Aang was the ocean, and the ocean was implacably angry. Tui had been murdered. Rage wants destruction. The ocean knew this was true for humans and spirits.
La treated everyone the same. It sank all the ships. It ignored all the screams and pleads for mercy. It drowned all the men in armour it came across, searching for the one who had taken Tui out of the pond.
La felt a belly flip. The human Avatar was distressed and trying to break free, but La still needed the Avatar and held him fast with the strength of the tides. La wasn't finished yet.
There was fire coming from within the city. La turned and saw two fire benders fighting each other. Always fighting, those people. The spirits had given them a beautiful gift and look what they did with it. One of the benders was the Tui-killer. This one La drowned himself. The other firebender started shouting at La's belly. La felt an unfamiliar curiosity. The firebender was about to die—it was an odd thing to do. La realised he was trying to talk to the Avatar, who was still suspended inside, as if words alone could wake the young Avatar up.
Such was the folly of humans.
La hesitated. This one was familiar to him. He was not wearing armour like the others. He was wearing Water Tribe clothing. He had been attacking the Tui-killer and not the tribe. Still, he was a firebender. No exceptions. It was the only fair way. La should send him to join his countrymen.
But Tui had liked this one.
If La were to make an exception and spare him, the human needed to understand the gravity of the gift La was giving. La tried to tell him, but humans were so fragile and tiny. They never understood. The boy clutched his head in pain and doubled over. He was swept away by a blur of movement. Another human was pushing him off the bridge and towards the city streets. La let them be.
The moon had returned to the sky. Tui had come back.
La looked around at his work and was satisfied.
He was finished.
Aang was meditating when Sokka went to check up on him. This wasn't unusual; however, Aang's face was normally a serene, blank mask when he meditated. Now he looked scared. That sucked. Sokka had hoped that meditating would help Aang get over his little stint as a swirling tornado of death, but meditating alone clearly wasn't helping. They were probably going to have to talk about feelings over dinner now.
Sokka took the fish he had caught back to Katara, only to find her in an even worse state. She was sitting with her arms around her knees, just staring sadly at the bundle of twigs in front of her like she was hoping they would light themselves on fire if she stared at them long enough. She hadn't even started dinner yet! Sokka wasn't going to eat for ages now!
He pushed his annoyance away. For all that he wanted to grumble at her, he quickly realised this was the first fire she'd had to light herself since the autumn. Instead of lighting a fire, she had decided to think about the guy who used to light the fire for them and so elected to become a moping avalanche instead.
Sokka knew this would happen! It was why he always threw water all over those two idiots.
"Here, let me do that," he said, kneeling beside his sister and taking the sparks rocks.
She smiled warmly. She had finally tricked him into helping with dinner. Sokka found himself being instructed on how to boil rice and how to cook vegetables. It should have annoyed him, but Katara was back in full bossy mode and she was smiling faintly and teasing him. That was much preferable to the moping avalanche.
This was their first night travelling with just the three of them. Sokka found himself (bizarrely and ironically) wishing that Zuko was around to lighten the mood. Who knew that grumpy, sarcastic jerk had become their source of comedy? Sokka sucked at cheering people up. How had this become his job?
Aang turned up when dinner was ready and sat down in the circle with a great deal of melancholy. Katara, her mummy senses tingling, went over to him and asked what was wrong while plying him with rice and vegetables. Aang told them he had been trying to access the Avatar State through meditation, and they both became very alarmed. Aang quickly back-tracked, explaining that he wasn't trying to go into the Avatar State, but he had been trying to remember clearly and piece together what exactly had happened when he was a glowing blob monster of doom.
"Oh, Aang, don't do that!" Katara cut in.
"Why not?" Aang asked sharply, turning to her with narrowed eyes. There was an edge to his voice. Sokka could tell that Katara's protectiveness was starting to grate on the younger boy.
"Remembering properly, it will only hurt you," she whispered.
"I have to know if I killed Zuko! You can't expect me to just not know if I murdered my friend for the rest of my life!"
Katara moved backwards, holding her hand over her heart defensively. Aang never yelled at her. The silence stretched out for a long time.
