"You guys," Sokka couldn't hide a yawn as he eyed fading stars before dawn, "take mornings way too seriously."
An expressionless skull faceplate stared back. The spear-armed marine beside the firebender was just as stoic, gold eyes glittering at him.
Sokka rubbed a few last grains of sleep-sand out of his eyes, considering the edged silence around the shelter. Nobody should be up at this hour... and maybe that was the whole point. Not enough sleep made you cranky and crazy; just look at that whole mess set off between Katara and Toph months back, with even Aang yelling at the earthbending teacher he'd been searching the whole Earth Kingdom for.
For a moment, he played with the idea of telling Katara that maybe the whole Fire Nation just needed a good, long nap.
Shrugging, Sokka eyed the guards. "I'm here to talk to Zuko."
Silence. Utter, angry silence.
I'm getting a bad feeling about this. Put that together with what Dad had woken him up to tell him, making sure Katara didn't hear it.... "Guys... and ladies if there are any... I really need to talk to him," Sokka said honestly. "My Dad's got a question, and I've got a feeling Healer Amaya could tell us, but she isn't here and we really need to know." He paused, judging grim gold. "It's important to the truce."
A flick of a cold gaze, and the firebender nodded slightly.
Sokka stepped into warm air, lit and tasting faintly of smoke from a few lanterns. "...And make sure everything's stowed tightly-" Zuko shook his head, and handed off a list to Teruko. "Why am I bothering you, you know your job."
"Always good to check, sir." Teruko smiled a little. "Right, General?"
"It is a fine balance, ensuring all of a command functions properly," Iroh agreed. "Ah. Sokka."
Not, good morning. No offer of tea. And Zuko barely glanced at him. The bad feeling stopped prickling down Sokka's spine, and broke into an all-out sprint. Aw, man. "You studied with Amaya, right?"
Zuko looked at him, cold as winter midnight. "Why? Does Katara want to call her a monster, too?"
Ouch. Somebody'd got up on the wrong side of the bedroll. Either that, or all the armor was contagious. "This isn't about Katara," Sokka started. Reconsidered, waving his hands. "I mean, it's about her, but she doesn't know I'm here, and - it's a waterbending question. And I don't know if you know, but Amaya had to be teaching you something about her bending, and- argh. It sounds crazy." He tried not to grab for his hair. "Can waterbenders mess with your head?"
Frowning, Zuko nodded.
That quick, Sokka felt his heart lodge somewhere near his ankles. "You're serious. Katara could... and we wouldn't even know, and...."
Zuko looked at him, then, and swore under his breath. "Here."
Surprised, Sokka downed half the cup of soup pushed into his hands without thinking. Spicy, but not nearly as hot as fire flakes, lucky for him. More just warm, rich with fish and seaweed and a kind of slippery noodles he'd never tasted before. "You eat fish?"
"Islands, Sokka." But if the tone was sarcastic, pale gold eyes were thoughtful. "You met me on a ship. Yes, we eat fish."
Fish and barbecue. Why are we fighting again? Sokka almost quipped. But finished the cup instead, gathering his thoughts. "You're serious. Katara can.... Wait." He held up a hand. "Tell me what Amaya told you."
"She told me a lot," Zuko said frankly. "I'll sum up." He looked into memory, and nodded. "Water is family and community. Waterbenders can pull on that, just like the ocean. Most benders can't do much besides make you like them more. Or work with someone whose emotions are all screwed up, and help them get better. That's what healers are supposed to do. Keep an eye on people, especially in the winter; and if someone's acting off, stuff them full of oily fish and help them cheer up and calm down. Sometimes that's all it takes. Sometimes you have to drug them and let them sleep part of the dark away. And sometimes...." He winced. "That's why you've got ice floes."
"Oh." Suddenly, a lot of Gran-Gran's stories made a lot more sense. "So, if you've got a really strong bender, who didn't study healing...?" At Zuko's incredulous look, Sokka shrugged. "Come on, you know you've been showing her what to do."
"About lightning," Zuko said, still stunned. "I studied that on purpose. That - in the desert...."
"She had a few lessons with Yugoda," Sokka said plainly. All too aware of Iroh's attention focused on him. "Until Azula? It was enough."
...He'd heard Zuko growl like that before, one time before lots of Suki's village went up in flames. "Combat-trained waterbender," the firebender said flatly. "Of. Course. Damn. You spend all your time feuding with each other. You'd need something to keep your spears all pointed the same direction if someone else invades. And why bother training her to rein it in? Anyone who doesn't back the Avatar is the enemy." Fists clenched, flames flashing and vanishing. "Damn it, I should have seen it...."
Sokka ran that through in his head. And what Katara'd done. And what he'd done - and not done - trying to make sure they all came out okay. And kind of wished he could spit sparks. "I'm going to bounce Boomerang off Pakku's head. Damn it! He did that, and he didn't even warn us? We haven't had benders since Gran-Gran was young, nobody knew - what's wrong with you people? Earth, fire, water, air - you do things because you can, and the rest of us just have to live with it, and-"
Zuko. Hand on his shoulder. Looking about as sober and coldly mad as Sokka'd ever seen him. "The whole camp's mad," the firebender said bluntly. "Katara, Aang, us - I don't know. Don't get tangled in it. Think about your father, and breathe."
Dad. Sokka took a breath. Another. "What do you mean, you?"
"Strong firebenders can also affect the heart," Iroh spoke up. "It does not usually reach those outside our own nation. But you are a leader, and a chief's son. There is, perhaps, enough fire in you to be... susceptible."
Sokka swallowed. "I'm Water Tribe."
"Separation is an illusion," Zuko said simply. "Get deep enough, all the elements draw from the same source. All benders, Sokka. And everybody who isn't a bender. We all use chi. I can light air on fire. So? What do you think you're doing when that boomerang hits exactly where you want it? That's not just good aim. Bending is fighting. Any fighting trains your chi. So it's not as easy if you can't bend. Are you going to let that stop you?" He let go. "You want to know why all of us fight? Women included? Because we don't know who's going to grow up to be a firebender."
Sokka took a step back, disbelieving. "You're kidding. Even in her sling, Katara was-" He waggled his hands, remembering melting ice walls, and sharp nos from Mom and Dad.
"Water and earth are like that. Air Nomads - they were all born with it. But Fire Nation-" Zuko shook his head. "If your parents are both firebenders, most of the time you are too. But not all the time. We don't know. Not until someone's four or five. Or older."
They don't know? Sokka shook his head. And why does Zuko sound like he's.... "How much older?"
Zuko let out a slow breath. "I was eight."
"So don't tell me I don't know what you're up against," Zuko said sharply. "I do. Agni, I do. Don't you know why Azula wants me charred to a crisp? I took what was hers. I'm firstborn, but she bent at four. Two years, Sokka. Two years she'd been training under our father's eye, and everyone knew she was a prodigy. He had what he wanted. The perfect heir to Sozin's legacy, to make up for his disappointment." He took a deep breath, and let it steam out. "You don't like benders twisting your heart? Learn to fight back."
Zuko wasn't always... Katara's been playing with water years longer.... Sokka shook his head. "So you learned to fight with swords."
"That was one reason," Zuko said dryly. "You've met another. Pink, bouncy, giggles a lot?" He frowned. "Why didn't you? Dao aren't a Water Tribe style, but the Kyoshi Island waterbenders... what?"
"What Kyoshi Island waterbenders?" Sokka said carefully. If Aang and Katara could have learned there, instead of heading for the North Pole.... Yue. "I didn't see any benders there. Just the Kyoshi Warriors and their fans... and they redirect your attacks...."
"Waterbending did inspire them, though they have rarely numbered benders among their company," Iroh agreed. "The eastern waterbenders were far better known in Avatar Kuruk's time, before Kyoshi Island was cut from the continent. They still persist there, but they live very quietly. Avatar Kyoshi had firm opinions on the separation of the four nations. Earth and water intermingling... irked her."
Sokka groaned. "And Aang made this big fuss about how he was Kyoshi...."
"They would not have been swift to draw his attention," Iroh nodded. "I am sorry you did not have the chance to linger. The Kyoshi Island sword-style is very beautiful. And effective."
And why that made Zuko smirk, Sokka wasn't sure he wanted to know. "They didn't use swords when you hit Suki's village." Kyoshi Island... damn it, they were heading for the Fire Nation. The wrong way.
"You forget, they were neutral almost a hundred years," Iroh said mildly. "Fire Nation visitors were not welcome, but so long as they passed as peaceful Earth Kingdom travelers, it was possible to walk unhindered."
Sokka paused. Took another look at Zuko's singed green robes. "You did this before. Not just in Ba Sing Se. Or dressing up to yank Aang out from under Zhao's nose. You... sneak."
"Sometimes," Zuko admitted stiffly.
Sokka raised a curious eyebrow. "Okay, it worked, so I'm missing something?"
"To disguise oneself is an act of Low War, and implies you are not strong enough to face your enemies directly," Iroh stated. "For a great name, that is not exactly proper." He heaved a dramatic sigh. "I am such a trial to my family."
"But as it happens, I did not say I had seen that sword on Kyoshi Island," Iroh said plainly. "Though it was an island. With the most beautiful waterfalls...."
