A/N: This is an AU ending to the first season episode "The Blue Spirit". I was a bit surprised to find that no one else had done something like this before.

Anyways, enjoy!

Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender. Nor do I own the small chunk of dialogue lifted directly from one episode.

Phoenix Rising

Chapter One: The Avatar and the Thief

His teeth were gritted almost painfully tight, his lips pressed together in a line so thin all the blood had been squeezed out, leaving them white, devoid of color. One hand grasped the other in a relentless grip until he thought he felt the tendons in his hand creak. Those were the only outward signs of his agitation and one had to be looking closely in order to spot them. The stiff set of his shoulders and razor-straight back was a natural position for him.

Admiral Zhao watched the scene unfold from the tower. He watched the masked thief slink backwards unchallenged, pulling the Avatar with him. Ten steps further along the path and they were going to be lost to the darkness and the mist. That wouldn't do. No, not at all. They had to be stopped. He was the first Fire Nation officer of any notable significance to actually successfully capture the Avatar and he was not going to let the brat get away so soon. No, the Avatar was going to enjoy his stay with the Fire Nation even if it killed him.

But Zhao would much prefer to hand the Avatar over alive. Maybe not necessarily in one piece, but at least him being alive meant that they wouldn't have to begin a search for the new Avatar. If he was able to deliver the Avatar to the Fire Lord... He could only imagine the prestige he would receive; the honor...

He, Admiral Zhao, was going to succeed where many others -- Prince Zuko included -- had failed for the last century.

He was going to capture the Avatar and assist the Fire Lord in winning the war once and for all.

"Do you have a clear shot?" Zhao asked with the barest glance to his left side and the quirk of an eyebrow.

The Yu-Yan archer merely drew back the arrow and lined up his target.

"Knock out the thief." Zhao instructed calmly. "I'll deliver him to the Fire Lord, along with the Avatar."

Down on the path, Aang was making no move to actively escape. He could feel the sharp, cold steel blades grazing the skin of his throat with every step and his imagination whirred into gear, supplying him with images of those blades slicing into his exposed neck. He cursed his imagination for being so vivid sometimes. The made-up images of his own grisly demise made his blood run cold and the fact that it was very much a possibility didn't help in the slightest. He had to assume that his captor/savior had a contingency plan in mind.

Aang hoped that it consisted of letting him go.

The screaming whistle of an arrow slit the previously silent night air. Both captor and captive heard it, but neither had the chance to react properly. The only thing that was heard next was a sharp, tinny clang as the arrow head collided dead-on with the metal mask.

The arrow had rocketed by so close that Aang had felt the breeze against his scalp. The presence at his back vanished as the thief fell away, the twin blades falling from a loosened grasp, one just barely scratching his neck. By the time Aang had turned around, the thief had hit the ground in a senseless heap. The ties of the blue mask had come loose in the fall and a good half-inch of skin had been revealed. Despite himself and his current situation, Aang peered curiously at the exposed skin, wondering who it was that had saved him and/or captured him. Other than Katara and Sokka -- both of whom were out sick -- he couldn't think of anyone else who would risk their necks to pull him out a Fire Nation stronghold.

There was a patch of discolored skin, like a burn scar. He had seen something like that before a number of times on his visits in the Fire Nation. More specifically, he had seen them on Firebenders-in-training who had been too careless and had gotten themselves burned. His old friend Kuzon had one such scar on his leg from a time when a hot coal had escaped a tipped brazier and Kuzon had had the misfortune to trip and land right on it.

Aang only knew of person now who had such a scar on their face in that particular location.

No way...

He had to see... He had to make sure that it really wasn't--


Acute pain erupted in Aang's shoulder and he cried out, staggering but maintaining his footing. His hand came up reflexively to stem the blood he knew was going to be coming out and he almost cried out again when his fingers encountered the shaft of an arrow; the head and two inches of the shaft buried into the flesh of his shoulder. Dammit, he had been standing still too long.

It's those crazy archers who ambushed me back at the river! He thought, annoyed and dismayed all at once. He tried to ignore the pain that was shooting through his shoulder and down his arm and concentrate on his new situation. Well, they gotta see me to shoot me.

