Tag Archives: Zhao

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Siege of the North

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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.”

“So what?”

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***

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Stow-Away

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Author’s note: In which Zhao makes a come-back, Katara is annoyed, Zuko’s life makes an explosive turn and the author is chilling at an island working more on her tan than her writing. 😉

Last chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Stow-Away***

Weeks after they had left the abbey behind them the air suddenly got cooler and there was a thin layer of frost covering the deck in the mornings. Zuko didn’t have much of a problem with the change in the weather. It merely gave him another excuse to practice his firebending. Besides, cold meant that they would be reaching the North Pole. He would soon see Katara again. Lately he had been seeing less and less of both the Avatar’s crew and Lia. Zuko suspected that they had already reached the Northern Water Tribe. As for the Spirit, she had found some information about his mother’s location and was traveling all around the Earth Kingdom to check whether any of it was valid. Zuko doubted it. He just couldn’t imagine his mother in a city like Omashu or Ba Sing Se. But then again he judged by what his uncle had told him of the cities and Iroh had a habit of embellishing his stories.

Speaking of his uncle, Iroh was currently pestering him about his music night. Zuko had known that Tsungi Horn was a bad idea the moment he had set eyes on it. When he had been younger he had learnt to play it, in an effort to best Azula at something. It was a difficult instrument and his prodigy sister didn’t have the patience to study. Zuko himself didn’t particularly like playing it either, especially in front of others. He’d sooner die than admit it, but he had terrible stage fright. So when his uncle threw the idea of him playing with the rest of the crew, Zuko flat out refused. That was a week ago, and ever since Iroh had been constantly bugging him.

 

Tonight was the much-argued about music night. After one last unsuccessful attempt to convince him, Iroh left for the deck. Zuko was sitting in his room wishing against all hope that Lia would appear. He hadn’t had a chance to speak or spar with her for quite some time. Hearing the door open and guessing it was his uncle he said:

“For the last time, I’m not playing the Tsungi Horn.”

“No,” his uncle told him, “it’s about our plans. There’s a bit of a problem.”

Zhao suddenly appeared behind him. “I’m taking your crew.” He announced smugly.

“What?” Zuko jumped on his feet in disbelief.

“I’ve recruited them for a little expedition to the North Pole.”

“Uncle, is that true?” Zuko asked refusing to believe him.

“I’m afraid it is.” The old General said sadly. “He’s taking everyone. Even the cook!”

“I’m sorry you won’t be there to see me capturing the Avatar, but I can’t have you getting in my way again.” Zhao turned to inspect the room, dismissing the seething teenager with no more than a glance. Iroh barely managed to restrain his nephew from attacking the Admiral.

 

Zhao’s glance fell on pair of broadswords proudly displayed at the wall. He picked one up, testing the weapon’s balance. Zuko behind him paled. He cannot figure it out. He can’t guess I was the Blue Spirit. There are probably hundreds using this type of weapons, he thought desperately.

“I didn’t know that you were skilled with broadswords prince Zuko.” Zhao said in a flat voice his attention apparently engaged by the sword in his hands.

“I’m not. They’re antiques. They’re just decorative.” Zuko answered in such a calm voice, it surprised himself.

“Have you heard of the Blue Spirit General Iroh?” Zhao proceeded to ask in the same flat voice.

“Just rumours,” Iroh answered. “I don’t think he is real.”

“He is real alright.” Zhao approached them and handed the sword to Iroh. “He’s a criminal and an enemy to the Fire Nation. But I have a feeling justice will catch up with him soon.” He turned to leave. “General Iroh, my offer to join the mission still stands, if you change your mind.” With these rather ominous parting words  he left.

 

Meanwhile at the North Pole Katara found herself disappointed and angry. Unlike the loose hierarchy of her own tribe she had found the Northern tribe rigid and almost completely patriarchal. She had arrived excited, planning to learn how to use her waterbending abilities to fight only to be told that women were expected to be healers rather than fighters. She had to admit that the healing lessons were interesting and they would no doubt be useful Zuko chasing them everywhere. Katara didn’t see however why couldn’t she learn how to both fight and heal and she planned to find a way around the restrictions sometime soon. By the end of yet another healing lesson Katara found her thoughts straying again to the firebending prince and her own reaction every time they encountered each other. While some of the other students carried out the dummy body that they used to practice on, she approached Yugoda.

“Thanks for the lesson,” she said, forcing herself to be polite.

“So who’s the lucky boy?” the old woman asked interested.

“Excuse me?” Katara asked surprised.

“Your betrothal necklace,” Yugoda explained. “You’re getting married, right?”

