Last time on More than the Price of Honor….
With the realization that Zuko would never give up his pursuit of Aang, Katara fled his ship and worked her way through the Earth Kingdom to village of Kaicho. There, Zuko picked up her trail and confronted her in the village square in the middle of a terrible downpour. Weakened by the excessive rain, the bluff into which the village temple had been built began to collapse in a giant mudslide that threatened to engulf the entire village. Distracted from their own fight, Zuko helped Katara save Kaicho in exchange for her promise to cooperate with him on their resumed journey to meet Iroh, whom Zuko sent ahead to deliver a message to the Avatar.
In Hanoki, an occupied town on the brink of starvation, they learned that Ozai had rescinded Zuko's letter of credit and that the Fire Nation soldiers had been instructed to detain both him and Iroh. Sneaking away from Hanoki, the pair encountered a group of camped Fire Nation soldiers. Acting as the Blue Spirit, Zuko freed a barge of food taken from Hanoki, which floated downstream, distracting the soldiers; however, Zuko was still forced to battle and defeat one of them.
Katara, weakened from malnutrition and the cold, collapsed on the road, causing Zuko to stop a passing carriage. The owner turned out to be a former Fire Nation lieutenant who, after Zuko claimed he and Katara were a married couple named Lu Ten and Hama, took them home to stay with him and his Earth Kingdom wife, Sori. Zuko discovered that Kazan served under Iroh at the Siege of Ba Sing Se, but Kazan seemed to sympathize with Iroh's lack of determination in conquering the city after his son was killed. Zuko and Katara were given the barn loft to bathe and sleep in. After a frustrating and spirited argument about the war, they had close moment in which Zuko kissed Katara. She kissed him back, but when he pushed things too far, she froze his bath water.
The next morning, with the constant storm finally having broken, they continued to bicker. They helped Sori and Kazan with chores in exchange for their stay, and Sori discussed the merits of marrying Firebenders with Katara, revealing that Kazan had tired of the war before his retirement. When Zuko learned over lunch that Azula was on her way to the Earth Kingdom, he announced their hasty departure. Hospitable as ever, Kazan and Sori outfitted them with supplies and sent them in the direction of a trade route where they could likely find transportation to the next town.
Chapter Nineteen – Misimpression
An apple bounced off my shoulder and rolled a few feet from the wild grove. Another twig snapped overhead, and I jerked my head back to dodge a second apple that plummeted from the branch above.
Katara ground the ball of her foot into my collarbone. "Be still. You're going to make me fall."
"Stop throwing them like that." I tightened my grip around her ankles to keep her from stamping her footprint all over my bones. "I hate bruised fruit."
Her sigh built to a frustrated growl before she shouted down at me. "I'm so sorry no one's here to pick through your food and make sure it's all pristine before it's presented to you."
The urge to dig my fingers into the back of her calves was nearly overwhelming. As fatigue seared through my shoulder blades, I tried to shift my stance without toppling her. "It would be faster if I just blasted them down."
"I don't want you to roast them. Bending doesn't solve everything."
"You're one to talk. Remind me why we're sharing a bowl now. Oh, right, because someone was Waterbending the dishes and got creative." Her legs stiffened, the sudden change in posture forcing me to shift again.
"It was one bowl, and that was completely different. Besides, if you're so worried I'll break something else, you can wash your own dishes from now on."
"Fine. You—" My brazen glare funneled straight up her poorly tucked shift, and I jerked my gaze back to the ground. "You can build your own campfire. Have fun freezing and eating raw tubers."
One of her knobby heels drove into the side of my neck, and with a huffed curse, I swiftly stepped to the side. Her scream cut short as she toppled into my arms, but the moment she started breathing again, she pounded her sharp-knuckled fists against my sternum. I curled away, dropping her back onto her feet, and gingerly rubbed the bruising bone while she staggered a few feet away. I barely recovered in time to snatch the red projectile sailing toward me.
"You could have snapped my neck!" She stooped to scoop up more ammunition.
"Don't tempt me."
When she lobbed the second apple, I met it with a spurt of flame. It exploded midway, splattering us both with steaming applesauce. Sticky and angry, I slicked my hand down my opposite arm and flung the goo to the ground. "You insufferable—"
A cold wave slammed into my side. It washed around me like a cyclone, lifting away apple chunks, and then splashed back into a nearby stream, leaving me swaying in its wake. Now dripping and angry, I glared at her while she calmly bent the water from her hair and robe.
