Five weeks after the Agni Kai, Zuko leaves Caldera City.
There are no attendants. There are sparse witnesses.
Two dozen soldiers, six guards, and his uncle: that is all the company Zuko is to have as his father sends him on a bizarre quest.
Find the Avatar.
His uncle bows his head as he explains to Zuko the terms of his banishment: he can either fight his father again and try to win -- by burning Ozai before he can burn Zuko -- or, he can leave Caldera City and discover the Avatar, wherever he or she is hiding.
“I thought.” Zuko’s throat is too dry to speak; he shakes his head, pain throbbing behind his left eye.
Iroh dabs a sponge of water on Zuko’s lips until he can talk again. Every healer who has been allowed to examine him has said the same thing: Zuko’s vocal cords, already damaged by his mystery illnesses, were irreparably traumatized in the Agni Kai.
(Iroh does not tell Zuko this, but it was Zuko’s screams that had destroyed his voice, not the fire itself)
“I thought,” Zuko tries again, now that he has moisture in him, “That the Avatar was destroyed. Years ago.”
“No, Prince Zuko.” It will take months, but Zuko will eventually learn that only his uncle will call him by his title after his banishment. “It was believed that your grandfather had succeeded in wiping out the Avatar after the Great Sacrifice.”
Zuko stares listlessly at the blank obsidian walls of his recovery room. He does not think of the weight of sacrifice. He does not think of fire.
Iroh wipes a cool cloth on the non-bandaged half of Zuko’s face and continues. “But, while you were … unconscious, it appears that there was interesting activity at the temples dedicated to the Avatar. It would seem that he or she still exists, and can access the Avatar State.”
“Avatar State?” Zuko frowns and shakes his head, his attention slipping as he tries not to focus on the still nauseating pain. “I don’t know what that is.”
“I will explain that to you Zuko,” Iroh says gently, pulling the covers up to Zuko’s chest. His nephew is already falling asleep. Iroh’s whispers go unheard. “I will explain everything to you, when we are gone.”
Before Zuko is even fully healed, they board a ship that operates under the false pretense of Zuko’s command -- he is in charge of the maps, of connecting barely present dots. At age fourteen, he is in charge of this mad chase around the world. But, he knows Iroh is there for a reason, and he assumes it’s to set them on track, should he fail his father again.
They set course for the Colonies immediately because Zuko thinks that if the Great Sacrifice had not worked, they should start there. It was easier, after all, for the Throne to be more thorough in the capitol. The Colonies might have been tempted to hide their children.
He sets his hands on the railing and tries not to focus on the constant throb of pain in what’s left of his eye.
“Uncle,” Zuko asks, staring out at the water with his undamaged eye. “The Avatar, if he is of the Fire Nation … he -- or she -- they would be my age, correct?”
Iroh is quiet for a long moment, and guards and soldiers shift to their next stations at the changing of the hour.
“Yes, Prince Zuko.” Iroh speaks softly.
“I hope they are Fire Nation,” Zuko says grimly. He can feel his uncle stiffen beside him.
“You would accept bringing a boy -- or girl -- of your own nation before your father for trial? Imprisonment?” Iroh is getting more and more worked up. “Even execution?”
“The Avatar is not of any nation, really,” Zuko muses. He thinks of stories his mother told him of her distant relative, an uncle twice or removed or something, who was Avatar Roku, a kind and just man by her account, if not by the history of the Fire Nation.
Iroh falls silent at his side before Zuko adds, “But no. I would rather bring that upon someone my age than … a child.”
“What do you mean, Prince Zuko?”
Zuko watches improbable shapes form in the water; if he looks at the currents long enough, he can imagine the way the water moves against itself, with itself, back and forth under the ship, entirely uninterested in how they sail across it. He feels small next to the ocean, small under the light of the moon.
It’s to the reflection of the moon on the surface of the sea that Zuko explains himself.
“If the Great Sacrifice worked, then the Avatar appeared in the Air Nation. If there aren’t Air Nomads left -- and there shouldn’t be because of Fire Lord Sozin -- then the Avatar would have gone to Water, then Earth.” He grips the railing tighter. “If that took a long time, then … then an Avatar from the Earth Kingdom might be a child, and anything the Sages saw at the temple would be because of the birth of the new Avatar.”
Zuko shakes his head. “I'm not as strong as my father. I couldn’t kill a child.”
Iroh appears to weigh what to say next, but Zuko discovers he doesn’t want to hear it.
“I’m tired,” Zuko rasps, releasing the railing. “Goodnight, Uncle.”
Iroh watches his nephew stumble, half-blind across the deck. His shoulder knocks into the side of the door when he reaches the stairwell belowdecks. It would be funny, to watch the once-Crown Prince fumble around like a newborn catdeer.
Except it isn’t funny. Not at all.
The Dragon of the West returns to staring at the water, and he wonders, not for the first time, if his nephew will ever forgive him when he learns the truth.
Zuko is called to Iroh’s rooms after their search of the Fire Colonies proves fruitless. They had changed out the guards and soldiers at Ember Island, at least, and Zuko now recognizes some faces from his childhood.
