Monthly Archives: June 2014

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Stow-Away

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Author’s note: In which Zhao makes a come-back, Katara is annoyed, Zuko’s life makes an explosive turn and the author is chilling at an island working more on her tan than her writing. 😉

Last chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Stow-Away***

Weeks after they had left the abbey behind them the air suddenly got cooler and there was a thin layer of frost covering the deck in the mornings. Zuko didn’t have much of a problem with the change in the weather. It merely gave him another excuse to practice his firebending. Besides, cold meant that they would be reaching the North Pole. He would soon see Katara again. Lately he had been seeing less and less of both the Avatar’s crew and Lia. Zuko suspected that they had already reached the Northern Water Tribe. As for the Spirit, she had found some information about his mother’s location and was traveling all around the Earth Kingdom to check whether any of it was valid. Zuko doubted it. He just couldn’t imagine his mother in a city like Omashu or Ba Sing Se. But then again he judged by what his uncle had told him of the cities and Iroh had a habit of embellishing his stories.

Speaking of his uncle, Iroh was currently pestering him about his music night. Zuko had known that Tsungi Horn was a bad idea the moment he had set eyes on it. When he had been younger he had learnt to play it, in an effort to best Azula at something. It was a difficult instrument and his prodigy sister didn’t have the patience to study. Zuko himself didn’t particularly like playing it either, especially in front of others. He’d sooner die than admit it, but he had terrible stage fright. So when his uncle threw the idea of him playing with the rest of the crew, Zuko flat out refused. That was a week ago, and ever since Iroh had been constantly bugging him.

 

Tonight was the much-argued about music night. After one last unsuccessful attempt to convince him, Iroh left for the deck. Zuko was sitting in his room wishing against all hope that Lia would appear. He hadn’t had a chance to speak or spar with her for quite some time. Hearing the door open and guessing it was his uncle he said:

“For the last time, I’m not playing the Tsungi Horn.”

“No,” his uncle told him, “it’s about our plans. There’s a bit of a problem.”

Zhao suddenly appeared behind him. “I’m taking your crew.” He announced smugly.

“What?” Zuko jumped on his feet in disbelief.

“I’ve recruited them for a little expedition to the North Pole.”

“Uncle, is that true?” Zuko asked refusing to believe him.

“I’m afraid it is.” The old General said sadly. “He’s taking everyone. Even the cook!”

“I’m sorry you won’t be there to see me capturing the Avatar, but I can’t have you getting in my way again.” Zhao turned to inspect the room, dismissing the seething teenager with no more than a glance. Iroh barely managed to restrain his nephew from attacking the Admiral.

 

Zhao’s glance fell on pair of broadswords proudly displayed at the wall. He picked one up, testing the weapon’s balance. Zuko behind him paled. He cannot figure it out. He can’t guess I was the Blue Spirit. There are probably hundreds using this type of weapons, he thought desperately.

“I didn’t know that you were skilled with broadswords prince Zuko.” Zhao said in a flat voice his attention apparently engaged by the sword in his hands.

“I’m not. They’re antiques. They’re just decorative.” Zuko answered in such a calm voice, it surprised himself.

“Have you heard of the Blue Spirit General Iroh?” Zhao proceeded to ask in the same flat voice.

“Just rumours,” Iroh answered. “I don’t think he is real.”

“He is real alright.” Zhao approached them and handed the sword to Iroh. “He’s a criminal and an enemy to the Fire Nation. But I have a feeling justice will catch up with him soon.” He turned to leave. “General Iroh, my offer to join the mission still stands, if you change your mind.” With these rather ominous parting words  he left.

 

Meanwhile at the North Pole Katara found herself disappointed and angry. Unlike the loose hierarchy of her own tribe she had found the Northern tribe rigid and almost completely patriarchal. She had arrived excited, planning to learn how to use her waterbending abilities to fight only to be told that women were expected to be healers rather than fighters. She had to admit that the healing lessons were interesting and they would no doubt be useful Zuko chasing them everywhere. Katara didn’t see however why couldn’t she learn how to both fight and heal and she planned to find a way around the restrictions sometime soon. By the end of yet another healing lesson Katara found her thoughts straying again to the firebending prince and her own reaction every time they encountered each other. While some of the other students carried out the dummy body that they used to practice on, she approached Yugoda.

“Thanks for the lesson,” she said, forcing herself to be polite.

“So who’s the lucky boy?” the old woman asked interested.

“Excuse me?” Katara asked surprised.

“Your betrothal necklace,” Yugoda explained. “You’re getting married, right?”

Katara smiled sheepishly. “No, I don’t think I’m ready for that,” she stammered. For La’s sake I’m only fourteen! “My grandmother gave my mother that necklace and my mother passed it down to me.”…

 

Once out of the hut Katara felt her head ready to burst. It wasn’t that much the story of her Gran-Gran running away from a forced engagement. She was a really brave woman after all. No, there was another thing that bothered her. A betrothal necklace! He tried to bribe me with a betrothal necklace! He more or less asked me to marry him! Why would he? Did he even know what this necklace meant? Or was it for him, like Aang, just a sentimental trinket? He seemed so caring though, even if he didn’t want anyone to understand it. But why wouldn’t he? His uncle seemed such a gentle man. He even reprimanded him for not ensuring my comfort. Why didn’t Zuko tell him the truth?

 

She walked back and forth through the town, not paying attention to what was happening around her. Any way she looked at all her encounters with Zuko, he had never tried to hurt her. He even made sure that she was safe and had offered her and Sokka their freedom when he had the Avatar in his hands. Katara stopped on a bridge, staring down at the water thoughtfully. Could it be that Zuko had… feelings for her?

 

Meanwhile, at the northern shores of the Earth Kingdom, the centre of Katara’s thoughts was sulking. Ever since Zhao’s visit, Zuko had locked himself in his room and didn’t come out even to farewell his crew. To his slight surprise, Iroh was assured both by Jee and many other members of the crew that they understood. They didn’t want to leave the prince they had travelled with for three long years, not now that they were finally starting to get along. After the men had left, Iroh went to his nephew. He would have to come out of his room eventually. It wasn’t healthy to stay inside for so long.

“The crew wanted me to wish you safe travels,” he told to the bitter boy.

“Good riddance to those traitors,” was the only answer he got. He tried again.

“It’s a lovely night for a walk. Why don’t you join me? It would clear your head.” Silence was the only answer. “Oh, just stay in your room and sit in the dark. Whatever makes you happy.” Iroh left the ship humming.

 

At the grey line between the worlds, a place that seemed to get worse every time she visited it, Lia was aimlessly walking around. Last time there was just fog. Now there was fog and icy winds. The Spirits really hated her. Unfortunately for her, this was the only place where her visions gained enough clarity to make sense and frankly Lia was getting fed up with the random premonitions of explosions she had been having. She suddenly paused mid-step. The vision was once again playing right in front of her eyes. A ship burning to flames… She knew this ship. It was a small Fire Navy one. If only she could remember how she knew it. Then it came to her. Zuko. It was his ship that was burning down. She had to return to the physical world.

 

Zuko was still lying to his bed, starring at the ceiling. His mind was completely blank. After rescuing the Avatar from Zhao he had hoped not to hear again from the Admiral. But the Spirits just had to hate him. He heard a crackle down the corridor and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine.

“Uncle?” he asked rising, a little afraid. He opened the door. “Uncle is that you?” He jumped to the corridor ready to strike. There was no one there. Even this unnerved him. The ship was eerily quiet. Cautiously he made his way to the main room of the ship. Still there was no one there.

 

Lia jumped out of the in-between zone a few feet away from the ship. She saw Zuko’s shadow moving in front of some windows and group of pirates leaving hastily on a small boat. Wait a minute! Pirates? She ignored them and hovered higher in the air. She had to reach the ship in time.

 

Zuko looked around suspiciously. He was sure he had heard something. He turned to look out of a window, when he saw the pirate captain’s pet bird staring at him through the glass window. Suddenly he understood what he had heard. He turned to leave but his time was up. The blasting jelly that the pirates had planted exploded and fire rushed towards him in waves. He had never thought his element would seem to him so menacing.

 

Right before the fire could consume him, a figure jumped from the shadows and took the hit. He watched, mesmerized, as Lia was embraced by the very element she was. The redhead seemed to absorb the fire, her long hair and dress suddenly made up by small dancing flamed and her eyes blazing like the sun. Azula’s firebending was nothing in front of this. The Spirit created a sphere of pure energy and placed herself and Zuko at its centre. The power of the explosion threw them out of the window and in the waiting ocean below.

