So, how does Zuko wind up at the Tree of Time in Chaos Avatar to bust Vaatu out? Didn't you say the start is pre-banishment, post-mom gone? What, does he, as a descendant of Roku, have enough of a knack for spirit stuff to fall into a meditative trace while hiding at the turtleduck pond and missing his mom or whatever, and poof! He's at the Tree of Time?
FINALLY someone asks for the START. You are correct that the turtleduck pond is involved. <3
* * *
The turtleduckling had disappeared the day after mother did, but at least Zuko knew where it had gone. But he still wasn’t talking to Azula.
“You have to talk to me sometime, Dum-Dum,” she said.
He crossed his arms, and stared at the remaining ducklings as they hid under a bush on the opposite side. There were four left.
“It was an accident, I didn’t even see it, and anyway it should have moved. You have to forgive me for accidents, moth—”
Mother said so. But they didn’t talk about mother anymore.
Azula sat down next to him. She crossed her arms, too. And puffed out her cheeks, and glared, and he did not look like that. Not that he was paying attention to her.
He was paying attention to the turtleducklings. Because… because there were five.
Azula went very still next to him.
The fifth turtleduckling had a darker shell and feathers, like it had been rolled in ashes. It waddled into the water, heedless of its parents' warning quacks and the two children the rest of its siblings were hiding from.
Quack, it said, and paddled merrily along.
Quack, it said, and disappeared like it had swum behind a screen. Except the screen was a normal patch of water and air, and he could see straight through it still. No fifth turtleduck.
“Is our pond… haunted?” Zuko asked.
“I thought you weren’t talking to me,” Azula said, but it was more of a reflex, as they both stared. Then, more sharply: “What are you doing?”
Zuko was standing up. He found a pebble and, without a mother to re-advise him against throwing rocks into certain ponds, launched it towards the spot they’d last seen the ghost duck.
Quack, quacked an extremely offended quacker, who was still out of sight. The rock had disappeared, too, with no ripple on the water to show it had ever landed.
“...Dare you to go in,” Azula said.
“How stupid do you think I am?”
“I don’t think you’re stupid,” Azula said. “But a coward? That remains to be seen.”
Zuko glowered. Azula smirked. …Zuko started rolling up his pants.
“I wasn’t serious,” she snapped. “And I take it back, you are stupid,” which meant that now he was definitely going in. “Father is going to be angry when he sees you in wet robes,” she said, as he toed off his shoes. “And I’m not covering for you,” she said, as he caught his balance on the first slimy algae-covered stones, “and I’ll demand the servants attend me so they won’t be able to help you change, and—”
By then he was near the center of the small pond, and poking at air. His hand disappeared.
“I hope it hurts,” Azula said. She was on her feet now, with her arms crossed even more firmly over her chest.
“It just feels… normal? Maybe a little cold? It doesn’t—oww!”
He jerked back his hand, complete with one ghost turtleduckling clamped over his palm.
“Oww oww oww,” he shook it, and shook it, but it wasn’t coming off, and then he tripped on a stupid slimy rock and fell sideways—
“I’m not coming after you!”
—into somewhere that wasn’t the palace gardens at all. He’d fallen in water, but it was a shallow stream now. The day was colder, the wind stronger and drier. And there was a tree, up ahead.
The duckling dropped off his hand, and paddled away. Zuko barely glanced after it.
That was a very, very big tree. A purple light pulsed at its bulging, split-barked core.
“Hello, mortal,” the tree said.
At which point Zuko scrabbled backwards until he splashed back into the stiller, warmer, deeper water of the turtleduck pond.
“Evil tree,” he told Azula.
“Dum-Dum,” she said, and stomped off.
By the time Zuko got inside, the servants were busy drawing their little princess a warm bath. He was made to wait his turn.
* * *
“I am unaware of any records pertaining to… evil trees,” the sage in charge of the royal archives said.
“What about the spirit world?” Zuko asked.
* * *
The ghost turtleduckling swam with impunity between realms. And stole entire loaves out of Zuko’s hands, before fleeing on its tiny paddling feet to the safety of the other side.
It had learned that Zuko wouldn’t follow. Neither would its equally hungry siblings.
* * *
A place of death could form a rift, if the spirit did not realize its own passing. If it still desired to return, and was unaware of the general impossibility of the task. Spirits worked mostly on not realizing they couldn’t do a thing.
“Oh,” Zuko said, to the scroll.
As this was a more common occurrence with animal spirits than with humans, who tended to overthink things even in death, it did not help Zuko narrow down his mother’s location.
* * *
Azula had stopped coming to the pond. And they had different bending instructors, now; father said a private tutor would stop her from being held back by… others. She preened.
Since Zuko was left alone at his lessons, he had a private tutor now, too. It didn’t feel like a reward.
