Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Bitter Work

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Author’s note: In which painful lessons are learned, Sokka is the butt of this week’s joke and the shipping is not implied anymore! -cue the (not so) inner fangirl screams-

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: coming soon…

*** Bitter Work ***

When Iroh woke the next morning dawn was just breaking. He felt weak, but in surprisingly less pain than he thought he ought to be. He tried to rise but he couldn’t. With a grunt he turned his head to take in his surroundings. On his side Zuko was asleep facing him. Even now he had a worried expression etched on his face. Next to him slept Lia. She was using his nephew as a cushion, something Iroh found adorable. They could easily be passed for siblings, if it wasn’t for the Spirit’s red hair. Such a scene would never unfold between Zuko and Azula. He was feeling more and more tired by just thinking all this through, so he drifted back to sleep. The next time he woke was by the smell of tea and the sound of quiet conversation.

 

Zuko had woken up early, feeling a strange weight resting on his stomach. Opening his eyes cautiously, he saw Lia sleeping soundly. Uncle Iroh also seemed asleep. Zuko stood up carefully, trying not to wake his friend. Lia mumbled in annoyance at the shift but she went right back to sleep, snuggling deeper inside the sleeping bag. She reminded him of a cat, curling next to the fireplace to get warm. He decided to go check on the provisions she had stored. Hopefully there would be tea there too. If nothing else could wake his uncle, tea would. To his surprise, he wasn’t the first to rise from bed. Katara was already in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. She was having trouble with lightning the fire, he noted smiling.

 

Katara had been trying to light the fire for fifteen minutes now, to no avail. Just as she was about to give up and let the others figure out breakfast, the stove sprung to life. Startled she turned to see Zuko leaning against the doorway.

“I thought you could use some help,” he said casually. “By the way is there any tea?”

“Thanks,” Katara hastened to say. She looked around at the cupboards. “I didn’t have time to check through all of these. You like tea for breakfast?” she asked curious.

“Not really,” Zuko shrugged. “But it is the only thing that would convince uncle Iroh to wake up.” He couldn’t believe he was having an actual conversation with her at last. Even if it was only about his uncle’s drinking habits. He went over to some cupboards and started looking over them. Katara silently started to do the same on the other side of the wall. They met in the middle, their hands lightly brushing as they tried to open the cupboard the same time. Both teens flushed red and then burst out laughing at each other’s expression. Zuko opened the cupboard, still chuckling. Sure enough, inside it, there was everything they would need for a cup of tea.

 

Lia found them, still in the kitchen, half an hour later. They sat by the stove, talking and comparing their travels. When she entered, Zuko was listening with interest about Katara’s fight with Master Paku. The Spirit hated to disturb them, but she was a much better choice than Sokka or – Spirits forbid – Aang. She coughed loudly. The two teens jumped startled. Zuko relaxed immediately upon seeing her and Katara followed his example.

“I thought it would be better for you to know,” Lia said mischievously. “Aang has just woken Sokka and,” she paused for a moment, unsure about the other girl’s name. “The little earthbender too. Prepare yourselves.” As if to prove her words, Aang entered the kitchen.

“Today is the day! Can you believe it?” he was so ecstatic he didn’t notice Zuko sitting close to Katara, studying him with a bemused smile. “After all that time searching for a teacher, I’m finally learning earthbending!” Sokka stumbled in the kitchen behind the Avatar. He had a serious case of bedhead and his expression didn’t lighten even when the smell of breakfast reached him. Katara sighed.

“Aang I know you are excited,” she said handing him and her brother their breakfast, “but you needn’t have woken Sokka. You know he hates it.”

“Sorry,” Aang smiled sheepishly.

“Good morning earthbending student!” Toph yelled entering.

“Good morning sifu Toph,” Aang said equally laud.

“You never called me “sifu” Katara,” the waterbender observed with raised eyebrows.

“Well, if you think I should…” Aang started.

“Never mind!” Katara cut him off smiling as she handed Toph her plate. She shot a questioning glance at Lia. “Won’t you eat something?” she asked her.

“No, thanks,” the Spirit declined. “I’m rarely hungry.”

“Okay…” Katara said unsure.

 

Sokka nearly buried his head inside his plate, obviously not quite awake yet.

“Sorry Snoozles,” Toph told him sarcasm dripping from her words, “we’ll do our earthbending as quietly as possible,” she whispered. Zuko laughed upon hearing this. He remembered his few fights with earthbenders as nothing but noisy. Sokka stood, still muttering under his breath and retreated back to his sleeping bag.

“So what move are you going to teach me first?” Aang asked eagerly. “Rock-the-land? The Trembler? Oh, maybe I can learn to make a whirlpool out of land!” He didn’t notice Katara’s wince at the mention of the last trick.

“Bad memories?” Zuko whispered to her concerned. She nodded.

“Let’s start with move-a-rock,” Toph proposed calmly.

“Okay! Sounds good, sounds good.” Aang followed her outside. There was a small canyon twenty minutes from the house. Toph led him there, mindful of Iroh, who had still to awaken. Sokka, still wrapped in his sleeping bag had taken a seat near them to watch the lesson. Upon Aang’s first failed attempt to move a rock he snickered.

“Rock beats airbender,” he announced, more to himself.

 

Back at the house Lia had shooed Zuko and Katara out of the kitchen in order to clean up. The two teens went back to Iroh’s room carrying the tray with the tea along.

“Is she always like this?” Katara asked curiously Zuko.

“More or less. It makes you forget how powerful she really is,” Zuko shrugged. “Why did you wince when the Avatar mentioned the whirlpool?” he asked her back.

“When we first arrived to the Earth kingdom, we were supposed to meet with this General, who would provide us with an escort to Omashu. This man was obsessed with the Avatar State. He convinced Aang to try to trigger it, in order to lead an invasion to the Fire Nation.” She stopped, realizing what she had just said and to whom.

“I guess it didn’t work out,” Zuko said tonelessly.

“It didn’t,” Katara hurriedly assured him. “Finally the General resulted to attack Aang in order to force him into the Avatar State. When neither this worked, he trapped me into a whirlpool of earth. He freed me only when Aang went out of instinct into the Avatar State. But then he was impossible to control. He destroyed the whole courtyard, before he snapped out of it.”

Zuko looked angry. “So you’re telling me that this man purposely endangered you, in order to secure a weapon against the Fire Nation? He would make quite a pair with Azula.”

“Who’s Azula?” Katara asked him confused.

“My sister,” he answered bitterly.

“She is traveling with two other girls. One that throws darts and one that could paralyze me and take my bending away,” Katara told him. “Do you know them?”

“Their names are Mai and Tai Li,” Zuko explained. “They have been friends with Azula since childhood.”

 

Their heads shot up when they heard a groan from the bed. Zuko was immediately at his uncle’s side.

“Uncle?” he asked seeing the old man waking. “You were unconscious. Azula did this to you. It was a surprise attack.”

“Somehow that’s not so surprising,” Iroh commented, trying to sit up. Zuko took a cup from the tray.

“I hope I made it the way you like it,” he said hesitantly. He had never made tea before. Katara saw Iroh taking a sip and trying to stifle a disgusted expression. She stood and approached them not wanting Zuko to notice it.

“That was very… bracing.” Iroh looked up from his cup and saw her. “My dear,” he said. “I think I should be thanking you.” Katara blushed.

“It was nothing. I will just need to check on the wound one more time and then I will leave you two in peace.”  Zuko moved to make way for her, as she peeled off the bandages from Iroh’s wound, and bended water from a small basin she had brought, to form the healing glove. The wound was doing better than she had thought and she was finished quickly. She put the bandages back into place and left to go watch Aang’s lesson.

“Such a wonderful girl,” Iroh commented.

“She really is,” Zuko agreed in a whisper. He turned his attention back to Iroh, studiously ignoring Iroh’s teasing look. “So uncle, I’ve been thinking, it’s only a matter of time before I run into Azula again. I’m going to need to know more advanced firebending if I want to stand a chance against her. I know what you’re going to say,” he added hastily. “She’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her.”

“No, she’s crazy and she needs to go down.” Iroh said seriously. “It’s time to resume your training,” he added.

 

Meanwhile Katara had found the rest of her friends. A laughing Sokka informed her of Aang’s failed attempts before leaving to hunt. His sister couldn’t see why. There was plenty of meat in the house. She approached Toph and Aang.

“Maybe there’s a different way!” Aang was still hyper from excitement. “What if I came at the boulder from a different angle…?”

“No!” Toph cut him. “That’s the problem! You’ve got to stop thinking like an airbender. There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickily trick that’s gonna move that rock.” She shoved him to the ground to underline her words. “You’ve got to face it head on. And when I say head on, I mean like this!” She smashed the boulder with her head and started to go away in a huff. Katara ran after her.

“I’ve been training Aang for a while now,” she said to the impatient girl. “He really responds well to a positive teaching experience. Lots of encouragement and praise. Kind words. If he’s doing something wrong, maybe a gentle nudge on the right direction.”

“Thanks Katara.” Toph said sweetly. “A gentle nudge? I’ll try that.”

 

The waterbender wandered away from them ignoring the yells that echoed behind her from Toph and the occasional yelp from Aang. She was at loss of what to do. Aang and Toph were having their lessons, Sokka had disappeared to hunt, and there were no jobs to be done. She thought of returning to watch Zuko practice. Maybe they could spar a little. She halted as soon as she thought that. She was already thinking of the prince as a part of their team. They had barely spent a day together, yet she had noticed that she was opening up to him. That very morning they had sat together, sharing stories of their lives. They had already created a bond and Katara noticed surprised that she didn’t have a problem with it. Maybe they could even be friends… Or something more, a tiny voice on the back of her head whispered. The girl blushed furiously. She was so deep in thought; she didn’t notice she had returned to the small forest near the house. She didn’t even hear the sound of running water. Which resulted in her falling into a small stream. Katara smiled. She had just found what she was going to do today.

 

Sokka was perched on a tree near the forest too. He knew they had enough provisions thanks to Lia, but he wasn’t going to trust a Fire Spirit – one that was friends with Zuko of all people! Today’s breakfast had tasted a little funny. Under him, he saw a small cub passing. Sokka tried to tell what kind of animal it was, but he couldn’t.

“You’re awfully cute,” he said to himself, “but unfortunately for you, you’re made of meat.” He watched it approaching. “Just a bit closer…” He jumped screaming from the tree, to feel the earth giving way on the spot he landed. The cub neared him curiously. Sokka tried again to strike it, only succeeding to sink more on the narrow hole.

“You are one lucky little meat-creature,” he told the cub furiously.

 

Zuko and Iroh moved from the bedroom to the kitchen, where Iroh brewed a fresh pot of tea, before he began to instruct his nephew. Lia was leaning on the doorframe, listening curiously. It had been a long time since she had heard Iroh instructing Zuko, what with her travels and all.

“Lightning is a pure form of Fire,” the old man began, “without aggression. It is not filled with rage and emotion the way any other firebending is. Some call lightning the cold-blooded fire. It is precise and deadly, like Azula. To perform the technique requires peace of mind.” Iroh wondered whether his nephew was ready for such a step. Lightning didn’t suit his temperament at all.

“I see,” Zuko observed. “That’s why we’re drinking tea. To calm the mind.”

“Oh yes good point,” Iroh said cheerfully. He heard Lia laugh quietly from behind him and sobered hastily. “I mean, yes,” he said more seriously.

 

They moved outside to continue. Lia had followed them silently, watching their every move closely. It made Iroh a little uneasy.

“There is energy all around us,” he continued nevertheless. “The energy is both yin and yang, positive energy and negative energy. Only a select few firebenders can separate these energies. This creates an imbalance. The energy wants to restore balance and in the moment the positive and negative energy come pressing back together, you provide release and guidance, creating lightning.” He motioned Zuko to pull back and once the boy did, he produced a lightning shot.

“I’m ready to try it,” Zuko said impatiently.

“Remember, once you separate the energy, you do not command it. You are its humble guide. Breathe first.” Iroh went to sit back with Lia.

“He is not ready yet,” she told him grimly.

“I know,” Iroh answered. “But he needs to understand it himself.”

They saw Zuko mimicking his uncle’s movements, but instead of producing lightning, he was blasted back. He tried again and again to no avail. Finally Zuko lost his patience.

