Chapter 1 – Knock On Wood
"Ugh," Katara groaned as she rubbed her eyes and sat up. "Morning already?" She glared at the sun, wondering how Aang and Sokka could sleep when the sun was so bright. These thoughts were quickly forgotten, however, as her stomach rumbled loudly. She stared sadly at her empty stomach, recalling that she hadn't eaten decent food in over three days. And since the boys were asleep, she figured this would be a perfect opportunity to go and collect some (hopefully edible) food for them to eat, without distraction.
As silently as she could, Katara stood up, rolled up her sleeping bag, and grabbed a basket to take into the small forest where they had chosen to camp out last night. Appa snored quietly a small distance away, but Katara could swear that the ground shook when the flying bison snored loud enough.
Stepping carefully over some roots and rocks, she entered the small wilderness and began looking for food. Her search wasn't going so well, though, and after going around for a full twenty minutes, all she had to show for her efforts were a few nuts and a misshapen, yellow thing that at least looked edible.
Katara sighed deeply, and as she drew in that deep breath, she also got a whiff of something that smelled vaguely like a fire. She frowned—Aang and Sokka shouldn't be awake yet, and even if they were, the chances of them starting a fire at this hour were minimal. Following the scent of the burning wood, Katara crept quietly through the forest, coming to a halt just outside the edge of the forest. She caught her breath as she saw a Fire Navy ship digging into the sand of the beach. Fire Nation soldiers sat around numerous small fires, talking quietly among themselves.
Suddenly, Katara found herself regretting Aang's decision to fly close to the ocean in order to get air currents for Appa. The boy had argued that the air currents would make flying easier for the flying bison, meaning that he wouldn't get tired as fast and the group could go farther daily. But now, Katara was wondering if that had really been a wiser choice than flying inland.
A moment of contemplation later, Katara spun around on her heel and started running back in the direction of camp. She had gone a whole ten feet or so before she realized that she really had no idea which direction she had come from. She had been so preoccupied with the notion of following the scent of fire that she had totally forgot to keep track of where she was going.
Oh well, Katara thought to herself as she began running straight forward again. I guess I'll have to keep going until I find Aang and Sokka.
Ten minutes later, Katara stood bent-over with her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. Somehow she had ended up back at the beach, but at least there were no Fire Nation soldiers in sight. She sighed in relief, but it came out as more of a huffy grunt than a sigh. She plopped herself down onto the ground, and reached for her basket to eat some of the nuts. All this running so early in the morning was really making her hungry.
But, where was the basket?
Katara groaned and dropped her head between her knees. How had she managed to lose the basket? She tried to remember where she'd last had it. She closed her eyes and groaned even louder as she vaguely remembered dropping it when she saw the Fire Nation ship. And as little food as was in that basket, and as cheap as the basket had been, she needed both back. Picking herself up off the ground, she turned and started jogging back in what she hoped was the direction of the Fire Nation navy.
Meanwhile, back at camp…
"Aang, have you seen Katara?" Sokka asked groggily. He'd woken up late today, which wasn't all that surprising. Aang was also just waking up.
"Nope," Aang answered simply. "But the basket is gone, so I bet she went to go find some food."
"Hmm. I wonder how long she's been gone."
"I dunno. I just woke up, Sokka!"
"She'll be back soon, I bet. With food, hopefully. Say, have we got any food left from that pathetic excuse for a dinner we had last night?"
"Yeah, just some bread though. Want some?" Aang held up a small loaf of hard bread, offering it to Sokka, who took it greedily.
It would be hours before either of them suspected anything of Katara's disappearance.
It had taken about fifteen minutes for Katara to reach the edge of the forest again, but she couldn't find the basket. She frowned and began searching as quietly as she could for the basket. She wasn't having much luck.
Suddenly, she felt a pair of strong hands latch onto her shoulders. She jumped, emitting a small squeal of surprise. She tried to turn around, but her captor's grip on her shoulders was too strong. She squirmed about, but stopped as her captor spun her around, somehow managing to keep his hold on her strong. She looked up into the stern face of a Fire Nation soldier. She started squirming again, but it was useless as the man grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her over a shoulder. She hit him repeatedly on the back with her tiny fists, but the man didn't appear to notice as he carried her towards his camp.
"Let me go!" She protested loudly. "Get your hands off of me!"
The troops sitting around the fires turned as the man walked through the camp and up to the ship, their chatter ceasing as he passed. As soon as he was on the ship and out of sight, their chatter began again.
"Isn't that the girl who travels with the Avatar?"
"It sure looks like it."
"She looked like she was from the Water Nation."
"Yeah, she had dark skin, and the color of her clothes…"
"I heard she was a Waterbender."
The chatter continued on the beach, but up on the ship, the man carrying the struggling Waterbender was feeling very lucky indeed. Who knew that nature's call could bring about such good things? All he'd been doing was relieving himself in the forest, and then there was the girl! How much luckier could I get? He wondered as he knocked on Admiral Zhao's door.
"What?" The Admiral barked from inside the room.
"I have something you'd like to see, Admiral Zhao, sir."
Something? Katara thought bitterly. I'm a thing now?
"Come in, but this better be goo—" The Admiral cut himself off as he saw just what his soldier was carrying. "What is that?"
Here we go again with the 'thing' business, Katara groaned inwardly. Wait a minute… isn't that guy General Zhin or something? Zhin, Zhar, Zhu, Zhao! That's it, Zhao. Why is he here!
"I have reason to believe that this is girl is the Waterbender traveling with the Avatar, sir," Katara's captor said. Suddenly, Zhao grinned.
"Very good, young man. Very good indeed. I am very pleased!" Zhao licked his lips greedily as he turned to one of his two subordinates in the room. "You, see to it that this soldier has a raise, and better food for a week! You are both excused, but leave the girl here."
"Yes, sir!" The soldier saluted as he left the room with Katara's captor. This left Katara in the room alone with Zhao and his other subordinate. Katara stood in the middle of the room, glaring at Zhao as he circled her, like a vulture circling his prey. She refused, refused, to show Zhao how terrified she was right now.
"What!" She snapped at him as he continued circling her. He was scaring her.
"My, my, what a temper. It's not good for young girls such as yourself to have a temper." Zhao backhanded her, and she fell to the ground, holding the left side of her face. Katara could taste blood in her mouth, and she was sure she had bitten her tongue. She could feel blood on her fingers from Zhao's vicious slap as well.
Zhao bent down and placed his fingers under Katara's chin, forcing her to look upward at him. "What is your name, girl?"
"Katara," she spat at him. Zhao nodded, satisfied. He straightened up and turned to his remained subordinate.
"Take Miss Katara to the holding cell. Then go up to the captain and tell him to get this ship off of this miserable coast. And see to it that Prince Zuko is called here. I want to see his face when I tell him that I've captured the Avatar." Zhao walked behind Katara and pulled the ribbon holding Katara's hair back out. Katara growled at him.
"But sir, we haven't captured the Avatar yet, sir," the subordinate stuttered, afraid of angering Zhao.
"We haven't yet," he muttered, strolling out of the room. Zhao got off the boat and walked down to the empty beach. The rest of the crew had already got back on the ship, ready to go. The girl's basket had been found near the base of the forest, and was sitting by a fire, waiting for Zhao's appraisal. He grabbed the basket, tied the ribbon around the handle, and plunged a knife into the strange yellow fruit. He placed it in front of a burning fire, and walked calmly back onto the boat. Two members of the crew pulled the plank back up onto the ship, and the ship pulled off the beach.
And if you looked very closely, you could just make out the tiniest of smiles on Admiral Zhao's face.
"I've got you now, Avatar."