Aang was the Avatar. The Avatar, who was alive, was Aang. That thought kept running through Zuko's head. He parried a blow from Azula and felt the force of her attack down to his bones. It was so obvious.
Aang's strange behavior. His aptitude with firebending without any prior training. Zuko began his own offensive and bent a ribbon of flame that spiraled towards Azula. She blocked it, allowing him an opening to kick her in the side. The bizarre winds that always accompanied an upset Aang. Azula responded in time and avoided the worst of the blow, though she stumbled backwards on the hill. His uncle had to have known. Zuko tried to cross the distance to complete his attack, only to be forced back by the crackle of Azula's lightning. His uncle had known, had no doubt known from the beginning, and Iroh still hadn't said a word.
Didn't anyone trust him?
"What's the matter, Zuzu?" taunted Azula. "You seem distracted. Have something more important to worry about than your impending death? Feeling sad the Avatar didn't tell you his big secret?"
"You're the one who should be worried," he snapped back, grabbing a handful of mud to fling into her eyes. She dodged it, but he was able to score a glancing blow with his following attack.
Why hadn't Iroh trusted him with Aang's identity? Why hadn't anyone? It wasn't as if he was going to hurt the kid. Hell, he was the one person everyone expected to take care of Aang.
As if in echo of his retort, a bomb whistled down from the sky and struck a nearby cluster of trees. The glow from the fire bathed the scene in a vicious orange light. It was followed shortly after by another bomb that exploded on impact, mere yards away from where the first had fallen. Zuko smirked. "I'm not the only one with 'untrustworthy' companions, am I?"
Azula tossed her head dismissively. She barely flinched when another strike came screaming down from above. "I was wondering how long it would take for Zhao to gather the courage to try this." She pulled a coil of flame from the burning trees that ringed the site and used it to augment her own power. "It doesn't count as betrayal if you're expecting it." The fire shot forward, an immense wave of pure flame. He spun his arms, creating a hole in the firewall to allow him to safely pass through. Azula dismissed the flames with a gesture. "That's just one more way I'm better than you."
Zuko rolled away to avoid a burning tree branch that crashed into the ground. He reached out one hand to pull the flames away, leaving the charred wood behind. He braced his arms as if he was feeding rope for a sail and redirected the fire towards Azula. Watching her be attacked by her own people did a lot for his perspective. His allies might hide things from him, but they weren't trying to kill him. He snarled and renewed his assault. Instead of the usual two fire whips, he conjured up six, and twisted them through the air. Azula retreated, unable to block or dodge that many. She crouched down and launched herself into the air, flipping over Zuko to land on the other side.
Where Yue and Aang lay.
"I'm going to finish this now," Azula told him. A burst of fire erupted from her left hand, headed straight towards the sleeping princess. A sick feeling washed over Zuko even as he redirected his whips to strike Yue's murderer.
But before the fireburst could hit, Yue faded away from sight. There was no special glow or no strange sound. Just a splash of fire hitting an empty hollow.
And the sudden brilliance of a full moon in the night sky.
Well, that was … inconvenient. It seemed at least part of the rebels' brilliant plan involved restoring the moon into the sky. Which Yue's sudden disappearance managed to accomplish. No matter. The return of power to the waterbenders would at least be accompanied by a slacking in the Ocean Spirit's wrath. It wasn't as if the Fire Nation Navy had been under any real threat before Zhao got all fish-killer happy. The bastard. Azula had known he'd try something when she left the Flying Fist, but this was so disappointing. So inefficient. What was he going to do when she survived?
The first thing to do was to steal Zhao's other targets, beginning with the Avatar. Azula had wanted to capture him, but given how aggravating Zuko was proving to be, killing the both of them was the most logical option. She'd figure out some way to make sure Father knew where credit was due. She'd finish off the boy after taking care of the idiot. Who was still gaping at the moon in the sky. It wasn't as if he'd never seen a moon before.
