Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs to Brian, Mike, and Nickelodeon, while the series and concepts in His Dark Materials belong to Phillip Pullman.
Some notes on this story: This fic takes place in an alternate version of the episode "The Beach." The name of Zuko's daemon is pronounced "Nye-rah-koh-aa." Ty Lee's is pronounced "On-yah-dang." Mai's daemon is "Guh-wah-zai-get-e." Azula's is spoken as "Wo-orn-uh-th-rah-za." Ozai's is "No-boo-bly." Katara's is "Mos-uh-don-ya," and Aang's is easy to pronounce correctly.
In the tropical sky above Ember Island, a nearly full moon shone, its silver beams lancing down to meet and be subsumed by the light of a beach campfire around which four teenagers and their daemons sat for protection against the chill breeze coming off the sea.
With a scornful snort of disgust and a casual toss of his hand, Zuko flicked the painted portrait of his family-once happy and whole, but now broken and gone mad-into the flames, which crawled inward to devour it. His daemon, Nyrancoa, in the form of a hyena-mastiff, gave a smug, satisfied snort as they both watched.
Across from them, both Ty Lee and Onyadang, her giant silver gibbon/spider monkey daemon, jerked in shock.
"What are you doing?" Ty Lee asked as Onyadang made a brief wide-eyed dart towards the fire, arm extended before being driven back by the heat, fixing Nyrancoa with an astonished, slightly reproachful stare from his sunken brown eyes.
"What does it look like we're doing?" Zuko shot back as Nyrancoa stared Onya down, a growl rumbling in her throat.
"But it's a picture of your family!" she replied uncomprehendingly as the gibbon/spider monkey daemon turned his gaze back to where the painting was now pretty much a blacked husk of ash.
Sadness showed in his eyes as he looked back up at the hyena-mastiff and asked, "Doesn't a memory like this mean anything to you, Nyrancoa?"
"Not if it's a stupid, painful memory," she growled back, and Zuko nodded as he snapped out, "You think we care? I don't give a cockroach-beetle's ass, and neither does Nyra!"
But the prince thought he felt a brief flash of regret, here, than gone, pass through his daemon even as he said the words.
"I think you do," Ty Lee replied softly, as both she and Onyadang's eyes, normally so ditzy and animated and cheerful, met his. Their knowing softness just inflamed him further.
Nyra's hackles raised and she turned away with a "Ha!"
"You don't know me, so why don't you mind your own business?" Zuko lashed as Nyra turned into a magnificent tigress-jaguar and they both prepared to walk away, Zuko placing his right hand on her back.
"We know you," Onya lightly scoffed, raising his jutting eyebrows as his tail idly curled in the sand.
"No you don't," Zuko pointedly replied, voice oozing contempt as he and Nyra turned back to face them.
"Well Zuko, look at yourself!" Ty Lee responded. "Look at Nyra! Seventeen years old and she still hasn't settled! That's not normal Zuko!"
"We're just fine!" Zuko fired back. "Nyra's been taking this shape more and more often ever since we fought and killed the Avatar in Ba Sing Se," he said as he glanced at the tigress-jaguar, "including when I saw my dad again, so she'll be settling any day now! Won't you Nyra," he firmly added as he glanced at his daemon a second time.
"Absolutely," Nyra agreed with a confident nod...but also with a grin that wasn't fully as sincere as Zuko wanted it to be.
"And don't you dare talk about 'what's normal,'" he sarcastically went on, a hand on his hip, "or how you 'know me' when you ran off to join the damn circus and live in your prissy little 'Ty Lee world,' where everything's happy and great all the time," pointing accusingly at her as Nyra took a couple steps in front of him and snarled at the acrobat.
Onya jerked like he'd been slapped, letting out a whimper as he sat down and hugged himself.
At that, Mai sternly told him, "Zuko, leave her alone," as Gwazygesti, her green iguanadillo daemon got to his feet and hissed, sand spraying into the air as his long tail lashed twice in anger.
The crown prince and Nyra ignored them as he mocked, "Oh, I'm so pretty. Look at me and my daemon and how funny and special we are," drawing his lithe body up into a handstand as Nyra became a twin to Onyadang and joined Zuko in his spiteful mimicry, laughing shrilly as she levered herself up onto her own simian hands and walked a few steps in that fashion before moving on to do a few exaggerated flips while he went on deriding her, saying "I can walk on my hands! Whoo!"
