36. The Fall of General Iroh
Lieutenant Jee was standing in a line. Having worked most of his adult life in the Navy, he was well used to waiting in line. There were about ten soldiers standing before him, and about a dozen behind him, all waiting to tell the Admiral what they knew about dragons.
It was very likely that Lieutenant Jee knew more about dragons than the rest of the line put together. That said Jee was in no hurry to see Zhao; he had not come all this way to meet the Admiral, nor did he have any intentions of sharing information with the man. It was General Iroh Jee had come to see.
When the word had spread that Zhao was inviting people with knowledge about dragons to come to the flagship, Lieutenant Jee had seized the opportunity to get onboard, and to hopefully have a chance to exchange a few words with General Iroh. Any member of the Prince's old crew could have come along, but had they come in great numbers that might have raised suspicions, and so Jee had convinced the others it was better he went alone.
Something strange was going on and Jee and the rest of the crew wanted to know what.
Jee was of course very happy to find out that Prince Zuko was alive, but at the same time, it was no coincidence that both Iroh and Zuko were at the North Pole and both under false pretense. They were after something, and if it was just the Avatar, why go through such theatrics?
No, there was a hidden threat out there, all right, but it was something bigger and more sinister than the Air Nomad. And come to think of it, Jee's hunch told him that this trouble was inside the ranks of the Fire Navy rather than somewhere outside it. That was why Jee needed to talk to General Iroh: he needed to tell the old General that Zuko's crew was still loyal to Iroh and the Prince. They could be counted on, come what may.
An officer stepped out of Zhao's cabin, and stated: "The Admiral will receive no more visitors tonight. You are ordered to return to your ships."
The news caused some disappointed and even jealous murmurs, but no one protested loudly. The sailors started to make their way back towards the rear of the flagship, where rowing boats could be lifted onboard or off the ship. Usually, people walked from one fireship to another via ramps, but since the fleet was vast and potential informants scattered all around, they had been told to row there in lifeboats.
The door to Zhao's cabin opened again, and high-ranking military officials and Zhao's trusted men streamed out. Jee walked very slowly, waiting to see if General Iroh would emerge as well, but he did not. After a while of stalling, Jee decided to risk it. He turned to one of the officers, saluted him respectfully, and asked: "Is General Iroh still with the Admiral, sir?"
Jee was a little worried that he would get into trouble for this, but luckily the higher ranking officer looked tired and mildly surprised, but not suspicious or hostile. "No. General Iroh is resting in his own cabin."
Jee nodded briefly. The officer walked passed him, but on the last minute, he turned around and asked the inevitable question: "Why did you want to know?"
Jee smiled uncomfortably, and answered: "I served under the General for years, and to my shame I owe him a considerable sum of money from Pai Sho tournaments held on the ship. The General never pressured me about it, but the unsettled debt weighs heavy on my conscience, and I would rather pay it in this life than the next."
Jee felt like the other man could see right through his pitiful excuse, but since he had already come this far, there was little harm in pushing his luck a bit further. In for an inch, in for a mile.
"You see, I had thought that I would meet the General here, since he is the Admiral's foremost expert on dragons. That is why I brought a considerable sum of money with me, and now I would hate to return to my ship before I've settled the debt. Is there any way I could visit General Iroh's quarters on my way off this ship?"
Now the higher-ranking man looked annoyed. He turned to look at the other sailors who were heading back to the lifeboats. Perhaps the officer did the math and realized that disembarking that many tiny rowing boats would take a lot of time, for he sighed, and stated: "All right, you may go. But remember: if you run into anyone on your way there and they ask you what the hell you are doing, don't tell them I gave you permission. Because I didn't. Because that would be a breach of protocol."
The other man turned around, walked away quickly, and jibed: "Fifth floor, corridor on the starboard side, the room at the very end."
The kindness of his fellow soldiers and countrymen never seized to amaze Lieutenant Jee. He had been a little afraid that the other man would ask to see the money he had mentioned as proof of his story, or perhaps even ask for his share of the loot, but luckily the officer had been honorable and trusting. Jee felt a bit bad for taking advantage of his trust, but it had to be done.
Still, although the Fire Nation and her soldiers had a bad reputation among the other nations, in Jee's opinion it was completely unfounded. A few rotten apples had given them all a bad name, or perhaps the other nations spoke ill of them because they were jealous of the Fire Nation; of her superior education system, and better social services in general.
