Author’s Note: In which the author is shipping, Zuko starts to question things, Katara is a badass and Zhao gets his due.
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***The Siege of the North***
The weeks until they reached the North Pole were some of the hardest of their lives for Iroh and Zuko. They were in constant fear that someone would discover the stow-away prince. This fear, especially with Zhao constantly prowling the flagship’s corridors, was what convinced Lia to allow Zuko to enter the in-between zone with her. She had formed a little shelter there, where he could at least sleep safely. Zuko didn’t hate the place as much as she did, but he wasn’t comfortable there either. In an attempt to make him feel a little better she began to teach him how to manipulate the energies there to form a window out in the physical world. Zuko spent a lot of his time keeping tabs on the Avatar and his friends, paying extra attention to Katara as she managed to be admitted to the fighting waterbending classes and moved to rapidly master her element.
Weeks later, when the fleet had docked at a safe distance from the Northern Water Tribe citadel, Zuko, still dressed as a soldier, met with his uncle one last time.
“We’ll be landing soon. Do you have a plan?” the old man asked worriedly.
“I’m working on it uncle,” Zuko assured him. Iroh left without a comment and the prince moved unseen on the stern. Lia was there immediately.
“What are you going to do?” she asked him curiously.
“Seriously, I don’t know,” he answered. “I haven’t found much about the city. The Avatar could be anywhere inside.”
“He will be in the most spiritual place on the North Pole…” Lia whispered absentmindedly. Zuko had learned to recognize her vision-mode, as she called it, and waited for her to snap out of it. Once she did he asked her.
“Are you still against me capturing the Avatar?”
“Yes,” she said plainly. “And I know that neither of us will change his or her mind. So listen to what I’ll do: If you find a way to enter the city, I will lead you to the Avatar.”
“Will I ever understand your way of thinking?” Zuko asked her, rolling his eyes. “If you don’t agree, don’t help me at all.”
“Oh, but I won’t help you!” Lia smiled mischievously. “I will merely show you the way. Trust me; I know what I’m doing.”
“All right” Zuko sighed. “I trust you.” And he turned to leave.
Night fell. The moon was nearly full, Zuko noted. The waterbenders would be at their most powerful for a few nights. No wonder Zhao had stopped. Zuko turned his attention on the small canoe he was preparing. He was almost ready to leave. It was a surprise his uncle hadn’t appeared, he noted a little disappointed. I’m being selfish. Zuko decided. Iroh had already risked too much by even coming with him. He heard the door behind opening.
“You’re fishing for an octopus my nephew,” Iroh said. “You need a tightly knitted net, or he will squeeze through the tiniest hole and escape.”
“I don’t need your wisdom right now uncle.” Zuko said straightening. Mentally he slapped himself. Wasn’t his uncle’s presence –and inevitable proverbs- what he had just been wishing for?
“I’m sorry. I just nag you because…well…ever since I lost my son…” Iroh tried to explain.
“Uncle, you don’t have to say it.” Zuko tried awkwardly to help him.
“…I think of you as my own.” Iroh finished.
Zuko turned, touched. Of all the things his uncle could say, that was the last the thought he would. “I know uncle.” He bowed. “We’ll meet again.” Before he had a chance to turn, Iroh hugged him tightly. Zuko hugged him back briefly. “After I have the Avatar,” he concluded.
Zuko got in the boat and before he lowered himself on the sea he turned to Iroh for a last piece of advice. The old man didn’t disappoint him.
“Remember your breath of fire. It could save your life out there.”
“I will.” He promised.
“And put your hood up. Keep your ears warm.” Iroh called after him.
“I’ll be fine.” Zuko answered rolling his eyes.
Zuko monitored the boat through the icebergs. The cold was almost unbearable, worse than on the South Pole. He took a look at the guard tower and quickly hid behind a block of ice. The walls had a lot of damage, but still he couldn’t pass through them unnoticed. Zuko suddenly understood what Lia had meant. It was next to impossible to enter the city at all. He anchored his canoe the nearest he could get to the wall itself. There was no way in. He almost turned to leave when he heard some seals. They were diving inside a small hole in the ice and didn’t reappear anywhere near.
