Disclaimer: I don't own anything in this story, in fact a lot of the dialogue will probably be cadged straight from the show itself, which means I own even less.
Author's Notes: So my decision has been made, this will be broken into separate stories for separate books. I now have nefarious plans relating to that. Also, I have tampered with timing a bit. Just pretend Aang's meditation goes on for longer in this than it did in the series. Or that Zhao got there sooner. Same diff. Also also, yes this is long, but otherwise the two chapters are really shorter than I want. This is the end of the first season. I hope to see you all soon in a brand new sequel story, Airbender's Child: Earth.
They had brought Appa and Shuga into the enclave herd, and the two bisons had promptly settled in. Bisons were herd animals, so the two were ecstatic in a bison sort of way. Shuga was a little anxious and followed Appa around, apparently worried that her prime specimen of male bison would get sidetracked by the other female bisons in the herd. So, Appa spent a lot of time grooming Shuga and caused Zuko to spend inordinate amounts of time wandering by the bisons to keep an eye on the two of them.
Katara joined him, but chose not to help, instead spending her time cooing over the bison calves which were cuter than a pile of turtle seal pups.
Sokka just seemed to fit in with the enclave nonbending warriors. They were more relaxed and informal than the ones in the Northern Tribe, and Sokka happily traded stories about hunting in the tundra with them.
It was Aang who was having trouble. These were airbenders, but they were nothing like the Nomads he'd grown up with. Stories, traditions and culture contained only traces of the ones Aang knew. Worse, at least to Aang, was the number of airbenders who came to him asking for training. For the first time, Aang was able to truly see how much they had lost.
That was not to say that they spent every minute with the airbenders. Katara and Aang had classes with Master Pakku and Sokka was trying very hard to woo the princess despite her being engaged to someone else. Zuko could only assume it was because his friend either wanted her to join them when they left or hadn't thought that far ahead.
Two days later, a ceremony owing much to the traditions of the Water Tribes was held.
"Brothers and sisters. We are here to offer our respects to the people lost to a burnout three years ago. One of the sons of that enclave is here today to send his wishes to guide those lost spirits beyond the waters into the ocean of the Spirit World . . ."
As Yanto went on, Aang seemed to become twitchier by the second. When the memorial was finished and small ice sculptures in the shape of flowers had been set to floating off on the ocean, Aang finally exploded, quietly, at Zuko. "It's all wrong! How can you do it all wrong?"
Zuko shrugged. "I wouldn't know their traditions. I'm from the Fire Nation enclave. The reference there would have been to becoming one with the flames and the sunlight of the Spirit world."
Aang's left eye twitched again. "It's becoming at one with the winds of the Spirit World! How can people forget it?"
"Apparently, a hundred years with all the sages dead and gone does a lot for the loss of tradition," Zuko said, dryly.
"But that's the way it's always been said!" Aang exclaimed.
Yanto had come up behind them as they talked and said, "But for those who were attempting to hide within another nation a mistake such as that could not be afforded. I can only assume they changed the words of the traditional ceremony to keep the form, but disguise it as being of the nation they were hidden in."
"It just feels wrong," Aang said stubbornly. His shoulders drooped in defeat. "It's just another thing I'm going to have to get used to, isn't it?" he asked.
Yanto took him by the shoulders. "Perhaps. But your presence gives us all the hope that we may be able to reclaim our heritage," he told the Avatar. "When it is safe, I am very certain you will be besieged by airbenders who wish to try a return to the old ways."
"You really think so?" Aang asked.
Sokka and Katara caught up with Zuko afterwards while he was stationed by the bisons, keeping a baleful eye on Shuga and Appa. "That was beautiful," Katara said. "Aang told us it's been taken from the traditional Air Nomad ceremony."
"He would know," Zuko replied. "He was kind of upset about it, actually. He was angry about how it took out everything to do with air and replaced it with water."
"He has trouble getting that things have changed sometimes," Sokka said with a shrug. "You know that."
"I do," Zuko said. "Sometimes I think he'd have an easier time understanding that the Fire Nation is the enemy if I weren't here."
"Hmm," Sokka responded noncommittally. "Uh, Lee?"
