Don’t you see? I did it for you! For us!
Zuko looked up in time to catch the heavy head of the club on his crossed wrists. The force of the blow sent him scrambling backwards on his hands as the water boy swung at him again, missing his face by inches.
On the third fierce swing, Zuko caught the club on the palms of his sandal-shod feet and used the boy's momentum to propel his assailant backwards while giving himself enough thrust to flip over and land in an offensive crouch.
He concentrated his energy on forming a fireball, but nothing came.
Oh crap, that’s right... Zuko barely dodged another one of the water boy's furious blows. He was tiring quickly, and the semblance of balance he had was all illusion. He clung to the ground, supporting himself with one arm in a tripod stance, the spinning ground threatening to upend him.
Zuko started hearing through the rush of blood in his ears what the boy was shouting.
"—you disgusting pig! I'll kill you! If you touched her—"
"Hey!" He found himself yelling back indignantly, staggering as he nearly caught the club on his chin. "Wait—!"
One of Sokka's blows finally landed, connecting with Zuko's shoulder. He fell forward, the shock in his arm numbing his fingers.
"STOP!" He yelled, rolling to one side. The club smashed into the ground where Zuko had lain half a second ago.
"I didn't touch her!" He shouted again. Well, not in the way he imagines, Zuko thought, dodging another blow.
But Sokka was raging, spittle flying from his lips as he continued his assault. The Fire Prince could see there was no reasoning with Katara's elder brother. He had gone berserk.
Zuko's brain chimed in (at the most inappropriate time, as usual): And you wanted to see the look on his face if you were caught doing something with his sister. Weeeeelllll, have a good look, moron.
Dizzy and exhausted, his vision clouded with black spots, Zuko fell to his knees beside the sleeping Avatar, watching blearily, helplessly, as the fatal blow came.
The boy ran at him, club raised to knock his head clean off—
And then something landed on Zuko's head, and it was not the club. He felt leathery pads touching his face, clinging to his shaved skull. Soft fur tickled his temples and a prehensile tail twined around his neck protectively.
The water boy jerked his club away just in time.
"Momo!" He screamed. "Get out of the way or I swear I'll knock your head off too!"
Momo? Zuko couldn't believe it. The big-eared monkey-thing had just saved his life.
The prince took this momentary lapse in the boy's murderous fit to strike.
He slid forward and kicked the water boy's feet out from under him. Momo jumped back into the trees. Sokka landed hard on his backside as Zuko kicked the club out of his hand, but the water warrior reacted faster than the prince thought possible. The boy caught Zuko's ankle and yanked him down from his already unstable foothold. The prince landed painfully on his tailbone while the water boy scrambled to get the club.
Sokka was on his feet before Zuko. He pointed the club at the kneeling, swooning prince, glaring, panting.
An impasse. Zuko sat still, seeing the boy in front of him become double, triple, and back to single.
The prince hissed dizzily, venom dripping from the air escaping between his teeth.
"I… I yield," he muttered, putting both his arms up in surrender, grinding his teeth unpleasantly.
In any other circumstance, he would never have bowed down to this peasant. If he weren't so nauseous, naked, unarmed, and unable to bend, he'd have beaten the boy in two seconds, and without Firebending to boot. But now was not the time for martyrdom. As one Uncle Iroh’s lesser-used proverbs said, “A dead lion has no pride.”
Sokka kept his club raised defensively, hesitantly. The wrath drained from his face, leaving a tanned visage reeking of youthful angst and naiveté. His jaw hung slackly open in bafflement.
"Hold on a sec, you yield? I'm confused. Why haven't you roasted me on the spot?"
Zuko snarled. "Trust me, peasant, I would have as soon as you attacked, except that… I can't.” He looked away, mortified by this admission. “Something has… taken away my Firebending abilities. I suspect whatever it is, it’s the same thing that’s affecting your sister and the Avatar as well."
Just keep talking. Keep the boy’s mind occupied. He had him for now, but Zuko’s men would eventually notice the prince’s absence and send a search party. He would simply have to bide his time until then, lull the water boy into a false sense of security until he could be rescued.
How embarrassing. Iroh would never let him live this one down.
Sokka lowered his weapon, but did not take his eye off Prince Zuko. Just because he couldn't throw fire around didn't mean he wasn't a threat.
The water boy contemplated the situation. Zuko had no reason to lie – for one, he was sitting there holding his head. Second, the Avatar was still lying there, unconscious. He could have picked him up and dragged him back to the Fire Nation without a fuss. The same went for Katara. She could just as easily have become his prisoner.
"Hey!" Sokka flared, remembering why he attacked the Fire Prince in the first place. "What did you think you were doing with my sister?"
Zuko returned indignantly: "Do? Nothing! As if I'd go for a... a skinny water wench like her!" He spluttered, hoping he sounded convincing. He was in no condition to get into another tussle with the over-protective brother.
Sokka seemed even more ticked off by Zuko's appraisal of his sister. “She’s not skinny! She can eat more than me some days!”