Zuko, Sokka suddenly noticed, was looking any direction but theirs.
Iroh winked at Sokka, hand up to shield a loud whisper. "He didn't always know how to swim."
"Not going to solve his problem." Zuko glared at them both. "I don't know what you and Chief Hakoda want to do about Katara. I know what I'd like to do. But I don't have a good history with sisters."
Sokka remembered lightning, and grimaced. "Sometimes she listens to Aang...."
"Then you're at the wrong end of camp," Zuko said dryly. "Good luck."
Sokka eyed him. "You could talk to Aang."
"I don't think so."
He'd heard anger in Zuko's voice, lots of times. He'd never heard venom. And... nope, not his imagination, it was getting hot in here. "You said attacking our village like that wasn't your brightest day ever," Sokka pointed out. "He's a kid. He thought you were the bad guy. Come on, give him another chance-"
Fire, blooming from bone-white knuckles. Zuko made himself breathe, loosening fists finger by finger. "I am Zuko. Son of Ursa, and Fire Lord Ozai. My honor reflects on my clan, on every soldier I have ever commanded, on every soldier I will ever command. And Aang...." He snorted. "I don't know why I'm even surprised. Air blows where it wants, when it wants. Words are just your voice on the wind. And they own the wind." A bitter laugh. "Agni, what was Kuzon thinking?"
"Nephew." Iroh rested a hand on Zuko's shoulder. "I am certain things were different then."
"I'm not," Zuko said quietly. "Kuzon was fifteen. The Fire Nation had had half a century of peace and prosperity. Who'd care about a few little lies from a foreign child?" He looked at Sokka, gold eyes grim. "I'm not Kuzon. I'm not a minor clan member who wouldn't have been near becoming the heir if half a dozen other people hadn't ended up dead. Thanks to Sozin, by the way." A determined breath. "He offered parole, Sokka. He set the terms. Not me. And then he broke them." He waved toward his robes, where armor would have sported an ornamented collar. "Gold means a great name or a ranking officer. Someone with power to speak for the Fire Nation. Someone whose honor is our country's. And damn it, Aang knows that!"
About to protest, Sokka paused. Thought that over. "You're saying Aang slapped the whole Fire Nation in the face." Not that he objected to that, really. But man, couldn't Aang have just thought a little bit before waving that grin under Zuko's nose?
"It is a bit more severe than that," Iroh said heavily. "To us, honor is not simple glory earned in battle. It is life. Without honor, there is no trust. No one will help you, or stand by your side. And without that, when knives gleam...." He sighed. "It is as if you returned to your sled from hunting on the tundra, to find every arctic dog slain."
Dead, Sokka realized, all too able to picture it. Maybe you could hold out a few days, maybe you would get lucky and someone would come looking for you, but if no one did....
Sokka gulped, working it through. Iroh didn't just stick with Zuko to be nice. If Zuko lost his honor, then the Fire Nation can treat him the way they treat everybody they don't like, and that means-
Well. Maybe he wasn't sure of all it meant, not to the Fire Nation. But one thing was crystal clear. His honor was the absolute, no-holds-barred, sorest spot Zuko had - and Aang had just stomped it. Hard.
You know, if it was Zhao, this would be a good thing.
Zhao was dead. Zuko wasn't. Given the Ocean Spirit had apparently grabbed for both of them, that kind of clued Sokka in on which firebender was the bigger problem.
"Katara wants us dead, and Aang wants us dishonored," Zuko snarled. "No. I will not give him another chance. My people deserve better." He jerked a nod toward the doorway. "Good luck with Katara. And don't let Aang get Toph killed. I will find you."
That... sounded final. And given the quiet in-and-out of Teruko and her people all the time they'd been talking, with even lanterns now being blown out and stored away.... "You're leaving?" Sokka blurted out. You're after Aang. Why would you leave? "You can't leave! You promised Toph."
"To help heal Aang," Zuko said bluntly. "I did. Every minute we're here is another Katara has to set your people off. Have you ever seen a mob? I have. There's too many of you. We won't be able to use nonlethal force. You'll die."
Sokka's eyes narrowed. "Just keep pushing it, Sparky."
A corner of Zuko's lips turned up; a cold, cold smirk. "You seem to be under the impression that the truce is meant to protect us from you."
Oh, no, Sokka thought, lifting an accusing finger. I don't care how lousy you say you are at being diplomatic, you do not get away with that one-
Iroh was smiling at him. In a way that raised all the hairs on Sokka's neck.
Finger still hovering, Sokka mentally counted allies and enemies. On his side, the Water Tribe fleet, the greatest earthbender in the world, Katara, and Aang. On Zuko's-
Toph thinks Iroh's good enough to take her. It's daylight, which means Zuko probably can beat Katara. And Aang's hurt.
And four-to-one ship odds didn't mean a handful of snow in a fire when all Suzuran had to do was crank up the trebuchets and drench wooden ships in flames.
We've got Zuko. Oh yeah. Right where he wants us. Oh, man.... Sokka swallowed dryly. "You promised Toph."
"And I kept it," Zuko said levelly. "I respect Chief Hakoda. I don't want to kill any more of his people."
Erk. "Toph swears you're one of the good guys," Sokka got out.
"She likes the Avatar, too." Zuko didn't turn a hair. "Toph is a Bei Fong. Daughter of a great merchant clan. They are responsible for their workers and traders. Like a great name is to his people. She won't like it. She won't be surprised."
He must have made some noise of protest; Zuko's eyes narrowed. "Did you listen to what she told you, before all of you ran into Azula?" the firebender said levelly. "Her parents hired bounty hunters to bring her home against her will. And that's one of the gentler things the Bei Fongs have done to defend their name. You think Toph doesn't understand ruthlessness?"
He's bluffing, Sokka thought. He might be that cold. He's Fire Nation. We know them. But Toph's not... well, she just isn't.
He was sure of it. Almost.
Think, Sokka told himself. Aang needs more help. So how can I get Zuko to- "You owe Avatar Yangchen a knot."
"No," Zuko said calmly. "I don't."
Not working. And why was it not working? In the desert Katara had helped Iroh, and he'd said he owed them. That had to still hold, right? Why else would he have jumped at the chance when Toph needed one firebender-sized ally to mow down Dai Li? Not to mention really healing Aang, instead of just making sure he didn't die.... Never mind. Think! "You're going to leave Toph. You're going to leave Aang, hurt. And you're going to leave my father, who you say you respect, without even trying?"
Zuko took one deliberate step forward, close enough Sokka could feel the heat shimmering off him. "It's dangerous."
"I noticed," Sokka stated, trying to match that edged calm. "You don't want to kill people? I don't want anybody getting killed. Do this, even Katara won't say you didn't give it a shot. Which makes you guys leaving a lot more likely to stay calm. Right?"
Zuko eyed him, and turned toward Iroh. Who shrugged slightly: it's your choice.
Nodding, Zuko glanced at Teruko. "Finish up here, and get everyone on board. Try not to let Asahi bite you."
"Under control, sir." But she cast him the slightest look askance.
Zuko shrugged. "Uncle and I will take a look."
"Um," Sokka started. Because maybe he wasn't sure what he was planning yet, but with Zuko and Iroh both in the same place? It wouldn't be easy.
"If you think I'm going anywhere near Katara alone, when I'm this mad? You're crazier than the airbender," Zuko said coldly.
Couldn't argue with that. Damn.
This is a bad idea.
Iroh sitting behind him, Zuko waited in Aang's tent for Toph to get there, cursing himself for falling for Sokka's offer. Katara hated them all individually and as a nation; he could see it in her eyes, as she sat on the bed by a wary airbender. Lounging over by a fabric wall, face a little too bland, Sokka could see it too. Why else was he stropping the edge of that boomerang so casually? So how, exactly, was trying again on that damn chakra-knot going to change anything, except to make Katara more convinced they all had to die?
It won't, Zuko told himself. But it still matters. To Sokka. To Chief Hakoda. No matter how hard she pushes, her father is an honorable man. And we don't want a fight.
And why that didn't matter to her, Zuko wished he knew. She'd helped them in the desert. Why act as an honorable opponent then, and an implacable foe now?
She's never seen Uncle armed.
Zuko blinked, caught off-guard by Lee's shy whisper. Dug deep within, wondering why he hadn't noticed an odd silence these past few days. Sure, Katara had only seen Iroh bend at Zhao's soldiers once, before Ba Sing Se. And then only on the Moon's side, which meant her side. And Uncle was good at looking harmless. But he was still a firebender. He wasn't exactly a helpless elder....
Loathing. Disgust. Crawl away and die.
A breath, and he wrapped fire to shield that second self. Uncle. Amaya. Jinhai. Your people.
Hatred loosened its grip. But he could still feel it.
Katara. She hates me. And Lee's Water Tribe, I feel her pulling at me....
No wonder he'd shoved Lee back into hiding. Just a taste of that, when he was lost in fever... it'd be so, so easy to let her kill him. And he wanted to live.
Not that you're doing such a good job of that right now, sparking fire without even a warning-
There was no heat.
Holding his expression steady, Zuko glanced at his hands. He could feel the chi moving. Why couldn't he feel fire?