Katara smiled sheepishly. “No, I don’t think I’m ready for that,” she stammered. For La’s sake I’m only fourteen! “My grandmother gave my mother that necklace and my mother passed it down to me.”…

 

Once out of the hut Katara felt her head ready to burst. It wasn’t that much the story of her Gran-Gran running away from a forced engagement. She was a really brave woman after all. No, there was another thing that bothered her. A betrothal necklace! He tried to bribe me with a betrothal necklace! He more or less asked me to marry him! Why would he? Did he even know what this necklace meant? Or was it for him, like Aang, just a sentimental trinket? He seemed so caring though, even if he didn’t want anyone to understand it. But why wouldn’t he? His uncle seemed such a gentle man. He even reprimanded him for not ensuring my comfort. Why didn’t Zuko tell him the truth?

 

She walked back and forth through the town, not paying attention to what was happening around her. Any way she looked at all her encounters with Zuko, he had never tried to hurt her. He even made sure that she was safe and had offered her and Sokka their freedom when he had the Avatar in his hands. Katara stopped on a bridge, staring down at the water thoughtfully. Could it be that Zuko had… feelings for her?

 

Meanwhile, at the northern shores of the Earth Kingdom, the centre of Katara’s thoughts was sulking. Ever since Zhao’s visit, Zuko had locked himself in his room and didn’t come out even to farewell his crew. To his slight surprise, Iroh was assured both by Jee and many other members of the crew that they understood. They didn’t want to leave the prince they had travelled with for three long years, not now that they were finally starting to get along. After the men had left, Iroh went to his nephew. He would have to come out of his room eventually. It wasn’t healthy to stay inside for so long.

“The crew wanted me to wish you safe travels,” he told to the bitter boy.

“Good riddance to those traitors,” was the only answer he got. He tried again.

“It’s a lovely night for a walk. Why don’t you join me? It would clear your head.” Silence was the only answer. “Oh, just stay in your room and sit in the dark. Whatever makes you happy.” Iroh left the ship humming.

 

At the grey line between the worlds, a place that seemed to get worse every time she visited it, Lia was aimlessly walking around. Last time there was just fog. Now there was fog and icy winds. The Spirits really hated her. Unfortunately for her, this was the only place where her visions gained enough clarity to make sense and frankly Lia was getting fed up with the random premonitions of explosions she had been having. She suddenly paused mid-step. The vision was once again playing right in front of her eyes. A ship burning to flames… She knew this ship. It was a small Fire Navy one. If only she could remember how she knew it. Then it came to her. Zuko. It was his ship that was burning down. She had to return to the physical world.

 

Zuko was still lying to his bed, starring at the ceiling. His mind was completely blank. After rescuing the Avatar from Zhao he had hoped not to hear again from the Admiral. But the Spirits just had to hate him. He heard a crackle down the corridor and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine.

“Uncle?” he asked rising, a little afraid. He opened the door. “Uncle is that you?” He jumped to the corridor ready to strike. There was no one there. Even this unnerved him. The ship was eerily quiet. Cautiously he made his way to the main room of the ship. Still there was no one there.

 

Lia jumped out of the in-between zone a few feet away from the ship. She saw Zuko’s shadow moving in front of some windows and group of pirates leaving hastily on a small boat. Wait a minute! Pirates? She ignored them and hovered higher in the air. She had to reach the ship in time.

 

Zuko looked around suspiciously. He was sure he had heard something. He turned to look out of a window, when he saw the pirate captain’s pet bird staring at him through the glass window. Suddenly he understood what he had heard. He turned to leave but his time was up. The blasting jelly that the pirates had planted exploded and fire rushed towards him in waves. He had never thought his element would seem to him so menacing.

 

Right before the fire could consume him, a figure jumped from the shadows and took the hit. He watched, mesmerized, as Lia was embraced by the very element she was. The redhead seemed to absorb the fire, her long hair and dress suddenly made up by small dancing flamed and her eyes blazing like the sun. Azula’s firebending was nothing in front of this. The Spirit created a sphere of pure energy and placed herself and Zuko at its centre. The power of the explosion threw them out of the window and in the waiting ocean below.

 

The impact on the water nearly knocked Zuko unconscious. Struggling for breath he saw Lia calmly disappear under the surface. He panicked, afraid that she would drown. He was ready to dive after her when she re-emerged, all the fire vanished. Silently she took hold of his shoulder dragging him towards land. Once out of the water Zuko hugged her tightly. She gave him a quivering smile, returning the embrace.

“Why is it always that I find you in near-death situations?” she asked him.

 

They took shelter in an abandoned flat near the port. Zuko was pacing restlessly, cursing Zhao for blowing up his ship. Lia was equally angry at the Admiral for even thinking of harming her little “brother”. Her thoughts turned to Iroh; no doubt he would have heard the explosion and be worried sick by now. The Spirit turned from the window, from where she had been watching people pass, to see Zuko sinking on the floor, his head in his hands.

“What am I going to do now Lia?” he asked her.

She sat next to him, putting a comforting hand on his shoulders.

“You can still go to the North Pole.” She said.

“With what ship? Everyone will probably think I’m dead.”

“Exactly! Prince Zuko is considered dead. Which means that no one would pay attention on another faceless soldier who happened to join Zhao’s fleet.” She stood, letting him think her idea, as she retrieved a bag from a corner on the room.

