Chapter 11: Forewarned
Zuko had just murdered Zhao, killed him while he was trying to surrender! Aang had thought Zuko was a good guy who had finally figured out which side of the war he belonged on, but good people didn't murder the enemy! Zuko was unfit to be the Avatar's ally, much less a guardian to a Zephyr, or whatever the Earth Kingdom people called babies Teiji's age.
As outraged as he was at Zuko, Aang was just as bewildered by what Iroh had done right in front of him. Why did that elder, who had always been kindly and good-tempered even when he was on the wrong side of the war, think it was actually a good idea to just give the baby back to Zuko like that?! How could he be so blind to—If this was more of that 'family ties' nonsense, then no wonder the Air Nomad elders had been firm on keeping it out of their culture!
Iroh turned back to him while still huffing and puffing after running into the clearing, and started talking about it being wrong to condemn people without hearing the full story, but then he stopped in mid-sentence; probably because he just realized that there could never be any excuse for murder. But just in case he hadn't, Aang was about to point that out to him loud and clear, when—suddenly there was some bizarre creature right in front of him, like a cross between a dragon and a fox-deer with antlers, and it rammed those antlers right into his chest!
Aang screamed in pain and terror, and because suddenly his head was filled with a cacophony of sound, like every musical instrument in the world was being played at once and right in his ears. When he couldn't push the monster away, he clapped his hands over his ears to at least make the noise stop, but it wasn't even slightly muffled. Then the incredible noise cut off as abruptly as it had started when the monster backed off a step, and Aang air-jumped backwards ten feet to get away from it, while glancing down to see how badly he was bleeding—but there was no blood? But he'd just been stabbed!
Branches thrashed a few feet away as a machete hacked through the forest undergrowth, and then Sokka and Katara crashed through and into the clearing, both ready for battle; Sokka with machete and boomerang out, and Katara with a massive water-whip circling over her head. Katara dashed over to Aang, while Sokka whirled to face Zuko and Iroh—why weren't they even looking at the monster right in front of them?!
Because the monster was a spirit, still partly in the Spirit realm and therefore invisible to everybody but Avatars, Aang realized a second later. Just like he'd been invisible to Katara after Hei Bai's attack right before the Winter Solstice! That's why he wasn't bleeding or in lots of pain from being stabbed, either; when the spirits were invisible, they were intangible too, and couldn't hurt anyone!
Just as he realized that, Katara asked anxiously, "Are you all right, Aang? We heard you scream!"
"I swear, we didn't touch him!" Zuko said defensively from across the clearing, while drawing back with a scowl at Sokka's brandished weapons, his own hands still full of crying baby. "And put those away before you scare Teiji even more!"
Sokka lowered his weapons but didn't sheathe them, still looking suspiciously at the firebenders and at the corpses still smoldering on the ground, while Katara turned from Aang towards the firebenders instead and asked just as anxiously, "Is he hurt too?"
But before Zuko could answer, the spirit charged forward again, plunging those antlers right back into Aang—and this time they HURT!
Aang screamed again as he was impaled on the monster's antlers, and then hoisted up and thrown across the clearing with a toss of its fire-maned head. He lay where he'd landed, utterly stunned—and then found out he could be stunned even further, when he saw himself on the other side of the clearing, collapsing like a puppet with its strings cut. The spirit had—had torn his soul right out of his body!
Katara screamed when she saw Aang collapse, and her water-whip burst into a hundred blades of ice. Zuko jumped back a full six feet with Teiji clutched to him, his face filled with alarm, freeing one hand to form a fireball in it. Sokka clenched his weapons with white-knuckled fists as he spun in a circle, trying to see what had attacked Aang, while shouting, "What the bloody slush is going on?!"
It was Iroh who answered tensely, "The kirin-spirit has returned; the one who urged us to adopt Teiji! And it has torn the Avatar's spirit from his body!"
"No, not dead, just forcibly separated—he's over there!" as the elder pointed right at where Aang was lying, several feet away from his body.
Aang scrambled to his feet, blurting out, "You can see me?" He thought only Avatars could see spirits in this state!
Iroh spread his hands toward him apologetically. "If you're trying to talk to me, Avatar, I'm afraid I can't hear you; I have only the gift of seeing spirits, not of hearing them." Then he pointed over Aang's shoulder, saying hesitantly, "But I believe the kirin wishes to speak with you…"
Just then Aang felt something clamp onto his shoulder, hard; he looked to his left and yelped when he saw the spirit's massive glowing eye and scaled muzzle—it had bitten him! But not bitten into him; just gotten its mouth on him, holding him tight. Then it tossed its head again, and Aang was flung around and over its shoulder, to land sprawling on its scaled back. "Oof!"
A wide-eyed Iroh narrated for everyone, "The kirin grabbed the Avatar again, and tossed him onto its back—I think it intends to take the Avatar somewhere!" And just as he said that, sure enough, the kirin bounded out of the clearing and through the trees, with Aang stuck to its back as if he had somehow been glued there. "They're heading due south!" was the last thing Aang heard as he was helplessly carried away.
With all that talk of a kirin spirit kidnapping the Avatar, Sokka really wanted to call Iroh crazy, but he had unfortunate experience with spirits grabbing people and hauling them away for no good reason. And it was almost a comfort to see that Prince Zuko was just as freaked about the situation as they were, shielding the kid while eyeing Aang's body with alarm, as if spirit-kidnapping was somehow contagious. Sokka was almost sure he heard a quaver in the prince's voice as he asked, "What do we do now, Uncle?"
Iroh shook his head slightly while saying, "We cannot interfere in the spirits' business; the only thing we can do for the Avatar is look after his body, and make sure no one does harm to it or moves it while his spirit is out. While we wait for his return, I suggest we tend to other necessary matters. Like tending to your son's injuries," as he opened up the satchel he'd been carrying and started rummaging through it, probably looking for bandages.
Since the fighting was over and there wasn't anything else they could do for Aang either, Sokka sheathed his weapons while Katara used her bending to fling most of her floating ice-daggers away into the trees. But not all of it; she said to the firebenders, "So Teiji was hurt! We heard him screaming first… Here, let me see him," as she turned the few remaining shards of ice back into water, that she gathered around her hands.
"I appreciate the offer, Miss Katara, but we have antiseptics and burn salves that are very effective at… wait a moment," as Iroh stopped rummaging through the bag to look at her in surprise. "Weren't you badly burned by the Avatar earlier? But you—oh, have you learned how to heal with waterbending?"
That got Prince Zuko to stare at his uncle with surprise. "Uncle, you knew waterbenders can do that?"
"Some of them can, some can't. But if you have learned water-healing, Miss Katara, then by all means," as Iroh closed his bag of supplies and gestured towards the kid instead.
Katara stepped towards them while the water around her hands started glowing (Sokka decided that glow totally justified his calling her bending 'playing with magic water' while Katara was growing up.) But just before he reached them, Prince Zuko drew back again with a look of alarm. "Wait a moment; did you get that water straight from the river? That's cold water! Teiji hates cold water!"
Sokka just stared at him, amazed that somebody their age could be that stupid. Iroh just rolled his eyes and shook his head a little, while Katara scowled at him and said with biting sarcasm, "Oh, so you think he'd rather be in pain for the next few days, than cold for just a few seconds?"
Zuko flinched from her tone, and then sighed while shaking his head. "Well, that's proof that I'm an idiot."
Sokka wouldn't have minded agreeing, but Katara instantly softened her scowl into a smile as she said, "No, you're not; you're just concerned, like any father would be."
"Even so… may I warm the water before you use it, Miss Katara?" Iroh asked, while holding out a hand; the air shimmered above it like the hot air right over a fire. "That won't affect its usefulness for channeling your healing ability, will it?"
"I honestly don't know," Katara said with a helpless shrug. "I only just found out I could do this at all!" But if it doesn't work when it's warm, I'll just go get more cold water from the river," as she flicked the water gloving her hands off and back into a globe, which she held out in front of her.
Iroh stuck two fingers into the globe of water, and a few moments later withdrew them with a satisfied nod. Then Katara laid her water-gloved hands on Teiji, still crying in the prince's arms, and barely a second later the baby stopped crying; instead, he looked at the glowing water surrounding him with wide-eyed wonder.
