A/N: I've been really terrible about updating lately. Yikes…time goes by faster than season one Zuko when confronted with a box of Captain Crunch (it's an obscure Avatar Abridged reference, guys). Wasn't it Thanksgiving yesterday?
Whatever. It's well into December now. In fact, it's less than a week away from Christmas (oh, dear God…I have to endure holiday cheer and goodwill towards men?! Again?)! I suppose I should be careful not to blink or it'll be summer. Not that I would miss the cold or anything…
Anyway, I figure I have some leeway to take my time with this fic since Part One of The Search doesn't come out for another three months at least. I've got some time to flesh this puppy out some more. (I know, excuses, excuses) I'm going to get as much pre-comic exposition done as I possibly can before I have something concrete to work with.
I do want to keep this fic as canon as possible. It drives me up a way when I start writing something only to have new canon material that contradicts what I've written. I'm like, "NO! My fanfics are WORTHLESS now!" Which, by the way, is a very upsetting thing when you've spent a lot of time and effort weaving a plot together.
I'm just rambling now, guys. I'll cut it off here and let you read what you actually came here for: the next chapter! Enjoy!
There is a direct correlation between the sheer inexplicability of a trend of behavior and the effort required to break the habit. In other words, the harder it is to explain why something is a tradition, the harder people will fight to keep said tradition alive. There is no logic behind it; just a firm belief that what was true a hundred or so years ago will hold true today.
Tradition doesn't account for change. Tradition doesn't account for a century spent napping in an iceberg while an entire world became engulfed in the flames of war.
Traditions simply are. That's it, end of story, have a nice day.
Obviously, though, the world changes whether we want it to or not. And as a person living in said world, we have one of two choices to make. We can either resist it to our dying breath, swimming against a monstrous current that will not yield…or we can swim with it. To let the raging river bring us to where we were meant to be all along…to the spot on the riverbank where mankind was naturally progressing.
Unfortunately, people will argue about what "natural progress" entails. The Fire Nation (even to the last battle) believed they were bringing progress, unity, and prosperity to the world that hated and feared them. In reality, all they brought was destruction.
The Earth King had chosen the opposite route. Instead of embracing change to the extreme, he had embraced tradition; so much so that he had let Long-Feng, his then-Minister of Culture, silver-tongue his way to a back-seat of the throne. Under the promise of safeguarding the cherished traditions of the Earth Kingdom, he allowed sweet lies to pour into his ear while innocent civilians were being plucked off the streets, broken, brainwashed, tortured, and ultimately killed (and those were the lucky ones) just for allowing the word "war" pass their lips.
And even afterwards, the situation in Yu Dao would have ended in bloodshed as Kuei sought to protect the "traditional" way of doing things. The mixed colony would have been eliminated, families torn apart, and neighbors forcefully divided had he not been forced to look at the people who would live with his decisions.
Even then, change can be a difficult thing to accept. Kuei had to see with his own eyes to truly understand what was at stake. And for that matter, so had Aang.
Because in the end…hadn't he been listening to Roku just as the Earth King had listened to Long Feng?
The sky was clear and the scene absolutely idyllic as the Avatar and his girlfriend relaxed on a peaceful, hilly grassland somewhere outside of Ba Sing Se. They had just finished addressing the dozen or so girls who were now former members of the Avatar Aang fan club; now, those same girls could be seen descending the hill and heading back towards the city, chatting amongst themselves in excitement. As well they should; they would get the honor of becoming the very first Air Acolytes in a hundred or more years.
The sun was beating down its warmth not as oppressively as one might expect given that it was just a year after Sozin's Comet. Appa dozed contentedly with Momo curled up on his head, both too lazy and comfortable to do anything besides sleep. You would think that this kind of setting would leave Aang feeling content or at least calm.
Instead, all he could picture was Zuko weeping in front of a portrait of Avatar Roku and putting a noose around his neck. All while everyone else was giving him the thumbs up of approval.
"Things were so much simpler a hundred years ago," he muttered.
Katara looked up from her book. She was currently reading an old set of texts she had borrowed from a library in Ba-Sing-Se as part of her self-imposed curriculum to become a better healer. It became glaringly apparent that combative Waterbending would only take her so far career-wise now that the world was at peace. At least if she could heal she could still help people in need—and it turned out to be much more fascinating than she gave it credit for.
This book in particular was about mental illnesses, and she had just been thumbing through a very detailed chapter about depression. But hearing Aang sigh distracted her.
Her boyfriend just shrugged. "I guess…yeah."
Katara frowned. "You don't sound okay." She put her book down and went over to him. He was sitting under a tree in a nice meadow outside of the city, looking unusually down in spite of the beautiful weather. She curled up next to him and looked him in the eyes. "What's wrong? Talk to me."
