To Honour the moment
It is with great desperation that I'm applying for the position of part-time fanfiction writer on the Internet. I'm convinced that my growing disgust for anything career-related makes me an ideal candidate for this type of activity.
The last semester has brought me valuable experience in a variety of interesting, serious and useful fields. However it left me with the rather traumatic impression that I had written nothing but cover letters for months. I'm positive that focusing on a useless task will greatly benefit my mental health.
My aim is to make it up to the readers who have been encouraging me, and whom I couldn't even find the motivation to answer to.
Thank you for your consideration. If you require any further information please do not hesitate to leave me the hell alone, at least for the duration of the summer.
Well, that was less fun that it sounded in my head. Um. I'm not dead yet? Just a little tired after the semester, and trying to find my motivation again. Thank you to all those who keep hanging around!
Lunatique helped me correct the second part of "Back where the road collapses" that hadn't been beta-read. Thank you so much, Lunatique! I also tried to re-write the prolog and the third part of "For to dust you shall return", in which it has been proven that I fail at portraying Katara. I hope this improves things a bit.
(Not that it has anything to do with, well, anything, but I haven't started "Legend of Korra" yet, so no spoiler please )
In any case, here is the last part of the first book, "The Cold". Hope you have a good reading!
Chapter 5: Back where the way collapses (3/3)
("We've been lucky, don't you think?" Sokka said, jumping on the walrus caribous' flabby chests to tie them to the sleigh. "A whole herd coming out of the water in winter! They only come on land to mate usually."
"If you say so," the young prince said, shrugging. "I'm not lucky most of the time."
The teenager laughed from his perch.
"Good thing I'm here as well, then.")
Zuko wasn't afraid. So when he first noticed a brief movement out of the corner of his eye, something slithering downhill and vanishing again, he thought it nothing but another wisp of snow.
Clouds had covered the moon; he couldn't see a yard ahead. There was nothing left of the fantastic landscape of the pole but an imprecise graveyard of blue shadows.
Yet another fleeting movement in the dark, closer to the sleigh. This time Zuko distinctly heard heavy flapping, not unlike the sound of great wings. He lifted his head and searched the shadows between the hills, then the sky obstructed with black clouds.
"Don't mind them. A bunch of owl wolves hanging around, is all," he heard Sokka say next to him. "They were probably attracted by the smell."
The peasant had stopped to flatten an expanse of snow with his spear. He resumed pulling the sleigh with a groan, without so much as a glance around. Still, the air was getting filled with the sound of flapping wings. Every time the layer of clouds thinned, Zuko could glimpse white feathers catching the moonlight. Large claws would clench for a second and disappear.
Listening closely, Zuko thought he could hear the snapping of teeth.
The young prince let go of the rope to raise his palm towards the hills and the lurking shadows. Sparks ran along his fingers like small insects of gold, a silent threat.
"Owl wolves," he repeated, tasting the strange name with wariness. "Are you telling me those things are harmless?"
There was a brief hooting. Zuko looked up in time to see a scraggy form fly past them, close enough that he felt the cold air move against his face.
The animal was about the size of a twelve year old child. It flew as though hunched on itself, its white fur taut on thin, hard muscles. It flew away too fast for him to see its face, but once again the prince made out the sound of teeth snapping in the air.
Sokka threw a disinterested look around and shook his head.
"They're scavengers," he explained as he resumed walking. "They feed off walrus caribous corpses. You just ignore them until they get that those two are ours. They never attack men."
Zuko didn't lower his hand.
"You also said walrus caribous never came out of the water before spring…"
The hunter turned towards him. The look in his eyes was hard to decipher in the dark. He too stopped pulling on the rope: the sleigh came to a halt. Suddenly there was nothing to be heard but the polar wind and the scavengers' calls, the large and unpleasant beasts that flew in circles around them like clawed children.
They kept very close to the ground.
"You think they might act weird as well?" Sokka asked, raising his brows. "Use your flames, if you'd rather be careful. It'll be more than enough to scare them away."
Sokka still wasn't paying any attention to the animals around them, as unimpressed as if they were but a swarm of mosquitoes. There was no hint of derision in his advice, though. He hadn't even said "magic flames".
Thus Zuko nodded; a wisp of steam came out of his nostrils as he drew his fist against his side. "Give me a moment," he said, and punched the air. His fire stretched out in an arc above the sleigh, casting orange shadows over the hills. The owl wolves appeared, invading the sky like grotesque monsters from a theatre set, broad white wings standing out in the darkness, clawed paws, shaggy muzzles and yellowish teeth, enormous black, fixed eyes.
A moment passed, and the pack swooped down on them.
Talons grazed his head; Zuko threw himself to the ground and nearly got tangled up in the rope that tied him to the sleigh. Cursing through his teeth, he burned the rope and threw another burst of flames towards the sky. A wing caught fire; a silhouette flew away, jerkily. The young prince was able to stand up again, open palms ablaze, and stare at the assailants in challenge.
