Book 1: Water
Zuko thought about the water nation boy when he went to bed that night.
First, he tossed and turned, seething over his loss at Kyoshi Island, hearing the screams of children in his mind- his eyes flashed, showed houses burning, and his own reflection, helmet on his head, scarred eye beholding a terrifying fury as he destroyed everything he could find, rage fueled by the Avatar’s betrayal at the South Pole; his only respite from the visions of his destruction was the image of the male water tribe warrior in a Kyoshi dress.
Ridiculous, he thought to himself. And he snorted, a weird rumble that was one jump away from a laugh.
Weeks later, Zuko had more-or-less cornered the Avatar and his friends when one of his firebending crewmates got an eye full of sand and started blasting fireballs anywhere and everywhere in a full-blown panic. The water girl started frantically throwing streams at his men, a handful of them began yelling and retreating, the rabbitmonkey howled and was clawing at someone’s helmet, the Avatar created a windstorm, his uncle was trying to reach the panicked soldier, and one of his own fireballs hit the side of their tank, sending it reeling. Zuko had only a moment to gasp in horror, that was a rental!, before he and another body were hit by the wildly spinning metal contraption and knocked off the mountainside.
One moment he was staring up at the air, arm reaching out to the sun, and in a second the ground rushed up in front of his eyes like a wall was being raised from nothing- but he was falling. Zuko was spinning down and below he can see nothing but darkness. In a panic, he shot flames from his feet, but they didn’t do anything to halt his fall. He was so wrapped up in the shock he didn’t even think about how he was going to die until after he landed in icy cold water.
Zuko’s trajectory forced him deep under, and something hard slammed into the side of his head. He kept rapidly sinking until his feet hit the bottom of the pond. Pain shot out across his body, from his feet to his head, and Zuko involuntarily gasped in the water, taking it into his lungs. And then he knew what drowning felt like. His body seized up in the cold, trying to throw up, trying to breathe; pain rattled in him causing shocks he couldn’t control. He felt his back gently touch hard stone in the pool, and he looked around but his vision was blurred- there was no light- there was no up... he was going to die.
Something grabbed him by his ponytail and yanked him in an unknown direction. The next seconds that passed were agony, an eternity, and yet were blurred.
Zuko’s cheek was touching hard rock and there was air around him. He was slapped, repeatedly, on the back, until his throat opened up on its own and water was heaving out of his mouth. When his eyes stopped watering and the coughing slowed Zuko realized just who his rescuer was. Zuko jumped to his feet, causing the water tribe warrior to squeal in fright, and readied his fists in front of himself. “Don’t touch me,” Zuko seethed.
The water tribe warrior let out a noise like ‘ack’ and stood up, scrambling for his own weapon. “If I hadn’t ‘touched you’, you’d’ve died in the river!” He gesticulated wildly, boomerang in hand.
Zuko narrowed his eyes at him. “If you-“
And they heard a clanging from above, a noise that sounded as if metal was being torn apart, and Zuko realized just in time that his fire nation tank had been hurled into the crevasse as well. Without a moment to think, Zuko grabbed the water tribe warrior and jumped, throwing a fiery blast with his feet that propelled them out of the way. They flew several meters back before landing again in the freezing water, just as the tank screeched to a sparking halt, trapped by the ceiling, right above where they’d just been.
“Well,” the water nation warrior said.
The entirety of the front armor of the tank fell off and slammed, cracking rock, into the ground where they’d stood moments before. Zuko jumped at the wretched noise of metal tearing and slamming into rock and the water tribe warrior did as well. If they’d stayed, they would have been sliced clean in half.
It wasn’t until the dust cleared that they both realized they were clinging to each other. Zuko shoved as the water nation warrior started pinwheeling his arms and they both ended up splashed back into the icy cold black water. For one moment they stared at each other, dripping.