Either way, Jee did not wait around to be told twice, but walked swiftly and purposefully in the direction he had been pointed at.
Now that he really thought about it, there was something very wrong with this picture. Why, indeed, was Iroh not present at Zhao's midnight meeting? Where was Zhao's foremost dragon expert now?
It was a few hours before sunrise, and although it was clear that the human did not think Nakki was ready, they couldn't afford to linger a moment longer. Therefore the two conspirators were finally on their way to Zhao.
"The most important thing to remember about Zhao is that he never..." Iroh began, but Nakki raised his hand and waved for him to stop speaking.
Iroh looked around them. Nakki laughed a bit, and said quietly: "There is no one here to hear us, in case you were wondering. I only stopped you because I do not think I can listen to even one more of your wisdoms, my friend. I am not sure if you have noticed this, but you have started every other sentence of this conversation with those exact words. Literally."
Nakki shrugged. "If I am found out, then that's that, but I doubt last minute tips will make much of a difference. The problem we really ought to concern ourselves with is how to get Zhao alone."
The old General smiled, and stated nonchalantly: "Leave that part to me. All you need to do is stay close to my side. When the time is right, I will initiate a conversation with Zhao about the 'secret details' of how I killed a dragon. I am certain that Zhao wants the honor of slaying the black dragon to himself, and therefore he is likely to dismiss everyone else in the room."
Nakki nodded, but wasn't entirely convinced. "True… but what if he doesn't realize to excuse them?"
"Then we wait a little while longer, but trust me when I say: it is only a matter of time that Zhao starts one of his man-to-man, private rants about glory, greatness and being remembered by future generations," Iroh said, and actually rolled his eyes. "I pray to Agni I did not sound like him when I was the leading General of the Fire Army."
Nakki couldn't help a genuine smile forming on his face, not that anyone could see it under the Fire Navy skull mask. He was quickly growing quite fond of the old General.
Nakki could hear footsteps ahead of them on the corridor, but he and the old human kept walking. After a moment, a group of dozen firebenders rounded the corner, lead by none other than Admiral Zhao himself.
Zhao saw the General, and came to a dramatic halt. Nakki and Iroh stopped as well.
"Well, well, well," Zhao drawled out, clearly enjoying the situation. "Who do we have here? But isn't it General Iroh. Just the man I wanted to see."
Busted, Nakki thought.
The spirit was a sour loser, and on those few occasions when the game truly mattered to him, he did not take setbacks with grace. It was undoubtedly for the best that his face was covered with a mask, for no matter how hard he tried to keep his composure, some of the disappointment must have seeped through.
"Admiral Zhao, was there something urgent you wanted to tell me?" Iroh said in his most innocent and polite tone. Nakki glanced at the man, a bit surprised that he was still trying to talk his way out of this. Couldn't the human tell that Zhao was on to them?
"Oh yes," Zhao replied with a venomous smile. "General Iroh, you are under arrest for plotting treason against the Fire Nation, the Navy, your commanding officer and the Fire Lord. Men, arrest him."
General Iroh frowned: "I don't understand."
"You can cut the harmless old man act, because I know the truth," Zhao stated.
Mimicking Zhao's movements, as he often did around humans, Nakki subconsciously nodded. As much was evident.
The Admiral seemed compelled to elaborate, though: "I know you didn't kill the last of the dragons; after you had killed its mother, you adopted the black dragon, and have been using it to stir chaos in the Fire Nation and to undermine your brother, the Fire Lord."
Nakki nearly twisted his neck; that was how fast his head snapped towards Zhao. The man had to be joking, but Nakki could not easily identify deception in the Admiral's eyes.
Oh. So Zhao doesn't know what's going on. Huh.
Nakki might have laughed if the situation hadn't been so perilous. Instead he did what any reasonable water spirit would have done under the circumstances.
Nakki stepped in front of Iroh, and shouted at the top of his lounges: "YOU'RE A TRAITOR?! HOW COULD YOU?! WHEN I WAS A BOY, YOU WERE MY IDOL!"
Too much? Nakki wondered.
There was a shocked silence all around him. Yeah, a bit too much, Nakki decided, but went on anyway.
Nakki lounged towards the General, and waved his arms in a gesture that hopefully looked like a firebending kata.
