Zuko paced at the cliff above the Western Air Temple where the Avatar's group was hiding. He had been pacing in the forest ever since he had landed, considering every possible way of approaching them as well as the consequences for each.
He could hide in the temple and wait for them to find him but they would probably think there was an ambush hidden elsewhere in the temple and leave. And of course they would be more careful about being followed. He could be more direct and just walk up to them and be completely honest, but he had no idea what he would say.
Then there were the other, crazier, ideas. He could pretend he was going there to hide and act surprised that they were there. He could find food and try to use it as a peace offering.
In the end, he knew approaching them directly and openly was the best way, but he had lost his nerve every time he went to do so. Now the light was fading. He briefly considered waiting until they were all asleep and sneaking in and trying to talk to the Avatar directly and alone, but he discarded the idea immediately. He would not trust someone who snuck up on him in the middle of the night. And there were so many things that could go wrong.
The sun set completely, closing off any options he may have had. He had no idea how he was going to approach them, but he knew approaching any wary group at night was unwise. Having no other choice, he decided to set up camp for the night.
Zuko used the basket of the deflated balloon for some shelter since he did not have a tent. He debated building a fire, but decided against it. If he had followed the Avatar this easily, someone else could have done the same. He didn't want to give them away, especially over something he did not even need. Instead he warmed himself up with his breath as Uncle Iroh had taught him one winter on the boat.
He felt a mixture of pain and yearning when he thought of his Uncle. He had betrayed him and he knew that was unforgiveable, but maybe he could redeem himself a little bit by finally doing what he was supposed to all along. It was time to make his uncle proud instead of his father.
His father -his tormentor. His father - his abuser. He could not rectify the two sides of the man, but he realized he had been less father and more monster to him for most of his life. That still did not make Zuko feel much better about what he knew had to be done.
He fell into a fitful sleep, haunted by dreams of his father; in some dreams he killed his father, in others, his father killed him.
Zuko woke up suddenly, all his senses alert. He listened closely, not moving a muscle and barely breathing. He heard a racoonowl hoot and the general rustlings around the forest of animals that thrived at night. He listened closer and heard the steady thumping of someone walking toward heavily him without even the pretense of stealth. He jerked to his feet immediately and briefly wondered if it could be one of the Avatar's friends, but no, the direction was wrong. Whoever it was, they were not coming from the direction of the cliff, but from deeper in the forest.
"Who's there?" Zuko demanded in a harsh voice, sinking into a defensive pose, praying it was not Azula.
A giant figure emerged a few feet away with a metallic clank. Moonlight filtered through the trees, glinting off the metal prosthetics that served as the man's arm and leg. A giant tattoo of a sideways eye flanked by three red lines covered the majority of his forehead. His name was, well, Zuko did not know his real name since he was apparently mute, but people referred to him as the Metal Assassin.
"What are you doing here?" Zuko asked, lowering his arms. "Didn't you get the letter?" Mai was not the only person he had written a note to before he had left. "I canceled the job."
The man regarded Zuko for a moment, his face impassive. Zuko took a step back. Could Ozai or Azula have hired the assassin? If so, they would be expecting a body, not a captive.
"Are you here for the rest of the money?" Zuko asked, hoping for some sort of response. He had promised the rest after the deed was done. At the same time he kept himself on alert, ready to dodge if his fears were correct. "You can have it." Zuko reached toward his bag, but the Metal Assassin shook his head, finally giving Zuko an indication that he had heard him.
"I can pay you double to give up the chase," Zuko said, grasping at straws. The Metal Assassin's eyes hardened and he glared at Zuko as if he were personally insulted that Zuko had tried to bribe him.
Part of Zuko's brain clicked. Uncle Iroh had warned him about hiring bounty hunters after he had hired June months ago. 'Most bounty hunters are driven by greed, but greed is not the only drive for some.' As usual, Uncle Iroh could not just say what he meant, so Zuko had, as usual, ignored him.
Now he was wishing he had asked more questions.
"Well then what do you want?"
The Metal Assassin pointed toward Zuko with one metallic finger and Zuko felt the pit of his stomach drop. It took him a moment to gather his racing thoughts together enough to realize that he was not the assassin's target. If the Metal Assassin were after him, he would have attacked already. Zuko looked behind himself, realizing the cliff, and the Avatar, were what was behind him. Zuko cursed his own stupidity. The Metal Assassin would complete the job, payment or not. He had a reputation for always getting his mark. He was not going to risk that record just because Zuko wanted to cancel the job.
"I won't let you hurt them," Zuko took a fighting stance. There was no way he could stop the Metal Assassin by himself but at least he could try. He examined his options. He could not risk missing and setting the forest on fire. A large forest fire would attract people to come extinguish it. Any activity around an air temple in the area would raise suspicions, and Azula would come running.
The Metal Assassin took a deep breath and Zuko dove behind a tree. The tree exploded and Zuko rolled to his feet and made a break for it, running away from the temple. He could hear the clank of the Metal Assassin's metal leg as he, thankfully, gave chase. Zuko could only hope to lead the assassin away and then… and then he had no clue. He would have to figure it out as he went, like he always did. For the life of him he could not remember a time when that had actually worked.
Zuko weaved in and out among the trees. The ground in front of him exploded and he changed direction, panic making him lose his hold on directions just long enough to make every way look the same. He chose a direction and ran until he stumbled over toward the edge of the cliff. So much for leading him away from the Avatar.
Zuko ran into the clearing and stopped to look around. There was nothing for him to hide behind. He looked over the cliff. The Avatar's friends were likely near the bottom- or top, since it was upside-down- of the temple. He briefly thought about trying to warn the Avatar's group, but he did not have time to get down to them, much less find them in the sprawling expanse of the temple. Not to mention the fact that he was not sure they would not attack him if he just suddenly ran into their rooms shouting. He really wanted to avoid being thrown off the mountainside.
Zuko could hear the Metal Assassin as he approached the edge of the forest. Zuko's back was against a wall- or well, the edge of the cliff- he was left with little choice.
Zuko took a deep breath and emptied his mind. Or more precisely, he cleared away all his doubts about the choices he had made. He had no idea how, but somehow he would join the Avatar's group, he would teach the Avatar how to firebend, and he would help defeat his father, regardless of what needed to be done to do so.
He could feel the energy surrounding him. His Uncle could do this. His sister could do this. His father could do this. He would do this. He took a strong stance, rotated his arms the way Uncle Iroh had shown him, and began stretching apart the energies. It felt like pulling open a very heavy door that someone else was trying to push closed at the same time.
Sweat rolled down his face. Zuko gave a final tug, separating the energy, before he rapidly let go and felt it explode into him. He directed the energy through his body right as the Metal Assassin stepped into the clearing and took a deep breath.
Zuko released his lightning. The Metal Assassin released his blast.
Zuko jumped back. The blast blew him further back and suddenly the ground beneath him crumbled and he went down, down, down.
As he fell he saw the Metal Assassin rise from a crouch. Zuko had missed. Before he could even process what to do next, he hit his head against a jutting rock and fell into oblivion.