Chapter One – Healing
Disclaimer – Avatar: the Last Airbender does not belong to me, it belongs to Mike DiMartino and Bryan Koneitzko! However, this plot and story belong to me, although I make no profit off it.
The original working title for this story had been 'By Ice or By Fire', from a most excellent poem. However excellent the poem, I felt that the title wasn't quite right for this particular story even though it actually came pretty close. So I chose Slow Heat – which I feel describes the buildup on the TV show to its climax/final battle with Ozai. We Avatar fans can surely feel the excitement build as the show goes! It also describes the relationships between the characters, especially Zuko and Katara.
If you're new to this story, fear not! It is not related to my previous Cold Fire trilogy or any of my other Avatar-based fanfic. This story for the most part, follows the canon of the Avatar TV show, all the way up to episode 2x11. It is perfectly canon up to that point. Afterward, I am still using much of the remainder of the second season as well as the third, with one big difference which will become apparent soon enough in this chapter.
To pace the storyline and make the timeline clear, I am using dates. No year is given for the Avatarverse, so for the sake of convenience, I have set the beginning of Sozin's War/Comet/Avatar Aang's disappearance in the year 1000. Thus, the current year is 1101 in spring (this story begins about halfway through Season 2). It is clear to me that the Avatarverse uses the Asian lunar calendar to keep track of their months. However, since many of us are not familiar with the lunar calendar, I have decided to use the Gregorian months (the calendar we currently use) for the ease of keeping track of events when I start new scenes. BSC stands for Before Sozon's Comet (the second coming of the comet, not the first)
Without further ado, the first installment of Slow Heat! And please don't forget to leave a review!
Five Months BSC
(Early April, 1101)
The arrival of Sozin's Comet drew nearer and nearer, and I seemed no closer to reaching the end of any kind of goal than before. The solution that should have been obvious to me was the one that I kept denying. To accept it as my goal would be admitting that I had failed, that all of my searching had been for nothing, and that what I had believed in before was wrong.
My banishment was one ordeal after another and I learned things that while I did not enjoy the lessons themselves, what I gained afterward was immensely valuable. None of the tutors my father set to me for my education could ever learn the things that I had learned. Nor could they imagine. And to think – I had once shared many if not all of their beliefs.
The soft groan of my uncle shook me out of my reverie and I poured him a cup of tea before moving to his side and slipping the drink into his hand.
"How do you feel?" I asked and he was silent for a moment before putting on a smile, trying to reassure me that he was well. But I knew better.
Over the last month, since the confrontation with my sister, I knew something was wrong. I had done my best to heal him and at first we thought that he was doing well. But as soon as we started traveling again, there were subtle signs that were easy to ignore at first.
My uncle would run out of breath quickly, and when he thought I was not looking, he would clutch at his chest. He tired out more quickly than he had before and I often had him sit on the emu-horse as I walked beside it. He usually was able to mask his pain but I saw it here and there. We had gone to several healers, and while we had been able to get remedies for pain, none of them were able to get to the bottom of the problem itself and simply told me that it was old age, but I refused to accept that. I suspected it was because of what Azula had done, but I did not know exactly what kind of damage her attack had done.
We had tried remedies that were supposed to cleanse the body, to no avail. My uncle tried walking and exercising, and often he would end up pale and short of breath, and he had come close to passing out several times. My uncle had always been a pillar of strength to me, and I had to face the fact that he was mortal. Even though the healers we had gone to did not give him a good prognosis, part of me refused to give up.
As Uncle sipped at his tea, I closed my eyes, falling deep in thought again. I saw Azula and her lightning, saw her aim it at my uncle with deadly accuracy. I remembered the rush of emotions that had gone through me and the wrenching feeling of loss when I had been so certain that my uncle was lost forever. I heard the gentle words of the Waterbender and her offers for help. I had been so upset at that moment that I had barely heard her words and simply sent her away.
I opened my eyes to see Iroh still sipping at his tea. Right now he looked to be the picture of health, but that was getting rarer. His appetite grew leaner and he took to drinking tea more and more. Even though Azula had been the one to attack him, without warning, I still felt guilty about his condition. I was determined to find a way to get him better. He deserved more than this.
We were now headed to Ba Sing Se. I did not really want to go there, but what else could we do? We were wanted, and Uncle was right, we would blend in with the other refugees. It would also hopefully give my uncle a place to rest and recover, and perhaps there we could find a healer that could actually help my uncle.
I did not want to admit it, but the Avatar really was my hope. If he did not defeat my father, who else could? I knew that we were not far behind. They had, without a doubt, passed through the Oasis and through the desert.
Once, the Avatar had been my hope. He still was, but now, for a different reason. Things had changed. I did not want to admit it, but there was the very real possibility that my father would never restore my birthright. The Fire Nation might never be the same again. I had to wonder – after the War was over and if the Fire Nation lost, my people could very well be decimated as the Air Nomads were as retribution. Its lands could be split up between the Earth and Water peoples.
