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 used to waiting in line. There were about ten soldiers before him, and about a dozen behind him, all waiting to tell the Admiral what they knew about dragons.

It was likely that Lieutenant Jee knew more about dragons than the rest put together. Even so, Jee was in no hurry to see Zhao; he hadn't 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 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 numbers it might have raised suspicions, 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 had been happy to learn that Prince Zuko was alive, but at the same time, he wanted to know why both Iroh and Zuko were at the North Pole under false pretense. They were after something, but if it was just the Avatar, why go through such theatrics?

No, there was a threat out there all right, but it was something bigger and more sinister than the Air Nomad. Come to think of it, Jee's hunch told him that this trouble arose from inside the ranks of the Navy.

Jee wanted to talk to Iroh to tell the old General that Zuko's crew was still loyal to him 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 disappointment and even jealous murmurs, but no one protested loudly. The sailors started to make their way back towards the rear of the ship, where rowing boats could be lifted on and off the ship. Usually, people walked from one ship to another via ramps, but since the fleet was vast and potential informants were scattered all around it, they had been told to get 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 slowly, waiting to see if General Iroh would emerge as well, but he did not.

After a bit more 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 officer looked tired and mildly surprised, but not suspicious or hostile. "No. General Iroh is resting in his cabin."

Jee nodded briefly. The officer walked past him, but on the last minute, he turned around and asked the inevitable: "Why did you want to know?"

Jee smiled uncomfortably. "I served under the General for years, and to my shame, I owe him a considerable sum of money from the 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'd 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 come this far, there was no harm in pushing his luck a bit further. In for an inch, in for a mile.

"I had thought I would meet General Iroh here, since he is the Admiral's foremost expert on dragons. I brought a considerable sum of money with me, and 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 rowing boats would take a lot of time, since eventually he sighed, and said: "All right, you may go. But remember: if you run into anyone on your way there and they ask you what you're doing, don't tell them I gave you a permission. Because I didn't. Because that would be a breach of protocol."

The other man turned around, and quipped: "Fifth floor, corridor on the starboard side, the room at the very end."

The kindness of his fellow soldiers never seized to amaze Lieutenant Jee. He had thought the other man would ask to see the money he had mentioned as proof of his story, even ask for his share of the loot, but the officer had been honorable and trusting. Jee felt a bit bad for taking advantage of his trust, but it had to be done.

Jee didn't wait around to be told twice, but walked swiftly and purposefully in the direction he had been given.

Now that he thought about it, there was something very wrong with this picture. Why was Iroh not present at Zhao's midnight meeting? Where was Zhao's foremost dragon expert now?

ooo

It was a few hours before sunrise, and although it was clear that the human did not think Näkki was ready, they couldn't afford to linger a moment longer. 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 Näkki raised his hand and waved for the old firebender to stop speaking.

Iroh looked around them. Näkki laughed a bit, and said quietly: "There's no one here, in case you were wondering. I only stopped you because I don't think I can listen to one more of your wisdoms, my friend. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but you have started every other sentence of this conversation with those exact words. Literally."

Näkki shrugged. "If I'm found out, then that's that, but I doubt last minute tips will make a difference. The problem we really ought to concern ourselves with is how to get Zhao alone."

The old General smiled innocently. "Leave that part to me. All you have to do is stay close to me. When the time is right, I will initiate a conversation with Zhao about the 'secret details' of how I killed a dragon. I believe Zhao wants the honor of slaying the black dragon to himself, and therefore he is likely to dismiss everyone else in the room."

Näkki nodded, but wasn't entirely convinced. "What if he doesn't realize to excuse them?"

"Then we wait a while longer, but trust me when I say this: it is only a matter of time before Zhao starts one of his man-to-man 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."

A genuine smile formed on Näkki's face, not that anyone could see it under the skull mask. He was quickly growing fond of the peculiar old man.

Näkki could hear footsteps ahead of them, but the old human kept walking and Näkki followed his lead. After a moment, a group of dozen or so firebenders rounded the corner, lead by none other than Admiral Zhao.

