Waltz Ch. 6
The Road Ahead
Draconis von Trapp
Not a whole lot to say this time. Enjoy the last chapter of my baby.
Appa was safe. Aside from minor bangs and bruises, the group of mismatched warriors was safe. Zuko had overworked himself to the last fragment of his energy, and having already absorbed lightning once earlier, taking it in a second time was too much for his body to handle. He would live, of course, but he felt a faint tingling sense in his limbs, which Kai said would go away in a few days.
Azula and her friends' barely alive bodies were taken by the remaining Dai Li, which didn't really make any of them feel any better, but at least she was out of commission for a little while.
The group gathered on Appa to fly back to Iroh's apartment to discuss what was going to happen next, and frankly, Zuko wasn't sure what he wanted to do now. His whole world and his interpretation of his destiny was all fucked up now. He had the Avatar not five feet from him, riding on his flying bison, and Zuko felt no need to capture him. It was sort of weird, actually, to not feel this compulsion after so many years.
Jet was reclined against the bison, cradling Zuko's weakened body between his legs and allowing him to recline against Jet's chest. Before he would have never done such a thing in front of Iroh, but now Jet found he couldn't muster the energy to care. They were tired and wrung out, and Zuko needed him. That's all that mattered.
When they landed, Appa taking up the entirety of the back yard, Zuko tried to stand up. Jet, however, wasn't having this, and simply stood up with Zuko cradled in his arms.
"Jet, I can stand up by myself! You don't have to—"
"You're weak and stuff, Zuko. You shouldn't be jumping off a bison's back in your state. Right, Kai?" Jet asked, looking to their Injyn healer, who looked surprised at being addressed before smiling in a knowing way, nodding.
"He is right," Kai replied in his accent-tinged voice. "It would not be a good idea to try in your state, Prince Zuko."
Jet smirked down at Zuko in that 'told you so' way he did when he got his way. Zuko sighed and hooked an arm around Jet's neck, holding on securely as the Freedom Fighter expertly slid down Appa's tail and landed gracefully on the ground. He was about to demand to be put down now, but he had a feeling Jet would say something similar as before, so he just kept it to himself and allowed himself to be carried.
If the rest of the Avatar gang found it weird, they didn't say anything, and Jet didn't ask. Iroh just looked pleased with the situation, for whatever reason. Once inside, he put on a pot of tea and set it to steep while the younger ones reconvened in the living room.
"So… what now?" Aang asked vaguely, gesturing to all of them.
"Well, you need someone to teach you Firebending, right?" Toph pointed out, and they nodded. "Well, you've got three more-than-capable Firebenders right here, none of which seem to want to fry you. At least not anymore," she finished, thinking of Zuko.
"I don't know," Katara said in a mildly worried tone, eyes darting between Zuko and Iroh. She held Zuko's gaze, silent words passing between them.
"Why not?" Jet and Toph said at the same time. Zuko's eyebrows shot up at Jet's defense of him. Even though Jet loved him, he still wasn't on board with the whole Firebending thing. Jet laid Zuko across a couch before standing behind it and pushing it forward to be closer to the rest of the group, who mostly sat on the rugs. Once done, he sat on the couch so he could pull Zuko's upper body against his chest once again, not caring about the questioning glances from the Avatar crew. He slid his arms under Zuko's shoulders and around his torso, keeping him close.
"Well, Zuko's chased us all over the world trying to capture you, Aang," Katara explained, looking at the Avatar as she spoke. She didn't sound accusatory or angry, just reasonable. Sokka nodded.
"She's right, but… I dunno," Sokka said ponderingly, looking over at the couple on the couch. "I know Zuko's been that way in the past, but, well… we've been working together the past few days to find you guys." He looked to Iroh and Katara. "And while he wasn't completely pleasant, he didn't once try anything."
"Well, he was looking for his uncle," Katara jumped in, "and now that he has him, what's stopping him?"