"Um . . . you said you were pretty high up in the Fire Nation nobility, right?"
Zuko raised an eyebrow and turned to Sokka. "Yes," he said hesitantly. "Why?"
"Well . . . uh . . . ?"
Katara, who had busied herself with petting a bison heifer, spoke up from behind them. "Sokka wants to pick your brain about how to impress Yue, because he's worried his ordinary self needs something more royal to impress her."
"Oh," Zuko said. "I . . . um . . . I'm not really sure that what I know would apply."
"What do you mean?" Sokka said, looking a little frantic. "I've seen you get all formal and stuff. You've got it perfect. Can't you give me a hint, here?"
Zuko winced. "Fire Nation formalities aren't the same as Earth Kingdom aren't the same as Water Tribe. If you start aping Fire Nation formalities, you're not just going to get those wrong, because it took me training from the time I was three until I was thirteen to learn what I know, but you're not even going to be doing the right ones."
"Oh," Sokka said, despondently.
Zuko sighed. "I'll see what I can do. We can meet in the evenings, okay?"
"Yes!" Sokka pumped a fist in the air and practically danced off, tossing a "Thank you!" over his shoulder.
Katara shot him a look. "Did you have to encourage him?"
"Why shouldn't I? He likes her a lot, and she should know there are other options than just doing what her parents tell her to." Zuko was rather proud he worked Yue in. He was actually just doing it because he wanted to help Sokka, but that made it sound a lot more legitimate.
"You mean, just like you need to understand that you're better than whatever your parents have said?" Katara said, rather shrewdly.
"Not really," Katara told him. She left, and Zuko decided that, rather than think about it, he was going to go sit on Shuga because Appa was getting a fresh look in his eye. Neither bison was particularly happy about it.
They had been there for a week when Zuko was approached for the first time, by a nervous-looking girl. "Excuse me," she said. "You are Lee, right?"
"Yes," he turned to face her. "Can I help you with something?"
"My name is Agala. Can we . . ." she looked around and lowered her voice. "Can we talk somewhere privately? Please?"
Zuko frowned, but acquiesced. They left the hidden compound, entering the main city and he followed her to what turned out to be her home. Once they were inside, she said, "I'd heard that the girl who came with you – she's being taught waterbending by Master Pakku."
He nodded, feeling a little perplexed as to where this was going. "Yes. She's taking classes with Pakku in the mornings and studying healing with Yugoda in the afternoons."
"So . . . you agree with her, and the Avatar, that girls – women – should be allowed to learn to fight?" she asked.
Another aspect of the assimilation of the airbenders into the Northern Tribal culture had just appeared. "You don't get to learn airbending?" Zuko asked, baffled.
She sighed and gestured for him to sit on a cushion before joining him. "We learn the arts of airbending. Music, dance, smoke painting and the same basics of meditation and control as the boys."
Zuko stared. "How . . . how do you play music with airbending?" he asked, baffled. "And smoke painting? What is that?"
"You . . . you don't know?" she asked.
He smiled a little at her. "Keep in mind, I grew up in the Fire Nation. While your enclave has been absorbed into the Water Tribe, mine was part of the Fire Nation. We are far more interested in learning different ways to use bending in war than we are in learning how to use it for art." He shook his head. "Unfortunately, I suspect it's carried over a lot into my old enclave. Dancing is forbidden in the Fire Nation, and we did dance, but . . . I suspect it won't be anything like the way you do."
"Oh," she said. "You see, sound travels through the air. If you manipulate the air, just so, you can create tones in it." She suited hand gestures to the words, and soon music was wafting through the air. Different tonal types meant that sometimes it sounded like pipes, sometimes bells and sometimes a huqin, a stringed instrument played with a bow. It was very beautiful, and Zuko found himself smiling.
"That's wonderful," he told her. "What's smoke painting, though?"
She grinned. "I don't have everything I need, here, but I can show you a little." She went to the small firepit in the room and plucked a handful of something from a box next to the fire. "Normally a painter would have several fires, each with different additions making different colours of smoke." She tossed her handful in, and the fire began to smoke fiercely. Before it could begin to cloud the room, she again moved her hands into a complex dance.
