Zuko woke up sometime in the early morning, and realized the trouble with sleeping in a barrel. He was horribly stiff; his aching back begged him with throbs of pain to stretch and relieve the strain. But he knew that if he did, he would wake up Katara, and it made him hesitate to move anymore than was necessary. She had turned semi-sideways sometime in the night, and her cheek rested against his chest. She seemed so at peace that he quickly decided that he'd let her sleep until it was time to cut loose from the ferry.
"You're warm," she mumbled.
Surprised, he turned his head down. "What?"
"This barrel is like an ice box but you still feel warm. . ."
Still surprised that she was awake, Zuko took a while to answer. "I'm a firebender," he explained.
"So?" Her eyes were still closed, and subconsciously she snuggled closer to his chest. Closer to the warmth, he reminded himself.
"I have a different
kind of chi than you," he told her. "The energy burns like
"Sounds like indigestion when you say it like that."
His brows furrowed, but not in an annoyed way. "It seems like your chi would make you more tolerant of the cold."
"Maybe. . . but I don't think it's by much, because I still get cold."
"Well, I'm not immune to it," he reminded her as he straightened up and stretched his back. "In fact, I'm more sensitive to a drop of temperature if nothing else. A firebender has to learn special techniques to keep his body warm when it's very cold."
He thought he heard her whisper something that sounded like 'weird', before she fell back asleep. He let himself lean back against the barrel again, trying to make himself a more comfortable pillow. After a few minutes Zuko turned his attention to planning the rest of the day.
This was the port that would take them to Ba Sing Se, and it would undoubtedly be three times as crowded as the one that they had just left, and then there was the task of paying for two passports. Zuko doubted that they had enough money to even pay for one, and then there was the thing about the lemur. . .
Zuko wasn't sure that they would let anyone actually bring an animal with them into the city, and given the fact that security was likely to check their bags, hiding him would be very hard. But leaving Momo behind was simply not an option. Not that he would have minded, Zuko was sure that he wouldn't, but Katara was another story entirely. That little rat was almost like her hairy adopted son sometimes, but she might not be able to take him with her, and Zuko didn't like the idea of taking him away from her.
He rubbed his eyes and decided that he'd worry about that after he found them a way to get in Ba Sing Se. One thing at a time.
Aang stared across the table impatiently, ignoring how the ink spat across the table as Sokka rushed to write, his brush moving sloppily but quickly down the paper. Iroh had noticed how things had suddenly become even more still than before, how people tried harder to keep away from the group and how the birds had stopped singing and no longer visited the feeders. The others had thought nothing of it, but Iroh thought that the change seemed too sudden. He told them that the birds were likely scared away by something and that there was a good chance that they were being watched much more carefully now, and that they had best be careful about what they say aloud. He had suggested that they write anything of vital importance, which had made Toph mad; now she depended on whispers that came only on a need to know basis.
Finally, Sokka tried to slide the paper across the table, but it was so heavy with ink that it stuck to the wood.
for the love of the spirits!" Aang jumped and flew to the table
top and peeled the letter off of it. Sloppy was an understatement;
Sokka had been in such a hurry to tell them about what had happened
that some of the letters were atrocious.
But after a few minutes of struggling with it, a smirk spread across his face.
"Sokka?" Iroh called as he entered the room, carrying his tea set on a tray. "Are you ready for your lesson?"
"Just a minute." He was still wiping the ink from his fingers; as Sokka finished Aang casually handed the old man the paper. He read it and tossed it in the fireplace.
"After you master the basics of tea, we'll start with calligraphy."
This lady was scary looking. In fact, Zuko was not totally convinced that she was a woman.
"That's it?" The voice was hard to
distinguish as a gender, too gruff but still too high It
stared down at their savings like pocket change and with chubby
fingers pushed the coins back across the desk. "That won't even cover the taxes.
"But we have to get to Ba Sing Se!" Katara told her angrily.
the rest of the earth kingdom," It spat, then took a gulp from a
Katara's brow twitched, and for a moment Zuko wondered if she might choke it
with that drink.
"Come on, Kana."
"But. . .!"
"NEXT!" It bellowed.
He tugged her arm and she followed angrily. "We should have told them who we were," Katara suggested. "That would have changed her tune."
"I doubt she would believe you," Zuko told her, "people will say anything to get inside."
"Well, we can prove it!" Katara
declared. "We have Momo!" She held the lemur up
like a trophy; he looked up at Zuko, blinked and started picking his nose.
"You have a big white rat."
"He's the last flying lemur!" Katara explained. "Only the air nomads had them."
"Well, that changes everything," he
said. "You have a rare big white rat.
But unless he has 'property of the avatar' stamped on him somewhere, he's of no
Katara's face fell and she let the big rare
white rat climb on her shoulder. They sat on one of the benches,
squeezed together because there was so little space left.
This place was so thick with people that Katara could no longer see the desk with the "it" creature, although she knew it was only a few feet to her right.
"Do you think we could pull off another barrel?"
"There's too much security,"
he told her. "We can't even get near the ferry, and even if we
could they wouldn't let us through the gates without a
There would be no sneaking into Ba Sing Se, that was impossible. If they were going to get in, they had to get their hands on some passports.
It was in the midst of these thoughts that Zuko noticed a man to his left. He looked to be about middle aged and was wearing a peasant robe, but Zuko noticed the way his passport stuck up out of this side pocket as he sat. And a powerful temptation caused the prince to stand.
