Author’s Note: In which the author is very aware of the irony on today’s post’s title, Zhao cameos to everyone’s disappointment, we meet a past Avatar and the chapter finishes in an obnoxious, follow-up-begging cliffhanger.
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To say Zuko was angry was a gross understatement. He was beyond furious. All it had taken was the Avatar to drop by and now an entire high security earthbenders’ prison lay empty. The commander had explained, after getting over the shock, that a Water Tribe girl had let herself be arrested and then inspired the prisoners to escape. All it had taken was a few words from this girl – and coal, of course. Zuko now stood on the platform searching for any clue that might help him. He was ready to give up when something blue caught his eye. It was the necklace the Water Tribe girl – Katara – wore. Zuko wasn’t sure why, but he had a feeling that it was far more precious than it looked. He smiled to himself as he gazed westwards, where the Avatar had flown off. He couldn’t wait until his next encounter with them. Maybe then he would at last get to fight with the blue-eyed girl too. Hopefully that would be enough to cure his strange fascination with her.
A few days later Zuko found himself following Lia through a forest, trying to find Iroh.
“He has to be somewhere around here. I swear I can almost hear his thoughts.” The spirit said listlessly. Something had been tingling on the back of her mind all morning and it was starting to give her a headache. Zuko cringed.
“I wouldn’t want to know what’s in there for the world.”
“You sure as hell don’t.” she said and suddenly stopped. Her face had turned ashen, the tingling turning suddenly to a telepathic call.
“What? What’s going on?” Zuko looked at her, alarmed.
“I have to go.” She whispered.
“Why? You said you’d help me.”
She gave him a small, sad smile. “There’s an old friend from home calling out to me. I need to see him.”
“Who?” Zuko was surprised. In all the years he’d known Lia, never had a spirit contacted her. She was already turning transparent, phasing from the mortal realm to that of the Spirits.
“Avatar Roku,” she said, her voice a mere echo. “Go down that way and you’ll find your uncle.”
Zuko stood motionless after she left. An Avatar? And not just any, but the previous incarnation of the spirit, a firebender? He was reminded quite suddenly that the Spirit of Fire was far older and held more secrets than her appearance led people believe. He wondered when she would trust him enough to share some of these secrets with him. But for now finding his uncle was more urgent. He followed the trail she had pointed out, barely aware of the temperature slightly rising.
“Over here!” Iroh suddenly called.
“Uncle?” Zuko called back, following the voice. There he was, lounging in a hot spring like they didn’t have anything to worry about. “We need to move on” Zuko reminded him angrily. “We’re closing on the Avatar’s trail and I don’t want to lose him.” The words didn’t have the effect he hoped.
“You look tired prince Zuko. Why don’t you join me in these hot springs and soak away your troubles?” was the care-free response he received.
“My troubles cannot be soaked away. It’s time to go!”
“You should take your teacher’s advice and relax a little bit. The temperature is just right. I heated it myself.” To underline the statement Iroh did it again.
Steam enveloped them and Zuko hastily bended it away.
“Enough! We need to leave now. Get out of the water!”
Iroh sighed. “Very well.” He said rising.
“On second thought” his nephew said hastily turning on the other side, “why don’t you take a few more minutes? But be back on the ship in half an hour or I’m leaving without you.” I bet he planned this all along when he dragged me here, he thought annoyed as he returned to the ship.
While Zuko was contemplating the many ways in which his uncle annoyed him (the list was a substantial one), Lia was walking along the bridge between the worlds. It wasn’t a bridge actually, more of a never ending grey nothingness half-covered in mist. She had always hated the place but it was the closest she could go to her old home without risking an even more severe punishment for border-jumping. She knew Roku knew of her opinion about this place and wouldn’t make her stay there for more than it was absolutely necessary. Sensing his presence approaching, she spun to meet him.
“Spirit of Fire.” He said, bowing Fire Nation-style.
“Avatar Roku.” She responded likewise.
The older-looking man smiled at her.
“It has been a long time Lia. I’m glad to see you in good health.”
“It’s good to see you too. In this form.”
“How is Aang coping?”
“From the little I’ve seen, as much as airbending is concerned, your friend, Gyatso, should be proud of his pupil. For the rest of the stuff…”
“He needs guidance.” Roku concluded.
