35. Living in Different Worlds
Zuko scrambled to his feet and tried to muster some form of defensive kata, or even just dodge the hit, but there wasn't enough time. The water crashed over him. When Zuko regained his sense of direction, he found himself yet again sprawled on the ground, just at the opposite side of the clearing.
"Are you sure you want a rematch?" Katara quipped. "I should warn you: I am no longer that scared little girl you remember. I can fend for myself."
To emphasize her words, Katara gathered another impressive stream of water, and hurled it at Zuko with all her might.
Yeah. I know, Zuko thought, and rolled to the side. Katara was too fast and there was too much water; Zuko did not get entirely out of the way, and lost his footing again.
"I am not going to let you hurt Aang," Katara declared.
"Great, since I am not here to hurt Aang," Zuko shot back.
Katara was strong. Zuko wasn't sure whether it was because of the spiritual power of the Oasis, the lunar advantage, or her protective love over the Avatar, but she was really on fire tonight.
Still, for some reason, Katara took a pause in her attacks. Zuko had time to get up on his feet and into a bending stance.
Zuko thought about taking out his Dao swords. He had left the rope and most of his other belongings in Kulo's lair before sneaking out to his meeting with Näkki, but Zuko had not to dared to leave such a recognizable, obviously Fire Nation weapon laying around. Good thinking, considering that the very next morning Sokka had gone by Kulo's igloo while looking for him.
Even if the kid would not recognize the swords as Fire Nation weapons, he would still know they were not from the Water Tribe, and that could raise awkward questions.
Zuko was a good sword fighter, but without an element of surprise on his side, he would probably still need his bending to take down Katara. Zuko did not have more time to think about what to do, so he decided to take Uncle's advice, and rely on his basics. No swords.
Zuko started with a simple fire jab, but the small flame sizzled away before it even reached Katara. Zuko's face fell. Katara giggled.
The Prince felt his cheeks get red. He chose to think it was just the frustration coursing through his veins.
You have got to be kidding me. Destiny couldn't find a more inconvenient moment for a bending breakdown?
Zuko could still try to use his swords or one of his hidden knives, but he seriously doubted they would be enough to catch Katara by surprise. Besides, Zuko was not here to defeat Katara. He was here to stop Aang from making a mistake, and surely that was something Katara wanted, too. He just needed to convince her to trust him.
The Prince decided to try a different approach, one he virtually never even contemplated; Zuko lifted both of his hands up in surrender.
"You got me", the Prince said, albeit through gritted teeth.
Katara looked dubious. "What do you think you're doing?"
"What does it look like? I am admitting defeat. You are right. You got me beat here."
Katara frowned, and stated slowly: "You're playing some kind of game."
"Yeah? Then what is my big end plot? In case you haven't noticed, I haven't an ounce of firebending left in me, and I am completely at your mercy."
The last part was not entirely true; Zuko couldn't use his firebending, but that did not mean he was completely defenseless. Hopefully, Katara wouldn't think to question that logic.
Katara's face remained stern, but her eyes brightened a notch. Zuko could hardly believe that this approach just might get Katara to stop attacking him and start listening.
"Look," Zuko said, his hands still in the air. "I know this looks bad, but you have to believe me when I tell you that I'm not here to capture the Avatar. Think about it: why would I have risked my life and come all this way just to pick a fight, while I am without my bending. I know I cannot defeat you or the Avatar, so I am not here to defeat either of you. I am only here to talk Aang out of making a big mistake that will put all our lives in jeopardy."
For a moment, Katara looked like she was really considering his words. Then she answered: "Okay. Let's pretend for one minute that I have any reason to believe that you would want to help us, or do something for the general good of everyone, for that matter."
"Hey!" Zuko said and frowned.
Katara crossed her arms. "Oh, come on! You would literally do anything, no matter how immoral, to have your father's love and be allowed to go back to the Fire Nation. You don't care about 'collateral damage', which means you don't really care about anyone."
And how does she even know about me and my father? Well, I guess it's not a state secret. Maybe they have been asking around about me. Makes me feel sort of... like I matter to them.
Zuko crossed his arms as well. "Okay, let's just presume that something so bad is going to happen that even the Evil Prince Zuko cares. Now finish the sentence."
