A Few Days After Avatar Aang's ReturnEdit
Zuko and Iroh stepped off the prow ramp of the ship, Zuko irritable at the delay and Iroh appearing rather bored as Zuko barked quietly, "Uncle, I want the repairs made as quickly as possible. I don't want to stay too long and risk losing his trail." "You mean the Avatar?" Iroh replied blearily. Zuko whirled and swept his hand across his body in a horizontal arc, "Don't mention his name on these docks!" he hissed, "Once word gets out that he's alive every firebender will be out looking for him! I don't want anyone getting in the way."
"Getting in the way of what?" A smooth voice asked, prompting Zuko and Iroh to turn towards the black clad man and young woman walking towards them. The two bowed slightly and saluted as they reached the former crown prince. The man smiled as he straightened up, "It's been a long time old friend." Zuko's eyes suddenly widened as he recognized the man in the long black coat and light armor, "Hei?"
"Commodore now," Hei replied with a crooked smile, "Good to see you two again. Glad to see you haven't sunk. Although..." he continued as his eyes flicked up to their heavily battered ship, "I'd say you weren't far from it recently." "Yes!" Zuko said hurriedly, "You wouldn't believe what happened!" He paused for a moment, "Uncle! Tell Hei what happened!" Iroh froze wide-eyed at being put on the spot but recovered quickly, "Yes! It was incredible!" Then he hissed at Zuko out the corner of his mouth, "What? Did we crash or something?"
Suddenly the young woman sighed, "I don't even need my bending to tell you two are hiding something." Hei smiled, "As usual my friends, my trusted second in command is right. Seven years at sea has not given either of you any skill at lying. Perhaps you would join me for a drink away from possible eavesdroppers?" Zuko flinched slightly as his old friend called his bluff, "Yeah, I guess that could be nice."
A Little While LaterEdit
"And by year's end the Earth Kingdom will fall and the Fire Nation can finally claim victory in this war," Hei finished with a smile. "If my father thinks the rest of the world will follow him willingly, then he is a fool!" Zuko spat. Hei smiled slightly, "All that time at sea hasn't done anything to temper your tongue I see." He sat down, "So, how's your search for the Avatar going?"
A weapons rack Iroh was examining suddenly collapsed, causing the young woman Hei had introduced as his second in command to jump half out of her chair. She settled back into her seat as Iroh apologized bashfully. She glared at her cup breathing heavily, "Don't ever do that again," she snarled at Iroh. Iroh flinched slightly at the anger in her voice. Hei looked at her, "Calm down Toph, it was an accident." Then he turned to Iroh, "But really, don't do that again. Toph has extremely sensitive hearing. That was loud for us, it was like cannon fire for her. The sudden impact didn't help either."
Zuko frowned, "What impact?" Hei turned to him, "Toph here is an earth-bender, one of the finest in the world. You probably haven't noticed because it doesn't slow her down at all but she's blind." Iroh and Zuko stared and Toph frowned, "Stop staring at me." "She can't be blind!" Zuko exclaimed, "How did she know we were staring if she's blind?" Toph seemed to look at him, but he could see once she lifted her eyes that they were indeed sightless orbs, "I can see with my bending. When something touches the ground I can sense the impact, so a sudden heavy impact is like what Hei says a burst of bright light would be for you."
Hei smiled, "She can tell what's going on around her far better than most people with functioning eyes, and darkness doesn't hinder her at all. Another useful trick it lends her is the ability to tell when people are lying, so I'll ask again, how's the search for the Avatar? When we walked up on you it sounded to me like you had found him." Zuko and Iroh both flinched.
Zuko slumped slightly, he had never been able to hide anything from Hei, "We found him." "And your tone says he got away," Hei finished. "Yeah," Zuko replied glumly. He hit the arm of his chair, "We had him! Those damn peasants!" "Peasants?" Hei asked. Zuko nodded, "Southern Water Tribe, one of them was a water-bender. They showed up with some kind of giant white flying monster and helped him escape."