That was not something I wanted to think about. Yes, the things that many Fire Nation people had done were barbaric – including my own great-grandfather and his son and grandson. My sister would no doubt follow in their footsteps with pride and gusto if the Fire Nation won the War. But it could still lose, no matter how confident my father and sister was, if the Avatar was strong – or lucky – enough. The Avatar was a powerful symbol to the people.
It would be foolish to think that the Fire Nation could lose and just slink away meekly to hide and lick its wounds. I had to hope that if the Avatar defeated my father, he would show mercy. After all, one of his best friends had been from the Fire Nation. Dimly I remembered the name of his friend – Kuzon.
Not that it would really matter. I had no illusions, and the Avatar probably would not welcome me with open arms, not after what I had done. My prospects grew darker and darker every day. If my father won, I would be hunted down, after all, he loved my sister more. That had always been clear to me. If the Fire Lord lost, the Fire Nation would fall on hard times and the Earth Kingdom would want to exterminate all of Sozin's bloodline. Either way, I would have to run and hide myself well, or be exterminated. It would be hard to do so with my distinctive scar. I would have to become a nobody. In a way, I already was.
We had made it out of the desert lands in one piece, much to my relief. It felt good to see verdant lands again, and to see running water. A short distance away was a town, just across a bridge. Our experiences had taught us to be more cautious, and we decided to stop and take a rest before venturing into the village for food and supplies. The area we were in was thick with trees, so we decided to settle a short distance away from the river.
My uncle was happy to settle down, as riding on an emu-horse could be a pain in the rear end – literally. When he climbed off the horse, he sat against a tree, leaning back against it and catching his breath. I did not miss this.
"Are you well?" I asked. He glanced at me, trying to hide his pain by putting on a cheery smile.
"Of course I am! You know how tiring riding on an emu-horse can be." he replied jovially. All I could do was nod. It was no use pushing it.
"I will go get some water, and we can eat and rest before we go on." I replied nonchalantly and he nodded. I grabbed the waterskins and made my way down to the river. I filled up all of the waterskins and sat there by the water, taking deep and long gulps by cupping my hands and scooping them up to my lips. I dunked my head, and the coolness that surrounded it was a relief.
My uncle looked up with an amused smile as I came back, my hair dripping and my shoulders wet.
"Looks like someone decided to take a little wash, eh, Zuko?" he asked.
"I would suggest that you do the same, Uncle. We have been traveling for a long time." I said bluntly. One thing I missed about my 'civilized' life was the baths. I handed him his waterskin and he emptied it as I did to my own. We may have been Firebenders, but water was as important to us as anyone else.
"We can do that after we eat and rest." Uncle said. I nodded silently. I was indeed hungry, and we would take care of one thing at a time. I went back to the river to refill our waterskins and when I came back, I was not surprised to see that he had a small fire going and his teapot out.
We sat down and removed the last of our rations which consisted entirely of jerky. I hoped that the town would be welcoming of us. It had been a while since I saw any face, much less a friendly one.
As we ate and sipped at our tea, my uncle launched a story about his younger days and about his friendship (or former friendship, at least) with the Rough Rhinos. I leaned against another tree near him, sipping at the tea he made and listening with half an ear to his pleasant, rumbling voice.
Before we knew it, the earth shook, causing us to drop our tea.
My first thought was that we were being ambushed by Earthbenders. It had happened to my uncle and I knew that it could happen again. I was immediately on my feet, ready to fight, whipping out my swords.
Strangely enough, nothing came out to attack us. I had half expected to find myself being surrounded by walls of dirt, or pummeled by rocks.
"Put down your swords, Zuko." Uncle said after he looked about with surprise for a moment. I glanced at him incredulously. He was asking me to put down my swords? Did he want us to surrender? I thought he understood just how precarious our situation was – we had seen that he could no longer count on a friend. After the debacle with the Rough Rhinos, we had been very cautious.
"I'm not going to surrender to Earthbenders." I replied with a soft growl. I heard a soft rustling of bush and held my swords, ready to attack whoever came through.
To my amazement, it was the petite dark-haired girl that I had seen when we and the Avatar's group had faced down my sister. She looked no older than the Avatar, now that I was able to pay more attention to her. Her hair hung in her face and I wondered if that bothered her. There were no shoes on her feet, which did not surprise me as Earthbenders often went without.
"Hello, Toph." Iroh called out in a soft and cheerful tone and I whipped around to look at him.
"You know this little girl?" I asked incredulously.
"Watch who you call little girl." the Earthbender snapped back, taking a step forward. She was of diminutive stature, but there was a sureness to her steps that contrasted sharply with said size.