Aang shook his head. "Well…" he trailed off uncertainly.
Normally, their relationship was an open well of communication and trust. He could look into Katara's deep blue eyes and open up to her in ways he definitely couldn't with anyone else. She had been there for him all this time when he was finding his place as the Avatar. It had been her arms he had woken up in back in the iceberg, her arms that held him whenever he felt like he was about to drown in his responsibilities. She was the one who kept him human, kept him on solid ground. She was his deepest attachment, one he would sooner give up his right arm than to let go of.
He loved her. He always had and he always would.
But for some reason the words, I think Zuko wants to kill himself stuck in his throat. How could he even begin to explain all the things that were wrong just when things were starting to go right again? How could he just drag her back into a murky pond of stagnant, tainted issues that he barely knew how to handle? Hadn't she had enough to deal with when the future of their relationship had been as uncertain as the future of Yu Dao?
And Aang hadn't even noticed how conflicted she had felt all this time. He still hadn't adequately apologized for that. He couldn't very well just go up to her now and say, "Hey, Sweetie, guess what? I'm the reincarnation of Roku, the ice-cube fondling weirdo…oh, and Zuko is probably going to kill himself one day."
The last thing he needed was for Katara to think he was going off the deep end. So he just forced a smile on his face and said, "I guess I'm just nervous about what I'm trying to do…you know, with the Avatar Aang fan club…I mean, the Air Acolytes."
She frowned. "But you're so good at teaching. You did great at explaining what would be expected of them if they wanted to devote themselves to the Air Nomad heritage. Even the Ba Sing Se chapter seemed to understand what you meant by rigorous training and study…"
He looked down at his lap. "Okay."
The Waterbender looked at him for a moment. "That's not what's bothering you, is it? You still have doubts about preserving your culture?"
Aang began to knead his eyes with his knuckles, stressed at the very thought. "All I know," he said slowly. "…is that every time an Avatar implements some kind of change or creates any kind of legacy…it always…always ends up coming back to bite the next generation. Like Avatar Kyoshi and the Dai Li…or Avatar Roku and the frozen nipple clamps…"
With a jolt, the monk realized what he had just said. "Nothing!" he replied quickly. "Just…you know…random thoughts. Don't pay any attention to them."
Katara looked skeptical, but decided to just nod and smile. "So…what you meant to say was that you're worried that teaching these girls the ways of the Air Nomads will do more harm than good in the long run?"
Aang shrugged again. He wasn't in a very talkative mood.
"Oh, Sweetie," she said softly. She put her arms around him and pulled him close to her, trying to comfort him. "It won't be that way. This will be different."
Katara waited for his muscles to relax, for him to melt in her embrace like he always did. But today he was too absorbed in his worries to notice her. She rubbed circles in his back and felt how tense his back muscles were. He actually felt a little cool to the touch, which worried her a little on a subconscious level. It vaguely reminded her of how his body had felt back in the crystal catacombs, when Azula had shot him full of lightning.
His response was flat. "How can you be sure that things won't go wrong?"
She paused, disconcerted. "I believe in you, Aang. I've always believed in you…and I always will. That'll never change." She started to feel him loosen up a bit, finally. "Besides, the worst part is over now. Yu Dao should be fine until Zuko and King Kuei are able to come to some sort of agreement. As long as everyone talks, it should be fine."
"Talking," Aang muttered. "I suppose that's fine…though there are some things people just don't want to hear."
The young Avatar closed his eyes, trying to suppress some memories of a certain Spirit World orgy before he could accidentally let any detail slip to Katara. "I just meant that sometimes people aren't as…understanding of other people's opinions. Sometimes people get so fixed on one way of doing things that they aren't willing to listen to what anyone else has to say."
"I think King Kuei seemed a lot more willing to listen once he had seen Yu Dao with his own eyes," she pointed out. "And Zuko's always tried to be fair so long as the Fire Nation was being treated the same."
She expected him to smile a little…or to show some sign that he had heard her. But his grey eyes seemed closed off and distant. It took the smile off her face faster than a can of paint thinner thrown against the Mona Lisa.
Of course, she had no idea what he was thinking. I wasn't talking about Zuko or the Earth King…
"Aang," she said. "Please…don't shut me out. Tell me what's wrong." He didn't say anything for a minute and this worried her even more. "I haven't seen you acting like this since Appa went missing…talk to me…"
"We are talking," he said a little sharply. "And everything is great. Just…forget I said anything. You're right, anyway. It's stupid for me to worry about this." He looked down the hill and watched the last of the Air Acolytes disappear through the outer walls of the impenetrable city. "Either way, sitting here and doing nothing isn't going to change the fact that I'm the last Airbender. Eventually I'll get old and die. I can't just keep the Air Nomad traditions to myself…otherwise I'll end up taking them to the grave."