Before Zuko's eyes, the smoke swirled and danced, forming pictures. They moved and it was as though someone had brought an illustrated scroll to life. "That's amazing," he told her.
Agala sighed, twisted her hands, sending the smoke out the smokehole in the ceiling and sat back down. "Maybe it is, to you," she said, a little bitterly. "But I want to learn how to use my bending for something other than pretty pictures. Art is important, the way we pass on who we are to our children and all of that." She sounded as though she were reciting a lesson she'd heard too many times. Zuko knew the sound, he'd recited similar kinds of lessons himself.
He guessed. "You want to feel like you can use your bending for something, even if it's fighting."
"Yes!" she said. "That's it, exactly." She looked at him eagerly. "There are a lot of us who feel like we're not given the chance to know who we are because we can't even try."
"So why come to me?" he asked. "Why not ask Aang? He's a fully trained airbender. Possibly even better trained than the benders here." He shot her a wry look. "He can do things with air that the so-called masters of air where I'm from wouldn't even dream of."
Agala bit her lip a moment, and then said, "He's very busy and . . . and sometimes I . . . we feel that he doesn't quite understand the airbenders here."
Zuko nodded slowly. "You mean like when he wants to know why no one is doing the winter salute to the Chinook and how it is you can be eating meat?"
"Yes." Agala nodded eagerly. "He just doesn't know what it is to live in fear the way we have and the inhumanity of the Fire Nation. He just doesn't know."
"And I'm a substandard bender trained in the airbending that's developed in the Fire Nation," Zuko told her. "I'm hardly a bender at all, for all I can do."
She fixed him with a firm look. "That's better than we've had. Please, Lee."
Zuko closed his eyes, but he couldn't erase the look on her face, and he couldn't deny that Aang needed to focus on learning water. Most of all, he couldn't deny anyone the chance to learn bending. He'd wanted that learning, and finally getting it from Jeong Jeong had been one of the most wonderful experiences of his life. "Alright," he told her. "I'll do it. Is there a good time and place for us to meet?"
With that, Zuko found his time being eaten up by teaching a class of girls the basics of airbending as he'd learned it. It was amazing to spend time with a class full of airbenders who looked at him with respect. Some of them quickly dropped out, having discovered that they were not meant to fight, but even those thanked him for the opportunity after their last classes.
Now they were all busy with their own projects, Zuko barely saw the others. He'd see Katara when she was watching the bison calves, or Aang when the boy was trying to pass on the traditions he'd been raised with to resistant water-air people and Sokka when he was among the enclave warriors. The lessons in formal behaviour having been cancelled after Sokka's first highly abortive attempt at aping nobility.
It all came to an abrupt end one day when his class was interrupted by one of the girls who had decided she didn't want to fight, but would be their lookout, came hurtling in.
"A fleet of dozens of Fire Nation Ships have been sighted approaching!"
The airbenders had immediately split into two groups. Those who had to join with the rest of the Water Tribe in fortifying and preparing the city for the siege, and those who set themselves the task of organising the enclave to ensure it was totally hidden from potential invaders.
Zuko stopped quickly to talk to Yanto. "Yanto, I have to go and join my friends. I know they'll be in the defence and I can't be anywhere else."
Yanto smiled at him, clapping a hand to his shoulder. "It's quite alright, Lee. I understand as well as anyone the need for dissembling, and for someone to defend against the invasion." As Zuko turned to leave, he added. "I also thank you for teaching my daughter and her friends something to defend themselves. As much as I cannot approve of women in battle, she reminded me that it is foolish to give them no options to defend against firebenders."
"I wasn't doing it for that," Zuko told him. "I was doing it because I have seen many capable woman warriors and denying them the right to choose that path is wrong." Since it seemed their secret was out, he wasn't going to lie about his motivations. There were too many things he'd been lying about as it was.
He left and caught up with Aang in time to hear the airbender say, "I wasn't there when the Fire Nation attacked my people. I'm gonna make a difference this time."
Zuko jogged up to him. "If you're going out there with Appa, you can expect that I'm joining you, Aang."
Aang turned to him. "Lee, you shouldn't-"
"Shouldn't what?" he asked. "I'm no good with distance weapons and I'm not going to wait on the wall until the close fighting starts. I have my own bison and we can do just as much as you can out there." He whistled sharply, and Shuga joined Appa on the wall, expectantly.