“Why can’t I do it?” he asked both his uncle and Lia. “Instead of lightning, it keeps exploding in my face! Like everything always does,” he added bitterly. Iroh opened his mouth to say something, but Lia stopped him. She walked to her student and placed a hand on his shoulder. Iroh studied her curiously.

“Stand up Zuko,” the Spirit told him calmly. The boy did as asked. “I want to show you something.” She stood right behind him and placed both hands on his shoulders. “Now, when I tell you, you will repeat the movement, okay? Just the movement. Don’t try to produce lightning.” Zuko nodded. He felt Lia taking a slow, deep breath and, “Now.”

 

He felt an unearthly calm wash through him. It emptied his mind, leaving him feeling cold. He repeated fluently the movements and was surprised to see lightning springing from his fingertips. Once the move was finished, Lia let go of him. The flow of emotions returned like a tidal wave, making him feel dizzy. She steadied him.

“That’s the price you have to pay to produce lightning; this emptiness. I don’t think you are ready to practice such a move regularly, without it affecting you,” she explained to Zuko. “Originally lightning was taught to grown adults, as the last step before receiving the title of a master.”

“She’s right,” Iroh added. “You won’t be able to master lightning unless you deal with the turmoil inside you.”

“What turmoil?” Zuko yelled at Iroh’s direction.

“Don’t you yell!” Lia snapped at him. “You know exactly what he’s talking about. Spirits above! I thought I was going to explode, holding all those feelings and thoughts back!” Zuko bowed his head. They were right of course.

“I apologise uncle Iroh,” he said bowing.

 

The scene reminded vividly to Iroh of that storm they had encountered on their ship. He had seen his nephew losing his hold and always marvelled at how he hadn’t fall into the sea. Now he had his suspicions of how it had happened, as well as for the reason behind Zuko’s improved attitude the following days.

“I know! I’m going to teach you a firebending move that even Azula doesn’t know. Because I made it up myself,” he said in a flash of inspiration. Lia smiled approvingly.

“Come on prince Gloomy,” she called affectionately the prince, nudging him with her shoulder. “I know you’re curious about it!” Zuko turned smiling slightly.

 

Somewhere else, inside the forest Sokka was losing his patience. He was stuck in that hole for hours, with his would-be lunch sitting comfortably on his head.

“You probably think I deserve this, don’t you,” he said at the cub. “Look I’m sorry I hunted you, but that’s just the natural order of things! Big things eat smaller things. Nothing personal. But this time it didn’t work out that way.” The little animal snuggled on his head and fell asleep. Sokka sighed. “I admit it; you’re cute. Okay you convinced me. If I ever get out of this there will only be a karmically correct, vegetarian existence for me. No meat. Even though meat is so tasty.” He sniffed, holding back tears at the thought. The cub jumped of his head and ran off. It returned moments later with an apple on its mouth.

“Hey! Looks like my karma is already paying off!” He tried to reach the apple, but he couldn’t with his hands literally glued inside the hole. Instead his boomerang fell of its sheath. “Now come back boomerang,” he ordered it frowning. Spirits I must have the worst luck in all four Nations.

 

Sokka and Zuko weren’t the only ones facing problems. Aang had quickly realized that earthbending was much harder than it looked. His airbender mind-frame was getting in the way of truly understanding the new technique. Besides training with Toph was so much different than training with Katara. Katara was lenient with him, never too tired to explain something again and again. Toph on the other hand yelled at him whenever he did something wrong. She was tough and expected him to pick up her attitude immediately. Finally Aang gave up and went to find Katara. She took one look at him and understood the situation. They were practicing waterbending together now, talking their – or more accurately his – problems over.

“You know this block you’re having is only temporary, right?” Katara asked him.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Aang passed her back the water they were bending. He was still embarrassed from being yelled at by Toph.

“You do realize that’s the problem, do you?” Katara insisted. “If you face this issue instead of avoiding it…”

“I know, I know, I know! I get it, alright? I need to face it “head on” like a rock. But I just can’t do it. I don’t know why I can’t but I can’t,” he blurted out angrily.

“Aang, if fire is the opposite of water, then what is the opposite of air?” his waterbending sifu calmly asked.

“I guess it’s earth.”

“That’s why it’s so hard for you to get this,” she explained. “You’re working with your natural opposite.” Aang looked at the water thoughtfully. “But you’ll figure it out. I know you will.” While she was talking she cut a small reed from behind her. She threw it at him. “Think fast!” she ordered. Aang quickly raised a wave in front of him, cutting the piece of wood in two. “Excellent!” Katara praised him. “You have the reflexes of a waterbending master.”

“Thanks Katara.” Aang bowed on her. “Sifu Katara,” he added.

 

Iroh took a long stick and started sketching in the dirt. This would need a longer introduction than lightning. He took a look at the teenagers sitting in front of him. Zuko had a look of serious concentration on his face, while Lia a bemused expression, as if she was trying to guess his words before he said them.

“Fire is the element of power,” Iroh began, sketching the symbol of fire. “The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will and the energy to achieve what they want. Earth is the element of substance,” he continued, again sketching the element’s symbol. “The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring. Air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom.”

“They also had a great sense of humour,” Lia added. Iroh laughed at her remark.

“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them through anything.” Zuko’s thoughts turned to Katara. These things described her well.

“Why are you telling me these things?” he asked confused nonetheless.

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places,” General Iroh explained. “If you take only from one place it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements and the other Nations will help you become whole.”

“All this four elements talk is sounding like Avatar stuff,” Zuko remarked.

“That’s because the combination of all elements on one person is what makes the Avatar so powerful,” Lia explained. “You shouldn’t be surprised. Remember our lessons?”

“You see, the technique I’m about to teach you, is one I learned by studying the waterbenders,” Iroh concluded. Zuko’s face lightened. Whatever it was that uncle Iroh was going to teach him, was bound to be interesting.

 

They started practicing with some basic blocking moves. While they repeated the sequence Iroh continued explaining:

“Waterbenders deal with the flow of energy. A waterbender lets his defence become his offence, turning his enemy’s energy against him. I learned a way to do this with lightning.”

“You can teach me to redirect lightning?” Zuko had never thought it possible.

“If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow. You create a pathway through your fingertips, up your arm to your shoulder, then down into your stomach. The stomach is the source of energy in your body. It is called the sea of chi. Although,” he chuckled, “in my case it is more like a vast ocean. From the stomach you direct it up again and out the other arm. The stomach can take a critical amount of energy, but you must not let the lightning pass through your heart, where the damage could be deadly. You may wish to try a physical motion, to get a feel of the energy’s pathway like this.” They tried the movement a few times.

“Now are you focusing your energy? Can you feel your own chi flowing in, down, up and out of your body?” Iroh asked.

“I think so,” Zuko answered, still concentrated on the move.

“Come on,” Iroh said. “You’ve got to feel the flow.” Lia giggled seeing the old man making wave-like movements with his arms.

 

Half an hour later Iroh stopped his nephew. “Excellent!” he praised him. “You’ve got it.”

“Great! I’m ready to try it with real lightning!” Zuko said, sounding very much like Aang had that very morning.

“What?” Lia exclaimed.

“Are you crazy?” Iroh asked incredulous. “Lightning is very dangerous!”

“I thought that was the point,” Zuko insisted. “You teaching me how to protect myself from it.”

“But I’m not going to shoot lightning at you!” his uncle insisted horrified. “If you’re lucky, you won’t have to use this technique at all.” He walked away. Zuko turned hopeful at Lia.

“I never use lightning,” she told him gravely. “Besides, your uncle is right. You know the movement. You don’t have to prove anything.” A distant rumble was heard from the canyon.

“Well if you won’t help me, I’ll find my own lightning.” Zuko stormed off furious.

 

Katara returned to the house at almost sundown, thinking that everyone would be there already. Instead she found Iroh gazing worriedly at the darkening horizon and Lia pacing restlessly.

“What happened?” Katara asked worried. “Where is everyone?”

“Beats me!” Lia said. She looked furious. “But I know what I will do once I get my hands on Zuko. Nobody storms off like this into such weather alone. I swear I’m going to prevent him from bending for a month if he returns with so much of a scratch!”

The waterbender looked questioningly at Iroh.

“My nephew has some very set ideas on some topics,” the old man explained wearily. “Things turned out to be very different than what he thought and he refused to accept them.”

“Sokka’s missing too,” Katara said. “I’m going to find Aang and start looking for them.”

“I’ll go look around town,” Lia decided.

 

Katara raced to the canyon. Aang was sitting on a rock, his back to her.

“Aang, have you seen…” she tried asking him but he interrupted her.

“Meditating here!” he said, still annoyed with Toph.

“It’s important,” she insisted. “It’s almost sundown and Sokka and Zuko are missing. I think we should search for them.” Aang turned towards her in worry.

“We’ll find them faster if we split up. I’ll go search the forest and you go back to the house in case they return.” Katara nodded and took off again.

 

Toph, Aang and Sokka finally returned just as the sun set on the horizon. Katara had prepared dinner quickly and now was worried sick. Iroh was in no better condition. He didn’t want to think what his nephew would do in order to find lightning. Finally the trio arrived at the entrance.

“You found him!” Katara cried, feeling only a tiny little bit relieved. She hugged her brother, checking him for injuries.

“The whole time I was in that hole,” Sokka told her reflecting. “Not knowing if I would live or die. It makes a man think what’s really important. I realized…”

“Hey Katara, look what I can do!” Aang jumped in. He took an earthbending position, but she stopped him.

“Not now Aang.” She turned to Toph. “Do you know where Zuko is?” she asked.

“No clue Sugar Queen,” the earthbender said carelessly. “Can we go eat now?”

“Yes,” Katara said a little sadly. “Get inside. Dinner is ready.” They all entered the house.

 

Katara had just served Iroh when Lia returned. She looked exhausted.

“Hasn’t he returned yet?” she asked out of breath. Her face was almost ashy with fatigue.

“No. Where could he be?” Katara asked. She noticed the colour of the Spirit’s face. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“We must head in to the heart of the storm…” Lia muttered sitting next to a bewildered Sokka and then leaping right back up on her feet again. “I have to go find him.” Katara pushed her back down.

“No you don’t,” she ordered. “You stay here, rest and eat something. I’ll go find him.” She turned to Toph. “Don’t let her leave.”

“No problem.” The tiny earthbender had too sensed the tiredness in the other girl’s movements. Katara put on her cloak. “I’ll be back soon,” she promised.

 

The storm got worse the farther she went from the house. From the canyon earlier she had noticed a small cliff that seemed to loom higher than everything else.  Zuko would probably be there. No one had thought to search the rocky area. The storm was at its peak when she climbed to the top of the cliff. Indeed Zuko was there. From Katara’s point of view it seemed as if he was kneeling in front of the raging storm. Suddenly, she realized that he was sobbing. Hesitantly she approached him, unsure of what his reaction would be, and put a hand on his shoulder.

“What do you want?” he asked her harshly.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him back.

“Proving to myself what everyone else seems to know. That I’m a failure,” he said bitterly. Zuko didn’t understand why he was confiding in Katara, but he found he couldn’t stop the words.

“How could you be a failure?” the girl asked him in disbelief.

“Multiple reasons – take your pick.” The prince said with a humourless laugh. “I will never be the crown prince my father wanted. My sister will always best me at firebending. It took me sixteen years to understand what a monster my father is. Uncle Iroh will soon tire of me and leave me and so will Lia. I don’t even know who I am supposed to be and you…” he trailed off. They were now standing close, facing each other. Zuko had stopped crying but was still trembling. He turned away.

“What about me?” Katara asked him quietly.

“It doesn’t matter.” He answered still refusing to face her. “You don’t care anyway.”

 

What Katara did next surprised them both. She forced him to turn and face her, placing a hand on each side of his face.

“Zuko look at me.” She told him urgently. “You’re wrong. I care about you and you’re definitely not a failure.” He still refused to meet her gaze, so she did the only thing she could think of. She stood on her tip-toes and kissed him. Zuko was so shocked that he didn’t react at first. Katara broke away almost immediately, blushing crimson.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, turning to leave. What was I thinking, kissing him? she thought, close to tears. He obviously doesn’t like me. She felt a hand taking hold of her own. Katara caught Zuko’s unreadable expression just before he leaned down and kissed her.

