"Monkeyfeathers!" Katara yelped after ramming her shin on yet another un-identifiable piece of furniture in the dark.

Maybe I should've asked Zuko to lend a fire-lit hand or something, she thought, rubbing the sore appendage. But that would have defeated the purpose of her mission. She couldn't imagine the former Fire Prince agreeing to help her root through his family's personal belongings in the attic in the hopes of finding something properly embarrassing and funny to show the others. And asking Aang had been out of the question, considering cheering him up was the main reason that she was up here tripping around in the first place.

If having Sokka as a brother had taught her anything useful in her fourteen years of life, it was that a little laughter could go a long way—and right now Katara felt like their little group was in desperate need of a good laugh.

Finding out that Aang really would have to face the Firelord in a few weeks if they wanted "a world left to save," right after watching the Ember Island Players illustrate their potential horrific end, coupled with Aang's obvious reluctance to take a life—period—had set the entire group on edge and cast a noticeable gloom over the air nomad's usually sunny disposition.

Spotting a shelf of dusty scrolls, Katara carefully maneuvered around the offending—desk, it turns out it was—to examine the parchments' faded contents. Unrolling each scroll one by one, she found herself reflecting on how withdrawn and frustrated Aang had been since the "Melon Lord" mishap.

Oh, Aang. For the umpteenth time, Katara wished he didn't have to carry the weight of the world on his wiry shoulders. He was no longer the exuberant, carefree boy in the ice she found what seemed like an eternity ago. The responsibilities of his role as the Avatar loomed thick and suffocating like the humidity of the Foggy Swamp, and while he had grown into the task admirably and overcome unimaginable obstacles, Katara sometimes wondered if he wasn't slowly being smothered by the sheer weight of expectation and all that depended on his actions. Aang would always be an optimist, she knew; it was part of what made Aang, Aang. But Katara feared that the war would cost him his innocence.

That was the last thing she would ever wish on a gentle soul like Aang's. He didn't deserve to live with the stain of murder, however justified or necessary.

There was nothing for it, though. Aang had to defeat the Firelord, and the sooner he came to terms with the implication that he must take another's life, the better. Unlike Sokka and Zuko, however, she realized that repeatedly shoving this necessity in Aang's face wasn't going to help. Katara would do everything in her power to help and support Aang, to guide him and encourage him to fulfill his destiny—but she was determined to give him a moment's relief first.

Awww, perfect! This is just what I need. Brushing a stray cobweb off the edge of the paper, she swiftly rolled up her small treasure and only stubbed her toe once on the way out.

"I have a surprise for everyone!" Katara announced to the group. Time for some much-needed levity.

"I knew it! You did have a secret thing with Haru!" Toph beamed. Sokka, Suki, and Zuko all stared at Katara expectantly, the only sounds Toph picking at her rice and the warm breeze rustling through the courtyard.

"Er, no." The other four continued eating, apparently uninterested, and Katara tried to salvage her momentum. She cleared her throat.

"I was looking for cooking pots in the attic and I found this," she said, allowing the long scroll in her hands to unfurl and display the portrait to the whole group. Soft lines and faded colors depicted a smiling baby with dark hair pulled into a miniature topknot. Its hands reached upwards, chubby fingers spread wide, a shovel, and small sandcastle nearby.

"Look at baby Zuko! Isn't he cute?" Katara cooed as everyone gushed and laughed. Catching Zuko's closed eyes and stony expression, Katara breathed an inaudible sigh.

"Oh lighten up, I was just teasing." Come on, Zuko. It's not like I have baby pictures of Sokka hidden in my sleeping bag that we can poke fun at.

Zuko opened his eyes, something unreadable shadowing golden irises. "That's not me. It's my Father."


Katara rapidly re-rolled the scroll. Well, that backfired spectacularly. Suki pointed at the parchment and looked to Zuko in open bewilderment, "But he looks so sweet and innocent."

"Well, that sweet little kid grew up to be a monster," Zuko bit back, then looked away. "And the worst father in the history of fathers."

"But he is still a human being," said Aang forcefully from his position slightly removed from the rest of the group. Zuko looked incredulously at the young Avatar.

"You're going to defend him?"

"No, I agree with you," Aang stood up to face the rest of them, "Fire Lord Ozai is a horrible person and the world would probably be better off without him. But there's gotta be another way."

Zuko was unimpressed. His voice, if possible, was even more so. "Like what?"

Aang shrugged, eyebrows drawn together in consternation. "I don't know," he said. Brightening, he began to gesticulate wildly. "Maybe...we can make some big pots of glue and then I can use glue-bending to stick his arms and legs together so he can't bend anymore!"

