Dawn once more, and as usual he was in his element—both literally and figuratively. He was pretty pleased of late. Even he could recognize the evolution of his technique and style in the last weeks. For years he'd been filled with rage and shame and a dark need to make himself worthy to his father. Now, filled with a calm fire of equal determination, spurred by the drive to help Aang and make the world the place it should be rather than the Fire Nation's lies and cruelties, that will showed up in his bending in startling ways. Everything seemed easier, and less urgent and desperate. He no longer came out of practice near tears or filled with a sense of his own failure.
Once more, he went through the beginning of the Rising Phoenix form, slow and steady. Move like Toph, the idle thought flitted into his head, after having watched the petite earthbender at work thanks to memories of Uncle's urging him to observe other ways nagging him. It took a few moments to realize the rightness of it, and it hit him.
He'd secretly wondered why Uncle had demonstrated this form to him in those days back in the wilderness of the Earth Kingdom. Sure, it was difficult, an ancient form that was beautiful to behold. But that was maybe the problem; it was more like a dance than anything. Certainly he'd thought back then that forms like he'd seen demonstrated at a Fire Festival would be better to learn how to fight Azula: ones like Comet's Fire or Chasing the Dragon, with their explosive, aggressive moves.
So now I can do a pretty dance before she kills me, he'd thought sullenly, trying to first movements of Rising Phoenix. He'd consoled himself that it was a master level form, and any progress was good news. And then he'd quickly lost any condescension when he couldn't do the damn thing. He could hardly say it wasn't worth his time when he couldn't even perform it correctly. In the end, between bouts of heated frustration, it was one of those things he mentally filed under "Uncle's Weird Life Lessons", though he couldn't figure it the point of it back then.
Now it came to him with crystal clarity, Uncle Iroh's gravelly voice saying in his mind, "It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others—the other elements, and the other nations—will help you become whole."
Taking the first stance, he performed the first movement, some part of his mind detached and now really seeing it sharply through new eyes, connecting the moves he now made to what he'd seen from Toph, and Katara, and Aang in the last weeks. Not the same thing exactly: the moves were re-interpreted and mingled with elements of firebending rather than staying true to the actual original source. But he could recognize the origins now.
The first movements of the newborn phoenix were small and compact, and the stance firmly grounded…earth, solid and strong
As the phoenix grew bolder, moving into larger movements next, the motions blending continuous one into another...water, flowing and mutable.
Then with the first test of the phoenix's wings, starting to turn in jumping spirals, the arms following likewise…air, free and light.
Then finally the flurry of airborne kicks and strikes as the firebird took to the air…fire. But not the raging, aggressive destruction he'd learned as firebending. This, he realized, was its twin; fire as an expression of pure energy and exuberance and life. True firebending, he thought with some awe.
That was the meaning of the form; the harmony and balance of the elements working together the way they were meant to. The four as one, and shown as the phoenix, the symbol of fire as hope and peace. It crossed his mind, standing there on the clifftop with the sun-warmed earth beneath his bare feet: How did nobody figure this out? What it teaches, what it means, it's…almost subversive
The answer came to him almost immediately. People don't see what they don't want to.Rising Phoenix was a dying form, and for those who saw it, had they dismissed it as he had? Seeing it as just a pretty dance, an archaic oddity; ill-suited to the iron warrior's way that was the life of a firebender these days?
The epiphany was strong enough that he unconsciously glanced over his shoulder, almost expecting to see Uncle Iroh to be there watching him. Despite the fact that rationally he knew it was impossible, it was still a crushing disappointment to see the empty space, to not be able to tell him his discovery. Everything the old man had tried to tell him in the last years, the gentle encouragement, the cryptic lessons…it finally all made sense.
"I understand," he whispered to his uncle's shade. "And when I find you…" Even if Iroh never forgave him, at least he could let the old man know that his years of patience and trust hadn't been in vain.
Soon enough they realized the time had come to leave; supplies were running low, and the comet was arriving in less than two weeks. Plus, it was only a matter of time before the Fire Lord's troops decided to check the Western Air Temple. The month of idyll had been a month of precious time for Aang to train and for the battle plan to form. And though he didn't admit it to them, it was more than he imagined they'd get when he had first come here.
It was startling to see them emerging from the temple dressed in the various reds and black of the Fire Nation. Necessary, now that they were out of their hidey-hole again. He gave them a lot credit for having the wits to use the disguises successfully for weeks on end after Ba Sing Se.
There was a little consternation at covering Aang's head tattoo—as he tried to not butt in, he heard something about the Avatar previously having had hair that had hid it before for the most part. Katara, as ever taking charge, finally managed to use a dark red silk sash to make a sort of odd-looking headscarf.
"If anyone asks, say it's a burn scar," he finally offered wryly. "Trust me—it'll stop them prying further. It's considered rude." He was too familiar with that idea. People always politely pretended to ignore his own massive scar, although he knew enough now to catch the quick initial flash of pity and horror in their eyes.