"Hey, that's not fair!" Jet piped up angrily. "Zuko's spent days helping look for you! How dare you—"
"She's right, Jet," Zuko cut off, sitting up so he could look Jet's gob-smacked expression in the face. He looked over to Katara, replying, "You have no reason to trust me. I've done nothing but make your life hard since I raided your village." He put one foot on the ground next to the couch to sit up more fully. The vibrations sent straight to Toph's feet, causing her ears to perk up. "I can't make you believe me, but… I'm not that person anymore. I don't know how to explain it. I'm just not." He looked significantly at Aang, willing him to believe him. Aang gave a small smile, nodding. Zuko smiled back.
"He's telling the truth," Toph cut in, smacking the ground with her foot once for good measure. "I can feel it."
"And I know it," Jet defended, pulling Zuko back against his chest. Zuko allowed it, feeling like his point had been made.
"If he'd wanted to capture you," Sokka started, talking to Aang, "then he had plenty of time to do so in the past few days. But he didn't. And, though I'm not a big Jet fan either, it seems that they've calmed each other down." At this Sokka blushed, remembering what he'd seen a few nights ago in the alley. Toph felt Zuko's heart rate speed up at the comment, and she smirked knowingly.
Katara looked resigned, nodding. "I guess maybe you've changed," she finally said softly.
"I have," Zuko replied just as softly, now speaking only to Katara. "My priorities have changed since I've been in Ba Sing Se. Changed for the better, I think. I'm thinking more clearly now.
"I could capture you, but then what? It's clear my father doesn't really want me back. Azula is proof enough of that. She's been trying to take me out for weeks now. Probably years, if I think about it. At the moment she's down, but I highly doubt she'll stay that way. I don't need her or my father to restore my honor; I know my own destiny now. Or at least, I know I control it.
"I have a different reason to live now — one that's not based around my honor or the Avatar." Jet hugged him more tightly at that statement. "And… that's okay. I'm okay with it now." Zuko hung his head a little as he blushed. Jet found it way too adorable to not kiss him, giving him a quick peck to his neck and ruffling his hair.
"…All right," Katara said after a minute. Zuko looked back up at her, eyes wide. She looked determined. "If nothing else, I'm over ruled. But you do seem different somehow."
"And I do need a Firebending teacher," Aang finished, looking conflicted and hopeful at the same time.
"Who wants tea?" Iroh announced as he walked into the group of kids, Kai in tow with his own cup. Iroh carried a tray full of cups of sweet-smelling tea, handing them around to each person before taking his own and sitting on the floor next to the couch.
"I understand," Zuko said slowly, taking a sip of his tea to occupy his mouth. "But… I think you would do better with someone more experienced than me. I've still got a lot to learn. Uncle would be a much better teacher than me." Zuko held Iroh's gaze at that, knowing that Iroh had overheard their conversation before.
"Nonsense!" Uncle exclaimed, shaking his head. "You would be a fine teacher, Zuko. Besides, I know of my destiny as well, and it is telling me to do something completely different," Iroh finished vaguely, a mischievous glint in his eyes. Zuko looked questioningly at him but didn't ask. "This is all you, Prince Zuko."
"I…" Zuko started, not sure what to say. He met Aang's eyes. There was no judgment there, no malice — just forgiveness. "Okay," he finally decided, feeling very much like he'd just signed his life away. Aang smiled at him more fully, to which Zuko returned. "But what about you, Uncle? Where are you going?" he finally asked.
"I think it's time I visited some of my old friends," he answered just as vaguely, chuckling. Zuko left it at that.
"I, too, would be honored to help teach the Avatar Firebending," Kai offered, bowing his head, ready to be rejected if necessary. Aang bowed his head back.
"I'd love to learn from you, Kai. You've been really helpful too," Aang accepted. Kai nodded his gratitude and went silent again.
"Hey, what about me?" Jet asked playfully. "I'm a good guy, too. I can't bend fire but I can keep Hothead here under control," he teased, messing Zuko's hair up. The prince grumbled and tried to fix it again, elbowing Jet in the ribs.
