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|Masks: Part one|
They were both panting by the time they reached a clearing, the morning sun beginning to tint the sky pink and purple.
Zuko sunk down into a crouch, brow furrowing in irritation at the sweat that tickled his temples, unable to wipe it away while his mask still obscured his face. A curl of delight spread through him.
He made it.
He had the Avatar.
Not Zhao, not the Fire Nation. Him. He did.
Well, not captured exactly, but in his grasp and out of the claws of the Admiral who tossed around his power like an untrained komodo-rhino.
The Avatar... didn't even seem wary of him. Even after he had blades to his throat for well over five minutes, was just sitting on a tree root, staring intently at him with a strange expression. It almost seemed... hopeful.
Zuko tilted his head slightly and the boy looked away, curling his legs up to his chest, seeming embarrassed. The prince took this moment to assess his shoulder, rotating his arm back and judging the wound by the twinges in his shoulder. It was strained, and had likely been nearly-dislocated by the fall, but it would heal on its own. He began stretching, trying to reduce the tension that would likely appear later from such a strenuous fight for his life. The Avatar didn't seem to be going anywhere, and Zuko still had no idea how he was actually going to capture him.
It was one thing to chase the boy down, but actually keeping him tied up was an absolute pain.
The voice startled Zuko into looking up sharply, meeting the gaze of the boy. Grey eyes flicked away for a moment, before peeking back up at him.
"For saving me, I mean."
The boy pressed his forefingers together, fidgeting strangely. Very strangely. He had seen the kid surprised, anxious, and excited like an overeager puppy-cub, but he hadn't seen this self-conscious, unsure side before. It was definitely weird. He had expected either flight, or a more excitable, bouncing sort of thanks.
He remembered those grey eyes narrowed in the darkness, hands sweeping the wind down to throw men to their doom. Remembered those eyes lighting up with an eerie blue glow, the seas rising up without mercy to punish those who would harm the Avatar.
Zuko nodded to him, sitting down on an adjacent root in order to meditate and try to bring his whirling thoughts into order. His uncle was still in the ocean, his ship not allowed to port in these waters on Admiral Zhao's orders. The small Steamer that he had driven to shore would be conspicuous so quickly after their escape. He had to think of another way.
"Um... My name's Aang."
He glanced up, following the boy's path toward him. When had he stood up? Ugh. Now that the immediate danger was passed, his brain was trying to relax. He needed to stay more alert. This wasn't over.
The kid scratched the back of his head, looking fairly uncomfortable, before sitting down in a tightly-folded meditation stance. The child's head bowed down, fists meeting together at the knuckle, so the blue arrows faced each other. He looked a bit like a rolled-up pill bug.
Grey eyes peeked up at him, still radiating that strange mix of hope and fear.
Not entirely sure what was expected of him, Zuko placed his own knuckles together in mimicry, watching the boy's reactions.
Those eyes lit up first with surprise, then an expression of overwhelming joy spilled over in a wild smile and a shout. Zuko caught himself halfway to his swords as he watched the boy leap all over the clearing, bouncing off trees and flipping wildly. With a whirl of leaves, he landed lightly, bounding across the clearing and tackling the prince in an exuberant hug, talking so quickly that Zuko could barely understand him.
Stiff from the unfamiliar feeling of arms around him, he placed one hand on the boy's shoulder, ready to push him away. The shoulders quaked slightly and the quick words slowed down, their meaning giving Zuko reason to pause.
"...and I thought I would be alone forever because all the airbenders are gone, and I knew they weren't all dead, because that would be just too sad, and I'm so glad I found you, please don't go, you're the only airbender I've seen in -"
His voice broke off with an odd choking sound.
The slim shoulders quaked again, and the boy's bald head pressed into his chest.
Zuko realized the Avatar was crying.
With a strange feeling, he moved his gloved hand on the back of the boy's head. (aang, his mind whispered traitorously) He really didn't have experience with crying people, aside from the few memories of his mother comforting him as a child.
The Avatar thought he was an airbender?
Looking back on the battle, he supposed he could see where the boy was coming from. The Fire Nation employed quite a few tactics with heat during metallurgy and crafting, where flames would leave soot-stains. During battle, pure fire was stronger and easier to throw around, so heat-wave attacks were rarely, if ever used.
His uncle taught him how to heat things without creating fire, just after he began his mission to hunt the Avatar. (To heat tea, of course. Obsessed old man.) It was only desperation that caused him to use it in battle.
From an outside observer, the heat waves did gather up their own wind. Zuko guessed it looked a bit like Airbending to anyone who didn't know about that ability. So, the soldiers would believe he was a rogue firebender, maybe with a background in smithing. It would throw them off his trail, hopefully.
"Everyone said I was the only one left."
He was brought out of his thoughts by the young monk practically in his lap, the sobbing becoming quieter, though his frame was shaking like a leaf. The bright clothing was dull with dust and mud stains, various rips in the fabric showing a white layer of cloth underneath and skin just as pale as the Fire Nation's.
Had he always been this small?
The urge to capture this young boy (only twelve) slipped away, leaving a sad sort of resignation behind.
Statistics and numbers were different on paper, than they were in person.
Killing a man in battle was different than seeing a family torn apart by the loss. Feeling fear and desperation in a quest to find a hundred-year-old master of all elements was different than facing down a twelve-year-old airbender. Knowing that his nation had exterminated anyone living in the Air Temples was different than holding a boy who had everyone he knew and loved ripped away.
And now that boy thought he was an Airbender. He really didn't want to see the kid's face when he found out that it wasn't true.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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