Disclaimer: You know the drill. (See profile for explanation on lateness.) AND BE HAPPY. THIS CHAPTER IS ALMOST 11500 WORDS. SOMEONE KILL ME. -dies-
The strange girl called Mai suddenly leaves Katara and Zuko without explanation. Katara and Zuko then decide to go to the nearest town in order to look for Aang and Sokka. Along the way Katara finally frees Zuko from his binds. They have to cross an unsafe bridge, and after a small mud war they continue on their way. Sokka is still presumed to be with the strange old man, and Aang with Iroh.
Why the Caged Bird Sings
Building Trust and Paths of Dust
Dirt stirred steadily under her feet. Her shoes were no longer quite as wet but they were rather crusty from their previous trek through mud. Katara glanced down, taking in her somewhat haggard appearance with slight dismay.
Did spending time away from Sokka and Aang really cause this much toil on her? Her life seemed so incomplete, like there were empty spaces where they were meant to be.
Then again there was always Zuko, and sometimes Katara thought he had enough attitude to fit both spaces combined. He certainly seemed to think he deserved to, and more.
However he had gradually been getting better about things, or maybe that was just the girl's imagination. He had quit being quite as snappish and they didn't get into quarrels about anything and everything like they used to - Katara was surprised they hadn't gotten into an argument over the color of grass yet.
But, as stated, Zuko HAD gotten better, and so had Katara. Things had just been stressful for both of them lately and the Water Tribe girl gave the exiled prince some slack. As she had already conceded, she hadn't been the best of hosts either.
Katara tried to hide a small giggle that wound its way through her throat as she thought of Zuko's face when the ball of mud had hit him. It had been positively priceless.
Zuko gave Katara a sour look as he strode beside her. She kept glancing over at him sparingly before turning her head and coughing, covering her mouth. He fancied he had a good idea of what she was thinking about, too.
...Admitting to it was another thing.
"What are you musing about?" Zuko inquired heatedly and Katara straightened her back, pulling on an innocent expression.
"Nothing," she replied firmly, making a note to not look Zuko in the eye. Instead she focused on a slightly dead clump of grass beside her foot. There was a moment of silence as both of them ceased walking, their auras battling against each other in a test of wills.
Katara kept trying to avoid Zuko's gaze, and Zuko kept trying to catch hers, and the air was thick with tension, and after a moment Zuko had had enough. He reached out and snagged Katara's wrist and forcibly turned her around (though careful not to harm her) and drilled his gaze into hers when she came to. "What?"
The prince's stern (and slightly abashed) expression proved too much for Katara. Her bottom lip began to tremble and she began to laugh as she tried to hide her face with her free hand. The prince's body quivered in mortification at such a blatant show of disrespect.
She just laughed in my face! A peasant just laughed at me...
Yet somehow Zuko was mellower about the situation than he usually would've been. He continued to grip Katara's wrist idly and the corner of his mouth dropped lower as he frowned. "Stop laughing," he ordered moodily.
Katara's quaint laughter gradually faded and she cleared her throat, trying to hold Zuko's gaze without showing her amusement. He's really embarrassed about that, isn't he? I guess mud isn't for royalty.
Suddenly that word struck Katara full on. Royalty.
She barely noticed as Zuko let go and brushed at his shirt in attempts to look busy. Instead she looked through him, her mind elsewhere.
He really is royalty, isn't he?
It was just one of those things she hadn't really taken into consideration. Yeah, she knew he was of noble blood, but she had never actually looked at him and seriously applied the thought. He was a prince.
She turned away a bit, suddenly feeling a little embarrassed at the moments of close proximity they had shared. Like at the bridge...
She felt her stomach rise and then sink, as if filled with a mob of tipsy butterflies. It was just a strange realization for her. She'd always been just a normal girl who knew normal people...
Well, until she met Aang, that is.
Katara smiled a little to herself. Maybe it wasn't so strange for her to be traveling with the prince of the Fire Nation after all. After all, her world hadn't really been the same since they'd discovered Aang. Everything had become drastically different... her world had grown and changed... and she had changed, too. Or at least discovered parts of herself she hadn't known existed before.
The Waterbender glanced over to Zuko. I wonder if he's had the same experiences as me.
"Are we going to stop and loiter around or are we going to search for the Avatar?" Zuko broke through suddenly, proceeding to continue to stride down the worn dirt path. Katara blinked and then hurried to match pace with him.
"Aang. His name is Aang," she corrected.
Zuko didn't respond. He knew what the Avatar's name was. However he refused to use it.
If he began to call the Avatar by name, then the Avatar would begin to become less of a thing. He'd begin to become a person.
Zuko couldn't afford to begin thinking of the Avatar as anything more than a tool.
The Waterbender wiped her forehead, exhaling softly through somewhat parted lips. Inside her mind she was trying to plot out their course so far.
We landed on an island in some forest. Then Aang and Sokka left...
Thieves drove us to the beachside. Then Mai came along and left...
We followed the beach until we could see the mainland. We found out the distance between the two was small. We crossed the bridge joining the two to get here.
Now we're following this trail in hopes it'll lead us to the marketplace where Aang and Sokka were supposed to have gone to.
I think I've got it.
Katara peered up at the sky as she walked, still hoping to catch a glimpse of Appa. The beast had not been seen since its departure. However Katara was sure Appa and Momo were all right - they always were, even when everyone else was in trouble. Most of the time, anyway.
She'd really grown quite fond of them.
It was then an idea struck Katara soundly. If something had happened to Aang and Sokka, then that probably meant someone knew who they were. Someone was looking for them, had seen them before.
That meant there was a chance they, whoever they are, could recognize her, too.
And how easy was Zuko to recognize? Katara glanced over her shoulder to the somber prince. Was his face well known?
"Do we need disguises?" the Waterbender suddenly wondered aloud.
Zuko blinked steadily before snaking his gaze over to his companion. "What?"
"Disguises," Katara repeated, suddenly feeling her idea was growing dumber the more she mentioned it. Zuko scrutinized her closely as they continued to walk.
"Maybe," he finally stated. Katara was surprised - she thought he'd strike down the suggestion immediately.
He's come a long way...
Zuko was also mulling over the idea. He still had seen no trace of Iroh. If his uncle were to be anywhere, it'd be nearby - most likely at this town they were heading to.
But if Iroh still hadn't revealed himself, something might be holding him up. There could be a couple of possibilities, but there was one that burned into Zuko's mind, more potent than all the others.
What if Zhao is nearby?
If so, only trouble would come of it. Zhao knew Zuko's face well - very well.
Disguises might not be such a terrible idea. At least, modest disguises. Zuko still had his pride, after all.
"But there's the issue of money," Katara continued, speaking mostly to herself. "Aang and Sokka took what we had left to buy food with."
