Don't Call Me Avatar
By Child of the Dragon
Click. Clack. Click. Clack.
The footsteps of the finely polished boots echoed off the metal walls of the hallway. They walked with swift authority yet they carried an air of caution; as though the hands to the body which these polished boots carried were trying to balance something very delicate and valuable on each palm.
It wasn't that Prince Zuko had no grace or skill in carrying a tray of food, heaven only knows for how long he had to transport his own meals to his eating area in the mess hall everyday, but this meal was of the utmost importance to him. This food was meant for someone extremely precious to him, and great care had been taken to prepare it just right. Zuko had almost gotten himself banished from the kitchen as he had hovered over the chef's shoulder nearly the entire time the food was being prepared.
This food was meant for the one and only Avatar.
Oh yes. It had finally happened. One careless little slip up and that 12-year-old Airbender had just fallen into Zuko's lap. Literally. And now, for the first time in Zuko's life history he would be sitting down to have dinner with the boy under lock and key and the tightest security Zuko could provide and then some. Haha, this little Firebender would be DAMNED if he was going to let the Avatar get away from him now! They had changed course to be on route to the Fire Nation Capital as soon as Zuko had the boy pinned beneath him.
The guards stood a little straighter as they saw Zuko approach them. The prince considered scolding them for lack of diligence, but decided he'd hold his tongue just this once. He was in much too good a mood and if he was going to force this food down the Avatar's throat...well, it couldn't hurt to have on his merriest face, now could it?
In truth, Zuko was just a tad bit jealous of his guards. He's the one who spent weeks, months, YEARS agonizing, plotting, running after this damn kid and now they're the ones who get to spend every waking moment standing next to him, making sure he cannot do anything he hasn't been ordered to. What wouldn't the Firebending Prince give to be right there beside him, gloating the whole way home. Alas, he had the duty of running a ship because there was no way he'd leave such a job to Uncle Iroh; oh no, not after last month's music night.
"Open the door," Zuko ordered and one of the guards moved to slide open the heavily bolted steel metal door. Zuko lifted his chin a little higher and continued down to the dark holding area with all the grace being a highly trained Firebender had taught him.
It took a few moments for his eyes to readjust, his left eye just the slightest bit more keen in the dark surroundings then his right; because of the trauma it had endured, the pupil was sensitive to bright lights and always felt more at ease in dark areas. Soon, he could see the stairs descending below him, though it mattered little since he was on the last five anyway. Any detail big enough to be seen in the flickering blue light of the two torches that hung that hung just beyond the Avatar's reach on either side of him. Beneath each torch stood a guard at full attention, awaiting any orders they might be given.
"Wait outside," Zuko said, his voice and expression betraying none of the giddy excitement he felt inside. "By the other guards. Go nowhere else; I will call for you when I am finished here." Together they both made an obeisance and quickly hurried out. Zuko watched them leave before turning back to the Avatar.
For all the energy, zeal and general life that had poured form his body in all of the countless previous meetings, Zuko almost mistook this young boy for a soul-deprived corpse. The light cast shadows over his face as his head leaned against his chest and what it did bother to highlight seemed as pale as fresh snow. Had it not been for the shackles holding him to the wall, Zuko doubted if he'd be standing up at all.
"Avatar," murmured the fire prince, his voice barely above a whisper. The boy before him did not stir so he addressed him again with more clarity. When no reply reached him, Zuko bent to one knee to set the food on the floor. Looking up, he found the eyes of the chained boy staring down at him. Large gray orbs overflowing with intense...sadness. Zuko blinked once thinking maybe his excitement at this moment was playing tricks on him (wasn't the boy just sleeping?), but still he found himself looking into the Avatar's eyes which seemed as though they were trying to build a bridge between the two souls.
"I've brought you food, Avatar," Zuko said, hardening his gaze to ward off any attempt at friendship this boy might try to push on him. 'Do not get attached,' he told himself. 'He's only the key to your father's arms, nothing more. Leave it like that.'
"I'm not hungry," the boy said, his eyes closing. But even as he spoke a low growl echoed in the confined area of the room.
"You lie," Zuko replied with just a hint of glee. He picked up the only bowl on the tray filled with soup, hot steam wafting off it, and held it under the Avatar's nose. Immediately the boy straightened his posture to get away from it, a yelp of surprise escaping his lips. Zuko pulled the bowl away and waited for the child's reaction to cease. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"I thought you said you brought me food," the Avatar replied. "And I was under the impression that the Fire Nation wanted me alive. You think I can eat that? What is it anyway, lava from an inferno or what? That would burn a hole through me, cook me from the inside!"
The prince twitched at the boy's insolent remarks, but refrained from saying anything stupid (somehow, screaming the phrase "Just blow on it!" seemed like such a bad idea). Instead, he picked up the spoon on the tray and scooped out a small bit of the food. "I'm sorry," he said calmly as he lifted the contents of the spoon to level to his lips. "I'm sure you know that Firebenders like things hot. I'll try to remember you're not as accustomed to such extremes next time." Keeping his gaze with the Avatar, he inhaled and gently blew on the food to cool it, taking great care to control his breathe and not set anything on fire.
"What's happened to my friends?" the boy asked after a moment of silence. "Where are they? Are they alright?"
"They're in a holding cell on the other side of the ship, Avatar. As long as they cause no trouble, I foresee nothing bad happening to them. I served them their supper before I came to you; No doubt they are eating it now."
"What's going to happen to them? It's not like you need them now that you have me. Will you let them go?"
"And have them run crying to the nearest Waterbending tribe to form a rescue team for you? Do you think I am a fool, Avatar? The boy may not be much, but the girl is too good. She wouldn't last long by herself on this ship, but any war can be won with big enough numbers. I'll not run the risk of having her swiping at my heels." Zuko held up the spoonful of food to the boy's mouth. "Enough talk. Fill your mouth with food, not words." The Airbender turned his head to the side, intimating that he would not comply with a single thing his captors wanted. "I will not play these games with you any longer Avatar. If I have to force this food down your throat-"
"Force it then!" the boy replied, snapping his head back to face Zuko with a dead set determined look on his face. "I'll force it back up again! I'll starve myself!" Again, his stomach gave a loud growl of protest, but Zuko had to wonder if a victory was at all obtainable with this boy.
"Why do you not eat, Avatar?" asked Zuko. He waited for a reply, but the boy only looked away again, refusing to talk. "Is it because you miss your friends?"
The boy glanced up at Zuko and the light that glinted off his eyes betrayed him against any protest might care to make. "That," replied the young Airbender when he saw the satisfaction on Zuko's face for having figured out the secret. "And other things. I worry for them; of what you...people will do to them."
"You fear for their lives then?"
"Is there any other explanation! Look at what happened to my people! Look at what was done to my friends back in the Airbending village! My family! No one was left! There aren't even any graves! How do you expect me to sit here quietly while you do heaven only knows what to the only two people I have left in my life!"
Zuko gazed deep into those troubled gray orbs, now brimming with painful tears reluctant to fall down the boy's cheek. In truth, he didn't know what he was going to do with the Waterbenders that had come with the Avatar. They weren't like a side prize, more like collateral damage if anything. Something that just got caught up in the in the fast moving current when it really shouldn't have and now it needed to be dealt with. He could let them go when they reached the Fire Nation; it'd be too late for them to try anything then and it's not like his father won't be attacking what's left of the Waterbenders once he has the Avatar in his dungeons. Surprisingly, the thought of just killing them seemed out of the question and not just to Zuko. No Firebender on board had brought up the idea, it just wasn't an option.
"We would not be having this confrontation if you knew your friends were safe, Avatar?" asked Zuko as he picked up the bowl of soup again, this time it was a good deal cooler. "You would comply with my orders and not endanger your life purposefully?"
The 12-year-old thought of a moment before hesitantly replying with, "I would."
"I will not grant you visitation rights to your friends, I'd like to know the three of you won't try something stupid on your behalf. I offer you this deal instead though: as long as you cooperate with me and my men no harm will come to your friends as long as they are in my care. But you have to stay alive, that's the entire point of having you. Agreed?"
"How will I know that you aren't lying to me?"
The Avatar thought about this proposition hard, his stomach letting out a low plea every now and again. After a good amount of consideration the boy lifted his eyes to look into Zuko's, drilling them with as much spirit as he could spare short of dying. "Alright, but if I ever find out you lied to me-"
"Avatar," Zuko breathed, "I am no fool. I swear to you that their safety will come before even my own. Eat now before this gets any colder; I won't be reheating it for you..." He held the spoon in the crease of the Airbender's mouth and this time the boy's lips surrounded the metal and took the food.
"Katara?" Sokka whispered as he laid a hand on his younger sister's shoulder. She gave a low moan, but did nothing more to acknowledge his existence. "Hey," he continued, his voice soft as a gentle breeze. "Are you okay Katara? You seem a little...out of focus." Katara muttered something incoherent and rolled over to look at Sokka. She seemed to have great difficultly placing where she'd seen him before. "It's going to be okay," Sokka said as he brushed back lose strands of hair from her face in a comforting way. "We're on Zuko's ship, remember? The Firebender? Don't worry though, I won't let anything happen to you." He continued to stroke her hair and soon she was lured into sleep, though Sokka stayed awake trying not to cry. He just felt so helpless...
They had been on this ship for nearly a week now and while Katara had been fine when first coming aboard, she had gradually gotten worse every day. She was sleeping way more then anyone should be able to and of course there was the fact that she couldn't even remember him, Sokka, her very own brother. But those were the only things that ailed her so he couldn't fathom what was wrong. Nothing in his scientific head could place why someone would behave this way. Sure, the thought that maybe she was suffering some sort of psychotic break had crossed his mind, but he knew his sister. She was too strong for that. And the Firebenders were treating them surprisingly well. What could it be? What could it be!
Sokka turned around as a fire guard opened a slot on the bottom of the only door to the room and shoved two bowls of hot soup through it. In a flash Sokka was beside the door and had stuck his arm through the slot to grab a boot before it shut and they were left alone again. "Please," he implored, "there is something wrong with my sister, she's not herself!"
"There is nothing wrong with your sibling boy," replied the guard. "Just eat and let her rest."
"I'm telling you, there's something wrong!" Sokka cried. "Please, send someone in to check her. That's all I ask..."
He heard the guard sigh and ask someone what should be done. "I'll go in," came Zuko's voice and Sokka retracted his hand as he realized whose foot he had been holding. He almost screamed a protest, the last person he wanted near his sister was that creep, but what choice did he have? He dared not to even consider bartering with the Firebenders, him and his sister were blessed to have the conditions they had now and he did not want that taken away, more for his sister then anything else. She was sick yes, but warm and dry and well fed. And at least they were listening to his cries for help which was something he originally thought them incapable of.
Sokka collected the two bowls of food as the door was unlocked and moved out of the way as it was pushed open. He backed quickly over to his sister's side again, set the bowls down and placed a protective hand over her chest. Zuko entered with two fire guards on either side of him. The very thought of having these hell raisers lay eyes on his sister made Sokka's stomach retch, but he kept his mouth shut and waited to see what would happen.
Zuko made no greeting but quickly moved to Katara's side. He slipped his had under Sokka's wrist and, with a lot more gentleness then Sokka thought possible of the Firebender, lifted his hand away to get a better look at the girl. He lifted her wrist and took her pulse, then rested the palm of his hand on her forehead. "When was the last time she ate?" he asked as he lifted her eye lid and watched the pupil adjust to the change in light before closing it again and repeating this process with the other.
"The last time you fed us," Sokka replied as calmly as he could. "8 hours ago."
"She ate everything?"
"Half. Why, are you putting something in her food!"
"If it's in her bowl, it's in yours too. We don't watch you eat, and we don't mark the bowls. There is no specific food that would poison her?"
"No...What's wrong with my sister!"
Zuko held out a hand for the food that had been given to the Waterbenders and Sokka reluctantly handed him one of the bowls. The soup was stirred several times as it's consistency was checked , then Zuko picked up the spoon and, after a slight moment of hesitance, swallowed a mouthful. The Firebender slowly took the spoon from his mouth and put it back in the bowl before setting it on the ground. He waited several moments then rose, a little too quickly for as soon as he was up his vision swirled into an unrecognizable color formation and he was made to bow on his knees again; Somewhere in the haze a hand had grabbed his upper arm to keep him from hurting himself in the fall.
Sokka watched intently as the prince seemed to go through some of the earlier symptoms his sister had endured when first coming aboard the ship. The Firebender held his head in his hands and breathed in a deep, meditative way. "Powerful," he muttered. "Much too powerful...Should be diluted..." Zuko waved a hand for the guard holding him steady to take the bowl. "Brink it back to the chief. Tell him that's perfect for the Avatar, but for the girl it's much too strong; She doesn't need to be comatose this entire trip. Ask him to dilute it to ¼ of what he was using, and make sure he sends in some aspirin for the headache she will have." The guard bowed and left.
"What's in the soup?" asked Sokka. "What is it doing to Katara?"
Zuko slowly looked up, any sudden movements made his head spin. He could see the venom in Sokka's eyes, daring him to make a wrong move just so he'd have a reason to attack the Firebender. Maybe he should've had his guard lead him away, but Zuko thought that giving him a straight answer might be the better choice. If anything, it would open the boy up to trust his captors a little better.
"Are you familiar with Cinnamomum aromaticum?" Zuko asked the boy. "It's a special type of herb that, if cooked right, clouds the minds of Benders and prevents them from thinking clearly enough to use Bending. It's a kind of funny plant though...only works people with powerful skills in Bending, which is why you aren't affected by it of course."
"Is that all that's wrong with her?" the water sibling asked, mistrustfully.
"Is a Waterbender really going to get seasickness?"
Sokka chewed his lower lip thinking this over. He had heard of such a plant existing, but had never really had any solid evidence of it's existence. It seemed to make sense, something told him to relax, but it was hard to drop his guard after having to keep it up around Zuko for so long to protect the Avatar. He did not reply, but went back to watching over his sister and stroking her head comfortingly. With nothing more to be said or done, Zuko slowly got to his feet a second time and left the room with the 2nd fire guard.
"M'Lord?" the fire guard said once the door had been closed and locked. "Will you be alright? Should I find you an escort to your domains; surely you want to sleep...?"