“What’s this?” he asked her.

“A few things that were saved from the explosion.” She gave it to him. “Your Dao swords, the dagger your Iroh gave you, the Blue Spirit mask and some other stuff.”

 

While Zuko was going through the contents of the bag, Lia went back at the window.

“What about Iroh?” she asked.

“I don’t know” Zuko sighed. “He probably thinks I didn’t survive. I don’t want to leave him in the dark, but I also don’t want him to be in danger.”

“If you’re going to infiltrate Zhao’s ship you’ll need back-up. Reliable backup,” she added, seeing him ready to protest.

“But how am I supposed to find him in the city?” he asked defeated.

Lia smiled. “Leave this to me.”

 

A few minutes later a black, golden-eyed cat was running the streets following the scent of a certain retired General. She found him still standing where the ship was still burning. Lia felt bad for the poor old man as she approached him. She started tugging the edge of his robe until he looked down to her surprised. She motioned with her head for him to follow her and he complied curiously.

 

A few blocks later they arrived at the flat where she and Zuko had hidden. The cat motioned him to go inside and Iroh did, feeling even more surprised. He sensed that there was something different about the animal, but couldn’t put his finger on it. Nevertheless he opened the door. Inside he saw the figure of a teenaged boy who seemed to be packing a bag. Upon hearing the door opening his shoulders tensed.

“Uncle?” he asked uncertainly turning.

“Zuko? Thank Agni you are alive!” his uncle cried rushing to hug him. From a corner of the room the cat winked.

She will be bugging me for this until we reach the North Pole. Zuko thought. “I’m going to infiltrate Zhao’s fleet.” He said aloud to his uncle. The older man looked at him determined.

“I will be coming with you.” He announced.

 

The next day Iroh visited Zhao with the news of Zuko’s “death”.

“I’m devastated to hear for prince Zuko. Just devastated.” He said. Lia was watching them unseen, at Zuko’s request, and frowned upon hearing it. She overheated his tea, hoping to burn him.

“The Fire Lord will not be pleased when he learns who was responsible,” Iroh said gravely.

“You know who was behind the attack?” Zhao asked with hidden nervousness.

“Yes, pirates. We had a run with the a while back. They wanted revenge.” Zhao hid a smile taking a sip. He was burned.

“So, have you reconsidered my offer?” he asked.

“Yes.” Iroh said. “I accept. It will be an honor to serve as your General. To the Fire Nation!” he toasted raising his cup.

“To victory!” Zhao completed.

 

A couple of days later, inside Zhao’s flagship Iroh was talking with a soldier.

“Our plan is working perfectly. Zhao didn’t suspect a thing.”

“You didn’t have to do this.” Zuko told him.

“No nephew of mine will store away on a ship without some back-up.” Iroh repeated Lia’s words.

“Thank you uncle.” A door closed somewhere near.

“Someone’s coming!” Iroh said urgently. “Stay hidden until we reach the North Pole and the Avatar will be yours.” With that they parted ways.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Blue Spirit

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Author’s Note: In which Zuko pulls a Batman, Zhao makes an (un)wellcome re-appearance and the author attempts a high action scene with mixed results.

Last Chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Blue Spirit***

Zuko landed heavily on his back, his Duo swords landed with a clang somewhere behind him. He couldn’t use firebending and his opponent was steadily advancing on him. He looked at the figure with a mixture of fear and admiration. That was a good fight they had had. But I’m better than this, he thought grimly. He sprang to his feet and, using his momentum, sent a high kick at his opponent’s face. The shadowed figure moved, blocked his attack and used its momentum to push him away. Zuko went flying again, but before he had a chance to hit the deck he was frozen mid-air.

“That’s not fair Lia!” he said angrily. “I didn’t use my bending.”

“I was the bad guy.” The Fire Spirit answered smugly. “Bad guys have the advantage almost always. You need to think of your opponent’s strengths as his weaknesses.” She landed him softly. “Do you still plan to spy at the port?”

Zuko stood on his feet. “Yes. Why?”

“No reason, really.” Lia said neutrally. “It’s just that Zhao arrived earlier today.” She saw Zuko’s expression darken.

“Tomorrow night I’m going,” he decided.

“I thought you’d say that. But you can’t go without something to hide your face. Darkness can only do so much.”

“What do you suggest?”

 

His sister handed him a small package. “If you’re going to make life hard for Commander Monkey-face you need a proper alter ego.” Zuko opened the box to reveal a blue-and-white grinning mask. He raised an eyebrow.

“A Water Tribe Spirit?” he asked her dubiously.

“What? I know the guy! He’s great for recon’ missions. We’ve gone to a few together. And who would guess Prince Zuko under it?”

“Good point.” The boy murmured still scrutinizing the grinning mask.

 

***

 

The next night saw a heated discussion at the command building of the port they had docked just outside of.

