Prince Zuko had once thought that enduring banishment would be the hardest thing he had to do in his life. Perhaps, he conceded, that capturing the Avatar would be harder then bearing the shame.
He had been wrong on counts.
"My best years, my happiest years, were with you."
The last words of his Uncle, as he had bled to death on an Earth Kingdom beach, wrapped in his newphew's arms.
Not dying with him had been the hardest thing he had to do. Living banished was agony already; living without the one person who truly loved him? Cruelty unimaginable.
Zhao fled. Prince Zuko expected that - when the dust had cleared and Zhao, wounded himself, had looked across his ruined ships to the small cluster of Zuko's exhausted crew...
He'd known what he'd done. He'd murdered a Prince of the Blood - and not the banished criminal.
He ran. Zuko did not care; not in the empty instants that followed the lost battle. It didn't even matter that the Avatar was there on the field, anymore.
Nothing mattered. The only person who had truly cared about him had died for his mission, had been the first casualty in the hunt for his honor.
It wasn't right.
The dust had settled with al of them there; Zuko's crew, Zhao's crew, and the Avatar and his followers.
The girl had started forward, before her brother grabbed her arm, hauled her back. "You can't help him, Katara. Look at him! Those Fire Nation bastards are killing each other for this! What are you going to do to help them? Get captured, killed?"
Prince Zuko only barely heard them. The Water Tribe boy was right, though. He couldn't say he wouldn't have killed Zhao before this.
Now, he was certain he was going to find him and make him suffer.
The Avatar did not leave the field. Not even after the siblings had drawn back to the treeline. He simply stood, watching as the men began to haul themselves back to the ship, coaxing Zuko into releasing his uncle's body.
They bore him away, leaving Prince Zuko alone among the wreckage. He stood on the sand, and then looked back, soaked with Iroh's blood.
The Avatar stood not paces away and wept without reservation. His face was wet, his gray eyes running with tears.
"I'm sorry!" he finally called, voice breaking over the words, and then ran for the bison.
Prince Zuko could not understand why the Avatar grieved for his enemy's loss. Did this not mean he would be delayed? That Zhao, too, would have troubles in pursuing him? Did he not understand that this bought him time and gave him freedom?
It did not seem to matter; the Avatar had openly wept with him.
It was something to think about as they put Iroh's body into cold storage, and plans were discussed. Would they create the funeral pyre here, on Earth Kingdom land, or find a friendly, Fire-held city?
It was then that Zuko came to his decision.
"My final orders are this: You will take General Iroh to the capital, so that he may finally go home. I release you from duty. I will continue my pursuit of the Avatar alone."
Lt. Ji found his voice first, and stepped forward. "Permission to speak frankly, my prince?"
The use of title made Zuko's brow lift. He nodded.
"You're grieving sir, we all are - but we cannot simply - abandon you in Earth Kingdom land. We know that the last thing your esteemed Uncle would want would be for us to simply cart his body home and forget about you!"
Zuko could not be reasoned with; he was firm in his course. He was freeing them from obligation and duty - he was sending them home.
They did not know what to do in the face of the boy's suddenly rediscovered nobility. Arguments were raised, but Zuko was implacable.
"You are tired, and have served faithfully. This is my mission, and I cannot abandon it. But I cannot take him home myself. You must do this for me - since I cannot see him home to his proper rest. Take him home, so that one of us might go back, even in death!"
There was no arguing. He took a komodo mount, the small short distance boat, and what things he thought he would need. The Blue Spirit gear, the goods they demanded he take, and a large cash box, to supply him in the time to come.
They promised they would find him. He nodded and never answered.
When they saw him after his final farewell, the last moments the General's body, they understood. His head was bare of its queue; it had been left clasped in Iroh's cold hands.
The message to the Fire Lord was clear: His son was dead.
The day they left the boat on the water with Zuko, Ji approached him.
"We will come find you," Ji said.
Zuko shook his head.