"I will be fine," Zuko snapped as he tried waving the servant away. He gave the guard one last order, to send in some pillows and blankets for a makeshift bed for the girl, before heading down the hallways to towards his bedroom. He stopped at the door when he heard his name being called. Turning, he saw his uncle striding down the hall, a little more quickly then Zuko was used to seeing him move.
"How much did you in take?" Iroh asked as soon as he was upon Zuko.
'Welcome to the Wildfire Nation,' Zuko thought as he opened his bedroom door and stumbled in. His uncle followed close behind and shut the door as he sat down on his bed and rested his befuddled head on the pillows. "So what have you heard?"
"Enough to know you acted foolishly," Iroh responded, His voice wasn't harsh but his face was very troubled. "How much did you eat?" he repeated.
"One bite," Zuko replied honestly. "It was all I needed to know."
"It was excessive, Zuko. You knew it was just the herb before you went in there. Why did you make a show of it?"
The fire prince rolled over. He knew why he'd made a scene. His uncle knew too. Everyone on the ship probably knew, except of course for the two Waterbenders and the Avatar. There was no need to really talk about it but Iroh would refuse to leave the room otherwise and Zuko let out a sigh before he replied with, "I'm going home Uncle. I'm going to see my father and my sister again. We'll be a family..." He rolled over to face Iroh again. "I'm going to be a prince again."
The elder Firebender nodded. "I know this Zuko."
'But do you know how scared I am to go back into slavery?' the boy thought as traced creases in his pillow, unable to say these things to his elder. A heavy silence fell over the room and the younger prince stopped his fidigting and laid still, hoping his uncle might leave him alone to sleep away his troubles. He didn't take the hint, however, and Iroh shuffled over to the bed, gently prodded Zuko to scoot over; which the younger Firebender did so his elder could sit down. The bed sagged considerably under Iroh's weight, but after a moment or two Zuko's body had adjusted to the dip and was quite comfortable in it. Iroh undid his nephew's ponytail, releasing a great tension on Zuko's head and used his fingers to brush it out.
"This has gotten quite long," Iroh remarked as he pulled Zuko's hair over his face. "Look, it almost comes down to your chin. If you let it keep growing, we'll lose you underneath it all." A smile lifted Zuko's lips as the chuckle from his uncle took him back to a younger time of his life. The fingers of his elder gently coaxed the hair over the left side of his face, covering the horrid burn that marked him. "There," his uncle said. "You are the most handsome Firebender that ever lived. We will have to put a warning on you; tell all the unsuspecting girls not to play around with something so hot, or they might get burned." The two tried to look serious about Iroh's remark, but the harder they tried to keep a straight face the harder the laughter fought it's way to the surface until they were both hysterical with it.
'"But he's just a boy."
"And he'll soon be a man! Stop playing these idiotic games with him Iroh! You set the worst example for him! What do you know about raising children anyway!"'
Zuko stopped laughing abruptly. He remembered when he had told his uncle to stop playing with his hair when he was no older then 5. There had been other reasons, painful ones he dare not relive, but it was mostly an attempt to please his father. Iroh noticed the chance in mood and settled into a peaceful silence beside the young prince. Subconsciously the elder placed a hand on Zuko's shoulder and the boy placed his own hand over that. For a while, they both sat lost in their own mental worlds but enjoying the physical company of the other.
Finally Iroh broke the silence with a sigh. "Zuko, there is something I must tell you," he said looking into the younger eyes. "I won't be able to stand beside you when you present the Avatar to your father."
Zuko bolted upright. "What do you mean!" he demanded. "Of course you'll be there! You have as much right—You have MORE right then even I do! It was I who was exiled, not you! Why will you not come, Uncle?"
His elder was silent at first, thinking his words over carefully. Although his face was expressionless, Zuko could see the churning sadness of his soul through the eyes into which he stared. Before he could say anything, Iroh began his reply.
"I knew this day would eventually come, even though I secretly wished it never would. Presenting the Avatar to your father means the word to you Zuko, and believe me when I say that I am honored that you wish to share such a moment with me, but I believe this is something you must do by yourself. I know you are scared but I know that you are strong as well. And...I will be needed elsewhere. Do you understand all this, Zuko?"
"Of course," the younger instantly replied, though his voice was void of any emotion. His uncle pushed a few stray strands of hair behind his ear, the burnt one, and made another remark about how handsome he was. The prince smiled faintly as his uncle chuckled over his jokes and excused himself from the room as he got up, causing the bed to spring back to it's original position. Zuko waited as his elder shuffled to the door, stopped to bid him good dreams, and then finally leave before he laid down again, rolled onto his side and proceeded to sob silently into his pillow.
All those on deck stopped their work to look where the lookout was pointing and gave a great cheer when they saw the rocky strip of land for themselves. It was their home, it was the domain of the Fire Nation. Some ran to the edge of the boat to get that much to it. Others linked arms and skipped in a circle to proclaim their happiness.
"Alright men!" Prince Zuko cried, drawing their attention back to where they were in reality. "I know every one of us is excited to be going home to our families, but let us not forget that we still have a few more hours of sailing to do before we reach the bay. I wouldn't want to prolong our arrival any longer then it's already going to take. Let's keep working and save the celebrations for when we're at home in our own beds." There came a general chorus of moans, some people actually had the gall to just blow him off by waving their hands and resume their festive ghetto celebrations! Zuko narrowed his eyes at the licentious bunch and began screaming at them to get back to work. Quickly the once lazy Firebenders scuttled away to find work or complete chores that would get them out of the war path and all idle hands resumed the work they had been doing before the distraction had come. Zuko breathed deeply before finally turning his head to look at his long lost homeland. A chill ran down his spine and a sense of foreboding washed over him. 'Don't worry,' he told himself as he looked away. 'You've been pushed away for so long, it will take a while to get used to home again...'
He turned and walked into the inner cabins of the ship, making his way to the kitchen area. As if sensing his arrival, the chief ran out into the hallway and handed Zuko a tray with three bowls of soup for the prisoners on board. He then turned swiftly on his heal and vanished behind the kitchen door again. A little note card resting against the middle bowl read:
"The far left bowl is the Avatar's, prepared with the extra dose like you asked. The two to the right are for the Waterbenders. If there is not enough seasoning for the Avatar, I've provided more in an bag beside the bowl you are to feed him. The best of luck, M'Lord." And then the chef's name was signed in to elegant a font for Zuko to read.
The prince reflected heavily as he walked the halls that would lead him to the cell holding the Waterbenders. This ship had been his home, it's crew had been his family. Through all the verbal abuse they had taken over the last two years they still stayed by him and did all that he asked of them. He began to regret not socializing with them a little more, he probably didn't know half the names on board. As annoying as they could be at times, the thought that he was actually going to be separated from them began to scare Zuko. He had mere hours left of this adventure, one he had been seeking to end ever since it began, and now with each passing minute he dreaded setting foot on land more and more.
Zuko looked up and found himself outside the Avatar's holding cell. He didn't even remember stopping at the Waterbender's cell, but he must have since their bowls were missing. He entered the cell and relived the guards standing inside just as he had always done since capturing his prized Avatar. What had changed in the weeks of sailing that had followed the capture was the fact that the Airbender was no longer chained to the wall standing up. Zuko had been feeding the Avatar a high dosage of the herb used to keep bending at bay since the first time he had fed the boy. The Avatar often fell asleep, but the shackles around his wrists had kept him from being able to lay down properly. Fearing they might cut into his arms and cause horrid wounds, Zuko had the boy's arms unchained and instead tied him to the wall by his waist. No more then a good strong rope was needed at this point; the child seemed so incredibly lost in a drugged fog. A bed made of some spare blankets and a pillow had been set up for him and the guards reported that he spent most of his time curled up in this little nest.
This time when Zuko arrived he was sitting up in a careless meditation pose staring off into space. The prince secretly wished he wouldn't do that, but it was better the having him chained up and in misery. Zuko set the tray on the ground and kneeled before the boy. "Avatar," he said and almost immediately the child seemed to get some life back in him. He focused in on Zuko, his stormy gray eyes almost more intense now that they were clouded over in a haze.
"Lo," he muttered, the closest thing to a greeting Zuko would be getting out of him in this state. "TaraSu?" His head titled heavily to the side. At first the word had boggled all on board and no one knew what to say in response. It had taken Zuko a good week to finally decode it to mean, "how are my friends?"
"The Waterbenders are doing very well," Zuko said as he picked up the bowl. "We will be arriving at the main harbor to the Fire Nation's capital city soon and I will let them go."
The Airbender stared blankly at Zuko for a long moment, a natural occurrence under the herb. The fire prince always had to wonder if he had comprehended anything that was said to him, but after a few moments his eyes closed and his head slowly nodded once. "I am pleased," he said very slowly.
Zuko stirred the soup, pretending it was too hot to feed to his Avatar even though the cook had long ago mastered preparing cool food. "You will fall into a deep sleep after you eat this," he said into the food. "While you are like this, your body shall be prepared for the presentation to my father, Fire Lord Ozai. When you wake again, you will be a prisoner of the Fire Nation and I doubt that you will ever be free again. I will ask my father for the responsibility to be your primary caregiver but he may see fit to place you under the watch of someone else. If such a course of action is taken, we will never met again and if we do I may have no place to protect you from what...what will happen to you. I tell you this not to scare you, but so that you will know fully what you face. If you have any questions, any requests, you should speak them now for once we set foot on land no one will listen to you."
The boy leaned in close to Zuko and, with much more clarity then he should've been able to have, whispered, "I have wanted only two things since I came aboard this ship long ago. One of them you can guess yourself, you need me not to tell you for I have done so once before. The other is that I wanted to see my friends one last time before I am surrounded by those who would only shun me. I wanted to tell them not to worry, to tell them to stay safe. Since I shall clearly have neither, I can only thank you for the kindness you have shown." Here, he bowed his head and was silent a moment before lifting it up again and looking into Zuko's eyes.
In that moment Zuko realized just who it was he had under lock and key. This was not just a little 12 year old boy recking havoc across the lands he treaded as the Fire Nation lapped at his heels. He was that as well, but he was the Avatar. The Avatar, the most powerful being on the face of the planet. It didn't matter that he couldn't Firebend, that he could barely move any of the elements of Earth, and was lacking it the art of pushing and pulling water; the true power that resided in him needed none of those things to unleash it's fury and wrath. It could wipe out the Fire Nation the same way one blows out a candle. This little boy, this little Airbender boy, contained the two key ingredients needed for the total annihilation of the Firebenders; ability and motive. Slowly, Zuko reached down and picked up the bag of extra herb the cook had supplied him, thankful now that his crew mate had thought ahead to do so, and stirred it into the soup.
Not a word more was spoken as the Avatar was fed. The herb took it's effect almost immediately and the boy swooned to the side from such a heavy dose. Zuko caught him with one arm before he hit the floor and gently lowered him to the ground. As the child passed into a deep slumber void of any dreams, Zuko stripped him of the bondage that held him to the wall and bundled him close to his own chest for transportation. With a heave, Zuko was back on his feet carrying the dead weight of the 12 year old out of the cell for the first time since entering it.
The fire prince almost expected a crowd to gather as he walked down the halls with the Avatar; such an event had happened when the boy had first been captured, yet hardly anyone came to see this time. The younger, and less disciplined, personnel of whom he did pass smiled faintly at him, some even when as far as to make a gesticulation of good luck. Being rather unaccustomed to such actions, Zuko had no idea how to respond and so set his sight ahead of himself and continued walking down the long halls that he had come to know so well, holding his head high and walking with his usual air of authority.
His first stop was at the bathing rooms.
They were no more then a collection of 20 little rooms clustered in this area, each containing only a small tub, a cabinet for towels and other supplies, a mirror scaling from ceiling to floor and nothing more. The prince laid the Avatar on the floor and retrieved a towel, a washcloth, a small bar of soap and a bath rug. Returning to the side of the tub, Zuko twisted the knob and let a torrent of boiling hot water fill the basin. 'Not too much,' he minded himself as he shut it off early for a shallow bath. There was no cold water nozzle; if you wanted some of that, there was plenty of it on the other side of the ship's haul.
As he waited for the water to cool, Zuko began to carefully strip the Avatar of what had once been rather fine clothes. They were filthy with grime now, faded under layers of dirt. There was a gash over his left thigh where the Firebender had almost grabbed him in their last scuffle. A few more holes had been worn into the fabric as well and Zuko doubted it would survive a washing itself.
As the prince stroked the water with a washcloth, it occurred to him that he could've ordered someone else to do this for him. He didn't have to be the one to personally feed the Avatar everyday; didn't have to talk to him, provide necessary medical care for him, bathe him or clothe him (why lower himself to that level?). How many men were aboard this ship who would do all of that if ordered to? Not as many as his father had, that was for sure, but that didn't change the fact that all Zuko had to do was state what he wanted done. He told himself it was just a paranoia; after two years of painful searching he finally had the Avatar and now he was reluctant to let him out of his sight. He had gotten away so many times, it was like trying to catch a fish while completely submerged in water.
Zuko glanced at the sleeping boy. The arm that wasn't hanging over the tub's edge cradled his upper torso towards the Firebender's body, the way a mother would hold her newborn infant to nurse. No, paranoia had only a small part to play in the intentions of Zuko's actions.
He pulled his hand out of the water and shook it to dry it off a bit before he slipped it under the bend in the Avatar's knees and carefully lifted the Airbender into the tub. The whole prince thing, it had never really been in Zuko's blood to be so...ostentatious. Sure, he thought of himself as higher or better then those around him, at least he had gotten that part right, but if he could do the job himself why make someone else do it?
Zuko fished around in the tub and found the wash cloth he'd dropped. He rung it out so that it was still relatively wet, but not dripping, and set to work gently washing away the dirt from the Avatar's face. Pale gray cheeks turned a more rosy red under the scrubbing as it stimulated the blood in that area.
But it's not like he had to do everything himself. Could he have single handily run this whole ship for two years chasing after this kid? Run it to the bottom of the ocean maybe, but Zuko realized that in order to have the ship run smoothly, to function and serve it's purpose, he was going to need other people to help him. Help him, but not do the work for him. That's how he liked things because that's how he had always gotten attention from his...
