Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything related to it.
Sitting on a small raft, he floated in the middle of a vast ocean. No matter which direction he looked, there was no land in sight. He was alone in the midst of an eerie silence. Without wind, the raft was not moving. He was getting nowhere…
Zuko opened his eyes and sighed. He didn't sleep well again despite the fact that he had slept in the most comfortable bed with the highest quality silk sheets the Earth Kingdom had to offer. He was living in the palace of Ba Sing Se after all. How long has it been since he was last surrounded by such luxury? Nonetheless, none of it gave him much comfort.
It took effort just to drag himself out of bed. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he went over to the window and drew back the curtains. The sun shone brightly and the sky was as blue as can be. However, nature's beauty was completely lost on him, for although his eyes looked out the window, Zuko was focused on the thoughts within. Today's the day…
It's been a week since he aided Azula in the takeover of this city. A week since he had redeemed himself. And this is the day, by orders of Fire Lord Ozai, that Iroh was to be beheaded for his acts of treason.
In the huge square just outside the palace, at the base of the long stairway leading to the palace doors, a temporary stage had been set. On a normal day, this area would be closed to the public. Today, however, was a special occasion. The gates of the outer palace walls were opened, and the citizens of the great city of Ba Sing Se were permitted to gather and witness the shameful death of the Dragon of the West.
Standing in the midst of the crowd, he pulled the hood of his cloak over his forehead some more to ensure the tattoo on his head remained hidden. Aang knew full well how dangerous it was for him to be here. He had only barely been able to escape with his life the last time, all thanks to Iroh. If Iroh hadn't stepped in, he…and most likely Katara as well…would have died that night in the crystal caves. There's no way he could just walk away and leave Iroh here to die. Aang was determined to return the favor. Much to his relief, his friends all agreed with him on the matter.
He looked around to make sure he didn't lose sight of Toph or Katara who were also hiding amongst the crowd. While Katara had taken up position not too far from the stage, Toph, like himself, was further back and more towards the middle of all the people. It was just the three of them this time. Sokka was charged with the task of taking the Earth King to the Northern Water Tribe for protection. They had hoped he would be back in time for this, but luck wasn't on their side.
At the top of the stairway to the palace doors, Azula sat leisurely on the throne. She had it brought out for her just for this event. After all, it wasn't everyday she gets to display her ruthless strength by overseeing the beheading of her own traitorous uncle. She intended for this to be an example to the world. Anyone who crosses the Fire Nation will suffer the consequences, no matter who they were.
Before long, Iroh, shackled at the wrists, was brought out to the stage and forced into a kneeling position. The crowd hushed as the executioner took his position behind the retired general. With both hands on the hilt, he raised his sword high above his head. However, before he had a chance to swing it down, the executioner felt a searing pain in his own hand, forcing him to drop his sword and yell out in pain. When he looked, he was horrified to find that an ice dagger had pierced through his hand. Katara had made her move.
Toph immediately sprung into action, bending a sizable chunk of earth into the air then slamming it back into the ground, crumbling it to create a cloud of dust. Aang, his cloak now shed, leaped into the air and used airbending to spread the cloud over the entire square as cover. Mass panic ensued as people scrambled and screamed. The condition was perfect.
Using his glider, Aang made his way over to Iroh while Toph and Katara held off all surrounding guards who were actually lucky…or unlucky…enough to make it through the crazed crowd. The girls made short work of their opponents. Most were launched into the air via Toph's earthbending to land in the manmade waterway running through the square where they'd be frozen in place by Katara.
Azula watched as the chaos unfolded before her, not in the least bit surprised. In fact, she had been waiting. Raising her arm up in the air, she gave her signal.
At that, Mai, Ty Lee, and a number of Yu Yan archers appeared at various points atop the outer palace walls, effectively surrounding the entire square. As soon as the Avatar jumped onto the stage, the two girls issued their orders for the archers to fire. Arrows planted themselves all around Aang's feet, coming from every direction. Even through the dust and distance, the archers' aim was that close.
As Aang made his way to Iroh, dodging and deflecting arrows, another figure suddenly jumped onto the stage out of nowhere. It was the Blue Spirit. The two stood frozen in a moment of shock and recognition as they caught each other's eye. Then the young monk noticed something slightly different about the other. His mask is green?
