Author's Note: So this exists somewhere other than the relative safety of my computer because of a certain watcher of mine who reminded me that I really like writing fanfiction for this fandom. And that this one was already written. You can thank her. A minor AU based on a prompt from an LJ community.
Aang sat crosslegged on the ground and tried to make a decision.
His family was sick, waiting for him to return and make things better. He didn't have his glider. For all intents and purposes, he could have died. It was time he left.
But the Fire Prince lying in a small hollow in the ground still hadn't woken up.
The first arrow had been followed by two more. The archers were good enough, he knew, to kill, so they hadn't meant to. Just to pin him down, one bolt through each shoulder and into the ground. Only one connected, Aang catching the second so it veered off course, but apparently that was enough.
And now he had an unconscious, too pale Prince Zuko bleeding through the makeshift bandage, oh, great.
If he just left, Zuko would probably die.
Somehow he'd gotten Zuko to his feet, though he seemed confused and only barely conscious. Aang hoped against hope that he was muddled enough not to realize who it was supporting him, and for once, luck seemed to be on his side.
He half dragged, half carried the older boy through the trees a little at a time, watching the red stain through Zuko's clothes grow larger and larger. The prince staggered, breathing too rapidly, and made his first sound all day.
"Stop," he gasped. "Please, just stop."
Aang could smell the swamp, but thought with dread that they still had a mountain to climb. He shook his head, keeping his eyes down, even if he felt exhausted himself. Katara and Sokka were relying on him, too.
They were going to be so angry.
"I can't," he said, apologetically. "We can't stop. We have to keep going. Come on, are you giving up?"
Zuko made a thin sound between his teeth that must have been of pain, but somehow he straightened, and Aang felt him shake his head.
"Go," he said, tightly. "Fine – not giving up. Never. Go."
They moved on. When they splashed into the marsh, Zuko took one step and stumbled, falling. Aang tried to grab his elbow, but Zuko's weight pulled him down too, and for a moment he fumbled blind in the water before managing to surface.
And looked down at Zuko, limply unconscious and half underwater.
Aang sighed, dragged Zuko out of the water and under a tree. "I'll come back," he said, earnestly. "I'm not leaving you here to die. Promise."
Zuko didn't answer. Aang chose to take that as agreement and waded back into the swamp, glancing back worriedly periodically, hoping that the tenacious prince could be tenacious about more than one thing.
'Angry' was an understatement. Although 'disbelief' would cover it pretty well too, Aang decided, staring at two incredulous faces. "You did what?" Sokka yelled. "You're joking, Aang. Please tell me you're joking and you didn't leave Prince Ponytail unguarded at the base of the mountain where we are hiding."
"I hate to agree with Sokka," Katara added, "But – Aang, what were you thinking?"
"I couldn't just let him die!" Aang protested, throwing up his hands. "And he would've, too, he's been all funny and now he's just unconscious, what's he going to do?"
"He could be pretending," said Sokka, darkly, and Aang looked back and forth between their stubborn faces and gave up.
"Fine," he said, "I'll take care of him on my own," and he turned violently on his heel and started out of the cave.
They followed him a moment later, Sokka still grousing loudly, Katara's disapproval somewhat more silent. It took longer, going back down in a group, and Aang fought the urge to run on ahead and make sure that Zuko was still there at all. Now that he'd committed to a project, even if he wasn't certain how wise it was in his heart of hearts, he would see it through.
When they finally reached the bottom of the mountain, Zuko was half submerged, apparently having stumbled his way to the marsh's edge before giving up, thoroughly unconscious and curling ribbons of red issuing from the loosened bandage.
Aang could almost hear Katara frown. Sokka was more obvious. "What happened, anyway? You never said how you ran into him in the first place."
"I just did," Aang said, having a feeling that the truth in this case would be unhelpful. "And look at him. I told you he's harmless."
"For now," Sokka said darkly. "What about when he's better, huh? What then?"
