The stone was cold and hard, digging into his knees. He pressed his hands flat against the platform and lowered his head, letting the tears fall unchecked down his cheeks. A sharp inhale, and even shakier exhale. He couldn't breathe; he had to breathe.
"I meant you no disrespect. I am your loyal son."
The crowd were like carved statues all around him, watching, judging. Maybe they thought him a coward; maybe they thought he deserved mercy. He didn't know. His heart was a wounded sparrowkeet in his chest, fluttering so desperately to stop him from falling—to simply keep his blood pumping when there was so much fear and pain freezing his veins. He just wanted this nightmare to end.
"Rise and fight."
He could not feel the sun on his face anymore. There was only the shadow of his father, looming over him like a wall of darkness, commanding him to rise. To fight. To hurt the person he knew he could never hurt.
"I won't fight you."
Every breath was a piercing knife to his chest. He swallowed and stared into his father's eyes—eyes that were as cold as the stone beneath his palms. He felt sick; he felt like his heart was being shredded in two. He knew exactly what was going to happen next, and he didn't once look away. He didn't once fight back.
"You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher."
Pain like he had never experienced before. His skin was melting, cradled by a burning hand that could have been a caress if it were not hurting him so much. He could hear screams echoing all around him, and he was shocked to find the wounded sound was coming from his own throat. It was too much. Too much fire, too much pain. He wanted to beg; he didn't. Instead, he stared into his father's pitiless eyes, even as the flames grew hotter. Even as his vision was obscured with orange and red: a burning light that made flesh bloody and raw; that burned and burned until he felt his consciousness slip—until he was sinking into the darkness, the stuttering wings of his heart slowing to a broken flutter.
Until he was trapped in a room that smelt like herbs and burnt flesh, blind and helpless as fingers prodded and the tip of something sharp sliced through his skin.
"Go on and heal yourself, Zuzu. Let me see your power."
Lee opened his eyes with a gasp, conscious of the way his heart was thudding wildly against his ribs and the cold sweat that coated his body. Warmth was tingling through his fingers, his veins, as if there was something beneath his skin trying to break free. Then pain pulsed through his mind, like a wall slamming into his consciousness, and the feeling was gone. He let out a shuddery breath and closed his eyes, trying to calm himself.
He'd relived so many memories in his dreams last night (both before and after he'd been interrupted by the kid and got roped into giving an impromptu sword lesson), but none had been as vivid as that last one. It had only confirmed to him what he had already guessed: that it was his father who had scarred him with fire; that, for whatever reason, he had taken the punishment like a lamb-swan to the slaughter, refusing to fight even when mercy had been denied. He could still remember the cold determination in his father's eyes as the man who was meant to protect him had held the flames to his face, but then another scene from his dream flickered in his mind: the unyielding darkness that seemed to hold him blind and paralysed; the voices that floated around him as he smelt burnt flesh and healing herbs. And then the hands. Touching. Hurting.
"Go on and heal yourself, Zuzu. Let me see your power."
His fingers curled into the straw. "Zuzu," he murmured, staring up at the barn roof.
He hated that name. He knew it as surely as he knew that the sky was blue or that Momo was a lemur. He couldn't explain why; he just knew that it made him feel so bitter and sad and angry, as if a lifetime of hurt was whispered in every letter.
This was the nickname your sister gave to you, a voice whispered in his mind. She couldn't say your name properly when she was first learning to talk; instead, she kept saying 'Zuzu'. Once, you thought it was endearing.
He didn't find it endearing now. Just thinking about the nickname made him want to smash something, even if it was the closest he had come to discovering his true name. His father, his sister; these people were his family yet they had hurt him so much. Deep down, however, Lee knew that he was just confused. Confused and torn, because his heart still remembered loving these people, even though his fragmented mind could only guess why the boy with the scar had allowed himself to be abused so easily.
"I am your loyal son."
Lee gave an odd sort of twitch and got to his feet, as if he were trying to shrug off the memories. He didn't want to think about his family anymore; he didn't want to feel the anguish and doubt clawing at his insides. So he set about packing up his belongings and getting the ostrich horse ready, knowing that he always felt better when he was in motion. Knowing that what he really needed was someone he could trust to help him make sense of the images that haunted his dreams, including the feelings that came with them.
The Avatar might have proven himself unworthy of being a confidant, but that didn't mean Lee had given up on finding his uncle.
His plan had been to slip away from the farm without anyone noticing; a clean escape, just like he had always done as the Blue Spirit. He should have known Sela would not let him leave so easily—at least not without saying goodbye and giving him a fresh supply of food rations. That was when Gow and his posse had shown up, and then everything had gone wrong.