"Did you?" Sokka eventually asked, breaking the staring stalemate between the two. He thought it was a fair question after Aang had casually dropped the subject of friendicide into the conversation.
"No!" Aang snapped.
Yikes! Post-meditation Aang was a pain in the butt. It was like Aang had decided it was his turn to become a moody bastard since Zuko had left that position in the saddle wide open.
Sokka wanted to snap back that he was sure that Aang had a lot of feelings about the shenanigans that went down when he was a blob monster of doom, but that was no reason to take it out on them. But he refrained because, one, this would not help their situation; two, Katara and Aang were both moody and snappy enough as it was. The last thing their group needed was for Sokka to join them in the too-many-feelings club.
Aang, to his credit, seemed to realise how grumpy he was acting and apologised. He said his meditation had been really horrible and it had put him in a bad mood. He remembered everything.
The parade of lies had collapsed completely, just like Sokka had always known it would.
"When I meditated, I was the Ocean Spirit," Aang explained. "I wasn't me. But I saw everything the Ocean Spirit did. Everything. All those people..." he trailed off, looking heartsick. He couldn't bring himself to finish his sentence.
Katara reached out and rubbed his shoulder, and this seemed to snap him out of his little funk.
"I saw Zuko, too," he told her. "He was on a bridge fighting with Zhao, but then he saw me inside the blob monster … I mean the Ocean Spirit. He tried to wake me up. The Ocean Spirit drowned Zhao, but it wasn't sure about Zuko, because the moon likes him. Then his uncle came and pulled him away. I saw them head down to the harbour together with Yugoda. They escaped."
Huh? So Yugoda hadn't been lying?
Katara had been right?
Sokka glanced at his sister. She was looking immensely pleased. She loved being right. She was going to rub Sokka's face in it, he knew. There'd be no living with her after this.
Still, the thought of putting up with a smug Katara didn't dampen the relief that washed through him. He liked thinking that his jerk friend was out there now, probably doing more reckless shit and driving his uncle crazy with his angst volcano grumpiness.
"That's good to know," Sokka said sincerely.
"Oi, I already told you that's what happened," Katara interjected.
"You're an unreliable source of information when it comes to Zuko. Now we know for sure."
Katara made an offended face.
"Yeah," Aang said, sounding gloomy, "but I also know for sure that I killed all those people in the ships. I saw it happen."
"That wasn't you, Aang," Katara said gently, trying to sooth his hurt. "That was the Ocean Spirit."
"I made a choice to unleash the Ocean Spirit though, didn't I?"
"It was either going to be us or them," Sokka said flatly. "If you hadn't unleashed the spirit, the North would have been decimated and Yue would have died for nothing."
His heart constricted at the thought of the girl he'd adored. Yue was definitely gone forever. No Avatar vision would bring her back.
Sokka pulled himself together and met Aang's gaze. "You did the right thing."
Aang looked unhappy but didn't snap at him the way he had been snapping at Katara. It was tough love, truth-telling time, which was always Sokka's speciality. Coddling Aang Katara-style had blown up in their faces. Now it was cold, hard logic's time to shine!
"Look," Sokka continued, coldly and logically, feeling like he was on a roll. "As the Avatar, you'll need to make hard choices like this."
"Well, maybe I don't want to be the Avatar!"
Aang instantly covered his mouth with his hand, as if his outburst had surprised even himself and he was trying to shove the words back in. A startled silence settled over the three of them. Sokka had no idea how to respond to that. Aang wasn't wrong. Being the Avatar wasn't looking that glamorous or appealing now that Sokka had seen it up close and personal. It seemed like it sucked monkey-feathers, to be honest. Sokka would take being a non-bender any day over suddenly becoming a killer blob monster.
"I think we should look for Zuko," Katara said.
Maybe she was just changing the subject away from Aang's burgeoning, and inconvenient, existential crisis, but it wasn't the worst idea. Katara's coddling and Sokka's logic weren't helping Aang now. Maybe Zuko's weird mix of being very dramatic, emotional but also awkwardly honest would cheer Aang up. Aang certainly seemed to think so. He latched on to this idea too. They both turned to look at Sokka.
