Author’s Note: In which the author is tearing her hair because internet banking is too damn complicated (but still finds the time to come up with a silly pun for the title), Book 2’s resident headache makes her first appearance and there is a TWIST!
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For years, even long after the war was over and certain things had been explained, Iroh would marvel at those three weeks they had survived on the raft. The miracles never seemed to cease, from the good weather they had, to the steady current that led them straight to the Earth Kingdom’s northern shores. But the greatest mystery, Iroh mused, was their lack of need for food or water. Every day they would wake feeling a wave of burning energy surging through them, to find that they had never left their course.
For Zuko all these miracles were no mysteries at all. He might never say it to his uncle, but he had known all along that a certain Spirit was behind them. During the nights, when he lay awake in order to avoid the dreams that plagued him, he would steady the current himself, fearing that eventually even Lia would exhaust herself. Every time he thought of her he saw her in his mind’s eye thinned and paler than normal. These thoughts and the guilt accompanying them made him solemn and during these weeks he barely spoke with his uncle.
Later he would thank the old man for his understanding. He knew that whenever he was dreaming he talked in his sleep, but whether or not Iroh had heard him he never gave any indication or questioned him. He was constantly dreaming of Katara. He saw her grown-up and always in the Fire Lady’s attire. He would see them both sitting by his mother’s pond, or playing with their children or –his favorite– being all together, his uncle and mother present on the old beach house at Ember Island.
Now they had finally reached the Earth Kingdom. Iroh had right away found a resort and seemed willing to stay there for more than what was essential for them to recover. Zuko wouldn’t have much of a problem if Iroh hadn’t insisted that his nephew accompany him everywhere. Today it was a massage that the old man just had to attend. Today of all days! Zuko thought gravelly. He distantly listened to his uncle’s commentary.
“This is what I’ve been missing!” Iroh sighed. “Who knew that floating on a piece of wood for three weeks with no food or water and sea vultures waiting to pluck out your liver would make one so tense?” He cast a glance to Zuko, still sitting by the entrance and realization hit him. “I see.” He said approaching the teenager. “It’s the anniversary, isn’t it?”
“Three years ago today I was banished,” Zuko said in a colorless voice. “I lost it all. I want it back. I want the Avatar, I want my honor, my throne,” Katara he added in his head, “I want my father not to think I’m worthless.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t!” Iroh assured him cheerfully. “Why would he banish you if he didn’t care?” Zuko shot him a glare and left. Iroh mentally face-palmed himself. “That came out wrong didn’t it?” The two masseurs didn’t answer but Iroh swore he had heard a feminine voice whispering nearby, You have no idea.
Zuko walked inside the forest fast, almost running. He heard footsteps behind him and quickened his pace. The person following him wasn’t discouraged. Not bothering to check who the follower was he spun and attacked as soon as he reached a clearing. To his surprise the person, who was wearing a dark brown cape with a hood, blocked his attack and pushed him off his feet. The figure towered over him seemingly ready to strike. Zuko didn’t give them any time. He sent a wave of pure heat to knock his opponent and jumped to his feet, a ball of fire ready on his hand just in case. The figure didn’t move from the ground, whoever they were just stayed there laughing quietly. Bewildered Zuko approached. The hood had fallen of the person’s head to reveal a youthful, female face that was looking up at him smiling brightly. Just like he had imagined she was paler than usual but other than that she seemed fine.
“Well, aren’t you going to help me to my feet?” Lia asked him. Despite his foul mood, Zuko found himself smiling slightly and relaxing.
“You shouldn’t be sneaking up on me,” he told her, but, nonetheless helped her.
“Hey!” Lia said in mock insult. “I was trying to catch up with you but you took off! Then you attack me and as I came to help you stand you send a perfect heat wave at me. And you say I sneaked up on you?”
Her presence had an instant effect on him. He was suddenly less tense. Zuko embraced Lia briefly, still surprised to see her. The redhead looked at him worriedly. She was aware of what had happened this day and didn’t want to make her “brother” more worried but he had to know.
