PROMISES TO KEEP

Chapter 14: Tramps and Thieves

Author's note: My apologies for keeping everyone waiting all these long months for an update! Real Life has been rather brutal this past year, and writing time is even scarcer now that I'm parenting solo. But I assure you that I haven't forgotten this story, or any of my ongoing stories! In truth, there have been times when the kudos and comments I've received from you all were the only bright points of my day/week/month.

Since it's been several months since the last update, I'd like to remind you all that a large part of canon will not be depicted here; this story focuses on all the changes, big and small, that were wrought by one pirate's impulsive act. Canon events that are unchanged will probably just be mentioned in passing, if at all.

For an example, in the second-season opening episode, nothing of what Aang, Katara and Sokka did at General Fong's fortress—or had done to them, by a man gone slowly mad with desperation, frustration and rage at what the Fire Nation has done to his homeland—changed at all, and this is the only mention of it you'll get.

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Successfully surviving three weeks of hellish torment, would make for a fitting end to three long years of general misery… if only the misery was truly over, or if there was even any end in sight.

Zuko and his uncle Iroh had sailed and drifted—mostly drifted, on a ramshackle raft with a poor excuse for a sail—for three long and terrible weeks after they'd escaped the frozen hell that some people called the Northern Water Tribe.

They'd had no provisions, other than a few scraps of food that they'd managed to grab and stuff in their clothing while searching for a way to escape, and then what they could scavenge from the flotsam drifting in the seas along with them; debris from the wreckage of all the ships that the Avatar and Ocean Spirit had destroyed.

They'd had to scavenge in the first few days, in order to survive. But it had been so hard, enough to shatter their hearts and will to live, every time they took their eyes off the sky and the far horizon to look at the waters around them. Because in among the floating debris that they snagged and pulled towards them with improvised boathooks, were the bobbing corpses of men and women that had been slaughtered.

Their nation's sailors and marines had been drowned by the thousands, and those who had not been trapped in the sunken ships or weighed down with armor were drifting on the surface, horrible reminders of tragedy that the two drifting survivors could not escape. It ravaged Zuko's soul every time he saw the bodies drifting past, knowing he couldn't even give any of his countrymen proper funerals, with no way to burn and cremate them on the open sea.

Uncle Iroh had said over and over and over again that Zuko absolutely must not blame himself for their deaths. He'd sworn that the fault lay solely with that execrable Zhao, trying to kill the Moon Spirit for the sake of his personal glory, who had provoked the Ocean's terrible wrath. But some part of Zuko still insisted that the massacre was at least partly his fault; his fault for not capturing the Avatar months earlier—for not hanging onto him, the times he had temporarily captured the airbender! If he had fulfilled his mission months ago, then Zhao would have had no convenient excuse to invade the Northern Water Tribe and fulfill his insane ambition.

After two days of drifting and sailing whenever the winds blew southwards, they'd passed the last of the drifting wreckage; there'd been no more debris and corpses bobbing around them. Leaving them behind had been a relief for their eyes and for Zuko's sanity, but with the wreckage had gone their last opportunity to scavenge for desperately needed supplies.

What little food and potable water that they'd managed to salvage from the wreckage, ran out only two days later; just as they had finally, by their best estimate without a sextant, crossed the water tribe's southern border into international waters. There had been no shore in sight in any direction, when Zuko had glumly upended the last canteen they'd scavenged to find not even a single drop of fresh water left to drink. ("Or make into tea," Uncle Iroh had said mournfully, and Zuko had abruptly been torn between hitting him and hysterical laughter.)

At least their firebending had enabled them to convert salt water into fresh water for drinking, just as the crew had done aboard the Wani once, when they'd been stuck out at sea too long while repairing the engines. Bring seawater in a scavenged bucket to a steady boil with firebending, collect the steam in a small tent improvised from other salvaged flotsam and let the steam condense, and the resulting hot water tasted terrible but was safe to drink. It was tedious work, setting up the collection tent and scrubbing the rind of salt residue out of the bucket after every boiling, but they made just enough water that way to keep them alive.

But finding food was a lot more difficult. Only three times in those three horrible weeks, did schools of fish swim right beneath their raft, just close enough and just long enough for Zuko to plunge his arm into the freezing-cold water and grab a fish to haul onto their raft. But he could never grab more than one fish at a time, the sudden movement always frightening the school away. And in the long days that stretched between each passing school, their bellies gnawed their backbones and they grew faint and dizzy with hunger; so weak that they could barely manage even the low-grade firebending needed to make their drinking water. At one point Zuko had seriously considered chewing on his leather boots, regardless of his uncle's warning about the toxic dyes worked into the leather.