Zuko picked up the soap with a trebling hand. 'Now is not the time,' he scolded himself as he wiped at the moisture running down his right cheek with his sleeve. He dipped the soap in the water and began to rub it on the washcloth, lathering it up. Absent mindedly, he glanced again at the sleeping boy he was washing. "I wonder what your's was like," he said before he'd even realized he'd spoken. The Firebender removed the soap, splashed some water on the boy's chest and set to work washing the body; starting at the neck and shoulders and working his way down.
'"Look what I've got Enya! I brought it all the way from the wash rooms to make you feel better. Can you guess what it is?"
"I dunno Iroh, it looks like a big pile of towels if you ask me."
"Why, you are correct! It is a big pile of towels! But look, if you poke it right here..."
"Oh my! It moved! Oh, and is that giggling I hear? Why Iroh, I do believe that towels are not suppose to move or giggle."
"They're not. And I think there might be a little person hiding in them, but every time I try to uncover their face, they let out a low growl and I get scared."
"My big brother, the Great General Iroh, scared! Why, it must be a boggart then. They're scary little things and I'm afraid there's no place for them in this palace."
"But how will we get rid of it Enya? We can't just throw out these towels, they're much to fine for that."
"Well of course, there's only one way to get rid of a Boggart once and for all; we must tickle it away! Tickle, tickle, tickle!"
"I think it's working Enya, I see some little toes poking out. I'll help you and the job will get done twice as fast."
"Hee hee! Mommy! Uncle Iroh! Ha, ha ha! Stop! It's me, it's me! Ha, ha, ha ha! I'm not a boggart! Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
"Why, I know that voice! Could it really be...? It is! Zuko, my little Zuko! Oh I've missed you, my child. My, how your hair has grown..."'
The Firebender pulled his hands from the water and buried them in the folded towel at his side. He inhaled sharply and squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself not to break. A strangled cry escaped from his lips and again he inhaled, this time holding it inside until his lungs began to burn before slowly releasing the breath to repeat the process. He brought his left hand closer to his body, letting it rub his torso to calm him. When the convulsions were on their last dying breath, he lifted it up to hover over the burn that marked his face, the palm covering his eye entirely.
'Damnit!' he scolded as he slammed his fist into the towel. He unfurled the clothe and laid it over his lap then turned back to the Avatar and splashed the last remaining suds off of him. With a heave, he pulled the boy's body out of the tub and laid it over the towel. Zuko quickly folded the clothe over the Avatar's lower body and reached for another from the cabinet to cover his shoulders.
"What do I care about your dumb family anyway?" he asked, glaring down at the boy. "They'ere dead, just like she is. No use talking about it, you certainly can't change it." He tied the towels around the boy's body and pulled the torso close to his own so the boy's head rested on his shoulder. At first he hesitated, but then Zuko slowly reached up and cradled the boy's head with his hand, slowly rocking back and forth. "I just wish you could tell me if you miss them as much as I miss her..."
"Miss who, Prince Zuko?"
The boy spun around so quickly that he almost dropped the very person he held protectively in his arms. He relaxed almost immediately when he realized that the person who had spoken was none other then his uncle. The other shuffled over and gracefully descended to his knees beside Zuko.
"I have brought the Waterbenders here for a bath themselves, I hope you don't mind."
"No Uncle," Zuko replied. "Of course not, you have the right to take them where ever you so please."
Iroh picked up an article of clothing previously worn by the sleeping Avatar and examined it closely. "When I passed I heard you talking Zuko. I thought you might've been talking to the Avatar, but I see that he is asleep in your arms. It puzzles me why you would speak angrily to no one." Iroh glanced at his nephew. "Is there anything you wish to talk with me about?"
In the same way a small child might cuddle a favorite toy when enduring an unfamiliar situation, Zuko laid his head against the Avatar's. "No uncle, I don't want to talk." He turned back to the boy and busied himself by pretending he hadn't finished drying the boy's chest.
"These clothes have seen much better days," Iroh said. "When we make berth, I will look for a tailor who can make some new ones, yes?"
"We won't have time," Zuko replied. "Father will not like to be kept waiting for me to supply a reason for docking at his harbor. I want to surprise him in person. The Avatar will just have to wear something of mine."
"But I thought you burned-"
"I know I got rid of all the clothes I wore before I was 15!" Zuko snapped. A murmur from the Avatar made him realize smoke was curling off his fingers and he quickly pulled his hand from the boy's chest. "I'll find a robe or something. Sew a new outfit if I have to."
"I didn't know you knew how to sew, Prince Zuko," Iroh calmly stated, as though nothing had happened.
"Well, whatever you decide to do, be careful," said the elder Firebender as he slowly rose to his feet again. He tried to lay a comforting hand on Zuko's shoulder, but the boy rotated it out of his reach. "We don't have time to go to the emergency room. And good luck." He bowed once to Zuko and then shuffled to the door and left.
'"...lucky to be born..."'
Zuko put away the supplies he hadn't used and collected the loose limbs of the Avatar, wrapping them tightly in the towels. Taking care to cradle the boy's head, he carefully rose to his feet and left.
There was a commotion down the hall in the opposite direction from which Zuko intended to take. A rather large group of Firebenders had gathered, most of them younger recruits, and they seemed to be arguing with someone. Zuko shook his head at the rowdy bunch and turned to leave but a voice rang out that made him reconsider just leaving things be.
"Don't you dare touch my sister you hot handed, promiscuous son of a bitch!" Sokka cried and pushed away one of the guards advancing towards him. In doing so he had to step a large distance away from Katara, who wobbled on unsteady legs and almost fell before Sokka swung back around and grabbed her under the arms. He muttered a soothing sound in her ear to quiet her slurred and babbled words of confusion before growing threateningly at the Firebenders.
"You never cared before, Waterboy!" the pushed guard shouted, getting up to try again.
"Like I had any choice! You just took her away from me! Of course it wasn't you pig heads, it was a more elderly group to whom I'd be more willing to trust with my sister simply because they weren't looking to take advantage of her! Who knows what you hormone enraged dogs would do to her! I'm NOT leaving my sister alone with you!"
"Well, you know what I think?" asked the guard, a nasty smirk on his face. "I think you just want to see your so called 'sister' naked!"
"You just want to feel her up!" Some of the other guards made "OoOoO"ing noises; a few others laughed. Sokka's cheeks became a vibrant red, even on his dark skin, and his arms trembled from rage. But he dared not to step away from his sister again. He was the only support and protection she had. This did nothing to soften the jeers and taunts that were then flung at him from the crowd.
Zuko looked around for his uncle or just a senior officer he could order to break up the mischief. However, as it was typical of Iroh to never be around when needed, there was none which was probably why the situation had turned into the path it had. The prince grabbed a younger soldier standing on the edge, looking on disapprovingly, and placed the Avatar in his arms. "Guard," He said in a very firm voice. He then pulled the guards face close to his own by the scruff of the collar and said, "with your life," and then disappeared into the crowd, pushing people out of his way.
"What's going on here?" Zuko shouted above the ruckus. The taunting guard stopped shooting small fire ball at Sokka's feet and looked up. Upon seeing the dangerous look on Zuko's feature's, his face instantly drained of all color and he dropped to one knee. "Care to explain to me what you are doing?" Zuko asked as he crossed his arms. Sometimes it helped to have that scar over his eye; at times like these he was confidant people saw him as a demon child, the spawn of Hell itself and no body wanted to get on his "worse" side.
"S-sir," the guard started. "General Iroh told us to bathe them sir, but the boy wouldn't let us-"
"You tried to molest Katara!" Sokka shouted. The guard shot him a dirty look and opened his mouth to protest, but Zuko beat him to the punch by swiftly smacking him upside the head and lifting the guards face two inches away from his own by his chin.
"I will have none of this type of behavior on my ship, is that understood?" The guard nodded quickly since Zuko wouldn't let go of his lower jaw. "Some advice? I know I may not look like I'd be much to the ladies, but in the experience that I have had I've learned that you do well to show them a healthy dose of respect. Use it unless you want to die alone in your bed at the end of your natural life." Zuko let him go with a push and gave the rest of the guilty guards a hard look. "I want you all to find work else where; you'd be wise to make sure it's hard labor. You there, find the higher ranked officers this boy spoke of and give them the message that I want them taking care of the Waterbenders."
The crowd began to break up and Zuko turned to leave, catching Sokka's eye as he did so. The boy kneeled beside his sister who now sat on the floor, her face buried in her hands. For a moment they held eye contact, not really sure of what to say to each other. It wasn't a well kept secret that the boy before him hated all Firebenders and Zuko couldn't really blame him; war tends not to make you popular with your enemies. But in that moment, as his golden honey orbs gazed into the deep ocean blue ones of the younger male, a message was sent from one to the other in which no words were needed to understand. Sokka silently sent a thank you to Prince Zuko.
"He wanted you to stay out of trouble," the Firebender said, breaking the moment that had begun to grow uncomfortable for him. "So just, try to avoid anything unnecessary, okay?" And he left before anything more could be said.
'Stupid!' his mind raged as he relieved the guard to whom he'd trusted the Avatar to in his absence. 'You sounded so STUPID! You should've just walked away, but nooooo! No, you had to say something! You had to be your moral self, so noble! Do the right thing, Prince Zuko, do the right thing. Isn't CARING what got you in this position in the first place? Don't you think you should've learned something? Do you WANT to be taken back by your father or NOT?'
Zuko laid the sleeping Avatar on his bed when he finally reached his own quarters. The first two questions his mind had spat out at him were easy enough to answer, yes on both accounts, but the last...
He opened his closet, intending to find something of his own to dress the boy in, but he was five years older then the child and at least a foot taller. Besides, all Zuko had were warriors clothes anyway... 'Oh there's no time for this!' he told himself as he collected a robe and a pair of pants. A glimmer caught his eye and he turned his head to see what was reflecting light at him. Reaching out, he picked up a small glass bottle of scented oil his uncle had given him for his 16th birthday.
It wasn't at all wise for a Firebender to wear something this dangerous, but teenagers don't always think straight like that. The girls swooned for young men daring enough to try their luck with fate and it made them smell nice so why not? Aside from having the oil catch fire and being engulfed in flames that is. Zuko thought it was stupid, just one more way his uncle tried to encourage him to be a normal teenager. Funny thing was, if Iroh had given this to him before he was 15 he would've loved it...
He bought the collection of stuff over to his bed and set it beside the Airbender. Unscrewing the cap to the bottle, Zuko was extra careful not to spill any of get it on his hands. He recognized the smell that wafted from it; his mother wore the same kind of scent. The prince was about to recap the bottle when it occurred to him to spread some on the sleeping boy in his bed. Even though he was the Avatar, he couldn't bend fire yet; where was the risk of harm?
'"Zuko! Get over here, I don't have all day!"
"Coming Father! ...Father? Do you want to see what Master Hakan taught me today? Huh, do you Father?"
"No, not now!"
"You always have time to watch when Zula has something to show you...Why can't you watch me?"
"I've very busy Zuko! You can show Iroh or one of the maids or someone..."
"Can I show Mother when we get home?"
"NO! Most Certainly Not! You would burn the palace down! And your mother doesn't need all the extra excitement of watching you fling fireballs around! She's still sick! You know this Zuko. How many times do I have to tell you? Stay away from her room, you have no right to be in there!"'
The Avatar was like a doll in his hands as he dressed him. He recalled, when he was younger, watching his sister play with the idiotic toys. He wondered briefly why anyone would want to waste time with such things, but now that he clumsily tried putting the pair of pants on, Zuko secretly wished he'd actually paid attention all those times his then 7 year old sister dragged him off to be the father of any number of stuffed animals. The number of times she must've corrected him when he made one mistake or another were probably beyond what the human mind could comprehend, yet he couldn't recall a word of it. It probably didn't help that every time she had to correct him she went into a screaming fit. Between her and his father, he learned early on the ability of just tuning things out.
When finally clothed, the boy looked so awkward Zuko wasn't sure if he should laugh or have pity for the child. The robe was of course Zuko's personal meditation robe and the pants were a set made out of the same material as the trim. The sleeves went well beyond his fingers with the boy's shoulders were unable to fill out the top and keep them up. The hems of the robe and pants were at least two feet too long. The tattooed arrow contrasted horribly against all the red dyes and made him look that much more unnatural, as thought he'd never be able to embrace the element of fire.
The older boy's eyes rested in the clothe decoration that held the fire nation insignia. He laid a hand against it, letting his fingers trail over the feel of the soft Kindled Cotton. When first cast out, he'd had a very hard time excepting what had happened. His emotions were a wreck and it had been Iroh who had to guide and direct the ship while he hid below deck, morning the lost of his life. He felt to ashamed to show himself to anyone, even his uncle who tried desperately to cheer him up. Finally he was given this blanket by Iroh who hoped to show Zuko he was still a member of the Fire nation.
At first he unleashed a great deal of anger upon it, throwing it across the room and stomping on it. And when his anger subsided and he became momentarily numb from emotion, he left it crumpled in a corner, forlorn and forgotten. Then, even as childish as it was, the prince had spent many nights with it draped over his head, just crying himself to sleep when the final stages of grief overtook him. It had given him a sense of protection, to know that even if someone barged into his his room suddenly they wouldn't see him right away or know what he was doing; and comfort, just in that it became a familiar object to him that was always there when he needed it.
When Zuko started functioning better on the emotional scale again he took up his duties very solemnly. The blanket had stayed beside him while he slept at night to reassure him but as time when on and not a trace of the Avatar was found, he began to just accept the thought of never going home again. He had the blanket hung on the wall, next to him but still so very far away as that was how he came to accept things would be with him and his people. And when the Avatar had finally awakened and rekindled his lost hope? Well, it had hung for so long on the wall that Zuko came to look upon it as already being in it's rightful place...
Now, for the first time in nearly two years, he reached up and unhooked it from the nails that held it up. Delicately, he pulled it behind him and slid two of the corners over either shoulder. The fabric hugged his whole body, leaving only his head and feet free of it's gentle grasp. He waited for the feeling of comfort it had so many times bestowed upon him, but it never came and he realized he didn't want the embrace. Zuko took the blanket off and laid it over the Avatar, making the boy feel all the more like a doll which he was wrapping up like a Christmas present.
The teen laid back and rested his head against the wall next to his bed. 'I'm not ready for this,' he muttered inside his head. Subconsciously his hand reached out and found the boy's, slipping into it like it was the most natural thing to do. "I need strength Avatar. I'm sca-"
Zuko pulled away from the child like he was a deadly flame. He was not about to utter those words, HE WAS NOT! He had vowed by the day that marked him that he would never allow himself to feel that way again. Terrorifed was a man's emotion, there were plenty of important, real life things to be terrorifed about. But scared? A child's word! A useless word that made toddlers cry in the dark because the shadows don't look right. He had not been scared since he was 15; at least, not on the outside for the world to witness.