Katara rather thought the gestures made it look as if he was physically grasping at straws.

"Yeah! Then you can show him his baby pictures and all those happy memories will make him good again," Zuko said with false enthusiasm, eliciting a wave of laughter from the group. Katara hid her mouth behind her hand because okay, yeah, that called to mind an admittedly absurd mental picture. Aang, however, didn't seem to notice the former Prince's sarcasm.

"Do you really think that would work?"

It looked like Aang really wanted to believe it, too.


Sokka descended into another round of giggles at that. Aang dropped his head and sighed, opening his mouth to respond, but Zuko cut across his next words.

"Aang, being 'good' is a choice, and while I don't want to label anyone as beyond saving, my father hasn't chosen 'good' in a long, long time."

"You think he'll give you the chance to do something like glue-bend him in place?" he continued. "Make no mistake, he will fight you to the death and he will not hesitate to deal the finishing blow, so I suggest that you be prepared to do the same."

Katara watched as Aang began to pace, wondering how this could have gone so wrong. All she had wanted was to cheer her friend up, but now he looked almost as stressed as he did in the time leading up to the Day of Black Sun.

"But it goes against everything I learned from the monks," he said, looking at his hands as if he couldn't even imagine using them to commit the act they were all asking him to. "I can't just go around wiping out people I don't like…"

"Do you even hear what I'm saying?" Zuko stands up so abruptly that half of them jolt back in surprise. " You won't have a choice! You'll have to fight him—and he won't stop until either you or he is dead."

Katara noticed she was not wearing her waterskin at the same time she realized her hands had instinctively sought it out in response to the firebender's hostility. Cool it, Katara. It's not like he's going to randomly start attacking Aang, she thought. With a mental wince, she amended, well, not twice in one day. Between Zuko and Toph, Katara seriously had to wonder at the number of times the Avatar's bending teachers had attacked him.

"Zuko's right," Sokka chimed in. "And this is a lot more than just 'wiping out someone you don't like.' The Fire Lord's responsible for the death and imprisonment of thousands, for the destruction of countless families and villages, for wiping out and taking over other nations, and for continuing a hundred-year war and planning to end it with a massacre. If anyone deserves to die, it's him. Besides, if it's in the name of keeping balance, I'm pretty sure the universe will forgive you."

Aang's fists are curled into shaking fists as he turns from his pacing to shout at Sokka.

"I'm not looking for the universe's forgiveness and I know what the Fire Lord's done!" If Aang still had any hair, Katara was positive he'd be pulling it out right now. The airbender made a frustrated sound of distress. "None of you understands the position I'm in!"

"Aang, we do understand. It's just..."

"Just what, Katara?! What?"

Katara felt a wave of annoyance at his interruption. He wasn't the only one forced to grow up too quickly, to take on responsibilities that should never have been theirs to bear. She understood his reluctance, really, she did, but they all had a part to play. People were counting on him and he had to defeat the Fire Lord— but it seemed like they were just running in circles. They were all there to help and support him, and it just wasn't fair for Aang to get mad at everyone for pointing out the cold hard truth of the matter.

"We're trying to help," she said plaintively, instead of yelling at him like she really wanted to.

Aang looked like he was ready to start shouting again, but something shifted in his expression and he deflated. "I know, Katara. You only ever try to help. The thing is…"

Tears of frustration and anguish glinted in grey eyes, but the air nomad refused to let them fall. "I woke up in a world at war where everyone I knew and loved was dead—trust me, I know better than anyone what the Fire Nation took from the world." Straightening his spine, the nomad's voice tightened with conviction and barely restrained emotion.

"But I'm not a murderer. It's just not who I am."

Katara felt like her heart was being torn in two by a particularly vindictive bloodbender. She understood better than anyone Aang's desire to do good. She understood the brilliant, pure moral fiber that was just so Aang, but she also didn't see any way around their situation. The world was counting on Aang to save it, and Roku himself had told him that he had to defeat the Fire Lord to do it. A rough voice interrupted Katara's musings.

"It may not be who you are, but I know as sure as Tui and La know that the Avatar State has no such qualms about killing anybody."

The dark expression on Zuko's face sent ice running through Katara's veins.

"What's he talking about?" Suki looked around in the dead silence that followed. Katara ignored the frozen feel of her limbs and stepped between Zuko and Aang.

