Chapter 43: Call You Home
Iroh sat in his quarters, the whine of the hull the only sound in the room. There were a collection of candles flickering all around him, the flames shifting as if there was a breeze in the room. There wasn't. It was just Iroh … trying to meditate, to breathe. He had never had meditation issues in the past, but his soul felt burdened, heavy and … he just couldn't breathe.
Sighing, opening his eyes. He sat there staring at the flickering flames around him before he exhaled slowly extinguishing every flame in the room and casting himself into darkness. The firstborn sat there a moment more, calling up memories of his failures. He knew he shouldn't. Such thoughts were keeping his soul bound to his body. He knew that it was unwise to give in to sorrow. Zuko had escaped the Northern Water Tribe and that was all the hope he needed, but he still wanted to cross over and beg the spirits for his nephew's location.
The world was large. He might not find Zuko for years … or ever.
'Do not lose hope, Iroh. Sometimes you merely … have to look up,' suddenly said a voice, the tone humor-filled and playful.
Iroh jerked to the left at the sound … immediately seeing something in the dark. There was a figure, a body, a dark outline that did not belong. And yet, it was a familiar figure of regal proportions. He had seen the outline before in Zuko's room many weeks ago. The figure was little more than a flicker of blue eyes, a spirit barely fading into this realm, and yet he knew exactly who he was.
"Avatar Roku?" whispered Iroh, wondering if he had actually crossed over.
The spirit's eyes seemed to glimmer a haunting blue before he nodded, his voice echoing, 'Iroh ... be the Avatar's guide. Help him find himself, even the pieces he doesn't want to claim.'
And then the past life was gone in a blink of an eye, the outline dispersing like dust to the air. Iroh merely sat there breathless.
Closing his eyes, lighting one of the candles in front of himself, Iroh looked around the room once more before wiping a hand down his face. He suddenly felt very old and maybe a little irritated. "Why must spirits always be so cryptic?"
There was suddenly a pounding on his door, making the aging man jump. A second later, Lieutenant Jee was opening the metallic door, his expression pinched as he spoke, "Prince Iroh, you are needed on deck. There … I something coming from the sky. It's been growing steadily closer and the ship is obviously its destination."
His eyes gaining a steely look, Iroh was to his feet and following the other fire-bender, their footsteps echoing down the metal halls. The aging prince tried not to squint as he stepped out into the sunlight. He hadn't come out to greet the morning sun in days. Crossing realms ... required large amounts of time and concentration. It took a dedicated soul and once you came back, you were never quite the same. It was like you always had a foot in the other realm.
Eyes adjusting quickly to their element, Iroh looked up towards the sun where Jee was pointing. At first, it just seemed to be a shadow on the sun, a growing dot. It became larger and larger revealing a set of horns and a large … tail? A bellow could then be heard in the distance.
"What is it?" questioned Iroh, the prince now wondering if the past life's warning had been literal.
"I can't tell, but I'm not taking any chances," growled Jee before turning to the soldiers that were gathering on deck. "Men, into position. I can't tell what that is, but I want us ready."
Iroh stood there like a stout tree, unyielding as he waited. His eyes only widened when he could see that it was a white creature... No, it couldn't be? No one had officially seen one in decades.
"Is that a sky bison?"
True, some individuals believed that the bison still lived wild in the highest mountain tops, but a sky bison shouldn't be out here in the middle of the ocean … obviously flying towards the ship.
"Should we attack?" asked one of the fire-benders, his voice seeming weary behind his helmet.
Iroh lifted a hand, gaining the attention of all the benders and pikemen that were gathering on the deck. "We will wait. Pikemen to the rear, benders to the forefront. Take a defensive kata stance. Patience reveals all things."
They didn't have to wait for very long, a sky bison drawing closer and closer to the ship. None of the soldiers moved. None of them even twitched as all twenty men on deck stood there like clay statues, awaiting the word of their remaining prince. Some finally started shifting uncomfortably as the sky beast drew closer until it was right above the deck … the whole ship rocked as the multi-ton beast landed on the deck, more than one soldier stumbling from the impact. Still, Iroh didn't call on an attack.