No flames. Just a shimmer out of the corner of his eye, that vanished if he tried to look at it.
Not fire. No way it's water. But I'm bending something- Oh.
Spirit. Amaya bent spirit, not just water, to hide people from the Dai Li. To shield a mind, no matter what tried to warp it.
"Ah. Like the plague kamuiy," Uncle murmured behind him. "You believe this injury is to the spirit, as well as the body?"
Which did and didn't make sense; getting blasted by Azula might wound anyone's spirit, sure, but....
Uncle can see spirits. Even when the rest of us can't.
A fact Amaya had dropped so casually, a day or so after the haima-jiao, he knew it had to be important. But there hadn't been a chance to ask, before everything with the Avatar blew up in his face.
"Fire fights water," Zuko murmured back; feeling it burn to hold the worst of Katara's hate at bay, and promising himself he and Uncle would have a long talk, later. Right now, he had an angry waterbender just waiting for him to make one wrong move on Aang. He needed to know what Lee knew, and didn't know he knew.
She thought Azula attacked a harmless elder, not a warrior for our tribe. Uncle said the Fire Nation needs the Moon too, but you know how Katara hears what she wants to hear. If he fought for the Moon, he was fighting for the Water Tribes. End of story. And in the desert, when Uncle went down....
He'd screamed. He remembered that. And dove into healing with everything he had - and Katara had never seen him rescue Uncle before, she would have had no idea that clan bound you as tightly as any Water Tribe family....
Youngsters help the elders, so their wisdom helps the tribe survive. I was doing what was right for a Water Tribe child. And Uncle was hurt trying to help Katara... just like an elder helping a girl of the tribe. So she wanted to help us. Then.
But in Ba Sing Se, he helped me drag her off. And then he lashed her up one side and down the other. Zuko hadn't heard the argument, but he didn't have to know the specifics. Uncle was proud of him. He'd never have let Katara's venom stand. That makes him an enemy - and once she saw him bend his way into Azula's mess to get me, he was an enemy warrior. Just like me.
Wonderful. They'd been thinking of Katara as an honorable opponent, because that was what an honorable Fire Nation healer would have done. Iroh had been injured facing a mutual enemy. He deserved an offer of aid.
But she didn't do it for our reasons. She did it for hers.
Maybe Toph could raise a sandstone wall in here, so he could beat his head against it. It'd feel so good when he stopped.
And here she was, black hair a wild nightmare as the earthbender rubbed sleep out of her eyes. "So, this time I get to feel your trick?"
"Just the beginning," Zuko warned. "The last time I touched that mess, you know what happened. I'll show you how it starts. Then you get clear."
Toph grinned, undaunted. "Got it."
"Um... before we do this," Aang spoke up, "I just wanted to say I'm really, really sorry about last night-"
"No you're not," Zuko stated, level as drawn steel. Uncle was here, you idiot. Do you think he wouldn't tell me what you said? All of it?
"But I am!" the airbender protested. "I know honor's important to the Fire Nation, I was just trying to-"
"Protect the Water Tribe?" Zuko let his brow arch slightly. "You're not sorry you did it. You're sorry it had consequences. Surprise, surprise." He drew a breath, gripping control with both hands. "In case Chief Hakoda doesn't know he has to tell you, let me inform you what some of those consequences would have been. If it'd been anyone but me." Another breath. "You gave your parole. You broke it. Meaning my half of the agreement was null and void. Any other commander - any other Fire Nation officer - would have been forced to do what the honor of their word required." One heartbeat. Two. "Meaning they could have sailed back to the Water Tribe and slaughtered every. Last. One of them."
Horrified silence. Sokka was leaning forward a little, eyes no longer sleepy. And Katara had her body between him and the airbender, hand near her waterskin. "You said we'd be safe!" she flung at him.
"No," Zuko said evenly. "He said you wouldn't be hurt." Two breaths, and a smirk. "He never said for how long."
Aang was pale as milk, eyes round.
"Doesn't feel so good from this side, does it?" Zuko said quietly. "I don't care if you're the Avatar. The Southern Air Temple's prodigy. The last of your kind. You're still human, just like the rest of us. Actions have consequences. If Kuzon and Monk Gyatso couldn't teach you that, you'd damn well better learn it now. You lied to me. Why you did it doesn't matter. The first matter of honor between us was a lie. Your lie. I can trust nothing you've said since then." Breathe. Stay calm. "So grow up, show a little dignity, and stop lying to my face."
"Or, as we say in the army," Iroh mused behind him, "if you find yourself in a hole? Stop digging."
"But - Toph could tell you I'm really-"
"Twinkletoes." Toph pushed her hair back, mostly confining it under a band. "You're missing the point, big time. You're a contract breaker. You found a loophole and squirmed right through it. If you did that to my parents? You'd be blacklisted forever. Nobody'd trade with you. Nobody'd deal with you. That's a really, really big slice of the Earth Kingdom to have mad at you." She cracked her knuckles. "So are we going to do this?"
"What is wrong with you?" Katara demanded. "He says horrible things about Aang, and you agree with him? And then you think he's going to help?"
Sokka buried his face in his hands.
"Forget it, Toph," Zuko advised. "You're not going to get anywhere. I'm not part of her tribe. I can't be trusted." He looked at Katara, cold and angry. "So lying to outsiders doesn't matter." He eyed Aang. "In case you're wondering why I'm here, it has nothing to do with you. I told Sokka I'd take a look at you. To see if there's anything safe that can be done about that knot in your chakra. I doubt it. Some things just need time. But I said I would look. I keep my word." His voice dropped, and Zuko couldn't keep a trace of venom from leaking into it. "I will always keep my word."
"And here's where we hit what really ticks me off, Katara," Toph said bluntly. "You think Aang was right to lie to a bad guy, and do whatever it took to get away from the Fire Nation? Fine. He was." She pointed at Aang. "But if you thought Zuko was such a bad guy you had to lie to him, what the heck made you think he'd keep his word?"
"Well, he-" Aang swallowed, and shut up.
Sokka winced. "Let me guess. He was wearing gold, so you knew he could make a promise like that. And keep it."
"How'd you - I mean, a lot of things changed in a hundred years-"
"Stop. Just... stop." Sokka sounded tired. "When we get some breathing space, Dad and I are going to tell you what Kyoshi did. And why the Fire Nation's got a right not to trust any Avatar without a good reason." He shook his head. "But this isn't about being the Avatar. This is about you. You knew the rules. You knew Zuko would play fair. And you knew you wouldn't."
"Sokka!" Katara hissed.
"Don't Sokka me, Sis-"
"Stop it!" Aang's hands hovered near his ears, and his eyes were moist. "Why is everybody so angry? I said I was sorry!"
"Sorry won't fix this," Zuko said levelly. Aware, as he locked gazes with Katara, exactly where most of that simmering rage was coming from.
"You're right." Blue eyes were cold as winter. "Some things, no one can ever be sorry enough for."
I didn't kill your mother, damn it! But Zuko couldn't say it. If he said it, he'd scream it. And everything would go down in flames. He could feel it. "Let's get this over with."
Katara grudgingly backed off a few inches. Toph clapped her hands and dashed in, fingers resting on his right arm to feel as Zuko pushed the firepot's flames to golden-green. "Turn," he ordered.
Eyes still wide, Aang froze.
"I am not going to hurt you!" Zuko growled. "Not here. Not now. In this tent, I'm your healer. Idiot. You believed me when you'd known me for all of a few minutes attacking you, and you don't now? Agni. I promised Sokka." He snorted. "And if you don't believe that, look where we are. You think I'm stupid enough to tick off Toph when we're on sand?"
Aang looked dubious. "You went after Katara on an ice plain in a blizzard."
"There's a difference between stupid and desperate," Zuko said grimly. "Learn it. Turn, damn it. I can't hold this forever."
Reluctantly, Aang turned.
Finally. Zuko traced his way through dull gold and glints of brass, careful to stay clear of the lightning-scar. He wasn't sure what Toph thought she'd get out of this, there wasn't a speck of earth in Aang unless you counted bones - but she'd asked.
Don't worry about it. Just heal.
A little time, and Zuko pulled back. "Okay. Time for you to make a strategic withdrawal."
"You said you're just going to look," Toph objected.
"And last time I thought I was just going to heal," Zuko stated. "Go."
Sticking her tongue out at him, Toph moved.
Okay. Edges. Just look at the edges. From a distance.
He hadn't mentioned it to Katara before, because she hadn't mentioned it. And he damn well wasn't going to mention it now, not when he knew how much Katara didn't know about healing. But working near Aang's chakras was terrifying.
So much energy. I'm not trained for this....
Studying that slowly-writhing knot of brassy gray, Zuko felt like a moth-owl trying to sneak around a bonfire. This was power that could tear mountains down. The power that had split Kyoshi Island from the mainland, searing a swath of ocean to lifeless rock; that had drowned half the Fire Nation, and shattered Sozin's first invasion of the Earth Kingdom like an ice cube dropped into boiling water.
This is what I tried to catch. Agni, I'm an idiot.
No wonder Azula had gone straight for the kill. Why not? With the Avatar dead, they could have divided what remained of the fleets and used the comet to obliterate both poles.