“Where are they going?” Zuko wondered aloud. “They have to come out somewhere for air.” Not seeing any better chance to make any process he took a deep breath and dived in.
Just when he thought he’d run out of air he saw an opening. Zuko used his remaining strength to half-swim half-drag himself out of water. Once he had somewhat regained his breath he realized just how cold he was. He curled into foetal position trying in vain to get any warmer. Seeing no other solution, Zuko breathed deeply and exhaled fire a few times. He slowly returned to a more normal temperature.
“Be quiet!” he shouted at the seals, succeeding in silencing them for a few moments. He staggered to his feet and started looking for an exit to the city.
There was a powerful steam running through the other end of the icy cave. Zuko hesitated only for a moment before he started climbing up, going against the current. He almost lost his footing a few times, but managed to climb out of the tunnel. Then he could swim easier to the top of what seemed like a huge lake of salt water covered by a low dome of ice. He took a few deep breaths before diving again in search of an exit. One of the other tunnels that ended there seemed to emit light. Zuko headed through it looking for an opening. He found one, blocked with a thin layer of ice. He didn’t have much breath left and the ice wouldn’t budge. Desperate he tried the only trick in regard to water that Lia had taught him and he had manage to master.
He heated the ice, careful not to let the warm water escape. In no time the ice gave way. Zuko would have celebrated if he had any strength at all left. He couldn’t even come out of water. Just when he was ready to give up, a pair of hands dove in and dragged him out. He felt the familiar wave of burning energy surge through him, combined with warm air. Lia helped him lie on the floor of the small tunnel they were in, near the opening.
“Rest a little.” She told him breathing heavily. “The Avatar is near.”
“I don’t need rest,” Zuko told her sitting up. “You said you’d show me the way.”
Lia sighed. “And I will. But stay quiet.”
“Lia,” Zuko called her as she turned, “thanks for saving my life, again.”
“Just don’t make it a habit. You promised me, remember?” the Spirit smiled warmly. “Now come on.”
As they walked the air was getting warmer and warmer. When Lia disappeared silently, Zuko knew he was close. Hidden behind some blocks of ice he saw the Avatar meditating, while Katara and another Water Tribe girl were standing close to him.
“Maybe we should get some help,” the girl was saying worried.
“No, he’s my friend. I’m perfectly capable of protecting him,” Katara assured her.
“Well,” Zuko said sarcastically, through chattering teeth, “aren’t you a big girl now?”
Katara turned surprised. There he was, Zuko, standing in something else than his usual Fire Nation armour, looking like he’d been through hell.
“No,” she whispered terrified. Who did this to you? Zuko seemed to take it the wrong way.
“Yes,” he said crossing the small bridge that had separated them. “Hand him over and I won’t have to hurt you.” Please Katara don’t fight back. I don’t want to hurt you. The other girl ran away, probably to bring help, while Katara slid into a fighting stance. Zuko attacked sending fire towards her, but purposely avoiding her as a target. Turns out he didn’t have to. Katara bended water out of the small river surrounding them, blocking every attack and sending him flying against the wall.
“I see you’ve learned a new trick, but I didn’t come this far to lose to you.” He told her, trying to make her back down. It wasn’t working. During night and so near her element she was powerful.
Slowly she made him back to the wall. Zuko was beginning to get afraid. He had underestimated her, having judged her abilities from the glimpses of lessons he had seen. He knew she was competent but didn’t expect her iron control over her water’s movement. He saw her smile at her own work as she imprisoned him in a ball of ice.
“You little peasant! You found a master, didn’t you?” he asked, a hint of pride in his voice, before he raised the temperature inside the sphere abruptly. The ice exploded.
They continued to fight. To an outsider it might seem like they were dancing, close enough to observe each other’s face. Katara could feel her heart beating faster and faster. It was more the closeness with Zuko than the fight itself. She saw his gaze slipping to her lips a few times. The girl paused for a second, something Zuko used to grab Aang by his shirt. Her haze broken, she attacked him again and managed to trap him in a mountain of ice, rendering him unconscious. Katara watched over the two boys the whole night.
