Zuko was hard at work, practicing his Firebending in a battle with several of his troops on the deck of the ship. He had been working on incorporating the styles of the other three Elements into his flame so as to be more versatile, and was doing his best to push himself by facing multiple opponents at once. He was moving into a new technique he'd been developing - creating a wave of fire that would erupt from the ground, flow at the opponent, and then leap upward over them - when the ship suddenly changed course. Because he'd shifted into a Waterbending stance for the new maneuver, he had an easier time regaining his footing than his opponents. He made a mental note of the usefulness of that as he made his way to the helm.
"Helmsman," he demanded calmly. "Why have we changed course? Who gave that order?"
"Umm...no one gave an order, per say, Your Highness..." the helmsman replied nervously.
"Then why have we changed course?" Zuko demanded.
"We're all out of oats!"
Blinking, Zuko turned to the whimpering voice, finding Cadence looking up at him. Her eyes were wide, her ears were flat against her skull, her wings hung limp, her lower lip trembled, and her eyes were somewhat dewy.
Zuko shuddered as he shifted his gaze. "If Firebending could be powered by cute, you'd burn the whole world," he muttered.
"Cadence informed me that we had a shortage of produce in the food stores," the helmsman explained.(1) "I...saw no harm in changing course to resupply."
Zuko nodded. "I don't suppose there is. Though a warning of course correction would be appreciated in the future. Some of my opponents nearly went overboard." He rubbed his chin. "Uncle!" he called out as he left the helm. "Teach our soldiers what you know of Waterbending stances so they can stabilize themselves better while sailing! I don't want anyone going overboard in the middle of a storm or anything like that if we can help it!"
Cadence smiled proudly as she watched him go. His heart was open.
Zuko carefully walked around the trading post, his two trusted Lieutenants flanking him as a dozen of his troops towed the supply wagon. "Let's see," he murmured as he looked over the list of foodstuffs that Cadence had asked for. "We've got oats, we've got carrots, we've got some lettuce...do we need anything else?"
"My cabbages!" someone shouted out from nearby.
Zuko blinked, and turned to Lieutenant Jong. "Does Cadence like cabbage?" he asked curiously.
"Sir, I believe there is a scuffle of some sort going on on the other side of those buildings," Jong replied, pointing in the direction the shout had come from. "Sounds like somebody giving chase."
"Not our problem," Zuko replied. "We'll just keep out of the way until we finish restocking."
Although Zuko began to get curious as he heard the sounds of splashing and loud crashes from that direction, he stayed the course. He didn't have time to investigate every disturbance he came across. He needed to catch up to the Avatar before he made it to the North Pole, or found some other way to learn Waterbending.
After a time more of shopping, he was rather unsurprised to see that Iroh had gathered a vast number of nick-nacks as souvenirs, including a musical instrument. "Uncle, where's Cadence?"
Iroh blinked. "She was right behind me," he began, turning to look around.
"Hands off, creep!"
That shout in Cadence's voice was followed by a heavy sound of hooves striking flesh, a flash of flame, and a pirate flying backwards and slamming into a produce stand.
"My other cabbages!" a little old man shouted out in despair. "This really is worse than Omashu!"
The pirate groaned. "And I thought chasing that bald monk with the lemur was painful..."
Zuko quickly rounded on the pirate. "This monk...did he have an arrow tattoo?"
The pirate looked up belligerently. "Who wants to kno-"
In a quick move, Zuko had his twin swords out of their sheaths and at the pirate's throat. "The one who won't think twice about killing a parasite like you."
"Arrow tattoos on his forehead and wrists!" he babbled quickly. "Traveled with two water tribe folk, one girl one boy! Had a flying lemur! Stole a Waterbending scroll from us and flew away when we cornered them! Don't kill me!"
Zuko cursed under his breath. "Let me guess...that was that disturbance we heard earlier when that guy shouted about his cabbages?"
The pirate nodded dumbly. "He waved his staff and sent the wagon flying at us."
Growling, he sheathed his swords. "Back to the ship! Our quarry's been sighted!" Grumbling under his breath, he led the way back to the ship along with everything that had been purchased.
It didn't take long to man the riverboat and get it into the water. Zuko was certain that, with a Waterbending scroll, the Avatar and his group would be near the water. However, no sign of them was found until after dark, when they spotted Katara practicing the scroll techniques at the water's edge. Through the telescope, Zuko could see she was getting frustrated.
"Well, Zuko?" Iroh asked. "We've identified one of the fugitives. How are we to handle this?"
Zuko stroked his chin. "...Zhin, do you still have that Water Tribe choker we found at that Earthbender prison the Avatar wrecked?"
Nodding, Lieutenant Zhin pulled out the necklace in question. "According to the books, it's a Water Tribe promise necklace, made for assignations in the Northern Water Tribe, worn by females."