Luckily, Nakki wasn't the only one thinking quickly, and also quick on his feet: the General grabbed Nakki's outstretched hand, and in one decisive movement pushed him backwards. The spirit managed to stumble back in a way that took down four other men, and their collective heap effectively blocked the entire corridor.
By the time Nakki was on his feet again, Iroh had disappeared around the corner in a literal puff of smoke.
"Find him! No one will rest before this traitor is brought before justice!" Zhao yelled, combed his hair back with his hand, and added more calmly: "We're onboard a ship. There is nowhere for him to hide."
Dang it. Neither Zhao nor his bodyguards will rest before the Dragon of the West is neutralized. Nakki frowned to himself, but then shook his head, and smiled. Well, so it shall be then.
Three marines rounded the corner and ran towards Lieutenant Jee. Before he had time to ask what was going on, the men went right past him and tried to open the door to Iroh's rooms.
"The General is not..." Jee began to say, but let the rest of the sentence go unsaid in favor of staring in dumbfounded silence at the men who, without a moment of hesitation, kicked in the metal door. There was a loud screeching sound as the lock gave in under the bending-enhanced kick.
The marines entered the room, and soon after one of them shouted: "Clear!"
Jee considered simply walking away, but in the end could not resist following the marines into General Iroh's rooms.
First, Jee thought he must have gotten turned around at some point and arrived at the wrong place, because this could not be Iroh's room. The room was bare, practical and standardized; nothing like Iroh's personal, clutter-filled quarters onboard Zuko's ship were.
Had been. Jee had to remind himself that Iroh must have lost most of his collections when their old ship had gone up in smoke, and although Jee had personally never been one to cling to belongings, the thought of Iroh's loss made him oddly melancholic.
"What's going on?" Jee demanded to know in a tone that sounded hostile even to his ears. Whether the room looked like its owner or not, this was still General Iroh's room, and the marines had no right to trash it.
"Haven't you heard?" one of the skull-masked men asked, incredulous. "Iroh's a traitor. He's been working with the Avatar all along."
In retrospect, it probably worked to Jee's advantage that the shock on his face was genuine. "...What? You can't be serious?"
"I thought everyone had heard," another marine said while rummaging through Iroh's desk, apparently looking for signs of secret correspondence.
"Who are you, anyway? What business have you here?" the leader of the marines asked while taking stock of the room, and then of Jee.
The Lieutenant stood up straighter and answered in an official, if mildly insulted tone: "I am Lieutenant Jee of the Provisions Ship 27, third wave. I'm here to clear a gambling debt with the General." He might as well stick to his original lie.
The marine eyed Jee a moment longer, but then dismissed him: "Report to the main deck. No boats coming in or going out of the ship, is that clear, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir." Jee clicked his heels together, fisted his other hand and bowed, and left the room as fast as he could without running.
Jee wasn't sure where this misunderstanding about General Iroh being a traitor was coming from, but what he did know was that his commanding officer needed help right now.
The first rays of sunshine illuminated the bay. Suddenly a voice called out: "Look, there he is! There's General Iroh! On the second deck, on the starboard side, heading west. Catch him!"
True enough; General Iroh was sprinting, surprisingly spritely for his old age, on the second deck, tossing left and right firebenders that tried to block his way.
Lieutenant Jee watched, frozen in place, how the man he considered the finest officer in all of Fire Navy battled to make his way towards the flagship's docking area. He was a considerable fighter, a force to be reckoned with, but it was clear this was one man's desperate struggle against insurmountable odds.
The Dragon of the West took a moment to catch his breath, and in a matter of seconds no less than seven soldiers surrounded him. In a unified kata, the marines created a massive firefist and hurled it at the old man.
After that it was like everything happened in slow motion. One moment the General was leaning against the ship's railing, the next the power of the attack pushed him straight over it and into the cold sea below. A horrible slamming splash, followed by nothing but the sounds of footsteps on the metal deck as everyone raced to see what had happened, and the sound of waves crashing against the ship's hull. Dozens of men stared into the relentless abyss, waiting for the old man to emerge, but seconds turned to minutes, and still there was no sign of General Iroh.
No man, not even a master firebender, could hold his breath this long. Iroh must have injured himself on the broken sheets of ice floating all around the fleet, or his full armor and the strong currents must have pulled him under.
