Notes: *Sigh* This is one of those chapters where I have to set everything up for what's to come. It's ~~important character development time! (Needless to say, stuff is going to GO DOWN after this. Trust me.)
I didn't travel across the entire world so you could tell me no!
~ Katara, The Waterbending Master
Every able bodied non-bending boy in the Northern Water Tribe was instructed in warrior skills. This was a time of war and young visitors from other tribes were no exception. So, at the first light of dawn, the Avatar and the three Southern Water Tribe teens woke and began to ready themselves for a new day of training: Aang and Katara were to attend their very first waterbending class. Meanwhile, Sokka and Zuko were to report to the instructor in charge of training the Northern Water tribe's warriors.
Zuko had been too keyed up to sleep very well the night before and awoke groggy, with dark circles under his eyes. He gave only monosyllabic answers, and couldn't bring himself to look at Katara directly the entire morning… He knew if he did, he would only see pity in her eyes.
It was only by the time he and Sokka were well on their way across the city – following directions by helpful villagers – and the northern arctic sun rose above the horizon, that he started to feel a little more awake, and a tad guilty for his bad mood. It wasn't anyone's fault he couldn't learn bending, after all.
Well, maybe Sokka's fault, Zuko thought uncharitably, watching his brother easily win over a young woman who was carrying a basketful of fish. She flashed Sokka a bright smile and pointed the way to the training grounds.
Zuko shook his head, and made himself brush the thought away. No, he had to be fair: it wasn't Sokka's fault either. Not really. His older brother was maybe a touch paranoid, but he was also smarter than people gave him credit for. Besides, even Princess Yue had agreed.
It would be best if no one knew him as a firebender. As much as it ate at him, he'd just have to accept it.
Zuko grit his teeth and shook his head again. This felt like giving up and he hated it. He hated it a lot.
Their first hour of warrior training found the two brothers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, ringed by the rest of the warrior-students. Their trainer, a bear of a man who introduced himself as Pulukar, paced around them both in a slow circle, eyeing each boy as if he were a particularly skinny arctic-yak for sale.
Finally, satisfied, Pulukar came to a halt and stood before them.
"Well then, you two look ready and willing. Which one of you is Chief Hakoda's blood-son?"
Sokka raised his hand. "I am."
"Then you'll go first. Grab a practice spear. You'll face me in this ring." The man paused and his lip quirked in a sardonic smile. "And we'll all see for ourselves how our sister tribe trains its men."
There was a scattered laughing and a little friendly rib-jabbing from the students around them. Swallowing nervously, Sokka grabbed a blunt-ended wooden spear, while Zuko obediently stepped out of the way. He glared around at the other boys, but was ignored.
Pulukar took up his own practice-spear. He didn't give Sokka a moment to prepare, and launched immediately into attack the moment he stepped back into the ring.
Caught off guard, Sokka gave a yelp of surprise. He ducked out of the way of the spear-point on pure instinct, backing up a few frantic steps and nearly into the wall of boys behind him. Sokka stopped short before he ran right into them – perhaps alerted by a new round of laughter and hooted calls from the students. He shot one startled look at Zuko over his shoulder, meeting in his eyes for a moment before he turned his attention back to the ring.
It had all happened in the space of a few seconds. Pulukar closed the gap between them in a flash, but this time Sokka was ready. He brought his spear up to clash and deflect the instructor's.
Pulukar grunted and slid his spear point at a sharp angle, using the momentum to stab at Sokka again, and again Sokka was able to deflect the blow – if only barely.
"What is he doing?" Zuko hissed. He took a half step forward, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Don't worry, Newbie," said a voice beside him. It belonged to a tall boy, a few years older than Zuko, with a thin nose and squared jaw. "Master Pulukar knows what he's doing."
Zuko almost, almost knocked the other boy's hand away. He could feel the flame of a lit torch not too far away, ready for him to use. The fire licked up eagerly at his command, and he narrowed his eyes as –
Another roar from the boys broke Zuko's concentration. He glanced just in time to see Sokka finally get a good jab in of his own. The point of the spear came at Pulukar straight on and the older man had actually had to slap it away hurriedly with the flat of his own practice weapon.
