Author’s Note: In which the author ships, the main characters discover that they are, in fact, teenagers and all that entails and Iroh probably knows a lot more than we think.
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***The Waterbending Scroll***
As a rule, firebenders draw their power from the sun. That is not to say that they are helpless at night, but they certainly prefer to sleep the night’s hours away. Armed with that knowledge, it would certainly amaze the casual observer to see that on the ship of young prince Zuko this wasn’t the case. Fire was erupting in every possible direction as two forms battled silently under the moon’s pale light. Suddenly one figure kicked out to the side, catching his opponent on the ribs and sending them flying. The other figure twisted in the air and landed perfectly before bowing.
“You have really improved my young student,” Lia said, wincing as she checked the bruising forming on her side.
“Young?” Zuko asked, walking up to her, torn between exasperation at her ribbing and concern. “You don’t look that much older.”
“Perhaps. It’s not as if I’m aging. What you see is what I looked like when I left this world.” She paused thoughtfully. “But,” she continued, “counting in mortal, years I’m old enough to be considered an artefact!”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. Ever since they had admitted to seeing each other as brother and sister, he noticed a wall coming down between them. Lia was more teasing, less aloof, as if she knew that his anger would never really be directed at her. But his own change was what he found most strange. He let his guard down around her. While for everyone else he was the uptight prince, for Lia he acted, to use her own words, “his age”. He had found himself joking with her a few times, even teasing her back! Small changes, one might say, but Zuko suspected that they were not over yet and he wasn’t sure if he wanted them to be.
His thoughts were interrupted by a loud cough. He jerked and saw Lia looking at him with an amused look.
“I wanted to ask you; do you plan on ever telling your uncle about me?” she asked, leaning against the railing.
“I hadn’t thought about it. Why?” he answered surprised.
“You’ve heard about his little trip to the Spirit World, right? Well, you can’t leave this place without souvenirs. In his case, I heard it was the ability to see Spirits. He might be able to sense me if I keep hanging out here.”
Zuko looked worried. “Do you think I should tell him?”
“Not if you don’t want to. Just don’t be surprised if he asks you sooner or later. Now I think it’s time you got to bed.” She told him, glancing up towards the moon. “It’s getting late. Goodnight Zuko.”
She hugged him briefly and heard him whisper “Goodnight sister,” before she faded away.
The next morning Zuko was sparring with a soldier, when that week’s long overdue share on unexpected disturbances came. Without warning the ship changed course, throwing the two combatants off balance. Zuko rushed at the helmsman seething, ready to yell at the poor man.
“What is the meaning of this mutiny?” he demanded. “No one told you to change course.”
“Actually someone did.” He turned, noticing his uncle for the first time, sitting there playing Pi Sho with one of the sailors. “I assure you it is a matter of outmost importance prince Zuko.”
“Is it something to do with the Avatar?” Zuko asked anxiously.
“Even more urgent.” His uncle answered gravely. “It seems I… I lost my lotus tile,” he explained, moving another tile on the board.
“Lotus tile?” His nephew stared at him surprised.
“For my Pi Sho game. Most people think the lotus tile insignificant, but it is essential for the unusual strategy I employ.”
“You’ve changed our course for a stupid Lotus Tile?” Zuko asked, refusing to believe it.
“See, you like most people underestimate its value.” Iroh berated his nephew lightly. “Just give me ten minutes to check the merchants at this port of coal. Hopefully,” he continued brightening, “they’ll have the lotus tile in their stock and I can get on with my life.”
Don’t kill him, he has done this before. Don’t kill him. Zuko thought trying to keep himself calm. It wasn’t easy so he resorted to a trick he had learned recently, the Dragon’s Breath. Through the fire sprouting from his mouth he could have sworn he heard his uncle saying: “I’m lucky to have such an understanding nephew.”
Zuko stormed to his room, nearly tearing the door from the hinges when he slammed it shut. He couldn’t believe his uncle. He acted as if he didn’t understand the importance of their mission!
“What’s wrong with shopping?” a voice asked. The prince huffed. Not her now!
“Seriously, what’s wrong with shopping?” Lia insisted.
“For you maybe it’s okay.” Zuko snapped. “For me, with my uncle tagging along, it’s torture. I’d rather have another run in with Zhao!”
Lia winced. “That bad.”
“If he was just browsing through the port it would be sufferable. But he buys everything he sees in front of him! Sometimes I feel like I’m the adult on this ship.” He threw himself on the bed next to her. Lia looked at him compassionately.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked.
“Could you plague the entire seacoast?” Zuko muttered gloomily.
“I could try…” Lia said thoughtfully.
In an instant Zuko shot standing looking at her horrified. “I was joking!”
“Me too!” she answered calmly. “I can’t believe you fell for it.”
Zuko scowled. “Thanks. You are worse than uncle Iroh.”