"Thanks." I vented my fury with a blast that ate the moisture from my clothing and likely left my hair sticking out in a million directions.
We were bending with utter abandon again. The first day of travel, Katara's muddied slippers had been lead on her feet, so she had scraped them clean with a razor's edge of water. Later, we had needed a fire for the night, so I had lit a cautious flame beneath the kindling. She had arched the gush of an overburdened stream so we could cross beneath it; I had burned through a wall of felled limbs that slowed our march. She hadn't wanted to walk in the puddles; I had needed to burn my initials into a tree. Four days of moving inland, trekking through a mire of sodden underbrush and downed greenery, had eroded our discretion to thin guilt.
Not that anyone would see us so deep in the forest. Katara had nagged me nearly deaf after I had decided we wouldn't take the trade route. Uncle had a sizeable lead, and I couldn't make him wait, especially with Azula creeping around. Straight through the interior of the Earth Kingdom was faster—not necessarily cleaner or easier, but concessions had to be made.
Katara didn't care about meeting up with Uncle, though, and she didn't fear my sister's prowling. She had other priorities, which included dry roads and towns with markets and not having to walk across the entire Earth Kingdom. She went on and on about the Avatar's mangy bison and how amazing it was to fly all over the Four Nations, and she glared at me every chance she got, as though I enjoyed her torment—as if I wouldn't give my left testicle to sleep at an inn, on a real bed, where food I hadn't had to pick or catch or clean or cook would be brought to me at a summons.
She threw her braid back over her shoulder and looked up into the tree. "We're going to need more apples."
My dirty nails bit into my palms as I clenched my fists at my sides and ground my teeth together. "Feel free to start climbing, then." I gestured upward as I turned my back to her. "I'm done being your step ladder."
A sharp intake of breath heralded what was sure to be another scathing lecture, but the sound abruptly died. I looked over my shoulder. Her face was turned toward the next hill, her eyes were narrowed, and she was focusing on something beyond the rise with all the still attention of a firehawk. And then I heard it, too.
The rumble, so deep I thought I could feel it thrumming against the soles of my boots, gradually petered out, and an odd creaking took its place. The belligerent bray of an ostrich horse suddenly split the serenity of the forest, and birds abandoned their roosts overhead, scattering in a flurry of green and black wings. Other sounds joined in—men shouting, more braying, and the ding and clang of a large party of travelers.
Katara climbed up the embankment, and I snaked along behind her, grabbing the back of her slipper and halting her in mid step. Gracing me with an exasperated look, she crouched down at my urging. Moldering remains of summer violets squished beneath my forearms as I crawled up beside her and looked down onto a road. It was filled from one bend to the other with wagons, the lead of which had been bogged down in a particularly deep rut.
Two men labored at the front of the team, pulling on the halters and urging the birds forward. The wagon teetered and groaned as the wheel rocked back and forth, never quite breaching the edge of the rut and sinking farther into the mud each time it sagged back down. Behind them, the rest of the caravan jarred to a halt. It was a motley assortment of rustic farm wagons, worn carriages, tarp-covered merchant carts, and garishly painted gypsy coaches, all stacked up nearly on top of one another. Drivers stood, shading their eyes as they looked ahead. Animals stamped and squawked. Children leaped from the wagon beds, sending crated pickens into feather-shedding panics as they darted between vehicles, evading the grasps of their mothers.
Through the frenzy of sudden activity and the bright colors of the wagons and clothes, I could still see the wear of the road in the chipped paint and tattered hems. Dejection laced the voices of the drivers as they passed information about the delay. Exhaustion dogged the steps of the women lumbering after children too long pent up in tight spaces. And everywhere were wary looks for the surrounding hills, eyes darting toward the crash of limbs finally giving way to gravity after the storm, and hands casually resting on readied but insufficient weapons.
"This is going to delay us." I flipped over and dug through the pack until I found the map Kazan had stowed in one of the side pockets. "There has to be another path around them." I opened the map, folded back the loose corners with one hand, and traced the lines of the roads with the other. "Here, a valley to the east. That should get us through without being seen."
I turned, expecting Katara's inquisitive eyes to be studying the map over my shoulder, but the space next to me was empty. I scrambled onto my stomach just in time to watch her slide down the other side of the gravely hill. Looking innocuous in Sori's green robe, she waved to the lead wagoner.
