Chapter 1: Prologue: Dishonor
The only sounds on the boat were the rhythmic splash of the oars slipping in and out of the water and the quiet huffs of the soldier rowing. The current taking them away from the island of the Sun Warriors was strong, and there wasn’t as much need to row hard as there had been when they arrived earlier that day.
Which was good, because Zuko couldn’t have helped this time around. His hands were heavily bandaged, the burns still hurting even after the ointment provided by the Sun Warrior healer. He kept his gaze fixed on his hands. He couldn’t bear to look up at the pity and compassion in his Uncle’s gaze.
The Eternal Flame had burned him. He’d tried to take it, reverent and hopeful, and it had burned him . The chief and the healers had examined him and conferred in quiet voices. Their faces were grave and sad as they talked to Uncle. But Zuko didn’t need to see their faces or hear what they said. He already knew .
He’d lost his fire.
Even after more than two years traveling around the world, searching for the Avatar in vain; even after hours uselessly meditating in front of unresponsive candles; even after going through the motions of firebending drills at dawn, at high noon, at dusk; even though he hadn’t been able to produce a single lick of flame since the Agni Kai—somehow, he’d still had hope. Against all evidence and logic, he’d still told himself that it was just a temporary block, as Uncle Iroh kept saying. He’d get his bending back one day. He’d find the Avatar, capture him and bring him back in chains. Father would welcome him back home, restore his honor, give him his rightful place on the throne.
All lies. Even if he somehow succeeded where all others had failed and found the Avatar, how would he defeat a Master of all four elements without even one? And even if he did, would Father ever accept a non-bender as Crown Prince of the Fire Nation?
His fire, his honor, and his home had been lost to him the moment he spoke out at the War Council. The moment he didn’t fight at the Agni Kai, like a cowardly child.
Uncle Iroh wisely kept quiet as they returned to the ship, anchored at a secluded bay near the Western Air Temple. Zuko shut himself away in his room and went to bed. He didn’t sleep.
“Prince Zuko, you need to eat something,” Uncle called out from the other side of the door.
The room was dark. Zuko hadn’t even bothered to light a candle. He didn’t answer, hoping Uncle would walk away as he had before. What time was it? How many days had passed? He couldn’t say.
Iroh opened the door and entered with a tray of steaming rice porridge and tea.
“Please eat something,” he pleaded.
Zuko got up stiffly and forced himself to eat. He avoided Uncle’s worried gaze. Uncle hesitated, then sighed.
“My nephew… I know this is a hard and desperate time for you. But from my own experience, I can say that it is at our lowest point when we’re open to the greatest changes. You can choose your own destiny. You can leave the path others determined for you and take your own. Please know that whatever you choose, I will be here to support you.”
Zuko looked up at his uncle’s face for just a moment. He couldn’t stand to be looked at with such love, it was — he didn’t deserve it. He was a failure. The worst of dishonors on his family. If Father had ever wanted him back, he would never accept him now. Never look at him the way Uncle did.
Uncle said, very carefully: “Fire is the element of power. It can be ignited by anger, yes, but also passion, will, drive… it is so much harder to produce when one is feeling powerless and hopeless. It is… only natural.”
It still felt like a punch to the gut. Zuko wanted to get angry, smash the bowl against the wall, scream at his uncle. But he only felt more tired than ever. Silently, he went back to bed.
“Why don’t you go outside? Get some air. Go for a walk,” Uncle said, his voice gentle.
Zuko turned his back to him. “Later,” he said.
He couldn’t sleep that night either, and he decided to take up his uncle’s advice. He took his swords — he never went anywhere without them now — and some rope, and made the long trek uphill, to the edge of the cliff. He lowered himself to the empty cavernous spaces of the Western Air Temple.
The full moon shone bright on the upside down spires. The wind blowing through the chambers sounded like a melancholic song — a hundred voices recalling a home long gone.
The tears slipped as he fell to his knees. The first time he was here, back when he’d first been banished, he vowed to search the whole world for the Avatar. But even in that moment, as he’d said the words, they sounded hollow to him. Like he’d always known he was meant to fail.
He cried until he felt numb and hollow, and the tears stopped coming. He approached a fountain, still working after all these years, and washed his face. He got up mechanically, picked a direction at random, and walked.
Wandering through dusty, empty hallways, Zuko wondered what it had been like, back when the nuns had lived here. What their daily lives had looked like. Their games, their festivals, their music. In all his time searching for any clues of the Avatar’s whereabouts, he’d never seen any information on the culture of the Air Nomads.
His sources either didn’t know or didn’t care. His tutors at the palace hadn’t taught them either, too focused on making them memorize dates of battles and names of strategies.
He walked the cracked and dusty halls until dawn lightened up the sky. Then he climbed back to the edge of the cliff and looked at the ship waiting for him in the distance.
He didn’t want to go back. On the ship, he was a banished prince with a doomed mission. A coward who lost his bending and wouldn’t get it back. A prince without honor, without hope, undeserving of his title. He might as well be imprisoned in the Boiling Rock for the rest of his life, never to be free.
He looked at the knife his uncle had gifted him, at the sheer drop before him. His poor uncle deserved the chance to go back home, to not be dragged down by Zuko and his stain on the family name.
He was taken over by a self-destructive impulse — to plunge the knife into his own chest, or jump off the cliff — but instead he cut off his phoenix tail and let it fall to the ground.
Uncle had told him to choose his own path. So he did. Sheathing the knife, he took a last look at the ship, his title, his home, his life — and he ran away.
Chapter 2: The Old Man
Zuko gets lost in the Earth Kingdom and finds (or is found by) a mysterious old man.
Again, many thanks to my sister and Beep for beta-reading, and to Sunny for the awesome playlist.
By the time he realized that he probably should have planned his escape a little better, he was already much too far away. In a small fishing village on the islands, he exchanged his fine silk tunic for a rough cotton one and a trip to the mainland.
He reached the coast of the Earth Kingdom and ran like the fury of Agni was upon him. In a week, his clothes were stained and torn. He ran out of coins and things to trade not long after that.
By the second week, he was stealing clothes, food and coins to survive. He barely registered the names of the places he passed through, intent on getting away, to somewhere he would never be found.
For the first time in his life, he had nowhere to go, no one to tell him what to do, no one setting the rules for him. It was exhilarating, and terrifying. Sometimes in a fork in the road he chose the prettiest path. Sometimes he chose the most desolate. He found in himself the urge to keep going just to look at what awaited him around the next bend, in the next town. A part of him was tempted to retrace his steps and take the other path, but he never allowed himself to look back.
By the position of the sun, he knew he was heading east, further inland of the Earth Kingdom. He knew no more than that.
Some days a sense of panic started to creep in, as he realized he was becoming more and more lost, his situation ever more desperate.
It might be for the best if I died here , he thought. But I still haven’t seen the end of this road .
And he kept going, growing ever more lost and hungry.
The noon sun was shining down mercilessly on the crowded market street where Zuko was begging from a corner in the shade. The three copper pieces inside his straw hat clinked sadly as he held it out for passersby.
A middle-aged man in well-tailored robes distractedly held out a handful of coins, but when he looked at Zuko he curled his lip in distaste, tightened his grip on the coins, and hurried on his way. Zuko grimaced at the man’s back.
He didn’t notice the old man until he had already put out a straw mat and sat down heavily on it. Right next to Zuko. The old man responded to Zuko’s glare with a polite smile and pointed at Zuko’s coins.
“You’ll get more coins if you look people in the eyes and use your voice to ask—makes it harder to say no,” the old man said casually as he put down a long wooden staff and rummaged through an old rucksack.
The old man gave him a searching look, taking in his ragged and dirty clothes, the dao swords behind his back, and a sack of pilfered fruit next to him.
Noticing this, Zuko’s eyes darted by instinct to a group of guards at the edge of the market. As soon as he looked back at the old man, he realized that might as well have been an admission of guilt.
But the old man just smiled at him encouragingly. “For a young, able-bodied boy like you, it won’t be hard to find employment for a day or two. There’s always a need for farm hands, and even the merchants need help moving boxes and setting up their stalls.”
Zuko scoffed at this and looked away. There weren’t any other available spots in the shade around the area he could move to.
“Here, help an old man, would you?” The man reached into a pocket in his robe and pulled out a string of copper pieces. “See that stall with the steamed buns? Buy two vegetable, two meat, and then get some tea from the vendor and bring it back here. It’s too hot and my knees are tired and weak. You can keep the change.”
“I’m not your servant,” Zuko grumbled, without taking the money.
“Of course not. You’re a boy doing a favor for an old man.” He pressed the money into Zuko’s hand.
Zuko was halfway to the bun stall when he realized he could just take the money and go. The old man wasn’t going to chase after him. He looked back at the old man, who was curiously looking around the market. He looked much older and thinner than Uncle Iroh, with a balding head covered in age spots, and thin and short white whiskers. He had a timid, sad air about him.
The crowd around Zuko pressed and jostled roughly. He sighed and made his way through the throng to do the man’s errands. It took all of his concentration to make his way back without spilling a drop of tea. He set it all down in front of the old man and pocketed the change.
“Thank you very much,” the man said gently. He took the tea and the vegetable buns and pressed the rest into Zuko’s hands. “You can’t work well if you’re hungry,” he said.
A part of Zuko wanted to throw the food in the man’s face and yell at him for daring to pity him. But when he smelled the freshly-steamed buns, he couldn’t resist taking a big bite.
After eating the buns, Zuko felt his limbs relax, settling into the wooden wall at his back. He turned to observe the old man, who was eating slowly and taking measured sips of the tea.
He didn’t look like the other beggars who populated the streets in the towns he’d passed through so far, his clothes clean and well-kept. The large rucksack, staff, and dusty boots spoke of a traveler.
“Are you from around here?” Zuko asked.
“Hmm. Not really. I’ve lived here and there. I’m just passing through today,” he replied.
“Where are you going?” Zuko asked, frowning. He didn’t think the old man could go far on foot. Traveling on foot was hard .
“I’ve a long journey ahead of me. I’m heading south, almost to Kyoshi Island.”
“I’m on a pilgrimage,” the man said.
Zuko thought of the pilgrimages back home, long solemn processions to Agni’s temple, straining to keep quiet, following the incense trails left by the Fire Sages. Maybe the Earth Kingdom had different pilgrimages—this one seemed more relaxed.
They lapsed into a companionable silence. There was no point in moving anywhere in the heat. After a while, Zuko started to clink the coins again, trying to look at people’s faces and mumbling, “Spare some coins? Please?” He was marginally more successful this time, perhaps because the presence of the old man, so close to him, made them more pitiable.
By the time the shadows were lengthening and the rhythm of the market finally slowed, Zuko was feeling good about the day. He’d had food and gotten some coins that would help him tomorrow. He was even considering the old man’s suggestion of helping some merchants put away their products in exchange for more coins.
“Help me up?” the old man asked as he stretched stiff, thin legs and tried to stand. Zuko carefully helped him.
“Thank you.” The old man smiled at him, and Zuko smiled back awkwardly.
“Take care, young man. The world’s a difficult place for those who have nothing. Keep being kind to those who need it,” the old man said.
“Yeah. Sure. Good luck with the, uh, pilgrimage.”
Leaning on his staff, the old man walked slowly away down the road out of town.
Zuko turned away to look at the stalls, gulping nervously. Asking for a job seemed marginally better than begging, but he wasn’t sure he would know what to do. He was approaching a kindly round-faced woman when movement on the periphery caught his eye.
After days following the same routine in various towns, he’d learned how to observe the crowd. There were distracted vendors and shoppers who wouldn’t miss a string of coins or a bag of rice until it was too late. He’d also learned how to identify people like himself, who were always watching and waiting for an opportunity. He’d noticed the trio of lounging men well before noon.
He frowned as they casually walked away from the market street—and then he realized who they were after.
He froze in his tracks and then hesitated. Who was he to intervene? It wasn’t like he hadn’t done similar things in the past few weeks. But— but he’d never rob an old man.
He quickly turned and hurried after them.
The old man was distracted, checking a yellowed map in the middle of a narrow alley. The robbers had him surrounded before he looked up.
“Hand me everything, old man,” the robber in front of him hissed, pointing a knife threateningly.
Silently, the man gave up his travel bag and a clinking bag of coins from inside his tunic. The robber looked at the coin purse greedily.
“We said everything .” Another robber stepped forward and yanked the staff from the old man’s grip.
And just like that, the old man stopped being peaceful. With a desperate lunge, he tried to get his staff back, crying out, “No! Not that! Not that!”
The robber kicked him to the ground and unsheathed a sharp-looking machete. Before he could even raise it, though, Zuko pounced on him. The robber went down and the old man scrambled to get his staff back. The other robbers took out their weapons and circled Zuko.
“You damn— beetle worm! You’ll regret this!” the first robber said, and went to stab him in the leg. Zuko deftly evaded the attack and slammed the pommel of his sword at the back of the robber’s neck. He fell to the ground, unconscious. The third robber turned and ran away swiftly.
Turning to the old man, who had stood up with some effort by leaning on the staff, he asked: “Are you hurt?”
The old man took careful stock of his body before answering: “Not badly.”
Zuko leaned down to recover the stolen money purse and travel bag, and held them out to the old man, who looked back at him in wonder. Zuko blinked.
The old man shouldered his travel bag and held the money in his hands, weighing something in his head.
“I’m Yang. What’s your name, young man?” he asked.
“Um. My name is, er, Li,” Zuko answered.
“Well, Li, I am extremely grateful for your help. You may have just saved my life. You've proved to be a very skilled fighter. Listen, would you like to travel with me, as my bodyguard? I will of course pay you well. Consider this your advance,” Yang said, and held the money purse out to Zuko.
