“C’mon, where are you Appa?” Sokka stamped about nervously. He had blown the whistle repeatedly over the last twenty minutes, and his lungs hurt from the exertion. The flying bison did not appear. Momo perched by the sleeping Aang, pawing at his face in worry. Still, the Avatar did not rise.
It must have been berries, Sokka reasoned. But if that’s so, why haven’t I fallen down dead on the ground?
Maybe it was a bender thing. Maybe since he wasn’t a bender, he wasn’t affected by whatever poison or drug the berries contained.
The thought brought a lump to his throat. That same afternoon, he had been angry and bitter about not having special powers like the two fledgling benders. Now he wished he could take it all back. It wasn’t so great being the lone hero.
Sure, he could hold his own in a fight. Sure, he could defend himself. But he had never stopped to ask himself how he could protect his own friends and family. If Fire Troops attacked now, how could he possibly protect Aang and Katara while they were unconscious?
It had been too long since he’d blown the whistle for Appa. Pacing, Sokka turned to the lemur. “Momo, go find and Appa and bring him back here,” he said.
Momo sat there and stared at him uncomprehendingly, his bright green eyes glowing ominously in the dark.
“Momo, I need you to help me now,” Sokka enunciated slowly. “Find Appa and bring him here.” He mimicked the bison by lumbering around, his fingers pointing out like horns.
The lemur sat resolutely by Aang’s shoulder, whimpering. His big ears drooped.
“You stupid lemur! I need your help now!” Sokka yelled. Momo screeched and leapt into the branches, uttering feeble lemur curses at the boy.
Sokka sighed and sank down next to his sleeping sister. He felt more helpless than ever. For all he knew, the two could be dying. He felt a sob catch in his throat. He wouldn’t let that happen. He had to protect his little sister. He had promised dad he would.
The water boy glanced at the sleeping Avatar. Aang’s innocent features glowed in the firelight, soft and almost petulant. He had turned over on his side, and Sokka grimaced as he noticed a little trickle of drool running down the side of his cheek.
A cold, dark thought encroached upon him. If it hadn’t been for Aang, they wouldn’t be here right now. He remembered the iceberg and that fateful day Katara's own emotional outburst had cracked open the Avatar's hermetic enclosure. He wished they had never—
No. He wasn’t going to say it. It wasn’t true. But in his heart he felt a gaping void yawning wider and wider at his feet, threatening to consume him. The wishes and should-haves of the world weighed heavier every minute they stayed on this island.
Don’t panic Sokka, if you wait until morning, things might get better.
Or they might get worse, he countered. What would dad do?
For what seemed like a long time, Sokka stared between his sister and the Avatar, thinking. Finally, he made one of the most difficult choices he had ever made.
“Momo, stay here and watch these two,” he said, shouldering his backpack and making a torch. He lit it on the fire. “I’m going to find Appa.” He strode into the darkness, leaving his sister and the 12… no wait, 13-year-old Avatar in the hands of the flying lemur.
It had suddenly occurred to Sokka they had celebrated Aang’s birthday back at Ho’Wan: had it really only been two weeks ago? He shook himself and focused on the task at hand.
Find Appa. That was almost the truth. He’d try to spot the giant bison (after all, how hard could it be to spot a huge furry animal with an arrow on his head?) but if something had happened to him, he’d go to find help.
Even if it meant that help came from the Fire Nation.
He is strong, he is my strength.
He kept the other one from me. Protected me from his strange gifts.
He is so strange. He frightens me.
I don’t know what I would do without him. I love him so much, I think sometimes I would like to become one with him, in the water, that we may never leave each other’s embrace…
“Uncle Iroh!” Zuko called into the darkness. The light was almost gone now, but the Fire Prince went on, shivering. Why oh why hadn’t he worn a shirt?
He kicked a tree stump in anger. Stupid idiot! He’d been so absorbed in whatever funk he’d allowed himself to sink into that he could not recognize the trail he had originally taken, or the one he was on now. He could only reason that the numerous streams flowing out of the pool all led to the ocean and the beach. He would figure out his position from there.
So on he walked in the gloom, shivering and damning his own foolish emotions for occupying so much of his precious time. The emotions that all centered around…
Damn that water peasant! Zuko gritted his teeth and balled his fist tightly. It would have been an inferno if his bending abilities were working. He punched another tree hatefully, screaming in frustration when it didn’t satisfyingly burst into flaming splinters, bloodying his knuckles instead. Damn tree!
How could he have let some girl preoccupy him? A lowly water girl? He groaned at himself as he realized that only two weeks ago, he had actually allowed himself to admit he was in love with her. Him! A prince of the Fire Nation! In love with a Water Tribe peasant! Ridiculous!
“Hah!” He shouted out loud. Hormones, he told himself. Iroh muttered the word to crew members whenever he was trying to excuse his nephew’s erratic behaviour. Hormones. That was it. He didn’t even like the Waterbender girl. That had been someone else. That had been that other Zuko who didn't exist.
The blue eyes flashed in his mind.
Zuko reeled. The images seemed to come to him in stronger and in more potent waves. The sound of the whirlpool in his dreams roared in his ears now. He blinked, finding himself on his knees, clutching his chest as he fought off the waking nightmare.
He was so cold.
Zuko forced himself onto his feet and marched on resolutely in the dark. His bleary eyes thought he saw a warm firelight off in the distance: at last, he was approaching the revelers, dancing in the dark.
The Fire Prince burst through the bushes, calling for his uncle. He stopped dead in his tracks. This wasn’t the landing site at all.
He had stumbled upon the Avatar’s camp.
And there was the Avatar, curled up on a sleeping bag. On the other side of the fire lay the water girl.