"What are you doing?"
"There's something that I have to do," he told her. "Save my seat."
He tried to not look directly at the man as he neared him, and then stood by one of the columns as if he was waiting for a place to sit. Carefully he decided how he was going to get the passport out of his pocket when a tap on his shoulder caused him to jump.
"You have to come with me."
It was a
young woman, with a short auburn pony tail, wearing a security
A panic fluttered in his chest, but then he remembered that he hadn't actually done anything yet. "Why?"
"You have to come now," she ordered, but there was a touch of urgency in her voice that didn't come with authority.
"I haven't. . ." His voice faded, because as he looked back he realized that Katara was not where he had left her.
"We're friends of the avatar," she explained. "We've come to help you and Katara, but you have to get out of sight now."
Zuko wasn't sure if he believed her; the only thing that he knew for certain was that Katara was gone. And it frightened him. The fear quickly transformed into anger and the air around Zuko's fists grew hot enough to scald someone. His chi was fueled by anger and fear, raising inside him in anticipation. "Where is she?"
"We're friends," she repeated with more force, and Zuko noticed how her hand moved closer to her weapon. "Katara's fine, but we have to get you out of sight quick, do you understand?"
"I'll explain later, just follow me."
That said, she turned heel and started to walk through the crowd. "We weren't sure when you would come," she explained. "We just knew that you would need a passport, so we watched the desks carefully."
"Who are you?"
"My name's Suki."
"Who is this 'we' you keep referring to and how do you know the avatar?"
"We are the Kyoshi warriors, and the avatar saved our village."
She turned her head slightly, giving him a mild glare. "From you." She opened a door that had an employee only sign. "You're lucky Sokka vouched for you, when we voted the girls wanted to help Katara and just leave you here to fend for yourself."
He followed her down a hall and then up a
spiral staircase. "When did you talk to
she answered. "He came looking for help. He says the government
of Ba Sing Se is corrupt, and that their going to be looking for you
two to use as blackmail against Aang. Apparently they won't let him
tell the king that there's a
Zuko stopped in his tracks. "Are you joking?"
"I wish I was."
"Their outer wall has fallen to the Fire Nation in the past, how could he not know?"
"He's young," Suki admitted, "young and naive."
Zuko knew better than that. He had almost been a king once, and he knew the responsibilities of a leader forced him to look beyond the borders of his realm, if nothing else then for protection against the outside world. But perhaps he felt safe behind those walls, or maybe he was weak and really was pampered with naivety. "More like stupid."
She pushed another door open to reveal a circular room that seemed to be some kind of lookout post. Sitting beside a few other girls, was Katara.
"Suki!" She hugged the girl like an old friend, completely ignoring the firebender who had been so worried.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Of course I am," she told him. "These are the Kyoshi warriors."
"So I heard."
Katara's face became serious as she glanced at Suki. "Did you tell him?"
"Can you believe this?"
she asked Zuko.
Before he could answer, one of the girls shoved a little green folder in his face. "Take these," she instructed. "We have to get you on the next ferry."
"One of the city agents was sent to our post after Sokka left, the guy in charge must have gotten suspicious," another explained. "Those passports will only get you into the outer ring, but it's the best we could get for you."
Katara flipped hers open. "Kya?"
was Sokka's idea," Suki explained. "So that he would know
the name you were
Katara turned to Zuko who read his and closed it.
"I'm still Lee," he told her.
"We also got you these." Suki picked up a pile of clothes, in particular a wad of bandages, that she tossed to Zuko.
"To hide your
scar," she explained carefully. "Lots of the refugees are
wounded; you'll blend in better this way. And Katara, we picked this
dress for you."
Katara wasn't sure what she thought about that, but it was Zuko who expressed her thoughts for her.
"She's not that fat."
Her face turned red. At least, that was part of what she was thinking anyway.
Although Zuko just thought that it was oversized, Katara knew that this dress was maternity. "Why. . . "
"For Momo," Sukki told her. "Sokka said he might be with you and it's the only way that we could think of to sneak him in."
It took Katara a few seconds to understand, but Momo would be the bulge on her belly, safely hidden under this dress. "He'll never stay still long enough for that."
One of the girls pulled a little bottle out of her pocket. "From the infirmary," she said. "If we give him a few drops of this he'll be out for at least 8 hours, and by then you'll be halfway to the city."
They all seemed so sure of the plan, but Katara still had her doubts. "But I'm too young to be pregnant."
Zuko, who still didn't know the dress was maternity, and didn't understand what they had been talking about until now, was quite shocked to hear her say that.
His head jerked with surprise. "Huh?"
"I'm not even old enough to be married yet."
"Your close enough," Suki told her. "Don't worry, you'll look the part." She picked up Momo. "Congratulations!" she joked, handing him to Zuko. "It's a lemur."
Zuko stared down at the little animal for a few seconds.
"Will someone please explain to me what's going on?"
It would be another hour before the next ferry left. The warriors had all left back to their posts but one, a girl named Kira who was keeping watch at the bottom of the stairs. Suki said that it would look suspicious if they all went missing for too long.
had the dress on over her robes; it gathered at the bust and was very
wide, allowing for the growth of a baby. It was a cream color with
green lining on the sleeves and at the hem. Katara fidgeted with her
hair for a few minutes. "Do you think I'd look older if I wore
it up?" she asked, holding the hair into a loose
Zuko looked up, obviously displeased. "It's better down."
