an Avatar: the Last Airbender fanfic
By Kimberly T.
In Season One, when Prince Zuko unexpectedly becomes Papa Zuko, he rocks not just the cradle but his entire ship, and eventually a lot more.
Author's note: This story starts between the ending of "The Winter Solstice, Part1: The Spirit World" and the beginning of "The Winter Solstice, Part 2: Avatar Roku." It also makes use of the facts given in Avatar Extras, that Zuko's "sense of hearing is well above average" (which saved him when pirates blew up his ship) and "can hold his breath for an unusually long amount of time."
Chapter 1: Found
Iroh remembers well the day, and indeed the very hour, that everything changed for his nephew. …That everything changed again, that is.
Several hours earlier, Zuko had rescued Iroh from a patrol of earthbending soldiers who'd captured him and had been set on bringing him to Ba Sing Se for his execution. But since then they'd been riding through the night on a trail heading north-northeast, instead of back to the ship; Zuko had said that roughly two hours before finding and rescuing him, he'd seen the Avatar's sky bison flying in that direction. Considering Zuko's obsession with capturing the Avatar, Iroh supposed he should be flattered that Zuko had kept on his trail and rescued him instead of immediately turning to pursue the sky bison. But still, he would have preferred that they detour to rendezvous with the ship first; he would rather have been dressed in something besides a loincloth while Zuko rode forth in yet another attempt to meet his imposed destiny.
But destiny is a funny thing. Roughly three hours before dawn, while Iroh was fighting back the latest in a series of yawns, Zuko suddenly yanked on the komodo-rhino's reins and brought them to a halt. Unprepared for the sudden stop, Iroh nearly tumbled from the saddle before catching himself. "Nephew, what-?"
"Quiet!" Zuko hissed, his posture alert, turning his head sharply to the right. Iroh fell silent and strained to listen as well, though at first he heard nothing unusual. But he knew Zuko's hearing was far sharper than his, so he was not surprised when Zuko suddenly dismounted and started stalking into the woods alongside the trail. Neither was Iroh overly surprised when he glimpsed something glowing though the trees, shining with an unearthly light; he'd seen that dragon-spirit the day before (with the spirit of the Avatar riding on it, he was fairly sure), and the Winter Solstice was upon them, so increased spirit activity was only to be expected. But he was quite surprised to see Zuko heading straight for that glow; Zuko had never been to the Spirit World, and did not naturally have the gift for seeing or hearing spirits. What was he…?
Iroh slipped off the saddle himself to follow his nephew and the spirit-glow, and less than ten yards off the road he heard a sound he hadn't expected to hear at all in this wilderness: a baby crying.
A few minutes later Iroh stepped gingerly around a large razzleberry bush, taking care to avoid the thorns, and abruptly found himself looking right at a kirin; a magnificent creature that he had heard of but never seen before with his own eyes. Dragon scales over an antelope-like body; a head adorned with great whiskers as well as antlers poking up through a fiery mane; delicate hooves that could walk without disturbing a single blade of grass, an instant before plunging right through an ogre's heart… Kirins were beings of great spiritual power, devoted to protecting the pure and innocent and punishing the wicked. But this was a kirin-spirit; what had killed such a magnificent creature? And why was it prancing back and forth like—Iroh abruptly found himself skidding to a halt and windmilling his arms, to keep himself from falling headfirst into a steep ravine. The kirin danced on the other side of the ravine, while looking down into its depths…
Depths from which Zuko's rasping voice was emerging, along with the baby's cries. "I heard the baby; do you need help? What are you doing down… oh no." A small ball of fire appeared; Iroh saw his nephew hold the fire high with one hand while using the other to gently check the neck of a woman sitting in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the ravine. But Iroh could tell even from up high that Zuko would find no pulse; the woman's eyes were staring sightlessly up into the Spirit World.
The kirin soundlessly stamped its shining hooves. Iroh called downwards, "Nephew, the baby?"
"Alive, still clinging to her skirts," Zuko said as he snuffed out his firelight. Iroh lit fires in both hands, the better to see as Zuko reached down towards a pair of tiny hands that were already reaching out to him. His nephew stood up with the baby in his arms, whispering reassurances to it, then looked doubtfully up at the ravine side he'd slid down just before Iroh's arrival.
