Author’s Note: In which we meet Series 1’s resident douchebag, Lia can’t keep grudges and Zuko learns to apologise. There is also tea. Always a good thing to have tea!
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It took the crew nearly a week to free the ship from the ice. Lia had at first contemplated helping them, but decided against it. Zuko’s words had hurt her more than she had allowed him to see and so she decided she wouldn’t appear to him again until he was truly in danger or ready to apologise. She suspected that the first would probably happen quicker… The prince’s pride and stubbornness got in the way a lot more than they should. That being said, she had to grudgingly admit that her own temper had not helped her case either. Now they were leaving the South Pole behind– something that would take weeks – and so far Zuko hadn’t even lit a single candle for meditation, much less do anything that could be taken as a request for her presence. Fine, she decided. If he wanted to show her he didn’t care he could be stubborn on his own.
The problem however was that he did care. He had missed Lia, her kind words and her lessons. Zuko knew he should apologise but how could he? If someone had treated him the way he had treated the Spirit they wouldn’t get away with it without a few burns. And there she was: the Spirit of Fire herself, and she was just giving him the silent treatment. He had been aware of her constant presence before. It was his anger and disappointment with himself that had once again taken over and talked instead of him. It was a terrifying feeling. But who was he kidding? He was simply a coward. The same day she had saved his life he had lashed out at her as if it had been her fault, to begin with, that the Avatar had escaped.
Lia saw his struggle. Her presence was kept securely hidden by her magic, but still it was hard. Her sisterly instincts were screaming at her to comfort him even when she understood that there are things everyone has to learn alone. So she divided her time instead between the ship and shadowing the Avatar. She was curious after all…
The next turning point came on a day like any other one. The ship had been moving slower than it should, but with half the right side of it damaged, they didn’t have much of a choice. They would be arriving at a Fire Nation camp soon, as Lia had gathered from the troops’ gossip. Indeed a few days later they were docking. She had woken up earlier than normal and out of habit took out the twin pedant to check on Zuko. It said something for both their characters really that even when he had told her – more or less – not to bother him again they had both kept their charms. Still smiling she looked at the symbols. Immediately they started to glow a deep red.
In theory, Lia knew how the charm was supposed to work; she had never actually seen the colours change. Alarmed she left the ship and hovered over the camp, stretching out her senses, searching for a threat. There was a vague air of foreboding, but couldn’t place it. Lia frowned. It wasn’t as if the soldiers hated Zuko. Most of them hadn’t even seen him before. It had to be a single person. Whoever this person was, she decided, he’d better not try anything. Suddenly another wave of hatred hit her. Telepathy had never been Lia’s strong point and she landed (more like crash-landed) feeling dizzy and weak. She took a few deep breaths, trying to ground herself, as the feeling rose to its zenith and then disappeared completely.
Lia blinked away a few tears, thankful that her cover was still up, and rose unsteadily to her feet. She thought that for a moment Zuko’s eyes drifted to her direction, as if he knew she was there, but it was probably just her imagination. An officer was approaching Zuko and General Iroh, so she turned to face the reason behind her troubles. He was a middle–aged man with long sideburns and an expression way too arrogant for her taste. She liked his voice even less.
“Getting in the way of what, Prince Zuko?”
The great Fire Spirit face-palmed, listening to the hasty explanation that uncle and nephew cooked up and served to this ‘Commander’ Zhao to explain the damages on their ship. It was obvious that the guy didn’t believe them. An Earth Kingdom ship so south? Please! Zuko seemed to understand that such a weak story would not hold for long, so when Zhao invited them for a drink he immediately declined. Lia was celebrating in relief, but then Iroh popped in accepting the offer. The Spirit, as aggravated as the prince, had time to whisper on his ear “I agree with you”, before the boy stormed ahead without hearing her. “Stupid covering spell” she muttered following them.
Inside the Commander’s tent Lia stifled one yawn after another as Zhao outlined his ‘genius’ plan for subduing the Earth Kingdom. Zuko was not impressed either, commenting impassively that whoever thought that the Earth Kingdom would fall easily was simply a fool. The Commander didn’t seem to take him seriously and proceeded to mock-ask him about his search for the Avatar. Lia flew to her feet and gave a rough shove on Iroh’s arm. The weapons the old man carried fell down, effectively drawing Zhao’s attention, giving Zuko time to collect himself and answer that it was a failure.