That was a problem. Zuko scowled a bit to himself. He had enough money to buy the entire marketplace, disguises included. That is, if only he had the money with him - but that wasn't the case. Everything he owned was back on his ship. He didn't even have most of his armor anymore (though he had extra sets, but that wasn't the point.) Now all that the Firebender had with him was what he was wearing - his boots, his pants and his now rather ragged gray shirt.
But at least one thing had changed for the better. The Firebender glanced down to his freed wrists and flexed his fingers hungrily.
At least now he could fight with his full potential.
"Maybe we can ask for some," the Water Tribe girl proceeded, trying to draw together some kind of plan in order to get money. Her stomach rumbled indignantly.
Zuko's head whipped around and he fixed Katara with a stern gaze. "I am not begging."
Katara folded her arms, kicking at a loose rock in the road. "I didn't say beg, I said -"
"It's the same thing!" Zuko argued vehemently. He'd relented to fate thus far, but there were some things he absolutely refused to do, and begging was one of them.
Katara glared off into passing trees, stewing mentally. "What do you propose, then?"
Zuko's jaws clamped shut. In all honesty, he didn't have a plan, either. He was still a prince, no matter how exiled. He'd never had the problem of running out of money.
"We'll take care of that when we get there," the Firebender finally replied in a crisp manner.
Deciding not to push the matter further, Katara kept her eyes trained ahead, barely acknowledging the continued movement of her feet as she walked. Sunlight flittered through overhead branches and played across her form and she smiled a genuine inward smile. At least the weather had been favorable.
It was then a familiar scent slunk its way to her nose and she lifted up her chin, inhaling deeply. Sure enough, she knew that scent well - it was the smell of smoke. And not just any kind of smoke, but civilized smoke, the kind that leaks out of bakeries and smithies. It was a sign that the market was nearby. The girl's mouth watered at the thought of food and warm bread, and her stomach rumbled once more in its silent protest.
"We'll get something to eat if you're hungry," Zuko stated absently. Embarrassed, Katara crossed her arms over her midsection, feigning ignorance.
"Hungry? What gives you the idea I'm hungry?" she laughed nervously. Zuko almost rolled his eyes at her remark.
"Magic," he muttered, and Katara went slightly red. He'd heard her stomach after all.
The exiled prince wouldn't actively admit it, but he was rather hungry as well. Aside from everything else, he was still lugging the sack of remaining belongings over his shoulder. It was only luck that prevented his stomach from protesting as well.
Suddenly Katara saw the trees grow sparse in front of them, and with great excitement she saw the squat forms of buildings come into view. The far off sound of voices reached her ears and the scene suddenly came alive. She saw people milling around in the street and, barely noticing what she was doing, she reached over and touched Zuko's shoulder to catch his attention. "Look!" she breathed, relief washing over her. "We're here!"
Zuko had noticed as well, and he was tempted to shrug off Katara's hand, but he decided against it. Instead he shifted the sack from his tired shoulder to his more rested one and nodded curtly. "Good. Then the Avatar shouldn't be far."
And neither should Uncle.
Too relieved to correct Zuko's Avatar statement and remind him that the name was Aang, Katara stifled a small squeal. "That's right, and Sokka as well!" She picked up her pace, nearly leaving Zuko behind.
The Firebender decided not to mention that the Water Tribe boy mattered squat to him (and frankly Zuko wasn't too hurried to see him again anyway.) He checked his pace and watched the Waterbender bubble with excitement in front of him. Obviously she'd forgotten about their money predicament, at least for the moment.
Katara's heart fluttered as soon as her foot left the rugged dirt path and touched the smoother soil of the marketplace street. Stands lined each side and merchants shouted greetings to her as she approached, always motioning toward their merchandise. Otherwise no one spared her much of a glance, as everyone nearby was too busy looking over food and supplies up for sale. A small boy chased a dog down the street, laughing gaily as he did. They were still at the very outer rim of the market, so though there was activity, there wasn't very much of it, and the people were sparse.
However before she could get too relaxed Katara felt a hand rest on her shoulder. Surprised, she swiveled and saw Zuko's stern face looking back at her.
"We shouldn't go too far in just yet," he stated, giving the marketplace a brief glance-around.
Katara's heart sunk slightly. Of course. They might be seen, might be recognized.
"Have you figured out a way for us to afford different clothes?" the girl asked as Zuko slowly pulled his hand away. The look on his face told her all she need to know. Katara sighed.
"Great. So much for forward planning." The Waterbender glanced around, spotting a small and modest clothing stand nearby. Cautiously she approached it, and the ruggedly tan middle-aged merchant beamed crookedly at her.
"Why hello, may I interest you in something?"
Katara just smiled faultily, skimming the selection with her eyes. She spotted two rather worn looking cloaks, one black and one a dark brown. They both appeared to be the same size and of the general same making. Nervously Katara pointed toward their folded forms where they lay in the far corner of the stand.
"How much are those?" Katara asked, and she suddenly felt the presence of Zuko close behind her. She didn't even need to turn around to tell he was there - instead she watched the merchant as he attempted to figure out what she had been referring to. Suddenly he spotted the cloaks and he tenderly lifted them, draping them over an arm.
"Oh, these old things?" the merchant cooed, fingering the material. "Oh, I don't ask that much for them, they're rather old..."
Katara swallowed. "Well, if they're old and all - would you mind parting with them for..." Here she paused. "...Free?"
The merchant's head snapped up and he suddenly glowered at the Waterbender. "Whatcha mean, free? I don't give anything away for free. Either you buy it or you leave it!"
A slow kindling anger suddenly sparked in the bowels of Katara's being. "They're old and ugly! Look, I can pay you back; we just need to borrow them -"
"No!" the merchant replied, his voice frosty as he jerked his arm away. "Come back when you have the cash!"
Katara's fists clenched and she almost fancied she growled. She opened her mouth to retaliate against the stingy merchant but stopped as she felt a firm grip on her arm. She bit back comments as she felt herself pulled away from the stand and tried to wrench her arm out of the steely grasp.
"Zuko, let go!" she ordered moodily, still trying to free her arm. "Let me go talk to that stingy old -"
"We don't need to draw attention to ourselves," Zuko reprimanded, forcing Katara to turn and look him in the eye. Yet even as he spoke the girl could see simmering anger in his being as well. It had taken everything for Zuko not to snap at the merchant himself.
Katara pouted and finally wrestled her arm from Zuko's grasp. "Fine," she grunted reluctantly. Then she smiled.
Zuko caught onto the plot too late. Katara made a small movement with her hand as she glanced back toward the merchant's stand.
The bucket of water that had been sitting placidly by the merchant's feet - Katara had seen it when she had been skimming the clothing - suddenly tipped over. Cold liquid splashed over the merchant's relatively bare feet and he howled, jumping from foot to foot as he did so.
Zuko didn't know whether to laugh sadistically at the merchant's discomfort or give Katara a sharp glare. The Waterbender muffled her laughter as she pretended to scratch her nose, the glint of victory alight in her eyes.