Zuko was not that person anymore, but he had no need to convince Katara of it. Katara did not know him before, when he was closer to the person she had just described, and she did not know him now. Just because she wanted to showoff with her ignorance did not mean that Zuko owed her an explanation. Also, there was no time for the long version, nor any reason to think she would believe it.
Katara looked unhappy, but she went on: "Okay. What is it? What is so damn important that the Evil Prince Zuko, your words, not mine, would give up a chance to chase personal glory and capture the Avatar?"
Zuko took a deep breath, trying to reign in his ever-growing frustration and anger. This was not going well, but it was better than nothing.
"I'm here," Zuko stated evenly. "Because I know from a reliable source that there is an evil spirit out there, and he is trying to trick the Avatar into unleashing a 'massive spirit attack' on the Fire Nation fleet. Look, I just know bad things will come of it, and I cannot... We can't let Aang do that."
So, Zuko cut a few corners, but that was essentially what he had come here to say. The Prince took a deep breath and looked up to see how Katara would react.
Katara actually laughed. "You know, I do believe you. I believe that you would have come here to prevent Aang from getting help to defeat the Fire Nation."
"Katara, stop being such a child!" Zuko yelled. He could tell from the shock on Katara's face that he had struck a nerve, but went on anyway: "Do you really think that crossing your fingers and hoping that a higher power saves you is going to solve something? You really think that the spirits care about who wins this battle? If the spirits truly care about justice and harmony, where were they when the Air Nomads got wiped out?
"I'm not saying that spirits don't exist, or that they never interfere with human lives, but that doesn't mean you should trust them. You know why? Because spirits don't care about you, me, or anyone, and if a spirit does unleash a massive spirit attack today, it will have nothing to do with helping the Water Tribe. Spirits aren't helpful, and spirits don't care about people. Not as a rule, anyway."
When Katara answered, her voice was eerily calm: "You know, for a moment there, I actually thought you were here to help us."
"Katara, I didn't mean that..." Zuko tried to say, but he could feel the moment slipping away. This wasn't a matter of miscommunication, or that their tempers were getting the best of them. The problem was that Zuko and Katara lived in different worlds, and Zuko couldn't bridge the gap when he knew so little of her.
"Don't apologize," Katara said. "In fact, I should thank you for opening my eyes, and reminding me why it is so important that we stop the Fire Nation right now, before they do more irreparable damage to the world. And you... I mean, I knew you were messed up, but I never took you for someone who has no respect for the spirits."
Zuko had managed to get Katara to stop attacking, but that didn't mean she believed him. Actually, this whole thing had been a massive waste of time. Katara was probably the last person in the world to think ill of the spirits, let alone based on Zuko's word.
What am I doing? I cannot surrender and hand myself over to the Avatar's lot. Even if I could convince them of my good intentions while their prisoner, it would take too long. I have to stop the Avatar from doing something he will regret, and I need to do it right now. If the only way to do that is by going through Katara, so be it.
Zuko glanced around himself for ideas. If I wait too long, Sokka and Yue will get here, and they will take me as a prisoner of the Water Tribe. I can't let that happen.
Zuko realized that his thoughts must have been plainly written on his face, since Katara's expression hardened, and she started forming another attack.
Zuko tried one more time to talk his way out of this: "Wait! Didn't you hear anything I said? I'm not here to hurt you, and I'm completely defenseless!"
"Maybe," Katara replied. "But you are still too dangerous to be left free, and I don't have any rope with me, so..."
Zuko took a deep breath, concentrated, and tried one last time to reach for his firebending. Nothing. The Spirit Oasis, or maybe even the spirits themselves, must have really messed with his chi.
Time for Plan B. Zuko reached for the Dao on his back, but at the same time, a massive wave of water tossed Zuko to the wall.
The Prince knew what would happen next; he had seen Katara practice this move in a training fight. Soon, Katara would freeze the water, leaving Zuko hanging on the wall like a macabre ornament.
Come on, Zuko! Stop whining and get your act together! So what if you don't have firebending right now? The greatness of a warrior does not depend on his ability to bend. You have faced worse odds before; you took on the Pohuai Strognhold on your own. You're a master ninja, for crying out loud.
The water pushing Zuko to the wall made it hard to move, but Zuko knew that, in order to freeze the water, Katara would have to slow it down first.