“You said it!”
“I will contact him soon, but this isn’t the reason I called you here.” He paused and looked at her questioningly.
“Don’t worry,” she assured him with a smile. “It doesn’t bother me. And I guessed you would eventually ask me what is going on with Zuko.”
Roku looked at her for a moment. “When word went around that you had decided to aid my great-grandson I must admit I was surprised. But seeing how the Fates are leading things I believe that the Council might have been a little rash on their decision.”
“They had a point.” Lia shrugged. “Zuko is bound to make the right choices. I was and still am merely making sure that it will not be at the expense of his happiness. I have said as much to the Council but we never really got along.”
“I know. I was present when you explained your case. Some of the words you used where rather… interesting.”
Lia blushed. “I was angry.”
“I don’t blame you. But I also want you to know that whatever happens from now on, you will have my support.” He assured her.
A scene suddenly flashed in front of them. Lia and Roku watched with interest as Iroh, who had obviously dosed off at some point, was captured by a troop of earthbenders.
“I need to return.” Lia said to her companion. “Keep an eye on what happens. Your great-grandson can be really amusing when he’s angry. And I say this as his friend.”
Roku laughed. “I sure will. Until next time my friend.”
With a bow Lia left.
It was nearing sunset and neither Lia nor his uncle had returned. Zuko was getting worried. Not so much for the spirit, who was after all quite powerful and she had said that Avatar Roku was her friend. They probably were still catching up. His uncle on the other hand should have returned. There was always the chance that he had merely dosed off, but Zuko doubted this was the case. Taking a few soldiers with him as a precaution, he decided to return to the hot springs.
If he is sleeping I swear… the prince thought moodily as he walked for the second time that day through the forest, calling his uncle.
“Sir; maybe he thought you left without him.” A soldier suggested.
“Something’s not right here,” Zuko muttered, surveying the deserted springs. “That pile of rocks!”
“It looks like there’s been a landslide, sir” the same soldier said.
Zuko shook his head. “Land doesn’t slide uphill. Those rocks didn’t move naturally.” He rose. “My uncle’s been captured by earthbenders.”
He ordered his men back to the ship and, taking his komodo-rhino, he set to track Iroh down. By the time the sun rose he was still following the tracks, when he came across a rather smelly sandal in the middle of the road.
“Definitely uncle Iroh.” He said to himself.
“Quite right!” He knew without looking it was Lia that had materialised behind him.
“Back from your little trip to the Spirit World?” he said not bothering to look at her.
“Well, technically I wasn’t in the Spirit World but yes. Don’t worry about Iroh. He is fine. A little sore but otherwise fine.”
“How do you know?”
“I came across a group of earthbenders on my way here. They are hard to miss on those ostrich-horses.”
Zuko rose. “Can you lead the way?”
“As always kiddo!”
They went on, Zuko riding and Lia easily matching his pace on foot.
The tracks were getting easier to define in the dirt and they were progressing fast when a groan was heard on the horizon behind them. Zuko turned in time to see the Avatar’s bison.
“The Avatar.” He breathed turning his rhino.
Lia narrowed her eyes to see clearly. “It’s only Katara I see,” she said calmly. All the same Zuko continued turning.
“She can lead us to the Avatar.” He said with barely hidden excitement. Lia raised an eyebrow.
“What about your uncle?” she pointed out.
Zuko stilled and then sighed and turned back to the tracks. Lia hid a smile as they continued in silence.
Hours later they reached a clearing, away from the forest. Below them they saw four Earth Kingdom soldiers surrounding Iroh who tied to a rock.
“These dangerous hands must be crushed.” Their leader decided lifting a boulder.
“Go,” Lia told Zuko. “No one but you can see me, but still it would be better if I didn’t interfere.” He nodded in understanding and ran towards them.
Before the rock had a chance to crash Iroh’s palms, Zuko kicked it aside. He turned and freed his uncle, who immediately stood, remarking:
“Excellent move prince Zuko.”
Smirking, the prince answered to the direction of both his uncle and Lia: “You taught me well.”
“Surrender yourselves,” the leader of the soldiers ordered. “You are five against two. You are clearly outnumbered.”
“That’s true” Iroh smiled, “but you are clearly outmatched.”
