There were shadows running across the water as the sun sought refuge beneath the horizon. The day was old, and the moon waited its few more hours until It rose into the sky, where the darkness fled from its silver beams and sought the shades of storm clouds that overtook the ocean. Thunder echoed in the distance, ominous, a foreboding of conflict that the future still held.
He opened his hand, slowly, and stared at the soft network of lines that made up his palm. They ran up to his fingers, twisting in strange and unnatural ways, just as the lives of men twisted themselves into complex patterns, building up glorious dreams with glimpses of bright hopes...only to have the same beliefs torn apart, destroyed, the ground ripped out brutally from beneath them and all peace stolen away. The body of man was a weak, powerless thing. The will of man was breakable, unstable. The heart of man was unreliable, unreadable, an ever-shifting thing that could only be trusted if it was unfeeling, uncaring...
Fierce and ruthless as fire.
You must be fire.
He let a soft drizzle of smoke escape from his palm and whirled with a speed fueled by his anger. The wind rushed by his face in vain attempts to keep pace with him. Lightning flashed afar off and reflected the thriving passion of his tortured soul, his body bent with memories he had yet to erase. His hands spun and wrists met; flames cracked down his arms and sped from him in a fury that matched the staring, golden glaze in his eyes. But his vision blurred terribly, and the left side of the ship fell into a reddish haze. He let out a gasp of rage and stopped where he stood, almost hissing from exhaustion, the hours of practice beating down the strength of his mortal body. His muscles were gleaming, his hands hot and heavy, the sweat dripping down across his forehead. Flinching, he hesitated...and closed his right eye.
The world became a stinging, obscure mess. He bit the air venomously and opened both eyes again as the smoke in his fists turned black.
"Prince Zuko, do not harm yourself."
Zuko clenched his fists tighter for a moment and then relaxed. Dark burns seared across his palms, but he did not acknowledge them; his muscles tensed as he stood and turned back towards the ship's cabin. A large man, too full around the waist, his eyes grey and his hair greyer, folded his hands beneath the sleeves of his uniform and stood patient as the Prince passed.
"Wrap them when you get inside. Put oil on them to soothe the pain."
He paused, and the pride of his still untamed heart flared up to his lips.
"I am in no pain. Good day, Uncle."
The thunder growled again as Iroh stood beneath the first few drops of rain. In silence the old man prayed to the dark sky to ease the same darkness in his nephew's heart.
She could feel it flowing through her veins, feel the spirit of peace, of serenity that glittered in each drop of liquid she moved through the air. She could mold it, flow with it, become the same stirring essence that gave water the power of life, of healing. The flourishing substance that leaked into the soul like an soothing cure, opening the mind, relaxing the senses, deepening the feelings of the heart -
"MOMO! GIVE ME BACK MY BOOMERANG! IT'S NOT A - woah -"
Sokka fell flat onto his face as he ducked the airborne blade. Momo did not catch it, but made a terrified little meep! and dodged behind a low-hanging branch. Aang, seeing the flying danger, leapt into the air and caught the boomerang as Katara huffed, irritated at the interruption, the water she had been bending scattered on the dry ground and vanishing quickly.
"Will you guys knock it OFF?" she panted in her annoyance as her fists clenched in frustration. "I'm trying to practice," Sokka, who now turned his attention to a satchel full of freshly caught fish, looked up as he placed a trout at the end of a sharpened stick.
"Relax Katara. You can practice your water-bending later. Right now, I think we ought to all thank the guy who caught all of these lovely little fish -"
He stood up with his hands on his hips in a very triumphant pose, as though waiting for some sort of medal to be placed around his neck. Katara blinked, but Aang laughed and jumped over beside his friend.
"Great job, Sokka. It's better than Leechy Nuts, anyway."
Sokka's grin broadened at the approval of the Avatar and he sat down to his dinner, almost sickeningly content. Appa groaned and sniffed around for the bag, but the warrior quickly snatched it away before the bison could get a hold of it.
Aang sat down beside Katara as she neared the fire. The water bender took out the scroll the Avatar and her had been learning from and looked over it. Aang looked over her shoulder and smiled.
