This chapter took a while, mainly because I fear not being able to do this justice. I missed the interaction between Iroh and Zuko that I missed, so I tried to flesh out the beginning to make up for it. Forgive me? Pwease?
The main problem is the I really, really want to get to Azula(awesomeness) and Toph(also awesomeness) and Ba Sing Se(super awesomeness). But I have to go through all these other episodes first! Bummer. Anyway, enjoy!
Zuko found meditation soothing and comforting. Previously he had used it solely to enhance his firebending, feel the flames outside his body and learn to manipulate them. The candles filled the room with lazy smoke, the wisps meandering across the ceiling. From those candles Zuko could smell the faint edge of fire lilies, which was unusual. From another came what seemed suspiciously like Ginseng. It seemed one of the servants had restocked the latest candles with scented varieties...that or Zuko had accidentally raided Iroh's store.
The latter seemed far more likely, and Zuko focused his thoughts onto his past. It was a rare activity for him – the past was painful in more ways than one. But with the conflicting goals and feelings whirling about inside him like a maelstrom he didn't have much of a choice. Each day he failed to mentally and emotionally order himself he found control over the darker impulses that previously drove him slackening.
During those days he became more irritable, more confrontational. He began slipping, thinking of Aang as an objective rather than a child with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He never allowed himself to again consider capturing him to take him back to the Fire Nation, but each day the suggestion flittered at the edge of his consciousness, whispering seductive promises into his mind. Zuko was rarely scared, but the way he wasn't sure if he knew himself disturbed him deeply.
Even worse, his firebending became less directed and more temperamental. It was impossible to focus with the battle inside him, his attacks driven by a combination of anger and desire for balance. They were incompatible, and fire was rarely forgiving of such turmoil. It flared as he struck out, and control over more advanced techniques was slipping. He had tried to generate lightning again and utterly failed.
The problem was that things were different from when he had changed. It was like leading an addict into the opium den. Perhaps if he was in Ba Sing Se, or the Earth Kingdom, anywhere but his quarters on the Fire Navy ship he called home for almost three years…
But he wasn't in the Earth Kingdom. He wasn't resting in the Western Air Temple. He certainly wasn't quietly serving tea in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se. Part of him berated himself for actually enjoying that, screaming that as a prince of the Fire Nation it was beneath him. But it was mostly the darker part of himself, while another, more calm part reminded him that he had enjoyed the new beginning, and it was nothing to be ashamed of. Zuko was sure that on the edge of that part of himself he could hear Iroh's voice.
Meditation could sooth away such differences or force them to a head until he resolved them. The candles flickered as if in a strong wind, almost reflecting the inner chaos that Zuko was slowly resolving with a patience that only meditation could bring out in him. It was a long process, but in the end he always felt refreshed, the same way he had felt when he confronted Ozai, finally telling his father what he thought.
He had understandably tensed up again when the lightning came him way, but that was understandable. That crystal clear moment where everything had made sense and he had been at peace with himself had almost been worth the admittedly foolish choice of confronting the Fire Lord. He didn't have to do it, it gave him no tactical advantage…he would have been better served guiding the Avatar to his father, or perhaps stopping Azula.
His uncle had chastised him for such regrets, and reminded him that it was unhealthy. To reflect and note mistakes was one thing, but to agonise over what might have been was foolish. So Zuko let those thoughts go as well, nudging them into oblivion as another thought came in its place, like subjects approaching the throne of his mind.
But such things were rudely interrupted when Zuko felt the ship sway to the side in an abrupt and rather steep course change hard to port. Amber eyes flared open and candles were swiftly extinguished as Zuko rose and swayed a little as the ship righted itself. Opening the hatch into the corridor, Zuko listened for any shouts or running footsteps that might indicate an emergency, but there was none.
Carefully stepping out into the corridor, he made his way up the stairs, not bothering to grip the handrail. Not many people on ship could order a course change without consulting him, and he had a growing suspicion of just who had. Sure enough, as Zuko climbed onto the bridge, he found his uncle sitting and playing Pai Sho with Lieutenant Jee while another crewman observed and poured the tea.
Iroh turned at the sound of Zuko climbing the last few steps and smiled broadly. Zuko instantly narrowed his eyes. That look meant he probably wasn't going to like what he was about to hear, and he strongly suspected he already knew what his uncle had made the course change for.
"Ah, Prince Zuko. You must be wondering about the course change." Iroh had turned back to his game and made a move while speaking, which Lieutenant Jee was scrutinising. "I have lost something very important: my Lotus Tile. Most consider the Lotus Tile insignificant. But it is the centre of the unusual strategy I employ."