"Pretty, isn't it, Teiji?" Zuko said softly. Sokka gave him a sharp look—that firebender had better not be hitting on his sister—but Zuko was looking down at his kid, not at Katara. "Just look at the pretty glowing water…"
After a few seconds, Katara withdrew the water and smiled with satisfaction. "There we go; all better now."
"Thank you, Katara… Can you say thank you, Teiji? Say 'thank you'…" But when the baby just babbled some nonsense, Zuko looked at her apologetically. "Sorry, he doesn't know those words yet."
Katara said that was okay, while Sokka decided that he'd seen enough touchy-feely stuff for a while and looked over the corpses that were in the clearing with them, for the first time since they'd found the clearing by following the screams. One of them had his mouth and nose really badly burned, but he was pretty sure by the fancy uniform and the big sideburns that it was Admiral Zhao. The other one had a hole practically burned into his chest instead, and was dressed like one of Jeong Jeong's men; Sokka thought his face looked familiar, but couldn't remember his name. He pointed and asked, "Who was that guy?"
"His name was Komori," Iroh said sorrowfully. "He gave his life protecting Teiji. We must give him a proper funeral, nephew."
"Of course," Prince Zuko said without hesitation, looking just as sad and grim as his uncle. "Would it be safe to take him back to camp? When everyone ran, they left the non-essentials behind, so there might be equipment there for making a proper funeral pyre for him."
Sokka couldn't help noticing that they weren't saying anything about the other corpse in the clearing, but he'd already figured out what had happened here, and wisely kept silent. But Katara wasn't quite as quick at reading the situation as he was; she pointed and asked somewhat hesitantly, "What about… is that Zhao?"
"It is," Prince Zuko said, his lip curled back in a snarl that made him look even uglier than normal. "And the only funeral he deserves is to be thrown into the river to sink!"
Katara just looked confused. "You want him to have a Water Tribe funeral?"
Now it was the prince's turn to look confused, while his uncle gave a snort of grim amusement. "I believe we are having a misunderstanding of customs… But perhaps now would be a good time to clear something up first. Why did you give him death to end this battle, nephew?"
"He was going to kill Teiji!" Zuko snarled as wisps of smoke seeped out between his clenched teeth. "I got here just in time to stop Zhao from burning him to death, like he'd done to Komori!"
"He what?!" Sokka shouted in outrage, and in tandem with his sister. And he nodded emphatic agreement with Katara when she crossed her arms and scowled at the corpse while declaring, "He's not going in that good clean river, either!"
Aang was expecting to be hauled off further into the spirit world by the kirin, like when he'd ridden on Fang the dragon, but the landscape around them didn't turn all cloudy and weird; instead they just kept going south, right up to the edge of the Fire Nation colony. Then the kirin turned right and galloped into the harbor—and right across the water, which was actually pretty neat—heading straight for a huge Fire Nation ship. Looking at it upside-down from where he was still draped over the kirin's back, Aang thought at first that it was Prince Zuko's old ship, but when they got closer he realized that it was at least twice the size of that ship, and looked a lot newer too.
"Is that Admiral Zhao's ship?" he asked the kirin, but it didn't answer; it just galloped across the water to the ship, then right up the side—cool! Wonder if it could gallop across a ceiling, too?—and over the railing, to land soundlessly on the deck. There it stopped and shook once, hard, and Aang abruptly discovered he wasn't glued to the kirin's back anymore; when he slid off, he just barely managed to avoid face-planting on the deck. When he stood up, the kirin nodded to him and went trotting through a doorway on the ship; Aang got the idea that he should follow.
He followed the kirin through passageways and down stairwells until they reached a cabin that had Zhao's name and rank painted in big gold characters on the door. The kirin just walked right through the closed door, so Aang followed him the same way, and found himself in a cabin that was twice as big and decorated at least four times fancier than Zuko's cabin had been, when he'd seen it back at the south pole.
"Okay, we're in Zhao's cabin… now what?" Aang said aloud.
The kirin turned to face Aang and lowered its antlers again, and Aang instinctively shied away from those sharp points—they'd really hurt when he got ripped out of his body earlier! The kirin snorted at his retreat—and that was definitely a snort of disgust with his behavior; he'd gotten enough of those from various fancy officials over the last few months to know the difference. But it didn't lunge forward to stick him again, just waited with its head lowered. After a few long moments, Aang swallowed hard, screwed up his courage and reached out to gingerly touch one of the antler tips.
MUSICNOISE MUSICNOISE MUSICNOISE
Aang held on as long as he could stand it, but he finally jerked his hand back and shook his head. "You're trying to talk to me, aren't you? Like Fang the dragon did, but with really loud music instead of pictures in my head. I'm sorry, but I just can't understand you!"
The kirin's face wasn't anything close to human, but that was definitely an eye-roll of resigned disappointment that it was doing right now. "Well, excuse me!" Aang snapped back defensively. "It's not my fault that you're extinct now and nobody knows how to talk to you anymore!"
The kirin turned away from him, to face a fancy carved chest sitting against the wall. It walked slowly up to it, looked back at Aang and jerked its head—get over here—and when Aang came over, it lifted one delicate hoof to very deliberately poke through the locked chest on the right side, like it was trying to touch something near the bottom on that side.
And then it reared back, and came crashing down with both front hooves on the chest. Nothing happened to the chest, of course, since they were both intangible, but the kirin kept rearing back and stamping down, like it was doing its very best to trample it. Then it stopped and stepped back a pace, to look expectantly at Aang.
"So, there's something in that chest that you want destroyed?" The kirin gave him a big, emphatic nod. "You want me to come back here once I'm back in my body, and destroy it?" Another big nod. "Okay, I'll do it. Now—" But Aang abruptly found himself talking to the kirin's tail as it turned and leaped for the far cabin wall, and then vanished right through it.
"Hey!" as Aang ran for the wall too. He leaned out through the glass porthole and called out, "Hey, how about a lift back?" But the kirin was already far from ship, galloping back across the waves to shore.
"Well, great," he sighed aloud, while turning around to walk through the closed cabin door. "Without my airbending, it's going to be a really long walk back to the others. I'm going to be so tired…"
…Wait a minute. He was a spirit right now, and spirits didn't get tired, did they? In fact…
Less than a minute later, Aang was giggling with glee while running across the waves, at a sprint so fast it was almost like air-racing. He shouted to nobody in particular, "I bet I could beat an ostrich-horse at this pace! Next stop, my own body!"
No one believed that Zhao deserved a decent funeral, but Uncle Iroh pointed out that they had to do something to get rid of or at least hide the body; surely his men would come back looking for him when he didn't turn up soon, and the more time they wasted looking for Zhao instead of pursuing the Avatar (or pursuing Zuko himself, once his desertion was discovered and they started putting up wanted posters with his real face on them), the better for all the allies.
In the end, the small group decided to drop Zhao's body into a nearby narrow ravine that Zuko and Iroh had noticed earlier, while running to Teiji's rescue. Leaving Teiji in Katara's care for the moment, Zuko dragged Zhao's corpse away by the heels, while his uncle broke a leafy branch off of a nearby tree and used it to sweep, muddle and erase the dragging trail. When he reached the ravine, Zuko scouted out the deepest spot, and then kicked Zhao's corpse over the edge right into it.
After erasing the last few marks in the dirt, Iroh dropped the leafy branch down into the ravine to further hide the corpse from view, and then went over to a tree not far off and untied a belaying line that someone had left dangling into the ravine. "A good rope can be useful in many situations," he commented while coiling it up, as they walked back to the clearing.
When they came back, they found Sokka had nearly finished stripping the branches that Iroh had asked him to cut down with his machete, making two rough poles of the right length. And Katara arrived back in the clearing just moments after they did, with Teiji propped at her shoulder and a fist-sized ball of sinew in her hand from the Water Tribe folks' own supplies.
But just as the Water Tribe girl handed the twine over, Teiji grabbed one of her hair loops and yanked on it hard, making her grimace in pain. "Teiji, no!" Zuko scolded as he hurriedly took the baby off her hands instead of the twine. "I've told you before, no pulling hair!" Then he sighed while bowing an apology to her, muttering, "I thought he'd learned better manners by now…"
"It's all right; no real harm done," Katara replied with a gracious smile while tucking the hair loop back in place. "And to be honest, it's hardly the first time that's happened to me; the babies in my tribe used to do it all the time. It's one reason why this hairstyle is only worn by unmarried women, instead of mothers."
