Notes: Just finished rewatching ATLA and an idea buried itself in my head and wouldn't go away until I'd at least entertained it somewhat. Despite the fact that there is another story I really need to work on instead - definitely aiming to come back to Light in the Dark soon! Is there a word for earworm but for story ideas? Anyway, it didn't quite make sense to me that Yon Rha would have believed Kya without proof, so I wanted to explore how things might have been different if he hadn't. Watching the series again, I'm now interested in all the interactions and conversations that never took place and also how dark things really could have gotten if not for the general rating of the show. This post is where I got to so far in entertaining my ideaworm. If you'd like to see more beyond this please let me know :) And definitely keen to hear what people think overall as well, I hope you like it!
As the ash from the Fire Nation ships rained down on the pure white snow of their village, Katara and Sokka's wide fearful eyes met. Before Sokka could say anything, Katara's expression changed to one of determination.
"I'm going to find Mum," she declared, running past him towards their ice hut at the far end of the village. She couldn't explain it really, but there was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that told the eight year old that something was not right, and that she had to find her mother quickly. As she pushed back the blue curtain in the entry way of their home, her heart leapt in her throat as she saw an imposing Fire Nation soldier towering over her mother threateningly. Her mother was kneeled on the ground in front of him, a strained expression on her normally cheerful face.
"Mum!" Katara cried. The soldier turned to face the newcomer, and Katara saw that the symbols on his outfit and his helmet indicated a higher rank than soldier. She guessed he was the one responsible for this raid on her tribe, and hatred bubbled inside her alongside the fear and distress. Her mother looked at Katara with a mixed expression that she couldn't quite read.
"Just let her go," Kya said pleadingly, trying to draw away the soldier's attention from Katara. "And I'll give you the information you want."
Katara looked at her mother in confusion, wondering what she meant. Her father Hakoda was Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, so it was possible her parents could have information that was important to the Fire Nation in some way, but she couldn't think of what would bring these raiders all the way to the South Pole just for that.
"You heard your mother," growled the soldier with narrowed eyes. "GET OUT OF HERE!"
Katara flinched, her eyes watering against her will.
"Mum..." she said, terrified especially of the helpless expression on her mother's face. "I'm scared."
"Go find your dad, sweetie," Kya said firmly, with a forced smile. "I'll handle this."
She said it in a way that scared Katara even more, her eyes closed in resignation. Katara looked from her mother back to the soldier, whose hard brown eyes threatened the promise of punishment if she didn't obey her mother. There was a darkness and a cruelty in those eyes that chilled her. She looked back at her mother and ran from the tent in the direction of her father.
Back in the tent, Yon Rha turned back to the wife of the tribal chief with disdain on his face. She'd already delayed him long enough, and he was tempted to melt the village as punishment for her disrespect.
"Now tell me," he said, his tone making it clear that he was losing his patience with Kya. "Who is it? Who's the waterbender?"
He felt his anger growing at the sight of the woman's placid expression.
"There are no more waterbenders here," she repeated her same story from earlier in a neutral tone. A hint of anger crept into her voice as she continued. "The Fire Nation took them all away a long time ago."
"You're lying," he spat at her. "My source says there's one waterbender left in the Southern Water Tribe. We're not leaving until we find the waterbender." He loomed over Kya as he said this, glaring down at the stubborn woman preventing him from completing his mission.
She paused, with a heavy look on her face.
"If I tell you," she said finally, sadly. "Do you promise to leave the rest of the village alone?"
He watched her, considering. He was decent at reading when people were about to give up information that he needed, and he could see that she was close.
"Mm," he nodded simply. Their mission was to seek out the waterbender, not destroy the Southern Water Tribe. They could do that as well, easily, but there was no real reason to waste their time and resources doing so. The tribe was a weak shadow of its northern sister tribe as it was, and without any waterbenders left, it would hardly pose much of a threat to the ever-expanding Fire Nation. The pathetic remainders of the village would simply rot here and eventually die out on their own, was his best guess.
Her eyes closed, a pained expression on her face, Kya's next words surprised him.
"It's me." She looked up at him, clearly tired from their interaction. "Take me as your prisoner."
"I'm afraid I'm not taking prisoners today," he said coldly, feeling the fire within him build as he prepared to complete their mission. But something in him told him this was not the full story. You didn't get to lead the Southern Raiders without some degree of intuition, and Kya's story wasn't adding up. He suppressed the fire for now, looking at her suspiciously.