Moving water doesn't freeze, no matter how cold the air gets.
The moment Zuko felt the rush of water calm down, he reached up and out of the water with both of his hands. Over his shoulders, Zuko grabbed hold of a small ice ledge on the uneven wall behind him. Then he placed his feet on the wall, and with all his might, kicked his body upward.
For a moment, Zuko thought he wasn't going to make it. Katara could freeze water very fast. However, the water of the Oasis was much warmer than any of the water Katara had practiced this trick with, and so it took her longer to freeze it. This gave Zuko just enough time to get a steady grasp on the wall, and kick his feet over his head, and his whole body out of the water.
A moment later, the water froze, and Zuko's somersault landed on an icy slide. Zuko's feet slipped on the ice, and the boy slid back to ground level. Not his greatest landing of all time, but Zuko was determined to make it count; by the time Zuko slid on to the grass, he had a throwing knife in hand.
Katara looked stunned. Zuko threw one of his hidden knives at her right arm, and the sleeve of her tunic caught. There was nothing directly behind Katara, so she didn't get trapped to a wall. However, the strong fabric of her sleeve did not tear, and instead, the sudden pull of the knife caused her to loose balance.
Not exactly text book, Zuko thought.
Even though she was on the ground, Katara was able to put together a bending attack. It was not as big as the previous ones, and Zuko was able to dodge it.
The effect the Spirit Oasis had had on Zuko appeared to be wearing off. The Prince still did not have his bending, but otherwise, Zuko felt more clearheaded by the minute.
Zuko ran towards Katara, reached for his Dao and pulled them out midstride. Zuko didn't want to injure Katara, but broadswords were useful in a situation like this, because they were specifically designed to be used for hitting people, not slicing them. Zuko still needed to get closer to Katara to be able to put the swords in good use, though.
Zuko jumped to the side a few times to stay out of Katara's line of fire. However, the closer he got, the better her changes of hitting him were.
Katara was a strong, talented, and motivated bender, and there was plenty of water for her to use. However, waterbending took time, and to Zuko's knowledge, Katara had never been separately trained in any form of close combat. Katara was known for being very creative, but it still stood to presume that hand-to-hand was her weakest point.
Katara realized what he was up to, and focused on her aim. At this distance, Zuko didn't even try to dodge, but relied on his swords instead. Zuko wasn't used to deflecting water, but it turned out to be fairly similar to deflecting fire.
Katara looked shocked, and Zuko launched forward. He jumped past Katara, trying to hit her on the head with the hilt of his sword.
Katara ducked just in time. Zuko turned around quickly, but so did she.
Zuko and Katara exchanged a few hand-to-hand moves. Although Katara had a mean roundhouse kick, this close up, the Dao gave Zuko an enormous reach advantage. Katara realized this, too.
While Katara's attention was on the swords, Zuko kicked her on the chest, and she fell down at his feet.
Here we go again, Zuko thought. He was tempted to glance at Aang to make sure that this time, the Avatar would not come to Katara's aid, but then thought better of it.
Katara tried to kick Zuko below the belt, but Zuko noticed her movement, and lowered one of the swords by reflex. The sword sliced Katara's calf.
"Shit. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that."
Katara glared at him. "I should never have stopped to listen to you."
Katara made a small hand gesture. Zuko racked his brain to remember what that bending move was used for, and turned around just in time to shatter an ice spike headed his way.
Before Katara would think to do anything else, Zuko hit her on the head with the flat of his sword. Katara was knocked out cold.
Zuko looked around himself to see if there were any other attackers nearby. The Avatar's eyes still glowed in an eerie fashion, but the boy made no motion to indicate that he was aware of his surroundings. Other than that, Zuko was alone.
Zuko knelt down to check Katara's pulse, took a look at the cut on her leg, and inspected the bump on her head. Luckily, the cut wasn't deep. Zuko still took the scarf from around his neck and used it to make a temporary bandage. Zuko was in a hurry, but this was his fault, and thus his responsibility.
Oh hell. She's never going to forgive me for this. That's what you get for using real blades when fighting a friend. A sort of friend. Who am I kidding? We may not be very close, but I don't have many friends, so they all count.
