Ehehe... A bit of a delay, I know. Hey, at least I gave you The Kiss before I got distracted! From now on things get a bit... hectic. You'll see.
Amara and I were a couple. That alone was hard to wrap my mind around. We were walking back to camp, and her fingers were interlaced with mine, and I felt as though the world made sense now. I stole a glance over at her - and saw that she was already looking at me.
She smiled and squeezed my fingers gently.
Then, we arrived and everything was forgotten in the chaos of the camp. Each man had collected wood for the fire, and I left the grunt work of building it to Lon, Hao, and Niyu, the amateurs of the group. Everyone worked together to make dinner, and Amara and I ate together with Kiri. She kept looking between us, as though she knew just by the fact that Amara and I hadn't fought that something had happened.
I was nervous, I realized with a jolt. Kissing her had been so spontaneous and natural that I hadn't remembered to have qualms and second-guesses, but now, watching her smiling and joking with her sister, I knew without a doubt that I would never be able to act the same around her.
And she would probably expect me to be able to carry a conversation in the future. What would I do if I was too panicked to think straight? I tried to remember what Uncle had said about remembering awkward moments in a relationship. He had said not to mention it. Or that it wasn't important. But I didn't want to forget about it, I wanted very much for it to happen again, many, many times.
It was a bittersweet feeling. I wanted to avoid her, but simultaneously wanted to spend many long hours getting know her. I was such a child, but I was so much more an adult than before. I had no idea what to do from here. And my thoughts were confusing me.
They were looking at me, and I had been staring openly at Amara. "Um," I coughed discreetly, "sorry, what?"
"May I have your leftover strawberries?" Kiri repeated, quiet mirth just beyond hearing in her voice. I obligingly pushed them onto her plate. She turned to Amara and they both burst into a fit of giggles. "Zuko, next time, remember to close your mouth when you stare at my sister."
"I'm sure he'll be more careful next time," Amara said with a little, secretive smile. I tried to smile back, but it was more of a wavering grimace.
I fell back to staring at her. It made the time pass without too much of my own interference.
Eventually, she stood and I automatically followed suit. Picking up Kiri, who had fallen asleep, I carefully walked to her bed of furs and laid her down. She was so frail. Her leg had healed neatly, but it was still very weak, and I worried about making her hike like this. Tucking her in, I turned to look at Amara, sitting in the ring of the fire's light.
My Amara. That sounded nice.
She smiled and murmured, "You need to stop staring all the time, Zuko. It's disconcerting."
I rubbed my scar, blinked a few times, and sat beside her. My nerves had redoubled in an instant, since we were the only ones awake in the camp. There was a quiet hush, so I spoke in a low voice, careful not to disturb it. "You're too beautiful to ignore."
Now she blushed , as well. "Why would you say something like that? It's not like I'm any more beautiful than a flower. It'll fade soon enough. Once I get older…it'll be gone."
I knew only one thing to say at that moment. "I want to be around to see that happen." In my heart, I felt it was true.
She gave me a sad smile, and moved away, farther from the edge of the fire. "We'll head east tomorrow. That will bring us closer."
I understood and went along with the change in subject. I thought for a moment, and commented, "We've been heading due north for a while now. Why the sudden change in direction?"
"You said that I could lead us on any path I wished, so long as we got to the avatar in time." She was becoming defensive, and I stood with a tired sigh. No point in letting ourselves fall into an argument - I was determined to test how long we could go without coming to blows. I wanted this to last, whatever 'this' turned out to be in the end. She glanced up at me and said, "I'm sorry." She hesitated, stood, and set both her hands on my shoulders. "I'm tired. A lot has happened today, most of it good. My reaction to stress is, basically, to be sarcastic until it goes away."
I shook my head, wishing that I could see exactly what her eyes looked like at that moment. The dying embers of the fire only left me with vague outlines to go on. "I won't go away, I'll just fight right back. You know how stubborn I am."
Amara laughed, and I immediately wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her closer. Fun little Pavlov's dog response I had, that was all. She whispered, "I like it better when we don't insult each other, but if that's what has to happen to keep you around, I guess there's no help for it."
I blinked, and took a deep breath. We were very close (whose fault was that?) and I could try for another kiss…but I didn't want to test it. If she was tired, she was less likely to react favorably to anything, really. So I pressed a kiss to her forehead instead, just as pleased with myself as if I had gone for the prize. The way my stomach was turning over, I wasn't feeling capable of anything else.
She leaned against me for a moment and sighed, then murmured 'Good night' and went to bed.
I sank down next to the dying fire and rubbed my scar slowly and thoughtfully, still feeling the warmth of the moment. I was honestly happy, for the first time in a year. I wasn't worried about my men; they were fine and working well together, excluding Lon. I had more confidence in my search than ever before. I had kissed Amara. I was happy.