He heard a high shriek from his left. Another owl wolf fell, and the curved weapon Sokka called a boomerang came back whistling in his hand. The tribesman had taken his spear and was whirling it around furiously to keep the horde of monsters at bay. When he turned his head towards him, Zuko noticed in the light of his flames that one of the scavengers had made two parallel cuts on his temple.
"You won, damn it!" Sokka yelled, all trace of relaxation wiped from his face. "That's it, Zuko, you're a jinx! At least that's settled!"
The firebender tried to retort, but a white shadow was already aiming for his throat. Flames rose to shield him; they froze the beast in mid-air, and Zuko could only stare at its fixed eyes and wide open jaws filled with sparks, before the burned corpse was sent rolling to the ground.
Incandescent feathers were flying over the battlefield. Their short-lived glow seemed to distort the scavengers' forms. It spread large shadows of teeth, claws and wings on the ground, like shapeless illusions dancing around them, black against the reddish snow. Sometimes Zuko couldn't tell them from the true assailants.
The prince jumped to the side, kicking an owl wolf that had managed to sneak on him. His back collided with the flabby flank of the walrus caribous; he bit back a grimace and used the leverage to raise both arms at the ready. In the reddish darkness he could hear Sokka's halting protests: "Damn you, you're supposed to go away, are you stupid?" Everything else was drowned among the beasts' high shrieks and the blood pulsing through his temples.
He was cold, in spite of the fire spreading along his arteries and pouring out of his feet and hands, a sickly cold that gnawed at his chest. Perhaps the snow in which he had fallen a moment before was to blame: some of it had stuck to the collar of his coat and was slowly melting against his neck, dripping down his back like cold sweat.
His throat hurt. The slight suffocating feeling was almost familiar: a vague, nauseous dizziness that slowed down his moves…
Between each of his attacks the young prince would search the sky, watching the winged monsters' every move with strange fascination. He didn't quite know what disgusted him so much about those things. The eyes, maybe, way too black and wide, that stared at him with surreal fixity.
Or maybe it were those shrieks, unbearably shrill (so different from their usual hooting, could it be normal?), the screeches that filled the night like metal scratching metal, in which he thought he could hear the echoes of laughter.
Zuko froze. Cold seeped into his lungs. He couldn't tell how he was able to light a brighter flame in his hands, to lift his head despite the frost paralysing his spine, and look.
The owl wolf was hovering above his head. Its body was tense, wings beating mightily to keep itself in the air. Its wide eyes fixed him without blinking; its chops were curling up in a snarl to reveal yellowish fangs, glistening with saliva.
On its white shoulder there was a black thing, creeping like a reptile, eyeing him ironically.
The owl wolf stood still, ready to strike. The creature crouching in its fur stretched out its sinuous body and opened an indistinct mouth, rust, there was rust, its jaws were filled with it, Zuko wanted to scream but the cold had sucked up his breath; a lone strangle cry escaped his throat as he threw a jet of flames at the nightmarish spirit. Fire licked the scavenger's neck. Fur filled his field of vision, tore him from the sleigh's support and threw him to the ground.
He couldn't see a thing. The snow was everywhere, paralysing him. Something was digging into his shoulder, the pain, the animal's stinky breath, the cold, white death, numbing fear. Suddenly the weight pinning him to the ground shook, let out a short cry, and the scavenger collapsed on his chest.
Silence. At first all the firebender was aware of was his own fear, a large droning that engulfed him like a wave and made his limbs shiver uncontrollably. His hand blindly searched the beast's fur, his fingers getting stuck in the tangles. At last his fist closed around a handful of warm ashes.
It felt greasy, and abnormally light.
He thought he heard a voice calling his name, but it was very far away, and he still couldn't see a thing through the fog that had invaded his wide-open eyes. He didn't react when two hands grabbed the owl wolf's corpse, removing the claws that had sunk into his shoulder. The sensation of his own blood running against his skin and impregnating his clothes made him feel warmer for a second. He blinked several times, and finally recognized the brown face leaning over him.
From the look of it, Sokka was seriously considering slapping the foreign prince across the face.
"Zuko, can you hear me? Damn it, are you nuts, don't you just lie there bleeding out in the snow!"
Zuko nodded slowly, too stunned to react to the insult. At once Sokka pulled him back on his feet. He forced him to sit on the edge of the sleigh and grabbed his arm to examine the wound. The prince's gaze wandered a little and finally fell on the owl wolf's corpse lying on the ground, its claws bloody and its jaws foaming. A metallic bulge was fixed to its neck like a malformation: the handle of the boomerang that had broken its spine.
"He was two feet away, you moron!" Sokka yelled. "I thought you had him, how can anyone be dumb enough to miss a target when it's two feet away? You're lucky that wound doesn't look deep, what the hell do you want me to do with that, it's a girls' jobto take care of wounds! You can still hear me, right?"
Zuko nodded again, unable to get angry, feeling nothing but the cold and the suffocating bite of fear. He was still scanning the snow with his eyes, watching uncomprehendingly the hills and corpses.
The polar wind had already swept away the smell of his flames. Silence had settled again, a crushing weight.
"Where are the others?" he heard himself ask.