They, however, cannot recognize his face anymore, and he’s met with more than one stricken expression when they see the mark of his shame. Zuko gives up on his brief hope that someone from those happier days might be near him, his hope that a little piece of his mother -- who had known all those who worked for them on Ember Island -- might be with him again.
It hurts to talk to people who can’t look him in the face. So, he stops talking to anyone but his uncle and dedicates himself to his studies. After weeks of reading and studying, Zuko goes to Iroh’s rooms, expecting a lecture.
He does get one, but not on furthering his journey of disappointment: no, instead, he gets scrolls in foreign languages, maps he can barely read.
“What is this?” He asks, poking at sharp letters which appear to be carved into hide.
“The script of the Water Tribe,” Iroh answers, pouring them both some tea. “You need to learn it, as the future Fire Lord.”
“Why would I need to learn how peasants write?” Zuko snaps. His eye hurts particularly worse than normal tonight, probably because the bandages had come off, and the exposure to light had strained the muscles of his ruined eye.
He doesn’t correct his uncle’s incorrect suggestion that Zuko might be Fire Lord one day. Zuko understands, six months into his journey, that he is not meant to return from this quest.
“The Water Tribe are not peasants,” Iroh corrects gently. “Their culture is different to ours, but important to study. They can be valuable allies, with significant exports and contributions to-”
Zuko stares at the scroll blankly until Iroh gives up and sighs, beginning instead an oral history of the Water Tribe with creation stories and belief systems. This captures his attention more than straining his eye, and he listens with enough interest to encourage his uncle to talk for a long time.
“I thought they were backwards,” Zuko admits after the candles have gone down three marks on their holders. “The Water Tribe.”
“That’s why I called them … peasants.” He coughs, slightly embarrassed. “I know there is no shame in being a peasant. The land must be worked, crops must grow. Someone needs to do the work. It’s good that the Water Tribe people are dedicated to their land.”
“That is true, Prince Zuko. But the Water Tribe has their own systems of government and leadership, as we’ve just discussed. A set economy, established property laws, tax laws, commerce systems. Why, the cultures between the North and the South are as different as night and day. Their society simply looks different than ours. To paint them all with the same brush would be a gross disservice to their way of life.”
“Why wasn’t their military powerful?” Zuko asks, frowning, recalling a lecture he’d received two years ago in the capitol. “They hid during the invasion thirty-two years ago.”
“They were not hiding.” Iroh shakes his head, a sorrow in his eyes. “They… the warriors chose to protect what was important, but the Fire Nation had … resources they did not. When they realized it would be fruitless to continue fighting, half their forces retreated to the villages to try and … protect their most important resource.”
“Were you there?” Zuko asks, suddenly much more interested. “What was their important resource?”
He’s always loved stories of his uncle’s time as a war hero. His mind goes to gold, to oil, to ancient secrets of the spirit world -- Zuko waits anxiously for his uncle to answer, but he takes his time to speak again.
“No, I was not.” Iroh clears his throat and finishes his tea. He stares at the bottom of the cup and will not meet Zuko’s gaze. “And that is all a story for another time, Prince Zuko.”
After exile, and after years of weathering his father’s hatred of him, Zuko knows a dismissal when he sees one.
“Goodnight, Uncle.” He bows and stands.
As the door closes behind him, Zuko hears, “....Goodnight, nephew.”
Two months into their winding journey through various island chains off the coast of the Earth Kingdom, Zuko asks his uncle, not for the first time, if they should go to the South Pole.
They’ve exhausted their leads everywhere else, and they’ve been at sea for over a year. Zuko is fifteen now, closer to sixteen. He is tired. He wants to go home.
“No, nephew.” Iroh hums and prepares tea while Zuko anxiously runs his fingers along the bald section of his scalp. “I do not think it wise.”
“Why not?” Zuko snaps. “You just don’t want me to find the Avatar! Is that it?”
Anxiety has also made him impatient: impatient to return home, to see his father, to see Azula, who was banned from seeing him after his failure.
He never said goodbye to her. Selfishly, he sometimes lets himself imagine that she might miss him.
As though anyone could.
“Calm yourself, Prince Zuko,” Iroh says sternly. Zuko exhales, irate.
“You might find that the people at the South Pole would be even less happy than those in the colonies to see a Fire Nation ship.”
Zuko considers this: the citizens of the colonies hadn’t precisely cheered for them, but most of the vendors they spoke to as they traveled through towns had at least seemed happy about the business. He could tell people had stared at them, but he had figured it had to do with the horror of his face more than anything else.
“What have you learned, in our studies of Water, Earth, and Air?”
“I’ve learned a lot,” Zuko grits out. “I learned that they did not want to be part of my great-grandfather’s vision for--”
“No, Prince Zuko. What of the truth have you learned?”
His stomach twists at the implication in his uncle’s voice; but, he’s had a year of Iroh’s strange lessons, a year of squinting at the square shapes of the Earth Kingdom -- very similar to the Fire Nation’s script -- the twists and whirls of the Air Nomads, the limited carvings of the Water Tribe, who were primarily reliant on oral storytelling for much of their cultural history.