"What's going to happen to my brother?"
"I'm going to the front. I'm going to find Sensu and bring him back."
Lee tightened his grip on the ostrich horse's reins and stared down the dusty lane to where he had last seen the Earth Kingdom soldiers; those sick, twisted men who had taken so much delight in sharing the news that Gansu's son had been captured by the Fire Nation, as if the family weren't suffering enough. It had not been Lee's intention to intervene, knowing it was Gansu's right as the master of the household to protect the honour of his family. However, when Gow had shifted from taunting to threatening, Lee had found himself barring the way with his ostrich horse, silently declaring that they would have to get through him first. The soldiers had left after that, but by then the damage had been done.
He glanced over his shoulder at the family who had taken him in for the night, watching as Sela sobbed against her husband's chest while the little boy stood near them, tears rolling down his cheeks. Another family torn apart. Another son lost to the war. Even without the intensifying headache that signalled a missing memory, Lee would have known that this wasn't the first time he had seen a family devastated by bad news.
"Your cousin Lu Ten did not survive the battle."
He bowed his head, trying to hold back the images that flowed through his mind like ripples on a pond, only these ripples refused to fade; they just got worse and worse, creating a web of memory that trapped and tangled and wounded. Every instinct told him that he needed to get away from this place—from the boy who shared his adopted name and the grieving parents. It was too much: too familiar, too distressing. His chest felt tight, constricting his breathing; his head pounded as shards of memory ripped through him like glass.
"What are you talking about? Uncle's not a quitter."
"He found out his son died and he just fell apart. A real general would stay and burn Ba Sing Se to the ground, not lose the battle and come home crying."
"You dare suggest I betray Iroh, my first born, directly after the demise of his only beloved son? I think Iroh has suffered enough. But you—your punishment has scarcely begun!"
"Dad's going to kill you. Really, he is."
Lee gritted his teeth and urged the ostrich horse to move. Suddenly, footsteps rushed towards him.
He winced and tugged on the reins, pulling the ostrich horse to a halt. "What is it?" he said, glancing down at the boy.
"Won't you stay?" A small hand clutched at his leg. "My dad is leaving to go find my brother, and—"
"I can't," Lee said flatly, looking the other way. "I have to keep moving."
He repressed a sigh and then, making an impulsive decision, reached into his boot and pulled out the pearl-handled dagger. "Here, I want you to have this."
"A knife?" the boy questioned, unsheathing the blade.
Lee nodded, even as a part of him wondered why he was doing this. That knife was the only thing he had that he knew belonged to him. It was his link to his uncle, and it had helped him get through all of those times when he had been ready to give up and just beg for his misery to end, because nothing had seemed like it could be worse than being hunted and alone with no memory. But then maybe that was the point. The dagger had become a sort of talisman for him; a reminder to never surrender to despair without first trying to succeed. Lee knew that he could not stay at the farm as the boy wished, but perhaps he could offer some kind of hope.
"Read the inscription," he prompted.
The little boy furrowed his brow as he stared at the characters etched onto either side of the blade. "Made in Earth Kingdom?"
Lee resisted the urge to facepalm (that never did work out so well when wearing a mask). "The other one."
"Never give up without a fight."
Their eyes met for a brief moment—a silent exchange of understanding. Then Lee swung the ostrich horse around and was galloping down the dusty lane, hearing the squawks and squeals of the rooster-pigs fade the farther he got from the farm. He didn't look back; this was just another goodbye in a long list of goodbyes, but he was surprised to find that he really did hope Gansu managed to bring Sensu back home. It was difficult to forget the lost, heartbroken look in the little boy's eyes.
"I think you'd really like my brother Sensu. He used to show me stuff like this all the time."
"What, you want to learn some swordplay, little cousin?" Lu Ten grinned and handed him a broadsword, then raised his own blade in a duelling stance. "Very well, let's see what you've got. Try to hit me if you can."
A breath escaped Lee's lips. He urged the ostrich horse to run faster, gritting his teeth as the world flashed by him in a blur of browns and faded greens. It wasn't enough. His head continued to throb and splinter with pain, struggling to process the memories that kept on slamming into his mind one after the other, as if a crack had formed in the mental dam that had been constructed to block his past.
"Do you really have to go, Lu Ten?"
"It's only for a little while. You'll see, Father and I will have Ba Sing Se conquered in no time."
Lu Ten smiled and ruffled his hair. "Don't look so down, little cousin. I'll be back to kick your butt at sword fighting before you know it."
