Title: Bringing Out the Blue
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender, or any of the dialogue from the series.
Summary: AU. The arrow injured the Blue Spirit instead of knocking him out, and Aang never found out his identity. Zuko made a Plan – to use the disguise to improve his chances of capturing the Avatar. He didn't expect so many truths to come through the lies. As Zuko struggles with the way that the Avatar and his companions are nothing like he expected, all their destinies begin to change subtly. (All pairings are canon, but most of this fic does not focus on romance.)
A/N: Unbetaed, and this is a rather experimental fic for me. I would love to hear your criticism on how I did.
Bringing Out the Blue
One careful step after another, Zuko backed away from the fortress. His arms were starting to burn with the effort of holding his swords close enough to the Avatar's neck to be a threat without actually cutting the boy's throat. The loose hair beneath his hood itched unmercifully at his sweaty neck. The woods had seemed so close to the wall when he'd come, and now they seemed hopelessly far behind him. He couldn't even turn to look.
At least his "prisoner" was still stunned into not resisting. After they gained the relative safety of the woods, he'd need to make the imprisonment real, and his only good rope had been sliced down somewhere inside the fortress walls. The difficulties in keeping hold of an airbender – a creative airbender – were starting to din more and more loudly in Zuko's mind. Even if he still had his rope, would it work? It hadn't been enough aboard his ship, when the Avatar had been surrounded. Zuko might have learned a thing or two from Ty Lee, but it was exactly enough to let him know that he didn't have Ty Lee's skill, or a tenth of her knowledge of the human body. Grimly he pushed those thoughts aside. He'd get to the forest first, and then he'd think of something.
Another step back, into a pothole. The stumble nearly made him lose his concentration – and probably saved his life, because when his head snapped back involuntarily, he saw it.
Too close; can't move the swords quickly enough to block the arrow without cutting the Avatar's neck. The decision wasn't even a thought. He threw himself forward, making sure the Avatar's body was well-shielded. He was almost quick enough to avoid the arrow entirely.
All that training. It did pay off at the oddest moments.
Beneath him, the boy started kicking and squirming; each movement sent flares of dull pain through Zuko's body. Dust swirled around them. Did the boy want to be impaled? Zuko carefully slid the swords out from underneath the both of them, noting distantly that his left arm would not obey him very well, and rolled to the side after a quick glance to make sure no more arrows were coming. They weren't, but even from here, he could hear the groan of the gates and the sound of soldiers rushing out.
Kneeling first, then pulling himself painfully to his feet, Zuko gestured urgently with his right sword – pointing at the soldiers, then at the forest. The boy's eyes went very wide. "You – really weren't trying to kill me?" Zuko rolled his eyes behind his mask and gestured again – no time for small talk. He started moving himself, hoping the boy still had enough sense to follow, and why was walking so difficult all of a sudden?
"You," he heard the Avatar babble, "you have… oh, Spirits… Hang on!"
The Avatar gave him an oddly determined look and turned back. Zuko contemplated hauling the boy off by his collar again, but stilled when he saw the Avatar's hands move. A thick cloud of dust boiled up between them and their attackers, hiding them, giving them time to get away.
The Avatar finished bending and leapt over beside Zuko; suddenly too close, he pushed himself underneath Zuko's right arm and grabbed Zuko's collar. Then they were moving, far faster than ought to be possible. Muzzily, Zuko realized that his body was being lifted and supported on nothing more than air – air which was steady and solid, right now, even as the wind and the tree branches whipped around them.
Some time later, he was lowered gently to the ground, onto his right side. "I think we're safe here," the Avatar spoke in quick huffs of breath and his fingers danced nervously, "and I'm not good at this kind of thing, Katara might know, but Katara is sick herself right now, and we need to get this arrow out now."
Arrow? What – oh, he did get hit. Now that the battle rush was fading and he was not moving, he began to understand that he was in trouble. He couldn't quite tell how bad the injury was – there weren't a lot of nerves still working on the upper left side of his back, though at least it hadn't scarred the way his face did. There was a dull throbbing, though, with some blood loss, quite likely. He tried to reach around with his good arm, but couldn't find it. "Easy, easy," came a voice, and a second later he was in agony.
Yes, training paid off, both his official and his unofficial training. When he could think again, his right hand was already clenched around the Avatar's, having just prevented the idiot from yanking the arrow out backwards. At least he could tell where it hit now. It entered sideways, just above the armpit, and skimmed over the shoulderblade in a slightly downward direction. He was lucky it stopped halfway before the spine. Not so lucky that it hadn't exited on its own.
He propped himself up a bit despite the alarmed noises behind him. Swords still with him, good. Aiming carefully, he lopped off the feathered end, then slumped again. He would never be able to do the next part on his own. The Avatar didn't know how. Zuko couldn't speak without giving himself away, and he had no illusions about what would happen if he tried that. Uncle… was far away, and how would Zuko ever explain this?
"Are you okay? Please, please, be okay."