"They ran for it, what else?" Sokka said, releasing his arm to search through his bag." 'bout time, too. What were they thinking, attacking us like that? Animals are getting crazy these days. Still feeling your arm?"
Zuko responded by flexing and un-flexing his fingers, then his wrist and elbow, hardly feeling the pain that spread to his shoulders. His other fist was still tightly clenched around a handful of ashes. Slowly he forced his palm open, and a greasy dust fell to the ground with an imperceptible whisper.
When Zuko spoke again, his voice sounded very far-away to his own ears, strangely neutral:
"When did they run away? When I…missed that one?"
Sokka came back, holding a piece of cloth and what looked like a strap of crudely-tanned leather. His face looked darker than usual: it took the young prince a few seconds to realize that the scratch on his temple had left a broad streak of dry blood on his skin.
"Er, I guess so?" the hunter said, frowning at the dead animal at their feet. "I don't want to shoot you down, but I don't think you had much to do with it, what with your aim. They must have felt that the day was coming…"
"Here", he went on, shoving a handful of snow in his hands. "Clean the wound a little. This strap should keep it from bleeding too much and…I guess that'll do for now. Gran-Gran will fix you up better."
Zuko complied. However his eyes didn't leave the owl wolf and the burned fur on his shoulder, as though fearing something might creep out of the corpse. Even through the cloth the leather was rough against the wound, nearly cutting off his blood circulation. It gave him some protection against the bite of wind, though, that wet, cold wind seeping through the rip in his cloak and creeping up his skin bathed in sweat.
Sokka must have seen him shiver, for he searched another bag and pulled out a large square of fur.
"I took it from the igloo," he said as he handed it to the prince. "Sorry about the smell. Walk, okay? Don't let the blood loss cool you down."
Zuko nodded, holding the rudimentary coat tight around his shoulders. It did smell like seaweed tea, strangely mixing with its strong animal scent.
The sky was growing pale. The sun was rising, still invisible below the horizon. Little by little the shadow of its warmth accelerated the young prince's heartbeat and rid him of his lethargy. At last the shivering in his legs subsided enough for him to stand up. His face was fixed, almost calm. Sokka helped him tying himself to the sleigh and gave him another slice of dried meat. He chewed slowly, each mouthful sticking to his throat as he forced himself to swallow.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Sokka was watching the sleigh laden with two giant beasts indecisively.
"Shit," he said between clenched teeth. "Can you still drag this with your arm? Even I won't be able to carry two walrus caribous on my own. Still, we can't leave one behind! There's no way the stupid sleigh can just move on its own, is there?"
Zuko didn't even try to understand what the other boy might be ranting about and just shook his head to make him shut up. He winded the rope round his free arm and pulled with all his weight in silence, letting the whole world disappear, letting it reduce to nothing but the painful break of dawn and the burden he must drag across the desert of the pole.
Sokka hesitated for a few moments, eyeing him with what almost looked like concern before he shrugged and took his own rope to pull at the firebender's side.
They only reached the village late in the afternoon. During the whole journey Zuko didn't utter a word, drawing from the pale sun the energy for his legs to bear his weight. Sometimes the Water Tribe boy would stop him and make him eat and drink, but Zuko didn't want to drink. He felt as though water would cool him down, snuff him out, disperse the thin fog that separated him from the outside world. From time to time Sokka would ask him short questions about his shoulder or his strengths, and every time the prince answered with a vague nod.
He mustn't think. He methodically counted his steps in the packed snow, lost his count, started again. He mustn't think. He was aware of Agni's slow journey above their head, rising in the sky through the thick layer of clouds to decline again towards the West. A little snow was falling on them. He could feel the pain in his legs and shoulder, the rope biting into his arm and palm. Nothing else.
He didn't hear right away the enthusiastic calls of children hurrying to meet them, and he felt more than he saw the women circle them to drag the sleigh into the village. Somebody untied the rope around his waist. For a moment he was alone among the villagers, deaf and blind, letting the smelly fur slide down his shoulders as he pressed his hands against his knees and listened to the wheezing sound of his breath.
A small circle seemed to have formed around Sokka, who had dropped to a sitting position some distance away. Bits of sentences reached his ears, a feminine voice he thought he had heard before, saying something in a rush, about blood on the hunter's face, about an attack… Zuko straightened up to listen, but at once the girl from the pole was in his face, fists clenched in her gloves, tiny snowflakes dancing before her panic-widened eyes.
"You!" she said, raising her fists as though to beat at his chest. "Tell me, what happened to my brother? An owl-wolf did that, how could you be attacked by an owl-wolf, why didn't you do anything…"
The end of her sentence died on her lips. The fur had fallen, revealing the torn cloak and bloody clothes of the young man. The leather strap had moved as he walked; tiny beads of blood hung to the edge and fell drop by drop in the snow. But it wasn't the wound that had silenced her.
Still and as though bewitched, Zuko was staring back at her. He felt as if he could see himself in the girl's limpid eyes, his disfigured, livid face, his chapped lips, and more than anything his eyes, dilated and wild.