Uncle and nephew worked together, backing each other up and soon the soldiers were half-buried in the very same earth they had tried to bend. Zuko checked his Uncle for any harm and found none. From her place above them Lia laughed as he heard him say, exasperation raining from his words, “Now could you please put on some clothes?”
The next morning they were back on their ship and sailing fast towards the Fire Nation. Some villagers Zuko had questioned on their way back had revealed that the Avatar was heading to Crescent Moon Island. Iroh was completely against the idea of even approaching their home nation’s waters.
“Sailing into Fire Nation waters…”he said. “Of all the foolish things you’ve done in your sixteen years prince Zuko, this is the most foolish!”
Said prince didn’t even turn. “I have no choice uncle.”
“Have you completely forgotten that the Fire Lord banished you?” Iroh looked at the teenager concerned. “What if you’re caught?” he asked quietly. At this Zuko turned.
“I’m chasing the Avatar. My father will understand why I’m returning home,” he insisted, although he couldn’t quite hide the worry in his voice.
“You give him too much credit.” Iroh scoffed. “My brother is not the understanding type.”
Lia appeared for a brief moment behind Iroh. I agree with him! she mouthed to the prince.
Zuko turned back to his spyglass, finally spotting the bison. He turned to the helmsman.
“Full steam ahead.” He ordered.
The ships lone catapult was brought on deck and prepared. Iroh looked at the thing with disgust.
“Really prince Zuko, couldn’t you shoot them down with something more fragrant?”
They had time to shoot only once before noticing a slight problem ahead. A blockade.
“Technically you are still in Earth Kingdom waters. Turn around now and they can’t arrest you” his uncle advised.
“He’s not turning around!” Zuko said surprised.
“Please prince Zuko,” Iroh tried again. “If the Fire Nation arrests you, there’s nothing I can do.”
Zuko lowered his head. “I’m sorry Uncle,” he whispered and turned to his men. “Run the blockade!”
Fireballs were soon flying around them. Lia sped frantically around the ship, casting small spells, doing the best she could without being forced to appear to protect them. It was fruitless though. Eventually the engines were hit. Zuko still ordered the ship to continue. They almost collided with the Fire Navy ships forming the blockade, when Zhao – standing on deck, apparently in charge of the operation – ordered his men to halt.
“He let you pass so that he can follow you.” Lia told Zuko.
“Let him follow.” The prince muttered darkly, mostly to himself.
They were closing in on the island and still there had been no sign of the Avatar.
“Zhao wants to follow you to the prize you both want. The Avatar.” Iroh pointed out.
Zuko looked at the smoke the damaged engines left behind. A smirk appeared on his lips.
“If Zhao wants to follow our trail of smoke we will let him do so.”
“What?” his uncle exclaimed surprised.
“I, on the other hand, will follow the Avatar. On the boat.”
The small lifeboat boat was lowered with Zuko inside. Before it was released he turned at his uncle who was looking at him worried. “Keep heading north. Zhao will follow the smoke while I’ll use it as a cover.”
“So… What do you plan to do once you reach the Avatar?” Lia appeared on his side as soon as they had disappeared through the smoke.
“If I find him.” Zuko corrected her.
Lia sighed. “I probably shouldn’t tell you, but he is on the island’s temple.”
“Why shouldn’t you tell me?” Zuko looked at her surprised.
“Well I don’t exactly agree with you on this whole Avatar case. All matters of national pride aside, balance needs to be restored.” She heard no reaction and turned surprised to her companion. He was gazing at the horizon solemnly.
“Why are you still here?” he asked, refusing to look at her.
“Just because we are not agreeing on something doesn’t mean I would desert you. It doesn’t work like that!”
“But why?” he insisted turning to look at her now. “You could do anything you want. Why tag along on a mission that you are against?”
It was her turn now to gaze at the ocean. “Once I had a little brother,” she said quietly. “I lost him the day he turned ten. It was hundreds of years ago. Then, six years ago, I found a ten-year-old boy, curled next to a pond in the Fire Nation palace. You remind me of him.”
“Lia…” Zuko started awkwardly but paused. He did not know what to say. It had never occurred to him that a spirit’s past could be quite so… painful. Seeing her caring he had thought at first that she wanted something interesting to pass her time. When Lia admitted to thinking of him as a friend he had reconsidered that. But a brother? Azula, his younger sister, was the only one to come to his mind when he thought of the word ‘sibling’ and their relationship was anything but ideal. “Do you want to talk about it?” he finally asked hesitantly.
