/edit/ I'm reuploading this chapter because it has been almost a week since I've uploaded it, and there have been very few visitors/reviews... I'm worried there might have been a gliche when I put it up the first time. To the people following it, did you get the email alert? Sorry if this troubled you, but I've been fretting over it for almost a week now. (Please leave a review, too. If it's just that you didn't enjoy the chapter, or it was too long, I would like to know...)
Zuko woke up in a soft bed, complete with scratchy sheets and a flat pillow. As usual, he took toll of his entire body, noting the dull ache of his muscles, the constriction in his chest, the inflammation of his nose and throat, and as always, the strange sensation of emptiness stemming from the base of his neck. He could hear seagulls calling outside, and could just pick up on the gentle roar of the sea. The constant motion of his ship was missing, however, and there was a gentle light filtering through his eyelids that never would have reached his cabin aboard the Azuma. He was still in port, then. He let his eyes slide open, blinking once to adjust to the lighting.
"Uncle." His voice was scratchy. Wetting his lips, he tried again. "Uncle, why are we still here?"
"Prince Zuko." In contrast to his own, Iroh's voice was warm and flooded with relief. Zuko turned his head in the direction of the sound, unsurprised to see his uncle sitting at his bedside, smiling widely with a soft look in his eyes. "I'm so happy that you're awake."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Don't get sentimental," he berated, sitting up on his elbows. He fought for consciousness as the world spun around him, sitting up the rest of the way only when he was confident he could keep his eyes fixed on Uncle's face. "Tell me it's only been one night."
"It's only been one night," Iroh echoed, a hint of laughter in his words as he held out a cup of water. Zuko gave him a withering stare and accepted it gratefully, downing it before he spoke again.
"Is that the truth?"
"Yes, my nephew."
"Good." Rolling his shoulders, Zuko nodded to himself. "I need to check the damage to my ship, and my men." He threw the sheets to one side and stood up decisively, pleased that the action didn't stretch any of his sore muscles too painfully, though it did send an unsteadying rush of blood to his head that he weathered shakily. Looking down, he bit back a sigh and turned back to his Uncle. "If I could be clothed properly I would appreciate it."
Iroh hesitated a moment, but eventually gestured to the chair where Zuko's armor was stacked, the black underarmor hung over the back to dry. Zuko walked across the room to stand before it, measuring the strain in his step and finding it acceptable. Less acceptable was the pain that shot up his arm, punishing his attempt to pull off the baggy tunic he was wearing. He bit back the involuntary cry that rose in his throat, ending disappointingly with a badly-hidden wince and a low hiss.
"Are you sure you're fit to be up?" Iroh's expected question from behind him. Zuko silently cursed his inability to keep his pain secret.
"I feel as good as ever, Uncle, save a little stiffness." He grit his teeth and tried again, pulling off the shirt quickly and reaching for his own.
"Your voice doesn't reflect that healthiness, Prince Zuko."
"So I have a bit of a cold," he bit back, somewhat defensively. "You would too if you had been out last night." He drew in a breath, steeled himself, and pulled on the shirt. Sharp pain raced down his arms to his chest, and he breathed out slowly, ignoring it. He pulled off the pants he was wearing and pulled on the others, pleased that the movement wasn't nearly as tiresome, before he noticed Iroh's silence. He turned, feeling shame blossom low in his chest in anticipation of his words.
Iroh raised his head to look at him, eyebrows drawn. "Why? You're a better seaman than that, Prince Zuko."
Zuko looked down, feeling his face flush. The movement made him dizzy, so he quickly raised his eyes again. Iroh was watching him, gaze unwavering, expression unreadable. "I wanted some time to myself," Zuko finally answered, crossing his arms.
Iroh nodded slowly, then leaned forward in his seat, expression too warm for a lecture. "I hope you realize why I left with Zhao last night. If I thought you needed me, my nephew, I wouldn't have left your side. Not for the world."
Trying to deny that he felt lighter at the words, Zuko scoffed and reached for his armor. "I wouldn't understand your plots if you spent the next year explaining them to me, Uncle," Zuko replied. Helmet under arm, he turned to see Iroh's face, and allowed his voice to soften just enough for his sincerity to be clear. "But I know you meant no harm by it."
"And were you harmed?"
Zuko pictured lightning, bright in his eyes and unbelievably, excruciatingly hot as it soaked into his fingertips, hungrily flew up his arms-
"No," he lied. "But I can't say the same for Azuma, or the crew, so if you'll excuse me…."
Zuko strode out, knowing with a tame surge of arrogance that his Uncle would grab the other pieces of his armor for him. He didn't trust himself to wear it at the moment, and even if he did, he wanted to walk with a little freedom in the cool coastal morning. Not waiting for Iroh, he hurried down the stairs to the left of the room and out the first door he saw, smiling as sunshine hit his face and taking a deep breath of the salty air.
"Now," he muttered to himself, looking around at the alleyway he had walked into. Old wooden walls, mud, and a sliver of sky were all that greeted him. "Where is my ship?"
"To your left, Prince Zuko." Iroh's indulgent voice answered, echoing from the hallway he had just left. "I think Captain Jee will be pleased to see you up and about, and so spritely after last night's incident."
Zuko followed his Uncle's directions, stepping out onto the main dock, and was immediately stopped in his tracks with a wince. Iroh finally drew abreast his shoulders and laid a hand on his arm, and Zuko was silently grateful that he did it with unusual gentleness. "Yes, my nephew," he chuckled, "you really did quite a number on her."
"I don't think the Captain will be pleased to see me at all," Zuko muttered. He swallowed hard and wiped a thin sheen of sweat off his forehead. Iroh caught the movement and gave him a hard look.