But all through their ordeal, Uncle Iroh had refused to give up hope that they'd survive. He'd even gone so far as to claim each time that Zuko had managed to grab one fish from a passing school, that they were being aided by a beneficent spirit. Iroh had insisted that the kind princess his uncle had met ever-so-briefly, now that she was part of the Moon Spirit, was helping them as much as she could.

In the starving days between each scrawny fish they'd managed to catch, Zuko had wondered bitterly if their continued survival was indeed the work of the spirits; if some kami were keeping the two drifting humans alive until they'd suffered enough to please their vicious natures.

The sea vultures that had sometimes circled over the raft for hours on end, had reinforced Zuko's private opinion. Their beady eyes had held a silent promise in them, that over the passing days Zuko and his uncle would suffer slow death by degrees, and that when the end finally came they would feast on the emaciated remains. And the feathered bastards had always seemed to know just when Zuko couldn't take their stares anymore, and flap away just before he could burn them out of the sky.

The breath of fire technique that his uncle had invented kept them warm even in the freezing cold air at sea, but no firebending technique could be performed when exhausted. They'd had to do it in shifts, huddling together and taking turns firebending to keep each other warm and alive. And after three weeks at sea, the day that even Uncle Iroh, the Dragon of the West, had groaned that he could no longer muster enough strength for firebending… that was the day they finally drifted within sight of land. And just a few hours after they'd spotted land, a fishing crew had spotted them, pulling up alongside with shouts and honest concern in their eyes for the castaways they'd found.

The fishing crew had been Earth Kingdom folk, but they'd taken both Zuko and his uncle aboard without question. No matter their nationality, everyone respected the First Law of the Sea, to help the survivors of shipwrecks; everyone knew that to deny aid to those in such desperate need was to invite the sea spirits to wreck your ship, to punish your lack of compassion. The crew had sailed with them straight to a resort at a nearby port, one that had declared itself neutral to both Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation ships.

Zuko had actually been happy, that day when they'd been rescued. He'd been happy to receive that first bowl of broth and the concerned urgings of the woman who'd handed to him to drink it in slow sips, lest his shrunken stomach rebel on him and force it back up. He'd been happy to receive one of the resort's simple bathhouse robes, just like the robe being presented to his uncle, to replace the ragged tatters of their cold-weather gear.

He'd been even happier when the resort owner, noting that Uncle Iroh seemed fine but Zuko had still tended to curl in on himself to conserve body heat, had dug into their storehouse and given him extra layers of clothing to wear under the robe that resort customers normally wore only in midwinter. He hadn't even minded that the hat they also provided was a common peasant's straw hat; once he was fully dressed in all the layers, he was thoroughly warm without firebending for the first time in nearly a month, despite the chill still present in the early spring air.

Zuko had been delighted to receive a hearty evening meal of rice, pig-chicken and vegetables, after they were sure his stomach could handle it. And he'd been almost deliriously happy to be given a real bed to sleep in that night, with clean sheets and even a soft blanket to keep him warm. Thoroughly warm and full again at last; at the time, it had been utterly wonderful and everything he could have wished for.

His happiness had even increased over breakfast, when the owner of the resort had offered the two shipwreck survivors complimentary massages later that day, and the use of a private cabin for the next seven days while they waited for a reply to the message that had been sent yesterday. As soon as they'd arrived at the resort, Iroh had requested the use of a messenger hawk and sent a message to the nearest Fire Nation colony, to have gold taken on credit from his private funds couriered up to them.

A genuine massage from expert hands, just like the good old days! Zuko hadn't had a massage or other such royal pampering since he'd been banished. And while he'd always strived to be just as tough or even tougher than the men he commanded, sometimes he'd really missed having body servants to see to his every need.

Zuko's happiness had lasted through breakfast, and even afterwards… until he'd happened to overhear another customer of the resort ask an attendant what day it was, and heard the response.

It was That Day. The third anniversary of That Day. The day his father had burned him and banished him, for being shamefully weak and cowardly and utterly undeserving of his crown.

That had killed every trace of the good mood he'd been in. No happiness could stand against the awful memories crowding back into his skull, all the agony and shame... He'd even waved away the massage he'd been so looking forward to, not wanting anyone to touch him.

