When I woke up the next morning, Zuko was gone. I got up and went to check on Iroh, his breathing was steady, and he seemed to be quietly snoring. I smiled at this, and then went out to see where Zuko was. He was very distant last night, which I understand. He’s worried about his uncle; I would be too if I was in his position. I saw him a ways away training, so I went back inside. I didn’t want to disturb him.
Zuko and I heard Iroh stir, and both looked over at him.
“He seems like he’ll be waking up soon,” I offered. Zuko had come back a little while ago, but still seemed distant.
“Maybe. I should make some tea for him so that he can have it when he wakes up.”
I smiled gently, “Good idea Zuko.”
I watched him rebuild the fire and get some stuff out of Iroh’s bag for the tea. I wasn’t sure if Zuko was making it right, but I didn’t want to say anything.
A few moments after the tea was done, we heard his uncle groan.
“Uncle,” Zuko said.
His eyes fluttered open and slowly began to focus on him.
“You were unconscious. Azula did this to you,” Zuko started. Iroh started to sit up and groaned. “It was a surprise attack.”
“Somehow that’s not so surprising,” Iroh responded.
I went over to him and helped him sit up against the wall behind him, and then sat on the side between him and Zuko.
“I hope I made it the way you like it,” Zuko poured a cup of tea for his uncle and handed the steaming cup to him.
He brought the cup up to his lips and took a sip. I watched him try to hide his reaction to the tea, hiding a smile.
“Good,” he drank the rest in his cup and tried to hide a gag. I stifled a giggle and glanced over at Zuko, who was focused on the tea and didn’t notice his uncle’s reaction. “That was very, um, bracing.”
Iroh glanced over at me, with a curious look in his eye. Does he not remember the introduction we had? It is possible. He handed his cup back to Zuko, who filled it up again. Once Zuko wasn’t looking, Iroh tossed the liquid from his cup behind him, out a large cut out of the wall he was up against. I giggled at this, and he looked at me and winked.
“So, uncle, I’ve been thinking. It’s only a matter of time before I run into Azula again. I’m going to need to know more advanced firebending if I want to stand a chance against her,” Zuko said. I thought he was a pretty good firebender, but yet again, he did get thrown around a bit while fighting his sister. “I know what you’re going to say: she’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her.”
Iroh set his cup down beside him, “No, she’s crazy, and she needs to go down.”
I raised my eyebrow, not the reaction Zuko was thinking he was going to have, but at least he does not need to argue with his uncle. I glanced over at Zuko, to see him quickly look away. Zuko nodded to him.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but who are you again?” Iroh asked me. “I remember you helping me, but I don’t remember your name.”
I smiled warmly at him, “That is quite alright. My name is Mara.”
“Remind me how you know my nephew?”
“She never told you that,” Zuko pipped up.
We both looked over at him, and he rubbed the back of his neck. I noticed that his hair is a bit longer now than when we first met. Still fairly short though.
“Well, you could tell me now,” Iroh countered to Zuko, and then looked at me expectantly. I glanced over at Zuko to see his reaction, and he locked eyes with me. I almost got lost in them, but then I pulled myself out and blushed at the ground.
Since Zuko did not object, I started, “Well, we met a couple of weeks ago in my Earth kingdom village, Sia Na.”
“You lived in an Earth kingdom village? Why? Aren’t you Water tribe?” Iroh interjected.
“Yes, I am Water tribe. My father sent me to the village to stay with a family friend when I was young in order to protect me from the fire nation raids that were destroying our home. A few months later, we received word that my tribe was destroyed and there were no survivors. So I stayed with Rahin, the family friend. Him and his wife raised me.”
“Ah, I see. Please, continue.”
“When Zuko arrived at my village, no one knew who he was. The Earth kingdom soldiers that were supposed to protect our village stole the feed that he bought for Chu-”
“Chu?” Iroh asked.
“The ostrich horse uncle. She named him,” Zuko answered.
I went on, “Then one of the boys in the village, Lee, took him to his family’s farm and offered him a place to stay for the night. A little while later, I was tending to my flowers at Rahin’s shop, and Zuko approached me.”
Iroh looked over at Zuko and raised his eyebrows. Zuko gave him a look, and I hid a smile.
