The four friends made their way down the dark passageway, with only the sound of their footsteps penetrating the eerie silence. They were all still shaken by what had happened, and Aang knew that, even now, Jet could be taking his last breaths. But they had no time to think of that.
Aang wanted to reach the room as quickly as possible, but he was afraid of what he might find. The Dai Li clearly didn't care about Appa; they saw him simply as an animal, a bargaining chip to try to get him to leave the city. He could be starving, or injured, or worse.
Or, Aang thought despairingly, he could already be gone. Their infiltration into Lake Laogai hadn't exactly gone unnoticed, and it was entirely possible that the Dai Li had already moved Appa somewhere else, and that he would be long gone by the time they found where he was being held.
Aang shook himself. He couldn't give up hope, not now. They would find Appa. If not here, then later, when they found out where Long Feng had moved him to.
"I think that's the room Jet was talking about." Toph said. Aang saw her pointing towards a stone door at the end of the hallway and the four of them began walking towards it.
"Wait." Toph said suddenly. "Someone's coming."
Trusting Toph's instincts had become second nature to the group by then, and they quickly shrank back behind one of the stone archways to hide.
"How many are there Toph?" Aang asked softly.
"Just two. But it's strange. I don't think they're Dai Li agents." Toph replied. Aang frowned slightly at this, puzzled.
"But who…" Katara began, but quickly fell silent as Toph gestured at her to be quiet. Tentatively, Aang, Katara and Sokka peered out to look into the passageway, making sure to stay in the shadows. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, out of one of the other smaller corridors, as swiftly and silently as a phantom, a tall, black clad figure with a blue mask emerged and stepped into the passageway.
Aang felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Of all the things that could have happened under Lake Laogi, he never would have expected this. He stared numbly at the masked figure, his mind racing as he thought of the one behind the mask.
His relationship with Zuko was complicated, to say the least. The Fire Nation prince had, time and again, done his best to capture him and take him back to the fire nation, and naturally they hadn't gotten along. Katara and Sokka had been satisfied in thinking that Zuko was simply a monster, as they had grown up in a world torn apart by war. It was easy for them to assume that the Fire Nation, both on an individual basis and collectively as a nation, were pure evil.
But Aang knew that wasn't true, as he hadn't grown up in that world. He knew that there had been a time of peace in the world, and that there were good people from all of the nations, including the Fire Nation. Even when he had first met Zuko, Aang had sensed that there was more to him than a ruthless firebender trying to capture the Avatar.
He was given further evidence of this when he had been captured by Zhao and subsequently rescued. He had been shocked to find that his rescuer had been Zuko, the one who had tried so long and hard to capture him. But it gave him some interesting insight into Zuko's motives, for it seemed that Zuko was trying to capture him for himself, not for the Fire Nation. Aang knew that the Fire Nation took honor very seriously, and it seemed that Zuko felt his honor hinged on the capture of the Avatar.
Aang had known a world where an airbender and a firebender could be friends, and felt that if he could share some of this knowledge with Zuko, perhaps he might be able to break down some of the barriers that the world had built between them. Zuko had remained silent when Aang told him about his old friend Kuzon, and he was hopeful that Zuko might be reconsidering his goal of capturing him. In the end, though, Zuko had responded with hostility to his offer of friendship, and nothing had changed between them.
Since then, their relationship had continued to be antagonistic in nature. However, he had only seen Zuko once since the North Pole, and that had been almost by accident. He had almost forgotten about the banished prince, especially after losing Appa.
Aang's eyes narrowed in suspicion. What could Zuko be doing here?
"The Blue Spirit!" Sokka breathed. "What's he doing here?"
Aang's grip on his glider tightened. He hadn't told his friends the details of what had happened when he was captured by Zhao, so of course they would have no idea what was really going on.
"Quiet!" Toph whispered. Sokka obeyed, and the three of them continued to watch the masked figure.
The Blue Spirit peered up and down the passageway, as if making sure that no one was there, and walked towards the door that Toph had pointed out. He then proceeded to slide it open.
"Expecting someone else?" the Blue Spirit said to something in the room.
Aang began to feel anxious. He couldn't see what Zuko would want with Appa, but he didn't know who else Zuko could be talking to.
After looking back once more, as if to make sure he wasn't being followed, the Blue Spirit entered the room and closed the door behind him.
"I won't let him hurt Appa." Aang said fiercely, and was about to spring out and follow him, but Toph held him back.
"Wait." She said. "There's someone else coming."
No sooner had she said this when an older man appeared from the same corridor that the Blue Spirit had come from.
"That's Zuko's uncle!" Katara whispered, her eyes widening. "Why would he be here?"