Either way, General Iroh was not getting back up.
Jee rubbed his eyes. And then he did so again, as if his inability to see properly was a key to understanding what he had just witnessed.
"No. It can't be…" Jee mumbled under his breath, when Admiral Zhao's order boomed: "Don't just stand there! Go find him!"
Hastily, the crowds of men started moving towards the back of the ship, but try as he might, Jee could not bring himself to move. Instead he stayed a moment longer and stared at the sea, hoping against hope to see Iroh get up. He was willing it to happen rather than believing that it might, but after another long while had passed, he could bare it no more.
A battle-hardened lieutenant, Jee was no stranger to loosing men. Still, the loss of Iroh, accompanied with his own inability to do anything to help, was weighing heavy on him.
Jee took several steps backwards until his back was against a wall. There, he sat down on the cold metal floor.
Despite not being a religious man, Jee sent a prayer to Agni, and to all the Great Spirits to have pity on Iroh's soul.
That was a terrible way to die. For a son of fire, there was no death more desolate than in the cold depths of the ocean, alone and far from home.
Iroh deserved so much better.
"Katara? Katara! Are you okay?" Someone was jerking her by the shoulders and calling out her name.
"I'm awake, I'm awake…" Katara assured, although still half-asleep; she just wanted the person bothering her to leave her be.
But the voice was adamant, and as Katara began to awaken, she felt a throbbing pain in her temple, alongside a vague sense of stinging in her elbows and leg. Her foggy mind struggled to make sense of it all.
Then Katara remembered and was suddenly wide-awake.
"Aang," she gasped.
"No, just me." Sokka was hovering over her. "What happened? Are you okay?"
Katara got up to a sitting position and looked around herself. Sokka was there, and Princess Yue, but there was no sign of Zuko, or Aang.
She cursed under her breath.
I just never learn, do I? So you hear a sad story about Zuko's past, and then you just have to try and see if there is something decent in the boy after all. Look how well that turned out.
Let this be the last time her soft-heartedness put the people she cared about in danger. Let her never trust a firebender again.
Sokka was still bombarding her with questions, but Katara wasn't really listening.
"Zuko. He has Aang. We have to find him at once." She got up swiftly, and the oasis around her swayed ever so slightly.
Sokka tried to support Katara, but she shrugged her brother off. " Did you not hear me? Zuko – has – Aang. There's no time to loose!"
Sokka raised his eyebrows. "Like… Zuko Zuko? Our Zuko? Angry, jerkish, prince of the Fire Nation Zuko?"
Katara glared, and deadpanned: "How many Zukos out to get Aang are there?"
She did not have time for stupid questions. And the headache did not help. Nor the pain in her leg; Katara looked down and saw that someone, probably Sokka, had already bandaged her bleeding leg. Well, at least his brother hadn't been just wasting time.
Katara took a calming breath. She was angry, but not at Sokka, and it wasn't fair of her to take it all out on him.
"Look, I messed up, alright?" Katara admitted. "I let Zuko get into my head, and I failed to keep Aang safe. And now, thanks to me, Aang is in spirits only know what trouble and we have to find him."
"The… the Prince of the Fire Nation is here? Here in our city?" Yue asked, looking perplexed.
Sokka turned to her to explain something about the Prince having caused Aang and them trouble on their way to the North Pole, but Katara cut him off: "Did you see any sign of him when you came here?"
Katara took a closer look at her surroundings. She couldn't immediately detect footprints or other signs of the Fire Prince. To her mild horror, it was clear by the gap in the ice ceiling of the oasis that it was already getting light outside. Zuko must have already gotten a head start on them.
"Katara," Sokka was suddenly right next to her. He put his hands on her elbows and looked his sister in the eye, "It's okay. We will find Aang and rescue him. We always do. And Zuko can't possible get far, not in a hostile city under siege, not in this weather. We are going to find them."
Slowly, Katara nodded. Sokka was right. Of course they would save Aang, or he, a master airbender and an adept waterbender, would save himself. It was just…
"I… I promised to keep him safe." It was simple enough a task, and one she had utterly failed at.
"You know what we are going to do?" Sokka looked confident and reassuring. "We are going to get Appa, or Kulo, or both, and we are going to search the city and the surrounding areas from the sky. We will find them.
"Speaking of which, though: Kulo didn't happen to drop by here before Zuko did? Because he was definitely on his way here."
