AN: I know my update schedule is crap. Sorry. I promise I won't make you wait six months for the next chapter! Thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter- you're all the reason I have any motivation at all! I hope you enjoy Chapter 3!
An Official Timeline of Events:
Day one, night: Zuko captures Aang from Puhai, and they walk till the sun rises
Day two: They walk more, Zuko tries to get Aang to eat meat
Day two, night: They sleep
Day three: They walk more, argument about the airbenders
Day three, night: Zuko's nightmare, Aang suffers 2nd degree burn to his right eye
Day four: Zuko tries to decide what to do, Aang wakes up, the Gaang is reunited
Day four, night: Zuko returns to his ship, Katara asks Aang what happened
Day five: Katara gets angry, Zuko gets contemplative
Day five, night: Sokka talks about heading north
Day six: Katara yells at Aang etc, Zuko knows he has to tell Iroh
Day six, night: The Gaang is at semi-peace, Zuko tells Iroh
THE WANTED POSTER
in which paths cross
"Get up, Sokka! It's time to head north!"
"I'm going, I'm going! Do we have all the supplies we need?"
"Not quite. We're going to need to stop at a market soon to get some more food. But right now, you need to get up so we can move!"
"Okay, geez, Katara. I'm up!"
Iroh wondered if there was anything he could do to help his beloved nephew. Ever since Zuko had told him the story of where he had gone and what he had done for four days, Iroh had felt nothing but the utmost sadness in his heart.
He'd tried to convince his nephew that it wasn't his fault. That he couldn't control what he did in his sleep. That he'd done the right thing, taking the young Avatar back to his friend to be healed.
Sadly, it had went about as well as trying to convince Zuko that his own scar wasn't his fault. His nephew didn't realize that there was a difference between accidentally hurting someone when they couldn't fight back, and purposefully hurting someone when they could fight back, but wouldn't. Zuko agreed that there was a difference, but he'd formed the wrong conclusions on who was to blame in both situations.
Any sane person knew that Zuko had done nothing to deserve his scar. Refusing to fight his father wasn't weakness. The young Avatar also had done nothing to deserve the scar his nephew had said he'd received. But, unlike Ozai's betrayal of Zuko, it had been an accident, and his nephew had made sure the young monk had been healed as much as was possible.
There was a difference. He just wished his nephew could see it the way he did. It hurt his heart to see Zuko blaming himself both for his own scarring, and another's scarring as well.
When he had felt Sokka and Katara's arms around him, all of the guilt Aang had been feeling slipped away. And when it had started to come back, he pushed it away some more. Right now, Aang needed to be fine, both for his friends and for the world.
And Aang was fine! He had Sokka, Katara, Momo, and Appa, and he was fine.
(So what if maybe he should tell Katara about the guilt crawling around just beneath his skin, getting restless at being ignored! She seemed angrier than usual lately anyways, and he didn't want to exacerbate that.)
Katara knew that Aang was safe, and alive, but it didn't change the fact that there was a huge burn over his right eye, or that there were still many more fights to be fought.
Zuko appeared only slightly older than Sokka, but he had frightened her entire village, hurt her brother, stolen her mother's necklace and tried to bribe her with it, and burned Aang. Monsters came in many forms, and Zuko was one of them. This Katara knew for sure.
Zuko fiddled with the necklace in his hands. He'd forgotten he had it, with recent events, until he had seen it laying on his meditation table moments before. It had an obvious Water Tribe symbol carved in it, but the particular shade of blue it was reminded Zuko of something else. He looked from the piece of jewelry the girl had claimed as her mother's to the Blue Spirit mask he held onto still, and sighed.
"Aang, are you okay?"
"Of course I am, Sokka! Why wouldn't I be?"
"Whatever you say, man. We're gonna stop for supplies tomorrow; give Appa a break. You think you're ready for that?"
"I'll be fiiiiine."
Maybe Aang could tell Sokka how he was feeling. But what was there to tell? Aang was fine. Totally.
Aang was determined. If Zuko could be fine with his scar, then he could be fine with his, too.
"I still don't know what to do!" Zuko yelled, getting frustrated with the lack of a coherent answer from his uncle.
"Sometimes these things aren't easy to know. A solution may be hard to find, but you do not have to find it alone, Zuko." Uncle Iroh still wasn't giving a clear cut plan, but he wrapped his arms around Zuko and the ex-prince decided to figure it out later. It had been so long since Zuko had last been hugged like this, he'd forgotten how- after the initial discomfort- nice it was.
Katara didn't forgive and didn't forget. She was no air nomad. She also wasn't naive, and knew that they'd cross path again with the fire prince. Past experience had demonstrated that the two parties tended to cross paths more than one would think.
So, after Aang and Sokka had laid to sleep, she rose by the moonlight and walked to the nearby pond. She knew she could freeze the ice and figured she could probably make shapes. She was going to try something… different. Something new. With a determined look in her eye, she set to work.
She pushed and pulled and practiced for hours, trying to form the water into crude geometric shapes and then freezing it as best she could, until she achieved the one creation she wanted. She froze it into ice, solid and sharp, and with a choppier-than-usual hand gesture, flung it at a tree. She smiled a small, bitter smile and went back to camp.