Aang felt shocked as well. Though, if he thought about it, Aang reflected, it really wasn't so surprising. If Zuko was here, then of course his uncle would be as well. Feeling resigned, Aang knew he would have to inform his friends of the details he'd kept hidden.
"Zuko is the Blue Spirit." Aang whispered.
"Wait, what?" Sokka looked at Aang with a shocked expression on his face. "How do you know that? And why didn't you tell us?"
"It's a long story." Aang said.
During this exchange Iroh had proceeded to walk towards the same door the Blue Spirit had entered moments ago. Unlike the Blue Spirit, Iroh didn't seem as concerned if someone was following him. He quickly opened the door, entered the room, and closed it again.
Aang's anxiety for Appa's safety rose further. "I'll tell you later. We need to stop them!" Aang said. He left their hiding place and began walking quickly towards the door.
"Wait." Toph interjected. "Maybe we should stop and listen to what's going on first. I don't think they're working together. It felt like the old man was following him without him realizing it."
Aang hesitated. He was worried about Appa, and he was certain that whatever Zuko planned for Appa, it wasn't good. But Aang knew that Iroh, despite being a fire nation general, was a good man, as he had turned against his own people at the North Pole to protect the spirits. And Toph's instincts hadn't been wrong yet.
Aang relented. "Fine. But if it sounds like they're about to do something to Appa, we're going in."
Toph nodded. The four friends hurried over to the door, and pressed their ears to the stone surface.
"What are you doing here?"
"I was just about to ask you the same thing. What do you plan to do now that you've found the Avatar's bison?"
"Appa is in there!" Aang whispered excitedly.
"Shh!" Toph said.
"…should I go put on a pot of tea for him?"
"First I have to get it out of here." Zuko said.
"And then what?" Iroh replied angrily. "You never think these things through. This is exactly what happened when you captured the Avatar at the North Pole. You had him, and then you had nowhere to go!"
Aang remembered that day. He had been in the spirit world, and while his body was vulnerable, Zuko had taken advantage of it. Aang's grip tightened on his glider. Zuko had always resorted to any methods necessary to try to capture him, no matter how low or dirty they were. And now he was planning to do something with Appa, Aang thought angrily, and he was just standing out here waiting for it to happen.
"I would have figured something out!" Zuko responded angrily.
"No!" Iroh shouted. "If his friends hadn't found you, you would have frozen to death!"
Aang's grip on his glider loosened, and he became thoughtful. His uncle sounded not just angry, but also worried. He hadn't ever considered that Zuko had loved ones who would be devastated if he was killed.
Zuko let out an irritated sound, and said "I know my own destiny, Uncle."
"Is it your own destiny?" Iroh asked. "Or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?"
Aang frowned. What did that mean?
"Stop it Uncle!" Zuko shouted. "I have to do this!"
"I'm begging you, Prince Zuko! It's time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions: Who are you? And what do you want?"
Zuko let out a frustrated yell that was followed by a loud clattering noise.
"What happened?" Aang whispered anxiously.
"It feels like he threw two swords onto the floor." Toph replied.
"Can you tell if anything his uncle is saying making a difference?" Katara asked.
"I'm not sure." Toph replied. They all stiffened as they heard the two inside the room resume speaking and strained their ears in order to hear better.
"What do you want me to do uncle?" Zuko's voice was much quieter, and very unsure.
"Let it go." Iroh replied calmly. "Give up this drive of yours. Find a new purpose to your life."
"How?" Zuko asked desperately.
"You can start by helping me to set the Avatar's Bison free." Iroh responded.
"What?" Zuko asked, startled.
Aang felt as startled as Zuko sounded, but he no longer felt worried for Appa's safety. He turned toward his friends.
"Look, we know that his uncle is on our side, and if it comes to a fight I think we can take Zuko." Aang said.
"Aang…" Toph began.
"I'm not waiting any longer." Aang said fiercely. "I'm going in!"
He reached for the door, but before he could reach it, Toph earthbended it open. The four friends looked inside and saw Iroh and Zuko turn to see what the noise was. But the only thing Aang noticed was who they were standing in front of.
"Appa!" Aang shouted happily, and Appa responded with an affectionate growl. Aang and his friend stepped into the room, but stopped as they saw Zuko's expression change from surprise to anger.
"The Avatar!" Zuko shouted, and assumed a fighting stance. Aang wasn't afraid of Zuko, but he knew better than to underestimate him. He also assumed a fighting stance, and he could tell out of his peripherals that his friends had responded in kind. He eyed the banished prince warily, waiting for him to make the first move. But before anyone could launch an attack, Iroh intervened.
"Wait!" Iroh shouted, grabbing the young man's arm. "What did I just tell you, Prince Zuko?"