He stared at his hands. "Father says I'm not allowed to practise with swords anymore. M-my bending isn't very good, and he says I should just focus on that because bending is the only thing that matters. He says swords are for people who are too weak to rely on their element."
"Do you think I'm weak?"
"No, but you're not like me, Lu Ten. Everyone knows you're a talented bender. I do everything that Master Mizuto tells me and I still can't master the basics." He closed his eyes. "I'm a failure."
Lu Ten wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "If my father were here, I'm sure he would say something like 'the flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all', but since I'm not my father, I'll just say this. You might be struggling now, but I've seen you fight with a sword, and I know that you have good instincts and far more potential than you realise. One day, you're going to be a powerful bender, Z—. Perhaps the most powerful of us all." He smiled. "I believe in you. Do you believe in yourself?"
Lee's grip slipped on the reins. He closed his eyes as bits and pieces of memory continued to splinter through him, whispering of pain, abandonment and loss. It was a moment before he realised that he was shaking.
"Focus," he whispered.
The word had become a mantra of late, grounding him to reality whenever the past sought to snap his mind like fragile sticks with its confusing mess of images and emotions. Now more than ever did he need that mantra to work. He sighed, breathing in and out in a calming rhythm, feeling his heartbeat slow. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. That was it: just keep breathing. The panic would fade in a moment, though it would be a while before he stopped feeling so shaken and exposed, as if reliving the memories had scrubbed him raw.
"Your cousin Lu Ten did not survive the battle."
Something cold and heavy settled in his stomach, and he realised then that he could not hope to control the emotions tangling through him. Not this time. Not when he could feel in every fibre of his being how much his cousin's death had impacted him and his family, as if Lu Ten had been the foundation of their house of cards and it had all fallen apart once the grinning soldier was gone.
Without a second thought Lee yanked on the ostrich horse's reins and guided the animal to a grassy meadow not far from the village. He didn't trust himself to ride anymore. His mind was a jumble of echoes and broken shards, and the last thing he needed was to have another breakdown in the middle of the road. Even now he felt like screaming: to beg for it all to stop so that, just once, he could think without feeling like he was being shredded in two, torn between a past he barely understood and a reality he didn't know how to claim.
He stumbled off the ostrich horse and collapsed to his knees, digging his fingers into the grass. His head was still pounding, to the point where he felt like he might be sick. This was all just too much, and no matter how much he tried to use his breathing exercises—to calm himself so that he could get a grip on his spinning, dizzying thoughts—the memories just kept on flowing, showing him things that he didn't want to see, whispering things that he didn't want to hear.
"Uncle, where are you?"
The words were choked out of him, as if the boy with the scar—the boy whose name he knew now started with a Z—was somehow reaching up from whatever dark place he had been imprisoned, yearning for the uncle who had watched over and comforted him during his banishment. Lee blinked back tears, because that was his mouth forming those words; his heart aching to feel arms wrap around him and let him breathe in the scent of old spice and tea.
Because he and the boy with the scar were the same person, and it killed him that he didn't know how to connect the last pieces of the puzzle so that he could stop feeling like an outsider sharing in someone else's pain.
He closed his eyes and pressed his face against his knees, mask and all. In his mind, he could see his uncle leaning over him, telling him that everything was going to be alright. Except it wasn't alright. Nothing was alright. He was lost and confused and alone, and he didn't know he if he could do this by himself anymore. It was just so damn hard.
"I believe in you. Do you believe in yourself?"
Pain lanced through his mind in one sharp stab. He shuddered and dug his fingers deeper into the grass, trying to keep it together even as the memories and emotions threatened to rip the very seams of his spirit apart. He didn't know how long he remained like that, huddled in a ball and trying to breathe through the agony and confusion. At some point he thought he might have drifted off to sleep, too drained and exhausted to stay conscious. Then the light was shifting in the sky, becoming softer as the sun began its descent, and he heard the sound of wagon wheels coming towards him.
He got to his feet, already reaching for his swords. His hand stilled when he saw Sela jump down from the wagon and run towards him. What was she doing here?
"I've been looking for you everywhere," she said by way of greeting, tears glistening on her cheeks. "Please, you have to help. It's Lee. The thugs from town came back as soon as Gansu left. When they ordered us to give them food, Lee pulled a knife on them. I don't even know where he got a knife!"
Guilt spread through his veins in a toxic chill. He had been the one to give the boy the knife.
"What happened?" he asked, even as images of the boy broken and bloodied flashed through his mind.
Her voice broke a little. "They took him away. They told me if he's old enough to fight, he's old enough to join the army." She covered her face with her hands. "I know we barely know you, but—"
Lee stepped forward, his eyes burning like golden coals behind the cover of his mask. "I'll get your son back."
