Summary: When Aang (in the Avatar state) tosses Zuko into the air during their first encounter, Zuko falls into the ocean instead of clinging to the side of his ship. He manages to survive through the intervention of a mysterious force, but he emerges from the encounter different. Capturing the Avatar becomes the least of Zuko's worries as a unique brand of bending pushes him into a new way of thinking.
- Eventually turns into something of an extended version of Zuko Alone, with frequent appearances by the Blue Spirit.
- Mostly gen; pairings might appear, but the fic won't focus on them.
Note: The first six chapters of this have been edited as of 12/31/14. The plot hasn't changed, but six-thousand words of exposition have been cut, and several inconsistencies taken care of. I've also removed out-dated author's notes. New chapters (hopefully) coming soon.
Ch.1: The Catalyst
Zuko's heart dropped into his stomach as the monk pitched backwards off his ship. Why was he such an idiot? He'd seen the boy pressed against the railing, had even thought for a moment that maybe he should give the Avatar room to move forward. But his rage had gotten the better of him. He'd been too furious at having been betrayed, at having his blind trust taking advantage of by a stupid kid-
And now that kid was drowning, dying because of him.
Of course, that wasn't the problem. Zuko was smarter than that, too smart to care about something stupid like the boy's life, but his father's orders had been clear. Find the Avatar and bring him back to the Fire Nation alive. Instead, Zuko had sent the boy plummeting into the freezing polar waters. He'd lived on a ship for years, knew exactly how perilous that was. There was no way the Avatar would survive even if Zuko were to dive in after him, something he considered for a very long moment.
The Avatar—Zuko had killed the Avatar, would have to start searching for the next in the cycle, and…
And he'd been a kid. A child. A boy. A lying boy, a boy with no sense of honor, who'd promised to come quietly and then tried to escape as soon as he was on board the ship, but he couldn't have been older than twelve, and… and-
-and Zuko hadn't wanted to kill him. Just to capture him.
No. He hadn't even wanted that, but it had been necessary for the good of the Fire Nation. Necessary for the revocation of his banishment. He'd only wanted to go home, and now a boy was dead and with his luck, the new Avatar would reappear in the Northern Water Tribe and be all but untouchable. Almost three years, and his first hope of going home had gone up in smoke with an act of murder.
I just killed a kid. I killed a kid. I-
His thoughts screeched to a halt at the sight of a spiraling column of water arching out of the ocean. For a moment there was relief—He's the Avatar. Of course he wouldn't die so easily—but then he could feel nothing but raw fear because the torrent of water must have been a hundred feet high, and the monk was riding it. The Avatar's eyes glowed blue, and the expression on his face was one of power such that Zuko had never seen. It was like his Agni Kai all over again; he felt small and weak and helpless in the face of something so much stronger than he could ever hope to fight.
With an eerie grace and precision, the Avatar landed on the deck and worked the water around him as though it were a long, flowing ribbon. Zuko stared in awe, too shocked to move, and before he could comprehend what was happening, the water lashed out like a whip. He had just enough time to resolve to keep his feet down before he was thrown through the air, back, back, and-
-my ship isn't this big.
Too late, he realized he was falling. Instinct prompted him to grab for the side of his ship, but his fingers barely brushed the metal before falling away. As that last hope slipped from his grasp, Zuko started to panic. He remembered hearing somewhere that some firebenders could propel themselves forward with their flames, and he attempted to do so in a ridiculous last-ditch effort to survive. His fire spluttered around him, slowing his descent for just a moment before it fizzled out completely. He attempted to think of something else, to come up with a crazy plan that might keep him from drowning, but then his back slammed into a wall of icy cold and his wits scattered.
The water was freezing even for a firebender, and deep, rushing up around him on all sides. Zuko flailed and struggled, tried to slow himself down, but his body refused to do anything but sink. With a jolt he remembered his stupid, ridiculous armor, but when he moved to take it off, his arms were stiff and his fingers numb. He tried, tried again and again, but he couldn't manage the single stupid task, and it grew harder and harder to focus as time passed. Black spots dotted his vision and his lungs burned and all feeling slowly drained from his body.
How could he have almost felt sorry for almost killing the Avatar? It was obvious the child had no compunctions about doing the same to him.
Except he wouldn't die, wouldn't give the boy such satisfaction. If he could just get his armor off, if he could work his way out of it, he would have a chance, would maybe be able to force his way to the surface. He'd have to hurry though; he was too far underwater to feel Agni's warmth inside him anymore, too deep to feel any warmth at all. Everything was dark and cold and so damn lonely, and… and he was going to die down there. Alone, killed as the result of the most recent of his long string of failures.