Azula palmed her spare knife and threw it at him. Unfortunately, his sense of self-preservation wasn't completely gone, as he stopped stargazing long enough to dodge. The blade pierced his shoulder, which was an acceptable substitute for the heart. Thrown knives were a dice roll, any way. She tossed a fireball towards his feet, knocking him down just in case. She wanted him to watch this part.
Trying the knife earlier had been a mistake. This needed to be taken care of the way only a true firebender could.
"And as for you," Azula murmured, looking down at the unconscious boy, "I promise to make it quick." She traced her fingers through the air, summoning the lightning. Behind her, she could hear Zuko's frantic shouts of alarm, but it was going to be too late. She took aim. All she had to do -
The boy's eyes snapped open, blazing with an unearthly blue light. One hand, similarly glowing, slashed through the air. She was blown backwards, her shot going wide, and just barely managed to clamber to her feet. Azula tried to complete her attack, but the Avatar merely jumped out of the way. Her lightning struck the tree, splitting the trunk. With a wave of his hand, the boy summoned a gust of wind that brought the discarded staff into his hand, glider wings opening at his touch. He glared down at her for a moment. Azula met his eyes without flinching. The Avatar was a power to be reckoned with, for certain, but she refused to cower in his presence. If a fight was what he wanted, she would deliver in kind. Their eyes remained locked a few breaths more, when the piercing whistle of falling bombs drew his attention away. Zhao always was one for overkill.
The Avatar turned from her and faced the sky, gripping his weapon with two hands choked close together, holding it parallel to the ground. Before the bombs even cleared the treetops, he swung the staff and sent an incredible wind shear slicing through the air to strike the bombs and send them spinning back towards their source. Within moments, Azula could make out the twin explosions that struck the underside of Zhao's ship.
Before she could take advantage of that exposed back, the Avatar soared into the sky with his glider, heading towards the remains of the fleet. Even in the darkness, she could tell the tides of the slaughter had turned. The Flaming Fist was certainly living up to its name. And the rest of the fleet wasn't far behind.
Azula watched him go. So that was the Avatar in action. Life had grown so much more complicated. But this was only a setback. What could one boy, no matter how powerful, do against the might of an empire? Oh, this fleet was doomed. Especially once the waterbenders realized the return of their power. In the future, though, the rebels would not be so lucky. She'd make sure to report this change to Father and ensure better preparation. She made ready to disappear into the swamp and escape to fight again.
After killing Zuko, of course. At least the night wouldn't be a total loss.
She stalked towards where he lay. Her misbegotten brother was staggering to his feet, that annoying stubbornness of his in full force. He never made things easy for her. But of the two of them, he was the one with a knife in the shoulder. She started the process of a quick and dirty lightning strike. She was going to fry somebody tonight.
"You will not harm him."
A translucent Yue appeared between her and Zuko. Azula rolled her eyes. What was this, Interrupt the Fire Lord Day? "I think I will," she said. No matter how fancily dressed Yue was, or what entity she claimed to represent, she was still just a ghost. Maybe lightning fried spirits, too.
"Yue," whispered Zuko. The reverence in his voice was disgusting. Just for that alone, Azula shot him. Only for her power to shimmer into nothingness upon striking the blasted rebel spirit.
"I said, you will not harm him," Yue repeated. Her white robes fluttered, but she showed no signs of pain from the attack. "He is under my protection."
Lovely. Azula studied her targets a moment and debated as to her chances. Weren't the spirits supposed to be above mortal concerns? The scrolls always said so. It had taken the first death of the moon for the Ocean Spirit to even give a damn about his worshipers. And that had been mostly revenge anyway. A long and bloody revenge. Now was not the time to fight, then. With a toss of her head, Azula backed away and ran off into the swamp. Yes, a better opportunity would appear.
Yue watched Azula go. Part of her wanted to follow, to reach forward and strike with all the power her new existence offered. Letting that woman live would cause nothing but disaster for her friends. But something held her back. Even manifesting here was difficult. There was so much more her world contained now. Everywhere her light was, she was.
