Out of Town
The pouring rain muffled her screams as she held Zuko's cold and limp body against her. She cradled his head in her breast. "Please...not again. Not again!" In Ba Sing Se, she thought she'd witnessed Aang's inevitable death. She could still hear the crack of Azula's lighting in her mind. If Iroh hadn't called out to her to escape, she also might have been killed. Iroh's words had pushed her to action. Here, in the flooded woods of the Fire nation there was no push. There was no Spirit Water.
"They're over here!" A soldier shouted, running through the trees. He ducked as a icy dagger flew past his ear and into the tree behind him. He threw himself behind another tree as several more flew through the darkness. His heart pounding as he heard the ice connect with the wood around him. He peeked through the branches, meeting the waterbender's panicked gaze. It took several seconds for him to realize he couldn't see out of his left eye. Warm, thick liquid fell down his cheek. 'Blood?' He stumbled backwards, bringing his hand to his face. 'Ice...?' He screamed, falling to the ground.
Katara sat up, her chest rising and lowering as the acidic taste of vomit rose in her throat. She covered her mouth with one hand and threw off the blanket with the other. She stumbled forward on shaky legs, trying not to waken her friends as she walked across the room. Toph's loud snoring provided a welcome distraction from the bloody memories replaying in her mind. Dizzy. Frantic. Scared. Terrified. She made it to the hallway and closed the door behind her. I can't stop here. She gagged.
The door that led to the alley was just several feet away and she ran for it. Throwing open the door, she fell on the step and emptied the contents of her stomach in the dirt road. Every hack of vomit brought up the bloody sight of a soldier breathing his last breath after being impaled by her ice. She had even met the eyes of a man who's arm she had severed, by flipping her wrist and throwing an icey disk that shaved right through him, lodging the appendage into the tree behind him. She puked again. She cried. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. Sorry wouldn't bring back the men she'd killed. I'm so sorry. Being sorry wouldn't remove the dagger from the man's eye. Being sorry couldn't take away the lies she'd told Aang.
Zuko's pale face appeared before her. The sight of his blue lips and sweaty forehead caused her heart to drop. Zuko would have died if I didn't. I would have been killed too. I had to do. I had to protect us. She could feel the hair rising on her the back of her neck from seeing Jin-Ho's dagger against the firebender's throat. Ashan's stiff body came to mind, his near death the result of her ice lodged in his chest. I saved him. I saved Ashan. Yet, she'd only saved him because of Zuko. If Zuko's life hadn't been threatened...I can't think about that now. It's happened. I-I can't take anything back.
She closed the door and leaned against it, resting her hand on her stomach. Breathing in and out deeply seemed to calm her heart down. She glanced outside the window. Darkness still lay over the town, but she knew the sun would begin to rise in several hours. The moon's place in the sky suggested it wasn't quite midnight, but getting close. I need to get it together. I can't let anyone see me like this. I can't let Aang...see me like this. Standing, she held onto the wall for support, feeling as if her legs would buckle from under her. I need to stop thinking about it. I need to get my mind off what's happened.
Katara felt around the kitchen table until her fingers brushed against the candle. She lit it. The meager light barely reached the floor around the table. It'll do for now. She opened the cupboard behind her and placed several loaves of bead, dried cheese and dried meat on the table. If I'm busy...I won't have time to think about things. The water canteens Sokka had repaired lay full on the floor next to it. Standing in the soft light of the moon, she felt her fears and worries melting away if only for a moment. Thoughts of their journey came across her mind. It wouldn't be easy. Zuko's doing better but he's still weak. Jin-Ho had told her if they reached Shu Jing he could get the medicine. If she hadn't been so troubled, it would have been amusing to think the very soldiers who tried to kill her and Zuko, now are helping them.
Ashan's ghostly face resurfaced, the result of jagged ice lodged in his chest. She grabbed the side of the table.
"Katara?" Aang stood in the dark hallway, his wide grey eyes fixated on her. "What's wrong? It's not even dawn yet." His gaze fell on the table. She's packing. He stepped forward. "Are you feeling okay?"