"I think that in itself is reason enough to include you," Katara said with a smirk, earning a glare from Zuko. Everyone laughed at Zuko's expense, which he guessed was a good thing. At least they were accepting him. Kind of.
"I'm glad," Zuko said under his breath, not meeting anyone's eyes. This sobered the group somewhat as they all calmed down a bit.
Aang looked out the window, seeing the dark of the night, the black sky. It had been a long evening, difficult on everyone. The night seemed to have caught up with him as he sighed and slumped, feeling weighed down by the problems of the world and the stress of the day.
"Right now," Aang said through a yawn, "I think we all need sleep." The group agreed as a whole, nods and yawns and rubbed eyes all around.
"Especially you," Jet mumbled into Zuko's hair, so only he could hear it. Zuko made an indignant noise before sighing, giving in. He was most definitely tired, and needed sleep to help him heal.
"You are all welcome to sleep here," Iroh offered, gesturing to the wide-open living room. "I have plenty of blankets for all."
"Thank you," Aang responded, putting his fist in his palm and bowing slightly in gratitude. "We'll talk more in the morning."
Each member of their team was supplied with a blanket and pillow, taking respective spots on the floor or in chairs. Zuko and Jet took to Zuko's bedroom, as everyone had suspected, though no one said a thing. Sokka blushed about it for a second before throwing his blanket over himself too hastily and started snoring almost immediately.
Jet removed his too-fancy Earth Kingdom robes and tossed them aside before helping Zuko out of his, leaving them both in simple undergarments. They were both too tired to try anything that night, and honestly, the apartment was just too full of people. Especially when one of those people could feel vibrations with their feet. Some things were sacred, after all.
They poured themselves into Zuko's bed, eyes drooping and muscles starting to feel heavy after a night of fighting and bending. Jet laid on his back and bent one arm behind his head, leaving the other outstretched across the top of the bed. Zuko gingerly sat himself next to Jet and eased himself down, lying on his side facing Jet, whose eyes were closed though Zuko knew he was still awake.
After a moment, Zuko scooted closer, then a little more, finally squirming his way across the short expanse of bed between him and Jet to where there was none left, Zuko's chest pressed against Jet's side. When his head finally found its place in the crook of Jet's shoulder, he smiled and curled his outstretched arm around the pale boy's form, leaning forward to kiss his forehead. He felt, rather than saw, Zuko smile back.
With a leg thrown over Jet's and his arm across the boy's abdomen, Zuko finally allowed himself to fall asleep. Jet, still smirking satisfactorily, followed suit and passed out.
Katara waited patiently for the last of her friends' breathing to fall slow and even before she sat up in her little pallet on the ground. She leaned forward to hug her knees, resting her head between them, and finally gave into her thoughts.
Were they doing the right thing? Was this just another trick to turn them all in to the Fire Nation? Had Zuko and Jet really changed that much? It seemed too impossible to consider. Doubt seeped into the crevices of her brain as she over-dissected their situation.
Of course her brother wouldn't listen to her; he probably went against her for little reason other than because he could. Toph wasn't there when Zuko had captured Aang, burned villages in his wake, and generally made their lives a living hell. Aang was the sweetest, most forgiving soul Katara had known — maybe a little too forgiving.
However, she had spent a good deal of her time in prison talking to Zuko's uncle, and while she was sure his opinion was a little biased, she also knew that he must have been very wise and understanding. After all, he put up with Zuko for three years on a ship at sea. If anyone knew Zuko, it was Iroh.
"So, what is your name, young one?" the old man asked, the uncle of the boy who had followed them all over the world, kin to him by blood. Katara sighed and looked away. Well, even if he was an enabler towards Zuko's attitude, at least he was chained up and couldn't do a whole lot at the moment. They were both in the same situation: without the use of bending and alone, trapped. She figured she might as well make the best of it.