The training master backed up and Sokka pressed forward.
But now, with the initial surprise gone and his eyes clear, Zuko saw this for what it really was: just a spar. The training master was clearly testing Sokka, his own blue eyes flat and devoid of malice; only curiosity as he came at Sokka again with another quick attack – this time from another angle. He was methodical, Zuko saw, prodding at Sokka's defenses over and over again. His angle of attacks were hardly repeated. He was testing him.
Zuko glanced down at his own bare palms. He had torn off his mittens in preparation to firebend without even realizing what he was doing, and faint wisps of steam were curling up from his hands. Hurriedly, he pulled the mittens back on and then shoved his hands into the folds of his parka.
What had he been about to do?
His face burned, and he knew it had only been luck that everyone's eyes had been focused on the ring. Taking a quick breath, he held it and forced the fire back down to a dim coal inside his belly. Today he was a warrior, not a firebender.
After the initial attack, Sokka managed to hold his ground against the master. For each step back he took he repaid it with a flurry of somewhat flaily thrusts – more often than not regaining his footing.
By the time Pulukar stepped back, though, Sokka was panting. The old warrior didn't even look winded.
"Good!" Pulukar said, with a sharp nod. "You're obviously not afraid of improvisation. We'll have to work on your footwork, boy, but you have a solid start. Now you," and he crocked a finger at Zuko. "Your turn."
Zuko took up his own wooden spear and marched into the ring, not taking his eyes off the instructor for one moment. He didn't want to be caught off guard as Sokka had. Pulukar regarded the teen. His eyes narrowed only briefly before he struck.
The man was fast – faster than Zuko could have ever believed, and it took all of his skill to drive him away. He was kept on the defensive for the most part; never finding the opportunity to strike back as Sokka had, and by the time the training master called for a halt what felt like an eternity later, he had several bruises forming where the tip of the blunt-ended spear had struck his left side.
"Good," Pulukar said again. "How well can you see out of that eye, son?"
Zuko planted the butt of his spear in the snow and leaned on it, trying to catch his breath. He didn't have to ask which eye the man was referring too. Everyone always looked to the burn scars first. "Well enough."
The man grunted and stepped forward to take Zuko's chin up in one hand. "Follow my finger with your eyes only," he said as he slowly moved it from right to left. Zuko swallowed and did so, and after a few moments Pulukar nodded again. "It seems you do have some sight out of this left eye, but any enemy worth his salt won't know that for sure. We will focus on attacks coming from your left, so you will meet them with a surprise of your own, eh?" The master smiled – something wolfish – and Zuko grinned back, deciding he liked him, despite the surprise attack and the bruises.
Pulukar turned and barked to the rest of the gathered boys, "All of you grab up your spears and form up into two lines. These two Southern boys showed up most of you and we're going to be drilling until I'm satisfied we're all on the same level!"
The Warrior training class let out in the late afternoon, leaving both Sokka and Zuko exhausted, a little footsore, but satisfied. Sokka excelled in nearly every avenue of training that Pulukar had to offer, from fighting to fishing, until even some of the oldest boys were taking note. Zuko, too, had done well although he always seemed to be a step behind Sokka in everything.
It was hard – harder than he ever thought it would be – to simply refrain from firebending. Until now, Zuko had not realized how much he used it, how much it was simply a part of his life. Everything from calling up internal flame against particularly cold gusts of wind, to trying his best to clamp down on his temper while sparing. His hands tended to heat up when he was fighting, local cooking fires and torches flared up unexpectedly to high emotions, and he caught several very telling wisps of steam when he was pitted in one-on-one matches against a couple other warriors. Controlling all of that took concentration and focus away from sparing.
He faltered, and made stupid mistakes he shouldn't.
As they walked away from the training grounds, Sokka flashed him a sideways grin and without any warning at all, threw an arm around his neck and roughed his knuckles over the top of Zuko's head. Zuko yelped and pushed him away – a little more roughly than he had meant too - snapping, "What was that for?"
