|From the Ashes: A New Hope
Author: libraflyter PM
Once upon a time, Katara and Sokka did not discover the Avatar trapped in an iceberg. Ten years later, the Fire Nation rules a world on the edge of destruction. But all hope is not lost …Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure - Aang & Zuko - Chapters: 13 - Words: 64,196 - Reviews: 135 - Favs: 227 - Follows: 170 - Updated: 07-31-11 - Published: 10-31-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6441562
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From the Ashes: A New Hope
Disclaimer: I own nothing in relation to the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender or Star Wars. Nor do I claim ownership of any other shows or movies that influenced this work of fanfiction. This fic is for fun alone, and I hope that you get as much a kick out of reading it as I did writing it.
Summary: Once upon a time, Katara and Sokka did not discover the Avatar trapped in an iceberg. Ten years later, the Fire Nation rules a world on the edge of destruction. But all hope is not lost …
Beta'd by: shadydave. Without her efforts, this would still be two mediocre chapters on my hard drive with meandering tenses and worse characterization. Also, hyphen abuse. She's responsible for pushing me to finish this, as well as keeping me on track. If Aang says something that makes you laugh, it was probably her idea.
This story is complete, and will be updated once a week :D. I've learned my lesson from all my other poor, abandoned WIPs
Pairings: Mostly gen, some references to Yue/Sokka and Yue/Zuko
Rating: PG. Some swears.
A long time ago, in a world far far away…
After a century of war, the Fire Nation
has crushed nearly all hope of rebellion,
bringing war against the earth itself in
its attempt to raise an empire from the
ashes of the former four nations.
Without the Avatar, master of all four
elements and bridge to the Spirit World,
the Balance has been so upset the dead
walk the land. All that is left is survival…
"Goooooood morning, Captain Hotman!"
Zuko glared at the obnoxious kid scampering onto his ship, but before he could yell at him to get off, or even better, throw him overboard, his uncle climbed aboard behind him and gave him a significant look.
Zuko stifled a groan and studied his uncle's latest stray with exasperation. Instead of finding a potential paying passenger for the Hawkbat's next run to Suzaku, Iroh had turned up with yet another sorry-looking refugee. They were everywhere these days – burned out of their homes to make room for Fire Nation citizens, or those same citizens fleeing when the dead did not rest. Even in unlicensed ports like Tart's Cove, ragged children roamed the streets, begging and stealing what they could.
The kid lacked the hardened look of one long for the Cove. Without despair beating him down, he had a vitality that was almost infectious. His eyes were bright and gray as he returned Zuko's gaze, no sneer when he met the tell-tale yellow eyes. He barely flinched at Zuko's scarred face. Though given his low-slung cap and fingerless gloves in this heat, he probably had his own scars to hide.
He could hear Iroh murmuring on about how this kid – Aang, his name was Aang – would be an extra pair of hands for the journey north. Their last crewmate had taken off immediately upon landing, refusing to work another job with a Fire Nation captain even the Fire Nation despised.
At least Hakkun hadn't stolen everything on his way to shore.
He'd left them the sails.
Sensing his chance to get off this rock was fleeting, the kid opened his mouth and started talking. He gave a long sob story about pirates, and a theft, and something named Appa that was either his friend or his animal and how he had to get him back because he didn't have anyone and -
"Kid. Shut up." The kid stopped mid-sentence, his eyes comically wide. Zuko held up a hand. "Know anything about sailing?"
The kid was halfway through an incomprehensible story involving surfing and giant koi before Zuko could cut him off. "Yes or no?"
"Then get lost."
The boy's shoulders drooped. Zuko couldn't believe how easy to read this kid was. But he'd toughen up quick. He'd have to.
"Captain Zuko," his uncle began, always with that brief pause, that empty space where another title should have been.
Zuko resisted the urge to sigh. Of course, Iroh wouldn't let the matter go. He never did. Sometimes Zuko wondered if he was running a passenger line, as often as his uncle brought some needy soul onboard. But those men and women were savvy survivors, and they never offered up any explanation as to why they needed passage on a smuggler's ship. This suited Zuko just fine. He'd get an extra pair of hands for a voyage, and his uncle would be happy. But the kid was different. He'd be an outright charity case. And Zuko had no time for charity.