 

The impact on the water nearly knocked Zuko unconscious. Struggling for breath he saw Lia calmly disappear under the surface. He panicked, afraid that she would drown. He was ready to dive after her when she re-emerged, all the fire vanished. Silently she took hold of his shoulder dragging him towards land. Once out of the water Zuko hugged her tightly. She gave him a quivering smile, returning the embrace.

“Why is it always that I find you in near-death situations?” she asked him.

 

They took shelter in an abandoned flat near the port. Zuko was pacing restlessly, cursing Zhao for blowing up his ship. Lia was equally angry at the Admiral for even thinking of harming her little “brother”. Her thoughts turned to Iroh; no doubt he would have heard the explosion and be worried sick by now. The Spirit turned from the window, from where she had been watching people pass, to see Zuko sinking on the floor, his head in his hands.

“What am I going to do now Lia?” he asked her.

She sat next to him, putting a comforting hand on his shoulders.

“You can still go to the North Pole.” She said.

“With what ship? Everyone will probably think I’m dead.”

“Exactly! Prince Zuko is considered dead. Which means that no one would pay attention on another faceless soldier who happened to join Zhao’s fleet.” She stood, letting him think her idea, as she retrieved a bag from a corner on the room.

“What’s this?” he asked her.

“A few things that were saved from the explosion.” She gave it to him. “Your Dao swords, the dagger your Iroh gave you, the Blue Spirit mask and some other stuff.”

 

While Zuko was going through the contents of the bag, Lia went back at the window.

“What about Iroh?” she asked.

“I don’t know” Zuko sighed. “He probably thinks I didn’t survive. I don’t want to leave him in the dark, but I also don’t want him to be in danger.”

“If you’re going to infiltrate Zhao’s ship you’ll need back-up. Reliable backup,” she added, seeing him ready to protest.

“But how am I supposed to find him in the city?” he asked defeated.

Lia smiled. “Leave this to me.”

 

A few minutes later a black, golden-eyed cat was running the streets following the scent of a certain retired General. She found him still standing where the ship was still burning. Lia felt bad for the poor old man as she approached him. She started tugging the edge of his robe until he looked down to her surprised. She motioned with her head for him to follow her and he complied curiously.

 

A few blocks later they arrived at the flat where she and Zuko had hidden. The cat motioned him to go inside and Iroh did, feeling even more surprised. He sensed that there was something different about the animal, but couldn’t put his finger on it. Nevertheless he opened the door. Inside he saw the figure of a teenaged boy who seemed to be packing a bag. Upon hearing the door opening his shoulders tensed.

“Uncle?” he asked uncertainly turning.

“Zuko? Thank Agni you are alive!” his uncle cried rushing to hug him. From a corner of the room the cat winked.

She will be bugging me for this until we reach the North Pole. Zuko thought. “I’m going to infiltrate Zhao’s fleet.” He said aloud to his uncle. The older man looked at him determined.

“I will be coming with you.” He announced.

 

The next day Iroh visited Zhao with the news of Zuko’s “death”.

“I’m devastated to hear for prince Zuko. Just devastated.” He said. Lia was watching them unseen, at Zuko’s request, and frowned upon hearing it. She overheated his tea, hoping to burn him.

“The Fire Lord will not be pleased when he learns who was responsible,” Iroh said gravely.

“You know who was behind the attack?” Zhao asked with hidden nervousness.

“Yes, pirates. We had a run with the a while back. They wanted revenge.” Zhao hid a smile taking a sip. He was burned.

“So, have you reconsidered my offer?” he asked.

“Yes.” Iroh said. “I accept. It will be an honor to serve as your General. To the Fire Nation!” he toasted raising his cup.

“To victory!” Zhao completed.

 

A couple of days later, inside Zhao’s flagship Iroh was talking with a soldier.

“Our plan is working perfectly. Zhao didn’t suspect a thing.”

“You didn’t have to do this.” Zuko told him.

“No nephew of mine will store away on a ship without some back-up.” Iroh repeated Lia’s words.

“Thank you uncle.” A door closed somewhere near.

“Someone’s coming!” Iroh said urgently. “Stay hidden until we reach the North Pole and the Avatar will be yours.” With that they parted ways.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Abbey

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Author’s Note: In which the author nearly didn’t upload because she woke up thinking it’s Sunday, Zuko can’t seem to catch a break, Katara is suspicious and the coolest minor character ever makes an appearance.

Last chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Abbey***

Iroh sighed contentedly, taking a sip from his tea cup. He would trust no one on the ship with his precious teapot and even more precious leaves, so he always made it himself. Although his nephew had never appreciated a quality cup of warm jasmine tea, Iroh knew better, always.

“See prince Zuko? A moment of quietness is good for your mental well-being,” he told the teenager sitting on the other side of the table. Zuko took silently the cup he was offered, unaware of Iroh’s worry. Ever since they had learned of Zhao’s promotion to admiral, Zuko had grown even more isolated. He refused everyone’s company, sneaking out to the woods almost every night. The old general was hoping that tea would once again work its miracle and persuade his nephew to open up. As the boy leaned to take a sip the whole ship shook, spilling the tea all over his armour.

 

They hurried on deck, Zuko secretly hoping it was the Avatar, but instead the saw a young woman riding a really big… something, yelling that she was after a stow-away.

“There are no stow-ways on my ship,” Zuko told her annoyed. The animal seemed to have a different opinion. It tore up a part of the deck floor and indeed found hidden under it a terrified man. The man tried to escape, but the beast hit him quickly with his tongue.

“He’s paralyzed!” Zuko observed surprised.

“Only temporarily,” the woman explained casually. “The toxins will wear off in about an hour and by then he will be in jail and I’ll have my money.”

“But how did you find him on my ship?” Zuko insisted.

“My shirshu can smell a rat a mile away.” She patted the monster affectionately before turning to climb on it.

“Well I’m impressed.” Iroh commented. As she turned to leave he checked her lithe body out once more before saying, “Very impressed!” Zuko looked at him annoyed.

 

Later that day Zuko walked into the forest. Normally he would meet with Lia on the ship, but his uncle was becoming suspicious and he didn’t want to risk it. He could always tell him the truth, but Zuko was reluctant to do so. Lia was a good friend and they were very close, but an outsider might take it the wrong way. Especially if the outsider was his uncle… And when he understood the truth he would hound him for all eternity for not being told from the beginning.

 

Zuko was so absorbed by his thoughts, he didn’t even notice he had reached the clearing. He was shaken out of his trance by the sound of rushing water. They had chosen that place especially because it was so close to a small river. Lia had begun to show him some basics on controlling earth and water. He sat by the river and run a mental list of the things he had to do on the ship. They had enough supplies to last them until they reached the next port, and his uncle had just restocked his beloved tea. The only thing keeping them there was the damage on the ship’s deck. His eyes darkened. That woman had left a mess and a half behind her. But she was obviously a bounty hunter, and a rather skilled one, so maybe he could use her talents as a refund. Zuko rose. Even without seeing her, Lia seemed to always help him. He dusted himself off and headed back to his ship. It was time to go hunting.

 

It turned out that his uncle knew where to find the bounty hunter. Zuko honestly didn’t want to know how. It was a filthy place, near the end of the woods. The prince had a feeling that almost everyone in there was an outlaw. He saw the bounty hunter from earlier in the centre of the room arm-wrestling a man twice her size. Zuko stalked forward, ordering people out of his way. He was in no mood for his uncle’s niceties. Sometimes the impolite way was the fastest one.

“I need to talk to you,” Zuko told the woman curtly as soon as he reached her table. She sighed.

“Well if it isn’t my new friends, Angry Boy and Uncle Lazy.” Her opponent was struggling – with no success – to free his hand. Iroh laughed at his description.

“Your beast trashed my ship.” Zuko insisted. “You have to pay me back.”

She didn’t answer at first, busy gathering the coins that went flying as soon as she defeated her opponent. “I’d love to help,” she said eventually, “but I’m a little short on money. Drinks on me!” she called right away.

“Money isn’t what I had in mind,” Zuko told her, succeeding in gaining her attention.

 

They walked outside and he showed her Katara’s necklace.

“I need you to find someone.” She took a look on it and raised an eyebrow.

“What happened? Your girlfriend ran off on you?”

“It’s not the girl I’m after.” As if I would hurt her. “It’s the bald monk she’s traveling with.”

“Whatever you say,” she told him obviously not convinced. What was with women thinking he was after Katara? Lia seemed to think the same, whenever he was ranting to her about the Avatar’s trail.

“If you find them I’ll consider the damage to my ship paid for.”

She scoffed and turned to leave. “Forget it!”

“Plus we’ll pay your weight in gold!” Iroh suddenly added. The bounty hunter turned.