It wasn't fair. So much time searching, and finally, finally his ticket home had been within reach and now he was going to die. He didn't want to die. He wanted his father to tell him he loved him first, wanted a hug from Azula and he wanted to let Uncle know how much he appreciated having him on his ship these past years. He wanted to… he wanted to make something of himself, to become someone honorable and respectable. To grow stronger so that his life was actually worth something when he lost it.
He wanted people to care when he was gone.
Dammit! What he wouldn't do for a little more time. He couldn't just drown, couldn't let it end like this, alone and cold and so far away from the comforting sunlight.
He refused to let it happen.
Giving up on his armor, Zuko raised a weary arm and tried forcing himself upward.
It didn't work.
He raised his other arm. He'd been at sea for almost three years. He was a very good swimmer. Just had to go up. That wasn't so difficult.
Except it was. His body refused to move. The black spots had all but taken over his vision.
His lungs screamed in agony.
I refuse to die like this.
He tried again. Shouted at himself mentally. Tried and failed to make his eyes focus.
I will not die.
Another attempt at swimming. His hand twitched weakly.
I don't want to die.
He kicked. Threw his whole body into it. Nothing.
He gritted his teeth and tried for another, stronger kick.
Never give up without a fight.
His body still wouldn't move. Couldn't move. And dammit his lungs hurt and his vision was going blurry and he couldn't think and-
Agni, help me. If you care at all Agni, please help me.
His vision went completely black. Then, just before his consciousness faded completely: "Very well, child. With my blessing, you shall live."
With that, he drifted into nothingness.
Iroh wandered onto the deck just in time to see the Avatar taking off on his flying bison. A small part of him was relieved, for as much as he loved his nephew, he did not wish to see the world's last hope against the Fire Nation captured so soon after he reappeared. His frown, however, was genuine. He knew how upset Zuko would be over this development. He was rather regretful that he had chosen such an inopportune time to take a nap; perhaps this could have been handled more delicately had he been awake.
No matter. Zuko was strong. Iroh had no doubt he would throw himself into his mission with even more fervor than before now that he knew the Avatar was still alive. It was unfortunate that circumstances were so unfavorable for both his nephew and the young monk, but at least Zuko's goal of capturing the Avatar would no longer seem impossible. Zuko had more reason than ever to hope.
Unfortunately, Iroh knew it would be hard for the prince to see things quite as optimistically so soon after what he would deem an embarrassing defeat. The retired general scanned the deck, searching for his nephew with the intent to offer consoling words of wisdom. His eyes passed over the frozen soldiers, then the others sprawled out across the soaked wood, but he could not find Zuko. Iroh looked frantically for his nephew, eyes scouring the deck one more time, but Zuko… Zuko was not there.
Suddenly Iroh was back in Ba Sing Se, looking at the face of one of his officers and knowing, even before the man opened his mouth, that something awful had happened to his son.
"Where…" He couldn't find his voice. He was the Dragon of the West, and he could hardly manage a sentence. "Where is Prince Zuko?"
Every soldier on the deck lowered their heads. Those frozen in ice managed to look even more uncomfortable than they had previously.
Lieutenant Jee appeared by his side. "The Avatar threw Prince Zuko over the edge of the ship. We were in the middle of the battle, and did not have an opportunity to retrieve him-"
"Fetch me a length of rope."
"But, sir. It's been almost ten minutes-"
Jee scrambled away. Iroh did not bother waiting to see if he followed orders. Rather, he began stripping down, taking off his outer robes and trying not to think of the heavy armor he was certain his nephew had been wearing. If he had not changed out of it, any chance he'd had of making it to the surface-
Do not even consider it. Zuko is alive.
With some surprise, Iroh realized he believed it. His nephew would not let himself die so soon after finding the Avatar. Never. Not Zuko.
Iroh repeated this to himself as he approached the edge of the ship. He looked down into the water, expecting to see nothing but the freezing waves stretched out menacingly below.
His eyes widened, and he reared back in shock when he saw an odd light spread throughout the water, the darkness of the waves morphing into a stunning blend of warm yellows and whites and blues and oranges and greens.
"General, it's too late! You can't jump!"
Iroh looked away for just a moment, reflexively glancing at the spindly engineer, an older man named Taro, who had recovered enough to offer what anyone would see as a reasonable suggestion in normal circumstances.
When he looked back at the water, the glowing was gone. In its place was his nephew, floating on the surface. Still wearing his armor.
Floating and wearing his armor.
