"No," Zuko said flatly.
"We're not buying any more junk!"
Iroh heaved a sigh and was about to place the hideous statue he had been coveting back on the shelf when the trader who owned the shop came over to them. The old woman (man? It was hard to tell with all that facial hair) was stooped over so far that it was like his (her?) body was trying to become a bench on which people could sit. The trader cackled and asked whether Iroh was sure he wanted to be touching the statue.
"Why do you ask?" Iroh questioned.
Unlike Zuko, Iroh did not seem put off by the trader's general air of creepiness; rather, his expression was one of delight, as if he could sense the mystery that was about to be offered. Sure enough, the trader explained that the statue was rumoured to be a powerful object, once blessed by the Frog of Wishes.
"It is said the statue can grant you anything you want," the trader explained, and then she (he?) flashed a smile full of rotten teeth. "But one should always be careful with wishes. Sometimes the result isn't what you'd expect."
Iroh oohed in intrigue and examined the statue. Now that Zuko looked closer, the face carved into the stone was indeed of a grinning frog. Not a frog-bat, not a frog-monkey. Just a frog. Combined with the creepy trader and the equally creepy curios dotted around, Zuko could almost believe that the statue did indeed have the power to grant a person's desire. He even found himself thinking about what he'd wish for if given the chance.
The Avatar captured and in his possession.
To go home.
Or, as he had often longed for in the most secret spaces of his heart, to return to the time when everything had been right in the world. Before he had been banished, before his mother had left, before Lu Ten had died, and—
"This is stupid!" Zuko growled.
Being reminded of how utterly awful his life was had made him extra cranky. He went to snatch the statue off his uncle, but his fingers barely made contact before energy sizzled and sparked. He blinked. The statue's eyes glowed. Something jolted through him, tingling down his spine and sinking into his veins. It pulled at his bones, his skin, his very being. It really, really hurt.
But it was also over in a second.
The statue dropped to the ground, no longer glowing. Zuko found that he was staring at the trader's face—no bending over or stooping necessary. There was no sign of his uncle.
His voice came out much higher. His head felt weird too, like he'd miraculously grown all his hair back. Black strands tickled his face and shoulders, even though he could still feel the weight of the part he'd pulled into a high ponytail. Also, his armour and clothes had suddenly got bigger. His sleeves dangled almost to the ground, his legs had vanished into his boots (along with wads of fabric from his pants), and the armour that had been strapped snugly to him now hung loose or just threatened to slip right off his body. Weirdly, it wasn't just his clothes that had got big. Literally everything seemed bigger in the shop, including the creepy old man-woman.
"What did you do?" Zuko demanded. "And where's my uncle?"
The trader cackled. "Well, I'll admit that this development was a little surprising, but you'll fetch a nice price at the slave markets, especially since that ugly scar of yours has gone."
Zuko pressed a hand to his cheek in shock. Sure enough, the skin was smooth and unblemished. "W-wha—" He took a step back, promptly tripping over his own feet thanks to his overgrown boots and all the cloth tangled around him. He yelped and fell flat on his bum. Next to his hand was another pile of red-dyed cloth and armour. It looked like what his uncle had been wearing. Nestled amongst the folds was a clay teapot.
The trader made a humming sound and picked up the teapot. He (she?) lifted the lid and took a sniff. "What a strange old man," the trader remarked, sounding quite amused. "It seems your uncle must have really wanted white dragon bush tea."
Zuko's heart fluttered in panic. A horrible suspicion was forming in his mind. "Where's my uncle?" he demanded.
It was hard to keep his voice steady, and not just because every time he spoke he sounded all high-pitched and wrong.
The trader flashed another rotten-toothed smile. "Your uncle is right here." She-he raised the teapot. "I told you, didn't I? The Frog of Wishes grants a person anything they desire—at least in that specific moment. What I didn't tell you is that it's a cursed object." A wheezy chuckle. "So, what do you think would happen if all you want is a nice cup of tea?"
Zuko's eyes widened. The maniacal laugh that followed would have had him rolling his eyes for how clichéd it all was if he wasn't so alarmed. There was no time to waste. Even if he didn't fully understand what had happened, he did know for certain that the trader was an insane man-woman who wanted to sell him as a slave and do who-knew-what with his uncle. No way was Zuko going to let that happen.
"Stay back!" he growled.
He shot off what should have been a powerful fire blast. What he got was a puff of flames. Zuko blinked. The trader cackled.
"Was that supposed to scare me?" the trader asked. "Hate to break it to you, kid, but that isn't going to frighten a meadow-vole."
