"Anyone following us?" Sokka asked as he walked down one side of the airship.
"Not another airship in sight," his father answered as he turned away from the window.
"All looks clear over here, too," Suki announced from the other side.
Sokka allowed himself a sigh of temporary relief and walked back to Zuko at the helm. "How are we doing?"
"Holding steady," Zuko replied. "We have plenty of fuel. We should make it back to the temple before morning."
"Where are we going anyway?" The prisoner named Chit Sang who had tagged along walked up and joined them.
The two boys glanced at each other for reassurance. They had agreed a few hours ago that the newcomer had nothing to gain by double-crossing them, he was now a fugitive from the Fire Nation who had to hide just as much as they did, it was in his best interest to stay on good terms with his rescuers, and they had him strongly outnumbered anyway, but their warrior instincts were still naturally wary of trusting the stranger too readily. They still hadn't told him they were with the Avatar or how they had ended up in the Boiling Rock in the first place. However, he would find out their destination eventually.
Sokka turned to the newcomer and answered, "The Western Air Temple. It's been abandoned ever since the genocide of the Air Nomads a hundred years ago. The rest of our party's there."
"The prisoners talk about that place," Chit Sang explained. "Some say that if you could escape and get there, you could find sanctuary with the Air Nomads who survived in secret."
"Well, there are no secret survivors," Zuko informed him. "But you'll be safe with us as long as you don't try anything."
"You'll have to stay with us whether you like it or not anyway," Sokka added. "We're not gonna have anyone running to tell the Fire Nation where we're hiding."
Chit Sang threw up his hands and said, "Don't worry, I don't want any trouble. I go back to the Fire Nation, I go right back to prison. Whatever you're up to, your secret's safe with me."
"We'll make sure of that when we land," said Sokka.
Chit Sang didn't ask what he meant, only, "Who are you guys anyway?"
Sokka and Zuko exchanged another look, once again wondering how much to reveal, when Suki walked over. "I'm Suki, leader of the Warriors of Kyoshi Island on the southern border of the Earth Kingdom. We only recently joined the war against the Fire Nation. We were ambushed by Princess Azula and taken captive a few months ago." She looked at Sokka when she finished and received a look of thanks back from him for revealing minimally their involvement in the war without mentioning the Avatar. They could use the newcomer's reaction as a gauge. They observed he didn't react much to her story, showing no animosity nor even much interest towards a declared enemy of the Fire Nation. Sokka was inclined to think the war was of no concern to him.
Hakoda joined them next and put his arm around his son's shoulders. "I'm Hakoda, Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, and this is my son Sokka. I led the invasion of Capital City on the Day of Black Sun."
"So there really was an invasion?" Chit Sang in mild surprise. "Most of us thought that was a crazy rumor."
"A crazy true rumor," Sokka clarified.
"We heard the Avatar was part of that invasion, too," Chit Sang added. "I guess the rest of your army is hiding out at this temple, huh?"
"Those who were able to escape," said Zuko.
"What about you?" Chit Sang asked next, turning to Zuko. "You're not from the Water Tribe or the Earth Kingdom, are you?"
"No," Zuko said, taking a deep breath. "I'm... I was Prince Zuko."
Sokka wasn't sure what to expect from Chit Sang when he heard that; he prepared to see him lash out at the traitor prince, simply gasp in surprise, or shrug as if it was no big deal. The only thing he didn't prepare for was what happened: the man narrowed his eyes, crossed his arms, and said almost angrily, "Ha ha, very funny, kid. Who are you, really?"
Sokka decided he couldn't blame him for not believing that and spoke up: "It's true. He's Zuko, the Prince of the Fire Nation. He's joined up with us, and he's helping us to take down Fire Lord Ozai and win this war."
Chit Sang hadn't taken his eyes off Zuko. He turned to Sokka for one second but then turned right back to Zuko and said, "Don't expect me to buy that just because they did. What's your angle? You don't want people to know your real name, fine, but why pick that one?"
"It is my real name," Zuko replied, baffled at this reaction.
Chit Sang didn't seem to hear him. He turned to the others and said, "I don't know what he's up to or what he told you, but I wouldn't be so quick to trust this guy if I were you." He started to walk away.
Sokka was about to call after him and demand what in the world he was talking about when he felt his father's hand fall on his shoulder. Hakoda asked instead, "Why can't he be who he says he is?"
Chit Sang turned back, throwing a glance of contempt at Zuko, and answered, "Because Prince Zuko died three years ago. Everyone knows that."
