Whoa, whoa, whoa. Sokka’s mind reeled, trying to get a grip on reality. He began by listing out the things he knew to be true – grass is green, the sky is blue. Okay. Let's try something harder.
First, the possession. Okay, that was something he'd seen before. No big deal.
But second, had Aang/the Waterbending woman just mistaken him for Zuko? What did the prince have to do with all this? He shuddered in disgust. He didn't look anything like Zuko! The absence of that hideous scar was a dead giveaway, plus he was in Water Tribe clothes, and he wasn't a pasty-skinned, freakishly muscular Firebender.
Maybe possessing a person messed up the ghost's vision or something.
"Pfft. Besides, I've got way better hair," he muttered to himself reassuringly.
He bent over Aang and checked his vitals. The boy was asleep. Under any other circumstances, he wouldn’t worry – the other times the Avatar spirit had claimed him, he had been exhausted afterwards. But here and now, in this strange cave on this strange island inhabited by angry spirits and weird crystal people, he had to assume the worst.
An icy cackle came from Fonquay. “Looks like it’s just you and me now, kid.”
Sokka glowered at the pitiful creature. “What do you want?”
“I want what everyone else wants,” Fonquay said simply. “Freedom. Peace. Half of my soul is locked up in some gods-forbidden realm. The rest of me has been trapped in this wall for over three centuries. Probably more, since I can’t tell when day and night passes. Do you have any idea how crazy that will make you?”
Oh yeah. Sokka had a very good idea.
“Why should I believe you? You lied to Aang about everything!” Sokka exclaimed in disbelief.
“Look sonny, do you think he would have helped me out if I had told him the truth? That I did play a part in that poor boy’s murder? That I let my obsession with Karanna completely overwhelm me?” The creature looked away, disgusted. “I’ve had centuries to think about it, and let me tell you something: guilt doesn’t get any better with time. I want to die. And I want to die before there’s no one left on this island to kill me.”
The Water Tribe warrior’s heart softened with pity, but he still didn’t trust the trapped man. A wolf in a snare is more dangerous than a wolf running free…
“If you want any help at all, you’re going to have to tell the truth. All of it.” Sokka folded his arms and sat down next to his slumbering friend.
Fonquay sighed, hissing through his teeth.
“Fine.” The crystal man settled himself in the only comfortable position he could manage and began.
“I came to this island looking for riches, but my crew abandoned me while I was spelunking in the mountain caves. Fire people were in the waters. My crew wasn’t going to wait for me while those dirty, nasty flame throwers skinned them alive and ate their flesh.”
“Fire Nation doesn’t do that!” Sokka exclaimed, then hesitated. “Do they?”
“So here I was, stuck. I made myself comfortable and explored the island. I came across these things—” he gestured at the crystals all around him “—and knew that if I ever got off the island, I’d be a very rich man.”
“So, what, you’re not a real Lord?” Sokka sniggered. The crystal man glowered. “Oh.”
“Then Karanna came along. I just spotted her one day, walking through a field of flowers. I must have been on the island maybe a year and a half, probably more. I was so lonely…” he looked off dreamily. “And she was so beautiful.”
“I don’t need details, just tell me what happened.” Sokka said blandly.
“I didn’t go to her at first. I couldn’t, the way I looked. But I helped her along. I was an Earthbender, you know. I moved rich soil to where she built her camp, and made sure her gardens bloomed and flourished,” Fonquay smiled a repulsive, crystal-and-granite-toothed grin. “I did anything… everything for her. And she thought it was because she had landed in paradise that she lived so well.”
“And then one day, he showed up in his stupid little boat. The disgusting worm of a flame thrower. Zuko.”
Sokka had a creeping sense of déjà vu. Zuko. It was just coincidence, he reasoned. Maybe it was a common name in the Fire Nation. And Karanna of the Southern Water Tribe? No, he had no such relation! Katara’s name certainly didn’t sound anything like Karanna! At all!
He suddenly saw in his mind’s eye the look on Prince Zuko’s face as he knelt over his helpless sleeping sister, that soft, pained look some people get when they want something really badly but can't have it…
Sokka wiped his mind clean. No way was that even remotely possible. Zuko and Katara? What a mismatch that would be! Don’t worry dad, I won’t let him near her…
“Karanna met him before I could get rid of him. And that was it. I lost her forever to that barbarian. So I introduced myself to her one day, tried to tell her of all the things I’d done for her… but she fled from me. I know now that she was afraid of my power, afraid of what I could do—” Fonquay’s eyes brightened as though fevered, sharpened, pride filling his chest. But he sank down. “I just wanted her to love me.”
Sokka frowned. “You couldn’t make her love you. So you tried to get rid of the Firebender instead.”
“I stole Zuko’s boat and paddled until I found another boat of Fire people. I offered them a bushel of my treasure if they took him away. Oddly enough, they had already been searching for him, but I didn’t know that at the time. They treated me well, got me cleaned up and respectable looking, called me Lord Fonquay... but it was all just a joke to them. I brought them back to the island and they…” Fonquay gulped.