"I'm not opposed to this idea," Sokka said, not liking what their expressions conveyed. It was like they were expecting Sokka to say no and poo-poo all over their idea. Sure, Sokka was a pessimist and a realist, but he wasn't a jerk. "Where is he? Point it out and we'll go there straight after we have collected Bumi." He got out a map and showed it to Katara.
Sokka grinned to himself. This was going to be hilarious. Zuko thought Sokka was the most annoying person in the world, but he hadn't met Bumi yet. Bumi was going to annoy the shit out of Zuko.
Katara took the map and looked at it for a long time, her smile fading rapidly. Sokka realised quite abruptly that she really didn't know where Zuko was. There had been a kernel of truth to her parade of lies. Sokka felt a wave of irritation. Why did she have to go and suggest something like collecting Zuko and getting everybody's hopes up if she had no idea where he was!
Honestly! Now Sokka had to be the bad guy again.
"Look, Zuko always turns up sooner or later," Sokka said, snatching the map off her. "Let's just focus on getting Aang to Omashu and finding Bumi."
It was the logical thing to do, after all.
Katara had taken Aang into the stream to teach him some waterbending. She hoped this would help soothe over how weird things had become between them last night. She knew Aang was annoyed at her for trying to protect him, but she felt he was being a little unfair. Protecting him was what she had always done, and she had been doing it for his own good. She just wanted them to be friends again.
She started with octopus forms, which had always been Aang's favourite, even though he'd never perfected them. It was fun teaching him and he didn't seem grumpy with her anymore, which was lovely. Then she adjusted his posture and he blushed very deeply.
No! That was much worse!
Did he still have a crush on her?
How could he be so grumpy with her and still have a crush on her?
It didn't make sense.
Thankfully, they were interrupted by a group of hippies. Katara was glad for their cheerful songs and how much they annoyed Sokka. She was also rather fond of Lily's ability to attach flowers to anything. Appa's shaggy hair and her braid all got the flower-power treatment. Aang's bald head proved challenging, but Lily settled for making him a flower crown instead.
Sokka kept encouraging them to abandon the hippies and get on the way to Omashu, but every time he tried, he would inadvertently remind Chong of another song. Aang would always want to hear the song in question. Katara and Sokka had both come to an unspoken agreement to be gentler with Aang after his outburst about not wanting to be the Avatar. He was younger than her and under so much pressure. He deserved all the fun songs he wanted.
Katara could have listened all day, but after the twenty-seventh song, and Sokka's twenty-seventh attempt to get them moving, he grumbled, "It's times like this I really miss Zuko. He'd back me up on this."
Sokka had said it under his breath, but Katara still heard. Her heart stopped for a second and then started beating again really rapidly. She touched the knife at her belt, trying to steady herself. No matter how much Sokka professed to miss Zuko, she missed him more. She missed him every day. She found she couldn't get used to him not being around. Yesterday, when she had tried to light the fire, her longing for him had hit her with the force of tidal wave. She'd ended up just staring at the twigs pathetically for more than half an hour. She'd looked sad enough that it had prompted Sokka to help her with the cooking, which was a small miracle.
At first it had been hard to even speak his name, and it seemed like Sokka had understood. He'd avoided mentioning Zuko around her, which was surprisingly sensitive for her emotionally dense older brother. However, after the conversation last night, it looked like Sokka was just going to start casually mentioning him now. Aang knew everything now too, and that was for the best. There weren't any more secrets now.
Well, maybe just the one secret, but she was keeping that to herself.
Iroh wanted to use the asset of a surprise mongoose lizard to his best advantage, but Sunflower was a conspicuous animal to trade. He needed a subtle, clever fence. Thankfully, he knew such an agent in the nearby area who was good at discreetly hiding and trading stolen goods. They tethered Sunflower in a hidden glen in the nearby forest and wandered into the small farming town.