Lieutenant Jee made a move and Iroh instantly moved again, apparently having anticipated the ship commander's tactics. Jee hunched over to stare at the tile Iroh had just moved as if it would reveal some secret inscribed into the colourful insignia that identified it.
"You changed the course of this ship for…" Zuko gritted his teeth. He knew the importance of the tile for his uncle, but it still grated on Zuko's nerves. Instead of exploding, Zuko tried a different tack. "So you lost it. Have you checked in your sleeves, Uncle?" There was a moments pause as Iroh placed his hands in his sleeves and felt about, somehow managing to look sagely at the same time.
Zuko watched him carefully, prowling round to the opposite side of the board and standing over his uncle like a threat. There was a momentary pause halfway through the examination of the interior of his sleeves, but Iroh kept patting and searching before withdrawing his hands in a helpless gesture as Jee made his next move.
"I'm afraid that it is not there, my nephew. I will have to search a market for a new one. Hopefully, they will a have a Lotus tile in stock." Zuko stared at his uncle, wondering whether he should order him to empty his sleeves. The hesitation had been obvious, but what Zuko strongly suspected to be a lie had betrayed none of the usual signs.
Still, he was sure that Iroh had the offending tile concealed in his sleeves. But the old man was canny, and Zuko could mentally play out exactly what would happen if he commanded his uncle to empty his sleeves. Iroh would look indignant and hurt, that puppy dog expression seating on his face perfectly, while Jee would just stare at the Prince and silently convey his opinion of such disrespect to the elderly general with a stern expression.
Zuko drove an explosive breath out of his nose, and a snort of fire came with it. The Dragon of the West had won this round, and they both knew it. Iroh gave Zuko his best apologetic smile as he moved a tile and won the game, correctly interpreting the irritated huff as a sign that he had carried the day. "I am glad I have such an understanding nephew!"
Zuko sat at his desk as he listened to the gangplank being manoeuvred into place with a few clanks, the faint noises, shouts of merchants and general activity of the docks penetrating all the way into the relatively isolated sleeping quarters. Zuko had long since abandoned trying to anticipate where Aang would show up next, but he was relatively hopeful about this stop.
Instead of relying on foreknowledge he had done it the old fashioned way: hunting and hoping. But there was always the question of what to actually do when he caught up. Zuko had gained nothing from the encounter with Aang and those pirates the first time, so he could see no reason to do it the same way. The tactical knowledge of the Dragon of the West was helpful for logistics, but not one-man tracking.
This meant Zuko was on his own, which automatically made him look at the wall to where the twin dao swords hung like an open invitation. The Blue Spirit was always there, like an alternate psyche waiting to be unleashed. All it needed was for him to put on a mask...Zuko drew back his fingers from where they had been reaching towards the swords, reminding himself that it was daylight and he didn't want to attract attention.
It seemed he had few options. The key was how much to involve the pirates. They were untrustworthy thieves, not unlike the Blue Spirit. But they killed without hesitation, and were brutal when they wanted to be. Simply put, Zuko found them distasteful. In his search for the Avatar he was prepared to deal with them. Now he just wanted them out of the way as soon as possible.
"Zuko! The sun is high and the market is waiting!" Tensing, the prince didn't dignify the overly cheerful shout with a response. Closing his index and middle finger round the knob of the desk, he carefully pulled it open, the drawer tilting downwards slightly as the back tilted upwards under the weight of the contents. Reaching inside, Zuko pressed at the thin wood and shifted the false bottom to the side, making sure not to damage the items beneath it.
Hidden safely inside were Roku's crown and other valuable objects, among which…Zuko carefully picked up the betrothal necklace by the worn cloth band, laying it across his palm as he stared down on it. This little thing, at least, didn't change. The stylised and flowing waves were deeply ingrained into a flawless blue stone, and refused to fade with time. Smiling faintly, almost affectionately, Zuko brushed the pad of his thumb over the markings.
Carefully slipping it snugly between his black and red greave and the fabric covering his arm, Zuko felt reasonably sure it wouldn't fall out. Running a hand through his now thick hair, the exiled prince idly began to tug it into the ponytail shape he had come accustomed to while back in the Fire Nation. He had to keep up appearances, after all.
The deck was empty, a stark contrast to the bustling crowd in the market place. The stalls were as close as they could be to each other, the competing shouts of the owners rising above the crowds. Grimacing a little in distaste, Zuko spotted the large figure of his uncle and made his way down onto the dock. Crowds were a nightmare for him. In such close quarters you couldn't firebend, you could barely fight…
Of course, that didn't bother Iroh at all. Who would attack an old man for no reason? His nephew, standing out as young and in Fire Nation armour would be a far easier target. Trying not to lose his temper, Zuko moved to follow his uncle before pausing mid step and turning the other way.