Zuko growled in frustration and kicked off his far too big boots and pants. His armour and tunic came off just as easily, leaving him in only his undershirt. Then he charged at the trader. For a bent-over ancient, the man-woman was surprisingly agile and strong. There was a brief, inelegant struggle as the two collided. Zuko shot off another flame—at the creeper's face this time—and managed to distract the trader enough to snatch the teapot from his (her?) grasp.
"Come back here!" the trader shouted.
Zuko almost tripped over the hem of his shirt. Something latched onto one of his trailing sleeves, tugging him backwards. He didn't resist the momentum; instead, he moved with it, flipping back to plant both feet on the trader's head and push hard. The kick was nowhere near as powerful as what it could have been, but it still made the trader grunt and release his sleeve. Zuko skidded and stumbled as he landed, but he managed to recover his balance and keep running. Thankfully, he'd also managed to keep the teapot upright so nothing spilt.
"You brat! I'll get you for that!"
Zuko ignored the shouts and quickened his pace, teapot clutched protectively to his chest. His heart pounded and his mouth was dry. It was a relief when he managed to escape the shop. At least, it had been. The trader followed him outside and started yelling thief and pointing wildly in his direction. Now the whole street of traders and shoppers were getting on his case.
Damn, damn, damn, damn! This was not good. This was really not good.
"I'm not a thief!" Zuko protested.
No one listened to him. In fact, even some pirates started coming after him, waving their weapons threateningly and demanding to know if he was with the other brats. Zuko had no idea who the other brats were, but he wasn't going to stick around to find out. It was just a shame his stumpy little legs couldn't run very fast.
"Damn it, Uncle!" he growled under his breath. "You just had to touch the cursed object, didn't you?"
The teapot gave no response. That was somehow more distressing. Was there even a way to turn his uncle back to normal? And what about him? If his suspicions were correct, it was likely that he had reverted to how he had been as a child. Even his clumsiness had returned, or maybe that was just the shirt's fault. It had become like a robe and kept getting in the way of his feet. He'd lost count of the times he'd almost fallen flat on his face.
Zuko spotted two of the firebenders from his ship. "Tomoki!" he yelled. "Kan!"
The firebenders paused and glanced down at the prince. Both looked confused.
"What's with this brat?" Kan muttered.
Zuko pointed his finger at the man. "Who are you calling a brat? I'm your prince!"
Kan raised his eyebrow. "And I'm the Fire Lord."
Tomoki chuckled and muttered something about crazy kids. The two men kept walking, dismissing Zuko completely. For a moment, all the prince could do was gape like a fish out of water.
"Hey!" he snarled, stomping after them. "Don't you walk away from me!"
He probably would have said a lot of other things as well had his pursuers not caught up to him. The shouts of thief were like a horrible chant spelling his doom. Someone was even waving a pitchfork. Zuko tsked in frustration and ducked down an alley. He rounded another corner and crashed into something solid. There was a soft grunt. Hands latched onto his arms, steadying him before he could lose his balance.
"You okay?" a familiar voice asked.
Zuko winced and raised his head to find himself staring at a girl with dusky skin and blue eyes. Next to her was a boy who was also clad in blue and just as familiar. It was the damned Water Tribe siblings who were always around the Avatar, which meant—
The cry had Zuko cursing under his breath. Pirates and traders swarmed on them from both ends of the street like vulture-wasps. Zuko saw the Avatar spring down from somewhere above and knock one group back with a blast of wind. The girl—Katara, he thought her name was—grabbed Zuko's wrist and tugged him forward. He would have protested, but it was like getting caught up in a wave; he was simply too little (and lost in fabric) to do more than try keep up with her pace. Plus, he had to keep his uncle safe. If he dropped the teapot, he didn't know what he'd do.
"Down here!" the Avatar called, overtaking them.
A lemur was fluttering around their heads. Zuko tripped on the hem of his shirt again, but Katara was there to help him. They turned down several more alleyways before finding themselves at a dead end. The other Water Tribe sibling—Sotta? No, Sokka—moaned in dismay. Zuko twisted in the girl's hold to see some pirates boxing them off. The horrible, bent-over trader was there as well.
"You've got nowhere left to run, you little brat!" the trader taunted. "You and these kids you've latched onto might as well give up now. My boy here won't be letting anyone escape."
One of the pirates grinned and shifted his grip on his sword. "You tell 'em, Mama."
Zuko goggled. "Mama?"
Geez, that thing was really a female. Sokka seemed to be just as taken aback and muttered something about facial hair.
"You say somethin' 'bout my mama?" the pirate demanded, rounding on Sokka.