At that, he let gravity take over, and lightly fell on his back against the cool sand, motionless as Nyra climbed onto his chest and sat down, idly scratching her shoulders while she grunted, "Circus freak."
He heard his sister giggle and Wuornathraza, her female marsupial sabertooth daemon chuff in amusement from where she was sprawled across her lap, even as her childhood friend broke into tears.
"Don't laugh!" Gwazygeti chided.
"I'll laugh at whatever I damn well want, lizard," Wuornathraza coldly growled.
As for Onyadang, he climbed onto Ty Lee's back and embraced her as tightly as he could, stroking her side with one hand as she defiantly sobbed, "Yes, I'm a circus freak. Go and laugh all you want," she challenged. "You and your stupid daemons too. You want to know why I joined the circus?"
"Here we go," he heard Azula mutter.
"Yep, the herd story," Wuornathraza agreed. Zuko just knew the pouched sabertooth was rolling her flaming yellow eyes.
"Do you have any idea what my home life was like?" the acrobat cried as Onya gave a screeching bark of anger. "Growing up with six sisters who looked exactly like me?"
"And more often than not, their daemons too!" Onya lamented.
"It was like I didn't have my own name," Ty Lee went on, crying even harder, and Zuko heard the rasp of sand as she sunk to her knees.
She doesn't know whether to be pissed off or a blubbering mess, Nyra scoffed in his head. What a frigging emotional schizo.
"It was when we noticed most of our sister's daemons were showing a preference for herding animals like sable antelope-okapi or koala sheep-and yes, it was usually all at the same time!-that we fucking lost it," Onyadang interjected wretchedly on her behalf. "We joined the circus not just because it sounded fun, but because we were scared of spending the rest of our life as part of a matched set. At least we're different now," he added, gently stroking the back of Ty Lee's head.
He then let the acrobat took over, tearfully yet angrily declaring, "To Onya and me, 'circus freak' is a compliment!" Nyra flinched at the words, but Zuko coolly ignored her, running a hand through his shaggy hair.
"Guess that explains why you need ten boyfriends, too," Mai droned.
"I'm sorry, what?" Ty Lee said indignantly.
"Attention issues," Mai stated simply. "You couldn't get enough attention when you were a kid."
"So you've been trying to make up for that ever since," Gwazygeti said primly.
"Well, what's your excuse Mai? Gwazygeti?" Ty Lee retorted. "You were an only child for fifteen years, but even with all that attention, your aura is this dingy, pasty, gray..."
"I don't believe in auras," Mai deadpanned as Gwazygeti gave a hissing laugh of scorn.
"All a bunch of mumbo-jumbo silliness," he added plainly.
Irritation rushed through Zuko's blood again, forceful and hot, as he rose to his feet and Nyrancoa became a frigate bird-booby on his shoulder, glaring mildly as he droned, "Yeah, you do not believe in anything."
Her daemon turned and hiss-growled at him as she sarcastically replied, "Oh, well, I'm sorry I can't be as high-strung and crazy as the rest of you."
"Well, we folks call it having a personality," Nyra snapped. "Try it sometime."
"I'm sorry too," Zuko stated as he walked back up to the campfire. "We wish you and Gwazygeti would be high-strung and crazy for once instead of keeping all your feelings bottled up inside! I mean, for Agni's sake, she just called your aura dingy," he said, gesturing toward Ty Lee. "Are you gonna take that?"
Gwazygeti crawled back into Mai's lap and rolled his dusty, bland eyes as she sighed and leaned back. "What do you want from me?" she asked rhetorically. "You want a teary confession about how hard my childhood was?"
"Hard! There's a laugh!" Gwaz forcefully snorted. "Sure wasn't for us!"
Mai nodded as she gently stroked his armored back, reminiscing, "I was a rich only child who got anything I wanted...as long as I behaved, and sat still, and didn't speak unless spoken to, and Gwaz didn't introduce himself to or even approach other people's daemons unless they came to us first."
"Mother said we had to look proper and keep out of trouble," Gwaz said, a hint of weary resentment in his voice. "We had my dad's rank and political career to think about, and if we did something that made us look foolish or ill-mannered..."
"Our dad and Tekelda would come across the same way," Mai finished.
"Well, that explains everything then," Wurnothraza said sultrily as she stretched, showing her massive upper fangs in a slow yawn.
"You have a controlling mother who had certain expectations, and if you strayed from them, you were shut down," Azula agreed as she stroked her daemon's back. "That's why you're afraid to care about anything, and why you and Gwaz can't or won't express yourselves."