There was no use ordering her back, and there was no use lingering behind this hill. I didn't like to think she would just leave me if I didn't follow her down—for reasons I wasn't sure made any sense, I wanted to trust her—and yet, she had already betrayed me once with her escape. We both knew the longer we traveled, the closer we got to my confrontation with the Avatar, and I couldn't fathom that my faith in her promise could ever be as important to her as protecting her precious savior. I watched in sullen anonymity as she chatted with the drivers and a woman who appeared out of the back of the wagon, carrying a bawling infant.
Katara knelt next to the muddied ruts, then gestured in an upheaving motion and made a broad sweep back toward the caravan. One of the wagoners shook his head. There weren't any Earth Benders among them. Giving them a slow nod, Katara stood and shoved the sleeves of her robe over her elbows. I shook myself out of an observing stupor and raced down the hillside, stumbling over rocks and skidding through the loose dirt. Halfway down the hill, I jumped, landing smoothly on the roadway and, just as Katara's movements shifted into the fluid grace with which I'd become intimately familiar, I clamped my hand down on her arm.
"Get your hands off me." I recognized the annoyance in her tone and expression as she jerked out of my grip, but the drivers apparently mistook her. They rose up to their full heights, which I suppose they thought should cow a teenage boy. I stepped back, preparing to defend myself, but then a voice from the center of the crowd shouted Katara's name, filling me with panic.
I quickly assessed the numbers in the caravan. Even with their pitch forks and hunting bows, I could burn through them if I had to. I could deal with whoever had recognized Katara, grab her, throw up a wall of fire behind us, and run. But they were still just farmers and merchants… and there were so many women and children crowding around the wagons, now.
Part dismay, part accusation, the voice continued to order its way through the forming crowd as the owner pushed to the front, and a tall, lanky young man emerged from a cluster of refugees. He walked with a slouch and an almost bored expression, but his jaw flexed as he clenched a piece of straw between his teeth. I expected to see Katara's elation, the hope of rescue brightening her features, but her expression was a storm cloud of fury. The stance I'd jerked her out of was automatically taken up again.
"Jet! What are you doing here?"
I was too surprised to see that indemnity directed at anyone other than me to do much but stand to the side as they faced off. Oddly bolstered that I might not be her least favorite person in the world, I had to wonder why this guy warranted a more livid greeting than I usually got.
"We're taking these people to Ba Sing Se."
Katara's gaze quickly scanned the nearby crowd. A few people stood out to me, different from the others—A big guy with a kid on his shoulder, a shaggy-haired boy... girl… boy… with a painted face, and a tall, lean fellow who lifted his bow to Katara in greeting.
Jet reached to his back and freed two hook swords. It wasn't the sharpness of the blades or their obviously cared-for condition so much as the practiced ease with which he held them that finally made me step in front of Katara.
His gaze jerked down to my hand, my fingers tensed as I prepared to unsheathe my dao swords, but then, he used one of his blades to point out the scorch marks on the lead wagon. "No one's safe from the Fire Nation these days."
I stumbled forward a step as Katara crashed into my back, her fist jutting up under my arm to threaten him. She hooked her chin over my shoulder, and her breath was hot on my neck.
"No one's safe from the Fire Nation? Ha! Do these people know what you'll do if they get between you and your revenge?"
The wagoners shifted, subtly moving toward Jet's side of the brewing altercation. She was going to start something we didn't have time for, so I locked my arm to my side, trapping her elbow. While she started up an angry sputter, I turned my head so our noses almost touched. "Whatever it is, we'll deal with it later."
She glared at me, then at Jet and the wagoners. Her arm went limp for a second, but then she shoved her other hand against the back of my shoulder and tried to pry herself loose. I let go, and she stumbled backward, seething as she righted her robe. "Just don't let your guard down with any of them."
During Katara's struggle, Jet had plopped down onto a dry patch next to the road. He lazily gazed up at her as he plucked a few tuffs of grass and scattered the blades.
"What are you looking at?" she said.
He gestured toward the stalled wagon and the muddied ruts. For all his laid-back posture, his voice was tense and derisive. "Just waiting for you to do what you do best—save everyone. Civilians... soldiers. Earth Kingdom… Fire Nation. Good… evil." With the last comment, he glanced up at me, eyes narrowed.
"Who are you?"
