Author’s Note: In which the bad puns for titles continue, there is a shift in dynamics and tea is not as life-and-situation-saving as usual…
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***Trick or Tea?***
Back when Zuko had first been banished, and before he and Lia truly started to spend time together, he had wondered many times if there was any worse life. Now he could safely answer yes, yes there was. He hated every moment of being a fugitive. He hated the uncertainty and the struggle to get even the most basic of necessities, but most of all, he hated the fact that people stared and pitied him. They stared at him before his banishment too, but then he was a prince –a banished one, but a prince nonetheless. Now he couldn’t even use his bending in public for fear of being recognized.
He stumbled over some bushes, only to find his uncle staring, mesmerized, at some flower.
“I didn’t find anything to eat,” Zuko announced. “I can’t live like this. I wasn’t meant to be a fugitive. This is impossible!” he waited for a proverb, but none came. “Uncle, what are you doing?” he asked, turning.
“You’re looking at the rare White Dragon bush. Its leaves make a tea so delicious it’s heart-breaking.” Iroh’s dreamy expression turned to a scowl. “That or it’s the White Jade bush which is poisonous.”
“We need food not tea.” Zuko reminded him exasperated. “I’m going fishing.” Before he left he heard his Uncle muttering to himself. “Hm… delectable tea or deadly poison?”
Zuko found a small steam nearby. He stood unsure for a moment, not really knowing how to fish. I could always bend the river dry, he thought sitting down. His musings turned back to Lia. She and Katara seemed to dominate his mind whenever he rested for a moment. Lia especially, her rage and power barely leashed on their last encounter. Zuko had thought he understood his adoptive sister well enough, and this new side made him uncomfortable. It was different to hear about Lia’s penchant for destruction in a story that had happened thousands of years ago and to actually see it before him. What is more, he had known from what Zhao had done at the North Pole that a Spirit can be killed while in mortal form. If this was true Lia had been risking her life constantly just by protecting him. Zuko didn’t know what scared him most about her; her thinly veiled power or the carelessness she showed for her own life.
It was almost past midday when he returned to his uncle. He had been so absorbed with his thoughts and musings that he had only managed to catch one tiny fish. Iroh was still staring at the flower.
“Zuko, remember that plant I thought might be tea?” Iroh asked with a guilty voice.
“You didn’t?” Zuko refused to believe that his uncle could have done something so stupid.
“I’m afraid I did. And it wasn’t.” Iroh turned to face his nephew, his face covered in reddish swellings. “When the rush spreads to my throat I’ll stop breathing,” he continued calmly, ignorant of Zuko’s worried expression. “But look what I had found! These are Bacui Berries, known to cure the poison of the White Jade bush. That or Macahoni Berries that cause blindness.”
Zuko threw the berries away. “We’re not taking any more chances with these plants. We need to get help.”
“But where are we going to go?” his uncle asked him, nearly kneeling on one knee to scratch himself. “We’re enemies on the Earth Kingdom and fugitives from the Fire Nation.”
“If the Earth Kingdom discovers us, they’ll have us killed,” Zuko said thoughtfully.
“But if the Fire Nation discovers us we’ll be turned over to Azula,” Iroh completed. Both shuddered at the thought.
“Earth Kingdom it is,” Zuko decided.
Luckily for them, there was a small village nearby. Zuko saw a young girl carrying a basket full of herbs. He approached her, with Iroh on his tail, thinking of what Lia had told him once. “When you speak with a girl and you want her to help, don’t bribe her, just be polite.” Let’s see if politeness works.
“Excuse me miss,” he said hesitantly. She turned and smiled him friendlily.
“How can I help you?” she asked pleasantly.
Zuko pointed towards Iroh. “My uncle drank some plant called White Jade bush. Is there a healer in the village?”
“Actually I’m a healer myself. If you two would come with me, I’d be glad to help.”
“Thank you my dear.” Iroh answered gratefully, still scratching his arm.
They followed the girl through the streets to a well-lit building.
Inside there were many more healers, helping someone or preparing medicines. The girl guided them to a corner of the infirmary, where she prepared a greenly cataplasm that she applied to Iroh’s rash.
“You two must not be from around here,” she said trying to make conversation. “We know better than to touch the White Jade, much less make into tea and drink it!” she giggled. “So where are you traveling from?” she asked.
Zuko rose from his seat nervously. “Yes we are travellers,” he hastily said.
“Do you have names?” the girl seemed really interested.
“Names? Of course we have names! I’m Lee, and this is my Uncle Mushi,” he stammered. Iroh glared at him from behind the girl’s back.
“Yes, my nephew was named after his father, so we just call him Junior.” It was Zuko’s time to glare.
“Mushi and Junior. It’s a good thing they call you so,” she said turning to Zuko, “because my name is Lia. They sound close to one another. You two look like you could use a good meal,” she said turning and slapped Iroh’s hand away from the itching rash. “Why don’t you stay for dinner?”
“Sorry, but we need to be moving on.” Zuko said decisively.
“That’s too bad. I had made roasted duck earlier and I have no one to share it with.”
“Where do you live exactly?” Iroh hurried to ask her.
