He tried not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking – Lev Tolstoy
The sun in the South Pole was dreadfully weak, he thought. It made training even harder than usual, causing him to fall yet again into the rut of trying to use muscle power where he should have been relying on his breathing; and Uncle's scolding was really not helping.
Although he wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, Zuko was afraid. He knew what he had to do, knew how much hung on the balance here, but he was only sixteen and a shoddy bender. The Avatar was over one hundred years old and knew all four elements. There was a cold finger in his belly, a little voice that whispered in the back of his mind. It sounded suspiciously like Azula.
You can't take on the Avatar Zuzu; why you're just a child! A foolish, weak, poor excuse for a prince who is only doing this to try and please Father. You never will you know. He has never cared about you anyway. Avatar or no Avatar, you will never be good enough.
Zuko gave a frustrated yell and punched forward, sending a bright plume of flame at the nearest of his sparring partners, hitting the unfortunate man in the chest and sending him flying several feet before crashing back to the deck. It was the best bending he'd done since they came to this miserable, weak-sunned, freezing corner of the world.
"You will teach me the advanced set!" he shouted.
"Very well, but first I must finish my roast duck."
He picked up his bowl and began to eat, clearly enjoying his meal. Zuko felt like an over-inflated balloon. Knowing by hard experience that Uncle Iroh was not one to rush when it came to food, he stormed forward to his telescope.
The signal flair seemed impossibly good luck. It seemed that the world was finally giving him some encouragement. But even as he wondered aloud at the Avatar's agility, considering how old he was for, a worm of doubt crept into his mind. Maybe airbenders just stayed nimble their whole lives. He tried to shake it, but the uncomfortable feeling that something wasn't quite right clung to him like glue.
That was the first time he saw her, terror written across her face as he and his men walked down the gangway of his ship. But that fear changed to anger when he pulled the old lady forward as an example of the Avatar's age. It was a fierce anger which was somehow disquieting. The Watertribe girl looked, well perhaps not dangerous, but certainly like she wanted to be. Then the Avatar arrived, a skinny, scrappy boy who didn't even look to be in his teens.
"You're the Avatar?" he couldn't hide the disbelief in his voice. "But you're just a child!"
"Well, you're just a teenager," was the response.
He flung fire at the impudent kid who he had been so afraid of. His fire was still weak, but the airbender seemed to have trouble blocking his feeble blows. They both saw the terror of the onlookers. The boy seemed especially to focus on the watertribe girl he had noticed earlier.
When the Avatar offered himself in exchange for Zuko leaving the village alone, it seemed too good to be true. Excitement twisted his insides. He really had done it! He had captured the Avatar!
"No, Aang! Don't do this!"
"Don't worry, Katara, it'll be okay."
Katara. Quite a pretty name. He shook the thought out of his head as he stalked up the gangway.
"Set a course for the Fire Nation. I'm going home."
Zuko stood on the deck of his buried ship, watching as the huge flying bison thing disappeared in the sky. He was still shaking from the terror and adrenaline of the last few moments. The Avatar state was somehow far more alarming in person than he had assumed it would be. No book could have prepared him for the sheer amount of power that the little Air Nomad boy had possessed in that short space of time. And now he had escaped and Zuko would have to begin his search all over again. The universe just didn't like him apparently. Of course he had already known that, but things had been going so well…
In addition to the fury of having lost the Avatar, Zuko also became haunted with a strange dream. He would be standing on a huge piece of ice in the middle of the ocean. Across from him the waterbender girl would stand, her eyes blazing. She would suddenly move her hands and body and a huge wave would come surging out of the ocean around them. It would curl up over him, changing at the last minute into a million spikes of ice. He would be impaled, filled with ice and looking up in agony, would see her standing over him, her face lit with a fierce light.
"You have failed again, Prince Zuko," she would say, her voice as sharp and cold as her ice spikes. "Now you will die."
At this point he usually woke, panting and drenched in sweat. Often it took several minutes of deep breathing or setting something in his room on fire to calm him down enough to even lie down again, let alone think of more sleep. It was as if the girl was making him pay for the fright and sorrow he had forced upon her. He had been surprised to find out that there was still waterbenders in the Southern Watertribe. Or at least one. And apparently, she really, really wanted to kill him.