Zuko just looked back at the old man, confused. “What? I didn’t— I didn’t do this for money. I was just concerned—”
“You’re very kind. I understand if you don’t want to travel, though. I am going very far. Please take the money. Let it help ease your strife as you have eased mine,” Yang said, pressing the money into Zuko’s hands.
Zuko looked at the contents. A year ago seeing that much gold and silver wouldn’t have fazed him. But now he could only think about how many meals that money could buy.
Before he could make a decision, though, they heard voices behind them, entering the alley. Zuko recognized the robber that had run away—and five new figures trailed after him.
“We need to go,” Zuko said, pocketing the purse and grabbing the old man’s arm, turning to run out of the alley.
Only to see another three men standing at the entrance, knives and swords drawn.
Zuko cursed as he prepared to draw his own swords. But he stopped at Yang’s insistent tug. “Up there,” Yang whispered, and Zuko turned his eyes up at the shingles above. The window ledge next to them was high enough to propel himself up there.
Yang nodded decisively when he looked back at him, and Zuko crouched down, making a step with his hands. Yang gripped his staff with religious fervor and stepped into Zuko’s hands, who used all his strength to propel the man upwards. Light as air, the man jumped up and grabbed the shingles, awkwardly getting onto the roof. Zuko followed a second later. Tugging on the old man to help him get up, they ran to the other side of the building and leapt a narrow alley onto the next roof.
They ran out of roofs when they got to the edge of the small town. Behind them they could hear the yells of the gang as they searched for them. A couple of nimble guys had also managed to climb the roof and were gaining ground. To Zuko’s surprise, the old man was light and quick, but he still wasn’t as fast as Zuko.
He looked around, desperately. There was a stream that separated the town proper from farmhouses and fields in the outskirts. There weren’t many places to hide there—only in the woods, further along the road that made its way east. A small bridge marked the path into the town. Zuko heard a clatter below him—a tired farmer was driving a cart pulled by an ostrich horse.
He turned to look at Yang. “Jump. I’ll catch you.”
“Wait, what are you—”
But Zuko had already jumped down, right onto the back of the ostrich horse. Two quick slashes severed the straps that attached the wagon to it. Behind him the farmer was shouting, but he ignored it. He held out his hands and Yang jumped, with good accuracy, into them. Zuko grabbed the animal’s reins and tried to direct it the opposite way. Three figures were already rounding the corner. The animal refused to move.
Then Yang’s hands slapped his away from the reins. “Li, the money I gave you. Take it out!” Yang instructed urgently.
Zuko frowned but obeyed.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll need to give it to the farmer. We’re taking his ostrich horse,” Yang said as he maneuvered the ostrich horse, gently coaxing it to move away from the cart.
Zuko was about to throw the purse to the farmer when he heard the cries from the robbers.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. He opened the pouch and threw the coins up in the air so they fell down on the ground like shiny drops of water.
As they sped away over the bridge and out of the village, he watched as the farmer and the robbers, as well as some passersby, all converged on the ground, fighting and struggling to pocket as many coins as they could.
Before he ran away, this scene would have been contemptible to him. But after feeling the insistent pangs of hunger and having nothing to eat, after days feeling the gnawing worry of where his next meal was going to come from, Zuko knew he would have been one of the people fighting for coins on the ground. And he could only feel a sad heaviness weighing him down.
Chapter 3: On-the-Road Training
Zuko makes a decision. He starts receiving an education he didn't exactly ask for.
As always, thanks to my betas, especially Beep, and to Sunny for the playlist (you can find the link in the first chapter).
“I take it you’re accepting the job, then?” Yang asked.
“You don’t have any more money to pay me,” Zuko grumbled.
“I have an emergency pouch,” Yang said, rummaging deep through his clothes. He offered up a smaller pouch than the first one. Zuko refused to take it, mostly because it’d been too deep in the man’s robes.
“It doesn’t look like a lot,” he countered.
“Because it’s emergency money,” Yang explained. “It’s still plenty of gold, though, if you’re interested.”
“What I’m interested in is a place to eat and rest,” he said.
They had gone as far as they could from the village before going into the woods to sleep. Feeling confident enough that they hadn’t been followed, they slowed the pace somewhat the next day.
“Don’t worry about that. In my day, I was a traveling merchant, and I travelled all over the Earth Kingdom—from the Si Wong Desert, to the beautiful city of Omashu, and even to Ba Sing Se, once,” Yang said.
“Only once?” Zuko asked idly.
“It’s not a good place,” Yang said darkly.
“I guess,” Zuko said, thinking painfully of Uncle Iroh.
“Anyway, my point was — I know how to get around with little or no money. You’ll see.”
“Sure,” Zuko said, dubious.
But Yang had been telling the truth. Unerringly, he found the cheapest inns with the fewest pests. He found places that sold food, or trees ripe with fruit, where to Zuko there had been nothing but a row of ramshackle houses or a grove with some trees. That night, he found them a caravan of merchants who gladly welcomed them and shared their food as they told stories by the fire.
It turned out Yang was a gifted storyteller, his soft voice taking on a poetic timbre when describing romantic scenes, a somber tone when telling of loss and separation, and even a comic, funny voice to tell crass jokes. By the end of the night, the people around the campfire were wiping tears from their eyes, whether in joy or sadness.
“Do you know Love Amongst the Dragons?” Zuko asked, eager to hear a familiar story.
“Hmmm… I’m not familiar with that story. Is it a Fire Nation tale?” Yang asked.
“I, uh, I guess. Maybe? For the dragons, you mean? I, er, heard it a long time ago,” Zuko answered, nervous.
“My grandmother used to tell all kinds of stories from all over the world,” an elderly traveller commented.
“Yes, my grandpa did too!” another piped up. “Stories he heard as a child. I wish I could remember more of them.”
“It was the Air Nomads who used to tell those stories,” the first traveller said, preparing a long pipe to smoke.
“Really?” asked Zuko, interested.
“Yes. Younger generations don’t know—but our grandparents and great-grandparents still remember. Air Nomads used to come to a village—and it was an instant festival. There’d be song, dance, and stories. Games for the children. The nuns and monks practiced rites to quell angry or restless spirits. They’d take gifts or letters far away, to the other side of the world! To another nation, even,” the merchant said, smoking and looking at the fire. Some of the older travellers were nodding. Yang was quiet, gazing at the fire with a mournful look.
“I didn’t know any of that,” Zuko said softly.
“You wouldn’t. It’s been so long. The Fire Nation has taken so many things from us, but I think what they did to the Air Nomads… that’s got to be the worst,” the man said.
“Ha! Entire villages in the west without a single Earthbender!” piped up another voice.
“Not to mention the burning of Senlin forest!”
Other voices started listing horrible things the Fire Nation had done, and Zuko began to feel nauseous. He wondered if his father knew about all these atrocities. He thought back to the War Room, to the Generals cheerfully talking about the slaughter of entire regiments.
He knows—he just doesn’t care, he thought.
Suddenly, Yang spoke up, his voice clear and bright, cutting through the litany of grievances around the campfire.
“The spirit is never lost. We can lose our homes, our livelihoods, our bodies, even—but our spirit will remain, guiding those we left behind. I believe there is still hope.”
There was a long moment of silence as everyone digested this. Then a traveller said, “The Avatar? Is that what you mean?”
“The Avatar is nothing but a myth! No one could ever bend four elements!” said another voice, and the debate raged on.
Yang and Zuko remained quiet. Zuko looked at the stars above, at the pink scars on his palms. “Do you really think so?” he asked Yang in a quiet voice.
“That there’s hope? Yes. I believe it.”
“How?” Zuko asked, helplessly.
Yang looked at him for a long moment. He seemed to understand what Zuko meant. He sighed and looked at the fire.
“Sometimes, it’s just what you have to tell yourself in order to survive,” he replied simply.
The next morning, as Yang woke up and began the laborious process of moving his stiff joints, he saw Zuko getting their ostrich horse ready for the journey.
Zuko came up to the old man with a bowl of steamed rice and vegetables. “I brought you some breakfast,” he said calmly.
Yang looked at him in bafflement. “You’re usually dead to the world at this hour in the morning. Are you okay?”
He hadn’t naturally woken up with the sun since before the Agni Kai. But last night Zuko had twisted and turned, unable to fall asleep until he came up with the answer to the question that had been running around in his head. How can I give myself hope?
“I’m fine. I decided I’m taking the job.”
Yang smiled up at him. “I’m glad to hear that, Li.”
For the next few weeks they travelled south-east on the ostrich horse. Yang’s original plan included comfortable inn stays, wagon rides and boat passages, but since losing most of the money, they had to make do with cheap inns, rough sleeping and bartering for passage or food.
“What do you mean, we’re going to barter?” Zuko hissed at Yang at a noodle restaurant.
“You’ll see. It’s a merchant's trick. Underhanded, sure, but it does the job,” Yang replied, shrugging. “Eat up while the noodles are hot.”
Zuko ate suspiciously, and he was glad he’d finished his bowl by the time the harried owner came to charge them for the meal.
“Say, business sure is picking up at this time, isn’t it? Don’t you have anyone to help you serve?” Yang asked the owner genially.
“I usually do, but she’s out sick today,” the owner replied.
“Well, my grandson here is used to helping out at his parents’ tea shop, aren’t you, Li?” Yang commented, winking at Zuko.
Zuko made a choked sound that wasn’t a yes or a no, but Yang went on regardless: “He’d be glad to help for a few hours, for the cost of our meal and any leftovers you can spare.”
The owner looked Zuko up and down, dubious, but the sheer amount of clients gathering at the door made up his mind for him. Zuko was tossed an apron and told to get on with it. Zuko looked at Yang, shocked and confused.
“You know what to do, young man: take their orders, bring the food, get the dishes, take the payment,” said Yang with a wink. “And do bring me a cup of tea whenever you can!”
This went on from town to town. After a full day’s stop where Zuko helped with the rice harvest and threshing, Yang bartered for a few sacks of rice and grain in exchange for Zuko’s help mending a few fences. This backfired as soon as the farmer realized Zuko had no idea what to do with a hammer and a nail.
Zuko was brought in disgrace back to Yang. “The idiot boy’s useless! I should charge you double to repay the time I’ll waste fixing his mistakes!”
The former prince was gritting his teeth and gripping his swords, so Yang finished the deal off quickly and they went on their way. Zuko glowered all the way to the next town.
“Don’t worry about that man, Li. Some people have no patience for teaching. I’m sure we’ll have better luck next time!” Yang said as they settled in a clearing in the woods for the night.
Zuko lost his patience, yelling: “Just STOP! Stop trying to get me a job! Why are you even — ? I already have a job; you should know!”
“Yes, I know,” Yang said calmly, which only made Zuko more annoyed. “But it’s not going to be forever. Once I reach my destination, you’ll be a few gold pieces richer but… what are you planning to do after that? Unless you want to go back to where you came from...” Zuko looked away from his piercing grey eyes. “...you’ll need to make your own way in the world. I’ll feel better about leaving you if I know you’ll have a way to make ends meet.”
The teenager muttered something offensive under his breath.
“What was that?” Yang asked sharply.
“Nothing! Leave me alone!” Zuko turned around on his straw mat and covered himself with his ratty blanket.
Yang settled in silence next to him. After a while, he said softly:
“I was a refugee once, too. As a teenager I was angry and sullen, I hated my lot in life. Our guardian kept insisting we learn a trade, she kept pushing us into jobs we didn’t want to do. I hated it then—it felt like a betrayal of, well, the way we grew up. But when she got sick and couldn’t help even herself, the things we’d learned kept us alive. I never really got to thank her for it...”
As he finished, his voice carried a deep, wordless grief Zuko didn’t understand. The old man wasn’t really talking to Zuko anymore. He fell asleep wondering what it was, exactly, that Yang had lost.
Zuko awoke to the sound of soft, slow steps on the ground. He rolled over to see Yang practicing some sort of early morning calisthenics—slow, fluid movements in circles, moving around an invisible spiral on the ground.
“Where’d you learn that?” He blurted out the question before remembering he was still mad at the old man.
Yang didn’t stop his movements, but explained calmly, “I learned this as a child. At my age, this is the most exercise my body can take—it’s good for circulation, balance and to warm the joints.”
“It looks like waterbending movements,” Zuko remarked.
Yang shrugged one shoulder as he slowly lifted an arm. “I try to make them as slow and fluid as possible, so maybe that’s why. How do you know waterbending movements?”
“Scrolls,” Zuko said shortly. He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Do you have to do them so early?”
“You normally don’t even hear me as I do them,” Yang pointed out.
Zuko shrugged. He hadn’t slept well.
“You can join me if you want. I find early morning exercise calms my mind and wakes me up.”
Sighing, Zuko got up heavily. “I guess I might as well try.”
“That’s the attitude!”
Chapter 4: Circus Act
In which Zuko joins a travelling circus.
Cheerful flute music accompanied by a vibrant drum beat greeted them as they entered the market square. A crowd was gathered around two colorful wagons, clapping and cheering. As they got closer, Zuko saw a one-legged man playing a flute, perched on top of one of the wagons. In a circle in front of the wagons, three girls were juggling fire clubs, passing them to each other and balancing them on their noses. Behind them, a boy was playing a long drum, giving a thrill to the most daring moves.
“It’s a traveling circus!” Yang exclaimed excitedly. “Let’s stay and watch.”