I am scared…
Katara was gripping his cloak, as though paralysed by fear, his own fear, this fear she was fixing in incomprehension, and suddenly Zuko was seized with the urge to take those gloved hands in his and tell her, in a whisper, or maybe in a scream:
They left the ship.
"Katara," he heard Sokka say behind him, cutting his train of thoughts. "We've no idea what happened, okay? Those birds had clearly lost it. And we've been dragging the stupid sleigh for two days, Zuko's bushed. Give him some slack."
The peasant was still sitting in the snow, his head thrown back to face the covered sky, his voice a bit wheezing. That he would talk about Zuko's tiredness in his state should have annoyed Zuko, maybe, he wasn't sure anymore. He didn't say a word, even when the old woman who had healed him came to him, pried him out of Katara's grip and led him to the igloo. He didn't talk when the Avatar tried to approach him, a dozen childish questions on his lips.
His face was still expressionless, but behind his vacant stare something was slowly taking shape, frustration, a feeling of urgency and unfairness, the first sparks of anger.
Something that might, in time, allow him to fight.
The igloo, with the strong smell of furs and the bittersweet scent of the central fire, reminded him of long fevers. An orange half-light washed over him like a warm bath. He sank to his knees and didn't try to get up again. Soon Sokka was pushed into the igloo as well. The old woman told them to get out of their wet clothes, in a patient yet unyielding tone. The peasant complied with a half-hearted grumble, and Zuko himself was too exhausted to take offence at finding himself in the middle of an enemy village in his underwear. Yet again.
He remained entirely passive while the old woman tended to his wound, still lost in his thoughts. She spent some time looking for chilblains on his hands, feet and face before gesturing him to sit by the fire with a satisfied nod. Sokka did try to protest when his grandmother started cleaning the blood from his temple, but a huge yawn cut him short. In the end he let himself be examined, and as soon as the old woman covered him with a blanket he dropped off and started snoring.
A soft smile was playing about the woman's lips. She caressed the boy's head with her callous hand, quiet, as though nothing could reach them across those thin snow walls. Out of the corner of his eye Zuko watched her brush her grandson's hair, then carefully put it up into a ponytail.
The guiltiness hit him like a blow: the sensation of doing something wrong, of betraying someone, and he didn't know why. He slowly moved away from the others.
The old woman must have felt his discomfort, for she lifted her pale slanted eyes to his, and spoke calmly.
"You have seen something, haven't you."
It wasn't a question. Zuko lowered his head, achingly aware of how wide open his unburned eye was, how tense his brow and the rest of his face, as though the swarm of the owl wolves was still imprinted on his mind. He didn't answer. Couldn't. Not here, not now. He was almost naked, alone and vulnerable and something was hunting him outside, how fast, how well…no, he couldn't answer.
The old woman didn't seem fazed by his silence. She straightened up, laboriously, and picked up the teenagers' clothes, furrowing her brows at the torn cloak of the prince. Then she left him alone to stare at the flames.
It was quiet: there was nothing to be heard but the fire's crackling and Sokka's snores, muffled by the blanket. The scent of furs hovered around him, a scent he had inhaled for days on end during his illness, mixed with his own sweat, so that it had ended up feeling familiar and almost comforting. Zuko wrapped himself up in a blanket and shivered, blowing steam out of his chapped nostrils.
They left the ship.
The sentence was seeping into his mind like cold water, freezing all other thoughts. Everything else came in a jumble: the greasy dust he had held in his fist; the strange behaviour of the animals of the South Pole. There was still a little time before nightfall, those creatures came with darkness, would they come… The thin walls protecting the village; the creatures' sardonic eyes. Was it their presence that had disturbed the animals, frightened them out of their habits?
Or could those spirits control them, and they had used the owl wolves' sense of smell to find him?
Find him. So it's really me they're after…
Zuko closed his eyes, tightly. They left the ship. His ears were buzzing; it hurt to think. The urgency was there, as well, a hysterical urge to move immediately drowned by exhaustion. They will find me. Unfairness, anger, a small ember that might rise up and fight, later on. I'm scared.
In Agni's name, why was he scared? Why was he shocked? Had he somehow convinced himself that those things had disappeared along with the rest of his ship? That they couldn't exist outside the rusted corridors, that surely they would vanish if they ventured outside, like the vague shadows of a nightmare?
That they weren't real.
That they were weak. Too weak to have been able to kill his uncle…
They are, Zuko thought with all his might. He was absent-mindedly rubbing the tip of his fingers, where rust had encrusted under his nails and irritated his skin. It took them a whole week to find me; they are weak and they are slow. They couldn't touch me. I even burned one of them.
I can do it again.
That last thought soothed him somewhat. When he lied down, as close to the flames as he could, he was even able to doze off, a restless sleep broken with memories and nightmares. He dreamed of hunting in the snow, along metal corridors; he dreamed of chases where he couldn't tell the prey from the predator. As he ran he remained aware of Sokka's snoring besides him and of the fire's warmth on his face. He tried to wait for nightfall, to follow the slow setting of the sun with his mind, the wave of darkness and cold that would soon swallow the little snow fortifications.