"You shouldn't have done that," the Firebender managed, the corner of his mouth dipping low. Katara placed her hands on her hips as she and Zuko subconsciously tried their best to look inconspicuous. The merchant was busy trying to dry off his feet, mumbling angrily to himself as he did.
Before Katara could reply, though, she felt a small tug on her side. Somewhat taken back, the Water Tribe girl glanced down under her arm and saw a small boy gazing back up at her, large brown eyes shining with adoration.
"Did you do that?" the boy asked, while giving her robe another small tug. His face split into a wide grin as he waggled a loose tooth with his tongue.
Katara chuckled nervously, glancing over to the still angry and oblivious merchant behind her. The boy's voice hadn't been very loud, but, well... it was better not to take chances. "What do you mean?" the girl finally asked, smiling innocently.
"The bucket," the boy continued firmly. "That was really neat. Did you do that? That old guy's mean, so it's okay if you did. Did you do it? I thought I saw you do something but maybe I didn't. Are you one of those benders?"
Katara gently brushed the boy's small, grubby hand from the folds of her blue robe. She kept her voice low and checked as she replied, "Maybe it was me, but don't tell anyone, okay?" She winked secretively.
The boy's eyes went rounder. "Really? Okay!" He placed his finger over his mouth and copied Katara's wink. Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, the small boy skipped off, grinning foolishly.
Katara straightened up, brushing off her waist, only to catch Zuko's raised eyebrow. "What did I do now?" she asked, copying his expression.
"That's exactly what I mean," the prince replied, folding his arms. "You need to watch yourself. Your inability to control your actions will get us into -"
Katara cut Zuko off, gearing herself up for a fight as she pointed accusingly at her companion. "Who are you to talk, buddy? You're not exactly the prince of self control, you know!"
However before the two had ample time to cut each other down they realized they were suddenly surrounded. Zuko nearly blanched as a crowd of children, all pulling at their clothes and staring up at them with wide, adoring eyes, suddenly hemmed in him and Katara.
"I couldn't help but tell my friends about you," a voice spoke up, and Katara immediately recognized it as the boy from a spare moment ago. He pushed his way to the front of the small crowd, making room for Katara and Zuko to breathe. "We all want to see you do some more magic!"
For a brief moment Katara's mind flew to Sokka. He was always calling bending magic...
Zuko, however, was fully focused on the situation at hand. "Back up!" he demanded, scowling at the small, pressing bodies. The children scurried away from him at the stern order, but only by a little. All in all, they seemed rather unfazed.
"Yeah, show us magic!" a little girl piped up. More small voices joined her in a growing chant.
"Show us! Show us!"
Though flattered, Katara felt incredibly exposed with all the attention focused on her. Kids attempted to butt Zuko out of the way in hopes to get closer to her.
"Hey!" Zuko called as a small boy shoved against his leg. Irritated that he was seemingly being ignored for Katara, he raised his fist instinctively in warning, small flames licking at his knuckles.
However Zuko soon regretted the action. Suddenly a dozen pair of eyes trained on him, locked on him, caught him up in their big, round gazes.
"He's magic too!" a boy called, and suddenly Zuko was also being swarmed. The prince grimaced, trying to back away from the pawing hands. He jerked his head up as he heard Katara laughing from in front of him.
"Aww, they like you," she giggled.
"Get them away from me!" Zuko demanded despairingly. He didn't have the heart or the conscience to forcibly push the children away on his own. Nothing he said seemed to have an affect on them, either. His bluffs went unheeded.
"Show us magic!" the children continued to chant excitedly. Katara realized that people nearby had suddenly taken notice of her and Zuko, courtesy of the excited children. She grimaced as she saw them begin to whisper among themselves.
"Zuko..." she began, her voice a little stressed. It had been their goal all this time to NOT bring attention to themselves. Katara suddenly felt overwhelmingly guilty as she realized Zuko was right - this WAS her fault.
As if on cue, Katara's blood froze as she heard an undeniably adult voice resonate from behind her. "What's going on here?" it demanded sternly.
The children suddenly grew quiet, momentarily stopping what they were doing. Zuko and Katara turned to gaze guiltily at the speaker.
It was an older looking man, stooped over with age. He blinked owlishly at the two benders before coughing good-naturedly.
"Are these children bothering you?" he inquired. There was a moment of silence before the wave of children suddenly flittered over to the elder, all attempting to speak at once.
"They're magic, Koni!"
"Yeah, we saw them!"
"Koni, make them show us!"
The voices suddenly became one as the mass cried, "Pleeeeasssse?"
Obviously taken aback by all the excitement, the old man - whom Katara gathered was named Koni - attempted to calm the milling mass of children.
"I'm very sorry," the old man explained. Katara laughed nervously, rubbing at her neck in muted embarrassment. Zuko crossed his arms, his brow knotted. "I take it you're benders? We don't see many benders here. Mainly Earthbenders, if any. The children just get excited so easily..."
"It's alright," Katara explained kindly. She glanced over Koni's shoulder and was surprised to find the merchant was absent from his stand. Koni must have noted her action and he smiled raggedly.
"So you were the one who got Yan's feet wet. Oh, don't look surprised, he stomped off to change clothes a few minutes ago. He gets irate over simple things, you see. He asked me to watch his stand for him." Koni gathered the small crowd of children around him as he spoke. "Once again, I'm sorry for the inconvenience to you."
"It's alright, really," Katara repeated, now relaxed. She heard Zuko scoff from behind her and sarcastically mutter 'you can say that again.' She sent him a sharp glance from over her shoulder.
"But I really did see them," the boy from earlier protested. "It was really cool. She made the bucket tip over!"
"I really wish I could've seen it," a little girl pouted bitterly. A chorus of small voices voiced their likeness.
"Well..." Katara suddenly began, feeling overwhelming pity for the children. "I may can show you a little bit more, if you could bring me a bucket of water."
Zuko blanched from behind her, as he had been fully prepared to leave. A chorus of excited gasps escaped from the children and suddenly each was in a mad dash to find a spare bucket of water. Surprised, Koni scratched his head at the scene of minor chaos as various children began to squabble over who could go fetch a bucket the fastest.
"You don't have to, you know," he said apologetically. Katara shook her head with a small smile.
"It's no problem," she reasoned. In all honesty she was rather flattered by the attention.
"Katara..." Zuko muttered from behind her, his voice strained. "We don't have time for this."
The girl started a little. Once again Zuko had verbally spoken her name and the action still managed to surprise her.
"I understand," Koni relented as he watched the small crowd of children return, lugging a full bucket between them. He suddenly smiled agedly. "Here..." The elder reached into his robe and approached Katara. Finally managing to find what he was looking for, the old man removed his hand and took Katara's palm. "For your trouble."
Katara looked down in amazement as she felt Koni drop a number of cool coins into her open hand. She inhaled sharply.
"Oh, no, you don't have to..."