So, loaded up on Appa, who gave a gusty sigh at the weight on his back but gamely carried them anyway, they left the temple behind. As he glanced around the saddle at the others, he saw that he wasn't the only one looking back a little wistfully. Things had been calm and almost happy there, his squabbles with the rest of them notwithstanding. But from here on in, it would be almost straight into the fire.
Late in the afternoon, they landed on the rocky shores of the coast of the island of Hanzhi, having spied the town of Dao Shun in the distance. "Big town," Zuko commented when he sensed the others looking to him as the Fire Nation native for an opinion, a sense of trust which both pleased and startled him. "It should be easy enough to hide out there for a day or two while we keep making plans."
"We'll need to get supplies," Katara voiced wearily. "And we're down to five silver coins and four bronze now. That won't buy much."
"You had to buy the stupid dragonhawk," Sokka grumbled loudly to himself. "Twenty gold and the thing never came back."
"I could always try and find a dice game," Toph offered. "Make some quick cash that way."
"It's too risky this time," Katara argued, although the note of disapproval he expected wasn't quite there. "We can't get caught."
"You may be right," Toph admitted with a sigh.
Well, at least here was another opportunity to help. He reached into his rucksack, tossing Aang a fat pouch of coins. "What's this?" The airbender loosened the drawstring. His eyebrows shot up at the gleam of gold bright in the sunlight.
He couldn't help a slight smile. "That's a donation for you that I took from the royal treasury." He'd had the suspicion they'd be low on funds. And it had been so simple to ask a servant to go get him some money from the royal coffers, ostensibly to go wandering the market.
Sokka beamed. "You know, you're not so bad when you're on our side."
"Thanks." Katara gave him a nod of acknowledgement. He couldn't quite say they'd become friends, but they at least had some level of respect by now.
Leaving the air bison hidden in the bamboo forest, happily crunching on the undergrowth, they covered the few miles to town fairly quickly. Along the way, Katara started listing their supply needs—he thought that she'd have been a formidable quartermaster—and firing questions his way on the likelihood of availability and prices.
He found himself discussing it with her, suggesting new ideas and possible substitutions, and before he knew it they'd arrived at the gates. He could hear that market day was in full swing in the merchant's street, the massive yammering din of dozens of people calling out their wares, haggling back and forth, trading insults about the quality and each others' ancestry. After weeks in the quiet contemplation of the temple, the sound of civilization was startling.
"Hey, that's the same symbol that was on Master Piandao's gate," Sokka said, face screwed up in a quizzical expression.
"What?" He stared at the delicate white lotus painted on the sign of the inn at the entrance to the merchant's street. Turning on his heel, he demanded, "You're sure?"
Taken aback, Sokka nodded, fishing in the pouch at his belt and flipping something small his way that Zuko instinctively snatched out of the air. Looking down at his palm, he saw the white lotus painted on the wooden face of the Pai-Sho piece. "He gave that to me when I left his house. Weird souvenir; I don't play Pai-Sho."
And he was flooded with memories of Uncle's desperation to find this tile that time they'd encountered the pirates, and being bored in a flower shop in the dusty reaches of the Earth Kingdom…he suddenly was mentally kicking himself for not paying better attention that day.
"Aang," he said, hoping against hope, remembering the massive Pai-Sho table at the Western Air Temple, "d'you know how to play Pai-Sho?"
Aang nodded eagerly. "Monk Gyatso and I used to play three, four times a week. I wasn't great, but I was getting better…"
"Good." He handed the piece to Aang, closed the boy's hand over it. "Then we're gonna go play." Glancing towards the inn, he hoped that this worked. If nothing else, he thought with a snort of amusement, he could offer to serve meals for a few days in hopes to earn level of some confidence. Spirits knew he was capable of that, at least.
Five minutes later, Aang sat across the massive Pai-Sho board from the proprietress, Keiza. She eyed them with an impassive expression as Aang hesitantly plunked the lotus tile in the middle of the board.
"The white lotus," she said nonchalantly. "You favor the old ways, then, child?" Now he could see layers of possible meaning in that innocuous phrase: the old ways, before Sozin?
"Oh, for the love of…" He rolled his eyes and decided to cut through the prelude and the half-hour of play if at all possible. Plus, he admitted he had little clue of how the pattern went, so many months later. "Mistress Keiza," he gave her a formal bow; politeness never hurt. "This is Sokka," he nodded to the Water Tribe boy, "who was given this tile by Piandao of Shu Jing. I'm Zuko, and Iroh is my uncle." Belatedly he hoped that the Fire Nation members of the White Lotus knew each others' names. "I'm…ah…pleased to greet a member of the White Lotus. Neither Sokka or I are actually initiated, but I think my uncle hoped that…" He hoped a lot for me. And I failed at every turn.