He slowly paced over to the other side of his room, where his meditation candles were kept. Their disfigured bodies of melted wax offered him a bit of solace, perhaps because they were the only things on broad this ship he felt he could identify with. It was here, in this very spot where he practiced his control; control of his temper, control of his thoughts, control of his words, control of his feelings even. Religiously, every night for two years it was the same thing, his ritual. Right before bed, he'd breathe the same pattern and integratively raise and lower the flames. He passed his hand over one of the white candles, catching a gyspie of a flame on the wick, and wondered briefly if all his training would be enough for his father.
Zuko kneeled before his alter, waving his hands over the other candles and catching them on fire as well. He watched the flames dance about freely on their tiny pole of a stage, playfully flicking at each other and seeming to laugh about a game unknown to that of mortals. Except to Zuko who knew the game well, at least he had in his younger days when he was as free spirited as the innocuous looking little flames. A faint smile tugged at the corners of his lips and the flames, making subtle little sounds, beckoned him back into the game with quick waves of their hands. They swayed and swooned, crouched, leapt and bowed to him; radiated their gentle warmth to embrace him and seemed to tell him that things would be okay, if only he would trust them again, follow them like he had when he was a little boy, when they had been free.
He willed one of the flames to extinguish itself and with a small "hiss" it disappeared. The others leaned in for a closer look, then pulled away, frightened. They sputtered and spurred, drawing away from him, hissing and crackling their remonstrances. One spit up a few tiny embers that were barely seen before they disappeared beyond the warmth. 'Rise,' he told them, and they obeyed without complaint. 'Bow,' and they dimmed their glow. 'Live,' he commanded and the flame that he had sniffed leaped back to life on it's podium.
The prince had been such a mischievous little kid that he really didn't blame his father for yelling at him all the time. Looking back, he'd have probably said a lot of the same things if he had a little boy as wild as he'd been. He'd climb trees where one slip would hurtle him to his grave for sure. He stole food from the kitchen, and crawled into every possible area he wasn't suppose to be in, usually without getting caught. He ran along the roof tops, spent hours outside of the palace walls unsupervised, made mud angles when the summer monsoons dumped their torrent of water on him and lite up the sky with their fantastic light shows. There were commoner children he often ran with through the city streets, fighting playful mock battles and stealing handfuls of fireworks to set of during the Fire Festivals.
The one thing he'd done with the most effrontery that upset both his father and mother alike was that he'd often tried to dress as a fire soldier himself and go about pretending he was just like any of the countless guards roaming the palace. Granted everyone knew already that it was Prince Zuko because of his four-year-old body and the fact that the helmet was 3 sizes to big, often falling over his eyes so he couldn't see, he still acted like and ordinary civilian. When the other guards would ask him what he was up to, often addressing him as "little prince," he'd act surprised as though he didn't know he was a prince. '"No, no,"' he'd say to them. '"I'm just Zuko. Just call me Zuko."' The soldiers, especially the younger ones, got a good kick out of this and humored him simply by including him in miniature training drills. His mother too found it amusing, though he learned later on that she worried for his safety. '"He's so little right now Ozai,"' he'd caught her saying to his father late one night when they both thought him asleep in her arms. '"But he will grow up to be as old as them one day and he will fit comfortably into one of those uniforms. Ozai, I wished you'd end this war soon so that I didn't have to worry about you accidentally sending him off to battle while he's playing someday. Oh, Zuko..."'
"Die," he breathed gently as the memory of one of her tears striking his face ended the flow of memories. The flames seemed to cry to him, begging not to be sent away into the darkness, but he listened to them not and they wept wispy gray tears as their bodies were effaced from existence by his hard will.
There was a knock at his door and Zuko turned his head toward the entrance as his uncle stepped inside. "We've docked at the bay, Prince Zuko," he said in his usual benign voice. The fire prince rose to his feet and moved to the bed to collect his prized Avatar. He made sure to drape a corner over the face of the boy so that no one would know what he carried until the very last moment when he unveiled him to his father. Before he could leave his quarters, his uncle laid a hand on his arm to gently stop him from carrying on.
"No matter what happens..." he started but his voice trailed away and his eyes closed as he bowed his head. "Just listen to your heart and remember that I am proud of you."
"I will," Zuko said, at a lost for words due a bit more to confusion then to anything else. His uncle's hand let go of him and he struggled hard not to break down and cry because of the loss of contact. It wasn't like he was the only one going home and Iroh was banished. He'd see his uncle again in a few short hours, maybe not even that long. His lips parted ever so slightly, but no words could break through them.
The bay they had docked in was set up practically in the very backyard to the palace Zuko had called home for the first 15 years of his life. He stopped a moment to look around at all the commoners in the small market set up there. People in turned gaped back at him. Those who didn't stare openly whispered with bowed heads behind lifted hands, making it that much more obvious of their true intentions. The message, "The exiled prince has returned home!" spread like fire on a grass prairie. Zuko dropped the fond face he had caressed the scene with at first and set onto his features the usual cold stare he had perfected with all his free time at sea.
A pair of fire guards crossed into his path just before he was about to set foot on land. "Zuko," one of them said, a stern look upon his old face. "You know you're not to return to the Fire Nation. Please, turn around and leave this bay area immediately. If you step off your boat I will be forced to arrest you."
"I was sent on a mission to find something of great importance to the Fire Lord," Zuko spoke softly. "If I could find it and capture it, I was promised the reward of being able to come home. Go, send a messenger if you must. Tell my father that his son has returned with something I know he values greatly."
At a nod from the first, the second guard hurried away towards the palace with Zuko's words. The first guard turned back to Zuko once his comrade disappeared in the distance. "Zuko," he said, "if Lord Ozai still wishes you away, do not fight him."
Zuko glared at the Firebender before him, but was taken aback almost at once by the look on his face. He saw a man, not ordering him away like a child as he had first thought, but a man pleading with him, begging him not to set himself in danger. Zuko saw sadness in the old man's eyes, as though it was breaking his heart to have to ask him to leave again. On top of everything, the old man's face was so very familiar that Zuko could almost place having seen it somewhere before...
"Hakan?" Zuko asked with surprise as the old Firebender's lips turned upward in the small hint of a smile.
"It's nice to know I'm not forgotten," he said. "It's good to see you again Zuko."
"Master," Zuko said as a smile spread across his face. "It is good to see you again too. How have you been? What are your new students like or have you stopped teaching? When I am finished with this business with my father—" He cut himself short and quickly lapsed into silence, bowing his head in embarrassment and a little bit of shame. He was showing fondness, caring, concern for another being, everything that had led him into the biggest mistake of his life and with a silent curse he lifted his head which again displayed the cold expressionless stare that would mask his temporary sign of weakness. He glared at a young couple passing by who had been smiling and waving at him. Upon seeing his dark sour look their own glee was wiped clean and they scurried away quickly. Hakan watched this interaction with a crowing look of concern on his own face.
"What is the matter child?" asked the old Firebending master.
"Nothing," Zuko replied curtly.
"It is not nothing," Hakan responded. "People's moods do not just suddenly change like that. Come now, you may tell me..."
"It's not proper for our relationship to be so casual. I am a..." His voice caught in his throat and Zuko fond it difficult to get past the lump that had formed there. He didn't want to speak the words, because in doing so he would have to take up the duties, the burdens, that came with the roll and sell himself into the chains of slavery they would cast upon him. "I am a prince, and you are but the teacher who taught me."
"So, I am less important then you?"
The simple word almost killed him. Zuko could feel himself trembling under his disguise; who he was fought what he was becoming and he couldn't decide which side he wanted to win. The approval of his father meant so very much to him, he needed the love and support that only a parent could give but if he gave up his soul would he ever be satisfied or happy? Would he be able to lead his people judicially without the ability to care for their needs? Could he live with himself under the constant weight of portraying to people the image of this person he knew he was not and detested more then anything in the world?
"You look just like the boy I remember from ten years ago, Zuko." Hakan's words broke his thoughts. "I had hoped you would have become the man that boy surly would have grown to be. I see now that you and he are very different and I mourn for the loss of that child's life." The old master looked at his student over his shoulder. In the distance, the second guard could be seen running back to them. "It's a pity he's dead. This nation along with the rest of the world could have used a leader like him."
"Leading a nation is not a child's task."
"Maybe, but all children are born pure. The child Zuko was pure good; and be him only a child, he had more wisdom and common sense in him then this nation has seen for a long, long time."
"Prince Zuko!" the second guard cried as he skidded to a halt and interrupted the conversation. "Lord Ozai has said that he will see you, immediately. You are to report to him right away!" He stepped aside and held out his arm, the universal gesture for the other to lead the way.
The fire prince shifted the Avatar in his arms and became faintly aware of how heavy the dead weight was. However, he was determined to show no weakness, not to his father, not on this day. He poised his shoulders straight and tall, chin parallel to the ground so that all could see his face clearly. The grace that he had acquired over years of practicing his bending, as well as what was inherent in his royal blood, moved his feet for him as he descended the last fey steps from the ramp of his ship onto Fire Nation soil.
The estrangement from his home had left him feeling unnatural now that he stood inside the palace walls again. Unnatural, but not unfamiliar. He used to be able to run through these halls blind folded, provided nobody tried to catch him by refusing to get out of the way. He knew where everything was and, looking about him, he could tell that nothing had changed in his two years away except for a few minor little details here and there. Paths to different places of the palace played out in his mind; to the dungeons, to the laundry rooms, to the various bathrooms, the ballroom, his old bedroom and the grand bedroom where his mother had... Mentally he shook these images from his head and started down a path that he had tread well in his youth: the path to his father's throne room, recalling every detail precisely as it had been left two years ago.
He stopped outside the door frame to the room, a curtain hung over it to give those inside more privacy, behind which his father undoubtedly sat atop his throne. It was rare for the Fire Lord to remove himself from his throne for many reasons but the strongest one being that the Fire Nation did not like to have an empty chair of power. Sitting in the center of it, their lord would be completely surrounded by the element they worshiped and he would be safe from any traitors who sought to kill him for the crown themselves. He was the King, the Master of all Firebenders and he got that title simply by being stronger then any who dared to challenge him. To leave the throne, the nation of fire felt, would leave him vulnerable to open attack and those loyal to their flag dare not think any harm to come across the path of their great and noble leader.
Yet since, and a little bit because of Prince Zuko's banishment, the people of the Fire Nation had come across another reason to dread their king leaving his throne: Fear. Zuko had unintentionally opened their eyes to the true wrath that he was capable of producing and since that day they held their breathe whenever there was an incident that called their tyrant from his elevated chair. When he left his throne, he may have been vulnerable, but he was a formidable force to be reckoned with and there was not a soul alive that wanted to be at the other end of his anger; Zuko had the highest anxiety lever of any of them, having to had lived through an agonizing hell brought upon by his father in his younger days.
Even from outside, Zuko could feel the heat seep from the room and wrap around him, evoking a strange sense of numb pain in his left eye. A guard held open the door and Zuko hesitantly stepped into a large hallway lite dimly by torches hanging on the elongated walls and the fire that burned wildly under the very seat that the Lord of Fire sat cross-legged upon.
Zuko had to remind himself to breathe evenly as he made his way toward his father. With each step he took forward, the impulse to run screaming away clawed at his chest. However, his face, composed in it's usual heartless mask, remained the same up until the last step was taken and he lowered his body to one knee. Gently, he set the sleeping boy in his arms on the ground and lifted the corners of the fabric embracing him, unveiling the boys face last.
It took him a moment longer then he would've liked, but Zuko looked into the face of his father as he spoke. "I bring you the Avatar, Great Fire Lord Ozai, as a gift of my dedication and loyalty to you, my Lord, my Master, my Sire."
At first the Fire Lord didn't respond and that worried Zuko. He stared down harshly at the teen before him, dark cold eyes as unblinking as the golden hued ones that stared back. Then, very slowly, he rose to his feet and even though Zuko's body remained as solid as a statue on the outside, the urge to draw himself away was maddening. The many times he had been made to stand in that same spot to face his father when he was caught doing something he knew he shouldn't flashed through his mind. When he was younger, his father had been a little more understanding; a scolding here or there and the worst thing that could happen to him was hurt feelings because he had been caught and his father knew what he had done. Ever since his mother died, it got worse. He learned quickly to give up whatever set his father off, just to please him, to have his approbation. It generally seemed to work, until he found another flaw in Zuko's design. But today he wouldn't let a thing go out of place, he would show his father that he was a worthy son and so stood his ground as his father parted the flames that surrounded him and started down the steps that elevated his throne.
Lord Ozai stopped before Zuko, the Avatar boy being the only thing between them now. He looked down at the child, pushing his head a bit with his foot to tilt his face toward him for a better look. As he reached down and lifted the child up by the fabric of the clothes he wore, having to bunch it tightly around the nape of the neck so he wouldn't slide out, Zuko fought desperately to suppress a chilling memory of a time he had once been taken up in the same strangling hold. The adult's hand grasped the left side of the boy's face, titling it again in the light so he could see the Airbender markings better and eventually nodded once to show his approval.
"You have indeed brought me the Avatar," Lord Ozai said. "I thank you for your services." Then he simply let go of the child in his hands and glared disapprovingly as Zuko swiftly caught him. The fire prince felt himself freeze under those eyes in the act of what he was doing. He knew he should drop the boy, he wasn't more then a few inches off the ground now so surly he'd be okay, but his body went through the motions for him and safely lowered the Airbender to the ground. He cursed himself in his mind and forced himself to look up at his father. "You are dismissed."
Zuko rose to his feet, his mien changing almost entirely. That was it? That was all he was going to say? This was what Zuko had been so worked up over, so very terrified of? Sixteen little words? No, something still didn't feel right. Even though the thought of just leaving things as they were, just getting out of that room, crossed his mind, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Something held him glued to the spot and wouldn't let him just walk away until he knew what the cause of that nagging feeling was. "Father," Zuko began but anything more he was about to say died in his throat as the Fire Lord whirled on him and the dangerous look on his face froze Zuko in absolute horror.