Zuko got up and assessed the situation. He had to talk to Aang, and to do that, the Avatar needed to be awake.
He walked over to Aang, and called his name. When that didn't work, Zuko shook the boy by the shoulders, yelled at him, and even slapped him across the face. No reaction from Aang.
Oh great. The boy was really out of it, and Zuko was running out of ideas.
For a brief moment, Zuko wondered if he could follow the Avatar into the Spirit World, but he had a feeling that wasn't something Dragon Warriors were able to do. Nor did it sound like a good idea, or something Zuko wanted to try.
Zuko needed to wake Aang. Actually, Zuko wasn't even sure it was healthy for Aang to be awoken right now, not that Zuko knew how.
Great. Now what?
Sokka and Yue could arrive any moment, expecting to find Kulo. Zuko couldn't use his firebending, any form of it, so he couldn't turn into a dragon at the moment. That meant that Sokka and Yue would instead find Katara bleeding on the ground, and Prince Zuko harassing the Avatar.
I need to get out of here, but I can't leave without Aang. So yes, I'm going to capture the Avatar. Heck. With any luck, Aang might snap out of it when I remove him from the Spirit Oasis. Even if he doesn't, I can at least keep an eye on him.
Zuko certainly hoped that the effect the Oasis had had on his bending would wear off after he left.
Zuko hoisted Aang on his shoulders, but stopped to look at Katara's unmoving form. If I leave her, she will tell any pursuers exactly who to look for, but I can't carry them both and stay undercover at the same time. I'll have to leave her here, and hope she comes to before the battle commences at dawn.
Actually, with any luck, there won't be any battle tomorrow, because "Admiral Zhao" will have had a change of heart by then. All I need to do is babysit the Avatar until Uncle and Näkki are done with their part of the plan.
The Prince found the door from Yue's memories fairly easily. Zuko opened the door, stepped outside, closed the door behind him, and did not look back.
"Welcome onboard the flagship, mighty water spirit," Uncle greeted quietly but formally. He bowed his head, though his eyes did not leave the spirit's.
"Hello," Näkki answered and waved one hand at him. "How did you know it was me?"
Many soldiers had passed by Iroh while he waited for the spirit at the rendezvous point mentioned in Zuko's letter. Uncle had begun to worry that something had gone wrong, and the spirit wasn't coming, or that he simply couldn't tell the impostor apart from ordinary crewmen, but in the end, recognizing Näkki wasn't all that hard.
In his Fire Nation uniform and skull mask, Näkki looked the part. He also walked in the right manner, but his greeting when encountering a superior officer had been sluggish. The spirit would have undoubtedly gotten away with such behavior on most ships in this fleet, but not on the flagship.
"The first lesson you need to know about Admiral Zhao: he's strict about protocol, and cannot stand procrastination," Uncle stated. To Iroh's relief, Näkki, who had now removed his face plate to reveal an unremarkable, Fire-Nation-looking face, looked fascinated by this information. The spirit seemed to be memorizing every word.
"My greeting," Näkki eventually said, squinting his eyes a bit. "There's something wrong with my greeting, yes?"
Uncle gestured for Näkki to put his mask back on, and to walk with him. So far, neither of them had said anything condemnable, but once they started talking about things with their real names, Uncle wanted to be somewhere where he would be sure that no one would be listening.
Näkki followed Uncle's lead without the slightest hesitation. For a moment, they walked in silence.
"General Iroh, may I inquire where we're headed?" Näkki eventually broke the silence.
"To my cabin. As far as anyone is concerned, your name is Sergeant Liu, and I have invited you over for a friendly game of Pai Sho. A wise man once said: there's nothing like playing a board game to get your mind off impending battle."
Näkki nodded, and Uncle was pretty sure that he was smirking under the face plate. Most people found situations involving deceit stressful, but the spirit appeared to be enjoying himself.
"I couldn't agree more, Sir", Näkki replied. "I do wonder if we have time for games?"
"This one will be very short, but educational."
"Heh, my bending's back!" Zuko rejoiced out loud. Granted, the flame he'd been able to produce was tiny, especially considering how much effort it had taken to create it. Still, it was a good sign. Slowly but surely, his firebending was returning to him.
That wasn't the only thing Zuko had to be thankful for; he had managed to sneak through a city under siege without being spotted.
