After the Avatar and his companions fled back into the forest they'd come from, Zuko's gaze returned to the view of the ocean and smoking ruin that loomed in the small bay. Dismissing the Avatar from his mind completely, Prince Zuko walked the rest of the way down the beach. He unwrapped the bowline of the landing raft from the rock he'd tied it to a couple of hours before, and climbed inside the small boat. It would only take him a few minutes to reach the wreckage, and he'd already wasted enough time with his childish display on the beach.
"Prince Zuko, good morning! Now that the sun's up, I've given crewmen Genai and Kolo orders to scout the island for possible boar or other game, as well as water to replenish our supplies."
Zuko blinked against the bright morning, eyes adjusting to daylight after hours in the darkness of the ship. He tried to process the lieutenant's report, mind still clouded from sleep. "What about the village we sighted last night before we anchored?" he asked. "Surely they'd have a ready water supply."
"I considered that Your Highness," the lieutenant nodded, "but if you remember, there have been rumors of plague in this region for months now. I believe it would be wiser to avoid contact with the remote villages unless absolutely necessary, just to be safe."
"I agree," Zuko replied. "However, you may tell Kolo that his presence is unnecessary. I'll go with Genai to scout for supplies."
The older man took a few seconds to stifle his surprise. "Prince, may I ask why? And why you do not want to take a team if you wish to go yourself?"
"I want to stretch my legs," Zuko replied. "And you were planning to send two men, were you not? I doubt there's anything we'd come across here that would seriously threaten me or require a full guard unit. Summon officer Genai, and let's get going, Lieutenant."
"And find my uncle. Even if you have to drag his lazy ass out of his own bed."
Zuko's mouth was set in a grim line as he dropped the landing raft's anchor, tugging the chain to be sure it was securely caught on the rocky sea bottom. When he was certain the small boat would not drift, he stripped off his armor, grabbed a bundle of line, and carefully lowered himself into the cool sea.
He'd anchored his raft a few dozen feet from the main wreck, but debris peppered the water all around him, a hazard he couldn't afford to ignore even in this calm weather. Despite his best efforts, Zuko was scraped or bruised in several places when he reaching the smoking hulk that had once been a fire nation cruiser. He noted the waterline, and estimated it would be submerged completely in a few hours, three at the most. Bracing himself, he began to search for survivors.
"Prince Zuko," Genai called out over his shoulder. "This foliage is amazing, isn't it?"
"They're just island trees," replied the younger man, trudging through the underbrush and occasionally roasting a nearby flower in boredom. "I fail to see what's so amazing about them."
"Their size, your highness! Look at the diameter of some of these blooms."
"I'm looking for signs of animals instead." Zuko emphasized the word animals in the hopes that saying it aloud might actually summon a few. So far they'd seen nothing bigger than rodents, and they needed to know if it was worth bringing a hunting party back after they returned. Zuko was hoping for boar; island boar was always good, and one large enough pig could be cut to feed a good portion of the crew for that night. If they found several boars, they might not have to eat salted jerky again for a week.
"Yes sir, I am too of course! But I was simply telling myself that some of these flowers would make a fine gift for my wife. I know I can't really bring them back, but it'll make a good story…" Genai stopped and turned around. "Your highness?"
Zuko had also stopped walking, and was now staring at the soldier in front of him.
He knew Genai was about 10 years older than himself, young in the military's eye but still old enough to have attained a position of prestige as an officer under the command of General Iroh, who'd hand-selected Zuko's crew two years ago. Zuko knew Genai was good at aiming the catapults and that he played the reed pipes on music night, but he had not known the man was married.
"I didn't know you had a wife," he said softly, thinking of the two years Genai had already served his prince. Had he lied when he accepted the post? Iroh had promised Zuko he would only choose unmarried men to follow them into exile, those with no children and nothing to lose by crewing on a banished ship.
Genai's gaze slid away. "I don't anymore, your highness. She died of the sleeping sickness three months before we left the Fire Nation."
Zuko bowed his head. "I am sorry for your loss."
"Thank you, your highness," Genai said, taking a deep breath and then grinning. "But don't worry about it now. I've grieved my piece. I merely have this habit, you see, of paying attention to the plant life anywhere we visit. My wife was garden worker for the temple, and she cultivated the most beautiful flowers for the tithings. In our quest for the Avatar I have this chance to see places she only dreamed of visiting; I keep a journal of all the things that I see that I will read to her at her grave once we return."
The prince nodded thoughtfully, and turned to look at a nearby lily blossom. As wide as Zuko's hand, it sat in a mess of dark green leaves, spots and splashes of yellow staining its red petals. "They are quite beautiful."
"Yes sir!" Genai replied, smiling at his prince before marching forward again. "But now, you're right about those animals. In fact, I think I saw a bit of---"
One moment officer Genai was clearing the path for his young lord and chatting, the next moment he had disappeared with a crashing thud.
"Genai!" Zuko shouted, darting forward and stopping at the edge of what was now a small, gaping crack. It was about two feet wide and three feet long. Only just barely large enough to swallow a man.
"Genai, can you hear me? Answer me, that's an order!"
Hearing nothing, Zuko knelt forward over the edge. Sunlight filtered through and he could just see the markings of a fire nation uniform. The pit was not deep, it seemed. Fighting to keep the panic down, Zuko began searching the area nearby. After a few minutes (during which he called down to his crewman three times) he found a tree with vines longer than a man. He hacked three off, hastily braided them, and tied the makeshift rope to a tree. Gingerly he climbed over the edge and through the crack.
Zuko hit the dusty underground even sooner than he expected. It appeared to be an underground tunnel, probably made by water. Whoever carved the path above obviously hadn't known the ground was so unstable. With his heart in his throat, Zuko forced himself to look away from the tunnel and instead at the man lying in front of him.
Officer Genai's neck was bent at the wrong angle, and he was never going to be reading his journal at his wife gravestone again.
"I'm sorry," Zuko whispered to the body. "I'll send a squad back here to give you a proper burial."
But Fire Nation Naval Officer Ko Genai never got a proper burial, either. For the moment Prince Zuko reached the beach, his ship exploded on the horizon.