“Yeah, you know, the oogies,” Aang says, whole body shivering as emphasis. “It’s kind of hard to describe, but something feels wrong. Like the time with Hei Bai, but worse.”
Zuko blinks at the obviously distressed Avatar. “Who’s Hei Bai?”
“He’s a forest spirit. We met him waaaaaaay back. Like, right before the winter solstice.”
“Dude went berserk and started destroying the local village because fire benders burnt down his forest,” Sokka waves a limp hand as he explains from the vacation home’s courtyard steps.
Sokka shrugs a what-can-you-do. Zuko’s getting good at interpreting Sokka shrugs. “It’s not like you burned down the forest.”
“Anyway,” Aang says, before Zuko can claim blame for another Fire Nation tragedy, “it’s been like that all morning. Like something’s gone really wrong with the Spirit World.”
“So you want to skip fire bending practice to investigate?”
“Pretty much?” Aang’s shrug says ‘this is an Avatar Thing and I only kind of know what I’m doing.’ Zuko’s getting good at reading those, too. “Is that okay?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, I’m not going to tell the Avatar, bridge between our world and the Spirit World, not to investigate when his instincts tell him something is wrong.”
“See Sokka, I told you he’d understand!” Aang doesn’t wait for the other boys to react before twirling down into his meditation pose, fists pressed together. He’s barely taken his first breath before his face slackens and his tattoos begin to glow.
Zuko ignores the guilty pang in his chest. Aang trusts him so much now, it’s almost painful. Especially since the last time he saw Aang enter the Spirit World, he kidnapped the defenseless boy into a North Pole blizzard.
“He’s probably going to be at that awhile,” Sokka says, crossing the courtyard. “Wanna sword-bend while we wait?”
Zuko shrugs. “Sure, my morning’s suddenly open.” He heads back towards his room to get his dao, but pulls up short at the stairs. He can feel Sokka grinning. “And just call it sparring!”
When Zuko returns to the courtyard, scabbard in hand, Sokka is stretching and the girls have gathered in the shade nearest Aang.
“Morning, Hotman!” Toph waves. Zuko waves back, confident she can ‘see’ it. The old slang is slightly less off-putting from her than Aang. Probably because “Hotman” is still better than “Snoozles” or “Twinkletoes”.
“Did you get breakfast, Zuko?” Katara breaks her gaze away from Aang’s still form long enough to ask.
“I ate,” he says. He’s still warmed up from his sunrise exercises, so he draws his twin dao and checks the blades for any signs of dullness while Sokka finishes up.
“I call winner!” Suki yells.
He can hear Toph grumble about wanting to play too, and Zuko lets himself smile. After three years adrift, probably longer, he’s finally found a place where he feels like he might actually belong. Surrounded not by the family he thought he wanted, but the one he needs: a pair of Water Tribe siblings, a Kyoshi Warrior, an Earth Kingdom noble, and the Avatar. If only Uncle were here, then it would be perfect.
“Aang?” Katara’s worried cry douses that warm feeling with ice water.
Zuko realizes he’s moved only after he feels the tiles scrape his knees. Only after he’s grasped Aang’s shoulder opposite Katara. Only after he hears the echoing clang of his dao hitting the ground.
The Avatar’s face is contorting. In pain or frustration or fear. It doesn’t matter. It should not be happening.
“Aang? Aang! Come back!” Katara chokes around a scream. He knows the only thing keeping her from shaking the boy is the knowledge it won’t help.
“Is this normal?” Zuko asks Sokka over her head.
Sokka shakes his. “He twitches sometimes, but not this bad.”
That’s not comforting.
“…Oola…” Aang mutters.
“Is that normal?”
All heads turn towards Zuko. He doesn’t see them. All he sees is lightning in the boy’s back, blue fire at his feet. He doesn’t notice Katara yielding her place as he grabs Aang’s shoulders tight.
“Aang? You need to come back! Right now!” He uses his ‘Sifu’ voice. He shakes the boy. Of course there’s no response. Aang’s body is on Ember Island. His spirit is in the Spirit World. Azula shouldn’t be able to reach him. He should be safe!