Aang raised his other hand to whip up a cloud of dust, to give himself the cover to get away. But a second arrow dropped unseen from the night and went right through the back of his hand. The force behind it yanked his body down and pinned his hand to the ground.

His scream was more than just reflexive this time.

Up in the tower, Zhao scowled and rounded on the Yu-Yan archer, who had nocked another arrow in preparation.

"I would like to deliver him to the Fire Lord undamaged!" the admiral snapped angrily. "But all the same." Zhao added with a non-existent shrug, his mood turning on a dime. He was a step closer to his own little victory.

"Recover the Avatar!" he ordered of the soldiers. "Be certain that he won't escape!"

There was a flurry of activity as his command was quickly obeyed. There was very little room for error this time. They would get it right or it would be their heads.

"He's not going anywhere this time." Zhao said to himself with a smile that could make little children cry.

Pinned in the road, Aang tried his hardest to free himself. His legs were twisted under him, having been facing forwards before this and he couldn't quite get them in proper positions to rise to his feet. On top of that, his injured hand wouldn't cease moving and pain continued to shoot up his arm. His fingers twitched spasmodically against the cold ground, blood welling around the arrow shaft and slipping down to the dirt.

He could feel the beam of wood through his flesh. Every instinct told him to get rid of the foreign object lodged in his hand and try as he would, he couldn't get a decent grip on the arrow with his right hand. His right arm felt heavier than normal and it simply wouldn't obey his brain's commands.

"Freeze!" came the semi-discordant shout from Fire Nation soldiers. A dozen or so wickedly pointed spears came much too close to the vulnerable points of his body for his comfort. He couldn't so much as twitch without getting a tip jabbed into him.

"You're not getting away with this!" Aang shouted defiantly, glaring up at the Fire Nation soldiers that had encircled him. He was very painfully aware of the sort of position he was in. His left hand was all but useless now and he couldn't move his right arm without damaging his shoulder further. He glanced to his right to see if the masked thief was stirring, but if he was, he gave no sign and continued to lay there uselessly. Aang grit his teeth.

"You won't get away with this!" he reiterated. "Just you wait! I'll--"

"Shut up!" one of the soldiers growled. He flipped the spear around to the blunt end and rammed it mercilessly into the Airbender's skull. Aang's field of vision skewed sideways as white-hot flashes of pain surged through his head. He saw the men standing before him move closer. Then, with the distinct, but odd feeling that he was falling -- because he really wasn't going anywhere -- a velvety darkness took over and he was then dead to the world.

"The Avatar," Zhao looked from one limp body to the other. "And a thief. Today must be my lucky day."

Both the Avatar and this mysterious masked thief were tightly bound from elbow to wrist and knee to ankle. The Avatar had been gagged to prevent him from using any sort of Airbending. They may have never dealt with Airbenders before this, but they were learning fast. If he had done nothing else, Prince Zuko had provided them with valuable information on the right way to tackle the Avatar.

It was the same really, for any other Bender. The trick was to prevent them from utilizing their element and they were essentially helpless and the captor could do with them as he pleased. Some Benders relied too heavily on their ability to manipulate an element. Zhao liked to think that he wasn't one of those people.

The admiral stooped slightly to examine the Avatar and began to wonder what they had been so worried about.

The Avatar was just a little boy. There was nothing remarkable about him. The arrow tattoos were the symbols of the Airbending Masters, the shaved head that was traditional for the Air Nomad monks (only with a bruise darkening reddish-purple over a small portion) and the red-orange clothes the old texts had said were also traditional for the Air Nomads.

They looked so silly.

It was like the Avatar was nothing more than a little boy playing dress-up. He was supposed to be the most powerful Bender in the world, but yet here he was, unconscious and captured. He was untrained, undisciplined and oh so naive. He had essentially walked right into their hands.

"How was it you were able to escape detection for one hundred years only to be caught now?" Zhao asked, but that was the thing about unconscious people; they never replied. He moved on to the thief instead.

