Inarguably, the Avatar had a one-track mind. And tonight, it was all about the frogs.
Aang staggered through the swamp, stuffing frozen frogs into his tunic as he went and narrowly dodging arrows. "Aah! Augh! W-woah!" Fire Nation territory! He hated it - and he was afraid, not the sort of distant, constant fear of failure, of time working against him, but the heart-throbbing fear of imminent death.
So when he reached to hide the last frog in in his clothes and found his arm pinned to the trunk behind him, he looked up in a panic, his chest tight. They were no more than ten feet away - no time to airbend arrows travelling faster than even Appa at top speed. He bent the water in self-defense and sucked the heat out of it with a touch of air, depending on the ice to protect him - but he watched it shatter in horror. Before Aang could react, his other arm was pinned - and then a net snapped his entire upper torso against the tree, pressing his ear to the trunk too tightly for him to turn his head. There would be no bending his way out of this one.
Aang's heart pounded in his chest; he strained against the arrows pinning his arms and watched the Fire Nation sharpshooters from the corner of his eye. They approached warily, two keeping their arrows drawn on Aang while the other two lowered their weapons, reaching to do something to the net holding him down.
For the first time in his life, Aang found himself frustrated with the strong, good weave of his tunic. If the fabric was only weaker, it would have torn by now, and he would be gone--! Safe, and the frogs safe in his clothes, ready to be sucked until Katara and Sokka were healthy. But as he felt the net loosening - they had to release it to take him away from the swamp, after all - he drew a slow, steady breath.
The moment the net had dropped away from his face, he turned his head and exhaled, a gust of wind that flung two of the archers away and staggered the third one. The fourth threw up his arm, then reached out and cracked Aang on the side of the head, making the avatar see stars before shoving his hand against Aang's cheek violently, digging his face into the wood. Aang's ears rang with the impact, and he was dizzy. "Ugh ..."
"Knock him out," ordered a voice outside of Aang's sight range. "We were ordered to deliver him alive, but no one said anything about unscathed."
"You cowards!" Aang shouted, fueled by rage and fear at once (not at all eased by the revelation he was to be 'delivered' alive). But of course, it was to no avail.
It was, after all, all about the frogs.
Aang felt them starting to squirm and twitch against his stomach as he struggled with the chains binding him between two pillars. "No, don't thaw out," he moaned, but the frogs weren't listening; warmed by his sweaty skin and the fires Aang was hung between, they gradually revived. "Man, if I was an Earthbender already I'd be out of here," he grumbled. No time, no time; he had only months until next summer, and he could only barely bend water!
Did Commander Zhao really believe he was a master of all the elements? Didn't he believe that Aang could bend Earth, then? What was he doing in a stone room? Aang had seen Earthbenders create quakes with just their feet - but then, that was why he legs were bound as well. Stupid questions, Aang told himself. That didn't matter now.
Aang hung limply for a moment, his limbs shaking from exertion. He was exhausted, but adrenaline spurred him onwards; he was no longer afraid for his life, but afraid for his friends' lives. Hope, they say, blooms eternal; Aang was ever the optimist. Somehow ... faintly ... he believed he would escape, but he was against the clock once again - always against the clock. Commander Zhao had promised Aang life - to his own ends, yes, but life it was, for years to come. But Aang only had hours before he had to be at Katara and Sokka's sides.
Again he pitted his strength against the chains, straining. "Just a little," he whispered. "I just need a few inches ..." A few inches of give, and he could bend enough air to cut the steel. It was a few inches he didn't have, and now the frogs were crawling out of his tunic, scooting away on half-frozen limbs. "No! Stop thawing out! Stay frozen!" Aang urged.
That was when the door opened.
Aang looked up, fully expecting Commander Zhao, returned to taunt him some more, but the figure there was smaller, thinner - and masked fearsomely. Aang gasped.
How could he know this masked man was his savior?
"Are you here to save me?"
What a question.
Zuko wouldn't speak behind this mask. He was not Zuko, son of the Fire Lord now; he was a ninja, pitted against his personal enemy and tormentor: Admiral Zhao. And the esteemed Admiral (he scoffed internally) could not be allowed to have the Avatar before him!
Was he here to save the Avatar? No. He was here to mete out his own doom upon this - this child. It was just not the same doom that Zhao would bestow on him. But it was convenient that the Avatar believe Zuko - no, a masked ninja - was here to save him; he would cooperate.
He had freed the Avatar expertly, cutting the chains away without leaving so much as a scratch on the boy - not that it would have been terribly obvious if he had marked the child. His tunic was tattered and he was bruised; under his sleeves, his wrists were probably welted angrily. Zuko felt a low anger, but it was hard to say why. What did he care for the Avatar's condition, save he was still breathing? If he's winded, he'll have a hard time keeping up with me, he justified to himself. I need him in top physical condition for this exercise!
And what the heck was this obsession with frogs?
Zuko dismissed it, and once the frogs were out of sight, they seemed to be out of mind for the Avatar. They fled through the water ducts. The child seemed to have no trouble keeping up with Zuko, and his breathing was steady. Good. I won't have to carry him through this.
To Zuko's dismay, it seemed to be the other way around in the end.
The battle in the courtyard was furious, crazed like war always was. Zuko's pride would not let him admit it, but he grudingly thought that if he had been alone ... he may not have survived. The Avatar was nothing if not creative; stilts from Fire Nation seige ladders, a flying machine from bent air and a broken staff; he was ... impressive.