Mercifully it seemed to work. Some glimmer of humor sparkled in her eyes at his boldness. "And from what I hear, this then is the Avatar. Very well, Prince Zuko, Avatar Aang. What can the White Lotus do for you and your companions?"
Katara ventured to speak up. "We're sort of wanted here in the Fire Nation…"
"Somewhere to sleep for a night or two," Aang said politely. "We can pay," he shot Zuko a grateful look, "and for food as well."
Keiza nodded briskly, turning with a swish of her robes. "That I can do for you; would that there was more." As she gestured them to follow her, her hand fell on Zuko's shoulder suddenly. Startled, he turned to look at her. "You and your friends aren't the only ones seeking refuge here, Prince Zuko."
"Uncle?" The word tore out of his throat painfully, half-choked.
She nodded. "He has been here several days now. He's been visiting our members across the Fire Nation…"
He didn't hear the rest, as he pushed past the others and hurried for the stairs. Opening the sliding door of the first room a crack and finding it empty, he moved on.
Three doors down, he finally saw the familiar figure meditating in the glow of sunset. "Uncle?" he whispered, his heart in his throat.
Iroh turned and stood, and the first thing he registered was how fit and lean he looked in his red and black garb, seeming fifteen years younger and full of power. This was the Dragon of the West, the scourge of Ba Sing Se, a man ready for war: not the comfort-loving old man he'd sometimes scorned for the last few years. "You've…you've changed," he said stupidly, the words slipping his lips.
"Nephew," Iroh said with a polite nod, his expression impassive.
That settled it. Well aware that his friends must have been only steps behind him, not caring about humiliation, he threw himself at his uncle's feet, bowing until his forehead almost touched the floor. "Uncle, I'm sorry…you were right, everything you tried to tell me…I was too stupid…"
A thousand words fought within him to be said. You were right about my father all along, he loathes me, tried to kill me. And you saved me by showing me to redirect lightning. I paid the price for what I thought I wanted, and it's not who I am, not at all. I'm meant to follow Roku's path, I know it. And I have, I've joined the Avatar and given him all the help I can. I've been foolish and angry and blind, but Iknownow…
Voice shaking, he finally managed something that might explain it all. "The Avatar, Uncle…he's a firebender now. I taught him."
"He is?" Uncle murmured with interest.
Still staring miserably at the swirling grain of the well-worn floorboards, he made one last try, finding some words. "I'm sorry. You've been my father in every way that mattered. I told him that. I came to set you free, but you were gone."
Waiting, his heart pounding in his ears, he was aware he was trembling with his emotions. If his uncle sent him away, it might kill him. He couldn't help but think back three years, bowing in submission to another man whose forgiveness he so desperately wanted.
His father had hit him across the face with his burning hand, disciplining him with a slap like a wayward child, but far more cruelly. This time he felt a hand on his shoulder and dared to look up, and saw Uncle Iroh kneeling as well, looking at him with an expression he had never seen before. Pity, worry, fondness, love, exasperation, frustration, yes.
But this…casting around for the word, he could only term it as respect. It was the spark of one man's respect for another, and gratitude and relief washed over him as he knew that while he wasn't a man yet, in just a few months he'd grown up greatly in his uncle's eyes.
Despite his clumsy words, it seemed Iroh understood. "They're my family now…them and you." And as he said it, he knew the rightness of it. He'd acknowledged Iroh as being more a father than Ozai, and it seemed he was forgiven. But now, the rest of it came to him. Gentle and clever Aang, sarcastic and brave Sokka, wise and wry Toph, and even prickly but caring Katara: they'd rightly disliked him to start. But eventually they'd drawn him in, teased him, shared their food, their hopes, and their dreams, and made him one of their own. They'd become far more siblings to him than Azula ever had been.
And now that Iroh seemed to forgive him, he was more at peace than he ever had been. Never mind the coming battle where he'd have to face his own father and sister, wrenching as he knew it would be. Never mind the years of rebuilding struggle that might come afterwards. He felt whole for the first time in his life, and that was enough to face anything that could come.
Iroh gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Then," his voice cheerful, "why don't we go have a cup of tea downstairs with my new nieces and nephews? Mistress Keiza has an excellent white-and-lychee. And I'm sure you all have much to tell me."
He laughed, halfway between humor and tears of relief to see that some things with Uncle hadn't changed. "That sounds good."
A/N: At present, this is the last chapter I have planned for "Rising Phoenix". It was originally intended as a series of discrete ficlets, each serving to show a relationship between a character and Zuko that grew and changed after he joined the Gaang. And in some sense, it's shown a little of Zuko's own spiritual evolution as a result. It's fulfilled that purpose, and to continue really would change the theme and tenor, so I think I'm wrapping this one up. However, for those who enjoyed this, I'm likely going to move on to other Avatar projects; I'm already at work on a one-shot occurring after the final battle.