There would be no more sons lost today. No more families torn apart. He would not allow it.
His expression was grim as he clambered on his ostrich horse and raced back to the village, Sela trailing behind him on the wagon. A crowd had gathered in the main square, lured like flies to rotting meat to watch the spectacle unfold. Fear and fascination; it was in every face, every glance. None of the villagers really wanted the little boy tied to the post to get hurt, but they still couldn't help but watch. Lee had not come here to watch, though. He had come here because he was angry, and he was not going to put up with such wanton injustice a moment longer.
He got off the ostrich horse and walked straight up to where Gow and his gang of thugs stood with their weapons displayed to all, daring anyone to intervene. If he wasn't so furious, he would have smiled at their arrogance. He'd wipe the smug looks from their faces soon enough.
The boy raised his head and his face lit up when he spotted the masked warrior. "Hey, there he is! I told you he'd come!"
Lee ignored the boy. "Let the kid go," he said in a dangerously soft voice, keeping his gaze fixed on Gow.
Gow let out a great, belly-rumbling laugh. "Are you listening to this? This stranger thinks he can tell us what to do." He smiled, though his eyes remained threatening. "Who do you think you are?"
"It doesn't matter who I am, but I know who you are. You're not soldiers, you're bullies; freeloaders abusing your power, mostly over women and kids." His voice hardened with contempt. "You don't want Lee in your army. You're sick cowards messing with a family who's already lost one son to the war."
There was a pause as his words, his challenge, hung thick in the air like a shroud of tension. Then the commander glanced over his shoulder at the three men standing behind him. "Are you going to let this masked freak insult you like this?"
A heartbeat was all it took. Suddenly, Lee was leaning back as a spear came lunging for his face, threatening to tear through wood and flesh. He wrapped his fingers around the hilts of his dual swords and brought both into the man's stomach, knocking him clean off his feet. Lee advanced a step, preparing to incapacitate his opponent for good, but the man was already scrambling away, no doubt frightened by how easily he had been bested.
One down, three two go.
Lee swung around to face the next soldier, not even breaking a sweat as he dodged the spear with effortless ease and shoved his palm hard into the man's forehead, bringing him down with a single blow. It was like watching a dance where he already knew all the steps, and all he had to do was shift his body from one fluid motion to the next. These men were no match for him. He knew it; they knew it, and it was not long before it was just Lee and Gow facing one another.
Gow bared his teeth in an ugly smile and removed the hammers from his belt. He shifted into what Lee recognised as a bending stance, and for the first time Lee unsheathed his broadswords from his scabbard, sensing that this time he would not be able to rely on evasive tactics and his fists alone. In a flash, Gow slammed one hammer against the ground and summoned a jagged piece of rock, sending it flying. Lee stood his ground and sliced through the rock with his swords, ignoring the dull ache that surged through his arms from the impact. He met the earthbender's eyes grimly, as if to say "Is that all you've got?"
A growl escaped Gow's throat, and then two more rocks were flying at Lee in rapid succession. He managed to shatter the first one, but the second slipped past his guard and hit him in the gut, making him stumble and gasp for breath. Rage boiled in his veins, his very bones, and then he took a firmer grip on his swords and charged at the earthbender. He was not going to lose this fight!
"Give him a left!" he heard someone shout from the crowd. "A left!"
Lee gritted his teeth, refusing to let his concentration be broken. He dodged and sliced through the rocks Gow flung at him, getting closer and closer, but then something struck him in the ribs. Another rock. He winced and staggered back, slumping forward as he struggled to recover from the blow.
"Look out!" an old man shouted.
"Behind you!" he heard the kid he had come to rescue scream.
Breathing hard, he swung around and raised his swords to stop the rock from smashing him in the head, only to find himself facing a dozen more of the projectiles. Too many. Too fast. Blood pounded in his ears as chunks of earth smashed against his swords, pushing him back in graceless, staggering steps. His arms ached and sweat dampened his forehead and neck. Even worse, his mind was beginning to flicker with memories again, disrupting his focus so that sometimes he was seeing his father standing before him while other times it was a girl with amber eyes, laughing as lightning crackled in blue flashes from her fingertips.
"You'll never catch up."
Gow slammed his hammers into the ground, sending a shockwave of power rippling through the earth. Lee's eyes widened and he brought his swords up to defend, but it was too late: a massive chunk of rock erupted from the earth and slammed into his chest, knocking all the breath from his lungs. He gasped for air that would not come, even as the world tilted and spun, blurring in a disorientating rush before coming into focus as his head struck the dusty earth. His mask clattered to the ground beside him, grinning up at the sky through hollow eyes.