"I think it would behoove us to take this child on our journey," continued Iroh. "He may require some training, but Aang will be an eager learner." The kid nodded furiously. "And certainly," his uncle concluded, "we won't find another so willing to overlook any ... misunderstandings in these troubled times."
Why did he even bother bucking Iroh's will? The worst part was his uncle had a point. The Hawkbat needed a third crew member. It was a sorry state of affairs that the best they could do was a scrawny little street urchin, but Zuko had tried all the taverns. And bars. And whorehouses.
"Fine. The kid comes."
"Thanks, Captain Hotman!"
It was going to be a long voyage.
On leaving Tart's Cove, they made good time as the winds and waves were exceptionally kind. It was almost as easy a journey as those he'd had before the death of the moon. A lucky turn like that made Zuko nervous. Things never went this easy for him for long. Even the kid wasn't as bad as he'd worried. He took to Iroh's instruction well enough and was willing to climb anywhere that was asked of him. The more menial tasks Zuko had given him were also done with reasonable good cheer. The only penalty was listening to Aang's constant chirpy chatter. And questions. Lots of questions.
"Why is it called Tart's Cove? Didn't it used to be named Akime? Are they really famous for custard tarts?"
"Then why - "
"Ask my uncle."
"Why are we sticking so close to the shore? Wouldn't we make better time further out to sea?"
"I told you, it's not safe that far out from land."
"Even only ten miles?"
"Yes, even only ten miles."
"Then if we need to re-stock on water, why can't we just land in one of the coves on this coast?"
"This area isn't safe. Too many people were killed here, and they won't -"
"Hey, a dolphin-beetle!"
For a kid who couldn't have been more than a toddler when the comet came, he seemed incredibly ignorant of the most basic facts of life. Zuko tried not to give a damn about some stray's past, but no one was that clueless – where had this kid come from?
Zuko may have screamed that at one point, when Aang wanted to know why they were smuggling whale oil – wasn't that wrong?
Aang, of course, answered. A monastery. That explained a lot. And even if it hadn't, Aang would have.
"Aren't monks supposed to be silent?" Zuko growled as Aang cheerfully described some arcane monk-y ritual that for some reason involved cake and delicious fruit filling.
"Only on Thursdays. Although when I was younger, some of the monks used to tell my friends and I that we should have a contest to be quietest the longest. I think they were just trying to avoid talking to us, though, can you believe it? So how about you: cake or custard tarts?"
"If I answer, will you stop talking?"
"Cake. Now will you please be quiet?"
"What's your favorite flavor?"
Fortunately, Aang suddenly scampered after the sails he was supposed to be minding as a gust of wind kicked up before Zuko tried to throttle him.
Complaining about it to his uncle didn't help much, since he only nodded wisely and said "Yes, children can be rather difficult at that age." He did, however, start intercepting Aang whenever Zuko's eye started to twitch and he fantasized about tying the kid to the anchor.
Still, there were times when Zuko could have used the distraction – usually before dawn, when he had the last watch and only memories to keep him company. So he didn't object too much early one morning when Aang emerged from the hold to complain about Iroh's snoring, which somehow segued into a story about how he discovered Appa was allergic to mangos, and then to a detailed analysis of why it was a bad idea to juggle mangos while balancing on the back of a chair, complete with a dramatic re-enactment.
"Now this is how it's supposed to go," said Aang, still standing on one foot on the ship's rail. He had emptied his pockets of a rock (he insisted it looked like the absent Appa if you squinted right) along with a truly hideous orange handkerchief and was juggling both one-handed.
"If you fall in, I'm not fishing you out," said Zuko. He had to admit, the kid's balance was pretty good. He wondered if the monks had taught him juggling in a secret attempt to get him to run away and join the circus. That class was probably right after "Throwing Pastry Products at Unsuspecting Victims" but before "Annoying Everyone Around You," which Aang had obviously doubled up in. "Current Events" was apparently not offered.
"C'mon, I only fell because the lemur tried to steal my mango. Okay, now throw me that bucket!"
"And if you lose any of my stuff, I'm throwing you overboard to get it," said Zuko, but he picked up the bucket anyway.
"All right - one, two, three!"
Aang didn't fall in, though he did have to do an impressive little dance to stay on the railing when the ship rocked unexpectedly. He finished off by flipping the bucket on his head, catching the rock inside, and snatching the handkerchief out of the air. "Ta-daaaaaaaa!"