"Show me," he demanded. He gestured around them. "Waterbend this snow."
"No," she said, her eyes wide. "I won't perform on command for the likes of you."
"If you do not prove to me you are the waterbender we seek, which I strongly suspect you are not, then I'll order my soldiers to burn this entire village to the ocean from which it came. I know someone here is a waterbender, and if we put an end to the entire Southern Water Tribe, then we'll know we succeeded in our mission."
"No," she cried weakly, her eyes welling up. "Please, it's me, I'm the one you're looking for."
Enraged that she was continuing to lie to him, he stepped toward her and pulled her up roughly by the front of her coat, his other hand around her neck. She gasped for breath, her hands trying to pull his away, but she was no match for his strength. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that they'd probably just have to finish off what remained of these people to be sure there weren't any other hidden benders amongst them, and from the looks of their small village, it wouldn't take long to do so.
"Mum!" screamed a tiny voice, and he turned to see the young girl from before make a strange movement, then he was suddenly hit in the face with a snowball that she had conjured from the snow in front of her. Satisfied, he dropped her mother on the ground, where she collapsed, coughing.
"No, Katara, RUN!" shouted Kya, trying to get up. Katara didn't run though, she just stared angrily at Yon Rha, her fists clenched, the water from the snow around her beginning to rise up in defiance.
"I guess this must be the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe," he mused. He hadn't expected it to be a child. The war had demanded terrible things of him, and he had done them willingly, even enjoyed some of them despite himself. But murdering a child in cold blood like this was not something he had mentally prepared himself for. The girl clearly had no idea what she was doing, her anger just translating into random movements of water. With no waterbender to teach her, she was almost as helpless as a nonbender. He reminded himself of why he had come, and clenched his right fist, summoning the fire that now came easily to him. What was another crime to add to his long list of sins, anyway?
Frozen in place, Katara's eyes widened at the growing fire. Yon Rha advanced towards her. Kya saw this, and lunged at him, hurling her entire weight onto him in an attempt to stop him from approaching her daughter. He easily threw her off, launching her into some shelves where she collapsed unconscious on the icy ground.
"Mum!" cried Katara, the water sloshing on the ground around her. With a proper teacher, she would have learned by now how to bend to water to her will, but as it was, it only meekly responded to her.
"Sorry, kid," Yon Rha said, feeling like some part of him deep down actually meant it. "It's not a good time to be a waterbender."
He lifted his arm to launch a devastating fireball towards her, looking away from her face because her wide blue eyes were too childlike and innocent for him to stomach right now. But before he could let loose the deadly blow, he was suddenly thrown back by a violent explosion of water, ice and snow. He felt shards of ice slice against his skin as he slammed back against the wall of their ice house. Stunned, his vision a little blurry, he looked back towards the entryway and saw the flurry swirling around the girl, her eyes now less childlike and a fierce icy blue. To his shock, even without any training, she had somehow managed to manipulate the water around her to her advantage and attack him with more ferocity and power than he'd seen even in the adult members of the Southern Water Tribe that they had taken captive previously.
Apparently worn out from the energy that the attack had demanded, Katara glared at him one more time before wavering on the spot and collapsing to the ground, unconscious. And suddenly, Yon Rha saw an interesting opportunity to get on the Fire Lord's good side. Moving swiftly, he scooped up the small figure, and made his way back to the ships without being noticed, the same way he had snuck into the village to begin with. Once there, he issued the order across the ships for everyone to retreat immediately while handing off the still unconscious child to be imprisoned in the depths of the ships, instructing his second-in-charge to make sure there was no water whatsoever near her. He sent the rest of the ships to continue their mission of raiding the various regions of the south to look for benders, but set a course for his own ship to return back to the Fire Nation with a prize he was quite sure the Fire Lord would be pleased to receive.
Six years later
Sokka felt a growing feeling of dread as he watched the lone Fire Nation ship pull up on the shores near his village. When they'd realised the ship was approaching, Sokka had instantly run to his house and prepared himself for battle, but now with the cold steel of his boomerang gripped in his semi-gloved fist and the still damp war paint drying on his face, he didn't feel at all ready to face whoever was about to step off the ship. He supposed they could be mildly grateful that the Fire Nation soldiers didn't smash up onto the village itself, noticing the ship was big and sharp enough to have easily done so.