He could think of no reason for supervising the rapidly decreasing amounts of money at his disposal other than to fuel irritation, and in the meantime he could search for more practical supplies. Like some candles that didn't make his quarters smell like springtime and distracted his meditation. He had several hours before the pirates had to be confronted. As much as he hated to admit it, their tracking skills had been invaluable.
So Zuko began to wander, and immediately regretted donning his armour instead of a simple robe. Maybe it was just Iroh's charms that had protected him from the dirty looks and whispers, despite how creepy that was, or Zuko may have simply moved into a less hospitable area of the market.
The tension grew, and Zuko was sure he wasn't the only person feeling it. Even in such a dense crowd two or three faces seemed to constantly present themselves to Zuko's alert gaze, walking by or browsing some of the stalls. Either they were avid shoppers or they were following him, and they didn't seem the type for the simple pleasures of life.
Instead they were hard-faced, well built and walked with confidence. They didn't wear any Earth Kingdom colours, simply dull and serviceable clothes, which made Zuko think they were probably just part of a local gang. Not a very good one, though. They were hardly subtle in following him.
For the next thirty minutes Zuko kept half an eye on his followers, who he noted with growing dislike had begun to mass together and increase in number. They weren't being subtle anymore, the group of around ten simply following him down the middle of the street. The way people shied away didn't go unnoticed either. They were afraid of these people.
When a perfectly good deal for a set of meditation candles was turned down by a trembling storekeeper Zuko lost patience. Turning slowly around to face his new friends, he gritted his teeth in irritation. The naked disgust on their faces brought back unpleasant memories of Jet.
"You have been following me ever since I left ship. You have a problem with me, deal with it." One of the gang shifted forward, a giant of a man with thick muscles. He looked like an ox, and about as intelligent. He jabbed a thick finger at the prince like a weapon.
"You're Fire Nation. We don't like your sort round on our turf." Zuko sighed. It was a local gang, without a doubt. All feeling self-important and all powerful, driven by the same hatred which drove all division. He couldn't blame them for it, but he could blame them for their blatant and offensive actions.
"If you thugs have a problem with me, fight me. If you cowards dare, that is. I've fought girls more frightening than you." Zuko smirked at his own joke. Katara and Toph definitely could be frightening when they wanted to be. The gang leader was less than pleased by the comparison, and the crowd quickly thinned out and away from the upcoming fight.
"Shut up! Let's see how funny you find it when they find you bleeding in the gutter!" With that, the leader stepped forward into an earthbending stance, and Zuko slipped back into a guarded firebending stance, ready to strike back at the first attack. The man certainly had the muscles to be an earthbender, but he was no Toph Bei Fong.
Zuko's suspicions were confirmed when the earth rumbled and a decently sized boulder ripped out of the ground before being lobbed towards him with a single punch. It didn't have much speed behind it, which made Zuko think that his opponent was a novice at best.
Simply stepping round the boulder with practised grace, Zuko sent a quick burst of fire out from his index and middle finger, which caught the thug in the shoulder. Yowling in pain, he stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, clutching his shoulder. For a moment Zuko was uncomfortably reminded of what Azula had done to Iroh.
The moment passed when half the gang broke and ran, mostly those at the back. Four at the front launched themselves forward with yells, two brandishing knives, the others just bare fists. Zuko ducked under a slash of one knife and drove a fist into the arm holding it, producing an unnerving crack and scream of pain.
Zuko settled easily into the practiced calm of battle, where he calmly considered strategies as his body fought for him. It was a sort of bliss for any firebender, the moment where all training culminated into a vicious and short fight. It was usually over in seconds, but in those seconds there wasn't thought about what to do. You simply knew.
One of the thugs had circled behind him, so Zuko pressed one foot back and came around in a vicious kick, the sole of his boot knocking the knife out of his assailant's hand. Using his momentum, Zuko landed on the foot he had just kicked with and brought around another kick with his other leg, this time breaking the jaw of his attacker.
The last two thugs moved inwards, and so did Zuko, pressing into the comfort zone of the thug on the left and delivering two punches straight to the gut. As the man bent over instinctively, wheezing, Zuko brought his elbow down into the depression at the back of his skull and knocked him out cold.
Turning towards the last opponent in a classic firebending stance, Zuko waited for a moment. The man stumbled slightly as he tried to circle around, and Zuko moved forward abruptly just one step. Seeing the movement and panicking, the thug stumbled against and fell, quickly scrambling up from the ground and fleeing. Zuko watched him go impassively.