"I never said it was stupid to worry. Your feelings always matter…okay?"
He just shrugged again.
The monk finally broke and met her gaze. There was no way he'd keep up being aloof when his girlfriend used that voice…the one that meant she was on the end of her patience. And as guilt-ridden and stressed out as he was at the moment, Aang very much wanted to live.
The irony of that statement will ring bells in a few moments, readers.
"I'm not worried about Zuko or King Kuei…or anyone else trying to do the right thing. I'm worried about myself." He saw her blue eyes soften. "Lately I feel as if I've been…blind to everything around me. Things that should have been obvious…from the very beginning, even!"
Katara covered his hand with her own. "You mean…with the situation at Yu Dao…?"
The unspoken meaning was this: You mean the fact that people of different races can coexist in a harmonious relationship without trying to slaughter each other?
Aang, of course, was on a completely different track. Unbeknownst to the lovely Waterbender, he had fallen back into his metaphorical Zuko-related worry groove in his mental sofa cushion. Not that he felt much better about coming so close to killing whatever chances they had at marriage, either. However, given the fact that neither his relationship with Katara nor the Water Triber herself were in mortal peril at the moment, he had no choice but to remain fixated on the one member of his "family" who was.
"Exactly," he said heatedly. "I mean…I know I'm the last Airbender. I know I'm the Avatar. But really, I just…I feel like I've been failing at both of those things. Who am I to be teaching the ways of my people to the world, when I can't even figure out when promises should be…not broken, exactly, but…never made? I was such an idiot to agree to kill Zuko like that! I mean, what kind of person just agrees to something like that?"
"You're being too hard on yourself," she interjected. "Aang, you and Zuko were both just trying to do what you felt was right…not for yourselves, but for the world."
"And that's just it, Katara. I haven't been thinking about the world. The only person I've been thinking about is myself and what I want and what I need. Even now with the cease fire in effect, there's so much political tension between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation…and all I can worry about is my outdated heritage…"
As much as Katara didn't like to hear Aang talking like this, she forced herself to listen…to really listen. It was what her book reiterated in every single chapter—to listen as hard as you could, to not force your own preconceived notions into a diagnosis. Some symptoms speak softer than others, after all.
And there was definitely something very wrong with her boyfriend.
Katara had always thought Aang was resilient and brave to shoulder the loss of his people during such a crisis as the Hundred Years War. His world had literally changed in the blink of an eye (if you don't count the century spent frozen in ice). But seeing his flip-flopping reactions to the fan-club's interpretation of his culture, from nostalgia to grief to downright anger…it made her realize that he hadn't really dealt with his loss. So long as Ozai had been on the throne, he hadn't had the chance to.
Katara wondered if she had been too quick to assume that Aang had been fine…really fine…after finding Monk Gyatso's skeleton back at the Southern Air Temple. That was something she knew would haunt him for the rest of his life…but there was nothing she could possibly say to make that better.
Still, those moments she had suspected…she should have said something…done something to get him to open up to her. But instead she had let him put these feelings on a shelf until the war ended, and now they were festering inside of him. It was aging him before her eyes.
"I mean, I know that things change…and I understand why they have to…but Spirits damn it, Katara! Back in my day, if someone started dropping blatant hints that he wanted to die…that he wanted to kill himself…someone…anyone would have tried to stop him!"
That got her attention like a slap in the face.
"Wait a minute," she said shakily. "W-what are you saying, Aang?"
Her voice lacked its normal conviction and strength, mostly because she felt as if she had been sucker-punched. Tui and La, she knew that her boyfriend had some unresolved issues to work with…and maybe he was even dealing with some sort of undiagnosed depression (come to think of it, Katara had just read a chapter about it in her textbook)…but what on earth was he doing, talking about suicide?
Suddenly, she didn't want Aang teaching anyone anything. She wanted to drape a blanket over his shoulders and force-feed him his favorite meal until he was himself again.
But at the moment, she was kind of frozen. Aang, being too absorbed in his fear that Zuko would kill himself, unwittingly made his girlfriend think that he was the suicidal one. And what's more, he didn't even notice.
He just let out a frustrated sigh. "Sometimes I just think that it would have been better for everyone if I hadn't been frozen in that iceberg. Maybe then the world would have an Avatar that wasn't so flawed…or at least one who knew what he was doing…"
Katara's jaw dropped even wider in her horror.