He jumped over the wall nimbly and walked down the shore towards the ship, while everyone else in the village waited apprehensively. At 15, he was the oldest remaining male in the village because he'd been too young when the rest of the men went off to fight in the war against the Fire Nation. The rest of the "men" left behind were only children, and none of them were ready to face the enemy like this. Not that he felt he was particularly ready, either. Hating the way his knees felt a bit wobbly, he tried to adopt an imposing stance as the front of the Fire Nation ship dropped down in front of him.
To his surprise, no soldiers came out. Just a boy who couldn't be much older than him with a scowl on his face, following by a stout elderly man. There was a harsh scar on the left side of the boy's face, across his eye, that Sokka assumed must have been caused by some kind of firebending accident.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" he demanded, holding the boomerang as if to launch it at them. The older boy looked him up and down in an instant, and rolled his eyes.
"Are these the great defences of the Southern Water Tribe? You really are a joke," he said disdainfully.
"Zuko, this is not the way you enlist help," said the older man calmly, smiling broadly at Sokka. Sokka shifted to his back foot, uncomfortably. He knew he should attack, because they were Fire Nation and they had brought their village so much pain, but he also wasn't sure about attacking first when it was clear these two weren't about to come at him.
"Uncle, we don't need these people, we'll find the Avatar ourselves," the boy, Zuko, said, almost petulantly.
"I believe we could use all the help we can get," the older man said. He looked at Sokka. "I am Iroh, and this is my nephew Zuko."
"You're not welcome here," Sokka said coldly. It had been eight years, but he still vividly remembered the day the Fire Nation attacked them. "You should leave now or-"
"Or what?" Zuko scoffed. "You'll make us leave with that boomerang of yours?"
"Yeah," Sokka said hotly, gripping it tighter in his fist. Zuko's sharp golden eyes met his, and Sokka found it difficult to look directly at him because his attention was drawn to the scar. Zuko smirked as Sokka looked away.
"Try it," he said, shrugging. "Let's see how well you live up to the infamous failures of the water tribes."
Knowing he was being fuelled to anger too quickly by Zuko's offhand remarks, Sokka shouted out and charged towards the other boy, flinging his boomerang in Zuko's direction. Zuko deflected the boomerang easily and it spun away, lodging itself into the hard snow of the shore. Before Sokka could even get close, Zuko had intercepted him and redirected his momentum, and he crashed headfirst into the snow, the cold ice a shock to his face. He rolled over to get up again, feeling the thick war paint drip down his face, and was surprised by a hand sticking out to help him up. It was Iroh, still beaming but in a kind of apologetic way.
"I am sorry about my nephew," he said. "Zuko is... not really a people person."
"Uncle!" Zuko said in protest.
"Thanks," Sokka said warily to Iroh, accepting the hand and trying to channel his inner diplomat since it was clear it was not his day to be a heroic warrior. He was completely outclassed by Zuko alone. "But if it is for the Fire Nation, we can't help you."
He suddenly processed Zuko's words from earlier, and his eyes widened.
"Wait, the Avatar?"
Zuko and Iroh exchanged a look. Zuko nodded.
"Yes, I am searching for the Avatar and I have reason to believe he is hiding somewhere near here."
Sokka narrowed his eyes.
"The Avatar disappeared 100 years ago," he said. "If anything, whoever they are, they're dead. And even if they were still alive, I think we would have noticed a century-old person wandering around the ice sheets."
"We've been tracking the Avatar for three years, and we know that he was a young airbender at the time of his disappearance. The last sighting of his sky bison was in this area over 100 years ago, and I think he's been hiding here ever since," Zuko said matter-of-factly. "And you are going to help us find him."
"Why would I help you?" Sokka said angrily. "I'm not helping anyone from the Fire Nation. And I bet your reasons for finding the Avatar aren't exactly good ones."
Iroh was silent at his last statement, and the joy was gone from his expression. Zuko seemed unfazed.
"My honour depends on this," Zuko scowled at Sokka. "And you will help us, because I command it."
"You can command all you want," Sokka said, feeling braver than he felt. "But I remember the last time the Fire Nation was here, and everything we lost that day... helping you won't bring anything good to our village."
