The boys used vines to tie Prince Zuko's wrists together once more. Not that it would save them if he woke up and his Firebending powers had been restored, but it made them feel a little safer.
Aang used his Airbending to move the sleeping Katara, literally whisking her back to their campsite on a cushion of air. He looked absolutely ecstatic to have his bending powers back, and the brilliant smile on the young monk's face made the night's clinging horrors dissipate like fog in the sun.
With some difficulty, Sokka managed to sling the prince across his shoulders and hike toward the beach, his way lit by the lightening dawn sky. The Firebender wasn’t as heavy as he expected, just awkward to hold, being just a touch taller than the Water Tribe boy. A small part of his brain refused to believe he was doing this, and it kept reasoning that the teenage prince, who had been fanatically chasing the trio around the world and generally making their lives miserable, should be dispatched post-haste. But Sokka knew all about karma: he knew he owed Zuko for protecting Katara from whatever it was that had attacked him, and he would not let his debt to the prince accrue interest.
But just for good measure, Sokka made sure he wasn’t too careful, and the prince's shaved head banged against some branches and tree trunks as he marched through the dense foliage.
The Fire Nation camp wasn't too far away, but the young Water Tribe warrior didn't take any chances. He gave it a wide berth and unloaded the prince within sight of the beach, leaning him against a tree.
Sokka turned to leave.
“This doesn’t change anything between us,” Zuko growled.
So he had been awake.
Sokka clenched his fists. Did that arrogant prince always have to have the last word? But Zuko was right. Sokka would not thank the prince for his part in lifting the curse. He would never forgive the prince for anything he had done to the trio since their journey began. They were not friends, and they never would be.
But you do owe him something for saving your sister, his father’s voice reminded him calmly.
Sokka had only one thing to give the prince.
“Back at Ho’Wan, when you were thrown into the water, you were almost killed. You were going to fall into the rocky shallows. Katara was the one who saved you.”
Sokka glanced over his shoulder. Zuko’s gold eyes were wide with surprise.
“I’d say you two are square now. She saved your life. I guess you were returning the favor.”
That's your escape route, pal, you'd better take it, Sokka thought at the young man harshly.
Zuko looked away. “I did what I thought was honorable,” he muttered.
So. That's it, then.
Sokka turned around to face the boy. He looked him over once, as if appraising a piece of furniture. He locked eyes with the prince, fierce blue meeting brilliant gold.
“Zuko,” he said flatly. “Stay away from my sister.”
And the Water Tribe warrior turned and marched back into the woods, melting into morning mist.
Sokka found Aang and the now conscious Katara back at their ruined campsite. The sleeping bags had been kicked around, the fire pit’s ashes and embers strewn all over the place. Their meager supplies were heaped to one side, untouched. But none of this concerned the trio. Their eyes were glued to the ugly six-legged creature lying dead on the ground. Momo prodded it experimentally and jumped back with a screech when one of its legs twitched.
“What… what is that thing?” Katara asked in horror.
Sokka inspected the ground, tracing the myriad footprints in the dirt, touching the places where someone had dug their heels in, kicked, fought, and battled the little monster… lots of the little monsters.
He found the burnt ends of the ropes that had bound Zuko’s hands and feet scattered in the dirt. He vaguely remembered the burns on the prince’s wrists and palms as he and Aang had tied him up the second time, but he had dismissed it as being typical of a Firebender. The young man must have thrust his hands right into the fire.
As Sokka stared at the creature’s poisoned mandibles and glazed-over green eyes, the battle played itself out in his mind. He could see Zuko breaking free of his bonds, clearing the creatures away from his sister, grabbing one and smashing it onto the ground, getting bitten, picking up Katara, and running. He had put up quite a fight against a horde of these creatures and nearly lost, choosing to retreat to the waterfall for help with the unconscious Katara in his arms.
The Water Tribe warrior felt a pang of guilt as he realized just how much he owed the Fire Nation prince. But his mind was made up, and as far as he was concerned, he had already cleared his debt.
Katara watched him curiously.
I promised dad to protect you…
“They came during the night. Aang and I fought them off,” Sokka answered his sister resolutely.
The Avatar's head snapped around to stare at him in shock, but he did not contradict the water boy.
Katara searched her brother’s impassive face for more details, but something struck her. She blushed from the neck up as she gasped. “Zuko! He’s on the island! I saw him just before I… I passed out…” She looked confused.
“We know. I’ll explain it later. Right now, we have to get off this island.” As if on cue, the bison lumbered out of the woods.
“Appa! I missed you!” Aang jumped at the beast and scratched the groggy-looking bison behind his ear. “Are you alright?”
