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In the Shadow of the Phoenix

Chapter Text

The sky turned red as the comet blazed across the planet. 

Monk Gyatso, oldest and kindest of the monks, looked up and then over to where the marching soldiers approached, their technology allowing them to scale the mountainside.

“Go,” he urged the man -- barely a man, Gyatso fretted, too young for this burden -- to his left, whose tattoos turned an eerie shade of purple in the changing light. “Go, now.”

“Gyatso,” Aang murmured, bowing in respect, tears on his cheeks which had not yet lost the last ounce of fat from childhood. “My friend.”

“Protect the Avatar,” Gyatso whispered, holding Aang’s arms in a tight embrace before releasing him. “Go, now! Protect him-”

“I will,” Aang swore, his grey eyes flashing. “I promise you, I will.” 

His broad shoulders seemed to sag for a moment under the sudden responsibility, before his spine straightened once more. “Goodbye.”

“Good luck,” Gyatso said with a smile. 

Aang pulled air currents around him and sprung into the saddle where the slumped, small figure still slept. 

“Appa. Yip Yip,” Aang commanded, and the sky bison roared as it lifted off the cracking stone of the temple floor and soared north.

Three other bison took off at the same time, going east, west, south.

“Protect our future,” Gyatso whispered, tears in his limpid eyes before another booming thud rattled the temple, shaking dust loose from the ancient ceilings.

“Today, the Nomads stand their ground,” he said to a monk who had paused to check on him, the other men and women rushing to meet the oncoming army. 

A plume of monstrous fire erupted like a tsunami of flame up the mountainside, and Gyatso looked over his shoulder one last time at the bison growing steadily distant in the sky. His breath caught when two fireballs erupted from unseen peaks in the mountain chain, but Aang deflected one with his staff as Appa dodged the other, and then they were gone.

Safe in the clouds.

“May we meet again,” he thought before racing to what he already understood and accepted was his death.

Thirty-two years after the Air Temples fell, the Earth Kingdom was at its breaking point.

A momentous period for the Fire Nation; which was why the Lady Ursa was surprised to receive General Iroh, Dragon of the West himself, to her place of confinement.

“General.” She held a hand to her round belly as she greeted him, standing shakily from her couch.

“There is no need for titles, my lady.” His once blazing gold eyes had dimmed since she had seen him last. “My sister.”

His son’s body was in Caldera City, awaiting proper burial. Ursa’s heart broke for Iroh the day his son fell, but not as much as the father’s had.

“Please,” she gestured to the seat across from her. 

Iroh settled and then cleared his throat as Ursa sat, draping her skirts over her legs.

“Your servants and healers look different from the last time I saw you,” Iroh commented. 

“Yes, they were changed out not four weeks ago,” Ursa said, grasping the teapot between them. 

Iroh held his hand out in offering, and she handed it to him instead. He began to prepare the tea, taking his time. 

He did not speak for several minutes.

“Perhaps,” he said calmly, steam rising from the surface of the two porcelain cups, “it is a good thing to have new attendants. I think I recognize several of them.”

It was a loaded exchange that Ursa could only grasp the edges of: she was not intended for a nest of vipers, after all. It was something of which both she and Iroh were well aware.

“New attendants,” Iroh mused. “For a new baby.”

“Yes, we’re very excited that soon--” Ursa began, but Iroh cleared his throat and handed her the jasmine tea. 

“I am excited to inform my brother, who works so hard at the front lines now that I have left, that his child was born early.”

Ursa frowned. “Iroh, what do you speak of? The child is not yet-”

“Of course,” Iroh continued, some of the fire returning to his eyes, “You were both so ill from the stress of early labor that I could not personally sit with you for long. Your health, I regret to report, will not allow visitors for several months.”

“Iroh?” Ursa set her cup down and watched her brother-in-law sip at his tea, a secret message coating his words. 

Iroh lowered his own cup and held it in his hands. “I could not bear it,” he said, voice cracking, “if the kindest of my family knew my pain.”

Lu Ten had been dead less than a month.

“What are you saying--?”

“I have heard my father and brother’s plans for a glorious future,” Iroh continued, voice rough with anger, “And it has caused me -- many sleepless nights. I cannot stop their plans.” He looked around the empty room and leaned towards Ursa. “But, I can save you.”

“Save me?” Ursa protested, color rising to her cheeks as she held her stomach tight. “Iroh, please, tell me what you’re talking about!”

“The Avatar is sixteen years old,” Iroh said sadly. “And she has been, at last, identified. They expect to capture her soon, in exchange for the safety of all inside the walls of Ba Sing Se.”

“What a fortunate turn of events for our nation,” Ursa said carefully. She startled when Iroh set his cup down with a rattle.

“Fortunate,” Iroh hissed. “Spirits! Fortune does not favor us -- they are not lucky stars, the constellations that bear witness to what we are about to do. My brother and father do not wish to see the cycle of the Avatar continue, to the point that they are willing to sacrifice terrible things for their plan.”

Ursa paled in sudden understanding. “They wouldn’t,” she whispered. “They couldn’t-”

“They will.” Iroh shook his head. “I came here under the pretense that I would … take care of the unfortunate business, should the execution of the Avatar coincide with the hour of the birth of Ozai’s heir.”