When Uncle Iroh had realized what day it was, he'd tried to comfort him… tried and failed miserably. Finally, his uncle had suggested they just walk along the beach for a while, to get away from the concerned resort attendants and others who just wouldn't understand.

They'd walked for several hours, wandering aimlessly, before finally returning to the cabin they'd been given by the resort owner for their use. But his uncle had gotten a small sack from somewhere before they'd started walking, and every once in a while he'd stopped and stooped down to pluck shells from the sand.

Now as they neared the door of the cabin, Zuko looked at the sack dangling from his uncle's hand with a frown; those shells were useless, worthless trinkets that would only add weight to their packs as they traveled. He was about to harshly scold his uncle for behaving so childishly—but he caught himself just in time, with a rueful thought: Old habits die hard. Then he said hesitantly, "Er… Uncle, you do realize that no one at this resort was ever on the Wani; I'm not anyone's commanding officer anymore."

Uncle Iroh glanced at him, his eyes filled with both sympathy and inquiry. "Though you are still and always a prince, my nephew… but you brought this up for a reason?"

"Yes; to remind you that you don't have to do that anymore," as Zuko gestured dismissively at the sack of shells. "You don't have to pretend to be some senile fool, just so people will look to me for orders instead; you can let your tactical genius show again!"

His uncle stopped dead in his tracks, looking utterly shocked—and then chuckled heartily, though Zuko somehow had the impression that the laughter was forced at first. "You are right, Zuko! I must confess, that pretense is a habit that will be difficult to break, after three long years of it. And a tactical genius would know better than to collect a pile of items that would only add bulk and weight without value when we are traveling," as he stepped over to a boulder sitting just outside the bathhouse door and emptied the sack of shells onto its surface.

But before they continued into the cabin Uncle Iroh picked up one small shell, the prettiest of the lot, and stroked it lightly with a finger. "But my years and experience have given me more than tactical genius, nephew; I've learned much about providing for the needs of the spirit, not just the body. This shell I shall keep as a reminder, of the kindness the people here have shown both of us; of our good fortune in finding ourselves in this beautiful safe haven after all the hardship we've endured. Good memories are to be cherished, nephew; they may buoy us up in our travels, more than this one little shell will weigh me down."

"I guess they do," Zuko said quietly, thinking of his own cherished memories, which had often sustained him back aboard the ship. His mother's smile… the turtle-ducks at the garden pond… Lu Ten playing with him once, before his cousin went off to war… Katara's interest and even temporary pleasure in his company, as he taught her how to use an abacus…

But today, every last one of those memories was a reminder of how much he'd lost over the years; in most cases, with no hope of ever regaining it. It only made his bad mood worse, as they passed through the door of the cabin.

His mood did not improve when he heard an unexpected and entirely unwelcome voice say, "Hello, brother. Uncle."

They both whipped around to see his sister Azula sitting at their table, her expression calm and mildly disdainful, one sharp fingernail rhythmically tapping the lacquered surface in silent implication that they'd rudely kept her waiting while they'd dawdled on the path.

Zuko hadn't seen his sister in three years, but he hadn't counted that as a loss at all. He snarled accusingly, "What are you doing here?"

Azula's look grew even more disdainful as she responded, "In my country, we exchange a pleasant 'hello' before asking questions." Zuko was still smarting over the 'my country' jab—he had no doubt Azula had done that deliberately, reminding him that he was still an exile and could no longer claim the Fire Nation as his home—when she got up to walk right up to them, demanding arrogantly, "Have you become uncivilized so soon, Zuzu?"

He'd been about to retort with a very civilized and razor-sharp insult, one that he remembered well because she'd used it on him a few years back. But at the sound of that nickname he'd grown to loathe, his response was pure reflex, jumping out of his throat before he could stop it; "Don't call me that!" Curse it, she always knew just how to pluck his strings!

Uncle Iroh didn't sound happy to see her either, though he was far more polite about it. "To what do we owe this honor?"

Azula brought her hand up and examined her lacquered fingernails rather than grace her uncle with even a respectful glance. "Hmm... must be a family trait. Both of you so quick to get to the point." Then she uncurled and lowered her hand—and that disdainful flick of her fingers in Iroh's direction had also been deliberate, Zuko just knew it—and looked him right in the eye as she said, "I've come with a message from home. Father's changed his mind. Family is suddenly very important to him. He's heard rumors of plans to overthrow him—treacherous plots. Family are the only ones you can really trust." Both her voice and her expression softened as she finished, "Father regrets your banishment. He wants you home."

