"Stay here! Look after Katara and Appa!"

No one could tell if Sokka was talking to Suki or Toph; both women obeyed him, however, for the sake of their wounded friends. Not even daring to hesitate, Sokka took a winded Zuko by the arm and half-dragged him outside the cage again, despite the fearful eyes of Katara. Toph draped her arms protectively around her sister as Suki crept to Appa's side and laid her head gently, unsurely, in the bison's matted white fur.

Zuko was still gasping for breath as he tumbled out of the cage, dazed by the impact of hitting the wooden wall. His shaking vision barely cleared before he ran full-on into Sokka, who had stopped dead in his tracks. Sokka practically close-lined the oblivious firebender, and Zuko went down beneath a curse, landing hard on his ass.

"You fucker -"

But he stopped when he saw the fear wash over Sokka's face, skin gone as pale as his sister's. The Prince closed his eyes suddenly, turned away, and threw up.

Zuko followed where Sokka's frightened gaze had gone, realized there was a horrible, potent smell in the air, like the stench of a gutted deer; and then he stopped breathing.

"God -"

Zuko's boots slipped along the bloody floor as he struggled to pull himself to his feet, unaware that his hands were getting covered in blood as he did so, wanting only to get away from the sight before him. His stomach turned inside out as the gore-sickness consumed him; bile and vomit rose into his mouth.

Half the barn and most of the hay was on fire. The left side of the building was completely gone, smashed open as though a flaming tank had plowed through it; people in the street were screaming and running from the still flaming debris raining down from above, despite the density of the crowds. Wind was whipping through the air like a thousand stinging needles, as though a hurricane was starting.

And in scattered puddles and pieces on the ground, lay four or five workers of the stables, burned and broken and dismembered. Twisted frames like statues, guarding the gates of hell.

The ground was soaked in blood. Zuko had never even realized before how much blood was in a body; and now that he could see it, flooding the floor, pumping like fountains from weak, half-visible, slowly dying hearts, he never wanted to see it again. Most of the men had been ripped open from their chest, and their insides were splayed around them like a horrific jigsaw puzzle; body parts were still twitching feebly in those remaining somewhat intact, but this was few. Zuko couldn't breathe for the horror of it all; severed limbs with joints still attached, bones piercing skin, entrails and hunks of flesh and crushed skulls and a ribcage, split like a wishbone. Scarring and third-degree burns had left some of them mere slabs of smoking flesh, white pus against black, broken skin, bugs already scampering to the carnage. One man had his jaw torn out to leave a hideous, deformed smile in his broken face, toothless and twisted and grinning death.

Zuko and Sokka were both on their knees, emptying their stomachs. How even Jeong-Jeong managed to withstand the unspeakable scene before him was only testament to the man's strength of will, though later on he too would vomit from the memory - alone by the sea, where his weakness was hidden.

Toph heard Zuko and her brother's startled cries, and the sounds of them throwing up. Hesitantly, she came to the back of the cage, about to put her foot upon the red ground.

"Sokka -?"

"No! Toph, stay in the cage!" it was the tone of his voice that made Toph obey; weak with terror, with disgust. She retreated hesitantly into the cage, Suki staring at her questioningly.

"Myobu! Go after him!" there was no hesitation in Jeong-Jeong's voice; Myobu was the fastest. Myobu could stop Aang long before they could. And Aang had to be stopped.

The slow, syrupy movement of blood, sliding between the stones on the cobbled barn floor.

I cannot attack the Avatar.

"Fuck that! Go after him!" Sokka was wiping his mouth, with absolutely no patience for the spirit-beast's cryptic words. Zuko was dizzy with disbelief, wiping blood off his hands with the front of his robes and darkening the fabric. Jeong-Jeong took a step forward, as though to break into a run and pursue where the Avatar had gone; Myobu stopped him with a growl, like the beginnings of thunder.

General, there is a demon malice in the Avatar's heart. We must take the women to the docks. You two, and he looked straight at a sick Sokka and Zuko. You will try to appease him.

To everyone's surprise, Jeong-Jeong stopped, looking the spirit-Fox straight in the eye as he did so. Myobu did not stir, but kept his fearsome glowing eyes on the swiftly disappearing Avatar. The General hesitated, then turned to obey the Fox, leaping in behind the rhinos and taking the rein with a swift crack.