Sokka, Hakoda, and Suki looked at each other in utter confusion, wondering where that bizarre statement came from. Zuko shook his head, turned back to the sky, readjusted his hands on the helm and said nothing. The other three decided there would be no point discussing it with him.
The reunion with Katara and the others put the escaped prisoner's strange behavior out of everyone's mind for a while. Zuko was handing around cups of tea and Katara and Aang bowls of jackalope stew when Toph and Hakoda led "the new recruit," as Toph called him, to the celebratory late-night campfire.
"He's clean," Toph said as she began to sit down beside Sokka. "We can trust him."
"Of course you can," Chit Sang emphasized with his goofy smile.
"Good," Sokka said, standing up and grabbing Toph's arm before she could sit down. "Toph, walk with me a minute." They walked away before the confused Earthbender could protest.
Chit Sang took the cup of tea Zuko offered him but not without glaring at him. Zuko ignored it, but Aang noticed and wondered what that was about. Chit Sang noticed the boy staring at him and said, "So, you're the Avatar, huh? I thought you'd be older."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Aang confessed. He looked from the newcomer to Chief Hakoda to Suki. "So, you three were all taken to some prison called the Boiling Rock?"
"Don't remind me," Chit Sang said.
"My father told me about that place," said Haru. "There used to be rumors that that was where they were taking the Earthbenders they captured from our village."
"I can't believe Sokka and Zuko got you out," Teo said in wonder. Chit Sang scoffed and glared at Zuko again. Zuko didn't seem to notice.
Toph and Sokka came back, both looking determined about something. They sat down in silence. Toph began eating spoonfuls of stew, and Sokka took one sip from his teacup. Then he looked directly at the new recruit across the campfire, cleared his throat, and said, "So, Chit Sang, that was some pretty big news you gave us on the airship..."
"What news?" Katara asked.
"Did any of you know that Zuko, the Prince of the Fire Nation, died three years ago?" Zuko took his own turn to glare at Sokka now, but, aside from a nod in his direction, Sokka ignored it.
"What are you talking about?" The Duke asked next as murmurs of surprise and confusion went around the campfire.
"I know, I was surprised, too," Sokka said, seemingly innocently.
Aang turned to the new guy and asked him, "What? Why would you say that?"
Before he could respond, Sokka called, "That's what I'd like to know. What makes you think Prince Zuko is dead?"
Zuko spoke for the first time: "What does it matter?"
"Been hiding something from us?" Katara asked, her voice dripping with suspicion at Zuko's reluctance to address the subject.
"Prince Zuko's not dead, he right here," said Haru, gesturing to the boy sitting next to him. "He came to my village in his ship months ago looking for the Avatar."
"Mine, too," Suki added.
"He's followed us all over the world," said Aang.
"He helped his sister conquer Ba Sing Se. He's the Prince of the Fire Nation, all right," Katara said with an angry relish, hoping the implications of this fact would finally sink in for her teammates, albeit belatedly.
"Will you all let the man explain?" Toph finally asked.
"Look, I don't know anything about your friend here," Chit Sang said calmly. "All I know is that Prince Zuko was killed three years ago, less than a year before I was locked up."
"Okay," said Hakoda. "Who killed him?"
Chit Sang answered, "His own father Fire Lord Ozai – who else?"
There was a pause as everyone looked at Zuko, who was taking a long drink of his tea with his eyes closed and his head bowed towards the fire, and then (except for Aang) hurriedly looked everywhere else.
Hakoda finally asked, "Really? Why would he do that?"
"Because he couldn't keep his mouth shut." Chit Sang brought his fist down on the log he sitting on as he said it, and the campfire briefly flared up. Sokka had the sneaking suspicion, however, that his contempt wasn't directed at Zuko.
"What happened?" Toph asked.
"No one was supposed to know," Chit Sang began. "But the story leaked out – they always do. In one day, everyone in the Capital City heard about it; in a week, everyone in the Fire Nation. The way I heard it, it was Zuko's first time in the royal war chamber. They were trying to figure out how to take the Earth Kingdom capital, Ba Sing Se."
"You don't say?" Katara whispered. Zuko turned away from her glare.
Chit Sang continued: "Yeah. The plan was to use a division of new recruits as bait – send them in first and, while the Earthbenders were busy killing them, start the real attack from the rear."
