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Author Topic: The Road Less Travelled...(PG-13) Updated 28/12/2007 - up to Chapter 19  (Read 23621 times)
Nandireya
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« on: Dec 09, 2006 08:44 am »

Like a lot of Zuko fans I was rather disappointed by the season finale...and as I find the idea of waiting several months to find out what's going to happen rather daunting, I came up with my own ideas based on several theories I've posted around the forums...

Summary: Zuko regrets his decision to join his sister...and takes steps to make amends...only to end up on a journey of self-discovery that spans the globe...

Rated PG-13...for future violence...

Avatar: The Last Airbender and all related characters are © of Bryan Konietzko, Michael DiMartino, Nickelodeon and Viacom International Inc
_______________________

The Road Less Travelled...


Chapter One

It was amazing how much thing could change in a day...

Yesterday morning he'd woken up happy, at peace, as if he hadn't had a care in the world, with a healthy appetite and a joyful heart.  But now, though he hadn't actually woken up, he hadn't gotten a wink of sleep, he didn't feel at all like that.  What he had done was still eating away at him, niggling into his brain, coiling around his heart and squeezing it in a vice like grip.

He looked out over the city as the rising sun turned the various shades of grey to vibrant greens and golds.  The people down there had no idea what had happened.  They didn't know their city had fallen to the Fire Nation.  They didn't even know there was a war on thanks to the machinations of Long Feng and his Dai Li.

But they would know soon enough.  Azula wasn't the sort to let her victory go unnoticed.  She'd already sent word to the Fire Nation ships that patrolled the lakes around the city and to the troops that were camped just outside the outer wall whose original orders had been to flood into the city after the ill-fated breech attempt of their impressive, but obviously flawed, drill.  Soon the city would be completely under Fire Nation control.  He'd weep for them if he had any tears left to shed.

He knew what his people were capable of, he knew what they'd do to those that resisted.  So why, for Agni's sake, had he decided to join them?  Was blood truly thicker than water?  Or did he think he could make some kind of difference?

He really needed to talk to someone...get his thoughts out of his head before they overwhelmed him completely.  But there was no one he could turn to.  Even if he could get anywhere near Uncle he knew he couldn't face him, not now, the wounds were still too fresh. 

Azula was not even a consideration, and her friends...well...he just found them both totally disturbing.  Ty Lee was just too perky!  And Mai...she was just so much the opposite.  It was as if the pair were somehow two halves of one strange whole.  But what could you expect from anyone who would willingly share his sister's company?

And then there was the way Mai looked at him.  She always looked away whenever he turned towards her, but he had caught the flicker of her intense gaze more than once.  It was primal, like some sort of predator eyeing its prey.  Every time he caught that look he felt like a piece of meat that she wanted to devourer.  He felt completely uneasy around her.  She may have been Fire Nation, but she always made him feel so cold. 

He had spoken to the Water Tribe girl who travelled with the Avatar and she had actually managed to sooth his heart for a short time.  She'd actually been willing to help him, he absently touched his scar at the thought of it.  He wondered, not for the first time, what would have happened if she'd been able to complete what she had suggested...

But she was gone now, out of reach, both figuratively and physically.  Though he doubted she was very far away, the Avatar was in no fit state to travel...and that was another barb in his heart.  He had never really wished the boy any specific harm, he'd always seen him as just a means to an end.  Of course that look he had thrown him when he'd burst in on him with the Water Tribe girl...it had boiled his blood for some reason...maybe that was why he'd...

No!  He shook the thought from his mind.  He couldn't blame someone else for his decision...this was something he'd have to come to terms with on his own...he had no one to turn to...no one to talk to...no one to...

Wait!

There WAS someone he could talk to, someone here in the city...someone who didn't know who he really was...or what he'd done...

"Jin..."  He whispered.

~~~~~~

Getting out of the palace without being noticed had been a challenge.  Though their numbers were fairly small, the Dai Li seemed to be everywhere.  Luckily, though he had given up the guise of the Blue Spirit he still retained the skills that went with it.

Of course finding Jin was a far greater challenge.  The city was vast, and the lower ring was the most densely populated.  No one paid him much attention, he was still dressed in the earthy tones of the Kingdom, and he'd walked these streets often enough to be just another familiar face in the crowd.

He thought about going to the old tea shop, asking around if anyone had seen her, but that would raise too many questions.  They'd ask about his uncle and he didn't trust himself to keep it together enough to answer any questions posed about him.

He walked past the restaurant where they'd dined, and to the Firelight Fountain, where the children feeding turtleducks under their watchful mothers' eyes opened up another wound in his heart, but there was no sign of her.  He realised he didn't know her all that well, that he didn't have a chance of finding her, as he sat down heavily on the fountain's edge and buried his face in his hands.

"So much for my tracking skills..."  He muttered to himself as he fisted his fingers in his hair in frustration.  "I can track a bison full of kids halfway around the world, but I can't find one girl in a city a fraction of the size..."

"Lee?"

He jerked upright at the sound of the voice and the name that no longer held any real meaning for him.  He blinked, stunned, as he looked into the concerned hazel eyes of the very quarry he'd been seeking.  It seemed for once the Spirits were smiling on him.

"Are you alright?"  She asked with a frown.

"Jin...?"

"What are you doing here?"  She asked.  "I heard that you and your unc..."

"Can we talk?"  He cut her off, really not wanting to hear mention of the man he'd betrayed.  "I really need to talk!"

"Alright."  She moved to sit beside him.

"Not here."  He said taking her hands and pulling her back to her feet as he rose to his own.  "Somewhere private..."

"Private?"  She arced a brow.  "Sound's serious..."

"More than you can possibly imagine..."  He muttered his eyes dropping to the ground.

"Well..."  She thought for a moment.  "My parents are working...we can go to our apartment..."

"Fine..."  Zuko nodded.  "Lead the way..."

~~~~~~

As they walked the relatively short distance to her apartment, Zuko went over in his head just what he was going to say.  It was hard to put into words his feelings, especially to someone who didn't know his past.

"Alright..."  She smiled as she opened the door.  "We're here...it's not much, but it's home..."

When he didn't follow her in she turned to find him in the doorway, shaking his head.

"This was a mistake."  He said.  "I can't do this...I can't talk to you...not without telling you everything...and I can't tell you everything..."

Jin's eyes widened.  He was distraught, babbling, not at all like the boy she'd first seen working in a tea shop, or the boy who'd miraculously lit all the lanterns on that magical night.

"What happened?"  She asked fearfully, grabbing his arm and pulling him inside before he followed the impulse, which was obviously building up inside of him, to run.  She pushed him down onto a cushioned seat.

"I can't..."  He whispered, still shaking his head.  "I can't do this..."

"Lee...you're really scaring me."  She admitted, fear in her voice.  "What's wrong?"

"I've done something...something terrible..."

"Just try to calm down..."  She soothed.  "I'll make you some tea..."

"NO!"  His eyes widened.  "No...no...tea..."

The guy was falling apart and she didn't know why...or what to do...

"How about some water?"  She asked when she could think of nothing else, but that only made him draw his knees up to his chest.  She closed her eyes and took a steadying breath.

"Alright..."  She said finally.  "There's obviously something bothering you...and you came here looking for me so you could talk about it."   She looked at him, he hadn't reacted, she wasn't sure if that was good or bad.  "So talk to me."

"I'd have to tell you everything..."  He said.

"So tell me everything."

"I can't..."  He whispered.

"Why not?"  She frowned.

"Because you'll hate me..."  He said, his gaze turning to the window.  "Like everybody hates me..."

"Why would I hate you?"  She frowned.

"I don't know..."  He admitted.  "People just do...no matter what I do...they find out who I am and they hate me..."

"You can tell me, Lee."  She put a comforting hand on his shoulder.  "I won't hate you."

"You promise?"

"I promise."

"Alright..."  He took a deep breath, as he fought to regain his composure.  "May I have that water now?"

"Are you stalling?"  She arced her brow at him.

"Maybe a little..."  He admitted.  "But this'll take some time...I could really use a drink..."

She threw him a slightly suspicious, but still trusting look as she went to fetch his water.  She had no idea what he was going to tell her, but if it had him worked up into such a state it had to be something important...or terrifying...maybe both.

She returned with a pottery mug full of water, he thanked her and downed it in a single swallow.  She sat down across from him, eyeing him expectantly as he placed the now empty receptacle on a small table beside his seat.

"Alright..."  He said, his eyes on the floor.  "First things first...my name isn't Lee..."  He raised his eyes to meet hers, wanting, needing to gauge her reaction.  "It's Zuko..."

~~~~~~

Azula was pouring over the files she'd found in Long Feng's office.  There was so much information here, all of it valuable, it would take her an age to get through it all.  Reports of troop movements...there was a group of Water Tribe heathens camped at Chameleon Bay...interesting...

"Princess Azula...?"  Ty Lee's tentative voice broke through her concentration.

"I told you I was not to be disturbed!"  She snapped.

"I know...but it's kind of important..."  The acrobat said, twisting the end of her long braid nervously in her fingers.  "At least...I think it's important..."

Azula sighed and rolled her eyes.  "What is it?"

"Well...I went to see if Zuko wanted some lunch...you know he hasn't come out of his rooms at all...I don't think he had any breakfast...and he really needs to eat, because eating is really important..."

"Will you be getting to the point any time soon?"  Azula growled.

"Um...well...you see...I went to invite him for lunch...but he was kinda...not there..."

"WHAT!"

"He's nowhere in the palace..."  Mai, who had been standing silently behind Ty Lee, drolled.  "We looked..."

"Weird thing is..."  Ty Lee continued.  "No one saw him leave...it's like he just...POOF...vanished..."

"Ladies..."  Azula rose swiftly to her feet.  "I think it's time for us to pay my dear uncle a visit."

"Oh good."  Ty Lee beamed.  "The chi blocks are about to wear off anyway..."

~~~~~~

The Dai Li prisons cells were made entirely of metal.  The idea was that earthbenders couldn't bend when they were denied contact to their element.  Of course, though firebenders always had access to their element, being locked in a small metal box left them with little means of using it to escape, barring melting their way out, and that would require more heat than a single firebender could comfortably generate.

Even so, Azula wasn't taking any chances when it came to containing the Dragon of the West.

Iroh sat against the wall furthest from the door, his wrists shackled above his head, his chin resting on his chest.  By all appearances he seemed to be asleep, but he had actually had so much chi blocked by Ty Lee that it had rendered him unconscious.

"Well...he's still here..."  Mai said in her usual bored monotone.  "Can we go now?"

"No."  Azula snapped.  "I want to talk to him."  She looked sharply at Ty Lee.  "Wake him up!"

Ty Lee crouched down beside the old man and after a rapid series of jabs he opened his amber eyes.  His gaze, or rather, glare, immediately found the face of his niece.

"Leave us!"  Azula snapped at her companions, who immediately did as she bade.  "Good afternoon, Uncle."  She mocked.  "Sleep well?"

Normally Iroh would make some humorous retort, but he didn't feel up to it, his heart was too heavy with his grief.  The source of that grief, he noticed, was conspicuous in his absence.

"I thought it might interest you to know that Zuzu's made himself scarce..."  She said.

Iroh's heart swelled with a tiny spark of hope.  He had to wonder if the boy was up to something.  And so, it seemed, did Azula...

"You wouldn't have any idea where he might have run off to, do you?"

"What makes you think I would know?"  Iroh snorted.  "Perhaps he has gone off to plan how he is going to betray you...he seems to have become quite talented at that lately..."

"Awww..."  She teased.  "Are you all upset that Zuzu's turned out to be a chip off the old block?"  She laughed at Iroh's discomfort.  "Don't worry, old man, I don't trust him anymore than I trust you.  He came to my side too quickly...I thought you two must have had some kind of plan...but listening to you...I guess not.  I suppose that means he's just stupid."  She studied her nails for a moment while smirking at the look of defeat on her uncle's face.

"You'll be happy to know I'm sending you both home as soon as the arrangements can be made...should be in the next few days.  I'm sure Father will have a warm welcome for you both."  She crouched down in front of him, igniting a blue-white flame dangerously close to his face. 