Aang looked at him for a moment, then smiled. "Thanks, Lee." They mounted up and took to the air. As they headed for the ships on the horizon, a fireball was launched at the wall of ice that protected the city.
"Let's go!" shouted Aang.
The first boat they took down together, but it was soon apparent they were better off spreading their attacks among the enemy fleet. It was from high in the air that Zuko spotted something that sent his heart into palpitations.
At the helm of one of the ships, as had been expected, was Zhao. Standing there with his smug smile and perpetual sneer, the admiral was looking deeply self-satisfied. Beside him however . . .
"Uncle?" Zuko whispered.
He'd never thought this would truly happen. His uncle had given up such things after Lu Ten's death at Ba Sing Se. The one thing Zuko had always thought he could trust in was that his uncle Iroh would never be on the other side of the battlefield. But there he was, beside Zhao at the head of the fleet. Was the great general now at the head of this small army?
No. He couldn't be, Zhao would never look that pleased.
Why was he there?
Pushing his questions aside, Zuko turned away and attacked another ship, turning his firebending against his own people. This was no time for pretty ethics and hiding. He had to protect the Tribe and he had to protect this enclave where he hadn't been able to protect his own.
On some level, he knew it would come back to cause him trouble, but he left his uncle alone.
Hours later, he and Shuga made their way back, exhausted. His bison collapsed beside him. Katara and Yue came running up to them. "Lee," said Katara. "Are you okay?"
He shook his head. "I'm exhausted and Shuga's worse than I am. We managed to down at least ten ships out there, Aang's done more, but there's a whole fleet." He just sprawled where he landed, and Shuga lay next to him, her panting gradually subsiding.
Katara knelt next to him. "It's okay. You've done well. That's ten fewer ships than before." she hugged him and he leaned into her a moment before relaxing back against Shuga again.
They waited together, and as Zuko had expected, Aang appeared a half an hour later. "I can't do it," he said, collapsing beside Appa. Shuga had recovered enough that she made her way to Appa's side, starting to groom him comfortingly. Aang shook his head, putting it in his hands. "I can't do it," he said again.
Katara stood up from where she'd been beside Zuko, asking, "What happened?"
"I must have taken out a dozen Fire Navy ships, but there's just too many of them. I can't fight them all." Aang seemed to be despairing.
Zuko shot an irritated look at Yue when she responded to this with, "But, you have to! You're the Avatar!"
"He's twelve years old," he snapped at her. "Not a god or one of the great spirits."
"Lee," Katara said reprovingly.
He just sent her the same annoyed look. Aang was just a kid and it was ridiculously unfair of these people to expect him to wave a hand and make the fleet disappear. Fire soldiers didn't just go away. Fire Nation people fought, and they kept fighting.
They waited together in silence for a while, watching the sun set, and the moon rise. The fire nation ships eventually pulled back. Yue, staring at the full moon suddenly began to speak. "The legends say the moon was the first waterbender. Our ancestors saw how it pushed and pulled the tides and learned how to do it themselves."
"I've always noticed my waterbending is stronger at night," Katara commented.
Yue nodded. "Our strength comes from the Spirit of the Moon, our life comes from the Spirit of the Ocean. They work together to keep balance." It made sense, Zuko thought. Since the strength of a firebender came from the sun, their elemental opposite's should come from the sun's opposite, when firebending was weakest.
Aang's thoughts, however, were on a different path. "The Spirits! Maybe I can find them and get their help!" he exclaimed.
"How can you do that?" Yue asked.
Katara perked up. "The Avatar is the bridge between our world and the Spirit World. Aang can talk to them!"
They were all really getting into this idea now. "Maybe they'll give you the wisdom to win this battle!" Yue said eagerly.
"Or, maybe they'll unleash a crazy amazing spirit attack on the Fire Nation!" Aang declared with a slightly crazed grin.
"Or, maybe you'll get eaten by a spirit animal while you're on the spirit plane and we'll be left with an empty body," Zuko snapped. "Do you recall at all what happened the last time we tangled with spirits?" Katara gave him a look that he read as meaning 'party pooper.' "Oh, don't look at me like that. I nearly got tricked into killing myself in there. I don't care if Aang is some sort of magical bridge, it's dangerous."