"Tell Lieutenant Jee to throw the rope when he returns… I am going to rescue my nephew," said Iroh, ignoring the other man's advice. Taro looked horrified, but not enough so to ignore the orders of a superior officer. Iroh waited for the engineer to nod his assent, and then, as soon as Taro did so, launched himself off the edge of the ship.
The icy water was a shock when he hit, but Iroh forced his breathing to remain even until his momentum slowed and he was able to kick his way back to the surface.
When he reached his nephew and touched the boy's neck to find him warm, with a pulse beating strong beneath his neck, tears welled in his eyes.
"Thank you," he whispered, hugging the boy tight to his chest. He did not know whom he was thanking, but he was very much aware that no amount of gratitude would ever be enough to make up for his nephew's life. A part of him worried that spirits were involved and would want repayment that Zuko would not be able to give, but he pushed the notion aside. For the time being, he cared only that his nephew was still with him. The rest would come later. "Thank you."
A rope appeared in front of him. It took him some time to grasp it, and even longer to wrap it around both he and Zuko in such a way that would allow them to be hauled up, but finally he was satisfied and called for Jee to crank them back aboard. Or, he supposed, Jee and whatever portion of the crew was not currently incapacitated. It probably would have been a better idea to send one of the trimmerofficers to retrieve his nephew. Of course, he would never have allowed anyone except for himself to do such a thing, but it certainly would have been easier on those attempting to return them to the ship.
As Iroh neared the deck, he heard murmuring break out amongst the crew as they realized he had Zuko in his grasp. Many of them had undoubtedly expected the prince to have forever disappeared beneath the sea. He was somewhat disappointed when he realized that they would not have complained should that have been the case. Iroh was aware of how little liked his nephew was among his men, and though it was occasionally understandable, he did not feel such animosity was entirely deserved.
He was also rather upset that none of them had shown more concern when their prince was thrown off the ship in the middle of a fight.
But he would impart his disapproval later. For the time being, he had to make sure his nephew was truly okay.
The men finished hauling them onto the ship, and Iroh unwound Zuko and himself from the mess of rope. Akio, the only crew member with any real medical experience, stepped forward and began fussing over Iroh.
He waved the younger man off. "Not me. I will be fine. Look over my nephew."
"He's alive. Now please-"
Skepticism colored Akio's features, but he moved to do as was asked. As soon as his fingers found Zuko's pulse, his eyes widened and he leaned forward to check him over more thoroughly. "This is… this isn't possible."
"How is he?"
Akio frowned and took to poking and prodding at the prince. "He's certainly warm enough—almost too warm, even for a firebender. No obvious signs of hypothermia or damage from the fall, and his breathing is perfectly fi-"
Iroh's heart stopped as Akio paled and stumbled backwards, looking as though he had seen a ghost. "What? Is something wrong? Has-"
"Uncle?" Iroh clamped his mouth shut, eyes flying to meet his nephew's, which were already, impossibly, open. Zuko blinked wearily. "How…?" He shook his head. "I was sinking."
Iroh could not find the words to respond. Instead, he reached out and embraced his nephew as tightly as he could.
"But he can't be awake…" breathed Akio.
"Well, obviously I am," Zuko snapped, voice growing stronger. He lingered in Iroh's embrace for a moment before pushing him off, albeit with less force than he would have usually. Iroh sighed. His nephew would never be comfortable showing so-called weakness around others. "Don't worry about me, Uncle. I'm fine." He took a deep breath and climbed to his feet, impressively not showing so much as an ounce of unsteadiness. Zuko looked as unsettled by the phenomenon as Iroh, but the crew was clearly more so. They stared at him as though he had just risen from the dead.
Iroh wasn't entirely certain that wasn't the case.
"Nephew," he said, speaking as gently as he could without Zuko accusing him of coddling. "I've no doubt you are… fine, but perhaps you could do with some rest? You…" You just drowned. "You have had quite a day."
"No. We must continue following the Avatar. Get this ship moving now." He turned on a heel, only to stop halfway through the movement when his eyes landed on the frozen men who'd been all but ignored up until that point. Concern flitted across Zuko's face for a brief moment before he arranged his features into its usual scowl. Teeth gritted, he looked to those of his crew who weren't trapped in ice. "Immediately after you thaw out your fellow men… And be quick about it. We cannot afford to lose the Avatar's trail."
Stunned silence settled over the crew as Zuko stalked off. It wasn't until the prince was a fair distance away that Akio muttered under his breath, "If even dying can't keep the damn brat from obsessing over the Avatar, we're all fucking screwed." Iroh made to snap something about showing respect, but paused when he noticed his nephew's shoulders stiffen as he disappeared below deck. Almost as though he'd heard…
But no. That would have been impossible.