"But do I look older?"
"Putting it up makes you look like a little girl," He told her as he picked up the ball of bandages. "Just keep it down."
She let it fall wonderfully imperfect and messy on her shoulders, Zuko turned his gaze back to the bandages, and slowly covered his left eye with the gauze and started to wrap the cloth around his head. As he did he had a very strange feeling in the pit of his stomach; strange to be dressing this old wound again after all this time.
"Do you need some help with that?"
"No," Zuko answered, although the angle was awkward for him.
"Here." She reached for the cloth but he jerked away.
He didn't answer, just continued trying to wrap himself.
"Your doing it wrong."
"No I'm not."
"When your done you'll be able to tell that you did it and not a doctor, because of the angle."
"So where did a peasant get such nice, expensive bandages if he hadn't been to a doctor recently?"
He thought about arguing but realized that her simple logic was right and tore the bandages off of his forehead. She took the wrappings from him and gently applied pressure to his shoulder to make him sit, then sat on the crate as she worked.
"Are you sure you know how?"
"I didn't always have healing powers you know." She untangled the cloth. "I used to help Gran-Gran with things like this all the time."
"She got hurt a lot?"
"No." She laughed a little, as she held the gauze to his face and pulled the first layer across his eye. "She's the one that everyone went to when they got hurt or sick," Katara explained. "She's our elder."
Gently she pulled the bandage tightly, then wrapped it around again. "Does this hurt?"
His right eye narrowed ever so slightly, and he looked away. "No," he told her. "It hasn't hurt for a long time."
He knew she would ask more questions, because that was just Katara, with his uncovered eye he watched her, waiting for her to ask the obvious question.
"Good," was the response that he got instead.
He was surprised, though not at all displeased. He could see it in her eyes, she was dying to ask him, the fact that she was resisting made him very happy with her. She was respecting his privacy.
In spite of the lack of pain Katara was still very gentle as she wrapped him, all in all he found her touch to be very different from the last healer that had done this.
She had a different attitude all together, and because of the way she was and the decision not to question him, he didn't mind her touch to his face so much as he had before.
But something else that he noticed, and which also pleased him, was that she didn't seem to mind it anymore when her hand touched his scar.
"What was your name again?" he asked, referring to the passports.
He made a face. "Couldn't Sokka think of something better than that?"
She paused for just a second. "It's my mother's name."
"Oh. . ." And suddenly Zuko felt like an ass. "I didn't mean anything. . . I've just never heard of it before."
"It belongs to my tribe," Katara told him. "It's very old, a lot of our legends have that name in it. . . .. but basically it means 'the warmth in the sunrise'."
His brow perked, and was very sincere when he told her, "I like it."
She smiled. "That's what I'm going to call my first daughter."
He nodded, "It's a good name." But then his mind turned to other things and he made a low growling sound. "Lets just hope your brother isn't going to meet us at the port," he said. "All we need is for him to see you come off the ferry with me, and your belly swollen like a melon."
At this Katara laughed so hard she almost ruined her work on the bandages.
"It wouldn't be funny!" he insisted.
"Yes it would!" Still stifling back laughter, she cut the cloth and tied the end. "There you go."
Katara had stopped laughing, and although she was still smiling, something had changed in her mood.
He raised his eyebrow questioningly. "What?"
The truth of the matter was something that Katara was partly ashamed of; the fact that this was the first time she had seen him with his scar hidden, and she knew that she had been right that day, when she thought about how he might look without it. He had been a handsome, and very noble looking young man.
And yet, it didn't seem right somehow. The scar was a part of him that she had grown used to, and while it was far from being a beauty mark, she knew that it didn't bother her at all. And because of that simple fact, when he took the bandages off, he would still be handsome.
It was an odd moment that lead to
a realization of that fact. That she thought that
Zuko was handsome.
Her cheeks turned pink and she turned away so that she could pick up Momo.
"What?" He repeated.
Her back still turned to him, she quickly thought of some way to change the subject. "So how long have we been married?" she asked him quickly.
"Yeah, in a little while I'm going to be pregnant," she reminded him. "That's not something that you just catch like the flu."
Zuko turned his eyes away uncomfortably. "You mean its mine?"
"Of course its yours!" she told him. "Do you see any other guy around here that can claim responsibility for it?" She became a little less defensive and asked. "Why do you think Suki congratulated you earlier?"
"I don't know. . ." he admitted. "She was kind of odd. . ."
"So how long?"
"Give me a minute," Zuko told her, his hand on his chin. "Yesterday Lee and Kana had just started dating, today their married and she's pregnant." He rubbed his eyes. "My alias has been very busy lately. . ."
"It's not that bad."
"What does it even matter how long we've been married?"
She looked surprised. "You're the one always saying, 'we need back stories'."
they really think you're pregnant, there'll be no question as to
whether or not
"Oh yes there will,"
She looked at him, surprised at his naivety. "We're young, Zuko, too young to have been together for very long. At oldest I could barely pass for marrying age, and there's the fact that I don't even have a necklace. . .people will probably assume it's a love child."
"What would a necklace have to do with anything?"
Her brows furrowed. "Don't they have betrothal necklaces in the fire nation?"