“They killed him. I didn’t mean for that to happen, honest I didn’t. But at the time, I hated him so much I didn’t care. I just wanted Karanna to love me.”
An ominous tone edged into the crystal creature’s squeak. “And then she did all those horrible things, tore that man limb from limb, killed everything in the lake…” He squeezed his granite eyes shut. “And I was dying, but she wouldn’t let me. She put me here, healed me with her powers, and she tore my soul in half and made me live as she felt, half a person without her Zuko…" he sobbed. It was probably the first time the thing had cried to someone in his centuries of solitary imprisonment, and it sounded horrible in the water boy’s ears. "Why couldn’t she just have loved me and killed me? This would never have happened if she had just tried to love me!”
Sokka watched the broken barely-a-man silently, lips thinned.
“You’re right.” He said after a moment. “You do deserve to die.”
Aang groaned and sat up. “Huh? Sokka, what happened? Why am I naked?” He looked down at himself.
Relieved to see that Aang was alive and awake, Sokka helped the Avatar to his feet, reminding him of all that had happened and explaining his theory about the spirit possession.
“That’d make sense if she was an Avatar,” Aang said as Sokka finished. “The same thing happened to me with Avatar Roku,” He fit the jigsaw pieces together in his mind, but he still wasn’t sure what he was dealing with.
“Fonquay told me about what happened,” Sokka said, and briefly recounted it for Aang.
“Did he tell you about the statue?” Aang asked blandly, watching the golem with disgust. “He carved it himself, offered it as a gift. When she rejected it, he threw it into the waterfall pool to mock her.”
Sokka grimaced, arching an eyebrow at the golem. “Oookay, creepy stalker sculptor…”
“Then he tried to make a deal.” Aang spat. “He offered a bunch of those crystal thingies to the Firebender in exchange for her,” he glowered at the ashamed looking crystal man-thing. “He wanted to buy her. She told me that much.”
Sokka started. “Who? Karanna?”
Aang nodded. “She didn’t really tell me, I just know. She was an Avatar, Sokka, I’m sure of it now. I don’t remember her, but she’s a small part of me, I can feel it. I think the rest of her is still here, on this island. Her life was so short and painful, I don’t think I could remember it even if I wanted to. Maybe she didn’t even know she was the Avatar.”
Sokka mulled this over. Fonquay muttered. “Well, that explains a lot.”
“What did you say?” Sokka asked.
Fonquay sighed. “Karanna was the one who cursed me to this existence. I live literally with one foot in the grave.” He waggled his embedded stump of a leg. “As the Avatar, she would have had enough power to do this.”
The boys looked at him skeptically. It was all too strange to believe, and Fonquay could see he was losing his credibility in the boys’ eyes. “Avatar, you saw it happen, did you not?”
“Her killing blow condemned me to this half life. She used up all her power to tear my soul in two, and then bound herself to the earth and water, making sure I would not rest until she had her fill of vengeance,” Fonquay sighed, resigned. “I didn’t know Waterbenders could do that. I don’t think they can. But an Avatar, as the link between the Spirit Realm and this one…” he trailed off.
Aang didn’t want to hear the conclusion to that sentence. It was too painful to think that an Avatar, who was supposed to help people and maintain the balance, would do the terrible things Karanna had done. He wondered with a shudder if he would ever be gripped by the same maddening power that would destroy him from the inside out.
“She’s been haunting me all this time, you know. She’s stuck here as much as I am, living her own kind of half life, though I guess for her it’s more like an undead death. She’s neither dead, nor alive, neither living in this realm or the Spirit Realm. That’s why I have to die. I have to have peace…” He looked away. “And I have to give her peace, too.”
“But what about all the other wraiths? The people and animals in the In-Between?” Aang asked.
“That part I told you was the truth. They are the spirits of benders, or the creatures who drank directly from the lake, and they’re what feed her powers over me.”
“So, let me see if I get this straight,” Sokka pinching the bridge of his nose. “This Avatar, Karanna, is taking her vengeance out on you because you betrayed her lover to his death. But to do that forever, which is a really long time, she has to feed off of other benders powers?”
“And these benders just waltz onto the island, drink the water, and die here, and they show up in the In-Between and get stuck there?”
Fonquay nodded more emphatically.
“But their spirits are also half-trapped here. So the wraiths live half-lives in the In-Between and can’t journey into the Spirit Realm, right?”
“So really, this is all your fault.” Sokka frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. Fonquay bobbed in shameful affirmation, weeping silently once more.
“You killed more than those Fire Nation soldiers with your betrayal that day,” Aang said dispassionately. He had seen hundreds, maybe even thousands of men, women, children, and animals in the In-Between, all there because of this man.
“I want… to make… it… right,” the crystal man hiccupped and looked into the young boy’s face. “Please… help me.”