He thinks about the lessons he learned from the tutors hired by his father; he thinks about the dark days of the war, helped along by Azulon and Ozai’s conquests. He thinks about it, even though he does not like to think about it. His eye begins to ache.
“I learned that,” Zuko swallows, “there is more than one way to look at history. That … the Fire Nation teaches us about the good things, but not … the bad ones?”
“The Fire Nation has a gift for turning bad things into good ones, when it suits them,” Iroh corrects, and Zuko stiffens.
“Uncle,” He hisses, “That’s treason.”
“Is it?” Iroh hands him a cup of tea, unbothered, and Zuko feels a twitch building in his cheek.
“As I was saying, it would not be wise to go to the South Pole. The last several times the FIre Nation appeared on their shores, it was to raid …” Iroh seems to be steeling himself for something, and Zuko frowns, his flare of panic forgotten. “And to destroy.”
“Destroy?” Zuko repeats. “Well, they wouldn’t surrender.”
“Zuko.” Iroh so rarely drops Zuko’s title from his address, that it immediately causes anxiety to rise in his stomach. “They did surrender.”
“What?” Zuko feels hot around his ears. “If they surrendered -- what, at the last invasion?”
“The first one,” Iroh admits sadly.
“But -” Zuko stands, shakily and begins to pace. “If that’s true, then the invasion of 16 AC--”
“Unlawful,” Iroh confirms.
“And the second major invasion, 21 AC?”
Zuko spins on his heel and drags his hands along his bare scalp. “25 AC? 30, 35?”
“The last one.” Zuko licks his lip and frowns, turning to look at his uncle, trying not to be ill. “The last one, Uncle, in 41 -- not even seven years ago - that was the last one…. Right?” He’s in doubt of everything now.
To fight an enemy that has surrendered seems to be beyond dishonorable.
“Correct.” Iroh watches him warily. “They had … succeeded in your grandfather’s quest.”
“Which was -- to find the Avatar? To take something?” Zuko demands, and for a moment Iroh says nothing. “Answer me!” He shouts, and for a moment he swears he sees the candles flicker.
But -- no. That’s his imagination, or it’s his uncle growing upset with his insolence.
Zuko has not been able to bend fire since the Agni Kai.
“The quest to … destroy the last Waterbender of the south,” Iroh admits, and Zuko feels a horrific tug, somewhere in his spine, behind his stomach.
He tilts to the side, feeling cold all at once. “What?” He asks.
The world seems to dim around him, and he sees his uncle stand and cross the room to him.
“Prince Zuko, calm down,” his uncle pleads, “You need to calm down.”
His eye is screaming in pain again -- but not his eye. His entire body is on fire, and Zuko gasps for breath, fury beating in every inch of his body.
“Breathe.” Iroh rubs his shoulder, and Zuko focuses on that physical point. His breathing slows. “Breathe in, Prince Zuko, in, then out. Calm yourself.”
After he’s settled and the world looks clearer again, Iroh gets Zuko back on a cushion and hands him a teacup. “Drink,” is the only order he’s given, and Zuko does so.
Zuko figures that he’d nearly fainted, like he had when he was a sick child. He doesn’t want to dwell on it.
But, his mind can’t escape the questions, and as soon as he can, he returns to them.
“How did they insure w-wiping out the Waterbenders?”
“I do not know if now is the best time to-”
“There won’t be a best time,” Zuko says dully. “How did they do it.”
“They removed any who showed the promise of bending, or who had strong parents,” Iroh says carefully. “And … executed them.”
“Execution.” Zuko scoffs, if only so he won’t spit. “Execution implies they did something wrong. But they didn’t … did they? The stories about the attempts on Azulon’s life. The stories about the raids on the colonies. They’re fake, aren’t they?”
Iroh says nothing.
“And the Air Nomads. Agni!” He curses suddenly, tugging at his phoenix tail. “It’s in their name . They were peaceful, weren’t they? And how many times did they surrender?”
Another thought occurs to him. “How many children?”
“How. Many. Children.”
The Great Sacrifice. It had been taught to him and Azula as just that: a voluntary sacrifice. The men and women of the Fire Nation, giving up their children to insure peace and prosperity for their people.
But that was wrong.
It was all so - wrong.
Iroh doesn’t answer, which speaks volumes of the truth.
“Why didn’t I die?” Zuko asks, something painful slipping into place. “The Great Sacrifice was nearly sixteen years ago. Around the time that I was born -- why didn’t I die?”
“There were records of your birth,” Iroh says carefully, “Your father and grandfather did not believe you were in danger of being--”
“Stop lying to me!” Zuko seethes, the world glowing strangely again. “Tell me the truth -- why didn’t I die? Any child under three months, that was the decision--”
“I stopped them,” Iroh admits at last, looking, for once, every one of his years. His shoulders sag. “After I lost my beloved Lu Ten, I could not bear the thought of your mother--”
“Didn’t you care before then?’