The large creature uttered what almost sounded like “Fine” and some kind of apology before licking the Avatar sloppily. Aang’s giggle was like music to all their ears.
The three travelers quickly piled their gear into Appa’s litter. Aang climbed onto the shaggy beast’s neck and took the reins. With a hurried “Yip-yip!” the great flying bison leapt into the pale sky, and the strange island paradise shrank into a blurry dot on the ocean behind them as they climbed higher and higher and further away.
Sokka watched his sister closely. Though she had slept the entire night, she looked exhausted, dark bags forming under her eyes. She hugged her knees and rested her chin on her folded arms. A slight furrow creased her brow, and her narrowed blue eyes shifted back and forth as she tried to remember something… anything about the night. She did not demand any explanations of him. She just sat there, thinking.
He hated lying to her, but he had to protect his little sister. He revised the night’s events in his head, editing any mention of Zuko’s part in the plot from the story. There would be gaps, but he could always fill it in with a simple, “I don’t know, I guess that’s how magic curses work.”
The Water Tribe warrior would have to talk to Aang as well and make sure the cover story was sound, make sure the little monk understood why he was doing this, and make the Avatar promise never to tell his sister what had really transpired.
Despite the night’s adventure, Sokka wasn’t sure the 13-year-old understood anything about passion, like what Fonquay had felt for Karanna. They had both been sickened by the perverseness of Fonquay’s obsession, but he wondered whether or not the Avatar truly knew what desire was. He was a monk after all. Did he know what it was like to want something so bad it drove you mad with determination? Did he know that love could be as destructive to a person’s mind and soul as hatred or anger? Did he know what it meant to be possessive?
Sokka made a commitment right then. They would have to be extra careful from now on and avoid the Fire Nation at all costs. They needed to get to the safety of the North Pole as quickly as possible. No more unnecessary stops.
It wasn’t that he was afraid of Zuko, or any Fire Nation soldiers. After all, he could hold his own in a fight.
But when Sokka had looked into the prince’s hard gold eyes, he knew he did have something to be afraid for.
He watched his little sister, worrying.
Katara squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t remember much, and the images that did surface in her memory frightened her. Red blood. Blue fire. It was like some terrifying nightmare, but she couldn’t say what it was about or why it had scared her. It just did.
The strangest part about waking up was how tight her skin felt, as though there wasn’t enough room for her to exist. It was as if she had expanded into a great big form, and now her flesh was jealously keeping her spirit contained in her tiny body. She felt… swollen, and strangely heavy, as though she bore a great weight in her chest.
She knew it was partly because Aang and Sokka were keeping something from her. Her brother was a terrible liar, and the usually talkative Aang was rigidly steering the bison. But she was too tired to probe either of them, much less care. Wait until they slip up, she thought, I’ll find out then.
She looked at her exhausted brother, his eyelids drooping. She dodged forward and gently caught him as he slumped over, and laid him down on his side, tucking her sleeping bag around his damp form. Had the foolish boy been swimming in his clothes? She would have to ask later.
She turned and watched the island shrink behind them. It had been a nice place, until Zuko showed up. She caught a glimpse of the prince’s ship in a cove not too far from where they had camped. What a close call, she thought. Had they stayed on the island any longer, they would have been caught for sure.
Suddenly, a strange feeling tugged at her heart, and she gasped a little, grasping her chest as though she had been stabbed. The feeling slowly subsided as she turned away from the sight of the ship.
She lay down next to her brother and closed her eyes. She had a hard time getting to sleep, though, because above and beyond all the strangeness around her, all the weird feelings, and the secrets and lies hanging over her head, something very particular was bothering her.
The taste of hot salt lingered on her lips.
Zuko sat in contemplative silence, his back resting against the tree, the dark sky paling with dawn’s light. He meditated, a deepness and stillness he had never experienced before filling his mind and body. He was calm, despite all that had happened that night, as though he was submerged in the depths of the ocean, beneath the turbulent, churning waves above. He felt strangely detached, as though watching himself from within. Each breath he took was a new and unfamiliar sensation.
He replayed the water boy’s words in his mind once more.
Katara was the one who saved you…
…She saved your life…
Katara had saved him.
He owed her his life. He owed her more than that: he owed her the world.
Would she accept the world from him?
Stay away from my sister.
Damn that water boy. When he finally caught the trio, the water boy would not be thrown overboard, he decided. No, when he finally caught them—
Zuko’s eyes snapped open. The Avatar. He had let him escape… AGAIN.
Something in him roared. It was like opening a furnace that had not been fed for a while and throwing in blasting jelly. The fire in his blood ignited. Zuko struggled to his feet, bracing himself against the tree. The thin bindings around his wrists and ankles snapped as hot blue flames rolled over his chilled body.