“Make it your weight,” she told Iroh, poking lightly on the stomach, “and you’ve got a deal.”

He laughed. “You got it.”

“Get on!” she ordered them snatching the necklace from Zuko’s hand. She gave it to the shirshu, who smelled it, then hastily climbed on its back. Within moments they had disappeared into the night.

 

By dawn they had reached the ruins of an Earth Kingdom city, close to the Fire Nation camp where the Blue Spirit had made his first appearance. There was only an old lady there, watering a few meagre plants.

“Out for fresh air, are we?” she asked good-naturally.

“We’re looking for someone,” Zuko told her.

“I hope it’s not Miyuki.” The lady said worried. She turned to her cat. “Miyuki did you get in trouble with the Fire Nation again?”

“The Avatar has been through here. Let’s keep moving.” Jun, the bounty hunter, was now in her element and enjoying the chase immensely. She cracked her whip and they took off again.

 

Their next stop was at another city, this one near a volcano. They stopped again in front of another old lady. Zuko wondered hazily if it was becoming a pattern. He was tired from riding and his only comfort was the knowledge that they would be closing in on the Avatar soon.

“Why are we stopping?” he asked annoyed, shaking his head to get rid of his sleepiness.

“Because the girl must have spent a lot of time here.” Jun snapped.

“We don’t have time for this.” He snatched back the necklace and made the beast smell it again. It tried to lick him as an answer. “Hey, watch it!” he said angrily.

Jun and Iroh laughed. “Oh, look! She likes you!” Jun said in an exaggeratedly sweet voice.

“Care to hear your fortune handsome?” the old lady asked Iroh, smiling beguilingly. He winked at her.

“At my age there’s only one big surprise left and I’d just assume to leave it a mystery.” He barely had time to finish his answer before the shirshu starting running again.

 

By the time the sun was beginning to set again they had reached an abbey near the coastline. The shirshu was more anxious there.

“We’re getting close.” Jun said satisfied. They rode into the forest, when they came across Katara and her brother.

No Avatar? What happened? Zuko didn’t have time to ponder it as Jun spoke again.

“So this is your girlfriend?” she asked. “No wonder she left. She’s way too pretty for you.”

“Where is he? Where is the Avarar?” Zuko demanded fighting the heat that threatened to take over his face. To his surprise, Katara was bushing a little too.

“We split up. He’s long gone.” Her brother told him.

“How stupid do you think I am?”

“Pretty stupid. Run!” he yelled, grabbing his sister’s hand. They didn’t go far. The shirshu whipped its tongue out, hitting them in their backs and paralyzing them.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Zuko wondered out loud. The shirshu moved forward.

“It’s seeking a different scent.” Jun explained. “Perhaps something the Avatar has held recently.” Even as she spoke, the beast stuck its nose out and pawed the earth, having caught Aang’s scent on a piece of parchment.

 

They loaded the two Water Tribe teens on Jun’s “pet” and headed back to the abbey. Zuko, hoping against hope that nobody noticed, wrapped his arm around Katara’s waist, steading her during the worst parts of the ride. The girl noticed and wondered once more why the prince was bothering to care for her. He had spoken in his usual harsh tone, but the next thing she knew was his warm arm around her. And why had that woman asked whether she was his girlfriend?

 

Back at the abbey’s courtyard Jun’s shirshu was going in circles, clearly looking for something. That something was the Avatar who arrived, flying out of nowhere. It rose on its feet trying to hit him with its tongue, making everyone fall from its back. Zuko almost asked Katara if she was alright before he saw her smiling at the airbender. He felt jealously rise in him. He didn’t think Katara would ever look so happy to see him. Jun and her beast were knocked out of the way by the Avatar’s bison, even as the kid turned barely in time to block Zuko’s unrestrained attack. The prince felt his control over his fire thinning and trickling away as his anger rose. In a flash, Lia’s story came to his mind. Losing control now would only put everyone in danger. He tried to keep his cool but it was nearly impossible with Aang countering all his attacks and the memory of the boy’s offer of friendship still fresh in his mind.

 

Eventually both boys attacked the same time with equal power. They fell back with the force of each other’s shots. The Avatar barely had time to sit up when Zuko attacked him again. The little monk was getting better, just like the prince was, Zuko noted, after a particularly strong air blast. He slid down to level ground from the roof he had been perched on, while Jun took his place there. She only succeeded on sending the Avatar down the roof. Zuko smiled. Sending fire towards the monk, he cornered Aang against a well.

 

Aang was dodging Zuko’s attacks with increasing difficulty. The prince was getting better, he noticed, torn between admiration and annoyance. Suddenly something blue caught his eye. Katara’s necklace.

“You’ve got something that I want,” Aang said attacking again. Zuko followed his gaze and started. He had thought it was secure under his sleeve.

“No, you’re not taking this,” he muttered under his breath. He fought with renewed vigour, but Aang managed to steal the necklace, before jumping and hiding inside a well. Well past caring at this point, Zuko sent a huge fire blast after him, which was answered by a blast of even more water from the depths of the well. The pressure sent him flying to the nearest wall.

 

He was on his feet in seconds. He didn’t care about the Avatar anymore. He could escape for all Zuko cared. But he would have that necklace back. It was his only memento of Katara. He ran after the Air Nomad only to have his way cut short by the boy’s bison. Much to his annoyance it was Jun that came to his rescue. The Avatar was now cornered. Zuko smiled at his good luck. He would capture the boy and get the necklace back.

 

It was a good plan. And it would have worked if it wasn’t for a wave of perfume that hit them with nauseating strength. The mixture of scents drove the shirshu overboard. It charged around frantically, shooting its tongue out, whipping the air. Zuko got hit first and fell back. Jun was trying to calm it down and only succeeded on getting hit too. She landed on top of his uncle.

“Uncle,” Zuko whispered in a dazed voice, “I didn’t see you getting hit with the tongue.”

Iroh shushed him smiling mischievously. Once the Avatar and his friends left a young nun approached them holding a small bottle. She stuck it under their noses, curing them of their paralysis. They rose unsteadily on their feet.

“Thank you my dear.” Iroh said at the girl smiling heartily.

“It’s my pleasure to help the people of my nation.” The girl bowed and left, winking at Zuko. As she turned he caught a glimpse of red hair. Lia.

 

They returned to their ship and Zuko rushed to his room. Inside Lia was waiting for him. She had changed from the nun’s dress to an Earth Kingdom kimono, dyed scarlet. She looked as if she had been waiting for him for a good amount of time, lounging on his bed and even going through one of his scrolls. Zuko was in no mood for talking but couldn’t resist the temptation.

“A nun?” he asked her. “Seriously?”

“I had to improvise,” Lia answered shrugging. “You didn’t seem to have a problem with my presence there.”

“I had bigger problems,” he said sitting on the meditation mat.

“The necklace…” he heard Lia saying quietly. “There is something I want to show you in regard to it.”

He looked uninterested. “What? Did you snatch it right under the Avatar’s nose?”

“No, but still, you might find this interesting.”

 

Not waiting for an answer, Lia sat facing him and raised her right hand. She traced a perfect circle in the air, white flames following her movement. Inside the circle, Zuko could see the Avatar, Katara and Sokka sitting on the flying bison. The Avatar was speaking.

“I wish I could give you a little piece of home Katara. Something to remind you…” he trailed of.

“I’ll be okay,” Katara assured him.

“Still just a little trinket. Something like… this?” he said taking of the necklace.

“Aang, how did you get that?” she asked tying it around her neck.

“Zuko asked me to be sure I gave it to you,” the kid answered smugly. Zuko’s face fell. The last thing he wanted was the Avatar to take the necklace, but he had to admit it looked better on Katara’s neck.

“Oh that’s so sweet of Zuko,” Katara said. Her mind went back to their last encounter. Judging by his behaviour then it wouldn’t surprise her if he had really said such a thing. She smiled softly. “I owe him a kiss for making sure I got it back.” She turned to gaze at the setting sun, missing Aang’s disappointed expression.

 

Lia made the flames and the vision disappear.

“So, did I make you feel better?” she asked Zuko. He didn’t answer her, he was merely gazing were the flames used to be, a small, rather dazed, smile on his lips.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Blue Spirit

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Author’s Note: In which Zuko pulls a Batman, Zhao makes an (un)wellcome re-appearance and the author attempts a high action scene with mixed results.

Last Chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Blue Spirit***

Zuko landed heavily on his back, his Duo swords landed with a clang somewhere behind him. He couldn’t use firebending and his opponent was steadily advancing on him. He looked at the figure with a mixture of fear and admiration. That was a good fight they had had. But I’m better than this, he thought grimly. He sprang to his feet and, using his momentum, sent a high kick at his opponent’s face. The shadowed figure moved, blocked his attack and used its momentum to push him away. Zuko went flying again, but before he had a chance to hit the deck he was frozen mid-air.