“The next morning Zuko left. But then the Earth kingdom soldiers tied up Lee, and was messing with him. After a little while, Zuko came back to help, and fought the soldiers. With the last one he had to use his firebending, and then everyone found out who he was. They were being very mean even though he had just saved the boy. So I defended him, and they kicked me out with Zuko. We’ve been traveling together ever since.”
Iroh looked at Zuko, “You fought the soldiers?”
“They were more bullies than soldiers.” Zuko snapped back at him.
Iroh opened his mouth and then stopped. “Wait-” he looked from Zuko to me, then back to Zuko. “You two have been traveling together, for the past couple of weeks?”
“The two of you? Alone?” he looked back at me.
I glanced over at Zuko and blushed, hiding it by looking at the floor. I saw Zuko blushing as well from the corner of my eye, which made me smile.
“What, is there a problem?” Zuko half-yelled in defense once he had pushed down his blush.
“Oh, no no definitely not. Just wondering...” I saw him wink at Zuko, who scowled back at him.
I touched my necklace and smiled to myself.
“So-” Iroh started in a curious and playful tone.
“That’s enough of that, Uncle,” Zuko slammed his cup down on the ground.
“Alright, alright.” Iroh struggled to stand, groaning. I quickly went over to help him up. He nodded at me gratefully. “It’s time to resume your training.”
I glanced at Zuko, he nodded calmly, but I could see in his eyes that he was excited. Iroh first dumped out the tea that Zuko made, and then made his own. He gave me a cup before starting to talk again. His tea is definitely a lot better than Zuko’s.
“Lightning is a pure expression of firebending, without aggression. It is not fueled by rage or emotion the way other firebending is. Some call lightning the cold-blooded fire. It is precise and deadly, like Azula.” Iroh poured another cup and handed it to Zuko, and then one for himself. “To perform the technique requires peace of mind.”
“I see. that’s why we’re drinking tea, to calm the mind,” Zuko said.
Iroh took a sip, “Oh yeah, good point!” he smiled and then dropped it, trying to be serious, “I mean, yes.”
I laughed quietly from my spot on the side between them, hiding my smile with my cup. Iroh glanced at me with a sly look on his face. Once they were done with their tea, they went out to train. We walked up towards a lower part of a mountain that oversaw the town. There was a little hut up there, with a few scraggly trees next to it. I stayed behind near the hut to give them space to do their thing. I sat down against the outer wall watching from a distance. They were a few paces away, at a distance where I could see what they were doing, and could hear that they were talking, but couldn’t make out any of the words. The hut was not too far away from the ledge of the portion of the mountain, which was where Zuko and his uncle were standing. I noticed how Iroh was using his hands to emphasize what he was saying. Rahin does the same thing while explaining something. Zuko stepped backward, which told me something was about to happen. I watched as Iroh took a stance and then swirled lightning around himself, then pointed towards the sky and the lightning struck out over the valley into the distance. My eyes widened; I had never seen a firebender use lightning before. Is this what Zuko is going to learn?
I watched intently as Zuko went through the same motions as his uncle, but not creating lightning. When he pointed at the sky, instead of lightning striking, an explosion of fire went off, throwing him backwards.
I gasped and started to get up to go to him and see if he was okay. Iroh looked back at me and held his hand out slightly to tell me to stay. Zuko growled in frustration and tried again. And again. And again. Iroh tried to talk him through it, but he would not accept his critiques. Eventually, Iroh walked away and sat down next to me by the hut. I lost count of how many times an explosion blew up in his face instead of lightning. I sighed; worry plastered on my face.
“How many times is he going to try and fail? He just keeps getting angrier and angrier,” I asked him.
He sighed as well, “I do not know, he will not listen to me anymore. We will have to wait until he asks me why it is not working.”
I nodded and looked back at Zuko, just as he flew backwards yet again.
After a while, Zuko fell back and didn’t get up. He sat on the ground and yelled to Iroh, “Why can’t I do it? Instead of lightning, it keeps exploding in my face, like everything always does.” I could hear his frustration turn into sadness as he yelled.
“Oh, Zuko,” I murmured quietly.
“I was afraid this might happen,” Iroh responded to Zuko, getting up and beginning to walk to him. “You will not be able to master lightning until you have dealt with the turmoil inside you,” I could barely make out the last part.