The Avatar paused, glaring down his nose at the embedded golem. Sokka thought he was about to say no. “I’ll help,” Aang replied coldly. “I’ll help free the victims of your own stupid jealousy, and I’ll help my friend. If I’m helping you in the process, fine. Now how do I do that?”
“I don’t know… you’ll have to break the curse somehow,” Fonquay whispered. “The water and the curse are the keys, that’s all I know.”
“I don’t understand. You told me the water was poisoned by the blood of the Firebenders; that the water was the curse,” Aang said.
Fonquay snarled suddenly in frustration. “No! Don’t you see? She IS the water. She’s in the air, a cold, damp ghost. She gives life to this island and takes it away. She’s everywhere, and we can’t escape her.” Fonquay shuddered in his crystal prison.
“But how come—”
“Why don’t you believe me? Do you want your friend to die? Please, I’m begging you, release me from this!” Fonquay cried.
Zuko couldn’t feel his foot anymore, and the scuttling behind him had faded away some time ago, but he dared not stop and turn around. If he did that, the creatures were sure to pop up in front of him, considering how his day was going.
His heart pumped madly as he ran, his breath ragged, his arms screaming from holding the girl so tightly to his chest. He snagged his swollen foot on a tree root and sprawled forward, but at the last minute he threw all his weight onto his side, landing hard on the shoulder Sokka had bashed in earlier.
He let out an agonizing cry in pain and frustration. Katara was still curled awkwardly in his arms. She had bumped softly into the ground, and lay limply in the dark brown peat. He extracted himself and got to his feet quickly, readying himself for another attack of the scavenger creatures.
None came. He peered into the darkness, listening intently. They must have given up their chase for an easier meal.
The Fire Prince slumped down, satisfied nothing else was going to put him in danger for the moment. He inspected his foot, probing at the oozing cut. Ooh, that’s not good. He pulled the leg of his pants up and saw that the veins in his calf were dark, full of poison. His stomach lurched as he thought of all the horrible things that would have to be done to save his life. Horrible medicines. Leeches. Blood letting. Amputation.
He cursed. Gods, why do you see fit to disfigure me so?
Then he stopped with a sickening realization. He had just been running at full tilt for what seemed like forever. How much of that poisoned blood was pumping through his system now? He had seen fast-acting poisons do their work in less than five minutes, but this was probably one of those slow, paralyzing poisons that would freeze up his body so he became a nice warm meal to be enjoyed at leisure.
Just as panic threatened to grip him, he relaxed. A cold calm swept through him. There was nothing he could do now. It was all over. He was going to die. His uncle was going to die. They were all going to die on this stupid island, and their deaths would be ignoble and unknown.
Banished. Disinherited. Dishonoured. Dead.
Life. Really. Sucks.
He looked down at Katara, and gently brushed some dirt off her silken cheek. Something in his chest fluttered.
It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had been that other Zuko, the one his uncle had named Kimji, the dashing young man who had spent a glorious day at a carnival with a beautiful girl, all thoughts of the Avatar and his exile banished from his mind in her presence.
It had really only been two weeks ago, and he had admitted to himself that he was in love with this girl then. It had become a foolish notion that made him laugh out loud. But now, hovering on the edge of mortality, he stared into the girl’s peaceful countenance and wondered if perhaps he had always been in love with her.
He thought back to all the times he’d been on the Avatar’s trail, but could not remember any particular day when he had felt anything for her especially. The only reason he had ever watched for her was because she and her brother stood out, the dark skin and blue robes a dead giveaway.
He remembered their first one-on-one encounter, when the pirates had captured her. He had tried to reason with her, had practically tried to seduce her into cooperating, offering her necklace as collateral. And still she had refused him.
He remembered the bounty hunter Jun, asking if the necklace belonged to his runaway girlfriend, and how she had said Katara was way too pretty for him.
And then he remembered that moment they shared together, watching the fountain of eternity in Ho’Wan as the flame danced lightly on the water’s surface, two opposing elements existing together in harmony.
His finger traced a line down her neck, feeling the flutter of her pulse. There was the necklace. He touched the cool pendant resting against the hollow of her throat and felt at ease. While it was in his possession, he had developed a habit of rubbing it in his pocket while thinking. It was smooth and soothing and pleasant to look at… not unlike Katara. Would rubbing her make him feel better?
He scolded himself for his decidedly un-prince-like behavior. The thing in his chest hungered, but was stifled by a new thought. Zuko wanted her, yes, but more importantly, he wanted her to want him too.
The Fire Nation prince gazed into the water girl’s face. Was this really love, or just some teenage infatuation? Would he ever know someone else like her that would make him feel the way he did at this very moment?
His fingers lingered over her skin, tracing a line along her smooth jaw. He sighed in resignation.
What did it matter? He was going to die anyhow.
The prince stood, gathered the water girl into his arms once more, and marched on through the forest, ignoring the numbness creeping up his leg. He had purpose now. Direction. Certainty.
He would find the Avatar. He would not let Katara die. And he would not die without honor.