"Kulo?" Katara wrinkled her face.
Fire was destruction, and Katara didn't really trust any creature born out of the element. Now a sense of foreboding was creeping up her spine. The dragon had showed up here, and then all of a sudden Zuko caught up with them, too. Coincidence?
On the other hand, according to Aang, the dragon had rescued him from the Fire Nation… Perhaps Katara was jumping to conclusions prematurely.
"Haven't seen him," Katara answered, and reminded: "You were supposed to keep an eye on him."
"I know," Sokka stated uncharacteristically seriously. Her brother wasn't taking his duties to the Northern Tribe lightly. "I guess we'll just go get Appa, then. You don't happen to have the bison whistle on you?"
Katara reached for her pocket, and thanked the spirits she had had the insight to keep the small wooden instrument on her.
Katara blew on the whistle, but before the air bison had time to respond to the ultrasonic sound, echoes of battle horns filled the air.
The battle was about to continue. Katara frowned at the sky, which was rapidly gathering stormy clouds.
"Um, and when you say 'I let Zuko get into my head', do you mean, you know…?" Sokka suddenly pondered.
"No, I don't," Katara quickly clarified. Silver lining in every cloud, she supposed. "Zuko was powerless."
"Powerless against your resistance or…?"
"Powerless as in could not bend."
"Okay, okay…" Sokka's thoughts were racing. "That's weird, but good to know."
Air whizzed past them as Appa arrived, accompanied by Momo, who flew over to sit on Katara's shoulder.
"Appa!" Katara greeted. "It's so good to see you. Now, we have to find Aang."
Although Katara had never been quite as convinced as Aang that the bison understood speech, on that moment, she could have sworn the animal caught on right away.
"Hey, what are you doing there?" came an angry question.
Jee looked up. An officer was marching at him.
Jee wasn't sure how long he had been sitting on the flagship's lower deck. Long enough to feel chilled to the bone despite his winter attire.
Stifly, Jee got up. At this point, he didn't really have the energy to lie. "I… I'm Lieutenant Jee from Provisions ship 27. I was supposed to return to my ship when, well…" Jee gestured around himself helplessly "there was all the commotion, and then General Iroh died."
It was perhaps wrong of him to mourn a traitor, but Jee couldn't help it.
The other officer's expression softened just a bit. "Well, yes, it has been quite a morning, hasn't it. You should make your way to your ship though. This siege won't last much longer, and all should return to their stations for the final battle."
As ordered, Jee began to make his way to the rear of the ship. Dozens of rowing boats had been launched from the ship to search the surrounding waters, but Jee knew that if Iroh had been this long in the water, there was no hope of finding him alive.
Before the Lieutenant had reached the rowing boats loading area, he was stopped again. This time a stranger standing next to Jee suddenly pulled at his sleeve. Jee turned to face the hooded man to see… General Iroh!
"What…?! How…?" was Jee's unintelligible first response. His sanity had to be failing him, or maybe the ghost of the General had risen from his watery grave to haunt him.
Jee stumbled several steps backwards. Unable to find the words, he wailed his arms to the general direction of the sea where he had just seen Iroh disappear.
"I will explain everything later," Iroh whispered in his ever calm and up-spirited way, while at the same time pulling somewhere from his sleeve a mercenary's mask and helmet, and trying it on his head.
"But… I just saw you fall down…"
"Later," the General stressed. "Now, if you don't mind, we must make our way to a search boat."
Jee forced himself to snap out of it. Iroh was right. Although Jee had no idea what he had just witnessed, he could recognize General Iroh regardless of what the man wore, and this was he. If Jee wanted to prevent the tragedy he had seen from becoming reality, now wasn't the time for questions but for action.
As a trained soldier, Jee could always get into a state of mind where nothing mattered but the mission at hand.
The General had a grey extra winter coat hiding a high-ranking uniform, and with a metallic helmet, and a hood on top of it all, he was nearly unrecognizable. Unless someone stopped to take a closer look, that was.
The two officers swiftly crossed a corridor and arrived at the search boats. The Lieutenant ordered a group off seamen to lower him and the 'specialist' down in the rowing boat he had originally arrived in, demanding that it was "Admiral's orders!" that the search grid was widened while they still had sunlight.