Except those aren't the only Water Tribes. I wonder if the Fire Lord knows-
The knot writhed again. He wasn't fast enough.
Lava freezing searing-
Indownupout away from the bystanders!
Lightning crashed, and someone screamed.
Ears ringing, Zuko coughed, and did a headcount. Aang, woozy but sitting upright, blinking like he'd stared into sparklers. Uncle, Toph, Sokka - scattered and dazed, but intact. Katara, bolting out the hole in blue fabric, so probably not her-
Oh yes, Zuko thought, red hazing his vision, that's definitely her.
Uncle caught him before he could move. Thank the spirits. "Your parents' honor is unsullied," he said sternly. "She knows nothing. You are wiser than that."
Wordless, Zuko nodded. Thank you, Uncle.
"What the heck?" Sokka sputtered.
"Told you," Zuko managed. "Tangled chi. Bad." And I'm not making sense. Terrific. "Kept it clear of us. Didn't know someone would be outside...." He swallowed, dreading what might be out there.
My responsibility. I have to know.
He wasn't the first out of the tent. But he wasn't last. "You," Katara hissed, hands wrapped in water as she worked over a coughing Bato.
Alive, Zuko realized in a rush of relief, barely registering Hakoda's worried scowl, the gathering crowd of blue and spears. Thank Agni. "I told you it was dangerous."
"It was supposed to be dangerous to you!" she snarled back.
Waterbender. Strangle. Now.
Iroh caught him again. "I believe we are finished here," he said gravely.
"Oh, you're finished, all right!" Hands no longer glowing, Katara rose, water twisting around one arm. "Just like your sister. Throw around lightning, and never mind who it hurts. And why should we expect anything else? You're Fire Lord Ozai's son!"
Like that's my fault? Zuko almost snarled. "It was an accident-"
"You lie about Aang, you lie about the Fire Nation, you lie about the Avatars - everything you do tears us apart!" Blue eyes narrowed. "I bet your father's so proud!"
"Katara," Aang tried.
"No! Don't you see what just happened? What could have happened? I let him touch you! He almost killed Bato! And either he did it on purpose, and he's been lying to us all along - or he lied about healing you! Because he doesn't know what he's doing, and his teacher's a lousy, cowardly excuse for a healer who thought she could teach a firebender!"
Any other day, any other time, the way she'd said firebender would have sent Zuko into a molten rage. But today....
You do not insult my teacher, little girl. Not now. Not ever.
Fire and ice. Not warring inside him, but twisting, fury and hate each warding the other until he felt almost... calm.
Eye of the storm.
Firebending's opening moves were obvious. Waterbending... was simply finding a quiet balance, and waiting. And he could wait, Zuko realized, darkly amused. Because Katara was watching him for an explosion, and not-
"You are a young and ignorant fool," Iroh said grimly, heat rolling off him like a bonfire. "Healer Amaya is a brave and generous lady, who has healed more wounds of the war than you will in a lifetime. She has true kindness, and virtue. Not to do what is easy, and aid those whom all will praise her for, but to do what is hard! To wade into the flood of war, and rescue, knowing she will gain nothing from it! No great victories in the war. No rebellions to chant her name to the skies. Only the knowledge that she has tried... and for that, someone may live!"
"You love her." Katara whispered it, pale as fine maple-pine. Flushed then, dark as iron-cedar. "You touched her! How could you? How could she? You're a firebender, you're a murderer - and she let you touch her!"
Damning enough; Zuko could hear that in the gasps of disgust, the snarls of rage. The words alone could have sparked a mob, without the lethal tide of hate, hate them, hate them all....
And he knew this hate. Oh Agni, he knew it to his bones.
She's gone. She's gone because of me, it's my fault, Mommy, Mommy-!
Zuko swirled flame in a ball and threw; and never mind that he'd never used this form in combat before. Not with fire. He knew the differences between the elements, now; knew how to soften moves of fire, or sharpen water, to switch-
Katara yelped as the fire-net pinned her, blazing force binding arms and legs tight. Hate cut off like a knife, leaving the silence bleeding.
You're not bending your way out of this one.
"It's all about you, isn't it?" Zuko hissed. Ignoring reactions of shock and fear and threatened violence; all that mattered was the waterbender, and the flames that were not burning her. Yet. "Forget the Avatar. Forget your tribe. This is all you, and your pain. You lost your mother. And it ripped a hole in you so wide and deep and dark... you're hanging on by your fingernails, and what's down there is so awful, so much hate, that it can't ever be you. So it's somebody else's fault. It's somebody else's monster. And you hate it. It's not fair. It's not you. And you'll make the whole world pay for putting that monster inside you. You'll make it all bleed. Make it all burn."
Katara drew a breath, face full of angry denial. Zuko yanked on flame, crushing air from her in a squeak.
"You burn inside," Zuko went on, still wracked by that same cold fury. "Sometimes you can't eat. Sometimes you can't sleep. Because the nightmares are waiting behind your eyes... and the only way you can get rid of them is to give them to someone else. To make us feel your pain. To get your revenge." He smirked, cold and bitter. "Well, guess what, Katara? You're going to get it."
Blue eyes widened. She gulped in a startled breath.
"See, you did exactly what you said you would," Zuko went on, voice like knives of ice. "You stopped me from catching Aang. From restoring my honor. I've failed. I've run out of time. And now... now Azula will be confirmed as the Fire Lord's heir. Crown princess. All she ever wanted. And when my father dies - oh, and who knows? She might help him - the Fire Sages will crown her as Fire Lord. They won't have a choice." He breathed, holding onto his temper like a kite in a gale. "But the great names.... Some of them will see her for what she is. They won't be able to give her their loyalty. They care about their people. And it will destroy them. Azula will have the power in the Fire Nation, if she has to kill half of us to do it. She won't accept anything less." Another breath. Odd; he would have sworn he'd be shaking right now. "My people will die. They'll die by the thousands. Streets will run red with blood. And then, then, you'll come for us. The Water Tribes, and the Earth Kingdom. After all, we deserve it. We killed the Air Nomads. We've savaged the other nations. We murdered your mother."
I will not cry. I will not scream.
"We'll die," Zuko said, soft and bitter as air of a winter dawn. "We'll die hard, but we'll die. And the bodies will rot in the streets, with no one to give them a pyre; and the rivers will rage red, until all you bend is crimson and copper nightmares." He shook his head, slowly. "And you won't even have to lift a finger, Katara. All you have to do... is wait." He let fire flicker away, pinning her in his gaze. "You'll have your revenge. All the revenge in the world. And I hope you choke on it."
The world faded back in. Zuko could see Uncle's wary watchfulness, Aang shaking between Toph and Sokka, Hakoda's look of dawning horror....
Not me. He's not looking at me.
Watching his daughter, Hakoda shook his head in slow denial.
Oh. He didn't know. Zuko smiled bitterly. Welcome to my world.
But he wasn't done here. Not after what Katara had said. Not with his people still on shore; expecting trouble, sure, but not ready for things to go this fast to Koh's lair in a handbasket.
Zuko drew himself up, court manners settling around him like armor. "Chief Hakoda," he said formally. "As your daughter insists I act in my father's name, so I must accept she acts in yours. She declares the truce between us ended. I know what the exigencies of war would demand you do to my people. But we came under truce, and meant no harm. I ask leave for us to depart as we came, in peace."
"And if we don't?" Hakoda said neutrally.
Zuko smirked, feeling fire lick at its human confines, raging to protect... and kill. And the bay was so close, and it pulled.... "Then I burn your ships to the waterline, and I don't stop until my men are safe. Or you're all dead." He didn't even glance at Katara. "Your daughter thinks I'm Sozin reborn. I'd hate to disappoint her."
"Don't do this," Aang blurted out. "You're not like this. You rescue people. You can't do this!"
Not. Helping. "You never listen, do you?" Zuko said quietly. Not even glancing that way. "My people are going to die. My people. You have no idea what I. Can't. Do." Gold held wary blue. Waiting.
"Go," Hakoda said at last. "Just get out of here."
Zuko bowed, one great name to another. Turned, and marched, Uncle guarding his left.
Please let this not be stupid, I don't want to kill anyone, please....
But he would. Oh, Agni, he would. His men were in the middle of spear-armed death, and he'd do what he had to, to get them out. Whatever it cost.
"Sir!" Teruko's voice, parade-ground strong. "We have to go. Now!"
Oh Agni, now what-?
Signals from Suzuran told it all. Earthbenders sighted, strength-
"Chikusho!" Iroh swore.
"Right," Zuko sighed. Wanting to scream. But what was the point? What else did he expect, he'd just stripped hide off Katara, and the Avatar adored her like a lion-puppy. And spirits helped the Avatar. Always.
They ran for it.
You wouldn't think a man Iroh's age could move that fast, Hakoda thought wryly, barely glancing at the firebenders as they bolted down the beach. Rationally, the chief knew he should be watching their enemies depart. Should be wondering what had set that unsettling fire-woman Teruko off; not with anger, but a controlled fear for her charges that had the little steamer's engines already up and running, nosing away from shore. Should, at the very least, be eyeing his men to ensure they kept the last remnants of the truce, as their oddly honorable foes bolted.