"No, no," Sokka said, raising his hands in an appeasing gesture. "It's a great moustache—uh, I mean—"
The pirate roared and raised his sword to attack. In a blur of orange, the Avatar moved in front of the three and swung his staff. A powerful gust of wind shot forth from the tip, knocking all of their pursuers over and stirring up a cloud of dust. The Avatar rushed forward, opening his staff into a glider.
"Grab hold!" he ordered.
Katara tugged Zuko with her, pulling him up against her chest with one arm while grabbing hold of the Avatar with her free hand. Now Zuko and the girl were both pressed snugly against the airbender. Sokka had latched onto the Avatar's other leg.
"Aang!" Katara yelled in panic. "I thought we were running away from the pirates!"
"Just hang on!" the Avatar responded.
The glider struggled to gain altitude, but with some airbending assistance (and a few kicks at the pirates' heads) the group managed to become airborne. Zuko clutched the teapot to his chest and watched the port get smaller and smaller. It was ironic in a way. He was holding onto the Avatar—the same boy he had been trying to capture for the past three years—yet in that moment there was nothing Zuko could do to carry out the task his father had given him. Instead, for his own safety, he just had to let himself get dragged off to spirits knew where.
Because he had been reverted to a child.
Because his uncle was a damned teapot.
Zuko exhaled and closed his eyes. This sucked. If he ever got out of this mess, he was never going to go shopping with his uncle again. Not ever.
"So, who's the kid?"
It was Sokka who had spoken, but everyone was staring at Zuko. The group had landed near a riverbank not far from the port town. It had been the Avatar's intention to rest for a bit before reuniting with his bison, but that plan had been side-tracked by the discovery that Katara had stolen a waterbending scroll (it now made sense why the pirates had been chasing the trio so determinedly). After getting a lecture from her brother, attention had naturally turned to the small boy who had hitched a ride with them to safety.
The Avatar crouched in front of Zuko with a bright grin. "Hi, I'm Aang. What's your name?"
Zuko scowled and backed up a few steps. It was unnerving having the Avatar that close and trying to be all buddy-buddy with him. A hand touched his shoulder. He flinched and twisted around to see Katara.
"It's okay," she said gently. "We're not going to hurt you."
"It's not like I'm scared of you!" Zuko snapped. "You're just a bunch of stupid kids!"
Sokka bopped him on the head, though not at all hard. "Show some respect, Tiny. We did just rescue you."
Zuko's chest swelled. "I'm not tiny!"
The trio grinned down at him. Down, of course, because Zuko really was tiny. Even the Avatar was a good fifty centimetres or so taller than him now. Still, Zuko was sixteen years old and he was normally a lot bigger than all of these idiots. Gah! This was so frustrating!
The lemur must not have found Zuko's new size very threatening either. It jumped on his shoulder, sniffing at his face, and then scrambled down his arm to pat Iroh. Or, rather, the teapot that was Iroh.
"Back off!" Zuko snarled, swatting at the lemur.
Said lemur screeched and fluttered off to land on the Avatar's head. Zuko glared at the creature and clutched the teapot even closer to his chest. He half-curled his body away from the group as if to shield his uncle from their view, looking sulky and protective. Unfortunately, his behaviour had quite the effect on the waterbender. She made a sound he'd never heard from her before—a cooing sort of nawww—and then knelt next to him and mushed him against her chest.
"You're so cute!" she exclaimed.
Zuko blushed and spluttered. Boobs. There were boobs in his face, and the girl was hugging him, and, and—
He growled and wriggled out of her hold. "Leave me alone!"
His cheeks were very warm and his far too big undershirt had slipped off his shoulder, baring a good part of his scrawny body. The hug had mussed the unbound parts of his hair, and now even more strands were tickling his face and getting in his eyes. Katara made more of those naww noises. Maybe he did look cute or something. Zuko didn't know. He just knew that he didn't want her to glomp attack him again.
"Stay away!" he told her, not quite hiding the panic from his voice.
He even fired off a ball of flames—just a warning shot at the ground. This made Katara pause, though she didn't look scared. Zuko supposed that a blushing kid wearing a shirt that was far too big for him wasn't a very intimidating opponent for anyone, not even a useless bender like her. It didn't help that his fireball had been more of a firepuff.
Sokka folded his arms across his chest and frowned at the prince. "You're a firebender."
Zuko hugged the teapot tighter and began to back away from the trio. His stomach fluttered in sickening swoops. Maybe he shouldn't have revealed his bending like that. He'd just panicked. Was still panicking, in fact. He didn't know what to do. His uncle was a teapot. He was stuck in a weakened child's body. Even his crew hadn't recognised him, which was why Zuko hadn't marched off to his ship the first chance he had got. What if the crew turned him away again? What if something worse happened?
