I am so lonely.
You can be lonely in paradise. Company must be something all creatures crave. Even the animals here have circles of friends. We often lose sight of what we have until we’ve lost it. Or until it reappears.
She is so beautiful.
Aang, Sokka and Katara made their camp in silence, not looking each other in the eye. Momo watched as each moved about as though the others did not exist. If they spoke to each other, it was in the most clipped grunts.
The lemur exchanged worried and puzzled looks with the great flying bison, the last of his homeland brethren.
“I’m going to look for food.” Katara stated blandly. The boys made non-committal noises. Aang was sullenly drawing in the dirt with a stick. Sokka was polishing his prized boomerang intently.
Katara turned and walked into the forest and Momo went after her, the only one concerned with Katara being alone in the woods.
The water girl padded quietly across the rich, damp ground, her mind absorbed with the day’s events. They were all sulking and irritable and it made her feel terrible. How long had it been since they’d left the Southern Water Tribe? A month? Two? Six? She couldn’t even remember. All she knew was that it had been far too long to be in the sole company of the two boys. They spent so much time traveling in silence now that she was beginning to wonder if they really had exhausted all the topics of conversation that three teens could come up with, even if most of them had been about food.
Katara longed for fresh company, different conversations, and new faces. Maybe that was why she had fallen so easily for Kimji.
Katara smacked herself. No, no, no! Stop thinking about him! He never existed! He doesn’t exist! And you’re a fool to believe he ever did!
And as it had over the last two weeks, the memories swept over her in an unstoppable tidal wave of anguish. In these blinding moments, she would remember that beautiful face, smiling and laughing and carefree. She would recall how the young man had fearlessly rescued her from a group of bullies and tenderly nursed her wounds. She would remember how they had laughed and talked, watched a play together, and eaten sweets.
And then Katara's heart would stop as she relived that magical moment when she and Kimji had stood before the fountain of eternity in the centre of the town of
And then the fantasies and memories twisted and writhed as that ultimate betrayal replayed itself in her mind: the crushing moment she realized “Kimji” was Prince Zuko in disguise.
She didn’t know how he had done it. She didn’t care. But his scarred face had become something more than a face she feared: it was a face she loathed. He was a blemish, a scar as plain and ugly and horrible as his own on her few happy memories, on her whole life. And she would hate him for the rest of her days for taking and destroying all the good things she once had. Her mother. Her father. Security. Innocence. A home. Kimji.
Katara vividly recalled the day Prince Zuko and the Fire Nation troops had landed in the Southern Water Tribe’s village seeking the Avatar. They had plowed through the village's protective wall of hard packed ice and snow like it was nothing. Zuko himself had emerged from the ship, a dark, angry youth she had at first mistaken for a hardened man. He hurt Gran-Gran and frightened the children. She had known then he was not someone who deserved any respect or love. The boy must have been heartless to threaten elderly women and helpless kids.
She remembered with a smirk how Sokka, in full Water Tribe battle regalia, had rushed the prince, only to be harmlessly deflected and thrown into a snow bank. He had gotten his revenge, of course, but Katara doubted that Sokka would prevail in a one-on-one with the Firebender.
Though the would-be Water Tribe warrior had been defeated by a number of foes (and allies), Katara did not see her brother as weak or helpless, no matter how many times they’d been captured or threatened. Sokka was always there to protect her. He’d rush into a fray against a hundred Fire Nation soldiers with little more than his club and boomerang if he knew his sister or Aang were in danger. What a long way he’d come from the clumsy fledgling warrior wannabe fresh out of the Southern Water Tribe. His voice might still be cracking, and he was still quite clumsy, but Sokka was growing up into quite a man.
But of course she’d think that. He was her big brother. He was her strength. Katara could see her father’s hard blue eyes looking out from behind her brother’s, and it made everything all right when he was near.
The water girl sighed and resolved to apologize to him. But before all could be made right, she’d need a peace offering.
It came in the form of a miracle. Steps from where she stood, bushes heavily laden with large, dark purple berries glimmered in the sunlight shafting through the treetops. Katara kneeled by the bushes, gasping at the sheer size of them, each one nearly half of her balled fist. Only prudence kept her from shoving the soft, fragrant-smelling fruit into her mouth right there and then. After all, if they were so edible, why hadn’t any of the local wildlife picked these bushes clean?
