"Okay," Katara admitted, slightly deflating, "-I admit it. I was just... Aang progressed so quickly that I couldn't help but feel jealous. So when I saw the scroll, I..."

"You thought you could use it to help bridge the gap." Aang finished, frowning. "I'm sorry, Katara. I probably should have realized I was-"

"Oh no," Katara cut him off, "-you're not the one who has to apologize. I do. I let my feelings of frustration and inadequacy get to me, and took them all out on you when I really shouldn't have. You even tried to help me, but all I did was throw it back in your face. All that makes me is an awful friend."

"You're not awful." Aang told her. "You're just human. And I did kind of show off a little too much. You were right, the over the head flair was pretty unnecessary."

Katara quirked a faint grin. "Yeah, it kind of was."

"Okay, apologies are great and all, but let's chop chop, people!" Sokka said, clapping his hands. "I want this camp broken down and us on our way in half an hour. That means you too, Zuko!"

Zuko jolted to attention, staring at him with wide eyes. "So... I'm really going with you?"

"Uh, yeah?" Sokka arched a brow. "What did you think we were buying all those supplies for in town? I thought we'd established that you were going to be traveling with us."

"I-" Zuko began, before apparently realizing that nothing he could possibly say would make him sound less stupid. "Right. I'll just- I'll pack up."

Zuko shifted on his feet for a moment, before abruptly turning, heading in the direction he'd left his stuff. Sokka watched him for a few seconds longer, before he turned his attention back to the task at hand. Maybe Katara was right- maybe the pirates wouldn't come back. But if there was one thing he'd learned since starting this journey, it was that you could never be too careful.

Thankfully, they'd gotten making and breaking camp down to an art form at this point. Before they knew it, they had their sleeping bags rolled up and stored securely with the rest of their supplies on Appa's saddle. Sokka did one final check of the campsite to make sure they hadn't forgotten anything, before nodding, satisfied.

"Alright team, it looks like we're good to go." Sokka said, glancing over towards Fen. "Zuko, are you- Zuko?"

Weird. He thought he'd be by his dragon mom, but he didn't see- wait, why was he by Appa? He had his swords and his traveler's pouch, and those were the only two things he owned. He could even see Druk tucked securely in his tunic, only his head poking out.

Shouldn't he be trying to clamber up Fen right about now?

"Zuko?" Katara asked, noticing this herself. She was already sitting in Appa's saddle, with Aang at his usual perch by the bison's head. "Is something wrong?"

Zuko blinked, staring up at her. "I thought I was going with you."

Katara frowned, exchanging a glance with him, and then with Aang. "You are. We just thought... aren't you flying with Fen?"

"Oh." Zuko said, a couple beats out of sync with the rest of the conversation. "I didn't tell you."

"Didn't tell us what?" Sokka asked.

"Mom's not coming. She's going back to the Fire Nation after this."

Well there went any plans that involved having a scary huge dragon around, but also...

"Are you not going to say goodbye?" Katara asked.

Zuko blinked again, tilting his head. "We already said goodbye before we left the Fire Nation. We both knew this time would come."

Sokka frowned, exchanging a glance with his sister. He still recalled how teary she'd gotten when their dad had left, and the way he'd watched his ships until they had faded into the horizon. He couldn't imagine parting with a parent being an easy thing, even if your parent was a ginormous dragon.

Aang just watched the exchange silently. Air Nomads didn't really have the same kind of attachment to their birth parents, he recalled. Maybe in Aang's case, that was actually a good thing, considering, well... everything that had happened.

Less people to mourn.

"Are you sure?" Katara asked. "Because if you need a moment..."

"Most dragons leave their parents' care in their tenth summer." Zuko said with a shrug, almost like he didn't even seem to care. "I just stuck around awhile longer. And Druk's coming with me because it's safer for him here than it is in the Fire Nation."

"Really?" Aang piped up. "Why is that? I thought most people in the Fire Nation respected dragons. They were the original firebenders, after all."

Zuko's expression hardened, taking on that same furious tinge it had when he'd spoken about the royal family. "Not anymore."

"Why did it-"

Zuko cut Katara off with a glare. "I don't want to talk about it."

Katara closed her mouth, a tight frown her lips. Sokka had half a mind to chew Zuko out for talking to his sister that way, but something about the expression on the firebender's face made him feel like that would be a bad idea. So he just said nothing, instead letting Katara help him up onto Appa's back.

Zuko, show off that he was, just leaped.

He landed neatly in Appa's saddle, taking a seat at the very back, slightly away from the rest of them. He folded his arms in front of him, Druk squirming out of his tunic to sit in his lap. That earned a faint smile from the firebender, who lightly stroked the underside of Druk's chin with one finger, before glancing out towards their former campsite.

Towards Fen.

Oh, Sokka realized, he did actually care.

"Appa, yip-yip!"

As the Avatar's sky bison lurched into the air, Zuko kept his gaze fixed on Fen. His mom would remain in the Earth Kingdom until sunset, at which point she would begin the journey back home to the Fire Nation. She would then fly to where his master lived, before proceeding to fly west, where she would join the Great Ancients in their sanctuary.

He knew this. He'd known this. He'd known his destiny for a long time now, and he'd always known that his mom wouldn't be a part of it. And what he'd told the Avatar and his companions was true- if he were a real dragon, he would have long since left his mom's side. As it was, she hadn't let him venture out on his own until his thirteenth summer, and even then, only for the span of a single lunar cycle.

But he was going to miss her anyways.

He huffed, frustrated with himself for being such a child. How was he supposed to be a good example for Druk if he couldn't even get past the fact that he was leaving their nest? He needed to be someone his brother could look up to for guidance, not a weakling who wanted to leap from this saddle right now so that he could return to his mom, destiny be damned.

Besides, if he really needed her, no amount of distance could keep her from coming to him.

He'd just... he'd never been without her for long. For a long time, she had been the only family he had. It was just him and his mom, until it had become him, his mom, and Druk. Uncle and Master Piandao factored in there somewhere, but he wouldn't call them family.

(Sometimes he got the feeling Uncle wanted to be family. He'd lost his son, Master Piandao had told him one day, and so much about the old man had made sense after that. That was probably why he wanted him to call him Uncle.)

Tearing his gaze away, he blinked when he realized that the Avatar's two Water Tribe companions were watching him. He'd seen that look they shared in Uncle's eyes before, but he'd never quite figured out what it was, and Uncle would never tell him.

"What?" He asked.

"Nothing." Katara said, giving him a soft smile.

"Yup, nothing going on here." Sokka agreed, continuing his sister's blatant lie.

Zuko furrowed his brow, but no matter how hard he stared at them, the two Water Tribe siblings did not reveal what they were hiding. Eventually he huffed, breaking eye contact and looking back down at his brother, who looked so small in his lap. One day he would grow to be as mighty as their mother, but it was up to him to make sure he even had that chance.

It was his job to keep Druk safe, and to help create a better world for him to grow up in. And if the only way he could do that was getting involved in human affairs, then maybe it was worth it. The Fire Lord needed to be stopped before he could break the balance completely and left the world in ashes.

For his family's sake, he wouldn't fail.

They flew for about an hour until Sokka deemed that they'd gone far enough to be safe. Either that, or he'd heard his own stomach growl.

No sooner than had they landed, Zuko disappeared into the forest. Exchanging a glance with her brother, Katara glanced over towards Aang, almost fearful for whatever it was Zuko would come back with. Thankfully when the firebender did finally return with a pair of viper-bats in tow, Aang only looked minimally squeamish when Zuko began the act of prepping them for his morning meal.

He did, however, sit as far away from Zuko as possible. Fortunately the firebender didn't seem to notice.

"You know," Katara began, "-you don't have to hunt for your food. We've got plenty to go around."

Zuko cast one glance at the porridge she had going, before returning to his viper-bats. "No thanks. I'm good."

In spite of herself, Katara bristled, feeling vaguely insulted. What, was her cooking not good enough for him? But she quickly calmed herself, reminding herself that Zuko probably wasn't used to what most would consider regular food. He'd eaten the stew that she had made both nights he'd been with them thus far, but hadn't touched anything else- and both times he'd needed to scorch his food thoroughly before he even so much as touched it.

She was just going to have to make an effort to get him to eat a wider variety of dishes. That couldn't be too hard, right?

(No, she thought, watching as Zuko plucked out one of the viper-bat's eyeballs, popping it directly into his mouth, -it definitely would be.)

Zuko speared the viper-bats through, placing both sticks into the ground before he breathed a burst of fire over them. His flames were golden, flickers of purple and green dancing in the fire, just like she'd seen when he'd firebent against the pirates. It was like no firebending she'd ever seen before, and based on how wide Aang's eyes went, she guessed it was the first time he'd seen it too.

"Whoa!" Aang exclaimed. "How did you do that?"

Zuko blinked, looking up at him. "Do what?"

"That!" Aang said. "There were colors in your fire! I've never seen that before!"

"Oh." Zuko blinked again, cocking his head to one side. "I don't know. Uncle thinks it's because I was taught to firebend by a dragon."

Katara perked up at that. "Your uncle is a firebender?"

"He's not my uncle." Zuko said almost automatically, a slightly perturbed expression on his face. "But yeah. He's supposed to be pretty good?"

"Supposed to be?" Sokka asked.

Zuko just shrugged. "I've never really met another firebender before."

"Is he the one who taught you to do all those cool moves?" Sokka asked, slashing out his arms to imitate sword movements.

Zuko just stared at him blankly. "I have no idea what that was supposed to be."

"He was asking about your swords." Katara offered.

"Oh." Zuko frowned. "No."

They sat there, waiting for Zuko to elaborate, but he only plucked one of the two viper-bat sticks from the ground, tearing into the freshly charred meat with his teeth. Realizing that he must have no idea that they were waiting for him to explain further, Katara waited for him to swallow, before bringing it up again.

"I think Sokka wanted to know who taught you."

Zuko blinked, glancing over towards Sokka, who just nodded. "I was taught by a master named Piandao. He's the one who introduced me to Uncle, actually."

That last part was tacked on almost as an afterthought, but given Zuko's bizarre understanding of how conversations worked, she'd take any unasked for information as a bonus. Honestly, she was kind of relieved to hear that he did actually have previous human contact before them, even if from the sound of it, he'd still been pretty isolated.

"Okay, that's great and all," Aang cut in, almost bouncing on his heels despite the fact that he was sitting down, "-but do you think you can teach me how to do that with fire?"

Zuko stared at him blankly. "...breathe it?"

"No!" Aang said, clearly frustrated, before rethinking his answer. "I mean, yeah, being able to breathe fire would be totally awesome too, but I meant the colors."

"Oh." Zuko frowned. "I don't know. I tried to show Uncle how, but it never worked."

Aang's face fell, clearly disappointed. Katara just smiled, handing the airbender a bowl of porridge. "Maybe you should just concentrate on mastering waterbending first."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." Aang said, before perking up. "And we do have that scroll now. What other moves did it have?"

"We can look at it again after breakfast." Katara said. "With any luck, we'll come across another body of water where we can practice soon."

"Hopefully one that's less infested with pirates." Sokka remarked. "Speaking of which..."

Katara watched her brother as he got up, digging something out of one of Appa's saddlebags. She recognized them as the clothes they had picked out for Zuko at port, before he'd wandered off and before she'd been tempted by a life of (momentary) crime.

"Here," he said, offering them to Zuko, "-these are for you."

Zuko glanced up at them, tearing another piece from his viper-bat before taking them from Sokka. Chewing thoughtfully, he studied the clothes, his brow furrowing in confusion. Druk gave them a surreptitious sniff, before concluding that they weren't of any interest.

"We thought you could use them to blend in a little better." Katara told him. "The clothes you have now are a little..."

"-they make you look like you're from the Fire Nation." Sokka finished.

Zuko swallowed, tilting his head. "But I am from the Fire Nation."

"Yeah, that's the thing." Sokka said. "It's probably better if people don't know you're from the Fire Nation. It's probably going to make more than a few people uncomfortable."

Zuko frowned, but took the clothes from Sokka anyways, leaving what was left of his breakfast for Druk to devour. They had tried to pick out something similar to what he was currently wearing, only in Earth Kingdom colors- dark green with a yellow trim, made of rough but sturdy material.

"I think Uncle said something like that too." Zuko said, almost more to himself than to them.

Katara blinked slightly at that piece of information. From the sound of it, this Uncle knew that Zuko was at the very least heading to the Earth Kingdom- did that mean he also knew that he'd left to train the Avatar? It would be nice if they could count on having another firebender on their side...

"Right." Sokka said. "So that's why we got you these. We thought about maybe getting you some clothes in Water Tribe blue, but I don't think you'd be fooling anyone."

Zuko just glanced between the two of them, before letting out a puff of smoke. She took that as a sign of agreement. It was true, he didn't look anything like someone from the Water Tribes. That might become something of a problem when they reached the North Pole, but they'd deal with that particular hurdle when they got there.

Zuko stood up abruptly, and for a second Katara thought he was going to leave so that he could change- before he undid his sash and began stripping out of his tunic right where he stood before anyone could stop him. Katara choked, ducking her head. Clearly she was going to have to add basic modesty onto her growing list of things to teach Zuko.

"Nope!" Sokka brought a quick halt to that. "None of that. Go change behind the bison, mister."

Zuko frowned, before shrugging his shoulders. Picking up his discarded sash, he took it and the clothes Sokka had given him and disappeared behind Appa.

Sokka just heaved a long, drawn out sigh, flopping down next to her. "Somehow I get the feeling we're going to have to teach Zuko a lot."

"Don't be mean, Sokka." Katara scolded him. "He's never had a chance to have a normal life. We should be patient with him."

"The monks did always say that patience was a virtue." Aang remarked.

Unable to stop herself, Katara stared at the airbender. So did Sokka, for that matter.

Aang blinked. "What? Is there something on my face?"

"No, no, your face is fine." Sokka said. "It's just-"

Katara elbowed her brother before he could finish that sentence. Maybe Aang wasn't exactly the most patient person around, but he was still just a kid. "How about some more porridge, Aang?"

Aang blinked, before shrugging. "Sure, I'd love some more porridge."

Sokka just shot her a glare, which she pointedly ignored, ladling some more porridge into Aang's bowl. By the time she was done, Zuko had finished changing, his red and gold Fire Nation clothes tucked over one arm. She was glad to see that the clothes they had bought him seemed to fit, since they had really just been guessing as to his size.

Sokka was right. He really did blend in better once he wasn't wearing so much red. The eyes might be a problem, but maybe by the time anyone noticed them, they'd have accepted the fact that he was an ally of the Avatar, and therefore wasn't dangerous.

Or well, she mentally corrected herself, recalling the way he'd held the pirate captain at knifepoint and threatened his life without hesitation, not dangerous to them, at least.

"I hear you are leaving tomorrow."

Iroh looked up from his tea, a warm smile already spreading across his face. He would recognize that voice anywhere, even without being able to see the dark haired woman who currently stood in his doorway.

"Lady Ursa," he began, "-what a pleasant surprise. Please, come in. Would you care for some tea?"

The Fire Lady gave him a kind smile, joining him at the table with a grace that his aging bones could never quite hope to possess again. Though if he was being perfectly honest with himself, physical grace was not necessarily a trait he'd ever possessed to begin with. He saw far more of it in his sister-in-law and his niece, and indeed, even in his nephew, where his own ingrained wildness hadn't covered it up.

Grace, perhaps, was simply never something meant to belong to those of Sozin's bloodline. It was only with the addition of Avatar Roku's blood that it had been brought out.

"What is today's blend?" Ursa inquired, gratefully accepting the cup he poured her. "It smells wonderful."

"Today's blend would be jasmine." Iroh informed her. "I am quite certain these coming weeks will be quite hectic, so I thought something calming was in order."

Ursa's smile barely slipped. She was too well-practiced for that. She hadn't always been, but years spent serving as his brother's wife had perfected the act. There was no love in their marriage, nor had there ever been. It was testament to her own inner strength that she had only grown stronger, more resolved overtime, rather than give in and allow herself to become someone that she was not, and was never meant to be.

There was steel beneath that silk, Iroh thought.

"You speak of Zhao's quest." She said simply.

"Indeed." Iroh said, taking a sip of his tea, savoring its aroma almost as much as he did the actual content of the cup. "To capture the Avatar is no easy task."

"And what of his companions?" Ursa inquired, barely batting an eye as she revealed the true reason for her visit. "What shall be done with them if Zhao succeeds?"

He knew what it was that Ursa wished to hear, but the palace walls had ears of their own. Even within his private quarters, he could not reply openly to her unasked question.

She wanted to know of her son.

She had known since long ago, long before he even knew that his nephew was still alive, just what her son's destiny was. She had known, and had made the decision to let him go.

It had not been a difficult one for her to make.

"It is difficult to say." Iroh remarked. "By my understanding, they are simply children. Should he succeed in his endeavors, perhaps I may even be able to convince the commander to be merciful with them."

Ursa didn't look like she believed him for a second, but then again, neither did he. Zhao was known for many things, but mercy was not one of them. He would rather see the children burn than risk his Fire Lord's wrath- though his Fire Lord would likely be more interested in having the last Southern waterbender brought to him alive, so that he could crow about it as if it were his own accomplishment.

The Water Tribe boy would not stand a chance.

Nor would his nephew, for that matter. Even if his true identity remained hidden, he was still a firebender, and the punishment for treason in the Fire Nation was death.

Such a fate awaited Shyu as well, but he had already begun to make arrangements for the Fire Sage's escape. It would be far too difficult to smuggle him out of the country, but he would remain safe with his old friend Piandao until they could think of a better plan.

"Then let us hope he can be." Ursa remarked, taking a sip of her tea, before setting the cup down. She'd barely even touched it, but then, she had not come here just to drink tea with an old man, much as he might wish that were the case.

"I wish you luck, Iroh. May Agni's blessing be with you."

"And with you as well, my lady." Iroh told her.

They held each others gaze for a long moment, before Ursa bowed, wordlessly leaving the room. He watched her go, before taking another sip of his own tea.

He would do what he could to help the Avatar, and to keep his nephew safe. If that meant making his treason against his own family obvious, then so be it.

At least he would be on the right side of things, for a change.

"Where's Momo?"

Sokka glanced up from waxing his boomerang. Proper weapons maintenance was important for any good warrior. "I thought he was with Druk."

The two had become pretty fast friends since the baby dragon and his much more human brother had started traveling with them. Which granted, was literally just yesterday if you didn't include the time they had spent on the fringes of that shady port town, but if anything, that just served to prove his point.

Thankfully, there hadn't been any incidents like the one with the pirates, or with the Fire Nation. Maybe they really had shaken Zhao's tail back on Crescent Island.