Not Aang. Anyone but Aang! "I'm fine," Katara said. "I wasn't feeling well and couldn't go to sleep. So I thought I should start packing since Zuko said we should leave before the sun is up."
Aang nodded. "If you aren't feeling well, I can get Jin-Ho."
"No! I mean, I'm fine. You don't have to bother him." Katara stepped back, her hand slipped as she reached for the table.
Aang ran to her. "Katara!" He caught her before she met the floor.
Katara sank down, pressing her hands against her head, her shaky fingers tangled in her hair. Her head hurt. She couldn't get the screams out of her mind. Their blood was so warm. It was so sticky...Warm liquid rose in her throat and she doubled over. Her whole body shook as she vomited. The rattled breathing of a dying man filled her ears. I didn't want to hurt them. I didn't want to kill them. I-I never...please. She cried.
Aang wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly. No words came to his mind to help her calm down, he didn't even know what was wrong. He'd never seen Katara like this! Is she sick? Maybe she ate something bad. "It's okay, Katara. I'm here for you." I'll always be there for you.
"I'm sorry, Aang. I..suddenly didn't feel well and I'm a little anxious is all," Katara said. She inhaled, then exhaled. Beads of sweat rolled down her brow. "I think I could use some water though." And something to clean up the puke eventually.
Aang nodded and grabbed a canteen off the floor.
Katara took a long swig, the cold liquid a welcome comfort to her tired body. The panic had passed and she felt steadier. Calm. She wiped her forehead, noting the drops of sweat rolling off the rest of her body. I probably smell like a swap fish.
"Here," Aang handed her a damp cloth. "This should help you feel better."
"Thanks, Aang," she said. Katara wiped her face.
"Katara, what's wrong?" Aang asked.
She turned away. "I'm fine, Aang. Really. I'm just worried is all...and I think the fish I ate for dinner was bad." She took another drink from the canteen.
This seems a lot worse than bad fish. Aang stood. "Let me help you up."
"Thanks." Katara stood, leaning on her friend for support.
"I'll get Jin-Ho. He's a doctor isn't he?" Aang turned to leave, but Katara grabbed his hand.
"No, don't bother him. I know it was the fish. Yeah, my stomach feels a lot better now that I've emptied it." I can't face him. I can never tell him what I've done. Katara met Aang's grey eyes. He looked so innocent. In fact, he still was. I can't...I can never let him know.
What's that ungodly stench?" Ashan stood in the dim hallway, his silhouette only made out by the candle on the table. He glanced at Katara, then Aang. The air bender diverted his gaze to the floor and Ashan's followed.
"Stomach troubles, I see. Here," He motioned for Katara to sit down. Aang held her as she found a rickety chair.
Ashan walked across the small makeshift kitchen to a cabinet and grabbed a satchel, taking several herbs from it. He handed them to Katara.
"Chew on these. It will help." Ashan offered her more water. She drank it all. "I should think a good rest will do you well. I can carry you to the rooms."
Katara shook her head. "I smell terrible and I don't want any of this-" she motioned to her clothes. "On anyone. I'll change and then lay down." She gave Aang a faint smile before heading back down the hallway. Ashan listened for the door to open and close. He took the empty water skin and motioned for Aang to follow him. He stood next to the door that led to the alley. "Why don't you get fresh water from the town square? There shouldn't be many soldiers out now. If they question you, say that your mother has a fever and needs fresh water."
"I don't want to leave Katara. She's not okay. I should be here with her."
"She's exhausted. Perhaps the stress of the prince's injury, and being separated from her friends has made her body weak. I'm sure she needs rest."
Aang took the water skin. "I hope so. She hasn't been herself," His grip tightened. "I hear her crying in her sleep. Sometimes she screams..." He stared at the firebender. "What did you do to her in the forest?"
Ashan opened the door slightly, scanning the dark alley. A rush of memories from that fateful night flooded his mind. The scene of his friends being skewered with ice. Katara's wild and panicked blue eyes met his amber ones before he felt something jab his chest... "We haven't done anything to her." If only you knew what she did to us.
