I dumped her into the pool. A rejected gift, like me.
May she gaze upon her own grotesque visage every day.
Letting out a panicked bubble that would have been a yelp, Zuko kicked and scrambled, his lungs nearly bursting for air. He’d been dangerously pulled deeper than he’d thought. His head finally broke the surface, and he gasped, spluttered, and flailed as his knees scraped against the steep slope of the gravelly shoreline. He dragged himself up, shaking, and fell heavily onto his side in the rough dirt.
But he wasn’t on the shore. He was in a cave on the other side of the waterfall. The sun’s yellow rays slanted through the silvery curtain of water, lighting the short earthen pathway into the mountain. Knuckling the water out of his eyes, Zuko peered warily into the pool and sighed in relief.
It hadn’t been a woman he’d seen: it was a just statue, maybe hundreds of years old. The statue was missing its limbs, but by the positioning of the stumps, it appeared she once held both her arms out, either in supplication, or warning.
Zuko noticed one more detail that chilled him thoroughly.
The woman was dressed in Water Tribe robes.
He shuddered, turning away from the ghoulish statue, and looked into the cave. Strangely, a soft white light seemed to emanate from within. It was too pale a light to be the late day's yellow sun shafting through some gap in the mountain. What could it be?
Though he was still naked, Zuko decided it wouldn’t hurt to explore, and he cautiously crept down the path, his eyes quickly adjusting to the dimness. Water dripped musically throughout the grotto. He walked a short distance in until the passage narrowed to a thin fissure just wide enough for him to fit through. He squeezed in sideways, and found himself in a huge cavern within the mountain.
Zuko gaped. The walls sparkled with crystal fragments. Tiny geodes, no bigger than his thumbnail, grew out of the walls, hung from stalactites and stalagmites, and littered the ground. Zuko realized with a start that the crystals were giving off the soft white light that filled the room.
His head spun in wonder. Is this some kind of diamond? What could it be worth? Not that he needed any more wealth – despite his banishment, the prince's personal coffers were nearly inexhaustible. But the delicate shards were just so... pretty. Zuko picked a loose crystal up off the ground and inspected it closely. The pale light filled his hand soothingly. It almost seemed to pulse, like a tiny white heartbeat.
He shivered again as though a wet, damp cloak had been placed over him. A cold, dark feeling crept into his mind. Something told him he needed to leave the cavern. Something wasn’t quite right here, and it took all the courage he could muster to walk, not run, back out to the cave mouth.
He remembered with another shudder a story Uncle Iroh had told him about how this foreboding feeling was how you knew members of the Spirit World were trying to communicate with you. Those were ghost stories from a long-lost childhood, but Zuko was still thoroughly creeped out.
The Fire Prince reached the cave’s shore and held the crystal fragment tightly in his fist as he dove back into the frigid water to cross the silvery curtain. He would bring it back to his uncle for inspection. If they turned out to be valuable in any way, he could send his men in to retrieve more for further study and appraisal.
As he swam under the waterfall, he pointedly refused to look back at the Water Tribe woman’s stony, horrified face.
In her panic, Katara got a little lost. She blindly stumbled past the path to the campsite several times, retracing her steps when she realized she had gone too far. She tried very hard not to think about Zuko standing naked in the water, but she could not shake the sight of his pale skin from her mind. It had been like staring at the sun, the afterimage permanently burned into her retina.
It was sunset when she finally ran into the campsite, out of breath and still feeling woozy from her embarrassing encounter. Sokka, Momo, and Appa were nowhere in sight, but Aang lay dozing peacefully by the fire.
“Aang! Aang! Wake up!” Katara threw her armload of damp laundry onto her unrolled sleeping bag and stumbled towards the monk. She grabbed him and shook him. “Wake up Aang! We have to get out of here! Where’s Sokka?”
“Right here,” Sokka emerged from the brush, his arms full of papayas and persimmons. “You’ll never guess what I just found over there…”
Oh, I hate papayas, Katara thought, but there were more important things to think about than food at the moment.
“Sokka, Zuko and the Fire Nation are here!” Katara dizzily headed toward her brother, nearly tripping into the campfire. The floor was suddenly yanked out from under her. Her head throbbed. Images of naked, muscled Zuko flashed in her mind once more. What's wrong with me? She blearily wondered.
Sokka leapt forward to catch his sister, dropping his fruit.
“Katara, what’s wrong?” Sokka watched as his sister’s eyes rolled back. Her head lolled limply on her neck and the colour drained from her face.
“I… I don’t…” She fainted.
Sokka yelped and gently laid his sister down on her sleeping bag. He ran and shook Aang by the shoulders.
“Aang! Something’s wrong with Katara, and there are Fire Nation soldiers here!”
The little monk did not stir. “Aang? AANG!” Sokka shook the boy, slapped him, shouted at him, and splashed water on the boy’s face, but the Avatar was out cold.
Sokka went back and tried the same with his sister. She lay still as death. It was only her shallow breathing that assured him she was alive.
Sokka stood, desperately trying to come up with a plan of action. Appa had wandered away to graze, so he grabbed the bison whistle from Aang’s pocket and blew it long and hard.
