Aang stared numbly at the ghostly girl, open-mouthed, the tears unwilling to come. Katara. Katara had passed into the In-Between. She was lost forever to him. She—
Katara looked away, as if something had caught her attention over her shoulder. She vanished.
Aang jumped. “What happened? Where’s Katara?” He was hysterical. It couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true, not his lovely Katara, not the beautiful girl who had awaken him from his century-long slumber; she was his mother, his soul mate, his life…
Fonquay made “calm down” motions with his ghostly hands. “She’s not stuck here yet. Her body is still alive and well and she is clinging to the mortal plain. But she doesn’t have a lot of time. We need to break this curse before she transfers herself here fully.”
Aang ground his teeth, resolute. “Tell me what to do.”
Sokka crept as quietly as he could, circling wide around the Fire Nation troops’ campsite so he could approach from the beach. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t mistaken for a wild creature in the bushes and get roasted by some fire-happy soldier.
His plan was a simple one. He would walk up and say, “please help my sister and that boy who looks like the Avatar but isn’t.” And they would, and they’d live happily ever after.
Right. And Fire Lord Ozai will make peace with the world too.
Sokka’s stomach growled, but not in hunger. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say stress and the lack of a proper diet was giving him an ulcer. He felt stupid. He felt weak. But his sister’s life was worth feeling and looking like a moronic coward.
He would do anything for her, up to and including getting help from the Fire Nation. He had promised dad he’d keep her safe.
The sand was fine and soft underfoot, a welcome change from the rocky sodden forest floor he’d been trekking over. He could see the fire clearly now, and about two dozen men scattered around it. Perhaps they were quietly talking, planning their next move against the Avatar.
Sokka abruptly became super aware of the fact that in seeking help for Aang and his sister, he was about to hand the Avatar over to Prince Zuko. He would seal the fate of the whole world in a few short seconds.
The universe’s grand scheme slammed down on him like a load of Appa’s dung. What was he doing? He couldn’t turn Aang over to these maniacs!
But Aang was out cold, too. If he died, what would be the difference?
The difference would be that Katara would be dead too.
There was no turning back. He steeled his will, putting on the bravest, least threatening face he could. He prayed with each heavy step he took towards the camp.
But when he could see the details of the landing site, he stopped.
The smell of warm and sour alcohol said they were drunk, but the prone, unnatural positions of all the men told Sokka they were out cold. All of them.
Just like Katara and Aang.
Sokka’s heart sank as he cautiously approached the bodies. He noted some of them were half out of their armour, as though it had been casually removed in the heat of the… party? Sokka frowned. Fire Nation troops aren’t supposed to have fun, he thought.
He waved his hands in front of their faces. He poked them with his club. He called out and made noise and slapped their rosy cheeks. They were all alive, but unconscious.
He moved from man to man, trying to wake one up. Then, as Sokka poked an old sailing hand, he snorted and smacked his lips.
Life! Sokka grabbed the man and shook him. “Hey! Hey! I need your help!”
A hot cloud of mead-breath wafted into Sokka’s nostrils. He gagged and dropped the drunk, who promptly passed out on the sand.
Great. Everyone was either near dead, or dead drunk.
Sokka stomped around loudly, not caring who discovered him. He looked around for anything that would help him – food, medicine, supplies, ropes, anything – but came up empty handed. The most he found were empty tins and jars, the decimated carcass of a smoked pork belly, shelled out papaya skins and melon rinds, and lots of empty bottles of mead. They must have been having one heck of a party, he thought. I wonder what they were celebrating.
It was then that Sokka noticed the Fire Nation ship anchored in the high-tide shallows nearby, the moonlight glinting off its steel hull, the horn prow ramp lowered. The ship looked so small and docile up close, like an oversized child's plaything. Whenever the trio had spotted it tailing them, it seemed more menacing somehow, as though it were a completely different beast when it was not mad on their trail. What a perfect opportunity, he thought. The perfect chance for looting, for exploration, for sabotage…
His line of thought was broken by yet another realization. He looked around at the faces of the comatose men and did not find the one he was looking for.
The prince was nowhere to be found. Could he be on the ship? Sokka highly doubted it. Katara had said she had seen Zuko, just before fainting. So he must be on the island somewhere.
And he had left Aang and Katara unprotected.
Sokka sprinted into the woods back to the campsite, cursing himself all the way.
Dead? Dead? DEAD? DEADDEADEADDEADDEADDEADDEADDEADDEAD…
Katara sang to herself in her perfect world, a garden full of ever-blossoming flowers, a house made of ice and snow, and a perfectly warm and sunny day. The penguins happily nuzzled her as they slid down the icy slope, kicking up handfuls of plump, ripe berries in their wake. She absently ate one that landed in her lap.
She felt the heat of the sun warm her shoulders and closed her eyes to drink in its rays. She felt her mother and father nearby, and Sokka and Aang, too. She didn’t have to worry about them. She didn’t have to worry about anything. Never had she felt so wonderful. So at peace.
And suddenly the warmth was gone and she was somewhere altogether different. A featureless plain of grey shrouded in dense grey fog surrounded her. Wispy figures floated about, but she didn’t feel afraid of them: she just wanted to go back to her happy place.
And then she spotted Aang. Surely the Avatar could tell her how to go back home?
The boy monk was ranting something when she heard her name:
“Katara! She was going to wash and get drinking water before I fell asleep! What if she…?”
“What if I what, Aang?” Katara floated up next to him, smiling.
Aang stared at her, eyes wide. Was something wrong? What had she said?
The water girl whirled at the sound of her name. And just as suddenly, the sun returned and she was happily back home, with her penguins and garden and ice house.
