A/N: OK, if you've already read this chapter, there's no need to read it again. I didn't really change it, I just fixed a few typos. I figured I might as well re-post it while I was posting the next chapter. Thanks to Obwohl who kindly let me know that I still had some mistakes in here. I have a little OCD problem, I'm obsessed with grammar mistakes and misspellings and typos. I hate having them in my writing so I appreciate it when people point them out! To me, even if there are only a few a people reading my story, I still want it to be the best it can be. Hopefully, it is now!
The voice was quiet at first, barely a whisper. So quiet in fact, that the teenager was easily able to pretend he hadn't heard it.
"Zuko? Zuko, wake up." The voice was slightly louder now, but soothing. It was accompanied by a soft hand on his shoulder.
"Come on Prince Zuko. You've been ill, but it's time to wake up now." The voice washed over him like a warm, comforting wave, but the young prince still resisted.
"Prince Zuko, I need your help. Please wake up." Zuko felt a cool hand press against his forehead. This simple act was even more soothing than the voice. "How are you feeling, Prince Zuko?"
The banished prince allowed his eyes to flutter open just enough to see a woman sitting on the edge of his bed. He was unable to make out her face, but she had very long, dark hair and was wearing what appeared to be a long red cloak. Could it be?
"No." The sadness in the woman's voice matched Zuko's own emotions. "I'm sorry Prince Zuko. Maybe someday, but not today." As she spoke, her hand drifted from his forehead to his chest. It came to rest directly above his heart and gave Zuko an intense feeling of deja vu. The fog in his head began to clear and suddenly Zuko was struck with the realization that his ship had not one female crew member, and it was therefore impossible for a woman to be in his cabin.
"Wait. Who-" Zuko sat up as much as his fever-riddled head would allow and blinked for a moment while his vision stopped swimming. But as soon as he was able to get a good look at his uninvited guest, the room began spinning again.
The woman sitting on the edge of his bed was not his mother. In fact, she was barely a woman at all. And she, of all people definitely should not have been in his cabin.
"You -" How the hell? "What are you doing on my ship, Peasant?" He spoke before he thought better of it. He was, after all, still not completely recovered and lying in bed in just his underpants and she was sitting above him, fully clothed with her hands on his chest. Zuko prepared himself for her inevitable reaction to his insult but it didn't come. In fact she didn't even look angry. She looked as though she had been expecting his outburst.
"Could you please not call me that, Prince Zuko? I do have a name you know."
What? That's it? No water whip to the face? "Yeah, I know."
"You know my name?"
"Oh, no. I uh… just meant that I know you have a name."
OK, this is just odd. "What are you-"
"I've been on your ship for a few days now Prince Zuko." The girl stood up and walked across the room to his desk. There was a basin filled with water and a cloth that Zuko's uncle had been using to cool his forehead during the fever. The girl held her hand above the basin and Zuko watched the water slowly spiral up to meet her fingers and then back down to the bowl. "You've been pretty sick. Some things have been happening that you are not aware of. Things you may not approve of." As she spoke the girl held the red cloak she was wearing tighter around her and Zuko thought he saw her shudder.
"What things? I mean, besides the Avatar's waterbender sneaking onto my ship completely unnoticed by any of my crew?" As Zuko spoke the girl closed her eyes and turned away from him. This time there was no mistaking it. She was trembling and she took a shaky breath before answering.
"Actually, a number of your crew do know I'm here. You've been sick and your uncle has been caring for you so they haven't had much trouble keeping me a secret."
None of this made any sense. What was she doing on his ship? Did she come alone to attack him or was the Avatar on his ship somewhere also? And what was that she said about his crew keeping her a secret? Were they in cahoots with the Avatar? And, what was she wearing? It wasn't a cloak, Zuko could see that now.
"What are you wearing?"
At this question the girl looked up and smiled sheepishly. "Your bed sheet."
"My bed sheet?" Zuko lifted his bedspread and looked under it. His top sheet was gone.
"Yes, I needed to borrow it. I hope you don't mind."
"Why… how... never mind." She would just give him one of those infuriatingly vague answers anyways. "I do mind, you have no right to touch my things." Zuko held out his hand and the girl's smile faded. "Give it back."
For a moment she didn't move and Zuko thought she was going to refuse. Then what would he do? Get out of bed in his underpants and fight her for it? Thankfully she stepped forward and took off the sheet, to hand it over. Zuko barely felt the silky material slide through his fingers like water and fall to the floor. He was too busy taking in the scene in front of him to notice anything else.