"What do you offer the lady then, when you want to marry her?"
There was an odd silence; she realized that Zuko was having to think about it.
"Don't you know?"
"Of course I do," he told her, he had just had to try and remember. "In my nation we might give a bracelet. Uncle used to have a set that he had shared with my aunt."
"Men wear them too?"
He nodded. "The dragon and phoenix are the two most sacred icons in my nation, and when depicted together they become the ultimate symbol of balance, power and love. So the man's bracelet has a dragon, and the woman's a phoenix. Its usually just the word burned or scratched on, depending on what the person wants."
"I see. . ."
"But after Sozin's reign, and the dragon hunts, this lost favor." His voice became very serious and business-like now. "I guess it reminded them all too much of what they were really doing when they killed a dragon. . . Anyway, all but a handful stopped doing it, and as far as I know we don't really do anything anymore."
He shrugged; Zuko was losing interest in this conversation. "Most marriages from my class are prearranged, so there's little real need for it."
"What about the girl. . . In the north she at least gets a necklace when she's given away."
"She's not just 'given away' as you so eloquently put it, and the girl I was betrothed to would have been given a crown, which, unless I'm mistaken, would be better than a bracelet."
"That would depend entirely on why you gave it to her," she stated. "Compared to the emotion behind a bracelet or necklace given to a loved one, a crown is just a shiny piece of metal."
"Emotion doesn't feed or shelter you," Zuko countered. "A crown ensures that you will never want for neither."
Katara was about to counter this, when something that Zuko had said suddenly clicked and her verbal attack screeched to a halt. "Wait. . ." She suddenly seemed confused. "Did you say that you were betrothed?"
Another awkward silence hung between them.
"I was," he admitted.
"So you were engaged?"
"For a time."
"But not anymore?"
"I was banished, Katara," he reminded her. "I lost everything, including the credibility of my title."
"And that's the only reason she was marrying you?"
"She was eight when it started going into the works. She was only doing as she was told."
There was a bitterness in his voice that she wasn't sure how to interpret, but that oddly enough, made her feel a pang of something deep in her stomach.
"What was her name?"
Zuko had just as soon not answer that. "Why?" he asked. "What does it matter?"
She abandoned that question and asked another. "How did you meet her?"
"We grew up together," he said, thinking about the matter and trying to recall.
"What was she like?"
"She was always quiet, the first time that I think she really talked to me was in the garden. . . I remember because she was scared of something. . ."
Under another set of circumstances, Katara might have thought that was sweet, but for what ever reason, right now she did not.
"Do you miss her?"
Katara's questions seemed to be getting more and more random, more personal and above all more annoying. Why was she suddenly so interested?" "We were only children,"
That wasn't an answer, Katara registered it as a dodge at the question.
"I see. . ."
"Why do you say it like that?" he asked, his defense rising.
"Like you're mad at me."
"Why would I be mad?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I'm not."
"Good." He picked up a hood from the clothes pile and put it over his head. But he saw in the corner of his eye the way that Katara still looked annoyed. He silently cursed at her weirdness and decided that it was best to change the subject. "So the water tribe give necklaces?"
She nodded. "Like my mothers." Her fingertips touched her neck. "My father gave it to her, and it was my grandmothers before that. . ."
Zuko looked away for a moment, he felt guilty for endangering her heirloom, but remembered quickly that at the time, he had had no choice but the leave the necklace behind for the others to find with his daggers scabbard.
"In my tribe," she explained, "if a man wants to marry a woman, he must carve her a necklace and then offer it to her, if she accepts it, then she accepts him as her future husband."
"How binding is it?"
"Unbreakable," she told him. "By anyone but the couple-So long as they're old enough, of course."
nodded his head. "Don't fret about any engagement jewelry, we're
peasants anyway," he pointed out, trying to change the subject
again. "Maybe we couldn't
She looked partly annoyed at his dismissal of the subject, but he wasn't done yet.
"Don't worry," he told her as he leaned back against the wall, folding his arms casually. "if anyone starts questioning your virtue, I'll pick up the nearest blunt object and beat his head in." Zuko tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "Like any good husband would."
As she looked at him, Katara really wasn't sure if he was joking or not, but still, it made her smile. "Thanks," she told him.
The door opened, Zuko stood quickly, but it was only one of the girls. "It's time," she said, then pointed at Zuko, "You. Out. We have to get Momo ready."
lifted the lid. Stowaways had a tendency of trying to sneak in
through the crates that the ferry carried into the city. What they
didn't realize was that these boxes may not be opened for weeks after
they were taken to the gate; it was because of this that a few
inspectors had found bodies in the supplies. The door behind her
opened; at first she thought it was one of the others, but the
footsteps were too heavy. She turned and saw the agent that the city
His helmet shadowed much of his face in this dim room, but she could see that his lips were pursed into a thin line. He was upset about something.
"I noticed that you and the other officers disappeared for a time." He was calm and emotionless, reading her for any sign of hesitation, looking at every gesture for a clue that could contradict whatever she might say.
"I wonder what your superior would think of you spending all of your time spying of young women," Suki said with disgust, folding her arms.
"What was so important that it required all of you?" he asked. "And why wasn't I informed of it?"
"You were not informed because your assistance was neither wanted nor needed," she told him, her voice was strong and her gaze hard. "There was a problem among our warriors, that I had to straighten out."