Koni swiftly backed away, placing his hands in his sleeves. "Oh, do take it. It's rude to refuse a gift." He smiled again, rather mischievously.
Zuko was reminded strongly of his uncle in that moment. The Firebender suddenly felt himself relax at the rather comforting thought. Katara turned to him and extended her palm, exhibiting the money.
"Look," she said, a relieved grin snaking across her features. "Money."
With a heave the children deposited the bucket between Katara and Zuko. "There you go!" the boy from earlier exclaimed, wiping his forehead with the back of his sleeve.
Katara deposited Koni's gift into the inside of her robe. She turned to the bucket and glanced over the excited faces of the children as they lined up in front of her, watching every move of hers intently less they miss something.
"Now," the Waterbender began. "I'm not the best at Waterbending, but I'll show you what I can do." With a smile she took a step back and began to make smooth movements in the air with her arms. Heeding her pull, the water in the bucket snaked out into the air and followed her silent calls. The children gasped, crowding closer around her as she made the length of water condense into one big globule and then stretch out into a whip once more. Some even cheered as she made the length travel in zig-zags around her form as she turned gracefully, and even more squealed in delight when she froze the dancing liquid into the form of a crude dragon and then liquefied it again.
Katara was surprised herself at how easily the movements came to her. She'd honestly never done anything like this before - using bending as entertainment. She felt energized by the adoring onlookers and the water seemed to grow confident with her.
One child, though, wasn't quite satisfied. "Hey, can't he do stuff like that, too?" he asked after a few minutes, pointing curiously in Zuko's direction.
The Firebender had thought he had done a good job in remaining unnoticed. He had kept quite still and had rather been enjoying watching Katara entertain with her bending. He found it strangely haunting how the water obeyed her whims and took on different forms at her visual command.
It's so much different from Firebending... much more controlled...
So naturally when the pudgy-cheeked little boy singled him out, Zuko didn't much appreciate it.
Katara paused in her bending and let the water slide back into its bucket. The children made exclamations of disappointment at this action but Katara quieted them with a sly wink. The Waterbender then turned, crossing her arms arrogantly, and smiled as disarmingly as possible at her fellow bender.
"Come on, Zuko," she crooned coolly. Children giggled in the background. "Show them what you can do."
Zuko felt his insides whither at Katara's challenging posture. He had every right to say no, to refuse, to simply just walk off and leave her standing there with that smug look on her face.
However... well, for some reason Zuko was having trouble doing any of the above. He merely glared daggers at his companion and for a brief moment in time they partook in yet another battle of wills.
Then a singular sound shook both of them out of their dazes. It was the sound of something small and solid hitting the ground. In unison both Katara and Zuko swiveled their heads in the sound's general direction.
A young woman stood to the side. A coin had landed neatly on the ground in front of her.
"I'd like to see what he can do, too," she explained sultrily. Another woman nearby suddenly took up position beside her, and in turn also threw down a coin.
Katara's jaw hung slightly agape as more people began to press in around her and Zuko. It took a moment for the reality to hit her.
People were paying them! People were paying them to bend! They were entertainment!
Ignoring the heated feeling in her stomach at noticing the sly winks various women were throwing Zuko, Katara looked pleadingly at said prince.
Zuko looked uneasy at all the sudden attention, but Katara's pleading expression was difficult to ignore.
At least our money problem is solved, he thought, noting the raw irony of it all.
More people gathered around, persons who had secretly been watching Katara's performance out of the corner of their eyes as they had shopped and browsed nearby. Smiling and expectant faces assaulted the duo from all sides and Katara felt herself grow warm in embarrassment. She had never expected to draw more than a crowd of kids.
Zuko, meanwhile, was fighting an internal battle. He was NOT a street performer. He was no one's entertainment. He did whatever he pleased. He was above performing for money. This was an extremely degrading situation, a completely uncalled for situation. It was, all in all, entirely below him.
Feeling the weight of expectation heavy on him, and still assaulted by Katara's pleading look, the Firebender sighed. "Fine," he mumbled, setting the bag of supplies down, and dropped into a traditional fighting stance as various children cheered.
Sokka took a deep inhale and sighed contently.
Suddenly a hand came streaking down and Sokka squeaked as he realized someone was beating him over the head with a ladle.
"Get away from my apples!" an old woman yelled hoarsely, continuing to hit at the boy who attempted to dodge her blows.
"Ack! I didn't touch your stupid apples!" Sokka defended actively, trying to shield himself with his arms.
"Now now, Abel," Sokka's companion, the old man, cut in from behind. "None o' that. He didn't apple a single touch. Er, touch a single apple, y'know."
The assault suddenly stopped and the elder woman retreated back into her open shop. She fussed over some fruit as she replied, "Yeah, yeah, whatever you say. Just don't let him get near them again!"
Sokka winced as he rubbed a forming bruise, located somewhere on his rather tender cranium. The old man patted the younger boy on the shoulder. "That's Abel. She's awful profective - eh, protective, over her fruit."
"I see that," Sokka pouted.
Obviously feeling pity for the hungry Water Tribe boy, the old man deposited a coin (which was quickly snatched up by Abel) and selected a choice apple. Sokka immediately brightened as the old man handed it to him, and the boy rubbed the smooth, plump fruit against his cheek.
"Ah, bliss, your name is apple..." Sokka drawled dramatically.
The old man steered the now content boy away from the fruit stand and off into the street. Wiping his forehead, the old man sighed. "Are ye sure we haven't sunk a sin - eh, seen a sign of yer friends, now?"
Biting off a chunk of his prized fruit, Sokka sighed internally. "No, I'm sure of it. I have a bad feeling about this. Aang should be easy to find. He's always in trouble."
"Now, now, don't go gettin' sad on me," the old man requested. "I'm sure he'll urn tup. Turn up, meaning. Hey, how 'bout we fish for a little while? To clear our minds?"
Sokka glanced up at his aged companion. He had figured the old man was a fisherman, because he had noted the amount of net and relative fishing supplies found in his small home. Though the boy didn't really want to fish, as he was anxious to find his young friend as soon as possible, he felt uncomfortable in turning the aged man down. He had already caused him to lose half a day of work, as fishing was probably his only means of income. And he HAD bought him an apple with his own money...
"I guess so," Sokka replied, plastering a smile on his face - though with some reluctance. The old man patted him on the back again and the two made their way back to the docks.
"Good, good! You'd be surprised t'learn lots'o good things thappen - happen, meaning - when ye fish!"
Sokka decided not to mention that the last time he went fishing he got caught out in a particularly horrible storm and ended up sick and sucking on - oh, he shuddered to think of it - frogs not long afterward.
But who knows, he tried to think optimistically. Maybe I will run into Aang...
It was a nice day, after all.
Aang yawned hugely, turning over and snuggling deeply into soft linen sheets.
"My, my," a voice chuckled good-naturedly from nearby. "I've never known someone to sleep in so late..."