"Likely to belong to that girl, yes?" Zuko asked. "Probably an heirloom, since it looks to have been crafted decades ago." He took the necklace and held it in his hand. He thought for a time. "Cadence...go give her pointers on her technique."
"Eh?" Cadence asked in shock. Iroh and the troops were equally shocked.
"I can tell you're itching to do so," Zuko replied. "I'll be along shortly."
Confused but eager, Cadence took wing.
As Katara once more failed at the water whip, she was surprised at the sound of a high pitched, chiding voice. "No, not like that!"
Katara let out a startled shout as she lost control of the water she was bending, nearly splashing the scroll. "Who's there?" she demanded, spinning around to look.
Looking down, Katara blinked as she caught sight of the figure before her. "Umm...are you..."
"I'm Cadence!" the small pony greeted happily. "You're doing that technique wrong."
Katara growled. "It's bad enough having Aang master every single technique with ease when it took me months! I don't need a talking uni-pony-bird-thing telling me how much I suck!"
"I'm a pony," Cadence stated bluntly. "Also, the problem is you're trying to force it when you're upset. Water has to flow naturally, and that means your spirit has to be flowing as well. Right now it's all spiky like ice. Take a few calming breaths, let your heart warm up, then try again."
Katara glowered at Cadence for a time, but Cadence simply glared right back at her with a firm 'disapproving teacher' expression. Eventually, Katara lost the staring contest. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and let it out. After calming herself down, she tried again. While she didn't manage it perfectly, it was much smoother than before.
"That's much more the thing!" Cadence praised. "Once more. Just let it flow."
Under Cadence's guidance, Katara continued to practice the move. An hour later, she'd mastered it. "I did it!" she cheered.
"Very well done!" Cadence praised.
Katara blinked for a moment. "Say, how do you know so much about Waterbending? Aren't you the Airbender Aang encountered on that Fire Nation ship?"
Cadence smiled. "Not exactly..." Turning, she made a beckoning motion with her hoof. A small stream of water came at her directive, and she guided it around herself with forelegs and wings before letting it slip back into the water. "I am the Bender he encountered, yes."
Katara could only stare in shock.
"Cadence!" Zuko called out as he approached. "Where are you? It's getting late!" He walked up the shore as though he were out on a night time stroll. "Oh, there you are," he said happily as he approached them. "I've been looking all over for you." Kneeling down, he scooped Cadence up before seeming to just notice Katara. "Oh! You're the one travelling with the Avatar."
"That's right!" Katara snapped, getting into a battle stance. "And if you think I'm going to let you-"
"I'm not after him tonight," he stated bluntly. "I was just looking for my cousin." He turned to go. "By the way...I think I found something of yours."
"Huh?" Katara asked, only to gasp in shock as he pulled his hand out of his pocket. "Gran-Gran's necklace! But how?"
"It was found in that prison you wrecked," Zuko replied. "Since the Avatar was sighted there, it was forwarded to me to aid in the hunt."
Katara swallowed. "And what? You think I'm going to make some sort of deal just to get my grandmother's necklace back?"
"No," Zuko countered. "Since you're here, I just thought I'd return it to you." Setting the necklace down on the scroll, he turned. "Have a nice night. Sleep well. I'll probably capture you in the morning." With that, he turned and walked off.
Katara stared after him in confusion until he was out of sight. After that, she grabbed the scroll and necklace and ran into the forest.
Cadence smiled happily. "That was so nice of you, Zuko! But...how is that a strategy for getting the Avatar?"
"Aang sees us as the enemy because Katara and her brother see us that way," Zuko explained. "The more my actions make it seem like I'm just doing a job, the more likely Aang is to want to try to meet us peacefully. If I can get her to see things that way, maybe the Avatar can be brought around to our side, and balance can be restored in the modern day with the Fire Nation winning the war."
Cadence stared at Zuko. "Okay, I know I'm the one who's usually all sunshine and rainbows, but even I find that unaccountably optimistic."
"And if not, her getting her necklace back like that will be suspicious," Zuko continued. "Either she doesn't say anything and we can use it against her to sow distrust between her and the others next time we meet, or she does tell them, leaving all three of them questioning my motives, making them more hesitant when they fight me. Win-win-win."
Cadence's eyes widened. "And after receiving training from me and seeing I can bend more than one Element, she's going to question the entire story around the Avatar, and wonder about my connection to him!"
"Precisely," Zuko replied with a wide grin.
(1) In the show, the detour was for Iroh to replace his White Lotus tile for his Pai Sho set. However, since in this timeline, that tile is used for a member of the Order to show their rank, that's hardly going to happen, so I needed another reason for the ship to change course.
Thank you pony diets.