Aang half opened his mouth to respond, but Katara's voice cut over him. "I agree with Aang," she said, and relief washed over him. "Besides, isn't it better to have Zuko where we can see him rather than sneaking around where we don't know where he'll turn up next?"
Sokka rubbed his chin and nodded slowly. "I suppose you do have a point there."
"Right then," Katara said, in that authoritative voice she'd gained lately. "It's settled. Sokka, you can help Aang get Zuko to the cave."
Sokka gaped indignantly. "What are you going to be doing?"
Katara crossed her arms. "Making lunch. I don't know about you, but I'm starving." She smiled suddenly at Aang, and he felt a little weak in the knees, even after she'd vanished back up the trail behind the bushes.
With Sokka's help, getting Zuko up to the cave was almost easy, though there was one nervewracking moment as they were first lifting him up when his gold eyes opened and looked directly at Sokka.
The fire prince narrowed his bleary eyes and frowned. Aang and Sokka both held their breath, but Zuko only swallowed hard and asked in a voice slurred with pain and near unconsciousness, "Do I know you?" before promptly passing out again.
Aang noted with growing concern that the makeshift bandage was now soaked crimson. "Maybe we should move a little faster?" He suggested tentatively, and Sokka grunted.
"This isn't exactly easy," he said sourly. "So what did happen? Who got Prince Ponytail?"
"Maybe later," Aang said hastily, and tried to shuffle a little faster, though Zuko's dead weight wasn't helping. Quickly, he added, "I can smell food! We must be getting close."
Sokka's narrowed eyes told Aang that the Water Tribe boy was less than fooled, but he didn't ask again, and they dragged Zuko into shelter before the storm broke again. Aang hovered nervously as Sokka rushed to see what Katara was making. The fire prince looked awfully pale, face thin and slightly drawn with pain.
He twisted, mouth moving, and Aang leaned down to try to hear. Please, he made out, and, I promise.
Maybe he just wanted to understand, Aang thought, frowning. Maybe Sokka was right and this was a bad idea and would get them all in trouble, but he still didn't want to leave Zuko. It seemed important, somehow.
"Aang, do you want some soup?"
He hadn't even heard Katara coming. "Thanks, Katara," he said, looking up and smiling just a little, stretching out his hands for the bowl. "I'd love some."
She sat down as he took the bowl, and glanced at Zuko with one of those little frowns of hers. "Aang, why won't you tell me and Sokka what happened?"
Aang looked down intently at his soup. "What happened when?"
"How you ran into Zuko. How he got hurt. Why you took so long coming back with the…frozen frogs."
"I just don't think it's a good idea," Aang said, finally, and Katara laid a hand on his arm.
"Aang, you can tell me." She reached out, takes his hand, squeezed. "Is it – bad? It can't be that bad."
He lowered his eyes because he couldn't lie to Katara and told her everything he knew and a few things he guessed, too, and she just looked at him with her big blue eyes and listened in silence until he got to the end, when she shook her head, looking back and forth from him to Zuko.
"I can't really say I'm any less confused," she said, finally. "But I'm glad you got out. Even if I doubt he was just being nice."
Aang hesitated, and finally dared to take the plunge he'd been hesitating on since telling his family what had happened. "Do you think you could help me with him?" He asked, and Katara glanced at him sharply enough that he nearly cringed.
"Maybe," she said, finally. "I don't know. I'm not really feeling in a hurry for him to be back on his feet again, Aang. Sokka's right. He's harmless like this, but if we know anything about Zuko he won't stay that way for long."
Aang sighed, and nodded, looking down at the now bright red bandage over his shoulder. "Could you at least help me with that?" he asked, even more tentatively, even if he understood and knew (privately) that Katara and Sokka were both right and he should have left the fire prince back where he'd found him. "It hasn't stopped bleeding at all."
Katara bit her lip, then nodded. "I'll be right back with some things that might help, if you get it clean first." Aang could see her steel herself, no doubt adjusting Zuko to be just another person and probably one she didn't know. He was sorry, but –
Somehow it was important that Zuko not die.