She was in the clearing, hearing Zuko thank her for helping. Praising her for what she had done. She spared a brief smile for him and vanished. She didn't have much time left. Yue the mortal princess still lived, but she was preparing to make way for Yue the Moon Spirit. The balance had been righted, just a bit. She could feel the easing of a strain she hadn't even known the world was carrying.
She was by Master Pakku's side, watching him soar into the air, a waterspout swirling around his body as he unleashed a decade's worth of suppressed power at his enemies. He said her name and she blessed him in turn. He surged to greater heights, the fury of ice and snow brought to bear in the humid swamp.
She was shining down on the sea, where a lonely ship's captain turned her face up to the sky, the touch of moonlight reminding her of hopes she had thought long abandoned. The woman basked in that light for a moment in silence before calling out to her shipmates. They reacted to her revelation with equal happiness. One gave a shout of pure joy and started dancing, enticing a stoic woman who stood guard to join her in celebration.
Yue was inland, her light blanketing an earthbender as the girl emerged from a tunnel, a badger mole by her side. But the earthbender never tilted her face towards the moonlight. Instead she marched along with a heavy sack of food over her shoulder, walking without hesitation to a ramshackle clutch of huts.
She was trickling down through branches, sinking into the forests where a trio of creeping warriors stepped into her embrace. One long-faced man uttered a short cry of astonishment at the light now shimmering all around him, much to the dismay of his companions. But the Fire Nation merchant they encircled gave no sign he was in danger, but shouted out to them to come and join a fellow traveler in rejoicing at the moon's return.
And she was in the hills of the north, her light reflecting off an airship smaller than anything the Fire Nation would build, battered and at rest.
Not far away, Sokka was fighting a pack of undead, boomerang arcing from one hand while he wielded a club with the other. He was older than she remembered, and there were scars she didn't recognize. But Sokka was still Sokka – lame puns and bad jokes, taunting his target about having a 'headache' just as he bashed its brains in. "Sokka!" cried Katara. "It's back!"
"Well, then kill it!" he yelled over his shoulder.
"No, the moon!"
"What -" A razor-thin slash of ice disposed of his next opponent for him. Katara was laughing as the water surged around her, and Yue smiled, for one waterbender at least had believed the moon would not abandon them forever.
She focused and appeared before them. His eyes widened when he saw her, the dead falling away at her presence. Yue cupped her hands around his face and leaned forward. Her lips were not much more than a memory, but she kissed him with every fiber of love she possessed. He kissed her back, whispering her name and she answered, "I always loved you."
She had so much more she wished to say, but she felt the pull of her power, the need to return and rejoin La. More was coming back to her, the blend of Tui-that-was and Yue-that-is growing stronger and stronger. Before she left this plane completely, there was one thing she had to do. Something all of her desired.
And there she was, right before her murderer. She watched his face, the horror etched there as all his plans and strategies burned. "Zhao," she said.
His terror grew greater on seeing her appear before him. He struggled to stand despite the wreckage pinning him down, spitting her name, "Yue."
"Yes." She leaned forward, floating just above him. "And no." She flew backwards, the better to watch as that bloated airship exploded. Yue watched the debris scatter and smiled. Her murderer was dead, his body obliterated. Content, she returned to the sky.
Moments after Yue vanished from the clearing, Zuko saw the Flaming Fist explode. The conflagration was impressive, casting a harsh orange glow over the scene. The few airships that remained began to retreat, slinking back into the darkness. He studied the sky and wondered if the newly re-empowered waterbenders would follow. If Aang would follow, and finish the job. But there were no more bursts of fire signaling the demise of another airship that he could see. He doubted that such mercy was wise. What had happened here was going to change everything. The rebels would be forced to regroup and rebuild – they'd be vulnerable to attack, despite the shift in power, and the swamp was obviously no longer a safe haven. He considered how many of the rebel forces had survived the initial onslaught as he worked on bandaging his arm. At least the Avatar was on their side, now. He alone equaled an entire army. Aang equaled an army.