"Oh, wow," said Aang suddenly, looking up at the sky for the first time in hours. "I didn't realize we stayed here for so long! We need to go back to the Jasmine Dragon right now!"
She blinked at him. She had finally found her voice again, but now she was sidetracked by this unexpected declaration…and the inexplicable fervency behind it.
"What's the rush?" she asked. "I thought you wanted to get away from the city and the stress. You said you needed to relax," she added pointedly.
But Aang wasn't taking the bait.
"There's no time for that," he said. "Anyway, how can I relax? I should have been back hours ago…but the girls had so many questions, and I just lost track of everything while I was talking to you. I'm sorry, Sweetie, but we need to leave right now."
"I don't think you should be rushing around anywhere," Katara snapped, her anxiety getting the better of her and putting an edge in her voice. "We haven't done enough talking! Spirits, Aang…how long have you felt like this? Why didn't you tell me before?"
"Tell you what?"
She gave him the most incredulous look. "About the suicide!"
Now, this is where the misunderstanding began to boil over like a pot of scalding water.
Aang blinked at her in astonishment. Actually, to be more accurate, he almost fell off of Appa's back, but grabbed on to one of his trusty bison's horns just in time. Because how on earth had Katara managed to pluck that secret from his brain? He hadn't told anybody about Zuko's "problem" just yet; not even Iroh.
Hell, the only reason he hadn't told Iroh yet was because he hadn't been able to get him alone long enough to do it. Somehow after being fed Bubble Tea, while Zuko was talking his ear off about his mother and how vital finding her would be to his future mental health (no pressure, Aang), the Dragon of the West had somehow slipped away to attend a secret, weirdly urgent meeting of the Order of the White Lotus.
And Aang hadn't seen the man since.
Still, the issue remained: How did Katara know? Or perhaps a better question would be, why did she suddenly know about Zuko's suicidal tendencies when Aang was trying to keep it a secret (for now)? Why now? Why not earlier, when Zuko was making him promise to kill him if he "went bad?"
And it wasn't like she didn't hear him. She had looked Aang dead in the eye and nodded while Zuko was saying things like, "As your friend, I'm asking you—if you ever see me go bad, end me. Promise me, Aang." As if it was the only right thing to do in that situation.
So what gives?
"What do you mean?" Aang replied in understandable confusion. "I thought it was obvious…I mean, Zuko must have mentioned it a hundred times already."
Now Katara was the one blind sighted, reeling at this unexpected confession. Zuko? Zuko had known that Aang was depressed? He had known that Aang wished he hadn't woken up from the iceberg? That Aang wanted to die? How? Since when?
She was going to kill him. KILL him.
"Aang, I think I would have remembered something like that," she said in a tense voice. "Look, if this is some kind of joke…it isn't funny."
"But you were there," he said, flustered. Then, seeing the distress on his girlfriend's face, he hastily backtracked. "But it's not your fault! I mean, everyone should have realized…but no one ever did…that time on Appa's saddle…and in Yu Dao…and…hell, even before the war ended. I know it's a shock, but the truth is that you're not the only one realizing this now, Sweetie…"
"Don't you Sweetie me!" Katara snarled.
Aang shrank back in visible terror, his grey eyes wide and alarmed.
"K-Katara," he stammered. "Look, I know things seem really bad right now…and believe me, I know things are bad, I know! But I'm going to fix it! Really! Avatar's honor! That's why I need to get back to the Jasmine Dragon as soon as possible…so I can get Iroh to help me…and I think if I talk to him I can figure out how to…well…make it better…"
He decided it would be better for him to take his ass-kicking like a man (since apparently he was due for one judging by the way Katara was fingering the lip of her water skin pouch) and dutifully slid off of Appa's saddle to stand before her. He tensed and waited for his girlfriend's wrath.
But the Waterbender's murderous stare eroded away into a smaller, more frightened and uncertain expression. She looked like she was having a crisis, and Aang felt terrible about it. This definitely wasn't the way he wanted to tell her about Zuko. But it was too late; the damage was done. All he could do was reassure her that things would be fine, that they'd get through this, that he wouldn't do anything hasty and that as soon as possible he would get some help.
Katara was actually quite adamant that Aang promised her that.
"I mean it," she said. "I want you to talk to Iroh. He'll know how to help you, Aang. And I'll go to back to the library and read every book on depression I can find. I want to be here for you…every step of the way, okay? We can beat this together."
Well, at least she wasn't mad at him for keeping the Zuko thing a secret. Actually, she was being weirdly affectionate and understanding. After Aang promised her (again) that he would talk to Iroh, she pulled him into the deepest embrace he had ever gotten from her. It was very reminiscent of the time he had been shot with lightning and died, and she had cradled him in her arms (though technically he was dead so he really shouldn't have any memories of that, but whatever).