Dawn broke only too soon for her. Zuko felt the sun giving him power, he felt able to melt the whole Pole. He silently freed himself from the iceberg. The prince was angry, really angry with himself for having underestimated Katara and for giving way to his feelings. He couldn’t hurt her, he had almost kissed her when they were fighting. Katara was now approaching the Avatar to check on him. Zuko sent a powerful blast of fire at their direction. She saw it too late and didn’t have time to properly block it. It knocked her on a tree and she fell to the ground. Zuko was on her side a second later, checking if she was okay. When he saw that she was just dazed he turned and took hold of the Avatar.
“You rise with the moon.” Katara heard him say through a fog. “I rise with the sun.”
Outside the oasis the cold was deadly. Zuko didn’t have much of a choice so he kept walking, hoping to find shelter soon. He didn’t bother to cover his tracks. The snow that kept falling did it for him.
The snow soon turned into a blizzard. Zuko kept walking, using sheer will-power only. He felt really tired, despite the energy Lia had given him. And it wasn’t just that. Part of him wanted to abandon the Avatar and return to make sure Katara would be okay. Zhao would have definitely entered the city by now, and it would be only a matter of time until he found the oasis. The little voice inside his head kept telling him that he should be on her side, instead of out there risking both his and the Avatar’s lives.
Suddenly he heard the ice crack, making a sound like the crack of a whip. Horrified he saw it giving way. He run and, using the last of his strength, jumped away from danger. Rising unsteadily to his feet he saw shelter. Dragging the Avatar behind him – he was far too tired for niceties – he entered the small cave. He leaned the kid – who remained unconscious – against a wall and proceeded to tie him.
Even though the wind wasn’t biting them inside the cave, the cold was the same. Zuko breathed fire into his hands, trying to make life return to them. He looked at the twelve-year-old opposite to him.
“I finally have you, but I can’t get you home because of this blizzard. There’s always something. Not that you would understand, you’re like my sister. Everything always came easy to her. She’s a firebending prodigy and everyone adores her. My father says she was born lucky; he says I was lucky to be born. I don’t need luck though, I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight and that’s made me strong, it’s made me who I am.”
“It’s made you someone you should be proud to be,” he heard a girl’s voice say. Lia had appeared again.
“You said you wouldn’t help,” Zuko said gesturing at the cheerful fire that the Spirit had lit.
“I’m not helping you capture Aang, I’m keeping you two alive. You’d freeze to death.”
Lia sighed. She had seen a few of the things that were to happen and she didn’t exactly like them. Right now, the only thing she could do though was to prevent the boy sitting next to her from convincing himself of his uselessness. She tried again.
“Zuko, if Azula became Fire Lord, she would be feared. She wouldn’t care for the people, not even for her own and eventually, she would exhaust the world with her endless wars. Would you do any of this?”
“No,” Zuko told her horrified at even the thought. “Being Fire Lord is like being a father for your people and as for the war…” he paused uncertainly. “I… I’m not so sure it’s right anymore.”
“Exactly!” Lia exclaimed. “Azula commands fear, but you genially care. Your people would love you. Isn’t love something worth fighting for?”
“You’re not just referring to my father’s heir are you?” Zuko asked her suspiciously.
“You tell me?” Lia shot back. “Now, will you please, get some rest? We’ll be here for a while.”
Beside them Aang took a deep breath. Zuko looked at him curiously.
“What is he doing?” he asked Lia. She concentrated for a few moments, following the Avatar’s unique aura, before opening her eyes and casting the kid a fearful look.
“I can feel him in the Spirit World.” She said. “He is talking with the Face Stealer.”
“Face Stealer?” Zuko looked at her surprised.
“He’s an ancient demon with a personal score with the Avatar. He was slayed almost nine hundred years ago by a previous incarnation.”
“Why is he called like this?”
“If you show the slightest emotion before him, he steals your face. No one goes near him unless it was a matter of life and death. What was Roku thinking? I know these Spirits and could have helped him! Honestly this man sometimes doesn’t think!” She tried to stand up, but Zuko held her down.
“Care to explain, oh mighty Spirit?” he asked her annoyed. Lia took a few deep breaths.