“That’s not fair Lia!” he said angrily. “I didn’t use my bending.”

“I was the bad guy.” The Fire Spirit answered smugly. “Bad guys have the advantage almost always. You need to think of your opponent’s strengths as his weaknesses.” She landed him softly. “Do you still plan to spy at the port?”

Zuko stood on his feet. “Yes. Why?”

“No reason, really.” Lia said neutrally. “It’s just that Zhao arrived earlier today.” She saw Zuko’s expression darken.

“Tomorrow night I’m going,” he decided.

“I thought you’d say that. But you can’t go without something to hide your face. Darkness can only do so much.”

“What do you suggest?”

 

His sister handed him a small package. “If you’re going to make life hard for Commander Monkey-face you need a proper alter ego.” Zuko opened the box to reveal a blue-and-white grinning mask. He raised an eyebrow.

“A Water Tribe Spirit?” he asked her dubiously.

“What? I know the guy! He’s great for recon’ missions. We’ve gone to a few together. And who would guess Prince Zuko under it?”

“Good point.” The boy murmured still scrutinizing the grinning mask.

 

***

 

The next night saw a heated discussion at the command building of the port they had docked just outside of.

“Absolutely not. The Yu-Yan archers stay here. Your request is denied Commander Zhao.” The colonel in charge told his fellow officer firmly.

“Colonel Shino, please reconsider. Their precision is legendary. The Yu-Yan can penetrate a fly to a tree a hundred yards away without killing it. You’re wasting their talents using them as mere security guards.”

“I can do whatever I want with their talents. They’re my archers and what I say goes.”

“But my search for the Avatar is…”

“Is nothing but a fantasy project. We’re fighting a real war here and I need every man I’ve got Commander”

“But…”

“That’s final. I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

 

A messenger hawk interrupted their conversation before it could descend to an argument. Colonel Shino took one look at the letter and paled in shock.

“News from Fire Lord Ozai?” Zhao asked him, taking the paper and scanning the lines. “It appears I’ve been promoted to Admiral,” he noted smugly. “My request is now in order.”

Shino bowed reluctantly and left as Zhao turned to look at the archers practicing at the courtyard below. Above him the grinning face of the Blue Spirit had heard the entire conversation.

 

What was Father thinking? Zuko thought angrily, as he returned to his ship. Zhao an Admiral? He might as well declare Azula the heir apparent! Now with these archers it’s going to be even more difficult for me to capture the Avatar. The only thing making him feel better was the fact that he had snuck around his ship and the camp without anyone noticing. The freedom the mask gave him was intoxicating. Maybe the Blue Spirit wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

 

***

 

The next morning there was a mini conference at the navigation room in Zuko’s ship.

“We haven’t been able to pick up the Avatar’s trail since the storm, but if we continue heading northeast…” Lieutenant Jee’s speech was interrupted by the sound of a huge ship passing close by them.

“What do they want?” Zuko asked wearily. The only downside on his new identity was the lack of sleep.

“Perhaps a sporting game of Pi Sho.” Iroh guessed, rubbing his hands cheerfully. After three years there were very few left on their ship that he had not played against at least twice.

 

The captain of the other ship boarded with a couple of soldiers.

“The hunt for the Avatar has been given prime importance,” he explained, unfolding a wanted poster. “All information about the Avatar must be reported directly to Admiral Zhao.”

“Zhao has been promoted? Well good for him!” Iroh shrugged moving his tile alongside. He won. Again.

“I’ve got nothing to report to Zhao.” Zuko said barely keeping calm. “Now get off my ship and let us pass.”

“Admiral Zhao is not allowing ships in or out of this area.”

Jee glared at Zhao’s officer from his place behind Zuko. Since the storm the crew had found working with the prince easier, like some common ground had been achieved. That being said, he did not appreciate one of Zhao’s orderlings giving them orders in such a high-handed way. Zuko did not appreciate either.

“Off my ship!” he shouted.

“Excellent!” his uncle exclaimed as the men left. “I take the part.” The men playing against him groaned. “But you’re all improving. I’m certain you will win if we… play again.”

 

Sun set and Iroh was getting worried. His hotheaded nephew had been exercising firebending for a few hours now. He stood in the distance watching him. Zuko had been improving rapidly now that the Avatar was out there. Still there was no point on exhausting himself.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, approaching the boy while he was catching his breath. “It’s been almost an hour and you haven’t given the men an order.”

“I don’t care what they do.” Zuko spat, turning to stare at the water.

“Don’t give up hope yet. You can still find the Avatar before Zhao.”

“How uncle? With Zhao’s resources it’s just a matter of time before he captures the Avatar. My honor, my throne, my country; I’m about to lose them all.” Zuko said in a small voice.

 

Once Iroh had left, shaking his head sadly, Lia materialised.

“I’ve good news and bad news,” she told him instead of  a greeting.

“How can there be any good news today?” Zuko wouldn’t look at her.

“I know where the Avatar is and you’ve been there before.”
His head turned to her direction so quickly she feared the bones would snap. “Where?” he asked eagerly.

“That’s the bad news: Zhao’s new headquarters,” she explained, wincing. Zuko lowered his head, once again disappointed.

“I can’t go in there.” He said quietly.

“True. But the Blue Spirit can.”

“I am the Blue Spirit, in case you forgot.” He told her harshly.

“You forget. As the Blue Spirit there are no limitations. You can be whoever you want to. No one will know.”

“You really think so?” he asked her with renewed hope.

“Of course!” She answered smiling. “Now go get ready to give Zhao a night from hell.” The boy sprinted away not seeing her shake her head. For someone so talented Zuko needed a hell of a confidence boost.

 

Night fell and among the shadows a figure was moving. The Blue Spirit was out haunting. He saw a carriage passing and decided to use a conventional way to enter the fortress. As the guards were busy checking underneath it, he made himself comfortable inside it. When Zhao appeared on a balcony overlooking the courtyard to give his daily speech he didn’t even sense the presence that passed right behind him. The Blue Spirit scoffed at his empty words. He made the war sound like a mere military parade.

 

Using a light rope Zuko slipped into the sewers. Not his preferred way of traveling, but he wouldn’t risk being seen. He was already questioning his streak of luck. Once he was closer to the chamber where Aang was held Lia appeared next to him. Rather than her usual bright red dresses, she wore a darker outfit, similar to his. She motioned silently upwards and mouthed “One and four guards”. He nodded his thanks.

 

Silently Zuko moved behind the lone soldier. With a swift hit on the head the man was out. Unfortunately so was his helmet. Zuko cursed under his breath as he heard one of the guards approaching. So much for his good luck… This one looked better prepared. Lia smiled unseen and made a wall of fire rise between her protégé and the guard. It distracted him enough for Zuko to chain him and leave him hanging from the ceiling.

“Two more coming,” Lia whispered checking the corridor. Zuko hurried to climb to the ceiling. He watched the men halt in surprise, seeing their comrade. That was all he needed. He knocked them out and run the corner just in time to see the last guard reaching for the alarm.

 

The man didn’t have time to use it. A sword came flying, knocking the alarm bell out of his hand. He turned to see a figure dressed in dark colours, wearing a Blue Spirit mask, coming nearer. He sent a blast of fire towards the intruder, who extinguished it with a bucket of water. Soon the same bucket was used against the soldier’s head. Once he was out cold, Zuko searched him for his keys.

 

He opened the door, to see Aang looking at him terrified. Let’s give him something to be afraid of, he smiled grimly under the mask. The Blue Spirit drew out his swords and acted as if he was going to attack the Avatar. The boy screamed, until he realized that it was his chains that were in more danger than he was. Aang looked at the silent figure unsure. He had turned towards the door immediately after he unchained him.

“Who are you?” he asked still a little scared. “What’s going on? Are you here to rescue me?”  The Blue Spirit merely mentioned him to follow. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Aang said doing as asked.

 

He followed the figure down the corridor. The little airbender couldn’t say why, but he had a feeling that he knew his rescuer. His thoughts were interrupted by some croaking.

“My frogs!” he exclaimed. “Come back here. And stop going out.” He made a movement to follow them, but Zuko yanked him by the back of his coat and dragged him away. “Wait!” the boy cried. “My friends need to suck on them!”

Why would they do that? Zuko was wondering as they returned on the place he had left the sewers.

