TITLE: The Bold Strings
SERIES: Avatar: The Last Airbender
CHAPTERS/ONE SHOT: One Shot
GENRE: Gen? Het? Something?
PAIRING/S: implied Zuko/Katara
SUMMARY: Iroh and Zuko have a chat on the warship while Zuko is in possession of Katara's necklace.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: A "pípá" is a Chinese lute with a pear-shaped body, traditionally four strings and 5 frets, though more modern ones can have as many as 32 frets.
DISCLAIMER: I'm making no profit from this story. These characters are not mine. Which is a good thing, because if they were I would probably spend all my time cuddling them, and while Iroh would probably enjoy having a busty young woman cling to him, I think it would make Zuko cranky.
Beneath the evening sky the sea was relatively calm, the crescent moon criss-crossed by scudding clouds, its glow casting silvery light down to dance upon the water. Through the glistening waves a dark shape passed ominously, the warship of the Fire Nation belching black smoke into the sky.
Upon the sea the scent of salt was clear and strong, but upon the ship it was overpowered by the smell of soot, coal and metal. In the warship's dark bowels, men in their cabins laughed and murmured, and somewhere on the deck a soldier plucked the twisted silk strings of a pipa, the instrument's tone mellow and clear. Waves lapped rhythmically against the ship's iron sides, steam hissed intermittently from the vents that dotted the vessel's bulk, and beneath all, persistent and unchanging, came the distant low rumble of the engines' huge fires, as soothing in its familiarity as a mother's lullaby.
The banished son of the Fire Lord sat cross-legged near the warship's prow, the deck's dark metal plates still warm from the afternoon sun. Wound between his fingers was a ribbon of black material, the small blue disk cradled in his palm the necklace's only ornament. Zuko's amber eyes were following the delicately etched motif of swirls and waves, but his mind was elsewhere, considering once more the pattern of sightings of the Avatar and his flying bison, attempting to discern where he might next appear.
From behind him the plaintive sound of the pipa grew slowly louder, and when the player was finally close enough to draw Zuko from his reverie, the musician was just behind him and the prince's uncle Iroh was standing to his left, the retired general's hands tucked into the wide sleeves of his robe.
"You're thinking about her again, aren't you?" Iroh asked conversationally. "She is a pretty girl, Prince Zuko, but I don't think she's your type."
Zuko kept his face turned downward, but he knew his uncle was well aware of the sour look that crossed his face. Curling his fingers tight around the waterbender's necklace, Zuko said, "This trinket is going to lead us to the Avatar."
"I don't know," Zuko replied honestly. "I'm still working it out, Uncle."
"It is good that you are," Iroh replied, sounding cheerful. "I would hate to keep sailing around aimlessly. One of these days we will run out of coal."
Zuko grit his teeth and remained silent.
"You must admit, she is a pretty girl," Iroh went on, as if ignorant of his nephew's discomfiture. His words fell pleasantly among the notes still drawn from the pipa by the soldier's hand, and for one wincing moment Zuko thought Iroh might burst into song. "Did you catch her name?"
"I never had the opportunity," Zuko said, terse.
Shaking his head, Iroh lamented, "What a shame. A shame also that she is to be married."
Without thinking, Zuko turned sharply toward his uncle, blurting, "What?" At the keen, almost smug look in Iroh's eyes, Zuko felt heat begin to rush to his face and immediately regretted the outburst.
"That kind of necklace is made by a waterbender for his bride. He uses his skill to carve it, and by wearing it she acknowledges his claim to her." Iroh's manner was casual and his voice incurious, but Zuko could tell by the gleam in the old man's eyes that he was being watched with some amusement.
"What sort of man would leave his bride to fend for herself?" Zuko mumbled, his grip loosening on the necklace in his grasp so that he might glimpse the cool stone between his fingers.
"A dead one," Iroh said heartily.
Silent once more, Zuko stared at the disk that had been crafted with such care, the stone seeming to bear a faint sheen in the moonlight. He knew that the Southern Water Tribe had been attacked once some years past, but did not know the details of the battle. For a moment that he would never admit to, he felt slightly uneasy for his inadvertent contribution to the girl's pain.
"No wonder she does not like you," Iroh mused, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
"I had nothing to do with it," Zuko retorted.
"So you do care what she thinks."
"Of course not!"
As he launched himself to his feet, Zuko felt another rush of heat, this time sparking in his blood and spiraling swiftly down his arms to his hands. At the last moment he held himself in check, the faint scent of char rising as he lifted his palm and spread his fingers once more, faint wisps of smoke rising from the necklace's dark hide band.
"Oh no," Iroh said, leaning over to peer into Zuko's palm. "Is it damaged?"
Snatching his hand away, Zuko snapped, "Stop playing games with me, Uncle! This necklace will lead us to that little peasant, and she will lead us to the Avatar. That is all that matters!"
Wide-eyed and innocent, Iroh replied, "Of course it is. But you cannot blame me for hoping my nephew might meet a nice girl along the way."
Exhaling a long, draconic stream of smoke from his nostrils, Zuko grated, "She is not a nice girl. She is the enemy."
Iroh only hummed his agreement, nodding placidly, then reached out to give Zuko's shoulder a fond pat.
"You are young yet," he said. "One day you will change your mind."
All but jerking away from him, Zuko's brow furrowed as he gave Iroh a puzzled, frustrated look. "About what? Waterbenders?"
"About women," Iroh corrected, winking. Then he turned and begun to wander back along the deck amidst the cloud of smoke that had erupted from his nephew at the statement, humming as the pipa yet played with bold stings pattering like rain.
Alone once more, yet still enveloped by the sound of the sea and the distant music, Zuko's gaze fell to the waterbender's necklace. For one irate moment he pondered simply pitching the thing overboard. But he was forced to admit to himself, however grudgingly, that he needed it. What exactly he needed it for was anybody's guess.