"Interesting! I would like to learn more of your tribe's customs, if time permits," Uncle Iroh said with a smile, while sorting through the smaller branches that Sokka had stripped off the two larger ones. "I studied some of the Water Tribes' ways many years ago, but I know there is much more to learn."
But rather than waste valuable time with a cultural lesson, they worked together to make a crude stretcher for carrying poor Komori back to camp, where hopefully they would find a usable set of ceramic funeral plates to lay him on for his pyre. Well, Sokka and Katara mostly worked on the stretcher, tying the smaller branches between the two rough poles, while Iroh handed them whatever they pointed to and Zuko just kept his son out of their way.
Noting how swiftly the two siblings put the stretcher together from raw materials, Zuko thought it would be very good for him and his uncle and son if they—no, don't think that, he swiftly and silently scolded himself. It didn't matter how useful they could be; as soon as the Avatar was back on his feet the Water Tribe folk would be leaving for the North Pole with him, while Zuko and his uncle found a safe place to raise Teiji for the next few months. Given that they'd persisted in aiding the Avatar this far across the world, it was clear that no amount of gold would persuade the two to abandon him now and help a Fire Nation family instead.
Immediately after tying the last branch into place on the stretcher, Sokka stood up and announced abruptly, "Okay, here's the plan. Prince Zuko takes one end of the stretcher, I take the other end, and we carry the guy back to the deserters' camp for his funeral. Iroh follows us with the baby, and Katara stays here with Aang to keep an eye on him."
Affronted, Zuko glared at him while demanding, "Why are you making plans for us?"
"Perhaps because it is a most sensible plan, nephew," Iroh interjected with a raised and warning eyebrow at Zuko, one that he knew meant shut up before you get us in trouble. "I'm sure you would feel better about bringing Teiji with us back to camp, than leaving him here while we conduct the funeral. But during the funeral, someone will be needed to keep an eye on him and keep him far from the flames while we cremate the body. Though I'll admit I'm surprised that you volunteered yourself to come with us, young Sokka. I had thought you would suggest your sister to mind the baby instead."
"I'm coming instead because as much as I hate to admit it, Katara would have a better chance of protecting Aang against a wandering squad of firebenders than I would," Sokka said with a sour glance at his sister, who just smirked at him in return. "But one of us has to come with you to mind the kid, because he's just too young to follow orders and keep quiet, and the last thing we need is his baby noises attracting more firebenders to Aang's body." Zuko had to admit that he had a point; Teiji could be quiet at times, but he wasn't a particularly silent child by nature.
They loaded poor Komori onto the stretcher, but just as they were about to stand up and start carrying him back to the camp, the Avatar suddenly sat bolt upright with a gasp, that immediately morphed into a wide grin (looking ridiculously happy for such a somber occasion.) And he announced, "I just ran twenty miles without stopping!"
"What are you talking about?" Sokka asked his friend incredulously. "That's the first time you've moved at all in nearly an hour!"
The Avatar explained that his spirit had been doing the running instead (which meant the feat didn't count as a physical achievement, but Zuko kept that thought to himself.) Then he explained about the kirin-spirit having taken him all the way to Zhao's flagship, and what it had shown him while they were aboard.
Uncle stroked his beard in thought while the Avatar talked about his spirit-encounter, and when the tale was finished he spoke up with a firm, "Whatever is in that chest, it must be destroyed or at least taken off that ship before Zhao's men discover his death. I strongly suggest we do so this very night, under cover of darkness. Nephew, I assume you packed your 'Blue Spirit' disguise in the bottom of your saddlebag?"
At Iroh's words, Zuko felt like he'd taken a glancing blow to the chest while cold-sparring with Sergeant Goro; his heart stuttered for a beat or two, and his lungs seized on thin air. Once he caught his breath again, he stared at his uncle while asking numbly, "You know?"
"About your being the 'Blue Spirit' that Zhao put on all those wanted posters?" Iroh gave him one of those looks that made him feel like he was six years old again. "Nephew, I've known for over a year now; since you used that disguise to sneak past the dock guards at Mitsuyu Colony to get information from the colony governor's office. And I've covered for your absence from the ship in the middle of the night more than once, I might add."
Zuko was still absorbing the shock—all this time, his uncle knew?!—when Iroh added, "Though you never gave me more cause to worry than the last time you wore it, when you helped the Avatar escape from Pohuai Stronghold right under Zhao's very nose! But that certainly proved your effectiveness at espionage and sabotage when needed."
"Wait, what?" Sokka interrupted with a yelp, waving his arms for attention. "You did what? Helped Aang escape Zhao?! When was this supposed to have happened?"
"Less than two weeks ago," Zuko informed him, before turning to the Avatar and asking, "You didn't tell them?"
"No, I didn't," the airbender said rather sullenly, giving both him and his uncle a resentful look before telling his companions, "It happened that time you were both really sick and stayed with Appa. Can we talk about it later?"
"I imagine it is indeed quite a story, and so best saved for a time when it can be properly appreciated," his uncle agreed affably. "And after exploring every inch of the layout of our old ship, Prince Zuko should have little trouble finding Zhao's cabin aboard his flagship. The ship's current location offshore presents a problem, but not an insurmountable one." He turned to Katara and asked, "Miss Katara, can you use your bending to create a thick fog?"
"I… I think so," Katara said uncertainly at first, but her uncertainty vanished a moment later. "Yes, I can! I've worked to shape clouds before, and fog is just a low-lying cloud."
"Excellent. Then tonight Miss Katara can slowly build up a thick fog to blanket the colony's harbor, and when the fog is at its thickest, the Avatar can guide Appa alongside the ship unseen, so Prince Zuko can sneak aboard in his disguise. Then—"
"No way!" the Avatar interrupted with a scowl.
"Why not, Aang?" Sokka asked him, an eyebrow raised. "So far it sounds like a good plan."
"I'm not letting him," as the Avatar pointed vehemently at Zuko, "anywhere near Appa! He's a murderer!"
The charge hurt no less than the first time he'd heard it. Zuko lowered his head to stare at his feet while the Avatar continued, "Maybe you guys were too far away to hear it, but I did! When they were fighting, Zhao tried to surrender—but Zuko killed him anyway!"
The Avatar was right; Zhao had tried to surrender. Zuko hadn't heard him at the time, deafened by his rage against the man who'd tried to kill his son… but now that the fight was over, his memory oh-so-helpfully supplied Zhao's panicked pleas: "No, stop! I-I surrender!" But he hadn't stopped, until Zhao was dead at his feet…
"He offered surrender, hm?" Iroh rumbled like a waking dragon, stepping between Zuko and the Avatar to stare down at the young airbender. "And you believed him, of course… because you were not there the last time Zhao surrendered after facing my nephew in combat, on the Agni Kai field. But I was there, Avatar, and I will swear this before Agni Himself: Zhao's surrender was followed less than one minute later by an attack on Prince Zuko from behind. If I had not been present to block the attack, my nephew would likely not be standing before you now! Zhao never knew the true meaning of surrender, because he had no honor. If Prince Zuko had stopped fighting to accept his surrender, Zhao would have struck again at the first opportunity!"
"Well, it was still wrong to kill him!" the Avatar retorted. "Killing is always wrong!"
Even though Iroh was facing away from him, Zuko could almost feel that bushy eyebrow being raised and directed at the Avatar. "Always wrong? Do you truly believe that, Avatar?"
"Yes! The Air Nomads believe all life is sacred! No Air Nomad has ever killed anyone!"
Suddenly Sokka spoke up, his voice as flat as the grim line his mouth made across his face. "Aang."
"What?" the Avatar snapped, clearly irritated at someone interrupting his righteous tirade.
"You know I'm your friend, and I'm generally on your side, right?"
"Yeah..." as the airbender gave the Water Tribe teen a suddenly uncertain and somewhat worried look. For which Zuko could hardly blame him; in the prince's own life, nearly every single time that someone had claimed they were his friend or his family, their words were inevitably followed by either pain or betrayal... usually both.
Sokka continued evenly, "So as your friend, I have to tell you: that's a load of walrus dung."
"What?!" the Avatar yelped in outrage, as the other Water Tribe member, Katara, looked alarmed and made shushing gestures at her brother.