Zhao saw the General, and came to a dramatic halt. Näkki and Iroh stopped as well.

"Well, well, well," Zhao drawled out, clearly enjoying the situation. "But isn't it General Iroh, just the man I wanted to see."

Busted, Näkki thought, and was grateful for the skull mask covering his face. When the game truly mattered to him, the spirit did not take setbacks with grace. No matter how hard he tried, some of the disappointment would have seeped through.

"Admiral Zhao, is there something urgent you want to tell me?" Iroh asked in his most innocent and polite tone. Näkki glanced at the old man, a bit surprised that he was still trying to talk his way out of this. Couldn't he tell Zhao was on to them?

"Oh yes," Zhao replied. "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, Näkki subconsciously nodded. That much was evident.

The Admiral seemed compelled to elaborate, though: "I know you didn't kill the last of the dragons; after you 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."

Näkki nearly twisted his neck; that was how fast his head snapped towards Zhao. The Admiral had to be joking, but Näkki couldn't detect deception in his eyes.

Oh. Zhao doesn't know what's really going on. Huh.

Näkki might have laughed if the situation hadn't been so dire. Instead he did what any reasonable water spirit would have done under the circumstances.

Näkki 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? Näkki wondered. There was a shocked silence all around him.

A bit too much, Näkki decided, but went on anyway.

Näkki lounged towards the General, and waved his arms in a gesture he hoped looked like a firebending kata.

Näkki wasn't the only one thinking quickly, and also quick on their feet; the General grabbed Näkki's outstretched hand, and in one decisive movement pushed him backwards. The spirit managed to stumble in a way that took down four other men, and their collective heap effectively blocked the entire corridor.

By the time Näkki was on his feet again, Iroh had disappeared around the corner in a literal puff of smoke.

"Find him! No one will rest before that 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."

Neither Zhao nor his bodyguards will let their guard down before the Dragon of the West is neutralized. Näkki frowned, but then shook his head and smiled. So it shall be then.

ooo

Three marines rounded the corner and ran towards Lieutenant Jee. Before he had time to ask what was going on, the men went 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 couldn't resist following the marines into General Iroh's room instead

Upon entering the room, Jee's first impression was that he must have gotten turned around at some point, because this could not be Iroh's room. The room looked bare, practical and standardized; nothing like Iroh's clutter-filled quarters back on Zuko's ship were like.

Had been. Jee had to remind himself that Iroh had lost most of his collections when their ship had gone up in smoke. Although Jee had never been one to cling to belongings, the thought of Iroh's loss made him feel oddly melancholic.

"What's going on?" Jee demanded to know in a tone that sounded hostile even to his own 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."

It probably worked to Jee's advantage that the shock on his face was genuine. "You can't be serious?"

"I thought everyone had heard," another marine said while rummaging through Iroh's desk, 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: "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 in or out of the ship, is that clear, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir." Jee clicked his heels together, 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 I sounded like his commanding officer needed help.

When Jee reached the ship's deck, he noted that the first rays of sunshine already illuminated the bay.

A voice called out from somewhere near Jee: "There he is! There's General Iroh! On the second deck, on the starboard side, heading west. Catch him!"

True enough, General Iroh was running surprisingly spritely for his age, 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 true 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 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 over it and into the cold water below. There was a slamming splash followed by the sound of footsteps on metal deck as everyone raced to see what had happened. Dozens of men stared into the relentless abyss, waiting for the old man to emerge, but seconds turned to minutes, and there was still no sign of the General.

No man, not even a master firebender, could hold his breath this long. Iroh must have injured himself on the sheets of ice floating around the fleet, or his full armor and the strong currents had pulled him under. Either way, General Iroh was not getting back up.

Jee couldn't believe what he had just witnessed. "It can't be…"

Admiral Zhao's order boomed: "Don't just stand there! Go find him!"

Hastily, the men around him started to move towards the back of the ship, but try as he might, Jee could not bring himself to follow them. He stayed where he was and stared at the sea, hoping against hope to see Iroh break the surface. Jee was willing it to happen rather than believing it might, but after a long while had passed, he could bare it no more, and had to look away.