But he'd been a chief too often these past two years, and a father not nearly enough. And it was a father Katara needed right now, standing in the circle of their warriors with her face pale, blue eyes wide as she shook her head no-
Standing in the midst of warriors who'd felt what he'd felt. An unthinking, utter disgust for the firebenders - then a shock like hot water on snow, as Zuko's flame seized her. Leaving fury floundering in a sea of, what was I doing?
Which had kept his men back almost as much as Iroh's narrowed eyes, and his own hiss about holding steady. They'd fought firebenders; they all knew so long as a firebender was directly connected to their flame, they controlled whether it burned. Or didn't. Distract Zuko, and that fire might slip - and Hakoda could only imagine the agony left behind.
A good reason to hold off, so long as Zuko bit with words and not fire. But not the only one. Because they were under truce, damn it all. And you did not break a truce until an enemy offered one of your tribe harm. Whether or not Iroh's attentions to a waterbender turned their stomachs, Healer Amaya was Northern Water Tribe. Not Southern. His men knew that.
Which meant if he didn't remind his men he was a father right now, he might not have a daughter.
Deliberately, Hakoda put a hand on Katara's shoulder. Felt her trembling, cold. "Is that what you want?" he asked soberly. "For years, you told me you believed in the Avatar. That he would return, and restore balance to the world. Is that the balance you dreamed of? A world without a Fire Nation? No people of the sun. No warmth. No summer." He lifted his hand to touch a tearstained cheek. "You were always our joy. Proof that even the Fire Nation could not conquer our spirits. Even after Kya.... I didn't know. I should have stayed. I should have been there for both of you." He gathered Sokka in with his eyes. "You are our tribe's future. No victory against the Fire Nation is worth anything, if it costs us who we are."
Aang blinked, looking straight at him, with an awed amazement that made Hakoda want to arch a wry brow. What, wisdom only comes from temples? You can find it behind a spear-point as well, if you survive. You have a lot to learn.
Toph frowned. Shoved Aang into Sokka's arms, lifted her hands as if pushing an unseen weight-
Shoved down, and up again. The firebenders' shelter dissolved as if it had never been, and sand hardened into a chest-high wall in front of them. "Heads up!"
What? Why? Hakoda wondered. The Fire Nation was retreating, why was Toph-
Sand rumbled open under the fleeing pair, and Hakoda felt his heart drop with it.
A blast of flames, and Iroh was clear, just as the beach slammed shut like icebergs clashing together.
Iroh was clear, Hakoda realized grimly, seeing green uniforms pour through what was left of the camp. Hearing an unearthly howl rise from Teruko's marines, their steamer churning back toward shore even though they knew - they had to know! - a shore under earthbenders' commands was nothing but a deathtrap.
They knew. Hakoda could see it. But they didn't care... and he could see the reason why, in the grief and fury etched on Iroh's face.
Dark. Crushing him, until all he could hear was his own heartbeat drumming in his ears. Crushing away breath, and without breath there was no fire.
Failed. Couldn't find him in time. Couldn't make him see. Couldn't save my people.
Wonder if dying hurts as much the second time....
No. I promised. You were naive and selfish and a kid, Aang, but you didn't deserve what the elders saddled you with. The whole world didn't deserve what was going to happen.
I burned my luck and life away, and I promised myself it wouldn't matter. I wouldn't let it. I'd find a way without luck, somehow I'd find a way to fix things....
The darkness was damp.
...I don't need luck.
Breath gone, he crooked his fingers.
Come to me, murderers. Iroh dodged rocks and shifting sands by inches, raising just enough fire to mimic a long-retired veteran. Not toothless... but not nearly dangerous enough for the officer in command to hang warily back. Come to me and die.
Rationally, he knew he should retreat. Sand favored the oncoming army, Teruko's marines were putting themselves at risk to fetch him, and Toph might yet win Zuko free with just a little more time-
If he is still alive.
And that was why he could not withdraw. Lu Ten had died so, crushed and swallowed by the very earth of Ba Sing Se, and he would not be moved from where he had lost a second son-
Sand surged up like a waterspout, steaming from a fiery roar.
He seized one clawed, furious hand, yanking up as Zuko shoved smoking sand down and away. His nephew blinked away grit, gold only a thin, bright rim around wells of deep black-
For one heartbeat, Iroh stared into the full fury of the line of Sozin. And smirked.
Wheeled, and fell into the kata he knew Zuko would use. The only one that made sense, with enemies thick before them and allies at risk behind.
A firebender's offense is his defense.
The mass fireball struck ahead of the Earth Kingdom troops, not on them; blasting them back. Not that Iroh imagined their opponents appreciated such restraint... as Zuko's next swirl, hands sweeping up and forward, sent boiling sand flooding over armored troops like a molten tsunami.
Closing his ears to the screams, Iroh seized a green sleeve, and pulled.
Thank Agni, Zuko ran with him.
Sand and surf under his sandals, and armored hands pulled them up over the side, as fireblasts warned off those few earthbenders brave or stupid enough to advance past searing sand. All the while Zuko was growling under his breath; a low, rumbling snarl that put up hairs on Iroh's neck, and left every marine but Teruko drawing back a prudent step.
Faceplate shielding her expression, Iroh could only read the set of Teruko's shoulders. But those were eloquent enough: Ah, damn it. "Get us off this frosted beach!" she yelled.
Engines surged, and water rushed between them and oncoming thrusts of stone. Keeping his balance with a practiced sway, Iroh kept a wary eye on his nephew as everyone's coordinated fire blasted stony missiles from the sky. "Acting without orders, Lieutenant?" he ribbed her gently.
"Sir! Standing orders were to withdraw with minimum casualties on both sides." Two punches of flame, and a sweeping leg, as someone on shore got cute and skipped a stone across the water. "If the prince were able to give orders, I'm sure he wouldn't countermand that."
"Able to?" Iroh said sharply. For Zuko was fighting as well and cleverly as he ever had against the Avatar, reacting fast as a mosquito-hawk.
"Sir! Dragons need to think to talk." Teruko ducked fragments of stone. "Right now, we're just blue-nosed monkey noise!"
Oh. Later, Iroh was sure, he would curse himself for being an old fool, believing in spirits whose balance he could not see, and missing the fiery youngster right under his nose. Later.
For now Suzuran's trebuchets were pounding the beach with fireballs, adding chaos, fire, and destruction to earthbending already hampered by the stretch of water between them. Only a little longer, and they should be away....
Steel screeched on stone, and the world crashed.
In ringing silence of still engines, Iroh swore he could hear a tether snap.
"Better disciplined than I thought," the old general grumbled, regaining his feet in a tangle of marines. The steamer was canted and listing; not sinking, not yet, but he had no illusions about their chances. Beside him he saw Zuko had been able to keep his balance, cat-owl quick, staring at shore with a hungry, furious gaze.
A surly squawk, an inquisitive chirrup, and black feathers ruffled out of the hold. Asahi's talons bore her up steel rungs steadily, if gracelessly as a turtle-duck climbing silk draperies.
Which Iroh had actually seen, more than once. As a child Zuko had been very... enthusiastic about animals. If it could be stalked and pounced on, it ended up in Ursa's forgiving lap.
Well. At least now he knew why Ursa's admonitions had ranged less along the lines of don't do that, and more in favor of never kill it unless you plan to eat it.
Chirping distress, Asahi lowered her head to rub on Zuko's shoulder. The young man blinked, and shook his head, mouth a grim line as he heard the curses and stifled whimpers that spoke of bones badly broken.
Back with us. Good. "Nephew, the crew," Iroh requested. "Lieutenant, a spyglass-"
She slapped it into his hand almost before he had the word out. "Sorry, Sir. I don't know the insignia."
With a touch of the self-condemnation he'd heard in his nephew's voice so often, though no reasonable officer would expect a marine to know all the standards of the Earth Army. "We shall have to expand Suzuran's library," Iroh said firmly, searching through clouds of dust and smoke on shore. Where was it, any commander bold enough to attack firebenders in the early morning would not fail to display it-
Ah. Oh dear. "General Gang," Iroh said levelly. "Get everyone above deck. Now."
"Everyone topside! Prepare to abandon!" Teruko bellowed. "Sir?" she asked, not even close to a whisper.
"I fear my reputation has preceded me," Iroh said dryly. "He will not be taking honorable prisoners." He met the marine's gaze. "I would suggest you not be taken, Lieutenant."
"I will do as honor bids me, sir."
Meaning she meant to stay alive so long as she must, to try and see them safe. No matter the cost. Iroh inclined his head, feeling steel shudder into his bones as the first rocks punched through the hull. "Prince Zuko-"
Crouching beside the hatch as the engineer scrambled out, Zuko lifted gentle hands, then breathed subtle frost.
The crackle of forming ice made every firebender shiver.
"Gave us a double hull," Zuko said grimly. "They're punching rocks just through us, and pulling back. Why waste chi crushing us when they can let the sea do the dirty work?" He looked over the crew. "It buys us some time. But he's going to notice we're not sinking."
"Time's all we need," Teruko said gleefully, as Suzuran's shadow fell over them. "Move it, people!"