"You have a lot of nerve barging on us like that and making the earth shake. Only little children would play pranks like that." I retorted hotly.
"Wanna say that to my face?" the girl snapped back as she came even closer. There was something odd about her eyes – I had never seen such a pale shade of green, but wait a minute, I had seen that sort of milkiness a few times before in Fire Nation. That sort of condition only happened with...
"Zuko, she is not here to harm us. And Toph, you will have to forgive my nephew. We have both been traveling for a long time and we're tired and not in the best of moods." my uncle offered kindly, interrupting my line of thought.
Not in the best of moods, I wondered to myself. What an understatement. Toph turned her head in my uncle's direction, although her eyes did not focus on him. Oh, right! I had seen that same whitish hue in the eyes of people who were blind.
"I am truly glad to see that you are still alive and well." she said, her voice changing from confrontational to pleasant. I lowered my swords but kept them on the ready, watching her intently. My uncle chuckled softly.
"Well, my nephew took good care of me. I credit my health to him." he said with a pleasant smile and my stomach twisted painfully. It did not matter how cheerful or kind my uncle was, I still felt guilty and very much at fault for his failing health.
"I knew he would." Toph replied dryly and my eyebrows furrowed.
"What did you come here for?" I asked bluntly.
"We had decided to stop for a rest and I felt you nearby, and we wanted to make sure you were not highway robbers or bad men. Then I recognized you, Iroh." she replied with a shrug, now staring off into the woods.
"And they sent you out by yourself?" I asked.
"No, no. They know I can handle myself!" she replied, waving her hand in my uncle's direction, 'I thought it best to come out alone and see him first."
The fact that my uncle was on friendly terms with a little Earthbending girl struck me as odd.
"Of course I am glad to see you again, Toph." my uncle said with a soft chuckle, 'Would you care to join us for some tea?"
"I would love to, but I need to tell the others first or they would think I had been ambushed or put out." she replied with a shrug.
"Of course. I would not wish to cause anyone any undue worry." Uncle replied with a small smile before letting out a short groan. I immediately made my way to him and so did she.
"Uncle, have some water." I said quickly, bringing out the canteen and offering it to him.
"Katara can help you." Toph said to him. I paused and glanced at her. My uncle took a few sips from his canteen and looked up at Toph.
"Can she now?" he asked softly. The girl nodded emphatically.
"She can heal with her Waterbending. I am sure that she can do something for you. I can feel your heartbeat." Toph said softly. Uncle glanced at her for several moments.
"Would she be willing?" he asked. She nodded and I remembered when I had knelt beside my uncle, fearing that he was dead, and the Waterbender had openly offered her help. Often I had wondered, when I saw my uncle in pain, how differently things could have turned out if I had not turned her away.
"I could go get her now and have her work with you." Toph offered.
"We have seen several herbalists and healers, and none of them have been able to help. What could a Water Tribe peasant do for my uncle?" I asked, not believing that she would want to help, not after I had turned her away. And she had no reason to want to – I had invaded her village, threatened her people, taken the Avatar hostage, and chased them across the globe.
"Watch who you are talking about!" Toph snapped, whipping her hand up and pointing at me, her finger only a couple of centimeters from my nose.
"Please, do not fight. Toph, please bring her back to me. Zuko, I know that we have been traveling for a long time, but that is no reason to take it out on someone who would offer help."
I bit back my tongue as the girl nodded and made her way back. I decided to follow her, and moved after her with stealth, keeping a good distance behind.
I saw the Avatar and his companions. Toph came and greeted them, then I saw her say something to the Waterbender and they walked a short distance from the group. I was unable to make it out clearly, but I was able to read their body language. The dark-skinned girl stood calmly, listening to the pale-skinned girl for a few moments before she stiffened.
Toph moved closer, raising her hands, perhaps in a plea or to make her point, and their discussion became more heated. For a moment I looked back at the boys. They were looking at a map and discussing something, so I turned back to the girls.
They had stopped talking for a moment, and the Waterbender stared at her companion for several moments. Then she slowly nodded something and mouthed what I assumed was a 'yes' or 'very well.'
Toph seemed very satisfied at that, and turned into my direction. I quickly turned around as well, making my way through the trees back to my uncle.
"They're coming." I said quickly, standing near him and readying myself should there be any chance for confrontation. The rustling of the brush and the snapping of twigs met my ears and several moments later they emerged. The Waterbender paused and stiffened as her eyes fell on me. I stared right back at her, saying nothing.
"Come on, Katara." Toph prodded, tugging on her hand, "Ignore him. There are more important things on hand."
I bristled at the command that I be ignored.
"Watch what you say, little girl." I snapped back. She suddenly stomped her foot and I was launched a couple of feet in the air when the earth under me thrust up. I yelped as I landed on my back.
