"See something familiar?"
Katara startled as Jet leaned across her lap to look through the small window. "What?" she asked.
"You've been staring out the window for half an hour. I just wondered what you were seeing." He smiled at her and she tried to smile back, then sighed.
"Thinking." He took her hand, stroked the back of it comfortingly. "I know. I told you to take your time. I want you to be sure."
She nodded and turned back to the window, watching rolling forest and shining lakes pass below the plane. Home, she thought, the late afternoon colors stirring her memories. Her family's home, in the territories – she'd been away for too long, but something felt wrong even as they approached.
"I guess I'm just worried," she said finally, not looking at her boyfriend. Fiancé, she reminded herself, though technically she hadn't accepted yet.
"Don't worry – your family will love me," he said confidently, and she smiled.
"I know. I just…"
"Is this about your vampire novel again?" he asked, and she scowled.
"It's a scholarly research paper about a very real disease and very real historical events," she repeated irritably. "And I'm sure Master Storyteller And Historian Pakkuwon't refuse to talk with me once I explain what I'm trying to do."
Jet only smiled and squeezed her hand, and she returned to staring out the window.
He came the first time when the air held a promise of spring, the land coming back to life beneath melting snow. Water that all winter had been held still and frozen now roused slowly in drips and trickles, small motions that Lady Yue, Speaker for the People, Beloved of the Moon, could feel stretching in all directions from her tent.
She tried to concentrate on the boy in front of her. "Remember to always test the ice, no matter how thick it looks – especially this time of year."
"Yes, Lady," the child responded, and Yue smiled as she ruffled his hair.
"Get back to your mother," she said as the child scowled and ducked out of the tent, and Yue pulled the furs back into place. The smile slipped from her face as she ran her hands through her hair, settled back onto her heels and closed her eyes to feel water flow with the return of the sun. Hungry season, she thought, apprehension weighing her down. We'll make it to summer. We always do.
This year, though…
Yue felt the pinch of hunger in her own belly as she leaned forward to her offering box, moved gifts and trinkets aside to slide the lid off, removed precious incense thick with smells of the south.
Hear me, she thought as sweet smoke filled her tent. Our food is almost gone, the land weakens with this foreign sickness, and we grow too weak to fight these little hurts that never used to trouble us. You made the Water Tribe strong, but I fear not strong enough if these trials continue.
Angry voices beyond the tent broke Yue's reverie; she startled, then stretched. Outside, pale late afternoon sun held a whisper of coming warmth, but the shadows stretched cold and blue across the snow, moving over the land with winter's early dark. Yue slipped her parka the rest of the way over her shoulders and walked towards the commotion. One of her status could never run, but she did hurry as the voices grew louder, angrier.
Her father stood before his tent, arms crossed and defiant; beside him stood the Protector, angry and growling in the way of his kind, belying the human form he wore in the camp. Yue stepped around another tent, curious to see who they faced: a man, his back to her, his posture proud, arrogant, demanding; one hand raised to gesture angrily.
The other hand, Yue noted as she moved closer, was wrapped in bloody bandages and cradled against his chest. He's here to see me, she realized, and sighed, slowing her steps. Another outsider to buy my time.
He turned then, as if sensing her presence, his eyes finding hers as if he knew she was there – yellow eyes, the color of sunset, and around him her spirit-touched senses saw his aura, blazing to match and threaded with the shimmer of immortality. Her blood ran cold.
He's one of the demons.
His stare searched her a moment longer before it slid away, returning to her father and the Protector. Haggling, she thought angrily, but then she saw his sledge, laden with bundles and pelts; the carcasses of animals from across the great river plain, far from the sickness that stalked her tribe. She remembered the gaunt faces around the evening fires, the thin wrist of the child she'd healed, bones too sharp beneath dry skin.
Oh spirits, she thought wearily, but knew not to question when she had begged for help.
Still her father and the Protector argued, gesturing away from the village, their message clear: leave. Yue steeled herself and stepped quietly between them; she raised her arms and folded them before her and they fell into silence, the Protector's sharp breaths belying his anger.
She looked up to meet the demon's eyes again; he held her gaze without flinching, the arrogance in his face matching that in his posture. Already she could hear the village emerging, children staring at the food on the sledge with the desperation of hungry season.
Yue nodded once, slowly, and watched his expression change briefly, understanding and triumph.
"I will see you, stranger."
He lay outside, sprawled in the snow beside another man as Katara fumbled with the door catch. "Spirits," she whispered as she saw the blood splashed around them; she finally figured out how to open the lock, slide the strange door back. She felt Zuko's irritation over the faint throb of pain and almost smiled to herself as she waded through the snow.