"Are you sure you're alright, Zuko?" he asked. His gold eyes ran over Zuko's thin face, giving him a thorough once-over. "You look paler than usual. Perhaps we shou-"
"Don't mother me, Uncle!" Zuko shrugged off his hand and tried to gather what shreds of dignity he retained. He placed the helmet on the pile of armor in Iroh's arms with a small glare. "I've told you I feel fine, and you will respect that. Go bother Zhao or something."
"Very well," Iroh agreed, with what Zuko's assumed was a long-suffering sigh for his petulance. "But remember, Prince Zuko; no matter what Zhao says to you, we still need him. We aren't anywhere close to being through Fire Nation waters yet, and we need to make towards the North Pole with all possible haste. We can't afford to lose his escort now." Iroh leveled a serious look on his nephew. "Can you handle this?"
Zuko stared back, chewing on the seriousness of the question. Whatever his answer was, he knew that his Uncle would respect it. At last, he nodded. "I will do my best, Uncle." And with that, he set his back to Iroh and sadly looked over the beaten hull of the Azuma one more time, steeling himself as Iroh walked away. Breathing in, he drew himself up, set his jaw, and walked towards his ship with all the unabashed confidence he could muster.
"Captain!" he called, and was pleased that his rough voice could still carry over the wind with the power of command.
"Prince Zuko?" Jee's face appeared at the deckrail immediately, and though he didn't look ecstatic, Zuko didn't think he seemed too murderous. He crossed the dock quickly, and found himself trying not to feel nervous as he boarded the ship. He carefully watched Jee's reaction for any sign of anger, but the Captain only showed vague happiness, and straightened as Zuko stopped at attention before him. "What are your orders, sir?" he asked, without a hint of resentment.
Zuko buried his surprise with a steady look, and inwardly cursed that Iroh had, once again, out-guessed him. "How are the repairs coming?"
Jee shrugged. "Better than we originally expected, sir. A few blacksmiths from town heard the news and came to help us along, and their efficiency is certainly admirable."
Zuko paused, tilting his head inquisitively. "Red or Green?"
"Red, I believe. I don't think any Occupied dirtmen would willingly help a Fire Nation ship. Although, their methods are certainly interesting. It's almost as if… well, in any case, they are speeding the process along."
Zuko scrutinized the Captain's face for any danger in the information he had left out, but could see no malice in his eyes. And, in case he had misjudged, he promised himself he would speak to his blacksmiths later. Casting his gaze over the ship, he noted the small improvements; the patches were a slightly darker metal, though otherwise hardly noticeable. He was impressed despite himself. "Are we paying them?" he couldn't help but ask.
A flicker of amusement crossed Jee's face. "They didn't mention it."
Zuko thought for a moment, greedy hope surging briefly, but he snuffed the desire before it could take root. "Give them a day's wages, in gratitude," he ordered brusquely. "If they ask for more, tell them they should have negotiated their price before working."
Jee smiled and saluted crisply. "Yes sir. Anything else?"
Zuko half-turned away, hoping that Jee wouldn't take his next question as a sign of lax discipline – or worse, legitimate concern. "How are the men?"
To his surprise, Jee laughed outright, making Zuko flinch and turn back. He watched the older man with narrow eyes, trying to interpret the reaction, until the Captain calmed his merriment to a wry grin. "Prince Zuko, the men are fine. A little waterlogged and rather exhausted, but they had the time of their lives last night, once they figured out you weren't going to let them die." He let out another bark of laughter. "You made them feel like they were true sailors! Although," he lowered his voice conspiratorially and leaned closer, "you may have also given them delusions of grandeur. I think some of the men now believe that they, and you, are invincible."
Zuko was too surprised to laugh as Jee leaned back. "Have I hired madmen?" he asked, incredulous. "'The time of their lives?' What kind of people-"
"Criminals and adrenaline junkies, the lot." Zhao's sneer was as condescending as his tone as he strutted up to the two men, drawing dirty glances from the crewmen he passed by. His face twisted with anger as he looked over Zuko, immediately turning the Prince's mood sour. "And you're no better, you moronic teenager of a Prince." Zuko snarled, but said nothing as Zhao continued, eyes tight with fury. "What kind of seaman allows his ship to leave dock in such weather, especially against the direct advice of your two commanding officers? I ought to have you locked up for this insubordination."
Zuko sniffed and raised his chin, feeling heat rush to his knuckles. "You are not my commanding officer, Zhao. I believe we've discussed this." He surreptitiously balled his hands into fists and let some of his anger steam away, waves of warmth rolling from his hands. Zhao raised an eyebrow and one foot shifted back a few inches, what Zuko recognized as a defensive move.
In a flash, he was reminded of Iroh's disappointed face, questioning 'why?'; the crewman's hesitant 'is that wise, sir?'; Zhao's contemptuous 'idiot boy!' before he had fainted last night. And now, Zhao thought Zuko would attack him before accepting his rebuke. Even if the desire was there, Zuko would not allow himself to, not at this juncture. He would not undo weeks of enduring the man because he couldn't handle the one criticism that was completely deserved. He would not lose his temper when he Iroh had put his faith in him.
Hating every aspect of his situation, he clasped his hands behind his back and bowed his head, taking a moment to draw in a deep breath as he felt both men's eyes on him. "However. I do recognize that, as you are my escort, I should not have left your ship unsupervised while in Fire Nation waters. And for that, I do apologize. It won't happen again."
The words tasted bitter in his mouth, and Zuko had to swallow hard to erase them. He heard Jee breathe out, a little too forcefully to be happy. Determined to keep a penitent face, and not to feel so unsteady on his feet, he straightened slowly and looked Zhao in the eye.
