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|More from Harpalyce||Drama||PG-13||None|
|All Bets are Off|
Things were wrong in this forest. Terribly, terribly wrong.
The Spirit World had its own rules in play, and Aang knew this more than anyone. But the landscape around him shifted and swayed as if only barely tethered to where he could reach out to it. This was a dangerous path, and he knew that from the gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach. One misstep and this would not be a happy ending for anyone, least of all him.
But with the same damned certainty, he knew that the only way out was forward. Koh's cave had disappeared, melting away like salt in hot water, and now he was left with the churning landscape around him. The ground beneath his feet was spongey – on the edge of a marshland or swamp, surely – and the trees had shifted from proud oaks to mangroves with stately natural buttresses framing their thick trunks.
One step, and then the next. Bit by bit. Aang had to remind himself through the haze in his mind that he could do this. It was the only way out to reality once more – and beside that compelling reason, he still had no answers to who was ultimately out for Zuko's blood. So he continued shuffling along in the amorphous grey-green forest.
A rattle of jewelry to his left.
Aang stood up straight, clutching his staff a little more tightly. He paused to look over his shoulder, then to his front again – and he jumped.
He wasn't alone.
The demon's face was quite beautiful, if you ignored how her red lips had been pulled apart in a snaggletoothed grin by her sharp fangs. Her hair was pulled back elegantly and many heavy gold necklaces hung off of her jagged, reptilian neck. The rest of her body was equally ornamented, jewels and gold shining while being framed on a rough and twisted body, crusty skin stretched over sharp bones. The necklaces hanging around down by her withered and pendulous breasts made her body seem all the more grotesque, and her long talon-like fingers clawed the air eagerly. Immediately she was close, far too close for comfort, and Aang stiffened.
"Avatar! How wonderful! How delightful!" Her voice was a pleasant purr, even speaking around the fangs in her mouth. "I so rarely get visitors." The demon's neck twisted around, her face inches from her own.
"I'm... only passing through." Aang put on a very thin smile. "Please, spirit. I have to get back to help one of my friends..."
"Surely you can stop for a chat." She smiled, her mouth impossibly full of razor-sharp teeth. "There are so many interesting things to talk about, aren't there, Avatar? Such as Katara, and how she has slipped away from you."
Aang's eyes narrowed, and a frown crossed his face. For a moment he stared down the demon before trying to push his way aside, but she laughed, quickly following. "Slipped, I say, perhaps I should say stolen? You realize the person you are here to save is, right now, stealing her from you." Aang gritted his teeth. "Long, meaningful glances – slow, lingering touches..." One of her talons grazed the back of his neck in mockery of what Katara had once done for him (or perhaps more accurately what he had perpetually hoped for). "Oh, he's a fine thief. I'm sure she has already told herself how she wants a man, and not just a boy."
That gave Aang a moment's pause. "I'm just... trying to get through," he repeated softly.
And she laughed. It was an unrelentingly cruel sound, and she moved closer, keeping pace with him on birdlike feet as he tried to walk forward and ignore her. "It's such a pity. You know, Avatar, she could have been yours."
"Yours forever. She could have seen how you loved her, and known that was good enough. After all, isn't she blessed? To be loved by the Avatar? What a cruel and silly creature, to not take that gift." The demon licked her lips.
Aang stopped in his tracks, taking in and letting out a slow breath. Be polite, be steadfast, keep moving. He forced a smile onto his face. "I'm sorry, I don't think I know your name, spirit."
The question seemed to throw her off-guard, but only for a moment. "There are some who call me Rakshasi, Avatar."
"Rakshasi." He bowed lightly. "I am sorry that I do not have time to talk further. But I need to keep moving. If you would step aside..."
She immediately broke out into wheezy laughter. Her breath stank, hitting his face, hot and rancid. "Surely you have time for a few words, Avatar?"
"...No, actually. I don't."
"Well then, we can walk and talk, just as we have been." That impossibly toothy, predatory smile crossed her face again. "Don't you think it's selfish of him?"
"Who?" He had been trying to ignore everything, but feigned ignorance was a kneejerk reaction.