Sokka shrugged, unrepentant and grinning. "You're worrying too much. Just relax, no one noticed anything."
"How did you—" Zuko broke off his words with a shake of his head and went back to fixing his wolftail. "You saw the steam."
"Well yeah," Sokka said, as if it were obvious. "And the way all of the fires went a little crazy when someone showed you up. I'm your older brother, remember? I'm supposed to notice those things, but no one else saw."
"Not yet," Zuko grumbled, and kicked at a loose piece of ice. It skittered down the walkway and plopped into one of the canals. Seeing the splash reminded him suddenly of Katara, and for the first time in hours he remembered that she and Aang would busy waterbending today.
His mood darkened further.
They were crossing over the bridge of one of the main canals when Sokka paused, shielded his eyes from the glare of the setting sun, and stared down the length of the waterway. "You know… we don't have to go home right away."
"Why?" Zuko grumbled, arms crossed over his chest. There was nothing convenient to kick his feelings out along the bridge, so he settled for glaring at people who were walking by, instead.
"'Cause I think that's Yue's canal-boat, coming down the stream."
Zuko glanced quickly down the canal then to his brother. Sokka was still gazing out, with a hint of a smile on his face. Zuko looked away and cleared his throat. "Um, you know she's a Princess, right?"
"Yeah," Sokka said absently, as if he hadn't heard at all.
So Zuko tried again. "She's a Princess," he said, a bit louder, maybe hoping it'll get through Sokka's head. "She'll have duties. Suitors. Official functions."
"Well Dad always said that the hardest hunts yielded the sweetest meats."
Zuko resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. "That's not what I meant. Look, Sokka I don't think –" I don't think she's your type, he wanted to say. A proper princess is well educated and ruthless. She marries only the one who would best bring honor to her family, and bring her strong bending children. She—
… But that wasn't Yue at all, was it?
Swallowing hard, Zuko tried another path. "I don't think it'll end up well."
Sokka shrugged, but not once did his eyes come away from the slowly advancing canal-boat. "Who says I want to date her? Maybe I just want to get to know her?"
Sure. And maybe spotted seal-pigs would grow wings and fly over the full-moon.
"She's pretty," Sokka continued, and there was a wistful note in his voice.
Zuko glanced him again, and realized with a slightly sinking feeling that Sokka wasn't going to drop this. He was right – Yue was more than pretty, she was probably one of the most beautiful girl's Zuko had ever set eyes on.
And Zuko remembered, too, another pretty face – this one caked with stylistic makeup, and a hard, challenging smile. He hadn't thought of Suki in months. It already felt like a lifetime ago since they'd been to Kyoshi Island.
He wondered if he had that same look on his face when she kissed him as Sokka did now.
He let out a breath. "Okay."
"Okay what?" Sokka asked, and let out a startled "Hey!" when he turned to see Zuko walking away. "Where are you going?"
Now it was Zuko's turn to turn and flash him a grin. He didn't answer, just continued on, and by the time he was off the bridge and rounding the corner he heard Sokka calling out distantly to catch Princess Yue's attention.
Of course, it only occurred to Zuko once Sokka and Yue were well out of sight that he didn't exactly know his way back to the house.
Zuko sighed, crossed his arms again, and leaned against the side of a frost-coated building. It wasn't as if he at all anxious to get home, anyway. Not with Katara and Aang probably back already and still excited from their day.
He knew he was sulking, but couldn't bring himself to care. Maybe he could go find where Appa was stabled and pay him some visit – maybe warm his feed just the way the air bison liked it. It would only take a little firebending to heat up some mash, and if he was very careful—
Zuko pushed off from the wall and started walking purposefully to the direction he thought might be right, but he had hardly rounded the next corner when someone crashed into him, hard, and sent him sprawling backwards on his rear-end.
"Oof!" said the other person, "Why don't you watch where you're going, you big jerk—Zuko?"
