Title: Kitsune no Yume chapter 4

Rating for this chapter PG-13 for some violent imagery

Summary: Is Zuko the next in his family to fall into madness? Or is there something else afoot? Post Sozin's comet.

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The sky burnt a fierce amber as Zuko continued to make his way through the tangled forest. His frustration mounted as he passed beasts large and small, all refusing to talk to him. A giant monkey with an impressive beard had made a rude gesture when he had asked for directions.

He needed to find Roku and he had no idea how to do that.

He pressed on, characters he heard described in Lu-Ten's calming voice running through his head. Baku the Eater of Dreams could have helped him before but there were no dreams here, where no one ever slept.

He heard the sound of moving water in the distance. A stream or river? Perhaps a water sprite might be more helpful than that crabby old monkey.

Pushing a thick fan of leaves aside, it was there. A huge river snaked alongside the hilltop, the turbulent water a faint purple. Large rock formations jutted out of the water sending huge jets of spray towards the amber sky.

"Help!" came a cry over the rushing water. A figure clung to the rocks. He rushed forward, stumbling down the hillside towards the person. As Zuko came closer, he pulled up short, all color draining from his face.

Azula. Her eyes wide and pleading. Clinging by her fingertips to the slippery stone. "Zuko! Help me!" she pleaded. She had never begged for anything in her life. But how much of that was her and how much of that had been the kitsune?

How could this be happening? She shouldn't have been in the spirit world. The spirits of the dead went to a different plane of existence. Impossible.

But by all accounts, he shouldn't have been there either.

His heart thundered against his breastbone as his emotions and logic tore at each other. This was a trap, surely. But what if it wasn't?

He dumped his yumi bow and quiver as he sprinted up to the shoreline and tried to see where the best point of entry would be. The water flowed fast and strong. Quickly he shucked his tunic to keep the heavy fabric from weighing him down and dove in. The current pulled at him but he twisted with it, directing himself towards the rock that Azula clutched at so desperately. He came upstream from her and hit the rock hard, cushioning the impact with his legs. He scrambled for what little purchase he could find. "Grab my hand!" She reached out and missed but Zuko lunged forward to grab her forearm.

The muscles in his shoulder screamed at him as he pulled against the current with all his strength. "Hold on tight!" He wrapped her arms around her neck and let go for them both, bodies twisting again at the mercy of the river. He twisted again using himself as a shield. He tried to surf the swirling patterns, trying to keep both of their heads above water. A large tree root jutted out close enough that he grabbed on with both hands, Azula still holding on tightly as he pulled them out of the water.

They both collapsed on the river's edge. Zuko crawled up on to all fours, coughing out what had seeped in to his lungs.

"Thank you, brother." Panting from exertion he looked up at her.

Her face twisted up into a snarl. "Thank you so very much." She shimmered and the fox stood in her place.

Zuko dropped his head in resignation. His only weapons, the bow and omamori, were well out of reach upstream. He had known what could happen. There had just been a sliver of hope in him that he could have helped his sister one last time.

He rolled up on to his feet and fell into a gong bu stance. Tossing his head to get wet hair from his eyes, he brought up his hands in a knife hand grip as he prepared to fight.

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Katara couldn't breath as her chest tightened in horror of what Iroh was planning.

Toph said nothing but held her rooted stance, hands twisting into the phoenix eye fist, thumbs jutting out.

"You are not going to harm a hair on Zuko's scruffy little head! "Sokka yelled. "We won't let you!"

Iroh didn't look up. He looked every bit of his many years. "I do what I must."

Toph suddenly dropped her guard. She had felt Appa's massive body land in the palace's center square. "They're here," she said quietly.

Katara sunk to her knees and covered Iroh's hands with her own on his lap. She looked up at him, searching his face for acknowledgement. "Please give him more time. We don't want to fight you."

Iroh's face suddenly became dark as he thundered, "What would you have me do? Stand aside as my nephew is corrupted beyond all imagining? Watch what's left of my family as he becomes a force of evil to terrorize and slaughter innocents?" He rose up out of his chair. "No! I cannot let that happen!"

Sokka drew his sword as Katara rose and backed away from Iroh's chair. She uncorked her water flask and waited with sad eyes. Iroh turned his head to avoid her gaze.

Toph ignored them all and seemed to be listening. She flicked her hand open and closed again, which flung the heavy metal doors open.

With a blast of air, Aang zipped into the room. "Hey guys!" He backpedalled wildly to halt himself nearly unseating Momo from his shoulders.

He gawked open mouthed at the scene in the room. Zuko was flat out on his bed, Sokka standing over him, pulling his sword on Iroh? Katara had tendrils of water dancing around her, ready to strike.

"Whoa! What did I miss?"

Toph simply had a sad smirk on her face. "Glad you could join us, Twinkletoes."

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The fox sprung on him. He parried downward, deflecting the first attack.

"So soft hearted." The fox's voice dripped with scorn. "So much easier to manipulate than the rest of your line."

"I won't let you harm anyone ever again." He tried edging back up the shoreline. If he could at least get back to his tunic to regain the protection of the omamori… The bow and arrow was even further up the river's edge than that.

"You have nothing to help you anymore, little one!" She leapt again, this time he drove her upwards, delivering a piercing needle strike to her soft underbelly as he forced her pass overhead. The fox hit the ground hard, trying to regain her breath.

She panted harshly as she looked for an opening. "It was your father's idea to punish you after the Agni Kai."

Zuko grimaced at her words and tried to ignore her taunting. She laughed at his anger, slowly building inside him.

He closed his eyes for a half-second to try to get his breathing under control.