Iroh looks up, stricken, “Of course I did, but then, I was the Dragon-”
“Of the West.” Zuko presses his palms to the table and shakes his head, glaring out of the only eye he can see from. “Why didn’t you care before? Why was it only me that you cared about? What about all the other children that died?” He’s shouting now. “Where is the honor in murdering children?”
The sea roils underneath them, and Zuko swears he can feel every wave that crashes into their ship. “Where is their justice?” Zuko asks faintly.
Iroh sets his jaw. “Prince Zuko, I-”
“Yeah, yeah. This conversation is better for another time.” Zuko leaps to his feet and stalks to the door. “Goodnight, General Iroh.”
He hears the sharp intake of breath from his uncle as he slams the door, and he feels a sick surge of satisfaction that he was able to hurt Iroh -- someone who had apparently had a hand in hurting so many, innocent lives at that -- with something as simple as a different name.
The feeling does not last.
Zuko reaches his chambers and sits in the dark, seething in what he knows to be righteous fury.
Seething, until his breath catches and he buries his face in his hands and cries angrily for children he never met, children who had died even though someone as worthless as him got to live. Crying doesn’t last either: Zuko switches to ferocious firebending forms, screaming to the empty room when no fire emerges from his feet or hands or mouth.
All he can see are nameless children in front of him whenever he moves to a new form, children’s faces, brown and pale and small and round and long and young, so young, too young, and he feels the heat, smells it, sees it all over again, and it’s like the fire won’t come.
After fifteen minutes of raging and despairing in equal measure, Zuko stands and grabs the knife from his desk, the Earth Kingdom knife that his uncle had given him so proudly, so hopefully, all those years before.
The door opens as Zuko raises the blade.
“Prince Zuko, no !” Iroh shouts in obvious panic, rushing forward.
But he moves too slowly, Zuko slides the blade across his target viciously.
The phoenix tail flutters to the floor.
As Iroh stares at him in shock that looks painfully relieved but also horrified, Zuko hurls the blade at his uncle’s feet.
“I don’t need either of those anymore,” he snaps, pushing past his uncle without another glance at him. “Or you, for that matter.”
Now that he avoids his uncle, Zuko has no one on the ship he can talk to. He buries himself further in the scrolls he was meant to be studying all along, and tries to piece together history from the language of those they’d conquered or defeated.
A month after his fight with Iroh, Zuko reads a story about an advisor to Azulon who had counseled him by saying “there are hard decisions in war, my Lord, and honor is not always possible,” only to be publicly burned for thinking that any decision made by the Fire Lord could not be honorable.
His fingers trace his scar for hours after he reads that story, and he grows so weary of the split in his head -- was he honorable? Or dishonorable? Had he shamed his father, or defended their people? -- that he climbs into bed hours early, worn down to his core by the thought that maybe the honor he so desperately wanted to be returned was out of his grasp for reasons that were entirely not his fault.
He doesn’t get out of bed the next morning.
Or the next. Or the one after.
Iroh comes and pleads with him once for half an hour to sit up, to go outside, to eat or drink or do anything besides barely maintain enough nutrients to stay alive, but Zuko closes his eyes and sinks further into his stupor.
He does not emerge from this strange sickness of the spirit for nearly two months; only when the ship docks and the call goes out that they are at land does he shake himself slightly and dress slowly.
If his appearance draws attention from the guards, they say nothing. He’s abandoned his robes, the pins that mark him as royalty, banished or not. He wears simple leggings and a dark red tunic with a belt that holds his dao. His hair has grown in around his scalp, three months worth of it, and Zuko entertains the thought sometimes that it might eventually be long enough to hide his scar.
A foolish thought: nothing could hide how horrific it is. How it marks him as weak, pathetic.
Iroh greets him calmly at the gangplank as though he hasn’t been in his room for nearly three months. He isn’t even sure why they’re at this island.
“You might be wondering why we are here,” Iroh says. Zuko doesn’t even tilt his head to acknowledge the statement, even if it’s true.
Part of him is ashamed to ignore an elder, one who has always been kind and respectful to him. Then he thinks of the visions that come to him at times, the images of children’s bodies in snow, and he tucks that shame away to fester under all the other layers of shame that compose the core of who he is.
“I will tell you, of course, after we spend an afternoon in meditative relaxation.” Iroh seems unbothered by his lack of response. “Follow me, nephew.”
Zuko walks behind Iroh, hands tucked behind his back as they walk off the gangplank and onto a dock that seems to be made of earth and stone. Perhaps an old Earth Kingdom outpost, Zuko thinks distantly as they walk towards a path set in the hills. Maybe they’re --
He tilts his head back and studies the mountainous terrain, a series of beautiful, odd structures catching his eye.
“What are those buildings?” He asks, his voice rustier than normal from disuse.
“That is the Eastern Air Temple,” Iroh says casually, walking up the path. “I thank you for your time,” he adds to their guards who line the entrance to the path, bowing respectfully to all. “But this is a conversation my nephew and I should have alone.”
“Of course, Master Iroh.”
Zuko frowns at the man who’d spoken: none of their attendants ever address Iroh as General, which has always struck him as odd. He doesn’t expect Iroh to comment on the oddity as they climb the path up through the mountainside -- he doesn’t expect his uncle to say much of anything, though, given the last few months.