"He's talking about how the Avatar combined with the Ocean Spirit to defend the Northern Water Tribe that was being viciously attacked by the Fire navy," she answered Suki while leveling a glare at the Fire Prince. "Aang isn't himself when he goes into the Avatar State—he didn't choose to kill anyone. Those deaths aren't on him." Zuko returned her glare with the added edge his scar lent him.

"The way I heard it, the Avatar was looking for a 'massive spirit attack.' That sure seems like it was a choice to me." Zuko and Katara were inches away now, locked in a battle of wills.


The standoff abruptly ended as Katara and Zuko both turned to look at Aang, who stood practically forgotten behind them.

"No, I—I didn't kill anyone in the siege of the North. I just knocked some of the boats into the water and scared the others off."

Desperate confusion colored Aang's tone. Spirits, Katara swore silently to herself. She and Sokka knew he wouldn't take it well and so had tried to keep any mention of the deaths he had caused far away from Aang. To be honest, she hadn't known the actual amount of Fire Nation casualties herself—nor did she particularly care at the time—but if Zuko's face was anything to go by, it was a lot.

"You don't know?" the words were a raspy whisper scratching themselves out of the former Fire Prince's throat.

Zuko couldn't believe it. It just wouldn't compute. How could anybody not know that crushing ocean vessels and tossing humans into the Arctic sea would be fatal? How could Aang not know what he'd done?!

But wait.

Realization dawned cold as a sunless morning, a forgotten scroll surfacing from the depths of memory from a time of desperate search and hopeless pursuit.

...Articles of clothing found after the conquest at the air temples indicate only a supply of thin, loose-fitting cloth with which the beings covered themselves. Scholars believe that the airbenders possessed an inborn immunity to temperature, particularly to the cold. For such an undeveloped and technologically deficient society with no means of warming themselves at high altitudes—both in the temples themselves and during flight—it appears that such an ability was not only probable but a grave necessity. It is highly likely that the Nomads left the nonbenders among them to die of exposure, for there are no records of any nonbenders among the Air peoples…

"Don't know what, Zuko? What don't I know?!" Aang's voice had risen to a shrill octave.

Oh, Agni, he really doesn't know. Zuko cleared his throat, but his voice still came out rougher than normal.

"It may be different for airbenders, Aang, but for everyone else, the cold can kill. Drowning and hypothermia are two of the worst ways a firebender could die. The bodies…"

And suddenly he was back there. Cold. Wind. Ice. Scoring, ripping, clawing at clothes and skin so numb the pain was almost a welcome heat. Death in the water. Death on the ice. Uncle calling his name, telling him to focus, there's a storm coming, Zuko, and we cannot let the raft capsize—it is all we have, hold on to the provisions—but the storm already came, Uncle. Don't you see: it came, oh Agni did it come, and it destroyed and it maimed and it killed and it drowned.

Most had been near the great Northern city, of course. Fire Nation pale skin turned an unnatural blue like the Ocean Spirit had reached into their souls and torn out their inner fire with icy unforgiveness, leaving nothing but gelid shells behind. Tortured steel moored on glacial tombs and sinking into the fathomless depths. Zuko heard himself speak as if from leagues away.

"You had Appa, I guess you weren't close enough to see…Uncle and I had a raft. We had to push a lot of them out of the way just to get clear of the city. There were so, so many…" he shuddered. If he had looked around he would have seen the unease growing on the other's faces. He would have seen Aang completely frozen, denial screaming from his eyes. Zuko's eyes, however, were fixed firmly on the past.

The bodies that turned up in warmer waters were the worst. Zuko had thought the first one was a log, a piece of driftwood they could add to their raft—the seagull-vultures sure seemed to think it suitable to rest on, anyways. He could tell something was off when they drew near, but he was so exhausted he could barely see straight. Uncle was asleep—"it would be wise to conserve your energy, Zuko"—and their raft had started to come apart several days ago. Turns out salted, wet wood shrinks in the sun. The bindings had come loose. They needed that log, and any more material they could get their hands on.

But then the stench had hit him and his bad eye widened so much it almost looked normal, and he retched over the side of their pitiful pile of wood as he caught sight of bloated flesh and glassy eyes and spirits were those the man's intestines?

"It took three weeks to make it back to land. The same current that carried us to shore carried some of the dead with us."

After that incident, Zuko tried to steer clear of any more "driftwood" or congregations of seagull-vultures. It was difficult, for they were as much at the mercy of the ocean's currents as the legions of the dead.

One good thing did come of it, however, for near the end of the third week, Zuko spotted a Fire Nation vessel retrieving some of the fallen some distance away. What meager provisions they had managed to take with them had long since run out and they had gone several full days without a drop of freshwater: there was no rain to speak of, and both of them were too weak to produce the fire of the necessary intensity and duration to purify the seawater anymore.