“UGH,” Zuko groaned. He turned around, trying to get his bearings. The cave was even darker than before as half of the metal tank was covering the small amount of light that could get through. Only little slivers of sun were shining through the mechanisms. All around them was a gentle, black river that continued onward both to the right and left into pitch black nothingness, the only dry place was a small outcropping where there was now smoking remains of a fire nation tank. Zuko made a snap decision, chose to go right, and started to swim in that direction.
“Wait!” The water tribe warrior said.
Zuko reached for the wall of the cave, getting purchase on a rock that jutted outward slightly, and turned with a sneer. “What?”
The water tribe warrior’s mouth dropped. “You can’t just- how do you know where you’re going?!”
Zuko had no reason to justify himself to the water tribe warrior. He turned his back on him. “You spared my life. I spared yours. Now leave.”
“Where?!” The water tribe warrior moved closer.
“Leave!” Zuko yelled. He threw his arm out from him in a circle sending a fire whip skimming across the surface of the water.
The warrior ducked under the water to avoid it and when the darker boy resurfaced he had a scowl on his face. “Listen to me for one second!” He shouted.
Zuko threw two more furious fire whips, but in doing so lost his position in the water and ended up ducking into the icy cold himself.
They both broke surface and glared at each other.
“This is the Liudong River,” the water tribe warrior said sternly, “it travels underground through the entirety of this mountain range and doesn’t resurface until Shan Pass. Do you even know how far away that is?”
Zuko gritted his teeth. “Yes,” he lied.
“And what are you going to do? Swim the whole way,” the warrior gesticulated wildly, “you almost drowned! Your head is bleeding!” Zuko raised a hand to his forehead, taking it away and noticing, yes, there was a considerable amount of watery blood on his palm. “Listen,” the warrior said with a pained look, “we can’t get back up with that tank blocking the way so the only way out is through, but if you fall asleep or get dizzy, you’re dead, and I can’t make it through this cave without a light to guide me. Can we just... go together, you insufferable fire nation jerk?”
Zuko glared at the warrior for a long moment. “No,” he said.
The warrior dropped his jaw with a stupid look on his face.
Zuko turned and swam deeper in the cave, only to discover his feet touched ground. He could stand a bit later, the freezing water only coming to waist height, and he lit a torch in his palm. He trudged forward, noticing that one of his feet was having difficulty stepping solidly, but due to the freezing nature of the water he couldn’t feel any pain.
The water tribe warrior, loudly, followed with grumbles and splashes. “Well, I’m going this way too,” he said stubbornly.
“Fine,” Zuko said.
After a few moments walking deeper in the cave, Zuko started to shiver. He took a deep breath, concentrated his chi, and blew hot air from his nose, drying out the part of his body that wasn’t submerged in water. It wasn’t a technique he had mastered yet but it helped a little. The warrior was suddenly right at his side, teeth audibly chattering. “Can I get some of that?”
Zuko frowned. “No.”
“Jerk,” the warrior mumbled.
Zuko, after several more paces, opened his mouth to order the water nation warrior to move away from him when his bad foot hit a hole in the water and he stumbled. The light went out, arms grabbed him by the stomach, and Zuko didn’t fall into the water. The water tribe warrior had caught him.
Zuko relit the flame in his hand and pulled himself out of the warrior’s arm with a cough. He took a step forward, heard a shiver from the boy behind him, and rolled his eyes. Then, trying not to think about it, Zuko sent a gust of hot air to his side to dry off the warrior. They continued forward after that, both not saying a word, both shivering less.
At one point the water got deeper, which was worrisome, and they were wading up to their armpits. Zuko was forced to hold his hands high above his head so they could still see, but after several minutes the water was at waist height again. It was just as the water tribe warrior said, the tunnel continued onward with no end in sight. Nothing but blackness ahead, blackness below, freezing water, and Zuko’s flame showing the way.
“So,” the warrior said.
“This sucks,” the warrior continued.
