Zuko didn’t know what hit him. One minute he was running toward Katara. He heard the Avatar call her name. He saw the monk boy hovering on his glider. She’d looked away and when she turned back to face him, her face had gone rigid with terror.
And then he’d felt a crushing blow to the base of his skull. Several pairs of arms had firmly grasped him, tying his hands behind his back. Blackness swallowed his vision as he was dragged away, unconscious.
Now he was awake, bound, gagged, and groggy, lying on his side on the floor next to Uncle Iroh, who was similarly trussed up. He sensed the others in the room: all the members of the advance scout. What had happened? Where was he? Was Katara all right?
Papa Pipi bent sideways at the waist and peered at Zuko curiously, as a boy inspecting a bug would. He said something about being escorted off the island with the “traditional Ho’Wan military send-off.”
Uncle Iroh wriggled in a panic.
Zuko’s eyes closed again. Just before he passed out, his brain growled something about letting the Avatar escape, admonished him for getting sidetracked, berated him for letting his attackers get the jump on him, and frankly shouted at him for being such a big jerk to the pretty water girl.
Darkness overtook him once more, shutting his stupid brain up.
“Zuko? Here?” Sokka, Aang and Katara ran through the streets, warily keeping their eyes open for Fire Nation soldiers.
Katara had completely forgotten about Kimji in the chaos that had erupted after spotting Zuko. All she knew was that the Fire Prince had been running towards her, and then four figures had pounced on him from the shadows, dragging him into a dark side alley. She hadn’t stuck around to see what would happen. She didn’t care. Zuko meant Fire Nation, and that meant RUN.
So she ran, practically screaming Aang’s name. The monk boy had glided down, following her at a frantic pace.
They met up with Sokka further up the road and she hastily told the two about the encounter with the Fire Prince. Their faces were grave. The decision was unanimous.
“We have to leave. Now.”
The trio headed in the direction of the main gate. It was too risky to call Appa to the centre of the town, where all the townspeople, tourists, and Fire Nation soldiers could spot the bison and follow it to his master. They needed to get beyond the gates and high-tail it out of there.
As they rounded the bend, still nervous about Fire Nation soldiers, they nearly crashed into a grinning Papa Pipi.
“You kids don’t look like you’re having fun,” Pipi said jovially.
Aang bowed shortly to him. “Thank you for giving us the bracelets, Papa Pipi, but we have to leave. Fire Nation soldiers are in the city—”
“Yes, I know,” Pipi stopped him, but he seemed none to concerned. He beamed at the three bewildered children. “We here in Ho’Wan don’t like our visitors breaking our simple rules, and we didn’t ask to be drawn into this war. As far as I’m concerned, those fellas there tried to do both.”
Aang, Sokka, and Katara turned to see what Pipi was talking about. To their amazement, a flatcar cart was being unceremoniously loaded with men, all in dark red and black garb. Each one had their ankles and wrists bound in thick, wax-dipped rope that the Firebenders would have a hard time burning off. They were all gagged. Two girls moved among them with small clubs, menacingly eyeing the soldiers and threatening to knock them out if they saw even the tiniest hint of smoke.
“What… how…?” Sokka sputtered. Aang grinned widely and pointed.
Sokka’s jaw dropped. Prince Zuko sat at the centre among his men, the crown jewel of the tableau. His black fatigues were rumpled, and he was shouting through the gag. He hadn’t spotted the trio until Sokka let out a whoop and fell over laughing.
Aang covered his mouth, but his giggle turned into full out knee-slapping as the laden cart started to pull away.
But Katara said nothing. The prince had spotted them. His yellow eyes narrowed and he stared long and hard directly at Katara. The scar on his face seemed to fade as a shadow passed over him.
The lean face, the gold eyes, the heroic set of his jaw, and the hint of muscle beneath that simple but handsome black tunic…
That had all been Zuko.
The day's events flashed through her mind. The rescue fromt he goons... a set up? The puppet show... the laughter... his easy demeanor... it had all been an act.
He had tricked her. He had made her believe he was someone she could get to like.
He had almost made her give up Aang.
Her heart broke for a second time that day.
Katara’s anger flared. She let him use her! She let him get under her skin! And she let herself care for that monstrous, evil-hearted, selfish, stuck-up BOY!
“So what’re you going to do with them?” Sokka asked, wiping away a tear. No one noticed the set in Katara’s shoulders, her clenched fists, or the tears pricking her eyes.
Pipi grinned. “We have ways of dealing with troublemakers like these. Of course, we’re civil folk. We don’t believe in killing other people.”
“You might want to reconsider that,” Sokka said. “They’re barely people.”