"What sort of problem?"
"None that concerns you."
"Your superior has asked you a question," he spat. "Now answer it."
"You are not my superior," she growled. "Our warriors are helping your people, not working for them." She became very stiff. "And furthermore as leader of my squadron it is my duty alone to reprimand our warriors. And so this was no concern of yours."
His hands make a quick movement, but Suki saw it too soon for him to finish. Her sword lashed out, forcing him to jump back.
"We are the Kyoshi warriors," she told him. "guardians of the sacred island. . ."
He attacked, throwing hands of stone at her, but the move left him vulnerable to the two girls that he hadn't known were behind him. Suki batted the stone away with her sword, just in time to see his legs fly out from under him from a powerful kick, and while he was in the air and helpless, the blunt side of a fan crashed down on his head.
He lay dazed on the floor as they started to hog tie him with his own belt.
"Birthplace of the fighting style our avatar taught the Dai Lee. We know, better than anyone, every weakness in your moves, because we had the same teacher."
"Treason. . ." he groaned.
"Good work," she praised. She was proud of them for having disabled him so quickly, although she wasn't arrogant enough to think that the victory had nothing to do with luck. This man was dangerous, and without the advantage of a surprise attack, despite any knowledge they might have about his weak points, it would be a toss up in whether or not they could overpower him again. Her mind raced; their next action had to be quick, they had to keep him out of the way.
"Hide him in one of the crates for now. . ." she told the girls, she started stabbing one of the lids with her sword. "We'll poke some holes and nail it shut. . ."
"Suki. . ."
"We can't let him touch the ground," she told her. "Scoot him over there by the returned boxes, they won't be moved for another week or two. We'll find some other place for him later, but for now that's all we can do. . .There are too many people outside to move him anywhere right now."
"We can't just keep him hostage," one protested. "He's a government agent, Suki, we're pushing our luck, as it is. We can't hold him forever."
"We don't have to," she said. "We just have to give them time to get to the city before we let him go."
Katara now had a green piece of fabric that went around her waist and was held by a belt. It real purpose though, was to give the sleeping lemur more support. He was wrapped in what resembled a thin pillow to keep from there being an unatural shape, sleeping like a baby."The last thing we need," The Kyoshi warrior said, "is for him to fall out of your skirt."
"Yeah," Katara agreed. "That would be kind of awkward."
"Come on." She led the way to the door. "You should get on board early, so that you can find your room before the mob boards."
"We get a room?" That sounded great, on the last ferry she had seen people sleeping on the deck.
She opened the door and they found Zuko sitting on the steps. "Time to go," Kira said as she walked past. "I'll step out first, then you two wait a few minutes before you leave. You'll have to get on the ferry yourself."
"I think we can manage."
Kira ignored him. "Your tickets are in the passports. Get on the ferry immediately, and into your room until you leave port. Don't let yourselves be seen outside until then, just in case."
"Alright then." The stairs had ended, and they were facing the door where another warrior stood. Kira turned. "Good luck," she told them, and then with a smile nodded her head goodbye and left with her friend.
"How long should we wait?"
"About five minutes I should think." He kept looking down at her fake belly; it looked very natural despite its contents. It looked like Mount St. Katara might blow any minute. "Remember to act pregnant."
"What does that mean?"
"You know. . .be careful. No running or anything."
"If I'm not careful I'll give birth to a comatose lemur." She laughed. "Don't worry, we just have to get to the ferry and then I'll be thin again."
"I guess I should hold your hand this time. . .seeing as to how your pregnant and all. . ."
"If you think that would make it more convincing." Katara saw that he was actually starting to sweat a little, and realized that this whole pregnancy gig seemed to be more awkward for him than her.
nodded. "It would help you keep up with me in this crowd anyway.
. ." Zuko
decided. He extended his hand. "Come on."
She took it, and he pushed the door open.
crowds got thicker as they got closer to the ferries, thicker and
rougher until they were literally squirming through the people to get
to the water.
Zuko knew now that holding her hand would have been necessary anyway; he'd never be able to keep her with him in this otherwise. Katara held his hand tightly, her other hand held to Momo, trying to keep him from being brushed by the people.
"We're almost there," Zuko shouted over them.
"Thank gods," she muttered.
Katara was glad when they finally set foot on the loading dock. An old man looked at the passports and took the tickets.
"They got any luggage?" a young man called from deck.
"Just a bag and that lady's belly." He smiled at his own joke.
Their bag was checked and then they set to finding the room that they had been given. The minute they stepped in the hall the smell of body odor was overwhelming.
"Its because we're close to an engine room," Zuko told her. "Its going to get hot down here."
"Great," she rolled her eyes. "Last night we froze, tonight we'll melt."
The room was about the size of a pantry, beds hung over each other on one wall, supported by rusty chains that were strung at a diagonal angle, like one might find in a prison.
"At least we have a bed," Katara said optimistically.
Zuko looked at the dingy mattresses and wondered what kind of parasites might be living in them. "Lucky us." He threw their bag on the top bunk; almost instantly the old chain snapped and the top bunk landed on the lower in a dim cloud of dust.
Katara coughed, waving her hand in from of her face to fan the air away. "What the-!"
Zuko looked on in disgust, startled but not really surprised. "I can see that they booked us the luxury suite."
