Unbeta-ed. Mistakes are all mine.
Chapter Ten: Throw The Dice
"So what gives?" inquired Sokka as he and Aang dug into a tasty dish of nuts, root crops, nuts, herbs, and nuts courtesy of Katara. "Why does he keep on chasing after you? Aang, I can understand since he's the Avatar, but why you as well? Normally, when he tries to capture Aang, he'll just have his men try and kill me."
Katara, who hardly touched her food, gave a forced, weak smile at her brother. "He must find it pretty hard to find a new, capable slave," she joked half-heartedly. "You know, he has to train her how to serve him and everything." But as she spoke of it, a sharp pain coursed through her chest at the thought that he might have just replaced her by this time.
It's been more than two weeks since she escaped his ship and so far, they haven't seen or heard of him which was good, Katara tried to tell herself firmly. The group tried to be incognito, but it was hard to hide the fact that they were travelling with a huge flying bison.
Aang observed his new friend closely. As much as he didn't want to butt in to her private affairs, he wanted to understand her better. It was clear that she was hurting, from what he cannot say for sure. Besides, she was really cute so it was a shame that she would always have that sad, far away look in her eyes all the time.
Damn it, what was happening to him? Aang wanted to slap himself in the face. It's been a week since that happened, for crying out loud! A week since he tripped face first in a puddle of mud, and it was her who helped him up and cleaned up his disgusting face with her scarf while Sokka laughed on hard from behind. She stood so close to him he could smell her scent, and she was speaking (admonishing) so softly to him that it made his heart pound. She was just really attractive to him, that's all. And since he grew up with limited interaction with the opposite sex, it was a bit hard to be suddenly teaming up with one. Basically, he didn't know how to approach her.
"Hey, Aang, are you going to eat that?" asked Sokka, who already had his own spoon poised in his bowl.
Waking up from his silent contemplation, Aang snatched back his bowl. "No way!" This food was made by Katara, so hands off you prat! He began to devour his food at a fast pace and in result, began to choke.
It was Katara who came to his aid, patting his back and offering him some water. With tears in his eyes, Aang drank the water and when the food finally managed to get past his oesophagus, he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thank you, Katara," he said reverently. "You're my hero."
Katara smiled--again, he saw the sadness in her eyes and it made him a bit miserable as well. "Take your time to eat your meal; it won't go away. It's dangerous to be just scarfing it down."
"Ha, you've never travelled with Sokka before," pouted Aang.
"I'm his sister, don't you think I know how gluttonous he is?"
Aang made a sheepish smile while Sokka protested.
Katara passed her bowl to Sokka. "If you're still hungry, you can have my share. I don't have an appetite." She stood up. "I'm going to take a bath. I saw a spring here somewhere."
Aang and Sokka immediately went into protective mode.
"No way, I won't let you near me while I bathe," she objected. "I can protect myself. And besides, this forest is too thick for anyone to find me. I'll be fine. I just need some time to relax."
"Okay, but have this," said Sokka. It was a wood-whittled whistle. "Use that if you're in any trouble and we'll come running to you in two seconds flat."
Katara took the whistle, nodded gently and went off for the spring, clutching her bag with her.
But as she disappeared behind the undergrowth, Aang felt that something was not right.
He shot to his feet, taking his stick-cum-glider with him.
"Where are you going, Aang?" asked Sokka through a mouthful of nut stew.
"Just checking around the area," Aang replied shortly. "Reconnaissance, you know." He could hardly tell him that he was going to follow his sister to the bath; who knows what he'll think of that. I'm going to watch your sister as she takes a bath, but only to protect her. I promise I won't look at anything I'm not supposed to. Yeah, right.
Aang took off, with Sokka wondering idly what reconnaissance meant.
"Momo! Those are my nuts!"
"Yeowch! My other nuts!"
Katara peeled off her clothes gingerly, wincing slightly as she took off her belt. The bruises she received from Zuko where hardly healing and occasionally stung when touched. She could heal them as easily as breathing but for some reason, she didn't feel the need to. Great, she was becoming masochistic.
Becoming? She was already masochistic to begin with. Images of her last night with Zuko flashed through her brain, delivering a sharp shot of heat through her body. She shook her head, embarrassed at her desirous thoughts and stepped into the cool waters, hoping that it could drop her temperature down.