Her brother’s callous comment tore a gash in Katara’s heart. Kimji was a person!
No, not Kimji, Zuko.
But Zuko wasn’t Kimji.
Kimji had never existed…
“Katara, are you okay? You look a little pale.” Aang touched her elbow.
“Oh!” Katara started. “I… I’m just a bit tired.”
Aang smiled at her, but kept one eye on his friend, concerned about her unusual silence.
Sokka was talking animatedly with Pipi when he whooped again at something the mayor of Ho’Wan had just said.
“Guys! We gotta get Appa here now!” Sokka said, still chuckling. “They’re going to chuck those soldiers and that prince into the ocean!”
“What?” Katara heard herself yelp. Her heart plunged to her stomach unexpectedly.
“We gotta go see this!” Aang and Sokka raced into a clearing, Aang blowing his bison whistle. A few short minutes later, they were all climbing onto Appa’s back and soaring over the town, nearing the carnival midway where most of the more exciting rides were.
And there, just at the edge of a cliff, sat a great big catapult. Katara could see the Fire Nation soldiers being roughly shoved onto the platform that would launch them high over the 20-foot tall perimeter wall and into the foaming blue ocean below. A crowd was gathering near the contraption as Papa Pipi made some grand speech from atop a soapbox, detailing what the offenders were in for.
Katara eyeballed the catapult’s length and took note of the tension on the arm. Her mind’s eye traced the arc Zuko and the soldiers would travel, making a scattered rainbow of black and red camber over the setting sun.
“Let’s get closer,” Sokka urged. Aang and Appa obliged.
“How will they swim if their legs and arms are tied up?” Katara asked, hoping she didn’t sound too frantic.
Sokka snorted. “Who cares? They can drown for all I care.”
Then he saw the worry creasing his sister’s delicate brow. He’d never seen her so flustered over Fire Nation soldiers before. “I’m sure they can burn through those ropes before they hit the water.” He reassured her after a moment.
He quietly hoped they didn’t know how to swim.
“…For reckless endangerment of lives, destruction of property, the innocent slaughter of helpless cabbages, the disturbance of The Fun…”
Ho’Wan’s mayor listed off a bunch of ridiculous crimes, but each got a rousing boo aimed at the troop squirming on the platform.
Zuko, still gagged but fully awake, stared into the crowd, ignoring the rotten cabbage that had just bounced off his forehead. He was trying to spot the Avatar’s unique tattoos, or that Water Tribe boy’s dark skinned face, or—
Or Katara, standing there, hating him, throwing rocks at him, screaming at him for being such a jerk. His mind replayed the last glimpse he’d caught of her as the cart had pulled away.
Her mouth had been shaped in a delicate “Oh.” She had looked sickly. Perhaps even disgusted. Oh why had he said what he had? Why had he let his pride…
…make him miss this perfect chance to catch the Avatar? his brain suggested.
Zuko did not deny that fact.
Iroh had managed to work the gag off. No one bothered to replace it, considering what was about to happen.
“Nephew! Start working on your bindings! We don’t have much time!”
Their mortal peril was suddenly apparent. Zuko concentrated on his bindings, heating his wrists to gently soften the wax from the thick ropes. He could smell burning wax as his other troops followed suit, working on their bindings as inconspicuously as possible.
“…and will be tossed back to whence they came!” Pipi finished with a flourish. The crowd cheered wildly, mockingly, laughing at the disgraced Fire soldiers and their ridiculous cabbage-covered prince.
“Now tell me something, young Fire Prince,” Papa Pipi turned, bent low and spoke to him directly.
Zuko stopped working on his ropes to peer hatefully into the little man’s bushy face.
“I only have one question for you before I let you leave, and I want you to answer it truthfully.”
Zuko scowled defiantly.
“Did you have fun today?”
He pulled the gag gingerly out of the Prince’s mouth to let him answer.
Zuko almost spat at him when he spotted Madam Façade standing just behind Papa Pipi. She watched him expectantly, purple robed arms folded across her chest, a small smile gracing her lips.
Zuko didn’t know what made him say it, but he was eternally grateful that his Uncle Iroh never heard him.
“Today was the most fun I’ve ever had.” He whispered lowly.
Pipi smiled widely. He pulled a lever.
And Zuko watched the ground rush away from him, and then he was flying, soaring into the heart of the orange sun, a ball of flame caressing the ocean’s cool blue horizon…
The bindings at his wrists sizzled and snapped. He doubled over in mid air and singed his boots incinerating the ropes off his ankles.