It had been many years since the last time Zuko watched a circus show. This one didn’t have a large tent, animal acts, or trapeze artists jumping high up in the air, but it was still entertaining—there was a magician who made doves appear out of a long hat; a contortionist who bent herself into impossible shapes; a tightrope walker who walked on her hands; and a pair of masked clowns who tried to imitate the other artists with hilariously bad luck.
By the end of the show he was laughing and clapping with the rest of the audience. When the juggling girls came with a large cloth bag to request any coins they could spare, Zuko gave them the last of his copper pieces and turned to go, but was held back by Yang’s hand on his arm.
“Wait, Li. I’d like to talk to them,” he said.
“I’m not working in a circus,” Zuko warned him.
Yang shot him an amused, somewhat sly smile. “Don’t worry,” he said.
The audience started to disperse, and the performers went to the wagons to put their things away and change. Yang approached the magician, who was still dressed in shiny blue robes. Zuko stood back, waiting impatiently. After a few minutes, the magician took out a teapot and started brewing tea, and they sat down, immersed in their conversation. Zuko sighed deeply and led the ostrich horse to a corner, sitting beside it to take a nap.
“Shush! He’s sleeping!”
Uncontrolled giggling interrupted his nap, and he cracked open his eyes to see the three jugglers looking at him. When they saw his eyes were open they giggled harder, elbowing and pushing each other with whispers of “You go ask him!”.
Zuko blushed and looked away, but it was too late; one of the girls approached him, probably the youngest, maybe a few years younger than Azula had been when he’d last seen her.
“Hi! What’s your name? I’m Jingfei! Those are my sisters Jinghua,” she pointed to the tallest one, who smiled shyly, “and Jinjing,” and to a stockier, short-haired girl who gave him a jaunty wave.
“Uh, hi. I’m Li,” Zuko answered shortly. Jingfei, undeterred, continued: “Do you know how to use those swords? Can we see them? We’ve never juggled swords but Jinjing really wants to try!”
“Um…” Zuko hesitated. The girls looked nice enough and he’d admired their act most of all, but after losing his bending, his swords were the only thing that made him feel safe.
“Pleeease,” Jingfei intoned, making puppy eyes at him. “We’ll be careful, and we’ll be right here! We’ll give them back when you tell us to.”
Azula had never asked him for anything: she’d demand to have what she wanted and set his pants on fire if he refused.
“They’re sharp,” Zuko warned as he handed over his dual blades to the little girl. Jinjing ran to them and held them in her hands, her wrists softer on the hilt than a swordsman’s. She twirled one experimentally and threw it into the air, deftly catching the hilt as it came down. And just like that, she started juggling them, throwing them into the air and catching them with the opposite hand. Zuko watched, amazed, as the other girls clapped.
“We’d need one more and it’d be so cool ,” Jinjing said, a bright wide grin on her face.
“Let me try, let me try!” Jingfei jostled her sister to grab the swords.
“How do you do that?” Zuko asked, wide-eyed.
“It’s easy! We can show you if you want,” Jinghua said. She ran to the nearest wagon.
Jingfei dropped one of the swords, which sunk into the ground. “Oops,” she said.
Jinghua came back with their clubs and handed three to Zuko. “Try it!”
With no idea what he was doing, he threw them up in the air and winced as they landed on his head and arms.
“Ouch,” he said, dryly.
The girls laughed hysterically like he’d done something really funny. He shrugged, defeated, and he was turning back to go sulk in his corner when Jingfei ran to put a single club in his hand. Taking another one, she demonstrated a simple move: she softly threw it up, watched as it gave a single spin, and caught it with her other hand.
“Try that! That’s how I learned,” she said.
He threw it too hard and too wide, but he fumblingly managed to catch it.
The girls clapped. “Keep trying!” Jingfei said brightly and demonstrated again. Zuko copied her as best as he could, and he was surprised when this time, his throw was smoother, his catch cleaner.
“Now try this!” Jinjing demonstrated another move: she threw the club up in the air, the same move as her sister, and then tapped her thighs twice with her hands before catching it with the other hand.
“Do that again,” Zuko said, frowning. The rhythm was obvious and the move seemed simple enough.
It wasn’t. But Zuko kept picking up the clubs when they fell and trying again and again. If they could do it, why couldn’t he? It wasn’t lightning bending.
The first time he performed the move flawlessly, he couldn’t believe it. It took him a few more tries to see that he had, in fact, mastered it. The girls, who were taking turns juggling his swords, clapped enthusiastically when they saw him.
“You’re a natural! It took me a week to get that move right!” Jingfei said.
“Now try it with two! Same rhythm, only one clap,” Jinjing said, enthusiastically dropping another club into his other hand.
He didn’t realize he’d spent the whole afternoon juggling until he looked up and the sun was going down.
“Girls, we’re moving out!” the one-legged flute player called from one of the wagons.
“Coming, dad!” Jinghua answered.
“Li, you’re a great juggler! You should come play some other time,” Jingfei gushed.
Jinjing gave him back his swords with a grin while her sisters retrieved the fallen clubs. The wagons started moving away from the town square.
“Having fun?” Yang said beside him. He took the reins of the ostrich horse and followed the wagons.
Zuko realized that was the most enjoyable afternoon he’d had in years. “Yeah,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear that! They’re travelling south for a few days, so I asked if we could go with them. You’ll definitely have a chance to improve your juggling. I’ll be the one working this time,” Yang said.
“You? What are you going to do?” Zuko asked, baffled.
“You’re looking at the mysterious Master Yin, fortune-teller,” Yang said with a cheeky grin.
“...is that a joke?” Zuko frowned.
“So you can tell the future now? Is that something you learned as a merchant?”
“It does require an ability to read a person and cater to their needs. But truly, I didn’t learn it selling cabbages. When I was young, my guardian got us jobs with a traveling circus. Us young ones did mostly chores and cleaning, but our guardian worked as a fortune-teller. She was actually very good at it,” Yang said, a nostalgic smile on his face.
“The same guardian who pushed you into jobs you didn’t want?” Zuko asked, before he realized he was admitting that he’d heard Yang talk about her.
Yang’s wide smile let him know he’d caught that. But he didn’t comment on it.
Zuko was curious, though. “Was she, like… your mother? What happened to your parents?”
Yang shrugged. “I never knew them. My guardian, she… she was a refugee like us. She’d never been a mother. It was hard for her to suddenly have to take care of children, especially at first, I think, but she did her best. She came to love us, in the end.”
Zuko was silent for a while. He recalled the turtleduck pond, warm arms embracing him, his mother’s sad face the last time he saw her. Suddenly, he blurted out: “My mother left us six years ago.”
Yang looked at him, curious, and Zuko found himself saying things he’d never dared to speak aloud, not even to Uncle Iroh: “I don’t even know if she’s still alive. Sometimes I think she mustn’t be… otherwise, she’d have come back. She loved me. She loved us.”
“May I ask what happened?”
“I— I’m not sure. Az— my sister said Father was going to kill me.” He regretted the words as soon as he said them. Yang’s eyes beside him were wide.
“ What? ”
“I— forget I said it, it’s a— I don’t want to talk about it,” Zuko said, panicking.
Yang gave him a searching look, but nodded. “Li… it sounds like your home life was… complicated. You might be better off away from them. You know… You can always make your own home and your own family. That’s what I did,” he said, with a gentle smile.
True to his word, Yang had a tent set up in the next town, where he sat among the shadows in front of a small fire. The performers had given him a dark blue robe with a hood to cover his face, and he greeted those interested with a bow and his storyteller voice, asking if they wished to unravel the dark mysteries of their future. He had a showman’s flair, certainly.
At a loss as to what to do, Zuko drifted towards the girls, who welcomed him by giving him a set of clubs and making him practice.
He could now consistently juggle three clubs, and the girls were teaching him passes and other tricks that came to him easily, having trained with the swords for years.
“You should perform with us in the next show!” Jingfei said as they finished a successful round of passes. Her sisters agreed enthusiastically.
“Okay. Could be fun,” Zuko agreed, mostly to see their cheers. He had no idea how much work it really was to prepare for a show.
The girls drilled him relentlessly. His years of training under strict and unforgiving teachers let him take it with good grace, until Jinjing ran up to him carrying a torch.
“It’s time to light up!” she said, and promptly set his clubs on fire .
“What? NO,” he yelled, keeping the flames as far from his face as possible. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten they juggled flaming torches .
“It’s just a bit of fire,” Jinjing said, taking the clubs from him and juggling them effortlessly, not even flinching when they passed close enough to her face to scorch her eyebrows and loose hair.
“Here it goes!” she called out to signal a pass, not noticing that Zuko was frozen to the spot, cold sweat on his face. She threw the flaming torch, and he jumped away.
“Aw, you had that!” she complained.
“Jinjing!” Jinghua ran up to him and glared at her sister.
“Li, can you help me with something in the wagon? There’s a box I can’t reach,” Jinghua asked, leading him away.
Jinghua directed him to take down a box stacked precariously between many others at the back of the wagon. It took so much effort and concentration that by the time he put the box down in front of the girl, his trembling had subsided.
“It was hard for us too, you know,” she said kindly as she rummaged through the box, which mostly seemed to contain overly bright and worn tunics and pants.
“What?” Zuko asked.
Without a word, Jinghua pulled up her sleeves to show him a long burn scar on both her forearms. “My Dad and my sisters and I, we were refugees before we joined the circus. Jinjing won’t admit it, but it was also hard for her to learn how to play with fire. I wouldn’t touch it for months .”
“How did you do it?” Zuko whispered.
“Not easily. It took practice, and time, but… I remember one day, when I was first trying to juggle with one torch, it fell on my arm. It burned a little, of course, and then it fell to the floor and the fire went out. And I thought, that wasn’t so bad. And I realized when I juggle it, I’m the one who can control the fire. Almost like a firebender. I can put it out whenever I want. It won’t hurt me if I don’t let it.”
Zuko was frowning at her. She smiled up at him. “Also, less flammable clothes and damp rags help,” she said, holding a pair of red trousers and a mustard tunic out to him. “These will fit, I think.”
“Uh, thanks,” he muttered.
She then held out a wide and ragged pair of very tacky golden pants. “This will do! We’ll just cover the clubs with this and they’ll look nice and shiny, and you won’t need to use fire.”
“You don’t need to—”
“Trust me, Li. It’ll be amazing.”
Their next performance was at a walled town in the middle of a forest. The show was almost exactly the same as it had been when he’d watched it, but being on the other side of the audience’s stares was very different. Zuko felt more and more nervous as the time for their act approached.
“This wasn’t such a good idea. What if I drop the clubs?” Zuko muttered to himself, pacing behind the wagon where the other performers watched the acts and waited for their turn.
“You pick them up and act like nothing happened,” Jingfei advised. “That’s what I do.”
The piping flute and drum roll that announced the beginning of the juggling act sounded what seemed like an eternity after that, and breathing deeply, Zuko took his place behind the girls as they marched out into the circle left by the audience.
He felt tall, surrounded by the girls, his awkwardness glaringly obvious clad in his bright clothes and a golden mask. The act started simple, with each of them juggling in lines, from the shortest to the tallest. The nerves faded after picking up his first fallen club and seeing the audience clapping for effort. The children’s faces up front were awed, like they were doing something amazing.
Zuko put all his focus on his movements, timing his passes correctly and remembering the act they had modified for him. To a suspenseful drum roll, he helped Jingfei climb on his shoulders and held her up as she passed the clubs to each of her sisters on the ground. And then Jinjing showed a small unlit candle in a flat holder to the crowd before passing it to Zuko, who passed it up to Jingfei on his shoulders. She carefully balanced it on her head before resuming her juggling. Then Jinghua lit one torch and did some daring twirls and flourishes before she passed it to Jinjing… over Jingfei’s head.
“Ooooh,” the audience exclaimed, cheered and clapped, and Zuko knew the candle on top of Jingfei’s head had been lit. Immersed in the excitement of the crowd, Zuko didn’t even feel the familiar twinge of shame and self-hatred at not being able to sense the flame.
He helped Jingfei get down and present the lit candle with a flourish and a deep bow to the audience, who clapped and cheered harder. As he drank in the applause, Zuko felt flushed, exhilarated, and light.
“That was awesome!” Jingfei said, hugging Zuko hard.
“Think of what you could do with a little more training! We’d be the best!” Jinjing was saying.
“But Li isn’t going to be with us for long, remember? He’s just traveling with us for a few days,” Jinghua reminded her sisters gently.
Jingfei pouted. “Why can’t you stay?”
“I’m escorting Yang to his destination. Maybe—”
Zuko didn’t get to finish his half-formed thought, because he suddenly heard shouting and screams coming from the single entrance to the town. Then the girls’ father and some of the other circus performers hurried up to them.
“Quick! Pack everything into the wagons! We need to go!”
“What’s going on?” Zuko asked.
Before anyone could answer him, he felt the ground shake. A squadron of Fire Nation soldiers riding on komodo rhinos entered the square.
Chapter 5: Fire
They were surrounded, performers and villagers alike herded into the square by the soldiers. A man Zuko identified as a captain by his uniform pushed through the line of mounted soldiers, forcing an elderly man with long hair in front of him. It was the mayor who had let the circus into the village.
“Your time is up! Do you have what you owe us?” the captain said to the mayor, loud enough to be heard by the people in the square.
“Please, we already explained—this year’s tax increase was too much! We already paid what we could—we won’t be able to last the winter if we give you the rest!” the mayor pleaded.
“Lies! You’re withholding payment as an act of rebellion! If you were really starving, would you be having festivals and celebrations?” the captain replied.
“What? No, we’re not celebrating—a circus came to town— we let them in—”
“Silence! It is time you learn what happens when you refuse to cooperate!” the captain shouted to the whole square. He signaled to his soldiers.