The water boy’s ugly, itchy wool sweater molted off him. The knitted yarn charred to black and orange cinders before blowing off his alabaster skin, like black snow and raven down on the wind.
Ah, that’s better, he thought, feeling the fire in him roar.
He stalked back to the landing site, itching to yell at whoever crossed his path first. He’d make sure those drunken idiots suffered through the most hellish hangover imaginable for not being at their posts.
"UNCLE!" He bellowed as he emerged from the woods. He could see the men picking themselves up off the sand, rubbing their aching heads. A few hurried into the woods, and he could hear them retching and heaving the previous night’s royally rich food up. What a waste.
Iroh staggered up arthritically, holding his back. Zuko trudged up to him and scowled around at the troops.
"WHY ARE THE MEN STILL LOLLYGAGGING ABOUT? THE AVATAR HAS JUST ESCAPED!" He pointed at the bison's shrinking form.
Iroh shaded his eyes against the dawn sky dizzily and uttered a curse, more for his headache than the retreating Avatar.
As Zuko paced about the camp, grabbing various crew members off the ground and hauling them to their feet, the general realized that his nephew was back to normal. Or what passed for normal for the banished, royal teen, anyhow.
“GET UP YOU LAZY BUNCH OF SWINE! IS THIS HOW YOU THANK YOUR PRINCE FOR HIS GENEROSITY? BY LETTING HIS PREY ESCAPE?” The young man swiftly booted a soldier in the rump and shouted some more unpleasant things, raging and making a much bigger ruckus than Iroh was used to seeing.
The old general could have sworn the prince was actually enjoying the tantrum. He smiled to himself as the men hastily cleared the camp and scuttled up the ramp onto the ship.
If they were displeased by the rude awakening, they did not show it. Iroh was certain they were as relieved as he was that the young royal had finally returned to his usual moods. The storm was passing. At least he was back to being the mostly predictable, temperamental prince now.
They were packed and back on the seas in under an hour. Zuko stood at the ship’s prow once more, his gold eyes glued to the speck in the sky that was the Avatar’s giant flying bison. He was still wearing his silk drawers, and hadn’t changed into his armour as he normally would have by this time of day.
Sipping a cup of willow bark tea to take the edge off his hangover, Iroh noticed the boy’s pants had been ripped, and a large purple bruise had formed on the boy’s bare shoulder. The hands clasped behind his back had scald marks on the heels of his palms. He looked the worse for wear, haggard and dirty, battered and bruised. And yet, the prince’s lips, which were normally pursed in a thin line, were turned ever-so-slightly upward at the corners. Was his nephew actually smiling?
“Nephew,” Iroh began uncertainly. “Did something happen back on the island?”
Zuko’s gaze remained fixed on the sky, his brow furrowed in thought. “Yes, Uncle.”
Iroh waited for further explanation, but none came.
“Annnnnnnd…?” He prodded.
The young man turned to look his esteemed elder in the face, his gold eyes blazing with renewed determination. The glint seemed almost… hopeful. Iroh smiled to see this, but deep down, he felt something had changed. His nephew’s zeal for the hunt seemed to have been intensified somehow. It was as though there was something more, something new to be gained in this wild, round-the-world chase for the elusive Avatar – a new prize to be won in this game of cat-and-mouse.
Whatever it was, it would only serve to drive his nephew toward his goal with even greater conviction. He sighed inwardly as he perceived what lay in the weeks ahead.
Zuko ignored the old man’s inquiring look. He sighed. “I’ll tell you later. Stay on the Avatar’s trail, and don’t lose him. I’m going to bathe. No disturbances.”
Iroh watched him trudge away, and began to wonder about all the peculiar things he had dreamt about in the night. Of course, he knew better than to bring it up with the troubled young prince. The answers would come in time, and the old Dragon of the West had the patience of a glacier.
He retired to his quarters and the comforting dark to nurse his headache.
Zuko sat in his private bath, soaking in the hot, salty seawater. It left a grimy feeling on his skin, but wasting potable freshwater on bathing when traveling on the ocean was a stupid waste and a luxury he didn’t need to indulge in. He didn’t mind it today, though. He loved the water, he decided. Especially when it was as warm and as easily accessible as it was on his ship. He brought it to a bearable boil and let the steam fill the room.
He relaxed and closed his eyes, sinking deeper into the bath, an uncharacteristic grin spreading over his face as he formulated a delicious new plan to capture the Avatar.
It was so obvious he didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. It was simple. If you want to win the grand prize, you have to play the game. Win the smaller prizes and trade them up for bigger ones.
Play the game. That’s all he had to do. He already knew he had the skill to win.
And then the prizes would be his. All of them.