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. 😉
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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.