Zuko tried calling out to the ship—they weren't in Fire Nation waters, he was pretty sure, and the men on board should at least be willing to help the renowned Dragon of the West and retired General Iroh, even if they were banned from assisting the banished Prince of the Fire Nation. The only sound he had been able to make was a dry rasp, however. Desperate, he tried to force something, anything, out of his sandpaper dry throat, but the only result was an airy wheeze.

He tried working any semblance of saliva back into his mouth. Help. Please. A hoarse whistling that didn't even stir his Uncle's fitful slumber. Zuko wasn't sure if he should be worried or relieved by how much his Uncle was sleeping, but he figured, good or ill, he could at least present his Uncle with a hope of rescue once he awoke. If only he could just get that ship's attention. Lifting a shaky hand to the air, he drew on any last reserves of chi lingering in his inner flame. Scorching heat seared down his arm and shot off a puff of smoke and sparks a foot skyward before disappearing. Cold rushed through him like a tidal wave and he convulsed before falling back to the raft.

Okay...so firebending...was out...of...the question, he thought, blinking hard to try to dispel those pesky black dots swimming in and out of focus. Zuko dragged in a few deep breaths, resolving to try calling out until he passed out from the effort. He would not miss this opportunity to get his Uncle to safety.

"H…" Help, somebody, please! It had seemed there was no moisture left in him, nothing except for the sluggish pulse of the blood in his veins.

Except for the blood in his veins.

A wild light in his eyes, he brought an arm to his face and tore into the skin of his own wrist and forearm with his teeth, ignoring the sharp and searing pain it caused. What was one more hurt on top of all the others? Red liquid dribbled and flowed from the new wound and he sucked on it greedily, wetting his mouth and throat with the coppery fluid.

"He...help! Over here!"

The ship showed no sign of having heard him. Turning back the way it came, steam billowed out its smokestacks and carried it further and further away, its task for the day evidently accomplished.

"No, no, no. Hey! Help us! Somebody—" The weight of a rough hand on his shoulder cut off the rest of his plea. Zuko startled and stared up into the weather-worn face of his Uncle. Concern seemed etched into the very fiber of the old general's being, and the man gently laid his other hand near the crook of Zuko's elbow, right below the torn and bloody mess that was his nephew's forearm.

"It," Iroh cleared his throat with a wince, "it is all right, Zuko."

The sixteen-year old's throat closed tightly at the compassion and understanding he found in those ancient, golden irises. It's not alright, Uncle. I failed… Seeing the denial and frustration in his nephew, the old man shook his head, his grip reflexively tightening on the one he loved like a son.

"We will track its movements...as long as we can...Hopefully...it will lead us back to land."

Sokka felt like he had eaten a bad sea prune. A really, really bad sea prune that made his insides crawl and his skin prickle uncomfortably. Zuko had fallen silent, seemingly caught in some sort of waking nightmare the others were not privy to; Sokka didn't even want to guess what he was seeing right now.

And Sokka wasn't sure what to do about that. He preferred physical problems, logic puzzles he could apply his mind to—but one thing he could do was get this conversation back on track and address the problem that Zuko had brought up.

"Y-yeah, okay, so Aang used the Avatar State at the North Pole—but he hasn't been able to access his magic spirit powers since Azula shot him full of lightning, so even if he wanted to, Aang can't just let the Avatar Spirit take over to fight Ozai for him," Sokka said.

Fortunately, his interjection seemed to shake the former Fire Prince out of his reverie.

Unfortunately, it also snapped Aang out of his stupor of frozen horror. Breath coming in an accelerating tempo, the young nomad backed up, stumbling over a raised flagstone in his haste to create distance between him and the rest of the group.

"I...I have to—"

With a quick snap of material and whoosh of billowing air Aang was gone, the silhouette of his glider practically invisible against the night sky.

"Aang!" Katara yelled, too late.

A/N: Not the happiest of one-shots, obviously. But it always bothered me that the casualties of the Seige of the North never really got brought up again, particularly in this scene where Aang insists he couldn't do something like killing the Fire Lord even though we've already seen him do it. And, I know, "the Avatar State" and all that—but Zuko hadn't been with the Gaang and wouldn't know how that worked, and with how direct and forthright Zuko tends to be, I think it'd make sense that he'd speak up about this.

Also, the throwaway line about being on a raft for three weeks was just begging for further exploration, so you get Zuko's god-awful luck going strong in my headcanon of what happened. (Props if you caught the Rime of the Ancient Mariner reference.)