“Absolutely not. The Yu-Yan archers stay here. Your request is denied Commander Zhao.” The colonel in charge told his fellow officer firmly.

“Colonel Shino, please reconsider. Their precision is legendary. The Yu-Yan can penetrate a fly to a tree a hundred yards away without killing it. You’re wasting their talents using them as mere security guards.”

“I can do whatever I want with their talents. They’re my archers and what I say goes.”

“But my search for the Avatar is…”

“Is nothing but a fantasy project. We’re fighting a real war here and I need every man I’ve got Commander”

“But…”

“That’s final. I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

 

A messenger hawk interrupted their conversation before it could descend to an argument. Colonel Shino took one look at the letter and paled in shock.

“News from Fire Lord Ozai?” Zhao asked him, taking the paper and scanning the lines. “It appears I’ve been promoted to Admiral,” he noted smugly. “My request is now in order.”

Shino bowed reluctantly and left as Zhao turned to look at the archers practicing at the courtyard below. Above him the grinning face of the Blue Spirit had heard the entire conversation.

 

What was Father thinking? Zuko thought angrily, as he returned to his ship. Zhao an Admiral? He might as well declare Azula the heir apparent! Now with these archers it’s going to be even more difficult for me to capture the Avatar. The only thing making him feel better was the fact that he had snuck around his ship and the camp without anyone noticing. The freedom the mask gave him was intoxicating. Maybe the Blue Spirit wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

 

***

 

The next morning there was a mini conference at the navigation room in Zuko’s ship.

“We haven’t been able to pick up the Avatar’s trail since the storm, but if we continue heading northeast…” Lieutenant Jee’s speech was interrupted by the sound of a huge ship passing close by them.

“What do they want?” Zuko asked wearily. The only downside on his new identity was the lack of sleep.

“Perhaps a sporting game of Pi Sho.” Iroh guessed, rubbing his hands cheerfully. After three years there were very few left on their ship that he had not played against at least twice.

 

The captain of the other ship boarded with a couple of soldiers.

“The hunt for the Avatar has been given prime importance,” he explained, unfolding a wanted poster. “All information about the Avatar must be reported directly to Admiral Zhao.”

“Zhao has been promoted? Well good for him!” Iroh shrugged moving his tile alongside. He won. Again.

“I’ve got nothing to report to Zhao.” Zuko said barely keeping calm. “Now get off my ship and let us pass.”

“Admiral Zhao is not allowing ships in or out of this area.”

Jee glared at Zhao’s officer from his place behind Zuko. Since the storm the crew had found working with the prince easier, like some common ground had been achieved. That being said, he did not appreciate one of Zhao’s orderlings giving them orders in such a high-handed way. Zuko did not appreciate either.

“Off my ship!” he shouted.

“Excellent!” his uncle exclaimed as the men left. “I take the part.” The men playing against him groaned. “But you’re all improving. I’m certain you will win if we… play again.”

 

Sun set and Iroh was getting worried. His hotheaded nephew had been exercising firebending for a few hours now. He stood in the distance watching him. Zuko had been improving rapidly now that the Avatar was out there. Still there was no point on exhausting himself.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, approaching the boy while he was catching his breath. “It’s been almost an hour and you haven’t given the men an order.”

“I don’t care what they do.” Zuko spat, turning to stare at the water.

“Don’t give up hope yet. You can still find the Avatar before Zhao.”

“How uncle? With Zhao’s resources it’s just a matter of time before he captures the Avatar. My honor, my throne, my country; I’m about to lose them all.” Zuko said in a small voice.

 

Once Iroh had left, shaking his head sadly, Lia materialised.

“I’ve good news and bad news,” she told him instead of  a greeting.

“How can there be any good news today?” Zuko wouldn’t look at her.

“I know where the Avatar is and you’ve been there before.”
His head turned to her direction so quickly she feared the bones would snap. “Where?” he asked eagerly.

“That’s the bad news: Zhao’s new headquarters,” she explained, wincing. Zuko lowered his head, once again disappointed.

“I can’t go in there.” He said quietly.

“True. But the Blue Spirit can.”

“I am the Blue Spirit, in case you forgot.” He told her harshly.

“You forget. As the Blue Spirit there are no limitations. You can be whoever you want to. No one will know.”

“You really think so?” he asked her with renewed hope.

“Of course!” She answered smiling. “Now go get ready to give Zhao a night from hell.” The boy sprinted away not seeing her shake her head. For someone so talented Zuko needed a hell of a confidence boost.

 

Night fell and among the shadows a figure was moving. The Blue Spirit was out haunting. He saw a carriage passing and decided to use a conventional way to enter the fortress. As the guards were busy checking underneath it, he made himself comfortable inside it. When Zhao appeared on a balcony overlooking the courtyard to give his daily speech he didn’t even sense the presence that passed right behind him. The Blue Spirit scoffed at his empty words. He made the war sound like a mere military parade.