* * *
“...Hello again, mortal,” the tree said, its voice oozing like a courtier’s. “Do come in. No need to be shy.”
“Are you evil?” Zuko asked, only his head poking through the rift.
“Such terms rarely apply to spirits,” the tree said, exactly like an evil tree would. “Consider our meeting, rather… an opportunity. Is there something you require assistance with? You would not have found yourself in this part of the spirit world, if I could not help. Perhaps we could— Mortal, come back here—”
Zuko pulled his head back out. It was definitely evil. But he’d gotten a better look at the patterns on the glowy purple part, so he sat down on the pond’s edge, and drew them before he forgot. He’d brought paper this time.
Maybe he wasn’t a good bender. Or heir. But there was an evil tree in the royal turtleduck pond, and he wasn’t a coward. He’d take care of it.
* * *
The sage in charge of the archives blinked. Took the paper from him, and blinked again.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I believe I have seen something like this. Come.”
The scroll was old. So old it wasn’t even the original: it had been copied, and had time to grow old all over again. The sage fretted over every crackling inch they unrolled.
“Where did you say you saw this design?” the sage asked.
“...I, uh. Dreamed it?” Zuko said.
They stared, together, at an inked drawing of the Avatar’s patron spirit.
* * *
…If Zuko found the Avatar, father would definitely like him better than Azula.
* * *
“Mortal,” the evil tree greeted, much less cordially.
“Are you the Avatar?”
“What,” it inquired, with a sort of rustling tree sigh, like it was already disappointed in his answer, “is the Avatar?”
Oh. So… no.
“It’s just, there was this picture in a scroll, of the Avatar’s patron spirit. And they looked like you, except without the tree, and white—”
“Raava,” the tree hissed.
Which had probably been the kanji that he hadn’t recognized. But neither had the sage, so it must have been a really hard one.
“Tell me about this… Avatar,” the tree said.
And maybe Zuko should have gone back to the training grounds to practice his katas more. Or read over the next chapters in his textbooks again, so he’d actually understand them when his instructors went over them tomorrow. But he was still sore from the extra sets his master had assigned as remedial instruction after Zuko had embarrassed them both in front of father. And sometimes when he read ahead he thought too much and got all the wrong ideas in his head, like the time he’d asked why Sozin hadn’t formed a coalition of other nations against the threat of the Air Nomad army. And that just made more work for his instructors to fix, so.
So Zuko sat down, on the stream bank nearest his escape route, and talked to an evil tree.
“They’re the master of all four elements,” he said. “The last one was an enemy to the Fire Nation, and the new one’s been hiding, probably because he’s too much of a coward to face us—”
* * *
He brought an extra loaf of bread next time. One for the ducklings who needed it, and one for the duckling who just thought she did. The ghost duckling tugged and tugged against his grip, before grudgingly clambering up to eat in his lap.
She was really soft.
She bit really hard.
“How many of these… Avatars… have there been?” the evil tree asked.
* * *
“How many Avatars have there been?” Zuko asked the sage.
“Nigh uncountable,” the man said. “Have you had more dreams, my prince?”
“Um,” Zuko said.
* * *
“A lot,” Zuko told the tree. “The sage in the archive said the histories don’t go back that far. He guessed there were at least a hundred.”
“...And how long does your species of mortal live?”
“Avatar Kyoshi lived a really long time. But most of us don’t live more than seventy or eighty years. And some of the Avatars probably died a lot sooner than that, if people resented their meddling as much as the textbooks say.”
“Seven thousand years,” the tree said. “At least.”
And then it got really quiet, for a long time. Which was natural for a tree, but not for an evil tree. Zuko sat with it. He’d brought his homework, so he wouldn’t be wasting his study time.
…Except he kind of did, because apparently ghost turtleducklings could sleep—or at least, dream of sleeping?—and this one did it right in his lap.
* * *
They had flambéed quail-shark for dinner, and Zuko had almost been late, but father was too busy watching the flames to notice him sliding onto his cushion. Azula did.
“Look,” she whispered, “a dead bird can firebend better than you.”
* * *
“Flambé,” Zuko scolded, trying to pull half a loaf of bread out of the mouth of a ghost turtleduckling intent on choking herself.
“...What is ‘flambé’?” the evil tree asked.
And, after Zuko was done with that explanation: “What is… ‘taste’?”
* * *
“I need a recipe book,” Zuko told the sage. “With pictures.”
“I… of course, my prince. But first, would you like any of these?”
The man had set out a whole table of toys. Most were wooden. They all looked really old. There was another sage there, one of the ones from the high temple. He was just kind of standing there, watching them for some reason.
“Thanks,” Zuko said. “But I’m too old for toys.”
They both watched him leave.
* * *
“Which turtle do you hail from?” the tree asked.
“I… don’t know?”
The tree sighed. “Air. Water. Earth—”
“Fire!” Zuko said.