Zuko snorted, not that it deterred Aang from his performance. With a bow, he retrieved his rock and tossed the bucket back to Zuko, before plopping down on the rail as if it was not a sheer drop into chilly water behind him. "See? Told you I could do it."
"Yeah, well when I need someone to juggle random junk, I'll know who to call."
"Random junk," said Aang, beaming. "That's me!"
The corner of Zuko's mouth twitched. Another swell hit the ship, and Aang rocked dangerously backwards.
Zuko's hand shot out and snagged his shirt before he could fall. "Get off the rail and go check the forward lines. We should be leaving soon."
"Yes, sir!" said Aang, scampering off.
His uncle appeared on deck, yawning, and came went over to help Zuko weigh the anchor.
"I was wondering where Aang had gone," he said. Zuko rolled his eyes and refrained from pointing out that they were floating a mile off-shore; where else could Aang have gone? "I hope he was not bothering you."
"He wasn't asking any stupid questions."
"The only stupid questions are those that go unasked," said Iroh, never one to let the opportunity for a proverb pass.
"I'm pretty sure 'Why are the undead bad?' is a stupid question, Uncle."
Iroh frowned. "You may have a point, nephew. Aang is woefully uninformed about the modern world. I think it is our duty -"
Zuko dropped the anchor on deck with a thump. "If you want to teach him, Uncle, go right ahead, but I'm not – "
Iroh beamed delightedly. "Why, Zuko, what an excellent idea! I shall be happy to teach Aang."
Zuko sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Just keep him out of my hair."
"About that -"
"I don't need a haircut!"
Iroh dedicated himself to educating Aang on all he needed to know. Zuko was relieved because it gave his uncle something to do. And with the chatterbox occupied, Zuko could devote himself to the job at hand.
It wasn't like they needed money to eat or anything like that.
However, his dreams for a quiet voyage – well, an uneventful one anyway – ended when Iroh decided to take Aang's education to the next level. Firebending.
"Wh-what makes you think I'm a firebender?" Aang asked. He almost shrank into the rigging at Iroh's first mention of the idea.
That was a good question. He was flightier than most, but Zuko had pegged the kid for Earth. Water was too rare. And Fire? If you weren't in the loving arms of the Fire Nation, that was the last thing you'd want to be. Zuko had intimate experience on that point.
Iroh smiled. "I've a good sense for these matters, Aang. And as you've the excellent fortune to be on the only ship in the South Sea with two highly skilled firebenders onboard, there's no reason for you to delay. Or don't you want to be able to bend when you go to rescue your lost Appa?"
"But I'm not a firebender!"
"I think you are," Iroh said with gentle firmness. "And I think you have it in you to be a very good one."
Aang, ever the open scroll, was the picture of indecision. Zuko therefore decided for him.
"Uncle, we are carrying a cargo full of oil. Flammable oil. There will be no firebending."
"I trained you aboard a ship with far more dangerous materials."
Aang perked up at this. Great. Now the kid was curious. "What sort of ship was that?"
"It doesn't matter," Zuko snapped. "It was a long time ago."
"What happened to it?" Aang stopped swabbing the deck and settled in for story time.
"I SAID it doesn't matter!"
"Did you blow it up?"
"No, because I wasn't a total neophyte!"
Aang winced at the shout. Zuko gritted his teeth and seethed. His uncle's latest scheme was going to get them all killed.
"My nephew does raise a legitimate point," Iroh conceded. "Our location is not ideal for the beginning firebender. We shall have to take care. But some breathing exercises would not be amiss." He stared at Aang very closely. "I believe that you will find them quite familiar from your time at the … monastery."
Aang dropped his eyes and muttered his agreement.
"Uncle," ground out Zuko, "May I speak to you for a moment?"
"Of course, nephew," replied Iroh calmly, as though he had not just proposed the stupidest idea in the history of stupid ideas.
"Uncle, what -"
"Zuko, before you continue, could you answer one question for me?"
Zuko scowled but let his uncle continue.
"Which would be more dangerous: Aang learning the rudiments of control under my supervision, or an untrained firebender running loose on a ship that is, as you have pointed out, extremely flammable?"