The redhead didn’t answer at first. She had a distant look in her face as if she was remembering something long gone. “Worse than Iroh…”she said absentmindedly. “This will be a revealing trip, in more than one way, for more than one person.” Her gaze cleared. “I’ll be around if you need anything. Just call out for me.”
She left Zuko to ponder her words. The next day, at sunset, he was still thinking of them as a way to distract himself from his uncle’s antics.
“I checked all the shops here. Not a lotus tile in the entire marketplace!” Iroh was aghast.
“It’s good to know that this trip was an entire waste of time for everyone.” Zuko snapped, his patience long gone.
“Quite the contrary,” his uncle assured him, “I always say that the only thing better than finding something you are looking for is finding something you weren’t looking for, at a great bargain!”
Zuko couldn’t help but feel sorry for the soldiers enlisted to carry his uncle’s collection of bargains. That is, until the last man passed. He turned surprised to the older man.
“You bought a Tsungi Horn?”
“For music night on the ship! Now if we only had some woodwinds…” Iroh began walking again. They were approaching the end of the port, where a pirate ship was docked.
“Oh, this place looks promising!” Iroh exclaimed in the excited voice of a six-year-old on too much sugar.
Inside there were all kind of strange merchandise. Zuko followed his uncle feeling more and more depressed. Iroh approached a horribly carved monkey with ruby eyes.
“Oh that is handsome! Won’t it look it look magnificent in the galley?”
His nephew rolled his eyes, wishing for a miracle. It came. One of the crew approached the captain pirate looking disappointed.
“We lost the Water Tribe girl and the little monk she was traveling with.”
Katara? What was she doing here? Zuko halted realizing he had thought of the girl instead of the Avatar. He shook his head, ordering his stupid mind to Focus, and turned to the pirates.
“This monk, did he have an arrow on his head?” he asked.
That was indeed quite a revealing visit, Zuko thought smugly as he left the pirate ship, rather pleased with himself. He didn’t like the idea of working with their sort of people, but he had learnt the hard way that the Avatar was not to be underestimated. He played absentmindedly with the girl’s necklace, still wound securely around his wrist. She had stolen a waterbending scroll. So she was a waterbender. He had suspected as much but dismissed the thought. It was commonly assumed that there were no waterbenders left at the South Pole. Now he really couldn’t wait until their next encounter.
At sunset he took the smaller boat that normally functioned as a lifeboat and, along with his uncle, a few of his crew and the pirates, began searching the river.
“Shouldn’t we stop to search the woods?” the pirate captain asked.
“We don’t need to stop. They stole a waterbending scroll right?” The pirate nodded. “Then they’ll be on the water.” Wasn’t it obvious?
By night time they still hadn’t found the Avatar and his companions. The pirates were losing their patience, judging by the dark looks Zuko was getting. Suddenly they heard splashing. Katara was standing at the riverbank, trying a move and obviously not getting it right. She tried again and again, still with no success. Zuko absently motioned to the pirates to move first, almost too lost in observing her motions and half-muttered exclamations. She was even cuter when she was angry, he decided.
Katara of the Southern Water Tribe was mad. A day’s worth of frustrations were piling up, her inability to master the waterwhip, jealousy at Aang for getting it right in the first five minutes and a healthy dose of unjustified anger directed at the pirates for having the waterbending scroll in the first place. Overall, Katara decided, the whole stupid universe seemed to be against her at this point. Her dark musings were interrupted when she heard rustling nearby. Tiptoeing closer, she barely stifled a gasp at the sight of prince Zuko’s boat along with the pirate ship.
I need to tell the others she thought, turning to get the scroll, only to smash right into one of the pirates. He took hold of her with one arm, reaching for the scroll with the other.
“Let go of me!” Katara shouted, her arms going through the motions for the waterwhip. The man released her with a curse, cradling his stinging face, and she ran away from him, only to fall right into prince Zuko’s arms.
Zuko couldn’t believe his good luck. Not only it was Katara practicing by the river, but she was now his hostage. She had flown away from the pirate literally into his arms. He grabbed her wrists carefully, holding her close as he whispered to her:
“I’ll save you from the pirates.”
The moment the words came out his mouth, he regretted them. Why the hell would he say such a thing? And why was he holding her like she was made of glass when he had just seen that she was anything but defenceless? Zuko let go of Katara roughly, ordering his men to tie her to a nearby tree.
“Tell me where he is and I won’t hurt you or your brother.” He promised her.
“Go jump in the river!” was the only response the waterbender gave him before resuming her steely glare. Zuko looked at her from her head to toes. Even in a situation like this she looked… beautiful, his treacherous mind supplied. He had only seen her in her winter attire and he had to admit that he liked her better like this. Suddenly a thought crossed his mind. Am I checking her out?