But someone else was here now, too.
Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him. His beautiful face, his perfectly formed ivory mid-section, his gorgeous gold eyes. He smiled and came forward.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Kimji said simply. He offered her a handful of berries. She swatted them out of his hand.
“Don’t eat them!” She cried out. Then she popped another into her mouth.
But the young, bare-chested man standing before her didn’t flinch. He kept smiling at her, waiting, his ponytail fluttering in the gentle breeze. A cool blue flame wavered about him, hovering millimeters off his bare skin. How had she missed that before? It was so pretty.
The Water Tribe girl felt herself gravitating towards the Fire Nation boy, moving as though she was standing on an icy downhill slope, unable to stop herself from sliding into his arms.
She should stop herself. She had to! He was hot, he would burn her, he would hurt her! But now they were standing chest to chest, the thin fabric of her worn robe barely a barrier between them.
The cool blue flames enveloped her, licking her skin without burning her. She marveled at them before turning to Kimji once more.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, staring into those captivating pools of glistening amber, like liquid sunshine flecked with gold. His muscular arms snaked around her waist. He nuzzled her gently.
Katara… he whispered in her hair, his hot breath tickling her ear.
“Zuko…” she moaned softly. Her lips brushed his, and as she melted in his sinuous embrace, all she could taste was the hot salt of his skin.
I am the water.
I am life and death.
Beg for mercy.
Katara’s soft moan made Zuko sit up. Where was he? What had happened? He stared around him, gathering his scattered wits and brushing dirt from his face.
A fire. The night. He was cold, and had no real clothes on. He must have fallen asleep.
He looked to his right. The Avatar.
He looked to his left. Katara.
It all came rushing back to him. What time was it? How long had he been asleep? And where was that damn water boy?
He tried to stand, but the throbbing in his head threatened to topple him directly into the campfire. And Fire Nation or no, that would hurt. He sat back down on the dirt dazedly.
Katara moaned again, tossing gently on the sleeping bag. Zuko recoiled, afraid the girl was waking up, but she didn’t. He watched, enthralled, as her body arched, her back and hips lifting off the ground, her eyelids fluttering momentarily. Her pinched knees pressed together tightly. And then she fell back down and was still. The smallest of smiles crept into her lips.
The prowling tiger thing in his chest growled and purred and pawed madly at his soul, begging to be let out. Zuko tore his gaze away from Katara’s exposed body. Indecent, he scolded himself, stifling his arousal. He shouldn’t be ogling girls as they slept. He was no voyeur. He was a prince, for Agni’s sake! Start acting like one!
But his eyes dodged back and he found himself staring at her once more. His pulse seemed to quicken, his breath becoming ragged. And then his brain, which had mostly been silent since Ho'Wan, began a battle of epic teenage proportions... with itself.
She should be covered up. It’s chilly.
You’re chilly. Get into the sleeping bag with her, that way you’ll both be nice and toasty.
It’s a mild night. Maybe you should make her more comfortable and loosen those robes, hmm?
Don’t touch her, pervert.
But she needs a hug.
She needs more than a hug.
You need a hug.
Shut up! She’ll love you more if you woo her.
Who says I need love?
She can’t love an ugly, scarred, banished disgrace like you, look at her! She’s beautiful!
She’s a peasant. A water peasant.
But I’m in love with her.
No you’re not. Your hormones don’t count as you.
You’re a teenage boy. It’s perfectly natural to have feeling for a pretty girl.
Especially that pretty girl.
So touch her!
Don’t you dare touch her!
She liked you when you were Kimji.
Well, I'm not Kimji, am I?
Yes you are. And you know it.
It was Ho’Wan all over again. He had no control over himself around this girl. Zuko found himself looming over her sleeping form, his hand hovering inches from her delicate fingertips. He wanted badly for her to wake up, to slap him and shake him from this nightmare-dream of agonizing desire.
To wake up and see his face and smile and pull him down for a passionate kiss…
For a split second, the Fire Prince was deathly afraid of himself. For the past two years, he had trained for hours every day with his uncle, honing deadly fighting skills and Firebending powers. He knew how to throw a punch and how to pull one. He could send a coil of fire along a piece of rope and burn it into four pieces without disintegrating the whole thing. He controlled his emotions and distilled them into two he could deal with: anger and hatred. He had always thought he had perfect control.
But in this moment, stooping over this girl, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and he didn’t want to know what he was capable of in this moment of weakness. He felt ashamed as he found himself gently running a fingertip along the soft skin on the inside of the girl's delicate wrist.
He was powerlessness against a sleeping girl.
Hormones! He screamed at himself, but his body would not listen
He traced his finger up her arm, across her shoulder, and around her collarbone. He wanted badly to see the skin there, to feel it against his, to press his lips against the soft, caramel-coloured angles of her budding womanhood. And every muscle in his body screamed at him as he resisted, his subconscious holding him back. It might have been the dizziness, but his body and mind betrayed him as a hundred thousand suppressed thoughts and emotions came seeping out, like boiling groundwater escaping through hot geyser vents.
Prince or peasant, Water Tribe or Fire Nation, all he knew at that moment was that Katara was a beautiful girl, and he WANTED her.
Zuko didn’t know what he was capable of.
Fortunately for all parties, he would never find out.
Sokka could see the clearing ahead as he sprinted over the lumpy terrain. The fire still burned brightly. He could see Aang lying there, and Katara on her sleeping bag…
And Zuko poised hungrily over her.
Sokka didn’t know what happened next. All he saw was the hot red fire and his sister being preyed over by that… that...
The club was in his hands instantly. He lunged at Prince Zuko with an enraged howl.
“GET AWAY FROM HER!”