A/N: "Sine qua non" is a Latin phrase meaning "Without which not", which refers to something that is absolutely necessary or essential, and without it something cannot be done. In that vein and my bad Latin notwithstanding, "Sine Qua, Nihil Sum" roughly means "Without you, I am nothing".
Disclaimer: Avatar the Last Airbender and its characters belong to Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. It's probably best that way.
This land had once been a paradise. It had been a land of lush green forests and water rushing over the rocks into deep pools below, of winding trails through tangled bracken and natural glades where houses had once stood. The fragments of parchment recovered from the remains of the elders' hut had described its everlasting beauty in three different languages, reflecting the natural alliance of Earth, Air and Water in this place. Now those charred fragments were kept in a sealed box in the Southern Air Temple as the only record of a people destroyed in a swathe of flame and smoke. She had only seen the scrolls once, but the ink paintings of trees encircling blue pools and a spotted deer fawn peering out of a grass thicket had stayed in her memory. She had traced the light brush strokes with her finger, aching to touch the parchment and capture the reverence that had once guided the brush, afraid to do so and destroy such beautiful workmanship.
Now those tall trees were broken stumps of charcoal jutting through the baked earth, those deep pools were dry pits of stones and blistered clay. Now small children played in those riverbeds, chasing one another across the cracked ground with shrieks and screams of delight. She had long grown used to their games, but when she first arrived, each cry had sent her running to the riverbed in search of an enemy that no longer existed. Fire Nation soldiers hadn't been sighted here since the death of Fire Lord Ozai almost six years ago.
The warning shout jolted Katara back to the present. She moved with the members of her team, grabbing the ropes that dangled from the wooden crane and deftly unknotting the rope that held vast crates suspended above the ground. It took only minutes for the experienced team to unload the crates and push them down the ramp into the cool underground storage chambers, fashioned by the earthbenders that had helped rebuild the village. The crates were deftly pulled apart and salvaged while the remainder of the team lifted the dozen enormous jars into the storage racks.
"Good work, everybody!" Katara called to her group as they trudged back up the ramp into the bright sunlight. She didn't need to break the seal on the vast earthenware jars to know their contents; she could feel the cool water rippling inside them. As much as she longed to dip her fingers into the fresh clear ice-melt, she knew that the moment she opened a jar, the precious water inside would begin to evaporate. Even in this cool chamber, the risk was too great.
"Come on, Katara." The enormous bulk of the quartermaster appeared in the entrance to the storeroom. He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. "The next sand-barge is already unloading. The sooner we get this done, the sooner I can seal this place again." Although an earthbender by birth, he shared the waterbender's anxiety to preserve every precious drop of water.
"All right." As much as Katara wanted to linger in the cool darkness, she was needed outside. She couldn't resist placing her hand against the nearest jar and pulling gently with her powers, drawing the water against the side, until only an inch of clay separated it from her palm.
"Soon," the quartermaster told her with a warm smile. "As soon as we finish unloading, I can give you some fresh water."
"Good. Bandages and herbs may be a useful method, but it's slower than a turtle-lion swimming upstream. The sooner we can heal these people, the sooner we can send them home."
"And the sooner you finish unloading the barges, the sooner you can have some water. Go on, get out of here." He squeezed her shoulder fondly. Katara smiled brightly and ran up the ramp, sidestepping to narrowly avoid the next crates being pushed down to the storage chambers by her sweating, cursing team.
The heat slammed into her like a solid wall, and she felt her mouth drying out in a single breath. The searing winds brought no relief from the persistent heat and, for a moment, she remembered those days spent wandering helplessly in the desert after Appa's capture. At least she could leave this man-made wasteland and its faint smell of despair at any time, provided that she could barter passage on one of the sand-barges.
She glanced towards the wooden lookout tower and the figure standing on the tiny roofed platform. It had become an unconscious habit recently and her agitation had not passed unnoticed. One of her team members and her first apprentice came to stand beside Katara and squinted up into the glare of the noon sun.
"You shouldn't worry so much. Jin might not be able to shoot a bow anymore, but he's got a sharpshooter's eyes. He could spot a fly landing in the North Pole. There's no way he'll miss a messenger hawk." She smiled reassuringly at her former master. "Or a glider."
"I'm not worried," Katara replied automatically. The first rule of leadership: never show fear or worry in front of the troops. She had learned as much from watching the leader of the village at work.
"Impatient?" suggested the woman, a little too innocently. Impatient for what, Katara decided she didn't want to know.
"What we're doing is all good and well," Katara replied, choosing her words carefully to avoid revealing the dissatisfaction that grew each day, "but I feel like I'm just waiting for permission to do more."