But, once they’ve settled in a clearing and Iroh has set up for tea, the pot boiling merrily away, Iroh asks him, “Have you noticed anything about the men and women on the ship, Prince Zuko?”
He almost doesn’t respond, still debating in his head whether or not it’s worth it. “Most used to work for us on Ember Island…” Zuko studies the tea cup Iroh passes him before adding, “They … aren’t Fire Nation. At least. I don’t think most of them are.”
“Some are,” Iroh says calmly, pouring Zuko’s tea. He can’t help the instinctive bow of thanks - it’s too ingrained in him to be overcome by his petulant anger at his uncle. “But most are not.”
“What if I told you that the people working on our ship answered to a call higher than that of the Fire Lord?”
Zuko splutters the small sip of tea he’d managed while his uncle spoke. “Wh-what -- that’s treason, uncle!”
“Is it?” Iroh hums and blows some steam from his tea. “I suppose so.” His expression grows serious as he watches Zuko’s hands clench and unclench. “Nephew, there are parts to my story I have not yet told you that I should now. It is why I have brought you here -- what I am about to tell you might cause further harm to your spirit, and you may need guidance when you learn the whole truth.”
“What can mountains offer as guidance?” Zuko grumbles. He wishes he was still in his bed. He wishes he was back at home. He wishes his mother was here. Or even Azula.
“Not the mountains. The temples. The Eastern Air Temple was thought to be the most spiritual to the Air Nomads who once inhabited it and others like it.”
“Before they were killed,” Zuko says dully.
His eye hurts. It always hurts, now.
“Before they were killed.”
Iroh is silent for a moment, and Zuko listens to the way wind plays through the trees. There are birds to the south, and sunlight catches on leaves here and there, a generally golden tone warming the clearing. It’s pretty. And his eye still hurts.
“Whose authority is higher than the Fire Lord?” Zuko asks, his curiosity winding back to that point.
“They are part of an organization called … the White Lotus.” Iroh stops and looks at him meaningfully, to the point where Zuko wracks his memory for any recollection of the name. He doesn’t find one. The blank must show on his face because Iroh simply continues.
“I have been aware of the White Lotus since … oh, ten years after the destruction of the Air Nomads, ten years after Sozin’s Comet.” Iroh casts his gaze down at the ground. “While I did not participate in their destruction directly as I was a young man -- only slightly older than yourself at the time -- I regret to say that I did not stand in the way of their destruction.
“My complicity caused me great spiritual anguish. Similar to what you have been feeling these past few years, although my despair was greatly earned.”
“Mine was too,” Zuko mutters, his fingers tracing the edge of his scar.
“Do not think that.” Iroh shakes his head. “One of my greatest failures in the last fifteen years has been allowing you to think such a thing. And, my failures before your birth -- they … haunt me to this day.”
Iroh bows his head again and falls silent once more. Zuko decides on patience this time -- his curiosity burns at him, but it’s so peaceful here, and in all honesty, despite his lingering anger at his uncle, he has missed talking to Uncle Iroh. Zuko’s been terribly lonely the last few months, even more so than normal.
He wonders if he’ll ever find anyone else he can talk to. A silly thought: no one would want to talk to him, especially not his own age. His friends at the palace had been few and far between, and generally they were more attached to Azula than Zuko: Mai had been funny enough, and Ty Lee had been … weird to the point of interesting, but they were Azula’s friends.
Zuko had his sister, his mother, his uncle … and that was it. And now, the only one he has is Uncle.
Swallowing his regret, Zuko sees that Uncle is out of tea, and he grabs the pot and clumsily pours him some more, awkwardly handing him the cup.
“Thank you, nephew.” Iroh’s eyes are still lost, but at least he’s smiling. “You have always been so kind.”
“Kindness isn’t a virtue,” Zuko mutters, setting the pot back down.
“Another regret of mine.” Iroh stares at Zuko until he makes eye contact, which causes him to wince slightly. “Kindness is your greatest strength, Zuko. Your true power.”
You need more power, Azula’s taunting, girlish voice comes through his memory, and Zuko tries to ignore it here in the present.
“Lu Ten was born a year before the Avatar was killed.” Iroh rubs his beard. “A group of soldiers got lucky on the road -- the boy was without his protector, a truly random moment. Avatar Tenzin was killed in the fight, and the cycle continued to the Water Tribe. Tenzin was … fifteen years old. A kind boy, if the stories are true. Funny -- he enjoyed pranks and --”
Zuko’s throat feels oddly tight. A strange taste fills his mouth and he frowns, muttering, “Lychee nuts?” at the sensory memory that comes out of nowhere.
“As a vegetarian, he probably did love them.” Iroh’s gaze is assessing now, and Zuko drinks tea to avoid eye contact, and to clear out the bizarre, random taste from his mouth.