The firebenders turned and started punching fire at the thatched roofs of the buildings around the square. Zuko flinched instinctively, and then gaped in disbelief. What are they doing? he thought. The soldiers spread out, setting fire to the rest of the houses as they went.
The villagers were screaming now, people running out of the houses and trying to douse the fires—but the firebenders just relit them and beat those resisting into the ground.
The Fire Nation soldiers were blocking the streets out of the square, trapping dozens of people between the burning houses.
Looking at the soldiers now, among a gaggle of unarmed, non-bending, terrified villagers, Zuko understood for the first time why they wore those uniforms. Framed by the light of a raging fire, they looked like horned demons with a skeletal face, bringers of fire and death and destruction.
Is this what we’re meant to be? he wondered in dull horror as the fire spread from roof to roof, rising ever higher. He was clutching Jingfei and Jinjing tightly, he realized, just as tightly as they were holding him.
The captain was still making a speech, among the chaos and fire around him: “...for the glory of Firelord Ozai, you will be subjugated…”
Zuko gritted his teeth. Never forget who you are, his mother had said to him, before she was gone forever.
He shook off the girls’ hands and advanced toward the captain, hands held out in peace.
“Please, stop!” he begged, voice raised. “There are no enemies of the Fire Nation in this town! No soldiers! Just farmers, merchants, common people trying to make a living!”
“All those who refuse to pay their dues are traitors and rebels!” the captain repeated.
Zuko tried to recall giving orders to his ship crew, back when he was leading them on their failed search around the world.
“STOP THIS NOW! I COMMAND YOU TO STOP!” he managed to scream, his voice only breaking a little at the beginning.
The captain laughed, cold amusement in his eyes. “Who are you to command me, beggar?”
a banished Prince, kicked out of home in disgrace —
— a former firebender, who lost his bending after refusing to fight in an Agni Kai —
—the son of a missing mother and a father who wanted him gone, big brother to a sister who had surpassed him in every way—
—Prince Zuko, your Prince,” Zuko finished, his voice a defeated mutter, the mere idea of it suddenly implausible even to him.
Beside him, Yang’s bony fingers clenched his arm, suddenly tense. Zuko turned to look at the old man’s shocked face, but before he could react, the captain was advancing on them.
“Seems to me someone already tried to teach you not to mess with fire, and you still haven’t learned your lesson,” the captain said, and punched a long stream of fire directly at him.
Zuko was frozen to the spot, caught up in the smell of smoke, the heat coming off in waves from the burning buildings, reminding him of the searing pain, the smell of charred meat, the raw fear —
He was pushed to the ground as Yang, old and bony and visibly trembling, stood in front of him and clicked something on his staff, making it into a fan-like contraption that he slashed at the fire—and, to everyone’s wonder, a stream of air extinguished the fire and threw the captain against the wall of a nearby building, making fire and ash rain down upon him.
For a moment, all was quiet. Zuko blinked, trying to process what he’d just seen.
And then a Fire Nation soldier shouted: “The old man’s an airbender!”
With his unfurled staff at his side, Yang said in his loud, storyteller’s voice: “I am the Avatar , Master of all Four Elements… and you idiots haven’t been able to catch me in one hundred years!” He then bent an air current that lifted him up into the air, like gravity didn’t apply to him anymore.
It took the Fire Nation soldiers a couple more seconds to react, but when the captain stood up, staggering, his helmet lost on the ground behind him, he screamed to his squadron: “Get him!” They started punching fire at the airbender, who deftly evaded the shots, rose up higher into the air, and flew away from the village.
As the soldiers ran out of town in pursuit of the airbender, the villagers lost no time scrambling to put out the fires. The circus performers opened the wagons, took out as many buckets as they could, and helped.
But Zuko stood looking at the horizon where Yang had disappeared, dumbfounded.
Had he been traveling with the Avatar all this time?
Had he really been so unknowingly close to getting home all these weeks?
And what would happen if the soldiers caught Yang?
At that thought, he immediately turned around and went straight to their ostrich horse, ignoring the shouting and activity of the people around him. He was about to head out when he felt a tug on his sleeve. Looking down, he saw Jingfei, holding out his and Yang’s travel bags.
“Thank you,” Zuko said, feeling like it wasn’t enough.
She gave him a sad smile as he spurred the ostrich horse into a run. Zuko looked back only once, to see the village covered in smoke, people running about in the wake of the destruction left by his nation, and amid the chaos, the still figure of Jingfei looking at him.
Ostrich horses were finicky and temperamental, but they were faster than komodo rhinos. It wasn’t hard to follow the tracks of the Fire Nation squadron trampling through the forest undergrowth.
During the years he’d spent searching for the Avatar, Zuko had read as many historical records as he could of the previous efforts to track down the Avatar, which included numerous accounts of hunts for escaped airbenders. He’d been perhaps overzealous in his research, because reading up on history, dull as it was, felt like doing something, unlike trying uselessly to get his fire back.
So Zuko was aware that while flying bison could travel in the air for long distances at great speed, the same was not true for an airbender on a glider, flying with the power of his own bending only. Sooner or later, Yang would get tired and he’d have to come down—and that’s when the soldiers would attack, as long as they could still locate him.
Remembering how tired Yang had been feeling after working long hours in the fortune telling tent, Zuko feared it would be sooner.
They won’t strike him down immediately , Zuko told himself to soothe the cold nerves in his stomach, but he kept going back to the accounts he’d read—the Eagle Hawks, an old, now disbanded company that had been in charge of locating and capturing Air Nomads, had many accounts of “battles” where all the airbenders had ended up killed.
He urged the ostrich horse to move faster.
At last he came upon a clearing that looked particularly trampled and muddy. Several trees were scorched near the canopy and in several branches. Looking around, his eye caught on something shiny—a broken bracelet made of cheap red beads, like the ones Yang had put on to sell his fortune teller persona. Zuko cursed loudly.
The tracks after that headed northwest in a more orderly manner towards what he guessed was the closest road.
He turned to follow the tracks more quietly now, sure that the squadron must not be far away.
After a couple more miles, he heard the distinctive clanking and heavy steps of the komodo rhinos and the voices of the soldiers.
“Is he really the Avatar, you think?”
“As I said, the Fire Sages will confirm—”
“Hey, old man! You the Avatar? Where’ve you been hiding all these years?”
There was no answer. Zuko quietly dismounted from the ostrich horse and followed after them on foot, trying to get a peek through the trees.
“Can you bend all the elements, then? I suppose no one taught you fire, eh? How ‘bout you bend the earth from your dirty clothes, huh? ...no? Well then, bend this water.” There was a spitting sound. Zuko gritted his teeth as he observed the scene.
The captain had Yang bound and shackled, hands and feet, riding on the back of his komodo rhino, with the rest of the soldiers flanking him. The spitting soldier was riding on Yang’s left, and the soldier on his right was idly examining Yang’s staff. The soldiers looked exhausted and disgruntled: some were missing their helmets and most had a windswept look about them.
Among them, Yang struck a pitiful sight: old, thin, and frail, the shackles binding him heavy and cruel.
Zuko suddenly recalled the single visit he’d made with his uncle to an old Eagle Hawks headquarters, which decades ago had been transformed into a common garrison for the army occupying the Earth Kingdom. Some of the old archives remained, which Zuko was allowed to look into, as well as some old structures. Including the prison.
He remembered the musty and stifling air of the underground prison. There were small cells, surrounded by hard rock and iron doors, and with manacles still hanging from the walls. Zuko had felt light-headed and sick just standing there.
Iroh had a grave, sad look in his eyes as he looked around.
“This must be the worst thing that can be done to an airbender,” he’d said.
Zuko hadn’t really understood it then, but picturing Yang in those shackles, in one of those suffocating, tiny cells…
He hesitated for a moment. There was a line between deserting his mission and actually fighting his own people. He was their prince, wasn’t he? Then he recalled the captain’s sneer in the town. The way the soldiers had beaten the villagers and burned their houses, how they would have burned the whole town to ashes if Yang hadn’t distracted them. They were spitting at Yang. A little old man who crooned songs at their ostrich horse as he fed it in the mornings.
But if Father ever learned about this…
Rummaging through his bag for anything that might help, he found something that hadn't been there before: the golden mask he’d worn for the circus performance. Jingfei’s last gift to him. He smiled.
The soldiers were carefully making their way across the forest floor.
Dusk was falling, shadows gathering where the trees blocked the light of the sun. Some of the firebenders lit flames in their palms to light the way ahead of them.
“I hear there are boar-q-pines and moose lions in the forests,” a soldier said, nervously looking at the encroaching darkness.
“Let's pick up the pace. The path’s—” The captain couldn’t finish because in that moment, a figure in a golden mask landed on him from the branches above, sending him sprawling to the ground. Two quick slashes with dual swords cut the saddle ties of the flanking komodo rhinos and sent their riders to the ground.
Yang lifted his head to look for his glider. It was still secured in the saddle of one of the now stampeding komodo rhinos.
“My glider!” he called out urgently to his rescuer, pointing with heavily shackled hands.
“The staff, Li!” he clarified.
Zuko steered the captain’s komodo rhino towards the staff and reached out a hand to grab it —his fingers closed around the edge—and then a soldier was punching fire at them from behind, and he had to turn the komodo rhino to evade it.
Yang didn’t lose sight of it, and as the glider was torn loose from its tether, he performed a move he hadn’t made since he was a small child, raiding the kitchens: he sucked in air, pulling the glider toward him.
He just managed to grab it out of the air as the komodo rhino they were riding was forced to make a sharp turn into the depths of the forest.
It wouldn’t be long before the soldiers gathered their forces and came after them. Zuko took a precious few seconds to go back to their ostrich horse, hitting the komodo rhino hard on its rump to make it run away through the woods. Hopefully that would distract the soldiers off their path.
Zuko turned the ostrich horse back in the direction of the town, but Yang’s hand on his arm stopped him.
“We can’t go back there. We need to go southwest. There’s a long river in the middle of the forest—I saw it from the air. We might be able to lose them if we cross undetected.”
Zuko nodded. “Where to?” he asked.
They urged the ostrich horse into a run, Yang directing Zuko occasionally. Zuko didn’t notice they were bordering a cliff until the ostrich horse stopped with a frightened whinny. There were no more trees ahead of them—just a steep drop to a frothing river. On the other riverbank the forest continued, thick as ever.
As Zuko was looking for a way down, he heard the clanking of charging komodo rhinos. They were nearer than he’d hoped. They must have caught their trail already.
He cursed. “We don’t have time to find an alternate route! I thought you knew where we were going!” he accused Yang.
Yang was looking at the river down below and the forest ahead of them, measuring the drop. He licked his finger and raised it high in the air.
“I miscalculated how high the drop was, but—I think we can make it,” he said.
“Are you suggesting—”
“Our dear Poppet is strong. She can make the jump. The rest is just landing.”
The soldiers were getting closer now. Zuko gritted his teeth and backed the ostrich horse away from the drop. “You’re going to get us all killed,” he said.
“We can do this,” said Yang, a shine in his eyes Zuko had never seen before.They both took a deep breath, looking out at the forest on the other side of the sheer drop.
“Ready?” Yang asked.
“No,” Zuko said, and he spurred the ostrich horse to run and leap out over the cliff.
For a moment, they were flying, up in the air, and Zuko let out a terrified and exhilarated scream. Behind him, Yang had his glider open and was buffeting the air behind them. Like he’s rowing a boat, Zuko thought hysterically.
They crossed the river and the treetops started coming towards them too fast. They were falling.
Yang snapped the glider shut and started to move his hands in circles, making an air current around them that slowed their fall. The weight of the ostrich horse drove them down as they fell through the tree canopy, snapping branches on their way to the ground.
The ostrich horse landed on her feet, but Zuko and Yang rolled off the saddle and fell to the ground, panting.
High on adrenaline, Zuko laughed giddily. The ostrich horse pecked him, scared and furious.
“Ow, ow, sorry! I’m sorry!” he said as he scrambled away and towards Yang, who was slowly getting up from the ground.
“Are you hurt?” he asked him.
“It feels like I was crushed by a rock and then fell down the stairs,” Yang complained, wincing.
“It was your idea, you crazy old man,” Zuko grumbled. He hesitantly checked up on Yang. He had a wide, ugly bruise on one side of his face, as well as others on his back and chest. His forearms were singed but not badly burned.
“This fall was a doozy compared to getting captured,” Yang said with a grimace.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko said, feeling guilty all of a sudden.
“Don’t you dare apologize. You saved me. I owe you my freedom, which is more precious to me than my life,” Yang said.
“You—you saved me first. You didn’t have to, but you did. And the town —” Zuko started to say.
“Are you really a prince of the Fire Nation?” Yang asked.
“Are you really the Avatar?” Zuko asked.
“I can barely bend one element. I wish I were the Avatar…” Yang said, shaking his head sadly.
“So you lied,” said Zuko. It sounded accusing.
“I’ve been lying all my life. It was the only way I could think of in that moment to get those soldiers away from all of you,” Yang said tiredly.
Zuko sat down on the ground heavily. He looked away, to the ostrich horse now calmly foraging a nearby bush for food. He sighed. It’s probably for the best, he thought. Otherwise, he’d have to either turn Yang in to his father or deliberately choose never to return home. Just imagining that situation turned his stomach.
“Then who are you?”
“My birth name is Yangtso. I was an Air Nomad from the Southern Air Temple… long ago.”
Dark had fallen in the forest. For a moment, everything was quiet, a soft breeze moving their hair and clothes as they stared at each other.