He blinked. Katara was standing over him – she had not managed to fall at all, despite his greater weight – and was looking abashed, holding out her hand to help him up. He stiffly ignored it in favor of pulling together his own dignity and standing on his own. He looked around. "Where's Aang?"
Katara's face blanked for a moment, then her lips pressed together in a thin, angry line. "He's back, learning waterbending with everyone else."
"Sifu fussy-pants kicked me out!" she snapped, before he had time to ask. "He said there was a 'misunderstanding' and that this tribe doesn't let women waterbend."
Zuko went very still, and to his later shame the first thing he felt was… relief. Relief and vindication so fierce it felt almost like a new-kindled flame in his chest. He wasn't the only one to be denied learning how to bend properly.
Then he focused on Katara's fierce expression – how bright her eyes were with tears she wasn't allowing to fall, her pinched lips, and the frustration and hurt… and he felt ashamed of himself.
"I—" he started to say, but again Katara cut him off.
"All of the girls here learn healing instead of fighting, did you know that? They don't teach them proper waterbending at all, other than to wash clothes and do housework duties!"
But she was on a roll now. "They expect us to just sit by on the sidelines while all of the men do the fighting. It's ridiculous!" Katara brought both arms down in emphasis and with a thundering crack the ice-sidewalk under them split into two jagged pieces.
Zuko jumped to the side, safely out of the way. He looked at his sister, half-afraid to see her to burst into tears, but she was just staring at the jagged, broken ice, shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry," she muttered.
"No," he said, sharply, causing her to look up at him. "You're right. Katara, this place is… it's stupid! I saw female soldiers on Prince Iroh's ship. Even the Fire Nation allows their women to fight if they want to... " he broke off, shaking his head. "We don't have to stay here. There might be other villages in the North – there has to be more than one person to teach you waterbending!"
"I know," she said, softly. "But... what if there isn't? The comet is coming, Zuko. Everyone says Pakku is the best waterbending master there is, and he practically said he wouldn't teach Aang unless I left." She locked eyes with him. "And as much as I want this… Aang more important right now."
He grit his teeth and glanced away. She was right, although he didn't like it at all. "So what are you going to do?"
Katara sighed. "Pakku said there's a woman named Yugoda who teaches healing to the girls," she said carefully, as if trying to convince herself of the idea. "I was looking for her hut when I – uh, ran into you."
He winced and reached up to rub at the edge of his burn scar before he caught himself. The last time Katara had used waterbending healing on him it was to bend his memories back. He had been knocked unconscious for two days. "Maybe learning proper healing wouldn't hurt?"
Katara seemed to be caught between embarrassment and annoyance. Then she sighed again, rolled her eyes, and, after a swift glance to see if anyone was watching, bent a little canal water into the crack she'd made to reseal it. "It can wait until tomorrow," she muttered, and tucked her arm around his. "Let's go home."
Dinner was a joyless affair that night. Zuko and Katara were both in morose moods, respectively, and it wasn't long before Aang trudged in, unusually downcast. Apparently Master Pakku had been less than impressed with his new student.
"He keeps saying I'm moving the water, but I'm not feeling the 'push and pull'. What does that even mean?"
The only one who had a good day was Sokka. He practically skipped through the door, all grins, and flopped down on the scattered soft-hide pillows and blankets in the middle of the room, announcing that he and Yue had agreed to an, "Activity" of some sort tomorrow night. Zuko thought about asking what sort of activity Sokka meant, but then glanced at Aang and Katara and thought twice about it.
Finally, Sokka noticed their moods. "What's wrong?"
"Master Poophead won't teach Katara because she's a girl," Aang answered.
"Oh." Sokka paused, considering. Then, "Why don't you just teach her, Aang?"
There was a beat while Katara, Zuko and Aang all stared at each other. A grin grew over Katara's face. "Why didn't I think of that?" She sat up and faced Aang. "You learn waterbending during the day and at night you can teach me and Zuko whatever moves you learned from Master Pakku!"
Zuko's heart tripped a beat and came back, racing. "Do you think that will work?"