"You never mentioned that," Katara said.
Zuko glared at her. "It's a private thing a trip through the spirit world," he said. "And anyhow, I don't really trust water spirits because it was one that tried to get me dead."
"What?" Katara gasped. "Well it couldn't have been a good spirit," she denied.
"Hmmph." Zuko groused. "All I know is that a talking tiger seal tricked me into drinking water that p . . . made me nearly die of cold sickness," he hastily corrected. "If it weren't for that tiger, I would have died."
The three gave him weird looks and chose to send Aang off to the spirit world anyhow. Zuko trailed after them, muttering under his breath the whole way about what a bad idea it all was. They eventually reached a small wooden door which lead to an amazing little space that was as warm as a summer day with a real garden within its walls.
After a few false starts, Aang finally settled into his meditation, his tattoos and eyes suddenly glowing the way they had the other times Zuko had seen him in the Avatar state. But ultimately, nothing was happening in there, and Zuko finally decided to check outside. More, quite worried about the probable invasion of the city, Zuko chose to join the warriors preparing to fend off a street to street invasion should the walls fall.
And fall they did.
It was a long day, but close to sunset the curtain wall broke and the troops surged through. They came pouring into the city, bursts of fire wrecking the ice sculptures that decorated the streets, causing some buildings to collapse, the people huddled inside to be trapped. Zuko stepped out of the fighting when he could, grateful he could use his firebending for the purposes of saving people by getting them out of the ice instead of to hurt others.
But mostly he was forced to fight, hand to hand, using his swords more than his bending to keep the trust of his fellows in this fight. Now was not the time to be mistaken for the enemy.
He spotted a small group, Zhao at its centre, pushing its way past the fighting, and he followed it. Suddenly, he had a sick feeling of certainty of where they were going. He ran ahead, using all the knowledge he'd gained of the streets and shortcuts to beat them there. Sure enough, he was just barely in time to stand in front of the door to the Oasis as Zhao came striding up to it.
"Zhao," he replied. He wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of a title.
"You're in my way."
"Deal with the Prince, would you?" Zhao said to his soldiers, casually.
They attacked. Zuko didn't dissemble. He used every trick and skill he had at his disposal. He bended fire to block fire, he chopped and sliced at anyone who came close enough to reach. Soldier after soldier fell, but it was one against a company. Zuko was a match for any one or two of the men in the group.
He couldn't fight all of them at once.
His guard dropped for a moment and a hit got through, spinning him to the side. He tried to recover, to bring a blade up to block or to shield with fire, and he just didn't move fast enough. He didn't see who kicked his hand, sending the one blade spinning away. He turned . . .
Into a faceful of fire.
It was sheerest agony. Three years had dulled the pain of memory, but Zuko felt the skin, first of his face, then down his neck, burning. He was vaguely aware he was screaming, that someone was dragging him somewhere, but it all hurt so much. It hurt hurt hurt . . .
There was darkness, he could hear someone sobbing . . . he wanted to comfort her, but it hurt and the dark was painless . . .
A familiar voice, angry, was saying something but it wasn't clear . . .
Crying again . . .
. . .
This time the dark slowly started to recede, and there wasn't pain. Zuko slowly opened his eyes, staring up and seeing white above him. As he tried to remember what was happening, Katara's face suddenly loomed over him. "Lee?" she said, softly.
He swallowed, a little unsure of his voice. "Katara?" he said. "What's going on?"
"Lee!" She pretty much lay down atop him, hugging him tightly.
Sokka came into his view. "Lee!" he shouted. "Everybody! Lee's okay!"
Suddenly Zuko found himself partly pulled upright and surrounded by his friends who were apparently all trying to suffocate him in their joy to see he was okay. Their voices all sounded odd. There was a strange clarity to the sound, and he was reminded in reverse of the hearing damage he'd suffered from the burning of his ear. "Hey," he said after a moment of having his nose and mouth buried in a fur collar. "Air?"