"That – " said Zuko. "I – " He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Ten, nine, eight – I will not kill my uncle – six, five, four – or his obnoxious protégé – two, one.
"Fine," he managed.
Thus began Aang's lessons in firebending. Zuko wondered what his uncle would think of next for the stray. Sungi horn? Tea ceremony? The fine art of haiku? At least Iroh's instincts proved true. Aang's first lesson in candle meditation almost destroyed the Hawkbat's sails.
Iroh congratulated Aang on his natural power, and decided to rope Zuko into harnessing it.
"It is vital that we teach him control, nephew," Iroh said solemnly as he helped Zuko patch the new burn holes in the sails. Zuko wondered sourly whether Aang was his uncle's revenge for all his past transgressions. Though for once the kid was being quiet, probably because he was doing his best to hide behind the tiller. "Aang has great potential, but without our every effort, I fear it will only result in great destruction."
Just like every other firebender, Zuko thought. It'd be better off for everyone if they tossed the brat overboard. He wondered why he didn't.
Probably for the same reason the monks had settled for just kicking the kid out of their monastery. There was something weirdly charismatic about the kid, though that hadn't been enough to spare him. All it would have taken was one small "accident" for them to realize their charge wasn't just an orphan, but firebending spawn of the enemy. No wonder he was so quick to deny his potential. Zuko soon left the meditative exercises to his uncle and started Aang on the forms that were the basis of firebending. With a past like that, he needed to know more than how to breathe right. At the very least, he'd be aiming away from the ship.
Unfortunately, Aang had a hard time remembering these practices should be silent.
"Why don't you and your uncle live in the Fire Nation?"
"We aren't welcome there." Obviously.
"But why?" Aang moved through his assigned combination. His stance was off. "And where'd you get your scar?"
Zuko glared at him and said nothing, hoping he'd get the message and shut up. He did reach out and correct Aang's position. The rocking motion of the ship encouraged a fluid sense of balance, but it made finding the root harder. His silence only encouraged Aang.
"Back at the Cove, I heard lots of stories about you, like that you were about to marry a Fire Nation lady, only her family hated you and then they set you on fire before the wedding, or that you and your uncle killed a bunch of people and then the mob almost got you but you ran away –"
Despite the fact they couldn't exactly afford much more damage to the ship, Zuko began perversely hoping that Aang would lose control again so he could douse him with a bucket of bilge water. There were much easier ways of containing accidental fires, of course, but they wouldn't be nearly so satisfying.
"-or that your uncle used to be a prince and so did you but then you turned traitor and were sentenced to death, or that you're just a jerk who suffered a terrible bakery accident and then got banished because you got a crappy haircut to fix it. I think the last one makes the most sense."
"What? There is nothing wrong with my hair!" Zuko kicked himself for responding. Though what was so bad about his hair? It may have been a bit … scruffy … but it wasn't like he could go to the royal barber these days. Before he could continue down that path, he snapped to the kid, "You're still not balanced, move your feet wider apart."
"If I ask nicely, will you bake us cookies?"
"Even if I said please?"
Zuko deeply regretted their lack of disposable objects, because he really wanted to destroy something right now. "No. Our past is our own, and asking questions like that to the wrong person will get you killed. You're damn lucky my uncle found you, because you'd be dead in the Cove by now."
Aang wilted. It was a full body wilt. "I was just curious." He looked up at Zuko, eyes big. "You and your uncle have been so kind to me. I just want to understand you better. We could be friends!"
Zuko wanted to snap again and knock some sense into Aang, but the kid was just a kid and had thus far been spared the worst of the world. There were too few left with any kind of innocence. Or so he told himself as he relented to Aang's hopeful stare.
"When I was your age, I made a mistake. I stuck my neck out for somebody else, and in return for my trouble, I was exiled. My uncle's either a good man or a fool, because he joined me in exile. If we ever went back to the Fire Nation proper, we'd be executed."
Aang frowned. "At least you helped someone. That's good, right?"
"I helped no one. Not myself, not the people I thought I could save. In the end, what I tried to do didn't change a damn thing. Not a damn thing." Zuko stared out to the horizon, wondering which story he was telling Aang. He'd been exiled twice over, each time for the same crime. It didn't matter if he was trying to stop the careless sacrifice of soldiers or a burning Earth Kingdom village; Ozai's Fire Nation had no space for mercy. Not even for his own son. "For the longest time, I thought I could do something. Could fix things, restore my honor. My father told me if I captured the Avatar, all would be forgiven."