Aang started, his eyes flying open as he shot up in bed. Suddenly recognizing Iroh as the owner of the voice, the boy relaxed. Iroh smiled faintly, his wrinkled face crinkling with the action. He was sitting in a small chair stationed nearby the side of the bed. The Airbender rubbed at his eyes, reluctant to leave the soft comfort of the warm bed. It'd been a long time since he had slept in a proper bed...
"What time is it?" Aang asked, stifling yet another yawn. Iroh sipped some tea from a small cup he had resting in his lap.
"Around midday," the old general replied.
Aang blanched. "What?" In a flurry of movement the Airbender leaped - almost falling - out of bed. Then, realizing his manners, he proceeded to try his best to straighten the sheets he had messed up in his slumber. "I can't believe I slept in so late! Sokka's going to kill me!"
Iroh blinked, watching the Avatar rush around the room in a daze. Suddenly Aang stopped in his frantic movements and rushed to stand before Iroh, who remained sitting. The Airbender bowed, hands pressed together in front of him.
"Thank you for letting me stay the night here," Aang hastily chattered out. "But I really must be going!"
Still the pinnacle of calm and collected, Iroh stood, setting his cup of tea on a nearby chest. "Don't be so hasty, young Avatar. You have plenty of day left to find your friends. I, too, am anxious to meet my nephew. But you cannot roam about without me beside you, and I am an old man. We cannot move as quickly as you young ones." Iroh ended his sage comment with a wink.
Aang blinked but relented to Iroh's words. It was true. After Iroh had found him, the general had kindly escorted him back to his ship, which was docked some ways down the pier. Iroh had been careful to keep Aang concealed to his side, the darkness aiding him - Iroh had said that he did not even want his own crew to know of Aang's presence on the ship. 'You see, they would tell Zuko of your being here, and he would be very upset with me if he knew I let you sleep in his room,' the general had rationalized.
They hadn't had any trouble, for most of the crew had retired to an early bed, or were busy eating. Iroh had let Aang sleep in Zuko's room, which was strangely simple in layout and design. The Avatar had felt strangely comforted in the old general's presence, even though his mind screamed at him to be careful - it could be a trap, they were always laying traps for him. He couldn't trust Iroh.
But those fears seemed so hallow now, as he had woken up without any trouble. He had not woken surrounded by guards - instead he had woken simply to Iroh, who had been sitting contently in a nearby chair, waiting for the Airbender to wake from slumber. If anything, Aang felt rather... silly.
Iroh led the Airbender from the room, keeping care to keep the boy relatively hidden with his long sleeve. A couple of crewmen who were milling about in the harsh steel hall saluted the passing general, never taking notice of the boy hidden at his side.
As they emerged from the ship Aang took a deep breath of fresh air, happy to be out of the strangely restricting hull of the ship. Then, too late, he noticed a soldier standing near the ramp they were descending - a soldier who was looking square at him.
Iroh seemed to notice this as well. Clearing his throat, the old general beamed at the shocked crewman. "How is it today, Lieutenant Jee?"
Jee seemed to be having trouble taking his eyes off Aang, who felt strangely naked and exposed. "Sir..."
Iroh suddenly placed a finger over his mouth, cautioning silence. "Lieutenant, let us keep this exchange between ourselves, shall we?"
Lieutenant Jee seemed to have regained his voice. Still looking rather dazed and confused, he nodded curtly. "As you wish, sir..."
They finished descending the ramp and as soon as they were out of earshot, Iroh chuckled. "Looks like we were caught after all," he mused. "But do not worry. Jee will tell no one of you."
Aang breathed freely again. "That was close..."
Iroh slid his hands in his sleeves, allowing Aang to walk freely beside him. "Indeed. Now, let us look for your friends, shall we?"
Children clapped appreciatively as adults nodded in admiration. Zuko finished up his short practice routine, bringing both of his hands together - palms touching - in front him. The flames between them died down to nothingness.
Even Katara was impressed with the display. Zuko had just finished performing a small routine of his that involved amazingly intricate footwork and subtle Firebending. Subtle, because Zuko couldn't simply send fireballs flying in all directions from his hands and feet - but impressive nonetheless.
"How does he not burn up?" one little girl asked, her eyes wide in amazement. All of the children had gasped audibly when Zuko's hands and feet had gone ablaze, and some simply couldn't understand why he wasn't hurt by it. His Firebending had especially entranced them, as even though they didn't see much bending in general, they saw Firebending in particular even less.
Katara shook her head, trying to clear it. She felt a little inadequate, as she felt Zuko's performance had surpassed hers in every area. It was obvious Zuko had experience in his bending, and his routine had been impressive in itself.
I bet he practices every day...
However the Waterbender's heart lifted a little when another girl responded, "I like the water better! She made it dance!" There were murmurs of agreement from various other children. They seemed to be equally divided amongst themselves over what performance they thought was better.
More coins thumped against the ground and Zuko felt his chest swell in muted pride. He had barely even tried and still he was received with grand reception. Though he still wasn't entirely happy with performing at all and still thought it entirely below him, at least the commoners knew talent when they saw it.
Admiral Zhao tapped the quill methodically against his haggard chin. In front of him lay a tattered map, which advertised areas of most of the immediate area. After a moment of pondering he nonchalantly made a few thin marks on the parchment. He was mapping out all the locations nearby where he had been, if they were of special significance, and the ones he had not yet visited. In softer ink a crude path, comprised of arrows and question marks, was drawn - his attempts at marking what trails the Avatar might have taken.
A sudden knock on the door shook the admiral from his dark thoughts. Somewhat listlessly he raised his eyes to the room's far door. Deciding he very much didn't appreciate being bothered, especially when he was attempting to think, he allowed his voice to be raw with irritation as he addressed the source of the intrusion.
"What is it?"
"Admiral Zhao," the thick voice of a crewman began, "my apologies for interrupting you. However, you have a visitor, sir."
Zhao rubbed at his chin, already having a good guess as to who it might be. "Come in," he conceded frostily.
There was a bump and then the creaking noise of the door as it opened. After a moment it closed back, and shut with a thunk.
Zhao motioned for the visitor to be seated in a small chair located at the front of his desk. The visitor did so, although with some reluctance. Silence reigned for a moment before Zhao sighed heavily and folded up his map. He then turned all his attention on the newcomer, letting his gaze glower dangerously. "I take it you interrupted me for a reason."
The newcomer swallowed. "Aye. We found the prince."
Zhao clasped his fingers together, settling his elbows on the wood of his desk. A nasty scowl wormed its way onto his face. "Banished prince."
"Banished prince," the visitor corrected. Squirming uneasily under the admiral's stern laden glare, the visitor continued: "As we guessed, we found him on the neighboring island. He seemed to be in relatively good shape, and the girl with him also -"
"Girl?" the admiral quipped.
"Yes, the -"
"Don't tell me," Zhao snapped, before lounging back a bit in his chair. The news so far was proving to be most pleasing. "And the others?"