 

Using a light rope Zuko slipped into the sewers. Not his preferred way of traveling, but he wouldn’t risk being seen. He was already questioning his streak of luck. Once he was closer to the chamber where Aang was held Lia appeared next to him. Rather than her usual bright red dresses, she wore a darker outfit, similar to his. She motioned silently upwards and mouthed “One and four guards”. He nodded his thanks.

 

Silently Zuko moved behind the lone soldier. With a swift hit on the head the man was out. Unfortunately so was his helmet. Zuko cursed under his breath as he heard one of the guards approaching. So much for his good luck… This one looked better prepared. Lia smiled unseen and made a wall of fire rise between her protégé and the guard. It distracted him enough for Zuko to chain him and leave him hanging from the ceiling.

“Two more coming,” Lia whispered checking the corridor. Zuko hurried to climb to the ceiling. He watched the men halt in surprise, seeing their comrade. That was all he needed. He knocked them out and run the corner just in time to see the last guard reaching for the alarm.

 

The man didn’t have time to use it. A sword came flying, knocking the alarm bell out of his hand. He turned to see a figure dressed in dark colours, wearing a Blue Spirit mask, coming nearer. He sent a blast of fire towards the intruder, who extinguished it with a bucket of water. Soon the same bucket was used against the soldier’s head. Once he was out cold, Zuko searched him for his keys.

 

He opened the door, to see Aang looking at him terrified. Let’s give him something to be afraid of, he smiled grimly under the mask. The Blue Spirit drew out his swords and acted as if he was going to attack the Avatar. The boy screamed, until he realized that it was his chains that were in more danger than he was. Aang looked at the silent figure unsure. He had turned towards the door immediately after he unchained him.

“Who are you?” he asked still a little scared. “What’s going on? Are you here to rescue me?”  The Blue Spirit merely mentioned him to follow. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Aang said doing as asked.

 

He followed the figure down the corridor. The little airbender couldn’t say why, but he had a feeling that he knew his rescuer. His thoughts were interrupted by some croaking.

“My frogs!” he exclaimed. “Come back here. And stop going out.” He made a movement to follow them, but Zuko yanked him by the back of his coat and dragged him away. “Wait!” the boy cried. “My friends need to suck on them!”

Why would they do that? Zuko was wondering as they returned on the place he had left the sewers.

 

The two boys ran all the way back to the opening at the courtyard. Zuko checked quickly, satisfied to see no one around. He knelt motioning the Avatar to follow him. He did. They were half-way through the rope and out in the open when the alarm finally started. A soldier cut the rope and Aang airbended them to avoid getting hurt. Zuko looked around and spotted a gate still open. They sprinted. Soldiers rushed to block their way and Aang blasted them away. Some more charged towards Zuko who quickly turned to fight them with his swords. There were too many though and he was soon circled by them.

 

Aang saw it and rushed to help him. The gates were now sealed so the Avatar and the Blue Spirit flew at the walls. Aang used a spear he had taken to make them fly while Zuko dodged the arrows that came to them. It seemed to work at first, but the weight was too much and they crash-landed on one of the elevated courtyards, near the walls. They were circled once again and fought together. Zuko was surprised to realize that it was much like when Lia helped him. He didn’t have time to brood over the implications. Zhao’s soldiers were bringing ladders, to aid their comrades on the walls. Aang “cleaned” two of them away quickly and used them as stilts to cross the wall. They had almost made it when a soldier used his head and set the one they were on, on fire.

 

Now that they were back at the same level, the soldiers were able to attack using firebending. Aang created a shield with air when Zhao’s voice was heard.

“Hold your fire. The Avatar must be delivered to the Fire Lord alive.”

Is that so? Zuko thought, bringing his Dao swords on the kid’s neck. The Spirit and the Admiral glared at each other.

“Open the gate.” Zhao ordered clenching his teeth.

“Admiral, what are you doing?” a man asked.

“Let them out. Now!” he barked.

 

Lia, watching from her perch on a nearby roof, honestly thought they would make it. They were almost at the crossroads and from there it would have been a child’s game to disappear in the shadowy woods. Then an arrow flew right past her. It barely brushed Aang’s cheek before hitting Zuko in the middle of his forehead, knocking him unconscious. Aang quickly casted a shield of dust, but it wouldn’t be enough. She approached them, taking her spirit form for the first time in nearly six years. Don’t do it! She mentally ordered Aang, seeing him trying to take off his rescuer’s mask. He did. Seeing Zuko under it, the boy sprung to his feet and started running away…

 

…To fall right into her. The Avatar recognized her immediately as a Spirit and despite the situation bowed. She grabbed him roughly by the collar and led him towards Zuko.

“I’ll help you if you help him,” Lia 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 used her powers to send them away.

 

Zuko woke up the next morning with the sun burning through his eyelids and a splitting headache. Feeling the breeze on his face, he guessed it was Lia who had saved him, again. With a groan he opened his eyes and received the shock of the day when instead of his redhead surrogate sister he saw the Avatar. The younger boy sat near him resting his head on his knees and looking at him thoughtfully.