"Th-the Avatar?" Aang's voice was suddenly very small. He stared down at his gloved hands, the exercise forgotten.
"I doubt you've ever heard of him. The Avatar is supposedly this powerful bender, the master of all four elements. I know now he's just a myth, but back then I thought if I just looked hard enough I could find him. It took me years before I realized how neatly I'd been banished. I was gone, and happy," Zuko spat the word, "to go further, just for the chance I'd succeed at the impossible. And after the comet – well, like everyone, my choices got a whole lot simpler."
Aang flicked his eyes back towards Zuko. "And your scar?" he asked.
"That's personal," Zuko said. He eyed Aang's hat and gloves. "Unless you want to trade scar stories?"
Aang tugged the grimy cap down further. "Nope! That's okay! You're right, asking too many questions is a bad idea! You know what's a good idea? Cleaning the deck. I think I'll go do that right now. Thank you for the lesson, Captain Zuko." Aang bowed and dashed off.
For the next few days, the kid threw himself into his chores, even keeping his fiery destruction to a minimum. Apparently the threat of turning the tables on story time was enough for Aang to ease off on the nosiness. Zuko was enjoying the lack of constant questions as he worked on knotting together a long tear in the net, when he realized something was wrong. Even when Aang stopped prying, he didn't stop chattering. Zuko frowned and looked up from his work. The kid was fishing off the stern, and despite handling rough seas, windstorms, and hanging upside-down from the gaff until his face turned purple without a hint of seasickness, only now that dinner was dependent on his efforts did he start turning green.
Really green. It made the purple seem healthy. And he wasn't catching any fish, either.
It was only when he finally reeled in a flopping cat-grouper and apologized to it that Zuko realized his mistake.
"Here," he said, handing Aang the unfinished net. "You work on this. I forgot you were a vegetarian."
"Thanks," said Aang. Zuko took the line and cast off again (his aim only a little awry) as Aang turned the net around, examining the holes. "Good thing I like seaweed, huh? Mmm, bladderwrack."
Zuko's mouth twitched. "Just don't tell that to the Southern Water Tribe. We got lost at the South Pole before the – a long time ago, and had to trade with them for food." Well, he guessed it qualified as trading. Sure, his main contribution had been getting in a fight with the guard, kicking him in a snowdrift, and then getting smacked on the back of the head by a boomerang, but he had donated some of the supplies they exchanged. He had just been... peckish with hunger. Not cranky, no matter what his uncle said. Besides, Iroh had smoothed everything over by promising the Water Tribe they would never have to see them again. "If they ever offer you sea prunes, just say no."
He was fairly certain one of the alleged prunes had been a rock. Though it may have tasted better than the actual sea prunes, come to think of it...
"There's still a Southern Water Tribe?" asked Aang.
"Probably," said Zuko. "The South Pole is one of the safest places in the world right now. They're way out on the ice, which keeps the dead away and makes it hard for the navy to find them. They haven't even been an official threat to the Fire Nation since the last of their waterbenders were captured decades ago." He snorted. "I'm sure that was a big comfort to them when the moon was killed." He reeled in a fish, dropping it in the bucket beside him. Aang looked away.
"Do you hate them?" he asked suddenly, after Zuko had cast off, dug the hook out of the deck, and cast off again, into the water this time.
"Hate who?" Zuko replied. He guessed the Southern Water Tribe was all right – he'd had a headache for three days, but at least his stomach had been full.
"The Fire Nation," said Aang. "I mean, I know you grew up there, but they kicked you and your uncle out, and I know you can't stand what they've done to the moon and the other nations..."
Aang was staring at him intently. Zuko should have expected something like this. Here was a kid who had never even seen the Fire Nation, but had probably been kicked out all the same for being a firebender; and everyone knew all they were good for. No home, identity crisis, and destiny yanked out from under him. Zuko could relate.
"I did, for a while," he said slowly. "After the comet. Because almost everything I'd been told was a lie. But – it only made me hate myself, too, for what I'd done – or hadn't done."
"What made you change your mind?"