She stared at the mess. "I'm glad that happened before I was laying down there. . ."
Zuko walked past her and slid the wooden plank off of her bed and put it in the hall, then crammed the thin mattress into the space between her bed and the wall. "There."
sat down on his mattress and she shut the door. "That one looks
stronger," he told her, gesturing to the bed.
Katara eased down on it slowly, bracing herself for impact, until she was sure it would hold her. "We won't be here too long," she told him.
He gave her a serious look. "Enjoy a bed while you can," he told her. "When we get to the city we'll probably be sleeping in an alley."
She scooted back against the wall. "Do you think we'll get in trouble over breaking the bed?"
"What could they possibly do?" he asked. "Let us sleep on the deck with the fresh air?"
"What about hold our passports?"
He got a grim look. "Let them try. That bed was a safety hazard anyway."
"At least we have a candle."
"Well, it's the least that they could do . . ."
"Come on, Zuko, I know that its no royal suite, but at least its private."
A long silence passed between them. Katara fidgeted with a stand of her hair while Zuko sat with his head tilted against the wall. "What are you thinking?" she asked.
He looked at her and shrugged. "I'm hungry."
""Kira said that they would feed us."
He just nodded.
"So, now that that's taken care of," she leaned forward slightly. "What's really on your mind?"
thinking about something really hard," she told him. "You
had that look on your face, and I'm willing to bet that whatever it
is has nothing to do with lunch."
She pulled some hair behind her ear. "So what is it?"
"Why are you so interested?"
"Because watching you think is boring," she explained. "I'd rather hear about it."
almost became annoyed, but on an impulse, decided that it was okay
Katara to ask him that. This time at least, because his thoughts included her as well. To an extent.
"About the future,"
"What about it?"
"The war, the battle. . . becoming Fire Lord. About the things that will change. . . and the things that will try to stop us."
"That's a lot."
"That's life as I know it."
"But you're forgetting something," she told him. "You won't be doing it alone. We'll be with you every step of the way."
"How comforting," he said. "three teenagers, a little boy, and a little blind girl with an attitude."
"Don't underestimate us,"
"Don't underestimate my nation," he countered. "There's a reason that the Earth Kingdom cannot end this war."
"And there's a reason that your nation hasn't taken over the world yet," she rebutted. "And all of the rage and humiliation that comes with 100 years of resistance is about to be channeled into a single battle."
"Rage without numbers is suicide, Katara," he told her earnestly. "Its brave, honorable even, but its death all the same."
"Our numbers will be great enough," she
told him, with so much certainty that
Zuko almost believed her. "And each warrior of my tribe will fight like three."
"You sound so sure."
'Because I am," she told him proudly, "The Southern tribe will help the avatar's cause no matter the cost, and our sister tribe will soon follow."
"But would they ally themselves with the son of their enemy?" he whispered. "Your chief would sooner give up his title than sink that low." He rubbed his hands through his hair. "My blood alone could jeopardize the entire attack. . ."
"Your character means more than blood."
He shook his head, "I have to gain their trust somehow. . ."
Katara felt bad for him, "I'll talk to him," she promised.
"You'll talk to the chief?" His sarcasm had returned.
She raised an eyebrow. "Yeah."
"And you think he'll listen?"
"Of course he will," she told him, but she could sense his skepticism. "What?"
"Listen, I know you mean well," Zuko told her, in what, at the time, he considered to be a cautious manner. " And I'm sure he's a good leader," he began, respectfully adding. "who really cares about his people. . . but you have to put yourself in his position. In such a situation, he probably wouldn't take into account the opinion of a-"
"Of a peasant," she spat.
He was going to say commoner, but as he moved to correct her he realized that there was no real difference in those words. He felt guilty, because she had guessed his thoughts so accurately and was obviously hurt by them.
"I didn't. . ."
"He would listen to me." She sat up straighter, her hurt look becoming a mild glare. "Because I'm Chief Hakoda's daughter."
For a few seconds, Zuko could just stare at her like a moron. That girl sitting on the dry rotted mattress was royal?
It stunned him for a moment, because it was such a stark difference from what he had always thought. Why had she never said something all of those times when he had talked down to her? Why had she never been addressed by a title? Why had she talked about washing clothes in the igloos? Surely a servant should have been doing that. Or was that an example of how far the southern tribe had fallen?
"You're a princess?"
The shock in his voice upset her. "No, our tribe doesn't have princesses. Our leaders are chosen for their actions, not their bloodline. And his family doesn't receive any special treatment, except the respect that they earn."
"I didn't mean that …" No actually she was right about what he meant. He cringed a little, he knew that he had accidentally crossed a line. He had unwittingly degraded her and it made him feel the overpowering urge to make amends with her.
He pursed his lips and tilted his head, unsure at first, then scooted a little closer to her from the floor, so that he was looking up at her. "I'm sorry," he told her looking her in the eye so that she knew that he was sincere. "I shouldn't have made such an assumption about your authority, or assume that I know about the water tribe government."
Her anger faded, but she was still sad. "That's not the point, Zuko."
She turned her face away, staring at the unlit candle that sat on a shelf.
He surprised them both when he reached out and gently turned her face back toward him. "And I shouldn't have called you a peasant either," he continued in a rush, he took a breath and cleared his throat, trying to quickly think of the right words to say. "Because that's not the way that I think of you anymore."