“You know what the worst part of being born over a hundred years ago is?” he said wistfully. “I miss all the friends I used to hang out with. Before the war started I used to always visit my friend Kuzon. The two of us; we could get into so much trouble together. He was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and he was from the Fire Nation, just like you. If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends too?”

 

Under different circumstances Zuko would have probably given a moment’s pause to think about the hopeful question. At this instant however, feeling like badgermoles were hammering his head from the inside, the only coherent thought that crossed was that they were in the open and Zhao was definitely looking for them. Rather than try to explain that to Aang, who looked ready to continue talking, Zuko sent a fireblast at him. Once the Avatar was out of sight he sighed with relief. As he walked back to his ship, and his migraine slowly receded to a dull ache, Zuko thought over Aang’s words. How would his life be if there was no war? Would he have ever met Lia? Would he have lost his mother in the first place? He halted as a thought crossed his mind. Would he have a chance of being something other than enemies with Katara? He shook his head. No. Some things would never change. No matter what happened, he would never have a chance with the waterbender.

 

Once back on the ship he saw his uncle playing the Tsungi Horn.

“Where have you been prince Zuko?” the old man asked curiously. “You missed music night! Lieutenant Jee sang an outstanding love song.”

“I’m going to bed.” His nephew muttered, rubbing his head tiredly. “No disturbances.”

He usually found solace in his room, but this time he didn’t. The colours – Fire Nation colours – merely reminded him of what he had, and how much he wanted to trade them for what Aang had. Friends and family. He turned his back to the wall, staring at Katara’s necklace, always secure around his wrist, until sleep claimed him.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Agni Kai

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Author’s Note: In which we meet Series 1’s resident douchebag, Lia can’t keep grudges and Zuko learns to apologise. There is also tea. Always a good thing to have tea!

Last chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Agni Kai***

It took the crew nearly a week to free the ship from the ice. Lia had at first contemplated helping them, but decided against it. Zuko’s words had hurt her more than she had allowed him to see and so she decided she wouldn’t appear to him again until he was truly in danger or ready to apologise. She suspected that the first would probably happen quicker… The prince’s pride and stubbornness got in the way a lot more than they should. That being said, she had to grudgingly admit that her own temper had not helped her case either. Now they were leaving the South Pole behind– something that would take weeks – and so far Zuko hadn’t even lit a single candle for meditation, much less do anything that could be taken as a request for her presence. Fine, she decided. If he wanted to show her he didn’t care he could be stubborn on his own.

The problem however was that he did care. He had missed Lia, her kind words and her lessons. Zuko knew he should apologise but how could he? If someone had treated him the way he had treated the Spirit they wouldn’t get away with it without a few burns. And there she was: the Spirit of Fire herself, and she was just giving him the silent treatment. He had been aware of her constant presence before. It was his anger and disappointment with himself that had once again taken over and talked instead of him. It was a terrifying feeling. But who was he kidding? He was simply a coward. The same day she had saved his life he had lashed out at her as if it had been her fault, to begin with, that the Avatar had escaped.

 

Lia saw his struggle. Her presence was kept securely hidden by her magic, but still it was hard. Her sisterly instincts were screaming at her to comfort him even when she understood that there are things everyone has to learn alone. So she divided her time instead between the ship and shadowing the Avatar. She was curious after all…

 

The next turning point came on a day like any other one. The ship had been moving slower than it should, but with half the right side of it damaged, they didn’t have much of a choice. They would be arriving at a Fire Nation camp soon, as Lia had gathered from the troops’ gossip. Indeed a few days later they were docking. She had woken up earlier than normal and out of habit took out the twin pedant to check on Zuko. It said something for both their characters really that even when he had told her – more or less – not to bother him again they had both kept their charms. Still smiling she looked at the symbols. Immediately they started to glow a deep red.

 

In theory, Lia knew how the charm was supposed to work; she had never actually seen the colours change. Alarmed she left the ship and hovered over the camp, stretching out her senses, searching for a threat. There was a vague air of foreboding, but couldn’t place it. Lia frowned. It wasn’t as if the soldiers hated Zuko. Most of them hadn’t even seen him before. It had to be a single person. Whoever this person was, she decided, he’d better not try anything. Suddenly another wave of hatred hit her. Telepathy had never been Lia’s strong point and she landed (more like crash-landed) feeling dizzy and weak. She took a few deep breaths, trying to ground herself, as the feeling rose to its zenith and then disappeared completely.

 

Lia blinked away a few tears, thankful that her cover was still up, and rose unsteadily to her feet. She thought that for a moment Zuko’s eyes drifted to her direction, as if he knew she was there, but it was probably just her imagination. An officer was approaching Zuko and General Iroh, so she turned to face the reason behind her troubles. He was a middle–aged man with long sideburns and an expression way too arrogant for her taste. She liked his voice even less.

“Getting in the way of what, Prince Zuko?”