Ignoring his sister, Sokka stared the Avatar right in the eyes as he continued in that same grim tone, "Air Nomads do kill, when they have enough reason to, and you know it."
"They do NOT!" and that last word was shouted with enough volume to deafen a dragon, probably amplified by some airbending trick. Even with the brunt of the sound blast directed away from him, even after living with Teiji and the baby's loud shrieks for several weeks, the assault on his eardrums was enough to make Zuko wince and grit his teeth in pain. In his arms, Teiji whimpered and buried his head in his tunic to try to hide from the noise.
The audible blast of denial rocked Sokka back on his heels as he clapped his hands to his ears, but then he scowled and leaned forward in defiant challenge—standing up to an angry Avatar, without any bending at all; Zuko was impressed despite himself. Through the ringing in his ears he heard Sokka shout, "Remember what we found back at the Southern Air Temple, Aang?"
"Sokka, don't!" Katara shouted, though her voice seemed muffled after the blast.
But Sokka was undeterred by his sister too. "When we found Monk Gyatso's body, do you remember what it was surrounded by? All those skeletons were wearing Fire Nation uniforms! They didn't die there of old age, Aang! Face it; they were killed, by an Air Nomad!"
Fire Nation skeletons? Zuko took his eyes off Sokka to exchange startled glances with his uncle, sure that his uncle was thinking the exact same thing: We must have missed some. When they'd investigated the Southern Air Temple over two years ago, searching for clues as to the whereabouts of the Avatar, Uncle Iroh had insisted on cleaning up the place at the same time. The day before they'd started back down the Patola Mountains to where the Wani was anchored, the expedition members had gathered up all the bodily remains they could find, mostly just skeletons but a few mummified corpses as well, and held two mass funerals. The first for all the bodies that had been wearing the remains of Fire Nation uniforms or weapons, and the second for the bodies of presumed Air Nomads.
As prince and ship's captain, Zuko had presided over the first funeral for the nameless Fire Nation soldiers; as the pyre of bones burned, he'd praised their sacrifice and assured any lingering spirits that their descendants were proud of them. But at his own request, Uncle Iroh had presided over the funeral for the Air Nomads. That pyre was so much larger, with so many more skeletons gathered, but the service so much shorter; his eyes downcast as the fire blazed, Iroh had said only, "Go in peace, to dwell with your ancestors." Only now, locking eyes with his uncle while thinking back on that day, did Zuko realize why Iroh had said so little; because in front of so many people loyal to the Fire Nation, he hadn't dared speak aloud any words of apology for the slaughter of so many innocent lives.
Startled by the gust of wind, Zuko turned from his uncle back to the others in the clearing, to find the Avatar—gone, with just a dust-devil of disturbed leaves settling to earth, to indicate where he'd been standing. He looked upwards though the miniscule break in the tree canopy overhead, and glimpsed the airbender on his glider-staff rising in what appeared to be a rapid spiral.
"Whew..." the gusty sigh of relief brought his eyes back to the level, to see Sokka sagging with his hands braced on his thighs as he said, "For a second there I thought he was going to go all glowy on us again."
"Glowy?" Iroh echoed in puzzlement.
"The Avatar State," Katara explained briefly, while glaring at her brother. "How could you, Sokka? That was cruel!"
"And what was I supposed to do, Sis?" Sokka shot back with a matching glare. "Just let him keep badmouthing a guy who was protecting his family?!"
Then he swung back with an accusing finger pointing right at Zuko. "Not that I like or even trust you guys, because I don't! I still wouldn't be surprised if this is all part of some complicated plot to gain Aang's trust so you can lead him right into the Fire Lord's den. But you actually did us a big favor by getting rid of Zhao permanently, so I did you one back. There, we're even."
Then the Water Tribe teen shrugged, "Besides, now that he's been knocked off his high ostrich-hose about killing, maybe he'll ease up on his 'all life is sacred' line enough that I don't have to dress and butcher all my kills and stuff 'em inside a sack before bringing them back to camp for cooking. I'm tired of doing all that extra work, just so's not to hurt Aang's feelings about killing tasty animals."
...Whoa. Zuko flinched at the sudden dark rage filling the clearing, emanating from the waterbender along with an aura of chilling cold. "Excuse me? You're tired of doing 'all the extra work'?" Katara said dangerously. "It's work that would have had to be done later anyway; you'd just rather have me do it! Never mind all the extra work that I've already been doing, trying to keep both a meat-lover and a vegetarian fed with every meal! Not to mention doing all the laundry and the mending for both of you, and collecting firewood, and—"
"Come along, nephew," Iroh rumbled at his side, tugging gently at his elbow, not that Zuko needed the urging to back away slowly. "It's never wise to get involved in family arguments. Come, let's find a quieter place to check Teiji's diaper..."
By the time they came back to the clearing fifteen minutes later, the siblings' squabble had ended and they both had the grace to look embarrassed when Iroh walked in with the suggestion that it was time they took poor Komori back to camp for his funeral. In the end they went with Sokka's plan for proceeding to camp, but instead of staying behind to wait for the Avatar, Katara went to get the sky bison and fly him back to the camp, to meet them there. "Aang will be able to see Appa from the air, and he'll know to meet us there later," Sokka explained, holding the rear grips of the stretcher while Zuko held the front and Iroh led the way with Teiji.
"Does he do that often; just fly away without a word?" Iroh said with a concerned glance over his shoulder.
"Eh, sometimes," Sokka said with a shrug. "But never for very long; just until he's calmed down."
"Still, I'm disappointed in his behavior," Zuko grunted while carrying the stretcher. "Running from the truth never helps."
Iroh's voice floated back to them, gently chiding. "What about loudly denying it, nephew?"
"…" Zuko shut up, hoping that his blushing wasn't visible to Sokka from behind.
It didn't take long for them to return to the deserters' camp, which was now truly deserted as per Jeong Jeong's standing orders. But when they reached the camp, they found not only Katara and Appa, but the ex-captain Chey there as well. "He was wandering around when I got here," Katara said, her face troubled. "He said he just came back from a trip into town, to find the place deserted; he thought at first everyone was just pulling a prank on him..."
Uncle Iroh asked Chey hopefully, "I don't suppose you know where the chosen fallback site is? We would like to rendezvous with Jeong Jeong as well."
But Chey shook his head, much to Zuko's disappointment. "Nuh-uh. Jeong Jeong always told me to just stay with one of the other guys and follow them..."
But then Chey noticed the stretcher that Zuko and Sokka were carrying between them, and his eyes went wide with alarm for a second. He rushed over to pull the white cloth off the corpse's face... and then said grimly, "Komori." Straightening up, he looked directly at Zuko as he asked with that same grim expression, "How did he die?"
"Admiral Zhao found him and burned him down, while he was protecting my son," Zuko said as his guts twisted once more. First Teiji's mother, then Hūn, and now Komori; how many more people would die just trying to protect an innocent baby?!
Chey nodded curtly, then pointed off to the left. "I know where the funeral cloth and tiles are; take him to the firebending training arena, and I'll meet you there." Then he turned to Katara and asked politely, "Will you give me a hand carrying the supplies?"
Preoccupied by thoughts about how cruel the world could be, Zuko just nodded and tugged on the stretcher's poles to get Sokka to follow him, and it wasn't until they were halfway to the camp's training arena that he realized... how very different Chey had become, at first sight of their casualty.
Jeong Jeong's words from only three days ago came back to Zuko as they set the stretcher down in the training area and Chey came to them, grunting under a full load of heavy ceramic tiles, while Katara followed with her arms full of white cloth and a small urn for ashes. "He'd been a damn good captain, once; a rising star in the Eastern Command. He knew explosives better than even the factories that make them, but he took good care of his people, too. It's a pity that one of his people wasn't as good with explosives, and that faulty bomb went off close enough that it knocked him unconscious for three days. He finally woke up, but he was never the same afterwards..."
As Chey efficiently set up and cleaned the interlocking funeral tiles while Iroh helped Zuko wrap Komori's corpse in the specially-treated funeral shroud, he noticed his uncle sneaking glances at Chey as well, before meeting his gaze with clear understanding: for at least this brief moment, Captain Chey was back, to do right by one of his people.