 

The two boys ran all the way back to the opening at the courtyard. Zuko checked quickly, satisfied to see no one around. He knelt motioning the Avatar to follow him. He did. They were half-way through the rope and out in the open when the alarm finally started. A soldier cut the rope and Aang airbended them to avoid getting hurt. Zuko looked around and spotted a gate still open. They sprinted. Soldiers rushed to block their way and Aang blasted them away. Some more charged towards Zuko who quickly turned to fight them with his swords. There were too many though and he was soon circled by them.

 

Aang saw it and rushed to help him. The gates were now sealed so the Avatar and the Blue Spirit flew at the walls. Aang used a spear he had taken to make them fly while Zuko dodged the arrows that came to them. It seemed to work at first, but the weight was too much and they crash-landed on one of the elevated courtyards, near the walls. They were circled once again and fought together. Zuko was surprised to realize that it was much like when Lia helped him. He didn’t have time to brood over the implications. Zhao’s soldiers were bringing ladders, to aid their comrades on the walls. Aang “cleaned” two of them away quickly and used them as stilts to cross the wall. They had almost made it when a soldier used his head and set the one they were on, on fire.

 

Now that they were back at the same level, the soldiers were able to attack using firebending. Aang created a shield with air when Zhao’s voice was heard.

“Hold your fire. The Avatar must be delivered to the Fire Lord alive.”

Is that so? Zuko thought, bringing his Dao swords on the kid’s neck. The Spirit and the Admiral glared at each other.

“Open the gate.” Zhao ordered clenching his teeth.

“Admiral, what are you doing?” a man asked.

“Let them out. Now!” he barked.

 

Lia, watching from her perch on a nearby roof, honestly thought they would make it. They were almost at the crossroads and from there it would have been a child’s game to disappear in the shadowy woods. Then an arrow flew right past her. It barely brushed Aang’s cheek before hitting Zuko in the middle of his forehead, knocking him unconscious. Aang quickly casted a shield of dust, but it wouldn’t be enough. She approached them, taking her spirit form for the first time in nearly six years. Don’t do it! She mentally ordered Aang, seeing him trying to take off his rescuer’s mask. He did. Seeing Zuko under it, the boy sprung to his feet and started running away…

 

…To fall right into her. The Avatar recognized her immediately as a Spirit and despite the situation bowed. She grabbed him roughly by the collar and led him towards Zuko.

“I’ll help you if you help him,” Lia whispered. Aang nodded. He didn’t understand why a spirit would protect Zuko, but he had no time for questions. Once he held the prince, Lia used her powers to send them away.

 

Zuko woke up the next morning with the sun burning through his eyelids and a splitting headache. Feeling the breeze on his face, he guessed it was Lia who had saved him, again. With a groan he opened his eyes and received the shock of the day when instead of his redhead surrogate sister he saw the Avatar. The younger boy sat near him resting his head on his knees and looking at him thoughtfully.

“You know what the worst part of being born over a hundred years ago is?” he said wistfully. “I miss all the friends I used to hang out with. Before the war started I used to always visit my friend Kuzon. The two of us; we could get into so much trouble together. He was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and he was from the Fire Nation, just like you. If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends too?”

 

Under different circumstances Zuko would have probably given a moment’s pause to think about the hopeful question. At this instant however, feeling like badgermoles were hammering his head from the inside, the only coherent thought that crossed was that they were in the open and Zhao was definitely looking for them. Rather than try to explain that to Aang, who looked ready to continue talking, Zuko sent a fireblast at him. Once the Avatar was out of sight he sighed with relief. As he walked back to his ship, and his migraine slowly receded to a dull ache, Zuko thought over Aang’s words. How would his life be if there was no war? Would he have ever met Lia? Would he have lost his mother in the first place? He halted as a thought crossed his mind. Would he have a chance of being something other than enemies with Katara? He shook his head. No. Some things would never change. No matter what happened, he would never have a chance with the waterbender.

 

Once back on the ship he saw his uncle playing the Tsungi Horn.

“Where have you been prince Zuko?” the old man asked curiously. “You missed music night! Lieutenant Jee sang an outstanding love song.”

“I’m going to bed.” His nephew muttered, rubbing his head tiredly. “No disturbances.”

He usually found solace in his room, but this time he didn’t. The colours – Fire Nation colours – merely reminded him of what he had, and how much he wanted to trade them for what Aang had. Friends and family. He turned his back to the wall, staring at Katara’s necklace, always secure around his wrist, until sleep claimed him.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Storm

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Author’s Note: In which there is exposition and the author is not feeling at her best so she will leave you to it.

Last chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Storm***

It truly seemed like a perfect day: the sky was clear, there was a light breeze, and most importantly the sea was as calm as a mirror. Still, Lia could feel something nagging at her senses. Such good weather so late in the year was just not normal. She took a few deep breaths, tasting the wind, trying to figure out what was wrong and opened her eyes horrified. A storm was coming, straight from the North Pole. She had seen something like this happen only once. An entire Water Tribe fleet had sunk, caught as it had been in the open sea. She looked around, trying to locate Zuko’s ship. Lia was on her way back after two weeks she had spent on the mainland, searching. She hovered higher and finally saw a dark spot on the horizon. It didn’t look like she’d reach them before midday.

 

On deck Zuko was also searching the horizon, feeling rather grateful for the clear sky. It would allow him to spot either the Avatar’s bison or his Spirit friend easier. He hadn’t had an encounter with the airbender’s group since the pirate fiasco. The prince wondered where the boy was planning to go next. He hadn’t forgotten Lia’s comments about “sightseeing”. Speaking of Lia… he hadn’t seen her in a while either. He knew that she was probably looking for his mother, just like she had promised, but he sometimes missed her company. His uncle commented suddenly:

“There’s a storm coming. A big one…”

Zuko snorted.

“You’re out of your mind uncle. The weather’s perfect. There’s not a cloud in sight.”

“A storm is approaching from the North.” Iroh insisted. “I suggest we alter our course and head southwest.”

“We know the Avatar is traveling northward.” We still have to figure whether he decided to begin mastering the elements. “So we will do the same.”

“Prince Zuko, consider the safety of the crew!” Iroh insisted him worriedly.

“The safety of the crew doesn’t matter!” The teen saw his Uncle looking over his shoulder. One of the soldiers, lieutenant Jee had been standing quite close and clearly heard him. “Finding the Avatar is far more important than any individual’s safety.” Zuko insisted before storming to his room.

 

Iroh was probably right and Zuko knew it. He paced nervously, not knowing what to do. On the one hand he didn’t want to endanger his crew, not after they had stuck with his through thick and thin. On the other hand there was the Avatar. He was indeed far too important to take safety into account when he was after him. Not only that, but he had to maintain control on his ship. He couldn’t be seen doing everything his uncle told him. It would be presumed a weakness. He sighed. Lia would know what to do, but she was not here. It was in times like this when he wished he had someone to talk to.

 

It was midday when Zuko came out on deck again, to be greeted by threatening clouds and his own guilty conscience. His uncle had been right and now they would be all in danger because of his stubbornness. Just to reassure his thoughts Lieutenant Jee said,

“Looks like your uncle was right about the storm after all.”

“Lucky guess” Iroh said shrugging.

“Lieutenant! You’d better learn some respect, or I’ll teach it to you,” Zuko snapped and turned to leave, planning to tell the helmsman to change course.

“What do you know about respect?” Jee said incredulously. “The way you talk to everyone around here from your hard-working crew to your esteemed uncle shows you know nothing about respect.”

Iroh winced. Respect was a delicate subject for Zuko and even if the man was right in his accusations, he would definitely get nowhere good in this manner.

“You don’t care about anyone but yourself!” the lieutenant finished. “Then again what should I expect from a spoiled prince.” He added venomously.

 

Zuko felt ready to burst. Worry about the crew, hurt from Jee’s words, anger at his uncle being right, anguish for whether or not he’d ever succeed on his quest, the feelings he refused to name for Katara; everything had been bottling up for too long. He didn’t answer with words; he merely crouched into a fighting position, silently challenging the older man. The lieutenant fell into a similar one immediately.

“Easy now” Iroh said. When they ignored him he stood between them, pushing them backwards. “Enough!” the Dragon of the West ordered. “We are all a little bit tired from being at sea for so long. I’m sure, after a bowl of noodles, everyone will feel much better.”

“I don’t need your help keeping order on my ship.” Zuko said angrily. Iroh placed a hand on his shoulder but the teen shrugged it off and walked away. Standing at a safe distance the prince took out the necklace he had secured around his wrist and started to trace the carvings absentmindedly. A betrothal necklace…

***

Rain was falling heavily, making flying or even seeing more and more difficult. Lia was soaked to the bone but kept all her focus concentrated on the ship that was becoming steadily larger before her. She had a really bad feeling about all of this. She had to reach Zuko before the storm really broke out.

