WiltingDaisies94: Hello everyone, and welcome to another installment of TPTC! I realize it is nearly November now, and I have been much busier than usual of late, so I apologize more profusely than usual for taking a long time to update. You are all fantastic for sticking with me, and I hope the longer chapters are some consolation.
Now, as this is the 30th chapter of TPTC (may I just say, wow), and furthermore because it is a multiple of 5 (yay arbitrary decision making!) it is time for another dedication. So, many, many thanks to you, QueenyLeACH for your awesome reviews and longtime readership. This chapter goes to you: you always root for Katara, even against the apparent odds, and this chapter is all about her, so I thought it might suit you.
Please enjoy, everyone!
I close my eyes and focus my energies, taking deep, soundless breaths through my nose. My mind reaches through the humid midsummer air, feeling its way through the moisture clinging to everything. Like an earthbender seeking through vibrations, I search the area around Zuko, following the patterns of water in the air, testing their density.
There it is. In the folds of Zuko's robes, I can sense the little glass vial, cuddled safely away in the waves of fabric on Zuko's left side. I test the vial carefully, surrounding it with tiny droplets of moisture... it's hardly larger than my middle finger. Despite that, I will have to work delicately; Zuko's robes include so many layers of cloth that the slightest jerky movement might alert him to the generally inanimate object in his pocket that's suddenly begun to move.
Licking my lips, which are dry from anticipation, I open my eyes, and with the terrified calm of a do-or-die situation pulsing through my veins, I focus my vision on the proper fold in Zuko's robe. My waterbending abilities pull at the microscopic moisture in the air, delicately weaving together the individual droplets; it's as if I can see through the cloth, a skeletal outline of what is hidden there. My eyes twist careful figure eights, looping together strings of water, forming a base just beneath the vial.
The familiar itching sensation sets in, the need to blink nagging at my eyelids. I fight the impulse, keeping my eyes open, pulling the four corners of my water base up around the neck of the vial. Slowly I lift my head and eyes; the water follows obediently, sliding up the glass sides.
But just as I begin to pull back, feeling the weight of the vial cradled on my makeshift net, Zuko steps forward. His movement startles me, and I very nearly send the vial shooting up into his side. Thankfully my training with Master Jhou has taught me to handle surprises, and my hands fly up instinctively, forcing my head to stay in place, steadying my gaze.
However, as I struggle to gather my bearings, keep my vision fixed, and remove my hands from my cheeks, Zuko starts to walk away. He's finished talking with the angry man in violet, and has picked up a girl in the meantime.
The two are heading outside into the garden space, and the vial is still in Zuko's robe.
With urgency and the beginnings of desperation dancing a tango inside of me, I dissolve my water net into the air, and blink my eyes furiously, wiping the excess water away from underneath my eyes. I will accomplish my task, I reassure myself, and plunge into the crowds, following after Zuko's disappearing back.
The light of the open hall dims behind me as I move into the outside space. The warm summer air kisses my cheeks in welcome, but I have no time to enjoy its open embrace. I slink after Zuko and the girl, evaluating my surroundings: the scattered open-air lanterns, the glittering lights strung through the shrubbery, the significantly smaller number of people in the vicinity.
And in my heightened state of awareness, my ears pick up on the sound of running water, a beautiful friend come to lend a hand. There are two fountains, to my right and left, each gushing a cycling flood of water, cool, flowing water.
I can't help myself – I freeze in place, a dark instinct rising up in my mind. Couldn't I simply take out Zuko now? It would be easy enough, if I could get the timing right… the bubbling fountain would be such a simple place to finish him, to finally set myself free…
But the treacherous thought is drowned out by two voices inside me. The first advocates for the loyalty I owe to Master Jhou. If I deviate from his plan, the larger scheme of which has yet to be explained to me, what sort of irreparable harm I might cause? Aang is alive, and I must be a part of returning the Avatar to the world – I refuse to live with the guilt of knowing I stopped that with my impatience.
The second voice is harder to explain… I try to attribute it to some latent sympathy, but cannot figure from where that would have welled up. Zuko deserves defeat, I deserve freedom… all the logic is clearly defined in my head, but the strange discomfort wriggles inside me nonetheless.
"No!" A female voice protests behind me, choked with giggles. "Come now, I cannot! Leave be!"
"Oh I think not," a deeper voice replies, sounding downright lecherous and full of intent. "You are mine for tonight, and that is precious little time."
Time. I nod to myself and move around behind the far left fountain that Zuko and the girl are standing close beside. Her hand is resting on his arm as she speaks animatedly, and I see his head inclined towards her face. That's fine, but I need a solid distraction, something that will really capture Zuko's attention.
I glance around the garden – I have an idea, but I need help… ah! A little boy is playing with a string of lights; he'll do just fine. I glance over at Zuko, to make sure he's not moving away anytime soon, then walk over to the boy.
"Hello," I whisper to him.
The boy turns to look at me, suspicion and fear glinting in his eyes, the light string still caught in his hand.
I consider what might appeal to the boy, remembering children I used to play back home. "It's awfully hot out here, isn't it?" I ask, trying a quick establishment of empathy.