“I was really worried for you,” Zuko told her still smiling. “I was afraid that you’d exhaust yourself to death.”
“It was a little tiring but it was worth it,” Lia answered returning his enthusiastic smile with a half-hearted one. Zuko saw that and grew serious.
“What’s the matter?” he asked her worried. “Are you okay? You’re not…” he paused terrified, “you’re not leaving?” To his surprise Lia plopped to the ground, her back against the nearest tree. All her previous levity drained away and she was shaking from the stress.
“Your sister is coming,” she explained breathing heavily. “I’ve been spying on her for quite some time now and I don’t know what she wants, I couldn’t read her. I just sensed so much maliciousness around her and I know I should have read her, but I’m so tired and worried, and what if she convinces you to do something you’d regret later? I’ll never forgive myself and…”
“Lia calm down!” Zuko cried frightened. “If Azula is coming I know I can’t trust anything she says. And even if I make a mistake it will scarcely be your fault. Please calm down. You’re exhausted that’s all.”
Lia took a few more shaky breaths and wiped away some stray tears.
“I act like an idiot, don’t I?” she asked quietly.
“Of course not!” Zuko said surprised at the reverse of the roles. Usually it was the Spirit comforting him, not the other way around. “Listen, I promise to be careful with Azula, if you promise to rest. Okay, sister?”
“Okay,” Lia muttered before disappearing. Zuko sighed and returned to the small hut where he and his uncle had been staying.
“Look at these magnificent shells!” Iroh was admiring his new collection. “I’ll enjoy these keepsakes for years to come.”
“We don’t need any more useless things,” Zuko told him tiredly. “You forget we have to carry everything ourselves now.”
“Hello brother. Uncle.” The arrogant voice of princess Azula came from the door. Instantly both Zuko and Iroh frowned suspiciously.
“What are you doing here?” Zuko asked her. He had thought that she was just approaching the land, not that she was already there.
“In my country we exchange a pleasant hello before asking questions,” she reprimanded. “Have you become uncivilized so soon Zuzu?”
“Don’t call me that!” her brother yelled, cringing at his old nickname.
“To what do we owe this honor?” Iroh asked with strained politeness.
“Hm, must be a family trait,” Azula observed. “Both of you so quick to get to the point. I’ve come with a message from home,” she explained. “Father has changed his mind. Family is suddenly very important to him. He’s heard rumors of plans to overthrow him, treacherous plots. Family are the only ones you can really trust. Father regrets your banishment. He wants you home.” She turned to look at her brother who looked like he had been struck by lightning. “Did you hear me?” she asked impatiently as Zuko turned to the window. “You should be happy, excited, grateful! I just gave you great news.”
“I’m sure your brother needs a moment…” Iroh tried to cut in.
“Don’t interrupt uncle.” Azula yelled at him. “I still haven’t heard my thank you. I’m not a messenger. I didn’t have to come all this way,” she said in a slightly calmer voice.
“Father regrets?” Zuko was having a hard time to believe it. Lia’s word from earlier were ringing at his ears. “He… wants me back?”
“I can see you need time to take this in. I’ll come to call on you tomorrow. Good evening.” She left.
Zuko’s thoughts were spinning inside his head. On the one hand he remembered how worried Lia had been. He knew her enough to understand that things were worse than awful for her to react this way. He also knew Azula and how little she could be trusted. But then again it might be his only chance to return home. Should he risk it because of his suspicions?
“We’re going home. After three long years; it’s unbelievable!” he said to his uncle. Iroh didn’t seem so enthusiastic.
“It is unbelievable. I have never known my brother to regret anything,” he said gravely. Zuko turned to him incredulous.
“Did you listen to Azula? Father realized how important family is to him. He cares about me.”
“I care about you!” Iroh said raising his voice. “And if Ozai wants you back well, I think it might not be for the reasons you imagine.”