"Don't play coy, Avatar, you know exactly who he is. He has already had a wife! He has a daughter – a family – while you are alone. Surely if he were truly your friend, he would see that inequality and not wish to perpetuate such a slight against you." Her words dripped into his ears like honey, her tone low and intimate in its soft purr. It was intoxicating in its own strange way. "And yet he is stealing her. He is reaching for her and expecting more than just friendship. Soon they will be in each other's arms, and you will be nothing more than a nagging memory to them both."
The lump of anxiousness in the pit of his stomach started to burn in smouldering anger.
"She is your birthright, Avatar," the demon whispered to him. "Your birthright. All you need to do is find her, take her, make her into -"
The demon recoiled as he took in a deep breath and let it out. He was at the edge of... something, now. Another link in the chain, another stretch on the path. But he was nearing the edge of Rakshasi's influence. Deep breath – in – out – it pulled the fire out of his thoughts to where he could examine it, ponder it, make sense of it.
His heart ached.
"I... I love Katara for who she is, Rakshasi. Not who anyone wants to make her to be. And she is not my birthright. She is her own person."
The words were heavy and slow, but he managed to say them. The demon gave a long and irritated hiss before recoiling, her expression shifting to something truly horrible. Finally, it seemed his footsteps had been loosened, and instead of having to drag his feet to walk, he bolted forward. Rakshasi's voice rose as she started screaming at him, but soon it melted away, dissolving into the scenery of her realm.
And then he was somewhere else.
Aang took a moment to bend over and catch his breath, bracing his hands on his knees as he did. It was oddly exhausting, but at least it was progress. He shifted his staff from one hand to the other, tossing it back and forth a few times to limber up, before moving onwards.
This patch of mystical forest seemed far too quiet. A small stone path cut through a shallow pond, mangrove trees and the swamp stretching out to either side. But the water was perfectly, unnaturally still. Mirrorlike. Dead. No fish underneath and no insects scurrying on top. Fireflies usually went in lazy circles around him when he walked through the Spirit World, but everything here was silent.
The rocks of the path were pleasantly hot, as if they had been warmed all day by the sun, and now the sensation was seeping up through the soles of his boots. Soothing, almost, if he could ignore everything else. It was easier, now, to take one step after the next, to keep on going.
Easier until the hand was on his shoulder.
Aang stiffened and shivered. The spirit's breath was icy on his cheek, and a pale hand covered in a white robe reached around to grab his chest. "Onyro..." She cooed, her voice as soft and penetrating as a thin cold wind through a door. "Onyro... Listen to Onyro, Avatar."
He gulped, gritting his teeth. "Let me go, please."
"Listen to Onyro," she sighed in his ear. Her fingers were like ice, painfully cold even through the white of her robes. Blood dripped heavily from the edge, as if her long sleeves had been dragged through filth and gore. "These are things you need to hear..."
His feet suddenly weren't cooperating, as if encased in ice. With a grunt, he tried to move forward, but the rest of his body seemed to have gone slack and heavy, veins filled with sullen lead instead of willing blood. It was hard to even turn his head. He only caught a glimpse of a face hidden behind a curtain of long, black hair. For a brief moment it reminded him, terrifyingly, of Mai, but the smirk of her red lips was far too cruel and her skin far too pale. The spirit was all pure white and stark red, with only the jet black of her hair out of the pattern.
"Avatar... Onryo has so many things to tell... so many things to ask..." Her voice was a silken purr. "Do you really trust them with one another, Avatar?"
He frowned more deeply. "What are you talking about? I just – all I want is to move on -"
"Zuko. Katara. Listen to Onryo." Her gore-splattered sleeve waved out to him, and mist rose from the unnaturally still pond, congealing into the loose forms of his two friends. But both of their gazes were cold and cruel. Katara smirked before going to pull Zuko into an embrace, their lips immediately locking in a showy, sloppy display of lust. "Does this not... bother you?"
Aang gritted his teeth, sucking in a breath and letting it out through pursed lips. "Yes. But... it shouldn't." His heart ached and he closed his eyes to try and block out the sight, even if Katara's moan and Zuko's low growling purr assaulted his ears while coupled with the slick sound of passionate kissing. "They're my friends. I... I respect them enough to let them live their own lives." Why was his voice shaking at that?
"Do you trust them," the spirit sighed, "to do such a thing?"