“I’ve been waiting for you at the Spirit Oasis, where you found Katara and Aang. Aang crossed to the Spirit World to find the Ocean and Moon Spirits. Roku found him there and guided him to the Face Stealer, because he couldn’t think of any other Spirit old enough to know of their location. But I was there when Tui and La crossed the bridge and took mortal forms. I know too were they are.”
“So the Avatar just had to ask you?”
“Exactly!” Lia scoffed. “Men!” she muttered under her breath.
Suddenly Aang opened his eyes. Zuko turned, hearing him trying to stand.
“Welcome back,” he told the boy. Lia had become invisible the moment the Avatar had woken.
“Good to be back,” the kid answered. He took a huge breath and literally flew out of the cave. He started crawling away. In retrospect, it was rather pointless. Zuko caught up with him immediately.
“That won’t be enough to escape,” he said, grabbing the airbender by the collar.
“Appa!” Aang called, seeing his bison landing.
Zuko smiled, seeing Katara approaching.
“Came for a rematch?” he asked her eagerly.
“Trust me Zuko, it’s not going to be much of a match.” Feeling the power given to her by the full moon, she knocked him out cold. Sokka approached Aang and cut his bonds.
“Hey, this is some quality rope!” the warrior exclaimed.
“We need to get to the oasis. The Spirits are in trouble!”
They all hurried to Appa, except for Katara. She was looking at the cave where Zuko had taken shelter. On the entrance stood a young woman with flowing red hair looking at her pleadingly. Somehow Katara knew that this was a Spirit, a Spirit that protected the prince. Suddenly a memory came to her.
– Flashback –
“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.
He looked at her surprised. “You’re tired and you’d hurt yourself if you fell asleep like this. I don’t want this to happen.”
– End of Flashback –
She had been on his mercy and he had been so caring. How could she not return the gesture?
“Katara come on!” Sokka called. “You heard Aang, we need to get back.” She turned to them and then back to Zuko.
“We can’t leave him here. He’ll die.”
“Sure we can. Let’s go.” Sokka said.
“No,” Katara yelled at him. “I owe him and I won’t let him out here to freeze.”
It was Aang’s turn to turn towards the Prince and the cave. He had felt a Spirit’s presence there. He too saw Lia, only he recognized her. A memory came to him too.
– Flashback –
He had taken of the Blue Spirit’s mask. Seeing Zuko under it, he had sprung to his feet and started running away to fall right into her. The Avatar had recognized her immediately as a Spirit and despite the situation bowed. She roughly led him towards Zuko.
“I’ll help you if you help him.” She 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 had used her powers to send them away.
– End of Flashback –
Aang sighed. “Katara’s right. We cannot just leave him here.” He jumped off Appa and helped Katara bring the unconscious boy on the saddle. Sokka rushed to tie him.
“This makes a lot of sense. Let’s save the guy who’s constantly trying to kill us,” he grumbled.
They had almost returned to the city when the moon turned red. Yue, the white-haired princess of the Northern Water Tribe grabbed her temples.
“Are you okay?” Sokka asked her softly.
“I feel faint,” she managed to whisper.
“I feel it too,” Katara said.
“It’s the Moon Spirit,” Aang realised. “It’s in trouble.”
“I owe the Moon Spirit my life,” Yue confessed.
“What do you mean?” Sokka asked.
“When I was born I was very sick and very weak. Most babies cry when they’re born, but I was born as if I were asleep, my eyes closed. Our healers did everything they could. They told my mother and father I was going to die. My father pleaded with the Spirits to save me. That night, beneath the full moon, he brought me to the oasis and placed me in the pond. My dark hair turned white, I opened my eyes and began to cry and they knew I would live. That’s why my mother named me Yue, for the moon.”
They landed silently at the pond. Zhao was there bragging about how he would become a legend. Lia was disgusted with the man. He was so self-absorbed that he would mock his own death. Suddenly Momo, Aang’s flying lemur jumped on his head, trying to make him let go of the Moon Spirit. Lia smiled seeing the great Admiral failing to get a small lemur off his head, before returning to the task at hand. She was trying to wake Zuko, with no success. Finally she leaned and whispered to his ear “Zhao’s here.” His eyes opened immediately. He sat up observing the scene.