Immediately, the green iguana-armadillo sprung to his feet, leaping out of Mai's lap and onto the sand, spines bristling and giving a growling hiss as he snapped, "That's a bunch of elephant-tapir shit!"
"You want me to express myself?" Mai shouted as she too jumped upright. "Leave me alone!"
"I like it when you express yourself," Zuko offered, approaching her and trying to place an affectionate hand on her shoulder as Nyra became a thylacine-civet and cautiously attempted to nuzzle a softly growling Gwaz.
But she jerked away, and Zuko flinched involuntarily as her daemon's tail lightly lashed Nyra in the face, causing her to yelp. "Don't touch me!" she snapped. "I'm still mad at you," she grumbled, sitting back down.
"Our life hasn't been that easy either, Mai," he replied hotly as he rubbed his cheek.
"And you'd better believe it," Nyra added sharply.
"Whatever," Mai said dismissively as her daemon continued to glare at him. "That doesn't excuse the way you've been acting."
"Calm down, you guys," Ty Lee, now somewhat pulled back together, urged. "This much negative energy is bad for your skin. You'll totally break out."
"Yeah, can't we all just get along?" Onya grinned hopefully.
"Bad skin?" Zuko said sharply as Nyra became a colorful iguana-parrot and flew to his shoulder, where she gave a bitter laugh. "Normal teenagers worry about bad skin. I don't have that luxury. My father," he hissed as he leaned forward, his daemon hanging on to his shoulder as he pointed to his puckered scar, "decided to teach me a permanent lesson on my face!"
As he said the words, he felt Nyra flinch so hard at the force of his shared emotion, at the memory of terror and agony, that she nearly fell off his shoulder before regaining her balance.
He felt her warm, feathery body press against his neck, his cheek, her hooked teeth grooming his shaggy hair in reassurance.
It hurt Zuko, she gasped voicelessly in his mind. Agni, it was like someone had shot a ball of lava into your face, or dumped a pitcher of hot oil. I thought he'd blinded you in that one, or worse, even both eyes!
Yeah, me too. Thank Agni I came out being able to still see out of this one, he silently sighed in relief. But I'm sure if the worst had happened, you'd still make a great seeing-eye daemon, he added warmly. I'll always remember how you turned into a ground sloth-bear and tried to carry me away to safety.
At least until your dad's wolverine-baboon daemon attacked me and he threatened to burn me as well, Nyra ruefully, sadly commented. How disgusting and si-
I don't want to think about that right now! He lashed back fiercely.
Onya flinched himself, tail coiling in the sand in agitation and averting his gaze as a chastened Ty Lee babbled apologetically, "Sorry, Zuko, I..."
The crown prince cut her off, but casually as he turned away, absentmindedly petting Nyracoa's feathers as she fidgeted in place and silently looked up at the moon, saying, "For so long I thought that if my dad accepted me, I'd be happy. I'm back home now, my dad and Nobublai notice and talk to me." He remembered the way the wolverine-baboon had looked at him in his father's dramatically illuminated throne room. How her glowering, predatory eyes, normally judgmental and unfriendly, had shined in the firelight with a pleasantly surprised, impressed pride.
"Ha! He even thinks I'm a hero," he grated as Nyra became a tigress-jaguar once more beside him. "Everything should be perfect, right?" he declared. "I should be happy now, and Nyra should finally be settled, but I'm not," he snapped bitterly as his daemon began to pace behind him. "I'm angrier than ever and I don't know why!" he barked out in frustration as Nyra, still hurriedly pacing back and forth, tore the night air with fearful growls and hisses.
"Sometimes I feel these days that I could just tear the entire world apart," Nyra hatefully snarled, stopping to slash at the sand with bared claws. "And even then it wouldn't be satisfying enough!"
"There's a simple question you need to answer, then," Azula told him.
"Who are you angry at, Zuko?" Wurnotharaza pointedly inquired.
Nyracoa stopped her pacing and looked down the beach with an intense, yet thoughtful gaze as Zuko responded simply but harshly, "No one. I'm just angry."
"Yeah," Mai prodded, "who are you angry at, Zuko?"
"Or what?" Gwaz added.
Nyra became a sleek, red-brown shrike-goshawk with a black mask, and angrily hunched on the sand, feathers bristling and amber eyes blazing as Zuko, pressure and frustration surging up within him, snapped, "Everyone. I don't know."
"Is it Dad?" Azula asked.
"Your uncle?" Onya guessed.
"Me?" Azula ventured.