Zuko was making his way back to his uncle when Aang landed beside him, glider in hand. The blue glow of the Avatar State had faded, leaving only the kid that Zuko had met back in Tart's Cove. Except he hadn't really been that kid, had he? Confronting him now, Zuko didn't know what to think. The cap the kid had worn since he'd met him was gone, leaving short dark hair that failed to cover the tip of an arrow tattoo. An airbender's tattoo. Betrayal and shame warred within Zuko. Betrayal for being kept in the dark, and shame for being so stupid he didn't notice the obvious. He'd been looking all those years, and he hadn't even really known what he'd been looking for.
Aang must have sensed Zuko's withdrawal, because he stopped short of the headlong rush he had begun. At least he was being spared the kid's obsession with embracing everyone in sight. Who knew the Avatar would be so emotional?
Aang opened his mouth to speak, but Zuko beat him to the punch. "You're the Avatar."
Aang trailed his staff through the ashy ground. "Yeah."
"Why didn't you say anything? You knew that I'd been searching for years. Years! But when I'm finally there, nothing. Why didn't you say something - " Zuko broke off. He thought about Azula's taunts. No matter how much she lied, they always stung. "Did you really think I was going to turn you over to Ozai? I would never - "
"Of course I never doubted you!" Aang burst out. He looked genuinely shocked at that conclusion. "I would have told you, but with Iroh knowing and then Yue, I liked that you didn't know. You treated me like I was normal. I didn't have to have a destiny when I was with you."
As much as he loved his uncle, Zuko understood how Iroh's frequent harping on destiny would chafe as free a spirit as Aang. He was willing to save his anger for said uncle for keeping secrets when Aang's response hit him fully. "What do you mean, you never doubted me?" he demanded. "Forget the fact I'm the Phoenix King's son, Aang, but when you met me I was a freaking smuggler! We're not trustworthy people!"
Aang shrugged. "So?"
"So?" Zuko tried not to scream. The kid had taken out a fleet of ships, but that hadn't stopped him from remaining hopelessly naïve. "So, you should be more careful! Do you understand that there are people who would turn you in for the bounty alone?"
"Are you mad at me for trusting you or for not trusting you?" asked Aang.
"Both!" Zuko shouted. "You're the Avatar. And now that the whole world knows that, you're going to be in so much danger. You are incredibly lucky you didn't already end up with your head mounted on Azula's wall."
"So are you!" said Aang. A slight quaver entered his voice. "It worked okay though. Didn't it?"
Zuko deflated. "It did work out. This time. Just," he sighed, "don't do that to me again. I will help you, Aang, but I can't do that blind. I've already followed you into the shark-lion's den. Though I don't know how I can help now, since you're the Avatar. Chances are the rebels are going to have a lot for you to do. They're going to need you in a big way after this battle."
"Everybody needs me," was the kid's resigned answer. "Everybody."
Zuko reached out and ruffled Aang's hair. Its short, stubbly texture reminded him of when he let his own hair grow back, after he cut ties with his father. His hand stilled. There was a lot he had to learn about Aang and where he came from. He was about to ask Aang for some of those answers when they began to near the makeshift encampment the rebels had set up at the rendezvous. The return of power to the waterbenders, at least, had helped stem the tide of fires caused by the bombs. The swamp wasn't burning today.
As they entered the camp, no doubt remained in Zuko's mind that whatever anonymity Aang had wanted to have was long gone. People stopped in their tasks and bowed to him, a more reverent humility than Zuko had ever seen, even in his days as the crown prince.
A familiar face approached them. It was Gen, he noted sourly. The man was using his spear as a crutch, though that didn't stop him from hurrying their way. Zuko resisted the urge to start pulling Aang in the opposite direction. Gen hadn't been as immediately unpleasant as Bao (may he rest in peace), but Zuko still saw no reason to talk to the man.
On reaching them, the warrior dropped his spear to the ground. "Forgive me, Avatar," he said to Aang, bowing deeply, though he wobbled a bit on his bad leg. "Had I known, you would have been treated with the honor and respect you deserved." Aang stood there awkwardly, not responding. "And of course," Gen added hurriedly, "I offer my apologies to your companion. Those who merit the Avatar's company deserve honor of their own." He bowed to Zuko in turn. Though not quite as deeply.