“My—my name is Zuko. I am—or I was...the son of Ursa and Firelord Ozai.” Zuko looked up at Yang’s face in the shadows, suddenly afraid to see the old man’s reaction.
“Prince Zuko.” Yang—Yangtso?—said the name like he was trying it out, trying to fit his image of a son of the Firelord with the reality of Li. It was strange hearing that name from the old man’s lips.
Then Yangtso looked back in the direction they came from. “There’s many things I would like to ask you, but this isn’t the time. You saved me—you have released your debt. Do you still want to travel with me?”
“Do you still want me to travel with you?” Zuko asked back.
Yangtso smiled gently. “Yes. I do. You’re a good kid, Li… Zuko. I confess I have grown fond of you.”
Zuko got up and dusted himself off. “Then let’s go. After all that effort I can’t have you get captured again. I might have—I’m also… fond,” he finished awkwardly.
Yangsto’s smile was warm, though, so it wasn’t too bad.
Chapter 6: The White Lotus
They stopped for a few hours’ rest before dawn. Zuko wanted to put as much distance between them and their pursuers as possible, and Yangtso was two steps ahead.
“I hadn’t counted on drawing so much attention to myself, but now… they’ll be looking for us everywhere. I don’t think we can outrun them for long,” he said as they made their way through the forest.
“So what now?” Zuko asked.
“The port of Jinchang is about a day’s trip away, if we can get a ferry to take us downriver. We can get help there,” Yangtso said, though he couldn’t tell Zuko much about who would help them.
“The White Lotus. A group of mystics I encountered during my travels. I know they’ve helped escaped airbenders before, and they’re becoming more active under the new Grandmaster. They’re perhaps the most organized group, aside from the Fire Nation, trying to find the Avatar nowadays.”
Zuko mulled over the information and decided they didn’t have a better choice. “The White Lotus…” he muttered. Uncle would love that, he thought, and had to squash the sudden guilt he felt.
They soon arrived at a small fishing village where the river widened enough for large boats to pass. With sadness, they traded in the ostrich horse for passage on a ferry to the port of Jinchang.
They didn’t speak much during the journey, focused on glancing warily around them, fearing Fire Nation troops would find them as soon as their backs were turned.
It was evening when they arrived at Jinchang. Two Fire Nation soldiers were at the harbor, looking at the people coming and going from the river boats with a keen eye. Zuko spotted them first, and they crept behind a cart laden with huge bales of hay. They put on their straw hats and turned their gazes to the floor as they hurried across the bridge into town.
“Where are we going?” Zuko hissed.
“I’m not sure,” Yangtso replied.
“ What do you mean —”
“It can be a flower shop, a potter’s shop, a tea shop—look for a Pai Sho board and an old person,” Yangtso whispered back.
“This is ridiculous ,” Zuko complained, but he started looking into shops and windows. Most businesses were already closing, and none seemed to have Pai Sho players.
“There!” Yangtso said finally as they looked into a crowded bar, where behind rowdily singing sailors, an old woman was sitting before a Pai Sho board.
Yangtso approached, followed by Zuko, glancing suspiciously around.
The old woman was drinking wine from a cup, half-nodding off, when Yangtso sat down in front of the board.
“Good evening. May I have the pleasure of a game?” Yangtso asked her.
She gestured at the board in invitation.
It was the strangest Pai Sho game Zuko had ever seen. He frowned as the old people exchanged a mysterious greeting and a couple weird phrases that sounded like a code. Then the old woman glanced at Zuko and her eyes widened.
Zuko tensed, hand reaching for his swords. Yangtso grabbed his arm to stop him.
She kept looking at him, more alert than she had been when the game started.
“Are you going with him, young man?” she asked.
“I am,” Zuko replied.
She looked at him, then at Yangtso, and nodded decisively. Standing up, she led them through a back door out of the bar. They followed her through narrow back alleys to a nondescript door, and inside to a small warehouse that smelled of mold and damp.
There was a small room, empty but for a straw mat and an oil lamp. She lit the lamp and looked at them.
“I’m afraid it’s not very comfortable, but it’s the best I can do. I’ll have some food brought to you later. At dawn, my son will help you get on a boat that will take you to Minami Harbor. Our contact there will be waiting for you, in a safe house,” she said, glancing at Zuko strangely again.
“I appreciate your help.” Yangtso bowed to her.
She had barely been gone for a minute when Zuko turned to him and asked: “Why was she looking at me like that? Are you sure we can trust her?”
“I confess I have no idea what that was about. But I believe we can trust her. They wouldn’t turn us in,” Yangtso replied.
“You better be right,” Zuko grumbled, sitting down heavily on the straw mat. Yangtso took longer to get settled down.
“Zuko... Would you indulge an old man's curiosity? How does a Prince of the Fire Nation end up a beggar so far from home?”
Zuko sighed. “I was banished and sent to look for the Avatar, to recover my honor,” he said.
“What a curious coincidence. So was I, ninety years ago,” Yangtso said casually.
“I suppose you are familiar with the story of Sozin’s comet. We weren’t at the Air Temple that day, and the only reason is because a few days before the comet, Monk Gyatso sent a bunch of us young kids out on a journey to get the Avatar back. ‘Do not come back without him’, he said that day. I remember because the words were so harsh, and he was usually one of the kindest monks. I didn’t understand until later…”
“Did you ever return?” Zuko asked.
“No. In all my life, I have never had the courage to go back…”
At that moment, a young man knocked on the door and delivered bowls of rice and vegetables and two large cups of tea.
As they ate, Zuko told his story—from the moment he spoke out at the War Room, to the fateful Agni Kai, to his banishment and loss, to his spur of the moment decision to run away.
“You are too hard on yourself. You were a child begging his father for mercy. You didn’t fight, not because you were scared, but because you respected him,” Yangtso said.
“Then why did I lose my bending that day?” Zuko challenged him.
“Traumatic events can sometimes cut off a bender’s connection to their element. Among my people, many of those who survived Sozin’s comet never airbent after that. I myself...” Yangtso sighed. “Benders have existed for as long as we’ve had stories, and yet, bending continues to be mysterious and unpredictable. Tell me, young Zuko, are you even sure you want to be a firebender? Do you feel like a firebender, at heart?”
Zuko frowned. “Of course I—” He stopped, rubbed his hands over his face, and actually thought about it. “It’s always been a point of pride in my family, being a line of powerful firebenders. My father was waiting for our bending to emerge before we could even walk. When my fire finally came, I felt happy... but mostly relieved. I don’t know how Father would have reacted if it hadn’t come,” he said bitterly.
He thought back to the long hours training under the constant pressure of Father’s expectations. Enduring harsh criticism from his father and his instructors, drilling the forms again and again until they were perfect. Azula’s mocking when she mastered a form before him, which became increasingly more common.
Learning to juggle had sometimes been painful, but it had mostly been fun and wonderful—seeing new possibilities open up before him, if only he put a little more time and practice into it. He’d happily devoted hours of his day to practicing, and was left looking forward to learning more. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like that about firebending.
“I don’t know,” he said finally, a bit lost.
Yangtso briefly put a hand on his shoulder. “You can decide another day. We should rest now. It’s been a long day.”
At dawn, they were helped into a large wooden crate with discreet breathing holes at the sides and top and taken into the cargo hold of a ship. Zuko recognized the sailor’s calls and words, and he felt a pang of guilt again as he remembered his own ship—and Uncle.
“You’ll arrive at Minami Harbor at the end of the third day. Be careful if you leave the crate, and don’t leave the cargo hold,” they were told.
The crate was lined with cloth and straw to make it as comfortable as possible, but after a few hours trying to sleep, getting used to the movement of a ship in the sea again, Zuko began feeling restless and claustrophobic.
Zuko opened the crate lid from the inside, carefully. He looked around the hold. It was dark, with a single open porthole near the door. But at least it was larger than the crate, and salty air came from the porthole.
“There’s a blind corner right there. If we move some of those crates around,” he said, immediately jumping to it, “we can at least walk around this space without being seen.”
They exercised gratefully. Yangtso paced for a while with his staff, and then he put it down and started moving slowly in a widening spiral, legs and arms moving around him. Zuko put down his swords and followed the now-familiar movements.
“Your exercises—these are airbending moves,” Zuko realized as they moved slowly, trying not to lose their balance in the sway of the boat.
“That’s right. It’s the principle of non-aggression: every time you find resistance, you evade and find another direction,” Yangtso said.
“Like running away?” Zuko said with a frown.
Yangtso stopped to look him in the eye.
“Running away saved my life—many times,” he said. “Now, let’s try this: face me and repeat the movements.”
They twisted and twirled around one another in a strange dance, until Zuko’s focus was entirely on the movements and away from his whirling thoughts.
Finally, Yangtso sat down on a crate. “Here’s a real challenge for you, young man: do the moves faster without losing your balance.”
The second day, they were lying down on the crate, the lid set down on the ground to allow them to breathe more, when Zuko asked: “Tell me about your search for the Avatar.”
“Hmmm… there isn’t that much to tell. We didn’t get very far, at first. We were kids, easily distracted. Then the comet came—we were miles from the nearest Air Temple but we saw the smoke in the distance. We didn’t know what was happening, so we travelled to the nearest town to ask. When they told us the Air Temples had been attacked by the Fire Nation, we didn’t believe it. But we were ambushed shortly after. Half my friends died that day,” Yangtso said, his voice emotionless.
“Wait—weren’t—where was your army?”
Yangtso scoffed. “The Air Nomads had no armies. Pacifists, remember? Whoever told you that?”
“My tutors—figures they’d lie about that, too. I’m—I’m so sorry. What happened… after?”
“We tried to go to the Eastern Air Temple. Luckily, some nuns had escaped and they warned us away. We lived with them in the mountains for a while, always running away from the soldiers that kept chasing us. Eventually we realized we couldn’t run forever—we disbanded in groups, to live among the people of the world. Shenyen took us to the Earth Kingdom, which she knew best.”
“That was your… guardian.”
“Yes. She took in a group of kids and we travelled around. Some of the other kids settled down—Jin married a jeweler and moved to Ba Sing Se—but me and Tashi, we kept traveling with Shenyen, hoping we’d find the Avatar if we just kept looking.”
“Did you ever find anything?”
“Nothing but rumors. Word around Kyoshi Island said he’d been seen traveling south just before a storm. We became fishermen for years just to have a chance to travel the area, but we never found anything. The Water Tribe became hostile to strangers not long after, so we gave up on that.”
“Didn’t you ever… lose hope?”
“Many times. If I had been alone, I would’ve given up for sure. Settled down somewhere and tried to forget the past, as many others did. But Tashi never gave up—he always insisted we’d find Aang in the end.”
Zuko listened to this in silence. Then he sat up and fidgeted with his tattered tunic before asking the next question, feeling like he was probably delving too deep.
“What happened to—to Tashi?”
Yangtso sat up as well. He had a smile that was both incredibly fond and incredibly sad.
“Oh, he died in his nineties after falling off a ladder. He was trying to fix the roof by himself, stubborn old codger. He never did accept things that seemed impossible.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” said Zuko, feeling somehow it wasn’t enough.
“Pain is inescapable, Zuko. But I am incredibly grateful that I got to have him in my life for so many years. He was such a warm, kind, and beautiful person. He’d have adopted you at first sight!” he laughed, despite the tears in his eyes. “He always looked out for me, at the Temple, and ever after. I miss him every day—I will miss him for the rest of my days. It’s to honor his memory that I decided to go on.”
“How? You searched for ninety years. I only searched for two…”
“I still have hope, Zuko. After all this time, I have chosen to still hope…”
That night, Zuko snuck them both outside for a while, where they took deep breaths of fresh sea breeze and looked at the stars above them in silence.
The last day, Yangtso sat Zuko down beside him and told him: “Up until that moment in the town, I hadn’t been able to bend a single puff of air for more than fifty years.”
Zuko stared at him, speechless.
“When I was a young man, I—I did something terrible. We ran across some of our people as we were traveling—they fell into a trap we’d recognized long ago:— Air Nomad trinkets leading them to believe there was a settlement nearby.”
“Oh! I read about that. Nasty trick,” Zuko said, frowning.
“Yes. We were too late to warn them away, so we decided to follow them. I don’t know what we hoped to accomplish, but… it went wrong. There was a fight, and for the first time in my life, I took lives with my bending. I could have chosen mercy... but I didn’t.” Yangtso closed his eyes as he said this, his back curving inward like he was suddenly weighed down by the memories.
“As I looked at their bodies, I felt something break inside me. Like all the beliefs and teachings of the monks were crumbling to dust. I became empty. The few times I tried to bend after that, I couldn’t. I almost thought it was lost forever…” Yangtso’s voice drifted off, as if he physically couldn’t keep speaking.
It was Zuko who broke the silence after a while: “What changed in the town?”
“I needed it to protect you. But maybe I had been changing long before that. This trip has helped me reconnect with the spirit of the Air Nomads. And also, before I set out, I worked for a long time on recovering my peace—on forgiving myself. The first step in healing, I always say, is self-awareness. There’s a technique that helped me, and I would like to teach it to you.”
Zuko shrugged and sighed. “My uncle already tried all he could think of to get my bending back. But sure. I’ll try.”
“Have you ever heard of the chakras?”
Self-searching was hard . Yangtso helped, giving him examples from his own life—his own fear of fire, the death and persecution he’d seen since he was a child—how they’d blocked the Earth Chakra, the energy at the base of the spine that connects with survival and is blocked by fear. It wasn’t too hard to identify his fears—it was much harder to admit that his father featured in many of them.