The moon finally came out from behind the clouds. They were in a clearing of some sort, by the side of a small stream. Zuko was good at improvising.
He picked up a twig, swept away dead leaves, and started drawing in the dirt. Simple, lopsided pictures, because even his right hand wasn't entirely steady. An outline of an arm and shoulder, with an arrow through them. Hand pressed down just beside where the arrow needed to exit, pulling the skin taut. Another picture, of the arrow halfway out in the proper direction. Arm and shoulder with puncture marks, and as he started drawing bandages over the wound, the Avatar exclaimed that now he understood, and Zuko dropped the twig.
It hurt a lot, but it was over quickly. Zuko lay there and just breathed. Eventually, he had to stir, because the Avatar made no move to make a bandage. Yes, okay, putting on a bandage would reveal his Fire Nation-pale skin… Improvising again, Zuko turned so that he was half-propped-up by the trunk of a tree and more importantly, did not provide a clear view of his back. He reached with his good arm and pretended to press hard, but what he really did was to surreptitiously cauterize the wounds. He couldn't quite reach the exit wound, so he had to wait for the Avatar to look away at the moment of the flash. The next part was harder, against his nature, but he drew the warmth from around the injury into his hands and sent it elsewhere in the body. The icy chill was unpleasant, but the numbing was good, and it should have slowed or stopped the bleeding. All right. All right now.
"Are you feeling any better? Only I still have to help my friends – they're sick, and I need to capture some frogs for them, and I can't leave them for too long, but I can't leave you either. Can you walk again?"
Except it was not all right, because he was further than ever from capturing the Avatar. Okay, so he still had the element of surprise, and the boy trusted him for the moment. He sighed as he realized it wouldn't be enough in his current state.
"Was that a yes sigh or a no sigh? I guess you really can't talk. You didn't even make much sound when you were hurt! Is that why you're wearing that mask? Something happened to your mouth and you don't want people to see? It's okay, you know. You saved me – I'm not going to be bothered by any old injury you have."
Zuko shook his head, bleakly amused by the Avatar's cluelessness. Something bothered him, here. It was his destiny to capture the Avatar and regain his honor. What honor was there in betraying a trust, however unwittingly earned? Even if he might excuse it under the defense of doing what had to be done, there was that other thing the Avatar kept repeating. He had sick friends – the two he travelled with, surely – and if Zuko captured him now, he would be essentially condemning two people who just happened to be in the way.
Maybe it wasn't a bad sickness? Perhaps they would recover on their own? After all, the Avatar also kept babbling about frogs. It could be the shock of being imprisoned.
Holding up a hand to stop the Avatar's rambling, he searched for another twig and smoothed over his previous drawings. In the dirt, he scratched out words for the Avatar to read. His former teachers would be disappointed by his poor calligraphy, but the kanji came out relatively legible. The Avatar leaned over, squinting in the dim light.
"I'll be fine now. What kind of sickness do your friends have?" he wrote.
The explanation gushed forth and Zuko was startled by the odd note of – pleading? – in the Avatar's voice. He sounded more like a child than ever – a child expecting his parents to make everything all right. At least Zuko finally understood about the blasted frogs. The Avatar finished and looked up with hope in his eyes. He was a child, alone, with nothing to go on but the advice of a quite possibly insane healer who recommended frogs. Anything that produced fever high enough for hallucinations was dangerous.
Zuko's bursts of inspiration had always been exhilarating. Perhaps that was why he didn't like to think things through. He now had the beginnings of a plan, and while many details weren't clear yet, he knew how to begin. "Not sure about frogs," he wrote. "I have some medicine, but need time to get it. Need rest, too. Meet here this evening if frogs don't work."
Once the Avatar puzzled out the message, his face split into the broadest grin Zuko has ever seen – and yes, he counted Uncle. "Thank you!" he cried, then threw his arms around Zuko, who was shocked into stillness.
The Avatar. Hugged him.
Though he did let go quickly. "Sorry, I wasn't thinking about how you're still injured. I really, really owe you. Are you sure you'll be okay?"
Zuko did a whole body pantomime of annoyance at such unearned doubt, complete with throwing his hands to the sky. The Avatar smiled. "I guess you really are okay, then. What is your name? I'm Aang."
Zuko tapped the mask. The Blue Spirit was a minor, but still well-known stock character in the old-style wordless operas – the Avatar ought to recognize it better than anyone else living.
"Masked Man?" the boy said, as if he couldn't quite approve. Zuko shook his head, because it did sound silly. "Blue Spirit?" he guessed with the same tone of voice. Zuko nodded. "Uh, surely that's not what your parents named you?"
Zuko couldn't help it – he shook with laughter, remembering at the last second to make it silent, which only amplified the force of it. No, it certainly wasn't what his parents named him, and oh, the sheer absurdity of imagining it for a moment! Even Azula would have a difficult time making an unpleasant nickname out of that. Picking up the twig again, he wrote the first name to come to mind.