"Won't that be nice?"  She taunted as she sashayed to the door.  "Ty Lee!"  She snapped, the pink-clad girl appeared within a heartbeat.  "All this talking has tired my poor old uncle out...I think it's time for a nap..."

~~~~~~

Jin had sat in silence as Zuko unburdened himself.  He had told her everything...shared all the pain, all the grief, all the guilt and shame that he'd kept bottled up inside him since he was a child...the loss of his mother...his scarring...his banishment...right up to his betrayal of his beloved uncle.  So far she hadn't screamed, run, or tried to inflict grievous bodily harm upon him...that had to be a good thing, right?

He heard the rustle of her robes as she rose from her seat, saw her shadow move as she walked towards him.  He braced himself for whatever was coming, the blow or the bellow.  But she did neither.

Instead, she sat down beside him and pulled him into her arms.  He could feel her body, pressed against him as closely as it was, shaking slightly.  It took him a moment to realise she was crying, silently weeping for the broken man-child she held in her comforting embrace.  He hadn't expected that.  His own arms wrapped around her almost instinctively as he accepted the comfort she was offering.

He wasn't sure how long they sat there, but he slowly began to feel a strange calmness come over him.  He shifted slightly and looked up at her.  Her eyes were red and shining with unshed tears, but she smiled at him.

"I told you I wouldn't hate you."  She whispered.  He closed his eyes and lay his head back on her shoulder.

"Now..."  She said as she stroked his hair.  "What are we going to do about your uncle...?"

~~~~~~

Azula's eyes narrowed as the sun began to set with no sign of her brother.  Ty Lee, Mai, even the Dai Li had failed to find him.  She wasn't sure why she was so annoyed, it wasn't like he had the brains to conspire against her...Iroh had always been the plan-maker of their little partnership...Zuko was...well...she wasn'' exactly sure WHAT it was that Zuko brought to the table...

"Something amiss?"  A voice enquired from behind.

She spun angrily to face her brother.

"Where exactly have you been?"  She demanded.

He arced his brow at the tone of her voice.  "I wasn't aware I was supposed to provide you with a written itinerary of my day."  She just glared at him.  "If you must know..."  He sighed.  "I was training..."

"Training?"  She questioned.  "And you felt the need to sneak out for this...training...?"

"It was stealth training."  He said evenly.

"Stealth training?"  She didn't look convinced.

"I snuck up on you, didn't I?"  He pointed out.  "Now...if you'll excuse me..."

She watched him with through slitted eyes as he walked away.

~~~~~~

Zuko somehow managed to keep up his façade of contentment until he reached his rooms.  Azula had claimed the King's chambers as her own, and Zuko knew, as the first born, he should be entitled to them, but he just couldn't be bothered fighting her over it.

He closed his door and leaned against it, sliding down its surface until he sat on the floor.  He sighed deeply.  He had come up with a workable rescue plan for Uncle before he'd left Jin...but he was going to need help...powerful help...the help of a bender or two...possibly three...

"This is not going to be easy..."  He muttered.
« Last Edit: Mar 02, 2008 01:05 am by Nandireya » Logged


The Road Less Travelled Duty
Keeps Zuko's Path to Redemption and "I'm Never Happy"
QTpie
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #1 on: Dec 09, 2006 12:58 pm »

wow i likedit please write more......alot more Cheesy
it was kinda sad :'(
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arthuroys
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« Reply #2 on: Dec 09, 2006 03:47 pm »

By your story, Zuko betrayed his uncle out of a misguided impulse and didn't believe he did the right thing later.  Interesting interpretation of Zuko's choice.


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Nandireya
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« Reply #3 on: Dec 09, 2006 04:46 pm »

wow i likedit please write more......alot more Cheesy
it was kinda sad :'(

I plan to write lots more...and it's just gonna get sadder...but it won't stay there Cheesy

By your story, Zuko betrayed his uncle out of a misguided impulse and didn't believe he did the right thing later.  Interesting interpretation of Zuko's choice.

Well...didn't he?  There's been a lot of talk abut him and Iroh having some sort of cunning plan, but somehow I doubt it...I'll be happy to be proved wrong, though.  Zuko's just a mixed up kid who wants his father's acceptance and desperately wants to go home...

*EDIT* Oh...I just re-read the guidlines and noticed I'm not supposed to reply to comments in here...sorry...I missed that...I won't do it again...
« Last Edit: Dec 09, 2006 06:35 pm by Nandireya » Logged


The Road Less Travelled Duty
Keeps Zuko's Path to Redemption and "I'm Never Happy"
Nandireya
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 8005


The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« Reply #4 on: Dec 24, 2006 05:44 pm »

My first ever try at writing the Avatar gang...hope I got their voices right...

In two parts...it's a long one Grin
__________________

Chapter Two

Sokka ran a hand through his hair as he sat up.  He glanced around the camp at his slumbering companions as he kicked his way out of his sleeping bag.  Toph was hidden inside her little rock tent.  The Earth King, though he had complained bitterly about having to sleep on the ground, was snoring quietly, using his bear as a pillow.  Aang was nestled in Appa's fur, Katara wrapped protectively around him.

He sighed deeply.

Very little had been said around the camp fire last night, even less tonight.  Nobody had felt much like talking...or eating...or doing much of anything.  Their spirits were broken, their hearts heavy.

He rose to his feet and headed for the trees to take care of what it was that had awoken him.  He slowed as he passed the fire.  The flames were low now, but they seemed to be rising and falling in a slow rhythmic, pattern...almost as if it was breathing.  

He shrugged is off and continued on his way.

It wasn't until he returned and his eyes were more accustomed to the dark that he noticed there was an extra body to their number.  Perched on a fallen log...dressed in Earth Kingdom robes...with a dark patch of skin around its left eye, barely visible through scruffy black hair...

"Katara!  Toph!"  Sokka yelled at the top of his lungs.  "Angry jerk alert!"

"Wait..."  Zuko managed before he was forced to dodge the water whip aimed at his head.  He cart-wheeled, spun and twisted along the log as Katara continued to strike at him, somehow managing to evade her every blow.

"He sure can move..."  The Earth King commented, clearly impressed with the agility of this strange boy.

"Do something!"  Sokka bellowed at Toph.

"Like what?"  She snorted.

"Encase him in rocks...suck him underground...drop a boulder on him...take your pick!"

"Until he makes contact with the ground I can't tell where he is!"  She shot back.

"Fine!"  Katara growled throwing the full force of her attack at the log, the water smashing it into splinters and dropping the Fire Nation Prince to the ground.  To his credit he managed to twist in the air to land on his feet, but as soon as he touched the ground Toph knew exactly where he was.

Zuko felt the air being pushed from his lungs as the earth spiralled up around him in a tight rocky cocoon.  He couldn't move, he could barely breathe.  The Water Tribe peasants approached him, bright blue eyes filled with anger.  The other girl, the earthbender, strolled over, almost casually, to lean nonchalantly against her handiwork.

"If you think we're just gonna let you waltz in here and take off with Aang..."  Sokka snarled.

"I didn't come here for the Avatar..."  Zuko said, his voice a gasping whisper due to the fact that he couldn't draw enough breath to speak properly.

"Like we're gonna believe that."  The boy snorted, shoving an accusing finger in his face.  "It's all you've ever done!"

"If I'd come here with the intent to capture the Avatar..."  Zuko gasped.  "I could have done so while you slept..."  He lowered his eyes as he whispered.  "He's in no condition to resist..."

Sokka's jaw slackened, his finger quivered.  "Don't..."  He began.  "Don't think you can talk your way out of this with logic!"

"If you're not here for Aang..."  Katara demanded.  "Then why are you here?"  

Zuko took as deep a breath as he could, his eyes on the ground before him, before he answered quietly.

"I need your help..."

Sokka almost burst out laughing until Katara threw him such a savage look it silenced him.

"I know I don't deserve it..."  Zuko continued in a halting voice...whether it was painful to say or just difficult due to the rocks robbing him of his breath was impossible to say.  "I know I've done terrible things to you...and I know you've got no reason to trust me...even less to believe me...but I've never wanted to hurt anybody..."  He let out a shuddering sigh.  "All I've ever really wanted...is to go home...and my uncle shouldn't have to suffer because of what I've done..."

Zuko gasped as he suddenly found himself unceremoniously dumped on to the ground, the rocks that had held him prisoner sinking back into the ground leaving no sign of their passage.

"Toph!"  Sokka exploded.  "Are you crazy!?  He's..."

"...telling the truth..."  She cut him off.  She placed a hand on the Fire Prince's shoulder.  "I'm with you, Sparky."

"Sparky...?"  He echoed.

Katara considered this as she studied Zuko.  He hadn't moved, he still sat on the ground where he'd fallen, his hands folded in his lap, his head bowed, very reminiscent of the boy who had been thrown into the crystal-filled cavern with her.  He had come alone, unarmed...though the fact that he was a firebender of no small talent didn't add any real weight to that argument.  He hadn't threatened them, and when they'd attacked him, unprovoked she realised, though not without reason she added as an afterthought, he hadn't fought back, he'd been all about defence...

"You know..."  She began.

"Don't tell me you're gonna believe this guy!"  Sokka gaped at her.  "He's been chasing us and trying to kill us for the past six months!  Toph...I can kinda accept her wanting to help him...she doesn't know him like we do...and she likes his uncle...but you..."

"The animals didn't see him as a threat..."  The Earth King interjected.  "They're far more sensitive to things like killers than we are..."

"Actually..."  Katara said.  "He never tried to kill us...and he just said he never wanted to hurt anyone...which Toph confirmed was the truth..."

"He doesn't deserve our help!"  Sokka snapped.

"But his uncle does."  Katara countered.

"Katara!  This is nuts!  There's no way, under any possible circumstances, that you'll ever convince me to..."

"Help him..."

It was barely audible, but all eyes turned towards the speaker.  None had even been aware that the Avatar was awake, let alone that he was listening, and although all eyes were on him, he met the gaze of only one.

"Are you sure?"  Sokka frowned.

The last time he'd looked into those golden eyes he'd been angry, jealous and, though he hated to admit it, more than a little spiteful.  And he'd been met with the same.  He wondered if his contempt had been a contributing factor to the Fire Prince's decision.  But now he saw nothing but grief, regret and a glimpse of a heart that was filled with more pain and suffering than he could possibly imagine...

"Yeah..."  Aang said.  "I'm sure..."

"Okay...fine..."  Sokka grumbled as he sat down heavily across from the Fire Nation Prince.  He eyed him suspiciously, his expression softening slightly at the look on the other boy's face.  "What's your plan?"  When he didn't answer immediately he prompted.  "You DO have a plan, right?"

"Yes...I need..."

They were distracted as a chittering Momo, who had slept through all the fighting and arguing, but was now very much awake, launched himself off Sokka's head, and dove at something behind the ducking Zuko.  The suspicion had returned to the Water Tribe boy's face as he pushed past the Fire Nation Prince to find out what the lemur was up to.

"Yours, I take it?"  He asked as he returned to the fire's light with a bag full of lemur and who knew what else dangling from his hand.  "Are there any weapons in here?"

"I thought you could use some supplies."  Zuko replied evenly.  "Some food...some clothes..."  He glanced towards the scorch-robed Avatar.  Momo emerged with a sprig of bound, pulpy leaves.  He sniffed them, nibbled them, pulled a disgusted face and threw them over his shoulder before diving back in.

"What's this?"  Katara asked as she retrieved it.

"They're leaves from a medicinal plant."  He explained. "It'll help with the burns..."  He looked away.

"How did you know about this?"  She asked as she sniffed at it.

Zuko leaned on his left arm, his fingers curling close to his scar.  "You're kidding, right?"  He said flatly.

~~~~~~

Zuko waited, a little impatiently, while the group went through the supplies he'd brought them...his peace offering...making Aang comfortable with the medicinal plant and fresh clothes.  Finally they sat around the fire, the Water Tribe girl had her water skin handy in case he should try anything, he noticed.

"Okay..."  Sokka said around a mouthful of dried meat.  "Let's hear your great plan...what do you want from us?"

"I need you..."  He looked pointedly at the Water Tribe boy.  "To stay here while the girls and I..."

"WHAT!?" He surged to his feet.  "If you think I'm gonna let you lead my sister into..."

"You need to protect the Avatar and the King..."  Zuko explained.  "I found you...somebody else could...and...no offence..."  He looked to the Earth King.  "...neither of them look like they're up to much of a fight."  He smirked.  "Besides...you think your sister can't take care of herself?"

