Stupid Avatar. Stupid water boy. Stupid itchy sweater.
Zuko worked at his rope bindings, rubbing his wrists against a sharp rock. Of all the nerve! Tying him up because they didn’t trust him to keep his hands off a lowly peasant girl.
A very pretty and vulnerable lowly peasant girl.
Shut up, shut up, shut up! He silently screamed at himself. How could he let this happen... AGAIN? Tied up and in mortal peril for the second time in two weeks! Why him?
His wrists were tired and raw, and his head throbbed. Eventually he gave up. Where would he go even if he did get the ropes off? Back to his passed out crew members? He’d be lucky if he could even find the camp in the dark and in his condition.
Zuko scooted closer to the fire, feeling the warmth on his back through the sweater. As much as he hated to admit it, he was being treated much more fairly than he would have treated the trio of travelers had their roles been reversed.
Of course, he wouldn’t treat Katara the same way he’d treat the two boys. She wasn’t a threat to him, after all. Well, not much of one, anyhow. He could deal with her easily. The Avatar would have to be chained and probably drugged for the voyage back to the Fire Nation. The boy, Sokka, was dead weight and another mouth to feed. He could be tossed overboard. But Katara—
Zuko’s mind played out a hundred and one scenarios as he sat by the fire. Zuko holding hands with the girl on the deck of the ship, Zuko buying her pretty trinkets to tickle her fancy, Zuko practicing his Firebending while the the girl watched in awe and fascination, Zuko running his fingers through her long brown hair, Zuko kissing those perfect lips, Zuko cradling her in the warmth of his bed—
Zuko kicked himself mentally. What is wrong with me? He screamed silently again in frustration. His brain almost chimed in helpfully with a long list of his deficiencies and emotional problems, but it decided it was far, far too easy, and kept its own counsel.
He must have been sick. He was getting delusions of grandeur. Any minute now, he would start hallucinating and seeing things in the dark. It had to be the cursed water, he convinced himself. It was much easier blaming it all on this strange, accursed island and its restless spirits, rather than hormones or his own angst-ridden mind. He was a prince, after all, and royalty had to maintain a higher standard of behavior. Of course, he was also an emotionally constipated teenager who'd been banished and exiled from his home by his father, with no mother and only a tea-loving shopaholic uncle to care for him. But hell, who didn't have their little quirks?
So he blamed the island. And that was all there was to it.
Prince Zuko drew his knees up as he stared into the darkness, feeling the fire on his back. A pair of bright green eyes stared back at him from the treetops.
“Momo...” Zuko almost said thank you to the little creature, but stopped himself. What a ridiculous thing for him to even consider doing. A Prince of the Fire Nation, paying respect to a big-eared monkey-thing that had haphazardly decided to land on his head? He was definitely starting to hallucinate.
The glowing eyes flashed and scuttled down the tree, disappearing into the bushes. Zuko saw them flash again, off to the right. Boy, that creature moved fast.
And then there were eyes on the left.
And another pair appeared on the right.
And another. And another.
Zuko groaned inwardly. Of course there would have to be things lurking in the dark while he was tied up. And they couldn't just have been figments of his imagination either. Nooooo, they had to be real.
This day is really starting to... being a prince, Zuko didn't have the word, but his contemporaries would say, "suck."
He inched right up against the fire and held his bonds to the flame as he counted five… no, six hairy things scuttle out of the shadows, snuffling, snorting, and squealing as they sought their prey.
Zuko grimaced. Ugh, what a bunch of ugly… whatever they are.
They were about the size of small dogs, with six long, hairy, spider legs ending in four-fingered hands that grasped the earth and grass. Their bodies were covered in masses of dark, wiry hairs. Their torsos were unusually heavy-set compared to their relatively thin legs, but they moved quickly on those strong, gripping limbs. Their heads were horned, and had a set of hairy mandibles. Their bright, round, lidless green eyes stared around anxiously, seeking out fresh, vulnerable meat.