"My uncle," said Zuko. "He yelled at me. A lot. Eventually, I realized that he was right: there was nothing I could do about it. And if you try to keep up that kind of hate forever, you'll have nothing left. It's not worth it."
"I know the four elements are supposed to be equal," said Aang softly, a moment later. "But it's hard to remember that when it seems fire is only good for destruction."
"I used to think that too," said Zuko. "Until my uncle told me about the dragons."
"Dragons?" said Aang. "I've heard stories about them. I always wanted to meet one, so Appa could race it!" His face fell. "Appa..."
Great. It figured that Zuko's attempts at inspirational lectures would only depress people more. "You'll find him," he said. "But if you still want to race dragons – well, I hope Appa can fly, because dragons are fast – and dangerous. The greatest warriors of the Fire Nation used to hunt them to prove their strength and courage. But my uncle – he talked to them instead."
"Wow," said Aang, perking up a little. "Your uncle can talk to anyone!"
"Yeah," said Zuko proudly. "They told him the secrets of firebending. Well, the secret, I guess."
"What is it?" asked Aang, wide-eyed. He was still working on the net, though hardly paying any attention to the knots he was making. Not that Zuko was doing any better, as the fish appeared to have eaten all his bait without kindly snaring themselves to get eaten in turn.
"The Fire Nation fuels their firebending with anger," said Zuko, "but that's not its true source. Fire is life, not destruction."
Aang ducked under another rogue cast. "What?"
"It's like the sun," he explained. "It gives warmth and light and keeps all the – plants and things alive. So does fire – that's why your firebending is strongest during the day. And it's why fire keeps the dead away, and puts them to rest: they can't hold out against the force of life."
"Huh," said Aang. "So that means that even though the Fire Nation caused all these problems, they can help fix them too, right?"
"I guess so," said Zuko. "Eventually. Maybe." He frowned, and continued, "But if you want to spend the rest of your life fighting the undead, you might want to practice trying not to set the mast on fire every time you try to firebend."
"Yeah, sorry about that," said Aang cheerfully. Zuko rolled his eyes and went to reel in his fishing line. Somehow, it had crossed directly in front of him, wrapped around the rail, and disappeared into the net Aang was fixing. He sighed. Even after all these years, he was still only about as good at fishing as Aang was at firebending.
"Whoops," said Aang. He lifted his hands to help untangle the line, but had somehow knotted his sleeve in the net too. And his pants. And, as it turned out, the rope had mysteriously wound its way around the bucket of fish.
Later at dinner, Iroh remarked, "It is a shame your yield was so poor today, nephew." As if years of watching Zuko fish and repeatedly come up with minnows, garbage, and the occasional angry shark-lion hadn't taught him that the yield was always poor. There was a reason they usually used a net. "It was kind of you to give me the last fish."
"Don't mention it," said Zuko sourly.
"More bladderwrack?" asked Aang, holding out a bowl. He was in a much better mood. Zuko glared at him, but took some anyway. At least it wasn't sea prunes.
With much relief they neared Suzaku, their supplies having dwindled lower than Zuko liked. He'd bypassed their last re-supply point when he'd spotted the smoke rising from the shore: it might have been nothing, or it might have been the aftermath of a battle, with the Fire Nation or the undead. Either way, it wasn't a risk he was willing to take. Rations might be a little tight, but if they could just stay out of trouble for a couple more days –
"Captain Zuko, Captain Zuko!" Aang shouted from the lookout. "There's a ship off to starboard and it's being chased!"
Zuko fumbled for the spyglass in order to see what the emergency was. Off in the distance, a sleek Water Tribe ship, of a far more efficient design than the Hawkbat, was trying to outrun a Fire Nation battleship. She did not have a prayer of succeeding but her captain refused to surrender. The steam-powered battleship continued to gain, despite the sudden rush of powerful wind that filled the small ship's sails. He lowered the glass.
"They have to make it." Aang gripped the ship's railing with both hands. "They have to get away!"
"Better them than us," muttered Zuko as he fought to slow the Hawkbat down. The same winds that were pushing the Water Tribe ship closer to shore were bringing him too near the battleship for comfort. "Get over here and help me change course."
"But we could help them!"
Zuko grunted as he tried to adjust the tiller. "How?"
"You and Iroh are firebenders, and I'm the – maybe we could – " Aang's voice was drowned out by the growing storm winds.