Thank Agni the seamen were too ready to obey to truly observe. Had they paused to take a look, they must have seen just how nervous and sweaty Jee was. He could face danger without batting an eye, but the art of deception was something he had very little experience in.
The boat was lowered down, and when the first waves beat its sides, Jee at once began rowing around the the flagship's hull. Iroh looked around him as if peering into the dark waters in search of a lost man. Jee quickly steered the boat behind a close-by ship, and then another. In the chaos, no one seemed to notice one boat taking a detour from the immediate search area.
Soon, they could already see Provisions Ship 27, and Jee could breathe just a bit easier.
"Sir," Jee began, "If you don't mind my asking, what the hell is going on in here?"
Iroh lifted his hand to silence Jee, but did not lift his gaze from the sea. Following the General's gaze, Jee could have sworn he saw in the distance something dark sink into the water.
A cold sweat dripped down his forehead, but before the Lieutenant could be sure of what he saw, the figure was gone.
"I am terrible sorry for having mixed you up in all this." Iroh stated calmly, still staring at the now clear spot in the distance. "But right now it is paramount that I am not discovered."
A lump in the Lieutenant's throat prevented speaking, so he just nodded. Although Jee had grown up surrounded by the sea, the freezing waters all around them had never felt less safe, and the younger officer rowed hastily on.
"You can trust myself and the crew, sir. Just name what you need us to do," Jee finally managed to recover his voice as they were closing in on Ship 27. "But there are also marines aboard the ship."
The General turned his friendly eyes to the Lieutenant. "That is most kind of you. Right now I need to lay low for a moment, and I also need a way to get on shore and into the Water Tribe Capital."
Jee nodded. For Iroh, the enemy capital was almost as unsafe as the flagship, but it wasn't Jee's place to question the General's orders. In Jee's experience, the Dragon of the West tended to know what he was doing.
Zuko tried actively not to fear for the worst. He really did.
Yet not knowing what had happened to his uncle was eating at him.
There has been a delay to the plan, he told himself. The right moment just hasn't presented itself yet.
And yet his mind could not focus on these relatively harmless possibilities, but provided images of Iroh locked up in a dungeon, or betrayed by the spirit and fighting for his life, or… No, Zuko could not bare to think of alternatives worst than that.
Sticking to the plan be damned, the literally only thing keeping Zuko from going to go find his uncle right now was the fact that he still couldn't shift into his dragon form, and without wings, he wouldn't get near the flagship.
Zuko had, however, moved his location to one even closer to the main battle in the desperate hopes of overhearing what was going on with Zhao, the fleet, and his uncle. Mostly his uncle. Although the Fire Navy had advanced considerably during the day, they had not moved towards Zuko's location on the far left side of the city. He had had no luck in learning what was going on, and although all his urges told him to leave the Avatar behind and sneak even closer to the action, he had so far resisted.
Accompanied by worry over what he didn't know, pain over what he saw right before him, and a phlegmatic Avatar, this had to be the longest day of Zuko's life. Even the day of the faithful Agni Kai had been over with quickly, if nothing else. Waiting was worse.
And yet, even the longest of days had to come to an end. During the day a blizzard had washed over the city, but now the weather was clearing. The sun was almost set, and soon the full moon alone would light the sky. Still, the Fire Navy troops showed no signs of pulling back, and this, too, worried Zuko.
But that was all the time Zuko had to dwell on the matter as it was on that moment that a ghost light whirled past the Prince. It seemed the Avatar had deemed now an appropriate moment to rejoin the world of the living.
"Mmphh," the boy mumbled, reaching to wipe sleep dust from his eyes.
Zuko, already on his feet, spun around to face the Avatar. What he really wanted to do on that moment was to grip the kid by the shoulders and tell him to get his act together and stop going to the spirits to ask for "massive spirit attacks". Zuko was busy and did not have time to babysit anyone right now; especially not the World Spirit from his own stupidity.
Yet Zuko knew, regardless of what had happened onboard the flagship, Uncle would not want him to misbehave and risk the safety of everyone.
Zuko forced himself to take a deep breath and reign in his temper, and when he opened his eyes, they met the Avatar's surprised gaze.
"Prince Zuko?" the question was more astonished than anything, as if the boy wasn't sure if he had actually woken up. Or maybe he just had a hard time recognizing the Prince with a new hairdo and white clothing.