As soon as the cage started moving, Toph and Suki bolted upright, and even Katara made a staggering move towards the exit. Appa groaned again, but seemed to ignore the bumping motion of the cage. Mybou jumped suddenly into the back, and startled by the spirit-Fox, the girls started to move towards the exit.

"Don't look! Stay with Jeong-Jeong!" Zuko had to shout it, as Sokka was so sick he could hardly stand, legs shaking beneath him. Jeong-Jeong, impatient with the rhinos, flashed fire across there flanks and the cage took off like a sudden shot into the night, bearing the bewildered women away.

"Where the hell's he going?" Sokka breathed, bent over, hands on his knees. Zuko knew he meant Aang, and in some weird, horrified attempt to understand the airbender's homicidal actions, he forced himself to look back at the bloody room.

"...How many people were in this room, Sokka?"

"What... besides us?" Sokka glanced around at the carnage again, but tore his eyes away swiftly before he threw up again. "I... I don't know. Five? Yeah, five."

Zuko covered his mouth and glared at the gruesome spectacle before them. He tried to count heads, not matter how crushed and unrecognizable they were - it was probably the only way he could have guessed at the number of the bodies.

"Its' only four," he finally relented. stowing away the memory of that sight deep into his mind. "He went after the last guy - come on."

He practically had to pull Sokka to his feet, though afterwards the Prince stoutly forced him off and exclaimed he was perfectly fine. Having to tip-toe their way across the blood and mutilated bodies, however - that was another matter entirely. Sokka went first, hand across his mouth just as Zuko's, boots slipping slightly on the red-stained floor, stopping halfway to bend over and throw up again. Then, of course, there was the sight of vomit mingled with flesh and guts, and both of them lost their stomachs before making the entrance.

"How do you think we'll find him?" Sokka must have said it to try and relieve the tension of the blood-bath behind them, as it ended up being a rather rhetorical question; the trail of ruin and fire stretched before them, staining the streets in a fierce orange glow, a path towards the possessed Avatar. That, and just as Sokka said it, a building exploded into a towering gust of flame and ash not two blocks away. Embers were still falling down against the black canvas of sky as Zuko grabbed Sokka again and pulled him towards the disaster.

"I don't think it'll be all that hard -"

The crowds were running in droves, screaming, falling, abandoning friends and family in an effort to escape Aang's demonic presence. Sokka and Zuko were caught in the midst of them, frustratingly, people pushing and shoving and barreling headlong into the two, fearful and panicked. Smoke and ash choked the air, and everyone was coughing and tripping and scrabbling over one another, a confused mass of whirling limbs and bodies. Then it became a thick bottleneck of terrified citizens in the alley, Zuko and Sokka crushed between flailing citizens, people falling and trampled to death beneath a hundred running feet, curses lost beneath the dim of screams and distant explosions.

Then, abruptly, they were free; the mass of running people was thinned and gone, and only a few slow wounded remained; a man hobbling on a broken leg, a lost child wandering aimlessly. But the freedom to move brought no comfort; before Sokka and Zuko was a small square, originally designed with a beautiful fountain in the middle, surrounded by burning lanterns. Most of the lanterns were destroyed at this point; only one or two still managed to stay lit, but these flickered feebly beneath the dripping red flame set by the Avatar.

The square had become a holocaust in a matter of seconds. The fountain was torn out and water was pumping awkwardly into the streets amidst the wreckage; wind tore through the air like a thousand arrows, like a miniature hurricane, sending debris flying into the next districts of Masabi. Fire was licking walls and rooftops, dancing as the wind taunted and whipped it; flame licking flesh from the lifeless bodies of men and women who'd stepped in the Avatar's way. Smoking carcasses of innocents caught running in terror, twisted in cages of metal and wood, white teeth blinding against their black, charred skin.

"Please -" the barn-owner was cowering before the all-consuming wrath of the Avatar, the hollow, demonic glow in his eyes. Aang had frozen him to the earth, making escape that much more impossible; flame was licking the Avatar's fist, ready to scorch and mutilate him as he had done to his fellows. Sokka did not hesitate, drew his blade and ran straight towards the airbender.

"Let him go -!"

Sokka's blade was above his head, and though Zuko wanted to cry out for him to stop, they both knew what had to be done. Aang had slain upwards of twenty people in the space of two minutes; he had to be stopped, in any way. The black blade came down, stained red in the firelight.

