His uncle and the crew had refused to go hunting for the Avatar here, tonight at least. It was a frigidly cold and snowy night, especially considering they were in Earth Kingdom territory, and then there were still some active Earth Kingdom bases in the area that would not take the presence of a Fire Nation ship kindly if they found out they were there. So even though they had seen the sky bison land close, very close, they refused to go and investigate at least until the storm ended. Iroh in particular had insisted that with the storm, the Avatar and his followers would not be flying either—they would be here as long as Zuko’s crew was.
Zuko was not so sure about that. He had caught up with the Avatar many times in the past few months, but more often or not the Avatar slipped away before Zuko could even face him, never mind capture him. A storm would be perfect cover for the sky bison to shake Zuko from its trail. And Zuko couldn’t miss any more opportunities, even slim ones.
He waited until Iroh was asleep, then set out himself, commanding the couple men still up and on guard to stay put and not alert Iroh. It would be difficult to capture the Avatar by himself, but even the smallest chance was better than none.
He went up a slope to where he had seen the sky bison land. When he got close, he caught the faint scent of smoke. In the storm it would have been missed by anyone but a firebender, but Zuko knew more about breathing than anything else, and smoke and fire were a part of him. He followed the smoke and came to a cave. He did not go in—enclosed spaces would not help him, especially since it would be three against one (three and a sky bison, for that matter). Instead, he stood by the entrance and carefully listened.
The three voices he heard were familiar. They sounded cheerful despite the storm, perhaps because of the crackling fire in there with him. Zuko shivered. He wrapped his arms around himself and took deep breaths.
The snowfall was beginning to thin. Footsteps. Zuko hid behind a snowdrift.
The Avatar walked out of the cave.
He kept on walking for a while. No snow fell on him—it bent away in its path. Zuko followed quietly. The boy walked uphill for a while, and stopped beside a giant snowdrift. It was only when the boy called out, “Appa”, and the snowdrift shook itself apart that Zuko realized it was really a sky bison, tethered to a tree.
He watched for a moment as the Avatar petted the bison’s face and said soothing things. For some reason he was hesitating. Maybe because the last time he’d seen the Avatar they’d fought together against Zhao, and then the Avatar had easily run away. But more likely because of the cold. The cold always turned Zuko into a coward.
He took a deep breath, felt his inner fire grow a little higher. Then he launched his attack, sending fists of flame towards the Avatar.
The Avatar twisted away on instinct, but he screeched in surprise. “What the—Zuko!”
Even with the snow between them and a helmet of Zuko’s head, the Avatar still recognized him. Well, good. (Probably it was because of the scar on his face, but Zuko liked to think it was just because Zuko was the only one who caught up with him so often, and one of the few with the skills to really face him.)
Once the Avatar had regained his senses he retaliated with a blast of wind. It sent Zuko stumbling back into a tree and he knocked his head, but he was wearing his helmet. Only the wind wheezed its way through his clothing, chilling him more than he was chilled already.
He’d have to keep moving. If he slowed down, the cold would leech his fire out of him.
He shot fire at the Avatar’s head, but the Avatar blocked. He shot lower, and the Avatar blocked again, only stumbling slightly backwards. He spoke as he danced around the flames. “How did you find me this time? Where’s your crew?” He seemed almost chirpy, as if they were simply acquaintances, until one blast sent him straight through a snowdrift and skidding on ice. Then he levitated back to his feet. “Okay, no talking. Fine. But do we have to…” Block. “Look, this is a bad time, and I don’t think…”
Zuko blasted fire at him again, and spun forward around a blast of air. He was getting closer. If he could trap the Avatar against his sky bison then he could grab him and hopefully cuff him with some cuffs he’d brought in his robes. He sent another flame at the Avatar. The Avatar instead of blocking dodged.
The flame hit the bison.
It didn’t catch fire—bison weren’t exactly flammable, but it singed his coat, and the bison let out a loud groan of distress.
The Avatar stared at the bison. In doing so he offered Zuko his back, but for some reason Zuko didn’t shoot.
He’d burnt houses down in his quest, even destroyed Fire Nation property and fought his own kind, but it had been a long time since he’d burnt a living creature, and he’d never seriously injured one. The scent of burnt skin was the same whether it was an animal or a human, and it brought Zuko back…
A wind began to blow. It came from behind Zuko, it felt like—no, from in front of him—no, from everywhere, maybe. Zuko didn’t realize it was wrapping around the Avatar until the snow began to lift around him, forming a spiral, and the Avatar began to levitate.
Then he knew what this was. He’d seen it before. The Avatar State. A state he never tried to provoke. He had no chance of defeating the Avatar in it—last time, he’d been knocked into the ocean wearing full body armor and nearly drowned, and that was with his whole crew backing him up. Alone, he wasn’t going to win here. He’d have to run.
But even as he turned around, he felt the snow under his feet rise up around his legs. First it liquefied into water, then solidified into ice, which rose up to his knees and kept growing. He blasted fire at it, and it began to splinter.
Not fast enough.
The wind was still bounding at him, sending shivers through his whole body, and the whirlwind had picked up chunks of snow solidified into ice. They whipped against his back. He crouched, put his hands against the ice holding his legs and took deep breaths, trying to heat it up, melt it. Ice pounded against his head, and his helmet went flying. A huge chunk hit his head, and he lost his breath patterns.
“You hurt Appa,” the Avatar said. Zuko couldn’t even see him from this angle, just the weird light from his body, but his voice was warped and frightening, dissonant with his simple words. “Don’t do that.”
He tried to bring fire back to his hands, but the ice grew around them, encasing his wrists and arms, and the ice on his legs grew up to his hips. He tried to breathe steadily. Something cracked hard against his back. The ice around his lower body was starting to tighten, squeeze. He yelled incoherently. There was nothing to say to someone in the Avatar State, and the Avatar had never listened to him anyway. Reason would be pointless.
The ice was splintery sharp at its edges, and it pricked through the cloth of Zuko’s clothes, poked into his skin. He ignored it. It didn’t matter if he bled, now—he had to get out of here, had to get out of here… He gathered his breath…
The ice pushed a little too hard on his ankle and it snapped. When he screamed, fire came out of his mouth instead of noise. It raced futilely towards a nearby tree, which only stayed on fire for a moment before the whirlwind of snow put it out. His hands were heating up again but slowly, too slowly. The ice was chilling his body faster than his body heated the ice.
The Avatar said something but it only sounded like static in Zuko’s ears. Then something hit his head, hard, and he blacked out.
When he came to, he was lying in the snow on his side. The ice restraints were gone, and so was the Avatar, and so, except for a light sprinkle, was the snowstorm. What was left behind was a spiral pattern in the snow in the clearing and, when Zuko tried to move, pain in every part of his body.
He inspected his ankle. Broken, sprained—it was hard to tell, and he had no medical training. Vaguely he remembered that you were supposed to keep a sprained ankle cold, and he let out a ragged laugh.
When he finally got to his feet, using a branch from the nearest tree as a crutch, he saw blood left staining the snow beneath him. He shuddered. He’d been lucky to wake up at all. His head was still ringing, his helmet was nowhere to be seen, and blood was still seeping out of his upper thighs where the ice had pierced it and his knuckles, which had been badly scraped. His throat hurt too. But it all felt distant compared to the ringing in his head. His body itself didn’t feel real. This was how it was supposed to be for a Fire Nation warrior, surely—to feel pain and not feel it at the same time.
He hobbled back to the ship, trying to come up with an excuse to give Iroh.