Aang could see from the expression on Katara's face as she surveyed the arrow wound – a bloody mess where Aang had yanked out the bolt in the first place – that whatever it was, it wasn't good. She poked and prodded around the edges, rolled him over to look at the exit wound on his back, and frowned more deeply.
Zuko only stirred when she prodded the wound itself, and even then it was only a twitch. Aang stayed back with a bucket of water, feeling distinctly useless.
Finally, Katara looked up. "I don't know," she said. "I think…it's not good. But I don't really know much at all. But I can at least manage stitches."
Aang looked away and wandered over to Sokka as Katara collected needle, thread, and hot water, and sat down next to the Water Tribe boy, worried he'd get squeamish.
"He's holding us up," Sokka muttered under his breath. "We shouldn't be staying here like this. Anyone could find us. You and the Angry Jerk probably left a trail of blood or whatever a mile wide."
"I'm sorry," Aang said, putting his chin on his knees. "I just think it's important. I can feel it."
Sokka wrinkled his nose and muttered something about 'Avatar stuff' before continuing, more audibly, "And when he's better, Aang? Are we just going to dump him somewhere and hope he doesn't set us on fire before we can get away? Don't you have a plan at all?"
"I think it's more of an if," said Katara, who was standing, apparently done with her work. She waved the bloody makeshift bandage in both their direction. "He didn't even twitch while I was stitching him closed and maybe I don't know much but I don't think that's a good thing." She paused. "And Sokka's right. We should keep moving."
Sokka brightened. "Without Prince Ponytail."
Aang opened his mouth, but Katara again spoke up before him. "No, with him. I'm sorry Sokka, but Fire Nation or not I'm not going to leave someone who needs me, not when I've already started. Besides, he starts improving and I promise you can tie him up with that nice rope of yours."
Sokka gave in gracefully (sort of) and shortly thereafter they were in the saddle again. It fell to Sokka to lug Zuko up and dump him gracelessly in the saddle in a newly bandaged heap. Lifting off, Appa hardly seemed to notice the extra weight, and Katara and Sokka both chose the furthest corners possible from the limply unconscious prince, though Katara grabbed his sleeve in a small concession when he looked like slipping out.
Aang tried to listen to the conversation behind him, but it was almost eerily silent. They flew on.
An hour later, as they were beginning to look for somewhere to land, Zuko woke up screaming. "No!" he yelled, voice thick with pain, limbs flailing and lashing out. "No – stop, please – I can't – not again, please-"
It was Katara who scrambled first, her arms slipping around his body to bind his limbs to his sides. "Shh," she said, perhaps a bit frantically, "Shh, it's fine-"
Zuko fell abruptly still, and his tightly closed eyes opened, even more blurry and glazed than before, Aang noted, watching. Appa made an uneasy sound, and Aang buried a hand in his fur. "Mom?" he said, abruptly, and there was a sudden silence, bewildered and shocked.
"—yes," Katara said, after a moment where she seemed to want to pull away. "I'm here."
Zuko shuddered once more and went limp. "I'm sorry," he said, voice still thick and foggy. "Please forgive me."
And then he was unconscious again.
The silence that followed was profound. Sokka spoke first, sounding as indignant as if the whole thing had been a personal affront to him. "What was that about?" He demanded. "All that about – Katara, get away from him, it's not safe. What if he starts firebending?"
Katara didn't move. Aang urged Appa down toward a ledge and turned to look at her again. "Katara?"
She hadn't let go of Zuko, and seemed to be frowning in something like concern. "Who's his mother, anyway?" she asked, abruptly. "No one ever talks about the Fire Lord having a wife."
"It doesn't matter," Sokka said, peevishly. "Katara-"
"No," she said, "It does matter. And I'm staying here. He's getting worse. I think he has a fever."