“Azula! You don’t know what you’re doing!” Aang’s eyes fling open. White looking into gold.
Zuko is frozen, pinned by the overwhelming presence of the Avatar. The white fills his vision.
Distantly, he hears Aang. “Stop her, Zuko!”
The white draws back and narrows. Zuko finds himself still frozen, staring up into the Avatar’s eyes. The wrong Avatar’s eyes.
“Avatar Roku,” he whispers. His arms are bound to his sides, chains holding him fast to the temple’s pillars, and the spirit of the last Fire Avatar towers above him.
He’s had this nightmare before. Trapped in the Avatar’s temple on the evening of the Winter Solstice. Helpless except to watch. Sometimes the Fire Avatar turns that fearsome power on him. Sometimes he’s ignored completely, leaving him trapped on the island as the temple burns.
The worst ones are when he’s handed over to Zhao.
He knows he escaped. He knows Avatar Roku freed him. Even knows now why that seeming oversight might have actually meant much more. But the nightmare persists, and he wonders if that new knowledge will change anything.
Maybe it has. Roku’s looking at him with something a bit like wonder and a bit like approval. It’s as unnerving as his anger.
“Your journey has been long, young prince, and the task ahead is difficult, but you are a resilient one, aren’t you?”
Zuko thinks he should be bowing, maybe even kowtowing to his great-great-grandfather, but he’s unable to even incline his head.
“Resilient enough to challenge a spirit, I hope. Even one who has made a powerful bargain.”
He realizes the roar in his ears isn’t his blood rushing, but a curtain of fire separating him and the Avatar from the others in the temple.
The Fire Avatar scrutinizes him one last time and a distant part of Zuko realizes that this whole experience has taken seconds, at most. Whatever Roku is searching for, he seems to find. He smiles, and Zuko is reminded of his mother.
“You do have Ta Min’s nose.”
And with that bizarre comment, his chains finally melt away as they’re supposed to and Zuko bolts.
He’s made this escape dozens of times in his dreams, but he hesitates before the stairs. Looks back. And there they are, Sokka and Katara, crouching by the last true fire sage, blue washed out by the red of the setting sun.
They’ve never been in his nightmare before, but the rumbling of the earth under his feet reminds him of his time limit. The nightmare ends only when he’s safe or when he’s dead.
The nightmare hasn’t ended.
Zuko beat the lava to the river steamer. He’s launched the boat and angled it towards the silhouette of his old ship. He’d made it to the ocean and left Crescent Island behind him. By all accounts he’s safe.
So why isn’t he waking up?
And when did he fall asleep, for that matter? Zuko’s whole body chills then flushes as he tries to ignore whatever crazy explanation his mind has for the strange turn the day has taken. Did he pass out in the courtyard? Is this some Spirits induced coma and the others are trying in vain to wake him up?
His stomach twists at the thought of Aang diverting from training to try and fix whatever this is. Of being unable to show Aang the advanced forms he’d only just started mastering himself.
The comet is less than two weeks away and the monk needs every scrap of time Zuko can give him.
The silhouette on the horizon resolves into a battered and rusted ship and Zuko feels a painful, nostalgic longing. He knows the Wani, all of its dents and rust splotches, the way a calico owlcat’s owner knows it by its spots. An uncomfortable heat washes over him again and pools in his stomach as he remembers the fate of his ship and its crew. The Wani’s not really there. It can’t be. It’s scrap, burnt and twisted in the bottom of an Earth Kingdom harbor.
He can’t even think about what happened to his crew.
In one of his life’s few mercies, he had stopped dreaming of them about the time he started starving in the Earth Kingdom. But that might change if this dream doesn’t end soon.
He stops waiting to wake up and pulls up his sleeve so he can violently pinch his own arm. He hopes to open his eyes on Ember Island. He gets a sharp pain and a red mark.
The flush spreads again and lingers. Zuko blinks and the back of the Wani now takes up most of his vision. The hatch creaks open as he approaches and voices can be heard above the crashing of waves against the steel paneled sides.