As Katara lost herself to a world of dark dreams, still stuck in the tree tree until the next day's heat would melt it away, was a long, perfectly solid spike of ice.
"Land is in sight; we will soon be docked, Prince Zuko."
"I told you not to call me that!"
"Whatever you say, nephew… You should come to the market with me! The fresh air will do you good."
"Can't I just stay here?"
"Come on, Zuko… indulge an old man?"
"Hey, Sokka, what do you think Zuko would look like with two scars?"
They landed Appa a little ways away from the village, in a forest, made sure the giant bison and his lemur friend weren't easily visible, and walked towards the port town. The walk was pleasant. Katara made jokes about following Sokka's instincts again, but their "fearless" leader claimed he wouldn't get them lost, this time. The three had a genuine laugh for the first time in what felt like forever.
Of course it wouldn't last.
Everything, the siblings' good-natured bickering and Aang's laughter, stopped when they saw the poster attached to a notice board. Beside a poster for a man named Jeong Jeong and one for the Blue Spirit, was a wanted poster for Aang. An unscarred Aang.
Aang's eyes went large, and he sucked in a quick breath. Sokka's arm wrapped around Aang's shoulder, Katara grabbed the airbender's nearest hand.
"Do you think it's safe for you to come with us, Aang?" Sokka asked, clearly worried.
"No, I'm sure it'll be fine. For some reason, no one ever seems to recognize me until I tell them who I am."
"He'll be safer with us, anyways," Katara added. Her voice held a dangerous undertone, one that Sokka honestly hadn't heard from his sister before.
Deciding that leaving Aang alone in the forest was probably a worse idea, the two teenagers lead their friend further into the village.
Approximately twenty minutes later, Iroh and Zuko walked towards the village and happened upon the same notice board. Not knowing what else to do, the old general watched his nephew step towards the poster of the bald Avatar. Reaching his hand out, he was about to pull Zuko away, when, quick as a flash, Zuko's own hand snapped out, grabbed the paper, and shoved it somewhere in his robes.
He was just about to take the poster for the Blue Spirit too (why, Iroh didn't know) when Iroh's hand made it to his shoulder and turned the teen around to face him.
"Let's go get supplies, Zuko."
Sokka was looking at the food cart they were standing in front of at the time. Katara was counting money, adding up how much they had out loud and working with her brother to calculate how much they could afford.
Aang, poor, easily distracted Aang, was looking smack dab at the road when Iroh and Zuko turned the bend and came into view of the main part of the town.
The brother and sister turned around and saw what Aang had seen.
Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe were not about to let any evil fire prince or his crazy uncle hurt their best friend, their family. Not ever, and certainly not then.
Zuko paled. He looked from his uncle, to the Avatar, then quickly broke eye contact to look to his companions, and reached in his robes to feel the necklace that was hidden within.
Iroh saw the scarred Avatar (his scar on the opposite side of his face than his nephew's but far too similar, and too many children had been scarred by this war and he was tired, so tired, but it wasn't about him) and placed his hand on Zuko's shoulder to try and calm his clearly troubled relative.
Iroh was sad but calm, Zuko was not willing to fight just this once, and the Avatar simply stared in glazed fear, but the boy's friends possessed no such hesitation.
"We won't let you hurt him again!" Sokka yelled, and moved from beside Aang to in front of him, shielding the smaller body with his own and throwing his boomerang. Before it could hit the fire prince, the old man extended his arm and used his armor plate to deflect it to the ground.
"You'll pay for what you've done." Katara moved in front of Aang, by her brother's side, and drew her water out of her bag and into the ice spike she'd practiced so hard on. Not wasting any time on thinking, she shot it full speed at Zuko's face.
The surprising thing was that Zuko raised his arm in self defense, but he didn't fire back. He didn't even use his flame to melt the ice spike flying at, now, his arm.
It would have hit his arm dead on, had not Iroh rotated his fist and sent a flume of fire out that hit the frozen water just in time to melt it before it hit his younger family member.
"Stop!" Iroh yelled, and mirrored the two teenage siblings, moving to place himself in front of Zuko. "We mean you no harm; we are just here for supplies."
Sokka sneered, "A little too late for no harm, don't you think?" at the same time Katara shouted, "Why should we trust you?" and then again sharpened ice was flying at the Fire Nation prince, over Iroh's head, directly at his good eye.
This time it wasn't Iroh who stopped the ice… no, this time it was Aang who reached out, and with a swift hand motion, turned the ice back into water. If Zuko can live with his scar, I can live with mine. But neither of us needs another.
Now thoroughly soaked, Zuko stared at the Avatar, his gaze clearly asking, Why did you spare me? Iroh looked shocked as well, but also very, very grateful.
"Katara!" Aang called out to his friend. Katara looked back at him, still extremely angry.
"Why did you stop me?" she seethed. "He deserved it for what he did to you!"
"It… it was an ac-accident… he doesn't deserve to lose an eye for it!"