"Katara," she answered after a moment. "I'm from the Southern Water Tribe." 'The tribe your people invaded, where they took my mother away,' she didn't say, though she thought it very loudly.
"Ah yes, I remember you," Iroh said thoughtfully, a smile in his voice.
"You mean when Zuko's warship came and terrified my village? Or when he tried to burn down Kyoshi Island?" Katara jumped in heatedly, her composure breaking. "Or how about when—"
"Well, I didn't expect you to get so specific," Iroh said softly, though somehow still interrupting. Katara calmed down from her rant and finally looked straight at Iroh, and she felt a pang of remorse; he looked horrible. His head was hung, and his face was creased with shame. "But yes, I suppose you're right."
"Of course I'm right!" Katara resumed, regaining her passion, as if she'd been holding all these thoughts in for ages. In a way, she had. It felt good to let someone from their enemy nation hear her stories, understand her pain. It at least felt good to get it out. "You two are horrible, you know that? All Zuko cares about is his stupid honor and all you do encourage him. Do you realize what he's put us through?" Her rant sounded more emotional than angry now. Iroh lifted his head, watching Katara as her face started to crumple under the weight of her feelings.
"Everywhere we go, you two are there! Aang is the last hope this world has at peace, the only one who can set things right, and you two are trying to take that all away. What's wrong with you?" Her eyes started brimming, but no, she didn't want to let this man see her cry, see her weak.
"Zuko is a troubled young man," Iroh said a moment later, allowing Katara time to calm down. His face was serious, though still gentle somehow. "I am not proud of his actions towards you and the Avatar, nor am I proud of my role in this war." He closed his eyes for a moment before gathering himself again.
"Then why?" Katara asked brokenly. "Why are you two like this? Why can't you just leave us alone? This war has cost everyone so much already, including me." Against her will, a tear slipped down her cheek before she admitted, "The war — the Fire Nation — took my mother away from me. It took my father away to fight it, but I'll never see my mother again because of people like you." Katara sniffed as the tears rolled freely down her cheeks now, not even pretending to try and hide it.
Iroh's brows furrowed in sympathy, watching as Katara bit her lip in an attempt to keep her emotions in.
"I am very sorry for your loss," he replied a few moments later, sounding truly sincere for the wrongdoing of his nation. "The war has cost me someone very dear as well: My son, Lu Ten." Now Iroh, too, was trying to keep his tears at bay. He was only a little more successful than Katara. "He just had a birthday, in fact," he added sadly, dropping his head again.
Katara looked at Iroh, really looked at him, and saw his human tears and emotions. They both shared the same grief of the loss of someone very close to them, the parent-child dichotomy broken by death. She felt in that moment very similar to Iroh, though they were completely different: commoner and royalty, young and old, water and fire.
But as she watched him fall apart in front of her, it was hard to see all the differences. Her heart just saw a man who had lost his son in a pointless war, a man whose life was torn by the loss of his child.
"…I'm sorry," Katara said a moment later. Iroh met her eyes and nodded.
"So am I," he replied, sounding a bit choked. "And I'm sorry on Zuko's behalf as well. He has made many mistakes in the past, and will continue to make them in the future. But believe me, if it means anything, when I say that he has changed." His voice took on a different note, one of hope and promise, like he was speaking of something he truly believed in. "He had lost his way. He thought his sole purpose in life was to regain approval from his father. In a way, I believe he still wishes for that approval. But his lack of approval from his father, I think, has been compensated for by others." He smiled then, sounding like he knew a secret, maybe something Zuko wasn't aware of. Katara couldn't help but grin back slightly.
"I know it is hard to accept, but I've never seen my nephew so calm and peaceful as I have in the past few weeks. Now, that's not saying much, compared to his normal state of being, of course!" He chuckled at this before sobering again. "But I think something in his heart has taken priority over the approval he wants from his father."