He made it as far as the second chakra—the chakra of pleasure, blocked by guilt—before he had to stop, anger and shame and guilt mixing in the bottom of his stomach, threatening to make him sick.
He crouched with his hands on his face, not knowing if he was going to cry or scream.
“My—my Uncle—” he choked out. “He never gave up on me. He came with me, even though he didn’t have to. And I ran away and he must—it really must have hurt him, and he must be really worried about me, and I didn’t even think —”
“It’s not! He’ll never forgive me for this. He’s the only family I have left who loves me and I—”
“The White Lotus has plenty of informants everywhere. They can give us information on your Uncle. Maybe we can figure out a way to reach out to him, hmm?”
Zuko looked up. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Yangtso smiled without a hint of judgement. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to know you’re okay.”
That night, they went back to the crate and set the lid down again. They heard the sounds of sailors taking the crates out of the hold, leaving theirs alone. Zuko was antsy and ready to barge out, but Yangtso stopped him. Finally, they heard a rhythmic tap on the crate. Yangtso replied with two short, quick taps.
Then their crate was being lifted and dragged out to a noisy harbor, where they were put on a wagon and taken a few miles through a bustling market to a quieter street.
The wagon slowed to a stop. They heard steps coming closer. The lid opened slowly. Zuko and Yangtso blinked at the light of a candle flame.
No—Zuko realized in a split second—the flame was burning in someone’s palm.
He had his swords out, trying to cover Yangtso, before he saw the firebender’s face and heard a familiar voice crying out his name.
The swords fell to the ground as he was roughly pulled into an embrace, and he gasped: “Uncle??”
Chapter 7: The Southern Air Temple
Something that had been tight in his chest for a very long time came loose as Zuko embraced his uncle. He felt tears filling his eyes as he tried to explain.
“Uncle, I’m so sorry—I didn’t think—I just couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t—”
“Zuko, I’m so glad to see you. I was worried you’d—I was so worried,” his uncle sobbed without shame, holding him tight.
“How did you find me?”
“I’ve been traveling, searching for you everywhere I could think of—I sent word to the White Lotus to be on the lookout—”
“You—you know them?” Zuko asked.
Uncle Iroh smiled, a bit mysteriously. “You could say I do,” he replied.
He then turned to Yangtso, who was trying to get up, and bowed.
“You must be the Master Airbender I’ve heard about. It’s an honor to meet you. I’m very glad you and my nephew found each other.”
“Please, I was never a Master. I am grateful for the help of the White Lotus, though,” Yangtso said as Zuko helped him get out of the crate.
“You must be very tired after the long journey,” a middle-aged woman piped up from beside Uncle Iroh. She had an aristocratic air but kind eyes. “I am Madam Xu, owner of this mansion. Let me show you to a place where you can wash and rest.”
Being waited on in a luxurious mansion after so long on the streets was a strange, somewhat awkward experience. Zuko had thought the former prince in him would relish someone attending to his bath and offering him food, but it just made him uncomfortable.
The next morning, Zuko evaded the servant offering to trim his toenails and left in search of his uncle. He found him with Yangtso and Madam Xu, conferring in low tones in the tea room.
They became silent as soon as he entered.
“I’m sorry, Zuko. You and I have a lot to talk about, but I’m afraid right now we’re dealing with urgent White Lotus business. Can you wait for me in the gardens?” Uncle said.
“Actually,” Yangtso piped up. “I would like it if Zuko could listen to what I’m about to tell you. He’s the only reason I’ve made it this far.”
Uncle Iroh and Madam Xu looked unconvinced, but allowed Zuko to come sit down at the table beside Uncle, facing Yangtso.
“As I was saying,” Yangstso began, throwing Zuko a quick smile, “ever since my capture I have become concerned for the fate of Shenyen’s work. I hope you have trusted copyists who can help.”
Yangtso unfolded a cloth bundle on the table in front of him. Carefully sewn with string between two protective covers was a handmade book, some pages more yellowed than others.
“Many of us who survived Sozin’s Comet were young and still learning our traditions. But Ashti, one of the elders from the Eastern Air Temple, survived long enough to recognize the need to collect the teachings of our culture, so it would live on even if the Temples were destroyed and our people in hiding. The most ancient pages, copied by Shenyen and then myself, were written by Ashti. After Shenyen’s passing, I devoted myself to continuing her work of gathering stories of the Air Nomads—our traditions, festivals, games, bending techniques, songs, and legends. There are stories of survivors, of those we lost, and how they adapted and lived on.”
Yangtso’s bony, wrinkled hands touched the book’s pages lovingly.
“Apart from perhaps the University of Ba Sing Se and the mythical Spirit Library of Wan Shi Tong, there isn’t a larger collection of Air Nomad culture in the world.”
“May I see it?” Uncle Iroh asked, and at Yangtso’s nod, he very carefully took the book in his hands, turning the pages with a reverent expression.
“We will have it copied and keep it safe,” Madam Xu promised solemnly.
“It was Ashti and Shenyen’s wish, as it is mine, to see this book delivered to the Avatar, as a way to help him retain our traditions, and bring back the Air Nation into the world.”
Everyone was silent for a moment.
“The Avatar,” Zuko mouthed, frowning.
Yangtso caught his eye. “It is time I tell you, young Zuko, the reason I set out on this pilgrimage of mine in the first place,” he said.
“Four months ago, I started having a recurring dream. I dreamed of flying—gliding over forests and lakes and villages like we used to, so long ago. I dreamed Tashi was beside me, and he led me back home—to the Southern Air Temple. It was there that we found the Avatar, waiting for us. The dream was so vivid, the emotions so real—I became convinced this was a Spirit Vision. So I sold my house and gave away my things, so I could go back to the Southern Air Temple to meet with the Avatar.”
This was met with several reactions. Madam Xu scoffed in disbelief and shook her head. Uncle Iroh was rubbing his beard thoughtfully.
Zuko blurted out: “You think you’ll find the Avatar?”
“I do,” answered Yangtso.
“The Spirit World is filled with mysteries we will never comprehend. Your vision may well come true,” Iroh said. “If you want, we can take you there with Prince Zuko’s ship. We can leave you with enough provisions to last the winter.”
Yangtso bowed. “I would be honored.” But he was looking at Zuko while he said it.
After dinner, Zuko walked with his uncle around the luxurious, extravagant gardens of the mansion. They filled each other in on their adventures—Zuko’s stint as a circus performer, and Iroh’s constant struggle with Zhao’s meddling.
“I’ve been telling people you’re sick, but Zhao has grown suspicious. He’s increasingly harder to evade. I was actually about to declare you dead,” Uncle told him, growing serious.
Zuko sighed, rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Maybe you should,” he said finally.
“Uncle, I’m—I’m really sorry for not telling you. I’m sorry I hurt you by running away. But… I’m not ready to go back. Maybe I won’t ever be.”
Uncle rubbed his beard, looking at him. “What do you want to do, then?”
Zuko hesitated before saying: “I think… I think I want to go with Yang. Yangtso. I feel this is something I need to see through to the end.”
“And if he finds the Avatar… what will you do then?” Uncle asked. He had stopped short and looked at Zuko like he was trying to find something.
“I don’t know,” Zuko answered honestly, after a while.
Uncle Iroh nodded, still grave. And then he smiled softly and hugged Zuko once more.
“My nephew, as I told you before, I’m here for you. I am proud of you, of the loyal, caring and kind person you have become. I trust you will make the right choice, when the time comes.”
The boat trip to the Southern Air Temple was much more relaxing and comfortable than any other part of their trip so far. But somehow Zuko still felt anxious, being back in his Fire Nation crimson, surrounded by helmeted Fire Nation soldiers. He mostly kept to his old cabin, but after a while the silence started to bother him. The space was suddenly too dark, too small, too airless. Getting up from his third failed attempt at meditation, he went to Iroh’s larger cabin.
He found his uncle and the airbender in the middle of an unhurried, quiet Pai Sho match. He refused Uncle’s offer of tea and sat down with his back to them, facing the lone porthole in the cabin. Listening to the quiet background sounds—occasional mutters, the clink of teacups, tiles being moved on the board—he repeated the chakra meditation Yangtso had taught him, focusing on each energy point, trying to sort out the emotions associated with each one.
His fear of fire, of his father, of the Fire Nation soldiers. The fear of failure that he’d been carrying all his life. His guilt at running away, easier to face now that he had Iroh’s forgiveness. The pain of losing Lu Ten, his mother—the memory of the Agni Kai, of being burned, of his father choosing to burn him. The terrible shame of begging for mercy in front of his father, of losing his bending, of what his own family had done to the world.
He’d been through it several times before, but it was easier now to identify those emotions, acknowledge them, and work on letting them go, at least temporarily.
He went further still, to the chakras of truth and insight, thinking of the lies he’d been told about the war, his nation, the Air Nomads. And the lies he’d clung to in his desperation, that his father would love him if he only fulfilled his mission, that his father could love him for being himself and not the ideal Crown Prince that the Firelord wanted.
By the time he was finished, he was hungry and sweaty, but he felt calmer than he’d been in a long time.
Saying goodbye to his uncle was more difficult than he’d thought it would be. A surge of emotion caught in his throat as he embraced Uncle at the deserted shore.
“Please use the hawk I gave you. I’d like to know how you’re doing, and please let me know if you need anything,” Uncle Iroh said.
“Yes, Uncle. I will,” Zuko managed to croak.
“Evading Captain Zhao has become a very interesting game of subterfuge and strategy. I might have to move around a lot, but I’m sure that the hawk will find me eventually,” Uncle said.
Along with the hawk, Uncle Iroh left them with plenty of provisions, warm clothes and blankets, and a komodo rhino to carry their luggage. Saying goodbye to the crew and his Uncle, Zuko led the komodo rhino, with Yangtso perched on the seat, onto the narrow road that would take them to the Southern Air Temple.
The climb was slow but steady. After a few hours, they were halfway up the mountain. They had a good view of the smaller mountains around them, the deep crevasses, and in the distance, the sea, where Zuko’s former ship was making its way further south. The ship looked so small and old—sad and downtrodden, like the former prince Zuko had been. Looking up ahead into the zig-zagging, steep path in front of them, the clouds above them, and the mountains around them, Zuko felt free.
“This was much faster on a flying bison,” Yangtso commented as they took a break to eat after carefully passing through the crumbling rocks left over by a rockslide.
Zuko looked at him, interested. He remembered paintings and statues of flying bison decorating all the temples.
“Did you have one?” he asked.
Yangtso looked into the distant mountains covered by fog, lost in memories.
“Yes,” he answered finally. “For a short while. She was a calf, shy and sweet and loving. I named her Princess, for some reason. Leaving her behind was—it broke my heart.” His voice wavered, and he was crying, but he kept talking. “The Fire Nation was looking for the flying bison. It was too dangerous to keep them—for us and for them. But I was so young… Shenyen slapped me when she caught me sneaking out to find Princess. I understand now, the kind of pressure and stress she was under. But it was still harsh, and cruel. It still hurts, to this day.”
Zuko kept quiet, looking at the mountains around them, trying to imagine them circled by herds of flying bison.
The Southern Air Temple was cold and empty. Like the last time he’d been there, taken a look around, determined nobody had been there for decades, and left. But now, seeing it through Yangtso’s recollections and stories, Zuko saw other things he’d missed the first time: the purpose of the yard with high poles at uneven heights (a game called airball), the function of the circles painted in the courtyards (to practice circle walking), the remnants of a people who’d lived and played and slept. The first day, they searched for one of the better preserved, warmest dormitories, cleaned it, and settled in to rest.
For the next few days, they wandered through the crumbling temple, taking note of the stairways that were no longer safe, grabbing what was salvageable and cleaning and fixing what they could. The kitchens were back in business after a thorough scrubbing, and Zuko was surprised and relieved to find that the communal bathrooms still had running water. After fixing a few pipes and turning on the ancient heater, they even had warm water to use. Zuko lit the fire using spark rocks, not thinking about anything else than a warm bath.
Being at the temple sparked Yangtso’s memory, and using some of the parchment Uncle Iroh had given them, he spent a few hours a day writing down what he could remember.
Scattered here and there were the reminders that a cruel battle had taken place. Zuko recognized the old Fire Nation helmets and pieces of armor partially buried under the snow. A couple of rooms were scorched, wall to ceiling, and full of dusty ashes and grime. He avoided those. Whenever he could, he picked up the helmets and pieces of uniform, and gathered up the bones of the fallen, and took them to the ossuary Yangtso had shown him, in a chilly and isolated mountaintop away from the main temple.
One afternoon at dusk, wandering the pathways that crisscrossed the mountain around the temple, Zuko found the skeletons of a single Air Nomad and a whole squadron of firebenders. The scene chilled him to the bone. He fled back to the safety of the dormitory.
That evening, as they had dinner in a small dining room with an open window looking to the setting sun, Zuko put down his bowl with a clatter.
“Anything the matter, Zuko?” Yangtso asked.
“It’s horrible,” Zuko said. “What my nation—my family —did to your people. And to the rest of the world. Growing up, we were told we were helping them—bringing progress and technology to people who had nothing. But that’s not true. All we do is bring destruction, and misery. It isn’t right!”
“It isn’t,” Yangtso agreed gravely.
“If I could, I’d—I’d stop the war. I’d try to make amends. Try to help all the people we’ve harmed all these years of war.”
“Is that truly what you want to do?” Yangtso asked.
Zuko sat up straighter and looked at the orange and pink sky, open before him.
“Yes,” he said, determined.
Yangtso smiled, wide and proud. “You may be a banished prince, but you have your own power, Zuko. You should talk to your uncle about your decision. I believe he feels the same way.”