No one had really seen him as a child—no one except the palace servants, the very high nobility, and maybe a few of the most important officials. He'd always been sheltered away in the palace or at the summer home on Ember Island. It was unlikely that anyone on his ship would recognise him. He had no scar now and his hair had grown back. He was just a kid. Just a kid with a teapot. They'd think him crazy if he told them the truth. They'd think he was some runaway orphan. Maybe they'd even hand him over to that awful trader woman with the moustache if they decided to believe her claims that he was a thief.
Oh, spirits, what was he supposed to do?
"I think he's hyperventilating," Sokka observed.
Zuko's shirt got trapped under his heel. He lost his balance and would have fallen on his butt, but a cushion of air caught him and helped him back to his feet. He blinked. The Avatar grinned and lowered his hand.
"You don't need to look so nervous," the boy said in a friendly tone. "It's okay. We don't mind that you're a firebender."
Katara was back at his side. "Aang is right." She smoothed the hair away from his face. Zuko flinched at the contact. "We'd never do anything to hurt you. If you let us, maybe we can even help you." Her gaze sought his. "That woman in the town was after you, wasn't she? What—"
"They were calling him a thief."
All eyes turned to Sokka. Zuko, however, just glared at the taller boy.
"I'm not a thief!" he said heatedly. "That old hag was only chasing me because I ran away from her! She wanted to sell me for money!"
Katara made a shocked sound and tried to hug him again, but Zuko managed to side-step her.
"Quit it!" he yelped, backing right up until he was pressed against a tree trunk.
Sokka snorted in amusement. "I don't think he likes you trying to coddle him, Sis. You'd best give him some space."
Katara actually pouted. "Maybe some hugs would be good for him. It doesn't seem like anyone has been taking care of him. If they had, they would have given him some proper clothes."
Zuko scowled. "I'm fine!"
"You are not fine!"
Suddenly, the girl was looming over him. Zuko regretted backing up against the tree trunk. It meant he had no escape.
"This is far too big for you," she informed him, tugging on the collar of his shirt. "It's why you keep tripping." Her eyes narrowed on the parts of his skin where the gaping cloth did not cover. "In fact, are you even wearing anything underneath?"
Zuko's cheeks burned. He wasn't. Everything else had been too big for his tiny body and had either fallen off him or had been too cumbersome to keep on while making his escape.
Katara pursed her lips. "Really, you just can't run around in this giant shirt. Here, place the teapot down for a moment and then we can—"
"Don't' touch him!" Zuko held a flaming hand at her; his other arm was curled protectively around his uncle.
A crease formed on her brow. Damned girl still wasn't scared of him. "Him?" she repeated.
"As in the teapot?" Sokka questioned.
Panic flickered in Zuko's eyes. He snuffed his flames out and dropped to his knees, clutching the teapot—his uncle—to his chest. "Just stay away!" he told them.
He didn't need or want their help. Not from people who were his enemies. Who knew what they'd do if they found out the truth? Zuko could not take the risk.
"That kid is nuts," Sokka said bluntly.
"Sokka!" Katara exclaimed.
Her brother shrugged. "What? It's true. He thinks the teapot is alive."
The Avatar tilted his head to the side. "Actually, I'm sensing some kind of energy from the teapot."
Zuko raised his head from his huddle. "W-what? You can sense Uncle?"
"Uncle?" the Water Tribe siblings repeated.
Zuko clamped his mouth shut. The Avatar, however, rubbed the base of his neck and said that it was his duty to help take care of spiritual matters in order to keep balance between the worlds. He also said that, while he was still new to the whole business, he did feel a life-like energy coming from the teapot.
"Did something happen?" Aang asked. "Maybe I can help."
Something that might have been hope fluttered in Zuko's chest. Maybe the Avatar could help him. The boy was supposed to be powerful and have some great spirity connection with the otherworldly. It could work. It could.
"My uncle was cursed," Zuko admitted. "Back in that town. He got turned into this teapot, and I—"
Zuko broke off. It had just occurred to him that confessing his own situation was probably not a good idea. He and his uncle were still the Avatar's enemies; best not to give away too many clues that could lead back to their real identities. Not until he was certain that Uncle Iroh could be fixed.
"Uh, well, bad stuff happened," Zuko finished lamely. "Anyway, can you help him or not?"
The Avatar chewed on his lip and moved closer. "Can I see?" he asked.
Zuko had an odd urge to cling to his uncle. Very reluctantly, he handed the teapot over. In the background, Katara made more of those naww noises.
"Isn't he adorable?" she murmured to her brother.
Ugh. Stupid girl.