The Avatar was confused by this reaction, but soon started smiling too. "Lee? Well, I can see why you might want a more unusual name, then!" Sobering up a little, he drew himself up, then bowed with deep respect. "Thank you, Blue Spirit Lee, for everything you've done for me. I have to go now, but I'll come meet you this evening!" Just like that, he was off, speeding through the trees.
Zuko hauled himself up and started walking downstream, pausing only to drink water and renew the cooling of the injury every few minutes. The plan started to come together in his mind. All the while he'd been chasing the Avatar, the worst part had been trying to figure out where to search next. Even worse had been the sensation that he could almost see the pattern. The Avatar was headed north, for all his zigzagging, but "north" was a large area when it encompassed the distance between Omashu and Avatar Roku's temple. All Zuko had was a ship, so on land, he was restricted, while the Avatar could simply fly over obstacles.
Zuko had read everything he could get his hands on about the extinct Air Nomads, but that was not enough to predict the movements of one particular member. What sites are important to the Avatar? What is his specific destination? How does he think, how does he evade? These questions were all hard to answer, and the Avatar would not reveal the answer to an enemy. But if the Avatar saw merely a fellow-traveler, one to whom he felt obligated, then he might let things slip. Once Zuko knew where to go, he would be able to race ahead and prepare. Then he'd capture the Avatar, cleanly.
It wasn't far to the shore, and once he got there, it was simple enough to find his boat. Scrubbing off the blood and changing clothes was an exercise in frustration, but he managed. The pressure of his chest armor on the wound was outweighed by the bracing it provided to the muscles, not to mention that it was easier to draw heat out of leather and have it stay cold than out of living flesh. He viewed his black shirt sadly – ripped by the arrow and stiff with blood – and wondered if he had the skill to salvage it. Sighing, he left it soaking in a basin of seawater. The little boat slipped into the water and he hugged the shore as he headed back to the ship. There was a reason they hadn't docked, a reason his uncle let him go alone to scout despite obvious misgivings, a reason why all the Fire Nation soldiers stayed safe in their stronghold here – it wasn't a conquered area yet. One person could slip through, or an army. Several would be caught and slaughtered.
On board, he brushed Uncle's worried inquiry aside by insisting he was headed for bed. However, once inside the ship's tower, he headed all the way up to the navigation and control room. "Lieutenant Jee, I need to speak with you." Jee rose silently and followed him out. It was hard to imagine the dour lieutenant singing a "stirring love song."
Once inside his room, Zuko closed the door firmly. "You're the one who treats all the minor injuries aboard, aren't you?" he said to Jee.
"Yes," the man replied, puzzled. "I have some skill with battlefield medicine, but no more than that."
Zuko took his stash of medical supplies out of his chest. "Good. Then you can help me." He drew himself to his full height, trying to intimidate. "My uncle does not need to know about this. Understand?"
Jee did not look too intimidated. "Why's that?" He was already moving to help Zuko take off the armor, observing the stiffness of Zuko's left arm and clearly drawing conclusions.
Zuko blew out a smoking breath and tried to get ahold of his temper. "Because," he grated, "it's just a small injury, but he will worry needlessly about it. I wouldn't even bother you about it, if I could reach everything myself." He slid off his shirt and turned so that Jee could see.
Jee's voice sounded mildly impressed. "Looks like you did a good job of patching yourself already. Arrow?"
Jee pressed his fingers lightly around the injury, testing. "You've been keeping it cool? That'll help with the swelling, but I think you overdid it. Try very gentle heat for the next while," Jee put his hand over the line the arrow followed and demonstrated, "and cool it only if it starts getting severely inflamed, or it might heal wrong. You won't be able to use your arm well for at least a week, anyway."
"Could have been worse."
"Could have been," Jee agreed, as he started rubbing ointment into Zuko's shoulder with careful fingers. The smell nauseated Zuko with memories, but the stuff worked miracles, unless the injury was too deep, or too old. "You probably won't even have a scar to show for it. General Iroh is an observant man, though."
Zuko turned his head as much as he could to glare. "He is. He still doesn't need to hear it from you."
Jee sighed. "He would worry needlessly. You're right, Prince Zuko."
Jee ignored the sarcasm and worked silently. His fingers moved with surety, stretching and straightening the muscles, making sure that they didn't freeze into their current position as they healed. Zuko hadn't realized Jee knew that much battlefield medicine and was grateful for his good fortune. It didn't take long before Jee finished and wrapped a supportive bandage around his chest and shoulder. Zuko paid careful attention; with his luck, the knowledge would prove useful.
"Try not to move your arm around too much for the next two days, but don't hold it stiffly. The ointment needs to be reapplied once a day, so come find me tomorrow. After two days, you'll be able to keep it stretched and limber on your own."
Zuko nodded and walked over to sit on his bed, exhaustion overwhelming him suddenly. He rubbed his hands over his face. "Thank you, Lieutenant," he said, his voice softer than he meant to make it. "If I don't wake up in time for dinner, knock on the door, would you?"