Not for the first time, he cursed how well the man had been trained for court. His face was a closed book, completely unreadable. Finally, with a dissatisfied humph, he nodded. "Very well. I expect your dump of a ship to be ready to leave by tomorrow morning. The Avatar will be miles ahead of us by now, and if we want to maintain any chance of ambushing him at the North Pole we cannot afford any more delays." He crossed his arms, letting his hands twitch and his biceps flex. "Do you understand me?" he asked, voice heavy with implications.
Zuko raised a hand to his head and wiped away the sweat that had accumulated there, rubbing his eyes to clear them. Noticing how weak he appeared, he made sure to meet Zhao's gaze evenly, to reassert some small portion of his authority. "I understand," he said evenly, instead of the scathing don't dare to threaten me that he wanted to utter.
Zhao paused before whirling and sauntering back towards the gangplank. Zuko took the opportunity to cough into one elbow, flinching at the pain it caused in his chest. "He's wrong," he muttered. His head was spinning too much for him to notice how the crisp sound of Zhao's boots falling on the metal deck stopped. He let his eyes slip closed. "The Avatar isn't far from here… he couldn't have gotten far…." He turned to Jee, confused, barely able to notice the Captain's worried expression. "I don't feel well, Captain."
He felt the deck rise up to meet him.
"We really ought to be moving on, Aang. Who knows when Zuko could just storm in here and capture us all?"
Aang looked up from the parchment he was examining and made a placating gesture. "Katara, calm down. As much as I would like to leave right now, Sokka can't move. His fever is way too high."
Katara opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted.
"He's right, lassy." The old fisherman's wife adjusted the wet towel on his head and stood. "This boy needs a good day rest and lots o' water before he'll be good 'nuff to travel 'gain. And I got work to get to now, so yer on yer own with him. Come down if ya need any food." She bustled out, muttering under her breath about debts and troublesome children. Katara watched her leave before turning back to Aang with a glare.
"You don't think I want what's best for him?" she huffed. "Of course I want him to get better. But I'd rather he do it on Appa than in prison." She crossed her arms, the picture of a stubborn sister. Aang was almost endeared enough to agree with her, but…
He looked over to Sokka, who was flushed and shivering under the scratchy sheets of the inn bed, too tired and delirious to even hear them. His own stubborn streak flared up. No. I am not taking him anywhere until he's strong enough to go. He won't get hurt because of me anymore. Even I have to argue with...
"Katara…." He sighed, and looked back to the Water Tribe girl, weighing the words he could say.
She stared back, aggressive and protective, but trusting that he would speak his mind honestly. "Yeah, Aang?"
He swallowed. He wanted to tell her what he knew about Zuko, the reasons he was sure they were safe for the time being, but as it was… it wouldn't sit well with either of the siblings, and especially not with her. Still, his eyes burned as he looked down again, avoiding her bright blue gaze. He hated to lie. It went against his traditions, his very culture. He settled for the question as close to the truth as he dared to venture, voice quiet. "Don't you think that if Zuko really wanted to capture us, he would have done it by now?"
"Uh, yeah," came her immediate reply. "And he has. And he'll do it again. Because he does want to."
"What about last night?" Aang pressed, gaining the nerve to look up at her again. He leaned forward earnestly. "He had at least two chances to put Sokka and I in chains, and he didn't."
"Last night doesn't count," Katara insisted, putting her hands on her hips, though Aang caught the flicker of doubt that crossed her face. "He was tired and sick. But today is a different story, Aang!"
"Not if Sokka is anything to go by," Aang muttered, turning back to his parchment.
"If you're anything to go by," Katara snapped. She crossed the room and sat across from him gracelessly. "If you're so sure this storm would have him bedridden, then why aren't you?"
Aang shrugged. It wasn't as if he could explain his body's strengths of weaknesses. But Katara made an annoyed sound in her throat, needling him enough to say, "I'm the Avatar, and airbenders rarely get sick anyway. Besides, I've been in worse conditions."
Katara was silent for a long minute, save her focused, forcefully even breathing - what Aang interpreted as an attempt to calm down. Late-morning light filtered into the room, and eventually Katara stood to adjust the damp cloth on Sokka's forehead so that it covered his eyes. Aang watched her despite himself, admiring her lovingness, the softness of her face, her long, delicate fingers. Blushing, he busily turned back to the parchment before him, spreading it with one hand. When Katara spoke again, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, her hand over her brother's. "What are you looking at?"
"I found it outside the door this morning," Aang admitted, not looking up. "It looks like a... a recipe. "
Curiosity piqued, Katara returned to his side. "For what?"
Aang squinted. Some of the words seemed like High Fire Nation, and it had been a long time since he had had any lessons reading that language. Still, the majority of the note had been written in the Common Language, and from what he could infer -
"Tea." Katara's voice was flat.
"Yeah," Aang defended. "'Healing tea, a brew meant to lower fevers and cure colds.' And then it talks about the ingredients."
Katara made a face. "And that doesn't seem the least bit obvious? Like, I don't know, a trap?"
Aang stared at her, brows knotted. "Katara, are you trying to take over for Sokka in the sarcastic arena? How do you expect the Fire Nation to trap the Avatar with tea?"
"I don't know!" she cried, throwing up her hands as the hint of an embarrassed flush crept up her cheeks. "Maybe it's poisonous! How do you think this suspicious, unsigned recipe on supposedly 'healing' tea showed up right outside our door, when we're in hiding and no one is supposed to know that Sokka is even here, let alone sick?"
Aang's eyes strayed to the White Lotus that had taken the place of a signature near the bottom left of the page. He itched to say something honest. Katara watched him, annoyance and concern all over her face. Caught between her and the parchment, Aang stood abruptly and made for the door, tucking the recipe into his belt, under his habit. "Look," he said, fumbling for something that didn't sound like the bald-faced lie it would be. "I… I know the recipe. Gyatso used to make it for me whenever I was feeling bad. Maybe the old woman knows it."