Or maybe he was just busy dealing with Shyu, and he'd catch up to them any day now. Honestly, he was banking on the latter. They'd probably used up whatever good luck they had for the month by having a firebending teacher for Aang literally drop out of the sky, and now it was just a matter of sitting around and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Hopefully not also from the sky. After seeing Fen, it was safe to say that fighting a dragon was not something he wanted to do. Then again, if the Fire Nation had some kind of like, super elite dragon riding troop, he was pretty sure they would have heard about it by now so... maybe that was one particular scenario he didn't have to worry about.

Speaking of dragons, when he glanced over towards their resident dragon child, Zuko just gave them a shrug of his shoulders. He could see Druk perched on one, but there was no sign of Momo anywhere.

"I haven't seen him." Zuko said. "Druk?"

Druk made some chattering noises that Sokka for the life of him couldn't begin to understand, but Zuko seemed to be able to. Either that, or he was just trying to mess with them by nodding along with every new sound the baby dragon made.

"Well," Aang asked, "-what did he say?"

"He said Momo went deeper into the forest." Zuko remarked, pointing north. "That way."

"You don't think he could have gotten lost, do you?" Katara asked.

"Please." Sokka snorted. "He's a wild animal. He'll be fine."

So of course, that was when Momo let out a distressed screech that proved very much otherwise. Aang wasted no time in bolting, Druk hot in pursuit, visibly reacting to the sounds of his new friend's distress. The tiny dragon didn't get very far before he started to struggle, tiny wings beating extra hard against the air- but thankfully, Zuko was there to catch him before he could fall.

"Guess he's not much of a flier, huh?" Sokka asked.

Zuko shook his head, holding Druk close. "It can take awhile to learn."

Thankfully, finding Momo wasn't hard. His cries lead them right to him. He'd gotten himself caught in some kind of trap along with a pair of hog-monkeys, one which Aang was able to free him from. He got the other two down himself, and they didn't hesitate to scamper off deeper into the woods.

Probably a good call. If they stuck around, Zuko would probably try and eat them or something.

(Sokka liked his meat, sure, but he liked his meat without opposable thumbs.)

But anyways, they had a way more pressing issue to deal with than Zuko's dietary habits.

"I think these traps are Fire Nation." Sokka said, working the mechanism of one, mentally noting how it worked. He had to admit, Fire Nation craftsmen were pretty good. "Look, they're made of steel."

Zuko crouched down next to him, flicking a finger against the steel cage. "Sokka's right. I've seen traps like these before."

"Yeah?" Sokka arched a brow. "You ever end up in one before?"

Zuko just shot him a glare, a puff of smoke curling out from his nostrils. Sokka just took it in stride. It was just too easy to picture a tinier, even more feral Zuko getting caught up in one of these things- not to mention also pretty funny. Also it was pretty hard to take him seriously when there was so much hair in the way of what would otherwise be a pretty effective glare. He'd be surprised if Zuko had ever cut it.

He got the distinct feeling that Katara was just dying to play with it- or tame it, maybe- but she hadn't worked up the nerve to ask yet. Which, fair- he'd been dying to ask Zuko to show him how to use a sword, but he hadn't worked up the nerve just yet either. They were all just trying to get used to their new feral firebending buddy right now.

Said firebending buddy was also pretty obviously trying to get used to them. And you know, basic human socialization in general.

"Sokka." Katara chided him, rolling her eyes.

"What?" Sokka shrugged. "Just asking a question."

"As a matter of fact, I haven't." Zuko said firmly. "There were never any hunters where I lived growing up. Or any other humans for that matter."

"Huh," Sokka stood up, "-anyways, there being Fire Nation traps here must mean that the Fire Nation is somewhere nearby. We should probably leave before they discover us."

"Good call." Katara said. "We can get on Appa and-"

"Actually," Sokka cut his sister off, "-about that-"

"I take back what I said earlier. Walking stinks."

Sokka fought the urge to groan, opting to squeeze the straps of his pack tighter instead. It had barely even been five minutes since they'd started walking, and Aang was already complaining about it. Then again, part of him was surprised that the airbender had even lasted this long.

"Look, I know this isn't ideal-"

"You're right." Katara said. "Ideal would be flying."

"-but this is the safest way." Sokka finished, impervious to his sister's interruption. "Appa's just too conspicuous. We don't know when Zhao will show up again, so we should probably try and lay low and shake him off our trail while we still can."

"Who's Zhao?" Zuko asked.

"Just some crazy firebender that's been chasing us since Katara had the idea to break a bunch of earthbenders out of prison." Sokka said, glancing up ahead to where Zuko was walking, Druk draped around one shoulder and his pouch slung around the other.

That should have been him up there, he thought. But every time he tried to keep pace with the firebender, he found himself unable to keep up. It was probably just the longer legs.

At least Zuko hadn't argued with him. He'd just spent the entire time half watching them, half watching out for trouble. Which was probably exactly what he was doing now, keeping his eyes plastered straight ahead- and every so often, looking up, as if he expected there to be rouge firebenders in the trees or something.

Ugh. Now there was an awful thought. Not as awful as firebending dragon riders, but still pretty bad. He cast a nervous glance up towards the trees himself, but didn't see anything out of place- aside from the occasional bird call, he was fairly certain they were alone in this section of the forest.

"We couldn't just abandon those people, Sokka." Katara said firmly.

"Hey, I'm not saying we should have." Sokka said, holding up his hands. "Just that it might have made more sense to try and think up a better plan first. One that didn't involve revealing the Avatar's existence to the Fire Nation."

"I didn't hear you and your instincts offering a better one." Katara pointed out.

"Look, I-"

He didn't get a chance to finish, Zuko coming to an abrupt halt right in front of him. He narrowly avoided biting his tongue, but wasn't so lucky in avoiding colliding with Zuko, the firebender stumbling a little before glancing back at him in apparent surprise.

"Hey, what gives? Why'd you stop?" Sokka grumbled, pointedly trying to ignore the way his sister and Aang were snickering behind his back. Just don't acknowledge them, Sokka. Just don't acknowledge them, and they'll stop.

Zuko didn't answer, instead turning his attention to the trees. Sokka looked up himself, still not seeing whatever it was that had caught Zuko's attention. Nothing looked any different from the last time he'd looked up, like five seconds ago- just a lot of leaves. There was another birdcall, Zuko's hands twitching like he was thinking about going for his swords.

Either that, or chucking a fireball up into the trees. But hopefully it was the swords. Less flammable.

"Zuko?" Katara asked. "Is something wrong?"

Zuko didn't tear his attention away from the canopy. Even Druk was staring upwards, his unblinking golden stare a mirror of his brother's. "There's people up there."

Sokka just frowned. "What people? I don't see anyone. I just hear a bunch of birds."

Zuko just frowned. "Those aren't any birdcalls I've ever heard."

Glancing back towards his sister, she just shrugged. "Maybe you're just not used to what Earth Kingdom birds sound like."

"Maybe." Zuko's frown deepened, clearly not satisfied with that answer. "Oh, and there's someone burning a fire in that direction."

With a jolt, Sokka looked in the direction Zuko was pointing. Squinting, he could just barely make out smoke rising from beyond the bushes, and if he strained his ears, he could almost make out the sound of voices. Still, that didn't mean...

"Do you think they're with the Fire Nation?" Aang whispered.

"I'll go find out." Zuko said, before dumping his pouch into Sokka's hands. He had to scramble to catch it. "Watch Druk for me."

Said dragon brother was passed off with a lot more care to Aang, who accepted him with a bright smile and a scratch under the chin. Maybe all the Fire Nation had to do to lure him into a trap all along was use an adorable baby dragon as bait.

Before anyone could say anything else, Zuko was already halfway up the closest tree. Sokka watched as he disappeared into the canopy, a blur of black and green mixing in with the orange and red of the leaves.

"So I guess we just... wait here?" Sokka asked, glancing over towards Aang and his sister.

"I don't know," Katara said, "-why don't you ask your instincts?"

"You're just not going to let that go, are you?" Sokka asked.

"Not a chance."

It was the Fire Nation.

He had been well into his sixth summer when he'd seen his first soldier, but their armor was easy to recognize. His mom had made sure that he knew what a Fire Nation soldier looked like, so he would know exactly who to avoid. He'd listened to her very intently, at that age being wise enough to know that if he were spotted by a human, they would try and take him away from her.

Or worse.

Staring down at the campsite, Zuko did a quick headcount of the soldiers. He wasn't sure if any of them were firebenders or not, but even if they weren't, they were still a pretty sizable group. Luckily, they hadn't seemed to notice that they were no longer alone in this forest.

And it wasn't just because of him.

Craning his head, he peered higher into the trees. Whoever was hiding in them was good- aside from the occasional flash of movement, they were nearly invisible.

And they were observing him as much as he was observing them.

He felt his lips curl into a grin, the slightest hint of tooth showing. He always did like a challenge.

The Fire Nation soldiers were expected.

The ragtag group of children were not.

Well, the other ragtag group of children, Jet mentally corrected. The ones who had a massive bison in tow. They were just lucky that the bushes around here were high enough to hide the animal, otherwise the aforementioned Fire Nation soldiers would have spotted them for sure. Part of him almost hoped they would, if only just because it would make such a good distraction.

It wasn't that he was hoping any harm would come to the kids. On the contrary- he and his Freedom Fighters would step in long before they were in any actual danger. And judging from the way they seemed to be heading straight for the soldiers' campsite...

But then the dark-haired one stopped and looked up into the trees.

He knew they were there.

And wasn't that interesting, he thought. Though, if he was being honest, the whole group was beyond interesting. He'd traveled for awhile before arriving in Gaipan, so he'd seen a thing or two, and therefore knew that the blue clothes the two dark-skinned kids wore meant that they were probably Water Tribe. That alone was unusual enough, but then there was the bald kid with the arrow tattoos traveling with them- plus the kid's bison.

Jet would swallow his wheat stalk whole if that wasn't the Avatar.

And that was very, very interesting.

He'd heard the rumors, but he hadn't actually believed them. There were always rumors of the Avatar's return, ever since he was little kid-

(before the Fire Nation came, before they came and burned everything to the ground, before they took away his parents and ruined everything-)

-he didn't know why this rumor should be viewed as more believable than the rest of the rubbish. But now that he was staring down at the evidence, he found it all pretty hard to deny.

And if this Avatar knew how to waterbend... Jet smirked.

He whistled out another call, telling his Freedom Fighters to look. The sound caught the attention of the last kid, the dark-haired one, who looked almost unerringly in his direction.

That somehow managed to be even more interesting than the Avatar.

He tilted his head, trying to get a better look at the kid. He was wearing Earth Kingdom green, but there was a flash of something red on his shoulder that made him involuntarily tense. He relaxed a bit upon realizing it was some kind of animal- and animal which he passed over to the Avatar, after dumping the Water Tribe boy with his belongings.

At which point, he began to climb.

Jet whistled out another call, telling everyone to be on the alert. He doubted a friend of the Avatar would give them any trouble, but it never hurt to be cautious.

And man, could that kid climb.

He watched as the kid ascended higher, pausing to observe the soldiers for a few moments. Jet could see him from where he stood, perched even higher in the trees, but to the soldiers, they both would have been invisible. The kid clearly knew what he was doing, and was no doubt showing himself to him on purpose. There was a wildness about him that reminded him of his kids, but more so- maybe it was the unruly mass of hair, or the bare feet- or maybe it was just the way he tracked their movements even though he knew that they should be invisible to him.

Either way, he had his attention. Or what he could afford to give of it at any rate- he couldn't exactly afford to take too much of his attention off those Fire Nation soldiers. He was almost kind of disappointed when the kid decided to descend again, still out of view of the soldiers. Probably wanted to report what he'd seen to his friends.

Maybe he didn't need to wait for that distraction after all.

Chapter Text

"It's the Fire Nation."

Sokka had to stifle a yelp as Zuko suddenly dropped down from the tree, not even bothering to climb down the last several branches, choosing to free fall instead. Somehow he managed to land quietly, in spite of the fine coating of crunchy leaves on the ground.

One day he was going to figure out how he did that.

"The Fire Nation." Katara shot him a glare, somehow still managing to speak at a whisper even while yelling at him. "Nice going, instincts. You lead us straight to them!"

Sokka opened his mouth in protest, but the only thing that came out was a choked noise. What could he even say to that? She was right.

"What about the people in the trees?" Aang asked, quick to remind him of the other problem.

"They're not with them," Zuko said, tilting his head upwards, "-I think."

"You think?" Sokka asked. "Can't you be a little more sure than you think?"

"Maybe we should just keep moving." Katara suggested. "The Fire Nation hasn't realized we're here yet. We should take advantage of that and leave while we still can."

"But what about the people in the trees?" Aang asked. "What if they're here to fight against the Fire Nation, and they need our help?"

"What if they're with the Fire Nation?" Sokka countered.

Zuko shrugged, looking surprisingly indifferent to this whole situation. "If they were with the Fire Nation, they probably would have attacked already, or at least signaled for one. Unlike the soldiers in the bushes, they can see us."

And that didn't make him feel comfortable at all. Glancing nervously towards the trees, Sokka hoped that Zuko was right about them not being Fire Nation. He really didn't want to deal with an ambush from above.

Also, since when could Zuko sound smart?

"I think Zuko's right." Katara said firmly. "And that means we can't abandon them."

"Abandon?" Sokka asked, already sensing he was fighting a losing battle, especially now that Katara had that look on her face. "We don't even know if they're trying to attack the Fire Nation. They might just be keeping tabs on the soldiers or something. We have no proof that they're going to-"

Just as if on cue, a sudden cry was heard from the direction of the Fire Nation camp. Sounds of a conflict soon followed.

"They are attacking the Fire Nation!" Katara said, one hand already on her waterskin. "We have to help!"

And there went any of his protests. Sokka sighed, resigned to his fate even as he drew his bone club and readied himself for battle. If there was one thing he was starting to understand, it was that between Aang and his sister, it was just a fact of life that they were going to put their whole journey to the North on hold whenever they ran into people in need. Not even the urgent deadline of Sozin's comet could change that.

(Then again- would he want them any other way?)

"Alright," Sokka said, "-let's go knock some Fire Nation heads!"

Hey, if he was going to do this, might as well get into it, right?

He didn't know what he expected to see when they burst through those bushes, but it definitely wasn't a bunch of kids. Not the Fire Nation soldiers, that would be ridiculous- but the ones fighting them? The whole group looked as if it were made up of kids in half scavenged armor, dropping from the trees like they were hog-monkeys themselves.

The youngest one couldn't have been any older than eight- and here he'd thought Aang was young.

Whatever he might have said died in his throat as a flash of green and silver darted past them. He hadn't even realized Zuko had drawn his swords, but in an instant, the firebender was in the middle of the fray, dual swords flashing as he engaged with the first soldier he came across. The poor sap didn't even know what hit him, disarmed in a flash before Zuko moved on to the next unlucky soul to cross his path.

That was all it took for the rest of the Fire Nation soldiers to notice them. One pointed their way with a shout, and the next thing they knew, several of the soldiers were attacking them.

He'd take that as his cue.

With a battle cry, Sokka leapt into the fray, ready to strike down the first Fire Nation soldier that crossed his path- only to have someone else get there first. For a second, all he saw were the dual swords, but whoever this person was, it wasn't Zuko. There was no mistaking him for this scruffy looking guy with weird looking swords and a stalk of wheat, of all things, stuck between his teeth like it was supposed to be cool or something.

"Hey, I had him!" Sokka protested, glaring at the almost unfairly tall beanstalk of a teen.

"Sorry," the guy flashed him a grin that could be best described as smarmy, "-gotta be quick."

Sokka grumbled, watching as the guy darted away, weaving almost effortlessly back into the battle- and instantly decided he didn't like him. He had to begrudgingly admit that he had skill, though- between wheat stalk guy and Zuko, the Fire Nation squadron didn't even stand a chance. Heck, he didn't even get to do anything before the fight was over, and the soldiers were running away with their tails tucked between their legs.

It would have been kind of funny, if it didn't leave him feeling so pathetic.

Great. It was his stupid instincts that had gotten them into this mess, and then he couldn't even do anything to fix it. Even Katara and Aang had gotten in some solid hits, but what did he do?

Nothing. He'd accomplished nothing.

Maybe they should have just flown away on Appa.

With the last Fire Nation soldier gone, Jet sheathed his swords, burying the part of him that wanted to pursue, to do more than just chase them off. But there was no need for him to stain his swords with Fire Nation blood like that, no matter how tempting- not when they'd all get their punishment in due time.

Especially since the world had seen it fit to not just deliver him one waterbender, but two.

The Water Tribe girl was a waterbender- and a pretty good one too, if the way she had fought those soldiers was any indication. He couldn't help but smirk. Just the Avatar would have been enough, but having a second waterbender around was always a plus. Especially when he factored in the Avatar's age- he was a lot younger than he had expected him to be. Sure, he looked older than The Duke, but hadn't the Avatar disappeared one hundred years ago? Shouldn't he be an old man by now?

He shrugged it off. He guessed the details ultimately didn't matter too much. It was probably even better that he was just a kid like the rest of them- after everything he'd been through, adults could be pretty hard to trust. It had been the adults who had chased them out into the forest once they had started to really strike back against the Fire Nation. Said they didn't want to risk getting involved.

(Cowards, all of them. Too afraid to do what was right, what needed to be done.)

The Water Tribe boy was some kind of warrior, but a slow one. Frankly, Jet wasn't that impressed. There was a glimmer of potential there, but there was nothing about him that really sparked his interest.

Not like the dark haired kid did.

This close, he realized that he wasn't a kid at all- not in the same way the waterbender and the Avatar were, at least. If anything, he was around Jet's age- sixteen, maybe seventeen, if he was being generous. He moved with a certain instinctive wildness, and his skill with those dual swords was no joke. Having mostly taught himself to use them, he knew just how difficult it could be to master twin swords, but the guy made it look easy as breathing- more like they were extensions of his own body, rather than mere tools.

And the way he moved... it was almost like watching a vicious predator bearing its claws.

Two waterbenders, Jet evaluated- and a potential new recruit.

He'd never been one to believe in spirits, but even he had to admit that it was starting to seem an awful lot like they were trying to send him a message.

Now that the initial danger had passed, the waterbender was practically beaming, and the Avatar looked just as excited. The Water Tribe boy just looked surly, but he guessed that was to be expected, since he'd stolen pretty much every piece of action he could have gotten. But hey- it wasn't his fault he wasn't quick enough.

Only the dark haired kid still looked like he had his guard up. His gaze was fixed on the direction in which the Fire Nation soldiers had fled, both his swords still drawn.

He wondered if his eyesight was half as good as Longshot's.

"That was amazing!" The waterbender exclaimed, snapping his attention back to the other three. "You took down a whole army almost by yourself!"