"It's time to found out who you are, so that I can give the Fire Lord your name." the admiral said to the black-swathed person. "We'll need one to put on your headstone."

He ripped the blue mask off, revealing a familiar face and a familiar burn scar over the left eye. A collective gasp rose up from the gathered soldiers and one of them dropped a spear.

"It's Prince Zuko!" one hissed all too loudly. Someone shushed that person.

A deeply set frown appeared on Zhao's face. Prince Zuko had slipped past their guards in an attempt to free the Avatar. No doubt he had done it for selfish reasons, but it didn't change the obvious fact that he had tried to deny the Fire Nation a great victory. And that was treason.

"Dress the Avatar's wounds and then take both him and the traitor-prince back to the ship." Zhao ordered the guards. "I want them in lowest cell of the prison hold. Make sure they are securely bound and will not be escaping. We will leave for the Fire Nation at dawn."

The soldiers nodded and away they went with the Avatar and the banished prince. Zhao turned to his scribe, who had been standing nearby the whole time.

"My previous order still stands. I want a full copy of my speech sent to the Fire Lord along with the note that we caught a traitor." the admiral said. "Send it with a black ribbon directly to the Fire Lord's chamber."

"Yessir." The scribe bowed and hurried away.

"You." Zhao turned to a nearby soldier, who straightened so quickly his back cracked. Zhao cringed; he hated hearing people pop their joints. The soldier bit back a slightly pained groan but kept to attention.

"Take some of the others and find out where the Avatar was hiding." the admiral instructed. "Find his friends. Find his bison. And kill them. Leave no survivors."

"Yessir." The soldier bowed and left to carry the orders.

"Sir," One of the lower-ranking officers leaned towards him. "What of Prince Zuko?"

"The Fire Lord will decided his fate. I will go to the prince's ship myself and inform them of his treason." Zhao said, his arms behind his back. "They will be returning to the Fire Nation with us."

The officer bowed and Zhao turned to look over the parapets again and into the dark, foggy night. To think that the Avatar had nearly escaped into that fog with a traitor. The admiral had always known that one day Prince Zuko could prove himself to be a traitor, but maybe not quite in this way.

Zuko had never been a proper prince; always speaking out of turn, never knowing when to shut his mouth and show respect where and when it was due. The Fire Lord hadn't whipped the boy nearly enough. Ursa had always gotten in the way, finding a loophole to get Zuko out of punishments. That damn meddling woman. She had made Zuko weak. The future Fire Lord was not supposed to be weak and yet he was.

At this rate, Princess Azula would make a better leader than her worthless brother. Princess Azula, at least, was in the Fire Lord's favor. She would probably end up succeeding Ozai. Zhao could see it. He could see Azula on the throne, keeping an eye on the Fire Nation homeland for her father. Fire Lord Ozai would be traveling, looking in on the single mighty nation he would create. And he, Admiral Zhao, would be in charge of the entire navy, controlling its movements and keeping the other continents in check.

There was no reason to deny excellent leadership where it was seen, after all.

Zuko was too weak to rule a powerful such as the Fire Nation, never mind the rest of the world. And Zhao would personally see to it that everyone would know that.

He turned sharply on his heels and left the tower. It was time for him to return home.

And he would return to triumph of the entire Fire Nation.

The lingering traces of the storm had passed, leaving a cool, misty morning behind. The sun was rising a pale gold on the eastern horizon, casting a steady glow across the iron-clad decks of the small battleship. The wind was brisk and light, prompting anyone above decks to keep moving, to keep themselves warm. It was a morning that practically begged to be enjoyed. And still, General Iroh thought he could smell something foul on the breeze.

Nevertheless, it was still a beautiful morning and not one to be wasted. Iroh moved his way slowly through a series of stretches in the early dawn. He was not as young or as spry as he used to be and he probably couldn't take on three dozen Earthbenders by himself anymore, but there was a benefit to keeping himself limber. If he couldn't fight head-on, he could at least dodge any flying rocks. Or anything else his opponents opted to throw at him. He had gotten everything from flaming balls of pitch to children's toys hurled at his person. The latter could be very painful, though not necessarily life-threatening.