"We will. Your Uncle would want us to - and we cannot abandon you!"
Zuko looked at him strangely now.
"You are giving up - in your defeat, you have set us free," Ji explained. "My Prince, do you not see? Though grieving, you acquit yourself with honor. We will go home, and bury your honorable Uncle. Then we'll come find you, and we will find a way to bring you home honorably!"
Zuko wanted to weep again.
They left at his command, the damaged ship smoking its way into the distance. For the few days, Zuko ran on nothing. He barely ate or slept, sailing to a beach that was not battle-scarred. There he stayed for a few days, his tired mind chaotic.
He did not break down and cry until the sixth and seventh days. He spent those days working his grief out - grief for his home, his honor, his Uncle Iroh.
It was on the eighth day that hunger demanded he take care of himself, and he ate ravenously, and thought about what to do next.
He wandered aimlessly, heading north - it wasn't hard to figure out that the Avatar would have to find a Waterbender to teach him; the girl he traveled with was a novice, he had seen that much in her practice by the river side before he'd interrupted her.
At least, that's what he told himself as he traveled.
In truth, he didn't know what he was doing or where he was going - even, who he was supposed to be.
Only then did he realize -- for all his independence, Iroh had been his guide through the smoke rising from the ashes of his life.
Traveling along the coast, he hid his armor. The colors of his clothing spoke of the Fire Nation, but they could prove nothing. He would not clad himself in the green and browns of the Earth Kingdom anymore then he could roll in the dirt and act a boar. He was a firebender; his blood and temper ran hot.
Only these days, his temper didn't flare so much. He couldn't bring himself to care about being gypped by merchants (Iroh would have haggled far better) or that his hair grew out vaguely resembling a hedgehog.
Nothing seemed to matter anymore.
It was different, to be alone after all this time. He had never truly been alone in the palace - both a prince and a firebender, he was well watched. Privacy was foreign and casualness was equally alien to him.
To suddenly have a lot of time on his hands and needing to deal with strangers that didn't quite get his near-formal way of doing most everything was a bit of a shock He didn't much care for it. But at the same time, it had to be done. He got over it eventually - though he never got used to the open stares.
Disliking being a spectacle for his odd dress, his strange manner, or the ugly scar over his eye, Zuko avoided docking in cities much as he could. He would settle the boat at the nearest stretch of beach by night, and in the morning, start journeying again.
IT was a lonely routine, and Zuko had a great deal of time alone with his thoughts. Recrimination and doubt were his only companions - at least, the only ones that spoke. The Komodo didn't count, even if sometime Zuko went back to the paddock to feed it, grateful to be near another living thing.
The Komodo's paddock at the rear of the ship was shoveled out every morning before they left dock regardless of where it was. The beasts were filthy, Zuko knew, but this was his first time getting his hands dirty with their care. He knew how - he'd been trained, in preparation for his time as a soldier, but lacked experience.
The beast was miserable, penned up even more tightly then upon the ship. With even less comfort then the beast's hold, it lulled and groaned, and Zuko pitied the thing. He knew exactly how it felt, to missed comfort and familiar care.
The ordeal came to an abrupt end when Zuko met pirates for the second time. Oh, he had seen the other ship - but he hadn't expected them to suddenly veer at his miserable little ship.
He supposed they thought he was some Fire Nation solider or courier, from the Komodo at the back of the boat. But he hadn't expected to fight for his life, seven on one. Thankfully, the Komodo was well trained - a shrill whistle and it had busted its tether - as well as several pirates, walls, and the metal railing on the boat...
It ended their journey northward by sea.
Komodo swam well. So did Zuko, having lived the last two years at sea. The pirates fled the firebender and his war mount, but the prince barely got the boat to a rocky shoreline. It was chill here, winter setting in, and now the boat was little more then scrap. He couldn't repair it on his own.
He cursed and spat like a sailor, venting flame and steam and vitriol. He had been, after all, on a ship with mariners. He had learned language uncouth.