Momo chittered and glided down on silent wings from the branches above. He’d been following her in the trees, keeping watch over her like a furry impish angel. “Hey Momo,” Katara greeted the creature smilingly. “What do you think? Is it dinner?”
The lemur picked the nearest berry and shoved it into his maw without hesitation, reaching for another before he finished swallowing. Katara watched the creature for signs of poison or sickness, but none came. Momo ate berry after berry, squelching happily as his white and grey fur slowly stained with dark red juice. Aang said it was usually safe to eat anything Momo ate, so she cautiously popped one into her mouth.
It burst, sweet, heavenly nectar flooding her senses and practically squirting from her pursed lips. She quickly gathered together a huge pile of the berries, popping the odd one into her mouth as she worked, and triumphantly carried them back in the folds of her robe. She found herself singing as she headed back to camp.
Things would get better, she told herself. And they would have a feast tonight.
How did I live before he arrived?
He came to my paradise five full moons after I arrived. Or was it six? It doesn’t matter now, time before him meant nothing.
Now this truly is paradise.
The ship landed before sunset and nearly the entire crew disembarked, wearily stretching and cracking their joints as though they’d just awaken from a long slumber. It was unusual to see a boat disgorge its entire staff, but neither the commanding officer nor the Dragon of the West stopped them from leaving their posts.
Iroh, too, felt more tired than usual. The past two years had been long, sure, but the past two weeks had felt like eternity. Zuko had been so withdrawn, Iroh began to worry his nephew was suffering from depression, something much more serious that his usual angst. Perhaps the exiled prince was finally beginning to see just how futile capturing the Avatar was. He didn't doubt his canny nephew would eventually catch the young boy, but to believe he would simply be welcomed back into the royal court...
Of course, Iroh would never point this out to the boy. He'd never dream of stripping his beloved nephew of his one hope for return to normalcy. He'd do anything for Zuko, including following him into exile. But at that moment, he would have liked nothing more than to have the whole Avatar business over and done with so he could enjoy the rest of his retirement.
Frankly, returning to the Fire Nation didn’t have the appeal it once had. A nice quiet island like this with some good company and lots of tea was all he really wanted. It was quite nice here, warm, lush, and peaceful. A little too rustic for him, perhaps, but a retinue of staff would do wonders for this paradisiacal real estate.
The ship’s lieutenant gave orders to search for clean water and food. The ship’s cook emerged from his kitchen for the first time in a long while and strode up and down the beach, exploring the native vegetation and seeing if any of it was edible. The medic did the same, looking for useful healing herbs. Iroh watched as one by one, the men shuffled down the plank and onto the sand, their faces tired, listless, and frowning. Some of them started a half-hearted game of kickball. Others settled back, sitting in the soft sand, staring at the ocean that had for so long borne them towards an uncertain goal.
Zuko remained locked in his room, meditating.
And suddenly, Iroh could see it plain as day. Despite his best efforts to keep the men occupied with Pai-sho and music night, the men were tired. They were bored. And they were dangerously close to mutiny.
Well, he wasn’t about to let that happen to his already troubled nephew.
“Lieutenant Jee,” Iroh called. The man stepped forward. “There are a few cases in the cargo hold with the Imperial mark on them. They’re sealed and have my name on them. Will you please bring them all down to the land?”
“Of course general,” the lieutenant bowed. “What’s in them?”
“Just a little something special for your men,” Iroh smiled. “Prince Zuko and I spoke about it earlier. He knows how hard you’ve all been working. I think he’s wanted to tell you how much he appreciates you, but he’s not a boy of many words these days, eh?”
The lieutenant nodded with a you-can-say-that-again look on his face, and went to obey Iroh’s orders. The general set about genially giving instructions to other members of the crew, who all jumped to obey him. It was a rare occasion when the great Dragon of the West gave orders superseding his spoiled nephew’s grand mission to capture the Avatar. Unless it involved Pai-sho or tea, of course.
As instructed, the men built a great bonfire, and a total of 12 of the special cases were brought down to the beach. These sturdy oak chests were lacquered with a special glaze that made them fireproof, and were often used to store special items of fine clothing, important documents, or other precious commodities. The boxes themselves cost a fortune – after all, wood was scarce in the Fire Nation. The reason these boxes were used instead of the steel and iron-wrought chests was because whatever was in them was valuable enough to be reclaimed in case the ship sank or capsized. These babies would float, while metal-worked boxes would not.