Katara watched him for a long second, scrutinizing Aang as he hovered in the doorway. "Okay," she finally said, softly. "Are you going to get the ingredients then?"
Aang nodded mutely, feeling disgusted and unworthy of the beautiful girl's trust and dedication, especially when she capitulated so easily. Katara just smiled lightly, seeming a little sad. "Alright. I'll stay here and watch Sokka – don't make me worry about you, kay? Hurry back. I don't want to be up all night, sick with concern that you've been captured, only for you to come back with extra essence of tea."
"Yeah, alright," Aang mumbled, leaving quickly and shutting the door behind him. He raised his hands to massage his temples, inwardly cursing himself. He had never felt so despicable in his whole life.
"Do you have the information I requested?"
"I don't work for you, Zhao. You do realize that?"
"I realize that we have a common goal, and a common leader, that I am a higher ranking soldier than you, and that you are obligated by law, contract, and fear to obey me. Do you realize that?"
"Don't threaten me, you disgustin-"
The sharp slap echoed through the ship's belly, bouncing off the maze of pipes and beams.
"Now. Do you have the information?"
"Zuko was right. The Avatar is staying at the inn, right off the dock. Second floor, the room farthest from the stairs."
"Am I done here? Can I get back to my duties, or do you want me to do something stupid, like burn the inn to the ground?"
"Oh, no. Your idiocy won't be necessary in this delicate operation. What you can find me, however, is how Zuko knew."
Silence settled over them, heavy and sick.
"What? You think you already know?"
There was no response. Zhao tutted.
"Maybe it has something to do with last night. Maybe you could fill me on the exact details of the Prince's little wayward adventure."
The spy turned to leave.
"No?" Zhao called after them, taunting. "How sentimental. You know that I will find out, in the end. One way or another. And if you were involved…"
Fire blazed over Zhao's hand, bright in the darkness, before being abruptly snuffed out. The spy's step faltered, and Zhao laughed, smugly slipping into the shadows as his informer kept walking, away from the betrayal they had dealt.
Zuko crossed his arms over the taffrail, wondering why the cold metal was always so comforting when things went wrong.
Not only had he wrecked his ship and endangered the lives of his crew in a reckless, childish fit, but he was weaker for it. He, Prince of the Fire Nation, had fainted twice, and both times in the presence of the most arrogant, condescending officer he had ever met - who no doubt had already sent correspondence of both incidents to his father, sister, and most of the capital. He was making a fool of himself.
But then, Zuko figured, he had been making a fool of himself since the day he was born.
He reached up, absently rubbing the back of his neck. He wondered why he couldn't think things through like Azula, why he couldn't see every perfect, individual plan like threads and pull on them like a puppetmaster. She knew what everyone wanted, what everyone feared, and in moments could devise a plan to exploit all of them. Zuko could barely plan how to get dressed without experiencing pain. Azula was always so precise, so collected, so self-assured, and Zuko…
He laid his forehead against the metal bar slowly, watching Zhao stand at the prow of his ship, anchored across the dock. It was no wonder Father wanted her as the heir. She deserved the throne. On nights like these Zuko could hardly make himself feel indignant about it. He just wished he hadn't been the firstborn to begin with.
He coughed quietly into his elbow, staring at Zhao and feeling the infuriating, gnawing desire to stand closer to him. Why was he haunted like this? He hated the man, and there was no way in Koh's dark lair that the attraction was physical.
Spirits. It had to be. But why they would choose to stick their meddling fingers in like this was baffling. He supposed he could ask Iroh for an answer, but the mere thought of the possible discussions that could follow made that course of action impossible. What if Iroh didn't believe Zuko, didn't agree that the Spirits must have a hand in this tiresome obsession? He shuddered at the thought of the understanding that would light up in the older man's eyes, the sadistic pleasure he would take in giving him the talk-
Zuko suddenly sat up straighter, horror forgotten as his sharp gold eyes picking up a flicker of red and brown against the waves, lit by the last rays of sunlight. He squinted, noticing the odd shape now perched on the taffrail before Zhao. Zhao approached it, reached towards it, touched it, backed away-
A messenger bird, then. And from the looks of it, a phoenix-hawk. Zuko grimaced; the bird was in the employment of the Fire Nation military. Zhao, having read the correspondence, pulled the quill from the carrier on the bird's back. He scrawled a quick reply on the back of the parchment, replaced it, and waved for the hawk to go. Zuko pulled up his legs into a tight crouch, waiting to see if the Commander would go down to his cabin or into port. Zhao looked around him once, casting his gaze over the harbor – and stopped when his eyes came to Zuko. He took a step forward, face fixed in the Prince's direction.
Heart pounding, Zuko stayed still, crouched on the balls of his feet. Zhao must have seen him, and if his suspicious behavior was anything to go by, would either attack Zuko or verbally confront him. It wasn't strange for him to be contacting someone in the military, but to check his surroundings afterwards? Zhao had to be up to something, and something he obviously hadn't meant for Zuko to know. He fought down the urge to check if Izo was up in the guardhouse, knowing that the man was probably earning well-deserved sleep in his quarters. In fact, his whole crew was probably asleep, after the flurry of activity to make the ship ready for travel by morning. No one was awake to witness the conflict, not even Iroh.