 

It was as if they had been doing this forever. Zuko’s hands went immediately to the small of her back, pulling her closer. Katara felt hers move out of their own free will to each side of his face. Through the haze of her mind she could hear the small voice cheering. When lack of air became evident they pulled away.

“I think I’m falling in love with you Katara.” Zuko whispered trying to catch his breath, still holding her close. Said waterbender felt the teenage girl inside her wanting to squeal in delight. She didn’t though. Instead she snuggled closer to the boy’s warm body and said something she had been refusing to believe for a long time: “I think I’m falling in love with you too.”

 

They just stood there while the storm raged around them. Finally a thunderclap broke the spell. They pulled away smiling shyly at one another.

“We should go back. Everyone will be worried,” Katara said reluctantly. She didn’t want to leave his warm embrace.

“Let’s go then,” Zuko answered equally reluctant taking her hand once again.

 

The walk seemed to them to last mere seconds. Before they entered the house, Zuko paused and tuned Katara to face him.

“Do you want them to know?” he asked her hesitantly.

“No, not yet,” she answered unsurely. “Sokka and Aang will go crazy.”

“Then there is something I should do before we go in,” he said kissing her again. Katara felt him smile through the kiss. When they broke away she bended the water out of their clothes and hair and gave him another shy smile.

“Let’s go home.” Zuko told her, smiling back the biggest smile of his life.

 

Once they entered Toph opened her mouth to say something. Lia, spying the mischievous twinkle on the other girl’s eyes, quickly put her hand over the earthbender’s mouth.

“About time you two talked!” Lia cried out over Toph’s muffled protests.

“What do you mean ‘talked’?” Sokka asked her. Lia studied him for a moment before spreading her arms in the air and saying dramatically:

“I’m a Spirit! I’m supposed to say stuff that doesn’t makes sense!”

“That’s true,” Zuko said taking a seat next to Lia, with Katara on his other side. “Half the things you say are nonsense.”

“And the other half?” his ‘sister’ asked.

“You only understand it when it’s too late.”

“Gee! Thanks for the vote of confidence!”

Everyone laughed as the firebender and Fire Spirit continued their bickering, much like normal siblings would.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Chase

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Author’s Note: In which the canon is shifted sideways, there is shipping and teenage hormones and a favour from way back is asked.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Τhe Chase***

That night Zuko and Lia camped within the forest again. Once the fire was set and food was being cooked, Zuko asked her the question that had been bothering him ever since she had lashed out at the town’s people.

“Why did you ask me if I was mad at you?” he questioned curiously.

“When I returned uncle Iroh told me you wanted to continue alone. I was going to respect your wishes, but had to make sure you’d be okay.”

Zuko tugged the small charm from under his shirt. “Wouldn’t this keep you informed?” he asked her.

“It would, but if I was too far away, I wouldn’t be able to get to you in time. Besides,” she added thoughtfully, “danger is subjective.”

“What about uncle?” Zuko asked her again.

“Oh, he’s probably tracking you down, helping whoever he finds on the way,” Lia told carelessly. “Did you expect anything else?”

“I guess not,” he answered smiling.

 

Later that night, Zuko was awoken by a strange noise. He turned to see Lia diving her hands inside the fire, pulling the flames out to the sides, as if trying to create a flat surface. Once she succeeded she muttered a few words under her breath and the flames tuned white. From Zuko’s point of view it was as if she was staring intently at the bright whiteness, but then pictures started to appear and disappear rapidly. He had time to make out a metal tank, a half-moon like cloud, the outline of a young girl dressed in green and finally an abandoned city in flames. There was much more, he was willing to bet, because Lia stopped the conjuration, looking rather grim.

“This is not good,” she whispered to herself. She closed her eyes for a few minutes, obviously re-picturing the images she had seen. Slowly a smile started to form on her lips. She opened her eyes. “But it could be worse!” she said louder.

“What did you see?” Zuko asked her. Lia raised an eyebrow.

“The reason that you’ll to be traveling alone for a few hours tomorrow – I have a small job to do.” She saw his disappointed look. “I promise by midday I’ll be finished! Come on Zuko! One would think you can’t survive without someone around to listen to your complaints!”

“And what do you suggest I do?” he asked her, irate.

“Look for tracks from a tank. That lovely, little sister of yours is looking for Aang personally.”

“How come she’s doing it alone?” Zuko looked at her disbelievingly. Lia shrugged.

“Beats me!” she said also confused.

 

Not very far from Zuko’s campsite Katara found herself exhausted. First she had to set camp nearly by herself – the boys weren’t much of a help. As soon as that was done, she had had to dismantle everything and store it away on Appa’s back. A metal tank-like…thing had appeared on the horizon and was quickly gaining on them. Aang, not wanting to get in a fight when it was nearly dark, had got everyone on board and flew to a nearby forest to hide. As if their mysterious stalker wasn’t enough, there was the latest addition to the group: Toph the blind earthbender who had tagged along to teach Aang. Katara didn’t know how to treat the younger girl. The earthbender refused to open up and let herself become a true member of the group. She preferred to stay on the sidelines, neither in nor out. The waterbender’s motherly instincts were working overboard around her, and, besides, she wasn’t sleeping well at nights. Her thoughts kept returning to Zuko. She was worried for the Fire Prince, although she couldn’t figure out why. She decided sleepily that once she had a decent night’s sleep, she would seriously think over the issue.

“Land, sweet land!” Toph exclaimed as soon as her feet hit the ground. She honestly hated flying. “See you guys in the morning!”

“Actually can you help us unload?” Katara tried for the third time the same evening.

“Really? You want me to help unload Sokka’a funky-smelling sleeping-bag?” Toph asked incredulously. Behind her Katara heard Sokka smell his sleeping-bag and making a disgusted noise.

“Well, yeah. That and everything else,” she told Toph annoyed. “You’re a part of our team now and…”

“Look I didn’t ask you to help unload my stuff,” the twelve-year-old girl said equally annoyed. “I carry my own weight.”

“That’s not the point! Ever since you’ve joined us you’ve been nothing but selfish and unhelpful.”

“What? Look here Sugar Queen; I gave up everything I had to teach Aang earthbending, so don’t you talk to me about being selfish.” She created a tent out of the ground with an angry movement and stormed inside.

“Sugar Queen?” Katara repeated in disbelief. The tent closed completely as an answer. “Did you just slam the door in my face? How can you be so infuriating?” She knew she acted childishly, but Toph always managed to punch her buttons.

“Okay, okay,” she heard Aang say, “you both need to calm down!”

“I’m perfectly calm!” she yelled at him.

“I can see that…” Aang moved away from her quickly and nervously.

 

They didn’t bother to set up their tents after this little scene. Everyone climbed into his or hers sleeping bag and that was it. Unlike the boys, Katara couldn’t fall asleep.

“The stars are beautiful tonight,” she commented loud enough for Toph to hear. “Too bad you can’t see them Toph!” The girl responded with an earth wave. Katara was launched in the air and landed on her brother.

“Hey, how’s a guy supposed to sleep with all this yelling and earthquaking!” Sokka yelled.

“That thing is back!’ Toph said alarmed, all previous annoyance forgotten for the moment.

“Oh no! How far away is it?” Sokka buried himself in his sleeping bag. “Maybe we can close our eyes for a few more minutes.” His voice was heard muffled.

“I don’t think so Sokka.” Aang said spying the smoke approaching. They were soon in flight again.

 

“Seriously, what is that thing?” Katara asked scared.

“And how does it keep finding us?” Toph added.

“I don’t know.” Aang turned to face them. “But this time I’m going to make sure we lose them.” There were a few rocky cliffs around them. They found one that was high enough and Appa landed heavily on it.

“Okay, forget about setting camp,” Sokka muttered, crawling inside his sleeping-bag again. “I’m going to find the softest pile of dirt and fall asleep.”

“That’s good, because Toph wasn’t going to help anyway,” Katara said venomously.

“Oh, I didn’t realize baby still needed someone to tuck her in bed,” Toph snapped back.

“Come on guys. We’re all tired and we don’t know what or who is after us,” Aang covered his head with his coat, too tired himself to be the peacemaker.

“It could be Zuko,” Katara said thoughtfully. Aang though she sounded a little too hopeful about the prospect. “We haven’t seen him since the North Pole,” she continued.

“Who’s Zuko?” Toph asked confused.

“Oh, just an angry freak with a ponytail who’s tracked us down all around the world,” Sokka informed her before burrowing his head into the dirt.

“What’s wrong with ponytails, ponytail?” Katara felt slightly offended on Zuko’s behalf. Inside her head she viciously stamped down the little voice telling her exactly why…

“This is a warrior’s wolftail,” her brother pointed out.

“It certainly tells the other warriors that you are fun and perky!” she teased him.

“Anyway, whoever is tracking us, can’t find us here, so please shush!” Momo jumped worried on Sokka’s chest. “Now Momo, shush! Sleepy time!” Sokka refused to open his eyes. That didn’t discourage Momo. Everyone sat up except for him. Sokka merely buried his head once again and whined. “Oh no, don’t tell me!”

“This is impossible. There’s no way they could have tracked us!” Aang said incredulous.

“I can feel it with my own two feet!” Toph insisted. Aang ran to the side and saw the weird tank approaching them.

“Let’s get out of here,” Katara ordered worried.

“Maybe we should face them, find out who they are.” Aang was unsure. “Who knows? Maybe they are friendly.”

“Always the optimist,” Sokka sighed.

The tanked stopped to reveal three girls riding giant lizards.

“It’s those three girls from Omashu,” Katara said, now truly scared.

“We can take them,” Toph said confidently. “Three on three.”

“Actually Toph, there’s four of us,” Sokka reminded her awkwardly.

“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t count you. You know, no bending and all…”

“I can still fight!’ Sokka yelled.

“Okay,” Toph amended. “Three on three plus Sokka.” She sent a few piles of earth on the girls. They dodged them easily.

“Okay, we found out who they were. Now let’s get out of here!” Sokka ordered nervously, making a bee-line for Appa.  They rushed to follow his example and soon they were once again airborne.

 

The next morning Zuko woke alone. It took him a few moments to register where Lia was. When the previous night’s events came to his mind he frowned. What was Azula doing after the Avatar, alone? It didn’t make any sense to him. I guess I’ll find out soon, he thought as he set off in search for tracks. He found them soon enough. Along the trail there were a few bits and pieces of white hair. Zuko guessed it belonged to the Avatar’s bison. By midday he was getting impatient. The tracks seemed endless.

“Time to change course.” Lia appeared next to him half-walking half-floating.

“Took care of your errands?” he asked her icily. Zuko was getting tired of the never-ending nothingness. Lia shrugged good-naturedly.

“You will be grateful for this later. Anyway, there is an abandoned city nearby. You will find there both your sister and Aang.” She paused thoughtfully. “Isn’t there a proverb for this kind of things?” she asked.

“You’d better ask uncle.”

 

She had said nearby but the setting sun was painting the sky orange by the time they arrived. Hearing voices ahead Zuko dismounted silently. He and Lia approached the main road from the shadows. Lia whispered with her rarely heard stern voice, “The same deal, okay?” Zuko nodded. He wouldn’t have it any other way. After all it wasn’t the Avatar he was after this time. They heard Azula’s condescending voice:

“Do you really want to fight me?” Before Aang had a chance to answer, Zuko cut in. “Yes,” he said. “I really do.”

“Zuko?” Aang exclaimed startled.

“I was wandering when you’d show up Zuzu,” his sister asked.

“Zuzu?” Aang giggled under his breath. Azula noticed Lia, who had silently moved and was now backing up her brother.

“And you brought company too? Marvelous!” the princess continued. Lia lowered her arms a little and gave her a long look.

“You know,” Lia said, “you just proved wrong two things I’ve always believed about princesses.”

“And what would these be?” Azula asked curious.

“Firstly that they ride something better than an oversized lizard and secondly that they dress a tiny little bit more stylishly,” the Spirit said mischievously. Zuko and Aang laughed at this. Azula frowned dangerously.

“You’d better back off Azula.” Zuko warned his sister, slipping into a bending stance, all previous mirth gone.

“I don’t think so.” She answered falling into a stance too. Aang hastened to follow their examples.