Aang grabbed Ashan's shoulder. "Tell me what happened."
The firebender stared down at the young boy, his brows furrowed in irritation. This little brat! "If you're so worried, ask her yourself. You're the Avatar. You shouldn't quiver at speaking to a woman." He shoved Aang's hand off him. "Go get some water if you care so much." He pushed Aang out the door and closed it behind him. "Damn brat."
"Who's a damn brat?"
Ashan looked behind him to see his brother leaning against the wall. A black, moldy smelling cloak hung over his shoulders, his face obscured by the long hood. "You've been scouting. I didn't hear you leave, brother."
Jin-Ho settled into a creaky chair, removing the hood from his head. His black hair was tousled, and slightly damp. His eyes darted to the end of the apartment, hearing rustling from one of the rooms. It was gone. He looked back at Ashan. "There is a gap in the guard around midnight and the 3rd hour. We can use the mountain path that the earthbender created to slip out of the city unnoticed. In several days time, if all goes well, we'll reach Shu Jing." He inhaled. "It smells like shit in here."
Ashan sighed, taking a rag out of his pocket. "I'm afraid our little waterbender is in a state of shock, brother." He began scrubbing the floor and table. "I believe her mind is finally catching up with reality."
"I see," Jin-Ho said. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his hands folded under his chin. Now that she isn't constantly fighting for her life and the prince's, her heart is coming to terms with her choices. I do not envy her. As a soldier, taking the life of other's was inevitable. He closed his eyes. The first several had been the hardest for him. He had been young and ambitious but not heartless. As time flowed it got easier and easier. It helped that everything was done for the good of the Fire Nation, and not just the Fire Nation but for the world. Or so I was told. Until that one cursed night. He didn't dwell on those he had killed. Thinking about it, feeling remorse would do nothing. In the throes of the fight, feeling remorse had killed many a soldier. It dulled their thinking, slowed their reaction time. He couldn't afford regret when a boulder the size of his body was being thrown at him. Neither when a jagged blade of ice is aiming for your head. He stood. "Wake the others, Ashan. It's time to go."
Several lights bobbed up and down through the night as the weary company traveled down the winding mountain. Loose earth sifted under them, causing stumbling and some muttering of curses by the soldiers. Aang held tightly to the side of the cliff, pebbles bouncing off his knuckle as he descended.
Zuko leaned against Sokka for support as they hiked. He gasped as a stab of pain pierced his side.
"Are you okay?" Sokka asked. He stopped, allowing the firebender to catch his breath. He looked ahead at the rest of the group. Everyone is way ahead of us. He glanced at Zuko, listening to his strained breathing. Never saw myself being in this type of situation. If anything, I imagined me being the injured one...injured by him.
Zuko leaned against the cliff side, his arm wrapped around his waist. "I just need to rest. I'm fine."
Sokka nodded. "If you say so." He hoisted Zuko's arm around his neck. "Don't push yourself. We can't have your wound opening again. You might not get a second chance."
The rain storms the previous week had destroyed any structural integrity that Toph had created days before. Large branches and small trees had been blown on the path and they knew flood waters possibly waited for them at the bottom of the mountain. The obstruction of trees and branches made for slow going as it took them time to clear it. They proceeded cautiously as the path became steeper and more muddy.
I shouldn't have told Aang to send Appa away. Sokka thought. They would make do with the boats they'd stationed the night before, but how nice it would have been to have the bison! We could have saved a lot of time and energy. It would've been better for Zuko too. He sighed. He couldn't have known their journey would take such a frightening turn. The storm, the refugees...Zuko's near death and their new company members. I still don't trust them. Their willingness to help us out after Zuko was injured...it's too convenient for them. Then again, it hadn't been too long ago when Zuko had joined them. As Ashan said, hadn't Zuko tried to kill them too? He tried to capture us... If he really wanted to be picky, he'd tried to kill Aang, not them. He sighed. That's not an encouraging thought after all. Either way, somehow, they'd have to part ways with the two firebenders. Zuko's different. But these guys...they're bad news for sure.