Katara wheeled around to stare at me, as though the fact I was crown Prince of the Fire Nation, standing in a swell of refugees fleeing soldiers from my own country, had only just occurred to her.
"His name is Lu Ten," she said, and I willed my eyebrow not to lift.
It was the perfect chance for her to escape—here, in the midst of several dozen people who would all be out for my blood if she revealed me. What angle was she playing in protecting me? As Jet scrutinized me, I considered him. He wasn't a bender; surely Katara could take him. It couldn't be her fear of an old adversary that bound her to her promise. Jet causally looked away, swiveling his gaze to Katara again.
"Where're Aang and Sokka?"
"We got separated. Not that it's any of your business."
He shrugged and turned to the wagoners, and I cringed when he announced, "She's a Waterbender. She can have the road dried out in seconds."
Jet met Katara's glare with sleepy, innocent eyes. I knew full well it's what she'd planned to do anyway, but now that Jet shared the idea, she wanted to be stubborn about it. What did it matter, now? She looked to me for mediation, and I lifted my hands in surrender.
"Do whatever you want."
The road was crisscrossed with ruts, and the wagons wobbled and creaked as the ostrich horses dragged them along. The animal I was leading fumbled forward with as much dignity as you'd expect from a giant, flightless bird; a proper eel hound would have barely noticed the uneven terrain. I pretended to study the ground, picking my way over the gouges and jagged peaks, but in truth, I was hiding. I didn't want to call attention to my scar but, specifically, I didn't want anyone staring too long at my eyes. Even as I trudged alongside the animals with my gaze cast down, I felt the gold glowing like a beacon, announcing my heritage to anyone who might think too hard about it. Luckily, the refugees were too weary to pay much attention to so small a detail, and Jet had snaked back into the crowd as quickly as he'd struck the first time before Katara had dried up the road.
Even though the sky had been clear for a week, water still stood in the deeper trenches, and every few miles, Katara bent dry some morass of soggy road the wagons would have been trapped in. At first, she had walked along between the lead wagons to better spot trouble—which had included not only our own way but that of every stranded traveler we came upon, enabling Katara's charity to delay us more than I would have thought possible. The farther south we traveled, though, the drier the roads became, and now, the puddles were patchy and shallow, and Katara had retired to the bed of the open wagon ahead me.
She sat in the back, deftly working her fingers through the long, dark hair of a little girl sitting in her lap. As soon as she had bound the strands into a tidy braid and secured it with a green ribbon, another girl shoved in against the first. The children had flocked to Katara, who seemed annoyingly adept at all things caregiver—it was probably part and parcel to her talent as a healer. I imagined her, bent over her task, that stubborn twist to her lips that marked her concentration. I could still feel her fingers ghosting around my scar, and I let that memory drift lower on my skin, down my neck to my chest and all the other parts of my body she had claimed to have handled during my healing. When she caught me watching her, she frowned and turned her back on me.
The sun sat low in the western sky as we rounded a bend overlooking a meadow. Tall grass rolled gently toward a depression between mild hills, and the lead wagoner—whose name, I learned, was Jarun—announced that the caravan would stop and make camp for the night.
Katara began crawling over the sideboard, her foot reaching blindly for the spokes of the wagon wheel, but I held back. I didn't want a repeat of our first encounter with the caravan. What she didn't have a problem with was letting a different green-robed guy take her elbow and guide her down from the wagon bed. When he turned away from her with an insipid grin, I let him look me in the eye for as long as he could stand.
Katara caught up to Jarun and followed him out into the small valley, pronouncing it dry enough to camp. The rest of us led our beasts off the road, circling the wagons into two rings, one inside the other, before unhitching the animals. Well… I at least watched the driver as he unhitched the one I'd walked beside all day.
Jet and his crew emerged from wherever they'd been skulking, Jet announced they'd scout the area, and the entire troupe set off toward the hills. I was tired from walking, and it wasn't technically my job, but it rankled to let others secure the camp and mostly likely, secure it poorly. I slapped the ostrich horse on the neck for his company—a reasonable companion for the day, seeing as we held the same propensity for small talk—and followed Jet into the deepening shadows of the surrounding hill country.
The hills gave way to the same trees and shrubs Katara and I had trekked through the last few days. With a quick sprint toward the crest of a tall rise, I leaped toward one of the trees, snagged a low-hanging branch, and swung myself into the thick, autumn foliage. Crouching low as I crept along the branch, I watched the area below, looking for signs that anyone had passed this way recently.