"But he's right there!" Zuko pointed at Aang, his expression fierce. "I can do this!"
Katara let out a laugh, though her face had hardened into a determined expression. "You really think that you can get away with Aang when you're outnumbered four to one?"
Aang felt like laughing too. Zuko had failed to capture him even under the best circumstances, let alone in ones that were not in his favor.
And yet, Aang thought, that was the saddest thing. Even when he had no chance of succeeding, Zuko still felt he had to try anyways. Aang frowned. Why was the young prince so obsessed with catching him?
"She's right." Iroh said sternly, and some of the anger he'd directed at the prince earlier seemed to be returning. "The odds are against you. And even if you captured him, what then? We're in the middle of the Earth Kingdom capital. How would you make it all the way back to the Fire nation?"
Zuko let out another irritated sound. "I don't know. But I have to try!"
"Why?" Iroh asked. "Why do you need to do this? How will capturing a boy who has never wronged you and turning him over to be tortured or killed restore your honor?"
"You know, your Uncle has some good points." Toph said. "Maybe you should listen to him."
Zuko let out an angry noise at her, but then closed his eyes, and seemed unable to come up with any kind of response.
Aang looked at the prince thoughtfully. He knew what it was like to have an overwhelming task set before him. He had never wanted to be the Avatar, and yet that had been his destiny all the same. He had run away from his responsibilities at first, but was gradually coming to accept and embrace them.
And here was another young man who had clearly been through much. He had, for whatever reason, come to believe that his honor hinged on capturing the Avatar. Giving up that drive would be as difficult for Zuko as embracing his role as the Avatar had been for Aang.
And Aang once again remembered the day Zuko had rescued him from Zhao. His offer of friendship had been rejected then. But perhaps, if he tried again now…
"Do you remember the day that you rescued me from Zhao?" Aang noticed his friends shocked faces out of the corner of his eye, but focused on the struggling young man in front of him, and could see from the recognition in his eyes that he remembered. "I told you about my friend Kuzon, who was from the Fire Nation like you. I asked you, if we had known each other back then, could we have been friends?" Aang shifted his gaze towards Iroh, who was smiling slightly, and then back at Zuko "What do you think?"
Zuko, who still was in a fighting stance, said nothing. After a moment of silence, he said quietly "I don't know." He hesitated, dropped his gaze to the floor and then said again, even quieter "I don't know."
Following that statement, he slowly dropped his fighting stance and stood up in a more regular manner, looking drained. After a moment's hesitation, Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph followed suit.
Iroh looked pleased.
"If you and the Avatar could have been friends in another life, perhaps that could still be the case in this one." Iroh said.
Zuko looked sharply at his uncle.
"Don't be ridiculous." He spat. "There's no way we could ever be friends after everything's that's happened."
Aang's optimism faded. He should have known this would happen. Zuko had rejected his offer of friendship before. Why should it be different this time?
But Iroh seemed to think that Zuko could change. And Zuko, for all his anger and misplaced determination, seemed to listen to his uncle.
Zuko looked back at Aang again, his expression defiant. "Capturing the Avatar has been what has kept me going for the past three years. It's what defined me." He looked at the ground to his left. "How can you expect me to just put all of that behind me?"
Aang could tell that Katara and Sokka were incredibly tense about the situation, but he felt that there was a peaceful way out of it. He looked at them, and tried to convey to them through his look, just wait.
"I'm not saying it will be easy." Iroh replied gently. "But it is the right thing to do. You can begin to let it go by helping the Avatar free his bison."
"That sounds like a good idea to me." Aang said, smiling slightly. At that moment, Aang decided he no longer cared if Zuko decided to attack. He ran past Zuko and leaped up to greet Appa, who responded by letting out a low, affectionate moan, and nuzzled his head against Aang. Zuko initially recoiled when Aang ran by, and for a second looked as though he might attack again, but caught himself, and reluctantly relaxed again. He turned to look at Katara and Sokka, who still looked unsure about the whole situation. Toph, however, seemed relatively calm about the unfolding drama.
Toph suddenly stiffened, and pressed her hand to the wall.
"We need to get out of here!" She shouted. "I can feel a whole bunch of Dai Li agents coming toward us!"
Aang turned around, his anxiety returning in full. How were they going to get Appa and themselves out safely?
"How are we going to get out?" Sokka asked in panic, echoing Aang's thoughts.
Toph pointed at the ceiling. "There's a passageway that goes up through the roof. It's blocked, but I can use earth bending to clear the way. That's probably the way they got Appa down here to begin with."
Katara, Sokka and Aang nodded, and then looked at Zuko and his Uncle.