Soon the corpse was ready, properly wrapped in the shroud and lying on the tiles with his head facing west-southwest, towards the setting sun and the Home Islands. When the deserter asked the royals for permission to conduct the funeral service, both Zuko and Iroh surrendered the honor to him without any qualms.
Standing before the body while Zuko and Iroh stood at attention (and while Teiji thankfully kept quiet with Katara and his teething toy), Captain Chey solemnly intoned, "We gather here to remember the life of our fallen comrade in arms: Komori, son of Jiro and Hiromi, of Yushu Colony. Born on the sixth day of the eighth month in the Year of the Dragon, Komori was a good and dutiful son to his parents, and a good brother to his younger siblings. After enlisting in the Army and completing his initial training, he was assigned to the 92nd Division and served there with honor, rising to the rank of corporal.
"Shortly after achieving his rank, Komori faced a great challenge to his honor, having been commanded to commit an atrocity; to burn down an abbey full of people who had never done his nation nor anyone else any harm. Instead of staining his honor with innocent blood, he chose the harder but honorable path; he disobeyed that cruel order, secretly warned the monks of the abbey to flee immediately, and then left all that he had known behind, to wander until he eventually found his way to this camp of similar deserters. Komori served as one of Jeong Jeong's most trusted men for three years before he died honorably, protecting an innocent child from harm. He will be missed by all who knew him. We will honor his memory always, as we honor his remains today and send his spirit home to Agni's warm embrace."
With that, Chey bowed to the body before stepping back, and gesturing to Zuko and Iroh. That was their cue to step forward and stand on either side of the rectangular funeral platform, and fire their hottest blasts straight at the cloth-covered corpse on the tiles. The accelerant impregnated in the white funeral cloth caught fire instantly, and flames roared into the evening sky. They kept pouring out flames for a full five minutes, until all that was left of Komori was a long low pile of ashes.
After the ashes cooled, Zuko personally swept them up and deposited them in the funeral urn, whispering a final word of thanks to Komori's spirit as he did so. His uncle retrieved a writing brush from their packs, dipped it in ink and carefully wrote Komori's name on the urn's lid.
Then Captain Chey, having already shouldered his traveling pack, picked up the urn as well. "Since there's little point in wandering the woods searching for the fallback site, I'll take this to Yushu Colony and Komori's family; let them know how their son died with honor."
"Um, that's not really a good idea," Sokka said hesitantly. "Remember how we saw those wanted posters while we were walking to the colony for the festival? They had a wanted poster up for you, too! What if someone recognizes you?"
Captain Chey gave the teen a wry smile as he said, "We saw wanted posters for the Avatar, too. But that hasn't stopped him, or you, has it? I'll simply have to be careful," as he turned to leave.
"Chey, wait a moment," Iroh said hurriedly, while fishing for something in his belt pouch. Then he pulled out a pai sho tile, his treasured lotus tile, and put it in the captain's palm.
Chey held the tile up, squinting at it in the evening gloom—and Zuko's heart sank as he noticed the vague expression was back on Chey's face. That damn good captain had rallied as long as he could, but... Chey asked, "What's this for?"
"...It's for luck," was all Iroh said, his expression sad. "Go with Agni's blessing, Chey."
"Thanks; I will!" Chey said cheerfully, with a sloppy wave to them before heading off into the trees.
As they watched him go, Katara asked softly, "Do you think he'll make it safely all the way to Yushu Colony?"
After a pause, Iroh said solemnly, "I think he will try his very best. And that is all that any of us can do."
Everyone knew that even if the firebenders hadn't given away the camp's location with that funeral fire, it had already been compromised with Zhao's attack; it was time to leave, before more Fire Nation forces arrived. But Katara but insisted that they take a few minutes to raid the storage huts for food and other useful supplies, before climbing aboard Appa to find somewhere safer to wait for Aang's return. Her traveling family had known lean times far too often to pass up the opportunity to restock and augment their supplies, and the goods might have just gone to waste otherwise.
They got three sacks of rice, a whole crateful of assorted vegetables, a better cooking pot than they'd had before, another set of spark stones, and two good tarpaulins; they had just finished tying the new supplies into the saddle when Aang came gliding down out of the sky to join them. He still looked unhappy over the truth that Sokka had shoved down his throat earlier, but all he said was, "Let's go do what the kirin spirit wanted."
They still had a few hours to wait until midnight, when most of the people aboard Zhao's ship would be asleep, but that gave them more time to make the thick fog that they'd need to hide Appa. And as General Iroh pointed out, the longer they took to slowly build up the fog, the less suspicious it would be to the people on watch all night. So after hiding Appa and everyone else in another clearing two miles from the deserters' camp, Katara went with Aang on his glider down to the colony's harbor, to start making their fog cover.
Katara didn't like precariously hanging off of just half of the glider any better than the first time she'd done it, while they were escaping from the pirates back in Laosing, but she held her tongue for Aang's sake; he still looked so solemn and sad… When they were almost to the colony, she said softly, "I'm sorry Sokka was so harsh in telling you. He could have just—"
"I really don't want to talk about it right now, okay?" Aang quickly interrupted her, and Katara fell silent for the rest of the flight. Now probably wasn't a good time to talk about it anyway; they had a mission to accomplish.
When they landed in a patch of trees that came right to the water's edge, Katara cautiously crept down to the shore until her feet were almost touching the water and then, reaching out with both arms and chi, encouraged the water to rise up as mist. She did it over and over again, while Aang created a gentle breeze to send the slowly thickening mist out over the harbor.
Two hours later, Katara was exhausted from the constant bending, doubled over to support herself with sweat-slicked hands braced on shaking legs, but the ships out in the harbor were now completely invisible under a thick blanket of fog. Having been silent for the last two hours, Aang said only, "That should be more than good enough; we could hide an entire herd of sky bison out there. Wait here and rest; I'll go get Appa and the others." And then he took off on his glider, leaving Katara to flop down right in her tracks and just breathe for a while.
She'd meant to stay awake while waiting; they were still way too close to the colony to let down their guard even for a moment. But to her embarrassment, Katara was woken up by her brother calling her name, right before he stepped on her in the fogbound darkness. "Oww!"
Sokka squawked too as he stumbled over her and pitched face-first into the dirt, and it took an embarrassing amount of time to right themselves, make sure neither one had broken any bones, and grope their way over to where Appa and the others were waiting. "Great job, Sis, but did you have to make it this thick?"
Iroh was quite impressed with what Katara had learned about waterbending in the months since she had left the Southern Water Tribe with the Avatar and her brother. Back then it had been obvious that she was pitifully undertrained, likely self-taught at best; she could do little more than make waves and then freeze the water, and her efforts had trapped friends and foes alike (her brother had been forced to chip his way free, as Iroh recalled.) Now she was healing with water, controlling ice-daggers, and blanketing an entire harbor with possibly the thickest fog Iroh had ever seen; only the smokestacks for the larger ships were poking up out of the haze.
After finding Katara where the Avatar had left her and bringing her aboard the sky bison, Sokka got off again with a sleeping Teiji in his arms and with many grumbles about being stuck with babysitting. Iroh understood his reasons for grumbling, but just as the Water Tribe teen had pointed out earlier in the day, their mission could end up failing disastrously if Teiji woke up and attracted a guard's attention with his childish babbling.
The sky bison glided silently out over the harbor, heading slowly through the fog for Zhao's flagship. Already dressed in the black clothing he wore for his 'Blue Spirit' missions and with ashes smeared on his face to blacken it, Zuko stood up in the saddle and navigated, his head just barely emerging from the thickest swirls of mist, whispering occasional course corrections to the Avatar at the reins.
When they silently slid alongside the flagship, they heard the grumbles and mutterings of the people on watch complaining about the fog, and brief glows from firebenders attempting to burn away the mist and increase their visibility, but no one was crying out that the fog was the work of waterbenders; Katara and the Avatar had done their work slowly enough to make it seem entirely natural. Using his ship captain's knowledge of where the watches would be stationed, Zuko picked an open spot between two watch posts—a spot that would normally be visible to one of those posts, if it weren't for the thick fog—and told them to come in close enough for boarding.
As the prince slid the Blue Spirit mask down over his face, Katara whispered worriedly, "How will we know when you're ready to be picked up? Should I bend the fog away from this one spot so we can see you?"