"Um, thanks," managed Aang after a pause that went on too long. "I'm happy that you aren't mad at Zuko for being Fire Nation, any more," Aang added with greater sincerity.
"He travels with you," said Gen. "He's clearly no friend of those monsters."
"That's good then." Aang struggled to find something else to say, the man's genuflection clearly embarrassing him. Zuko decided to intervene before things got even more awkward. People were starting to gather near them. The kid was eying them with something approaching panic in his eyes.
"Yes, glad to hear I'm not a monster," said Zuko. "Can you tell me where my uncle is? Or where the healers are?"
Gen pointed in one direction. "The healers have set up by the river. With the return of waterbending, there is so much more they can do. I was headed that way myself."
"Thanks. Great. So you there." Zuko pulled Aang by the arm and hurried in the given direction, leaving Gen behind to struggle for his makeshift crutch. It wasn't hard to find them once pointed the right way. The wounded were spread about, healers and their assistants working triage among them. Zuko moved along, looking for where those less injured were being kept, Aang kept strictly by his side. He finally found Iroh sitting up on a mat, looking much better than he had a few hours ago. Master Pakku and Huu were with him, talking away. They both look quite happy – as they should, now that they were whole again.
Now that Yue was the moon. Zuko found himself looking up at the sky, at the pale circle shining above him. He could sense the coming sunrise, but it would be a little while longer before the moon had set again.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said Aang in a soft voice beside him. "And it was all Yue. She knew what she needed to do and she just … did it. No matter what it cost her."
"She's still there," Zuko told him. "She is the moon."
Aang smiled. "I know." Ever changing (like the wind?), Aang stepped forward, plopping himself beside Iroh. "I'm happy that you're all right," he said to Iroh with a grin.
"As I for you," responded Iroh, with a slight incline of his head, "Avatar Aang." The other men added their respects. Iroh looked over Aang's head to meet Zuko's eyes. He betrayed no shame with ease he granted Aang that title. "And I am pleased my nephew remains in one piece as well. Though - "
"Azula escaped," said Zuko in answer to the unfinished question, joining the group on the ground. He'd deal with his uncle another time. "She ran off into the swamp."
"With any luck that will be her end," muttered Pakku. Zuko wished the man spoke the truth, but doubted it. His sister would never die so easily.
Huu shook his head. "It is a bad thing when families fight." He nodded towards Zuko's shoulder. "She drew blood." The man stood and made to motion for a healer.
Zuko stopped him. The bandage would hold for now and there were others who needed help more. "She always does," he said with a sigh. "She's going to be ready next time."
"She will indeed," his uncle agreed. "But you will be ready too."
"Yeah." Zuko looked at Aang. "I will be." He shot Iroh a quick glare, not willing to let him off so easy yet. "Provided people tell me what I'm up against."
Iroh spread out his hands in an expansive gesture. "I have always had faith, nephew, in your ability to adapt to life's changes. And now that I know you are well, there is a very lovely lady I wish to speak to. For all the trials we've experienced this day, there have been triumphs too. And who better to share it with than some new friends?"
Pakku stood after him, a scowl crossing his face. "Your new friend is Kanna, isn't it? Why don't I accompany you."
"I rather thought you might," said Iroh dryly. "Rest well, Zuko. And you, Aang."
The next few days were much as Zuko had expected them to be. The rebels regrouped and mourned their dead, burning the bodies before consigning the ashes according to their beliefs, be it in the water or buried in the ground. Aang found himself the subject of a great deal of attention, much of which he tried to avoid by hiding behind Zuko. Which would fail, forcing Zuko to stand by Aang as admirers spoke of the honor of the Avatar's presence while he struggled to think of an excuse to flee. Though he noticed Aang wasn't too put out by Ushi's visits. The fact that she was trailing after Zuko and not him likely helped. The girl, her brother firmly by her side or on her back, started following Zuko around for lack of any better occupation, and though she was clearly grieving the loss of her father followed so soon after her mother, she and Aang managed to find a game or two to distract themselves.