"Oh. Are you sure that's all it is?" The young woman visibly deflated at Katara's curt nod. "Oh well. I'm sure the Avatar will send word any day now."
"I hope so. Because—"
"Ready!" Once again the dock master's shout interrupted Katara. The wooden crane swung to a halt overhead, its timbers groaning a soft protest and the ropes creaking as the palette of crates swung back and forth. Once again the workers unknotted the rope and carefully fed the line, inching the palette closer to the ground below, chanting out their count. Katara joined them and fed the rope through her callused palms, hearing the rope creak loudly with strain.
Two things happened at once. As the loud snap echoed in the still air, Katara glimpsed movement on the deck of the sand-barge. Red and black. A horrifically familiar pattern. The ground leapt underfoot, wood splintering and ceramic jars shattering on impact. Water gleamed in the sunlight as two shining spears flew at their targets. The splash as they struck became a brittle crack, water becoming ice and ice becoming shackles. The two men struggled weakly as they hung from the hull of the barge. Katara glanced down at the curls of water flowing around her hands and her feet spread in her familiar defensive stance. Already the other waterbenders were drawing the water out of the ground, creating a vast droplet that sparkled overhead as the camp's earthbenders fashioned a basin from the rock underfoot.
Ignoring the shouts around her, Katara stalked towards the trapped men, whose lips were turning blue with cold. Her instincts had served her well. They wore the black armour lined with red that she still saw in her nightmares. Fire Nation soldiers. The water around her hands curled into whips but at the sight of the tall, muscular man standing on the bow of the sand-barge, she released the water and let it spill onto the ground.
"Waterbender." That authoritative tone might have captained a sand-barge across the wasteland, but Katara had also heard him giggle in his sleep and squeal in terror at the sight of a wolf-bat. He leapt down from the bow and pulled her into a crushing hug.
"I haven't seen you since... well, forever! Why don't you write anymore?" Sokka demanded, holding her at arm's length to look her up and down. "I don't hear from you in a year and when I finally track you down, you're here of all places? You look even skinnier, if that's possible. I mean..." Sokka noticed the stares of his crew and released her, giving her a firm pat on the shoulder instead. "Good to see you, Katara."
"It's good to see you too," Katara wheezed, bending over as she gasped for breath. "Guess you missed me."
"Like a waterbender misses the ocean. What are you doing out here? I thought you vowed to never set foot in a desert again, and this place isn't far off." Sokka gestured at their surroundings. "But before that, could you let my men down?"
Katara looked up at the two men trapped in the ice, which was rapidly melting in the sunlight. A second later, two very wet Fire Nation soldiers had dropped onto the ground. She turned back to her brother and automatically looked past him for the other person that should have been there. There was only empty space and a sinking feeling in her stomach. Sokka noticed her crestfallen look and smirked.
"Don't worry, Katara. Aang may be tangled up with Avatar stuff, but he hasn't forgotten about you."
Katara rolled her eyes rather than dignify that remark with a response and hoped that Sokka wouldn't mistake the colour in her cheeks for a blush. His smirk widened and she knew that the spirits were not looking on her kindly. A glimpse of red distracted her as the Fire Nation soldiers picked themselves up from the ground with great difficulty, their limbs still numbed and sluggish from her ice prison. Urgency reasserted itself.
"Tell me what's going on, Sokka." Katara avoided looking at the soldiers, whose appearance still made her stomach twist in horror. "What are you doing here with Fire Nation soldiers?"
"They're not Fire Nation soldiers, they're just wearing the uniform," Sokka replied. "Just an idea I had to make our work easier. But right now, I need to speak to whoever's in charge."
Katara nodded stiffly. "That would be Hana. Come on, I'll take you to her." She was delighted to see her brother again, but the fright of seeing Fire Nation soldiers remained and mingled with her unease over Sokka's unspecified mission. A leaden weight settled in her stomach as she led Sokka away towards the streets of the village.
Change was in the wind and she wasn't sure that she liked its new direction.
A simple truth lay between the broad iron panels, and she was determined to find it. Fingers scrabbling in the shallow groove, chasing, searching. She ignored her cracked, bleeding nails and the metal splinters searing under her skin, the pain barely registering in the back of her mind. On some days, she could count the separate panels underfoot as she paced the length and breadth of the cell, on other days she could barely feel the floor beneath her.