“Some other time please. Now you are in too much danger by just staying here. The cover of smoke won’t hold forever. We’d better get moving.”
Lia said tonelessly, turning away to hide a few tears.
Avatar Roku’s temple was wonderful. In an intimidating, show-respect-or-get-kicked-out way. Lia had been there a few times in the past, after she had met Roku’s spirit. The former Avatar had shown to her the various secret passages that criss-crossed the building and now she made good use of that knowledge. Zuko followed her silently. Before they reached a staircase Lia stopped.
“The Avatar is just up the stairs. I will make sure that you are safe, but I warn you Zuko: I will not help you with this.”
He bowed on her. “Fair enough.” Then he turned and climbed up the stairs silently. He had barely reached the landing when he saw the airbender hiding behind a column.
“Aang!” his friends called the Avatar. Not that he could answer them. Zuko made the boy move from behind the pillar, keeping a secure grip on his arms.
“The Avatar is coming with me.” He said.
He watched intently as the Sages of the temple took control of the situation and restrained the Water Tribe teenagers and one of their numbers.
“Close the doors.” He ordered them. “Quickly!”
His attention wasn’t on the Avatar anymore. He looked at Katara. She and her brother were chained in a column with the traitor Sage. He had never thought he would ever think a woman other than his mother beautiful, but this girl couldn’t be described as anything else. It turned out that these thoughts were his downfall, literally. The Avatar twisted against him and run away. Before he knew it he was flying down the stairs.
“Gotcha!” Lia appeared out of nowhere and balanced him back to his feet.
By the time he had made it back up the stairs the Avatar was already in the inner chamber. Together with the four remaining Sages Zuko tried to open the door but it wouldn’t budge.
“Why isn’t it working? It sealed shout!” he said angrily.
The elder Sage next to him said, “It must have been the light; Avatar Roku doesn’t want us inside.”
Nicely done Roku! Zuko could have sworn he heard Lia’s voice from the shadows.
He turned to the traitor Sage. “Why did you help the Avatar?” he demanded, torn between curiosity and exasperation.
“Because that was once the Sages’ duty,” the man explained averting his eyes for a moment. “It is still our duty.”
“What a moving and heartfelt performance.” Zhao stepped out of the shadows suddenly. “I’m certain that the Fire Lord will understand once you explain why you betrayed him.”
“Commander Zhao.” The elder of the Sages bowed.
“And prince Zuko.” Zhao finished nodding at the boy. “It was a noted effort, but your little smoke screen didn’t work.”
Zuko narrowed his eyes, already calculating ways to get out of the situation.
“Two traitors in one day.” A soldier came and took hold of the prince. “The Fire Lord will be pleased.”
“You are too late Zhao.” Zuko smirked. “The Avatar is inside and the doors are sealed.”
“No matter.” Zhao looked like the proverbial cat that had right now eaten a canary. “Sooner or later he has to come out.”
As soon as the alignment of the solstice was over Zhao prepared his men in front of the majestic doors.
“When those doors open, unleash all your power,” he commanded.
“How’s Aang going to make out of this?” Zuko turned from the column he had been tied against when he heard Katara speak to the boy next to her. They looked like each other, so Zuko guessed that they were siblings. The boy asked her back in a high-pitched voice: “How are we going to make it out of this?”
A bright light appeared from behind the doors as they opened. Before the person standing there had a chance to walk out Zhao and his men fired. Avatar Roku stepped forward unharmed, as the fire twisted to his will and attacked the soldiers. A tendril strayed away and freed the Sage, Katara and her brother, ignoring Zuko completely. Lia appeared and melted his chains instead.
“Never trust the Avatar to do anything perfectly,” she advised him cheekily. “Follow me now! He is going to destroy the temple.”
They ran together through the corridors, not bothering with hiding this time, until they reached the boat and set sail.
They found Iroh and the ship quickly. Seeing his nephew in one piece, but without the Avatar, the old General wisely didn’t say anything. That night, on the banished Fire prince’s ship, two figures sat on the empty deck, watching the full moon. Zuko turned to Lia and asked her quietly:
“Would you tell me your story?”