The strange man's injuries were deep, though, and she wondered what had attacked them – the mountain cats? Bears? Wolves certainly wouldn't have attacked travelers through The Water Tribe's land. "What happened?" Katara asked as she dropped to her knees between them. "No, never mind – don't speak yet."
She drew water from the snow and reached out to the stranger, who stared at her with wide eyes. She smiled at him as the water began to glow, then looked quickly at Zuko. "Hang on, my love."
"Holy shit," Jet breathed as Katara lay a hand across his bleeding arm where loose skin dangled from the flesh beneath. "Katara, I can't understand you – I didn't even know you spoke a foreign language – oh shit," he repeated as the water beneath her hands began to glow. She looked at him and smiled, said something soothing, but he saw no recognition in her eyes.
"Katara, what are you doing?" he started, but Zuko interrupted him, speaking in the same language she'd just used. She shook her head and smiled again and Jet would have given anything to know what passed between them in those moments.
"Katara, we'll be fine – you need to save your strength," Zuko told her, even as he tried to dampen his joy at feeling her presence, her essence, her very mind brush against his again. She doesn'tknow, she doesn'tremember, hold it together, Zuko, you can't lose her now...
The bond had surged back to life as he lay gasping on the snow; now as Jet's flesh knit back together beneath her hands, Zuko longed to touch her, to gather her into him and never again let go. He forced himself to remain still as he breathed in her scent, remembered the taste of her blood and the sound of her sighs, though he kept his face turned carefully away from her.
"You may not need my help, but he does," she answered, smiling at him and he lost himself in her eyes, her vivid blue eyes that had haunted him for more than a century, the years falling away as Katara – his Katara – looked at him across such a short distance that –
– but Jet was there, turning Katara's attention from him as was becoming an irritating habit. "Zuko," he hissed angrily, "What's happening? What's she doing? Why isn't she answering me?"
"She doesn't recognize you. She doesn't even understand you," Zuko said softly, and Katara looked up at him to quirk her brow at the "foreign" language; he shrugged and she turned back to Jet, moving her hands to a gaping wound along his shoulder.
"The hell she doesn't – and what's with the glowing? Is she a witch? She never mentioned anything about that, and this is more than just magic, this is –"
"Jet…" Zuko started, and met his eyes for an instant before turning back to Katara. Wolves, he thought irritably, and sighed again. "She's not who you think she is."
Jet, blessedly said no more, only stared as Katara turned her attention to where Zuko had raked his claws across Jet's side. The vicious wounds were already sealing over but she healed them anyway and Zuko pulled himself back to fully human form before she patted Jet's knee comfortingly and turned to Zuko.
She touched his arm, studying the deep teeth marks there before healing them with a pass of her hand, then reached up to touch his cheek. Zuko felt a cool tingle there that made him shiver with memory as faint throbbing pain vanished. She tilted her head at him and he tried to smile; she frowned and took his chin and turned his face towards her fully.
Her eyes went instantly to the scar and she gasped. Her hands were on it before he could turn away. "What happened, Zuko?" she demanded as he felt water spread over it but no healing tingle followed. Her brow furrowed and she drew more water up from the snow. "Who did this to you? When did it happen?" He felt her exhaustion overwhelming her frustration, trickling into his mind through the bond pulsing between them. "Why isn't it healing?"
Zuko caught her hand and kissed it. "It's fine, for now." He caught her eyes, too, and nudged her focus to him, rather than the scar, and she smiled for a moment before slumping forward.
Jet lunged forward as if to catch her but Zuko already had her in his arms. "Thank you, my love," she whispered, and Zuko pulled her closer as he felt her heartbeat beside his for an instant, the bond throbbing with it. Then she closed her eyes and sighed and slipped into unconsciousness; the whisper of her mind against his flickered and disappeared like a candle caught by a strong draft, and Zuko let his tears fall on her hair.
Why is he here? Yue thought as she drew back her tent flap and allowed the stranger entrance. Demons don't get sick. They hadn't even seen one in decades, not since the raids that decimated the people in her grandmother's time.
Yue gestured for him to take off his boots, then at the healing mat, opposite the tent from her private space. As chief's daughter and Speaker for the People, her tent was spacious, richly decorated with furs and baskets, lanterns and beads as befit her status, and allowed her to see those in need of healing in private. The demon sat deliberately and watched as she fastened the tent flap, removed her own boots and settled onto the furs that lined the floor. He didn't speak, didn't move; just watched, his face smooth and expressionless and unnaturally handsome, like polished ivory. Like the wraiths who lure women from their husbands, she thought, remembering the old legends.
"Why are you here?" Yue finally asked.