"Private," Iroh snapped, harsher than he would have been under less stressful circumstances. His nephew had almost died, and no one had a right to treat it lightly. "I would suggest you mind your tongue about such matters."
"Y-yes sir," Akio stuttered. "I-"
"Go." He nodded at the still-trapped soldiers. "Help them. Some may be suffering from hypothermia."
"I… Of course, sir."
Iroh watched as Akio made to assist his fellow men, and then he followed his nephew's example and wandered off-deck, not to follow Zuko—he was certain the boy wished for alone time in which he could freely show weakness—but because he himself needed a few precious moments of solitude to think over what had happened.
His nephew's life had been saved through some sort of intervention, and worried as that made him, Iroh was also more grateful than he could ever say.
I should be dead.
Zuko lie curled on his bed, arms wrapped around his legs in an embarrassingly childish position, and rocked back and forth while trying his hardest not to cry.
He had felt it, had been sickeningly, disgustingly aware of the last of his life slipping away during that terrifying moment before he'd lost consciousness. He could still remember the way his lungs had felt as though they were seconds from bursting in his chest, could recall with an eerie clarity the slow decline of his ability to focus, the loss of control over his vision and his limbs and the way every last ounce of energy had vanished from his body.
Even thinking about it made him feel so painfully cold, like he would never be warm again.
And yet he was fine.
...no. That was a lie.
He wasn't fine at all.
He'd known it the moment he had woken up. The smells and tastes had hit him first, had been almost overwhelming, though he'd made a point not to show it. It was like… like the two senses were no longer separate, as though tasting and smell had become the same thing. Every breath he took had given him more insight to his surroundings, from the crisp taste of the polar air to the salt water that soaked him to the bone, to the individual scents that made up Uncle's cologne. The hearing hadn't been apparent until later, when he was leaving and heard Akio mutter those awful words under his breath—words so muffled that Zuko knew he shouldn't have been able to catch them.
Something had happened to him, something was wrong with him. He could feel it. Whatever had saved his life had brought him back different, and no matter how glad he was to still be breathing, he wondered if he hadn't brought his family grief by surviving like he had. What if it wasn't just those senses that had changed? And either way… he was still a freak for having lived at all. His crew knew it, had been unsettled when he'd come out of the water no less healthy than he'd been when he'd fallen into it. Their fear and disbelief had practically been tangible, and understandably so.
He should have died, swore he actually had, except he was still alive, was breathing and moving and probably in better condition than those soldiers he'd seen frozen to the deck.
It wasn't natural.
The thought made him shiver, and he curled in on himself even more tightly. What would his father think about this? Or Azula? The Fire Nation? What was his crew saying about it? And more than that, how was he supposed to deal with what had happened? How could he keep chasing the Avatar like nothing was wrong when the other boy had thrown him over the edge of his own ship, aftergoing back on the terms of his surrender? After he had let him die? If Zuko faced him again, would the same thing happen? Would the monk try killing him a second time? Would he have to relive the same crushing darkness and pain and fear?
Zuko shook his head. He couldn't think like that. He would succeed in capturing the Avatar. He had to, so he could go home…
Go home to what? To a father who would be disgusted if he learned his son had only escaped death at the hands of a small boy by the interference of… of something? Zuko wasn't one to blame every little happening on the spirits, but that was the first explanation that came to mind, and with it, another wave of fear struck him. Uncle had told him about spirits, and though he generally paid little attention to such senseless prattle, he'd heard enough to understand that they rarely helped humans without expecting something in return. If he really had been saved through the intervention of one of them, would he be expected to pay it back somehow?
His panic began to flare out of control, but the sound of footsteps echoing along the metal floors of his ship cut the reaction short. Zuko ignored how unnatural it was that he'd heard such a thing so soon, instead stretching his limbs and sitting up in a much more respectable position. It was Uncle. He recognized the scent of his cologne, mixed with that of the freshly brewed tea the Dragon of the West seemed to be carrying with him, so he did not bother getting to his feet or rushing to replace his armor, although he did his best to regain some degree of composure.
Of course, that composure fled the moment Uncle opened the door, looking much more concerned than he should have over his failure of a nephew. Zuko initially managed to keep his features even, but a probing look and gently spoken "Are you okay, my nephew?" were all it took to make his face crumple.
In an instant, Iroh was on his bed and wrapping Zuko in a strong embrace. In his quarters, away from his crew, Zuko allowed himself to accept the comfort. As warmth enveloped him, some of the lonely, aching chill Zuko had been attempting to ward off since he woke faded just a bit, and breathing became a little easier.
"Oh, Zuko. I was so worried. I am sorry that I was not there to help you."