The young avatar pushed Sokka and Katara apart enough so that he could see what was going on. At the same time, the fire prince's gaze raised just a bit from where he had kept it on the back of Iroh's head.
The world seemed to slow as golden eyes met grey once more. It's hard to say who the locked eyes was harder on, Zuko or Aang. It felt like Aang's eyes were staring into his soul, calling him out for the monster he was. It felt like Zuko's gaze alone would break Aang from the inside out.
Finally, they both looked away.
"Don't defend me, Avatar. Your friend is right." Zuko's self-loathing was slipping through. In any other circumstance he wouldn't admit to a peasant being correct, but… an eye for an eye is fair.
"Don't call me that."
"It is time for us to leave, nephew." Iroh was still standing in front of Zuko, a reflection of Katara and Sokka, all three protecting one who was most dear to them.
"Now wait just a minute!" Katara had her water held in front of her again, and Sokka's intent gaze had not faltered once. "You burned our friend!"
"My little brother!" yelled Sokka.
"You can't just leave! Say something for yourself, you monster."
Unable to move or even speak, Zuko reached into robes, pulled out the necklace the water tribe girl had claimed to be her mother's (at least she had a mother, his envious mind whispered), and threw it towards the trio. He watched their surprised expressions for a millisecond before he grabbed his uncle's wrist and ran.
He ran back past the news board, took a hard right, and towards the shore. Running as fast as he thought his uncle could handle, he lead them back to the ship, released his uncle, and kept running until he was in his personal quarters. Slamming the door behind him, he closed his eyes and finally took a breath.
Somewhere above deck, Iroh instructed the crew to set sail as soon as possible. They could find another port town for supplies.
Back at the edge of the marketplace, the people of the village finally turned back to their own business and stopped staring at the spot the fight had taken place. Katara wondered how none of the fighters had noticed them before. Sokka wondered why none of them had interfered in the near-battle.
Finally able to tear her eyes away from where the fire nation duo had run off to, Katara took a step forward and reached down to pick up her necklace from the road where it had landed. Curling her hand in a fist around it, she turned back to face her brother and best friend.
"I think we should go find Appa, guys," Sokka said, ever the voice of reason. He had felt what Katara had felt, he had wanted to make Zuko pay too. But now, Zuko was gone, and looking at the frozen faces of his sister and Aang, trapped in rage and fear respectively, he knew he'd have to be the one to snap them out of this.
He picked up his boomerang and shepherded them both back the way they came, and when they passed the notice board, he purposely tripped, causing his sister to let out a weak laugh and Aang to help him up, so none of them looked to see the poster of Aang. It was a success in his book. They would be okay.
(It wasn't until hours later, when the moon was high in the sky and none of the three could sleep and no one had anything to say, that he started thinking. It started out simple enough: he thought about how angry he was at what the ponytail jerk had done. He tried to be calm around the group, but he was angry. How could he not be? Aang did not deserve to be literally scarred for life.
And that's where his thought process got a little bit more dangerous. Because the fire prince was a child too, whether he acted like it or not. He was only slightly older than Sokka. Not a grown man just yet. Thusly, his mind supplied the question: Did Zuko deserve to be scarred? Maybe after he had scarred Aang, but he had had his own mark for much longer than that.
What had Zuko done that he had been scarred for? It was easy to write it off as him just being an evil firebender and he probably deserved it, but somewhere in the back of Sokka's head, it didn't resonate. Zuko had seemed genuinely shaken when he'd seen Aang earlier. It didn't appear like he'd hurt someone that badly before. So his question remained: What had Zuko done?)
Zuko groaned. Face down on his futon, he never wanted to get up again. How could he face what he had done? He didn't think he could. He had done the unforgivable and now he had to live with it. What was it that his father had always said? Azula was born lucky; you were lucky to be born. Zuko didn't think that statement could get more accurate.
Maybe it would be better in the morning.
The next day, Aang was the first to rise. Maybe another person would have lied in shock just thinking about seeing the person who permanently hurt you. Maybe another day, Aang would have too. But not today. Aang had meant what he said. It had been an accident. Therefore, Aang should easily be able to forgive Zuko, right? That's what he should do. That's what he wanted to do. He was trying. (He just didn't think he was succeeding.)
More than anything, he wanted everything to be okay again. So, instead of lying there in shock, Aang willed his body to get up and look around him at the clearing they had landed in. He pushed the bad memories from his head and went to look for food. (Not meat, never meat. All life is sacred. Funny thing coming from an airben- SHUT UP! You are fine.)
Aang was fine. After all, if Zuko could be okay with his scar, than Aang could be okay with his own as well. But, as Aang collected berries and nuts and other edibles, he couldn't help but wonder if maybe Zuko was not be as okay as he had thought.
AN: Thank you all so much for reading this! I'd really appreciate if you'd leave a review- these things make my motivation 100x more potent I swear. *Deku voice* And now... the preview!
The Gaang goes to the fortune teller. (Except for Sokka, of course, it's no !) Meanwhile, Zuko still has Aang's wanted poster. What the heck?! NEXT TIME: FORTUNES TOLD!