“You don’t know how my father feels about me.” Zuko could feel his temper rising. Never mind that his uncle’s words echoed his own suspicions. “You don’t know anything!”
“Zuko, I only meant that in our family things are not always what they seem.”
“I think you are exactly what you seem. A lazy, mistrustful, shallow, old man who has always been jealous of his brother.” Zuko took his things and stormed out of the hut. When morning came he would return home. He wished, deep down, that his uncle would come with him.
When the sun rose, Zuko began to walk towards the port. He paused for a moment looking at his sister’s ship. It was larger than the one his uncle had secured for them after he had been banished. Zuko wondered, what was the point of taking such a big piece of junk unless you wanted to show off? As he started climbing down the endless stairway that led to the shore, he heard Iroh calling behind him.
“Wait!” the old man was panting. “Don’t leave without me!”
“Uncle, you’ve changed your mind!” Zuko smiled.
“Family sticks together, right?” Iroh answered.
“We’re finally going home.” Zuko turned to continue down the stairs, missing the suspicious look Iroh shot at the ship. The old General’s instinct was ringing bells of alarm.
In the wharf the Red Imperial Guards were lined on parade rest. Zuko and Iroh crossed them. When they were almost at the ship Azula appeared on deck, smiling.
“Brother, uncle, welcome!” They bowed to her in greeting and she bowed in return. “I’m so glad you decided to come.” The guards fell in line behind them.
“Are we ready to depart Your Highness?” the captain asked.
“Set our course for home captain,” Azula ordered in the same pleasant voice.
“Home!” Zuko whispered longingly.
“Your heard the princess. Raise the anchors!” the captain ordered. “We’re taking the prisoners home.” Azula and Zuko paled hearing this. Iroh, on the other hand, started immediately knocking the guards out of his way.
“You lied to me!” Zuko yelled at his sister.
“Like I’ve never done that before…” she answered carelessly. The two guards on her sides shot fireblasts at Zuko. He merely waved them out of his way and ran after his sister.
Zuko climbed on deck, creating a fiery dagger in each hand. Iroh called to him from outside.
“Zuko! Let’s go!” He knocked two more guards down on the way. His nephew ignored him and attacked his sister. She easily blocked his attacks.
“You know father blames uncle for the loss of the North Pole and considers you a miserable failure for not finding the Avatar,” she spat venomously. “Why would he want you home, except to lock you up where you can no longer embarrass him?” Her brother didn’t answer her, he merely continued his attacks. They fought their way to the back of the ship, where Azula managed to get a hold of Zuko’s right arm and sent him flying to his back. Zuko’s breath was knocked out of him from the impact. He tried to focus on his sister’s movements, barely making out them. She seemed to be creating lightning. Before she had a chance to strike a dome made of flames imprisoned her. The flames somehow redirected the lightning enough to hit mere inches from his head. Zuko stood up and saw Lia making the flames disappear. She had a furious look on her face as she charged towards the princess. Azula sent a powerful blast to her, but instead of hitting the Spirit it merely twisted and came back to the princess. Azula didn’t have time to block and she was thrown overboard.
“What are you still doing here?” Lia yelled to Zuko who was still gaping at her in disbelief.
Either reality hit him, or he was terrified by her, Lia didn’t really care at the moment. Zuko turned and ran away with his uncle, while she finished off the guards. She still felt her rage burning, so she went inside the ship. Letting the heat guide her she found the engines and melted them. Let’s see how fast you can go now Your Highness, she thought with a grim smile. Zuko and Iroh would have managed to put a safe distance between them and the ship by the time it was repaired. She stalked away from the port, becoming invisible once again. No doubt, she would find them soon. Now that she had openly opposed someone, she knew she would need allies in this world. Besides, she had a feeling that Iroh would soon need her as much as his nephew. As she walked away her appearance began to change. The red of fire disappeared from her hair and her clothes became Earth Kingdom plain ones. Zuko had known her as a Spirit. It was time he knew her as the mortal she used to be too.