For a moment, Zuko had seriously considered staying away from the city all together. It was risky to walk around the heavily-patrolled streets while carrying the "beacon of light for all the world" on his back. On the other hand, there had been nowhere else to run to. The glaciers weren't safe, and Zuko had guessed his chances of staying alive were better if he stayed within the capital.
So good so far. Even though it was still a mayhem on the streets, or maybe because of it, Zuko had evaded attention, and found an abandoned house well out of the way, but with a clear view on the plain between the city wall and the city itself.
Well, what was left of the city wall. The structure had taken quite a hammering from the catapults. By the looks of the wall, the Northern Capital could not stand many more days like the previous one.
Since his bending was still acting out, Zuko was shivering in cold, but he didn't dare to start a fire to keep himself warm. The Avatar didn't look cold, but then again, he was still oblivious to the world around him in general. As far as Zuko could tell, leaving the Oasis had not disturbed Aang's trip to the Spirit World.
Well, let's hope Aang is doing something useful. That would make one of us.
It was frustrating that there was nothing Zuko could do but wait. And wait he did. He waited for Aang to wake up, or for the dawn to break. When he was feeling optimistic, Zuko even expected the fleet to turn around and leave any minute now. When he was feeling particularly pessimistic, he just waited for someone to discover him.
Maybe it was for the best that he still couldn't turn into a dragon. Had he been able to do that, Zuko wasn't sure he would've been able to resist flying out to get a closer look at what was going on with the fleet and with his uncle.
Zuko rubbed his hands together, and blew in them. There was only a flicker of flame in his breath of fire, but it was better than nothing. Gradually, he began to feel a weariness creeping up his tired muscles, but he couldn't afford to rest now. He had to keep an eye on the Avatar.
Zuko's head snapped up, and he had to blink several times. The environment around him was suddenly much brighter. He must have fallen asleep after all, because the first streams of sunlight could already be seen in the horizon. Zuko cursed under his breath and looked around to locate Aang, but thankfully the boy was still where Zuko had left him.
Battles horns blared somewhere in the distance. Zuko realized that was the sound that had awoken him.
Zuko cursed and looked out to the sea. Sure enough, the fleet was preparing to continue their attack.
"No," Zuko mumbled under his breath. "It can't be."
But of course it could. This meant that something had gone awry with the plan.
"Uncle," Zuko whispered.
Five Hours Earlier
Something was bothering Zhao, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was. It wasn't any one thing, not like those Water Tribe children who'd been caught sneaking onboard the flagship, but rather a general foreboding. Whatever it was, it was giving him a headache.
Zhao was sitting in his office onboard the flagship. Usually, this was one of the calmest rooms onboard, and therefore a good place to do some thinking. Unfortunately at the moment, the Admiral's cabin was far from a quiet and peaceful surrounding, because it was filled with people. And they were not even the sort of people who were close in rank to Zhao, and knew when to shut up, but most of them were common sailors from all around the fleet. They were here for a very annoying reason: they wanted to look important.
It was Zhao's own fault, really. He had had a feeling that Iroh, his main advisor on dragons, was too softhearted a fool to be trusted to tell him everything he needed to know about killing dragons. However, so long as Zhao himself knew almost nothing of the subject, he could not catch Iroh lying to him, or prove that the old General was withholding crucial information. To catch Iroh redhanded, Zhao needed proof of his treachery. Hence this midnight gathering.
After ordering the fleet to halt for the night, Zhao had issued another order: all personnel, who knew something useful or important about dragons, or about one black dragon in particular, were to come forth right now. However, Zhao really should have worded the invitation more carefully.
Now the Admiral's office had been visited by dozens of career climbers, eager to impress with facts every Fire Nation citizen knew, and equally many superstitious nut jobs, who had come all this way to tell him that seeing a black dragon was a bad omen, and that they were all doomed.
One or two sailors had actually provided him with useful information, like that the dragon they had seen earlier that day was relatively young, and that dragons were immune to many forms of firebending, but not to all of them. Also, dragons never came this far north for no reason, and the most likely reason was that this dragon had been ordered to come here. So, the dragon had a master.