The Water Tribe boy just huffed, doing his best to sound unimpressed. "Uh, no he didn't. What about Zuko? He took out like, half of those guys."

Zuko must have been their swordsman buddy, Jet thought, automatically filing away the name. Weird name, but he guessed he couldn't really talk. Not when almost no one in the Freedom Fighters used their real name anymore. Pretty much everyone had left theirs behind for one reason or another- except for The Duke, who he wasn't sure ever actually had a real name.

(All he could think about when people used his real name was his mother screaming it, the way she had yelled for him to get away while he'd just watched, powerless-

-he would never be powerless again.)

"I think you're just jealous that you didn't get to do anything." The waterbender retorted. "I'm Katara, by the way, and this is my brother Sokka."

Katara and Sokka. Two names to go with two faces. He wouldn't forget them in a hurry.

"I'm Jet." He introduced himself, then motioned towards the rest of his crew, who were already in the process of breaking down the Fire Nation camp, searching for anything that might be useful. "And these are my Freedom Fighters- Sneers, Longshot, Smellerbee, The Duke, and Pipsqueak."

"And you," he said, looking towards the airbender, "-must be the Avatar."

The Avatar blinked, before smiling broadly at him. "Yup, that's me! I guess word must have really spread if even people living all the way out here have heard of me!"

"I try to keep on top of any rumors coming out of the Fire Nation." Jet said with a casual shrug. "From the sound of it, you've been giving them a pretty hard time lately."

"His name's Aang, by the way." Sokka said, almost sourly.

"Aang." Jet said, giving the Water Tribe boy a disarming smile that only served to make him look more annoyed. "I won't forget it."

"Well it's nice to meet you, Jet." Katara said with a smile, then added, "-plus everyone else as well. Oh, and the quiet one over there with the swords is Zuko."

Jet glanced back towards the aforementioned swordsman, who was only now sheathing his swords, doing so with practiced ease, the same as the way he'd fought. He caught him looking, meeting his eyes with a directness that Jet could appreciate. There was an intensity to his gaze- an effect only enhanced by eyes that looked almost gold in the light.

"Zuko, right?" Jet asked. "That was some pretty fancy swordplay back there."

Zuko only nodded, remaining perfectly silent. He briefly wondered if he was like Longshot, the type who only ever spoke when it was absolutely necessary.

"So you guys are Freedom Fighters?" The Avatar- Aang- asked. "Does that mean you fight the Fire Nation a lot?"

"You could say that." Jet flashed the kid a grin. "I'm glad the four of you showed up, actually. We'd been waiting all day for the right moment to deal with those soldiers."

"Seven," Zuko abruptly corrected, "-there's seven of us."

Huh. Guess he could talk after all. His voice had kind of a strange accent to it- his enunciation slightly strange in places like someone had taught him to talk weirdly, and he was only just now learning how to correct it. He'd never heard anything quite like it.

"Oh yeah!" Aang perked up. "There's Appa, Momo, and Druk too! Can't leave you guys out, right buddy?"

The Avatar glanced back towards the bison, beaming broadly. Jet just cocked a brow, wondering which was which. The looming bison was hard to miss, and there was some kind of lemur sitting perched on the saddle on its back. Next to it was...

Jet froze.

He'd only seen them in scrolls, but he recognized the winged creature with its glistening red scales in an instant. His fingers twitched, his vision momentarily going red- before he slowly forced himself to exhale, calming his racing heartbeat as much as he could. If this was the Avatar's creature, then he had no choice but to stay his hand.

Even if it was a dragon.

"You have a dragon with you?" Jet asked, forcing to keep his tone perfectly neutral. "You don't see those every day."

"Oh yeah, that's Druk!" Aang chirped, oblivious to his mood. "He's Zuko's brother!"

Jet whipped around to stare at the swordsman, his mind reeling. Brother? What was that even supposed to mean? Zuko was human- and Earth Kingdom. How could he possibly be brother to a dragon?

But was he?

Abruptly, he realized that Zuko was watching him. He met his eyes, his gaze just as intense as it had been before- only this time, he realized that it was no mere trick of the light that made his eyes look gold.

They were gold.

He'd seen eyes like those before, but not on anyone with Earth Kingdom blood. No, the only place he had seen eyes like those before were on Fire Nation soldiers. On firebenders.

Instantly, his swords were drawn, pointing one accusingly towards Zuko, the other angled in a defensive position. "You're Fire Nation."

The campsite went dead quiet, save for the sound of Zuko drawing his own swords in response, instantly taking up a defensive position. Those gold eyes- firebender eyes- didn't so much as blink as he bared his teeth. With his wild hair and dirt-caked bare feet, he looked more like some kind of wild animal than he did a human being.

Of course he wasn't. He was Fire Nation. They were all monsters.

Around the camp, his Freedom Fighters recovered from their initial shock, taking up their arms to deal with this unexpected threat. They'd all seen how he could fight- if they were going to have any chance of taking him down, they would need to attack him together.

Jet's stomach churned in recollection. He couldn't believe he'd even considered making someone with Fire blood one of them, even if only for a few seconds. He hadn't known any better, he reasoned, instantly brushing aside any inkling of respect he'd had for him like he'd never had it at all.

"No, no, no!" Aang's voice broke the tension, the airbender scrambling to put himself between Zuko and everyone else. "It's okay! Zuko's our friend!"

Jet stared at him in disbelief, wondering if he'd heard him right. "Your friend? He's Fire Nation!"

Zuko snarled, the sound deep-throated and aggressive. Aang nervously glanced back at him, and for a split second, Jet actually held out hope that maybe the Avatar was seeing the error of his ways, but instead the little airbender just turned back to him, looking more determined than before.

"I don't see why that has to matter." Aang said. "Zuko's not hurting anyone."

"He's the enemy!" Jet yelled, glaring at Aang, unable to believe the words coming out of his mouth. Wasn't he supposed to be the Avatar? He wasn't just any Avatar- he was an Air Nomad Avatar. He was supposed to fight the Fire Nation, not ally with them.

"You of all people should know better than to trust the Fire Nation." Jet said accusingly. "Weren't they the ones who wiped out the Air Nomads?"

To his surprise, Zuko's head shot up, his eyes going wide as he looked at Aang. It was almost as if this was totally new information to him, but he didn't believe it for a second. Probably just some kind of act. He wasn't sure what lies this bastard had used to win the Avatar's trust, but he intended to put an end to it himself.

Aang flinched- and badly, his gray eyes looking almost haunted. "Zuko's not those soldiers."

"Maybe not, but he's still from the Fire Nation." Jet said firmly. "They're all monsters."

"That's not true." Katara declared, moving like an angry storm as she moved to stand next to Aang, one hand hovering over her waterskin like she actually intended to protect the firebender behind her.

Her, a waterbender.

"Zuko's no monster," Katara said, "-and we've been helped by people from the Fire Nation before."

"Yeah, we wouldn't have gotten out of our last brush with them if it hadn't been for a firebender." Sokka said firmly, taking up position next to his sister. "Fire Sage Shyu betrayed his own people for us, all so Aang could get a message from Avatar Roku. A really important message, I might add."

Jet could only stare at that, unable to believe what he was hearing. He thought these people were on the side of good, so what were they doing siding with someone from the Fire Nation? Did they think that just because Zuko was a kid like them, it meant that he couldn't be evil? That was absurd. Everyone knew that kids in the Fire Nation were trained from birth to be vicious soldiers, raised in military camps rather than by their families.

"You expect me to believe that someone from the Fire Nation could be on our side?" Jet asked, sounding incredulous. "There's no way that's true."

"I am." Zuko said firmly, finally speaking up in his own defense. "I'm the Avatar's firebending teacher. I'm here to help him fight the Fire Lord and restore balance."

"Yup, apparently that's his destiny." Sokka said, almost as if it were some kind of joke.

And it was. It really was. They were expecting him to believe that this firebender was on the side of justice? That was impossible. Everyone from the Fire Nation were monsters, but the firebenders were the worst. It was like something about them was fundamentally broken- like maybe their own element had burned out whatever glimmer of humanity they might have once had. He certainly didn't remember the firebender that had burned his village to the ground showing any signs of having a heart as he slaughtered innocent civilians.

For a split second, he was back in his burning village, listening to his mother's screams as she burned- and then he snapped back to the present, gripping his swords all the tighter for his lapse. He stared across at the firebender, practically itching for him to make the first strike so that everyone could see just what a monster he really was.

But instead, all he did was exhale, sheathing his swords. He didn't even try to take up a firebending pose, just stood there, his arms folded in front of him.

Jet took a step forward, gripping his swords tight enough that his knuckles turned white. Fine. If he wasn't going to attack, then he would.

"Jet," he just barely heard Smellerbee's voice over the pounding of his own heart, "-I think maybe we should calm down and listen to what they have to say."

Jet froze, staring aghast at Smellerbee. At some point she had put away her knives too, and was just watching him with a deep set frown on her face. For a moment he felt his anger rise, furious that she would turn against him this way- but he slowly forced himself to exhale, lowering his swords.

"Fine," he glowered at Zuko, "-I'll listen."

"Listen to what?" Sokka asked. "I mean, we've pretty much already said all there is to say. Zuko is Aang's firebending teacher. He's on our side."

"Yeah, plus he helped save Katara from pirates!" Aang offered, the haunted look in his eyes thankfully having vanished.

Something in the back of Jet's mind pointed out that he had been the one to cause him to look that way, not the firebender standing behind him. Unsure of what to do with that thought, he buried it, just like he did with so many others.

He was fighting a war here. He was a leader. He didn't have room for any self-doubt.

"That was a bit of a sticky situation." Katara said, having the audacity to smile at the firebender, before she turned to look at him, her expression automatically hardening. It all felt so backwards. "But I think since it's clear that we're not welcome here, we should be leaving."

That snapped the anger right out of him. There was no way he could let go of this opportunity- even if it meant putting up with firebender scum. It might take months for there to be enough rain to fill the reservoir naturally, and who knew how much Fire Nation presence in the valley would have increased by then. If it got to be too much, they'd be forced to retreat, and his best shot at striking back against the Fire Nation would be lost.

He wasn't willing to jeopardize that.

Sheathing his swords, Jet let out a ragged breath. Looking at his Freedom Fighters, he motioned for them to stand down, and return to breaking down camp. After some slight hesitation, they did so, all while keeping an eye on things.

"No, you're right." Jet lied. "I was being irrational. I mean, if even the Avatar is vouching for this Fire," he grit his teeth, forcing himself to make a correction, "-for Zuko, I guess I just need to accept it."

Katara and Sokka exchanged a glance, still looking doubtful, but the Avatar only brightened. "Great! I'm glad we all worked that out."

Suddenly, just how Zuko had managed to trick him became so much more obvious- he might be the world spirit or whatever, but he was still just a naive kid. The bigger question was how he'd managed to trick the two Water Tribe siblings. If they were from the isolated North, then maybe... but if they were from the South, then he couldn't imagine how they could ever trust a firebender. He'd heard what they had done to the South Pole- what they had done to the waterbenders living there.

"Well, if Aang says so..." Katara trailed off, glancing briefly at Aang, before her gaze darted towards Zuko. "What do you think, Zuko? We don't have to stay if you're not comfortable."

Zuko tilted his head, his gaze sweeping across the campsite. He then looked past Jet, his eyes fixing on the tiny red dragon on the sky bison's saddle. Turning his head, he watched as it peeked out from behind the lemur, which almost seemed protective of it.

(At least animals had the excuse of not knowing any better, Jet thought.)

Jet fought the urge to scowl. Right. He'd forgotten there was a dragon here too. A firebender and a dragon- like just one of them wasn't bad enough. At least the Fire Nation creature looked like it was just a baby- if it became a problem, it would be easy enough to take care of it.

He looked back just in time to catch Zuko's gaze. Where he'd admired the intensity of it before, now it just made his skin crawl. Still, somehow he managed to avoid glaring at him, and after a few moments of consideration, Zuko wordlessly nodded. He didn't relax, and neither did Jet- he wasn't stupid enough to let his guard down around a firebender, not even one who had made no visible attempts to attack.

He needed the waterbenders, Jet reminded himself. He'd just have to suck it up until then.

"Look, I'm sorry we got off on the wrong foot." Jet said, trying to sound as apologetic as he could even though he knew he had nothing to apologize for. "We've had a rough time of it with the Fire Nation these past few months. Ever since they took over a nearby town, things have been pretty tough."

"Is that why those soldiers were here?" Katara asked, still not sounding entirely trusting.

That was fine. He could work on that. If a firebender could win her trust, then he was damn sure he could.

"I'm not sure of the specifics, but they're not the first group of soldiers we've had to chase out of the forest." Jet told her. "Look, maybe we should discuss this at our hideout. We're having a big feast tonight, and you're all welcome to come. Consider it my way of making it up to you."

The thought of bringing a firebender back to their hideout made him want to scream, but at least they'd be able to keep an eye on him there. Besides, if he tried to run away and inform the Fire Nation of their position, then that was all the proof he needed that this Zuko wasn't the person he claimed to be. He might have stood down, but he didn't believe for a second that he was actually on their side.

He wasn't sure what the firebender's goal was, but there was no way it was to help the Avatar or to bring down the Fire Lord. Bastard was probably working for him personally or something, maybe spying on the Avatar and his little group on his orders- or even worse, trying to brainwash the Avatar into believing the Fire Nation's conquest was just.

And what was all that crap about having a dragon for a brother? It was obviously just some kind of pet.

He saw the four exchange uncertain glances with each other, which didn't exactly bode well for him. Guess he'd just have to push a little harder.

"Hey," Jet said, holding up his hands and forcing himself to smile, "-I get it. You're welcome to turn me down, but we could really use the Avatar's help."

And hey, that wasn't even a lie this time.

Another uncertain glance was shared between them, before Aang slowly nodded. "I guess we can at least hear you out, so long as you promise no harm will come to Zuko."

"Or Druk." Zuko added.

"Or Druk." Aang repeated.

Jet smiled, and lied.

Uncle had been right.

Before he'd left, he'd tried to offer him some green clothes, claiming that it would be important for him to blend in while in the other nations. He'd taken the clothes, but had ultimately left them behind, failing to see the point of the old man's warning. He'd never seen the importance of blending in with humans before, so why should he start now?

Now he was starting to understand why.

It wasn't about blending in with other people. It was about not standing out as Fire Nation.

Narrowing his eyes, they fell on the one called Jet. He and his Freedom Fighters were taking the lead, but he could feel them nonetheless keeping tabs on the seven of them- but mostly him. He'd never seen such unbridled hatred in someone's eyes before, but he knew how to recognize it. Even after he had put away his swords, the hatred in his eyes hadn't vanished- he'd just gotten better at masking it.

But his hostility? He couldn't mask that.

Even now, from this distance, he could still pick up on it. His senses were fine-tuned to pick up on that sort of thing- it was a vital skill for any good hunter.

Druk chirped, nuzzling his cheek, transmitting a feeling of concern. Zuko gave him a faint smile, lightly scratching underneath his brother's chin. He'd be fine. This wasn't the first dangerous situation he'd faced, and Jet was nothing compared to a raging armadillo-bear. That time, Fen had come to save him- and while she wasn't here, he was older now, more prepared to handle threats on his own.

Besides, he wasn't alone this time.

He looked up towards the Avatar and his companions. They had moved to defend him, something he hadn't expected. Such protection he would expect from his mom, but he had only just met these people- they had no real ties. It had taken him months to trust both Piandao and Uncle, and yet they were already standing in his defense against those who sought to do him harm.

Of course, he'd do the same for them- the Avatar and his chosen companions needed to be protected. It was obvious. The world needed them.

He just... hadn't expected them to do the same, that was all. Especially since...

"Weren't they the ones who wiped out the Air Nomads?"

Zuko frowned, his gaze falling on Aang. He'd heard that the Air Temples had been attacked, but he hadn't known that all the Air Nomads had been wiped out. He felt a touch of shame at the thought- Uncle had tried many times to teach him the history of the human's war, but he'd never really listened to him. As much as he had known that it would one day be his destiny to teach the Avatar firebending, the actual conflict had never seemed all that important to him.

Getting revenge was.

Dropping his gaze, he scowled. He would never forgive the Fire Nation royal family for what they had started. Sozin was long dead, but his heirs had continued his quest. And now, thinking of the way Aang's shoulders had tensed when Jet had said what he'd said... now he was starting to think that maybe they needed to pay for some other things too- not just the dragon hunts.

What else didn't he know? Just how bad was the war? He knew it had been going on for a hundred years, and that there were countless casualties on all sides, but he didn't know any of the specifics. He glanced up again, looking towards Katara and Sokka with a frown. Was the war the reason Katara didn't know how to waterbend properly? Was the war the reason they had to take Aang all the way to the North Pole to be trained?

He wanted to ask, but he wasn't sure if he should. He might be a child of the dragons first and foremost, but he couldn't shed his connections to his own people- and they were the ones who had started this conflict. He should know these things already.

Reflecting back on it, he was amazed that Uncle hadn't just tried chaining him down and forcing him to listen. Maybe he should have, even if he'd have resented him for it.

"Zuko?" Katara glanced back, catching his eye with a frown. "Is everything okay?"

Blinking, Zuko hastily nodded. "Fine. Just thinking."

Katara gave him an understanding smile. "You know we don't have to go with them if you don't want to."

"Yeah, we could just hop on Appa and fly away." Sokka chimed in.

Katara arched a brow. "Oh, so we'd be flying now? What happened to walking, Sokka's instincts?"

"You're just not going to let that go, are you?" Sokka glowered at his sister. She just shrugged, looking vaguely smug. "But seriously. We can just leave if you're not comfortable with Wheaty McWheatface over there."

Zuko blinked at the strange name, before shaking his head. "They said they needed the Avatar's help."

"Well, yeah." Aang said, looking back at him. "But that doesn't mean we have to make you feel uncomfortable. I mean, you're part of this team too, Zuko."

Zuko blinked, cocking his head. "Team?"

"Sure." Sokka grinned, throwing an arm around both his sister and Aang, only causing them to stumble a little at the suddenness of it. "We're Team Avatar."

Katara just rolled her eyes. "Nobody calls us that, Sokka."

"Well maybe they should! It's a good name!" Sokka said, almost defensively.

Zuko cocked his head, studying the trio. "I've never been part of a team before."

"Yeah, we kind of figured." Sokka said. "I mean, what with the whole raised by dragons thing and all. Actually, I'm kind of surprised you even know what a team is."

Zuko huffed a bit. Sometimes he got the feeling that Sokka thought he was some kind of fool. Sure, maybe he didn't know certain things, but he knew everything that was important. It wasn't like he'd ever had to deal with pirates or vegetarians while in the mountains. Why bother learning about things that weren't important?

He winced inwardly at the thought. That was the same excuse he'd brushed off all of Uncle's history lessons with, and it was starting to look like they were actually important. He didn't want to admit he'd been wrong, but...