"Lost, apparently. They were looking for them..."
Zhao leaned forward, smiling like a cat that just cornered a mouse. He rubbed his palms together anxiously. "And so they fancied they'd look for them here. Excellent. Do you have anything else to report?"
"No sir," the visitor managed slowly. Then, as an afterthought, added: "He was bound, but I convinced his release. I thought that if what you suggested earlier came through..."
"You thought," Zhao almost spat. "Well, so much for what you think. I haven't made up my mind yet. Where are they now?"
"Headed here," the visitor replied, somewhat stung. "I don't know where the others are."
"Of course you don't, you already made that quite clear. However that's fine and well - provides me for more entertainment. Now be on your way."
The newcomer rose and started toward the door, but with heavy footsteps. Finally they came to a stop and the visitor glanced back toward Zhao.
"About our pay..."
Zhao stood, gritting his teeth - his pleasant mood was deteriorating fast - and drummed the tips of his fingers against his desk. "We'll discuss that later. Now leave before I change my mind about that entirely."
The figure swiftly ducked out of the room, and Zhao listened to the hastily retreating footsteps. With a rumbling chuckle he carefully sat back down and continued to strum his fingers idly.
It was customary for Zhao to take opportunities as soon as they arose. He had barely docked into this town's harbor when he heard the rumors: Iroh had also docked nearby, and word had it Zuko was not with him. Naturally curious, the admiral had ordered a bit of spying to be done via his crew - and what came back to him pleased him unendingly. Apparently there had been an "accident" in which the prince had become "lost." Iroh apparently fancied the little brat to still be somewhere nearby, and - of all things - in the company of the Avatar. However any and all locations of said group were unknown.
It hadn't taken Zhao long to track down capable hands to aid him in his unfolding plot. He learned that a group of particularly unpleasant rogues lived in the nearby radius, and after a bit of prodding managed to have a chat with their "leader." A bargain was soon made and a temporary alliance formed - the band was to seek out and spy on the brat, if they did manage to find him, and then report back their findings to Zhao. And, if the admiral was feeling particularly lucky... they were to aid in the assassination attempt.
Surely if the prince had been "lost" and was later found murdered by an unlikely band of Freedom Fighters - for that was what the rogues called themselves - a respectable distance away...
Well, who could blame Zhao for it?
However Zhao had not decided whether he wanted to attempt the dire plot just yet. He needed time and room to think, to plan.
The admiral lounged back in his chair, smirking contently.
Today was a very nice day.
Mai glared at the dark steel ship in front of her. After a moment of potent hatred she turned and slid away, aiming her feet toward her hideout in the woods not far off from the market.
She should've known getting involved with Zhao brought only ill luck, but when he had cornered and approached her about striking a deal with him... well, he had seemed like the lesser of two evils. She was the leader of her small, rather ill favored band of Freedom Fighters - the Freedom Fighters had small branches stretching out over a lot of the continent... wherever guerrilla groups could gather and form. And technically, as a Freedom Fighter, she was supposed to fight against the Fire Nation.
But at the time she struck the deal, everything seemed so simple. After all, Zhao wanted her to find the prince of the Fire Nation. If she could take him out, then the rest of the freed peoples of the world would surely sing her praises! Zhao, after all, was just an admiral. They could take care of him later.
Now it seemed everything was more trouble than it was worth. She'd figured Zuko would probably be on the adjacent island, so that's where she and her band went. Striking luck she found the Avatar's group rather easily. She then commenced spying on them, and when the Avatar and the other boy had left, she decided to strike.
She first sent out her band to attack them, just to make sure they were indeed dealing with Zuko. After watching him fight Mai had been confident it was he. Therefore she decided to mingle with Zuko and his girl companion herself.
Mai, being Mai, couldn't help but play a few mind games with the Waterbender. Mai didn't especially like Waterbenders - they all came off so self-righteous. She had also heard rumors from fellow confidantes that a prominent Freedom Fighter leader, Jet, had encountered some trouble with a Waterbender. That only fueled Mai's desire to... well, make her miserable.
After having her share of fun, Mai had left to report back to Zhao. Zhao had intentionally planned for Mai and her band to lead Zuko off into the wilderness and there kill him if they could manage it. That waspart of the reason Mai had teased the Waterbender about freeing the prince from his shackles. If they WERE going to attack him, Mai wanted it to be a fair fight.
Sliding through the trees, Mai growled somewhere in her throat. Zhao wasn't keen on paying her any time soon, it seemed. Honestly the girl should've known as well. She had half a mind to back out of the deal entirely and go into hiding with her band until Zhao left...
But things might start looking up. Checking her nails, Mai decided to stick around to see what might happen.
It seemed no one was prepared to let Zuko and Katara leave. Just when it seemed they would be free to go, a voice rang out over the small crowd.
"So, he's a Firebender, aye? Bet he's a spy for the Fire Nation!"
The voice was heavy with disgust. Katara winced when she heard it and didn't even have to look around to know Zuko was angry.
"Who said that?" Zuko roared, clenching his fists tightly. He swept the crowd with his eyes, his lip pulled back into an almost feral snarl. It wasn't that the voice was lying - in fact, what had been said was partly the truth - it was the tone in which it was said. Disgust, revulsion - hate.
A rather pudgy man parted the crowd, his cheeks red in indignation. "It was me! You're a spy, ain'tcha?" The pudgy man attempted to stare down the irate prince, and the people around him backed away, conversing in whispers among themselves.
A couple of children stood, ripe and ready to fire back at the man who dared be mean to their - now - best friend. However Katara reached out and silenced them with a slight shake of her head.
Zuko countered the man's stare with a look so intense the adult flinched and took a step backwards.
"Well, you have to admit," the man fumbled, trying his best to look a bit more meek, "it looks strange to have a Firebender here, especially one traveling with a Water Tribe girl... " The man managed to raise his eyes, almost accusingly. "She ain't your prisoner, is she?"
Zuko had to admit, despite his anger at being singled out and questioned by a lowly peasant, the man did have a point. Firebenders did not simply walk around freely. 99.9 percentof the time they were soldiers, working for the Fire Nation - ensuring order in the town they occupied and oppressing all resistance. They were not exactly the most liked of people.
Zuko's saving grace came in the form of a gentle hand on his arm. He almost jerked his arm away from the sudden slight touch, as the subtlety of it almost burned icily in comparison tothe tense rage he was currently feeling. Imagine his surprise when Katara slid her hand down to grasp his firmly, twining her fingers against his own.
"He's not a spy," Zuko heard her say confidently. "We're traveling together. He's a defect from the army - so we'd appreciate if you keep this entire ordeal low profile."
Whispers erupted from among the bystanders. Zuko stared at Katara in shock, but she seemed to have difficulty looking him in the face. Instead she leaned closer to him and stared accusingly at the pudgy man, who looked more embarrassed with every passing moment.