“The White Lotus … was concerned with the death of the young Avatar. But, it was nearly impossible to protect the new Avatar -- they died in the raids on the Southern Water Tribe. They were … ten years old. None present at the massacre even knew which child was the Avatar. The success of the raid was only known when the White Lotus witnessed the signal that the Avatar spirit had passed on to its next vessel.”
“You talk about the White Lotus as though you know them,” Zuko points out, frowning. “And how would they know so much about the Avatar?”
“The White Lotus exists to serve the Avatar, and all four nations.” Iroh weighs his next words heavily. “And after I learned of the massacre of the Water Tribe, I … returned to the army and led my father’s forces -- but, as a secret member of the White Lotus.”
Zuko spills the rest of his tea in his lap in his shock. “You served the Avatar?”
“I still serve the Avatar.”
He splutters, jumping to his feet and tearing at his short hair. “What? How could you betray me like this--”
“Sit down, Prince Zuko. Please. Allow me to finish my story before you turn me in for treason.”
Judging by the magnificent eye roll Iroh lays out, he doesn’t think Zuko actually would.
Honestly, Zuko doesn’t even think that he would, or could.
They’re both traitors to the Fire Nation, he decides, hated by the Fire Lord. One who is unwanted, and one who did not want.
“As I was saying,” Uncle speaks primly, shooting Zuko a look. Zuko fights the urge to roll his eyes, even as latent distrust and anger burns under the surface of his skin. “I led my father’s troops, and we worked to attack the stronghold of Ba Sing Se. It took years to get there … perhaps because I was … getting in the way here or there.”
Zuko bites his tongue; Iroh appears to overlook the emotions warring on Zuko’s scarred face.
“The Avatar of the Earth Kingdom was known at last, around her fourteenth birthday, but only to those in the White Lotus. I met her a handful of times as we worked to limit casualties on the front lines on both sides of the war. Six hundred days we ‘tried’ to enter the city -- and for six hundred days we failed --
“Until, a Fire Nation patrol spotted the Avatar helping refugees escape the city. She was captured and brought before a war council.” Iroh closes his eyes, and his words weigh heavily around Zuko’s neck. “My Lu Ten … died a week before her capture, from an infection of a wound. He died slowly, and my spirit crumbled in his suffering. I left the front. And then, they captured her.”
Zuko can’t hear the wind anymore; it’s as though the whole world has gone silent while listening to Iroh speak.
“Her name was Jin.” A tear slips down Iroh’s bearded cheek. “She was very stubborn, very strong, and very kind. She loved chocolate, and had a sharp tongue. You would have liked her.”
“How old was she?” Zuko asks. The stories of the last Avatar before the Great Sacrifice had said she’d required three dozen chains around her arms to contain her -- the stories spoke of her terrifying strength and brute willingness to prevent her people from moving forward under the protection of the Fire Nation.
Stories lie. Zuko knows that now.
“Jin was sixteen years old when she offered her life for the safety of her people.” Iroh shakes his head, still grieving. “And as they planned her execution, I returned to Ember Island to protect you and your mother from the cruel plot I had learned of, the plot headed by my brother, Ozai.”
“But this was sixteen years ago,” Zuko’s mind is tripping over itself now as he struggles to put the pieces together.
“Exactly sixteen years ago, tomorrow.” Iroh folds his hand and watches Zuko’s expression.
Tomorrow is Zuko’s sixteenth birthday.
Something stirs under the chaos in his mind, but he pushes it away.
“But all this time, I’ve been - I’ve been running around the world, trying to find the Avatar, trying to please my father -- and you’ve been working for them all along?”
“There is one more piece I must explain--”
“No!” Zuko shouts, startling birds from the nearby trees. “The only thing you need to explain is how you could have lied to me -- have you been hiding them? This wild chase for my honor — all for nothing! What else have you been keeping from me?”
Iroh looks sadder than he’s ever seen him. “You mistake me, Prince Zuko.”
Zuko grits his teeth, balling his hands into fist once more. “I’ve done that before, Uncle. I won’t do it again. So -- tell me where the Avatar is.”
“Here,” Iroh says simply.
Zuko glances around the clearing wildly, staring at the temples in the distance. “There?” he asks, pointing at them vehemently. “At the Air Temple — are they hiding there?”
“The Avatar is not hiding at all.” Iroh glances over Zuko’s shoulder, and his expression lifts momentarily. “Ah. Hello, old friend.”
“Fancy a game of pai sho?” An unfamiliar voice answers.
Zuko leaps to stand between Iroh and the stranger, who wears an orange robe, hood obscuring his face. The man is taller than him, but not solid; his feet are bare, and Zuko can just make out a strange tattoo on each foot under a coating of dirt.
“I take it your uncle hasn’t told you about me,” the man says genially, but Zuko doesn’t relax his stance. “Or about yourself?”
“What is he talking about?” Zuko asks wildly. “Uncle?”
“Prince Zuko.” Iroh sighs as he stands, and he bows to the newcomer. “May I introduce you to my dear friend, who I’ve been working with for many years now.”
“To protect the Avatar,” Zuko sneers. “To keep me from my home.”
“Uh-oh.” The man laughs and lowers his good at last — Zuko gawks at the very apparent, blue tattoo that stretches down his shaved head. “It seems we have a lot to talk about.”