"See ... I landed just fine, even with my burned hands," said a young voice, a small child on top of the beast's head. Immediately, his garb and the tattoo on his head revealed what he was. All the soldiers on deck quickly regained their footing, pointing their fists in the small form's direction. The air-bender gained a weary look in his eyes, but no one gave him much mind as a water tribesman jumped off the bison's saddle. Honestly, no one recognized him at first glance in that parka and wolfs tail haircut. It was his voice that stirred the hearts of the men on that ship.
It was just a simple word, an utterance that the windy sea had almost stolen as it blew across the deck, but Iroh knew that voice. He knew it like a parent knows the voice of their child when they are scared and call out in the night.
"... Zuko," replied Iroh, his tone desperate and almost afraid that he was imaging the whole thing, "Prince Zuko … is that you?"
Walking forward like he didn't even see the other men on the deck, Zuko's voice almost trembled, "Yes, Uncle … I came … I came home."
The aged prince didn't even hesitate after that. He rushed forward, his speed surprising for what most considered an old man. He was then embracing his nephew, wrapping his arms around the lanky teenager like he was afraid Zuko would cease to be if he didn't hold onto him. Zuko only withheld for a second before he immediately reciprocated the embrace, burying his shaggy head down into his uncle's shoulder and trying his best to not sob in relief like a child that had been lost in the woods.
"I thought I would never see you again," finally choked Zuko into the aging man's shoulder, his breathing shaky as tears buried themselves in Iroh's shoulder, the boy trying to ignore the shame of crying in public. "I tried to escape again and again, but I couldn't get back to the ship... I'm sorry I got captured, Uncle. I'm sorry that I made us go to the North Pole. I'm sorry … I made you worry."
Rubbing his nephew's back, a hand cupping the back of Zuko's shaggy head as his own eyes wettened, Iroh whispered, "It's okay, Prince Zuko. We are fine now. You are safe."
Iroh continued to whisper into his nephew's shoulder, feeling the shake of the boy's form against his own and the heat of his skin. He paid attention to every minute thing that supported Iroh's reality of the situation, that he wasn't imagining his nephew coming home. Truthfully, the aging prince had started to fall into depression, his heart aching like when he had lost Lu Ten, but this time the rift in his heart could heal. He got this one back … he got this son back and nothing in this world or the next would take him again.
Neither of the Fire Nation Princes was sure how long they stood there, but slowly Iroh was the first to let go if only to look the sprouting teenager over.
Looking the scruffy fire-bender up and down from his shaggy head to his water tribe parka, Iroh carefully cupped the boy's face in his hands as if looking for even the smallest of errors. He was surprised that the usually reserved teenager didn't pull away from the touch on his scar nor shy away as the elder prince wiped away the last of his tears with his thumb.
"You have gotten taller … though I don't know if blue is your color, nephew," chuckled Iroh after a moment of observation, a sad smile on his face. Zuko, in turn, smiled bitterly before gathering his composure and standing up straight.
"I'd have to whole heartily agree, Uncle. It is a color I would like to shed as soon as possible," said the banished prince, wanting nothing more than to take a warm bath and greet his bedchambers.
"Of course, my nephew, of course," said Iroh as he tilted his gaze slightly over his nephew's shoulder, his eyes meeting the small monk's before Aang smiled weakly and gave a small wave, "But first, would you like to introduce your allies?"
Blinking in surprise, as if he had completely forgotten about the shorter monk, Zuko turned on his heel and stared for a second. He knew the men of the ship were watching, waiting to see what he would say about the ten-ton beast and the obvious air-bender on the deck of the ship. The old Zuko, the one before that fateful day on this very deck, would have been repulsed at the idea of introducing Aang to Uncle and the crew, but he wasn't quite that same boy anymore.
