Zuko and his crew were still on the trail of the Avatar, though it had been several days since their last contact with him, and they were certainly trailing behind. Zuko was out looking for his Uncle and cousin, who had gone off to explore when the ship had stopped. He would have gone with, but it was approaching the Winter Solstice. As such, he'd stayed on the ship and penned a letter to Mai.
Mai had sent a letter back. Zuko had been eager to read it, though he hadn't expected too much in the way of emotional content. Even in her writing, Mai wasn't very expressive usually, unless something was seriously bothering her. Still, he always put a lot of effort into conveying his emotions.
Her letter, however, had caught him off guard. The first line was, "I had a dream about you last night." She had then gone on to describe the dream to him. In detail. Far too much detail, in his opinion.
He had told the crew he was looking for his Uncle and cousin...but he was actually looking for the springs he'd seen on the map of the local area, letter still clutched in his hand. Much to his chagrin, he found all three at once.
"Hi Zuko!" Cadence called out as she caught sight of him, waving from where she floated in one of the smaller, higher springs. "Come to enjoy the springs, too?"
"Yes, nephew!" Iroh agreed. "Come enjoy the hot springs. Soak and let your troubles ease. They're the perfect temperature. I heated them myself." To prove his point, Iroh exhaled hot steam from his nose into the spring, increasing the temperature.
Zuko glanced away. "I was hoping for cold springs," he muttered under his breath.
"Why would you want a cold spring?" Cadence called out in confusion, making Zuko flinch. He had forgotten how good her sense of hearing was. She then gasped, her eyes locked on his hand. "Ooh! Is that a new letter from Mai? What does she have to say?"
"Nothing!" Zuko countered quickly, hiding the letter behind his back. "J-Just get back to the ship quickly! We're heading out!" Spinning around on his heel, he raced back to the ship, his cheeks burning.
As soon as he was out of sight, Iroh let the laughter he'd been holding in out. "She's going to break that poor boy if she keeps that up," he managed to gasp out as he lay back in the water.
"How is Mai going to break Zuko? Cadence asked in confusion. "And why would she? I thought she liked him!"
"Oh, she does," Iroh hasted to reassure his equine daughter. "That's how she's going to break him."
Cadence tilted her head, clearly still perplexed. "I...I don't get it."
Iroh started to open his mouth to explain, but then remembered that Cadence, despite her somewhat adolescent appearance, was only five years old. "I'll explain when you're older," he promised.
Cadence turned away with a pout. "Always that..." she grumbled.
Chuckling, Iroh lay back in the spring as his eyes slowly closed. Yawning, Cadence followed his example.
Cadence was startled awake as she felt the earth moving under command. Struggling out of the water, she spun around, trying to see the threat. Seeing Iroh trapped in his spring - now drained - by spires of rock and surrounded by Earthbending soldiers, she did the first thing that came to mind and exhaled a blast of fire at them, letting her anger at them hurting her Father add intensity to her flame.
Unfortunately, she had missed the fact that they were surrounded. Her flames were cut off by a yelp of surprise as her spring closed around her, trapping her in a sphere of stone that was too tight to move in, and only left her with a thin slot through which to breathe.
"We surrender!" Iroh said quickly. "We surrender! Just don't hurt her!"
Cadence could hear other words being said, but she didn't quite catch them. Trapped in the stone, she found herself hyperventilating, staring around, desperate for a source of light, a cross breeze, anything...
When neither Iroh nor Cadence returned well after sunset, Zuko brought several of his troops with him as he went to search for them. When they found the damaged springs, one of the troops started to suggest a landslide.
"You've seen Cadence Earthbend," Zuko interrupted firmly. "You know the signs." He stared down at the two damaged springs, and he could feel his anger growing.
"Do you think they've been captured, sir?" another troop asked.
Zuko nearly rounded on the soldier, feeling an enraged, insult filled remonstrance coming. Desperately, he caged his rage once more. I need a cool head right now, he told himself. He's not the one I'm angry with. Plenty of time for anger when I find Uncle and Cadence...and plenty of anger if either of them are hurt. "Likely," he replied calmly. "Spread out and search for any sign. Some trail is bound to have been left-"
"Sir! Look!" One of the soldiers pointed to part of the forest.
Zuko looked. "I don't see-"
"All the plant life in that direction is wilted," the soldier pointed out. "It's subtle, but it's more than any other plant life around...and it's in a more or less straight line! That's not natural!"
"Say, doesn't plant life bloom when Cadence is near?" another soldier asked. "Do you think maybe the plant life wilted in response to her distress?"
Once more, Zuko could feel his anger growing. Back before he'd left on this journey, Azula had made her hostility towards Cadence quite plain, at least to him. As a result, he'd grown rather protective of his young cousin. The idea that someone had made her experience such distress... "Follow that trail!" he barked out, mentally chiding himself for letting his soldiers see his anger.
Although the weakened vegetation trail lasted for quite some time, it ran out as the trail led to a wide path. Apparently, the foliage was too far apart at that point to be affected by Cadence's mental state. However, he did find one of Iroh's sandals, which carried his distinct fragrance. Nearby were a great many ostrich-horse tracks. Zuko immediately set his rhino to race down the path.
Following the trail, his attention was drawn by a noise he recognized, despite never having heard it before. It was Cadence screaming in terror. Turning towards the sound, he led his rhino charging straight into the Earthbenders who were about to crush Iroh. Leaping off the rhino as it flattened three of them, Zuko brought his heel down to shatter the chain keeping Iroh trapped.
The rest of his troops swarmed down into the pit, surrounding the Earthbenders. One of them held up a small sphere of stone...a sphere that was screaming. "Stay back, or I'll-"
He didn't get another word out. Blasting his flames from his feet, Zuko launched himself at the Earthbender faster than he could react. An act of supreme self control kept his flames from his fist as he delivered a solid right cross to the Earthbender's chin. The force of the punch sent him flying into the side of the stone pit, dropping the sphere.
Several of Zuko's soldiers rushed forward with hammer and chisel, working quickly but carefully to free Cadence, who hadn't stopped screaming the entire time. As the stone sphere crumbled, Cadence gasped out, "Air!" Lunging forward, she flew up into the sky, clinging in a panic to the closest tree branch.
Carefully, Zuko climbed the tree to the branch, gently scooping Cadence into his arms, his concern for her pushing his rage down anew. Climbing down, he turned to face his Uncle...only to freeze, staring.
Iroh's face held an expression no one had ever seen before. His eyes were hard and flinty. His mouth was turned in a fierce scowl. Bursts of flame leapt from his nose and between his bared teeth with every breath as he stared down at the one who'd held Cadence captive. His hands clenched and unclenched reflexively. The family resemblance to his brother had never been more prominent.
With a sudden scream of anger, Iroh slammed his fist into the stone wall. The stone around his fist turned red and started to melt. After a time, he got himself under control, pulling his fist back and staring at it. "...I need tea," he finally muttered, turning back to join Zuko. Cadence immediately leapt into his arms. Other troops rushed forward with blankets and a tea set.
"Are you alright, Uncle?" Zuko asked in concern. "I've...never seen you so angry."
"I've never been so angry before," he murmured softly. "I begin to understand your frustration with my lessons on controlling your anger." He held up his hand before Zuko could speak again. "I know where we need to go next, and we must hurry. The Avatar seeks the Temple of the Fire Sages. I saw him heading there atop the spirit of Avatar Roku's dragon."
Zuko nodded. "We'll get back to the ship immediately and set a course."