"He came up with that idea…all… by…himself." She lunged to snap at his calves.

The sandy riverbank shifted out from under his feet, causing him to stumble backwards. He couldn't catch himself.

She pounced again. He threw up his arm to protect his neck. She latched on, shaking her head to tear sensitive flesh with her teeth. He bit down on his lip to dampen the grunt of pain that he couldn't contain. He punched the side of her head with his free hand and that made her clamp down harder.

He heard a rush of air and heard a dull thump as something thudded into the fox's hip. The fox released her grip on Zuko's arm and wailed.

An arrow. He looked up, frantically searching for the source.

A towering white haired figure in red robes bent down to draw another arrow from the quiver Zuko had abandoned by the riverside.

Roku.

Zuko heaved to shove off the fox as it uselessly chewed at the arrow embedded in its hip. Avatar Roku walked briskly to close in on the two figures on the sandy bank.

The fox screamed and frothed, saliva hanging in ribbons from her muzzle. "I will destroy you, boy! Tear your soul into tiny pieces and spit them out!"

Zuko got to his feet as Roku joined him. "I believe these belong to you." He handed Zuko the yumi bow and arrow. Zuko took the weapon and turned on the fox.

He notched the arrow in the bow string and drew back.

The fox gnashed her teeth. "I will find you again! If not you, then your children. Your children's children!"

With his face resolute, Zuko released the string. The arrow struck true, piercing the fox at her heart. She thrashed, raging, bloody flecks of spittle at her lips then was still.

He waited as the small body turned to stone. With a cry, he brought down all his anger and grief on to the statue with a massive hammer kick. The stone crumbled in to pieces. Patiently he gathered up the pieces and wandered to the water's edge. He flung the pieces, one by one in to the raging purple river until they were all gone.

Roku waited for him. "You seem to be a long way from home."

"You could say that," Zuko said dryly. "How did you find me?"

"Mortals do not survive long on their own in the spirit world. I could never turn my back on a stranger in need of assistance," he said casually. Roku's lined face furrowed even deeper as he scanned Zuko's face. "You seem familiar, though," he murmured lost in thought. He paused. "You remind me of one of my grandchildren."

"Ursa," said Zuko, an ache in the pit of his stomach, his voice raw. "My mother."

Roku hesitated for a second then caught Zuko up in a fierce hug. Zuko twisted great handfuls of to the other man's robes in his fists. They hung from each other silently, neither wanting to be the first to let go.

Roku pushed Zuko to arm's length and tried to memorize his face. "I did not live long enough to see her grow up and have children of her own. My gateway to pass into the mortal realm was blocked when Aang was frozen." He gently touched the skin at the base of Zuko's scar. "I would have been powerless to aid you and her family if I had known."

"It mostly worked out all right." Zuko's voice seemed to tear itself from his throat. "In the end."

"Come. Let us get you home."

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The bedroom was deathly quiet. Aang had crawled up onto Zuko's bed and sat in his lotus posture for his journey to the spirit world. His tattoos fluoresced bright blue, lighting up the room as the sun set outside.

Sokka's eyes had never left Iroh since the older man issued his threat. He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword, thumbing the clasp that kept it in its scabbard. He had moved Iroh's chair to the spot in the room furthest from the bed and ordered the man to sit in it. Iroh had complied as they waited.

Toph cracked her knuckles overhead as she stretched. "How long does this usually take, Sweetness?"

Katara looked back and forth between the seated and reclining figure on the bed. "I don't know. I'm pretty sure that the passage of time is different between the two worlds."

Iroh looked up, face still lined in sorrow. He turned his head to the ceiling and let out a small cry of joy.

Sokka instinctively looked up to see what Iroh was reacting to and felt his jaw drop. "Ahhh!" His arm flailed wildly as he pointed at the ghostly figures floating down from the ceiling. "See-through Zuko!"

"What? Where?" Katara sprang up and searched the room but saw nothing.

The bodies on the bed let out deep sighs together as their spirits returned to their bodies.

"You're back!" Katara cried.

Aang beamed happily at all their startled faces. "It wasn't so bad. Roku helped me get him back. I guess you guys needed two Avatars."

Iroh shoved the still gawping Sokka aside and rushed to kneel at bedside.

"I did it, Uncle," Zuko said opening a single exhausted eye. His voice was dry and rough from disuse.

"The kitsune?" Iroh's voice wavered.

"She's gone. For now anyway."

Tears fell freely down Iroh's face. He took Zuko's hand and placed the boy's hand on the top of his thinning scalp. "Oh, my boy. My dear boy. I should have not lost faith in you."

Zuko dragged himself up to pull his Uncle up to sit beside him. "I almost lost faith in myself," he smiled gently as his uncle clutched the other man to his chest.

Sokka caught up Toph and flung her on to the mattress near Zuko's feet. Katara snuck up on the bed next to Aang. Sokka flung his arms wide to try and encompass them all. "Hey! I said we have to stick together right, jerk?"

Zuko let himself be crushed by the weight of his family as they piled on top of him in laughter.

-end-

A/N Bits and pieces of this story stuck in my head like an earwig and it had to get out. So many little things. Why did the Fire Nation suddenly attack all the other nations? Sozin could have easily let Roku die at first yet saved him to betray him. Wouldn't the spirit of Roku try to do something in the 100 years without an Avatar? Why did Iroh visit the spirit world? All sorts of little bits and pieces.

If you've made it this far, thanks for sticking with it. If you're interested the bow and arrow being used to kill the evil kitsune comes from the fox hunt in the story of Tamamo-no-mae.