"Maybe we could die!" he shouted at the kid. "That ship's got dozens of firebenders and they'll kill us just for being too close. Now help me get us out of here!"
Iroh came over to help, his own steady hands guiding Hawkbat away from the danger. "Captain Zuko is right – for now, we can do nothing."
Aang stared at the scene, growing less distant by the moment. By now the battleship had fired grapples at its prey and was preparing to board.
The kid was so worked up, he was practically hyperventilating, and the winds were picking up even more. Zuko had been at sea half his life, and he'd never seen a storm just appear like this. His thoughts flitted back to years spent studying the old legends, and the great power the Avatar was said to command …
Zuko caught himself scanning the sky instead of paying attention to the very dangerous and non-mythical threat in front of him. Sudden storms at sea weren't unknown, especially with the death of the moon. No one was going to come swooping out of the sky to save the other ship – or them, if they didn't get some distance from that battleship. Anyways, the winds were dying down, even as Aang struggled not to cry. The only hope anyone had was what they could scrounge up themselves, and it looked like the other ship was out of luck.
The Hawkbat continued its retreat without the battleship even taking notice. It had won. Zuko risked a glance at the unfortunate prey, now swarming with Fire Nation soldiers. Even from this distance, he could see the battle raging, flames streaking across the deck and consuming the sails. Over the roar of ocean and wind came the crackle of lightning, and a second later thunder ripped through the air. Zuko paled and raised the spyglass to his good eye. Even magnified, he couldn't be certain if it was his sister he spied amidst the smoke of a firebending onslaught. The scene was precisely her style; Azula always liked a slaughter. But these poor souls weren't going down without a fight. A flash of white caught his eye and Zuko focused the scope to see one woman lash out at the soldiers only to be overwhelmed.
If it was Azula, all the better for them to continue their flight. There were worse places to die than at sea.
Aang didn't talk to either of them until later that night, after they had all picked listlessly at dinner.
"We should have helped," he said. "Back at the Cove, nobody had anything good to say about being captured by the Fire Nation. They'll kill anyone." Aang stared down at the battered clay cup that held his tea. "I heard – I heard they killed all the Air Nomads. All of them. Why'd they do that? Do any of this?"
"The current forces that rule my homeland, I am sorry to say, can see only the accomplishment of their immediate needs," came Iroh's quiet answer. "Over one hundred years ago, the immediate need was the elimination of the Avatar, then born to Air."
Half a lifetime ago, Zuko had been taught that the Air Nomads had been wiped out after a failed ambush. It shouldn't have surprised him that this glorious victory was yet another lie, but he still found himself squashing down an old pang of grief. Even a hundred years ago, the only thing his nation used the words "glory" and "destiny" and "honor" for was to hide their greed and hatred and lust for power.
"When the comet came a second time," Iroh continued, "the immediate need was the conquest of the Earth Kingdom, Water being taken in the interim. But that is, perhaps, an even more difficult task than the first one, as conquest leads to more enemies. In strange times such as these, the crushing fist finds more targets with every moment." Iroh moved to touch Aang's cup, gently reheating the cooled liquid. "And now, I think, you should finish some of my lovely calming tea. We'll need you rested when we reach Suzaku." To Zuko, he added, "I will take first watch. Perhaps you should ensure our young idealist gets some sleep?"
Zuko thought to protest his uncle's presumption, but a sudden rush of tiredness reminded him of how long the day had been. He acquiesced and guided an already sleepy Aang to the bunks down below.
While the kid curled up in that impossibly tight ball he favored, he murmured to Zuko, "It's still not right."
"Doesn't matter if it's not right."
"Well, it should. The entire world is sick and isn't even trying to get better." Aang yawned and turned over. "There was a girl on that boat. Or an old woman. Someone with the longest, prettiest white hair …. What's going to happen to her?"
The same thing that happened to the Air Nomads, the Water Tribe, and the Earth Kingdom, Zuko thought, but didn't say. He sighed. "Nothing that concerns you if you keep your head down. Don't think about it. You'll be happier that way."
"I'm tired of running away," Aang said softly.
You'll get used to it, thought Zuko. You'll have to. Then he took his own advice and went to sleep. He resolutely did not think about any women he may have glimpsed on captured ships, even if their hair had shone in the distance.