"I don't see why not. Jeong Jeong said you needed to learn from a waterbending master. And this way Aang has people to practice with. Everyone's happy!"
Aang, Katara and Zuko crept out an hour after night fell in order to let the busy streets empty. Katara led the way – she was almost walking so fast in her excitement that poor Aang had to nearly jog to keep up.
There was a gap in the close buildings, a square promenade with a large watery pool carved into the ice to allow the canal boats an easy docking and turnabout. Katara marched to it at once, barely glancing up to the empty bridges above. "This is a good place," she announced. "Lots of room to practice. Let's get started."
Aang grinned and knelt down to bend some water into a blue globe between his hands. "Okay, Master Pakku said this move was all about sinking and floating…"
Something caught Zuko's attention. It was pure luck – he had been concentrating on the tiny flame incased in a nearby street lamp and had been considering pulling the fire from that source rather than generating the flame himself. The moment Aang started speaking, however, the flame flickered – as if it had been disrupted by a small current of air.
Zuko's hand snapped out, catching one of Aang's wrists and the globe of water fell with a splash, soaking their boots.
"Wait," Zuko squinted up to one of the bridges. It seemed the moment he focused, whatever it had been – stopped moving. Was that a shadow he saw, hovering between building and bridge? Or a person?
Katara put her hands on her hips. "What are you doing, Zuko? This is my only chance to—"
The distant flame flickered again. Whatever it was up there had shifted again. Only slightly – enough to disturb the air.
"I think we should visit Appa," Zuko said, louder, over Katara's voice. He caught her gaze, held it and then looked up. She followed, frowning, but Aang seemed to have caught the mood as well.
"... I guess," he said, still unsure.
They moved away reluctantly, Zuko doing his very best not to glance repeatedly over his shoulder. He only spoke again when they had moved near a well-lit canal, several streets away. "I think someone was spying on us."
Katara blinked. "Why would anyone do that?"
"Why do you think?"
Her mouth opened, then closed again as she thought it over. Then she scowled. "That is so rude! I can't believe they don't trust us."
"Weeellll," Aang said, hesitant. "I am teaching you behind Pakku's back."
"That's not the point!" Although Katara never elaborated on what the point actually was. She remained in a foul mood the rest of the walk, and once they reached Appa's enclosed private stable, she viciously flung ice at the closing doors, sealing them closed. "There," she said, satisfied.
The stables were less than ideal: Appa had his own building, slightly set apart from nervous arctic-yaks and yapping polar-dogs. But it was small comparatively small, just large enough for the sky bison to be able to turn around and rest in a bed of dried sea-hay. Zuko, especially had to be careful not to set any of it on fire. But with the doors iced shut, unless someone melted their way in using waterbending, there was no way they could be observed.
"Okay Aang," Katara said, walking over to Appa's water-trough. She made a motion with her hands and withdrew a globe of water. Zuko reluctantly conjured a bit of his own fire, reluctantly deciding it would be too risky to pull from any other source with all the flammables lying around.
"You were saying something about sinking and floating?"
Momo gave a chirp of warning seconds before a polite knock sounded on Price Iroh's door. Iroh glanced up from his charts and then to his little companion. "It is still early for the cook to bring our supper," he murmured before calling out, "Enter."
The door opened and his First Lieutenant, Izhar entered. "Ensign Yow in communications received this scroll via message hawk ten minutes ago, my Prince," he said and placed a sealed scroll upon his desk.
The Prince's eyebrows lifted at the insignia stamped upon it – the royal mark – before he broke the seal and read the message. His expression darkened.
"I see. Please return and order the crew to cut the engines and run up a signal flag."
The Lieutenant bowed again – and Iroh wondered at passive, incurious expression on his face – and left.
Once the door had shut Iroh gave a sigh and reached for his tea, finding it cold. He glanced down at his work; the most up-to-date charts he could purchase of the Northern Water Tribe's stronghold, and sat back in his chair, contemplating.