“And it shows, stickboy,” Zuko muttered under his breath, crossing his arms.
Sokka glowered. "I know what I saw. You just better not get any funny ideas. Katara's waaaaaay too good for you."
I know, Zuko thought, returning Sokka's warning look. A tense silence fell over the two boys as though a long, unspoken conversation were taking place.
"So..." Sokka broke the moment. “I guess you're… uh… like, my prisoner?”
Zuko could barely repress a snort. He looked away.
Sokka sneered. “Well, it's not like I have to worry about your men or anything. I was just in their camp on the beach. I think you and I have similar problems, your highness. All our friends are out cold.”
Zuko started. "My crew…?"
"Well, not all of them. Some of them are just plain drunk." Sokka waved dismissively.
Zuko furrowed his brow, trying to look angry more than worried. He refrained from asking about his Uncle.
I am the water.
I am life and death.
Don’t bother begging for mercy. I will dispense none.
"So all I have to do is free the souls from the living plane?" Aang asked, scratching his scalp.
"It's a little more complicated than that, Avatar," Fonquay said. "The curse is what binds us to the In-Between, but I don’t know how to break it. Our souls are actually trapped in the mortal realm, bound to a vessel of some kind, but breaking it will only destroy the soul, not free it. You see, those of us that passed on the island... our bodies were, um, reclaimed by the land. They just rotted there, and the cursed water took us into its thrall.
"The water and curse are one, and I know they’re the key, but I don’t know any more than that. But you, you're the Avatar! We know you'll find our souls and break the curse and release us from this place." Fonquay gazed at him with grey, hope-filled eyes.
Somewhat lacking in knowledge or options, Aang was forced to accept this simple statement. He still didn't understand the In-Between, or the curse. But he was the Avatar. He was here to help. That was his job.
"So, what now? Am I just supposed to walk back to my body?" Aang asked.
Fonquay laughed. "Ha! Don't be ridiculous! All you have to do is WAKE UP!"
"WAKE UP, AANG!" Aang found himself sitting upright. Sokka was shaking him hard by the shoulders.
"Mrrr... mluh?" He blinked sleep out of his eyes and absently wiped drool from the corner of his mouth. Had it all been a dream? It was so real...
Aang blearily stared into Sokka's haggard face, a look that was both worried and relieved staring back. "Man, when I heard you talking in your sleep, I thought you were just having a nightmare or something, but I tried to wake you up anyhow..."
"Wuzzit Sokka... man, I had this crazy dream..." and then he realized someone he couldn't quite recognize was sitting hunched over on the dirt by the fire, watching him. He was bare-chested, wearing nothing but a pair of loose black pants and sandals.
The figure quickly snapped into focus in the Avatar's mind. Though he had his back to the fire and his face was hidden in shadow, Aang could feel the hungry malevolence radiating off the youth.
"Zuko!" He nearly shouted. He sprang to his feet, willing the air to billow him up, but he fell heavily backwards onto his rump.
The gust that he normally used to bounce up was gone. He let out a forced huff that would have sent him sailing ten feet into the sky, but nothing happened. He shakily got to his feet the non-Airbender way, baffled.
"It's okay Aang," Sokka said. "Something's taken his Firebending powers away. Looks like whatever it is is affecting you too. And…" Sokka glanced to the side, the crease in his brow deepening as he looked over at...
The "dream" rushed back to him.
"Katara!" Aang nearly bowled Sokka over as he leapt to the Waterbender's side. She lay still, her breath shallow, her skin a touch pale. No amount of prodding or pinching or shouting woke her. She was a perfect sleeping beauty.
"Zuko's men are in the same state. Mostly." Sokka added that last word as an afterthought. He pointed at the prince. "He's not exactly my prisoner, but he's in no condition to fight either. I think he has a cold, or something."
"Sokka, listen really carefully. I had a spirit encounter..." And he told the water boy about his short adventure in the In-Between in detail, about Fonquay and freeing the trapped souls. As he told the story about the Water and Fire bender lovers, the look on the water boy's face went from incredulous, to shocked, to sad, to bewildered.
Zuko listened passively. He snuck an occasional glance at the sleeping Katara.
"So I've got to find out where the souls are going and free them somehow," Aang said, his voice hoarse from talking. "I don't know how much time we have, but Fonquay said if I don't do it soon, Katara will get stuck in the In-Between."
Sokka glanced at Katara worriedly. They were always getting into some kind of trouble: Fire Nation, freaky animals rides, prisoner break-outs, psychotic jerk-wad mercenary types... how could he possibly help them? What good was he to them? He resisted the urge to wallow in self-pity and repeated his mantra for the evening: I won't let anything happen to Katara.
He mulled over the supernatural phenomenon, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Hmm... if I were a cursed, tortured, trapped soul, where would I be?" His gaze moved about until it rested flatly on the banished, glowering prince.
"What? Why are you looking at me like that?" Zuko growled.
Sokka silently walked to the prince and stooped beside him, picking up the shiny object that had caught his eye.