As she scrubbed with a piece of rough cloth, she thought that it would be nice if she could raise the temperatures of the water even slightly. She could turn ice into water but wasn't skilled enough to heat it. The basics of water-bending only allowed her to drop the temperature of water, not raise it so that it could evaporate; after turning it into ice form, she could heighten it to four degrees Celsius but that is the limit so it could return to fluid mode. Water needs to be kept at a temperature below boiling point to be liquid--and below 0 degrees to be solid. It is beyond the capacity of normal water benders to be able to control water vapour as it means that they would have to control air as well. After all, the origins of water bending could be traced to people observing the gravitational pull of moon on the seas, causing the tides. To talk about it in a molecular level, the atoms of water are packed in liquid form, though not tight enough as in its solid state to be able to remain a fluid. It makes it easier to control the tighter the packing of the atoms. Unlike fire or air, which relies on gases, elements like earth and water needed to be in their solid or liquid states for the benders to control them. Therefore, Waterbenders could only handle water in liquid and solid form. For her to be able to heat the water then, she would have to be the Avatar. However, theoretically speaking, once you're skilled enough and have exchanged all of your sweat, tears and blood, you could also master bending evaporated water.
In conclusion, Waterbenders could not raise the temperature of water above boiling point just like other-element bending which could raise or lower the temperatures but only at certain rates. Though come to think of it, Firebenders could make their fires as hot as it possibly could--up to 5000 degrees, a blue flame--though those cases are rare and needs a certain expertise.
But as Katara thought about it, there are some stories of people who could control two elements. Like fire and earth (they could make pottery). It takes years of dedication to hone skills like that, plus the parents must also be skilled benders of different types as well. But due to the war, it's rare to find interracial marriages. Of course, only the Avatar could control all the elements.
As Katara pondered on it, wondering if there is a way to control water vapour without necessarily having to control air as well, she proceeded to finishing up her bath and sitting down by the grassy bank to brush her hair.
Katara stared at her comb. It was made of fine ebony, glossed and painted with intricate flowers and birds. They were docking at a marketing village somewhere in the Earth Kingdom when Katara had noticed the comb being offered by an old lady by the road. The old lady wanted to sell it to her along with some other beautiful accessories but being the absentminded fool that she was, forgot her purse at the boat. Katara apologized to the lady, saying that she needed to get back the ship to get some money when Zuko, who was watching her under the pretence of checking out some armoury from the stall across, took the comb in his hand and examined it.
"This is a very intricate piece of work," he had said softly.
The old lady had nodded fervently, her jowls bouncing. "Yes, my son made all of these beautiful things for his future wife. They were supposed to get married within a month but suddenly, she ran off with some other suitor. He was devastated and…threw himself from the edge of the cliff. I grew too old to take care of our farm and in time, I lost that as well. It pains me to do so, but I have no choice but to sell them to be able to survive." She smiled suddenly at Katara. "However, I know that my son would be happy to know that a beautiful young lady such as yourself would wear something he made."
Katara smiled. High pressure sales lady.
Zuko ordered Katara to turn around and without warning, twirled her long braid into a bun at the nape of her neck, using the comb to secure it.
"Pretty cute," he had remarked, a soft smile touching his lips while Katara blushed furiously, fingering the comb. "We'll take it, and everything else you have." He chose a clip with a large enamel cherry blossom with silver leaves and baubles to stick into her hair along with the comb.
Zuko took out his own purse, counting the coins. If Katara had noticed it, instead of being too obsessed about her new, unprecedented gifts from her master, she would have seen Zuko give thrice the value of the accessories to the old lady, who could not stop smiling and bowing at the young prince. It was basically more than what she needed to survive for months.
There were two more combs and four more clips that Zuko bought that day, and Katara kept them all, hardly ever taking them out of the mahogany box Zuko gave her to keep them in.
The box was her greatest treasure.
Zuko stood at the helm of the ship, observing the island at the horizon, which was getting bigger as they got closer. After a few excellently placed threats and bribes on the other surrounding islands they sailed past, he got word that there was a strange group riding in a flying monster landing on one of the Tsunachi islands.
Zuko felt like he hit the jackpot.
But it was no time to fool around. As soon as he got wind of the location of the Avatar, he thought of a plan with his generals and Uncle, figuring out the best way to secure the Avatar.
"Katara, your former servant, is with the Avatar, correct?" said Li Feng.
Zuko nodded sharply while Iroh watched him in the corner of his eye.