"Great," Sokka said, "So now he's sick, too? Fantastic. I say we just drop him with the first Fire Nation ship we see. He's theirs to start with, let them take care of him!"
"That does involve practically landing on a Fire Nation ship, you realize?" Katara said, and Sokka frowned.
"I'll work on that part."
For now, Zuko seemed to be back in complete and immovable unconsciousness. As Appa settled on the ground, Aang scuttled back to peer over the prince with Katara.
"How are we going to feed him if he doesn't wake up at all?" Katara asked worriedly. Aang shook his head. This was all turning out to be even more complicated than he'd been afraid it would be.
"I don't know. We're going to have to wake him up somehow. Just for food. He seems a little confused, anyway, maybe it won't be a problem."
"Great," Sokka said sarcastically. "Maybe it won't. Where Prince Ponytail's involved, I'm going to guarantee you it will be."
Zuko stared at Katara's face for so long when she finally managed to wake him up that eventually she scowled. "Is there something wrong with my face?"
"I know you from somewhere," he said, sounding thick and dazed and most of all confused. "Where?" Then he seemed to register something and stiffened, eyes narrowing warily. "You're Water Tribe. What did you do with my Uncle? My crew? Where are-"
But at that point he'd apparently leaned forward too far, and he jerked with a small hiss of pain.
"Spirits," Sokka said with a groan. "This just gets worse and worse."
"Just eat something," wheedled Katara. "It's important. You're not well."
He stared at the soup and then back at Katara. "Am I supposed to trust you?"
"Yes," she said, simply, and then added cheerfully, "And if you don't eat it then I'll have Sokka hold you down and pour it down your throat anyway."
Zuko ate the soup.
"He hasn't tried firebending or anything," Katara whispered, out of earshot.
"Maybe he's not strong enough," Aang posited. "I still don't think he's – quite all there. Even if he seems okay right now."
An hour later, Zuko was emptying his stomach of soup and everything else he'd had, probably in the last week, on the cave floor, on his hands and knees and retching violently even when there was nothing left to bring up. Sokka pulled his sleeping-bag over his ears and glowered. Katara went gingerly over and touched his shoulder as Aang hung back, worried that the sight of the Avatar might yank Zuko's memories back to the forefront.
"Don't," Zuko said, jerking away from Katara, one hand swiping across his mouth. "Leave me alone." His voice was shaky, and so was the rest of him, trembling violently, and when she put her hand on his forehead she pulled it away sharply.
"He's burning up – Aang, can you help me?"
Aang stepped forward hesitantly as Zuko slumped to his side, curled up in a fetal position, bringing his blanket with him. "What can I do?"
"See if you can get him to drink some water."
Aang got a cup and filled it with water as Katara rolled up her sleeves. He held it up to Zuko's lips, frowning. "Come on," he said, in what he hoped was a coaxing voice. "Have some water. It's just water…"
Zuko's eyes opened and stared at Aang, and then seemed to light up faintly with recognition. "You're the Avatar," he said, and made a sound like a giggle. "Figures. Just – figures."
Aang hesitated, and then shoved the glass at Zuko again. "Drink this. What figures?"
Zuko turned his head away from the water, looking sick. "That I'd find you just when I was about to die. That's what figures." He closed his eyes. "Nnnh," he said blurrily. "I want my Uncle."
"You're not going to die," Aang said determinedly.
"I dunno," Sokka said from behind him. "Doesn't look too good to-"
"Shut up," Katara said sharply, holding something soaked with water as she peeled the old bandage away from his shoulder.
"No," Zuko said blearily. "He's right. Basically."
"You too," Katara snapped. Zuko flinched and exhaled, but he actually obeyed. Or maybe he was just unconscious again, It was hard to tell. Aang crouched down and leaned forward worriedly.
"I couldn't get him to drink anything," he told Katara, and she nodded absently, but he didn't think she really heard him.