He stared at her a moment longer, then shook his head and extended his hand, the one wrapped in bandages. "I suffered an accident," he said, voice low and deep.
She glanced at him again but his face hadn't changed; she watched his face, then took his hand, carefully unwound the bandages and tried to treat him like any other who needed her help. The gash across his palm was deep and nasty, made with a ragged blade like that of a scraping knife. It still oozed blood, but Yue could see the edges already knitting together, healing with supernatural speed.
Demon, she reminded herself as she sought out the meridians, felt the pulses of life flowing though his veins. Why did he come to me?
Her grandmother's tales rose in her memory again, stories of how the demons had hunted their tribe through forest and tundra. She formed his face in her mind, the way he had almost smiled; his teeth were very white and perhaps rather sharp but weren't elongated to fangs. The hand she held lacked claws, the slope of his back the leathery wings of her tribe's nightmares. He'd stared at her face, not her neck, and his eyes had held intensity, rather than the empty hunger of nightmares past.
Healing, Yue, she chided herself, and released his wrist; she drew water to her hands and smoothed it over the torn flesh. The wound was hardly worth healing, but she let her water help the process already under way beneath his skin. She risked a glance up at his face, then hastily looked back down and tried to focus on the healing, rather than the interest in his eyes.
Jet watched her stare out the window again, trying not to worry. He hadn't meant to ask her to marry him, but how could he have done differently, after that…
He tried to push aside the remembered anguish in Zuko's eyes as he held her, clung to her like a drowning man. He's a vampire, Jet reminded himself. He has no right to her – his kind lies and takes as it suits them.
He'd hoped that Katara wouldn't remember, that whatever past she had with Zuko wouldn't resurface, and so far it hadn't. She'd smiled and kissed him when he finally gave her the ring; had lain with him that night and tried to reassure him that she just needed a little time to think about it before she decided.
The ring rested in his pocket now as Jet stroked her hand, but he couldn't help but worry as she didn't respond.
She can't remember, he thought desperately. She can't.
Yue braced herself as she entered her father's great tent that night. He looked up as she entered, worry creased on his brow, and she smiled tiredly. His expression relaxed and he smiled in response before turning back to his conversation.
The Protector entered the tent soon after her and took his place beside her as she ate. "He's resting," she said quickly.
"He shouldn't be here."
"He paid fairly for services we've given others."
"It doesn't matter. You shouldn't have seen him."
A warrior caught his attention and Yue suppressed a sigh as he turned away. The Protector would see what he would see, regardless of what she tried to show.
She slipped away from the great tent during the evening's songs, pulling her parka tight against the cold. Her own tent lay only a short distance away but she shivered as she drew the flap closed behind her. The stranger slept, stretched on his side, blankets still folded beside him. Yue bent to touch his wrist lightly, feel the currents pulsing there; she nodded in satisfaction as she rose and stepped quietly into her private space.
She tried to meditate, to listen for any advice from the spirits, but her mind felt too scattered, her thoughts too tumultuous. She finally gave up and slipped off her parka and settled into her sleeping furs.
I didn't know demons slept.
The stranger waited until Yue's quiet breaths deepened, her heartbeat slowed in the still air.
He approached silently, slipping past the hanging panels that separated her space from his, and slid through the shadows to her side. He shifted the furs pulled up around her head to trace her cheek, the pulse in her neck, and she murmured in her sleep, shifting beneath his fingertips.
He sat back on his heels, clenching his fists to keep from tasting her, this time. The change took trust as well as blood, but the remembered teaching warred with new desire.You're more beautiful than I expected, he thought, daring to stroke her cheek again.
I should just leave, he told himself, the crucial first contact successful, but instead he sat beside her late into the night, watching her. He saw the way her brow furrowed even in sleep, the way her lips and eyes twitched as if haunted by the dreams he felt in the air between them, and he reached out, trying to soothe her mind.
He finally tore himself away as dawn pulsed just beyond the horizon; he hadn't meant to stay so long. The empty sledge bounced and shuddered through slushy snow even as his own feet were silent, and he soon left the camp far behind. Her sleeping face lingered in his memory and he tried to think instead about his assignment, his duty and the rewards – his birth right – that waited for him after completing this one small task. Soon, they'll see.
This chapter originally posted Jan 31, 2010. I apologise sincerely for the cliche'd suckage of that chapter.
We re-edited, re-uploaded March 9th, 2010. This chapter was written by sharkflip, though all errors are my own since I edited & approved it. Please show her some love when we upload the next chapter this weekend! (The next 2-3 chapters are already written, too – we're just doing some last-minute spelling/grammar tweaking so they'll be ready to go!)