"I love you, Aang," she murmured into his shoulder.
"Um…" he said awkwardly, rubbing circles into her back (this was definitely not how he envisioned this conversation ending…not that he was complaining). "I love you, too?"
More silence as they held each other.
"Katara," said Aang cautiously. "I…I can't breathe."
All in all, today had been a pretty good day.
Zuko found himself in one of his rare pleasant moods as he came back from his market excursion. His basket had every single thing Uncle had put on the list, the shopkeeper had been almost reasonable (upon seeing that Zuko was Fire Nation he only charged him double the usual amount for cumquats), and no one had even tried to kill him yet. For a guy who frequently found himself on the wrong end of a would-be assassin's knife, this was a nice change.
Nothing could possibly ruin his day, now. Absolutely nothing.
Don't you love those famous last words?
Zuko stopped short as he heard the strange sound echoing out from the alley. It was very faint at first, certainly not loud enough to grab his attention on its own except for the motion of a rattling tin-can catching the Fire Lord's eye. He froze on instinct and waited just long enough to hear the tiny "mew" sound redoubling in pathetic earnest.
He stood absolutely still as an itty-bitty creature wobbled out from behind the can and pawed at it helplessly. It was a kitten-squirrel…a half-starved, big-eyed, bushy-tailed kitten-squirrel; all alone in the world with no one to love or protect it. And it was just a baby, too. He could tell by the look in its big round doe eyes as it finally noticed him gawking from the mouth of the alley.
Zuko stared at it. It stared back before letting out a very hesitant, "…mew."
His golden eyes widened at the inexplicable cuteness presented before him, a little cowed by it to be perfectly honest. He hadn't seen anything so frail-looking in his entire life, and it was kind of scary to imagine just how long such a creature would survive in the big, bad world.
It was quite obvious where this train of thought was leading, and Zuko was doing his damndest not to reach the station. It was a train-wreck waiting to happen.
"Don't be stupid," he muttered to himself in an attempt to see reason. "I can't just take the little beast…it probably has a family anyway."
"Mew," said the kitten-squirrel. Which probably translated to: "They say insanity runs in the family for a reason, oh, Tall-and-Scary Human."
Now that Zuko thought about it, the poor creature looked like a runt. He was bound to be an outcast. The other kitten-squirrels would probably laugh at him and ridicule him for his small size. More than likely, his younger sibling kitten-squirrel would probably outshine him in every single kitten-squirrel-related thing there was to shine at. And then the big bad Squirrel-Cat Lord of the alley would shun him and bat him across the nose with a giant flaming paw!
Just like that! There would be a sudden Meow-Ni-Kai and then Whack! Banishment! Shame! Humiliation!
And then the poor little kitten-squirrel would be all alone, with not even a nice, fat Uncle Squirrel-Cat to make him tea. And eventually the unfortunate fellow would be banished to the far reaches of the flea-infested dumpster to look for the meowvatar…err…that is to say, the Avatar.
The more Zuko thought about it, the direr the kitten-squirrel's prospects seemed to become. The hardships in store for the little creature burgeoned into a black mushroom cloud of defeat in his mind. After all, how could a little kitten-squirrel capture the Avatar all by himself? He didn't even have opposable thumbs!
"Dammit," he grumbled. "I can't just leave it here."
Truth: Zuko may have been the acting regent of a country whose former national anthem had its youth praising genocide…but he was not heartless.
However, he was a tad self-conscious. Which was why he looked frantically over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching him. When the coast was clear, he ducked down and swiftly plucked the small animal from the gutter, holding the shivering creature against his chest. It mewed again, this time in distress. It didn't like being picked up by strange monarchs.
"Shhhh…" he soothed it. "Don't be scared. I'm not going to hurt you."
The kitten-squirrel was in very firm belief that this was not the case at all, and decided to express this by rolling its eyes into the back of its head and passing out.
Zuko thought this was a rather good first impression considering his usual luck with small animals and household pets. Most of his went missing and turned up dead after a few days. Sad to say that after Azula found the fifth consecutive bunny-puppy corpse Ursa was forced to put a permanent ban on the tradition of pet-hood for the rest of Zuko's childhood days.
However, that particular bunny-puppy had been burned so badly that he couldn't even tell if it was even a bunny-puppy at all. He never said a word to anyone, but he very much believed that Mr. Flooffles had just run away out of spite. Azula seemed to think so, too.
Ursa had opted to make no comments on the matter.