Aang stepped aside from Sokka's blow with such grace he seemed more ghost than man. Then he caught the Prince around his pale throat and Sokka's breathe caught with an unflattering gasp. The power in the Avatar's grip was a hundred times more than the Prince had expected - immediately his head swam, and his limbs felt weak, and he was only vaguely aware of Aang's piercing, glowing white eyes on him.

Zuko was behind Aang then, fists full of fire, eyes full of self-hatred and regret. He knew it wasn't Aang - not this beast, not this monster who had stormed Masabi's streets. But whatever it was, it had to be silenced.

Aang seemed to think differently. An inch before Zuko's flaming fist made contact with the airbender, a whip of wind caught the firebender full in his chest, and sent him flying back into a wall of burning debris and twisted metal. The air sped from his lungs so quickly and painfully that Zuko could not even scream when the rusted, red beam tore through the back of his leg.

"Aang -"

But Sokka couldn't say the Avatar's name. It came out as a choked cough, as the firebender scrabbled desperately at Aang's iron grip, closing methodically around his throat.

Aang's face was emotionless, save for the flitter of ungodly fury that passed across it like a shadow, hidden only by the empty, blinding white light in his eyes. Rock and stone rose to the airbender's palm, attached to his pale skin, to his glowing arrow tattoo. He raised the stone glove slowly to the Prince's chest. It cracked, changed, formed a dagger-like shape that cut through Sokka's robes and began to drill into his flesh.

"Aang stop! It's Sokka! It's fuckin' Sokka, Aang!" Zuko limped up, still bearing his sword, hobbling towards the pair. His efforts were futile against the furious winds that encircled Aang, Sokka's hair loose and whipping wildly at his face as his tried to kick, struggle, punch, do anything to avoid the slab of stone sliding slowly into his chest. He felt the first drops of blood slide down his skin, felt the strength leaving him. Blue eyes rolling upwards into his head.

Zuko's cries mute against the wind and roar of flame.

And then Aang woke up.

No one ever figured out what had caused him to release the Avatar State, as he would never talk about, and no one else had the heart to look into it. It may have been the cunning snarls of Myobu, the spiritual persuasion and threat; it may have been the panicking shouts of Zuko, still struggling through the wind towards them. It may have been the feeling of Sokka's blood on his hands, or the empty, dying look in the Prince's eyes.

But by some unknown grace the light in Aang's eyes shuddered and died. His hands loosened and Sokka gasped, falling hard to the ground.

All around them was smoke and ash and dead bodies. Aang blinked, caught the potent smell of burning flesh on the wind, flinched. The sights came to him slowly, but the realization came fast.

Gently, mockingly, his knees buckled beneath him and he fell hard to the jagged ground, unable even to cry.

Zuko did the only thing he could think of. He crawled over to Aang's side and wrapped his arms around the airbender, just as Lu Ten had done once for him, all those ages ago. Aang made no response; only stared, mute and dry-eyed, at the smoke and carnage before him.

Then he threw back his head and screamed.

Break

At the sea-side, a number of cargo crates was piled high beside a modest looking ship dubbed Kuruk, according to the dim, faded letters along it's side. The boat was a small merchant-vessel, run by a nomadic family of the South. The leader was named Chong, and though he spent more time strumming his lute than calculating the direction of the ship, he always seemed to end up where he needed to be. His wife, Lily, probably had a lot to do with that, as her father had originally owned the ship and she grew up on the sea - but as Chong was such a good husband, his lack of attention went unnoticed sometimes, as did Lily's casual nudge of the ship's wheel. Positioned alongside the wooden dock, the Kuruk looked an uncertain sort of vessel, tainted slightly with mold and disrepair, but this only meant the ship would go all the more unnoticed as it passed the East coast.

Jeong-Jeong, Hakoda and Zuko would be part of a Silk Road caravan leaving that evening, and some of the goat-mules and carts were still at the docks being loaded. People were wandering around the docks frantically, pointing at the smoke and fire in the distance, knocking over one another in an effort to find out from anyone, from everyone, what horrible tragedy had just taken place in Masabi.

When the three men arrived a the docks, Hakoda and Jeong-Jeong had only to take one look at Aang to know what he had done. His clothes were torn and messed with blood and soot, everything dark and dirty against the pale, sick disbelief in his face, the blinding blue of his tattoos. His gray eyes were hollow and despairing, feet dragging like the weighed bricks. He was so bent and miserable-looking that the other men had trouble understanding how could even stand, let alone walk all this way to the docks. Fires were still burning, scattered torches, in random districts of Masabi; whether or not the people of the East knew it was the Avatar who had caused such grief, they all knew Long Feng would spread this truth soon enough.