Aang gazed at Zuko, feeling uncertain. Zuko had caused him and his friends a lot of grief, and while Aang tried to see the best in people, it wasn't easy to ignore their bad history. But at that moment, Aang knew that he couldn't leave Zuko behind, just as he couldn't leave him behind when he'd been knocked out in front of Zhao's fortress, or when he'd been unconscious at the North Pole.
"So…do you want our help?" Aang asked uncertainly.
"Yes, I think that would be appreciated." Iroh responded. He then looked at Zuko.
"Well? What are you going to do, Prince Zuko?"
Zuko looked at his uncle, then at Aang, and then at the ground. After a moment, he silently walked over to his swords and picked them up. He then walked up next to Appa, and raised the swords. Katara and Sokka looked alarmed, and Aang started to panic. Appa recoiled slightly at the sight of the blades, and before Aang could react, Zuko slashed the swords downward.
Aang was on the verge of attacking Zuko, but then noticed what he had done. The chain that had bound Appa's front foot lay broken on the ground, cut neatly in two. Aang's cry out of outrage died in his throat, as the sight reminded him of a similar situation, when he'd been in chains in Zhao's fortress.
Aang looked at Zuko, and gave a hesitant "Thanks." Zuko looked at Aang, and then looked away again, saying nothing.
Apparently deciding that Zuko was not about to attack or hurt anyone at the moment, Katara went over to Appa's left side and began to use water bending to cut through the chains on his left feet, while Zuko proceeded to cut through the remaining chains on Appa's right side. Once all of his feet were free, Appa shook himself and stretched out his legs, giving a series of appreciative grunts.
Aang, who had crawled onto Appa's neck, turned around to look at everyone.
"Okay, everyone climb on!"
Katara was the first to climb on, with Toph following close behind. After hesitating for a few seconds, Sokka helped Iroh climb on as well. Finally, after a moment of uncertainty, Zuko reluctantly climbed on as well. Satisfied that everyone was on, Aang turned to look down at Appa.
"Okay, Appa, we need to get out of here, so I hope you're up for a bit of flying."
Appa groaned in response.
Aang looked at his old friend sadly. "I hope they didn't treat you too horribly down here. Appa, yip yip!"
After giving a soft roar, Appa leaped into the air and flew up towards the ceiling. Toph raised her arms in the air to bend the earth above them out of the way, while Katara and Sokka held on to her to make sure she didn't fall off. After a few moments of flying upwards with no visible progress, all at once the passageway was filled with sunlight, and Appa shot up above the ground and into the air, carrying himself and his passengers away from the dark depths of Lake Laogi.
Zuko and Iroh had of course never been on a flying bison before, and Aang had to bite back the urge to laugh at their terrified expressions. Katara, Sokka, and Toph weren't looking much better though, as they were unused to flying without a saddle. Turning his attention ahead once he was satisfied that everyone was still onboard, Aang directed Appa towards the edge of the lake. After putting some distance between them and the secret entrances to Lake Laogai, they settled down near the shore of the lake to let Zuko and his uncle off.
After sliding off of Appa's back, Zuko and Iroh looked immensely grateful to be back on the ground again. The two firebenders turned around and looked up at the four friends. Iroh looked at ease, but Zuko looked extremely uncomfortable, and seemed unable to say anything.
Aang wasn't sure what to say either, but he thought that he should say something.
"I never thought I'd say this, but, thanks for your help." Aang said.
"It was no trouble at all." Iroh replied cheerfully. He glanced at his nephew, and then back at Aang, his expression becoming graver. "We're sorry for the trouble we've caused you these past few months. In the Fire Nation, everyone is expected to do their part for their country." He smiled slightly. "But we're now refugees from the Fire Nation, and we are just trying to start a new life here. In fact, we're opening a new tea shop in the Upper Ring, if you would like to come and visit."
Zuko looked at his uncle sharply. "Uncle, did you seriously just invite them to tea and tell them where we live? What if they tell people who we are?"
Aang was also startled at Iroh's announcement. Why would he take such a big risk by revealing so much to people who had formerly been enemies? Aang wasn't sure. But he knew that Iroh was a good man, based on his actions at the North Pole and his actions today. Perhaps, Aang reasoned, Iroh knew that the world needed to have balance, and that being on good terms with the Avatar was in their best interest. Aang felt confident in trusting Iroh, especially given that Iroh was willing to trust them. But, Aang thought as he shifted his gaze, he wasn't so certain about Zuko. Could he be trusted?
Before Iroh could respond to Zuko's outburst, Aang spoke up.
"Well, you did help us down there, and as long as you don't start stirring up trouble, I won't tell people who you are."
"Now hold on a minute!" Sokka interrupted. "Maybe he did help us down there, but that wasn't what he was originally going to do. How do we know we can trust them?"