He used it all, burning out his rage with caustic words, till he was breathless.
Once Zuko was done with his fit, boy and Komodo went north, along the coast. It was a long walk. Two days without food - hunting was poor when you didn't use long range weaponry. Still, traps were made and prayers were said and the eating remained scarce.
When he arrived in the port village, leaving his komodo hidden within the woods, he was treated with something he did not expect: compassion. He was welcomed by the village, and directed to an old woman who gave him ginseng tea, and didn't mind when he abruptly broke into weary tears in her kitchen.
"You're not the first deserter we've seen. This village is sympathetic - we know not all your people are warmongers, boy."
She explained her kindness with those words. He was the enemy; she had known it upon seeing him - his clothing and coloring all said 'Fire Nation'. But she had tended to him with a patience that would have impressed Uncle Iroh.
"I could be a spy or a criminal," he said.
"Or frightened and tired young man. I don't know who you are, but I can see what you aren't, and that's a danger to me."
He conceded to her wisdom.
For the next few days, he was 'boy'. It was a strange thing - to be just another person. She didn't ask her name or give her own. She fed him, mended his clothes, gave him a place to bathe, and a bed to sleep in.
"I still don't understand," he told her as they ate meals together.
"I know. The day you do, the Fire Nation will be one person closer to peace." She said, smiling gently.
He contemplated her words as he lay on the bed she'd given him, and felt his insides twist with something akin to guilt.
He found despite it all, he could not keep from the damndest things make him think of Iroh, and those made tears sting his eye.
The first onrush at the taste of ginseng tea had undone him totally, reducing him to crying like a child. He fought all other displays, despite the old woman's patience. She had, sometime in the last day, become 'Aunt'. She still called him 'boy', and that was still fine.
Finally, she asked him, "Who are you mourning?"
"That would be everyone, boy. There is no such thing as a 'replaceable' person."
She never asked about Iroh, and Zuko was both relieved and grateful. She did ask why he didn't know how to cook, or mend clothing, or other simple, menial tasks while he stayed with her.
"You're a noble's son, doing your tenure before you inherit, aren't you?" she finally asked one day. "Sending you boys out younger and younger. And injured! But you stayed on the field anyway, didn't you?"
"This scar - it isn't from battle. It's from a fire duel."
She frowned then, looking at him. "Firebenders," she uttered with vague disappointment. "With who?
"My father, Aunt."
She was silent.
Zuko was aware that all good things came to an end, and this too would as well. It had been nearly two weeks since he arrived hungry, tired, and dirty, and now he was rested and had found some peace.
But he couldn't stay, and they both knew it.
He packed one night, and she didn't gainsay it. She just made an extra set of bags, and filled them with food, a kettle, and the makings of ginseng tea.
He bowed low when he left; she kissed his brow and waved away his formality.
"Come back, when you understand, boy."
Being alone after having company left Zuko discontent. Still, he had the komodo, and that was at least another living thing with him.
He traveled down the road now, continuing deeper into Earth country. He did not seek a northward path, but merely went in the direction the road took him.
He came to a crossroads. A post stood there with posters of wanted criminals on it. He recognized the Blue Spirit mask, next to a picture of the Avatar.
Then he saw his own face on a poster; beneath it, his crime.
WANTED: For the murder of General Iroh.
After the notice post was burnt and he'd stamped on its embers, Zuko was calm enough to think. The answer was easy; Zhao had somehow gotten the blame for Iroh's death placed on Zuko.
Zhao had told his father these lies.
His father had believed them.
No, he had to admit to himself. He didn't. But it was convenient to pretend that he did -- maybe not to Zhao, but to the rest of the world.
His father didn't want him coming back. Not alive, at least. Maybe Zhao had been right. Maybe he never had wanted Zuko back at all.