Most of the time he buried his feelings about that day, because they were too painful to think about. It was the last time he saw his younger sister, Katara, and the last time he ever saw his parents happy. Ever since then, Hakoda and Kya had always been touched by sadness, and their smiles had never quite seemed to reach their eyes. When Hakoda left with the other men of the tribe to go fight in the war, Kya just seemed to become even sadder, a shadow of the mother he remembered before it all happened. Sokka remembered feeling unjustifiably hurt by this at first (and he hated himself for it), but over time he realised that without Katara, it was like a piece of their family was missing, a hole that could never be filled by anything, no matter how much time had passed.
"Who did you lose?" Iroh asked sympathetically, as if he understood. Sokka was internally surprised at how nice this old man was being, because it went against everything he knew about the Fire Nation, both from the stories and from experience. But it did seem that Iroh was genuine in his intent.
"My sister, Katara," he said through gritted teeth, not noticing the way both Iroh and Zuko reacted at the name. "Just another casualty of this damned war. So please, just leave and don't put our village through anything else."
There was a moment of silence, and Sokka didn't understand why. Maybe his earnest words had convinced them to leave?
Finally, Zuko spoke.
"If you help me find the Avatar, I'll tell you what I know about Katara."
Sokka was wordless, staring at Zuko in shock. Zuko raised an eyebrow, gesturing impatiently for Sokka to reply.
"About... Katara?" Sokka choked out. When she'd been missing after the sudden withdrawal of the Fire Nation troops, they'd looked for her desperately until his mother had woke up and given a solemn recounting of her conversation with the head of the raiders, telling them of how they weren't taking prisoners that day. Even though they never found her body, the obvious conclusion to draw was that she had been killed that day, given the clear intentions of the raiders. There had been a terribly sad funeral which Sokka could only barely bring himself to remember, where everyone cried, not just for the loss of such a young tribe member, but for the loss of their hope. As the only waterbender in the tribe, Katara had always represented a beacon of hope and salvation, a chance against the Fire Nation. And then she was gone, snuffed out by the Fire Nation in an instant.
"She's not dead," Zuko said simply. "If you want to know what I know, help me find the Avatar."
Knowing in his heart that this was wrong but also knowing he had to do it anyway, Sokka nodded silently.
Several hours later, Sokka was standing somewhere he never thought he would be (at least, not willingly): on the deck of a Fire Nation ship. There had been understandable resistance on the part of the village, especially from his mother and Gran Gran, but when he pulled them aside and quietly told them both about the deal he'd made with Zuko, their eyes welled up and they agreed without hesitation. With his mother, wife of the chief, on board, no one else in the village dared to argue, even though they didn't know the details of the agreement. Zuko's crew had loaded a smaller water tribe boat onto the Fire Nation ship in case they needed to navigate smaller channels, and then Sokka had boarded the ship to help search some of the likely spots.
But now, with the end of the day looming on the horizon, they'd already searched most of the surroundings of the South Pole, and Zuko's limited patience was wearing thin.
"I told you," Sokka said tiredly. "There isn't anyone living out here in secret. We would have come across him by now."
Zuko was pacing near the front of the ship, puffing flickers of fire from his hands as he wrung them. Sokka had quickly learned that both Zuko and his Uncle Iroh (and probably most of their crew) were all firebenders, which made him even more uncomfortable being around them. As a nonbender, he'd always felt a little weirded out and maybe even scared by the powerful things benders could do. He honestly didn't want that power, but at the same time, he wished sometimes that he did have bending of some kind so he could level the playing field a bit.
"There must be somewhere you're missing," Zuko said, sounding increasingly frantic. "We've searched everywhere else, this is the last place that makes sense. He has to be here! I need him to be here!"
In rage and frustration, he let off a huge blast of fire from his hands, redirecting it at the last minute away from ice structures nearby and into the water below. Sokka was silently impressed by the power the other boy wielded, and thankful it wasn't currently directed at him. Not thankful enough to not say what he was thinking, though.
"So... about my sister," he began, feeling Zuko's furious gaze turn towards him.
"You're supposed to help me find the Avatar!" Zuko shouted. "That's the deal! No Avatar, no information!"
"Hey, that's not fair," Sokka said angrily. "For all you know, the Avatar died 100 years ago and you're just on a wild goose chase with no end!"
