Greetings! Welcome to my second major ATLA story. It's been one helluva ride, and I'm already planning the sequel to this work too, but not until I see the season finale.
(eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee - that's the high-pitched squeal of glee I make when shows go into season finales.)
Thanks to everyone who's been reading and reviewing: I'd like to take time now to tip my hat and thank a few readers and writers who have inspired me to keep up this new life-consuming habit/hobby of mine:
SleepingDragon13: You rock.
hUeS -of- h a z e l: My very first groupie!
Marin M: Thanks!
Spleef: Cold Water/Hot Water is totally awesome.
Zukoscute2: Don't ever stop being funny.
More shout outs to come!
A note about this work: I have done my best to construct a plausible episodic universe that the gang can co-exist in - kind of a series of "episodes of which we do not speak." Ho'Wan was just the first, a happy warm-up that I needed to write in order to establish the Zutara relationship. This work turned out to be a lot darker, and I had no idea it was going there until I got to the end.
encourage everyone to review and flame me - I struggled through this
piece a lot, and I might have overlooked or omitted an explanation here
or there. If you catch one and leave me a review, I will pledge to
write a drabble and dedicate it to you. How's THAT for an incentive?
And no, Avatar: the Last Airbender does not belong to me.
Every day in paradise is warm.
I thank the gods every day that I arrived here safely and in good health. I am grateful for the good food I have found and harvested and cultivated. I am grateful for the few harmful creatures that pace this land. I am especially thankful for the perfect water here. It is clear and pure, untouched by any other.
I will be safe here.
"Katara, c'mon, I'm starving!" Sokka wrestled weakly with his sister, trying to get at the satchel of food she'd pushed into the corner behind her.The water bending girl shoved him away.
"Sokka, you ate twenty minutes ago! How do you expect us to get to the North Pole if we have to keep stopping to restock our supplies?" She pushed the food bag further behind her and sat on it.
Her brother groaned and dejectedly padded back to his corner of the flying bison's wide litter, pouting. "You don't get it – I'm a growing young warrior! I need fuel to keep me going! What'll happen if Fire Nation soldiers attack and I collapse from starvation?"
Aang turned to grin from his spot on Appa's neck. "Don't worry Sokka, me and Katara can protect you."
Sokka glared, anger tinting his cheeks. "I don't need protection from you two! I can take care of myself, you know!" He shot back irately. "I may not have any of your fancy bending powers, but I can handle myself in a fight!"
The girl and the Airbending monk both flinched. "That's not what he meant, Sokka," Katara said gently. "We've both seen you in action, and you've proven yourself plenty."
"I don't need to prove myself to anyone!" Sokka snapped, turning on his sister.
Katara recoiled from her brother's outburst, but angrily countered. "Don't be so touchy Sokka! Why do you always have to be such a macho man?"
"Maybe because SOMEONE has to be!" he cried. "A 12-year-old kid and my little sister are running from a crazed Fire Nation Prince while we're trying to save the world! I made a promise to dad to protect you, and I promised to help Aang get to the North Pole! But so far, we haven't had much luck getting there or avoiding danger, have we?"
"Well if you're soooooo bent on getting us to the North Pole, then maybe you should stop eating all the food! We'd get there faster if we didn't have to stop all the time!" Katara screamed back.
"Whoa, whoa, easy guys!" Aang leapt from his place and came between the now standing siblings, ever the peace-loving Avatar. "You're fighting over food. When I was living at the Air Temple, the monks would make us fast for days and sometimes weeks at a time to cleanse our minds and bodies. Katara, just give him an apple. Sokka, you make that apple last until sundown. We're not going to stop until then."
The brother and sister snorted and turned their backs on each other. Katara huffily rooted through the bag and whipped the smallest, most bruised apple she could find at Sokka's head. He caught it neatly, glowering at her. Katara blinked in surprised before returning the glare. Her brother's reflexes were improving.
Aang sighed. It was always hard traveling with these two when they fought. The next few hours would be filled with tense, awkward silence. Momo perched in his lap, away from the feuding sibs, chittering nervously, and he stroked the lemur's soft fur to soothe him.
The young monk thought about Sokka's mood and what he'd just said: I made a promise to dad to protect you, and I promised to help Aang get to the North Pole! But so far, we haven't had much luck getting there or avoiding danger!
And I haven't been able to do anything about it, Aang mentally filled in. While he was a trained and formidable warrior, Sokka had thus far been powerless against the Fire Nation, and against the bizarre and often dangerous situations they kept getting themselves into.
Maybe I don't have any of your fancy bending powers, but I can handle myself in a fight! Now there was a giant pothole in the rocky road. Was Sokka jealous that his sister was a flourishing Waterbender? If so, what did he think about the Avatar, the most powerful bender on earth?
Before he could reflect any deeper, Katara screamed again. "Sokka, what are you doing!"
Aang turned to see the boy greedily guzzling from the water skin. Before he could stop her, Katara had whipped her hands out, bending the water in the skin and smacking her brother in the face with a miniature stinging water whip. He dropped the leather flask and let the water cascade out of the mouthpiece, big crystal splashes soaring out and over Appa's wide tail.