After a few days, he traveled to the nearest Earth Kingdom city and sold his komodo. It was a somewhat sad parting -- Prince Zuko -- would miss the beast but a necessary one. The komodo was telling, for few Fire Nation officers had access to them. It had to go.
After that, he took up a light and swift Strider bird, which he loathed almost immediately. It was foul tempered, head strong, and nipped at him regularly. It went fast, but it was an unpleasant animal.
He named it Zhao, appropriately, so he could curse both Admiral and Strider in the same breath.
Prince Zuko gave up all pretenses of following after the Avatar, and turned his attentions to Zhao. He rationalized it easily; to restore his honor, he had to avenge both the lie against him and his uncle's death.
So wherever Zhao went, the Blue Spirit followed. If he burnt a village, the Blue Spirit saved lives. If he got wind of the Avatar's trail, the Blue Spirit created chaos by stealing supplies or distracting the troops.
He made himself a thorn in the admiral's side. He was going to make Zhao pay for every day of loneliness, every bitter regret.
The Blue Spirit traveled by night, and the scarred prince by day -- they were never seen too closely together. But Zhao was watching for more then just the Avatar. Zuko's face was on wanted posters all over the Kingdoms, and his growing hair hardly hid his scar completely.
He realized, one day, it had been over a month since Iroh's death. By now, Iroh was interred, and his men scattered. He was certain they would not be able to find him.
At least, until he saw Lt. Ji in a port city, a copy of his wanted poster in hand.
His heart was in his throat. He had kept his promise, he had come to find him. He had followed him this far north! He had--
--A wanted poster in his hand. They knew the truth; that Zuko'd had no part in Iroh's death. But why would Lt. Ji use it? Too help his search? Or was he serving the Fire Lord now, seeking to bring Zuko home under false charges?
He could only find out by confrontation; by asking Lt. Ji himself.
He ran back to his strider and departed the port instead, cursing himself as a coward.
Zuko made camp some ways away from the city - safe, he thought, from discovery. Lashing the Strider to a tree, he tried to rest. He was tired and thoughts of his crew having pursued him this far ate at his mind.
It's why he didn't hear the hunters.
The arrows did not miss. One pierced the throat of the Strider, killing it instantly. Zuko was on his feet, ready, but the projectiles that impacted around him exploded with smoke. A moment later, his lungs seized. He couldn't breath, he couldn't bend, and he couldn't stand.
Laughter followed him to the ground.
He awoke to pain - his lungs burned, his eyes watered, and his ribs were sore. Had he been kicked? Perhaps; it certainly felt like it.
He was unrestrained. He thought this foolish, until he rolled over and tried to rise. He dropped back down and vomited.
"Enjoying the incense? It's very special. It disrupts the energies found within benders." It was Zhao's voice, at a distance, muffled. "I commissioned its use for the Avatar, but when you made yourself available I couldn't help but give it a test run." He sounded smug. "Works perfectly."
Zuko wanted to puke on his boots.
Interrogation followed - at least, what passed for it. Zuko had nothing to tell him, but Zhao liked to pretend he did. But then they went through his things, and the mask was discovered; Zhao was in a rage, throwing the mask against the bars of his cell.
"You were going to take him from me!"
"It's not my fault you're too busy strutting like a peacock to train your men and secure your holdings," Zuko replied, ducking his head to avoid the licks of flame that shot from Zhao's hand.
"You'll regret crossing me," Zhao promised.
"I regret letting you live."
Zuko dreaded words like that from his captor. It meant more suffering, more humiliation, possibly more torture.
"You're being granted an Agni Kai."
That gave Zuko pause.
"And this is good why?"
Zhao smiled at him, a safe distance from the boy's cell. "Your father is going to allow you to duel for your life. If you win, you get to live. You remain banished for all time, but you live. If you lose, I kill you on the spot in front of hundreds of spectators."
"I fail to see any good here."
"It's very good for me."
The constant intake of the bender drug had reduced Zuko to nothing. He barely ate, he was sick regularly, and Zhao seemed to take this all as grand amusement.