In the end he didn't know what belonged to the dream or to the outside world. He felt the sun set five times over. Owl wolves covered in rust danced in the flames and laughed shrilly, but he was too tired to be afraid. He dreamed that he was sleeping, curled up in the centre of the igloo, and Katara, the waterbending girl, was sitting by his side, hugging her knees. Her dark face was almost buried in the collar of her parka, hiding the round cheeks, the snub nose. Her eyes didn't leave the exit, as though keeping watch. It was a comforting thought; she knew (what did she know? In his dream he was convinced he had talked to her), she knew, he wasn't alone…
And the next second he was shaken by the shoulders. The cloth of dream ripped and Sokka appeared in his field of vision with a grin on his face, the cut already healed on his temple.
"Zuko, oi, you hearing me? Are you feeling better?"
The prince sat up and nodded, disoriented. He had slept with his valid arm trapped under his body, and his fingers felt a little numb. He moved them absent-mindedly. His blood circulation felt unpleasantly slow.
"…What time is it?" he asked.
"Night!" Sokka said brightly, without seeming to notice the crispation of the prince's hands. "The women have finished cutting up the first walrus caribou, and now we have fresh meat man, it's a party! Gran-Gran says you should sleep some more, but you're not gonna miss it, right?"
Zuko was still in a state of hazy wonderment that nightmarish monsters had yet to jump at his throat, and didn't quite process the chatter. He instinctively frowned at the word "party", thrown back for a moment to the nightly frivolities his uncle had had the embarrassing urge to organize on his ship.
But his ship had collapsed now. And his uncle, his crew…
He threw back his blanket and shook his head vehemently. Escaped, they must have escaped. Somewhere out of the pole. Guon's port, perhaps. If he could just go there and find clues…
Above him, the tribesman slapped him happily on the shoulder and shoved a pile of clothes into his hands.
"I knew it! We're men, it takes more than a little hunt to get to us. But try explaining that to your grandmother. We're waiting for you outside, okay?"
Before Zuko could realize the misunderstanding and try to protest, Sokka had already left. All the prince could do was stare accusingly at the igloo's entrance. Then his attention was drawn to the pile of clothes, suspiciously heavy and blue in his hands.
They had taken the trouble to get him the clothes he had brought back from his ship, but the too big parka that went along with the rest was most definitely Water Tribe. Zuko ran his fingers along the thick furs that trimmed the collar, frustrated and confused.
And like the damn fur coat wasn't enough, Sokka had just been talking to him like they were comrades, or something. Now that he thought about it, Zuko himself had at some point gotten used to calling him by his name, as though suddenly this Water Tribe person had become something more than an anonymous, backwards peasant lost in a wasteland. As though his not being Fire Nation or even a bender didn't make him inferior.
And he and the other villagers were waiting for him. To throw a party.
In Agni's name, just when had the world gotten so weird?
Zuko slipped on his clothes and, after a long hesitation, the foreign coloured parka. It fell almost to his knees, and only the tip of his fingers stuck out from the sleeves: the parka had obviously belonged to a much older man. Zuko must look like a fool with that thing.
It didkeep him warm, though.
He could hear laughter from outside. He didn't feel so tired anymore. And it probably wouldn't do him much good to keep hiding in here. Zuko put on his boots and came out.
The clouds were low in the sky, smothering the village under heavy, moving darkness. He couldn't see the snow fortifications from where he was. They are slow. They have to be. Powder snow was falling, planting invisible bites on his face and neck.
A fire had been lit in the centre of the village, larger than what he had been used to see at the South Pole, radiant enough that its light spread over the tents. The foreigners' faces shone with the glow of the flames. He could even see theirs hands, freed of the heavy gloves and reaching for the food and warmth.
Some of the laughter died down when he appeared, but the next moment Sokka was walking towards him and making fun of his too-large clothes. Children giggled, the faces relaxed, and before he could grasp what on earth was going on Zuko was pushed towards the campfire, and the circle closed in around him. Someone pulled the parka's hood down over his eyes before he could protest.
The pieces of meat gave off a strong smell as they roasted. They dripped with grease that was collected in bone containers and passed around. Sokka's grandmother put one of those bowls in his hands. In a fairly recent past the young prince would probably have been repelled by this bloody slab of meat swimming in its own fat.
He nodded, thankful, and immediately started eating.
He was also given something other than meat, at last. A few berries, as well as the dried fruits he had brought from the wreckage of his ship. Rising his eyes, he noticed that the Avatar, sitting on the other side of the fire, was holding a handful of those. Of course, airbenders and their vegetarian ways. The boy seemed rather ill at ease for once; he hadn't even noticed Zuko's presence in front of him. In a way that was good news: the prince felt neither awake nor furious enough to restart the strange conversation they had had nearly two days before.
The Avatar was throwing quick glances at Katara who, all distress or anger forgotten, laughed at her brother's stories and bit enthusiastically into the walrus caribou's flesh. The monk's gaze lingered with quiet mortification on the girl's greasy fingers and small teeth busy tearing the meat apart. Funny how the dark skin made her teeth look so white. Zuko lowered his head.