And then a gentle, mature voice said next to my ear, "Milord, may I ask for some help banking the fire?"
I took a deep breath, let it out, utterly failed to panic and turned to look at Niyu, the redheaded soldier that I had chosen to bring arbitrarily. I got to my feet again, saying, "I'll help. Why are you awake?"
He grinned and gave me a two-fingered almost-salute that made me feel like he had known me all his life. "I drew the short stick, so I'm keeping watch in the dead of night." We both used boughs to prod the embers together in the center of the fire pit, and he said lightly, "I would beg permission to speak freely."
"Granted," I answered, scooping clean sand up with my hands and packing it around the pile.
He did the same for a moment, and then said, "I wouldn't need your help to do this if you hadn't ordered the cessation of all our bending."
I matched his easy tone and said, "Questioning an order, Private?"
"Call me Niyu, please." We settled the thicker branches over the mound and covered those with sand, as well. "There we go. I was more wondering why you ordered it, milord."
Which, in retrospect, is the very definition of questioning orders, but I didn't care back then.
I wiped my forehead at the minor exertion and explained, "This is the Earth nation. If the girls are anything to go by, the people here hate our army and navy both. Ergo, no fire bending and no uniforms." We both looked down at our stained and dirty cotton shirts and heavily-woven pants and laughed.
He looked at his clothes a moment longer. "I understand, milord," he said at length, clapping me on the back. "That makes sense, actually. I wasn't sure about you, since I didn't see the reasoning. But I guess you're alright after all."
I rolled my eyes, even though he couldn't see it. The only light was from the stars, and that was only enough to have a vague outline. "I'm glad I've passed muster, Niyu."
He took a swig from his canteen and offered it to me. "You should be; not many ever have, milord."
I shook my head, took the sip he gave, and handed the container back. We sat in comfortable silence, and my mind wandered back to Amara. He said something, and I had to ask him to repeat himself.
With a joking eyebrow raised, he said again, "She's really very pretty, milord."
"The lady Amara, of course. Forgive me, but I saw a bit of your little exchange. You're very cute, in how you act toward her and what you say." He leaned back, and laughed with that cool, adult way he had before - not like the others, Hao and Lon, whose entire goal seemed to be a juvenile sort of entertainment. He went on, "But I don't understand her reactions. You say you want to stay around until you're both aging and she changes the subject. Later, though, she tells you that she likes it when you're around - doesn't that strike you as odd?"
I sighed. Just how much had he heard? Maybe he was just someone that wanted to know everything. This was bordering on nosy, but the way he said it made me think that he was trying to solve a puzzle. Maybe he wouldn't have told anyone at all what he had overheard. I couldn't know for sure. "Yes, it does. But it's not as though I've had past experience to help me with girls and all their complications."
"Really? I would have thought there would be droves of women throwing themselves at you, milord. Back before the exile, at least. Of course, you were just a boy. And you have been busy with the avatar thing. But still, for your first relationship to be at age fifteen-"
"Fourteen, for now," I corrected him. "Sorry, but am I still part of this conversation, or may I sleep?"
"You don't need my permission to leave, milord."
He is a kind man, I thought to myself. Perhaps he would make a good spy, able get along with anyone he needed to. Oh well; that got filed away in my mind as I moved away toward my makeshift bed. "Fine, I'm going, then."
"Good night, then, milord."
Easy to talk to, but very irregular and devious. What an odd man.
Was Amara still mad at me, or had a single embrace and a kiss to the forehead smoothed it over? I didn't even know if last night had really counted as anger, per say - it was almost fear. Why had she been afraid? Did she think I wasn't being honest? That I might hurt both her and Kiri anyway? I needed to calm down.
Dawn found me cross-legged on the ground within the ring of the campfire. I was trying to think it through, to see all the angles. What was I not seeing? She had been on edge for a reason. Because of me or because of someone else? Was she being harassed again? Why wouldn't she tell me if she was? Were the men telling her things about me, things I wouldn't want a girl to know? And what could they even tell her if they were?
"Zuko," Kiri said, touching my shoulder. I opened my eyes; she was still dressed for bed. "What's troubling you?"
I brought my hand up to my scar. "Your sister was standoffish last night."
"Oh." She paused and thought for a moment, then sat down nearby, facing me. "Is that all?"
"Well, I don't know what I did wrong!"
She hesitated again, and whispered, "She used to pick fights with everyone, no matter how much bigger than her they were. The invasion made it worse. But then you saved us, and she calmed down - she's nice to the men, won't make them hate her."
I thought this over. "So, you're saying I'm a good influence? I'm making her better?"
"I don't know if it's for the better, but you are certainly making her change. I haven't seen her focus all her energy on a single person before." I must have still looked troubled, because she said slowly, "Have you ever meditated?"