"What am I going to name you?" he asked the unconscious kitten-squirrel as he continued down the street to the Jasmine Dragon.
The kitten-squirrel flopped lifelessly against his chest and offered no suggestions.
"Well, you're all alone…and mangy…but you've clearly survived by the skin of your teeth, which means you've had to really work for it. You've really got a will to live, don't you?"
The baby animal gave its agreement with silence (or maybe it was just still unconscious). It was definitely still alive, too, because Zuko could feel its little heart trying to beat its way out of its tiny chest in fright. And fear definitely indicated some sort of survival instinct.
"Hey," he said slowly, his golden eyes getting brighter by the second. "Wait a minute…that's perfect. Will-to-Live. Your name should be Will-to-Live."
At this point, Will-to-Live was starting to come to. "Mew…?"
"You like it? Then it's settled then." Zuko beamed down at the kitten-squirrel and stroked it behind the ears, something that made it flinch at first. After a few seconds of this gentle treatment, the baby animal started to melt under his touch and even managed a tentative purr. "You're going to love it at Uncle's teashop. He'll take good care of you, and then you'll grow up to be a big, strong Squirrel-Cat…and you'll get your honor back before you know it. You'll be bigger and stronger than any mangy elephant-rat that tries to get in the kitchens…or even your father. You'll prove your worth to him one day; don't worry."
"Don't talk like that, Will-to-Live. You need to stay positive…like me."
The kitten-squirrel had a mind to shrug. He had no idea what this strange human was saying, but he liked being petted. Maybe if he kept playing cute, he'd get fed, too. That would be nice.
However, just as these fleeting notions of food and comfort started to form in Will-to-Live's kitten-squirrel brain, the air abruptly became thick with danger. There was a tangible aura of hostility emanating from the path ahead, something Zuko seemed oblivious to as murmured soothing words into Will-to-Live's pointed ears. Instinctively, the kitten-squirrel arched his back and forced every single hair on his body to stand on end as his claws came out.
Which turned out to be a good thing after all. As Zuko stopped abruptly short, hissing in pain as eight little claws dug into his arm, a water-whip stream-lined past him, missing his face by inches.
"An assassin?" he muttered in dismay. Then he glanced down at Will-to-Live, who had taken the temporary lapse in hostility as the perfect opportunity to pass out again. "You saved my life," he realized, cradling the kitten-squirrel in the crook of his arm.
His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of a figure crouched in the shadows ahead, watching him. The Waterbending assassin was waiting for his next move.
"And now it's time for me to save yours," he promised.
Meanwhile, Aang had finally made it back to the Jasmine Dragon after hastily dropping Appa off at the nearest stable. He had only paused to kiss Katara good-bye (as she suddenly had very pressing matters to attend to elsewhere in her best ninja gear…weird) and grab Momo before racing off to the upscale tea shop. Using that bizarre Airbending super-secret sonic speed technique that defied the laws of common sense, he made it to Iroh's domain in less than five minutes at a dead sprint.
He practically fainted on the doorstep he was so exhausted.
"Table for two?" the stuffy doorman inquired, seeming not to mind that Aang's second was a very bewildered flying lemur that happened to be clinging for dear life with all paws around his bald head.
"Y-yes…I mean, no…I mean…Iroh…! Need to see Iroh!"
"Unfortunately, Mister Iroh is out running errands until further notice. However, if you insist, I can pencil you in for a future appointment and have him contact you as soon as he becomes available again."
"No," said Aang. "I need to see him now. Today."
"Normal business hours are from ten o' clock in the morning from Monday through Thursday until eight o' clock in the evening. I suggest you come back tomorrow when the tea shop is open."
"What do you mean? It's eight o' clock now!"
"To be precise, it is eight o' three, young Avatar," said the man crisply. "And it is no use asking to see Iroh as he is currently not at home."
Now, Aang was not in a very patient mood. In fact, he was almost desperate enough where the door-keeper's words would have sent him spiraling into the Avatar State. Almost, but not quite. Because just when he felt himself "getting his glow on," Iroh himself came bustling up the front steps carrying a brand new clay tea pot and a tightly-bound scroll with the White Lotus stamp on it.
"That won't be necessary, Pao," he said, handing Aang the teapot and patting the boy on the shoulder. "This is the Avatar. He is staying here until the next international peace summit with the Earth King, so be sure to let him in if I happen to be out."
"Of course, Sir."
Iroh nodded and smiled. Then he turned to Aang and whispered confidentially in his ear. "He's new."
The monk grinned a little manically (of course he was) and let out a nervous laugh. "No, it's fine. I mean, I've only been trying to talk to you since yesterday…and had no idea where you went. That's all. It's not like lives are at stake, here, or anything…heh…heh, heh…"
The tea-maker raised an eyebrow.