They all pulled away. Zuko sat up slowly. "What happened? The last thing I remember I was trying to keep Zhao out of the sanctuary."
"You did pretty well," Sokka told him. "You managed to take out a heckuva lot of soldiers."
"Not enough," Zuko said. "Someone knocked my sword away and then I got hit with fire and everything kinda went dark."
Katara had tears streaming down her face. "You were screaming, and then they came in and your whole face was black. Just . . ." She flung herself at him again. Zuko instinctively put his arms around her.
"You did something," he said. "Didn't you? I mean, it doesn't hurt at all any more and I know from the last time I was burned it shouldn't feel like this."
He got a lengthy, and slightly confused, story about Zhao and him killing the fish and putting out the moon. Which made all the waterbenders' bending vanish. Aang had done something that turned him into a giant blue koi (which Zuko was going to keep asking about until someone told that part in a way that made sense) and Yue somehow magically turned herself into the moon to bring it back. Which also wasn't all that clear, but since Sokka was heartbroken the princess was, effectively, dead, he'd ask Katara later.
It still didn't answer his question. "But you did something. You healed something," he said. "Right?" When no one answered, he said, "Look, if I'm scarred worse than before, it's okay," he told them. "What's important is that we stopped Zhao, right?"
"Lee . . . uh . . ." Sokka looked around, helplessly as though trying to figure out how to tell Zuko something.
"What?" he demanded.
Katara told him, hesitantly, "Well, everything was horribly burned, and I wasn't even sure you were going to live." Her hands fluttered nervously. "But when I used the water from the Oasis, it . . . well . . ."
Aang, who had been more silent than not until then suddenly spoke up. "Your scar's gone, Lee. It's like you were never burned in the first place."
"What?" Zuko gasped.
Katara nodded. "I think . . . when I was healing you, it had to reconstruct everything, and that, and the power of the Oasis water sort of . . . fixed everything." She smiled at him.
He felt his breath speed up, and suddenly he had to know. He had to see. He was on his knees, shaking too much to stand as he hurried to the water's edge to see his reflection. His face stared back at him, unmarred by the scar tissue he'd become so used to. The strange sound of everyone's voices was because his ear was fixed and he was hearing properly again. The peripheral vision he'd become adjusted to the loss of was back.
Zuko's hands were trembling violently as he raised them to his face, tracing the shape that had been so familiar, but was no longer there. He looked up at Katara, Sokka and Aang, all of whom were beaming at him. "Thank you," he whispered. It felt so inadequate. His mouth stretched into a wide grin without his permission, but that was okay, because he was just so happy.
"Now, c'mon, Lee," Sokka said. They pulled him to his feet. "We should go." They picked up his missing blades from where they'd fallen to the snow, and started back out into the city. Soon enough, however, Katara got called away to the houses of healing to care for the injured, Aang was called away to help with rebuilding the curtain wall, which was needed immediately.
Sokka and Zuko were both quickly detailed to just helping with organising shelter for those who were now homeless and starting with cleaning up.
At the end of the day, practically the whole tribe gathered in the main square as they debated what to do with the men they had taken prisoner. Soldier after soldier was brought up and various decisions were made based on what various warriors recalled. There were some who had stuck to fighting only the warriors, who had deliberately let noncombatants escape and been as humane as might be. They were to be given supplies and dropped off at the Earth Kingdom to find their own way. Others had taken a gleeful pleasure in attacking and had done their best to hurt women and children on the way. Most of those were sentenced to be executed.
And then a most controversial figure stepped out. He was lightly chained, standing with great dignity. Beside Zuko, he heard Katara gasp, then murmur, "It's him." Before he could ask what she was talking about, she stepped forward. "Chief Arnook," she said. "I need to speak on his behalf."
The man turned, and nodded to Katara. "Master Katara," he aknowledged her. Zuko stared a little. Had she made master so quickly? Damn prodigies a small voice whispered in the back of his mind. He stifled it. Katara was nothing like his sister. Thank the spirits for that. He brought his attention back to matters at hand as Katara addressed the crowd.