I am a bit old for climbing boarding ladders, Iroh thought ruefully, as three sets of chain and metal rungs rang down to them. But grabbed hold regardless, and started climbing, just as Zuko and another marine swarmed up the other two ladders. There was no time to argue precedence with Teruko, and no sense if there had been; firebenders of their strength would be far more effective from Suzuran's deck than trapped on the little steamer.
Reaching the top, Zuko whistled.
Despite the desperate climb, Iroh caught himself chuckling. He didn't have to be an ostrich-horse to understand, "What are you, crazy?!?"
"It's this or swim!" Zuko threatened, as the rest of the shore party latched on to the other two ladders. "Captain! Does anybody have a rope?"
A coil flung down, and Zuko whistled again. "Come on, sweetheart. Do this, and we'll find you some more nasty men to chew on, I promise...."
"Wrrgh." Gurgling hennish imprecations under her breath, Asahi snatched the rope, and latched onto steel rungs.
And that is all of us, Iroh thought, accepting a hand up from a seaman as Suzuran's engines revved and they started pulling away. A risky move, with half their number injured and still climbing. But far less perilous than lingering near shore with earthbenders-
The sea trembled, and Jee swore. "Cut engines!"
This crash... was less jarring. But not by much.
Iroh righted himself, and glared over the side at rocks grounding their ship.
"Char and blast that general, since when do they take to the damn water...." Captain Jee was fuming beside him, steam rising from the normally collected firebender's breath. "Suzuran may not look like much, but we've got good hulls. He won't be punching through any time soon."
"But it will not take long for him to start a ramp or tunnel this way," Iroh agreed grimly. "Gang is overconfident, and allows the rougher of his men unseemly license, but he is not a fool. We need to prepare for the boarding...."
A clank of steel and chains, and a half-drenched Asahi sputtered up and over the rail. Clawed the steel deck, and glared at Zuko.
And shook herself, deliberately, over everything in the vicinity.
"Sorry," Zuko sighed, one hand up to shield his eyes as he checked a marine's arm. "Simple break," he told a hovering Teruko. "I can show somebody how to heal it after we get out of this."
"Carry on, Rikiya," Teruko instructed. Dropped her voice as they moved away. "How are we getting out of this, sir?"
I don't know. I don't have a clue. We were so close, it's not fair....
Since when had his life been fair? These people needed him. "I'm working on it."
Taking a breath that tasted of sea and smoke, Zuko walked to the rail, eyeing the ring of stone below water, hemming them in. Solid as the wall of Ba Sing Se, he thought grudgingly, ducking out of habit as a trebuchet flung fire toward the shore. Drilled-in lessons of trajectory and geometry told him it wouldn't come near, but with enough angry firebenders around, you could never be sure. Terrific. So we just need a year and a half to bash it down, or the Mechanist's crazy drill....
Frowning at the water, Zuko swirled two fingers. Watched at tiny patch of wave twist, just that same spiral motion.
A drill spirals to cut a straight line. Like you try to make a missile spiral, make it spin, so it'll cut through the air....
Mouth dry, Zuko swallowed. Looked at Teruko, eyes wide; trying not to think too hard, in case his fragile plan burned to ash in the wind. "Do we have any oil?"
"I could-" Aang started.
"No!" Sokka hissed, holding onto an armful of squirming airbender as they all crouched behind Toph's reinforced wall. "You're hurt, damn it! That's fire out there, and I can't believe nobody on Suzuran's plastered us yet! On top of that - see that fancy uniform? That's got to be the general. We're not having good luck with generals lately."
Toph felt earth grumble out under the water all the way to steel, and bit her lip. She could break Suzuran loose. Here. Now. Even with the whole Earth Army bunch working against her. Probably.
Which might work out for Zuko, but would majorly suck for their little bunch. 'Cause there'd be no way the general and his guys would miss landing on her like a ton of bricks, and if they grabbed her they'd take a good look at Aang, and the Water Tribe parka Sokka had pulled over his head just wouldn't cut it as a disguise.
And she'd told Zuko. When the chips were down, she wanted Aang to win.
And she did not have a lump in her throat from knowing Zuko would understand. That heck, Sparky would probably even agree with her. He'd risked it all to make sure Aang got clear of Azula and Long Feng, no way would he want some truce-breaking scum like this General Gang scooping him up. No lump. At all.
Get out. Get away. You're the Dragon of the West, Uncle. Think of something!
And please, please, please let it be something that didn't leave any more screams behind. The smell of flesh seared right through the skin before sand could be bent away.... Toph shivered.
"How could he," Katara whispered with loathing. "All those people...."
Hakoda gripped her shoulder, comforting. "I think it looks worse than it is."
"Says the man who's missed being scorched," Bato said grimly.
"I didn't say it was pleasant," Hakoda said gravely. "But it doesn't look like anyone's dead." His voice went dark. "Considering the situation, that's more than they deserve."
They tried to kill Zuko.
Toph swallowed, feeling again those frantic moments when she'd tried to pull Sparky out. But the rest of the army had been too close, squeezing him down, and it'd been all she could do to keep him from being dragon-paste-
Until he'd fought back where earthbenders couldn't bend, with water and fire. The moment she'd felt his heart race, she'd known the army was in for it. In for what, she hadn't imagined. Spirits.
Uncle warned us. Zuko warned us. He's gotta save his people. He's gotta stay alive.
He's through playing nice.
"I don't get it!" Sokka sputtered. "Why? We had a truce! They were leaving!"
"Because Uncle's the Dragon of the West," Toph said, fighting to keep her voice steady. "We never met him like that. He's retired. But I heard bits of stories, growing up. He scares people, Sokka. He scares generals like the Fire Lord scares you. Only way worse." She shook her head. "Why'd you think Zuko wanted us to think he was still after Aang? So everybody'd go after him. Not Uncle. Uncle's all Zuko's got left. He'd step in front of an avalanche for Uncle. He'd let us all hate him, for Uncle." She swallowed, and pointed at a heart fluttering like a dragon-fly. "He'd let you hate him."
Aang gulped. Looked out across the flame-strewn beach, determined, raising a hand-
Sucked in a hiss of pain, fighting not to cry as Katara held him. "All those people...."
"Asked for it," Hakoda said grimly. "I know this isn't the way of your people, Aang. But we had a truce with the prince, and he honored it. He's still honoring it. We've seen those fireballs hit land before. If that ship wanted to hit us, they would have by now...." The chief's voice died. "That's not good, is it?"
"Ah... no." Sokka gulped. "Definitely not good."
"What?" Toph demanded impatiently. Honestly, sometimes, seeing people-!
"Zuko's... looking this way," Sokka said, still shaky.
Oh. Oh. Oh boy. Toph grinned like a leopard-shark. "Keep talking, Sokka. I want to hear everything-"
She heard the roar first. Crackling, sizzling; like hot oil someone had thrown water into-
Felt an odd, contrary, pulling breeze on her cheek, and realized exactly what Zuko was up to.
"Oh, man," Sokka whispered.
Burnt oil, boiling salt; the scent smacked Toph's nose with the roaring wind. Not a gale, or one of Aang's blasting winds. Air was only an innocent bystander, sucked down with a scream in twisting water to feed the fire binding it like a ribbon of knives.
Like a drill.
Toph felt it bite into the stone around Suzuran, snarling like a tiger-dillo having a really bad day. Rock didn't break, it pulverized; seared and shattered to silt in the waves, too fast for the stunned army earthbenders to react.
A roar of engines, a shudder, and she felt Suzuran yank free.
Katara was shaking like a leaf. "He... how... that can't be Zuko!"
"Sparky's been practicing," Toph said bluntly, heart still racing. Braced and ready to slam a shield of earth up over them at any twitch of the shore that would signal an oncoming wave.
Don't do it, Sparky. I know you're mad. I know you're hurt. I know Uncle said dragons are predators - and bat-wolves don't let hurt prey go, they just don't.
But you're people too, Sparky. You can do this. I know you can....
Wind gusted, and died.
"He - it fell apart," Sokka said, dazed. "He let it go... wait, what's Iroh - get down!"
Bato and Hakoda flattened them all.
Toph almost didn't hear the crackle. Though she felt hairs prickle up on her neck, and tasted ozone-
Lightning crashed like a dying mountain.
Ears ringing, Toph flattened her hands on the sand. Swallowed, feeling glass where the beach under the army's center had been, and in the middle of that....
"General Gang is down!"
Iroh sighed, lowering his hands. It gave him no joy to see Gang fall. No joy... but yes, a certain grim satisfaction.
Try to kill my nephew, will you? I think not.
Though tactically, there were far better reasons to see the man dead. Zuko's daring and cleverness had won them free once, but General Gang might still have rallied his forces to trap them again. And Gang would have tried, desperately; for Gang was not a fool. He might have loathed the Fire Nation with every fiber in him, but he would have known what he had just seen. And how great a danger it would be to his people.
Earth was stability and tradition. The Earth Kingdom recoiled from adopting change, even for the better. But that did not mean they did not recognize it... and their brighter officers knew it was flexibility and innovation on the battlefield, far more than fire, that made Fire Nation forces so deadly.
Healing. Hot water. Searing sand. And now, fire-wreathed waterspouts that could shatter stone. Zuko had shown, plainly, he could bend unlike any firebender General Gang would have ever seen.