"Well, given what we heard, I think we can trust his uncle, at least." Toph said. "And since they told us where they live, it'll be easy to check and see if they're doing anything suspicious."
Sokka looked as though he was about to argue, but Aang held him back.
"I think Toph is right." Aang spoke loud enough so that Katara, Sokka, and Toph could hear him, but quiet enough that they wouldn't be overheard by Zuko or Iroh. "Iroh has proven that he's trustworthy, and Zuko seems to listen to him, even if it's somewhat unwillingly. I think it's safe to leave them alone. Right now, we need to decide what we're going to do next, especially after seeing how deep the Dai Li conspiracy goes."
Sokka looked unsatisfied. "Katara, surely you don't think letting them go is a good idea?"
Katara sighed. "I don't like it any more than you do, but Aang and Toph are right. They aren't our biggest concern right now, and keeping them around would only complicate things."
Sokka stilled looked unsatisfied, but he relented with a sigh.
After quickly deciding they'd settle at one of the island in the middle of the lake to discuss their plans, they prepared to take off. Aang looked down on Zuko and Iroh. Iroh was smiling, while Zuko seemed unaware of everyone else there, as if lost in thought.
"Well, bye." Aang said hesitantly. "Maybe we'll see each other again someday."
"Maybe we will indeed." Iroh replied.
Aang turned his attention towards the lake, shouted "Appa, yip yip!" and Appa lifted them off into the sky. As they hurtled across the lake, Aang looked back at the two firebenders, and pondered when their paths would cross again.
For a few minutes, the two firebenders watched as the flying bison receded into the distance. After the bison vanished from view, Iroh turned toward his nephew. Zuko's expression was hard to decipher, and he seemed oblivious of his surroundings.
"You did the right thing, nephew." Iroh said encouragingly.
Zuko said nothing. After a moment, he pulled out the Blue Spirit mask and held it in front of him.
Iroh put a hand on Zuko's shoulder, and said softly "Leave it behind."
Zuko then walked over to the edge of the water and dropped the mask in the water, and watched as it sank down and disappeared into the depths of the lake.
Iroh and Zuko made their way back to the apartment in silence. Iroh was smiling, and kept glancing at his nephew. Zuko, however, had a troubled, uncertain expression on his face, and continued to seem unaware of his surroundings.
When they reached the upper room of their apartment, Zuko walked into the room, while Iroh went to close the door behind them.
"You did the right thing." Iroh repeated encouragingly. "Letting the Avatar go and setting his bison free."
"I don't feel right." Zuko responded weakly. After letting out a groan, Zuko swayed and fell forward, knocking over a vase and collapsing on the floor.
"Zuko!" Iroh cried in alarm. He quickly rushed over to help his nephew, checking on his condition. After determining that Zuko was not dying or injured, he carried him over to a mattress. Uncertain of what ailed Zuko, Iroh could only hope that his nephew would awaken soon.
"I can't believe it." Aang exclaimed. "There's a man living at the Eastern Air Temple. He says he's a Guru."
Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph had convened in the Earth king's study. All in all, Aang was feeling pretty satisfied with what they'd accomplished that day. They'd met the Earth king, they'd gotten rid of Long Feng, and they'd persuaded the king to assist them in the invasion. And now, Aang thought, even better things were happening for them.
"What's a Guru?" Sokka asked, scratching his head. "Some kind of poisonous blowfish?"
Aang smiled. "No, a spiritual expert. He wants to help me take the next step in the Avatar journey. He says he can teach me to control the Avatar State."
"And I can't believe we know where our Dad is now." Katara said happily.
"I know what you mean." Toph answered quietly, though her face was hopeful. "My Mom's in the city, and from her letter it sounds like she finally understands me."
"This is all such big news." Sokka said excitedly. "Where do we even start?"
The excitement faded from Katara's face. "I hate to say it, but…we have to split up.
"Split up?" Aang asked, feeling distraught. "We just found Appa and got the family back together. Now you want us to separate?"
"You have to meet this Guru, Aang." Katara said firmly. "If we're gonna invade the Fire Nation, you need to be ready."
Aang still felt unhappy, but he knew Katara was right. "Well, if I'm going to the Eastern Air Temple, Appa and I can drop you off at Chameleon Bay to see your Dad."
Sokka looked seriously at the group. "Someone has to stay here with the Earth King and help him plan for the invasion." He stood up with a resigned air. "I guess that's me."
Katara stood up as well. "No Sokka, I know how badly you want to help Dad. You go to Chameleon Bay; I'll stay here with the king."
Sokka teared up, and looked happier than Aang had ever seen him. "You…are the…nicest…sister…ever."
He punctuated his statement by kissing Katara on the cheek.