Aang didn't have much time, however, to contemplate on that minor detail as the rain of arrows around them quickly brought him back to the task at hand. Blue or green, it is definitely "him" under there. "Cutting shackles is more your specialty. I'll fend them off."
With a pair of broad swords drawn in his hands, the Blue Spirit merely nodded, and they went about their tasks. Aang deflected all incoming arrows with the airbending-enhanced swings of his staff. Unfortunately, it also cleared up much of the dust cloud surrounding the stage.
When Azula saw Iroh being cut free by the Blue Spirit, she decided it was time for her to intervene. Getting into her stance, the princess called forth her deadly lightning and aimed it at the Avatar.
Katara heard the sizzling sound of electricity before she saw it. In that panicking split second, fearing the recurrence of a not-too-distant past, all she could do was scream the boy's name. "AANG!!"
The young monk barely had time to react when the Blue Spirit stepped in. Absorbing the lightning with one sword, he channeled the energy through his body then whirled around just in time to point his other sword up towards the palace as the lightning rushed out.
There was an explosion as the lightning struck and chunks of the palace walls and roof collapsed. Nearby guards scattered and Azula retreated back into the palace, only to be trapped within by the fallen rubble.
Just then, Katara spotted Appa as the flying bison swooped in from above. She pushed through the frantic crowd to get to her friend. "Toph! Sokka's here. Take us up!"
"About time," the blind earthbender complained. Then with a stomp on the ground, the two girls were raised thirty feet up atop a stone pillar. Spotting them immediately, Appa came and they jumped into the saddle.
"Took you long enough!" Katara yelled at her brother.
"Give me a break! The North Pole isn't exactly around the corner!" Sokka tossed something to his sister. "Here's your refill."
Katara caught it and smiled as she hung it around her neck. It was her pendant, now replenished with more water from the Spirit Oasis. "Thanks!"
Sokka steered Appa over to the stage where Aang and the Blue Spirit immediately helped Iroh get on. Aang then jumped on himself and turned to give the Blue Spirit a hand, only to see the masked man bolting off in the opposite direction. Without thinking, Aang leaped off to pursue.
"Aang!" Sokka called after him. "Where do you think you're going?!"
"Head out! I"ll meet up with you later! And watch out for those archers!" With that, the boy disappeared into the crowd.
"What do we do?" Katara asked with concern.
The Water Tribe boy sighed in exasperation. "We have to move. Appa, yip yip!"
It was a long, LONG chase through the upper, middle, and lower rings of Ba Sing Se, fending off guards at various points in time. Aang thought it a miracle he never lost sight of his target. Somewhere along they way, they'd managed to make it out of the inner as well as the outer walls surrounding this great city. Now they found themselves running through a forest.
The young airbender clutched the fabric at his chest as breathing became difficult and his lungs began to hurt. Even though Katara had healed the near fatal wound Azula had given him with water from the Spirit Oasis, it will take more time and rest for a full recovery. As he was now, overexertion takes a toll. He knew it was impossible for him to catch up, so he did the only thing he could…
The masked man stopped in his tracks. For a moment, he remained still. Then slowly, he removed his mask and turned his head slightly but would not meet the boy's eyes.
Seeing that Zuko wasn't going to run, Aang slumped to the ground and tried to catch his breath. To his surprise, the prince spoke.
"He's an old man, but also one of the best benders alive. Take care of him, and I'm sure he can provide you with something you require."
Suddenly, it dawned on Aang what Zuko's intentions were. But this only led to a whole string of other questions. "What about you? What are you going to do? Aren't you still out to get me? If you leave your uncle in my care, then what—"
"I got what I wanted," Zuko cut him off. "I won't bother you anymore, but you should be aware of Azula. Just do me a favor…don't tell him it was me."
Aang frowned in confusion. "Why?"
Because I don't deserve any credit…I can never make amends. Zuko said nothing, keeping his thoughts to himself as he began to walk away.
"If you really got what you wanted, why do you look like the world just came to an end?" the younger boy asked in a barely audible voice. Then he perked up as a though came to him. "Um…hey, Zuko! Remember the question I asked you the first time you came as the Blue Spirit? You never gave me an answer."
With his back still turned, the older boy replied, "You should stop dwelling on pointless things. This isn't a hundred years ago. And with any luck, it will be best for the both of us if our paths never cross again." With that, Zuko left.