Today was one of those days. Like so many days before it, her nerves seemed to be slumbering, rendering her movements clumsy and leaden without the guidance of touch. She could no longer remember a world beyond this tiny, perfect darkness. Without the light of sun or moon to indicate the passage of days, forced to rely on the distant sounds that reached her to measure time, she had long ago given up such trivial concerns as recognising day or night.
She knew that this eternal night would never be broken.
"What's she doing in there?" The unfamiliar voice belonged to a new guard on one of his first shifts, who anxiously opened the grille in the door every few minutes to peer into the cell.
"Lookin' for the last of her marbles," replied the older guard sarcastically from the other side of the door. "You should help her."
"Very funny. What is she doing?"
"Same thing she does every day." The bored guard didn't bother to turn and look into the cell. "Playing with dirt."
There. Carefully she pinched finger and thumb together and lifted up the precious treasure. Her deadened fingers said that her hand was empty, but her instincts told her otherwise. She could almost feel the glassy surface of the grain caught in her skin. She laid it reverentially on the centre of the floor panel, holding her breath to prevent any stirring of the air that might carry it away from her.
"Dirt?!" The young guard's voice rose to a boyish squeak, betraying his tender years. "I heard she was an earthbender."
"It's dangerous! We need backup." He took a hurried step away from the door, before a meaty hand smacked into his arm.
"Watch," growled the older guard, dropping his hand and turning away. His anxious partner pressed his nose against the iron grille, squinting into the gloom of the cell.
As he watched, the prisoner prodded at something unseen on the floor, first with one finger, then a second and a third, finally pushing her whole hand along the panel. A moment later, she stretched out a leg and almost daintily poked her toe at the iron sheet. Pushing at whatever she thought was there, until frustration rose and she lashed out. The anger died as quickly as it had flared and the prisoner fell to her knees. Her fingers chased between the panels once more, her face returning to its blank look once more, but he had seen that momentary glimpse of fear.
"I... Wha..." Another question rose before he could shape the previous one and he lapsed into silence.
"See. 'Long as there's a wall between you and her, she's harmless." The older guard spat, hitting a fly on the wall and making it drop with an audible splat. His tone was smug. "'Course, go in there without backup and we'll send you home like we sent the guy before you."
"In pieces," the guard sneered, and then abruptly sobered at the unpleasant memory. "His arms will heal eventually but he'll never firebend again."
The younger guard deliberately looked into the cell again rather than see the glower on the other guard's face. Now the prisoner crouched on the floor, dragging her fingertip along the edge of a floor panel like a prim housewife checking for dust. He imagined that her hands had once been graceful and precise, but now her movements were clumsy and heavy, trembling with the effort of exerting such fine control.
She had lost the grain of sand in her fit of anger. Now the prisoner crouched on her heels, staring down at the floor without seeing it. In her mind, she saw only the design that her fingers followed on the rough metal. It had begun as a token, an idle amusement to fill the long hours between the changing of the guards, but it had taken on a role of its own. It was her very identity, who she had once been and who she could have been, that she sketched lightly in the dirt. Laboriously she completed the circle and quartered it, making one half slightly larger than the other as she drew the details from memory.
"Ten-hut!" In the corridor, she heard the guards snap to attention at the command. Several heavy sets of footsteps approached; she guessed four guards followed the warden down the corridor. Time for the daily inspection.
"Report." She had not heard the warden walk up to the door, but she could almost feel his disapproving eyes staring through the tiny grille in the door. "The prisoner's got something," the heavily-accented voice interrupted the guard's mumble.
"Looks like that, sir, sometimes. She plays with the dust. Guess it keeps her from going much crazier." The older guard started to snigger and quickly stopped himself. "Sir."
From the long pause, she could imagine the sceptical look on the warden's face.
"Don't just stand there. Bring a broom, immediately."
"Wait, you're not going in there, are you?" The guard was no longer bored and arrogant; he sounded almost as nervous as his rookie partner.
"No, I'm not," replied the warden with cold certainty.
"Get me a broom," the older guard ordered the younger. "I'll get the handlers."
"That won't be necessary," replied the warden. "Fetch that broom now, unless you'd rather sweep the cell with your hands."
"Yes sir." The two guards scattered and returned moments later at a run. The warden nodded to his guards as they assembled outside the door.
"Prisoner, on your feet," the warden barked. "Stand against the wall." He watched her straighten up with a cracking of stiff joints and stumble back to the wall, hands groping in the gloom to find it.
"Now don't you move, and this will go nice and easy," added the young guard. The intended threat came out as a tremulous whisper as he unlocked the door and lifted aside the bars.