She said… her words were… impossible. Just another one of Azula's many lies… Zuko had to turn away from her, to look out the window at reality.

Fantasies were supposed to be pleasant, daydreams to be summoned or dismissed at will, not rudely barging in to flip his world upside down like this.

Azula spoke up behind him, with a particularly pointed pleasantness. "Did you hear me? You should be happy. Excited. Grateful. I just gave you great news."

Uncle Iroh said soothingly, "I'm sure your brother just needs a moment to—"

Azula's pleasantness was flash-burned away in a harsh bark of "Don't interrupt, Uncle!" Then Zuko heard the clicking of her fancy boots on the cabin floor as she walked up to stand beside him. She said too-sweetly in his ear, "I still haven't heard my 'thank you'. I am not a messenger. I didn't have to come all this way."

Maybe if he said the words aloud, they'd sound a little more real. "Father regrets? He... wants me back?"

They did sound more real, now. And there was the fact that Azula was here, a very long way from home. Would she really come all this way from the Fire Nation capital just to lie to him? He knew she loved to sneer at him and laugh about his gullibility, but Azula was also efficient; she wouldn't waste this much of her time just for a malicious prank…

"I can see you need time to take this in," Azula said, and Zuko didn't have to look at her to know she was rolling her eyes at his slowness in comprehending the situation. "I'll come to call on you tomorrow. Good evening," as she walked out of the cabin without a backward glance.

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The evening darkened quickly, after Azula's departure. But Iroh observed that the more the sky darkened, the more Zuko seemed to brighten, as he finally started believing his sister's words. If only those words hadn't been utter lies

"We're going home. After three long years. It's unbelievable!" Zuko said happily, all but dancing across the floor of their cabin with an armload of clothing. Just after Azula had left, the resort's resident seamstress had stopped by to give them with more clothing to wear besides simple bathrobes; a set of shirts and trousers for each of them, the cloth dyed in Earth Kingdom green shades. Zuko had almost refused the clothing just because the colors made them completely unsuitable for a Fire Nation prince to wear, but Iroh had quickly interrupted him to thank the kindly woman for her efforts on their behalf. And after she'd left, Zuko had wryly admitted that even Earth Kingdom green would be fine at least for nightwear aboard the ship while they traveled; no one would notice the color in a pitch-dark cabin.

As he packed a satchel for himself, Iroh tried once more to gently persuade his nephew to see the truth; "It is unbelievable. I have never known my brother to regret anything."

Zuko turned to look at him in surprise. "Didn't you listen to Azula? Father's realized how important family is to him. He cares about me!"

"I care about you! And if Ozai wants you back... well, I think it may not be for the reasons you imagine."

The happiness that had been making a rare appearance on his nephew's face, vanished as though it had never been there at all. The smile flattened to a thinned line that tugged downwards, threatening to become that all-too-familiar scowl. Iroh resignedly braced himself for another bout of yelling and insults, the traditional fare for the last three years.

But Zuko had changed, since overhearing and learning the truth of his uncle's ongoing deception for his sake. A minor change to be sure, but definitely a welcome one; instead of responding with instant scorn, he actually paused to think for a few seconds.

Then he said earnestly, "Uncle, I know you're warning me to not get my hopes up. Azula said I can go home again, but she didn't say I'd become the crown prince and heir again. Believe me, I noticed she didn't say that! But… but that doesn't really matter to me now, not as much as just going home!" as Zuko spread his hands out towards him, pleading for Iroh to understand. "Seeing the palace again, the garden with the turtle-ducks… fire-flakes and roasted sea-slugs… fields of fire lilies, and the ash-banana groves… the nighttime glow atop the volcano peaks, when they dream in their sleep…"

The raw longing he could hear in his nephew's voice nearly broke Iroh's heart all over again. He missed all those things too, but the ache was reduced because he'd made the choice to leave them all behind. And he'd learned over the decades that beauty and the comforts that make a place home can be found anywhere in the world, but despite traveling all over for the last three years, Zuko's obsession with regaining his honor and pleasing his father had blinded him to that truth.

It hurt to do it, but he forced himself to say, "I do understand, nephew. I miss all those things too. But please understand me, as well; remember that in our family, things are not always as they seem."