"Did anyone hear something?" Sokka asked, to no answer, and he continued, "Because I think there might be someone-"
Three heads turned quickly. Aang jumped to his feet and took a step forward, raising his hands. "Don't come any closer or I'll-"
The old man in Fire Nation garb shook his head slightly. "I'm here alone, Avatar, I'm just looking for someone. I think he might have wandered off and gotten-" Aang saw his face pale, and tensed, but Iroh wasn't looking at them anymore.
Aang blinked. And connected the dots. Uncle. He felt abruptly, and a little absurdly, guilty. The man was looking around at all of them now, with confusion and – worry? "How did he get here? What happened?"
Sokka looked at Aang. Katara looked at Aang. Zuko didn't move. Aang flushed. "It might – kind of be my fault. He was looking for me after Zhao caught me when I was looking for frozen frogs, and broke me out of the fortress, only then they shot arrows at him and I didn't want to just leave him there."
Sokka sputtered. The old man, however, looked troubled, and bowed. "Thank you, Avatar. I am in your debt."
"I don't know," Aang mumbled, looking at his feet.
"I don't know," Katara said, standing up and brushing her hair out of her face. "But I think – he'll survive."
"Then I am in your debt too," he said, and gingerly walked over, bent down.
"I didn't do anything," Katara protested, looking faintly ashamed.
"You did enough." Aang's heart clenched as he watched the tenderness with which the old man touched Zuko's face, then shifted round and scooped him up like a child instead of a gangly teenager.
"I'll take him back with me," the man said, "And I will say nothing of where you are. It's the least I can do, for now."
"Wait," Katara cried, as he started to turn around. "If he – looks up to you, and he kept talking about you – can't you tell him to stop hunting us?"
"I can't order him to do anything," the man said, and his voice was momentarily old and sad. "I only hope that someday soon he will realize that he's wasting his life, and find his own way, not his father's. Thank you again. For all you have done."
A moment later, they both were gone. Aang stared after them, frowning.
"Well, that was weird," Sokka said, the first to break the silence. "But at least he's gone."
"Maybe he'll remember," Katara said. "Maybe it'll change things, that you saved his life, Aang."
Aang said nothing, just shook his head slowly. "It's certainly not the end," he said, slowly. "We'll see Zuko again. I know it."
"Great," grumbled Sokka. "Just great."
Zuko woke up to the familiar rocking motion of his ship. His shoulder ached like he'd been pummeled there repeatedly. His head swam. And his uncle was sitting next to his bed like he only did when Zuko was very ill.
But he didn't feel so bad now.
"Welcome back, nephew." His uncle leaned down and embraced him. "You should not go wandering off on your own. It's not safe."
Zuko flushed. His uncle must have found him, discovered what he was doing – that certainly made more sense than what he thought he half remembered.
"So you…brought me back here?"
"Who else, nephew? And let me tell you, you are not so small as you were when I gave you rides on my back."
Zuko let his head fall back and closed his eyes. "I had the strangest dreams, uncle. About the Avatar and his friends. That they rescued me." He looked at his Uncle, who seemed somehow – anxious, and hastened to reassure him. "They were just dreams, though. Stupid dreams. How long…?"
"Three days, and a little," his uncle said, and now he was disappointed, which made no sense to Zuko. Maybe it was for the delay. He cursed.
"The Avatar could be anywhere by now, Uncle! Have you heard anything? Any direction-"
"No," his Uncle said, though there was a flicker in his eyes that Zuko didn't understand. "I'm sorry, nothing. And you should still be resting. You were very ill. I will go get some tea."
Before Zuko could protest, his uncle was gone. Zuko closed his eyes, thinking back. He'd had the Avatar, and then-
The arrows. Stabbing pain through his shoulder. He'd been shot.
Frowning, Zuko slipped a hand under his robes and checked his shoulder. There was a neat, new bandage there.
Cool water, cool hands on his fevered skin…
"What is it, nephew?" His uncle was standing in the doorway, and Zuko hurriedly pulled his hand away.
"It's nothing. Nothing."
Just a dream, that was all it was. Just a dream.