The two of them were at play now, in a cobbled together game that appeared to involve earthbending, airbending, and mudpies. Zuko didn't ask, and Liang was entertained enough by the mud going splat against the designated target tree.
"He's younger than you were when you first left home, isn't he?" said his uncle. Zuko turned his head to see Iroh sitting down beside him.
"He's one hundred and twenty-two," he responded. "But you always knew that, didn't you?"
Iroh didn't back down from the accusation. "Yes. But then, I knew it was time to start looking."
Zuko watched Ushi bend the mud up and fling it at the tree. A gust of wind sent it off course, only for the mud to redirect and splatter Aang. The two laughed.
"Uncle," he began. "Did you not tell me because you didn't trust me?"
Iroh sighed. "I knew you would think that, but that was never the case. I took no joy from keeping you in the dark. But it wasn't the right time yet." He nodded towards Aang. "He needed to learn about this world. So much has changed. And he couldn't do that as the Avatar."
"I thought he was kicked out of a monastery." Zuko laughed with only a touch of bitterness. "A really, really isolated monastery."
"That … is not inaccurate," admitted Iroh. "And that is why he needs you."
"So what happens next?"
"Many things. Some of which are up to Aang. Some up to you. For myself, with the vouching of my conduct by both Master Pakku and Master Huu, I offered my help to this rebellion. Once the redoubtable Mei Ling stopped shouting for my execution, she did grant that as feared a tactician as myself would be of value to their work." Iroh smiled. "The fact that she uses the White Lotus Gambit in Pai Sho played only a small part in that decision. That is an earthbender for you. Stubborn to the end."
Zuko absorbed his uncle's words. Despite the directionless way he'd lived the last ten years, he'd always had his uncle with him. Even when he'd been little more than a thief and enforcer for hire, Iroh had been nearby. Working with those Pai Sho playing contacts, perhaps, but there. If his uncle decided this was what he wanted, then Zuko wasn't going to stop him. Though he wasn't certain what place he would have in this rebellion.
Iroh continued talking. "While most of the High Council would very much like to see the Avatar remain here – he certainly wouldn't lack for teachers – there are a few of us who believe Aang might be better used elsewhere. Certainly happier elsewhere. For people to believe the Avatar has returned, he needs to be more than a rumor."
"Even rumors can be tracked," Zuko said sourly. "And I've tracked them all. Now that there's something behind them, Aang won't last a minute on his own. Not with Azula out there."
"But he wouldn't be on his own, would he?" said Iroh, raising an eyebrow to his nephew. "Who better to travel with him than someone who would follow him to the ends of the earth?"
"And what does Aang think about this?"
"Oh, he thinks it's an excellent idea. He even has a few ideas for your next destination. Tell me, what do you know about Appa?"
"He's Aang's mysterious lost friend?"
"My best friend ever!" sang out Aang as he hurried over to where the two men sat. "After you, of course," he hastily added before plopping down. Behind him, Ushi helped Liang make his own mudpie. "Before we do anything else, we need to get Appa back."
Aang looked Zuko firmly in the eye. "Because I'm not going to leave him behind again. Besides," he added, "once we find him, travel will be a lot easier. He's a sky bison, you know."
"Now I do," muttered Zuko. "Wait, wasn't Appa taken by the pirates?"
"I'm sure my contacts can point you in the right direction," said Iroh smoothly. "Then it's settled?"
Zuko leaned back. With Aang watching him like that, how could he say no? Part of him wanted to be dismayed by the way things had spun out of his control ever since his uncle conned him into taking that kid aboard, but the truth was, he didn't care. He'd finally found the Avatar, after all. And with Aang, he'd restore his honor.
Thank you for everyone's patience in reading this! There is more to the story to come (hint: Suki, pirates, and the rescue of Appa) and until then, thank you!