"Do you think Zuko's dad will ever accept him?" Katara asked curiously, now that the subject had been broached. Her temper had cooled now that she'd started commiserating, feeling more in control of her emotions again. She knew Zuko had some obsession with 'honor' but it never occurred to her to think of it as approval.
"No," Iroh answered darkly, his countenance hardening. "That man has no room in his heart for anyone but himself and his own skewed ambitions. I should know; I grew up with him. Everyone to him is either a pawn or an enemy — even his family."
"Wow," Katara breathed. "That's horrible. How can anyone be like that?"
"I have once been that way myself, but the loss of my son changed me," he explained. Katara nodded. It made sense. Iroh still had a heart enough to be affected by loss. Ozai, it seemed, couldn't care less at this point. "But he is still Zuko's father, and some part of him will always want for that relationship. As much as I think of Zuko as my own son, I know that it can never really be that way. I can only guide him away from mistakes I have made myself, hoping that he will learn from them and grow to be a better person than his father. I believe it is possible."
"You really think he can change that much?" Katara wondered, feeling a bit skeptical of it still.
"I know he can," Iroh answered confidently. "He's already begun to. He just needs to keep himself surrounded by positive energy and reinforcement that he's doing the right thing for himself. Part of that has to come from within; he needs to truly believe it to want to move past his old ways. He is a stubborn and passionate young man."
"So, you think I should give him a second chance then?" Katara asked, not able to keep the harshness from her voice. It was still hard to believe that Zuko had changed that much in that amount of time. However, it was also hard to believe that someone as horrible as Ozai could exist, so she supposed anything was possible.
"I believe in second chances," Iroh said thoughtfully. "But I think you should do what you think is right. I can tell you what I think you should do, but I'm not in your place. I don't have your experiences and your feelings. You need to make that choice for yourself."
Katara sighed and stared at her feet, as if they would answer the question for her. They had nothing to add. She didn't know how to feel or what to think, which both angered and confused her.
She figured she'd be captive for a while, though, so she didn't pressure herself to make up her mind right away. Sooner or later Zuko would come for Iroh and Aang would come for her, but until then she could think about it.
Katara and Iroh had many conversations after that one, consisting of humorous, saddening, and philosophical. She grew to like the guy. Looking at him in his dirtied Earth Kingdom robes, it was easy to forget that he was once a war general who tried to take down Ba Sing Se. It was easy to think he was just a captive like her, sore and defenseless. It was easy to like him. For the first time in many years, she felt almost fathered. It was comforting, in a way.
She learned of Zuko's loss of his mother, the origin of his scar, his favorite flavor of tea. During these stories Katara sometimes forgot that they were talking about Zuko, prince of the Fire Nation; when he was described like this, he just seemed like a normal teenage boy, torn by two worlds and wanting for acceptance. And weren't they all wanting for that from someone?
When Katara had asked why Iroh was telling her all about his nephew like this, he had just replied that it seemed important. They all needed each other, and if they were going to end this war then they needed to work past differences and grudges and start new.
"You sound a lot like Aang," Katara said playfully.
Iroh chuckled. "Well, I'm not one hundred years old, but I'm getting pretty close. I have my wise moments."
Katara told Iroh how Aang needed to learn Firebending, but how he was reluctant to pick it up again after he'd burnt her. Iroh got a little sparkle in his eye at that, as if he had the perfect solution, but he kept it to himself.
On the last day of their capture Katara had made a vow to herself. She would be the better person. She didn't forgive Zuko entirely, but she could look past what he'd done if he was really that much of a changed man. She still had her doubts, but in the end, she couldn't predict what would happen. She just had to play it by ear and hope it turned out okay.
That evening when she heard voices calling their names from outside their cell, her heart jumped and she brightened up immediately, calling back and trying to guide the voices to her and Iroh. Not two minutes later did their little Earthbent dome crack apart.