Zuko realized with dismay that he was not their intended meal at all. The scavenger spiders advanced toward the sleeping girl.
Why won't these damn ropes burn? He became increasingly agitated by the little monsters' proximity to the helpless girl. He knew he couldn't just sit their and watch them tear her to pieces. He just... couldn't. So he jammed his hands into the fire and felt the flames lick his fingers. He pressed his wrists into the embers, trying to ignore the places where it was burning his flesh.
The creatures circled closer. Zuko yelled and kicked dust at them and they shrank back, but they would not be deterred from their easy meal.
"Katara!" He shouted as one of the creatures probed her with a leg. The water girl did not move. Satisfied that she was dead enough to eat, the ugly little monsters moved in.
Zuko felt the rope binding around his wrist slacken. He pulled his wrists apart, snapping what was left, and scrambled to undo the ropes around his ankles. But the scavengers were already on top of Katara, nipping at her clothing and tearing it in places.
There was no time. Zuko picked up a burning stick from the fire and waved it at the creatures, yelling to scare them away. Six pairs of bright green eyes turned on him.
The gleam in their eyes was unmistakable. It said: "Oh, dessert!"
Zuko heard more snuffling, snorting noises behind him. He turned apprehensively. Five more of the creatures emerged from the shadows.
This is definitely not the best day I've ever had, the prince concluded bitterly.
Zuko burned the ropes off his ankles with his now ineffectual-seeming flaming stick as the creatures circled around him. He looked around for a weapon: a sword, a pike, a club, a dagger… anything!
He cursed the Avatar and his friends for the thirty-eighth time that night. Why didn't this bunch travel with weapons? The Avatar had his staff, but it was more for gliding than fighting. Katara didn’t look like the kind of girl who would carry hidden daggers on her person. The water boy, Sokka, was probably the only one who had any formal hand-to-hand combat training, pathetic as it was, and the only one who carried anything mildly threatening. What a bunch of useless peace-loving peasants! No wonder the Fire Nation was winning the war!
Zuko snatched up a good sized branch and cautiously moved closer to the sleeping Katara. He kept a wary eye on the now hesitant creatures. They eyed him back. The spidery scavengers who had been nibbling on the girl’s clothing backed away, hissing, their mandibles dripping with ooze.
Suddenly, the largest of the creatures sprang at the Fire Prince. Zuko batted it away with the stick, throwing it onto its back. He raised his arms and brought the makeshift club down, smashing it into the creature’s abdomen.
The stick bounced harmlessly off the creature's thick hide with a loud, hollow thump.
Zuko almost sighed in exasperation at his dismal luck before the swarm of creatures lunged.
Sokka paced, staring at the waterfall.
"Aang!" he called for the tenth time. The boy hadn't surfaced or called back in what seemed like forever.
This is stupid, Sokka thought as he watched the water uncertainly, but knew he had to dive in if he was going to find the Avatar.
I've dealt with cold before. I'm from the Southern Water Tribe! I know cold... and Sokka made a running cannonball into the pool, clothes on and all.
Icy. Frigid. Cold. Wintry. Freezing. There were a hundred ways to say it, but Sokka’s mind screamed one thing: “YEAAAAAAARRRRGGGHHH!”
He was almost glad when the numbness took over and he began frog-swimming toward the dim white glow. He couldn’t see much in front of him, but he knew from the rush that he had just passed under the waterfall.
A rippling of white in the water made Sokka stare hard through the slightly cloudy water. It was Aang, his pale form floating in the water, transfixed by whatever was in front of him. Sokka kicked hard and made his way to the young boy. He reached out and touched him, but the Avatar did not move. His eyes were wide and clouded over.
Sokka surfaced and took another deep breath. Panicking for his friend’s state of being, he plunged back into the dark water.
He could see it now: the monk was in front of a statue of a woman, his hand just touching her cheek. He must be in contact with… something, he thought to himself. Too many weird things had happened with Aang for Sokka to ignore that the young boy really did have some extraordinary powers. He would not interfere in whatever ritual the young Avatar was engaged in. Even so, he must have been underwater for nearly five minutes. How was he breathing?