The ravine walls were too steep to walk up or even climb one-handed; Zuko would need to use both hands to get out. "Nephew, you'll need to make a sling to carry the baby in, out of your own clothing. Take off your armor and toss the pieces up here; I'll collect them for you."
Before he could get his armor off, Zuko had to first get the baby to let go of him; it had a firm grip around his neck and was hanging on for all its worth. Iroh could hear his nephew muttering, "Come on, let go; I can't help you get out of here if you don't… Sshhh, sshhh, it's okay, I'm not going to leave you down here… ah, cinders." Zuko called upwards, "Uncle, did you finish off the travel rations earlier?"
Iroh hadn't quite finished them off; there were still two small, stale rice balls left. And that was probably just what this baby needed, if it had been down there long. Iroh ran back to the war-rhino and got the nearly empty pack of travel rations, and the waterskin which still had a little water left in it. He carefully let them go over the side of the ravine one at a time so Zuko could catch them one-handed, and offer them to the baby. The baby immediately grabbed for a rice ball with both hands and started eating it, allowing Zuko to set him down and start taking his armor off.
Five minutes later Iroh had a neat pile of armor at his feet, and Zuko had stripped down to his loincloth. With Iroh calling down suggestions, Zuko fashioned his undertunic and leggings into a crude sling that he tied into place on himself; he gave the baby a drink from the waterskin, then tossed it back up to his uncle before he tucked the baby into the improvised sling, made sure it was safely secured to his front and began climbing.
Once his nephew was within arm's reach, Iroh reached down a hand to haul him up the last few feet. "Well done, nephew! Now, let's see what we have here," as he deftly took the baby out of the sling.
"We have a stinking mess that actually smells worse than your sandals," Zuko said with his nose wrinkled in disgust, and a wave of his hands to indicate that the baby was all his uncle's problem now.
"Not surprising, if it's been down there for a while. Any idea how the mother ended up dying there?" as Iroh cradled the baby, who was now babbling soft nonsense instead of wailing like he had when Zuko had first found him.
"It looked like her leg was broken, and she's been dead for a day or so, but not from starvation or thirst. My guess is they fell in by accident, and she suffered internal injuries as well as broke her leg in the fall," Zuko said curtly; the curt tone failed to hide the pained shadow in his eyes, visible in the light of the full moon.
"It's a miracle the baby wasn't injured too. The mother likely did everything she could to shield her child while falling… Nephew, if you'll donate your tunic sleeves to the cause, I can fashion a new loincloth for the baby and get him cleaned up," Iroh suggested. Zuko promptly started tearing the sleeves off his undertunic while Iroh set the baby down on the forest floor and set about stripping it out of its heavily soiled clothes—make that his heavily soiled clothes; definitely a boy, and looking to be roughly a year old—and cleaning his bottom with a little water from the waterskin and some leaves stripped from a nearby bush. "Now hold still, little wiggler… oh dear, that's a terrible rash you've acquired on your poor bottom; we'll have to get that treated with some ointment… But at least you're clean now, with some food and water in your belly; that makes things just a little better, doesn't it? Now let's see about getting that poor bottom covered again… There we are; that should do for a few hours," Iroh cooed to the baby with a smile as he tied the improvised loincloth in place. He stood up again, cradling the infant just as he'd cradled Lu Ten all those years ago, already thinking about how he could fit a crib into his cabin…
And abruptly found himself face-to-muzzle with the kirin. The spirit-beast had vanished while he wasn't looking, being preoccupied with Zuko's discovery down in the ravine; now it was back, and looking him straight in the eyes.
The kirin lowered its antlered head briefly, to nuzzle the baby's fine black hair; then it looked him in the eyes again, holding his gaze as it took four delicate, deliberate steps to the left…
To stand right next to Zuko. Who had paused while getting dressed again and was looking at him with his lone eyebrow raised as he asked, "Uncle, what are you staring at?"
"Ah. Well. Nephew, I think you'd better take the baby now," Iroh said as he slowly approached, holding the baby out.
"What? Oh, no; I don't want it!" Zuko yelped in clear dismay, backing up a step with his hands raised to ward him off.