His sister-in-law paled further and gripped the table, procuring a blade from her sleeve. “You won’t touch my child,” she hissed, half-rising.

Iroh’s heart, what was left of it, broke at her fierceness. It was well understood that he was the greatest bender of the age -- and yet she would defy him for the love of her child.

“I won’t,” he promised, and Ursa’s gaze shifted, confused. “I won’t have to, because your child will be born early. I will report to my brother that I will stay with you to guarantee the health of your child as he continues the war for our father. Only deeply trusted attendants will be allowed near the two of you. You will not be seen in public for years, which is only advisable. After all, the grief of the Fire Nation on the day of its greatest sacrifice will be too powerful and might inspire retaliation.”

Tears trembled in Ursa’s kind brown eyes and then fell. Iroh watched each one fall, like leaves from a vine. “I don’t understand,” she wept. “How could they do such a thing-”

“I do not understand either,” Iroh whispered, his throat tight with tears. “But I do understand that your willingness to protect your son will keep him safe from my father. We will work together, my lady sister.” 

He held his hands out to her, and Ursa took them, still sniffing, her shoulders sagging. “And most likely, we will be able to keep the farce up with great ease. The likelihood of your child being …” He trailed off and cleared his throat. “The cycle of the Avatar might truly end, which is its own pain. But, if I can spare you this pain …”

“Thank you.” Ursa bowed her head to their clasped hands, and Iroh felt stirred to a great and powerful grief once more, flowing like water under the still scarring wound of Lu Ten’s loss. “Thank you, Iroh.”

“Do not thank me yet, sweet Ursa.” Iroh sighed. “Do not thank me yet.”

Three weeks later, the Avatar, born of the Earth Kingdom, sixteen years old, but standing before her executioners with all the grace and power of someone three times her age, faced death to save her people.

A bright light flowed from her as she tilted her face up to see the sky one last time, and as the spirit of Raava left her body and sought out her new vessel, the girl collapsed to the ground, lifeless. The Fire Nation cheered.

Thousands of miles away, Raava streamed through a window on Ember Island and as General Iroh, Dragon of the West, pulled his nephew into the world, Raava slipped into his soul and twined around it, inextricably.

Zuko, prince of the Fire Nation, opened his mouth and cried out for the first time as his mother wept in pain and fear.

Iroh held the child to his chest, blocking his mouth in a desperate attempt to quell the noise.

On Prince Zuko’s tenth birthday, he practices his forms in front of his clapping uncle and laughing mother. He is on Ember Island for the season, his younger sister still in the capitol, learning warfare at their father’s knee. 

She is healthy, born under lucky stars; given the nature of his birth (the story told to him many times by his uncle, how he had been dragged into the world early and had nearly died, nearly killed his mother), Zuko is nothing but lucky to be alive. He wonders, sometimes, now that he’s older and understands the world more, when his grandfather will tire of him and request he be removed from the line of succession.

Zuko does not mind. He does not wish to be Fire Lord. He has begun to learn the cost of their legacy, and he does not think his head can bear the weight of the crown.

As Zuko twists into the final form of Dancing Phoenix, his fire admittedly gentler than might be expected of a prince of the Fire Nation, he leaps onto a bridge in the courtyard, right up onto the railing as he points his left foot towards the sun.

His root is not strong enough; the prince falls.

Ursa screams, standing up quickly, as Iroh jumps forward, still spry despite the grey in his beard, ready to catch his nephew before he slams into the stones underneath.

His panic is unnecessary: Zuko cartwheels through the air, spinning his body out of instinct. He extends his right hand, and for a wild moment, Iroh thinks lightning will leap forth from the fingertips of the prince.

It does not. 

But air does.

With a burst of wind shot out of the prince’s hand, Zuko takes flight, flipping forward, catching unseen currents, and he lands lightly on his feet.

There is a long moment of confusion on the prince and Lady’s part. Iroh’s face is already grim as he scans the courtyard for any unwanted eyes. The attendants present wear a strange symbol in the clasp of their robes -- a beautiful lotus, not a terrible flame, decorates their ornaments.

They nod solemnly to the Dragon of the West, and he bows his head for a moment, exhaling breath that is more grief than fire.

“What happened?” Zuko’s voice breaks his concerned examination of the courtyard. “Mother? Uncle?”

“Oh, Zuko.” Ursa’s grief cuts her to her knees, and she collapses, hands outstretched. “Oh, my sweet Zuko-”

“Mama.” Zuko’s face is bright red, his golden eyes swimming with tears as he runs to his mother. She holds him tightly and looks up at Iroh, who walks heavily towards them, listening to the panicked sobs of his nephew.

Ursa stares at him, her sleeves effectively hiding Zuko from sight -- but isn’t that what they’ve always done? Iroh muses. Protected this boy for this precise reason, this slightest chance.

“Help us,” Ursa whispers to her only real ally, clutching her son impossibly tighter. “Protect him.”

“I will,” Iroh swears, kneeling next to them, his broad hand going to the back of Zuko’s head. “I promise. I will.”