Author’s note: In which there is a day-early update because… internet and the lack thereof, Zuko pulls a Robin Hood…kinda, Lia is sassy and the author is impatient to get to the next few chapters.
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***Return of the Blue Spirit***
When Iroh had first met Lia, the Fire Spirit, he had expected her to be much more…well… serious. It turned out that she had not exaggerated when she said she was her element exactly. One only had to sit through her lessons with Zuko to understand. She would be extremely calm and patient, explaining things over and over again, even having Zuko use her as a target from time to time. But when they concluded with a spar her power and fierceness would come out. She was cunning and would use the most peculiar combinations of moves to fight. When Iroh had pointed out to his nephew, Zuko had agreed.
“I know,” he had said, “it’s as if she’s dancing her way to victory,” and judging by the way she won almost every time, he couldn’t object. But the thing that amazed him the most on her was the fact that she merely led her student. She didn’t expect Zuko to copy her style, preferring to let him develop his own, unlike most firebending masters.
Iroh was thinking over these things upon their entrance on a small town. Despite the provisions she had provided them with, the red-haired Spirit – for she wouldn’t go around on her mortal form anymore – had no money. She had left to look for a job that wouldn’t slow them down. Next to him Zuko looked like he was asleep. Iroh scrutinized him for a moment before taking out his hat and pointing to the people passing by. He knew he wouldn’t gather much but they couldn’t expect everything from Lia.
“Spare some coins for weary travellers?” he asked for the thousandth time. The man gave him a few copper ones. Once he was out of earshot Zuko turned to his uncle.
“This is humiliating. We’re royalty.” He turned his face to the other side, his expression hidden under his hat. “These people should be giving us whatever we wanted.”
“They will, if you ask them nicely,” Iroh said in a teacher’s voice. A beautiful girl passed by. “Spare some change for a hungry old man?” he asked in a weak voice.
The girl took pity on him. “Oh, here you go.” Iroh smiled at her.
“The coin is appreciated, but not as much as your smile,” he said winking. The girl laughed blushing. Zuko face-palmed.
The next person to pass by was a soldier. There was something in his smile that made the prince tense.
“How about some entertainment in exchange for… a gold piece?” he asked.
“We’re not performers,” Zuko told him icily.
“Not professionals anyway,” His uncle cut in cheerfully. He set his hat aside and stood singing “The girls of Ba Sing Se.”
“Come on, we’re talking a gold piece here!” The soldier said taking out his sword. “Let’s see some action. Dance!” He swung the sword low, forcing Iroh to jump around to avoid being cut.
Zuko’s eyes narrowed. He knew that he couldn’t afford to begin a fight, but this man was certainly asking for it, treating his uncle like that. Just when his was ready to take his own swords out, the soldier stopped. Laughing he said,
“Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner. Here you go!” he tossed the coin to the ground. As he turned to leave he bumped on Lia. Before he had a chance to complain he was met by her infamous glare. The man gulped audibly and hurried to leave.
“Such a kind man,” Iroh commented.
“He really was,” Lia said taking a seat next to them.
“What are you two talking about?” Zuko said angrily. “He really needs to be taught some respect!”
“Maybe it was the wrong word,” Lia sighed taking out an expensive-looking purse. “But how else can you describe someone going around with a full purse?”
Iroh’s eyes widened going from the purse to the mischievous glint in her eyes. Zuko laughed. “In this case, I’d call him an idiot for getting in your way.”
“He paid for his mistake handsomely, so I hold him no grudge,” Lia said lazily.
“You know stealing is wrong I hope,” Iroh reprimanded the two laughing teenagers. The Spirit shrugged. “As long as you do something good with the things you’ve stolen, I don’t see the immorality. Besides, some people just deserve to be robbed.” She took out the money and put it in her backpack. Then she burned the purse.
They rose and started walking through the city. Before they had time to go much further the soldier appeared again, this time accompanied by some officials. Lia took a look on them and hissed to her companions: “I’ll take care of this.” The soldier pointed at her accusingly.
“There she is! She stole my purse!” Lia looked at the officials confused, her face the picture of innocence.
“I’m sorry,” she said innocently. “But what is going on?” The old men took a look on her and shook their heads.
“Don’t worry my dear,” their leader told her kindly, “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” He gestured at the raving man. “Have you seen this man before?”
“Why, yes! I bumped on him, please accept my apologies for it sir, while I was returning to my family.” She gestured at Zuko and Iroh. “These are my brother and uncle. We are refuges from the northern Earth Kingdom. I’m a healer and was looking around for a small job, in order to gather some money.”
The men seemed interested now. “You say you are a healer. Did you find a job?” one of them asked her.
“Unfortunately no,” Lia sighed in disappointment. Then she looked at them hopefully. “Maybe you know someone in need of my services?”