When his stretches were complete, Iroh settled down for a good cup of jasmine tea. It was a shame that his nephew did not appreciate the simple pleasure of a properly-brewed cup of tea. It was more than just boiled leaf juice; sheer sacrilege to call it that! No, a good cup of tea was more like a mystical experience; like a little glimpse into the spirit world. When presented with a proper brew, the combined flavors should relax the drinker; to calm them and wash away their troubles for an hour or two. Nothing more, nothing less.

Tea was meant to be enjoyed slowly, at one's own pace, so Iroh was a bit displeased when his peaceful moment was disturbed by the arrival of Admiral Zhao, accompanied by four guards.

"Admiral Zhao." Iroh didn't particularly like the man, but he was always polite. "Would you like a cup of tea? It will do wonders for that tic you seem to be developing in your lower jaw."

Zhao didn't comment on the twitching muscle. He was well aware of it.

"General Iroh, where is Prince Zuko?" he asked with a forced politeness.

"I don't know." Iroh admitted. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen his nephew since last night. "He asked me not to bother him for the rest of the evening and retired to his room. If he did anything else last night, I was not aware of it." The old general smiled. "All I can tell you is that he missed music night. Lt. Jee sang a stirring love song." he added with relish at the memory.

"I don't care!" Zhao shouted, slamming the flat of his hand into the low table. "All I want to know is whether or not you've seen that nephew of yours lately."

Iroh held back every scowl, grimace, swear or otherwise unkind facial expression and spoken word and instead leveled a pleasantly puzzled gaze. He had already stated that he had not seen Zuko since yesterday evening, yet his nephew had to have done something to incur the anger of Zhao. Aside from merely existing, that is.

"Admiral Zhao," He blew gently on his tea. "Has my nephew done something to anger you?"

Zhao stiffened minutely at the old general's blasé attitude towards this. Granted, Iroh obviously had no knowledge as to what had occurred last night, but he could at least show a little concern! Oh, Zhao was going to enjoy telling Iroh all about this.

"Yesterday evening, the Yu-Yan archers were successful in capturing the Avatar." Zhao started, beginning to pace a steady circle around the old man.

"Oh, that's good news." Iroh said with false relief. Deep down, something twisted hard.

"In the late hours of the night," Zhao went on, hands clasped behind his back. "A masked thief infiltrated the fortress and attempted to free the Avatar. The escape attempt wasn't successful, however. The Avatar and the thief were both apprehended."

There was a predatory gleam in the admiral's eyes that Iroh didn't like. Zhao bent his back so he was face to face with the old general.

"Imagine our surprise when the masked thief turned out to be none other than Prince Zuko himself."

That same something deep down gave a harder twist and the high spirits that Iroh had been enjoying melted away like the mist.

"That is where your nephew has been all night." Zhao finished, straightening up. He turned around, showing his back to the old general. How easy it would be to plant a fireball or a knife right in the middle of that back. But Iroh would not bring himself to descend to that level. He did not like taking lives unnecessarily.

"This ship is now under my command." Zhao announced, more to the crew members who had come topside for some fresh air. "Our beloved Prince Zuko had shown his true colors by committing treason and he will be returning to the Fire Nation in chains."

This was followed by a volley of confused murmurs and a great deal of head-scratching. For exactly how long and for what reason was their prince considered a traitor? What had he done to deserve such a label? It was common knowledge that Zuko had managed to offend just about every Fire Nation official in one way or another over the last three years with his impulsive actions and selfish desires, but he had never done something so bad that he would be considered a traitor. His pride in his country and his heritage was too strong.

"I expect the entire ship to be ready to depart within the hour. We are going home." Zhao finished, sending a bone-chilling smirk over his shoulder before striding away, the guards clomping after him obediently.

"I will be counting the seconds." Iroh muttered with a glare at the retreating man's backside. He reached for his tea again, but the serenity of the morning and the delicious taste of his tea had been soured by Zhao's foul disposition. Iroh tossed the contents of the cup over the side.