Katara gently pushed him away and said "Easy there, big brother." She smiled slightly. "Though you're right, I am."
"Wait." Toph's voice was suddenly serious. "We're forgetting about something. Zuko and his uncle are in the city."
Aang felt startled. In all the excitement with the Earth King and exposing the Dai Li conspiracy, he'd forgotten all about Zuko. But now he remembered, and all the conflicting emotions he had about the banished prince returned in full.
"Hey, that's right." Sokka said. "We'd better check up on them before we go our separate ways. We should probably have them arrested just as a precaution."
"Sokka, no." Toph replied sternly. "His uncle said they were refugees and were trying to start a new life here. I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt."
"Easy for you to say." Sokka replied heatedly. "You weren't there when Zuko was doing all he could to hunt us down and capture Aang."
"No, she wasn't, but I think she's right." Aang said. "I think it's safe to say that Zuko's uncle is on our side, and Zuko did help free Appa, even if it was reluctantly."
Sokka looked like he wanted to argue, but relented with a sigh. "All right, but I still think we should check in on them to make sure that they're not going to interfere with our plans or mess with the Earth Kingdom."
"I agree, I think that's a good idea." Katara said. "But how do we find them?"
"Zuko's uncle said that they were opening a new tea shop in the Upper Ring." Aang said. "So all we have to do is ask around about a new tea shop."
After informing the Earth King of their plans (Though they kept certain details to themselves, as Aang had promised Zuko he wouldn't expose him), they were given permission to search through a file of documents containing information on every commercial establishment in the Upper Ring. After searching through the records, they found a number of different tea shops located in the Upper Ring. One of them, a new shop called the Jasmine Dragon, was scheduled to open in a few days.
"This has got to be the one!" Aang said.
"Does it say where the shopkeepers live?" Sokka asked.
"No, it doesn't," Katara replied after looking over the file, "but the big shops in the Upper Ring tend to have apartments right next to them specifically for the shopkeepers."
"How do you know that?" Sokka asked curiously.
"We've been in the city for a while." Katara said, slightly irritable. "Toph and I have done some shopping since we've been here, and I picked up on certain details about the shops."
"Well, we know where they are now." Toph said matter-of-factly. "We might as well go now, as we probably won't have time tomorrow."
It was still relatively early in the evening, so they agreed that it was best to go to the shop at once. It turned out to be only a short walk away from the palace, and before they knew it they were standing in front of an apartment next to the empty tea shop.
"Well, this should be the place." Sokka said uncertainly.
Aang felt uncertain as well. What was he going to say? He and Zuko had never gotten along up to this point, and he didn't see how things would be different this time. Aang felt amused as he imagined trying to have a calm conversation with Zuko over a cup of tea.
Sokka stepped forward and knocked on the door. After a moment, the door swung open to reveal Iroh. He looked surprised, but pleased.
"Well hello! It's good to see you again! Please, come on in."
They all stepped inside, and gazed around the apartment for a moment. It wasn't as big as theirs had been, but then theirs was only a single story, and it was still quite luxurious.
"It's good to see you again as well." Toph said, who of course had no interest in how the apartment looked.
Sokka looked suspiciously at Iroh. "Where's Zuko?"
Iroh's cheerfulness faded away. "I'm afraid my nephew has fallen ill. I was just about to bring up some tea for him."
Aang felt shocked. "Zuko's sick? When did that happen?"
"Almost immediately after the events under that lake." Iroh replied. "And I don't believe it was a coincidence."
"What do you mean?" Katara asked. "What's wrong with him?"
"It's difficult to explain." Iroh said. "I need to check on him."
"Can I come with you?" Aang asked.
Aang wasn't sure what motivated him to ask that question. He felt slightly relieved that he might not have to talk to Zuko just yet, and that Zuko was in no condition to try to fight him. But he also felt that he couldn't just ignore Zuko.
Iroh looked uncertain. "I don't think that's a good idea. I'm not sure how my nephew would react, but I doubt he would be especially pleased to see you."
"What if I came up, but stayed out of sight?" Aang asked.
Iroh hesitated, but then nodded. "Alright, you can come up if you would like. But make sure that you aren't seen or heard."
Iroh grabbed a kettle of tea, and walked up the stairs, with Aang following close behind him, taking care to make as little noise as possible, while the others waited downstairs. Aang watched Iroh enter the upper room, and when he peeked through the doorway, he could see Zuko lying down on a mat, though he made sure to stay back so that Zuko couldn't see him.
Zuko looked up as his uncle entered the room, and then sank back down with a sigh. Iroh placed the tea kettle down, and poured some tea into a smaller cup.
Iroh looked down on his nephew, and said "You should know this is not a natural sickness. But that shouldn't stop you from enjoying tea." He helped Zuko sip down some tea, as Zuko appeared disoriented.