"You," Ozai seethed, fire practically spitting from his mouth. "Are NOT My Son!" The words sliced Zuko more sharply then away blade ever could. He could no longer hold the gaze of those eyes, those frozen eyes, nor could he keep his own hard glare. Trying to steady his breathe and not allow any tears to fall, he looked down and his eyes rested on the sleeping Avatar, oblivious to the events unfolding around him. "When I kicked you out of my kingdom two years ago I disowned you for good! I'll Never Take You Back!"
"We had a deal-"
"You and I both know the Avatar was never expected to return. It was bait to dangle in your face, and if you didn't see that from the beginning then you are truly an imbecile! You have one hour to restock your ship and prepare your crew! I want you out of my kingdom by then and if you're not, so help me I'll kill you myself! Now, get out." As his father walked away, Zuko watched the Avatar get picked up by one of Ozai's loyal guards. The other Firebender had taken none of the care Zuko had in handling the child and as the boy was carted off like a sack of rice, Zuko found it hard to breathe.
"Why," he whispered as he turned his eyes back to his father. He could feel the dangerous tears gathering on the edge of his cheeks, but he just didn't care. "Why?" he asked louder, anger washing over his face and a tremor running over his body.
"Because you are a traitor," Ozai spat back at him. "You think I don't know about the things you did while abroad? What do I look like to you, a fool! How many times have you had him before this? And what's even worse, how many times YOU sabotaged one of his captures! You think I don't know about your infamous little Blue Spirit assault? Honestly Zuko, who the hell were you trying to fool? The whole Nation could practically pin that on you! You think Zhao didn't tell me things? And speaking of Zhao, do you really think I don't know about your murder of him? Dammit Zuko, he was my best fucking admiral!"
"He tried to murder me!"
"And Good Riddance, I would've said! You are an absolute waste of my flesh and blood. There is no reason for you to live! A pup that should have been tied in a sack and tossed into the river long ago! If only she hadn't had you-"
But Zuko didn't wait for him to finish, already he was running blindly thought the halls. He didn't even know where he was going, but anywhere was better then standing there with those unstoppable tears pouring down his face. Even his left eye was producing tears, and as he tried to wipe them away it agitated the sensitive skin, making it burn. He needed a place with water...
CRASH! A solid wall stopped his race and the only thing that kept him from falling back on him rump was his hand blindly groping a doorknob just above his waist. He swung open the door and ran inside, slamming said door closed behind him. Through his good eye he saw the room he was in now was a very simple bathroom with nothing more then a toilet and a sink. He reached behind himself and locked the door then stumbled over to the cool porcelain of the sink. Zuko spun the knob and a torrent of water splattered the basin, some of it splashing over the rim and soaking his pants. But he didn't care, the water was cold, thank god, and he pulled handfuls of it up to soothe his burning eye. Within a few minutes he was almost completely soaked from his head to his feet.
He turned off the water and leaned against the sink, forehead resting on the cool glass of a crude mirror. The tears had resided, maybe in the confusion of all the water suddenly running down his face, but now they began again and Zuko didn't have the will to fight them at all. His knees buckled underneath him and the Firebender slowly lowered himself to the floor; the last thing he needed was to break a sink and have his father blow up at him for that.
'"You Are NOT My Son!"'
He couldn't hold back the noise of heartbreak that escaped his lips and it broke the barrier for a tidal wave of screams and sobs to wash over him. He couldn't even sit up, the grief was too overwhelming. One after another every horrid memory of his father came back to haunt him, every degrading word, 15 years worth of it! How could he have been so stupid! How could he have not seen it coming to this! Sure he was scared to come back, scared because it was by his father's hands that he received the rubicund mark on his face. What animal dares to seek comfort in the embrace of the very monster that beat it!
'"A pup that should have been dumped in the river long ago!"'
A Dog! He was nothing more then a stray to his father! An animal! The thought crushed him under their weight, he could almost feel his heart stop beating, yielding to the latter command of what had been said.
'How could he?' Zuko thought darkly. 'How could he do this after everything I've done for him? "Don't shoot fire balls so close to the palace," he says, "you'll burn it down! You're careless!" So I study hard and control myself obediently! "Don't run in the halls," so I carry myself with grace! "Don't steal from the kitchens," so I eat what is set before me, even if I don't like it. "Don't socialize with the commoners," so I lock everything inside, keep it all locked away under this hard shell, next to my heart and the memory of her. "Don't play dress up in the guards uniforms," so I train to become the absolute best, to inherent the throne as a strong lord, as a son he can be proud of! Yet still...'
"Still it is not good enough for you father!" he cried out in utter fury. "I strive so hard to be a paragon, your perfect little son! Tell me father, tell me! What is it that I do that only draws from you such cold disdain for me? Why are you so nonchalant to my tribulation? I trusted you, did everything for you reverentially because I cared so deeply and yet you would still cast me away for a reason so esoteric, I don't even think I could begin to fathom it! What conspicuous flaw do I have that drives you away? Why is it that no matter how hard I try, it cannot more subtle to you? Does it glow with a luminous light brighter even then the elemental fire I draw from my hands, the same fire that surrounds your throne and is controlled by your will? And if that be the case, then what did Mother die for? What was the point of her death!" A new bath of tears soaked Zuko's cheeks and he didn't bother wiping them away, not even from the good side of his face. He curled up in a ball and just cried.
As his sobs died down to hic-ups, his painful feelings numbing to allow him to think, Zuko wondered what he next move was going to be. Now that he knew his exile was everlasting, the realization struck him that he had no other place to go. The stupid 100 year war had royally screwed him out of being able to find shelter in either the Earth Kingdom or the Water Tribes. If the Airbenders were still around, they surly would've taken him in, as such acts of kindness and forgivingness were in their placid nature. But they were dead, save for the little boy he'd just handed to his father. He really was a fool, to be beguiled the way he had. Now the fire teen had nothing, not even a reason to live anymore. His father was right, he should have died long ago; let Zhao have his way all along...
Zuko slowly rose to his feet, the dark thoughts overpowering him, moving his body. 'This is the best way,' he whispered to himself. 'The answer to everybody's needs; to please your father you must end your own life and in return you'll feel no more pain, ever again.' He turned the knob and the water began pouring into the basin, filling it as he covered the drain with the plug. 'You won't even break anyone's heart .Your father doesn't love you, your mother is dead, and there's no lover attached to your arm. Even your uncle had something more important then you to deal with and besides them, who really knew you're well enough to cry at your funeral? Yes, this is what's best...' He turned off the water and drank in the last few breathes of air he would ever breathe before he began to lower his head...
A knock on the door made him jerk upright, snapping himself out of the trance he had been in. "Prince Zuko?" called a timid voice from the other side. He recognized it faintly as one of the members of his ship, though he'd never be able to place a face to it. "Are you in there?"
"Y-yes," Zuko said unsteadily, not even bothering to curse himself for stuttering.
"Are you alright M'lord?"
"Of course; what do you want?"
"Prince Zuko, Fire Lord Ozai has come down to the bay and took over restocking of the ship. He's ordering that everything be taken off the ship for inspection before being loaded back on again..."
"M'lord...That includes the Waterbenders...?"
Zuko's eyes widened as the realization of that comment hit him. Of course! The Waterbenders! He had yet to let them go; he was still their care giver as he had vowed to the Avatar. If Ozai found them...
Zuko threw open the door and pushed the other Firebender aside in his haste to get back to his ship. He called a quick, "Sorry!" over his shoulder as he sped down and around the maze of hallways that he was so acquainted with. It didn't take him more then five minutes to bust from the palace doors and, despite the clutter of booths and stalls, even less time to break through to the bay where great war ships and a few small fisherman ships were docked. He slid to a halt just as his father's voice called out, "What are these?"
"Lord Ozai," Zuko said as he righted his posture and tired to steady his breathing. He walked, with even strides he hoped, to where two Firebender guards held Sokka and Katara by the arms, with hands tied behind their backs and Sokka gagged for, well, obvious reasons. "These two are Waterbenders, friends of the Avatar. They too were intercepted when the boy was captured."
Ozai looked them over once. "They're alive."
"They were captured alive—"
"Well, why are they still alive?"
Zuko struggled a bit to come up with an answer, still caught under the spell of wanting to please this man, but finally the exact words came to him and he said them without hesitance, "I didn't want to kill them."
Ozai stared at him a bit, his expression dark. It was hard for Zuko to read his thoughts, but he anticipated a furious storm was brewing under the calm looking demeanor. Then he turned to the guards with the water teens and made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Kill the boy," he said with a casual air to vis voice. "But keep the girl. I'm sure I can find a use for her."
"FATHER!" Zuko cried before he could even stop himself. "You can't!" he quickly continued, ignoring the death glare he received. "I promised the Avatar no harm would come to them. If he finds out what you did, he'll kill himself!"
"Whose going to tell him?"
"If I have to, I will," Zuko replied, hoping that, despite his wet clothes and tear stricken face, he portrayed the frightening body posture and face that had so often gotten people to bend to his will. But of course this facade wouldn't work on Ozai, the very being who had created the image Zuko portrayed and could see past it to what he really was as he laughed coldly at the boy's attempt to scare him.
"Take a good look child!" he said, waving his hand to indicate Sokka and the still dazed Katara. "This is what a water boy looks like and this is what a water girl looks like. You can spend the next 16 years of your live sailing between the two poles looking for the Avatar all over again. After all, that's all you'll ever be good for." And he turned his back to Zuko, as he had done so many times before in the fire teen's life, leading away the guard that held Katara.
Zuko acted as soon as the idea hit him; he didn't even give himself a chance to second guess himself. He charged and his hand flew out before him, bellowing a wave of fire, his open palm becoming the formidable mouth of a dragon. The clothes that man wore caught aflame, despite that they were more heat resistant then what any of the other nations wore, and in the sudden confusion Ozai seemed to have forgotten what it was that he controlled. The guard that held the girl quickly let her go as he rushed to help his lord, and Zuko caught her as she stumbled into his open arms. He quickly untied her hands and scooped up her legs to carry her, at a run, back to the ship through the riot that had broken out between Ozai's loyal guards and the member's of Zuko's crew.
"Desist!" Zuko shouted from the bow of his ship. Sokka, having been freed by another crew mate, gladly took his sister into his arms by Zuko's side. "On board! Man your stations! Let's move out!" With a roar, Zuko's crew re-boarded the ship, fending off the soldiers that tried to board as well. Above all the battle cries, Zuko could hear the voice of Ozai screaming above them all, ordering his capture. A sadistic smile spread over Zuko's face; if it was him his father finally wanted, who was he to not deliver himself?
"You," Zuko said to Sokka who was currently shh'ing a bewildered Katara. He knelt down and looked the younger male in the eyes. "I was your age when I first boarded this ship as it's chief commander. I know you'll take good care of it while I'm gone. If you need help just ask for my uncle, but please keep my men safe, understand?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Sokka said, confused beyond comprehension by Zuko's words. Zuko didn't reply, at least not verbally. The Firebender stood up, already the small ship he had was beginning to pull away from the dock. It was now or never, his only shot and a very slim one at that. But it suddenly didn't matter if he lived or died, that wild sense of living began to pump in his veins; he was free, as free as the flames of his candles who would never again be cast into slavery by his hand.
Zuko jumped off the deck of his ship.
He was close enough to the deck to land on it, a few fire guards breaking his fall and keeping him from seriously injuring anything. He heard the shouts of his crew and turned back to see a few of them had gathered around Sokka who stared at him in utter disbelief. Among them was Iroh, having to be restrained from jumping himself and it pulled at Zuko's heart to see him so panic-stricken and helpless. "GO!" he cried and waved his hands for the crew to keep backing out. He prayed to the Spirits that Iroh would be alright with the stress, and scrambled to his feet as Ozai's guards began to close in on him. There were too many and he realized he'd probably be captured, alive he hoped...But then a few Firebenders dropped to the ground, rolling, on fire! Who...?
"Hakan!" Zuko shouted as he ran through the gap his old teacher had created. Together, the two took off through the market place, running as fast as they could go and dodging any passerby that popped in their way. Not far behind the soldiers were catching up but before Zuko could think of what to do next, Hakan pulled him into a large public garbage shoot. He remembered doing this as a boy, yet another thing he was constantly yelled at for as the Fire Nation burned their garbage once a week, not to mention all the absolutely vile things he must have rolled in.
This time Hakan and he found themselves knee deep in a pile of dung, undoubtedly from the rhino stalls across the street, when they hit the bottom. Zuko, having not done that in so many years, fell forward and got a good face full of it. As he was vigorously rubbing it off, he silently cursed his father for making him give up one of the greatest past times of his child hood.
"Quickly!" Hakan urged as he pulled Zuko to his feet. "Climb onto my shoulders, you should be able to reach the top and climb out.
"What about you?" Zuko asked looking up. "I can't pull you out myself, you'd be too far down for me to reach...Oh I know! I'll get a rope-"
"There won't be any time. Doubtless they have the orders from Ozai to start the furnace," Hakan replied solemnly. "Now, get on my prince."
"No," Zuko said firmly. "You'll be killed if you don't get out. I'm not leaving you behind!"
"You don't have a choice," Hakan replied. He clasped Zuko's face and looked him into the eye. "Zuko, I've lived a long full life. You're still in the prime of your youth. Don't throw your life away for me. Let the old sacrifice their lives so the young may know peace and live on." He gently brushed away a few tears that had started down the teen's cheek. "It is enough for me to know that what I said to you back there wasn't true. Zuko, you were the best student I ever had; you always did as you were told and followed my every instruction perfectly. Please don't disappoint me now Zuko. Please, survive for me if for no other reason at all."
'I can't!' his mind screamed. 'It's not right! It's not fair! Hakan shouldn't have to die, not because of me! I can't let my father take his life! I won't! I won't!' He squeezed his eyes shut to stop the flow of tears. "I'll get out," he replied reluctantly. "But I'm not leaving the area until I know I can't save you. If I can-"
"I won't leave you to die alone!" Zuko brushed the tears from his cheeks, smearing them with dung. "If they don't kill you I'll take you back from them. If you won't accept that then I'm not leaving you at all."
"My boy, you've seen enough horrors in your life, more then even someone my age should have to live with." A rueful smile spread across his lips. "Who do you think taught you how to wiggle out of hard spots, Prince Zuko? I will be fine, you need not worry. Go now, quickly and get far away. Use what I've taught you only when you need to, understand?"