"You're making noise."
On an overhead branch, Jet squatted like a frog, a hook sword in each hand crossed over the limb where he leaned forward on his fists.
"No, I'm not."
The straw in his mouth twitched. "Now you are."
He gave me a wink before suddenly dropping down onto my branch and running straight for me. An instant before he would be on top of me, I ducked down to take his feet out from under him, but my shoulder met air. I spun around to watch him sail overhead, and when the arc of his jump leveled out, he snagged another branch with one of his hooks, throwing himself toward the next tree to sink the other hook into a farther limb. A monkey bird had never looked so deadly.
I growled and ran after him. When the branch grew too thin to support my weight, I used its spring to pitch myself toward the next tree. It would have been easier if I could have propelled myself with a flame, but I still managed to grab the next branch and let my momentum swing me up onto another limb. As I ran the length of that one, too, I could see Jet three trees ahead of me. He was clearly at home in the forest, and by the time I reached the last place I'd seen him, he had disappeared.
I grabbed the branch above mine for balance and let my gaze arc around me, searching the limbs I could see through the turning leaves. The scent of decay rose up in musty spirals from the carpet of the forest floor. Birds that had scattered while Jet and I were careening through the trees began to settle back into their roosts. A cool wind whipped my hair. When Jet's head popped down out of the canopy, I nearly fell.
Hanging upside down with his knees draped over an upper branch, he watched as I scrambled for my footing. The tip of his hook sword dug in against the lower limb, pushing him slowly back and forth. "What's your problem?" he asked. "This is a scouting mission. You weren't invited."
"I'm here because I don't trust anyone Katara could manage to hate." I pointedly ignored the irony in that statement.
His gaze roamed my form, and I recognized the assessment. He looked back the way we'd come, judging the distance I'd managed to keep up with him, I supposed. The straw between his lips bent slightly as he clenched his teeth.
"Let's just say Katara and I have a history."
I snorted lightly. "Whatever history the two of you have is nothing in comparison."
One side of his mouth curled around the grass. "I doubt that."
Before I could incriminate myself in Who's the Older Enemy, Jet sheathed his swords, put his hands to his mouth, and gave a warbling bird call. It was repeated three times from separate quadrants. "I think the area's clear. You can go back and tend the ostrich horses, now." He unhinged his knees and tumbled out of his perch into a graceful freefall, landing with a soft crunch beneath the tree.
I knelt, still glued to the branch while Jet stood under me, his head cocked as we both listened to muted footfalls coming from two different directions. Facepaint and the Bowman melted out of the tree line, and the three of them fell into step together, loping up a deer path Jet had picked out of the shrubbery. Farther up the path, the Big Guy and his Helmeted Parrot joined them as they headed back toward the wagons.
I waited until they had been swallowed up by the foliage before I dropped out of the tree and tracked along after them. Before my exile, I had never been a scout, but during the past three years I had learned a lot about how to follow someone. Logistically, it was pointless—I knew he was headed to camp—but I decided it wouldn't hurt to know what his passing looked like, to be able to recognize the scuff his boots made, the notch of his hooks on an errant branch, or the twist of a stem that meant he'd stolen a fresh piece of grass from the trail. Someday, it might be good to know where he was going… or where he had been.
By the time I arrived back at the camp, the animals had been unharnessed and left to graze, hobbled in a soft stretch of tall, yellow grass between the circled wagons and the hills we'd just scouted. I wound my way through the flock, past the first perimeter of wagons. Men and older boys were drawing logs and flat rocks around small dugouts where kindling had been piled and lit. The small fires dotted the outer circle every few yards.
As I meandered the circumference of the camp in search of Katara, I offered a terse nod to everyone I met, including Jet's crew. My impatience edged toward apprehension as I made another circuit and she didn't appear, and it toppled over into full-blown anxiety when I suddenly realized I hadn't seen Jet, either. I crept through the darkened slips between the wagons, making my way toward the very center of camp where the cook fires had been lit. When an annoyingly smooth voice cut through the crackle of charring logs, I paused in the shadow of covered wagon, just short of the fire's glow, and held my tongue.
"Katara, can I talk to you? Alone?"