Zuko face became worried at his uncle's statement. "What? What's happening?"
"Your critical decision." Iroh replied. "What you did beneath that lake, it was in such conflict with your image of yourself that you are now at war within your own mind and body." He helped Zuko take another sip of tea.
Aang felt shocked. Obsession was one thing, but becoming physically ill for helping the Avatar even a little was something else entirely.
Aang wondered again, why was Zuko so obsessed?
"What's that mean?" Zuko asked. He began coughing, and rolled over onto his side.
"You are going through a metamorphosis, my nephew." Iroh said gently. "It will not be a pleasant experience, but when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful Prince you were always meant to be."
Zuko didn't appear comforted by his uncle's words, but he said nothing. Iroh mopped Zuko's forehead with a damp cloth, and after a moment Zuko slipped back into an uneasy sleep.
The four young friends gathered around a table downstairs, and Iroh poured them all a cup of tea. For a while they avoided discussing any sensitive subjects, and instead made small talk and shared their adventures in Ba Sing Se. They told Iroh about their journey to find Appa, and talked about the Dai Li conspiracy, and how they'd finally gotten rid of Long Feng. Iroh talked about how he and Zuko had ended up in Ba Sing Se, and recounted some of their adventures. He told them how they'd ended up serving at a tea shop, and how that had led them to where they were now. He also briefly recounted Zuko's date with Jin, which Aang and Sokka found amusing, and made Katara and Toph giggle.
The conversation was lighthearted, but Aang knew that he couldn't beat around the bush any longer. After a pause in the conversation, Aang decided to ask.
"General Iroh?" he asked hesitantly. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Of course" Iroh replied.
Aang looked down at his cup for a moment, and then back up again. "Why was Zuko so obsessed with capturing me?"
Iroh sighed, and suddenly looked very weary. "Try to understand. My nephew is a complicated young man. He has been through much."
Sokka looked impatient. "Look, we figured that much already, given all his anger management issues and that big scar, but…"
Sokka stopped as Iroh winced as though he were in pain.
Katara had a knowing look in her eyes. "That scar has something to do with it, doesn't it?"
From Iroh's silence, Aang could tell that Katara was right. Aang felt curious. What was the story behind that scar? And what did it have to do with his obsession?
Iroh sighed, looked down at his tea, and then back at the four friends. "I suppose, after everything that my nephew has put you through, you deserve to know why he did what he did. But it's a bit of a long story."
"We have time." Aang replied. Katara, Sokka, and Toph nodded, and pulled up their chairs to listen.
Iroh began his story. "Zuko is the first born son of Firelord Ozai. Much is expected of the Firelord, and as the heir to the throne, much was expected of Zuko."
"Now, I believe you all have met Azula, Zuko's sister." Iroh said.
Aang nodded. He'd encountered Azula a few times, and he was not eager to meet her again. He'd been able to tell that there was a divide between her and Zuko, given the way they spoke to each other and the fact that they fought against each other when trying to capture him. Aang was curious. He knew that Sokka and Katara had their disagreements and fights, but for the most part they got along. But Zuko and Azula didn't seem to have that same bond of siblings.
"There was always a rift between the two siblings. Firebending came naturally to Azula, and many considered her to be a prodigy. She was also highly intelligent, cunning, strategic, and ruthless, all of which are qualities that are highly valued in the Fire Nation nowadays. Zuko, on the other hand, always struggled when learning firebending, and could never quite keep up with his sister. On top of that, he had a good heart and a sense of justice, which many in the Fire Nation see as weakness. As a result of all this, Firelord Ozai always favored Azula over Zuko. Nothing Zuko did was ever quite good enough, but he never gave up, and did all he could to please his father."
Iroh paused, taking a sip of tea.
Aang sat back, thoughtful. It was strange to think about Zuko as a child, growing up in the shadow of his sister. Aang knew the damage that could happen when someone was singled out. He had been singled out as being special, since he was the Avatar, and he had ended up feeling isolated and separated from the rest of the young airbenders.
Zuko, it seemed, had been singled out for the opposite reason.
"Then, one day, shortly after his thirteenth birthday, there was a big war meeting. Zuko wanted to go, as he was eager to learn as much as he could about what it would take to be a good Firelord. I tried to tell him that these meetings are quite dull, but he persuaded me to let him in. I allowed him to accompany me but I urged him to remain quiet."
Aang was listening carefully, and he could tell that Katara and Toph were as well. Sokka appeared to also be listening, but only halfheartedly.
"The meeting began with one of the high generals discussing possible strategies of how to break through a particularly strong battalion of earthbenders. His plan involved sacrificing a division made up of entirely new recruits to create a diversion so that other forces could mount an attack from the rear."