Unbeknownst to him Katara was thinking along the same lines. Did this guy just check me out? The thought confused her. Why would Zuko of all people do this? She had expected yelling, threats, maybe even violence but he had done none of that. He had even promised to let her and Sokka live. And now he was approaching her…
“Try to understand,” he pleaded, hoping to reason with her. “I need to capture him to restore something I’ve lost. My honour.” He was standing next to her now and the feel of him so close sent her heart racing. But why? She turned her head to the other side, half-wishing to banish these new thoughts. “Perhaps in exchange I can restore something you lost.” He offered taking out her necklace, acting as if he was going to place it on her neck.
“My mother’s necklace!” Katara gasped.
So that’s why it was so important! Zuko thought. He felt a twinge of guilt for using something so personal to bribe her but he didn’t have much of a choice. He shuddered at the thought of what the pirates might do to her if she didn’t comply.
“How did you get that?” Katara asked him accusingly.
“I didn’t steal it if that’s what you’re wondering.” Zuko answered curtly. “Tell me where he is!”
“Enough of this necklace garbage” the pirate captain interfered. “You promised the scroll!”
Zuko and Katara looked at him surprise, having nearly forgotten that there was an audience to their banter. Zuko just about refrained from rolling his eyes in exasperation. Didn’t the man understand how hard it was for this girl to even consider betraying her friends? That he enjoyed their back-and-forth, the prince decided resolutely, had nothing to do with it. As for the pirates… He took out the scroll.
“I wonder how much money this is worth?” he said acting as if he was going to burn it. The pirates looked horrified at the mere thought. “A lot apparently.” Zuko smirked. “Now, you’ll help me find what I want and you’ll get this back and everyone goes home happy. Search the woods for the boy and bring him back here.”
“Fine.” The pirates grumbled and disappeared in the woods.
Night progressed steadily but the pirates didn’t return. This probably meant they hadn’t found the campsite, where Aang and Sokka were sleeping, yet, Katara thought. Unfortunately the exhaustion from her long day was finally catching up with her as the adrenaline left her system. Not that she could do much about it seeing that she was still tied to a tree. The old man who was accompanying Zuko, as well as his soldiers had returned to the boat, probably to sleep, but the prince hadn’t moved from his standing place a few meters away from her. Her eyes closed once again, tiredness finally pulling her under. Katara desperately tried to fight the sleep, knowing it was pointless, when she felt a pair of strong arms holding her. She opened her eyes surprised to see Zuko loosening her ties and helping her sit in a way that she could sleep comfortably, even if she could not escape. She met his face, shocked to see him looking at her with care.
“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, torn between suspicion and disbelief.
Zuko looked at her surprised. “You’re tired and you’d hurt yourself if you fell asleep like this. I don’t want that to happen.” He answered, the last part escaping without his meaning to. He stood and stalked back to the boat to fetch a blanket, hoping that the burning he felt in his face was not a blush. Katara could just about keep herself from gasping aloud when the prince lowered himself next to her to tuck the blanket around her crouched form.
“Sleep well,” he whispered, almost reluctantly, before retreating back to his previous position.
Despite the confused thoughts running through her head, Katara managed to sleep soundly for a few hours. Her dreams were interrupted suddenly, when she felt someone shaking her.
“Katara wake up!” she heard a boy whispering. She opened her eyes to see Zuko’s face inches from hers. Before she had a chance to protest he stood, helping her up in the process. “My uncle will be coming out of the boat any minute now. He can’t see this.”
At the sound of his words Katara tensed. She saw Zuko hastily fixing the rope, not really paying attention on what he was doing. The blanket was already gone from sight. His uncle must be terrifying, if he acts like this, she thought nervously.
On that note – and as Zuko was jumping away from her – the old man exited the boat. Seeing Katara standing still tied and half-asleep he shook his head disapprovingly at Zuko.
“Really prince Zuko, couldn’t you have been a little more hospitable with the lovely lady?” he berated the boy. His nephew didn’t answer, merely looking away. Katara listened to the whole exchange, astonished. So Zuko didn’t want his uncle to know that he cared. Why?
She didn’t have time to ponder the ins and outs of a firebender’s thought process as the pirates chose that moment to reappear, dragging Aang and Sokka along.
“Nice work” Zuko praised them. He moved to give them the scroll when Katara’s voice rang out.
“Aang I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”
“No Katara, it isn’t” the Avatar reassured her.
“Actually it kind of is…” his uncle jumped in.
“Give me the boy.” Zuko ordered.
“You give us the scroll” the pirate leader shot back.
“You’re really going to give in the Avatar for a stupid piece of parchment?” suddenly the Water Tribe boy exclaimed, disbelief coating his words.
“Don’t listen to him. He’s trying to turn us against each other.” Zuko hastily said.
“Your friend is the Avatar?” the captain asked.