Zuko gave a wry grimace. "Especially where Azula is concerned. I've dealt with her more than you have, Uncle; I know how much she lies. But she wouldn't come all this way just to lie to me again… and even if she thought it was actually worth that much of her precious time, Father wouldn't give her a ship and crew just so she could pull another vicious prank on me."

His expression turned pleading again. "Uncle, earlier today when you were enjoying your massage, you told me you were sure that Father didn't think I'm worthless; that he… well, this proves you were right!"

Iroh remembered what he'd said, and remembered regretting his asinine phrasing at the time. Now, he wished he could travel backwards several hours, just so he could give himself a swift kick right where it counted.

Zuko continued, "Or maybe he really didn't care, before, but… people change sometimes, don't they? I know I've changed, in these last few years… Is it really so impossible to think that Father has changed, too?"

…Curse it all, now Iroh found himself starting to wonder and hope as well. Even when he damn well knew better!

But he dropped the subject for the rest of the night. A good general knows when to temporarily withdraw from battle, to marshal his forces more effectively later.

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The next morning they left the cabin together, after thanking the resort owners for their hospitality and assuring them that royal compensation would be soon to follow. Standing at the crest of the hill beside his uncle, seeing the ship waiting at the dock to take him home… Zuko couldn't remember any time in the last three years that he'd been happier than at right that moment. "We're finally going home," he said aloud, the words his heart was all but singing inside him.

If it weren't for the robe he was wearing and being mindful of royal dignity in front of the troops, Zuko would have done cartwheels worthy of his childhood friend Ty Lee, all the way down to the dock. But mindful of his dignity, mindful of his uncle at his side—and mindful of what a disaster would likely occur if his uncle tried to do cartwheels too—he merely started walking again, at a suitably leisurely pace. But he still felt like he was almost floating down the path; he was so happy

So of course it didn't last.

The happiness was blasted away by shock when, while still walking up the boarding ramp, he heard the ship's captain call out to the crew, "Raise the anchors! We're taking the prisoners ho-"

Prisoners?!

The shock quickly converted to outrage and growing fury, as he grabbed the closest guard in front of him and tossed him overboard—not because the guard had been reaching for him, but because the man had been an obstacle between him and Azula, as he snarled up at her, "You lied to me!"

She gave him a condescending sneer as she said with a huff of amusement, "Like I've never done that before!" Sneering as if the fault wasn't hers at all, but his for believing her for even an instant.

And then she turned and strolled casually away from him, as if he simply wasn't worth any further effort on her part.

A red haze of sheer rage descended over his vision. He hardly took notice of the guards throwing fire at him, deflecting their flames and knocking them back out of sheer reflex. He paid no heed to the sounds of his uncle fighting behind him, while bellowing up to him that they needed to go. All his attention was focused on his damnable lying bitch of a sister, and making her PAY for tricking him again, on top of all the other lies she'd told him and all the ways she'd hurt him over the years.

But finally engaging her in battle only make him even more furious, because she easily beat him back like his fire daggers were inconsequential, while taunting him further: "You know Father blames Uncle for the loss at the North Pole. And he considers you a miserable failure for not finding the Avatar." She casually blocked another strike while continuing, "Why would he want you back home, except to lock you up where you can no longer embarrass him?"

Zuko's uncontrolled rage was his undoing. He was so focused on attacking her, he didn't realize he'd left himself wide open until it was too late, and her counterstrike sent him tumbling head over heels back down the boarding ramp. He did his best to absorb and dissipate the impact but he still hit his head when he landed; his vision blurred and threatened to gray out entirely, even as he struggled to get back to his feet. Come on, body, the fight's not over yet!

He felt crackling static dancing about him and raising the hairs on his skin, a sensation he'd felt only a few times before in his life, but his brain frantically supplied the reference: someone close by was generating lightning! He desperately tried to focus his eyes back up the ramp, in dawning horror as he realized that sometime over the last three years, Azula had learned to bend lightning! Lightning, and he was a dead man; there was no defense against—

And then Uncle was there, grabbing Azula and doing something, he couldn't tell what, but the lightning shot away from him instead of frying him on the spot. And then his uncle tossed Azula overboard, before pounding back down the ramp just as Zuko finally managed to make it back to his feet.

"Let's go!" Iroh ordered, and basically dragged him along for the first few steps away from the ship, until he got his legs back under him and could run again.

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He really should have known better.