"Zuko was outraged at this plan, and, ignoring my warnings, spoke out against the general. He stated that knowingly sending the soldiers to their deaths was completely dishonorable, and that their loyalty to the Fire Nation should not be taken advantage of in that way."
Aang was surprised. He knew that Zuko took honor very seriously, but that hadn't stopped him from resorting to low and arguably cowardly methods to capture the Avatar. The idea that Zuko had once had the courage to challenge the Fire Nation's generals for treating soldiers' lives so carelessly was a shocking revelation.
Aang could tell that his friends were also surprised. Katara looked amazed, and Sokka looked like he was now paying full attention.
"I agreed with Zuko, of course, but not everyone did, and it was not his place to speak out. And, there were dire consequences."
Iroh bowed his head. Aang felt unsettled. Dire consequences, what could that mean? Aang knew that the Fire Nation took honor very seriously, but surely Zuko wouldn't face any serious punishment for such a small offense. Unless…Aang suddenly had a sinking suspicion.
Iroh continued his story.
"The Firelord became very angry with Zuko, and said that his challenge of the general was an act of complete disrespect. He said there was only one way to resolve this."
"Agni Kai." Aang said quietly.
Aang had learned about a lot of Fire Nation customs from his old friend Kuzon, and he knew that an Agni Kai was a way of settling a dispute of honor between two firebenders. Normally, Agni Kai's were only used to solve very serious matters, and from what Kuzon had told him, it was unheard of for an Agni Kai to be invoked for something as simple as speaking out of turn. But then, he would never have guessed that the Fire Nation would go to war with the rest of the world. Much had changed over the past 100 years, and Aang supposed he shouldn't be surprised that the Fire Nation's customs had become more brutal.
After seeing his friends puzzled expressions, who were of course unfamiliar with Fire Nation customs, he clarified "A fire duel."
"That's right." Iroh said. "Zuko looked upon the general that he had insulted, and declared that he was not afraid. But Zuko misunderstood."
Aang stared at Iroh, puzzled.
"Though he had spoken out against the general's plan, by speaking out of turn in the Firelord's war room, it was the Firelord whom he had disrespected. Zuko had to duel his own father."
Aang's puzzlement became shock, and he suddenly felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Zuko's father…what kind of father would put their own child through something like that? Aang thought of Gyatso, who had always cared for him and taught him, being a father for him even though they weren't related by blood. He couldn't imagine Gyatso challenging him to a duel over such a simple mistake.
At least air doesn't leave marks, Aang thought, but fire…
Iroh continued his story.
"When Zuko saw who he would have to duel, he begged for mercy. He pleaded that he had meant no disrespect, that he only had had the Fire Nation's best interests at heart, and that he was a loyal son. But Firelord Ozai would have none of it. He repeatedly told Zuko to fight for his honor, and when Zuko refused to fight, he declared 'you will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.'"
"I looked away." Iroh looked much older and uncharacteristically grave.
Katara gasped, her eyes widening. "You mean…his father gave him that scar?"
"Yes." Iroh replied gravely.
Katara and Sokka looked shocked and sickened. Aang knew they had a good relationship with their father, given how highly they spoke of him, and how eager they were to see him again. The idea of their father doing something like that was unthinkable, and the idea that any father would was repugnant.
Aang glanced at Toph, who had remained expressionless, though she was gripping her cup of tea very tightly. Aang knew that Toph hadn't had a good relationship with her parents. They had taken care of her, but they hadn't really cared about who she was as a person. Aang knew that indifference could be just as harmful as deliberate cruelty. Still, Toph had turned out all right. But Zuko…
After a moment, Iroh, with some difficulty, concluded his story.
"After the duel, the Firelord said that by refusing to fight, Zuko had shown shameful weakness. As punishment, he was banished and sent to capture the Avatar. Only then could he return with his honor."
A sudden silence had descended. Katara held up one hand to her mouth, and it looked like she was struggling to hold back tears. Sokka looked stunned, as though someone had clubbed him over the head, while Toph looked sadder than Aang had ever seen her.
I now understand, Aang thought, his mind racing as he thought about the banished prince in light of what he'd just learned.
The four friends sat in silence, their tea forgotten, as they pondered what Iroh had just told them.
Author's Note: Hello! I'm not dead! Not yet anyway. There have been some other stories I've wanted to work on for some time now, but I felt bad about leaving this one unfinished, so I am making a vow right here and now to finish this story by the end of 2018. I'll go back through the existing chapters first and fix up a few things, as well as refresh my memory about what I had planned in the story, and then I will proceed with new chapters. No guarantees about exactly when I'll upload new chapters, but I will try to stand by my vow.