"Tell me about it," Iroh mused, sipping his tea off to the side.
"He's out here somewhere and I will find him! I know it!" It almost seemed that Zuko's anger and frustration were going to cause him to self-combust. He launched more fireballs into the air and water around the boat, clearly getting more agitated by the second. Sokka felt like there must be more to the story of why he was so insistent on finding the Avatar, but it didn't seem like a good time to ask.
"Calm down, Prince Zuko," Iroh said a bit urgently, looking at the way the ice was starting to crumble from the shelves surrounding them into the water.
"Prince Zuko?" Sokka repeated incredulously, feeling sick at the realisation that he had been inadvertently helping a member of the Fire Nation royal family. His dad would be so disappointed in him... he should have just died trying to stop them even docking on the shore. If Zuko was a prince, that made him the son of the Fire Lord, the one responsible for the state of the world and the terrible ongoing war.
But Zuko wasn't paying attention to either of them, and kept letting off blasts of fire into the shelves around them, causing cracks to appear. And behind him, eerily, there was some kind of crystal blue glow that was getting brighter with every passing second.
"Zuko," Iroh said again, having noticed the blue glow, putting down his tea and looking properly concerned for the first time. Sokka followed his gaze, and saw that a giant glowing azure orb had surfaced in the water behind them. It was definitely not the normal iceberg, Sokka had seen plenty of those. And inside the shining ice, there seemed to be two shadows, a small one and a large one. Sokka felt like he had left his normal universe behind this morning and surfaced in some crazy alternate universe where icebergs could glow and somehow Fire Nation princes were in the southern waters searching for long-lost Avatars.
"Zuko!" exclaimed Iroh, causing Zuko to halt in his tracks. He looked at his uncle, and then followed the silent pointing finger towards the giant blue ice orb that now bobbed in front of the ship. Zuko's mouth dropped open in shock, and he instantly ran to the bow, leaping gracefully onto the top and looking at the glowing iceberg more carefully.
"It's him," Zuko whispered, his breath catching. He leapt overboard, and jumped across the smaller floating chunks of ice until he landed on a small sheet in front of the orb. Sokka clumsily followed him, cringing as the icy water splashed up at him. Much less gracefully, he landed at Zuko's side and almost caused the other boy to topple into the water. Zuko scowled at him, but his attention was quickly drawn back to the iceberg.
The smaller shadow inside the iceberg was glowing, and Sokka thought he could see an arrow pattern. It looked human-shaped, but very small. But there was no movement other than that. Zuko made a frustrated noise and suddenly there was a huge explosion of fire on the surface of the blue orb. A burst of steam escaped, and a smaller explosion almost threw both Zuko and Sokka backwards by its force.
Sokka watched in awe as the smaller figure suddenly appeared at the top of the now-burst iceberg, his eyes glowing a piercing white. Zuko seemed equally awed, and said nothing. The figure stood there for a few seconds, and then the glow faded, and revealed a boy, younger than both of them. His eyes fixed on them momentarily, for an instant of a second, and then he fell unconscious, tumbling to a hard thump onto the ice in front of them.
Neither Zuko nor Sokka said anything at first, they just stared down at the boy collapsed before them. He was at least a few years younger than they were, with strange blue tattoos all over his light skin. His head was bald, perfectly shaven in the style of the monks of old times that Sokka had seen in books. His breaths were shallow, but he was definitely still alive.
"He's just... a kid," Zuko said finally, an inexplicable emotion in his voice. Iroh and the crew were watching from the ship, and could probably only barely make out any details of the boy in front of them. Sokka felt a strange feeling pass over him, almost like déjà vu, and he felt his eyes tear up a bit at how helpless the boy in front of them was. How could he be the Avatar? This boy had no chance of saving the world. And Sokka had just led the Fire Nation right to him.
"What are you going to do with him?" Sokka asked quietly, not sure he wanted to hear the answer. Zuko didn't answer at first, still staring at the slumped figure on the ice.
"I'm... I'm going to deliver him to my father, and restore my honour," he said, but his words sounded a bit hollow. It almost seemed like he never actually expected to find the Avatar.
A growl startled them both, and the ice sheet beneath them shook. A giant beast suddenly appeared around the corner of the orb, and it did not look happy with them.
"That's a sky bison," Zuko said, sounding a bit wondrous.