Zhao's low laugh could just be heard across the water, making Zuko's every muscle tense involuntarily. In his personal experience, laughter was only followed by especially vindictive, painful attacks. He prepared to jump to his feet and make the first move, gathering chi in his legs, when a shadow appeared, seemingly out of thin air, in front of Zhao. This time, however, the shape was human, and it bowed its head quickly and gestured to the far side of the dock, mumbling a few words Zuko couldn't hear. Both Zuko and Zhao followed the aim of his arm, and though Zuko tried his hardest, he couldn't see what the shadow-man was pointing to. He surreptitiously rubbed his eyes, trying to see through his illness without drawing attention to himself, but to no avail.
Obviously, Zhao didn't have the same problem. With a nod, he and his strange companion began walking off the ship in the same direction, their dark clothes already melting into the shadows of the early night.
Zuko hesitated. He had just narrowly avoided a conflict, and should be relieved. He was ill, had barely eaten all day, and was exhausted. If his latest episodes of embarrassment were anything to go by, he was hardly in top shape. But on the other hand, Zhao was acting like an outright criminal, and Zuko knew he would never be able to stop wondering why if he didn't follow him now. He couldn't afford to be in indecision; if he wanted to catch up to the quickly-disappearing pair, he would have to hurry.
He knew his decision was already made, but even Zuko wasn't impulsive enough to follow immediately, and risk being identified. He needed at least one item before he left the ship. Confident that he had remained unseen, Zuko snuck across the deck, staying low and silent, until he reached the commonway that led to his cabin. Even if he lost sight of Zhao… he was sure he would be able to find him again. At least the Spirits had given him that.
"So this is the great Avatar, master of all the elements. I don't know how you've managed to elude the Fire Nation for a hundred years, but your little game of hide and seek is over." His captor was practically purring with satisfaction, observing Aang coolly from the entrance of the prison.
Aang strained against the bonds that held him, unusual fury flooding through his limbs. He couldn't afford to be captured, not when Sokka was still sick and depending on him, not when Katara was waiting for him to return, not when she had expressly told him not to be caught- "I've never hidden from you," he spat. "Untie me and I'll fight you right now!"
The man before him smirked, his relaxed stance exuding confidence. "Uhh, no."
Aang growled through bared teeth. "What are you, some sort of coward?" If he could just get his hands free, one arm even…
The man actually looked amused at the commonplace bait. "Hardly, Avatar. Just someone with enough brains to know when they have the upper hand." With assured calm, he walked up to Aang, looking his thin, small frame up and down. He titled his head, gold eyes sharp. "Tell me," he murmured, putting his bearded face right up to Aang's. His breath was clean, bearing the faint scent of jasmine tea, but Aang still turned as far as he could while defiantly meeting the man's gaze. "How does it feel to be the only airbender left? Do you miss your people?"
Aang refused to look away. It's what he wants, Aang. He wants to see you defeated. He wants to see you subservient. You will not give in to his manipulations.
As if reading his mind, the man laughed once, a short bark. His expression turned to one of fake pity. "Oh, don't worry. You won't be killed, like they were."
Aang couldn't help the anger that crossed his expression, and though it should have been a warning, the satisfaction that crossed his captor's face only amplified it. "You see," the man said, voice quiet in the empty room, "if you die, you'll just be reborn, and the Fire Nation will have to begin its search for the Avatar all over again. So I'll keep you alive…." The man reached up, snatching Aang's jaw in a vice-like grip, tilting his face up until his neck was strained and he had to bite his tongue to keep from crying out. His captor was as smug as a lion-panther, pinning its prey by the tail. He leaned even closer, allowing the breath of his whispered words to wash over Aang's face. "…but just. Barely."
The man dropped him with a flick of his wrist and stalked out, and Aang was too winded to even try to attack his receding form, letting his head hang as he caught his breath.
Aang thought back to the parchment tucked into the inside of his belt, the note that had to be the cause of this despicable circumstance. He had trusted that Iroh had sent it for him, considering that he had been the one to inform him of the Order of the White Lotus, and the same sign had been penned onto the note. Iroh had said the he could trust the Order, if he ever needed help. Gyatso's tile weighed heavy in one of the many pockets of his habit. He had stolen from his teacher's dead body, had taken one of his favorite possessions, on Iroh's word that it would come in handy.
Well, he thought, this is how my trust is rewarded. Aang bit back tears. Sokka, Roku, and even Katara had tried to warn him against blind belief in others. Sokka had tried to convince him that the people he met would be ruthless when it came to such a powerful bargaining chip as the Avatar; Roku had tried to steer him away from the Order; Katara had specifically suggested that the paper was a trap. He hadn't heeded any of them, and this was where it landed him.
Kuzon's face suddenly appeared before him as Aang fell into an old memory. "Aang, no! Don't go in there!"
Seven-year-old Aang rolled his eyes. "You're being ridiculous, Kuzon! Why would anyone attack a child, especially a monk? We're pacifists. It'll be fine! Just you watch – and if I make a friend, you owe me your desert tonight!" Aang skipped past his friend's barring arms, happily bouncing through the doors of the dark bar.
As soon as he stepped inside, the acrid stench of smoke and subtler, darker scents hit his nose, immediately making his eyes water. The doors thudded shut behind him, and for the first time Aang noticed that the windows had dark curtains nailed over them, and only thin streams of light made it through to swirl in the thick air. Three men at the nearest table stilled, setting down their flagons to peer at Aang with bloodshot eyes.
"What's this?" one of them asked gruffly. "The little boy is crying? Does he miss his mommy?"
Aang straightened. He had a point to prove! "Actually, I don't have a mommy," he said, coming closer. He coughed a few times, but determined, turned a bright smile to the one who had spoken. "I just thought I might be able to make a new friend here."
"Aw, he's not frightened," another said, standing up and cracking his knuckles. "That's adorable."
"Why should I be frightened?" Aang asked, but he backed up a step despite himself. He swallowed, staring up into the man's face as he towered over him, eyes shadowed and dirty hair hanging in his face. "I've never done anything to you. You have no reason to hurt me!"