One corner of Jee's mouth curved a bit. "I assume General Iroh doesn't need to know about that, either?"
"You assume right," he said through a yawn.
Jee put the supplies back in the chest (good thinking, what if Uncle looked in to check on him?), gave a brief bow as goodbye, and left. Zuko dropped onto his right side, drew up the blankets so that the bandages wouldn't show, and fell asleep in moments.
Outside the door, Jee snorted quietly to himself. Three days ago, he'd been ready to wring the boy's neck and gladly go to his court martial. Three days ago, he would have been sure that the spoiled prince was only hiding the injury for his own benefit, to avoid a yelling perhaps, but now he was inclined to believe that true concern for sparing an old man's feelings was behind it. Now, he found himself feeling all sym-pa-thetic, and regretting already that the young prince would not be able to protect General Iroh from knowing. It'd be obvious the moment the boy started training, and if he didn't train, it would be even more obvious. Jee found himself thinking, even, whether he could do anything to delay that moment, as he climbed the stairs up.
Sokka had swished out his mouth five times, but he would swear – and did, loudly – that he could still taste the frog. Soon, however, he found out that the frogs weren't the worst of it.
"What took you so long, Aang?" asked Katara as she built up the fire. The fever had passed, but they were both still coughing, so Katara was making tea.
"Well, um… I kinda got caught," Aang rubbed his neck in embarrassment.
Sokka didn't even need to yell – Katara handled that part for him perfectly.
Aang tried to make light of things, as usual. "Well, there were these archers, and they pinned me down with arrows and put me in a net. They took me to a Fire Nation fortress, but it's fine, I escaped! There was this guy who helped me – we're going to go meet him this evening."
Sokka's eyes narrowed. "Wait a moment. Some guy just conveniently shows up to rescue you from Angry Jerk, and that doesn't seem the least bit suspicious to you?"
Aang actually paused at that, but then shook his head determinedly. "You weren't there, Sokka. The way he fought, I think he really just wanted to help me. He got hit by an arrow protecting me, you know."
"No, I don't know. Why don't you start from the beginning?"
So Aang did. Sokka rubbed his chin in thought. While there had been no sign of the Angry Jerk, the description of the guy who came to gloat matched that Zhao guy they'd seen at Roku's Temple, so they were probably working together. On the other hand, this Zhao had chained up the Angry Jerk at the temple, so maybe not. The few things Aang mentioned about what Zhao said gave him the creeps – Aang and Katara too, as they had all huddled up together at that point in the story. Even the tea didn't make him feel much warmer, but he held on to his cup and continued to listen.
"So then, I heard sounds of fighting outside, and when it stopped, the door opened. Then I was really scared, because I didn't know I was being rescued, and he looked like he was going to kill me. He had black clothes on, and a mask, and came in swinging his swords, but all he did was cut my chains off from me, and then the shackles."
"He had swords sharp enough to cut metal?" Sokka couldn't help interjecting.
"Yeah. I found out later he can't talk, but at the time, the way he wouldn't speak was eerie."
It was Katara's turn to interrupt. "Can't talk, or won't?"
"I'm pretty sure he can't," explained Aang. "Even when he was hurt, he didn't scream, and the only sounds I've heard him make were soft, wordless ones. When we got out, he communicated by drawing pictures and writing. His name's Lee, by the way, but he prefers Blue Spirit, after the mask. He wouldn't take it off because it was pretty bad underneath, and I think whatever happened to his face also made him unable to speak."
"Great, so we've got a mute swordsman who goes around rescuing Avatars in his spare time. Lee, huh? How do we know it's his real name? Anyone can call themselves Lee."
Aang gave him a look and continued on with the story. Sokka had to admit it was impressive, and it sounded like the Fire Nation didn't have much love for the guy. However, threatening Aang? That was just not on.
"He only did it after Zhao ordered the soldiers to take me alive, and it did get them to open the gate," Aang defended his new buddy.
Sokka just waved his hand for Aang to go on. He was reserving judgment. Aang told them of the near-miss with the arrow, and having to get it out later, and the agreement with the stranger. The offer of medicine did sound good, because even the tea had not soothed the scratchiness in his throat. A lot of the details still bugged him, though, and he knew they needed to remain wary.
"I think," he announced, "we should go there early. Make sure there's not an ambush being set up for us."
Aang looked ready to protest, but Katara, who had been listening quietly, unexpectedly threw in with Sokka. "Aang, I agree, he sounds like a good guy, but we don't know anything about him. We should be careful."
When they arrived, however, the clearing was empty except for the remains of the arrow. Sokka checked out the tracks, but they didn't tell him anything new, aside from the direction in which this Lee guy had left, and that he'd lost surprisingly little blood. They set up another small campfire and settled around it to wait, telling stories to pass the time.
About an hour after darkness fell, someone stepped out suddenly from the shadows. Sokka yelped and flailed his club around. How did he not hear the guy arrive? But Aang was scrambling to his feet and running over excitedly. "Lee! You came!"