Zhao continued to press him, insisting that if he had “an ounce of loyalty left”, Zuko would tell him whatever he knew. The remark hurt, it was a low blow and the temperature on the tent rose imperceptibly before Lia realised what was happening and reigned her temper in. She hated seeing Zuko hurt, and a glance at the pedant told her that he was navigating in treacherous waters. They have to get out of here soon, she thought urgently. The same thought crossed Zuko’s mind as he rose from his chair and called his uncle to leave. However, when they reached the exit, the soldiers blocked the way and Lia seriously thought of interfering then and there.
A third soldier came in and informed Zhao that Zuko’s crew had been interrogated and admitted the presence of the Avatar on their ship. Zhao, wearing an even more self-satisfied smile asked the teenager: “Now remind me; how exactly was your ship damaged?”
Hours later, Zhao continued questioning Zuko. Lia might have still been angry with the prince but Zhao’s attitude was making her question her non-interference decision. The Commander was practically glowing as he remarked:
“So a twelve-year-old boy bested you and your firebenders. You are more pathetic than I thought.”
“I underestimated him once but it won’t happen again.” Zuko shot back, clenching his fists in an effort to control himself.
“No, it will not, because you will not have a second chance.”
WHAT? Lia screamed in her head. Did the man know by any chance what he was talking about?
Once more she seemed to mirror Zuko’s sentiments.
“Commander Zhao, I’ve been hunting the Avatar for two years and I…”
“You failed! Capturing the Avatar is far too important to leave in a teenager’s hand. He’s mine now,” Zhao sneered.
Zuko lunged at him angrily and was restrained by two soldiers.
“Keep them here.” Zhao ordered.
Zuko kicked the table frustrated. Lia rolled her eyes when Iroh asked calmly for more tea. This was going to be a long night indeed.
Very soon Iroh was asleep, leaving Zuko to his restless pacing. Finding the Avatar was his only chance of ever returning home and now Zhao had robbed him of it. He had never liked the man, even before his banishment. He always moved around with the idea that everyone, including the prince, was inferior to him. Zuko found himself wishing that Lia was here now. Maybe…
Shooting a nervous look to his sleeping uncle, Zuko lit one of the torches leaning against the walls of the tent. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, falling back to the pattern he had used when he had first started this ritual.
“I’m sorry Lia.” The words fell unbidden from his lips and his eyes snapped open when a soft hand landed on his shoulder.
“Apology accepted my friend.” Lia materialised on his side with a smile.
Zuko’s eyes widened in surprise. He had expected that it would take hours, maybe even days to see his Spirit guardian again. But there she appeared immediately. “Lia?”
“Who did you expect? The Face Stealer? And don’t get your hopes up. I’m still angry with you.”
“Then why did you come?” Zuko frowned. The redhead had been smiling, but she held herself as tensely as a coiled spring.
“Well”, she took a seat, shooting an amused look at the now-snoring Iroh, “an apology is always a good way to begin…. And I need to discuss a few things with you.”
“What kind of things?” he asked carefully.
“First of all, do you still want me around or not?” Lia asked facing directly in front of her, refusing to meet his eyes.
“Y…yes. I thought that you wouldn’t want to be around me!” Zuko exclaimed confused.
She turned sharply, surprised. “Why wouldn’t I? There are so many things you could still learn.”
“Like?” he asked interested.
“More on fire to begin with. And there is also water and earth. Oh, and I’ve seen these swords you have on your room. Do you know how to use them?” Now that they were back on the familiar ground of training both of them were relaxing.
“No.” Zuko shook his head. “They are antiques. I was afraid they would break if put pressure on them.”
Lia smiled mischievously and said “I’ll take care of that. Now tell me. How has your firebending been lately?”
“As it always is. Why?”
Another smile. “Oh no reason. Just try to keep your temper in a tiny little check, at least around me.” With that she vanished.
When the sun rose again, Zhao decided to honour his ‘guests’ with another visit.
“My search party is ready.” He announced. “Once I’m out at sea, my guards will escort you out and you’ll be free to go.”
Zuko threw him a side glance. “Why? Are you worried that I’m going to try and stop you?” He asked mockingly.
“You? Stop me? Impossible!” the Commander laughed.
Zuko stood up. “Don’t underestimate me Zhao! I will capture the Avatar before you!”
“Prince Zuko; that’s enough.” Iroh said sternly.