"Here, nice sky bison, don't eat us please," Sokka said warily, holding his hands up. The bison looked at him, and seemed relatively unperturbed, but as Zuko approached the unconscious boy, it growled again, more fiercely this time. Zuko looked up at it, then back at the boy.
"Hmm," he said, then turned back to his crew. "Capture the bison immediately!"
Suddenly a few of the firebending crew jumped from the ship onto the ice, and were launching fire at the sky bison. Sokka shrieked as a fireball grazed the top of his head, ducking only just in time. The sky bison roared in anger, and charged towards Zuko who was picking up the small figure of the Avatar as if he were a bag of feathers. A fireball burst between them, and the sky bison flinched backwards, upsetting the balance of the ice sheet and tumbling into the icy water. Sokka was flung into the air, smashing down onto a nearby chunk of ice, but Zuko leapt easily to another sheet, the Avatar over his shoulder, as he made his way back to the ship. The sky bison let out an anguished howl from the water, and Sokka knew he was now a bystander in something that was most definitely not right. And he had to try and do something. He gripped his boomerang, looked at Zuko's retreating figure, and jumped after him.
He clambered back on board the ship in time to see Zuko drop the Avatar unceremoniously on the deck, gesturing for other members of the crew to come and get him. He looked up as Sokka charged towards them, an exasperated expression crossing his features. As Sokka attacked, Zuko ran to meet him and in one swift move flipped him onto his back, and he landed painfully on the metal deck. Zuko held him down easily with a sharp elbow, and glared at him.
"Look, peasant," Zuko spat. "This doesn't concern you, so leave it alone. I'll keep my end of the bargain though - your sister is my father's waterbending pet, and she has been since she was taken from your stupid little tribe. She's alive and in the Fire Nation, at the palace."
Stunned and momentarily forgetting the Avatar, Sokka stared up at Zuko.
"You know her?"
"No," Zuko said. "She's kept in a different part of the palace. But I've seen her once or twice. My sister has trained with her."
The revelation was too much for Sokka, the tears streaming against his will down his cheeks.
"Is she... okay?" he said weakly, so relieved to know that she hadn't died all those years ago but also terrified that she was in the Fire Nation. And even worse, she was in the same place as the Fire Lord himself.
"How would I know?" Zuko said, rolling his eyes. "Anyway, our deal is done, so go back to your dumb village and forget you ever saw us."
He relinquished his hold on Sokka, eyeing him threateningly, but Sokka was too shocked to continue his charge to defend the Avatar. Meanwhile, the crew had dragged the unconscious boy away, taking him to Zuko's carefully designed "Avatar prison" on the lower deck.
"I want to come with you," Sokka said suddenly, looking at Zuko pleadingly. Maybe he could get to Katara that way, and rescue her from the Fire Nation.
"Not a chance," Zuko said. He nodded at the crew, who lowered the water tribe boat into the water. "Get off my ship, we're done."
Two crew members pulled Sokka to his feet, and dragged him roughly to the edge of the ship. Sokka looked towards Zuko's uncle, Iroh, who looked back at him with a remorseful expression and dark eyes. The old man did not seem particularly happy about the turn of events, but only watched silently as Sokka was forced into the water tribe boat.
"Sir," he heard one of the crew say nervously to Zuko above him. "The bison escaped."
He heard a blast of fire and a shout of frustration. Then it subsided.
"It doesn't matter," Zuko said. "We have the Avatar."
He looked over the side of the boat to where Sokka sat sullenly, feeling like an utter failure.
"Thanks for your assistance," Zuko said, almost sarcastically. "The Fire Nation appreciates your cooperation."
The Fire Nation ship rumbled next to his boat, and then suddenly was moving away, ripples of water rocking the tiny boat. Sokka sighed miserably, and put his head in his hands, not knowing what to do next.
Below the deck of the Fire Nation ship, the captive boy stirred for the first time since emerging from the ice. His vision was hazy as he opened his eyes, and with growing panic he realised he couldn't move. His hands were shackled tightly together above his head, and another chain around his waist bound him to the wall of the room. He looked down and saw that his feet were also shackled, the weight of the iron heavy and painful. He was still weak from the energy it had taken from him to protect himself inside the makeshift iceberg, and though he could feel his energy slowly returning, it didn't seem like it would be enough to break free of the chains holding him down.