Dizzily, he tried to get back to his feet, but it was no use. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move. There was only the pain in his chest and the heavy touch of darkness pressing down on his eyelids, which was becoming more difficult to resist with every second that passed. It was a sickening realisation, because he knew what was going to happen next, just as surely as he had known that his father would punish him with fire all those years ago.
He was going to lose.
He could hear the murmurs of the crowd, hear the little boy pleading for his hero to come save the day. But Lee didn't think that he could. He didn't even know why he should keep trying, because he knew that he wasn't a hero; he was just a failure. He couldn't even protect himself.
"That's who you are, Z—. Someone who keeps fighting even though it's hard."
A shuddery breath escaped his lips. "Mum?" he whispered.
Suddenly, he was back in the room with the crimson drapes, sleepy and disorientated as his mother pulled him into her arms.
"Remember this, Z—. No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are."
"Never forget who you are."
Something seemed to click in his mind. He felt a weight leave, or perhaps it was more of a gate opening. Either way a rush of energy surged through his body, his veins, building and building until it was so powerful that he could barely contain it; until his hands were trembling and every fibre of his being was begging for release. His eyes snapped open and he screamed, twisting back to his feet as fire erupted from his palms and flowed in streams of burning hot energy around him, knocking Gow back with one of the blasts.
Breathing heavily, the boy with the scar stalked towards Gow, fire flickering around him and his eyes burning with rage. Gow scrambled back to his feet and tried to take up a bending stance, but the boy with the scar was having none of that. He charged, channelling his element so that balls of hot energy shot forth as he moved in a fiery dance with his blades, weaving fire around him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. One of the fireballs struck Gow in the chest, throwing him back into one of the buildings and bringing half of the rotting wood down on him from the impact. A deadly hush settled over the square as the boy with the scar stared down at Gow, his blades still rippling with flames.
"Who—who are you?" Gow asked weakly.
He lowered his swords, which had once again become ordinary metal. "My name is Zuko."
Then he drove the hilt of his blade into the man's face, knocking him out cold. The silence that followed was almost tangible, as if the air was thick with unspoken words. Zuko could sense that every person in the crowd was staring at him, judging him. It was like Fei's town all over again, only this felt a hundred times worse. This time he could almost taste the fear and hostility.
He sheathed his swords and crouched beside Gow, examining the man with a grim expression. The murmurs of the crowd were beginning to pick up now, labelling him with words that would have made him flinch had he still been that lost boy wearing a mask. But Zuko wasn't lost; he knew exactly who he was, and he didn't care if they called him a firebender or a monster. Both were true in a sense. He was a firebender, and to them he probably did look like a monster. It didn't matter that he had just protected one of their own; he was the enemy, and they were just ignorant, Earth Kingdom villagers. Or at least that was what he told himself.
Finally, Zuko spotted the dagger he had been looking for strapped to Gow's belt. He removed the knife and stood up, turning to face the kid he had come to rescue. Sela was busy untying her son from the pole, but Lee didn't look particularly relieved. His eyes were wide and … fearful? Angry?
That did make Zuko pause, but he shrugged off his hesitance and closed the distance between them. Suddenly, Sela was standing in front of her son like a shield, barring his way.
"Not a step closer," she said in a cold voice.
Zuko ignored the flicker of hurt that stabbed through him. Instead, he knelt before them and offered the dagger to Lee. "It's yours. You should have it."
"No!" Lee cried, tears prickling at his eyes. "I hate you!"
And he meant it. Zuko could sense that much, even as the words struck him like a blow to the chest. This boy had worshipped him like a hero; now he thought the firebender a monster just like everyone else.
Zuko watched as mother and son walked away without a second glance, shutting him out from their lives as easily as they had welcomed him. Hurt and shock held him frozen for a moment, but then he just closed his eyes in resignation. There was no point getting frustrated or upset. This was how it had always been—how it was meant to be.
He got to his feet and stared around at the crowd of hostile and frightened faces that surrounded him. No one dared to attack him, but it was obvious he wasn't welcome anymore either. Grimly, he walked over to pick up the Blue Spirit mask from the ground and then clambered on his ostrich horse. Let them think what they liked; it wasn't as if he had been planning on staying in this village. It wasn't as if he really cared. Much. Besides, he had much more important things to worry about.
"Go on and heal yourself, Zuzu. Let me see your power."