The girl stood with her head turned to the side and tilted down, her eyes on the floor. Her left arm hung at her side, while her right arm was crossed over her chest. Zuko's gaze traveled from her face to her feet and back up again. He now understood why she had
been clinging so tightly to his bed sheet - she was in her underwear. The bright white wrappings were not terribly revealing, but they made a sharp (and quite stunning) contrast against her tanned skin. Zuko noted that even though she was technically covered, the wrappings still showed off every curve of her well-toned figure. He tore his eyes from her body to look back at her face. She looked embarrassed and afraid, and Zuko almost felt guilty for making her give back his sheet. Almost. He was still a teenaged boy. After a moment he cleared his throat and tried to speak, mentally berating himself when his voice cracked. Wasn't he too old for that?
"Where… uh, what happened to your clothes?"
Still refusing to look at him, the girl gave a small, sad smile.
"I've had a bad few days."
Zuko didn't ask what she meant. He was trying to piece together the odd things she had said earlier with this newest statement, but his brain seemed to be moving slower than normal. After a minute or two the girl spoke again.
"Do you want to know why I came to you?"
"Oh. Uh, yeah. Yes."
"I can help you."
"What?" He couldn't help his harsh tone, nor did he want to. He was a prince. She was a peasant. What help could she possibly be to him? "What makes you think I need your help?"
"I don't think you need my help."
"I know you need my help."
"What? How can you-"
"I can help you find the Avatar."
"Then you can both go to the Fire Nation and end this war."
"Don't you want this war to end? Don't you want to go home?"
"Don't you want to regain your throne? Your honor?"
"OK, hold on! You expect me to believe that you want to help me capture the Avatar? You're really going to help me deliver the Avatar to my father so he can take down the Earth Kingdom, take over the world, and then rename me as his heir?"
"No?" Was she purposely not making any sense?
"You're not going to deliver the Avatar to your father, you're going to take the Avatar to the Fire Nation with you so he can help you end this war peacefully. The Earth Kingdom will not be taken down, it will be taken back. And you will have to fight for your right to sit on the throne as Fire Lord. But I'll be there to help you with that as well."
"What do you mean 'end the war peacefully'?"
"Well, as peacefully as possible. This war has been going on for a hundred years only because the Fire Nation Royal Family has been ruthless in its desire to dominate the world. But if the head of the royal family were stopped-"
"Are you suggesting I fight my own father? I can't do that. I need to bring the Avatar to him in chains. Then my father will restore my honor and I will once again be heir to the throne."
"What does Fire Lord Ozai know about honor?!" She was angry now. She seemed to have forgotten that she was in her underwear, and she was making animated hand gestures as she yelled. "How can you look for approval from a man who made a public spectacle of humiliating and scarring his own son? He gave you that burn because you stood up for people who were unable to stand up for themselves. He punished you for doing the right thing. He calls you weak, but you are a stronger man than he will ever be. Your love and respect for your father kept you from fighting against him and how did he repay you? By giving you that mark and sending you out on a wild goose-pigeon chase! He never expected you to find the Avatar. He never wanted you to come home. And then, after what happened at the North Pole, after losing almost his entire Northern Fleet, was he thankful that his only son had survived? No! Instead, he sent your sister to arrest you, to bring you back to the Fire Nation in shame. Do you really think that he will ever accept you back as his son, even if you do capture the Avatar? Do you really want him to? Do you really want a man like that to be proud of you? If you succeed in this quest, will you be proud of yourself? If you were able to capture a child, and deliver him to your father in chains, would you truly be able to live with yourself?"
"The suffering of one innocent per-"
"One?! You think no one else has suffered due to this war? That about Song? What did your people do with her father? And what did she do to deserve that horrible burn on her leg? What about almost a hundred earthbenders imprisoned on a mining ship for no other reason than being a threat to the Fire Nation's 'great legacy?'" The last two words were spoken with much sarcasm and the girl made air-quotes with her fingers and rolled her eyes as she spoke. "And what about that little boy, Lee? What about his brother and what his parents are going through? What about the people of the Water Tribes? The South Pole has been nearly decimated and Zhao's forces almost destroyed the North Pole as well. What about your uncle? He lost his only son due to this war." The girl hesitated for a moment, then spoke in a much softer voice. "Zuko, what about your mother? How much has this war cost her?"