 

The great Fire Spirit face-palmed, listening to the hasty explanation that uncle and nephew cooked up and served to this ‘Commander’ Zhao to explain the damages on their ship. It was obvious that the guy didn’t believe them. An Earth Kingdom ship so south? Please! Zuko seemed to understand that such a weak story would not hold for long, so when Zhao invited them for a drink he immediately declined. Lia was celebrating in relief, but then Iroh popped in accepting the offer. The Spirit, as aggravated as the prince, had time to whisper on his ear “I agree with you”, before the boy stormed ahead without hearing her. “Stupid covering spell” she muttered following them.

 

Inside the Commander’s tent Lia stifled one yawn after another as Zhao outlined his ‘genius’ plan for subduing the Earth Kingdom. Zuko was not impressed either, commenting impassively that whoever thought that the Earth Kingdom would fall easily was simply a fool. The Commander didn’t seem to take him seriously and proceeded to mock-ask him about his search for the Avatar. Lia flew to her feet and gave a rough shove on Iroh’s arm. The weapons the old man carried fell down, effectively drawing Zhao’s attention, giving Zuko time to collect himself and answer that it was a failure.

 

Zhao continued to press him, insisting that if he had “an ounce of loyalty left”, Zuko would tell him whatever he knew. The remark hurt, it was a low blow and the temperature on the tent rose imperceptibly before Lia realised what was happening and reigned her temper in. She hated seeing Zuko hurt, and a glance at the pedant told her that he was navigating in treacherous waters. They have to get out of here soon, she thought urgently. The same thought crossed Zuko’s mind as he rose from his chair and called his uncle to leave. However, when they reached the exit, the soldiers blocked the way and Lia seriously thought of interfering then and there.

 

A third soldier came in and informed Zhao that Zuko’s crew had been interrogated and admitted the presence of the Avatar on their ship. Zhao, wearing an even more self-satisfied smile asked the teenager: “Now remind me; how exactly was your ship damaged?”

 

Hours later, Zhao continued questioning Zuko. Lia might have still been angry with the prince but Zhao’s attitude was making her question her non-interference decision. The Commander was practically glowing as he remarked:

“So a twelve-year-old boy bested you and your firebenders. You are more pathetic than I thought.”

“I underestimated him once but it won’t happen again.” Zuko shot back, clenching his fists in an effort to control himself.

“No, it will not, because you will not have a second chance.”

WHAT? Lia screamed in her head. Did the man know by any chance what he was talking about?

Once more she seemed to mirror Zuko’s sentiments.

“Commander Zhao, I’ve been hunting the Avatar for two years and I…”

“You failed! Capturing the Avatar is far too important to leave in a teenager’s hand. He’s mine now,” Zhao sneered.

 

Zuko lunged at him angrily and was restrained by two soldiers.

“Keep them here.” Zhao ordered.

Zuko kicked the table frustrated. Lia rolled her eyes when Iroh asked calmly for more tea. This was going to be a long night indeed.

Very soon Iroh was asleep, leaving Zuko to his restless pacing. Finding the Avatar was his only chance of ever returning home and now Zhao had robbed him of it. He had never liked the man, even before his banishment. He always moved around with the idea that everyone, including the prince, was inferior to him. Zuko found himself wishing that Lia was here now. Maybe…

 

Shooting a nervous look to his sleeping uncle, Zuko lit one of the torches leaning against the walls of the tent. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, falling back to the pattern he had used when he had first started this ritual.

“I’m sorry Lia.” The words fell unbidden from his lips and his eyes snapped open when a soft hand landed on his shoulder.

“Apology accepted my friend.” Lia materialised on his side with a smile.

Zuko’s eyes widened in surprise. He had expected that it would take hours, maybe even days to see his Spirit guardian again. But there she appeared immediately. “Lia?”

“Who did you expect? The Face Stealer? And don’t get your hopes up. I’m still angry with you.”

“Then why did you come?” Zuko frowned. The redhead had been smiling, but she held herself as tensely as a coiled spring.

“Well”, she took a seat, shooting an amused look at the now-snoring Iroh, “an apology is always a good way to begin…. And I need to discuss a few things with you.”

“What kind of things?” he asked carefully.

“First of all, do you still want me around or not?” Lia asked facing directly in front of her, refusing to meet his eyes.

“Y…yes. I thought that you wouldn’t want to be around me!” Zuko exclaimed confused.

She turned sharply, surprised. “Why wouldn’t I? There are so many things you could still learn.”

“Like?” he asked interested.

“More on fire to begin with. And there is also water and earth. Oh, and I’ve seen these swords you have on your room. Do you know how to use them?” Now that they were back on the familiar ground of training both of them were relaxing.

“No.” Zuko shook his head. “They are antiques. I was afraid they would break if put pressure on them.”

Lia smiled mischievously and said “I’ll take care of that. Now tell me. How has your firebending been lately?”

“As it always is. Why?”

Another smile. “Oh no reason. Just try to keep your temper in a tiny little check, at least around me.” With that she vanished.