"Aw man..."  Sokka flopped back down.  "He's using logic again..."

"So we take Appa back to the city?"  Katara asked.

"No..."  Zuko shook his head.  "The bison is too obvious...though we might need his help getting out...I don't know what kind of condition..."  He closed his eyes, took a steadying breath.  "I don't know what kind of condition my uncle will be in...he may need to be carried..."  He lowered his head.  

Toph, sitting next to him, placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.  She knew, better than anyone how much the boy meant to his uncle...and she was now certain the feeling was mutual.

He let out a sharp breath, then looked at Momo who was currently lying on his back tugging on a strip of dried fruit he had held in his toes.  "How smart is the lemur?"

"He's pretty smart..."  Katara said.

"Though he's not so good at following orders."  Sokka snorted.  "Remember that time, after that big storm, when Aang went off to find us some medicine?"

"I remember sucking a frog."  Katara pulled a face.  "And you thought you were an earthbender..."

"Ha!"  Toph snorted.

Nobody noticed the look that passed between Zuko and Aang.

"You tried to get him to get us some water..."  Sokka continued.  "And he brought back all that junk..."

"Is he smart enough to fetch the bison?"  Zuko asked.

"Yeah...he'd be able to do that."  Sokka nodded.

"Fine...we'll take him with us..."
« Last Edit: Dec 30, 2006 07:56 pm by Nandireya » Logged


The Road Less Travelled Duty
Keeps Zuko's Path to Redemption and "I'm Never Happy"
Nandireya
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« Reply #5 on: Dec 24, 2006 05:44 pm »

Katara was bored.  Toph had never been a great conversationalist, and it seemed it wasn't one of Zuko's strong points either.  They were camped a good several hours walk from the inner wall, and Zuko had insisted they walk it...he didn't want to draw any attention, which made sense, but it didn't stop her from getting bored.

She glanced at Zuko who was gazing at the ground about a foot before his feet, his expression unreadable.  She couldn't figure him out.  It had to have been hard for him to come to them for help, even without what he'd done just two days ago.  It showed just how much he cared for his uncle.

The thought made her smile for a moment.  He DID care, deep down he wasn't the heartless monster she'd always thought he was...but she still felt uneasy around him.  She knew he was troubled, conflicted...in fact she was beginning to think he had some sort of psychological problem...a split personality...that he had two distinctive personas that were at war with each other.

The first one she'd met...the one that she had seen as the face of the Fire Nation for so very long...was the Prince.  He was an arrogant and aggressive young man, driven and focused, fuelled by anger and hatred and the desire to do what was expected of him.  He wanted to follow in his forefathers' footsteps, to be a Fire Lord just like those that had come before him.

It wasn't until she was trapped with him that she'd met the other one.  It was in the crystal catacombs that she'd met Zuko.  He was a withdrawn and confused little boy, sincere and compassionate, possessed of an overwhelming sadness and a painful loneliness.  She had liked Zuko as much as she hated the Prince.  She had wanted to help Zuko...

He needed to merge those two separate persona into a single entity...she could see that now.  If he could temper his anger with his sadness, marry his focus and determination with his sincerity and compassion...he'd be a lot like Aang.  But then Aang was part of his problem.

In the caves she'd wanted to help Zuko.  She'd offered to heal him...he'd seemed so hopeful.  Then Aang had burst in and the Prince had shoved Zuko aside. 

Aang was the trigger, the physical representation of all that was wrong in his life.  He needed to capture the Avatar to get his honour back, he'd told her that, though how he'd lost it and who he had to get it back from he hadn't shared with her.  She assumed it was his father...the man who had banished him...she'd heard other Fire Nation citizens throw that in his face often enough.

Thrown in his face...

His face...

She glanced at him, at the fiery blemish that marred his features.  She'd never even wondered how he'd gotten it before.  It looked like more like a brand than a scar...a mark of his banishment...

She gasped as realisation struck her.

"What?"  He frowned at her.

"Uh...Momo just caught me with a claw..."  She smiled, shifting the snowy creature on her shoulder.  "It startled me."

"Oh..."

"Are we there yet?"  Toph complained now that the uncomfortable silence had been broken.

"Just about."  He confirmed.

"So how do we get in?"  Katara asked.

"The same way I got out..."

~~~~~~

Toph sniffed the air.

"This is a sewer..."  She sneered.

"That's right..."  Zuko confirmed.

"We got into Omashu like this..."  Katara said absently.

"The prison's this way..."  Toph said as they emerged into a darkened street.

"We need to make a little detour first."  He said, placing a hand on her shoulder and gently turning her in another direction.  Surprisingly, he led them rather easily through the maze of streets.

"You certainly seem to know your way around."  Katara commented.

"Yes..."  He said.  "I do..."

He led them to a fairly large, multi-story building and up several flights of stairs.  He knocked gently on a door.

"Who is it?"  A voice inquired quietly from within.

"It's me..."  Was all Zuko said in way of reply, but it seemed to be enough as the door swung open and spilled a warm light over the unlikely trio.

Katara arced a brow at the rather pretty young Earth Kingdom girl who studied her with apparent equal interest as she took hold of Zuko's forearm pulling him inside as he gestured for the two girls to follow.  She seemed strangely possessive of him, Katara thought.

"Katara...Toph...Jin..."  He gestured to each as he spoke their name.  It wasn't much of an introduction, but he had a lot more important things on his mind.  "Did you manage to get everything?"  He asked the girl he'd called Jin.

"Yeah..."  She jerked her head towards an adjoining door.

"Thanks..."  He smiled slightly.  "I'll be right back..."  He said to the other two as he slipped into the next room, closing the door behind him.

An awkward silence descended on the three girls, none of them knowing what to talk about.  The only thing they had in common was the Fire Nation Prince in the next room...and two of them barely knew him...but the third...

"So how do you know Zuko?"  Katara asked.  "You seem pretty...close..."

"Not really..."  Jin said, glancing towards the door with a look that made Katara arc her brow again.  Standing on wood as she was, Toph had missed it so couldn't confirm her suspicions, but Katara got the distinct impression there was something between this girl and the Fire Lord's son. 

"I haven't known him all that long..."  She admitted.  "And I've known him as Zuko even less..."

Katara was a little shocked at that.  But then she began to put the pieces together.  The banishment...the Earth Kingdom clothes...him working in a tea shop.  He'd been living incognito...and probably still would be if she hadn't rushed off to tell Suki...who turned out to be Azula.  Now she felt even more obligated to help him.

The door slid open and Zuko stepped back into the room.  Katara's jaw dropped at the sight of him...a sight she never thought she'd see.  He was dressed from head to toe in shades of blue, his hair pulled back into a scruffy ponytail reminiscent of Sokka's wolf's tail.  If it hadn't been for his pale skin, golden eyes and very obvious facial scar he could have easily passed for Water Tribe.

But it seemed he'd thought of that...

"When I first encountered your brother at the South Pole..."  He said softly.  "He was wearing some sort of warpaint..."  He passed a hand over his face as if he could magically summon a facsimile.  "In black, grey and white..."  Jin had walked across to the small stove and returned with three small bowls of ash.  "I think it would be more authentic if you..."

"You want me to paint your face..."  She surmised.

He nodded.

"Alright..."  She said warily as he sat down at the small table.  She sat across from him, dipping her fingers into the water and ash mixture and drawing a quick mark along his lower eyelid.

~~~~~~

It was very late by the time the made their way to the Dai Li prison, Toph leading the way now as she was more intimate with its location and layout.  There was only one Dai Li on watch which caused Zuko some concern.  Iroh was a considerable threat, the fact that he didn't require multiple guards didn't bode well.  He feared for his uncle more than he had before.

"Send the lemur."  He whispered to Katara.  "We're going to need the bison."  She looked at him with concerned eyes, no doubt wondering how he could possibly know that Appa was needed without even seeing his uncle.  But she nodded and whispered to her furry companion which immediately leapt to a barred window, slipped through and flew off into the night.

"Let's do this."  He said grimly, spinning around the corner and smashing the Dai Li in the face before the girls could even move.

"I thought he said he needed us."  Toph muttered as she heard the impact of fist against face.  Katara grimaced in empathy for the unfortunate Dai Li...Zuko's attack had been brutal, born out of his frustration at the predicament he'd gotten himself into.  He lowered the unconscious guard to the floor and retrieved the keys.

They move quickly and quietly down the corridors, peering in the tiny barred windows to find the cell they wanted.  When he found him, Zuko unlocked and flung open the door without regard to the noise it would have made as it rebounded off the wall if Katara hadn't caught it.  The two girls stood guard as he entered the cell and unlocked the manacles that held his uncle to the wall.

"Uncle...?"  He whispered as he gently lifted the old man's face.  He shook him gently, his fears rising as he failed to get a response.  He lay his ear against his chest...his heartbeat was slow but steady.  There wasn't a mark on him.  So why wouldn't he wake up?

Katara noticed and moved towards them.

"What's wrong with him?"  He asked in a terrified whisper.  His anguished expression tore at her heart.

She crouched down beside the old firebender, calling healing water to her hands.  She frowned.  She felt this before...and she knew there was little she could do.

"This is Ty Lee's doing."  She said.

"The acrobat?"  Zuko frowned.

"She can block chi."  Katara explained.

"That's good to know..."

"Don't worry...it wears off."  She put a comforting hand on his shoulder.  "But we have to get him out of here."

"Right..."  Zuko manoeuvred his uncle onto his shoulder, lifting him with some effort, but managing to bare his weight himself.  A thought occurred to Zuko as he made his way out into the corridor, twisting carefully so as not to knock his uncle.

"Where is the lemur likely to bring the bison?"  He asked.

"Probably right back here..."  Katara said.  "Why?"

"Because he's going to be noticed."  He said.  "And I'd rather he not lead the rest of the Dai Li straight to us...we have to do this quickly."

They had just worked their way down the front stairs when Momo flew overhead, chittering madly, Appa landed rather gracefully in the small courtyard. Toph bended a ramp to allow Zuko to carry his uncle up onto the animal's broad back, following him up to help secure the old man.  Katara kept an eye out for any curious onlookers or approaching Dai Li.  She wasn't at all surprised when Zuko slid back down to the ground.  She'd known as soon as she'd seen him in Water Tribe garb that he wasn't going to come with them...why else would he need a disguise?

"If she finds out what you've done..."  She shook her head, not at all agreeing with his decision.  "...she'll kill you..."

"If that is to be my fate..."  He said softly, he glanced up to the confused looking Toph who had her arms around Iroh.  "At least my conscience will be clear..."

"You made a mistake, Zuko!"  She yelled at him.  "You don't deserve to die for it!"

"And these people don't deserve to suffer for it!"  He gestured at the city around him.  "I won't leave their fate in my sister's hands."  He looked at her then, a look that broke her heart.  "I won't let her tear any of these families apart.  I won't let her leave any babies without their parents..."

She nodded at that.

"What about your uncle?"  She asked.

He pushed at his right eye with the heal of his hand...she knew it was to wipe away the tears that were forming there.

"The Avatar needs to master firebending..."  He said softly after a few moments.  "I can't think of a better teacher..."

"He's not going to be happy about this..."  She said.  "He won't like the thought of leaving you in such danger...he'll want to come after you..."

"Then tell him not to."  He said firmly.  "Tell him I have to face the consequences of my actions...tell him..."  His voice cracked as he struggled to put his feelings into words and to hold onto his emotions.  He reached into his robes and pulled out an object that Katara didn't recognise.

"Give him this and tell him I hold true to its message."  She took the offered object...an ornate Earth Kingdom knife.

"Now go..."  He said.

"You were right..."  She said as she squeezed his arm.  "You HAVE changed."  She raised herself on her tiptoes and gently kissed his scared cheek before turning and climbing up onto Appa's head.  The bison nudged him with his massive head, letting out a mournful sound.  Zuko smiled sadly, reaching up to scratch the beast behind the ear.  Katara took it, forcing him to look up at her.

"I know when next we meet..."  She smiled.  "It won't be as enemies..."  Then she turned her attention to the bison, uttering the words that made it lift into the air.

He watched as they flew off over the city, standing rooted to the spot until he could no longer see them, thinking of her final words to him.