"Perhaps you would like to elaborate on that cryptic statement over a cup of soothing chamomile tea," he suggested, leading the boy (or perhaps steering would be a better word) towards the dining area. He plopped Aang down at the table closest to the kitchen, took the teapot back, and set to work.
Or he would have if his guest would be patient and wait for his tea instead of chasing him into the kitchen and practically clawing his arm off.
"You don't understand," he told Iroh frantically. "This isn't about me, it's about Zuko. I think he's going to do something…bad."
"Now, Aang," said Iroh a little sternly. "Really, I know the Yu Dao Incident has caused you a great deal of worry, but Zuko has already proven himself to be a capable leader. I would think that would have earned him a certain amount of trust."
"Then I am certain that he is just fine."
Zuko was most certainly NOT fine.
He thrust his fist out and launched a few bursts of fire at his rapidly approaching assailant, who bent an ice slide to carry herself (he was certain the assassin was female) over and around him. He wheeled and jumped back to avoid another barrage of ice projectiles, melting them before they could bury themselves in his vital organs.
Unfortunately, as he touched down several yards back, the assassin sent a water-whip snaking around his ankle and tugged. Zuko fell gracelessly on his ass, almost flattening Will-to-Live, who mewled in distress.
The kitten-squirrel squirmed out of his grip and went to hide inside the Fire Lord's dropped and (now-empty) basket, fur bristling and tail stiff as a rod. The cumquats lay splattered on the ground next to the floored firebender. He didn't move as the waterbender approached him with death in her eyes.
Wait a minute…he recognized those eyes.
"What?" she spat, pulling off the scarf disguising her and glaring at him. "You can't say you didn't see this coming after what you did. And just so you know, you can start begging for your life now…not that it'll make a difference. I'm going to kill you."
It was taking a few moments for Zuko's brain to catch up.
"Kill me?" he repeated. "Wait, what are you talking about? What did I do?"
Katara grabbed the Fire Lord by the scruff of his shirt, dragged his butt off the ground, and slammed him into a wall. A moment later he found himself being held there by the point of a very sharp looking icicle poised dangerously over his Adam's apple. His eyes went wide in shock.
"I warned you," she growled. "Remember? Back at the Western Air Temple I said very clearly that if you did anything to hurt Aang, I would put an end to your destiny…permanently. And apparently you didn't listen to me."
Zuko blinked in frantic bewilderment. "W-what?"
"Quit playing dumb! Aang said that you knew. He's been suicidal all this time and you knew and you never told me you…you…jerk!"
And then Katara decided to completely abandon any sense of dignity by bursting into tears. She let the icicle melt away into a puddle at her feet as she blew her nose into the Fire Lord's shirt, something he definitely didn't appreciate. It was all he could do to awkwardly take her by the shoulders after she had moments ago held him at weapon point with a visible intent to kill.
"Go back to the part about Aang being suicidal," he said slowly as the information refused to compute in his brain. "What are you even talking about? Aang isn't suicidal."
"Yes, he is! Stop lying to me!"
Zuko shook his head incredulously. "Since when?"
The Water Tribe girl sniffled angrily. "Since forever! He said he wished he hadn't woken up from the iceberg at all! He called himself a flawed Avatar and said he was failing in his responsibilities…and he wants to die so that another Avatar can be born in the cycle to fix things! And…you…knew!" she fumed, stabbing his chest with an accusing finger to punctuate her words.
Zuko felt his heart lurch in guilt. Hearing the words flawed Avatar brought him back to last night when he had been talking to Aang. Granted, he had been somewhat hazy after his four days spent unconscious, so it was kind of hard to focus on what was being said at the time. But that was no excuse, apparently, since he had remembered enough of that conversation to have a sinking feeling in his chest upon hearing Katara's heated accusation.
"As soon as my foot slipped, I knew you wouldn't let me die."
"…because I'm a flawed Avatar," the monk had responded sadly, looking uncharacteristically grim as he stared into his cooling cup of tea.
Had that been what Katara was talking about? Had that been some sort of cry for help? And he had missed it because he was too fixated on finding his mother?
Maybe the Waterbender hadn't completely lost her mind after all. Zuko loosened his grip on her, his face growing pale as he looked her dead in the eyes. She stared tearfully back at him, her expression so taut and anxious that it destroyed any chances in his mind that this was just some sort of twisted prank. She was absolutely certain that Aang wanted to kill himself.
A/N: And so it begins.