Not the worst possible reaction, Zuko thought, mildly encouraged. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
"Yeah, it's me, but I am not here to capture you, or hurt you, or sabotage the Water Tribe, or anything like that."
Zuko could practically see the wheels turning in Aang's head as it only now occurred to the kid just how ominous it was that the Prince of the Fire Nation, the face of the enemy, was here, in the Water Tribe capitol.
Zuko quickly continued: "Look, Avatar. Aang. I know we've had our differences, but believe it or not, today we are fighting for the same cause. I want the Fire Navy to stop attacking and leave the Water Tribe in peace, just the same as you do. And I think that together, we might stand a chance of making that happen without anyone else getting hurt."
Okay, the last bit was stretching the truth – even in his wildest dreams, Zuko wasn't naïve enough to think that just simply 'working together' would solve all the problems – but Zuko really needed to make a case for himself; and do it better than what he had with Katara.
It was like his word held magic. Aang's face cleared up, and at the part where Zuko promised to end the conflict in a peaceful way, the young airbender actually smiled.
"Together?" The avatar asked. "Like, as in, you want to be my friend?"
Zuko had no idea what to say to that, so he just went with a "Um, yes?" that was closer to a question than an affirmative.
And yet it seemed to be all the convincing the good-hearted airbender required.
"Oh, well, that's great!" the Avatar beamed. "I don't want anyone getting hurt either."
Aang summoned a small gush of air to help him jump up and, and in the same fluid motion straightened his bright orange tunic, oblivious to how his bending made Zuko tense.
"But first, we need to save Tu and La!" the boy suddenly remembered. "They are in danger!"
The Avatar looked around himself. "Wow, I'm not at the oasis anymore. You haven't seen my staff have you?"
Zuko hadn't, and akwardly half-shrugged his shoulders to indicate as much. He was out of intelligible things to say. Many a time he had played out in his head how a meeting where he tried to assure the Avatar to trust him might play out, but he had not seen this coming.
This cannot be this easy, Zuko had just time to think when a bison landed on the wide ice balcony next to them.
The Avatar bolted to embrace his pet, but neither the animal nor its passengers seemed as easy to ignore the firebender behind their friend. The Air bison literally growled. Zuko had always suspected the perceptive animal could see in him what evaded most humans; that there was a predator under the façade.
The Water Tribe siblings jumped down, and Zuko took a bending stance.
"No, wait," Aang turned to his friends. "It's okay. Zuko promised to help me put an end to this battle."
Sokka turned to look at Aang, incredulous. Katara didn't waste time with that, but proceeded to attack.
Before Zuko could jump out of the way, the ice under him shot up and threw him up and against one of the hard ice pillars.
Zuko tried to get up, but suddenly his feet were incased in ice, and his left hand, which he had used to get support from the pillar, was also stuck on the cold surface.
Instinct told Zuko to call for his firebending and free himself, but he thought better of it. Perhaps the others would stop to listen if they thought him incapacitated.
"No! Katara stop!" The Avatar shouted, and jumped in front of his friend, hands wailing in the air. "Zuko is a friend."
"No, he is not," came Katara's steady answer, which was colder than the icy world around them.
"Yeah, I'm gonna have to agree with Katara on this; you can't trust Zuko," Sokka put in, though in a less sure tone.
"No, Aang is right. I'm not here to hurt you."
"Not hurt!" Katara huffed, and indicated at her leg. "Then what do you call this?"
"Um, a miscommunication?" Zuko tried, but could see that his answer, although honest, only served to irritate Katara.
"Look, guys, we don't have time for this." Aang said. He was so suddenly so serious that everyone turned to look at him. "The great spirits are in danger, and I have to get back to the oasis right now."
Yue, still up on Appa's back, gasped. Katara pointed a finger at Zuko: "But you can't trust him. He is not a friend."
"Yes, I am," Zuko was annoyed, perhaps more so than he was entitled to be. "I am not trying to capture Aang; I haven't been for a while. I am trying to do good things. And I have helped you more than once."
"Helped us?" Katara questioned, still ready to attack.
"Yes, helped you." For a moment, Zuko was about to reveal his identity as a Dragon Warrior, but instead opted for: "I am the Blue Spirit." Saying he was a dragon seemed a bit too farfetched, especially as he currently had no means of proving the claim.