He would lying if he said that he hadn't seen something like this coming in one form or another. Zuko had always been brash and headstrong -- a good trait to have in moderation -- but in a country like the Fire Nation where children were meant to be seen and not heard, such traits were bound to get him in trouble. The neglect from his father, the vicious teasing from his sister and the absence of his mother -- the absence of unconditional love combined with the almost harsh approach Fire Nation parents had to child-rearing had turned Zuko into the angry and likely confused teenager that he was now. And an unwillingness to talk caused him to lash out in other ways.

Zhao was a very dangerous man. He had the air of a cold and calculating villain who never hesitated to be brutal when the situation called for brutality. He was the sort of man who killed whoever got in the way of his goal without giving them a chance to step aside.

And Zuko had crossed him in the worst way possible.

Now, the Fire Nation had the Avatar, Zuko had essentially become a traitor, and this was the year Sozin's Comet would return to the heavens. This was the year the war would end and it the only people who were going to benefit would be the Fire Nation.

Iroh took in a deep breath and wrinkled his nose in disgust. There. He knew that he had smelled something foul on the breeze.

There was a deep, slow pounding all around him, like the beat of a drum, and for a moment, he panicked. Someone else would hear that! They would find him! But the longer he listened to it, the more aware he became. He realized that the pounding was actually in his head. He was the only person who could hear it. He had nothing to worry about. But that other sound... What was that? It sounded a bit like the footbridge that connected the Airball arena to the rest of the Temple. It was old thing, always creaking on its support struts if too many people stomped across it at the same time. The monks had always meant to replace it someday, but they had obviously never gotten around to it.

But this was a cleaner sound than the ones that bridge had made. This was the creak of metal. It was all around him, above him, under his head--

Oh, his head... It ached. He could feel a lump the size of a chicken's egg -- or larger -- throbbing on the side of it. He groaned softly, the sound seeming unnaturally loud, giving him the impression that he was in a large room and when he managed to drag his eyes open, his vision only confirmed what he had already guessed. He was lying in a large, dim room made of metal. There was no ornamentation save for two lamps hanging from the ceiling, rocking back and forth. Judging from the pressure on his arms and legs, he was securely bound up in heavy iron chains. Oh, and he was gagged too.

But that wasn't the worst part. This room smelled vaguely of fire and smoke and burnt things. This was a Fire Nation ship. And that meant he had been captured.

Aang proceeded to spit the gag out. It took the combined effort of his lower jaw, lips, and tongue and a clever bit of Airbending, but the piece of cloth eventually ended up in a loose ring around his neck. That accomplished, he tried to sit up, but that was quickly waylaid when his shoulder flared with pain. He bit back a shout that came out strangled instead and hunched over, forehead pressed into the floor as he waited for the pain to fade. Such a simple contraction of muscles awoke the other pains that had been hiding and Aang became very aware of the burning pain right through the palm of his left hand. He remembered the arrow and he had the horrible feeling that it was still there. His hand twitched. Nope, the arrow was gone. But the pain remained.

"So... You're awake..." said a soft voice from somewhere behind him. He knew that voice. He had heard it enough times before, usually shouting at him in barely contained anger or telling him that he wasn't going to get away.

Steeling himself for the pain that was going to come, Aang turned over, gritting his teeth the whole way, and looking for the source of the voice. It was sitting over there as far from the Airbender as it was currently possible to get, hunched over so that his face was in shadow.

"Uh... Z-Zuko?" the Airbender asked uncertainly, trying to remember if that was the guy's real name or not. All this time in his head, Aang had been calling him 'that crazy prince-guy from the Fire Nation who keeps chasing me around and trying to capture me and it's getting really, really annoying and I wish he'd cut it out'. Though not in quite so many words.

"You're probably wondering why I did that." Zuko said in that same soft voice. It had a defeated tone to it. He didn't look at the Avatar.

"Um... Yeah, I guess I am." Aang admitted, shrugging as best as he could, a look of curiosity plastered across his face. Zuko didn't say anything, staring at the floor as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world.

"Why did you try and rescue me?" Aang prompted, wanting to know the reason. Knowing what he did of the Fire Nation prince, it was probably going to be something weird and twisted.

