Reluctant Hero Book 2: Water

Summary: Zuko didn't want this fate, hadn't wanted the surprise of bending air, but he can't just lie down and die… the past Avatar's have expectation, Iroh has hopes, and his father has an army. Perhaps it would be easier to just drown in a swamp then bother with water-bending. Air-bending is bad enough when his only source of information in an eleven year old. AU. Book 2.

Disclaimer: If only, if only, the plot bunny sings.

Proofreader: Kira Kyuu

Rating: Teen

A monster, a beast, a father the least,

Had a son put on fate's short leash.

Though souls do linger and reach with long nails,

Praying for a hero to rise with the gales,

A young man is reminded his life not his own

And princely regrets pull him down with the undertow.

"I am free."

Aang turned his head back towards Lee who had just spoken. The older teenager had finally loosened his death grip on Appa's saddle and was now just sitting there, his eyes closed as if he was just feeling the setting sun on his skin. The look on the other's face … there was a calmness, an enlightenment that Aang almost envied. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from Lee's shoulders and the teenager's next words almost made Aang's stomach churn in envy, because even though he was an air-bender and was free by definition … there was a heaviness in the bottom of his soul, as if he had a great burden to bare.

"Are you sure? Freedom is just a definition of mind. So if you feel free, then you are free, but you could still be stuck in the North Pole and be free if you wished to think that way. Yet you can still be imprisoned while you are a wanderer … or something like that," repeated Aang as he recalled one of his lessons, burying his inner worries as soon as they rose. It was not something he liked to dwell on. Freedom really was a definition of mind and he liked to think of himself as free and happy. Though sometimes he thought he was lying to himself, like he had forgotten a heavy promise he had made. He just wanted to be happy and to make others happy as well, was that so much to ask?

Lee merely glared for a moment at the other, like the thought of ever going back to the North Pole was as appealing as having his right leg cut off. Then, pressing back the want to be irritated at his rescuer, Zuko grumbled, "Perhaps it could have been that way for you … but my freedom is on my ship with my uncle and crew."

Zuko, for his part, was a little surprised with how openly he had admitted that. Wasn't the Fire Nation Palace the freedom and home he wanted? Not some rusting metal ship with bad music tastes. Truthfully, now that he had time to dwell on it, a part of him was starting to wonder how much value he really had in his homeland since it had banished him so easily. And yet, a deep part of him quickly dismissed the idea, telling him how un-honorable such a thought had been.

Aang, his smile dying slightly at Lee's comment, mentally noted that Lee had called it his crew and ship, but decided to not give it much mind. It was just a pronoun after all. And the ship did sound interesting to the young monk who always loved a little adventure, especially Lee's tea-crazed uncle. Aang knew that they were going to get along splendidly… if the fire-bending crew didn't outright kill him.

Okay, okay, he would admit it. He was gripping the reins so tight he couldn't feel his fingers. He was terrified! A deep older part of himself told him that he could be friends with any fire-bender he wanted, just look at Lee, but the newer part of his soul that had been raised to hide in the icecaps was absolutely petrified. He was going to a ship full of fire-benders! Yes, the very same type fire-benders that burned his people's traditional homes in the mountains and pressed them into hiding and near extinction. The very same type of people that slaughter his kind a hundred years ago and made the world believe that there were no more air-benders. The very same type of fire-benders that killed Katara's mother.

And so, despite himself, despite how much he was trying to believe that everything was going to be fine and that he was as free as he liked to imagine, the words still escaped him nonetheless, "They won't hurt me, will they Lee?"

Zuko immediately looked angry at the comment and Aang quickly found himself blundering for the right words so he wouldn't lose his new friend, "Not that I think that all fire-benders are bad or anything. It's just that … the air-masters in the temple and … the elders in the nearby village and Sozin's Comet and … Katara's mom ..."

Even though a deep part of himself was telling him to be offended that the young air-bender would even question his honor or the control he had over his crew (though he honestly kind of questioned that himself after he had that first air-bending incident), he found he understood the other's fear. After all, despite how much he didn't want to dwell on it, it had to be done for the greater good of the Fire Nation; the air-benders had to be destroyed… And that thought hurt. It really did. It hurt more than he would like to admit, because Yugato and Aang just tried so hard to be kind and considerate in their own ways despite their limitations … It just made him wonder why anyone would want to hurt an air-bender or why anyone thought they were a threat to begin with.

Thinking his words over carefully, his honor demanding it, Zuko straightened his spine and spoke as if there was no chance of anything else ever occurring, "No one will hurt you from my ship. I will personally make sure of it. On my honor Aang, I will make sure of it."

Turning his head, he saw Zuko was now sitting on his knees, chin proud and lifted like it was more a declaration than some kind of promise.

Feeling the rough fabric of Appa's reins in his hand, Aang gave a sad smile and nodded as he accepted the other boy's claim though there was still a flicker of apprehension in his chest. What kind of authority did Lee actually have to make a crew of fire-benders do as he asked?