Jee inspected each box carefully as it was set down on the sand, making sure the esteemed general’s property was treated with respect. The crew gathered around, curious about the mysterious boxes. Each was stamped with the Fire Nation's Imperial symbol, the red flame. Iroh had neatly painted his name in red over the delicate rice paper seal on the lid of each case. The personal seals might as well have said, "Open on penalty of death," but Iroh came from the military school of speak softly and carry a big flaming stick.
The old general urged the men to open the precious cases, his eyes glittering in anticipation. As they carefully slit the seals and pried the lids off, the crew and soldiers gasped.
Smoked pork. Preserved eggs. Cured sausages. Pickled vegetables. Jams and jellies. Sweet biscuits. A royal feast for a salty crew used to plain fish and rice every night.
And then came the crowning moment as the men opened the last three crates: 36 bottles of the Fire Nation’s finest mead from the Fire Lord’s own cellars.
They all turned to stare at Iroh, bewildered and hopeful and overjoyed all at once.
“Tonight, we celebrate, and honour our Prince Zuko!” Iroh proclaimed, hefting a bottle out of the crate over his head.
The joyous uproar reverberating over the island sent a cloud of birds noisily into the air.
“Did you hear that?” Sokka’s ears perked up.
The trio was happily supping on Katara’s berry windfall when Sokka thought he heard something that sounded oddly like a cheer. It was like a great breath being released through an open mouth. Ha-aaaaaaah…
“Uh midn’t meer nutn’,” Aang said through a mouthful of berries. Katara shrugged.
The boys' sullen anger had disappeared as soon as she had returned with the skirtful of fruit. As she laid down their dinner, Katara had opened with a brief and heartfelt apology, which the two boys accepted and returned and exchanged. Group hugs were brief, and they quickly fell to stuffing their faces with berries.
They were the sweetest, juiciest berries any of them had ever eaten. And there were so many of them! Katara went back a second time with Sokka and they gathered more for their journey. But they were so delicious that by the time they returned to the campsite, they’d already eaten half the pile. Aang was so happy they'd all made up that he was hardly disappointed. He promised he'd go gather the berries on the next expedition.
The sun was low in the sky, but it was clear and blue, promising a mild night. Katara looked down at herself and grimaced at the dark red juice stains covering her robe. She decided it looked too much like blood.
“I’m going to find some water,” Katara announced, picking up the now-empty water skin.
Sokka stopped her. “No Katara, let me do it. You got the food,” he smiled amiably.
“It's okay, Sokka. I need to wash my dress out and bathe,” she said, wiping her sticky fingers across her juice-stained mouth. “I’ll be back soon. You guys take it easy.”
“Okay, but don’t get into any trouble!” Aang called after her, his belly full and happy. Sokka watched his sister go and got up to practice swinging his club and explore the area. Aang leaned back and sighed. This was the life. Berries, friends, and a clear blue sky overhead. The day’s troubles forgotten, Aang relaxed into a smile and dozed off.
I had a dream where I was not me.
I was someone else, and I had a purpose, a duty to uphold. And fulfilling that duty meant the world to me.
It frightened me so.
Zuko skipped through the garden, chasing pretty blue butterflies around the stone fountain.
The fountain was conical and made of granite, and though water burbled from its apex, a hot orange flame happily coexisted on its surface, just barely brushing the cool liquid. His Uncle Iroh sat smilingly on a stone bench, drinking tea. Zuko’s father, the Fire Lord Ozai, lounged on a pile of crimson cushions, talking pleasantly with a woman Zuko wasn’t sure he recognized. Ozai turned and waved at him from his seat, encouraging him to keep up his play.
“Zuko…” a cool, liquid voice called. He turned and rushed toward the voice, unable to see the owner’s face. He was too short. All he could see was knees and the white fur-trimmed hem of a blue dress.
“Mommy!” He cried out joyfully and a pair of strong, slender arms embraced him. Zuko buried his face in the curve of a soft neck and shoulder, a delicate ivory collarbone snuggling up under his chin. She smelled like the sea, daffodils, and crisp winter nights.
