A/N: Nothing Avatar-related belongs to me. AU bit of "The Cave of Two Lovers". Because robbery is one thing, but horse-stealing is just wrong.
"What are you doing? These people just showed you great kindness."
Great kindness. Yeah. And what had that ever gotten anybody?
"Everything I've done, I've done for you."
He hadn't even been awake enough to say goodbye.
"Then the best thing we can do for them is get as far away as possible," Zuko said harshly. "Azula's looking for us. What do you think she'll do to someone who showed us great kindness?"
"She is looking for us, that is true. But this is still the Earth Kingdom. She can't just burn everything to the ground and order the survivors to talk. She will have to be more… subtle." Iroh raised a gray brow. "What will bring news to her ears more swiftly, nephew? Two refugees who leave in the night… or an ostrich-horse thief?"
It hurt to think. He'd been so close to going home, to his father wanting him again-
Azula always lies.
But Uncle had been there, when her lies came crashing down on them. Even after he'd said… awful things. The Dragon of the West, able to divert even Azula the prodigy's power-
Don't think of her as Azula. Don't! She's - another obstacle. Like Zhao. Like the fortress. Like the North Pole.
And he'd beaten all of those. All of them. Maybe he hadn't won, the Avatar was still out there-
But the Avatar was still out there. No one else had grabbed the slippery little Airbending brat. He hadn't lost. Not yet.
We're not refugees. We're fugitives being hunted.
How can we turn that in our favor?
Deception. Azula might be better at flat-out lying, but he'd learned to hide a thing or two. She was still better than him hand-to-hand, always had been. But she had no idea he'd learned to use a sword. Like a common soldier. Like someone who couldn't even bend-
Like a refugee.
Use it as a mask. Hide their trail, in a way Azula would never suspect, until Uncle could recover. Until they had time to figure out what to do next.
I wish… Lieutenant Jee was here.
He had no idea if their ship had survived the Water Spirit's attack at the North Pole. He hadn't dared ask Azula. Even dizzy with the thought of going home….
They're my men. They're safer drifting in the ocean than under Azula's eye.
Agni, he hoped they'd lived.
My men. My ship. Uncle.
They were part of his search for the Avatar. But he was responsible for them, too. That was what a prince was.
Never forget who you are.
Moving slowly, aching, he got out of the saddle.
Holding the reins, Uncle gripped his shoulder, and led the steed back to his pen.
Zuko waited, shivering a little. Odd, the night hadn't seemed that cold earlier. "Do you think we can find a port?" he asked abruptly, as Iroh returned. "I want to know - the ships…."
"Yes; I, too, wish to know if Lieutenant Jee survived the siege," Iroh said soberly. "I made inquiries, before we had to depart with such haste. There was no word."
No. Not again-
"But there was no word that they were dead, either. Never give up hope, nephew." A comforting pat on the shoulder, and a knowing smile. "Come. We have a long walk ahead of us."
And it's going to be a lot longer, Zuko thought ruefully. "On one condition, Uncle."
"Condition?" Iroh tried to look innocent.
"Yes," Zuko said grimly, settling in for a long march. Just another obstacle. Azula's… just another obstacle. You can do this. "You're never gathering tea leaves again."
A/N: Pre English conquest, the gravest of all crimes in Welsh law was not murder, but theft. And while armed robbery was considered excusable under some circumstances, theft by stealth - theft absolute - could be a capital crime. Stealing from your own host, who'd taken you in and given you shelter… well. Very bad.
This story wouldn't have to change canon events much; Zuko could always have bought another mount with stolen funds later. Or then again, it might change quite a bit, down the road….