Zuko nodded and climbed onto his teacher's shoulders. He could barely reach over the edge, but he got a good grip on it and began to pull himself up, Hakan pushing his feet upward with him. The teen tumbled out onto the ground and began stripping of the clothes covered in garbage and dung. "Zuko! Get going!" Hakan hissed at him and he scrambled away into a grassy area that led him deep into the heart of the woods that embraced one side of the palace city.
The garbage collector on this side of town was outside the city, at the bottom of a large hill, hence the slide. Even so, Hakan didn't have to wait long for the guards that chased him to this hole to arrive, among them, unusual but not unsurprisingly, was Ozai himself. He spotted Zuko's discarded armor right away and pushed aside the guards that were in his way as he looked down into the garbage pit.
"Where Is He!" the inevitable explosion of rage came. Even though a blitz of fire blazed inches away from his face, Hakan didn't flinch but took up a more comfortable posture by sitting down cross legged a top the pile of trash. "I'm only interested in Zuko," the lord continued. "Tell me where he is and I might spare your life."
"Might is a very powerful key word," Hakan replied. "It indicates an uncertain decision, a destiny that can swing either one way or the next. I never cared for such split ways, I like to know what's coming and face it head on."
"Tell me where he is or I will kill you!"
"Well, he's not hiding in here."
"FOOL! Do you not know of the danger you are in! Do not trade your life for a traitor of the Fire Nation-"
"Prince Zuko is the Fire Nation! Mark my words! The suffering because of this war has gone on long enough! That boy was born to save us all form damnation! He will restore true honor to our names and give our people a righteous reason to hold our heads up, rather then these despicable lies atop the abominations that the three fathers before him have wrought upon us! I pledged my loyalty to the Fire Nation, never to you, Ozai, and while I believe a nation can never turn evil, those in power can do truly terrible things. It's time to set things right, I follow Ozai's command no longer. The throne belongs now to Zuko, and it is he who shall have it."
The Lord of Fire was still for a long moment following these words. From a distance it may look as though his body was still, but those who were close enough could make out the slight tremble that was rattling his arms. "How can you say that?" he whispered so low that even the guards at his immediate sides had to lean a little closer to hear him. "How can you stand by that demon, after all that he has done? He's bewitched you too, hasn't he? Same as he bewitched her, same as he slaughtered her." He raised his right hand above his head and the guards above on the city wall prepared to throw the switch that would open the collector to the fire pits. " His blood is poison and I cannot allow his witchcraft to continue on." On his signal, the fire began consuming all that the collector held. There was a scream of pain, but it was only there until the life had left the body. Even as a master Hakan wouldn't have been able to bend a safe distance away from him in such a small space. Even if he could, he couldn't keep it up forever and it was evident right away that he hadn't even tried. Hakan knew all along that was how it was going to be.
"He obviously wasn't in there," Ozai said. He kicked Zuko's discarded armor and glared at the forest. "Split up and if you find him, show no mercy."
The prey moved clumsily through the brush, making loud crink, crack sounds as it passed. The other animals of the woods scampered away but one shadow stayed close by it's side. It stopped and leaned against a tree, it's back on the predator crouched low to the ground. It was blissfully unaware of the danger it was in, as it had been for nearly the last two hours. The wily predator skulked a little closer as the prey lifted it's helmet from it's head and stooped to take a drink from the crick flowing at his feet. It splashed some water on his face and was just patting it dry when it's survival instincts picked up that something was amiss. Before he could even turn to get a good look at the predator standing over him, a subtle THWACK was heard and the prey fell into a state of unconscious, at the mercy of the one who had struck him down.
Zuko knelt beside he Firebender and checked his neck. He had struck him with such force that he was almost sure the young man's neck had snapped, but he sighed easily when he felt it was okay. The poor lad was going to have one hell of a headache, but he'd be fine when he woke up and Zuko set to work pulling his body onto his back.
When he was still very little Iroh had often taken it upon himself to become his primary care giver, excusing the fact that Zuko had a nanny in the classic way that Iroh had always dismissed things the found trivial. His uncle had taken him out into the woods one day after a particularity nasty scene with his father carrying a large box; it contained several items, of which Zuko didn't know of at that time. He questioned Iroh of his intentions, but Iroh had only replied kindly, '"come child, and you'll see."'
He led the young boy to the river that flowed from the very top of the high mountain below which the palace lay nestled snugly at it's feet. The river was relatively mild, deep enough to swim in yet wide enough to need a decent sized bridge to cross. It flowed to the North and curved to the west just before it became a tumultuous series of rapids that plunged over a steep cliff into a small pool connected with the ocean. But miles before the water showed any sign of agitation, Iroh picked a spot he liked and handed Zuko a small shovel from the box he had tugged along. '"Right here,"' he had said, leading his very young nephew to a spot on the high side of a hill next to an old birtch tree. '"This will do fine; out of the way of spring flood water but still near a nice swimming area."'
'"Do well for what, Uncle?"' he asked for what seemed like the umpteenth time that day.
'"A secret fort,"' his elder replied as struck the shovel into the ground. '"Come now, we have to dig a hole big enough for that box before night falls or your mother will worry about us."'
'"But what for?"' he questioned even as he followed his uncle's example, if for no other reason the to please him.
Iroh continued his work, a funny thing really now that Zuko had time to reflect on it. Come to think of it, that moment was probably the only time he had ever seen his Uncle Iroh do any type of hard labor in his entire life. '"Oh, you know,"' his uncle eventually answered him as he tossed some dirt aside. It was also the only time Zuko could recall his elder speaking to him without looking at him. '"I always wanted a fort when I was a boy your age. I thought maybe you might like one yourself."'
'"Of course!"' Zuko said, his face brightening with a smile as he came to 'understand' the situation. They worked hard throughout the day, stopping only at noon to eat a lunch that Iroh had packed. By the time the sun was caressing the western mountains, They were finished. Hot, tired, and in desperate need of a bath each, but finished.
'"It will take a while for Mother Nature to cover it so that only you or I will know what is here, but it should last you a very long while if your very careful not to practice your Firebending inside,"' Iroh told his young nephew. Then he knelt down so he was eye level with the boy and held him by the shoulders. '"Zuko, I want you to make me two promises, can you do that? I want you to promise me that you won't tell anybody else about this place; this secret fort is between you and me and no body else, okay? Secondly, I want you to promise me that when things get bad you will come and hide in here. If you ever feel scared or threatened, by anyone Zuko, anyone, you come right here and wait for me to come get you. Do you understand this?"'
The fort, although cold, damp and rotten away in some places, still remained intact, it's opening now hidden under a snapdragon bush, next to the tree Iroh had picked. It took a good amount of wiggling but Zuko was still able to gain access to it's inner chambers. Iroh had made sure the box was of a decent size, almost the size of a small bedroom, but not quite as tall. That's often what Zuko had used it for when he escaped to it's sanctured walls in his childhood and, aside from what had been moved in the recent visit before this one, things remained like a time capsule inside. There was a small bed of hay along the far wall, some blankets laid over it for use in the winter. Zuko laid the still unconscious guard on it and began stripping him of his clothes.
He gathered the clothes and bundled them up in a large blanket along with an old towel he'd left there. Taking a third blanket he laid it over the now naked soldier. It was all he could do for the man now, aside form not forgetting to come back and untie him when he got the chance. If he got the chance.
Zuko shoved the bundle of clothes out of the fort and pulled himself out into the open again. He scanned the area for any other guards; when he was sure it was all clear, he made a break for the river and dove in. Being early spring, the water still held a frigid edge to it. As soon as the fledgling fire prince's naked body had hit the water, he regretted it and wasted very little time scrambling back out again. He didn't need a full scrub down, just something to wash away all the grime he had acquired; as a rule of thumb, the palace guards usually didn't smell like rhino dung and if he tried to fall in rank with that scent about him the consequences would be dire.
He patted himself dry with the towel and quickly dressed in uniform. No sooner had he place the helmet over his head did he hear a loud horn sound in the distance. It was a warning call unique to the fire nation. It was either calling in the guards already out looking for him or something worse, for him. Taking a deep breath, he said a silent prayer that he was as good as he thought himself to be at doing this.
The Spirits seemed to favor Zuko, the call was to retrieve the guards hunting for him to replace them with a much larger group. As Zuko slipped into "his" place at the end of the line, he noticed a few guards trying to handle a rowdy bunch of bloodhounds. One got free from the overwhelmed had that held it and made a beeline for him but another guard caught the leash before the dog reached him. Zuko felt his heart sink as he realized they'd sniff out his sacred fort. It wasn't so much that they'd find the sleeping body of the missing guard and figure out what he was up to, it was the destruction of all his treasured boyhood memories that made him sick. 'Well, for the past two years the Avatar has been the most important thing in my life,' he reasoned. 'Why should that change now?'
It was almost too easy to slip away once back inside the Fire Nation Capital; the unit he was in was to split up and patrol the halls of the palace which put Zuko right into his comfort zone. He strolled around with his usual air of authority, round-aboutly making his way to the kitchens. Guards routinely walked through the area, Ozai liked to think he wasn't a fool to believe someone could try something underhanded, so no one seemed to notice or object to Zuko strolling through during the pre-dinner rush. When no one was looking, Zuko swiped some whole fruit off a plate and and slipped them into one of his pockets; that's the real nice thing about authentic Fire Nation garb, big baggy pants were nice for holding a lot of stuff.
He was on his way out when a voice made him stop cold. "Hey You!" it called among the general chaos of the kitchen and Zuko knew instantly it was thrown at him. He turned as normally as he could and came face to face with the head chief. Zuko had many bad memories with the old guy back in his early kitchen thief days and the prince had to wonder why he was still serving food. Oh yeah, he was one of the few people worshiped Ozai for what he was doing and didn't want him dead.
"Whatta ya think you're doin', you imbecile?" the chief shouted at him. Zuko was bracing himself for a very bad confrontation when a tray of food was shoved into his hands. "Here, you almost forgot to take the food to that Avatar boy down in the prison holds, you Numskull! Go on, get outta here! And remember not to fall on your face because I haven't got time to make any more of that crap! Damn dinner party, why the hell wasn't I give a two week notice...?" And he wandered off cursing out any of the other chiefs who were unlucky enough to get in his way.
'Well,' though Zuko as he looked down at the food. 'That makes getting into the Avatar's cell a whole lot easier.'
Only two guards that stood outside the door that lead down to the prison holds. Zuko thought there would be more, especially around the Avatar's cell, but there wasn't. The entire dungeon was deserted, except of course, for the 12-year-old boy all the way in the back.
"Avatar," Zuko softly called, hoping the boy wasn't still asleep. He hit the bars once and called again, this time getting a reaction. The boy rolled over from his position on the hard floor and looked up at Zuko's disguise. The Airbender moaned and was about to roll back over when Zuko took off his helmet. "It's me," the prince whispered and made a gesture for the boy to be quiet as his face lite up in joy at seeing the Firebender.
The Avatar child wasted no time in crawling closer to the bars to minimize their need to talk loudly. "Where's Katara and Sokka? Are they okay?" he asked.
"They're fine," Zuko replied softly as he knelt to be eye level with the boy. He pulled out the fruit he'd snagged and slipped it through the bars along with what he'd been made to bring from the kitchens. "I wouldn't eat any of that," Zuko said, indicating the tray food, "it may be full of the herb I used to keep you down. This should tie you over until I can sneak back in to get you."
"We're not leaving now?"
"No, I don't have a legit reason to be parading you around the palace. We wouldn't get two feet out that door before being caught. How are you feeling?"
"I have a pounding headache that feels like it's trying to crack my head in two."
"Sorry. Try to sleep in off; You'll be fine if you just relax."
"I hope so."
"Try not to bend either. And if anyone comes around, act groggy and sluggish, like you don't know what's going on." Zuko looked towards the outer door and sighed. "I should be going, probably spent to much time here already. Remember what I said and I'll be back for you later tonight." The fire prince put his helmet back on and left.
He casually made his way through the halls and into the courtyards. Sticking to the shadows along the walls, the prince strolled through so as to not draw any attention to himself and stopped before a great Cherry Blossom tree. Zuko had to stop and kneel before it, it was the final resting place of his mother's soul. Her body had been cremated and the ashes spread over the ground around this tree for it had been her favorite spot to sit outside when the warm summer weather washed over the island nation.
Zuko laid a gentle hand on the trunk of the tree and it seemed to come alive at that moment, it's branches swaying in the breeze, as though it recognized him and was trying to stoop to embrace him in a hug. Zuko smiled a bit as it brought a feeling of serene comfort and peace. "Yes mother, it is me," he whispered. "I'm sorry I haven't visited you these two summers past, but I promise I shall again this summer." He rested his head against the trunk and silently wished it was safe for him to remove his helmet for her. "Mother, I am in grave danger here," he said. "I wish I could stay longer but I must flee or be put to death upon my capture. Please Mother, I ask for your help in my escape." He looked up and the branches nodded their agreement to lift him up. He reached up and they halted so as not to hinder him as he climbed. Zuko in turn was careful not to snap any of the fragile branches as he slipped onto the solid brick fence. "Thank you Mother," he said, touching one of the new leafs growing on her outstretched arm. Another wind shook the branches and Zuko smiled at the words they seemed to say. "Of course I'll be back in time to see the lovely blossoms you'll be wearing his year," he said. "Pink was always the best color on you Mother." And with that he slipped down the other side of the fence and ran back into the woods.
There was no time for pretending now, he could tell the dogs had already found his fort and there was the possibility that some lookout had seen him fleeing to the woods from the palace wall. A horn sounded somewhere in the distance and was answered by a closer sounding one. He could hear the dogs barking and howling behind him. No sense trying to lose them with twists and turns, Zuko ran straight and didn't look back, even as the sounds grew closer and seemed to surround him. He ran straight into the cold river throwing off his helmet as he swam out to the center, where the current was the strongest and then let himself be carried by it's turbulent pull. The dogs caught up with him as soon as it was too late and the water swiftly turned to rapids so no one dared to jump in and follow. He made a fake scene of drowning to further discourage them, imploring the guards on shore to save him, but no one made a move to help so he ducked under the water and floated a good ways down for as long as his breath would hold.