In the aftermath of his falling out with the pirates, Zuko had a hard time controlling his overwhelming fury. Bested again by two stupid Watertribe peasants and a (biologically) twelve-year old Air Nomad boy, not to mention a group of ruffians. And now he had lost his shore-craft thanks to the aforementioned group of ruffians. He felt a tiny glimmer of satisfaction when he remembered how they had gone over the waterfall, but the thought only served to bring his mind back to the subject of a certain girl who had stopped the pirates ship on the edge of the waterfall and whose memory he had tried steadily (and unsuccessfully) to quash. Why did Ka…the Watertribe peasant girl (he really couldn't allow himself to think of her by name) have to always haunt his thoughts? His dreams hadn't stopped either and were only getting worse. Now instead of just filling him with ice spears, she would grab him with a rope-like stream of water, flinging him around until he was dazed, bruised, bleeding. Then she would impale him with ice and, in the more recent dreams, cut his throat. He rubbed it unconsciously, as if assuring himself that he was all in one piece. Blast the girl, blast his dreams, and BLAST the stupid Avatar whose seeming inability to be captured was really starting to wear on his nerves. He cursed and punched out with a frustrated yell, leaving a scorch mark on his already much-scorched bedroom wall.
Zuko awoke with a gasp, tumbling off his mattress as he tried to untangle himself from both his dream and the blanket that had gotten wound around him. He burned it off and staggered against the wall. His hand unconsciously dropping to his pocket where Katara's necklace was and trembling, he drew it out. The smooth blue stone caught the light on its polished surface and in the smooth grooves of the carvings. About it hung a soft scent: jasmine and wood smoke and a few other things that he couldn't name, but that all blended into something undeniably pleasant. It was simple, but beautiful. Just like it owner. With every meeting, every fight, every defeat, Zuko found himself noticing her more and more. The way her brow knit in anger when she saw him, the way her eyes would widen when she was surprised or worried or afraid, but most of all the sheer determination and concentration that covered her face when the fought. She was improving and doing so a bewilderingly fast pace that couldn't be explained by just a single scroll on waterbending. Her movements were becoming more and more steady and purposeful; her bending forms more intricate and advanced. She might be trouble if that continued.
They fought, her hair flying as she manipulated the water around her. She threw water and ice, he threw fire. Angry words were traded, and he found himself pinned to a wall by a huge spear of ice. Then Zuko felt the sun rise, warming him to the core even though he could not see it. He escaped her ice and flung a fire blast at her. She was caught off guard and knocked unconscious.
He stood for a moment, looking down at her crumpled form.
"You rise with the moon," he said. "I rise with the sun.
He grabbed the Avatar and began to drag him away. They made it to the ice plains and took refuge from the snow in a little cave…
Now the world was blurry and unfocused. Zuko blinked, trying to clear his vision. Slowly he became aware that he was lying on the giant flying bison that belonged to the Avatar and his friends. How did he get here? He strained his memory back, trying to ignore the headache that was beginning to throb through his temples. Snow, cold, the Avatar's limp body…then the bison, Katara, and her idiot brother, and someone else whose face he couldn't remember.
"Here for a rematch?"
Katara had only raised an eyebrow, distain and disgust written plainly across her captivating face.
"Trust me, Zuko, it's not going to be much of a match."
Then flying snow and ice and…Oh. She had beaten him. Again. His whole body ached. He opened his eyes and realized that he was back at the Spirit Oasis. And Uncle and Zhao were there and they were arguing. Zuko sat up with an effort. He glanced around, but nobody seemed to have noticed his awakening. It was time to go.
He almost made it, but of course Zhao just had to show up. They fought, Zuko's anger momentarily blotting out the pain in his aching muscles. In the end, Zhao was taken by some kind of water spirit. Zuko tried to save him, but Zhao was too proud and chose death over help from an enemy. Then events all seemed to run together, only clearing when he and Uncle were on a little raft, sailing away from what had been the most tiring day that Zuko had ever experienced in the whole course of his life.
Uncle's voice broke through the muddle that was his brain.
"I'm surprised, Prince Zuko. Surprised that you are not at this moment trying to capture the Avatar."
Zuko sighed, feeling exhaustion pressing against the back of his eyes like a heavy weight.
"I'm tired," he said simply.
Uncle rested one of his warm, gentle hands on Zuko's shoulder.
"Then you should rest. A man needs his rest."
Too tired to make even a show of resistance, Zuko merely nodded and lay down. The rough planks of the raft dug into his sore muscles, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Sleep claimed him and for the first time in many weeks, he did not dream.