"For some people, son, the pleasure is reason enough," the man said, stepping closer. His face broke into a crooked smile, and Aang noticed some of his teeth were missing. "I think I'll enjoy this one."
"Get back!" Kuzon screamed, leaping in front of Aang with his arms spread wide. He stared up at the Fire Nation man, shaking with fear, lower lip trembling, but jaw set. The door thudded shut once more, as Kuzon swallowed forcefully. "Don't touch him."
The man paused, but took an obedient step back. "Lord Kuzon… what's he to you? This little airbender wimp doesn't know anything." The man's expression darkened as he looked over Aang's small body. "He thinks he's better than all of us. You can see it in his cheeky smile, his Windbrain eyes. He ought to be taught a lesson."
"I said," Kuzon repeated, voice quivering, "don't touch him. He's my friend."
The man scoffed. "Make him leave, then."
Aang was sniffling when Kuzon led him back to the estate silently. Finally, he reached for his friend's hand, pulling on it to get his attention. Kuzon stopped, whirling to pin him with an exasperated look, straight from his father's face. "What?"
"Why'd he want to hurt me?" Aang stared up at the older boy, confusion written in every inch of his expression.
Kuzon's eyes softened, and he pulled Aang into a tight hug. "I don't know, buddy. But Mother always tells me to be afraid of strangers. You never know what they can do. She says, 'It's a dangerous world, Kuzon. Be careful.' You'll be careful now, won't you, Aang?"
Aang had nodded against Kuzon's shoulder, and held his hand the whole way back. "Just stick with me," Kuzon had ordered, allowing a hint of warm pride to sneak into his tone. "The people of this Province are loyal to me and Father. I'll protect you."
Aang's head snapped up as his memory was interrupted by thuds echoing against the prison door. He listened with trepidation as the lock turned over, not sure what he was expecting and still trying to prepare himself for what would come. What did the Fire Nation do to prisoners at this time of night? Torture them? Feed them?
...confront them with grinning blue masks and dual swords? The intruder ran up to him, footsteps almost silent on the tile floor, and Aang cleared his throat as he drew near, trying to swallow his fear. The man stopped before him, swords hanging, and Aang could only think about how a masked man would make for an excellent interrogator, or torturer, someone to keep him just barely alive...
He banished his thoughts and summoned some strength to his voice, challenging the blank, imposing stare fixed on him. "Who are you? What's going on?"
The mask tilted, but instead of answering, the intruder cut the bonds holding his arms. Aang stared at his hands in mute shock, rubbing the raw marks left by the chains, before looking up at his liberator. "Are you here to rescue me?" he asked, barely daring to hope. The masked man silently cut his remaining bonds before staring at him, then nodding swiftly. He motioned for Aang to follow him and ran back to the open door. Aang stayed where he was, unsure. Trusting strangers was what had gotten him into this mess. He could not fall for this again. This was just another trap, just another plot….
Still hovering in the doorway, the masked man held out his arms, obviously annoyed and questioning. Aang hesitated another moment before shaking his head and running after him, using airbending to soften his footfalls. If anything, he allowed, it can't be worse than here. He buried the strange feeling that his friends would be disappointed in him, and focused only on running after the man with the mask.
Out of the entire situation, Zuko found himself most grateful that Aang was light on his feet, and for once, had shut the hell up. They crept through the sewage as the night sky grew darker above them, keeping their back to the wall. Though Zuko tried to believe that the decision was based entirely on needing to stay out of sight from above, he knew that the solid brick was support he was happy to have. He stifled a yawn that tried to signal his exhaustion, forcing himself to take deeper breaths as his vision blurred at the edges from more than just the mask.
From Zuko's brief survey of Pohuai, he knew the sewage tunnel they were trekking ended at a small culvert on the eastern wall. It was a disappointingly mundane escape plan, but effective enough, and he didn't have the time or energy to concoct anything more original. The only difficulties he anticipated would come once they left the sewers; it was a long run across an open field to make it to the woods, and where the Yu Yan were involved, that could easily spell out suicide. If Zuko was right about Zhao, the newly-promoted Admiral would visit the Avatar's chambers after his glowing speech, intending to gloat to his heart's desire before sneaking back to Zuko's entourage. By his estimations, it wouldn't be long until Aang's absence was noticed and the alarm was raised. They didn't have much time… Zuko paused, letting his eyes close briefly as he steadied himself against the wall with one hand.
One step at a time, Zuko, he chided. The sound of running water and syncopated drops against the stone soothed him as he forced his muscles to relax. Just focus on getting the Avatar out alive.
Ahead, the tunnel branched. Zuko drew up to the corner, waving for the Avatar to stop. Aang obediently halted, pressing himself against the bricks and watching him, his young face unusually expressionless. Zuko looked down both forks, chewing his lower lip in consternation, before clenching his hand into a fist and forcing himself to think. Which way is out? This is… water, of a sort. He felt it pull against his legs, the current almost nonexistent-
Of course. Looking down, he noted the flow of the current, checked that there were no revealing grates above them, and turned left. He was several feet down the passage before his ears registered the difference, and he buried an exasperated sigh as he doubled back and gestured for Aang to follow him once more.
"But look," Aang whispered, still hanging back. Zuko whirled, a finger over the mask's bared lips, and immediately regretted the sudden motion as the dark underground world spun briefly. Aang rolled his eyes and pointed - once more silenced - behind Zuko. Turning more slowly, Zuko noticed the culvert at the end of the tunnel, a tiny opening barely letting a low glow of moonlight spread through the otherwise-enclosed section. Zuko shrugged, confused why the means of their escape would give the Avatar pause. Jogging as quietly as he could, he drew up to the metal bars and began digging his fingers into their sockets, searching for a corroded weak link.