"You don't get it." Zuko was angry, but not sure if it was at her or himself. Or maybe his father. He pushed the thoughts of his mother and what she would think of his actions these past few months to the back of his mind. He wondered how this girl could know so much about his life, but continued to argue with her. "Bringing the Avatar to my father is the only way I'll ever have a chance at the throne. It may be a long shot but it's all I have. I'm Ozai's first-born, I should be heir to the throne. I should be the crown-prince of the Fire Nation. I can't give up on that. It's my destiny to capture the Avatar and if I can do that, maybe I can prove to my father that I'm not worthless."
"Zuko, you are a prince. It's in your blood and no one can take that away from you. You are meant to sit on that throne and rule the Fire Nation. But how you get there is up to you. You need to ask yourself some big questions; Who are you? And what do you want?"
"I want my honor. My throne. My country. Without the Avatar, I'll lose them all."
"Maybe, but where is the honor in capturing a child?"
A wave of emotion hit Zuko, making him light-headed. The girl was speaking the truth, but it was difficult to accept it because he had been in denial for so long. To admit it was true would be too painful and besides, he had heard all this before from Uncle.
"I know my own destiny!"
"Is it your own destiny, or is it a destiny that someone else has tried to force on you?"
It was too much for the exiled prince to take in and the room started spinning again. The girl gently pushed Zuko back against his pillows and sat back down beside him. She looked down at him with compassion in her eyes and put her hand on his forehead. She seemed thoughtful for a moment then leaned over and pressed her lips where her hand had been, trying to judge his temperature. Zuko closed his eyes. His mom used to do the same thing when he was younger and it had always been very comforting for him. But the familiar gesture, when done by this girl, invoked some new feelings in him.
"You should get some rest Prince Zuko. Things are about to get a little crazy for you." As the girl spoke, she lifted her left hand. Across the room, the water lifted out of the basin, forming a bubble around the cloth. She turned her hand palm-up and wiggled her fingers, beckoning the water to her, carrying the cloth with it. She took the cloth and began wringing it out over the bubble. The she motioned with her hand again and the water floated back to the basin. As she put the cool cloth gently on his forehead, he studied her wrist. It was small and very tanned. It looked petit and delicate, but he knew the power it held, especially when she was angry.
Zuko closed his eyes and tried to clear his head. He wondered if he was dreaming. He had to be. It was the only way this girl could know so much about his past and about his constant inner turmoil. It was the only explanation. Although, if this were really happening it would be the perfect chance to get his hands on the Avatar. Everything the girl said made sense, but he wasn't sure if he really wanted to assist in the takedown of his own father. Zuko was still clinging to his dream of gaining Ozai's acceptance and it wouldn't hurt for him to take the girl up on at least part of her offer. He decided to go along with her plan to find the Avatar. Maybe he would join them, but if he chose not to it would be much easier to capture the Avatar if he had already earned the group's trust. He sighed before speaking.
"So, when do we leave to go find the Avatar?"
The girl took a moment to answer. Zuko lay with his eyes closed while he waited for her to collect her thoughts.
"Not right away. First I need-" She stopped abruptly and when she started speaking again her voice sounded strained, like she was trying to keep from crying. "I need your help. I'm not safe here. They won't kill me because I'm more valuable alive, but they have other things planned for me while they wait for you. Things worse than death. And the threat of punishment from you won't hold them off for much longer."
She was crying now and she sounded scared. She was still holding the moist cloth on his forehead and Zuko could feel her hand shaking. He opened his eyes to ask her what she meant and received a gruesome shock. Her pretty little wrist had a mark on it that wasn't there a moment ago. It was about two inches thick and wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet. It was also covered in angry red blisters, almost like a burn mark. Zuko sat up and grabbed her arm, realizing too late that he should have been more gentle. When she whimpered in pain he loosened his grip slightly, but didn't let go.
"What happened to your-" His voice caught in his throat as he looked up. Her shoulders and upper arms were covered in bruises and there was a burn on her neck. The burn, Zuko noticed, was wrapped around her throat in the shape of a rather large hand. Her wrappings, which moments ago had been clean and white, were now torn and covered in dirt and what could have been blood. Her stomach and legs were burned and bruised as well. The same odd marks that encircled her wrists were also on her ankles. She had her head turned away from him so he couldn't tell if the injuries extended to her face. He cautiously reached up and touched her chin. When she didn't protest he turned her face gently so he could get a better look at it. It wasn't nearly as bad as he had expected. She looked tired and defeated, her face was pale and her eyes had gray circles beneath them. The only thing that looked hurt though was her lower lip. It was kind of swollen and just to the left of it was an oddly shaped mark. It was actually a pattern of small, individual bruises. Zuko was horrified to realize that it was probably a bite mark. He wanted to ask her what had happened, who had done this to her, but chose not to. He didn't think she'd give him a straight answer. And in all honesty, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He tried to get her to look at him. She couldn't turn her face away because Zuko was still holding her chin, but she kept her eyes on the floor. When she spoke her voice sounded raw and gravelly, as though her throat had been injured.