 

Zuko measured his two opponents, trying to decide where the first hit would come from. The Avatar was obviously exhausted, unlike Azula. Indeed she fired first. Zuko blocked the hit, but the impact sent him flying against a wall. Azula aimed her next fire bolt to Aang. The boy took off on his air scooter, trying to avoid the flames, while Lia called the majority of them to her. The blue flames twirled around her and seemed to intensify, flaring white for just one moment, as she sent them to Azula’s direction. The princess dodged them and charged at the Avatar, running on the roofs. She jumped to him, but Aang managed to avoid her again. Whipping up another air scooter he approached Zuko. He preferred him to his sister as an opponent. To his surprise though, the other boy didn’t try to attack him. Both he and Lia were shooting flames at Azula. The latter was growing frustrated. She had to fight the Avatar – who wouldn’t stand still for a second – her brother and his mysterious friend. That girl unnerved her. She was merely moving her arms, not even falling into the simplest stance, yet it was as if she was talking to the fire surrounding her. And she obviously had a lot of time to practice with her brother. They backed each other perfectly.

 

Aang took advantage of her distraction and ran inside a house, with Azula hot on his heels. The girl nearly fell, as there was no floor left, but managed to keep her balance somehow. Zuko, who came running immediately after her, wasn’t so lucky. Azula saw him fall, slow down and land perfectly. He rushed to his feet. His sister concentrated on shooting flames at the Avatar, who dodged them. Then she felt someone pushing her roughly. She turned to see Lia waving goodbye at her with a cheeky smile. Azula landed next to her brother, though much less gracefully. Zuko smirked.

“Crash landing?” he asked her teasingly. She sent a blast at him. He was knocked out as he landed on the road. Lia’s expression darkened and she turned to Azula. She sent a huge ball of fire at the younger girl, missing her by an inch. Having pushed the princess at a safe distance she returned to Zuko, feeling more presences approaching.

 

The first thing Katara saw when she reached the city was the mysterious young woman she had seen at the North Pole, kneeling over the prince. She looked up for a moment motioning her to enter a house. She did, in time to send a waterwhip and prevent the girl from Omashu – who, she now realized, resembled Zuko terribly – from burning Aang. With another whip she freed the boy. Then she ran for her life. Sokka appeared from another ruin and blocked Azula’s way with his machete, giving Katara a chance to summon more water from her pouch. Together the three of them started to circle the princess.

 

Meanwhile Lia was still trying to wake Zuko. As he opened his eyes a shadow fell on them.

“Uncle?” Zuko mumbled, not really awake yet.

“Get up,” Iroh ordered him. Together with Lia, he helped his nephew on his feet. They surveyed the battle. Katara, Sokka and Aang were giving Azula a field day. Suddenly the land slid from under her feet, causing her to lose her balance. The petite form of a girl dressed in green appeared.

“I thought you guys could use some help,” Toph said cheekily.

“Toph!” Katara called smiling. “Thanks.” Together they ran after Azula. The princess was beginning to rethink her whole plan. Even without her brother and his friend they were too many for her to handle on her own. She looked over her shoulder to check if they were gaining on her. It was a wrong thing to do, and she fell right on Iroh. She backed away slowly until her back hit a corner. They had trapped her, leaving no exit.

“Well look at this,” she commented, sweeping her eyes on them. “Enemies and traitors all working together. I surrender. I’m done. I know when I’m beaten.” She raised her hands on the air. “You caught me. A princess surrenders with honor.”

No one lowered their guard. Iroh let his gaze slip from Aang to Toph, trying to decide which one Azula would find easier to hit. His niece caught his gaze. Moving suddenly she hit him instead. Even as the old man fell unconscious to the ground, the teenagers sent their combined powers against her. Aang cleared the smoke from the resulting explosion, to discover that Azula had disappeared. Zuko rushed to his uncle’s side, refusing to believe what had just happened. He felt Katara approaching behind him.

“Zuko, I can help,” she told him with earnest worry in her voice.

 

Zuko almost declined her offer. He only wanted them to leave him and his uncle alone. He was helpless and couldn’t stand, no refused to think, that Iroh might be dead. This was all the Avatar’s fault. The prince was ready to yell at them, but before he had a chance a hand was set firmly on his mouth, silencing him. A very grim-looking Lia was kneeling next to him. She forced Zuko to look at her and whispered:

“You owe me a favor.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” he spat.

“I ask it now. I want you to let Katara help Iroh.”

Zuko looked at her for a long moment before nodding. He turned to the waterbender: “Please,” he said quietly.

 

Katara – who had been staring at Lia, surprised – jerked and hastily knelt next to the fallen General. She took out her water, forming a healing glove, and placed it on the wound. Once the water was back on her pouch Zuko looked at her anxiously. She smiled warmly.

“He will be fine. He’ll probably wake up sometime tonight or tomorrow. I will need to check on him again though, once he’s awake.”

“Thank you” Zuko mumbled looking at the beautiful girl next to him with awe. Katara blushed a little.

“There is a little abandoned hut nearby, by the woods,” Lia offered. “We could stay there and be safe.”

The Spirit and the Water Tribe girl shared a look.

 

“Sokka, come here” his sister called him.

“What? Why?” the warrior whined, still shooting suspicious looks at Zuko.

“You, Zuko and I will carry…” she trailed, realized she didn’t know the old man’s name.

“Iroh,” Toph said. She had paled when she felt her old friend falling.

“Thank you, Iroh on the saddle. We will have to stay together until he is well enough to travel.”

“Katara, what are you talking about?” Aang asked aghast.

She put on her “mother face”: “You can either do so or just drop us there and then leave. Because. I. Am. Staying.”

“So am I!” Toph added. Sensing everyone staring at her she shrugged. “What? He gives good tea and even better advice!”

“Sounds like Iroh to me.” Lia whispered to Zuko as she stood up. Sokka noticed her for the first time.

“Who are you anyway?” he asked her suspiciously.

“I’m Lia.”

Sokka looked at her expectantly. “And?”

“You don’t want to hear my entire life story. Trust me at least on this; it’s longer than it seems.”

“Sokka now it’s not the time for this!” Katara snapped. “Come help us!”

 

Knowing better than to argue with the waterbender, the two boys of Team Avatar did as she asked. Together the three teens managed to put Iroh safely on Appa’s saddle. Zuko hurried immediately to sit next to him. He took out a blanket from his backpack and covered his uncle. Katara blushed recognizing it. It was the blanket he gave her the night he had tried to bribe her with her mother’s necklace. The same thought seemed to cross his mind too, because he met her gaze and gave her a shy smile.

 

Lia sat next to Aang giving him directions, while Toph and Sokka were right behind them. Katara sat by them at first, but as soon as they were in the air she scooted nearer Zuko. They sat in awkward silence for a while, not really knowing what to say. Finally Zuko gathered enough courage to speak.

“Why did you help us?” he asked looking at the girl, who was currently bandaging Iroh’s wound. She looked up.

“I may be a waterbending master, but I’m also a healer. I couldn’t let him die. Besides that girl was right.”

“She’s my sister,” Zuko told her bitterly.

“Oh.” Katara had a feeling that there was more on this than he let out. “But we did team up in the end. And I would never leave a part of my team suffer,” she explained.

“So what, we are a team now?” he was surprised.

“I won’t force you to join if that’s what you fear,” she assured him. “But you have to admit that it sounds better than ‘enemies with benefits’.”

 

Despite his worries Zuko smiled weakly. Katara couldn’t help but notice how much more handsome he looked when he was smiling. Admittedly he also looked much better with short hair, more mature and serious. It made her feel secure to be near him. She remembered when he had held her…The memory made her blush and she turned quickly to stare at the front.

 

Meanwhile Zuko thought. He had been certain that Katara wouldn’t be any friendlier than her brother or the Avatar. But she seemed to genially care. He had seen her blush before she had time to turn. The thought of Katara caring made his heart grow and Zuko turned back to his uncle smiling faintly.

 

They soon arrived at the forest. What Lia had called a “hut” was in reality a small abandoned house.

“I’ve had it stocked. There are enough provisions for a few weeks,” she explained. At the mention of food Sokka seemed to glow. Zuko turned to Lia surprised.

“So that was your job! You knew this would happen?”

“I knew we’d end up here all together. Not the reason. It’s not as if future reveals everything to me!”

“Of course.” Zuko bowed his head.

“I saw that smile!” Lia hovered back to the saddle to help him. Katara laughed at their argument.

“Come on kids,” she called them. “We need to get Iroh inside.”

 

Zuko’s face turned serious immediately. He silently moved to help Katara, with Lia following him. They moved inside and placed Iroh on the first room with a bed they found.

“Hey!” Sokka called. “That’s my bedroom!”

“And why would that be?” Zuko asked, crossing his arms.

“It’s the one closest to the kitchen.” Sokka said as if it was obvious. “See?”

“Oh, I do see,” Zuko said raising an eyebrow. “It’s your stomach speaking. Never mind.”

“Sokka let at him be,” Katara scolded him.

“Don’t take the jerkbender’s side! There’s not another bed in the house!”

Katara opened her mouth to yell at him, but Zuko cut in.

“What did you just call me?” he said narrowing his eyes.

“Well no offence,” Sokka saif in a tone that suggested offence was very much intended, “but judging by historical evidence Fire in general is a jerk. So you’re a jerkbender.” His satisfied expression faltered a little when he saw three glares set on him. Zuko exchanged a look with Lia and she nodded. He turned to the warrior, smiling threateningly.

“Did I mention,” he asked, “that Lia is often called Agni?”

“You are named after the Spirit of Fire?” Katara asked wide-eyed.

“Actually…” Lia began.

“You are the Spirit of Fire!” Aang finished, standing  at door with Toph, his eyes wide with realization. Every single member of team Avatar was staring at her. Lia merely threw her arms in the air.

“Finally the great bridge between our worlds gets it.” She turned to Zuko. “It didn’t take you that long.”

“How can a Spirit be helping him?” Sokka asked incredulous.

“I have my reasons.” Lia narrowed her eyes. “And you young man risk some really nasty burns if you don’t shut up. Now…” she said to everyone. “If you’ve got nothing to do here, you’d better go get some sleep. You are all dead on your feet.”

 

They all disappeared on the rest of the house, only Katara stealing a glance behind her. She paused for a moment at the doorframe, opened her mouth as if to say something, but decided against it and left. Zuko took a seat next to his Uncle. Night had fallen and the older man hadn’t stirred. Lia took pity on the boy. She sat next to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

“He’s going to be okay. Katara is really good at healing and Iroh is strong. He’ll make it.”

He looked at her. “But what if he doesn’t?” he asked her in a small voice. For a moment Lia found herself looking at the child Zuko had been when she had first seen him.

“He will. If you believe it, he will,” she assured him firmly, stubbornly blinking back tears. She smiled faintly at a thought. “I can’t wait to see Sokka’s expression in the morning. I bet that he will be bracing himself for an inferno.”

“Not to mention the Avatar,” Zuko added rolling his eyes. “You were right. For such a spiritual person it did take him long to figure it out.” He closed his eyes fighting exhaustion. The battle with Azula and the previous days of hardship had really drained him. But he had to remain awake. He forced his eyes open again. Lia looked at him sternly.

“You need to sleep too, you know. I promise I’ll wake you if something happens.”

 

They battled stares for a few moments, before Zuko turned, defeated. He took his shirt off and unrolled his sleeping bag. As he turned back, he sensed movement and looked up to see a nervous, blushing Katara standing at the door. She had let her hair down for sleep, he noted. She looked beautiful.

“I just came to check on Iroh,” she stammered still staring at Zuko. “Come and wake me if anything happens.” With one last nervous glance she disappeared.

“That was interesting…” Lia said. Zuko looked at her nervously. Unlike Katara she wasn’t staring at him, he noted with relief.

“Why was she looking at me like that?” he asked her confused.

Lia huffed annoyed at his ignorance: “She likes you!” she told him throwing her hands in the air. Zuko felt his face heat. Lia had never lied to him. His last conscious thought before he fell asleep was, Could this be true?

