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.
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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.