***

Inside the ship Iroh stood unseen, listening to the crew talk. He was worried that all the earlier aggressiveness hadn’t left the air yet. It was dangerous with the storm raging over them. And the men didn’t know what his nephew had been through.

“I’m sick of taking his orders, I’m tired of chasing his Avatar,” lieutenant Jee was saying. “I mean, who does Zuko think he is?”

“Do you really want to know?” Iroh asked them in a sad voice. The men sprung to their feet worried.

“General Iroh” one of the soldiers said nervously. “We were just…”

“It’s okay.” He reassured them. “May I join you?”

“Of course sir” an uneasy chorus of voices replied.

“Try to understand,” Iroh implores. “My nephew is a troubled young man with a complicated past. He’s been through much. When he was thirteen, he tried to attend a war council, insisting saying that it would only help him learn how to rule a nation. Finally I consented to have him accompany me on the condition that he would not speak.

 

During the council, it was recommended to use the 41st division, one consisted only by new recruits, to be used against a much more seasoned Earth Kingdom power as bait. Zuko stood up against the idea, enraged that they would even propose such a thing. He was right, you see, but it was not his place to speak out and there were… dire consequences. After Zuko’s outburst in the meeting, the Fire Lord became very angry. He said prince Zuko’s challenge of the general was an act of complete disrespect. And there was only one way to resolve this.”

“Agni Kai, a fire duel,” lieutenant Jee whispered gravely.

“That’s right.” Iroh continued. “Zuko looked upon the old general he had insulted and declared that he was not afraid. But Zuko misunderstood. When he turned around to meet his opponent, Zuko was surprised not to see the general. He had spoken out against the general’s plan, but by doing so in the Fire Lord’s war council, it was the Fire Lord who he had disrespected. Zuko would have to duel his own father.

 

When prince Zuko saw that it was his father who had come to duel him, he begged for mercy. He refused to fight, apologizing again and again. His actions enraged his father. He declared that Zuko would have to learn respect and that suffering would be his teacher. I looked away.”

“I always thought that prince Zuko was in a training accident.” Jee admitted guiltily.

“It was no accident.” Iroh replied harshly. “After the duel the Fire Lord said that by refusing to fight Zuko had shown shameful weakness. As punishment he was banished and sent to capture the Avatar. Only then could he return with his honor.”

“So that’s why he is so obsessed. Capturing the Avatar is his only chance of things returning to normal.”

“Things will never return to normal. But the important thing is the Avatar gives Zuko hope.”

 

A thunderclap was heard overhead accompanied by a loud crash. Everyone rushed on deck.

“Where were we hit?” Zuko asked.

“I don’t know,” lieutenant Jee answered.

Iroh pointed at the helmsman’s post. “Look!” he exclaimed. A flash of lightning revealed the man clinging from a beam.

“The helmsman!” Zuko shouted. He ran to the nearest ladder and started climbing, with Jee on his heels. A bolt lightning nearly hit the metal ship. Iroh caught it instinctively, and redirected it to the water. Realizing what he had done he looked at his hands astonished. Another wave hit the ship and the helmsman lost his grip. Zuko caught him mid-air and passed him down to Jee.

***

Lia ignored the lightning that was erupting all around her. She was almost at the ship now. She watched two men climb up a ladder and Zuko catch the helmsman, saving his life. Her charm burnt under her tunic and she put one last burst of speed to her flying.

***

Zuko looked down to make sure his two men had made it to the deck safely. The waves were hitting the ship with more force now as the wind picked up, and he was straining to keep his balance. The metal was so wet it was slippery. Another wave hit the ship just as he was turning to climb down. Zuko lost his hold and hovered for a moment motionless, before gravity kicked in.      

***

Lia felt her heart stop. Zuko was right beneath her and she had just enough time to see his terrified expression before he plunged towards the sea. Zuko had time to think, I’m going to die, before someone caught his wrist. He felt a wave of burning energy surging through him and he looked up to see Lia’s pale face looking down at him in horror. She motioned for him to go down quickly. He nodded, still not over how close he came to death.

Being on deck again, he had barely time to breathe before a flash of lightning revealed…

“The Avatar!”

“What do you want to do sir?” Lieutenant Jee asked him.

“Let him go” the prince told him gravely. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. “We need to get the ship to safety.”

“Then we must head directly to the eye of the storm.” Iroh remarked raising an eyebrow.

 

It wasn’t hard to find it. Amidst all the chaos they could still see the clear sky over the clouds there. As the ship sailed safely once again Zuko turned to his uncle.

“Uncle, I’m sorry.” He said.

“Your apology is accepted.” Iroh smiled, putting a hand on his shoulder before turning to leave. A bright light shined from underwater and the Avatar’s bison appeared. Zuko strained his eyes for Katara, but only managed to see Aang’s curious glance before they flew away.

 

Zuko remained on deck until they had left the storm well behind them. Only then did he excuse himself to his room. Once he was inside he was met with a furious hug from Lia. She was still dripping wet and her face was ashen. Zuko hugged her back, not caring about the fact that now he was soaked again. Finally Lia pulled away.

“Don’t you dare scare me like that again!” she told him still trembling.

“I won’t.” the boy assured her tiredly. Then a thought crossed his mind. “What did you do out there?” he asked her studying the slight burn where she had caught him.

“I just gave you an energy burst. I’m not quite sure how I managed it either.”

“You know, there’s no point in killing yourself for my sake.”

“If I could be killed so easily, trust me, I’d be long dead. I’m just a little tired.”

“Then,” Zuko hesitated. “Why don’t you sleep here? You can leave in the morning.”

Lia studied his face. “You won’t have a problem with it?” she asked. Her friend just shrugged. “Very well then.” Zuko bended warm air around them. Once dry again they curled next to each other and let exhaustion take them.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Waterbending Scroll

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Author’s Note: In which the author ships, the main characters discover that they are, in fact, teenagers and all that entails and Iroh probably knows a lot more than we think.

Last chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Waterbending Scroll***

As a rule, firebenders draw their power from the sun. That is not to say that they are helpless at night, but they certainly prefer to sleep the night’s hours away. Armed with that knowledge, it would certainly amaze the casual observer to see that on the ship of young prince Zuko this wasn’t the case. Fire was erupting in every possible direction as two forms battled silently under the moon’s pale light. Suddenly one figure kicked out to the side, catching his opponent on the ribs and sending them flying. The other figure twisted in the air and landed perfectly before bowing.

“You have really improved my young student,” Lia said, wincing as she checked the bruising forming on her side.

“Young?” Zuko asked, walking up to her, torn between exasperation at her ribbing and concern. “You don’t look that much older.”

“Perhaps. It’s not as if I’m aging. What you see is what I looked like when I left this world.” She paused thoughtfully. “But,” she continued, “counting in mortal, years I’m old enough to be considered an artefact!”

 

Zuko raised an eyebrow. Ever since they had admitted to seeing each other as brother and sister, he noticed a wall coming down between them. Lia was more teasing, less aloof, as if she knew that his anger would never really be directed at her. But his own change was what he found most strange. He let his guard down around her. While for everyone else he was the uptight prince, for Lia he acted, to use her own words, “his age”. He had found himself joking with her a few times, even teasing her back! Small changes, one might say, but Zuko suspected that they were not over yet and he wasn’t sure if he wanted them to be.

 

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud cough. He jerked and saw Lia looking at him with an amused look.

“I wanted to ask you; do you plan on ever telling your uncle about me?” she asked, leaning against the railing.

“I hadn’t thought about it. Why?” he answered surprised.

“You’ve heard about his little trip to the Spirit World, right? Well, you can’t leave this place without souvenirs. In his case, I heard it was the ability to see Spirits. He might be able to sense me if I keep hanging out here.”

Zuko looked worried. “Do you think I should tell him?”

“Not if you don’t want to. Just don’t be surprised if he asks you sooner or later. Now I think it’s time you got to bed.” She told him, glancing up towards the moon. “It’s getting late. Goodnight Zuko.”

She hugged him briefly and heard him whisper “Goodnight sister,” before she faded away.

 

The next morning Zuko was sparring with a soldier, when that week’s long overdue share on unexpected disturbances came. Without warning the ship changed course, throwing the two combatants off balance. Zuko rushed at the helmsman seething, ready to yell at the poor man.

“What is the meaning of this mutiny?” he demanded. “No one told you to change course.”

“Actually someone did.” He turned, noticing his uncle for the first time, sitting there playing Pi Sho with one of the sailors. “I assure you it is a matter of outmost importance prince Zuko.”

“Is it something to do with the Avatar?” Zuko asked anxiously.