"I wouldn't count on that..."  He said softly as he turned and headed back to the lower ring.

~~~~~~

"So...everything's okay...?"  Jin asked as she let him in to her family's apartment.

"He's safe..."  Zuko confirmed.

"You could have gone with them, you know..."  She told him.

He shook his head.  "It's better this way."

"Better for who?"

"I've got to get back...before I'm missed..."  He said, ignoring her question as he headed into the adjoining room to change out of his Water Tribe outfit.  "What's this...?"

"I made it for you..."  She said.  "Do you like it?"

"It's great...but won't Azula suspect something?"

"She doesn't know about that dream of yours."  She said.

"Good point."  He admitted as he emerged in the new outfit she'd sewn for him.

"You look good in those colours..."  She admitted as she moved over to straighten out the dark fabric.

"It's nice..."  He said, mentally kicking himself as he did so.  He'd never been very good with words.

"A little something to remember me by..."  She said, her hand still on his chest.

"I'm not going to forget you."  He assured her.

They stood in silence for a long moment, each content just to be in the presence of the other.

"I'm never gonna see you again, am I?"  She said finally.

"No."  He said simply, though it hurt to do so.  It hurt even more when she turned her head away from him in the hopes he wouldn't see the tears in her eyes.

He owed this girl so much.  She'd helped him when she'd had no reason to do so.  She cared for him when she had every reason to hate him.  And she'd had faith in him when he didn't have faith in himself.

He turned her face gently towards him, his golden eyes searching her tear filled hazel ones.  There was so much he wanted to say to her, if he could only find the words.  He'd always been a man of action...but then, sometimes actions spoke louder than words.

She was a little surprised when he gently caught her lips with his own, happy, but surprised.  It wasn't a brief brushing of mouths like the last kiss they'd shared.  It was strong...deep...full of a fire they both knew could never truly be ignited...of promises they knew they could never keep.  It was full of everything they knew they wanted...and could never have..

But most of all it said goodbye...



~~~~~~

Zuko was humming to himself as he strolled in to where his sister and her friends where having breakfast.

"Been out training again, brother dear?"  Azula asked.

"No..."  He said as he picked up a brightly coloured piece of fruit, sniffing it before taking a bite.  "I've been shopping..."

"So I see..."  Ty Lee grinned.

"You like?"  He spread his arms to show off his new outfit.  It was predominately black, sleeveless and edged in deep red.  An equally red dragon motif embraced him protectively from behind, its stylised head resting over his heart.

"Very nice..."  Mai murmured, mesmerised at the way the silken fabric clung to his body.

"I was getting sick of all that green and brown..."  He said.  "If you'll excuse me..."  He nabbed another piece of fruit.  "NOW I'm going to go and train..."

He headed for the ornate double doors...singing to himself as he went. 

"It's a long, long way to Ba-Sing-Se, but the girls in the city they look so prett-ay!  And they kiss so sweet that you've really got to meet the girls from Ba-Sing-Se!"

He pulled the doors closed behind him.

"There is something seriously wrong with that boy..."  Mai frowned.

"I think he's got a girlfriend..."  Ty Lee grinned.

"WHAT!?"  Both Mai and Azula turned on her.

"Well...I mean...he was living here in the city for a long time before we got here..."  She stammered.  "And it would kinda explain why he keeps sneaking off...you know...to see her..."

"Yes..."  Azula's eyes narrowed.  "It would explain it...but I can't believe he'd debase himself with some Earth Kingdom peasant..."  She snorted.  "But then...I guess he always was a disappointment..."
____________________________

I'm not entirely happy with the pic...but I'm never entirely happy with my 'art'...I'm sure the Zujins will love it...and it gives you a little glimpse of Zuzu's new duds...I just love the idea of him in black Wink
« Last Edit: Dec 24, 2006 06:37 pm by Nandireya » Logged


The Road Less Travelled Duty
Keeps Zuko's Path to Redemption and "I'm Never Happy"
Meg-han
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« Reply #6 on: Dec 24, 2006 10:50 pm »

Ahhh stupid Ty Lee! Hey, when I read this
Quote
"...telling the truth..."  She cut him off.  She placed a hand on the Fire Prince's shoulder.  "I'm with you, Sparky."
I was like "That's the nickname Toph gives him in my fanfic! But I guess it would be an obvious name for a firebender, an obvious sarcastic one. Well this fic is so awesome, please post more soon!
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jem
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« Reply #7 on: Dec 25, 2006 02:21 pm »

Not bad;         lol short review
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"All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." -Benjamin Franklin
firebender921
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« Reply #8 on: Dec 26, 2006 08:00 pm »

So far that is my favourite fan fiction, because it is quite realistic.LOVE IT!! Smiley Grin Cheesy Cool I hope you post more up because I need closure Cheesy
« Last Edit: Dec 26, 2006 08:15 pm by firebender921 » Logged
Nandireya
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The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« Reply #9 on: Dec 30, 2006 07:54 pm »

Okay...I don't know if War Minister Ching and the general Zuko spoke out against are the same person...but they sure look alike...

Again...in two parts 'cos I got wordy Grin

*EDIT* I have since found out that War Minister QIN and the general Zuko spoke out against, General Bujing, are not the same person...so i have altered the start of this chapter to reflect this...it doesn't make a difference to the overall plot...but I like to be as accurate as possible...
__________________________________

Chapter Three

General Bujing wasn't at all comfortable with the look he was receiving from the former Fire Nation prince...he wasn't even comfortable with the fact that the boy was in his presence.  He should be locked up...imprisoned along with his traitorous uncle.  Instead he'd been invited to be part of a very important war council.

He remembered the last time the boy had attended such a meeting...and given the look he was throwing Bujing's way it was obvious that the youth remembered it too.  And that he remembered Bujing.  He had spoken out against Bujing's plan, and been disfigured and banished for it, while Bujing had been promoted.  Though, with the permanently narrowed eye set within ugly scarred flesh it was hard to determine just what the boy was thinking, he could have merely been bored, but still, Bujing was worried.  He'd never seen the boy bend, never seen him fight, but reports had stated that he'd gone head to head with the Avatar and managed to hold his own.  If he decided to take some form of revenge, if he leapt across the table to throttle him, he only had the Princess to defend him...the others present were all non-benders...and all were more likely to just sit back and enjoy the show.

"We currently have two thousand troops ready to deploy throughout the city..."  War Minister Qin was informing the Princess, while Bujing tried to ignore the burning gaze of gold.

"That's not going to be enough."  The former prince said evenly.

All eyes turned to him.  Azula arced a brow, a smirk curling her lips at the thought of history repeating itself.

"There are no warriors within this city, brother...except for those who are already at our side..."  She said, gesturing at the pair of silent Dai Li in attendance.  "This city is full of aristocrats, bureaucrats, artists and refugees..."

"Which outnumber us a hundred to one."  Zuko cut her off.  "And that's a modest estimate..."

"Pompous fools and riff-raff..."  Qin snorted, waving off the boy's concerns.

"Yes..."  Zuko agreed.  "Riff-raff that have already been displaced by us once.  They're going to fight tooth and nail if we try to beat them down again...they're a proud people...they may be down, but they're not broken...they could overwhelm us through sheer weight of numbers...and now that they have the Avatar to give them hope..."

"The Avatar is dead."  Azula pointed out.  "I killed him myself."

"We have no proof of that..."  Zuko said as he stalked towards the window.  "And they will require proof before they lose faith..."  He gestured towards the city.  "There's an easier way..."

Azula's eyes narrowed suspiciously.  "If you have something in mind, dear brother, I think we'd all be delighted if you'd share it with us..."

"The majority of the population reside in the lower ring..."  He pointed to the map of the city spread out on the table before them as he rejoined them.  "The upper ring is already ours...the middle ring can be taken easily with the troops we have."

"And the lower ring?"  Qin arced a brow.

"Is full of refugees, the poor, the feeble...all but ignored from those in the higher rings.  They're desperate people, mostly destitute...which is why they'll fight for what little they've got.  A change in...upper management...isn't really going to change their situation."

"So what is it you're recommending?"  Azula asked.

"We let them keep what they've got...maybe even spread the wealth a little..."  Zuko began.

"Are you suggesting..."  Qin sneered.  "...that if we throw them a bone they'll join us willingly?"

"No."  Zuko meet his contempt with a level gaze.  "I'm saying that if we throw them a bone they won't make a fuss."

"This is preposterous!"  Qin snorted.  "Why should we care about this rabble?"

"Why should we waste what resources we have keeping them in line?"  Zuko shot back.  "They are of no use to us.  Besides...forcing someone to your side is too dangerous..."  His golden eyes flicked to the silent Dai Li.  "...you never know when they'll turn on you...and with these kind of numbers..."

"They could be used as cannon fodder...they won't live long enough to turn on us..."  Bujing said.  "Fresh meat for the front lines..."  He grinned as the former prince bristled, forgetting for a moment that the boy could quite easily flay the skin from his bones.

"Enough, boys...don't make me separate you."  Azula said in a rather condescending way.  "We'll try Zuko's suggestion."  She smiled at Qin and Bujing's obvious dissatisfaction.  "He's right...we don't have a lot of troops...and his idea will allow us to utilise them more effectively..."

"Princess!"  Ty Lee broke in.

"I thought I told you we were not to be disturbed!"  She snapped.  "This is the second time you've done so...are you incapable of following the simplest of orders?"

"It's your uncle, Princess..."

"What's wrong with him?"  Zuko asked with obvious concern.

"He's gone."  Ty Lee said meekly.

"WHAT!?"  The Princess exploded, immediately looking at her brother, but he only looked confused and concerned.  "You're dismissed!"  She said curtly to Qin and his generals.  They bowed and made a hasty retreat.  Ty Lee glanced at Zuko who had crossed the room and was leaning heavily on the window frame, the wood smouldering beneath his hands.

"How did this happen?"  Azula growled, drawing the young acrobat's attention.

"The guard on duty said he'd be smacked around by some Water Tribe guy..."  Mai said in her usual monotone, her eyes on Zuko's back, a tiny sympathetic quirk in her brow.  "And the prisoners spoke of two others...two girls..."

"The Avatar's companions..."  Azula spat.

"Cursed child!"  Zuko hissed through gritted teeth.  "Will he not be satisfied until he's taken EVERYTHING from me?!"

"Get out."  She said quietly to her two companions before slowly approaching her brother. He was visibly shaking, the wood beneath his hands glowing as it slowly ignited.  She knew this was a blow to him...but an even bigger one to her plans.  He'd insist on going after them...and away from her influence, and back under their uncle's, she'd lose the tenuous hold she had on him.  She had to do something...and she had to do it quickly.

"Shhhh..."  She soothed, placing her hands on his hunched shoulders.  "I know how this must make you feel..."  She began to massage his tightened muscles.  "It's not your fault...he made his choice...turning against his nation and his people...that's something I know you'd never do..."

She smiled as he began to relax.

"You've suffered so much these past few years..."  She continued.  "You need a break...you need to rest...to regain your strength and heal your spirit.  Somebody has to tell Father of the fall of Ba Sing Se...and I think that somebody should be you."

"Me...?"  He frowned.  "But the city...the people..."

"I can handle things here..."  She assured him.  "And you can take the good news home..."

"Home...?"  He echoed in a whisper.

"Yes...home..."

