As Zuko's ship pulled into the Fire Nation Harbor, Zuko turned to Iroh and Cadence. "We need to get these repairs done as soon as possible, and as quietly as possible," Zuko stated firmly. "I don't want to lose his trail, or let word of his existence spread."
"You mean the A-"
"You mean Aang?" Cadence interrupted her father. "Why do we need his trail?"
Zuko and Iroh both turned to Cadence. "We need to catch him before anyone else is aware of his existence," Zuko explained.
"But we know where he's going," Cadence pointed out. "That girl he's with is the only Southern Water Bender, and she knows less about Water Bending than he does. And by the cycle, he has to learn Water Bending next, and there's only one place in the world where he can find a Water Bender...the North Pole. Why not just patrol the Northern Waters and shoot his bison down when he's spotted? After all, he's going to be avoiding drawing attention to himself - even if he knows nothing about tactics, that boy he's with is bound to advise caution - so word of his return is unlikely to spread."
Iroh and Zuko both stared at her for a time. "That's...not a bad point," Zuko murmured. He rounded on Iroh. "Why hadn't you come up with it yet?"
"Nobody asked me," Iroh pointed out logically.
"Daddy taught me well!" Cadence proclaimed proudly as the ship docked.
As they stepped out onto the dock, they were greeted by a middle aged man dressed in the Fire Nation's uniform. "Greetings, Prince Zuko," he stated calmly through a pleased smirk.
"Captain Zhao," Zuko greeted.
"It's Commander now," Zhao corrected. He gave a minor bow of respect to Iroh. "And General Iroh, great hero of our nation."
Iroh smiled softly as he returned the bow. While he didn't have the same duties of the other Generals, the rank had never actually been removed, as he'd never been officially retired. He privately felt he had Cadence to thank for that...both for helping his relationship with his brother stay strong, and for leading Ozai to believe the Spirits had plans for him.
"The Fire Lord's brother and son are welcome guests any time," Zhao stated firmly.
"What about me?" Cadence demanded, pouting as she stepped forward.
A strained smile graced Zhao's features. "And of course, the Fire Lord's niece," he replied. "What brings you all to my harbor?"
"Our ship is in need of repairs," Zuko replied mildly, doing his best to keep his face neutral.
"That's quite a bit of damage," Zhao muttered as he gazed on the ship. "What happened?"
Before either Iroh or Zuko could speak up, Cadence responded, "It's our helmsman's fault. He accidentally ran over an Antarctic sea serpent, and the serpent took exception to it, collapsing part of an iceberg on the ship. We also need a new helmsman."
"You do?" Zhao asked, shocked.
"Yes. Our previous helmsman is currently in the brig for being drunk on duty." Feeling a tickle at the back of her throat, she let out a cough.
"Are you well?" Zhao asked courteously.
"Just a little chilled," Cadence replied.
"It seems you've had quite an adventure since you left the shores of the Fire Nation," Zhao indicated. "I'd love to hear all thethrilling details. Join me for a drink?"
"It would be an honor," Zuko replied, "but I need to tend to tend to my cousin. As you can see, she is ill, and tends to not know her own limits."
"Look who's talking," Cadence grumbled, coughing again.
Zhao nodded. "Very well. Iroh?"
"I would be delighted," Iroh replied, walking away with him.
Once they were gone, Zuko leaned down to Cadence's level. "So what was with the fake coughing?" he asked quietly.
"I need to make sure the crew knows the cover story," Cadence whispered back. "And someone with actual authority needs to be on board to refute any soldier trying to interrogate them. I don't trust Zhao."
"Me neither," Zuko agreed as the pair went back aboard the ship.
As Cadence had predicted, Zhao's men did attempt to board the ship under the Commander's orders to interrogate the men. However, one of the books Cadence had brought was a book of Fire Nation law, and between that and two writs that Ozai had left in Iroh's care - the first allowing Zuko to demand assistance from any Fire Nation Soldiers he encountered should he find evidence of the Avatar, and the second putting Ozai's authority behind Zuko's mission - Cadence was able to prove to Zhao that, short of an Agni Kai, Commander Zhao was not in his authority to demand anything from Zuko or his ship unless he was an Admiral or had written approval from the Fire Lord.
Much to Cadence's amusement, this led to Zhao challenging Zuko to an Agni Kai for authority over his ship and crew, as he felt he had reason to dispute their account of events.
During the actual fight, Zuko kept his calm and remembered all that he had discussed about bending in general with Cadence. Knowing just how much Bending - aside from Air Bending - required a firm stance, he allowed Zhao to make the assault, and focused all his attacks at Zhao's feet, breaking his stance. Since Zhao hadn't expected such a skilled assault - no one had ever actually seenZuko duel - he found himself unable to counter it accurately.
After the fight ended, however, with Zuko the victor, a bright light from the top of a relatively nearby mountain drew all attention. Cadence's mind quickly raced through her memory of the maps they'd been sailing by. "Isn't that the Southern Air Tem-AAH!" She clutched her forehead as her horn flared, pulsing with the blue of air.
As Iroh and Zuko carried her back to their ship, Iroh chuckled. "So much for his trail being hard to follow."
As Aang and the others left the Southern Air Temple, Katara noticed that Aang was deep in thought. "What's wrong, Aang?" she asked worriedly, still remembering what had happened at the Temple.
"...I can't be the only Air Bender left," he replied softly. "Some of the monks have to have escaped somehow."
Katara sighed. "Aang, I know you want to have hope, but-"
"Because I've met another Air Bender since I woke up," Aang explained.
"What?" Sokka demanded in shock. Momo the flying lemur, having taken a seat on Sokka's head so he could swipe food, mirrored his shock.
"On the Fire Nation ship," Aang explained. "There was this little creature I mistook for a goat bird, but she said she was a pony-"
"Wait, you can talk to animals?" Sokka interrupted. "Is that another Avatar power?"
"Not as far as I know," Aang replied. "But she was the one who was talking, though I'd never heard of a pony before. But she had a horn and wings."
"Sounds more like a kirin," Katara added. "One of those mythical dragon/unicorn hybrids."
"Feathers, not membrane," Aang pointed out. "But she smacked me with a wall of air as I was escaping, and I saw her bending movements. She's an Air Bender. Someone has to have taught her, which means that somewhere in the world is another Air Bender!"
"Unless she learned from scrolls," Sokka pointed out, only to receive an elbow from Katara. "Ow!"
"Well, you'll just have to talk to her about where she learned next time you see her," Katara pointed out. "Preferably without fighting again."
"Yeah," Aang agreed. "It'd be great if we could be friends..."