...okay, fine. He'd been wrong. But he still wasn't stupid.

"When we started to live closer to humans, sometimes I would watch them in secret." Zuko admitted. "I learned a few things from that."

On one such occasion, he'd seen children his own age playing with a ball. He'd asked his mom about it when he returned home, and she had been happy to explain. She had taught him all about the games that she'd seen human children play while she'd lived on Avatar Roku's island, and he had listened with rapt attention. Once or twice, he'd considered revealing himself and asking to join, but in the end, the fear of discovery always won out. They had left that particular mountain behind at the end of that winter, and he rarely saw children playing games after that.

"Not sure how that would introduce you to the concept of teams, but," Sokka shrugged, "-guess it doesn't really matter. Anyways, Aang's right. You're part of this team, and that means we care about you."

"And Druk too, of course." Aang added, with a bright smile.

Zuko frowned, his brow furrowing as he tried to wrap his head around this idea. How could they care about someone they had only just met? It wasn't as if they were family. It didn't make any sense.

It didn't make any sense, but... it was a good kind of nonsensical.

Druk chirped and flapped his wings, doubtlessly sensing his feelings through their bond. He wasn't quite sure what the feeling bubbling up in his stomach was, but he was pretty sure it was some kind of happiness.

It was... nice.

Yes, nice was the right word, Zuko decided. So nice, that the feeling didn't fade even when Jet turned to glare back at him. He narrowed his eyes, staring right back. After a few seconds, Jet clicked his tongue, turning away.

Zuko huffed in satisfaction, a puff of smoke escaping from his nose. Druk made one of his own to match, making another loud chirp. He smiled in response, using a finger to rub his head right at the base of his horns. If Jet had a problem with them, well, they'd just have to prove him wrong, wouldn't they?

He knew what monsters were, and he and Druk weren't it.

"Okay," Zuko said, abruptly realizing the others were probably still waiting for a response, "-good to be a part of the team."

Sokka beamed. "Glad to have you, buddy."

Buddy. Zuko blinked, tilting his head at the word. Sokka had called him that before, of course, but somehow it felt more meaningful this time. Weird. He wondered why that was. He didn't think anything had changed between now and then.

Ah, well. Probably wasn't important.

Across the sea, Iroh briefly wondered if he should have taught his nephew the basics of friendship before sending him off into the wider world.

No, he thought to himself, surely not even his nephew, wild though he might be, could be so oblivious to his own feelings as to not notice when people were trying to become friends with him. This was not glaring hole in his plan to have him make friends, not at all.

...but perhaps it wouldn't hurt to follow up should their paths cross, Iroh decided.

Jet wrenched his gaze away from the firebender, scowling at his feet. He hated to admit defeat, but it was like the guy didn't blink. Those gold eyes of his were definitely creepy, he decided, and not just because they belonged to a firebender.

"Jet," Smellerbee's voice forced him to look up, "-are you sure about this?"

Jet had half a mind to point out that she'd been the one to tell him to listen in the first place, but bit back the retort. She'd probably meant well. If it came down to a fight, it would be three benders- one of whom was the Avatar- against none, and those weren't exactly good odds. The last thing he wanted was for one of his kids to get hurt, and she knew that. In that respect, she'd made the right call.

But he wasn't about to have her question his judgement.

"You know we need the reservoir filled." Jet said, keeping his voice low, not wanting the group behind him to overhear. The last thing he wanted was for the firebender to find out his plans. "Katara and Aang both know how to waterbend. I don't think we'll get a better chance than this."

Especially now, when it turned out those Fire Nation soldiers they'd chased away had been carrying blasting jelly. Its discovery had lifted his mood substantially, promising that once the reservoir was filled, his plan could be carried out immediately- even if he didn't like thinking about what those soldiers might have planned to use it for. All the more reason for him to convince the two waterbenders to do what he wanted- and to make sure that the firebender stayed out of the way.

Oh, and the Water Tribe boy, he guessed. But based on how slow a fighter he'd been, he didn't expect to have much of an issue with him.

"Yeah, but bringing a firebender back to our hideout? What if he rats us out?" Smellerbee asked, visibly trying very hard not to look back at Zuko.

Probably a good call. He could still feel the creep's eyes on them. Didn't want to give anything away.

Jet arched a brow. "Funny, I thought you trusted him."

Smellerbee shot him a look. "I never said that. I just didn't think it was a good idea to get into a fight back there if we didn't have to."

"Fair enough." Jet said with a shrug. "But don't worry. We'll be keeping a close eye on him. And if he tries to run off to Gaipan so he can rat us out to his firebender buddies..."

"-then we'll have proof he's not what he claims to be." Smellerbee said, considering it. "And if he doesn't?"

Jet just shrugged. "Once the plan is carried out, we'll be moving locations anyways. It won't matter."

Longshot subtly shifted, a clear indication that he wished to join the conversation. Turning his attention to the archer, Jet instantly narrowed his eyes as theirs met.

"What do you mean, what if he turns out to be telling the truth?" Jet asked, just barely managing to keep his voice at a whisper. "Of course he's lying. He's a firebender."

Longshot just arched a brow, exchanging a glance with Smellerbee, who shifted uncomfortably on her feet. His own frown deepened, glancing between the two of them until his gaze settled on Smellerbee.

"Well," she began, "-I know that we can't trust the Fire Nation and all, but we should at least consider-"

"Consider what?" Jet cut her off. "We all know what the Fire Nation is capable of. Don't tell me you've forgotten how they destroyed all of our homes."

He hadn't. He never would. He would rather die before he let the Fire Nation brainwash him into believing otherwise.

Smellerbee's expression hardened. "We haven't forgotten."

"Good." Jet said. "Then you'll help me keep an eye on him."

Smellerbee and Longshot exchanged another look, before they both nodded. Jet resisted the urge to smirk. He didn't know what kind of trick Zuko had played to get the Avatar and his friends to trust him, but it wouldn't be one that he could repeat on his Freedom Fighters. He'd make sure of that.

He'd also make damn sure he could never trick anyone else, ever again. He might not know what his goal was, but he wasn't about to let a firebender continue to influence the Avatar. The little Air Nomad was already protecting a firebender from Earth Kingdom justice- he had to make sure that his priorities couldn't get even more scrambled. Clearly, he was just a naive little kid- and so were Katara and Sokka, for that matter. He was positive that with the right influence they would open their eyes and see things the right way.

And while he was at it, he'd make sure that Zuko wasn't the only firebender around here that he got rid of for good. No, once he was done, this valley would finally be free of the Fire Nation- and their sympathizers. And if he had to lie a little to accomplish that, well... at least he was lying for the right reasons.

Maybe he should believe in spirits, Jet thought as his eyes darted up ahead to where Pipsqueak was pulling their barrel-laden handcart. After all, it couldn't be coincidence that on the same day he managed to confiscate several barrels worth of blasting jelly from the Fire Nation, two waterbenders would show up. Maybe something really was trying to send him a message.

Well, consider it received.

Chapter Text

Jet's stupid hideout was in the trees, because of course it was. Because of course, the stupid show-off jerk who had threatened one of their friends and had then proceeded to ask for their help couldn't have his hideout in a reasonable location, like normal people. No. It had to be in the trees.

High in the trees.

"You okay?"

Speaking of people who weren't normal...

Groaning, Sokka looked up at where Zuko had perched himself on the railing of the rickety-looking platform. It didn't even look like it should be able to hold his weight- much less his weight and Druk's, the dragon peeking out of his tunic- and yet somehow he managed, making it look almost effortless. He sure as heck hadn't screamed at the top of his lungs while being hauled up into the trees.

Then again, Zuko had expected it. He hadn't. Although, in hindsight... yeah, he probably should have seen that coming.

Would he admit that? No.

"Fine, just fine." Sokka said, dusting off his clothes. "Where's everyone else?"

Zuko gestured behind him, just in time for Aang to come flying by on some kind of zipline. He shouted something, but he was gone too quickly for Sokka to make out exactly what he was trying to say. Sokka snorted. Leave it to Aang to find something that was both fun and dangerous to entertain himself with within like, five seconds of arrival. He wondered if the airbender even remembered that they were here on business.

"Where's Katara?" Sokka asked, then scowled. "Not to mention Jet's creep posse."

Zuko opened his mouth like he was going to ask what a posse was, before he closed it, instead pointing to the platform directly across from theirs. It was easy to pick out Katara- a single spot of blue set against a backdrop of orange, red, and brown. Judging from the fact that she quickly caught his eye and waved, he was just as easy to find.

He couldn't help but notice that Jet and his cronies were also on said platform- though the cronies were already leaving, leaving their boss alone.

Alone, with his sister.

Glowering, Sokka glared at Jet. He caught his gaze, flashing him a smile. He had to have separated them on purpose. He hadn't forgotten the way Katara had acted around him before he'd gone crazy and tried to attack Zuko- and he was willing to bet Jet hadn't either. He especially hadn't forgotten the way Jet had smiled back at Katara, in a way that set off multiple alarm bells in his head. Sure, he was confident that Katara knew better than to bat her eyes at someone who had almost attacked one of their friends, but she was his little sister. It was his job to worry about her- literally! Dad had put him in charge of keeping Katara safe when he'd left for war, so there was no Spirit damned way he was going to let some creep put the moves on her.

"Come on," he said, striding forward with what he hoped was confidence, "-we should probably catch up."

Zuko thankfully didn't argue, instead just trailing behind him, Druk wriggling free of his tunic to wrap himself around his upper arm. Of course, since Zuko couldn't be normal for five seconds, he didn't even bother leaving the railing. Across the way, Katara looked like she wanted to scream. He was kind of surprised she didn't.

"Can I ask you something?"

He totally didn't jump at the sound of Zuko's voice. If anyone said he did, they were a liar. He was just... surprised to hear him speak, that's all. Zuko had been pretty quiet since the whole being mistaken for the enemy and nearly killed thing had gone down.

Which... yeah, couldn't blame him.

Guess the green clothes hadn't been nearly enough disguise to hide his obvious Fire Nation heritage. He blamed the eyes. Who else would have gold eyes but a firebender?

"Sure," Sokka said, "-what's on your mind?"

Zuko opened his mouth, only to close it again, looking down at his feet. "Actually, nevermind. It's not important."

Sokka frowned, arching a brow- before shrugging. Not to be mean or anything, but the less Zuko Questions he had to answer, the better. They kind of gave him a headache even at the best of times, and this was far from the best of times.

Turning back to glare at Jet, he missed the way Zuko's gaze flicked towards Aang.

"Was Jet telling the truth?"

The question had been on the tip of Zuko's tongue, but in the end, he couldn't bring himself to ask it. Sokka had answered so many of his past questions with little more than a grumble, but even he could tell that this was of an entirely different magnitude than asking what a pirate was. He couldn't just casually ask if what Jet had said was true- if the Fire Nation really had wiped out the Air Nomads.

Also... asking about it behind Aang's back somehow didn't feel right to him. If he was going to ask anyone, something he was still uncertain of, it would have to be the airbender himself. Instead, he tried to shove the question aside, studying his surroundings with a slight frown. He'd never seen buildings like these before, hidden up in the trees, all connected by a series of wooden bridges and wires. He wondered if this sort of thing was common in the Earth Kingdom.

Somehow, he didn't think the lack of adults was.

He might not know much about life in human villages- he never dared get that close to them- but the one thing he did know was that they were supposed to have adults around. Mothers and fathers to look after the children, people to run stores and take of the village- even with so many off to war, there had always been adults in the villages he'd spied on back home. There hadn't been any other children aside from them in the small Earth Kingdom port they'd gone shopping for supplies in, which felt odd- but not as odd as this place having no adults. But although he could feel dozens of eyes on them, none of them belonged to adults- just children, some even younger looking than Aang.

Shouldn't they have parents? That was normal, right? He was pretty sure that was normal.

Maybe it wasn't just the Air Nomads his people had killed.

He grit his teeth, dropping his gaze. He might not know much about this war, but he knew at least a little about wars in general. Soldiers fought, soldiers died.

Soldiers had families.

But then, something told him that this situation might not be as clean cut as that. Not when his people had apparently wiped out an entire nation.

Druk chirped, climbing up on his shoulder and nuzzling his cheek in reassurance. Zuko smiled, reaching up to scratch his brother's head, in the space right between his horns. He didn't think Druk understood any of this, not really- mom hadn't even told him about the dragon hunts yet. She'd only taught him that it was dangerous to be around humans on his own, and that he should always go with his brother if he wanted to go out.

It would be nice if he didn't have to understand.

Him on the other hand... he was ashamed of himself. Clenching his fists, Zuko resolved to do better- to learn more about the human's war, and the consequences of it.

Maybe he should start by not calling it that anymore.

"You know," Jet began as she lowered her hand, "-I really am sorry about before."

Katara frowned, glancing back towards him. The others were already starting to move on, leaving the two of them alone on the platform. They were taking the supplies that they had scavenged from the abandoned Fire Nation campsite deeper into the network of treehouses, presumably to wherever they stored things. She had to admit, it was fairly impressive, especially since it looked as if it was something they had built all by themselves, with no adult help.

It was certainly more impressive than Sokka's watchtower back home- not that that was hard. She wondered if that thing was even still standing without Sokka around to constantly reinforce his own shoddy craftsmanship. She was just amazed it had never collapsed on him.

"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to." Katara said, looking pointedly back towards Zuko.

"Guess not." Jet shrugged, coming to stand by her. "So how did you guys find him?"

Katara frowned, briefly debating answering, before deciding it couldn't possibly hurt. More information could only further convince Jet that Zuko was on their side.

"He found us, actually." Katara said. "Just dropped out of the sky."

Jet arched a brow. "The sky?"

"Well, were flying on Appa at the time," Katara said, "-and he was riding a dragon."

Jet just blinked. She couldn't blame him. If she hadn't been there, she wouldn't believe it either. Maybe it was for the best that she'd left out the part where said dragon was Zuko's mom. It sounded a little, well... out there.

Not that she'd tell Zuko that. Besides, one look at how close he was with Fen and Druk, and it became obvious he was telling the truth. There was a real bond there, evident for anyone to see- and frankly, it was kind of sweet.

Weird, but sweet.

"I know how it sounds," Katara quickly continued, "-but Zuko's been a real help to us. I mean, I was skeptical of him myself at first, but he's really proven himself."

"Yeah?" Jet asked, sounding interested. "He's been with you for awhile then?"

Katara opened her mouth to reply that it hadn't really been that long, before snapping it shut. Some instinct in the back of her head told her that they were better off if Jet didn't know that Zuko had only been with them since the winter solstice.

"For awhile, yeah." Katara agreed.

Jet opened his mouth to say something, but Katara didn't give him the chance, instead calling out to her brother. "Sokka! Hurry up!"

"I'm coming as fast as I can, jeez!" Sokka shouted back, making his way across the rope bridge that connected the two platforms. "You know, it would have helped if you had us all pulled up to the same location."

"Sorry, not enough ropes." Jet said.

Sokka gave him a look like he didn't believe that, but decided not to push his luck. Probably for the best. She felt nervous enough just being this high up in the trees- she didn't want to risk getting into a fight here if she didn't have to.

Zuko, on the other hand, looked perfectly at home, which didn't entirely surprise her. She frowned at the way he was precariously balanced on the railing, sure that at any second, it was going to break and send him tumbling to the ground below. But either he was lighter than she thought, or he the railing was sturdier than it looked, because that didn't happen.

Still didn't mean she was going to let it continue. Someone had to teach him some common sense, and it looked like the only person fit for the job was her.


"And Zuko," Katara raised her voice just enough so that he would hear her, "-get down from the railing before you fall off!"

Zuko blinked, his golden eyes wide at the sudden scolding. She half expected him to protest, but instead he simply stepped down off the railing and onto the platform, just as she'd asked. She had to wonder if he'd been scolded for doing something dangerous even once in his entire life- though given that Fen seemed perfectly okay with him leaping off her back mid-air, she somehow doubted that.

(At least he had an excuse, she supposed. Aang, on the other hand...)

Sokka snorted, elbowing the firebender in the side. "Sounds like somebody's in trouble."

Zuko looked so startled, that Katara concluded yes, this boy had clearly never been told something was too dangerous.

"Yeah, you, for letting him." Katara said, crossing her arms and glaring at her brother.

"Oh c'mon, Katara!" Sokka whined. "How was I supposed to know he'd just get down if I asked him to? Besides, it's Zuko! Crazy stunts are kind of his thing."

"I mean, you could have tried." Katara pointed out. "And you're not actually in trouble, Zuko. You just need to be more careful. That railing didn't exactly look stable."

She paused, her eyes darting over towards Jet. "No offense."

Jet started slightly, like he'd only just barely heard her. It almost felt as if he had been too busy watching Zuko to actually listen to what she was saying- something that left an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach. She didn't want to think he was lying about his promise, but...

...maybe he was just being overly cautious. It wasn't like she could entirely blame him- she'd been suspicious of Zuko at first too. They all had, save for maybe Aang. If it hadn't been for Shyu helping them, she wasn't sure she would have accepted him so easily.

Jet quickly recovered, flashing her a smile. "Hey, none taken. You might be right."

Katara had to duck her head, because somehow that smile was still too charming for its own good. The rational part of her brain tried to argue that it wasn't a great idea to get so flustered by someone whose first instinct was so clearly to attack first and ask questions maybe never, but the more illogical part of her could only recall that it had been a long time since she'd been around boys her own age that weren't Sokka.

(Or anyone her own age, really. It had just been her and Sokka for so long that sometimes it was strange that it wasn't just the two of them anymore.)

Sharply clearing his throat, Sokka drew their attention to him. "Well I say we hurry up and discuss whatever it is that you need Aang's help with. Or did I just imagine it when you said it was important?"

"It is." Jet nodded- before glancing in Aang's direction, just in time for the airbender to zip past them. "But I think we might need the actual Avatar here first."

Sokka opened his mouth to say something, only to quickly shut it, shrugging his shoulders. "Good point. Hey Aang!"

"Yeah?" Aang shouted from somewhere further in.

"Think you can come here?" Sokka yelled, his voice carrying through the trees. "Jet has something he wants to tell us!"

"Oh yeah!" Aang called back, just as loud. "Be right there!"

Katara winced, hoping that there were no Fire Nation patrols nearby. All the yelling would definitely give them away if there were. But then, her brother had never exactly been known for his subtlety, and she got the sneaking suspicion that Aang had never exactly been known for being quiet.

They didn't have to wait for him long, the airbender using his glider to quickly join them. "Sorry about that. Your ziplines are really fun, though."

"Really?" Sokka asked. "Cause that doesn't exactly look like my definition of fun."