The flames' heat licked his face. The snowdrift was dancing above their faces without the cold reaching them. There was quite a lot of noise; the twenty-something villagers grouped in a circle seemed almost many all of a sudden. By his side, Sokka talked louder than everyone else, narrating their hunt with a lot of broad gestures, puffing out his chest. His tale was getting wilder by the minute, but Zuko didn't try to interrupt him. He had never been much of a story-teller after all.
He didn't say a word. Sometimes his face would scrunch into a frown, worry or tiredness. He wasn't sure what he wanted at the moment. For his uncle to be there, a little. For the day to rise, of course. For the circle of smiling strangers to detach itself from him and give him space enough to rekindle his resolve. There was no space. The southern Water Tribe seemed to have forgotten his homeland: blue parkas pressed against him to get closer to the fire, and there was even a toddler sitting against his leg.
A little alarmed, Zuko watched it play with the tip of his boot and drool on it with an air of deep satisfaction. He wanted to push it towards its mother, but he barely recognized any of the faces around him, and he didn't even know the name of the child.
Names. How many names had he bothered to remember in nineteen days? Three, at the most. Two and a half, since he still refused to use the Avatar's name. He hadn't even tried to knw the first thing about the old woman who had healed him, with her cool hands, and whom Sokka and Katara called "Gran-Gran".
But what did it matter, really? He had no intention of staying here.
His guts knotted inexplicably. He had to push his bowl away. Standing before the fire, Sokka had just finished his story. He seemed to have thought it useful to add a dozen owl wolves to their fight, as well as a second aggression by some creature he didn't even know the name of. Women started singing, a song in praise of warriors and hunters, with a smile on their lips. The child was pressing like a dead little weight of furs against his leg, and seemed about to fall asleep.
Zuko would often look beyond the circle, searching the dark where snowdrift swirled without ever touching the ground. Flames drew ephemeral shadows against the tents. If he paid attention he could hear the wind howling behind the screen of human voices, the freezing polar wind that raged beyond the village's wall.
The vague sick feeling in the pit of his stomach wouldn't leave him, the frustration and uneasiness, the feeling he was doing something wrong. He couldn't help starting at imaginary sounds and looking over his shoulder for the sinuous shadow of a reptile.
No one seemed to notice his strange behaviour, though. The cold had grown bitter: most of the villagers had left, putting their children to sleep before they could doze off in the snow, stuffed as they were with food and stories. The little weight pressing against him was taken away.
In the sparser group, Sokka and Katara had scooted closer to the Avatar so they could listen together to the stories their grandmother told. They had done this very naturally, it seemed, as though they should never part again. The monk had forgotten all of his discomfort towards meat-eaters and was leaning against Katara's shoulder, his light nomad clothes an odd contrast to her blue parka, a sleepy smile on his face. There was something wounding in this scene.
Really, what was he waiting for?
The old woman was telling them tales about the balance between the elements, of course. Zuko kept out of the way, and feigned to listen to the story of a war between the sun and the moon above the pole, which was said to have plunged the Water Tribe in the dark for six months, then in the blazing sun for six others, nearly getting them all mad.
Slowly, Zuko moved away from the fire. No reaction. He waited for a few more seconds, breathing in deep as though he was about to dive, and then he tore himself from the warmth of the flames and vanished between the tents.
The wind whistling around his steps seemed to carry the echoes of a victorious laughter, but it could be his imagination. Zuko made his way in the dark, as stealthy as his too-big parka would allow him.
The Avatar hadn't sensed the spirits coming their way, it seemed. Maybe his lack of experience was to blame. Maybe the creatures were much farther away than he had imagined.
Or maybe Aang couldn't feel them because it was Zuko they were hunting.
He breathed out, deep. One.
If he could walk all the way to the strait he had a chance at finding clues, and a boat he would be able to sail. Two.
The Southern Water Tribe had forgotten to hate him.
That made three good reasons to get the hell out of here.
Zuko reached the tent that had been lent to him. There wasn't much to do: his bag was ready; his dual swords sheathed just next to it. The blanket he slept in was folded, a symbolic task he did every single morning since he had been stranded here, as though he didn't intend to come back the following night.
The prince had a moment of hesitation when he saw his cloak neatly folded among his other belongings. The tear made by the claws of the owl wolves had been mended with blue threads that, no matter how fine the work, contrasted sharply with the crimson cloth. His cloak seemed to bear, against all patriotism, a little Water Tribe bar at the place of his heart.
The irony of it wasn't much compared to everything that had happened ever since he had set foot in this village, Zuko thought. He made a face as he put the cloth around his shoulders, and stopped thinking about it.
The snow was falling harder outside. The clouds were dark and low: Zuko could only feel the rise of the sun through the slight acceleration of his heartbeat and breath. He couldn't see much at a distance. That was good, Zuko decided as he carefully walked around the sleeping bison and reached the village's entrance (one of the six giant legs shivered as the firbender came near, but the animal didn't wake up). He had no intention of explaining himself to the villagers, or worse, of having to wonder whether it would have been more appropriate to at least say goodbye.