The masked figure bowed in greeting, but then tapped at his mask. "Sorry," Aang immediately said, "Blue Spirit Lee. These are my friends, Katara and Sokka, and this is Momo," he gestured to each of them in turn. They had left Appa at a distance, to avoid the attention of those archers.
Sokka and Katara each received a bow and stood to return the gesture, but the formality of the moment was spoiled by Momo, who leapt atop the stranger's shoulders with a loud screech. He staggered a bit in surprise, then straightened and gently detached Momo from around his head. Cradling the lemur in the crook of one arm, he petted Momo's head awkwardly, apparently unsure of what to do with the handful. Momo chittered in annoyance, but accepted the petting.
Aang came to the rescue, taking Momo out of the stranger's hands. "It's all right; he's just being friendly in his own way." Momo let out a screech that sounded like disagreement and climbed atop Aang's head, where he sat upright like a small guard.
The stranger tilted his head at Momo, then held out his arms palms up. Momo leaned over to sniff at him, once, twice, and sat back again, apparently satisfied. With a shrug, the stranger extracted a pouch from somewhere inside his clothing and held it as if offering it to the trio, his head tilted inquisitively.
Katara stepped up to take the offering and Sokka tensed, but the guy didn't attack. Katara's eyes widened as she looked inside the pouch. "Wow, there are so many useful herbs in here! Thank you, ah, Blue Spirit Lee. We're much better now, but still coughing – you don't mind if we take a few things from here, do you?"
The masked guy shook his head a little and made a gesture clearly indicating "Hey, why else did I bring it?" Katara sat down and began digging through the pouch happily, but Sokka kept watching their guest, who still stood in the place where he'd first appeared. At that height, he could either be a tall teenager or a young adult. His swords were slung over the wrong shoulder, probably because the other one still hurt. Even standing still, he seemed poised for flight. Something about him niggled at Sokka's mind, but he couldn't figure out what it was. It took him no more than a second to notice Sokka watching. He returned the stare, which, with that mask on, was a bit disturbing.
Sokka decided to get right down to it. "So hey, Blue Spirit guy," he made sure to snort a bit at the name, "do you often wind up rescuing strangers, or did you just happen to make an exception for Aang here?"
The guy twitched, then approached the fire. He certainly moved like a fighter, and his footsteps were nearly soundless even on the carpet of dry leaves. Sokka wished he could see him in action – that would tell him a lot more. After sitting down on Sokka's left, the guy found a stick and began to write, his movements a bit jerky.
"Hey, what's he saying?" Katara interjected, and Aang plopped down on Sokka's other side.
Sokka read out loud as the characters quickly formed. "I saw five elite archers carrying one child in a net into the stronghold. So I investigated. I heard them talking about what they would do, and I didn't want it to happen."
"We're very glad you got Aang out of there," Katara interjected, and Aang nodded his complete agreement.
"And I'm not saying we aren't!" Sokka exclaimed. "But remember what happened with Jet?"
Katara and Aang both looked down at that. The guy tilted his head inquisitively, but when no one provided an explanation, started writing again. "I understand that you need to be cautious," Sokka read. "Well, you don't have to tell me! Seriously, are you one of those guys who just goes around doing good deeds, or what?"
Aang spoke up unexpectedly. "In legends, the Blue Spirit would often appear to people in trouble, like separated lovers, and help them out."
The guy laughed soundlessly for a moment, then wrote, "You're not separated from someone, I hope? I'm not taking my persona that far. No, I usually just survive and stay out of trouble."
"Then why help Aang?" asked Katara.
The guy sat still for long moments, but finally started writing again, very slowly. "I know what the Fire Nation can do to children," Sokka read out, and had to stop to catch his breath against the horrible images that had been plaguing him ever since Aang had so blithely announced that he'd been captured. Blue Spirit looked up at Aang suddenly, holding his gaze for several seconds, before adding to what he'd written, "You're about the age I was."
Katara moved around the fire to put her hand on Blue's shoulder, but he jerked away, even scrabbling backwards a bit before going still again. "I'm sorry," she said, "does it still hurt? I can make you some tea from that painkilling mixture you brought."
He shook his head vigorously and started writing again, "There was already an injury there. I don't feel much in that shoulder."
She reached out again, and again, he jerked away. This time, he thrust his hands straight out at Katara in a warding off gesture, then shook his head.
"I get it, don't touch," she sighed. He nodded stiffly.
"I just wanted to help," she explained. He said nothing.
"What happened to you?" asked Aang softly.
The guy's hands jerked in a sharp gesture of negation. If he thought that would save him, however, he was sadly mistaken. Sokka knew just how persistent both his sister and his friend could be when they were curious.
"You don't have to tell us everything," Aang reasoned after a few minutes of prodding. "We would just like to know at least a little of what you went through."