She had to agree. Then again, she already knew from Omashu that Aang's definition of fun was just a little different from that of her own. Riding down those mail chutes had been the most terrifying experience of her life, and she was including running that Fire Nation blockade.

Well, she thought, glancing in his direction, Zuko would have probably loved it.

"Glad to hear it." Jet grinned, completely unfazed by Aang's antics. "Come on, we can talk in my treehouse. There's some stuff I don't exactly want some of the younger kids to overhear."

"Are there a lot of them?" Katara asked.

"A few." Jet said. "Most of the kids here are The Duke's age or older. But the one thing everyone here has in common is that they've all lost something to the Fire Nation."

Unconsciously, Katara thought of her mother. That was a pain she knew all too well- all of them did, really.

All of them.

She found herself unconsciously glancing in Zuko's direction. The firebender had a serious expression on his face, one hand placed almost protectively over Druk. He didn't really talk a lot about how he felt about the Fire Nation's involvement in the war, but then, they hadn't exactly been together long enough for anyone to breech the topic in depth.

But the way he'd spoken about the royal family... she knew that anger.

She knew that anger because she recognized it in herself.

And that, she thought, was probably the real reason she found herself trusting Zuko. Because that kind of anger? That kind of anger could only come from a place of loss. She wasn't sure what he could have lost to Fire Lord Ozai and his family, but it must have been something big.

And if even someone from the Fire Nation could lose something to it... she bit her lip, unsure if she was ready to follow that thought where it would lead her.

Jet caught her eye, reading something in her gaze. "You know what that's like, don't you?"

"We lost our mother to the Fire Nation." Katara quietly admitted, not missing the guilt that flashed across Zuko's features as she said that.

Some darker part of her relished in it. He should feel guilty. These were his people that had done this. That had stolen her mother away, had stolen away all the waterbenders of her tribe. Had forced her mother into a situation where she had to lie to protect her, at a cost that even now, Katara thought was too high.

"The Fire Nation killed my parents." Jet said quietly. "I was only eight years old. That day changed me forever."

"I'm sorry." Katara said, not knowing what else to say.

What could she say? She'd never met anyone who shared the same pain as her. There was Sokka, but... well, she and Sokka didn't exactly talk about mom all that much. Sometimes she got the feeling that it hurt him to remember. Gran-Gran weathered the loss in the way only someone who had lived so long could, the way someone who had already lost something could.

And dad... dad never talked about mom anymore. Sometimes she it felt like her death had hurt him the most.

Good, the darker part of would always say. He was supposed to be the village protector, but he hadn't protected mom. And then to top it all off, he'd left them.

(She tried, very hard, not to listen to the darker part of her.)

"Hey, it's not your fault." Jet said- and something about the strange emphasis of his words brought her fully back to reality. She realized that she wasn't the one Jet was looking at.

She didn't even need to follow his gaze to know just who he was.

There was something dark in his gaze, something dark that she recognized. She knew that pain, that anger. She knew them, and didn't like what she saw.

Jet, she decided, might not be someone she wanted to share her pain with.

"No," she said, locking eyes with him, "-it isn't."

And it wasn't Zuko's fault either. No matter what their darker parts might say.

Still, she'd promised that they would help. So she gathered herself, nodded her head, and pushed every other thought aside. "Think you can show us the way?"

Jet smiled, and it wasn't quite so charming anymore.

"We lost our mother to the Fire Nation."

Zuko stared down at his feet, something like shame twisting in his , Katara, Sokka... they'd all lost something to the Fire Nation. To the war he'd been ignoring for so long. To his people. And not just them- so had everyone here. He'd already suspected that part, but hearing that much out loud...

...he hated it. He hated it more than anything.

He hated it even more knowing that it had hurt the people he-

"Hey," he tensed at the sound of Sokka's voice, but to his surprise, the Water Tribesman only gave his shoulder a friendly pat, "-don't stress out about it."

Zuko looked up at him, meeting his eyes in surprise. "Your mom-"

Sokka shook his head. "It happened a long time ago. And no matter what Jet says, it's not your fault."

Zuko huffed, smoke curling out from his nose. He didn't care what Jet said, or what he thought. If he were in a better mood, he would have glared right back at him. No, what he cared about what was what they thought.

Which was... strange. He wasn't so sure why he even cared so much. He wished mom were still here. She might have been able to tell him. Heck, he'd even take Uncle.

"I know," Zuko admitted, "-I just... I didn't know."

"It's not something we really like to talk about." Sokka said. "Come on, we should probably catch up."

Not knowing what else to say, Zuko just nodded. He fell into step behind the Water Tribesman, but before long, he'd overtaken him, Sokka purposefully walking slower. Tilting his head, he glanced back towards him, but his face was unreadable.

Never showing your opponent your back was something that had been drilled into him by both his mother and Master Piandao. And for some reason... he almost felt safer this way, less tense.

Weird. Sokka wasn't even that strong a fighter.

Once he was done with his story, the room was dead quiet.

"Jet, that's-"

"-horrible?" Jet finished for Katara. "I know. That's why I need you and Aang."

It was a master stroke, if he said so himself. Telling them that he needed the reservoir full to fight the fires that Fire Nation soldiers were planning on starting? It was the perfect lie, especially for something he'd come up with on the fly. It wasn't like he could tell them the truth with Zuko around- he'd just run off the first chance he got to warn the soldiers in Gaipan.

And besides... Katara and Aang both seemed a little on the naive side. They probably wouldn't understand why what he was doing was necessary. Sokka might, if Zuko hadn't brainwashed him too much already- though thankfully, it didn't seem as if the firebender had been able to influence the young Avatar much yet.

Speaking of Zuko... he was either a better actor than he gave him credit for, or he didn't realize it was a lie. He must have not already been in contact with the soldiers.

Good to know.

"That settles it." Aang said, much more serious than he had been earlier. He was kind of surprised the kid had it in him. "We have to help."

Jet fought the urge to smirk, instead keeping up his solemn expression. If he was going to do this, he needed to sell it to the very end.

"I don't know," Sokka hesitated, "-I mean, wouldn't it just make more sense to move?"

"Sokka!" Katara said, her eyes wide. "They can't just leave! This is their home!"

"Not to mention the home of countless animals." Aang added. "If the Fire Nation burned the forest down, they'd have no place to go. What if it turned out like Hei Bai's forest?"

"Okay, okay!" Sokka held up his hands. "I didn't mean it like that."

"I'm just saying," he continued, "-that it might make more sense for us to take out the Fire Nation troops before they get the chance to burn down the forest."

Jet paused, glancing over towards Sokka. It wasn't like he hadn't considered that option, but the fact was, most of the kids here weren't fighters. They only had five people, himself included, that even knew how to handle a weapon. Even with the advantage of range that Longshot granted them, those still weren't exactly good odds.

But with the Avatar here, maybe...

No, he just as quickly thought, even if they could somehow fight off the Fire Nation, that wasn't good enough. They needed to pay for what they'd done- them and the villagers, who had welcomed them into the fold rather than trying to fight, who sat back and let them do whatever they wanted rather than try and do anything to stop them. No, just chasing the soldiers off wasn't good enough. They had to send a message. A message not just to the Fire Nation- but also to all the Earth Kingdom cowards who would turn a blind eye towards the Fire Nation's tyranny, who sat around and got fat while villages burned and children died.

All for what? Their own safety? At least if they died, they'd die fighting.

"Thanks," Jet said, "-but even if we could chase them all off, they'd just come back with new troops and more firepower. Right now protecting our homes is all we can do."

Sokka frowned, but apparently didn't have any further protests.

Good. He'd was the one that he'd wanted to convince the most. He seemed the skeptical type. Now that he had him onboard, the only problem left was the firebender.

"What about you?" Jet asked, turning to look at Zuko, trying very hard not to glare. "Can't help but notice you haven't said anything."

Zuko didn't so much as blink. He hadn't, not for the entire time he'd been talking. It was downright eerie, the gold color of his eyes not helping in the least. With the dragon curled around his shoulder, it served to make him feel almost inhuman.

Well. More inhuman than firebenders already were, Jet supposed. The monster buried underneath Zuko's flesh was just a little more obvious than most.

"I guess I have a question?" Zuko half-asked.

Jet frowned, but forced himself to remain composed. "Ask away."

Zuko cocked his head, finally blinked, and asked, "-what's a reservoir?"


"It's a lake where they store water." Sokka said, arching a brow but otherwise not reacting to the absolutely idiotic question. "Seriously, didn't that uncle of yours teach you anything?"

Zuko frowned, shooting Sokka a pointed look that Jet couldn't read. It made his skin crawl.

Sokka could, holding up his hands. "Okay, okay. I know he's not your uncle."

"Oh," Zuko blinked, "-I thought you- you know what, nevermind."

"So," Sokka turned his attention back towards him, "-when do we start?"

Jet blinked, almost feeling whiplash at how quickly the conversation had turned back towards him. "I wish we could start right away, but the sun's already starting to set. There's not much we can get done in the dark."

And they'd need time to set all the blasting jelly into place. Time for him to think up a plan for what to do about Zuko.

"Why don't we reconvene after breakfast?" Jet offered. "The four of you are welcome to spend the night here in the meantime. We're even having a feast tonight."

"I don't know," Sokka frowned, glancing over towards Zuko, "-I mean, you haven't exactly made all of us feel very welcome."

Jet fought the urge to bristle, instead forcing himself to keep smiling. "Look, I get it. I didn't make the best impression, but I promise, that won't happen again. It's just not every day you see someone from the Fire Nation fighting for what's right."

Nor would he ever, no matter what lies Zuko had told the Avatar and his friends. He couldn't fool him. There was no such thing as a good firebender.

(If there were, maybe his mother wouldn't have burned. He couldn't remember his mother's scent anymore. Just the smell of her flesh as she burned, screamed-)

"So Zuko can come too?" Aang asked.

"Of course. Like I said, everyone's welcome." Jet assured him with a fake smile, the sound of his mother's screams fading to a ringing in his ears.

Eating and drinking with a firebender was the last thing he wanted to do- but he could take advantage of that. With so much food and drink going around, nobody would notice if he slipped something into Zuko's drink. Not poison, of course- that would be too easily traced back to him, and he still needed Aang and Katara's help. Just a little something to ensure that he'd sleep through the night. Something that would make sure he wouldn't wake, no matter what sounds he might hear. He might be lying Fire Nation scum, but those senses were no lie- and no joke. One false move, and his whole plan might be blown wide open.

That just wasn't a risk he was willing to take.

"I don't know..." Katara trailed off.

"I'd love to give everyone a chance to meet the Avatar." Jet said. "They could really use the morale boost."

Katara, Sokka, and Aang exchanged a glance between the three of them, and Jet had to resist the urge to smirk. Just a little more, and he'd have his way. The uncomfortable way Zuko shifted on his feet was just the icing on the cake.

Good. He should feel nervous.

"You know what," Sokka began, "-thanks for the offer, but I think we'll find our own campsite."

Jet opened his mouth, quickly snapping it shut. "Are you sure? There's Fire Nation troops everywhere. It would be a lot safer if you stayed here."

"Thanks, but I think we'll manage." Katara said, a faint smile on her lips that somehow just made him angry. He thought he'd connected with her a little when they'd talked about their parents- but he guessed he was wrong.

"What about the reservoir?" Jet asked. "I thought you agreed to help."

"And we will." Aang said firmly. "Katara and I will come back in the morning."

Jet narrowed his eyes, forcing himself to stay calm. Don't lose sight of the goal, he mentally reminded himself. He had to get that reservoir filled.

"Guess I can't convince you." Jet said, slowly exhaling, fighting the urge to press, to get what he wanted. "Alright. Guess I'll see the two of you in the morning."

"I think you mean the four of us," Sokka said, throwing an arm over Zuko's shoulder much to the firebender's surprise, "-we're kind of a set."

"Right," Jet said through gritted teeth, "-the four of you."

"So, uh," Aang shifted awkwardly on his feet, his eyes darting towards the exit, "-I guess we'll just... show ourselves out?"

Jet nodded, not trusting himself to say anything more. His blood felt hot, a crackle of distant fire in his ears that was little more than the echo of a memory. He was furious. How could he not be? He'd offered them a safe place to stay, all the food they could eat, and he'd still lost to a firebender.

Zuko, he decided, was much more of a threat than he'd thought.

In that case, he'd have to show him just how big of a mistake it was for him to come here. He might have won this battle, but mark his words- he wouldn't leave this valley alive.

"Jet!" Smellerbee looked up in surprise. "What are you doing here? I thought you were with the Avatar."

"Change of plans." Jet said, glancing over towards Longshot. He was grateful to see that it was just the two of them and Pipsqueak- he trusted Sneers and The Duke, but the less people who knew what he was planning, the better. "Turns out that piece of Fire Nation scum has more influence over the Avatar than we thought."

Smellerbee's expression darkened. "Did they turn you down?"

"No, they agreed to help." Jet said, leaving out the part where he'd lied to them. "But they didn't agree to stay."

Smellerbee stared at him. "So they just left? And you let them?"

"I didn't let them." Jet narrowed his eyes. "And this is our forest. There's nowhere that we won't be able to find them. Longshot should be able to track them."

Longshot nodded, moving towards the exit. Jet stopped him, holding onto his arm. "Be careful. The firebender has sharp senses. Don't let him know you're there."

They'd need Longshot's skills to pull off the final part of his plan. Couldn't have him die on them.

Briefly meeting his eyes, Longshot nodded once again. He nodded back, releasing the archer's arm and turning back towards Smellerbee and Pipsqueak. "As for the two of you, we need to get that blasting jelly into position faster than I thought."

Pipsqueak made a face. "But we just finished unloading it."

"Well load it back up again." Jet snapped. "We're going to need it if we want to blow up the dam and take Zuko with it."

Smellerbee frowned, glancing towards Pipsqueak. He just shrugged, already starting to load the barrels back onto the handcart.

"Are you sure about this, Jet?" Smellerbee asked. "We still haven't really determined if he's telling the truth or not yet."

Jet's expression darkened. "Why would he be telling the truth? He's Fire Nation. They wouldn't know how to do the right thing if it bit them in the ass."

She couldn't possibly be taking his side, could she? Come to think of it, Smellerbee had been the one to stop him from attacking Zuko earlier... but no. Smellerbee was loyal to him, and above all, she hated the Fire Nation just as much as he did. These were his kids, and he'd be damned if he'd let a firebender influence them the way he had the Avatar.

The sooner he was dead, the better.

"Look," Jet said, "-I know you just want to be careful. But we've never met a single good person from the Fire Nation. They're all probably brainwashed from birth."

"He's got a point." Pipsqueak agreed. "I've never met a friendly firebender before."

"I guess you're right." Smellerbee said. "I just don't want to make a mistake. I mean, doesn't the Avatar need to master all four elements?"

Jet scoffed. "If you ask me, I think he's better off without learning how to firebend."

The whole world was better off without firebending- not to mention firebenders. He wouldn't be the least bit sorry if the Fire Nation just sunk into the sea right now.

"Besides," Jet shrugged, "-if he really needs to learn to firebend, he can just learn it from a scroll or something. I'm sure there's plenty of those floating around."

Who knew? By tomorrow, maybe there would be some would literally be floating.

"I don't get it."

It wasn't until they were a fair distance away from the Freedom Fighter's hideout that Zuko finally said something. He'd been quiet ever since they'd left Jet's treehouse, even by Zuko standards. It had made the mood kind of awkward as they searched for a campsite, the silence only broken by the sound of Appa's feet crunching leaves as the sky bison walked along the forest floor. Aang had wanted to fly through the forest, but this time even Katara had thought that was a bad idea, so they'd settled for a compromise.

(But not before she'd made another crack about his instincts. Damnit.)

"What's there to get?" Sokka asked, shrugging. "That place was making you feel uncomfortable, so we left. It's not like we're not all used to camping out at this point."

"It's kind of fun, actually!" Aang chirped.

Zuko arched a brow, looking entirely unconvinced. "It would have been safer to stay at Jet's hideout. And I wasn't that uncomfortable."

Judging from the loud chirp Druk made, even he could tell that was a lie.

"You were totally uncomfortable." Sokka said. "You kept glancing over your shoulder and stuff."

Zuko frowned, as if he was trying to come up with a reasonable explanation. Based on the fact that he stayed silent, Sokka was going to guess that he couldn't.

"I wasn't scared of Jet," he finally said, folding his arms in front of him and glowering at them like he dared them to challenge that claim, "-I'm just not so sure I trust him."

"Yeah, I'm with you there." Sokka shrugged. Katara nodded in agreement.

Zuko blinked, surprised. "But you said you would help him."

"Well, yeah." Katara said, glancing up towards Aang. "But only because he really does need the help. That doesn't mean that we trust him."

Cocking his head, Zuko furrowed his brow. "But how do you know he's not lying?"

Silence descended, as they abruptly realized that Zuko hadn't been there when they'd stumbled across Hei Bai's forest- or what remained of it. He hadn't seen for himself the devastation that the Fire Nation had left behind, driving the Spirit of the forest itself to agony until it started taking it out on the nearby village.

Sokka shuddered at the memory. Twenty four hours in the Spirit World was not exactly his idea of a vacation. And would it kill them to put in some bathrooms?

"Well," Katara hesitated, biting her lip, "-the Fire Nation has burned down forests before."

Zuko's face fell. "Oh."

Wincing, Katara glanced towards him and Aang. He just shook his head. It was pretty obvious that Zuko was dealing with some issues, but what did you even say in this situation? Sorry your country does such scummy, awful things? It's okay though because you're a good guy? Somehow Zuko didn't exactly seem like the type to be comforted by platitudes. He probably didn't even know what a platitude was!

"You know," Aang suddenly piped up, "-I used to have a friend in the Fire Nation."

Zuko blinked, looking towards Aang. "You did?"

"You did?" Sokka asked, looking equally surprised.

Katara, on the other hand, didn't look half as surprised. "You mentioned something like that back at the South Pole. I'd almost forgotten."

"His name was Kuzon, and he was a firebender, just like Zuko." Aang paused, seeming to reconsider his own words. "Well, not just like Zuko. He couldn't make his fire turn all those different colors. He'd probably be pretty jealous. He always used to complain that his fireballs were too weak."

Sokka frowned. "Why didn't you tell us you had a friend in the Fire Nation?"

"I told Katara." Aang pointed out- to which his sister just shrugged. "And after that... it just never seemed important."

His words were spoken with a certain sense of melancholy that neither he nor Katara missed. And judging from the way Zuko's eyes narrowed, neither did he.

"What happened to him?" Zuko asked.

"I... don't actually know." Aang admitted. "I'd like to think that he and his family made it through the early days of the war safely, but..."

Katara placed a hand on Aang's shoulder, giving him a sympathetic look. "I'm sure he survived. I mean, King Bumi is still around, right?"

"That's true," Aang said, "-although he wasn't a king back then. He was just a kid."