“You can’t compete with me.” Zhao said incredulously. “I have hundreds of ships under my command and you? You’re just a banished Prince; no home, no allies. Your own father didn’t want you.”
Not good… Lia winced when she heard the comment. Zuko would be soon furious.
“You’re wrong!” the teenager said desperately. “Once I deliver the Avatar my father will welcome me with honour and restore my rightful place on the throne.”
Zhao raised an eyebrow. “If your father really wanted you home he would have let you return by now, Avatar or no Avatar. But to his eyes you are a failure and a disgrace to the Fire Nation.”
“That’s not true.”
“You have the scar to prove it.”
Is this guy thinking at all? Lia now refused to believe her ears. She knew that Commander Zhao was a -for lack of better word- creep but this. He would soon have a very angry spirit on his heels.
“Maybe you’d like one to match!” Scratch that. After Zuko finished with him.
“Is that a challenge?” now Zhao was serious.
“An Agni Kai. At sunset.”
“Very well. It’s a shame your father won’t be here to watch me humiliate you. I guess your uncle will do.” With that Zhao left.
“Prince Zuko, have you forgotten what happened last time you duelled a Master?” Iroh asked him worriedly.
“I will never forget,” Zuko answered darkly.
The sunset looked magnificent and dramatic from the practice arena at the edge of the camp. No one but a few guards was present. Lia sat on Zuko’s side, visible only to him. She couldn’t speak in front of others, so she contented herself with giving him a reassuring smile. Iroh had put once again the stern face of the General as he looked down to his nephew.
“Remember your firebending basics prince Zuko,” he advised. “They are your greatest weapons.” Lia nodded approvingly.
“I refuse to let him win.” Zuko answered through clenched teeth. The two contestants stood up simultaneously. From the other side of the arena Lia heard Zhao declare,
“This will be over quickly.”
The gong rang, signalling the beginning of the duel. Zuko attacked first, remaining at a secure distance, but Zhao dodged all his attacks. Soon the boy’s chest was heaving with exertion. It didn’t seem to do anything to the power of his attacks and Zhao eventually started to use his own fire to put the prince’s off. From the sidelines Iroh advised,
“Basics Zuko. Break his root!”
But now it was Zhao’s turn to attack. Unlike his opponent he didn’t to control his blasts. Zuko was able to dodge two powerful blows, when the third one sent him to the ground. In a second Zhao was above him ready to strike. Oh no, you don’t! Zuko moved quickly to the side, heating the air under him just enough to add spin to his round-house kick.
Zhao was forced to retreat as attack after attack barely missed him and soon he was the one on his back looking at the prince towering over him ready to strike.
“Do it!” he commanded, when Zuko hesitated.
The prince struck barely missing the Commander’s head.
“That’s it?” Zhao said incredulously. “Your father raised a coward.”
“Next time you get on my way, I promise I won’t hesitate,” Zuko answered coldly.
As Zuko turned to leave, Zhao stood enraged and tried to attack him, but before it could make contact Iroh and Lia, doing exactly the same moves, blocked it. Zhao went flying back. Zuko turned angrily; ready to pick up the fight. He stopped when Iroh placed a hand on his shoulder.
“No, prince Zuko. Do not taint your victory.” He turned to the fallen man. “So this is how the great Commander Zhao acts in defeat. Disgraceful. Even in exile my nephew is more honourable than you. Thanks again for the tea.” He said turning to leave. “It was delicious!”
Zuko followed him astonished. Once they were out of earshot he asked Iroh quietly: “Did you really mean that uncle?”
“Of course” the General replied. “I told you jasmine tea is my favourite.”
A few nights after the duel two shadows were standing on the deck of prince Zuko’s ship, practicing some basic moves with swords. Suddenly one of them lunged forward and disarmed the other one.
“Good job my student.” Lia said picking her sword up.
“It’s so easy,” Zuko said surprised. “It feels almost natural for me to use swords. What does this mean?” he asked her. Lia smiled at the child-like expression on his face. It was endearing and a little sad at the same time that he had a hard time believing he was good at something.
“It means that other than firebending you have also great talent with the Duo swords. Off to bed now. It’s been a long day and you deserve your sleep.”
“As you wish sifu Lia.” Zuko answered with a smile and a small bow.
It was only after he was asleep that she entered his room. Just like so many other nights she tucked him in to his bed properly before blowing the small candle on his desk out.