SPOILERS: episode 20 season finale

Notes: This one came from my love of the Zuko/Katara battle mixed with my love of weary!beaten!Zuko at the end of the finale. ONE-SHOT.

Best Laid Plans

Again and again his mind returned to siege of the water tribe, but for once Zuko's thoughts did not linger on the Avatar and his own recurring failure. This time they rested on the girl.

The stupid, troublesome, waterbending girl.

He'd made a mistake with her; that much was apparent. It was just that her bending had seemed so pathetic before—a distraction from his battle with the Avatar at best. In this conflict, however, she trapped him more than once the first time and nearly finished him off entirely the second.

Perhaps if he'd listened to his uncle more closely he would have foreseen this turn of events. If she was self-taught then she must have talent, and it would only make sense that the talent would be brought out after weeks spent with a master—of whom there must be plenty in the Northern Tribe.

He'd been a fool to underestimate her in her own element.

When he met them next he'd have to take her out quickly, make sure she couldn't get in the way.

One more problem to add to an ever-growing list.

"What are you thinking about, my nephew?"

"Nothing, Uncle." A few minutes passed as his uncle waited. Their small sailboat glided smoothly South, taking them away from the waterfolk for now.

After a while Zuko hesitantly spoke up. "I was thinking about the Avatar's companions. The waterbender had training while they were at the North Pole. It took a lot out of me to get the Avatar away from her. And then..."

He paused for a moment, not sure he wanted to tell his uncle how close he'd come to dying. If the Avatar probably hadn't felt he owed him...no. His uncle didn't need to hear it.

"...Later we had another confrontation, in the blizzard, and she completely bested me."

Iroh stroke his beard thoughtfully. "Well, that's nothing to be ashamed about, Prince Zuko. You would have been exhausted while she was fresh, and a blizzard meant you were surrounded by her element. With the advantages so far in her favor, you can't feel it was a poor reflection on yourself."

"I don't Uncle. I just..." this was awkward. Zuko was still getting used to the new-found closeness between them. He hadn't opened up to anyone in a while, but he could tell the other man was trying too. "I'm just mad at myself, for underestimating her. I should have been more prepared."

To his surprise, and vaguely to his offense, his uncle snorted.

"What?" Zuko asked, stung.

"It's not you, my nephew," Iroh replied hastily, not wanting to upset his over-sensitive charge. He couldn't help his smile, however. "It's just the words you chose. Never underestimate a woman, Zuko. I speak from experience when I say you will always regret it."

"I didn't underestimate her because she was a girl," he replied, voice defensive. He was also being reminded of his sister again. He would never underestimate her, even in his grave.

"I believe you, Zuko. I meant no offense."

"Alright," the younger man said sulkily, accepting an end to the conversation.

"However, I did manage to speak with this young waterbender of yours," Iroh added.

"What?" Zuko snapped. Weren't they done with this already?

"Yes, yes. A lovely young woman. And very polite. Of course terrible things were happening at the time, but I thought her an impressive lass. Calm in a crisis."

"What's your point?" Zuko asked, trying to see where his uncle was headed with this. He was also thinking back to his interaction with the girl; he didn'trecall her being particularly polite.

"Nothing, nephew," Iroh sighed. "Just an old man thinking an old person's thoughts about the world."

"…Are you alright, Uncle?"

"I'm fine," he said, adjusting the sails. "You should get some more sleep and trade with me in a few hours."