"Yeah, how did that happen?" Sokka asked, arching a brow. "I mean, no offense, but I wouldn't exactly choose King Bumi as the ruler of my city."

Zuko's brow furrowed. "Who's King Bumi?"

"Oh, just a friend of Aang's from a hundred years ago." Sokka said with a shrug. "Great earthbender, but kinda loony."

Zuko's eyes went wide, staring at Aang in shock. "A hundred years ago?"

Aang frowned. "Yeah. Didn't you know?"

"That you were a hundred years old?" Zuko asked, gesturing with his hands as if words alone couldn't quite express how he felt. "No?"

"Oh," Aang glanced between the two of them, it slowly dawning on them that they'd never exactly stopped to explain everything to Zuko, "-well... surprise?"

"Although technically," Sokka began, "-he was frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years, so I'm not sure if that really counts."

"Iceberg?" Zuko asked.

"Oh yeah, I guess we should probably explain that." Aang said. "Well-"

"Actually wait, hold on," Sokka cut him off, looking Zuko square in the eye, "-do you even knew what an iceberg is?"

Zuko's silence was all the answer he needed. Right. Of course he didn't.

Sokka heaved a sigh, glancing towards his sister and Aang, the latter of whom just shrugged. "Guess we'll just have to start from the beginning."

"Maybe we should find somewhere to set up camp first." Katara suggested. "It's going to be a long story."

They barely got ten words in before Zuko interrupted, looking positively scandalized.

"What do you mean, it's frozen water?"

"Zuko," Katara began slowly, "-do you not know what ice is?"

"No." Zuko frowned, narrowing his eyes. "Why? Is it important?"

He and Katara just exchanged a glance. Because look- they'd grown up isolated from the rest of the world too, but at least they knew what grass was.

"You know what," Sokka began, "-we'll come back to that concept later. Preferably before we reach the North Pole."

Zuko cocked his head, but said nothing.

"-so the first thing he asks us is if we want to go penguin sledding."


"I'll explain later," Katara smoothly cut the firebender off, "-just let me finish."


"So Sokka decides Aang's a Fire Nation spy-"

"But he's an airbender?" Zuko interrupted. "That makes no sense."

"I know!" Aang flung up his arms. "That's what I said!"

"Hey!" Sokka protested. "It made plenty of sense at the time!"

"Sure it did, Sokka." Katara placed a hand on his shoulder, a teasing smile on her lips. "Sure it did."

"-and then Sokka gets his butt kicked-"

"Uh, excuse me," Sokka interrupted, refusing to let this bold-faced lie go unchecked, "-we all got our butts kicked."

"Yeah, but you're the only one who got his butt kicked twice." Aang pointed out.

To which all Sokka could do was concede that he had a fair point. And that he'd actually gotten his butt kicked a lot more than twice, but he wasn't exactly going to advertise the number of times Suki and her Kyoshi Warriors had handed his ass to him.

Damned if he hadn't needed it though.

"Right," Katara continued, as if she had never been interrupted, "-so we learn that the girls who kicked Sokka's butt are called the Kyoshi Warriors and-"

"Wait, why did they kick Sokka's butt twice?" Zuko asked.

"He asked for it." Katara said without missing a beat.

"I did not ask for it!" Sokka protested. "I just asked for a rematch, that's all! And Zuko, stop nodding your head like Katara just explained everything!"

"So it turns out that the crazy old king who had been trying to turn Katara and I into crystal was actually Aang's childhood friend-"

"-was he frozen in an iceberg too?" Zuko asked.

"No, he was just really old."

"Oh," Zuko frowned, "-Uncle's pretty old too. Maybe they know each other."

"Yeah, I don't think that's how old people actually work." Sokka said.

"So Katara's stupid plan somehow manages to work-"

"Wait," Zuko cut in, "-they thought Momo was earthbending? Lemurs can't do that."

"Really?" Sokka stared at him. "That's the part of this story you're getting hung up on?"

"I mean," Aang chimed in, "-it was pretty silly. Everyone knows lemurs can't earthbend."

Momo chattered loudly. Druk chattered back. Zuko nodded, but did not translate.

Sokka did not groan, because he understood that this was just his life now.

"You're right," Zuko agreed, "-Zhao does sound like a jerk."

"Frankly, I'm just surprised you know what a jerk is." Sokka said.

"I lived in the mountains, Sokka, not underneath a rock." Zuko said, having the audacity to sound offended after asking them what ice was.

Sokka brushed it off. "I'm also surprised you know that expression."

Zuko blinked, cocking his head. "What expression?"

Sokka opened his mouth to say something, but then squinted at Zuko, noting the faintest quirk of the firebender's lips. "'re just messing with me, aren't you?"

"Only some of the time."

"Wait, Sokka got kidnapped by a Spirit?"

"Yeah, it was pretty wild." Sokka shrugged.

"So... what was it like?" Zuko asked.

"Don't bother." Katara scoffed. "I've tried asking Sokka that before and all he says is-"

"-what happens in the Spirit World, stays in the Spirit World." Sokka finished for her.

"-that. Thanks."

"Anytime, sis."

"So wait, why was Aang in the ice thing in the first place?"

Aang stiffened, the good mood that he had been feeling washing away instantly. It was like being doused by a bucket of cold water, a chill setting into his bones. Even the fire that Zuko had lit wasn't enough to chase it away.

This wasn't something he wanted to talk about.

"Yeah, how did that happen?" Sokka asked, looking at him.

Aang shifted uncomfortably. "Well... there was a storm, and Appa and I got caught in it. I don't really remember what happened after that."

"Yeah, but why were you-"

Aang cut Sokka off with a loud yawn, stretching his arms over his head to really play it up. "You know what? I'm tired. Is anyone else tired? Maybe we should go to bed."

Katara frowned. "But you haven't even eaten anything yet."

Aang could feel sweat prickling at the back of his neck. "I'm... not hungry?"

Of course, his stomach chose just then to growl, prompting him to turn a bright shade of crimson. Placing a hand over his stomach, he gave his friends a sheepish laugh. "Oh. Guess I actually am hungry. Huh, how about that."

"Aang, is there something you don't want to tell us?" Katara asked gently.

She was probably just trying to be nice, but that only made him feel worse. He didn't like keeping things from his friends, but he just... he wasn't ready to talk about this. Not yet, and maybe not ever. And what would it hurt if they didn't know anyways? He was supposed to be the Avatar, the protector of the people, so what would they think if they knew the reason he'd been trapped in that iceberg was because he'd run away?

Maybe if he'd been there, things wouldn't have turned out this way. Maybe Gyatso and everyone else at the Southern Air Temple might have survived.

Maybe Katara and Sokka's mother wouldn't have died. Maybe there wouldn't be a whole community of war orphans living in hiding from the Fire Nation.

"Nope," Aang lied, "-so hey, how's that soup coming along?"

Katara and Sokka exchanged a glance, silently communicating with each other in that way he was starting to suspect only siblings could. Sokka opened his mouth to say something, but Katara glared at him, prompting him to snap his mouth shut.

Zuko didn't say anything. In the firelight, his eyes were an unreadable gold. They seemed distant, as if he was looking somewhere else.

"It should be done soon." Katara finally replied, something strained in her smile. "We can get some rest after we eat. It sounds like we'll have a long day tomorrow."

"Great!" Aang said. "Sounds like a plan!"

Nobody said anything to that, prompting Aang's stomach to twist. He hoped this awkward atmosphere would go away soon- he wasn't sure how much more of it he could take.

Or for that matter, how much more of this guilty feeling he could handle.

Keeping secrets, he decided, sucked.

"Maybe I should talk to him."

"Who, Aang?" Sokka asked, glancing over his shoulder towards Aang. "He seems fine."

Katara arched a brow, skepticism written plain as day on her face. "He suddenly started lying about how he wasn't hungry. That doesn't sound fine to me."

Sokka just shrugged. "So maybe there's some stuff he doesn't want to talk about. It's not a big deal."

"Really?" Katara asked, crossing her arms in front of her. "This coming from the same guy who was convinced that Aang was an enemy spy who set those flares off on purpose?"

"Hey, that was sound reasoning at the time!" Sokka protested.

Katara rolled her eyes. "Sokka, he's twelve."

"Yeah, you said that back then too." Sokka admitted, before peering over his shoulder again. "Besides, it looks like Zuko beat you to the punch."

Katara frowned, looking up to check. Sure enough, there was Zuko approaching Aang- and scaring the crap out of him, if the way the airbender jumped was any indication. Zuko just blinked, cocking his head to one side, not seeming to understand what he had done wrong.

"We should seriously keep a bell on that guy." Sokka remarked. "And here I thought Aang had light feet."

"If you want to talk him into wearing a bell," Katara said, "-you're welcome to it."

Sokka tried to picture how that conversation would go, and winced. "Yeah, probably not my best idea."

Katara hummed, crouching down next to him, a playful smile on her face. "You mean like not flying?"

Sokka could only groan.

"Are you okay?"

Aang placed a hand over his racing heart, trying to get it to calm down. "You just surprised me."

Zuko blinked, cocking his head like he didn't understand. And if he knew anything about Zuko, that probably meant he didn't. He couldn't help but notice that he was alone- there was no sign of Druk. A quick check of the campsite revealed that the baby dragon was curled up on Appa's saddle, almost invisible save for his furled wings peeking out just over the rim of the saddle.

"So, uh," Aang wrung his hands nervously, "-what was it that you wanted?"

"I wanted to talk to you about something." Zuko said.

"Oh," Aang frowned, hoping it wasn't what he thought it was, "-so, uh... what is it?"

"Do you remember what Jet said?" Zuko asked.

"Uh, that depends," Aang shifted awkwardly on his feet, "-Jet kind of said a lot of things."

Zuko lifted his head, and if he didn't know any better, he'd almost say he was angry at him. Then again, maybe he actually was. It wasn't like he'd gotten a firm hang on all of Zuko's moods just yet. It didn't help that he went back and forth between showing everything on his face and showing almost nothing at all.

"Back when he confronted you about defending me," Zuko clarified, "-what he said about the Air Nomads."

Aang's stomach dropped, and not just because it was punishing him for eating his soup too quickly. Although it probably was doing that as well.

"What about it?" Aang asked.

Zuko stared at him for an uncomfortably long time, before he finally wrenched his gaze away, clenching his fists. "Nevermind. It's nothing."

...okay. That definitely didn't sound like nothing. But before he could say anything, Zuko turned on his heel, as if making to leave.


He'd called out without thinking, but to his surprise, Zuko actually stopped.

"Um," Aang shifted on his feet, suddenly realizing he didn't actually have anything to say, "-well, it's just- uh-"

"Just what?" Zuko asked, clearly getting impatient.

"Back when you said it was safer for Druk here than in the Fire Nation," he blurted out, "-what did you mean by that?"

Zuko narrowed his eyes, and for a second, he thought he would snap at him again.

"But it's okay if you don't want to tell me!" Aang said hastily. "Totally okay!"

Zuko glared at him for a second longer- before he grit his teeth and turned his glare towards the ground. "Dragon hunts."

"Oh, you mean like poachers?" Aang asked, suddenly understanding. "We had those in my day too. Kuzon and I even saved an egg from some once!"

"Not poachers." Zuko said. "Hunters."

"Um," Aang frowned, now suddenly much less certain, "-is there a difference?"

"Dragon hunters are all firebenders." Zuko said, meeting his eyes. "It's a tradition Fire Lord Sozin started. He would hunt dragons for glory to prove his skill as a firebender, and it spread. His son, Fire Lord Azulon carried on his legacy, until the dragons were hunted nearly to extinction."

Aang could only stare, and not just because that was the most words he'd heard Zuko say at one time- although it was- but because that was horrible.

"But that- that doesn't make any sense!" Aang said, starting to pace before he realized it. "Dragons were the first firebenders. Monk Gyatso always told me that people in the Fire Nation revered them."

"That's why I said things had changed." Zuko said, narrowing his eyes. "Mom and Druk are two of the only dragons left now."

"Wait, what's this about there being only two dragons left now?"

Aang jumped, so caught up in his own thoughts that he hadn't noticed Sokka and Katara approach. They must have heard him shout and came right over. Glancing towards Zuko, he noticed that the firebender didn't look surprised at all- just kind of sad, actually.

"Apparently they hunt dragons in the Fire Nation now." Aang blurted out before he could stop himself. "I can't believe this! Monk Gyatso taught me that dragons are to firebenders like sky bison are to airbenders."

"Is that why you got so upset when I asked about the dragons?" Katara asked, looking at Zuko.

"It's something Fire Lord Sozin started, probably around the same time as the hu- as the Hundred Year War." Zuko said, visibly wincing at whatever mistake it was that he'd hastily corrected. "There's only four dragons left now. It's... bad."

"So is that why you hate Fire Nation royalty so much?" Sokka asked.

Zuko nodded, before glancing over his shoulder towards where Druk was sleeping. "Don't mention this to Druk. We haven't told him about the hunts yet. He's too young to understand."

"We promise." Katara said. "And maybe by the time he's old enough to understand, Aang will have defeated the Fire Lord, and you won't have to worry anymore."

Oh. Right.

Aang's stomach twisted at the reminder. Guess the continued existence of dragons was just another thing riding on him defeating the Fire Lord.

As if there wasn't enough already.

"Thanks," Zuko said, "-I hope so too."

If he didn't know any better, it was almost like Zuko was smiling. It was pretty faint- just the corners of his lip turned upwards, but it definitely seemed like a smile. It wasn't something he did often, so despite the extra pressure that had just been lumped on him, Aang couldn't help but feel a little happy all the same. Jet had tried to make it sound like he was some kind of traitor to his people for trying to defend Zuko, but frankly, he just couldn't see it that way. He was sure if he got the chance to ask Monk Gyatso about it somehow, he'd probably agree.

Besides, Zuko was his friend- and if a firebender and an Air Nomad could still be friends even after a hundred years of war, then maybe there was still hope for this world yet. At least, that's how he saw it.

A yawn escaped him- a real one this time. Katara glanced towards him with a sympathetic smile, before looking back towards Sokka and Zuko.

"I think we're all a little tired after today." She said. "We should probably get some sleep."

"Agreed." Sokka yawned. "Someone should probably stay up and keep watch though. Jet probably wasn't lying about there being Fire Nation troops everywhere."

"Good idea." Katara said. "I can take the first watch."

"No, you should get some sleep." Sokka said. "You and Aang have a lot of work to do tomorrow, so you'll need your rest. Zuko and I can handle this."

Zuko nodded. "I don't mind."

"See?" Sokka said. "It's settled."

"Well, if you're sure..." Katara briefly hesitated, before smiling, "-then thanks. Come on, Aang."

Aang nodded, trailing behind Katara as she went to fetch her sleeping bag from Appa. Glancing over his shoulder towards Zuko, he frowned, realizing that he hadn't had the chance to ask him what it was that he'd wanted to talk to him about. Although... he guessed the moment had kind of passed. If it was really important, he was sure Zuko would bring it up again tomorrow.

But if he didn't... well, that would be okay too.

He took first watch.

Sokka had insisted it should be him instead, but not very hard. He was obviously tired- anyone could tell that much just by looking at him. But that wasn't the only reason Zuko had offered to take first shift and let everyone else get some sleep.

No, his real reason was up in the trees.

Whoever it was, they were far enough away that he couldn't pick them out. All he could feel was their gaze- and while it wasn't hostile, it still gave him a bad feeling. He didn't think they were a Fire Nation soldier, which only left Jet and his Freedom Fighters.

And whoever it was, it probably wasn't Jet.

He tried to pretend as if he hadn't noticed them, instead calmly cleaning his dual dao. Druk was safe, still fast asleep on Appa's saddle, with Momo curled up next to him. That was where everyone else had set up their sleeping bags, and though they were all pretty deep sleepers, he had confidence that at least one of them would wake up if there were sounds of a struggle.

Besides, he didn't intend to let anything hurt his brother.

He also didn't intend to trade off with Sokka later, but nobody had to know that. It wouldn't be the first time he'd gone a full night without any sleep. He was adapted to it in a way the others weren't, if the past few days were any indication. They had called him a part of their team, so it was best he act like it.

It wasn't like he didn't trust Sokka- but he just felt better if he was the one keeping watch. Druk was his brother, and he was the one who was in the most danger if Jet decided not to follow through on his promise. And if there were any Fire Nation soldiers in the area, he could deal with them himself.

And besides... looking up from his swords and towards the sleeping forms of the Avatar and his companions, a faint smile crept over his lips.

They were pretty tired, after all. Best to just let them sleep.

Chapter Text

"Any word from Longshot?"

"Nothing." Smellerbee shook her head, glancing up at him. "Should we check on him?"

Jet frowned, glancing behind him, back towards the forest. Typically silence from Longshot was a good thing- it meant that there was nothing worth reporting. But given the circumstances, he couldn't help but worry that this time silence was something worth concerning himself with. They weren't just dealing with any firebender here- they were dealing with one who had keen senses. It was only natural that he be on edge.

"No," he finally said, "-not yet. Let's give it a bit of time."

He might be nervous about Zuko, but he trusted in Longshot's abilities. He'd picked him to track the Avatar and his companions for a reason. He wouldn't fail him.

(And he wouldn't be deceived by the firebender's tricks either.)

Smellerbee frowned, but didn't push the issue. He knew she wouldn't. She trusted him.

(Even if she had tried to defend the firebender.)

It was fine though. She hadn't really been trying to defend him. She'd just wanted to avoid an unnecessary and disadvantageous conflict. That was all.

(Was that really all?)

"What's the status on the blasting jelly?" Jet asked.

"Almost all set up." Smellerbee reported. "We should have the last of it in place by sunrise. It'll be ready to go once those two fill the reservoir."

Jet nodded, smirking. "Good. The sooner this valley is free of Fire Nation scum, the better it will be for everyone."

"And the firebender?" Smellerbee asked.

Jet scowled at the reminder. "I'm still working on that."

If Zuko had enough influence over the Avatar and his companions that they would leave the safety of his hideout for the unknown for his sake, then there was no way he could be allowed to leave here alive. He just had to figure out a way to do it that wouldn't be linked back to him. The Avatar seemed to trust him for now, but the last thing he wanted was that sort of wrath turned towards him and his kids. Aang didn't look like much, but he'd grown up with the legends of Avatar Kyoshi's wrath, so he wasn't about to take his chances.

No, he had to be smart about this.

"Well, you should probably think fast." Smellerbee said. "From what you told me, I doubt they'll be sticking around for long."

"Relax," Jet assured her, "-I'll handle it."

"I know you will." Smellerbee said, giving him a small smile. "You always do."

Jet beamed, but the smile quickly dropped from his face at Smellerbee's next few words.

"-just be careful we're not making a mistake."