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Zuko Alone

Standard

Author’s Note: In which the author is mildly hungover there is character development, fun rage is given voice and the shipping is imminent.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Zuko Alone***

The road seemed endless to Zuko; a never-ending flat surface with no destination. When he had begun this journey it had seemed right to be alone. But now he found himself having second thoughts. He missed Lia and his uncle and his thoughts, instead of becoming clearer, became more tangled. He couldn’t figure anything out anymore. He had thought at first that by being on his own he could finally figure out what he wanted. Katara, Lia, Azula, his father, his uncle, his mother…their faces were passing through his mind with silent promises. Did he really want to capture the Avatar anymore? Would his father accept him? Why did he have to find the Avatar to gain his father’s acceptance? Did he love Katara? Could she ever love him? Why did Lia stayed at his side even after she knew he was not her brother? He stopped dead in his tracks. Why hadn’t she returned to the Spirit World? That was quite a question. Why indeed hadn’t she? After the Avatar was freed their argument had finished with him telling her to go back there.

 

His ostrich horse lost its step on the bridge they were crossing. Zuko hastily straightened it. He couldn’t remember when they had reached the bridge, but now his musings had been disturbed and more urgent thoughts came through. He didn’t have much money or food left and he was hungry. Suddenly he smelled smoke. He turned to see a small pot cooking. A man was watching over it. Zuko’s hand went involuntarily to his swords. Then he saw the man going over to his wife. She was pregnant. Through his eyes flashed an image of his mother pregnant with Azula. He had been so excited to have a little sister. Maybe there was a small kid waiting for his new sibling eagerly too. Zuko bowed his head. He couldn’t harm them.

 

A few more days passed and he was on the brink of collapsing. Flashes of his mother kept passing through his eyes. She was looking once behind her shoulder, before disappearing into the shadows. He was battling sleep desperately, knowing that if he fell asleep now, he wouldn’t wake up again. Finally the outline of a town appeared on the horizon. He approached tiredly. In his mind he was making calculations. He needed food and most importantly water and he also had to buy feed for the horse. It wouldn’t go much further like this either.

 

Riding through the town he spotted a merchant’s stall. On the opposite side a few Earth Kingdom soldiers were playing with some dice. As he passed they shot him a calculating look. They try to decide whether I’m a threat, he thought, subconsciously slipping into the Blue Spirit frame-mind. He dismounted in front of the stall.

“Could I get some water, a pack of feed and something hot to eat?” he asked the man tiredly. The merchant took a look at the few copper pieces the teenager had on his palm and shook his head.

“Not enough here for a hot meal.” He looked at the obviously worn-out boy and felt compassion for him. The life of a refuge was hard. “I can get you two bags of feed.” He offered. Zuko tightened his lips. Behind him the soldiers kept gambling. The thought passed through his mind to join them, but he banished it before it could be formed. Stealing from rich people was one thing, but gambling was something entirely different.

 

On the side of the stall two young boys were looking at the soldiers. Zuko watched them curiously. Back home the boys would look up at the soldiers with admiration, but these two had a mischievous look that betrayed what exactly they thought of them. The tallest one threw an egg on them and then they ran away. Zuko suppressed a smile. The nerve of those two… Then he heard the soldiers standing up. They had probably thought it was him who had played the prank on them.

“Hey! You throwing eggs at us stranger?” the leader asked.

“No,” Zuko answered not bothering to turn.

“You seen who did throw it?” the leader insisted.

“No,” Zuko repeated taking hold of his swords.

“That’s your favourite word? No?” one of the men asked.

“Egg had to come from somewhere,” the leader insisted.

“Maybe a chicken flew over,” Zuko shot back indifferently. The man who had asked about his favourite word started laughing, only to stop short seeing the glare he was receiving from his leader. The merchant made a motion to give Zuko the feed, but the leader of the soldiers took them saying as he left:

“Thanks for the contribution. The Earth Kingdom army appreciates it. You’d better leave town. Penalty for staying is a lot steeper than you can afford stranger.” He was patting his sledgehammer for effect. “Trust me.”

“Those soldiers are supposed to protect us from the Fire Nation, but they are just a bunch of thugs,” the merchant commented, after they had gone out of earshot. Wordlessly Zuko went back to his ostrich horse.

 

The head of the little trouble-maker popped up.

“Thanks for not ratting me out,” he said smiling friendlily. Zuko ignored him and turned to leave. He was nearly dead on his feet and as much as he hated to admit it, it would be better if he left this town. “I’ll take to my house and feed your ostrich horse for you,” the kid insisted. “Come on, I owe you.” Zuko climbed off the animal to ease its burden. Lee, the little kid, kept talking all the way, asking him questions and moving on without waiting for an answer. As they passed past his family’s animals, he said conspiratorially to Zuko.

“They’re gonna try to sneak up on us.” His face was so funny when he said it, Zuko chuckled.

“No kidding!” he said to Lee.

 

A man, who seemed to be Lee’s father, approached him.

“You’re a friend of Lee’s?” he asked wearily. Before Zuko had a chance to answer, Lee cut in.

“This guy just stood up to the soldiers. By the end he practically had them running away!” he said still awed. His mother approached too.

“Does this guy have a name?” she asked interested.

“I…” Zuko hesitated. He couldn’t say Lee. The kid was named so too. Besides the eyes of this woman unnerved him. She had just met him, but her gaze was trusting and compassionate, like he was part of her family too.

“He doesn’t have to say who he is if he doesn’t want to Sheila.” Her husband came to his rescue. “Anyone who can stand his own against those bully-soldiers is welcome here. Those men should be ashamed to wear Earth Kingdom uniforms.”

“The real soldiers are all fighting at the war, like Lee’s big brother, Sen Shu,” Sheila explained. She smiled at the young man. “Supper’s going to be ready soon. Would you like to stay?” she offered.

“I can’t. I should be moving on.” He said with a hard voice. The image of his uncle begging at the other town was much too vivid still. He had sworn not to be reduced to this state. A look of understanding passed through the woman’s eyes.

“Gon Shu could use some help on the barn. Why don’t you two work on it for a while and then we’ll eat.” Zuko nodded. That sounded fair to him too.

 

Thankfully the job was easy. The two men worked silently with Lee scrutinizing them. Zuko was reminded of himself when his cousin, Lu Ten, was still around. He would follow the older boy everywhere asking him questions about this and that non-stop. As if on cue Lee’s voice was heard.

“You don’t seem from around here.” He wasn’t discouraged by Zuko’s nod. “Where are you from then?” he insisted.

“Far away,” Zuko said solemnly. He didn’t want to lie on these people but the truth would be much worse.

“Oh,” Lee seemed discouraged for a second. Then he continued the interrogation. “Where are you going?”

“Lee, give it a rest. Stop asking the man personal questions, got it?” his father looked back down on his work.

“Yes… So where did you get that scar?”

Zuko jerked and hit his finger instead of the spike he was aiming.

“It’s not nice to bother people about things they might not want to talk about,” Gon Shu reproached his son. “A man’s past is his business.” They continued to work in silence, lost in their thoughts.

 

Zuko’s mind went back to the day uncle Iroh had broken through the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se. It was one of the last memories he had of his mother. Soon after she would disappear. Zuko remembered how excited he was to get the dagger from the surrendered General. Never give up without a fight. The inscription on the blade certainly suited him. Thinking back to this day he saw Azula showing the first signs of her future ruthless self. She was only eight then, Zuko thought shuddering. It just wasn’t normal. Lee’s family had convinced him to stay with them for the night and he had been too tired to refuse. He went inside the barn, the only place there was room, set his swords over him on the hay – just in case – and sleep claimed him almost immediately.

 

- Zuko’s dream –

He was on his ship again and  a huge storm was raging. Suddenly an enormous wave came crashing over the deck and sent him into the water. Zuko was fighting to stay above the surface, but the Fire Nation armour he was wearing weighed him down. Then he heard Katara’s voice.

“Let go Zuko. I can’t help you if you don’t.” She appeared before him, walking on the water, the sea calming in her presence. Zuko desperately reached out for her, but she was just standing, looking at him sadly. And now his mother and Lia were at her sides, all calling to him with the same words.

“Let go Zuko. Let go.” He closed his eyes. How could he let go of his Nation, the only thing that was left for him? But then again how could he deny them what they were asking? Now it was only Katara again, standing right in front of him, stretching out her hand to him. Zuko took it desperately and suddenly he felt weightless. He looked down at himself, to see that his Fire Nation armour had disappeared. Instead he was wearing the Earth Kingdom clothes he had been wearing awake. Katara pulled him into an embrace and then Ursa, his mother, and Lia were there too. They whispered to him: “We’re proud of you Zuko,” before disappearing.

-End of dream –

 

Zuko was awakened by the sound of the doors closing. He looked up to see his swords gone. Normally he would already be running different capture scenarios in his mind, but the dream he had had still held him in an unearthly calm. He quietly opened the doors, in time to see Lee running to the fields, his swords at hand. Smiling slightly Zuko followed him. He found the kid nearby, trying to practice swordsmanship, but only succeeding in tiring himself out.

“You’re holding them all wrong.” He commented quietly. Lee jumped in the air startled. Seeing Zuko, he handed back the Duo swords guiltily. “Keep in mind,” Zuko continued, “these are Duo swords. Two halves of a single weapon. Don’t think of them as separate, because they’re not. They’re just two different sides of the same whole.” He showed Lee some moves, smiling slightly when he realized he had repeated Lia’s words. He gave the swords back to Lee. The kid mimicked his movements perfectly. He turned to Zuko uncertain to find him smiling approvingly. As they left the field Lee told him:

“I think you’d really like my brother, Sen Shu. He used to show me stuff like this all the time.”

 

Morning came and with it the time to say goodbye. Sheila gave Zuko a small packet.

“Here, this ought to get you through a few meals.” Zuko made a movement to take it grateful, when he heard horses approaching. It was the soldiers from yesterday.

“What do you think they want?” Lee’s father asked.

“Trouble,” Zuko said under his breath.

“What do you want Gau?” Gon Shu asked hostilely the leader of them.

“Just thought someone ought to tell you. Your son’s battalion got captured.” He was obviously delighted to be he bearer of bad news. “You boys hear what the Fire Nation did with the last group of Earth Kingdom prisoners?”

“Dressed them on Fire Nation uniforms and put them on the front line, the way I heard it,” one of his goons said. “Then they just watched.”

“You watch your mouth!” Gon Shu snapped at him. Gau moved his horse towards the man, or at least tried to. Zuko got in the way, daring him with his glare to just try something stupid. The man obviously thought better of it and turned to leave with his lackeys. Just like Lu Ten, Zuko thought grimly. He had left to fight for his country and never returned.

“What’s going to happen to my brother?” Lee asked scared.

“I’m going to the front. I’m going to find Sen Shu and bring him back,” his father promised him. As his parents went inside to prepare for the trip, Lee went over to Zuko.

“When my dad goes, will you stay?” he asked sadly.

“No, I need to move on,” Zuko said with a flat voice. Staying would only cause trouble. He took out the dagger his uncle had given him so long ago. He didn’t need it anymore. “Here, I want you to have this. Read the inscription.”

“Made in Earth Kingdom,” Lee syllabified.

“The other one.” Zuko corrected him amused.

“Never give up without a fight.”

Zuko smiled to himself as he left the small farm, Lee’s parting yells of “Good luck!” ringing in his ears.

 

Near the town there was a peaceful stretch of grassland. Zuko threw himself on it thinking back to that last day with his mother and the fateful audience. He had often wondered what had passed through Fire Lord Azulon’s mind that day, watching his two so different grandchildren and then hearing his son’s outrageous request that he be named heir apparent over Iroh. Did he really see fit to make Ozai sacrifice his own son as a form of punishment? No, Azula always lied and she still did so.

“Azula always lies,” he said to himself absentmindedly. He broke out of his reverie when he heard a cart coming.

“You have to help!” Sheila said nearly worried out of her mind. “It’s Lee. The folks from town came back as soon as Gon Shu left. When they ordered us to give them food, Lee pulled a knife on them. I don’t even know where he found it!” Zuko looked away guiltily. “Then they took him away. They…” her voice broke. “They told me that if he’s old enough to fight, he’s old enough to join the army. I know we barely know you but…”

“I’ll get your son back,” Zuko assured her. He didn’t want to go around looking for trouble, but these guys had just crossed the line.

 

By sundown he was back at the city. Lee was bound on the city’s silo.

“There he is!’ he shouted excitedly. “I told you he would come!”

As the soldiers approached, Zuko dismounted and took off his hat. “Let the kid go,” he ordered quietly. He was once again the Fire Nation Prince. Gau laughed mockingly. “Who do you think you are? Telling us what to do?”