Once out of the way of being captured Zuko crossed his ankles and pointed them downstream, throwing his arms out to keep his head from slamming into any rocks. All that was left for him to do, aside from remembering to breathe and keep his face above the water, was to not panic over the thought that he was mere seconds away from hurtling over a giant waterfall, this being the first time he'd ever attempted the stunt. 'Well, it seemed like such a cool idea when I was six,' he reasoned.
Suddenly, the water was stripped away from him and Zuko felt the chilly air embracing his soaking body instead. Time seemed to slow down as he experienced the more surreal moment of his life. 'Could this be what it's like to fly?' he asked himself as he uncrossed his limbs and stared up at the stars that were beginning to twinkle through the twilight.
Then time snapped and he fell screaming thought the air, feet first again. A blast of water rushed up to meet him, causing a panic for he hadn't caught a breath but it disappeared and Zuko quickly sucked in a gulp of air before he fell into the real lake. As soon as his momentum slowed under the water, the Firebender thrust out his hands and kicked out his feet, following the bubbles that scrambled furiously to be rejoined with their brethren.
Coughing, sputtering and gasping for breath he resurfaced, rubbing stray droplets of water from his eyes. Treading water, he thought he was hearing voices when his name was called but as the turned around he saw that his ship had been brought around into the sheltered bay and was docked just off the side of the waterfall. "Uncle!" he called happily and swam towards the edge of the vessel. He was about to climb up the anchor chain but a feminine voice to him to wait and the water surrounding him lifted him up instead.
Zuko wasn't really surprised to see his ship, the one his father had given him was incredibly small in comparison to most other Fire Navy ships and was probably the only ship of such size still used, with the exception of Water Tribe boats. The bay was just big enough for it to squeeze into and was perfect for hiding away from the other navy ships since they'd never hope to get in. What did surprise him however was that Iroh was here; he felt in his heart that Iroh wasn't really going to sail away without him but he didn't think the elder Firebender would've thought to wait for him here. It did make the most sense though, to be hidden away from sight of the other hips that would be on the lookout for Zuko's vessel, so the prince just waved it away in his mind.
"Thank the Spirits you're alive!" Iroh cried a he threw his arms around the young prince. "You scared me half to death! Don't you EVER do that again! I can't take it, not at this age! Oh Zuko, your mother's spirit was set to raise from the dead and kill me for letting you run into that danger! Oh, Zuko!" The young prince didn't object to Iroh's fussing, partially because he felt he owed his poor, old uncle. More importantly, it felt really good to be openly loved and Zuko had to admit, though to no one but himself, it really was what he needed at that moment.
Someone brought a blanket and some food over and his uncle wasted no time taking the items and using them to further his fussing. "Uncle," Zuko said through teeth that were beginning to chatter despite the blanket. "How are the supplies? Will I need to take a team of men into town tonight-"
"Our supplies are fine. I had the ship restocked while you were away," Iroh replied firmly. "Ozai didn't get much off that we can't replace at an Earthbending village the next time we're there."
"Oh," Zuko said, take aback by this information. "Why did you begin restocking? You knew I planned on staying Uncle."
Iroh stirred the soup he'd been trying to get Zuko to eat, but being baby fed was where Zuko had subtly drawn his line and the food was untouched by the prince's mouth. Without looking up he said, "You may have planned on staying, but I didn't."
"It doesn't matter now Prince Zuko, our plans have obviously changed. Come now, you should change before you catch a cold."
"One moment," Zuko said, as he slipped away from the crowd that had gathered around him and his elder. He found the two Waterbenders standing together on the opposite side of the deck. Among all the other Firebenders they both looked forlorn and out of place and it was evident that neither of them wanted to stray to far from the other. As he approached the female puffed her chest out and lifted her hands in an aggressive manner, but her brother took hold of her shoulder and gave it a squeeze to let her know it was alright.
"Where is he? What have you done with him?" Katara asked, her voice quivering in the effort to contain her fury.
Zuko shook his head. "We all know where the Avatar child is now. If it is any consolation, I promise you that I will get him back from my father, whatever it takes."
"How soon?" questioned Sokka.
There was a knock on his door and Zuko instantly asked them to come in without even bothering to ask who it was or throw a threatening tone into his voice. He looked up as the water boy opened the door a crack and poked his head in. "This isn't a bad time is it, Zuko?" he asked, surveying the room.
"No, of course not," Zuko replied as he set aside a map of the palace that he'd been studying. "I was just going over some plans in my head before I shared any with the crew. Do you need anything? Anyone bothering you?"
Sokka shook his head, a bit unnerved by Zuko's seemingly 180 degree spin in personality. "I just wanted to say...thanks, for all that you've done for my sister and I," he said as he lingered beside the now closed door. "I have to say, it wasn't as bad as I thought it be, being your prisoner and all. Didn't really feel like we were."
Zuko nodded once. "Yeah; tell your sister I'm sorry I had to drug her. It won't happen again."
"Aww," Sokka sighed, deciding it was okay to crack a joke or two. "I kinda liked her like that. I haven't had a chance to enjoy the peace and quiet since I was two."
"Lucky you," Zuko replied, a smile pulling at his lips. "My sister is two years older then me. The two years I've spent chasing after the Avatar have been the quietest years of my life." The two shared a little chuckle over this and when they settled down Zuko suspected there was more reason to Sokka's visit then just saying Thank You, but he didn't press for it.
"Zuko," Sokka began seeming just a tad unsure of what to say. "You've been really honest with me and I feel I should reciprocate this. I just wanted to talk to you about...well, you seemed surprised that your Uncle Iroh had restocked the ship, like you expected you wouldn't be needing it anymore."
"I thought I wouldn't be needing it anymore," Zuko replied, unsure where the boy was going with this.
"But it was like he knew we wouldn't be staying. The whole crew thought we would be shoving off as soon as you came back. Some of them sent messengers to their families to tell them they wouldn't really be staying."
"What are you saying?" Zuko asked, his tone becoming darker. "You think they all somehow magically knew that my father was going to have difficulty accepting me back into the Fire Nation?"
"What other explanation is there?" asked Sokka innocently. "I'm not going on just feeling here alone either, Zuko; I've talked with the crew. How is it that they all seemed to know of this and you didn't? ...Zuko...Are you oka-HEY!"
In a flash, Zuko had pushed past the water boy and was marching through the halls. Sokka called after him but he paid no attention to the boy in his murderous rage. He busted open the door that lead to the deck with a swift kick and cried out, "Where is HE?" as flames licked off his body. The guards on deck nearly wet themselves as they came to believe that their prince was suffering some sort of mental lapse and was talking about the Avatar. The teen's golden eyes scanned each one of them in turn and lowly his voice growled out, "Where is my Uncle?"
"Below deck, M'lord," one of the braver guards replied. "In the mess hall I believe." As quickly as he'd shown up Zuko was gone, leaving several worried members of his crew in his wake.
Betrayal; the word seemed to echo in his mind, never fading no matter how he tried to suppress it. It was almost to hard to accept; he couldn't believe that Iroh would keep any clandestine knowledge from him, that just wasn't like him. Especially when it came to matters concerning his father, his uncle was constantly trying to talk to him about it. Why the sudden change of heart now, that's all he wanted to know. But the more he thought about, the scene that had played out in the royal throne room that day like a tape on a loop in his mind, the more it tore at him from the inside. He had been such a fool in his father's presence and to now know that Iroh could've warned him pissed the fire teen off to no end. He was tired of being sad, tired of being depressed, tried of being filled with angst, and just plain tired of being tired. Sure he was tired of being angry too, but anger was the only way he knew how to deal with his emotions now, and he was sick of trying to control himself.
What hurt him the deepest though, was the feeling of broken trust. Over the years, and not just while he was at sea, Zuko had come to rely on Iroh for support. When he was in trouble, Iroh was there to bail him out. When he needed something, Iroh had no objections to spoiling him with it. When he wanted a friend, Iroh seemed to understand him on the level that Zuko stood on and didn't mind lowering himself to see things through Zuko's eyes. And finally, when his mother had passed on and his father was a cyclone of terror, it had been Iroh who had protected him. If his uncle cared so deeply for him, why was it that he suddenly decided to just let Zuko go?
Everyone in the room froze as the fire teen made his prodigious entrance. Iroh was at the other end of the room and look up from his pai sho game undaunted.
"How Could You!" Zuko cried out as he flipped over a table in his rage. "I Trusted You! You're Always Telling Me how Much You Care About Me, How You See Me As Your Own Son!" Fire was blazing off his wild hand gestures and people drew back, afraid the flames would catch them as they had caught some wooden pieces of furniture. "Yet here I find you Sold Me Up The RIVER? How Could You Just Stand BY And Let Me DO THAT! HUH! I walked right into a trap that you knew about, ALL ALONG! Why didn't you warn me, stop me! Well! SAY SOMETHING!" He pushed aside the idiotic board game, the cups, the tea, everything on the table was spewed across the floor and Zuko slammed down his hands, leaning in two inches from Iroh's face.
As he had done so many times before in his life, Iroh did not show any reaction to his nephew's violent outburst since the boy's entry. However, that's not to say his face was void of any emotion as it usually seemed to be under these circumstances. There was a calm yet fierce glare in his own golden orbs, his features were set in a very grim tone and gave off the deepest air of unsatisfactory. All those present, including Zuko who almost shrank back in the staring match, saw just how clearly that the old Firebender had had enough.
Zuko blinked and his abhorrent snarl dropped off his face. Those weren't the words he was looking for or expected at all. "What? He asked disbelievingly as soon as he found his voice again.
"I have been trying to warn you, trying to tell you, trying to get you to see from day one of this shenanigan exactly what was going to happen when this day came," Iroh said. He dropped his own war face with a tired sigh and began rubbing his temple. "You just didn't want to hear it. There was nothing more I could, Prince Zuko. You would just have to find out on your own, and that's why I couldn't be there for you."
The younger Firebender slowly took his hands off the table and brought them to cross his chest as he realized his uncle was right. He had no one to blame for this whole mess but himself. Even when he was presented with wise advice, he still choose to be an arrogant prideful bastard, and for what? In the long run he had only ended up hurting himself and any other person who ever really cared about him not to mention dragging all those around him into serious danger.
A hand grasped his shoulder and spun him around and an open palm smack to the face made sure his head followed through with the motion. When he looked back he found himself staring into the intense blue eyes of the female Waterbender. "Don't you dare," she seethed up at him. "I don't care how upsetting or emotionally shattering this is for you. You ARE NOT going to have a mental moment while my friend is being held hostage! You got him into this ordeal, and damn it Zuko, you WILL get him out by sunset tomorrow or you will beg me to have mercy on your soul. Do not sit on your ass, blubbering like a helpless baby! Stand up and fight for what you believe in!"
"I BELIEVE IN MY NATION!" Zuko cried. "I believe in my People! How do you expect me to just walk away from everything I know? It is my place in this world to lead them, to guide them, to protect them and I can't even do that! My father and I don't always agree on things...But one way or another he'll have to-"
"Zuko," Iroh's placid voice said and the teenager turned slowly back around to regard him, fearing what he might have to say. "You've gone through your life looking at the world through the eyes of a little boy. I've watched you grow up through the eyes of a sagacious old man. There are things I notice that you don't see yet. As hard as it my be to accept, you must face the fact that Ozai never really loved you." Iroh rose and and moved closer to Zuko. He laid his hands over either of the boy's arms and when the prince didn't pull away he continued.
"Your father loved your mother very much; they were happy together in their youth. You father was a different man then, caring, free spirited. As you know, you cannot inherent the throne of the Fire Nation without first producing a heir that will succeed you, and thus your sister was born. My sister, your mother...Enya loved kids and she wanted more.
"There were complications with your pregnancy, though it wasn't until the birth that we saw just how wrong things were. You mother should've never had you, and probably not Zula either. After you were born she got a very serious infection of the uterus; the doctors had no cure for it and we were told that she was going to die.
"From day one of your life your father hated you. He couldn't stand the fact that his wife, his endeared lover, had sacrificed her life to give birth to you. He looks upon you as the deepest mistake he ever made, a monster, a murderer."
"Isn't that what I am then?" Zuko asked as he turned away. "I mean, if I hadn't been born..."
"No Zuko!" Iroh embraced his face. "You are nothing of the sort! Your father is crazy, he has been since your mother died. He let hate and anger destroy him. I had hoped he would sober up with time and come to accept what had happened, but he can never do that because of the repugnant iniquity that embedded itself in his heart. It's he who is mistaken Zuko, there is nothing wrong with you.
"Prince Zuko, your mother loved you very, very much; don't ever make the mistake of thinking she didn't. It's not your fault that she died and she never minded that she was passing. She wanted you to live, it was her greatest wish and that is why you were born. Don't waste time thinking your father is right about you, he is anything but."
Zuko slipped to the floor, pulling his knees up to his chest and burying his face in his arms. By now his uncle was crouched beside him, embracing him as his mother had often done so when he curled up in her lap after particularly bad days. Faintly, he was aware of the presence of the other in the room watching, but didn't care. They had known he was to be kept exiled and had stayed by his side even then, when they could've returned home to their own families, to their mother and fathers and lovers and children. They chose to stay by him rather then return to their own familiar beds because they were his faithful adherents and Zuko came to trust them a little more deeply. It no longer mattered to him that they must see him as a higher royal, that he should act a certain way in front of them. Zuko was only human after all, they understood this and still respected him for who he was, allowing him the freedom and dignity to be who he truly was. And for this, he loved them as his family.
He began to think about his life, and it all seemed like such a bad dream. There were tons of memories that jumped out at him but the one that played over them all as his recent attempt at suicide. How was it that he had still tried to remain loyal to his father, even then? How was it that he was so desperate to please that he would give his own life to satisfy his father's wants and needs? Desperation, deprivation, he'd gone so long without feeling the parental love of another...Or had he?
He felt his hair being released from it's tie and Iroh's hands carefully brushing it out with his fingers. The elder Firebender was humming a tune, one he knew well for it was a song that his mother loved and sang herself, even when the last stages of her sickness had begun to set in. In a sense it was like she had never left him and he buried his face in Iroh's chest, drawing comfort from the embrace.
"I suppose we should carry him to bed," his uncle said in a hushed tone after some calm moments had passed. In the distance the prince could make out the sounds of the Water Tribe siblings arguing in an almost whisper just as Iroh was shifting his weight.