“What turmoil?” Zuko yelled back defensively, even though Iroh was almost right next to him.
I couldn’t understand what Iroh said next to him.
After them conversing a few times, Zuko seemed to calm down, and looked over at me. Iroh said something else, which made Zuko turn back to him and smile. I started to feel better after seeing him smile. It had been a while, since before we saw Azula following the bison’s trail.
Iroh grabbed a long stick from the side, and Zuko sat down across from him. They had moved closer to the hut and where I was sitting, so I could hear them now.
“Fire is the element of power,” Iroh began, and started drawing in the sand, “The people of the fire nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want.” He moved to a different space, “Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring.” From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see what he was drawing. “Air is the element of freedom. The air nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns, and found peace and freedom.” He stopped drawing, “Also they apparently had good senses of humor!” He smiled, waiting for Zuko to react. I giggled, and Zuko just stared at him. Iroh dropped his smile and continued, “Water is the element of change. The people of the water tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.”
Zuko glanced over at me. I blushed once we made eye contact.
“Why are you telling me these things?” Zuko asked, turning back to his uncle.
“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others – the other elements and the other nations, will help you become whole.”
Zuko glanced over at me again, briefly this time. “All this four elements talk is sounding like Avatar stuff.”
“It is the combination of all four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful, but it can make you more powerful too,” Iroh poked his stick at Zuko’s chest, “You see, the technique I am about to teach you is one I learned by studying waterbenders.”
I sat up straight when he said this, he studied waterbenders? Zuko raised his eyebrows and then allowed a small smile to play across his lips. They both looked over at me and I felt my face start to heat up. Thankfully, they looked away before long.
Zuko stood up and they took a stance. I took this time to examine them together, an odd pairing. Iroh was a fair bit shorter than Zuko, but maybe only a couple of inches shorter than me. Zuko is athletically built, you could tell he is strong just by looking at him. However, I know from experience that he is stronger than he looks. They started to sway, using wide smooth movements with their arms. This is one of the first things Osana taught me. Zuko’s dark hair stood a few inches above his scalp, while Iroh’s gray hair was longer and flowed barely past his shoulders.
I had zoned out at this point, and wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying, until I heard Zuko say in surprise, “You can teach me to redirect lightning?”
My eyes widened and I raised an eyebrow.
Iroh nodded, “If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow it. You must create a pathway from your fingertips, up your arm to your shoulder, then down into your stomach. The stomach is the source of energy in your body. It is called the sea of chi,” he stopped and rubbed his belly, “Only in my case, it is more like a vast ocean.” Iroh laughed, and I also laughed lightly, which he gave me an appreciative glance for. Zuko just stared at him. He went on, “From the stomach, you direct it up again and out the other arm. The stomach detour is critical,” he started walking closer to Zuko, “You must not let the lightning pass through your heart,” He stuck two fingers into Zuko’s chest, “For the damage could be deadly.”
From their position now, I could see how much taller Zuko was compared to his uncle, the top of his head stood at Zuko’s chest, while mine was at his chin. They started to do a motion to symbolize the path of the energy and the lightning. It worried me to think that Zuko would be in a position where he was struck by lightning, but it is a good plan to have him know what to do to defend himself.
After a while of them doing the same motion over and over again, I got bored. I got up and decided to collect some firewood for tonight, so that Zuko didn’t have to worry about it once he was done training. I noticed that the sky was starting to get dark with clouds, and could feel rain in the distance.
When I got back to the hut, Iroh was sitting inside drinking tea by himself.
“Where’s Zuko?” I asked, setting down the new firewood and sat down across from Iroh.
He sighed, “Once he felt he was good enough to redirect lightning, he asked me to shoot some at him. I refused, because it’s dangerous. So he went into the storm that is near us to go find his own lightning.”
“What!?” I yelled, starting to get up.
“No,” Iroh put a hand on my shoulder to stop me. “He needs to work through this on his own.”
“But what if he gets hurt?” I settled back down.
“If he is not back in a couple of hours, we will go look for him.”
I nodded as he poured me some tea. I sipped it worriedly.
We both heard a yelling cry cut through the silence, coming from the direction Zuko went. I glanced nervously over at Iroh, who didn’t move.
I hope Zuko is okay.