"He's nearly asleep now, nephew; he'll be no trouble at all to mind. Come on, hold your arms out; why are you afraid of a child?"
As predicted, Zuko stiffened at the word 'afraid', his face darkening in a flush of anger, and he wordlessly held his arms out for the baby. Iroh carefully transferred the baby into Zuko's arms, with a murmur of "Easy now… Here, set him so he can lean on your shoulder. It's just as well that you hadn't put all your armor back on; your tunic will be more comfortable for him."
Zuko did as he suggested, but still muttered querulously, "Why are you making me hold him? I don't know anything about babies!"
"But you were the first to find this little one and hold him, and give him food and water. The baby already trusts you; he will sleep easier in your arms than he would in mine," Iroh answered him while watching out of the corner of his eye as the kirin nodded in apparent satisfaction, then trotted away soundlessly over the grass until it abruptly faded from view, returning to the Spirit World.
Iroh knelt at the edge of the ravine, a full formal bow to show respect for the dead, and Zuko awkwardly got to his knees beside him as he said solemnly, "Young Earth Kingdom mother, may Oma and Shu guide you on your journey to the Spirit World. You may rest in peace, knowing that your child survives and will be cared for. We give our royal oaths that we shall see the boy placed in caring hands and raised to honor you. As Agni is our witness," he finished with a quick glance sideways at Zuko.
"As Agni is our witness; we promise to see him cared for," Zuko said with a mixture of discomfort and determination.
They rose to their feet together; then Iroh gestured for Zuko to back up a few paces, while he took a firm stance. "As children of Agni are given back to the fire, so children of Oma and Shu are given back to the earth," he intoned as he stomped, putting the full force of his chi behind the move, then sprang back quickly. The edge of the ravine collapsed, sending rock and soil tumbling down to cover the body that lay below. Iroh nodded in satisfaction at the impromptu burial, then turned towards the road. "Now come, let's get going. We're bound to find a town sooner or later; according to the map you brought with you, this road should lead us straight to a village soon…"
With Zuko holding the baby in his arms, it fell to Iroh to take the reins of the komodo-rhino while his nephew sat behind him in the saddle. When they were all ready to travel, Iroh nudged the beast into a slow, easy amble instead of the steady canter that they'd been riding at before… then rolled his eyes as Zuko demanded, "Faster! We're still chasing the Avatar!"
"Patience, nephew; we shall increase speed slowly, so as not to startle the baby. You wouldn't want him to start crying again, would you?"
Zuko gave a soft wordless growl, but made no other protest as they started down the trail again. As good as his word, Iroh nudged the komodo-rhino into a faster pace by degrees, finally reaching a fast trot that was still slower than the canter they'd been riding at before. He waited for Zuko to demand they go faster, but evidently the teen recognized that the jouncing ride a cantering komodo-rhino gave would probably upset the baby, and kept silent. The baby kept silent as well, evidently rocked to sleep by the steady motion.
Roughly an hour later, they emerged from the forest onto a wide plain that smelled of soot and ashes; a part of the forest that had recently been burned down. Iroh looked up at the open sky… and sucked in air through his teeth as he spotted a silhouette made familiar by now, backlit by the setting moon. The Avatar's sky bison! Rising into the sky almost straight ahead, then setting off on a west-by-northwest course.
They were roughly half an hour to an hour's ride from the point where the bison had taken off. If they hadn't stopped to rescue the baby…
"Uncle? What's wrong?" Zuko asked, sounding puzzled and a little tense. "More earthbenders?"
His nephew must have had his head down, looking at the baby instead of up at the sky, or he would have seen it too. Iroh improvised quickly, with a look over the valley they were riding into: "This was a battlefield, nephew; not that long ago, judging by the ash layer."
"I see it," Zuko nearly growled. But a few minutes later he added hesitantly, "Uncle, are you sure this wasn't just a forest fire? I see plenty of burned trees and stumps, but there are no corpses, even of the war-steeds for either side. No broken spears or swords, or any of the usual remains of battle."