Aang got back up to his feet. Sadly, he turned and retraced his steps.
It was now late evening, and Aang finally made it back to his group who had set up camp in the forest somewhere on the other side of Ba Sing Se. Everyone was seated around the campfire when the boy approached.
Sokka jumped to his feet, relieved to see his friend return unharmed. "Aang! So, did you find that Blue Spirit guy?"
Aang shook his head, depression written all over his face. "No."
"Ah. The masked man with the swords, correct?" Iroh inquired.
Katara nodded. "He saved Aang's life once, but this is the first time the rest of us has seen him." She frowned in thought. "I wonder who he is?"
Aang averted his eyes.
Iroh stroked his beard, taking in the conversation. "I see… I shall have to thank him one day. But first, please allow me to show you my gratitude." Clasping his right hand over his left fist, he bowed his head. "Thank you, young Avatar, for saving this old man's life today."
Aang responded in kind. "That's not necessary. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here right now. I should be thanking you."
"In any case, we like you, Wise Guy," Toph added with a smile. Then she stood up and stretched her arms out. "Well, I'm beat. I think I'll turn in early." With that, she wandered off to find a nice smooth spot to pitch her earth tent.
The Water Tribe siblings soon followed her example and headed off to get some much-needed sleep.
Aang ate his dinner with Iroh keeping him company. They conversed about various trivial things with subjects ranging from 'how Aang found Momo' to 'what makes a good cup of tea.' Now that he was finally able to get a good look at Iroh, Aang noticed how much slimmer and fatigued this whole ordeal has left him. He may be powerful, but at his age, the hardships of imprisonment must have been more difficult to endure. Not to mention the additional emotional burden of being betrayed by the one he cared most about.
Aang's thoughts drifted back to the things Zuko said in the forest that day. "What do you plan to do, sir? We can certainly drop you off somewhere if there's a place you'd like to go. But I think it would be best if we stayed together since the Fire Nation is after all of us."
Iroh nodded. "That would indeed seem wise. If you and your companions will have me, I have no objections."
"We'd love to have you! Toph, especially." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "As a matter of fact…I still need a firebending teacher. Would you be willing to teach me?"
The old firebender contemplated. "What will your course of action be from here on, may I ask?"
Iroh listened intently as Aang explained everything about the comet, the solar eclipse, and his time constraints. Then stroking his beard, he thought it over some more before finally giving his reply. "I understand the urgency you're faced with. But…if you would indulge this old man…there is another I would like to recommend for the task. Please give me three weeks' time. If this individual still doesn't…come around by then, I will fulfill that part for you. You have my word." He bowed his head slightly to show his sincerity.
It didn't take long for the boy to figure out who this "another" person had to be. So, he forgave Zuko's betrayal and hopes still for his return…
Aang thought about his own feelings and how he, too, had harbored some sliver of hope that the banished prince would be the one to teach him firebending. The fact that Zuko was there at the South Pole the very day he was released from the iceberg, deep down, Aang had always felt that it had meant something. It was more than just coincidence. Of course, their countless hostile encounters had served rather well in changing his mind on the matter, but he would be lying if he said his hope didn't return the night Zuko saved him from Zhou's clutches, no matter how selfish his reasons were for doing so. Then with everything that's happened since, especially at the fall of Ba Sing Se, he figured that was it. He'd simply been delusional.
But running into Zuko again that day, Aang felt something was…different somehow. He couldn't quite explain it. Perhaps it was just instinct? In truth, he had wanted to ask the prince to come with them. It was why he chased him so relentlessly. But after hearing Zuko's parting words about never wanting to cross paths with him again, Aang knew he would only be ridiculed if he asked. Now that he thought about it, he realized how silly it was. Why would Zuko take him up on his offer now that he had a place with the Fire Nation again?
After a long, drawn out silence, the young monk sighed dejectedly. "I, too, have been hoping…"
Iroh looked from the boy up to the stars. "It is all we can do."
A/N: Hi all! I actually started working on this story a while ago, but I wanted to make sure it would go somewhere before I upload anything. I currently have 40+ typed pages of notes outlining the whole thing. So, I figured it's probably safe to start writing it out now. LOL! Hope you like! Reviews appreciated. Many thanks for reading!