Jee was no stranger to loosing men, and even so, the loss of Iroh, accompanied with his own inability to do anything to help, weighed heavily on him.

Jee took several steps back until his back was against a wall. Then he sat down on the cold metal floor.

Although not a religious man, Jee sent a short prayer to Agni and the Great Spirits to have mercy 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 the warmth of home.

Iroh deserved so much better.

ooo

"Katara! Are you okay?" Someone was jerking her by her shoulder and calling out her name.

"I'm awake, I'm awake…" Katara assured, still half-asleep; she just wanted the person bothering her to leave her be.

Katara felt a throbbing pain in her temple and a vague sense of stinging in her elbows and leg. Her foggy mind struggled to make sense of it all.

Then Katara remembered and gasped: "Aang."

"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 never learn, do I? You heard a sad story about Zuko's past, and you just had to try and see if there was still something decent in the boy. Look how well that turned out.

Let this be the last time her soft-heartedness put the people she cared about in danger.

"Zuko has Aang. We have to find them," Katara summarized the situation, and got up. Sokka tried to support her, but she shrugged her brother off. "Didn't you hear what I said? Zuko – has – Aang. There's no time to loose!"

Sokka raised an eyebrow. "Like… Zuko Zuko? Our Zuko? Angry jerk, prince of the Fire Nation Zuko?"

Katara deadpanned at her brother. "How many Zukos do we know who are out to get Aang?"

She didn't have time for silly questions. She started walking and noticed the pain in her leg; Katara looked down and saw that someone, probably Sokka, had already bandaged her bleeding leg. At least her 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 out on him.

"I messed up," Katara admitted. "I let Zuko get into my head with his talk about being a changed man, and I failed to keep Aang safe. Thanks to me, Aang is in spirits only know where and we have to find him."

"The Prince of the Fire Nation is here, in our city?" Yue asked, looking perplexed. Sokka turned to her to explain who the Prince was and how Zuko must have followed them here.

Katara looked around where And had been, but couldn't find footprints or other signs of where the Fire Prince had gone. Light shone down from the gap in the icy ceiling; it was already light outside. Zuko had 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. Zuko couldn't have gotten far in a hostile city under siege. We're going to find them."

Katara nodded. Sokka was right. They would save Aang, or he, a master airbender and an adept waterbender, would save himself. It was just…

"I promised to keep him safe."

"You know what we're going to do?" Sokka looked confident and reassuring. "We're going to get Appa, or Kulo, whichever we find first, and we're going to search the city and the surrounding areas. We will find them."

Sokka looked thoughtful. "Speaking of which: Kulo didn't happen to drop by here before Zuko did? He was definitely on his way here."

"Kulo?" Katara frowned.

Fire was destruction, and Katara didn't really trust a creature born out of that element. A sense of foreboding was creeping up her spine. The dragon had showed up here, and 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.

"I haven't seen him," Katara answered. "You were supposed to keep an eye on him."

"I know," Sokka stated, uncharacteristically serious. Her brother wasn't taking his duties to the Northern Water Tribe lightly. "I quess we'll go get Appa, then. You don't happen to have the bison whistle on you?"

Katara reached inside 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 find them, echoes of battle horns filled the air.

The battle was about to continue.

"When you say 'I let Zuko get into my head', do you mean he...?" Sokka asked.

"No, I don't," Katara clarified. Silver lining in every cloud, she supposed. "Zuko was powerless."

"Powerless against your might or…?"

"Powerless as in he could not bend."

"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. "We have to find Aang."

Katara had never been quite convinced that the bison understood speech, but on that moment, she could have sworn the animal knew what was going on.

ooo

"What are you doing here?" came an angry question. Jee looked up. An officer was marching towards him.

Jee wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting on the lower deck. Long enough to feel chilled to the bone despite his winter attire.