"I told you, I've had a bad few days."
Zuko wasn't sure where it was coming from but he was flooded with emotions he couldn't understand. He wanted to comfort this girl and protect her. He wanted to find the people who did this to her and really, really hurt them. He wanted to get out of his bed and run as far away as possible. What was wrong with him? He shouldn't be feeling this way about her, she was a peasant. She was the enemy, the biggest obstacle between himself and the Avatar. If not for her, Zuko would probably have captured the little monk and been on his way home months ago. In fact, her current condition would probably make his task much easier. Besides, he had no place feeling concern for her, especially after all the pain he himself had caused her.
But something had changed. She had offered to help him get home, something he was beginning to think impossible. And with her help, he could reach his goal without having to hurt any more innocent people. Innocent people. People like her. What had this girl ever done to him? To anyone? All she ever did was try to protect the people she cared about. And for that Zuko had attacked her, insulted her, sent pirates after her, tied her to a tree, threatened her, tried to bribe her, hunted her down, and knocked her unconscious. Most recently, he attacked her some more, even when she offered to help someone he cared about.
Zuko didn't realize he was still holding her chin until he felt the teardrops on his hand. She was trying to hide it, but she was crying again.
"Hey-" He didn't know what to say, but he knew he needed to say something. She looked up when he spoke and met his eyes. At the sight of her tears Zuko felt a pain in his chest he had never felt before. Forget this. Forget that she's the enemy, that she's with the Avatar. She's hurting, I can't… not do anything. "Hey, listen. It's gonna be OK. You're on my ship now and nothing can happen to you here, OK? You're safe now."
She looked at him with an odd expression and tried to turn her face away again. When he wouldn't let her, she tried to pull her arm free. But he didn't let go of her wrist. Instead, he gave it a small tug towards him and to his surprise she leaned against his chest and began to cry harder. Zuko was so shocked he found himself unable to move. This was so unlike the fiery waterbender he had been chasing all over the world for the last few months. He would never have thought that she could be this vulnerable. Even more astonishing than the fact that she was allowing him to see her like this was the fact that she was accepting his comforting. Zuko himself hadn't realized he was capable of this type of compassion, but the girl didn't seem surprised or uncomfortable at all. In fact, Zuko got the impression that she had been expecting this. He was dumbfounded. He held himself up with one hand and awkwardly stroked her hair with the other. After a few moments he heard her sigh.
"I'm sorry. I can't wait until you- until these few days are over." As she spoke she sat up and Zuko noticed that her injuries had disappeared and her underclothes were once again white. He didn't even question it. By this point he was quite certain that this whole thing was a dream brought on by either his fever or his damned teenaged hormones. Although, if it was his hormones, Zuko wondered why he was dreaming about this particular girl. Maybe because she was pretty much the only girl he had really interacted with in the past three years? But even more important, if this insane dream was hormone driven, why the bizarre topic? Finding the Avatar and going back to his father? Come on, the girl is in her underwear, couldn't his hormones make this dream a little more… erotic?
As though she had read Zuko's mind, the girl summoned a small amount of water from the basin to remoisten the cloth on his forehead. Then she leaned close to him so that when she spoke her lips brushed his ear.
"How's this? Are you feeling any better?" Her breathy whisper washed over him and she moved more like a prowling pantherfox than a teenaged girl. Zuko leaned back into his pillows and decided to forget the weirdness and just enjoy his dream.
"Too warm." Zuko closed his eyes and spoke softly. The cloth felt cooler suddenly and the girl spoke again.
"Cooler. Please." He opened his eyes in time to see her blowing gently towards his forehead, her breath frosty and cold. As his forehead cooled down, Zuko felt other places heat up. It was as though all his tension had left the rest of his body and traveled straight to his groin. He closed his eyes again and sighed. In order to blow cool air onto his forehead the girl had to lean across him. Her chest was pressed against his and the thin fabric of her wrap allowed him to feel her soft curves. Her right hand was still at his head, softly touching his hair. Her left hand was gently caressing his arm, sending shivers through his body. Zuko wanted so badly to touch the beautiful blue-eyed girl the way she was touching him, to make her feel the way he was feeling. Without opening his eyes, he moved his hand along the bed until he felt her leg. His hand traveled to her waist and rested there, his thumb tracing little circles in her bare skin. She shivered a little herself before blowing her cool breath onto the cloth at his forehead.