Aang and Toph broke the binding from her wrists and she was immediately enveloped in a group hug, which she accepted gratefully, but she watched the others over her friends' shoulders. Zuko had just freed his uncle, and both of them were crying. Crying. Katara's heart ached for them just a little. Even though they'd done so much to hurt her and her group, it was still a touching sight. Zuko seemed that much more human in that moment.
Her friends helped her stand, which she was grateful for, but then she thought she might just fall over again when she saw the rest of the rescue party. Jet. But not just Jet; it was him and his crew. She panicked for a moment before she saw Iroh embrace Jet as well, which confused her so much that it calmed her for a moment. What was going on?
Regardless of Jet's existence, Katara walked right up to Zuko and didn't hesitate to crush him in a hug as well. He seemed surprised and unsure what to do, but that was okay. He didn't have to know how much Katara and Iroh had talked about him. He didn't need to know that, even though he was a royal prick, that Katara had sympathy for him and his situation: they'd both lost their mothers and they both wanted this war to be over so they could go home. Tears burned under her eyelids when she pulled away. She smiled up at him faintly.
"I don't trust you, but thank you for helping rescue me. Maybe you're not such a bad guy after all." And then she turned away, following the rest back into the ballroom. Once there, however, Iroh instructed them to flee. She was eager to kick Azula's ass, but knew this wasn't her fight. She knew that this time she needed to listen. Besides, Iroh was a pretty smart guy, she'd discovered. He probably knew what he was talking about.
Once they'd exited the ballroom, her group all gathered in front of the closed doors. Aang spoke up first.
"That palace is full of those tunnels in the back. I bet you anything that's where they're hiding Appa. I have to go find him," he said fiercely, removing some of his constricting, too-fancy garments.
"We're going with you then," Sokka said determinedly.
"Me and Longshot will wait here in case they come out before you guys are back," Smellerbee's rasping voice spoke up, surprising them at her willingness to work together. Aang nodded to her.
"Fine. Toph, you and me lead the way. We're going in through the back," Aang instructed and, as one, they all fled to the rear of the palace. Toph and Aang busted their way through the stone barriers on the eastern side of the palace, not caring much for subtlety at this point. Once they'd made it to the back of the palace, a good distance away from Azula and her lightning, Toph and Aang Earthbent their way through the walls.
In the end they had found Appa kept in one of those rock domes like Iroh and Katara had been in. He was chained in the same space as Basco the bear, and a few minutes later Toph had found Kuei in a chamber nearby. Kuei and Basco retreated to his private chambers, convinced he would be safe there until Azula was defeated in the ballroom. The rest of them flew away to the front of the palace on Appa, who was just glad to be in open air again.
For a few minutes Katara watched the windows and cracks in the door of the palace shine blue at random intervals, worried about Iroh. She knew there was a lot of lightning going on in there and she wasn't sure who was the Bender and who was dodging.
A few minutes later, though, she jumped as the doors were kicked open and the tired group of fighters exited, luckily all intact. Iroh was fine and that redheaded boy seemed all right, though she didn't know who he was. Jet was okay, though Katara hadn't been too worried about his safety, to be honest. However, he was cradling Zuko in his arms, and the boy seemed to be overly weakened, barely staying conscious. She didn't say anything as the rest of the group boarded Appa and flew back to Iroh's apartment.
She watched Zuko and Jet, her curiosity getting priority over her discretion. She couldn't help but wonder what was going on with that. Why was Jet and his crew here in the first place? Why was he with Zuko? Didn't he know he was a Firebender? Though by what she'd witnessed in the ballroom for the short amount of time she was there, she'd bet that he did know about Zuko. Somehow, Jet was still there, holding the wounded boy.
She inhaled sharply as she connected the dots in her head.
"…But his lack of approval from his father, I think, has been compensated for by others."
No. Iroh couldn't have meant this. She met Iroh's eyes, probably looking very much like she had a big question mark on her forehead. He smiled impishly and nodded, gesturing inconspicuously to the pair of boys who were absorbed in their own world. She deflated a bit and looked back towards Jet and Zuko, her head swimming with questions.