"No, no, n-no, no!" he fervently denied, tossing his head as Nyra took flight and began wildly flying about, tossing her hawk body against the limits of their bond like a duiker-hare trapped in an enclosure.
"Then who?" Mai urged. "Who are you angry at?"
"Answer the question, Zuko," Azula snapped as her own daemon showed her formidable knives of teeth in a forceful snarl.
"Talk to us," Ty Lee urged.
"Come on, answer the question," Mai said, Gwaz crawling a few steps in front of her for emphasis.
"Come on, answer it," Azula demanded as Wurno watched him with one penetrating eye and his daemon's frantic antics with another.
At that, Zuko felt the turmoil in his mind boil over, and Nyra became the tigress-jaguar once more, splitting the sky with a roar as he furiously bellowed out, "I'm angry at myself!" slamming down with his jing and clenched fists to propel the campfire into a roaring yellow pillar of flame, all three girls and their daemons immediately recoiling back in shocked fear, Onyadang producing a screech of alarm before clutching Ty Lee.
Regaining her composure on the instant as he and Nyra turned away, Azula asked calmly, "Why, Zuko?"
"Because I'm confused," he admitted tiredly as Nyra sat down heavily. "For one thing, Ty Lee and everyone else are right about Nyra," he said as he gestured to her, neither turning around. "She should've gotten her act together and picked a form to stay with years ago, or at least after we killed off the Avatar."
He felt Nyra nod as she softly ran a huge forepaw over the sand and gave a weary hiss. "This is a form I'd really like to stay in," she said, her tone melancholy. "That I could stay in. That I should stay in. It suits me physically...but it just still doesn't feel right. We don't feel right," she amended, sharing a quick glance with the prince.
"It upsets me how nearly everyone treats us with suspicion for still not having settled," she growled bitterly, "like we're some creepy, messed-up freaks. You have no idea what it was like for us on that battleship, everyone and their daemons glancing over their shoulders at us, avoiding us whenever they could get half a chance, whispering superstitious rumors...but I couldn't help it, Agni damn it! I wish I could."
"Then what's holding you two back?" Azula's daemon asked lowly.
"Something even bigger than that," Zuko said despairingly as the distressing realization flowed through him. "It's because I'm not sure I know the difference between right and wrong anymore."
"Serve and do right by our nation," Gwaz replied firmly. "As long as you do that, that's all the difference you need to recognize."
Azula just shook her head. "You're pathetic."
"And so are you, Nyracoa," her daemon sneered.
"I know one thing I care about," Mai said as she walked up to him. "I care about you," she said gently as their lips met and Gwaz pressed himself against Nyra's rump, sending joy and delight through both prince and daemon. "And I wouldn't care if Nyra stayed unsettled for the rest of your life," she whispered.
They were interrupted by Azula's sarcastic clapping as Wurno sneered.
"Well, those were some wonderful performances, everyone," she said bitingly.
Nyra snarled as Zuko venomously snapped back, "I guess you wouldn't understand, would you, Azula?" as he possessively placed his arm around Mai, relishing her smell. "Because you're just so perfect," he mocked. "After all, isn't your daemon being the same gender as you obvious proof of that? Of how 'sooper speshul' you are?" he challenged as he made air quotes with the fingers of his free hand.
Anger briefly flashed in the marsupial sabertooth's eyes for a moment, but then vanished as she languidly rolled onto her stocky brick red back, striped with dark brown and exposing her backward-facing pouch. It was a display of supreme unconcern.
"Well, yes, I guess you're right," Azula stated casually. "I don't have sob stories like all of you," she said with an understated, dismissive contempt as her daemon completed her slow roll and sat up. "I could sit here and complain how our mom liked Zuko more than me, but I don't really care," she shrugged as she gazed into the remains of the fire. "My own mother (and Zuko detected something of a sudden choke in her voice then as Wurno laid her ears back and slightly closed her eyes), thought I was a monster," she revealed softly.
"Wow, harsh," Onya commented.
"She was right of course," Azula glibly, almost gleefully agreed after a heavy, momentary pause, even as her daemon stuck her head underneath her upper arm, careful not to cut her with those ivory daggers of teeth even as she nuzzled her bond partner in sympathy. "But it still hurt."
Suddenly, Azula's lips twisted in anger as she sent her daemon a sideways glare, and blue fire appeared around her fingertips. To everyone's shock, she jabbed it right at her own daemon's face, who jerked back and away just in time. Very few people, benders or not, ever actually tried to lay a hand on their own daemon like she'd just done.