He closed his eyes and lowered his head...he never saw her wicked smile...

~~~~~~

Zuko knew he should be feeling elated at the sight that lay before him, but somehow all he could feel was dread  It was like a living thing, growing stronger with each passing moment, curled up in the pit of his stomach and gnawing at his insides like a hungry fledgling dragon.  

The Fire Nation capitol was a glorious sight as the rising sun set its many towers alight with golden fire.  The contrast between his true home and the one that had been his for the past few months was striking.  Ba Sing Se was a massive, sprawling city, of mostly low, white buildings with green and brown tiled roofs.  The city before him, though home to a similar population, was far more economical when it came to the amount of land it covered, but then the Fire Nation was, in size at least, far smaller than the Earth Kingdom, but then it was larger than all the other nations combined.  So his people had built a city that was vertical, reaching for the heavens rather than crawling across the earth.

It had taken more than a week at full speed to get them here...and it was only Azula's ship and royal seal that had gotten him this far.  The crew...HER crew...barely tolerated his presence.  Though they would perform any task he requested of them, they weren't particularly friendly.  He had kept to himself, nothing unusual for him, training and resting as best he could.  He wondered how his uncle was, if he understood why he'd done what he'd done.  Was he proud that he was taking responsibility for his actions, or did he just think he was being foolish again?

Maybe he was being foolish...he had no idea how his father was going to react to this...which was why, though he hated to admit it, he'd been training so furiously.  Hope for the best...prepare for the worst.

'You give him too much credit. My brother is not the understanding type.'

His uncle's words drifted across his memory.  He hugged himself despite the warmth of the early morning sun.

"We will be docking within the hour."  One of the crew informed him, with the usual lack of formality due to one of his station...or to their minds, FORMER station.  "You may wish to make yourself more presentable."

He nodded in response, but the man had already turned and walked off across the deck.  He looked down at himself.  The man was right.  He'd been training since before dawn, and was hardly in a proper state to meet the Fire Lord.  This reunion was of the utmost importance...he was going to have to look his best.

He padded across the deck, he could already feel the rise in the temperature in the metal beneath his bare feet, partly due to his recently completed workout, but mostly to the rising sun.  He didn't notice the appreciative looks he was receiving from the pair of female crew members he passed, he didn't really notice any of the crew, nor the fact that Azula's ship actually had females on board.  

He knew he'd been in less than perfect shape when he'd first come onboard, he hadn't been able to practice his bending while he'd been living in Ba Sing Se, though he had kept up with his swordsmanship and general fitness.  He had been pushing himself, he knew he had, but he was happy with the results, even if it had been only a week.  He hadn't attempted to bend lightening...somehow it just didn't feel right, and he didn't trust himself enough to pull it off...though he had practiced the redirecting form which had gotten him some very strange looks.

He scrubbed himself clean of sweat and towelled himself off just as vigorously.  He dressed in the outfit Jin had made him despite it not being true Fire Nation attire.  He took comfort in the fact that someone who cared for him had made it...and with the red dragon motif...it was almost as if Iroh was with him...to offer him protection and guidance.  Then he set to work on his hair.

It was an unruly mess, thick and stubborn.  Even though it was long enough to hang into his eyes it was not yet long enough to pull back into a traditional topknot.  He settled for slicking it back, hoping it would decide to behave itself...

~~~~~~

"The Royal Barge has returned, my Lord..."  The underling scraped and bowed.

"My daughter had accomplished her task?"  Fire Lord Ozai arced a perfect brow.

"The Royal Barge does not bear your daughter, my Lord..."  The man seemed to bow even deeper.

"Then who does it bear?"  Ozai asked evenly, already losing patience with the grovelling twit.

"Your son, my Lord..."  His nose was definitely touching the ground now.

"What?"  Ozai's voice was a fierce whisper.  "Is he in chains?"

"No, my Lord..."  If he wanted to bow any lower he'd have to sink through the floor.

"Bring him to me."  Ozai said dangerously.
« Last Edit: Mar 09, 2007 06:01 am by Nandireya » Logged


The Road Less Travelled Duty
Keeps Zuko's Path to Redemption and "I'm Never Happy"
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The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« Reply #10 on: Dec 30, 2006 07:55 pm »

Fire Lord Ozai watched with narrowed eyes as his first born child entered the throne room.  He arced a brow as he took in the rather profound changes in the boy, but then he hadn't seen him in three years, three very formative years in the life of a teenager.  He hadn't considered how much he'd grow in that time, but then, he'd barely even thought of him at all. 

He'd been just shy of his fourteenth birthday on the day he'd been banished into the world beyond Fire Nation shores, a broken child, his face obscured by bandages.  Now it was the scar that obscured his face.  Ozai felt a miniscule amount of respect that the boy didn't try to hide it...like a true warrior, he wore it with pride, despite the fact that it was a constant reminder of his shame.  His eyes narrowed again when he noticed the princely topknot was gone.

He knelt before him, the proper show of respect for his liege and sire, an Earth Kingdom scroll held out before him, remaining perfectly still as the minutes ticked by.

"Speak."  Ozai finally ordered.

"I bring you word from the Earth Kingdom..."  Zuko said.  "Ba Sing Se has fallen...and their plans for invasion of our glorious nation..."  He raised the scroll.

He held his breath as he heard the rustle of silk, saw the flicker of the Eternal Flame as his father rose and descended from the throne.  The Fire Lord's steps were slow and measured as he approached his son.  Zuko began to raise his head as his father's shadow fell on him...until the scroll was kicked brutally from his hands.

"You were told to return here with the Avatar or not return at all!"  Ozai hissed at him.  "I do not see him anywhere..."

"Azula said..."

"It was Ozai wore the crown last I checked."  His father snapped as he circled him like a predatory animal.  "NOT Azula.  She does not speak for me!"  He stopped before him.  "Banished you are...and banished you remain."

He turned and stalked back towards the throne.  He snapped his fingers and Zuko suddenly found himself surrounded by the Royal Guard.

"You are a disgrace...a failure...a traitor..."

"I never betrayed you!"  Zuko cut him off in protest.

"And apparently have still not learned to hold your tongue!"  His father bristled.  "Take him to the dungeons until I decide his fate."

"Why not decide it now?"  Zuko said, rising swiftly to his feet.

"Are you challenging me?"  His father snarled.  "You would not fight me before...why should I believe you would face me now?"

"I'm not a scared little boy now."  Zuko reminded him.

Ozai let out a snort of laughter.  "Take him away."  He ordered his guards.

"Are you afraid to face me?"  Zuko challenged, shrugging off the guards' hands as he took a step towards his father.

"I will not sully my hands with the likes of you."  He snarled over his shoulder as he ascended to the throne.

"I don't know how I ever expected you to restore my honour when you have none of your own!"

The words had left his mouth before he'd even realised he'd been thinking them.  The Eternal Flames flared so high they brushed the ceiling.

"You will not live to regret those words, boy!"

He recognised the move his father was about to perform, as did the Royal Guard apparently because they backed away hastily.  His eyes widened at the white-hot energy coalescing around his father's fingers.  He didn't even think...he didn't have time to think...as the lightening left his father's hands he performed the countermove his uncle had taught him, catching the lightening with his own hand.  His hissed as it tore painfully down his arm, arched across his ribs, coiled around his stomach and up the other arm to flare from his fingertips...right back at its source.

Ozai didn't even have time to gasp as he was struck by his own attack...so his son did it for him.  The Eternal Flames flickered, guttered and fell low as the Fire Lord was hurled back against the base of the throne.

"Agni...what have I done...?"  Zuko whispered.  He didn't notice the smoke rising from the blistered flesh of his hands.  The Royal Guard ignored him now, rushing forwards to aid their fallen king.

"Do not fuss over me!"  Ozai roared, the Eternal Flames dancing with his rage.  "Get him!"

Zuko felt the pain in his hands as the Royal Guard turned to face him...there was no way he'd be able to bend without causing permanent damage to himself.  He caught the image of the red dragon on his clothing with his peripheral vision...its dream-based words drifting across his mind.

'You should get out of here...right now!  Go!  Before it's too late!'

He didn't like running.  It wasn't noble, it wasn't honourable, but to stay where he was would be suicide...and he wasn't ready to die just yet.  And he didn't know what made him do it, but he dove for the Earth Kingdom scroll before he bolted from the throne room.  He easily outdistanced the Royal Guard, encumbered as they were with their ornate armour, but the alarm had already gone up...the palace...the city...the entire nation...would be hunting him down.

"Think...think...think...think...think..."  He muttered to himself as he pelted down a marble hallway.  He knew this place, it had been his home for almost his entire life, he knew its layout, he knew every room, every corridor, and...a smile curled his lips...he knew its secret.

His mind flashed back to a time when he and Lu Ten had wandered these halls.

"I have something to show you."  His older cousin had said with a smirk.  "Something even our dads don't know about..."

"What is it?"  The six-year-old Zuko had asked with wide eyes.

"This..."  Lu Ten had picked him up so that he was eye to eye with an ornate golden ornamental dragon that was coiled around a red marble column.

"It's a dragon..."  Zuko had commented, not at all impressed.  "They're all over the palace..."

"Not like this one."  Lu Ten had beamed.  "Blow a little flame into its mouth..."

"You want me to kiss the dragon?"  Zuko had looked at him sceptically.

"Just practice your breath of fire."  Lu Ten had said.

Zuko had looked at him, still completely unconvinced, all but certain Lu Ten was trying to make a fool out of him, but he had relented, sending a tiny spout of flame into the dragon's gaping maw.  Its tiny jaw had dropped open, there had been a grating sound of marble sliding against marble as a section of the wall slid open.  A warm breeze had hit both boys in the face from the darkened opening.

"Where does it go?"  Zuko had whispered in awe as the pair peered into the shadows.

"I don't know..."  Lu Ten had admitted.  "I've never had a chance to find out..."

"Lu Ten?"  His father's voice had echoed off the walls.  "It is time to go!"

"And it doesn't look like I'm going to find out today."  He had sighed.  "Next time I'm home we'll check it out, okay?  Promise me you won't go down there by yourself..."

"Okay..."  Zuko had pouted as Lu Ten pushed the dragon's jaw back into place, the opening vanishing as if it had never been as the older boy ruffled the younger's hair playfully...


But Lu Ten had never come home...

Locating the dragon had been easy enough, opening the secret door far easier than it had been ten years ago.  He winced as he lit his burnt hand to see into the gloom beyond.  He could see a rough hewn staircase, cut into the very rock, spiralling downwards.

"I'm sorry, Lu Ten..."  He whispered as he stepped through the doorway.  "But this is a promise I can't keep..."  He flicked the dragon's jaw upwards, drawing his arm in quickly lest it be crushed by the closing marble door. 

He extinguished his hand, standing still in the darkness as his eyes adjusted.  There was an eerie luminescence to the tunnel...he let out a sigh as he discovered the source.  There were crystals imbedded in the rock on either side of the path, clearly marking each broad step, their presence reminding him of yet another past deed to prick his soul. 

He had no idea where the stairs led, but considering the alternative, he was willing to take his chances.

~~~~~~

Fire Lord Ozai drummed his fingers impatiently on his knee as his personal physician tended the injury.  He'd been lucky, the physician had told him, it had only been a glancing blow, a direct hit would have surely killed him.  There would be scarring though, it was unavoidable in a burn of such magnitude.

He placed a hand over the bandages as the physician bowed and backed from the room.  He'd been surprised when the boy had redirected the lightening...he hadn't even thought such a thing was possible.

"So the boy has left his mark on me as I left mine on him..."  He thought aloud.  "It would seem there is some fire in him after all..."  He commented to no one in particular. 

"Of course...that changes his standing from failure to threat..."

~~~~~~

Zuko had been walking for hours, in a mostly north-easterly direction he thought, and he was yet to see any light at the end of the tunnel.  He was beginning to think there was no way out...that he would die down here in the darkness...until he rounded yet another corner and his surrounding changed dramatically.

He had entered a vast chamber, a cascade of molten rock casting it in a soft, ruby glow.  Several other chambers branched off from it.

"You could house an army in here..."  He whispered in awe.

The path was still clearly marked, curving almost due east now and he could smell the faint but welcoming scent of water.  Driven by a thirst that had been building steadily, he quickened his pace and soon saw a circle of green in the distance before him.  With a heartfelt sigh of relief he made his way towards it, emerging carefully into the lush rain forest.

He turned and looked upwards at the impressive face of rock that hid the caves.  In the distance he could see the main island's lesser volcano, a thin column of smoke billowed from its summit.  He could hear the water he had smelled gurgling nearby and headed towards it, falling to his belly and drinking his fill while cooling his tender fingers in its icy depths before sitting back against a massive tree trunk to take in his surroundings.

The sky was cast in pinks and purples, the sun just slipping beyond the horizon...he'd been walking all day.  Off to the south west he could see the capitol, distant, but he feared, not distant enough.

He was exhausted...he'd never felt so drained in his entire life.  His father had confirmed what he'd always known...always known but never been willing to accept.  And he had sacrificed everything to truly learn this most bitter of lessons.

He would never regain what he had lost.  He would never have his honour, his nation or his throne.  He was no longer Prince of the Fire Nation. 

He was just Zuko...