“It doesn’t matter who I am. But I know who you are,” Zuko continued with the same cold voice. “You’re not soldiers, you’re bullies. You just abuse your power, mostly over women and kids. You don’t want Lee in your army. You’re sick cowards, messing with a family who’s already lost a son to this war.” The soldiers stared at him, shocked by his nerve.

“Are you going to stand there and let this stranger insult you?” their leader finally asked, trying to make them wake up.

 

The first one from the gang tried to launch an attack at Zuko. The prince waited patiently for him to approach and the knocked him on his back without even taking out his sword. He was suddenly grateful that Lia had made him practice constantly his fighting skills, without using his bending. The next one went running and then the next and then the next. They all had the good sense to run for their lives as soon as they hit the ground. Zuko was distinctly aware of a crowd being formed. It was just him and Gau now. Zuko drew his swords, as the other man drew his sledgehammers. Instead of charging, like his friends, he starting sending rocks at him. So an earthbender…Zuko thought grimly. His luck just couldn’t remain good for long. He dodged most of the hits, but he would eventually have to come to the offensive. Wanting to get over with this quickly he charged. It didn’t work out well. A rock hit him on the stomach sending him nearly on his back. He was quickly back on his feet, hearing Lee cry, “Behind you!” A huge rock was coming towards him, faster than Zuko would’ve liked. While still on air, it split into smaller ones. The prince dodged them, but at the same time he was involuntarily retreating. His opponent was becoming frustrated though. He had expected a teen that would be easy to humiliate but instead got an obviously skilled warrior. With a yell, he sent another wave of rocks towards this stranger, this time succeeding into knocking him to the ground.

 

Zuko was nearly knocked unconscious by the hit. His mind flashbacked to the last time he saw his mother. Her words rang to his ears. No matter how things seem to change, never forget who you are. Slowly he was coming back to his senses. Gau was too near and he didn’t have time to stand up. Instinct won over judgement and he spun the Duo swords around him, creating a protective circle of flames. After weeks of not firebending the contact with his element was intoxicating. It was Gau’s turn to retreat, terrified by his firebending opponent. Zuko used his swords, as if they were parts of his hands, to send fire. Finally the earthbender was knocked into a wall and nearly buried under the dirt.

“Who are you?” he asked terrified.

“My name is Zuko,” the teen answered, feeling lightheaded, “son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, Prince of the Fire Nation and heir to the throne.” He put his swords back to their sheath. For a few moments there was a deadly silence. Then an old man shouted.

“Liar! I know you! You’re not a prince, you’re an outcast. His own father burned and disowned him!”

 

Zuko didn’t answer. He approached Gau. The man cowered in fear, but Zuko merely took his dagger back. It belonged to Lee now. Sheila stood in front of her son protectively. “Not a step closer,” she warned. The prince knelt in front of them. He made a move to give the dagger to Lee.

“This is yours now,” he said quietly. The man’s words had hurt.

“No, I hate you!” Lee exclaimed sullenly. They were all staring at him with hostile gazes, as Zuko stood and went back to his horse. Before he had a chance to mount, a sarcastic, female voice was heard.

“The nerve of some people!” Zuko felt his shoulders tense. The woman continued. “I mean look at him! He comes here, doesn’t stir any trouble, Spirits above! He wouldn’t even say who he was because he knew this would happen! And let’s not forget the other thing! He did what every single one of you wanted to do; he taught these jerks a lesson.” Zuko had turned and was now looking at Lia, who was pacing up and down between him and the rest of the people. She turned to Lee.

“And what’s your problem kid? I mean it’s not as if he did something bad to you. He just helped you use those swords, didn’t yell at you when you took them without permission and right now saved you.” She shook her head. “Just the nerve of some people…” she said, as if to herself.

 

The people of the town looked in shock at the banished prince and his unearthly companion as they left. When they were on a safe distance Lia turned at him hesitantly. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”

Zuko looked at her blankly. “Of course not! Why would I be?”

Lia opened her mouth but a voice was heard behind them. “Prince, prince wait!”

“Lee?” Zuko asked surprised. The kid stopped breathless in front of them.

“Your Highness, sir…” he started unsure on how to address the older boy.

“Just call me Zuko,” the prince told him.

“I’m sorry. I don’t hate you. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Zuko answered confused.

“When the Avatar kicks the Fire Lord’s butt, will you become the Fire Lord?”

“Sure he will!” Lia cut in.

“Great!” Lee seemed ecstatic. “Can I come and see you at the palace?” he asked pleadingly.

Zuko smiled. “When I become Fire Lord, I promise I’ll come to take you and show you around Sozin.” Lee hugged him delighted.

“See you again!” he called before running back to the town.

“Come on your highness,” Lia said smiling affectionately. “Time to move on.”

Together, brother and sister left the small town behind.

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The sirens blaze over her head, their shrill cries warning everyone that an inmate has somehow managed to escape. Swallowing her bubbling panic she ducks under the trees of the forest that surrounded the concrete building she had been confined in for as long as she can remember. Runrunrunrunrunrun! The mantra keeps ringing in her ears, the voices lauder than ever before. She stumbles in the dark, biting her lips to keep a whimper to escape. She can’t go back. She won’t go back. A hand shoots through the foliage, dragging her along to the darker parts of the woods; away from the search parties and their glaring torchlight. She follows the shadow, until a flickering light appears before them. She shrinks away, fire will hurt you, but he tugs her forward again.

“They won’t hurt you,” he assures her and she trusts him, because she has no choice.

She looks around warily at the other faces surrounding the fire where her shadow rescuer has led her. They are analyzing her, noting her features, her character, deciding what will be discarded and what kept. The name will have to go; they have agreed unanimously, so will the stiffness in her posture. The leader thinks on how to instruct her in the ways of the assassins without scaring the creature any more. She will need to learn to go with the flow, to blend with both aristocrats and commoners as if she had been born amongst them. Next to her, Derek goes through their meager supply of clothes, looking for the new girl’s uniform. Seela smirks, already planning to dye her hair. Black will look good with her pale skin but won’t be memorable. Marti thinks it is poetic how their latest acquisition has a mane that looks like a cataract of blood. Too bad his twin is already making plans on ruining it. He will teach her about knives and killing so that she will forever be draped in that beautiful red of life.

“Destra,” the leader finally says. “From now on your name will be Destra.”

The newly-christened initiate smiles hesitantly. The voices quiet down at the sound of the Name and then they start murmuring it like a chant: DestraDestraDestraDestra… Her unknown past can be led to rest. Destra is not merely a name; it is who she is from now on.

Her assignments are often elusive, most of them hiding in plain sight as civilians or high-ranking officials, some are even familiar. She accepts any mission without questions, focusing on her objective and on reaching the capital. The voices are adamant on her travelling towards the western city. She does not defy then, it brings back the pain of that time she cannot remember, the time before she was Destra, the shadow assassin. The city she walks through is familiar and part of her screams that this is her hometown, not home, the one she left years ago. Why did she leave? Half-formed recollections come from every familiar face and voice and scent and fill her with a sense of nostalgia for a few precious moments. She pulls her hood a little, grabs her staff tighter, hastens her walk. She should probably restock here, ask around in case her latest target has been sighted, yet the voices scream run, run and she obeys. A name is called behind her, one that she does not cannot hear over the sudden fight or flight instinct that makes her freeze as if she has touched cold stone or smelled smoke. I need to get out of here. I need to get out. The voice shouts again. There are people looking at her, so it must be her that was addressed. She runs, through the roads, away from the city streets, until she sees an abandoned burnt house and dives inside in a vain hope of sanctuary. As long as I get away I’ll be safe.

Light footsteps echo outside the room she has chosen to hide, curling in the darkest corner and clutching a dagger she cannot remember being given. The footsteps pause, the door opens hesitantly and in the light of the hallway her target appears. Without a thought she attacks, the voices rising in an ear-splitting crescendo, urging her to killkillkillkillkill….The man steps back in surprise and something in him is not familiar… Another knife gleams in the torchlight as he parries her every move almost like he knows her.

“Destra!” Marti is franticly trying to get her to listen to him in the midst of their dance. The glazed look in her eyes is enough to tell him that he is not succeeding. At any other instance he would be proud of her ability to fight with a little less than half her mind in it but right now he is finding it hard to be charitable. “Snap out of it, damn it! It’s Marti. You can’t have forgotten me?” His would-be assassin falters for a moment and it is enough for him to knock the dagger out of her hands.

Destra falls to her knees, struggling to form any coherent thoughts over the screams of the voices demanding his blood. She knows him; he used to be important to her, so why can’t she remember? White spots dance over her eyes, for a moment his face swims to focus, he was the one to give her her dagger, before the pain becomes too much and she closes her eyes and tries to curl to a ball.

“C’mon Destra, you’re scaring me,” he sounds scared, she thinks detachedly. They all sound scared before I kill them. Who were they? She hadn’t seen them before so how did they know her name? Why had they looked at her with betrayed eyes before she killed them? “I know you can hear me under all this hair. Listen, we have to get out of here. There are soldiers swarming the city and I don’t think they are here to give either of us a commendation.” He pauses and she hopes that he would go on talking. His voice chases the painful jabs of light away. She can only hear his breathing now, heavy but controlled, like he’s trying to stay quiet. More pounding footsteps over them and she knows they need to run. Destra pushes the voices back, ignoring the pounding at the base of her skull and grabbing Marti’s hand she runs back to her safe room. One wall is hollow and crumbles under their weight. She does not question how she knows this. She looks at the darkness and then turns clear, jade eyes to her target companion and asks a single question.

“Do you trust me?” Marti nods, because how do you answer this question when someone has just tried to kill you and is as likely to try again or save your life, and together they jump in the abyss.

Against everything her instincts are screaming at her she bursts out of the water, gulping hungrily for air, not caring if the entire army is waiting for her at the lakeshore with their weapons ready. Marti is leaning on her, barely able to keep his head above water, looking around in silent shock. Destra leads them slowly towards the shore, using the planks where the dock used to be to drag him first out of the water. An old boathouse is barely standing behind it. Marti stumbles there, looking very much like he is about to kiss the ground he is sitting on. His fellow fugitive follows out of the water, wringing her hair in a vain attempt to get them dry. She is only rewarded with a puddle of black colored water and a mess of slightly less damp, blood red curls. Sitting gracefully next to him, she searches for anything that might break the tense silence.

“You are afraid of water?” she blurts out, inwardly wincing when she sees the indignant look of wounded pride he gives her.

“You neglected to mention that we would have to swim through a very narrow passage to a lake after having run across half the city, fought a death match with knives and stumbled our way through these infernal tunnels!”

“Keep it down,” she hisses. Without the voices she has no way of knowing if someone is creeping up to them through the woods. “If we’re heard the only way out is through the lake again.”

Marti spares the innocent looking body of water a nervous glance. Much as he would like to continue yelling until all the worry, anger, adrenaline and dear gods I’m alive relief are out of his system, the run-down building they have taken refuge in does not provide much protection. They need to move as soon as they are dry and disguised again, perhaps through the small forest behind them. If they make it to the mountains before the law catches up to them, they might have a chance to survive and even find out what happened to the rest of their band. The shimmering of the sunlight in the lake catches his eyes again and he fights the urge to shudder. Innocent golden glimmer, like the lights in that first house. Swallowing hard, he seals the sound of thundering footsteps, tinkling coins and crackling fire back in the memory box. He has to keep it together. Destra on the other hand is experiencing the completely opposite sensation. The lake, with its strange, sweet scent of plants decaying slowly and the sound of birds singing hidden in the leaves is anchoring her to the present, the connections with the past that the voices had severed slowly threading themselves back. Even now though, at this quiet and almost peaceful moment, she can feel her defenses being pounded from inside, the voices struggling to free themselves.

The mountains lay at the north; they are closer than the capital. If they went there she wouldn’t have to worry for assignments. Marti can help her unravel her memories. Deep down she is certain she knows and trusts him, yet she cannot remember why. Up there they say the air is clear of the fumes that plague most of the plains and a quiet part of her, not the voices but something else, tells her if she could breathe clearly she might be able to remember as well. Do you want to?

“We should try to reach the mountains,” Marti says thoughtfully. To his surprise Destra stands immediately.

“Let’s go then,” she turns towards the door, marching determinedly towards the north.

“Do you even know where you are going?” he called after her amused. She turned to look at him with a light smile.