The boy nods once, stiffly.
This will be harder than I need it to be, but I have no faster option. "I'm Min Ra," I say, offering my hand. "And you are?"
"Bo Rin," he answers, ignoring my hand.
I retract the offending limb. "Are you here alone, Bo Rin?"
"No. My mother brought me." The boy fiddles with the light string, casting odd shadows across the ground.
"And she left you here?" I prod. "Out in this blistering heat?"
Bo Rin shrugs in the flippant manner of young children, but I can see the irritation on his small, round face.
"You know," I supply casually, "that fountain there is filled with nice cool water. I'm sure no one would mind if you took a little dip."
That does it. He looks at me, hopeful. "Really?"
"Of course," I reassure. "See all that beautiful, flowing water? It will wash right over your hands and feet, and you will feel so much better. Besides, look around… no one is watching." I smile encouragingly. "Go ahead."
He's torn at the sound of authority contradicting itself. I'm sure his entire life he has been told "not", "don't", "shouldn't", and here I am, reversing all that. If he were much older, my ploy would never stand a chance.
But fortunately he's not, and I can see the seed has successfully been planted in his head. "It's so dreadfully hot," I continue soothingly, "and the Dance is a long night. Your mother may not be back for hours. A little trip through the fountain won't do any harm; you deserve it." I smile. "It will be our secret, yes?"
Bo Rin mumbles something indistinct, but his head bobs once, and without looking up at me again he scurries off. I watch as he approaches the fountain, with all the unsubtle hesitation of a child trying not to get caught. His head jerks from side to side; I'm sure he's imagining his mother popping out from behind every shrub.
"Come on," I whisper, willing him into the water. "Hurry!"
As if he can hear me, Bo Rin slips his hands onto the side of the fountain, and pulls his right foot over the lip. His fears assuage as the cool water slides over his leg, first his right, then his left, and the simple pleasure of comfort wins out. Bo Rin's hands reach for the water, and he chases it forward, moving closer to the front, where Zuko is standing with the girl.
Perfect. I focus again, readying myself for the moment, moving around the left of the fountain. Bo Rin gets closer and closer; I steady my eyes on Zuko's robe; my hands move downwards, preparing to push up. Three…. Two…
My hands push upwards, bending the water under Borin's feet, pulling the undercurrent out from beneath him and pushing the upper layer forward. With a startled cry, the boy tumbles into the water, knocked over by my bending. His fall causes a splash, and I add to that splash, making it larger and moving it farther – the whole mess comes down on Zuko and his companion, drenching them both.
The girl screams in indignation, and in the instant where Zuko is blinded by the water, my eye-bending latches onto the vial in his pocket. His entire robe is drenched with water, and my eyes have it all to pull on. My feet shift me to a position about twenty feet diagonally behind Zuko, and I hold my eyes in place, surrounding the vial in a coat of water.
"You little brat!" Zuko turns around to yell at poor Borin, who is still trying to work out how he tripped in the first place. "What the hell do you think you're doing, prancing through a fountain like a fool? Get out, NOW!"
His back is to me, and I take the plunge, wriggling the vial out of his robe fold. It comes into view cork first, and my eyes pull it forward, across the air. As naturally as a thrown boomerang, the vial sails through the open air, almost gracefully. For a few seconds my heart pounds thick in my chest, and then I feel the cool, wet glass in my hand.
The logical part of my brain knows that dashing away as if all the Fire Lords to ever rule the nation were chasing at my heel is not the stealthiest move I could make. But the rest of me can't wait around – it's in my hand, my goal, and I have to pass it along. I don't know how much time I have left, and as I tear back towards the main hall, I glance over my shoulder.
Zuko, now significantly smaller from this distance, is still bent over the fountain, presumably giving Bo Rin the tongue-lashing of a lifetime. Unfortunately, my body still moving in the opposite direction as I watch, and I trip fantastically over my own feet.
I hit the ground and the vial goes flying out of my hand. It skids along the rough earth, spinning violently from the momentum, approaching a marble column outside the main hall with alarming speed.
I flip myself onto my side and throw out a hand, grasping for water hanging in the air. It forms a whip around my wrist and I lash out, snatching the vial up, absorbing it into the flow of my water. It stops moving instantly, floating harmlessly under my control.
I retract my whip and clasp the vial to my chest in relief, irrationally wishing hoping that it can feel the terrified beating of my heart. With dread gathering in my stomach as I realize how rash and dangerous my waterbending in public was, I pick myself up off the ground. My hands are covered in dirt, which I brush away as best I can before turning around, hoping that no one has seen.
And I suppose no one has. The music from the inner hall is still floating contentedly out into the garden space; the drunken and euphoric laughter hasn't stopped either. Couples hiding in the bushes and children running through the rows of trees haven't bothered to glance my way. Between the bubbling fountains and the summer night wind and all the busy fluttering of the night, my secret is still safe.
I straighten out my dress, hiding the majority of the vial in my long sleeve, and walk back into the main hall. I breathe deeply and slowly, and tap the vial unconsciously against my thigh, looking for a man in white. White with a green sash – how much time has it been anyway?