Hei frowned, "A waterbender from the Southern Tribe? I thought we had captured or killed all of those. Toph remind me to look into the records about the Southern Raiders' last hit on the Southern Tribe. Sounds like they haven't been doing their jobs." Zuko frowned, "I thought the Southern Raiders were an independent division?" Hei smiled, "They are, but since you obviously haven't heard yet old friend, I'm not with the Navy anymore."
Zuko frowned, "What? If you're not with the Navy then how are you giving orders at a naval base?" Hei's smile grew, "Toph and I are with Ye Gui Li External Affairs." Zuko and Iroh stared, "The Ye Gui Li? How?" Hei smiled, "You remember my mentor Admiral JeongJeong? Turns out he's the head of the Ye Gui Li's External Affairs. I was brought in under his tutelage and paired with Toph. We've been working together for five years now, but back to you, you're not on a wild goose chase anymore."
Zuko frowned, "What do you mean?" Hei smiled, "Now that the Avatar's back, all you have to do is catch him. Before that, you were stuck chasing somebody who nobody believed existed, except you. Now you have chance." "My father believed he was real," Zuko protested. Everyone else present flinched, and then Hei smiled gently, "Of course he did. My mistake." Zuko felt a slight sinking feeling in his gut, "He did, didn't he?"
Hei forced a smile, "Of course he did! We just all thought he was giving you an impossible errand to keep you busy. Just us assuming the worst of a bad situation. Overreaction on our part, nothing to worry about." "Except that you have to catch him before anyone else does," Toph added, "And word that the Avatar's returned probably won't take long to reach the Fire Lord." Hei nodded, "And once we receive our orders to capture him, the entire Ye Gui Li will be after him, in addition to the rest of the Fire Nation's military and probably every bounty hunter in the world."
Zuko gulped as the prospect of having to compete with Hei and even more, the infamous Ye Gui Li, blotted away the cloud of doubt about his mission that had threatened to overtake his mind, "You're right." "I can give you a head start," Hei said thoughtfully, "Until the order comes through to go after him, I'm under no obligation to hunt him." He smiled, "And since you're technically not affiliated with the military anymore, I can hire you on as bounty hunters and let you take the credit for capturing him." Zuko blinked, "You would, let me take the credit for capturing the Avatar?"
Hei laughed, "Weren't you listening earlier Zuko? We've got much bigger plans in the works than simply catching the Avatar. I can more than afford to let you have him." "Oh...right," Zuko replied numbly as he recalled what Hei had been talking about earlier, he hadn't been paying attention to most of it, but he remembered the last bit, "And by year's end the Earth Kingdom will fall."
A Few Hours LaterEdit
Hei and Toph stood on the cape waving farewell to the banished prince and his uncle as they sailed away. "He's really dumb isn't he?" Toph asked. "No Toph," Hei replied, "He just doesn't want to accept his father's actions. You couldn't see his face, so I guess the extent of what his father did to him was slightly lost on you." "He banished him right?" Toph replied as they turned and headed back down to the harbor.
"He didn't just banish him Toph," Hei said grimly, "Zuko's father burned half his face off, publicly humiliated him and then banished him forever unless he could bring back the Avatar. Zuko was disowned and sent from the life of a prince to the life of a bounty hunter at best in the space of a few moments, with his only hope of getting his life back being the boy we thought was dead until today."
Toph made a face, something that Hei attributed to reflex since facial expressions were meaningless to her, "That's pretty bad. What did Zuko do?" "That's the thing Toph, Zuko was doing exactly what he should have been doing," Hei replied grimly, "Ozai was waiting for an excuse to get rid of him, and seized on the first trivial thing he could to banish him. Ozai's hated Zuko for years, for a reason Zuko doesn't know and wouldn't want to know even if he did."
Toph frowned, "What could make a parent hate their child so much?" Hei looked around to make sure there was nobody listening before answering, "Well popular theory is that Zuko reminded him of his late wife a little too much. There might be more to it than that though. I'll help you look into it when we get back to Central since that more is in the archives. If there is a more that is." Toph sighed, "You're not really going to make me wait that long are you? Who knows when we'll get back to Central?" Hei just smiled, "Ask me again when we're alone."