“You need to get out of here.” Lia told him.
“I need to stop Zhao. He’s going to kill the Spirit.” He shot back, pointing at the bag still dangling from the older man’s grasp, where the Moon Spirit was trapped in its koi fish form.
“Stopping this from happening is the Avatar’s job. Zhao will soon be running for his life. Don’t you want to be waiting for him?”
“Fine!” he sighed. “But I want to see what happens first.”
That was the best she could get out of him, so she agreed.
Everyone had fallen into fighting stances.
“Don’t bother,” Zhao said threatening the Spirit with a knife.
“Zhao, don’t!” the Avatar warned him.
“It’s my destiny. To destroy the Moon and the Water Tribe.”
Zuko cringed upon hearing that.
“Destroying the Moon won’t hurt just the Water Tribe. It will hurt everyone; including you. Without the Moon everything will fall out of balance. You have no idea what king of chaos this would unleash to the world.”
“He is right Zhao,” Another voice suddenly said from the shadows.
“General Iroh,” the Admiral remarked, “why am I not surprised to discover your treachery?”
“I am no traitor Zhao,” Iroh said. “The Fire Nation needs the Moon Spirit too. We all depend on the balance.” Zhao was obviously not convinced. “Whatever you do to that Spirit I will unleash on you tenfold! Now let it go!” the Dragon of the West thundered.
Zhao seemed to surrender momentarily. He freed the Spirit and the night sky returned to its normal colour. As he stood though, something seemed to snap inside him. He bended a huge fire to the pond. The sky turned grey, the Moon now dead. Iroh attacked the soldiers Zhao had brought with him furiously, while the Admiral…
“He’s not going to escape this one.” Zuko hissed furious. He had seen the looks of pain on both Katara’s and Yue’s faces and he slipped away to find Zhao.
“This way!” Lia appeared next to him, guiding him through the city streets. She seemed to be equally furious, because the soldiers they encountered were knocked out without so much of a glance from her.
They found Zhao running away. Lia sent a flame to erupt right in front of him, halting him for a moment. The man turned to see Zuko towering on a balcony overhead.
“You’re alive?” he asked terrified. Who could survive an explosion big enough to destroy a ship?
“You tried to have me killed!” Zuko accused, sending more fire against him.
“Yes I did,” Zhao admitted. “You were the Blue Spirit, an enemy to the Fire Nation. You freed the Avatar.”
“I had no choice,” Zuko shot back. He continued to send fire against him, but Zhao blocked the attacks.
“You should have chosen to accept your failure. Then at least you could have lived!” He attacked Zuko, only to find out – the hard way – how much better the boy had become since their Agni Kai. Soon he was knocked out of the level they were fighting.
Their fight continued, as the sky was lit by the moon again. They didn’t notice it at first, but then Zhao went flying and as he looked up he saw the full moon glaring down at him.
“It can’t be!” he cried. Zuko turned for a moment, to see the Spirit restored to its position. He smiled menacingly at the older man.
“You failed,” he whispered. As if to prove it, the hand of the Ocean Spirit appeared, almost trapping them. Lia pulled Zuko away, but Zhao wasn’t that lucky. He was imprisoned by the pure power of the Ocean. Zuko tried to save him, not really understanding why, but Zhao preferred death than help from his enemy.
“You did what you could, Lia said to Zuko, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Now come on. It’s not safe here and you need to find Iroh.” Zuko didn’t protest. The fatigue was getting the better of him so he followed his Guardian Spirit silently.
By dawn Zuko had found Iroh. The old man had put together a small make-shift raft. Once he was sure that his nephew was alive and in one piece they got in.
“I’m surprised prince Zuko,” Iroh said while managing the sails. “Surprised that you are not at this moment trying to capture the Avatar.” He stole a look at Zuko, when fire didn’t immediately come towards him.
“I’m tired,” Zuko admitted quietly.
“Then you should rest. A man needs his rest.” Smiling Iroh watched as his nephew laid down and slept. It was the first time since he was a child that Zuko admitted weakness in front of others. Maybe it was a sign that things were going to be better for them.
***End of Book 1 – Water***