Jet narrowed his eyes, his fists clenching at his sides. A mistake? How could killing a firebender who had entrenched himself in the Avatar's camp be a mistake? No matter what lies he'd told the Avatar, there was no such thing as a good firebender.

"I'm not." Jet said firmly. "You know just as well as I do what the Fire Nation is capable of. Everything that comes out of their mouths is a lie."

Smellerbee nodded, returning to work. He watched her for a second longer, before turning sharply on his heel, glaring in the general direction of the Avatar's camp.

He wasn't making a mistake.

"Ugh, gotta pee."

Groaning, Sokka sat up in his sleeping bag, blearily blinking sleep from his eyes. Wriggling out of it, he paused to check on Katara and Aang, finding both still fast asleep, the latter drooling.

The bane of the Fire Nation, ladies and gentleman.


Fire Nation?

Now much more awake, Sokka bristled at his realization. Zuko had never woken him up for his turn on the watch!

Sokka frowned, seeking out the wild firebender. He almost missed him at first. It was so dark out that Zuko just sort of blended right in. It definitely didn't help that he was sitting perfectly still- if he didn't know any better, he was in the exact same position he'd been in when he'd gone to bed. The only difference was that his gaze was now trained skyward..., he wasn't looking at the sky. He was looking at the trees.

Narrowing his eyes, Sokka squinted in that same direction, but couldn't see anything. It was too dark, and the canopy was so thick that the moonlight didn't really penetrate it. He doubted that Zuko could see anything either- but then, he hadn't needed to see to know that there were people in the trees earlier.

He'd just known.

Something like envy twisted in his gut. Katara and Aang had ended up praising Zuko's instincts, while his had been turned into the butt of a joke. And sure, okay, he had nearly walked them into a camp of Fire Nation soldiers, but just because he'd screwed up once didn't mean his instincts were bad.

...did it?

Well, whatever. He was awake now, and he wasn't about to let Zuko reign on his end of their agreement. That wasn't how a team worked.

...which, okay, to be fair, Zuko probably didn't understand that. It wasn't like he'd ever had the chance to be a part of a team before. Maybe he even thought he was being considerate by letting him sleep through the night, which... yeah, that was pretty considerate actually. There was some tiny part of him that was almost willing to take Zuko up on his silent offer.

But no. Gran-Gran had always said that consistency was the key to training a good polar dog. He had to be consistent.

(Was it weird that he was thinking of this in terms of training a wild animal? Eh, probably. He'd just... keep that to himself.)

Picking up his trusty boomerang and his club, he intended to march right over to where Zuko sat watching the trees, and give him a piece of his mind. And also maybe find out what was up with the trees, and if it was something they needed to worry about- or if it was just a member of Jet's creep posse keeping an eye on them.

(And let's face it. It probably was.)

Taking a resolute step forward, Sokka abruptly stopped when his stomach churned, reminding him of the reason he'd woken up in the first place.

Oh. Right. Yeah, okay, he should probably take care of that first. But once he was done there would be some consistency around here!

"Hey, shift's over."

Zuko barely spared a glance at Sokka, though he'd known he was coming. He'd made no efforts to muffle his approach. If they were going to travel together, he was seriously going to have to teach these people how to go about minimizing their presence.

"I'm fine." Zuko said instead, not taking his eyes off the trees. He couldn't see who it was that was watching them, but he was pretty sure it wasn't Jet. He wouldn't be able to mistake that maliciousness for anyone else, and he felt none of that from their watcher.

One of the people with him, then.

Whoever they were, they hadn't moved since he'd first noticed them. They seemed content to simply watch, even when he'd made it obvious that he knew he was there. They must have just been placed as observation. Maybe Jet wanted to make sure he wasn't going to run off and tell the Fire Nation soldiers in the village where he and his Freedom Fighters were.

He wouldn't. The last thing he wanted was to help the Fire Nation win this war. They might be his people, but they weren't his allies.

(Not when they had killed Katara and Sokka's mother. Not when they had taken Aang's entire people.

Not when they had taken the dragons.)

"I thought we agreed we were doing this in shifts." Sokka said.

Frowning, Zuko finally tore his gaze away from the trees to look at the Water Tribesman. "You seemed tired. I thought you would have wanted to be able to sleep through the night."

"I mean, yeah, that would be great," Sokka began, "-but that a promise is a promise. I'm up now, and that means it's my turn to watch camp."

Narrowing his eyes, Zuko studied Sokka's face. He didn't understand why he hadn't kept sleeping if he thought the idea of being fully rested was so great. Whatever it was that had woke him up, he could have just gone back to bed. He wouldn't have minded.

Seeming to sense his confusion, Sokka sighed. "Look, I get it. You don't have any experience working with a team. But teams are all about helping each other."

"I know that much." Zuko huffed, smoke curling out from his nostrils. "I'm not stupid. That's why I was going to let you sleep."

Sometimes he swore these people thought he was some kind of fool. So what if he didn't know what a reservoir was? It had never been important before!

"Hey, nobody said you were." Sokka said, holding his hands up. "And that's thoughtful of you and all, but the thing is that I would also like it if you got some sleep too."

Zuko blinked. Then blinked again. Cocking his head, he tried to figure out why Sokka might want that, but only came up with nothing. If it were anyone else, he would suspect it was a feeble attempt to lure him into some kind of trap, but Sokka had demonstrated thus far that he was more than worthy of his trust. He didn't feel ill at ease in his presence, not like he did when there was a dangerous predator nearby.

That felt more like Jet.

No, he could trust Sokka. He could trust these people. There were no traps here, no one to be wary of. His mother had warned him that there were unscrupulous humans, but these three, at least, felt safe.

(Jet, on the other hand...)

"I still think I should be the one to continue the watch." Zuko said, turning his attention back to the trees and completely missing the exasperated look that crossed Sokka's face. "I don't know if you've noticed, but we're not alone out here."

"Yeah, the staring off into the trees kind of gave it away." Sokka said, crouching next to him and looking up in the wrong direction. "So? Who is it? Jet doesn't exactly seem like the kind of guy who keeps watch on people himself. He seems more like the type to make other people do it."

"It's not Jet," Zuko said, "-and you're looking the wrong way."

Sokka squinted, tilting his head and getting even further away. "How can you even tell? All I can see is dark."

"How can you not?" Zuko asked, squinting at the Water Tribesman. "It's obvious."

Even if he couldn't see their watcher, he could feel them. His gaze was intense, even if it wasn't predatory. It might be the archer. If he was anything like the ones he'd spied on once, then his senses were probably keen. He hoped he wasn't as good a shot. If his reflexes hadn't been as quick, they might have actually hit him. Mom had been furious with him afterwards for doing something so reckless, and Uncle had somehow been even angrier than her.

Piandao had just been impressed.

Sokka's abruptly scowled. "Well excuse me for not having good instincts, dragonbreath."

Zuko frowned, caught off guard by the abrupt change in demeanor. Why had...?

Oh. Blinking owlishly, he tilted his head, studying the Water Tribesman. He wasn't sure if he was right, but...

"What?" Sokka snapped. "I already know it was my stupid instincts that got us into this mess in the first place, and that without you and your instincts, we all would be Fire Nation kindling right about now, but I can do without the constant reminders."

"That wasn't-" Zuko began, feeling strangely elated at having guessed right, before forcing himself to temper the feeling. "I didn't mean it like that."

"Then how did you mean it?" Sokka asked, narrowing his eyes.

"I mean... sure, all of that is true." Zuko said, before sensing that was extremely the wrong thing to say if the way Sokka's scowl deepened was anything to go by. "But I didn't- I wasn't trying to make you feel bad. You know, about your instincts."

Sokka's scowl eased somewhat, but he still didn't look happy. Suddenly he almost found himself wishing he'd taken Uncle up on one of those offers to meet some of the local children. Maybe then he might have a better idea of what to do in this situation. Sure, he knew how to deal with his mom when she was angry at him, but humans?

He'd only made Uncle angry that one time, and he'd never even seen Piandao get angry. He wasn't even sure if that was possible.

It... didn't exactly leave him with a whole lot of experience to draw from.

"Maybe- maybe it's not obvious?" Zuko said, stumbling over his own words in his hurry to get them out. He didn't want Sokka to be mad at him. "Uncle says that I have good senses because of how I was raised. I guess I've just never been around humans my own age before, so I don't really know what's supposed to be... normal?"

Unexpectedly, Sokka huffed in what he at least hoped was amusement. "You can say that again."

"...I don't really know what's supposed to be normal?" Zuko repeated, tilting his head at the odd request.

"No, I didn't mean-" Sokka began, before he cut himself off with a sigh. "Look, I'm sorry for snapping at you. I shouldn't have. It's just been a long day."

Zuko nodded, curiously studying Sokka. "Are you upset with Katara? Because she keeps bringing it up?"

"A little, I guess." Sokka admitted. "I know she doesn't really mean anything by it. I've teased her about stuff like this in the past too. It's just standard sibling stuff."

Zuko hummed, glancing over towards where Druk slept. He never teased Druk, but he was just a baby. Maybe that would change when they got older? Or maybe this teasing thing was something only human siblings did. Or was it only brothers and sisters?

If he had a sister, would she act like this around him?

"But seriously," Sokka said, pulling his attention back towards him, "-you should get some sleep. It's my shift now."


"I get it." Sokka said. "You're worried about Jet's crony. But seeing as he kind of needs Katara and Aang to fill the reservoir, I don't think he's going to try and pull anything tonight. Whoever it is, they're probably just keeping watch."

Zuko frowned, having half a mind to protest again, before slowly nodding. He'd thought that by doing the watch by himself, he'd be doing Sokka a favor, that it was the best way to act as part of the team, but maybe he'd been mistaken.

He might not be stupid, but there was still a lot of stuff he didn't know.

"Okay," he said, "-I guess I can leave it to you."

"That's what I like to hear." Sokka beamed. "Now go on. I'm sure Druk's lonely without his big brother."

Zuko smiled, scooping up his dao and rising to his feet in one smooth motion. Sheathing them, he headed to join Druk where he lay curled up with Momo on Appa's saddle, feeling confident that he had learned something invaluable about human relationships tonight.

Uncle would be proud.

"...and I guess I don't get a thank you."

Watching as Zuko leapt neatly onto Appa's saddle, Sokka just shrugged. Eh. It was Zuko they were talking about here. He probably just didn't realize how weird it was to walk away from someone without saying anything. And hey, he actually kind of felt better now that he'd had the chance to talk to someone about the whole instincts thing. Sure, that someone was Zuko, but eh. He'd take what he could get.

At least he wasn't likely to tell anyone else about it. That had probably been the most words he'd ever heard the firebender say at once earlier.

He watched out of the corner of his eye as Zuko settled down on Appa, before glancing back up towards the trees. He still couldn't tell where Zuko had been looking, but it bothered him a little less now.

Resting his club in his lap, Sokka settled in for his shift.

Something told him it would be a long one.

"Anything to report?"

Other people might have missed the slight shift of acknowledgement Longshot gave, but not him. Finding him without the use of their usual signals had taken some time, but he'd managed.

After all, no one knew these woods better than him.

Longshot shook his head, silent as ever as he turned his gaze back towards the Avatar's camp. Jet squinted in that same direction, but in the dim light of the pre-dawn morning, all he could make out were faint shapes. He might be able to see more if they were closer, but heeding his warning, Longshot had taken up occupancy in the high branches of a tree some distance away, where only his eagle eyes could possibly hope to see in any detail.

"And the firebender's there?"

Longshot nodded, lifting a hand and indicating a direction with his fingers. He followed them, just barely able to make out the massive silhouette of the Avatar's sky bison. He couldn't see the firebender at all, but he trusted Longshot not to lie to him.

(Unless the firebender had gotten to him too.)

(No. Not Longshot. Longshot was loyal. He wouldn't betray him.)

(He wouldn't.)

"Good." Jet said. "Everything at the reservoir is ready. All we need now is for Aang and Katara to fill it up."

Looking up at him, Longshot's gaze shifted slightly towards his bow.

"Yeah, I'll need you in position." Jet said. "I'm not sure how long it will take for them to fill it up, but I want to be ready to go as soon as possible."

Longshot arched his brows, his silent question easily understood. He hadn't explicitly told anyone that he'd lied to the Avatar to get his and Katara's help yet, but it didn't surprise him in the least that Longshot had seen through him. He always had a good instinct for that sort of thing.

"Don't worry about the Avatar." Jet said. "We can blow the dam once he and the two Water Tribesmen are gone. They wouldn't understand anyways."

Not if they were friends with a firebender. That kind of naivety would get them killed one day.

Longshot narrowed his eyes slightly. What about the firebender? How was he planning on dealing with him?

"I'll think of something." Jet said firmly. "We have to get him away from the Avatar before he turns him against us."

Maybe that was the real reason why they were here. Just like how it was the Avatar's destiny to rid the world of the Fire Nation plague, maybe it was his destiny to rid the Avatar of the firebender that plagued him. He wasn't completely sure how he'd do it yet- he could try setting Zuko up, but he was probably too smart for that. He could try separating him from the group and killing him, which sounded like the best option, but he was sharp enough that it might prove difficult.

Not to mention he'd need to explain Zuko's disappearance somehow. Logic dictated that all he had to do was tell the Avatar and his friends that he'd caught Zuko slipping information to the Fire Nation soldiers about their plan to 'save the forest', but something told him that they wouldn't believe him- at least, not without proof. And short of Zuko actually doing that, he probably wouldn't get it.

Something told him he wouldn't get that either. Zuko was clearly on his own mission, and besides, what would he care if just one of the Fire Nation's plans supposedly failed? Putting out one measly forest fire would be a meager loss if he got what he wanted and turned the Avatar to the Fire Nation's side. And even if he knew that was all bullshit, even if he knew the real plan, why would he even care?

Everyone knew firebenders didn't care about anyone other than themselves.

The edge of Longshot's lips tugged downwards, and Jet had to force himself to not react. Maybe he'd read him wrong.

But he hadn't. He was telling him the same thing Smellerbee had earlier.

Make sure we're not making a mistake.

"He's a firebender," Jet spat, "-you and I should know better than anyone what they're capable of."

Longshot's face fell, and Jet's surge of anger was quickly replaced by a rush of guilt. His own loss to the Fire Nation had been devastating, but it was nothing compared to what Longshot had gone through. Even if he was upset, he shouldn't have reminded him of it.

There was a reason he didn't speak anymore.

"Sorry," he said, "-I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."

Longshot shook his head, rising to his feet. It was soundless, just like all of the archer's other movements.

"Yeah, you're probably right." Jet said. "Get in position. I'll finish the watch."

Longshot ducked his head in acknowledgement, nimbly moving through the trees back the way he had come. Up above, the first rays of sunlight peeked over the horizon. Down below, a dark shadow on the sky bison's saddle began to stir.

The firebender.

Jet's hands twitched, suddenly seized by the urge to go down there now, to take him out while everyone else was still sleeping and while he was still off guard. It would be easy, and then he'd never have to worry about him ever again.

The Avatar would stay theirs.

But no. If he killed him now, he'd never get that reservoir filled. And if the reservoir didn't get filled, he'd never be able to wipe out the soldiers. He had to prioritize.

The firebender would live.

For now.

It wasn't the sun that woke him.

Zuko's eyes snapped open, keenly aware that he was being watched. The only thing that kept him from shooting up was Druk's presence on his chest, not wanting to alarm his still slumbering sibling or his new friend, who was sleeping just to the side. Instead he settled for propping himself up with his elbows and turning his head to look in the direction of the gaze.

It made his skin crawl.


Druk stirred, his brother making a note of distress. Exhaling, Zuko forced himself to relax, responding with a note of reassurance and apology- or the best approximation he could get with human vocal chords. It was enough for Druk, the newborn dragon growing calmer. Sighing, he idly scratched the underside of his brother's chin, forcing himself to not think about Jet. He wasn't stupid enough to try anything in broad daylight... probably. For all that he felt like a predator, Jet was still human.

Humans, he was coming to learn, were a lot harder to understand than a predator.

Yawning, he sat all the way up. Druk mirrored his yawn, before clambering up onto his shoulder, Momo make a faint noise of protest, before curling back up again. Looking around the campsite, he noted that Katara and Aang were still asleep, and that Sokka, true to his word, was still awake.

"Oh hey, you're up," Sokka said, catching his eye, "-I thought you might want to sleep longer given how long you stayed up last night."

"Firebenders rise with the-"

"-with the sun, I know. I remember." Sokka finished. "But don't you ever like... sleep in?"

"Sleep... in?" Zuko asked, scrunching his nose in confusion. Sleep in where? They didn't have anything for shelter here.

"You know, sleep past sunrise?" Sokka asked.

"Why would I do that?" Zuko asked, failing to see how where he slept had anything to do with how long he slept.

Sokka squinted at him for several long seconds, before rolling his eyes. "Oh, nevermind. I'm not even sure why I asked."

Zuko hummed, filing sleep in away with all the other nonsensical phrases he'd learned since joining the Avatar's group. He was starting to get used to them.

At least they weren't proverbs.

Lifting his head, he turned to look back in Jet's direction, careful not to make it too obvious. The scent of his hate, his malice, was too strong to miss.

All of it was directed towards him.

Grabbing his swords, he jumped down from Appa. His stomach growled, but he schooled it into silence. Jet wouldn't try anything- as long as he stayed with the group. Once he left, any protection he might have was gone. And while he didn't think he'd lose to Jet in a fight, something told him the Freedom Fighter wasn't the type to fight fair.

(Neither did he, according to Uncle. But Jet still had numbers, and numbers were dangerous.)

"Not going hunting?" Sokka asked, arching a brow.

Zuko just shook his head. It wasn't worth the risk. He'd be fine without one meal anyways.

At least, that's what he thought, right up until Katara was shoving a bowl in his hands.

Zuko blinked, but Katara had already moved on, passing another bowl to Aang. Staring down at his own bowl, Zuko frowned for a moment... before he shrugged.

Guess this must be part of the team thing too.

Jet lingered until the Avatar's group began their morning meal.

The firebender didn't seem like he was planning on doing anything suspicious, at least right now. And speaking of suspicious, he couldn't exactly not be there when they came to help him fill up the reservoir. The last thing he wanted was for them to start asking any questions.

Turning on his heel, he shot one last look in the firebender's direction, before he left. Now that the rest of the Avatar's group was up, it would probably be fine to leave him without any supervision. He wasn't stupid enough to pull anything out in the open.

Besides, he'd have plenty of time to keep an eye on him today.

There was nothing to worry about.

When Jet left, Zuko exhaled.

"Everything okay?" Katara asked, glancing at him from across the pot. "That was a pretty big sigh."

"Fine," Zuko said quickly, "-everything's fine."

He hadn't realized he had been so obvious. Jet's presence must have bothered him more than he'd thought.