“It’s true that we are in desperate need of a capable healer in the soldiers’ infirmary. If you could have a look on them. They seem to be sick, but we cannot understand the reason of it.”
“I’d be honoured to help.” Lia bowed gracefully.
“You are willing to let that little minx near the soldiers?” the troublemaker asked. “I just told you she robbed me!”
“Now, now!” the official said again. “How could this innocent girl rob you? She was out looking for a job.”
“She fell on me on purpose!”
“That might have been true.” Zuko suddenly cut in. “Both my sister and I hold our uncle in high esteem. Right before Lia came, this man was abusing that sword of his.” He looked calmly at the men. “If my sister hadn’t acted so, I might have done something… irrational, to teach this man some respect.”
“I see.” The leader nodded approvingly at the “siblings”. Zuko supressed a smirk. It was just too easy. “Then if you would follow us, I believe you would be a great help to your sister.”
“I’m coming with you,” Iroh said. “I always thought tea being a good medicine in itself.”
The infirmary was on the edge of the town. Inside the ward the men were lying on their beds, their faces a sickly green colour. Lia took a look at them and turned to the general in charge with a suspicious look.
“Have they been eating fish lately?” she asked approaching one victim.
“Yes, we have been near the shores and it was easier to find fish than meat.”
Lia shook her head. She turned to her “brother” and “uncle”. She gave Iroh a mixture of herbs. “Uncle, could you brew this? If there is not enough for everyone I have more. Lee, I want you to go and buy some rice.” She gave Zuko some money. “Get enough for everyone.” The men went away to carry out her orders.
By sundown the soldiers were feeling much better. Lia left them with strict orders not eat any fish for a few months and continue with just rice for the next three days. The General had paid them handsomely for their help. As they left the town, Zuko felt a plan formulating in his mind. Once again Lia’s comments were ringing in his mind. “As long as you do something good with the things you’ve stolen, I don’t see the immorality.”
Nearly a week later, Lia found herself sitting in the tree. She had defended the virtues of stealing half-jokingly, but Zuko seemed to have taken her words to heart. She had seen him sneak out last night, carrying a small packet in his hands. A packet she knew very well, being the one who had given it to him in the first place: the Blue Spirit’s mask. She wasn’t surprised with his decision. If there was one thing Zuko hated, it was being dependent on someone else. Taking up his alter ego again was a way of fending for himself. She respected this, but her protégé would not get away with this without at least one lecture.
Right on time! Lia thought, seeing the Blue Spirit approaching, holding a basket full of goods.
“Out for a stroll, Blue?” she asked climbing down the tree. Zuko, who had kneeled to hide the mask, jumped and hit his head on a branch. Rubbing his head he turned towards her.
“Do you really have to scare me? I was gathering some provisions. We’re low on food.”
Lia pointed at the mask. “How stupid do you think I am?” she asked him disappointed. Zuko shot her a questioning look. “Forget it! I just hope that you also did some good while shopping.” She turned to leave.
“You know,” he called after her, “the man who had them won’t really need them. And even if he did, we need food more.”
Lia didn’t answer.
Frustrated, Zuko returned to the cave they have been staying in. He threw the food he had gathered at his uncle’s feet.
“Where did you get these?” the old man asked surprised.
“What does it matter where they came from?” Zuko asked back, already moving away. Iroh shot him a suspicious look before taking a bite from a pastry and leaving a content sigh. Zuko heard him as he went to look for his mentor and smiled slightly. At least someone appreciated his efforts.
He had been shocked at Lia’s reaction. He expected her to laugh and congratulate him, after all she was the one who had stolen first. She did. But she stole from a worthless jerk who needed to be taught a lesson, a small voice on the back of his head reminded him. He frowned. Now his conscience was against him too. He looked up when he heard the unmistakably noise of fire. In a clearing, Lia was practicing some moves. To Zuko they seemed easy, but the concentrated look on the Spirit’s face told him otherwise. He stood hesitantly to the side, not wanting to disturb her. Nothing in her movements or her face gave away that she had noticed him, she had her back turned anyway. So it surprised him when she talked.
“What I want you to understand Zuko, is that you can’t just go around robbing people. Until now the Blue Spirit was wanted for helping the Avatar. People thought of him with admiration and awe. Do you want these feelings to be reduced to fear for a bandit?” She still wouldn’t look at him, as she continued her moves.
“We can’t afford to stay in every town, looking for jobs,” Zuko tried to reason with her. “Sooner or later someone would recognize uncle Iroh or me.”
“Stealing is not an option either,” Lia glared at him having turned sharply.
“What do you suggest then?” Zuko raised his voice. “You gave me the example by stealing that jerk’s money. What good came from this?”
“I knew he would run to the officials as soon as he noticed. I also knew that their soldiers were sick. But what General in his right mind would let an unknown girl, who claims to be a healer, help him? Don’t you consider what happened at the infirmary a deed good enough?” the Spirit was now raising her voice too. Zuko seemed thoughtful.