His eyes narrowed. It was true that his memories were still a bit hazy, but he had learnt enough. He knew that he was the son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, which also made him the heir to the Fire Nation throne. He knew that his uncle was the Dragon of the West and that they had been separated after the siege of the North when he had got captured by the Northern Water Tribe. He knew that he was supposed to be capturing the Avatar and that his sister, Azula, was a firebending prodigy who always lied and had almost killed him with lightning.
And he also knew that he was really, really angry.
He slipped the mask back over his face and nudged the ostrich horse into action, forcing a path through the crowd of wary villagers until he was just a dark outline against a sky painted in the colours of fire. He didn't once look back.
"I'm coming for you, Azula," he muttered under his breath. "I will make you pay."
The moon was especially bright that night. Aang hummed a little under his breath as he used airbending to set up the tent for the campsite, despite the fact that all he really wanted to do was snuggle up in Appa's fur and snore the rest of the night away. They had been travelling for hours, determined to put as much ground between them as possible from Gaoling. Still, Aang did not begrudge the lack of sleep. Not when things were finally beginning to look up for him.
"I guess we'll have to thank old Blue Face when we next see him," Sokka observed, setting the firewood he had collected in a pattern on the ground. "He was right that we'd have better luck finding an earthbending teacher for you in Gaoling."
Both boys turned to look at the newest addition to the group, who was reclining on a rock bed she had probably created with her bending and picking her nose. Aang grinned, not at all put off by her less than lady-like behaviour, but his smile faded a second later as he thought about Sokka's words and remembered that the Water Tribe siblings still had no idea that the Blue Spirit was Zuko. He found himself staring down at his feet, twiddling his thumbs in a slow circle.
"Y-yeah," he said uncomfortably. "We'll have to thank him."
Katara came out from the trees, holding a pot in her hands. "I've got the water." Her gaze flickered to Toph and a slight crease formed on her brow. Aang didn't know what that was about, but he didn't get the chance to ask; Katara was already speaking again. "You know, now that you've got a teacher to help you master earthbending, I was thinking that maybe we could try find Lee." She placed the pot on the ground and her voice softened. "I'm really worried about him. He seemed so fragile after that weird fit thing he had in Omashu; I don't like the idea of him travelling alone. What if he blacks out again and there's no one around to help him?"
"I'm sure he's fine, Katara," Sokka said, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Besides, he wouldn't have left if he wanted to keep travelling with us. I think he's just a loner by nature."
"You're only saying that because you didn't like that he kept questioning your authority as the leader!" she retorted.
"A-ha!" Sokka exclaimed, pointing his finger at her. "So you admit I'm the leader."
Katara rolled her eyes. "I'm serious, Sokka. I'm really worried about him. I didn't want to push it earlier because I knew we had to help Aang find an earthbending teacher, but now we have Toph—"
"'Sup," Toph said with a lazy wave, and then flicked a piece of snot that had been stuck to her finger off into the night.
Katara scrunched her nose in distaste, then stared back at her brother. "Come on, Sokka, you saw how Lee was in the swamp. Aren't you worried at all?" Her gaze shifted to the airbender. "Aang? You agree with me, right?"
Aang flinched as her blue eyes fixed on him. His heart was beating uncomfortably against his ribs and he could feel moisture gathering on his palms. This was not a conversation he wanted to have right now; not with Katara staring at him like that. Not when he was already so full of shame and regret. She had no idea—no idea at all—that the boy she was so worried about was also the one she called her enemy. Suddenly, he couldn't take it anymore. The weight of all his lies and omissions were getting to be too much, like a rock he was constantly carrying around his neck. It hurt, and he knew he would not be able to breathe properly until he just told the truth.
"Guys, there's something I need to tell you," he said in a strained voice. "It's about Lee."
Katara perked up immediately. Even Toph deigned to sit up straighter, watching the three through her milky green eyes.
"What about Lee?" Katara demanded.
"He's—I mean, I've kind of been, um, well—" Aang sighed in frustration and clutched at his head. Why was this so difficult?
Sokka stepped forward. "What is it, Aang? You can tell us."
Aang's shoulders slumped and his voice dropped to the barest whisper. "I know who he really is. I've always known."
There was a pause as both siblings digested this information; then Sokka shrugged as if this wasn't really news to him.
"Well, I kind of figured that," he admitted. "I mean, Lee did have that little outburst in the swamp and accused you of keeping the truth from him, and you did admit that you hadn't been entirely honest. It made sense that you probably knew more than you were letting on."
Aang swallowed. "Right."