Sensing his mood, Momo gave another chirp and hopped lightly to his shoulder, tail winding around Iroh's neck. Iroh reached up and pet him, almost absently.
"Only a fool would accuse my brother of being less than ambitious," Iroh said to himself, to the lemur… or perhaps to no one at all. He glanced towards the port hole and the sparkling cobalt arctic sea out beyond. "But this is a most inconvenient time to make his move."
Alarm claxons sounded less than an hour later, and Prince Iroh sensed more than heard the a sudden flurry of activity from his crew. The sun was setting now; throwing the sky into brilliant orange and the sea a steely gray, and his eyes were not sharp as they used to be but as he glanced out his porthole he made count of at least thirty ships along the horizon – and there were probably more lined up beyond that.
It was an armada, and if the message-scroll was accurate, one headed by a fourteen-year-old and a recently disgraced commander.
Iroh narrowed his eyes in thought. Perhaps some of his stock of spiced-chamomile tea, then. Best to calm the mind and soothe the mind.
He did not come up on deck to be on hand to greet the flagship. Even in his best years as Dragon of The West, he had little use for formalities.
Besides, while he was still first in line for the throne, his niece would have to come to greet him.
She arrived shortly after the cook delivered Iroh's fresh pot of tea. His first reaction as Azula was bowed in by Lieutenant Izhar was surprise, followed by sadness.
Azula had grown into a lady every inch as lovely as her mother. But her eyes… those were of a dark amber, calculating and merciless. It was like seeing Ozai stare out through Ursa's face.
Although that in itself was nothing new.
"Princess Azula," Iroh greeted, not rising. "It is an unexpected pleasure to receive a visit from family in this part of the world. Please, sit."
Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but it was just for a moment and he was certain that if he'd not been watching carefully, it would have been missed. She sat, forgoing the tea.
"It couldn't be that much of a surprise, Uncle. Surely, you received the message-hawk."
"Yes, and it brought to me word of your mission." Iroh glanced meaningfully out his porthole and to the rest of the fleet. "So, you intend to take the Northern Water Tribe by force."
"By force or by persuasion." She shrugged and laced her fingers together; Iroh noted the slight bit of black at the tips. Residual soot perhaps? Surely, Ozai had not taught her lightening at this age?
Azula continued, "The Fire Lord has ordered me himself to bring in the Avatar and the traitor soiling my brother's name."
And that, for Iroh, was the crux of the problem. Foolish boy, he thought, heart sinking. If only Zuko had listened to reason and come with him…
"Your brother," Iroh corrected gently, not allowing any of his inner disquiet to show outwardly. "I've seen him with my own eyes and there is no mistake. "Your brother lives, my niece. He is lost, hurt and very confused… but he lives."
A small, humorless small curved her lips. "Whoever he is, my orders are to arrest him for treason."
Yes, Iroh thought, sadly. This was the day he knew had been coming. He had known it from the moment Prince Zuko joined with the Avatar when he escaped his ship.
He sipped at his tea for a moment, thinking, before setting down the cup. "Then I will join you, as your official consultant."
"There is no need for that, Uncle," Azula answered coolly. "This is my mission. I have everything under control."
She had not so much as reached for her own teacup, but Iroh laid his fingers along the edge anyway, rewarming the liquid. "That was not a request," he said, voice gentle. "Do not mistake me for an old fool, Azula, or think Fire Lord Azulon will accept any failure in your assignment. I am offering my assistance."
Her chin lifted – there was no fear in her eyes, only that same poised calculation. "Very well."
Iroh allowed himself a smile before reaching to unroll the charts of the North Pole– older ones, this time. Not the newer, more current ones he had purchased. "Then let us begin."
At that same moment, several hundred miles to the north, Zuko let out a horse bark of laughter as Aang's sinking and floating moves went a little wild, and he splashed himself with water.
Zuko's own fire, on the other hand, hovered passively six inches under his spread hands, in exactly the same shape and height as Katara's water globe. They shared a look, and read each others expression in their eyes.
They had traveled literally across the world, faced too many obstacles to count, and finally, finally they were learning.