“No,” she said. “But I intend to find out.” The voices are silent.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Return of the Blue Spirit

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Author’s note: In which there is a day-early update because… internet and the lack thereof, Zuko pulls a Robin Hood…kinda, Lia is sassy and the author is impatient to get to the next few chapters.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Return of the Blue Spirit***

When Iroh had first met Lia, the Fire Spirit, he had expected her to be much more…well… serious. It turned out that she had not exaggerated when she said she was her element exactly. One only had to sit through her lessons with Zuko to understand. She would be extremely calm and patient, explaining things over and over again, even having Zuko use her as a target from time to time. But when they concluded with a spar her power and fierceness would come out. She was cunning and would use the most peculiar combinations of moves to fight. When Iroh had pointed out to his nephew, Zuko had agreed.

“I know,” he had said, “it’s as if she’s dancing her way to victory,” and judging by the way she won almost every time, he couldn’t object. But the thing that amazed him the most on her was the fact that she merely led her student. She didn’t expect Zuko to copy her style, preferring to let him develop his own, unlike most firebending masters.

 

Iroh was thinking over these things upon their entrance on a small town. Despite the provisions she had provided them with, the red-haired Spirit – for she wouldn’t go around on her mortal form anymore – had no money. She had left to look for a job that wouldn’t slow them down. Next to him Zuko looked like he was asleep. Iroh scrutinized him for a moment before taking out his hat and pointing to the people passing by. He knew he wouldn’t gather much but they couldn’t expect everything from Lia.

“Spare some coins for weary travellers?” he asked for the thousandth time. The man gave him a few copper ones. Once he was out of earshot Zuko turned to his uncle.

“This is humiliating. We’re royalty.” He turned his face to the other side, his expression hidden under his hat. “These people should be giving us whatever we wanted.”

“They will, if you ask them nicely,” Iroh said in a teacher’s voice. A beautiful girl passed by. “Spare some change for a hungry old man?” he asked in a weak voice.

The girl took pity on him. “Oh, here you go.” Iroh smiled at her.

“The coin is appreciated, but not as much as your smile,” he said winking. The girl laughed blushing. Zuko face-palmed.

 

The next person to pass by was a soldier. There was something in his smile that made the prince tense.

“How about some entertainment in exchange for… a gold piece?” he asked.

“We’re not performers,” Zuko told him icily.

“Not professionals anyway,” His uncle cut in cheerfully. He set his hat aside and stood singing “The girls of Ba Sing Se.”

“Come on, we’re talking a gold piece here!” The soldier said taking out his sword. “Let’s see some action. Dance!” He swung the sword low, forcing Iroh to jump around to avoid being cut.

 

Zuko’s eyes narrowed. He knew that he couldn’t afford to begin a fight, but this man was certainly asking for it, treating his uncle like that. Just when his was ready to take his own swords out, the soldier stopped. Laughing he said,

“Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner. Here you go!” he tossed the coin to the ground. As he turned to leave he bumped on Lia. Before he had a chance to complain he was met by her infamous glare. The man gulped audibly and hurried to leave.

“Such a kind man,” Iroh commented.

“He really was,” Lia said taking a seat next to them.

“What are you two talking about?” Zuko said angrily. “He really needs to be taught some respect!”

“Maybe it was the wrong word,” Lia sighed taking out an expensive-looking purse. “But how else can you describe someone going around with a full purse?”

Iroh’s eyes widened going from the purse to the mischievous glint in her eyes. Zuko laughed. “In this case, I’d call him an idiot for getting in your way.”

“He paid for his mistake handsomely, so I hold him no grudge,” Lia said lazily.

“You know stealing is wrong I hope,” Iroh reprimanded the two laughing teenagers. The Spirit shrugged. “As long as you do something good with the things you’ve stolen, I don’t see the immorality. Besides, some people just deserve to be robbed.” She took out the money and put it in her backpack. Then she burned the purse.

 

They rose and started walking through the city. Before they had time to go much further the soldier appeared again, this time accompanied by some officials. Lia took a look on them and hissed to her companions: “I’ll take care of this.” The soldier pointed at her accusingly.

“There she is! She stole my purse!” Lia looked at the officials confused, her face the picture of innocence.

“I’m sorry,” she said innocently. “But what is going on?” The old men took a look on her and shook their heads.

“Don’t worry my dear,” their leader told her kindly, “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” He gestured at the raving man. “Have you seen this man before?”

“Why, yes! I bumped on him, please accept my apologies for it sir, while I was returning to my family.” She gestured at Zuko and Iroh. “These are my brother and uncle. We are refuges from the northern Earth Kingdom. I’m a healer and was looking around for a small job, in order to gather some money.”

The men seemed interested now. “You say you are a healer. Did you find a job?” one of them asked her.

“Unfortunately no,” Lia sighed in disappointment. Then she looked at them hopefully. “Maybe you know someone in need of my services?”

“It’s true that we are in desperate need of a capable healer in the soldiers’ infirmary. If you could have a look on them. They seem to be sick, but we cannot understand the reason of it.”

“I’d be honoured to help.” Lia bowed gracefully.

“You are willing to let that little minx near the soldiers?” the troublemaker asked. “I just told you she robbed me!”

“Now, now!” the official said again. “How could this innocent girl rob you? She was out looking for a job.”

“She fell on me on purpose!”

“That might have been true.” Zuko suddenly cut in. “Both my sister and I hold our uncle in high esteem. Right before Lia came, this man was abusing that sword of his.” He looked calmly at the men. “If my sister hadn’t acted so, I might have done something… irrational, to teach this man some respect.”

“I see.” The leader nodded approvingly at the “siblings”. Zuko supressed a smirk. It was just too easy. “Then if you would follow us, I believe you would be a great help to your sister.”

“I’m coming with you,” Iroh said. “I always thought tea being a good medicine in itself.”

 

The infirmary was on the edge of the town. Inside the ward the men were lying on their beds, their faces a sickly green colour. Lia took a look at them and turned to the general in charge with a suspicious look.

“Have they been eating fish lately?” she asked approaching one victim.

“Yes, we have been near the shores and it was easier to find fish than meat.”

Lia shook her head. She turned to her “brother” and “uncle”. She gave Iroh a mixture of herbs. “Uncle, could you brew this? If there is not enough for everyone I have more. Lee, I want you to go and buy some rice.” She gave Zuko some money. “Get enough for everyone.” The men went away to carry out her orders.

 

By sundown the soldiers were feeling much better. Lia left them with strict orders not eat any fish for a few months and continue with just rice for the next three days. The General had paid them handsomely for their help. As they left the town, Zuko felt a plan formulating in his mind. Once again Lia’s comments were ringing in his mind. “As long as you do something good with the things you’ve stolen, I don’t see the immorality.”

 

Nearly a week later, Lia found herself sitting in the tree. She had defended the virtues of stealing half-jokingly, but Zuko seemed to have taken her words to heart. She had seen him sneak out last night, carrying a small packet in his hands. A packet she knew very well, being the one who had given it to him in the first place: the Blue Spirit’s mask. She wasn’t surprised with his decision. If there was one thing Zuko hated, it was being dependent on someone else. Taking up his alter ego again was a way of fending for himself. She respected this, but her protégé would not get away with this without at least one lecture.  

 

Right on time! Lia thought, seeing the Blue Spirit approaching, holding a basket full of goods.

“Out for a stroll, Blue?” she asked climbing down the tree. Zuko, who had kneeled to hide the mask, jumped and hit his head on a branch. Rubbing his head he turned towards her.

“Do you really have to scare me? I was gathering some provisions. We’re low on food.”

Lia pointed at the mask. “How stupid do you think I am?” she asked him disappointed. Zuko shot her a questioning look. “Forget it! I just hope that you also did some good while shopping.” She turned to leave.

“You know,” he called after her, “the man who had them won’t really need them. And even if he did, we need food more.”

Lia didn’t answer.

 

Frustrated, Zuko returned to the cave they have been staying in. He threw the food he had gathered at his uncle’s feet.

“Where did you get these?” the old man asked surprised.

“What does it matter where they came from?” Zuko asked back, already moving away. Iroh shot him a suspicious look before taking a bite from a pastry and leaving a content sigh. Zuko heard him as he went to look for his mentor and smiled slightly. At least someone appreciated his efforts.

 

He had been shocked at Lia’s reaction. He expected her to laugh and congratulate him, after all she was the one who had stolen first. She did. But she stole from a worthless jerk who needed to be taught a lesson, a small voice on the back of his head reminded him. He frowned. Now his conscience was against him too. He looked up when he heard the unmistakably noise of fire. In a clearing, Lia was practicing some moves. To Zuko they seemed easy, but the concentrated look on the Spirit’s face told him otherwise. He stood hesitantly to the side, not wanting to disturb her. Nothing in her movements or her face gave away that she had noticed him, she had her back turned anyway. So it surprised him when she talked.

“What I want you to understand Zuko, is that you can’t just go around robbing people. Until now the Blue Spirit was wanted for helping the Avatar. People thought of him with admiration and awe. Do you want these feelings to be reduced to fear for a bandit?” She still wouldn’t look at him, as she continued her moves.

“We can’t afford to stay in every town, looking for jobs,” Zuko tried to reason with her. “Sooner or later someone would recognize uncle Iroh or me.”

“Stealing is not an option either,” Lia glared at him having turned sharply.

“What do you suggest then?” Zuko raised his voice. “You gave me the example by stealing that jerk’s money. What good came from this?”

“I knew he would run to the officials as soon as he noticed. I also knew that their soldiers were sick. But what General in his right mind would let an unknown girl, who claims to be a healer, help him? Don’t you consider what happened at the infirmary a deed good enough?” the Spirit was now raising her voice too. Zuko seemed thoughtful.

“So,” he said slowly, “if I helped us, but at the same time helped some people who also need it, you wouldn’t consider it wrong?”

Lia shook her head. “It would still be a wrong action, but the outcome would be worth it.”

 

A few days passed and no one spoke of the miraculously found goods. Iroh sensed a tension between the two teens, but neither of them talked about it. Zuko seemed to be doing some serious thinking, meditating for long hours, sometimes all night long. The same time Lia would disappear for hours to reappear visibly tired but never talking about her excursions. Zuko accepted silently the fact that when she would have news she would tell him and Iroh didn’t pry.

 

Now she had left again and Zuko, dressed as the Blue Spirit, was watching over a carriage. It reminded him more of a wooden box but he didn’t really care for whimsical thoughts at that point. Inside sat the tax collector, probably counting the money he had gathered. Zuko felt his stomach tighten. He had seen the village this money was taken from. The people were already poor enough. He silently moved and knocked out the driver. Then he broke the roof of the “box” to see inside the man hugging the chest with the taxes as if it were his first-born son. Seeing the terrifying mask of the Blue Spirit glaring at him he hastily raised it, for his robber to take it. Zuko did so and disappeared silently.

 

The village was a short walk from where he had ambushed the carriage. Stealthy he moved from house to house, returning the money. To his surprise a good amount of gold and silver pieces was left on the chest. Zuko hid his mask and went over to the market to buy food. He had almost left when his eyes caught a wonderful decorated tea set. He smiled slightly, already imagining how happy his uncle would be seeing it.

 

To his surprise Iroh wasn’t at the cave when he returned. Shrugging Zuko lit the fire and spread the different packets and sacks on the walls. He then sat to wait for his uncle’s return. The old man appeared a while after. Taking a look at the nearly full cave he said evenly:

“Looks like you did some serious shopping.” He knelt to examine the teapot better. Seeing how expensive it looked he asked suspiciously. “But where did you get the money?”

“Do you like your new teapot?” Zuko asked instead of answering.

Iroh sighed, realization hitting him. “To be honest with you, the best tea tastes delicious whether it comes on a porcelain pot or a tin cup. I know we has some difficult times lately,” he said coming to sit next to his nephew, “we’ve had to struggle just to get by, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is a simple honor in poverty.”

“There’s no honor for me without the Avatar,” Zuko said stubbornly.

“Zuko, even if you did capture the Avatar I’m not so sure it would solve our problems. Not now,” Iroh tried to make him understand.

“Then there is no hope at all,” the boy said bitterly, turning to leave.