Zuko held his breath, looking around. He was completely defenseless against the Avatar. He had no weapons, no armour, and no Firebending powers to keep him at bay. And he had just shouted loud enough to wake up a whole platoon of men.
But no one stirred. Zuko couldn’t see the other one anywhere – the Water Tribe boy, Katara’s brother. Was he hiding in the shadows, waiting to strike?
He stood frozen for another minute, every muscle in his body tensed. The fire crackled and wavered before him.
After what felt like eternity, he slowly unhinged himself from his panicked lock. He glanced around, watching for movement in the shadows. Nothing came at him. That didn’t mean he was safe, not by a long shot – he remembered the smart of the water boy’s boomerang, after all.
Where was the water boy? Perhaps he’d gone to relieve himself, or was taking the evening’s first watch. Surely he would be back soon? He wouldn’t just leave the sleeping Airbender and his defenseless sister upon the ground unguarded, would he?
He looked upon the sleeping Waterbender and felt something within him stir. She lay on her back on top of a lumpy pile of cloth. Her tan features glowed warmly in the firelight, but her lips seemed pale. Her head was awkwardly turned to one side. Almost unnaturally…
Zuko’s stomach dropped out from under him.
He leapt to her side and pressed his fingertips to her neck, feeling for a pulse. It was there, but just barely. Her breath was shallow and laboured. He turned her onto her back and heard her lungs clear and she took in a sharp breath of air, but she did not awaken.
Zuko let out a held breath in relief. Her awkward positioning had nearly closed her windpipe and cut off her oxygen supply, but she was still alive. As an afterthought, he carefully moved the soggy clothing out from under her and repositioned her body on the cushy sleeping bag, cradling her head so it rested comfortably on the ground. Still, she did not wake.
And as the prince pulled away, he realized with a mighty blush that he had just touched her very intimately. And yet, it had seemed so natural to him to simply pick her up the way he had and lay her back down on the soft bedding. The coolness of her skin and rough clothing felt so familiar against his bare chest, as if she had been born in the crook of his arms.
The thing stirring within him paced restlessly, like a tiger in a small cage peering out at him with dark blue eyes. It begged to be let out of its prison.
The Fire Prince slapped himself. What was he doing nursing the water wench? The Avatar! The Avatar was right there! This was his moment! His honour was within his grasp!
Zuko abruptly stood, advancing on the sleeping monk, when he felt the blood rush from his head, black spots appearing in his vision. They didn’t go away. He sat down hard on the packed dirt by the fire.
This isn’t good, he dizzily murmured to himself. Perhaps the chill was making him sick. He sat for a moment, regaining his balance, and slowly crawled head down towards the fire. Just a few minutes to warm up, he thought woozily as he crawled, ignoring the impending danger of the water boy’s return.
A smug thought entered his mind: Ha! I’d love to see the look on his face if he came back and I was all over his sister!
The tiger in his soul growled hungrily. He quieted it by focusing his attention on the still-sleeping Avatar.
As he looked up, Zuko found the Avatar’s big-eared monkey-thing staring at him from his perch on the boy’s shoulder. Its round green eyes watched him questioningly, as though asking, “Why do you care so much about the girl?”
“Go away,” he shooed the creature ineffectually.
Momo didn’t budge, nor did he attack the strange-smelling Fire Prince. He growled at him warningly.
Zuko frowned and picked up a rock. “I said GO AWAY!” He whipped it as hard as he could, but missed widely. The creature flinched, but did not retreat, his hackles raised defensively as he stared at the teen. The prince sighed and let the creature be.
Zuko took stock of the situation. He was lost in the dark in the woods. He was ill, and could barely move. He had no ability to Firebend. He had no clothes to protect him from the night that, while mild, made him feel like he was in the South Pole again.
The Avatar seemed to be worse off, unconscious and limp as a noodle, but Zuko was in no condition to be slinging him over his shoulder to triumphantly carry back to his ship.
So close and yet so far, he thought bitterly through his blurring vision. What was wrong with him? He looked from Katara’s sleeping form to the Avatar’s blearily. What was wrong with them? Why was everything here so strange?
Zuko barely noticed when his head hit the ground.
I’ll get rid of him if it’s the last thing I do…
Sokka held the torch high over his head, spreading the orange glow in as wide a circumference as he could. He had no idea where he was headed, but he was convinced something had happened to the great flying bison the same way something had happened to his friend and sister.
He regretted leaving their sides as soon as he stepped foot out of the campsite. As he walked, the shadows in his mind grew and wavered, mimicking the ones in the forest all around him.
What if some nasty predators attacked the sleeping pair? Momo wouldn’t be able to take care of them: he’d be the appetizer! Or what if the Fire Nation found them? They’d take Aang back in chains, and his sister… he didn’t even want to think about what a bunch of dirty, stinking soldiers would do to a teenage girl as their prisoner.
At that thought, Sokka whirled around on his heel, ready to head back, but his eye caught the gold glimmer of firelight.
Judging by the distance and brightness, they had built up a huge bonfire. Typical Fire Nation, Sokka scowled, always burning more than they need to. Those greedy, warmongering...
He stopped himself. He'd need their help to figure out what was wrong with Aang and Katara. If he were anything less than perfectly civil and gracious to his blood-sworn enemies, they’d all be left to die.
What, you think the Fire Nation will just help you? They'll take the Avatar and leave you and your sister to die on this island!
Maybe their ship’s doctor will obey his oath to serve and protect the sick and needy, he reasoned hopefully.
And maybe their doctor is a torture specialist, he countered.
Sokka stood there, staring at the winking yellow light in the distance. This is no time to hesitate. The faster I get help, the faster I can get back to Aang and Katara.
Sokka marched forth, steeling himself for what he hoped was not going to be the biggest mistake of his life.