“So,” he said slowly, “if I helped us, but at the same time helped some people who also need it, you wouldn’t consider it wrong?”
Lia shook her head. “It would still be a wrong action, but the outcome would be worth it.”
A few days passed and no one spoke of the miraculously found goods. Iroh sensed a tension between the two teens, but neither of them talked about it. Zuko seemed to be doing some serious thinking, meditating for long hours, sometimes all night long. The same time Lia would disappear for hours to reappear visibly tired but never talking about her excursions. Zuko accepted silently the fact that when she would have news she would tell him and Iroh didn’t pry.
Now she had left again and Zuko, dressed as the Blue Spirit, was watching over a carriage. It reminded him more of a wooden box but he didn’t really care for whimsical thoughts at that point. Inside sat the tax collector, probably counting the money he had gathered. Zuko felt his stomach tighten. He had seen the village this money was taken from. The people were already poor enough. He silently moved and knocked out the driver. Then he broke the roof of the “box” to see inside the man hugging the chest with the taxes as if it were his first-born son. Seeing the terrifying mask of the Blue Spirit glaring at him he hastily raised it, for his robber to take it. Zuko did so and disappeared silently.
The village was a short walk from where he had ambushed the carriage. Stealthy he moved from house to house, returning the money. To his surprise a good amount of gold and silver pieces was left on the chest. Zuko hid his mask and went over to the market to buy food. He had almost left when his eyes caught a wonderful decorated tea set. He smiled slightly, already imagining how happy his uncle would be seeing it.
To his surprise Iroh wasn’t at the cave when he returned. Shrugging Zuko lit the fire and spread the different packets and sacks on the walls. He then sat to wait for his uncle’s return. The old man appeared a while after. Taking a look at the nearly full cave he said evenly:
“Looks like you did some serious shopping.” He knelt to examine the teapot better. Seeing how expensive it looked he asked suspiciously. “But where did you get the money?”
“Do you like your new teapot?” Zuko asked instead of answering.
Iroh sighed, realization hitting him. “To be honest with you, the best tea tastes delicious whether it comes on a porcelain pot or a tin cup. I know we has some difficult times lately,” he said coming to sit next to his nephew, “we’ve had to struggle just to get by, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is a simple honor in poverty.”
“There’s no honor for me without the Avatar,” Zuko said stubbornly.
“Zuko, even if you did capture the Avatar I’m not so sure it would solve our problems. Not now,” Iroh tried to make him understand.
“Then there is no hope at all,” the boy said bitterly, turning to leave.
“No Zuko!” the old General had awoken inside Iroh. “You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road, and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”
Lia’s story passed through Zuko’s mind. He turned to look at his uncle hesitantly. He talked from experience and the prince knew it. The cave felt packed all of a sudden. He needed air and space to think over his uncle’s advice. As he walked inside the forest he silently wished he and Lia were on speaking terms. He had admittedly chosen the worst possible timing to argue with her. Now he was presented with such a dilemma and he had to make the choice alone. Zuko knew he couldn’t consider himself wise enough to do so. That was why – even though he hid it – he valued his uncle’s opinion so much. But, he thought, maybe he should begin making some right decisions alone. Maybe that was what Lia thought too and that was why she had disappeared.
He walked through the forest for hours, trying to think over every possible aspect of his decision. He was still not sure about the rightness of it, but he felt he had no other choice. He approached his uncle who was packing something.
“Uncle, I thought a lot about what you said.”
“You did?” Iroh said hopeful. “Good, good.”
“It’s helped me realize something,” Zuko continued. “We no longer have anything to gain by traveling together. I need to find my own way.” He walked away, already rethinking his decision. He hadn’t wanted his uncle to feel bad. But he just couldn’t go on not knowing his own strengths and weaknesses.
“Wait!” he heard Iroh calling. The older man silently passed him the reins of the ostrich horse. Zuko mounted and left with a last look.
Iroh sat back by the fire. He knew this day would eventually come. Zuko had to find his own destiny, something on which he would only slow him down. This knowledge didn’t make the separation any easier though. Of course Iroh would never let his nephew go out there alone. He decided to wait for Lia to come and inform her about what had happened and then he would set off. As if he had summoned her, the Spirit appeared before him. She looked around worried.
“He left.” Iroh said grimly. “He needs to find his own destiny.”
Lia nodded saddened. “You’re going to track him down, won’t you?” she asked.
“Of course! Won’t you do the same?” he looked at her alarmed.
“I’ll keep an eye on him, but will not interfere. He would hate me if I did. It’s time he grew up anyway.” Iroh sighed. The Spirit was right, but Zuko was his nephew. He decided not to appear either, but when his nephew would need him, he would be there.