It was no worse than the brutalities everyone in the circle had witnessed the Fire Nation commit firsthand, yet it made them all, save Zuko and Katara, gasp in shock. Perhaps it was the ruthless cruelty of the act of sacrificing your own people – not that they ever would have thought Fire Lord Ozai or any Firebending General above such depravity – that made it seem too evil to hear without revulsion. Suki grabbed Sokka's hand. Hakoda swallowed hard. Aang dropped his spoon. Katara simply shook her head, not the least bit surprised. Zuko narrowed his eyes as he continued to stare silently into the fire.
Chit Sang hadn't paused, however: "Only the highest ranking, most important Generals and Admirals in the Fire Nation meet in the Fire Lord's war chamber. They're big men when it comes to bullying a bunch of peasants, but put them in that room, and they're about as tough as pig-chickens. There's only one rule in there: Agree. Nobody speaks up against anything it sounds like the Fire Lord would like. Nobody has the guts."
"Speaking from personal experience?" Toph asked.
"Nope, just what I've heard. That's why, at first, nobody believed what they heard happened that day."
"What?" Aang asked, frightened of the answer without knowing why.
"That Prince Zuko spoke out against the plan. They said he stood up and shouted they couldn't sacrifice a division of soldiers like that. What an idiot – kid should've known better than that."
The fire blazed up again, much higher and hotter than it did before. The group had to shield their faces from the heat, which was why only Haru and Aang were able to look at Zuko as he got up from between them and walked quickly off into the darkness. The fire relaxed back to normal.
Chit Sang looked inquisitively after Zuko until Katara asked, skeptically, "So, his own father killed him for speaking out of turn?"
"Yep. He couldn't get away with doing it just like that, though. He ordered him to fight an Agni Kai, a Firebender duel, with him. Kid wouldn't raise a hand against his own father, of course. The Fire Lord struck him down with one blow."
"No, he didn't!" Aang screamed, leaping to his feet and scaring Momo away from where he'd been sleeping by his feet. Katara gently grabbed his wrist, eager to hear this tall tale through to the end and not wanting her friend to let it bother him.
Before Aang had sat back down, Chit Sang said, "Oh, yes, he did. Then they concocted some ridiculous cover story about how the prince had been injured and banished. That's why he disappeared that day and no one's heard from him since," he ended, sarcastically.
"Um, exactly how much news do you hear in the Boiling Rock?" asked Sokka.
"Not much, only what other prisoners tell you when they come in, and a place like that doesn't get new prisoners that often. They save it only for us very special criminals. That's why it was big news when you guys came in," Chit Sang said, gesturing to Hakoda. "Hadn't seen any new arrivals for months."
"Before Ba Sing Se fell," Haru stated.
"It's true," Suki confirmed. "I never heard about Ba Sing Se or the invasion while I was in there."
"What exactly did you hear about the invasion?" Sokka asked Chit Sang.
"Only what some guys on my block said they heard some guards talking about," he explained. "They said they heard them say they were glad their old General, Iroh, escaped during the eclipse."
"Zuko didn't do anything the day of the invasion, except disappear," Sokka thought aloud. "You never heard about how Prince Zuko and Princess Azula conquered Ba Sing Se, how Azula killed the Avatar, and Zuko returned home from his banishment?"
"What are you talking about?" Chit Sang asked, evidently not taking the question seriously.
Instead of answering him, Sokka turned to Toph and asked, "Toph?"
"He's telling the truth," she said confidently.
"What he thinks is the truth," Katara added. "Hate to break it to you, Mister, but Prince Zuko is, unfortunately, alive and well. The Fire Lord never killed him, and he's spent the last three years hunting the Avatar and the last few months causing us nothing but trouble until he had a sudden change of heart."
Chit Sang's eyes widened. He put his bowl of stew down, leaned forward, and said, "You mean, that's really... he's really..?"
"Yes, it's really him. He really was banished," Aang said firmly, trying to keep his voice steady as the story he'd just heard continued to sink in.
Chit Sang shook his head. "My sister always said only Capital City knows what really goes on in Capital City."
"You lived far away?" Toph wondered.
"On one of the smallest islands," Chit Sang told her.
"News changes fast... and truth travels slow," Suki mused aloud.
"How did you end up in the Boiling Rock?" asked Hakoda.
"The army came to our island to draft new recruits. I was the only one my sister had to take care of her and her baby. I wasn't going to abandon them for a Fire Lord who would throw me to the wolfbats as soon as he got me in uniform anyway. Every other man there felt the same way, but I was the only one who tried to run. We got caught. They decided to make an example of me. I don't know if it worked. Guess there's a lot of things you don't know while you're inside."
"So there are others in the Fire Nation who know what the Fire Lord tried to do to their soldiers and what Zuko did for them?" asked Aang.