His voice somewhat muffled by the mask, Zuko whispered back, "Don't do that; the roving watch will be coming long soon, and he might notice a conspicuous absence of fog here, or worse yet, get a glimpse of you waiting offside. I'll make a quick double-burst of flame in this spot when I'm done and ready to be picked up. When you see the glow, come in silently but fast, before the watch decides to investigate."
And with that he picked up the empty sacks they had found in the deserted camp and leaped off the saddle, to land almost soundlessly on the deck of the ship. The Avatar nudged his mount and they backed silently away, until the bulk of the ship was barely visible in the fog once more.
The next half hour and more passed in anxious silence. They had already discussed the possibility of Zuko being discovered while sneaking through the ship, and at the first sound of an alarm being raised, they would charge in with whirlwinds and water-whips alongside blasts of fire, to rescue the Blue Spirit before he could be unmasked. But that was only if they heard an alarm being raised; if something happened deep in the bowels of the ship, out of their hearing range…
Finally, Iroh saw the quick flickering glow of the double-burst of flame, but even before he could open his mouth Katara was whispering urgently, "There! I saw the signal! Let's go, Aang!" The sky bison surged forward, and they drew up to the railing so the Blue Spirit could leap aboard again, just as the nearest guard demanded, "Who's there? Taro, if that's you sneaking a smoke while on duty again…"
They pulled away quickly and just as silently, heading back to the shore where they'd left Sokka and Teiji. "What did you find, nephew?" Iroh asked once they were far enough away for normal conversation.
"The sea chest the Avatar described was right where he said it would be, and the lock only took a few minutes to melt through, but there was a large assortment of stuff inside. What the kirin wanted is probably one of the items I found in the secret compartment, but I grabbed everything in the chest to be on the safe side," Zuko said as he patted the now-bulging sack.
"Secret compartment?" the Avatar piped up, for the moment as curious as any boy his age would be; the first sign of his usual happy and eager personality they'd seen since his return.
"A false bottom on the chest, accessible only if you know where the hidden catch is. Too bad for Zhao that I knew how to look for it, because I had a similar sea chest; that's how I used to hide this mask," Zuko said as he took his Blue Spirit mask off to reveal a definite smirk.
Sokka was waiting right where they'd left him with Teiji, who had been sleeping but woke up again while being hoisted into the saddle. Rather than tie the toddler into the humiliating harness, Zuko just kept a tight grip on his son while they flew to the clearing Uncle Iroh had suggested earlier, some distance away from the deserters' camp; the clearing where they had been training in advanced firebending techniques. As soon as they arrived and put all the packs on the ground, the Avatar's group took the sky bison's saddle off of him, while Zuko and Iroh started setting up the tent for their own little family of three, by the light of the waning moon high overhead.
...Okay, to be honest, they tried to set up the tent for their family. The tent had come from their own storeroom aboard the Wani, with the quartermaster's seal showing that all the necessary parts were included, and Zuko and his uncle had both slept in tents of this same model before, while on expeditions during that two-year-long search for the Avatar. But the sad truth was that neither of them had ever paid much attention during those two years and more as to exactly how these tents were set up. Their conversation for the next few minutes consisted mostly of mutterings along the lines of "What about this piece?" and "Are you sure that goes there?" interspersed with the occasional, "Teiji, no; put that down!"
Finally, at the sound of a cheerfully scornful 'tsk', they looked up to see not only the sky bison's saddle removed, but the Avatar group's tent already set up as well, and both of the Water Tribe teens descending on them with condescending smiles. "You look like you could use some help from the experts," Sokka said oh-so-modestly, before they basically took over the operation.
Katara was a bit more kind about helping them, but Sokka took obvious glee in showing the Fire Nation royals everything they'd been doing wrong. And Zuko hated being condescended to; he'd gotten far too much of that already from Azula while growing up! And he was about tell Sokka exactly where he could shove his 'help', when Uncle Iroh picked up Teiji and plunked the baby down right in his arms. Which meant that now he didn't dare start shouting, because Teiji always started crying when he did that... Zuko gave his uncle a dirty glare, but managed—barely—to keep his angry thoughts to himself, while the Water Tribe siblings schooled them both on how to set the tent up correctly.
Even after the camp was fully set up, wood had been gathered and a campfire had been lit for them to see by, Iroh insisted they wait to open the sack until after Teiji had been put to bed. But after having his usual routine so disrupted by attacks during the day and secret missions at night, Teiji just refused to settle down again, even for a full ten repetitions of "Leaves on the Vine." Finally, Zuko said with a blush beginning to stain his cheeks, "Everyone, just close your eyes and cover your ears for the next ten minutes, okay?"
Everyone stared at his nephew curiously, but he fiercely insisted on them neither seeing nor hearing what he did next, so Iroh and the others all made a big show of turning their backs, putting their hands over their ears and walking to the other side of the clearing. But once they were on the other side of the clearing, Iroh moved his hands just far enough away from his ears to hear clearly, and glimpsed out of the corner of his eye that Katara was doing the same. While the Avatar stepped in front of Sokka, and then turned around and blatantly used the bigger boy for cover while he peeked at what Zuko was doing. The airbender whispered to his friends, "Aw, that's cute; he's getting undressed and crawling into bed with the baby!"
After some faint rustling sounds, during which Iroh pictured his nephew snuggling the baby close, they heard him sing in a voice sounding raspy and strained at first, clearly embarrassed, but gradually warming:
"Earth rumbles, then settles as we do for sleep,
The fire crackles with a warming glow,
The wind rushes high, and the river runs deep,
As they sing what you already know,
You already know:
Evermore I will love you, evermore I will stay
Ever with you in spirit, never so far away.
And though I know some day you'll go to find your way alone,
Evermore I will love you, you are ever my own.
A truly touching and lovely lullaby, and one that spoke of all the elements instead of just their native Fire; where had his nephew learned that?! Iroh continued listening in astonishment, as Zuko sang on,
'Though nothing's as certain as seasons and time,
And nothing will be as before,
Still every way and always, it's certain that I'm
With you forever, evermore:
Evermore I will love you, evermore I will stay
Ever with you in spirit, never so far away.
And though I know some day you'll go to find your way alone,
Evermore I will love you, you are ever my own.
Ever my son,
Forever… and evermore."
Sweet Agni, that song could have been specially crafted for Zuko's adopted Earth Kingdom child and even their situation right now; when had his nephew commissioned a minstrel to compose it? Iroh thought back to the Wani and everyone aboard it, wondering if one of the crew had possessed a talent for musical composition that even he hadn't been aware of.
Zuko sang the lullaby through one more time, and then wordlessly hummed to his son for a few minutes until finally falling silent; Teiji must have finally fallen asleep. Iroh waited a few more minutes, but finally turned around when the others did, to find Zuko still easing away from Teiji and out of their bedroll.
Seeing their knowing smiles as he got to his feet, Zuko blushed so hard it could be seen by the light of the fire, and silently glared at them all for catching him in such a tender and unguarded moment. But Sokka just cheerfully whispered back, "You said to only give you ten minutes!"
After the teasing moment passed and Zuko was dressed again, everyone crowded around the sack that had been brought from Admiral Zhao's flagship to see what had been in that sea chest that the kirin spirit had wanted destroyed. The first item Zuko pulled out of the sack was a set of three scrolls, each one tied with a red ribbon. The Avatar grabbed one to read, so Iroh took another, and Zuko opened the third.
After just a few moments of perusing the scroll, Iroh gave a wry chuckle and rolled it back up. At nearly the same time, staring at his own scroll, Zuko made a strangled noise that was somewhere between a cry of shock and a groan of embarrassment. "Interesting, but somehow I doubt these scrolls are what the kirin is so concerned over," Iroh commented with a smile as he discreetly tucked the scroll up his sleeve.
"Why; what's in them?" Katara asked, leaning to her left, trying to get a glimpse of what Zuko was reading.
Already blushing nearly as red as his scar, Zuko's head jerked up to stare at Katara in horror, and suddenly the scroll burst into flames in his hands as he blurted out, "Nothing! There's nothing on these worth looking at!" And after his scroll was quickly reduced to ashes, he lunged across the campfire to where Aang was sitting, reading the first of that set of scrolls with eyes as wide as saucers. "You're way too young for that!"