Iroh was glad Zuko knew of the White Lotus now. The fact that Iroh didn't need to hide what he was up to made transactions like this much easier. Iroh wasn't sure how he would have manufactured a meeting with his contact if Zuko had still been in the dark about their secret society. No doubt he would have had to create some kind of medical emergency that needed to be treated by her daughter, Song, the local apprentice healer. She was perpetually inviting strangers home for dinner. Her mother, Aya, encouraged this. Constantly feeding strangers had helped hide meetings.
Right now Song was proving an obstacle. Iroh desperately needed to talk to Aya alone, but her daughter was still at the dinner table. Song was completely in the dark about her mother's less than legal activities. Aya preferred to keep it that way. If they were to discuss arrangements for fake identities and supplies, they needed her to leave the room.
But how could Iroh delicately remove her from the situation?
She was currently making moon-eyes at his nephew, despite Zuko's taciturn nature. Moon-eyes that Zuko was either completely oblivious to or was steadfastly ignoring. Iroh could use that. It would probably help to remove Zuko from the conversation too, as technically he was not an initiate and shouldn't be privy to these discussions.
Iroh felt like it would be tawdry to directly ask his nephew to lure Song out of the room. Zuko was currently obeying everything Iroh said, but Iroh was sure he would only do this up to a point. Zuko had bristled when Iroh said they had to sell Sunflower. He certainly would not react well to being told to make pleasant conversation and comely eyes at a girl, then go stand outside and be ... sexually alluring.
Thankfully, Zuko's quick temper saved Iroh from having to resort to giving him such a tawdry instruction. Song mentioned her father fighting in the war and politely asked Zuko about his own father. Zuko was still very sensitive to mentions of Ozai and these polite inquiries caused him to stomped outside. Song, eager to make amends, followed him. As soon as the two children had left, Aya turned to him.
"I can get you fake papers," she said, "but are you sure about the name Mushi?"
Zuko let his uncle take the bed. Uncle had repeatedly offered to share, but Zuko had steadfastly refused. Duck always made the old man a bit gassy, and Zuko wanted to be well away from the ensuing emissions. He didn't mind sleeping on the floor. After so long sleeping rough in the forest with … them, the dry floor in a warm room would do fine.
Zuko had never minded when they were camping, though. He actually missed it, missed them. He missed Sokka's jokes, Aang's easy friendship and Katara's everything. It sucked, because he knew that no matter how much he missed them, they weren't missing him at all. They were probably all still furious at him.
They must hate him now.
Uncle told Zuko that he had decided to stay one more day while his flower friend prepared some documents for them. Zuko regretted letting his uncle make all their decisions. Zuko didn't want to stay one more day, especially not with that Song girl around. She made him uncomfortable. He couldn't even pinpoint why. She was very nice to him—a little too nice to be honest. He had always found it unnerving when people were nice to him.
"What is the girl doing that is making you so uncomfortable, Nephew?" Uncle asked, interrupting his thoughts.
"She's just always trying to talk to me," Zuko grumbled. "It's weird. I don't know what she wants from me."
Zuko couldn't see his uncle's face in the dark room, but the surprise in his uncle's voice indicated that the old man knew something Zuko didn't. Zuko hated it when his uncle kept things from him. He grumbled about this too.
"It is not a secret," Uncle said. "She has a little crush on you."
"Don't be ridiculous!"
Zuko could feel his cheeks going red. He couldn't fathom another girl being interested in him. It didn't make sense. She wasn't Katara.
Song had tried to touch his scar anyway, even though she wasn't Katara. Zuko had recoiled from Song because she was pretty much a stranger. He didn't like strangers touching him at all. Then she'd shown him the scars on her legs and Zuko had been horrified.
His nation really had done nothing but hurt and terrorise innocent people.
"Mine are a bit bigger than yours," Song had said quietly.
Zuko had wrinkled his nose in response. He had wondered then if she had been trying to compete with him—about scar size of all things. Of course she was right. Her legs were striped from ankle to knees in puckered skin. Technically more of her ... surface area was covered in burns. But she could easily hide them. Zuko's burn was on his face. He'd nearly lost sight in his eye. That was way worse. He'd pointed this out to her.