For a moment, the water boy sat stunned, a red welt rising on his cheek. The Water Tribe siblings had finally reached a boiling point. Sokka uttered a battle cry and jumped at his sister. The two rolled around the litter in a flurry of limbs, batting at each other with tiny fists, hair-pulling, and biting, tangling themselves in each other's robes and gear.
"Ahh! Quit it!"
"Stop it!" Aang shouted, but the two continued their cat fight. He watched helplessly as the precious water skin rolled out of the litter and plummeted to the ocean below.
Aang furiously yanked Appa's reins and roughly drove him into a steep, corkscrew dive. He heard the siblings gasp and begin to scream as the flying bison's twisting plunge lifted them from the litter's gravitic safety to hover an inch off the beast's back in freefall.
There, that stopped them. Aang spotted the water skin still falling, and hastily leapt for it, bending the air rushing beneath him to propel him forward. The Avatar snatched the water skin out of the air, and Appa caught him and the falling siblings in one swooping movement of his enormous body just metres before they hit the ocean's white-capped surface.
The bison sailed back into the clouds, grunting as the weight on his back shifted and churned restlessly.
"What the heck, Aang? Are you trying to kill us?" Sokka cried, untangling himself from his sister's body.
"No, but apparently you two are!" Aang shouted back, holding up the nearly empty water skin. "This is our only source of fresh drinking water! We can't keep stopping to get more! You said it yourself!"
Katara blanched as she realized what they'd done. They could tighten their belts and do without food for a couple of days, but without water, they couldn't travel very far. Sokka looked equally shamefaced.
"Aang, I'm sorry, I—"
"Just forget it," Aang huffed, interrupting Sokka's apology. It wasn't like him to be angry, but the weight of the world had suddenly settled heavily on his tiny shoulders. He only had until the Summer Solstice to learn all four elements and it was taking them forever just to get to the North Pole to learn Waterbending. He'd still have earth and fire after that. How long would it take to find a master for each of those elements?
Aang grumpily returned to his seat on Appa's neck, taking up the reins again. Maybe it was better to leave the siblings behind when they reached the North Pole. That way there wouldn't be as many distractions on his long and arduous journey. And there wouldn't be as much danger for either of his two friends.
The thought sobered Aang and he sighed in frustration. He spotted a land mass on the horizon and guided Appa toward it. "We'll stop there for the night. Get some water. Find some food." He said shortly.
The siblings said nothing and the trio made the rest of the trip in terse silence.
The journey was taking its toll on all of them.
"We've been two weeks out of harbour! How are we going to survive if we don't have potable water?"
Prince Zuko barely heard the comment as he stood at the horn-like prow of his Fire Nation ship, gazing at the ocean's wavering horizon. An endless ocean, spilling over the edge of the world… he'd been staring at it for so long now, he didn't know whether to love it, hate it, or fear it.
The ship's lieutenant, Jee, was arguing with Uncle Iroh in hushed but angry tones. While Jee respected Prince Zuko and was convinced the young man would put the safety and well-being of the crew before anything else, the lieutenant observed that Zuko had become even more obsessed with chasing the Avatar lately. And yet, the boy had almost entirely withdrawn from the day-to-day operations of the ship.
Ever since their humiliating departure from Ho'Wan Island, the prince had taken to standing for hours on end at the head of the ship, staring at the wide blue ocean, unmoving. He'd spend the rest of his time meditating, and spoke only when spoken to.
What really disturbed the crew was Zuko's unnatural patience. He had barely spoken to anyone in a voice louder than a whisper. He did not bark orders and insult the staff. He did not pace restlessly. Even his training sessions seemed to lack the intensity they once held. He seemed haunted, or wounded, or both.
But they could all see it. A great storm was brewing inside the scarred, exiled prince. And all sailors know about the calm before the storm. For that reason, the lieutenant had taken to speaking to the prince through his more genial and understanding uncle, the retired General Iroh, who was possibly the only person on earth who was immune to Zuko's moods, threats, or otherwise. When the dam finally broke, Jee would prefer the hefty old man be at the receiving end of Prince Zuko's wrath.
"Nephew," Iroh ambled up next to Zuko. He did not reply. "We're running out of drinking water and we have to stop for supplies soon. Otherwise we'll be eating plain rice and soy sauce for dinner."It sounded like a sombre threat, but Iroh was probably the only one who would take it seriously.
Zuko's eyes did not move from the horizon. "There are plenty of fish in the sea," he said distantly. And he said no more.
Iroh sighed. "Zuko, we will all be mad with thirst if we do not stop to get water. I cannot stress the importance of water enough."
Water… her blue eyes…
Zuko shut his eyes, trying desperately to burn the image from his mind. "Do what you have to." Zuko dismissed him abruptly and headed to his cabin to meditate. He slammed the heavy steel door behind him.
Iroh watched his nephew's retreat, worry furrowing his brow. He headed off to inform the helmsman to land at the nearest island.
...Aw... p'oh Zuko's awll hawt-bwoken...