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