Zuko trudged onward, not looking at the water tribe warrior, but nodded.
“I mean, of course this happens to me. Stuck in a tiny, dark, horrible cave with the biggest fire nation jerk in the world,” the warrior lamented.
Zuko rolled his eyes.
“If I can just... stop for a second,” the warrior said, as if the words hurt him to say, “your... face is looking bad.”
Zuko turned sharply. “What?!” He snapped. The flame in his palm surged, shooting out massive swirls of outraged fire into the sides of the cave walls.
“The- not the...” the warrior spurted, “I mean the bleeding on your head!”
“Oh.” Zuko’s flames died down awkwardly.
The warrior took out his boomerang from his belt and, with a labored sigh, ripped a stretch of blue fabric from the bottom of his shirt. He held it up. “I’m just going to wrap it.”
“I can do it myself,” Zuko said with gritted teeth.
“And what, turn off the torch and leave us in the dark? Or burn the other half of your face? Just stop whining.”
Zuko was not accepting help from an enemy. He turned his back and continued forward angrily, until his bad foot slipped on nothing and he fell again. This time, he splashed down entirely into the water, extinguishing the torch and freezing himself. When he resurfaced, the warrior was laughing.
Zuko couldn’t feel the rag wrapped around his forehead after awhile. As they continued down into the mountains the air around them grew colder, and the rudimentary heating technique Zuko knew was doing little to help with their waists still submerged in freezing water. They were walking close enough their shoulders occasionally brushed against each other, but they both seemed to have silently agreed not to mention it.
“And,” the warrior said, teeth chattering as he spoke, “I- when my d-dad found me in the s-snow drift that night he was like, ‘Sokka! Did you forget how to make an igloo?’ A-and I-I was just...”
“Wh-what’s a Sok-Sokka?” Zuko asked, shivering.
The warrior snorted. “My n-name.”
“An-any-anyw-way I w-was...”
After some time, long enough that Zuko sensed the sun had gone down, they found a small outcropping in the cave. Shivering heavily, Zuko managed to pull himself up on the first try. The warrior, Sokka, took a couple attempts, Zuko didn’t help him, but he eventually pulled himself up as well.
Zuko dried them both off, expanded the fire to both of his palms, and sat cross legged down. Sokka sat across from him directly in front of the fire. A few minutes passed, the flame beginning to warm them, as their eyes watched each other with suspicion. Eventually the two teenagers finally felt the shivers leave their body with twin sighs of relief.
“This is just like the time I got lost halfway through winter when I was eight,” Sokka said.
“You told that story already.”
“Oh.” The water tribe warrior held his palms up to the fire, warming them. “Your turn.”
“Jerk. Fine. Should we- get some sleep?” Sokka asked reluctantly.
Zuko narrowed his gaze at the other teenager and frowned. “You first,” he warned.
Sokka slapped his forehead in frustration.
Clearly, neither one was going to forget the other was an enemy. They continued onward into the cave a few minutes later, abandoning the idea of rest.
It was late in the afternoon of the next day when the cave began to grow brighter. A few more minutes of walking and they both saw light at the far end of the tunnel. Zuko grinned at Sokka and Sokka jumped up with glee, grabbed Zuko’s shoulders, and let out a water tribe war cry.
Exactly a second later they both remembered who they were and jumped apart.
Zuko coughed into his shoulder. Sokka started to whistle. They walked the final thirty minutes out of the cave, the water steadily growing lower and lower until it was only to their knees, until they stepped out of the dismal darkness into a bright forest illuminated by a beautiful afternoon sun. Zuko blinked blearily, eyes adjusting to the light, and Sokka must have too because they both stood still in the center of the river for a long moment.
“Where’s Shan Pass?” Zuko asked.
Zuko left without a word.
The next time they saw each other it was attempted-murder-and-kidnapping-of-the-Avatar-as-usual and neither one mentioned the incident in the Liudong River again.