She heard the door scrape open and she lunged. Her knee met flesh and she chopped at the guard's neck; a body fell heavily at her feet. She followed through with her fists, left fist then right, slamming the guard backwards and into the ground. A high kick and a palm strike to the face, bone crunched beneath her hand, and she felt as much as heard the third guard fall. Already she was pivoting on her heel and kicking out. Her foot slammed into a wall instead of a body and she stumbled. Twin waves of flame washed over her and the intense burst of heat made her dormant nerves scream out.
Heavy bodies slammed into hers and she landed at the bottom of the heap. They wrestled for several minutes but finally she lay pinned. One guard sat on her chest, crushing the breath from her lungs, another on her legs, a third struggling to pin her wrists to the floor. They had brought the manacles with them. She kicked and struggled against the chains, refusing to surrender to the iron's cold grasp. The guards tightened the manacles until they pinched and then hauled her over to the mooring ring. Between their curses and oaths, she heard the quick swishing of the broom over the floor panels and she enjoyed a moment's angry pleasure at the guards' discomfort. Then it was her own discomfort that concerned her as her arms were chained above her head.
"Crazy old kook," spat the older guard as they retreated to the corridor and locked the door again. "Every damn day we go through this. Don't matter how often we sweep out her cell, she still finds some dirt. Put an earthbender in there, sir, he'll get every last speak of dust out of her reach."
"If you can't handle one earthbender in a metal cell, I would dread to see you with two," the warden retorted as the injured guards limped away, making the floor ring with each limping step like a bell announcing the end of a boxing match.
"She'll be broken, sir. Earthbenders are a stubborn bunch," the older guard was recovering his bravado with each word, "but keep 'em away from rocks and they give in pretty easily. I've seen it a thousand times."
"You may be right," replied the warden neutrally. "Meanwhile, leave her chained. She is clearly excitable, let the extra weight calm her. No rations for three days." He marched away down the corridor, leaving one guard angry and the other nervous as they glared at each other across the doorway.
"'As long as there's a wall between you, she's harmless'," the older guard repeated his earlier remark. "Curse that warden, sending us in like that. Did you see? She almost got me."
The younger guard nodded absently as he watched the prisoner tug at the chains, methodically testing the strength of every link. Eventually she blew out an exhausted sigh and sank down onto the floor. Her arms were chained above her head, but as he watched, she flexed her toes and began to trace the same design over the floorboards.
The young guard released a sigh of his own and closed the grille. He would never admit as much to his partner, but he felt lucky to have escaped from the cell uninjured. Perhaps the older guard was right in his refusal to enter the cell unless absolutely necessary.
"If she's that dangerous now, she must have been an amazing earthbender." He realised only too late that he had spoken aloud. His partner stared at him, mouth hanging open.
"You're kidding. Right?" When his younger colleague simply blushed, the guard shook his head in disbelief. "Honestly. They'll let any idiot wear the uniform these days." Ignoring the angry blush on the young guard's face, he continued, "If you'd paid attention before, you'd know that she's no earthbender anymore."
"How is that possible?"
"No, no, no. You don't care about that. Just be damned grateful that she's only got her fists and feet to rely on. But a little fire makes her mind her manners whenever she gets uppity."
"I see." The young guard's eyebrows furrowed as he pondered for a moment. "And sweeping out her cell every day?"
"Like I said, keep an earthbender away from their element long enough and they go soft."
The young guard glanced into the cell once more. The prisoner was slumped on the floor, still tracing her toes across the floor. Chains or no chains, he had seen this whole routine play out during the long hours of his first shifts and knew that there would be no change in the prisoner. At least, no change that he could see.
"You want to make her lose her mind."
The older guard shrugged and leaned against the wall. "We just treat 'em as we treat 'em. If they're too weak to handle it, that's their fault."
The young guard closed the grille and turned away. He knew that he was guarding one of the most dangerous war criminals ever captured by the Fire Nation, and he supposed that he should feel more like the other guards in this place. Like his senior, he should look for any excuse to exorcise his anger upon the prisoners and punish them for their insidious crimes. Yet there were moments when the fog of hatred cleared, and in those moments he only saw a half-starved young woman clad in the blackened rags of a prisoner. At other times he saw something that reminded him of his younger sister when she woke from a bad nightmare, as the prisoner curled into a ball in the corner and gripped her knees to her chest. At those times, he found himself wondering exactly who was holding whom prisoner.
He possessed the freedom of a guard to come and go as he pleased, but every day he had to report to this place of walls and rules and orders that grew harder to follow. Each day he stood outside this cell with nothing but his partner's gruff remarks to break the monotony. Until one day he knew he too would become trapped in this world of despair and stagnant, halted time.
To be continued…
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