“Even more urgent.” His uncle answered gravely. “It seems I… I lost my lotus tile,” he explained, moving another tile on the board.

“Lotus tile?” His nephew stared at him surprised.

“For my Pi Sho game. Most people think the lotus tile insignificant, but it is essential for the unusual strategy I employ.”

“You’ve changed our course for a stupid Lotus Tile?” Zuko asked, refusing to believe it.

“See, you like most people underestimate its value.” Iroh berated his nephew lightly. “Just give me ten minutes to check the merchants at this port of coal. Hopefully,” he continued brightening, “they’ll have the lotus tile in their stock and I can get on with my life.”

Don’t kill him, he has done this before. Don’t kill him. Zuko thought trying to keep himself calm. It wasn’t easy so he resorted to a trick he had learned recently, the Dragon’s Breath. Through the fire sprouting from his mouth he could have sworn he heard his uncle saying: “I’m lucky to have such an understanding nephew.”

 

Zuko stormed to his room, nearly tearing the door from the hinges when he slammed it shut. He couldn’t believe his uncle. He acted as if he didn’t understand the importance of their mission!

“What’s wrong with shopping?” a voice asked. The prince huffed. Not her now!

“Seriously, what’s wrong with shopping?” Lia insisted.

“For you maybe it’s okay.” Zuko snapped. “For me, with my uncle tagging along, it’s torture. I’d rather have another run in with Zhao!”

Lia winced. “That bad.”

“If he was just browsing through the port it would be sufferable. But he buys everything he sees in front of him! Sometimes I feel like I’m the adult on this ship.” He threw himself on the bed next to her. Lia looked at him compassionately.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked.

“Could you plague the entire seacoast?” Zuko muttered gloomily.

“I could try…” Lia said thoughtfully.

In an instant Zuko shot standing looking at her horrified. “I was joking!”

“Me too!” she answered calmly. “I can’t believe you fell for it.”

Zuko scowled. “Thanks. You are worse than uncle Iroh.”

The redhead didn’t answer at first. She had a distant look in her face as if she was remembering something long gone. “Worse than Iroh…”she said absentmindedly. “This will be a revealing trip, in more than one way, for more than one person.” Her gaze cleared. “I’ll be around if you need anything. Just call out for me.”

 

She left Zuko to ponder her words. The next day, at sunset, he was still thinking of them as a way to distract himself from his uncle’s antics.

“I checked all the shops here. Not a lotus tile in the entire marketplace!” Iroh was aghast.

“It’s good to know that this trip was an entire waste of time for everyone.” Zuko snapped, his patience long gone.

“Quite the contrary,” his uncle assured him, “I always say that the only thing better than finding something you are looking for is finding something you weren’t looking for, at a great bargain!”

Zuko couldn’t help but feel sorry for the soldiers enlisted to carry his uncle’s collection of bargains. That is, until the last man passed. He turned surprised to the older man.

“You bought a Tsungi Horn?”

“For music night on the ship! Now if we only had some woodwinds…” Iroh began walking again. They were approaching the end of the port, where a pirate ship was docked.

“Oh, this place looks promising!” Iroh exclaimed in the excited voice of a six-year-old on too much sugar.

 

Inside there were all kind of strange merchandise. Zuko followed his uncle feeling more and more depressed. Iroh approached a horribly carved monkey with ruby eyes.

“Oh that is handsome! Won’t it look it look magnificent in the galley?”

His nephew rolled his eyes, wishing for a miracle. It came. One of the crew approached the captain pirate looking disappointed.

“We lost the Water Tribe girl and the little monk she was traveling with.”

Katara? What was she doing here?  Zuko halted realizing he had thought of the girl instead of the Avatar. He shook his head, ordering his stupid mind to Focus, and turned to the pirates.

“This monk, did he have an arrow on his head?” he asked.

 

That was indeed quite a revealing visit, Zuko thought smugly as he left the pirate ship, rather pleased with himself. He didn’t like the idea of working with their sort of people, but he had learnt the hard way that the Avatar was not to be underestimated. He played absentmindedly with the girl’s necklace, still wound securely around his wrist. She had stolen a waterbending scroll. So she was a waterbender. He had suspected as much but dismissed the thought. It was commonly assumed that there were no waterbenders left at the South Pole. Now he really couldn’t wait until their next encounter.

 

At sunset he took the smaller boat that normally functioned as a lifeboat and, along with his uncle, a few of his crew and the pirates, began searching the river.

“Shouldn’t we stop to search the woods?” the pirate captain asked.

“We don’t need to stop. They stole a waterbending scroll right?” The pirate nodded. “Then they’ll be on the water.” Wasn’t it obvious?

 

By night time they still hadn’t found the Avatar and his companions. The pirates were losing their patience, judging by the dark looks Zuko was getting. Suddenly they heard splashing. Katara was standing at the riverbank, trying a move and obviously not getting it right. She tried again and again, still with no success. Zuko absently motioned to the pirates to move first, almost too lost in observing her motions and half-muttered exclamations. She was even cuter when she was angry, he decided.

 

Katara of the Southern Water Tribe was mad. A day’s worth of frustrations were piling up, her inability to master the waterwhip, jealousy at Aang for getting it right in the first five minutes and a healthy dose of unjustified anger directed at the pirates for having the waterbending scroll in the first place. Overall, Katara decided, the whole stupid universe seemed to be against her at this point. Her dark musings were interrupted when she heard rustling nearby. Tiptoeing closer, she barely stifled a gasp at the sight of prince Zuko’s boat along with the pirate ship.

I need to tell the others she thought, turning to get the scroll, only to smash right into one of the pirates. He took hold of her with one arm, reaching for the scroll with the other.

“Let go of me!” Katara shouted, her arms going through the motions for the waterwhip. The man released her with a curse, cradling his stinging face, and she ran away from him, only to fall right into prince Zuko’s arms.

 

Zuko couldn’t believe his good luck. Not only it was Katara practicing by the river, but she was now his hostage. She had flown away from the pirate literally into his arms. He grabbed her wrists carefully, holding her close as he whispered to her:

“I’ll save you from the pirates.”

The moment the words came out his mouth, he regretted them. Why the hell would he say such a thing? And why was he holding her like she was made of glass when he had just seen that she was anything but defenceless? Zuko let go of Katara roughly, ordering his men to tie her to a nearby tree.

“Tell me where he is and I won’t hurt you or your brother.” He promised her.

“Go jump in the river!” was the only response the waterbender gave him before resuming her steely glare. Zuko looked at her from her head to toes. Even in a situation like this she looked… beautiful, his treacherous mind supplied. He had only seen her in her winter attire and he had to admit that he liked her better like this. Suddenly a thought crossed his mind. Am I checking her out?

 

Unbeknownst to him Katara was thinking along the same lines. Did this guy just check me out?  The thought confused her. Why would Zuko of all people do this? She had expected yelling, threats, maybe even violence but he had done none of that. He had even promised to let her and Sokka live. And now he was approaching her…

“Try to understand,” he pleaded, hoping to reason with her. “I need to capture him to restore something I’ve lost. My honour.” He was standing next to her now and the feel of him so close sent her heart racing. But why? She turned her head to the other side, half-wishing to banish these new thoughts. “Perhaps in exchange I can restore something you lost.” He offered taking out her necklace, acting as if he was going to place it on her neck.

“My mother’s necklace!” Katara gasped.

So that’s why it was so important! Zuko thought. He felt a twinge of guilt for using something so personal to bribe her but he didn’t have much of a choice. He shuddered at the thought of what the pirates might do to her if she didn’t comply.

“How did you get that?” Katara asked him accusingly.

“I didn’t steal it if that’s what you’re wondering.” Zuko answered curtly. “Tell me where he is!”

“No!”

 

“Enough of this necklace garbage” the pirate captain interfered. “You promised the scroll!”

Zuko and Katara looked at him surprise, having nearly forgotten that there was an audience to their banter. Zuko just about refrained from rolling his eyes in exasperation. Didn’t the man understand how hard it was for this girl to even consider betraying her friends? That he enjoyed their back-and-forth, the prince decided resolutely, had nothing to do with it. As for the pirates… He took out the scroll.

“I wonder how much money this is worth?” he said acting as if he was going to burn it. The pirates looked horrified at the mere thought. “A lot apparently.” Zuko smirked. “Now, you’ll help me find what I want and you’ll get this back and everyone goes home happy. Search the woods for the boy and bring him back here.”

“Fine.” The pirates grumbled and disappeared in the woods.