"We're almost there," Jin-Ho called behind him. He hoisted the heavy pack higher and stepped over a jagged rock sticking out of the ground. Several more yards and they would reach the beginning of the forest. Based on their trek down the mountain, he guessed the waters had rescinded enough to travel. The mud would make their journey to Shu Jing difficult, but not impossible. As long as the prince can hold out. He held the torch higher. "What's that?"
He turned to Ashan. "Do you hear that?"
Ashan listened, motioning for Katara to stand still. The faintest sound of moaning carried through the wind. "A platypus-bear?"
The wind picked up. The tops of the trees shifted and swirled. A low moan seemed to bounce off the trees and surround them.
"What is that?" Ashan pointed at the sky. A large shape hovered over them above the trees.
Katara looked up. "It's Appa!" The large white bison flew in circles around them, coming to rest several feet away from them in the trees. She ran to it, wrapping her arms around it's thick fluffy neck. A small chirp came from up on top it's ear.
"Momo too!" Toph said, joining Katara.
The lemur chirped loudly, scampering down from Appa's head to the boy behind Katara.
"Appa! Momo! I missed you guys too!" Aang said, running up to catch the leaping animal. He rested his face in the soft fluff of the bison, the smell of fresh flowers and leaves surrounding him. "Good boy, Appa. You found us."
Sokka stared wide eyed at their companions. "Appa? Momo? Aang, they're supposed to be hiding!"
The airbender turned to his friend, his gaze apologetic. "I know. If Zuko hadn't been injured...I wouldn't have called them out yet. It's too risky to walk isn't it? The Fire Nation is going to be distracted with the damage of the storm. We can travel on Appa for as long as it takes Zuko's wound to heal."
"I've never seen a beast like this before," Ashan said, his leather sack dropping from his shoulder. He stepped forward to touch Appa's mane. The bison bellowed, spewing saliva in his face. The firebender muttered curses under his breath as he wiped his face, the laughter of Toph and Aang rang in his ears.
Sokka walked up with Zuko. The bison's tongue shot out, licking the firebender from top to bottom.
"Yeah, I missed you too, buddy," Zuko said. He gave Appa a good pat.
"We should get going," Jin-Ho said. "We should get distance between us and the town before the sun rises."
With a loud huff, Appa laid on the grass, content now that he had received a hug from each of his human companions. Aang tossed the sleeping bags into the saddle. Ashan handed Aang the cooking bag and he settled it next to the others. Jin-Ho took note of all the luggage and passed them to Ashan to arrange them. Katara helped Toph on. She turned to her brother and Zuko.
"Is this everything?" Katara asked.
Zuko nodded. "Yeah. Let''s get out of here." He grabbed the sides of the harness to pull himself up. A stabbing pain shot up his back, making him loose his grip on the straps. He slipped, but someone caught him.
"Don't over do it, Prince Zuko," Jin-Ho said. He slipped his arms under Zuko's legs, swooping him up.
He's a princess. Katara cackled, covering her mouth as Zuko shot her angry glare. She could hear Sokka and Aang also trying to hold back their laughter. Princess Zuko!
"I can do it myself!" Zuko protested.
"I have a better idea," Aang called from the front. He leapt into the air to the back saddled, raising his arms. A puff of air lifted Zuko out of Jin-Ho's arms and sat him down gently in the saddle on a bed of blankets. His black hair tussled from the sudden airy ride, he crossed his arms. The slightest tint of red dyed his cheeks.
"I said I could do it myself."
Ashan grinned. "Now, Prince Zuko, there is no reason to feel ashamed. One can hardly expect an injured person to perform at 100%."
Aang sat down, glancing behind him. Jin-Ho had lifted Katara into the saddle, then hoisted himself up to sit between Ashan and Toph. Sokka had taken a seat next to Zuko.
"Are you ready?" Katara asked, placing a hand on his shoulder.
Aang nodded and grabbed the reigns. "Yip, yip."
It's been months! Writing has been slow going and I need to find another beta-reader. I'm afraid my writing won't be as well polished, but I'm trying my best. Hope you all are doing well! Thanks for reading!