“You’re — you’re an Air Nomad.” Zuko’s good eye widens, and then he finds himself fully bowing, his ears burning in embarrassment. “I did not know.”
A master Airbender, given his tattoos: a fierce warrior, if he’s survived this long. Zuko might not have been raised to think highly of the Air Nomads, but he’s learned well these past two years. And this man, even if he is an adversary, deserves respect.
“Stand, friend.” The man walks forward and offers Zuko a hand; he eyes it warily before he realizes the older man — almost as old as Iroh — is offering him help to his feet.
He takes it, but the man pulls too hard, his feet taking off from the ground.
Stranger still, he takes Zuko with him.
“What?” Zuko yelps as the man lets go of him, and he spins, kicking his feet to catch something, anything: he catches on a current of air, and stays aloft for far longer than he should.
“What?” Zuko repeats, mouth hanging open as he stares fifteen feet over to Iroh:
Because that’s how far he flew. Fifteen. Feet. Away. “How? What?"
“Master Aang,” Iroh scolds. “We should tell him before you frighten him more.”
The man — Aang — grins unapologetically. “I think the truth comes easier when it follows a natural question.”
“Huh?” Zuko looks around. “What just—“
“You were airbending,” Aang says calmly. “And not for the first time.”
“But...but…” Zuko splitters. “I’m a - I’m a firebender.”
“Yes you are,” Iroh confirms.
“And,” Aang adds, tilting his head. “You’re also an Airbender.”
His grey eyes twinkle, an effect Zuko has never seen in a person before.
“No, that’s impossible.” Zuko shakes his head. “If that were true — I -I would be—“
The truth clicks into place and the world whirs around him, painful bright and too too loud. The wind starts to howl around him, and Zuko feels like choking on his fear --
And make it stop why won’t it stop what is happening to him —
“We should have told you a long time ago.” Iroh walks towards him, clearly uncaring or the hurricane of dirt and air whipping around Zuko. “But it was unsafe to remove you from the Capitol without suspicion.”
“You are the Avatar,” the Air Nomad says, standing shoulder to shoulder with Iroh. “And we are going to help you.”
Zuko claps his hands over his ears, the way Azula always did when she was too upset to think or breathe, and he falls to his knees, breathing ragged.
“No,” he moans, “no, no—“
“Your quest is over.” A hand goes to his shoulder — tattooed, strong. The contact shocks him, and the tornado that’s kicked up around him settles and returns to the earth. Zuko gasps for breath, his entire body trembling in fear and realization and doubt and anger.
But, Aang's face is kind, open. No hint of deception.
“You have found the one destined to be the Avatar, master of all four elements. And now, it is time to become him.”
Two Years Later
“Why are we out here, anyway?” Katara groans and leans her face against the side of the umiak. Her brother tries to spear another fish and nearly falls over the side. “It’s not like you even let me help.”
“Katara.” Sokka sighs and puts his hands on his hips, rubbing his very pathetic excuse for facial hair. “I’ve told you before, Gran-Gran--”
“Doesn’t trust you to remember to tie up the boat?” Katara smirks at her brother, who grumbles under his breath at her.
“No. She doesn’t trust you to not run off if you’re left alone--”
“I’m sixteen years old, Sokka! That was one time, four years ago!”
“One time where you were gone for almost a whole month!” The boat rocks as Sokka gets more agitated. “Katara, you disappearing nearly killed her.”
She crosses her arms and glares over the side of the boat, out towards the towering icebergs. “She’s fine.” She pretends her stomach doesn’t roil at the thought of hurting Gran-Gran, intentionally or not. “She’s fine now, at least. And I won’t run off again!”
“Look. Katara.” Sokka puts a hand over hers. “The village is finally rebuilding itself; soon, they’re probably going to ask one of us to be chief, if Dad doesn’t come home. We have to be… more -”
“Responsible?” Katara groans and covers her eyes. “Spirits. When did you become the mature one?”
“I’ve been much more mature than you for many, many years now.” Sokka sighs dramatically and trails his hands in the water; Katara rolls her eyes and stares back towards the ice.
Which is how she doesn’t see the looming threat.
Sokka reaches farther into the icy sea and then slaps a handful of freezing cold water into her face. Katara shrieks and splutters, wiping her face desperately, the water already freezing on the fur that lines her hood.
“Jackass!” She shouts, half-laughing already. “Oh, you are gonna get it!”
Twisting her hands quickly, Katara manages to tug a small amount of water from the sea and pulls her arms through the air, making the makeshift whip fly towards her brother -- it drenches him from head to toe.
“Hey!” Sokka swats at the water seeping into his wolf-tail. “Not fair! No magic water!”
“You mean … this magic water?” Katara contorts her hand and lifts them, cackling as Sokka splutters and pretends to surrender by waving a pelt of an arctic fox. “You will be destroyed !”
“No mercy!” She shouts, pulling up sheets of water around the boat, straining slightly at the effort. “No-”
“No, Katara , look !”