Stiffly, Jee got up. He didn't have the energy to lie. "I'm Lieutenant Jee from Provisions ship 27. I was supposed to return to my ship when, well…" Jee gestured around helplessly. "There was all this 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 a bit. "You should make your way back to your ship. All men should be at their stations, ready for battle."

Jee started to make his way to the rear of the ship. Dozens of rowing boats had been launched to search the surrounding waters, but Jee knew that if Iroh had been in the water this long, there was no hope of finding him alive.

Before the Lieutenant reached the rowing boats loading area, he was stopped again, this time by a hooded stranger… General Iroh!

"What! How?" Jee stumbled several steps backwards. Unable to find his words, he waved his arms to the general direction of the sea where he'd seen Iroh disappear.

"I will explain everything later," Iroh whispered.

Iroh was wearing the same uniform Jee had seen him in earlier, but now he also had a brown cloak on, and the older man pulled a mercenary's mask and helmet from his sleeve.

"But I saw you fall down…"

"Later," the General stressed. "Now, we must make our way to one of the search boats."

Iroh was right; Jee had no idea what was going on, but if he wanted to prevent the earlier tragedy from becoming reality, now wasn't the time for questions.

The General's cloak hid his high-ranking uniform, and with the helmet and the hood on, he was nearly unrecognizable.

The two officers crossed a few corridors and arrived where the rowing boats were kept. The Lieutenant ordered a group off seamen to lower him and the 'specialist' down in the same rowing boat he had arrived in, demanding it was "Admiral's orders!" that the search grid was widened.

Thank Agni the seamen were quick to obey. Had they paused to take a closer look, they might have noticed how nervous and sweaty Jee was. He could face danger without batting an eye, but the art of deception was something he had little experience in.

The boat was lowered down, and as soon as they were down, Jee began rowing around the flagship's hull. Iroh looked over the side of the boat and into the dark water, as if truly in search of a man. Jee steered the boat past a ship and then another. No one seemed to notice one boat taking a detour from the search area.

After rowing for a while, 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?"

Iroh lifted his hand to silence Jee, still looking at the sea. Following the General's gaze, Jee could have sworn he saw something dark sink back into the water some distance from them. Before the Lieutenant could be sure of what he saw, the figure was gone.

"I'm terrible sorry for having mixed you up in all this." Iroh said calmly, still staring at the now clear spot in the distance. "Right now it's 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 water had never looked so ominous.

"You can trust me and the crew, sir", Jee finally managed. "But there are also marines aboard the ship, and I can't vouch for them."

The General turned his friendly eyes to the Lieutenant. "Thank you, but I won't stay on your ship for long. I need a way to get into the Water Tribe capital."

ooo

Zuko tried not to fear for the worst. He really did.

There's just been a delay, he told himself. The right moment hasn't presented itself yet.

Zuko's mind provided him with images of Iroh locked up in a dungeon, or betrayed by the spirit and fighting for his life, or… Zuko wouldn't think of alternatives worse than that.

Sticking to their plan was the last thing on Zuko's mind, but he still couldn't shift into his dragon form, and getting through the battlefield and onboard the flagship would be almost impossible on foot in broad daylight.

Zuko had moved the Avatar and himself even closer to the battlefield, hoping to overhear what was going on with Zhao, the fleet, and his uncle. The Navy had advanced during the day, but they hadn't come close enough to Zuko's location for him to learn what was going on. Zuko had and urge to do something; he thought about leavng the Avatar behind and sneaking closer to the action, but he had so far resisted the temptation.

I kidnapped Aang away from those who would protect him. I can't just leave him wherever and hope the people who mean him harm won't find him first, Zuko thought, frustrated.

This had to be the longest day in Zuko's life; even the faithful Agni Kai had been over quickly, if nothing else. Listening to the battle play out in the distance, unable to stop it or root for either side, was like physical pain.

A blizzard had washed over the city, and put a momentary pause to the fighting, but now the weather was clearing. The sun was almost set, and soon the full moon alone would light the sky. Yet the Fire Navy troops showed no signs of pulling back again.