Aang appeared at his shoulder, watched him for a moment, and then measured the gap between the bars with his hands. Zuko stopped to give him a stare that hopefully conveyed his sheer annoyance before shaking his head. The Fire Nation may forget to guard against water's strength, but they would never build a stronghold with any gap large enough for a human to fit through, other than a heavily guarded gate or locked door.
A full minute later, he leaned back with a growl, having found no imperfections in any of the bars. Just to be sure, he kicked each of them under the water, resulting only in a throbbing toe and frustration.
Obviously, the servants here were not so quick to overlook their maintenance responsibilities as those employed by the Fire Nation palace.
Come on, Zuko silently ordered, motioning for Aang as he ran back up the tunnel, still sticking to the edges. Aang jogged after him, doubt beginning to cloud his face, which Zuko steadfastly pretended not to see. Zuko turned right at the juncture, heading back up the way they had come, until he reached the closest grate leading aboveground. Aang kept to the walls without being told, showing a surprising amount of self-preservation skills, as Zuko slowly lifted his head to look around them. A few guards wandered by, but from what he could tell, the alarm had yet to be raised.
Knowing that his luck rarely held out this long, Zuko looked at Aang sharply and pointed up. The monk nodded, and without waiting for him to follow Zuko pulled himself out of the sewer and ran across the open ground. They had to be in the outermost level of the stronghold, if they were so close to the culvert - meaning they only had one wall to scale.
Zuko shook his arms as he pulled the rope from his bag, wishing that the simple pull-up he had just performed hadn't hurt as much as it had – signaling that what he was about to do would put him in a world of hurt. He cast a glance over his shoulder, checked that Aang was with him, and made to tie the knot in the rope, when he was interrupted by a gentle touch on his arm.
"Uh, don't you think we could walk out the gate?" Aang whispered, gesturing with his head.
Zuko looked over the boy's shoulder, noticed the open gate, and would have willingly slammed his throbbing head against the stronghold's brick wall for his stupidity – if Zhao hadn't chosen that exact moment to scream, "There! The Avatar has escaped! Close the gate!"
"Okay, stay close to me!" Aang yelled, throwing silence to the wind and making a beeline for the gate. Zuko abandoned the rope to draw his swords and run after him, feeling his heart thudding in his chest and blinking hard to bring Aang into focus. He could feel the sweat on his forehead as his mask rubbed it into his skin, warm and clammy. Pull yourself together, Zuko. You need to get out of here-
Lightning clawed its way through his chest, sending Zuko sprawling to the ground with a ragged scream as he felt his lungs tear apart with the pain. He saw the pointed ends of Fire Nation boots surround him and could feel the soldiers gather their chi to attack, when suddenly, all he could here was the roar of wind.
"Get up!" Aang yelled, and it was by sheer adrenaline that Zuko propelled himself to his feet and tightened his grip on his dao swords, swallowing hard as Aang hissed with the effort of maintaining their protective shield.
How are we getting out of this? Think, Zuko, think! The Prince sucked in air through gritted teeth, trying to ignore the flash of pain in his arm and the way it still twitched as though electrocuted. Plan something, dammit! Be like Azula!
"Hold your fire! The Avatar must be captured alive!"
Immediately, the soldier's fires disappeared, and Aang let his arms fall cautiously. With a surge of inspiration, Zuko seized the only chance he knew he had.
As the dao swords crossed over his throat, Aang realized that he ought to start learning from his mistakes.
"What are you doing?" he hissed, feeling the edge of the metal blades against his Adam's apple. The pressure increased: a warning to stop talking. Aang complied bitterly, raising his hands in a sign of surrender. The Fire Nation guards waited, still poised to strike, and Aang wished he had the time and air to rant at his 'rescuer' properly. The words being exchanged in front of him were buried by his flare of indignant anger. He had jumped in front of the masked man without a second's hesitation, expending precious effort to spin away the flames that had been aimed at him, and this is how he was repaid?
Suddenly, Aang heard the grinding of gears as the gate behind him opened outwards. His captor started backing towards the escape route, taking each step one at a time with Aang caged behind his deadly blades. As they inched down the road, their progress unhindered by the soldiers that stayed rooted to their spots, Aang let his gaze wander over the outer wall. He noted what appeared to be two officers, gathered over the gate to watch their retreat. One held up his hand, as if waiting to give an order. Aang put it together in a flash of fear.
"They'll shoot us, you know," he quipped. The blades tightened, but Aang continued anyway, fueled by frustration. "I'm not lying, you idiot. How do you think they managed to capture me? They have archers who could hit your eye from the outer wall. I bet they will hit your eye. See them up there? Just to the right of the gate?"
The masked man just grunted roughly and kept walking, his unsteady breathing muffled by his mask. Aang tried not to stumble, knowing the consequences of such would be less than forgiving to his throat, but out of some misplaced gratitude still avoided stepping on the masked man's feet. He cleared his throat and kept whispering hoarsely. "I'm sure you can see them. We're not going to make it to the trees before they attack."
They took another few steps, his kidnapper still refusing to speak, and the agony of waiting for the high whistle of an arrow grew unbearable. "Look," Aang wheezed, "is this what you wanted all along? To take me prisoner? Because if so, you are a despicable coward, making me help and defend you, making me think you were my friend-"
As expected, the sharp note of the arrow was almost too quick to notice, followed by an almost musical ring of impact with the man's mask. The dao swords lifted from his throat, and Aang drew in several deep breaths before he even realized the body had hit the road. Turning to see the soldiers rushing out of the stronghold's gates, he closed his eyes and airbent as much cover as he could. In the precious seconds he had bought, he stared down at the body, knowing he didn't have much time to make a choice, whatever it was going to be. When he heard footsteps, he shook his head and sighed at himself, but knelt down beside his rescuer-turned-captor.