Aang dodged backwards while whipping one hand behind him, to keep the scroll out of Zuko's smoldering grip. Then he yelped, "Hey!" when Sokka, who'd come up behind him to read over his shoulder, neatly plucked the scroll out of his hand and tucked it inside his shirt. "He's right, you're too young to be reading that stuff," the Water Tribe teen scolded the Avatar, though Iroh couldn't help noticing with amusement that Sokka didn't say he himself, only a few years older, was too young for it as well.
Ah well, he remembered his own youth, and sneaking into the palace library at that age to read similar scrolls. Far be it from him to deny the teenager such a typical adolescent rite of passage… though given Katara's suspicious glare at her brother, he doubted that scroll would remain intact and legible for long.
Then Zuko pulled out of the sack a smaller rolled-up sack, into which he'd stuffed several small black pouches to muffle their clinking sounds. There were twelve pouches in all, and each one contained a hundred gold coins. "Bribe money, ready to dispense as needed," Iroh said knowingly.
"That's enough money to feed our entire village for at least two years!" Katara exclaimed with wide eyes.
"We'll split it," Zuko declared with a decisive nod. "Half for you three to use in your travels, and half for us to use in finding a safe home to raise Teiji."
"A fair decision, nephew," Iroh agreed. "Now, what else was in that chest?"
More scrolls were pulled out, one of them being Zhao's appointment to admiral by Fire Lord Ozai (Iroh burned that one himself, with grim smiles of approval from everyone else), and a few personal letters to Zhao from relatives and acquaintances. Then Zuko pulled out a scroll in a tube that had been sealed at one time; the seal was broken now, but its Water Tribe symbol was still plain to see. Sokka stuck out his hand in a wordless demand to be the first to see that scroll, and Zuko willingly handed it over.
Sokka slid the scroll out of the tube, unrolled it and squinted at it by the firelight. "Huh. Really old fancy writing; we hardly ever see this style anymore. Um… give me a minute; it's hard to read…"
"It can't be any harder to read than your handwriting," Katara said with a smirk at her brother. "Want me to look at it?"
"No, no, I got it. It's about… Oh hey, it's about the history of the Northern Water Tribe; about way back when it was first founded at the North Pole! Uh, I think. And it talks about Tui and La; what they told the tribe to do through the first shamans… There's a map at the bottom of the scroll, too. Not much to it, though; just a trail leading up to… what's that word?" he mumbled to himself.
"May I see it?" Zuko asked curiously, standing up and circling the fire to stand next to Sokka, who passed the scroll over to him and then pointed at something near the bottom, presumably the characters for the word in question. Zuko peered at it with a frown, and then said, "That's 'oasis'. An oasis, for spirits?"
"Let me see, please," Iroh said as he also stood up, and joined them in peering at the ancient text. Sokka was right, it was indeed about the founding of the Northern Water Tribe; how the site had been chosen by the tribe's patron spirits, Tui and La. How they had taken mortal forms and…
Oh, bright Agni. Iroh stopped breathing for a moment, eyes wide with first realization, then shock, and finally a growing horror at what could have happened, if the kirin had not warned the Avatar in time.
He snatched the scroll from the boys' grips, and ignored their yelps of surprise and protest as he bent a white-hot flame and reduced the scroll to ashes in an instant. "We must all forget we ever saw this!" he said fiercely.
"But why?" Sokka demanded. "What's so important about some old history scroll? It looked like it was hundreds of years old; everyone that would have been mentioned in it is dead and gone now!"
Iroh regarded him grimly. "Your tribe's patron spirits are not dead and gone, young man. And that scroll held vital information on where they could be found, in their mortal forms… their vulnerable forms. Vulnerable to being seized, taken hostage, imprisoned or wounded or—"
Katara interrupted him with a gasp, gone pale beneath her perpetually tanned skin. "And Admiral Zhao had that scroll?!"
"Ohh, man, that's bad! That's really bad," The Avatar said, his eyes wide with dismay likely equal to Iroh's own.
"Very bad indeed," Iroh said emphatically, dusting the last of the ashes off his palms. "That was what the kirin wanted destroyed. To protect the spirits, and surely the entire Northern Water Tribe, from whatever scheme Zhao had in mind for using the information on that scroll."
Then he faced the Avatar squarely as he continued, "And that is why Zhao had to die, young Avatar. Because even now that the scroll has been gotten out of enemy hands and destroyed, the danger would still have existed so long as Zhao was alive, with that knowledge in his head."
"He's right, Aang," Sokka said grimly. "The scroll was unsealed; Zhao had read it at least once already. And no warrior of the Water Tribes could let an enemy run loose with knowledge like that. If Zhao was still alive and Bato were still with us, he'd be first to volunteer for a mission to go slit Zhao's throat. And I'd be right behind him."
The Avatar just stared up at them, wordless with dismay, but Katara scrambled to her feet, trembling slightly as she demanded, "Are we absolutely sure he's dead now? I never touched him, never checked for a pulse… If he's just burned really badly but still alive, we have to go finish him off! It'll be a mercy killing anyway, and it will keep the tribes safe!"
"Don't worry, he's definitely dead," Zuko said grimly. "I checked for a pulse before I dragged him off to the ravine, and there was none. Also, I'm pretty sure that when he went in, he landed head-first." And Katara sighed in relief, while the Avatar switched his appalled stare to her instead.
Then Sokka prodded the sack with the toe of his boot and asked, "Is there anything else in there?" Zuko said he thought there were a few more things, so they all sat down again and he opened the sack up once more.
Zuko pulled out a small box with onyx inlay, and opened it; the box was filled with a fine gray-green powder. "Let me see that," Iroh urged, and it was passed over to him. He eyed the fine grains, took a cautious sniff—and then very carefully closed the box and set it aside. That would have to be buried later; even the smoke from burning it might prove deadly. "Powdered mooseweed… also known as Bender's Bane. Prisons will sometimes mix it in a prisoner's food to suppress their bending."
"You can actually take away someone's bending?!" Katara gasped, recoiling.
"Temporarily, yes. Chi paths can be blocked if the body is hit in certain places and in certain ways, though very few are trained in the technique. Another way is to force them to ingest this herb, but that's a far more dangerous way; the body can handle only a very small amount of it. If given too much, or dosed again before the first dosage has fully worn off, the bender will likely die in convulsions. Which is why, despite our former mission to capture the world's most powerful bender, Zuko never stocked it aboard our ship. But I'm not at all surprised that Zhao had it on hand, after deciding to usurp Prince Zuko's mission." The Avatar edged away from that innocuous-looking box like it had turned into a venomous viper-rat, while Zuko reached into the sack again.
A few more letters, including two that weren't addressed to Zhao himself, but to other high-ranking military officials. Reading the scandalous contents of those letters, Iroh decided that Zhao had been keeping them for potential blackmail material, and wondered how he'd gotten his hands on them… well, no matter now. Then Zuko pulled out and passed to him a scroll full of Zhao's own handwriting; a list of ships in the Northern Fleet as well as the Western Fleet. The list was organized by their armaments and capabilities, and all too similar to lists that Iroh himself had made a lifetime ago, as the Dragon of the West…
"We killed Zhao just in time," Iroh said grimly as he rolled the scroll up again. "He was making plans for a large-scale invasion, no doubt of the Northern Water Tribe."
Both Water Tribe teens shuddered at the thought. Sokka asked grimly, "But did we actually stop him in time to prevent it? If he was planning on bringing in a lot of ships for invading, that would take a long time to set up. And since he was keeping that scroll about the spirits such a secret, he probably told everyone that they're going to invade the Northern Water Tribe based on it being the Avatar's obvious destination; we've been heading north too long and too steadily for anyone to not figure it out. Those other ships might be gearing up for an invasion already!"
Iroh was mildly impressed by the Water Tribe teen's knowledge of strategic planning, as he said, "It's possible that the other ships have been alerted already. But given that the scroll was in that locked chest with other items Zhao was keeping secret, I am inclined to doubt it. And Zhao achieved admiral rank less than two weeks ago; if the Fire Lord had appointed him solely for the purpose of commanding other admirals in the invasion, he likely would have crowed about that high honor as well, when we saw him the very day after achieving his new rank."
After a bit more thought, Iroh concluded aloud, "At most, Zhao would have announced to the Northern and Western fleets his intention to mount an invasion, not his plans for proceeding and even succeeding. If we have not completely prevented the invasion, we have at least delayed it considerably; bought time while the other admirals and marine commandants argue about who will command the invasion and how they will proceed. Now it is up to you three to reach the Northern Water Tribe and warn them, so they may use that extra time wisely."