"But understand this, Aang," Sokka continued in a grim voice. "I don't like that you lied to us. Katara and I are your friends, and I thought that you would know better than to do that after what happened with the map." He shook his head. "The only reason I didn't confront you earlier is because I hoped you would choose to be honest with us yourself."
The airbender hung his head. "I know. I'm really sorry. I just—I just panicked, I guess."
"Why?" Katara asked in a hurt voice. "Why would you keep this from us? You've been lying to me right from the beginning, Aang, and I want to know why!"
"Because Lee is really Zuko!" he blurted out in a rush, and then winced.
There was a long and painful silence. Aang risked a glance at his friends and saw that both looked pale. Katara was gripping her necklace as if her life depended on it, shaking her head in denial, while Sokka just stood there with glassy eyes as if he had been stuffed.
"Well, that was unexpected," Sokka observed, finding his voice again. "Answers a few questions I've been having, but still unexpected."
Katara just shook her head. "No," she muttered. "No, that can't be right. Lee is a waterbender. He healed you and protected you. He just can't be that—that—"
"Katara," Aang said gently, "it's true. I saw his face with my own eyes after he rescued me from Pohuai Stronghold. The Blue Spirit is and always has been Zuko. That's why I didn't want to tell you guys. I—"
She made a choked sound and turned the other way. "Don't. Just don't. I don't want to hear your excuses."
He reached out an imploring hand. "Katara—"
"No! I can't believe you lied to us about this!" she exclaimed, spinning back to face him. "You told me you never got to see his face! You told me that you only knew him as the Blue Spirit, and all this time you knew it was really Zuko under the mask!" Her voice broke a little. "How could you, Aang? Didn't you consider at all how this would make m—us feel?"
"Don't you see, Katara?" he said quietly, meeting her gaze with sad eyes. "That's why I couldn't bring myself to tell you earlier. I knew how you both felt about Zuko."
"So you let us think that he was someone else? Let us invite him into our group and share our tent after all that he has done?" She took a step forward, her eyes bright with betrayal and anger. "Have you forgotten that he chased us all over the world because he wanted to capture you?"
"What was I supposed to do?" Aang exclaimed, getting frustrated now. "How could I explain that it was Zuko who had healed me? You both hated him so much; you would have never listened. And he made me promise not to tell anyone about his Blue Spirit identity, and—" Aang swallowed, remembering that awful night when he had thought Zuko had died "—and then I didn't know what had happened to him. I kept hearing rumours that he had drowned, but no one could give me any clear answers. Then we ran into him again in Omashu, and I was so scared that I was going to lose him again."
"So you lied," Sokka stated in a resigned voice, folding his arms across his chest.
Aang nodded. "I didn't mean for it to get this out of hand. I just didn't know what to do. Zuko had no idea who he was, let alone who we were. I couldn't just leave him like that. I didn't think you would let him stay if you knew his real identity, and I thought—I thought I could help him. I thought I could fix the rift I had created between us." A heavy sigh escaped his lips. "But I just made things worse. I'm sorry."
Katara bit her lip and looked the other way. "I believe you that you weren't trying to hurt us by keeping Zuko's identity a secret, but this is so much to take in." She turned her back to him. "I'm sorry, Aang; I'm going to need some time."
Something cold settled in his stomach. "Wait, Katara—"
"Let her go," Sokka said gently, putting his hand on Aang's shoulder. "She's just upset because she thought 'Lee' was a waterbender like her. She really cared about him, you know, and now she's suddenly found out that he's just that same angry jerk who attacked our village and chased us all over the world. You can understand why it would be a little difficult for her."
A crease formed on Aang's brow. "I had no idea she cared that much."
"My sister can't help but care. You saw what she was like with Haru; any person who needs her help, she immediately flocks to them like a mother turtle-duck and will do anything in her power to ensure their comfort and happiness. Heck, she even got herself imprisoned for Haru," Sokka added with an odd mixture of pride and exasperation. "That's just the way she is, but helping Zuko wasn't something she counted on." He shrugged. "My guess is that she doesn't know what to think. She's just confused and hurt, but she'll calm down."
Aang glanced up at the older boy. "And what do you think?"
A slow smile spread across Sokka's face. "Honestly, I just wish I'd known earlier that we'd had Zuko travelling with us. Think of all the fun I could have had with his amnesia!"
Aang frowned in disapproval. "You know, he's really not as bad as you guys think."
Sokka's smile faded. "Yeah, I know. I'll admit that 'Lee' was kind of cool. Still doesn't change anything, though, does it? I mean, once Zuko gets his memory back he'll just go back to being an angry jerk who wants to capture you."
"You don't know that," Aang said softly.