"It doesn't depend on me trusting them or not. I don't control them – and I shouldn't -"
"I asked... do you trust them." The word was hissed, now, curling into his ear, sneaking into his thoughts like water settling into the crevices between pebbles. "All it takes is one moment of weakness. One moment. You have seen him angry..." Zuko's smoky, whispy form pulled away, his fingers accented by licks of flame. "So very angry. So full of hate."
"He's changed. He's become a better person." Aang tried to speak with confidence, but his voice was shaking. "And I'm proud to have helped him become a better person." But the ghostly form of Zuko was snarling, ready to strike, flames turning to lightning. Katara was cowering, screaming. "Please –stop -"
"You need to see this," the spirit purred. "You need to watch. Watch. Look. See how she is so afraid? Watch, Aang. It will only take one moment. She will fall to the ground with her heart still and her breath frozen in her throat, and he will think himself right, even if just for an instant." The scene played out in front of him, and Aang tried to look away, but he found himself transfixed. "Or more cruelly, a burn. Perhaps it will graze her cheek. The flame will make them match. Then she will spend the rest of her life..." The ghostly vision of Katara was standing again, but dead somehow, lifeless in a way that made Aang want to immediately burst into tears. "Fearing him. Fearing him like he feared his father."
"...No. No, he wouldn't do that. I don't – I don't think he would." His voice was shaking in earnest now. Why couldn't he look away? Even when he closed his eyes, the figures were still there, taunting him. Katara in flames. Katara writhing in the grip of an electric shock. Her screaming. Her begging. The soulless fear taking over her eyes. That was not the only horror. He saw Zuko snarl and lash out, backsliding into hatred and cruelty. Or worse, momentary anger becoming regret. Zuko crumbling from the inside-out. Destroying himself out of sorrow and horror. There was only one way that would end.
"I wonder if he'll use a rope," the spirit whispered, "Or a knife. I hear the Fire Nation palace is already so decorated in red. What's a little more crimson?" He tried to block out the image, but there it was, no matter what he did – Zuko in an ornate bathtub, his favourite dagger from Iroh beside him, the blade's inscription full of blood. A small red river from his wrists to the side of the bathtub to finally pool on the floor.
"Stop – stop showing me this," Aang choked out. "That isn't how it's going to go. That's not how it's going to happen." Perhaps if he said it firmly enough, he could fully believe it.
The spirit cooed, gesturing out with her bloodstained sleeve. "Oh, of course. That's only one possibility, Avatar. There are so many other things that could go wrong. Perhaps... Perhaps the girl rolls over in the night, fresh from a nightmare... sees a shadow coming to her bedside... and in that moment all she can see is this a man who leads the monsters she has always hated..." The mist swayed and swirled until Katara was there, wide-eyed with furious fear. "And the bowl of water by the bed is so close, and all it takes is a thought, a flick of the wrist..."
The fog shifted again, following the arc of ghostly Katara's spikes of ice. Daggerlike, they embedded themselves in Zuko's chest. For a moment he looked down out of confusion, utterly dumbfounded. Not an enemy. Just a husband bringing his wife some tea to soothe her. Aang could not turn away as he saw the tears rising in Zuko's eyes. Blood on the Firelord's mouth. He dropped to his knees. Katara screamed. There was nothing even the best healer could do.
"At the funeral," Onryo whispered, "she will come to you. She will come with her robes gleaming, and the light of the pyre caught in her hair. She will come as divine retribution and ask you..." The spirit's voice mingled with Katara's. "Why didn't you stop us, Aang? If you had just said something... done something..."
Aang was not really the type to be inclined to shouting. But his scream was so desperate and sincere that the spirit seemed to be ripped apart by its force. Suddenly he was alone, only the thick fog hanging like a shroud over the eerily still lake. Aang panted. His chest ached – his heart hurt – his shoulders trembled - the odd intersections of emotional and physical anguish. But his feet were free to move again. Shakily, he lifted his foot, then set it down again. One step forward.
A whisper to his left. He looked – the mist had gained a pattern, now, another scene all of the various ways Katara and Zuko could destroy each other. He tried to turn away, and there was another, and another. He was surrounded by misery and anguish.
Why didn't you stop us, why didn't you stop us, the trees sighed. Why didn't you save us from ourselves?
He took another step, and then another. It was hard to watch such things, and now he was surrounded by them. He would be until he was much farther on the path, out of Onryo's grip for good.
But the only way was forward, so he took it.
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