At the sea-side, a number of cargo crates was piled high beside a modest looking ship dubbed Kuruk, according to the dim, faded letters along it's side. The boat was a small merchant-vessel, run by a nomadic family of the South. The leader was named Chong, and though he spent more time strumming his lute than calculating the direction of the ship, he always seemed to end up where he needed to be. His wife, Lily, probably had a lot to do with that, as her father had originally owned the ship and she grew up on the sea - but as Chong was such a good husband, his lack of attention went unnoticed sometimes, as did Lily's casual nudge of the ship's wheel. Positioned alongside the wooden dock, the Kuruk looked an uncertain sort of vessel, tainted slightly with mold and disrepair, but this only meant the ship would go all the more unnoticed as it passed the East coast.

Hakoda and Jeong-Jeong, however, were not at all patient with this turn of events. Jeong-Jeong looked a notch fiercer, eyes burning bright beneath his scattered gray hair, the two dangerous scar. Hakoda, looking a little less disheveled in his blue Aurora tribe armor and fur cloak, dreadlocks pulled back from his fury-lined face, was no less intimidating. His deadly blue eyes, a match to his son's, were fixed piercingly on the Avatar. In fact, the Chief looked so much like a man of Acchai in that moment he rivaled even Jeong-Jeong, who embodied the power and wrath of the barbarians.

"We should've been packed and left a half hour ago," Hakoda said it with only the faintest hint of threat and anger, but even this made Zuko's insides boil. "Now the tide may be too high, and you could all drown when the ships smashes into the rocks at the High Channel. In what demon's name did you think -"

"Leave him alone."

Zuko snarled it, stepped between the wrathful Hakoda and the gloomy Aang. The Chief licked his teeth, straightened, stared daggers into the firebender's piercing gold eyes. Zuko didn't move. He knew Aang didn't deserve this - not now. And no matter what Hakoda did to him he was sticking to this truth. The Cheif loked at him like he was a word away from drawing his club-sword and sentencing him to death.

Zuko thought abruptly, inexplicably, of the Rope Walk. That was when Aang interrupted, and Zuko was surprised to feel the airbender's steady hand on his shoulder.

"Is fine, you know," Aang's empty gray eyes were still fixed on the Chief, despite Zuko's intervention. "Wha' was you sayin', Sa'?"

Hakoda glanced between the two of them - fierce, gold eyes and depressed, gray ones - and decided this fight was better left untouched.

"You're going to the Northern Aurora Tribe," he relented, turning towards on of the goat-mules of the caravan. "There's some men there who can teach you to control your power - a Master Waterbender named Pakku, and a spiritual man, Guru Pathik. They can train you and prepare you, while we work to unite Acchai and raise you an army."

"... Grea' time," Aang muttered, and luckily for the Avatar, Toph, Suki and Katara arrived from the ship at that moment. Toph was at his side first, which merited a weak, sorrowful sort of smile from Aang; he was taking heavy steps that Toph noticed right away, as soon as her foot left the wooden dock. Suki's eyes were on Sokka, but he wasn't looking at her. The Prince was searching, craving for a look, a word from his father, standing not five feet away. So far the Chief had not even acknowledged his son's existence.

"Aang...?" Toph breathed, and her fingers touched his arm.

"Later, eh?" Aang said quickly, and before Toph could reply he'd taken her hand in his, squeezed it longingly, and let go. It left her in a state of confused euphoria.

"Chief..." Sokka's words were strained. he could not bring himself to say 'father'.

"The crates on the dock need to be loaded - do it quickly," Hakoda said it briskly, looked at Aang, then Zuko; but his eyes passed over Sokka in a distant, unseeing way, before he returned to packing the goat-mule. Like he hadn't even seen him.

Sokka's insides writhed, churned with torment. Zuko, Aang, Suki and the sisters made there way to the dock, to do as Hakoda had commanded; but the Prince remained rooted to his spot, despite the glowering eyes of Jeong-Jeong. Suki looked back hesitantly her he shoulder, but Katara pulled her along. Katara had already had a brief reunion with her father; once through is gift of the necklace, and in a tear-filled hug when they made it to the docks. Concern for the three men left behind, however, had made it a rather bitter reunion.