Sokka said nothing. It was obvious that he thought Aang was indulging in wishful thinking, but they hadn't been there when Zuko had fought with him against Zhao. They hadn't seen the prince's vulnerability when he had admitted in an icy cave that he just wanted to go home. It didn't matter that Zuko had later told Aang that he wanted nothing to do with him; it didn't matter that, through Aang's own cowardice and reluctance to be honest with his friends, he had managed to drive the prince away yet again.
Because Zuko was not a bad person, and in that Aang still had hope.
Toph stood up from her rock bed and walked towards them. "So, is anyone going to tell me who this Zuko guy is that has everyone so worked up?"
Sokka waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Oh, just the prince of the Fire Nation. He lost his memories and ended up travelling with us for a while, but now we don't know where he is."
Toph considered that for a moment. "Fair enough. Well, I'm going to sleep." She turned around and headed back to her make-shift bed, then raised her hands to the air in a sharp gesture to form a pyramid of rocks around her, just like a tent. "Good night."
And with that she raised her hand one more time, closing the 'door' so that Aang and Sokka just found themselves staring at a triangular mound of rocks. Aang blinked and shared a look with the older boy, who just shrugged. Toph was certainly her own person.
"You know, I think she has the right idea," Sokka said after a moment, smothering a yawn. "We should get some sleep."
"What about Katara?" Aang asked, glancing towards the trees where he had last seen the waterbender.
"Ah, I wouldn't worry about it."
Sokka clapped him on the shoulder. "Trust me, there are times when a girl needs her space and you would be wise to give it to her. Katara will come back when she's ready."
Aang frowned. "If you say so. I just hope she's not too angry. I really didn't mean to hurt her."
A sigh escaped Sokka's lips. "Just get some sleep, Aang."
Aang tried to ignore the sinking sensation in his stomach. "Right," he said, fidgeting with his hands. "Good night, Sokka."
He shuffled over to where Appa was sleeping and curled up against the bison, not wanting to sleep in the tent with the others tonight. He wasn't always the most perceptive person, but he got the sense that Sokka was a lot more annoyed with him than he was letting on. Maybe it wasn't just girls who needed their space.
Aang huddled more into a ball, trying not to let his friends' censure and disappointment bring him down too much. He couldn't blame them for being upset, and it was a relief to not have to worry about keeping the secret any longer. All things considered, the confession could have gone a lot worse. It still made him sad, though.
Momo made a chirruping sound and swooped down from Appa's head to snuggle up beside Aang. Perhaps he could sense the airbender's unhappiness; it was certainly a comfort to stroke the lemur's fur and have someone around who genuinely wanted to be close to him. Aang smiled and scratched his furry friend behind the ears, then closed his eyes with a sigh. Well, he supposed only time would heal the wounds he had created with his lies. It wouldn't be the first time.
I'm sorry, everyone.
Katara, Sokka, Zuko—they had all been hurt by him. He promised himself then and there that he would not lie to his friends again. No matter how justified, no matter how many excuses he came up with, he would always be honest with them. He just hoped he got the chance to earn Zuko's forgiveness as well.
"I don't want you to hate me."
Aang sighed and buried his face under his arms, blocking out the silver glow of the moon. It was a long time before he fell asleep.
The tavern was rowdy. Iroh sipped his drink, still smelling of incense and dirt from the funeral rites he and Wei had performed earlier that day. He did not look up when the swivelling doors to the establishment were pushed open, signalling that yet another person had come to join the crowd of revellers for the night. He did, however, pause when a shadow blocked his light, forming the silhouette of what looked like a woman.
"Well, well," a low and rather husky voice observed, "if it isn't Uncle Lazy."
Iroh's breath caught, and he turned in his chair to meet a pair of familiar brown eyes. "June."
Yes, I totally stole a Mulan quote. You may also recognise some lines from the episode 'Zuko Alone', which have been paraphrased and directly quoted in parts.
Just as a side note, I'm curious to know if those who leave unsigned reviews (or have the PM function turned off) are checking (or even expecting) the replies I leave on the LJ thing for this fic. I don't begrudge the replies either way, but since I don't get a lot of time on the internet at the moment, I haven't been able to keep up with responding as much as I would like. I guess I'm just wondering if it's worth it for me to keep doing that or if it's okay if I just respond to those who ask questions and need particularly detailed replies. Up to you guys. I'm always happy to respond to reviews, but it's a fact that it becomes a bit more of a hassle if I can't just reply to you through the site.
In any case, hope you liked the chapter! Reviews make me happy, so feel free to share your thoughts (I won't complain).
Until next time. ^_~