 

When the sun rose again, Zhao decided to honour his ‘guests’ with another visit.

“My search party is ready.” He announced. “Once I’m out at sea, my guards will escort you out and you’ll be free to go.”

Zuko threw him a side glance. “Why? Are you worried that I’m going to try and stop you?” He asked mockingly.

“You? Stop me? Impossible!” the Commander laughed.

Zuko stood up. “Don’t underestimate me Zhao! I will capture the Avatar before you!”

“Prince Zuko; that’s enough.” Iroh said sternly.

“You can’t compete with me.” Zhao said incredulously. “I have hundreds of ships under my command and you? You’re just a banished Prince; no home, no allies. Your own father didn’t want you.”

Not good… Lia winced when she heard the comment. Zuko would be soon furious.

“You’re wrong!” the teenager said desperately. “Once I deliver the Avatar my father will welcome me with honour and restore my rightful place on the throne.”

Zhao raised an eyebrow. “If your father really wanted you home he would have let you return by now, Avatar or no Avatar. But to his eyes you are a failure and a disgrace to the Fire Nation.”

“That’s not true.”

“You have the scar to prove it.”

Is this guy thinking at all? Lia now refused to believe her ears. She knew that Commander Zhao was a -for lack of better word- creep but this. He would soon have a very angry spirit on his heels.

“Maybe you’d like one to match!” Scratch that. After Zuko finished with him.

“Is that a challenge?” now Zhao was serious.

“An Agni Kai. At sunset.”

“Very well. It’s a shame your father won’t be here to watch me humiliate you. I guess your uncle will do.” With that Zhao left.

“Prince Zuko, have you forgotten what happened last time you duelled a Master?” Iroh asked him worriedly.

“I will never forget,” Zuko answered darkly.

 

The sunset looked magnificent and dramatic from the practice arena at the edge of the camp. No one but a few guards was present. Lia sat on Zuko’s side, visible only to him. She couldn’t speak in front of others, so she contented herself with giving him a reassuring smile. Iroh had put once again the stern face of the General as he looked down to his nephew.

“Remember your firebending basics prince Zuko,” he advised. “They are your greatest weapons.” Lia nodded approvingly.

“I refuse to let him win.” Zuko answered through clenched teeth. The two contestants stood up simultaneously. From the other side of the arena Lia heard Zhao declare,

“This will be over quickly.”

 

The gong rang, signalling the beginning of the duel. Zuko attacked first, remaining at a secure distance, but Zhao dodged all his attacks. Soon the boy’s chest was heaving with exertion. It didn’t seem to do anything to the power of his attacks and Zhao eventually started to use his own fire to put the prince’s off. From the sidelines Iroh advised,

“Basics Zuko. Break his root!”

But now it was Zhao’s turn to attack. Unlike his opponent he didn’t to control his blasts. Zuko was able to dodge two powerful blows, when the third one sent him to the ground. In a second Zhao was above him ready to strike. Oh no, you don’t! Zuko moved quickly to the side, heating the air under him just enough to add spin to his round-house kick.

 

Zhao was forced to retreat as attack after attack barely missed him and soon he was the one on his back looking at the prince towering over him ready to strike.

“Do it!” he commanded, when Zuko hesitated.

The prince struck barely missing the Commander’s head.

“That’s it?” Zhao said incredulously. “Your father raised a coward.”

“Next time you get on my way, I promise I won’t hesitate,” Zuko answered coldly.

As Zuko turned to leave, Zhao stood enraged and tried to attack him, but before it could make contact Iroh and Lia, doing exactly the same moves, blocked it. Zhao went flying back. Zuko turned angrily; ready to pick up the fight. He stopped when Iroh placed a hand on his shoulder.

“No, prince Zuko. Do not taint your victory.” He turned to the fallen man. “So this is how the great Commander Zhao acts in defeat. Disgraceful. Even in exile my nephew is more honourable than you. Thanks again for the tea.” He said turning to leave. “It was delicious!”

Zuko followed him astonished. Once they were out of earshot he asked Iroh quietly: “Did you really mean that uncle?”

“Of course” the General replied. “I told you jasmine tea is my favourite.”

 

A few nights after the duel two shadows were standing on the deck of prince Zuko’s ship, practicing some basic moves with swords. Suddenly one of them lunged forward and disarmed the other one.

“Good job my student.” Lia said picking her sword up.

“It’s so easy,” Zuko said surprised. “It feels almost natural for me to use swords. What does this mean?” he asked her. Lia smiled at the child-like expression on his face. It was endearing and a little sad at the same time that he had a hard time believing he was good at something.

“It means that other than firebending you have also great talent with the Duo swords. Off to bed now. It’s been a long day and you deserve your sleep.”

“As you wish sifu Lia.” Zuko answered with a smile and a small bow.

It was only after he was asleep that she entered his room. Just like so many other nights she tucked him in to his bed properly before blowing the small candle on his desk out.