"According to reports, the Water Tribesman that the Avatar is seen with, the idiot-looking one," said General Xing, "he's Katara's brother. They were spotted on the village of Jingsheng a week ago, and a stall owner distinctly recalled them calling each other brother and sister. This was solidified by the fact that the owner said that they looked alike. The Avatar himself mentioned about them being siblings."
This piece of information made Zuko's heart pound though he disguised his surprise by raising an eyebrow. "And your point is?" he asked coolly instead. Damn, so that's why they were so close the last time I saw them! Damn it all!
"We're saying that this is a perfect way to secure the Avatar," continued Li Feng. "We capture the Water Tribesman or Katara, we capture the Avatar, simple as that. If he is as noble as we think he is, he would not let his comrades be captured while he flees."
"Hostage tactics. Impressive." Zuko rose from his seat, then with a mighty blow, set fire to the whole room. Iroh merely deflected it all, but the others who were not accomplished benders nor quick in reacting got a full brunt of their master's fury. "You idiots!" he yelled into the room. "Do you not think that I have thought of that as well? You know that I have tried capturing the Avatar's stupid companion to lure him but they always manage to get away."
His men fluttered about, thinking of some plan to pacify their master or put out the fire in their uniforms. Most of them would have to refuse looking in a mirror for a few weeks to save their self-esteem, such was the state of their burned faces.
"We'll do it this way," Zuko said in his best obey-me-or-die voice. "We need to separate them, then incapacitate them one by one until there's only the Avatar left. Together, they could be formidable enough to escape us. Alone, they need a miracle." He pulled out a scroll from underneath the table, which was thankfully not singed, spreading it out. He took his brush, dipped it in ink and began to scribble and write. "I have a plan. Follow it and the Avatar is ours."
Aang watched as Katara began to comb her hair slowly, the tangles and knots in her dark brown hair smoothening against the friction of the ebony teeth. He had hidden himself behind the thick leaves and branches of a nearby tree, refusing to look at her while she bathed. He may be attracted to her, but he wasn't that perverted. Once he had heard her come out of the water, then gave her enough time to dress, he took a peek again, relieved that she was fully clothed and was fingering a wooden box with a dreamy, serene smile.
He had never seen her smile like that before, as if she were looking at a priceless piece of treasure or something. When Aang thought about it, she looked like some of the monks at the temple, whenever they looked at their disciples.
It was love.
Because of human reaction, Aang immediately thought that the box must have been a keepsake from her village, not considering the fact that it was fairly improbable on so many counts. After all, he could hardly think that the first girl he was to have a major crush to look at a something so lovingly that was a gift from another man.
Aang sat down at the branch, wanting to savor the moment. He loved watching her like this, as if he were witnessing a moment of great importance.
Aang didn't realize it, but his feelings were far from being a major crush on the class beauty: he was totally in love with her.
A week later, Aang was down with a fever. It was quite a shock for himself and his team mates; the great Avatar taken to bed with a slight cold. He had never been ill, as far as he knew. Not even a little sniffle or two. The other disciples in the temple gotten ill sometimes with the flu or measles or chickenpox, but he never got them, and therefore, didn't know how to handle himself.
"Am I going to die?" he asked breathlessly, watching Katara go in and out of focus as she put a cold compress on his forehead to lower his temperature. They were staying at an inn to allow him to have a warm bed so he could recuperate faster. Appa and Momo were taken to the nearest farm, and for a small fee, were cared for by the elderly farmer. Katara had used up most of their funds but they reasoned out that it was an emergency.
Katara smiled, "No, you're not. This is just a cold. It will pass. All you need now is rest and plenty of fluids."
"I'm…sorry to trouble you like this."
"Don't be. I'm happy to help. Sokka's gone out to buy some things so I could make you a soup."
"Don't mention it. Now, sleep."
Aang shook his head, afraid for a moment that if he closed his eyes she would be gone. What was this feeling?
"Why not? You need to sleep or you'll never get well!"
"I'm…scared that you'll go if I close my eyes." He was breathing rather heavily now, and all of his rational thought was out the window.
Katara smiled again, this time more softly, as she took his hand, enclosing it in both of hers. She leaned from her seat across him with the intent of giving him a small kiss on the forehead as a good luck charm to help him get better but Aang moved so that her lips met his.
Blushing furiously, Katara withdrew sharpish and Aang realized what he did even in his feverish state.
"I-I'm sorry," he stammered, trying to raise himself up with considerable effort. "I-It's just that…I know that we've only known each other for a short time but you're the first person to make me feel this way. It's as if I want to stare at you all the time, like I can't take my eyes off you. Your smile, it makes me smile too and when I hear your voice, my heart makes a crazy leap. It sounds irrational, but that's what I feel."