Had Gang taken them, no one of their ship would have been allowed to survive.
But Earth Kingdom armies were heir to all the respect for tradition of their nation. Especially respect for rank and noble birth. Cut off the head, and like the scorpion-viper, the rest of the body would thrash uselessly.
"They could not be allowed to pursue us further," Iroh sighed. "And you know they would not have stopped."
And quite miserable Zuko looked to know it, indeed. He has your heart, Ursa. Gentle, for all his rage. Agni, let him keep it. "He knew we were there under truce, and given the speed of his attack, he likely knew who he was attacking," Iroh said, loud enough for the crew to hear. "Meaning he came, deliberately, for two of Sozin's line." He shrugged. "If a fool wishes to commit suicide, sometimes all one can do is oblige him."
That won grins from the crew. But Zuko swallowed, looking aside. "You were retired. You liked being retired."
"No one harms one of my clan without consequences," Iroh said levelly. "I had hope that healing would not rouse their ire... but I failed to take into account Xiu's presence. She must have told them how you disguised it. Bending hot water...." He sighed. "Well. It must have been enough."
None too subtly, Teruko glared.
Iroh blinked, thought over what he'd said, and tried not to sigh. "They would have come for us regardless. Azula spread that accursed poster far too widely-"
"I hated acting like him."
Ah. Now he could see the shudders, hidden behind hands calming damp black feathers. That could not have been pleasant, for one who had tried so hard to end things peacefully. "You did not," Iroh said plainly. "My brother would never have allowed the option of leaving without bloodshed." The more fool he. "Come. Let us see to our wounded."
Zuko shivered again, subtly. Drew a deep breath, and straightened. "Lieutenant. Who's the worst?"
"How could you let them get away-!"
Shaken and numb and angry all at once, Sokka stood a few feet back from where his dad was facing down Colonel Mohe, and tried to make sense of the morning.
Iroh killed the general. Iroh. But he's always been... and what Zuko said to Katara... burn our whole fleet? Zhao would do that, sure, but Zuko's not....
Sokka put his head down, and breathed. And tried not to laugh hysterically, knowing whose advice he was taking.
He told us. He told us we didn't know... that he'd never tried to kill us....
And it looked like Zuko hadn't lied. Again.
And that's just wrong. It just is, how come the guy who - who was trying to catch us never lies, and Aang does....
Mind going in circles, Sokka forced himself to focus on the important things. Katara was with the wounded she could still help, treating sears. Toph had Aang and Momo half-burrowed out of sight in a little sandstone shelter, ready to play helpless little scared blind girl for all she was worth if they were found. And Appa was back behind a few of the dunes the army hadn't tramped over. That should hide him for now, unless things got worse.
Yeah. And why wouldn't they? the sarcastic voice in his head pointed out.
You hush, Sokka told himself. I've got enough problems.
Problems like the angry earthbender officer in front of Hakoda, who stopped just short of poking the Water Tribe chief in the chest.
Unimpressed, Hakoda eyed the colonel. "You were throwing earth, and they were throwing fire, and I had injured children to keep out of the fight. What, exactly, did you expect us to do?"
"Not let murderers sail away-!"
"Colonel Mohe." Hakoda's voice was calm, but there was something in his eyes Sokka had seen before. Just before firebenders had charged their village. Hard and dangerous, like a drawn sword. "Would you like to tell me why your general attacked our camp, when Sergeant Huizhong knew there was a truce holding?"
"A truce?" the colonel sputtered. "You actually meant to hold to that? With the Fire Nation?"
"I think I see where my daughter picked up the attitude," Hakoda said dryly. "Not with the Fire Nation. With this ship. Prince Zuko may be as lethal as any of them, but he's never given me reason to doubt his word."
"Prince Zuko?" The colonel's lip curled. "As if that cast-off brat had any authority to negotiate anything!"
"The captain of the ship seemed to think so," Hakoda said levelly.
"Hah!" Colonel Mohe smirked. "I suppose they'd been on the water just as long as you have! That's rich." A snort. "Good news, then. When they learn the truth, they'll kill him for us."
"Truth?" Hakoda said warily.
"You haven't heard? Everyone's wondered why the brat was banished, for years.... The Fire Lord himself burned the boy and cast him out! I suppose rumors of that woman he married were all too true... why else would a Princess vanish, if they weren't shamed she even existed? That bastard has no more right to noble blood than one of their damn komodo-rhinos!"
Sokka swallowed, the world reeling around him. Hearing Xiu, only a day before. "Some firebender put his fist in Lee's face...."
His father. Zuko's dad did that.... Sokka clutched his head, feeling like his brain wanted to explode. Dads didn't do something like that!
And sisters don't try to kill you. Oh man....
A hawk cried out overhead, and something small, hard, and thankfully light bounced off his skull.
Circling with empty talons, the messenger hawk headed smugly back out to sea.
Rubbing his head, Sokka eyed the bird for a possible boomerang slice. Decided it was more trouble than it was worth, and picked up the little lacquered red and black cylinder. Had to open somehow... oh. Screwed together. Neat. And inside-
Sokka read the scrap of paper, and gulped. "Dad?"
Frowning, Hakoda took the message. And went very, very still.
Sokka winced, the acerbic text still fresh in his mind.
Chief Hakoda. I grow tired of watching people try to kill my nephew.
-And yes. You may, most certainly, consider this a threat.
"Don't think I'll ever get used to seeing those," Huojin muttered, watching the scarlet speck of a messenger hawk circle above Ba Sing Se.
Sitting beside him near the roof edge, Captain Lu-shan snorted. Usually, Huojin knew, the strengthening sunlight at the end of shift brightened the captain's mood. Today... not so much.
"I keep thinking I'm going to wake up, and find out I had bad pickled beets for dinner," Lu-shan said bleakly. Shook his head. "Oma and Shu. One teenage girl took down Ba Sing Se? I don't care if she is of Sozin's accursed house-"
"You should, sir," Huojin interrupted. "That's how she did it. How she's holding the Dai Li. She's... they're not like other firebenders. They burn. And it draws people. Especially people who've got that killer instinct. Like firebenders... and like the Dai Li." He glanced at his suddenly wary captain. "Or so I've heard."
"Right," Lu-shan said at last. "Huojin. Why didn't you turn them in? And don't tell me it was the Avatar," the captain added dryly. "You've worked the streets too long to let one idiot bender kid get to you."
"Maybe not," Huojin admitted. "Captain. We both know the streets. And we know there's scum, and there are honest citizens, and that's usually pretty much that. And from what I've heard about Ozai and Azula... yeah. They're scum." He sighed. "But we both know, even in a family of citizens, sometimes somebody goes crooked. And there's nothing anybody can do about it." He glanced at Lu-shan. "And sometimes, just sometimes... even in a family of crooks, one kid will go straight."
Lu-shan took that in a moment, and shook his head. "The Dragon of the West."
"Is one damn scary guy if his nephew's in trouble," Huojn admitted. "Other than that? He's retired, sir. I've seen people like him off the Wall. You know plenty of them. Soldiers who've just seen enough people die. They'll fight if they have to, but.... Spirits, he was happy to see Amaya teaching his nephew. Proud as a father. You can't fake that."
"Hmm." The captain didn't sound convinced. "You risked your career - and the Avatar's displeasure, and the Dai Li - because you think Prince Zuko might be a good kid. The Fire Prince?"
Huojin shrugged. "Can't think of a better reason to risk it, sir."
Captain Lu-shan rubbed at what seemed to be a headache. "I don't know you at all, do I?"
"What? Sir, of course you-"
Scarlet feathers swooped down.
"...Um." Huojin looked at the hawk perched on one unwary wrist, yellow eyes glinting. Looked at the captain. "I've never seen this bird before in my life?"
Lu-shan raised an eyebrow, amused and wary at once. "Probably for someone inside."
"Probably," Huojin said levelly, carefully extracting the thin roll of paper from the cylinder on the hawk's back. Wary of that fierce, hooked beak... though the bird seemed just as amused as the captain.
"Huojin." Lu-shan's voice was quiet, catching him just before he could unroll fine paper. "You've got a whole life here."
I know. Spirits, I know. "Captain." Huojin had to swallow before he could go on. "Luli and I... we've talked about this. A lot. Amaya's in trouble. I don't... I don't think you get how much trouble, sir. Azula's in the palace. She knows about the Earth King, and who treats that crazy bear of his. She knows Amaya trained Lee." He swallowed again, throat dry. "She's going to turn over every Ring, every street, every rock, to find her. Amaya has to get out."
Lu-shan sighed. "It's your neck." He paused. "And your family's."
I know. Taking a deep breath, Huojin unrolled the scrap.
Hey Umbrella. We're coming.
Not signed. Just the fancy flowing symbol Amaya had taught him meant Water, in a brown that didn't match the rest of the ink-
That's not ink.
Nose to the paper, he could still catch a faint wisp of cold smoke.
Leave it to Lee to char a Water symbol, Huojin thought wryly. Oh spirits, they're alive. They're alive, and they're coming back-
Footsteps. Huojin tucked the message up his sleeve with a speed learned from outfoxing young pickpockets, and turned an innocent gaze toward Master Sergeant Yakume.