Despite the respectable number of people taking Zhao for a fool tonight, the Admiral was not an idiot. Actually, he had been thinking a lot recently. Mostly about his destiny, but also about all the people who could get in the way of said destiny. Somehow, that line of thought kept coming back to General Iroh.
If Iroh truly was the unambitious, tea-loving fool the old man had become after giving up his military career six years ago, he posed no threat to Zhao's plans. If.
Zhao got up from his chair. "I've heard enough. Leave."
The sailor standing in front of Zhao had been in the middle of telling a long and boring story he had heard from his great grandfather. The man looked a bit insulted, but also had the good sense to immediately bow down and make a quiet exit.
The sailor left the cabin, leaving Zhao alone with a few of his most trusted lieutenants.
"There are more people waiting in the hallway", one of said lieutenants pointed out. "Would you like me to go get the next one?"
Zhao had wanted to hear every informer individually, so that they would not change their stories based on what others in the room had just said. That way the crew members also had the opportunity to rat out their comrades, if need be.
"Send everybody back to their ships. I've heard enough for one night", Zhao said, and dismissed the soldiers around him with a wave of a hand.
As soon as Zhao was alone, he began pacing around the room. Usually, Zhao preferred to think out loud; he liked to explain his train of thought to whoever was close enough to hear. This time, however, the Admiral decided to exhibit more caution. He had a feeling there was a traitor among his men, and most importantly, Zhao did not want anyone to overhear what he himself had done to Prince Zuko.
Zhao had presumed that the black dragon belonged to the Avatar. The timing coincided well enough, and it conveniently explained how another long-extinct creature had come back from the dead.
However, where was the dragon on all of his first encounters with the Air Nomad? The dragon had only appeared at the Pohuai Stronghold, and the Avatar had not been the only old enemy in the vicinity at the time.
Although Zhao could not prove it, he was fairly sure that the Blue Spirit was actually Prince Zuko in disguise. It did not take a mastermind to put two and two together. First, both were sighted in or near the Pohuai Stronghold, and then the same thing at the Fire Nation Colony. Wherever one of them showed up, the other tended to follow.
However, Prince Zuko was not clever or competent enough to tame a dragon and keep it a secret. Also, the Prince was now dead, but the dragon was still taking orders from someone...
Zhao slammed his fist on the desk. That's it! The dragon belongs to General Iroh!
Zuko's treason had made sense: desperate people did desperate things. However, at the time of Zuko's unfortunate "accident", Zhao had thought Iroh was too lazy to betray his country. The Admiral had assumed that Zuko's uncle had been oblivious to his nephew's illegal activities.
However, perhaps Iroh was more than just an unwitting accomplice to his nephew's treason. Perhaps, the old General was the real mastermind behind everything.
My my. It looks like Iroh is not as given up on the Dragon Throne as he has for years now lead people to believe.
All the pieces were clicking in place. Zhao had never understood why Iroh had given up the comforts of the Fire Palace to go into exile with his nephew. However, by leaving the Fire Nation, Iroh had effectively distanced himself from the Fire Lord and all other suspicious eyes, and gotten more leeway to act out his own betrayal.
Teaching Prince Zuko illegal mindreading powers was only the tip of the iceberg. The real crown jewel of Iroh's plan was a dragon.
'I killed the last of the dragons' my ass! More like found one last egg, and an idea struck.
Granted, if that hypothetical incident ever took place, it would have been over forty years ago. At the time, Iroh would have been the heir to the throne anyway. Still, it was plausible that Iroh had always been suspicious of his younger brother, and had been playing the long game from the very start.
Iroh's father hated dragons, so Iroh had to wait until Fire Lord Azulon died before he let anyone know about his little pet. When the old man finally passed away, it was Ozai who got the throne, and Iroh's plans changed. The old General must have been planning to overthrow his brother ever since.
Now, the real mystery is: why is Iroh helping the Avatar?
Perhaps, Iroh hoped to use the Avatar to undermine the Admiral and the Fire Lord, or perhaps he even expected the Avatar to kill them both. Then Iroh would kill the unsuspecting Air Nomad himself, and rise to the throne as the savior of Fire Nation.
Zhao smiled. In a way, the Admiral was happy to hear that the Dragon of the West was still an opponent worthy of his attention.
Clever, Iroh. Very clever. Just not as clever as I am.