“No Zuko!” the old General had awoken inside Iroh. “You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road, and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”

 

Lia’s story passed through Zuko’s mind. He turned to look at his uncle hesitantly. He talked from experience and the prince knew it. The cave felt packed all of a sudden. He needed air and space to think over his uncle’s advice. As he walked inside the forest he silently wished he and Lia were on speaking terms. He had admittedly chosen the worst possible timing to argue with her. Now he was presented with such a dilemma and he had to make the choice alone. Zuko knew he couldn’t consider himself wise enough to do so. That was why – even though he hid it – he valued his uncle’s opinion so much. But, he thought, maybe he should begin making some right decisions alone. Maybe that was what Lia thought too and that was why she had disappeared.

 

He walked through the forest for hours, trying to think over every possible aspect of his decision. He was still not sure about the rightness of it, but he felt he had no other choice. He approached his uncle who was packing something.

“Uncle, I thought a lot about what you said.”

“You did?” Iroh said hopeful. “Good, good.”

“It’s helped me realize something,” Zuko continued. “We no longer have anything to gain by traveling together. I need to find my own way.” He walked away, already rethinking his decision. He hadn’t wanted his uncle to feel bad. But he just couldn’t go on not knowing his own strengths and weaknesses.

“Wait!” he heard Iroh calling. The older man silently passed him the reins of the ostrich horse. Zuko mounted and left with a last look.

 

Iroh sat back by the fire. He knew this day would eventually come. Zuko had to find his own destiny, something on which he would only slow him down. This knowledge didn’t make the separation any easier though. Of course Iroh would never let his nephew go out there alone. He decided to wait for Lia to come and inform her about what had happened and then he would set off. As if he had summoned her, the Spirit appeared before him. She looked around worried.

“Where’s Zuko?”

“He left.” Iroh said grimly. “He needs to find his own destiny.”

Lia nodded saddened. “You’re going to track him down, won’t you?” she asked.

“Of course! Won’t you do the same?” he looked at her alarmed.

“I’ll keep an eye on him, but will not interfere. He would hate me if I did. It’s time he grew up anyway.” Iroh sighed. The Spirit was right, but Zuko was his nephew. He decided not to appear either, but when his nephew would need him, he would be there.

 

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Trick or Tea?

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Author’s Note: In which the bad puns for titles continue, there is a shift in dynamics and tea is not as life-and-situation-saving as usual…

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Trick or Tea?***

Back when Zuko had first been banished, and before he and Lia truly started to spend time together, he had wondered many times if there was any worse life. Now he could safely answer yes, yes there was. He hated every moment of being a fugitive. He hated the uncertainty and the struggle to get even the most basic of necessities, but most of all, he hated the fact that people stared and pitied him. They stared at him before his banishment too, but then he was a prince –a banished one, but a prince nonetheless. Now he couldn’t even use his bending in public for fear of being recognized.

He stumbled over some bushes, only to find his uncle staring, mesmerized, at some flower.

“I didn’t find anything to eat,” Zuko announced. “I can’t live like this. I wasn’t meant to be a fugitive. This is impossible!” he waited for a proverb, but none came. “Uncle, what are you doing?” he asked, turning.

“You’re looking at the rare White Dragon bush. Its leaves make a tea so delicious it’s heart-breaking.” Iroh’s dreamy expression turned to a scowl. “That or it’s the White Jade bush which is poisonous.”

“We need food not tea.” Zuko reminded him exasperated. “I’m going fishing.” Before he left he heard his Uncle muttering to himself. “Hm… delectable tea or deadly poison?”

 

Zuko found a small steam nearby. He stood unsure for a moment, not really knowing how to fish. I could always bend the river dry, he thought sitting down. His musings turned back to Lia. She and Katara seemed to dominate his mind whenever he rested for a moment. Lia especially, her rage and power barely leashed on their last encounter. Zuko had thought he understood his adoptive sister well enough, and this new side made him uncomfortable. It was different to hear about Lia’s penchant for destruction in a story that had happened thousands of years ago and to actually see it before him. What is more, he had known from what Zhao had done at the North Pole that a Spirit can be killed while in mortal form. If this was true Lia had been risking her life constantly just by protecting him. Zuko didn’t know what scared him most about her; her thinly veiled power or the carelessness she showed for her own life.

 

It was almost past midday when he returned to his uncle. He had been so absorbed with his thoughts and musings that he had only managed to catch one tiny fish. Iroh was still staring at the flower.

“Zuko, remember that plant I thought might be tea?” Iroh asked with a guilty voice.

“You didn’t?” Zuko refused to believe that his uncle could have done something so stupid.

“I’m afraid I did. And it wasn’t.” Iroh turned to face his nephew, his face covered in reddish swellings. “When the rush spreads to my throat I’ll stop breathing,” he continued calmly, ignorant of Zuko’s worried expression. “But look what I had found! These are Bacui Berries, known to cure the poison of the White Jade bush. That or Macahoni Berries that cause blindness.”

Zuko threw the berries away. “We’re not taking any more chances with these plants. We need to get help.”

“But where are we going to go?” his uncle asked him, nearly kneeling on one knee to scratch himself. “We’re enemies on the Earth Kingdom and fugitives from the Fire Nation.”

“If the Earth Kingdom discovers us, they’ll have us killed,” Zuko said thoughtfully.

“But if the Fire Nation discovers us we’ll be turned over to Azula,” Iroh completed. Both shuddered at the thought.

“Earth Kingdom it is,” Zuko decided.

 

Luckily for them, there was a small village nearby. Zuko saw a young girl carrying a basket full of herbs. He approached her, with Iroh on his tail, thinking of what Lia had told him once. “When you speak with a girl and you want her to help, don’t bribe her, just be polite.” Let’s see if politeness works.

“Excuse me miss,” he said hesitantly. She turned and smiled him friendlily.

“How can I help you?” she asked pleasantly.

Zuko pointed towards Iroh. “My uncle drank some plant called White Jade bush. Is there a healer in the village?”

“Actually I’m a healer myself. If you two would come with me, I’d be glad to help.”

“Thank you my dear.” Iroh answered gratefully, still scratching his arm.

They followed the girl through the streets to a well-lit building.

 

Inside there were many more healers, helping someone or preparing medicines. The girl guided them to a corner of the infirmary, where she prepared a greenly cataplasm that she applied to Iroh’s rash.

“You two must not be from around here,” she said trying to make conversation. “We know better than to touch the White Jade, much less make into tea and drink it!” she giggled. “So where are you traveling from?” she asked.

Zuko rose from his seat nervously. “Yes we are travellers,” he hastily said.

“Do you have names?” the girl seemed really interested.

“Names? Of course we have names! I’m Lee, and this is my Uncle Mushi,” he stammered. Iroh glared at him from behind the girl’s back.

“Yes, my nephew was named after his father, so we just call him Junior.” It was Zuko’s time to glare.

“Mushi and Junior. It’s a good thing they call you so,” she said turning to Zuko, “because my name is Lia. They sound close to one another. You two look like you could use a good meal,” she said turning and slapped Iroh’s hand away from the itching rash. “Why don’t you stay for dinner?”

“Sorry, but we need to be moving on.” Zuko said decisively.

“That’s too bad. I had made roasted duck earlier and I have no one to share it with.”

“Where do you live exactly?” Iroh hurried to ask her.

 

They agreed to wait for her shift to end and then go home all together. As Lia walked around, helping and chatting with her patients, Zuko watched her intently. When she had called herself Lia he had been shocked. The girl only vaguely resembled the Spirit of Fire as he knew her. She was definitely Earth Kingdom. The way she acted friendly to everyone did remind Zuko of his friend but he shrugged it off as a co-incidence. When the sun set they finally followed her to a small house at the end of the village. She quickly set the table and they sat. They ate in silence but when they had nearly finished, Lia didn’t seem able to hold her questions any more.

“So you’re refuges… I was until very recently a refuge as well. When I was younger a gang of firebenders raided my village,” she lowered her eyes. “That was the last time I saw my family.”

Zuko lowered his gaze. “I haven’t seen my father in many years.”

“Oh, is he fighting in the war?” she asked with understanding. Iroh nearly chocked alarmed, while Zuko lowered his bowl.

“Yes,” he said bitterly.

“So is my little brother. He left three years ago not even knowing what he believed was right and wrong.”

“That’s a bad thing,” Iroh remarked. “A soldier must be sure about his loyalties before leaving to fight.”

“I know,” Lia sighed. “But I get his news regularly, thank the Spirits, and I believe that he is finally beginning to find his destiny.” She rose and began to gather the dishes. “Please, would you stay the night? I can prepare a few things to take with you tomorrow morning.

“We would greatly appreciate it. Now if I could make use of your kitchen to make some tea…” Iroh asked, his eyes sparkling.

“I’ll be outside,” Zuko announced, suddenly rising.

Lia shot Iroh a questioning look.

“Don’t mind my nephew,” he reassured her. “He is extremely shy when it comes to girls.” Winking the old man navigated himself into the kitchen.

 

Zuko sat outside trying to calm his mind. The more he was near this girl the more he was reminded of his mentor. It couldn’t be the Spirit though; she would have given him a sign it was her. He heard the door open and Lia approached him.

“Can I join you?” she asked quietly. “I know what you’ve been through. I’ve been through some very similar situations. Fire has hurt you.” She raised her hand to touch his scar. He stopped her silently. “It’s okay,” she told him softly. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”

“I’m not ashamed of what happened that day. I just hate it when people pity me,” Zuko snapped. Lia looked away, hurt. “You used to let me touch it,” she said quietly. Zuko’s head snapped to her direction.

“Lia?” he asked uncertainly. The Spirit gave him a weak smile.

“I once told you that you see me as I was when I left this world. It was half-true. My position as a Fire Spirit had changed my appearance to resemble more my element. What you see now is Hisao’s sister.” She smiled bitterly. “The non-bender who created a volcano.”

“You called yourself a non-bender?” Zuko looked at her disbelievingly. Lia shook her head.

“That was what the leader of those… men called me right before I killed him.” Suddenly her eyes brightened. “And I thought you would understand who I was the moment I told you my name.”

“I thought it was you, but wouldn’t believe it!” Zuko protested.

“Excuses…” Lia said teasingly. She dropped her voice. “Iroh is listening to our conversation. Do you want to tell him?”

“Do you?” Zuko asked her uncertainly.

“Actually, my intent was to travel with you,” Lia continued louder.

“Didn’t you before?”

“I meant visibly,” Lia explained.

“Good point,” Zuko said smiling.

 

They went inside. Iroh had re-set the table, this time for tea. He was obviously waiting for them.

“Is there something I should know?” he asked calmly the two teenagers.

Zuko shifted his weight from one foot to another nervously. “Uncle, do you remember the Western Air Temple? Well, Lia and I met here and she said she would teach me, but I didn’t see her for three years and…” he trailed seeing his uncle’s confused gaze.

“Maybe it would be best if I explained,” Lia cut in. She sat in front of Iroh and Zuko mimicked her. “I am the Spirit of Fire,” she began, ignoring Iroh’s shocked expression. “I have been watching over Zuko for quite some time now, but it was only three years ago that we met officially. I offered him a deal: in exchange of a favour I have yet to ask him, I would find his mother and teach him some secret aspects of firebending. Unfortunately our travels kept as apart for the greater part of these years. We’ve met again when the Avatar was freed. Ever since I have resumed his training, while continuing my search. I’ve been traveling with you secretly for quite some time, but I thought it would be better if I didn’t hide anymore.”

Iroh took a few silent sips from his tea. He then started to talk in a solemn voice.

“When Zhao tried to kill my nephew you it was you who led me to him.” Lia nodded. “The next day I paid the Admiral a visit. He served me a plainly warm tea, yet at some point it seemed to burn him.”

“I didn’t like his expression, so I might have altered slightly the temperature,” Lia admitted sheepishly. Zuko shot her an incredulous look. And here he thought about her fearsome powers. Iroh burst out laughing.

“Well this explains a few things. I thought I was getting crazy, feeling I was being watched all the time.” He smiled at the Spirit. “I would consider it an honour to travel at your presence mighty Agni.” Lia visibly winced at the name.

“Just promise not to call me that stupid name and we’re all set,” she asked him.

 

The next morning they left as soon the sun rose. Lia had even found an ostrich horse for Iroh to ride. She and Zuko preferred to walk, arguing half the time. Iroh couldn’t help but smile, understanding who the little brother Lia had talked about last night really was.