“Sure he is!” the boy assured them. “And I bet that he will fetch a lot more in the black market than a fancy scroll…”
“Shut your mouth you Water Tribe peasant!” Zuko erupted.
“Yeah Sokka, you really should shut your mouth.” Aaang warned him. Sokka obviously didn’t get the message.
“I’m just saying it’s bad business.” He shrugged as best as he could with his arms tied. “Just imagine how much the Fire Lord would pay for the Avatar. You guys would be set for life.”
“Keep the scroll,” the captain told dismissively Zuko. “We can buy a hundred with the reward for the kid.”
The pirate crew turned to leave.
“You’ll regret breaking a deal with me.” Zuko muttered angrily. He and the soldiers sent a massive wall of fire towards the pirates. They fought back and soon the whole battlefield was covered in concealing smoke. Katara took the chance and tried to loosen the rope. Surprised she noticed that it gave way with almost no effort. Zuko must have forgotten to tighten it, worried as he was for his uncle. She darted to the pirate ship, trying to push it back into the water.
Meanwhile Zuko was pulled out of the smoke. He took a moment to secure the scroll in his belt, freeing both his hands. The captain saw him and tried to attack. Zuko quickly took hold of both the man’s wrists, but before he had a chance to do anything else he felt the scroll leaving his belt. He turned to see a pirate sending it flying. He returned his focus on his opponent, not much caring for the parchment anyway. Suddenly his uncle came between them.
“Are you so busy fighting,” he berated them, “that you don’t notice your own ship has set sale?”
“We have no time for your proverbs uncle.” Zuko told him
“It’s no proverb.” Iroh answered motioning at the ship leaving, having been commandeered by the Avatar and his friends.
“Bladed hog-monkeys!” the captain exclaimed, running after them. Zuko burst out laughing, until he saw the pirates seizing his boat.
“Hey!” he yelled, running after them too. “That’s my boat!”
“Maybe it should be a proverb.” Iroh said to himself.
“Come on uncle!” Zuko called him.
The two firebenders stopped in shock as both boats, carried downstream by the strong currents, were taken down at a nearby waterfall none of them had noticed. Zuko’s thoughts came to a screeching halt, denial covering every single one of them like a fog. Then the Avatar’s bison appeared seemingly out of nowhere and Zuko breathed a sigh of relief and promptly dismissed any inkling of worry he might have felt. Now he only had to worry about…
“My boat!” he said furious, as he leaned over the edge and saw its remains on the rocks below. His uncle finally approached him panting.
“Prince Zuko you’re really going to get a kick out of this,” he said with a breathless chuckle. “The lotus tile was in my sleeve the whole time!”
Zuko turned wordlessly and grabbed the stupid tile. If it hadn’t been for that none of this would have happened. He threw it as far as he could – which was quite far –in an effort to calm himself. “Come on.” He grumbled to Iroh. “We have quite some walking to do.”
They finally arrived at their ship long after the sun had set. Zuko waited until everyone else had retired, before getting out of his hiding place on deck. He was so lost in thought he didn’t see Lia materialising on his side until she shook his shoulder. He jumped surprised.
“I need to ask you something.” He told her in the tense tone of someone questioning their own sanity.
“Sure!” she answered casually, hopping lightly on the railing and sitting on it.
“Yesterday, with the pirates, I don’t know if you were there…” Zuko trailed off, looking at her helplessly. He didn’t have the slightest idea of how to explain his actions even to himself.
“I was. And I have an explanation for you but I don’t know if you’ll like it.”
“I probably won’t,” Zuko shrugged. “But tell me anyway.”
“Very well.” Lia took a breath. “You like Katara. As in like-like her.” Zuko looked at her blankly for a moment, before her words registered.
“What?” he sputtered in disbelief. “How can I? I don’t even know her and besides! She’s just a Water Tribe peasant!”
Lia rolled her eyes. “I’ll save you from the pirates.” She mimicked. Then she smiled. “It was a bit romantic, you know. Besides you did propose to her in a way.”
“H…how?” Zuko paled. Of all the things, this was not what he had expected to hear. Lia pointed at the necklace he had been absentmindedly playing with during their conversation.
“This is a Water Tribe betrothal necklace. By offering it to her, well, you kind of asked her to marry you.”
“Spirits help me!” he groaned.
“Be careful what you wish for… However, if it makes you feel better, Katara doesn’t know the significance of it either. For her it’s just a memento from her mother.” Her reassurance didn’t seem to work.
“What can I do?” Zuko asked her desperately.
A noise from the door leading below deck interrupted them.
“For now?” Lia whispered. “Hide because someone’s coming. I’ll see you soon.”
When Iroh came out he just saw prince Zuko sitting alone, gazing at the moon, the waterbender’s necklace still at hand. The old man smiled. The trip on the market was a very good idea indeed.