During their little chat in the living room, she kept close watch on the two. They weren't exactly being discrete with their affection for each other, that was for sure. At least Jet wasn't. A small spark of jealousy burned in her gut for a moment, remembering Jet from the forest and how she'd had a bit of a crush on him at the time. Even if he was a pillaging monster, he was still handsome and tan and charming.
However, Zuko spoke openly about his father and being in the Fire Nation and pretty much everything in front of Jet, and while he seemed a bit uncomfortable, he kept himself under control. His feelings for Zuko showed through the whole conversation, even the part about teaching Firebending. He had to know about Zuko's past. But he was still there for him.
If Jet could look past Zuko's homeland and his nature as a Firebender, then who was she? If Jet could do it, why not her? Maybe it would be worth it. Maybe it would be okay.
And with that, she'd agreed to let Zuko join them to teach Aang Firebending. Not only Zuko, but Jet and Kai would be there as well, one of which was an old enemy and the other a complete stranger to her.
'I might regret this later, but for now I just have to wait.'
With that thought, Katara laid back down and slept once more.
The morning met them all with the smell of sizzling eggs, meat, and baking bread. Zuko, Iroh, and Kai were the first to wake up, though Kai explained that he needed to pack a bag with a few things for their journey before they left out. He excused himself and left, leaving Zuko and Iroh in the kitchen, the former blinking blearily and the latter doing the majority of the cooking. Once the tea was made Zuko gratefully downed a cup, hoping it would wake him up.
A few minutes later Aang walked in, rubbing his eyes and yawning. It seemed the Firebender in him was also affected by the sun.
"Morning," he said cheerfully, taking a seat next to Zuko at the dining table.
"Good morning, Aang," Iroh greeted, gesturing to the teapot in the center of the table. "Please, help yourself. Breakfast will be ready soon." He went back to flipping eggs whilst humming a song to himself, one Zuko was sure he recognized but couldn't put a name to.
"Morning, Zuko," Aang said a little more timidly. Zuko tried his best at a friendly smile, though it still felt foreign on his face.
"Morning." There was an awkward silence following while the two looked everywhere but at each other. "So, uh… sleep well?" he asked to break the silence.
"Sure did! Like a baby, now that Katara's back," Aang replied, overcoming the awkwardness of the situation. "Oh, and you too, uh…"
"You can call me Iroh," the man said with a smile before chuckling. "Or Uncle, I suppose! We're all friends here, after all."
Aang laughed too. "That's good to hear, Uncle Iroh!" It felt a bit odd saying that to this man, but it also felt good in a way. Good but bad? Aang tried not to think about it.
He turned back to Zuko, who was a bit bemused by the situation but didn't question it. "I'm excited to learn Firebending," Aang told him honestly. Then he cringed a little, remembering when he burnt Katara. "Well… and scared too, I guess."
"Yeah, I feel the same way about teaching you," Zuko confessed, looking away. "But if you're gonna win the war, you'll need to learn it."
"Yeah," Aang conceded, pouring himself a cup of tea to have something to do with his hands. He fiddled with his cup for a minute before looking back up at Zuko. "So… what do we do first? Where do we go from here?"
Zuko shrugged. "The Fire Nation, I guess. We'll have to find a safe place to practice and if we're seen in the Earth Kingdom Firebending, we're likely to be attacked." He remembered what happened at the village he stopped at a month or so ago, when he saved that little boy from the Fire Nation soldiers who had overrun their town. He remembered the complete and utter rejection they'd shown him once they knew he was a Firebender.
"So what's your battle strategy?" Zuko asked. Aang sighed and started explaining, using the better part of their time alone informing Zuko of the eclipse, the library, the plan to invade the Fire Nation, and how they hoped to take the Fire Lord down at that time.
"So you plan on defeating my father before Sozin's Comet?" Zuko clarified. Aang nodded.
"That's the plan!"