She'd squirmed and got all self-conscious, saying she was sorry. "I wasn't trying to compare," she had said. "Just nobody else here has scars like mine, and I guess I just wanted somebody to talk to." She'd looked at him with big brown eyes as if implying that she thought he would be that someone.
Zuko had gotten up abruptly and walked back inside. He'd figured that watching his uncle flirt with the mother would be less uncomfortable than staying with Song out on the veranda. He didn't want to be scar buddies with her. Retreat had seemed like the best option, even if it had been a little rude. He'd told himself it didn't matter anyway since they'd be leaving.
But now his uncle wanted to stay another day. This made the Avoid Being Scar Buddies plan difficult.
"Zuko, can you take Song for a little walk tomorrow morning," Uncle asked after a few moments.
"I need to arrange our false identities with Aya and gather more supplies for our journey. Song cannot know of our activities."
Zuko exhaled. All the Flower Friends kept secrets from their kids. Why should this one be any different? It made him feel a little sorry for Song. Her mother was keeping so many secrets from her. Song didn't have anyone else. It was going to hurt when she realised that the one person she thought she could always rely on had lied to her too, but she was going to have to pretend it didn't bother her.
The next morning, Zuko took her on a walk and tried his best to make ... urgh, small talk. He hated small talk. Small talk was the worst. He was terrible at it. It was awkward.
He missed Katara. He hadn't felt awkward around Katara.
Well, truth be told, he'd made a total pillock of himself the first few times she had tried to kiss him. He'd been awkward around her then. She even had to ask him to bend down for their first kiss in the garden.
"You're too tall for me," she'd said. "If you want me to kiss you, you've got to sit down or bend down, you big lummox." She'd blushed and smiled hopefully at him, and her eyes had been so blue and pretty.
Zuko hadn't even known what a lummox was. It didn't sound like a bad thing when Katara said it, but he'd never asked either. It hadn't seemed to matter after Katara had put her lips on his.
He glanced at Song. She probably didn't know what a lummox was either. She'd be no help there.
Their conversation had hit an uncomfortable silent patch. Zuko wasn't sure how long it had been going on for, but it had probably been a while. He'd been thinking about Katara and had lost track of time. He just didn't know what to say to Song. He needed a neutral topic of conversation. Nothing to do with the war or burn scars or the Avatar or what he liked to do for fun. Apparently, "nothing" was an unacceptable answer to this question. He wracked his brains for something to say to her.
He looked down and spied a pretty flower. Girls liked flowers. He should have given Katara flowers! Would she have liked flowers? She probably would have smiled at him the way she used to, like she wanted him around and enjoyed his company, and then she would have ...
No, don't think about her!
He pushed the daydream away. It wasn't Song's fault that she wasn't Katara. She was a kind girl who seemed to like him. And he was being a real dick to her. He could fix that. He had been trying to find something to say to her before he'd been distracted by plants.
Plants! That was it. They were neutral. Trees never took sides in arguments.
"What plants do you use for healing?" Zuko asked.
She was a healer. She could probably talk about it for ages. Yugoda could ramble on for hours without taking a breath. It meant Zuko could just listen and not say anything. He wouldn't have to worry about saying anything rude or wrong then. He really did find it interesting, too.
Song looked delighted at his sudden curiosity and began talking about the different herbs growing around them. They wandered through the forest for most of the morning and started picking some that Song needed for her remedies. Zuko was fascinated. The Earth Kingdom had different medicines to both the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe. Unbidden, he thought of Yugoda and her healing book. She would have loved this. Zuko wished he had some way of talking to the old woman again to tell her what he had learned.
When Zuko and Song returned, Uncle made a few comments about how sweet it was for Zuko to pick flowers for Song. Zuko told his uncle the flowers were actually to make a tonic to treat chronic diarrhoea. He wanted to kill any romantic notions the old man got in his head stone dead, and nothing was a bigger romance killer than diarrhoea.