"I wasn't going to let Zhao have all the glory of capturing the Avatar." Zuko replied with the undertone of a growl. "If you're going to be captured, it's going to be on my terms. No one else's."

"Nice to you know you care." Aang muttered with a deadpan expression. Not a very weird reason, but he had gotten the 'twisted' part right. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe I don't want to be captured? I just want to go to the North Pole and learn Waterbending. It's what I'm supposed to do."

Zuko didn't respond to that. He glared at the floor as if it had wronged him somehow.

"So why are you tied up too?" Aang wondered, noticing the length of heavy chain that had been wrapped around the Firebender's body. Zuko looked away, evidently deciding that the floor wasn't good enough to be glared at anymore and chose the nearest corner as the better candidate.

"I'm just as much a prisoner as you are." Zuko said in a low voice. Hatred was bleeding through his tone, but Aang had to wonder. Hatred at what? The Fire Nation prince seemed to hate everything.

"Why's that?" the Airbender asked curiously. Then he remembered that Zuko had tried to free him from a Fire Nation stronghold. The answer was obvious enough. "Ooh... right. Y'know, if you hadn't tried to free me, you wouldn't be in this situation right now. And... neither would I." he added, realizing that that probably wasn't making Zuko feel any better about their respective predicaments. If Zuko hadn't come along when he did, Aang probably wouldn't have stood a chance at getting out. Unfortunately, the effort had been made in vain, because here they were.

They didn't speak for a little while after that. Aang was constantly searching for conversation topics but Zuko didn't seem like the type one could strike up a conversation with. Anyways, Aang didn't know what topics he could bring up without tripping over some past event that would be especially sore for the prince. The rumble of the engines prevented it from being too silent at least. Aang had pressed his ear to the wall of the ship and if he listened close enough, he could hear the faint slosh of water. The ship was in motion. That wasn't good. The only thing that seemed to be running in his favor currently was the fact that Katara and Sokka were waiting for him to return and when he didn't, they would know that something was wrong. But they were still sick and he had never gotten those wood frogs to them. He hoped that they were going to be okay. They had to be. They did have Appa with them. And Momo. Appa and Momo would take care of Katara and Sokka. Right now, they were probably wondering where he was. Heck, he didn't really know where he was either. He hoped they would figure out what had happened to him. And as soon as they got better, they would come to the Fire Nation and rescue him. Yeah, he was going to get out of this for sure.

"Are you alright?" Zuko asked suddenly.

Aang jumped when the silence was broken and looked up, puzzled. Instead of staring so fiercely at the floor like he was trying to burn a hole through it without using Firebending, Zuko was looking at him, his face expressionless.

"You're injured." Zuko elaborated. "Are you alright?"

"Eh... It'll heal." Aang assured him. He had managed to forget about the pain until the Firebender had brought up his injuries. "How 'bout you? You okay?"

Predictably, Zuko broke eye-contact and resumed his attempts to bore a hole in the floor with his eyes alone.

"I've lost everything. My home, my kingdom, my honor... I'm going to be thrown before my father in chains and branded a traitor for the rest of my days. I never meant to be caught trying to free you and now I'm going to pay for it. The Fire Nation is going to forget that they even had a prince. My name will be taken out of the books. I'll be nothing."

Aang blinked a few times and his mouth pulled downwards in a frown.

"Sorry I asked." he muttered and sought to change the subject. "So... We're going to the Fire Nation."

"Where did you think we were going?" Zuko asked, a little bit of acid leaking into his voice.

"Um... A happy place?" Aang offered, unable to think of a better answer.

Zuko's single eyebrow edged upwards. Aang wondered if that eyebrow ever got lonely.

"You're implying that the Fire Nation isn't a happy place?" the Firebender asked, seeming to take interest in the conversation for the first time.

"I wouldn't know any more." Aang said with a half-shrug. "I haven't been there in one hundred years. For all I know, all the volcanoes could have erupted in one big explosion and killed all the plants and stuff and you guys had to rebuild on top of it." A nostalgic smile lit up his face. "I remember the trees. You don't get big trees like that up in the mountains. And the fire lilies. The mountain lilies are pretty too."