All three of the Avatar's group nodded solemnly. Then Katara asked, "Do you think that when the kirin-spirit found out about Zhao's plans, it somehow herded him this way, so he'd be killed before he could start the invasion?"
Iroh considered the idea while Zuko spoke up, his expression fierce. "If that kirin did herd Zhao here, to make me kill him… herded him here and put my son in danger, knowing that's the only thing that would make me furious enough to kill anyone…" his fists clenched, and smoldered.
"Calm yourself, nephew; I think it more likely that the kirin simply took advantage of what was already occurring here, and the Avatar's presence for communicating with," Iroh said soothingly. "If that spirit had the power to become tangible and effect mortals directly, it would have been far simpler to just trample Zhao while he slept in his cabin and destroy the sea chest on its own. Zhao was likely alerted to our presence here by the colonial authorities, after our disastrous visit during the Fire Days Festival."
The Avatar blushed a little at the reminder of how he had blown their covers that day. But then Sokka yawned and declared that now that all the excitement was over, it was time to get some sleep; they needed to leave the area first thing in the morning, before the ship and colony sent search parties out for their missing admiral. Everyone agreed it was sound advice, and crawled into their bedrolls for a few hours' sleep before dawn.
He just couldn't sleep. Aang knew he needed to get some sleep, to be ready to travel again tomorrow morning, but... too much had happened today. So much had happened that it left him feeling exhausted, and normally he'd be out like a snuffed candle already, but after what Sokka had told him...
It hurt, knowing that Monk Gyatso, his guide and guardian while growing up the monk he'd most looked up to as a child and who had taught him what it meant to be an Air Nomad... that monk had killed dozens of Fire Nation soldiers before being killed himself. It was... it was almost like learning that Gyatso was dead and gone, all over again.
An Air Nomad never kills another living being, and does not eat the meat nor wear the skin of a formerly living being. We respect all living things, for All Life is Sacred.
Was that all just, just words? Had the people who'd taught him that actually believed it themselves?
Was it actually okay to kill someone if they were trying to kill you at the same time? The monks had advocated against that, too, saying that violence just led to more violence and death led to more death; that fighting was to be done only when all possible peaceful resolutions to conflict had failed, and even then, fight to incapacitate only and be ready to ask forgiveness for your actions later. But then Gyatso...
After rolling over for the umpteenth time, Aang finally got up, crept out of the tent, and went to go see Appa. The sky bison was sleeping on his side of the clearing, but opened one eye to rumble a quiet greeting to him. "You're not going to suddenly change on me, are you, buddy?" Aang asked as he climbed up his friend's side, to flop down atop that familiar broad head. "You're going to be the same old Appa I've always known, and not start eating meat or anything like that..." Appa gave a gentle snort in response, as if saying that the sun would start rising in the west first. And finally, half-buried in thick sky bison fur, Aang was able to fall asleep.
After such a late and busy night, the sun rose far too early the next morning. Katara groaned in protest when a shaft of sunlight sneaked in past the tent flap to poke at her eyelids, but got up with a yawn to begin the usual morning routine; everything she normally did before the boys woke up. Get the fire going again, fetch fresh water, start cooking breakfast…
But when she stumbled out of the tent, she was pleasantly surprised to see that the fire was already crackling merrily, and Iroh was sitting cross-legged in front of it with the baby in his lap dozing under a blanket. He smiled at her while holding a finger to his lips to indicate the need for silence, though she could hear rustling sounds coming from the undergrowth at the far edge of the clearing. Moments later, the rustling bushes parted to reveal Prince Zuko, coming back with a bucket of water from the nearby stream. He nodded a greeting to her as he walked up to fill a teapot from the bucket, and his uncle promptly set the teapot next to the fire to heat up.
Whispering her thanks, Katara took the rest of the water to start cooking rice for breakfast, making enough to feed all of them, especially since the firebenders had been so helpful already that morning. But a few minutes after she set the cooking pot up over the campfire, the fire started acting oddly; it would die down for a few moments, but then rise up again to the same height as before, in a steady rhythmic pattern. What…? Then she looked up just in time to see Prince Zuko, who was sitting in a meditative pose on the other side of the campfire with his eyes closed, get poked in the shoulder by his uncle's extended finger.
Iroh whispered just loud enough for her to overhear, "You'll need to meditate cold for now, nephew; she needs a steady fire for cooking breakfast." The prince opened his eyes to see Katara looking at him, and blushed a little as the fire abruptly returned to normal; his muttered apology was hard to hear, but she gathered that meditating with fire was a habit of his, and that next time he'd set up candles instead.
Soon afterwards, little Teiji stirred in his grandfather's lap, and the prince picked him up for a quiet but clearly affectionate greeting, before taking the toddler into their family's tent to change his diaper. The rice was about halfway done when Aang yawned awake and slid down from where he'd been sleeping on Appa's head, and stumbled off into the trees to answer nature's call. And just as Katara declared breakfast was ready to serve, Sokka finally emerged from their tent, still yawning and with his wolftail still crooked from sleep.
Now that everyone was up, the camp grew louder as well as livelier. As he finished spoon-feeding Teiji his breakfast, Prince Zuko asked Iroh, "Uncle, where will we go now?"
"I've been pondering that already," Iroh responded while studying a map that he'd pulled out of their packs. "As Captain Chey said yesterday, there's little point in just wandering through the woods, hoping to stumble across Jeong Jeong's fallback site. But no doubt the colony is in an even greater uproar today than yesterday, with Zhao's men coming ashore to find out why their admiral has not returned; it would be far too risky to return there now, to contact the lone remaining White Lotus agent or buy a komodo-rhino for us to ride. But it would also be dangerous to remain out here, waiting for the situation to die down; the search parties will eventually reach this far and beyond. Our best option would be to travel to another colony or Earth Kingdom town that holds White Lotus agents we can contact. But the nearest agent I know of is over forty miles away to the northwest; that's a fair distance to travel on foot with Teiji and all our belongings…"
"Why don't you come with us?" Katara suggested while bending water to wash out the cooking pot. "There's still plenty of room on Appa's saddle for you!"
Both firebenders gave her startled looks, but that was nothing compared to Sokka and Aang's reactions. But she cut off their squawks of protest with that no-nonsense glare she'd learned from Gran-Gran, and a firm, "At the very least, we owe them a ride to whichever town they want to go to! Jeong Jeong and his camp would still be here if we hadn't drawn Zhao's attention when we were exposed at that colony; we cost them their home here, so we owe it to them to help them find a new place to live and raise little Teiji."
Sokka and Aang grudgingly agreed with her, before she continued, "Besides, Aang, don't you need to know where they're going to settle down, so you'll know where to go when you're ready for training in firebending?"
She expected more reluctant agreement, but instead Aang emphatically shook his head. "I'm not ever going to learn firebending; it's too dangerous!"
That got both the firebenders looking at him, clearly skeptical. "An Avatar that chooses to remain ignorant of one of his four elements; forever unbalanced?" Iroh asked, just before Prince Zuko demanded, "Do you really think you have any hope of defeating the Fire Lord without mastering firebending?"
"Look, can we just continue this argument after we get into the air?" Sokka asked, already starting to take their tent down. "I want to get moving and well away from here before Zhao's men find some more river boats and come out this far to start searching."
"If you're in such a rush to get moving, then why did you sleep in so late?" Katara asked pointedly as she finished washing the dishes and started packing them up again.
"Hey, we had a late night last night!" he retorted before beckoning to Prince Zuko. "Since you guys had so much trouble with your tent last night, let me show you the quickest way to take it down while still making it easy to set up again later…"
To be continued
Ye Author sez: If anyone out there has been thinking of making fanart for this story, I'll admit that I'd like to see someone's visual interpretation of the scene with "a monster that's a cross between a dragon and a fox-deer with antlers" galloping away from the rest of the group with Aang flopped over sideways on its back, being carried like a sack of rice. The only other description I've given of the kirin was way back in the first chapter: "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," so obviously there's lots of room for interpretation and artistic license!
Send me links to your fanart, and I'll post them in my profile here at FFnet, and in story chapter notes at AO3!