Blue tensed so much that Sokka's muscles started twanging in sympathy. He dropped his head until his mask nearly touched his knees, but then sighed audibly. With obvious reluctance, he wrote, "There were people about to be killed, and I opened my stupid mouth thinking I could say something to change that. I was wrong."
"And so they made sure you couldn't speak," Katara whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Blue shook his head, pretending indifference, but everyone could see his hands trembling a bit. "They died anyway. Why are you sorry?"
"Don't talk like it didn't matter!" Katara blazed. "Even if you couldn't protect them, you still stood up for those guys. That counts, no matter what. And you're alive, and you're doing good, so don't let anyone convince you otherwise."
Blue stared at her, in what must have been disbelief.
"You don't even know how much good you did just now, do you? Aang is the Avatar, and he'll be able to stop the war."
Blue didn't react at first, then kinda shook himself and looked over to Aang slowly. Sokka imagined that behind the mask, his eyes were wide with surprise.
"Well," he wrote after a pause, "that would explain the five men and the massive chains. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Don't answer that," Sokka cut in before either of his friends could reveal any more of their secrets.
"Sokka!" Katara exclaimed, then turned to explain, "My brother is just paranoid sometimes."
"Otherwise known as reasonably cautious," wrote Blue.
"See? Even the strange guy in a mask agrees with me," Sokka proclaimed smugly.
"Sokka, do you really think a Fire Nation spy would choose a mask in Water Tribe colors?"
"Maybe that's exactly what he wants you to think!"
Blue threw up his arms in exasperation and stood up. He bowed and started walking away.
"No, don't go!" Katara called. He stopped, but didn't turn around.
Zuko wasn't sure anymore that he wanted to do this. It would be one thing to use his skills for careful drawing out of information, but these children were way too trusting. Sokka was the only halfway reasonable one amongst them, but it didn't seem like the others were willing to listen to him, and even he thought nothing of revealing their friend's identity as the Avatar. Zuko already knew more than he did when he first came – that the lemur creature was dear to the Avatar, that they were more foolish than he'd thought, that the girl was hotheaded even when not in a dangerous situation, and that despite what he'd previously assumed, there was no clear leader amongst them. That they had no concept of keeping proper watch. He'd leave and then circle around and spy on them. They might talk aloud about their plans even without subtle prompting, and if not, he was no worse off than before. They'd never know, and he wouldn't need to pretend to hate the Fire Nation. That had taken a lot out of him.
Katara's cry made him pause, but didn't really change his decision. However, she came up behind him. "Wait, I need to… ask you something. Yes." Frantically, she dug through the pouch of herbs he'd given her. "I haven't seen this herb before – what's it good for?"
Though it was a blatantly obvious attempt, the person he was pretending to be wouldn't leave without answering. Zuko turned to face her and pulled his sheathed dagger out of his belt. Without unsheathing it, he made a slicing gesture down his forearm, then put the dagger away and mimed spreading a paste across the "wound" and squeezing it shut.
She understood. "It stops bleeding?"
He nodded and turned to leave again, only to find that the Avatar had used the pause to waft himself across the clearing and block his way. "Hey," the boy said awkwardly, "did we offend you?"
He shook his head no.
"Then why are you going?" he persisted.
Zuko sighed again, and reluctantly returned to his writing space. "I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable," he scrawled. He stood up again.
Surprisingly, it was Sokka who spoke next. "It's not you specifically making us uncomfortable. We just can't afford to relax much, you know, what with being chased, and Aang here getting into trouble every five minutes –"
"Hey!" Aang interrupted. "Who was it that insisted on going after Hei Bai despite being warned and got captured in seconds?"
"All right, all of us getting into trouble every five minutes. Katara here even decided to get herself captured deliberately." The girl in question huffed at her brother, but she was smiling a little, too. "The point is, yeah, we're going to be suspicious of anyone, but you've already gone a long way towards proving yourself, and it wouldn't take much more. So don't worry about it, sit down, take a load off."
They all made sounds of agreement and stared at him. Zuko felt distinctly off balance. This was all wrong, and they shouldn't be trying to – what, reassure him? The tension was once again broken by the lemur, who chose that moment to leap onto his shoulders again. The creature's paws dug into his muscles as it clung to him and sniffed deeply.
"See? Even Momo agrees," the Avatar said with a smile.
Zuko waved his hand idly and sat. It couldn't hurt to stay a little while longer, just to allay any suspicions they might have. Momo scrambled over the top of his head and jumped into his lap, where it curled up, almost purring. It must have liked the extra warmth of a firebender, Zuko reasoned. Almost unconsciously, he sent more warmth into his fingers and stroked the lemur. It felt oddly nice. The only animals aboard were the komodo rhinos and the occasional messenger hawk, and while Zuko liked both well enough, neither had soft fur.
He was surprised to find the silence around the fire comfortable, and even more surprised to find himself enjoying the need to maneuver around their suspicions when the questioning resumed. Well, he shouldn't be surprised. After all, doing this was far more interesting than the usual "stare at maps, chase rumors, repeat" sequence. That had lost all novelty a long time ago.