"We're not expecting a hawk," the Fire Nation soldier said dryly. Held out a wrist for the bird to hop onto, and efficiently checked the cylinder. "No message-? Oh, Agni. Suzuran."
Huh? Blinking, Huojin looked again at the hawk's harness, tracing out what had looked like subtle ornamentation. It'd been decades, but High Court wasn't like regular writing. Just a five-score of symbols, easy enough for even a child to remember.
"I take it Suzuran's someone you don't like?" Captain Lu-shan said dryly.
"Not a who, Captain. Suzuran is a ship," Yakume said civilly. "A supply ship, to be accurate. Manned with-" He grimaced. "Well. I'm sure they'll be no more problem in port than any other sea-mad crew. They're not criminal, just... boneheaded screw-ups." He nodded toward the hawk. "As you can see."
"The Army knows about supply ships?" Huojin dared to ask.
"We have a vested interest in them," Yakume said dryly. "But as it happens, I know a lot about this one. The captain's had the dubious honor of having pursued the Avatar - and surviving - longer than any other officers besides General Iroh and Prince Zuko himself. Including that sea-spirit mess at the North Pole." He smiled wryly. "A wise man keeps track of people with luck like that."
"Tell me about it," Huojin muttered, rubbing his throat.
"The tsukumogami," Yakume nodded, after a moment's thought. "Exactly how did the prince get it off you without revealing himself?"
"What, you don't think he just yanked it off?" Huojin said warily.
"In point of fact, he could have," Yakume replied, gold eyes level. "I was on campaign with the Dragon of the West, years ago; I have seen certain... internal uses of chi that can allow a firebender to confront a spirit physically. I've never heard of another bending style being able to do so. Even your Dai Li use iron; it can't be bent, which I imagine prevents a spirit turning it on them, but it is of earth, and carries their chi. Chi stops a spirit. Flesh and bone - and even steel, Agni watch over our lost - do not." He looked over them both. "So. How?"
Tell him, don't tell him... oh what the heck, let's blow his mind. "Hot water," Huojin said frankly, feeling Lu-shan's eyes on him.
Yakume stared at him.
"I'm getting the feeling that's just as weird as Mushi - er, sorry, General Iroh - said it was," Huojin said, puzzled. "Hasn't anybody ever tried that before?"
"If they had, they certainly wouldn't try it in sight of most of the Earth Kingdom," Yakume said tartly. "Your armies have a century-old policy of eliminating firebenders who show original techniques. If they have to wipe out a whole household with blasting jelly to do it."
Huojin flinched. But the captain....
Captain Lu-shan didn't look surprised. And that... hurt.
Even so, there was something odd about the way Yakume had said that. Like somebody has tried it before, Huojin thought. But if that were true, why had Iroh been so surprised?
More to the point, why was Yakume even talking to them like this? For a guy who said he didn't like Earth Kingdom people, he wasn't acting like he'd rather be anywhere else-
Gold met water-bent green, and Huojin tried not to sweat. "Um... where are you taking that hawk?"
"I'm going to feed her, Guard Huojin," Yakume said dryly. "And then, Captain Jee is going to get a few words about careless expenditures of military assets."
Head high, he stalked out of sight.
"That was... weird," Captain Lu-shan said quietly.
And way too easy, Huojin knew. Even so, he couldn't help feeling like he wanted to giggle.
Lu-shan did a double-take, and edged back. "No," he protested.
"No," Lu-shan repeated, incredulous. "Not a chance. He's... Oma and Shu, he's a teenager. He couldn't have."
Huojin tried not to snicker. "Captain. Did you ever wonder how the Avatar got his bison back?" Leaning back a little, he smirked. "It was locked up down in Dai Li headquarters."
"In Dai Li...." Lu-shan groaned.
"Until Lee tracked down the Blind Bandit," Huojin said, more soberly. "Still think I should have turned them in?"
Lu-shan buried his head in his hands.
A ship. Huojin took a deep breath, joy a bubble of rainbow inside him. Oh Agni, kid; how'd you pull that off?
One ship against the might of the Fire Nation. Not enough to win back Ba Sing Se, not by a long shot....
But he could taste the sea in the wind. And it breathed of freedom.
A/N: I do feel sorry for Aang. Hear all those pedestals smashing? He's a gentle soul who belongs up in a monastery where everyone's peaceful and kind. But the world just isn't like that.
And when Zuko cools down some, he'll probably feel sorry for Aang too. Which is way, way different than having regrets about what he did....
Yes, the Fire Nation felt it had reasons for the war of conquest. That doesn't make it right. It's taken Zuko a while to put that together; he was taught all his life the Fire Nation were, unreservedly, the good guys, and changing ingrained beliefs takes time even with substantial evidence in front of you. He and Iroh just want to make the Gaang realize that there were reasons behind the war; it wasn't just because the Fire Nation as a whole is power-hungry. There are no excuses for what happened to the Air Nomads, and the world. But there are reasons.
A note on the spirit-touched and finding love: given the Fire Nation's ancestry, they're all a little touched. Which is one reason Meixiang fell hard for Tingzhe, though he'd survived the same moonless night Shirong did. So Zuko and Iroh are perfectly acceptable as chick-magnets... to other Fire Nation girls. Of course, this also means other nations tend to find the Fire Nation in general... a little spooky. Which does not help in making peace one bit.
A note on nails: people tend to judge "normal" by themselves. If Zuko's used to climbing rock walls bare-handed (which we see in canon), any less strength than that would be considered "fragile".
Finally, Katara. All cultural issues aside... never, ever underestimate the impact of losing a mother on a child. Zuko actually got luckier than Katara, canon; he was older, and he believes there's a chance his mother is alive. It is strongly implied Katara watched her mother's murder. And after that, according to Sokka, she becomes the mother of the household, looking after everyone, always the optimist. Meaning she buried all that grief and anger to function... and that's very, very bad.
In a way, Zuko's seething temper tantrums through much of the first two seasons are a lot healthier. He's mad at the world. That may not be healthy or sane, but it's honest. And as long as you're honest with yourself, you have a chance to stop and look at your own behavior, and fix it.
Katara is not honest. Katara is sweetness and confidence and "we're going to help Aang save the world!" Until she runs into something she doesn't like, at which point the Sugar Queen cracks, and a lot of nastiness oozes out.
In I Could Do Anything, If I Only Knew What It Was, Barbara Sher describes the rage against the ordinary. Ragers are charismatic, often skilled, often geniuses. They work hard, they may be good at what they do - but they want to be the absolute best. Without having to start from the bottom. Or put up with the ordinary scutwork the rest of us take for granted. They charm people around them into fixing their problems, over and over again. And they always have problems. Because when they were young, they were horribly betrayed by the world - and they want to be rescued. More than anything in the world. Katara's central motivating idea - the Avatar will return - fits the rager's profile point by point. 1) Her fantasy requires the act of an outsider to come true. 2) The end is a rescue or reward that comes only to special people. 3) She'll be "discovered" as special (the last Southern waterbender). 4) Her life is pointless without this happy ending.
This can be fixed. Ragers can learn to find the root of their problems, and move past it. But it takes hard work, self-examination, and admitting a little brat inside you wants something it can never have. Katara can break out of this - if she listens, really listens to her family and friends, and realizes that she wants, desperately, for someone to make things right. To rescue the little girl who lost her mother, and grew up too soon.
Except in canon the creators hooked her up with Aang, who wants to be mothered and have excuses to be irresponsible.
(Insert writer banging own head against wall.)
...Yeah. That relationship is going to end so well. I think I'll take my chances with Azula....
Since some people have been asking... this is only a partial bibliography. I have a lot stored in my head from reading... well, most stuff I can get my hands on.
Meditations on Violence, by Rory Miller. If you read just one book on this list, make it this one. It'll tell you why there is a gap - better make that a yawning abyss - between Zuko and Aang's viewpoints on reality. Spirituality and violence are not incompatible. A lot of monks in Japan were retired bushi. The way canon sets up the Air Temples, they lack that... and that makes a big difference.
Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales.
Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People by William W. Fitzhugh and Chisato O. Dubreuil.
The Conquest of Ainu Lands: Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion,1590-1800 by Brett L. Walker.
- I highly recommend this one for anyone who wants a look at how Water Tribe/Fire Nation interactions might realistically work, with no waterbenders involved to even out the firepower.
China's golden age: everyday life in the Tang dynasty, by Charles Benn.
Early Modern Japan by Conrad D. Totman.
Green Archipelago: Forestry In Pre-Industrial Japan (Ecology & History) by Conrad Totman and Jr. James L.A. Webb.
Ninja AD 1460-1650 (Warrior) by Stephen Turnbull
The Samurai Invasion of Korea 1592-98 (Campaign) by Stephen Turnbull,
And many others of his books.
What Cops Know and Pure Cop by Connie Fletcher.
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker.
On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by Dave Grossman.
The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.
Wetlands by William J. Mitsch and James G. Gosselink.
www. sciencedaily. com (take out spaces) is always interesting for inspiration.
http:// en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Tupilaq
http:// en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Each_uisge
-For anyone who thinks spirits are friendly. Um, no.