"If anything gets out about us, my... companion, here, will be severely punished. We're already taking a chance as it is."
All right Katara, good job so far. The Waterbender glanced anxiously at the faces around her. So far her story was working, even if it did seem rather far-fetched.
She felt Zuko's body go rigid as she leaned her form slightly against him, and his hand seemed to have become locked in place the second she had taken it. She bit her lip, imagining the scolding he was going to give her as soon as they were away from prying eyes. She could almost imagine it.
She didn't really blame him, though. She felt undeniably uncomfortable as well. She had reacted on instinct, hastily forming a story to counter the man's claims that would be halfway believable.
And it wasn't that bad of a story. She was sure there were some soldiers who fled from the Fire Nation army, or simple Firebenders in particular that looked for safe havens away from their homeland. She was sure of that. Maybe they just didn't get exposure...
Or maybe they all get killed off, Katara thought, and shuddered slightly at the thought that people could be so... cold.
Zuko felt Katara's body tremble against him just for the briefest of moments. The small, almost miniscule action seemed to bring the prince to his proper senses. He relaxed, if only barely, and applied a little bit of pressure back against Katara's hand.
"Does our answer satisfy you?" Zuko then asked, trying his best to look controlled and calm, even though his teeth ground together painfully. If he was going to take up the escaped soldier act, surely throwing a tantrum wouldn't help much.
The pudgy man mumbled something. A few of the women in the crowd shot him nasty looks and he muttered an excuse and quickly left.
As soon as he was gone there was a moment of silence before the second tide came. All the women in the crowd swarmed to Zuko and Katara, gently pushing them away from the sight of the main street and off into the side of a nearby building. The children followed, obviously curious as to what would happen next.
"Ohh, you escaped from the army!" a woman crooned. "You're so noble! The army is a nasty place, isn't it?"
"It was so rude of that man to question you, especially when you hadn't done anything," another woman bemoaned.
"Are you two engaged?" another asked suddenly, and almost immediately all the gibbering, lilting voices ground to a halt. A dozen pairs of large, feminine eyes bored down onto the twin forms of Zuko and Katara.
Still reeling from being swarmed once again, Katara brought the back of her hand to her forehead. "What?" she asked, fearing she misheard.
"Are you engaged?" the women gasped all at once, all leaning closer in unison. Katara's jaw hung down loosely and Zuko leaned back, desperately trying to think of a way to get out of the suddenly suffocating situation.
Katara was about to reprimand the women and assure them that no, she and Zuko were not engaged. However she suddenly noted that all the eyes had traveled down, and Katara followed their gazes. It was then she realized she hadn't let go of Zuko's hand, and that all the women were still staring.
Clearing her throat, Katara jerked her hand away. Zuko seemed shaken out of his daze as well and he crossed his arms, coughing to the side in attempts to feign obliviousness.
"We're just... traveling companions," Katara managed, feeling heat rise to her cheeks. All the attention she had gotten lately was starting to become too much.
The crowd of women breathed out heavy sighs at the news.
"It would've been really romantic if you were engaged," one girl stated, a bit younger than the rest.
"Yeah," an older woman agreed. "A rogue Firebender and a Waterbender..."
Deciding he'd had enough of the attention, Zuko straightened up and shot his golden gaze pointedly around at the crowd. "If you'll excuse us, we should be going." Taking Katara's hand, the prince maneuvered his way out of the crowd, who reluctantly parted for their path through.
Koni approached, a few of the straggling men behind him. He attempted to shoo the women and children away with a hand and reluctantly some went, but a few remained loitering nearby. Turning his attention back to Zuko and Katara, the old man smiled apologetically.
"I'm very sorry for all the trouble. I didn't know you two would draw such a crowd. Now, take this, before you get into any more trouble." Koni held out a small leather pouch that jingled pleasantly when moved. Katara smiled, realizing it was all the money they had earned performing.
"Thank you," she replied, taking the gift respectfully. Koni bowed.
"Feel free to take what you need," the old man said, motioning toward the clothing stand Katara had approached earlier. The merchant still hadn't returned. "Just leave some money and take what you can." His eyes twinkled.
Bowing gratefully, Katara approached the stand and skimmed over the selection. Now that they had more money they didn't have to stick with the rather crusty cloaks she had seen earlier. Instead Katara picked out a simple, smaller brown robe for herself. After a bit more pilfering she selected a larger dark green cloak for Zuko. She displayed it to him. "What about this?"
Zuko wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I don't like green."
Katara raised an eyebrow, almost disbelievingly. "Well, good luck finding something else. It's mainly green and brown here."
Zuko took the matter into his own hands and proceeded to search through the materials by his own hand. After a moment of shuffling and digging and carelessly throwing aside what displeased him, Zuko pulled out a deep red cloak. He flashed it to Katara, smirking victoriously.
Katara rolled her eyes as Zuko fastened the clasp around his chest. However instead of commenting on how spoiled he was the girl simply shrugged on the brown robe over what she was already wearing. After straightening the sleeves to her liking she deposited a few coins and glanced back to Zuko. "Why don't you pull the hood on?"
Zuko gave Katara a dry look. "I don't need a hood."
"But if there are Fire Nation soldiers here, they might recognize you," the Waterbender persisted. "More so than me."
"Are you saying my face isn't easy to forget?" the prince commented with persisted dryness. Katara went to open her mouth but found her gaze locked on his large facial scar. Yanking her eyes away she busied herself with trying to fasten the sash of the robe.
"I didn't mean that," she muttered, trying to think of a way to apologize without actually apologizing. Right when she thought she'd found the right words she looked up to see Zuko stalking away. "Hey, wait!" she called, trying to catch up, only ending up slowing to a halt again as she realized Zuko was speaking with Koni.
"Your interference earlier was appreciated," Zuko was saying, his voice monotone. Koni chuckled, and Katara could still see a few children and women lingering about in the background, intently watching them.
"It was nothing. Do be careful, though. I meant to tell you earlier, but Fire Nation ships docked here a day or so ago."
Katara felt her heart quicken in its beat, and she saw a spark in Zuko's eyes come alive.
"Really?" Zuko inquired, trying not to sound too intrigued by the news. Koni only nodded.
"It's true. A small one arrived first, and shortly afterward a larger one, which docked some distance away from the first, followed it. I don't know if the two are of the same unit..."
Zuko felt his throat run dry. The small ship was most assuredly his uncle's. Iroh was here, just as he had hoped!
However, the larger ship...
Just as he had feared.
"Just keep low and you shouldn't be seen," Koni assured gently.
It was then a thought struck Katara with a vengeance. She almost pushed Zuko to the side in her attempts to catch Koni's attention. "Excuse me for asking, but have you seen a short bald monk lately, or maybe a Water Tribe boy that looks a little like me? That's why we came here, we've been trying to find them."
Zuko shot Katara a dirty look for nearly pushing him aside, but listened intently to Koni's reply.