"So where are you from?" asked Sokka.
"Shiang La province," he wrote. It was one of those war-torn areas of the Earth Kingdom, rather far away from here, making it difficult to verify.
"That's in the southwest part of the Earth Kingdom, right?" Zuko nodded. "What village?"
Sokka raised one finger self-importantly. "Aha! Something we can check." He reached into his pack and dug out a map, which he held in such a way that Zuko couldn't get a look. Zuko silently congratulated himself on having the foresight to pick a spot he knew well from both studying maps for years and having been there himself once on his search. "All right, quiz time. You can just nod or shake your head. Is Menxue near mountains?" No. "Near the desert?" No. "Near the coast?" Yes. "Which major river is closest, Wulong, Destri, or Shaodai?" Zuko held up three fingers. "Yep, Shaodai. How many days' walk from Menxue to the river crossing?" One. Sokka squinted at the map. "Looks about right. Now, does the name of the small stream running through Menxue itself begin with Na, On, Yan, Ni, or Nang?" It was Ni Wei, so Zuko held up four fingers, then quickly wrote the name in the dirt.
"All right, that's pretty clear, I'd say," Sokka addressed his companions. "He answered all the questions quickly and correctly. I guess he could have been pretty through in thinking up a cover story for himself, but unless we meet someone from the area, this is about all we can do to verify it."
"Fine by me," Aang said.
"Can we maybe stop the interrogation now?" said Katara irritably. "He's done nothing but help us."
Zuko found himself holding up one hand for her to stop. Seriously, what was wrong with them? If they didn't become more cautious, Zhao would quickly recapture them, and all Zuko's efforts would be for nothing. "You should listen to your brother," he wrote. "Did you already forget what happened today? You need to be quiet and cautious if you hope to get through here alive, and not talk too much to strangers, however helpful."
"But you wouldn't betray us to Zhao!" she argued hotly.
"Not willingly," he wrote. "But I've seen ways of making people talk against their will." Her mouth opened, then closed again, and she looked away and shivered.
"It's all right, Katara," her brother comforted her. "I don't think Blue is planning on getting captured. Are you?" he teased.
Zuko smiled a little beneath the mask as he shook his head no. Katara immediately cheered up.
"So are you an earthbender?" asked Aang.
He shook his head and reached back to tap the hilts.
"Swordsman. Well, I've seen how good you are; I guess you don't need bending to add to it. I was just asking because at some point, I will need to learn earthbending, and I guess it's never too soon to start looking for a teacher."
Zuko kept still with an effort and forced himself just to give a casual nod. The Avatar didn't know all four elements? That explained so much. Zuko thought he was only inexperienced in the elements, since he was so young. It would explain the stolen waterbending scroll. Now that he thought about it, he had never seen the Avatar use either earth- or firebending. Very interesting.
"Weren't you planning on learning from Bumi?" asked Katara.
"Yes, but just as I've learned from you, I figured I could learn the basics of earthbending before officially beginning with Bumi. It would be great to surprise him!" the Avatar grinned gleefully. "Also, Bumi's," Aang paused at Zuko's sharp gestures. "Right, you don't want us to give you details. Anyway, it'll be a while before I master waterbending and we get to Omashu."
He'd guessed right. Even when trying to hide things, the boy gave away all sorts of important details. A person named Bumi in Omashu – did the Avatar mean the king? Zuko tapped his fingers against the mouth of the mask in thought. Here was one way to direct the Avatar's travels. Picking up the map Sokka put aside, he shook it a bit to gain their attention, and wrote, "Earthbenders are mostly rooted to their chosen places. There aren't many wandering ones. You'd probably have more luck searching amongst those who hire themselves as guides, and even they usually stick to one route."
"We met a guy leading people across the Great Divide," Aang confirmed.
Zuko nodded. "Look there. Or, if you start in Omashu, here." He traced the route caravans took between Omashu and Gaoling across the map, and by the alert way Sokka followed his finger, he knew the other boy had memorized it instantly.
"You've been travelling awhile to know this stuff, huh?" asked Sokka.
"Then I guess you would have some ideas on how we could avoid running into Zhao and his merry archers again, wouldn't you?"
He nodded again and with his finger, traced a circle around Pohuai Stronghold. "Patrols all through this area," he wrote. Tracing a bigger circle, he added, "Occasionally they'll go searching as far as that." Pointing at a spot just outside the first circle, he then pointed at the ground on which they sat.
"So we are here," Sokka said, "and the shortest way out of their range is north-north-east. That's about what I figured."
Zuko silently approved Sokka's caution. "Another place to avoid," he wrote, and pointed out a spot up on a mountain overlooking the escape direction. "Fire Nation lookout post." This was getting uncomfortably far into traitorous territory, letting an enemy of the Fire Nation know such secrets, but Zuko consoled himself that the soldiers at the post would just report to Zhao.
"That's really good to know," Sokka enthused. "We keep ourselves low beneath the trees, and they'll never see us!"