But as Zuko cuddled the woman, he realized he had never known his mother. She had gone away when he was young. And this woman was not his mother.
He pulled away from the stranger’s suddenly alien embrace.
The Fire Prince found himself standing at his full grown height, gripping Katara by the shoulders at arms length. Her sapphire blue eyes gazed into his gold ones imploringly, her tan cheeks streaked with tears.
“Zuko… why…?” She voiced wordlessly.
The ocean came pouring out of those two cerulean eyes, the waters rushing around them in a wild whirlpool. The garden, the butterflies, and the fountain, along with his father, uncle and the strange woman, dissolved instantly in the torrent.
Zuko said nothing as he leaned in, gathering the water girl in his arms. She felt like bunches of satin ribbons, soft and silky and light as feathers. He wanted nothing more in life now, the fire in his soul screaming to become one with this beautiful girl. His soft, parted lips brushed hers—
And the girl exploded in a cloud of steam, searing the left side of his face. He screamed in agony and anguished loss. The whirlpool around him collapsed, catapulting his body into the dense weightlessness of the ocean depths. It invaded him, seeping into any space it could get into, pressing into his mind, his soul, drowning him, dissolving him, diluting him, extinguishing his life forever—
Zuko snapped awake, almost crying out. He was drenched in sweat, practically gasping for air, his heart beating madly in his chest. He’d fallen asleep while meditating again. He’d dreamt…
Zuko ran his palm over his sweaty face. It was the dream again. He’d been having it for the last two weeks in various forms and versions. Each time he woke, he would cry out, in pain, in agony, or in pure fear. So bad were these nightmares that Zuko had stopped sleeping. He meditated intently instead, preferring the stillness of inner reflection to the full-out deep sleep that nearly smothered him every night.
He sat still until his heart slowed, his panic draining away. He wiped a stray tear from the corner of his eye and breathed deeply. It's just a dream, he kept telling himself. But it was more than that...
He felt it again, that sickening moment of comprehension as he plummeted towards the rocky shallows at the base of the cliffs of Ho’Wan Island. In those terrifying three seconds of freefall, the Prince of the Fire Nation glimpsed his short 16 years and felt empty. He would have died young, stupidly, and without reason. And for once in his life, he had accepted it all and did not fight his fate.
It had been a simple fact to understand and was surprisingly easy to accept: death was part of the natural order of things, and he was going to die. And for half a second, he was alright with that. Happy, almost, that the pain would finally come to an end.
And then it hadn't. He had plunged into the water with a great slap, cold and sharp as ice. He surfaced in bewilderment, wondering why death had let him escape so easily.
Why had it forsaken him? Why was he allowed to live? The fear and shame he felt rubbed his emotions raw until he was practically numb. The only feelings he could muster radiated from the image trapped in brain: two blue eyes.
Zuko broke from his moody reverie as he realized the familiar rumble of the engines was strangely absent. Uncle Iroh must have stopped to get water, he thought, and wondered which port they had stopped in. One with a nice market, no doubt. He gathered together his towel and sponge and headed to the bath. That would calm his nerves. Then he’d take a stroll through town later to clear his mind—
Except that when he stepped out of his cabin, he was greeted by a boisterous uproar and the sweet, damp, woody smell of the tropical forest.
The late afternoon sun shone like liquid gold on the scene below. His men – all of his men – were on the beach, sitting around an unnecessarily large campfire, eating from crudely opened tins and jars, playing kickball, or playing their eclectic collection of musical instruments.
And they were drinking mead. A lot of mead.
“Prinsukozabest capn’ an’where!” A soldier slurred, dizzily toasting the bewildered Prince with his half-empty bottle. A host of the sailors heartily hailed him in agreement.
“Nephew! How are you?” Iroh came staggering up the ramp grinning broadly, a jar of brandied peaches in hand. A little spoon jutted from it.
“Uncle…?” Zuko asked slowly and quietly. “What is all this?” Zuko’s hoarseness scared Iroh out of his giddy state. He expected angry shouts, death threats, surly sneers, and a fit violence. He certainly wasn’t expecting the soft, hushed, and only slightly annoyed tones this youth was murmuring.