"Call me little girl one more time and you will get a LOT worse than just that."
All I could do was let out a soft groan as I sat up, rubbing my back. Already the Watertribe girl was at Uncle's side, taking his pulse. She seemed to genuinely care for his welfare even though she had no reason to.
"Tell me what pains you." she said softly. Uncle placed his hand over his heart and she nodded.
"It has been hurting since that woman struck you with lightning." she said, and he nodded in confirmation.
"I did not even know people could bend lightning."
"It is a rare form of Firebending and very difficult to master – very few Firebenders are able to do it." he explained.
"If you would open your robe just a little so I can see your heart, and lay down please." Katara asked and Uncle gave her a brief nod, loosening his robe before laying down on the soft grass. The girl sat at his side, placing her hand over his heart.
"Take a deep breath and just relax." she asked and as he did, she closed her eyes and appeared to be concentrating. I remained absolutely silent. The other girl crouched on the grass and breathed very quietly, digging her toes in the grass.
No one spoke for a long while and I gazed at the dark-skinned girl and my uncle, ready to attack if she did something to hurt him.
"Your nephew did a good job of taking care of you. Your wound has been cleaned and taken care of. Without his attention you probably would have died." she whispered. Her words were little consolation to me.
"But I see the problem. Take another deep breath, and just relax. It's important that you do so." she continued before the sound of his deep intake of breath met my ears.
Neither of the moved for several moments, and all I could hear was breathing and the soft sound of the forest around us. I fixed my eyes on the unlikely couple before me, alert for any movement.
Her hand remained on his chest for several moments before she started moving it in slow circles. Her other hand joined the task and I wondered just what she was doing? Directing chi energy? We had already tried that and it had done nothing to help. My uncle stirred a little and I moved forward.
"Don't. She's here to help. Katara and I have no interest in bringing any harm to him, or you." Toph hissed softly, grabbing my sleeve.
The Waterbender moved her hand along his chest and shoulders, moving around, concentrating on the heart. My uncle stirred again and his hand raised slightly. I moved forward but was pulled back, and I glared at the person holding me back. How was she able to see? Why was she traveling with the Avatar? How was she able to navigate the woods without stumbling or tripping?
The Waterbender moved her hands along Uncle's chest in one final sweep before she took them away.
"There. You should not be having any more problems. I suggest that you take a brisk walk now to get the blood flowing, then you can rest again. Don't do too much for a couple of days, then you should be able to do what you usually do."
"See, I told you." Toph whispered with a smirk. I scowled again before turning back to my uncle. He got to his feet and straightened his robe before offering his hand to her. She looked a little surprised but took it and let him help her up.
"I shall forever in your debt." my uncle said, offering her a bow. She bowed back.
"You needed my help and I gave it." she replied demurely.
"If more people were like you, the War could be over already." Uncle said, and I saw a small smile grace her face. She has a nice smile, I thought. I blinked, surprised at that thought.
"If there is any way that I can repay…"
"Actually, there is." Toph piped up, and I looked back at her. Uncle glanced at her with a friendly smile.
"Then tell me, Toph."
"Aang has me to teach him Earthbending, and Katara teaches him Waterbending. But he has no one to teach him Firebending. And two teachers would be better than one, as he does not have much time left." she stated outright.
"You know, Toph is right. We need a Firebending teacher." Katara said as she turned to my uncle, "We cannot find anyone who would teach the Avatar, and we do not want to risk simply asking around. Right now, you are our best option." she said hopefully.
I knew my destiny was tied to the Avatar, but to hear it discussed so openly put me on the defensive. Especially when two girls talked of it so casually.
"I'm not going to let two peasants tell me what to do." I said bluntly, stepping forward.
"No one is telling you what to do, and I'm anything but a peasant!" the younger girl snapped out. Did she know nothing of tact, or being demure and ladylike? The older girl quickly put her hands out, appealing to both of us.
"We're just asking. We're not demanding. We would be grateful if you would help us. I know that Aang would love instruction, and he needs it. If you say yes, we welcome you to our group. If you say no…" she bowed her head.
"We're headed to Ba Sing Se." I said, pulling out a quick excuse.
"So are we." Toph replied dryly, "What are you afraid of? Me?" she asked with a smirk as she glanced up at me. Or at least, glanced as much as a blind person could...
"I think it is a wonderful idea, Zuko. What else can we do? We're fugitives from the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom." Uncle said.
"Do you have to state our business to people we do not even know!" I protested.
"We're not here to judge." the Waterbender said softly, taking a step towards me, "I did not heal your uncle because I sought payment. The choice is yours. All I ask is that you consider it carefully."
I backed away a step as I looked into her eyes. They were so gentle and beseeching and if I said yes, it would be admitting that she was right and I should take her proposal. My uncle stepped in, saving me from this.
"We would be honored to assist the Avatar."