He was supposed to Agni Kai like this. Zhao has no intention of giving the Prince any respite - he was going to kill him before spectators and scatter his ashes to the wind. Not even his corpse would see the soil of his homeland.
He did not fight when the guards came for him. If he'd been in better health, perhaps he might've noticed they were awfully short for Zhao's soldiers.
As the guard cradled the back of his head, he was dimly aware that the gauntlet was far too big for the hand within it. A water skin nudged his lips, and he drank with sudden energy.
Once thirst was slaked, he spoke, voice rough. "Who?"
"Friends." The voice was feminine, but Zuko didn't have the wherewithal to place it. He turned his attention then, to the trickle of water, sweet and pure, down his throat.
"Rescue?" he finally asked, unable to drink anymore.
"That's the idea," said the other; that voice was masculine, unhappy.
"Luck and a prayer."
It was done like thieves; slinking in and out. He lacked the strength or the reflexes of the Blue Spirit, and the two with him were clumsy as ever. But he knew this fortress, and Zhao had still not fathomed how Zuko had penetrated his keep.
Still, once out of the grating, he was baffled as his rescuers gestured for him to sit in the shadows, and looked skyward.
Then, one tore of his - HER - helmet, letting a thick braid of brown hair fall down from beneath it.
The waterbender girl.
She brought a bison whistle to her lips, and blew.
The rest was a blur. The sudden appearance of the great beast in the sky and hands hauling him roughly up into a saddle even as guards scrambled.
Yu Yin archers came out and the sky sang with arrows - the bison bellowed, thick tail peppered with them, and Zuko was held down by two sets of arms - the siblings grabbed the railing with one hand, him with the others, and held him tight between him.
The boy said, in his ear: "You smell terrible. Don't they bathe in Fire Nation prisons?"
Struck by the absurdity, Zuko laughed before he fainted.
He awoke warm, wrapped in furs and resting against the great bulk of the bison. The camp was hidden within ruins of a palace of the Earth Kingdom. He could smell the beast - pungent and musky - but after weeks of nothing but that drug, he was grateful for change.
The Water Tribe children took turns with him. The girl was kind, though she looked at him with a mixture of pity and confusion that he found distasteful. The boy's outright resentment suited Zuko just fine.
The Avatar was there, but he stayed away, letting the other two handle Zuko as he convalesced.
Perhaps they didn't trust him. He would have been surprised if they had. The Avatar stayed out of sight till Zuko was more alert and aware, and even then, he didn't flinch from the prince's gaze.
He didn't have to; the Water Tribe pair were watchful, and while they barely spoke to Zuko beyond 'eat', 'drink', and 'rest', they told the Avatar every day of his condition.
But they had to sleep; Zuko did too, and spent many days drifting in and out of it, till finally, one night, he rose quietly as the other two slept and considered escape.
Slipping from the furs, Zuko realized he had nothing now. Zhao had everything he'd kept from the ship; clothes, money, food. Still, he could not steal from the three whom despite their conflict had saved his life and nursed him back to health over the last week.
He looked over the three in their sleep. The boy had given up his bed to Zuko, and slept curled next to the bison. The girl was safe in her skins. The Avatar was -
He blinked dimly, but dismissed it.
"Thanks," he muttered roughly. The only gratitude shown was his departure.
When the exhaustion hit hard, he realized perhaps he had misjudged his recovery. Still, leaning against a tree, Zuko was still determined to put one foot in front of the others.
He had to go back, start over. He had to kill Zhao.
He had to wonder why one of the tree's branches was moving to slide under his arm, and give him a place to lean on.
The Avatar was breeze quiet; but his small shoulders were strong. Zuko allowed himself to lean on his enemy and ask, "Why?"
"I think we can help each other," The Avatar replied.
They sat among the trees-Zuko could hardly budge from the boy's shoulder, and the Avatar bore it with the same strength that had once carried him out of harm's way.