Unable to be helpful, Sokka surfaced and climbed out shivering, ready to receive the young Avatar when he reawakened.
Icy, stabbing, pressing, drowning—
The blood everywhere, it rushed back into his eyes, into his mind—
He wanted to vomit, but water filled his mouth, his stomach, his lungs—
He only knew that his heart was slowing, his body was slackening, his soul loosening from its mortal grip…
From faraway came the whispers of a thousand lost souls.
And above them all was the icy voice of a single woman.
Don’t bother begging for mercy. I will dispense none. You wanted me forever... and so you shall have me... forever...
And suddenly it was colder, but gravity was pressing Aang into the rough, sharp, hard, cold ground. Water flowed out of him like icy blood, out his mouth, out his nose, out his ears, out his lungs—
Aang gasped and coughed and heaved up a lungful of water. Sokka dragged him away from the shoreline to rest on even ground. The retching reflex and clear air finally allowed Aang to vomit up his share of the night’s bender-poisonous dinner.
The dark red berries came up like a gush of blood. Sokka shrank away, in shock more than disgust. The young boy kept heaving, sobbing in between. He cried and cried as the last of his puke came up clear, and he collapsed onto his side away from the pile, shivering in fetal position, nearly naked.
Sokka patted him on the back soothingly. He wished he could offer the boy a blanket, a hanky, or something to rinse his mouth out with, but this water couldn’t be trusted. He had no comfort to offer apart from his reassuring company and ridiculously manly sentiments like, “Let it out, man, don’t hold it in.”
During moment like these, Sokka sure felt useless.
Aang’s mind reeled. What had he just seen? What had happened? He didn’t want to see anymore, tried to squeeze his eyes shut, glad that he finally could, but the images wouldn’t leave his brain. All that blood…
And Fonquay. What was his part in all this? Why had he lied to him? What was he supposed to do now?
The young Avatar mewled, barely aware of Sokka’s presence. He felt so alone. He wanted to be with the other Airbending monks again. He wanted to be playing Airball with the other kids. Why had he left the
“Hey, are you okay?”
The voice came distantly to him. He wearily opened his eyes.
That same angelic face had looked into his once, the two blue eyes smiling down at him…
No. He was not alone.
The voice softly echoed in his ears.
“Aang, thank gods you’re all right.” The voice grew deeper and harsher. Sokka sighed in relief. Aang was shaken out of his déjà vu. He had thought for a moment that he had just awoken from the hundred-year-long slumber in the iceberg, the day the two siblings had found him.
Aang staggered to his feet. “Sokka, something’s wrong.” He took a step and collapsed.
“Whoa, take it easy Aang, you just puked your whole stomach up,” Sokka grimaced at the pool of red berry vomit.
“Sokka, listen, all that stuff I told you about that Fonquay guy and the Fire and Waterbender – it’s not right. Something’s not right about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw it. I saw it all happen—” Aang squeezed his eyes shut, willing the horror to take second place to the facts. “Fonquay told me the souls need to be freed, but he was there! He betrayed the lovers to their deaths! The Waterbender killed him for it—”
“Whoa, slow down a minute, I don’t understand,” Sokka tried to keep the boy from getting up, but Aang was determined.
“Fonquay was an Earthbender. I think he was jealous or something of the Firebender. I think he was in love with the Waterbender woman, and she rejected him. So he led the Fire soldiers to them and had the Firebender killed.” Aang took a breath, seeing the searing hot blade run through the young man’s body in his mind. “Fonquay had made some kind of bargain I think, to keep the woman, but he got double-crossed. And he went all crazy and killed a bunch of the soldiers.”
“But the woman went even crazier. She killed them all, just like Fonquay said, but it was… I think she… I felt…”
“What is it Aang?”
Aang turned his haunted, pale face to him.
“I think she was an Avatar.”