"No," the teen said as he laid a hand on his elder's shoulder. "I can't sleep this all away, not this time." He found the eyes of Sokka as the boy turned to regard him with evident worry for his 12-year-old friend cut into his face. "We have a lot of work to do."
"My father is a dangerous man," Zuko said to all the member of his crew as they gathered round the table he was now leaning over. Iroh stood to his right and Katara and Sokka at his left, while the rest of the crew huddled around and looked at the map of the Fire Nation city laid out in front of him. "He will kill you if given the chance; you may try to barter your own life for mine, but you should know that that probably won't fly to well with him either."
"As if we'd turn you in," someone said and a few others chuckled. Zuko himself smiled dryly, and waved his hand to settle his men before continuing.
"All the same," he said. "There are some of you with family, right?" A show of hands indicated the few that did and Zuko nodded as he noted the faces before drawing attention to the map. "I want you men to go in pairs, quickly and as imperceptible as possible. Fine your families and pursued them to come with us. Make sure they understand that if they choose to stay they face a very grim looking future. If they do not want to come, there is little I can do to help them. And if it comes to that and you'd rather take you chances with them, I will understand and bid you the very best of luck. You will have two hours to be back on the boat before we set sail again. Unfortunately, we cannot wait for stragglers. If you cannot make the boat, don't waste anytime getting out of the city. You will be on your own and at that point your orders from me will be to simply live, in any way you can.
"I want the rest of you working at hard as you can to hijack a bigger ship. The one we have now is getting crowded and cannot hold all the cargo we need for the increase in passengers. We need something at least as big as this, but no more then one extra ship. Don't bother restocking it with anything but the very basics. We'll recuperate at the nearest Earth Kingdom city as soon as possible."
Zuko turned to the Waterbenders and addressed them last. "I'd do this by myself, but I know how it is your place to be by the Avatar's side and there is no better job for either of you. You both will escort me back into the palace and help recapture the boy." The prince turned around to regard his elder. "And you of course are welcome by my side, Uncle."
"It would be my pleasure, Prince Zuko."
"Right. Let's go."
"Ya know," Sokka's voice drawled as he followed beside in sister and in Zuko's footsteps. "When you made that great speech back there I got really psyched for this great battle with a thousand Firebenders! I was ready to take them all on, with one hand behind my back even! I did not, however, get psyched up to be wandering around dark tunnels for the next two hours."
"You wanna go back and help my men load cargo?" asked Zuko in a teasing manner as he spun around to look at the younger teen, walking backward in the process. "Be my guest. I'm sure you know the way back, you must've been paying attention to all the twists and turns, right?" Sokka shot him a dirty look and Zuko smirked knowing full well the boy would be lost the second he turned to go back without Zuko as a guide. "No? Good! Glad to have you back on board!" The young Firebender turned back around and held the torch up higher to see further ahead.
"You may win every battle there ever was and still lose the war," Iroh said to the fuming Sokka.
"It's better we avoid a head on attack anyways," Zuko continued. "We are but a small faction against the myriad of loyal guards Ozai can call up. Besides, these tunnels lead anywhere under the palace. This one will take us directly to the Avatar."
As they approached a light around the corner Zuko blew out their own torch and made a signal for the other to stay low and close to the tunnel wall. Crawling ahead, Zuko carefully poked his head around the corner to see what was there. Slowly, he moved back into the shadows and held up three fingers. The others nodded their understanding and on Zuko's signal, all four charged around the corner. Before they even knew what attacked them, the three guards were unconscious on the ground.
"This looks like a dead end," Katara said. "Why were they standing guard at a dead end?"
"Because it's not," Zuko replied as he pointed out a small tunnel on the ground. "You have to crawl through a mile of that before you get to the room outside the prison cells."
Sokka kneeled and inspected the hole before looking up at Iroh. "Am I expected to believe all of us are going to fit thought there?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Zuko said as he rotated his shoulders. "But even if we all could, only one person should go through, otherwise it'll take to long. I need you three to stay here and make sure this area remains guard free when the Avatar and I return." Zuko let down his hair and then retied his ponytail at a much lower angle so it wouldn't get in his way as he crawled. He was about to disappear into the tiny tunnel when Katara threw her arms around his chest.
"Please bring him back in one piece Zuko," she pleaded as he rested his hands over hers. He let her hold him a moment more, knowing personally how one needs solace from the physical contact of others, then gently squeezed her arms and pulled her arms away before disappearing into the rabbit hole.
The tunnel emerged into a small room right on the other side of the dungeon cells and it was here that Zuko stopped to catch his breath as he coughed and sneezed away the excess dirt accumulated around his face. There were a set of duplicate keys to the locks on the cell doors on a hook right above a rock that protruded a little further then the other stone bricks. The prince slipped the ring of keys around his arm and then knelt and carefully moved the rock, which would eventually open a passage a little bigger then the tunnel he just crawled through.
Zuko didn't move it more then an inch, and was careful to do it slowly, so no one would seem to notice the conspicuous moving rock. When he was able to peek out, Zuko did his best to make sure the coast was clear of any guards. Once again, Ozai proved to be hazardous in his guard placement. He began to roll the rock away as quickly as possible.
This opening led to the very back cell, the cell in which the Avatar was being held and Zuko found him leaning against the bars to the far right, basking in the light of the moon that shone through the window just outside that cell. The Firebender wiggled from that enclosed space and scrambled to his feet. "Avatar," he whispered as he padded over and touched the boy's shoulder. The 12-year-old looked up at him with a slightly troubled look but Zuko paid little mind to it. "Quickly now, through that hole and out the tunnel it leads to. I'll be right behind you." He hurried to the door and began to undo the lock with the keys he had.
The teenager ran up and back down the narrow hall, checking all the cells and finding nothing, no a trace of anything else ever being in the empty cages; as it had been when he last visited the Avatar in this same cell. The Firebender pulled on his ponytail a bit and checked again, but still they turned up empty. He walked back to the last cell, a little surprised to see the Airbender still rooted to where he had been when Zuko came in, and asked, "Did any guards come in here with an old man named Hakan?"
The boy refocused his eyes on Zuko and quickly shook his head. The teenager heaved a sigh and rubbed a hand down his face as he racked his brain for an answer. He wanted to turn around and check again, just to be sure, but deep down he suspected he knew what had happened. Squeezing his eyes shut, Zuko let a single tear run down his cheek.
"Let's get out of here," the Firebender said as he hurried back into the Avatar's cell. He was about to crawl into the tiny room when he noticed the boy wasn't following him. Stopping, he looked behind him and found the child standing in the same spot, staring out the window at the pale full moon. Hesitantly, Zuko moved toward him again, at a loss as to why the boy was behaving as so. "Avatar..."
"Don't Call Me Avatar!" the boy shouted. He whipped around so fast Zuko couldn't follow the movements and the formidable look on his face caused even the once fearless Firebender to draw back in a timorous fashion. "My name ISN'T Avatar!" A gale of wind began to swirl around his feet and the conspicuous arrows that adorned his head and arms began to glow in an even brighter luminous light then that of the moons. "It's Aang!
"Aang, Aang, Aang, AANG!"
He stomped his foot and the rocks beneath him cracked. The door leading out to the palace began to open and Zuko fell to the floor in fear, thought whether it was from the thought of being caught or just the reaction of the Avatar, who bluntly and loudly threatened to kill the guards if they came it, remains an enigma even to him. "The Next Idiot To Address Me As AVATAR Will Not See The Light Of The Following Morning!"
Then, just as quickly as it had come, the 12-year-old settled down and returned to his reticent mood. The light from his tattoos died away and the wind broke and faded as the child turned away again. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Just go away and don't come back."
Zuko opened his mouth and was about to speak but shut it just as quickly, stopping himself from setting the boy off again. "I can't," he finally replied and rose to his feet. "I can't leave you here; I have to get you out, back to your-"
"He offered to teach me Firebending."
Zuko was perplexed for a moment and asked of the boy, "who?"
"Lord Ozai," the Airbender replied. "Your father."
He turned back around and the prince saw that same troubled look, laced now with sadness. "He said he was going to stop the war for me. If I just made sure that the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes didn't attack him on Fire Nation soil, Ozia said he'd call off his troops and stop the war right now." A small almost hopeful smile slipped over his lips. "I didn't think it would've been this easy...Oh Spirits," he sobbed and buried his face in his hands as he dropped to one knee. "Think of all the lives I could've saved if I had just come here sooner!"
"No!" Zuko cried as he crossed the space between the two males. He knelt on the ground and embraced the boy, placing his own face close the Avatar's as he tried his best to sooth the boy's tears. "You wouldn't have saved anyone," he said in a hushed tone. "Ozia was not being honest with you."
"How do you know?"
The Firebender coxed the younger bender to look up at him and gave an esoteric Look. "Just look around you and tell me where you are." The 12-year-old complied and as he did so Zuko continued. "If Ozai was going to honor you honestly in the way that he says he will, then why are you sleeping here on a hard stone floor then in any of the grand guest bedrooms the palace has? Why are you being held like a prisoner, with guards outside your door, rather then roaming the hallways, free to explore as you so wish? Why? Because Ozai has no intention of ending this war in the way that you hope he will. He will not even honor me, his own flesh and blood, as he said he would nearly two years ago. The facade he may have played out for you, no matter how appealing or ostentatious it may have been, was nothing more then a duplicity act to get you to fall into the illusion that you can trust him. Don't listen to those lies and tell me honestly that you believe in anything he says."
The boy looked away, thinking over the words that were said. Zuko could see the conflicting emotions inside him play out clearly on his face. The Avatar, even though he had wanted the prince's friendship nearly since meeting him, was fighting the now almost natural need to mistrust Zuko's intentions. "I don't get it," he said at last. "You've invested so much time and effort in capturing me and dragging me back here. And now that you've accomplished that you want to set me free again? Zuko, that makes no sense. I can't see why you'd do this just for me..."
"I do it because it's the right thing to do, and I know that now," Zuko replied. "I do it because I want to. I do it because I couldn't sleep with myself knowing how I gave a child to the one man alive who should never be around children. But most importantly..." The prince shifted his weight and moved the boy's head so that their eyes looked into each other. "I do it because your girlfriend has my ass on the line and if I return empty handed she promised to castrate me on the spot."
"Ouch. You want me to crawl through there first then?"
"Hurry, hurry!" whispered Zuko as he ushered the last few family members of his crew on board the new ship. A fairly young woman carrying a small child passed him and he let out a little sigh as his heart sank. He knew the life he would be providing was not going to hold ideal conditions under which to raise a family, and he had to wonder if pulling them away from the lives they had now was going to be worth it in the end. He really had no guaranty...no, his "father" would've found out the names of those on board his ship and tortured the left behind family members for sure. It wasn't going to be easy, but at least they would be safe.
"That's everyone," a crew mate told him. Zuko patted him on the shoulder and gave the signal to move out. The draw bridge was drawn up and the ship began pulling away from the dock to join her smaller sister who was already out to sea.
Some night guards saw the ship and rushed to try and do something , though they were much to late to have any power of Zuko's crew. Katara stood on the stern along side of the Avatar and together the two began to work the water in the bay; pulling it out a bit and then tossing it back to the bay so that it covered everything. Then they concentrated and hardened the liquid into ice, freezing everything over so that the other ships were stuck and they wouldn't be followed. When their work was completed, and the ship was too far away for them to do anything more, Katara turned and wondered off to find her brother.
Zuko stood in the middle of the deck and watched the land move as the ship began to turn itself around. In the east the sun was rising and the sky was turning through it's wheel of early morning colors. Despite having stayed up all night, and having been through such ordeals the day before, Zuko didn't feel at all tired as he felt the radiant ball of light warm his cheeks. A sense of cleansed renewal washed over him and he was finally at complete ease after so long. He wasn't sure what was going to happen to him now, but unlike when he had first set out from the Fire Nation in very much the same manner almost two years ago, he wasn't at all worried about it.
His dirty boots made almost silent thumping noises as he stepped up behind the Avatar boy, who was still staring off at the sunrise. Zuko's tattered and now filthy clothes rippled in the salty wind that blew up and a little smile graced his lips as a funny little thought crossed his mind.
"So Aang, how much do you now about Firebending already?"
I'd like to, first and formost, give out a BIG THANK YOU to my wonderful Beta Reader for this fic, ReigningFyre. -Glomps the Beta- Thank you so much for the outside advice, second oppinions and all the inner yaoi fangirl comments. You made me realize just how much of a player Zuko is in this. x3 I hope that you love reading the completed version as much as you seemed to like reading the rough drafts. I changed some stuff and added things so you should still find hidden treasures. There are some things I know you pointed out where glitched and that I could have easily changed, but I didn't because I kinda liked them better in glitched form, no offense. And I did decide to make Zuko's blankie out of your Kindled Cotton idea from Mist . And speaking to the rest of you now, if you finish reading this with half the yaoi fangirl mind Fyre had while proofreading it and you want some Sokka/Zuko yaoi to satisfy you...-is pimping RegningFyre's fic Mist- XD Go on...you know you want to read it...
Okay, so, as you read through this, I'm sure you saw a lof of glitched things. And I mean A LOT. I know where things are wrong, you don't have to point any of it out to me. I started writing this fic when I was, litterally, a Newbie-Boobie to AtlA and so like any good Newbie-Boobie does when they just don't get it, I made shit up as I went along. Looking back on it now, as an experianced Avatar fan missing only 3 episodes from her belt (four if your counting our most recent released one about Zuko's Mama, but I have that one on tape and I'll be celebrating the completion and posting of this fic by watching it, sooo yeah...), I have to honestly say that I'm not that inclined to go back and change anything.
I started writing this to sort of relieve some anxiety I had about Zuko's character, I guess. I mean, I love the guy but he really pisses me off sometimes (and apparently I'm not the only Zuko fangirl that thinks that). I wanted to turn him back into the person he seemed to be before his father royaly screwed him over. Also, this fic was just sorta my speculations on what I imagioned would happen if Zuko was able to successfully capture Aang and take him home. (Look Dad! Here's my date to Prom! Can I have some money to rent us a hotel for later tonight? XD Oh, don't even try to deny that that was the first thing in your mind as soon as I said that...)
Basically, I want you all to know and understand that I won't be changing anything and so if you review only to tell me that Iroh is Ozai's brother, you'll be wasting your time. I appreciate it, but guys, I know what I'm doing.