"Not that I know of," the old man began. "But I was sick in bed most of yesterday and today, so I might have missed them. If they're still here you should still be able to find them, even if this market is a little big. If they happened to have gotten caught it's still well, because the ships haven't left the docks since they arrived."
"Thank you," Katara responded, relieved. There was still hope she would find Aang and Sokka sometime soon.
"I really wish you wouldn't go," a woman suddenly piped up from a few yards away.
"At least show us one more trick," another added.
"It's not a trick," Zuko muttered, agitated with the apparent ignorance toward bending.
"Oh, I don't know," Katara said, anxious to leave and continue their search. "I'm all worn out..."
"Can you dance?" a little voice asked, and the Waterbender saw the ringleader boy from earlier still hanging around, along with a couple of his friends. Said friends gave their leader a strange look. "Just wonderin'," the boy defended.
Suddenly feeling light of heart - after all, it was almost a guarantee Sokka and Aang were nearby, and they would finally be reunited, and she had plentiful money to spare (she could almost see the shock on Sokka's face) - Katara laughed, jerking a thumb over at the brooding Zuko. "I can, but I don't know about Captain Serious over here."
Zuko raised an eyebrow at the almost-insult. "Pardon?"
"You heard me," Katara replied, and went as if to make her way down the street to end the conversation. Her plans went awry, however, when she felt a hand grip her own and yank her backwards.
Katara spun, her mind whirling, and found herself standing face to face with Zuko, who was barely a hairsbreadth away. His golden eyes drilled down into her own, and his voice was low and commanding.
"Don't challenge my superiority in public again," he hissed.
Katara felt her voice become lodged in her throat. Her heart skipped a few beats - he was angry with her! He was...
Suddenly the Waterbender caught a familiar glint in Zuko's eye. Her mouth dropped.
He was teasing her.
He's playing with me!
Confidence regained and the spark of competition lit, Katara set her jaw and furrowed her brows disapprovingly at the Firebender before her. "Oh yeah?"
Sure, it wasn't the brightest of retorts, but Katara was having a bit of trouble trying to form a decent harrowing reply. All dialogue was cut off, however, when Zuko took a step back and held out his hand, which Katara's palm still rested in.
"Is that a challenge?"
Katara's blood ran cold. He's being serious?
Then her blood began to boil and flow again. The nerve of him!
In all honesty, Katara had never actually learned to dance - not officially. Creative bending was as far as she had ever gotten.
"Yeah, it is," Katara snapped in reply, her mortified anger getting the best of her. I'll show him!
Then Zuko smirked, and it was a very leering, confident smirk. Katara worse fears became apparent in that moment.
He's had lessons, she groaned inwardly.
It was then that Zuko pulled Katara forward and placed his hand against her waist. In the recesses of his mind the Firebender thanked his uncle for forcing him to take dance lessons when he was very young - Iroh had always said learning to dance helped improve the style and form of Firebending technique.
Katara's mind spun as she felt herself suddenly whisked to the side, and then back, and then forward. Zuko's movements were very controlled and fluid and the Waterbender fancied she looked like a big lumberjack in her attempts to follow him.
Then she felt him take her hand and before she knew it he had spun her, while taking a step back, and with a flick of his wrist he had pulled her against him once more. Their eyes bore into each other's and sparks flew as their wills clashed.
Zuko was still smirking. Katara scowled. He emitted a slight laugh.
"You fail at this," he wheedled silkily. Katara's eyes widened in fierce indignation.
How dare he be so arrogant!
"You'll eat those words," Katara hissed in reply. The Waterbender swiftly stepped back, taking Zuko's hand in an outstretched posture, and then gracefully slid back forward - but at the last minute she dipped to Zuko's side, taking his hand with her, and stood fluidly up behind him as his body spun to face her. She tilted her head back and stretched her free arm behind her, smirking slyly.
Zuko raised an eyebrow at the rather slick move and they came together again, now aware and working with each other's signature movements. Katara had gotten the hang of the footwork, which was the most difficult part of the process.
It's a lot like Firebending, she thought, and as if on cue she felt herself being lifted. Her eyes flew open as Zuko easily flipped her over his shoulder and drew her back under his arm with the opposite hand.
Sliding her foot out gracefully, Katara and Zuko clasped hands and, with equal force emitted from both, drew each other back together in a finishing maneuver.
Cheers erupted from the remaining children and bystanders. However Katara's eyes were locked on Zuko's, and vice versa.
Only then did Katara suddenly notice their clasped hands. Flames licked at Zuko's knuckles and wisped lightly from between his fingers - and hers. She stared for a moment, disbelieving what she saw - through the entire time they had been dancing, she hadn't once realized Zuko had also been Firebending. His hands and feet were rimmed in the slightest of flames, and the wispy smoke of his hands curled around hers, but she did not once feel the pain of a burn.
Zuko and Katara parted, and the Waterbender was almost in a daze. She barely noticed when they finally left the remaining audience behind or when Koni wished them good luck. It was only when they were halfway down the street and just now entering the heart of the market that Katara seemed to wake up.
The first words of her mouth were completely unplanned. "You should wear your hood, you know."
Zuko glanced back at the Waterbender, who had been strangely quiet the last five minutes of walking. The people and crowds were thicker now, and voices of merchants rang in the air above the clamor of browsers. The scent of breads and warm food, along with incense and smell of forge smoke was overwhelming.
"Or a hat," Katara continued, suddenly realizing how weird she sounded.
Zuko said nothing. He, too, was in a slight daze, though he wouldn't admit it. He shifted their bag of supplies from one shoulder to the next.
He wasn't sure quite what had come over him when he had challenged Katara to the dance. It seemed eerily familiar to the feeling that had come over him when he had hurled the mud ball at her.
He tried to brood, but met with little success. His mind was whirling about unchecked inside of his head. He tried to feel angry or violated, but met with even less success.
It was difficult to admit, but... Zuko realized that the experience had been a little fun. After all, they had solved their money problem, and had learned a bit about Fire Nation occupation while they were at it.
Yeah. Everything had reasoning behind it. Everything he did was for that one goal: to find and capture the Avatar. It was all just a big bluff, a charade.
And yet a little voice inside told him that wasn't entirely the case.
Meanwhile Katara glanced over at the Firebender walking beside her. Everything seemed to fade into the background - the people, the noise - when she thought about his cocky smirk as he had teased her into the dance. Or even earlier when she remembered his mortified expression at being swarmed by children.
Katara glanced down at her perfectly unharmed hands, and yet she still fancied she could feel the heat of the flames washing against her, though they lacked the searing pain.
And it was then she suddenly groaned silently.
I'm starting to fall for Zuko, aren't I?
The girl reached into her robe and fingered the moneybag anxiously. She needed to find Aang and Sokka, and find them fast, and get her life back to normal as quickly as possible.
And yet a little voice inside of her whispered it was already a little too late.