Suddenly a ghost light whirled past the Prince; the Avatar had finally decided to rejoin the land of the living.

"Mmphh," the boy mumbled, reaching to wipe sleep dust from his eyes.

Zuko spun around to face the Avatar. What he really wanted to do was 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 did not want to babysit anyone right now; especially not the World Spirit from his own stupidity.

Zuko sighed, letting some of the anger out. Uncle wouldn't want him to misbehave and risk the safety of everyone. When he opened his eyes, they met the Avatar's surprised gaze.

"Prince Zuko?" The question was more surprised than anything, as if the boy wasn't sure if he had woken up yet. Or maybe he had a hard time recognizing the Prince with a new hairdo and white clothing.

Not the worst possible reaction, Zuko thought, encouraged. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

"It's me, but I'm 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. It seemed to only now occur to the younger teen how ominous it was that the Prince of the Fire Nation, the face of the enemy, was here, in the Water Tribe capitol.

Zuko continued: "Look, Avatar. Aang. I know we're not exactly in friendly terms, I know we've had our differences, but today we're fighting for the same cause. I want the Fire Navy to stop attacking and leave the Water Tribe in peace, just as you do. And I think that together we might stand a chance of making that happen without anyone else needing to get hurt."

The last bit was stretching the truth – even in his wildest dreams, Zuko wasn't naïve enough to think that simply 'working together' would solve all their problems – but Zuko needed to make a case for himself, and do it better than with Katara.

It was like his words held magic; Aang's face lit up, and when Zuko got to the part about ending the conflict in a peaceful way, the young airbender actually smiled.

"You want us to solve this together?" The avatar asked. "You want to be my friend?"

Zuko had no idea what to say to that. His "Um, yes?" was closer to a question than an affirmative.

Yet it seemed to be all the convincing the good-hearted airbender needed.

"That's great!" the Avatar beamed. "I don't want anyone to get hurt either."

Aang summoned a small gush of air to help him jump up. In the same fluid motion, the boy straightened his orange tunic, oblivious to how his bending made Zuko tense.

"First, we need to save Tui and La!" The boy remembered. "They are in danger!"

Zuko blinked.

The Avater looked around himself. "I'm not at the Oasis anymore. You haven't seen my staff, have you?"

Zuko hadn't, and awkwardly 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 convince the Avatar to trust him might play out, but he had not seen this coming.

It cannot be this easy, Zuko had time to think before a bison landed on a wide ice balcony next to them.

The Avatar bolted to embrace his pet, but neither the animal not its passengers seemed as easy to ignore the firebender standing behind their friend. The air bison growled. Zuko had always suspected the perceptive animal could see in him what evaded most humans; that there was a predator under the facade.

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 the fighting."

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 an ice pillar.

Zuko tried to get up, but his feet were incased in ice, and his left hand, which he had used to get support from the pillar, was also stuck.

Instinct told Zuko to use his firebending to free himself, but he thought better of it. Perhaps the others would stop to listen to Aang if they thought Zuko incapacitated.

"Katara stop!" The Avatar shouted and jumped in front of his friend. "Zuko is a friend."

"No he's not," came Katara's steady answer, colder than the icy world around them.

"I'm gonna have to agree with Katara on this; you can't trust Zuko," Sokka put in, though in a less sure tone.

"I'm not here to hurt any of you," Zuko put in.

"Not here to hurt us!" Katara huffed, and indicated at her leg. "Then what do you call this?"

"A miscommunication?" Zuko tried, but could see his answer only served to irritate Katara.

"Guys, we don't have time for this," Aang said. He was so serious so suddenly that everyone turned to look at him. "The great spirits are in danger, and I have to get back to the Oasis right now."

Princess Yue, still in Appa's sadle, gasped.

Katara pointed her finger at the still-tied-down Zuko. "But you cannot trust him. He's not a friend."

Zuko was annoyed, perhaps more so than he was entitled to be. "I'm not trying to capture Aang anymore; I haven't for a while now. I'm trying to do what's right. And I've helped you more than once already."