" – I tell you, love, it was breathtaking – "
"Ha! You never win betting on the layman's pick!"
" – and they simply disappeared together. Just like that, one day they were there, the next they were gone!"
The background chatter has a surprisingly calming effect, as it's a reminder that I'm one among thousands of people, and that Zuko has an infinitesimally small chance of finding me. Of course, conversely, that means I have the same chance of finding the man in white… and suddenly the comfort is gone.
I peer through my mask, scrutinizing the crowd as I move, edging around the open dancing space. There is so much red swirling through the crowds that someone in mostly white should stand out, especially someone wearing a splash of green. I fidget with the vial in my sleeve, moving it upwards.
For the first time I wonder why he would be wearing green. Almost anything but red or purple would suffice to make him stand out. Maybe not blue, for obvious reasons of racism, but yellow or black or brown or orange. To the best of my knowledge green is worn almost exclusively by citizens of the Earth Kingdom…
Would Master Jhou have another earthbender in on this? Obviously he's an earthbending master himself, so it's imminently possible that he has contacts in the Earth Kingdom. It never occurred to me that there was more happening here than my escape, until Master Jhou revealed the relevant-yet-somehow-forgettable detail of Aang's survival to me. Now the two plans are intertwined, and I have hardly paused to consider that there might yet be more than that.
"Does My Lady dance the reverse?"
I'm so engrossed in my own thoughts that I nearly jump out of my skin when the low voice sounds behind me.
I turn around, pushing my heart back down out of my throat and into my chest where it belongs. "So long as I m-may be returned," I stammer, my voice coming out as a pathetic whisper.
He raises a thick eyebrow at me and says nothing.
"So long as I may be returned," I repeat, clearing my throat and forcing my words to strengthen.
He does nothing but scrutinize me, and for a moment I wonder if I'm talking to the right man. He's dressed all in white, and although "sash" might not be the way I would describe the fabric across his outer robe, the color is right. I don't recognize him (as I had assumed I wouldn't), and he towers over me, tall and silent as a mountain. But how can it not be him? Asking me to dance the reverse is such antiquated language, there's no way someone as young looking as him would come across the phrasing naturally.
In the meantime, while I've been stressing outrageously inside my head, the man has stretched out his hand to me.
I smile, relieved, and move to put the vial into it, but he stops my hand, taking the free one instead. Without a word he leads me towards the dance space, and once we're successfully on the outskirts, he puts his other hand around my waist.
Surprise and panic press in on me – I hadn't thought dancing was actually part of the plan! Wasn't he was supposed to just take the vial and then go? I haven't danced formally in… well… years, quite literally.
But before I can voice a protest (or think better of voicing a protest), the man's grip has tightened and my feet are moving of their own accord. The walls of people swirl together in my vision, and I focus on my partner's face. His hand is keeping my sleeve pinned up, forcing the vial to stay in place, and he leads easily. He really is as sturdy as a mountain, which helps make up for my obvious lack of practice.
There are questions I'm dying to ask, but not a single one is fit for the situation. So I settle on, "Might I have your name?"
The man looks down at me, impassive as stone; he's very clearly not the talkative type, and I doubt that he will even deign to respond.
I'm right. He simply continues to move me forward across the floor, revolving steady circles. He's a man with a mission to complete, and his will is resolved to that above all else.
I clam up. It's a sufficiently awkward situation, which is the last thing on earth it needs to look like. So I just move my body a little closer to his and fix my arm on his, giving the dance what I think is a more casual appearance.
So we dance. The music lilts and moves, lightly resetting our pace from time to time; it's as possible that we've been dancing for three minutes as three lifetimes.
And just as I'm beginning to relax and regain my command of the movements, the man spins brings me around, bringing me to the edge of the dancing space, and casually leads me off the floor. from behind his left hand grasps the side of my waist, and his right takes my hand, pushing my wrist downwards, so the vial slides smoothly out of my sleeve and into his hand.
He faces me then, removing his hands from any contact with me, and bows, deftly placing the vial into some hidden fold of his clothing. Then he straightens up, looks me in the eye, and says, "Orii."
He disappears into the crowd before I can say anything in return.
I watch him go.
I breathe again for what feels like the first time since Master Jhou began training me.
He has the vial, and my part of this is complete. All my responsibility, what I must do, is done. And wherever tonight runs to from here is up to the Master and his plan, regardless of what I do. I will have my freedom, I will have my friend, and I will have my revenge.
In spite of everything, I smile. He can hide under any mask he likes.
The Fire Lord is mine now.
WD94: Okay, so major points to you if you thought/figured out that it was Orii sent to get the vial from Katara. As I've said, I don't just throw OCs in for the fun of it (although doing so is a lot of fun).
Quick note: I don't know that the Ursa part of all this is relevant enough to enter the storyline... so that may not happen simply because I don't have a place to put it. However, there are two more characters who will be accounted for in this story, so there is still more revealing to come.
And speaking of, heads up for the next chapter - the end will have quite a twist! I will do my best to get it written quickly, because I am actually abnormally excited for your responses.
Much love and a very happy early All Hallow's Eve!