"I'm sure," Iroh said grimly. "The fire started in that area," as he pointed to the center, "and spread outwards from there. That one spot is scorched earth, with downed trees spreading out around it; some shattered stumps, and others that were completely uprooted by a great force; a powerful explosion. General Mushin has this theater of operations, and either he got his hands on a cadre of imperial firebenders working in tandem, or his men set off an entire barrel of blasting jelly. But you are right, the lack of the usual battlefield remains is puzzling. It's rare for both sides of a battle to be quite so conscientious about cleaning up… It's possible that a barrel of blasting jelly was set off by accident, while transporting it to another site." Zuko must have agreed with his assessment, because he said no more as they rode past.
Soon afterwards they approached the gates of a village that had definitely been the site of a furious battle, though with what Iroh couldn't say. The village gates and wall were badly damaged, and at least a third of the houses they glimpsed inside the walls were partly wrecked as well. But the damage was as much or more to roofs than to walls, as though they'd been attacked from above by a giant, or a flying monster… Or a giant flying monster. Iroh didn't say it, but he was sure that the Avatar's sky bison had risen from this village; perhaps he'd had a violent disagreement with them?
"Whatever happened here, is probably what the mother was running from," Zuko growled as they rode through the damaged gates. "I don't see any of our people standing watch, and it's a safe bet that the natives won't be friendly to us..."
"But they'll have no reason to be unfriendly to one of their village's children," Iroh pointed out as he slid down from the komodo-rhino. He was hardly dressed for meeting strangers, but he knew better than to have his prickly and hot-tempered nephew go from door to door asking for shelter and charity, even if only for the baby. "Wait here, while I go wake somebody up. And just in case…" He took the reins and pressed them into Zuko's free hand. "If there's any attack at all, don't fight, just run. I can still hold my own in a fight and catch up to you later, but the baby would only hamper you in battle." Zuko nodded grimly and took a firm grip of the reins, while scooting forward in the saddle to put his feet in the stirrups.
The second door Iroh knocked vigorously on yielded a response; a middle-aged man, the village headman if the hat he'd hastily slapped on was any clue, fumbling to light a lantern as he yawned, "Did you forget something?" then the man's eyes focused on Iroh, and he just stared in silence.
Standing there clad in only a loincloth, Iroh bowed and said pleasantly, "Greetings, and my apologies for disturbing you, but we have a child that we believe is from your village. An orphaned babe in need of shelter and caring hands to raise him, for his mother perished in an accident not far from here."
The headman just gaped at him for a good five seconds before shaking himself, throwing off sleepy bewilderment like a lion-dog shedding water, and asking, "An orphaned baby, you said? He shouldn't be from our village; I made sure at sunset that all our children were accounted for. But let's see him; my wife and I can take him in for the night, then call for a village meeting tomorrow to see who will raise him."
Zuko slowly dismounted from the komodo-rhino and walked over, stepping into the circle of light cast by the lantern. The headman's eyes positively bulged at the sight of Zuko, who was wearing his armor from the waist down but only a now-ragged tunic from the waist up, topped off by the scarred face, and the phoenix-plume that marked him as a Fire Nation royal. Zuko gave him a silent glare of 'what are you looking at?' but held the baby out for him to take.
Having awakened while Zuko was dismounting, the baby rubbed at his face with tiny fists and babbled sleepy nonsense, looking almost unbearably cute for their benefit. Iroh considerately stepped up to take the lantern from the headman's hand, so he'd have both hands free to accept the baby.
"So, little one; let's see if you look familiar," the headman said in the soothing singsong voice adopted by fathers everywhere, as he cradled the baby in his arms and examined him…
Then hissed in revulsion, while abruptly shoving him out to arm's length. "The witch-child!"
Iroh was so startled, he almost dropped the lantern. Zuko instantly swooped in to snatch the baby back, clutching him to his chest; only after the baby was in his arms again did he demand, "What do you mean, witch-child?"
"Look at its eyes; it's accursed!" the headman said as he backed up a step, while the baby began crying, startled by being jerked about so quickly.
Iroh and Zuko traded startled looks; then Iroh brought the lantern over so they could both use its light to look at the baby's eyes. By moonlight Iroh had seen a standard-looking baby boy, ten fingers and ten toes and such, but moonlight isn't enough light for noticing some details.