 

Night progressed steadily but the pirates didn’t return. This probably meant they hadn’t found the campsite, where Aang and Sokka were sleeping, yet, Katara thought. Unfortunately the exhaustion from her long day was finally catching up with her as the adrenaline left her system. Not that she could do much about it seeing that she was still tied to a tree. The old man who was accompanying Zuko, as well as his soldiers had returned to the boat, probably to sleep, but the prince hadn’t moved from his standing place a few meters away from her. Her eyes closed once again, tiredness finally pulling her under. Katara desperately tried to fight the sleep, knowing it was pointless, when she felt a pair of strong arms holding her. She opened her eyes surprised to see Zuko loosening her ties and helping her sit in a way that she could sleep comfortably, even if she could not escape. She met his face, shocked to see him looking at her with care.

“I’ll bring you a blanket.” He told her softly. “Just promise not to run off, okay? And you’ll have to be standing like before when they return.”

“Why are you doing this?” Katara asked him sharply, torn between suspicion and disbelief.

Zuko looked at her surprised. “You’re tired and you’d hurt yourself if you fell asleep like this. I don’t want that to happen.” He answered, the last part escaping without his meaning to. He stood and stalked back to the boat to fetch a blanket, hoping that the burning he felt in his face was not a blush. Katara could just about keep herself from gasping aloud when the prince lowered himself next to her to tuck the blanket around her crouched form.

“Sleep well,” he whispered, almost reluctantly, before retreating back to his previous position.

 

Despite the confused thoughts running through her head, Katara managed to sleep soundly for a few hours. Her dreams were interrupted suddenly, when she felt someone shaking her.

“Katara wake up!” she heard a boy whispering. She opened her eyes to see Zuko’s face inches from hers. Before she had a chance to protest he stood, helping her up in the process. “My uncle will be coming out of the boat any minute now. He can’t see this.”

At the sound of his words Katara tensed. She saw Zuko hastily fixing the rope, not really paying attention on what he was doing. The blanket was already gone from sight. His uncle must be terrifying, if he acts like this, she thought nervously.

 

On that note – and as Zuko was jumping away from her – the old man exited the boat. Seeing Katara standing still tied and half-asleep he shook his head disapprovingly at Zuko.

“Really prince Zuko, couldn’t you have been a little more hospitable with the lovely lady?” he berated the boy. His nephew didn’t answer, merely looking away. Katara listened to the whole exchange, astonished. So Zuko didn’t want his uncle to know that he cared. Why?

 

She didn’t have time to ponder the ins and outs of a firebender’s thought process as the pirates chose that moment to reappear, dragging Aang and Sokka along.

“Nice work” Zuko praised them. He moved to give them the scroll when Katara’s voice rang out.

“Aang I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

“No Katara, it isn’t” the Avatar reassured her.

“Actually it kind of is…” his uncle jumped in.

“Give me the boy.” Zuko ordered.

“You give us the scroll” the pirate leader shot back.

“You’re really going to give in the Avatar for a stupid piece of parchment?” suddenly the Water Tribe boy exclaimed, disbelief coating his words.

“Don’t listen to him. He’s trying to turn us against each other.” Zuko hastily said.

“Your friend is the Avatar?” the captain asked.

“Sure he is!” the boy assured them. “And I bet that he will fetch a lot more in the black market than a fancy scroll…”

“Shut your mouth you Water Tribe peasant!” Zuko erupted.

“Yeah Sokka, you really should shut your mouth.” Aaang warned him. Sokka obviously didn’t get the message.

“I’m just saying it’s bad business.” He shrugged as best as he could with his arms tied. “Just imagine how much the Fire Lord would pay for the Avatar. You guys would be set for life.”

“Keep the scroll,” the captain told dismissively Zuko. “We can buy a hundred with the reward for the kid.”

 

The pirate crew turned to leave.

“You’ll regret breaking a deal with me.” Zuko muttered angrily. He and the soldiers sent a massive wall of fire towards the pirates. They fought back and soon the whole battlefield was covered in concealing smoke. Katara took the chance and tried to loosen the rope. Surprised she noticed that it gave way with almost no effort. Zuko must have forgotten to tighten it, worried as he was for his uncle. She darted to the pirate ship, trying to push it back into the water.

 

Meanwhile Zuko was pulled out of the smoke. He took a moment to secure the scroll in his belt, freeing both his hands. The captain saw him and tried to attack. Zuko quickly took hold of both the man’s wrists, but before he had a chance to do anything else he felt the scroll leaving his belt. He turned to see a pirate sending it flying. He returned his focus on his opponent, not much caring for the parchment anyway. Suddenly his uncle came between them.

“Are you so busy fighting,” he berated them, “that you don’t notice your own ship has set sale?”

“We have no time for your proverbs uncle.” Zuko told him

“It’s no proverb.” Iroh answered motioning at the ship leaving, having been commandeered by the Avatar and his friends.

“Bladed hog-monkeys!” the captain exclaimed, running after them. Zuko burst out laughing, until he saw the pirates seizing his boat.

“Hey!” he yelled, running after them too. “That’s my boat!”

“Maybe it should be a proverb.” Iroh said to himself.

“Come on uncle!” Zuko called him.

 

The two firebenders stopped in shock as both boats, carried downstream by the strong currents, were taken down at a nearby waterfall none of them had noticed. Zuko’s thoughts came to a screeching halt, denial covering every single one of them like a fog. Then the Avatar’s bison appeared seemingly out of nowhere and Zuko breathed a sigh of relief and promptly dismissed any inkling of worry he might have felt. Now he only had to worry about…

“My boat!” he said furious, as he leaned over the edge and saw its remains on the rocks below. His uncle finally approached him panting.

“Prince Zuko you’re really going to get a kick out of this,” he said with a breathless chuckle. “The lotus tile was in my sleeve the whole time!”

Zuko turned wordlessly and grabbed the stupid tile. If it hadn’t been for that none of this would have happened. He threw it as far as he could – which was quite far –in an effort to calm himself. “Come on.” He grumbled to Iroh. “We have quite some walking to do.”

 

They finally arrived at their ship long after the sun had set. Zuko waited until everyone else had retired, before getting out of his hiding place on deck. He was so lost in thought he didn’t see Lia materialising on his side until she shook his shoulder. He jumped surprised.

“I need to ask you something.” He told her in the tense tone of someone questioning their own sanity.

“Sure!” she answered casually, hopping lightly on the railing and sitting on it.

“Yesterday, with the pirates, I don’t know if you were there…” Zuko trailed off, looking at her helplessly. He didn’t have the slightest idea of how to explain his actions even to himself.

“I was. And I have an explanation for you but I don’t know if you’ll like it.”

“I probably won’t,” Zuko shrugged. “But tell me anyway.”

“Very well.” Lia took a breath. “You like Katara. As in like-like her.” Zuko looked at her blankly for a moment, before her words registered.

“What?” he sputtered in disbelief. “How can I? I don’t even know her and besides! She’s just a Water Tribe peasant!”

Lia rolled her eyes. “I’ll save you from the pirates.” She mimicked. Then she smiled. “It was a bit romantic, you know. Besides you did propose to her in a way.”

“H…how?” Zuko paled. Of all the things, this was not what he had expected to hear. Lia pointed at the necklace he had been absentmindedly playing with during their conversation.

“This is a Water Tribe betrothal necklace. By offering it to her, well, you kind of asked her to marry you.”

“Spirits help me!” he groaned.

“Be careful what you wish for… However, if it makes you feel better, Katara doesn’t know the significance of it either. For her it’s just a memento from her mother.” Her reassurance didn’t seem to work.

“What can I do?” Zuko asked her desperately.

 

A noise from the door leading below deck interrupted them.

“For now?” Lia whispered. “Hide because someone’s coming. I’ll see you soon.”

When Iroh came out he just saw prince Zuko sitting alone, gazing at the moon, the waterbender’s necklace still at hand. The old man smiled. The trip on the market was a very good idea indeed.

Το κοράκι

Standard

Το κοράκι στέκεται περήφανο,
Ίδιο, όπως την ημέρα
Που τα τρεμάμενα δάχτυλα το σχημάτισαν
Με λέξεις δυσνόητες και σπασμένες.

Το χαρτί κιτρίνισε απ’τον καπνό
Των τσιγάρων του Πατέρα.
Τα γράμματα θαμπά,
Ξεχασμένα σαν το όνειρο
Που χάνεται στο πρώτο φως,
Το κλάμα του μωρού στην κούνια.

Και το κοράκι ακόμα στέκει περήφανο:
Το φεγγάρι που φωτίζει τι θα μπορούσε να συμβεί.
Ενώ η κίσσα στο περβάζι περιμένει με σίγουρο μάτι
Τις στάχτες να γίνουν διαμάντι
Και το διαμάντι να πέσει στην ανοιχτή της παλάμη.