"What's this?" He held up the faintly glowing crystal between his thumb and forefinger, inspecting it in the firelight.
Zuko took a moment before mentally smacking himself. "Of course!" He cursed. "That's where it all began..."
The Avatar and the water boy looked at him expectantly. "What?"
Zuko finally had a card to play – the first one he'd had all day. "Nothing." He said simply, a nasty smile crawling into his lips. "Nothing at all."
"Zuko, what do you know?" Sokka approached him menacingly, fists clenched. The prince gazed evenly back at him.
"Maybe I know something, maybe I don't." He said blandly. "It just depends on how you decide to treat me."
"Treat you! How about I start by not bashing your skull in, and you spill!" He brandished his club.
Aang bodily stopped him from doing anything rash, and spoke to smug-looking Firebender, his voice quiet and sober.
"Zuko," he faced the prince. "Your men are in serious danger. Katara's in danger. And by the way you look right now, I'd say that you're about to step into a world of danger. If the water’s as dangerous as Fonquay says it is, and you happened to drink any…” The young Avatar shrugged. “Help us."
Zuko stared at the little monk. Damn him, he was right. He had not eaten any cursed fruit, or drunk any cursed water, but he had swum and bathed in it, and had probably taken enough in to eventually silence him for good. He could already feel himself slipping away into a dangerously heavy sleep that he knew he might never rouse from.
And Katara. Had he just put her in danger so he could play the power game? Not that he should care. His pride deflated. Never had he felt so weak. He'd always had the upper hand, but without his Firebending, his strength, or his men, against this little boy and his meddling friends, he was just… he was only...
Zuko looked away, hiding the angry tears stinging his eyes with a malicious look. How could the Avatar just stand there being so fair with the young man who, even now, was bent on capturing and enslaving him?
And his men... the loyal soldiers and sailors who had followed him around the world on what had begun as a hopeless voyage and had become a crazed and frantic search. He couldn't let them fade out of this life, dying honourless deaths.
And Uncle Iroh. The boy had not mentioned him, but Zuko could picture the kindly old General lying face down on the beach in the sand, the scavengers circling in to pick at his flesh...
"The waterfall," Zuko admitted lowly. "There's a cave behind the waterfall where I was bathing. There's a statue of a Water Tribe woman in the water at its mouth. The cave is filled with those." He indicated the crystal in Sokka's cupped palm.
Aang nodded and started making plans with Sokka to search out the cave while Zuko cradled his throbbing head. He shivered and inched closer to the dwindling fire.
He felt a rough blanket thrown over his shoulders.
"Put that on, you'll freeze." Sokka grumbled turning away. Zuko unbundled the blanket that turned out to be an ugly grey wool tunic. He was about to chuck it back at the water boy with some rude comment about peasant clothing, but a strong cool wind made him pull it over his head quickly.
He cringed at the dank smell of someone else's sweat and wet animal fur. It was itchy, a little stiff from lack of washing, and a little too small for Zuko, who was taller and more muscular than Sokka. But it was warm and shielded him from the wind. Why did he do that? Zuko wondered. He could have left me to sit here and freeze to death.
In truth, Sokka had only given the prince his little-worn sweater because a) he didn't want to have to look at his nipples anymore, and b) he didn't want Katara waking up to said nipples. But the Water Tribe warrior wasn't about to say the word 'nipple' to the Fire Prince, much less admit he had been looking at the prince's nipples. Even Sokka blushed at the word 'nipple'. Nipple nipple nipple...
"But we can't just drag her all the way there Sokka," The Avatar said. "I don't know what we're going to have to do there."
"Well we can't just leave her here," Sokka argued, ignoring the fact that he had just done the same himself hours earlier. Of course, he had learned from that mistake when he discovered Zuko stooping over her, ready to do gods-knew-what.
"We have to. And Zuko will have to stay here too." Aang said firmly.
"W-What?" Sokka stammered. "I'm not leaving that pervert here alone with my sister!"
Zuko smirked. Another chance to be alone with Katara...
He shook himself. Get a grip, idiot, you're doing it again! The Avatar's in arm's reach and all you're thinking about is that water wench. Don't you dare make this another fiasco like Ho'Wan, or Uncle Iroh's going to smack you really hard in the back of the head. Really, really hard.
Zuko sat quietly, trying to look as harmless as he could to the two boys.
The Avatar sighed. "Okay then. If you don't trust him, we'll tie him up."
"What?" Zuko cried indignantly. "What makes you think I can't be trusted?"
The boys glanced at each other, simultaneously rolling their eyes. An evil grin tugged at Sokka’s lips as he uncoiled a rough-looking hemp rope.
Together, they bound his hands behind his back and tied his ankles together. Zuko protested loudly, made a number of bodily threats, and tried to convince the boys that the sleeping girl had nothing to fear from him, but at the last attempts, Sokka laughed bitterly. "I don't think so." He cinched the knot around his wrists tighter. “Just be glad we don’t gag you.”
"Well, if anything attacks her and I have no way to defend her, you'll be sorry!" He called at them helplessly as they ran into the woods.