Zuko gritted his teeth and left into the ice field, tightening his cloak against the ever-falling snow.
He tried not to think of what his uncle would say if he could see him now.
"Isn't it better like this?" he muttered to the absent old man. "Sokka has already been attacked by those creatures. I can't let them come to the village when I swore to the Avatar they would be safe, it's a matter of honor. And they just might be weird enough to try and talk me out of it."
A wisp of wind was his sole answer. The snow didn't seem about to recede, but the invisible dawn was giving him strength. And walking felt so easy now that he had no laden sleigh to drag behind him. He found his way as carefully as he could in the poor light, pushed westwards by the heat of the sun in his back. Looking about him, he even found the marks of the sleigh, guiding him to the easier paths Sokka had shown him during their hunt.
Zuko walked until noon without too much trouble, but the veil of snow that fell on him was getting thick. He wasn't progressing nearly as fast as he had hoped: his view was blocked, and the wind was lashing against him with growing fierceness. After a while he had to stop. Agni was but a distant point of warmth, growing fainter in the cold fog. The wind might lead him astray at this rate, and what then?
He looked around, uncertain, but could see nothing beyond the snow that fell before his eyes. The wall of clouds was too thick for daylight to pass through. Only a hazy whitish glow hung in the air. The night might as well have never ended.
Zuko frowned. He strained his ear, but couldn't hear anything through the howling of the wind. No shadow. No light. He knelt to search the ground. The snow was already covering his footprints. He could still see the deeper marks of the sleigh, but for how long? The cold hurt his phalanx. He grunted in annoyance and urged his body heat down his limbs. A puff of steam came out of his lips and was lost in the wind.
In Agni's name, he couldn't be about to get lost in the middle of a storm…
He shook his head and set off again. He put all his concentration in keeping the marks of the sleigh in sight, almost leaning against the wind to counter its strength. If he could go on that way until the sky cleared, everything would be fine. His fire was held him up. Some of his gestures pulled at his wounded shoulder, but the pain was easy enough to ignore. He tried to quicken his pace, and at once hail started battering his face. He breathed out a puff of steam, nearly spit it in the storm, as though to drive away the sudden feeling of cold and helplessness.
The night might as well have never ended. The wind whistled against his ears like a sardonic laughter. Zuko clenched his fists.
The feeling of being watched. It was here again.
"And what do you think?" He said, unable to hear his own voice in the storm. "That I'm coward enough to be afraid of you during the day?"
This time the shrill sound that echoed in the fog was unmistakably a snigger. Zuko was walking faster and faster. Black things were starting to appear at the corner of his vision, crawling towards him and vanishing again. The firebender tried to breath deeper, to feed the fire in his lungs, but the wind tore the flames from his hands as soon as he could create them. Hailstones struck his face and scratched his temples.
A gust of wind made him lose his balance. He tried to run but the snow gave way under his foot. He sunk to the knee and fell to the ground.
The cold wetness bit the scar on his eye, but he had no time to cry out. He blindly seized the strap of his bag, rolled over on his back and threw a lance of fire towards the sky. There was a high scream. Greasy dust spattered his face. Chocking, the prince shut his eyes to not see the creeping shadows crouch and jump with the disgusting elasticity of rat-worms, to not see again their jaws filled with rust…
Don't you dare touch me!
A stream of fire fell from his lips. For a second it covered him whole, the monsters screamed a second time and he was able to rise up. Melted snow stuck to his clothes and neck. He couldn't see a thing through the steam that rose from his skin, he was dizzy with disgust and rage. Under his nails he could feel the bits of iron digging into his flesh, hurting him.
Zuko yelled as he felt something collide with his back, but it was only one of the hailstones; they had grown nearly as large as his fist. The creatures were hiding yet again, cowards, cowards, what are you waiting for? Fight me! Hands ablaze, the teenager rushed at random. He had no idea which way was west any longer, the storm had swallowed the sun, he was alone.
His hood had fallen at some point. Hailstones scratched his naked head like claws. The wind whipped his face and chest, slowed him down. Its noise was deafening, the world was filled with whistles and wails, calls that almost sounded like human voices. Still the mad laughter was the loudest of all, Agni, make them shut up, hadn't he just burned several of them?
The bag on his shoulder and the swords in his hand were hindering him, but he didn't even think of letting go. He rose his free arm before his face to protect his eyes from the hail, but it blocked what little vision he had. The wind made him stumble with every step. He tried to face his enemies but the world was spinning, a dirty white filled with invisible black monsters, no, I won't be afraid.
He breathed in and almost chocked on the frost that seemed to fill his throat, but still he was able to tear his leg from the grip of snow and bring his knee to his chest. He tried to guide his inner fire to the sole of his foot, strike them again. But it would never work, he knew, the wind was already stealing away his balance, his focus, everything was lighting out. With a blind rage he struck the empty air with his heel…
And suddenly the storm was torn apart.
The wind gathered and rose, pierced the clouds. The hailstones were blown away, whistling as though thrown by a sling, and daylight fell on him, blinding. A white monster dived in the eye of the storm.