"I don't know who this man is, but when Zhao first threatened the Moon Spirit, he tried to stop him. When Zhao killed the Moon Spirit, this man was the one who disabled the last of Zhao's soldiers so that we could try to heal the koi fish. He was the one who recognised that Yue's sacrifice could bring the moon back. We owe him a debt of gratitude, because I am not sure that without his presence, we would have been able to defeat Zhao." A murmur ran through the gathered crowd.
Katara stepped back, but her motion brought his uncle's attention to him. Their eyes locked, and as his uncle took in a breath and started to open his mouth, Zuko suddenly felt sure he was going to be outed. How would the tribes take it? How would the others take it, hearing he was the banished prince of the hated Fire Nation. Impulsively, he found himself speaking, cutting off whatever his uncle had planned to say. "That may be, but you should also know that this is General Iroh of the Fire Nation, brother to Fire Lord Ozai. The Dragon of the West who laid siege to the city of Ba Sing Se for six hundred days before he finally returned to the Fire Nation."
At that, another muttering ran through the crowd. Zuko felt a lot of eyes on him, and found himself fixed with a very odd stare by Master Pakku. Pakku turned to look at his uncle, and Zuko could have sworn some sort of communication passed between them. He couldn't stand to watch any more and managed to sneak off before the end of whatever sentence they gave his uncle. He felt dreadful.
The next day he tried to bury himself in work. Anything to keep from thinking about it. It was while he was in an alley, using his firebending to clear the debris of hardened ice that was blocking things that Zuko spotted a dark red form in the dark. Not thinking, he hurried after it, down the alley, and found himself at a dead end, face to face with the last person he wanted to see right then.
"Hello, Prince Zuko."
"Uncle," he replied. "Why Uncle? You swore you would never go to war again after Lu Ten, and now . . ." He shook his head. "Why?"
"I wanted to see you," Iroh told him. "You left the ship and I was worried about you."
Zuko flinched away. "Don't say that."
"What? It's the truth," his uncle told him. "I had maintained contact with Jeong Jeong after he left the Fire Nation. He told me he had seen you and that you were coming here."
"So you joined Zhao?" Zuko spat. "I would rather not have seen you at all."
"I notice you didn't attack his ship even though you had the chance," his uncle said in that maddeningly reasonable voice of his.
Zuko swallowed, sharply. "I didn't want to."
His uncle smiled. "You didn't want to hurt me," he said, knowledgeably. "I thank you for that, Prince Zuko."
He started to raise his hands, to attack this man he cared for and missed so much. He couldn't. Dragon of the West or no, Iroh was the only adult he'd known until Jeong Jeong who had cared about him and for him. He couldn't do it. "You'd better go, Uncle. If they catch you here, I can't protect you." He felt tears slip down his face. Forget everything else he'd done, this was a betrayal of everyone. The Tribes, the enclaves, the Fire Nation, his own uncle, everyone was being betrayed by this. "I can't," he repeated.
The Dragon of the West didn't seem even slightly angry. He smiled. "I am so proud of you, Prince Zuko," he said. Iroh took a few strides forward. "I love you," he whispered in his nephew's ear as he drew the young man into a tight embrace.
"Hey! Lee! Where are you?" came Sokka's voice down the narrow alley.
Zuko turned away, and when he turned back, the wily old man had somehow vanished. Stiffening his spine, he responded. "Down here, Sokka!"
"What are you doing back here?" demanded his friend.
"Just . . . I just needed some space," Zuko told him. "It's quiet here and I can melt debris in peace."
"Well, come on," Sokka said, much more gently than he usually would. "We have to get going."
"What?" Zuko asked.
Sokka smiled wryly. "Apparently Katara's a master now, so she can train Aang in water while we head back to Omashu so Bumi can train Aang in earthbending."
"Oh," Zuko said. "I have to get-"
"Katara's already got Shuga saddled up."
As they walked toward where the bisons were waiting, Zuko asked a question that he hoped would distract him from his own sad thoughts. "Are you okay? I mean, with Yue and all."
Sokka swallowed and replied, his voice a little rough, "I'll miss her. But . . . I'll see her whenever I look at the moon, right?"
Zuko didn't bother trying to agree. "It'll hurt less eventually," he told his friend. "I'm sorry."
"Thanks," Sokka said.
They headed up to where Appa, Shuga, Aang and Katara were waiting.