"Is it like narrowing your thoughts as you perform a kata?" I offered, spreading my hands before me in a shrug.
"Maybe. But it takes all the elements, and it's a bit dangerous."
"I'm willing to learn it."
She nodded and closed her eyes, so I followed suit. In a deeper, more sure voice than she had used before, she recited, "Earth to weight the body and halt a reckless rush. Water to sooth the mind and guide it to stronger strategies. Air to cleanse the soul and to let it make wise decisions, fueling the Fire of the heart as it is built of courage, righteousness and surety.
"Earth." I felt my muscles strain, trying in vain to move. It exhausted my immediate instinct to bolt.
"Water." My thoughts dissolved, left a white haze of irrefutable law and certainty.
"Air." I wafted up, a leaf on the wind, a bird in the sky, I could do anything…
Silence. She was waiting for me. I said, with as much honor as I could muster, "Fire."
I could do anything. I knew that nothing could stop me. This was the ultimate determination, the perfect moment of strength and calm and I was so very, very close to being a god among men for how mighty I was…
Could this be heaven?
Kiri spoke again. "The Earth is shifted away." I relaxed, sagging down in my posture and keeping my eyes closed. "The Water is called downstream." My mind filled and cluttered with flashes of dark blond hair and light skin. "The Air passes through and away to take to the skies." All my life's mistakes replayed in my mind, and I felt tainted and unworthy. "And the Fire, nothing left to hold onto but the tired heart it kept so strong, recedes, but does not die." The moment of bliss locked itself in my mind and I exalted in its existence.
I opened my eyes, a tiny spark struck by that action alone. Amara was looking back me, pleased smile spreading across her face. I mirrored it and bowed my head. "Thank you for that, Kiri."
"You're welcome." She moved her eyes a little to my right, toward the fireplace, and stood up. "But breakfast is ready. I'll bring some over."
As I watched her go, I raised my hand to stop her and say that she didn't have to. More flame spread across my fingers as they moved. Oh, my control was slipping. I worked to hedge the power itching at the base of my skull into line. I was snapping my fingers to watch the lack of any response as Kiri came back, handing me a plate.
That day, walking along a deeply rutted cart road, I was ready to tie Lon up and feed him to something large and fur-covered.
"My lord, my lord, how's the slave market faring these days?" he goaded me, trying for a reaction. "I was thinking of buying one or two myself." Amara's cool gaze swung across the line of men between our enlightening conversation and hers (which regarded the favorite subject of the week: Has Amara made a real man of our prince as the others say?). Lon saw her looking and waved like a child. "She seems interested in me, at least!"
I scratched my scar to hold in a deathblow. If Amara was looking, she was probably just annoyed that Lon was talking about her at all. Or she might have been looking at me, my mind supplied, make my heart beat just that little bit faster.
I walked faster than him, and he dropped back a few feet to talk (loudly and clearly) to Hao about what he would do with a couple of 'willing slaves'. Lon was just getting started when Amara stepped back from the front of the group, stalked over to him, and slapped him.
"Will you come off it!" she yelled, as I held up a hand to signal a stop. "I'm not some whore you can take turns on, you stupid pig!"
Kiri hurried to her sister's side and started to pull her back by the arm, begging her quietly to calm down. Amara wouldn't budge, and kept shouting insults and arguments at the soldier. I walked over to push her by the shoulders, and Niyu followed to guide her back to her place in line.
By the time that was settled and I looked back, Lon had a fireball in his hand and was running toward both girls. On instinct, I stepped out of the way, grabbed his arm, and threw him to the ground. "Private Lon, you will not attack anyone on our side!"
He jumped to his feet, already spitting his response. "I won't abide slave yelling at me, you young punk! That girl is a bit confused about her duties here. Who's fault is that, an owner that refuses to show her the ropes? You don't know what to do when the girl's tied down, I'd hate to see the women you mar-"
An arrow hit a tree to my left, and all eyes turned to watch it shudder in the wood. Half the men had their swords out and were looking back to the east, where it had been shot from. I was scanning the trees for people, assailants, anything, and thinking furiously about what I would with the girls in a battle.
"My lord," Hao said quietly, his voice wavering. I looked at him, and followed his gaze to Lon. "I think…" Lon's clothes were staining red as waves of blood washed over them, coming from a wound through his neck. His vacant eyes were locked on where I had been standing. "I think Lon's dead…" The arrow in the tree had passed straight through Lon, and no one had even noticed.
Hee. Yes, I am evil. Yes, it is a cliffhanger. Yes, I'm going to update - I'm inspired! Honestly, I had planned for it to be Niyu that I killed off, but then he was such a nice guy and a fun character when I got around to writing himthat I just couldn't do it! So I killed Lon, since he annoyed me and he was being mean to Amara. Good choice? Bad? Should Niyu become one of the main guys in this? You tell me!