He should have known better than to believe his sister would do anything at all, let alone travel all the way to the Earth Kingdom, for his benefit.

He should have known that his father would decide it would be better to have his worthless son imprisoned, than allowed to continue traipsing around the world trying and failing to capture the Avatar, and bringing further dishonor on the royal family with every failure.

He should have known better than to let himself feel happy, even for a moment.

Those were the thoughts running through his head as he knelt on the bank of a stream, at what Uncle Iroh had declared was a safe distance away from their pursuers. Which right now were only the crew of Azula's ship, but Zuko had no doubt that the wanted posters offering a reward for their capture would be drawn up and distributed before the day was over. After that, anyone and everyone who saw and recognized them would be their pursuers.

His arms felt like lead, weighted down with the grief and despair pressing down on his soul, as he slowly drew his knife from its sheath. He stared at the writing on the blade without seeing it, not needing to read again an inscription he knew by heart: Never give up without a fight.

He knew he had to do it.

So long as he kept it, he was too recognizable.

So long as he kept it, he was clinging to what he now knew to be a lie.

It was beyond foolish, to cling to lies that could only get you killed.

But it was still the hardest thing he'd ever done, to reach back with the knife and sever his royal phoenix plume at the base; to cut the most visible tie to the life he'd once had.

When he was done, Iroh wordlessly held out his hand for the knife, and Zuko just as wordlessly handed it over. He was aware of his uncle also severing his topknot and his ties to their royal clan, but he didn't look; he only stared at the hank of hair in his palm for a few more aching seconds, before letting go and dropping it into the stream.

They were fugitives now. The water slowly carried their hair away, along with all of Zuko's dreams and hopes for the future.

His world had ended. Again. This time with no promise of it returning if he could only fulfill an impossible quest.

Zuko was so tired of his world ending, while his life continued on…

But as he lifted the knife again, the day's fading light caught on the inscription engraved in the blade, and he glanced at it before firmly sheathing it. He would not take the final path back to honor; he knew he could never just give up, not without a fight.

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Days later, and hundreds of miles away:

"…Devastated, the woman unleashed a terrible display of her earthbending power. She could have destroyed them all… But instead she declared the war over."

Katara continued interpreting the ancient characters inscribed with the images on the walls of the tomb she and Aang had found, buried deep within the mountain. "Both villages helped her build a new city where they would live together in peace. The woman's name was Oma and the man's name was Shu. The great city was named Omashu as a monument to their love."

She finished reading the inscription, blinking back the tears that threatened at such a tragic tale, "Love is brightest in the dark."

A solemn silence descended over her and Aang after that. Katara had no idea what Aang was thinking, but the last inscription on the wall kept whispering inside her mind. Love shines brightest in the dark. She knew somehow that it was more than just a metaphor…

What if it was a clue to finding the way out of the tomb?

The spirits were actively involved in events inside the mountain; Katara was as sure of that as she was of her own name, given the way that the tunnels had been changing on them even before the cave-in. When you were interacting with spirits, symbolism was important; that message had been driven home again and again in dozens of the spirit-tales that the she'd heard from Gran-Gran and the other village elders while growing up.

What would be a symbol of love potent enough to nudge the spirits into helping them get out of here?

Kissing… kissing someone like Zuko. Two lovers forbidden from each other because a war divided their people, just like the song Chong had been singing…

Well, not really just like the song. She and Zuko definitely weren't lovers; they couldn't even truly be friends so long as Zuko was hells-bent on capturing Aang to please his father. Just thinking about it made her heart ache, so much…

Stop it, she ordered herself harshly. Stop thinking about Zuko. Even if they really were friends or even lovers, Zuko wasn't here in the tunnels with them. She had to think of something else…

Of someone else? She didn't have any romantic feelings for Aang at all, but she did like him, he was a nice enough boy, and he was also the only boy around at the moment. And maybe only the symbolism of the kiss was important; maybe they didn't need to have actual romantic intentions behind the gesture.

So when Aang asked, "How are we gonna find our way out of these tunnels?" Katara said hesitantly, "I have a crazy idea…"

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At roughly the same time, hundreds of miles away:

The meal had been delicious… the hospitality of Song and her mother had been pleasant… and Zuko couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so horrible.