“Yes,” it said drily, “that is the final option.”
“No, that’s… that’s what I bend. I’m from the Fire Nation.”
“Ah,” the tree said, in its oil-slick voice. “The element of power. A fine fit, for such a promising young larva.”
So today was going to be one of those days.
Zuko crossed his arms. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” he said, “but if you keep trying to make me evil, I’m going to go back and practice my bending some more.”
“No need for anything so dramatic,” it said. “But I would wager that there’s something you need more power for. Some task to do, or someone to impress. Perhaps someone to… surpass?”
Azula was two sequences ahead, now. Father had rewarded her with an even better tutor. They were very famous, or something.
“Perhaps we can help each other,” the tree said.
“Do you want more water?” Zuko asked. Because he’d been sitting here day after day thinking how dry the ground was, even with the stream, and the stream was actually really far from the tree’s roots. Maybe that was why it looked so dead. Maybe it wasn’t evil, it was just really thirsty. “I could dig the stream closer. I saw farmers doing that, when mo— When we toured the countryside, when we were younger. They said it was good for the plants.”
“I…” the tree said, like that was not the response it expected. “No, larva. I do not require more water.”
“What else do trees need?” Zuko asked.
“...I am not the tree. I am inside the tree.”
“Oh. Oh. …You can come out, if you want. I’ll try not to be scared.”
It was silent again. And then it was laughing, but not a funny laugh. And then it was shouting, and Zuko knew better than to talk back when someone was shouting at him.
“I cannot simply come out. I have been trapped here, alone, for millennia beyond your comprehension, and…”
The spirit stopped, and took in great big breaths, which wasn’t a thing father or his tutors did until they were done yelling. The spirit had stopped itself early, without Zuko apologizing even once.
“...Is that why you’re lonely?” He’d thought it was because it was a tree, and evil trees without many leaves probably didn’t get many visitors. But being inside a tree probably wasn’t any better.
“I am not lonely,” the not-a-tree growled. “Listen, human larva. I will grant you power beyond your mortal imagining. You can be that Avatar you speak of, if you join with me. All I require in exchange is to not be in a tree.”
* * *
“Could someone who isn’t the Avatar learn the other elements?” Zuko asked the sage.
“...I suspect,” said the man, looking somewhat tired, “that the most likely explanation for such a phenomenon would be that this person was the Avatar. I happen to have a book here, with select personal accounts of how those who came into the knowledge prior to their sixteenth birthdays adjusted to the situation. If you would be interested.”
Zuko scowled, because that wasn’t helpful at all.
* * *
“You’re never going to catch up, Zuzu,” Azula said. “But I suppose you could come train with me, if you asked nicely. My new tutor believes in the benefit of sparring, even against lesser opponents. We don’t even need to ask father, so long as you can refrain from embarrassing us both.”
“Mmhmm,” said Zuko, who was thinking.
“Well?” she snapped.
His sister stomped away.
* * *
She wouldn’t talk to him at dinner, which was normal, because she always talked with father then.
She wouldn’t talk to him at any other meals, either, which wasn’t. Father wasn’t even there for those, it was just them and the servants who silently scurried in and out.
She didn’t even barge into his room to read his essays over his shoulder and laugh. …Or read the play scrolls they’d smuggled out of mother’s room before the servants had cleaned it, and laugh together.
* * *
The servants were polite, but father hated for them to waste time on idle chatter.
Uncle was still missing.
The sage in the archives kept looking at him funny.
“Could we spar sometime?” Zuko asked Azula, because he missed training together.
For some reason, that made her ignore him even harder.
* * *
Flambé nibbled at his pant legs, then bit his ankle, then waddled petulantly away. Zuko hadn’t brought any bread, this time.
“I don’t think power would help me,” Zuko said. Not unless it could make him smart enough to learn faster, or help him find mother, or fix whatever in him was so broken that father didn’t even like to look at him. “But… would you like to see the rest of the turtleducks? The not-dead ones.”
Flambé quacked derisively from the side.
“No,” the probably evil spirit said. “I do not desire to see more turtleducks. One is quite enough.”
“...Maybe the garden? It’s nice.”
“No, I—” it said. And then it paused. And got out its oily voice again, like that was something that it needed with Zuko. Maybe it didn’t know how else to talk when people were being nice to it. “...Yes. Yes, I would enjoy seeing your delightful little garden. Simply place your hand into the tree, and…”
“And?” Zuko asked.
“…This is a permanent thing, larva. Beyond even your single miniscule lifetime, as your so-called Avatar discovered. Are you certain?”
“Yes,” Zuko said. And stepped past the banks of the stream, and marched right up to the tree itself. He pushed his hand into his friend’s prison.
Someone that wouldn’t ignore him, who couldn’t leave him. Zuko had never been more sure in his life.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Vaatu,” whispered the oil-slick voice, inside his own mind.