« Last Edit: Jan 04, 2007 06:37 pm by Nandireya » Logged


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Meg-han
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« Reply #11 on: Dec 30, 2006 10:02 pm »

aaaw....poor Zuko...well this was amazing! just great!
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QTpie
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« Reply #12 on: Dec 31, 2006 12:22 am »

wow, keep 'em coming   Shocked
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jem
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« Reply #13 on: Dec 31, 2006 07:06 am »

Ditto what QTpie said!! I loved your last two updates. 
Interesting how you had Zuko direct the lightning out of the same hand it entered through, I would have thought that he would have guided it out of his oppisite hand but spun so it was facing Ozai, would've saved himself getting burned.
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"All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." -Benjamin Franklin
firebender921
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« Reply #14 on: Jan 03, 2007 05:21 pm »

officially my favourite fan fic.Its got:
drama
romance
action
and zuko.
most importantly its realistic  Grin Grin
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jem
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« Reply #15 on: Jan 04, 2007 01:54 pm »

By the way Meg-han, you do look like an Avatard. lol   Wink
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waterrockz
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Zutara rockz


« Reply #16 on: Jan 04, 2007 08:00 pm »

Keep up the great time, effort, and work that you are putting into this sweet story. me and my boyfriend (matthew) love your story and hope that you post more and more! Wink
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Zutara rockz and Kataang sucks!
                    
Zuko and Katara will always be together and matter what!
Nandireya
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The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« Reply #17 on: Jan 13, 2007 07:17 pm »

Chapter Four

Zuko groaned at the cacophony of shrieks and cries that awoke him from his dreamless but fitful slumber.  He cracked an eye open and glanced upwards into the lush green of the forest canopy, scowling at the wild sparrowkeets, bright macawakatoos and bopping geckalahs that were heralding dawn's arrival by screaming their tiny lungs out at it.

He didn't welcome his return to consciousness.  With wakefulness came remembrance and the memory of the past few days was not something he cared to think about.  He ran a hand through his dark hair, sighing deeply, a part of him regretful that some jungle predator hadn't decided to make a meal out of him during the night.  He shook the thought from his mind, though such a thing would have pretty much solved all his problems, it was a cowardly consideration, and he had promised his uncle, through the Water Tribe girl, that he wouldn't give up without a fight.

But how could he fight when he had absolutely nothing?  He hadn't regained his honour, and by now his father would have turned his defending himself against his attack into something far more sinister, so he no longer even had the miniscule hope of regaining all he'd lost that he'd had when he'd been banished three years ago.  And he'd lost the only ally he'd had...

His prospects were not good.

He leaned back against the tree trunk he'd fallen asleep against, closing his eyes and trying to close his ears against the brightly coloured creatures that found the sun's arrival so marvellous that had to share it with the world.  After a deep, cleansing breath he decided to list the positives and negatives of his current situation.

He was trapped in the Fire Nation, a completely hostile environment for him now despite it being his homeland.  Everyone would be looking for him, hunting him down, possibly even more vehemently than the Avatar.  He wouldn't stand a chance if he went anywhere near civilisation, and he certainly hadn't a hope of jumping an outbound ship even with his considerable skills of stealth.  He had no food, no money, no possessions save the clothes on his back...all he had was his freedom...and an Earth Kingdom scroll...

He picked up the scroll, turning it over in his hands, he still had no idea as to why he had retrieved it before fleeing his father's wrath.  Perhaps he simply didn't want his father to have it...it did detail the Earth Kingdom's planned invasion after all.

He opened it and scanned the lines of text, surprised to find it wasn't in some kind of code.  It was in plain, simple, easy to understand language...anybody could have read it.  What kind of idiot would write something so important in such a way?  He began to read it in detail.

"Day of the Black Sun...?"  He frowned.  A solar eclipse which would occur soon...and leave firebenders incapable of utilising their element.  His people needed to know about this, but how could he warn them?  Would they even listen to him?  Would this information be enough for him to bargain for his title...his throne...his very life?  Somehow he doubted it...his father had made up his mind about him, and his father was not known for having second thoughts about anything.

He rolled the scroll up and ignited his left hand, wincing slightly as the flames licked at his burned fingertips, feeding them with the Earth Kingdom's plans.  He watched with dispassionate eyes as the fire slowly consumed the wood and parchment...better to not let it fall into the wrong hands...

So now all he had was his freedom and the clothes on his back...

~~~~~~

He'd been wandering aimlessly for hours, heading mostly downhill because it was easier and if there were any villages around these parts he figured they'd be closer to the coast.  Besides, staying in one spot didn't seem like a good idea, it only seemed like a good way to get captured.

He knew it was a risk to head for any sort of civilisation, but if he was to survive he needed supplies, though how he was going to obtain them he hadn't quite figured out yet.  He could steal them of course, it wasn't like he hadn't done so before, but he'd never been comfortable with taking what wasn't his.  He stayed close to the stream he'd found the previous day, at least he'd have water, and any settlements were most likely to have also taken that into consideration.

The sun had hit its zenith and the day was becoming uncomfortable.  Zuko sat down heavily by the burbling stream and cupped some of the cool water in his hands letting it dribble over the back of his head and scruffing it through his hair in order to ward off the stifling heat. 

He sat back on his haunches and listened to the jungle around him.  The dawn chorus had abated long ago to be replaced by the constant buzz of numerous insects.  There were occasional sounds, the grunt of some water reptile, the shuffle of something in the underbrush, the sudden shriek of a creature that had slept late and missed the dawn, but he saw nothing more than the rapid flash of colour as something flittered through the trees.  He rose and continued on his way.

It took him several miles travel before he became aware of another sound, a scrap, a rattle and a thump.  It was a constant sound, a repetitive sound, and always in the same sequence...scrap...rattle...thump...

With little else to do he moved towards it, his curiosity beating out his caution.  'It's probably just some local chopping firewood or something...'  He reasoned.  His hopes rose a little.  If it was a person he might be able to barter his assistance for some supplies.

As he drew closer a fourth sound could be heard in the pattern...an animalistic snort after the thump.  He entered a small clearing and came face to face with its source. 

It was, as he had surmised from the snort, an animal, but he had never before seen its like.  It wasn't particularly large, its shoulder probably reaching his hip.  Its body was covered in golden scales, a mane of red and orange crowned its head, more red-orange hair flared from its tail and legs.  A pair of branched alters were entangled in a thick bramble, and its attempt to free itself was the source of the sound that had led him to it.

Its cloven hooves scrapped at the earth as it pulled itself back.  It shook its head, antlers and brambles rattling as it tried to dislodge itself.  When it failed the brambles would spring back, slamming the unfortunate creature into the trees the brambles had grown around and bringing an aggravated snort from its flared nostrils.

It stopped when it noticed him, cocking its head to one side and studying him with large, dark eyes...it didn't seem at all afraid of him.  Zuko moved forward cautiously, he had no idea what the creature was, or what it could do.  It did have a dragon-like look to it and he did know what they could do, but it just watched silently as he reached out and began to disentangle its antlers.  It proved a rather difficult job, it was almost impossible to determine what was bramble and what was antler, but after several minutes, and even more scratches to his arms and hands, he had the creature free.

He returned to the stream to bathe the cuts and was a little surprised when the creature hunkered down on the bank next to him, still studying him with its large, dark eyes.  He glanced at it, frowned, then did his best to ignore it, hoping it would wander off to wherever it had come from.  He didn't need another mouth to feed, he was going to have enough trouble just feeding himself.  And the golden creature was far from inconspicuous, and that was certainly something he didn't need right now, to draw attention to himself.  It had several deep scratches on its long face, which, despite his misgivings, he gently cleaned, smiling slightly as it nuzzled his palm and purred like an over-sized catowl.  He didn't want to form a bond with the creature, but as he rose and it moved to follow him, he got the feeling that it would not be deterred.

After travelling together for a while, Zuko came to appreciate the creature's company.  It was nice to know it was there, that he wasn't alone...and at least it was quiet.  Then it suddenly sprang into the trees, only a few steps from the rough path they'd been using, where it paused and glanced back at him, obviously wanting him to follow.

Frowning, he moved off the path into the trees, with each step the trees grew denser and denser, the light dimmer and dimmer.  The suspicious part of his mind began to think the creature was leading him into some sort of trap.  But an animal couldn't be that smart, could it?

The creature had stopped just up ahead and was looking back at him with an almost forlorn expression.  Zuko froze as he drew up next to it, not noticing as it looked up at him and whimpered quietly.  Lying in the clearing before them was a creature not unlike the one beside him.  Larger, with more muted colouring and less impressive furry featherings, Zuko guessed it was the smaller one's mother, and given his new companion's brighter colouring, he guess it was in fact a he.  Zuko stepped forward and lay a gentle hand on the creature's side...it wasn't moving, there was no rise and fall to indicate breathing, and it was cold, very cold.  The creature was dead.

He moved around the mother and discovered the cause of her death.  There was a blade embedded in her belly, its wielder crushed beneath her bulk.  It would seem hunter and hunted had killed each other.

"Why would anyone want to harm such a magnificent creature?"  Zuko wondered aloud.  He sighed.  "I guess we're both alone in this world..."  He said softly as he looked down at the little one.  He looked at the hunter with a mixture of disgust and pity.  He wondered, had the man attacked the creature or was he defending himself from it?  Then he remembered his need for supplies...

He wasn't entirely comfortable with taking the belongings of a dead man, he kept telling himself that he no longer needed them, and made some kind of amends by burying him along with the creature.

The man's clothing were an ill fit, he had been shorter and broader in build, but they were far less obvious than his red and black silk ensemble.  The over-cloak would hide them nicely...once he'd scrubbed out the blood and gore.  He'd been carrying a water-skin and a long-bladed knife, a machete, for slicing through the jungle no doubt, which had also easily sliced through the creature's scaly flesh.

It was well past sunset by the time he'd finished cleaning the blade, the cloak and himself.  He was hungry, but too exhausted after digging graves deep enough to hold both bodies to do anything about it.  His companion had wandered off, though he'd not gone out of sight, and was nosing about in the undergrowth.  He returned, dropping a large, pulpy fruit at Zuko's side, nudging it towards him.  It was a little rotten on one side, from where it had been lying on the damp soil, but Zuko was too hungry to care.  He cut it open with the now very clean knife, offering half to the creature, which accepted it with relish.

He leaned back against a tree trunk, not the most comfortable place to sleep but the same position had served him well enough the previous evening.  The only real difference was the golden creature that yawned and curled up beside him.  He absently stroked his fiery mane, smiling as he began to purr contentedly.  He didn't know why this mysterious animal had decided to adopt him, maybe he somehow knew that Zuko had also lost his mother...but the fact of the matter was the exotically beautiful creature was the closest thing to family he now had.

"Sleep well, little Itoko..."  He whispered, closing his eyes and letting sleep claim him.
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Nandireya
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The pouty Disillusioned Water Tribe Tot


« Reply #18 on: Jan 13, 2007 07:17 pm »

The markets went on as they had every week for as long as anyone could remember.  Though it had been over three weeks since the news of the fall of Ba Sing Se had reached this remote village, with hopes that the end of the war was not far away, the people were, as always, disheartened to see the quintet of soldiers stroll into their midst.  They came every week, taxes for the Fire Lord, they said, the war had its expenses, they said, even though there was little left to tax.

No one paid much heed to the scruffy man that entered the village shortly after them, giving them a wide berth, though the golden creature that trailed behind him raised more than a few eyebrows.  He was dressed in a ragged cloak, a straw hat pulled down over an unruly mop of dark hair that almost completely obscured his unshaven face.  People like him were not an uncommon sight, many farmers had been driven off their land when they'd been unable to pay their taxes, forced to make some kind of life for themselves in the jungles, the residents were usually kind to them, sympathetic to their plight, after all, there but for the grace of Agni...

He paused at the free-standing notice board that marked the village entrance, scanning the posters there with narrowed eyes.  Most of them had been there for months, some for years...frayed and faded, showing their age.  There was one of a silver-haired man with parallel scars over his right eye, another of a man in a blue noh mask that brought a snort of laughter from his cracked lips.  A third showed a boy in orange, a forth a scruffy-haired man.  He took in a shuddering breath at the sight of one of a sad looking older man set above a younger man with a terrible facial scar.  Trembling fingers touched the face of the older man as he clutched the front of his ragged clothes with his other hand, fisting it over his heart.

Then he saw the new one.

Its colours were vibrant in comparison, deep black and bright red, it depicted the same young man with the facial scar.  Like the boy in orange, it was a full figure likeness of the man, dressed in black robes with a distinct dragon design in scarlet. He read the list of the man's apparent crimes, of the amount offered for his capture, and his sentence when he was turned in.  He closed his eyes and turned away...

"You can't do this!"  A woman protested.  "You will leave us with nothing!"

"You must pay your taxes, woman."  The burly man in lieutenant's armour, tight around his well-fed form, and the highest rank amongst the soldiers, scoffed.  "How else can we protect you if our troops have no food to eat?  No money to buy their arms and uniforms?"

"What is the point of protecting us if we are no longer alive to be protected?"  Her husband shot back.

"There are other ways of paying your tithes than money or goods..."  The man sneered looking at the couple's children...a boy of about fourteen, a girl a little younger.  "Your son is old enough for military service...and I'm sure we could find a use for the girl..."

"So this is how the mighty Fire Lord funds his war..."  The ragged stranger snorted in a whisper as rough and haggard at the rest of him.  "By taking from those who can't afford it...and stealing children from their parents..."

"You should learn to hold your tongue, boy!"  The lieutenant snapped, turning on the scruffy man, whose smooth face betrayed his age.  He held his head in such a way that only the right-hand side was visible.

"Yeah..."  He sighed.  "I've been warned about that before..."

"You could find yourself in very dire straights if the Fire Lord was to hear of your blasphemous words!"

The ragged man laughed out loud at that.

"What's he going to do...?"  He questioned, turning to face the corpulent soldier, and in doing so, revealing the very obvious scar that covered the left-hand side of his face.  "Execute me twice?"

"Zuko..."  The lieutenant hissed, gesturing with his chin for his troops to surround him.

The villagers backed away, gathering what they could, as the quintet of soldiers circled the youth who didn't move a muscle as they closed in on him.  Only his eyes, which flicked from soldier to soldier, gave any indication that he was formulating a plan of attack.

The boy was dangerous, they all knew that, the brand new poster on the notice board told them that.  Though not considered a master, he was still a high level firebender, he was highly skilled with weaponry...but most of all, he was unpredictable.  He had developed moves during his exile that were not traditional to the firebending arts.  He had studied under his uncle, the esteemed General Iroh, which many believed was the source of his less than usual fighting techniques.  They eyed him warily...

Zuko knew that, given their assignment, none of these men were benders.  His father would never waste such talent in a backwater place like this.  Three of the five were young, barely older than he was, one was old and the fifth was seriously out of condition.

He moved faster than any present could follow.  In one fluid movement he removed his straw hat and hurled it at the lieutenant's throat with such force it sent him flying backwards, gagging for breath.  One of the young soldiers charged him.  He flipped over the man's back, his feet connecting solidly with the chin of the man behind him.  He then brought his elbow down hard on the back of the first soldier's neck.  The remaining youthful soldier grabbed him from behind only to be flipped and tossed at the old timer.

It had taken him less than a minute to take out all five soldiers...and he hadn't even broken a sweat...

"Wow..."  The fourteen-year-old boy whispered in awe.

"I guess there's some truth to that poster..."  The boy's father jerked his head towards the bulletin board.

"I guess so..."  Zuko said evenly.

"We are in your debt..."  The woman bowed.

"No..."  Zuko shook his head.  "...you're not..."  He glanced at the fallen soldiers.  "Now that I've shown my face...now that they know where I am...they'll be here in greater numbers...I've brought you nothing but misery..."

"Only if they report in."  The man smiled.

"Come..."  The woman bowed her head.  "You look like you could use a good meal..."  Her nose wrinkled.  "And a bath..."