"How 'bout now? Is that better, Prince Zuko?"
Zuko had heard his own name hundreds of times, but never before had hearing his name made him feel like this. She sounded like she enjoyed saying it, as though just uttering his name was giving her pleasure. The only answer he could muster was a quiet moan, but was pleased when she responded the same way. She pressed herself against him a little more and Zuko could feel her breath on his scarred ear. As her breathing began to speed up, his own heart beat faster. Feeling bold, he moved his hand further up her side. He vaguely pondered what the water bender would do if she knew he was dreaming about her this way. She'd probably water-whip me into next week. Although the 'whipping' part might not be too bad… The moment the thought entered his mind, Zuko felt her weight lift off his chest. He opened his eyes slowly, feeling a little ashamed of himself. Can she hear my thoughts? She shook her head and smiled in fake disappointment. Yep, she can.
"Zuko…" She sounded like she was going to scold him, but he wasn't sure he minded. Before he could stop it, an image of her in her underclothes with a water-whip in each hand popped into his head.
"Zuko!" This time she sounded a little taken aback, but she was still smiling. "Jeez, how 'bout a little self control?"
"I'm sorry, I don't know why I was thinking those-"
"Yes you do," she giggled and ran a finger down his chest. After a moment she sighed and turned serious. "I should be going, I've been gone way too long."
"What? No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been thinking like that. I'll stop, I prom-"
"That's not it Zuko." She looked up over his shoulder and stared straight ahead as though she were seeing something he could not. She looked back at him and spoke again.
"Listen, we really can help each other, but you'll have to patient with me. I know I can trust you, but I won't be easy to convince. It will take me a while to see you the way I see you now. And I'm so scared. I'll never admit it to you because I still see you as the enemy, as one of them." She looked up again and gestured in the direction she had staring a moment before. Zuko turned to look, but saw nothing. He turned back when she began speaking again. "But right now I'm so afraid and I'm in so much pain. It won't be easy to earn my trust, and losing your temper won't help. I really believe we can do this. I wouldn't have been able to come here if the spirits didn't want us to try. But I don't think it's guaranteed. We could fail if we don't learn to trust each other completely."
"What?" Zuko wondered how she could think he didn't trust her after everything that had happened in the last few minutes. "But I do-"
"No. You won't. And neither will I. Just… don't give up. Try to be strong for me when I need it, but also… you'll have to open up and let me in, even if it hurts. I'll be strong for you too, once I start trusting you…"
Zuko stopped listening. The girl wasn't making any sense again. This time however, Zuko was getting dizzy trying to figure out what she was saying. She was referring to herself, but she sounded like she was talking about another person.
"… I'll be seeing you soon. Goodbye, Dragon." She winked as she spoke the last word and smiled. She stood up and started to turn away, but Zuko grabbed her hand.
"Wait! Just… wait. Please." Watching her stand and walk away from his bed after all that mysterious talk was just too much. His mind was suddenly flooded with very painful
memories and he racked his brain, trying to think of a way to make the girl stay. "You, uh… you still haven't told me your name."
She pulled her wrist from his grasp and began backing away. "I can't tell you right now. I really have to-" She stopped speaking abruptly and drew in a quick breath as her head turned sharply to the right. She shook her head a little as though she were trying to shake away pain. When she looked back at Zuko there was a large red mark on her left cheek. It was in the shape of a hand, like she'd been slapped. The color of the mark and the blisters that were beginning to form there suggested that the hand that slapped her belonged to an angry firebender. As she spoke again she started to fade. It looked as if she were turning into mist and her voice sounded far away.
"They're getting angry. I've been gone too long. Please, I need you to hurry Prince Zuko."
And then she was gone. Zuko looked around his cabin, but knew she wasn't there. He felt the cold cloth on his forehead and lay back against the pillows. The room began to spin and he closed his eyes before falling into the darkness.
A/N: This is the first fanfic I have had the nerve to post, so please be nice in your reviews. But I'll take any constructive criticism I can get. I had no idea it would be so difficult to write this. It's all in my head, but getting it out in a way that makes sense wasn't easy. I know where I wanted it to start and I think I know where I want it to end, but I'm not sure how I'm going to get from point A to point B, so I'm open to suggestions.
Also, this story begins during season two, between Bitter Work and The Library. I do realize Zuko doesn't have a ship at this point in the real story. I will eventually explain how he got this one, so please be patient.
I hope you all enjoy this, thanks so much for reading!