The water fidgets in her grasp and it falls out of her control as she spins and gasps, staring up at the sky where Sokka’s pointing.
Someone is flying through the clouds.
“Oh!” She claps her hands to her mouth when she realizes that they aren’t flying.
They’re falling .
“Oh, oh no! Sokka - we need to go--”
They each grab a paddle and move desperately through the ice sheets that float on the water. As they paddle, the figure nears the water; right before they hit the waves, a strange white light consumes them, and Sokka shouts “ what the-- ?” in confusion as the light seems to spread through the dark water before vanishing.
“We have to help them!” Katara shouts to her brother.
“Yeah, I’m getting that!”
A few times, they ram into obstacles, both grunting at the force that ricochets up their forearms. But, five minutes later, they manage to get to the vicinity of the crash; Sokka nearly tips the umiak over as he stands, shielding his eyes against the sun.
“Where did he go?”
“No clue.” Katara scans the water desperately: he’d been wearing bright red. He shouldn’t be hard to find --
She does not think about where he might be from, if he was wearing red. Anyone who needs her help, will get her help. This is who she is.
“Besides, how do you know that wasn't a girl?”
“Because whatever he was doing up there, it was stupid.” Sokka snorts and then looks the other direction, still shielding his eyes. “A girl wouldn’t be that stupid.”
“Gee, how flattering.” Katara scowls at Sokka. “Girls can be stupid too!”
“This is not the time for a conversation about how I’m a sexist idiot, okay? Someone’s probably drowning, or already drowned--”
“Ugh!” Katara raises her hand and pushes into the water, searching out for it in her bending, carving through the currents, seeking the tide, trying to find what doesn’t belong --
And there he is.
“Katara, what are you--”
She doesn’t pause in pulling her outer layer, a fur-lined parka, off, and she certainly doesn’t hesitate despite Sokka screaming at her to slow down.
Katara dives into the water, praying to La that she doesn’t freeze to death before she reaches the fallen man. Spinning an orb of water around her head, Katara scans the water desperately, seeking out the stranger.
When she spots him, dozens of yard ahead, she half-swims, half-bends her way to his side. He’s taller than she is, much taller, but she wraps arms of water around him, and then shoves her hand out, pushing furiously to propel them towards the nearest ice shelf. Katara twists her legs when she sees her destination, creating enough momentum to eject them forcefully out of the freezing water and onto the ice shelf.
“P-p-p-parka!” She wheezes loudly enough for Sokka to hear, stammering through her freezing lips when she sees that her brother has managed to follow them to the ice shelf.
“You’re crazy -”
“P-parka!” She repeats stubbornly, shoving the man into the recovery position, his right side up towards the sun. “And you,” she snaps to the unconscious man, “B-b-breathe!”
“How was he flying?” Sokka asks warily, coming forward with the parka and a few blankets from the umiak. “That wasn’t natural.”
“Maybe he’s a bender?” Katara asks, shrugging, even though that’s impossible: the airbenders were slaughtered years ago before the first raids on the South.
Thank the spirits, the man still has a pulse, even if it’s sluggish. She uses her teeth to rip a glove off and sets her own, admittedly frozen, fingers to his forehead, testing his body temperature.
He’s burning hot.
“He already has a fever.” Katara’s throat tightens. “We have to get him back to the vill-”
She’s interrupted by a ferocious bout of coughing; the man is definitely alive, and he’s expelling saltwater onto the ice shelf.
Sokka crouches in front of the guy and starts to speak calmly. “You’re near the South Pole,” he tells the man, who seems to be around Sokka’s own age. “You fell out of the sky. You’ll have to share with us how that happened, but you’re safe. We’re from the Water Tribe, and my sister pulled you out of the ocean after you crashed.”
“W-water T---?” The man asks hoarsely, his voice thick with water and probably shock.
“We have to find a way to warm you up,” Katara says, looking around for some kind of sign.
However, the man starts to chuckle.
“What’s so funny, buddy?” Sokka half-grins at him, and the man twists to face him -- Katara’s bracing his back, has been since she pushed him into the recovery position, so she can’t see his face.
Sokka can; and, she sees her brother pale in sudden horror when the man looks up.
“Your face -” Sokka hisses.
The man groans, and Katara’s stomach tightens, immediately assuming he’s been maimed by his fall, cut by the water as he fell into its treacherous grasp.
“I can fix that,” she says quickly, rolling the man to face her and bracing his head in her lap, turning to pull water into her hand from sea. “I can--”
She looks down. Her eyes widen in recognition.
The left side of his handsome face is scarred by what must have been a horrific burn; but, every detail is what she remembers from her journey through the Spirit Wilds four years ago.
“It’s you,” Katara whispers, the water falling from her hand. The young man’s eyes open, but she doesn’t see recognition there -- only that strange, beautiful golden color she’s never been able to forget. “It’s really you-”
“Y-y-you’re s-so … pretty,” the stranger gasps out.
Sokka groans in feigned irritation, and Katara’s cheeks feel suddenly warm.
And then, the boy who fell from the sky retches, and Katara and Sokka barely get him on his side in time before what looks like half of the ocean leaves his body.