Waving for the slightly terrified air-bender to come closer to the armor-clad Fire Nation soldiers, he waited for Aang to get off Appa's head.
Gathering his courage, Aang swallowed and then landed with a soft thud on the metal deck. He gave a nervous glance around, like a bird trying to decide if he should take flight or not. In the end, Aang decided to trust Lee and pulled his staff close, walking forward to meet the Avatar's beloved uncle.
Trying to act like his normal friendly self, even though he was surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers, Aang smiled and bowed respectfully to Iroh. Zuko took this time to introduce him, "Uncle Iroh, this Aang, my current Air Master. He helped me escape the North Pole and … he is my friend."
Part of Iroh was almost shocked to hear that not only had Zuko accepted an Air Master but also earned a friend.
The aging prince, in turn, bowed his head in a show of gratitude to the young monk. "I am happy you brought my nephew back to me, Aang. You are welcome on this ship as a guest. I would like to speak with you more, but first I'd like to speak with my nephew alone. Lieutenant Jee will see to you and your sky bison's needs until we can speak properly."
Eyes going wide as he watched Iroh turn away with Lee, part of Aang's mind screamed at him to not to be left alone with unknown Fire Nation soldiers. The air-bender even put out a hand as if to grab the edge of Zuko's departing parka, only to have a heavy callused hand put on his shoulder instead. Meeping, the preteen, turned his head to see a very unhappy looking, grey-haired man staring down at him.
Scowling must be a fire-bender thing was the first though Aang had about the man.
"The princes need a moment, young monk. You can come with me until they call for you. It's warmer inside," said Jee, eyes observing every detail to the young air-bender like he was a bird of prey.
Despite himself, stories of bloodthirsty Fire Nation soldier's echoing in his head, Aang tried to keep his feet on the ground. He wanted to follow after Lee, ask what this 'princes' thing was about, but Uncle Iroh obviously wanted to catch up. Plus, Aang generally loved meeting new people! Not all Fire Nation soldiers were bad … right?
Standing there, the stories of the elders echoing in his head about the dangers of the Fire Nation, Aang nearly jumped a foot in the air when Jee stated again, "Are you going to continue to stand there? We should go inside."
Licking his lips nervously, Aang tried to smile as he waved at Appa, suddenly deciding he didn't want to be trapped below deck like a bird in a box, "… It's not that cold. Plus, I … I can't leave Appa up here alone. He's very shy. I'll stay up here for now."
Jee looked at the bison. It was sniffing three of the crewmen that were daring enough to get close (though all three of them jumped back as the great beast yawned at them). Calling out the men, the Lieutenant barked, "You three, open the bow of the ship and put the bison with the komono rhinos. See that it is fed and watered."
The three men looked aghast and slightly terrified … until Appa promptly sneezed on all three of them. Now, they just looked disgusted and slightly gooey.
Aang opened his mouth, ready to volunteer to help, but Jee already had a hand on the boy's back, pushing the air-bender forward towards the dark stairs going down into the ship's bowels. Jee was kind of intimidating. He had the same angry stoicism that Lee had had when Aang had first met the other boy. Maybe it was just a fire-bender thing. It was only the second fire-bender Aang had ever met.
Sliding under the man's hand, running back to Appa and pulling a bundle out of the saddle, Aang cried out, "Oh, I almost forgot the egg. Can you carry this? My hands are full."
Jee … immediately ran a hand down his face, sighing.
Leading the slim boy into the dim halls, any flames they walked by leaping high, Jee felt like a bag-boy as he carried a shoulder bag and something round wrapped in a parka. An egg apparently. Did bison lay eggs? Oh, and apparently, he was now a glorified babysitter. It took all that was in him not to twitch every time the youthful bender opened his mouth and jabbered on about some else inane. "… And then we were captured by pirates."