Katara frowned, not looking entirely convinced. Her gaze briefly flickered over towards Sokka, who met it with a shrug. Narrowing his eyes, Zuko peered between the two of them, trying to glean the meaning behind whatever silent communication they were engaged in.

Maybe humans were better at non-verbal communication than he'd thought.

"We," Sokka began, locking eyes with Zuko, "-are going hunting."

Zuko did one of his rare blinks, cocking his head to one side. "You hunt?"

"Wha- yes, I hunt!" Sokka blurted out, his cheeks burning red. "I just haven't needed to since we've been depending on supplies we got from Senlin Village!"

Zuko hummed in response, and Sokka tried really hard not to bristle at it. He probably didn't mean anything by it. He actually felt kind of bad for snapping at him like he had last night- sure, he'd been a little annoyed by Katara's jokes, but he'd definitely taken it out on the wrong person. Zuko was probably being completely honest when he said that he didn't really know what was normal.

Besides, if the only way to get instincts like Zuko's was to be raised like him, then he was just fine with the instincts he had.

"You're not coming with us?" Aang asked, a slight frown on his face. "But I thought we were all going to see Jet together."

"Actually, Sokka and I talked about that." Katara cut in, smiling at Aang. "I don't think Jet is going to try anything, but I think the further we keep Zuko away from him, the better. Besides, we are running pretty low on meat anyways."

"I mean, do we really need meat?" Aang asked.

"Uh, yes?" Sokka said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Look, I get that not eating meat is the way of your people and all, but some of us are pretty dependent on that stuff. I mean, just look at Zuko. He's practically a carnivore!"

Putting a hand on his chin, Aang hummed in thought. "You do make a good point. I wouldn't want Zuko to starve."

Zuko frowned. "I eat things other than meat."

"Yeah, after scorching them half to death." Sokka said. "Seriously, what's up with that anyways?"

Zuko's frown deepened, half evolving into a scowl. "What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing's wrong with it," Katara blatantly lied, "-it's just that sometimes we think it might be kind of nice if you actually, you know... tasted the food?"

Zuko's scowl lessened, his frown becoming more one of confusion. "I taste the food just fine. And besides, I don't scorch everything. You don't need to cook fruit."

Katara twitched, probably taking offense at Zuko calling his method of food preparation cooking. Sensing that they were quickly heading into dangerous territory, Sokka cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention back towards him.

"We can talk about Zuko's eating habits later," Sokka began, "-right now we each have our missions. Katara, you and Aang will go and meet up with Jet and fill that reservoir of his or whatever. Zuko, you and I are in charge of resupplying us with meat, and anything else we can forage while we're out and about in the forest."

"Oh, can you pick some mushrooms?" Aang asked.

"Yeah, somehow I don't think that's such a good idea." Sokka said, arching a brow. "I don't know if you noticed, but there aren't exactly any mushrooms growing in the South Pole, and who knows if they have the same mushrooms here as they do in the Fire Nation. I'm not going to be responsible for accidentally poisoning the Avatar."

Zuko nodded in agreement. Glad to see he had some sense, then.

"Aw," Aang pouted, "-I was hoping we could make some mushroom soup."

"Don't worry, Aang." Placing a hand on his shoulder, Katara offered him a smile. "We can pick up some mushrooms the next time we're at a market."

"Okay!" Aang chirped. "I guess we'll see you guys in a few hours, then!"

"Aang and I will come back as soon as we're done filling the reservoir." Katara said. "Hopefully we'll finish before nightfall. I'd really rather not stay here another night."

"Yeah, kind of hard to sleep soundly when you know there's Fire Nation soldiers around." Sokka remarked, before briefly wincing, his eyes darting over towards Zuko. But if he'd taken any offense at the comment, it didn't show.

He was also just going to ignore the fact that he'd been doing just that right up until his bladder had woken him up. No need for Katara to know that.

"Speaking of which, you two should be careful." Katara said. "We don't want anyone getting caught."

"Please, us?" Sokka laughed, throwing his arm around Zuko's shoulder. The firebender startled at the contact, but let him keep it there without a fuss. "We'll be fine. It's you two I'm worried about."

Katara just arched a brow, locking eyes with him for a long second before turning towards Zuko. "Do me a favor and make sure Sokka stays out of trouble. He can get a little carried away sometimes."

"Hey!" Sokka said. "Name one time I've gotten carried away!"

"Gee, I don't know if I can just pick one." Katara said. "Not when there's so many instances to choose from. But maybe the time dad brought you on your first hunt, and you-"

"Okay, fine," Sokka cut Katara off before she could regale everyone with that particular embarrassing tale, "-I get it. I'll be careful."

Katara nodded. "Good. In that case, Aang and I should get going. I want to get started as soon as possible."

"You heard the lady!" Aang said. "C'mon, Momo!"

The lemur chirped, gliding over from his perch on Appa's saddle to land on Aang's shoulder. Druk chirped at the lemur from his perch on Zuko's head, and he didn't need his translation to know that he was saying goodbye to his friend. Their growing friendship wasn't the weirdest thing he'd experience lately, but it was still pretty weird, yeah.

(He should probably refrain from ever mentioning that he'd joked about eating Momo at first. Something told him that Mommy Dearest wouldn't appreciate hearing that about her youngest's new best friend, and the last thing Sokka wanted was a pissed off dragon breathing down his neck.)

He watched as Aang and Katara headed deeper into the woods, back in the direction of Jet's hideout. He felt a little anxious about leaving his sister alone with that creep, but Katara wasn't exactly defenseless. He still had some qualms about the whole stealing thing, but that waterbending scroll really did seem to be helping her.

Besides, Zuko was in a lot more danger from Jet than Katara ever would be. Sticking with him and staying away from the Freedom Fighter was the best choice.

"Are you okay?"

Sokka blinked, glancing up at Zuko. The firebender was watching him, golden eyes seeming almost worried from where they were hidden behind his bangs. It took him a moment to place why he might be, before it clicked into place.

He was thinking about last night.

Aw, he really did care!

"Nah, I'm fine." Sokka said. "Katara had a point anyways. We do need to be careful. Those soldiers from last night probably already told their command about us. We're just lucky they didn't seem to recognize Aang as the Avatar, otherwise they'd be crawling all over these woods right now looking for him."

They were also lucky that Gaipan was pretty far from the coast. Jet was annoying enough, but Jet and Zhao? No thanks.

"Why would they be crawling?" Zuko asked. "Wouldn't it be more effective to walk?"

"That's not..." Sokka began, before heaving a sigh. It was way too early to be explaining figures of speech to Zuko. "You know what, nevermind. Let's just get to hunting, shall we?"

Zuko frowned, exchanging a glance with Druk, before simply shrugging.

Aang and Katara were alone. No Sokka, and no firebender.

It was all Jet could do to keep himself from screaming. He'd expected the firebender to come with them. He hadn't considered the chance that they might leave him behind.

In hindsight, it hadn't been his smartest decision.

Still, he had to stay calm. Something told him that Aang and Katara wouldn't be too eager to answer his questions if he tried to demand it. That was, if they even knew the truth, and Zuko hadn't just lied to them. It wasn't like he hadn't already set a precedent.

"So," he began casually once they were almost to the river, "-can't help but notice it's just you two today. Where are the others?"

"They're going hunting." Katara said, sounding honest enough. "Our meat stores are starting to run low, so Sokka thought it would be a good idea to take the chance and try and stock up while we can."

Hunting. That didn't sound too bad- provided it was true, of course. Who was to say Zuko wasn't heading to the village right now, to seek out the soldiers stationed there? Then again, she did say that her brother was with him, so maybe they really were hunting. It wasn't like Zuko could just have a secret rendezvous with the enemy with Sokka watching.

(Unless Sokka had already turned traitor. Then it was two people he had to kill, instead of just one.)

"We could always lend you some supplies." Jet offered. "We don't have much, but-"

"Thanks, but we couldn't." Katara said. "We know how rough things are out here, especially with the Fire Nation so close. We couldn't possibly ask that of you."

"Suit yourself." Jet shrugged. "Anyways, we're here."

"Great!" Aang chirped. "So what do we have to-?!"

The airbender was cut off, the steam vent below him promptly shooting him up ten feet into the air. Jet watched as he slowly floated back down, wondering not for the first time how this was supposed to be the only hope for the world.

No wonder Zuko had been able to fool him so easily.

"There's water trying to escape from these underground vents." Jet explained. "I need the two of you to try and help it along."

"I don't know," Katara frowned, "-I've never bent water I couldn't see."

Well that wouldn't do.

Concealing his disappointment, Jet placed a hand on Katara's shoulder, offering her a charming smile. He noticed the way she'd flushed at it earlier, and that was back when she'd still been at least a little mad at him, so he didn't have any doubts it would work this time too. She didn't pull away, so he'd take that as a good sign.

"I'm sure you can do it," he said, "-you seem like a real talented girl."

"Well..." Katara trailed off, glancing down at her feet, "-I guess I could give it a try."

"What about me?" Aang asked.

"I know the Avatar can do it." Jet said, pulling away from Katara. She was kind of cute, now that he looked at her, even if she wasn't exactly his type. Still, it couldn't hurt to put a little charm on her.

Who knows? It might even work in his favor.

He took a step back, making sure to keep one wary eye on the forest as he watched Aang and Katara work. Just knowing that Zuko was out there somewhere- unsupervised- made his skin crawl.

He'd have to fix that.

Fortunately, it looked like at least one part of his plan was going well. Aang and Katara were able to draw the water out from underground, and before he knew it, there was a geyser of it flowing into the river. A few more and the reservoir would be full.

"I'm going to head over to the reservoir and check things out." Jet half-lied. He was going to the reservoir, but checking things out wasn't his only reason. "You two keep at it."

Katara nodded. "We'll meet you there when we're done."

Grateful his back was turned, Jet flinched. If they went to the reservoir, then the plan was finished. He couldn't let them do that.

"Actually," he began, "-it would be better if you met me back at the hideout."

Thankfully, they seemed to accept that. Resisting the urge to heave a sigh, Jet forced himself to keep his pace slow- at least until he was out of sight of the river. Then he broke out into a run, quickly ascending a tree and leaping through its branches all while keeping an eye on the forest floor below, looking for any signs of Zuko.

He didn't see him.

Reaching the reservoir, Jet whistled, catching the ears of Smellerbee and Pipsqueak. The two looked up, before hurrying over towards him as he descended from the trees.

"We've got a problem."

Exchanging a look with Pipsqueak, Smellerbee frowned. "What kind of problem?"

"Zuko didn't show up with Aang and Katara." Jet said.

"Do you think he ran away?" Pipsqueak asked.

"I don't think so." Jet said. "Katara said something about him going hunting with her brother, but I don't know if that's what they're really doing."

"You think Sokka's in on it?" Smellerbee asked with a frown.

"I don't know," Jet admitted, "-but that's not a chance I want to take. I need the two of you to track them down. If they're just hunting, then fine- leave them be. But if they're not..."

"-we beat 'em up and drag 'em back here for you to interrogate." Pipsqueak finished, pounding his fist into his open hand.

"Exactly." Jet grinned. "Just make sure Aang and Katara don't see you."

"What about the reservoir?" Smellerbee asked. "We can't just leave it undefended. What if the Fire Nation sends a patrol here?"

"Sneers and Longshot can keep watch." Jet said. "I'll keep an eye on things too."

He was itching to fight the firebender himself, but he was needed here. Besides, if he really was up to no good, he didn't doubt he'd get his shot in before the day was done.

Smellerbee nodded, apparently satisfied with that. He watched as she left with Pipsqueak, before turning towards the reservoir. Narrowing his eyes, he picked out the barrels of blasting jelly, ready and waiting for Longshot's flaming arrow to serve as a trigger. Once they blew, the water would rush out, and everything in the valley below would be destroyed.

By day's end, there would be no more Gaipan.


Sokka winced, the sound echoing through the forest, almost impossibly loud. Up ahead, the hog-rabbit he'd been tracking perked up, abruptly sensing that it wasn't alone. Holding his breath, he waited to see if it would relax again...

...and it was running. Great.

Groaning, Sokka hung his head, very pointedly not looking in Zuko and Druk's direction. He could sense him lingering behind him, too easily picturing his tilted head.

"I thought you said you knew how to hunt."

"And I do!" Sokka protested, whirling to face Zuko. Sure enough, he was watching him with a tilted head, Druk mirroring his brother from his hiding place in Zuko's robes. "Back home I was considered the best hunter in my village!"

Technically with all the men gone, he had been the only hunter in the village, but hey, no need to tell Zuko that and embarrass himself further. Besides, even if he had been the only hunter, that still didn't mean he'd been bad. He could hunt! He just wasn't used to this terrain, with all its stupid rocks and its stupid dirt. Back home, things made sense. There were no trees, and no stupid, stupid twigs. If it hadn't been for the one he'd stepped on, they would be having delicious hog-rabbit stew tonight.

Instead, it seemed all that would be in Katara's cooking pot was disappointment.

(And vegetables, which if you asked him, was the same thing.)

The firebender arched a brow, his skepticism plain as day on his face. "Are you sure? Because if that's the case, humans and dragons must hunt very differently."

Groaning, Sokka collapsed on a nearby rock. "I'm just not used to this."

He flung his arms out to indicate their surroundings, but all Zuko did was tilt his head, his brows furrowing together in confusion.

"I don't understand," he said, "-how can you be the best hunter in your village if you're not used to hunting?"

"I didn't mean hunting." Sokka said. "I meant this."

He tapped on the ground, but instead of a look of understanding, the only thing that came across Zuko's face was even more confusion.

"You mean dirt?" Zuko asked, uncertain. "How can you not know what dirt is?"

"I know what dirt is!" Sokka flushed. "We just don't exactly have a lot of it at the South Pole!"

He knew what things were! He wasn't some... some feral child, raised with no human contact. And to get that from Zuko, of all people... nope. No way. Not letting that impression stand, no thank you.

"How can you not have dirt?" Zuko blinked, visibly perplexed. "Is it all rocks and sand or something?"

Lifting his head, Sokka stared at Zuko. "Why would there be sand at the South Pole?"

Zuko frowned. "I just thought- nevermind. So it's just rocks?"

"No, it's-" Sokka began, before cutting himself off, starting up at Zuko suspiciously. He couldn't possibly...?

But then, he hadn't known what an iceberg was either.

"Zuko, do you-"

"Someone's coming."

Snapping his mouth shut, Sokka shot to his feet. He followed Zuko's gaze, straining his ears to pick up on any sound. It took him awhile, but eventually he picked up on the sound of footsteps. It didn't sound as if it was more than one person, which became evident when Zuko visibly went from tense to relaxed, moving his hands away from the hilt of his swords, and Druk peeked back out from his robes.

"We must not be far from the main road." Sokka observed. "Maybe we should go see who it is. If they're from Gaipan, they might be able to give us some information about the Fire Nation troops."

Zuko tilted his head. "I thought we weren't going to fight them."

"We're not." Sokka said. "There's just something that's kind of bugging me, that's all."

Zuko hummed, but didn't ask him to elaborate. Honestly, he was kind of grateful. He wasn't sure if he could say what it was that was bothering him, even if pressed. All he knew was that it felt as if there was something that wasn't quite adding up.

He just... wasn't sure what that something was.

"Come on." Sokka waved a hand for Zuko to follow, taking the lead.

They didn't need to walk far. The main road came into view quickly, and he could make out a figure hobbling down it. He was just about to call out to him when Zuko stopped him, his grip uncomfortably tight on his shoulder.

"Wait," he said, "-look at his clothes."

Sokka did. They were red, clearly of Fire Nation make. Arching a brow, he glanced up towards Zuko, vaguely impressed he could even tell the difference. Maybe his Uncle had told him. Or maybe he'd just figured it out from their insistence he not wear red.

(Hey, he didn't actually think Zuko was stupid. Just... lacking, in places.)

"So?" Sokka asked. "He's just an old man. We just won't ask anything specific about the soldiers, that's all. He'll probably think we're travelers or something."

And even if he didn't... well, he was pretty confident they could outrun an old man with a cane. He didn't even look like he could walk without the thing.

Zuko said nothing, but he did release his shoulder, lightly nudging Druk until the tiny dragon disappeared into his robes. He was just going to take that as his way of saying yes.

Turning back towards the road, Sokka stepped out into view, lifting a hand. "Excuse me, could we-?"

The old man yelped, very nearly dropping his cane.

Okay. Not the response he'd been expecting. But hey, maybe they'd just startled him, which was fair- they had sort of just randomly come out of the forest. Maybe he thought Zuko was some kind of spirit or something.

"Sorry for startling you," Sokka began, "-we just wanted to ask if there was a village nearby. See, we're travelers and-"

"You're not bandits?" The old man asked cautiously.

"Uh... no." Sokka blinked, exchanging a glance with Zuko, who slowly shook his head. "We're not. Why? Have you had a problem with bandits around here?"

The old man hesitated, briefly glancing over his shoulder before slowly nodding. "These past few months, yes."

That was weird. Jet hadn't mentioned anything about bandits. Just the soldiers. That seemed like kind of a weird thing to leave out.


"Well, I can promise you, we're not bandits." Sokka assured him. "Incidentally, do you have any idea what these bandits might look like? You know, so we can avoid them."

"I have never seen them myself, only heard word of them." The old man said. "It's said they are lead by a young man with odd swords."

...unless the bandits were the Freedom Fighters.

"They used to only attack the soldiers," the old man elaborated, "-but recently they have been going after anyone who enters these woods. You and your friend should be careful."

"Thanks for the warning." Sokka said. "We'll be careful."

The old man nodded, before pointing back the way he came. "If you go straight down this path, you will come to a village. You can rest there, but I'm not sure how much else we can provide you with. The bandits have cut off most of our supply routes."

"I'm sure we'll manage." Sokka said. "What about you? If the woods are so dangerous, why are you out here by yourself?"

Instantly, the old man was more on his guard, one hand resting on his satchel- before he seemingly deflated. "I was hoping to request aid. We've sent a number of petitions these past few months, but they've all been ignored."

Ignored. Sokka frowned. Sure, he knew the Fire Nation was evil and all, but he at least thought they'd send aid to their own people. And sure, it was hard to have any sympathy for people who had colonized Earth Kingdom land, but if even the people from the Fire Nation were going hungry, what did that mean for the people who'd lived in Gaipan originally? Based on what he'd seen in places like Haru's village, he doubted that they'd all been wiped out, so they had to still be living there.

And if it really was Jet who was cutting off the supply routes, didn't he know that?

Didn't he care?

"But with the two of you here," Jet had told them back in his treehouse, a glint he hadn't quite trusted in his eyes, "-we finally have a way to defend our home."

Suddenly, Sokka had a feeling he knew what had been bugging him.

He just hoped to La he was wrong.