I know the first part of this chapter wasn't very funny. Again, suicide is a very serious topic and tends to make for a serious scene. Hopefully you guys agree with me that it was necessary in setting up the humor at the end of the chapter. Finally, we can see the words from the previous two chapters coming back to haunt Aang as Katara gets the wrong end of the stick and jumps to blame Zuko because of it.
And Zuko makes a new friend. Presenting the kitten-squirrel hazardously named Will-to-Live. I thought it would make for an interesting metaphor standing on spindly little legs as it moseyed its way up to Zuko and mewed at him. Come on? Who can resist a little kitteney-squirrel face like that? I can see the kitten-squirrel as the perfect animal to act as a metaphor for Zuko's "will to live" since the little guy tends to play dead repeatedly. That comes from its squirrel half, which I'm pretty sure is related to the possum.
Why a kitten-squirrel and not a possum-kitten? Well, let me ask you this: which of those two animals sounds more likely to have rabies? Be honest...kitten-squirrel sounds WAY cuter. I am also aware that regular cats exist in Avatarverse...and I don't care. Zuko finds a kitten-squirrel. Deal with it.
Oh, and in case it wasn't clear, all of Zuko's childhood pets were butchered by Azula (the little scamp). Ursa did a lot of damage control back in those days to prevent permanent psychological scarring in young Zuko (it's mind canon that this is one of the reasons why she mutters to herself about Azula "What is wrong with that child?").
The imagined traumas of Will-to-Live (specifically the Meow-Ni-Kai and Will-to-Live's eventual (imagined) banishment to hunt for the "Meowvatar") was originally going to spawn its own fic. I was planning on writing something a cute humor/parody fic called: "Meowvatar: The Last Petbender." Zuko would be an angry cat with a splotch of dark fur over one eye. And the dreaded Agni Kai would be a pissed off Ozai cat swatting Zuko-kitten across the nose.
I didn't have the time to actually make it a fic (yet), but it's sitting there in my brain. I want to write it so bad, but I have a crap-ton of other things to work on right now. I should be writing the next chapter to Avatar Aang and the Chocolate Factory right now, as a matter of fact.
Anyway, the theme of this chapter was "Tradition" and how it quite often needs to be broken in order for society to progress and evolve into something new. Obviously progress isn't always a good thing (as is evidenced by the Fire Nation's approach to progress; amped up technology meant more war weapons to exploit their enemies and more pollution to exploit everyone else). But staying fixed in one's ways tends to end just as badly if the Earth King and the Dai Li are any example.
That's why Aang is so grim after gathering his Air Acolytes. He is aware of the need for change and progress, and knows how vital it is to preserve the Air Nomad culture. But he is also fearful that any changes he makes might come back to haunt future generations. His rapidly dissolving faith in Roku has deeply shaken him and caused him to doubt himself as an Avatar.
And so now Katara thinks he's depressed (and to be honest, she's probably not wrong).
Let's be honest; Aang went through a ton of traumatic shit during the war. He's seen Monk Gyatso's skeleton, watched homes burn down, people dying and fighting to end the war…and has probably been blaming himself the entire time. I don't think he's really had a chance to sit down and actually deal with his issues while he was busy trying to overthrow that ass-hat Ozai. Unless you count Dr. Wang Fire (a.k.a. Sokka), he hasn't even seen a therapist.
Katara tried her best here and there during the course of the show, and Aang is obviously very good at avoiding the issues until he absolutely has no choice but to deal with them head on. And this was probably the most practical thing to do during the war. But the war is over now and the time has come to take those traumatic memories off his mental shelf and sort through them.
So, yeah…not a happy brain place for the young Avatar. Sorry guys.
I realize that Aang should have spoken to Iroh already (as is the most logical course of action upon realizing your friend is suicidal). But the next scene in the comic showed him talking to his Air Acolytes, and I realized that this was something he probably had arranged days ago, before he had his talk with Zuko. At that point it probably would have been really, really hard to call it off at the last second; and I can imagine Aang being worried that a lot of them would get fed up if he had. He probably wouldn't want too many of them to quit wanting to learn the Air Nomad heritage, or he'd be back at square one with his problem of preserving his culture all on his onesies.
To add to the plausibility of Aang's decision to continue on with the meeting, I arranged a very plot-convenient Order of the White Lotus meeting to keep Iroh indisposed until Aang was done talking to his new disciples (and Katara) so I could set up the plot for the rest of the chapter. It's blatant lampshading and I don't care. It's a humor fic. I'll lampshade as much as I damn well please in a humor fic. I think I can get away with it in this instance.
Thank you for digesting this lump of an Author's Note. If you aren't too disgusted with me for rambling on and on so shamelessly, please take the time to REVIEW. I'd really appreciate it.
Thanks in advance!