Meanwhile, the Avatar was examining the teapot and pushing his thumb into different places on the clay sides. He scratched his head, then opened the lid and peeked inside. "Oh, wow, there's really tea in here. Smells good."
"Don't you dare drink it!" Zuko snapped.
The Avatar scrunched his nose. "I wasn't going to."
But he did poke his thumb into the tea. Zuko watched intently, like a mother-turtle duck hovering over her baby. He was ready to snatch his uncle back at the first sign of danger. Not that anything happened. The Avatar just sighed, pulled his thumb out, and then placed the lid back on the pot. He soon started scratching his head again.
Zuko's expression went flat. "You have no clue what you're doing, do you?"
Pink splotches formed on the Avatar's cheeks. "Not really," he confessed. "I did say I was new to this whole business."
Zuko made an unintelligible sound of frustration. "You—you!" He snatched the teapot from the boy. "What use are you then?"
"It worked on the giant panda spirit," Aang tried to defend himself. "I just thought—"
"Uncle isn't a giant panda spirit!"
"Technically, right now he's a teapot," Sokka felt the need to point out. "Though I suppose he could also be the tea inside the teapot, or maybe both the tea and the teap—"
Zuko rounded on the non-bender. "Would you shut up?" he snarled. Flames even sprouted up around his mouth.
Sokka held his hands palm-up. "Alright there, Fire Breath. Calm down."
Zuko huffed and made more unintelligible sounds of rage. Though he would not admit it aloud, he was really, really worried about his uncle. That stupid man's obsession with tea—and Pai Sho, and Music Night, and a hoard of other things—had driven him insane on the best of days, but that didn't change the fact that it was Uncle. Uncle who had been with him for three years; Uncle who had willingly joined him on his banishment. Now, that same stupid old man was gone. Just a clay pot filled with some hot leaf juice.
Something hot prickled at the corners of Zuko's eyes. He dashed a hand across his eyes and averted his face from the others. No way was he going to let those tears fall. No way!
Too bad everyone had already noticed his little slip-up.
Katara crouched next to him and rubbed his arm. Even the lemur had got close to him again, making soft chirruping noises and tapping at his knee with a furry paw. Zuko made a half-hearted attempt to push them away. He felt too drained to do more. It was like all his anger had bubbled to boiling point and now there was nothing left. Too much had happened: both in the past and today. He was scared, helpless, lost. It was shameful and weak, but it was also true. He just didn't know what to do any more.
He wished he could get his uncle back to normal.
Get himself back to normal.
"Hey," Katara said gently. "It's going to be okay. We'll find a way to help your uncle."
"Katara is right," Sokka chimed in. He knelt on Zuko's other side. "Look, I'm sorry if I upset you before. I mean, it's kind of hard to believe that your uncle became a pot of tea, but then Aang was trapped inside an iceberg for a hundred years with a flying, fluffy snot monster, and I learnt to swallow that one." He smiled and his hand came to rest on Zuko's shoulder. "I guess what I'm saying is that we've got your back, kid."
Zuko glowered at the siblings, though the expression seemed more sulky than hateful. "You're both stupid. If even the Avatar can't do anything, what hope do my uncle and I have?"
Aang crouched in front of the prince. "I'm still learning about my powers. Just because I can't help now doesn't mean it's impossible." He flashed his trademark grin. "We'll find a way, so don't worry! You'll have your uncle back in no time!"
The prince blinked, finding himself surrounded by three enemies (and a lemur) who were all trying their hardest to cheer him up. It made his stomach do odd wriggly things—though not in a bad way—and his heart feel suspiciously warm. He scrambled to his feet and put some distance between him and the group. "You're all weird," he said stubbornly. "Why are you even going to this effort? It's not like you know me or my uncle."
Which was a lie, but he was sure they'd be even less inclined to assist him had they known his real identity.
Katara planted her hands on her hips. "Listen up! I've never turned my back on someone in need, and I'm not about to start now! So you can just stop acting like a wannabe tough guy and let us help you. We're going to get your uncle back to normal, and that's that!"
"What she said," Sokka said, jerking his thumb at his sister.
Aang just grinned. "So, shall we try again?" He held out his hand. "Hi, I'm Aang. What's your name?"
Zuko stared at the boy's hand for a long moment. Eventually, he sighed and turned his back on all of them. "Lee," he said in a quiet voice. "My name is Lee."
The Avatar—or Aang, as he insisted on being called—didn't seem to care that his handshake had been rejected. Instead, he looped his arm around Zuko's shoulders and pulled him close. "Welcome to the family, Lee!"
Zuko repressed a shudder. Just what the hell had he got himself into?