And he was falling, plunging with terrifying speed towards the water, only they must have miscalculated because he was much too close to the base of the cliffs. He could see the rocks below winking menacingly at him as the waves washed back and forth over them, beckoning him to his death…
Zuko’s brain covered its eyes and waved goodbye to the world.
“NO!” Katara jumped to her feet, arms outstretched. The one body dressed all in black had somehow gotten tangled up in the other bodies, and was going to fall short of the deep, dense water that would save his life.
She bent an enormous wave of water, bringing it ten... twenty... thirty... fifty feet into the air near the base of the cliff. She wasn’t even sure how she was doing it. She only knew that she had to. The round hump of the wave rose to meet the falling body and as he splashed harmlessly into it, she rolled it back outward, letting it crash as gently as she could near the other soldiers who were one by one plopping into the water, or emerging from beneath it. Katara did not relax until she saw that distinctive ponytail and scalp burst out of the ocean’s depths.
Who knew Fire Nation soldiers could swim so well?
“Aw, whad’you do that for, Katara?” Sokka whined, extremely disappointed and a little angry at his sister.
Katara turned on him, eyes blazing. “He’s a boy, Sokka, just like you! Do you really want to see him dead? Are you as bloodthirsty as they are?”
Sokka stared at her in shock. “I am NOT a boy! And he’s nothing like me!” he spluttered back indignantly. But his defiance sounded meek to his ears.
Katara was exhausted. Everything hurt suddenly, and she didn’t want to fight with her brother. She didn’t want to hate the world right now. Her heart couldn’t take anymore. She sank to her knees and began to cry.
Sokka, wound up and pumped for a shouting match, watched his sister crumple. He rushed to her side, his anger deflated. Momo and Aang remained silent, leaving the brother and sister be. Aang guided Appa away from Ho’Wan, heading north.
It hadn’t been the best birthday he’d ever had, he thought sullenly. But he would have more.
“They’re headed north, your highness, shall we pursue?”
Zuko nodded silently at the helmsman. His ship had picked them up in short time – Uncle Iroh had the foresight to send the ship and its crew to hide in a nearby cove to keep an eye out for trouble. The Fire Prince decided he would have to ask his uncle how he could have predicted the outcome of their mission. But later, after he had dried off.
The wet and shivering soldiers retired to their quarters, and Iroh to his cabin, attended by the ship’s medic who promised to check in on Zuko soon. No one on the ship said anything to the bedraggled prince, but they were all giving him strange looks. He was too tired to glare back.
Zuko plodded into his quarters, peeling off his heavy, sopping clothes and boots as he went. He toweled off, feeling a chill settling into his bones. He toyed with the idea of taking a hot bath, but the last thing he felt like doing was getting back into the water.
Though he had removed his water-logged attire, the prince felt no lighter. A great weight was lodged in his chest, and it made him sit down heavily on the edge of his bed.
What had happened out there? Where had it all gone wrong? Why did he feel this way?
Katara’s water blue eyes flashed in his mind and he squeezed his eyes shut, willing his last glimpse of her mortified face away. She had looked disgusted, he concluded morosely. Why hadn’t Madam Façade’s enchantment worked? Everything had been fine all day up until he’d opened his pride-filled mouth and driven her away. The spell couldn’t have run out yet; the sun hadn’t set. Had there been a malfunction?
More like… your true face…
Katara’s look of horror just before he’d been captured by Papa Pipi’s goons rushed back to him. She had recognized him. She had learned the truth. She knew Zuko had been at her side all day and she was probably mocking him right now, sitting up on that stupid flying bison, laughing at her own foolishness for having been caught with such a monster of a man, making jokes about him with her moronic brother and the child-Avatar.
He should have been angry. He would be angry, later, and it would feel far better than what he was feeling now. Was this grief he was feeling? He grunted contemptuously at himself. He had enough grief in his cup already, thank you very much, and he didn’t need to add to it.
It was sunset. The sun was already more than halfway down, blazing through his open door, making the shadows in his room grow long and dark. He sat listlessly, slumped over, elbows resting on his knees, while he stared at his feet.
Oh come on, she’s a Water peasant girl and she’s running with the Avatar. You are a Prince of the Fire Nation, chasing said Avatar. There’s not a single reason for her to even like you, his brain reasoned consolingly.
…But I’m in love with her. Isn’t that enough?
The brain made no reply.
Zuko wearily got up to dress for dinner.
As he picked his silk robe up off the floor, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
And Zuko stood there, silently staring at his sun-drenched reflection, until the last sliver of the fiery sun slipped blissfully into the loving embrace of the wide, blue ocean, bringing the cool, peaceful twilight.