"The Chief gave you an order," the General said it lowly, but even then Sokka knew that Jeong-Jeong understood his lack of action; an entire life of torment, of lies, of a missing father. Jeong-Jeong may have been a capable leader, and handy in tense situations - but he was no father figure, far too rough and callous for that sort of position in life. Far too swiftly brutal.

"I thought you were dead," Sokka's words came out as a breathe.

"Sokka, please do as I say. Get the crates in the boat. They'll need you to help cast off soon, as well," Hakoda slung a satchel over his shoulder, patted the neck of the goat-mule distractedly, back to his glaring, infuriated son.

"...Why didn't you come for us?" the Prince's voice was a whisper. "Where have you been?"

"Sokka - it's not important now. Go to the boats!"

Hakoda snarled, handed off the satchel to Jeong-Jeong. Back towards his son.

"No. Not until you answer my question."

"We don't have time for this game of yours!"

Back towards his son.

"Then answer the question."

"Sokka, you insolent -"

"Why won't you look at me?"

Sokka glared, wide-eyed and desperate, at the back of his father's head. For the first time since childhood, in years, there were tears in his eyes.

Hakoda straightened up slowly, back still towards Sokka. No one saw his face at that moment; aged a hundred years with regret, with pain, with self-hatred. Shadows like dark pits beneath his eyes, age-lines creased deep with sorrow. The embodiment of despair could not have looked worse in that moment; Hakoda knew his own mistakes, and they were reflected forever in the eyes of his abused son, his veiled daughter. He turned towards the Prince, knowing he could never hope to redeem himself.

"Because you're right," he said it on the same level as Sokka, the same whisper. "...I should have been there for you. You and Katara."

"Then why weren't you?" Sokka begged the question, eyes shining. "Do you even know - about Fong, about -"

"I know it all, Sokka," Hakoda relented unwillingly, and again his eyes fell away from the Prince, though Sokka' heart craved his father's gaze. "I know about when you were seven, and first sent under Jeong-Jeong's service. I know that you were there, when your mother died. I know... that the scar on your leg wasn't an accident."

Sokka flinched at that memories. A small boy trying to mount an ostrich-horse, surrounded by monstrous Acchain men; his mother's long, beautiful hair, flying wildly about her face as she reached out to him, attempting to run; Fong throwing a jagged piece of glass towards him, when he'd accidently knocked over a family mirror.

"I'm so proud to be your father," it was like Sokka was listening in on a dream. "But I am so ashamed of myself. I could have saved you and Katara... and your mother. But I didn't think it was my place. I thought I was being smart. I thought I was protecting you. But in the end..."

He stopped, swallowed, shook his head like chasing away a bad memory. Before even a single tear could escape from Sokka's pleading eyes, the Chief had stepped forward and embraced the Prince.

Jeong-Jeong lowered his gaze respectfully. Sokka stared, mute, unable to move. His father broke the hug before his son could react - and then there was a ring of blade, sudden and unexpected beneath the lasting silence of the moment.

"I want you to have this."

Sokka took it from his father, slowly. It was black-metaled knife, to match his black sword - but this was not the most fantastic thing about it. It's hilt was blinding white, carven from what Sokka knew, was raw tiger-walrus tusk; it shone beneath the distant flicker of stars and red fire, carved elegantly into the shape of a howling wolf, mourning forever towards the cold moon. The Ancient Wolf, the symbol of the Chieftain of the Aurora Tribe - the hilt to Hakoda's club-sword was crafted in the same shape.

"I need you to look after your sister. You have to be a stronger man than I was, Sokka."

Break

"How's you're shoulder?"

Katara turned, seemed a little caught off guard by how close he was to her. Then again, they were cramped in the cargo hold of the small ship, loading the last few crates before departure, and everything was close and stuffy and stale. Aang, Suki and Toph had already ventured back on deck, to await Hakoda signal to shove off. Captain Chong had finally bordered the vessel with his wife Lily, and he was already annoying Sokka to insanity with his incessant melodies and relaxed philosophy.

"Its... oh, its fine," she stuttered vaguely, and to confirm it she turned her barren shoulder towards him, face still uncovered, niqab all torn off, hair like liquid shadow. "I healed it with the sea-water..."