Uncle had been busy in his absence. He'd sold or swapped all their previous belongings, even Zuko's parka. Zuko felt a knot in his stomach. Yugoda had given it to him. He didn't have anything from the Fire Nation or anything from his ship anymore. The only things he had from his time in the North had been the clothes on his back.
He'd kind of wanted to keep it, just to remind himself of … No! That was stupid. Azula had always made fun of him for being too sentimental. Sentimentality wouldn't help him now.
They were starting all over again. It was smart for them to have money and to not wear anything too noticeable. Zuko knew that. Sunflower was on her way to a good home, and they now had an ostrich horse (Uncle had named her Jasmine, after the tea), a few changes of clothes (all nondescript green instead of blue or red), some supplies, and two sets of fake papers. They were now officially Lee and Mushi, refugees travelling together throughout the Earth Kingdom.
He wouldn't be Zuko anymore.
Maybe that was for the best.
Being Zuko sucked. Maybe Lee would have a better time of it.
Katara read aloud the story of Oma and Shu in the fading light of her torch. The tomb seemed suddenly airless and warmth rose to her cheeks. Her heart was beating faster and suddenly she was blinking back tears. She traced the characters with her fingers. Two lovers, forbidden from one another, with a war dividing their people. They were exactly like her and Zuko!
Well, not exactly.
Oma had built a city, not walloped her boyfriend with a block of ice during their first real fight. Shu had died tragically instead of trying to abscond with the world's last hope for peace in a fit of stupidity. But still, there were enough similarities. Katara would have to be blind to miss it. One was even dressed in red and one was dressed in blue in the picture, for goodness' sake!
Their story was so tragic. It made her sad to think of them. They were in love, even despite the war between their people, but love hadn't overcome. Love hadn't been enough. Oma didn't get a happy ending. She had the power to move mountains, but she hadn't been able to keep Shu alive and with her. Her grief and rage had decimated two villages because their pointless fighting had taken her boyfriend from her.
Katara understood that anger. Katara wondered what she would have done if she had someone else to blame for taking Zuko from her. Would she have shown Oma's restraint and mercy? Or would she have been like the Ocean Spirit after Tui was murdered, all rage and decimation? She wasn't sure.
But Katara knew she had no one else to blame but herself for what had happened during the Siege of the North. She'd been too aggressive and hot-headed. She'd just lashed out. Zuko had been trying to talk to her. She hadn't wanted to listen because she hadn't liked what he was saying. She wondered what would have happened if she had listened and tried to talk him out of it instead of just reacting. Perhaps things would have been different for them.
She'd hurt him, which was something she never thought she would do. It made her guts churn with shame to think of it. She knew he was sorry for what he'd done, but she had no way of telling him that she was sorry too.
She longed for him now. She just wanted to talk to him again. Her big lummox. He'd probably try apologising to her at the same time that she wanted to apologise to him, and then they'd both make a mess of it, and it would be weird for a bit. But then he'd smile at her that way he did—the quick, shy smile she loved. He was always happy to see her. He smiled whenever he saw her. If they'd both been different people, they could've built a life on that.
She wished he was here now.
Not in the least because if he were here, it would solve their immediate problem of running out of light. She should probably focus on that and not drive herself crazy with thoughts of what might have been. She looked at the final line of engraving.
Love is brightest in the dark.
That was the key to finding a light source. Love? Katara had so much love in her heart, but how to show it in a way that spirits would recognise? She looked up at the statue. They were kissing. The spirits wanted to see a kiss before they would turn on the lights?
Now she really wished Zuko was here with her.
As it was, the only person here for her to kiss was Aang. Katara didn't know if she could do it. She didn't feel that way about him, but she knew he felt that way about her. She didn't want to encourage him. But she also didn't want to get trapped forever in these tunnels. Perhaps she could just close her eyes and imagine she was kissing somebody else, somebody taller with a raspy voice and a shy smile. It wouldn't be so bad.
"Aang, I have a crazy idea..."
She started trying to explain her idea, but her torch started flickering rapidly. When the fire had gone out, a row of crystals glowed eerily and illuminated a path for them. So that's how Oma and Shu had met up! None of this kissing for voyeuristic spirits! They had simply put out their torches and followed bio-luminescent rocks.