Given how much the Fire Nation was hated by most of the Earth Kingdom, Iroh half-expected the baby's eyes to be gold, a sure sign of Fire Nation descent and a possible firebender. But no, the eyes weren't gold; instead, the baby's right eye was a common brown.
The left eye was … a grayish blue.
Well. That was different.
"That one's mother came here three weeks ago, asking if she could live here; we had doubts from the start about allowing such a child within our walls, but she swore her babe was not a witch and some of the villagers took a liking to her, so I said she could stay if she proved her worth. But then the Hei-Bai spirit came and attacked our village, drawn by the witch-child's power!" the headman spat as they stared at the mismatched eyes. "We banished her immediately, but that didn't get rid of the Hei-Bai spirit; after it came back the next sunset, we sent men out to find her and put the baby to death, but they found nothing. Now you say the child's an orphan; that it killed its own mother? No wonder it took the Av-"
The headman's ranting was abruptly cut off by Zuko's blow, a backhand hard enough to knock him sprawling.
"The baby didn't kill his mother… you did!" Zuko snarled at the headman, smoke curling from between his clenched teeth as he held the crying child tightly to his chest. "We found her body in a ravine off the road, one she'd probably fallen into while being chased by your men! She died trying to protect her baby from your superstitious murdering idiocy!"
"Enough, nephew," Iroh said firmly, putting a hand on his shoulder. "The young mother's spirit does not walk here, in need of vengeance before she can rest; she only needs for her baby to be cared for… and this is obviously not the place for that."
Iroh turned to the headman, letting a little of what had made him the Dragon of the West show through. The headman had started to get back on his feet; the man paled and fell back again as Iroh growled, "You. You will bring us four sets of baby clothes, ten diapers, a baby blanket and sling, a day's worth of food and water for three—and a set of clothes in my size. You will bring them all to me within the hour, or you will greatly regret it."
The headman complied with all due speed. Less than an hour later, they were on their way back out the village gates with saddlebags full of the needed supplies. The tunic and trousers Iroh was wearing now were plain homespun peasant wear and rather tight in the waist, but they were better than nothing. Mounted behind him once more, Zuko kept a wary eye on their trail until the village was well behind them. But as he kept watch, he murmured, "Uncle… is he actually a witch-child? Or is he half-Earth Kingdom, half-Water Tribe? I've never seen a baby with eyes of two different colors before…"
"Neither have I, nephew. But I can tell you this; the baby has no more mystical power or evil in him than any other babe I've ever seen."
"How can you tell?" Zuko persisted. "Even the Avatar looks like a normal boy, until he goes into the Avatar State."
Iroh was silent for a few moments, then reluctantly decided that it was time to reveal a few of his many secrets. He had intended on waiting until Zuko was strong enough in spirit to break his father's poisonous hold on his soul, but under the current circumstances… "Nephew, you may have heard the rumor that I once journeyed to the Spirit World."
"Someone on the crew mentioned it once, while you were off shopping," Zuko admitted. "Nobody on the bridge believed it, but he swore that he'd gotten the story straight from his cousin in the Army, one of last people to see you when you left the Siege of Ba Sing Se. He said that you went to the Spirit World to… to try to bring Lu Ten back…"
"You… you really went to the Spirit World?" Zuko sounded shocked.
"I did. But I did not succeed in my quest to bring Lu Ten back. And I do not speak of what I experienced in the Spirit World; some of it I am forbidden to speak of, ever… and some of it is just too painful. But I will tell you this; as a result of the trials I went through in order to enter the Spirit World, I now have the ability to see spirits when they walk in our world, even when they are invisible to all others."
"You can see spirits?"
"Indeed. It has come in handy from time to time. I can also see when someone has great spiritual power within them, like a child with potential to become a Fire Sage. The baby you're holding has no such power; he will likely not even bend an element when he is older. But there is something else you should know… Tonight, when you heard the child crying and went to its rescue, I saw a spirit there at the edge of the ravine."
"An ubume?" Zuko asked quietly. Ubume were well-known spirits, but thankfully not malicious ones; each was the ghost of a mother who'd died in childbirth, or died unexpectedly before she could ensure her child would be cared for. If the mother's will was strong enough even when her body failed her, her spirit became an ubume, in order to lead a living person to where her child was waiting in need of care.