"You won't see any of that where we're going." Zuko deadpanned and Aang frowned again. Talk about a killjoy.

"What's gonna happen when we get there?" Aang asked, curious despite an inkling that he didn't want to hear the answer.

"We'll be presented to the Fire Lord." Zuko replied, beginning to glower. "He might make a speech. And then we'll probably be thrown in the prison tower."

"Maybe me, but what about you?" Aang asked. "I mean, you're the prince, right? You're family. Wouldn't he--"

"He won't." Zuko interrupted firmly and that was the end of that line of thought.

The silence hung long and uncomfortable for many moments. Aang squirmed in his bonds. Though the monks had taught him that stillness and patience was an important part of being a Bender -- right up there with knowing when and how to strike -- Aang had always found it difficult to hold still and keep quiet for any extended length of time, even in sleep. His old room-mates at the Southern Air Temple had informed him that he was one of the most active sleepers that they had ever seen. Katara and Sokka had never commented on that. Probably because Sokka was even louder and Katara was numb to it.

His friends... He missed them already.

"Y'know what the worst part about being born over one hundred years ago is?" Aang asked suddenly; his turn to break the silence. "I miss all the friends I used to hang out with. Before the war started, I used to always visit my friend Kuzon." Another smile laden with nostalgia appeared on his face as the memory of a black-haired boy radiating glee and a mischievous streak a mile wide bubbled to the surface. "The two of us; we'd get in and out of so much trouble together. He was one of the best friends I ever had." Aang made sure he had Zuko's attention for the next part. "And he was from the Fire Nation, just like you."

There was no look of shock, but Aang had not expected one. He was starting to figure Zuko out.

"If we knew each other back then, d'you think we could have been friends too?" the Airbender asked hopefully.

A few hours ago, Zuko might have scorned at such a notion. Him? Friends with a pathetic Airbender? Hah! As if! But now... Now, he wasn't so sure. He was on his way back to the Fire Nation in shame. No one was going to dare meet his eye. Maybe not even his uncle.

Uncle... Zuko felt like he had been hit over the head with a block of ice and there was a sick plunging feeling in the pit of his stomach. What is Uncle going to say?

He agonized over this for a few seconds, but it felt much longer. Iroh had been the only person to respect him for who he was since his mother had left. Iroh was the only person Zuko had always felt he could trust; the only family member he felt any sort of attachment to. He liked the old man and now he had betrayed what little trust there was. He wasn't going to have any friends among the people of the Fire Nation. They wouldn't associate themselves with a traitor like himself.

He looked up to find the Avatar's still-hopeful gray eyes blinking owlishly at him.

"Get some rest." Zuko instructed brusquely. "We still have a long journey ahead of us."

And with that, he closed his eyes and settled against the bulkhead, trying not to think about the fate that awaited the both of them back in the Fire Nation.

The messenger hawk had at last reached the final leg of its long, exhausting journey. It had flown this route before and it swooped easily into the shaft that led directly to the Fire Lord's throne room. The sudden blast of warm air wasn't entirely welcome but it assured the tired bird of prey that it had come to the right place.

Fire Lord Ozai held up an arm and the hawk alighted gently on the offered limb, careful not to dig its claws in too deep. Ozai eyed the black ribbon thoughtfully for a moment, wondering how important this message was if it had come straight to him. He removed the letter, allowing the hawk to take off for some much-needed food and rest, its mission complete.

The contents of the letter surprised him. The Avatar had been captured. And it had only been a few days since he had ordered the hunt for the Avatar to become top priority. Well, well, his troops certainly moved fast. Admiral Zhao would be returning in three days time with the Avatar in tow... As well as a traitor; how interesting. And the traitor was--


Ozai crushed the parchment and it burned between his palms. His own son was a traitor? He thought he had taught that ungrateful boy a lesson; between the humiliating Agni Kai and the three-year banishment. But clearly... Clearly Zuko had not learned; that treasonous brat. His punishment this time was going to have to be much more severe.