If I were half as powerful with Fire as he is with Air, Zuko wondered, but he cut off the thought before it was complete.
And when push came to shove, the Avatar became his Lotus Tile.
Aang swallowed hard against the blades at his neck, betrayed by the sudden reversal as his savior became his captor. He backed away obediently; the blades were sharp, and he felt them cut his jaw. What does he want with me? Why is he saving me only to - to capture me again!?
There were no answers forthcoming, and Aang did not dare ask.
He saw the arrow too late; he didn't know if he could blame it on exhaustion or fear, but the ifs would haunt him later. What if he had seen it in time - bent air to send the arrow on a different course? Where would he be now - the Fire Lord's chambers, a trophy to commemorate his victory?
Because the arrow that knocked his savior, his captor, to the ground, allowed Aang to identify him - and he was the Fire Lord's son.
Horror sent Aang scrambling back, and he turned to flee - but his conscience touched him then. No matter his intentions, the Firebender had saved him; didn't Aang owe him at least that much in return? His understanding of politics was weak (and his lessons 100 years ago had been hard), but he knew the Fire Lord's son would still be branded a traitor. Maybe he would die.
Aang turned back and slung the older man over his shoulder with a pained grunt - he was heavy! - and leapt into the branches of the nearby woods. He would have to make good his escape; he didn't think he could take those archers again.
They did pursue, but not for long. Aang was an Airbender first, and the Avatar second, at least for now, and an Airbender knew: retreat, escape, dodging - all these negative jins were their ally. He was an expert at fleeing, and it was still night; the Firebenders were at a disadvantage without the sun to aid them.
It was nearly dawn when, exhausted, Aang finally settled at the base of a tree. His limbs and feet ached from exertion; his ribs hurt, and his mouth was dry. Soon he would have to flee again; hours had been wasted, but there were still the frozen frogs to collect, and then the long run back to Katara and Sokka. Aang's night was not over yet.
One hundred years ago, this would have never happened. Aang would have been winded, but happy, slapping palms with a friend after pulling a hilarious prank. He would have been hiding from a irritated Master, not a furious Commander. One hundred years ago, the Fire Nation had only the inklings of a takeover in mind.
Today, Aang squeezed his eyes shut and hated the world.
The Fire Lord's son stirred. Aang lifted his head; the man's brows were furrowed. He would be okay, and the sun would help restore him.
"You know what the worst part is about being born over one hundred years ago is?" he asked his daily pursuer. "I miss all the friends I used to hang out with. I used to always visit my friend Kuzon; we used to get in and out of so much trouble together." He smiled at the memory. "He was one of the best friends I ever had. And he was from the Fire Nation, just like you." Aang looked down at his rescuer, who looked back at him - his expression was ... hard to read. "If we knew each other then, do you think we could have been friends too?"
Aang hoped. He feared.
And the Fire Lord's son rolled to a crouch with a gout of flame flying from his fingertips.
Zuko had never cared about the Avatar's intentions. The Avatar was the only being with enough potential power to stand against the Fire Nation, and that was all that mattered. No, not even that mattered; all Zuko cared about was his own lost honor, and only the avatar could restore that. This was Zuko's sole interest in the child.
He cursed himself for his hesitation at the Avatar's sorrowful words.
Could he and the Avatar be friends? Never! Zuko thought furiously, but as he watched the boy flee into the branches, bending air to lengthen his leaps, he felt a touch of …
He dismissed it with a sharp turn of his head. It was high time he returned to his ship. The Avatar was free to be chased another day, and Zuko was tired.
And he would never allow himself to think of the fate that would have awaited him if he had not been saved by the Avatar.
The whole night had started with frogs, and now it ended … with frogs.
Aang was no tactical commander, but he wasn't foolish enough to wander into danger twice in the same place. He lurked around the edges of the swamp for nearly half an hour, looking for archers or Firebenders, but there was no sign of them. Finally he retrieved as many frogs as he dared carry, departing into the woods towards his friends.
His return was slower than his departure. Weighed down by fatigue, aching limbs, and a heavy heart, he didn't run faster than the wind; he snuck like a lizard from place to place, until he was in relatively safe territory again. Only then he allowed himself to walk, plodding forward and releasing any thawed frogs on his way.
Somehow, Aang felt that he had glimpsed into the Firebender's heart that night, and it wasn't an evil one. He seemed … troubled, confused; buffeted by outside forces. He needs to meditate on his own heart, Aang thought with a slight smile. I wonder if Firebenders meditate at all. Katara doesn't, after all, so maybe it's a monk thing.
But Aang found peace, a center, when he meditated, and the Fire Lord's son … he needed that. I wish, he thought, but he didn't complete it. No use in wishing, and tomorrow the Firebender would be after them again. Commander Zhao would be searching; it was time to return to his friends so they could go.
The sun indicated midmorning before Aang arrived in their chosen cove; two frogs had survived the entire trip still frozen, and he stuffed them in Katara and Sokka's mouths before trudging to Appa's tail for some much-needed rest.
"Did you make any friends on your trip, Aang?" Sokka asked, still delirious.
Aang felt ill at the question. One hundred years ago … maybe I would have.
"No; I don't think I did," Aang sighed, and he turned over to sleep.