He closes his eyes again and sways with the water. This feels more like a homecoming than returning to the palace did and Zuko knows exactly why. Every time he returned to the Wani, there was Uncle, with his tea and his proverbs and his music nights.
But he needs to wake up. Aang needs him to wake up. His nightmare should be over, so why is the steamer being hauled into the Wani? When had he hooked the tow lines? This is a lucid dream, right? He shouldn’t be losing time.
The steamer is pulled onboard with a thunk. Old habits straighten his spine and hold his head high even as he can feel it swim. The men scramble to attention and salut, but it’s the barely respectful snap he’s used to. And he recognizes each and every one of them.
This isn’t a lucid dream.
He struggles not to hyperventilate. A different habit born from necessity in Ba Sing Se keeps his breath in tight control.
He can’t explain how he knows, his head feels too muddy for that, but he knows it’s true. He woke up this morning on Ember Island in mid-summer, but right now he’s standing in the launch bay of the Wani on the first day of winter.
And he’s hot. So hot that he knows he should be sweating, but the heat sits trapped beneath his skin. So intense that he can trace the paths it takes.
“Sir, are you-”
“I’m fine,” he growls at the unseen crewman, hiding panic behind anger in a way he hasn’t since joining Aang. But old behaviors are hard to fight surrounded by old reminders.
He presses past Sergeant Takeshi and Private Ichimaru. Dead and dead, he can’t help but think. He’d found their names on the rolls. He’d had to know. He’d had too.
He nearly bowls over Private Deshi on his way up the stairs. Dead as well. Mumbles an apology when he nearly stomps on Engineer Jianjun’s toes. Missing, presumed dead.
His thoughts are getting disconnected from his body and he has to fight to focus on the steps ahead of him. His ears ring. Zuko decides the best course of action is to put the entirety of his focus on getting to his room in the tower. He may be awake, but the nightmare hasn’t ended. He’s on a shrapnel ship surrounded by the dead and his inner fire has blazed past his chi paths and into his veins.
And he swears that he’ll deal with all of that, but first he has. To get. To. His. Room.
By focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, he manages not to wince when he catches sight of Lieutenant Jee. Court-martialed, dereliction of duty. Treasonous speech. Awaiting execution. And he hadn’t been brave enough to even ask his father why.
He feels that vague tingle on the back of his neck he long ago associated with Jee glaring at him. He tacks ‘find out what I did wrong’ to the end of his list of things to do. Taking the next step across the deck is still more urgent.
Why is he on the deck?
He’s supposed to be going up the stairs.
And despite himself, his legs stop moving. Because on the deck, gazing to the northeast, is Uncle. Uncle in Fire Nation red. Uncle in his armor. Uncle gazing at the sky, following something. Following Appa.
And Uncle turns to face him with a wide smile on his face, as if his nephew hadn’t nearly, disastrously, interfered with the Avatar’s business on the Solstice.
“Ah, Prince Zuko. How was-” Uncle’s genial facade drops.
Not a facade, his thoughts race to correct. Not Uncle. Not really. Uncle wanted him happy. Uncle knew the quest was impossible. Was wrong. Knew father would only hurt. . . Uncle protected. Uncle cared. He cared. And still Zuko had-
Iroh’s amiable smile had evaporated and left only worry behind.
“Nephew? Are you all right? You look pale as death.” His uncle reaches for him. To take him from Lt. Jee.
When had he leaned on the lieutenant?
A large hand grasps his shoulder, the other goes to his forehead. Warm, familiar comfort drops a leaden weight to his stomach, splashing hot, molten guilt through his chest. Sending another flash of fire through his veins.
I don’t deserve this, he thinks. I don’t. I’m sorry, Uncle. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
“Nephew, why are you sorry? What happened?”
He must have said that out loud. Zuko opens his mouth to reassure, to explain. Opens his eyes to look his uncle in the face. But Iroh is a grey and red blur and what comes out of his mouth feels more like an echo from Ba Sing Se.
“I don’t feel right.” He pitches forward and out of the surprised lieutenant’s hold.
“Zuko!” he hears his uncle shout from a distance, even as Iroh’s arms save him from crashing to the deck.