"But then what?" asked Katara. "We've got almost no food left, and no money."
Aang came over to peer over Sokka's shoulder at the map. "Looks like there's plenty of villages around here – we should be able to stop at the nearest one and earn some money, or maybe they'll feed us anyhow."
"Yeah, I guess," said Sokka. He didn't sound happy.
Katara was even unhappier. "Sokka, I know I got on your case about getting a job, but it ended up with you nearly dying in a storm and then getting that nasty cold on top of it. I think you've earned a rest."
Zuko's hand closed over his belt, where he kept a small stash for emergencies. He was starting to sweat at just how much aid he was providing to the enemy, but he didn't see that he had a choice. If the Avatar starved to death, Zuko would never be able to go back home. With some reluctance, which he hoped they would take as calculating the amount of money he could spare, he separated out two silver and four copper coins, and tossed them to the Avatar.
The coins fell on the ground as the Avatar stared at him in astonishment instead of catching them. "Lee, wait. You've already done so much to help us; we can't keep imposing on you."
Sokka, who had reached for one silver piece during that little speech, threw a narrow glance back at Zuko. "These are Fire Nation coins," he stated simply, but with a hint of steel in his voice.
Zuko shrugged. "I can always steal more," he wrote.
Sokka grinned at that and pumped a fist in the air, but the Avatar's frown deepened. "Stealing is wrong, and it's dangerous. I thought you weren't planning on getting caught?"
Zuko made a patting motion in the air to soothe him. "I've lived this long. Which one of us got caught, again?"
Sokka snorted and Katara smiled. "He's got you there, Aang," the siblings said in near-chorus.
"But," Aang protested unhappily. Momo woke up and scrambled over to the boy, chittering at him and demanding attention, interrupting whatever Aang had been trying to say. Zuko took his chance.
"It's not much, but it'll get you food at whatever village you reach," he wrote. "After that, I suggest heading for the Abbey here," he pointed it out to Sokka, "because the nuns are always very kind and generous to travelers."
"It only makes sense, Aang," Katara argued. "We're very lucky Blue Spirit Lee was willing to help us; we shouldn't repay his generosity by refusing."
Aang still looked unhappy, but gave in. "I guess, but I came here with the thought that I'd pay you back for your help, and instead I'm just further in your debt."
Zuko shook his head vigorously. The "rescue" didn't count, even if he mustn't explain why. If anything, they'd rescued each other out of the fortress, and then the Avatar provided medical aid, much more valuable than a handful of herbs. By that count, they'd only just gotten even. When Zuko captured the Avatar, he would much prefer not to be beholden to him in any way.
"Hey," Aang brightened, "I know! I've got a flying bison. We can take you anywhere you want to go, much more quickly than you would get there walking. It's the least we can do. What do you say?"
Zuko hadn't expected this. Here was something he could not easily refuse without blowing his cover. Still, he tried. "I was thinking of staying here for a few days to recover," he wrote.
"But it would be much safer for you to recover away from here!" Aang argued.
"I've got a good hiding place," he wrote back.
"Oh yeah? Where?"
Zuko leveled a stare at the Avatar through his mask. "Not safe to tell anyone," he wrote, a bit smugly.
"Hey!" Aang protested, and his face fell.
Quickly, Zuko scribbled down something to reassure him. "The truth is, your help will be useful to me later. So I'm going to rest for now, and I'll catch up to you later. Around the Abbey, perhaps?" The location near the coast made for the perfect capture spot, and if the Avatar by some chance got there first, a reason for him to linger would be invaluable to Zuko.
Aang brightened again. "It's a plan! But why couldn't we help you both now and later?"
Zuko just shook his head, unable to come up with an argument and therefore refusing to argue. "I'm getting hungry," he wrote, "so I'll take my leave now and go get my supper. You should do the same. Good luck to you."
"All right, but we'll meet again," Aang stated. Zuko nodded and stood up. Unexpectedly, the young boy bounded over to hug him. Zuko staggered back, his arms coming up into a defensive stance.
"It's just a hug, okay?" he said impatiently. Zuko shook his head. That was the last thing he needed, to make a habit of being hugged by the Avatar.
"Let him be," Katara defended him unexpectedly. "He's probably not used to being around people so much, and being hugged even less." Zuko nodded his agreement.
"Why not start getting used to it, then?" Aang asked disingenuously.
Sokka shook his head sadly. "He's a warrior, Aang. Why should he get used to all that mushy stuff? Now, this is the way true warriors do it in the Southern Water Tribe." He stood up and thrust his right arm forward. Cautiously, Zuko copied the gesture. Sokka's hand gripped his arm just beneath the elbow. When he saw that that was it, Zuko did the same. Sokka's grip tightened a bit, and he smiled. "Good luck to you, Blue," he said firmly, and released Zuko. Zuko nodded and bowed to each of them in turn, dipping his head particularly low in appreciation to Sokka. They bowed back, and Katara and Aang waved to him until the trees hid him from them.