They agreed to wait for her shift to end and then go home all together. As Lia walked around, helping and chatting with her patients, Zuko watched her intently. When she had called herself Lia he had been shocked. The girl only vaguely resembled the Spirit of Fire as he knew her. She was definitely Earth Kingdom. The way she acted friendly to everyone did remind Zuko of his friend but he shrugged it off as a co-incidence. When the sun set they finally followed her to a small house at the end of the village. She quickly set the table and they sat. They ate in silence but when they had nearly finished, Lia didn’t seem able to hold her questions any more.
“So you’re refuges… I was until very recently a refuge as well. When I was younger a gang of firebenders raided my village,” she lowered her eyes. “That was the last time I saw my family.”
Zuko lowered his gaze. “I haven’t seen my father in many years.”
“Oh, is he fighting in the war?” she asked with understanding. Iroh nearly chocked alarmed, while Zuko lowered his bowl.
“Yes,” he said bitterly.
“So is my little brother. He left three years ago not even knowing what he believed was right and wrong.”
“That’s a bad thing,” Iroh remarked. “A soldier must be sure about his loyalties before leaving to fight.”
“I know,” Lia sighed. “But I get his news regularly, thank the Spirits, and I believe that he is finally beginning to find his destiny.” She rose and began to gather the dishes. “Please, would you stay the night? I can prepare a few things to take with you tomorrow morning.
“We would greatly appreciate it. Now if I could make use of your kitchen to make some tea…” Iroh asked, his eyes sparkling.
“I’ll be outside,” Zuko announced, suddenly rising.
Lia shot Iroh a questioning look.
“Don’t mind my nephew,” he reassured her. “He is extremely shy when it comes to girls.” Winking the old man navigated himself into the kitchen.
Zuko sat outside trying to calm his mind. The more he was near this girl the more he was reminded of his mentor. It couldn’t be the Spirit though; she would have given him a sign it was her. He heard the door open and Lia approached him.
“Can I join you?” she asked quietly. “I know what you’ve been through. I’ve been through some very similar situations. Fire has hurt you.” She raised her hand to touch his scar. He stopped her silently. “It’s okay,” she told him softly. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”
“I’m not ashamed of what happened that day. I just hate it when people pity me,” Zuko snapped. Lia looked away, hurt. “You used to let me touch it,” she said quietly. Zuko’s head snapped to her direction.
“Lia?” he asked uncertainly. The Spirit gave him a weak smile.
“I once told you that you see me as I was when I left this world. It was half-true. My position as a Fire Spirit had changed my appearance to resemble more my element. What you see now is Hisao’s sister.” She smiled bitterly. “The non-bender who created a volcano.”
“You called yourself a non-bender?” Zuko looked at her disbelievingly. Lia shook her head.
“That was what the leader of those… men called me right before I killed him.” Suddenly her eyes brightened. “And I thought you would understand who I was the moment I told you my name.”
“I thought it was you, but wouldn’t believe it!” Zuko protested.
“Excuses…” Lia said teasingly. She dropped her voice. “Iroh is listening to our conversation. Do you want to tell him?”
“Do you?” Zuko asked her uncertainly.
“Actually, my intent was to travel with you,” Lia continued louder.
“Didn’t you before?”
“I meant visibly,” Lia explained.
“Good point,” Zuko said smiling.
They went inside. Iroh had re-set the table, this time for tea. He was obviously waiting for them.
“Is there something I should know?” he asked calmly the two teenagers.
Zuko shifted his weight from one foot to another nervously. “Uncle, do you remember the Western Air Temple? Well, Lia and I met here and she said she would teach me, but I didn’t see her for three years and…” he trailed seeing his uncle’s confused gaze.
“Maybe it would be best if I explained,” Lia cut in. She sat in front of Iroh and Zuko mimicked her. “I am the Spirit of Fire,” she began, ignoring Iroh’s shocked expression. “I have been watching over Zuko for quite some time now, but it was only three years ago that we met officially. I offered him a deal: in exchange of a favour I have yet to ask him, I would find his mother and teach him some secret aspects of firebending. Unfortunately our travels kept as apart for the greater part of these years. We’ve met again when the Avatar was freed. Ever since I have resumed his training, while continuing my search. I’ve been traveling with you secretly for quite some time, but I thought it would be better if I didn’t hide anymore.”
Iroh took a few silent sips from his tea. He then started to talk in a solemn voice.
“When Zhao tried to kill my nephew you it was you who led me to him.” Lia nodded. “The next day I paid the Admiral a visit. He served me a plainly warm tea, yet at some point it seemed to burn him.”
“I didn’t like his expression, so I might have altered slightly the temperature,” Lia admitted sheepishly. Zuko shot her an incredulous look. And here he thought about her fearsome powers. Iroh burst out laughing.
“Well this explains a few things. I thought I was getting crazy, feeling I was being watched all the time.” He smiled at the Spirit. “I would consider it an honour to travel at your presence mighty Agni.” Lia visibly winced at the name.
“Just promise not to call me that stupid name and we’re all set,” she asked him.
The next morning they left as soon the sun rose. Lia had even found an ostrich horse for Iroh to ride. She and Zuko preferred to walk, arguing half the time. Iroh couldn’t help but smile, understanding who the little brother Lia had talked about last night really was.