Of course, the problem with a whistle that doesn’t make any sound was that Sokka didn’t know how hard to blow it, but he couldn’t care less if Appa’s ears were ringing after this. He would pack up their camp, load Aang and Katara onto the bison’s back, and fly all of them off the island before the Fire Nation found them.
He rolled up his sleeping bag and cleared the area of any trace they had ever been there. With any luck, Zuko and the other Fire troops would not find the campsite or see the bison fly away in the gathering dark. Though he knew that the fire could attract unwanted attention, Sokka left the two sleeping benders by the warmth of the flames, frantically trying to figure out what had happened to his two companions.
Could they be sick? He and Katara had both come down with a terrible flu after the storm they'd all been in. Yet neither of them seemed to have a fever, nor were they coughing or sneezing. On the bright side, at least they wouldn't have to suck on frozen frogs.
A thought struck him. Could it have been the berries? Panicking, Sokka wondered if he should induce vomiting, but he felt perfectly fine. Momo climbed down from the trees and peered at him quizzically. He seemed healthy too, and the furry little beast had eaten half again his own weight. Had Aang and Katara eaten anything different from him that day? He could think of nothing.
The young Water Tribe warrior hastened quietly around the camp as he packed, watching the shifting shadows out of the corners of his eyes. Every twisted branch and pointy bush looked like a menacing Fire Nation soldier in the orange glow of the camp fire. He kept his club tucked in his belt at his waist, his boomerang at the ready. His heart palpitated wildly while the growing dread in his stomach kept pace with the growing dark.
Sokka admitted it. He was afraid. And for the first time since he’d joined the Avatar, he felt truly alone.
Nothing. I have nothing left except this life. This stinking life.
Why has she rejected me? Why won’t she accept my gifts? I could make her rich, powerful…
I hate him. He has taken her from me, and I hate him like nothing else.
I will have to do something.
Zuko quickly toweled off and slipped back into his silk pants, pocketing the glowing crystal fragment and draping the damp towel over his shoulders. He was shivering uncontrollably, his teeth chattering noisily in his skull. Perhaps the water was colder than he had originally thought.
He was about to head back to the landing site when he remembered the abandoned sponge. He knelt to pick it up and noticed something in the sand: two deep depressions, slowly filling with water.
They were too deep and short to be footprints, and much too close together. He rested on his haunches, and touched the sandy groove.
Knee prints. Someone had been on their knees by the water.
In the fading light, he noticed something floating on the water. He picked it up, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and peered at it closely.
It was a bit of white fur. A fine blue thread was attached to it.
A picture formed itself very clearly in his mind. Katara, the water girl, kneeling on edge of the pool, drinking, or washing.
He banished that last impure thought quickly before it threatened to overrun his imagination.
Zuko quickly got to his feet. There was no way it was coincidence. The Avatar and his two companions were here on the island right now.
Katara is here.
His heart leapt. The numbness that had enveloped him over the past two weeks evaporated as hope surged in his chest, soaring on phoenix wings. The burning conviction rekindled itself into a blaze. The hunt was on again. Zuko could practically smell the Avatar in the forest.
Katara is here, the thought came more insistently, but he ignored it.
Zuko shivered, trembling violently with excitement and cold. He hastily formulated a plan as he marched through the woods as quickly and quietly as possible: get the soldiers, fan out, and search the forest. They would have to be camping nearby for the girl to have been this close to him. And they’d have to be quiet. The last thing they needed was to rouse the giant flying bison or the Avatar's flying big-eared monkey thing into sounding the alarm.
And then he remembered the scene he had so apathetically left before his bathing adventure. The memory of the singing, brawling, and boisterous crew drinking on the beach urged Zuko to break into a run.
Why hadn’t he noticed the prints before? What had distracted him for so long from his goal? How could he have so quietly abandoned his pursuit for honour? Zuko felt intermingling flickers of fury and disgust at himself for being so indolent, while at the same time tasting the bloodlust of being so close to his prey. He fumed. How could he not have missed this sensation before?
And why was he so damn cold?
He concentrated on raising his body temperature, but nothing happened. He focused on his open palm and tried to conjure up a small fireball, but it didn’t appear. Frustrated, Zuko threw the damp towel off and summoned all his energy into lighting his arms on fire.
Nothing. His eyes widened in alarm and he stopped dead in his tracks.
The passion, fury, and raw emotions that were the source of his power were there aplenty, but there was nothing to ignite the flame. No spark. No fire to express the rage rising in his chest.
He breathed deeply, trying to calm himself using the techniques Uncle Iroh had taught him, and quickly moved through the basic Firebending forms. Fire comes from the breath, he told himself in his uncle’s irritating rumble. Remember your basics.
Any minute now he’d be telling himself to calm down and have a cup of tea.
His arms came up, his legs came down, he danced the deadly dance of the Firebender in the middle of the darkening forest. He should be ablaze by now, but there was nothing, not a single wisp of smoke. He was empty. He was cold. He was at the mercy of the world. If something didn’t burn soon, he felt his heart might freeze over with icy fear.
Dusk was settling over the forest. Zuko had no lantern to light his way – he had always been his own lantern. So he took off, his mind shrouded in darkness, tracing the path back to the beach before what little light left in the sky disappeared altogether.
He had never admitted it to anyone, but he’d always been just a bit afraid of being alone the dark.