Katara made stew. Katara ate stew. Katara smiled at her lover, the handsome Kimji/Zuko, who smiled back and cupped her cheek, brushing her skin with his thumb. His touch was her paradise.
She found herself crying, but she didn’t know why. He smiled sadly back and kissed her tenderly on the forehead.
When he pulled away from her, he was dead and she had stopped crying. He lay on the ground, blood pooling around him, seeping into the thirsty dust of the earth. She stared at the body, an overwhelming sense of calm pulsing through her veins. No, not calm: void.
And the emptiness filled with the rush of her cold element. She could sense the water everywhere. In the air, in the ground, in the trees… even in people. She could feel it, that essential element of life, racing through her, rushing through the ground beneath her feet, floating formlessly on the wind. Everywhere. She was the water, she was the air, she was the tree…
She looked down at her crimson stained hands and smiled.
And the world became a torrent of blood.
A long moment of silence followed Fonquay’s outburst. The boys stared silently into the cavern, their thoughts bleak. They couldn’t let it end like this.
Aang felt a ball of anger and frustration grow in his chest as the seconds ticked past. Each moment he remained inactive was another moment Katara lost off her life. But he couldn’t stop time. He couldn’t do anything. He didn’t know what to do.
He wanted to lash out and blow the mountain apart, summon a gale force wind to simply wipe the cursed island off the face of the world. But as it was, he could barely bend a slight breeze. He couldn’t bend at all.
What if he couldn’t ever bend again? Would he still be the Avatar? The Avatar Spirit was still actively inside him: when it had possessed him – or, more accurately, when Karanna had possessed him – he had regained his phenomenal Airbending abilities briefly, but he had no control over it. Was he doomed to simply be a vessel for the Avatar’s unlimited power, a container for a force lying dormant inside him? Was he going to become a puppet to those powers every time disaster rushed headlong at him? He almost never knew what he’d done when that Spirit seized him. It just used him up and cast him aside.
His resentment faded and was replaced by remorse. Once upon a time, he had wished he were just like the other kids, and not destined to save the world and restore balance.
Such was the nature of Irony: it chose the worst opportunities to rear its ugly head.
“Is this what it’s like?” Aang whispered to the former Earthbender quietly.
Fonquay turned his grey eyes away, understanding exactly what the young boy was asking. He did not reply.
Meanwhile, Sokka was furiously digesting all the information he’d gleaned from the tales of the Firebender and Waterbender lovers. His eyes darted back and forth as the rusty gears in his mind turned, looking for the loophole, the answer, the solution to this supernatural conundrum. But it wasn’t like trying to get a door open, or trying to fix a broken toy. That was the problem: there was no definite solution. Man, I hate magic, he scowled around at the glowing crystals. Then it came to him.
“Aang, the vessels you told me about, the ones holding the trapped souls: they must be these crystals," he gestured around them. "It makes sense to keep them where she can access them. If we can just weaken her somehow…”
The boy blinked at what his companion was suggesting. “We can’t just destroy them Sokka! Even if it weakened her, we’d be destroying other people’s souls. We can’t do that to them, not after what they’ve been put through.”
But if it saves Katara, I will, Sokka thought darkly, his grip tightening around his club. He just hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He huffed.
“Okay, let’s walk this through. The water is cursed. Karanna is bound to the water. So that means…”
“Karanna IS the curse.” Fonquay finished for him impatiently. “I don’t think there’s a way to destroy all the water on the island and destroy her in the process—”
“No,” Aang said sharply. “No more killing.”
Fonquay sighed. “Then I don’t know. She’s the one who has to let go. If she could just have her fill, be done with me, know that I am sorry, that I can’t ever repay her for what I’ve done…” A despairing look crept into the crystal man’s face. “I don’t even know if I can let go. I don’t know if she’ll let me…”
“Think Aang,” Sokka urged. “How would you forgive this guy? What would you want to hear? What would he have to do?”
“I wouldn’t forgive him,” the boy hissed. “I’d let him keep suffering for what he did.”
“That’s not you talking,” Sokka said. “You’re the Avatar. You have a responsibility to protect and help others. You can’t go taking revenge out on people you don’t know.”
Aang remained silent, staring at his feet. “She’s mad, you know.” He barely whispered.
“I know. I’d be angry too.”
“No. I mean she’s gone nuts. Karanna. Seeing her lover killed right in front of her… it was horrible Sokka. I don’t know if she can forgive.”
Sokka harrumphed, tired of the self-pitying dead Waterbender Avatar. “Well, she’ll just have to forget then! I’m sick of this! She’s taking other people’s lives and making everyone miserable when the only one who should really be punished is the Fire Nation guy and him!” He shouted, pointing at Fonquay, who whimpered and stared at the ground desolately.
“Listen Aang. You’re the link between the realms. Go and talk to her or something! I can’t just stand here while my little sister lies dying in the woods, with only Zuko to protect her!”
A ripple of cold in the air was followed by a shushing sound of water. Sokka grabbed Aang’s arm in alarm.
“What… What was that?”
“I think you just said the magic word, boy,” Fonquay looked around the cavern, cocking a crystal eyebrow.
“What? Zuko?” The feeling that overwhelmed him was unmistakable this time. The cool rush of damp air came like a sigh, or a rain of tears. The water boy felt a strange mixture of longing and regret throb in his heart. He shuddered and shook it off. Eew, gross! As if I would feel that way for Zuko! He thought sourly, his face screwing up.
Aang’s eyes closed, as though he were listening to gentle whisperings in his ear. He breathed deeply as he opened his grey eyes again.