To demonstrate, Zuko used his free hand to pull out another of his swords from his back, and in one fluent motion the Prince freed his hand and both his legs and jump up.
Now all the kids were outright gaping at him.
"No, it can't be…" Katara said, but did not sound sure at all.
"Oh, man, he's right!" Sokka slapped himself on he forehead.
Everyone turned to look at him.
"Well, it makes sense," Sokka defended. "I mean, I knew I had seen that fighting style before."
"It was you who helped me out of Pohuai?" The Avatar wondered. "But why?"
All eyes were back on Zuko. "I… I'm not a bad person. I'm just trying to serve my nation my own way."
Sokka asked "By turning traitor?" on the exact same moment Aang happily replied "By joining us!"
Zuko looked at both kids in turn. "No, I am not a traitor; I just strongly disagree with the current regime about what is in Fire Nation's best interest. And no, I don't plan to join you. I can't join anyone who seeks the destruction of citizens of Fire Nation. But: today I am on your side, and you will need my help putting an end to this invasion."
That shut everyone up for a moment, and Zuko made use of the pause and sheeted the Dao blade back on his back. "Look, I know this is all kind of hard to believe, but today my goal is the same as yours: to put an end to all this bloodshed. And I have a plan on how to do it."
Zuko's heart sank a little as he mentally corrected his verb to the past tense; currently, he doubted the plan was still a reality.
"We can't trust him," Katara repeated, her mind apparently made. Yet she directed her words at Aang, the group leader, seeking his approval.
The Avatar, too, had made up his mind. "I want to trust him. All nations should work together. If Zuko wants to help us, I say we let him."
To Zuko he added: "And I don't seek to destroy anyone! I just want this war to end."
Slowly, Zuko nodded. To his surprise, the Prince found he did not doubt the Avatar's intentions. Still, he needed to be sure that they were talking about the same thing: "You promise not to hurt people of fire unless forced to do so to save lives of others, and even then to try to avoid casualties?"
Despite the sounds of objections from his friends, the Avatar responded soberly "I promise." For a moment, he sounded much older than his 12 years.
"Now, we need to find Tu and La," Aang concluded.
"Didn't you just meet them in the Spirit World?" Sokka asked. He had kept unusually quiet, and still looked mostly puzzled.
"No. They are here, in this world, and they are in danger," Aang clarified to the surprise of all present.
Suddenly, everything went red.
While Zuko, Katara and the Avatar looked up at the sky, Sokka was at once back on Appa and by Yue's side. From the corner of his better eye, Zuko could tell that the Princess was holding her head. Yet he couldn't pull his attention from the eerily red full moon.
"I… I can't bend," Katara stammered, shocked.
"We need to move!" Aang airbending-jumped atop his bison.
Katara and Zuko exchanged a worried look. Katara moved to the bison, and Zuko followed, but Appa grumbled another low growl at the approaching Fire Prince.
"Wow, wow, easy. I'm not going to eat you," Zuko lifted his palms up in assurance.
"Appa, easy," the Avatar echoed and patted the animal's thick fur coat. "Zuko is a friend now."
Zuko locked eyes with the bison, willing it to calm down, and then climbed on top.
The next thing he knew, they were up in the air.
Two hours earlier
Admiral Zhao looked at his victorious advancement to the frozen city. He also peered behind him at the setting sun.
He wished he had someone to share his thoughts with; someone who could truly appreciate the mastery of his plan. But it was of course for the best that the treacherous General had been dealt with. And even if the old man had somehow miraculously survived the fall and evaded capture, soon nothing, not even the spirits themselves and certainly not a mere mortal bending master, could stand in his way.
"This ends tonight," the Admiral commented to no one in particular. He turned to face the men around him. "Give the order to dock this ship, and gather up a small landing party."
"Yes sir," more than one soldier responded in unison, and they all bowed deeply.
"Prepare seven komodo-rhinos," he added. The beasts would get in the way at some point, but it wasn't a bad idea to start the way to the secret oasis by riding through the desolate docks.
An officer next to him bowed deeply, and moved to head where the mounts were kept. Almost as an afterthought, Zhao enquired: "You. What's your rank, seaman?"
"Sergeant, sir. Sergeant Liu."
"Well, Sergeant, today you will have the honor of witnessing the beginning of a new era."
I am really sorry about the long radio silence. Please don't hate me...