"Breakfast!" Iroh called, setting plates on the table laden with various breakfast foods and dishes.
Predictably, Sokka was the first in, taking a seat next to Aang and thanking Iroh for the food before filling his plate. Katara joined next, followed by Toph and Smellerbee. Longshot came in with Jet in tow, who was the last person in, taking a spot next to Zuko.
"Morning, baby," he said groggily, his raspy morning voice making Zuko's heart jump. He took a deep breath, calming himself. Now wasn't the time for that. Still, he poured Jet a cup of tea and allowed him to give Zuko a kiss behind his ear. He blushed, turning his attention back to his food while Jet served himself.
"So good to have a table full of young people," Iroh said proudly, smiling. "Makes me feel young again!"
The table enjoyed their breakfast, their last moments of togetherness before they would break apart for their own separate journeys. In that time they didn't discuss war or politics or battle strategies. They enjoyed time together as comrades, as if the outside world couldn't touch them in those hours of the morning, and they could just be themselves and that would be good enough.
Everything, as it was said, had to come to an end.
Kai returned with his bag packed with a few things for travel. His shop was closed and his pet set free, and he said he was ready to head out when they were. Smellerbee and Longshot decided to stay behind and watch over Ba Sing Se, carrying out Freedom Fighting until they won the war.
Kuei had made an appearance at the apartment in disguise, claiming that the Dai Li were no longer on his side and he couldn't take his city back until the war was over. He was going to travel the world with Basco, disguised as a Fire Nation refugee.
As it was decided, Jet, Zuko, and Kai were to join the Avatar and his friends on their journey to win back the world from the Fire Nation. Kai had personal reasons for wanting the war to be over: So he could find the rest of his people and re-congregate at the Fire Nation coast.
Behind Iroh's apartment him and Zuko embraced, not knowing when they would see each other next, but both hopeful for the other's well-being. The rest of the group waited on Appa, trying not to make a spectacle of the pair as they shared farewells.
"You're doing the right thing, nephew," Iroh whispered, holding him at arm's length to get a good look at him before he had to go, making sure to remember him. "You're already making me so proud."
"Thank you, Uncle," Zuko said softly, holding his tears back. He felt arms come around him from behind and could tell whom it was by his scent alone.
"I'll take good care of him," Jet said with a smirk before releasing Zuko and hugging Iroh himself.
"I know you will. You're both going to be just fine." They pulled back and Jet put his arm around Zuko, stabilizing them both. "Have a safe trip, and remember your breath of fire."
"I will. Stay safe," Zuko said as parting words before forcing himself to turn around.
"We will meet again," Iroh said to himself, a tear streaking down his cheek as he turned the opposite way to leave. It would be a long journey for both of them.
Jet and Zuko joined the rest of the gang on Appa's back, now saddle-less, and grabbed handfuls of fur to keep themselves rooted.
"Well, to the Fire Nation, I guess," Aang said forebodingly, patting Appa's head fondly.
The group all looked at each other calculatingly, knowing that even though they weren't the best of friends, they all needed each other. This was for the betterment of the world. This was what needed to happen. A veil of understanding seemed to settle within them as they shared semi-friendly smiles, wordlessly deciding to start new with each other. Deciding to overcome differences and work together — because they had to.
The world needed them.
And that's it. Hard to believe that I started writing this story three years ago. I deleted and re-wrote this chapter about a million times before I got it where I wanted it. It's probably not perfect yet, but it's as close as I can get it.
Will there be a sequel? Maybe. What do you think? It would involve me pretty much re-writing the third season of Avatar, which would be a pretty epic undertaking.
I'll still write these two in one-shots and short stories, drabbles and ficlets, for years to come. I want to thank each and every one of you who has stuck with me the past few years with this story, and I'd like to thank anyone who read it through all the way. Your comments and views and criticism are all greatly appreciated and I hope you enjoy my other stories as I'm sure to write more.
Yours in eternity,