“He does, doesn’t he?” Zuko muttered to himself, realizing the truth of those words. Uncle worked with the White Lotus. He would be willing to help Zuko.
Comforted, Zuko picked up his bowl to continue his meal.
“Zuko, come! There’s something I want to show you,” Yangtso called one day in the late morning as Zuko was practicing with his swords in a courtyard.
Yangtso looked particularly excited as he felt the wind and led Zuko up a crumbling flight of steps into a wide open-air platform, which they’d used before as a lookout.
“Today’s just right for this, I can feel it. I haven't flown since that time in town, and that was mostly instinct and desperation. Let me make a practice round to check I have it,” Yangtso said, and opened the glider.
He cheerfully jumped off the platform and Zuko ran to the edge, scared for a moment, before he saw Yangtso’s thin figure rise up with the glider, twisting and twirling in a way only airbenders could. Zuko smiled as Yangtso sped past him, laughing, and dove deep before regaining his altitude and coming back to land on the platform.
Yangto’s cheeks were flushed with energy and his eyes were twinkling. “This is really something you can’t forget!” he said as he approached Zuko. “Want to try?” he asked.
Zuko looked over the edge to the drop below. “I don’t think it’s something I can do,” he said, but Yangtso directed him to place himself on top of the glider, behind Yangtso.
“It’s going to be a bit uncomfortable, but me and Tashi used to do this back when we were kids,” Yangtso said. “We need to run together to the edge. On three. One, two, three!”
They ran to the edge and Zuko could feel Yangtso’s airbending lift them up, high up above the ground. The trees, buildings of the temple, and the valley below looked small, and around them there was only twirling, spinning blue sky.
And then Yangtso started to lose control of the glider, and Zuko, acting on instinct, turned the wing back, angled towards the take-off platform. Yangtso made an air cushion to soften their fall.
“Clearly I’m out of practice,” Yangtso panted, but he was smiling wide. Zuko couldn’t help but smile in return.
“Flying seems pretty fun,” he said, a bit longingly.
Yangtso looked at him and grinned. “I know just the place! Grab on again—it’ll be faster than walking.” Zuko was unsure, but at Yangtso’s pleading look, he relented.
Yangtso took them, with better control this time, to the other side of the temple, where three platforms were spread out by the side of the mountain, one above the other, like rice terraces. Yangtso landed on the highest one and explained: “This is where the youngest kids came to practice with their gliders. It doesn’t require a lot of bending—in fact, you can just glide down.” To demonstrate, Yangtso let a strong air current lift him up from the ground and he glided down the terraces, landing softly on the lowest one. Then he flew back to Zuko’s side, and handed him the glider.
“Face the wind when you take off, and when you land. You can try with a short jump and move on to longer ones if you want,” he said.
Zuko took the glider carefully and breathed in and out. And then he ran, holding on tight to the glider, and as the wind picked it up, he felt his feet lift off the ground—and for a few glorious, exhilarating seconds, he was flying . And then he turned the glider, and the wind blew him away and he tumbled down to the ground in a heap.
“Are you okay?” Yangtso’s concerned voice called out to him. Zuko got up, groaning, feeling the parts that would bruise later, and he picked up the glider and checked it for any scrapes.
He walked back to Yangtso. “Can I try that again?” he asked, grinning.
Yangtso grinned back. “Why of course.”
The Southern Air Temple was cold, empty, and isolated, and there wasn’t much to do but clean, forage for wild squashes, and wait. Zuko was dedicating a lot of time for meditation, gliding practice just for fun, and circle walking when he got bored of the same old sword katas.
Zuko had never felt more at peace. Perhaps it was the comforting routine, or the lack of pressure—whether it was the pressure to live up to his father's expectations, or just to survive one more day.
One afternoon, Zuko was out in the courtyard, taking advantage of the sunlight to do some exercise. He started circle walking almost immediately, because it felt good to move with the breeze blowing around him. He closed his eyes for a moment and let the wind move him, without caring for the proper forms or the order of the movements, just allowing his body to flow freely from one step to another. The breeze was cold, but his body felt warm. It was a different warmth from the fire that used to rage inside him—it was a soft, diffused warmth, like the sea breeze on Ember Island. For a moment, there was nothing but his breath, and the wind, and his body moving in it, light as a leaf.
When he opened his eyes, he saw Yangtso at one of the entrances, looking at him with a wide, shocked look on his face.
“What—?” he started to ask, but then Yangtso picked up an empty bucket Zuko had used to mop the hallways that morning, and put it up on a low wall.
“Zuko. Use your bending. Hit the bucket,” Yangtso said intently.
“Do it, Zuko. Trust me. Hit the bucket.”
Nonplussed, Zuko made a punching motion at the bucket—and to his absolute shock, an air current toppled it over the wall.
He looked at his hands in disbelief. “That was you?” he asked Yangtso.
“No. That wasn’t me. That was you , Zuko,” Yangtso said, mirroring his shocked face.
Zuko turned and punched the air—a current of air moved a tree, dislodging snow and cracking a dry branch. He did a spinning kick and an air whip shaved the upper branches off a bush. He closed his eyes and did the circle walking moves again, and this time he could feel, consciously, what he’d unconsciously been doing this whole time—he wasn’t just moving with the breeze, but moving it around him, bending it around his arms, through his legs, from his breath.
He stopped and turned to look at Yangtso, who was smiling at him, a gaping sort of smile, like he was contemplating a miracle.
“I can airbend,” Zuko said stupidly.
“You can airbend,” Yangtso confirmed in the same tone.
Zuko let out a huff of breath. A part of him was in shock, in mute disbelief. Distantly, he thought that less than a year ago he’d have been horrified to get his bending back only to have become an airbender . But the part rising to the surface now was just a deep, absolute relief . He laughed out loud, giddily.
“You got your bending back,” Yangtso whispered, awed.
Zuko jumped right in front of Yangtso—too long a jump, unnatural for a non-bender—and hugged him, hard.
And then a sudden, marvelous, wonderful thought struck him.
“Yang,” he said. “I think I’m finally ready to fly.”
Chapter 8: Aang
One last time, I want to thank my sister for her comments and encouragement, Beep for excellent beta-reading (this story would surely be worse without Beep's keen sight for mistakes, inconsistencies and weird phrasing) and sunny for a playlist that hits every spot, which you can find here.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Flying was amazing . Zuko thought he’d give up firebending a million times as long as he could rise high up in the air, leaving the world behind for a while. He knew some talented firebenders could lift up in the air with their power (Zuko had never been one of them) but this was something else—this was freedom, this was beauty, this was life .
He did a loop-de-loop in the air, just because he could, and he whooped as he came out of it. He noticed, with a start, that he’d lost sight of the Temple. Years of practice made him look for the sun automatically, and he noticed that it was lower in the sky than he’d thought.
“Whoops,” he said, remembering he’d promised to help Yangtso with dinner, before turning around and heading back in the direction of the Temple. It was easy to lose himself in flying, his thoughts focused only on the present. As he approached the temple, he aimed for the courtyard closest to the kitchens, but as he descended, he noticed too late that he was coming in too fast for the landing. Just in time, he put up a blast of air to cushion his fall, but he still rolled a bit before landing in an ungainly heap.
His landings needed a bit more work.
He got up, dusted himself off, and picked up the glider, setting it carefully beside the kitchen door as he entered.
“Sorry I’m late!” he called, and grimaced as he saw that dinner was practically ready.
Yangtso smiled indulgently. “Never mind, Zuko. You can do the cleanup. Will you set the table?”
As soon as he was back on land, his doubts started to crop back up. During dinner, Zuko stared at his bowl of squash soup and blurted out: “Am I the Avatar?”
Yangtso looked up but didn’t look particularly surprised. He clasped his fingers together, thinking.
“You said you’ve never had dreams or visions of any past lives,” he started. Zuko shook his head. “And you still cannot bend fire. Or earth, or water,” Yangtso continued.
Zuko tried to bend the soup from his bowl to no avail.
“No,” he said.
“I’ve spent all my life gathering information on the Air Nomads and airbending. I’m by no means an expert in bending, or spiritual matters, but I know that scholars have written about bending for centuries, trying to figure out its rules and limitations. I’m not sure there are any, though, not set in stone. For example: all the Air Nomads were airbenders. Compare this with the ratio of non-benders in the Earth Kingdom. What’s the difference?”
“I’ve never thought about it,” Zuko admitted.
“Perhaps my people were more spiritual in nature. Perhaps it was simply a necessity of living high up in the mountains. And why did so many of my people lose their bending, sometimes permanently, after the Comet? Was it a necessity of hiding, adaptation for survival? Or was it because many of us lost the spiritual connection we had while living as Nomads?”
Zuko listened as he ate his soup, frowning.
“Consider this, too: several of the former airbenders I came in contact with in my life married and had children, and some of them were earthbenders. Jin’s twins were earthbenders, and there wasn't a single known earthbender in their father’s family. We know having benders as parents makes children more likely to be benders as well. But not always. And what happens when, say, an earthbender and a firebender marry in the colonies? What will their children be? Firebenders, earthbenders, non-benders?”
“Oh! I’ve heard of cases like that. It can be any of those. It’s unpredictable. Which is why my father was opposed to us marrying anyone from the colonies,” Zuko said, remembering terrifying conversations from long ago.
“Exactly. Unpredictable. We know bending has a biological component, perhaps, but I think it is also spiritual in nature. It embodies the spirit of our respective cultures, and is thus passed down from adults to their children. But if you have undergone a deep spiritual transformation, who’s to say your bending can’t change as well?”
Zuko shrugged. “I’ve just never heard of anything like this,” he said.
“Frankly, neither have I. But you’re young: young people are always more malleable, better able to change deeply—not like us old folks. The former airbenders I met, later in life, had all been young when they escaped. The tattoos certainly made the older folk more recognizable, but also—I think they had a harder time adapting to the sudden change. Shenyen, she—she’d been known at the Eastern Air Temple for her daring feats of bending. She’d been strong and energetic. But after the Comet, she… she lost that energy. She became frail and sickly, and died a premature death...” Yangtso trailed off, lost in thought.
“So I changed? And my bending changed with me?” Zuko asked, still dubious.
“That’s my best guess,” Yangtso said.
“Then why didn’t you become an earthbender, after living all your life in the Earth Kingdom?” Zuko asked.
Yangtso shrugged. “Maybe some of my people did, and they’d never admit it, or no one would believe them. But I—I held on to my identity as a former Air Nomad with everything I had—afraid that if I let go, we would all fade into obscurity, like we’d never existed… Regardless of all that—maybe the most important question is: are you happy, being an airbender?”
Zuko didn’t have to think about it. He smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I am. It’s a little different from firebending, but it feels good. It feels comfortable. It feels… right , for me.”
Yangtso smiled brightly. “Then that’s it, really.”
It was true. It felt good, and comfortable, and right. He’d been using circular movements for years with his dual swords, and he discovered that he could use many of the firebending movements with airbending. Yangtso was teaching him what he knew, which was limited by years of not practicing, and by the fact that he’d been less than halfway to Mastery by the time the Fire Nation destroyed the Air Temples.
It was still great to bend after years of not being able to do so, even if the element was different. And it was exhilarating to jump off a cliff and rise up into the air on the glider. Zuko was quickly becoming addicted. Any time he could spare, he borrowed Yangtso’s glider and ran off, leaving Yangtso muttering, half-amused and half-rueful, about “youthful energy.”
One chilly morning, as Zuko was circling the Temple and practicing his mid-air twirls to warm up, he caught sight of something on the horizon. He dismissed it as a lone cloud at first and kept on flying, but the next time he looked in that direction, he noticed with sudden alarm that it was much closer—and it was coming their way. He dove directly to the walled-in garden where Yangtso was meditating.
“Something’s coming here!” Zuko gasped out.
Yangtso opened his eyes. “What is it? Is it a Fire Nation ship?”
“No, it’s—something’s coming from the air ,” Zuko said.
Yangtso stood up, a look of wonder in his eyes. “Today is the day. Zuko, take us up! I want to see,” he said, and he gestured for Zuko to open the glider and got onto the back. Zuko had never flown with the weight of another person before, even if Yangtso was relatively light, and it took a few tries to get off the ground.
Once they were up in the air, they saw the approaching object clearly, much closer now: it was, impossibly, amazingly, a flying bison. Zuko directed the glider towards it, and they approached at a steady pace.
There were some people on the bison’s saddle. One of them, a bald boy with orange robes and blue tattoos, was waving wildly. Moments later, the boy took out his own glider and jumped off the bison’s saddle, flying with absolute ease and speed towards them.
“Yangtso, is that—? Is that really—?” Zuko bit out, but Yangtso could only grasp the glider tightly, speechless.
The boy reached them and spun around them dizzyingly, chattering all the while: “Hi! I don’t know you guys! But I knew there would be people here, I’m so glad to see you! How’s everything? Hey are there fruit pies in the kitchens? Sokka’s been complaining all morning because I used all his meat to light the campfire so fruit pies would be great! Why are you two on the same glider, isn’t it uncomfortable?”
Yangtso let out a gasp, and he blurted out: “Aang! Aang, is that really you? But you’re so young! How can this be?”
Zuko felt Yangtso’s nerveless fingers start to loosen their grip and he panicked.
“Yang, hold on! I need to land!” he yelled and grabbed for Yangtso, somehow closing the glider in the process and sending them both plummeting towards the ground. He was stopped by the boy’s—Aang’s—hand on his arm. Aang whistled and the flying bison sped towards them, angling his back so that Zuko and Yangtso fell right into the saddle.