"Oh, Aang, this is great!" She exclaimed, giddy with relief. "We don't have to kiss after all."
"Yeah, great," Aang muttered darkly behind her, but she pretended she didn't hear him and hurried forward, following the crystals and hoping for sunlight.
Enormous massive thank you to the gorgeous and fantastic Boogum, for her amazing beta skills.
Huge thanks to everyone who gives feedback. Feedback helps keep me motivated to write.
In book two, because our core-four are going to be separate for a little while and I am really impatient to get the band back together again, I will be skipping over bits. I'll probably refer to what I've skipped over to help everyone figure out the timeline – but I won't be doing detailed re-writes of episodes. I'll be writing what would have changed as a result of Zuko's time with the group.
So, as much as I like all the shenanigans with the hippies and the secret tunnel song, those bits would not have changed that much from Zuko travelling with the Gaang earlier. Besides, everything Chong does is already comedy gold and I didn't know what more I could add to it.
So there will be much pining from our drama llamas for the next little while. All aboard the pining train. Even though they are apart, they will be thinking about each other a lot. They had a lot of "dates" in the north that we didn't get to see in detail, because I was saving them for memories in this story. So my lovely readers will still see them together in flashback form until they are reunited. I hope that makes dramatic teenage pining more enjoyable!
So Aang now know exactly what he did as the Ocean spirit. His need to know if he had murdered Zuko was his motivation to do this – because I think Aang needed a really big motivation to look closely at the events of the siege of the North.
Now Aang knows that his actions lead to many, many deaths. As a result he is a bit more emotional and snappy with his friends, but I think this would be a normal reaction. Some people can only lash out and express their negative feelings when they feel really safe and comfortable. Aang was probably raised to reject negative emotions (from his attitude towards anger, shame and guilt), so dealing with his guilt and his feelings of being 'used' by the ocean spirit were always going to be hard for him.
I also think it would be a natural progression for Aang to start chafing against Katara's maternal protectiveness, especially her desire to hide unpleasant truths from him. Katara lowkey knows about Aang's massive crush, and that is one of her motivations for not telling him about her relationship with Zuko, because she knows it will upset him.
So Iroh's thing with the tea-poisoning - in my headcanon he did that for a purpose. C'mon, this man knows his tea. All of his shenanigans in the forest seemed to be to get Zuko to go into the town, possibly because he had a flower friend contact there.
Also, you know what I think would be cool? If the flower friends aren't just a group of old dudes swapping codes through Pai Sho, but an active, current resistance movement/spy network. They have more lady members, like Song's mum. (She always makes too much roast duck for a reason girl). However they are not above less than legal activities like trading in stolen goods or forging papers. In fact, they'd probably have people who specialised in this. They operate in the shadows, and have a more concrete mission than just 'restoring balance' - which I will elaborate on in a later chapter.
Zuko's awkwardness around other people isn't something that would magically go away just because he had Katara as a girlfriend. Poor Song really is barking up the wrong tree. Not only is he heartbroken about Katara, he has no idea what to do with a girl...like at all. He's baffled by why Song would even like him and wouldn't have been able to talk to her, and given her rude/curt one word answers to all her questions.
However, Zuko can recognise when he is being a jerk much better now. He's still in his woe-is-me, everybody-hates-me, I'm-the-worst mode, and he doesn't want to add unmitigated-jerk-to-sweet-healer-girls to that list. He is also projecting hardcore when he realises that Song has no idea about her mother's involvement in the flower friends and he feels a bit sorry for her.
The one thing they would have had in common would have been an interest in healing, so that is what they talked about. Zuko misses his Yugoda-grandma and it reminds him of his time in the North. He doesn't steal her ostrich horse here, because he's a lot further along in his journey, they already had a moongoose lizard to trade and he is going to get up to plenty of stealing later...mostly so I can make cheap jokes about him stealing hearts.
Next chapter we will go to Omashu, find out more about Aang's relationship with Bumi and Kuzon and our trio will meet another trio of dangerous ladies!