"If you say so Lee, I will believe you," said Aang, readily accepting the other's claim despite the weakness of his voice. "Now, to bigger issues, it's getting dark and both I and Appa are getting tired. Where are we going to hanker down for the night?"

Zuko, raising an eyebrow, having not dared look over the side in hours, merely murmured, "Anywhere we can get out of the wind, of course. I might even be about to build us a fire … we'll have to be in a slightly hidden area for that though."

Aang slowly gained a sheepish look and could only murmur, "Uh, about that. There is nothing … but ocean. I haven't even seen an iceberg. Plus, I have no idea if we are even going in the right direction … you kind of said you just wanted to go home and then acted like you were going to puke on Appa. You never corrected my … direction."

Zuko, dread filling his stomach, inched forward so he could look out at the moonlit horizon. Nothing but dark waters. Great, they were lost, at night, in the middle of the ocean. Could it get any worse?

"Also, I think we dropped the food satchel during our escape. I just glanced back and noticed it was gone, so I don't think we have anything to eat."

And he had to ask. Wonderful. He might have escaped but now they were either going to fall to their deaths, drown or starve. Fantastic. Could anything else go wrong?

"Also," said Aang, looking pained. "I have to pee."

Zuko, despite himself, slapped himself in the forehead.

Elsewhere from anything seemingly important to do with the Avatar, was a girl. At first glance there was outwardly nothing special about her. Her hair was up and her small, young, and almost frail looking form was adorned in a pale green dress of fine fabric. Currently, she was seated at the table, her food untouched and her expression seemingly neutral.

And yet there was an obvious heaviness in the room, especially when the girl said, "No, I will not go."

"Dear," said the girl's mother, Poppy, "Don't be unreasonable. You have no … opportunities … here, but in the city you might-"

"No. I like it here. I just found my place in this town," she barked, the calm in her voice slowly dying, her hands becoming fists below the table.

"Your place in this town?" asked the girl's father, Lao, his back straight and his shoulders ridged. "Whatever do you mean by that? You never leave this house or the garden. I can't even recall the last time you went into town … given your condition."

Biting her tongue, knowing she had said too much already, the young girl tried to cover her tracks by taking on the tone of a submissive yet helpless daughter, "What I mean, father, is that … I like my gardens and I just started lessons with Master Yu. Please, I wish to learn more."

"Learn more, you say?" said Lao, an obvious bitterness in his voice, his tea cup placed loudly on the table so his daughter could sense his distaste before he even spoke. "Why? Have you not learned enough behind me and your mother's back? After all, you seem to be doing well at that underground earth-bending rink you've been going to for the last few nights."

The young girl threw her head up and with wide milky eyes stared in the direction of her father. Despite herself, despite her fiery undercoat, she had no words. She could only swallow.

"Did you honestly think that I wouldn't notice that my blind daughter had gone missing? The guards and I were up all night looking for you and when we found you … Well, Master Yu's services are no longer required though your lessons as a lady are in need of severe grooming."

"Y-you know about that? But … h-how long?"

"Long enough," said Lao, his disappointment evident in his very voice, "that I believe your education as a Lady has been faulty and that we have not been conditioning you well enough to become a good wife. You being blind has already been a challenge, but given this behavior I feel we have no choice. We are sending you to stay with your grandmother and aunt in Ba Sing Se. They know some excellent teachers such as the renowned Madame Macmu-Ling."

The blind girl reeled back into her chair, the world crashing down around her as her secrets were revealed and her greatest horror was presented on her lap.

"Grandma Beifong and Aunt Lami in Ba Sing Se? But father, they'll bind my feet or something worse! Please, please don't send me there!" suddenly cried the girl, her resolve crumbling as she struggled with the want to obey her father as she had always pretended to do and yet fight like the Blind Bandit she had dubbed herself to be months ago.

"You should have thought of that, Toph, before you betrayed my trust," said Lao, his next words driving deep into the girl's heart before she could even think of a retort or an escape plan, "I'm so disappointed in you."

XXX

Paw07: Dear creepers held up in your basements, coffee shops and dark corners in the campus library that the janitors don't even know about (stop looking at the stain on the carpet … you don't want to know what it is). I thank you. I thank you for coming out of your reclusive state and braving the dangers of the review button. But, alas, you did it. Congratulate yourself. Step out into the sun (you might have to wear shades so you don't blind others with your epic reviewing self) and tell the world that you reviewed and you feel damn good about it.

Anyway, that was just reply to my reviewers from the last chapter. On another note, to kick off the second book I thought I would give everyone an idea of what was going on with Toph. Yeah, I have no plans of retelling the series with them discovering her as they did before. She is the last element after all. She gets her own flare. And please don't whine about her being so submissive. I always saw Toph has submissive only to her parents … which is why she ran away in my mind. Anyway, later.