"Did you have any friends, back home?"
Weariness made him honest. "Not really."
"That must've been sad. Why do you want to go back, if you don't have any friends?"
"It's hard to explain."
The Avatar considered this for a moment, and then said, "Can we be friends?"
The naÃ¯vetÃ© tore at him; the Avatar's gray eyes were wide, hopeful.
"I don't know," Zuko finally answered.
"Can we try?"
They sat there in silence, till Zuko was ready to move again. A slender arm slid around his waist, trying to steady him during their walk back up to the camp.
The siblings were awake.
"Did that bastard try something!?"
"Huh?" The Avatar answered. "Ah, no. He had to make water. Sheesh! You guys weren't up, so..."
That stopped them both short; the girl blushed a little, and the boy just stared.
"Oh," said the boy. "Well, next time... Wake me up, okay Aang?"
Suspicion diverted, Zuko collapsed back among the furs and slept, aware of the eyes on his back.
They had names, Zuko eventually realized on day nine. Sokka was the boy, Katara the girl, and the Avatar was called Aang in this lifetime.
They were 'hey you', 'Waterbender', and 'Avatar', to Zuko, however. They never called him by name; the boy had his favorite epithets for him, and the girl didn't seem to know what to call him. Zuko endured with little but glares.
On day twelve, he found the strength to rise before the others; he finally felt at rights inside - he could feel his breath again, like Iroh had taught him, and began to step through kata.
It felt good to firebend again; the simplest forms, basic attack and defensive motions, first without fire, and then with, stretched protesting muscles. But it was a good burn, a positive pain. He was alive, he was moving, and he could fight again.
He wasn't dependent on the Avatar or his company anymore. Now, he could approach this on more equal footing.
Quietly ending the last form with the rush of heat from both outstretched hands, he stopped, stretched, and turned.
He had an audience.
Eyes wide with admiration, the Avatar said, "... I really wanna learn how to do that!"
"I'm not a master," Zuko protested for what was the nth time. "I can't teach you what you want to know."
"You can at least get me started! It'll help!" The Avatar said, eyes wide and hopeful again. Zuko had quickly become immune to That Look that the young Airbender turned on him. "Katara helped me learn waterbending, and she's not a master!"
"You picked it up far more quickly then I did, Aang," the girl protested.
Zuko refused again, and then lit the campfire with his breath, if just to rub it in.
Aang was not deterred at all.
"Please! Help me learn to firebend?"
"So I can save the world."
The Avatar stopped then, and looked at Zuko for a long time, as if he was uncertain of what to say.
"The Fire Lord," he finally managed, voice softer now. "He's going to get more powerful. And then everything will be lost... to flames and ashes."
Zuko looked at him a long moment, and then asked, "You want me to help you stand before my father, and defeat him?"
"Yes." Aang's boyish face dropped its youthful mein, seriousness overtaking his expression.
Zuko was undone. "Alright."
"So you're really coming with us," Sokka said, as they packed their things.
"Seems that way."
"I don't trust you at all."
"I don't require your trust."
"I think Aang's crazy."
"I would be inclined to agree."
"I think if you look at my sister sideways, I'm gonna gut you like a fish."
"I'd like to see you try."
Katara looked at Zuko, and then at Sokka. "You don't mean to suggest I'd...?"
Three young men looked at her for a moment.
"Please! Ew! I have taste!"
Both Sokka and Aang smiled. Zuko tried not to be insulted, and failed.
It was hardly an auspicious beginning to their relationship. A rescue, hiding as Zuko healed, a grudging agreement to teach the Avatar Firebending if no other tutor could be found, Sokka promising to emasculate Zuko if he touched Katara...
When they took to the sky together for the first time, everyone laughed as Zuko held on for dear life. It wasn't too harsh, really. It wasn't friendly, but Aang's trust, at least, was in his hands, and that meant something. This was something he could do. They were right--things had to change.
He had to find honor his own way.
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