"Oh, monkeyfeathers. I'm never going to learn." He shouldered the man carefully, adjusted his weight, and ran.
"Come on, Zuko. Tea. Wake up. It's time for tea."
Zuko shifted, listening to the birds overhead. They were even louder than he remembered them being the previous morning, and there were certainly no scratchy sheets covering him this time….
The previous night came back in a flash, and Zuko jerked awake, scrambling blindly for his dao swords. Aang hopped out of reach, his eyes focused on the tea in his hand and trying not to spill it. "Now, now," he admonished, raising his head to smile at Zuko. "This tea is supposedly healing, you know. Although if it's not, I would rather see the effects on you than Sokka." He waited for Zuko to say something, and when the Prince didn't respond, he held out the steaming wooden cup expectedly.
"Where," Zuko croaked, not moving to accept it, "did you find cups out here?"
Aang just smiled, slightly lopsidedly, and set the cup on the ground before backing away. "Consider it thanks for saving me last night," he said, evading the question. "I understand why you did what you did. I'm sorry for… what I said, before you were knocked out."
Zuko watched his every move carefully, noting how Aang maneuvered himself under a thick bough of the closest tree, arms slightly tensed at his side as though he was prepared to defend against an attack. Zuko almost laughed – he didn't feel like attacking anything just now, though he supposed he would rather die trying to capture the Avatar than pass up an opportunity like this. He flexed his knuckles surreptitiously. Aang's eyes flickered to his hand, catching the movement, before refocusing on his face.
The monk looked almost sorry.
"You know," he continued, as if he was venturing into dangerous territory, "when I was locked up in there, the commander asked me if I missed my people." Aang's silver eyes clouded with the memory, and Zuko couldn't deny that he felt a flash of pity for the boy, knowing exactly how Zhao could use words like daggers and to make the most painful wounds. "The funny thing is," Aang said, head ducked, "it's not my people that I miss the most. My best friend Kuzon… I miss spending time with him. And he was Fire Nation, just like you."
Their eyes met across the clearing, silver to gold.
"I couldn't help but wonder... if we knew each other back then," Aang whispered, and the Prince could feel him searching for the answer in Zuko's face, "do you think we could have been friends too?"
Zuko gathered the strength to clear his throat, cocking back one hand in preparation for a punch. "I would leave, Avatar," he murmured, and a moment later, shot to his feet. He opened his hand, intending to let what meager fire he could manage fly from his knuckles, only for white-hot lightning to race from his fingertips and crack through the air.
Zuko sank to his knees, shocked at himself, and watched the monk nimbly leap away through the treetops. He knew that Aang couldn't have survived that… that sort of powerful attack, had he not leaped out of the way when Zuko had warned him. And as he watched him disappear, Zuko refused to feel relieved that he had given a warning. He stared at his hand, then experimentally flexed the fingers. When nothing happened, he rolled his shoulders, surprised to find that his muscles were much more relaxed than they had been. He clambered to his feet and stretched his sides, pleased that they were no longer aching. Bending, he scooped up the cup of tea, sniffed it suspiciously, and sipped at it, smiling tiredly as he made his way back towards his ship.
Oddly, he felt better than he had ten minutes ago, or a few hours ago. He had failed to capture the Avatar – but at least, on this lovely morning, so had Zhao.
Zhao jumped off the cart and stalked towards Zuko's ship without so much as a wave of gratitude to his subordinate officer, ignoring all of the banished Prince's criminal crew as he strode down the commonway to his quarters.
"Zuko, the Avatar is long gone, and I am quite tired of your endless delays! Here I thought you wanted speedy passage to the North Pole! Now, if you're ship is not ready to depart in ten minutes, I will give up on this infuriating favor."
Zhao was aware that, having barged into the Prince's quarter while tired and furious, he wasn't the picture of professionalism. That did not mean he would stand for the Prince continuing to lie in bed while he spoke to him. Snarling, he crossed the room in a few quick steps and yanked away the bed covers.
"Look at me, you despicable chil-!"
Two pillows were all that was revealed. Instantly silenced, Zhao stepped back, eyes flitting over the cabin for any sign of a struggle. He would hardly be surprised if the good-for-nothing Prince had been kidnapped, hopefully to be tortured, or murdered… or both. Any self-respecting Fire Nation citizen would be more than willing to do the job, not to mention the other nations. For a sixteen-year-old, the royal's enemies far outweighed his friends - and it wasn't as if Zuko had been in any shape to defend himself for the past day. Still, nothing seemed out of place in the cabin. It was as the boy had just left…
His gaze landed on the empty hooks hanging over the Prince's footlocker, and he scrolled through his memory until he could envision dual dao swords crossed over them.
It only took a moment for everything to click into place.
"Well, well, well." Zhao muttered, carefully replacing the sheets before backing out of the room with a triumphant smirk. "The wayward Prince is a thief and a traitor. What magnificent news."
A/N: I had this finished a few days ago, but I thought I would get a bit of a head-start on the next chapter before I published this one. (Which didn't actually happen, but it's the thought that counts, and I didn't want to make you guys wait any longer.)
Hope you're enjoying the action! This is the longest chapter to date.
[For anyone that is curious, I ended with a solid 4.3 GPA and a straight-A record, plus was a national merit scholar with a full-ride scholarship to the university of my choice! If you can imagine the hard work that took, you might have a bit more sympathy for my updating schedule. Thanks for everyone who gave their support, I really appreciated it!]
Let me know what you think of this chapter, and where the story is going. Please review!