"Aang, what are you talking about?" Katara wondered, nonplussed.
Chit Sang answered him anyway: "You bet. They have to hide it, and plenty of them don't believe it, but those who do have been waiting for Ozai to lose this war ever since they heard..."
Katara interrupted him: " Heard what? You just found out it's not true."
"What, you'd put it past Ozai to do that?" Chit Sang asked her.
"Of course not," she answered. "They probably made lots of plans like that lots of times, but this story you're talking about..."
"You think it's all just made up?" Aang asked, even more surprised by her attitude than he'd been by the story itself.
"None of it's true, Aang," Katara said with certainty.
"We don't know that, Katara," her father said gently.
"Zuko's alive," she pointed out, slowly, so as to control her frustration. "What more proof do you need?"
"But he was banished," Aang insisted.
"He never told us how he got that scar," Sokka said softly.
"We could find out, you know," Toph said, putting her hands on her knees as if she intended to stand up, go find the prince, and interrogate him right now.
Aang stood up before she could and swiped his hand through the air as he yelled, "No! Can't you see he doesn't want to talk about this?"
"If he was banished, then you can bet it's true," Chit Sang said confidently. "That is how the story goes – some of us just didn't believe it. The Fire Lord and his buddies wouldn't have tried so hard to keep it quiet if it wasn't true."
"It can't be true!" Katara said, almost yelling. "After all the things Zuko's done to us, you really expect us to believe he once stood up like that for a group of soldiers he'd never even met, that he got that scar as punishment from his father for doing something so, so... heroic?" The word escaped involuntarily.
"I believe it," Chit said, as sure as ever. "And I stand by him like the rest of us who do." He looked over in the direction Zuko had gone.
Aang followed the man's gaze. The boy heard Sokka say, "So do I!", Suki whisper, "I had no idea...", Katara ask Toph if she could believe this and Toph's blunt "Yes" of a reply before he got up and left the circle.
Aang walked down the dark, silent courtyard until he saw light flickering up ahead. He stopped and peered around a pillar. He saw Zuko sitting before a row of candles a few yards from the ledge of the mountain, meditating, his eyes closed, his left side facing the Avatar. Aang looked away with a feeling close to guilt, as if he had no right to look at the boy's scar.
Why didn't you tell us? was his first thought. Were you ashamed? Why? Don' t you know you did the right thing? It was followed by a wave of sorrow. No, it just hurt too much. How could he do this to you? This was quickly succeeded by rage. You idiot! You could have gotten yourself killed! What were you thinking? That soon gave way to an overwhelming sense of admiration and respect. The boy sitting a few yards away was the bravest person Aang had ever known.
He'd have to tell his Firebending master that someday. Someday, but not tonight. It was too painful to talk about tonight. He'd know they all knew now, that they were all talking about him this very moment, that they'd spend the next several days doing nothing but trying not to look at his face. For a few seconds, Aang was sorry they knew, that they had unintentionally violated Zuko's privacy like this. He shook his head. No, maybe he shouldn't be, but the truth was, he was glad he knew.
From out of the corner of his eye, Aang saw the light from the candles go out. Zuko's eyes were still closed, his back straight, his neck tilted down, and his arms thrust forward with his hands clenching his knees hard – the posture of one trying to withstand the attack of a painful memory. Aang knew Zuko wouldn't want anyone bothering him now, but he couldn't leave him like that. He cleared his throat loudly and knocked his staff against the pillar to announce his arrival. Zuko turned and looked up at him as he approached.
Aang suddenly found himself picturing Zuko when he was thirteen, less than a year older than himself right now, standing up in front of the Fire Lord and his most important Generals, telling them they couldn't sacrifice his people to their ruthless quest for power. He knew Zuko knew he was thinking that. He wanted to tell Zuko it was okay – not that what had happened to him was okay, but that he had nothing to be ashamed of, that they were all on his side and wanted to help him, that he deserved to be the one on the throne right now!
Instead, he placed his right fist beneath his left palm, bowed, and said, "Good night, Sifu Zuko." Aang didn't give the other boy a chance to feel he ought to reply before he turned and walked away. He heard a scuffle of movement behind him and walked faster. The movement stopped. He heard the Firebender shift back into position and take a deep breath. Aang didn't turn around, but he saw the soft light of the candles come back to life and illuminate the shadows of the chamber; the steady, rhythmical brightening and dimming of the light told him his friend had understood – that he knew Aang admired what he had done, that Aang was on his side and there for him, that he was safe from any painful questioning tonight – and was at peace, for now.