"Zuko! Your hand!"
He held out his arm without thinking. A dark hand seized his own, and he was flattened against the white fur. Suddenly there was no ground under his feet and his legs were dangling in the void, whipped by the wind. Bewildered, breath halting, he only saw the airbender out of the corner of his eye: tongue sticking out in concentration, driving out the storm with large motions of his staff. Sokka was gripping his cloak in exasperated efforts to haul him onto the saddle.
"You're nuts!" he heard Sokka yell through the raging wind. "Worse than nuts, a psycho! I swear there must be a sea tarantula eating into your brain. Help me, damn it!"
Zuko grunted slightly in protest. He managed to lift his arm to put his bag and swords to then sunk his nails into the leather of the saddle and pressed the tip of his boots against the bison's flank, looking for support. Some sick reflex made him look to the ground before climbing up.
Black forms were crawling on the ice fields, hard to make out with all the falling snow, more numerous than Zuko had imagined. Tiny amber eyes stared back at him, glowing sardonically even as the distance grew between them. Zuko tightened his grip and looked away.
"Nuts!" Sokka repeated when the prince was finally hauled on the saddle. "And still a jinx, by the way. You know what's great with you? Next to all the crazy things you pull out, a giant flying bison and some kid waking up from his iceberg to tell us we're gonna save the world? Seems perfectly normal to me."
The bison had risen above the last clouds, white strips clinging to his legs. He let out a pleased growl as he let himself glide on the calmer air, the pale sun of the pole shining on his fur. Zuko gazed at the empty sky, gripping his wounded shoulder, dizzy with wonder. The hole in the storm had closed up. The silence was deep, surreal. The Avatar lowered his airbending staff and crouched on the head of his giant mount, trying to find back his breath. He turned towards the two teenagers, grimacing a smile despite his tiredness:
"Zuko was trying to rescue his men, Sokka. That's not crazy."
The boy tried to say more, but a huge yawn interrupted him. He smiled again, sleepily, and lied down on his belly in front of them.
"But you know, Zuko, you should have asked us for help instead of going alone like this. Didn't you hear Gran Gran warn us about the snowstorm? It's dangerous on foot. Also, we had a deal: you make sure the village won't get into trouble for having welcomed me, and we help you find your men. You haven't forgotten, have you?"
"We'll keep searching the pole for a while," he went on. "If we can't find your crew anywhere we'll leave. Then, you'll just have to tell us in which port you want to stop by and look for them. Is that fine by you? We, we go to the North pole, but I've lots of places to show Sokka and Katara on the way, so we're not in too much of a hurry!"
The firebender blinked, slowly. The boy sounded tired, but otherwise relaxed and happy. He threw a glance at Sokka: he too wasn't afraid or even tense, and just rose his eyebrows at him. Zuko gritted his teeth and looked over the saddle once again, but there was nothing to be seen any longer. The thick blanket of clouds spread as far as the eye could see, swallowing the ice field in another shade of white.
The airbender kept talking, missing the prince's agitation.
"So you see, I'm trying to be a responsible Avatar now. I was about to go alone, but Sokka and Katara asked to come with me, and Gran Gran told us it must be our destiny to save the world together. Isn't that great? And for that too, you helped, you know: if you and Sokka hadn't managed to find all that food for the tribe, it would have been harder to leave them on their own…"
"Didn't you see anything?" Zuko interrupted him, his voice a little strained.
It was the airbender's turn to raise his eyebrows at him in puzzlement.
"Like what?" Sokka retorted after a pause. "That there was a storm going on and that it was a shitty idea to go out in that weather? You know what, Zuko? Sleep a little."
The prince threw him a furious glance and sunk back sullenly into the saddle. That some nonbender had passed by a whole pack of spirits without even a slight feeling of discomfort, he could understand. But the Avatar? Couldn't the idiot kid have spent enough time in his temple to receive a proper training?
His hands were still shaking since his fight in the storm, as though ice had entered his arteries. His fingers and toes hurt as his blood pulsed through them, as though his mood wasn't sour enough as it was. In Agni's name, what would his father say if he could see him sitting on the Avatar's mount like this?
There was his truce, of course. The necessity to find his uncle and men. That had to count for something.
And the creatures probably wouldn't be able to follow him up in the air… Zuko shook his head to drive away this last thought, and let his eyes wander around him.
He started when he saw Katara kneeling at the far end of the saddle, facing away from their course. He watched her profile carefully, a little surprised that she hadn't yet tried to drown him in a stream of abuse, as she had done once. If anything, it would have seemed more normal than the rest, what with the Avatar and the Water tribesman chattering animatedly about their next stop, as though taking the banished prince of the Fire Nation as a passenger didn't sound at all like an ethical issue to them.
She didn't say a word. Her dark skin had turned grey. Even through the mittens her hands were visibly clenched on the edge of the saddle. Yet it wasn't the young prince she was looking at with fear, uncertainty, and a vague repulsion.
Fixed as though it could pierce the clouds, Katara's stare didn't leave the ground.
Next book: The rust
(If I actually manage to write it before the next century or so...)