"A-Are you sure that you feel that way, and that you're not imagining it?" she asked faintly, not knowing what else to say.
"I'm sure of it."
Katara sighed, coming back to his side and getting him to lie back down again.
"You're just sick. Come on, sleep." She closed his eyes with a sweep of her hand. "I'll wake you up when you need to take your medicine."
Katara stared at his sleeping face, thinking that he was too young to even know what he was feeling. Granted, he was over a hundred years old, but he had the mind of a twelve-year-old.
Dear, sweet Aang. Don't fall for me. It would end up hurting us both.
If there was something strange going on between Katara and Aang, Sokka was the last person to see it. Katara was always quiet, so it wasn't surprising that during the two days that Aang had been ill, she hardly said anything to both of them. She performed her duties to take care of Aang in a perfunctory manner, though she left the tasks of bed sheet and clothes changing to him. Aang wouldn't look at Katara in the eye either, genuinely embarrassed about his actions towards her.
However, on the second night, someone knocked on Aang's door. His fever subsided but he still needed at least one more day's rest to be able to recuperate properly. He sat up gingerly, testing his weight on his feet as he stood up to answer the door.
He opened it, expecting it to be Sokka in search of some midnight snack but to his surprise, it was Katara, wearing nothing but a long, blue cotton night dress with her hair loose. In his imagination, she looked like a nymph.
"Katara? What is it this late at night?" he managed to voice out beyond the unexplainable feeling rising in his stomach at the sight of her so beautiful.
"May I come in?" she asked and when he didn't reply, she stepped in anyway, making herself comfortable in his bed.
Sokka had taken the chair from his room earlier and had never given it back. Aang had no choice but to sit down beside her, though at a distance.
None of them spoke for a while until Katara said, "About what you said a few days before…about what you felt for me…. Were they real?"
Aang sighed. "Yes, they were real. I've never felt this strongly about another person before, so I'm a bit confused about it all. But if this makes you uncomfortable, I'll swear I'll stop…I'll -"
Katara scoffed, "It's not something you could stop on a whim; believe me I've tried." She faced him, her blue eyes shimmering with a silent plea. "If you love me, please do me a favor."
But as Aang was about to ask what favor she wanted, Katara leaned in, capturing his lips with her own, pushing him to the bed with her body. Pleasure and shock coursing through his body, Aang could only stare, aghast at what was happening. He didn't know what to do in this situation. This wasn't included in his training! Hell, he didn't even know what happens between marriage and having kids.
Katara broke away from the kiss, burying her tear-stained face in his neck, clutching at him as if he were a lifeline.
"Please, just for one night…. Please, I beg of you…" she sobbed hysterically.
Aang couldn't understand what she was saying but gave up trying to make sense of it. He closed his eyes, letting his instincts do everything. He embraced her tight, savoring the moment to hold her like this.
He rolled them over, so that he was on top, letting him see her crying face as she looked up at him, pleading.
He let his emotions take over as he dipped his head to hers, one hand deftly pulling at the bows that closed the front of her dress tight….
It was a sudden chill that shook Zuko awake while he lay in slumber in his quarters. Annoyed, he snapped his fingers, making that fires in his room grow bigger, giving more heat. He never had to worry about being cold in his bed, as there was always Katara to share it with him, keeping it warm, keeping him warm. Dear Agni, he wanted to admit how much he missed her, but his hurt pride wouldn't let him.
But as he lay back down, pulling his blanket closer to his body, he could not help but feel that the chill was different…as if it spoke of an omen.
Irritated at his own paranoia, he drifted back to sleep.
Before you throw all those pitchforks, let me apologize. It's been a year short of two months since I last updated, and you all have good reasons to be pissed at me. Inspiration for this story has left me for some reason--though the most likely cause is my short attention span--therefore I was left with a blank on how to continue this story. I am sorry if you find this chapter half-hearted, boring, and somewhat predictable, but it is the best my mind could make up as of the moment. A lot of you has been trying to help me, coming up with ideas and such but I could not for the life of me, even manage to write a decent sentence, let alone paragraph so it had taken this long time for me to update. Again, I apologize.
I hope I haven't lost my readers (sheepish grin).
Well, I hope you still enjoy this chapter and please READ AND REVIEW! They are all prized and highly appreciated.