~~~~~~

"I had no idea my father was doing this..."  Zuko shook his head.  "To his own people..."

"The Fire Lord only cares about his war."  The man, who had introduced himself as Gishi, said.  "He doesn't care about his people..."

"He doesn't even care about his son."  Hana, his wife snorted, not even looking up from whatever it was she was sewing.

Zuko lowered his head.  He knew what his father was, but it still hurt to hear it.  He looked at the couple's children, Kuroi and Cho, who were romping around the small fenced yard with Itoko, and he envied them.  Poor as the dirt they were kicking up, born with nothing, while he'd been born with everything, they were happy...and that was something he hadn't been in a very long time...if he'd ever been happy at all.

"Here..."  Hana stood up, holding out her handiwork.  "This will fit better than those rags you were wearing...and it smells better too..."

He looked at the garment she'd made for him while he'd bathed and eaten, he'd had no idea she was making it for him.  It was well made, a simple robe of dark linen edged with red, very traditional Fire Nation attire.

"I can't take this..."  He shook his head even as he tested the quality of the fabric.  "I'd be no better than my father...you have so little..."

"And you have nothing."  She pointed out.

"Besides..."  Gishi smiled, as Hana all but forced him into it.  "You're not taking it...it's being freely given."

"And it is nothing in comparison to the lives of our children."  Hana said.  "Those soldiers would have taken them both if you hadn't stepped in."

"But what you really need..."  Gishi said.  "Is to get out of the Fire Nation...it's not safe for you here..."

"It's not safe for me anywhere..."  Zuko sighed.

"True enough."  Gishi nodded.  "But the Earth Kingdom's a big place...you can disappear..."

"If I had a way of getting out of the Fire Nation..."  Zuko agreed.  "But I don't think waltzing into the nearest coastal village will do me a whole lot of good."

"There are...other ways..."  Gishi said quietly.

~~~~~~

They had protested when Zuko suggested he sleep in the barn.  It wasn't a proper place for the Prince to take his rest, they said.  Zuko pointed out that he was hardly a prince anymore, and besides, a nice dry barn was a step up from the dankness of the jungle that had been his home for the past few weeks.  He also didn't want to leave Itoko, who had grown somewhat since they'd first become travelling companions.  Zuko was quite content to stretch out in the straw, though experience had taught him to sleep lightly.

Which is why he heard the door creak open.

He moved silently, circled behind the interloper, drew the machete and had it at his throat and his arm twisted up his back before he'd taken two steps.

"A little edge, aren't we?"  A familiar voice enquired.

"Lieutenant Jee?"  He frowned, though he didn't release him or lower the blade.

"CAPTAIN Jee..."  He corrected, speaking carefully lest the blade slice into his bobbing Adam's apple.

"Captain?"  Zuko repeated.  "Congratulations..."

"You know it's a little difficult to talk to you like this..."  Jee told him.

"Excuse me if I'm a little suspicious of the military..."  Zuko hissed.

"I can't blame you for that..."  Jee sighed.  "But I can't very well get you out of here if you insist on holding me at knifepoint..."

"Itoko!"  Zuko snapped at the darkness.  Jee baulked at the scaly creature that emerged from the shadows, barely noticing the blade disappear.  "Watch him..."

"What exactly is that?"  Jee asked.

"Your guess is as good as mine."  Zuko admitted.  "I just call him my friend."

"Alright..."  Jee accepted.  "Now...this is what we do..."

~~~~~~

Captain Jee was good to his word.  His ship was not a grand one, but most of the crew had served under Zuko before Zhao had commandeered them for the ill-fated invasion of the North Pole.  Jee had gotten his own command on the merit that he'd survived.  He had been able to pick his own crew and had gone with those he knew.  They had been through a lot together...and they had learned to respect the young man who was now holed up in a tiny compartment in the cargo hold.

The compartment was well camouflaged, purpose built, and a lot of the tiny space was taken up by a scaly creature that was not at all happy to be shoved into such a cramped cubicle.  Jee would let them out when he felt it was safe, but never on deck.

"You've done this before."  Zuko noted.

"Once or twice."  Jee smirked.  "Of course we haven't had so notorious a passenger as you."

"So what happens now?"  Zuko asked.

"We make landfall in the Earth Kingdom in two days."  Jee said.  "I've sent word ahead...we'll be met there by our mainland contact...he'll get you to a safe camp..."

"And then what?"

"That's entirely up to you."

"You have something in mind?"  Zuko questioned at the tone of the older man's voice.

"You really only have to options."  Jee told him.  "You can go to ground...hide from the war...or you can do something about it."

"You want me to fight my father?"  Zuko's eyes widened.  "I'm only one man..."

"There are those who would follow you."  Jee said quietly.

"Those are traitorous words, Captain." Zuko threw him a sideward glance, a tine smile playing at the corner of his mouth.  Suddenly he didn't feel so alone.

"Do you plan to hold them against me?"  Jee questioned.

"No..."  Zuko shook his head.

"But if you ever wish to hold me TO them...you have only to call..."

~~~~~~

Zuko sighed deeply as he set foot on Earth Kingdom soil.  After all the time he'd spent trying to get home, he was right back where he'd started.  As soon as he'd been let off the boat, Itoko had leapt into the surf and was now romping through the waves, the light from the setting sun reflecting of his iridescent scales.

"You really should get rid of that creature."  Jee frowned at the frolicking animal.  "He's rather obvious..."

"There's not many people who know about him."  Zuko pointed out.  "They'd expect me to be on my own...not in the company of some flashy animal...he's good cover."  Jee didn't look at all convinced at Zuko's logic...but then, neither was Zuko...

He sat down in the sand, watching Itoko dancing through the waves...he seemed as at home in the water as he did on the land...and wondered again why the creature had become so bound to him.  He knew there was no way he could part company with him outside of death, and in truth he didn't really want to.  He had been good company, his only company, when he'd been wandering the jungle, and in all probability would be his only company here.  He'd also been far more adept at finding them food and shelter.

Itoko trotted out of the surf, shaking the water from his fur, and nudged Zuko's shoulder with his golden head.  He snorted and flicked his head towards the tree line.

"Your contact must be here..."  Zuko said, readjusting the hood Itoko had dislodged as he rose to his feet.

"He's got a good nose."  Jee nodded.

A figure, dressed in similar dark robes gestured for them to join him in the shadows of the trees.  He took in the presence of the bizarre animal but seemed to quickly shrug it off.

"So what have you brought us this time?"  He questioned as Zuko gently patted Itoko's neck.  "An ex-circus worker?"

"Hardly..."  Jee snorted.  "This one's far more important..."

Zuko turned to face the man before anything else was said.  The man's eyes widened at the sight of the scar.

"You weren't kidding..."  He said under his breath.  He bowed respectfully.  "Prince Zuko..."

"Zuko is fine..."  Zuko told him.

He pulled back his hood to reveal his face.

"I'm Chey..."
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The Road Less Travelled Duty
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« Reply #19 on: Feb 12, 2007 08:03 pm »

WOW. that's all i can think of. you are SOOO good at writing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! it acutally sounds like it really would. VERY realistic!!

I LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!  =D
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« Reply #20 on: Feb 15, 2007 06:22 am »

This is probably actually half of what I wanted to write for chapter five, but I figured you guys would rather have two shorter chapters than wait for however long it'd take me to complete the whole thing...
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Chapter Five

Toph sighed dramatically as she trailed behind Katara through the markets.  The Water Tribe girl glanced back at her as she deposited a large marrow in the basket the younger girl was carrying.

"Why exactly did I get stuck with this job?"  Toph finally grumbled.

"Because I need help carrying the supplies."  Katara told her.  "And everyone else is too recognisable."

"Sokka's not recognisable."  She snorted.

"Or too wanted..."  Katara added, ignoring the comment about her brother, as she noticed a pair of rough looking men studying the village's notice board.

"Hello!"  Toph waved her hands at her.  "I'm wanted too!"

"By a pair of earthbenders..."  Katara pointed out.  "Not by every bounty hunter or money grabber known to man."

She sighed deeply as she returned to the perusal of the produce stands.  It had been a very long month.  Aang's healing was not going well.  Even with her help, the injury inflicted by Azula had been so severe he was still not entirely back on his feet.  He tired easily and hadn't been able to practice any of his bending, nor had he even begun firebending.

They had decided to return to the North Pole soon after they had passed over the outer wall of Ba Sing Se.  It was probably the safest place on the planet, a haven where Aang could rest and recuperate, and where they'd have greater access to the water of the Spirit Oasis that had saved his life.  Kuei would be safe there, and, with their support, Iroh would be welcomed.

She didn't know what to make of the old firebender, he seemed as mysterious as his nephew.  He tended to keep to himself, only really talking to Toph, and more often than not she would find him silently turning the ornate knife over and over in his hands.  It was obvious that he deeply missed his nephew and that he feared for him.  The bond the two shared was strong, and it had totally changed her mind about both of them.  As she had predicted, when he had awoken in their midst he had been adamant about returning to the city to retrieve Zuko.  It had taken a lot to persuade him otherwise.  Even when she'd presented him with the knife and told him what the young prince had said about facing the consequences of his actions he had been loath to do nothing.  He'd only resigned himself to follow his nephew's wishes when he learned Zuko was no longer in Ba Sing Se...that he had, in fact, returned home.  Katara was still unsure as to how he'd found out, but she didn't question him.

She wanted to do something to cheer him up, there was something in her that just wanted to see everyone happy, and on seeing the tea vendor she knew just what to do.

Toph sniffed the air as they stopped again.  She could hear Katara pick up something, smell it herself and put it back.  The young earthbender reached out to touch a small package of rough-hewn fabric.  She brought it to her nose and inhaled deeply.  She smiled as she placed it back, picking up another.  She nodded at the scent.

"This one."  She tossed it towards Katara.

"How do you know this is the right one?"  Katara frowned as she tentatively sniffed the package.

"He reeks of that stuff."  She smirked.

"We'll take this one."  Katara said as she held it out to the vendor.

"Jasmine..."  He nodded.  "A good choice...an excellent blend..."

The young pair headed out of the village, both smiling to themselves at the thought of making someone else happy, or at least as happy as they could make him.  Katara slowed as they approached the notice board, a new poster with bright colours catching her eye.

"Why have we stopped?"  Toph asked.

"Oh no..."  Katara whispered as she quickly scanned the poster.

"What is it?"  Toph frowned, sensing the changes in her heartbeat and breathing.  "What's wrong?"

"We have to get back!"  She said, tearing the poster from the board.  "We have to get back now!"