Jee tried not to start the lemur on fire as the irritating little beast jumped from the child's head and then promptly onto his shoulders, picking his greying hair for lice or something.
Wondering if the boy would notice some singed hair on his pet, Jee shooed the pest off his shoulder.
"Animals should be in the cargo hold," he groused, part of him already getting the sinking feeling that Aang was going to end up his responsibility during this whole horrible trip.
"The cargo bay … like where Appa's at? Oh, can I ride one of the komodo rhinos?!" asked Aang, nearly bumping into Jee's back as the man stalled. He looked down at Aang, rising a brow as if that was the stupidest question in the world. Not that it mattered, finally they had arrived at the guest quarters. Honestly, Jee didn't think the room had ever been used. Iroh just kind of used it for his spare junk and that extra Pai Sho set.
Opening the door, stepping into the room far enough to light a fire so that it was warm in the room and not quite so gloomy, Jee put the round bundle on the bed and stood before the fire. He looked down at the boy, trying not to sneer at the smiling child, "This is where you will be staying. I'll be leaving now. I'll send the healer to look at your hand in a bit."
Looking around the room, cringing as the few terrifying masks hanging on the wall seemed to stare back at him, Aang immediately swallowed. Despite all the reassurances the young bender was trying to convince himself of, his face fell. Carefully, he asked, "…You're not going to lock me in now? Are you?"
Raising a brow, Jee folded his arms behind his back. Part of him wanted to say: yes, he never had the patience to deal with children. Instead, he decided to take the high road and asked, "Is there a reason I should?"
Squeezing his staff closer, the lemur making itself into a living hat on the boy's head, Aang shifted awkwardly and looked down at the floor. For the first time that day, the small bender was soft-spoken and painfully-obviously a child, "No … it's just that … I'm an Air Nomad and you're … Fire Nation."
Feeling blindsided by the boy's sudden change in demure, the destruction of the Air Nomads raced across the back of the aging man's mind like a jagged scar. Jee twitched … and then the fire in the room died down into a gasping little flame. Jee slowly exhaled. He knew that they taught children about the Air Army … He had never believed it, especially after visiting the Air Temple ruins that first time. He … remembered all the small skeletons with their hang jaws and accusing empty eye sockets. He recalled how all those little figures were still interwoven after nearly a century in soot-covered corners.
Coming forward, his hand stalling right above the boy's shoulder as if uncertain, Jee carefully placed a warm hand on that thin shoulders. He tried to keep the irritation out of his voice, his tone trying to be warm instead of authoritarian and brutal, "No. Of course not. You are safe on the ship as the princes' guest. As such … I won't let anyone harm you. Now, make yourself at home. Someone will be by with some water and food."
Sagging, as if relieved that all Fire Nation soldiers weren't automatically evil, Aang nodded, a pair of lemur ears popping out of his shirt. "Okay, but before you go, you wouldn't happen to know how to hatch a dragon egg, would you?"
Jee left the room a few minutes later, apparently with homework. Now he understood how the boy had befriended Zuko, that child was tenaciously friendly and leech-like. It was probably going to be contagious on the ship … Iroh was going to love it.
Turning to walk down the hall and order some lower soldier to feed and listen to the air-child prattle on, Jee didn't even get a few meters away from the guest door when one of the men was running over to him.
"Sir, we received a hawk … It has the royal seal on it," said one of the pikemen, handing the scroll to the Lieutenant. "I would have taken it straight to Prince Iroh, but I doubted he would appreciate being disturbed with Prince Zuko finally back."
"I doubt so as well," said Jee automatically, waving the man off. He then stared at the seal, a frown forming. Carefully, he looked back at the guest door, his mind ticking away.
Deciding to deal with this while the princes caught up, the lieutenant broke the seal, his eyes widening as he read the elegant script. The Fire Lord was offering Prince Zuko a way home … if he found and captured the new avatar.
Paw07: Well … there you go. He finally got home. Proofread is lazy because I'm tired. Night guys.