“She never said goodbye,” Aang intoned meditatively. “Maybe if we give her what she wants, she’ll let go. Give us all some peace.” He peeked at Fonquay.
There was a beat before Aang and Sokka looked at each other. “We gotta get Zuko here.” They said together.
Zuko struggled through the brush, his leg completely numb up to his hip. He only knew by the pressure in his leg socket that he was still trudging on, Katara in his arms.
He kept glancing down at her, making sure she was still alive and breathing. He tried very hard not to think about the way her warm body was pressed against his chest, the motion of her bouncing form chafing his skin as she rubbed into the rough sweater. Maybe she would wake up.
But she didn’t. She remained in her perfect slumber, dreaming about whatever Waterbenders dream about.
He had no idea where he was. He had strayed from the stream he had been following to evade the scavengers, hiking through the dense brush, and now he was entirely lost. The tree canopy was too thick for him to even get his bearings by the stars. Every tree looked the same in the pitch black of night. He could be walking hopelessly in circles, for all he knew.
Weary, aching and without hope, Zuko let out a short groan of defeat, slowing to a bare shuffle. He could give up. Lie down next to Katara and wait to die. Maybe they would die together and end up holding hands in the Spirit Realm. That would be nice.
Coward, his brain spat. You’re a warrior and a prince. Start earning your honor and your crown.
Honor, he told himself. Yes. I have my honor to protect. I will return this girl safely to her brother. I will make peace with the Avatar before I pass on. And I will die a hero in their eyes.
That is more than I can ever hope for… even if I were to live.
And suddenly, as if this clarity of thought and purpose were translated into life, a clearing opened up in front of him, the rush of the musical waterfall suddenly loud and welcoming in his ears like a clarion of trumpets on the wind. How had he not heard it before?
With a sigh of relief, he trudged up to the shore and placed Katara gently on the ground. He spotted the Avatar’s bright red and orange clothes carelessly heaped on the shore. They must have jumped into the water and swum into the cave, he thought. He picked up the garments and neatly folded them into a pillow, placing it under the water girl’s head.
He sat down heavily next to her, gravity suddenly becoming very difficult to fight. His head spun, and the black spots resumed their little dance before his eyes. His weakened body’s adrenaline rush had finally been spent.
The prince watched the girl’s breathing through his wavering vision. He brushed her perfect cheek once more with his thumb, and dared to run it across her soft, slightly parted lips.
There were so many things he wanted to say to the world, to his father, to his crew, to his loving Uncle Iroh, to the Avatar, to Katara…
I’m sorry I can never tell you, he swallowed.
Zuko didn’t feel the single tear roll down his cheek.
He sat by her side, his hand gently clasping hers. He closed his eyes, and waited for death to overtake him.
I am the water.
I am the mist. I am the drop. I am the puddle. I am the pond. I am the lake. I am the ocean.
I am the water in the leaves. I am the water in the tress. I make things strong. I make things grow. I give life. I am mother to it.
But I can take it away. I am the death bringer.
I am the ice. I am the sleet. I am the wave. I am the tide.
I am the destroyer. I am the harsh mistress that cleaves the cliffs in twain. I will wear down a mountain with patience. I will tear up the ground as I run through the field. I will sweep all who stand in my way off their feet.
I am your breath. I am your blood. I am your tears.
Stand not in my way and cross me not. Or I will make you suffer.
Sokka and Aang raced to the cave mouth and hesitated briefly before jumping back into the freezing water. They both came up on the other side of the waterfall, gasping at the piercing chill and swimming hard for the shore. Both knew what they had to do. Get Zuko, appease the spirit, set them all free from this curse.
It seemed simple enough. Sure, Prince Zuko was a far cry from the kindly, loving Firebender Karanna had loved, and they had no idea what he would have to do to make her forgive the crystalline Fonquay. But it would come in a moment of serendipity, wouldn’t it? That’s how angry spirit curses worked, right?
They thought they’d have to go all the way back to the camp, but their search was over before it began. Lying in a heap on the shore was the Fire Nation Prince... slumped on top of the sleeping Katara.
Sokka yelled. “HEY! What the heck do you think you’re doing?” The water boy sloshed loudly out of the water, dripping, and roughly grabbed the Firebender by the shoulders, pulling him off his sister.
The body flopped limply off, landing on his back where Sokka had thrown him.
Aang ran up beside him. “W-where are m-my c-c-clothes?” He asked in a panic, his teeth chattering. The two boys looked around, and found them neatly folded under Katara’s head. Aang snatched them out from under her and quickly pulled his pants and shirt on while Sokka turned his attention back on the would-be molester.
“What did you do to her, you lecher?” Sokka shouted furiously. The still form did not respond. “Why are her clothes all torn? Answer me!”
Aang looked down at the prince and froze. He hopped down and inspected the boy’s foot. It was swollen to twice its thickness, red and purple around the ankle. The Avatar gingerly pushed the torn silk pant leg up past Zuko’s knee, swallowing as he saw the black poisoned blood suffusing the veins and arteries. He dropped Zuko’s leaden leg and carefully tugged down on his waistband, lifting up the wool sweater: the black poison had snaked up his waist and around his stomach. It was probably in his chest now. He shrank back, gasping.
“Sokka…” Aang paled and gulped. He did not want to go groping for the pulse that he knew would not be there.
“I knew we couldn’t trust him! You said we could just leave him tied up, but no-ooooooo! What does he do as soon as we’re out of sight—?”
“Sokka!” Aang snapped angrily. “I... I think he’s dead.”
Sokka’s face dropped. “What?”