"I think we've down everything on there Katara. Both of us!" Katara smiled and looked up into the brilliant blue eyes of her friend.
"Aang, I think you're right. But..your bending is still better than mine by a long shot."
"Come on Katara, don't say that -"
"It's true. I saw you freezing and melting ice the other day. I could never do it as fluidly as you can."
The air bender blushed a furious shade of red and scratched the back of his tattooed head.
"Well, you know, I try -"
"Am I the ONLY one whose going to take advantage of these fish, or would you two rather starve?" mumbled Sokka angrily as he finished devouring his third fish. Katara rolled her eyes and grabbed a trout as Aang went to feed Appa. Momo reached out to grab the boomerang from Sokka's belt again, but the warrior leapt up and sped to the other side of the campfire.
"Not this time, Momo. From now on, you are not allowed within three feet of any weapon!"
Momo's big ears dropped in confusion and Katara laughed. Both Aang and Sokka were soon munching away on their dinners, warmed by the fire and falling into a conversation about how boomerangs and lemurs don't mix.
Katara nibbled on her fish, lost to the sudden worries that often entered, unwelcomely, into her mind. The Avatar was sitting next to her, munching a few nuts along with his dinner. She thought of the spears of the soldiers and the blood of her mother - no, she could not think of that. The necklace...the necklace that Zuko still had. Her mother's necklace...anger flared up in her heart but she subdued it. Bigger matters were at hand. The twelve-year-old who sat beside her, destined to save the world, was still completely unaware of the ruthless tactics the Fire Nation, of the unknown plans they had in store once the world was completely under there control -
That won't happen, hissed Katara to herself. She looked over to where Sokka had finally contented himself with his seventh fish and had fallen asleep, instantly, on his sleeping bag. Aang looked at Katara and smiled, and the troublesome thoughts that berated her soon vanished as they began to laugh at Sokka's snoring.
"What are your orders then, Prince Zuko?"
His hair was down and falling over his face, unkept by the ponytail he usually wore it in. The ship's Captain had aroused him from a deep and unpleasant dream to warn him of a strange sickness that had infected his shipmates. The teenager was still only half dressed, bare to the waist where he had put on a pair of flaring pants and pieces of Fire Nation armor. He grabbed a hair tie from his dressing table and pulled back his hair.
"Where is the nearest port?"
"At the next island, Sir."
"Stop there. We will find a healer on the island to cure your men. We can also re-stock the ship. We will leave again in three days and head north."
"Thank you, Prince Zuko," finished the Captain. He hesitated, and quickly bowed to the Prince with what seemed like a sliver of true respect. Iroh watched him leave and turned back to face Zuko, who was pulling on a shirt.
"This is a very respectable thing you are doing, Zuko."
"We cannot man the ship if the men all fall sick, and we need supplies. It is nothing personal, Uncle."
"True, but all the same I am proud of you for it. Perhaps we may be able to find a few wind pipes in the market place tomorrow afternoon. I would love to hear the Captain play, seeing as he goes on about his skills for most of the day."
Zuko relaxed reluctantly at the delightful disposition of his relative and picked up his breastplate, preparing to strap it on.
"Very well, Uncle. I will see you tomorrow."
Iroh bowed and exited quietly. As the door shut, a focus came back into Zuko's eyes.
The comfort his Uncle's presence brought to him was immediately erased. There could be no feeling of the heart. There could be no weakness.
Anger consumed him as he realized he had given into comfort again. His fists clenched and fire seared in his gaze. The flames were part of him, part of the boundless fury that tore up his soul, the anger that grew from the injustice h had suffered, the anguish. He could not allow himself any solace; peace and happiness was only a disguise for torment, it was deception, it was a back-stabbing fiend that betrayed those with weak souls and burned everything that was held dear to them. The fire was getting too hot, and Zuko's hands began to burn again. But the pain, at least, taught him a lesson that no one had ever had the decency to teach him before.
Peace did not last. The only thing you could do to protect yourself was to have no feeling, at all. To be the element that ran through Zuko's body, that clouded his senses; the same element that had given him his scar.
He had to be fire.