"No, not an ubume; something far rarer. The spirit of a kirin."
"A kirin?" his nephew echoed incredulously. "But those have been extinct for centuries!"
"Perhaps… or perhaps the few who remain have become very good at hiding. Nevertheless, it was not a living kirin I saw, but the spirit of one, and the spirit of an animal stays true to its nature. Kirin are renowned for protecting the innocent, and punishing the wicked. The kirin-spirit that I saw nuzzled the baby's head as gently as a mother kissing her newborn; it's obvious now that it did so to reassure me—and now you—that the child is indeed innocent and pure, not tainted by evil, despite its mismatched eyes. And…" Iroh hesitated, then forged on ahead; in for a copper, in for a gold piece. "After nuzzling the child, the kirin came to stand beside you, Prince Zuko. I was holding the baby at the time, but the spirit went to you; a clear indication of who it thought the child should go to and be raised by."
"By me?" Zuko almost squawked; Iroh could hear the incredulity warring with outright dismay in his voice. "But I don't know anything about babies! I'm not even old enough for marriage yet!"
"Yes, you are," Iroh corrected him. "You're sixteen now; that's old enough for marriage. I'll grant you that it's rare for any man of our country to get married quite so young, but you are legally old enough to do so."
"But-but-but I'm not even betrothed to anyone! And I can't be betrothed while I'm still banished! I-" Zuko's semi-hysterical rant was interrupted by a wail; the baby had been whimpering, probably picking up on Zuko's distress, and was starting to cry. "Oh, cinders! Sshhh, sshhh, it's okay, don't cry, sshhh…"
"Mind your language around innocent ears, nephew," Iroh murmured almost automatically, looking over his shoulder at Zuko as his nephew hastily started rocking the crying baby in his newly acquired sling. Then he began to sing, "Leaves from the vine, falling so slow… Sing with me, nephew… Leaves from the vine, falling so slow…"
"Like tiny fragile shells, drifting through the foam," Zuko sang with him, the teen's rasping voice joining his gravelly tones. "Little soldier boy comes marching home; brave soldier boy comes marching home…"
It took ten verses before the baby settled back to sleep. "I still don't understand," Zuko whispered afterwards, careful not to wake the infant.
"To understand why they thought this poor babe to be a witch-child, simply because of one odd eye?" Iroh sighed in resignation. "Superstitions seem to spring up out of nowhere like mushrooms, nephew. And I doubt that belief is restricted to just that one village. The babe would not live long if he was left with the locals, that much is obvious. Both the oaths we swore to his mother's spirit and sheer human kindness dictate that we take him with us."
"All right, I get that, but… I'm not married, and I don't know anything about kids; why would a kirin pick me to raise any baby?"
"Well… I have a theory, nephew, but it will not please you to hear it."
Zuko snorted behind him in impatience tinged with disgust. "As if anything about the last few years has been pleasant… Tell me."
Iroh kept his eyes on the road as he spoke. "The kirin did not pick you to raise any child; it picked you to raise this particular child. Perhaps because the baby is not the only one present… who must learn to live with mismatched eyes."
The silence… hurt.
"You did ask, nephew."
"You'll have to think of a name, you know."
Finally, Zuko spoke again. "A name?"
"Of course. We can't just keep calling him 'the baby'. You found him, you saved him; he is your responsibility now, and your first duty to him is to give him a name."
That had been said in an awed and even shaken tone, as the weight of this new responsibility began to fall on his nephew's shoulders. Iroh took pity on him and added, "There is no rush, though; we can keep calling him 'the baby' for a while longer, until you come up with something suitable."
"A name…" He heard Zuko take several deep breaths, obviously trying to force calm on himself… and it obviously wasn't working too well, either. "Uncle, I can't do this! I can't raise a baby all by myself; I'm not ready for fatherhood!"
"No man is ever truly ready for fatherhood, nephew, no matter how much he thinks he is. But I will be there to help and advise you… and I've heard you say before that all your struggles in life have made you strong. You are correct in that; you are far stronger in spirit than many young men your age. Strong enough to do this, Prince Zuko…" Iroh smiled to himself, then corrected it to "Papa Zuko."