She stopped when Zuko's finger brushed the dark, caramel-colored skin where the wound had once been. Instantly they were back on the balcony at the palace of Masabi, vaguely aware of how dangerously close they were, how open to the other. Katara's smooth, crimson lips parted slightly as she looked up at him, an inch from his chin, and whispered:

"Jeong-Jeong says you're not coming," there was slight fear in her voice. It made Zuko's blood rush in a conflicting way. Coupled desire and guilt.

"I'm coming," something in the way he said it, made it mean more - I'll stay with you. A flicker of a smile crept across Katara's lips.

"Time to go, Zuko,"Jeong-Jeong shouted it bluntly into the cargo hold, then disappeared back on deck. Zuko opened his mouth weakly, then looked back towards Katara. One sight of her glorious, endless blue eyes was enough to start the fire in his heart, make him run up after the General.

"No - I'm going on the boat," he shouted after Jeong-Jeong, mounting the steps onto the deck. Jeong-Jeong was halfway on the docks when he heard Zuko's exclamation, and he stopped only to glare, intensely, at the firebender. The General looked ferocious in the dim night, huge mole-bear cloak framing him like some wild spirit.

"No. You're going with the caravan on the Silk Road," it was a statement, in a tone of voice that demanded obedience. And those who disobeyed the General did not live for very long. Zuko knew this, but he also knew that a certain beautiful waterbender had a steadily increasing desire for him to accompany her, and this weighed more heavily on him.

"No. I'm not," it was so simply put that Jeong-Jeong flinched. He stepped back on the boat with a solid, dangerous boot.

"I don't have time for games," and Jeong-Jeong really did look rather more impatient than usual. Zuko tensed, let a single tongue of flame lick his fingers, and then -

"Stop. Lemme talk to 'im."

Aang had not even stood up from his place beside Toph, but he was looking the General straight in his dark, deadly eyes. Jeong-Jeong seemed indecisive fore a moment; and then, with a backwards, irritated snarl in Zuko's direction, he left the boat to aid Hakoda with the caravan.

"Aang... what are you doing?" Zuko stared incredulously at the Avatar, but said nothing else. He knew it was still walking on eggshells, talking with him after such an ordeal, Aang, however, stood slowly, Toph's hand still on his arm as he did so, as though to lend him her strength. Aang raised his gray eyes to meet Zuko's defiant ones as Katara came on deck, loking quizzically between the two.

"I kill'd people today, Zuko," Aang started. "People who didn' des'rve to die. I almos' kill'd you an' Sokka, too."

Silence fell over the scene. A scared look passed over Toph's face, but she only squeezed Aang's arm reassuringly.

"Aang, its..." but there was nothing Zuko could say. Aang was right. The truth of it was reflected in the despairing, self-loathing storm-clouds of his eyes.

"Don' try an say nothin'," Aang waved it away weakly. "Is alrigh'. You an' Sokka stopp'd me, see. But I can't go an' rely on tha'. Is dangerous, this thing inside me. S'like some sorta'...sorta demon, or somethin'."

Zuko swallowed, wished Sokka was there - though the Prince was currently involved in mapping discussion with Suki and Chong in the Captain's quarters, and probably would have been no help anyway.

"Wha' it comes down to is all this, Zuko. Hakoda's righ', 'e's spot on. I gotta learn ta' control me'self. These men 'e's talkin' 'bout - Pathik, an' Pakku - they could teach me somethin', see. Hell, seems the 'ole world could teach me somethin's 'bout me. An' I gotta' do it. I've done gone run from wha' I am me 'ole life. An' it got me nowhere. Got me motha' kill'd. Got them men kill'd. Hell, 'ere I am the spirit a peace an' all I am is killin' people."

A ironic smile almost graced Aang's features. Almost.

"I don' wanna be no Avatar. But I am, an' I gotta accept it. I gotta go to this 'ere Aurora Tribe. But you - is different fo' you, Zuko. You gotta somethin' else needs doin'."

Zuko felt his heart sink at the Avatar's words. He didn't want this.

"I... I'm not good enough for it, Aang," to Zuko's surprise, the Avatar simply shrugged.

"Don' matter. I don' feel like I got stuffs to be th' Avatar, but 'ere I am," and Aang smiled weakly at the comparison between them. "It's jus' wha's gotta be done. Can't fight the Emper'r one our own. We need 'elp. And I've sure as all hell got faith tha' if anyone can get these damn crazy Acchains to turn and fight on our side, is gotta be you."