A large pot bubbled in front of her, and she continued to stir it without looking up. When Jet took a few more steps in her direction, she briskly handed her spoon to another woman, wiped her hands off on an apron, and moved away from the fire. While the dismissive ire that rolled off her in crushing waves was unnervingly familiar, at least she had never pretended indifference with me. Any sympathy I felt for Jet quickly evaporated, though, when he hooked her by the elbow and spun her back around to face him.
"Please?" As she blinked up at him, his perfectly arched brows—both of them—folded down toward the long bridge of his nose. His fingers tightened around the sleeve of her robe as he drew her closer, steadily narrowing the span of firelight that separated them. One of my feet lurched forward, and I wrapped my hand around the splintered spoke of a wagon wheel to anchor myself in the darkness. Katara's wide eyes and flared nostrils reminded me that she wasn't the one in danger.
She hadn't even jerked away from me that first night in my cabin as forcefully as she now wrenched herself out of Jet's grip. She half turned, giving herself room to build up momentum for her first strike—so much for soup, tonight—but when her gaze fell on me, glaring out at her from between the wagons, I shook my head. Pointed hesitation jarred her movements, but she eventually curled her twitching fingers into fists at her sides, which was all for the best—at least until her head tilted a fraction and her scowl elongated into the neat little smile I'd discovered was the herald of particularly devious vengeance.
She ratted me out of the shadows with a gesture as she casually turned back to Jet, acting the very model of civility. "I'm sure it wouldn't be right to be alone with you, now. I'm a married woman, after all." I followed her out of the shadows but stumbled when I pieced together her words a couple of seconds too late.
Jet's mouth dropped open, his yellowed stalk of grass dangling precariously as he gaped at us. "You're married? To him?" It would have been a good time look smug, but just now, I was busy staring at the hand Katara had demandingly stretched back toward me and trying to corral the sinking feeling in my stomach.
"Yes. And whatever you have to say, you can say it to both of us." Her hand, still extended backward, jerked insistently.
My chest tightened, and I had to tell my rising ego that I wasn't really privy to all of Katara's secrets. She didn't actually consider us a package deal or even allies beyond the lies we'd had to tell to get this far through the Earth Kingdom.
It wasn't hard to sound menacing as I stepped into the firelight and took her hand. "What's going on, here?" I held Jet's glare as he closed his mouth. The stalk of grass flicked back and forth like the tail of an agitated cat owl.
"Nothing," he said. "I just needed to tell Katara something."
"No one's stopping you." As I moved behind her, I slid my palms over the backs of her hands, my fingers lacing through hers to pin them at her sides. She leaned into me slightly, not quite letting me support her, but enough that sudden movement would unbalance her. She faked trust really well. It was amazing how, for Kazan—when it had been my fault we'd had to play house—she'd been hostile and reluctant, but for Jet, she had no problem melting into me.
Jet took a step toward us, and I wrapped our joined arms across Katara's stomach in case I had to hold her back. As I pulled her closer, Jet stopped, stared at me for a minute, and then focused on Katara as if I wasn't even there.
"Look, I just wanted to apologize for what happened. I was wrong. I get that. I'm sorry I tricked you."
"You didn't just trick us, Jet, you—"
"I know. But that's not who I am anymore. You really helped me see that, Katara, and it's because of you I realized I had to change. I need you to forgive me…. I just hope one day, I can actually forgive myself." When Katara didn't answer him, he rocked back on his heels and cleared his throat. "That's all I had to say. We might be traveling together a while. I just wanted to clear the air."
Jet gave her an imploring look—his stupid brown eyes all round and doleful—then nodded curtly to me as he passed us, heading back toward the outer ring of wagons. Katara sighed and, without Jet to play strong for, sagged against me.
"You don't really buy that."
She shrugged in my embrace. "I'm not sure I believe him, but I'd like to think he can change, that he's really sorry for what he did. Aang would say—"
I clenched her fingers. "It's all firecakes and butterflies for you people, isn't it? You and your brother and the Avatar, just flying from town to town, weaving flower garlands for everyone." I still remembered how the Avatar had saved me after I had broken him free of Zhao's fortress, how he had implied if not for the war, we might have been friends. I knew exactly what her pacifist monk would say about Jet's contrition.
"That's not all we do… Aang only made me one flower necklace. And you know what? It was to replace the one you stole." She tried to turn around, but I held her tightly. I wasn't going to let her make this an argument about semantics.
"Katara, people don't change. They're born, they become who they are, and that's just how it is."