Concerned with keeping Yangtso from falling first, Zuko shielded him with his body and landed heavily on another of the figures in the saddle, a boy in Water Tribe blues who cursed as they fell on him: “Augh, what the f—”
The bison roared as he lifted up again, Aang landing softly on his head.
“You okay back there?” he asked.
“Ow, that hurt! I’m starving and I’m hurt!” the Water Tribe boy cried in indignation.
Zuko rubbed his hurt elbow and shoulder and straightened up. “Sorry! Sorry about that,” he said. Yangtso had sat up in the saddle, looking around it, and at the flying bison, and at the tattooed boy, in awed silence.
The kids were looking at them in surprise.
“Uh, hi. Zuko here. This is—this is Yangtso. Sorry for the, um, crash. I’m still not the best at landings,” he said.
A girl in Water Tribe clothes made the introductions: “I’m Katara, and that’s my brother Sokka. Are you really airbenders? I didn’t think there would be any at the Temple.”
“Of course they’re airbenders, you saw them fly!” Aang replied, and then frowned in hesitation. “Although you don’t look like monks. Where are the others? This is normally full of bison and gliders flying around.”
“We’re the only ones,” Zuko replied, when it became clear that Yangtso was still too shocked to speak.
“Oh,” Aang replied, frowning harder.
He directed the bison to land in a wide courtyard at the bottom of the Temple, which Zuko knew used to be the stables for flying bison.
Zuko got down carefully, his knees wobbly with adrenaline. He looked at the giant flying bison in front of him. “Is this…?” he wondered out loud. He had the sudden urge to pet the soft-looking fur, but he hesitated.
“That’s Appa! I think he likes you!” Aang said cheerfully as the bison smelled Zuko and proceeded to lick him with a big, slimy tongue.
Yangtso was petting Appa unreservedly with a soft smile on his face.
Zuko turned to look at him. “Is he—,” he pointed at Aang, “is he the Avatar?”
“He is,” Yangtso answered confidently. And then his face fell into a deep sadness. “He’s just a child,” he muttered.
Aang—the Avatar —was whirling around the place with boundless energy, showing his friends around enthusiastically.
“Zuko! Yangtso!” he called out to them from a distance. “Come play airball with me!”
Yangtso huffed and shook his head ruefully. Then he pushed Zuko forward. “Go,” he said.
Zuko ran up to Aang, who was deftly maneuvering a hollow ball with his airbending. “Oh, so that’s what you do with it,” he muttered to himself. To Aang, he said: “I don’t know how to play.”
“Come up here, I’ll show you!” Aang replied, grinning.
The game was fast-paced and dizzying. Zuko almost fell from the poles a couple of times. In a few minutes, it became clear to him that Aang’s skill as an airbender was much higher than his, that of a real Master. At least he’d managed to score one goal to Aang’s thirteen by the end of the game.
“That was pretty good, for your first time playing!” Aang said as they jumped down from the poles.
“I’ve still got a lot to learn, though,” said Zuko with a sigh.
From the sides, where he’d been watching the game with the Water Tribe siblings, Yangtso piped up: “Aang was a prodigy from the time he started bending. He was the youngest airbending Master in Air Nomad history.”
Aang looked a bit uncomfortable at that, and Zuko muttered to himself, “...surrounded by prodigies.”
“You have quick reflexes and great balance. You’ll make a great airball player soon!” Aang said encouragingly. “You know, I remember there was a boy who’d always get thrown through the goal ring because he was constantly distracted.”
“Oh.” Yangtso stopped in his tracks as they were turning towards the path to the temple. “That was me.” He looked embarrassed.
Zuko laughed out loud, but tried to compose himself when Yangtso glared at him.
“Really?” Aang looked at him, searching his face. “Yangtso… Yangtso… oh, Little Yang! The shy kid who was always hiding behind Sangit and Tashi, right?” he said in recognition.
“Yes,” Yangtso coughed awkwardly. “That was me.”
Zuko grinned. “Sounds cute,” he said.
“Shush, you!” Yangtso said, but he was smiling.
Zuko cackled, and Aang looked between them, baffled.
“It’s still so hard to believe that a hundred years have passed,” Aang said. “So, Zuko. Are you his grandson? Isn’t Zuko a Fire Nation name?” he said, looking at him.
Still chuckling, Zuko shrugged. “He’s sort of an adoptive grandpa,” he said, and Yangtso pulled him into a quick side-hug. “But yeah, I’m er, originally from the Fire Nation.”
“He used to be a firebender,” Yangtso said, doting like a proud grandpa.
The three newcomers stopped and stared at him.
“It’s a long story,” Yangtso said. “As mine is, and as I’m sure yours is, Aang. Why don’t we go have some tea and talk about it?”
“Is there any meat? Please tell me you have meat,” asked Sokka with shining eyes.
“Sure. My uncle packed me some jerky somewhere,” Zuko said.
“You may be Fire Nation, but you are now my saviour,” Sokka exclaimed dramatically.
“Aren’t you vegetarians like Aang?” Katara asked.
Zuko turned to Yangtso, horrified. “Will I have to become a vegetarian now? Is that why we’re only eating squash soup? Will I lose my bending if I eat spicy komodo chicken?”
It was Yangtso’s turn to cackle.
It was almost sundown when they had finished eating and telling their stories, and they had gone with Aang to the sanctuary to see if they could find the mysterious person who, according to Monk Gyatso, would teach him how to become the Avatar.
There was nothing but a long line of statues of previous Avatars. As the others wandered around the room, Aang paused in front of the most recent statue, and Zuko stopped behind him. He was a Fire Nation Avatar, he realized.
“That must be Avatar Roku,” Zuko commented. “They never really told us much about him in our lessons. They made him sound old and useless. I don’t know if that is true, though…”
But Aang didn’t reply. He was looking at the statue’s stone eyes, lost in a trance.
“Aang?” he asked, shaking the boy lightly.
Aang snapped out of it, blinking, and looked at Zuko. “Sorry, I was—I had the feeling Roku was trying to tell me something. Something important,” he frowned.
Before Zuko could make any other comment, they heard a high-pitched scream from the entrance. Sokka was waving his boomerang at a figure that had appeared at the entrance to the sanctuary. When they got closer to look, they found—
“Lemur!” Aang exclaimed happily, and forgetting the topic of Avatar Roku, jumped after the creature.
He ran unnaturally fast. Zuko tried to catch up with him but he wasn’t a match for the Master airbender. He noticed Aang was using airbending to propel himself forwards. But how? Aang jumped through a window, used airbending to follow the lemur down into a shady courtyard, and disappeared through one of the darkened hallways. Zuko didn’t hesitate to jump, only realizing while he was up in the air that he had no idea how Aang had made those twirling movements to lower himself down. He used the air cushion to break his fall and followed after Aang, grinning.
He found the boy perched on the rail of a crumbling balcony, feeding a peach to the lemur and petting it.
“Look, he loves peaches! I think I’ll name him Momo!” Aang said happily.
“I cannot believe we’ve been here a month and hadn’t seen a lemur until today,” Zuko commented, approaching carefully.
“Animals love me,” the boy replied. He continued petting the lemur in silence. Not knowing what to say, Zuko kept quiet, looking at the rosy orange glow of dusk.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Aang said quietly. Zuko turned to look at his suddenly sad face. “Yangtso’s story… it’s a lot to take in. Even seeing the temple like this… it’s hard to believe the Fire Nation really did destroy my people.”
Zuko lowered his gaze in sudden shame and anger at his own family. He caught sight of the faded scars on his palms, where the Eternal Flame had burned him. It had burned him so badly because he had refused to let go, he remembered. He’d been so desperate... It had only been that terrible pain that let him realize he wasn’t getting his fire back, and set him on this path. Where would he be now without that painful realization?
Then he looked up. “Maybe there’s something you should see,” he said.
Aang, with Momo on his shoulder, followed Zuko in silence to the lone tent where the bodies still lay, untouched. It had a creepy air about it—Zuko avoided that part of the temple entirely. He hesitated at the entrance, suddenly having second thoughts. His painful realization had been, well, very painful .
“Maybe we shouldn’t. It’s—,” he started to say. But Aang was already stepping past him and into the tent. He heard him gasp and take another step inside. Zuko followed him.
“No,” Aang was saying. His voice was thick and choked. “Gyatso— NO —this was all my fault—I ran away —”
And before he could step closer, Aang's tattoos and eyes began to glow, and a whirlwind formed around him, lifting him up into the air. Momo flew out and hit Zuko in the chest, then hid in his shirt.
Zuko tried to approach Aang but the wind intensified, and he was thrown backwards as the ragged tent was whipped away. The boy, who moments before had been a normal twelve-year-old, was now an unearthly being, all-powerful and mad with grief. Zuko had no idea what to do.
Then Katara came running into the courtyard, followed by her brother, and Yangtso in his glider. Fighting against the gale winds, Katara tried to approach the Avatar.
“The statues all lit up! What happened?” she yelled as she came in line with Zuko, sprawled and holding on for dear life on the ground.
“I tried to show him—I’m so sorry—I had no idea it was Gyatso,” Zuko yelled back.
“You did what ?” she rounded on him, angry, but then she looked back at Aang with concern. “Never mind. We need to calm him down! Help me get close to him!”
Making a bubble of calm through gale winds was the hardest bending he’d done so far. Aang had the power of the Avatar, and it was like blowing air through his mouth against a storm. In the end, he settled for using his weight to push Katara forward through the wind.
She shouted over the wind as they got closer. Of her mother and her grief, of his grief, and of the new family he had.
“Sokka and I are your family now!” she called out. And turning to glance back at Zuko, she added: “And your people are not completely gone! You still have Yangtso, and Zuko!”
Aang seemed to be calming down, the gale force winds dissipating, his tattoos losing the unearthly glow. Katara embraced him as he fell, and he cried in her arms freely. Zuko looked away, awkward.
“I’m sorry,” Aang whispered to Katara.
“Don’t be,” she replied, holding him tighter.
“It was still my fault for running away,” he said.
Zuko stepped up to him and awkwardly patted Aang’s shoulder. “I ran away too,” he started. “And even though he’s forgiven me, I know it really hurt my uncle. But if I hadn’t—I wouldn’t be here at all. Running away brought me here. It gave me my bending back. Maybe running away saved your life. And now you have a chance to stop this war.”
Momo chose that moment to peek out from Zuko’s shirt and perch again on Aang’s shoulder.
Slowly, Sokka and Yangtso stepped up to them. Sokka hugged his sister and Aang. As they pulled apart, Yangtso stepped up to Aang, eyes somber.
“You were a child. You are still a child. That is too young to shoulder the responsibility of saving the world. I do not blame you for running away. In fact, it probably saved not only your life, but mine and Tashi’s, and Jampa’s, and Sonam’s, and… and all of those who were sent out to look for you.”
“I—thanks, Yangtso,” Aang said, rubbing his eyes. Then he looked at the horizon with determination. “I won’t run away this time, I promise.”
“And I won’t allow you to fight this war on your own,” Yangtso promised.
They bowed to each other.
Aang looked at Zuko. “You guys should come with us! Now that we’re the only airbenders left, we should stick together. I can also teach you all I know!”
Yangtso smiled ruefully. “I am too old to be traveling around with the Avatar, evading the Fire Nation.”
Zuko looked at Aang, then at Yangtso. “I want to help, and I want to learn, but… I came here to help Yangtso. I’m not leaving him alone.”
Yangtso came up to Zuko. “There’s no need to worry about me. My work here is done—I considered my destiny fulfilled when you gained your airbending, Zuko. As Tashi used to say, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ I don’t need to stay here. It is time for me to go back to the White Lotus and help them work with the Avatar to end this war.”
Zuko smiled widely. “Thanks, old man.”
They said goodbye at Madam Xu’s estate. She had been understandably shocked at seeing the flying bison landing on her manicured gardens. As Katara, Aang and Sokka tried to calm her down, Yangtso pulled Zuko away from the others.
“This is where our roads diverge, finally,” he said.
“I—I don’t know what to say. Um. Please take care? Oh, and give my letter to Uncle if you see him. I already sent the hawk but you might get to see him first.”
“It will be done,” Yangtso reassured him, patting the letter in his pocket.
“Thank you. For everything. You helped a lot, even when—when I wasn’t sure if I deserved it,” Zuko said haltingly.
“You helped me too, Zuko. I appreciate it more than you know. I hope I will see you, one day, get your own tattoos,” Yangtso said.
Zuko snorted. “Not soon, I think. As always, I have a lot to learn.”
“And as always, you only need to have patience and practice. I know you’ll do it,” Yangtso said with a wink. And then he held out his glider to Zuko. “Take this, please. I suspect it will serve you more than me.”
Zuko stared at him. “What? Really? No, I can’t—I can’t take this. It was Tashi’s, right? You said it was his most prized possession. You should keep it, as a—as a reminder.”
“People are not their possessions. Tashi kept this, repaired this, so that it could fly, not be a fancy walking stick. I am sure it will fly a lot, and well, with you,” Yangtso said, and he pressed the glider into Zuko’s hands.
“I don’t know what to say,” Zuko said, taking the glider reverently.
“There was an old airbender farewell. If I remember correctly, it goes: May the wind be your home and keep you aloft. May the zephyr comfort you. May the wild winds bring us back together one day.”
Zuko smiled, and said goodbye.
this story is dedicated to & in memory of my father, who had the spirit of a true airbender.
the title of this story comes from the song "Welcome Home, Son" by Radical Face. It's a homage to this Jean-Baptiste Chandelier video, which inspired my father as he was first learning to fly, and later me, as I was writing this.
may the wind be your home, dad.