Not for the first time since he'd encountered his sister again, Zuko looked at a cowering Wurnothraza intently, considering the implications of her chosen form. When his dad had banished him from his nation, she'd already been showing a strong preference for fierce predators, never straying from a lineup of her four favorite creatures, testing which one was most comfortable.
And during that grueling, fruitless three-year interim, she'd clearly discovered one which spoke the loudest of all to both her and the princess of the Fire Nation. Zuko could only imagine the celebrations his dad must've held for the occasion.
Real marsupial sabertooths prowled the rainforests and open woodlands of the Fire Nation's major islands, ambushing prey, throwing it to the ground, and then cutting its throat with their slicing, hand length fangs. They were equally at home in the trees as they were in the underbrush, poised and agile.
They were not only fierce and dangerous, but were also well known for being as cunning and savvy as a rat-jackal. Their minds were always considering, alert for opportunities even in the midst of chaos-and they could have such swift mood swings. You sure didn't want to be anywhere near one that had turned maneater.
Despite their aggressive, predatory nature though, they were also very beautiful and elegant animals, so confident and sure of themselves in whatever they did. They were mostly solitary, but would grudgingly tolerate others of their kind at times, and even work in pairs or trios to bring down especially large prey on occasion. Yes, it was a form that fit Wurnothraza like a glove.
He felt a knife of envy pierce him. It wasn't fair, Agni damn it! Not only his friends, his younger sister, but even the Avatar's lackeys, from what he'd seen and Azula had told him, had settled by the time they'd fought him in the Crystal Catacombs.
Sokka with his sly white wolf-coyote daemon, Toph with her naked mole rat-marmot one, and that touchy, simpering, ridiculously optimistic Katara with her soulful collie-giant otter daemon, Mosadonya. The only one that hadn't, ironically enough, was Aang himself. Considering that the airbender had only been twelve though, and that it was perfectly normal for an Avatar's daemon to settle later in life, Zanzdali's lack of a settled form was completely understandable.
He was pulled away from his resentful thoughts by an unusually meditative Ty Lee saying introspectively as Onya, lying on his back with his head in his leathery hands contemplated the stars, "Looks like what Lo and Li said has come true. The beach here really did help us learn more about ourselves." She paused and picked up a wave smoothed stone in front of her, smiling as she rubbed it. Onyadang gave a peaceful sigh through his parted lips and began to idly rub his long toes on both feet together as she said, "I feel all smoothed. Onya and me will always remember this."
Wurno briefly, if reluctantly nodded as Azula got to her feet.
The marsupial sabertooth's eyes shared the same darkly mischievous glint in the all-but-vanished firelight with Zuko's sister as the spurned princess proposed, "You know what would make this trip really memorable for us and our daemons?"
"What?" Onyadang said as he sat upright, looking at Azula.
"Going and teaching Chan and his pretentious loser friends a nice hot lesson," she grinned maliciously as azure fire enveloped her hands.
Zuko and Nyra both liked the sound of that.
In retrospect, perhaps it had been over the top, what the foursome and their daemons had done out of spite to Chan's house and his essentially innocent guests. Maybe Nyracoa hadn't had to tear through the guests and the place in the form of a black hyena-mastiff, chasing daemons all around like a mongoose-fox in a komodo-chicken coop, snapping at them and bowling them over, Zuko covering her with a blast of fire from one of his fists or feet whenever one of the pursued daemons tried to retaliate.
And it was probably more than a little cruel and hateful the way Nyra had used her thick neck, massive jaws, and squat body to tear massive chunks out of the couches, rip the seats out of the chairs, and flick expensive items through the air to shatter on the wall or floors as the crown prince had joined in with his martial arts skills.
But ultimately though, once the beach house was a flaming pile of wood and tile, and all four of them were back at their own rented place, Zuko having pleasantly stuffed himself with a collection of finger food and sweets Nyracoa had hurriedly scraped together into a big hand towel while in hogmonkey form before bailing out of there with him as a dwarf boarcupine, his thylacine-civet formed daemon knew just what to say about the climax to the night's party.
"Now that's," she grinned in satisfaction, muddy brown eyes sparking, "what I call frigging awesome ladies."
In the final chapter, the ultimate form of Zuko's daemon will be revealed! And of course, the situation/time Nyra chooses it too.
Azula's daemon is based on a real-life predator that used to live in southern South America, a prehistoric marsupial carnivore the size of a jaguar known as Thylacosmilus (pouched knives.)