"No - I just... can't do it," Zuko said it a little louder, and Aang swallowed impatiently. But Zuko was pleading, begging for him to understand. How could he not understand? He couldn't handle the life of Acchai, much less take it into his hands and rule it! And he needed to stay with him, his only friend from home - he needed to stay with Katara, the woman he couldn't get out of his mind...

"... Yes you can."

It was Katara who spoke. Zuko turned and stared at her like she was ghost, appeared out of thin air.

"What?" he breathed. The bewilderment in his eyes surpassed anything he'd ever experienced before. Aang took the opportunity to

"See, Zuko?" But Zuko was still staring, disbelievingly, at Katara's shy form. "You gotta, 'cause no one else will, see..."

Aang took Zuko by the hand, and Zuko looked at the Avatar distractedly. Aang was tired and full of despair, and needed to lie down; so he took the firebender's hand regretfully, but hopefully too. There was still light in the Avatar's eyes, despite the crushing darkness. It made Zuko feel even more wildly unworthy.

"I'll be seein' you 'round, Agni."

The sound of the nickname made Zuko wonder how long he'd been away from home when he'd ever get back to see his friends, his Uncle, his mother. And realized that even if he got home, his mother wouldn't be there anymore.

"Good luck, Zuko," Toph added quietly. The two of them retreated below deck, Aang leaning a little on Toph, who had her head in his shoulder.

Then there was only Katara, only darkness and the ship-lanterns and the distant click of a goat-mule hoof. Zuko looked at her like it was the last time he'd ever gaze upon beauty, upon the blue-eyed face of perfection. He almost didn't even notice when she slid her hand into his, an act of comfort, of veiled desire. Almost didn't notice the longing in her sparkling eyes.

"You said you didn't want me to leave you," he reminded her; asked her, without words, if she was lying.

"...I don't," and his heart beat loudly at these words, and he clenched her hand as she continued. "But this is more important than me. Than... than what I want."

A tear slid down her cheek, painful, unfair. And then, for the first time in weeks, Zuko thought of Mai. How every single move and action she took was to her own benefit, her own pleasure, her own will. How every kind word from her had been false concern - for Mai's only concern was her own delight, and his adoration for her was pleasing enough. She did not understand, she did not care, she did not love him.

Yet here stood Katara, sacrificing her own desire for what she knew to be true. Believing in their salvation. Believing in him.

Zuko didn't even know what to say. Every inch of him wanted to run, wanted to be with her, wanted to just escape this hectic life he'd had since taking the train from Balda Haram. He wanted to sit down at the bar with Jet and drink. He wanted to play Pai Sho with his Uncle. He wanted to gather Katara in his arms and say, Where have you been all this time? Why did I not realize I loved you from the first moment I saw you?

But Zuko didn't know what to say. He tightened his grip on her hand a little, felt her warm arm and the faith in her startlingly blue eyes.

"You...you stick close to your brother, then, alright? And stick close to Aang..."

Zuko's voice broke as she stepped in closer to him. He almost lost it.

Her lips were soft on his, the most chaste sort of kiss. And suddenly everything melted away, and there was no boat, no caravan, no great destiny to fulfill. There was only her.

Zuko took a moment to realize her intent; then he kissed her, deeply, explored the feeling her, the sweet and salty taste. Katara wrapped her arms around him and they held each other in the dim light, slowly remembering the details of the other, Zuko's hot breathe, her gentle crimson lips. So lost in the ecstasy of the moment, they couldn't even realize how sad it all was.

Zuko was standing on the dock when the boat pulled away. His dress robes were torn and bloody, his black hair blowing across his face like a whisper of hope, of things to come. Katara was sitting at the stern of the ship, blue eyes gazing out distantly, longingly, from between the wooden bars. The sparkling surface of some misted sea.

Like a soul being torn apart. Like a piece gone missing.

"Time to leave, Zuko."

Jeong-Jeong came for him when the boat was out of sight. Zuko replayed the kiss in his mind, passion and regret, the taste of her still clinging to his lips.

Slowly, he closed his fingers around the brilliant, blue-gemstone necklace she'd left in his palm. Carven waves crashing on a nonexistent shore.

And all but unnoticed in the corner, the small outline of a rose.

The End

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The story will continue in:

The Crimson Dragon