But her expression changed only slightly, "How do you think of me?"
He hadn't been expecting that one. What he said was very simple, very modest but more dignifying than Katara knew. "I think of you as my friend." He said it quietly, but the earnestness in his voice was very clear.
She stared at him, her surprise clearly evident in her face, and her cheeks a light shade of pink. But somehow, he knew that she was also pleased and that knowledge pleased him too.
Despite knowing this, he was not ready for what she did next, nor did he know what she was doing until it was too late. It seemed like before he even realized that she was moving closer he felt a light pressure on his cheek.
He took a sharp breath and felt what could have been some kind of large winged creature fluttering around in his stomach.
He jumped back. "Why'd you do that?!"
She just blinked, her face free of any other form of emotion, and her face got even pinker. "I was going to thank you. . ."
"Words would have worked. . ."
Still blushing, she looked annoyed. "I wasn't making a move on you or anything, Zuko."
"I know that," he said quickly, too quickly. "It was just. . .strange."
He got up, quickly and more clumsily than she had ever seen the prince move before. She asked, "Where are you going?"
have to. . ." He reached for the knob behind him twice before he
it. "I have to relieve myself."
"But we shouldn't –."
"I'll be right back."
And then he was gone.
Katara looked after him for a while, confused and embarrassed that Zuko might have read more into it than she had meant. It had only been a peck on the cheek for goodness sake, she was only being affectionate and showing him how much it meant to her. Like she might have done with Aang.
In the corner of her eye she saw a flicker. When Katara turned her head she saw that the candle on the table was lit. She stared at it for a second, looked back at the door, and then blew it out.
He wasn't sure just how long it had been since they left the shore, but it was long enough that Zuko had taken off his bandages and stuffed them in his pocket. The deck was packed, but not so much that it had been hard for him to move through the people.
He stood by the rail, staring into a watery broth that the 'cook' had ladled him. He had gotten in line with every intention of bringing Katara some too, but for whatever reason, he had decided to stay out a little longer.
She had claimed that it was an innocent gesture, and as he thought about it and rethought about it, he knew that such a kiss was almost sisterly, motherly even. And so satisfied that he knew Katara's intentions, he turned his worry to his own reaction.
He had tried to deny it to himself at first, but one can only deceive themselves for so long. The point of fact was that after the shock and through all the awkwardness, he had liked it. It made him feel good, not the good he was used to either, this emotion was in a league all of its own.
He thought about last night in the barrel, how he hadn't minded having her in his lap at all, how he had actually enjoyed it. How content he had been, even when he woke up with an aching stiff back. Of how a breeze blowing curly hair had made him lose track of his thoughts.
He thought about arguments and infuriating tendencies but felt no grudge. No anger or annoyance, only a state of equality and acceptance of faults.
He looked at the lake then back at his broth, staring at his reflection in the murky concoction. Then turned his gaze upward again with only one thought concerning the matter of he and Katara. What the hell?
It was a stupid notion, silly in every aspect of their situation. She was Katara the water bending, southern, smart mouthed, woman. His friend, nothing more and nothing would change that.
He turned the wood bowl up to his lips, when the liquid touched his tongue the gag reflex took hold. Zuko choked and spat the rotten food and hurled the bowl into the lake, angry at incompetence and wishing that he had something to drink to wash this gods awful taste away.
"Pitiful isn't it?"
Zuko turned to the voice; it was a young man his age. Zuko let his sour look answer.
"I hear that the captain and his crew up there are eating like kings," the boy explained, twisting the blade of wheat that stuck out of his mouth, "and they give us these rotten vegetables in a broth because it's cheaper on them."
Zuko spat over the deck one more time to try and get rid of the taste. "Sounds right."
"Me and a few others are going on mission to bring some of that good food back for the others, but we need one more. I saw your broadswords and thought that you might be just the man we needed."
He scoffed. "What are you planning to do," he asked sarcastically, "declare mutiny and take over the ship?"
"Not in the least," the stranger said. "But if you can use those then you're quick and agile. The only questions are: are you hungry and can you be quiet?"
After what had to have been three hours of waiting in their room, Katara decided that she had had enough of the smell of armpit and left Momo sleeping on her pillow. She hadn't realized how warm it was in there until she opened the door and the cool air hit her face. She thought about leaving it open for Momo but decided that if she did someone might try and steal him.
She had barely left the hall when the vanishing prince walked up to her carrying two covered dishes and a kettle. "I got us some food."
When Katara smelled the chicken, all trespasses were forgotten.
"Lets eat it out here." She pulled him toward an empty spot by the shade. "Its too hot in there."
They sat on the deck, too busy eating to think about talking. Zuko barely even acknowledged it when his new acquaintance walked up to them. "I didn't know you had someone with you."
His voice had been very friendly, very casual and mellow, and so Zuko didn't know why Katara almost choked on her chicken, why she spun around and was now on her feet, glaring at the guy.
Nor did Zuko know why he looked so
shocked, and then he did something very strange. He said a name that
he shouldn't have known. "Katara!? Is that. . ."
The rest was drowned out over the crash of water as it rushed over the rail and smashed into Jet, pinning him against the cabins' wall. When the tide swept away the boy remained, bound by ice.
"Katara, It's me. . .!"
"I know exactly who you are!" She raised her hands and the puddles rose and became a twisting ball, Zuko recognized this from when he had watched her train yesterday, and he knew that with one quick movement that ball would turn into a full round of icicles as sharp as daggers.