"Helped us?" Katara questioned.

"Yes." For a moment, Zuko was about to reveal his identity as the black dragon, but instead opted for something less complicated and unbelievable: "I'm the Blue Spirit."

Zuko used his free hand to pull out one of his swords, and in one fluid motion the Prince freed his hand and both legs, and jumped down. All the kids were gaping at him.

"It can't be..." Katara said, but didn't sound sure at all.

"Oh man, he's right!" Sokka slapped himself on the forehead.

All present turned to look at Sokka. "It makes sense," Sokka defended. "I mean, I knew I had seen that fighting style before somewhere."

"It was you who helped me escape from Zhao?" The Avatar wondered. "But why?"

All eyes were back on Zuko. Katara lifted some water on the ready.

"I'm not a bad person. I'm just trying to serve my nation my own way."

"By turning traitor?" Sokka asked, while Aang shouted "By joining us!"

Zuko looked at both kids in turn. "I'm not a traitor; I just strongly disagree with the current regime about what's in Fire Nation's best interest. And I'm not here to join you. I can't join someone who seeks the destruction of my nation. But today we want the same thing, and you will need my help putting an end to the invasion."

Zuko made use of the pause and sheeted the Dao. "Look, I know this is kind of hard to believe, but today my goal is the same as yours: to put an end to the bloodshed. And I have a plan on how to do it."

Zuko's heart sank a little as he mentally corrected his verb to past tense; he doubted his original plan was still a reality at this point.

"We can't trust him," Katara repeated, her mind apparently made. Her words were directed at Aang, seeking his approval.

The Avatar had also made up his mind: "I want to trust him. All nations should work together, even the Fire Nation. 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 the war to end."

Slowly, Zuko nodded. He didn't doubt the Avatar's sincerity. Still, he needed to be sure that they were talking about the same thing: "Will you promise that you won't hurt my people?"

"Unless forced to do so to save the lives of others", Zuko amended, realizing how inmpossible his request was when the Fire Nation was out to get Aang and everyone associated with the airbender.

Despite the sounds of objections from his friends, the Avatar responded soberly: "I promise." For a moment, he sounded much older than his twelve years.

"We need to find Tui and La," Aang concluded.

"Didn't you just meet them in the Spirit World?" Sokka asked. He had been unusually quiet throughout the exchange.

"No, I couldn't talk to them in the Spirit World, because they're here, in our world, and they're in danger," Aang clarified.

Suddenly, everything went red. The water Katara had been holding fell to the ground.

Zuko, Katara, and Aang looked at the sky, but Sokka climberd quickly back to Appa's saddle to be by Yue's side. From the the corner of his eye, Zuko could tell the Princess was holding her head as if she was in pain.

The full moon had turned blood red.

"I can't bend," Katara stammered, shocked.

"We need to move!" Aang airbending-jumped atop his bison.

Katara and Zuko exchanged a look. She nodded at him, albeit begrudgingly. Katara started to climb atop the bison, and Zuko followed her, but Appa grumbled another low growl at the approaching Prince.

"Wow, easy there. 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 our friend now."

Zuko locked eyes with the bison, willing it to calm down, and then climbed in to the sadle. The next thing he knew, they were in the air.

ooo

Two hours earlier

Admiral Zhao used a spyglass to inspect the frozen city. His troops were making headway, but the sun would set soon.

Zhao wished he had someone to share his thoughts with; someone who could truly appreciate the mastery of his plan. It was for the best that the treacherous General had been dealt with. And even if the old man had miraculously survived the fall and evaded capture, soon nothing, not even the spirits themselves and certainly not a mortal bending master, could stand in Zhao's way.

"This ends tonight," the Admiral commented to no one in particular. Then he turned to face the men around him. "Give the order to dock my ship, and gather a small landing party."

"Yes, sir," more than one soldier responded in unison.

"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 Spirit Oasis by riding through the desolate docks.

An officer next to him bowed deeply, and started to make his way to where the mounts were kept. Almost as an afterthought, Zhao asked: "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."