“Prince Zuko,” Iroh took his nephew’s elbow. “The men are toasting you tonight. They’ve had a long, hard journey and need some time to unwind. Much like yourself.” He began to lead him down the ramp. “Come, sit and have something to eat. The chef’s found some papayas and other delicious fruits around here. A glass of mead probably wouldn’t hurt you either, eh?”
Zuko pulled away. “I’m tired, Uncle Iroh. I’m going to take a bath.” He headed back up the ramp.
“Oh, the bath is out of order right now!” Iroh called up to him.
The prince turned. “What? That’s our private bath. What did you do, Uncle?”
“Oh, well, we couldn’t eat the melons without chilling them first. The tub’s full right now.” Iroh grinned and waited for his nephew to explode. He hoped the boy would explode. Zuko was holding something in, and whatever it was, it was smothering the boy’s virile intensity, taking the spark out of his nephew’s life.
He waited for the explosion, but nothing fazed the young man. He looked exhausted, a dark circle forming in the hollow of his good, unscarred eye, his pale skin clammy with sweat. Zuko’s eyes simply moved over the revelers, taking in their carefree merriment, and he silently made his way down the ramp, walking steadily into the forest.
"Where are you going?” Iroh called to him.
“To bathe,” Zuko replied apathetically. “See that I’m not disturbed.”
The water here is cool and clean and pure and good, like her. I think sometimes that when she swims, she may lose herself entirely in the pool and dissolve away… but she has always come back to me, laughing and splashing.
I am beyond joyful that we found each other. We’re so different, yet so alike.
I think I could love her for the rest of eternity in this paradise.
Katara quickly found a streamlet babbling through the forest and she followed it some distance to a beautiful cascading waterfall emptying into a deep pool. The pool, in turn, fed a number of little streams that ran into the forest, feeding the trees and shrubs with mineral-rich glacial water, each streamlet ultimately joining with the wide blue ocean. A deep, calming presence overwhelmed Katara here. She felt as though she were one with her element, and could practically feel the lapping of the pool on the shore, the trickle of water tripping over the rocks, even the almost imperceptible melting and shifting movements of the ice in the mountain. Her skin crawled in a rather pleasant way as she listened to the rush of the water.
The waterfall was beautiful. The silver white foam born of the cascading water danced on the clear pool. The lush green foliage shushed around Katara as the wind rustled through the trees and tousled her braided hair. She drank the clean air deeply through her nostrils and felt the serenity of the forest pulsing through her veins. The water told her all was good, all was safe.
Katara removed her robe and scrubbed at the berry juice stains as she knelt at the edge of the pool, wearing only her tights and undergarments. The stains came out surprisingly easily, dissipating in the water in a faint cloud of pink. She toyed with the idea of plunging into the water for a real bath, but her hands ached from washing her garments in the freezing water. She fought the compulsion to walk right into the pool, clothes on and all. It seemed to call to her as it babbled: dive in, immerse yourself, become one with us, sister...
Katara shook herself. The water was just too cold to bathe in, and she knew plenty about hypothermia. The best she could do was use the sopping robe to wipe her neck and face, her exposed arms, and whatever else she could easily reach. She wrung out the robe, drank deeply from the pool, and filled the water skin before dressing in her spare change of clothes.
As she gathered her things together, Katara heard something in the bushes. It was stomping towards her. She knew better than to call out when she didn’t know who or what it was, so she grabbed her things and hastily jumped into a thicket of bushes off to one side. The Water girl crouched low, watching through a chink in the dense foliage growth, praying it was Aang, or Sokka, or Momo, or Appa, or just some stray animal coming for a drink. Oh please, don't let it be...
Katara's stomach did a little flip-flop. A lean, muscular stranger strode quietly through the brush and into a clearing. He was shirtless and wore only black silk pants, a towel slung over one shoulder. Katara couldn't see his face right away, but the way the man carried himself was eerily familiar. He stood at the edge of the pool, slowly removing his sandals.
In hindsight, Katara would tell herself she should have recognized the shaved scalp right away, and would make excuses about never having seen him in anything other than armour. But the simple truth was that she was a little distracted by his rippling, well-defined mid-section. So when the man turned to place his towel on a rock, Katara nearly yelped in surprise.
It was Prince Zuko.
Getting undressed. To bathe.