After a few seconds of silence, she asked in a small voice, "You really don't think people can change?"
I bowed my head to rest my chin on her shoulder, and a chill spread from the back of my neck down through my arms. "No. I don't." I tilted my face slightly so I could feel her hair brush my cheek. "You need to accept that."
"What if I don't want to?"
"Then you're going to be disappointed and…." I closed my eyes. "I don't want you to get hurt."
She tilted her head closer, touching her temple to mine. "If you don't want me to get hurt—"
"Don't." I rocked my temple against hers. "Saying it won't change anything."
I don't know how long I held her, trapped there next to the fire. I only knew that I didn't want to leave that spot. Something was going to change between us with that admission. I wanted her to understand; I wanted her to stop having childish faith that everything would eventually work out for the best. At the same time, though, I couldn't stand the idea that she might give up on me—because as long as she was still trying, I could delude myself into believing that, somewhere, that other world still existed.
Dinner was intolerable. The road-weary refugees huddled elbow-to-elbow over their bowls and apparently thought nothing of conscripting me into their desperate company, forcing me to retreat from the communal log to a solitary perch on one of the flat rocks. My new seat gave me a clear view of Jet on the other side of the fire—one of a half-dozen identical fires he and his goons could have chosen to sit at. His jaw sawed back and forth as he rolled his stalk between his teeth, and between distracted half nods to his cronies, he stole glances at Katara. I suppose she sensed an audience because she invaded my space, too, plopping down on the ground between my feet.
While we ate, she leaned heavily against the inside of my leg, and it was all I could do to keep my knee from bouncing all over the place. She gave no indication that she intended to move after dinner, either. When Jet glanced our way, she used the hem of her robe to brush dust from my boot and then wrapped an arm around my ankle. When he canted his head in our direction, she faked a silly giggle—even though I hadn't said anything. When he turned his whole body in blatant interest, she yawned and rested her head on my thigh. Even though the first real meal I'd eaten since the farm sat warm and heavy in my stomach and the hiss and snap of the campfire lulled me, the strangely familiar weight of Katara's head set me on edge. My safety in this group depended on my ability to act like her actions were commonplace, so I let myself settle into a memory where they had been. Grounded as I was in that other time and place, I didn't even realize I'd reached for her hair until the strands were sliding through my fingers.
I popped up from my rock, letting her fall sideways onto her elbow, and all eyes immediately focused on me.
"I'm tired," I blurted out. "I'm going to find some place to sleep."
Across the circle, the Bowman and Facepaint stared intently at each other, and then Facepaint nodded. "Right." She gestured over one shoulder. "There's room in the back of Penchu's supply wagon." While Katara made our thanks, I brooded over the prospect of another night in close quarters.
The wagon was one of the shoddy gypsy coaches—a little wooden house on wheels—but instead of a door on the back end, it was covered with a heavy tarp. Katara caught up to me just as I pushed the tarp back to look inside. The faint light from the distant fires danced over the muted weave of scarves and the beaten brass of dangling wind chimes. Drums and pipe instruments, a tight wall of dolls and wicker baskets, bundles of drab green clothes, rusty farming implements, and all manner of other possessions crowded the front half of the coach in a mountain of slopes and crags and bobbing shadows. There was just enough room at the end for two people to curl on top of each other.
Katara ducked beneath my arm as I held the tarp aside and peered into the darkened interior. "I think I liked it better in Kazan's loft. At least I won't freeze, I guess." No, no chance of that. I wasn't sure how I'd keep from suffocating her with my body heat in the tiny space.
I climbed in after her, fastening the tarp behind me to block out the chill. When I turned back around, blinding pain lit in my skull as we cracked our heads together. She lurched backward, slipped on a dark stack of what looked like rolled bamboo mats, and drew her arms over her head as items rained down on top of her. She flailed beneath the avalanche, shoving things off only to have them fall right back down.
Heap by heap, I dragged away satchels, boxes, and other loose things my clumsy fingers couldn't name, but her thrashing just dislodged them again. "Be still. You're only making it worse."
Beneath the onslaught of vengeful items, I heard her hiccup. "This is all your fault. If you hadn't—"
"What?" I let everything crash back onto her. "Gotten in the wagon? Gone along with your story for Jet? Shoved you down the hill to dig that wagon out of the mud when we could have just gone east?" I shook my head and wrenched a folding room divider from one side of the pile and used it to brace the top half. I stacked things on top of it until Katara could move to the back of the wagon.