Zuko was shocked and confused, but that didn't stop him from seeing the boys tall friend pull back an arrow in his bow. Zuko's sword lashed out, stopping just short of his throat. "Don't!"
There was a sharp pain in Zuko's back, and he realized that the child with the painted face had a knife tip pressed to his back.
"Do it, Smellerbee, and I'll do the same thing to Jet!" Katara snarled, with so much anger that even Zuko believed that threat.
They stood in a deadly circle, one quick movement from any of them, would result in a simultaneous death of another. It was defenseless Jet who made the first sound.
"Katara, calm down. . ."
"Don't you dare tell me to calm down!"
"Someone's going to get hurt. . ."
Katara looked ready to respond to that, but Zuko interrupted. "He's right. We'll just end up killing each other." He spoke to the man he had at sword point. "Put down the arrow and I'll move my sword, if I don't then Smellerbee can kill me."
The man looked at Jet and after a nod lowered the bow. Keeping his word, Zuko sheathed his sword. But the child either didn't understand the order of the arrangement or really liked sticking him with the tip of that thing. "You can put that down any time you take the notion."
"Let Jet go."
"Put it down," Jet ordered.
Smellerbee made no motion to obey, although Zuko thought that he felt the hand behind the blade shaking.
"Do it now!" he yelled.
She flinched at his voice, and then jerked the knife away.
Zuko straightened up, but Katara seemed no more ready to put down her water than ever before. "Katara. . ."
"What are you doing here?!" she demanded.
"We're just trying to get to Ba Sing Se," he told her gently.
"Why?" Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "What could someone like you want-."
The words had an odd effect on her: tears swelled up in her eyes and her fury burned brighter than ever. "The only thing that's changed," she hissed, "is that now I know better than to trust you."
She threw the water over board and stumped past Zuko. "Lets go." And off she went through the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle on deck.
Zuko wasn't sure what had just happened, and it looked like he was going to have to wait to find out. He looked at Jet, hoping for some quick explanation, but the boy only looked back at him, as if silently making his own request. Who are you really? And how is it that you are with her?
Zuko narrowed his eyes, he didn't like the way Jet was looking at him. Because it wasn't only innocent wonder, there was a sense of protectiveness in those eyes, of what could have very well been a hint of jealousy.
Zuko stood tall, he turned to leave and with a side glance left Jet with these words. "Stay away."
The sun was peeking from behind the mountains, about to disappear completely and give in to the night. Azula felt her chi simmer but her excitement raged like a wild fire.
"It's time," she told the generals. "Remember, Tong's regiment will begin the attack to draw them out from behind their walls, then Chow's forces will erupt from the woods in a crescent motion, closing them in against the city, and snuffing them out. The rest of the forces will follow as needed to keep the resistance constant."
"With all do respect, Princess," the fourth general said, "you still haven't told us how we're supposed to get through the walls. I remind you that our forces are far too few to really expect to make a significant dent in their defenses. This will do nothing but kill soldiers. . ."
"Do you think that I don't know that, old man?" she demanded calmly, but her brow twitched dangerously. "Do you think that I just thought all of this up on an impulse? Drug all of these soldiers here and enlisted the help of that hunter because I just felt like it?" The insult to her intelligence increased with every word. "Now you listen to me, if I tell you to do something, then you do it. Don't take the time to think about it, your obedience should be a reflex. I haven't the time nor do you play a significant enough role for me to enlighten you any further. Am I clear, General Haku?"
"And as for the lost soldiers," she went on, "this is what they were trained for, now destiny will determine whether or not they make it home. If each man only takes one of the enemy with him then he'll have earned a hero's death, and the right be celebrated in his house."
She smiled and turned, speaking as she walked away. "Show them a good fight," she told them casually, though the air of a threat still hung in her voice. She paused in front of her tent door and turned her face to them. "And, it is my direct order that you stop the attack at first light, retreat back to this post, and wait for further instructions."
The sun was gone now, and the deck was getting chilly, but Katara showed no signs of wanting to leave. After the 'Jet incident' she had spoken very little. It was almost as if she was mad at Zuko just for associating with the boy.
"Who was he?" Zuko asked.
She didn't answer right away. "Someone from the past."
"Is he dangerous?"
"What's his game?"
Katara looked past the rail, at the endless black lake. "He's twisted inside."
"What do you mean?"
"He's charming," she told him, her voice emotionless, "he knows just how to make you trust him. But then, just when you believe him, you start to see his other side. This nasty, evil part that doesn't understand right and wrong, only anger and hate."
"You trusted him."
She didn't answer, but her stare became harder. This was not the Katara he knew; she was acting almost ashamed of something, as if those words had been an cruel accusation. And then he realized.
"You cared about him."
She was silent for a while. "He used me." Those three words held more emotion than all of the others before now, they trembled slightly behind the strong voice, with both fury and sadness. "He needed a water bender. . . I was just a part of his plan."
Zuko wasn't so sure about that, because of the way that Jet had looked at her, and then at him. He may have been using her ability, but somehow he was sure that the boy cared about her to some degree. And this knowledge, taken as a whole, blacklisted Jet's name in Zuko's mind.
He was no longer the acquaintance that had helped him get food. Now he was dangerous. Very dangerous.