Zuko shook his head as he pulled himself from Iroh's arm. He couldn't have his uncle feeling any misplaced guilt. Not when none of this would have happened if Zuko hadn't been such a wretched fool.
"It was my own fault. I shouldn't have needed your help." Shame washed over him in waves as he muttered, "I… I felt bad, Uncle. I'd let my frustration get away from me and sent the Avatar over the side of the ship, and I just stood there, thinking about whether or not I should jump in to save him. I'd let my guard down because I felt bad. Then he came back, and his eyes were glowing, and… and he threw me into the ocean without a second thought. "
He fell silent, waiting for the condemnation that was sure to come, but then gentle hands landed on Zuko's shoulders and he found himself looking up to meet Iroh's unwavering gaze.
"I have told you before, nephew," he said firmly, "and I shall tell you again: you are never weak for caring. Certainly not for regretting what you thought was the end of a young boy's life. If anything, it is the Avatar who should be sorry for his actions. He used powers you and your men did not have to launch an attack against which you could not defend yourselves… and this was after he promised to surrender himself to you for the safety of his friends. You fought honorably, Prince Zuko, even more so because you cared about the wellbeing of one who had deceived you. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
Tears threatened to leak from Zuko's eyes. In an attempt to keep himself from falling for Iroh's patronizing words, he mumbled, "My father would not see things that way."
A pause. Then: "No, I am afraid he would not."
Zuko swallowed. "And he would not accept this either—me sending my crew straight after the Avatar. The Avatar broke the terms of his surrender. He tried to kill me after promising to come quietly. My father would expect me to go back and break my half of the agreement as well… to turn around and burn that village to the ground."
Iroh regarded him carefully. "Do you plan to do so?"
He closed his eyes and tried to swallow his own self-loathing. "… I can't."
Iroh put a hand on his arm. "There is nothing wrong with showing mercy."
Zuko snorted. There was a reason his uncle had not been victorious at Ba Sing Se, a reason his father had ascended to the throne while Iroh had been left with nothing. Normally Zuko would have pointed this out, but he was not in the right state of mind to push his uncle away. For the moment, he would say nothing of the old man's delusions.
"Something else you and my father would disagree on," he muttered instead.
There was nothing Iroh could say to that, and Zuko was thankful he didn't try. For a long moment, they sat in relatively comfortable silence, Zuko basking in his uncle's presence. As much as he worried over the consequences of his survival, he was also thankful that he was able to experience the warmth of another human being once more. He'd been so worried that he would die alone, that he would never have this opportunity again.
Zuko thought back to one of the thoughts that had entered his head when he was sure he was going to die (or stay dead, as he was honestly not entirely sure which had happened). He remembered longing for love and acceptance from his father and sister. Iroh, Zuko knew, already gave him those things in much more generous quantities than he deserved, and though it did not ease the ache that came from not being worthy of the rest of his family's affections, he could recall with the utmost clarity how his dying wish in regards to Uncle had not been to receive anything from him, but rather to give him thanks, to make known his appreciation for his presence these last years.
He opened his mouth, knowing he should say something now that he had the chance.
"I…" He swallowed. The words stuck in his throat.
He exhaled. Of course.
Uncle had to know.
Zuko cleared his throat, and at Iroh's curious glance, said the first thing he could think of, "I didn't give the crew a specific destination." He realized it was true as soon as the words were out of his mouth and looked towards his door with some urgency. He'd told his men to follow the Avatar, but unless they knew more than he did – which he highly doubted – that was a very general order. "I…" He frowned, unsure of what he should do next. Finally, he settled on, "I need to look over the maps and attempt to determine the Avatar's most likely course of action."
"What you need," said Uncle, "is rest. I am sure you are tired. I will look at the maps, but do your uncle's old heart a favor and try to get a small amount of sleep. Otherwise, I fear I shall drive myself mad with worry."
Zuko opened his mouth to argue, but his words were cut off by a yawn. Maybe Uncle had a point.
"I suppose a few hours wouldn't hurt," he admitted. He was tired, and while he had been unable to sleep before, Uncle's presence had calmed his spirit somewhat. Perhaps he would be able to settle down enough to rest for a short length of time.
"Certainly not. And if you need help relaxing, I have brought tea." He nodded to where he had left the cup. "It is jasmine. Your favorite."
"I don't have a favorite," muttered Zuko. "It's all just hot leaf juice."
Uncle clutched a hand to his heart. "How could a member of my own family say something so horrible?"
Zuko groaned, but a smile played at his lips after his uncle turned to leave.
Maybe… maybe the incident had not changed things so much as he had worried. It seemed there was a chance things could go back to normal after all.