Taking one last look at the prone bodies on the ground, he turned and left, leaving the crowd to begin to filter back. Some checked the thugs and others crowded round the fallen leader, though whether to tend to him or get some long awaited justice Zuko didn't know or care. The fight had eliminated all the patience the prince had left: it was time to see the pirates.
The ship itself wasn't too far away, but that area of the docks was practically deserted compared to the market. Zuko stepped into the shadowy confines of the main hold where the wares – all stolen, do doubt – were displayed. The only pirate there was the captain, with that irritating bird…thing perched on his shoulder.
The captain momentarily turned towards Zuko and the prince had the impression for a moment that he had been expecting someone else. His face didn't fall, but it tensed into a more stern expression and he turned away, placing what looked like a chest containing the earnings of the day out of sight.
"If you are here to browse, I haven't the patience. If you are here to buy, buy and get out of my sight." The captain sounded almost dismissive, but there were underlying tones of irritation which raised Zuko's hackles, no matter how much he tried to smooth them over.
"I'm not here to buy, but if I was I hope you would show a little more respect." There was a slam as the captain closed a chest he had just opened with more force than necessary, a thunderous look on his face as he turned around.
"Explain yourself before I throw you over the side with a dagger in your back, boy." Zuko actually smirked a little at that. He had got the captains attention and irritated him at the same time. Considering the exiled prince's opinion of the man, he didn't feel particularly guilty.
"I'm looking for two kids. One is a Water Tribe girl and the other is a bald monk. I have information they were seen entering this ship." There was a momentary pause as the captain scrutinised him, apparently taking more notice of the Fire Nation armour. There was a begrudging nod.
"Those two have stolen something very valuable from me. I want it back." Zuko smirked coldly, the right side of his mouth curling upwards.
"I want the kids, you want your property. We both benefit." The captain nodded slowly, beginning to smirk himself.
"Alright, kid. You have a deal. But if you double cross me…" The captain laid a hand on the hilt of his sword threateningly, and Zuko looked at it with disgust.
"Don't threaten me, captain. I'm more than capable of sinking your ship." The pirate stepped closer, leaning in until their faces were only inches apart.
"Big words, kid. But I don't think you can back them up." Zuko narrowed his eyes, pressing two fingers to the collarbone of his new ally.
Wrong light – Thanks for the support, every little helps.
Musiclover9419 – I don't know why everybody is commenting on Zuko being wise, he struck me as just as impulsive as usual, he just had a plan this time!
Niana Kuonji – I'm glad to hear my writing isn't bad and I haven't fallen into clichés, and I'm counting on you to call me out when I do!
AvocadoLove – The difficult thing about writing this is I'm actually having to think of not only what I want to happen but what could happen. If Zuko freed Katara and Sokka he would have had the two on his back the moment those doors opened. It just didn't go quite the way he hoped – I think he expected normal Aang because there wasn't a threat. He didn't know Zhao was coming.
ME – The sad thing is that I didn't actually mean for it to be G-rated! Sheesh, I must be getting soft. I did have a relatively good time writing the previous chapter, so maybe it showed through. It was certainly longer, though how these people churn out 10k words and expect you to read it in one chapter without getting lost is beyond me.
Daveshan – I may have spoken too soon. This might not be as long as the last chapter, but it still feels pretty long to me. Maybe just because I dragged it out so long. The pirates look like they will be getting two chapters after all.
Logrus Mage – I'm pretty sure that the 'time-travel' fic is a route our imaginations often take us but fail to make it onto paper. 'What if' is a staple of history shows and the like, why not fan fictions?
MoonlitInuko – The thing is that I personally felt that Iroh's little note was the highlight of the chapter, and allowed me to end it on a nice not with a bit of humour. I had to rewrite it a few times to get the Iroh quality to it. As for the Blue Spirit…we have to wait and see. I dread it, because I'm not sure I can live up to it over multiple chapters. It might have to be a one-off.
Bluetiger – I told you that Zuko was remembering Ba Sing Se, but for the sake of everybody else who was confused I thought I ought to clarify. I guess the link was clear for me who just watched Crossroads and the fireblast Zuko used to interrupt the standoff, but it could have been done better.
Twilight G – Here is your chapter, just as you asked. One of the main problems is that I have only really seen season one once, while I have the DVD for season 2. Watching it on a small screen doesn't really do it justice.
Lioness – Always thankful for the support, and reading new chapters of Earthquake is always great fun.
Remember the Review Revolution pledge: I, Sayle, do solemnly swear to review all the fics I enjoy, regardless of the number of reviews, its age, or anything else. It's a good pledge, and it encourages new authors and old authors alike. Enjoy!