The air in the small room was dry and warm, and his surroundings seemed to be entirely made out of metal. The steel felt cold through his thin clothes. He also felt like he was having trouble drawing breath, and wondered if it had anything to do with a mechanical pump noise he could hear in the walls. He felt scared, and tried to pull against the chains, but with no success. There were no windows in the room, so he had no idea what time of day it was or even where he was. With a gasp, he suddenly remembered that Appa had been with him in the ice, and felt worry grow inside him for his loyal sky bison. He hoped Appa was okay, but a feeling inside him reassured him that he was.
He looked up as the metal door creaked open, revealing an older boy with a horrible scar across one side of his face. His brow furrowed in recognition. It was the same boy he'd first seen when emerging from the iceberg, before passing out. He remembered the initial thought that had crossed his mind upon crawling out of the iceberg: maybe this was a new friend to have adventures with? That seemed less likely now.
"You're awake," the other boy stated, shutting the door behind him.
"Where am I?" Aang asked nervously, his voice sounding weaker than he would have liked.
"You're on my ship, and we're heading to the Fire Nation right now."
The other boy seemed to expect that statement to strike fear into his captive, but Aang just looked back at him with a confused expression on his face.
"Who are you?" he asked, knowing in his heart that this was the person responsible for his capture and wanting to understand why.
"I am Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai and heir to the throne of the Fire Nation," the boy in front of him said in an authoritarian tone. "I've been searching for the Avatar for three years, and now, I found you."
Aang felt cold inside.
"Why were you searching for me?"
Zuko's eyes narrowed at his question.
"Because you're the only one capable of ending the war and stopping the Fire Nation's progress, and I had to stop you."
"The war?" Aang repeated hollowly, his throat dry. He realised he didn't recognise the names Zuko or Ozai, and wondered how long it had been. "What war?"
Zuko laughed darkly.
"Are you kidding me?" he said in disbelief. "How long have you been sleeping in that iceberg?"
"I don't know," Aang said softly, looking down sadly. Zuko stared at him, thinking back to the research he'd done in trying to track the Avatar. He'd expected to find a powerful but elderly man hiding in the southern waters, but here was a kid, at least a few years younger than him. The accounts had said that the last time the Avatar was seen, it was as a child flying on a sky bison, over 100 years ago. He suddenly realised that this was that child, and that the Avatar had somehow been hidden in that iceberg for the last century.
"Oh," he said out loud, causing the boy to look at him in more confusion.
"I'm Aang," Aang said hopefully, his big eyes fixed on Zuko, wondering if maybe this was all some big misunderstanding.
"I don't care what your name is," Zuko said cruelly, glaring at him. "You're just an offering to my father, to help restore my honour."
"Your honour?" Aang echoed numbly, realising this was not a misunderstanding, and the situation he was in was pretty serious after all.
"Yes," Zuko scoffed. "Anyway, I just wanted you to know that this room was especially designed to prevent all bending, so you can't use any of your Avatar tricks in here. It's dry so there is no water, made out of metal so you can't burn it, there is no earth in here whatsoever and a special pump is keeping the room at a semi-vacuum so you can't airbend either."
"I don't know how to bend anything but air anyway," Aang said quietly. "So your room is a bit over the top."
"You're the Avatar, I know you can control all four elements, I've read all the literature," Zuko said coolly.
"I'm just a 12 year old kid, I don't know much at all." Aang looked down at his feet, feeling helpless. Zuko didn't say anything. Aang looked back at the older boy, wondering how he got the scar on his face. It looked like it had been very painful.
"Please... I just want to go home," he said to Zuko, eyes wide and earnest. "I don't know what war you're talking about, but I just want to go back to the air nomads at the Southern Air Temple, and I won't interfere with whatever your father is doing."
Zuko looked at him with an unreadable expression.
"I can't let you do that," he said. "I have to complete my mission. I have to restore my honour."
Aang detected a hint of remorse in his voice, but before he could say anything more, Zuko had stood up and stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him. Once more alone in the room, Aang had begun to appreciate how dire his situation was, and tried to summon the willpower to fight against it, but right now he only felt tired and weak. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thought about the note he'd left Monk Gyatso, and he hoped he could somehow get word to him that he was sorry for what he had done.
But deep down, he knew it was far too late for that.