~~~~~~

The first person she usually looked for when she entered camp was Aang, but this time her attention was focused firmly on the former Fire Nation General.  As she expected, he was absently turning the knife in his hands, his face a mask of concern and pain.  She glanced at the scrap of paper in her hand.

'Maybe it's better if he doesn't know...'  She thought.

"Whatta ya got there?"  Sokka asked snatching the poster from her hand. 

"Sokka...wait..."  She protested, trying to snatch it back but he kept it out of her reach.

"So...angry jerk's got himself a new wanted poster..."  He said as he began studying it.  "And a nice new set of duds..."

"What?"  Iroh looked up.

"I thought we'd agreed not to call him that."  Aang reminded him as he glanced at Iroh who had approached at the mention of his nephew.

"'By order of his great and powerful majesty, Fire Lord Ozai, equal of heaven and earth, ruler of all he surveys'..."  Sokka snorted looking up from his reading.  "Can you believe this guy?  What an ego!"

"Sokka...please..."  Katara pleaded in a whisper, her eyes flicking towards Iroh, but he ignored her.

"'...the traitorous Zuko, former royal heir to his imperial greatness, has been deemed...'"

He paused, his eyes widening as he suddenly realised why his sister had been so desperate for him to stop...she had wanted to spare the old man.

"Has been deemed what?"  The old man in question prompted, his expression already telling them that whatever was written on the parchment, he knew it wouldn't be good.

There was sympathy in the boy's blue eyes as he continued.  "'...has been deemed too dangerous to be allowed to live...'"

Iroh snatched the poster from Sokka's grasp, quickly scanning the remaining lines in silence, lowering his head as he finished.

"What did he do?"  Toph asked quietly.

Sokka moved closer to the older man and read over his shoulder.  "'...due to his continued refusal to conform to that which is expected of him and his most treacherous attack on the very person of his most esteemed liege and sire..."'

"Attempted regicide?"  Kuei, the former Earth King frowned.  "That is very serious..."

"He tried to kill his father?"  Aang asked incredulously.

"No..."  Iroh shook his head.  "Zuko is many things, but he is no killer...whatever occurred, my brother has no doubt twisted it to serve his own purposes.  And all of my people will accept it...whether they know the true Zuko or not...the Fire Lord's word is law." 

"We'll find him..."  Aang moved to Iroh side, using his staff to support himself.  "We can protect him...help him...bring him into the group..."

"Yeah..."  Sokka snorted.  "Let's collect all of Ozai's most wanted in the same place..."  Aang just threw him a nasty look.

"I appreciate the thought, Avatar...but where do you suggest we commence our search?"  Iroh sighed.  "His last know whereabouts was the Fire Nation capitol...and we are far from ready to enter there..."

"There's got to be something we can do."  Katara frowned.

"The guy's not stupid..."  Sokka said.  "Even if he has done some stupid things...made some stupid decisions...stupidly put his faith in people he had no reason to trust...all he's got to do is keep his head down until the war's over...then Ozai's death mark will be null and void, right?"  He looked as Iroh.

"My nephew and the Avatar have many things in common."  Iroh sighed.  "But there is one that stands out above all others.  Even if they do not go seeking trouble, it has a habit of finding them..."

~~~~~~

Zuko glanced about him with a mixture of shock and awe.  Chey had called it a camp, but the settlement they were approaching looked more like a village.  Admittedly, the structures were fairly ramshackle and didn't look at all permanent, even the ones roofed in sheets of metal, but the toiled fields that surrounded them appeared very well established.  As did the raised wooden trough that brought water into a large, stone well in its centre.

He also noticed that many of the people who were working the fields or tending to other tasks around their merger dwellings had stopped to gape as he passed.  He felt extremely self-conscious, even pulling the hood of his travelling cloak further forward to hide his face, until he realised they weren't looking at him.  They were staring at the golden creature at his side.

Itoko was trotting along oblivious to the stares he was receiving, sniffing the air and making strange little noises that only drew more attention.

"There are so many..."  Zuko observed quietly.

"Yeah..."  Chey nodded.  "Ozai's a real piece of work." Then he realised who he was talking to.  "Um...no offence..."

"None taken..."  Zuko muttered.  He knew what his father was, but it was still hard for him to accept it.  He heard a gentle snort and felt Itoko nudge his arm.  He looked at the creature to find him gazing up at him with soulful eyes.  Zuko smiled and ruffled his fiery mane.  He always seemed to know what he was feeling...and how to make him feel better...

"We were mostly former soldiers..."  Chey explained.  "Disillusioned by the war, just sick of fighting for something that we felt was wrong.  Then I got separated from the others, I don't really know what happened...something bad with the Avatar and Zhao, I think...but our last camp was pretty much torched..."

Itoko nuzzled Zuko's hand when he tensed at the mention of the pair.

"I was on my way to the fall-back point...we've got a new one now, I'll show you where it is later...when I met up with Captain Jee.  I thought he was gonna haul me back home to your dad's tender mercies...but he didn't."  He gestured to a fallen log outside one of the hovels...Zuko assumed it was his...before he continued.

"He knew who I was..."  He presented Zuko with a tattered wanted poster.  "I'm almost as infamous as you are."  He grinned as he poked about in the small fire-pit in front of him, then sat a battered kettle over the flames.  He seemed almost proud of the fact.  "And he had a proposition for me..."

He hefted a large jug and filled the kettle with water along with a bowl he'd pulled from a shelf set into the wall beside the hovel's door, placing it on the ground for Itoko.  Finally he sat down beside the young man.

"He told me about what was happening back home..."  He sighed.  "I had no idea things had gotten so bad.  I guess running a war's pretty expensive.  There were a lot of people homeless, hungry and dying all because of a madman's lust for power...uh..."  He looked at Zuko a little guiltily, but Zuko just brushed it off.  "They needed help...they deserved a better life...so we figured we should do something help them."

He poured the now hot water into a chipped teapot.  Zuko accepted the teacup Chey offered him, but only gazed at the pale liquid he poured into it, a lump forming in his throat as the light scent of jasmine filled his senses.

"It took a lot to set it all up."  Chey continued, not even noticing the effect his choice of refreshment had had on his new acquaintance.  "Just getting word to us is pretty difficult...and it's in code...I don't even know how he collects people at his end..."

"I guess you and he are not the only links in the chain."  Zuko said, swirling the tea in the cup in his hands.  "Someone set it up for me...and I pretty much reacted to Jee in the same way you did..."  He gazed off into the middle distance where the workers had returned to tending their crops.  "It seems to be working well, though."

"Yeah."  Chey agreed.  "It was good to have the farmers join us.  Soldiers don't know a whole lot about agriculture.  We had a lot more contact with nearby villages before that, which was a pretty big risk.  I got recognised a few times.  We're pretty much self sufficient now.  Everyone pulls their own weight around here..."

Zuko looked up sharply with concern. 

"I don't know what I can do to contribute."  He admitted.  "I'm no farmer...and the last time I tried my hand at carpentry..."  He flexed his thumb and sighed.

"We'll find you something."  Chey smiled.  "You're one of us now."

"He is NOT one of us."  A voice both harsh and calm snorted.

The pair looked up into the stern, scared face of Jeong Jeong, though his narrowed eyes were focused only on Zuko.  The former prince could feel him scrutinising him, judging him...and finding him wanting.

"He did not leave the Fire Nation out of an act of his conscious...nor did he flee to avoid wrongful persecution..."

"Actually..."   Chey held up a finger but was quickly silenced by an irate glare.

"He has threatened lives...bullied people...destroyed homes...inflicted pain and suffering on more innocents than can be counted."  Jeong Jeong growled.  "He was instrumental in the fall of Ba Sing Se...and he has spent the past six months in the pursuit of a twelve year old boy...all at his father's direction."

He crouched down to be on the same level, but Zuko didn't raise his head to meet his eyes.  "He has done nothing to prove that he is NOT his father's son!"  Jeong Jeong spat before turning on his heal and marching away.

~~~~~~

The sun was setting when Chey approached Jeong Jeong.  The old bender was gazing out over the tiny valley their compound was nestled in, watching, Chey noted, the newest member of their little society as he tended his exotic animal.

"You were a little rough on him don't you think?"  Chey asked.  Zuko hadn't spoken a word since his brief meeting with the firbending master.  "He..."

"...has more control than I expected."  Jeong Jeong cut him off.  "I thought he would challenge me to an Agni Kai on the spot...or at least hurled something at me...be it fire or verbal abuse.  But he didn't even try to defend himself against my words..."

"You were testing him."  Chey glanced at the older man.

"If the boy is to follow his father as Fire Lord we must make certain that he does not follow in his father's footsteps."

"But he's been banished...disowned...there's no way he's going to be Fire Lord."  Chey frowned.  "Is he...?"

Jeong Jeong smiled gently at the bewildered face of his companion.  "Do you think the Avatar is the only one with a destiny?"  He looked back at the young man...the only teenager amongst their group...who was now helping an elderly lady by carting her firewood for her.

"The Avatar may be destined to bring balance to the world...but it is this disillusioned prince ...this unwanted son...who will bring balance to the Fire Nation..."

Chey's eyes narrowed as he glanced at the older man.  "Have you been talking to dead people again?"

Jeong Jeong's only response was a dry chuckle.
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It's not great...but...Zuko's new wanted poster...

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jem
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« Reply #21 on: Feb 18, 2007 03:59 pm »

I really liked your two newest updates Nandireya, keep up the good work!
Oh, and I thought that your choice of animal companion for Zuko exellent
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"All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." -Benjamin Franklin
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dvd77612
« Reply #22 on: Feb 19, 2007 02:30 pm »

wow, this story is truly amazing, it reads just like an actual book, i was never a big fan of zuko and even though this is just a fan fic, im starting to like him more and more. i cant wait for new chapters! keep up the great work!
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thanks to Hotaru for this awesome sig!

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« Reply #23 on: Feb 19, 2007 07:12 pm »

This is really good. I feel bad for poor Iroh when Sokka was reading the wanted poster. I can't wait to read what happens next Cheesy
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ATLA Keeps: Kuei's necklace, Pandalilies, Zhaodburns, Sokka's DoBS speech
TLOK Keeps: Sparkly bush, Aang's statue, Korrlok, Asami's racetrack
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dvd77612
« Reply #24 on: Feb 22, 2007 09:57 pm »

soooo, are you gonna write anymore?
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thanks to Hotaru for this awesome sig!

Keeper of the fat kid's inhibitions.
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