While I stuffed a rumpled up awning into a darker spot I decided was a hole, she complained behind me. "I don't know how we're going to do this."
I slowly pulled my hands away from the wall of sundry, waiting to press back against it if anything started to fall out again. It seemed solid enough, so I turned and angled myself between the adjoining wagon walls, arching up out of the way as much as I could.
"Just get comfortable. I'll make myself fit around you."
She shook her head as if that's not what she'd meant but then unrolled a fallen carpet and smoothed it out on the floor. "At least it's not the ground tonight."
I shifted my feet as she stretched out, hunching up again when her toes brushed the precarious mountain of stuff. When she finally settled, I lowered myself down behind her. A wooden totem shaped like a fish on my side of the wagon forced me to press against her back, and to save space, I slipped an arm beneath her head and let the other fall across her torso. She shot up like a Fire Nation salute on parade day.
I couldn't read her expression in the darkness, but I thought I heard hesitation in her voice. "I don't want you on me tonight."
With a sigh I hoped sounded more beleaguered than disappointed, I withdrew my arms and turned my back to her, awkwardly hugging the fish instead.
She lay back down, but there wasn't enough room for us to both sleep with our knees bent in opposite directions. She squirmed and grinded the back of her hips against mine. "This isn't going to work."
I dug my fingers into the totem, likely searing new scales into its carving. "I only have two sides. You can have my arms or my back. Pick one."
She thrashed around and ended up with her front to my back, her knees hooked behind mine. I rolled slightly, giving her more surface lie on. After a few moments, she finally relaxed her rigid posture and settled against my back. Silence descended on the coach, and I closed my eyes. She shook with a bitter chuckle.
"The space between your shoulder blades is the exact same size as my head."
"Well, the next time you get married, pick a guy with smaller shoulders."
She laughed, genuinely this time. "I guess you're right. I got us into the mess this time."
Her admission dissolved my tension, and I took a deep breath. Warmth settled between us, giving rise to the subtle scents I associated with Katara, and my mind returned to those moments I had held her by the fire. "What did he do?"
"Jet. I've never seen you that angry with anyone, not even me—not even the night you bludgeoned me and escaped the ship."
"I nicked you," she murmured.
My fingers brushed the flaking scab above my eyebrow. "You attacked me with my own blood."
I could feel Katara gathering the fabric of my robe between her fingers. "You never lied to me."
"That's the reason I've never been that angry with you. You never lied. Jet used us—all of us, even Aang—to help him wipe out a village the Fire Nation controlled. The only reason the villagers survived was because Sokka was never fooled. He figured it out and evacuated the village. I left Jet frozen to a tree."
I was surprised that was all she did to him. It would have been humiliating enough for Katara to know someone had gotten the better of her—but to make her precious Avatar party to such a monstrous thing…. If not for her brother, would it have broken her to have him tainted by the deaths of so many? Yes, I decided. He was her paragon of virtue—the last, great ideal in a war-torn world she would gladly give her life to protect. Someone for whom she would willingly sacrifice everything she was, just to keep him out of my hands.
"You're using me, too," she added, "but at least you're honest about it."
"Thank you." My brow furrowed. "For telling me, I mean."
She nodded against my back, and I burrowed down into the thick weave of the rug. Sleep was slow in coming, though. Katara had trusted Jet, and Jet had betrayed her. Now, he was asking for a second chance, and she would give it to him; I knew that. But I hadn't changed. I hadn't recanted my course of action. I was still very openly the villain as far as she was concerned. And after I struck, there would be no second chances for me, no forgiveness, and no matter what I did—because I would lose something unbearable either way—no childish happy endings.
You might notice that something is missing here. I got more than a few PMs and reviews after the last chapter, noting that some people didn't really appreciate half the chapter being taken up by review responses. At the same time, I've gotten several comments from people who like to read the responses. To better maintain review responses, facilitate stalking for updates, and (ignoring the blatant narcissism) provide a venue for more frequent communication, I have established a LiveJournal community for this fic. It's located at (remove the spaces):
http : / a-complex-brew . livejournal . com /
I also have this link on my profile, but it's similarly spaced because FF has disabled profile links for the time being. Right now, the community is open to everyone, but I'll have to see how that goes. Setting will be changed as the need arises.