He silently hatedhis uncle for putting them in this situation. If only Uncle Iroh had listened, when Zuko had tried to refuse Song's invitation! If only his uncle had heard the worry behind his words, instead listening only to the rumblings of his stomach. If only he'd been able to drag his uncle somewhere private for a fast talk, before they'd left the clinic in Song's company…

Finally, the dinner and incredibly uncomfortable post-dinner conversations came to an end. They stood just outside Song's house as Iroh said graciously, "Thank you for the duck. It was excellent."

"You're welcome," Song's mother Ping said as she handed them a wrapped package with savory scents wafting from it; the leftover duck from their dinner. She added with a smile, "It brings me joy to see someone eat my cooking with such... gusto."

Never one to hesitate to poke fun at himself, Uncle Iroh patted his stomach as he said agreeably, "Much practice." And then his looked at Zuko as he was turning to leave and said with clear admonishment, "Junior, where are your manners? You need to thank these nice people."

Oh Agni, that was So Definitely Not what Zuko wanted to say to them! But they had a cover to maintain, curse it. A cover he didn't dare break even now, because Song's home at the outskirts of the local village was still too close for comfort; too close to people who would break out the pitchforks and rouse their local militia if they heard two Fire Nation natives were nearby. So Zuko turned back to them, bowed and said tonelessly, "Thank you."

As he turned to leave again, Song said earnestly, "I know you don't think there's any hope left in the world, but there is hope. The Avatar has returned!"

…The spirits just had to prompt her to say that, hadn't they?

Zuko wanted to scream, but instead he managed to keep to a more-or-less civil tone as he said, "I know."

Finally, his uncle let them leave. And right after they passed through the front gate leading to Song's home, Zuko noticed again the stable where the family kept their animals, including the tethered ostrich-horse they probably used for visiting people who couldn't come to the clinic.

Zuko took a quick glance behind them, didn't see anybody watching, and quickly went up to the ostrich-horse and freed him from the tethering post. It was a well-trained beast, not skittish at all when Zuko mounted up into the saddle in one fluid motion. And in the only good news of the night, it responded to the same movements and gestures as the komodo-rhinos Zuko was used to riding; his quick and desperate plan would benefit him and his uncle after all.

He urged the ostrich-horse forward to where his uncle was standing, and staring at him in open dismay. "What are you doing? These people just showed you great kindness!"

Zuko rasped, "So they're about to show us a little more kindness." He held out a hand for his uncle to take as assistance in mounting behind him, and said tensely, "Well?"

For a moment Iroh paused, and then his wrinkled face drew into a fierce scowl as he shook his head, stepped back and pointed firmly at the ground in front of him. "Get down from there this instant, nephew, and put the beast back where it belongs. We are fugitives, yes, but we are not common criminals!"

"Yes, we are," Zuko gritted out, glaring at his uncle as he drew his hand back to grip the reins hard. "We have to be, now, and all because you insisted on accepting the invitation to dinner—in front of witnesses, the other people at the clinic! Why didn't you think of what would happen if the soldiers that you know Azula has sent after us, track us this far and find out that this family gave us hospitality?!"

Iroh froze, his face looking stricken as Zuko hissed, "They could maybe get away with giving us medical help at their clinic, because the best healers are sworn to help people regardless of their nationality or circumstances. But feeding us, inviting us into their home? Azula likes to 'make an example of' people who displease her. Whoever's been sent after us will burn their home down to the ground—and Azula will probably order that they be barricaded inside it first!"

Iroh hung his head in sorrowful acknowledgment as he said in a whisper, "You are right, nephew. I did not think…"

Zuko relented a little at his uncle's expression. "You didn't grow up with Azula, Uncle; you aren't used to having to think about the worst thing she could do at any time. Anyway, if we can make Song and her mother regret, out loud to the rest of the village, that they ever laid eyes on us, then there's a good chance that nothing else will be done to them. Azula will probably just laugh at their gullibility in inviting total strangers into their home, say they deserved what we did to them and move on. Stealing this beast is the worst thing I can think of to do to them right now, that won't actually hurt them or their clinic." And again, he held his hand out for his uncle.

This time Iroh took his hand, and mounted up behind him without another word. As they rode off, Zuko thought he faintly heard the swoosh of a door sliding shut behind them, but it only spurred him to nudge the ostrich-horse into a faster trot. He refused to look back, to see if the theft had been noticed already. He was a brave warrior, used to pain and ordeal, but imagining the looks on their faces when they found out what he'd done…

Zuko hunched his shoulders as he urged their mount into an even faster pace, and they rode off into the night.

TBC